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The Message from the Seven Churches for Today (3)

A Sinclair, Crosshouse

SMYRNA (Rev 2.8-11)

The letter to Smyrna is the shortest and maybe sweetest of the seven letters. In common with Philadelphia, the second last, this second letter contains no criticism or censure from the Lord. Another similarity confirming this previously seen pattern is that they both face those described as "the synagogue of Satan". It is unlikely that this assembly had reached a state of near perfection with no room for improvement or areas needing even minor adjustment. However, in the light of their evident suffering and trial, the Saviour graciously only commends and comforts them. No doubt we can all learn from this how to speak of our brothers and sisters.

Smyrna was located on the coast of the Aegean Sea, where the current Turkish town of Izmir is found. It was a very prosperous place, fanatically devoted both to the Roman Emperor and their many pagan gods. The Greek name is the same word as is used for "myrrh" which was given to the Lord in the crib (Mt 2.11), and when taken from the cross (Jn 19.39). This association covering all of His life on earth, along with the typical significance of Old Testament references, indicates that myrrh speaks of the suffering experienced by the Lord while here in flesh. How comforting then for these saints to hear His repeated words, "I know" in v.9, the high priestly words of One who truly understood their suffering, as He Himself was tested in all things apart from sin (Heb 2.17-18; 4.14-16). Indeed His sufferings ended in death, and so it appears would those of some at Smyrna.

The immediate applicability of Smyrna to our present day situation is not as clear as is perhaps the case with some of the other churches. Most of us are in circumstances where we know little of real tribulation, poverty, or religious persecution. However, maybe there are perhaps three ways in which we might consider its applicability. First, we do have brothers and sisters in other parts of the world who are experiencing such conditions. Second, we may well be called upon to go through such things sooner than we realise. Third, these words of the Saviour may provide comfort to the many believers experiencing very real suffering, but from different sources.

Commendation

As with all the letters, the opening description of the Lord (v.8) is very appropriate to the situation. God’s people were faced by the might of man’s power both politically and religiously. This Roman Empire was only the latest of many world powers, and would be followed by many more, but here was One who is "the first and the last". He is both before and after all men’s kingdoms, and indeed above them, occupying the throne of heaven. Not only does He have the power that precedes and succeeds them, but He has been through the worst they can inflict and has demonstrated His power over them, as He is the one who "was dead, and is alive".

The words "works, and" (v.9) are generally accepted as not being in the original text (see JND etc). In the same way as the Lord omits criticism He appears also to be more concerned with what they are enduring, rather that what they are doing, for Him. Compare 1 Corinthians 13, where the attributes of love are much more related to what it endures rather than its actions. In many parts of the world today we have fellow believers in desperate circumstances. In Egypt and other Muslim counties they face real tribulation and even death. In Sri Lanka they are caught up in civil war and strife. In China and India, though seeing great blessing, they suffer beyond our understanding. Yet sometimes we feel free to criticise and compare them to our own standards and traditions! Now, I am not suggesting that Scriptural truth is not important even in the middle of persecution. We must be careful not to look for the replication of traditions and practices which may be commendable and desirable but which are beyond simple adherence to Scripture. Such things often took us generations to establish even in most favourable circumstances. The Lord graciously takes more account of their situation and so should we.

Verse 9 continues to outline the three areas of suffering. "Tribulation" is a strong word and immediately causes us to think of the "Tribulation" period detailed in chapters 6 to 19 of Revelation. While it is true that God’s people, the Church, will be removed before this, as pictured in chapters 4 and 5, it does not mean that they cannot experience such extreme persecution today; many do and the Lord "knows" all about it. Likewise, such tribulation often leads to and involves "poverty" Does this move each of us to seek to bring relief to them as Paul urges the Corinthians? But note that the Lord says they are "rich", not materially but spiritually. The contrast to this will be seen in the last church, Laodicea, which appears rich but is in reality "poor". In days of rampant materialism in our society, and sadly among us, surely we do well to look at Christ’s assessment of riches and challenge ourselves as to our spiritual wealth?

The Lord also "knows" the causes of their "tribulation" and "poverty". One of these is identified as the "synagogue of Satan". These people claim to be Jews, to be the people of God, but though they may be Jews by birth and religion they belong to the wicked one. How applicable this is today, even in our land and elsewhere. Like Saul of Tarsus, many claim to be doing God’s will but are in fact false teachers who are dealt with at some length in 2 Peter 2 and Jude. Through the ages, such have stirred up and contributed much to the persecution of the true people of God and the Lord knows all about them. Their "judgment…lingereth not" (2 Pet 2.3). The remainder of Revelation tells of their demise.

Consolation

The Lord now turns to their consolation or comfort. In words familiar to John He says, "Fear none of these things". There follows (v.10) a fourfold explanation of their suffering, helpfully summarized by Mr Jim Allen as the person, purpose, period, and promise.1 First, as indicated in v.9 and now confirmed, it is the devil who is ultimately behind their problems. The Lord himself had experienced this, as will all that show potential for God (Lk 22.31-32). But, remember, the Lord has defeated him, whether in life, as during the temptations, or in death where He destroyed the devil (Heb 2.14). He pronounces that "the prince of this world is judged" (Jn 16.11). The wicked one is a defeated foe!

Second, it is that they "may be tried". This word has the idea of refining by fire with a view to purifying and bringing out that which glorifies Christ. The more trying the circumstances the more their continuance brings greater honour to Him. Third, the trial is limited here to 10 days, but for all of us, as with Job, God sets a limit on what we can bear. Finally, He reminds us that even if that limit permits suffering unto death, He holds out a "crown of life", which is eternal and beyond death.

In v.11, with the usual closing appeal, the Lord confirms this promise with the assurance that while men may inflict death, only God can inflict the "second death". Indeed, this will be the portion of the ungodly that persecute God’s people (20.14) but it has no power over the martyrs (20.6). The suffering is temporary, but the reward is permanent (2 Cor 4.16-18).

We now live in a society which sees itself as post-Christian, but which is increasingly anti-Christian. Already some accuse us of psychological child abuse for teaching our children creation and other Biblical truth, others seek to legislate to force acceptance of sodomy and other immoral practices, and challenges are even being made on our right to assert that Christ is the only "way", and the only true "faith". Soon we may face persecution like our brethren at Smyrna. May God give us the grace to respond as they did, and may Christ’s words to them encourage us.

To be continued.

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