And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: This is what the first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says: ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will never be hurt by the second death.’ (Revelation 2:8-11)
The world, of course, hates God, Christ, the Word of God, the followers of Christ, and the preachers of Scripture. Consequently, persecution is a reality.
In 1 Peter, Peter warned believers repeatedly about suffering. He said, “You’re going to suffer for righteousness’ sake.” But he summed it all up in 1 Peter 5:10 with these words: “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, strengthen, confirm, and ground you.”
The fiercest persecution has the effect of perfecting, confirming, strengthening, and establishing the church. Persecution doesn’t destroy the church. It makes it strong.
The church in Smyrna was purified by suffering. There is no condemnation of this church. It has been purified and purged of error — purified and purged of sin by suffering. The price for being a Christian in that city was very, very high. It was a very anti-gospel, anti-God place. But John has only praise for the church.
The church in Smyrna was beleaguered, poor, downtrodden, hated, despised, and persecuted — so imagine how wonderful it was to get a letter from the Lord without any criticism. How comforting would that be?
The Lord tells them, “I know your tribulation. I know what you’re going through.”
The persecution had come for three reasons. First, their opposition to emperor worship. Smyrna was a center of the worship of Rome and Caesar. The Christians, of course, would refuse to offer incense before the altar of the emperor. They would not call him Lord, so they were at odds with the government.
Second, pagan worship. The city worshiped many gods and goddesses, and the Christians would not. They were out of sync with the culture in every way.
Third, there was opposition because of the Jews; that is stated as such. Look back at verse 9: “I know … the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”
What a statement. They had always been a synagogue of God. They would celebrate the fact that they worship the one true living God. They had rejected, however, their Messiah; and in rejecting their Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, Judaism really demonstrated that it was as Satanic as emperor worship, or the worship of any other false god. They hated Christ, therefore they hated God.
So whether it was emperor worship, pagan idolatry, or the hostility of the Jews, the church in Smyrna suffered immensely.
To illustrate this, there’s a great historical name that you must remember. History has left us the details of the death of Polycarp. Polycarp worked with John in the churches of Asia Minor, and he was the pastor of the church at Smyrna. And Polycarp was murdered in 155 AD at the age of about 86.
But in the face of this suffering, Jesus says, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 2015, titled “The Lord’s Word to His Church: Smyrna.” In addition to serving as the pastor of Grace Community Church and the voice of Grace to You, Dr. MacArthur is the chancellor of The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, Calif. You can learn more about TMU at masters.edu.
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