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Smyrna: Faithful in Suffering

Tom Pennington Revelation 2:8-11


Well, we return tonight to our study of the book of Revelation. I invite you to turn with me to Revelation 2. I don't know if you saw the article or not but, back a couple of years ago, BBC News featured the following headline, "Christian Persecution at Near Genocide Levels." The article went on to say that one in three people worldwide suffer from religious persecution and that Christians are the most persecuted religious group. The article went on to say this, "Christianity is at a risk of disappearing in some parts of the world. Evidence shows not only the geographic spread of anti-Christian persecution, but also its increasing severity."

Now that's not something that we like to think about a lot, but I think at the same time we all have a sense that that is coming to America. Maybe not in the next few days, maybe not in the next few years even, but it's coming. The more pagan our culture gets, the more it diverges from the Judeo Christian values that have been a part of our culture, and the less and fewer Christians there are, the less voice Christians have, the more pronounced this will become.

But I think it's also important to understand that it's already here. Many of you sitting here tonight have experienced persecution. We tend to think of persecution as, you know, something physical done to us, an act of physical violence, or throwing us in prison. And of course that is persecution, but Jesus defined persecution far more broadly than that. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, He said, here's what persecution is, if people insult you because of Me, if people say evil things against you behind your back because of your confession of Jesus Christ as Lord, if you're passed over, and now I'm adding to that list a little bit, but certainly in keeping with the spirit of what our Lord shared, if you're passed over for that promotion because you are a person of integrity. And on and on the list goes.

So persecution is not merely something out there, somewhere on the other side of the planet, that may someday ooze into our culture, it is a day to day reality. And I suspect, if you understand that to be persecution, I could march many of us in this room up here and you could share stories of how you have faced persecution for your faith. How is it that we should respond, whether it's to the persecution that is already a reality in our lives or that that could come, how do we respond?

Well, tonight we get a chance to learn from what Christ had to say to a small first century church that was experiencing serious persecution. And what Christ said to them directly is profoundly helpful in helping us understand the reality of persecution and how we should respond to those small insults spoken behind our back, and to the looming threat that's far greater and more severe. Let's look at it together. Just to remind you of our context, we're looking at the book of Revelation, in chapter 1 we saw "the things which you have seen," the setting of Jesus' prophecy. This outline, of course, comes from Revelation 1:19, "and the things which you have seen" had to do with the setting of the prophecy described in chapter 1.

We are currently looking at "the things which are," the state of Jesus' church, beginning in chapter 2 verse 1, running through the end of chapter 3, the letters to the seven churches. Jesus dictated letters to seven first century churches located in seven cities in Asia Minor, or modern Turkey. Those seven churches are representative. They were real churches. And they are representative of all churches that existed in the first century, because you can find their counterparts in other places in the first century. And they are at the same time representative of churches throughout church history in the sense that again, there are churches today that are like the church in Ephesus, there are churches today that are like the church in Smyrna, and so forth.

All seven letters share the same repeating structure and outline. And it's really the one that we're using as we work our way through. We're looking at the introduction, which you can see is in points one and two there, to the angel of the in the certain city church write. And then Greek says this, says the one, followed by Christ's own personalized self-description from the vision in chapter 1. The body of the letter in all seven cases begins with I know, and there's commendation of the good. If there is an issue in the church there's the correction of the sin and a call for repentance. And then the conclusion of the letter has this repeating phrase, "'"the one having ears, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches,"'" and then, "'"to the one overcoming,"'" followed by Christ's personalized promise to the persevering believer in that local church. So, each of the seven letters follows that same basic outline and we're following that as well.

So with that background, let's read together the letter to the church in Smyrna. Revelation 2, beginning in verse 8,

"And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write:

The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this:

'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 not be hurt by the second death.'"

In this letter to the church in Smyrna, Christ encourages His church by reminding us that He knows when we suffer for His sake. He controls that persecution and He will reward us for our faithfulness to Him and to His truth through that time of persecution. That's the message of this great letter.

So let's consider it together following, again, our Lord's outline. It begins with the introduction to the letter, the command to write, verse 8, "'And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write.'" First of all, in this introduction, when we see the character of the city, we're introduced to the city, it's a city by the name of Smyrna. Now of the cities in which these seven churches in Revelation are based, it's interesting that Smyrna is the only one where there is a city still in existence and it still has a Christian church. This is where it's located. If you see the little red star on the map there, you can see that it's on a gulf just off of the Aegean Sea, north of the city of Ephesus. The modern city is Izmir. It's the third largest city in Turkey with almost three million people and it is still an operating port. In fact, it is Turkey's largest port. Here are some pictures of the modern city. You can see the gulf there on which it's located and its harbor. Here's a shot from a little different angle, from the Acropolis looking down across the city. And let's hold off on that one for a moment. So that's the city as it is now.

Now let's go back to when it was called Smyrna. Smyrna, the ancient name of the city, means bitter. This Greek term is used in the Septuagint for myrrh, the aromatic resin used as a perfume, as an anesthetic, as well as in embalming. The city's location, as you saw on the map I just showed you, is about 35 miles north of Ephesus. It's a beautiful seaport city on the eastern gulf of the Aegean Sea. Here is a reconstruction of what the city might have looked like in ancient times. Strabo, the ancient geographer, called Smyrna the most beautiful of all cities. It was one of several cities that claimed to be the birthplace of Homer. And it is where Homer grew up. It has an excellent harbor on the west, as you can see even here in the reconstruction. It was well protected at the end of a quiet gulf, not directly on the Aegean Sea. And on the eastern side, back toward the land, a river flowed through the rich valley of the Hermus, bringing all kinds of trade into the city and then through the city out to the Mediterranean to sail around the Mediterranean.

The history of this city goes back a long way. We don't know exactly how far, but we do know this, the original Greek colony was founded about 1,000 years before Christ. It was destroyed 400 years later around 580 B.C. And this is interesting, this is very unusual, but the city then lay in ruins for 300 years. Alexander the Great was hunting on the acropolis around the ruins of that ancient city and he decided to rebuild the city, but he wasn't the one to accomplish it. Instead, two of his successors, the chief one being Lysimachus, finally rebuilt it around the year 290 B.C. Lysimachus built it, or rebuilt it, in an interesting way. He built it to a comprehensive plan, making it one of the very few cities of antiquity that was literally preplanned. It didn't just happen as he rebuilt it. It was planned from beginning to end.

It was one of the greatest cities in that part of the world. In fact, we have coins from the city of Smyrna and minted on to the coins the city is described as the first of Asia in beauty and size. Its streets were attractive. They were well paved. Its outlying streets were lined with groves of trees. There was a famous street called the Street of Gold that curved around a mountain called Mount Pegas. It was actually a hill that rose about 500 feet above the harbor. And the Street of Gold found its way around that mountain like a necklace on the statue of a goddess. On one end of the necklace was the Temple of Cybele. On the other was the Temple of Zeus. And in between there were other temples to gods like Apollo and Aphrodite. These stately temples around that elevated mount were described as the crown of Smyrna because of their orderly arrangement around the top of Mount Pegas.

The city had a knack politically to always be on the winning side. Before Rome was a world power that it became, while it was still battling the Carthaginians, Smyrna committed to Rome and remained loyal to Rome throughout the centuries. In fact, as early as 195 B.C., Smyrna built a temple to the goddess of Rome, the deification of Rome. It was said to be the very first in the world. When Rome's general Sulla and his armies found themselves without proper uniforms for the harsh winter weather they found themselves in, the leaders and the citizens of Smyrna sent their own garments to Sulla's troops to clothe them. Because of their loyalty to Rome, in 26 A.D. Smyrna was given the honor, picked out of 10 cities that applied for this privilege, to build a temple in Smyrna to the Emperor Tiberius.

Smyrna, and this becomes very important for what we're going to learn in Christ's letter, Smyrna became one of the very first cities to worship the Roman emperor. Now, you're familiar, if you're familiar with Roman history at all, that the emperors were considered deity. At first, when that began, the emperors really didn't take their deification very seriously. Instead, it was a matter of political strategy, a way to unify the diverse cultures, languages, and customs of the empire. It was political expediency. It seemed like a good idea. Let's unite people around the spirit of Rome and the spirit of Rome finds its center in the man who is currently the emperor. Like all things political, they tend to go where those who created them don't intend for them to go, and eventually refusal to worship the emperor was considered an act of treason. In fact, under Domitian, the emperor at the time of John when he wrote this letter, emperor worship had become compulsory.

Think about this. Imagine yourself now a Christian living in first century Smyrna, here's what was required of you. Once a year every citizen was to go to the temple to the Roman emperor there in Smyrna and burn incense on the altar dedicated to the emperor. You had to do it and it was so much a part of the culture that you got a certificate issued to you that you had done it. If you were found to be without that certificate, then you lacked privileges and could even risk being imprisoned or lose your life. Once you had made that yearly sacrifice to the emperor, then you could worship any god or gods that you chose to, but to fail to go once and to submit yourself to the emperor was a capital offense. So think about it, if you're Christian living in Smyrna, all you had to do was this, just go appear in the temple once a year, burn incense to the emperor and repeat these simple words, Caesar is lord, which, of course, no Christian could legitimately do. With Smyrna's strong ties to emperor worship, false charges brought by their enemies could have resulted in immediate imprisonment.

So that background helps you understand why, of the seven cities, persecution was worse in Smyrna, even though they were so close together. I mean, these cities, remember, this is only 35 miles from Ephesus. It's only about 30 miles from the next city on the postal route. Why Smyrna? And here's the reason, because of their fierce unbending loyalty to Rome and to the worship of the emperor as a display of their loyalty to the Roman empire.

Now that's the background of the city, the character of the city. But let's consider for a moment, the history of the church. Verse 8 says, "'to the angel of the church,'" the ecclesia, the assembly, "'in Smyrna write these words.'" We know very little about the history of the church in Smyrna. We're not even sure when it was founded. Likely, it was during the three years that Paul was in Ephesus on his third missionary journey. We read this in Acts 19:10 that while he was there, "all who lived in Asia," and remember this is very close to Ephesus, 40, 35, 40 miles away, "all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks." So likely this church was planted and began during Paul's third missionary journey.

That brings us, in this letter, to Christ's self-description, the description of Christ that He Himself presents. Verse 8 goes on to say, "'to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this.'" Now, just to remind you, with each church, Christ presented a personalized self-description that was designed to fit their circumstances. And the description in every case goes back to the vision John saw in chapter 1. In the case of the church in Smyrna, a church characterized by faithful suffering, Christ reminds them of two things about Himself. First of all, He reminds them that He is eternally sovereign over human history. Notice verse 8, "'The first and the last.'" We've already encountered that expression back in chapter 1 verse 17. We learned that it's used for God in the Old Testament. So this is a claim for the deity of Christ.

But in its context, both in the Old Testament and the New, this expression, "'the first and the last,'" compares the true God against all the idols of the nations. They're here today, gone tomorrow. He is eternal. He is the first. He existed before they existed. He is the last. He'll be there when they're shattered idols lie in the dustbin of history. Isaiah 44:6, "'Thus says Yahweh, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, Yahweh of hosts: "I am the first and I am the last, and there is no God besides Me."'" We sang it tonight, there's no one beside Him. He's the first and the last. Isaiah 48:12, "'Listen to Me, O Jacob, even Israel whom I called; I am He, I am the first, and I am also the last.'"

So, if He was here before everything started and if He's here after everything ends, what does that tell you about Him? It says that He is perpetually sovereign over all things that happen in human history. He existed before history began. He'll be reigning when human history ends. And He's sovereign over everything in between. This is such a comfort to a persecuted church. Can you imagine sitting in the upper room somewhere in a home in Smyrna knowing that your life is threatened because you refused to say "Caesar is lord"? And Christ says, listen, you tell them I said, I am the first and I am the last; I was here before there was a Caesar, I'll be here when they're gone. It's a comfort to us as well. You know, the power brokers of our world try to be very impressive. But the mortality rate for presidents and prime ministers and kings is 100%. God alone is eternal.

The second part of his self-description emphasizes that He died and was raised again. Again, verse 8, "'The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life.'" Even though Christ is the eternal sovereign God, "'the first and the last,'" He entered into history as a man. And notice, literally it says, "'He became dead and He has come to life.'" It describes both events as an event in history. Jesus was reminding this church of the historical facts of His own physical death and resurrection. And again, can you imagine anything more encouraging for a church where some of its members would soon be facing martyrdom? Jesus says, listen, I have walked this path before you, I died and I defeated death and I'm alive forevermore. You don't have to worry about death, I defeated it.

You know, it's interesting too that the city itself, the city of Smyrna, had experienced this same reality, it was dead for 300 years and had come back to life. This was Christ's reminder to His own not to fear death. He died. He defeated it. He now has, as Hebrews 7:16 says, "the power of an indestructible life." Christ reminded these believers that even if they died at the hands of their persecutors, they worship the only one in existence who has conquered death. And because they're His, they don't have to worry. I died, I came back to life, and if you die on My behalf, Christ says, so will you.

That brings us then to the body of this letter, the state of the church there in Smyrna. Now again, the body of each one of these seven letters begins with the same words. Seven times Jesus says, "'"I know."'" It's interesting that as you look at the body of this letter, Smyrna is one of only two of the seven churches that receive no correction from Christ, only commendation. So let's consider what Christ says. Let's look at the commendation of the good. Jesus specifically identifies here three things that He knows about this church. And as He describes them, understand this, He is essentially saying, I know these things are happening and I know that you're enduring them well, that's the implication.

First of all He says, "'"I know your tribulation."'" Tribulation is a general Greek word that means pressure. It can describe the normal pressures of life. It can describe the serious crushing pressures that come in this life. But often in the New Testament this word describes the crushing pressure that comes on believers through persecution because of our faith in Christ. And that is obviously the idea in this context. You know from the New Testament that persecution is inevitable for those who are Christ's, 2 Timothy 3:12, "all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." Why? Jesus told His disciples in the upper room, listen, if they hated Me, because My message and My life confronts their sin, they're going to hate you; and if they hate God, they're going to hate those who bear His image.

You know, when I was in seminary, one of my professors gave me an illustration, that's obviously been many years removed, and I still remember this illustration. He said, what would you think if you saw me taking a picture of my wife and I was taking my little pen knife and stabbing it again and again and then I was taking scissors and cutting it up, what would you think? You would think there is a man who hates his wife. And he made the point, that's exactly how it is with us, when the world persecutes believers, it's because they can't get to the one they really want to hurt and so they hurt us instead. And so it's to be expected, this is going to happen.

Christians in Smyrna were persecuted for several reasons. They were persecuted because they refused to worship the emperor, because they refused to participate in all the pagan religion and were therefore denounced as atheists. And because they didn't go to all the temples and participate in all the parties, they were considered antisocial. And they were slandered by the unbelieving Jewish community.

Do you understand what Christians were accused of in the first century? William Barclay describes a number of things that Christians were accused of in those days. Christians were accused of cannibalism based on a misunderstanding of the Lord's supper. They were accused of immorality, based on misunderstanding the holy kiss with which believers greeted one another. They were accused of atheism based on their refusal to worship all the gods of Rome. They were accused of political disloyalty because they refused to worship the emperor. They were accused of destroying the family unit in Rome because their loyalty to Christ was greater than their loyalty to their families. Christ knew about the pressure they faced because of the persecution they were enduring.

Secondly, He says, "'"I know not only your tribulation but your poverty (but you are rich)."'" There are two words for, two Greek words for poverty in the New Testament. One of them means poor in the sense that you don't have anything extra. In other words, you're poor in the sense you only have the bare necessities; you only have what you need. That's not the word here. This word means you have nothing. You have been reduced to begging. You don't have the daily necessities. It's extreme poverty.

Now why would these Christians be suffering this? Well, obviously, they've been marginalized from society, making it hard to find work, even hard to buy and to sell. It's even possible, this happened at times in ancient Rome, that their resources had been plundered in mob violence and looting, and possibly even confiscated by the government because of their refusal to bow the knee to Caesar. But they were in extreme poverty. Christ assured them that He knew of their poverty, but notice what He says, I love this, "'"but you are rich,"'" "'"you are rich."'" Christ reminded them that not only did He know of their material destitution, but He knew that they were spiritually rich. They had salvation. They had the Holy Spirit. They had the Word of God. They had peace of heart and mind. They had forgiveness of sins. They had the Lord Himself. They had a guaranteed eternity. They had everything. By the way, these people were the opposite of those in Laodicea who thought they were rich when, in fact, they were poor. These people were dirt poor, but they were spiritually rich.

Christ adds, "'"I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan."'" Now the Greek word translated blasphemy here can mean to blaspheme God. In this case, of course, it would be to blaspheme Jesus Christ by refusing to believe in Him, by saying He's not who He claims to be. If that's what Christ meant, then He was saying that by rejecting Him, the Jewish enemies of the Christians there in Smyrna were blaspheming. But this same word translated blaspheme also means to slander people. It's used, for example, in Ephesians 4 when it talks about our conversation with each other and it says, we are not to blaspheme, we're not to slander, one another. I think that's its likely meaning here. He says, "'"I know the slander against you by those who say they are Jews."'"

You see, those who really instigated the persecution in Smyrna were unbelieving Jews. There was a large Jewish community in Smyrna and, as you read in the New Testament, they were often antagonistic to the gospel and to Christ. And they had, unintentionally, in Smyrna, become the instruments of Satan. In fact, it's interesting, if you fast forward from this letter 60 years in the future, you come to the time of Polycarp and to his martyrdom in this city of Smyrna. And we're told by a letter that was circulated among the churches at that time, that the Jewish enemies of the gospel were so eager for his execution that they volunteered to gather wood for the fire in which he would be burned and bring it to the stadium even though it was the Sabbath. After his death in 155 A.D. Polycarp was called the 12th martyr of Smyrna. They were enemies.

Now, let me just be honest about verse 9. Sadly, throughout church history, some have interpreted this verse as some kind of a bizarre justification for being anti-Semitic and even to using violence against Jewish people. That's just ridiculous. Remember, John, the human author, and Jesus, the one dictating this letter to John, both are Jewish. This was not encouraging anti-Semitism. Instead, our Lord was making two very important points. The first one is that being a physical descendant of Abraham does not make you truly Jewish spiritually. The Jews in Smyrna who persecuted Christians in the church, they said they were Jews, and physically they were. But Jesus says, they're not Jews spiritually.

It's exactly what Paul said, you remember, in Romans 2:28-29,

he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit

That's what Jesus was saying. They're physically Jews, but they're not followers of the true God, and they're not real descendants of Abraham, they're not stepping in line with his faith.

He was making another point, Jesus was, here in verse 9, and that is, all unbelievers, listen carefully, this is so important to understand, all unbelievers, including the religious and even those who claim to worship the God of the Bible, are not truly worshiping God, they're worshiping Satan. You see, if you refuse to come to God His way, and yet you make a show of worshipping Him, you are in the worst state of rebellion.

Jesus says the Jews who attacked believers in Smyrna were a part, notice what He says, this is shocking, "'"a synagogue of Satan."'" He says, it's not a gathering of God's people, it's a gathering of Satan and his people. And they're not worshipping Me, Jesus says, they're not worshiping the real God, they're worshiping Satan. That's what Jesus Himself said during His earthly ministry in John 8:44. To the Jews, He said, "'You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there's no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.'"

You know, we're really tempted when we see people who are religious and they come across in some pious way, even though they have not believed in the God of the Bible, they have not submitted themselves to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, it's very tempting to think they're good people. Jesus says, it's not true, they actually belong to Satan and they're doing his bidding.

Jesus assured His church He knew what they were going through on His behalf. The implication here in what He says is that they were enduring persecution well, they were remaining faithful to Him. And so, it's a commendation of them. Now that brings us, in the body of the letter, after He commends the good, it brings us to an encouragement, an encouragement in the midst of their persecution, in verse 10. Now, it's interesting, Jesus didn't tell this church what they really wanted to hear, and that is, that persecution would soon end. In fact, what He told them was more was on its way. But He prepared them, and us, for persecution by telling us how to respond.

And here's where we get very personal. If you want to know how to respond to the persecution you're already experiencing, at home if you're if you're in a home where there aren't believers or in the workplace or at school or wherever it might be, or as you think about looming persecution of a larger nature in our nation, how do you respond? Here it is. Let's talk about Jesus' encouragement in the midst of persecution. First of all, don't fear it's suffering. Notice, He says, literally, verse 10, "'"Do not fear what you are about to suffer."'" I could translate that, "'"Stop being afraid of what you are about to suffer."'" You see, they realized that they were in persecution, but it was likely to intensify, and they were fearful. Do you understand that? I think if you're human, you understand that. Are you convinced in your heart and mind that we are facing, as believers, imminent persecution in our own country? And are you afraid of what that might mean for you and those you love? Jesus says, stop, stop being afraid.

The question is how? How can we stop being afraid of persecution? Well, I love what unfolds, because Jesus tells us. Here's how you can stop being afraid. First of all, remind yourself that Jesus knows and ultimately controls the details of your persecution. He knows and ultimately controls the details of your persecution. Notice again, verse 10, "'"Do not fear what you're about to suffer,"'" and then He tells them what it is, "'"Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you'll be tested, you will have tribulation for ten days."'" Jesus knew exactly what persecution lay ahead for them, and He does for us as well. He does for you.

But it's more than just knowledge. It's also part of His sovereign purpose. In 1 Peter 4:19 we read, "Therefore, those also who suffer," notice this, "according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right." In context, he's not talking about physical suffering from some disease, although certainly that would be included, but in context, he's talking about suffering persecution; it's "according to the will of God." Jesus knows. Do you believe that? Jesus knows what persecution you currently face and He knows what you're going to face, and He is in control of it. It will only come in His sovereign will.

Secondly, you can not fear, you can stop fearing, if you remind yourself that Jesus will be with you in your suffering, He will be with you in your suffering. I love Psalm 23:4, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death." The idea is life's dark valleys. It's not talking about just death. It's talking about the deepest, darkest valleys of life. Remember, the image is of a shepherd and if you've been to Israel, you know that that land, when rain falls, it has nowhere to go into that hard soil and so it creates gullies; they call them wadis, dry riverbeds. And if a shepherd wanted to lead his sheep from one good pasture to another, guess what, he's got to take his sheep down through that wadi, through that deep dark valley, up to the other side in order to get to that new pasture. And David says, the Lord does that with me, sometimes He takes me through deep dark valleys in this life, and so does He you as well. And he says, even when that happens, "I fear no evil." Why? "For You are with me," "You are with me."

Remind yourself that Jesus will be with you in your suffering. I love this, in Acts 9, you remember, on the Damascus Road, He talks to Paul, to Saul at the time, and He says to him, you know, "'Stop persecuting Me.'" And he says, "'Who are you Lord?'" And He said, "'I am Jesus,'" notice this, "'whom you are persecuting.'" Jesus was in heaven, but Jesus identified with His people. He was with them in their suffering. When we suffer, Christ suffers. Second Corinthians 4:9, Paul says, "we are persecuted, but never forsaken." Never forsaken. Hebrews 13:5 says, "He Himself has said, 'I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you.'" If you want to stop fearing persecution, then remind yourself that Jesus will be with you in your suffering.

Thirdly, remind yourself that Jesus will give you courage through His Spirit. He's going to give you courage through His Spirit. You know, I think, if we're honest with ourselves, we have a couple of fears about persecution, and it's not even about the suffering itself, it's about how we might respond. And Jesus says, you don't need to fear that, I'm going to give you courage. You find yourself asking, will I have the courage to respond? Well, if you'll rely on the Lord, He's going to give you that courage. You remember, in Luke 12:11-12, Jesus said to His disciples,

"When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not worry about how or what you are to speak in your defense, or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say."

He says, listen, you depend not on yourself and your own courage and your own intelligence, I'm going to empower you, I'm going to give you courage, speak.

And, of course, that's exactly what happened, as Mike reminded us a couple of weeks ago in his message on Acts 4, Acts 4:7 and 8,

When they had placed Peter and John in the center, they began to inquire, "By what power and what name have you healed this man?" Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them,

And he goes on to tell them about the exclusivity of Christ and the gospel. What happened? What happened from that bonfire on early Friday morning of the passion week to Pentecost? The answer is, it wasn't Peter, it was the empowering of the Holy Spirit. And if you're going to face persecution, it won't be because you're such a courageous person, it'll be because Jesus will do what He's promised, and He'll give you courage through His Spirit.

And then you don't have to fear it's suffering, number four, because Jesus will preserve your faith through persecution. I think this is another fear we have. Am I going to be one of those people that abandons my faith in the midst of suffering and persecution? Not if you're a real believer, not ultimately, oh, you might temporarily waiver, but ultimately you're going to stay true, because Jesus promises it. Luke 22:31-32, "'Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat.'" He wants to destroy your faith. And Jesus says, "'I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail.'" Jesus, in His current intercessory work, does the same thing for us.

Oh, read church history, there are times when people find themselves facing persecution and they waver. You remember, there are those who give in, but if they are in Christ, what ultimately happens? They come back and they express that courage. Why? Because Christ has promised to preserve our faith even through persecution. So you don't have to fear. If you're going to respond rightly to persecution, don't fear its suffering.

Secondly, don't mistake its source. Verse 10, "'"Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison."'" This is a common Old Testament name for Satan. It's diabolos, it means the adversary, the one who slanders. He's behind persecution. Although God is sovereign over all things, including the actions of Satan, Jesus here said that it was Satan who would cast some in the church in Smyrna into prison. What that makes clear is that Satan is the primary source of persecution. And there are other passages as well. I'm not going to take time to take you there. This will be on the slide. You can go look some of these up. But he's the primary source.

Nevertheless, he uses various instruments, human instruments of various kinds. For example, he uses unbelievers in the world to persecute. He uses earthly government and its rulers. He uses false religion and human philosophies. He uses unbelieving family and friends. He doesn't get his hands dirty, but he's behind it. He's the one responsible for all persecution. That's how it comes. So if you're going to respond properly to persecution, don't mistake its source, it's Satan and the tools, the unwitting tools that he uses.

Thirdly, if you're going to respond rightly to persecution, don't miss its purpose. Verse 10, "'"so that you will be tested."'" That's an interesting expression. We aren't told here who does the testing. Some argue that it's Satan testing the faith of believers with the intention and desire of destroying their faith, and obviously that is his desire. But notice, Jesus doesn't say here that the devil is about to test you, but "'"so that you will be tested,"'" passive voice. I think He switches to the passive voice because while Satan causes persecution and intends to use it to destroy the believer's faith, God plans to use the same persecution to test the believer's faith to show that it's genuine. It's like James 1:12, "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial." Why? Because it shows he's approved. Don't miss the purpose.

You remember the parable of the soils? You remember the soil with the bedrock underneath it so that there was just a shallow layer of soil and the seed of the gospel fell in and it sprouted up, it looked like the real thing, looked like it was going to be a real Christian life, and then the sun came out and there wasn't enough soil and it withered the plant and it died. And Jesus said, that's what happens when persecution comes to a heart that hasn't been fully prepared. They initially confess Christ, but persecution comes and when persecution comes they're nowhere to be found. They're gone and gone forever. So if you're a believer and persecution comes, what happens? You persevere. Oh, you might waver, you might struggle, you might fear, but you'll remain faithful to Christ, you'll continue to follow Him. And that's part of the purpose. Not to show God that you're genuine, He knows, but to show you that you're genuine. Don't miss its purpose.

Number four, don't question Christ's sovereignty. Verse 10, "'"you will have tribulation for ten days."'" Now that's an interesting expression and 10 days has been variously interpreted. There are those who say this is 10 periods of persecution under Roman emperors during the first three centuries after Christ. Well, they're better interpreters than I am because I don't see that here. Some say it's an undetermined period of time. Ten days is an undetermined period of time? Some say it's a brief time. Okay, I can go with that. Some say it's 10 years. Well, why didn't he say 10 years? He says 10 days and I think that's the most likely. And if you study Roman history, if you study history at all, you find that it's not uncommon for persecution against believers to come in a brief, intense thunderstorm and then be gone. I think he's talking about a period of time that's unknown to us in Smyrna when for 10 days there was an intense period of persecution. He was preparing them for that.

But the larger point that Christ is making is this, He had determined how long this particular cycle of persecution would last and it was limited. The point is, He was in charge. He was sovereign over their suffering and He is over ours, including even persecution initiated by Satan and carried out by his unwilling dupes. When you're in the midst of persecution, don't for a moment question the sovereignty of Jesus Christ over that persecution and those who are perpetrating it.

Number five, don't forget Christ's reward. Verse 10, "'"Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life."'" Wow, what a promise. "'"Be faithful until death."'" In other words, be willing to remain faithful to Me and not deny Me and to keep following Me, even if it means you have to die. And if you'll do that, Jesus says, "'"I will give you the crown of life."'" This is like what James writes in James 1:12, "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him." Notice here he says, "'"I will give you,"'" that makes it clear that the crown of life is not earned, but it's given as a gift of grace like everything else we receive, everything else in our relationship to God. "'"I will give it to you."'" Perseverance doesn't earn eternal life. Instead, it merely proves genuine saving faith. Eternal life is and has always been a gift.

Now notice what He says, "'"I will give you the crown of life,"'" "'"I will give you the crown,"'" or the reward, "'"of life."'" There are a couple of different ways to interpret that, but by far the most common, and the one that makes the most sense here and other places is, "'"the crown which is life,"'" the reward which is life. By the way, the Greek word for crown is not the word from which we get our word diadem, which means a royal crown. Instead, this is the word stephanos, which describes a wreath made of laurel or other leaves that was awarded to winners in the first century games, which, by the way, was especially appropriate since there were games in Smyrna and they were famous for them. The believer, Christ says, who remains faithful to Me, even when it means his death, will receive from Me the trophy of victory, the winner's crown, and the crown that you're going to get is not something you sit on the shelf and look at, the crown you're going to get is eternal life.

Now, that brings us to the conclusion of the letter and it's an exhortation to each believer. It begins, verse 11, with a call to listen, same as in the other letters, "'"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."'" This is a challenge to everyone who hears or reads these letters to pay close attention, listen up, to what the Spirit is trying to say to all the churches through His word. It's a call to every single person here to hear what's written in these letters. This is Christ.

And then there is a call to overcome. Verse 11 finishes by saying, "'"He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death."'" In John's writings, as I mentioned last time, an overcomer is not an elite Christian. An overcomer is every Christian, it's a true believer who just keeps on believing. That's how he overcomes. First John 5:4 and 5,

whatever is born of God [every Christian] overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

Every believer is an overcomer. That means that every believer will inherit the promises made in all seven letters to those who overcome.

But the specific promise that Christ makes in each letter is tailored to the believers and circumstances in that church. And here in Smyrna, notice the promise to true believers, to those who overcome is, "'"He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death."'" This is one of those times when I wish it was translated a little differently, because in Greek "'"will not"'" is an emphatic double negative, it's the strongest possible way in Greek to say something is not going to happen. A true believer will absolutely never be hurt or harmed by what Christ calls, "'"the second death."'"

What is the second death? Well, you know what the first death is, obviously, it's our physical death. But John defines the second death later in this letter. In Revelation 20:6, "Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power." And then in verse 14 of chapter 20 he says, "death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire." In chapter 21 verse 8 he says, "their part," unbelievers' part, "will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death." In other words, the second death is eternal punishment in the lake of fire.

That is a sobering reality. Every single person who leaves this life without faith in Jesus Christ, if you're here tonight and you're not a follower of Jesus Christ, if you leave this life without Him, you will face a second death that is exponentially worse than the first. It is eternal punishment in the lake of fire. But Christ here says to the believers in Smyrna that the true believer, the one who overcomes by continuing to believe in Him, will never, never be harmed by the second death. I love that. If you're a true believer Jesus says, it's not going to happen, and He chooses the strongest possible way in the Greek language to say it.

So that's the letter to the church in Smyrna. Very quickly, what are the enduring lessons for us from Jesus' message to the church in Smyrna? Well, based on what we just read, my encouragement would be, if you're here and you're not in Christ, repent and believe in Him, so that you're not going to face the second death. Listen to what Jesus said in Matthew 10:28, "'Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.'" Let me ask you tonight, if you're not a follower of Christ, do you fear God, that He's able to destroy you, both body and soul, in hell forever? You should. And you should cry out for the forgiveness that's found in Jesus Christ. Repent and believe in Christ.

Secondly, pray for those churches currently suffering persecution. Brothers and sisters, we have fellow believers who are suffering tonight. What are we supposed to do? Hebrews 13:3, "Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves are also in the body." Paul says in Colossians 4:18, to the believers in Colossi, "Remember my imprisonment." And Jesus, in Matthew 25, says at the judgment He's going to say to those who are His, "'I was in prison and you visited Me,'" and they're going to say, "'When did we visit you in prison?'" And he's going to say, "'When you did it to one of those who belong to Me, you did it to Me.'" Pray for those churches currently suffering persecution.

Thirdly, don't fear persecution. Jesus knows and ultimately controls the details. Jesus is going to be with you when persecution comes. He's going to give you courage through His Spirit and He's going to preserve your faith through that persecution. And then finally, don't fear abandoning your faith under persecution. He's going to pray for you just like He prayed for Peter. He we'll hold you fast. Let's pray together.

Father, thank You that You have prepared us, through these words of Your Son to the church in Smyrna, to deal with persecution. Lord, we thank You that we don't have to face it and endure it, like some around our world. But Lord, it happens, insults, evil is spoken about us, all of those sorts of things.

But Lord, we especially tonight want to pray, as You've admonished us, for those of our brothers and sisters in hard places who are truly suffering intense persecution simply because they believe what we believe, because they follow You as the one true and living God and Your Son as their Savior. Lord, we pray that You would preserve and protect them. Give them grace. Give them courage. Preserve their faith. Make them a testament to the gospel even in the middle of that. And Lord give them hope and peace and even joy.

And Father, I pray for us, that You would help us not to fear persecution but to remind ourselves that You're never going to abandon us. You're going to give us everything we need. And most importantly, we thank You that we don't have to fear abandoning our faith, because our Lord simply will not allow that to happen. We thank You in His great name, amen.


Ephesus: Loveless Fidelity

Tom Pennington Revelation 2:1-7

Smyrna: Faithful in Suffering

Tom Pennington Revelation 2:8-11

Pergamum: Undiscerning Tolerance

Tom Pennington Revelation 2:12-17

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