“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
“These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of 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 at all by the second death.”
In the first century, Smyrna was one of the greatest cities in the Roman province of Asia, vying with Ephesus for pre-eminence. Although it had been completely destroyed in 580 BC, it was rebuilt some 300 years later according to a master plan, yielding a city of cohesive beauty. Destruction and restoration, or death and resurrection, was therefore part of the city’s fabric.
It's also integral to the experience of the church in that location. The Risen Lord Jesus speaks to them about the suffering they will endure, but then says: “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Death and resurrection. Indeed, the Greek text prefaces the word “life” with the article (“the”), intensifying its meaning and indicating not just ordinary day-to-day living, but rather “life eternal.” That’s the promise for these early believers, surrounded as they were by troubles which could well lead to death; like champions in the athletic games, their ultimate reality is to receive the victor’s garland of life itself.
No wonder, then, that our Lord introduces himself not only as “the First and the Last,” but significantly as the one “who died and came to life again.” He himself has been through death, yet triumphed. And as he speaks words to the church at Smyrna of their own trials, he clearly knows of which he speaks.
He sees them and knows them and is alongside them in their sufferings. “I know your afflictions and your poverty,” he says. “Afflictions” is actually a singular word which wraps all their difficulties together into one. As one commentator puts it, the word “means serious trouble, the burden that crushes.” At the same time, they are experiencing “poverty.” There are two distinct words the Lord could have used. The other refers to having nothing extra; but this word refers to having nothing at all. “Yet,” the Lord declares, “you are rich!” In following Christ closely, these faithful believers have stored up “treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20). Again, the sharp contrast: poverty vs riches; death vs resurrection.
But riches and resurrection and relief from affliction await a future day for this church. The Lord reveals to them that further suffering is coming – imprisonment and persecution, bringing them to the very point of death. But when it happens, these believers will know the Lord is not caught by surprise. Indeed, they will hear his words of courage echoing in their ears: “Do not be afraid ... be faithful.”It won’t minimize the suffering, but they will know “the First and the Last” is with them. And his final promise affirms again the sure hope of resurrection versus death: “He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.”
Might this church have hoped for promises of material blessing and comfort and relief for the immediate future? Perhaps. But instead, they have the assurance that the one “who died and came to life again” sees their struggle, knows their path, promises life, and has secured it for them beyond death.
So, store up treasure in heaven. Endure hardships. Live faithfully, even to the point of death. Know that our Lord holds life. And receive his promise, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Lord Jesus, you saw clearly the circumstance of the church in Smyrna. I know that you see me clearly, too. Their hardship is not mine at the moment. Nonetheless, strengthen me by your Spirit to live faithfully, even as they did. And when trials increase, may I know your presence and hear your voice saying, “Do not be afraid … be faithful.” To your glory. Amen.
How do you respond to trials? With faith and trust? Or with complaint, anger, unbelief, self-pity? Talk it through with the Lord.
Photo by Pisit Heng on Unsplash