The Persecuted Church – Smyrna

I hope you will enjoy these devotional thoughts from this week’s study of the “persecuted church” in Revelation 2:8-11.

“Write this letter to the angel of the church in Smyrna. This is the message from the one who is the First and the Last, who was dead but is now alive” (v. 8). I think it’s interesting that before saying anything else in this passage, Jesus first introduces Himself to the suffering congregation by highlighting two aspects of His character and power: First of all, Christ identifies Himself as “the First and the Last.” Let that sink in for a little bit… Jesus is in control of the endless reaches of the universe and the eternal expanse of time, and He is also the “author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He is in control of the beginning and ending of our stories too – as well as everything in between!

Christ is also the One “who died and came to life.” The church of Smyrna would have found special significance in these words. Think about it, here we have a little flock of believers bound for death. Jesus warns that some of them will soon be cast into prison, and some will even face the martyr’s sword. (Even the name “Smyrna” is connected with the word “myrrh,” the balm of death.) But, because He conquered death, Jesus has the power and authority to promise, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (v. 10). The word here for “crown” is stephanos. Rather than a crown of royalty, this is a crown of victory – the kind a champion might receive in the games for which the city of Smyrna was so famous. Tragically, some of the church’s Christians would soon be dragged into the center of these game arenas to be devoured by beasts and slaughtered by gladiators, all to the glee of the screaming spectators. Yet, it is to these faithful sufferers that Jesus promises the crown of victory, the crown of life!

I think it’s also interesting that Jesus has no words of rebuke for the church of Smyrna. Why is that? It seems that because this is a persecuted church, Christ only offers words of encouragement and comfort. There is something about persecution that makes us get our priorities straight, isn’t there? When churches suffer persecution, all of the sudden we don’t see congregations splitting over the color of the carpet, do we? All of the petty arguments over the fluff simply disappear. The season of testing also produces faith and endurance (James 1:2-3). And as the external pressure from the outside increases, the church community grows tightly together as a family. The bonds of fellowship become life-line support systems for each member. That’s when the onlooking world gets to see first-hand how the family of is supposed to act and love. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35, ESV).

In spite of the coming onslaught of persecution, however, Christ is also clear on what the church’s attitude should be as they await their fate: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer” (v. 10). I like how The Message puts it: “Fear nothing in the things you’re about to suffer–but stay on guard! Fear nothing! The Devil is about to throw you in jail for a time of testing–ten days. It won’t last forever.” In the Jewish mindset, ten days symbolized a season of testing or trial. (See Daniel 1:12, for example.) Jesus is encouraging the church that their suffering will only be temporary.

We know that the great Christian martyr Polycarp was actually from Smyrna. Around 155 A.D. Polycarp is recorded as saying on the day of his execution, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong… How then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour? Bring forth what thou wilt.” He was then burned at the stake for refusing to burn incense to the Roman Emperor. That’s a bold faith! I often look at that kind of faith and worry that I would simply never be brave enough. And, of course, the reality is that I won’t ever be–and neither will you. But, if we put our faith not in ourselves but in the One who conquered death and the One who is the Beginning and Ending of our stories, then there is no way we can possibly fail. We are guaranteed the crown of victory!

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