Revelation chapter 2, and we are, as you know, in our study of the book of Revelation, finding ourselves in the second and third chapter, which include the seven letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor. We’re looking at chapter 2 verses 8 through 11. Let me read it to you. “And to the angel” – or the messenger – “from 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 that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation 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 shall not be hurt by the second death.”’”
Throughout the history of the church, even in our day around the world, the purity and strength of the persecuted church has been very apparent. As you well know, recently we have all been exposed to the church that for many, many years was hidden in eastern Europe. We often decried the treatment of Christians over there and worried and wondered about the state of the church and realized that they could not proclaim Jesus Christ publicly. There was no tolerance of the gospel. They were being taught atheism. Some of them were being sent to prison; some of them were being martyred. And we wondered how it was with the church. Well now we know. We have either heard, read, or seen with our own eyes the power and the blessedness of the suffering church in eastern Europe. It is a powerful church. It is a pure church. It is a strong church. I have told you from my own trips into eastern Europe of the genuineness, the deep spirituality, the humility, the zeal, and the single-minded devotion to the Lord, and the love of the truth that exists in these wonderful Christians who have known persecution for a long, long time.
If you read the Bible you’re not surprised by that since we know that tribulation has a perfecting work, according to James. Peter says after you’ve suffered a while the Lord will make you perfect. And so we know that the church which suffers is the church which is purged. We noted in our study of 2 Thessalonians that Paul reminds them of their suffering and how their suffering has produced endurance and perseverance and great hope.
Well a little church in the city of Smyrna was just such a church, purified through the suffering that comes from persecution. You will notice the church identified there in verse 8, in Smyrna, that is a historical city, a real place. We’ll say more about it later. And remember now that each of these letters in chapters 2 and 3 are to real churches that existed in real cities. But they also are symbolic or emblematic or exemplary of churches at other times in the history of the church. So you have a real historical church here that also is not unlike churches throughout the history of the church. This then helps us to understand churches today that suffer under persecution and gives us a word of instruction for all persecuted Christians and how they are to deal with that difficulty.
You will also remember that this is the second of seven letters to these churches in the various cities of Asia Minor, now modern Turkey. These letters were basically given by the Lord Jesus Christ through the pen of the Apostle John on the isle of Patmos about 96 A.D., long after most of the rest of the New Testament was written. They are then given to the angel – or the angelos – the messenger that is from each church to be taken back to the several churches. And I told you in our introductory message to the book of Revelation that the letters are listed in the same order that any traveler would go as he moved through Asia Minor. So we can assume that at each new city, first Ephesus then Smyrna, the letter given to that church and the messenger that gave that letter would stay and six would go on. So now they come to Smyrna and the messenger from Smyrna delivers his letter and five more move on, each church apparently having a representative delegate designated as the angel – or the angelos – which means the messenger from that church and for that church.
So the first messenger probably stayed with his church in Ephesus after the letter was delivered to them. The group moves on. Smyrna is about 40 miles north of Ephesus. There in that little church there is a wonderful working of God, produced through great difficulty. This is one of just two of the seven where there is no condemnation. There is no discussion about sin. There is no word from the Lord about punishment. This is a purged church. It has been purged of error. It has been purged of sin through the matter of suffering. Always from a physical standpoint and an earthly standpoint, the price of being a Christian can be very high in a hostile environment. That apparently was the case in Smyrna. And so through persecution they had been purified, through persecution they had come to a serious kind of Christianity, through persecution they had been deprived, and in their poverty they had become spiritually rich. And so in these verses, which I read to you, John has only praise for this church.
Just to give you a bit of the background, historically Domitian was the Caesar at this time. If you know anything about Roman history you know that Domitian was a murderous dictator who launched an extensive persecution against the church which reached some kind of a fever pitch in the town of Smyrna. And we learn here then or are reminded at least of a very important principle, that the church which suffers persecution becomes purged, becomes pure. Hypocrites don’t stick around to be persecuted. False Christians don’t want the pain. They don’t need it. They’re not willing to make the sacrifice. As I mentioned to you recently in another message, persecution, trials, tribulation, and suffering will always destroy false faith, but those same things will strengthen true faith. So as we look at this church we’re going to see a model of a suffering church. And we’re going to learn from them how every faithful Christian should respond in the matter of suffering. And we want to note also that it’s inevitable that there will be some suffering for us. Second Timothy 3:12 says, “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” When it comes, the little church in Smyrna can be an example for us.
Now as we look at it we look at the several component parts as we did last week in our look at the letter to Ephesus. Number one, the correspondent – who is the writer? Verse 8, it says, “To the messenger from the church in Smyrna write” – and here as in all of ancient letter writing, the person writing the letter identifies himself at the beginning rather than at the end. In other words, if you were writing under these kinds of terms you would say, “I, John, write to you, Bill,” or whatever. And that’s the way this begins. This is to the church in Smyrna and the one writing is, “The first and the last who was dead and has come to life.” He’s the one who says this.
Now again I remind you that each of the times in these letters when the writer is identified, he is identified in unique terms, most of them drawn out of the vision of the glorified Son in chapter 1 verse 12 and following. In chapter 1 verse 12 and following, you have that great vision of the Son of God moving through the church as He is pictured moving among the golden lampstands, ministering to His church. He is designated there by a number of descriptive terms. We went through them all and saw their meaning. And now they reappear as He identifies Himself in these various letters. Here He calls Himself the First and the Last who was dead and has come to life. That comes right out of chapter 1 verses 17 and 18. Look at it. Here is the Lord described as the First and the Last, describing Himself. Verse 18 as, “The One who was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore.” The writer then of this letter is none other than the glorified exalted Christ seen in the vision of chapter 1.
Now let me go a little bit further to remind you of these titles themselves. The First and the Last – that title when we were in chapter 1 we discussed – this is a name God took for Himself. I won’t take you back through it again but in case you’re taking some notes, in Isaiah 41:4, Isaiah 43:10, Isaiah 44:6 and 48:12, in those places God calls Himself the First and the Last. Here that same title is used to designate Jesus Christ: In chapter 1 verse 17, here again in chapter 2 verse 8, and once again in chapter 22 and verse 13. This is to say then that Jesus Christ is none other than God Himself. And yet though they be one He is distinct. He is the eternal infinite God, already in existence when all things were created, and remaining after all things are destroyed. He is the first, He preexisted; He is the last, He will go on forever. When other things cease, He does not. When some things begin, yes when all things begin, He is already there. He is the First and the Last; the eternal One.
The idea is that He transcends time, that He transcends space, that He transcends creation. And yet amazingly, look back at verse 8, this same One who is eternal, who was before all things and will live forever, who transcends all things, was dead and has come to life. Here is a paradox of all paradoxes. How can the eternally living God who is beyond all time, beyond all space, beyond all history die? How can He die? But He did. The Lord Jesus Christ, as you know, was God incarnate, entering into time, space, and history for the very purpose of dying. That is the heart of the gospel. How could the eternally living One die? He could only die as a man. He never could die as the eternal God in whom is unending life. But He died as man for sin and now lives by resurrection as the glorified God-Man. But He Himself, according to Hebrews 7:16, had the power of an endless life.
Why does He designate Himself this way to this church? Because of their persecution. He is saying to them, time is tough for you. It’s hard living in this world. History is unkind to you. I just want you to know that I was here before it started, and I’ll be here after it’s over. I transcend all of this and so do you because of your relationship to Me. Furthermore, I know about dying for I was dead – literally I became dead – and yet I’ve come to life. And so He reminds them that even should they die in the persecution, they’ll not experience anything He hasn’t experienced. Should they die, they will not be cut off from His eternal resurrection power. No matter what you’re going through, I have been there. The Lord Jesus suffered the most unjust, the most severe, the most powerful persecution anyone ever suffered. He suffered death on a cross bearing the sins of the world. That is the supreme suffering and He says to them, “I was dead and I’m alive.” And that’s one way of saying, “You’ll die perhaps, but you’ll live again.” The Lord of the church is the correspondent then. John is simply the writer. And the letter is given to the messenger representing the church of Smyrna to be delivered to them to encourage them that Jesus Christ is the transcendently living one who though dead yet lives and provides for them resurrection life should they lose their life even under persecution.
The second thing to note in the letter is the church – the church. We don’t know how it was founded. We don’t know. Interestingly enough it’s never mentioned anywhere in the book of Acts – never mentioned in the book of Acts. It was a pure church. Obviously a wonderful congregation of people but it has no profile in the New Testament. The only thing we know we know from this letter and nothing more. We can assume that it was founded during Paul’s three years in Ephesus, when from Ephesus the gospel went out through Asia Minor. This church was founded only being between 35 and 40 miles away from Ephesus, it might have been one of the first stops. But we know nothing about how that church specifically was founded. We know that from the ministry in Ephesus there was a great, great harvest that extended far beyond that city. In fact, it says that all who lived in Asia heard the Word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks, Acts 19:10, during that same period. So there was a tremendous proclamation going on.
But for this little church in Smyrna life was very dangerous. It was dangerous for a number of reasons, not the least of which was if you failed to acknowledge Caesar as Lord, you could lose your life. And Smyrna had a very unusual affinity to Caesar, and I’ll explain that in a few minutes. So much so that some historians tell us in Smyrna in particular there were mass executions of Christians who refused to bow their knee to Caesar. That doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t knuckle under the political leader, Caesar was proclaimed as a god and he was to be worshiped as deity. And so it was very dangerous being a Christian in this town which had an unusual affinity for Rome and Caesar.
The word smurna is interesting. Smyrna means myrrh – myrrh. And if you read the Bible and do any background study you can learn about myrrh. Myrrh was a substance that was taken from a thorny tree and it was used basically for perfume or it was used to put on a dead body for aromatic purposes. It had some kind of fragrance to it. And you will remember, of course, that it is mentioned several times in the New Testament. In Matthew 2 when the wise men came, they brought – literally they brought, in the Greek, smurna. They brought this aromatic substance that had been crushed from the thorny tree and yielded up fragrance. They brought it as a gift to the baby Jesus. It was a perfume. In Mark chapter 15 Christ was offered wine mixed with myrrh, mixed with smurna. And in John 19 you remember that when Christ was buried his body was covered with smurna or myrrh. So it started out, of course, in the New Testament as a perfume and then later on was associated with death. And it becomes the picture of suffering in this little church. Smurna or myrrh was used to treat the dead. And it perfectly shows the suffering character of this church, suffering even to death. In order for that thorny tree to yield that fragrance, it had to be crushed. And so you see a little church, the myrrh church, crushed, and when it’s crushed it yields the sweet aroma. So the church, I think, was in the right town. God permitted Satan to crush them to yield the sweetness of their aroma.
It’s like a wounded child fleeing to a loving parent. The crushed Christians at Smyrna fled for refuge to the eternal Lord who said, “I understand. I too died and rose again.” So this little church in the town of myrrh was being crushed because of her love for Christ. Unlike Ephesus, apparently there was no leaving a first love here; there was no waning of first love. They really loved. And so because they really loved they were really faithful, and their great faithfulness resulted in hatred, and hatred led to persecution. Persecution drives the believer to the Savior’s side and keeps first love hot. So we meet the church, a body of Christ-loving saints destitute, crushed, powerless but sweet, fragrant in the aroma they bring before Christ and us.
Thirdly, the city. What kind of place is this city? Well, of the seven mentioned here, this was the most beautiful city. Maybe the most beautiful in Asia Minor. It was called the crown of Asia. A magnificent place, not only because of architecture but because of the very topography of the place. It was a magnificently beautiful place, near the mountains, near the water. Its magnificence at times must have seemed like poor compensation, however, for the terrible neglect of the architect who originally built it because when it was originally built somehow they forgot the drains. And so there are some curious stories about the fact that in this beautiful city the streets always ran like sewers when it rained because the architect had made no provision. So the fragrance of Smyrna was not all sweet.
Smyrna was also old, as far back as history goes. And I did a little study on this trying to find the beginning, and you keep going back and back and back and you see a destruction and you think, well, maybe that will be the beginning. This will be the city that was destroyed, and we’ll go back – and you go back a little while and you look for that city that was destroyed, and they tell you it was built on the ruins of another city. And you go back and that one was built on the ruins of another city, and it goes back and back and back. You can’t really find the beginning. There seems to have been a city there of some sort for very, very, long, long millennia. There were many earthquakes in the area. There were numerous fires and rebuildings and rebuildings and rebuildings. The city as it would be in the time that this letter was written would be rebuilt maybe about 290 B.C. so it might be a 400-year-old city by that time. By the way, it still exists. And today the population of Smyrna is about 300,000 people – only today it is known as Ismir, Turkey. It’s the same city. Been around for a long time. Interesting. Ephesus is gone – Ephesus is gone, its harbor silted up. But Smyrna lives, and in that city there are still Christians worshiping the Lord Jesus Christ.
In Roman times Smyrna was quite a place. It had a harbor that actually reached in about 35 miles, one of the finest in the world. It was the loveliest of cities so that Aristides said, “The winds blow through every part of the city and make it as fresh as a grove of trees.” They had another problem, though, I read about. There was that constant west wind that caused them a problem. Sewage drained into the gulf and the west wind blew it back into the city rather than out to the sea. Just another one of Smyrna’s aromatic attractions. Nevertheless, the setting of the city was beautiful and to some it was the ideal city on the earth. It began at the harbor, this deep harbor of 35 miles, traversed some narrow foothills, and then behind the city rose this great Pagos, a hill covered with temples and noble buildings. It became a center of science. It became a center of medicine. It was a free city. Had always been on the winner’s side in all the Roman civil wars, and so was given the privilege of self-governing.
There was a very strong emperor worship cult there. In fact, they killed people who didn’t worship Caesar. Each year every citizen – get this – each year had to burn incense on Caesar’s altar, after which he was issued a certificate. To be without a certificate, as certainly must have been the case for the Christians obedient to Christ, was to risk discovery and the death penalty. About a half century after John’s time, after the time of the writing of this letter, Polycarp, a man named Polycarp was burned alive at the age of 86 – 86. One writer said it was the twelfth martyr in Smyrna. It happened, of course. He was the pastor of the Smyrna church 50 years after this and he would not bow his knee to Caesar. Joining hands with the Romans to oppose Christianity was a large Jewish community, and we know that the Jews repeatedly informed the Romans against the Christians and incited the local government to attack them. It was tough. It was the center also of the worship of Cybele, the worship of Apollo, Aesculapius, Aphrodite, and Zeus, and they all had temples there as well as the glorious monument to the great writer Homer who apparently was born there. And nestled in this great city was this little church.
Now from those details in verse 8 we turn to the commendation – the commendation. Verse 9, “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.” I know your works, He says. I know everything about you. You remember, back in chapter 1, how that the Son of God moving through the church has eyes like a flame of fire? He can see everything. Nothing escapes His vision. He says, I know your works. Some translations include that little phrase, some leave it out. I comment on it because of those who include it in case the Lord would want it in. In the New American Standard it just says, “I know your tribulation and your poverty.” Christ ministering among the lampstands knows every single detail about this church as He does about every church in every place in every time. He says I know your tribulation. I know the pressure you’re under. That’s the Greek word for pressure. I know the crush. I know the problems and the pain. They would have been not unlike the believers in Hebrews 11. Hebrews 11:34 it says that certain believers there quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword. Verse 37 says they were stoned, sawn in two, tempted, put to death with the sword, went about in sheepskins, goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, I’ll-treated, wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. They would have been not unlike those who suffered greatly.
Why were they persecuted? Three reasons and I’ve already hinted at them. I’ll just broaden it a little. Number one, they were in opposition and conflict with emperor worship. Already for 300 years since 195 B.C. a temple to Dea Roma had been built there. Dea Roma means God Rome. Rome had been personified as a god, actually in this case a goddess. And this temple had been built there where you would go to worship Rome. Well Caesar then had taken on the deification of Rome, and so it was a center for Caesar worship. Caesar was god. And so they would refuse to sprinkle incense before the bust of the emperor in the Dea Roma temple, and they would not take the certificate. They would not call Caesar Lord, and so they would be accused of rebellion and they would lose their lives.
Secondly, as I said, they were all engulfed in pagan worship of many different kinds, temples, festivals, gods, goddesses by the thousands all around them. But the real capstone comes here when He says, “I know your tribulation by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Their third enemy that I already alluded to was the Jews. Not surprising. They hated the Lord Jesus Christ. They rejected the Lord Jesus Christ. They refused to acknowledge Him as Messiah and Savior. In one of the most shocking statements ever made on the pages of holy Scripture, Jesus Christ says they are members of a synagogue, but it isn’t the synagogue of God, it’s a synagogue of – whom? – Satan. What a statement.
Jews who had rejected the Messiah, Jews who hated the church, a group of which Paul had once been a part when he was killing Christians before his conversion, these Jews who had rejected the Messiah had had a major shift. Once they were a part of the assembly of God, the synagogue of God, but listen, with the rejection of Messiah – will you listen to this? – with the rejection of Messiah, Judaism becomes as Satanic as emperor worship. Even more so because of its light and privilege. The Jews set out to slander the Christians. They slandered them for cannibalism, saying they eat flesh and drink blood. They slandered them for lust and immorality because they greeted one another with a holy kiss and held love feasts. They slandered them for home wrecking because one member of a home became a Christian and it brought a sword into the household. They slandered them for atheism because they rejected the worship of emperors and the deities of Rome. They slandered them for rebellion and political disloyalty because they said, this is tantamount to mutiny. And the Jews wanting to destroy Christian faith, went to the Romans to report the Christians, that they might lose their lives.
So when Jesus says, I know your tribulation and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan, it is to this that He has reference. It must be that this was the most volatile and devastating of the levels of persecution. He calls it blasphemy – blasphēmia. But that word, though usually referring to God, could here be translated slander and be related to them. It could read, “And I know the slander by those who say they are Jews and are not but a synagogue of Satan.” They are slandering you. To slander Christians, to despise Christianity and to hate Christ is certainly blasphemy but it wouldn’t be unfair with this word to see it as a reference to the slander these Jews brought against the Christians.
Notice, please, He says in verse 9, “They say they are Jews and they are not.” Now that poses the question, were they really Jews? And the answer is, from a physical standpoint, yes. They had once belonged to the synagogue of God, as it were. They were Jews physically, but He says here they say they are Jews and they are not. Because one is not a Jew who is one outwardly; one is a Jew who is one inwardly. For circumcision is not of the outside, but circumcision is of the heart. And so these were Jews in the physical sense but not true Jews. Romans 2:28, “He is not a Jew who is one outwardly. He is a Jew who is one inwardly.” So in that sense, though physically Jewish, they are spiritually pagan. These Smyrna Christians were being mercilessly slandered at the mouths and hands of these physical Jews. They joined with the heathen in putting Christians to death as they allied to stamp out Christianity.
I need to note that the hatred of the Jews for Christians is a familiar fact to anybody who reads the book of Acts. If you read in Acts chapter 13 and verse 50, you see their hatred in Antioch. If you read chapter 14 verses 2 and 5, you’ll see their hatred expressed in Iconium. In the city of Lystra, it is described in chapter 14 verse 19. In chapter 17 verse 5, you see their hatred again against the church in Thessalonica. They not only rejected Christ and not only persecuted Him on the cross, but they went after Christians. Paul being one of their leaders, standing there, as it were, with the robes laid at his feet by the people who stoned Stephen to death. It’s a tragic thing to think about how the Christians were persecuted by the Jews.
It’s also a tragic thing to think about how “Christians” have persecuted Jews through the century. That’s why it’s often difficult to reach a Jew for Christ, because in the name of Christianity, a false kind of Christianity, Jews have been persecuted. But at the beginning it was the opposite. In the Roman Empire there were many wealthy Jews who had made their fortune by doing business with Rome. And they had the ear of the authorities and they sought to blot out the infant church. The first Roman emperor to kill Christians was Nero, and he had two close Jewish proselyte friends, one was an actor by named Alityros and the other was his lover, Poppaea. And they fed ill will and slander into Nero’s ears and he killed Christians. Here in Smyrna the same thing – large Jewish population poisoned the minds of the people against the Christians. And so He identifies them: Those who slander you, they say they’re Jews. They are not. They are in a synagogue. It isn’t the synagogue of God; it’s the synagogue of Satan.
There’s no doubt in my mind that they had a synagogue right there in Smyrna. Oh, they did their emperor worship thing, because hypocrites will move in any direction. But they had their synagogue and their association, but it was no synagogue of God. It was a synagogue of Satan, for they were not true Jews. In fact, you remember back in John 8:44, Jesus looked at the Jewish leaders and He said, your father is not God and your father is not Abraham. Your father is the devil – John 8:44.
To illustrate the hatred that existed there I want to go back to the martyrdom of Polycarp that I mentioned a bit ago. Some material exists that lets us know he was killed in about 155 or 156, as I said, about 50 years or so after the writing of this letter. Let me read you what is said about this. In a letter addressed by the church at Smyrna to the churches in the Christian world, it is related that Jews joined with heathen in clamoring that Polycarp should be cast to the lions or burned alive, and the Jews were foremost in bringing logs for the pile and in the endeavor to prevent the remains of the martyr from being delivered to his Christian friends for burial. It was the time of the public games. The city was crowded and the crowds were excited. Suddenly the shout went up, “Away with the atheists. Let Polycarp be searched for.” No doubt Polycarp could have escaped, but already he had a dream in which he saw the pillow under his head burning with fire, and he had awakened to tell his disciples, “I must be burned alive.” His whereabouts were betrayed to the persecutors by a little slave girl who collapsed under torture and they came to arrest him. Not even the soldier captain wished to see Polycarp die. On the brief journey to the city he pled with the old man, “What harm is it to say Caesar is lord and to sacrifice and save your life?” But Polycarp was adamant that for him only Jesus Christ was Lord.
He entered the arena. The proconsul gave him the choice of cursing the name of Christ and making sacrifice to Caesar or death. “Eighty and six years have I served Him,” said Polycarp, “and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” The proconsul threatened him with burning. Polycarp replied, “You threaten me with the fire that burns for a time and is quickly quenched. For you do not know the fire which awaits the wicked in the judgment to come and in everlasting punishment. Why are you waiting? Come do what you will.” And he remained unmovable. So the crowds came flocking with their sticks from the workshops, from the baths. And the Jews, even although they were breaking the Sabbath law by carrying such burdens, were foremost in the clamor and bringing wood for the fire. They were going to bind him to the stake. “Leave me as I am,” he said, “for He who gives me power to endure the fire will grant me to remain in the flames unmoved, even without the security you will give by binding.” So they left him loosely in the flames and there he died for Christ. This the culmination of the persecution of this little church. So He says, I know about you. I know your tribulation and the slander against you by those who say they’re Jews and are not, but belong to the assembly of Satan.
Secondly in verse 9 He says, “I know your poverty” – I know your poverty. They were poor – they were poor. There are two Greek words for poor – two Greek words. One word, penēs, basically means you have nothing superfluous. You’re not wealthy. You just satisfy your basic needs. You work with your own hands. You have nothing extra. That’s not this word. This word is ptōchos. It means you have nothing at all. You have absolutely nothing at all. Absolute poverty, complete destitution. Most of them must have been slaves. To add to their poverty as slaves – probably abused slaves who did the work and got very little if anything beyond food – more than that, any Christians who had anything would have been robbed and plundered and deprived of what they did have. They were poor because of their faith. They had been robbed and plundered, slandered, accused, imprisoned. This church had every human reason to collapse. Did it not? Every human reason. Every human reason to say, “Who needs this religion? We’ll try another one.” But they didn’t. They just leaned all the more on Jesus Christ and they never lost their first love.
The phonies were eliminated. They never mingled with the world. They couldn’t. The lines were drawn and they were holy. The Lord says, “I know.” See it at the beginning of verse 9? “I know” – oida – oida, probably emphasizing the knowledge of experience, more so than just some kind of observation. I know. I know what you’re going through. I know it by My own experience. I’ve been there. I’ve been poor. I had not a place to lay My head. I’ve been persecuted. I’ve been killed. I know. I know your tribulation. I know it not because I can see it happen. I know it because I’ve been there. I feel it. The sympathetic high priest.
But this church was not just persecuted and poor. Would you note the little parenthetical statement in verse 9? “But you are” – what? – “rich” – you are rich. You are rich because you have what really matters. You have the spiritual things. That’s what I see in the persecuted church. When I was with the Christians in the Soviet Union or in Romania who have absolutely nothing – I mean nothing – they were rich, so rich. They had what mattered. This is the poor rich church. Laodicea, the last church He writes to, chapter 3 verse 17, is the rich poor church, just the opposite. He says, you think you’re rich. I’m telling you you’re poor, to Laodicea. To this group He says, you think you’re poor. I’m telling you you’re rich.
Who is really rich? They had holiness; they had power; they had love; they had joy; they had grace; they had peace; they had true friends. They had a divine resource. They had a sympathetic Savior. They had grace upon grace. They were rich. That’s how it is with a persecuted church. Don’t you ever feel sorry for the persecuted church. I will never forget standing down here in front of this row after a service and having a pastor come to me when the Soviet Union was still under communist rule and shaking my hand and saying, “I have read your material in Russian and I come here, and I have experienced your church today. And I just want to tell you I don’t know how you can possibly endure being a pastor in the United States.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I could never be a pastor here. It’s so much easier in the Soviet Union.” I said, “Why do you say that?” He said, “Because your people are caught up in the world and material things and comfort, and how can you find true commitment?” He said, “I would far rather pastor in the Soviet Union.” I would rather be, I guess, a pastor of a poor rich church than a rich poor church.
Then in verse 10 the command – the command. You think He might want to say them, “Hey, folks, I know you’re suffering a lot, but it’s going to be over soon.” No, He doesn’t say that. He says more is coming. “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.” Don’t be afraid. More is coming. It reminds me of Psalm 56:11, “In God I have put my trust; I will not be afraid.” More suffering is coming. Be of good cheer. He has overcome the world, John 16:33. There’s no promise for relief. There’s just a promise for more suffering. So He says don’t be afraid. And then He gets specific. “Behold” – look. It’s another way of saying here’s reality. I’m not going to tell you it’ll all get better. It’ll all get better. He said, no, it’ll get worse. This is reality.” Look, now here is reality. “The devil is about to cast some of you into prison.” It’s going to happen. This is a prophecy. It isn’t going to end. It’s going to continue and some of you are going to be put into prison. The devil is going to do it. I love to see how God controls the devil. He might as well have said, “I’m having the devil do this.” A few of you are going to be put into prison. Why? “That you may be tested” – that you may be tested. Now wait, wait. It isn’t going to last too long, “and you will have tribulation ten days.” It’s a short imprisonment.
You say, what does that mean? Well some people think it means ten years. That He’s using a day as if it were a year. Some people think it means just an undetermined amount of time. But I kind of feel like when God wants to say something He can just say it. So if He said ten days, what would really deep scholarship tell you that He meant? Maybe He meant ten days. And so I chuckle when some commentator goes through eight views and said, “I lean toward the one that says ten days.” It means ten days. What He’s saying is don’t fear. This is reality. Take a look now. The devil is about to cast some of you into prison and you’re going to have trouble for ten days. It’s a short imprisonment. Maybe it ended in death. Maybe it ended in release. Why? Very, very important – you’ve got to understand this. “That you may be tested” – that you may be tested.
Some Christian is going to say, “Lord, I think I’ve been tested already. Could You pick her?” Right? I mean, I’ve had enough. I think I’ve made the point. I mean, don’t You know yet? I’m sure I’m saved and I’m sure You know who is saved, so who in the world is this for? You want to know who it’s for? Amazing. I think God was making a point to the devil. You say, what? Yeah, you see, the devil has this long, long history of trying to destroy saving faith. Do you understand that the devil can read the Bible? And you understand that he is an evangelical fundamentalist? You understand that he interprets the Bible correctly? So he reads it. And he wants to destroy the plan of God and the purpose of God, which is based upon salvation. And he wants to attack salvation by confusing the gospel or by attacking a believer who is already saved and trying to destroy the salvation that the believer possesses. He wants to destroy the regenerate. This is a battle. Christ says, “I’m holding you. I’m protecting you.” And Satan is saying, “Let me at him. I’m going to go to war with You, and I’m going to get that person.”
In Job, Satan showed up at the throne and he said – God did, “Have you heard about My servant Job?” Why did He say that? Well the devil was rolling around through the world, just moving around. What was he doing? Looking for somebody to – what? – devour. God says to him, “Have you tried Job?” Now you say, why is God giving him suggestions? Because God’s in charge. So He says, “Have you tried Job?” He says, “Job is upright, godly, blameless.” Job was the best, the most virtuous, the most God-fearing, the most faithful man. Satan says to God, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but the reason he’s like that is because, look, he’s got everything. He’s rich. He’s got a big family. He’s got it made. He washes his steps with butter. The man is loaded. Of course. He’s got it all. Take it away and he’ll curse You to the face.”
God says to him, “Have at him. Go after him. You can’t take his life, but you can do anything else.” What happens? Instant poverty, loses everything, all his children die, and the only one left is his wife. On several occasions he had wished that he could trade her for one of the kids, because she kept saying, “Oh, curse God and die,” you know, giving him that bad advice and never proved to be of any help in the whole book.
Not only did he lose all that, but he got a bunch of dumb friends who kept giving him bad counsel. They were the original Christian therapists and they didn’t know anything. And they gave him all the wrong answers. Life is a horrible disaster for Job, but through it all – through it all his faith never wavers – never wavers. “Though He slay me yet will I trust Him.” It never wavers and God is saying to Satan, “See, no matter what you do, no matter how hard it is, no matter how difficult it is, no matter how severe it is” – and you can’t imagine anything more severe than what Job went through, if you haven’t reminded yourself of that book, read it again – “it doesn’t matter how hard it is, you can’t destroy true faith.” And sometimes God just wants to send that signal to the domain of Satan.
In the New Testament, in Luke 22, Jesus looks at Peter and He says, “Satan has desired to have you that he may sift you like wheat.” Satan’s after you, Peter. He came to Me and asked if he could have you. You can imagine Peter saying, “Well You told him no, didn’t You?” Jesus said, “I told him, yes.” Why? You know I’m saved, You don’t need to put me through this test. I know I’m saved. I’m not going to have to get that information. What are You doing this for? This is another message to Satan to prove that saving faith is indestructible. And he went after Peter, but He said – Jesus said, “I prayed for you that your faith fail not.” And it didn’t. And a messenger from Satan went after Paul and couldn’t destroy his faith either. In fact, through it Paul became stronger than ever.
I really believe on a supernatural level that God and Satan are engaged in a battle over the strength of faith. And Satan is constantly trying to destroy true faith. And God says, “All right, give it a try.” And Satan in total frustration comes back defeated. So God says I’m engaged in a war with Satan, and I’m going to show him My glory, and I’m going to display the power of My salvation. And I’m just telling you the devil is going to come, and he’s going to put some of you in prison, and it may not be more than ten days. And it’s a test, not to reveal anything to you and not to reveal anything to Me but to make the point to him and his whole kingdom that saving faith is indestructible.
Then comes the final counsel – the final counsel. “Be faithful until death, and I’ll give you the crown of life. He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.” I don’t need to spend a lot of time on those. You know what the first statement means, “Be faithful until death and I’ll give you the crown of life.” He’s simply saying if your faith is real, your faith lasts, in the end I’ll give you life – the crown which is life. It’s not the crown. It’s not a big thing you put on your head that says “life” and you wear it all over heaven. It is the crown; it is the culmination; it is the reward which is life. If you die in faithfulness, I’ll give you life. What have you got to fear, right? Because if you die faithful, I’ll give you life. I’m the one who was dead and am – what? – alive. Because I live, you’ll live.
“He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” That appears in all these letters. Listen closely and hear what I’m saying. Christ said it; John wrote it; the messenger delivered it; and the Holy Spirit is pressing it to the heart. Hear what the Spirit says. You say, I thought this was Christ teaching? It is. I thought this was John’s writing? It is. I thought the messenger delivered this? He did. But it is the Spirit who presses it to the heart and says, “Listen and obey it.”
And then the closing note about an overcomer. “He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.” Every time you see the overcomer here, it just means the Christian. First John 5:4 and 5, “Who is he that overcomes? Even the one who believes in the Lord Jesus.” Our faith overcomes. So true believers, He says, those of you who are real believers will never be hurt by the second death. That’s the one to worry about. The first death is only physical, the second is – what? – spiritual and eternal. So He says, what do you have to fear, you persecuted Christians? Just be faithful to death, I’ll give you life. Just be an overcomer, a true believer, and you’ll only experience the first death, never the second death. You may die once, but you’ll never die twice. Those without Jesus Christ will die twice. So the persecuted poor little rich church, crushed and fragrant, victorious with true faith. And I ask you, are you an overcomer? Is your faith real? Are you waiting for the crown which is eternal life? Will you escape the second death? The motive to be an overcomer is that the consequences are eternal.
Thank You, Father, for Your Word to us tonight. How refreshing and rich. We will hear what the Spirit has said, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
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