The Persecuted Church

Revelation 2:8-11

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
February 2012

Last week, we looked at a backslidden church, the Church of Ephesus. It had a lot of good things going for it. There were a lot of activities and ministries in the church. This church believed and taught the Bible. It looked out for false teachers in the church. There was just one problem. The church had lost its first love. It was a backslidden church.

It used to be spiritually hot. It once was on fire for Christ and loved Jesus but the fire had died down. This was not just a minor problem. Jesus said that it was so serious if the church didn’t change that he would remove its lampstand.

He would turn the lights out of the church. That has happened to many churches that at one time were vibrant, dynamic worship centers where God was clearly at work. They now have become stale, formal, and lifeless.

Today, we look at another church, the Church of Smyrna. We don’t know how old this church was or who founded it but Jesus wrote a letter to it. It is the shortest of the seven letters. This city is located in modern Turkey and is called Izmir. Over three million people live in the city today.

It is one of the largest cities in Turkey. Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey with a population of thirteen million people. Ankara is the second largest city (the capital). Izmir is the third largest city in the country.

It is the only one of the seven cities that still has a church in it today (and from what I have been told) there is an evangelical church in the city today. None of the seven other cities that received a letter from Jesus have a church in them today.

What do we know about the ancient city of Smyrna? It was a port city. It was the biggest port in the Aegean Sea, so it was an important city economically (because it was where all kinds of trade too place).

It was also important politically. In fact, I was surprised to find out that the modern city of Izmir is still important politically to this day. Did you know that Izmir is the headquarters for NATO today?

The city of Symrna was thirty miles away from the Church of Ephesus. It was very different form the Church of Ephesus.

Comparison of Two Churches

1) The letter to the Church of Smyrna was all positive, unlike the letter to the Church of Ephesus

Jesus has nothing bad to say about this church.  He has no word of rebuke or criticism. He does not command this church to repent or threaten to judge it and remove its lampstand, like He did the Church of Ephesus. The letter to the Church of Ephesus was positive and negative.

Jesus mentioned the strengths and weaknesses of the church but not at Smyrna. There was unqualified approval of this church. It received an A from Jesus on their church report card. Wouldn’t it be great if Jesus had nothing bad to say about our church?

2) Smyrna was a poor church (2:9), unlike the Church of Ephesus.

Jesus adds “but you are rich”. Jesus adds a little editorial comment. This church thought they were poor but Jesus says that they were actually rich. It was the opposite of another church that thought they were rich but Jesus said that they were actually poor. This church was materially poor but spiritually rich.

Smyrna was a wealthy city but the church was poor. Apparently, it is possible to be rich and poor at the same time. You can own all of the money in the world like Warren Buffett who owns sixty-two million dollars and die and go to Hell forever (Mark 8:36). You can also be dirt poor and yet spiritually rich, like the beggar Lazarus was in Luke 16. Jesus said that we can have treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:20; 19:21).

Some poor churches are much better off than rich ones. Apparently, the way the world looks at churches is very different from the way God looks at them. Some of the poorest churches in third world countries may be in a much better state spiritually than some of the wealthy churches in America.

That goes completely against the health wealth gospel. The prosperity gospel teaches that if you are financially wealthy, you are spiritually wealthy (because it is a sign that God is blessing you). That is not necessarily true. The Church of Smyrna was not suffering because it was out of the will of God. It was suffering because it was in the will of God.

3) Smyrna was a persecuted church, unlike the Church of Ephesus.

The Greek word “Smyrna” means “bitter”. The Church of Smyrna had some “tribulations” (2:9). For them the tribulation was not future but present. It was not just an abstract concept on a prophecy chart dealing with end-time events.

For them, tribulation was not something that would happen in the future. It was something that they experienced every day of their life. The church was suffering and some of them were going to be martyred (2:10). The persecution was not from the state but from the Jews.

The earliest persecution of the church was brought about first by the Jews. The opposition the church was facing did not come from the Romans but from the synagogue. If you go to Izmir today, there is still a synagogue there (even though the city is 99% Muslim).

John even calls the local synagogue in Smyrna “the synagogue of Satan”. You say that does not sound very nice. The point of this passage is that religious people were behind this persecution. Religious leaders were behind the crucifixion of Christ.

Was John anti-Semitic? Does the Book of Revelation promote hatred of Jews? No. John was a Jew himself. Revelation only distinguishes between true Jews and false Jews. Nowhere does the book encourage violence against Jews.

Are there synagogues of Satan today? Any movement that opposes and persecutes and wants to kill the people of God comes directly from Satan. That is the Devil’s work – to persecute and kill God’s people (John 8:44).

Throughout history, there have been synagogues of Satan, mosques of Satan and churches of Satan. Today, persecution of the church does not come from Jews. Much of it comes from Muslim nations.

The letter of Jesus to the Church of Smyrna is a letter to the persecuted church. In America, Christians do not receive that much persecution. We do not worry about being fed to the lions or burned at the stake. We have freedom of religion. It is written in our constitution. As a result of this, most Christians in the West have absolutely no idea what Christians in other countries experience.

Did you know that the most persecuted religion in the world is Christianity? Persecution of Christianity not only exists, it is a worldwide phenomenon. According to the Voice of the Martyrs, there are fifty-three countries where Christians are facing persecution in its various forms: harassment, arrest, imprisonment, physical torture and death.

Did you know that in Iran, any person who gives up his Muslim faith can be executed? Any Muslim who converts to Christianity can be killed.

Martyrdom didn’t go away with the Middle Ages. According to WorldNet Daily, 176,000 Christians around the world were martyred – killed for their faith in a one-year period from the middle of 2008 to the middle of 2009.

They were either shot, tortured or beheaded. That’s 482 deaths per day, one every three minutes. One website even ranks countries in the world in which the worst persecution exists (Open Doors Watch List). North Korea ranks number one on the list.

Forms of Persecution

There are three levels of persecution in our text. Persecution can be physical, verbal or economic. The church at Smyrna faced all three.

1. The first form is ECONOMIC.

Apparently, many Christians in Smyrna were not just on the lower end of the economic ladder. They couldn’t get the best jobs or may have lost their jobs because they were Christians. At one time in Communist Russia, a person could not attend university or apply for a job unless you were a card carrying member of the communist party.

2. The second form is VERBAL.

They faced slander for their faith. People mocked and ridiculed them and said some things about them that were not true. Christians in the first century were accused of all kinds of things that were not true. They were accused of cannibalism because they ate the body and drank the blood of Christ (eat flesh and drink blood).

They were accused of sexual immorality because they participated in a meal called “the love feast”. They were accused of arson (setting the fire of Rome).

Slander of Christians Today

Today, Christians are slandered for taking a stand for Christ and the Bible.  They are called the following names:

  • INTOLERANT because they do not accept all religions as true.
  • JUDGMENTAL because they teach that certain things are wrong.
  • HOMOPHOBIC because they teach that homosexuality is a sin.
  • UNLOVING because they believe that God is going to send some people to Hell.
  • IGNORANT because they believe the Bible to be the Word of God.
  • UNSCIENTIFIC because they reject the theory of Darwinian Evolution

3. The third form is PHYSICAL.

Many Christians in Smyrna were imprisoned, tortured and eventually killed for their faith.

Jesus’ Message to the Persecuted Church

What do you say to a persecuted church or to a persecuted Christians? I would remind them of two things that we see clearly in this letter.

First, he COMFORTS the persecuted church. How does Jesus comfort the Church of Smyrna?

  • He knows what we are going through.

He says, “I know your afflictions and your poverty.” (2:9). He sees everything that happens to us.

  • He can relate to what this church was going through.

Every one of these seven letters of Christ begin with a title of Jesus which comes from chapter one. Each title relates to the church that Jesus writes to. What title did Jesus use for the church of Ephesus?

He said, “I am the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands”. He knew the good no acute disease bad things in each church and holds the lampstands in his hand. That is interesting because of that church did not repent, he was going to remove it as a lampstand.

What title did Jesus use for the church of Smyrna? “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again: (2:8). Why was this title given to this church? Jesus is the First and the Last because He is sovereign over the events of history and He is the one who died and came to life again because this was the church that was facing martyrdom.

This church faced the threat of physical death through persecution. Jesus knows what it is like to be martyred. He knows what it is like to die. He suffered one of the worst kinds of martyrdom that anyone has endured – Roman crucifixion, death on a cross.

  • He promises to limit the suffering.

The Christians in Smyrna were suffering and Jesus said that this persecution will continue and it is coming from Satan. Not only did the church experience but poverty but some of its members would face prison but there is a limit to how long it will take place (ten days).

Whether this refers to a literal ten day period or a short period of time, the point is the same. God limits what Satan can do to us. We saw that with the Book of Job. God gave Satan permission to afflict Satan but he limited what he could do to Satan (Job 1:12; 2:6). We saw that in I Corinthians 10:13.

Temptation is universal. Everyone was and will be tempted (even Jesus) but it is also limited (“he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear”). God is sovereign over all of our suffering.

Second, Jesus EXHORTS the Persecuted Church. Jesus gives to exhortations to the persecuted church.

  • He exhorts them not to be afraid.

Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer There are several reasons we should not fear. God is with us (Isaiah 41:8-10; 43:5; Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5). We should not fear people (Psalm 56:11; Matthew 10:28).

  • He exhorts them to be faithful unto death.

Third, Jesus MAKES PROMISES to the persecuted church. What reward does he promise? All who remain faithful to death will receive a crown of life and will not be hurt by the second death. There are a couple different ways to interpret this.

Some believe that this is referring to a special crown for martyrs that they will wear but most scholars believe that the crown is symbolic of life (a genitive of apposition). The second part of the verse supports this. Those who give up their life for Christ receive eternal life (positive) and are not hurt by the second death (negative). They die but they only die once. This is not teaching salvation by works but it should be an encouragement to martyrs.

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