Prepare for Persecution

Revelation 2:8-11

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
September 2022

We have been studying the letters to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation.  Sixty years after Jesus died and rose from the dead, He wrote letters to seven special churches.

Two whole chapters of Revelation are letters.  They are letters from Jesus.  They are letters to churches.  They are personal letters of Jesus dictated to seven churches.

Jesus told these churches what He thought of them.  He gave each church a report card.  He gave some of these churches an A.  He gave some of them a C and He gave some of them an F.  What would He give our church?

Can you imagine what it would be like to go to church and hear one of these letters read for the first time?

The pastor says, “This morning, I have a special message from Jesus to everyone here.  I just received a letter that came straight from Jesus.  It is about our church, and I want to read it to you.  You are going to want to hear what He has to say.”  Before he reads it, everyone is wondering, what did He say?  Is it good news or bad news?

Jesus sees things differently than we do.  He sees people differently.  He sees churches differently.  People would not be impressed with the church that we are going to look at today.

The world saw the church as poor.  They saw themselves as poor.  Jesus said, “You are not poor.  You’re rich.”

We think certain kinds of churches are important but this church was not famous.  It was not founded by an apostle.  It was not big.  It was not wealthy.  It was not prestigious.

It was a small church.  It was a poor church.  It is the only one of the seven churches specifically called poor.  It was a persecuted church.  It was small, persecuted and poor.  Jesus liked this church.

Jesus gave this church a report card.  He had some good things and bad things to say about the Church of Ephesus, but he only had good things to say about this church.  Wouldn’t you want Jesus to only say good things about you?

Jesus had no correction.  He had no criticism.  He had no rebuke.  He said to the Church of Ephesus, “I have this against you.”  He did not have anything against the Church of Smyrna.  This was not a perfect church, yet Jesus had no words of criticism for this church.

Smyrna is the only one of the seven cities that still has a church in it today.  There are several churches in the city today. None of the seven other cities that received a letter from Jesus have a church in them today.

Today, we are going to look at Jesus’ second letter that He wrote to the Church of Smyrna.  Smyrna is forty miles away from Ephesus.  It is north of Ephesus.

It was a big city in John’s day (about 200,000 people).  There are over three million people living there today.  It is called Izmir today.  It is on the west coast of Turkey by the Aegean Sea.

This is a powerful letter.  It is a short letter.  It is only four verses long.  It is the shortest of the seven letters.  It is Jesus’ letter to the suffering church.  It tells us what Jesus thinks of persecution.

The name Smyrna means ”bitter.” It comes from the word ”myrrh.”  This church had a bitter experience.  Myrrh was a symbol of death.  It was a fragrance used to embalm dead bodies.  It was used to prepare Christ’s body for burial.  Some in this church were going to be put to death.

We know from history that sixty years later, a man named Polycarp was put to death in Smyrna.  He was the pastor of the church.  According to church history, Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John.

Jerome says that John had ordained him as a bishop of Smyrna.  He was martyred in 155 A.D.  He may have been in this church when Jesus wrote the letter.  He would have been in his 20s.

This letter seems like the least relevant of the seven churches to us today.  We don’t have to worry about being tortured or martyred for our faith in this country.

When was the last time anyone was put to death in our country for being a Christian.  We have something called religious freedom.  It is written into our Constitution.

This letter may not directly describe our condition, but persecution may come to us one day and we need to be prepared for it.  We may not be persecuted much it describes churches all over the world.  Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world.

Christian persecution is a worldwide phenomenon. Christians face harassment.  They face arrest.  They face imprisonment.  They face physical death.

“Every day, 13 Christians worldwide are killed because of their faith. Every day, 12 churches or Christian buildings are attacked. And every day, 12 Christians are unjustly arrested or imprisoned, and another 5 are abducted.”[1]

“Around the world, more than 360 million Christians live in places where they experience high levels of persecution, just for following Jesus. That’s 1 in 7 believers, worldwide.”[2]  In 2021, I in 7 Christians all over the world faced persecution.

According to the Voice of the Martyrs, over sixty countries around the world have persecuted Christians.[3]  My daughter right now is in one of the top ten most persecuted countries where it is hardest to be a Christian.  Pray for her.

Martyrdom didn’t go away with the Middle Ages.  As you know, in many Muslim countries throughout the world, like in Iran, there are apostasy laws.

If you give up your Muslim faith and convert to Christianity, you are executed. Anyone who converts gets the death penalty.  That includes men and women.

We are going to look at this church and then we are going to look at how it applies to us.  What does this church say to us today?

“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. 9 I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 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 life as your victor’s crown. (Revelation 2:8-11 NIV)

Satanic Attack

This church was suffering, and Jesus said that it was going to get worse.  This church was under Satanic attack.  Persecution of believers is demonic.  It is satanic.

Jesus said, “THE DEVIL will put some of you in prison to test you” (Revelation 2:10 NIV) 

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12 NIV)

Their struggle was not against the Romans, or the Jews and our struggle is not against people.  The real battle comes on a different level.

This persecution was instituted by people but the one driving the persecution was not people but Satan Himself.  The one driving the persecution was a dark invisible force.

Jesus said that the Devil would put them in prison.  He didn’t say that the Jews would do it or the Romans would do it.

Satan uses different groups of people to persecute people.  He used the Jews in the first century to persecute the church.

He used the Nazis to persecute the Jews.  The Holocaust was demonic.  It was done by the Germans, and it was inspired by Satan. It was a far worse persecution than what happened to this church.

Today, he uses many Muslim nations to persecute Christians.  He uses communist governments to persecute believers (e.g., China).  North Korea is the number one persecutor on the planet.  The Bible is banned in that country.

Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10 NIV).  Jesus said that Satan “was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44 NIV).

Any persecution of the people of God is demonic.  Jesus called the local synagogue in Smyrna at the time “the synagogue of Satan” because they were instigating it in Smyrna.

It is pretty bad when God’s synagogue turns into Satan’s synagogue.  We see that phrase twice in the Book of Revelation.

I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. (Revelation 2:9 NIV)

I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. (Revelation 3:9 NIV)

What is the lesson for today?  The devil has a church.[4] A church that claims to be a “Church of God in Christ” may be a church of Satan.  You can’t go by the name of the church.  Jesus said, “a tree is known by its fruit.”

Some of the most intolerant people on the planet are religious people.  Religious leaders were behind the crucifixion of Christ.  The Church of Smyrna was a persecuted church and the ones behind it were religious people.

That is strong language.  It does not sound very nice.  It is not politically correct.   Some would say that it sounds like hate speech.  Is this anti-Semitic?  No.  Jesus is talking.  There is no antisemitism here.

The one who said these words was Jewish.  Jesus was a Jew.  The one who wrote the book was Jewish.  John was Jewish.  The Book of Revelation does not promote hatred of Jews.  It does not encourage violence against Jews.

In fact, even though they were physical Jews, Jesus did not recognize them as real Jews.  They are not real Jews.  They were fake Jews.  Jesus said that they say they are Jews and are not (Revelation 2:9; 3:9).

They called themselves Jews.  They looked like Jews by the way they dressed.  Other people called them Jews.  Jesus said that they are not real Jews.  They were Jews on the outside but not on the inside.

A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God (Romans 2:28-29 NIV).

How do we apply this today?  We do not have too many people who say they are Jews and who are not.  There are some but we have a different problem today.

Today, we have people who say they are Christians but are not.  There are all kinds of people to claim the name of Christ who do not know Him.  They may go to church every Sunday, but they are not saved.

What message did Jesus have for this church?  First, He told them who He was.  He is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.

To the church who faced death, Jesus tells them that He already conquered death.  He died and came back to life.  What religious leader can say that?  Mohammad can’t say that.  Buddha can’t.  He is also the First and the Last.  He is the God man.

He told the church of Ephesus to get back to where it used to be.  Some mainline denominations need to do that.  They are completely different day from the people who started the church.

Jesus told this church, not to get back to what they were doing but to keep doing what they were doing.

He gave the church two exhortations.  They are two exhortations to every persecuted Christians: do not fear and to be faithful unto death.

Jesus also gave this church two promises.  This church was given a special test.  Jesus promised them a special reward in heaven and promised them that they would not be hurt by the second death.

How to Respond to Persecution

Jesus says four things about persecution that are counter cultural.

1) Be Prepared

Don’t expect a Christian life without troubles, trials, difficulties or persecution.  It is all through the NT.  Jesus said this.  Paul said it.  Peter said this.  Don’t be surprised when persecution comes.

The word Smyrna means “bitter.”  We should not be surprised if persecution happens to us or when bitter things happen to us.

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. (I Peter 4:12 ESV)

In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33 NIV).

Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20 NIV)

In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.  (II Timothy 3:12 NIV)

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. (Revelation 2:10 NIV)

Jesus had some bad news for this church.  They already had some hard times and He told them that it would get even worse, and some would die.

Jesus is telling this church that persecution is coming soon.  It hadn’t happened yet, but it was going to soon.  That is what this church had to look forward to.  Persecution was coming and some would die.

A lot of the older translations read that they would suffer TRIBULATION for ten days (KJV). There will be a future Tribulation Period on the earth, but for this church, tribulation was NOT some end-time event that would happen in the future.

It was something that they experienced right now.  For them, and for many Christians around the world, the tribulation is present, not future.

2) Be Joyful

They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. 41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, REJOICING because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. (Acts 5:40-41 NIV)

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 REJOICE and BE GLAD, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12 NIV)

Do not be upset if you are persecuted.  Why not?  Let me give you several reasons.

One, Jesus knows all about your problems.  I know YOUR AFFLICTIONS and YOUR POVERTY—yet you are rich! I know about the SLANDER of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. He knows your pain.  He knows your heartache.  He knows your struggles.  Jesus knows about it.  He sees what is happening.  He knows your situation perfectly.  He knows it better than you do.

Jesus not only know about their problems, He knows about your poverty.  He knows about their economic situation.  He knows about your financial situation, whatever it is.  What Jesus says is not what many preachers say.  Prosperity preachers say that God wants everyone to be rich.

They get that by quoting the Bible selectively.  One of the biggest dangers today is to only read half of the Bible. If you only read half of the Bible, you can make it say whatever you want it to say.  Cults do that all of the time.  Preachers sometimes do that.

Creflo Dollar wrote a book entitled, “You’re Supposed to Be Wealthy.”  It is God’s will for everyone.  The book was published in 2014.  Kenneth Copeland says that God has created a wealth generating system for believers.  You just need to use the keys to access this wealth.[5]

This poor church in Smyrna never got that message about the four steps to wealth.  They never heard of these keys.  This church was not rich.  It was poor.  Jesus said they were poor, and He does not condemn them for being poor.  He does not criticize them for being poor.  He did not say that they had a lack of faith.

The truth was that this church was NOT poor and suffering because it was out of the will of God. It was poor and suffering because it was IN the will of God.  It was poor because it was persecuted.  Jesus not only saw their poverty; He saw what people said about them.  He sees everything.

He does not just know about it; He can relate to it because He was persecuted Himself.  Jesus is the one who died and came to life again.

Jesus knows what it is like to be persecuted.  He knows what it was like to be falsely accused. He knows what it was like to be arrested.  He knows what it is like to be tortured.  He was beaten by the Romans.

Jesus knows what it was like to die. He suffered one of the worst kinds of executions that anyone has endured (Roman crucifixion).

Jesus not only knows what we are going through, promises to be with us but He also promises to reward us greatly.  People who are persecuted receive greater rewards in heaven than those who were never persecuted.

He is also in control of what happens.  He is the First and the Last.  In this case, He limits the persecution to just ten days.

3) Be Fearless

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.

God’s Word to every persecuted Christian is not to fear.  That seems strange.  It seems like a hard command to obey.  How is it possible not to be afraid in the midst of fierce persecution and the possibility of death.

How can we not be afraid of suffering? Let me give you two reasons.

We do not need to be afraid because God is with us.  The one who was dead and is alive is with us.  Jesus said He will never leave or forsake us.  If He is with you, you can face anything.  You can face any situation.

We do not need to be afraid because we will not experience the second death (Revelation 2:11).  There is something far worse than physical death.  It is the second death.

The second death is only mentioned in the Book of Revelation, and it is mentioned four times in the book (Revelation 2:11, 20:6, 20:14 and 21:8)

Most people think that there is just one death, but the Bible says that there are two.  Everyone who dies will one day be resurrected, stand before God and some will die a second time.

We are all afraid of the first death.  What we should all be afraid of is the second death. Revelation 20:14 says that the second death is the lake of fire.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28 NIV).

All persecutors can do is to kill the body.  They cannot kill the soul.  It might hurt for a few seconds.  People who are cast into the lake of fire are there forever.

4) Be Faithful

Jesus calls for faithfulness.  How faithful should we be?  Some of us are faithful for a long time, perhaps for years.  Jesus wants us to be faithful TO DEATH.  He said, “Be faithful, even to the point of death.”  Jesus was faithful to death.  We are to take up our cross and follow in his footsteps.

At the end of the letter, we hear these words from Jesus.  Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  He reached out to every member of that church and every member of our church to hear what the Spirit says.

God still speaks today.  The Spirit has some things to say.  The Spirit does speak in still small voice but here the Spirit says what Jesus says.  He says what Scripture says.  Are you listening?  Are you hearing what He has to say?  Next week, we will look at another letter of Jesus to another church.




[4] Jerry Vines, “The Rich, Poor Church” (spoken recording).


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