Sermon Revelation 2:8-11 | Letters From Jesus: Smyrna – Suffering Well
To the Church in Smyrna
8 “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. 11 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.
Being individual letters, it is possible the unit of thought is just these verses, but it could be the group of letters or even back into chapter 1.
Subject: What is Jesus’ message to the church at Smyrna?
Compliment: Do not be afraid to suffer for me, don’t fear the first death, for I promise you will not experience the second death if you stay faithful.
Homiletical Idea: Be faithful and you will be victorious!
Definitions of Suffering and Persecution
Example using starvation
How do we know if our current suffering is general fallen world suffering or persecution? Does it matter? Did Job know? Need to be careful not to over-spiritualize everything that goes on, but at the same time, there is a spiritual component to everything that goes on.
Two quotes on persecution.
I think the sort of suffering Jesus is talking about in the letter to Smyrna is the direct persecution due to being followers of Jesus. Let’s look piece by piece at the passage and then address again the biblical concept of suffering and persecution.
Last week we discussed the letter to Ephesus. This week is Smyrna. Smyrna is about 35 miles north of Ephesus. It is where the current city of Izmir is in Turkey. All seven of these churches are located in what is now modern day Turkey.
As Pastor Ron noted last week, each of the seven letters begins by identifying the letter’s author. Verse 8 makes it really clear these are the words of Jesus. The author describes himself as the first and the last – earlier in Revelation 1:8 it says I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end – the Lord Almighty. The author goes on to say he died and rose again; this narrows it down even more to the person of Jesus Christ – it could be no other.
The first thing Jesus says after identifying himself is that he knows what they are going through. How comforting is that? He knows about their trouble and their poverty, but he quickly reminds them they are rich; rich in a different way. He knows exactly what they are going through, who is doing it, what will happen next, and how long it will last.
Revelation was written during the reign of either Nero (A.D. 54–68), Vespasian (A.D. 69–79), or Domitian (A.D. 81–96). It was one of them who exiled John to the island of Patmos (where God revealed all of this to him), which is not too far from these cities. Nero was infamous for his persecution of Christians reportedly using them as human torches in his gardens. Vespasian was also known for his persecution of Christians, and for Domitian, there seems to be some disagreement about the level of persecution he carried out, but it was still not a friendly atmosphere for Christians. This is the world in which the church in Smyrna is operating.
Here we see conflict between the Christians and the community of Jews living in the area. When it says the Jews are slandering the Christians, it is reasonable to think they are reporting them to the Roman government as worshipping Jesus instead of or above the Roman Emperor. This is a charge that leads to imprisonment, and quite possibly, death.
Jesus tells them to be faithful to the point of death, and if they are faithful, he will give them life. Same reward as Ephesus, which was eating from the tree of life.
In verse 11, Jesus repeats and reinforces this message. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.
This reminds me of the words of Jesus in Matthew 16.
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.
As American Christians, I think we tend to take this metaphorically. We name all sorts of things in our life that are our cross to bear – an annoying coworker, a broken-down car – or we spiritualize it as a simple denying of self and following the way of Jesus, that somehow following the ways of Jesus are in and of themselves a cross to bear rather than the path to life, and abundant life at that. However, I think in Matthew 16, and in Revelation 2, Jesus meant it quite literally.
“This is what was happening is Smyrna 1,900 years ago and it is still happening. When Christianity goes really public in a pagan world (instead of remaining in our safe, isolated, comfortable sanctuaries) the opposition labels us not as mistaken, but as evil and dangerous.” – John Piper (June 6, 1993).
I think this has happened throughout history, and it certainly happens in our time. You take a stand for Christianity, and you can find yourself labeled with any number of hateful words – you can definitely be called evil and dangerous. There are some who take this too much as a badge of honor, and they act like jerks. On the other side, it is sad that the response of so many Christians in any atmosphere of conflict is to not make waves, to simply disappear. They think they are doing what is right by not stirring up trouble and opposition to God’s name. Paul did say in Romans that we are to do our best to live at peace with everyone, and Christians are supposed to be known by our love, right?
I think we have good reason to believe the church in Smyrna in the first century did not disappear or try not to make waves. Jesus told them that some would soon be cast into prison and some tested to the point of death – all brought on by people who called them names. Jesus’ did not tell them to lay low and disappear but rather be faithful unto death.
The city of Izmir became predominantly Christian – much like the country of Turkey. At one point in the 1800s Izmir was 2/3 Christian. By the time the Ottoman empire was done with their genocide in the early 1900s Christians were all but eradicated. Today in Turkey 0.3% to 0.4% of the population identifies as any denomination of Christianity. According to an article I read, as of 2014, the city of Izmir had just one Baptist church with 40 people, and this is a metro area of 4 to 5 million people.
Now, I want to circle back on suffering and persecution. We live in a fallen world, and suffering is part of the deal. Our church, our friends, our family, and us individually, will experience hardships, illness, loss, death, etc. This may or may not be spiritual warfare, but maybe that doesn’t matter. In chapter one of his book James tells us that, we should 2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
We know that it is the trials in life that shape us and form us. Paul reminds us in Romans 8:28 that “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
So maybe we need to spend a lot more time worrying about our response in certain situations and what we can learn rather than the dynamics that are causing it trusting that God is in control and will use every circumstance for our good and to make us complete.
Specifically with regard to persecution, Scripture is clear that we should expect it. In John 16:33 Jesus told his disciples that in this world they will have trouble… Spurgeon Quote… Jesus was slandered. The Christians in Smyrna were slandered. We will be slandered.
John 15:18-20 18 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.
John Bunyan Quote… Slandered. Rejoices in suffering for Christ.
Thomas Watson Quote… Graced to be disgraced for the name of Christ.
Matthew 5:10-12: Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 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.
John Stott Quote… How are we to respond?
What does persecution do to the church?
Charles Spurgeon Quote…
So where is the church growing the fastest in the world. By percentages, I believe #1 is Iran. #2 is Afghanistan, and they are being reached by Iranian Christians. When you look at shear numbers and not percentages, China is often leading the way in Christian growth.
Persecution does not seem to be a hinderance to church growth, but perhaps it is fuel. The American church, meanwhile, is shrinking.
Now, there are a lot of really complicated things to figure out about persecution and engaging with culture. I am going to leave that for discussion in the small groups and for you to think about all week. I want to close with the reminder than when persecution does come, we are to be faithful, faithful even to the point of death. Be faithful and you will be victorious. And, what does the victor get? Eternity with God.
1. Are persecution and suffering a necessary part of the Christian experience?
2. Should we avoid or seek out persecution?
3. Should persecution be feared or celebrated?
4. How does a biblical view of suffering and persecution compare or contrast with the “prosperity gospel”?
5. If Jesus sent a letter to Cornerstone, what would he say he knows about us, and what might he encourage us to continue in the face of adversity?