Recently I have been reading several biographies about great men and women who have suffered physically for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Reading their stories is inspiring and terrifying. It’s inspiring to know that people throughout history have been stacked up against great odds and have overcome, even through their physical death. But it’s also terrifying to think about personally walking through the same difficulties because of my allegiance to Jesus Christ. Brother Yun is one of the stories.
Brother Yun, or The Heavenly Man as his peers call him is the story of a man who gave up all to see the Kingdom of God advance throughout Communist China through the 1970’s to present. Brother Yun in his book The Heavenly Man tells his story about suffering beyond human ability because of His unwavering love for Jesus Christ. He was imprisoned over thirty times, beaten too many times to count, electrocuted dozens of times, had both of his legs broken above the knee from a sledge hammer, urinated on, defecated on and left abandoned in tiny 4×4-foot steel rooms for countless months. The power of Brother Yun’s story is that he found his hope, his strength and his source of life through Jesus Christ and the Church of Smyrna. More than one time, the Holy Spirit would recite verses from this struggling Church that was about to face death and He would encourage him to be faithful unto death and that Jesus would give him the crown of life.
I think it’s easy for most of us in the Western world who, up to this point in 2012, haven’t received much physical persecution for our faith in Jesus. It’s easy to read the story of the Church in Smyrna, and not appreciate their struggle since we haven’t much personal connection to it. But for me recently reading these biographies, along with Revelation 2:8-11 and thinking about what lies in store for the body of Christ world-wide, I have a new gratitude for those who have suffered for the Gospel’s sake. In this chapter I will look at both the background of the city of Smyrna and the Church Jesus addressed, to see what God was saying and what God is still saying to those that love Him.
The History of Smyrna
Today, what was once called Smyrna, is now called Izmir, pronounced Izz-mirror. This city is located about thirty-five miles north of Ephesus which was about a one to two day journey by foot. During the time in which the Revelation was written (90-95 A.D.) it is estimated that around a hundred-thousand people lived there, but that number has grown today; now the city is host to over two-hundred-thousand people. The city of Smyrna’s population was made up of about nine separate districts much like downtown Manhattan in New York.
Today the city is 99% Muslim with a very small, but present Gospel witness there. The reason there is still a small, but present Gospel witness in the city is because those Jesus addressed in Revelation 2:8-11 were faithful to Him in the place of death. Unlike some of the other cities Jesus addresses in Revelation 2-3 which didn’t respond to Him in a God honoring way, Smyrna/Izmir still exists.
The city of Smyrna was known for its beauty. It wasn’t the natural beauty of the city’s landscape but of their great architecture. The Church of Smyrna persisted through persecution, pressure and tribulation in a faithful way that honored Jesus’ own life and struggle with the Jewish leaders of His day. The Church of Smyrna was primarily suffering persecution from the various Jewish leaders who were excommunicating their fellow brethren because of their conversion to Christianity. Because emperor worship was so strong, these Jewish leaders would actually turn in their brethren who had become converts of Christ and followers of the apostolic teachings, as a way of deflecting the Roman authorities from themselves. Turning in their brethren would take the pressure off them and allow them to remain practicing Judaism.
In his book The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting, Colin J. Hemer states that myrrh might have been a significant spice both in their time and in the city of Smyrna specifically. The reason he says this is because of the amount of suffering mentioned in these four short verses. In fact, every verse in the letter to the Church of Smyrna has something to do with resurrection (which comes through death), tribulation, suffering or death. I have broken it down below;
- Revelation 2:8 ..who was DEAD, and came to LIFE (resurrection)…
- Revelation 2:9 I know your works, TRIBULATION, and poverty…
- Revelation 2:10 …don’t fear…those things which your about to SUFFER…
- Revelation 2:11 …He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second DEATH.
Through the scriptures myrrh is spoken of as a spice that’s associated with suffering, death and difficulty. Though it’s a sweet aroma, those who knew the fragrance knew it was associated with death; it was for embalming. History tells us that Polycarp, whom some believed to be a disciple of John the Beloved, was burned at the stake during the second century for refusing to burn incense to Caesar and join in with emperor worship. It’s clear that the Church of Smyrna was stacked up against great difficulty as they were working to keep Jesus central to their lives and city.
Jesus’ Address to the Church of Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11)
Jesus opens this letter to the Church of Smyrna in the same way that He addresses all seven letter in Revelation 2-3 and that is by speaking with the Church leadership in that specific city. He gives His Address in Revelation 2:8 by saying And to the angel of the Church in Smyrna write, these things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life… Jesus’ words are first for the leadership of the ministry and by that He knows that He will also touch the people in the ministry. As John Maxwell rightly says, everything rises and falls on leadership. But following the Address to this Church, Jesus continues right into the Attributes of Himself that are specific to them.
For all of the seven Churches Jesus comes revealing different Attributes of Himself that He previously revealed to John in Revelation 1 that are powerfully unique to the specific Church He is addressing. The facets of Himself that He reveals to the Church of Smyrna are listed in Revelation 2:8 and they are …these things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life… These Attributes are coming from Revelation 1:17-18 when He revealed Himself to John.
Jesus is incredibly intentional in revealing Himself this way to a Church that He is, in the following verse, going to call into the place of suffering, tribulation and even physical death. In the same way Jesus encouraged John in Revelation 1:18 He encourages the Church of Smyrna reminding them that He also suffered, died and was resurrected from death. Jesus is acting as the Divine Prophet of God helping them understand what’s on the horizon of their ministry and for the people specifically. Something that this verse tells us is that we can’t silence the voice of the prophet in the body of Christ. The purpose of the prophetic and the prophet is so that people are prepared with the heart and passion of God prior to things happening. Jesus doesn’t want us to get caught off guard with that which is up ahead of us, so He speaks to us about more than dates, times and seasons, but of His heart and His feelings of us. We must listen to the prophetic voice in our midst so we can be with Jesus where He is, doing what He’s doing and going where He’s going.
The humility and condescension of God as He who is the …First and Last… reminds this small struggling Church that He also suffered and died under the leadership of His Father. This is beyond my ability to comprehend. He who was rich, became poor for our sakes. The questions that arise from that statement are too vast to record. Jesus is bowing so low to come to this ministry and remind them that He also suffered as they are, and that it was all under the leadership of His Father.
From Jesus revealing various Attributes about Himself to the Church, He then moves into His Approval of them. He says in Revelation 2:9 …I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are of the synagogue of Satan. When the power of this passage touched my heart it did something inside me, so sweet and tender. Do you understand that if there was Anyone who could say to this small, struggling Church …I Know… it was Jesus and Jesus alone. Jesus is the only One who could say to them that He knew what was going on.
It’s here that Jesus is speaking more from His Humanity than His Divinity. In other words Jesus was saying to them I know what it’s like to be rejected by your own countrymen, by your family and to be persecuted for righteousness sake. I know what it’s like to suffer under the will of God. I know the pain of your difficulty, and I fully understand. Not because I’m withdrawn and God, but because I also am a Man like you. I KNOW! How sweet would that be to have Jesus bend down and come to you in the midst of your struggle and tell you, I fully understand, because I also am a Man like you are? When Jesus says that He knows, He really means it.
Through this passage when Jesus says to them …I know your works, tribulation and poverty… in Revelation 2:9 He is letting us know that tribulation and poverty go hand in hand. But something that must be stated is that their poverty wasn’t linked to the economy but to their unwavering allegiance to Jesus in the midst of persecution. Their poverty was actually a result of looting, confiscation of property and the difficulty of earning a living in a hostile environment. Much like the Jews in WW2, they were literally forced from their businesses, livelihood and the personal wealth they had accrued, all because of their race and Hitler’s great war machine that was coming against them.
The Christians in Smyrna were suffering from three primary areas; the state, outward Jews and Gentiles. These were the three primary places that their suffering was coming from. But what’s powerful is that though they were financially broke, Jesus said they were internally rich toward Him. This is the opposite of what Jesus said to the Church of Laodicea in Revelation 3:17 when He said Because you say, I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor blind and naked… The Church of Laodicea was externally rich, with lots of money, but Jesus said that internally they were broke towards Him. But to the Church of Smyrna He said they were externally broke but internally rich towards Him. Our goal would be to have both external wealth for the Kingdom and internal riches towards Jesus, but if we had to choose one or the other, we would always want to take the road of the Church of Smyrna and be rich internally towards Jesus.
The situation that the Church of Smyrna was in wasn’t just a once-in-history case because it’s actually going to play itself out again, but this time on a global scale under the Antichrist and the harlot Babylon. John wrote in Revelation 13:16-17 that He (the Antichrist) causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of His name. Just like the Church of Smyrna, the people of God are one day going to be forced into a decision: either love Jesus and suffer the challenge of not being able to participate in the world economy, or to turn our backs on Christ, sealing our fate into the Lake of Fire, taking the mark of the beast in order to enjoy life in this age for a little while longer.
When Jesus says to them …I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan He was affirming the way they were being treated by their fellow countrymen in the city. The word blasphemy is better translated slander. As I said in the beginning of this chapter, because of the pressure of the Romans for Jews to participate in Emperor worship, many of the Jews who hadn’t converted to Christianity were actually turning in their brethren to deflect the Roman authorities off their backs, to allow them to continue in Judaism while the authorities chased down the Jews who had given their lives to Jesus.
When Jesus says that these Jews are from the synagogue of Satan He is simply saying that any worship other than of Jesus, is the worship of demons and that which isn’t God. He is saying that these Jews are only Jews outwardly, not inwardly with new life in Christ. They are still worshiping in a traditional Jewish fashion, which isn’t always a negative, but when Jesus isn’t involved, it is a negative because it’s actually keeping them from eternal life. The blood of Jesus is better than the blood of bulls and goats and no longer do we have an earthly high priest, but we now have a High Priest who has passed through the heavens and made atonement for sinful man, once and for all. Paul clarifies this in Romans 2:29 by saying …but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.
As Jesus continues speaking to the Church of Smyrna He now moves away from His Approval of them and into His Advice for them. I don’t know if you noticed, but the Church of Smyrna and the Church of Philadelphia are the only two churches out of the seven that receive not Accusation from Jesus. This truly is the high water mark for any ministry seeking to love Jesus in the way He loves them and to love others in the way that He loves others.
His Advice to them is found in Revelation 2:10 when He says Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. In the midst of their suffering Jesus has some very straightforward words for them for what they are about to endure for His name’s sake. Under His leadership, Jesus is actually going to approve the death of His beloved ones as a witness to the Truth of who He is in the midst of suffering. What’s powerful, and also very challenging to understand is that Jesus is going to testify to the Roman authorities through the suffering of His beloved saints. This was something that Brother Yun also experienced in his personal suffering. He often reminded the Lord of His important role in the Chinese house Church and that he didn’t understand why the Lord would put him in prison. Then the Lord would gently whisper to him Yun, be faithful unto death. One day, I will be exalted in all the earth. It was in these moments that Yun would be reminded that all of this was about Jesus’ exaltation in the earth. Just like the Church of Smyrna; this would put Yun back in the right frame of mind to suffer faithfully for Jesus.
The goal of our lives is to agree with the leadership of Jesus more than we fight against it and question it with our choices and decisions. Paul gave a powerful prayer to us in Philippians 1:9-10 when he said And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ… I believe that offense towards Jesus is going to be one of the central issues in the days to come. And that offense will spring out of anger and a lack of knowledge about Jesus’ leadership over our lives and His methodology. There are times when Jesus breaks people out of prison and there are times He allows them to die, but in all of the times we must agree with Paul that our love would abound still more and more; that we would be without offense even until the Day of Christ. We want to learn now to agree with Jesus’ leadership over our lives in whatever it might look like. Today is a day we have, right now, to learn to trust Him in all things. To lean into the understanding that this Man does everything for the sake of love and for the good of them that love Him. He is safe; wild, but always safe.
Pastor Mark Driscoll in his recent sermon series from 2012 titled The Sevens made a statement regarding the Church of Smyrna stating The Church shouldn’t be Tribulation-free but it should be Tribulation-proof. What he’s saying is that the Church will always have tribulation but that the tribulation we encounter shouldn’t move us from following Jesus and being with Him. We are safe with Jesus even though we might suffer like the Church of Smyrna.
From Jesus’ Advice to them He now gives them the Assurance of reward if and only if they are faithful in overcoming that which is before them. Jesus says to them in Revelation 2:10 …be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life. There is much conversation around just exactly what this crown of life was, but at the end of the day, we should see it as simply the Assurance of victory; a race well run with the promise of reward from Jesus. Though it might have other meanings, I believe this to be a safe and simple connection to what Jesus was saying.
They are also Assured that in overcoming they wouldn’t be hurt by the second death (Revelation 2:11). According to the Revelation the second death is the death of both our body and spirit as opposed to the first death which is only the death of our physical body. Those that have loved Jesus and who die prior to His return are promised that they will only experience the first death, the death of the physical body. But those that reject Jesus throughout their lives will actually die twice, which is what’s called the second death. It’s not just the death of their physical bodies, but also the death of their spirits as well, when they are sent by Jesus to the Lake of Fire.
The promise to this Church is that it would be better for them to suffer now and die in the first death, than to reject Jesus, deny the faith and then die again in the second death. Jesus is Assuring them that if they die a martyr’s death for Him now, then they won’t be subjected to the second death which will be painful in a way that we can’t imagine.
Jesus now closes His letter to the Church of Smyrna by giving them the final Appeal. Jesus’ Appeal to the Church of Smyrna is the same appeal that He gives to all seven Churches in Revelation 2-3. He says to them in Revelation 2:11 He who has an ear to hear let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the Churches. Our temptation as humans that naturally rebel against God is to trust our own wisdom and logic, but it must become subject to the voice and will of God. Our decisions are often contrary to that which Jesus would have us to do. Suffering, tribulation and physical death aren’t on most of our radar when we lay out our grand plan for life. But like this Church, thousands of other Christians before them, and possibly millions after them, we also must listen to the Holy Spirit while in the place of confusion when our wisdom runs opposite of God’s. Help us, Holy Spirit, to respond to You and Your wisdom in the difficult places in our lives.