And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These things saith the first and the last, who was dead and lived again: I know thy tribulation, and thy poverty (but thou art rich), and the blasphemy of them that say they are Jews, and they are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10. Fear not the things which thou art about to suffer: behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days. Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life. 11. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches. He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death (Rev. 2:8–11).
This entire letter is phrased in perspectives of life and death. We feel that the Church is here represented as living in so difficult a crisis that “life” and “death” are properly contrasted. But out of that crisis the Church emerges victorious: it is awarded “a crown of life.” Surely the Church is here to be seen as victorious, but only after a “life and death struggle.”
A Crucial and Intense Struggle
How may we describe life for the church in that cosmopolitan community which was Smyrna? Smyrna had become great through transit trade. Religiously, Smyrna also had its Caesar cult. The year 195 B.C. saw the erection of a temple in honor of the city of Rome, which was venerated as a goddess. This pleased Rome and resulted in privilege and benefit for Smyrna. In distinction from Ephesus, where emperor worship was integrated with the deification of the sensuous Diana, Smyrna’s religious expression was oriented to the religion of the Jews!
This is a strange fact, since the occasion which led a substantial contingent of Jews to emigrate to Smyrna after the year 70 A.D. was an outburst of conflict between the Romans and the Jews, which resulted in the fall of Jerusalem. Into this strongly pro-Roman city Jewish emigrants entered to take up a new life. And, remarkable as it may seem, they managed to get along unusually well The Romans made important concessions: Jews were exempt from military service; the synagogue received legal protection from Caesar; abuse of Jewish religious rites was punishable by law.
The Jews, on their part, were ready to return kindness for kindness. Prayer for the Roman emperor was an established custom in synagogue worship. Symbols of respect for Caesar were brought into many synagogues. As a result the Jews were awarded an influential place in the community. Unhindered, they entered upon the flourishing business life of this important port city. Needless to say, they prospered.
In Ephesus harmony was achieved between Diana and Caesar. But in Smyrna reconciliation was effected between Roman and Jew, between the god of the Romans and the God of the Jews, between Caesar and Jehovah! Sharp contrasts were ruled out; the things of eternal life were compromised for the sake of the things which make for death (Psalm 49).
It is in Smyrna that our Lord also had gathered a Church which confessed without compromise that he was “the first and the last.” Of none except one who is “very God” is this testimony possible. Men living today were not here yesterday; and those who live today are dead tomorrow. But with respect to the man Jesus the Church confesses that he is eternal God, that he is yesterday, today and forever the same. What is more, Jesus Christ as man possesses this attribute, for he “was dead and lived again.”
This, then, is the situation: in Smyrna we find a most vigorous example of civic life; and therein we find the Church, also very much alive, but with a life of a peculiar origin and of an altogether unique character.
I believe I hear someone saying, “Surely Smyrna was a Church of great potential. No sharp animosities, outward peace and prosperity— what more could one desire for the cause of Christ’s Church in the world?” But all of this is the foolishness of the flesh! For Smyrna is described in this passage in terms typically Scriptural and spiritual, and therefore, perhaps, surprising to us.
For the Church at Smyrna is in serious trouble: “I know thy tribulation, and thy poverty.” Life was burdensome for these Christians, not only because of injustice practiced with regard to them, but especially because they had to cope with “him that had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14b). Here tribulation was due to the work of Satan in his efforts to destroy life. The prince of death was troubling Smyrna’s saints as he struggled to oppose Jesus Christ and his life-giving power.
Imagine the economic plight of the Christians at Smyrna! In a city of much wealth and great commercial activity, where the Jews, arriving as outcasts, had prospered in the way of compromise with the Roman world, the Church was poverty-stricken. Christians in Smyrna were in economic distress not because they lacked ambition and industry, but because of the “tribulation” and terror of death. They experienced a boycotting of their business and social life because of disapproval of the principles for which they stood. Systematic affliction of the Church took place. In the competition for appointment and advancement Christians were by-passed. Jesus Christ does indeed say to the Smyrna believers that they have a treasure in heaven, that they are “rich,” but he also recognizes the power of the Evil One who is seeking their death — “I know thy poverty.” For poverty means that the necessary means for the sustaining of human life are in short supply — and that because of the hatred and opposition of them who hated the living witness of Christ’s Church.
In addition to economic privation the tribulation of the Smyrna Church is also religious in character. They are being persecuted. That is not unusual in the Church. Those “in” her who prefer rationalization and compromise ridicule those who, because of desire to live according to the Word, are suffering hardship and persecution. The Jews did this in Smyrna. Jesus describes them thus: “I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.”
These oppressors of the true Church reasoned this way: “True enough, the Lord our God is one Lord. Nevertheless, we ought to be neighborly enough to honor Caesar also in our synagogues. After all, he is the emperor of this land. The claim these Christians insist on making —that Jesus of Nazareth is ‘the first and the last’ — dishonors Caesar and jeopardizes our position in this city. Quite properly, therefore, we ought to do all we can to prevent their prosperity.” Typical of them who are “a synagogue of Satan” was their false accusation of Christians as revolutionaries and rebels undeserving of social and legal protection and privilege. And so the forces of death applied pressure to the living Body of Christ.
“Poverty” signifies that materially the Christians in Smyrna were hindered and deprived as they struggled “to make a living.” “Blasphemy” indicates that the spiritual and moral bases of social life were removed. But this letter to the “angel of the church in Smyma” goes on to describe the future “tribulation” of the saints in even worse terms. Even their personal freedom shall be taken away: “the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that ye may be fried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days.”
This makes the story of the persecution of a faithful Church complete. Bread, position and freedom are denied them. And to intensify the fearfulness of the entire matter still more, the description is clear as to general details, but vague with respect to specific application. “Fear not the things which thou art about to suffer” Note the plural. The tribulation will assume many forms and involve many instances. But just how and how many?
Some will be cast into prison, but their identity is not given. Will they be released again? No one knows. How long will this last? ‘Ten days” reads the text — but this is a symbolic number, a “round” number. Really, no one knows just where things are on God’s time-piece in this situation.
Surely the “fear of death” is heavy upon the hearts and minds of Christ’s Church in Smyrna — even upon them who have received the true life and expect its everlasting glory.
Only one thing is certain for the Smyrna Church, and that is that things will get worse! It is almost irritating, therefore, and not a little puzzling to hear Christ say, “Fear not.”
Indeed, one can only fear if the situation is to be understood merely in terms of that which is within the scope of our endurance. If Christ means by his “fear not” the same thing as our “don’t be nervous,” then his words are sheer mockery. Our composure and equilibrium can never remain undisturbed in the face of the energies of hell. Even if Christ means that we should be sure to have an immovable faith can we scarcely understand his admonition. For our human faith is not a match for demonic forces.
We can only understand the crisis at Smyma if we see that the struggle involves super-human forces. On the surface it appears to be a part of the inevitable tension between rival religious bodies, the competitive struggle for business and wealth. Actually it is the incessant battle between the Church of Christ and the synagogue of Satan. Smyrna’s residents are taken up in a spiritual struggle between the forces of life as revealed in and gained through Christ, and the powers of death, whose ruler is the devil.
The tribulation of the Church is to be seen as a beneficial chastening, therefore. But its pain and struggle is occasioned by this unspeakably important consideration apart from which the Christian life cannot be properly understood: back of our everyday experiences, back of our trials and tribulations as God’s children lies always the fact of a warfare whose contestants are more than merely human, whose dimension reaches all times and places.
No wonder that we are often perplexed as we find ourselves sensing the awful reality of that struggle even in our own tribulation. No wonder that we need so much to hear Christ’s miraculously consoling Word, “Fear not.” For if we are to venture forth into the arena of this battle on our own we should never dare to begin, let alone succeed. But if Christ dares to wage this battle in and through us as members of his Church and his disciples, then it becomes an altogether different matter. For Christ is “the first and the last, who was dead and lived again.” He who has triumphed over death at Calvary will never be defeated by him who now strives so furiously to deprive the Church of a place in the earth.
“Though flesh and heart should faint and fail, The Lord will ever be The strength and portion of my heart, My God eternally.” (Christian Reformed Psalter Hymnal, no. 147, stanza 3)
Triumph Through Tribulation
Continuing in the same vein, our Lord points to the outcome of this struggle. The Church may not know when this period of tribulation will end, but Christ does. And not only does he know that there is an end, and what its character shall be, he is also the one who has determined the proper conclusion to this period of affliction and persecution.
It is comforting to note this fact. The duration of this period of tribulation is not determined by the opposition. Neither Roman might nor Jewish hatred, nor even Satan himself enter in to establish the length of this term of tribulation. Therefore Christ can say, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” This means that the Church must always reckon herself to be completely fortunate if she only has Christ with her as Savior. Let death come, we shall wear the victor’s crown of life through him.
More of this same thought is found at the close of verse 11: “He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.”
In these words the proper perspective of the wise Christian is reflected. There is a first life and a first death. Neither are the primary concern of God’s faithful child in the militant Church. For the first life is temporal, and the first death has been swallowed up in the victory of the Savior’s resurrection. But, there is also a second life and a second death. These are not temporal, but everlasting.
This second death is the eternal punishment of the unrepentant sinner in hell. With this fearful reality clearly in mind, the Christian gears his life now with a view to the life then, that he may escape the death from which there is no return. The choice in Smyrna was between the first life and its reward; the second death, and the second, future life and the consequences of that choice, the opposition of the forces of hell.
Smyrna chose for the second life, and her choice was wisely made, It is ours to imitate their faith, and also to brave the forces of the Evil One in terms of Christ’s might and with due regard for the greater glory of the heavenly kingdom. And it ought to be utterly impossible for us to deny that faithful Christian life and witness today does not mean real opposition from the many who are allied with Satan in his ceaseless struggle with the Christ. For this is the back-drop of New Testament history.
“He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.” May we all be able to hear that the things of this present life are temporal and fleeting. We know not the day nor the hour of our death, nor of Christ’s return, although their certainty is beyond question. True enough, the self-sacrificing service modeled at Smyma is extremely difficult, and so unattractive to the flesh. And the “second death” can seem to be so far removed. Its great certainty, however, ought to jar us into sober consideration of the Gospel’s demand upon our present life. Fact is, if we cannot hear what the Spirit is now saying, it is because we simply haven’t the ears with which to do so. Everyone that really “hears” these words can only respond by urging a prayer for grace and strength. Fix your eye, O Christian, upon him who is ‘the first and the last.” For his sake the first death in all its horror is really only an occasion for the revelation of his life in us.
To live apart from God is death, ’Tis good His face to seek; My refuge is the living God, His praise I long to speak. (Ibid, stanza 5)
Rev. Henry A. Venema [1921–1972] was the pastor of Second CRC in Toronto, Ontario when this article was published.