Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10c)
For over two centuries, the church in America has enjoyed exceptional freedom. The laws of the land have assured the right to worship. For much of that time there has been great respect and influence by Christianity in American life. I say it is exceptional because for much of church history it has not been the case, and in places today believers will be imprisoned, tortured, and martyred. There is every indication this is coming to America. The verbal assault of strident secularism, as well as the government moving from benevolent, to benign, and now toward belligerence concerning religion is evident.
In the first century, persecution from the pagan world was commonplace and would intensify. As Jesus speaks to seven representative churches in chapters two and three of Revelation, His message to the church in Smyrna was one of consolation to a persecuted people.
Jesus begins by addressing the angel of the church (2:8). The word means, “messenger.” In most places, this refers to heavenly messengers, but in these seven letters, I believe it speaks of human messengers. God’s letter to the church is delivered to the pastor who will proclaim it to the people. We know from church history that the pastor of Smyrna was Polycarp—burned at the stake for his faithfulness to Christ.
The letter is directed to the assembly of the members (2:8), the church at Smyrna. The town’s name came from their trade in exporting myrrh. Myrrh is an aromatic resin made from a small, thorny tree. The word myrrh means bitter. It was used for embalming. How appropriate for a church that would know bitterness and death. Jesus commended them without complaint. He consoled them without chastening them. All of the other churches in these letters—even the really good ones—have problems that Jesus addresses, but not this assembly. The fire of refining had purified them.
Jesus is the Author of this letter (2:8) and the way He describes Himself is most instructive. He is “the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life….” Men may come and go, tribulations begin and end—Christ is eternal, unchangeable, invincible, even conquering death. That was the hope and encouragement to these suffering saints, and to the persecuted today also.
The accomplishments of this church are presented next (2:9). They were faithful despite the hostile environment. Their church wasn’t respected—it was hated. We are told today that the successful church is one that adapts its message to the culture. It is the church that is welcoming to seekers. The model churches of American evangelicalism scrupulously avoid the political and making moral pronouncements. Yet, Jesus commended a church that was hated. Furthermore, many popular voices today tell you that faith leads to financial prosperity. This church contradicts that false gospel. They weren’t celebrated, but lied about and persecuted.
These afflictions would bring wonderful attainments, however (2:10). Satan would strike them, yet a Sovereign God would sift them with suffering. There were limits set on the span of their persecution and the church would emerge stronger from being tempered by fire. Jesus promised to reward them with the crown of life.
He closes with an appeal (2:11). It is a personal one—for a church is only as strong as its individual members. The overcomers may not evade the fire here, but are promised exemption from the fire hereafter. We are not saved because we overcome, but we overcome because we are saved.