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Smyrna: The Church of Ultimate Sacrifice

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Intro: Christians of our nation and culture and time live a very blessed and insular life. We don’t have to fear when we gather together publicly for worship. We not only are allowed to own Bibles, we have the privilege of picking one up at any bookstore in the country in every style, color, and translation you could think of. We are free to teach our children about God. We have the right to live our lives based on the teaching of Scripture. Christians can own businesses, run companies, serve in office, even be President!

“But we are being persecuted!” someone might say. At worst we are denied building permits, forbidden to give prayers at graduations, and thrown out of malls for evangelizing. No, the church of our nation and culture and time doesn’t know what real persecution is. We don’t realize that the church universal has been and is typified by intense suffering, the kind where people lose their liberty, their livelihood, and even their lives, the ultimate sacrifice. We are oblivious to the fact that more Christians have made the ultimate sacrifice for their faith in the 20th century than all the other Christians of all the other centuries from the time of Christ put together.

Even as I speak there are millions of Christians all over the world huddled together cautiously in the underground churches of hostile nations like China.

There are Christians all over the world risking their lives just to have church on Sunday morning!

Just last Sunday in a town in central India, Pastor KK Jwala was leading his little church in worship when a group of Hindu radicals stormed the meeting. They repeatedly and mercilessly struck Pastor Jwala and others in the congregation with hockey sticks. Pastor Jwala and members of his fellowship were arrested and charged with violating a anew ant-conversion law in that region of India. They were denied bail and right now are sitting in prison cells. [1]

Today we will look at the second of the seven churches and find that the believers there did not have it easy. They were in the vise-grip of suffering, even to the point of making the ultimate sacrifice.

Let’s visit them this morning…


I.        Christ’s credentials

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this: Revelation 2:8 (NASB95)

Christ commands that the letter be written to the church at Smyrna. Smyrna was considered by some in the ancient world to be the most ideal and beautiful city in the Roman Empire. Now the modern day city of Izmir in Turkey, Smyrna still has a Christian church.

Smryna boasted many temples to various deities, but the city was especially known for Emperor worship. Perhaps this was the peoples’ way of finding prominence in the Roman Empire: they could not be the capital of Asia like Ephesus, but they could be best known for promoting the worship of the Emperor. This would bring great favor.

Christ gives His command to write and, as with every church, describes Himself.  These credentials have special meaning in the situation of the church he addresses. He is the first and last. The One in whom there is no beginning or end; the One who exists outside the constraints of time, space, and matter. Ironically, such a One knows death and conquered it!

The Smryna Christians would need a Lord that was victorious over death. Next, He gives His commendation…

II.      Christ’s commendation

‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Revelation 2:9 (NASB95)


The commendation involves three elements, that when studied, give us a clear picture the situation at Smyrna. First, Christ said that He knew their…


A.      Tribulation - Suffering for faith’s sake

This is the same Greek word used by John in v. 9 where he said,

“I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” Revelation 1:9 (NASB95)


Just like John, their tribulation was brought on because of their faith in Christ. Under Emperor Domition emperor worship was made a requirement of the law. Once a year every Roman citizen had to burn incense on Caesar’s altar; upon doing so they would receive a certificate.  Failure to do so meant death.  Since Smyrna prided herself in being a center for Emperor worship, the city officials upheld this law zealously. Now imagine the position this put Christians in. The Scripture makes it abundantly clear…


Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 2 Timothy 3:12 (NASB95)


Second, Christ mentions their…


B.      Poverty – impoverished for faith’s sake

You can be poor and have something, but the word poverty here means to be completely destitute. Because they refused to deny Christ and worship a mere man, the Smyrna Christians gave up all they had. The writer of Hebrews described what many Christians went through…


But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one. Hebrews 10:32-34 (NASB95)


Yet look at what is in most translations surrounded by parenthesis: (but you are rich). They had nothing, literally, because of their faith yet Christ says they are rich! What a seeming contradiction. Christ alludes to what He preached on many times during His earthly ministry: the temporary versus the eternal, the earthly wealth versus the heavenly rewards…

Then He said to them, “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.” And He told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man was very productive. “And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. ‘And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.” ’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ “So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Luke 12:15-21 (NASB95)


Whenever you give up some earthly things or things for Christ He replaces them many times over with heavenly things. Things that can’t be stolen, or lost; things that are waiting for you to enjoy for all eternity.

We could spend much time here, but we must move on and look at the last part of Christ’s commendation. He said, ‘I know… the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Revelation 2:9 (NASB95)


C.      Blasphemy – slandered for faith’s sake

The Jews hated Christ when He was on this earth and they hated every Christians that lived on this earth after Him in ancient times. Routinely in the book of Acts you’ll see the Jews of local synagogues rising up against believers. There was a large population of Jews in Smyrna but Christ says they were not really Jews. He meant that were descendants of Jacob biologically but children of the devil spiritually.

These local Jews began spreading rumors about the Christians: incest, cannibalism, atheism, etc. Christ spoke of this…


“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:11-12 (NASB95)


Normally, we would now move to the condemnation, but there is none (only Philadelphia and Smyrna enjoy this standing among the seven). Why? Because there is no room for foolishness in a church undergoing suffering and persecution.

The false teachers steered clear! The nominal Christians renounced Christ and broke away. Only the committed stuck it out, and they weren’t concerned about music, or budgets, or buildings, or interior decorating. You never hear about churches fighting in nations that persecute Christians!

For those who endured, Christ had words of comfort…


III.   Christ’s comfort

‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.’ Revelation 2:10-11 (NASB95)

- Our Lord told them not to fear, but at second glance we might not see this as comforting. They were not to fear what they were about to suffer, not what they already had! And this suffering involved imprisonment and – the ultimate sacrifice - death.

HB Workman summed up the dreadful situation for the Christians at Smyrna: “To become a Christian meant the great renunciation, the joining of a despised and persecuted sect, the swimming against the tide of popular prejudice, the coming under the ban of the [Roman] Empire, the possibility at any moment of imprisonment and death under its most fearful forms. . . . He that would follow Christ must count the cost, and be prepared to pay the same with his liberty and life. . . . The mere profession of Christianity was itself a crime. . . . For [many] the Name itself . . . meant the rack, the blazing shirt of pitch, the lion, the panther, or in the case of maidens an infamy worse than death (H.B. Workman, Persecution in the Early Church [Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, n.d.], pp. 103–04).”

You don’t have to hunt for Scripture that addresses this. The assumption of the NT biblical writers (and Christ for that matter) was that the people of God would have a hard time living for Him in the midst of a dark world. I talk about this all the time. Here are just three of multitudes…

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. James 1:2-3 (NASB95)


In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; 1 Peter 1:6-7 (NASB95)


- Note the reference to the time of the trial, ten days. Could be ten literal days, ten years, or a long time generally. But whatever it means we know that God’s people suffer only as long as He allows it and no more!

- Christ promises the crown of life to those who endure the ultimate sacrifice. There are special rewards for the servants of God. Five are mentioned in Scripture…

1.       The Crown of the Victor (1 Cor. 9:25-27) – for those who put God first

2.       The crown of rejoicing (1 Thess 2:19)– for those who take many people to heaven with them

3.       The crown of righteousness (2 Tim 4:8) – for those who look with longing for Christ’s return

4.       The crown of glory (1 Pet 5:4) – for pastors who serve God faithfully

5.       The crown of life – for those who endure intense suffering for Christ even to the point of death, the martyr’s crown

James mentions this very crown…

Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. James 1:12 (NASB95)


David Jeremiah says: We can be certain that "the crown of life" had a special significance to the Christians in Smyrna. The city was fronted by the coast of the Aegean Sea and flanked by a hill known as the Pagos. The crest of this hill was ringed by a circle of pagan temples, giving the appearance of a crown resting on the brow of the hill. Because of this crowned hill, the city of Smyrna was often called "the crown of Asia." This feature was a source of status and pride to the citizens of Smyrna.


But in the second letter of Revelation Jesus says that He will give to the Christians of Smyrna an even better crown--the crown of life, the enjoyment of eternal life in glory! These words of reassurance to the church in Smyrna remind us of Paul's statement in Romans that "the sufferings of this present moment are not to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us." And elsewhere Paul writes, "This light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us to produce an eternal weight of glory."


We are continually encouraged by the fact that these trials, testings, and pressures are producing something of eternal value in our lives.”


- Finally, Christ offers a promise to the Smyrna Christians and to all believers: “He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.” The first death is that of the physical body. The second is of the spirit, eternal separation from God. At the end of time, after all is said and done, Christ will judge all those who did not give themselves to Him. They will be judged according to their deeds and then…


Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. Revelation 20:14 (NASB95)

Conclusion:  When this letter was read to the church at Smyrna, sitting in the congregation was a young man named Polycarp. He had led to Christ as a child by the apostle John himself. Sixty years later this young man was now an old man who had become the bishop of Smyrna. He was arrested for his faith and when commanded to renounce Christ answered, "Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King, Who hath saved me?" They burned him on the pyre.

Our day is coming!

Church, Christian, friend, heed the words of Christ…

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.


[1] The Voice of the Martyrs, INDIA: Pastor Arrested for Being Attacked, August 24, 2006   

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