Robert E. Surgenor
Visiting Smyrna last month for the first time, we were impressed with the beauty and prosperity of this city that worshipped a multitude of gods while at the same time was intensely loyal to Rome. Smyrna was in need of nothing, and did not desire Christians gracing its population of 200,000. The large and influential Jewish element in the city accounted for much of the persecution leveled at the crushed and bleeding assembly there. However, in the midst of their fear and suffering, the Lord draws near and commends, exhorts, and promises them. As the letter of their Saviour is read to the assembly, comfort and hope flood their souls. Notice His words.
The Commendation of Christ
"I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them who say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan" (Revelation 2:9). The words, thy works, are not in the most critical text. With our friends in Smyrna, it was not a matter of service, but survival! As we visit their poverty-stricken homes we notice fear on their faces. The fear of some authority bursting suddenly into their dwelling and hailing them to the proconsul for the death penalty.
Christ assures that He knows three things concerning them.
(1) He knew their tribulation. The word is pressure, such as employed in the grinding of wheat, or the forcing of the juice out of the grape. The same word is used elsewhere and is most interesting "the afflictions of Christ" (Colossians 1:24). Christ had experienced what they were experiencing. Brethren, let us be assured of this, "We have not an high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but who was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15).
(2) 1 know thy poverty. Failure to burn incense to Caesar meant the loss of employment. Notice their homes, their clothing. They are poverty stricken. The real word is destitute! I do not believe that any of us have experienced destitution - to actually have nothing! We enjoy good food daily. Our beloved brethren in Smyrna hardly had enough nourishment to keep body and soul together. Why? All because of their faithfulness to Christ. Let us ask ourselves the pointed and searching question, how much would I be willing to sacrifice, to remain faithful to Christ? If your government suddenly became antagonistic to Christianity, would you be willing to lose your employment, your automobile, your house with all it furnishings and to cast out onto the street, to remain loyal to Christ? One is reminded of Paul's earnest request, "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God." (Romans 12:1-2). Smyrna's Christians were proving this in a very practical way!
Even though destitute, Christ says, "But thou art rich!" Christ's eye and the world's eye produce two vastly different appraisals. It could be said of those saints as Paul said, "Having nothing yet possessing all things" (2 Cor. 6). The word rich is literally, plutocrat. James mentions, "Poor in this world, yet rich in faith" (Jas. 2).
According to Christ, wealth is enrichment of character, not possession of gold. The Smyrna's saints were laying up for themselves treasure in heaven (Matt. 6). Thus we have the riches of poverty. Smyrna was a poor-rich church!
Brethren, let us examine our bank accounts, the one on earth and the one in heaven. Where is my treasure? I myself feel condemned when I consider how much I possess on earth and perhaps how little I have deposited above.
(3) 1 know the blasphemy. Christ was fully aware of the slander, the injurious speech that the Jews had leveled against His own. The accusers claimed to be Jews and their synagogue to be the assembly of the Lord. Christ contradicts their self-appraisal and called their assembly the synagogue to be of Satan. Thus we see the hidden motivating force behind the persecution to be Satan. Let us always be aware of the fact, that if we are ill treated by the ungodly because of our testimony, it is really Satan behind the whole effort. Men are only puppets in his hand to accomplish his satanic purposes. We often say, 'If a child is brattish, blame its parents." In like manner, if men persecute us, blame their father the devil. These persecutors claimed to be Jews, but the Spirit states who the true Jews are in Romans Chapter 2. "For he is not a Jew, who is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not from men, but from God" (Romans 2:28-29). Christ levels the Jewish leaders of His day with these scathing words. "Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it' (John 8:44). The character of the Jews had not changed one iota in Smyrna's day, they continued to lie and slander God's people, hoping for their murder.
Reports were raised that the Christians were cannibals. Read John 6: 53-57; that they indulged in orgies of lust, thus they were against morality. They were also accused of splitting families. Read Luke 12:51-53. Thus they were against society. Since they had no visible god to worship, they were accused of being atheists. Thus, they were against God. Since they refused to burn incense to Caesar, they were considered politically disloyal. Thus, they were against government. Since they taught that the world was reserved unto fire, they were accused of being incendiaries. Thus they were against the whole world! The Christians were considered an exceedingly dangerous people and must be eliminated. This was the Jewish plea to the Roman government - and Rome moved effectively in Smyrna.
The Exhortation of Christ
"Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried, and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful to death, and I will give thee a crown of life" (Revelation 2:10).
He seeks to dispel their fear, yet guarantees that they will suffer. It was a dark future on this earth for them. He enlightens the source of their future confinement and who was the instigator of all their troubles - the devil. The prison was not punitive, but a solemn prelude to trial and execution. It was with a sinister intent of causing to fall. "Ten days" is not literal. It simply means that the persecution has a definite time to run. God has set the time limit. It cannot cease in nine days, it cannot continue for eleven days. Christ is in total control.
You will remember Christ's presentation of Himself as the first and the last. That same expression is used in Isaiah 48:12, where we see Him as the source of all creation in verse 13. It is also used in Isaiah 44:6, where He is portrayed as the Redeemer. Notice also Isaiah 41:4 where in the context we observe Him as the supreme Ruler. Yet, even though Christ possesses these tremendous attributes and is Master of their situation, He offers no solution! Consider this my brethren. Do you expect our Lord to offer you a solution to some problems that you may be encountering? Let it be noticed, that on some occasions He exhorts us in the trial rather than exempting us from the trial. Thus we are able to prove Him to a greater degree, bringing more glory to His name. Such was the case in Smyrna.
"Be thou faithful." The root word is, "to be convinced." He desired them to exercise a deep conviction of His fidelity which in return would produce in them a deep fidelity to Himself. Thus His exhortation, "Become thou faithful, even if it involves death." I wonder if some of us could be faithful if the exhortation was simply, "Be thou faithful, even if it only involves attending the assembly meetings"?
The Promise of Christ
"I will give thee a crown of life."" In Smyrna, a garland of flowers was worn in the worship of the pagan gods; It was worn by the victor at the games; also by a magistrate at the termination of his office, if his work had been faithfully performed, and it was worn at banquets. All of these crowns faded. Christ goes further and offers them a crown of life - eternal life in all of its fullness. An unfading crown. Not only this, even though they would be entering the pains of an earthly death, yet he guarantees them that they would never be hurt of the second death.
I do not consider myself an emotional person, but brethren, my eyes fill with tears as I meditate upon these lovely, abused Christians. When I consider how much they gave for Christ, I feel ashamed that I have given so little. As we bid them good-bye, seeing the love of Christ radiating from their hearts, the gentleness of Christ in their ways and the sweetness of Christ on their countenance, knowing that many of them would soon be burned at the stake, we look upon them with love and commend them to God and the Word of His grace and bid them the final "goodbye" - with tears.