Viewing Our Suffering Through the Lens of Eternity

Revelation 2:8-11

February 11, 2024

Lead Pastor Dr. Timothy Melton

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Imagine that you went to the movie theater, bought the tickets, got some popcorn, finally found your seat and settled in for a couple of hours of entertainment with the family. About that time the movie starts and you begin to realize that the picture is very blurry. Something is not right. You paid a lot of money for this movie and the quality is horrible. You sit there for a moment, waiting for the others in the theater to begin to raise their voice in protest, but you hear nothing. No complaint. Everyone else is just sitting there seeming to enjoy themselves. You begin to look around and it is about then that you see that everyone else, except for your family happen to be wearing the same style of glasses. What a coincidence. . . only then do you realize that you bought tickets for a 3D movie and you didn’t get the glasses.

A similar idea can be true for us as we continue in the book of Revelation. The book of Revelation is calling us to look at life through a different, clearer lens, an eternal lens. It is calling all believers to fix their eyes on heaven and not on this world. It is written from the perspective of Jesus who has known the suffering of earth and now reigns in the reality of heaven. Hardships will come but they do not compare to the eternal glory that awaits us.

Before we consider Christ’s words to the church in Smyrna in Revelation 2:8-11, let us understand the historical context and the life which the Christians in Smyrna were facing.

Smyrna was a large port city on the western coast of Asia Minor. An arm of the Aegean Sea reached in and ended at a small, land-locked harbor that was in the center of the city.  It was so beautiful that it was called the “crown of Asia Minor.” It had a beautiful harbor, foothills that led up to a large hill that stood behind the city. It was there where all of the temples and noble buildings stood. It was a center for ancient medicine and science. It was on a major trade route. Smyrna held a stadium that was the site of its famous games that were held annually. There was a magnificent library and one of the largest theaters in all of Asia Minor. It even claimed to be the birthplace of Homer. From the world’s materialistic perspective Smyrna had everything that a person could want in a city, but from a spiritual perspective it was a dark place. Smyrna was also a center of pagan worship.

Smyrna was a free city that had always been loyal to Rome, even from the earliest of days. It was the first city to build a temple to the goddess of Roma when Rome had personified itself as a goddess. In A.D. 26 it was also given the privilege of erecting the temple to the godhead of Tiberius. Smyrna had become a center of worship to Rome and to Caesar. Because the city prided itself in its loyalty to Rome, its citizens had to do likewise. 

Each year, every citizen of Smyrna had to burn incense to Caesar. There was a great altar there. One would have to burn incense to Caesar and then receive a certificate verifying that he had done so.  Without a certificate you would be persecuted because you had not proven your allegiance to Caesar. Even if you have paid your taxes and obeyed all the laws if you were not a worshiper of Caesar you were not a good citizen. To not declare “Caesar is Lord,” and to not burn the required incense was to live without a certificate, risk being discovered and in extreme cases, possible death.

The only exception to this rule werer the Jews. During the reign of Julius Caesar Judaism had come to be recognized as a legal religion. The Jews were allowed to worship only Yahweh, the God of Abraham, and were not bound to the emperor worship as were others.

As long as the Christians were seen as a branch of Judaism they were protected, but once the Christian churches began to include Gentiles who were not required to become Jews the Christian Jews began to be forced out of the synagogues and denounced by the Jewish leaders. Rome began to realize that Judaism and Christianity were entirely different. The Christians were no longer protected by the exception that had been given to the Jews. They were now breaking the law and bringing upon themselves persecution. 

The Jewish Christians could have clung to their Jewish background but instead they chose to cling to their new identity in Christ even though that exposed them to danger and ridicule. The Gentiles who came to faith in Jesus made a similar choice. As they took on the name of Christian they no longer would be seen as good Romans. Everyone in the church in Smyrna had made a conscious decision that Christ was more precious than safety, pleasure, and life itself. 

Nowhere else in the Roman society did Jews and Gentiles, slaves and masters, men and women, rich and poor come together as brothers and sisters. The gospel brought them together and gave a testimony to the reconciling power and worth of Jesus Christ. 

It is in this context that we read these verses. In Revelation 2:8-11 we find truths that are in stark contrast to what the world tells us. As we read about this church in Smyrna let us open our hearts and minds to the Holy Spirit and see clearly what Christ had to say to this first century church and to our church as well. 

Revelation 2:8 begins Christ’s message to Smyrna.

8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

Jesus made it very clear from whom these words were coming. These are the words are from Jesus Christ, the First and the Last, the Everlasting to Everlasting. The one who came before and will still reign on His eternal throne in heaven long after all the other supposed gods and desires of this world have long vanished. The One who passed through death, mankind’s ultimate fear and enemy, and conquered it. The One who no longer is in the grave but is active and working in our world and in our lives. Jesus, the ultimate Overcomer is the One who is writing to them.

In many cases words are only as powerful as the one who speaks them. For example, in Matthew 17 we find this story. A man brings his son who was possessed by a demon and was suffering from seizures which at times threw him into the fire and at other times into the water. The father had brought his son first to the disciples and they could not heal him. Jesus then rebuked the demon and it came out of him and the boy was healed instantly. It was not just the words, but the authority of the person who spoke them.

In these verses, Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, is coming alongside this church to lend them His strength and His empathy as they face persecution. Jesus is reassuring them of His authority as He begins this message to them. 

Revelation 2:9 then continues,

“‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”

Christ knew their tribulation and poverty and the slander which was being spread about them.  He knew it, not as one knows information, but as one knows an experience. Christ knew. He had “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And . . . humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8)

While on earth Jesus had experienced excruciating pain, ultimate rejection, loneliness, disappointment, and even poverty. Jesus had left the eternal riches of heaven to walk amongst the human poverty of earth. He was born in a manger. His father was a simple carpenter. In Matthew 8:20 Jesus even says of Himself that, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” It seems that Christ owned almost nothing during his days here on earth.

He could empathize with the physical poverty of the church in Smyrna, but at the same time Jesus called their attention to the riches they had in Him. 

Several words intersect in a very interesting way in these verses. The word “Smyrna” literally meant “Myrrh.” “Myrrh” was a substance used for burial that came to be associated with suffering. 

The word for tribulation in the original language meant “being crushed beneath a weight.” This was the situation of the church of Smyrna as they held up under the persecution. 

Smyrna or Myrrh had to be crushed to release its fragrance or aroma. That is what was happening in their situation. For the church to truly give off the fragrance of God, they first had to be crushed.

In the midst of their suffering we are reminded of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:8-10, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”

Christ then refers to their poverty but calls them rich. Here once again we see the need for viewing life through the proper lens. From the world’s perspective the people of the church of Smyrna were poor. 

In Greek there were two words that were used for poor. The first was a word that would describe a day laborer who went out into the city plaza every morning hoping to be hired to work and make enough money to feed his family for that day. The second word for poverty was a word that meant total destitution. This could be used to describe the total paralytic that could do absolutely nothing for himself.

This second word was the word used here by Christ. In comparison to the luxurious city that surrounded them, they were poor. Very poor. Their poverty was likely due to the fact that Christianity initially had spread more quickly amongst the lower classes of their society. Also, it was probable that because they lacked the certificate of worship of Caesar and Rome, that their business dealings were greatly limited. They were committed to Christ, but in those moments of weakness the reality of their poverty must have been a great burden for them. They were poor, but yet Christ defined them as rich. Christ was looking through that heavenly lens.

The economy of God is so much different than the economy of this world. Listen to these verses.

Luke 6:20 “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

James 2:5 “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?”

2 Corinthians 6:8b-10 “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.”

2 Corinthians 8:9 “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”

Christ had come that they may have life and have it more abundantly and in Him it was truly theirs. (John 10:10) In Him they had that which money could not buy. 

The second part of verse 9 then goes on to say,

“and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”

The Jews of old were the descendants of Abraham who were God’s chosen people. God had promised that one day He would send a Savior, a Messiah, who would bring their deliverance and salvation. Jesus Christ was that promised Messiah, but most of the Jews did not believe. They continued to be focused on the strict obedience of the law when salvation was through faith in Jesus Christ. Those Jews who denied that Christ was the Messiah were physical descendants of Abraham, but not spiritual descendants of Abraham. In Galatians 3:29 we read, “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” As Paul wrote in Romans 2:28-29, 

28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

The Jews often referred to themselves as the assembly or the synagogue of God, but here Jesus reveals the reality of their hearts. They were religious, but their hearts were far from God. So much so that Jesus called them a synagogue of Satan. They were a religious community but they were actually living for the devil’s priorities, the priorities of self and the priorities of the world. 

We see an example of Jesus’ perspective in Matthew 23:27-28 when He spoke to the Jewish leaders, 

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness."

It is very likely that much of the persecution against the church in Smyrna was due to the Jews bringing accusations against the Christians to the local government. Much like Paul before his conversion, the Jews defended their religion with passion but in the process had totally missed the coming of their Messiah.

Christ then continued in verse 10,

10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 

Why does Christ say “do not fear”? Because fear was the natural response. Some of them were about to be thrown into prison and pass through tribulation. In their own power they would not be able to overcome, but Christ was letting them know that they were not alone. Jesus, who knew tribulation would be with them no matter what came their way. Because of His presence they need not fear.

The devil would be working against the church, but we must remember that the devil is only a corrupted angel. God is infinitely more powerful than him. There is a battle waging in our world between good and evil, but it is not a battle between equals. God allows the evil one to work at times, but he is never let off of his leash. God alone is sovereign and is working in our world to bring it to His desired conclusion. God was allowing the church of Smyrna to be crushed that the fragrance of Christ would become evident to those around them.

Suffering was coming and if they were viewing their circumstances from an earthly perspective and relying on their own strength they were going to be crushed by the weight of it all. If their ultimate desire was comfort, peace and pain-free living they would never endure. 

Jesus was adjusting their expectations and revealing to them the larger story. Just as He had done for His disciples in Matthew 5:10-12. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

In the midst of the suffering, those who are faithful even unto death will receive the crown of life. The same crown is mentioned in James 1:12, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” 

The people of Smyrna would have been familiar with this term for crown. Each year Smyrna hosted games that were known all over Asia Minor. Those who were victorious were rewarded with a crown that symbolized joy and victory. This term for crown was also used when given to a magistrate at the end of his term in office to commend his faithful completion of his duties. At other times crowns were worn by banquet guests when the host sought to show them honor. Still others, wore crowns as they approached pagan temples and believed to be entering into the presence of their gods. 

This term crown of life would have been meaningful to those in the church in Smyrna, realizing that any of these crowns of laurel would have lasted only a couple of days but the crown of life will last forever. This was the idea that Christ was presenting. Being faithful in suffering was possible as one kept their eyes focused on the eternal reward.

This had been true for Christ as well. In Hebrews 12:1b-2 we read, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Christ endured the cross because of the joy that awaited Him. As Paul wrote in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

Jesus then concluded His message to the church in Smyrna with these words in Revelation 2:11, 

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

The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’

In scripture hearing was tied to obedience. If one truly heard, they obeyed. For those whose ears were attentive to the Spirit’s voice and whose hearts were ready to obey, they would overcome and not be hurt by the second death. 

1 John 5:4-5 tells us who overcomes. “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

Faith is our victory. Unless Christ returns first, we all will pass through a first death where our earthly body no longer functions. Revelation 20 then talks of a second death where the book of life will be opened. All whose names are not found in the book of life will be cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.

For all who have turned from their sins and put their faith in Jesus Christ our names are now in the book of life. Yes, this life will bring suffering but our confidence is in the eternal crown of life that awaits us.

Like those in the church of Smyrna, we must realize that we are not yet in a time or in a place where all will be as it should be, but the time will come. For now, let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfector of our faith and set our expectations in line with the word of God. This is not a faith that promises an easy life. Do not be angry or disappointed when this life does not deliver what is only promised in heaven.

For now, cling to Christ, trusting that even if the worst of days come, that we will find Christ there and already prepared to uphold us so that even if we are crushed, the fragrance of Christ will go forth for His glory and we will overcome.

David Livingstone was a Scottish physician, missionary and explorer who lived in the 1800s. He dedicated His life to the exploration of Africa, so that the gospel could be shared across the continent. Livingstone traveled 29,000 miles over his career, was robbed of his supplies, fought against slavery, suffered from pneumonia, struggled with cholera, experienced tropical ulcers on his feet, he contracted Malaria, his wife Mary died, he was bit by a lion. At one point Livingstone completely lost contact with the outside world for six years. With that in mind let us consider his words that were spoken on December 4, 1857, when he addressed the students of Cambridge University.

For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. . . . Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word in such a view, and with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory (of God)which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice.

May we join with Dr. Livingstone’s perspective and walk alongside those believers in Smyrna.

In the words of the Apostle Paul, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Philippians 3:8)