The Epistle to the Church At Smyrna
Revelation 2:8-11
And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things said the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;…

This city was situated in the same district of Asia Minor, some forty miles to the north of Ephesus, in which all these seven Churches were, at the mouth of a considerable river, in a most beautiful bay. The lands lying round were very fertile, bearing grapes in abundance, as befitted the city where the god Bacchus was the deity most honoured by the people. The city itself was large, beautiful, populous, wealthy. It was called, "The lovely one;" "The crown of Ionia;" "The ornament of Asia." It still exists and retains much of its old prosperity. Many Jews were there then as now and as is ever the case in busy trading seaports, and they would easily supply that contingent of Jewish persecutors by which the Church there was afflicted. We win speak -

I. OF THE SAINTLINESS OF THE CHURCH AT SMYRNA. This is attested in this letter.

1. Negatively. No blame is given; there is not one word of censure, as there certainly would have been had there been occasion for it. He who could say with the authority of omniscience, "I know," and whose eyes were as "a flame of fire," would have at once discerned fault if fault there had been. No; this Church seems to have come nearest of all to that ideal Church which is "without blemish, having neither spot, nor wrinkle, nor any such thing." But this is attested also:

2. Positively. Direct affirmation of their high and holy character is given by the Lord's declaration, "Thou art rich" (ver. 9). Yes; rich in the favour and love of God; rich in the gifts of the Holy Ghost; rich in the blessed prospect of the crown of life, which assuredly should be theirs; rich in present knowledge, consolation, and hope; rich in the help and blessing they should impart to others. Poverty there might be and was in regard to this world's wealth, but over against it was to be set, and doubtless they did so set it, the wealth of the kingdom of God which they knew was theirs. Let us ask ourselves - Would we have sided with them in their estimate of the relative value of the two riches? Would we have counted the spiritual wealth they chose greater riches than all the glittering, present, and tangible treasures of the world? They made such choice. Pray for grace to do the same.

II. THEIR SORROWS. "Many sorrows shall be to the wicked," saith God; but once and again, and maybe yet again it will be so, many sorrows have befallen God's saints, even the most loving and faithful of them. It was so with the suffering Church at Smyrna. Their sorrows are described as:

1. Tribulation. Already the storm of persecution had burst and was beating fiercely on the despised community that dared defy the pagan population, and the worship that was established in the city. Judging from what we know actually took place there and elsewhere at this period, there would be no lack of persecutors of all sorts in whom the deep hatred of the Christians, which had become all but universal, would urge them on to the infliction of all manner of suffering which might well be, and could only be, described as "tribulation."

2. Poverty. In wealthy cities such as Smyrna, where buying, selling, and getting gain was the all-absorbing occupation, and where success, which meant wealth, was, as elsewhere and as in our own day, all but worshipped, poverty was not merely odious, but even infamous. And in all probability the poverty of not a few of the Christians at Smyrna was directly traceable to the fact of their being Christians. They would be shunned and disliked, and it is easy to see how soon, under such circumstances, men who had been prosperous hitherto would fall into poverty. And the temptation to abandon a faith which involved such results must have been very strong, especially when they could not but know that they would abandon their miserable poverty at the same time, and return to the prosperity which they had lost. Ah! if now Christ could only be served at the cost which the Christians at Smyrna had to bear, how many would come to his service? how many would continue in it? But Christianity has long ago found out a way to make the best of both worlds, though whether to the enhancement of her power and glory may be gravely doubted.

3. Slander. The strong word "blasphemy" is employed, for the revilings of their enemies would, as such ever do, glance off from the Lord's servants to the Lord himself, and would become blasphemies - revilings against the Lord. What form these took, or on what they were based, we do not certainly know; but with the records of the New Testament and of Church history in our hands, we may reasonably infer that they had to do with the relations of the Christians:

(1) To the government of the day; accusing them of sedition and disloyalty, for which their persistent refusal to offer sacrifice to the emperor would afford plausible pretext.

(2) To society. Not a few of the popular games and festivals, as well as more social gatherings, involved sacrifices to idols, and from these the Christians would stand rigidly aloof. Thus they would be regarded as morose, misanthropical, and in other ways odious. They would be, as they were, denounced as haters of the human race.

(3) To morality. It was charged against them that their assemblies, which they were commonly obliged to hold at night, were for the vilest of purposes. There was no vice or crime which was counted too bad to charge them with.

(4) To God. The Jews would say of them, as Christ forewarned his disciples that they would, even as they had said it of him, that they were servants of Beelzebub (cf. Matthew 10.). Hence any who slew them thought they did God service. Such probably were some of the blasphemies which were spoken against them, and which they had to bear as best they might. Foul-mouthed Jews, "synagogues of Satan," and no true children of Abraham, as they said they were, but were not, together with those of "the baser sort amongst the heathen, would be quick to invent and spread these slanders, and to wound with worse than words if but they had the power. And they were to have it (ver. 10); for:

4. Their prospects were ever darkening. Very interesting in the light of this letter is it to read what is told us of Polycarp, St. John's own disciple, and who was, if not the very angel, yet an angel of the Church at Smyrna to whom this letter was sent. We possess a letter of his writing, a description of his character, and a detailed record of his martyrdom. And this last so beautifully illustrates the prophecy, the charge, and the promise of this letter, that it is well worthy of our notice in connection with what is here said of the Church of which he was the beloved, the honoured, and faithful pastor, when he won the martyr's crown. In the year of our Lord 167 a cruel persecution broke out against the Christians of Asia Minor. Polycarp would have awaited at his post the fate which threatened him, but his people compelled him to shelter himself in a quiet retreat, where he might, it was thought, safely hide. And for a while he remained undiscovered, and busied himself, so we are told, in prayers and intercessions for the persecuted Church. At last his enemies seized on a child, and, by torture, compelled him to make known where he was. Satisfied now that his hour was come, he refused further flight, saying, "The will of God be done." He came from the upper story of the house to meet his captors, ordered them as much refreshment as they might desire, and only asked of them this favour, that they would grant him yet one hour of undisturbed prayer. The fulness of his heart carried him on for two hours, and even the heathen, we are told, were touched by the sight of the old man's devotion. He was then conveyed back to the city, to Smyrna. The officer before whom he was brought tried to persuade him to yield to the small demand made upon him. "What harm," he asked, "can it do you to offer sacrifice to the emperor?" This was the test which was commonly applied to those accused of Christianity. But not for one moment would the venerable Polycarp consent. Rougher measures were then tried, and he was flung from the carriage in which he was being conveyed. When he appeared in the amphitheatre, the magistrate said to him, "Swear, curse Christ, and I will set thee free." But the old man answered, "Eighty and six years have I served Christ, and he has never done me wrong: how, then, can I curse him, my King and my Saviour?" In vain was he threatened with being thrown to the wild beasts or burned alive; and at last the fatal proclamation was made, that "Polycarp confessed himself a Christian." This was the death-warrant. He was condemned to be burnt alive. Jews and Gentiles, the whole "synagogue of Satan," here described, alike, hastened in rage and fury to collect wood from the baths and workshops for the funeral pile. The old man laid aside his garments, and took his place in the midst of the fuel. When they would have nailed him to the stake, he said to them, "Leave me thus, I pray, unfastened; he who has enabled me to brave the fire will give me strength also to endure its fierceness." He then uttered this brief prayer: "O Lord, Almighty God, the Father of thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received a knowledge of thee, God of the angels and of t he whole creation, of the whole race of man, and of the saints who live before thy presence; I thank thee that thou hast thought me worthy, this day and this hour, to share the cup of thy Christ among the number of thy witnesses!" The fire was kindled; but a high wind drove the flame to one side, and prolonged his sufferings; at last the executioner despatched him with a sword." So did one of Christ's poor saints at Smyrna die, "faithful unto death," and winner of "the crown of life," and never to "be hurt of the second death." But if these were, and they were, the sorrows and sufferings that they had to endure, what sustained them? Note, therefore -

III. THEIR SUPPORTS. For it is evident such would be needed. The very word of the Lord to them, "Fear not," indicates how great the peril was of their being crushed and heart-broken under the tribulations through which they were called to pass. Despondency and despair threatened them. To meet this their Lord was ready with his aid. It was given in manifold ways. He did not merely say to them, "Fear not," but showed them abundant reason wherefore they should not fear.

1. And first and chief: His own Name. "I am the First and the Last... alive" (ver. 8). Here, as throughout these letters, that aspect of our Lord's character is turned to the Church addressed which it most needed to consider and lay to heart. It was so with the Church at Ephesus. They were reminded of the Lord's nearness to and. knowledge of them and of his power and purpose to dispose of them according as their work should be. And now here, when he would comfort and strengthen the fearful, he tells them that about himself which could not but lift up their hearts, as doubtless it did. "I am the First;" i.e. "I am at the head and beginning of all things; all were ordered and arranged according to the counsel of my will; nothing comes by chance; nothing has been left unprovided for. "And the Last;" i.e. "When men and Satan have done their all, and nothing is left more that they can do, and they shall have gone to their own place, I shall remain, and of my kingdom there shall be no end. Therefore, remember, the eternal God is thy Refuge, and underneath thee are the everlasting arms." "Which was dead;" i.e. "I have entered into all that can by any possibility be before you. I, of my own will, went down into the pain and darkness of death; I know all about it, O my people, and know how you feel, for I was in all points tried like as you are. And I entered into death that I might be the better able to help you. And see, I live! Sin and hell did their worst against me, but, behold, I am 'alive forevermore" When the apostle saw the vision of his Lord, and fell at his feet as dead, it was this same word, this same august Name of the Lord, that lifted him up again. And it was to do the same for the depressed and desponding Church at Smyrna. And next:

2. His knowledge, so perfect and complete, of them and all that concerned them. "I know thy works," he tells them, and then he goes on to give them details which showed the fulness of his knowledge. And that which they could not but believe, for the proof of it was before their eyes, would help them to believe in his knowledge when it affirmed what as yet was very far from being evident to them. He said to them, "Thou art rich." He, then, knew of treasure store of good which they did not; of recompense of reward so vast that their present poverty should be all forgotten. And he knew that all the accusations of their enemies were not true, as, perhaps, sometimes, in their more misgiving moods, they had half feared some of them might be, and were in consequence staggered beneath them. But now he came and declared them to be not true, but "blasphemies." They need trouble themselves, therefore, no more about them. And he knew the future as well as the present; what the devil, through his willing workmen, would do to them. He knew it all; knew why he would do it - "that they might be tempted," not tried, but seduced, and made to deny their Lord. He saw through it all, and now told them of it to brace them more firmly for the struggle before them. And he knew that the struggle, though sharp, should as certainly be short. "Ten days," he says, as we say, "A mere nine days' wonder;" by which we mean a merely passing, temporary, brief thing. So their trial should be so short that it should hardly have begun before it was ended. And should some of them be condemned to die, as they would be, let them be faithful right up to that point, and death should prove to them the goal of the race, where they should find their Lord, the Judge, waiting with the crown of victory in his hand, reaching forth to bestow it upon them. And this is how further the Lord cheers them, by

3. The glorious prize he promises them. That prize was life; the crown was the life; the life eternal, blessed, holy, forever with the Lord. So that the moment the headsman's axe, or the flame of fire, or the fangs of fierce beasts, put an end to the poor troubled life they now had, that moment the Lord should give them, in place of it, this crown of the eternal life. So that even death could only do them good, and as to the second death, most assuredly - such is the force of the Greek - that should do them no harm; that which should be the overwhelming horror of Christ's enemies should not even come nigh unto them, the overcoming ones, but life, eternal life, life with their Lord forever, that should be theirs. Oh, is not all this a "sursum corda" indeed? And it is but the type of what the same ever-blessed Lord will ever do. Hence he says, "He that hath an ear, let him hear." Well, then, my tried and tempted brother, mind that you hear. And you, godly working man in shop or factory, with a multitude of mocking mates, who well nigh wear your life out with their ungodly ways; and you, dear boys or girls at school, who have to run the gauntlet of sneers that stab, and taunts that torment your very soul; and whosoever you may be, child of God, that has to bear tribulation for Christ; - you have ears to hear; then do hear, for Christ meant this word for you. - S.C.

Parallel Verses
KJV: And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;

WEB: "To the angel of the assembly in Smyrna write: "The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life says these things:

The Duty and the Reward of Christian Fidelity
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