The Lord has no criticisms for the church in Smyrna but there is no obvious good news for them either. First Jesus is described in verse 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 is the first. What is He is the first of? Colossians 1:15-20 tells us,
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
It was by Jesus and through Him that everything was created. And on top of being the Lord of all, the firstborn of all creation, He was also the firstborn of the dead, meaning He became human. He stepped out of eternal life to give eternal life to us who are dead. Jesus, our Lord and God brought us salvation by His death on the cross and eternal life through his resurrection. His resurrection foreshadows our resurrection from death into life. 1 Corinthians 15:16-26 reads,
“For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Jesus is the first, the foremost and most excellent. He is the firstborn of creation, the firstborn of the dead, and the firstfruits of us who will die but have been raised to life. But He is also the last. 1 Corinthians 15:42-49 says,
“So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.46 But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.”
When Adam sinned, sin and death entered humanity. When Jesus died on the cross, sin died and death died. When He resurrected He brought life and with His ascension He gave us the Spirit. Jesus will bring an end to sin, an end to the warfare of the enemy and end to the enemy when He returns. (2 Thessalonians 2:7-8).
The church was also reminded that Jesus died but more than that, He came to life. He resurrected. It is that resurrection that gives us eternal life, our hope. Jesus is our hope and He went through every struggle, including dying just for being who He is. So we know that no matter the suffering we face in our life on earth, we have eternal life to keep us persevering through it.
Perhaps the reason Jesus was described this way for the church in Smyrna was because they need to be reminded of that hope. Verse 9 reads,
“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.”
This church was already suffering. Jesus said He knew their tribulation. Although Smyrna was a rich port city, the Christians there were not wealthy in terms of money. For some reason the Christians could not enjoy the money and trade of the city. They may not have had money but Jesus reminded them they were rich. He probably referred to their treasures in Heaven, earned through their endurance, good works, and faith in God rather than money. Jesus knew too that those He called the synagogue of Satan were causing them more suffering. But Jesus suffered before we did. In John 15:18-23 Jesus encouraged us,
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father also.”
The church at Smyrna refused to compromise their faith to get rich in way which would not honor The Lord. They refused to concede to false teachers, slanderers and liars and they suffered for it. But their suffering was going to get worse. Verse 10 reads,
“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.”
They were about to suffer worse than they already were, some were going to be sent to prison. I’m sure some were waiting for the encouragement which would come any moment, but nope the next line was worse than the previous one, “Be faithful unto death” Clearly, many of those who were sent to prison were going to be executed. But finally the encouragement came, Jesus reminded them of their hope and their treasures in Heaven. He said, “I will give you the crown of life.”
Just the thought of that moment makes me tear up. And I know, no matter what I go through it will be forgotten at that moment when Jesus says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25:21). Verse 11 says,
“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.”
The one who conquers, who overcomes the enemy and doesn’t give into the suffering, tribulation, and attacks the devil throws at him will not be hurt by the second death (the physical death). Some people have suffered deplorably. Some have suffered for Christ’ sake and some have died for His sake. Suffering and dying for Christ’s sake is not some imagined thing it is real and it is horrible, but the promise of eternal life is still better. Let’s read about one such martyrdom.
Polycarp, a disciple of John and a leader of the church of Smyrna was one of those people who would suffer, would be sent to prison and who would be faithful even until he died. The church at Smyrna had been under persecution, and Polycarp knew he was being arrested. Legend says that he prayed so fervently that some who came to arrest him were converted to Christianity. He had served Jesus for 86 years, he was likely the last person alive who had known anyone who had known Jesus. Irenaeus an eyewitness to the events wrote a letter to the churches to tell what had happened. He quoted Polycarp as saying, "How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked." He was then burned at the stake and pierced with a spear. His crime was refusing to burn incense to the Roman emperor. Irenaeus recorded his farewell words as, "I bless you Father for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ."
Honestly, I am not sure I could be so noble and courageous when surrounded by a burning fire meant to kill me. I am not certain, I could easily accept death for such a small offense. I hope I would rather die than worship anyone other than The One True God. But I thank God I have never faced that choice and probably never will.
How about you? How much do you suffer? I know you do, as a believer it is a promise that we will suffer. But have you been denied an income for Jesus sake? Have you bled for Jesus name? Have you been imprisoned and sentenced to death for Jesus glory? I hope not, but regardless of how deeply you have suffered, remember you may be poor, but you are rich. For those who conquer Jesus has promised you the crown of life.