Things Are Worse Than and Better Than They Seem
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: "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. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation 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 shall not be hurt by the second death."
The Situation at Smyrna
Smyrna was located about 35 miles north of Ephesus in Asia Minor on the coast of the Aegean Sea. The city had supported Rome for over 200 years and had earned the right to be the main seat of emperor worship in Asia. In 26 BC Smyrna had won the privilege of building the Asian temple to Emperor Tiberius.
The Jews Were Slandering the Christians
There was a Jewish community in the city that came into bitter conflict with the Christians. Verse 9 describes the relationship like this. Jesus says to the church, "I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the blasphemy [i.e., slander] by those who say they are Jews, and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan." In other words the Jewish synagogue was speaking things about the Christians which the Christians regarded as slander (the basic meaning of blasphemeo in Greek).
This slander was probably in the form of official indictments to the Roman authorities that the Christians put another king above Caesar (which was true), and that they were rebellious and dangerous (which was false). The Jewish community did not have the right and power to punish the Christians, so they sought to get them in trouble with the Roman government. For example, when Paul planted the church in Thessalonica the Jews stirred up a mob and said to the authorities, "These men have upset the world . . . and act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king Jesus" (Acts 17:6–7).
Imprisonment and Threats of Death
That's probably the sort of half-truth and incrimination that were being hurled in Smyrna. The result of these charges was that some of the Christians were being put in prison with a death threat hanging over them. The reason I connect the slander of the Jews with the imprisonment is the connection John makes between verses 9 and 10. In verse 9 he says that the Jews who act this way—who slander and thus deceive like Satan—are a "synagogue of Satan." They follow Satan's temptation to lie and destroy. Then in verse 10 he says that it is the devil that is going to throw the Christians in prison: "The devil is about to cast some of you into prison."
What connects verses 9 and 10 is the reference to the devil. In verse 9 Jesus refers to "a synagogue of Satan" who are slandering the Christians. In verse 10 he refers to the devil throwing some Christians in prison. The natural understanding is that the way the devil is throwing Christians in jail is by stirring up the slander against them through those whom Jesus calls a "synagogue of Satan." The reason he calls them a "synagogue of Satan" is because they are so under the influence of Satan that they do his work of slandering the Christians so effectively that the Roman authorities think them a real threat to the empire and arrest them.
So that's the situation in Smyrna. The Jewish synagogue, linked up with the local Roman authorities, are coming against the Christian church with official sanctions that are about to put some Christians in prison and put some to death.
A Note About Anti-Semitism
NOTE: Let me insert a parenthesis here about anti-Semitism (by which I mean hatred of Jews, and persecution of them, and ridicule and caricature of them as a people; a derisive, scornful attitude toward Jews. I have often wondered why there has been such a strong stream of anti-Semitism in the history of the Christian church—something we should be ashamed of and repent of.
Christians Should Be Ashamed of and Repent of It
It has seemed amazing to me because Jesus was a Jew, and all the 12 apostles were Jews, and the whole of our Bible was written by Jews (except for Luke), and Jesus said, "Salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22), and to be Christian is to be grafted into the covenant made with Abraham the first Jew (Romans 11:17–24), and to become a Christian is to become "Jewish"—a child of Abraham by faith (Galatians 3:7).
And on top of all that, the day is coming when the nation of Israel will be brought back to her Messiah and be saved and become one with the Christian Church in the covenant of grace established with Abraham (Romans 11:25–26).
The effect of all this on Paul was that he was ready to be accursed for the salvation of his kinsmen (Romans 9:3). He did everything that he might save some of them (Romans 11:14). His heart's desire and prayer to God was that they might be saved (Romans 10:1). He did not hate Jews, or ridicule Jews, or avoid Jews. He risked his life for them again and again.
Early Animosity Is a Partial Explanation
So how could so much anti-Semitism (hatred and persecution and ridicule) rise up in the Christian church? Part of the answer is found in texts like this one. It shows that the animosity from the Jewish community toward the Christian church in the first two or three centuries was immense. And it started to go both ways.
I only mention this as a partial explanation not as a justification. Hatred and persecution and ridicule toward Jews as a people is never justified. Our main disposition should be Paul's: "My heart's desire and prayer to God is that they might be saved." And so I exhort you: Don't joke about Jewishness. Don't use cavalier stereotypes. Don't hate. Don't ridicule. If you pray for Jewish people the way Paul and Stephen and Jesus did—with a heart of longing for their salvation and love for them as the estranged people of God—you will find it very difficult to make jokes or speak disparagingly.
Under the Domination of Satan
But here is another point that is more difficult to speak of today. Jesus says in Revelation 2:9 that the Jews in Smyrna who resisted their Messiah Jesus and turned with slander against those who believe in Jesus were under the domination of Satan. Jesus calls them a "synagogue of Satan." He means, I think, that they had been deceived by Satan and were being used by him to get his destroying work done against Christians. This was the same thing Jesus said to the Jews who rejected him and wanted to kill him when he was on the earth (John 8:40): "You are of your father the devil; and you want to do the desires of your father" (John 8:44).
Now that kind of talk will be called anti-Semitic today. Not because there was hatred behind it (which there wasn't), and not because Jesus aimed to stir up persecution of the Jews (which he didn't), and not because he was maliciously ridiculing the Jews as a people (which he wasn't), but because the very existence of Christianity means that non-Christian Judaism has spurned the Messiah and taken her stand against the Son of God which is exactly what Satan does.
If Jesus is the Messiah, if he is the Son of God, and if there is a great enemy and deceiver called Satan, and if the Jewish people turn like Satan against the Messiah, then this must be said.
But to say this is not hatred; it is not persecution; it is not ridicule—there is no sneer or scorn or mockery or jest. There is love. There is longing for salvation. There are tears. Jesus laid down his life willingly for the Jewish people. Stephen prayed for them as he was being stoned for pointing out their hardness of heart (Acts 7:51, 60). Paul was whipped five times by the Jews with 39 lashes for preaching the gospel of the Messiah, and he kept on going to the synagogues first to bring them the hope of eternal life. To speak the truth about the unbelief of Israel will be called anti-Semitism, but whatever they call it, let us not give in to hate or persecution or ridicule.
Two Reasons to Dwell on This Issue
There are two reasons I dwell on this issue of anti-Semitism. One is to do all I can to turn you away from hatred and persecution and ridicule of God's estranged people, the Jews. May we love them, and pray for them, and with truth and compassion lead them to life in Jesus.
But the other reason goes beyond my concern with Jews and the charge of anti-Semitism and relates to anti-Christian attitudes in general. I want to help prepare you for the hard truth that today, just as in Revelation 2:9, the opponents of Christianity are going to oppose us not by saying that we are wrong, but by saying that we are evil and dangerous—anti-Semitic, anti-choice, anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-intellectual, anti-tolerance, anti-diversity, etc. And they will do this in direct proportion to how public we are about the claims of Christianity.
For example, at the University this week leaflets were given out about the March for Jesus this Saturday:
Say "No" to bigotry and hatred. Defend reproductive freedom and queer rights. A group of so-called religious right wing bigots are marching in a "March for Jesus", on Loring Park in Minneapolis on June 12th . . . to advance their anti-queer, anti-woman political agenda.
What's Happening Today Happened in Smyrna
This is what was happening is Smyrna 1,900 years ago and it is still happening. When Christianity goes really public in a pagan world (instead of remaining in our safe, isolated, comfortable sanctuaries) the opposition labels us not as mistaken, but as evil and dangerous.
The ironic and tragic response of many Christians in that atmosphere of conflict is to simply disappear. And to think that they are doing God a favor by stirring up no opposition to his name.
That is not the way the Christians in Smyrna responded. Jesus said in verse 10 that some would soon be cast into prison and that they would be tested to the point of death—all brought on by slander—by people who stood up and called them names. Jesus' counsel to them was not to lay low and disappear. His counsel was (v. 10b), "Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life."
That's the end of my parenthesis. Now I want to close with a mere outline of the message I would have given if I didn't think God wanted me to say all that. I think the outline is full of power and shows us how to survive and thrive in this kind of super-charged atmosphere of conflict and even danger.
The over-arching heading is this:
Things Are Worse Than They Seem
- Verse 9: the church in Smyrna is in tribulation and poverty and is being slandered. They know that.
- What they may not know is that the devil, and not just people, are behind their persecution; that it will result in some of them going to prison soon. And it will mean that some will be tested to the point of death. If they think it is bad now (with tribulation and poverty), it will get worse.
Things Are Better Than They Seem
But more importantly—and this is the point of all these letters to the churches—things are better than they seem. Mark these six things, because they are as real and precious and powerful today as they were 1,900 years ago.
- Verse 8a: Christ is the first and the last. Christ will have the last word. This is what nullifies all slander. In the end there will only be truth. Christ and not slander will be last.
- Verse 8b: Christ died and has come to life. Christ went through death before us. It is not the worst thing that can happen. We will see what it is in just a second. Christ triumphed over death, and all his people will too.
- Verse 9: Christ knows your pain. "I know your tribulation and your poverty." He is not a distant king. He is not unable to sympathize with your weakness and trouble. He is near and he knows. Don't resent that sometimes he leaves the pain. Be thankful that he knows and cares and carries and will save.
- Verse 9: You are rich. Even in poverty. Even in prison. Even in death. You are rich. Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. "If you are children of God, then you are heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ . . . the sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that is about to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:15–18). You are rich!
- Verse 10 (at the end): You will receive a crown of life. "Be faithful unto death and you will receive a crown of life." When the fight is fought and the race is run and you die at the finish line, the wreath that will be put on your head will be the crown of everlasting life—no more pain, nor more slander, nor more shame, no more tears, no more depression, no more frustration and discouragement. Only life and light and joy—and God forever.
- Verse 11b: You will not be hurt by the second death, that is, the lake of fire (20:14). There is something worse than death, namely, the second death. God is not mainly in the business of sparing us from the first death, or the pain that leads to it. He is utterly devoted to rescuing us from the second death.
So things are worse than they seem for the Christians in Smyrna and for the Christians in Minneapolis. But far more important: things are infinitely better than they seem.
- Christ has the last word.
- Christ is alive forevermore.
- Christ knows your pain.
- You are rich with the riches of Christ.
- You will receive from him the crown of life.
- He will not let you be hurt by the second death.
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