Smyrna: The Poor Church That Was Rich
We are told nothing about the beginning of the church in Smyrna; the book of Revelation contains the only mention of this church. Since Smyrna was about 35 miles north of Ephesus, it may have been established while Paul was in Ephesus (see Acts 19:10). Jesus brings no criticism against the church at Smyrna; He, instead, comforts them by assuring them that He was acquainted with their situation.
The church at Smyrna was persecuted for the faith, which explains why the Lord introduced Himself as “the First and Last, who was dead, and came to life” (Revelation 2:8). No matter what experiences we as God’s people may have, our Lord identifies with us. The Lord’s victory over death and His present position–alive in heaven–should inspire confidence within a church that was about to suffer imprisonment and tribulation even unto death.
“I Know Your Works” (2:9)
Jesus says this to each of the seven churches. We cannot escape the penetrating vision of the Lord; we may fool the people at church, our neighbors, those with whom we work, even the members of our own families. But the Lord knows our works; we cannot fool Him. Jesus knows whether or not we, individually, are “being fruitful in every good work” (Colossians 1:10); He knows whether or not a local church is busy teaching the lost and edifying saints. To all who are actively involved in the work of the church, Jesus knowledge of it is comforting and faith building.
“I Know Your Tribulation” (2:9)
The church at Smyrna was not having an easy time of it. The members were persecuted, possibly because they refused to compromise and say “Caesar is Lord”. Smyrna was an important center of the Roman imperial cult and anyone refusing to acknowledge Caesar as Lord was excluded from the trade guilds (unions) and discriminated against.
Jesus knew that they were about to suffer even greater tribulation: “the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days” (2:10). They were about to experience the testing of their faith to the fullest extent. Jesus assured His people that there was nothing to fear, even if they were martyred; because they had trusted Him and were remaining faithful, they would be ushered into glory wearing crowns of victory!
Jesus has always made it clear that faithfully following Him would bring tribulation and persecution to His disciples. “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you…If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you…In the world you will have tribulation…” (John 15:18-20; 16:33). We must reconcile ourselves to the fact that it has never been popular to be a faithful follower of Christ. It should not be a great source of concern to God’s people if we are scorned and ostracized because of our convictions and unpopular views.
Action that often starts tribulation coming our way is our initial obedience to the gospel. When one understands and obeys what the Bible teaches and begins to talk to others about this simple, so easily understood message, the tribulation begins. After the facts of the gospel were proclaimed in Acts 2, and Peter told his audience to repent and be baptized (vs.38), about 3,000 gladly received the word and were baptized (vs.41). When they obeyed the gospel, they were added to the church (vs.47).
As we read the book of Acts, we find it wasn’t long before they began to be persecuted. The apostles were imprisoned; Stephen was stoned to death; the disciples were scattered everywhere; James was killed; and Paul was persecuted everywhere he went. By the time we come to the last chapter of Acts, we find the church referred to as the “sect” that was “spoken against everywhere” (28:22). The true church that is “of Christ” is everywhere spoken against today. The reason why is because we still believe and preach the same doctrine the first century church believed and taught. We still inform people of God’s command for them to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins. We reject all human creeds and traditions of men; we reject all religious names and doctrines that we cannot read about in the pages of God’s word. Such teaching often brings tribulation, but that is nothing new.
“I Know the Blasphemy” (2:9)
Added to the tribulation of the church in Smyrna from the people of the world was “the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (2:9). Jesus knew of the strong opposition and the insulting, sneering words spoken against His saints from some who professed to be the people of God. Who are these “who say they are Jews and are not?” Real Jews, from Jesus’ perspective, are those who lived the kind of life Abraham lived. Jesus said to the Jews that spoke against Him: “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham. But you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did not do this” (John 8:39-40). These Jews at Smyrna did not walk in the faith of Abraham. If they had they would have accepted the truth of the gospel.
Many professed “people of God” today are actually, in Jesus’ view, a congregation of Satan. They speak against churches that strive to follow Christ because we strive to explain “the truth…from God” and we speak out against false doctrine, seeking Bible authority for all that we teach and practice.
“I Know Your Poverty” (2:9)
Being excluded from the trade guilds and discriminated against would mean unemployment and poverty; the word used here means “abject poverty, possessing absolutely nothing.” Smyrna was poor in silver and gold and material possessions, but the Lord said: “you are rich.” Their material poverty was offset by a far greater wealth than silver and gold; they were rich in faith and favor with God, and in all the attendant blessings of glory that belong to the heavenly citizenship.
Christians are rich in spiritual blessings, both in this life and in the inheritance that we will receive in heaven. Jesus said: “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house, or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife and children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children (these refer to our spiritual family in the church-rsb) and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30). Paul wrote: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). The verses that follow mention many of these blessings: chosen in Christ, adoption as children, redemption, forgiveness of sins, an eternal inheritance, and the church.
We should find comfort and assurance in knowing that the Lord knows, and He cares about, our works in His cause, our tribulations, and the insults and abuse we receive from those involved in false religion. Jesus relates to all of these tests of faith and He promises “the crown of life” to all who will remain faithful to Him. Let us so order our lives that the Lord will say, regardless of the tribulation and poverty and ridicule that may befall us, “You are rich”.