THE PERSECUTED CHURCHES
Revelation 2:8-11; 3:7-13
Smyrna: Christ reminds them that he is aware of their suffering, forewarns them of coming persecution, and encourages them to remain faithful even to death. The city of Smyrna sustained a special relationship to Rome and the imperial cult. This strong allegiance to Rome plus a large Jewish population that was actively hostile to the Christians made it exceptionally difficult to live as a Christian in Smyrna.
Philadelphia: Philadelphia and Smyrna are the two churches that receive unqualified praise from the Lord. Although the believers may have been excommunicated from the local synagogue, Christ has placed before them an open door into his eternal kingdom.
Smyrna: The church at Smyrna is reminded that its afflictions – John’s word means “the burden that crushes” – and stark poverty – there are two Greek words for “poor” (the first means having nothing superfluous, and the second means nothing at all – and it is the second word that John uses) have not gone unnoticed by the Lord of the church universal. He is fully aware of the pressures brought upon the faithful. In an antagonistic environment it would be difficult for the Christian to make a living, and thus many were economically destitute. Their poverty, however, was a material poverty: spiritually they were rich.
Philadelphia: There is a kingdom whose access was under the absolute control of Christ. He is the one who possesses the key and can open and shut at will. Jesus reminds the Christians at Philadelphia who may have been excommunicated from the local synagogue that he has placed before them an open door into the eternal kingdom, and no one can shut it. No matter if the door to the synagogue has been closed, the door into the messianic kingdom remains open.
DESCRIPTION OF CHIRST
Smyrna: The church at Smyrna was a persecuted church, so the letter comes from the sovereign One (“the First and the Last”), who died and came to life again. As he was victorious over death, so they, too, can face martyrdom knowing that faithfulness is rewarded with eternal life.
Philadelphia: The risen Christ is called “the Holy One, the True One.” John’s description of Jesus as the one who has the keys of David is taken from a statement in Isaiah where the prophet identifies an unfaithful key-bearer who is deposed and a worthy minister put is in his place. John means to tell us that Jesus is “true” in the classical sense of “genuine.” Like Coca Cola used to tell us, Jesus is the real thing.
PROMISES TO OVERCOMERS
Smyrna: The church is told not to be afraid of what they are about to suffer. Jesus had counseled his disciples not to fear those who could kill the body but not the soul (Matt 10:28), and Paul had warned that the godly would be persecuted (2 Tim 3:12). Yet as the time approached, Jesus tells them, “Don’t be afraid of those things which you are about to suffer.” It is not a persecution that will stop – John uses a word which means“keep on casting.”
Believers at Smyrna are to suffer persecution for ten days. Ten days indicates what may be a short period of time, but it definitely is a limited period. The church is to continue faithful even though it may lead to death. The reward for faithfulness is the crown of life, that is, the crown that is life itself. It is not the royal crown (the diadema) that is promised, but the wreath or garland (the Stephanos) that was awarded to the victor at the games.
“And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death” (Rev 12:11).
“And I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire, and those who have the victory over the beast, over his image and over his mark and over the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, having harps of God” (Rev 15:2-3).
Overcomers are promised that they will not in any way be hurt by the second death – the lake of fire which is the final lot of Satan and his henchmen, plus “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile.” The promise begins with a word that accentuates the meaning of nothing. The phrase literally declares, “Under no circumstances do we need to be fearing” that which we are suffering. You are about to be suffering many things, but Jesus says, in the process of it all, for no reason do we need to be fearing. Paul’s promise to the Corinthians is true: “He will not put more on us than we can bear.”
Philadelphia: Because the believers at Philadelphia had kept “Christ’s command to endure patiently for his sake,” he will keep them from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world. The Greek preposition “from” does not indicate deliverance from the period of trial, but rather safekeeping through the trial. Because the church was faithful to Christ in time of trial that he in turn will be faithful to them in the time of their great trial. The promise is consistent with the high-priestly prayer of Jesus, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). It is their preservation in trial that is taught.
To the overcomers (“those who hold on to what they have”) is given the promise of being made pillars in the temple of God. What a glorious promise that the ones with little strength will become pillars.
A further promise to the overcomers is that Christ will write on them the name of his God, the name of God’s city, and his own new name. The impact of the threefold inscription is to show that the faithful belong to God, hold citizenship in the New Jerusalem, and are in a special way related to Christ. Christ’s own new name symbolizes the full revelation of his character, which awaits the second advent (cf. 19:12). It is not hidden at the present time because of some primitive superstition that if known could be used to his disadvantage, but reflects the current inability of the human race to grasp the full theological significance of the incarnation. In his first letter, John wrote, “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when he is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
During my visits to Russia I met believers who were persecuted for their faith under Soviet times (believers continue to be tortured and killed because of their faith in various parts of the world today): Pastor Veenameen Nesterov, a Baptist pastor who got word to his family – “Hold fast. I am glorifying Christ!” A high school principal who was baptized in the Volga River while the KGB watched. Antonina, who was in a meeting that was broken into by the KGB.
You say, “David, I appreciate that, but what about me? How does this message apply to me?”
Good question! And the answer is, Satan is constantly attacking believers. He may attack your finances. He may attack your home. He may attack your health. In all of this you have little strength, but in all of this Jesus tells you, “Satan’s attack is limited because of my power and my authority. Remain true to me, and I will give you a crown of life. Remain true to me and I will make you a pillar in the temple of God, writing my name on you, showing you belong to me!”
* * * * *
It is amazing that in His holiness Christ can look at our weakness and commend it. How different the values of Christ are from those of the world, which praises those who are beautiful, successful, rich, ambitious, skillful, or powerful. We praise such attributes, too, because we are not holy, and in our lack of perfection we fumble for the “best,” which seems to be epitomized by those who have it all. In contrast, the holy/set apart One sets apart those who know they are not at the top of the ladder. He who is true praises those who know the truth about their inadequacies and cling to his superiority.