Sermon Manuscript: Smynra – A Faith Worth Dying For: Revelation 2:8-11

Old Testament Reading: Daniel 1

“In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself. And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs, and the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel, ‘I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age? So you would endanger my head with the king.’ Then Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had assigned over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, ‘Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king’s food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see.’ So he listened to them in this matter, and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s food. So the steward took away their food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables. As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams. At the end of the time, when the king had commanded that they should be brought in, the chief of the eunuchs brought them in before Nebuchadnezzar. And the king spoke with them, and among all of them none was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Therefore they stood before the king. And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom. And Daniel was there until the first year of King Cyrus” (Daniel 1, ESV).

New Testament Reading: Revelation 2:8-11

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. 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. 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. 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’” (Revelation 2:8–11, ESV).


Here we come to the second of seven letters in the book of Revelation written to seven churches located in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) in A.D. 90. Each letter is from Jesus the Christ. Each letter is addressed “to the angel” of the particular local church. I take this to be a reference to an angelic being who is responsible to serve that particular church – local churches have heavenly support, that is the point, I think. And each letter addresses challenges being experienced in these local churches. Each church is challenged in some way. These were real local churches, made up of real people – members and officers, who were experiencing real challenges. But we should remember that the challenges faced by these churches were not unique to them, but are common to all churches living at all times and in all places. These seven churches, therefore, represent all churches (numbers have symbolic force in Revelation). This is why each letter concludes with these words, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:11, ESV). “Churches” is plural. The letter to Smyna, therefore, applied, not only to them, but is to be considered by all churches, including ours. My prayer for us is that we would have “ears to hear” – that we would consider carefully the words of Christ to see if we are a healthy church deserving of commendation, or an unhealthy one deserving rebuke.

First, a few words about Smyrna.

Smyrna was a city located about 50 miles to north of Ephesus. There was a strong Jewish population in that city. And the city was especially proud of their allegiance to Rome.

It should be noticed that the troubles threatening the church in Smyrna were very different from the troubles threatening Ephesus, located only 50 miles to the south. While Ephesus was threatened by false teachers from without and within, and having lost their love for one another, the saints in Smyrna were a persecuted, poor, and slandered group. One thing made clear by the letters to the seven churches is that the assaults that come against the church of Christ are varied. Some assume that the only (or perhaps the main) threat to the church of Christ is persecution. Americans seem particularly fearful of persecution, perhaps because it is so foreign to us. People tend to fear the unknown and the unfamiliar. But we should remember that persecution is not the only thing that threatens Christ’s church. There are other things that threaten. Our enemy is cunning.

In Smyrna the threat was indeed persecution. Some of them would indeed be put to death for their faith. But it should be remembered that Smyrna is one of two churches of which Jesus has nothing negative to say. Never does Jesus utter the words, “but I have this against you…” to Smyrna. Persecution can indeed have a devastating effect upon the church. It is a not entirely right to say that persecution always makes the church stronger. But often times it does. Persecution often has a purifying effect upon the bride of Christ.

What can we learn from Smyrna? That is the question before us this morning.

A Healthy Church Will Remain Faithful Even In The Face Of Persecution

One thing is clear: we learn that a healthy church is one that will remain faithful even in the face of persecution.

And notice that persecution – mistreatment from others – takes a variety of forms. Here we have mention of  physical persecution, even unto death. The Christians in Smyrna were indeed facing this kind of persecution – physical persecution even to the point of death.

It is in verse 9 that Jesus the Christ speaks to them saying, “I know your tribulation…” (Revelation 2:9, ESV). Remember that Jesus says, “I know” to each of the seven churches. “I know”, he says. “I am not unaware”. “These troubles of yours are not hidden from my sight”. What a comfort this is! When we face trouble in this life we inevitably ask the question, where is God in relation to this trouble I am facing? Is he far off? Is he unaware? Am I too small and insignificant for him to take notice of my trouble? Christ puts this ridiculous thought to rest, saying to each of the churches, “I know…”

He is not unaware of your trouble, and he was not unaware of the trouble that the Christians in Smyrna were facing. He knew of their tribulation, and he spoke to them, saying, “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” (Revelation 2:10, ESV). At the end of verse 11 he adds, “The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death” (Revelation 2:11, ESV).

It should be recognized that persecution in the early days of the church was rarely widespread and ongoing, but would flair up from time to time in certain places and, by the grace of God, would die down. Here Christ warns the Christians in Smyrna that they are about suffer an intense onslaught of persecution that would last but a short time. “Do not fear what you are about to suffer”, he says.

And who is the one motivating the persecution? Christ says, it is “the devil”! “The devil is about to throw some of you into prison”, he says. Of course it would be the Romans who would actually throw them into prison – that is what the Christians would see. Roman soldiers would lock them up. And the Romans would do so being encouraged by the Jews in that city – that is also what they would see. But it is the devil, or Satan, who motives it all – this they are to see with eyes of faith. Remember, things are not always as they appear. There is a spiritual realm that lies behind this world that we see. There is a battle that rages there – one that motivates and inspires the events that transpire in human history. The book of Revelation was written to, in part, reveal the realities of that word to us, though we cannot see it with our natural eyes.

The devil, or Satan, will appear again in the book of Revelation. Later he will be symbolized by a great dragon. He is portrayed as the archrival of God and of the people of God. It is the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, who labors to thwart the purposes of God. He is the one who motivates and empowers all that opposes Christ and his church. The beast, the false prophet, and the harlot are empowered by him. The beast symbolizes political powers that oppress. The false prophet stands for all who teach false doctrines and utter lies. The harlot stands for all of the worldly things that seduce the people of God. Together they form a false trinity. And the three are used by Satan himself to war against Christ and his church.

Friends, we are only to the second of seven letters to seven churches who were alive in A.D. 90. And we have already been shown concrete examples of the the activity of these three. Ephesus was hard pressed by the false prophet. False teaching threatened them from without and within. Ephesus was also tested by the harlot through the teaching of the Nicolaitans who tempted the saints to compromise in regard to sexual immorality and idolatry. And it is here in Smyrna that we see the handiwork of the beast. The saints are persecuted – imprisoned and even put to death – at the hands of an oppressive government. But who is behind it all? The dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan is the one behind these three. This is why Christ speaks in this way, saying, “the devil is about to throw some of you into prison.”

And why was this allowed to happen? Why did Christ permit it? We cannot say that he was caught off guard, for he knows! And we cannot say that he was lacking in power to stop it, for “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to” him (Matthew 28:18). He is the son of man with all dominion and authority having been given to him by the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7). The evil one is not outside of his authority. The serpent was defeated at Christ’s first coming. He is indeed a strongman, but he is bound by Christ – restrained and restricted – under is his sovereign power. The fact that this persecution endured by the Christians in Smyrna was limited to “10 days” testifies to the reality that Christ rules and reigns even now over the evil one. Satan is a vicious advisory, but he is a chained and restrained advisory. The strong arm of Christ holds him at back from having his was amongst the nations. He is active but bound.

We must admit, then, that Christ permits our suffering. But why? The scriptures do not reveal all to us, but Christ does reveal to Smyrna that this suffering would come upon them so that “[they] may be tested” (Revelation 2:10, ESV). The persecution was permitted so that, among other things, the saints be tested. Testing refines our faith. Testing strengthens our faith. The Lord has promised that he will “not let [us] be tempted beyond [our] ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that [we] may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13, ESV). But he does allow us to be tested, this being for his glory and our good.

Peter had a lot to say about suffering in his letters. So much for the silly idea that God’s will for our lives is that we be healthy and wealthy. I can’t think of a doctrine more out of step with the tone an tenor of the Old and New Testaments. Listen to 1 Peter 1:3-9:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:3–9, ESV)

Persecution is permitted so that our faith be tested – strengthened and refined to the praise and glory of God.

Notice that Christ promises that the evil one would be restrained and that the tribulation would be only for a limited time. In the middle of verse 10 Christ says, “For ten days you will have tribulation”.

Should ten days be taken literally? I think not. Remember that this book is filled with symbols. The numbers in this book tend to have symbolic force. There is no historical evidence to support the idea that the saints in Smyrna endured only a “ten day” period of persecution. Instead it is wise to ask, what does the number 10 symbolize, or what does it have reference to.

The number 10 can be understood as a number of completion. How many commandments are there? There are 10 commandments which summarize completely God’s moral law. We will encounter multiples of 10, or other significant numbers multiplied by 10, throughout Revelation. The number 1,000 is significant in Revelation 20, for example. By the way, a careful student of the Bible would be wise to compare the content of Revelation 20 with the letter to the church in Smyrna. We do not have the time, but there are many parallels having to do with martyrdom, the first and second death, and the enjoyment of life with Christ after death – we will come to that passage in the months to come. For now know that I take “10 days” to symbolize a complete, limited, and brief period of time. When we come to Revelation 20 I will make a case for understanding “1,000 years” to symbolize a complete, limited, but very long period of time.

It is also important to notice the connection between the “10 days” of Revelation 2 and the “10 days” of Daniel 1, which we read at the beginning of this sermon. In Daniel 1 we are told of the 10 day period of testing that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah endures while in captivity in Babylon. It too was a period of testing. And, as we will see, the temptation that they endured was similar to the temptation that the church in Smyrna would have to endure. In both situations the temptation was to given in – to compromise – and to defile oneself with worldly things, by pledging allegiance to worldly powers. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah stood strong and the Lord provided for them. Christ is reminding the Christians in Smyrna of this by using the words “10 days” to describe the period of tribulation that was to come upon them.

The point for now is that Christ warned the Christians in Smyrna that they would soon experience a period of tribulation. It would be brief. Christ would would limit it. Some of them would be put to death.

Why would this be? It is imprint to understand something about the historical situation.

In the earliest days of the church Christians enjoyed a good deal of freedom. They were viewed by Rome as a sect of Judaism, which was a state approved religion. The Jews enjoyed certain freedoms, and the Christians were, at first, considered to be one with them. This changed over time. Christians would eventually loose the approval of the state and would be considered a threat to Roman rule and to the stability of society. They, after all, confessed Jesus as Lord, not Caesar. And they would not participate in the worship of the Roman gods.

Something else also changed. Over time the Roman Emperors began to insist upon being worshiped. Nero, who reigned from 54-68 A.D., tended in this direction. But it was Domitian, who reigned from 81-96 A.D., who insisted upon being worshiped. Once a year citizens were to offer up a pinch of incense upon the alter and to say “Caesar  is Lord”. Faithful Christians refused. Thousands were killed under Domitian’s reign. The charge was often atheism. It sounds strange to our modern ears to hear Christians charged with being atheists, but you must put yourself in ancient Rome. Christians denied the Roman gods and they refused to worship the Emperor, confessing only Jesus as Lord. This was atheism from the Roman point of view. It was a denial of the gods, and it was treasonous to the Empire. Thousands of Christians were killed under Domitian.

This is how the persecution would usually play out: The Romans rarely went “hunting” for Christians. Instead Christians in a city or town would fall into disfavor with a person or a group of people. Those people would then accuse the Christians of atheism or treason and insist that they be put to the test. Perhaps the accusations were politically motivated. Perhaps they were religiously motivated. Perhaps a person would simply grow envious and, therefore, seek the harm of his advisory. The Roman government would be used as a persecuting force. The Christian would be asked to say “Caesar is Lord” and to offer up the incense. Punishment would follow if they refused – sometimes death.

In Smyrna it was the Jews who were motivating the persecution against the Christians. It’s not hard to understand the tension between the two groups. The Christians believed that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the long awaited King of the Jews. The non-believing Jews considered this to be blasphemy. And the Jews certainly had the upper hand in this. Judaism was a recognized and state approved religion. Christianity was not. The Christians were very vulnerable. The Jews knew that the  Christians would not bow to Rome and they used this against them, bringing them to the attention of the authorities.

The language is very strong against the Jews in this passage, and we must be careful with it. Never should Christians encourage or condone violence against any religion or group of people. That way is completely contrary to the way of Christ. Indeed it must be admitted that terrible things have been done in the past in the name of Christ. Christians should denounce these acts with all that is in them. The Kingdom of Christ does not advance by the sword, but by the word and Spirit. This fundamental fact has been sadly overlooked by many in the history of the church. Never should the strong language in this passage be used to justify acts of violence. But neither should the language be ignored.

The unbelieving Jews – notice that this has nothing to do with race, but with beliefs and behavior – are called “a synagogue of Satan”. The word synagogue means “assembly or congregation”. We use the word “church” to refer to our gathering together. The Jews gathered in synagogues. And, ironically, they are called the “synagogue of Satan”. It is ironic because under the Old Covenant the Jewish people were set apart as God’s people, but here they are found serving Satan. How could this be? It came to be when these Jews rejected Christ as their Messiah and, in fact, began to persecute the people of God, namely, the church – that is, all who had believed upon Christ, both Jew and Gentile. Once again, this has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with belief and behavior. The Jews in Smyrna were showing themselves to be a “synagogue of Satan” through their rejection of God’s Messiah and through their persecution of God’s people. They were shown to be on the wrong side of things.

Ethnicity does not matter under the New Covenant. Physical birth means nothing. What matters is faith followed by obedience. In pride the Jews say, “we are the people of God given our heritage.” The New Testament has a different opinion. Paul puts it most succinctly, saying, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:28–29, ESV). This is why the New Testament constantly uses Old Testament language that was once reserved for Israel and applies it to the church, which is made of of Jew and gentile. The church is the Israel of God (see Galatians 6:16). We have already seen an example of this in Revelation! It is the Jewish Menorah – the sacredlamp stand burned bright in the Jewish temple for centuries – that is used to symbolize the Christian church, made up of Jews and gentiles.

It is not surprising to me that the Jewish people, still to this day, think themselves to be the “people of God” on the basis of their ethnicity. For them the Old Testament scriptures are authoritative, not the New. For them, nothing changed when Jesus of Nazareth died, for in their view he was a common man and nothing more. They are still waiting for the Messiah. What is surprising to me is that many Christians still have this opinion of them, thinking that they, the Jews, are God’s people by virtue of their ethnicity. I want to ask Christians who have this view, have you read the New Testament? Do you not see that the Christ has come? And you do know that the promises made to Abraham have been fulfilled, that through his physical descendent the blessings of the Messiah have come to all the peoples of the earth (Genesis 12). There is no longer Jew and gentile – indeed, it is all who are in Christ by faith who are the people of God. “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named’” (Romans 9:6–7, ESV).

“That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:16–17, ESV).

So do you understand how it was that the church in Smyrna was experiencing persecution? The evil one used the Jewish people there to oppose the people of God (those who confessed that Jesus is the Christ). They, wishing to do them harm, brought it to the attention of Rome that these Christians would not bow to Caesar. When they refused to bow the knee – when they refused to say, “Caesar is Lord” or to offer up the pinch of incense, they were imprisoned and even put to death.

Last week I sent you all a document from the early church entitled “The Martyrdom of Polycarp”. I would encourage you to read it. The word describes the killing of Polycarp who was a Bishop, or pastor, in Smyrna in the middle of the second century A.D. He died in Smyrna at the hands of the Romans some 50 or 60 years after the book of Revelation was written. It’s a fascinating work which helps us to understand what was going on in this region in those days.

It should noticed that there are different forms of persecution. Death is the most extreme form. But the Christians in Smyrna were also slandered. To slander someone is to speak evil against them to damage their reputation. Slander is an evil thing. It really bothers me to hear slander – to hear people misrepresent the truth or tell outright lies to damage the reputation of others. This was done to the Christians in Smyrna. And we are also told that they were poor (but in fact they were rich, Christ says!). Now it may be that they were simply poor. But the contexts suggest that they were poor because of persecution. If you live in a place where Christianity is despised and you are in the minority it might be hard to get a job. This was probably the case in Smyrna.

But what were they to do in the face of this difficulty? “Do not fear”, Christ says, and “be faithful unto death.” Do not fear and be faithful. Continue steadfast to the end, even if it means that you loose your life.

Friends, this is in fact a decision that Christians all over the world have to make even up to this present day. But how can Christians stand in the face of such persecution? How can they stand in the face of death? How do they not cave in – denying Christ, bowing the knee to another, offering the “pinch of incense”, confessing “Caesar as Lord”?

Well, for one we must confess that it is the Lord who sustains them. He gives them the courage to stand in the moment of testing. But we must also recognize that those who stand have faith that is strong. They really believe that this world is not all there is. They really believe that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18, ESV). They really believe that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21, ESV). They really believe that, ironically, death means life for the one who is in Christ!

Look at how Christ encourages the Christians in Smyrna to persevere. “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10, ESV). In verse 11 he promises that “the one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death” (Revelation 2:11, ESV). The first death is the physical death that all humans experience. The second death is the judgment. To persevere in Christ means that, though we be stung by the first death, the second death will not touch us. And notice also how Christ introduced himself to this church: “The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life” (Revelation 2:8, ESV).


Do you believe it, Christian? Do you believe that Christ died and came to life? Do you believe that in him is found life everlasting? Do you believe that this world is nothing when compared with the world to come? Do you believe it?

Persecution of any kind, be it slander, loss of wealth, or physical suffering has a way of putting all of that to the test. I do wonder how many would stand. I know that Christ is able to make us stand. And I pray that we would stand, for our good and for the glory of his name.

Comments are closed.

"Him we proclaim,
warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom,
that we may present everyone mature in Christ."
(Colossians 1:28, ESV)

© 2011-2022 Emmaus Reformed Baptist Church