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Lowell Brueckner

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Revelation 2:8-11


  The Church of Smyrna

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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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 history of Smyrna and Polycarp

Izmir, Turkey, with ancient Smyrna ruins in the center
Jesus begins by speaking to Ephesus, the most notable and dominant church of their day in Asia Minor. The second church that the Lord addresses is Smyrna. It is 35 miles north of Ephesus and slightly east. You will notice that He goes in order around the crude circle of churches, which we have described.

For all practical purposes, Smyrna was built by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Lysimachus, in the third century before Christ. He controlled Thrace, which today includes, largely, a part of northeastern Greece, Bulgaria and western Turkey. Later, it was used by the Romans as a port on the Aegean Sea and at the time of the apostles, the population reached about 100,000. Between the city and the port was a public square and its outstanding feature was a statue of Zeus, the Roman Jupiter and chief of the gods. The second largest city of Turkey, modern Izmir, stands on the ancient site and only a few places have been excavated by archeologists. A Roman aqueduct, theater and the agora, the public square, remain in ruins. Izmir continues to be a major seaport.

After the apostle Paul preached in the Jewish synagogue in Ephesus for three months, because of opposition, he was forced to continue for two years in the hall of Tyrannus. During that time, the Bible tells us “that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (Ac.19:10). Reason would tell us that the church in Smyrna was born at that time. The ministry of the apostle must have attracted people from around the area, as the biblical account continues, “God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them” (Ac.19:11-12).

When the truth of the gospel is proclaimed by the Word of God, the Lord always confirms the preaching with supernatural power. Demon spirits, working through the idolatrous Roman pantheon, were challenged and people were set free. Roman religion and Judaism were strange bedfellows those days and, although diametrically opposed to one another superficially, in the spiritual realm they united, and Christians came under great persecution at the hand of the Jews (Ac.4:25-27). A large number of Jews resided there for centuries and today there are several synagogues in modern Izmir.

The Greek word smyrna means myrrh-producer. Myrrh is taken from a small, thorny tree, which is pierced, so that it will bleed the resin. It has been used throughout history as a perfume, incense and medicine. The Hebrew word is smurna, the root of which is bitter and was one of the ingredients used in the anointing oil of the priests. You will remember that the magi brought myrrh as a gift to the child Jesus. Most significantly, it was used for embalming the dead and Nicodemus brought it to the tomb for the burial of Jesus (Jn.19:39). It is not difficult to discern the symbolic significance of myrrh in the life of Christ. As author L. E. Maxwell (1895-1984) titled his book, He was Born Crucified. The city of Smyrna was indeed a producer of myrrh, because of its martyrdom of Christians.

That information leads us into the spoken message by Jesus, given to John, who then wrote it to the messenger of the church. Polycarp, a good friend and disciple of John, was that messenger. He became a Christian as a child and died as a martyr around 155 A.D, burned alive at 86 years of age. His martyrdom was well-recorded. Besides John, he knew many of the first-generation Christians, possibly other apostles, as well, and continued to live and preach their faith and doctrine. There is one letter of Polycarp that still remains and by it we can see that he had little formal education, was humble and direct. He fought the early Gnostic movement, which John also refers to in his letters.

Polycarp opened the door to the soldiers, who took him to trial, conducted by the local Roman proconsul, who threatened to burn him at the stake. Polycarp replied that his fire would last only a little while, but the fires of judgment, “reserved for the ungodly”, cannot be quenched. As the soldiers were about to nail him to the stake, Polycarp stopped them, saying, “He who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” He prayed aloud, as the fire was lit. An eye-witness wrote that “it was not as burning flesh, but as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in a furnace.”

Christ’s message to the church

On this map you see Smyrna, north of Ephesus
 Christ begins His message, as He will in all seven cases, by presenting Himself, as we have seen Him in the first chapter. We will remind ourselves that He is the glorified Christ, revealing Himself to the seven churches and to the church throughout its history. “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore” (1:17,18). These are the words of the Logos, who was with God and was God from the beginning (Jn.1:1).

This is the One that Smyrna must see and hear, even as Polycarp, who regarded His word above the sentence of the Roman proconsul. It was He, who spoke of the fire that cannot be quenched (Mk.9:43,48). His word is to be given highest priority, not only because of the threat of eternal fire, but also because it brings peace and comfort to the believer. It rises above all the threats of men (He.13:5,6), and is the court of last appeals. He gives victory in the face of death and locks the door of hell to protect His sheep. They will never experience its flames (v.8).   

Please allow me to quote from my comments on His declaration in chapter 1: “Fear not,” He said, “I am the first and the last” (1:18). Those who fear Christ, need fear no one else. He is before all and outlasts all. He is over all, so that no high power can touch us; He is below, so that none of hell’s forces can reach us. He surrounds us as a wall of fire that nothing on this earth can penetrate. He is the living one: “The last Adam became a life-giving spirit” (1 Co.15:45). He is back from the dead, as living proof that He has conquered death and hell. “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died… more than that, who was raised… who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Ro.8:34). He now holds the keys of these chief enemies of mankind, death and hell, and he will never allow that they be turned for evil against His own.

The Christians of Smyrna were not among the chief of its citizens. We learned that their messenger was simple and unschooled, as was the writer of the message, John, who taught their leader. John was a fisherman and Greek experts tell us that his vocabulary and style were simple. Their Lord and Master was a carpenter from Nazareth in Galilee. Among the Corinthians, Paul taught, “Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Co.1:26).

Christ’s disciples in Smyrna were poverty-stricken. However, they were rich in the Holy Spirit and wise, schooled and taught by Him in the ways of God. They were not intellectually careless or lazy, but gave themselves to know the word of God and to live by it. Paul continued, “We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God… None of the rulers of this age understood this” (1 Co.2:7,8).

Their persecutors were principally Jews, but they were influential in the city among the officials. We see the union of the Jews, whom Jesus called the synagogue of Satan, and Gentiles under the control of the kingdom of darkness. False doctrines of demons and demon worship, in the guise of gods and goddesses, hold the city under their power (v.9). The representation of God and His Christ among them comes under attack, by evil words and deeds.

From this example, we can learn that Jesus gives no guarantee against danger or tribulation, but, as Polycarp testified, they hold no lasting claim against the believer. I am sure that the words from His Master through his friend, John, were close to Polycarp’s heart in the last days of his life: “Fear not, I am the first and the last.” Hear Polycarp’s testimony again: “He who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” Jesus promised that they would face the worst that the devil could throw in their direction in the near future.

It is the devil who “is about to throw some of you into prison”. The trial is brought about by the enemy, in which he uses all his supernatural cunning and power to absolutely ruin the individual and the church, acting according to his destructive nature. He can no more control it, than a human can control his heartbeat. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (Jn.10:10), but it will be limited under sovereign control. The story of Job teaches basic biblical principle concerning testing (see Job 1:6-2:7).

God’s intentions, in allowing the testing, is the direct opposite of that of Satan. “I am come that they may have life and have it abundantly,” Jesus said, and this will prove true in the hottest trial and temptation. "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints" (Ps.116:15). In some cases as a heavenly Father, God may allow the Christian to be punished for his sin and disobedience. This is a foregone biblical conclusion and cannot be denied, according to both the Old and New Testament. In other cases, the Lord will allow testing, in order to correct defects in a Christian’s character, which cannot be brought about in any other way. Sometimes it is strictly applied in His general work of sanctification and perfection in every believer. Peter teaches very clearly that Christian trial is as the testing of gold, which is to rid it of impurities (1 P.1:7). 

God does not test to see if a believer will remain true; He already knows the answer to that question. However, a Christian may learn, by the test, his true state before God, and also he will learn a deeper trust in God through it all: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 P.4:19).

As you can imagine, there are countless interpretations for the 10 days of tribulation. Those who delight in personal interpretation will show their colors, in the face of a statement like this. It is a phrase that they can turn in many different directions and would-be Bible students have done it. I think I will give you a safe and biblical conclusion. The number ten is given as an indefinite period of time in the Bible, in this case numbered in the unit of days, not years or even months. It was a proverbial saying, as we would say, “for a little while” (check also Ge.24:55; 1 S. 25:38; Dn.1:12,14).

According to the context of the Lord’s message, the statement gives us the same impression… a relatively short period of time. It fits His condition of faithfulness concerning physical death with the reward of a crown of eternal life. It also fits the doctrine of Paul: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Co.4:17, Notice the comparisons, which are beyond compare… light versus weight; momentary versus eternal; affliction versus glory).

The Greek experts tell us that the crown of life indicates a royal crown, rather than a victor’s wreath. One added thought: Martyrdom does not gain eternal life, it gains a crown. Eternal life is by grace through faith (v.10). Going on to the next verse, we have the general conclusion to all the seven churches and to the church of all ages. Listen by the Spirit! It is the only way to learn spiritual truth.

The individual challenge to each believer, rather than to the church as a body is he who conquers will not be hurt by the second death”. The second death is synonymous with the Lake of Fire and we study this place towards the end of the book. The resurrected saints in 20:4 came to life a thousand years before the “rest of the dead” (20:5). The Lord promises blessing upon those who take part in the first resurrection: “Over such the second death has no power” (20:6). Then, in 20:14, the second death is defined as the Lake of Fire. Again in 21:8, after giving a list of different kinds of sinners, God declares that their destiny will be “in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death”. Not a negative word or criticism is uttered against the Smyrna church.


Part of the Agora, Smyrna
Once again, I will refer to the theory that the number seven gives us the idea that Jesus’ messages to the seven churches are messages to the complete church throughout the period of grace. This church is called out of the world by the Good Shepherd and is built through the divine work and planning of Christ: “I will build my church” (Mt.16:18). No one else can design this work of art. It is a work of divine love, for it is the formation of a bride, with whom He will share a celestial wedding, to take place after the rapture. Redeemed Christians may be co-workers with Christ, but there can be no other architect.  Just as the Ephesian church was the dominant church during the second generation or the post-apostolic period from 70-170 A.D., so the Smyrna church will represent the dominant church during the following period.

I remind you that Smyrna means myrrh-producing, the root of which means bitterness, and is an ointment associated with death. I believe that this was a prophecy for the church from 170-340 A.D, which would follow the Ephesian period. We studied the martyrdom of Polycarp and persecution would continue and increase in the world until the worst and the fiercest would take place under Caesar Diocletian. Not long after the occurrence of the ‘conversion’ of Constantine, there would be respite from the worst of this persecution.  The church would enter another period, which we will study next… the time of the Pergamos church.  

There may be churches to represent all seven in any given period of history, but we are speaking of the dominant manifestation, which would typify the church overall during that time. Individual churches here and there would come under different conditions. We see that the Lord turned His attention toward the individual, so that he could prepare his own spiritual life for the time that was ahead and, if necessary take exception to any judgment that might fall upon the church in general. So the individual church could take its stand outside the general judgment coming to the church during their time of existence. Let us, in these last days, take our position outside of what we see today, as the poor general condition of the church.     


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