“Natural selection” describes the theory that a living thing will change over time so that it can survive in its surroundings. So let’s imagine that our building is infested with some bugs called “wall-crawlers.” These bugs are dark in color and are easily seen on the wall and so disposed of. However, over the course of time, we miss some of the lighter colored ones, they reproduce more lighter colored ones and eventually the black bugs have become all white which makes them much harder to see. The bugs have changed over time so that they blend in with the lighter walls and so better survive.
The problem is that this is a terribly short-sighted perspective. This may enable a person to survive in this world, but this doesn’t take into account survival in eternal life in the Kingdom of God. True survival requires not that we adapt to the world, but that we stand out boldly, as being radically different from the world. If we are willing to do that, then we will truly survive as Christ intends us to survive. In the message to the church in Smyrna, Christ commends the Christians there for being willing to stand up for Christ even in an environment that was very hostile to them. Let’s read Revelation 2:8-11.
I. First, let’s look at the church in Smyrna.
As a result of this, the church in Smyrna was in a most difficult position. The church there was very strong and organized since at this time it already had a council of elders, deacons and a bishop in place. However, the prevalence of emperor worship made it difficult for Christians. Moreover, the Jews were also very hostile to the Christians there. As with the other churches, Christ speaks to the spirit of the church, the predominate attitude found among the people there.
Christ identifies himself as the “first and the last, who died and came to life again.” This church’s greatest need is that they are suffering greatly for Christ. Christ assures them that he is truly God and he has won the final victory over all sin and death even if in this present world things are looking grim. The musician George Harrison wrote a song entitled “All Things Must Pass.” It’s a song that laments the loss of someone’s love but he takes some comfort in that all things pass away; both good and bad must all pass away. And so one must learn to press on in spite of the hardships because in the end there is really nothing left because it all passes away. However, as God, the “First and the Last,” Jesus and his kingdom do not pass away as all things on earth do. Jesus’ kingdom will endure over all things and will last forever. This would give the Smyrna church confidence in the face of severe opposition.
Christ lists three types of sufferings that they were enduring. The Christians in Smyrna were facing afflictions in the form of persecution. Persecution here literally means a burden that crushes someone. They were slowly being smashed by those who opposed them. Second, they are facing severe poverty as a result of this persecution. They were ostracized economically by other people. Some evidence indicates that they may have been victims of mob violence.
Third, the Christians also faced slander from the Jews. The Jews hated the Christians because they worshiped Jesus, a man who, in their view, blasphemed against God. Moreover, many of the Jews were being converted to Christianity which infuriated the Jewish population even more. A good example of this persecution from the Jews is seen in the killing of a man named Polycarp, who was the Bishop of the church in Smyrna. Polycarp was betrayed by the Jews to the Roman officials as one who opposed worshiping the Emperor, making him a traitor to Rome. Refusing to denounce Christ and proclaim Caesar as Lord, he was sentenced to be burned alive as punishment for treason. And even though it was a Sabbath day, the Jews were among those busily gathering up the wood in order to kill him. However, Christ points out that they are really Jews in name only. They are really pawns of Satan there; a “synagogue of Satan.” They are of Satan because they are opposing the work of God.
Jesus says, “I know these things,” meaning he understands the things they are enduring. You who have lost loved ones can understand others who have lost loved ones. You who have gone through serious illness know what it is like for others. Jesus went through the same things and he understands how they feel. But Jesus’ point is that even though they were destitute materially, because of their faithfulness, they were actually fabulously wealthy spiritually. Their spiritual faithfulness made them stand out above all others. Eternally they are the blessed ones and the rich ones.
It is important to hear today that Jesus knows our sufferings as well. We do suffer in our lives in many ways. Some have personal sorrows, sicknesses or health problems. Some struggle with difficulties in family relationships. While we may not suffer overtly from our beliefs, we still do experience trials. The point is that Jesus knows and understands these things about us. God knowing our pain and affliction can help us endure them. The living Christ understands us – our temptations and our discouragements – because he has gone through it all. And because of his resurrection we have hope in this life and for the life to come. We may suffer but he knows our suffering, and if we rely on our Lord, he will go with us and help us through our trials.
III. Christ also issues a warning for the future in verse 10.
In the meantime, the immediate future for the church in Smyrna is not very positive. The coming persecution will be getting more intense; many of them will be imprisoned. Prison here likely means that they were awaiting their own death. Any perceived threat against the Roman Empire will be stopped in this city of loyal Roman Empire supporters.
But Christ wants them to know who is persecuting them and putting them in prison. While the persecutors were Jews and Gentiles, Satan is the one who is trying to test them and lure them away from following the Lord Jesus. As a result, Jesus says that they will endure persecution for “ten days.” Ten days symbolizes a significant period of time. This is not just a bit of harassment but the full weight of the forces against God.
What does that message have to do with us? Right now we do not face intense persecution in our time. We have freedom of religion in our nation. We can gather to worship, we can express our views openly. But that doesn’t mean that persecution doesn’t exist at all. Many Christians in the world are being imprisoned and persecuted for their faith. Persecution is going on; let’s not forget those who are still dying for the Lord.
Moreover, let’s also realize that persecution for us may not be far away and so the question is: Are we ready to face that? And it may be tempting to try to survive by blending in with our surroundings. Perhaps not overtly deny Christ, but be nominal and generic enough of a Christian that you are overlooked like those fictitious white bugs on the wall. However, this is not the kind of disciple Jesus wants following him. He wants faithful disciples who are faithfully serving him. And if we are faithful, we will be able to endure any persecution or opposition because we know that Jesus will not abandon us.
IV. As a result there is comfort, both now and later.
Christ tells them three things to help the church in Smyrna in their suffering. First, he says, “Don’t be afraid!” The persecution will get worse, but don’t dwell on being afraid. Rather, second, they must focus on being faithful, even to the point of death. Now how can that be comforting? It is comforting because those who will remain faithful will receive a crown of life. Christians will ultimately be victorious forever over their enemies. While they will still have to endure death here on earth, they will not be hurt at all by the second death or eternal death but will instead gain eternal life in heaven.
There is a message of comfort here for us as well. Whatever ordeals we may be facing now or may have to face in the future, if you remain faithful to Christ, the victory is yours. Romans 8:37-39 says: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The Marxist said: “I am on my way to India to organize fishermen to overthrow their oppressors. And I am quite willing to lay down my life for the revolution. Your American Christianity is preoccupied with what your God can do for you. And dying for self-interest is a contradiction in terms.” Sine said, “He’s right. Biblical Christianity is not a self-interested Christianity.”
Have we adopted the ways of the world so much that we blend in almost perfectly with the non-Christians around me or are we bold disciples of our Lord Jesus? Christ promises a great reward to those who remain faithful. Are we being faithful right now in our circumstances?