Week 4 - A Church in a Hostile Environment Revelation 2:8-11
Updated: Dec 15, 2021
Authored by Jerry Marshall
The true church always exists in a hostile environment. Jesus foretold that those who are His would be hated by this world because of their identification with Him (John 15:18-20; 16:33). This animosity directed toward the church is expressed in various ways, degrees and at various times. The church that the exalted Lord addresses next in the book of Revelation, certainly understood experientially what it meant to suffer for the cause of Christ. But the eternal and resurrected Lord gave this persecuted church the prescription for being victorious even while being in the center of the crucible of suffering.
The church located in the city of Smyrna, along with the church in Philadelphia are the only two of the seven addressed in chapters two and three that the Lord doesn’t criticize or condemn. This church then is a commendable church in the sight of the Lord.
I. The Context of the Church (Revelation 2:8)
This battered body of believers lived in the city of Smyrna, which like Ephesus was a thriving seaport city. It was considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in all of Asia. It was known as the birthplace of Homer who was a famous poet. It still exists today in modern day Turkey under the name of Izmir.
As a testimony of the eclectic theology of polytheism that dominated the city and its social life, the most famous street in the city, called The Street of Gold, which curved around the Pago’s, a large hill of distinction, had at one end of the street the temple of Cybele, at the other end the Temple of Zeus, and in between the Temples of Apollo, Asclepius and Aphrodite.
The citizens of this city were known for their strong allegiance to Rome and its emperors. At one time in the history of this city, they had built a temple to Rome and later a temple was built in honor of the Roman Emperor Tiberius.
“Not surprisingly, the city was a leading center for the cult of emperor worship.”
The general populace of Smyrna was more than willing to offer the worship that Emperor Domitian (the emperor at the time of this writing), demanded of the subjects of Rome under the threat of death. This was done more as an expression of political loyalty rather than for religious purposes.
In addition to the adversarial nature of the culture of a city that was devoted to emperor worship and the worship of many gods, there was a rather large population of Jews who were hostile to the church. The reasons for their hostility will be touched on in just a moment, but one would be their opposition to the central message of the church, and the formula of salvation that this first century body of believers publicly proclaimed.
This was not a happy place to be if your heart and life belonged to the one true Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The Lord of the church identifies Himself as the first and the last, which captures the truth that He is the eternal God who is infinite. Who existed before anything was created, who was in existence when all things were created and who will be in existence when all of creation is destroyed.
He transcends time, space and history. Yet, this infinite God took upon himself finite flesh in order to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of this world. He came into this world to die the death that we should have died. And having paid the price for our sins with his life, He was raised victoriously, conquering sin and death. And why is this designation of Christ significant for this church in Smyrna? Because the believers in this city needed a reminder that our Lord transcends the temporal matters of this world. And even if they should die at the hand of their persecutors, they too would be brought back to life by the same power that quickened Christ to life while in the tomb.
They needed to be reminded that Jesus blazed the trail of persecution and came out victorious in the end.
II. The Condition of this Church (Revelation 2:9)
A. A Persecuted Church (2:9 a)
Such an environment as this left this church tattered and torn under the heavy hand of persecution. And the all-knowing and all-seeing Lord addressed this issue.
The Lord was omnisciently aware of the conditions in which this church had to exist. It was a persecuted church, an impoverished church and a church that was unjustifiably slandered by the religious Jews of that city.
The word persecution is a translation of the Greek word thilipsis, which literally means to pressure or to be pressed together. Metaphorically it is used to refer to afflictions, tribulation or distress. No doubt there were at least a couple of sources that served as the fuel for this persecution and fanned the flames of this hostility directed toward the church.
One source of trouble was the city’s fanatical devotion to Rome and the worship of the emperor which put the believers in opposition to the whole ethos of this city, because they knew that there is only one true God, who is exclusively worthy of worship.
The church would obey the Emperor in terms of the civil authority bestowed upon him (Romans 13:1-5), but they could not obey him in this, because it would exceed the ultimate authority of God. An additional dynamic that created an atmosphere of suspicion and hostility was the believer’s rejection and unwillingness to participate in the pagan religious practices in general.
The church rejected the eclectic Roman pantheon of gods. Much of the social life of that city revolved around these pagan religions. The believers’, being unwilling to participate in the practices of this pagan culture, were perceived by the citizens of this city as being antisocial and spiritual elitists. Often when cities like Smyrna experienced hard times because of some natural calamity such as a drought, they surmised that their gods were angry with them because of the refusal of the Christians to acknowledge and worship them. Therefore, to appease the gods, it was thought that it would be best to eliminate them.
55 years later after the death of John, the hostility in this city for the people of God was still very much alive as expressed in the martyrdom of Polycarp, one of the early church fathers and the head elder in the church in Smyrna, for his unwillingness to worship the emperor. It is recorded that the zealous Jews, in partnership with the pagans of that city, cried out for his blood. And that the Jews helped in his martyrdom by gleefully gathering the wood for the fire in which Polycarp was burned alive. This truly was a hostile environment for the church.
A large Jewish community also thrived in Smyrna. The Jews, of course, did not have to patronize the imperial cult since their religion was accepted by Rome; but they certainly would not cooperate with the Christian faith. So, from both Jews and Gentiles, the Christians in Smyrna received slander and suffering.
B. A Poor Church (2:9b)
The word poverty is not the common word most frequently used to describe someone who doesn’t have enough to meet their basic needs. The word used here in the original language is ptocheia (pto-khi’-ah), which conveys the idea of being destitute; so it’s not a question of not having enough, but rather, having nothing at all and having to beg for assistance.
Most of the believers that made up the church were slaves. Others, who were not slaves, lost their possessions in the heat of the persecution. Yet, from the perspective of the Lord, even though they were poor materially and financially, they were rich in His sight because of the abundance of spiritual blessings that belonged to them in Christ. This spiritual treasure was eternal in nature and not subject to the fluctuations of this fallen and dying world. They thought themselves to be poor, but they were rich – in contrast to the church in Laodicea, which thought it was rich when, in fact, it was poor (Revelation 3:17).
C. A Slandered Church (2:9c)
The Jews who made up the synagogue in Smyrna may have thought themselves to be a part of the synagogue of God. But, from the perspective of God, they were a synagogue (assembly) of Satan, the chief adversary of God and His children. This was demonstrated in the fact that they unwittingly served as an agent of Satan in their involvement in slandering the poor and persecuted church of Smyrna.
The word blasphemy refers to speech that is injurious to another’s good name. The NIV translates blasphemia, as slander. Although the specifics are not given to us regarding the content of the slanderous speech of this synagogue of Satan, it was no doubt typical of the kind of false charges that were brought against the church in the first century by those Jews who were hostile to the early church.
- They were sectarian
1Wiersbe, Warren W.: The Bible Exposition Commentary. Wheaton, Ill. : Victor Books, 1996, c1989, S. Re 2:8
- They were guilty of sedition
- They were sacrilegious
- They were cannibals
Whatever the nature of the slander, it certainly wasn’t helpful for this poor and persecuted church. No doubt it fanned the flames of their suffering in this city.
So how should this church respond?
III. The Command to the Church (2:10)
A. Be fearless (2:10a)
I find it interesting that the exalted Lord does not promise deliverance immediately from this circumstance – but speaks of more suffering to come and commands a necessary attitude that they must maintain in the face of it. The first part of this verse is better translated stop being afraid, or, stop fearing. They were to be fearless in the face of some coming persecution.
Such an attitude of courage in the crucible of suffering portrays a confidence in the character of God and not in the circumstances of life. This is the response of those who are mature in the faith. (As exemplified in the reaction of Daniel’s three friends when facing a fiery death unless they worship the image set up by Nebuchadnezzar - Daniel 3:16-18).
This courage in the face of persecution is a strong deterrent to compromise. Fear, on the other hand, creates a condition for compromise (John 10:37-43).
B. Be faithful (2:10b)
The Devil (Diabolos – the slanderer), was going to intensify his persecution of the church, resulting in believers being cast into prison. Yet the duration of this persecution is limited (10 days). The implication could be that such a limitation is set by our sovereign God. Throughout all of this, the necessary mandated response was to remain faithful to the Lord even if such loyalty required the loss of life. And in the end, the exalted Lord promises these believers the Crown of life, or the crown which is live (eternal life).
In the original language, the word crown is not the typical word used to describe the crown of royalty (the diadem), like the crown of a King. Here the word used describes a victor’s wreath; stephanos, the victors crown. It is the wreath or garland which was given as a prize to victors in public games. It speaks metaphorically of receiving eternal life as the ultimate reward for persevering under the pressure of this persecution.
IV. The Counsel to the Churches (2:11)
A. A Command (11a)
The Lord’s counsel to all the churches is a command to hear and heed what the Holy Spirit says to this church because the message is applicable to all local assemblies that find themselves existing in a hostile context. Since the Holy Spirit is the chief agent of the divine communication, He is mentioned as the source of this message, showing by implication the equality of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
B. A Commitment (11b)
Those who overcome refer in a general way to all true believers (1 John 5:4-5). John considers the term as synonymous with those who are born of God and who believe that Jesus is the Son of God. The promise that the exalted Lord states here is that he who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death. The word overcomes is a translation of the Greek word nikao (neek-kay), which is descriptive of a conqueror or one who comes off victorious. You are most familiar with its English transliterated word, Nike.
The word overcome is a favorite with John; he uses it in 1 John 2:13–14 with reference to overcoming the devil. He uses it seven times in Revelation to describe believers and the blessings they receive (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). He is not describing a special class of believers. Rather, he is using the word overcomer as a name for the true Christian. Because we have been born of God, we are overcomers.
Although intense persecution may result in physical death which is the first death implied here, the persecuted believer will not experience the second death.
In the bible death always carries the connotation of separation. There is physical death which involves the separation of the breath of life from the body. There is spiritual death which is the separation of the soul from God. And then there is eternal death which is the separation of the body and soul from the presence of God forever in a conscious state of eternal damnation in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:14; 21:8; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9.The true believer can certainly experience the hurt of the first death but never the second.
1. Are there certain things that you fear which have led or will lead to a breach in your faithfulness to God?
Fear of rejection
Fear of complete surrender
Fear of the loss of self-governance
Fear of failing
Fear of your identity in Christ
Fear of sharing your faith
Stop being afraid!!!!!
2Wiersbe, Warren W.: The Bible Exposition Commentary. Wheaton, Ill. : Victor Books, 1996, c1989, S. 1 Jn 5:4
2. God’s knowledge of your current calamities brought upon you for your commitment to Christ, does not necessarily equate to your immediate deliverance, but rather further opportunity to show your faithfulness to Him.
3. Those that are born twice will only die once. Those who are born once will die twice.