Faithful and Fearless (Rev. 2:8-11)

Smyrna was a city situated along the coast of the Aegean Sea, about 40 miles north of Ephesus. Back in the first century, it vied with Ephesus for the title of “First City of Asia,” and it was widely considered the most beautiful city in that part of the world. In fact, on their coins they had inscribed, “First of Asia in beauty and size.” It was also one of the few planned cities in the ancient world. At one end of the town stood Mount Pagos, around whose base ran the Golden Road “like a necklace on the statue of a goddess.”1 Though the city of Ephesus no longer exists, Smyrna still does. It is known today as Izmir, one of the largest cities in modern day Turkey. And apparently there are still Christians in this city, its witness surviving both pagan and Islamic persecution to the present day.

Despite all its beauty and wealth and commerce, however, ancient Smyrna was dedicated to paganism and the cult of Rome. In addition to all the temples dedicated to the various gods of the region, Smyrna had a temple to the god of Rome. In fact, long before Rome had become a world empire, when it was still fighting it out with the Carthaginians in the Punic Wars, Smyrna had allied itself with Rome, so it had a long history of allegiance to the Roman empire.

Smyrna also had a large Jewish population. By the end of the first century, when Revelation was written, the Jewish community and the church had long separated and although the church was made up of both Jew and Gentile, the hostility the non-Christian Jews felt against the believers was fierce. They apparently had no problem joining with their pagan neighbors in seeking the downfall of the church in that area.

So you see, Smyrna may have been a wonderful place to live if you were a pagan Gentile or an adherent to first-century Judaism. But it was not hospitable to Christians. To be a Christian meant that you had to separate yourself from the community for all intents and purposes. It meant being ostracized. It meant being called unpatriotic or a traitor. For some, it even meant martyrdom.

In the verses before us, we are told of the tribulation of the church (9), a word which refers to “serious trouble, the burden that crushes.”2 Our Lord, who knows these things, goes on to describe this in terms of poverty. To help us to understand what this means, R. C. Trench noted long ago that the Greek word used here means that they had “nothing at all.”3 They were, as we would say today, dirt poor. This is probably due to the fact that they could participate little or not at all in the political or economic life of the city. As Christians who could not fellowship with the cult of Rome or of the emperor, they were seen as undesirable traitors in the midst. As people who could not worship at any of deities in the pagan temples, they were seen as atheists. They were almost certainly boycotted and sanctioned economically. The result was that they had nothing.

They also endured “the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan” (9). Blasphemy here does not carry the religious connotation we associate with the word today; rather, it just meant to be reproached. The Jews in that community reviled and slandered the Christians in the city. So along with the poverty, the Christians in Smyrna had to put up with being despised on all sides and, like their Savior, rejected of men. Jesus had warned his disciples that this would come: “ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake” (Mt. 24:9). The Smyrnaean Christians found this to be true.

In addition to the present poverty and blasphemy, our Lord warns them that they are about to endure more aggressive forms of persecution: “the devil,” he says, “shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (10). The persecution is going to go from being forced to be materially destitute to becoming martyrs for the faith of Christ.

Christian history has left a remarkable illustration of the sufferings of the Christians in Smyrna several decades after Revelation was written in the martyrdom of Polycarp. What is fascinating to me is that it is very likely that when Revelation was read to the church of Smyrna for the first time, Polycarp was probably in the congregation. He was personally discipled by the apostle John and later (in AD 115) he became the bishop of the church in Smyrna and held that position for many years.

But in AD 156, Polycarp was martyred during a public festival.4 The enemies of the Christian church had cried for Polycarp’s blood, and they moved the authorities to search for the bishop. They finally found him in a farm on the outskirts of the city. However, those who were sent to arrest him were amazed that people wanted this gentle, godly man arrested and executed and they tried to persuade him to offer sacrifice to Caesar and to denounce Christ so that he wouldn’t have to suffer. He refused.

They then led him before the governor who also strongly encouraged him to say, “Caesar is lord.” He pressed Polycarp: “Swear the oath [to Caesar], and I will release you; revile the Christ.” To which the aged bishop famously replied, “Eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

The governor next angrily threatened to throw him to the beasts. To this Polycarp answered, “Call for them.” He then threatened to have Polycarp burned at the stake. (Polycarp had previously had a dream in which his pillow was on fire, which he interpreted to mean that he was to be burned at the stake.) The bishop replied, “You threaten that fire which burns for a season and after a little while is quenched; for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do as you will.”

Seeing he could not convince him, the governor ordered Polycarp to be burnt at the stake. Even the Jews, though it was a sabbath day, broke the sabbath by joining with the pagans in gathering wood for the pyre. He thus sealed his testimony by his blood. It is said that after his death, the persecution ended, giving the church in Smyrna a much-needed respite.

The “ten days” of persecution mentioned in verse 10 was probably not a reference to this later episode fifty or sixty years later, but to something that happened to the church in the apostle’s day, at the end of the first century. But we can see that the lessons of a previous generation had strengthened the church to remain faithful in future persecutions. Polycarp not only heard the Revelation read; he took it to heart and lived out its lessons and truth in his own life.

My hope is that it will do the same thing for us. I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know if persecution on the level that the church of Smyrna experienced is in the future for the church in the United States. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. I’m not a prophet. But I do want all of us to be the kind of Christian who refuses to bend the knee to the image of Baal, no matter what the cost. And even if we never face the kind of grinding poverty and ostracism and martyrdom that the Christians in the first century world faced (or that Christians in other parts of the world face today), there are still other ways the devil can get at us to wear us out and down so that we will not remain faithful unto death. You will notice the two times the devil’s name is mentioned here. He is Satan in verse 9 which literally means “the adversary,” and in verse 10 he is the devil, which literally means “the slanderer.” He opposes the church, and he slanders the church. If you are a Christian, he will oppose you too: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith” (1 Pet. 5:8-9; cf. Eph. 6:10-20).

Our Lord’s word to the church at Smyrna and his word to us therefore is this: “Be faithful unto death” (10). His word is also, “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer” (10). The two of course go together. Those who give into fear will give into cowardice. They will not be faithful; they will not overcome. So we want to be people who are not fearful but who are faithful. The question is, how to we become people like that? How do we become faithful and fearless people for Christ?

These verses suggest that at least two things need to be true of us if we are going to be this kind of person. First of all, we need to rest in God’s sovereignty. Second, we need to rejoice in God’s sufficiency.

We must rest in God’s sovereignty.

Note how Jesus the Lord addresses this persecuted church. He comes to them in these words, “These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive” (8). This is drawing of course from the revelation of himself to John in chapter 1: “And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death” (1:17-18). This is especially relevant for the church at Smyrna to hear because they, or at least some of them, are facing the prospect of death. How are they to do that? And how are they to do that so that they don’t give in to fear and remain faithful unto death? They are to do that by remembering who Jesus is, that he is the one who faced death for us and defeated it for us. Because of that we know that death cannot have the final word. For the Christian, there is life after death – not life merely in the sense of existence, but life in its fullest sense. This is eternal life, the life of Christ shared with him with never-ending, ever-increasing joy.

What makes this even more certain for us is that the one who died and rose again is also “the first and the last.” What does this mean? We considered it briefly when we first encountered this expression in chapter 1. In 1:8, God reveals himself to us in this way: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.” To be the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the ending, is the same thing as being the first and the last. It means not only that God is eternal but that he is Lord is history. It means that he does whatever he pleases in heaven and earth. It is why these terms are put together with the description of God as “the Almighty.” It means that God’s wields his sovereignty as the one who is omnipotent, who has all power.

Isaiah also describes God in these terms to demonstrate his superiority over all other gods as the only one who is truly in control over human history. So we have these wonderful statements about God in that section of his prophesy that is sometimes called the “trial of the gods.” “Who hath wrought and done it, calling the generations from the beginning? I the Lord, the first, and with the last; I am he” (Isa. 41:4). “Thus saith the Lord the King of Israel, and his redeemer the Lord of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God” (44:6). “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (46:9- 10).

So even as our Lord reveals to John the future for the church, he speaks of things as if they are already accomplished. “And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely” (Rev. 21:6; cf. 22:13). It is because our Lord is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, that he can say of something not only entirely future but impossible to bring about on human terms, that “It is done.” It is the same principle on which the apostle Paul speaks when he tells us about the future glorification of the saints: “whom he justified, them he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). This is what we mean when we say that God is sovereign.

Unfortunately, there are some Christian teachers who teach that God cannot know the future exhaustively, and that God is not sovereign over human history. What they will say is that God knows everything that can be known, but that he can’t know everything. In particular, they argue that God can’t know the future choices of men and women who are exercising their free will. Otherwise, they say, their choices couldn’t be truly free. One of their motivations for this is to let God off the hook when tragedy strikes. If there is a tragedy they will say, “Oh, but God didn’t have anything to do with that. He never even saw it coming.”

What are we to say to that? Well, the first thing we must say is that it is a fundamental rejection of the Biblical witness to God. It’s a rejection of what God says about himself in these passages we’ve looked at in Isaiah, for example, and it is a rejection of the revelation of Christ of himself to the churches. He declares the end from the beginning. God knows the future as clearly as he knows the past. That’s part of what it means that God is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega.

And when you consider the fact that nothing can happen in the universe apart from God – for even our being is held moment by moment in existence by the omnipotent power of Christ; he is the one who upholds all things by the word of his power and who holds everything together (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3) – then the explanation for God knowing the future is not simply that God is a good guesser. God knows the future because, as Paul puts it to the Ephesians, he works all things – not just some things but all things – according to the purpose of his will (Eph. 1:11).

Now there is mystery here, for men are free in a real sense. We are not robots. We are accountable for our actions. But we must not say that in such a way as to deny the ultimate sovereignty of God over all things. We have to say that there is mystery at the place where God’s sovereignty and human responsibility intersect. But I do know that the Bible unabashedly teaches both that God is sovereign over history and that man is responsible for his actions. It teaches that God is not the author of sin even as it teaches that even sin is permitted by God according to his eternal plan.

But how does the doctrine work? How are we to use it in our lives?

First of all, we don’t want to use this doctrine to feed fatalism. We don’t want to take this doctrine and become fatalistic. That is not Biblical either. It is wrong to adopt the attitude that it doesn’t matter what we do. It’s wrong to think that it doesn’t matter whether we pray or work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. It does matter because God’s word says it matters. It matters whether or not we are faithful. It matters whether or not we fear not or whether we give into fear and unbelief. This text wouldn’t make any sense if it didn’t matter.

But second, neither should we use this doctrine to feed our expectation of worldly comforts. You can tell if you are there when you get disappointed or bitter at God when things don’t turn out the way you wanted them to. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty does not function to give you hope that you won’t get sick or that if you do you’ll get well soon. It doesn’t mean that you won’t experience loss or failure. It doesn’t mean that you will have your best life now.

How do we know that? Well, just look at the church of Smyrna. There is nothing here in the text to indicate that there was anything wrong with the church. This was one of only two churches of the seven that weren’t rebuked for sin. The poverty and persecution aren’t happening because they are being judged by God.

However, neither is this happening because God is unaware of their situation. Jesus knows (8). He knows their poverty and the persecution they are enduring. But instead of relieving them of it, he warns them of more to come. Instead of delivering them from suffering, he calls on them to be faithful.

God is sovereign over all things, including our suffering, but that does not mean that he always removes the suffering for us in this world. Or, to put it another way, just because our persecutors are victorious over us doesn’t mean that God is not sovereign. Just because a thorn in the flesh is not removed doesn’t mean God is not in control. Just because the cancer didn’t go away doesn’t mean that God doesn’t rule or that he doesn’t care. We are overcomers (see ver. 11!), which means that we get the inevitable victory. And God is sovereign over that. But sometimes that victory is only achieved through much earthly loss. Sometimes it even means martyrdom. God’s sovereignty doesn’t mean we don’t bear a cross. It means we get resurrection into life eternal after the cross.

So why does God reveal his sovereignty to us? What is the purpose of this? Why did Christ reveal himself to the Smyrnaean Christians as the first and the last? He did so, not to relieve us of our responsibility. He did so, not to give us false hopes of earthly bliss. He did it, rather, so that we would rest in his sovereignty and be faithful and fearless in the face of imprisonment, poverty, and martyrdom. Indeed, I would put it this way: we are strengthened in our resolve to be faithful and fearless because we rest in the fact that God is in control and that Christ rules overall for his glory and the good of his people. Men may kill us. They may take away our goods and our reputations. But they will not have the last word. Not even death can have the last word. How do we know that? Because God is in control. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future. God holds the beginning and the end and everything in between.

You can see how belief in God’s sovereignty works to strengthen the faith and fearlessness of his people all throughout the Bible. You see it in the example of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3, who were threatened with being thrown alive into a burning, fiery furnace if they didn’t bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s image. Here is their response: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up” (Dan. 3:16-18).

So dear saint, rest in God’s sovereignty. Let the truth of Rom. 8:28 make you a fearless and faithful for the cause of God and truth.

We must rejoice in God’s sufficiency.

What kind of person magnifies the riches of Christ to a watching world? Certainly not someone who is shriveled up by fear or who has become faithless out of bitterness. But neither is it a Christian who somehow remains faithful but who has lost their joy in Christ. Now I’m not saying that you have to go around constantly with a smile on your face. Nor am I saying that you have to pretend to be happy when you are not. The Christian groans and grieves. But there is a difference: we do so in hope. And you cannot separate hope from joy. It’s why Paul exhorts the Roman Christians to “rejoice in hope” (Rom. 12:12).

So how do you do this? It is by understanding that in Christ we have true riches. You will note what our Lord says to the church at Smyrna. Though they are poor, he says, the reality of the situation is that they are rich (9). Now I think it is interesting to contrast Smyrna with Laodicea at this point. Whereas the church in Smyrna was really poor in the material things, the Lord says that they are truly rich. Of course he means that they are spiritually rich. The Laodiceans were the exact opposite: “thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). Which do you think is better? Our Lord clearly is of the opinion that material wealth often blinds us to our true riches and leaves us spiritually impoverished.

We can forget this. If you belong to Jesus, you are rich and you are riches with an inheritance that no one can take from you. The value of something is often determined by how much it costs. Yet how can you compare spiritual riches to earthly ones? There is no comparison! For it came at the cost of the very life of the Son of God! As the apostle Paul writes, “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). The apostle Peter reminds us that we were purchased by “the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18-19). It is why Paul calls the gospel he preaches “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8).

Or the value and worth of a thing is determined by what it does for us. But what has Christ done for us? He has given us the forgiveness of sins – that alone should make us shouting happy if we really grasped the significance of it. As the hymn puts it,

My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought, 

My sin, not in part, but the whole:

Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

But there is more: we are given freely by faith the righteousness of God, acceptance with God, adoption in his family, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, and everlasting and eternal life – the “crown of life” as our Lord puts it here in verse 10. Do you believe this? Must we not say then with the apostle Paul that no matter how terrible our suffering is in this life, “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18)?

In sum, we have been brought to God (1 Pet. 3:18), not as a criminal in chains, but as children to their Father. We have “all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3) – not some, not most, but all spiritual blessings!

Further, we determine the worth of a thing by how long it lasts. Man, I wish they made washing machines the way they used to. Things are not made to last anymore, it seems. But that is the way of all earthly things, isn’t it? Rust and moths and thieves are the correlates of earthly wealth. But not so the true riches. We have in Christ “a better and an enduring substance” (Heb. 10:32). As our Lord promises the believers here, “He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death” (11).

No matter how wealthy a person is here, no matter how famous, no matter how comfortable, if they have not Christ, they will not escape the second death. What is this? It is the death of the soul as well as of the body. It is described in chapter 20 as the place into which death and hell are cast (14). It is the lake of fire, into which the beast and false prophet receive their final judgment, “tormented day and night forever and ever” (10). My friend, I cannot think of anything possibly worse – nothing! To be condemned to this is to lose all hope forever. It is to be banished to into the iron grip of despair and torment with no possible reprieve for eternity. This is what the believer is rescued from, something which we all deserve, but which Christ frees us from. Instead of the second death they get the crown of eternal life. The second death – nothing worse! The crown of life – nothing better!

Thank God, this gift of eternal life is something which is eternal also in the sense that the saint can never lose it. I am thankful for that. We need to take seriously the exhortation to overcome. But we must not read that as if God’s people will somehow fail to overcome. They will overcome. Why? Not because they are better than the next person but because God keeps them. They overcome because of the truth of Romans 8:37-39: “Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

How do we know this is true? We know it is true because of who Jesus Christ is and what he has done. Who is he? He is the one “who was dead, and is alive” (Rev. 2:8). Christ conquered death. We know this because the historical record points to this just as much as it does to any other fact of human history. We know it because no other explanation accounts for the fact that the message of Christ’s resurrection was believed by people who could have inspected the tomb if he had in fact been there. No other explanation adequately accounts for the fact that his own disciples believed it and many of them went to their deaths because they preached it. No other explanation adequately accounts for the fact that since that time millions of Christians have met the risen Christ in their own lives and found themselves transformed by the power of his grace.

Would you meet the risen Christ? Would you be saved? Do you want the forgiveness of sins? Then come to Christ, and by faith and repentance receive him as your Lord and Savior. The Scripture testifies that all who do so will be saved for the Lord is rich unto all who call upon his name.

Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, revised (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1998), p. 73. 

Leon Morris, Revelation, revised (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 63.

Qtd. in Mounce, fn. 6, p. 74.

The following details can be found in The Letter of the Smyrnaeans. See, for example, the translation by J. B. Lightfoot:


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