The second of the letters is addressed to Smyrna. What did Jesus have to say to this church and what can we learn from His words?
(A) The Lord of Smyrna: sovereign over history, the conqueror of death (Rev 2:8-11)
Jesus begins by referring to himself as the "first and the last" (Rev 2:8a). With this description, He draws attention to how He is before all things and is the Lord of all things, the Lord of unfolding history. Though the Romans rule over them now, the people at Smyrna were also reminded that Jesus is the Lord of all.
Jesus also describes himself as the one who "died and came to life" (Rev 2:8b). This Jesus took on the full wrath of God on behalf of us and our sins, but has now been raised to life. It is this Jesus who is writing to this church and giving them these precious words. He does not write as one who is distant and aloof, but this Jesus knows the church well, and chooses these 2 characteristics to encourage the church. God knows what we need and chooses to comfort us also with His revelation. This is the Jesus that speaks to us today. What a thought!
(B) The Church of Smyrna: present and future suffering known by Christ (Rev2:9-10a)
Like what He said to the Ephesian church, Jesus also tells the church at Smyrna that He knows what they're going through. He knows their "tribulation", "poverty" and "the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not" (Rev 2:9). The Christians at Smyrna were facing slander and persecutions by the Jews who are termed to be of the "synagogue of Satan" (Rev 2:9), for they were following in the steps of the great Accuser. Smyrna was not a poor city, but the Christians probably suffered because of their faith. These were the real tribulations that the Christians faced, and Jesus knew.
Jesus also knows what they will face soon. They "are about to suffer" and would also be thrown into prison (Rev 2:10). Notice how Jesus seems to just state the facts. It may seem scary to us at first, and we may wonder why this needs to be the case. In Rev 2:10, the reason is given too -- "that you may be tested". The period of "ten days" is not to be taken literally, but symbolizes a limited time or a determined period of testing. This is a reference to Daniel in Dan 1, and it's worth us taking a quick look at this.
In the account of Daniel, we read of how Nebuchadnezzar brings the best of Israel over and wanted these talents to serve his kingdom (Dan 1:1-4). Daniel and his friends were part of this group, and Nebuchadnezzar also gave them new names and changed their diet as part of the assimilation and naturalisation process (Dan 1:5-7). But Daniel and his 3 friends rejected this new name and the king's diet (Dan 1:11). We are told that "Daniel resolve that he would not defile himself ..." (Dan 1:8). They were not just picky eaters but they were rejecting the new way of life that they are trying to assimilate them into. They avoided the luxurious diet of the king's table to avoid being ensnared by the temptations of the Babylonian culture. In rejecting the names given, they reminded themselves that they were still God's people although they were living in a foreign culture. They would continue to depend on God to provide for them. What does this mean for us? So often, we seek after new names, things, positions in the world and have slowly changed and moved away to adopt new "diets" and names. In this process, we forget our identity. How do you think of yourself? How would you introduce yourself to a stranger -- are you defined by what you do, what salary you draw? What are you feeding yourself, both physically or more importantly, spiritually? Do these things bring you closer to God or further away from Him?
When we read Dan 1 together with Rev 2, we are reminded that suffering is expected when we live our lives as believers and take on the identity that God has given us. Rev 2 writes about it in a matter of fact way because it is true. This is suffering that God allows Satan to inflict on His people, and we also need to remember that God is the Lord of history. Jesus' words are a comfort because their suffering will not be for an indefinite period, and neither will it be purposeless. The work of the devil will be used by God to further His plan and in every step, Jesus knows, and is still fully in control.
(C) The Promise to Smyrna: faithfulness to death, rewarded with eternal life and heavenly kingship (Rev 2:10b-11)
Despite all the present and future suffering, Jesus also encourages the church by calling them to "be faithful unto death" (Rev 2:10b). In the beginning, we are reminded that this Jesus writing this letter is the one who has died and came to life. He knows and He is sovereign and has power over all things, conquering even death. It is this God that encourages them now to persevere in faithfulness, even if it means losing their life. This means nothing, considering all that He has already done. The One who conquered death is calling them to faithfulness, even if it costs them their lives.
Jesus also promises them "the crown of life" (Rev 2:11). So often, we don't endure suffering because we don't know what awaits us. So what is this? A crown is given to those who emerge victorious in a race. Thus, those we endure and remain faithful will be crowned with the best thing -- life -- and will also be able to rule with Christ. Those who conquer "will not be hurt by the second death" (Rev 2:11). Death may be the price to pay for faithfulness, but a physical death is not the end of it all. Instead, they are promised life, and will not be eternally separated from Him.
What kind of people come to Jesus at the end? Not people who are breezing through but people who are struggling, tired, stumbling and determined to be faithful. To these people, Jesus welcomes them and gives them their reward. These were given to the church in Smyrna, but these promises are also words of encouragement to us. What does this mean for you today? Have you been preparing yourself for the suffering that comes from knowing Christ? What characteristics of Christ speak to you and how does his promises give you hope? This passage also reminds us that there is a real cost of following and obeying Jesus, a price that many today still pay for their faith. But let us take heart and persevere in faith, for we do not follow one who does not know what we go through, but our Savior is one who died and is now alive and reigning.