Of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, this is the shortest. It consists of four verses only; 128 words in all. Not really much of a letter to a Church.
Yet, what can you say to a church full of people who are facing death, imprisonment, extreme tribulation and deeper poverty! It really is a case of, “well, chin up, lads”.
That is about all one can say!
And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive; I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil 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. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.
There is a fragrance that emanates from true love, about which is so elegantly written in the Song of Songs. We have all sensed it. It is more than a fragrance that one smells — like a flower in bloom; this fragrance is experienced. We feel it in all our senses; as when one walks into a room and the entire room has a delicate bouquet that is pleasing to all who enter and brings the senses to life, and has us wondering, “what is that fragrance?”
I believe such a fragrance arose from this church at Smyrna, into the senses of the living God, and into the lives of those around them.
Similar to the Prayer of Jabez, in 1 Chron 4:9-10, where very little is written but much is understood, so these four verses speak volumes to us about the private and public lives of the congregants of this church, and their love for their Saviour.
As we read the passages, we can close our eyes and imagine being amongst them, and being mesmerised by the fragrance pouring out of them, yearning, “how do I get that?”
We could imagine ourselves weeping with them in deep prayer for others; helping the poor and needy, even though we ourselves are destitute; praying for the persecutors of our very own families; and crying, “How long, O Lord, How long?” as we see yet another sent to prison or beaten senseless, or martyred.
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints, his precious children; and precious were these saints at Smyrna.
It is a fact that the orange needs to firstly be ripe, and then squeezed hard before the sweet juice is produced.
We, as Christians, must endure a similar process if we desire the sweet juice of love to pour from our ripened hearts: that indispensable love sought by all humanity, but never found.
And it can never be found but deep within the Cross; where the flaying of life is done, and the divesting ourselves of the old selfish nature is accomplished.
Only within the Cross can humanity find the love that traverses all boundaries; that goes two miles when only one is asked for; that creates a meal for thousands out of some fish and bread; that offers up prayers into the night so you will be safe; and its last morsel so you will be fed; Only within the Cross — deep.
As you walk into the heart of Jesus
You will see the stripes and the pain
You will know then the cost of the journey
Without which your walk is in vain
As you walk into the heart of Jesus
The sorrow and tears be revealed
But your voyage must all be taken
And your life’s way eternally sealed
As I sat in the heart of my Jesus
Resting a brief time to heed
The walk and the things I’ll be facing
And whether I’ll have what I need
Then beside me my Jesus was standing
The nail scars and glow – no mistake
He said, son, just keep walking my pathway
I can only take hearts that will break
My Lord said, come closer and listen
Full zeal for me you require
To see this way through to the end
And gain the fullness to which you aspire
For pain and affliction will change
And turn into joy and reward
As you battle through the doors of my glory
To stand with your Saviour and Lord
Jesus said, If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour.
As we have read and acknowledge in his word, Jesus, through his short human life, walked a long and lonely road. A road which led him through correction, learning, conflict, anger, love, camaraderie, hunger, thirst, sympathy and empathy; yet, not as one within the group, but always in the lonely position of leader; eventuating in his attempt to divert his brutal demise, but then proceeding through it.
He has also called his followers to a similar path when the need arose – if any man serve me, let him follow me…..”
Many are called to follow; less are chosen to follow; less again are faithful and follow!
But to where are we called to follow?
The Word has given us some indications, and I think the Church at Smyrna, whether they had read these scriptures or not, understood them;
Matt 24:9 Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake.
Matt 10:17 But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues;
Matthew 23:34 Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city:
Luke 21:12 But before all these, they shall lay their hands on you, and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues, and into prisons, being brought before kings and rulers for my name’s sake.
John 15:19 If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.
John 15:20 Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also.
John 16:2 They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.
Acts 5:40 And to him they agreed: and when they had called the apostles, and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
Acts 7:59 And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
Acts 12:1,2 Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church
Acts 22:19-22 And I said, Lord, they know that I imprisoned and beat in every synagogue them that believed on thee:
When Jesus went to his timely but horrific trial and eventual death, he was not only becoming the perfect sacrifice for all time, but, as leader, he was showing his followers the manner in which they should act, should they find themselves in a similar situation.
I think the Smyrna churchgoers were also leaders. Despite their persecution, we still get encouraged to press on when we read that short passage.
Could we be like them? Often, we don’t know how strong we are and how fragrant we can become, until we are under persecution.
Many followers of the living God have suffered under worldly regimes, commencing in Genesis, when worldly Cain slew his God-following brother, Abel.
From that time, all followers of the Lord must see that this world can be brutal if we do not accept its manner of life: which we cannot.
This is the situation those two protestant martyrs, Latimer and Ridley, found themselves in; standing for Jesus Christ within a kingdom run by Christians-haters. They were then burnt at the stake for their beliefs.
The story goes…As the burning advanced, due to green wood, Ridley was only part-burning and was crying out to the Lord to please take him quickly; to the point that Latimer needed to encourage him with these words; Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.”
Yes, a cruel way to be martyred. But I can see the Lord God almighty saying something similar to his son in the garden during his time of prayer to divert the eventual, when he asked, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.
I can see God saying, Be of good comfort, My son, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle throughout the world, as I trust never shall be put out.”
When we look at the church at Smyrna, we see similar words in this shortest of passages.
We see God almighty speaking to those followers who found themselves in comparable situations to that of Latimer and Ridley, but 1400 years earlier.
All the Lord could give them in their situation was four verses of comfort. 128 words. Not even a half page in a typical letter.
After all, what does one say when death to the other is imminent?
James said in 1:12: “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him..”
Although written only a few years before the Lord’s letter to them, I am sure many in Smyrna had memorised this verse from their brother, James. The temptation for those in Smyrna may simply have been to run away from the persecution. Understandable!
They had also heard of the slaughter of some of the apostles:
James the Great – beheaded
Philip – scourged, imprisoned then crucified
Matthew – slain by a halberd
James the Lord’s brother – At 94 he was beaten and stoned by the Jews; and finally had his brains dashed out with a fuller’s club
Matthias – Stoned then beheaded
Andrew – crucified. The cross was ‘x ed’ (hence St Andrews cross)
St. Mark – Mark was dragged to pieces by the people of Alexandria
Peter – crucified upside down – ‘not worthy’
Paul – beheaded
Jude – Crucified
Bartholomew – cruelly beaten then crucified
Thomas – thrust through with a spear by pagans priests
Luke – hanged on a olive tree by idolatrous priests of Greece
Simon Zelotes- crucified
John – the only apostle to escape a violent death
Additionally, about two thousand Christians, with Nicanor, one of the seven deacons, suffered martyrdom during the persecution that arose regarding Stephen’s speech and challenge to the religious leaders of the day.
And of course, Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna itself, was martyred around 165AD.
So accustomed to persecution, Polycarp said, “the business of the Christian is nothing else than to be ever preparing for death.”
How distant we in the west are from some Christian realities.
In his letter to the Smynese church, The Lord introduces himself in an interesting manner:
And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith
the first and the last,
which was dead, and is alive
This is a specific introduction to those who need it most. Here he is encouraging his faithful in reminding them that he was there at the beginning of their spiritual lives, and will be there at the end, if they hang on. He is the Alpha of their spiritual journey and will be the Omega.
He could be saying what he said to the Hebrews in 13.5, “….I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee”.
It is far too obvious to tell them that he is the first and last of life itself. The Smyrnese required a more personal touch at this time, and received it.
To give them further encouragement whilst hinting of the extent of their calamities, he goes on to say, “which was dead and is alive”.
The hearers of the church again would have seen this as reassurance, should life take a turn for the worst.
As we read these introductory lines to the Smyrna church, they simply do not resonate with us until we are at our wits end in a catastrophe.
Scripture is like that.
When we are flying high through the clouds of life, where nothing can seemingly go wrong, these are not the scriptures we choose to read, but the ones we brush over whilst looking for something inspirational, like soaring with eagles or being victorious in Christ.
However, when we are at the end of our road in an issue, when we think we have neither place to go nor person we can turn to, these words of comfort will then apply as we heavily weep to ourselves, lost in our dilemma, and not seeing any hope at all. This is the application.
We have all been in those places, and you might be in that place now. That place is the Lord’s specialty. He is the ultimate empathetic person, whom we too often place on an unrealistic pedestal: a person who we might think never got hurt in life until the cross, and therefore wouldn’t really know the pain we are going through. You know, despite reading it in scripture, we might feel it’s been put there just to make us feel assured that he could understand the depth of our pain, but really couldn’t until the Cross.
To remind us of Jesus’s closeness to our traumas of life, we shouldn’t forget he had to bury his stepfather, Joseph. The man he would have called, Dad!
The man who nurtured him in the promises; who worked with him day by day in the carpentry business, and examined scripture with him into the night; who taught him human excellence, and discussed with him of the great victories of his heavenly father — whether he was in the workshop, walking in the street or the field, or simply drying the dishes after dinner; who showed him how to manage a large family and how much money was required; and of course he showed Jesus the love he had for his mother.
And then, on that terrible day, Jesus experienced his first immediate death. His friend and confidante, his co-worker, his instructor, the lover of his mother, died earlier than he should, and left a hole in Jesus’s heart that only his spiritual father could fill.
The occurrences following the death of someone close would have all been there. You know, when we are simply yearning and expecting the deceased to walk through the door once again, back into our lives, like it’s always been, but will never happen. These feeling would have been experienced in real terms by the First and the Last in our lives.
Consoling his mother and seven or so younger siblings, and being consoled by them? Yes, Jesus knew about our pains because he suffered them personally.
We’ve all experienced or heard of fathers dying early, and leaving young children behind to not only mourn but also deal with the enormous sense of loss that never gets filled naturally: children just wanting their dad’s back!
In Jesus’s family the youngest may have only been around ten years old at the time of Joseph’s death, and therefore the sorrow would have been magnified. Jesus and Mary, both trying to get over the tragedy themselves, but at the same time needing to remain strong enough to keep the family distress to a minimum.
There is conjecture that Joseph was much older than Mary, assuming that his early passing should, oddly, have been accepted. I think Mary and Joseph were simply two people in love, with a deep and abiding commitment to each and the God of their salvation. At the time of his death, he may have been around 45-50 years old, and Mary around 35-40 years old, which is premature for death and widowhood by anyone’s standards.
Again, if we begin to assume that our Lord and Saviour does not understand our life, think on this:
Jesus had thirty years to closely observe the wickedness, the oppression, the thievery, in low and high places; to observe his precious Kingdom of Israel being run by despotic overlords and priests; to see the pitiful people being harmed in all manner of ways; and himself being restricted by time and scripture to be of any large scale support. He saw it all first hand for thousands of years until he came in person, and then he saw it and felt it every day of his mature life!
How would you feel?
After he went through what he did, mouth sealed, experiencing the brutality of the physical torture (we can see Satan standing by, saying, “I wonder if I can get him to scream in pain”), he rose and came back to give us eternal life and hope.
But now, we see him again restricted by time and scripture, as he is obligated to wait another two thousand years for the millennium, to return and finish the other half of his victory. This time in the physical realm, as King of the earth, to restrict the wicked, and force-teach them His ways.
How difficult that waiting would be; to have to watch the constant brutal injustices being executed upon his people around the world, year after year after year, and, whilst possessing the power and determination to change the situation, not being permitted.
He knows our pains very well, and also the anxiety we experience when we can see the issues in society, and we’ve had enough of them, but are powerless to make real large-scale changes.
Therefore, when those pains and atrocities were experienced by the members of the Smyrna church, he knew!
And when we experience those things, he knows the depth of our pain and internal sufferings, captured so accurately in the following song by Steven Curtis Chapman.
Jesus will meet you there (Song – Steven Curtis Chapman)When you think you’ve hit the bottom and the bottom gives way and you fall into a darkness no words can explain and you don’t know how you make it out alive Jesus will meet you there.When the doctor says, “I’m sorry, we don’t know what else to do.” and you’re looking at your family wondering how they’ll make it through… Whatever road this life takes you down, Jesus will meet you there.When the jury says, “Guilty,” and the prison doors close When the one you love says nothing, just packs up and goesWhen the sunlight comes and your world’s still dark, Jesus will meet you thereWhen you’ve failed again and all your second chances have been used And the heavy weight of guilt and shame is crushing down on you… And all you have is one last cry for help Jesus will meet you there.When you realize the dreams you’ve had for your child won’t come true when the phone rings in the middle of the night with tragic news… Whatever valley you must walk through, Jesus will meet you there.He will meet you there.
What do you think this church at Smyrna would have been doing after receiving this letter and being told what was to come?
I think they would have begun forgiving one another and loving one another.
I think we would have seen a grace between them similar to that of the new Acts church many years before, when they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.
That was a marvellous moment in Acts for the church individuals, as it would have also resulted in the forgiveness of those petty issues humans get snagged on.
It’s ironic that we as Christians can put money in the offering plate every Sunday, to help the poor and needy, whilst still allowing a safe harbour for our own hurt or umbrage, and not realising because of that, that we ourselves are poor and needy. We can enjoy deep communion with the Lord, and get away in the spirit with the background music softly playing the worship favourite of the month, and still have outstanding issues with our fellow pilgrims two pews away.
We can give the right hand of fellowship as we leave church, and look happy and Christlike, whilst still preventing the Holy Spirit from cleaning out our pain cupboard. You know, the one where we hang the stories of how people did us wrong, and how saintly we have been through it all: the ones we pull out from time to time to show people, and then put them back until another ‘right’ occasion so we can bring them out again.
If we find we have a cupboard like this, we are still faking part of our Christianity. We are immature.
What would we think if the Lord did that to us? I mean, pulled out our dirty laundry every so often and mentioned it to others?
What if he, on occasions, brought up our past and shared it with other people we know; people he thinks would listen and show empathy as he told them the story?
Sometimes it is good for us to go through Smyrna-type persecution to get our minds off ourselves and think like the mature Christians God wants us to be, and for which he is waiting patiently.
I can just see the Smyrnese congregants gathering together unto him, all thought of holding a grudge long forgotten, and the precious fruit of the spirit radiating from their very being.
Praise God for it. Praise him that there is a height within us that is far away from the petty, far away from the umbrage, and far away from the storytelling; a place where personal insult or internal pain will not be allowed to find rest for very long.