He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death."
That is our Lord's appraisal of the church of Smyrna. Clearly this was a church under oppression, under affliction, under severe pressure. To be a Christian in Smyrna was to exist in a twilight between two completely opposite extremes:

(1) the rich, nurturing, loving fellowship of the Christian church family, and

(2) the cruel and hostile surrounding society.

So as the Lord appraises the church at Smyrna a church under pressure, living within two extremes His message to them is a message that encompasses the extremes. He begins by identifying Himself to the Smyrna church as "the First and the Last," the One "who died and came to life again." Jesus was present at the beginning of Creation; He will be present at the end of history. He encompasses all the forces and events of the cosmos, including both death and life. The Lord's statement in Revelation 2:8 is reminiscent of His declaration to the disciples when He gave them the Great Commission in Matthew 28: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." He is the Lord of all heavenly and earthly forces.

Jesus is the Lord of all extremes, and of everything in between. It must have been a tremendous encouragement for the believers in Smyrna, who were enduring enormous persecution and pressure, to receive this reassurance from their Lord.

Jesus says, "I know your afflictions." The original Greek for afflictions in this verse conveys a sense of crushing, relentless pressure. From this word we get an image of a church caught in a vise and being slowly, cruelly squeezed.

Perhaps the closest analogy to what the believers in Smyrna were forced to endure would be the experience of the Jews in Nazi Germany during the 1930 s. Their travel was restricted. Their shops were subject to frequent vandalism and looting. Their livelihood was destroyed. Their synagogues were defiled or destroyed. Their property was seized. They were humiliated, stigmatized, slandered, harassed, and physically assaulted. Eventually, even their lives and their children's lives were taken.


So also the Christians in Smyrna were subject to the same kind of unrelenting pressure and affliction.

Jesus then says to them, "I know . . . your poverty yet you are rich." This is probably a reference to the economic deprivation the Christians in Smyrna faced as part of the overall pattern of persecution. Remember that Smyrna was an exceedingly prosperous city, one of the richest cities in Asia, so the "poverty" Jesus refers to could hardly have been the result of a recession or bad economic conditions. It was clearly caused by persecution. The homes and shops of the Christians of Smyrna had probably been pillaged and their possessions taken a common feature of early persecution. Perhaps these people even those who were educated as teachers or doctors or lawyers were forced to do menial labor for low wages just so they and their families could survive.

Yet, despite this picture of poverty and persecution, the Lord says to them, "You are rich!"

Poverty is a terrible thing which perhaps few of us have experienced firsthand. Since World War II, there have been periods of recession or double-digit inflation or stagnation, but nothing remotely like a genuine economic collapse. Yet until the last few decades economic depressions and panics were a fairly ordinary occurrence. Prior to the Great Depression, which began with the panic of 1929, there were major international panics in the years 1797, 1820, 1835, 1857, and 1873. During such times, banks failed, factories closed down, commerce ceased. Thousands were out of work, homeless, and hungry. For the most part, the present generation has no conception of what real economic depression is like.

I was a high school student during the Great Depression of the 1930 s. We did not have much to eat, and we had no luxuries at all. We bought nothing but the basics, and almost never had new clothes to wear. We had nothing in the way of entertainment except a battery-operated radio (sparingly used) and whatever entertainment we could create on our own street and sandlot sports, imaginative indoor games, and songs sung and stories told among ourselves.

We were, I suppose, poor. Yet I look back on those days as a wonderfully rich time of my life. We enjoyed each other. We laughed together. We experienced the simple joys of relationships and fellowship. We were rich in everything except material possessions.

Someone once captured what it means to be poor yet rich in the lines of a poem:

There is a program on U.S. television called Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. On this series, the luxury seemingly enjoyed by the rich is paraded before the viewers to ogle and desire. But as you look closely at the lives of the rich and famous you rarely discover a happy person among them. Riches do not make people happy. Many of the richest people in the world are extremely poor in the things that are truly important.

True riches, says the Lord, are those riches that are found within, where the heart is filled with grace and the love of God. "I know your poverty," He encourages the church in Smyrna, and all Christians who are poor, persecuted, and oppressed, "yet you are rich!" When our lives are full of rich relationships with other Christians and with God Himself, then we have riches indeed! That was the experience of the church in Smyrna.

Jesus goes on to say, "I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan." There was a smear campaign being waged against the Christians in Smyrna! Lies were being spread about them. Their reputation was being ruined.

Historical records show that all manner of fraudulent and despicable stories were broadcast about Christians in the first century. Because Christians celebrated Holy Communion and talked about partaking of the body and blood of Christ, they were accused of being cannibals, of actually eating one another. You can imagine the horror and loathing that must have attached to the name "Christian" among those who heard such stories.

Because they refused to worship the gods who were enshrined in the pagan temples, they were called atheists and infidels. They were scorned by a world given over to idolatry.

Christians talked about being members of one another, of loving one another, so they were accused of engaging in sexual orgies. When they met together in homes for worship and fellowship, others accused them of indulging in obscene practices.

This slander was the cause of much of the suffering and persecution faced by the early Christians. It came, as Jesus tells us in this letter, from false Jews. That is, it came from people who were the physical, genetic descendants of Abraham, people who attended a synagogue in Smyrna, but who proved by the quality of their lives that they lacked the spiritual insight of their father Abraham. They scorned and slandered the truth. They hated and persecuted people whose only crime was loving God and loving one another. By persecuting the truth and being far removed from the true faith of Abraham, they were, in effect, "a synagogue of Satan."

If you've ever been the victim of slander you have at least a taste of what the Christians in Smyrna were forced to endure. There are few experiences in this life more frustrating and painful than the experience of having one's reputation destroyed. Often by the time you discover that someone is spreading lies about you, there is no way to set the record straight. Too many people have heard and repeated! the false report about you. The damage that is done by a smear campaign often cannot be undone.

A well-known Christian was once subjected to a campaign of lies, and he could do little to defend himself. One day, a friend approached this Christian leader and told him how much he hurt for him and sympathized with him over this trial of being slandered. Then he said, "Remember, at least they have not spit in your face yet."

Jesus could understand what the church at Smyrna was going through, for He had not only been lied about and verbally abused but His enemies had spit in His face. Moreover, they physically assaulted Him. They beat Him with rods. They mocked Him and pressed a crown of thorns onto His brow. Then they pierced Him and hung Him on a cross to die. If anyone understands what it means to be slandered, attacked, and abused without cause, it is Jesus.

And Jesus wanted the church at Smyrna to be encouraged and strengthened, for the pressure and persecution was going to grow more intense, not less. "Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer," He told them. "I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you." Notice that this is the first mention of the devil in the book of Revelation. The Lord