Bible Study on Revelation - 2/4

John Trevenna

Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11)

The Roman historian Lucian called the great trading city of Smyrna 'the fairest of the Cities of Ionia'. Behind its land-locked harbour rose a hill, encircled by a ring of noblemen's houses called 'The Crown of Smyrna'. How appropriate that Christ promises that those who are faithful will receive 'The crown of life' (v.10).

Smyrna, founded as a Greek colony about 1000BC, was destroyed by the Lydians about 600BC and became a dead city for 400 years, with only a few peasants living there. About 200BC it had been rebuilt with magnificent streets and buildings. It had been dead, but now was alive - Christ speaks to it as the One who was dead and is alive (v.8).

There were those in Smyrna who were to be faithful unto death (v.10). It was a church under fire, persecuted by the Romans and hated by the Jews, and it receives no criticism from the Lord, but encouragement and praise! Later than this letter, in 155 A.D, the bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, an old man of 86, was brought into the amphitheatre and offered a reprieve if he would say 'Away with the atheists' (Christians were thought Atheists because they had no visible God), and 'Caesar is Lord'. He complied with the first half, waving has hand round the amphitheatre and crying "Away with the atheists!" - but this incensed them more, and they burned him to death.

In v.8 Christ describes himself as 'The first and the last' - a title belonging to God in the Old Testament (Isaiah 44:6 and 48:12). John tells us that Jesus is the Word by whom all things were created (John 1:3), and who at the end is 'coming soon' (Rev 22:20). He is literally the Beginning and the End. This is not a metaphysical claim; it is a literal truth about the universe. And this same One who made everything, and is the goal of everything 'was dead and is alive' (Rev 2:8). These two statements should make every church shout for joy, 'We have the greatest truth in the universe: its creator and its goal became one of us in time and space, lived and died and rose again, and is alive for evermore. The only way to receive the crown of life is to be faithful to him!' Isn't that worth dying for - to be with him? Polycarp certainly thought so, and so did the Church in Smyrna!

In vv.9 and10 Jesus knows two things about the church at Smyrna, and one thing about the Jewish synagogue there. He knows the church's afflictions. The word 'affliction' literally means 'pressure', being crushed beneath a weight. They are a church under pressure - but don't despair: Christ knows. "I know your pressure" he says. If you are a Christian under pressure, or part of a church under pressure, here is a word from Jesus Christ - 'I understand what you are going through, I know how you feel, so cast your burdens on me and I will sustain you' (see Psalm 55:22).

Christ also knows their poverty. There are two Greek words for poverty - 'penia' meaning poor as opposed to wealthy, and 'ptocheia', used here, meaning utter destitution. Many Christians were slaves, and had nothing to call their own. Many who had something before they became Christians had been betrayed to the courts and had their wealth taken away judicially. The Church in Smyrna was an impoverished group who literally had nothing.

Then there is that wonderful parenthesis 'But you are rich'. Christ uses the ordinary word for earthly wealth and fills it with a new meaning. In the things that really count, they are richer than the wealthiest Smyrnan living in the biggest house in the 'crown of Smyrna' up on the hill!

Christ also knows one thing about the Jews, or rather 'those who say they are Jews'. In Acts we can see how often it was the Jews who stirred up trouble for Paul and the early converts (Acts 13:50; 14:2,5; 14:19; 17:5). So far have these so-called Jews strayed from the truth that Christ calls them 'A synagogue of Satan'. So-called God-fearing people can become servants of Satan - see Jesus saying to Peter 'Get behind me, Satan!' (Mark 8:33). This is frightening, for if it is possible for a synagogue to become a synagogue of Satan, then it is possible for a church to become 'A church of Satan' and to persecute Christ and his true Church.

In v.10 'Ten days' is a normal Greek phrase for a short period of time, and is not literal. Being faithful unto death, however, is to be taken literally - and (as with Polycarp) was to happen to Christians in Smyrna. They had to count the cost of being a Christian. I wonder if we knew that it could cost us our lives, how many church members would resign? But 'death' here is also contrasted with 'life'. The 'crown of life' may be a reference to the laurel wreath worn by a winning athlete. The dual concepts of bearing the cross and wearing the crown are always part of the Christian life. As we have seen, there is also a reference in Smyrna to those who have 'made it', who live up on the hill on the 'crown of Smyrna'. For those who are faithful to Jesus there is the promise of heaven, and of joy among the angels, for they will have "made it" in the only sense that really matters.

The message to the Church in Smyrna is all about being a faithful: you have been faithful in works and patience, in poverty and affliction - continue in that faithfulness and you will receive the crown of life. This is a letter to a faithful Church.

Pergamum (Rev 2:12-17)

Pergamum was built on a hill from which the Mediterranean Sea could be seen some fifteen miles away. It was a cultural centre, having a library of 200,000 parchments second only to the great library at Alexandria. It was also one of the great religious centres of the ancient world, having two famous shrines - probably what Christ refers to as 'where Satan's seat is' (verse 13). Eight hundred feet up the hillside, on a ledge of rock was a huge altar, forty feet high and projecting from the side of the mountain. It looked like a huge seat - and every day smoke rose from it as sacrifices were made to Zeus.

In v.12 the 'sharp two-edged sword' refers back to 1:16 (see Heb.4:12 for an excellent exposition). The proconsul at Pergamum was a Roman Governor who had the 'ius gladii' - 'the right of the sword'. This meant that he had the right of life or death - on his word a man could be executed on the spot. Christ is saying, 'But I am the one who ultimately has the 'ius gladii'. Everyone will have to stand before me in judgement - even the proconsul!' We too will have to give an account of our stewardship on the Day of Judgement, and that is a fearful thought.

In v.13 Christ begins with words of praise for the Church at Pergamum - he knows their works (again here, not just a knowledge of, but an understanding of their motivation) and he knows where they dwell, where Satan's seat is - literally 'Satan's throne' as NIV. But the Church has held fast the name of Christ. 'You hold fast my name' uses 'kratein' - a word we saw in Revelation 2:1 of Christ 'holding' the seven stars in his right hand. The Church is not weak, just managing to hold on - but having a strong grasp on the name of Jesus. When I first tried rock climbing I was told 'Hold firmly on to the rope while you find the footholds' - and I held on tight as though my life depended on it. Actually my life did depend on it! That is exactly what Christ is saying in praise of the Church at Pergamum: 'You hold fast and never let go for an instant'. We need churches today like that.

'You did not deny my faith' (AV) or 'renounce your faith in Me' (NIV). This word 'deny' is used of Peter's denial in Matthew 26:70, and very strongly by Jesus in Matthew 10:32-33. A Church that denies Jesus will be denied by Jesus - a frightening thought. But Pergamum had not denied 'my faith' (obviously not the faith which Christ had, but faith in Christ). They had not even denied when Antipas was slain. We know nothing more of Antipas than what we read here, simply that he was a member of the Pergamum church who died for his faith. The Greek word 'martus' means 'witness' originally, and 'martyr', because to continue as a faithful witness could result in death. There is one thing tremendous about the title 'faithful witness' which Christ gives to Antipas, for in Rev 1:5 and 3:14 that is the very title given to Christ himself. What higher praise could there be for a faithful servant of Jesus?

In vss. 14-15 we again have this little word 'but' on the lips of Christ. These two verses refer to the doctrine of Balaam and the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which we looked at in the letter to Ephesus. The Ephesian Church hated the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which Christ also hates, but the Church at Pergamum had those who held to that doctrine, and Christ condemns them. The doctrine of Balaam comes from Numbers chapters 22, 23 and 31. Balaam taught Balak to corrupt the people who couldn't be cursed by tempting them to marry Moabite women, defiling their separation to be God's holy people, and to abandon their nature as a pilgrim people of God. The key verse is Numbers 31:16 - 'They were the ones who followed Balaam's advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the Lord'. Union with the world is spiritual unchastity (James 4:4).

vs. 16. There is room for repentance, but if they do not repent, the sword in Christ's mouth - his power of life and death - will quickly judge them. It seems that the call for repentance is to the whole church in Pergamum - they all need to repent because they have allowed these heresies to go on within the church. If there is false teaching in your church and you remain silent - repent and do something about it. If the whole church does not repent, Christ will soon come and himself deal with those who have perpetrated such false teachings. He will fight against them with the sword that is in his mouth.

In v. 17 there are two lovely promises made by Jesus to the overcomers. Jewish tradition believed three things had been laid up in the Holy Place: Aaron's rod that budded, the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments, and a golden pot of the manna which the people had eaten in the wilderness. At the destruction of the Temple it was said that Jeremiah had hidden the manna and would produce it when the Messiah appeared. Those who overcame were to enjoy the blessing of the Messianic age.

The final promise is that Christ will give the overcomers a white stone with a new name written on it. Members of a jury expressed their verdict by casting stones into an urn - a white stone symbolised acquittal, and a black stone guilt. Christ is saying that at his judgement those who overcome will be acquitted, and the white stone he gives them will have written on it a new name which no one but the recipient knows. A new resurrection name and nature given to overcomers who stand acquitted by Jesus - what a wonderful picture!

Rev John C Trevenna

Headline, Spring 2003 pp 14-15.