“The Enigma of Tribulation” – Revelation 2:8-11

by Roger McCay
25 April 2021
Sermon Passage: Revelation 2:8-11
Link to Audio Version

You’ve heard it said that “What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger” (a statement credited to Nietzsche). Christians, though, can up the ante by saying, “And even if it does kill me, it makes me invincible.”

Tribulation presents the Christian an enigma on many levels, and that enigma is highlighted by a series of enigmatic contrasts in the brief letter to Smyrna. Craig Keener put it this way:

The one ‘who is the First and the Last,’ who was dead but came to life, speaks to those who are impoverished yet rich, persecuted by those who claim to be Jews but are not, and will, like Jesus, find life in death.[1]

And while all that may seem a jumble of riddles and paradoxes, tribulation for Christians is very real and very painful. History and the present confirm the stark reality that true believers suffer for Christ. Even if you aren’t feeling it now, know that many brothers and sisters elsewhere are. I’ve given the statistics here before, and the persecution of Christians is a worldwide phenomenon. It can also come knocking on your door when you least expect it—maybe in a subtle way, or maybe overtly. The Bible belt may provide some protection, for now, although some might say, “That protection is more an illusion than reality these days, leaving us soft and vulnerable.” But tribulation for the sake of Christ, across a spectrum of pain, is part of a redeemed life until Christ returns in glory (2 Tim. 3:12). How can we face such a life? Is being a Christian worth possible social and economic pain, much less torture unto death? When suffering for Christ knocks on your door, will you find the courage to stay faithful? When pressed, will you conform to the world? How will you face life, as a disciple of Christ, with faithful courage? Will you deny Christ? How will you overcome?

The church in Smyrna, in the mid-60s AD, had been suffering and was facing even more harsh tribulations for the sake of Christ. It was hard. And it is no stretch to think that a major question on their minds was, “How will we (how will I) make it through?” The Lord, among his lampstands (his churches), knew their plight, so he sent them this letter to encourage them and remind them how they could live with faithful courage. It’s a very straightforward letter, as there was really only one answer—simple, yet not simple at all—Jesus.

Chs. 2-3 of Revelation are a critical part of the book. They ground the Apocalypse in its historical reality, as these were real churches consisting of real people trying to live for Christ in the world in which they found themselves. The statements and promises in the letters are not that difficult to grasp, especially with the coming chapters in view. And the letters serve as a means to introduce various themes and events that will be reiterated and expounded upon with images throughout the book. As we travel along through the Apocalypse, what is written here will be viewed from different angles, near and far. The larger picture will come into play, and the imperatives and promises for the churches will be reinforced by the imagery revealed in the prophecy. Victory in Jesus.

The letter to the church in Smyrna is the second letter to the seven churches, and (like the second to last letter to Philadelphia) it does not contain a rebuke and they both mention the synagogue of Satan (2:9; 3:9). Unlike the church in Ephesus, we don’t really know these folks (as we don’t have anything specifically said of them in Acts, nor are epistles written to them or their angel, like we have with the letters to the Ephesians and Timothy). However, it is thought the church was planted sometime around Paul’s third missionary journey, perhaps as a reverberation of his ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19:9-10).

Smyrna had a long and storied history, being first “inhabited at least 3000 years before Christ.”[2] Located about 40 miles north of Ephesus, on a bay of the Aegean Sea, Smyrna is now called Izmir, in western Turkey. Having been rebuilt in the early 3d-century BC, it was noted as a particularly beautiful city. It was a wealthy city, vying in the first-century with Ephesus and Pergamum as one of the greatest cities in Asia. Among other pagan deities, the city was wholeheartedly devoted to Rome, building a temple to worship Rome as a deity (the goddess Dea Roma), in 195 BC. Then, about 40 years before Revelation was written, the Smyrnaeans built a temple to Tiberius Caesar. The imperial cult, Caesar worship, was deeply rooted in the culture and going strong in Smyrna, no less under Nero, who demanded worship.