“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.

There was also a large Jewish presence in Smyrna, who, along with all Jews of the Roman Empire, had been granted the privilege to maintain their religious traditions and were exempt from having to pay homage to the imperial cult.

Thus, as we read the letter, we see that the church in Smyrna had a definite enemy, the ones who made them suffer. Look at vv. 9-10:

“ ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.

Enemies of the church implicated, in vv. 9 & 10, are Satan/the devil along with his minions: the false Jews and the powers of Rome. At the instigation of these false Jews, the Romans would imprison Christians, which led to a number of deaths. This should sound familiar. It is an old story. We saw it with Jesus in how the Jews attacked him and manipulated the Romans to torture and murder him on the cross.

So who are these false Jews? Verse 9 says, they “say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” They are the Jews who had rejected Jesus and held on to apostate Judaism—tools of Satan showing their true colors in their persecution of the church. As Stephen Smalley describes them, they were “Jews who have forfeited their name, and membership of God’s people, by stirring up hostility against the Christians: much as Jewish resentment against Jesus encouraged Pilate to condemn him to death (John 19:14–16)” [3] That they are Satan’s people and not God’s people also hearkens back to the words of Christ to the Jews who rejected him, in John 8:44, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” The devil/Satan was their father, not Abraham.

As for the church, it was made up of both ethnic Jews and Gentiles. In Christ both ethnicities made up the true Jews—true Israel. As Paul put it in Rom. 2:28-29, “No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly … But a Jew is one inwardly.” Then again in Gal. 3:29, “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” True Christians are the true Jews—true Israel.

Accordingly, this theme is introduced (false Jews vs. true Israel), and we’ll see it developed as we move forward in the book, particularly with the Great Harlot, Babylon the Great (which is Jerusalem and apostate Judaism) contrasted with the bride of Christ (new Jerusalem, the Church).

So, false Jews were slandering the true Jews, contributing to quite a bit of suffering on the part of God’s people, as the poverty Jesus mentioned was doubtless tied to the slander. This slander led to the Romans arresting, imprisoning and putting to death members of the church in Smyrna. Thus the Jews were collaborating with the local Roman officials (which, by the way, is a picture of the Harlot and Beast, working in harmony against God’s people, warring against the Lamb—Rev. 17). It was likely the case here, from what we know of those times, that the apostate Jews told the Romans the Christians were not a true sect of Judaism, eliminating the Christians’ legal protections. This then opened the door for all sorts of reasons for the Romans to go after the Christians, including their refusal to worship Caesar and participate in the idolatry that permeated every aspect of the culture. On top of that, there was whatever false accusations the false Jews made against Christians to stir up the Romans against them, leading to arrests, as the Romans followed up on the informants slandering, marring the Romans opinion and leanings towards the Christians. In the mix, it didn’t help that the emperor, Nero, was aggressively persecuting Christians, and this city was steeped in emperor worship.

You can, perhaps, see how overwhelming this got for our kindred in Christ, in the church of Smyrna. But we should not be surprised by the false Jews blasphemies. This type of slander is nothing new in the Biblical narrative. The apostate Jews had long been very persistent false witnesses against the Lord and his people, stirring up trouble, as recorded in the gospels and repeatedly in Acts.

As such, it is no wonder the Christians were impoverished. And it has been suggested various factors came into play there: “mobs (both Jewish and pagan, stirred up by Jewish hatred) destroying their property, the fact that Christians were often among the poorer classes to begin with, the liberality of Christian giving in times of pressure…, [and] the loss of jobs in a pagan atmosphere.”[4] Whatever the case. The Christians were having an extremely hard time and facing worse.

So, in the midst of this pain and tremendous struggle, what does Jesus tell them? And think about it. This isn’t just a few individuals in a church. This involved families. Households. Already suffering impoverishment, with members now facing possible imprisonment, torture and even death. Even if the children were spared, what would life be with the father gone, mother, or both? Well, think about that. That’s what they faced, because of faith in and faithfulness to Jesus Christ. So, what did Jesus stress to them? In the midst of this terrible trial, where the devil and his minions strove to crush the Christian faith, what did Jesus say? Two imperatives: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer” and “Be faithful unto death.” Be courageous and be faithful. Have faithful courage in life no matter what comes. Conquer it.

Why? How? Well, there’s really only one answer. Jesus. There is no reason to fear poverty, in Christ (Matt. 6:25-34). There is no need to fear death, in Christ. There is every reason to be faithful in Christ. The Lord emphasizes this fact in the titles he gives in v. 8: “the first and the last, who died and came to life.”

Like Jesus told John not to fear in 1:17-18, he tells the church in Smyrna not to fear in 2:10. Jesus told the church not to fear because he is “the first and last,” hearkening to “the Alpha and Omega” name, in 1:8. He is saying he is Yahweh, the Lord, using a self-given name by Yahweh in Isa. 41:4, 44:6 and 48:12. There, like here, the emphasis is upon the Lord as creator of all, who is sovereign over history and has chosen a people to himself. He is the primary cause and definitive end: that of history, “as the origin and goal of all history,”[5] as one has said; and also that of his people, whom he foreknew (foreloved), predestined, called, justified, and glorified (Rom. 8:29-30). Thus the church is told not to fear, because Jesus is God (the one who governs the procession of history, chooses and secures his people, and is sovereign over history’s commencement until its end). What are pagan mortal Romans and apostate Jews in the midst of that?

Jesus also told the church not to fear because he is the one who “died and came to life,” hearkening to his title in 1:18. The Lord, here, refers to his crucifixion and resurrection. He died, yet he lives. He is the resurrected one. He is the first and the last, who died and is now alive forevermore. Jesus is the eternal Lord over whom death has no hold. He conquered death in his resurrection—the firstfruits of the resurrection of his people; a guarantee for his follower’s resurrection to eternal life (1 Cor. 15:20-22). He is the one who grants eternal life (Rev. 1:18; 22:14). What threat could Satan’s minions really present to a people who become invincible in death?

Why not fear? Jesus. Of course, sometimes we lose focus. But, if we are fearing the world, a tried-and-true solution is to meditate upon the Lord. Psalm 27:1:

“The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

And so, we have every reason to face life with faithful courage. “The first and the last, who died and came to life” knows his people’s tribulations. He suffered and died for us. He identifies with his people’s sufferings, as his people participate in his sufferings (Acts 9:4; Rom. 8:17). Thus Jesus the King ennobles, gives the highest form of dignity, to our suffering. He is with us, among the lampstands. He’s not at a distance. He is right in the midst of it all. We are never alone, in our suffering. When you say “Jesus, help me!” He is right there, saying, “I’ve been helping you all along. Do not fear. Be faithful. Face life with faithful courage unto death. I’ve got you.”

James Hamilton puts it this way:

Tribulation is painful and wearisome. It pecks away at us little by little, chipping away at our joy, taking the wind out of our perseverance, and things only worsen as tribulation drags on. Jesus does not trivialize [the church in Smyrna’s] suffering by telling them it isn’t really that bad. He doesn’t demean them by telling them that if they were stronger it wouldn’t bother them so much. And he doesn’t cheapen their experience by offering unsympathetic advice. Rather, Jesus ennobles their suffering with the simple and comforting words, “I know your tribulation.”[6]

My friends, we can have the faithful courage to face life, whatever might come. When you face tribulation, think on Jesus, meditate on him, commune with him. He is right there with you. It is not from within yourself that you will find true faithful courage. Don’t try picking yourself up by your bootstraps. Faithful courage comes from Jesus.

Now, not only does Jesus ennoble his people’s suffering in our tribulations, he also gives meaning to our tribulations. We see this in v. 10: “Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation.” The meaning Jesus gives to tribulation is found in the phrase, “that you may be tested.” In other words, some of you will suffer, “for the purpose of” being tested. It’s a test of faith and faithfulness. In the testing, the sovereign Lord overcomes the evil of the devil and his minions, for his good purposes.

Testing is good. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that the evil actions that led to suffering are good. It is God’s overcoming that evil, which is good—the testing. The Scriptures are clear on this. The Lord transforms the evil of suffering into good for God’s people (Rom. 8:28). The Lord uses suffering as a means of sanctification. Peter tells us in 1 Pet. 1:7 that in suffering various trials, our faith becomes refined like gold, tested true, which will result in “praise and glory and honor.” Testing of our faith and faithfulness strengthens our minds and resolve as we become even more aware of our security in Christ. It emboldens us. It focuses us. Paul even tells us suffering is something in which we should rejoice. In the testing of suffering, as a Christian’s faith and faithfulness is refined and shown to be true, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Rom. 5:3-4). Endurance, character, and unshakeable hope drill down to the very core of who we are, as we are refined in the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18).

Not only is testing good, it is limited. Jesus mentions “ten days,” and perhaps, as some think, this hearkens back to the ten days of testing of Daniel and his friends, in Daniel 1. After ten days of faithfulness, they were healthier than their rivals who ate of the Babylonian kings table. It was a limited time of testing, and the results improved their lot. And while the ten days mentioned by Jesus may have been a literal ten days, it seems more of a figurative term for a period of trial, a reference to a time of quantitative fullness, which is limited. The “ten day” symbol was telling the Smyrnaean Christians that their testing with the specific tribulation of imprisonment, facing possible execution, was not forever. The testing would be done, and at the end (whether they lived or died), like Daniel and his friends, they would be better for it—if they tested true.

So, what Satan’s minions meant for evil, the Lord was using for the good of his people, like Joseph mentioned concerning his brothers actions in Gen. 50:20: “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” Jesus gives meaning to tribulation.

Jesus also does not leave the church hanging. He gives a promise, sealed in his blood. Verses 10c-11:

10c Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’

This is why, although they were poor, they were rich. When their faith was tested true, through their faithfulness in suffering, the abundant spiritual blessings and assured eternal inheritance were brought much closer to their consciousness. In their poverty, their true eternal possessions became much clearer to them. Add what we’ve seen about Jesus’ presence, empowerment, provision, security, and overcoming the world’s evil intentions to the good of his people, and they are in a position to embrace whatever comes in life, living a joyful life, even when suffering, and having a reason to laugh at their own imminent death. Upon dying, tested, confident in Christ, embraced in the warmth of his love, the Lord will present them the victor’s crown—eternal life, free from sin and the effects of sin, all tears wiped away, and glorious unfettered life before them for all eternity.

And this is the promise to all Christians, as v. 11 tells us. Conquering and overcoming is being faithful in life, whatever might come, even unto death. But “the second death,” what is later defined as “the lake of fire,” eternal hell and suffering (Rev. 20:6, 14 & 21:8) will never touch us. It’s not even on the table (Rev. 21:3,7).

It is natural for us to wonder, if so tested, “Would I be able to overcome? Would I test true? I would hope to test true, but would I courageously and faithfully continue on the path of righteousness, following Jesus, if the world comes at me with guns blazing? Will I be able to make it to the end?” These are good questions! And how would you ever know the answer to them, at least in this life, if you don’t undergo tribulation for Christ? Such is the value of a good testing, for a time.

My friends, we don’t know what our particular futures hold. The Smyrnaeans were told. Maybe something like what they went through will come our way, or maybe not. Whatever the case, you are challenged every day to face life with faithful courage. Resist the world and it will bite you. Be encouraged when it does. When your faith shows true, you have cause to rejoice. Repent when you fail, which gives you further cause to rejoice, because you are truly forgiven. Ultimately, our victory is in Christ and not ourselves. Christ always finishes the good work he has begun in his people (Phil. 1:6).

Thus the enigma of tribulation. We really don’t want it. But maybe we do. When we suffer tribulation for Christ, Jesus ennobles our suffering—exalting us. When we suffer tribulation for Christ, Jesus gives meaning to our suffering—sanctifying us; making us stronger. And if we die, we are made invincible! Since Jesus conquered death, Christians should face life with faithful courage.


[1] Craig S. Keener, Revelation, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 114.

[2] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Smyrna,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1972.

[3] Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (London: SPCK, 2005), 66.

[4] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 129, quoting Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 68.

[5] Osborne, 95, quoting Richard Bauckham, The Theology of The Book of Revelation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 27.

[6] James M. Hamilton Jr., Preaching the Word: Revelation—The Spirit Speaks to the Churches, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 77.