The Seven Churches of Asia
"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." — Rev. 2:8-11.
The last time I had the pleasure of speaking to you, it was about the Church of Ephesus; that Christ blamed it for something. He had this against her, that she had left her first love; and He bids her repent, and do the first works; if not, He will come quickly and remove the candlestick out of its place. Ephesus was once one of the most flourishing Churches of Asia; but Jesus did come quickly, and He removed the candlestick. It is now only a heap of ruins. When the traveler is there, he goes over ancient archways, and heaps of stones, and the yellow corn is seen growing where Ephesus once stood. There is a village near where it was; and Mr. Hartley, a traveller, tells us that he found only one Christian in the whole village. So may God do with us — He may take away our candlestick. We have many churches just now and flourishing congregations: but God may leave us a heap of ruins, with only one Christian to tell us that the candlestick hath been taken away. So it was with Ephesus; but it is very different with Smyrna. Notice, Christ does not blame her for one thing. What! Were the Christians of Smyrna so holy, that even the eye of Christ did not see any fault?
Well, we can get no comfort from that; for if Jesus were to send us a letter, it would be full of blame. But no! The Christians of Smyrna were just what Christians are now; but Christ washed them in His own blood, and clothed their naked souls in His righteousness; and therefore He saw them all fair. This message to Smyrna reminds me of the Epistle to the Philippians; it is all kindness, all love. So is this message of Christ to the Christians in Smyrna; it is all mercy, peace, gentleness, kindness, and love. Smyrna is still one of the most flourishing towns of Asia; it has 100,000 inhabitants, and it has several churches, and two stations, where are Protestant ministers, just like our own. God lighteth the lamp wheresoever He will.
But let us now see the message that was sent to Smyrna, and notice, first, the character Christ takes to Himself here. He takes different characters in all the messages to the seven Churches; and it is very beautiful to remark that He takes a character which suits the case of each of them. To the Church of Ephesus He says, "I am He that holdeth the seven stars in My right hand, and who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks"; showing them that He could remove the candlestick when He pleased. And here He takes His encouraging character, "These things saith the First and the Last, which was dead and is alive." Notice, in the first chapter of the Revelation, what John says, when Jesus was revealed to him at Patmos, when "His head and His hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and His eyes were as a flame of fire; and His feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace" — John says, "When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead," and Jesus said unto him, "Fear not"— just what He used to say upon the earth. You remember He said to His disciples on the Sea of Galilee, "Be not afraid;" and here, when John fainted, Jesus encouraged him by saying the very same words, "Fear not," and when on earth He used to stretch out His right hand — so John says He did to him, "He laid His right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not." And Jesus says here, "These things saith the First and the Last." He was the first at creation, and He will be the last at it; it is He that will gather everything together like a scroll; it is He who will make all things new; He says, "I will create new heavens and a new earth." And He is the first and the last in Providence. From the time when a child is born into the world, Christ directs all the providences that happen even unto its dying day. And He is the first in Grace; it was He who carried on the plan of salvation; and He was the last at it; it was He who said, "It is finished." It is He who laid the foundation stone of this Church, and it is He who will put on the top-stone; and He is the first at a work of grace in the soul, and He is the last at it — He will be with you in your dying hour. It is this that gives us hope, "Being confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you, will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ." And again, Jesus says of Himself here, He was dead and is alive again. How encouraging is this character of Christ! Jesus was dead — He has not still to die, it is all over. It is this that gives peace to an awakened soul, to know that Jesus was dead. Well, then, Christians, you are quite safe; no wrath can come upon you, every drop of God’s wrath hath fallen on His head. You have no more cause to fear it falling upon you, than you would have to fear a storm of thunder and lightning, or an earthquake that happened more than eighteen hundred years ago. This gives great peace. But there is another thing that gives peace — Christ was dead and is alive again; He has risen, and hath been accepted, and is now at the right hand of God; and we have peace from this, because we know that we shall be as pleasing and acceptable in the sight of the Father as Christ is. Jesus says, "Father, I will that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with me where I am; that they may behold My glory, which Thou hast given Me: for Thou lovedst Me before the foundation of the world."
But let us see what Christ says of the Church. They had three kinds of troubles: "I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty." Afflictions very often go together. One trial seldom comes alone; perhaps sickness, or bereavements, and then poverty. But as putting the tree into the bitter waters made them sweet, so methinks it makes the bitter cup sweet — that there is so much sweetness in the cup, that none of the bitter will be felt, because Jesus says, I know it. It is Christ that knows; He measures all your suffering; He will not give you too much or too little. And again, Christ says, "I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan." Another of the Christian’s troubles, and the third one that Christ mentions here, is Satan the devil; this is the worst of them all. The Church of Smyrna was very much tried, but it was the purest of them all: when gold is put into the fire, all its dross is taken away — so it was with the Smyrna Christians. Many of its members were burnt at the stake. Their bishop, Polycarp, a very precious man, was cruelly put to death: and it is not that Satan is not as busy now, but he is sometimes a roaring lion, and sometimes an angel of light. It is true we have not persecutions at present, for the devil just now is flattering men; Christians are mixed with the world, the chaff with the wheat. Christ’s people can hardly be distinguished from the world, yet the world hates them as much as ever; "Marvel not though the world hate you." But the devil may come out again like the roaring lion seeking his prey. Our prisons may again be filled with Christians.
But let us now see the encouragements that Christ gives. He says, "I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty; (but thou art rich)." I had rather Christ would say that of me, than all the wise men in the world; I had rather that Jesus would say unto me, Thou art rich, than that all the world should say it. They are very apt to say of Christians, They are poor; but it is because they are blind. I have no doubt this word in the Bible is very little believed, but it is no less true — "Hath not God chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom?" But do not mistake me, you will never get to heaven because you are poor; there are very few of the poor in my parish who seem to be rich in faith; and oh! — if you are not in Christ, you are miserably poor, and will be miserably poorer still; but be ye rich in faith, and ye shall be heirs of the kingdom. Again, Christ says, "Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer." Oh, that is a sweet word — fear none of them, the smallest or the greatest of them. If you stand on the seashore, you will notice that sometimes after a very small wave, a very large one comes; so it is often with affliction; Christ sends a small trial first, that He may prepare you for a large one; but fear none of them. If you were to bear the burdens yourself, you would be overwhelmed; but take them to Jesus, lay them all upon Him, and then you will slip from under them, and you will have to bear nothing. I believe there is not one who is a Christian here, but who will have to suffer in some way or other; for it is written, Thou shalt suffer. But fear none of them; fear not tribulation and poverty, fear not reproaches, fear not persecution, fear none of these things which thou shalt suffer.
And here is another of Christ’s encouragements: "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life . . . . He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death." The second death! And are there two deaths? Yes. Have you ever been at a deathbed? Have you ever seen the eyes roll back, the lips quiver, and the hands grow cold and motionless? Have you ever seen the deathbed of an awakened sinner, of one who cried out, Oh for another day! Oh for another hour! Oh for another moment! — of one who was obliged to die? Well then, that is but a shadow of the second death. When you are walking on the road, and when the sun causes you to see your figure, that is only the shadow — the substance is the real thing; so it is agreed by the soundest divines (and I believe it is true) that God intended the first death to be a type, or shadow, of the second death of the Christless soul; and if the first, the shadow, be so dreadful, what will the second death be? — when it shall be eternally dying, but never dead [sic. He doesn’t understand that the wicked shall be destroyed]; when you shall be wishing to die, but are not able! When you see one ill with fever, he is anxious to get water, but he cannot swallow it; and this is but a type of the burning thirst of those who have died without Christ, when they shall ask for a drop of water to cool their parched tongue. But it is very different with the believer; death is no death to him, for Christ hath taken away its sting; it is to him an entrance into life; and then he shall not be hurt of the second death — it shall pass by, but shall not touch him. And again, Jesus says, "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life." It is called in one place a crown of gold, in another a crown of righteousness, in another a crown of glory, and here it is said to be a crown of life — it shall never fade! But what is meant by being faithful unto death! It is to be believing unto the end, to believe unto your dying hour; and then, when God wipes away the tears, Christ shall put on the crown.