Lord Jesus’ letters to the seven churches as recorded by Apostle John have the sequence of the letters along clockwise direction. Right opposite to the island of Patmos, on the land, is Ephesus, Smyrna and then other churches. But all these letters were written with the purpose of encouraging them, letting them know about their spiritual state and providing help to get them free from their troubles and get closer to the LORD God.
Importance of the church at Smyrna – Smyrna was a seaport city about 35 miles north of Ephesus and was considered the most beautiful of the seven cities. Its main population was Greeks and Christians till it was destroyed by the Turks in 1922 forcing the Greeks to flee to their own country. Smyrna is called Izmir now and is part of Turkey. The Greek word Smyrna may have been taken from the ancient Greek word for ‘myrrh’, which was the chief export of the city. The Magi presented myrrh, gold and other precious gifts to the child Jesus as part of their worship of Him (Matthew 2:11). Myrrh is also for the dead to prepare the body for burial (John 19:39) and Nicodemus had brought about a hundred pounds of it mixed with aloes
Smyrna was a suffering church and like myrrh that was produced by crushing a fragrant plant, the church also was producing the aroma of faithfulness to God despite the persecution. This church was established probably during Apostle Paul’s three years stay at Ephesus (Acts 19:10). The message to the church is mostly about their present and future persecution and suffering. Lord Jesus encouraged them to stay strong even to the point of death. When facing such suffering in our lives, which does happen many times, we also must pray to the LORD to strengthen us both physically and spiritually. It is ironic that the warning and encouragement comes from Lord Jesus, the One who is well aware of the pain of rejection, scorn and death.
This church faced no criticism for their past but is full of the love and deep compassion of the Lord for their faithfulness in the face of suffering and persecution. During that time the source of all persecution was from the pagans (Acts 19:26-41) and from the Roman authorities due to the believers’ refusal to offer incense and worship the emperor. But the Jews in the region opposed Christians for fear of being identified with them and as a result suffer Roman persecution.
Lord Jesus revealed Himself to each church as per their works and the content of the letter to them. The message to the church at Smyrna is from the one who is ‘First and the Last, who was dead and came to life’. The identity of the ‘First and the Last’ belongs only to the LORD, Yahweh, and the Church was reminded that they were serving the risen Lord, who was victorious over death (Isaiah 41:4). Lord Jesus then informed the Church about His awareness of their suffering and poverty, both by His personal knowledge and experience on the cross. Smyrna was a rich city yet the Christians were very poor and the Greek word ‘ptocheiah’ used here means destitution or extreme poverty.
Reason behind their poverty – Christians’ refusal to worship Caesar as god resulted in lootings and lack of employment causing severe poverty. But the Lord termed them rich for their faithful walk in the Lord, their strong leadership and care for each other. Smyrna was a poor rich church, their riches being their close relationship with the Lord. The Lord was well aware of the Jewish persecution of the believers, but they were Jews outwardly and not spiritually. They were thus aligned with Satan and were his synagogue. The believers were warned about the coming persecution from the devil but God had restricted that to only ten days when they would suffer imprisonment also. Since this suffering was permitted by the LORD, it had a definite purpose to test them, purify them and to make them like Lord Jesus and to be a true witness of Him (1 Peter 1:6-7).
They were encouraged by the Lord to ‘be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life’. They were thus asked to be faithful right till the end and receive the promised reward of the crown of life. The Greek word ‘stephanos’ means the victors’ crown and not a king’s crown. This crown was also worn in marriages by both the bride and the groom, and they as our Lord’s Bride will also wear a crown with the Lord. Any believer who has never suffered must examine his/her spiritual status and surrender to the Lord’s authority and cut off his/her undue alignment with the world.
This church was poor but rich for they had spiritual wealth that no one could take away (Matthew 6:20). The ‘synagogue of Satan’ were probably those Jews who followed the Mosaic law without knowing God or Gentiles who called themselves Jews. Polycarp was martyred in Smyrna around AD 155 by the unbelieving Jews and Gentiles both as one. But the fire that was lit around him, did not touch his body for the Lord’s protection was on him and in rage a soldier stabbed him with a long lance to finally kill him. The church was promised protection from second death or permanent separation from the Lord. This promise is for all believers who persevere in faith about protection on the Day of Judgement (Revelation 20:6) for in Lord Jesus there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1).
Letter to the church at Pergamos – Pergamos had been the political capital of Rome for the region and was famous for education and culture. Its large library had about 2,00,000 volumes and its religion centered around worship of various gods/deities, especially the serpent god, Asclepios, the god of healing and education. This symbol is used as a logo for the medical profession all over the world. Sick people from all over came and were permitted to stay the night in the temple where tamed snakes were and the touch of a snake moving at night was taken as touch of that god to give relief from sickness.
The church in Pergamos was affected by the worship of both the local temple and the Romans command to worship Roman emperor Caesar and they had also joined in worship of other gods and sexual sins. The letter is from Him ‘who has the sharp two-edged sword’ and the Lord would confront them with His words. The Word of God ‘is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart’ (Hebrews 4:12). The book of Revelation is about the war of truth against lies and falsehoods of the devil and the weapon of war is words for the Living Word of God leads in the battle.
Pergamos is then identified as the place where ‘Satan’s throne is’ for the place was the center of pagan religion with Ascleptos as the main deity till the Roman Emperor Caesar demanded his worship. It was the political center of the worship demanding Roman empire. Despite such intense pressure the Christians of Pergamos held fast to their faith and did not deny it and their faith was strong in Lord Jesus. This church, out of all the seven, faced the strongest opposition from the imperial cult of emperor worship. A member of that church Antipas was martyred for his faith in the Lord and the place’s link to the devil is again emphasized, ‘where Satan dwells’. Lord Jesus came to ‘destroy the works of the devil’ (1 John 3:8) for all his works were and are in opposition to the heavenly kingdom.
Their condemnation was for their following Balaam’s teaching and works of sexual immorality and joining in the feasts of the local gods. Balak, the king of Moab had called Balaam, the prophet to come and curse the Israelites but instead of cursing he ended up blessing the Israelites three times (Numbers 25:1-3). Balaam then advised Balak to send Moabite women to the Israelites camp to entice them into sexual sins and eating the things sacrificed to their gods. The church at Pergamos was also involved in following ‘the doctrine of Balaam’ as well as the immoral attitude of the Nicolaitans. The church faced a three pronged satanic attack through sexual immorality, false doctrine and false teachers (the Nicolaitans) and the resultant internal strife within the church. The likely punishment from the Lord was of His coming quickly and fighting against the culprits ‘with the sword of My mouth’. Judgement will begin at the house of God first and they will be confronted by the Lord to face eternal damnation and suffering in this life also (1 Peter 4:17).
The reward – There are two rewards mentioned for those who overcome. The first is ‘some of the hidden manna to eat’, which is the ‘true bread from heaven’, Lord Jesus Himself, the perfect provision for this and the next life (John 6:41). The second reward was a white stone with a new name written on it. The white stone could be like today’s printed invitation card to a great banquet, or a sign of friendship, evidence of being counted worthy, or a sign of acquittal in a court of law. It could be any of these but it is a definite blessing. The new name written on the white stone could be an intimate pet name showing an intimate relationship and it could also be the reservation confirmation in heaven. Name also defined the role and responsibility of the person and this could define his/her new task as assigned by the Lord on earth or in heaven.
Message to the church of this age – The Book of Revelation peels the underlying layers of this world to expose the hidden spiritual satanic powers that lead people and empower them against the church. The powers of darkness and their role is the most manifest in the church of Pergamos. The name of Satan and his control center is mentioned twice in one verse, as his throne and where he dwells (Revelation 2:13). The false religion and the doctrine of the Nicolaitans both had the demonic powers working behind the scenes. Apostle Paul has defined the enemy forces against us as principalities, powers, rulers of darkness of this age and spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12). All these try and dominate our mind, heart and soul and then also the body by planting evil thoughts, desires and over time converting these into strong habits.
We have to identify each stronghold and fight and break it by overwhelming it with the Word of God while being alert and maintaining self control. For staying on guard we must, first, practice spiritual discipline by regular times of study of Word, worship and prayer; second, surrender to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God to differentiate right from wrong; third, as King David sought God to search and know his heart and to ‘see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting’, seek the help of the Lord. Any battle that we fight can only be won in the power and guidance of the Lord failing which there is sure defeat in the short and long term both. The devil knows our weaknesses and will continuously keep trying to urge us to depend on self effort leaving God out of the battle. He uses the ways of Balak and Balaam again and again through lies, trickery, seduction and half-truths.
Sin or false teaching requires strong opposition to challenge and tackle it without any compromise through repentance by changing our attitude and living by faith and avoiding compromise. The church was not asked to flee but hear the voice of the Lord, obey and change their ways. Pergamos, like the church of today, was surrounded by evil all around knocking down opposition through deceit. And guidance and empowerment from the Holy Spirit was and is essential to check any spiritual compromise. The starting point must always be when the thoughts are just forming rather than wait for it to become a permanent stronghold. The reward is only for those who overcome while others shall perish. God has paid a very heavy price to pull us out of darkness and if for nothing else we need to honor that sacrifice of the Son of God and flee from evil.
The LORD God has equipped each and every believer with the gifts of the Holy Spirit to perform the role that He has assigned to us. All of us need the gift of ‘discernment of spirits’ from the Spirit of God to be able to distinguish the right from the wrong. The presence of the Holy Spirit in us is God’s assurance of being with us to face every situation that the devil may bring upon us. The key to victory is faith and in that resist the devil within and without.