And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
These things says the first and the last, who died dead and came to life, “I know your tribulation and your poverty, but you are rich, and the blaspheme of those claiming themselves to be Jews, and are not but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison that you might be tempted, and you shall have tribulation ten days. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. The one having an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one overcoming, no, shall not be injured by the second death.
This passage is only four verses long, and yet has much content that causes us to scratch our heads. What is this mention to a synagogue of Satan and ten days of persecution? Before we get there, lets try to recognize what kind of church Jesus is speaking to. He calls Himself the first and the last – an obvious comfort for they who will suffer persecution – and the one who has died and rose again – an obvious statement in relation to the second death. We see this church as one that is afflicted and in poverty, yet they are rich. They are slandered (Greek is “blasphemed”). They are about to suffer. Some will be put in prison, some will die, and the others will be persecuted for ten days. Yet, Jesus has nothing against them.
In discussion of the church in Smyrna, I think that what comes to mind is Jesus’ words to Nethanael in John 1:47. “Here is a true Israelite – one in whom there is no guile.” Paul mentions in Romans 22:28-29 that a man is not a Jew outwardly, but inwardly. It is this inward purity that Smyrna is displaying. Notice also that we see Jesus warning Smyrna that they will continue to face persecution. If Jesus has nothing to bring to their charge, it does make me wonder why they must suffer persecution. I think the answer to this might be in suffering for ten days. The Feats of Trumpets represents the return of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 15:52, for example). Many times Jesus’ return is claimed to be marked by a trumpet (Matthew 24:31, 1 Thessalonians 4:16). Ten days after the Feast of Trumpets is Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. What I think Jesus is expressing here is that Satan is going to persecute this people until the final moment when judgment comes.
The church in Smyrna are told that though they are poor, they are rich. This is a contrast between the church in Laodicea later (3:17). Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians about “just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows”. Paul continues this thought for himself in saying, “Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:5-9). James tells us that it is actually those in humble circumstances that have the high position! (James 1:9). It is in James that we also find the crown of life (James 1:12, but also see 1 Peter 5:4).
There are a lot of Scriptures about this. James 2:5 speaks of God’s chosen-ness upon the poor. Luke 12:21 condemns those who store up for themselves. 1 Timothy 6:18 is a command to be rich in good deeds, and generous and willing to share. Etcetera.
Yet, what everyone wants to know is who the synagogue of Satan is. Personally, I don’t believe that it represents the Jewish people. There is a contrast in the book of Revelations between every single detail. In Revelation 12, we find a woman that flees to the wilderness away from Satan. In Revelation 18, we find a woman that sits upon the scarlet beast. I believe that both of these women are Israel, but there is still a contrast being made. They who call themselves Jews probably really are Jews. Jesus’ statement that they are not Jews is not stemming from the fact that Gentiles in the church are calling themselves Jewish, nor in that Israel has been replaced by the church.
There is a lot of Scripture to give here in order to express this. Let me start with 1 Corinthians 10:21, “No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too, you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.” Notice the contrast: table of the Lord versus the table of demons. This concept doesn’t come from some new revelation, but rather from insight into the Old Testament patterns. Psalm 50:16-23 gives the same kind of parallel. God says to the wicked, “What right do you have to recite my laws and to take my covenant on your lips?” Notice the covenant – of which we read Jesus breaking bread and giving wine in symbol. Yet, the passage ends with God saying that he looks to “he who sacrifices thank offerings and honors me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God.”
If you think that the wicked would be the world out there who don’t know God, you would be mistaken. Take, for example, John 8:39 and 44, “If Abraham were your father, then you would act like him… You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire.” Jesus is addressing the Jewish people when He says this. 1 John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” Take this with 3 John 9, where John rebukes a leader, “I wrote to the church, but Diotrphes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us.” Notice that John is not speaking Jews, but of supposed Christians!
Paul warns the church in Ephesus in Acts 20:30, “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” Jude 4 says, “Certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign Lord.” 2 Peter 2:1-3 also doesn’t mince words when Peter speaks against these infiltrations of false teachers.
Here is where we begin to see the table of the Lord versus the table of demons. In Jeremiah 2:3, we read of a bizarre devouring: “Israel was holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of his harvest; all who devoured her were held guilty, and disaster overtook them.” Psalm 69:17-23 also speaks of David who is being persecuted as a “table set before them” – obviously with intentions to devour the righteous man. Micah 3:1-3 speaks of the leaders and rulers of Israel: “Should you not know justice, you who hate good and love evil; who tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones; who eat my people’s flesh, strip off their skin and break their bones in pieces; who chop them up like meat for the pan, like flesh for the pot?” Isaiah 65:11 speaks condemnation to those who forsake the Lord and spread a table to Fortune and mix wine for Destiny. In relation back to that verse in Jude, we read in Malachi 1:7-13 – but specifically in verse 12 – “But you profane it by saying of the Lord’s table, ‘It is defiled!’ and of its food, ‘It is contemptible!’” Hebrews 12:16-17 brings emphasis upon Esau who sold his inheritance for a bowl of soup, and afterward was rejected though he sought the blessing with tears.
It is these, who like Esau have forsaken the Lord to pursue their own stomachs, will hear, “Depart from me, you worker of iniquity”. Their stomachs desire to kill and eat the people of God. They are filled with anti-Semitism and replacement theology. They are filled with hatred regarding the covenant, and thus cannot bear the words of Jesus, “Until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, nor the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law.” They love to quote Paul about how the Law is obsolete, and they love to reference Scriptures that would suggest that we are the new Israel, and in this, they devour the people of God – both Jew and Christian – by teaching what is false and by calling darkness as if it were light.
They who claim to eat at the Lord’s table and yet reject His people – whether in word or in deed – devour them. They are eating from the table of demons, and so shall receive their judgment. They are like Korah who was not content with being separated by the God of Israel unto himself to do His work, but also sought after the priesthood itself. These men are not content to be set apart unto God, and to remain in His love, but must also compete for being the sole beneficiaries of God. It is in Numbers 16:3, 20:4, and 31:16 that the Septuagint calls the very people of God “the synagogue of the Lord.”
The church in Smyrna will continue to be “tortured and refuse to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.” Now, in my translation of the Greek, you might have noticed that I translated “testing” as “temptation”. To overcome is not simply to overcome a trial, or some sort of “test” by the enemy. We overcome temptation, as Paul wrote earlier in 1 Corinthians 10, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.”
Satan will tempt the saints to the point of despair, and God will allow the Antichrist to even “wear out the saints”. We read in Revelations 13:7 that the Antichrist was given power to “make war with” and “overcome the saints”. That overcoming is about denying the very Christ that is within you.
That way out is an eternal perspective – to “joyfully accept the confiscation of your property, knowing that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” It was this eternal perspective that causes Paul to say, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary afflictions are achieving for us an eternal weight of glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporal, but what is unseen is eternal.”
They who overcome this temptation and persecution will be given the crown of life, because they have already entered into that life through the blood of Jesus Christ. They who overcome will not be hurt by the second death, because they will have already died with Christ and been raised unto glorious newness of life. To overcome in this manner is more than just not being cast into hell; it is the eternal reigning with Christ (Revelation 20:4-6).
The second death is found in the Targum (Aramaic version of the Old Testament) multiple times. Deuteronomy 33:6, “Let Reuben live in his age and not die the second death…” Jeremiah 51:39, 57, “Let them die the second death and not live in the next world.” Isaiah 22:14, “This sin shall not be forgiven you till you die the second death.” Isaiah 65:6, 15, “They died the second death.”
We find that the language being used here is terse, and therefore it takes a lot of digging to discover what John is saying. Yet, now that we have unpacked it, we can step back to see that the overall message is that there are people who have persecuted and tormented the church in Smyrna. They have risen up – whether in the ranks of Judaism or of Christianity – as leaders that now oppress the sheep. Jesus tells His followers to continue to bear it, for when He comes, He will judge those wicked servants and cast them into the lake of fire where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. But the righteous will inherit eternal life – the opportunity to rule and reign with Christ as priests before Him forever (see Revelation 20:4-6). To him who has ear, let him hear.