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Message Notes: Dear Church-The Church in Smyrna

Dear Church

Week 2: The Church in Smyrna

Pastor Rick Henderson                September 30-October 1, 2023

I found myself thinking about my all-time favorite basketball player the other day. I’m talking about Kobe. For you basketball fans who get riled up, I didn’t say the all-time greatest basketball player. That’s Michael Jordan. Kobe is my all-time favorite. No one who knows basketball would say that he wasn’t a good player. But that didn’t mean everyone respected him. There is a moment, however, in a game that caused a lot of that to change. He earned a new level of respect. It only lasts about 2 seconds. And that moment wasn’t even a basketball play. I’ll show you what I’m talking about.

He didn’t even flinch! That moment became a kind of defining moment. Like I said before, everyone knew that Kobe Bryant was a great player. After this he was seen with a new level of respect. All because he didn’t flinch. As a Kobe fan, I love that moment.

Maybe you can’t relate to that because sports aren’t your thing. For you it might be history. Perhaps there is a figure of history who stood resolute in a pivotal moment. Someone like Patrick Henry who famously said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” He didn’t flinch. Maybe you like fiction and your drawn to a character like Samwise Gamgee who couldn’t be intimated to back off from his devotion to his dear friend Frodo. I don’t know what or who it is for you. But something that is likely true of every single one of us is that we are drawn to courage. We admire courage. When someone faces down certain pain, when sacrifice and hardship and risk are unavoidable, and they don’t flinch—we’re drawn to that. We celebrate that.

Here's the catch. Just because we admire that in others doesn’t necessarily mean that we want to be put in situations that require courage and resilience from ourselves. Just because we’re drawn to that virtue in others doesn’t mean that we’re drawn to circumstances in which that virtue is required of us. And yet, that is the very thing we are going to talk about today.


Grab and bible and turn to this passage. Or use your phone and scroll through this passage with us. Revelation is the second easiest book to find in the Bible. It’s the very last one. As you’re locating that, let me give you the background. The book of Revelation is really a letter. But it’s more than 1 letter. It contained 7 letters to seven different churches.

The man who physically wrote this down was named John. He had a vision in which Jesus showed him some stunning things. What we didn’t cover last week was that John was a prisoner, exiled on an island called Patmos. Because of his faithful preaching of the gospel, the Roman government viewed him as a dissident. Maybe he felt like he was at rock bottom, but Jesus met him with a message of encouragement and ultimate victory.

REVELATION 2:8-11 To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.

What is he talking about? The crucifixion and resurrection. We saw this last week. We see it again this week in the second letter. Before any content is delivered, a reference is made to the resurrection. Why do you think that is?

None of this matters. None of this makes any sense. All of this is a waste of time if Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead. A dead Jesus is a worthless Jesus. And according to the Apostle Paul, religion without resurrection is pitiful. But if Jesus did rise from the dead, that changed everything. Nothing that he said should be ignored. Nothing that he promised should be doubted. No matter what difficult road we might have to walk individually or collectively as a church, for followers of Jesus, every road leads to victory. The resurrection defeats every fear and heals every grief.

Everything hinges on the historical reality of the resurrection. Our ability to hear what’s coming next, to face what’s coming next, and to faithfully live what’s coming next depends upon the power of the resurrection at work in us. Buckle up and get ready.

I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer.

Do not be what? Afraid. This is the personal message from Jesus. It’s not if you suffer. Nope. This is guaranteed. You are going to suffer. Pain is coming. Sacrifice is coming. Injustice is coming. People are going to wrong you and harm you. DON’T. BE. AFRAID.

I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.

This is two weeks in a row that Jesus delivers a message to churches he dearly loves. We have to remember that and keep it front and center in our minds. The church is the bride of Christ. He deeply, dearly, and perfectly loves the universal church and every local church. And that love is expressed in back-to-back unexpected messages.


  • It’s better to have no church than an unloving church.

This was the message that went to the church at Ephesus. There’s part of me that wanted to push back on this. Maybe you can relate; maybe you want to ask Jesus a question like this. Hey Jesus, isn’t sharing the truth without love better than not sharing the truth at all? Jesus’ stunning and crystal-clear answer is “NO.”

  • It’s better to let a church suffer than to prevent it.

This is today’s letter. And there is something in me that wants to push back. Hey Jesus, isn’t a protected church better than a persecuted church? Jesus says, NO. Can we accept this message from him? Can I accept this message from him? Can you accept this message from him?

Obviously, it’s not Jesus’ intent for every church to be persecuted all the time. There are many churches that will never experience this. Most of us, and I’m including me, most of us are so used to comfort that we can’t imagine Jesus purposefully causing or allowing pain in our lives. We are vulnerable to remaking our faith in the pursuit of comfort instead of the pursuit of Jesus Christ.

Albert Tate is a pastor who has wisdom for us. This is what he says to anyone who drifting to a version of Christianity that better aligns with comfort.

You’ll never rebuild a God that will tell you no. You’ll never rebuild a God that would allow pain and disappointment in your life. So whatever you reconstruct, it won’t include pain. And one of God’s tools in his sanctifying process is pain. –Albert Tate

REVELATION 2:9a I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich!

Do you know what Jesus is saying? You don’t have it as good as you want. And yet, you have it better than you can understand. Please make this observation with me. There are 2 out of 7 churches that Jesus doesn’t have something against. This is one of them. He is not disappointed or displeased in any way. He longs for them to understand this difficult truth. You don’t have it as good as you want. And yet, you have it better than you can understand.

There’s a real wrestling match going on here. Let’s be vulnerable with each other. How many of us would say, I don’t want to be metaphorically rich, Jesus? I want to be rich, rich. What do we value more, the richness of faith, fulfilling our calling, and being united with Jesus, OR money, stuff, and comfort? This is real. Will you consider this with me?

What you VALUE determines how you EVALUATE.

I learned this from one of my all-time favorite Bible scholars. His name was Warren Wiersbe.

Our values determine our evaluations. If we value comfort more than character, then trials will upset us. If we value the material and physical more than the spiritual, we will not be able to ‘count it all joy!’ If we live only for the present and forget the future, the trials will make us bitter, not better. –Warren Wiersbe

In a religious approach to Jesus, people are convinced that if you can be good enough, if you can follow the rules or be right enough, Jesus is going to create a buffer around them that will protect them from major hurts, injustices, trauma, poverty, and pain. That’s an approach. Small problem. That’s not how life works. Look around. The best religious rule-keepers suffer. That approach to life is built on a lie. It’s not true, and Jesus never promised anyone that.

If your aim is to avoid as much hurt and suffering as possible, the result will be that you never grow up. You’ll never mature, and neither will your faith. I know some of you are C.S. Lewis fans, and some of you love The Chronicles of Narnia. When the children began to learn of Aslan, the lion who was king, Lucy asked the obvious question, “Is he safe?” The answer was, “Of course, he isn’t safe. But he is good.”

God is good, and he has promised that he will use unsafe, scary, and even hurtful things for our good if we trust him. Here is a much too-quick overview.


  1. To show us the strength of the object of our faith.

It’s not so much faith is powerful as it is who gets your trust, whoever gets your allegiance—that person is either powerful or powerless. The church in Smyrna was largely poor. We aren’t. Relatively speaking, maybe not all of us, but the vast majority of us are rich by global standards. That doesn’t mean we’re wrong. That doesn’t mean you’re bad or I’m bad.

What that means is that we are vulnerable. We are vulnerable in trusting our resources and trusting money as the source of our security. Here’s the thing. Money works. Money works until it doesn’t.

REVELATION 2:9a I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich!

The reason that he would say that is that it’s a good place to be in when Jesus is the only thing you’ve got to trust. The gift of poverty is that it makes it so clear how reliable Jesus is. The gift of poverty is the ability to see how the rich are deceived by their wealth in a way they are blind to. The burden of wealth is that it’s so easy to have a diminished view of Jesus and to be fooled.

  1. To develop humility and deepen trust.
  2. To loosen our dependence on lesser things.

Our problem isn’t that we trust bad things. Our problem is that we put too much trust in good things that are too small.

  1. To reveal our deepest love.
  2. To cultivate gratitude.

There is one common attribute that is the difference between resilient people and non-resilient people—gratitude.

  1. To develop resilience.
  2. To help us comfort others.
  3. To draw us to himself.
  4. To overcome opposition.

This one right here is a message that we need. And it’s so easy to forget. The gospel movement hasn’t spread through getting power. The gospel movement has spread by faithful followers of Jesus who suffered well. This is one of the unexpected, upside-down realities of Jesus’ kingdom. And it was just as hard for them to accept as it is for us.

Scot McKnight is a theologian and author. He does a brilliant job of bringing the purpose of Revelation into focus. Remember that John, the man who physically wrote this letter, was an imprisoned exile on an island called Patmos when Jesus brought this vision to him.

It was a stretch for a first-century imprisoned dissident, tucked away on a remote island, to imagine the mighty empire of Rome losing out to a presently captive Jerusalem. But that is the message of Revelation then with implications for us now. –Scot McKnight

Everything about his circumstance, everything about the circumstances of the church at Smyrna, left no doubt that Christians and Christianity were going to be smashed by Rome. From the first century, the message was that the gospel would prevail. Who could have believed that?!

This summer, I went to Croatia, and I saw an unforgettable reminder of this. Diocletian was the last Roman emperor before Constantine. Diocletian instituted the final season of persecution against Jesus followers. And it was the most brutal one. He ended his reign by building a palace, by the sea, in what is now Split, Croatia. That’s where he retired. Do you know what’s there today?

In the middle of Diocletian’s palace is a church. And this is in that church.

Message Notes: Dear Church-The Church in Smyrna

This is a bishop who was martyred; he was murdered by Diocletian. When Rome relented and Christianity became accepted, a church was built in Diocletian’s palace. And this bishop, who suffered well, his remains were moved to that church. None of us would ever want to be mistreated for our faith. And none of us can know; we don’t have the ability to predict how God uses that for his glory, the good of others, and the spread of the gospel. There is power in suffering well.

QUESTION: Is there anything that could happen to us that would cause us to flinch in the face of hardship or flicker and fade instead of reflecting Jesus?

To help me and to help you engage this question candidly, I’ve got a couple of follow-up questions that may help.

  • What did we learn about our ability to face hardship and reflect Jesus in 2020?
  • What did I learn about my ability to face hardship and reflect Jesus during ___________?

REVELATION 2:9b I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.

If this sentence feels offensive, you’re not alone. I don’t think that it is offensive, but that reaction makes sense. It would help us to know the context. In Rome, especially a city like Smyrna, which was deeply enmeshed with the imperial cult, it was the law to worship the emperor. There was only one group of people who were given an exemption from that. Do you know who they were? It was Jewish people.

It’s very likely that most Jesus followers in Smyrna were also Jewish. What happened was that some Jewish people lied about and slandered Jewish Christians. They encouraged the government to force these Jewish Christians to worship the emperor. And they did it knowing that Christians would refuse and would then be punished.

This is where we see a nasty irony. Jewish people, who were defined as worshiping God alone, were trying to force Jewish Christians to participate in worshipping a false God. This sentence is not saying that all Jewish persons are in a synagogue of Satan. It is saying that Jewish persons who would conspire to force people to worship a false god have now conspired with Satan. That’s how grievous their sin was.

This passage is not at all about racism, and yet this expression has been twisted and used as a license for racism, specifically antisemitism. That is wrong. There have been prominent Christian leaders in our lifetime who have used this expression to push politicians into actively opposing wealthy, influential Jewish Americans. That’s horrible.

People who know and love the Bible have been guilty of dishonoring the dignity of other ethnicities and using differences as an excuse to engage in wrongs. Some of those wrongs are relatively minor, and some of those wrongs are so severe it’s impossible for us to truly calculate the magnitude of their evil. People who know and love Jesus have been participants in that.

What I’m describing is not a relic of history. It’s an ongoing reality. I know that makes some people uncomfortable. For all kinds of reasons, we have an underdeveloped ability to talk about the sin of racism in a healthy and productive way. I was born on a Sunday, and my momma had me in church the next Sunday. I’ve missed very few Sundays since. I’ve been in pastoral ministry for 25 years, in churches in the South, the West Coast, the Mountain West, and now the Midwest. I can tell you from my own experiences that too many church people want to believe that we have solved the sins of racism. Does that make sense to anybody?

  • Have we solved the sin of greed yet?
  • Have we solved the sin of lust yet?
  • Have we solved the sin of pride yet?
  • Have we solved the sin of lying yet?

We’ve got all those sins and many more in our own congregation. That’s not a dig. That’s not me coming down on anybody. I’ve got far more sin in me that I know how to be honest about or truly understand. One reason I can say with confidence that we have sin in our church is because we’re not in heaven yet. That means we’re all still being sanctified and matured. What would make us seriously think that we have solved any sin yet, much less the sins of racism?

  • Would any of us say we are morally perfect when it comes to honoring the dignity of the opposite sex?
  • Would any of us say we are morally perfect when it comes to honoring the dignity of people who get on our nerves?
  • Would any of us say we are morally perfect when it comes to honoring the dignity of people who are in a different age demographic?
  • Would any of us say that we are morally perfect when it comes to honoring the dignity of people who are in a different socio-economic bracket?

Are you still with me? If I got up here and told you that there is an area in my life in which I’m morally perfect, and you should be like me—how many of you are running for the door? Cause you should! That would make me a whack-a-doo cult leader. This is obvious, right? Shouldn’t it be safe and flat-out reasonable for us to admit to ourselves and to each other that we are not yet morally perfect when it comes to honoring the dignity of all ethnicities?

I’m not labeling anyone racist. I am labeling us as sinners. We’re sinners who are deeply loved. No one should be more able to admit vulnerability to sin and ongoing sin than us. We are that secure in Christ. I’m suggesting that we have this kind of prayerful disposition.

“Jesus, if there is anything in me that dishonors you and dishonors the dignity of someone else, would show me. No matter how big or how small it is, I’m open to you showing it to me. I’m open to you using someone else to show it to me. I want to love you and to love others the way you so generously love me.”

We are sinners who need good news. The good news is that Jesus loves us. The blood he shed on the cross covers our sin. His resurrection makes new life possible. We can have all of that by repenting and trusting in him. And as we walk forward in that together, no matter what we face, we don’t have to flinch. He is with us, and his resurrection power is sustaining us.

REVELATION 2:10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.

It’s coming. Don’t be afraid. I’m in total control of how long this will last. I think it’s best to understand 10 days as symbolic. The encouragement is that Jesus knows it’s going to happen before it does. And it’s not going to endure 1 second longer than he allows.

Lovers of theology and philosophy can debate whether Jesus knowing ahead of time is the same as him causing it to happen. That is the knowledge equals causation debate. Please invite me to that debate, but you have to buy my first beverage. The BIG point is this: Jesus is sovereign over all of it. He is permitting this to happen. And he is permitting it to happen for a limited time. He is sovereign, which means he is the ultimate authority. Sovereign doesn’t mean that Jesus causes each and every event that happens. But sovereignty does mean this, there is nothing that happens that he doesn’t allow. There is not one single, solitary event in all of the universe or all of human history that overrides his authority. The Christians in Smyrna could rest in that. We can rest in that.

Here's how we rest in that.

We OVERCOME by what he did, not what we do.

If we are slandered—we trust in him. If we are mistreated or abused—we trust in him. If we lose freedom or rights because of our allegiance to Jesus—we trust in him. Even if we get honest about our vulnerability to sin and the ongoing reality of sin in us—we won’t flinch. We turn to and trust in him.

The way forward is not to fight back. The way forward is not to amass power and leverage power to get our way. The way forward is to trust Jesus. This is your lean-in moment. This is what it means to trust Jesus when hurting. Follow his commands and follow his example. Jesus overcame by suffering well. That’s what we see on the cross. Because of the resurrection, we can trust him and trust his way.

REVELATION 2:11 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.

Do you remember our series thesis?

SERIES THESIS: KNOWING the truth doesn’t change anything. SUBMITTING to the truth changes everything.

I know this is a hard message to receive. We get to decide if we receive with humility or hubris.

REVELATION 2:11 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.

Everyone dies. But what is the second death? The second death is a biblical way of describing what comes next for those who reject Jesus. The Bible uses all kinds of imagery to describe what that will be. The point of that imagery is to emphasize the deep, deep tragedy of being completely separated from God. I would not be loving you; I would not be a faithful pastor if I didn’t remind us of this.

Everyone spends FOREVER somewhere.

If you are a follower of Jesus, remembering this should inspire us to suffer well. Sometimes, sometimes the gospel is performed on the stage of our weakness and adversity. The beauty of Jesus is often more easily seen when we suffer well, not so much in our successes. If our adversity advances the gospel, let’s be all in.

For those of you who are still undecided about giving your allegiance to Jesus. What could keep you from trusting in the one who can give you eternal life?