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THE CHURCH IN SMYRNA
Scripture Reading: Rev. 2:8-11
Now we continue by looking at the second church, the church in Smyrna. May God open our eyes that we may see more and neglect nothing. In the history of the church, the churches during the apostolic age and immediately after were greatly persecuted. Suffering is the special feature of the church; therefore, the name of the church here is Smyrna. Smyrna comes from the word myrrh; thus it means suffering and represents the church under persecution.
This epistle reveals that the name of the Lord Jesus is special and that the reward for the overcomer is also special. The Lord Jesus speaks of Himself as "the First and the Last, who became dead and lived again'' (Rev. 2:8). To the overcomer the Lord says that he "shall by no means be hurt of the second death'' (v. 11). This proves that life overcomes death. Many people have only seen "living,'' but they have not seen "living forever and ever'' (1:18); neither have they seen "lived again'' (2:8). How great this is! On the day of Pentecost the apostle said to the people, "Whom God has raised up, having loosed the pangs of death, since it was not possible for Him to be held by it'' (Acts 2:24). Death cannot hold Him. Once all those who are alive go into death, they cannot come out again, but the Lord Jesus cannot be held by death. Death has no strength to hold Him. This is resurrection. His life can endure death; therefore, the principle of resurrection in the Bible becomes very precious. "Who became dead and lived again" proves that life can endure death. God sees the church as a being that can endure death. The gates of Hades are open to the church, but the gates of Hades cannot prevail against her and cannot confine her; thus, the nature of the church is resurrection. Whenever the church loses her power to overcome suffering, she is useless. Many people are finished upon encountering certain matters contrary to their wishes; for them it is just like encountering death. But resurrection does not fear death; suffering only proves that one can endure death. You may think that a certain man will probably be finished after encountering a certain incident, but, no, he passes through and comes out again. That which passes through death and still remains is resurrection.
Even in our own lives, there are many occasions like this. When we encounter trials and temptations, prayer may cease and it may become difficult to read the Word. The brothers all say that this time we are finished, but not long after, we rise, and the life of God comes forth from us again. That which is finished after death is not resurrection. The church has a basic principle: She is able to pass through death; she cannot be buried. The church in Smyrna especially expresses this truth. If you read the history of martyrdom by Fox, you will see how the church has suffered persecutions and afflictions.
For example, Polycarp was a bishop of the church at that time, and he was seized by his opponents. Since he was eighty-six years old, they could not bear to put him to death, and they were especially lenient towards him. He only needed to say, "I do not recognize Jesus of Nazareth,'' and they would have set him free. But he replied, "I cannot deny Him. I have been serving Him for eighty-six years, and in these eighty-six years He has never treated me wrongly. How can I deny Him for the love of my body!'' As a result, they carried him to the fire and burned him. While the lower half of his body was withering in the flames, he still could say, "Thank God that I have the opportunity today to be burned by men and to give my life to testify for You.''
There was a sister who was told that if she would only bow to Diana (the idol Artemis in the city of Ephesus, as recorded in Acts 19), she would be released. What did she say? She replied, "Do you ask me to choose between Christ and Diana? I chose Christ the first time, and now you want me to choose again. I still choose Christ.'' As a result she too was slain. Two sisters who were present said, "So many of God's children have been taken away. Why do we still remain?'' Later, they too were taken and put into prison. These sisters witnessed many being devoured by beasts and they said again, "Many have testified with their blood. Why do we testify only with our mouth?'' One of these sisters was married, and the other was engaged. Their parents, husband, and fiancé all came to persuade them otherwise. They even brought the child of the married sister, begging them to deny the Lord. But they said, "What can you bring that compares with Christ?'' As a result they were dragged out and given to the lions to be devoured. The two sang as they walked until they were torn apart by the beasts.
How terrible were the persecutions suffered by the church in Smyrna! But no matter what happens, life always revives after it has died. Persecutions only manifest what kind of church the church is. He is "the First and the Last, who became dead and lived again.''
"I know your tribulation and poverty'' (Rev. 2:9). You have nothing founded on this earth, but the Lord knows that you are rich. "Do not fear the things that you are about to suffer'' (v. 10). The entire church in Smyrna was persecuted, but the life which has died and is now living again can break through all these persecutions. The church in Smyrna was able to endure great persecutions because she knew resurrection. Only resurrection can bring us out of the grave.
I know...the slander from those who call themselves Jews and are not'' (v. 9). Here we must give heed to the problem of the Jews. The Lord said that the church has tribulation and poverty in her sufferings; these are easy to deal with. But that which comes from within is not easy to deal with. The Jews spoken of here do not refer to the Jews in the world but to the Jews in the church, just as the "people'' we saw before in connection with the Nicolaitans did not refer to the people in the world but to the laity in the church. Here the Lord speaks of the Jews who persecuted them. This is the most painful among painful things. In the seven epistles there is a line of opposition. The Nicolaitans are spoken of twice—once to the church in Ephesus and once to the church in Pergamos. The Jews are spoken of twice as well—once here and again to the church in Philadelphia. In the epistle to Pergamos, the teaching of Balaam is referred to, and in the epistle to Thyatira, Jezebel is referred to. All of these constitute the line of opposition. We may ask what the meaning of the Jews is. Is not salvation of the Jews? Why do they speak blasphemy here? For this reason we must know what Judaism is and what the church is.
There are many essential differences between Judaism and the church. Here I wish to mention four points to which we must give special attention: the temple, the law, the priests, and the promises. As their place of worship, the Jews built a splendid temple on this earth of stone and gold. As their standard of behavior, they have the Ten Commandments and many other regulations. In order to attend to spiritual affairs, they have the office of the priests, a group of special people. Finally, they also have the blessings by which they may prosper on this earth. Please notice that Judaism is an earthly religion on this earth. They have a material temple, regulations of letters, mediatorial priests, and enjoyment on this earth.
When the Jews entered the land of Canaan, they built the temple. If I am a Jew and want to serve God, I must go to the temple. If I feel I have sinned and need to offer a sacrifice, I must go to the temple to offer the sacrifice. If I feel God has blessed me and I wish to give thanks, I must go to the temple to give thanks. I must go this way all the time. I can only worship God when I get to the temple. This is called the place of worship. The Jews are worshippers, and the temple is the place where they worship. The worshippers and the place of worship are two different things. But is this so in the New Testament? The special feature of the church is that there is no place and no temple, because we, the people, are the temple.
Ephesians 2:21-22 says, "In whom all the building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in spirit.'' Have you seen this? The special feature of the church is that your body is the dwelling place of God. Individually speaking, every one of us is the temple of God. Corporately speaking, God builds us up and fits us together to become His dwelling place. There is no place of worship in the church; the place of worship is the worshipper. We carry our place of worship wherever we go. This is basically different from Judaism. The temple in Judaism is a material temple; the temple in the church is a spiritual temple. Someone once calculated the total value of the Jewish temple—it was enough to afford all the people in the world a monetary share. But what about the temple of Christians today? Some are crippled, some are blind, and some are poor, but this is the temple. Today some people say, "If you do not go to the solemn and magnificent temple, at least you need a `church' building.'' But the church does not have a "church'' building. Wherever the believers go, there the church building goes as well. God dwells in men, not in a house. In the church God dwells in man; in Judaism God dwells in a house. Man thinks that he needs a place in order to worship God. Some even call the building the "church.'' This is Judaism, not the church! The word church in Greek is ekklesia, which means "the called-out ones.'' The church is a people bought with the precious blood; this is the church. Today we can have the temple upstairs, we can have the temple at the porch of Solomon, we can have the temple at the gate called Beautiful, and we can have the temple downstairs. Judaism has the material place. Who then are the Jews? They are those who bring the material place into the church. If God's children wish to walk in His way, they must ask God to open their eyes so that they may see that the church is spiritual, not material.
The Jews also have laws and regulations for their daily life (God only uses the law to make men know their sins). Whoever is a Jew must keep the Ten Commandments. But the Lord Jesus says clearly that even if you have kept the Ten Commandments, you still lack one thing (Luke 18:20-22). Judaism has a standard of principles for daily living which is written on tablets of stone. These must be memorized. But there is a problem: If I am literate, I know them; if I am illiterate, I do not know them. If I have a good memory, I can remember them; if I do not have a good memory, I cannot remember them. This is Judaism. The daily-living standard of Judaism is dead; it is something outward. In the church there is no law; rather, its law is in another place. It is not written on tablets of stone but on tablets of the heart. The law of the Spirit of life is within us. The Holy Spirit dwells in us; the Holy Spirit is our law. Read Hebrews 8 and Jeremiah 31. In Hebrews 8:10 God says, "I will impart My laws into their mind, and on their hearts I will inscribe them'' (cf. Jer. 31:33). Right or wrong is not on tablets of stone but in the heart. Today our special feature is that the Spirit of God dwells in us.
I would like to recount a story which expresses this meaning. In Kuling there was a Mr. Yu, an electrician, who had very little schooling. Later, he was saved. When the days grew cold, he was about to drink wine according to his old habit. The meal was ready, the wine was warmed, and he, his wife, and an apprentice were all seated and ready to eat. He started to say grace; yet for some time no sound came forth. At length he said, "Now that I am a Christian, I wonder if it is right for Christians to drink wine. It is too bad Brother Nee has left; otherwise, we could ask him. Let us search the Bible to see if it is all right for Christians to drink wine.'' So the three of them began to turn the pages of the Bible, but they could find nothing. At last the wife suggested that they take it this time. Later, she said, they could write a letter to me, and if I replied that it is not right to drink, they would quit; if I replied that it is all right to drink, they could continue. So Brother Yu stood again and prepared to say grace. But again no sound came forth for a short while. After this incident I met him, and the matter was brought up. I asked if he actually drank at that time, and he replied, "The `householder' who dwells within me would not allow me to do it; so I did not drink.'' There is a "householder''—this is a very good statement. If the Holy Spirit disagrees, whatever we may say avails nothing; if the Holy Spirit agrees, whatever we may say also avails nothing. The law becomes an inward matter, not an outward one.
There are written laws and regulations in Judaism. Today there are also many written rules and regulations in the "church,'' but this is not the church. Any regulation that is set up outwardly is not the church. We do not have outward laws; our standard of daily living is inward. The tribulation of the church in Smyrna was due to the fact that those who called themselves Jews were imposing Judaistic regulations upon her.
In Judaism the men who worship and the God who is worshipped are separated and far removed from each other. The distance is Judaism. When man sees the God of Judaism, he will immediately die. How can those in Judaism draw near to God? They must depend upon the priest as a mediator. The priests represent them to God. The people are secular; they can only do secular things and be worldly. But the priests should be entirely holy and attend to holy things. The responsibility of the Jews is to bring the ox or the sheep to the temple. As for the matter of serving God, that is the business of the priests, not the business of the Jews. But in the church it is not so. In the church God not only wants us to bring material things to Him. He also desires that we, the people, come to Him. Today the mediatorial class has been abolished. What were the words of blasphemy spoken by the Jews? Some in the church in Smyrna were saying, "There will be no order at all if the brothers can baptize people, if the brothers can break the bread, and if everything is given to the brothers to do! That would be terrible!'' They wanted to establish a mediatorial class.
Today's Christianity has already been Judaized. Judaism has priests, but Christianity has strict fathers, clergymen who are not as strict, and ordinary pastors in the pastoral system. The fathers, clergymen, and pastors undertake the spiritual things for everyone. Their only expectation from the church members is a donation. We the laity (the common believers) are secular; we can only do secular things and be as worldly as we like. But, brothers and sisters, the church does not have any secular (worldly) people! This does not mean that we do not attend to any secular things, but that the world cannot touch us. In the church everyone is spiritual. Let me tell you, whenever the church comes to the point of having only a handful of people undertake the spiritual things, that church has already fallen. We all know that the Roman Catholic fathers are not allowed to marry, because the more they differ in appearance from human beings, the safer people will feel in entrusting them with spiritual things. The church is nothing like that. The church demands that we offer our whole body to God. This is the only way. Everyone must be serving the Lord. Doing secular things is only for the purpose of taking care of our daily needs.
We now proceed to the fourth point. The purpose of the Jews in serving God is that they may reap more wheat from the fields and that their oxen and sheep will not drop their young but multiply manyfold, just as in Jacob's case. They are after blessings in this world. God's promises to them are also promises of earth, that among the nations on earth they may be the head and not the tail. But the first promise to the church is that we must take up the cross and follow the Lord. Sometimes when I preach the gospel, men ask, "Will there be any rice to eat when we believe in Jesus?'' I have replied, "When you believe in Jesus, the rice-bowl is broken.'' This is the church. It is not that we will gain more in everything after we believe. Once when I was in Nanking, a certain preacher said in his message, "If you only believe in Jesus, you may not make big money, but you will at least make a fair living.'' When I heard this, I thought that this was not according to the church. The church does not teach how much we shall gain before God, but how much we will be able to let go before God. The church does not think that suffering is a painful thing; rather, it is a joy. Today these four items—the material temple, the outward laws, the mediatorial priests, and the worldly promises—are in the church. Brothers and sisters, we desire to preach the word of God more. We hope that all the children of God, even though they have secular occupations, will be spiritual men.
In Revelation 2:9 the Lord speaks a very strong word: "Those who call themselves Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.'' The word "synagogue'' is especially related to Judaism, just as "shrine'' is related to Buddhism, "monastery'' to Taoism, and "mosque'' to Mohammedanism. A certain brother said that we should not call our meeting place a church assembly hall, but a Christian synagogue. If so, when a Jew passed by, he would greatly misunderstand; for synagogue is a term used exclusively in Judaism. How can we say that there is such a thing as a Christian synagogue and yet not bring in Judaism? The Lord says that they are the synagogue of Satan. The Jews spoken of here refer to the Jews in the church, because they even bring in a "synagogue.'' May God be merciful to us. We must utterly get rid of all the things of Judaism.
In the church in Smyrna there was tribulation, poverty, and the slander of the Jews. But what does the Lord say to them? "Do not fear the things that you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison that you may be tried'' (v. 10). Fear not! Many times if we could only know that something is caused by Satan, the problem would be half settled. It is when we start thinking that it is caused by men that we have difficulty. If we could only know that it is done by the enemy, the problem would be solved and our heart could immediately rest before the Lord.
"You will have tribulation for ten days'' (v. 10). Here we have the problem of "ten days.'' Many expositors of Revelation and Daniel are accustomed to counting one day as a year. Since they count these ten days as ten years, they look for these ten years in history but find nothing. I personally feel that there is absolutely no scriptural basis for this. There are many places in the Bible where days cannot be reckoned as years. For example, Revelation 12:14 says, "A time and times and half a time,'' referring to three and a half years, and verse 6 speaks of "a thousand two hundred and sixty days.'' A Jewish calendar year is 360 days; therefore, 1,260 days are three and a half years. If one day is equivalent to one year, then this would become 1,260 years. If the great tribulation were to last for such a long time, what would people do?
What then is the actual meaning of ten days? In the Bible ten days are spoken of many times. In Genesis 24:55 there are "ten days.'' When the servant wanted to take Rebecca with him, Rebecca's brother and mother requested that she stay with them for at least ten days. When Daniel and his friends would not allow themselves to be defiled by the king's food, they asked the officer in charge to try them for ten days (Dan. 1:11-12). So "ten days'' in the Bible has a meaning, that is, a very short time. The words which the Lord speaks here have the same meaning. On one hand, this means that there are certain days for our suffering, and that our days of suffering are counted by the Lord. After these days, we shall be released just as Job was. On the other hand, it means that the ten days are a very short time. No matter what trials we pass through before God, they will not last long. When the days are fulfilled, the devil can do nothing. The trials which we suffer will pass quickly.
"Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life'' (Rev. 2:10). Faithful unto death is a matter both of time and of attitude. The Lord insists that the life of all those who serve Him belongs to Him. This is why we must be faithful even unto death. Whoever is bought with the precious blood belongs to the Lord and must be wholly for the Lord. From the very outset Christ demands our all. Now He says, "Be faithful unto death.'' As to our attitude, we must be faithful even unto death; as to time, we must be faithful until death. "I will give you the crown of life.'' The crown is a reward; at that time, life will become a crown.
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall by no means be hurt of the second death'' (v. 11). Here it clearly says that not only will we escape the second death, but we will not suffer the hurt of this death, for we have already learned the lesson. Tribulations are severe; if we have not been in tribulations, we never know how terrible they are. Poverty is oppressive; if we have never been poor, we do not know the taste of it. Slander is also oppressive; if we have never been slandered, we do not know its painfulness. It is as if every encounter drags us into death, but as we pass through, we prove that resurrection is a fact. The Lord came out of the grave, and we too will come out. His resurrection life today cannot be drowned, so we dare to say that we too cannot be drowned.