In Revelation 2-3, Jesus is on an inspection tour of seven churches in Asia Minor. He is “the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands”—the churches (Revelation 2:1). These churches were within 40 or 50 miles of each other, forming an arc along a heavily traveled road.
These churches were representatives of what often takes places in churches over time—then and now. Though each report, or what I like to call “postcard,” was written to specific churches about specific challenges, the whole book of Revelation was to be read as a circular letter to each of the churches, passed from one congregation to the next.
Revelation 2:1-11 speaks to the first two church.
The church at Ephesus was long noted for its Christian witness. It was ground zero for the gospel in Asia.
The Lord offered three affirmations to the church at Ephesus (Revelation 2:2-3): their labor in the Lord’s service, their patient endurance during difficult circumstances, and their discipline of false teachers.
The Lord was mindful—He had exact and complete knowledge—that for over forty years the church of Ephesus had been faithful to Christ. The believers in Ephesus had worked hard to maintain their witness in a city filled with idols. The Greek word for “toil” is kopos, and refers to labor to the point of exhaustion.
Twice Jesus commends the Ephesian believers for their “perseverance.” The Greek term hupomone implies endurance under extreme hardship, in the face of life-threatening circumstances, or against seemingly impossible odds.
They bore up under the load “for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary” (Revelation 2:3). But they did it with an attitude of grace and courage.
Finally, Jesus commends the Ephesian church for its commitment to the truth of the gospel. Jesus said, “you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false” (Revelation 2:2).
Then, like someone suddenly slamming on the breaks, the Lord stops praising the Ephesians and begins His admonition for them (Revelation 2:4-5).
They had “left their first love.” Some say it was their love for Christ. This second generation of Christians was going through the motions of service without a commitment to Christ. Others says they had ceased to be a light in a dark world. They had become inward focused instead of outward focused.
That interpretation is supported by the remedy in verse 5—“return to your first works” not to your “first feelings.” It is impossible to love Christ and be disobedient to Christ’s greatest command—to go and make disciples.
If the Ephesian believers failed to repent then the Lord would “remove [their] lampstand out of its place” (Revelation 2:5). That is, the Lord would remove the church’s influence for Christ in Ephesus and Asia Minor. Just as you discard a burned-out light bulb, so God will discard any church whose love for Christ no longer burns bright.
The next church that caught the Lord’s attention was Smyrna (Revelation 2:8–11). The Lord’s postcard to Smyrna is unique in that it is only one of two churches that Jesus didn’t condemn. He only has commendations for believers who live there.
Just thirty-five miles north of Ephesus, the ancient city of Smyrna is known as Izmir today.
In Greek “Smyrna” means “bitter,” a translation of the Hebrew mor, from which we get our word “myrrh”—the fragrant perfume used in embalming dead bodies. Its fragrance is released when crushed. The Christians in Smyrna lived bitter lives. But when crushed, their faithfulness to Christ arose like a fragrant aroma in the nostrils of the Lord.
We could title the postcard to Smyrna as “The Suffering Saints of Smyrna,” since the main feature of the letter focuses on the persecution and poverty they endured. But they did not suffer alone. Jesus was in their midst (Revelation 2:8).
From the first day of life to the last day of life, no matter how difficult life may be, the risen Christ is with us. The Smyrna believers—as can all believers—could declare with David: “The Lordis my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lordis the stronghold of my life—whom shall I dread?” (Psalm 27:1)
Just as the Lord had intimate knowledge of what was taking place in Ephesus, He also knew the details of how the believers in Smyrna suffered for their faith (Revelation 2:9).
The Greek for “tribulation” is thlipsis. It literally means, “pressures,” of a kind that caused crushing under a heavy weight. This was what the Smyrna believers were undergoing in their daily lives. They were experiencing economic, physical, social, and religious persecution.
But these Smyrnan believers had nothing to fear. The eternal Lord of life had overcome death—and so would they.
In Revelation 2:10, Jesus identifies the real persecutor of the Smyrna believers: “the devil.” Having received permission from God (Job 1), the devil will incite enemies to imprison some of the Smyrna believers.
In this life, undying loyalty to Christ might bring a crown of thorns, but in the life to come, undying loyalty to Christ will bring a crown of glory (Revelation 2:10-11). Christ called it the “crown of life.”
The crown Jesus speaks of is probably not an actual crown. It’s a metaphor to the kind of life that is available to all who remain loyal to Christ to the bitter end.
It’s more than eternal life itself, since everyone who places trust in Christ will experience that, no matter how faithful they live this side of eternity. It probably refers to the fullness of eternal life—the “well done, good and faithful service” kind of life. It’s something akin to what Jesus said in John 10:10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
But Jesus’s promise isn’t reserved only for those who remain “faithful until death” (Revelation 2:10). The promise is also for “overcomers”—all believers. They “will not be hurt by the second death” (Revelation 2:11). In the Greek this is a double negative, “not in any way will you face the second death.”
The point of the Lord’s promise is that those who remain faithful in the face of suffering will experience eternal life to the utmost. The first death might sting, but the second death never will.