We have two of the Lord’s letters in today’s reading — Smyrna and Pergamum.
8. To the angel of the church in Smyrna write these things: The first and the last, the one who was dead and lived, says,
9. ‘I know your distress and poverty, but you are rich. I also know the blasphemy of those claiming to be Jews when they are not. They are the synagogue of Satan.
10. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. The devil is about to throw you into prison to test you. It will be ten days of distress. You must have faith unto death, and then I will give you the crown of life.
11. Those who have ears should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches: those who conquer will never be hurt by the second death.’
12. To the angel of the church in Pergamum write these things: the one having the two-edged sord in his right hand says,
13. ‘I know you live where the throne of Satan is, and you hold firm to my name and do not deny faith in me, as in the days of my faithful witness Antipas who was killed among you right where Satan lives.
14. Yet I have a tiny complaint against you. You have there these people holding to the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to cast a stumbling block in front of the Children of Israel, to eat food sacrificed to idols and to fornicate.
15. In the same way, you have those holding to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
16. Therefore, you must repent. If you do not, I will come quickly and will attack them with the sword of my mouth.
17. Those who have ears should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches: I will give those who conquer the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone. Upon the white stone a new name is written that no one knows, except the one receiving it.’
Pergamum’s persecution seems to be in the past. At some time, Antipas, apparently a leader there, was killed for his faith. Nevertheless, the people were faithful to the Lord and did not deny him. This is a good thing. May we all be found faithful when the moment of trial comes.
Smyrna’s persecution is yet to come, but it is coming soon. The strangely specific time period of ten day is either very individualized or some kind of stylized number. Whatever the actual duration, Jesus encourages them to remain faithful unto death, for the ominous text indicates some will certainly die.
Smyrna has nothing negative in its letter, only an encouragement to stay faithful and a promise that no matter what happens here, the second death will not harm them if they are true. The same cannot be said for Pergamum. The Lord has what he calls a tiny complaint — they put up with false teachers, the Nicolaitans. Jesus compares these to the Old Testament figures of Balaam and Balak, and likens it to eating sacrilegious food and fornication.
We don’t know who these Nicolaitans are, but Jesus can’t stand them. In fact, he hates them.
I can’t tell, grammatically, if the warning of ‘I will come quickly and will attack them’ is for the whole church if it doesn’t repent, or, rather, if it is a threat against the Nicolaitans, that Jesus will purge his church. I take the latter. I choose to believe Jesus is telling them, ‘You can purge the bad teaching, or I will. One way or an other, they have to go.’
So much of these letters is Jesus warning churches to clean up their act. We shudder at the thought of Jesus attacking church folks, and we also quiver at the idea of him removing the lampstand (2:5 — also in context of hating the Nicolaitans). Removing the lampstand can only mean he takes away his Spirit and the church is no longer a real church.
Without the Holy Spirit, a church is a powerless civic organization. A form of godliness, but no power. Jesus is in the midst of judging many such congregations right now, places that look and smell like the body of Christ, but in actuality they are not. The fire left long ago.