Teaching series title image

Speaker: Nathanael Ballew

Nathanael is a member of our leadership team and is responsible for organising all the Gatherings that happen across Riverside. He also works for Riverside Performing Arts (RPA).
June 11, 2023
Clinging On For Life | Session 3

BY: Nathanael Ballew
DATE: Sunday 11 June 2023

‘BIBLE PASSAGES: Read online
Revelation | Chapter 2 | Verses 8-11

Going through hard times can be one of the biggest barriers to faith in Jesus. And sometimes when followers of Jesus suffer, questions start emerging about whether God is there, or at work. For these ancient followers of Jesus, John reminds them that the opposition and suffering they face won’t last forever. And that, one day, they will receive a prize that will help them to keep clinging on now, despite the struggles they face.

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  Youth Resources


Each week there are TWO different sets of questions for you to use, whether you are exploring the Bible within your Life Group, in other group settings, or simply using them on your own.

These are simple questions to provoke discussion together out of the talk (ideal if you are watching our Sunday Service online with others in your group):

1 | Was there anything that particularly helped you during the talk?

2 | Was there anything that you didn’t necessarily agree with, or found difficult to understand in the talk?

3 | As a result of the talk, what:

a. Changes do you want to see?

b. Truths do you need to remember?

c. Actions do you need to take?



These are questions that are based on the talk and the surrounding themes:

Read: Revelation, Chapter 2, verses 8-11

1 | When you think about the hard times in life, do you think that going through difficult times helps or hinders faith in Jesus? Why?

2 | Read Revelation 2:8-11. On the surface, the circumstances in Smyrna seem pretty grim. And yet Jesus praises the church. In what way might the particular challenges that Smyrna faces actually be a real encouragement? What about us today?

3 | How does the author describe the challenges that the church in Smyrna was facing? How does Jesus’ encouragement to persevere despite this suffering encourage you? See also Romans 5:3-5, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.

4 | Sadly, throughout history the phrase “synagogue of Satan” (v9) has been horribly misinterpreted to justify all kinds of anti-semitism. What do you think Jesus is talking about here, and why is it so relevant for Smyrna? What, if anything, might it have to say to us today? See also John 8:42-45.

5 | Jesus encourages the believers in Smyrna with the promise of the ‘crown of life’. How does this promise impact the way we might see challenging times in our lives today? See also 1 Corinthians 15:51-57.

6 | In a sense, these verses are ‘sandwiched’ by a reminder of Jesus’ death & resurrection (v8), and the promise of victory over death (v11). How much does the reality of the resurrection change life for you?

7 | Jesus urges the church in Smyrna to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” How might a posture of attentiveness to the Holy Spirit help us in more challenging times?

8 | Reflecting on Jesus’ words to the church in Smyrna, what lessons can you draw for your own life and for Riverside?

9 | Take some time to pray, asking that God would help you to navigate the more challenging times in life with grace and confidence in his victory.

As you work through these questions pray for one another to deepen and develop your relationship with Jesus.


VIDEO |’Book of Revelation Summary’ by the Bible Project (from start until 3mins 45 sec) 

BLOG LINKS | Meditations on Revelation 2-3’ by Sam Storms. 


Revelation for the Rest of Us’ by Scot McKnight and Cody Matchett


Chapter 5 from ‘The Gospel in Revelation’ by Graeme Goldsworthy.

Download link.


‘Revelation’ (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; BECNT) by Grant Osborne


‘Revelation’ (New Cambridge Bible Commentary; NCBC) by Ben Witherington



It’s great to be speaking with you all today and to be joining together as community as we continue to look through the book of Revelation and do our little tour of all the churches in Asia minor.  So we are onto our second church today, looking at the church in the city of Smyrna. Now, before we get into everything that’s going on in that city and in that church, I thought it’d be really helpful and fun to look at our own city, the city of Birmingham, a city that we love and hold dear. And for those of you who maybe don’t live here, then you’ll get to find out a little bit more about this city as well. And we’re going to do that by doing a little quiz. And this quiz is all about firsts and lasts. So it’s the first of things and the last of things, and it’s all to do with Birmingham. And if you just want to shout out the answer, if you know it, I’m sure some of you will, then just get involved like that. Sound okay? Great.

The first question is: Perry Barr was the home to the world’s FIRST of this entertainment establishments in 1930 that stood for “Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation.” Does anyone know what the entertainment establishment is? Odeon. There you go. A couple of people knew it. Yeah, that’s right. Odeon started in Birmingham. Odeon Cinemas.

Number two, known for their song about a famished canine, which world famous band played their FIRST show together on July 9, 1980 at the Run Runner on Broad Street. You know it, shout it out. Don’t pretend like you’re not a fan of this band! Come on! Not UB40, no. Duran Duran, thank you. Duran Duran, Hungry Like the Wolf was that song. There you go, someone knew it.

Which worldwide sport involving 2 or 4 players striking a hollow felt covered ball was FIRST played in Edgbaston, Birmingham, where the sport was invented. Tennis, there you go! I didn’t know tennis was invented in Birmingham until looking into this. How cool was that?

And last one for the ‘firsts’ is: the first ever surgery of its kind was carried out in 1950 at the Birmingham Children’s Hospital. Yes, it was whole in the heart surgery. The first ever one was performed in the Birmingham Children’s Hospital.

Okay, so those are the ‘firsts’. Found out a little bit more about the ‘firsts’ in Birmingham. Let’s move on to the ‘lasts’, although this one is easy: although this author spent most of his upbringing in Birmingham, which inspired his books, he took his LAST breath in Bournemouth in 1973. Who is he? Correct. J. R. R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings.

Which Birmingham factory manufactured their LAST teabag in this city in 1978 because it couldn’t compete with other brands, moving production up to Liverpool, where they still are today? Typhoo, Typhoo tea started in Birmingham. It was a Birmingham brand.

Here’s another one: you might have visited the Shakespeare Memorial Room at the top of the Library of Birmingham. I love it there. I take people there all the time. But do you know, according to most academics, which of Shakespeare’s plays was his LAST? Just shout out all the Shakespeare plays you can think of! It’s not a comedy. It’s perhaps a bit was a bit of a stormy time of his life… The Tempest was his last one. The Tempest, yes.

Okay, final one. This one might be a little bit tricky: what was Eugene Cernan the last person to do in 1972? This one is a little bit of a tenuous link to Birmingham, if I’m honest. Only 12 people have done this in our history. And he’s the last one. Oh, close. In that he walked somewhere. Where did he walk? No. Further, further. The moon! He was the last person to walk on the moon. And you’re probably thinking, what does that have to do with Birmingham? There’s a crater on the moon called Birmingham! So that’s the link to Birmingham. Not really to do with our city, but to do with Birmingham. There you go.



So some little fun facts, some of them to do with our city. Hopefully, it helps you fall in love more with our city. I know that I love the city of Birmingham that we live in. There’re so many fantastic things involved in being here. And in fact, for the people in Smyrna at the time, they would have been very proud of the city that they lived in. And many of them would have called themselves a city, the first in Asia, because it was very beautiful. It was a wonderful size. There were loads of things going on in the city that they were proud of. It was known for its patriotic loyalty, and they had won a bid that could mean they were the ones to build the temple to the emperor. So, people would come from across the country to worship the emperor in this city. So, there they were going, “We’re the first in Asia. We’ve got it all going on in this city.”

This letter starts the same as all seven letters in that it takes a specific description of a characteristic of Jesus that we see in chapter 1 that John writes, and it applies one of those specific descriptions to one of the churches according to their needs at the time. The church in Smyrna gets this description of Jesus, ‘… him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.’ And if you look into it a little bit, ‘…the First and the Last…’ – that’s the description taken directly from the Old Testament, from the book of Isaiah.



But the authorities in Smyrna didn’t care that the Christians worshiped Jesus. They didn’t mind, as long as they also worshiped the emperor, that was fine. However, Christians were not going to worship the emperor because you cannot have two masters, and therefore, there was a problem. And because of that, this rage and hostility was really persistent against Christians and those who were following Jesus through every aspect of their life.

It wasn’t just the authorities who were against the Christians, it was other Jews in the area as well. Because Jews would have seen the Christians as they followed, they believed in this Jesus. They would have seen that as blasphemy. They were doing everything they could to make life as hard as possible for those who are following Jesus. They were antagonizing them and opposing them in this city.

Now, this short letter – because that’s the whole letter, it’s very short – it’s like a Tweet, it actually is less than 150 words! A short little letter is one of the only ones that doesn’t have any criticism to the church. Perhaps that’s because of the amount of persecution the church was facing at the time. Any of the nominal, just casual followers of Jesus had fallen away from the church because actually, they’d rather stay alive. They’d rather have an easy life. All the ones who were still with the church, who were still following Jesus in that city, were ones who were really in it for the long haul. They were really in it, life or death.



Now, while those in the city called themselves the first, this passage starts off by reminding us that Jesus is the only one who is the first. He is the first born of all creation. He was there at the creation of this earth before time as we understand it. He was there when the church was founded. He is still the head of the Church. He is the first and He is the last. Because when all is said and done, when our time here on this earth is finished, Jesus is the judge – not your boss, not the Prime Minister, not your partner, not your parents, not your church leader, and not even yourself – Jesus is the judge.

And that is really good news because He’s a good judge. He holds the future. He is the last. It’s a really good thing as well for the church in Smyrna because they needed that assurance that despite facing suffering to the point of death, what Jesus had already done in conquering death was to guarantee that his followers would have a future life, eternal life with God, even if their life on earth was cut short.



The passage that we read goes on to say, Jesus says, ‘I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich!’ So what? They’re poor and they’re rich? Well, actually, the Greek word here for poor is talking about it literally. They were literally poor. The word for rich is figuratively because they were spiritually rich. For Christians, in that really antagonistic environment with everyone against them, it would have been near impossible to make a living. When everyone’s working against you, they would have not been able to get jobs, they would have been victims of mob violence, and people would have been stealing from them all the time. They would have really genuinely been poor. They were poor.

And yet there is something that no one could steal from them. And that was their hope in Jesus. And we also know as well that in the character of Jesus, He cares for the poor so deeply. He talks about it all the time, especially in the Gospel of Luke. And we see it in his ministry. You see on the Sermon on the Mount, He says, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.



Carrying on, zipping through this letter, the passage says, ‘… the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days.’ What’s that about? Ten days? That’s so specific. Is that a cultural thing? Some theologians, some commentators say perhaps this was a throwback to the trial and the persecution that Daniel had when he was tested for 10 days in the opening chapter of the book of Daniel. You can go and check that out, read the opening chapters of Daniel, see a little bit more about the context. I’ll just summarize it for you because Daniel and his friends were facing something quite similar to the Christians in the church in Smyrna.

They were taken away from their home. They were brought into exile into Babylon and they were being pressured and forced to follow the wicked ways of the Babylonians. And yet they chose to follow God and be faithful to him, even though it was incredibly dangerous. So dangerous that at some point when they choose not to worship the King, the King throws Daniel’s friends into a fiery furnace to try and kill them. And yet God delivers them and brings them out safely. And Daniel himself, when he won’t worship the King, he sentences him to death, throws them in a pit of lions. And yet God delivers him and he survives. And through all of that, the King himself praises God. So really a positive outcome here for Daniel and his friends and all sorts of things in that situation.

However, for the church and Smyrna, they were being murdered and God wasn’t stepping in supernaturally to save them like He did in the story of Daniel. Oh, wait. He already had because He’d done the supernatural work through Jesus in his death and resurrection, so that anyone after that point would no longer face a second death! He says these words, ‘Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.’ The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death. And the major theme of this passage is that Jesus does bring life out of death. That was a promise, especially for those who will pay with their lives. Still, of course, it doesn’t make it easy.



Rei mentioned as well in her testimony video that when her mom passed away, suddenly being a Christian, following Jesus, was not easy. Life is hard. And I’m sure the Christians in Smyrna would have recognized that same thing at this point – that following Jesus, choosing that, was not the easy path. And yet, being a follower of Jesus means you have a hope. What does this mean then for us now in Riverside and Birmingham? How does this apply to us?

Because let’s be honest, most of us will not face persecution for our faith, not in the way that they were in this church that’s being written to in this letter. And definitely, I can say that most of us will not be facing death because of our faith. There are sisters and brothers on other sides of the world and other countries who do face persecution and death because they follow Jesus. We stand with them in prayer. Lord, have mercy on those followers. Have mercy on them, God. But for us now, when we don’t face that, how does this apply to us?



Well, some theologians wonder whether there’s significance in the name of the city because Smyrna actually means ‘myrrh’ in Greek. Myrrh was this bitter gum. You’ve probably heard of it before. It’s a costly perfume, it’s extracted from trees and it’s used for embalming the dead and as an antiseptic as well. It was known to be bitter, which seems appropriate since this is the location of the persecuted Church.

Myrrh was also associated symbolically with weeping and burial and resurrection in the New Testament. Let’s take a look actually at where a couple of moments that myrrh pops up in the Gospel. We have it pop up just after the birth of Jesus. You might know this one, we talk about it a lot. On coming to the house, this is when the magi come to the house, they saw the child Jesus with his mother. They bowed and worshiped him. They opened the treasures of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This is a foreshadowing of his death to come. Just a side note, by the way, there’s only 28 weeks until Christmas, so you better get ready! Just kidding, don’t throw anything at me, please!

The next place that we see myrrh pop up is in John at the end. This is after Jesus’ death. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it with the spices in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. Life, birth and death, we see this crop up – this spice has a significance in the story of Jesus and it should remind us of his death. But it’s really no good if that’s where we get stuck, if we get stuck in the bitter place of death. Because the most important bit for us to hold on to is the resurrection. Through his death and resurrection, we have this grace to enter in to relationship with Jesus and live life to the full.



Has anyone ever played this game, Settlers of Catan? Some of you have. It’s quite well known. It’s a clever little game. The goal of it is to build roads and cities. And then if someone rolls a 7, they put a robber on your bit and you can’t get any resources and it’s all happening. Anyway, I’ve played this game coming up to probably about 100 times. And let me tell you something, I have never won. Never. Not once! I genuinely consider myself a really happy loser. I don’t mind losing because it’s not about competition, it’s about the journey together. It’s friends getting together, we are playing this game together. That’s what it’s about. But come on, nearly a hundred times and I’ve never won? That’s a joke, right?

It’s taken me to this point of bitterness where I don’t want to play the game anymore because I know how it goes and I don’t like it. I know how it ends. It’s not for me. Now, that’s a winsome little analogy, but for some of us, does that ring true? Those of us who have been singed by the suffering in our life, that means we’ve fallen into bitterness because we know how it goes.

What’s the point? The writer of the book of Hebrews mentions in Chapter 12, ‘See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.’ You might have heard the phrase before, ‘hurt people, hurt people’. Have you heard that before? Does it have to be that way for those of us who follow Jesus? Can there be another way? How do we prevent the trials that we face from turning us into bitter people? Because the easy response is, “Well, where’s my revenge? How can I get mine back? You’re not a good God for abandoning me.” Or maybe we say, “What’s the point? Why bother? God doesn’t care anyway.”



Brené Brown says these words, “If we want to be able to move through the difficult disappointments, the hurt feelings, and the heartbreaks that are inevitable in a fully lived life, we can’t equate defeat with being unworthy of love, belonging and joy. If we do, we’ll never show up and try again.” I’m sure you all know in life, there are ups and downs. There are really good times and there are really bad times. That’s life. And of course, we’re going to have seasons where we feel low, where things happen to us, and we might, for a short period of time, enter into a place of bitterness. That’s okay. We see it time and time again in the Bible. People enter these places. But I would like to say that a short period of time may be okay. But if we start to set up camp and if we start to put down roots in this bitterness, then perhaps we’re getting a bit lost.

Instead, if we put roots down in Jesus Christ, we are reminded that He is the one who lifts us out of the pit. He is the one who put supportive people around us to hold us, to carry us. The other wonderful thing about being in community with people is that we can witness to one another demonstrating what it looks like to live a life of thankfulness despite going through suffering. Rei mentioned in her testimony how her mother suffered every day because of a chronic illness that she had and yet chose a life of faithfulness and gratitude. Rei herself was able to see that lifestyle in action, see someone choosing joy instead of bitterness. Just as Rei said, if you have experienced some form of suffering and pain, you are more equipped yourself to walk alongside people who have journeyed with that and to hold them and support them.



And you know, Jesus did exactly that. And He still does that now. He walks alongside us because He experienced pain and death in the most horrific way possible. And so when we are walking through it, He’s right by our side, meeting us where we are and holding us. I wanted to look at Jesus, actually – it’s always a good thing to do, to look at Jesus and see how he responded in his most painful moments, in his biggest suffering. In the moments just when He was arrested, when He was put on trial, and when He was put to death, these are some of the ways that He responded.

When one of His disciples betrayed Him, He didn’t turn around and insult him. He turned around and called him friend. When He was arrested, He didn’t choose violence, but He rebuked any violent retaliation. He was spat in the face, punched and slapped, yet He remained silent and didn’t respond to the mocking and the taunting.

How often do we feel like we need to have the last say or to make a defence for ourselves to get our own back, to hurt others because they hurt us first. Do we ever spend time lying in bed or standing in the shower thinking about all the good comebacks we could have said, everything we could have done to embarrass them or maybe one-up them? I know there have been times when I’ve been standing in the shower going, “I could have said that. That would have been such a good comeback. That would have really shown them.” Instead, could we be in those moments thinking about all the ways we could have blessed them, shown them love, brought them peace, pointed them to a hope that we have in Jesus, honoured them.



When God doesn’t give us the life that we expect, we can become disillusioned with our relationship with Him. And all that means is that we become disappointed and confused because maybe God isn’t as great or as reliable as we thought. When we get disillusioned, an overwhelming bitterness takes hold of our lives and it sucks the joy out of everything we do and it sucks the drive out of our mission, the passion that we have to see more people get to know Jesus. Actually, we can’t get out of that ourselves. We get stuck. In a way, we lose all sense of direction and perspective on things. And we need others to remind us of who God is. And we need the Holy Spirit to come in and lift us from that pit of despair, to remove, to peel away the scales from our eyes so that we can truly see who God is – a good, loving Father.

Shauna Niequist said these words and I thought they were really helpful: “We sometimes choose the most locked up, dark versions of the story, but what a good friend does is turn on the lights, open the window and remind us that there are a whole lot of ways to tell the same story.” People in our spheres may not be experiencing the same persecution that we see in this passage when this letter was written, but lots of people suffer in a variety of ways, whether it’s financial struggles, whether it’s poor mental health, whether it is chronic illnesses as we heard mentioned already. You know what it is that you walked in here this morning carrying with yourself. Maybe it might be on someone else’s behalf as well. You know what it is. What does it look like to go through all of this and still choose to follow Jesus, to keep our sights set on Him in everything?



Last week, Judy mentioned how the church in Ephesus was no more. It was gone, which is super sad. I wanted to look into the church in Smyrna, see what was going on in that situation today. It’s a city now in Turkey known as İzmer, and I wanted to see if the church was still there. It’s good news, everyone, it is! The church is still there right in the heart of the city. There’s St. John’s Cathedral, and it’s named after John, who is the writer of Revelation.

This is what I found on their website online in this church in Smyrna now. It says these words, “Heir to the testimony of Apostle John, the current Christian community of Smyrna, though small in number, is called to live and witness the Gospel of Love among our Muslim brothers.” It carries on and it talks about the front of the church having these words from 1 John about God being love and how we know that love because we know God.

You want to know something cool as well? They are streaming their services on YouTube in 2023. This is a body of Christians, a church that was around written in the Bible. And over a 1,000 years later, they’re still active. Even though they’re small, they stayed faithful and persistent despite persecution, despite facing death. They are still loving others and showing people Jesus today. I was so encouraged by that. I think it’s amazing. Praise God.

My prayer is that we can do the same here in Riverside, here in Birmingham, that in a 1,000 years time, there will still be followers of Jesus in this place because of the way we persisted in our faith. People will say, “Wow, look at the legacy of how followers have stayed true to Jesus, true to his word.” The good news of Jesus will be proclaimed in the city of Birmingham.



Just as I draw to a close this morning before we respond, I hope you’ve been able to see that this letter to the church in Smyrna was a real encouragement for those who were going through a hard time. And that will be all of us at some point in our life. It might be us now, it might be you now. The letter finishes with these things. It says, ‘Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ The Spirit was active in the church in Smyrna, and the same Spirit is active in this church today. We have ears. Let’s hear what the Spirit is saying to us.

Suffering in our lives isn’t meant to weaken our faith or violate our faith. If we focus on Jesus, it can sharpen our faith. Jesus, the Author of our lives. When we have nowhere else to go, when we have no one to turn to, God is faithful, loving. Jesus holds the victory. He is the first and the last, and He knows exactly what we’re going through, and He wears the victor’s crown. Hallelujah.

Some of us might feel a small conviction, perhaps, knowing that there’s a sense of bitterness that’s crept into our lives or that we’ve clung onto maybe for too long. It’s become the norm as opposed to the rare occasion. How do we avoid becoming bitter? How do we avoid becoming bitter people? Well, there are a couple of natural steps, lots of things we can learn from Jesus himself. Be quick to forgive. Don’t hold onto resentment or past hurts, recounting them over and over again. Be quick to forgive others. Choose to show up and sing praises to God, giving all glory to Him, even when your situation is filled with suffering and pain.

We can help others as well. We can carry others together. We can go together, holding each other, praising God together. Let others in to remind us of what we have to be thankful for in our lives. And also remember the promises of Jesus. Be faithful even to the point of death and He will give you life as your victor’s crown. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.






Riverside is a church made up of people from a diversity of backgrounds and experiences all with one thing in common, our discovery of God and his amazing love. 

We are on a journey together to ‘help people get to know Jesus and grow as his followers’. 

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