If someone wanted to begin a Biblical study on riches, the book of Revelation for some would be the last place to venture. However, in the second chapter of Revelation, Jesus speaks on this topic. Jesus tells the Apostle John to write His words down to the church of Smyrna (Rev 2:8). These are the words of our Lord: “ I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich)”(Rev 2:9). A contradiction? As the Apostle Paul would say, “By no means!”
In order for us to understand and obtain the precious truth revealed in this verse, it is obligatory to learn both the culture and context in which the church of Smyrna was living in and what God’s word says about riches.
Smyrna’s deep loyalty to Rome – which was an enormous force of Christian persecution – led many to the common practice of the emperor-worship cult. Apart of the practice was not only the demand to participate in the pagan practices but also to profess the words, “Caesar is Lord!” If people refused to make the profession the consequence would result in being expelled from the guilds of the city. Consequently, since guilds were such an essential feature in Roman economy, to be expelled from them was devastating for one’s life. Gerald. L. Stevens wrote in his book on Revelation “To be shunned from a guild was a catastrophic life event. Not only would one face a lost social identity as a social outcast but a lost business income as well.” Because Christians refused to succumb to the pagan Roman practice and profess Caesar as Lord, many have wondered exactly how many Christians were expelled from their guilds to be treated as outcasts and untouchables. It is without a doubt that this type of persecution affected the church of Smyrna dramatically. Christ knew this! In fact, the word “poverty” that Jesus uses in Revelation 2:9 is no ordinary poverty. The Greek word for poverty used in Revelation 2:9 is ptōcheian, meaning a poverty possessing absolutely nothing. Yet, Scripture tells us that Jesus declared the church of Smyrna as “rich.” How?
Like a stone thrown to glass, these words from our Lord should shatter the unbiblical concept in Christian’s minds as to what true richness encompasses. We must reevaluate and strive to conform our understanding of riches and wealth to that of Christ.
So then, what was this treasure that considered the church of Symrna “rich” when they possessed absolutely nothing?
Physical riches are a blessing from God if it is honored (Eccl. 5:19) but become dangerous if one’s heart is held captive to it (1Tim. 6:9). Like a parent who warns their children of the world’s dangers so does God also when He forewarns us about the creeping deception and destruction physical riches can bring. God informs clearly in His word that these riches can (1) lead to destruction (2) cause man to stumble and (3) cannot be used to deliver one from His wrath.
Scripture tells us, “He will uproot you from the land of the living. The righteous shall see and fear, and shall laugh at him saying, ‘See the man who would not make God his refuge, but trusted in the abundance of his riches and sought refuge in his own destruction!’”(Psalms 52:5-7). Furthermore, “They cast their silver into the streets and their gold is like an unclean thing. Their silver and gold are not able to deliver them in the day of the wrath of the LORD. They cannot satisfy their hunger or fill their stomachs with it. For it was the stumbling block of their iniquity” (Ezekiel 7:19). Finally, Jesus said, “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Matt. 13:22). There are far more passages that remind and caution us about the dangers of physical riches.
We are confident in concluding that if physical riches can be so dangerous, then the word “rich” in Revelation 2:9 is not tangible. God would never misguide His children to believe that playing with fire would never get you burned. David Turner understood this as well when he wrote, “A heart that is easily attracted to world concerns and wealth is a heart that is soon distracted from the message of the kingdom”
The Unsearchable Riches
If the riches of Revelation 2:9 were not physical then what is this great treasure that the church of Smyrna had that deemed them “rich”? The Apostle Paul discloses and answers this question for us all when he wrote, “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,”(Eph. 3:8). In addition, Paul writes, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8). In fact, the word “rubbish” used in many modern Bible translations should be more accurately translated into “dung” or “excrement.” Even the great Puritan Matthew Henry wrote on Philippians 3:8, “Nay, he not only counted them loss, but dung thrown to dogs; they are not only less valuable than Christ, but in the highest degree contemptible, when they come in competition with Him.” Lastly, Paul even evokes heavy imagery from Proverbs 2:2-4 when he said, “that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:2-3).
This great treasure is Christ Jesus. This treasure, which is only obtained through faith in Christ, is a gift. Scripture reveals, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not by your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). For the one who receives this gift, they are enriched with every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3) and filled in Christ (Col. 2:10). And it is through this faith we are given the crown of life (Rev. 2:10), which saves us from the second death (Rev. 2:11; 21:8). It is because of the work, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus that we also will be raised with him to live for eternity in the presence of God (Revelation 21). Without Christ, we are as poor as a dead man in his grave. But when we know Christ, we are of more riches and wealth than a man who gathered all of the gold, silver, and gems upon Earth. To him be the power and glory and dominion forever and ever. He is the great treasure.
 John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc. 2005), p. 1996
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary: New Testament Volume II (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook. 2008), p. 573
 Gerald L. Stevens, Revelation: The Past and Future of John’s Apocalypse (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications. 2014), p. 322
 Larry R. Helyer, Ph.D. and Richard Wagner, The Book of Revelation For Dummies. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc. 2008), p. 130
 ptōcheian in contrast with penia, the ordinary word for poverty.
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary: New Testament Volume II, p. 573
 Psalm 19:7-11; 119:14,72,127,162; Proverbs 2:1-5; 3:14-15; 8:10-11; 16:16. Job 22:21-30; 28:1-8; James 5:1-6
 David L. Turner, “Matthew,” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, ed. Philip W.Comfort, 18 vols. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2005) 11:186
 Jamieson, Robert, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.) p. 367
 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary Acts to Revelation vol. VI. (Mc Lean. VA: Mac Donald Publishing Company, p. 739