THE LETTER – “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death. (Revelation 2:8-11)
Background – Smyrna, an important exporting city, was located on a protected harbor of the Aegean Sea 35 miles north of Ephesus and next to a major road system. One of the great cities of Asia, it was large, prosperous, and a seat of emperor-worship with a temple devoted to the emperor Tiberius. Smyrna was second only to Ephesus in importance and support for the imperial religion. The original city was destroyed about 627 B.C., and was left deserted and in ruins for four hundred years. Alexander the Great contemplated its resurrection, and his design was carried out after his death (“died and came to life again”). The new city was built a short distance south of the ancient one, and became the finest in Asia Minor, being known as the glory of Asia. Its modern name is Izmir and it still has a large seaport.
Polycarp, an early Church “father” and reported disciple of John, was martyred by being burned alive at Smyrna in 168 AD, some eighty-six years after his conversion. Called upon to renounce Christianity he is reported to have said, “eighty-six years have I served Christ, and He has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” He was the bishop of Smyrna, and may have been “the angel of the Church in Smyrna” referenced here. Under the Emperor Diocletian, the believers in Smyrna were severely persecuted by both pagans and Jews (“I know your afflictions”). This oppression led to extreme poverty among the Christians (“I know your poverty”), possibly because they had been robbed of all their goods (or were refused patronage) by their persecutors.
Greeting: What’s in A Name – Christ is portrayed as the eternal One (“the First and the Last”), who suffered death at the hands of His persecutors and then was resurrected from the grave (“who died and came to life again”). This identification of Christ would have been especially relevant to the Christians at Smyrna who, like Christ in His death, were experiencing severe persecution. The greeting was likely intended to comfort the Church of Smyrna in the midst of its persecutions.
The name Smyrna means bitter and is related to the word myrrh, which had a variety of uses. It was offered to Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:23) to numb His pain and was used for His burial (John 19:39). The assembly at Smyrna was persecuted for their faith, which probably explains why the Lord emphasized His death and resurrection as He opened His message. No matter what experiences God’s people may have, the Lord identifies with them.
Praise: What’s Pretty Good – The church members were persecuted (“I know your afflictions”), probably because they refused to compromise and proclaim Caesar is Lord. Like many early Christian churches, the majority of its members were from the poorer class (“I know your poverty”) and likely faced scarcity of employment and harsh treatment. Cities and towns with large concentrations of artisans and craftsmen established trade guilds or unions. As this practice grew, the government gained greater influence in their organization, which often required their members to participate in certain pagan activities like emperor worship. A believers’ unwillingness to participate in these activities likely resulted in their exclusion from the guilds and loss of business.
Christians were not seen as Jewish and thus had no protection against civil requirements for participation in the emperor cult. The Jews, of course, did not have to patronize the imperial cult since their religion was exempted by Rome. The Jews themselves were also antagonistic to the Christian faith. As a result, Christians in Smyrna were exposed to slander and suffering from Jews and Gentiles alike.
Apparently, a local Jewish synagogue (“a synagogue of Satan”) was making blasphemous charges (“I know the slander”) that would result in church members being thrown in jail for a short time (“ten days”) and even causing some to die. They “say they are Jews and are not” does not deny the Jewish lineage of the persecutors but instead mirrors Paul’s assertion that, ultimately, Jewishness is not just outward but inward, related to the circumcision of the heart by faith (Romans 2:28–29). Perhaps Smyrna (and churches in similar situations) could take solace in Scriptures such as those in Figure 5.1.Criticism: What’s Not So Good – Christ has no criticism for the persecuted church. The saints in Smyrna remained faithful despite their suffering. They considered themselves to be poor, but Christ considered them to be rich (“I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich!”). This contrasts with Laodicea, which thought it was rich yet was poor (“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”). It also contrasts with Christ’s evaluations of five of the other six churches, which He rebuked. Smyrna’s sufferings, though extremely difficult, had nonetheless helped keep them pure in faith and practice.
Exhortation – Unfortunately, worse things were about to come than poverty and slander – prison, persecution and perhaps death. They would receive these (persecution, imprisonment and suffering) for ten days. Ten is a nice round number, and is reminiscent of Daniel 1:12 (“test your servants for ten days”). Several meanings have been suggested:
• Specific Period of Time – It is possible that a literal ten days was meant.
• Limited but Non-Specific Period of Time – Many believe that the most probable meaning is that there would only be a limited period of time for suffering, citing precedence in Scripture that ten days often meant a limited period of time (Genesis 24:55; Numbers 11:19; 14:22; 1 Samuel 1:8; Nehemiah 5:18; Job 19:3; Jeremiah 42:7; Daniel 1:12; and Acts 25:6).
• Indefinite Period of Time – Alternatively, the number could be figurative, indicating an indefinite period of time.
• Symbolic of Entire Church Age –Some have taken these words “for ten days” as a symbolic representation of the broader persecution of the church throughout history, and the first and second centuries in particular.
• Persecution Under Ten Caesars – Others think it refers to ten waves of persecution from ten Roman rulers (from Nero to Diocletian).
• Tribulation Period – Ten is also the number of the world powers that will be hostile to the Church during the Tribulation (the ten horns of the beast in Revelation 13:1).
Christ assures this church that He is aware of the devil’s schemes and that He is in complete control of the situation. The important thing was faithfulness, standing true to Christ no matter what the others might threaten to do. Polycarp’s reply to the earthly judges who urged him to recant, resound still today and bears repeating: “Fourscore and six years have I served the Lord, and He never wronged me, how then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?” This cost him his life, as it has cost many other faithful saints through the ages. It costs to be a dedicated Christian. In some places, like Smyrna, the cost is more than in other places and times. And, as the end-time “labor pains” increase, persecution will increase for the Church as a whole. God’s people need to be ready and to “not be surprised at the fiery ordeal” that may be yet to come (1 Peter 4:12).
They are also promised the victor’s crown, or the “crown of life,” one of several crowns promised to Christians (1 Corinthians 9:25; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 2 Timothy 4:6–8; 1 Peter 5:4; Revelation 4:4). The crown of life is also mentioned in James 1:12. Believers are encouraged to be faithful by contemplating what awaits them after death (“the prize set before them”), namely, eternal life. The Lord reinforced the promise given by James that those “who perseveres under trial…having stood the test …will receive the crown of life” (James 1:12) and assured His people that there was nothing to fear (“do not be afraid”).
Because they had trusted Him, they were overcomers—victors in the race of faith (Hebrews 12:1–3). As overcomers, they had nothing to fear. Even if they were martyred, they would be ushered into glory, wearing crowns. They would never face the awful judgment of the second death, which is the lake of fire. Jesus understands the suffering that the church is Smyrna is facing because of what He suffered. Because He “died and came to life again,” He could say “I know your afflictions.” Assuring them that they will share in His ultimate victory over sin and death was likely intended to give them courage to live fearlessly in times of pressure.
Warning – Just as there was no criticism for the persecuted church there is no warning about a judgment from Christ. There is a warning about persecution from the world. And, as is often the case, a persecuted church is a refined church. Satan goes about as a lion, seeking to devour (1 Peter 5:8), but as is often the case, the persecution only made the church at Smyrna stronger.
Promise to Overcomers – The phrase “the second death” is unique to Revelation. There is a first death that all but raptured saints must face. There is also a second death that only those who die without Christ must endure. This death occurs after the body is dead. It is unspeakably worse than the first death, both in its agony and in its duration. It is the “death” of the soul or spirit – an eternal damnation.
Originally a rabbinic expression, the second death will be experienced by those whose names are not written in the “book of life” (Revelation 20:15). The second death is equated with the “lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14), or the lake that burns with “fire and brimstone” (Revelation 21:8), and is described as the lot of “the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted … murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars” (Revelation 21:8). Those who are victorious (overcomers) in this life have nothing to fear from the second death.
The first death is merely a physical death (see Matthew 10:28). Although the expression first death does not occur here, the concept is implied in Revelation 20:6 which state that “the second death has no power” over “the one who shares in the first resurrection.” Sharing in the first resurrection would be impossible unless they had previously died (first death). The enemy may kill the body, but the saint need never fear the second death, which is hell. Those who are born twice will die only once. Those born only once will die twice.
Reflection –The church of Smyrna was a church refined by persecution and poverty. As a church today, thus far largely unaffected by persecution and poverty (at least in the western world) we need to guard against comfort and wealth that could lead to contamination rather than purification.
Up Next – Pergamum
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