The letter to the church at Smyrna

Rev. 2:8-11 – To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The First and the Last, the One who was dead and came to life, says: I know your tribulation and 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. Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. Look, the Devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you, and you will have tribulation for 10 days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. The victor will never be harmed by the second death. (HCSB)

Smyrna is a harbor city known for its temple to the “mother goddess” and for its provincial cult temples to Roman emperors Tiberius (1st century) and Hadrian (2nd century). The city is reportedly a beautiful one with paved streets, a library, a gymnasium, and a shrine to Homer, who may have been born there. Evidently there also is a significant Jewish presence in the city. Christian leaders Polycarp and Pionius write about Jewish opposition to Christians there.

According to The Bible Knowledge Commentary, “The name of the city, Smyrna, means ‘myrrh,’ an ordinary perfume. It was also used in the anointing oil of the tabernacle, and in embalming dead bodies (cf. Ex. 30:23; Ps. 45:8; Song 3:6; Matt. 2:11; Mark 15:23; John 19:39). While the Christians of the church at Smyrna were experiencing the bitterness of suffering, their faithful testimony was like myrrh or sweet perfume to God.”
Christ’s self-description: Borrowing from Rev. 1:17-18, Jesus calls Himself “The First and the Last, the One who was dead and came to life” (v. 8). As the uncreated Creator and sovereign Lord of the universe, Christ also became flesh and gave His life as a ransom for us, establishing Himself as “the powerful Son of God by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). There is to be no doubt that He is the foundation of the church, its chief cornerstone, head and bridegroom. No one is in a better position than He to assess the church at Smyrna, which along with Philadelphia are the only churches in Rev. 2-3 to escape rebuke.

Christ’s evaluation of the church’s condition: Jesus says, “I know your tribulation and poverty, yet you are rich” (v. 9). This is an interesting contrast to the church at Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22), which fancies itself wealthy and needing nothing yet is castigated as “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). Although materially poor (the use of the Greek ptocheian stresses extreme poverty), the believers at Smyrna are spiritually rich, holding a treasure far more precious than silver or gold.

As James reminds his readers, “Listen, my dear brothers: Didn’t God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He has promised to those who love Him?” (James 2:5). Jesus also commends the church at Smyrna for enduring the “slander of those who say they are Jews and are not” (v. 9). And as the apostle Paul writes in Rom. 9:6-8, “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants … it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but the children of promise.”

Apparently the local Jewish synagogue is called “a synagogue of Satan” because of its open hostility to the body of Christ. Satan is mentioned in four of the seven letters in Rev. 2-3. Sadly, much of the most severe persecution of the church has come at the hands of religionists.

Christ’s comfort and/or commands: Jesus urges the believers at Smyrna, “Don’t be afraid [or stop being afraid] of what you are about to suffer” (v. 10). Rather than deliver this faithful church from severe persecution, Jesus promises them tribulation “for 10 days,” probably a term meant to console them that the evil they are suffering will at last come to an end. Some commentators believe the term “10 days” is a symbolic representation of the entire persecution of the church while others say it represents persecution under 10 Roman emperors.

In any case, there is a guaranteed end to Satan’s reign and the church’s suffering. Contrary to believers today who embrace the prosperity gospel, believers in the early church knew full well that their faithfulness brought, not health and wealth, but hardship. As the apostle Paul points out, “all those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).

Jesus tells the church, “Look, the Devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you” (v. 10). Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna early in the second century, represents well the spirit of the church in that city. The Jews refer in derogatory terms to Jesus as the “hanged one” and they join the heathens in clamoring for him to be cast to the lions. When that effort is sidetracked, they carry wood to his execution by burning. When given the opportunity to renounce his faith, even in a half-hearted way, to spare his own life, the bishop declares, “Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

Finally in verse 10, Jesus says, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” The crown of life is one of several crowns, or rewards, promised to Christians (see 1 Cor. 9:25; 1 Thess. 2:19; 2 Tim. 4:6-8; 1 Pet. 5:4; Rev. 4:4). It also is mentioned in James 1:12. Believers are to be faithful by anticipating what awaits them after death: eternal life.

Christ’s urge to listen: Jesus says in verse 11, “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.” It’s clear that the lessons of this letter apply to all the churches in John’s day, and to all churches that follow. Since the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the scattering of “the way” to the far reaches of the Roman Empire, the church often has flourished where the soil was the hardest – in pagan lands, communist countries, territories overrun by Islam, and other places opposed to the Christian faith.

Christ’s promises to the victor: Jesus says, “The victor will never be harmed by the second death.” Although many martyrs lost their lives in Smyrna, and multiplied millions have died for their faith in Christ across time, Jesus has lost none of those given to Him (John 18:9). The second death – the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14) – is reserved only for those whose names are not written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Next: The letter to the church at Pergamum (Rev. 2:12-18)