Revelation 2:8-11 (HCSB)
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.”
The letter to the church at Smyrna
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” (Rev. 2:8).
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). 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 referred in derogatory terms to Jesus as the “hanged one” and they joined the heathens in clamoring from him to be cast to the lions. When that effort was sidetracked they carried wood to execution by burning. When given the opportunity to renounce his faith, even in a half-hearted way, to spare his own life, the bishop declared, “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 Peter 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 70 A.D. 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.
In His message to the church at Pergamum, Jesus says, “I will give the victor some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name is inscribed that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Rev. 2:17).
What are the “hidden manna” and “white stone?”
As God supplied manna to the Israelites in the desert, Christ sustains His followers with Himself – His promises and His presence. “I am the bread of life,” He tells His disciples. “No one who comes to Me will ever be hungry” (John 6:35). When Jesus’ disciples urged Him to eat after He revealed Himself to the Samaritan woman, He told them, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about” (John 4:32). As the Creator of all, Christ also sustains all things “by the power of His word” (Heb. 1:3). R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, and D. Brown add this insight: “As the manna hidden in the sanctuary was by divine power preserved from corruption, so Christ in His incorruptible body has passed into the heavens, and is hidden there until the time of His appearing” (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.).
Jesus goes on to say, “I will also give him [the victor] a white stone, and on the stone a new name is inscribed that no one knows except the one who receives it” (v. 17). The ESV Study Bible provides these observations: “Historically, a white stone was given to victors at games for entrance to banquets (cf. the messianic banquet); such a stone was also used by jurors at trials to vote for acquittal. The new name, given to the one who holds fast to Jesus’ name (2:13), may refer to the Holy Spirit’s work of conforming believers to the holiness of Christ (Rom. 8:29). The manna and the white stone suggest differing types of eternal blessings and rewards, as appropriate in each situation.” The white stone also may correspond to the Urim, or diamond worn by the high priest on the breastplate. No one but he knew the name inscribed on the stone – probably the unspeakable name of God: Yahweh. And only the high priest had access to the manna, which resided in the ark in the Holy of Holies. Perhaps the message here is that believers, as priests unto God, will in heaven enjoy rewards that were reserved on earth for only a few.
As we begin to study Revelation 2-3, the following introductory notes may prove helpful.
John is instructed to write to the “angels” of the seven churches in Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey. Some interpreters believe the angels to be human messengers, perhaps the pastors of these churches, while others argue that the Greek word aggeloi in Revelation is used overwhelmingly of spirit beings and therefore in this context means guardian angels. In any case, the “angel” of each church bears the responsibility of sharing an important message from Christ with the congregation.
There is little controversy among Bible interpreters concerning the letters to the seven churches, primarily because these letters do not predict future events. This does not mean, however, that the four major views of Revelation – preterist, historicist, futurist, and idealist – are in complete agreement.
For example, interpreters of the preterist and idealist schools, and some of the futurist school, “understand the letters to be addressed to the actual, historic churches named in them, and by extension to any churches that may find themselves in similar circumstances to theirs” (Steve Gregg, Revelation: Four Views, p. 62). However, historicists, and many futurists (especially dispensationalists), conclude that the seven letters provide a panoramic view of the church age. According to this view:
- The church at Ephesus describes the church during the apostolic period until about 100 A.D.
- Smyrna represents the church from 100 – 313 A.D. as it suffered under a succession of Roman emperors.
- Pergamos characterizes the carnal and false-doctrine-riddled church from Constantine’s Edict of Toleration (313 A.D.) until the rise of the Papacy (about 500 A.D.).
- Thyatira is seen as the Papal church until the Reformation (500 – 1500 A.D.).
- Sardis is the church during the Reformation (1500 – 1700 A.D.).
- Philadelphia depicts the missionary-minded church from 1700 A.D. – present.
- And Laodicea describes the lukewarm, liberal and backslidden church of modern times.
This view has many problems, not the least of which is its attempt to paint the church of a certain era with a broad brush. No doubt there have been mission-minded, carnal, lukewarm, and even dead local churches at the same time throughout the church age. To characterize the entire body of Christ as monolithic at various times in history is an overly simplistic approach that robs the text of its meaning to all readers at all times.
Perhaps the best approach to Revelation 2-3 is to understand the initial audience as real churches facing real challenges, and then to see how the unique situations in each church may be found in churches throughout the church age. This view is faithful to the text and relevant to us as 21st century believers.
While each of the seven letters is unique, all of them share a common pattern: 1) Christ describes Himself in terms borrowed from chapter 1; 2) Christ evaluates the church’s condition, beginning with the words “I know;” 3) Christ offers comfort and/or commands based on His assessment of the church; 4) Christ urges everyone to “listen what the Spirit says to the churches;” and 5) Christ promises blessings to the “victor,” foreshadowing the final visions in Rev. 21-22. We will follow this pattern as we look more closely at the seven letters.
Next: The letter to the church at Ephesus
In Systematic Theology (Vol. I), Dr. Norman Geisler presents many lines of evidence supporting claims for the Bible as the Word of God. In unique fashion, he labels each line of evidence with a word beginning with the letter “S,” making his arguments relatively easy to follow and remember. This article borrows his headings and then incorporates some of Geisler’s research with numerous other sources, which are cited.
Reason 6: The testimony of the stones
- Geisler writes, “No archaeological find has ever refuted a biblical claim, and thousands of finds have confirmed in general and in detail the biblical picture” (Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, p. 557).
- Noted archaeologist Nelson Glueck states, “As a matter of fact … it may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible” (Rivers in the Desert, p. 31, quoted in Systematic Theology, p. 557 ).
- Examples of archaeological confirmations include the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11); Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18-19); the fall of Jericho (Josh. 6); King David (2 Sam.); and the Assyrian Captivity (Isa. 20).
- In the New Testament book of Acts alone there are hundreds of archaeological confirmations. During decades of research, Sir William Ramsay wrote, “I found myself often brought into contact with the book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth” (St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen, p. 8, quoted in Systematic Theology, p. 558).
Next – Reason 7: The testimony of the Savior
Copyright 2008 by Rob Phillips