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.
Revelation 2:1–7 (HCSB)
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: “The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand and who walks among the seven gold lampstands says: I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars. You also possess endurance and have tolerated ⌊many things⌋ because of My name, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you: you have abandoned the love ⌊you had⌋ at first. Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. Yet you do have this: you hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. I will give the victor the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
The letter to the church at Ephesus
Ephesus is one of the largest and most influential cities in the Roman Empire. It is devoted to the worship of Artemis (Diana in Latin), the goddess of fertility, and to the Roman emperor, who demanded to be worshipped as a god. Evidently, Priscilla and Aquila planted a church there around 52 A.D. and Paul ministered there for at least two years and used Ephesus as his base for evangelizing the region (Acts 19:8-10).
Jesus borrows from Rev. 1:20 to describe Himself as “the One who holds the seven stars [angels of the seven churches] in His right hand and who walks among the seven gold lampstands [seven churches in Asia].” In this statement we are reminded of Christ’s authority as the Head of the church, His loving care as the Bridegroom, and His sovereign Lordship over all creation.
Christ’s evaluation of the church’s condition
Jesus commends the church at Ephesus for its doctrinal purity and perseverance. Believers there have tested those claiming to be apostles and weeded out the false ones, perhaps in accordance with John’s instructions in1 John 4:1-6 and in light of Paul’s warnings in 2 Cor. 11:13-15. They also have held fast to sound doctrine despite withering attacks from those who oppose Christ and His people. They even share with Jesus a common hatred of the works of the Nicolaitans, a heretical Christian sect that, like Balaam, seduced God’s people to partake in sexual immorality (vv. 14-15), perhaps disguising these sinful practices as Christian freedom (see 1 Cor. 6:12-20; 8:1 – 11:1). Even so, Jesus rebukes the church for having “abandoned the love [you had] at first” (v. 4). Some interpreters say this means the church has lost the love it had for Christ when their faith was new. Others believe Jesus is rebuking His followers for losing the love they once had for one another. Still others see both meanings in view since the love of Christ and love of one another are related (Mark 12:29-31; 1 John 4:20). In any case, Jesus is sounding a wake-up call to a church that otherwise seems to have it all together.
Christ’s comfort and/or commands
Jesus commands the believers at Ephesus to remember and repent. They are to remember how far they have fallen – not from salvation but from a pure love for Christ that is lived out in Christ-like love for one another. It seems they are going through the motions of their Christian lives, doing all the right things but doing so mechanically rather than eagerly. They are slowly losing the joy of their faith and with it their effective ministry to one another and their witness to the world. Matthew Henry comments: “The sin Christ charged this church with, is, not having left and forsaken the object of love, but having lost the fervent degree of it that at first appeared. Christ is displeased with his people, when he sees them grow remiss and cold toward them…. If the presence of Christ’s grace and Spirit is slighted, we may expect the presence of his displeasure” (Matthew Henry Concise, Bible Explorer, Rev. 2:1).
Therefore, Jesus urges believers at Ephesus to repent, or to have a change of mind and heart that leads to a change in behavior. Otherwise, He warns, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (v. 5). In other words, He will come in special judgment and cause the church to close. The ESV Study Bible is more direct: “Remove your lampstand means that both in the near future and when Christ returns, they would lose their status as a church and Christ would treat them like apostate Israel.” The silting of the harbor at Ephesus and the ravages of earthquakes forced the abandonment of this once-glorious harbor town in the centuries that followed. What remains are the archaeological remnants of the temple of Diana, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and other evidence of a city known for its wealth, commerce and religion. The church at Ephesus evidently suffered a similar fate. W.A. Criswell writes: “The lamp does not burn apart from personal love to Jesus; and when love dies, the light goes out” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, p. 90).
Christ’s urge to listen
Jesus says, “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches” (v. 7). These words echo Jesus’ warning at the end of the parable of the sower: “Anyone who has ears [to hear] should listen” (Matt. 13:9). While Christ’s message is directed toward the first-century church in Ephesus, it is clear He also is speaking to believers throughout the church age who will stand in judgment one day before Him (Rom. 14:10-12). As we see the church at Ephesus from our Savior’s perspective, we would do well to examine the works in our Christian lives, and the attitude behind them.
Christ’s promises to the victor
Jesus has defeated Satan, sin and death so that victory already is ours in Him. At the same time, He has sent His Spirit to live in us and give us power over sin on a daily basis. Even when we suffer hardship or persecution for the sake of Christ “we are more than victorious through Him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). Believers who remain faithful conquer the dragon “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:11) and they conquer the beast as well (Rev. 15:2).
Jesus promises the victor “the right to eat from the tree of life” (v. 7). Access to the tree in Eden, and the eternal life it offered to the pure, was denied after humanity’s fall (Gen. 3:22-24). But now the tree reappears in New Jerusalem, watered by the spring that gushes from the throne of God, providing nourishment and healing to all whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. One of the symbols of ancient Ephesus was the date palm tree. Perhaps Jesus is reminding the faithful in Ephesus that the tree of life in New Jerusalem is to be desired far above even the most glorious icons of renowned cities, just as the Lamb Himself is to be desired above all earthly possessions.
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