Wednesday, July 14, 2021

17. The Revelation: The Letter to the Believers at Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-10)

Throughout its history, the more the church has been persecuted, the greater its purity and strength. For decades, churches in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were oppressed by their atheistic communist governments. Believers continue to be persecuted in several nations today. People are forbidden to openly proclaim their faith. Many are imprisoned and some martyred. In the Soviet Union, for instance, Bibles were scarce. Yet not only did those churches survive, they prospered. When Communism fell, a powerful, pure church was revealed, characterized by genuine faith and deep zeal for God. We'll look next at the Church at Smyrna:


Scripture links persecution and spiritual strength. James wrote that “the testing of your faith produces endurance” that leads to being spiritually “complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4). Peter encouraged suffering Christians with the truth that “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace … will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). The church at Smyrna displayed the power and purity that results from enduring persecution. Persecution had purified it from sin and affirmed the reality of its members’ faith. Hypocrites do not stay to face persecution, because false believers do not desire pain. Trials and persecution strengthen and refine genuine saving faith, but destroy false faith.

Though they suffered physically and economically, the Christians at Smyrna clung to their spiritual riches. Interestingly, the church at Smyrna is one of only two churches (along with Philadelphia) that received no condemnation in its letter from Christ.

The Bible teaches that persecution and trials are an inevitable and essential part of the Christian life (Acts 14:22; 2 Timothy 3:12). The example of the church at Smyrna instructs all churches on how to properly respond when trials come.

The Correspondent

"The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this..." (2:8b)

As customary in ancient letters, Jesus identifies Himself at the beginning of the letter instead of at the end. The depiction of the writer as “The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life” identifies Him as the exalted Christ described in 1:12–20. “The first and the last” is an Old Testament title for God (Isaiah 44:6; 48:12). Its application here affirms His equality of nature with God. He is the eternal, infinite God, who already existed when all things were created, and who will continue to exist after they are destroyed.

Yet, amazingly, the eternal God became man and was dead and has come to life. First Peter 3:18 reveals Christ was “Put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” He died in His human body as the perfect sacrifice for sin, but now has come to life and lives forever “according to the power of an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16; cf. Romans 6:9).

This designation of Christ was to comfort the persecuted believers at Smyrna. Knowing that they were undergoing difficult times, Christ reminded them that He transcends this world and empowers them to do the same. Should they die at the hands of their persecutors, beside them is the One who conquered death (John 11:25–26; Hebrews 2:14).

The Church

"...the church in Smyrna..." (2:8a)

Scripture does not record the founding of the church at Smyrna, nor is the city mentioned in Acts. All that we know is revealed in this letter. Most likely, the church began during Paul’s Ephesian ministry (Acts 19:10) by Paul or one of those he reached. At the end of the first century, life was difficult and dangerous in Smyrna. The city served as a hotbed of emperor worship. Under Domitian it became a capital offense to refuse to offer the yearly sacrifice to the emperor. Not surprisingly, many Christians faced execution. The most famous of Smyrna’s martyrs was Polycarp, executed half a century after John’s time.

The Greek word translated “Smyrna” was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to translate the Hebrew word for “myrrh,” a substance used as a perfume for the living (Matthew 2:11) and the dead (John 19:39). Its association with death perfectly pictures the suffering church at Smyrna. Like myrrh, produced by crushing a fragrant plant, the church at Smyrna, crushed by persecution, gave off a fragrant aroma of faithfulness to God.

The City

"...Smyrna..." (2:8a)

Smyrna was an ancient city whose origins are lost in history. It may have been settled as early as 3000 B.C., but the first Greek settlement dates from about 1000 B.C. About 600 B.C. Smyrna was destroyed by the Lydians and lay in ruins for more than three centuries until two of Alexander the Great’s successors rebuilt the city in 290 B.C. It was that rebuilt city that was the Smyrna noted in Revelation.

Smyrna’s citizens were so loyal to Rome that they built a temple in 195 B.C. where Rome was worshiped. A century later the Roman general Sulla’s ill-clad army faced bitter winter weather. When the Roman soldiers’ plight was announced in a general assembly of Smyrna’s citizens, they reportedly took off their own clothes to send to them. Rome rewarded Smyrna’s loyalty by choosing it above all other applicants as the site of a new temple dedicated to the Emperor Tiberius (A.D. 26). When an earthquake destroyed the city late in the second century, Emperor Marcus Aurelius rebuilt it.

The city was said to be the most beautiful city in Asia. It was located on a gulf of the Aegean Sea and had an excellent harbor. Smyrna also profited from its location at the western end of the road that ran through the rich Hermus River valley. In addition to the natural beauty of its surroundings, the city itself was well designed. It stretched from the bay up the slopes of the Pagos, a large hill covered with temples and other public buildings. The streets were well laid out, with the outlying ones lined with groves of trees. Smyrna’s most famous street, the “Street of Gold,” curved around the slopes of the Pagos. At one end was the temple of Cybele, and at the other the temple of Zeus. In between were the temples of Apollo, Asklepios, and Aphrodite.

Smyrna was a noted center of science and medicine. It was also one of several cities that claimed to be the birthplace of the poet Homer. While the harbor of Ephesus eventually silted up and the city went out of existence, Smyrna survived numerous earthquakes and fires and exists today as the Turkish city of Izmir.

The Commendation

"I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan..." (2:9)

Nothing escapes the vision of the glorious Lord of the Smyrna church, who knows every detail about His churches. He began His commendation by assuring the believers there that He understood their tribulation. “Tribulation” literally means “pressure,” and it is the common New Testament word for persecution or tribulation. The church at Smyrna was facing intense pressure because of their faithfulness to Jesus Christ for three reasons.

First, Smyrna had been fanatically devoted to Rome. The city was a leading center for the cult of emperor worship. The citizens of Smyrna willingly offered the worship that Emperor Domitian was now demanding of his subjects everywhere. Though the Christians willingly submitted to the emperor’s civil authority (cf. Romans 13:1–7), they refused to offer sacrifices to him. They were then branded rebels and faced the wrath of the Roman government.

Second, Christians refused to participate in pagan religion in general. Smyrna’s residents worshiped an eclectic mix of gods. The total rejection of the pagan idols by those in the church, along with their worship of an invisible God, caused them to be denounced as atheists. Much of Smyrna’s social life revolved around pagan worship, and Christians were viewed as antisocial for refusing to participate.

Finally, the believers at Smyrna faced “blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of [the ultimate blasphemer,] Satan.” That shocking statement affirmed that those Jews who hated and rejected Jesus Christ were just as much Satan’s followers as idol worshipers (John 8:44). Jesus’ use of the strong term “blasphemy” indicates the slander’s intensity and severity.

Unbelieving Jews commonly accused Christians of cannibalism (based on a misunderstanding of the Lord’s Supper), immorality (based on a perversion of the holy kiss with which believers greeted each other), breaking up homes (when one spouse became a Christian and the other did not, it often caused conflict), atheism (because, as already noted, Christians rejected the pagan pantheon of deities), and political disloyalty and rebellion (because Christians refused to offer the required sacrifices to the emperor). Hoping to destroy the Christian faith, some of Smyrna’s wealthy, influential Jews reported these blasphemous, false allegations to the Romans.

Sadly, the hostility of Smyrna’s Jewish population to Christianity was nothing new. The book of Acts frequently records such Satan-inspired opposition.1 In Smyrna, as had happened before, the hostile Jewish population spread negative opinions against Christians.

The statement that the Jews who persecuted the Smyrna church “say they are Jews and are not” has caused some to question whether they were racially Jewish. Surely they were physical descendants of Abraham, but not true Jews by Paul’s definition: “He is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (Romans 2:28–29). Though these were Jews by race, they were not spiritually.

Not only was the Lord aware of the persecution the Smyrna church faced, but also of its poverty. The Greek word here for “poverty” commonly describes beggars, who live not by their own labor, but by the alms of others.2 Many of the believers at Smyrna were slaves. Most were destitute. Those few who had owned possessions had undoubtedly lost them in the persecution.

The church at Smyrna had every human reason to collapse. Instead, it remained faithful to Christ, never leaving its first love like Ephesus. For that reason, Jesus said to them, “You are rich.” They had what really mattered—salvation, holiness, grace, peace, fellowship, a sympathetic Savior and Comforter. The church at Smyrna was the rich church spiritually, in contrast to the church at Laodicea, which was economically rich but spiritually poor (3:17).

The Command

"Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days." (2:10a)

After commending them for faithfully enduring persecution, Jesus warned the believers that more was coming. First, He commanded them not to fear what they were about to suffer. He would give them strength to endure it. As He told His disciples in John 16:33, “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

Specifically, the Lord predicted that the Devil was about to cast some of them into prison. God’s purpose in permitting imprisonment was so they would be tested. By successfully enduring the trial, they would prove the reality of their faith, be strengthened (2 Corinthians 12:9–10), and prove once again that Satan cannot destroy genuine saving faith.

God, who alone sovereignly controls all the circumstances of life, would not permit Satan to torment the Smyrna church for long. Jesus promised that they would have tribulation for only ten days. Though some see the ten days as symbolically representing everything from ten periods of persecution under the Romans, to an undetermined period of time, to a time of ten years, there is no exegetical reason to interpret them as anything other than ten actual days. Satan’s major assault on that local church would be intense, but brief.

The Counsel

"Be faithful until 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 by the second death." (2:10b–11)

As previously noted, Christ has no reprimand for the faithful church at Smyrna. He closes the letter with some final words of encouraging counsel. Those who prove the genuineness of their faith by remaining faithful to the Lord until death will receive as their reward the crown of life. The “crown” (reward, culmination, outcome) of genuine saving faith is eternal life, and perseverance proves the genuineness of their faith as they endure suffering. The Scriptures teach that true Christians will persevere.

As noted in chapter 3, the phrase “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” closes each of the seven letters. It stresses the vital significance of what God says in Scripture, and emphasizes believers’ responsibility to heed it. The promise to “he who overcomes” is for all Christians, promising that they will not be hurt by the second death. Though persecuted believers may suffer the first, physical death, they will never experience the second death of hell (Revelation 20:14; 21:8). To stress the point, the text used the strongest negative the Greek language can express for the word translated “not.”

The persecuted, suffering, yet faithful church at Smyrna stands for all time as an example of those who “have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance” (Luke 8:15). Because they loyally confessed Him before men, Jesus will confess them before the Father (Matthew 10:32).