Seven Letters to Seven Churches

Smyrna – Persecuted and poor, but rich

Revelation 2:8-11

“8 And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. 9 I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death’”.

Context

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write (Rev 2:8)

Smyrna was a beautiful jewel of a city with remarkable beauty, the population of the city being around 100 000 people. Alexander the Great at the start of his conquest of Persian captured Smyrna, and recognising its strategic and economic value ordered that the city be rebuilt. Later the city was established as a Roman commercial centre, the city was a port located on the Aegean Sea, at the head of the gulf of Smyrna (today the gulf of Izmir). Smyrna was and still is a deep-water port, and was a keen rival to Ephesus 56 kilometres to the south. Smyrna’s position at the mouth of the small river Hermus allowed sailing vessels to reached far inland, admitting Greek trading ships into the heart of the province of Lydia, and this made it an important port city. The city had great pride in being the birth place of the great author Homer, who wrote the epic poems, The Odyssey and The Iliad. In about 600 BC it was destroyed in an earthquake and was not rebuilt until the fourth century BC. The church in Smyrna which was probably established by the Apostle Paul (Acts 19:8-10), was under severe persecution at the time this letter was written.

The city of Smyrna was overwhelmingly pagan with many temples dedicated to pagan worship built within the city:

  • There was a temple to Zeus, the king of the Greek gods of Mount Olympus. Being that Zeus, the god of sky and thunder, was the most powerful of the Greek gods, his temples were common sites in ancient Greek cities.
  • The daughter of Zeus, Athena, the armed warrior goddess of war, also had a temple in Smyrna. Ironically, with the great evidence of the senselessness of war, Athena with her owl companion (symbol of wisdom), was also seen as the goddess of practical reason.
  • With a long history of ties to Rome, including an ancient alliance, the city became a seat for the worship of the city of Rome, with a temple built to worship the goddess Roma in 195 BC. The worship of Roma was encouraged by the Roman Emperors, as it supported the belief of the emperors being worshipped as gods. So, there should be no surprise to the revelation that the city had a temple built in honour of Tiberius in 23 AD, and then in the second century a temple for the Emperor Hadrian was built. There is also no coincidence, that with the support of Rome by Smyrna, that the city would boast a temple to the Roman mother goddess Cybele.  As Magna Mater, Cybele was the earth mother and represented the fertile Earth, nature and wild animals.

Smyrna means “Anointed for burial,” The name Smyrna was taken from the ancient Greek word for myrrh, “smyrna”, which was the chief export of the city in ancient times. The spice myrrh, having a bitter taste, was symbolic of the bitter trials, persecutions and suffering, that the believers in Smyrna endured at that time; myrrh is also a sweet-smelling spice, just as the suffering of the believers for their unwavering faith in Jesus were a sweet-smelling savour to the Lord (2 Cor. 2:15). Smyrna was the home of Polycarp – an elder in the church, and a disciple of the Apostle John – who was martyred because of his faith in the second century. When Polycarp was told to renounce Christ he said, “eighty-six years I have served the Lord, and He never wronged me; how then can I blaspheme my Lord and Saviour?” Polycarp’s strong faith was typical of the faith of the Christians who were in Smyrna at the time of the writing of the book of Revelation.

Ruins of the ancient city of Smyrna

Description of Christ

“… the first and the last, who died and came to life” (Rev. 2:8b).

Since the believers of Smyrna were experiencing severe suffering and even martyrdom, Jesus refers to Himself as the One who had suffered and died and is now alive. Because He conquered death, they will too; as the first and the last He has already tasted death and removed its sting. Believers are to be eternally minded, our lives on earth are short, and determine our status for eternity. Death therefore is not an end, but the beginning of an eternity with Jesus. This should be the focus of all believers’ lives, as Paul put it “to live is Christ to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Paul had suffered much during his ministry, yet Paul learned to find joy in his afflictions, because he was able to share in the suffering of His Lord, which confirmed his status as a servant of God, and, his suffering strengthened his faith, and made him a strong witness for His Lord and Saviour. So, Paul was determined to serve Jesus with all of his heart, with the sure conviction that his service would be recognised, and honoured in heaven.

What Jesus knows and Commendation

“‘9 ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested…’” (Rev. 2:9-10a).

The Lord assures the believers of Smyrna that He knows about their faithful service, despite their great persecution and poverty. Jesus informs them that they are actually rich in His sight, even though they have lost everything in this life for His sake, they were earning abundant eternal rewards. There is an important distinction to be made, and remembered:

  • Smyrna is a poor community of believers, but the Lord sees them as rich.
  • Conversely, Laodicea is a wealthy community of believers who believe that they are blessed by God, but Jesus calls them “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”

There is a continual clash in Scripture between man’s wisdom and God’s wisdom, and in the seven letters we see an important example which should be a lesson to us all. Our humanistic materialistic world continually stresses the importance of wealth, while Jesus urges us to earn treasures in heaven, not temporal wealth. Jesus did not die to make us wealthy! He died to bring mankind into right relationship with God, and attain our true destiny – eternity with Him. What we do for God on earth is what we take into eternity with Jesus.

The Roman Empire included all the gods of the nations they conquered in the Pantheon in Rome. All religions were tolerated in Rome as religio licita (legal religions), on the condition that they included the worship of the Emperor as god. Those religions that refused to worship the Emperor were ladled religio illicita (illegal religions). Judaism and Christianity fell into this category; however, Jews escaped the wrath of Rome by saying that rather than make sacrifices to the Emperor, they would make sacrifices for the Emperor. It is logical that a city like Smyrna that was greatly predisposed to the worship of Roma, and to emperor worship, would put pressure on its population to honour the Emperor. The believers of Smyrna became victims of “ten percenters” because of this. These people reported Christians to the Roman officials for their refusal to venerate the Emperor, and in return received ten percent of the “heretics” property. The believers were thus often wiped out financially, and, in many cases ended up in prison and even being martyred.

The “synagogue of Satan” was a group of Jews who followed tradition and the Mosaic Law, yet in reality did not know God. They were “not” Jews in the sense that they did not have the faith of their father Abraham (Luke 3:8; John 8:40), and they were “of Satan” in that they had rejected Jesus Christ (John 8:44). So, they earned the derogatory title for two reasons:

  • They were a part of the “ten percenters” of Smyrna.
  • These Jews betrayed the Christians to deflect attention from themselves. By keeping the Romans focus on the Christians, they would not notice the fact that the Jews did not actually worship the Emperor either.

Polycarp, a disciple of John and renowned church father, was martyred in Smyrna around A.D. 155. At Polycarp’s trial, the unbelieving Jews of Smyrna joined with the pagans in condemning him to death. Eusebius writes that “the Jews, being especially zealous . . . ran to procure fuel” for the burning (The Ecclesiastical History, 4:15).

Rebuke

None! There was not one word of rebuke for the church of Smyrna. A church, or individual, that is enduring the fiery trials of testing, and being persecuted for their faith, is usually more devout and more faithful than the comfortable untested believer. During my stay in Israel (2011-12), I had the opportunity to speak with Chinese Christians, who were continually experiencing persecution for their faith in China. They said that they were praying for the Church in the West to receive persecution as well – the reason being that they saw western Christians as generally being weak in their faith, and worldly in their ways. I found that I could not disagree with their logic.

Satan’s Plan: Stage?

As there is no rebuke there is also no flaw in the Church that Satan used in his long-term plan of corruption of the Church.

Counsel

“10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).

The believers at Smyrna were encouraged by Jesus to face the coming trials of suffering for “ten days.” The term “day” does not mean literal days, it means ten periods. So, the reference is to the ten major periods of persecution under the reign of ten demonic-driven emperors. Emperors that persecuted believers are listed below, the emperors of the period of “ten days,” started with Domitian and ended with Diocletian.

Caligula (37-41) Nero (54-68), Domitian (81-96), Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (117-138), Antiochus Pius (138-161), Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Commodus (177-192), Septimius, Severus (193-211) – from whose name we derive the word severity, Decius (249-251), Decius (251), Valerian (253-260) and Diocletian (284-305). The book of Revelation was written in AD 96 when Smyrna was under the persecution of Emperor Domitian; the persecutions were stopped by Constantine (306-337), who adopted Christianity as the dominant faith of the Roman Empire.

The emperors who did the most damage to Christians, were the emperors such as Decius who enticed Christians to compromise by requiring of them one of the following:

  1. Purchasing a document saying they had worshipped the Emperor.
  2. Burning incense to the Emperor.
  3. Openly sacrificing to the Emperor.

Exhortation

There is no warning or advice given to the believers at Smyrna, there is no need.

What you Have and Promise

“… ‘Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death’” (Rev. 2:10c-11).

The warning from Jesus is that there is tribulation coming. The one who heeds the message and overcomes by faith, is promised that though they may die they will never have to go through “the second death” – i.e., eternity in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14-15). Once again Jesus wants believers to focus on the long-term goal. He wants eternally-minded believers, who know that their life on earth is a mere prelude to an eternity in heaven – death is not an end, but rather a beginning to a glorious future. 

The promise Jesus gives to the church at Smyrna is that they will receive a “crown of life”. The Greek word Jesus uses for crown is stephanos (the same root word used for the name Stephen the martyr), which was a crown given to a person as a symbol of honour, such as a garland of leaves placed on a victor’s head at the Olympic games. The “crown of life” then, is a crown given to those who sacrifice their lives for service to God, it is especially for those who endure suffering, persecution and even death for their faith in Jesus.

The Smyrna Age

Prophetic Application: AD 96-321

Smyrna relates approximately to the pre-Nicean period of history, after the Apostles in the second and third centuries, until the time of Constantine (AD 321) and the council of Nicea (AD 325). It was an age of unprecedented persecution. Satan has a two-pronged attack against the Church, he is either a serpent seeking to deceive, or a dragon trying to destroy the Church. Satan started his attack against the early Church as the dragon, and tried to destroy the fledging faith through this time of great persecution, however, this plan backfired. Tertullian, one of the 2nd century Church Fathers, explains why saying: “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” – believers who were willing to sacrifice their lives lead to the conversion of others, who witnessed a faith worth dying for. Satan then changed his tactics by becoming the serpent, and using Emperor Constantine who opened the door for paganism to influence the Church. Satan was able to sow the seeds of deception, through syncretism – man’s wisdom entering into the Church, and contaminating the Word of God.

Summary:

Summary TopicSmyrna 2:8-11
Period describedThe church under pagan persecution, AD 96-321
OpeningTo the angel of the church . . . write
Description of JesusFirst and Last, died and came to life
What Jesus knowsTribulation, poverty; blasphemy of false Jews
CommendationRich in spite of poverty
RebukeNone
CounselDo not fear suffering
ExhortationNone
What you haveTribulation coming
PromiseThe crown of life (James 1:12)
Other promisesEternal life to one’s faithful even to death
ClosingListen to what the Spirit says to the churches

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