(Third in a series on the Book of Revelation)
Smyrna was a city with a very long history. In fact, there is now a major Turkish city on the site. During its long history, the city had known many setbacks that had been overcome, such as destruction by war and earthquake. Always, though, the city had bounced back. So, the opening line of the letter could have resonated with the citizens of Smyrna: “These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life.” They lived in a city that had a way of coming back to life! Of course, the reference is to Jesus Christ, who as “the first and the last” is sovereign over history and is working his purposes out, and who as the one “who was dead and came to life” reigns as resurrected Lord. As we will see, the fact that they served a risen Lord would be very reassuring to the Christians of Smyrna.
This is one of two letters among the seven that contains no words of criticism but only words of commendation, the other being the letter to Philadelphia. The main positive thing said about the church at Smyrna is that they were bearing up well under persecution. Let us look at the rest of the letter line by line to see what the Lord says through John about this subject.
“I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich.” Encouragement comes from knowing that the Lord knows what you’re going through. He speaks as one who had known affliction and who had lived through it with a true sense of purpose. The Christians at Smyrna were being persecuted and they were suffering greatly. Why does John say what he does about their poverty? Generally speaking, most early converts to Christianity seem to have come from lower socio-economic levels. But that probably has little to do with what John is saying here. The poverty of these people would have been directly related to their being persecuted. Perhaps they were experiencing economic boycott because of their faith. No doubt it was hard to make any advancement and hard to make a good living when such success depended on being a good citizen and the Christians could not be good citizens in Smyrna.
Why would I say that? Because Smyrna was a hotbed of emperor worship. Actually, Smyrna’s fascination with Rome went back even farther than the office of emperor in Rome. Around 200 BCE, Smyrna had erected a temple to the goddess Roma. The city had fervent devotion to the emperor, who in the time of the writing of Revelation was Domitian. Civic pride existed in abundance in Smyrna, and that pride was associated with devotion to Rome. Christians could not swear allegiance to the emperor as divine, and so they would suffer economically. Still, the Lord through John affirms that in their poverty the Christians are rich. They had wealth that came from knowing the Lord and from having salvation. The most materially wealthy person in the world who did not know the Lord was poor compared to them.
“I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” This is very harsh language, and no Christian should see such language as a license to practice anti-Semitism. We must remember the context. In the early years of the Christian movement the church was considered a sect of Judaism. Judaism was an accepted religion within the Roman Empire. However, as time passed and Christianity became more and more distinct from Judaism, Christians came under more and more suspicion. Apparently in Smyrna, some Jews were all too happy to see the Christians persecuted. They would have regarded Christianity as a false religion. New Testament writers regard people of faith as the true Israel. That is why John could say that these people “say that they are Jews and are not”; for John a true Jew would be someone who had faith in God’s Messiah, Jesus Christ. The phrase “synagogue of Satan” would arise from the active persecution of Christians that was encouraged by some Jews in Smyrna. It is a very precise and limited designation, then.
“Do not fear what you are about to suffer.” Notice that the Lord does not say, “Do not fear because you are not going to suffer.” He affirms that they will in fact suffer, but they are to have courage in the face of suffering. It is a non-Christian idea that God’s people do not suffer or experience tribulation. Following Christ likely means suffering, and faithful Christianity means faithful suffering.
“Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction.” Again, notice the affirmation that imprisonment is in fact coming for some of them. The imprisonment is for the purpose of testing. Somehow, God can use the actions of Satan and of evil people to work for our good, for the faith of the true Christian is refined and made stronger by affliction and persecution. What is the significance of the “ten days?” Some commentators believe that it is a reference to the ten days that Daniel and his companions ate their own food rather than the emperor’s food; their allegiance was to God rather than to the Babylonian Empire. Others believe that the connection should not be over-emphasized. They would say that John is simply stating that the persecution, while inevitable, will be short-lived. Others speculate on the basis of some ancient inscriptions that arena language is being used, which would underscore the possibility of their death in an arena. In either case, they were definitely going to be tested.
“Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” In most cases, the Romans imprisoned someone as a prelude to capital punishment.
Death was a real possibility for those Christians who were arrested. Smyrna was built on the “crown” of a hill, and that picture may be in mind here. More likely is the notion of the athletic competitions; the victor would receive a laurel wreath as a crown to signify his victory. The meaning is that because of their persevering faithfulness, the Christians at Smyrna would have everlasting life.
“Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.” The first death is our physical death. The second death would be spiritual death, which is biblical language for the eternal separation from God that awaits those who serve Satan and self rather than God. It may be that some Jews were taunting the Christians with the idea that God would punish them in that way; John assures them that they will not.
I think that the main idea I would want us to take away from this letter is that we must be willing to embrace suffering for the sake of being faithful to Christ. Suffering that comes on us for our faithfulness serves to make us even stronger and more faithful. The question is how does such suffering come to us in our setting now? It is clear how it comes to those who are being persecuted in other nations; it is about the same for them as it was for Christians in Smyrna 2000 years ago. But how does it come to us? And if it ever did in blatantly oppressive ways, how many of us would be faithful and would endure to the end?