The Seven Churches of Revelation: The Letter to Smyrna
[This is a revised, shortened version, of the June 2021 posting.]
Philippe R. Sterling
PERSECUTED AND POOR, BUT RICH
The Lord Jesus judges the church at Smyrna that suffers persecution (2:8-11).
Have you ever been persecuted for your faith? Have you ever been put at a disadvantage because of your faith? Have others ever hated or shunned you because you were a believer?
The example of the church at Smyrna alerts us to the possibility of being persecuted for our faith, and encourages us to remain faithful to Christ. Smyrna means “bitter,” an appropriate description for the experience of the believers who lived there. They experienced persecution and the hardships that accompanied it.
Smyrna was a city about forty miles north of Ephesus, but not as big. It was a busy seaport and a center of wealth. It still exists today as a city of Turkey. The name of it is Izmir, the Turkish equivalent of Smyrna. One third of its community is nominally Christian. The church has had a continuous Christian presence in spite of persecution.
Smyrna was cozy with Rome. Many Roman citizens lived there. While Ephesus was a center of worship for the local goddess, Smyrna was a center of emperor worship. In AD 25, a temple was built there to Emperor Tiberius. Emperor worship became a matter of pride to the people of Smyrna. Emperor Domitian would later declare himself a god and require all citizens to perform a sacrifice to him, saying, “Caesar is Lord.” This was mostly a political commitment in religious trappings, but believers saw it as idolatry. Once you performed the sacrifice, you would get a certificate. Without that certificate, you were a subject of discrimination and possibly punishment.
There was also a large Jewish community in Smyrna. Although Jews and Christians coexisted peaceably in some areas, this was not the case in Smyrna. Well into the second century, the Jews were strong opponents of the Smyrna church. They repeatedly informed against believers and incited the local governor against them.
Smyrna received its name from its commerce in the fragrant herb myrrh. The name symbolizes the experience of the church in persecution. Myrrh is associated with suffering, death, embalming. For example, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus used myrrh for embalming the body of Jesus (John 19:39). It also was one of the gifts the wise men gave Jesus at His birth (Matthew 2:11).
Portrayal of Jesus
Jesus described Himself as the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. Christ was around before the Emperor and would be around long afterward. He had conquered death. As Jesus experienced death and rose in triumph over it, so would the martyrs of Smyrna.
Praise for the Church
Jesus said He knew about the situation of the church in Smyrna. He knew of their affliction, their poverty, and the slander against them. He stated that though materially poor, they were spiritually rich.
The believers had experienced economic persecution. They had lost their jobs, their businesses, their lands because of their loyalty to Christ. The economic and social life of the city was organized around the religious and imperial cults. When a believer refused to participate in some of their practices, he was marked off. His faith cut him off from the job that he held and from social life.
There was also a pocket of Jewish troublemakers causing problems for the church. By birth and religion these may have been Jews, but this was only in an outward sense. Inwardly, they were not believing and did not have a circumcised heart (see Rom. 2:28-29). They were not of the faith of Abraham.
They are rather the synagogue of Satan. This is not a synagogue building dedicated to Satan, of course, but the people who gathered there planned their assault on the church, putting themselves at the disposal of the devil. They circulated false ideas concerning the believers in Christ. They accused them of cannibalism, eating flesh and drinking blood at the Lord’s Supper; incest, love between “brothers and sisters;” and treason, meeting in secret to promote the kingdom of Christ.
Believers are slandered today. Believers are accused of hate speech for upholding biblical values. Believers are accused of being anti-science for holding creation views.
Criticism of the Church
Jesus gave no reproof to this church. He issued no call to repentance. Their trials purified their faith.
The church at Smyrna had suffered at the hands of the Romans and Jews, and would suffer even more in the years to come. They would pay dearly for their faithfulness to Jesus. Jesus simply exhorted them not to be afraid and to be faithful.
One of the most famous of martyrdoms happened in the city of Smyrna in AD 168. A Christian leader there at the time was Polycarp. On a festival day, when the crowds were excitable, a cry went out from the mob about Polycarp and they brought him before the Roman governor.
Polycarp was given the choice of saying, Caesar is Lord” or “Jesus is Lord.” He refused to say that Caesar was Lord. The governor urged him, “Swear! I will set you free. Reproach Christ.” Polycarp answered with this famous phrase, “I have served Him for eighty-six years and He has always done me good. How, then, can I blaspheme my Lord and my Savior.” The proconsul said, “I will burn you with fire if you will not change.” Polycarp said, “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and after a little while is extinguished. But you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. Why do you wait? Do what you will?” Soon after, the people gathered the wood and burned Polycarp.
Jesus referred to “ten days” of tribulation. It could be a literal prediction of some ten-day reign of terror. Or it may have symbolic meaning of ten periods of persecution from Nero to Diocletian. Most likely, however, it may simply stand for “a short time.” The church at Smyrna grew into one of the most influential churches of its time because its leaders and believers were willing to lay down their lives for Christ.
Penalty or Reward
Jesus promised a crown of life to those who were faithful to the point of death. A crown of laurel was given to those who won races. The believers at Smyrna would have won the race of life. Also, their persecutor, the Emperor, wore a crown. In the life to come, the believers would reign with Christ. The crown is a special reward that is over and above the eternal life that all believers have.
The command to hear is identical with the one to the church at Ephesus. The Lord’s announcement of imprisonment and martyrdom for some of the believers in Smyrna had applicability to the other churches also, and to churches of today.
Promise to Overcomers
Jesus promised that the one who overcame would in no way be hurt by the second death. The second death is judgment at the great white throne, the lake of fire, separation from God forever (Rev 20:14). Jesus employed a figure of speech called litotes. Litotes is an assertion that understates the reality referenced. Jesus was saying that He would abundantly repay the faithful believer for the sacrifice he made. His eternal experience would be as far beyond the reach of the second death as can be imagined.
The first death is not the end. There is another life to come. The glories of the life to come contrast sharply with the dark shadows of persecution and death.
What Would Jesus Say (WWJS) to the church experiencing persecution: “Don’t be afraid. Remain faithful.”
Jesus assured the Smyrna believers that He knew about their faithful service despite persecution and poverty. They were actually rich in His sight because they were earning eternal rewards.
Persecutors in our culture may not arrest you or execute you, but they may mock you, lie about you, or make you lose your job. There is now a name for that: “the cancel culture.” Our culture supposedly tolerates any belief, but biblical faith consistently applied is shocking and unacceptable.
Let us ask God for strength to persevere when our faith puts us at a disadvantage in today’s world. Also, let us pray for those believers around the world who may be suffering for their faith to an even greater extent than we are.