Unto the Church of Smyrna, Write
Last week, we examined the letter the Lord directed John to send to Ephesus. This week we will examine the letter sent to Smyrna. As we will see, the situation in Smyrna was quite different than that of Ephesus. Jesus addresses these letters to address the individual situation He finds in the churches and addresses them accordingly. At the same time as we have before noted, these letters were meant to be read by all of the churches as well. As Scripture, they speak to us today as well.
The city of Smyrna was about thirty five miles northwest of Ephesus. It had eagerly allied itself with Rome in the past and was rewarded accordingly. It was the first city in Asia Minor to acknowledge the divinity of the Roman state, and was early in the establishment of the worship of the Emperor as the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords”, the god who presided over the “Eternal City” of Rome. Christianity, which made the same claims of Jesus, and more, would certainly have come into collision with this view.
The city of Smyrna also had a large Jewish population. The Jews were specifically exempted from worshiping the Emperor or the local deities of the trade guilds. This was a reward for their early support of Rome. They were also allowed to worship God anywhere in the Roman world and not just in Palestine. In place of the sacrifices and worship of the Emperor as a god, the Jews were allowed to substitute prayers and respect to Caesar and state. As long as the Romans counted the Christians as a sect of Judaism, Christianity was offered this same privilege.
However, the Jews in Smyrna were zealots in their persecution of Christianity. The Scripture records again and again the depth of Jewish hostility against both Jesus and His followers. Jesus, contrary to Jewish Law was handed over to the Roman government for execution. Stephen was stoned. Saul before his conversion hunted down the Christians with a mad hate, hauling them off to prison and death. After Paul’s conversion, he became the target for Jewish persecution. The Jews arose up against him at Damascus. Then we can see after having the Jews influencing the Roman authorities at Antioch Pisidia to cast Paul out of the city, they hunted him down over one hundred miles of countryside to Lystra, where they influenced the local authorities to stone Paul and leave him for dead. The Jews in Thessalonica came to the authorities there to arrest Paul for treason against Rome after hiring the rabble of the city to rise up against the Christians. Paul makes mention of this in 1 Thessalonians in agreement with the account in Acts.
Even after more than half a century after Revelation, a horrific account of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Christian bishop of Smyrna demonstrates that even at this time, the Jews had a fanatical hatred of Christians. Not only did they as a group demand that the Romans execute Polycarp, an eighty-six year old man, but to burn him at the stake. Even though it was the Sabbath day, they eagerly gathered the necessary firewood. And when the flames could not get started and they had to execute him by piercing his body with a sword, they tried to prevent the release of Polycarp’s body to the Christians for burial.
From this, and from the text, we can get a pretty clear picture of the Christian’s plight at the time of the Book of Revelation. The Jews consistently stirred up the Roman authorities to dispose of the Christians. They would let the authorities know that the Christians had been excommunicated from the synagogue and therefore outside the sphere of protection offered to Judaism. They actively named the Christians to the Romans in the hope of their arrest and execution. The Jews also shared in the reward by getting some of the Christian’s property which was confiscated. They would let the Romans know that the Christians were an enemy to Caesar and the state.
We don’t know who started the church at Smyrna or when. We do know that the church had come under the authority of John who addresses Smyrna as one of the seven churches.
Exposition of the Text
Like the letters to the other churches. Jesus begins it by saying “Unto the church in Smyrna, write”. Some have noted that “Smyrna” is spelled the same as the Greek word for Myrrh, which was used as an aromatic burial spice. It was one of the gifts which the Magi offered the infant Jesus. And a very large quantity of the very expensive spice was used in Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea’s preparation of the body of Jesus for burial. It may be a coincidence of words here, but John is fond of double meanings. Myrrh would be very descriptive of what was happening to the Christians at Smyrna. They were suffering death, confiscation, and exile for their faith. In this they were following Jesus who was betrayed by Judas, betrayed by the Jews to Pilate, exiled out of Jerusalem, had His only possessions, His clothing confiscated, and then put to death. Even though Myrrh was the savor of death to this world, it was the aroma of eternal life to God.
In verse 2, the Lord, through John, applies the part of the original vision that is appropriate to Smyrna. He is the first and the last. He tells them that He suffered unto death. But this is not the end of the picture. Jesus also arose from the dead. So the suffering of the church was not to be the end of the church, nor of the individuals who had, were, or were about to suffer death. As Jesus came through death and suffering alive, so would they. This would serve as words of encouragement.
We don’t know if the members had suffered death for their faith at this point. It is clear that they had suffered confiscation of their goods and were destitute. They were suffering conditions similar to those described about the believers in the book of Hebrews. Those believers had suffered terrible loss short of giving their lives for the faith, although they had not resisted unto blood (Hebrews 12:4). Jesus reminds them that he is aware of the tribulations they were suffering. They were not too small to escape his notice.
They were destitute of this world’s goods, having lost homes and probably their occupations as well. Nevertheless, Jesus lets them know that they have true riches. The form of “but” we have in verse nine is the strong “but” in Greek, which has the idea that the first condition had been replaced by the second. Their poverty was replaced by the true and eternal riches of Christ. The placement of “rich” is also emphatic as it is placed ahead of the verb “you are”. Revelation also has the idea of replacement in reverse for the Laodician church. They thought they were rich, but their true condition was poverty. Although it is not expressed here directly, it will later become clear that those who were causing tribulation would in tern be repaid by the Lord who would punish the persecutors with great tribulation.
The opponents who are causing the troubles for the church were the Jews. They would later be identified as the whore riding the back of the beast (Rome). Just like the Jews used Roman authority to have Jesus executed, the Jews of Smyrna had used the local Roman officials to enforce the holocaust against the Christians. Instead of being true Jews, they like the opponents of Jesus were told they were of Satan the opposer. The true Jew believes on Jesus, who is the Yahweh of the Old Testament. How could one be a Jew at all and deny the Lord of the Covenant. They were acting like Israel’s’ enemies; therefore, they were enemies, not Jews. They belonged to the synagogue of Satan.
The Lord warns them that even more severe trouble awaited them. Some of them were about to be imprisoned. As prison was not a place of punishment in Rome, this meant that they would either suffer fine, banishment, or death as a result. The context seems to favor the death penalty here, and perhaps the other outcomes earlier. The ten days could mean “within ten days”, “shortly”, for a period of ten days followed by execution, or could refer to the ten days of trial in the book of Daniel. Whatever the case, death seems to be the result of the imprisonment as they are admonished to be faithful “unto death”. As we learned from last week, they were admonished to keep their first love. If the ten days indicates a period of confinement prior to execution, the believers might have been offered the choice of repenting of Christianity and accepting Rome as Lord, or to persist in apostasy from Rome and suffer execution. This would be why they were admonished to remain faithful, including shielding the names of their fellow brothers and sisters.
The reward for faithfulness was an eternal crown of life. This is the crown given to the winner of the games, the laurel wreath, not the crown of the king, the diadem. They were about to be sacrificed, perhaps in the games themselves. Many Christians met their end in the arena. But the crown was an eternal one, not just a laurel one. Some also see a comparison to the view from Smyrna from the main street of Smyrna. Behind the town was a mountain that some called “the Crown of Smyrna”. The Roman empire saw itself as the source of all comforts, necessities, and safety of life. The crown of that city would fade. But the crown of the Eternal Mt. Zion which the believer shall enter is crowned with the glory of the Lord.
In verse eleven, we have the formula that gets repeated in the message to the seven churches: “He who has ears to hear must listen”. What we do not have here as compared to Ephesus is a warning to correct deficiencies. The church of Smyrna was doing everything the Lord had expected of them. They just needed to be encouraged to “keep on keeping on”. They were to continue being the church they were, even as conditions continued to deteriorate on the ground.
The message to Smyrna ends like the other churches with a promise to the overcomer. In this case, they overcomer shall by no means suffer the sufferings of the second death. It is better as Jesus notes elsewhere, not to fear those who could only kill the body, but rather fear the One who could both kill and afterward sentence the unbeliever to eternal hellfire. Put that way, it makes the pains of death seem insignificant compared to the alternative. And although the suffering of the believers was great and getting greater, the reward of faithfulness was far greater than the riches and life they had forfeited.
One of the disturbing lessons to be learned from the passage is the depth of hatred people can have. Even though some modern Christians have softened the extent of the persecution of the early Christians, especially by Judaism, the truth is they were the targets of the most hateful and violent treatment. History compels honesty in reporting this. Judaism used the roman government to commit genocide and atrocities against the Christians. They are the whore riding the beast in revelation, They bear the greater responsibility in the execution of Jesus as well as most of those who suffered martyrdom, exile, and banishment of Jesus’ followers in the first century.
This being said, Christians with their Crusades committed the same level of atrocities when they became the new whore riding the back of the secular power against the Jews over the centuries. In the case of the Jews, their understanding of the Old Testament about keeping their faith pure from heresy and foreign religions which had caused them to suffer the Babylonian captivity and destruction of the Temple of Solomon can cause us to see why they treated Christians the way they did. Islam had the fanatical idea of Jihad, and even the atheistic communists committed atrocities. So did the Nazi’s and their fanatical state religion. This reflects the condition of fallen man. None of us should believe the lie that man is basically good and just needs a little education and guidance from society to bring this out. As it has been said, “The veneer of civilization is pretty thin”. If education led to morality, then our college students would be the most moral people on earth. Are they?
However, of all people, Christians have the least excuse for such behavior. The true King of Kings came in flesh not to cause the wicked to suffer, but to save those who were wicked and believed in Him. We are all sinners. He who could have called down legions of angels to prevent His arrest and crucifixion did not do so. If we are to be the followers of Jesus Christ, then it behooves us to understand that it is our lot in life to suffer like our master did. The church at Smyrna is a testimony to the faith. The church does not grow by killing, but by being killed. We are all accounted as sheep to the slaughter. As an early church father noted: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”. We see the persecution of Saul of Tarsus in the book of Acts against the Christians of Jerusalem. The church was scattered everywhere. But everywhere they went, they preached Jesus, and the church grew. The Greek verb gives the idea which can be pictured by a young child plucking up a dandelion and blowing on it. The seed blows everywhere and yields fruit in its season. The true believer in Christ is a permanent exile here and keeps his/her sights on the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.