The Church at Smyrna
The second of John’s messages to the seven churches of Asia Minor went to the church in Smyrna. Of the seven cities that originally received Revelation, Smyrna is that only one that still exists. Its name today is Izmir.
In the first century, Smyrna was considered the most beautiful city in the entire region. The Aegean Sea was located immediately to the west. From its shores arose Mount Pagus on which Smyrna was situated. Its streets were so beautifully paved that one of them was called the “Street of Gold.” This may be what John had in mind when he wrote that the streets of the new Jerusalem were pure gold, as it were transparent glass (Rev. 21:21). The pleasant breeze that ascended Mount Pagus from the gulf during the summer provided year-long comfort to the city’s inhabitants.
In addition to its beauty, Smyrna was known for its culture. Several temples, an athletic stadium, a library and the largest public theater in Asia Minor were among its many places of interest. It is estimated that nearly 200,000 people had easy access to these facilities in John’s day.
Smyrna’s temples are of special interest to those who study the book of Revelation. One of these temples, for example, was dedicated to the Dea Roma, the God of Rome, as early as 195 BC, making Smyrna one of the earliest centers of the Roman cult in Asia Minor. Another temple was later built to honor Emperor Tiberius. All in all, the people of Smyrna had an exceptional devotion to the Roman state religion and despised any whom they suspected of disloyalty to the state. This made the church of Smyrna especially vulnerable to persecution.
Although we know a good bit about the ancient city, the church that was established there has been all but forgotten. Paul may have founded it during his third missionary journey (AD 54–56). Acts 19:10 says that during this period all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus. It’s very likely, then, that Ephesus served as Paul’s center of operations for the two and a half years that he was there, and that during this time he made frequent missionary trips to other parts of the region. This may also account for the founding of the Colossian church and perhaps a few others.
The Sufferings of Smyrna
In verse 9, the Lord Jesus took note of three things about the church at Smyrna. He said, I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty. These three things are all joined together by a single possessive pronoun, which suggests that they are connected. And indeed they are. The church’s tribulation and poverty are the direct result of its works. We’ll come back to this idea in a minute.
First, we need to understand that the Lord’s statement to the church expressed his commendation of and concern for the church, and was not meant to be in any way critical of it. This doesn’t mean that Christ didn’t want the church to suffer or that he had not ordained its suffering. The fact is that nothing happens to the church, or to anything else for that matter, apart from his sovereign appointment. Rather, he designed the church’s present distress to teach the people to trust him without reservation. This comes out also in the description that Christ gave of himself in verse 8. He said that he was the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive. As God, Jesus sovereignly controls history so that nothing happens without his foreordination, not even the martyrdom of his precious people. The entire course of history is in his hands. And as man, and particularly one who bore the bitter pains of hell both in his life and especially on the cross, he can sympathize with his people in their distress. He therefore assured the brethren in Smyrna that they were not alone. Their hope of a better life is found in the fact that Christ not only died but also arose again.
Interestingly, another one of Smyrna’s myriad of temples was dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine who delivers people from the madness of the present world by intoxication. He also claimed to have been resurrected. Of course, his resurrection was fictitious and therefore offered no real consolation to those who worshiped him. But the Lord Jesus Christ did return to life and was seen by hundreds of witnesses. His resurrection was the great sign of his victory. It offers real comfort to those who come to him in faith.
We also need to understand what those works were for which the Lord Jesus commended the church at Smyrna (v. 9). Certainly they would have included what we commonly refer to as “neighborly gestures,” but this by itself does not account for the church’s tribulation and poverty. A believer’s neighbors will not usually object if he wants to do a good deed for them. In that sense, good deeds are relatively safe. But they also provide only a very low level of friendship. The trouble usually comes with one specific good deed — evangelism. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, people do not want to hear that they are born sinners, hating God and righteousness, and therefore deserve the severest wrath of God. They are offended to learn that the only means of escape is the death of Jesus Christ, and that they must cast themselves entirely upon him to be saved. John preached this, and look what happened to him! He spent several years on a rocky, desolate island named Patmos. The brethren in Smyrna apparently were just as faithful as he was. How do we know this? From the fact that some of the brethren were imprisoned and tried for their faith. This was apparently a very severe testing, although thankfully it was also be short-lived.
The tribulation that the church experienced, then, was the result of its works, especially its preaching of the gospel. Its proclamation of the word of God also made it susceptible to poverty. Believers at Smyrna found it difficult to keep their businesses because they gloried in a risen Savior and refused to acknowledge the gods of Rome.
Taking peoples’ money and property is often a very effective way of controlling peoples behavior. In the Old Testament, thieves and vandals had to repay their victims double. In some cases, as when the crime affected business property, the restitution could be as much as seven-fold. Today our laws prescribe monetary fines for certain offenses in an effort to deter them. Even in the work place, supervisors have the power to suspend without pay those employees who involve themselves in some misconduct.
Poverty encourages conformity to expected standards. For the Christians in Smyrna, however, conformity was not an option, since it would have involved a denial of the faith.
There are worse things than poverty, but in this case the church was not as poor as it seemed. What the church lacked in finances, it more than made up for in its faithful adherence to the gospel of Jesus Christ —the greatest treasure of all. Christ said, I know thy … poverty (but thou art rich. Although the gospel may not feed a man’s hungry children, it is worth more than all the gold in the world. It has the power to uphold and strengthen God’s people through the worst persecutions.
According to verse 10, the persecution of the church at Smyrna had not yet peaked. Prison still awaited some, and perhaps death for others. The forecast was not very pretty.
However, one item in verse 9 stands out from the rest. Jesus also knows the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews. Apparently, these false Jews were a sect of Abraham’s physical descendants that troubled the church. Perhaps they were annoyed that the church at Smyrna had converted some of their Jewish brethren and Gentile proselytes to Christ. We know from Ignatius’ letter to the church fifty years later that a sizeable part of its membership came from a Jewish background (To the Smyrneans 1). It’s also possible, of course, that these false Jews were even more antagonistic. Perhaps they had tried to infiltrate the church, as the Judaizers had done in Galatia and elsewhere, to undermine its orthodoxy. Or, since they believed that Christianity had cast off the law and substituted in its place the blasphemous worship of a convicted felon, they could be the ones who instigated the church’s persecution. Which of these is true, if any, cannot be known with absolute certainty. The important point here is that Christ condemned their lying and hypocrisy. They may have been biological descendents of Abraham, but they were certainly not Abraham’s children in faith.
In the eighth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus dealt with this matter head-on. He told the Jews of that day that their faith had been misplaced. They prided themselves on their connection to Abraham, but Jesus said, Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not (John 8:44–45).
The Lord is no less clear about this in his words to the church at Smyrna. He says that they are not really Jews at all, that they belong to the synagogue of Satan. The implication here is that those who worship God through the Lord Jesus Christ are true Jews and true members of the synagogue of God.
The fact that these so-called Jews still took pride in Judaism suggests that the temple, its chief source of glory, had not yet been destroyed. Since this took place in AD 70, the book of Revelation must have been written sometime before that.
The Comfort of the Gospel
To the persecuted church, Christ sent his comfort. The letter to the church as Smyrna was unique in one very special way. It is the only one of the seven letters in which there is no criticism. The church already had enough to deal with.
The church at Smyrna was comforted also by the fact that Christ told it exactly what would happen. Mockery, imprisonment and even death were made more endurable with an advance warning. And this period of tribulation would last a mere ten days.
There is a lot of discussion about what the ten days mean. Are they ten literal days, or just an approximate number of days? A.T. Robertson, author of a 1500 page Greek grammar, says that we should translate them within ten days. In other words, the ten days does not tell us how long the suffering would last, but when it would start. It would begin sometime within the next ten days. Most commentators believe that ten days just means a short but intense period of persecution. It’s as if all of the church’s suffering was compressed into the shortest possible time. In contrast to the unending joy and glory that believers will have in Christ, ten days of suffering is almost nothing. With Revelation being as highly symbolic as it is, this interpretation is hard to resist.
On the other hand, the book of Daniel offers another possibility. Daniel and his three friends, having been taken captive by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, refused to eat the king’s delicacies. There were two reasons for this. First, the food had been dedicated to idols. Second, the sharing of a meal with the king suggested complete loyalty to him, which Daniel and his friends were not ready to give. They chose instead to eat a diet of vegetables and grains for ten days, and at the end of this period they looked healthier than the all the others (cf. Dan. 1:12–15).
The reference to Daniel was particularly appropriate for the believers of Smyrna, since their persecution arose in part from their refusal to recognize the Caesar as divine or to take part in trade guild activities that honored the city’s guardian deities. This may also account for their poverty. Almost a hundred years later, the same situation prevailed. Polycarp, who became bishop of Smyrna after Ignatius’ execution and was ultimately a martyr himself, was told by the Roman governor that he would be executed if he did not give a public acknowledgment of Caesar as Lord. His response is similar to what we have in our text. He said, “Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt” (The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrnam 11). The tribulation that one must endure to be faithful only lasts a short while. It is nothing compared to the unimaginable glory of heaven or the unending misery of hell.
The devil, according to verse 10, was the church’s chief persecutor. Today he is still its adversary, the slanderer of the saints’ names, and a lying accuser. But he’s also defeated. He doesn’t have the keys of death and hell. Christ does. Verse 18 of the previous chapter assures us that Christ not only lived, died and now lives for evermore, but also that the keys of hell and death are in his hand. He alone determines the destinies of all men.
Trials and persecutions are never easy, though. Sometimes our perception of the difficulties they present is more a problem than the trials themselves. The persecutors of the church at Smyrna wanted it to think it was poor when it really had the greatest wealth of all. They also wanted it to think that it was weak, that it could easily be destroyed by the sword. But the Lord turns all of this around in verse 10, where he says that persecution really serves a different purpose. The Lord said, Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. Persecution tests the church’s loyalty and obedience. It would give evidence of the fact that the brethren at Smyrna were truly God’s people, for only those who were sincere believers will persevere unto death. They had sound faith, undying hope, and sincere devotion.
Christ gave two promises to the persecuted church: a crown of life in verse 10, and protection from the second death in verse 11.
He promised a crown of life to those who remain faithful. This crown (τὸν στέφανον) was not a crown of royalty, but a crown of victory. It was the crown given to the victors of Olympic contestants. Christ offered such a crown to everyone who perseveres, even through death if necessary.
In our text it seems the crown of life is something given to us at death. In other passages, it’s something we receive at Christ’s second coming (II Tim. 4:8; I Pet. 5:4). And yet, Revelation 3:11 suggests that it’s something we already have. The church in Philadelphia encouraged to hold fast to what it had, so that no one might take away its crown. Apparently, it refers to our salvation in each of its many aspects — our triumph over sin now, our entrance into Christ’s presence at death, and ultimately the completeness of our deliverance from sin at Christ’s second coming and the resurrection.
The second promise, protection from second death, helps us understand further what the crown of life is. The crown is metaphorical and teaches us that those who believe in Jesus Christ and persevere in his faith will live forever. The second death, mentioned in Revelation 20:14 and 21:8, is the inheritance of murderers, liars, fornicators and all God’s enemies. It is everlasting punishment of body and soul in the fires of hell.
The choice given to the church at Smyrna was simple: they could abandon Christ, improve their comfort and financial situation, and in the process inherit the second death; or they could remain faithful unto death, denying themselves the pleasures of sin, and then live forever with a crown of glory that will never fade.
You see, the question here is not whether we will die, assuming that the Lord tarries, but when and how we will die. On the one hand, there is spiritual and eternal death. This is a very real death. It ends in a complete separation from the love in favor of God. And on the other hand, there is a mere physical death. Yes, the believers die to sin. But that is not really death, for we are alive to righteousness. Yes, our bodies will decay when placed in the ground. But that, too, is not death. Not only is it no longer a curse for sin, but it is the means by which God puts an end to sin in our experience and takes us unto himself, where we will await the resurrection of the body.
The promises given to the church at Smyrna are expanded in chapter 20:4–6, where we read that in the millennium believers will sit on thrones, live and reign with Christ for a thousand years.
So, as you can see, the church at Smyrna had nothing to fear.
Polycarp, who served the church of Smyrna for at least forty years in the early second century, illustrates the message to the church. In his life he testified of the grace of God in Christ, and he glorified Christ by his death at the age of eighty-six.
Even those who took his life recognized this. When the flames seemed not to hurt Polycarp, the executioner thrust a dagger into his left side. It was reported that so much blood came out that it extinguished the fire. But when “the adversary … of the righteous” saw in this that this man, who had lived a blameless life, “was now crowned with the wreath of immortality,” he, at the instigation of the Jews, sought to bury Polycarp’s body to prevent Christians from taking it. This caused such a disturbance that the centurion reignited the fire, which completely consumed Polycarp’s body. (The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrnam 16–19).
The next chapter of Polycarp’s martyrdom reads as follows:
This, then, is the account of the blessed Polycarp, who, being the twelfth that was martyred in Smyrna (reckoning those also of Philadelphia), yet occupies a place of his own in the memory of all men, insomuch that he is everywhere spoken of by the heathen themselves. He was not merely an illustrious teacher, but also a pre-eminent martyr, whose martyrdom all desire to imitate, as having been altogether consistent with the Gospel of Christ. For, having through patience overcome the unjust governor, and thus acquired the crown of immortality, he now, with the apostles and all the righteous [in heaven], rejoicingly glorifies God, even the Father, and blesses our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of our souls, the Governor of our bodies, and the Shepherd of the Catholic Church throughout the world.
Jesus said that those who overcome will not be hurt by the second death. Polycarp’s faithfulness in this life testifies to the truth of this promise, for this beloved hero of faith now lives with his Savior.
Beloved, you may never be called upon to die the martyr’s death. The number of martyrs is relatively small compared to the size of the church as a whole. But every believer is asked and required to give his life in service to Christ. Everyone you is required by God to live the martyr’s life. Jesus said, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away? For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father’s, and of the holy angels (Luke 9:23–26). The principle behind living the martyr’s life is the same as the principle behind dying the martyr’s death. In both, you have to love Christ more than you love yourself.
Search your own hearts, beloved. Know where you stand now, so that you know where you stand before you are asked to die the martyr’s death. Amen.