Last Sunday we began reading the letters from Jesus to the seven churches in Asia Minor. Last week we looked at the Context, the Chief Characteristic of Christ, the Commendation, the Critique, the Counsel, and the Confirming Word to Conquerors. I want to look with you at the same six aspects in this second letter to the Church at Smyrna. Listen for God’s word to you from Revelation 2:8-11…
“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.
“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write…”
The Church in Smyrna most likely began as a result of Paul’s missionary endeavors in the area. In Acts 19:10 we read that Paul’s daily discussions in the lecture hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus “went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.”
Of all the cities of Asia Minor, Smyrna was thought to be the most beautiful. Smyrna was like a city with a crown because of the way its splendid architecture used the natural advantages of a steep hill to good effect.
Smyrna was a great trading city. It was located not far up the coast, north of Ephesus. It had a land-locked harbor that could be closed in time of war. The coins of Smyrna had an inscription of a merchant ship ready for sea.
Smyrna was one of the very few planned cities of the ancient world. It had been founded as a Greek colony as far back as 1000 BC. Around 600 BC the Lydians broke in from the east and destroyed it. For four hundred years after that Smyrna was not really a city but a collection of villages. Then Lysimachus rebuilt it as a planned whole, with great, straight, broad streets. Most famous of all the streets was the Street of Gold which began with the Temple of Zeus and ended with the Temple of Cybele. Is this why John tells us the New Jerusalem has a street of gold?
Smyrna was also a free city. Long before Rome had conquered the world, Smyrna cast its lot with Rome, never to waver. On one occasion when some Roman soldiers were suffering from hunger and cold, the people of Smyrna stripped off their own clothes to send to them. So, it should come as no surprise that Smyrna was the first city in the world to erect a temple to the goddess Roma. And in AD 26 when the cities of Asia Minor competed for the privilege of hosting a temple in honor of the emperor Tiberius, Smyrna was chosen even over Ephesus.
Smyrna was also a city of great culture. They had a stadium in which famous games were held yearly. There was a magnificent library, an Odeon that was the home of music, and a theater that was one of the largest in Asia Minor. Smyrna was also one of the cities that laid claim to being the birthplace of Homer. They had a building in his memory, and they used Homer’s face on their coinage. Smyrna was quite proud of their municipality and longed to be thought of as first among the cities of Asia Minor.
Unlike Ephesus, Smyrna is still in existence today. It bears a new name, Izmir, and is the second largest city in Asiatic Turkey.
Chief Characteristic of Christ Applied
“These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.”
The chief characteristic of Christ applied to Smyrna is very appropriate. The people of Smyrna wanted to be in the first rank of cities, but Jesus says to them, “I am the first and the last.” Here is the death of human pride. But here also is hope in the midst of trouble. If Jesus is the first and the last, if he has the first word and the last word, then we have nothing to fear because his person and his word are both love and power.
Smyrna had been destroyed and rebuilt. The people of Smyrna were proud of that. But Jesus said, “I am the one who died and came to life again.” Jesus is the only person in history who died and who came to life, never to die again. If we are in Christ, then we need not fear the final enemy, which is death.
“I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan.”
This, like many statements in the Johannine literature, can sound very antisemitic. I am very sensitive myself to antisemitic statements. My grandmother was a Jewish convert to Christianity. I once had a Jewish man tell me that if I had lived in Nazi Germany, as the grandson of a Jewish woman, I would have been hauled off to the death camps just like all the other Jews.
But when we consider whether any statement in the New Testament is antisemitic, we must remember that the very first followers of Jesus, including John and Jesus himself, were all Jewish. And most likely part of the Church in Smyrna was Jewish and only recently separated from the synagogue.
So, what does this statement mean, that the local synagogue in Smyrna had become “a synagogue of Satan”? Satan means accuser. The local synagogue had become a synagogue of Satan in the sense that they were accusing the Christians.
We must remember that Jews in the first century were exempt from having to worship Caesar. So long as Christians were viewed as a sect of Judaism, they were exempt also. But now some in the synagogue in Smyrna might have been saying: “Those Christians over there aren’t part of us. They aren’t real Jews. And so, they should be made to worship Caesar.” If something like this was happening in Smyrna, then it had very real and personal consequences.
This letter uses three key words to describe the trouble that the Church at Smyrna endured. First, their trouble is called θλῖψιν. The word can be translated as tribulation or affliction. The word originally meant crushing beneath a weight. The pressure of events was weighing on the Church at Smyrna.
The second key word in this letter is πτωχείαν. This word refers to poverty. There were two words for poverty in Greek. “Penia” describes the person who is not rich and so must work with his hands to provide for his own needs. Then there is this word, πτωχείαν, which describes complete destitution. Many of the first followers of Christ were poor before they ever became Christians. And yet, ultimately, their poverty did not stop them from winning the world to Christ. Jesus knows of Smyrna’s affliction and physical poverty, but he tells them that they are spiritually rich. That’s why I have called Smyrna the rich church. They may not have been rich materially, but they were rich spiritually. And which would you rather have in the end? You cannot take your material riches to heaven. I have never seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul trailer. But you can take your spiritual riches with you.
The third key word that is used in this letter is φυλακὴν. Jesus says some of them will be cast into prison for ten days. Daniel and his companions were put to the test for ten days in Daniel 1:12,14. This expression is an example of symbolism in the book of Revelation. Ten days represent a short time that will soon come to an end. Imprisonment is coming, but the time of trouble, although sharp, will be short. I will say more on this in a moment.
One of the most notable things about this letter, is that in this church the Lord finds nothing to criticize. The churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia are the only ones out of the seven churches who do not receive any critique from Jesus.
“Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.”
No one likes pain. No one likes to be told that they are going to suffer. But if suffering has to take place, it is good to know that it will have a definite end. Jesus is like a good doctor. He does not gloss over the suffering his patient will have to endure because of a certain necessary operation. But also like a good doctor, Jesus lets his patient know that if they persevere through the operation, the pain will have a definite end. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
Many years ago, an unknown saint wrote the following lines:
In the days before passenger trains were equipped with lights, I was traveling by rail to a distant city. Our route was through several tunnels; consequently, at times the cars would be enveloped in deep darkness. Beside me sat a sympathetic Englishman. We were enjoying a pleasant conversation when we started into a long, underground mountain pass, and it became pitch black in our coach. My companion, a Christian, had traveled that way many times before. Reassuringly he said, “Cheer up, my friend, we’re not in a sack—there’s a ’ole at the other end!” I never forgot his words. They cheered me later in many of the dark passages of life.
The crown of life mentioned here is also mentioned in James 1:12. James, the brother of Jesus, says, “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”
Smyrna was host to many famous athletic contests. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:25, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”
“The crown of life” in Greek is “τὸν στέφανον τῆς ζωῆς”. We get from this our English name “Stephen” which means “crowned one”. One of the first deacons, Stephen, in the book of Acts, received the crown of life after suffering stoning at the hands of his fellow Jews, including a Pharisee named Saul who later became the Apostle Paul.
There are two words for life in Greek. There is bios which refers to physical life. From this word we get our English word biology. But then there is Zoe which refers to spiritual life—the life of the ages. This is the life promised to those who suffer for Christ.
Confirming Word to Conquerors
This leads to the confirming word to conquerors at Smyrna: “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.”
What is “the second death”? Well, just as there are two kinds of life, physical and spiritual, so also there are two kinds of death. All of us will have to die physically some day unless Jesus comes back first. But if we are “in Christ” then we will not have to die spiritually. The second death is spiritual death, separation from God.
In Revelation 20:6 we read, “Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.”
Then, a few verses later, in Revelation 20:14 we read, “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.”
And in Revelation 21:8 we read, “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
That is what the future holds in store for some. But we have a choice about our final destination. Deuteronomy 30:19 says, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life…”
We can choose Christ today. And if we choose him, in him we will find everlasting life, regardless of what suffering we may endure in this life. C. S. Lewis says, “Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither.”
There is a gripping story of something that happened in Smyrna’s history long after the writing of the book of Revelation. In the second century, Polycarp became the Bishop of Smyrna. Irenaeus and Tertullian later said that Polycarp had been a disciple of the Apostle John. (You begin to see why the Early Church thought that the Apostle John wrote the book of Revelation.)
William Barclay tells the story like this…
It was the time of the public games; the city was crowded; and the crowds were excited. Suddenly the shout went up: “Away with the atheists; let Polycarp be searched for.” (Christians were thought to be atheists because they did not worship the Roman gods.) No doubt Polycarp could have escaped; but already he had had a dream vision in which he saw the pillow under his head burning with fire and he had awakened to tell his disciples: “I must be burnt alive.”
His whereabouts was betrayed by a slave who collapsed under torture. They came to arrest him. He ordered that they should be given a meal and provided with all they wished, while he asked for himself the privilege of one last hour in prayer. Not even the police captain wished to see Polycarp die. On the brief journey to the city, he pled with the old man: “What harm is it to say, ‘Caesar is Lord’ and to offer sacrifice and be saved?” But Polycarp was adamant that for him only Jesus Christ was Lord.
When he entered the arena … the pro-consul gave him the choice of cursing the name of Christ and making sacrifice to Caesar or death. “Eighty and six years have I served him,” said Polycarp, “and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
The pro-consul threatened Polycarp with burning but the old man was more concerned with the ultimate fire of judgment. “Why are you waiting?” Polycarp asked. “Come do what you will.”
The crowds came bearing wood for the fire. They were going to tie him to the stake. But Polycarp refused, saying that God would give him strength to remain in the fire. When the fire failed to kill him, the executioner stabbed Polycarp to death. Polycarp died as a martyr on Saturday, February 23, in AD 155.
His story makes clear that it was not easy to be a Christian in Smyrna in the first and second centuries. And yet, the letter to Smyrna is one of only two in the book of Revelation in which Jesus has undiluted praise for his Church.
May the same be said of us one day, by God’s grace…
 Don Gossett