This post last updated on August 29th, 2022
And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: “This is what the first and the last says, who was dead and came to life: ‘I know your affliction and poverty (but you are rich), and the slander of those who call themselves Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.Revelation 2:8-9
Smyrna was an important city famous for its beauty and trade, located on a harbor of the Aegean Sea. It was the center of Roman imperial religion, and home of the temple to the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar. The letter to the church in Smyrna is only one of two that give no condemnation from Jesus in the 7 letters of Revelation.
A significant ancient city along the Asia Minor trade route, Smyrna had a population of more than 100,000 during the Graeco-Roman period. Smyrna was located 40 miles north of Ephesus and the 2 cities competed for the title “First City of Asia,” which was an honor of bragging rights throughout the Empire. Today however, the rubble of ancient Smyrna is what the modern city of Izmir, Turkey is built on.
The Letter to the Church in Smyrna
“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: “This is what the first and the last says, who was dead and came to life: ‘I know your affliction and poverty (but you are rich), and the slander of those who call themselves Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of the things which you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and you will experience affliction ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. The one who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will never be harmed by the second death.’Revelation 2:8-11
The letter from Jesus to the church in Smyrna is packed in only 4 short verses. Quite a lot is being said though, isn’t it? Let’s dig into it!
First and Last, Dead and Alive
The first and most important thing to take note of is that verse 8 directly refers to the risen Christ. We can see this because it mirrors Revelation 1:17-18. With this statement, Jesus is revealing some extremely deep truths to his followers in Smyrna.
Obviously, the first truth is that Christ is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. It is paramount to understand that Christ is both pre-existent, or before time, and eternal, or without end.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.John 1:1
The next truth presented in this verse is that he “was dead and came to life.” A literal translation would be “the one who became dead and is alive again.”
What’s important to note about this is that Jesus was speaking to persecuted Christians living among a pagan and evil culture. His words of overcoming death not only point to an eternal hope for these suffering believers, but also to the deeper reality of His own eternal existence. The pre-existence and eternal nature of Christ is the foundation to understanding an accurate view of who Jesus really is.
This is a profound reality that you must understand as it carries eternal implications in (and after) your life.
Affliction, Poverty, and Slander
Smyrna was home to pagan temples, first to the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar and much later to the emperor Hadrian.
A little research on Tiberius Caesar reveals that he was an extremely evil and perverse man. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, he “made death the penalty for the slightest offenses.” That’s probably the least offensive thing I can share with you about Tiberius. Without doubt, you can conclude that with the level of depravity and debauchery of Tiberius Caesar, it’s no wonder that the Roman Empire decayed until it was no more.
Smyrna was also an important seaport that excelled in medicine, science, and in commerce. There were guilds of fishermen, tanners, as well as gold and silversmiths.
Membership in these guilds required sacrificing to pagan deities and to the emperor, and participation in other pagan rituals. This is a reality that led to extreme persecution of the church in Smyrna.
The Smyrnan Christians made a stand for their faith and said there is none to be worshiped but Jesus. Defending their faith led to extreme financial hardship within the believing communities because they were excluded from earning a living.
And then there was conflict with the Jews as well! The Jewish community of Smyrna was not involved in God’s work, but quite the opposite in this influential city.
…and the slander of those who call themselves Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.Revelation 2:9
Crushed by Affliction
Smyrna was undoubtedly an important city of trade and commerce, but it goes even further than that.
The word for Smyrna is linked to the Greek word for myrrh, the tree you get frankincense from. It’s actually more of a thorny bush and it must be crushed to release it’s medicinal properties and fragrance. When Jesus said of the Smyrnan believers “I know your afflictions,” the word he used is describing an oppressive, crushing tribulation.
And get this…Smyrna was commercially the myrrh capital of the ancient world!
10 Days of Affliction
Jesus encourages the afflicted and persecuted church by reminding them to be “faithful unto death” so that they would receive eternal life. In his letter to the church in Smyrna, you’ll also find that Jesus says their affliction will last “for 10 days.”
Here’s a reminder about something important in apocalyptic Scripture. You’ll often see images and descriptions of things that are absolutely unimaginable, like horned beasts walking out of the sea, or armored locusts going to war. Sometimes these things are easily explained, and sometimes they’re completely inexplicable. And sometimes, like with the prophet Daniel, numbers and names are representations. That’s what you find in Daniel’s “70 weeks” prophecy.
So here, when Jesus says the affliction of that church would last for 10 days, it could mean that the members of that church would serve 10 day sentences. It could also be representative of a very long time, and it could also describe a period of time that can’t be calculated.
The truth is that some phrases and words in Scripture, particularly in apocalyptic prophecy, can mean a number of things. When you encounter this, it’s most important to know that your responsibility is to ask for and rely on the Holy Spirit to teach you, and you are to remain focused on the point of it all: the risen Messiah, Christ Jesus.
Bringing the Letter to Smyrna Together
So to conclude the Revelation letter to Smyrna, you and I need to think about it in a few ways at the same time.
This is where you should ask, “What do you even mean by that?“
Remember that Jesus is absolutely reliable because he is unchanging (Hebrews 13:8). He was, he is, and he is to come (Revelation 1:8). He is the eternal Word, without beginning and without end (Genesis 1; John 1).
Because of his unchanging nature, you can read the Revelation letters to the churches as it was something that has happened, is happening, and will happen.
Here’s what I mean. There is no doubt that the early church suffered tremendous persecution. Because of that, churches like the one in Smyrna were convinced that the end was soon. Persecution has happened.
Now think about the persecuted church today. I don’t mean the socially persecuted, though that is a form of persecution and it’s difficult. Think about believers forced underground in certain places around the world right now where they are beaten, raped, imprisoned, beheaded, thrown to wild dogs, and things far worse than these. Don’t you think these Christians, like those in Smyrna believe the end is soon? Persecution is happening.
And finally, no doubt you’ve heard of the Great Tribulation, a time when the church in the last days will be horrifically persecuted beyond anything we’ve ever seen. That time has not yet come, but it is on the horizon. Persecution will happen.
All of this is to say that you and I should pay close attention to things Jesus has to say to the 7 churches in Revelation…
“The one who has an ear…”
As you’ll often see in his teaching, Jesus frequently closed with this phrase, like in Matthew 13:9. It almost always includes the promise of eternal life with Christ in Heaven.
The one who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will never be harmed by the second death.’Revelation 2:7
The letter to the church in Smyrna was written to a specific church at a specific time. And yet, it carries instruction to the church right now.
Persecution happens because God’s adversary wants to destroy the church, which he often attempts one believer at a time. However, applying the command of Christ to the persecuted Smyrnans to remain faithful, even if it costs you your life, is to receive the crown of eternal life.
Maybe you’ll be criticized, outcast, laughed at, or mocked for your faith. Or perhaps you’ll be beaten or even worse for what you know to be true. No matter what the world presses on you, follow Jesus when he instructs you to remain faithful. Do this and keep in mind the 4 verses of the letter to the church in Smyrna.
And here’s a little extra encouragement from what Charles Spurgeon taught concerning persecution,