Of the seven letters, only two are positive and affirming: this letter and the letter to the church in Philadelphia. What is unique about both the church in Smyrna and Philadelphia is that they were both struggling greatly from a human perspective. If you went back in time and had to join one of the seven churches, from a human perspective Smyrna is the least enticing option. Yet from the perspective of Christ, it is the one most affirmed and valued.
2:8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life:
The first century city of Smyrna was an amazing city that had overcome a difficult history. Situated approximately thirty-five miles north of Ephesus, Smyrna was a prosperous port town. Of the seven cities addressed by the Revelator, Smyrna is the only one that continues to exist today as a thriving city – the Turkish city of Izmir.
Smyrna’s location adjacent to a deep gulf made it a highly desirable location for nearly every major political power of the region for generations. Although it had been the location for many civil wars and conflicts, the city’s prime location allowed it to be repeatedly rebuilt. Most significantly to the New Testament period, Smyrna had been destroyed in 580 BC by Alyattes, the king of neighboring Lydia, but was rebuilt in 290 BC by Lysimachus and Antigonus as a model city. The rebuilt city of Smyrna boasted a famous stadium, library, and the largest public theater in Asia.
Smyrna developed a special relationship with the rising super-power of Rome. Approximately 265-146 BC while Rome was in a struggle for regional supremacy against the Carthaginian Empire, the citizens of Smyrna sided squarely with the Romans. Smyrna became the first city to build a temple to the honor of the goddess Roma (ca 195 BC) and later, in 23 BC was awarded the honor of building an additional temple to the emperor Tiberius. The city’s ability to emerge from this nearly three hundred year period of abandonment and become one of the preeminent cities of the empire gave to Smyrna the frequent title, “The City That Died Yet Lives.” It should not surprise us then, that the phrase used to describe the one who is speaking through the Revelator is the one “who was dead and came to life” (2:8). Like the city of Smyrna, the one who judges the churches died, yet lives again.
It was the popular practice of ancient historians and poets to associate the etymology of the name Smyrna with the valuable ancient resin myrrh. Although the similarity in sound is obvious, there is no evidence to support any actual etymological tie between the two words, “but there is evidence to support the belief that the coincidence was seen as significant in antiquity.” Given its history of political turmoil and frequent physical destruction it is not surprising that in poetry and myth Smyrna became associated, like the valuable embalming ointment myrrh, with great suffering. But also like myrrh, the city became associated with the expectation of the overcoming of death through resurrection.
The credit for the resurrection of Smyrna belonged almost entirely to Rome. In the minds of the first century citizens of Smyrna, it was due to their allegiance to Roma and to the gods of the empire that their life as a major city had been restored. In response to the blessings bestowed upon it by Rome, Smyrna became a major capital of emperor and cultic worship. The citizens of Smyrna wanted the city to continue to be a place where the gods would show favor upon their faithful worshipers.
9 “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
The church of Smyrna appears to have held a special place in John’s heart. For John, there are two cities at work simultaneously in Smyrna. On the one hand, the city itself endured great suffering, but in giving itself over to the empire of Rome it has received its reward – a crown of buildings, wealth, and honor, but on the other hand, the second city of Smyrna, the church, like its host city, is now facing its period of struggle and its time of possible death.
The church in Smyrna faced threats from two directions. The first threat came from the empire of Rome itself. The problem Rome continually faced was how to unify an empire that covered such a vast territory and included so many various cultures, languages, and histories. Something was required to unite all of the diverse citizens of Rome into a unified collective. As Barclay writes, “None of the extant religions was capable of being universalized. But one thing was capable of being universalized – the spirit of Rome itself. The peace that had been established by Rome – the Pax Romana – had made life easier, orderly, and prosperous… It was not difficult to turn the spirit of Rome into a power which men were gratefully willing to worship” (Barclay, 17).
It became a practice of the ensuing emperor worship that once a year a citizen was required to burn a pinch of incense on the altar to Caesar, and having done so, the citizen was given a certificate verifying their participation in their civic duty. Although participation in this kind of ceremony of worship had religious overtones, it was primarily a political statement. Those who refused to participate in this act would be held not only in religious contempt, but also in political suspicion. Imagine if you were at a professional sporting event and the person sitting next to you not only refused to stand and remove their hat during the singing of the national anthem, but they turned their body away from the flag and in their body language made it clear to all around them that they were not going to give attention, let alone honor, to the flag. How would that person be viewed and treated by those who witnessed their lack of participation? Even in a democratic society like America where the freedoms of speech and of public demonstration are protected, a person who openly defied a moment of patriotism would be risking social stigmatization and bodily injury.
If a person in modern day America would be held in suspicion for not participating in a routine act of allegiance to the state, how much more in a first century city like Smyrna, where Rome was highly treasured as the great benefactor in the city’s rebirth, would those who refused to participate in the ceremonies of emperor worship be held in suspicion? Like the fate of the Hebrew children who refused to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, the believers of Smyrna faced the persistent threat of political persecution from an empire that held them in suspicion.
A second and more challenging hazard apparently came from the community of Jews living in the city. Having espoused the ideals of Rome and having been granted several privileges because of their allegiance to the empire, the population of Smyrna had a very open citizenship policy. This openness made the city one of the major population centers for Judaism and an area in which Jews were granted comparatively significant political rights. For example, Jews could worship their God freely as long as they were willing to participate in various civic aspects of the city’s life.
The Revelator writes in this text that he knows, “the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Although we must be careful not to use this statement to justify anti-Semitism, because certainly the acts of persecution that were done to the Christians by Jews in Smyrna pale in comparison to the horrible acts of persecution that Christians have enacted against Jews in history, it is nevertheless clear that great conflict arose between the church in Smyrna and some of the city’s Jewish citizens. It is likely that the Jews of Smyrna were given an exemption from participation in the cultic practices of emperor worship. As long as they did not stir up trouble in the city, they were not conscripted into the Imperial cult but were allowed to worship Yahweh freely.
Although many of the Christians in Smyrna were certainly Jewish, Gentiles also were converting to the Christian faith. It is probable that the Gentile believers, as a response to faith, stopped participating in the cultic worship practices of the empire and claimed exemption from those rites based upon their now belonging to a Jewish faith. In the eyes of the empire, however, these new believers were not Jews they were Gentiles. From the perspective of the Jews of Smyrna these believers were seen as a threat to their peaceable way of life because whatever political waves they created with the Roman leaders carried the potential of wiping out the civic privileges currently granted to the Jewish citizens. So, although the new believers claimed to be part of a Jewish faith, they were openly rejected by the Jewish citizens of Smyrna, leaving them outside the umbrella of protection afforded the Jewish population and thus vulnerable to persecution.
John also acknowledges in this verse that he is aware of their poverty. It is likely that this poverty is a literal material poverty and not poverty in some spiritual sense. The economic welfare of the believers of Smyrna would certainly have been threatened because of their faith. As G. E. Ladd states, “We may assume that the poverty of the Smyrneans was not due alone to their normal economic condition but to confiscation of property, looting by hostile mobs, and to the difficulty of earning a living in a hostile environment” (Ladd, 42).
10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.
In addition to economic threats the church in Smyrna was faced with the threat of death. Some of the Christians in Smyrna will be thrown into prison for ten days. It seems unlikely that “ten days” is meant to be symbolic of a short period of time. If the Revelator followed his usual pattern, the symbolic number for a short period of time that eventually ends is the number forty. It is more likely that ten days is the average period of time between being taken into custody by the state, being tried for treason, and being publicly executed. (It is also possible that the ten days refer back to the time when Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were tested for ten days when they refused to eat the defiling food of Nebuchadnezzar – see Daniel 1:12). The Roman state did not like to burden itself with long periods of incarceration of criminals, thus prisoners faced fines, exile or immediate death. It seems clear that John believes many of the Christians in Smyrna would face death, spurned by the Jewish population and executed by the Roman authorities.
It is very possible that the reward of a “crown of life” is also a particular reference to Smyrna. In the first century Smyrna’s most majestic buildings sat high up on Mount Pagus so that as one sailed into its port, one would see what poets spoke of as “the crown of Smyrna.”
The Greek word used for “affliction” in this verse is the word thlipsis – which means pressure or crushing pressure. It brings to mind sitting under a boulder and having constant and crushing pressure put down upon a person.
11 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.”
The command again is to have the ears to hear the truth the Spirit is communicating that so many seem to miss.
The idea of the “second death” is likely a reference to the idea that in the return of Christ all of the dead would be resurrected and face judgment. It is not the “first death” at the hands of those who persecute those who refuse to honor Caesar as Lord, that the Christians in Smyrna should fear but the second death that awaits those who refuse to honor Jesus as Lord that should be feared.
Although the church faced difficult persecution, there is almost a subversive nature to the way the Revelator views the status of the church in Smyrna in contrast to the city itself. From the perspective of earth the city of Smyrna is rich and powerful. The city wears the crown awarded to it by the empire. From the perspective of earth, the Christians of Smyrna are not only poor and foolish, but they are suspicious outsiders who refuse to participate in the systems of power that make the city great.
From the perspective of heaven, however, the city of Smyrna is poor because it has placed its hopes and security in powers that cannot survive “the second death.” The “crown of Smyrna” which was the city’s source of pride, like all material objects, will eventually crumble into ruin. From the perspective of heaven, the church of Smyrna is rich because its members have oriented their life together toward a crown of life that never fades nor can ever be taken away.
It is interesting that of the seven churches addressed in Revelation, only the church of Smyrna still exists. Smyrna, now Izmir, remains a vibrant center of Eastern Orthodox worship and education. The practice of Christian faith has never been easy in Smyrna, there have been various forms of political pressure and persecution over the last nineteen centuries, yet its faith still speaks.