SYNOPSIS: The church at Smyrna is promised more tribulation based on its past faithfulness in persecution – Revelation 2:8-11.
The city of Smyrna was a seaport fifty-five kilometers northwest of Ephesus that marked the start of a major road into the interior of Asia Minor. As a leading commercial center, the city prospered from its location and the importation of goods by sea. The Roman imperial cult was well-established and widespread in the city.
Smyrna was renowned for its beauty. On coins minted in the city, it claimed to be the “first city of Asia in size and beauty.” The origin of the Christian church in this town is unknown. This is the only place in the New Testament where the city of Smyrna is named.
(Revelation 2:8-11) – “And unto the messenger of the assembly in Smyrna write:—These things saith the first and the last, who became dead, and lived: I know thy tribulationˎ and destitution, nevertheless, thou art rich, and the profane speech from among them who affirm that they themselves are Jews, and they are not, but a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear the things which thou art about to suffer. Lo! the adversary is about to cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried and may have tribulation ten days. Become thou faithful until death, and I will give thee the crown of life. He that hath an ear, let him hear what |the Spirit| is saying unto the assemblies. He that overcometh shall in nowise be injured by reason of the second death.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
Jesus opens this “letter” to the “messenger” of Smyrna by stressing his position – He is, “The First and Last.” He has absolute authority over everything that transpires in this city, therefore, the church has no reason to fear, regardless of appearances and circumstances. He has the “last” word on all things, period.
The Risen Christ is the one “who became dead and lived,” a reference to the opening vision of the glorious “Son of Man” among the “seven golden lampstands.” Although this church faces persecution and martyrdom, Jesus possesses the “keys of death and of Hades.” Possibly, the name “Smyrna” is derived from the Greek word for “myrrh,” an ointment used in burial preparations. If so, in this context it may be suggestive of martyrdom.
Jesus “knows” the condition of the congregation. From his perspective, it is “rich,” although its members live in poverty. Their impoverishment is due to the “slander from among them who affirm they are Jews and are not.” He knows their works – Not their good deeds but, instead, their faithful testimony for Jesus despite local opposition.
The church endures “tribulation” because of its faithful witness. The Greek term for “tribulation” or thlipsis is the same noun found in Verse 10, “You will have tribulation ten days” (Strong’s – #G2347). The poverty of the congregation anticipates the economic program of the “Beast from the earth” described in Chapter 13, which is used to compel submission to the political and religious agendas of the “Beast” (Revelation 13:15-18).
The “slander” or “blasphemy” by local Jews suggests a situation in which they denounced Christians to local magistrates for alleged offenses to the political order, accusations that resulted in legal prosecution (blasphémia – Strong’s #G988). Likewise, the “Beast” from the sea has the “name of slander” or blasphémia upon its several heads, a mouth speaking “slanders” against God, and “they who tabernacle in heaven.” Later, the Great Harlot, Babylon, sits on a scarlet Beast that is “full of slanders” (Revelation 13:1-6, 17:3).
False accusations against saints demonstrate how Satan “slanders” or “blasphemes” believers, God, and the Lamb. The local accusers constitute a “synagogue of Satan” because Satan, the “Adversary,” is the force behind their legal harassment of the church. Although Roman authorities throw believers “into prison,” the source behind the action is attributed to the Devil.
Of the seven churches of Asia, only Smyrna and Philadelphia receive no rebuke or correction. Jesus admonishes this church to face boldly any tribulation that may come (“Do not fear what you are going to suffer”). The congregation already has endured trials without wavering but, rather than reward its members for past victories, Jesus announces an intensification in trials (“the Devil is about to cast some of you into prison that you may be tried and may have tribulation ten days”).
Some will be cast into prison. In the Roman world, prison cells were holding pens for accused criminals until their trial or execution. Imprisonment was temporary and, all too often, preceded execution. This reality is implied in the exhortation, “Become faithful until death.”
The church at Smyrna will be tried and endure tribulation “ten days.” Numbers in Revelation are figurative. The “ten days” alludes to the time when Daniel and his compatriots refused to eat food provided by the Babylonian king, food previously offered to idols. Like Smyrna, Daniel and his compatriots were “tried ten days.” The allusion is fitting. Several of the churches of Asia are struggling with false teachings that promote “fornication” and “eating food offered to idols,” deceptions rejected by the church at Smyrna:
(Daniel 1:12-14) – “I pray thee—prove thy servants ten days,—and let them give us vegetable food that we may eat, and water that we may drink: then let our countenances be looked upon before thee, and the countenances of the youths who have been eating the delicacies of the king,—and, as thou shalt see, deal thou with thy servants. So then he hearkened unto them, according to this word—and proved them ten-days.”
Faithfulness in tribulation results in “a wreath of life”. The Greek noun refers to a victor’s wreath, not to a royal crown or diadem. It represents a victory, not royal authority, and a victory achieved through faithful endurance (Revelation 3:11, 4:4, 12:1, 14:14).
The one who overcomes will not partake of the “second death,” a fate identified later with the “lake of fire.” Followers of the Lamb “overcome,” but, paradoxically, by enduring persecution and martyrdom that result from a faithful witness (Revelation 20:14).
In this letter, Jesus identifies Satan as the driving force behind the persecution of the church, although the “Dragon” uses human agents and institutions to execute his plans. The battles waged on a cosmic level in the later visions of the book of Revelation play out in the daily struggles of the churches of Asia in each of their respective cities.