8) And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, “These things says the First and the Last,
who was dead and came to life:
9) I know your works, tribulation and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy
of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
10) Do not fear any of those things you are about to suffer. Indeed the devil is about to throw
some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be
faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.
11) He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes
shall not be hurt by the second death.”
Smyrna is second in line because it was second only to Ephesus in greatness among the cities of Asia Minor (although they never thought of themselves as second to anyone!). Unlike Ephesus. which basically does not exist today, Smyrna was the site of the present day city of Izmir. Smyrna was situated about 40 miles north of Ephesus and commanded the mouth of the Hermus River valley. This fed into a natural land-sided harbor which could easily be defended. It also stood at the end of the crossroads to Lydia and Phygia, which gave Smyrna command of all the trade through the rich Hermus valley.
Smyrna was a very wealthy city. It was also a very beautiful city. Originally founded by Greek colonists around 1000 B.C. it was destroyed by Lydians about 600 B.C. For almost 400 years it was nothing but a collection of small villages scattered about. Then in 200 B.C. a gentleman by the name of Lysimachus put together a project to reconstruct the city as a planned whole, and Smyrna thus became the first planned city. Its streets were set off in perfect squares with one main thoroughfare arising from the harbor and one crossing it around the Pagos ( the mountain that rose up from the harbor). All the temples and buildings were planned as they were built up the side of the Pagos. The city was aesthetically beautiful and was known as the Jewel of Asia Minor.
Not only was it aesthetically beautiful, but because of its position on the coast, it caught the westerly wind continuously from the sea, which made it a pleasant place to live – except for one problem. All the city’s waste was emptied from the river into the harbor, and at times the aroma was a little less than desirable. Well, I guess you can’t have everything…
Smyrna was similar to Ephesus in that it was also a free city, which meant it did not have to have Roman troops stationed there and had total self government. The City of Smyrna was very proud of their alliance with Rome. In fact, they were never conquered by Rome. They had thrown in their lot with Rome before Rome became a super power. They vied with other cities for the right to be the first to build temples to the emperors. This would be one of the areas of persecution for the church in Smyrna because of the city’s love of Rome and their desire to show it by emperor worship.
The other source of persecution came from the fact that there was a huge Jewish population in Smyrna. This was both a blessing and a curse. The blessing was that many Christian converts came from Gentiles who were interested in the belief in a one true God as opposed to polytheism. But they were not interested enough to become proselytes (namely, circumcision). Thus, the Christian faith which talked about the circumcision of the heart instead of the physical kind would seem more to their liking. The curse was that Judaism appealed a lot more to women than to men, and many of these women were wives of the wealthy and influential of the city as well as the wives of many of the government leaders. This made it especially easy to get the governing authorities involved in any persecution the Jews wanted to hand out upon the congregation, or cast a blind eye to whatever the Jews wanted to do to the believers. The Christians in Smyrna were under attack from two enemies in the city. Six slanders were often used to accuse the Christian in Smyrna
1) The taking of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist used the words, ‘This is My body and My
blood.’ Thus, the Christians were often accused of being cannibals.
2) Because Christians called their common meal the Agape or love feast, they were accused of holding
3) Because not everyone within a family became believers, Christians were accused of splitting up
families and destroying family values.
4) Because Christians had no carved or molten images for worship, they were called heathen.
5) Because they would not swear loyalty to Caesar and burn incense and worship at his temple, they
6) Because Christians believed in the powerful return of Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven this would
bring, they were insurrectionists.
Cannibalism, orgies, family destruction, heathen, traitorous, and insurrectionist….The congregation in Smyrna was really up against it.
Jesus begins in verse 8 by telling the Smyrna Christians that He is the First and the Last. If we will remember from chapter 1, verse 11, the Greek here is saying that Jesus is the foremost one who was before the beginning. And the last in the Greek means as far from the last as you can get. In this Jesus is reminding the congregation that He is the Eternal One, the One who was alive before there was any creation and the One who will be around after there is no creation. He also reminds them that He is the One who was dead (the Greek here actually means a corpse, lifeless), yet now He is alive (the Greek meaning alive eternally, a life without end). There is also a play of words on the history of Smyrna here. Remember, Smyrna was alive from 1000 B.C. until around 600 B.C. and then was destroyed. It was rebuilt around 200BC and was at this time thriving, vying to be the greatest city in Asia Minor, considered a leading city in the entire Roman Empire. They are totally full of themselves and do not suspect their end. Jesus is reminding the Christians in Smyrna that He is the only eternal One and that in the same way the city of Smyrna cast their lot with a temporary empire like Rome, if they continue with faith in Him, the truly Eternal One, they will be the true overcomers.
In verse 9 Jesus reveals three things He knows about them. 1) He knows of their works. They are true to their Gospel calling. Unlike the Ephesians, knew what their first work and their first love was. They even understood the distress in their lives and continued to proclaim the Gospel and call sinners unto repentance. They maintained a heart for the lost. 2) Jesus knows their tribulation. The Greek for tribulation is thlipsis, which means to crush, press, squeeze, to break in any way possible. This congregation was being attacked from two sides – the folks who condemned them for not worshiping the emperor and the Jews whose position was threatened by loss of possible proselytes from their synagogue to a gospel of a risen Lord who offers eternal life. 3) Jesus knows their poverty. In the Greek there are two words used for the poor. One is penia, referring to a person who is not wealthy, one who has to work for a living. This IS NOT the Greek word used here. The Greek used here is ptocheia, referring to a person who has absolutely nothing, totally destitute, without job or resources of any kind. Yet the Lord tells them they are rich. They are rich in faith. They are rich in love from Christ to them and from them to the lost. They are rich in works, the true works of the church of Christ.
Why would the Christians of Smyrna be so poor in such a wealthy city? Because they were suffering for their faith. In a city where emperor worship was not just practiced bur expected, a Christian who refused to bow to Caesar or pay tribute to Caesar suffered from the cancel culture of that day. They had no 4th Amendment. There was no such thing as illegal search and seizure. The mob could enter and destroy any Christians home or business (if they had one), take what they wanted, and make the remainder unusable. Kind of reminds you of the actions that took place this summer in the USA with no punitive action taken. It wasn’t something that was continuous, but the Christians living in Smyrna lived under this type of threat at all times. As an aside here, the exact same things happened to the early Methodist of the 1700’s in England. In early 18th century England, Methodist were dragged out of their home and beaten or thrown into jail. The men could be forced into the army to fight the wars that were happening at that time. Methodist homes and meeting houses could be (and were) destroyed or irreparably damaged. John and Charles Wesley were both arrested by authorities. They were both seized by mobs and beaten and dragged down streets and around towns. If you need proof, read the journals of both Charles and John Wesley. The Jews in Russia were subject to the same treatment. The Christians of Smyrna were subject to the same abuse.
Another reason the Christians in Smyrna were so poor is also found in verse 9. Jesus says He knows of the blasphemy of the Jews. The Greek for blasphemy is blasphemia, meaning to vilify someone, to slander them, to tell falsehoods about them, to lie and speak evil of them and against God. The Jews were the primary instigators against the congregation at Smyrna. They propagated the six slanders mentioned earlier in this writing. Jesus calls them the synagogue of Satan, the Greek literally meaning slanderer, adversary, and accuser. This is what the Jews of Smyrna did and in so doing got the whole city stirred up against the Christians.
Yet in verse 10, Jesus tell the congregation in Smyrna not to fear. Then He follows it up with things that would make one fear. He tells them they are about to suffer. He doesn’t tell them what the total sum of their suffering is going to be, though probably a lot more of the same already mentioned. He specifically says that the devil will throw some of them in prison. The Greek for devil, diabolos, means the one who is full of falsehood and lies, one who slanders and whose main purpose is to lead people away from God and into sin. They will all suffer tribulation and will be tested. The good news is that it will be for a short time. The phrase “ten days” unfortunately does not mean a literal ten days. It does, however, refer to a short period of time. He tells them to be faithful until death, which indicates some will die under the persecution.
Here Jesus tells them of one of their two rewards: 1) Being faithful (Greek word pistos, meaning faithful in duty to oneself and to others, true fidelity) even unto even unto death results in Jesus’ giving them the crown of eternal Life, a life without end. The Greek here for life is zoie, which can either mean just life in general or, as in Scripture, eternal life without end. The interesting fact here is Jesus says the crown of eternal life. There are again two words for “crown” in the Greek. One is diadema, which means a royal crown worn by a king or emperor. The second word is the one found in our text, stephanos, which carries with it the joy of victory. Smyrna had an area where athletic events were held that were were prominent in the city. Victors in these events would receive a laurel crown. Smyrna was also called the crown of Asia Minor, thus one side of their coins would have a victors crown inscribed on it. City officials who left their jobs with great accomplishments, or others who had done great feats, would have coins fashioned with their wearing a crown of victory on one side. The crown was part of the strong imagery and tradition for the city of Smyrna. So it is interesting that Jesus promises a victor’s crown for the reward of the faithful believer. But His reward is not a laurel crown that will wilt, dry out, crumble, and disappear. Rather, it is an eternal crown that remains with the one who has been given eternal life.
Verse 11 begins with, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Then Jesus reveals the second reward for the faithful: 2) There is a promise that they who overcome will not be hurt, damaged, or harmed by the second death. Teachers of the Bible make a big deal about the Sadducees and their not believing in the resurrection of the dead, but most Jews believed in an eternal life. As a matter of fact, the term “second death” is only found a couple of times in the New Testament. The term is not Christian, it comes from Orthodox Judaism. The Orthodox Jews believed that when a person died, they went to a place where their spirits remained until they were judged. At the time of judgment is when they would go to their eternal home, Heaven or Hell. The Catholic concept of Purgatory actually derives from this Orthodox Judaism belief. Jesus promises the believers at Smyrna that they who are faithful till the end, until death, will not face the second death. Here the word for death is not the word for a corpse. It is thanatos, meaning destruction, perdition, misery, implying both physical death and exclusion from the presence and favor of God in consequence of sin and disobedience. The residents of Smyrna may be able to kill the Christian believers in this world, but the faithful will wear the eternal crown of eternal life in the next.
The sufferings of the Christians in Smyrna were not just historical suffering. Humanity has not really moved forward or grown past such atrocities. They are happening in Iran, Pakistan, China, North Korea, Argentina, Venezuela, and other countries in this world today. I really hate to say it, but the way things are going in Washington DC, they may be happening soon in this this country as well.
Let’s Sum it up:
1) Jesus is the First and the Last, He who was dead but now lives.
2) Jesus knows Smyrna’s condition, their works, their tribulation, and their poverty.
3) Jesus tells them that they are rich in what matters – their first work, their first love, their heart for
4) He knows the false charges that have been brought against them and who brought them – Jews not
following God but following Satan
5) Do not fear the testing that is coming: more tribulation, imprisonment, even death. But it will be for
a short period of time.
6) Those who are faithful until death and those who overcome will receive the eternal crown of eternal life and freedom from the second death.
In Christ –
Remember to pray the 91st Psalm in the first person daily. If you want to be even more empowered, pray the 23rd, the 27th, and the 121st in first person as well.