Christ’s message to the church at Smyrna is the shortest and contains no criticisms. This congregation is mentioned nowhere else in the New Testament, but historical material on the city of Smyrna in biblical times is plentiful. Smyrna, like Miletus and Ephesus, was a bustling port city on the eastern Aegean Sea. The history of this city goes back centuries before the time of the Apocalypse. In about 300 BC Alexander the Great rebuilt and made Smyrna over into a Greek cultural center which boasted of its own Acropolis. In the Roman Era Smyrna enjoyed an affluence and civic pride which put it in competition with Ephesus as the first city of Asia. There was also a sizable and influential Jewish presence. We do not know for certain how the gospel was introduced to this city.
As in all the addresses to the seven churches, this one begins with the phrase, Thus says…, which reminds me of the familiar Old Testament prophetic formula, Thus says the Lord… When Christ speaks it is with divine authority. Even during His earthly ministry he prefaced many of His sayings with, Truly, truly I say to you, and You have heard it said…but I say to you… You will notice also that all that is said to the seven churches is written in red letters in your Bible, which indicates the words of Christ. Of course this does not mean the red-letter portions are more inspired or carry more authority, for All Scripture is God-breathed…(2 Timothy 3:16). Still, there seems to be a more personal element here with Jesus speaking directly to His people.
Jesus is described as the first and the last, or more accurately the first and the final (eschatos). All things came into being through Him and in the end all things will be brought under his power and authority. In terms of our salvation He is the author and finisher (Hebrews 12:2), which is why Paul could tell the Philippians he was confident that He who had begun the good work in them would see it through to completion (1:6).
Jesus is also described in v. 8 as having died and come back to life. As we will see, these believers faced a real threat of physical death for their allegiance to Christ. Knowing that the Lord had conquered the grave would be a great comfort to them, as it ought to be to us.
In each address given to a church Jesus says, I know…, followed by a commendation, criticism, or as here a bit of information about their situation followed by an exhortation. Jesus identifies three things He knows about the plight of the church in Smyrna: their tribulation, their poverty, and the blasphemy directed against them and their Lord.
Tribulation here means pressure from without and must be precisely defined by context. The Greek noun comes from a verb meaning to press in upon or crush. This verb was used to describe the multitudes crowding Jesus (Mark 5:24). Life can be a pressure cooker, and we all face tribulation of various form and intensity–physical, emotional, economic, spiritual. These believers were suffering affliction related to their faith: they were being persecuted as Christians by the Jews and Romans.
Jesus describes them as poor. In our culture we have no real appreciation for poverty because we consider people to be poor who refuse to work and are rewarded for their sloth with apartments furnished with all the necessary utilities, furniture, appliances, and electronic gadgets. These poor people do not want for food, transportation, and medical treatment. In Bible times there was no so-called safety net, so that being poor meant being just this side of destitute or completely without pot or window. Some of the truly poorest folks in America are unskilled people who want to work and are trying to make a go of it without going on the dole. It would be hard enough to struggle like this if pretty much everyone was in the same boat, as during the Depression or in a third-world country; but when you stand elbow-to-elbow with people who want for nothing you begin to feel like a second-class citizen. Making and keeping people poor is an effective psychological tool.
The believers in Smyrna were poor and yet they lived in a very upscale and affluent city. One way in which the Roman State kept subversive groups in check was through the confiscation of property. It seems as if the recipients of the epistle to the Hebrews had suffered in this way: For you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and enduring possession for yourselves in heaven (Hebrews 10:34). Those who refused to worship the state, as personified and deified in the emperor, risked the loss of homes, personal property, and life.
Scripture presupposes property rights and ownership. The commandment Thou shalt not steal assumes that what you are taking belongs to me–it’s mine. Our government is becoming more statist and socialist, which means everything belongs to everyone–and that is the same as saying it belongs to no one (except the state). When the federal government gets it’s centralized hooks into everything from education to health-care to banking to fighting obesity, religion will be next. Once this happens the state becomes God, whether the president ascribes deity to himself or not. It was not that long ago when Christians were imprisoned and lost everything in communist countries because in worshipping Jesus they were looked upon as traitors with divided loyalties.
Jesus tells the impoverished Christians at Smyrna that they are rich in what matters most. Reminds me of His warning in Luke 12:21: So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. These believers are in good company:
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty (1 Corinthians 1:26-27).
Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? (James 2:5)
The blasphemy mentioned in v. 9 was slander by the Jews, who Christ says are really not Jews but liars. In rejecting Christ and fighting against Him they have become a base of operations for Satan himself. Going clear back to the trial of Christ before Pilate we see the Jews playing the politics card: If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend. Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar (John 19:12). A few years later the Jews of Thessalonica used the same strategy against Paul: And these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king—Jesus (Acts 17:7).
The believers at Smyrna are commanded by the Lord not to fear–literally to stop fearing. Even in the face of death these believers are told to overcome, so we know the persecution was very intense. Perhaps these believers were familiar through John’s teaching with the words of Jesus found in Matthew 10:28:
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
Actually, Jesus would not make a very good therapist, and he would rub many a feminist psychobabbler the wrong way. It is a cardinal sin in today’s touchy-feely world to tell anyone how to feel or not feel. If someone is afraid the last thing you want to do is tell them to stop feeling that way. You are supposed to validate their feelings. But instead of allowing the believers to wallow in fear Christ offers them assurance in the form of three promises. First, the devil (through the agency of the Jews and Romans) will indeed throw them into prison, but their tribulation will last but ten days. Most likely this is not a literal figure since numbers are used symbolically in apocalyptic literature. Whereas seven is the number of divine perfection, ten is the number of completeness. The persecuted believers are told that their imprisonment will be brief and will end when the time appointed by God is complete.
They are also promised the victor’s crown for faithfulness unto death. Romans were executed by beheading with the sword. Nothing made one look more shameful and defeated than public execution. But when death comes in the form of martyrdom for the sake of Jesus it is a victory. The crown here is actually a wreath-like string of olive leaves given to champions in the ancient Olympic games. Paul uses this word in the context of athletics in 1 Corinthians 9:25. Jesus calls it the crown of life, a construction in Greek called a genitive of apposition, which means that the crown is life itself.
The overcomer is promised he will not be harmed by the second death. I understand this to mean spiritual death, or separation from God for eternity in the lake of fire. When I was a young Christian there was a little Bible book store on Pacific Highway in Riverton Heights right next door to an Assemblies of God church. It was a tiny place called the Book Nook and was run by a sweet old lady named Gussie. This was back when they actually sold Bibles in such stores. Even though in those days there were not the Chinese-made trinkets and Taiwanese junk so common in today’s Christian bookstores, Gussie did have a few cool book-markers, bumper stickers, and buttons. Once when I was in there with Mark, the guy who led me to the Lord, we saw this button that said: Born once, die twice; born twice, die once. When someone asked you what it meant you were supposed to explain that if you are born once physically and not a second time spiritually you will die twice–once physically and once spiritually. But if you get born again you will die physically, but spiritually you will not experience death. I picked up one of the buttons and I think it was a guy named Ron Lohman who I tried to use it on, but he cussed me out like he always did when people tried to tell him about the Lord.
Honestly, in over forty years as a Christian I have suffered nothing more serious than profanity for my testimony. Never anything where my physical safety was threatened. About the closest I came was when I had been saved just a few months and my friend Gary Hackworth was putting tracts on car widshields and he threw a tract in an open window. It hit a guy in the face who was sleeping in the car. He got out and punched Gary in the mouth, but I’m not even sure it was official persecution because the guy never even looked at the tract before he smacked Gary. He was just mad someone disturbed his beauty sleep.
Seriously though, we Christians in America have been really blessed thus far compared to what the believers in the seven churches must have endured. But believers elsewhere in the world face danger daily. Christians in Sudan are being killed and sold into slavery. A pastor in Iran was recently arrested and sentenced to death. A pastor in Sweden was jailed for six months for stating the Bible’s condemnation of homosexual behavior. As pagan religions like Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism gain ground in this country, along with secular humanistic statism, the day may well come in our lifetime when being a true Christian will be looked upon as high treason. We ought not think electing a Republican to every office from dog catcher to president will somehow insulate us from harm.
The bottom line is that it starts with each one of us as individuals. We are no better or worse than believers of any other era. Keep your eyes on Jesus, brothers; stay in the word; continue in steadfast prayer; keep your conduct pure; maintain tight fellowship with likeminded believers; warn your unsaved loved ones of the wrath to come. May God give us the grace we need to stand firm in the faith. Our redemption is closer now than when we believed.