The Letter to the Church at Smyrna (2:8-11)
A straight sail from the island of Patmos of some 60 miles brings one to the port of Ephesus at the mouth of the river Cayster. Traveling up coast some 35 miles almost due north of Ephesus is the city of Smyrna (population @ 100,000). It is the only one of the 7 cities still in existence today: modern Izmir in western Turkey.
Smyrna was a proud and beautiful city and regarded itself as the “pride of Asia.” An inscription on coins describes the city as “First of Asia in beauty and size” (although other cities were certainly more highly populated). The people of Smyrna were quite sensitive to the rivalry of Ephesus for recognition as the most splendid city of Asia Minor. Of the 7 churches, only Smyrna and Philadelphia receive no complaint from the Lord. There is only commendation, encouragement and a promise of eternal life to the one who overcomes. Perhaps the reason there is no cause for complaint is that Smyrna was a suffering church. The letter is devoted almost exclusively to an account of their past and present trials, a warning of yet more persecution to come, and a strengthening word of encouragement from the One who knows all too well the pain of scorn and death.
It is interesting to note that the word “myrrh”, associated symbolically in the NT with weeping, burial, and resurrection, is related to the name of this city: Smyrna.
Why did the church in Smyrna suffer? The answer is two-fold.
First, as early as 195 b.c. a temple personified as a goddess and dedicated to Rome had been built in Smyrna. The city soon acquired a reputation for patriotic loyalty to the empire and its emperor. In 29 a.d. all Asian cities were competing for the coveted favor of erecting a temple in honor of Emperor Tiberius. Smyrna won! It was a city fervent with emperor worship. The Christian refusal to sprinkle incense on the fire which burned before the emperor’s bust no doubt fanned the flames of hostility against them. It was dangerous to be a faithful Christian in Smyrna.
Second, great antagonism existed within the Jewish community toward the church. This no doubt stemmed in part from their conviction that to worship a crucified carpenter from Nazareth was blasphemy. There was also undoubtedly a measure of bitterness at the loss of so many from their ranks to the new faith. The Jews were known to inform the authorities of Christian activities, the latter being perceived as treason. Jewish antagonism against Paul is well known in the book of Acts (at Antioch in 13:50; at Iconium in 14:2,5; at Lystra in 14:19; at Thessalonica in 17:5; at Corinth they so bitterly opposed the gospel that Paul “shook out his garments and said to them, ‘Your blood be upon your heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles’”).
Jewish opposition to the church at Smyrna is the focus of v. 9 where Jesus refers to those “who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Clearly, in one sense, these people are Jews, the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who met regularly in the synagogue to worship. Yet, in another sense, i.e., inwardly and spiritually, they are not Jews, having rejected Jesus and now persecuted and slandered his people. Indeed, their gatherings at synagogue are energized by Satan himself. But if they are false Jews, who, then, are the true Jews? If they are a synagogue of Satan, who, then, are a synagogue of God? John does not provide an explicit answer, but the implication seems clear. Ladd explains:
“true Jews are the people of the Messiah. Paul says the same thing very clearly: ‘For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal’ (Rom. 2:28-29). That this ‘Judaism of the heart’ is not to be limited to believing Jews but includes believing gentiles is clear from Paul’s words to the Philippians: ‘For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 3:3). We must conclude, then, that John makes a real distinction between literal Israel – the Jews – and spiritual Israel – the church” (43-44).
Ramsay has suggested that the people of Smyrna would have especially appreciated the reference to Jesus as the one who “was dead, and has come to life,” because of the city’s own history. Smyrna was destroyed by the Lydians in 600 b.c., followed by three centuries of relative desolation until it was refounded and rebuilt two miles south of the ancient site in 290 b.c.
The nature of their suffering is four-fold.
First, reference is made in v. 9a to their “tribulation” and “poverty”. But why were these believers “poor” in a city as prosperous as Smyrna? Perhaps they were from the lower ranks of society, economically speaking. Perhaps they had exceeded their means in giving to others. But this would not explain why their poverty is part of their tribulation and the association of the two words here indicates they are linked.
Most likely their poverty was due to their voluntary exclusion from the many trade guilds in Smyrna, seedbeds of vice, immorality, and unscrupulous business dealings. In addition, they probably could not find employment precisely because they were Christians. Perhaps, as Heb. 10:34 indicates, their homes and property had been looted and pillaged. As Stott says, “make no mistake: it does not always pay to be a Christian. Nor is honesty by any means always the best policy, if material gain is your ambition” (39).
But . . . despite their material poverty, Jesus declares that they are “rich” (v. 9). One may be poor and rich at the same time but not in the same sense. See 2 Cor. 6:10; James 2:5; 1 Cor. 1:26-29. This forces us to ask ourselves: “How do I measure real wealth?”
Second, they were repeatedly slandered (v. 9a).
Third, we read in v. 10 that some of them would soon suffer from imprisonment. Imprisonment, however, was not technically a punishment in Roman communities like Smyrna. Prisons were used for one of three reasons: (1) to compel and coerce obedience to the order of a magistrate; (2) to keep the accused confined pending the trial date; or (3) to detain the guilty until the time of execution. The words “until death” (v. 10b) indicate that the third is in view.
There are several options to interpreting the meaning of “10 days” of suffering. (1) Literally 10 days. (2) It simply refers to a short period of time. (3) “10” points to extreme or complete tribulation. (4) Some say “10” refers to the fact that the tribulation is prolonged, yet limited; extensive, yet it will cease. (5) Beale points to Dan. 1:12-15 where the “testing” of Daniel and his three friends is said to be for “ten days”. (5) Hemer contends that “the ‘ten days’ should probably be seen as a limited, intermediate period of suffering, expected to terminate in judgment and death, -- but this for the Christian was victory and life, assured by the precedent of Christ’s resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20)” (70).
Fourth, they were facing martyrdom itself. Yet Jesus refrains from intervening. He does not remove the poverty nor does he vindicate his people in the face of those who hurled their indignant slander, nor does he overturn the vicious actions of the Devil who will instigate the imprisonment and even their deaths. Why? Perhaps instead of asking the question, “Why do Christians suffer persecution?” we should ask, “Why do Christians not suffer persecution?” Says Stott:
“The ugly truth is that we tend to avoid suffering by compromise. Our moral standards are often not noticeably higher than the standards of the world. Our lives do not challenge and rebuke unbelievers by their integrity or purity or love. The world sees in us nothing to hate” (43).
But this letter is not simply a call to patient endurance in the face of suffering. With the call to suffer there is an accompanying promise of reward for those who prove faithful. But faithful unto what or whom? Surely he means Jesus, who, according to this letter is:
Eternal (he is the first and the last)
Victorious (whereas men live and die, Christ died and now lives)
Omniscient (“I know your tribulation”)
Sovereign (he limits their suffering to 10 days; he controls events; note also that he permits Satan to use the civil authorities “in order that” they may be “tested”; compare this with Paul’s “thorn-in-the-flesh” experience in 2 Cor. 12:7ff.)
Gracious (he promises the “crown of life”, i.e., the crown which consists of eternal life itself, and protection from the “second death” [cf. 20:6,14; 21:8]; though they die the first death, physically, they shall never die the second death, spiritually)