8 And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘Thus saith the First and the Last, he who was dead and came alive: 9 I know your tribulation and poverty, but you are rich, and the slander from those claiming to be themselves Jews and they are not, but [are] a synagogue of Satan. 10 Fear nothing [of] the things you are about to suffer. Behold the devil is about to throw [some] of you into prison so that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful as far as death, and I will give to you the crown of life. 11 The one who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be harmed by the Second Death.”
Smyrna was a prosperous city about 40 miles north of Ephesus. It was famous for its fine wine and beautiful buildings, and it had an active emperor cult. Some second century inscriptions indicate there was a Jewish community there during the latter part of the first century. The church in Smyrna later became an important Christian congregation, though it only received two mentions in the New Testament–both of them in Revelation. One of its most notable leaders was Polycarp, a second century bishop who was martyred. Such was his renown that an account of his martyrdom has survived to this day. But to understand the situation of the Smyrnan church in Revelation, we need to see it as a church in a rich pagan city, persecuted for the faith by the local authorities, and possibly even by the synagogue. We’ll get to that in a moment.
Jesus presents himself to the church as “the First and the Last” and “he who was dead and came alive.” These are phrases from 1:17, used to indicate Jesus’ eternal nature, and his victory over death. It is a timely reminder to the persecuted church that they are suffering for one who also suffered, but ultimately rose again. Likewise, his people will overcome even death itself, and enjoy eternal life with him.
We note that unlike most of the other letters, Jesus doesn’t have anything against the church in Smyrna. They appear to be doing all the right things in the eyes of the Lord. Yet despite this, they are suffering in various ways. The Lord says that they are experiencing poverty and tribulation, and he is fully aware of it. It was expected that all citizens of rich pagan cities like Smyrna would participate in the city cult–especially the Imperial cult. Non-participants were liable to special taxation (like the tax levied against non-Muslims in Muslim countries), among other censures. In other words, you could expect to be poor if you weren’t prepared to worship the emperor and participate in the cult, since the avenues of commerce and trade that would be available to others would not necessarily be available to you. I think we’ll see this elaborated on in Revelation 13, where the sign of “the beast” is required to buy and sell. Interestingly, the Jews had a special exemption from cultic worship, a privilege Christians may have shared in the early days when they were still considered a Jewish cult. But as time went on (especially after Nero blamed the Great Fire of Rome on the Christians), Christians were increasingly differentiated from Jews and set apart for special treatment. An easy escape option for Christians would be to compromise with the culture, even to the point of denying their faith before the city leaders, in order to prosper. We saw an example of this with the Nicolaitans in Ephesus, and it’s a problem that plagued the early church, and continues to plague the church today.
The Lord recognizes that the Smyrnan church has not compromised, and as a result, though they are physically poor, they have amassed great spiritual wealth. In God’s eyes, they abound in riches out of their steadfast obedience and fidelity to the Christ and the gospel. They have even put up with “slander”–the Greek word is the same word for “blasphemy,” which indicates the strength of the slander leveled against the church by the “so-called” Jews. At his trial, Jesus was slandered by several “witnesses” who claimed he said or did things for which they had no supporting evidence. It’s possible that the slander these Christians endure is of a similar nature: unfounded accusations made by these people to the authorities with the sole purpose of getting them in trouble. Jesus describes these Jews as “a synagogue of Satan.” The name “Satan” comes from the Hebrew word that means “accuser,” which is also the meaning behind the Greek word diabolos, which we translate “devil.” We don’t deny the existence of Satan and devils as real spiritual beings, however, we shouldn’t also overlook the word-play here. These Jews are slandering the church, and as the accusers of God’s people they are rightfully called “a synagogue of The Accuser.”
The potentially anti-Semitic overtones of this passage might make people uncomfortable, and it’s true that verses like this have been used over the years as an excuse for some Christians to act very unkindly (to say the least) toward the Jewish people. On the one hand, we need to recognize the New Testament teaching (especially in Romans and Hebrews) with regard to the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham in Christ and in the church. Judaism wasn’t God’s entire plan of salvation for His people–it was just the start. The completion of the plan came through the sending of Jesus as the Messiah, and the establishment of the church. From this perspective, it’s true to say that a true Jew is one who recognizes Jesus as Messiah, and puts their faith in him as the redeemer of their soul. Anyone claiming to be a Jew and yet persecuting the church can be said, therefore, to be a “so-called” Jew. On the other hand, Paul indicates quite explicitly in Romans 11 that God has not given up on the nation of Israel. Even though there are many Jews who deny Jesus, and even though it looks as if the church is largely Gentile, the Lord still wants his people to reach out to Jews. We are to love them as people who bear the image of God, and we need to respect them as those through whom God sent the Law, the prophets, and the Messiah. And we need to love them enough to reach out to them with the gospel.
Christ tells the Smyrnan church that they are about to suffer things, but not to be afraid. We might expect he’s about to tell the church of his rescue plan–that he’s going to send an angel to break them out of prison, or strike down “the devil” (i.e., the ruling authorities acting under Satanic influence) who is coming to imprison some of them. But instead, he encourages them to stay strong and be faithful even as far as death. In the ancient world, prison was usually for one of three things: to hold someone until they submit to the magistrate, to hold someone while they await sentencing, or to hold someone while they await execution. Clearly, Jesus anticipates the last option for the imprisoned Smyrnan Christians.
The reference to “ten days” of tribulation seems a little odd. We’ve already seen how much the book of Daniel underlies the language and imagery of Revelation, and even here, the Lord uses Daniel to encourage the believers. In Daniel 1:8-16, we read how Daniel and his friends abstained from eating food from the king’s table for fear of defiling themselves. Not only was this food that had probably been sacrificed to an idol, but eating at the king’s table would be seen as submission to the king. The chief steward is afraid that their hungry appearance would reflect badly on him, so Daniel proposes a test. For ten days, he and his friends will consume only vegetables and water, and after this time the steward can judge their appearance and act accordingly. After the ten days, the text says that Daniel and his friends looked healthier than all the youths who ate from the king’s table, so they were allowed to continue their abstinence. I think the message to the Smyrnans is that some of them are about to undergo a brief test, and they need to endure that test even though it will result in death. However, just as Daniel and his friends came out from the test victorious, so will the imprisoned Smyrnans. Indeed, they will receive “the crown of life”–the victory wreath that demonstrates their faithfulness which enabled them to resist the temptation to compromise and gain the ultimate reward: eternal life and the fulness of their redemption in Christ. In light of this, I wouldn’t take the “ten days” as a literal period of time, but as a flag to indicate the Daniel 1 reference.
Indeed, the Spirit promises the churches that the one who overcomes will not be harmed by “the Second Death.” This is a reference to the final judgment, as we will see in Revelation 20:4-6. It follows that those who don’t overcome, who fall to the temptation to deny Christ and compromise, will suffer at “the Second Death.” The Greek verb translated “to harm” is usually translated “to treat unjustly,” so the sense we have here is that everyone will get what they deserve. The victors will find themselves vindicated at the final judgment, but those who denied the Lord will find the Lord denying them.
Next time: The church at Pergamum…