To the angel of the church in Smyrna write. Revelation 2:8 NIV
Smyrna was the second of the seven churches that Jesus addressed in His letters dictated to the Apostle John on the Isle of Patmos. Located on the Aegean Sea just 40 miles northwest of Ephesus, Smyrna (modern day Izmir) was a major seaport city with a population of 100,000 people at that time. It was a very beautiful city, resplendent with civic and sacred districts (Roman cult worship), schools of science and medicine, agoras, theatres, gymnasia, and a stadium. The famous poet Homer was said to have made his home there. Smyrna contested with Ephesus and Pergamum to be the “First of Asia in beauty and size.” This phrase was boastfully imprinted on some of its coins. Today, only the ruins of a portion of the three level agora (marketplace), forerunner of a modern day mall, and an accompanying small area of the acropolis, where civic buildings and temples once stood, have been unearthed. The agora is thought to have been the largest in the ancient world and is the best preserved example of an ancient marketplace in Turkey. There are excellent views of it in the video posted above.
The church in Smyrna was likely started by Paul and at the time of the letter appears to have been a small persecuted band of believers dwelling in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. It is noteworthy that one of the earliest samples of Christian graffiti yet discovered, has been found on the remains of a wall there. It’s message, “the one who has given the Spirit,” refers to the Lord Jesus, and it is conjectured that it was meant to announce to any believers coming to Smyrna, that there were other believers dwelling in the city with whom they could fellowship and worship. The message that Jesus gives this precious church contains no corrective rebuke, putting the saints in Smyrna in an elite category among the seven churches, shared only by Philadelphia, in whom the Lord found nothing displeasing to Him.
The name Smyrna is the same as the Greek word for “myrrh” which was used chiefly in the embalming of the dead. That name, with the full import of its meaning as it relates to suffering and death, conveyed the distinguishing characteristic of the church in this city both at the time of the letter and for centuries to follow. Many martyrs have passed from this life into the glories of heaven from Smyrna throughout its history. This theme of a suffering, yet victorious church is the focal point of the letter written by John to Smyrna.
Here then is an overview of John’s letter to Smyrna from the Book of Revelation with some explanatory comments (2:8-11 NIV). It follows the pattern and order used in all seven of the letters as outlined in the introductory blog post on the Letters to the Seven Churches.
Revelation of Jesus – “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” (v. 8). This portrayal of Jesus is taken directly from the words Jesus spoken to John in chapter one. He says “I am the first and the last. I am the Living One, I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever” (1:17-18)! As we shall see, it is a preparatory encouraging and empowering revelation of the resurrected Christ who lives forever, and one the church at Smyrna will need to embrace with confidence, because of what lies ahead.
Commendation – “I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” (v. 9). This indicates, as was alluded to earlier, the fact that this church was struggling in the face of much opposition. The Jews in the city were particularly vociferous in their persecution of these believers even to the point, incited by the Devil himself, to put some to death. It illustrates how Satan in his hatred of true believers is able to infiltrate a group of religiously zealous people, be it in a synagogue, temple, mosque or a church, and inflict suffering and death on God’s people.
Corrective Rebuke – None is mentioned, to Smyrna’s credit!
Predictive Warning or Counsel – “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown” (v. 10). God, in His grace, gives the church a forewarning of the intensity of persecution that is about to come, and even a time frame for its duration. Doing so gives the assurance that there is an end in view and the light at the end of the tunnel of suffering will surely come either in this life or the next; but it will come. Coupled with the promise of victory, this strengthens them to remain faithful to Him as they pass through.
We do not know when or how this specific prophecy came to pass, but this foreshadowing of suffering and martyrdom has marked the Christians of Smyrna throughout the centuries. There were ten periods of Roman persecution under various emperors beginning with Nero in AD 67 spanning nearly 250 years that terrorized the Christians of Smyrna, as well as the rest of the world under Roman rule. Some of the most famous martyrdoms in Church history have taken place in Smyrna, not the least of which was the death of Polycarp. He was one of three notable early church fathers along with Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch. Discipled by the Apostle John, he served as the bishop of Smyrna, for over a half century leading up to his martyrdom. When they tried to burn him at the stake, the fire would not touch him, so they ended up stabbing him to put him to death. His confession when challenged to renounce Christ or die was “For eighty-six years I have been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me.”
It is noteworthy that the persecution of the church in Smyrna, foreshadowed in the Book of Revelation continued all the way to the twentieth century. Under Islamic Ottoman rule, which spanned over 600 years (1299-1922), Smyrna was known as the “Infidel City” because of its non-Muslim population, primarily Christian. The persecution and martyrdom of Christians at the hand of Muslims culminated in 1922 during the liberation of Turkey from an attempted Greek occupation following the First World War. Tens of thousands of Armenian and Greek Christians were put to death in what is now known as “The Catastrophe” or “Burning of Smyrna.”
Overcomer’s Promise – “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.” (v. 11). How fitting to end the letter with this great assurance and promise. For those who believe in Jesus and abide by faith in His resurrection victory, death is merely the doorway to eternal life in His presence where the second death of eternal separation from Him has no power.
Be sure to check out the six minute video posted above which was filmed at Smyrna for a first-hand look at this historic city. Stay tuned for more videos and blog posts on the remaining five churches of Revelation soon to follow!