Today we continue our series called 7 Letters, looking at the 7 Letters to 7 churches in the midst of the Roman Empire in Revelation chapters 2-3.
Last week we took a look at all the 7 letters and gave some background behind the letters, the number 7 and how it keeps reoccurring, and also how each letter is structured.
We then took a look at the first of the 7 letters, the letter to the church at Ephesus. We talked about the fact that the did a great job of holding onto the gospel and seeking truth from lie. They did a great job of discerning whether a group of people with “new” practices and thoughts were “orthodox” or not, like how they determined that the Nicolaitans were teaching a false gospel.
But that in strictly being defenders of the gospel, they lost to the truth and crux of the gospel. That being that they lost their first love, the love of God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength and the love of their neighbors.
Today we cover the second letter in Revelation 2. The letter to the church at Smyrna. Now if you remember last week we talked about the structure of the letters and how most of them had both praise and criticism. But we said that 2 of the churches didn’t have any criticism in their letter. And this is the first of the two churches that Jesus doesn’t have any criticism for.
So let’s unpack the text, learn a little bit more about the church at Smyrna, and see where it connects with the church of today.
Revelation 2:8-11 says, “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. 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. 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. 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.”
Smyrna was one of the greatest cities of the region and it was in contention with Ephesus for the title of “First City of Asia.” It had an excellent harbor and a well protected gulf. Smyrna was a faithful ally of Rome in the days before Rome was acknowledged in the region. In fact it was one of the first cities to worship the Roman emperor and it won the honor of erecting a temple to him during the reign of Tiberius.
After the greeting in verse 8 we read these words, also in verse 8, “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” This is of course a picture of the risen Jesus, who lived, was crucified and rose again. It also refers to the description of the risen Jesus in Revelation 1:17-18 which 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!” Everything that follows after this verse is based on the fact that Jesus was victorious over sin, death, evil and hell. That death was conquered by Jesus. And that death doesn’t have the last word. That following death there is resurrection. These words would mean a great deal to those in Smyrna for various reasons. But one of the connections that the city had to the death and resurrection of Jesus is the fact that their city had their own death and resurrection. In 580 BC Smyrna was destroyed by Alyattes, King of Lydia. The city laid dormant and dead until 290 BC. Lysimachus, who ruled Thrace and the northwestern part of Asia Minor after the division of Alexander’s empire, refounded Smyrna.
After the picture of the risen Jesus, Jesus (through John) goes on to share with the church at Smyrna what they are to be commended for. The first thing he mentions is something related to their perceived situation. In verse 9 we read, “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.” John is making the reference to the fact that the city of Smyrna was a very wealthy city and for many it led to their prosperity. The city was a place of trade and exports and commercial success. This however didn’t extend to those who were following Jesus, in the material sense. They were persecuted, poor, and afflicted. Jesus was intimately aware of the trouble and struggles that the church at Smyrna was faced with, he faced the same things. He was knowledgable about their afflictions, their poverty, and the slander that was being spoken about them.
They were turned into the authorities by everyone including the Jews, who he makes reference to in the second half of verse 9. Smyrna had a large Jewish population who would often inform on the Christians to the authorities, and who would incite outbreaks of violence against them. It is also quite possible that the churches poverty was due in large part because of the Jewish population in Smyrna. Some believe that the Jewish population in Smyrna pillaged the goods of the Christians in that town. Christianity was not legally permitted in Smyrna and that made it easy for Jews and Pagans to take action against the church. In verse 10 Jesus (through John) continues to encourage the believers at Smyrna to continue following in his footsteps and to not lose heart even though it looked like, in every way, that they were losing. They were in fact not losing, but actually gaining. They were gaining a crown of life and life in the upside down Kingdom of God. Following in the footsteps of the crucified and risen King, King Jesus.
Verse 10 says, “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.”
Jesus is sharing with the church at Smyrna that they were going to face persecution. That they were going to suffer. In fact, many of them were going to end up in prison and some would actually face death. But that they were to remain faithful to Jesus, to not bend to the persecution, and when they were faithful that they would experience victory, life and a crown. This was coming from someone who had been there before. Someone who was intimately aware of persecution, suffering, death, and also resurrection and victory. Jesus (through John) wanted to let the church know that whatever happened that the fate of the Christians and the church in Smyrna were safe in his hands. John is making a sharp contrast between persecution & death which people fear so much, and life which alone matters. John makes it crystal clear that the believers in Smyrna were going to come out on top. That they were going to be victorious if they remained faithful. That they would receive life, which meant renewed life in God’s new age. Life in his Kingdom, which isn’t just about eternal life after this life (it includes that as well) but life and life to the fullest.
And they would receive the crown of life. That statement has some context behind it in relation to the city of Smyrna. You see Smyrna itself was thought of as a city with a crown, due to the way it’s splendid architecture used the natural advantages of a steep hill to good effect. Also crown refers to a wreath or chaplet and is to be distinguished from the royal crown. The crown that is mentioned here was the trophy awarded to the victor of the games and is also the same word used for the festive garland worm at banquets by all the guests. And so the crown is the victory wreath, which would be specially appropriate in Smyrna, a city famous for its games. So the followers of Jesus who remained faithful to Jesus in the midst of persecution, suffering, and possibly even death would receive the trophy of victory. The crown of life. Of eternal life. Of Life in the Kingdom of God.
The final part of the letter, the exhortation and promise to the church at Smyrna is this, “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.” To understand what John is getting at here let me quote from NT Wright, “The final promise points in the same direction (receiving the crown of life). Anyone who is, quite naturally, afraid that they may face death for their beliefs is introduced to the idea to which John will return near the end of the book. There are, it seems, two forms of death. The first is the bodily data to which all will come except the generation still alive when the Lord returns. Jesus has already passed that way, and those who belong to him can know that he will first welcome them on the other side and then, at the end, raise the mto new life in his final new world. Btu the ‘second death’ is the ultimate fate of those who steadfastly and deliberately refuse to follow Jesus, to worship the one God who is revealed in him. The ‘second death’ will, it seems, do for the entire personality what the ‘first death’ will do the for the physical body.”
Jesus is saying to not worry about going through the first death, if you know him. Be content to grow through it with Jesus. After all, he went through it and came out victorious. He died and came to life and so will you.
But what does this letter to the church at Smyrna facing some serious persecution have to say to us gathered together here in the United States in the 21st century? Where we don’t face the kind of persecution that they faced and we don’t face the persecution other brothers and sisters in Jesus in other countries face right now? What is the take away from this letter? What do you think Jesus might write to the church at Veritas regarding persecution and how to endure and be victorious through it to the other side? Let’s talk about that for a bit.
1. What thoughts, insights, questions, comments, etc.. do you have regarding the Scripture text and/or the message?
2. How do we in the United States apply this message to the church at Smyrna when we aren’t persecuted? What application to our daily lives can we make from the letter to the church at Smyrna?
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what are we going to do about it?