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.
Revelation 2:8-11 (NIV)
Smyrna (modern day Izmir, Turkey) was sited approximately 35 miles (about 55km) from Ephesus and was the second church to be written to in Revelation. It is likely that the church was established during the two years Paul spent in the region (see Acts 19:10).
Persecution was to become a major issue in Smyrna and Polycarp (Bishop of Smyrna) was martyred in 155AD (aged around 86), having refused to deny his faith. Polycarp was a student of the Apostle John and was reputed to have met and conversed with some of the apostles. Ignatius of Antioch, also a student of the Apostle John, wrote a letter to the Smyrnaeans to encourage the Christians there. Among other letters written by Ignatius are those to the churches at Ephesus and Rome.
The Revelation letter to the church at Symrna is one of only two praising its recipient, while not containing any item of condemnation. The Symrnaeans are commended for their afflictions and poverty (worldly wealth), and are also commended for being rich (spiritually). This emphasis on spiritual treasure is in keeping with New Testament teaching and sought to highlight the extent of their spiritual wealth by contrasting their ‘poverty’ and ‘richness’. Older versions of the Bible use the word ‘tribulation’ in place of ‘affliction’ and this refers to serious trouble, almost crushing them. The Greek word used for the poverty of the Symrnaeans indicates how extreme it was, while Christ is able to say ‘… yet you are rich!’
The reference to the Jews seems to indicate those who were able to claim Jewish descent, but despite this lacked the reality of being Jews inwardly (spiritually). This seems to almost mirror what Paul said in Romans 2:28-29:
A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.
The phrase ‘… synagogue of Satan’ is extreme, yet indicates that although the Jews should be meeting together to worship God, they are instead doing satan’s work in persecuting the Christians.
The Symernaeans are encouraged not to be afraid in the face of the persecution that was to come. Facing imprisonment (generally taken to be a prelude to death) is to ‘test’ them, to see if their faith was strong, even if death became inevitable. The duration of their persecution is given as ‘ten days’ which is generally taken to mean a short time, rather than an actual period of time. The faithfulness of the Smyrnaean Christians results in being given life as a victor’s crown. The victor’s crown being referred to is the wreath given to a winning athlete, not a royal crown. The idea is that the victor wears the crown with pride, which in the case of Christians is eternal life.
Applying this to ourselves today may seem difficult at first, but it is clear that the letter encourages Christians to place their emphasis on spiritual, rather than material wealth. In an increasingly materialistic society Christians must constantly check their focus against this standard.
Secondly, there is the encouragement not to be fearful in the face of whatever life throws at us. The letter should remind us that troubles are only temporary and that the ultimate prize (eternal life) is what Christ gives to us. There is also the encouragement to be faithful in the face of opposition.
Lastly, as the world fears death and its finality, Christians are to show that death does not carry any terrors for them. Death is mentioned twice in the letter to Smyrna, physical death and the second death (eternal punishment). As a Christian, the promise of eternal life puts these into perspective.
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