We move on to the second of the seven letters in Revelation. This time the letter to the persecuted church in Smyrna. Jesus has good things to say about the church in Smyrna. It’s a bit harder to determine whether there’s any bad news in here – at least the kind of bad news that the church in Ephesus received. There were certainly warnings. But whether things would actually turn out “badly” was dependent on how well the people in that church listened to and carried out what Jesus said.
Once again, the title comes from the section title in the NKJV. But this time, the title refers to the content of the letter, rather than how Jesus referred to Himself as the author of this letter. Therefore, persecution will be high on our list of things to look at.
As we’ll do in each of the letters, let’s start with something David wrote. An excerpt from Psalm 139. Something we should do often. Something that will help us learn what the message in these letters might be for each of us – even as individuals.
For the director of music. Of David. A psalm.
Ps 139:1 O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.
Ps 139:2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
Ps 139:3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Ps 139:4 Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.
Ps 139:23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Ps 139:24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Now, with that in mind and with open hearts, let’s invite the Holy Spirit to be with us as we examine the letter to the persecuted church in Smyrna.
The letter to the church in Smyrna
Rev 2:1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Rev 2:4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. 5 Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. 6 But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Rev 2:7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
Before we get into any details, let’s take a look at the graph we built in parts 1 and 2 of the series. Based on what we just read, where would you put the church of Smyrna on the graph? Why there? Don’t worry if you don’t know anything beyond the seven verses we just read. Part of the study will be to see how your placement might change as we go through more about the church in Smyrna. Context and culture are usually important. So is what it might mean to us today, in our context and our culture.
Some Smyrna History
The origins of the Christian community or communities there are unknown. We know that one of Paul’s associates—Epaphras—took the gospel to Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis, perhaps while Paul was working in the ministry hub of Ephesus (Col 1:7–8; 4:13). It is quite possible that the Christian movement got its start in Smyrna during the same period, all the more as Smyrna was a more important city, and far closer to Ephesus, than any of those cities where Epaphras was known to have taken the gospel. deSilva, D. A. (2019). The Social and Geographical World of Smyrna (Revelation 1:11; 2:8–11). In B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through … Continue reading
Epaphras is only mentioned three times in the new testament. Twice in Colossians and once in Philemon. None of them tell us much about him. However, all three are from Paul, including the one in Philemon, where they were in prison together.
Phm 1:23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. The New International Version. (2011). (Phm 23). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Although Smyrna has a long history even before the classical age of Greece, the history of the Smyrna that was home to the Christians addressed by Revelation began after Alexander the Great’s rise to power. The old city had been built around a defensible peak two miles (3.2 km) distant from the shoreline, thriving until it was destroyed by the Lydian kingdom around 600 BC. The area became little more than a cluster of villages until Alexander and his successors reestablished the city, this time at a small distance removed from the original site (Pausanias, Description of Greece 7.5.1–3; Strabo, Geography 14.1.37). The new city would not sit on the fortified hill but by the shore, so that it could enjoy the benefits of a natural harbor at the coast. While it would be significantly eclipsed in maritime trade by Ephesus, the harbor remained a great asset and kept Smyrna firmly on the commercial map. The original harbor has since been overbuilt and buried beneath the modern city, with the result that the modern shoreline is now further west and bears no resemblance to its ancient counterpart. deSilva, D. A. (2019). The Social and Geographical World of Smyrna (Revelation 1:11; 2:8–11). In B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through … Continue reading
So pretty much nothing remains of Smyrna from Biblical times.
Perhaps because it was a port city and enjoyed trading connections with the west, Smyrna looked more to Rome than to the Greek empires in the east. The city had already built a temple to honor Rōma, the deified personification of the city of Rome, in 195 BC—long before it was popular to do so in the region. In 195 BC, the Seleucid kingdom under Antiochus III was at its greatest strength, and Antiochus was keen on establishing his hold over all of Asia Minor. The city of Carthage in North Africa was still a great power in the west and a significant threat to Rome’s power in the Mediterranean. The outcome of their struggle was still uncertain. Smyrna’s declaration of its loyalty to the rising power in the west as opposed to the established Greco-Syrian kingdom to the east was a sign of extraordinary faith in Rome and her destiny. This loyalty would be long-remembered. In the first century BC, the Roman senator Cicero spoke of Smyrna as “among our most faithful and most ancient allies” (Philippics 11.2.5[LCL]}); Livy would remember the city as demonstrating “extraordinary loyalty” to Rome (History 38.39.11[LCL]). deSilva, D. A. (2019). The Social and Geographical World of Smyrna (Revelation 1:11; 2:8–11). In B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through … Continue reading
All things considered, “extraordinary loyalty” to Rome means it was extremely difficult to openly be a Christian fulfilling the Great Commission. More on that is coming shortly.
Smyrna’s population during the first and second centuries ad may have risen above one hundred thousand inhabitants. It was once one of the great Greek cities of Asia Minor. Aelius Aristides, speaking of the city’s landscape in the late second century ad, lists its many gymnasia, forums, theaters, odeons, and temples (Orationes 17.8–11). Because the modern city of İzmir sits atop the Roman-period city of Smyrna, very little of the ancient city has been excavated. deSilva, D. A. (2019). The Social and Geographical World of Smyrna (Revelation 1:11; 2:8–11). In B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through … Continue reading
So let’s take a look at some of those temples and their “gods”.
The civic forum was built around an open court of about 400 by 260 feet (122 × 79.25 m). The east and west sides were lined with two-story, colonnaded porticoes. On the north side stood a two-story colonnaded building constructed on the pattern of a basilica (essentially three long, covered aisles, with the central aisle—the nave—being wider and taller than the two outside aisles), running the length of the forum and sporting a depth of about 90 feet (27.5 m). The basilica was erected over a foundation of an arched, vaulted basement. This basement served as a shopping arcade, which could be entered from the main road behind the forum so as to preserve the decorum of the basilica and civic areas above. An altar to Zeus once stood in the center of the forum, a reminder of the watchful care of the gods and the obligations of the city to its protectors. Part of the facade of this monument now stands in the History and Art Museum in İzmir. It shows, in deep relief and in figures significantly larger than life-size, Poseidon, seated, with Demeter and Artemis standing beside him.
We have Greek gods. Reminders of the people’s obligations to those gods were set up right in the civic forum, with larger than life sculptures. Certainly, they presented obstacles for the early church to overcome when preaching the Gospel. Not to mention, the persecution that inevitably came from those who worshipped the Greek gods.
And let’s not forget, even with all that Greek influence, this was a Roman city.
Like Ephesus and Pergamum, its sister cities with whom it engaged in an ongoing sibling rivalry, Smyrna showed significant devotion to the Roman emperors in the form of worship known as the imperial cult. This is not at all surprising for a city that prided itself on its particular loyalty to Rome and, therefore, to Rome’s rulers. It would also make the question of loyalty—of “faithfulness unto death”—a principal issue for the Christians living within its jurisdiction, as they would come more and more to be forced to choose between loyalty to Caesar and loyalty to Christ.
Can you even imagine the faithfulness and courage it took to try con get people to convert to Christianity, let alone open live as a Christian, when the penalty for both was death?
That’s a lot of competition for the people’s worship. And while most of today’s Christians are relatively passive, these were life and death matters to some. Imagine being under the rule of an Emperor who was supposed to be a god. When we look at some of the horrible things they did to Christians, it took a great deal of courage to worship Jesus.
Without getting into the symbolism behind what’s going on in the passage below, just imagine being in the position of someone who worshipped Jesus.
Rev 13:11 Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon. 12 He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed. 13 And he performed great and miraculous signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of men. 14 Because of the signs he was given power to do on behalf of the first beast, he deceived the inhabitants of the earth. He ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. 16 He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, 17 so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. Rev 13:18 This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666.
I’m writing this during the COVID-19 stay at home period. It’s been about 8 weeks now. We’re going crazy because we can’t have large gatherings in churches. Somehow we think it’s unconstitutional for the government to forbid large gatherings for the health of the people. That it supposedly prevents our ability to worship God.
I have news for you. There weren’t any large gatherings in those days like what we have now. And there was no constitution protecting anyone’s right to worship anything. There was however, an obligation to worship the Roman Emperor.
I’m afraid to see what happens to many of today’s Christians when Armageddon comes, and the government says worship the beast or die. Will we finally realize that when we have persecution our source of strength and courage is God? Or will we continue to look to the government?
Like Ephesus and Pergamum, its sister cities with whom it engaged in an ongoing sibling rivalry, Smyrna showed significant devotion to the Roman emperors in the form of worship known as the imperial cult. This is not at all surprising for a city that prided itself on its particular loyalty to Rome and, therefore, to Rome’s rulers. It would also make the question of loyalty—of “faithfulness unto death”—a principal issue for the Christians living within its jurisdiction, as they would come more and more to be forced to choose between loyalty to Caesar and loyalty to Christ. deSilva, D. A. (2019). The Social and Geographical World of Smyrna (Revelation 1:11; 2:8–11). In B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through … Continue reading
In the middle of the second century, Smyrna would become the scene of a great drama of faith as Polycarp, the elderly bishop of the Christian congregation there, was brought to trial in the arena before the provincial governor. The governor might not have known the details of Christian faith and practice, but he knew that it drew people away from giving the gods—including the emperors—their due, and that this Christ and his kingdom was a rival to Rome and her emperors. This could not be tolerated in the city of Rome’s “oldest and most faithful allies.” The governor therefore gave Polycarp an ultimatum: “Swear by Caesar’s fortune; change your mind; say, ‘Away with the atheists’,” or face death in the stadium (Martyrdom of Polycarp 9.2). The local police chief urged the old man, “What harm is it to say ‘Caesar is Lord’ and to offer a sacrifice?” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 8.2). But Polycarp could not bring himself to show disloyalty to so great a benefactor as Jesus: “For eighty-six years I have served him, and he has wronged me in no way. How, then, can I revile my king, who rescued me?” (Martyrdom of Polycarp 9.3). As a result, the elderly bishop was burnt at the stake and, when the fires failed to do the job, stabbed to death.
Issues of loyalty to the emperor and the traditional gods were a major factor in the growing tension between Christians and the civic authorities throughout Asia Minor and its surrounding provinces—witness the famous correspondence between Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia and Pontus, and the emperor Trajan from about 110 AD (Pliny, Epistulae 10.96–97). It is likely that these would have been at the fore of the trials that the glorified Christ predicted for the near future of the Christians in late first-century Smyrna. deSilva, D. A. (2019). The Social and Geographical World of Smyrna (Revelation 1:11; 2:8–11). In B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through … Continue reading
Break down the letter to the church in Smyrna
So – let’s break down the letter to the church in Smyrna. Please note, as referenced above, not everyone agrees on how to do this. Some split the message between “Divine Knowledge”, the good stuff – and – the “But”, the bad stuff.
I’ve chosen to not do that. I have nothing in the “But” section. My main reason for doing so is the words Jesus has for this church in the “So” section. I’ll explain more later. However, having said that, there’s nothing wrong with disagreeing. There are plenty of commentaries that have either of the two choices.
|To||the angel of the church in Smyrna|
|From||him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.|
|Divine Knowledge||I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.|
|So -||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 the crown of life.|
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
|To those who overcome||He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.|
The traditional To and From headings are present.
Obviously, it’s to the church in Smyrna. As we saw in the letter to the Ephesian church, it’s most likely not to an actual Heavenly angel. Rather it’s probably to someone, probably of a high position, within the church. To that end, Young’s Literal Translation says:
‘To the messenger of the Ephesian assembly write: Young, R. (1997). Young’s Literal Translation (Re 2:1). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
This letter is from him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. This doesn’t seem to be an introduction to bad news like most of the other letters have. It’s two very straightforward statements of who Jesus is.
who is the First and the Last
There are three times in Revelation where Jesus refers to Himself as the Alpha and the Omega. The first and the last – for those that aren’t up on their Greek alphabet.
Of course, the Jewish audience, whether they had any knowledge of Greek or not, would recognize the concept of the first and the last. For instance, take this exchange between Moses and God at the burning bush in Exodus.
Ex 3:11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
Ex 3:12 And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”
Ex 3:13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
Ex 3:14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ”
Ex 3:15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation. .
And then there’s the verses below, from a Psalm written by none other than Moses:
A prayer of Moses the man of God.
Ps 90:1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Ps 90:2 Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
So there is ample reason for Jesus’ audience to know exactly what He meant when saying He is the First and the Last. Including the part from Ex 3:15: This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.
However, just in case that wasn’t enough reason to recognize what Jesus said, there’s also this from Isaiah.
Since it’s a passage that I don’t remember getting a lot of attention, I’m including the whole thing. For purposes of being first and last – verse 6 obviously applies.
However, given the culture in Smyrna, we’ll see that the entire passage is applicable. One question for this study as a whole – is this passage included as a reminder to the people in the church in Smyrna? Or is it more ominous? Is it a warning of impending doom?
Isa 44:6 “This is what the LORD says— Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God. Isa 44:7 Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and lay out before me what has happened since I established my ancient people, and what is yet to come— yes, let him foretell what will come. Isa 44:8 Do not tremble, do not be afraid. Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago? You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other Rock; I know not one.”
Isa 44:9 All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame. Isa 44:10 Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit him nothing? Isa 44:11 He and his kind will be put to shame; craftsmen are nothing but men. Let them all come together and take their stand; they will be brought down to terror and infamy.
Isa 44:12 The blacksmith takes a tool and works with it in the coals; he shapes an idol with hammers, he forges it with the might of his arm. He gets hungry and loses his strength; he drinks no water and grows faint. Isa 44:13 The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in the form of man, of man in all his glory, that it may dwell in a shrine. Isa 44:14 He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. Isa 44:15 It is man’s fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. Isa 44:16 Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.” Isa 44:17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “Save me; you are my god.” Isa 44:18 They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. Isa 44:19 No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, “Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?” Isa 44:20 He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie? ”
Isa 44:21 “Remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel. I have made you, you are my servant; O Israel, I will not forget you. Isa 44:22 I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.”
Isa 44:23 Sing for joy, O heavens, for the LORD has done this; shout aloud, O earth beneath. Burst into song, you mountains, you forests and all your trees, for the LORD has redeemed Jacob, he displays his glory in Israel.
The last verse is a foretelling of what awaits “those who overcome”.
who died and came to life again
This could be regarded as simply identifying Jesus as the One who died on the cross and was resurrected on the third day. However, as is generally the case in Revelation – there’s more to it. Remember, this is the persecuted church. What better reminder could they possibly have than the resurrection of Jesus – the one because of whom they’re being persecuted?
So what does the From part mean?
Both of the references Jesus uses to identify Himself to the church in Smyrna are to give hope and strength to the people. I don’t view them as the dire warnings that were so obvious in the Ephesian church.
But we’ll find out for sure as we proceed to the next portion of the letter, the Divine Knowledge section.
|↑1||deSilva, D. A. (2019). The Social and Geographical World of Smyrna (Revelation 1:11; 2:8–11). In B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation (p. 629). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.|
|↑2||The New International Version. (2011). (Phm 23). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.|
|↑3||deSilva, D. A. (2019). The Social and Geographical World of Smyrna (Revelation 1:11; 2:8–11). In B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation (p. 630). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.|
|↑4||deSilva, D. A. (2019). The Social and Geographical World of Smyrna (Revelation 1:11; 2:8–11). In B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation (pp. 630–632). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.|
|↑5||deSilva, D. A. (2019). The Social and Geographical World of Smyrna (Revelation 1:11; 2:8–11). In B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation (p. 632). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.|
|↑6||deSilva, D. A. (2019). The Social and Geographical World of Smyrna (Revelation 1:11; 2:8–11). In B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation (p. 634). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.|
|↑7||deSilva, D. A. (2019). The Social and Geographical World of Smyrna (Revelation 1:11; 2:8–11). In B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation (pp. 635–636). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.|
|↑8||Young, R. (1997). Young’s Literal Translation (Re 2:1). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.|