The Seven Churches of Asia: The Church of Smyrna

polycarpAnd to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this: 9‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days Befaithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.’

Smyrna was a church approximately 30 miles from Ephesus. It was well known as a city of tremendous beauty which had as its center an enormous culture with the best artists, Greek poets and thinkers. It was well established in its faithfulness to Rome having built many temples to the Roman religions. The people of Smyrna were to demonstrate their allegiance to the imperial cult by sprinkling incense and proclaiming Ceasar as lord. At certain times of year it was required by law to offer a sacrifice to the emperor (Domitian 81-96 A.D.) The Church was under a great dilemma in its struggles to stay faithful in the light of such tremendous pressures to succumb to the demands of this law. The church was also one of the two churches with whom the Lord Jesus placed no blame upon.

The Lord Jesus reveals Himself once again to His church by repeating a description that had been revealed to the apostle John.  He makes Himself known to them as the First and the Last referring back to Isaiah 44:6 & 48:12 and a title taken by Jehovah Himself. (See notes on 1:17). The purpose of the next title, “who was dead and has come to life” (v.8) is to demonstrate that through all that they are experiencing, whether poverty, suffering or death, their Lord had overcome these things and raised from the dead. The resurrection of the Lord Jesus is foundational to the Christian message since our perseverance and hope is based upon what the Lord has accomplished. We live only because He lives!

The Lord begins the letter much in the same way he did with Ephesus by expressing to them that He is fully aware of what is happening in their lives. This alone would serve as a comfort for them. He “knows” what the suffering and the death they are experiencing.  There are three things that the Lord has revealed to the Smyrnians that He knew about them:

  1. Their tribulations: In other words the Lord Jesus recognizes that they are going through tremendous suffering for His name sake.
  2. Their poverty:  It is well established that the Romans would sometimes impose bans as to prevent certain people they deemed as “law breakers” from entering or continuing in the trade guild. (Hebrews 10:34) The faithful would have their work “permits” stripped from them for their loyalty to the Lord of the Church.
  3. The blasphemies of those who say they are Jew…:  Right up until the latter part of the first century, Christians could find themselves living semi-peaceful lives in certain areas because they were categorized as a Jewish sect.  The Jews in Smyrna were well-known for separating themselves from the Christian sect and such led to their persuading the Roman government that Christianity was an outlaw religion who refused to pay homage to Caesar.  They saw Christianity as a distortion of their traditional beliefs and saw it blasphemous to think that this Jesus of Nazareth that the Christians proclaimed as the promised Messiah to be the promised one of Jehovah.  This was really nothing new as throughout the NT the Jews are seen as instigating violence and persecution against Christians. (Acts 13:45,50; 14:2-7; 17:5-9; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16) Notice that these blasphemies (βλασφημια) here are used of the means by which the beast persecutes the people of God later on in the book. (13:1, 5­-6; 17:3-6) One may read only the Martyrdom of Polycarp to see the struggles that these early Christians faced at the expense of the government and the Jews.[i]

The text in v.10 demonstrates that behind the authorities and the venom of these ethnic Jews was an even greater enemy mainly Satan the devil. They would be put into prison so as to be tested. The “test” here, I believe, is speaking of the trial that followed the imprisonment in front of the proconsul who would command the defendant to acknowledge Caesar as Lord and sprinkle incense on the altar to show their allegiance to him. The total time frame of this “trial” or test was for 10 days. This is very similar to what Daniel and his cohorts went through in Daniel 1:12-15. These four men were tested to see if they would compromise with paganism by sitting to eat a meal with the pagan king. The act of eating such a meal was to have fellowship and allegiance with an individual. The four men were faithful and refused. (Daniel 1:2; 5:3-4)

Many commentators are agreed that the 10 days spoken of was not that they would receive their freedom again but that they would be martyred. The Lord Jesus didn’t take them out of their tribulation, poverty and death but expected them to be faithful through it and know He was with them. Those who were faithful unto death received the “crown of life” (1 Cor. 9:25; James 1:12; 2 Tim. 4:6-8) which symbolizes the glory of eternal life. This will be more apparent throughout the letter as we begin to examine the thrones which the faithful will sit on.

V11. Is an extremely important text in regards to the final judgment. We will read of two resurrections in chapter 20 which are separated by 1000 years. Notice the similarity in language in that it is those who “overcome” who are not hurt by the second death precisely what we see in this future chapter. Those who die as overcomers will not need fear the judgment to come.

Those of us who live in a society in North America have difficulty relating to this type of expectation since we rarely experience any sort of persecution especially to the degree that these individuals were going through. It would be beneficial for us to spend some time pondering what we would do in light of such circumstances. How faithful would we be? Are we prepared to suffer unto death for our Lord?

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