Letters from Jesus #2
The Sweet Smelling Church:
“O Lord. Show me yourself within your Word. Show me myself and show me my Savior, and make the book live to me.”
Smyrna is the only city of these seven that is still in existence. Today, it is the Turkish city of Izmir.
Smyrna comes from the word “myrrh”. We recognize that from the gifts of the wiseman to the Christ Child, but this perfume was primarily used to in the burial process of the dead.
This city was located about 35-40 miles north of Ephesus on the coast of the Aegean Sea with well-planned port harbor.
This city was ancient even at John’s writing of Revelation.
The city is thought to be originally founded in 1000 BC. In the 600s BC this city was destroyed by the king of Lydia. It remained like that until 290 BC when two Alexander the Great’s successors made good on his plan to rebuild the city.
The rebuilt city was known for architecture. It held a group of buildings that was called the “crown of Smyrna”. The city was also known for its science, medicine, and academics. The poet Homer was supposedly from Smyrna.
The city was religious to a fault. It held temples to Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, Asclepius and Cybele. When the city became an ally of Rome, it erected a temple to Rome, deification of the city was the goddess Roma. Later the city would beat other cities out of the right to build a temple to Tiberius.
However, there was a church in the city as well. We don’t know for sure when this church began, but most believe it was started during Paul’s time in Ephesus in Acts 19. In fact we don’t have any other Scriptural reference to this church other than here in Revelation. This church would see persecution for many years, and when Christ had John send a letter to them, His message was one of comfort and encouragement, Smyrna is one of two churches that doesn’t receive a word of condemnation.
What is happening v 8-9
Christ begins by calling Himself, “the First and the Last, the one who was dead and came to life”. Christ reminds this church that He was before the beginning and will be after the end. Christ reminds this church in a city that thrived, was destroyed and received new life that He suffered and died and was raised to life. This letter is one of encouragement and promise.
This letter begins with Christ’s knowledge of the church. He says, “I know”. I know what is happening, I know what you are going through.
Christ tells them that He knows the affliction or tribulation that the church is going through. Christ is commending them for persevering.
The construction of the phrases is that the church’s poverty and the slander they face are part of the affliction or persecution.
Their poverty is tied to the affliction they are facing. It is unlikely that this poverty was from the church being made up of people from the poorer classes, or because they were a heavily Jewish church and expelled from the synagogue losing their property and good; but as a result of the persecution. The word used here indicates that they weren’t just lacking in things, they were destitute, they had nothing. They didn’t even have the means to improve their standing.
Remember that this city was extremely devout and loyal to Rome and the cult of the Emperors. During this time, under the reign of Domitian, annual sacrifices to the Emperor at his temple were mandatory, failure to do so was a capital offense. Even failing to say “Caesar is Lord” when prompted would lead to a death sentence. This is the pagan atmosphere this church lived in, worshipped in, died in.
Christ not only told the Smyrna Church that He knew of their poverty, He reminded them that they were rich.
This parenthetical remark by Christ reminds us that material wealth is nothing compared to living a godly life and the riches of God.
This remark is in stark contrast to Christ’s condemning words to the church of Laodicea in chapter 3, “‘For you say, ‘I’m rich; I have become wealthy and need nothing,’ and you don’t realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. ” (3:17 CSB). The church in Laodicea had all the material things they wanted, but were spiritually bankrupt. They didn’t have the things that really mattered, such as “faithfulness, holiness, perseverance, and love for God (Macarthur, John. Christ’s Call to Reform the Church, © 2018, p78)”. However, the church of Smyrna may have been poor, they were spiritually rich.
Not only was their persecution affecting their livelihood, but they were being slandered by the Jewish population.
In the 1st century there were a number of accusations that were leveled against the early church. Things like, cannibalism, immorality, breaking up homes, and political disloyalty. More than likely political disloyalty was a favorite to use in Smyrna were Rome was such a high priority.
Why would the Jews be doing this? Throughout the book of Acts the Jews have opposed the Gospel of Jesus Christ and those spreading the gospel.
Christ calls these Jews a “synagogue of Satan”. These Jews were acting no better than the pagans around them as they opposed the Church of God. Their worship was just as dead and meaningless the other pagan worship in Smyrna.
The idea behind the statement “those who say they are Jews and are not” is not that these were not natural Jews or Jewish proselytes. It’s the idea that though they were Jews by birth, spiritually they were blasphemous and enemies of God. Paul speaks to this condition in Romans 2:28-29, “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, and true circumcision is not something visible in the flesh. On the contrary, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart — by the Spirit, not the letter. That person’s praise is not from people but from God. (CSB)”
What is about to happen v10
After comforting the church by telling them He knows and understands what they are going through, Christ gives the church a warning and promise.
The letter is continued with a command to not fear what is coming.
It appears that though the church was in the midst of persecution, they were expecting more and were becoming afraid because of it. The church in Smyrna faced persecution for many years.
In about fifty years time, Polycarp a Church Father and bishop of Smyrna was martyred by being burned at the stake. The Jewish population apparently was so opposed to the Church that they allied themselves with the pagan government and broke the Sabbath by bringing most of the wood gathered for Polycarp’s pyre.
Christ did not promise deliverance, but tells them what the coming persecution will be.
A new round of intensified persecution was about to start. This would see some of the members of the church imprisoned to test or try the church. The verb for test is passive meaning the action is happening to the subject. There are differing views on where the testing begins. Is God the originator of the test or Satan or both? I think, that it is both. Though God is not directly spoken of here as testing, ultimately God is allowing Satan to use his servants to test the Church.
The language implies that Satan is testing or trying the church to get them to fall away, to get them to sin and renounce Christ.
But we see an element of encouragement here that this period of persecution was limited. Christ tells them this affliction will only last ten days. There are multiple views on what “ten” means. Some think this is symbolic in a number of ways. Ten specific periods of time, ten representing a large number, ten representing a small number, ten days meaning periods or years. However, I hold to the natural reading that ten days is ten days. Christ was warning them that an intense short time of ten days of persecution was coming. This fits best with the overall encouragement that this letter intends.
The last part of verse 10 holds a command and a promise.
Christ tells the church to “Be faithful”. The idea is actually keep proving their faithfulness. The idea is to continue doing what you are already doing.
This plays directly with the next phrase of “to the point of death”. The idea here is not that you can be faithful unless your life depends on it, but continue to be faithful as if your life depends on it. This doesn’t mean everyone in the church will die a martyr’s death, but that corporately, everyone would be willing to make that sacrifice.
The reward for the faithful, those true believers who through God’s strength and mercy persevere throughout this life, will receive the crown of life. This crown is not a royal crown signifying importance or standing, but the word implies the victor’s crown. The laurel wreath given to winners of the games. We see this promise in James 1:12 as well. The question of what the crown of life is, is still discussed. Is crown being used in a symbolic way or will certain believers receive a special reward beyond eternal life? Most sources I looked at, took the line that only true believers will persevere, will remain faithful, therefore the reward is eternal life that is promised to those who believe in Christ.
The Final Reward v11
Christ closes the letter to the Smyrna Church with an invitation and promised reward.
Christ then gives an invitation to all who hear the message, this makes us think back to the original blessing given in 1:3.
This invitation is given in all seven letters, but the first three letters give the invitation before the promise to the overcomer, while the last four letters hear the promise before the invitation.
We also need to see that this invitation is given to the churches, plural. This tells us that each of these invitations were first for each individual church, then all the churches in Asia Minor, and then by extension to every church worldwide.
So what is the promise to the one who conquers here?
That the overcomer will not be harmed by the second death.
The negative, never, the word used there “is the strongest negative assertion of the future of which the Greek language is capable” (Thomas, Robert L. Revelation 1-7: An Exegetical Commentary, © 1992, p174).
We should note that overcomer or the one who conquers or terms John uses talking about the truly born-again believers. This promise logically tells us that harm will come to those who are not overcomers. That harm being the second death. John will identify the second death later in the book (20:14 and 21:8) as the lake of fire. The place of eternal punishment away from God.
Not every church or every Christian is called upon to suffer persecution like the church in Smyrna, but every Christian is called to be faithful to Christ.
Are we so faithful? What if in the next few years saying our Pledge of Allegiance is the most important thing a citizen can do, what if Americana becomes the dominating religion and freedom to worship only comes after saying “Caesar is Lord”? Will we be faithful?
I mentioned earlier that Polycarp was bishop/pastor in Smyrna and was martyred there, he was asked to curse God and say “Caesar is Lord” or offer a sacrifice at Caesar temple to save his life. “We are told the faithful pastor responded, ‘Eighty and six years have I served Him, and HE never did me injuryl how can i blaspheme my King and my Savior?’ (MacArthur, p82)” Right now this is speculation, no one is threatening us with death or imprisonment if we don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance, but if they were? Could we respond like Polycarp? Will Christ find us faithful?
Remember Smyrna is a translation of myrrh, and myrrh only gives off its sweet aroma when it is crushed.