The Church at Smyrna: Part 1 of 5 (series: Lessons on Revelation)

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

Book of Revelation

By: Tom Lowe Date: 4-30-2015


Lesson: II.B: The Church at Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11)


Revelation 2:8-11 (NIV)

8 “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.
9 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.
10 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.
11 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.


Introduction

When John wrote this letter to the church at Smyrna, the Roman emperor Nero had come and gone. Another Caesar, Domitian, was on the throne. He was a suspicious and blasphemous tyrant. The time had come for the second round of official persecution to begin. In his second letter, John addressed the church which was soon to taste the bitter hatred of the world. The church at Smyrna became the embodiment of the church under fire. It was one of the two churches that received no rebukes from Christ.

The terrible persecution lasted about two hundred and fifty years. It was very, very fierce at times, and at other times grew lighter. During this time of imperial and pagan persecution, the Church went through a terrible bloodbath; but not without the knowledge of Him who stands in the midst of the golden candlesticks.

The Lord begins the letter by introducing Himself as the One who has already conquered death, “the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” Death has been robbed of its sting, the grave stripped of its power.


Commentary

8 “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.
9 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.

Jesus addresses this church from His role as the resurrected One; the One “who died and came to life again,” which enabled Him to sympathize and help them. This persecuted people needed to know that their blessed and glorified Head had defeated death and was now master over it (Hebrews 2:181, NIV). Having been tempted and tried in all points as they were, He was now their great high priest (Hebrews 4:15-162, NIV). He identifies them by the distresses they had experienced—suffering, “poverty”3, and slander. Christianity was outlawed at the time John was writing this letter and was particularly held in contempt in “Smyrna,” in a place known for its loyalty and worship of the emperor.

The description of Christ given to this small church on the verge of being snuffed out by persecution isn’t that Christ is the “First and the Last, who died and came to life again” (1:17-184). The reference is to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Risen Christ is He who experienced death in the triumphant event, the resurrection, and is alive for evermore. Although this church was almost dead due to persecution, Christ was reminding them that He was sovereign and eternal.

No matter what they faced, Christ already knew about it; as the “First and the Last,” nothing could take Him by surprise. Christ identified Himself has the One “who died and came back to life again.” Even if believers had to suffer to the point of death, Christ, the One who “came to life again,” would raise them to eternal life with Him.

Much of the persecution seems to have been coming from the Jews who were actively opposing Christianity. Christ identified them as “those who say they are Jews and are not.” They may have claimed to have descended from Abraham, but the Jews (God’s people) are those who had accepted Jesus as Messiah and Savior. Paul had written to the Christians in Galatia, “And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you” (Galatians 3:29, NLT). Because these Jews had rejected the Messiah, they were, in reality, no more than a synagogue of Satan (read John 8:31-47). The phrase “synagogue of Satan” means that these Jews were serving Satan’s purposes, not God’s, when they gathered to worship, because they hated and persecuted the true people of God, the Christians. To be a Christian was against the law, but persecution was not continuous. The Christians might be left in peace for a long time, but at any moment a governor might acquire a fit of administrative energy or the mob might set up a shout to find the Christians—and then the storm burst. The terror of being a Christian was the uncertainty.

The port city of “Smyrna” lay thirty-five miles up the coast, north of Ephesus. It was a beautiful city with a well-protected harbor on the Aegean Sea and rivaled Ephesus in the export business. It also had earned the right to be self-governing. It had a large library, stadium, and the largest public theater in Asia. The famous “Golden Street” traversed the city with a temple to “Zeus” at one end and the temple of a local goddess Sipylene (Cybele) at the other. Other Temples to Apollo, Asclepius, and Aphrodite lined the way. The city had been destroyed and rebuilt before 200 B.C. After that, it was rebuilt according to a plan, much as a planned community today. Most likely, the church in “Smyrna” was a product of Paul’s Ephesian ministry (Acts 19:105) and was founded by the apostle himself or one of his converts. At the end of the first century, life was difficult and dangerous for Christians in Smyrna. As a loyal Roman ally, the city was a key center for emperor worship. So any other religious loyalties could easily be perceived as political threats. A large Jewish community also thrived in Smyrna. The Jews, of course, did not have to patronize the imperial cult since their religion was accepted by Rome. This is the only one of the seven cities that is still in existence; its modern name is Izmir.

“Smyrna” received its name from one of its principal commercial products, namely, myrrh. The Greek word Smurna is actually a word of Semitic origin, the Hebrew root meaning “bitter.” It was a gum resin taken from a shrubby tree and had a bitter taste. It was used as an ingredient in making perfume (Psalm 45:8); as one of the ingredients of the holy anointing oil for the priests (Exodus 30:23); for the purification of women (Esther 2:12); and for embalming (John 19:39). It is most significant that our Lord spoke as He did to the assembly at Smyrna, for this church was in the midst of bitter sorrow and suffering.

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