Church at Smyrna
Jesus addressed this church as the one who is the first and last, or eternal, and the one who died and came to life (resurrected). This foreshadows the death of believers in Smyrna.
There is a lot of paradox in this address. (A paradox is a statement that leads to a seemingly contradictory or illogical conclusion.) The church experiences poverty, yet is rich. They are persecuted by those who call themselves God’s people (Jews), but are really of the synagogue of Satan. If they are faithful to death, they will receive a crown of life.
These believers already suffered persecution. Jesus said he knew their tribulation and poverty. Some of that tribulation likely came from the local pagans. Smyrna was proud of its history of loyalty to Rome. The city built a temple to the goddess Roma way back in 195 A.D. It also built a temple to the emperor Tiberious in 23 B.C., incorporating emperor worship into the worship of Roman and Greek gods and goddesses. Christians who would not worship the emperor would be seen as disloyal and a smear on the reputation of the city. It may have hampered their ability to do business or work in the city. This is similar to the “mark” of the beast in Revelation 13 and 16.
The Jews in the city also persecuted the Christians. Jews especially hated converted Jews. Jesus spoke of them harshly. He called them the synagogue of Satan. Although they saw themselves as the people of God, they actually served Satan in the persecution of Christians.
In Matthew 24:9, Jesus said “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake”.
Jesus spoke of greater suffering to come. The devil, working through government officials, would throw them into prison. The Romans used prison for pre-trial detainment more than punishment. Punishment was more likely to be death. We saw this in Paul’s life, recorded in Acts, as he stayed in prison for a long time before he was exonerated and freed. Later, of course, he was again imprisoned and executed.
Like Paul, death was the likely outcome of trial for these believers in Smyrna. That is why Jesus told them to be faithful unto death. (10)
Jesus said for 10 days they will have tribulation. I take the number 10 to be symbolic. This is, first of all, a reference to Daniel 1:12-15. There the Jewish boys refused the food and table of the pagan king who claimed to be divine. They would not express loyalty to him over Yahweh. They would not conform to pagan practices. In a similar way, the believers of Smyrna would be tested in prison to prove their loyalty to Christ and refusal to conform to pagan practices. In addition, there are numerous times the Old Testament uses the number 10 for a period of thorough testing. The number 10 is also used symbolically several times in Revelation.
Polycarp, who became bishop of Smyrna in 115, was martyred later because he refused to worship the emperor. He refused to say the emperor is lord and insisted only Jesus is lord. He took great comfort from this letter of Jesus to the church at Smyrna as he faced execution.
Jesus said those who prove faithful will receive the crown of life. That phrase can also be translated as the crown which is life. This is the emblem of eternal life. It is a picture of the laurel wreath given to an athlete that completes a contest. For example, Paul wrote: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self control in all things. The do it to receive a perishable wreath (crown), but we an imperishable. (1 Corinthians 9:25) The contest of the believer is life on this earth: struggle and persecution that assaults our faith.
James 1:12 says “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” Those who believe in Christ receive eternal life as God’s gracious gift. Eternal life includes our resurrection to live with Christ forever.
Finally, Christ said the one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. The second death is eternal punishment in hell. For example, Revelation 20:14 says “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire”. Revelation 21:8 refers to the “lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death”. The believers in Smyrna would experience the first death, but not the second death.
And the same is true for us.