The Letter to the Church in Smyrna (Rev 2:8-11)

October 10, 2016 — Leave a comment

I. INTRODUCTION

A. Summary of Past Lessons

B. Text of Rev 2:8-11

“8Write to the angel of the church in Smyrna: This is the message from the one who is the first and the last, who was dead but now lives. 9I know about your oppression and poverty, but you are rich. I also know about the people who claim to be Jews but are not, instead they are part of the synagogue of Satan. 10Do not fear the things you are about to suffer. Look! The Devil is about to throw some of you into prison in order to tempt you and you will experience oppression for ten days. Have faith until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11The one who has an ear must listen to what the Spirit says to the churches: ‘The one who overcomes will not be harmed by the second death.” (Rev 2:8-11) 1

John Writes to the Churches in Ephesus and Smyrna

Bamberg Apocalypse Bible: “The Letter to the Church in Ephesus and Smyrna” (AD 1,000)

C. History and Background of the City of Smyrna

Among the seven cities that John sent letters to, Smyrna is the only city that still exists today (now called Izmir which is Turkey’s third largest city with seven hundred thousand [Walvoord, Revelation, 59-60]). The city of Smyrna was about thirty-five miles north of Ephesus. Besides Ephesus, Smyrna was the wealthiest city in the area because of its seaport. It was also known for its science and learning.

Walvoord points out that the word “Smyrna” comes from the word “myrrh” which was a sweet perfume used in embalming dead bodies (Pss 45:8). It was also a holy anointing oil used in tabernacle worship in the Old Testament (Exod 30:23). It is mentioned by the bridegroom in the Song of Solomon (Song of Sol 3:6) and the heavenly bridegroom in the Psalms (Pss 45:8). The “protecting deity of Smyrna was a local adaptation of Cybele, which was known as the Sybeline Mother. Greeks identified her with Nemesis which was the Greek goddess of retributive justice. The city also created a temple to the goddess Roma (195 BC) (Osborne, Revelation, 127).

In addition to that deity worship, worship of the Roman Emperor was also very common. In AD 26 Smyrna beat out ten other cities for the honor of building a temple to honor the emperor Tiberias (Osborne, Revelation, 127). Under Domitian (AD 81-96), every year each citizen had to burn incense on Caesar’s altar in order to receive a certificate. Failure to receive a certificate meant death if someone found out. About sixty years after Domitian, the famous bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp (the disciple of John), was burned alive for refusing to call Caesar “Lord” (Osborne, Revelation, 127). Who and how the church started in Smyrna is a mystery. It could be from Paul’s three-year stay in Ephesus, which was nearby (Walvoord, Revelation, 60; Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 158-160).

II. JESUS ADDRESSES THE ANGEL OF THE CHURCH IN SMYRNA (2:8)

“Write to the angel of the church in Smyrna: This is the message from the one who is the first and the last, who was dead but now lives.” (Rev 2:8) 2

This brief verse emphasis two aspects of Christ’s deity: eternality and resurrection.

A. Christ’s Eternality and Sovereignty

Christ has always existed. The title “first and the last” is the title used for the God of Israel in Isa 41:4; 44:6; 48:12. He existed in the beginning (John 1:1-3; Col 1:15-17) and will continue to exist forever. Within the book of Revelation Jesus is described several times as the first and the last (Rev 1:17; 22:13)

B. Christ’s Resurrection

For a short time—three days—Christ was dead, but now he lives! He is now alive and will live forever.

III. POSITIVE REMARKS FOR THE SMYRNA CHURCH (2:9-10)

A. Perseverance in the Face of Poverty and Blasphemy (2:9)

“I know about your oppression and poverty, but you are rich. I also know about the people who claim to be Jews but are not, instead they are part of the synagogue of Satan.” (Rev 2:9)

1. Oppression, Poverty, and Richness

It is possible that the oppression and poverty that Christians in Smyrna experienced was due to their faith. While Christians might experience poverty and oppression because of their faith, James 2:5 uses some words from similar roots to described the richness of Christians:

  • οἶδά σου τὴν θλῖψιν καὶτὴν πτωχείαν (poverty), ἀλλὰ πλούσιος (rich) εἶ (Rev 2:9)
  • οὐχ ὁ θεὸς ἐξελέξατο τοὺς πτωχοὺς (poverty) τῷ κόσμῳ⸃ πλουσίους (rich) ἐν πίστει (James 2:5)
  • “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich)” (Rev 2:9, NASB)
  • “Did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith” (James 2:5, NASB)

2. Jews Part of Satan’s Synagogue

Thomas suggests that these people who claimed to be Jews but were really part of Satan’s synagogue might have spoken six types of slander against Christians: cannibalism, lust and immortality, breaking up of homes, atheism, political disloyalty, and incendiarism (Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 164). The idea of Christians being persecuted by Jews was a common theme throughout the rest of the New Testament (Acts 13:50; 14:2, 5, 19; 17:5; 26:2; 1 Thess 2:14, 15).

B. Endure Suffering (2:10)

“Do not fear the things you are about to suffer. Look! The Devil is about to throw some of you into prison in order to tempt you and you will experience oppression for ten days. Have faith until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev 2:10)

1. Suffering

Jesus’s advanced knowledge about the suffering that will occur seems to imply that Jesus allows it (Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 167). Why?

There are several reasons that God allows us to suffer according to John Walvoord.

  • One might be a disciplinary issue as seen in the Corinthian church (1 Cor 11:30-32).
  • Another might be preventive as was the case in Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7). The difficult affliction Paul experienced kept him from pride.
  • Another reason God might allow suffering it because it is a way for us to learn obedience. Suffering teaches us what we could not learn otherwise (Rom 5:3-5) which is even the case with Christ (Heb 5:8).
  • Lastly, suffering allows us to bear a better testimony for Jesus Christ (Act 9:16). (Walvoord, Revelation, 62).

Whatever the reason might be, I find Osborne’s comments encouraging: “There are no promises of an easy life in Scripture. Instead there are promises of divine comfort and blessing in the midst of suffering” (Osborne, Revelation, 133).

2. The Meaning of Ten Days

There are several possibilities for the exact meaning of “ten days” in Rev 2:10.

  • Church Period of Smyrna. Ten days might represent the second and third centuries. In this view, the church of Smyrna represents the persecuted church during those centuries.
  • Symbolically to Refer to a Year. The word “day” might symbolically refer to a year. This would mean that the Christians in Smyrna are destined for ten years of affliction.
  • Symbolic for a Short Period of Time. Ten days might be symbolic of a short period of time. In the Bible ten is often a symbol for a very short period of time (Gen 24:55; Num 11:19; 14:22; 1 Sam 1:8; 25:38; Job 19:3; Dan 1:12). Thus the church of Smyrna might be oppressed for a period that is not long, but long enough to bring severe trial to the sufferers (Wright, Revelation for Everyone, 18; Osborne, Revelation, 134).
  • Symbolic for a Long Period of Time. Ten days might be symbolic and refer to a long period of time. This is based on the idea that in the Bible ten often represents a very large number (Gen 31:41; Num 14:22; Job 19:3).
  • Literal Ten Days. The view which I hold is that this refers to ten literal days that the believers in Smyrna will experience more severe persecution. A similar surge of persecution occurred about fifty years later (approximately AD 145) in Smyrna, which the church historian Eusebius describes in his church history (Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Church History of Eusebius,” in Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series [New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890], 188-189; Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 170).

3. Crown of Life

The NET Bible says that the genitive, τῆς ζωῆς, “of life” functions in apposition to τὸν στέφανον, “crown.” In other words, “the crown consists of life” or the “crown symbolizes eternal life” (A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek NT, 492; Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 173).

Walvoord comments, “Faithfulness to death would result in the crown of life. This is not to be understood as a crown or a reward accompanying eternal life, but eternal life itself—‘the crown which is life.’ This promise had to be encouraging to John also in his own bleak circumstances on Patmos” (Walvoord, Revelation, 63).

IV. LISTEN TO THE VOICE OF JESUS (2:11)

“The one who has an ear must listen to what the Spirit says to the churches: ‘The one who overcomes will not be harmed by the second death.” (Rev 2:11)

A. Definitely Not

The phrase used to say “the one who overcomes will not be harmed” uses the strongest Greek construction to say “not.” In Greek, a writer can use two negatives to emphasize that something is definitely a “no.” In the case here, Jesus says, Ὁ νικῶν οὐ μὴ ἀδικηθῇ ἐκ τοῦ θανάτου τοῦ δευτέρου, “The one who overcomes will not be harmed by the second death. This construction in the Greek text is the strongest way to negate something because the “negative is strengthened when οὐ and μή are used together (Robertson, Grammar of Greek NT, 1174-1175; also see Wallace, Greek Grammar, 469).

B. Second Death

The second death is identified by John in Revelation and is seen in other occurrences in the Bible:

  • “Many of those whose bodies lie dead and buried will rise up, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting disgrace.” (Dan 12:2, NLT)
  • “and they will rise again. Those who have done good will rise to experience eternal life, and those who have continued in evil will rise to experience judgment.” (John 5:29, NLT)
  • “Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. For them the second death holds no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him a thousand years.” (Rev 20:6, NLT)
  • “Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death.” (Rev 20:14, NLT)
  • “But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Rev 21:8, NLT)

V. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION

While our time on earth appears difficult and hard to endure, we will one day be redeemed by God. There will be difficult times on this earth when we are persecuted, treated badly, and suffer because we are Christians. But, in the end times God will rescue his followers!

Notes:

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor's degree from Fresno Pacific University and master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

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