Then, to the angel of the assembly in Smyrna write, “These things say the First and the Last, Who became dead and lived: I have perceived your crushing oppression, and your poverty—(but rather you are abundantly wealthy)—and the blasphemy of those saying they are Jews and are not, but rather are of the synagogue of the Adversary.
“Do not fear any of the things you are about to suffer. Behold the Slanderer and False Accuser is about to cast (some) out of you into prison in order that you all may be tested, and you will have crushing oppression for ten days.
Be faithful until death, and I will give to you the Crown of Life.
“The one having an ear: Listen, comprehend, attend to what the Spirit is saying to the assemblies. The one overcoming will not ever be harmed by the second death.”Revelation 2:8-11
The only surviving city of the seven represented in these letters, Smyrna—now Izmir, Turkey—was the second largest city of the region. And reportedly, the most beautiful. The name “Smyrna” comes from the Greek word σμύρνα | smyrna for myrrh, Smyrna’s chief export, so you can imagine how wealthy this city was. Politically savvy as well, in 195 BCE, they were the first city in the Province of Asia to built a temple to Roma, the embodiment or spirit of Rome.
Smyrna’s original settlement was at least three thousand years old by John’s day, and itself had experienced something of a resurrection. It had been destroyed a thousand years before Christ, and lain in ruins for seven centuries before being rebuilt. The city was positioned strategically at the mouth of the Hermus river, connected to a deep channel of the Mediterranean Sea, making it an important trade route into Lydia.
So, when Jesus identified Himself as the First and the Last, that held special significance for this city—they were among the oldest in existence and have today outlasted all the ancient cities of that area.
And again, when Jesus said He had died, but was now alive, that too resonated with Smyrna’s citizens. For though their city had lain in ruins, yet from the few families left there, eking out a living in the small village that remained, a new glorious city had risen.
Throughout the scriptures, when the people cried out to God, God heard them—from the Tower of Babel, to the Cities on the Plain, to those enslaved in Egypt, and later the many times the Israelites pleaded with God for rescue in the Book of Judges, God listened, perceived, and God responded. Now Jesus listened, perceived and responded to the believers in Smyrna. They were bowed under heavy persecution, wretched in their physical poverty.
Yet, in their spirits, they were rich, as Jesus had indicated they would be.
Blessed are you who are poor,Jesus, Luke 6:20-21 (NRSV)
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Later, James confirmed Jesus’s teaching.
Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?James 2:5 (NRSV)
Jesus also knew all about the blasphemy of those who said they were God’s people, but really were not, they were in league with God’s Adversary, called Satan.
As it happens, Smyrna had the largest Jewish community of all the major cities in that region. The religious tensions between those of Jewish and Christian faiths are well-documented in the Greek scriptures, particularly in the Book of Acts and some of Paul’s own letters. A typical example might be found during Paul’s first missionary journey,
As Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people urged them to speak about these things again the next Sabbath. When the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.
The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy, and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul.Acts 13:42-45 (NRSV)
Affliction to Come
But rather than deliverance, more persecution would soon be underway, for added to oppression and poverty would now be prison.
The word Jesus chose, ὁ διάβολος | ho diabolos, the devil, means slanderer and false accuser. Just as those who opposed Paul slandered him, now the Christians in Smyrna would face the same false accusations which would land them in prison.
You and I recognize this form of persecution, for we have seen pastors and others thrown in jail as a way to silence them One such pastor, The Heavenly Man, chose to use even his incarceration as an opportunity to evangelize and be faithful even when facing sure death.
But he did not die!
By miraculous intervention, he was able to walk out of his prison after the gospel swept through it and countless lives were saved by the almighty power of God.
Do Not Fear
So now, Jesus told His beloved ones, Do not fear what is coming, for you will be faithful to the end. Remember the roots of your city, Smyrna! Out of its ruins came a far more glorious city. Remember My roots, for out of death on the cross has come your Risen Lord. And remember your own roots in Me, for as you remain faithful in Me, even unto death, so will you emerge wearing the Crown of Life.
The apostles stood together with Jesus on this.
I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body and after that can do nothing more.Jesus, Luke 12:4 (NRSV)
And when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged.
Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and let them go.
As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.
And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.Acts 5:40-42 (NRSV)
But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.
Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.1 Peter 3:14-15 (NRSV)
You Will Be Tested
Perhaps one of the iconic, over-arching messages of the entire Bible is Joseph’s truth statement to his brothers, found at the end of Genesis,
Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.Joseph, Genesis 50:20 (NRSV)
You and I recognize this, too. God tests the faith of those who have aligned their lives with God—not for God’s sake, as though God did not know the quality of their commitment and character. But rather, for their own sake, so they would grasp the mettle God had personally infused in them, a divine power by God’s Own Holy Spirit. There are literally hundreds of examples, both in the Hebrew and Greek scriptures, of God testing the faithful.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.Jesus, Matthew 5:11-12 (NRSV)
The apostles spoke often of this.
No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.
God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.Paul, 1 Corinthians 10:13 (NRSV)
Because [Jesus] himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.Anonymous, Hebrews 2:18 (NRSV)
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face various trials, consider it all joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance complete its work, so that you may be complete and whole, lacking in nothing.
… Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.James 1:2-3, 12 (NRSV)