Letters to the Churches: Smyrna
Smyrna is one of two churches which receive no rebuke but only commendation from our Lord (the other being Philadelphia). Let us note that our Lord is described in the letters to the churches just as he was described in chapter one in his appearance to John: To the Smyneans, “The first and the last, who died and came to life (1:17-18), to the Ephesians, “The one who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands” (1:20). The same Lord who appeared to John is the same Lord who dictates these letters to these specific churches.
The believers in Smyrna are a beleaguered people. Smyrna was a place where the imperial cult was highly exalted. People were to show their civic pride and loyalty to Rome by professing, “Caesar is Lord.” Those who did not came under suspicion. One could lose his job in the trade guilds, his property, even be imprisoned, tortured, and executed. (Please read, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, which happened in the mid-second century roughly sixty years after John’s Revelation, for an ancient account of what Christians endured in the first three centuries of Church history.) They were undergoing tribulation for declaring, “Christ is Lord,” were poor in this world’s goods (perhaps their property had been confiscated), and were being slandered by Jews. We note that John refused to acknowledge these Jews as real Jews but instead called them a “synagogue of Satan.” It was not uncommon for Jews to report Christian activity (such as worship) to the authorities. But they are not truly Jews because one is a Jew who is not circumcised in the flesh but of the heart, that is, who is a believer in Jesus Christ (Romans 2:28-29).
Jesus tells them that despite their poverty, they are rich (unlike the Laodiceans who despite being rich are poor, 3:17). Indeed, they are about to endure a terrible if brief tribulation in which some will be called upon to be faithful unto death. It is the devil who shall initiate this persecution but the Smyrneans are reminded that it is Christ who rules the universe and Satan who in comparison is merely the ugly mascot for the other team. Yes, some shall die, but they shall also win the crown of life and escape the second death—the only one that matters!
This was the church which received the greatest commendation of the seven. Let us remember that our Lord values not those rich in this world but those faithful unto poverty and death for Christ our Lord.