By Ron Hutchison
The the city of Smyrna (today Izmir in Turkey) was located just a little north of the city of Ephesus. It's secular history can be studied by clicking on this link.
Smyrna was the home of Polycarp, an elder in the church, who was martyred because of his faith in the second century. You may recall that when Polycarp was told to renounce Christ he said, "eighty-six years I have served the Lord, and He never wronged me; how then can I blaspheme my Lord and Savior?" Polycarp's strong faith was typical of the faith of the Christians who were in Smyrna at the time of the writing of the book of Revelation.
The city of Smyrna was also a seat of the worship of the pagan idols Cybele, called "the Mother of the gods," and of Dionysus or Bacchus. It was also a seat of the worship of the city of Rome with a temple built to worship the goddess Roma in 195 B.C. Emperor worship was practiced with a temple built to honor the Roman Emperor Tiberius in 28 A.D.
The church in Smyrna was probably established by the apostle Paul (Acts 19:8-10). It was being severely persecuted at the time this letter was written. Smyrna had a large Jewish population and many of the Jews were hostile toward the church.
John Gill makes an interesting statement regarding the meaning of the name Smyrna:
The churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia are the only congregations of the seven that Jesus addressed that were not condemned for having sin in the congregation.
Before we begin a study of Revelation 2:8-11, we need to get a little background concerning the book of Revelation. I am one of the minority who believes that the book of Revelation was written before A.D. 70.
The purpose of the book of Revelation was to encourage suffering Christians by showing them that Jesus was on His throne and the ungodly rulers were resisting His authority by persecuting His followers. The suffering they faced was not a sign that Jesus had left this world to Satan, but it showed that He is now King of kings:
The book of Revelation was a book written for first century Christians. It is addressed to the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 1:4). It dealt with what these Christians were immediately facing in their time. I believe it is wrong for us to give a future interpretation to most of this book. It seems that those who do so always believe they are the ones living in the "last days" and that the prophecies of the book apply to their time. This self-centeredness is responsible for much of the false teaching and wild speculations regarding the book of Revelation and such passages as Matthew 24.
Of course the events the book of Revelation foretold were in the future of those to whom the book was originally addressed, but they occurred soon after the book was given and in our past. For us, the great majority of the book of Revelation is history.
The greatest enemy of the church in the first century was apostate Israel (Acts 9:23; 12:3; 13:45, 50; 14:2-6, 19; 17:5-9, 13; 18:12; 20:3, 19; 21:11, 27; 23:12; 25:1-26; 26:7, 21; 2 Corinthians 11:24; Revelation 3:9) . Israel used the Roman Empire to try to destroy the church of Christ just as it had done to crucify Jesus (Matthew 27:1-2, 17-25). The book of Revelation teaches that these great enemies of Christ and His church were soon to be judged and destroyed (Revelation 14:8; 17:1-18 cf. Matthew 23:29-39; 24:1-2; Luke 21:5-28; John 19:15; See also Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 2:20-24, 30-33; 3:1-3; Hosea 9:1; Ezekiel 16:26-29; 23:11-21).
Thus, the primary message of the book of Revelation was for it's first century readers. It was intended for the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 1:4). Jesus clearly expected the readers to understand the various symbols used in the book (Revelation 13:18). Not once did He imply that the book applied to the 20th or 21st centuries or for that matter to the 19th, 18th, 17th, etc... Of course, it still has relevance today as we apply it's principles to our life and culture. Jesus Christ still demands from us what He demanded from the early church - absolute faithfulness to Him (Revelation 2:10).
J.Stuart Russell wrote:
Must it not of necessity refer to matters of contemporary history? The only tenable, the only reasonable, hypothesis is that it was intended to be understood by its original readers; but this is as much as to say that it must be occupied with the events and transactions of their own day, and these comprised within a comparatively brief space of time.” (J. Stuart Russell, The Parousia: A Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord’s Second Coming (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,  1983), p. 366.)
We must realize that John writes this book about events "which must shortly take place" (Revelation 1:1), and warns that "the time is near" (Revelation 1:3). And in case we might not be convinced He says at the end of the book, "And the Lord God of the holy prophets sent His angel to show His servants the things which must shortly take place" (Revelation 22:6). If something is going to take place shortly and if the time is near, that does not mean it is centuries away. It means it is near! "Shortly" and "near" can't mean anything else but what they mean. While the book of Revelation may mention some things that will take place in our future (Revelation 22:14), it's main focus is on events that would directly affect the seven churches of Asia in the first century.
Let me mention another point: In Revelation 22:10 John is instructed, "Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand." Again, we are told that the time is at hand or that it is contemporary with John. However, the angel's statement is in contrast to the command that the prophet Daniel received at the end of his book: "But you, Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book until the time of the end..." (Daniel 12;4). Daniel is specifically ordered to seal up his prophecy, because it referred to "the end," in the distant future. But John is told not to seal up his prophecy, because the time of which he speaks is "at hand." Thus, the focus on John's prophecy is contemporary to the first century readers. It is written to show those suffering Christians that Jesus is Lord and King, that He is in control, that He will be glorified in all things and that His enemies will go down in defeat. The Christians of that day were being tempted to compromise with false religions. They were being tempted to renounce Christ. They were being tempted to compromise with civil government (The Roman Empire). They needed this message of ultimate victory in the face of the trials they were facing. Of course, we need this same message today. We are tempted on every hand to compromise with the false religions of our day - to accept what our civil government does that is contrary to God's law (abortion, homosexuality etc...) The book of Revelation speaks just as powerfully to us today as it did to those of John's day. We are in the same battle today and we must never give an inch of ground to the enemies of our Lord and Savior! (Galatians 2:4-5).
The book of Revelation is just that - a revelation. It was intended to reveal. It was not intended to be mysterious. It was intended to be understood (Revelation 1:1-3). It is the revelation of Jesus Christ. That is, Jesus Christ originated it. It is not a warning about things the people in the first century would never see (things that would take place in the far distant future) but a warning about things the first century Christians would personally experience.
THE DATE OF WRITING
I said at the beginning of this article that I am one of the minority who believe that the book of Revelation was written prior to A.D. 70. One of the reasons I believe this is set forth below.
In Daniel 9:24-27, Daniel is inspired to give a prophecy concerning the coming of the Messiah and the destruction of Jerusalem. He wrote, "Seventy weeks are determined for your people and for your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sins, to make reconciliation for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Most Holy" (Daniel 9:24). "Your people" refers to the Jews. The "holy city" refers to Jerusalem. The fulfillment of this prophecy was to take place during "seventy weeks." Most scholars believe this to be a time period of 490 years. During this "seventy weeks" several things were to happen:
According to verses 25 and 27 the prophesy covers events that would take place "from the going forth of the command to restore and build Jerusalem...." to when "He shall bring an end to sacrifice and offering..."
Notice that during this period the "Messiah shall be cut off..." (verse 26). This is referring to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Notice also that verse 26 refers to "the prince who is to come" who "shall destroy the city" (Jerusalem) and the sanctuary" (the temple in Jerusalem). Then verse 27 speaks of the one who destroys the temple as one who "shall bring an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall be one who makes desolate." This is what Jesus spoke of in Matthew 24:1-34 and Luke 21: 5-28. It is referring to the Roman general Titus whose armies destroyed the temple. Jesus, in His inspired interpretation of Daniel 9, applies this prophecy to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Notice that the things that would happen during the "seventy weeks" that are listed above would take place between the time of the command to restore and build Jerusalem (possibly referring to the decree of Artaxerxes in 444 B.C. See Nehemiah 2:5-8; 17-18, or the command given to Ezra in 458 B.C., See Ezra 7:11-26), and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Among the things that would happen between these two events was "to seal up vision and prophecy" (Daniel 9:24). Vision and prophecy refers to inspired revelation. Daniel's prophecy tells us that revelation would cease before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This means that all of the New Testament books (including Revelation) had to be written before A.D. 70. Hence, it could not have been written in A.D. 96.
The death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Christ marked the end of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New (Matthew 26:28; Ephesians 2:14-16; Hebrews 9:15-17). At that time Israel's fate was sealed. The Kingdom would be taken from them (Matthew 21:33-46). "Wrath" came "upon them to the uttermost" (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16). Vengeance was brought upon them (Luke 21:20-22). God did not destroy Jerusalem until the writing of the New Covenant was completed. When that was done, He destroyed the kingdom of Israel (Matthew 23:34-36; 24:34; Luke 11:49-51). Jerusalem's destruction was the last blast of the trumpet, signaling that the "mystery of God" was finished (Revelation 10:7). There would be no more revelation after Israel was gone. The faith had been "once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3).
With the above thoughts in mind, let's now begin our study of Revelation 2:8-11.
"And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write..." The word "angel" means "messenger." Jesus connects stars with the angels in chapter one (Revelation 1:20). Angels and stars are often associated with government and rule (cf. Genesis 37:9; Judges 5:20; Daniel 8:9-11; 10:13, 20-21). Clearly, Christ holds the angels of the churches responsible for the life and conduct of their respective congregations. It is my opinion that the angel of each church represents the government of each congregation which would be the eldership or the overseers of the church (Acts 14:23; 15:2-6, 22; 20:17-31; 21:8; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; 5:17-20; Titus 1:5-9; Philippians 1:1; James 5:14;1 Peter 5:1-5).
"These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life..." Two things caused the church at Smyrna severe problems. First, the people of the city were emperor worshippers. There was a temple at Smyrna devoted to the worship of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. The Romans did not appreciate anyone who did not bow down to Caesar. Second, there was a large population of Jews who were hostile toward Christians. Both the Romans and the Jews heaped great persecution upon the Christians.
Jesus says that He is "the First and the Last." This is the way God referred to Himself in Isaiah 44:6-8 and Isaiah 48:12. The context of these verses is that God is in control. He is the One who has planned and who controls all reality. He was there when everything began and He will be there when everything ends. This was a source of comfort and assurance to the Christians in Smyrna. The Romans and Jews were not in control, God is in control. God is sovereign. The things that happen to Christians, even though they may be hard to bear, are ordained by God to work out for our good and the good of others (Romans 8:28). This means that even our sufferings are a part of His plan and that when we are opposed, we do not need to fear that God has deserted us. We can be secure in the fact that since we have been called "according to His purpose," all things in life are a necessary aspect of that purpose.
Not only is Christ the First and the Last, He "was dead, and came to life." This is speaking of His complete victory over death and the grave as the "firstfruits" of all those who die in the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:20-22). If the saints at Smyrna are persecuted even to the point of dying, it is no more than their Lord suffered at the hands of those same people (Jews and Romans). He died, but He is alive, and because He is alive, those who are persecuted will also live (1 Corinthians 15:12-20). His resurrection guarantees our resurrection. Thus, regardless of the force and brutality of their persecutors, the Christians in Smyrna could not be defeated. In fact, their death was their victory (1 Corinthians 15:54-57; 1 John 5:4-5).
"I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan." It was not easy for Christians in Smyrna, but Jesus let them know that He knew what they are going through (Hebrews 4:15). This shows Jesus' care and concern for His people. No matter what you may be facing right now, Jesus knows about it. He is concerned about it. What a source of comfort and assurance this was for the Christians at Smyrna.
He knew their "works." This refers to their way of life - their faithfulness in serving God. In Matthew 5:16 Jesus said, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." The works of the Christians in Smyrna were evidently good works. Their lives glorified the Father. Their persecution was brought about because of their faithful works. On one occasion the Jews picked up rocks to stone Jesus and "Jesus answered them, 'Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?'" (John 10:32). Every work that Jesus did was a good work. And, although the Jews denied it (John 10:33), Jesus was persecuted because of His teaching and good works. Paul taught, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). The Christians in Smyrna knew that they were created for good works. In 1 Timothy 5:24-25 Paul wrote, Some men's sins are clearly evident, preceding them to judgment, but those of some men follow later. Likewise, the good works of some are clearly evident, and those that are otherwise cannot be hidden. The sins of the apostate Jews and the pagan Romans were clearly evident. Likewise, the good works of the Christians were clearly evident. These good works were one of the reasons they were being persecuted. Jesus knew their works.
Jesus also knew of their tribulation. He knew the persecution they were facing and would face in the future. Jesus promised His apostles that they would have tribulation (John 16:33). He told them, "Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also" (John 15:20). When Paul and Barnabas returned to some of the places where they had planted churches they told them, "We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22; see also 2 Timothy 3:12). We need to realize that the Jews and Romans persecuted Jesus. They hated Jesus and so they hated His disciples. We can expect nothing less. We must have the attitude that the apostles had when they were beaten by the Jewish council: "So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name" (Acts 5:41). This persecution did not stop the apostles from teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ (Acts 5:42) and we must not let it stop us.
He knew their poverty. The Christians in Smyrna were poverty stricken because of their stand for the faith. This means they had few material possessions. It may be that their property had been confiscated (Hebrews 10:34). It is also likely that they were robbed of the ability to work and support their families because they refused to align themselves with either the pagan emperor worshippers or the apostate Jews (cf. Revelation 13:16-17). Yet, in their poverty Jesus says they were rich. They were "rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him..." (James 2:5) They had nothing, but possessed all things (2 Corinthians 6:10). They were rich spiritually. They enjoyed blessings beyond what it was possible for the pagan Romans and apostate Jews to even imagine (Proverbs 10:22; 11:25; 13:7; 28:6). The Christians of Smyrna were "rich toward God" (Luke 12:21). Jesus had become poor so that they could become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). They had the hope and promise of eternal life (1 John 2:25). If we remain faithful, the trials we face will help us experience the greatest wealth that anyone can experience - spiritual wealth. We will lack nothing (James 1:2-5).
Jesus also said that He knew about the "...the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan." Jesus mentions the synagogue of Satan in His letter to the church in Philadelphia (Revelation 3:9). Here the Lord tells us the identity of those who opposed the church in Smyrna. It was those "who say they are Jews." It tells us what they were doing. They were blaspheming. They were speaking against Christ and His church. These Jews claimed to be children of Abraham, but in reality they were the children of Satan. These are the Israelites who had rejected Christ and thus had rejected the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Jesus confronted these kind of Jews as recorded in John 8. The Jews said to Him, "'Abraham is our father.' Jesus said to them, 'If you were Abraham's children, you would do the works of Abraham. But now you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did not do this. You do the deeds of your father.' Then they said to Him, 'We were not born of fornication; we have one Father; God.' Jesus said to them, 'If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and came from God; nor have I come of Myself, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it'" (John 8:39-44). The Jews in Smyrna were like the Jews in Jerusalem. They were not true Jews because they rejected Christ. This is why Jesus calls them "a synagogue of Satan." They were Satan's children, not Abraham's. Paul wrote, "For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God." (Romans 2:28-29). The true Jew is the one who walks in the steps of the faith of Abraham (Romans 4:12, 16). The true Jew is the one who obeys the gospel (Galatians 3:7-9; 26-29). The history of the church is filled with examples of false witness by the Jews against the church (Acts 6:9-15; 13:10; 14:2-5; 17:5-8; 18:6, 12-13; 19:9; 21:27-36; 24:1-9; 25:2-3,7). These were instigated by Satan in his attempt to destroy the church.
Jesus then gives the Christians in Smyrna a warning of what they are about to face: "Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Revelation 2:10). There was going to be suffering. But they should not fear the things they were going to face. Jesus taught us, "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28). The Christians in Smyrna would face severe persecution. Some of them would be thrown into prison. It was the devil that instigated this. He used the Jews allied with the Roman Empire, but it was the devil who was behind it all. It is because of his hostility toward Christ and His disciples (Genesis 3:15).
Jesus says that this is so that they may be tested. The trials that Christians face are used by God to purify and discipline (cf. Job 23:10; 1 Peter 4:12-19).
The tribulation that the church in Smyrna would face would be severe, but it would be relatively short - ten days. But many of those Christians would lose their lives, so Jesus tells them to be faithful until death and He would give them the crown of life. Paul wrote, "If we endure, We shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He also will deny us" (2 Timothy 2:12). Jesus said, "And you will be hated by all for My name's sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved" (Matthew 10:22). The crown of life is eternal salvation. Those who endure to the end, who remain faithful, will receive the crown of life which can never be taken away. Paul wrote, "Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown" (1 Corinthians 9:24-25). The crown of life is an imperishable crown. It will never fade away (1 Peter 1:3-4). James wrote, "Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him" (James 1:12). The crown of life is promised to those who love Jesus. Who is the one who loves Jesus? Jesus said in John 14:15, "If you love Me, keep My commandments." The person who loves Jesus is the one who keeps His commandments. The Christians at Smyrna truly loved Jesus, therefore they were promised the crown of life. However, that crown of life depended on them enduring - remaining faithful even in the face of severe persecution and physical death.
The faithful Christian who overcomes opposition and endures unto death "shall not be hurt by the second death."' (Revelation 2:11). The fact that this was written to a first century church helps us understand the meaning of another passage in this book. Revelation 20:6 states, Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years. The one who will not be hurt by the second death is the one who has part in the first resurrection, and they are priests of God and Christ, a blessing that John has already stated to be a present reality (Revelation 1:6). Therefore, the first resurrection cannot refer to the physical resurrection at the end of the world (1 Corinthians 15:22-28). Rather, it must refer to what Paul was speaking of in Colossians 3:1-3: "If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." Paul tells us that the Colossians were "raised with Christ." As a result they were to "seek those things which are above where Christ is..." He tells them that "you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." There is a death and resurrection in every Christians' life. When does this death and resurrection take place? Look at Romans 6:1-4. "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life." When is one raised with Christ? Paul says it is when we are baptized (immersed). When a person goes down into the watery grave of baptism there is a death that takes place. It is the persons death to sin. Then there is a resurrection that takes place. "Just as Christ was raised from the dead...even we also should walk in newness of life." Our death, burial and resurrection takes place in baptism. This is in the likeness of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6:5-11). This is the first resurrection that every Christian experiences. The one who experiences the first resurrection "shall not be hurt by the second death." The person who is baptized into Christ for the remission of his sins will be saved eternally (Galatians 3:26-27; Acts 2:38). Obedience to the gospel and living a faithful Christian life is how one escapes the second death which is eternal separation from God.
Jesus says, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." To hear what the Spirit says is to listen to the words that were revealed to John by the Holy Spirit. This indicates that John was inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
I sometimes wonder how I would bear up under the kind of persecution that my fellow Christians in Smyrna faced. Would I be able to stand strong as they did? Would I be willing to die instead of renouncing Christ? I'm not sure any of us can answer these questions until we face the same kind of circumstances. Unfortunately, and to my shame, I know I have sinned under far less severe circumstances.
Let us follow the example of the Christians in Smyrna. Let us do all we can for the cause of Christ and when we face persecution because of it, let us endure to the end and receive the crown of life promised to those who love Jesus.