8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.
9 “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’” – Revelation 2:8-11 ESV
The city of Smyrna was only about 35-miles north of Ephesus. Like Ephesus, it was a wealthy and prosperous city, but also had a reputation for its wickedness and strong resistance to the gospel at the time John would have written this letter. The name Smyrna actually means “bitter.” It is translated from the Hebrew mor or myrrh, which was a fragrant perfume used in the embalming of dead bodies. The fragrance of myrrh is released when it is crushed, and this will prove to be an accurate metaphor for the little congregation of believers trying to exist within the confines of this immoral city. Jesus introduces Himself as “the first and the last, who died and came to life” (Revelation 2:8 ESV). This designation is intended to provide the members of the church in Smyrna with encouragement, relating to them the eternal nature of the one whom they worshiped. Jesus had died, but He was alive. He had risen from the dead and was seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven. He had returned to His rightful place, where He has existed for all eternity. These people were experiencing tribulation and poverty as a result of their faith, and Jesus lets them know that He is fully aware. He reminds them that they are actually rich, having received the gift of God’s grace in the form of His Son’s sacrificial death. The apostle Paul had a lot to say about the richness that comes from our restored relationship with God the Father made possible through the death of Jesus, His Son. He described he and his fellow ministers as, “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10 ESV). He also told the Corinthians that Jesus had graciously taken on human flesh and offered Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of men, “so that by his poverty he could make you rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV). And James, the half-brother of Jesus, reminded his readers that God had chosen “those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (James 2:5 ESV).
The believers in Smyrna were poor according to every measurable standard of their day. But Jesus wanted to remind them of the value of their relationship with Him. They had something money could not buy: a right relationship with God the Father, purchased by the precious blood of Jesus Christ.
Along with their poverty, these Christians were having to endure slander from Jews living in the city. But Jesus describes these people as not being Jews at all, but instead, labels them as “a synagogue of Satan.” The apostle Paul provides us with additional insight into what Jesus is saying about these people.
28 For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. 29 No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. – Romans 2:28-29 NLT
The local Jewish population was attacking the fledgling church, slandering its members in the community. In his commentary on Revelation, Charles C. Ryrie notes that Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was martyred in A.D. 155, and “these Jews eagerly assisted by gathering on the Sabbath wood and fagots for the fire in which he was burned” (Charles C. Ryrie, Revelation). The animosity against Christians was intense in the sophisticated society of Smyrna. Even other religious minorities like the Jews treated the believers there with contempt.
But Jesus warns them that it is going to get worse before it gets better.
Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. – Revelation 2:10 ESV
And yet, He tells them not to fear. He encourages them to remain faithful even to the point of death. In essence, Jesus is giving the church in Smyrna more bad news. They were already suffering persecution, poverty and slander. Now, He was letting them know that Satan himself was about to unleash his full fury on them, resulting in some of them ending up in prison. And Jesus lets them know that it will all be a test. This is an indication that the entire ordeal will pass through the sovereign hands of God Almighty. Satan has no power to persecute them without God’s divine permission. Satan’s intentions would be to test their faithfulness to God, using ever-more intense persecution in an attempt to get them to abandon their hope and trust in God. But Jesus wants them to remain faithful. God will use this same test to prove their allegiance to Him. Again, the apostle Paul, who was well-acquainted with suffering and persecution, wrote:
3 We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. 4 And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. 5 And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. – Romans 5:3-5 ESV
Jesus lets them know that their tribulation will be short in duration. It will last only ten days. There is no way to know if this is to be taken literally or figuratively. But it would seem that Jesus is attempting to juxtapose the short-term nature of their suffering with the long-term benefits of the eternal glory awaiting them.
Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. – Revelation 2:10 ESV
Even if their persecution should result in death, Jesus reminds them that death is followed by eternal life. The crown of life is not an additional reward reserved for those who go through martyrdom for their faith. It is a reference to eternal life itself. That’s why Jesus encourages them to be faithful even to the point of death. For the believer, death is not something we are to fear. As Paul put it:
Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow–not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.
– Romans 8:38 NLT
Our suffering in this life is temporary in nature. Even if that suffering should result in death, it is not the end. And our death will only result in our immediate transfer into God’s presence. Which is what led Paul to state, “we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 NLT).
And Jesus closes His message to the church in Smyrna with a reminder to every church in every age:
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. – Revelation 2:11 ESV
The “second death” is a reference to the great white throne judgment described in Revelation 20:11-15.
11 And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. 12 I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds. 14 Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death. 15 And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire.
Jesus assures the believers in Smyrna and every other believer who has ever lived, that we will not have to worry about this judgment. We won’t be there. It is reserved for those who have refused to accept the free gift of salvation offered through faith in Jesus Christ. Those who suffer and die as a result of their faith in this life, don’t have to worry about suffering eternal death in the next life. Our eternity is secure. Jesus wanted these believers to remain strong, even in the face of persecution. He wanted them stay faithful, even if it resulted in their deaths. Jesus was not making light of their troubles, but was attempting to remind them of the magnitude of their eternal reward.
16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 NLT
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.