After persevering through persecution, the ever-faithful church at Smyrna was promised even more “tribulation” but also exceeding great rewards.
Smyrna was a seaport renowned for its beauty, and it prospered from seaborne commerce. Unfortunately for the church, the imperial cult was well-established there. The origin of the congregation is unknown, and Revelation is the only New Testament document that mentions the city.
The name “Smyrna” possibly is derived from the Greek word for “myrrh,” an ointment used commonly at the time in burial preparations. If so, and in this context, it suggests martyrdom.
The letter opens with Jesus stressing his exalted position. He is “The First and the Last,” the one who now has absolute authority over everything that transpires in the city, therefore the church has no reason to fear what is coming. He has the “last” word on all things.
Moreover, he “became dead and lived.” The clause references the words of the “one like a Son of Man” from the opening vision who told John not to fear since he had risen from the dead and holds the “keys of death and of Hades” forevermore.
- (Revelation 2:8-11) – “And to the angel of the assembly in Smyrna write: These things the first and the last declares, who became dead and lived: I know your tribulationˎ and destitution, nevertheless, you are rich, and the profane speech from among them who affirm that they themselves are Jews, and they are not, but a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear the things which you are going to suffer. Lo! the adversary is about to cast some of you into prison, that you may be tried and may have tribulation ten days. Become faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. He that hath an ear,let him hear what |the Spirit| is saying to the churches. He that overcomes shall in nowise be injured by the second death.”
Jesus “knows” the condition of the congregation. From his perspective, it is “rich,” although its members are financially poor. Their impoverishment is due to the “slander” from those in the city who claim to be Jews “but are not.” And he knows the works of the congregation, not so much its good deeds as its faithfulness in giving testimony despite local opposition.
The church has endured “tribulation” due to that testimony. But even though the congregation has remained faithful, it will yet endure more “tribulation for ten days.” The congregation’s impoverishment anticipates the economic program of the “beast from the earth” described in chapter 13, its leverage of economic control to compel submission to its political and religious agenda – (Revelation 13:15-18).
The “slander” by local Jewish leaders points to members of the synagogue denouncing Christians to local magistrates, accusations that resulted in legal prosecution. Likewise, the “beast from the sea” had the “name of slander” or blasphémia upon its several heads, and a mouth speaking “slanders” against God and “those who tabernacle in heaven.” Later, the “Great Harlot” sat on the “scarlet beast full of slanders” – (Revelation 13:1-6, 17:3).
The false accusations by the local synagogue demonstrate how Satan “slanders” believers and Jesus, the “Dragon” was the one behind these efforts to suppress the church at Smyrna. Therefore, Jesus names this group of accusers the “synagogue of Satan,” the real force behind the legal harassment of the church.
Of the seven churches, only Smyrna and Philadelphia receive no corrections. Jesus admonished Smyrna to face any tribulation that might come. Already, the congregation has endured trials without wavering. But rather than reward the church for her previous victories, Jesus now announces the intensification of her trials.
Some members would be cast into prison. In the Roman world, prison cells were holding pens for accused criminals until their trial or execution. That reality is implied in the exhortation to “become faithful until death.”
The church will be tried for “ten days,” a figure that alludes to the “ten days” when Daniel and his compatriots did not eat food offered to idols, a fitting allusion since the churches were struggling with false teachers that promoted “fornication” and “eating food offered to idols” – (Daniel 1:12-14).
Faithfulness in trials and persecution will produce the “wreath of life,” which refers to a victor’s wreath. And the one who “overcomes,” even in death, will not taste the “second death.” Disciples “overcome,” but paradoxically so, by enduring persecution and martyrdom due to their faithful witness.