The Book of Revelation 2:8-11
To the Church in Smyrna
8. "And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life:
9. "I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part 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. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.
11. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death."
Smyrna, a strategically located seaport on the Aegean Sea about 40 miles north of Ephesus, vied with Ephesus and Pergamum for the title "First City of Asia." These Asian cities competed with one another to gain the good graces of Rome. In 195 BC, Smyrna established a bond with Rome by creating a politically motivated religious cult for the goddess Roma, which personified the Roman state. The worship of Roma eventually became widespread throughout the Roman Empire. Smyrna may be considered the creator of the goddess Roma.
John begins the message to the church in Smyrna with the statement, These are the words of the first and the last. This characterization of Christ as the first and the last comes from John's vision of Christ in chapter 1. It is significant because the Old Testament uses it for Yahweh (the Hebrew personal name of God in the Old Testament) particularly in this text from the second section of Isaiah: "Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god" (Isaiah 44:6). It was quite appropriate to begin a message to this church in a city that deified the Roman Empire with a reference to Christ as the first and the last, which came from an Old Testament text describing God with the same words and affirming that "besides me there is no god." Making gods for our convenience and benefit is a lot easier than you might think. But John is saying to the church in Smyrna that there is one God who has revealed himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Can there be a higher Christology than this?
Another text from the second section of Isaiah puts it this way: "Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called: I am He; I am the first, and I am the last. My hand laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens" (Isaiah 48:12-13). Just as God created all things in the beginning and will make the new creation in the end, so now Christ has that same authority and power.
Another description of Christ, which is equally well suited for the church in Smyrna, is that he is the one who was dead and came to life. As we will see in a moment, this church receives unqualified commendation and no warning. This church suffered affliction, poverty, slander and the prospect of imprisonment and execution. It was incredibly appropriate that Christ should describe himself to this church as the one who was put to death and came to life.
Christ who tasted the bitterness of humiliation, torture and death says to this church, "I know your affliction." This little church in the great imperial city of Smyrna may have felt alone, isolated and ostracized because of its resistance to the cultural pressures to join in the imperial processions, games, celebrations and worship festivals in which everyone else seemed to be involved. It is to this church that the crucified and risen Christ says, "I know where you are because I've been there myself."
Christ goes on to say, I know your… poverty, even though you are rich." This church was economically poor, but in other ways that really count, she was rich. We are not told how it was that the church was impoverished as far as money was concerned, but we can read between the lines.
Imagine this. You have a clay-pot shop in the business district of Smyrna. Once a month your clay-pot trade guild meets to discuss how to increase sales. Each meeting begins with a ceremony in which the image of the emperor is brought in. Everyone stands and bows before the emperor's image. A priest of the goddess Roma offers the opening prayer, beseeching Roma to bless the emperor, the empire, and this guild as it renders its civic duties as citizens of Smyrna and the Roman Empire. When he is done with his prayer, all those in attendance light their incense sticks, which they had received as they came in to the meeting, as an offering of gratitude to the emperor and to Roma. The room is filled with the sweet smell of burning incense.
The clay-pot makers sit down and discuss how to improve their service to the public in Smyrna. They agree that incense pots would be in good demand. Another person suggests that decorative plates with the imprint of the image of the emperor Domitian and the goddess Roma would not only sell well but will demonstrate to everyone in Smyrna and the province of Asia that we Smyrnans are proud of our patriotism and support of our great empire. Still another makes a recommendation to produce statues of Roman, Greek, and Asian gods and goddesses. If you think this is farfetched, read what Acts 19 says about a similar scenario in Ephesus.
You are a Jewish Christian associated with a small group of Christians in Smyrna. You had recently moved to Smyrna from Judea. As you sit in that meeting of your trade guild, you wonder what you have gotten yourself into. You decide not to attend future meetings of the guild because your Christian convictions would be compromised. When you go to the meeting of your Christian friends the following Sunday, you tell your Christian brothers and sisters about your experience at the guild meeting and your decision not to attend future meetings. They all nod their heads in agreement and tell their own experiences with business associations, civic celebrations, town meetings and sporting events. They tell you that the same thing happens at all these events – emperor and Roma worship, burning of incense, pagan prayers, and even animal sacrifices to the gods and goddesses. That's why we decided as Christians, they say, to boycott these events. The problem is that sooner or later our pagan neighbors will notice our absence and accuse us of being unpatriotic. As a result of our boycott of these pagan celebrations, citizens of Smyrna boycott our shops. Our businesses have suffered, and that's why we as a church have meager resources. But we believe we must remain faithful to Christ even if it means economic hardship for us. It is more important for us to be rich in Christ than to have material wealth.
But there is something else that the church in Smyrna faced – the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. There was a large Jewish community in Smyrna. A large synagogue the size of a football field was built in Smyrna a couple of centuries or so after the time of Revelation.
John uses strong language to describe a Jewish synagogue in Smyrna - a synagogue of Satan. However, John does not accuse all Jews to be a synagogue of Satan. John had a high regard for being a Jew. He himself was most likely a Jewish Christian, as indicated by the heavy use of the Old Testament in Revelation. This hyperbole, or exaggerated language, that John used had a rhetorical purpose. It made a strong point. It certainly did not mean that these Jews worshiped Satan. Rather it pointed to the hindrance that some Jews were causing to the Gospel of Christ in this community. It is particularly important in the context of our own time that we be peace-makers when it comes to our relationship with people of other faiths. Let us remember that the context from which John wrote was the exact opposite of our own times. John spoke as a member of a minority group. Since today the majority voice in America is Christianity, not Judaism, we Christians have the solemn duty of using our majority status charitably and wisely. In John's day, Christians were a minority struggling to survive in the face of tremendous opposition and therefore can be forgiven for using such strong language to refer to this particular synagogue in Smyrna.
We must also remember that the literal meaning of the term "satan" in its original Hebrew means adversary or enemy. It is in fact in this sense that Jesus referred to Peter as Satan. When Jesus spoke of his own death, Peter rebuked Jesus. Jesus replied by addressing Peter as Satan because Peter was "seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God's" (Mark 8:33 NLT). John's meaning, then, is that this synagogue was not really being faithful to its Jewish heritage but was acting in ways that were opposed to God's ways. But what exactly was going on?
Again, imagine this. Let's say that our Jewish Christian clay-pot maker (let's call him Isaiah) has a Jewish neighbor (let's call him David) who is a member of the synagogue in Smyrna. David is not a believer in Jesus. He too is a clay-pot maker. Isaiah and David often walk to their respective shops together in the morning. Let's imagine that the following conversation happens on one of those mornings:
david: I noticed that you are not attending our guild meetings, Isaiah.
isaiah: No, I am not.
david: May I ask why?
isaiah: Well, I can't be a good Christian, or a good Jew for that matter, and be at a meeting where people pray to Roma and burn incense to the image of the emperor.
david: I certainly understand your strong convictions. I too had those convictions at one time. But our rabbi at the synagogue tells us that we must try to fit the best we can in the society in which we live. As you know, our pagan friends and Roman officials are aware of our religious sensitivities and have made an allowance for us to practice our exclusive worship of God Almighty as long as we pledge our allegiance to the empire and pray for the emperor. In order for us to survive in this culture, we have to make some concessions and not be so hard-headed about our convictions. What difference would it make if we burned a little incense and bowed our heads a bit to the image of the emperor and to Roma to show that we respect the power of the state and its religious structures.
isaiah: Well, that's just it, David, I can't make those kinds of concessions and continue to be a faithful Jew who takes Jesus Christ seriously.
david: Maybe you Christians should quit calling yourselves Jews. For one thing, you no longer come to our synagogue meetings and instead hold your own separate gathering. Plus, if you continue your boycott of our guild meetings and civic celebrations, people are going to get the idea that Jews in general are unpatriotic and traitors to the Roman cause. Our rabbi has cautioned us that we should no longer have close friendships with this new-fangled sect that you are associated with. So from now on, I don't want to be seen walking or talking with you.
The church in Smyrna faced hostile attitudes not only from pagan citizens but also from the Jewish synagogue. Christ's message to the church implies that these Christians were slandered by the synagogue people. The Greek word translated slander is blasphemia, which can easily be recognized as the word for blasphemy. John's point is that the Jewish synagogue was not only being hostile to Christians but it was also opposing God by being too comfortable with the cultural assumptions of the people of Smyrna and the Roman Empire that combined political, economic, and religious allegiances into a single, gigantic, and colossal monster.
The hostility of the synagogue against the church in Smyrna probably went even further, to the point that the synagogue brought accusations against Jewish Christians to the Roman authorities. Would a Jewish person bring accusations against a fellow Jew to pagan authorities? Unfortunately, yes. The Jewish authorities handed Jesus, a fellow Jew, to the Roman governor Pilate. On numerous occasions, Jewish representatives brought accusations against Paul, a fellow Jew, to Roman authorities (Acts 18:12; 21:27-36; 25:1-5, 24).
But before we begin to feel smug about ourselves as Christians, how many times have Christians taken fellow Christians to court? How many times has a "Christian" nation declared war on another "Christian" nation? In fact, as early as the first century AD, Paul chided the Corinthian Christians because they were taking each other to pagan courts (1 Cor 6:1-8).
Christ offers Christians in Smyrna reassurance as they face affliction, possible imprisonment, and severe testing, even to the point of being killed for their faith. Being a Christian in an empire that provided all sorts of inducements to comply and threats to those who resisted was a daunting task. Is it worth it to throw your life away when a perfunctory pinch of incense to the empire would make all the difference between life and death? The answer of course would depend on how one defined life. Ironically, Christ promises the crown of life to those who are faithful until death. Seen from the perspective of Jesus, it is not the empire that triumphs but those who remain faithful even when the empire crucifies, burns, or beheads them. Such conquerors will not be harmed by the second death. The first death, the death of the body as a martyr, will be remedied when the body is resurrected. It's the second death that is the real killer because there is a dreadful finality about it. There is here a redefinition of what real life and death is all about, which reminds us of a rhetorical question that Jesus asked: "And how do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul in the process?" (Mark 8:36 NLT).
Note again that what was said to the church in Smyrna was intended for all churches, past or present: Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. The church throughout all ages will always have to contend with the seductions and threats of empires. The present time is no exception.
1. Jesus says to the church in Smyrna, "I know your poverty." Can Jesus say this to us who are relatively well-to-do? Should we make ourselves poorer so we can hear the voice of Jesus?
2. What sorts of empires does the church today have to contend with, whether in another country or in our own nation?
3. Is it easier to remain faithful to Christ in a nation that persecutes Christianity or in a nation that recognizes Christianity as its favorite religion? What are the advantages and disadvantages of either scenario?