The second church addressed by Jesus in Revelation chapter 2 is the one in Smyrna. It’s one of the two churches about whom Jesus doesn’t have a negative word to say. (The other one is Philadelphia). Interestingly, these two churches who were the most faithful were also the ones who were undergoing the most serious persecution. Coincidence? Probably not.
Let’s read the letter now. As you do, see if you can spot the pairs of opposites that seem to be the theme of this letter.
2:8-11 To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.
- Who is Jesus? He’s the first… as well as the last. He not only died, but also rose to life.
- How are the believers in Smyrna described? They are poor, in the material sense, yet paradoxically rich, in the spiritual sense.
- Who is against them? The people who claim to be Jews, but in reality are not – they’re not the people of God, but a synagogue of Satan! (Compare this with Jesus’ scathing attack on the Jewish leaders in John 8:44 “You are from your father, the devil”.)
- What are they called to do? Be faithful unto death, because it will result in life.
What’s going on here with all these pairs of opposites? The Christians in Smyrna are in a very dark place, humanly speaking, but Jesus wants them to see themselves as God sees them. They might think they’re poor, but in God’s eyes they’re rich, because they have Jesus. They might think they’re being opposed by God’s own people, but in God’s eyes they are his true people, and their opponents merely think they are.
More than that: Jesus wants the believers in Smyrna to see themselves in light of Jesus’ own story. Just as Jesus suffered at the hands of the Jewish leadership and died – but then came back to life – so, too, will they suffer and die, but be given eternal life as their “crown.” Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection becomes the pattern by which they should understand their own experience. (This theme pops up again in Rev 11, too, in which the two witnesses, symbolising the church, are similarly killed then resurrected.)
In fact, they won’t just be brought back to life – they’ll be vindicated in the eyes of everyone. Jesus’ own resurrection was a vindication – a demonstration that he was in the right, and the Jewish leadership was in the wrong. And this is promised to the faithful believers in Smyrna:
- They will suffer for “ten days.” Back in Daniel 1:12-16, Daniel and his faithful friends, exiled in Babylon, were allowed to remain true to God, following the OT food laws rather than the unclean food of the Babylonians for ten days – at the end of that time they were vindicated by the fact that they appeared more healthy than those who’d eaten the Babylonian food.
- They will receive life as their “victor’s crown.” The word for crown (stephanos) was not usually used for a royal crown, but for the wreath given to the victor at the games (for which Smyrna was known). In other words, they’ll be acknowledged by all as the victors.
To think about
Now most of us reading this won’t be under the threat of death for their faith in Jesus. (Although if you are, this letter is especially for you.) But still: whenever you feel attacked or marginalised or ridiculed for your faith, remember what Jesus says to the church at Smyrna: you might see yourself on the outer, but you’re right at the centre in God’s eyes. You might face suffering and even death, but just like me, you’ll also rise again to new life. And, ultimately, you’ll be vindicated – even those who persecute you will one day have to acknowledge that you were in the right.