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Studies in the book of Revelation: When you’re afraid of tomorrow

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Revelation 2:8-11

In this study, we visit Smyrna, the second of the seven churches of Revelation and location of the modern-day city of Izmir. “Smyrna” is translated elsewhere in the New Testament as “myrrh.” Myrrh was a gum resin used to make perfume, oil, and embalming fluid. It was extremely bitter. This city was so named because myrrh was one of the products often traded through its port.

For Christians living in ancient Smyrna, “myrrh” or bitterness was not just a name but a reality. Consider the following five stark areas of contrast between the city and her Christian population.

First, her beauty. Smyrna was a thriving metropolis located 35 miles north of Ephesus. She was a resurrected city–destroyed around 580 B.C. by Alyattes, king of Lydia, the city lay in ruins for 300 years before being rebuilt personally by Alexander the Great as a model city and center for his cultural movement.

Her population of 200,000 made her the second-largest city in Asia Minor. While Ephesus claimed to be the “Light of Asia,” Smyrna was known as the “Glory of Asia.” She owned a famous stadium and library, and boasted the largest public theater in Asia. The city also claimed to be the birthplace of Homer, with a famous monument dedicated to the poet.

In contrast, the Christians living in Smyrna struggled for survival and lived in the most basic simplicity. They experienced none of her beauty and grandeur.

Second, her wealth. The city lay on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea and boasted an excellent harbor. The road leading east from Smyrna extended to the rich valley of the Hermus River, making the city a major export center in the ancient world. While impoverished Christians struggled to support their families and earn the barest of essentials, the rest of their city lived in remarkable wealth and opulence.

Third, her heathen worship. The most famous road in Smyrna was called the “Golden Street.” At one end of it stood the Temple of Cybele, and along its way there were temples to Apollo, Asklepios, and Aphrodite. Inland, where the Golden Street ran into the foothills, stood the Temple of Zeus.

Smyrna was also famous for her devotion to emperor worship. She was the first city in the world to erect a temple to Dea Roma, the goddess Rome, in 196 B.C. (Tacitus, Annals 4.56). In AD 26 the city competed with eleven other Asian cities for the opportunity to erect a temple to Tiberius, the reigning emperor, and won.

In contrast, the Christians of this city met in humble, obscure places of worship, in the midst of some of the most stunning temples and religious shrines in the Roman world.

Fourth, her pride. Smyrna was known as the proudest city in Asia Minor. She claimed to be the first in beauty, first in Caesar worship, and the birthplace of Homer. She was the center of all that was glorious and great. And so her people looked in utter contempt on the poor and humble Christians in their mist.

Choose Caesar or Christ

Smyrna had always been a center of great political influence. In the numerous civil wars of preceding centuries she had consistently chosen the winning side, and the winners were grateful. Her emperor worship and political connections made Smyrna a place of great political prestige and influence. The government which crucified Jesus would do no less to his followers here who commanded little respect from their pagan neighbors.

In Smyrna, the worship of Caesar as Lord was mandatory and enforced. When such worship was offered annually, a certificate was given to the worshiper. Failure to possess this certificate was punishable by death. We have an actual request for such a certificate, found among the artifacts of the Empire:

To those who have been appointed to preside over the sacrifices, from Inareas Akeus, from the village of Theoxenis, together with his children Aias and Hera, who reside in the village of theadelphia. We have always sacrificed to the gods, and now, in your presence, according to the regulations, we have sacrificed and offered libations, and tasted the sacred things, and we ask you to give us a certification that we have done so. May you fare well.

Accompanying the request was an official certificate which read: We the representatives of the Emperor, Serenos and Hermas, have seen you sacrificing. Then the date follows (Barclay, Letters to the Seven Chuches, 29).

Those who refused to burn incense to Caesar and proclaim him as Lord were subject to charges of treason and paganism, and often put to death in Smyrna. Believers here risked their lives daily to follow Christ.

And the Jewish population in the city only made things worse for the Christian church. The Empire had long since given up coercing the Jewish people into their emperor worship. And so they granted them an exemption from this idolatrous practice. So long as they saw Christianity as a Jewish sect, they exempted Christians from emperor worship as well. But the Jewish leaders in Smyrna soon made clear their own rejection of the Christian faith.

And so Jesus says, “I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (v. 9). The Christians faced persecution from their Roman rulers and their Jewish neighbors as well. Things were “bitter” indeed in Smyrna for the followers of Jesus.

Why serve Jesus?

Jesus offers his suffering saints several reasons why they should choose to follow him and not Caesar, even in the face of a very uncertain future.

First: he knows our problems and has conquered them. In verse 8 he claims: “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” Jesus calls himself “the first and the last,” identifying himself with God the Father, who called himself by essentially the same name earlier (1.8). In Isaiah 44.6 the Lord says, “I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God.” Now Jesus claims this same sovereignty for himself. And he makes clear the fact that he “died and came to life again.” He has already defeated our greatest enemy, so we have nothing to fear when we follow him.

Second, he knows our pain and shares it personally. He knows our “affliction.” This word translates thlipsis, meaning “pressure,” a terrible burden which presses down and grinds us up. The Greeks used this word for the stone that grinds wheat into powdery flour, or presses grapes into wine. Jesus knows the burden we are bearing today.

He knows our “poverty” as well. This is the word ptocheia, which means the person who has nothing at all (contrasted with penia, meaning someone who has nothing to spare). Early Christians were typically poor (cf. 1 Corinthians 1.26-27; 2 Corinthians 6.10; James 2.5), and often suffered the confiscation of their goods and property (Hebrews 10.34). But in Smyrna, Christians lost everything. Jesus knows our financial needs, whatever they are.

He knows our “slander.” The word is literally “blasphemy.” The Jewish leaders hated Christians and slandered them in terrible ways. And he knows our pain. When he says “I know” in v. 9, he means that he feels their pain deeply. He has been wherever we are today.

Third, he controls the future. He flatly states, “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 the crown of life” (v. 10). He knows what will happen to them in the future, but promises a reward far greater than their present sufferings.

“Ten days” means a hard time of limited duration. Jesus may be referring to Daniel’s ten days of testing in Babylon from which he and his friends emerged victorious (Daniel 1.11-16; see also Genesis 24.55). We would say that things will be hard “for a while.” But the eleventh day always comes, and with it our victory.

God will never let us suffer beyond what we can stand: “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10.13).

Last, he rewards our faith. When we are faithful unto death, we will receive the “crown of life.” This is the stephanos, the wreath of victory given at the Olympic Games to the victorious. God will give us great reward when we have served him faithfully. James 1.12: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”

And so, “He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death” (v. 11). The “second death” refers to the final, eternal judgment and punishment of the wicked (cf. Rev 20.11-12, 14-15). Jesus warned unbelievers to fear judgment (cf. Luke 12.4-5). But he comforts us with the knowledge that our faith will be rewarded eternally.

The Smyrnan Christians continued to be faithful in the face of an uncertain future. Ignatius wrote to their church around AD 107 these words:

I give glory to Jesus Christ, the God who has thus given you wisdom; for I have observed that you are established in immovable faith, as if nailed to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, both in flesh and spirit, and confirmed in love by the blood of Christ, being fully persuaded as touching the Lord (Ignatius, “To the Smyrnians” 151).

What about the future most worries you today? How would you commit that problem to God, right now?