Background

  • Smyrna is known today as modern Izmir; located at the south east edge of the gulf of Smyrna and situated on a long peninsula that thrusts out to the beautiful Aegean Sea. In spite of the earthquakes and other events that Smyrna suffered through the centuries, the city had prospered and is today probably larger than it was in the first century.
  • It possessed a good harbour and the city itself curved around the edge of the bay at the base of Mt Pagus which housed its acropolis. Its streets were paved and lined with impressive buildings and temples
  • Smyrna was ranked ‘first of Asia in beauty and size’ (Ramsay – p255). About the time of Christ, the theatre of the city could have held 20,000 and the total population estimated to have been about 100,000. Throughout the Roman Period the city was famous for its wealth and centre of learning.
  • When Rome began to interfere in Asia, Smyrna formed an alliance of friendship with this new republic based on common interest. Smyrna was struggling against the Seleucids in 195BC and Rome helped them. Smyrna responded by helping Rome against the maritime power of Rhodes.
  • This faithfulness to Rome lasted for a period of three centuries. Cicero, the great Roman writer and orator, described Smyrna as ‘the city of our most faithful and most ancient allies’.

Exposition

2:8 – And unto the angel of the ecclesia in Smyrna write;

– here is an epistle full of continual praise by our Lord; it is filled with warm affection

These things saith the first and the last,

– drawn from 1:17-18; equivalent to ‘Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end’ (22:3)

– Alpha and Omega are the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet which consists of 24 letters, answering to the 24 elders of 4:4

– the first/beginning = the immortal manifes- tation of the head of the body, which started with Christ’s resurrection

– the ending/last = the future, when the body will be complete and there will be no further proclamation inviting Jews and Gentiles to inherit the kingdom for ever

– the language is based on Isa 41:4; 44:6; 48:12 where all three references are perfectly in context with the message to Smyrna

which was dead, and is alive;

– this would have given great comfort in the face of persecution and death

– a reference to the fate of the city throughout its history; the city was destroyed in 600BC and remained dead for 300 years; it was then rebuilt as an autonomous Greek city in 290BC when it sprang once more into life

2:9 – I know thy works,

– this is the first of two letters in which there is not a hint of condemnation; it would appear that they had fought the battle against heresy and had won, because a group had already left the ecclesia to form its own meeting – the synagogue of the adversary

and tribulation,

– Gk thlipsis – pressure – they had experienced great pressure to this point in time and more was to come (v10); those leaving may even have stirred up the age-old animosity of the Jews of the city and persecution might have broken out, adding to the tribulation

– tribulation is a necessary evil designed to shape us after the divine fashion – John 16:33; Acts 14:22; Rom 5:3; 2 Cor 4:17; 1 Thess 3:3-4; Rev 7:14

and poverty, (but thou art rich)

– whilst poverty produces its own form of trial, yet they were rich in faith (Luke 12:21; James 2:5; 2 Cor 6:10); they are a marked contrast to Laodicea (3:17-18)

and I know

– a play on the beginning of the verse, he knew both sides of the controversy

the blasphemy

= slander, defamation, injuring another’s good name; their lies were injurious to the name of Christ

of them which say they are Jews, and are not,

– true Jews = Israel of God, circumcised in the heart, whose righteousness is of God – false Jews = Judaisers, who once knew the Truth and retreated back to the synagogue or formed their own schismatic assembly

– it is significant that the Jews of Asia Minor were conspicuous in their tirades against any Christians brought to trial before the Roman authorities

but are of the synagogue of Satan.

– implies that they had left the ecclesia and formed their own meeting (synagogue = collecting, congregation), hence these were most likely those of whom John mentioned in 1 John 2:19

– Satan = that which savours the things of men in opposition to God’s will (Matt 16:23); here, it is a noun of multitude (cp v24 “they”) and is comprehensive of all deceitful errorists (cp 2 Cor 11:13)

– working of the Satan (2 Thess 2:9)

– hence Satan in the Apoc. = ecclesiastical adversary

– note that the Lord had not sent a letter to these false brethren

2:10 – Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer:

– fear is a natural reaction to pain and affliction; no one likes to suffer

– point of 1 Pet 3:14 is be happy and do not fear their terror (phobos = fear)

behold, the devil shall cast some [not all] of you into prison,

– the imperial authorities of Rome were the only ones who had the power to inflict imprisonment and it was generally for those who refused to worship the emperor’s image and sacrifice to Caesar; in AD23 Smyrna had secured from Tiberius and the senate, after keen competition, the coveted distinction of possessing the second temple dedicated the Imperial Cult – hence, the brethren’s refusal to worship the emperor was a double insult

– the diabolos (traducer, slanderer, deceiver) in this place = sin personified in the Roman authorities

– literal imprisonment was not recognised by law as a punishment for crime in Greek or Roman procedures; it was used as a preliminary stage to their trial or the interval between trial and execution – this prison was a prelude to execution!

that ye may be tried

peirazo “to put to the test” – the purpose of the affliction – to test allegiances and to purify (cp Dan 12:10)

– here is a further pruning of the vine

and ye shall have tribulation ten days:

– a day for a year principle (Num 14:34), 10 years of persecution = AD98-117 (some time during the 18 year reign of Trajan); the point is that although more difficulty was to come, the trial had a pre-determined end

be thou

– lit. show thyself – here is a display for the benefit of others; don’t hide your faith!

faithful unto death,

– faithfulness, steadfastness and loyalty in the face of evil and certain death is required; the Lord does not minimise the difficulty, but he does emphasise the boundless reward

– this would have a special appeal to people of Smyrna, because they had been known for their faithfulness to Rome over a period of three centuries

and I will give thee a crown of life.

– stephanos = victory wreath – a symbol of overcoming

– the ‘crown of Smyrna’ was a phrase familiar to the natives of the city, and it probably arose from the appearance of the hill Pagus whose summit was adorned with stately public buildings and its slopes covered with other structures of the town (Ramsay – p256); the promise was given that the ecclesia would experience not only a mere crown of buildings and towers but wear a crown of life

– in Smyrna it was associated with the famous Smyrnan games and occurs on public inscriptions to describe public honour for distinguished service; it was even associated with the appointment of a priest in the temple – it is therefore a reward for athletes, public servants and priests

2:11 – …He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.

– first death = mortality, the second = eternal oblivion at the hand of God for those who are rejected at the judgment seat (20:6)

– those who will be subject to the second death will share the same end as the European beast: cast into the lake of fire (20:14)

– describes the character of those who will be subjected to the second death: the fearful, unbe- lieving, abominable, murderers, whoremongers, sorcerers, idolaters and liars (21:8)