Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Smyrna, the modern city of Izmir in Turkey, was a long-time ally of Rome, even during its wars with Carthage (North Africa). It boasted a temple to the goddess Roma as early as 195 BCE and won the honor of building a temple to honor Emperor Tiberius in 26 CE. Consequently, Smyrna had the civic honor of Neokoros (Temple Guardian) as well as Ephesus and Pergamum (cf. Friesen, Twice Neokoros, 57-59). The Emperor cult was alive and well in this city of between 100,000-200,000 people. (The photo shows the remains of Smyrna’s agora or marketplace where a statue of Zeus was prominent.)
One of the most significant early Christian leaders was from Smyrna–Polycarp. He was martyred in 156 CE. (identified as the “twelfth” martyr from Smyrna) and claimed that he had served Christ for eighty-six years (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 9, 19) which would place him among those addressed in this letter (assuming he lived in Smyrna at the time). We know he was the “Bishop of Smyrna” when Ignatius wrote his letter to Smyrna and subsequently wrote a letter to Polycarp himself (around 112-115 CE). Polycarp’s reputation in the history of the early church is parallel to Smyrna’s reputation in this letter–a faithful, suffering witness to Jesus.
Addressor: “The words of the first and last, who died and came to life.”
The language comes from the Christophany in Revelation 1:17-18. The first phrase identifies him with Yahweh who is so described by Isaiah (44:6) and the latter identifies him as the one who returned from Hades. This return to life, however, was not simply a resuscitation, but a resurrection or transformation, that is, he is the “firstborn from the dead” (1:5). The language underscores his presence as a divine figure who has overturned the powers of Hades and Death. The reference to death is particularly appropriate as the church at Smyrna will face a testing that will bring them to the edge of death in their faithful witness.
Commendation: “I know….”
- “your tribulation”
- “your poverty”
- “the slander”
Probably these three are linked in some way. Their troubles are partly economic perhaps brought on by the slander of hostile neighbors. The picture is larger than that, of course, but the interconnection of economics, slander, and troubles is part of the drama in the next vision (Revelation 4-16). Christians were sometimes boycotted and denied economic access; at other times they refused to participate in idolatrous rituals which would have been economically beneficial. Their faithful witness has exacted a heavy price. But their wealth is not found in Roman materialism but in the richness of God’s community.
The risen Christ identifies the source of the slander (literally, blasphemy). They “those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Oster’s discussion of this line has been one of the more helpful ones to me (Seven Congregations, 120-125). Some believe this refers to Jews who reported some of their former synagogue members to the authorities on the grounds that they no longer contributed the tribute tax demanded by Romans after the destruction of Jerusalem (the Fiscus Judaicus; cf. Suetonius, Domitian, 12.2; Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 7.6.6). In other words, some Jews may have incited legal proceedings against some Christians on the part of the Romans.
Others, like Oster, believe it is more likely that this is a matter of sectarian hostility between Christians and Jews. Just as Jews began to exclude Christians from the synagogue, so Christians regarded Jews hostile to Jesus as representatives of the powers that lie behind the evil in the world. Satan is the power that lies behind the Empire but Satan also slanders Christians at the synagogue.
This is not a function of anti-Semitism as if Christians hated Jewish ethnicity or hated them as “Christ-killers.” Rather, it is tension born of different loyalties and sectarian division (a tension evident in the Martyrdom of Polycarp [12-13] when Jews are described as those who collect the wood to burn Polycarp). The Satanic image reflects a broad apocalyptic understanding that the risen Messiah is engaged in a cosmic conflict with Satan and whoever opposes the Messiah serves the purposes of Satan. Consequently, Paul referred to his opponents in Corinth as “servants” of Satan (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
There is also a claim here that true Jewishness is not found in ethnicity. Rather, it is found in following the Messiah. Revelation will describe the faithful in terms of Jewish theological roots, even the twelve tribes of Israel (Revelation 7:1-5). For Revelation authentic Jewishness is faith in the Messiah–following the Lamb rather than ethnicity or Torah-keeping.
Imperatives: “Do not fear…Be faithful unto death.”
The context for these imperatives is the impending “tribulation.” They have already suffered some trouble, but more is coming, perhaps an escalation. Imprisonment is coming for some and maybe some will even suffer to the point of martyrdom (“faithful to the point of death”). The faithfulness demanded here is not merely a faithfulness until one dies but a faithfulness that might lead to death itself like Jesus himself.
The prophet characterizes this period as a “testing” or some kind of probation. Theologically, God will permit a time of testing. This is a consistent trajectory in Scripture (Genesis 22:1; Psalm 81:7; Jeremiah 11:20; 20:12; Proverbs 17:3; 2 Chronicles 32:31; 1 Thessalonians 2:4). It is one of the ways the people of God are refined. God tries us to see what is in our hearts, that is, where our treasure lies (cf. Deuteronomy 8:2).
The most curious dimension of this probationary period is its length. What does “ten days” symbolize? Some think it identifies a short period of time in contrast to, say, a thousand years. Given the context of probation and testing, it seems more likely that we find the roots of this image in a significant moment of testing that lasted ten days in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Daniel four Hebrew young men are “tested” for “ten days” (1:12-15). The Greek Scriptures (LXX) use the same language that we find in Revelation 2. The “ten days” is probably a metaphor for a period of testing analogous to Daniel’s own testing (cf. Beale, Revelation, p. 242). The question is whether Christ-followers will refuse assimilation just as Daniel and his friends did or will they compromise their faith.
Death as a faithful witness, however, is victory; it brings a “wreath (stephanon) of life.” Death is not defeat as the faithful witness is awarded a victory wreath. A stephanos was given to victors in athletic contests as well as on other occasions (military victories). This is not a royal crown of authority but a victory celebration. The laurel wreath was commonly depicted in Greco-Roman art, even on tombstones where it depicts the reward for a life well lived (see the image at Oster’s site). The coin on the right, minted in Thyatira during the reign of Domitian, pictures Nike holding a victory wreath.
Admonition: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
The “testing” is coming; indeed, it is already here. Who is listening?
Promise: “The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.”
The one who was once dead but is now alive promises the same for those who overcome or conquer. The “second death” is the fiery lake described in Revelation 20:14 or, in common parlance, “Hell”. In other words, there will be no second death for those who die in faith. They will, like the Messiah, live forever. This is the Christian hope–resurrected life.