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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Revelation Letter to the Seven Churches: Smyrna

Our little church congregation is embarking on a bible study of that book at the end of the Bible that everyone talks about but no one actually reads - The Revelation.  I'll try to publish here in this blog some of my notes as we go along.

Revelation 2: 8 – 11 Smyrna

Traveling 40 miles north from Ephesus would bring you to city of Smyrna, which claimed to be the “Glory of Asia.” It was founded before 1200 B.C. and later destroyed. It was rebuilt in 300 B.C. according to plans made by Alexander the Great. It was a rich and beautiful city; the most important seaport of Asia Minor as it was on the direct trade route from India and Persia to Rome. Archaeologists have found a wide variety of coins at the site. Smyrna also claimed to be the birthplace of the poet Homer. Today, it is the modern day city of Izmir.

The city of Smyrna was a center of the Emperor cult with a temple devoted to the worship of Tiberius. In addition to the Emperor’s temple, the city was surrounded by a ring of temples and other buildings, which gave rise to the expression “crown of Smyrna.” Ancient historians compared the city’s crown to the crown of the goddess, Cybele. This may be why the description of Smyrna’s reward is a “crown” of life.

There was a large Jewish population in Smyrna, who were hostile to the Christians. This population increased after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. when Smyrna became a favorite settlement with Jews. The Jews of the city incited the people to kill the Christian Polycarp in 155 A.D.

The name Smyrna seems to be derived from myrrh. Myrrh is an aromatic gum that is produced by a thorny bush in Africa and Arabia. It was used as a painkiller (Mark 15:23; John 19:39) and for embalming a corpse. “It well describes a Church persecuted unto death, and lying embalmed in the precious spices of its sufferings (Seiss, 70).”

The letter to the Church at Smyrna is structured around a series of contrasting opposites:
First - and – Last
Was dead - but - has come to life
Your poverty - though - you are rich
claim to be Jews - but - members of synagogue of Satan
Even if you have to die - and - crown of life

Of all the seven letters, the letter to the Christians at Smyrna is the most complimentary. There is no word of condemnation, only praise and encouragement from the First and Last (Isaiah 44:6; 48:12). The Christians had endured persecution and tribulation from all sides. They refused to acknowledge the Emperor as Lord; refused to participate in the worship of the State. For this they would have been subjected to hostility and confiscation of their property (Hebrews. 10:34).

There was no hope of a “rapture” for these Christians. They had to endure the persecution and tribulation. There was no “prosperity gospel” for them; no “name-it-and-claim-it” theology. They were poor, yet they owned everything (2 Corinthians 6: 10). They were rich in what really mattered.

The One who was dead and had come to life again knew of blasphemous lies and slander they had endured from those who claimed to be Jews but were not (Romans 9: 6). A true Jew, as the Apostle Paul wrote, is not one outwardly with the mark of circumcision, but inwardly with the mark of Jesus Christ on their hearts, with the Spirit (Romans 2: 28 – 29). Being a true Jew according to the New Testament is not a matter of racial heritage but a matter of salvation. The person (regardless of race) who has been clothed in the righteousness of Jesus is inheritor of the promises of Abraham (Romans 11:11 – 24). The Dispensationalist division between Israel (Jews) and the Church (Christians) is an artificial and unbiblical division.

These false Jews, though they claimed to be descendants of Abraham were really children of the devil (John 8:39-44) and members of the synagogue of Satan. The word “Satan” itself means adversary, and the early Christian community often faced slander and lies from the Jews. This point is further illustrated by the fact that the Christians of Smyrna were to face persecution from the devil which means “the Slanderer.” Even a casual reading of the book of Acts will reveal the intensity of the Jewish conflict with the early Christians (Acts. 6: 9 – 15; 13:10; 14:2 – 5; 17: 5 – 8; 18:6, 12 – 13; 19: 9; 21:27 – 36; 24: 1 – 9; 25: 2 – 3, 7)

The Jews of Smyrna had allied themselves with the Roman government in order to harass the Christians of the city. Some of them would be thrown into prison for a time so that they could be tested. In all of this, however, they were sharing in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:12). Jesus assured them that the tribulation would be fierce but short in duration: 10 days. Daniel and his three friends were tested for 10 days but passed the test and were promoted to high position (Daniel 1:11 – 21). This may indicate 10 actual days of testing – but the number 10 is often used to indicate completion or a full measure.

Even so, some of the Christians in Smyrna would be asked to give their lives. The persecution would be fierce and intense and would end in death for some of them. But Jesus promises that if they are faithful and overcome they will receive the crown of life.

“I am the resurrection.
Anyone who believes in me, even though that person dies, will live,
and whoever lives and believes in me
will never die.

John 11:26

Crowns are often listed as a reward to the faithful.  1 Peter (also written in a time of persecution) promises a crown of glory to those who endure suffering (1 Peter 5:4).  The Ascension of Isaiah describes how the faithful will receive thrones and crowns – but only after Jesus descends for the second coming.  (Ascension 9: 10 – 18) In The Martydom of Polycarp, the martyred bishop of Smyrna receives his “crown of immortality” immediately upon his death. (Martyrdom 17:1, 19:2)

“It is possible that this concept of an immortal crown was suggested by depictions of Greek gods with crowns of light or nimbi, such as the halo that later appeared on the heads of saints in Christian art (Rist, 384).”

All Christians everywhere are called to be overcomers, even to the point of death. We have no fear of death because Jesus has won victory over death. “If we have died with him, then we shall live with him. If we persevere, then we shall reign with him. If we disown him, then he will disown us. (2 Timothy 2:12)"

The overcoming Christian is promised that he will not be harmed by the second death. The only other places where the “second death” is mentioned is in Revelation 20:6, 14 and 21:8 which indicate that the second death is in the burning lake of sulfur. In the context of the letter to the Christians at Smyrna, the second death contrasts the physical death that some of them were about to suffer. The Christians have already been made a part of the Resurrection in Christ, “And you were dead…But God being rich in faithful love, through the great love with which he has loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, brought us to life with Christ – it is through grace that you have been saved – and raised us up with him and gave us a place with him in heaven, in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:1, 4 – 6).” Therefore, since they have already been resurrected spiritually with Christ they cannot be harmed by the Second –spiritual – Death; that is, eternal separation from God in the lake of fire.

Seiss, J.A., The Apocalypse Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI

Rist, Martin, “Revelation: Exegesis” in Volume XII of The Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. 1957.

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