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The Church of Smyrna



And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life: I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death. (Revelation 2:8–11)


Of the seven letters to the churches, this is the shortest and Jesus has no criticism to give the church; in fact, it is a letter of consolation and comfort.

Smyrna was the largest and richest city of Asia Minor at the time of the Revelation. It was located about 50 miles north of Ephesus and about 180 miles SW of what is now Istanbul. The modern name of the city is Izmir. The city has a natural harbor that made it an important commercial center and contributed to its wealth. The Smyrnans called the city “the first city of Asia.” In 195 b.c. Smyrna was aware of the growing power of the Roman Empire and made an alliance with Rome against Antiochus III. To solidify this alliance, Smyrna built a temple to the goddess Roma. In 23 b.c. Smyrna was given the honor of building a temple to Emperor Tiberius because of its years of loyalty to Rome. Because of its loyalty to Rome and its commitment to pagan worship, the Christians of Smyrna experienced severe persecutions under Nero (54–68 a.d.) and Domitian (81–96 a.d.) In 155 a.d. Polycarp, the elderly bishop of Smyrna and disciple of the Apostle John, was martyred in Smyrna. He was to be burned at the stake; but when the flames failed to touch him, he was stabbed to death.


Outline of the letter to Smyrna


In verse 8 the Glorified Christ reveals Himself as “the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life.”

The characteristics of the church as seen in verses 9–10 are its tribulation and poverty and the insidious existence of a synagogue of Satan.

The promise Christ gives to overcomers in verse 11 is that they “shall not be hurt by the second death.”


The First and the Last

Christ reveals Himself to the Church “as the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life.” The reason He presents Himself in these attributes is because of a specific tribulation the church is facing.

The word tribulation means grievous trouble; severe trial or experience. In biblical terms we tend to think of tribulation as some kind of persecution. Most commentators on the Revelation explain the church at Smyrna in the light of historical persecutions of Christians by the Roman government. However, from what Jesus says, the grievous trouble and severe trial came, not from without, but from within. The source of this tribulation was a synagogue of Satan.

The particular attributes of Christ are appropriate, and essential, for the severe trial that was being inflicted on this church. As the “First and the Last”, He is the eternal Christ. This is a great truth we must comprehend and apply in our present world if we are to be the church of God. Early in His earthly ministry, Jesus let us know that the kingdom of heaven would be persecuted. Matthew 5:10, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. Notice that the cause of the persecution is righteousness—being right with God and living out His will in your life.

Throughout the history of the church, it has always faced the severe trial that comes when people professing to the church reject God’s righteousness and try to substitute something else. Sometimes that something else has been heretical doctrines; sometimes it has been some kind of religious practices; but always it has been an attempt to be Christian without having the righteousness of God in the lives of the people.

You will recall that the expression “first and last” is the same as “alpha and omega”. We learned that while alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, the expression implies the entire alphabet, not just the two letters. As the First and Last, Christ is always present before a trial comes and He will always be there when it has passed. What is of greater comfort is that He is always with us through the trial; He will not forsake us as He said in Hebrews 13:5, “I will never leave you nor forsake you”. Also, as the Last, Christ will always be there to pick up the pieces after the tribulation and take His church on into the future and into eternity with Him.

As the one “who was dead, and came to life”, He assures us that He is the true source of eternal life. As the people of God, the ones experiencing the trial over righteousness, we are to remember that we have died to sin according to Romans 6:2 and because of that we can no longer live in it. When a synagogue of Satan begins to infiltrate the ranks of the church, it always wants to make allowance for sin in the lives of professed Christians.

The second thing Jesus mentions about this church is their poverty. It is this very poverty that incites tribulation from the synagogue of Satan. The poverty of which Jesus is speaking is not the absence of money. The poverty of the Smyrnans is actually and asset to them. Jesus spoke of this poverty in Matthew 5:3, “Jesus taught Blessed are the poor in spirit, for there is the kingdom of heaven”.

The word blessed means happy. Why would the poor be happy? Because the poor in spirit are those Jesus came to save from sin. Look at what He said in a synagogue at the start of His ministry in Luke 4:18 (Jesus quoting from Isaiah 61:1):


 The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed.


After reading this verse in the synagogue, Jesus said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

When John the Baptist wanted to be sure Jesus was indeed the Savior he sent his disciples to ask Him, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?”  Jesus sent this answer: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. (Matthew 1:5)

The poverty or being poor in spirit of which Jesus speaks is the recognition of personal sin that only God can forgive. It is expressed ever so forcefully by the publican in Luke 18:13, “And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.

Those that are poor in spirit have repented their sins and experienced forgiveness and have received God’s grace to live out the righteousness of God in their lives. The fact that there are Christians that actually live holy lives through the grace of God angers the synagogue of Satan because their lives nullify any claim they have to being the people of God. Here is the source of the severe trial brought on the true church by the synagogue of Satan.

The “First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life” assures us that as His body, the church of the living God, we can not only endure tribulations but successfully survive the trial.

In Philippians 4:13 the Living Glorified Christ is very real to the Church. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The Living Bible renders this, “for I can do everything God asks me to with the help of Christ who gives me the strength and power”. We may not like tribulation of any kind, but Christ permits it from time to time. When it happens we must acknowledge that Christ permits it and that He will take us safely through it to the end.

If Jesus gave the saints at Smyrna strength and power to remain faithful, He most certainly will give us strength and power to face anything He permits to come our way.


What is a synagogue of Satan?


The definition given by Jesus is that it is people that blaspheme by saying they are Jews when they are not.

First of all, in the context of the church, what does it mean to be a Jew? We know that the Christian church originally consisted of Jews because of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and Judea, and the establishment of the church in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. We also know from the New Testament that there was a faction of Jewish Christians that tried to promote a Judaized Christianity among the Gentiles. But by this time that was mostly a dead issue.

The Jews mentioned by Jesus here have nothing to do with ethnic Jews or Israelites. The Apostle Paul in Romans 2:28–29 tells us who are the Jews of the New Testament.


For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.


The Living Bible paraphrase perhaps captures the meaning in simpler English:


For you are not real Jews just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the Jewish initiation ceremony of circumcision. No, a real Jew is anyone whose heart is right with God. For God is not looking for those who cut their bodies in actual body circumcision, but he is looking for those with changed hearts and minds. Whoever has that kind of change in his life will get his praise from God, even if not from you.


Paul uses a play on words that we do not see in English. The word Jew is essentially the same as the word praise. The Hebrew word Jehudah, Jew, means praise. And in case we need to be told the meaning of the word praise, it means commendable.

Paul speaks of the praise that comes through redemption in Christ in Ephesians 1:3–7.


Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He has made us accepted in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.


Through the grace of God we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, are made acceptable in Christ, and adopted as sons of God. This is all to the praise of the glory of His grace.

Paul continues to emphasize this praise in verses 12 and 14, “we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. . . [the Holy Spirit] who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.”

People that profess Christianity without being NT Jews commit blasphemy according to Jesus. Without the observable qualities of consistent righteousness they are lying and claiming to have a relationship with God they do not have. Jesus taught a parable about such people in Matthew 13:24–30:


“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”


Jesus explains the parable in verses 37–43,


“He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”


The severe trial or tribulation comes on the church when it has to endure the presence of a synagogue of Satan. But remember, Jesus was aware that the synagogue would show up; He promises to keep His church trough the trial, and eventually He will gather out those who practice lawlessness—what the King James Version calls iniquity. Lawlessness, iniquity, is in Greek an-om-ee-ah, meaning that which is illegal. Eventually the synagogue of Satan will be cast into the furnace of fire, which in the letter to Smyrna is expressed as the second death as well as in chapter 20:6, “Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power”. Verse 10 reports that they will be cast into the lake of fire.


Put In Prison


A synagogue of Satan temporarily puts some in the church in prison. This happens only so that they will be tested; the purpose of the testing is that their righteousness will be revealed in contrast to the lawlessness of the synagogue of Satan. In other words, it shows up the synagogue of Satan for what it really is.

How long will we have to stay in prison? How long will this testing last? Answer: 10 days.

We are used to time references in the Revelation such as times, months, days, and it is interesting how those time references always work out to represent essentially that same period in history. Some commentators suggest the 10 days here means 10 years; 10 years of literal persecution.

But Scripture appears use the number 10 to represent the fact of testing:


Genesis 31:7, 41. Jacob’s wages were changed 10 times.

Numbers 14:22. The Israelites tested God 10 times in the wilderness

Job 19:3. Job was reproached 10 times by his friends, and

Daniel 1:12–15. Daniel and his three friends refused to eat the king’s food in an act of faithfulness to God. The test was eating only vegetables and water for 10 days. It is interesting that after the 10 days, they were found to be “ten times better than all the magicians and astrologers who were in all the realm.”


When Christ allows a synagogue of Satan to infiltrate a congregation or the church at large, it always is a test of the faithfulness of the true church.

His counsel is to be faithful—even unto death. This suggests that such a test could last beyond the life times of some or all in the church at the time the test begins. The reward is the crown of life. James 1:12 speaks of this crown of life, “Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him”.

The promise of the Holy Spirit to the church is that “He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death”. That second death is the lake of fire into which the synagogue of Satan eventually will be cast. Enduring the trial and staying true to the righteousness of God and the holy life He intends for you to live insures that you will not fall into the trap of the synagogue of Satan and its bitter end.