These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, 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.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.
This is second of seven articles on the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3.
Part I: Ephesus
[One quick note on this series - the order of the churches in John's Revelation is the order in which the Roman mail route traveled through Asia Minor - Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea. It is typical of Roman letters to groups in multiple cities to have brief individualized passages to people at each stop along the route, followed by a letter to all concerned. John's Revelation follows this pattern, and was most likely sent as such a letter, from church to church, sequentially, along the mail route - from Ephesus (the coastal city closest to the Isle of Patmos, where John was exiled) to Laodicea, and then back to Ephesus, where it was likely kept by John's disciples and copied for posterity.]
Smyrna, the modern-day city of Izmir, was founded as a port on the Agean sea in the region of Anatolia (”land of the rising sun”). This city is located at the head of the fertile Hermus valley, and provided a key port for transportation of Roman armies during the Second Temple period and continued in this function on into the Early Church period. Approximately 35 miles north of Ephesus, Smyrna vied for years with its southern neighbor for prominence in trade, though by the first century, Ephesus was much larger.
The skyline of Smyrna was, and still is, quite amazing. The city, itself, sits right by the Aegean Sea, bisected by the Hermus River. All around it are beautiful tall mountains and cliffs, on which were built the battlements to protect the city. These natural walls, with their watch-fires at night, were often called “the Crown of Smyrna”, because of their beauty and utility.
Smyrna had one of the largest marketplaces, the agora, in the ancient world. It was also home to a large Jewish population from the diaspora, which helped in the spread of the gospel to this region, but also led to divisions when gentiles were allowed into the Christian church. In this understanding is one of the keys to interpreting the letter from John in Revelation.
The church in Smyrna is the only church to receive a letter from Jesus, through John, without admonishments against its behavior. This church is believed to have been very poor both on the basis of John’s letter and the archaeological record, as opposed to the Jews in the city, who were very well off. In addition to this, it is believed that the Jews in Smyrna were among those who were chief in persecuting this church. This may be what John is predicting when he writes:
I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
By saying of these Jews that they “say they are Jews and are not”, this is most likely in reference to them separating from the Messianic Jews as the “true Israel” (unlike the Jews – both Messianic and non-Messianic – in other areas of Asia Minor, like those in Laodicea, who continued to worship together through the end of the third century). Not only were they persecuting fellow Jews, but they were persecuting those who carried a message of Salvation, doubling their curse.
The leader of the church at Smyrna during the latter first century on into the second century was one of John’s disciples, Polycarp. He and many of the Christians in the church of Smyrna were early martyrs in the Christian faith. Eusebius, an early church historian, and other early church writers make record of the martyrdom of Polycarp, which is a testament to this disciple taking heed of his teacher’s words.
At the age of 87, Polycarp was a widely respected leader in the church at Smyrna, who had escaped death several times. However, pressure from Caesar regarding the matter of Christians in Asia Minor led the local authorities to arrest Polycarp. In order to escape death, he was given an opportunity to declare that Caesar was god. Polycarp refused. Again, the magistrate of the city begged him to recant, telling him just to curse Christ once, so that he could be saved, suggesting that it really didn’t have to be a heartfelt denial. Polycarp’s reply was ‘For eighty six years I have been his servant, and he has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?‘
Unable to change Polycarp’s mind, the magistrate took him to be torn apart by wild beasts, only to find out that the soldiers in charge of the beasts had already put them away and their rules were such that they didn’t have the authority to get them out again (a modern parallel might be folks who live to the letter of union regulations). And so, Polycarp was taken to the coliseum in Smyrna and tied to a stake around which was built a fire. Accounts of the events record that Polycarp laughed at the flames, suggesting that they be made hotter. Finally, one of the soldiers ran him through with a sword, and his blood extinguished the flames. Once the fire was re-lit, Polycarp finally expired – having remained faithful unto death.
Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, 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.
It should be noted that the ‘crown’ mentioned in John’s letter is not a kingly crown, but the wreath awarded to the winner of a race or athletic event. And so the image is that if the church in Smyrna should endure persecution, they would be rewarded for their perseverance.
One other interesting item from some accounts of Polycarp’s martyrdom was that a loud voice from heaven called out to him with a Hebrew phrase – “Hazak hazak venit-hazek“, which roughly translates to “be strong, be strong, we will make each other strong”. This same phrase is traditionally chanted loudly in many synagogues after the reading of each of the five books of the Pentetuch, as a reminder that we are called to strengthen each other in our walk with God.
It is also very interesting that Jesus uses the image of a crown of life as the reward for faithfulness. Because of Smyrna’s place as a “Crown” of beauty in the Roman & Greek empires, this imagery would have been rich to the recipients of the letter – much the same way that one’s heart stirs when you hear the name or mascot of your alma mater, your state, your country or other sources of external pride – it is something both unique and familiar.
What Does This Mean for Us?
First, as Jesus taught, we should not store up our treasures here on earth, because our Father will prepare for us riches in heaven instead. As the church in Smyrna is contrasted, later, to the one in Laodicea, one very poor and the other very rich, we can see this contrast being portrayed by John – where the first will be last, and the last will be first. Additionally, the faithfulness required in our culture is not merely ’sharing the wealth’ by sending a check, but going out and serving faithfully, even unto death, should it be required.
To assist us in this, the Lord has given us each other to cheer each other on and to make each other strong. In the Roman Olympic games, runners had friends who would run beside them, cheering them on throughout the latter, most difficult stretches of the race. Paul alludes to these as part of the cloud of witnesses cheering us on (Hebrews 12:1). While it seems that the modern temptation in the church is to ’shoot the wounded’, on the contrary, we should be helping to strengthen them in the difficult stretches of the race – to help them be faithful unto death.
Hazak hazak venit-hazek!