Summary: It's a letter full of sufferings but also a letter full of comforts and consolations as well.
Letter to Smyrna Revelation 2:8-11
We heard last week that John the Apostle was commanded by Jesus in a vision to write seven letters to seven Churches. We looked at the first letter which John wrote to the Church in Ephesus. This was a warning letter telling them that they had started off OK but now had to return to their first love.
This week we will look at the second letter which was written to the Church in Smyrna.
The city of Smyrna was situated about 40 miles north of Ephesus on the coast. It was the next Church the postman would deliver to after he had been to Ephesus. Like Ephesus, Smyrna had a good harbour and was right on the main trade routes. It was a really prosperous city with many merchants and a flourishing export trade.
The city of Smyrna was a Roman colony and was very proud of its connection to Rome. It was a supporter of the Roman demands for public worship of the Emperor as being divine.
We don't really know when the Church in Smyrna was first founded as it is not mentioned at all in either Paul's letters or the Book of Acts.
In fact it's not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament until we reach the Book of Revelation. However there is an early tradition that Paul the Apostle visited the town on his way to Ephesus. It's actually more probable that the Church in Ephesus was founded first and that the Church in Smyrna grew from this. Possibly even a Church plant.
So what did Jesus have to say to the Church in Smyrna?
First of all there is the greeting in which the Church is reminded of exactly who is actually writing this letter.
These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.
Jesus Christ, the Alpha and Omega, the first and last.
Then we get to the real meat of the letter. Verse nine says
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.
It's clear that the meaning of this is persecution. The Church here was really having problems as the enemies of Christianity could be cruel and aggressive. Because of the fact that Roman law demanded that all citizens should worship the Emperor as God
it would have been a very dangerous thing to be a Christian in Smyrna at that time.
We are not told in this letter what caused the persecution that they were suffering but we can piece it together and try to reconstruct the situation.
In 195 BC, about 300 years earlier, a temple to Dea Roma, or the goddess Rome, had been built in the City. And partly through this they had gained a reputation of being totally loyal to Rome and the empire.
Around about the year 25AD many of the cities in the area had been competing for the honour of building a temple to the Emperor Tiberius. And in the end that privilege was given to Smyrna. This was obviously a matter of great pride for the town.
So what happened to the Christians? Did they refuse to take part in the worship of the Emperor?
Of course they did!
They knew that to offer worship to anyone other than God would be idolatry and they could never call Tiberius Lord, not when Jesus was their only Lord. The problem was that the proud citizens of Smyrna couldn't or wouldn't understand this and assumed it was just a lack of patriotism and even treason.
This bad feeling against the Christians was made worse by the Jews living in the town. As Jews they had been allowed by the authorities to be exempt from this Emperor worship, but they used the privilege this gave them to cause trouble for the Christians who they hated.
The persecution that the Church had to put up with came in four parts. poverty, slander , imprisonment and death. All of these are shown in verses 9 & 10. The Christians were poor in one of the richest towns in the area.
One of the people who would have been sitting in the congregation at the time that this letter was being read out was a young man aged about 20 called Polycarp. He later became the Bishop or Elder of the Church at Smyrna.
The story goes that he was converted by the Apostle John himself. He was certainly respected as a Church leader by other Churches. We know that he received a letter and a visit from one of the early church fathers, Ignatius of Antioch, just before Ignatius was martyred for his faith.