Summary: The faithful of Smyrna suffered hardship, but they were spiritually prosperous and steadfast in their devotion to Christ.
"Smyrna-the Suffering Church" -Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts.
Sermon series on the Letters to the 7 Churches of Rev 2-3
When school report cards are issued, it’s can be a stressful time. Any assessment we receive is supposed to help us see our strengths and weaknesses, to show where we need to improve. Whenever we receive a performance appraisal it’s usually for our benefit alone...but the 7 evaluations we’re considering are for all believers. They come from the Lord Jesus, Who stands in the midst of His churches.
Ancient Smyrna is the modern-day city of Izmir, one of the largest cities in Turkey. It sits at the head of the Gulf of Hermuz, about 35 miles up the coast from Ephesus. It is the only one of the 7 cities still in existence. Smyrna, or Izmir, is blessed with a well-protected harbor and a natural outlet to the Aegean Sea. The coins of ancient Smyrna depict merchant ships ready to sail. The city was originally a Greek colony, and the birthplace of the poet Homer. It was a prosperous city and well-known for its schools of science and medicine.
Jesus is described as "the First and the Last" (vs 8); He is the Lord of history, the eternal God Who has always existed and who always will exist. He is in control regardless of the evil circumstances affecting believers. In 1:8 Jesus declares, "I am the Alpha and Omega, Who is, and Who was, and Who is to come, the Almighty." Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet…Jesus is the first, last, and everything in-between. Ralph Carmichael composed a hymn, "He’s Everything to Me." Is Jesus everything to us? Is He our "Alpha and Omega"? Smyna was called the "First of Asia". I suppose their motto was "We’re number one!" The city was first in beauty and loyalty to Caeser, but Jesus is first in everything. He deserves our undivided loyalty and devotion.
In vs 8 Jesus also refers to His resurrection; He "died and came to life again." Our Lord is making an analogy to the city’s own experience of death and rebirth. Smyrna had been invaded, destroyed, and rebuilt. This reminds me of the German city I last lived in, Wuerzburg, which was leveled by the British during WWII, but today it is completely restored. Smyrna was called in John’s day "the pride and flower of Asia," renown for its beauty. Historians describe it as the most splendid of the 7 cities. The name Smyrna refers to myrrh, a sweet perfume (the same given by the Magi). We have no Biblical account of the founding of the church of Smyrna, though scholars believe the church began as a result of Paul’s 3rd Missionary trip (Acts 19).
Smyrna’s citizens were among Rome’s strongest allies. In 195 BC they built a temple to the "spirit of Rome" as a sign of their loyalty to the Empire. Emperor worship became compulsory for every Roman citizen on threat of death. We can imagine their opposition to Christians, whose refusal to conform to state worship was interpreted as disloyalty to Rome. Jesus states that He is well-aware of their "afflictions" (vs 9).
It must have been exceptionally difficult to live as a follower of Christ in Syrna. Believers were regarded with suspicion and were subject to discrimination.
Jesus also refers to their "poverty". Why was this church so poor in such a prosperous city? Economic sanctions may have been imposed against these non-compliant Christians; they may have been denied trade and employment opportunities.
The faithful of Smyrna suffered hardship, but they were spiritually prosperous. James tells us in his letter, "the poor of this world are rich in faith" (2:5). Christ commends the church for its spiritual wealth. It’s possible to be monetarily rich yet spiritually bankrupt.
Jesus then directs some harsh words toward those who claimed to be children of Abraham but who were not living a godly life. It is not enough to be born into a religious home. We have to individually come to the point of decision-will we trust the Lord, or go our own way? There was tension between Christians and Jews living in Smyrna. Hostile slander was being leveled against the followers of Christ, who were regarded as heretics. The slander came from people pretending to be religious Jews, who viewed Christianity as a threat to Judaism. Yet Christianity is thoroughly Jewish. The Old Testament is the foundation for the New. Paul asserted that "If you belong to Christ, then you are the children of Abraham" (Gal 3:29). Christianity finds its true identity in connection with Israel. The writers of the New Testament did not regard Christianity as a religion distinct from Judaism. These early followers of Christ did not leave Judaism. They saw their relationship to Jesus the Messiah as the fulfillment of their faith. The stronger our Christian faith, the more Jewish we will regard ourselves. We could not exist without Judaism. But Jesus here refers to evil-doers who He condemns as "the synagogue of Satan."