Revelation 2: Smyrna - The church under persecution


Bible Study Series: Revealing Jesus in Revelation

Revelation Chapter 2:8-17 Smyrna : The church under persecution


by I Gordon

Letter to the church at Smyrna

Welcome once again as we move through this series in the book of Revelation. We looked last time at Jesus' report card for the first church Ephesus. Remember how nervous you were taking your school reports home to your Mum? Boy were you in trouble! Well much like that school report card there were some good points along with one area of concern... Ephesus had left their first love. We will look at Smyrna's report card today. What were they doing right? What were they doing wrong? Argh - Spoiler alert... they weren't doing anything wrong! There are huge similarities with my school report cards in that regard. Ok, that's not true! But life was not easy for the believers at Smyrna. So today...

  • We'll look at this church's priorities - They were materially poor but spiritually rich!
  • We'll look at persecution, then and now - for this was a church under persecution
  • We'll explore the command to not be fearful for that was something they, and we, need to know
  • We'll conclude with a couple of personal stories of handing the situation over to God no matter what the outcome is!

But let's begin with a quick overview of this letter...

Quick Smyrna Overview

"An ancient city of Ionia, on the western coast of Asia Minor, about 40 miles to the north of Ephesus... The church founded here was one of the seven addressed by our Lord (Rev_2:8-11). The celebrated Polycarp, a pupil of the apostle John, was in the second century a prominent leader in the church of Smyrna. Here he suffered martyrdom, A.D. 155."
Easton Bible Dictionary

  • Meaning of Smyrna: 'Myrrh' - Myrrh was extracted from bark resin and was often used in embalming. It is is a pointer to the death and suffering that they would experience.1 
  • Smyrna was a wealthy city founded three centuries before Christ. Located about 35 miles north of Ephesus it was a major commercial center of Asia Minor.
  • Today the city is called Izmir with a population of around 4.4 million people.
  • In the Bible Smyrna is only mentioned in Revelation chapters 1 and 2
  • Details about the founding of the church are unknown.
  • There is not one word of complaint or condemnation about this church. The only other church with no complaint in the seven churches of Revelation is Philadelphia.

As an overview, the letter has the following:

  • Commendation - They had little and were outwardly poor but were rich in Christ!
  • Complaint - None!
  • Counsel - Do not fear suffering. Be faithful even if it costs your life
  • Warning - None!
  • Challenge - Those that overcome will not be hurt by the second death

Over-riding thought: For me this letter is a reminder of what Christians have faced in persecution and martyrdom, and what they do still face in many parts of the world. It is a reminder of how important it is to set aside Christ as Lord in your hearts. It was also a wake-up call against the self-centered 'gospel' that is preached in many Western churches today. And it encourages us once again to place an unknown future into the hands of a known and good God.

Smyrna Report Card - The Good

Rev 2:8-9 To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: 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!.. 

Even though the prophetic timeline above places Smyrna starting at 100AD the reality is that persecution in general began much earlier. From the Roman Emperor Nero, the body of Christ experienced tremendous persecution. You might recall that both Peter and Paul were martyred in the mid to late 60's under Nero. In an interesting and odd twist, persecuted Christians were actually considered “atheists” by the Roman empire because they wouldn't acknowledge and bow down to the Roman 'gods'. By 100AD Roman persecution was in full swing so it is not surprising that Jesus would proclaim Himself as 'the First and the Last', the One who had gone through death and was now alive! Christianity, it has been said, is the only religion that does not follow a dead man! So Jesus reminded them that He had conquered death and so would believers - even if it meant martyrdom. To give you an example of the type of persecution and life they faced, I found the following quote to be a very sobering comment:

"The Smyrnan believers were victims of the "10 percenters". These people reported Christians to the Roman government and were rewarded with ten percent of the "heretics" property. The believers were thus often wiped out financially and many ended up martyred or in prison. Eventually the Christians were given only one choice - bow to Caesar as Lord or be put to a horrible death."
Hal Lindsey, There is a new world coming

But Jesus knew of their afflictions and material poverty. And the church at Smyrna needed to know that Jesus understood personally what this was like. He even knew what death was like. They needed to be reminded that that He had conquered death and so would they! This is all a good reminder for us about what is important in our life.

What is important to you?
Someone has said that 'the church of the the first three centuries was marked by material poverty and spiritual power.' Whereas the church of our day (in the West) is marked by material prosperity and spiritual poverty. In contrast to Laodicea that had material wealth but was spiritually bankrupt, Smyrna was materially poor but spiritually rich! Which would you rather be? When reading this letter you can't help but notice how different this is to the message spoken in many churches today. This letter is not exactly a 'Your best life now' type of message! I have a sneaky suspicion that the 'health/wealth/prosperity/name it claim it/blab it grab it gospel' wouldn't have sold many books or got many views in the first three centuries of the church. Just like it doesn't in many parts of the world today where Christians are still persecuted and are often materially poor. And, as a reminder, if the gospel you are preaching and believing can't be preached in any part of the world, then spoiler alert... IT ISN'T THE TRUE GOSPEL!

But what is important to you is very telling. I had to learn a wee lesson here this week. I had to have a priority adjustment! Just over a week ago I bought a new car. Not new as 'brand-spanking' new but certainly the newest car I've even owned. I was quite chuffed with it. It was very shiny and smart... until that is I drove away after our Bible study homegroup and heard that death sound... I scrapped the back door and wheel guard on the side of a fence that stuck out, resulting in some small dents and scratches. Boy did I feel terrible. Deflated. Stupid. A right ning-nong you could say. I had only had it a week and had already done this! Now, to put things in perspective, at the same time a terrible earthquake occurred in Turkey and Syria which we spoke about in the homegroup. It looks like it will kill tens of thousands. Many more are injured. Countless families lost their entire homes and possessions. People were still trapped in the rubble, trying to cling onto life. And yet as I got home all I kept thinking about was my car and what I had done! Later that night I said to the Lord that I'm just like Jonah. He got all annoyed because a worm ate his vine, taking away a little bit of comfort, but he didn't care if the Ninevite young ones lost their lives (Jon 4:9-11). And here I was getting all bent out of shape because my car, which Mr Panel Beater can fix, has been a little bent out of shape. And I was not caring about things that really are important! Now, having realized this and having confessed it, you might think that was the end of it and I was instantly released from my angst... but no. When I woke up in the morning I was still annoyed at what I had done and kept thinking about it. So how did I get free from this feeling and get my priorities right you ask? Well I decided to ring my wise, sometimes sympathetic mother and see what she had to say. That phone call helped me a lot. It wasn't so much her words. It was more that she just laughed, and couldn't stop laughing actually. And this made me laugh. She clearly didn't take it nearly as seriously as I did and it helped me to realise what was important. Material things come and go. Dents can be fixed. They don't actually matter. God matters. People matter. Eternal matters, matter. What is important to you?     

So back to Symrna we see that they were materially poor, but spiritually rich. And Jesus wanted to remind them that they had what mattered. But they had others against them as well... 

Rev 2:9 ...I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.

Now as well as persecution from the Roman Empire, the scripture says that the church was slandered and betrayed by the certain Jews whom Jesus called 'a synagogue of Satan'. That's strong language but it was true and it is the same as what Jesus said to the Jews that opposed the truth in His earthly ministry: Joh 8:43-45 Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. (44) You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (45) Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!

The fact is that in the early church especially, the religious Jews opposed the gospel and the churches with all they had. That is why Paul spoke of them as 'enemies' even though they were still loved by God because of His eternal promises to that nation: Rom 11:28-29 As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable.

One famous martyr in the early church was a man called Polycarp2, who was actually the Bishop of Smyrna. The Jews helped in his death as seen in the following quote: 

"The ancient account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, in A.D. 168, eighty-six years after his conversion, is very definite, that the Jews “joined the heathen in clamoring for his being cast to the lions; and, when there was an obstacle to this, for his being burned alive; and with their own hands they carried logs to the pile: the Jews being most desperately forward, as is their custom, to render this service."
William Newell, Revelation, A Complete Commentary

Again, Jesus knew all about this as well. He came to His own (the Jews) but His own received Him not! Some Jews believed and followed Him but the majority rejected Him and called for His crucifixion. So it is from first hand experience that Jesus could say to His church 'I know your afflictions...' And, for that matter, He would say the same to you today when you are suffering. And He would also say...

The Challenge: Do not be afraid

Rev 2:10 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.

Do not fear - even in the midst of suffering... that is the Lord's word then and today. Do not fear. You may not be facing martyrdom or even any great degree of persecution. But you may still face trials some of which are life and death related. Do not fear is the Lord's command 'I have conquered death!'   

The Frequent Command: Do not fear!

If the last few years surrounding Covid have taught us anything it is that the world is easily afraid! They live in fear and are controlled by fear. They are afraid of disease, they are afraid of disaster, ultimately they are afraid of dying. I have a relative, who is not a Christian, that has taken the jab 5 times basically through fear. They call themselves an atheist so all they have is this life which they are desperate to hold onto. The world recently has been controlled by fear and they are willing, it seems, to give up any amount of freedom based on that fear! In contrast the believer is not to be afraid. Listen again to two passages, one from the Old Testament and one from the New on this important topic:  

Isa 41:10-14 'Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.' (11) "Behold, all those who are angered at you will be shamed and dishonored; Those who contend with you will be as nothing and will perish. (12) "You will seek those who quarrel with you, but will not find them, Those who war with you will be as nothing and non-existent. (13) "For I am the LORD your God, who upholds your right hand, Who says to you, 'Do not fear, I will help you.' (14) "Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel; I will help you," declares the LORD, "and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.

Mat 10:26-31 "Therefore do not fear them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. (27) "What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops. (28) "Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (29) "Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. (30) "But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. (31) "So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.

William Newell writes this little poem:

“Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take!
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessing on your head.”

Now Jesus told them that 'I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you.' Remember three things from this:

  • We have an enemy that does not like to see the church or individual Christians progressing. 
  • The Devil can only do what God allows. He is a Devil and has Devilish schemes, but he doesn't have a freehand to just do whatever He likes. 
  • All suffering and trials are a test. With the permission of God, Satan tested Job. This was a very difficult test but one that was, in the end, very beneficial for Job.

For the church in Smyrna, Jesus told them that they would suffer persecution for 10 days. Prophetically speaking it is likely that this refers to the 10 periods of persecution under 10 different Roman Emperors beginning with Nero and ending with Diocletian, whose reign of 10 years was the worst of all!3 But let's not just consign the message of this church to just history because martyrdom for faith in Jesus Christ still continues. Actually, that sentence doesn't come close to portraying what is happening. 

Top 10 Countries persecuting Christians Today

According to missionary organization OpenDoors4 . the top ten countries persecuting Christians today (2023) are:

1. North Korea  2. Somalia  3. Yemen  4. Eritrea  5. Libya  6. Nigeria  7. Pakistan  8. Iran  9. Afghanistan  10. Sudan

OpenDoors records that last year (2022) 5621 Christians were killed for their faith. Approximately 15 a day. It has been said that there have been more martyrs in the 20th century than in the previous 19 centuries combined! One report estimated that 65% of all Christian martyrs have occurred in the last 100 years.5 We should remember that concerning the body of Christ, scripture says: 'If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.' (1Co 12:26)

So Jesus also said 'Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.' It is possible that this sounds a little foreign to the Western Christian's ears that are not used to a call unto martyrdom. But it is not foreign in the history of the church. And it is not foreign to the many today who face persecution and even death, especially from Muslim and Hindi believers. But to all such believers the crown of life will be given. We should note that the Crown of Life isn't just for martyrdom but also for persevering under trials:

Jas 1:12 Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

This crown is one of many that are spoken of in scripture:

1. Crown of Life - Perseverance under trials (James 1:12, Rev 2:10)
2. Crown of Glory - Ministering faithfully to God's sheep. (1 Pet 5:4)
3. Incorruptible Crown - Running the race with self control (1 Cor 9:25)
4. Crown of Righteousness - Loving His appearing (2 Tim 4:8)
5. Crown of Exaltation - Winning Souls to the Lord (1Thes 2:19)

And of course all crowns will be cast before the One who truly is worthy of all worship and honor! (Rev 4:10)

Conclusion & Application

Rev 2:11 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.

You have probably heard the saying 'Born once, die twice. Born twice, die once!' That is a true saying and applies to believers and unbelievers alike. Except believers have been born twice (physically and spiritually) so only have to face one death - the death of this physical body. And if the Rapture occurs during his lifetime, they won't even have to die that one time! No believer will never experience the second death! But unbelievers have only been born physically. They will experience both a physical death and the "second death" - the eternal separation of soul and spirit from their Creator. As believers, no matter what happens in this life, we are to remember this word: 

Heb 2:14-15 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too (Jesus) shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death--that is, the devil-- (15) and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

So as I close I want to draw an application from this message for all believers no matter what they are facing. It is the application of true faith in the face of affliction in whatever form that takes. 

True Faith - Not my will but yours be done
It is critical that in our faith we come to the point, as Jesus did, when we can say 'not my will be yours be done.' In some circles it is taught that this is not faith. Some so called teachers even go so far as to say that praying and asking for God's will is not even Biblical! How crazy can you get? This is faith. It is true faith. It is a faith that has the confidence to trust the outcome of a bad situation to a good God... not matter what that might look like outwardly. This is where the believers at Smyrna got to. 'Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life' was the command of the Lord. Would they suffer? Would they even die for their faith? These believers had to commit their path into His hands and trust Him no matter what. But these tests come in various ways. Let me give you a couple of recent examples of this from my own family. 
I have written and spoken previously how my Mum last year was diagnosed with a 3cm pre-cancerous brain tumor that required her skull to be opened and brain surgery to ensue. Two days before her operation she experienced the Lord. She saw Him and the path to Heaven that lay beyond Him. She had a peace and knew that she had to trust Him whatever the outcome of this risky surgery was. And she did... resting in faith through the whole ordeal. I have spoken about this before so will keep it brief but for those that ask she is doing very well today. 
As another example, just before Christmas my brother-in-law had to experience and learn the same thing. He was shredding tree branches when his finger got caught and the wrong thing got shredded! The pointy boney thing may have looked like a skinny tree branch but alas... it wasn't! Rushed to hospital he was initially told that they would likely have to remove the finger at the second knuckle. He said to them that he was praying and had asking the Lord to save the finger and that they would know what to do when he came back for surgery the next day. When they looked at it the next day they decided to wait before amputating it to see if it improved. Unfortunately it became infected and he was in intense pain for weeks. About 6 weeks later, it became unbearable and one night, with pus oozing out, my sister and brother in law rushed into the hospital, arriving at midnight. By around 5am, still in intense pain and having not yet been called in, my brother in law gave it over to the Lord. He told the Lord that while he would like to be able to keep the finger and that was his request, he knew he had nothing to offer and that it would only be the goodness of God if He was to do so. And he simply placed the finger into God's hands (metaphorically speaking!) and that His will be done. At around 6:30am he was finally seen by a doctor6. As the bandage was removed the pus had cleared and it didn't look infected. The pain had also eased. Speaking later to his specialist the doctor told him that they feared they had made a mistake waiting so long and that the infection traveled further down the bone so they expected that he would lose the entire finger. And yet, here my bro-in-law was... after 6 weeks of pain and 5 hours sitting in the emergency department waiting to see someone, he was finally able to give it over to God, no matter what, and he had a healing finger on the mend! It is now a couple of weeks since then and even though there is still a process of healing to go through, praise God, it is doing better and better and exercising and regaining movement in it! : ) 

So those are two stories with a miraculous outcome. But what if, in God's wisdom, it was time for my Mum to go home? What if in God's wisdom, my brother in law lost his finger? As many of you probably know I previously split my left eye down the middle in a surfing accident and lost all sight in it. There were many prayers offered at the time but it wasn't healed. And that is ok. No doubt you too will have stories were God has sometimes stepped in miraculously... and other times when He didn't. The church at Smyrna had to learn to walk in faith that God would do what is right... no matter what the outcome. And so do we. It is actually an ancient lesson, at one time learnt before the fires of a Babylonian furnace where three young Jewish men stated:

Dan 3:17-18 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. (18) But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up."

And that should be our attitude for whatever fires we experience. The letter and lesson of Smyrna is to have the right priorities in life. To put spiritual things and people ahead of material things7. And to persevere when trials arise, remembering again what the Bible says: 

Jas 1:12 Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

May God bless!

    



  1. The Bible Knowledge Commentary states: "The name of the city, Smyrna, means “myrrh,” an ordinary perfume. It was also used in the anointing oil of the tabernacle, and in embalming dead bodies (cf. Exo 30:23; Psa 45:8; Son 3:6; Mat 2:11; Mar 15:23; Joh 19:39). While the Christians of the church at Smyrna were experiencing the bitterness of suffering, their faithful testimony was like myrrh or sweet perfume to God."

  2. This is a long footnote but it is well worth reading more about the life and martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. David Guzik writes the following:

    "Polycarp was a remarkable example of both the persecution and the courage of early Christians.

    i. The year after Polycarp returned from Rome, a great persecution came upon the Christians of Smyrna.  His congregation urged him to leave the city until the threat blew over.  So, believing that God wanted him to be around a few more years, Polycarp left the city and hid out on a farm belonging to some Christian friends.  One day on the farm, as he prayed in his room, Polycarp had a vision of his pillow engulfed in flames.  He knew what God said to him, and calmly told his companions "I see that I must be burnt at the stake."

    ii. Meanwhile, the chief of police issued a warrant for his arrest.  They seized one of Polycarp's servants and tortured him until he told them where his master was.  Towards evening, the police chief and a band of soldiers came to the old farmhouse.  When the soldiers found him, they were embarrassed to see that they had come to arrest such an old, frail man.  But they reluctantly put him on a donkey and walked him back to the city of Smyrna.

    iii. On the way to the city, the police chief and other government officials tried to persuade Polycarp to offer a pinch of incense before a statue of Caesar and simply say "Caesar is Lord."  That's all he had to do, and he would be off the hook. They pleaded with him to do it, and escape the dreadful penalties.  At first Polycarp was silent, but then he calmly gave them his firm answer: no.  The police chief was now angry.  Annoyed with the old man, he pushed him out of his carriage and onto the hard ground.  Polycarp, bruised but resolute, got up and walked the rest of the way to the arena.

    iv. The horrid games at the arena had already begun in earnest.  A large, bloodthirsty mob had gathered to see Christians tortured and killed.  One Christian named Quintis had boldly proclaimed himself a follower of Jesus and said he was willing to be martyred.  But when he saw the vicious animals in the arena, he lost courage and agreed to burn that pinch of incense to Caesar as Lord.  But another young man named Germanicus didn't back down.  He marched out and faced the lions, and died an agonizing death for his Lord Jesus Christ.  Ten other Christians gave their lives that day, but the mob was unsatisfied.  They cried out, "Away with the atheists who do not worship our gods!"  To them, Christians were atheists because they did not recognize the traditional gods of Rome and Greece.  Finally, the crowd started chanting "Bring out Polycarp."

    v. When Polycarp brought his tired body into the arena, he and the other Christians heard a voice from heaven.  It said, "Be strong, Polycarp, play the man."  As he stood before the proconsul, they tried one more time to get him to renounce Jesus.  The proconsul told Polycarp to agree with the crowd and shout out "Away with the atheists!"  Polycarp looked sternly at the bloodthirsty mob, waved his hand towards them and said, "Away with those atheists!"  The proconsul persisted. "Take the oath and revile Christ and I'll set you free!"  Polycarp answered, "For eighty-six years I've served Jesus; how dare I now revile my King?"  The proconsul finally gave up, and announced to the crowd the crime of the accused: "Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian."

    vi. The crowd shouted, "let the lions loose."  But the animals had already been put away. The crowd then demanded that Polycarp be burnt.  The old man remembered the dream about the burning pillow, and took courage in God.  He said to his executioners, "It is well.  I fear not the fire that burns for a season and after a while is quenched.  Why do you delay?  Come, do your will."

    v. They arranged a great pile of wood, and set up a pole in the middle.  As they tied Polycarp to the pole, he prayed: "I thank You that You have graciously thought me worthy of this day and of this hour, that I may receive a portion in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of Your Christ."  After he prayed and gave thanks to God, they set the wood ablaze.  A great wall of flame shot up to the sky, but it never touched Polycarp.  God had set a hedge of protection between him and the fire.  Seeing that he would not burn, the executioner, in a furious rage, stabbed the old man with a long spear.  Immediately, streams of blood gushed from his body and seemed to extinguish the fire.  When this happened, witnesses say they saw a dove fly up from the smoke into heaven.  At the very same moment, a church leader in Rome named Irenaeus, said he heard God say to him, "Polycarp is dead."  God called his servant home.

  3.  J. Vernon McGee lists them as:

    • Nero—64-68 (Paul was beheaded under his reign)
    • Domitian—95-96 (John was exiled during that period)
    • Trajan—104-117 (Ignatius was burned at the stake)
    • Marcus Aurelius—161-180 (Polycarp was martyred)
    • Severus—200-211
    • Maximinius—235-237
    • Decius—250-253
    • Valerian—257-260
    • Aurelian—270-275
    • Diocletian—303-313 (the worst emperor of all).
  4. See https://www.opendoorsuk.org/persecution/world-watch-list/

  5. See https://earlychurchhistory.org/martyrs/christian-martyrs-now/
    Also https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1901-2000/modern-persecution-11630665.html

  6. Yeah... and he can count himself lucky being seen within 7 hours! Welcome to NZ's post-covid and post-vaccine health system! When my brother in law initially shredded his finger and rushed in hospital there was someone in there that had fallen off his motorbike and had been waiting 3 days for help!

  7. Ok then... yes even my once shiny new car!