Revelation 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Message to Smyrna

Smyrna was a port city with a good harbor about thirty-five miles northwest of Ephesus. The seven cities formed a natural postal route from Ephesus up the coast to Smyrna and Pergamum, and from there inland by the imperial road to Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea (Ramsay 1904:186). This is the route contemplated in John's vision, even though it is impossible to prove that the book of Revelation actually circulated in this fashion. The vision, after all, took place on the island of Patmos (1:9), and a messenger traveling by boat from Patmos would normally land either at Miletus, where Paul in his day met the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:17), or at Ephesus itself (see Acts 20:16). Ephesus is therefore the natural starting place from a literary standpoint. Yet because the actual place of writing of the book of Revelation is unknown, it is impossible to say historically which city in Asia it reached first or in what direction it circulated from there.

In any case, the first three cities (Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamum) were rivals for power and prestige. Smyrna (the modern Izmir) laid claim on its coins to being the "first city of Asia in size and beauty" (Ramsay 1904:255), and it was indeed a city of great natural beauty. Well over a century after Revelation was written, the traveler Apollonius of Tyana urged the Smyrneans "to take pride rather in themselves than in the beauty of their city; for although they had the most beautiful of cities under the sun, and although they had a friendly sea at their doors, which held the springs of the zephyr, nevertheless, it was more pleasing for the city to be crowned with men than with porticoes and pictures, or even with gold in excess of what they needed" (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 4.7; translation from Loeb Classical Library edition, 1.357). Smyrna had also a long history of loyalty to Rome, having dedicated a temple to the goddess Roma as early as 195 B.C. (Tacitus Annals 4.56).

There is no record of how Christianity came to Smyrna. Like the other Asian cities, Smyrna was probably reached as a result of Paul's ministry in Ephesus (compare Acts 19:10). The message to Smyrna accents the contrast between the Roman city and the congregation of Christians who lived there. If the city was rich (as Apollonius implies), the Christian community was poor, yet had its own kind of riches (v. 9). If the city was crowned "with porticoes and pictures, or even with gold in excess of what they needed," the angel of the church in Smyrna was promised the crown of life (v. 10), or (in the words of another New Testament writer) the crown consisting of the "life that God has promised to those who love him" (Jas 1:12). By the early second century (a decade or two after John's visions), the congregation at Smyrna had a pastor or bishop named Polycarp. Ignatius of Antioch wrote letters, which still exist, to both Polycarp and his congregation. Polycarp himself wrote a letter to the Philippian Christians in Macedonia and (according to an account in the Martyrdom of Polycarp) was martyred in Smyrna in the year 156. Nowhere were the words be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life, more aptly fulfilled than in the life and death of Polycarp.

When we were children, most of our mothers taught us not to call names. In recent years the academy, the media and the church have taken our mothers' places by urging us to be always polite and politically correct in language we use about various religious or etenic groups. Yet the Bible is sometimes far from politically correct! There is a considerable amount of name calling, or labeling, in Jesus' teaching and in early Christianity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the book of Revelation. The message to Smyrna assumes that the congregation will soon face an outbreak of persecution, linked to a group labeled a synagogue of Satan (v. 9) and composed of those who say they are Jews and are not. Like the "false apostles" who had come to Ephesus, these bogus Jews are liars (compare 3:9) in claiming to be something other than what they are. Most commentators (for example, Beasley-Murray 1974:82; Wall 1991:73) identify this group as actual Jews in Smyrna who refused to accept Jesus as Messiah (compare Paul's distinction between those who are Jews "outwardly" and those who are Jews "inwardly . . . by the Spirit, not by the written code," Rom 2:28-29). The assumption is that Christians, even Gentile Christians, by the end of the first century were regarding themselves as the true "Jews," and the actual etenic Jews as no Jews at all.

It is true that many Jews in Smyrna were deeply hostile to Christianity, at least by the mid-second century, and eagerly joined with the Romans in consigning Polycarp to the flames (Martyrdom of Polycarp 11.2; 12.1). Still, when the message to Smyrna speaks of those who say they are Jews and are not (v. 9), it is safer to take the words literally. Do we really want to put John (much less the risen Jesus) in the position of claiming that when a Jew calls himself a Jew, he is lying? Even the fine art of name calling requires fair play!

A better interpretation is that the synagogue of Satan consisted of Gentile Christians who had "Judaized," that is, who adopted Jewish ways or even converted to Judaism, perhaps in order to avoid persecution by the Romans (Wilson 1992:613-15). Judaism was an ancient religion, largely tolerated in Roman Asia, while Christianity, being relatively new, was regarded with suspicion by many Asians as an erratic and possibly subversive cult. Judaism may have seemed to some Christians in Smyrna a tempting haven of safety. Ignatius commented in the second century that "it is absurd to talk of Jesus Christ and practice Judaism, for Christianity did not develop into faith in Judaism, but Judaism into faith in Christianity, in which people of every language who believed in God were brought together" (To the Magnesians 10.3; Grant 1966:64). He also warned that "if anyone interprets Judaism to you, do not listen to him. For it is better to hear Christianity from a man who has received circumcision than Judaism from one who has not" (To the Philadelphians 6.1; Grant 1966:103). Such parallels from the Asian cities support the view that the label synagogue of Satan was directed not at Jews, but at Judaizing Gentiles. Some in the Jewish community may even have agreed with this judgment!

Possibly these Judaizing Gentiles are the "cowardly" (21:8), who at the end of John's visions find their place in the lake of fire along with other liars, as well as murderers, the immoral, sorcerers and idol worshipers. The message to Smyrna, however, focuses less on the group's cowardice or avoidance of persecution than on their slander (literally "blasphemy," v. 9) against Christians in that city. Like the Jews of Smyrna in Polycarp's day, they may have actually fomented persecution against others to divert attention from themselves. Whatever the range of reasons, the message to Smyrna views the synagogue of Satan as enemies of the Christian community in that city. The very name "Satan" meant the "Enemy" or "Adversary," as it still did after nineteen centuries (when the Ayatollah Khomeini stirred up the people of Iran by calling America "the great Satan"). The corresponding label, the devil (v. 10), meant the Accuser (compare 12:10), the ultimate source of all false charges against Christians before the Roman authorities.

The congregation at Smyrna, unlike the one at Ephesus, was facing persecution, imprisonment for some, even death. The heart of the message was not "repent," but be faithful, even to the point of death, and the command was reinforced not by a threat (as in 2:5), but by a promise: I will give you the crown of life (v. 10), matching the promises to those who "overcome" in all seven messages (compare v. 11). In the message to Smyrna, the angel is a "conquering" angel, and the Christians there a whole assembly of "conquerors."

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The Seven Messages

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The Message to Pergamum

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