seven letters  smyna

No, no- not that Empire!

Back in the days of the first century, the powerful Roman Empire ruled over most of the known world. One of the laws that the Empire used to make sure that people stayed loyal to the government was a rule that required every citizen to worship the Roman Emperor as a god. Each year, everyone living within the Empire had to burn some incense to the Roman Emperor (known as "Caesar") and publicly state that Caesar was the supreme god. Once a citizen said the words "Caesar is lord" he or she got a certificate of loyalty to the Roman Empire.

Anyway, of all the cities in the Roman Empire, the city of Smyrna (pronounced "smer-na") was one that really, really emphasized the worship of Caesar as a god. In fact, this city won out over eleven other cities in a contest to build the first temple dedicated to the worship of the Roman Emperor. But the worship of false gods wasn't just limited to the Emperor in Smyrna. People in Smyrna also worshipped some other Greek and Roman gods that you may have heard of like Zeus and Apollo, among others.

Smyrna was a large seaport city that was located in what is now the modern-day country of Turkey. It was well-known in the first-century world for it's beautiful buildings and wide, paved roadways and was even said to be the birthplace of the ancient poet Homer. Smyrna was also an important shipping and commercial center that imported and exported all sorts of goods. All this commerce helped establish Smyrna as a wealthy and prosperous city during the first century and unlike the city of Ephesus that we talked about earlier, the ancient city of Smyrna still exists today under the modern name of Izmir.

So what do you think Jesus might say in a letter to the Christian community in a town like this? Well, let's find out...

"Write this letter to the angel of the church in Smyrna. This is the message from the one who is the First and the Last, who died and is alive" (Revelation 2:8 NLT).

Jesus starts this letter by identifying Himself as the First and the Last, who died and is alive. These terms are important because they establish some important truths about who Jesus really is. For example, when the term "First and Last" is used to describe a person in the Bible, it is always associated with the all-powerful, eternal God who is the beginning and end of everything (see Isaiah 41:4, 44:6 and 48:12). Then there is the reference to (He) who died and came to life again (NIV) which clearly identifies the speaker as Jesus, the One who died and rose from the dead (see Luke 24:1-8). So when these two references are taken together, they clearly establish the Biblical teaching that Jesus is God.

"I know about your suffering and your poverty – but you are rich!" (Revelation 2:9a NLT).

Just as we saw in His previous letter to the church at Ephesus, Jesus knew exactly what was going on with the Christian community at Smyrna. But how is it that these people were so poor while living in such a wealthy city as Smyrna? Well, the answer is kind of easy when you think about it. Remember that the city of Smyrna was a place that really emphasized the worship of the Roman Emperor and other false gods. So if you were a serious Christian living in Smyrna back in those days, how well do you think that you'd get along in a town like this where everybody else worshiped the Emperor? The obvious answer, of course is not very well, which is probably part of the reason why the Christians in Smyrna were in such poverty.

But there was more to it than that. You see, Smyrna also had a first-century version of modern day labor unions called "guilds" back then. These guilds served as organizations for craftsmen and business owners that were set up to establish rules and regulations for each industry. One rule that was strictly enforced was the oath of loyalty to Caesar that we talked about earlier and anyone who refused to say "Caesar is Lord" was denied membership in these guilds. This meant that Christians who didn't worship the Emperor in Smyrna had a tough time finding jobs or customers who were willing to shop at their businesses. Furthermore, anyone who refused to worship the Emperor was considered to be a traitor by the Roman government. This meant that anything they owned could be taken away as punishment for their disloyalty. 

So this helps explain why the Christians in Smyrna were so poor in a city that was so wealthy. In fact, when Jesus says, I know… your poverty, He uses a word that means to be completely broke and to have nothing at all. Yet despite all this, Jesus also says you are rich! How could Jesus say such a thing to people who had nothing? Well, it seems that Jesus was reminding His readers of something that He said earlier in Matthew 6:19-21...

"Don't store up treasures here on earth where they can erode away or may be stolen. Store them in heaven where they will never lose their value and are safe from thieves. If your profits are in heaven, your heart will be there too."

You see, it's possible for people to have a lot of money yet still be poor. It's also possible to have a lot of "stuff" yet still have very little. The best investments are always the ones that are made with eternity in mind. This also ties into something else that Jesus once said in Luke 12:15: "Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions" (NASB). So the Christians in Smyrna were very poor in material things, yet still very rich in Jesus' view.

"I know the slander of those opposing you. They say they are Jews, but they really aren't because theirs is a synagogue of Satan" (Revelation 2:9b NLT).

To "slander" someone means to intentionally make false statements that hurt someone's reputation. Unfortunately, the people who were doing this to the Christians in Smyrna were people who looked religious on the outside but really had more in common with the devil than they did with God. Of course, Jesus was also treated in a similar way by people who lied about Him to the Roman authorities (Luke 23:1-2) and said that he was demon-possessed (Mark 3:22). The important thing to remember is that if Jesus was treated this way, anyone who is serious about following Him (like the Christians in Smyrna, for example) may also get treated the same way too.

"Don't be afraid of what you are about to suffer. The Devil will throw some of you into prison and put you to the test. You will be persecuted for 'ten days'" (Revelation 2:10a NLT)

A "prison" in those days was not like the kind of prison that we often think of today. For example, there were no beds, toilet facilities, showers or regular meals served for prisoners back then. People in prison were usually chained in areas that were often dark, cold, damp and dirty. Prisons of that time weren't used as places of punishment for doing something wrong but were more often used to hold people until they were put on trial or executed. So this is certainly not something that the Christians in Smyrna would look forward to.

Nevertheless, it's important to recognize a few things. First, notice that Jesus knows all about this test that His people will go through and He tells them upfront that there will be a definite time limit on how long it will last. This is good to keep in mind when we experience tests in our own lives today- remember that there is no test we can experience that Jesus doesn't already know about and has already set a time for it to end.

Now someone may read this and say, Yeah, but doesn't it say that the devil is going to put people in prison? Sure, but remember that the devil can't do anything that God doesn't allow him to do. While the Scriptures tell us that the devil is certainly a powerful being, they also tell us that he can only do things within the restrictions that God sets for him just as we see here in Revelation 2:10 (you can also see Job 6:12 for another example). So even though the devil had a part to play in this event, it's only because it suited God's purposes to let him do it.

"Remain faithful even when facing death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Revelation 2:10b NLT).

It's important to understand that God may sometimes schedule times in the lives of those who follow Him when things may be very difficult. When these times occur, it can really be helpful to view them as opportunities to demonstrate the kind of faith that is pleasing to God. You see, God may sometimes allow difficult times in our lives to strengthen us, increase our faith, develop character or even to serve as an example to others to show them the right way to handle problems when they occur (see also 2 Corinthians 1:3-4). And as Jesus reminds us here, a great reward is waiting for those who remain faithful to Him regardless of how bad things may get.

"Anyone who is willing to hear should listen to the Spirit and understand what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever is victorious will not be hurt by the second death. (Revelation 2:11 NLT)

What's this "second death" that Jesus is talking about here? Well before we can answer that question, we need to define the word "death" first. In it's most basic form, death can be defined as separation. For example, everyone is familiar with the idea of physical death, right? Well, physical death is the separation of someone's spirit (the part of every human being that's eternal) from their physical body. In Biblical terms, this would be known as the "first death."

The "second death" is described a little later in Revelation chapter 21 and it refers to someone's never-ending separation from God. Jesus explains it this way in Revelation 21:7-8...

"All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children. But cowards who turn away from me, and unbelievers, and the corrupt, and murderers, and the immoral, and those who practice witchcraft, and idol worshipers, and all liars – their doom is in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. This is the second death" (NLT).

Scary, huh? This second death is the exact opposite of the eternal life that Jesus promises to give to those who believe in Him (see John 3:16). So anyone who believes in Jesus and has accepted His death on the cross as the payment for the things they've done wrong has nothing to worry about. But if not, the price tag is this "second death" -eternal separation from your Creator along with all the pain and punishment that goes along with it.

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Except as indicated, all Scriptural references taken from The Living Bible, 1971, Tyndale House Publishers


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