A Missional Reading of the Letter to Smyrna

The second church addressed in Revelation is the church at Smyrna, a city a short distance north of Ephesus. Smyrna was a wealthy city, an important intellectual city, and a city well known for its beauty. It was a city, also, brimming with civic pride which stemmed not only from its wealth and beauty but also its history.

Smyrna boasted itself as the birth place of Homer and had a long history, believed by its citizens to have begun in the third millennium BC. In addition, Hemer notes the “liberal policy of Smyrna in granting its citizenship,” citing a treaty in 242BC which granted all free Hellenes residents citizenship in Smyrna. Certainly this added to the civic pride and it can be reasonably deduced that the Christian community included citizens who shared in the cities pride.

Smyrna also maintained a close relationship with Rome, siding with it on more than one occasion, being one of four cities to host the provincial assembly, and the first city in Asia to build a temple to the goddess Roma (195 BC). Smyrna also enjoyed the title of νεωκόρος for the imperial cult, a privilege given to it by Emperor Tiberius. Adding to, and likely instigating the pressures the church faced, was a large Jewish population.

Hemer also makes an interesting connection between the cities name and the suffering of the Christians in the city. The cities name was believed to have been tied etymologically to the Greek word for ‘myrrh’, whether truly or only coincidentally. Myrrh was associated with mourning, death rites, weeping, etc. Hemer writes, “The name Smyrna was fitting and expressive to the ancient mind for a city which seemed to exemplify characteristics which myrrh symbolized.”

In a city whose name was metaphorically connected to suffering, the church knew suffering most intimately. As in all the letters, Jesus begins by identifying himself in a way that would be especially meaningful to the church in their specific situation (always drawing on aspects of the vision recorded in chapter one of the Apocalypse). Jesus affirms himself as “the first and the last”, emphasizing his sovereignty over history past, present and future. He adds, “who died and came to life”, a reminder that is incredibly significant to a church suffering and forewarned in this letter that some will suffer unto death. Beasly-Murray writes, “To a congregation, faced with the prospect of renewed persecution and death of some of its members, the reminder that Jesus is the lord of Easter serves as a welcome consolation.”

The letter to the Smyrnan church reminds the reader that things are not always as they appear. The Smyrnan believers appear poor, but are rich. The Jews appear to be the people of God, but are of the synagogue of Satan. And death is not as final as it seems.

The call to the church in Smyrna is simple – be faithful in your testimony to Jesus through suffering, imprisonment and even death. In this letter there is no accusation and no warning about impending judgment. Jesus has found this church faithful to their calling to bear witness, and it is due to this faithfulness that they are suffering.

One aspect of this congregations suffering is her poverty. Hemer points out that several factors contributed to this material poverty. He summarizes, “It has often been observed that the poverty of the Christians may have been due to the despoliation of their property by mobs, whether Jewish or pagan. There may have been other contributory causes, the fact that converts were oftener made among the poorer classes, and the devoted Christians on occasion reduced themselves to penury by the liberality of their own giving, or that it was difficult for an uncompromising Christian to make a living in a pagan city.”

Whatever the specific reason, their poverty was tied to their faithfulness to their missional calling. If it was because of hatred of the Jews towards them, stirred up by their uncompromising proclamation of Jesus the Messiah, or hatred of pagan mobs incensed by their lack of participation in the city’s cultic life, their poverty was directly connected to their unwillingness to compromise their message and mission. If their poverty was due, in part, to their incredibly generosity, it was for love’s sake they were poor and the cure for their poverty would have been a stinginess or greed that betrayed her mission.

Jesus warns that the suffering the church had known would be intensified in days to come. Having been ostracized from the Jewish community and slandered by them, they are about to be put into prison for a duration of ten days – symbolic of an intense period of persecution, yet a period that has a definite end. It is likely that the end of the persecution would not be release from imprisonment, but release through death (prison was typically a holding place for those to be executed, not a punishment in and of itself).

This persecution, though it comes at the hands of Jews and of Rome, is truly from the devil called Satan. The ten day period is a testing of their faith, and hence the call is to remain faithful in the midst of the testing, even unto death. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna who suffered martyrdom in the early second century, would prove the truth of this warning and serve as a beautiful example of a faithful witness to Christ for the rest of the church.

This letter to the congregation at Smyrna reminds the reader that to be the church in this age will mean being the church militant and the church suffering. Being faithful to the call to bear witness brings the church into direct conflict with the powers of this age, animated by Satan and his spiritual armies. The church that remains faithful to her missional calling will be hated and persecuted. While on the surface this suffering may seem to come at the hands of the populace, the state, or false religions/philosophies, the reality of the spiritual dimension cannot be forgotten. The war she wages is spiritual.

Jesus’ words of promise to this beleaguered congregation point ahead to the church victorious. Conquering is equated with faithfulness, and though victory for the church may mean physical death, it also ensures that they will not be hurt by the second death. Instead, the God who will assuredly bring his mission to completion will reward those faithful followers with a crown of life.