In Part 1 we learned about the history of Smyrna, the Crown City, which helps us see the special significance of Jesus’ words and His promise to His people in Smyrna: “Be faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life.” (https://gospelherald.org/be-faithful-unto-death-and-i-will-give-you-the-crown-of-life/).
Jesus continues in verse 9, ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich).” By definition in tribulation they are afflicted, oppressedand distressed outwardly and inwardly. The root of tribulation is akin to a huge rock like a millstone or olive press crushing the grain and fruit beneath it until it surrenders its value.
Their poverty is beyond scarcity. It is destitution, deficient in the essentials for life despite the prosperity of their city all around them.
Jesus said that though His people are materially poor they are spiritually rich. Jesus is aware of the material wealth of Smyrna. He assures His people their infinite eternal riches of love, grace and glory in Him are greater by far than anything Smyrna can offer.
The exact nature of the tribulations and afflictions of Christians in the province of Asia in Anatolia eludes us due to the scarcity of first-century documents from this area and time. The letter from Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia and Pontus, to Trajan dates from AD 112, about 20 years past the approximate late date of Revelation. The testimony of Polycarp of Smyrna is about 60 years beyond the last possible days of John.
We do know that Peter wrote to five provinces in Anatolia, including Asia, and he said this in his first letter, chapter 5, verse 9b, “the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world.” We also know that Peter’s readers also suffered verbal abuse as our brothers and sisters in Smyrna did: “Keep your behaviour excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12 ).
We do have two other written witnesses testifying to the type of persecution the emperor Nero inflicted on Christians during the last days of Peter and Paul while John was still alive and serving. The most informed estimates of persecution throughout the wider empire indicate that the persecution was real though sporadic and that capitulation to confessing belief in Roman emperors as gods and lords over Christ was a key deciding factor in their persecution.
In his Lives of the Caesars, Life of Nero, Suetonius wrote this, “During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down…. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.”
In the Annals,Tacitus provides more alarming details regarding Nero’s blaming Christians for the great fire in Rome he instigated. Tacitus wrote, “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus (Circus Maximus), while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.”
“Jesus Knows Our Opponents”
Jesus is also aware of the opposition of the Jews, “the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (2:9). Blasphemy is to speak against someone to harm them and their reputation, to defame, revile, denigrate, disrespect, slander. God Himself has suffered blasphemy from pagan individuals and nations and His own people.
God’s people are first known as Jews in the later days of the kings and the deportation. it is a short diminutive form of Judah, the lone surviving southern tribe, the Jehud’im. How can some of God’s people be in a synagogue* of Satan? God revealed in Romans 2:28–29 and 9:6 “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God…. 9:6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.”
Like the ekklesia, the assembly of God’s people in Christ, the root of synagogue is to gather together, assemble, receive with hospitality, entertain. Satan is the adversary, the accuser of God’s people. Job 1 refers to him as the satan. The Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation of ha satan is diabolos, the devil. He is a liar who tempts people to sin, who inflicts pain and death. Put these together and we have the Jews in Smyrna as an assembly of the accusing adversary.
Smyrna has the synagogue of Satan in common with Philadelphia in 3:9–10 “Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and make them know that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.”
Persecution can have a purifying effect. Persecution may also have driven unfaithful members of the assemblies in Smyrna and Philadelphia back to worshiping Rome, its emperors and pagan gods. This may be one reason there are no compromisers left for Jesus to rebuke in Smyrna and Philadelphia, the two assemblies of the seven for whom He has no words of reproach.
“Do Not Fear”
Jesus encourages His people in Smyrna to not fear and to be faithful in verse 10, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Fear, phobia, dread, terror, can have a crippling effect. The command to not fear is as hard to obey as the command to not worry. How did the Smyrneans obey? How can we?
By faith! By faith in God, His promises of victory, His presence with us in and through suffering and death, moment by moment, knowing that Jesus came to deliver us from the fear of death, God proving ultimate victory over it by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
The accusing adversary will throw them into prison for a period of temptation. He will tempt them to do wrong, to entice them to improper behaviour. They’ve seen it all around them everyday. Victory over these temptations will prove their faith and true character.
The tribulation will last ten days. Ten is a number of completeness and power, symbolic of an unspecified time, shorter than years. Their testing will come to an end in time, perhaps by the death of some of them who by faith will then be with God in eternity beyond time. God has seen His people through the years of testing in the wilderness and He will see them through this. We know from Proverbs 3:11–12 and Hebrews 12:4–11 that God disciplines everyone He receives into His kingdom.
Jesus gives further encouraging proof in Revelation 12:10 “Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night.’”
“Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” As love was at the heart of Jesus’ letter to His people in Ephesus, faithfulness is at the heart of His letter to His assembled members in Smyrna.
Faithfulness is actively believing in God, being reliable, trustworthy, inspiring trust in others, living with fidelity, being loyal to God. Faithfulness is ultimately expressed in obedience to God in all areas of our lives: worship, family, service, work, relationships.
Faithfulness is a key attribute of God Himself. He is faithful to His Word, His promises, His people and Himself; as Paul taught Timothy, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).
We see the intrinsic nature of God’s faithfulness right here in Revelation in Jesus’ introduction of Himself in 1:5 and in 3:14 and 19:11. His letter is “from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth,” and He says in 3:14 “‘To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this…’” In 19:11 it is one of His names, “And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war.”
He is The One in whom we can have complete confidence. Faithfulness is a fruit of His Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). God gives a measure of faith to everyone (Romans 12:3).
Our faithfulness is to endure all the way to death.
Jesus promises, “‘I will give you the crown of life.’” one of two occurrences “the crown of life” in Scripture. The other comes to us through the promise recorded by Jacob (James) 1:12 “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” The words of Jesus and His half-brother James are striking in their similarity.
Crown is stephanos, where we get the names Stephen and Stephanie. The stephanos is a symbol of victory, nike, “a wreath made of foliage or designed to resemble foliage and worn by one of high status or held in high regard.… (signifying) appreciation for exceptional contributions.” Alexander the Great’s father king Philip II of Macedon and one of his wives were buried with crowns over their burial boxes made of the finest gold leaves. Philip’s had oak leaves with acorns. His wife’s had flowers and even a small bee on the leaves.
In Revelation 19:12 Jesus has many diadems upon His head. Diadems are the crowns of royalty and authority, made of the finest fabric or gold often adorned with precious jewels.
Jesus’ promise was the crown of life (zoe). This is eternal life, transcendent life. Life for Jesus and John is the eternal kind that never ends because it is powered by God Himself.
“‘Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.’”
To be continued… conclusion in Part 3.