“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The words of the first and the last, who
died and came to life” (Revelation 2:8. Texts are from the Revised Standard Version).
by Jeffrey Earl
About 40 miles north of the ruins of Ephesus lies the modern city of Izmir on the Aegean coast in western Turkey. The city has an ancient history dating back to the initial settlement around the 11th century BC. It changed hands numerous times due to invasions by various peoples until it was captured and destroyed by Alyattes, King of Lydia, around 580 BC. For almost 300 years it was deserted and in ruins. The new city of Smyrna, about 2.3 miles (3.7 km) south of the ancient city, was built by Alexander the Great (336-323 BC). Due to its wealth and commerce, it was said to be one of the most magnificent cities and the finest in all of Asia Minor. The early church fathers Polycarp and Irenaeus (and the orator Aristides) were from Smyrna, with Polycarp being the bishop there for many years.
The name Smyrna signifies “myrrh,” which was an aromatic resin from a thorny tree species in the northeast African and Arabia areas. Myrrh is mentioned in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John. The word is derived from the Arabic marra, meaning “to be bitter.” The similar Hebrew word Marah was used to describe the location where Israel found only bitter water after looking for three days in the wilderness of Shur (Exodus 15:22-25). God directed Moses to take a tree and throw it into the water, giving them life-giving sweet water. This period of the church was bitter due to various persecutions of early Christians.
The Apostle John wrote the account of the church of Smyrna in Revelation 2:8-11. “(8) And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. (9) I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. (10) Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. (11) He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who conquers shall not be hurt by the second death.’”
Who is the Angel (Messenger) to Smyrna?
The first part of verse 8 says, “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write.” Who is this angel, or messenger, and when does the message apply? Early Bible scholars and many Bible Student elders view this period starting about 70 AD after the Roman emperor Nero. Some see it starting later, around 96 AD. Most agree that it ended after the ten year persecution begun by Diocletian, from 303 to 313 AD. This ended with the unified reign of Constantine, after the defeat of his military rivals, and the Edict of Milan in 313. This declared tolerance for Christianity in the Roman Empire. Others see the period ending in 325 AD with the council of Nicaea.
The Apostle John is generally viewed as the messenger to that church. John wrote much of the New Testament, with his gospel, epistles, and Revelation. Some consider the Smyrna messenger to be Polycarp, a pupil of John who lived in Smryna the 86 years of his life and served there as bishop. Iranaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, wrote “Polycarp was instructed by the apostles, and was brought into contact with many who had seen Christ.” Polycarp wrote the “Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians” (likely around 155 AD). His epistle contains exhortations and admonitions to the church, qualifications of deacons and elders, and how young men and women should behave. Most of what is stated in his letter was already addressed by the Apostle Paul, whom he acknowledged with reverence. He was sentenced to death and was burned alive around 166 AD (some say 155) at the stadium of Smyrna. Before the Proconsul, when asked to reproach Christ, he declared, “86 years have I served him and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”
The First and the Last
The second part of Revelation 2:8 says, “The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.” These words refer to Christ (compare Revelation 22:13), the one who died at Calvary, and was raised the third day to glory and honor by his Father, Jehovah (Ephesians 1:20-22).
As mentioned above, Smyrna was in ruins for nearly 300 years prior to Alexander the Great. Some have suggested that the words “who died and came to life” could also connect to the city itself as another meaning — dead for centuries, then rebuilt to great splendor.
Verse 9, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” This well describes the period of the Smyrna church, which experienced great tribulation and persecution.
The church at that time was not considered rich in worldly goods, but they would receive a rich heavenly reward for their perseverance. The “slander of those who say that they are Jews [spiritual Israelites] and are not” may describe the tare class that rose as the church expanded in numbers. This mention of them in church number two parallels the mention of tares in parable number two, of the seven parables of Matthew 13.
However, there may be direct overtones here also. “Jews and Gentiles … unanimously demanded that [Polycarp] should be burnt alive … every one ran with all speed, to fetch wood … Jews were particularly active … on this occasion” (The Lives of the Saints, Sabine Baring-Gould, 1877, page 381). These persecuting Jews would not be true Israelites, ones of faith. “They are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (Romans 9:6).
Verse 10, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” This gives encouragement and comfort to Christians facing dire sufferings. They would be tested by Roman authorities. There was a written statement called a libellus (“libel” is derived from this) that affirmed the possessor was faithful in the worship of pagan gods. If one was charged for not worshiping the gods, the accused could answer the charge by simply throwing incense on a pagan altar. Some Christians did this to save their lives, recanting their faith. Others remained faithful even to the point of death. Jesus’ promise was precious to them, “I will give thee a crown of life.”
Persecutions of the Smyrna Church
The Historian Mosheim stated that the emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD), regarded for his wisdom and virtue by secular writers, had very low regard for Christians. Mosheim wrote, “If we except that of Nero, there was no reign under which the Christians were more injuriously and cruelly treated, than under that of the wise and virtuous (?) Marcus Aurelius … Christians were put to the most cruel tortures and were condemned to meet death in the most barbarous forms, notwithstanding their perfect innocence. … The corrupt judges … were obliged to suborn false accusers to charge them. … Among these victims … [were] the holy and venerable Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, and Justin Martyr, so deservedly renowned for his erudition and philosophy.” J. A. Seiss, in The Apocalypse, Revelation of Jesus Christ, says “The hillside of Pagus, on which Polycarp was burned, has since been reddened with the blood of fifteen hundred confessors at one time, and eight hundred at another.”
In 202 AD the Roman emperor Septimus Severus issued an edict forbidding conversion to Christianity. One of the cities where the edict was strongly enforced was Carthage. The historian Milman graphically described the persecution and deaths of two young women, Perpetua (daughter of a noble family) and Felicitas (her servant) during the persecution in Carthage in 203 AD. Perpetua’s father tried to persuade her multiple times to renounce her Christian faith for the sake of her family and infant son.
Upon her sentence, she wrote, “We were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to prison in high spirits.” There she recorded a vision: “I saw a ladder of tremendous height … reaching all the way to the heavens, but it was so narrow that only one person could climb up it at a time … Then I saw an immense garden, and in it a gray-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb … standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and said, ‘I am glad you have come, my child.’” The women were later herded into an amphitheater and hung up in nets to be gored to death by a furious bull. The men that were also accused were torn apart by leopards and bears. Perpetua’s last words were a tender admonishment to her brother to be “steadfast in the faith.”
The “ten days of tribulation” (verse 10) correspond to ten years of intense persecution, from 303 to 313, initiated under Emperor Diocletian. It is sometimes referred to as the “Great Persecution.” It ended with the Edict of Milan in 313. Ten in Scripture sometimes represents completeness. Days in prophecy are often fulfilled as years, suggested in the 40 days spying out Canaan and subsequent 40 years wandering in the wilderness (Numbers 14:34). Also, in Ezekiel 4:6, so many days for Ezekiel represented so many years for Israel.
Historians describe these ten years of persecution as especially intense. Gruesome tortures were inflicted, with death by impaling, drowning, and fire. Some record that 17,000 were slain in one month and that 144,000 Christians died by violence in Egypt alone. The murderers boasted they had extinguished the Christian name and religion.
Verse 11, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who conquers shall not be hurt by the second death.” This is the first time “second death” is mentioned in Revelation. It is mentioned again in Revelation 20:6, 20:14, and 21:8. The language in Revelation 20:4-6 is similar to that of verse 11. Both passages promise that faithful ones, subject to violent death, need not fear “second death.” They would return in the first resurrection, as spirit beings of the highest order.
Summary and Conclusion
The Smyrna church endured great persecution from a government worshipping pagan gods. Jesus’ message promised “a crown of life” to those who endured “even to the point of death” (NIV). Compared with later persecutions under Papal Rome, the persecutions under Pagan Rome were less frequent and less extensive, excepting the “Great Persecution” of Diocletian. The degree of persecution also depended on where one lived. Some magistrates enforced decrees aggressively, but others with token compliance. There were long periods of relative peace. Later, in the Dark Ages, persecution would last for centuries.