What Does God Say about the Church at Smyrna?

The letter to the church at Smyrna in Revelation 2 is notable for many reasons, one being that it's one of the only letters that doesn't have a rebuke. What it tells us about Smyrna and its Christians has big implications for us today.

Contributing Writer
Published Mar 23, 2022
What Does God Say about the Church at Smyrna?

In Revelation, the Apostle John records Jesus’s address to seven churches in Asia Minor. Based on His intimate awareness of their spiritual condition, Jesus uses these letters to dig deep into the inner workings of each church and flesh out areas of commendation or correction. Of the seven churches, Smyrna is one of two that received no reproof from Jesus, and it is the only church of the seven that still exists today

Where Does the Bible Mention the Church at Smyrna? 

After His ascension, Rome became increasingly hostile toward Jesus’s followers. The Apostle John was arrested for preaching the Gospel and exiled to Rome’s penal colony on the island of Patmos, near Asia Minor. While there, the Holy Spirit spoke to John and instructed him to record everything Jesus was about to reveal via a vision. John was then to send the divine dictation to “the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.” (Revelation 1:11)

The only place the Bible mentions the Church at Smyrna is in Jesus’ letters to the churches:

“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.  I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.  Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.” (Revelation 2:8-10)

The letter to the church at Smyrna is unique for several reasons. First, the letter is the shortest of the seven, at only 90 words. Also, death is mentioned three times in these four verses. And finally, Smyrna was the only congregation besides Philadelphia that did not receive admonishment from Jesus.  

What Do We Know About the Ancient city of Smyrna?

Located just 35 miles north of Ephesus, at the head of the Aegean Sea, the thriving city of Smyrna was known for its beauty, wealth, and achievement. The city rivaled Ephesus in grandeur and influence. Ancient coin inscriptions describe Smyrna as “first of Asia in size and beauty,” and “The Ornament of Asia.”

Not only was this bustling seaport considered a center of prosperity, but the city prided itself as a hub of intellect, art, religion, and athletic prowess. Some of the first schools of science and medicine were founded in Smyrna, and on the beautiful slopes of Mount Pagos, the city erected a theater that sat twenty thousand people; the ruins of the theatre are still visible today. Olympian games were held in Smyrna. It was home to the Greek poet Homer and Polycarp, a personal disciple of the Apostle John and the bishop of the church at Smyrna, known for his faithfulness to Jesus even to martyrdom. 

In the center of the ancient city, Mount Pagos (modern name: Kadifekale) stood 500 ft. high and was encircled by a garland of architecturally impressive buildings and temples—which was probably why the hill was known as “The Crown of Smyrna.”

Smyrna is the Greek word for myrrh—a sap-like substance extracted from tree bark. The substance was used to make fragrant perfumes and anointing oils (Exodus 30:23) and was used in ancient burial preparations (John 19:39). The fragrance from Myrrh is only released from the sap through crushing. 

Throughout history, Smyrna has suffered its fair share of hardship. Seldom has a decade gone by without a significant event ravishing the city. Time and time again, wars, massacres, earthquakes, and plagues have threatened to destroy Smyrna, but the city has always bounced back and rebuilt. With a population of over 3 million, Smyrna continues to thrive today as the modern Turkish city of Izmir. The local church still thrives there too. In fact, it has been said that more Christians have lived in this region than any other Turkish city in the world.

Why Does God Praise the Church at Smyrna?

Jesus’s short correspondence with His people in Smyrna gives us incredible insight into this group of believers’ way of life and faith. Christ not only knew their hearts, but He spoke to this flock using language and terms that held deep personal meaning for them.  

Even Jesus’s greeting to the church reveals His loving, personal care. When Jesus introduces Himself as “the First and the Last, who died and came to life again,” He is drawing their attention to the power of His resurrection. Jesus had a reason for mentioning this fact. The name of Smyrna was equated with myrrh. And just like myrrh requires crushing to release the sweet perfume of its fragrance, the church at Smyrna would continue to be crushed through adversity. However, Jesus wanted to remind them that their sufferings would anoint them for a Christlike death and burial that could only result in an eternal resurrected life. (1 Corinthians 15:50-57)

In verse nine, Jesus praises and affirms the church by recognizing their material poverty in contrast to their vast spiritual prosperity. “I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich!” Followers of Jesus living in Smyrna were seen as a cult and persecuted by the hostile Roman empire. They, and the zealot Jewish leaders, hated Christians and prohibited them from working, buying, or selling, any time they got a chance. As a result, the Smyrnaean believers lived in genuine poverty for their faith. 

However, the church was wealthy, not in the temporal things that had brought their city fame. They had “laid up for themselves treasures in Heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:20) No doubt, Jesus’s commendation would have been a timely affirmation that their sacrifices had not been made in vain—and that they should continue basking in the abundant life Jesus had purchased for them.

In this same verse, Jesus offers great comfort to His church by assuring them that He is the God who sees, knows, and cares about their troubles. He has witnessed their continual affliction and the slander they’ve suffered from “those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” The fact that these hardships have not escaped their Savior’s attention surely would have strengthened the Body and served as a loving reminder of Jesus’s abiding presence.  

Finally, Jesus warns His people to expect more suffering, persecution, and testing. With the warning comes the exhortation that they should not succumb to fear. He assures His people that their continued faithfulness, “even to the point of death,” will earn them a reward that far outweighs their earthly trials—a victor’s crown. 

The Church at Smyrna would have been familiar with the extreme honor associated with a “victor’s crown.” The city was well known for its Olympic-style athletic contests. Garlands of victory were bestowed only to the highest achieving athletes. No second-place prize existed. The crown of victory belonged to the victor alone, and every other competitor was considered defeated. 

We know from historical records that the church at Smyrna persevered in its faithfulness. When Polycarp, the pastor of the church in Smyrna, was commanded to worship Caesar and renounce Christ in 155 A.D., he refused and said, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and in nothing hath He wronged me; and how, then, can I blaspheme my King, who saved me?” As the fire was kindled around his feet to burn him at the stake, Polycarp was heard singing and praising the Son of God.

Lessons We Can Learn from the Church at Smyrna 

As with all Jesus’s letters to the seven churches, His letter to Smyrna ends on a note that invites every Believer, in every age, to hear and receive these important messages.

“Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.” (Revelation 2:11)

From the message to Smyrna, Christians today can glean several important truths. 

First, we serve a God who knows, sees, and is with us through every fiery trial and dark night (Isaiah 43:2). He knows the thoughts and inclinations of our hearts (Psalm 94:11). He is aware of the enemy’s plans and the afflictions we face (Hebrews 2:17-18). Absolutely nothing is hidden from our all-knowing, all-seeing God. And He genuinely cares about what happens to His children. Jesus is upfront about the fact that we will experience trouble in this world, but He has also promised that His peace, grace, and abiding presence are our refuge during our trials (Matthew 28:20).

Second, in a lesson especially relevant for today’s Western Christians, Jesus praised the church at Smyrna for choosing poverty over compromise. These early believers could have participated in a few cultural customs—like sprinkling incense on the fire that burned in front of the emperor’s statue. Or they could have agreed to call Caesar “Lord,” knowing they could later repent. These actions would have given the believers could a measure of favor with the government and secured a much easier life. Undoubtedly, the church of Smyrna could have justified any syncretistic actions to preserve their livelihood and lives by proof texted scripture or by claiming that their compromise was for the “greater good” of tolerance, love, and grace. But instead, through their surrendered lives, the Holy Spirit empowered the Smyrnaean Christians to choose spiritual wealth over worldly gain. 

Third, at the end of Smyrna’s letter, Jesus makes this promise to whoever has ears to hear: “He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death” (Revelation 2:11, KJV). Most American Christians today will not be called to die a martyr’s death. Nor will we suffer hardships like imprisonment for our faith, and very few of us will face the choice between our livelihood or a life with Christ.

But every born-again Christian is called to die to the things of this world (Galatians 2:20, Luke 9:23), become a bondservant of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:22; Ephesians 6:6; 2 Timothy 2:24), and to consider all earthly things loss compared to the worth of knowing Jesus as Lord (Philippians 3:8). By surrendering our lives to our born-again existence, we join our Smyrnaean brethren as “overcomers” who won’t be harmed in the “second death,” which is the final judgment of the wicked (Revelation 20:6, 20:14, 21:8) Jesus Christ paid for our sin on the cross at Calvary. In Him, we are more than overcomers.

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” (1 John 1-5)

Photo Credit: Getty Images/nejdetduzen

Annette GriffinAnnette Marie Griffin is an award-winning author and speaker who has managed and directed children’s and youth programs for more than 20 years. Her debut children’s book, What Is A Family? released through Familius Publishing in 2020. Annette has also written curriculum for character growth and development of elementary-age children and has developed parent training seminars to benefit the community. Her passion is to help wanderers find home. She and her husband have five children—three who have already flown the coop and two adopted teens still roosting at home—plus two adorable grands who add immeasurable joy and laughter to the whole flock.

This article is part of our larger End Times Resource Library. Learn more about the rapture, the anti-christ, bible prophecy and the tribulation with articles that explain Biblical truths. You do not need to fear or worry about the future!

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