The message to the church of Smyrna is the shortest of the seven letters.
“And to the angel of the Church in Smyrna write: “These things says the First and the Last, Who became dead and came to life …” (Rev. 2:8). Also, see Rev. 1:17-18.
Archimandrite Athanasios understands “angel” to refer specifically to the bishop of the recipient church; St. Bede also understands it in this manner, “For the priest (bishop), as Malachi says, is the ‘angel (messenger) of the Lord of hosts (cf. Mal. 2:7).” St. Bede also gives this interpretation to “first and the last”, “He is First because ‘in Him all things were created’ (Col. 1:16); the Last, because in Him all things are restored (cf. Eph. 1:10).”
Archimandrite Athanasios comments, “The introductory phrase of Christ, the Sender, is taken from the initial vision (cf. Rev. 1) … It is relevant to the entire theme of the epistle: persecution, martyrdom, and death. It advises those who will be subject to this persecution, martyrdom, and death not to be afraid. Fear not, because the One who sends them this epistle and for Whose sake they are suffering martyrdom and death is the One Who became dead and lived again. In other words, what can they fear? Death? There is nothing harmful about death. They will resurrect by the power of the resurrected Son and Word of God.”
The Lord then tells the Church, “I know your works, and the affliction, and the poverty; but you are rich. I know the blasphemy of those who count themselves to be Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9).
It is very important to note that the Lord tells all seven of the Churches “I know your works.” The Lord’s judgment of the Churches is based upon their works. In true Christianity, there is no dichotomy of Faith vs. Works. Indeed, one of the false teachings of Protestantism is that of Sola Fide (Faith Alone). It’s worth pointing out that the Lord does not tell the Churches “I know your faith.” The essential problem with ideas such as Sola Fide is that it pits one aspect of Christianity against another, which is destructive in the long run. Faith and works are two inseparable virtues.
St. James instructs, “Faith, if it be not having works, is dead” (James 2:17). St. Symeon the New Theologian commenting says, “Even as a body without a spirit is dead, so also ‘faith without works is dead.’ Those who confess that Christ is God and do not keep His commandments will not be reckoned merely as denying Him, but also as insulting Him.” Archimandrite Athanasios tells us, “In the full sense of the word, works are the life and conduct of the faithful.”
The faithful in Smyrna are suffering affliction and persecution for their faith. Throughout the Scripture, those who desire to follow Christ are told very clearly that such an endeavor will entail tribulation. The Lord Himself tells the Apostles, “I have said these this to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16;33). St. Paul while encouraging the disciples during his travels said, “Through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God” (Act. 14:22). St. Paul tells his faithful disciple Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). St. Peter, in the same manner, encourages the Church, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share in Christ’s sufferings …” (1 Pet. 4:12-13).
Christ as Lord knows the affliction which His faithful suffer at the hands of unbelievers and false brethren.
What a sharp contrast is this true Christian message with the false ones of modernity! How many desire to make of the Gospel a message of worldly comfort and success. Those who teach such things reveal that they are not in any way preaching the Gospel.
Historically speaking “the Church of Smyrna … was composed of poor people who were, however, rich spiritually” (Archbp. Averky). Although according to worldly reckoning the faithful in Smyrna were physically impoverished and not well connected, the Lord reveals their true spiritual state: they are rich. The Lord does not judge according to the standards of man, nor does He value what the world values. In fact, St. James reminds the faithful that it is many times those who are “successful” by the world’s standards who persecute Christians (cf. James 2:6ff). Of course, there is no innate virtue or vise in poverty or riches. The rich may, indeed they are called to, use their wealth in a virtuous manner.
Elsewhere, St. Paul reflects the spiritual reality at work in the Church in Smyrna in these terms, “As dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Cor. 6:9-10).
Archimandrite Athanasios applies these essential Christian realities in this manner, “If your affliction is related to the work of God, because you live a godly life and this invites hatred, the jealousy and the malice of Satan and the God-opposing people, and if they then create difficulties and problems in your path, then you are blessed. So, to expand on this, when I suffer everyday worldly distress: accidents, diseases, the loss of a home to fire, the loss of a job, the loss of ten acres of corn to drought and I do not grumble, I do not curse God, then this can turn into a blessing as well. So when I take even my mundane and worldly distresses patiently and do not grumble against God, then even in this circumstantial and worldly stress takes on spiritual dimensions and counts as an asset in eternity. Likewise, cursing at God, and blasphemy with also be accounted in eternity.”
The unbelieving Jews were the immediate physical source of persecution for the faithful in Smyrna. St. Paul teaches that a true “Jew” is one who has faith in Christ, cf. Rom. 2:28-29. Thus, the Lord tells the Church in Smyrna, “those who count themselves Jews and are not.” A true Jew would be faithful to the covenant of God; since the unbelieving Jews rejected the Messiah and His Covenant they ceased being “true Jews.” St. Paul tells the Galatians, “And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). Clearly, the “rule” referred to is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, those who accept this New Covenant in Christ (long-prophesied) become true members of Israel. The Ekklesia is, therefore, the true Israel of God.
Satan is the underlying reality and power that motivates the persecution of the Church. This is why the Lord calls the persecutors “a Synagogue of Satan.” Ultimately they are but tools of demonic power. Christ the Lord is constantly revealing true reality, it is also in this context that He told the Pharisees that they were doing the will of “their father the devil” (cf. Jn. 8:41ff). We will see that the Lord also traces pagan persecutors back to the same source, Satan.
As the Church of Smyrna faces persecution, the Lord tells them “Do not at all be fearing the things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison in order that you might be tried, and you shall have affliction ten days. Keep on becoming faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).
“Take heart, I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). The Lord is He who took on our humanity, became man, suffered affliction and death, and conquered. He is, as He said at the start of this epistle, He who became dead and came to life. Again, the principal source of persecution is the devil. He is the one behind the seeming multiplicity of physical persecutions (cf. Rev. 12). Christ the Lord overcame the power of the devil.
From the Church of Smyrna comes one of the earliest recorded martyrdoms outside of Scripture, that of St. Polycarp of Smyrna. Historically it is evident that these words regarding persecution were fulfilled. Yet, they also speak of the general persecution which the Church endures in this world.
Archimandrite Athanasios comments, “A Church under persecution gives clear proof that it stands well and is embraced by God. Christ Himself reproves a Church that bypassed persecution by forming an alliance with worldly powers … We see this very clearly when Christ praises the persecuted Christians. And we must comprehend this thoroughly because someday – near or far, I don’t know, but someday sooner or later – the stage will be set for the great tribulation against Orthodoxy. This great tribulation is what we see described by most dreadful images and darkest colors in Revelation. So let’s prepare ourselves.”
Generally, “ten days” is understood in an figurative manner, “According to some commentaries, ‘ten days’ signifies the shortness of the time of the persecutions; but according to others, it indicates a certain extended period, for the Lord commanded the people of Smyrna to be ‘faithful unto death’ … Some understand by this the persecution, which was under Domitian and continued for ten years. Others see in this a prophecy of the ten persecutions, which, altogether, the Christians endured from pagan emperors for the course of the first three centuries,” Archbp. Averky.
“Ten days” indicates that in the span of time and eternity, persecution is a passing phenomenon. It is not enduring. Suffering persecution in this short life is like “ten days” when compared to the expanse of eternity. Yet, in the time of trial, the believer is commanded to be faithful unto death. “Only the true disciple of Christ remains faithful unto the final moment,” Archimandrite Athanasios.
In ancient times the victors in athletic games received crowns. St. Paul instructs “If anyone also contends as an athlete in the games, he is not crowned unless he contends lawfully” (2 Tim. 2:5). To those who endure faithfully to the end the eternal crown of victory will be given.
“The one who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the Churches. The one overcoming in no wise shall be injured by death, the second one” (Rev. 2:11).
To hear and understand requires the grace of the Holy Spirit. We must listen not with simple carnal ears but ears made spiritual by the enlightening grace of the Spirit.
The second death is the fearful “lake of fire” into which all who are not written in the Book of Life are cast, cf. Rev. 20:14-15. Archimandrite Athanasios comments, “the second death is the eternal separation of man from God in a state of everlasting torment.” Ultimately, either Paradise or the “second death” are but the revelation of the self-chosen state of a person in this life. They are the end goal of each person’s works, for God or for evil.
(This is a continuation of a series on the Seven Churches of Revelation. Please see the category “Seven Churches of Revelation” for more articles in this series.)