A Church in a Time of Tribulation
The letter to Smyrna differs from the letter to Ephesus in that Jesus does not cite any weaknesses for this church. The church of Smyrna is in the midst of “tribulation,” which is about to intensify (Rev. 2:9). It will mean prison for some of them and could mean death (2:10). The church of Smyrna is feeling the effects of the Devil’s wrath against the people of God (12:12, 17). They are not alone, because the Devil and the Beast are always busy persecuting the people of God, starting from Christ’s first coming and continuing until his second coming puts an end to their power (Rev. 12-13, 17-20). John can identify with this church, since he is currently experiencing tribulation on Patmos (1:9). As Jesus speaks to them in the midst of their tribulation, he indicates that he is thoroughly aware of their situation and of what they are about to face. He commends them for being truly rich, even though they are poor in worldly terms (2:9). In addition, he promises them that his reward of eternal life lies ahead for them, even if their persecutors kill them. Thus, the Smyrna letter is a letter that offers hope to churches that are experiencing hardship and persecution. It focuses our attention upon Christ’s promise of life.
Eternal Life in the Smyrna Letter
It is important to notice how often an emphasis upon life occurs in this letter. In the midst of her time of persecution, Christ, “who was dead and came to life,” promises them that he will reward those who are “faithful until death” with the “crown of life” (2:8, 10). The Smyrna letter’s consistent emphasis upon life is reiterated at the close of the letter. Revelation 2:11b says, “The one who conquers shall certainly not be harmed by the second death.” The promise of full deliverance from the “second death” is a way of anticipating both resurrection and eternal life. The second death is the fate that awaits all those who do not rise from the dead at the time of the “first resurrection” (20:5-6, 14). Everyone who does not experience the second death will enjoy eternal life in the New Jerusalem (21:6).
The Devil’s worst threat against Christians in Revelation is physical death (12:11; 13:7, 10), which appears to the world to mean their defeat. However, one of the main points of assurance in the book is that believers have conquered the Devil by the blood of the Lamb (12:11). Their physical death does not mean that the Devil has really been victorious over them. They will rise from the dead and enjoy eternal life. The eternal reward of Christ cancels out the temporal punishment inflicted by the Devil.
The Overall Message of the Letter: Encouragement to Christians in Tribulation
The Smyrna letter is a straightforward letter of encouragement for a church in the midst of tribulation and heading into more. Jesus knows that they are experiencing opposition from the Devil, who is working through certain Jews and local officials. He does not promise to sweep in and deal with their opponents. This same Jesus promises his first disciples that tribulation is part of life in this world (John 16:33). Indeed, Jesus’ message of hope does not rest upon a change in their circumstances. It rests instead upon promises that hold true even if their circumstances do not improve. Jesus knows how their situation has refined them, so that they are rich in the ways that matter to God (“you are rich,” 2:9). He commends them for the riches they have already stored up in heaven. He promises them that prison, and even physical death, cannot jeopardize his promises of eternal life. On the one hand, the Smyrna letter is a letter that encourages all who are undergoing persecution for their faith to persevere. At the same time, it provides an example of the benefits of trials for refining our faith and keeping us focused upon the reward of eternal life.
Suggested Resource: Find out about my free Bible study guide to the seven letters by clicking here.
These paragraphs are adapted from my book:
Paul Hoskins, The Book of Revelation: A Theological and Exegetical Commentary, pp. 78-82 (those pages provide further sources and footnotes that I have omitted above).