Smyrna was a large, important city on the western coast of Asia Minor, famed for its schools of medicine and science. The words of Jesus to the church in Smyrna in Revelation 2:8-11 offer insight into the life of a first-century congregation, and there are many applications for today’s believers.
The message was from the Lord Jesus Christ: “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again” (Revelation 2:8). The identity of the first and the last and the resurrected one could only be Jesus Christ (see Revelation 22:13).
Jesus starts by acknowledging their trials: “I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9). In their physical poverty, however, the church of Smyrna was “rich”; that is, they had spiritual wealth that no one could take away (Matthew 6:20).
As for the identity of the “synagogue of Satan,” there are a couple of views. One is that this was a group of Gentiles who called themselves “Jews” (i.e., the chosen people of God). Instead of following Judaism, however, these self-proclaimed “people of God” worshiped the Roman emperor and spoke out against the Christians in Smyrna.
Another view is that the “synagogue of Satan” was a group of physical Jews who followed tradition and the Mosaic Law yet in reality did not know God. They were “not” Jews in the sense that they did not have the faith of their father Abraham (Luke 3:8; John 8:40), and they were “of Satan” in that they had rejected Jesus Christ (John 8:44). Jesus dealt with many such religious leaders, as did the apostle Paul (Matthew 23; Acts 18:6). In fact, Paul differentiates “true” (spiritual) Jews from those who can only claim a physical connection to Abraham: “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (Romans 2:28-29).
Adding weight to the latter view is the fact that Polycarp was martyred in Smyrna around A.D. 155. At Polycarp’s trial, the unbelieving Jews of Smyrna joined with the pagans in condemning him to death. Eusebius writes that “the Jews, being especially zealous . . . ran to procure fuel” for the burning (The Ecclesiastical History 4:15).
After commending the church in Smyrna for their spiritual victories, Jesus warned of coming persecution: “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” (Revelation 2:10). Some of the church members would be imprisoned, and this wave of persecution would last for ten days. However, Jesus gives hope to His church: “Do not be afraid,” He says. The Smyrnan believers would have the courage to face the trial (Matthew 5:11-12).
Jesus calls them to remain faithful in their suffering: “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). Here, a specific crown is mentioned for those who die as a result of suffering for Christ. This same “martyr’s crown” is also mentioned in James 1:12: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”
Jesus makes a final promise to the believers in Smyrna: “He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death” (Revelation 2:11). The overcomers, or “conquerors,” refer to all believers (1 John 5:4-5). The second death is a reference to the final judgment of the wicked (Revelation 20:6, 14; 21:8). Believers will not be hurt “at all” by that judgment; their sin was judged at the cross, and, in Christ, there is no more condemnation (Romans 8:1).