Today’s note deals with the second of the letters in chapters 2-3—to the believers in Smyrna, “(city of) myrrh [smu/rna] (?)”, modern Izmir, one of the major cities in Roman Asia (approx. 40 miles N. of Ephesus). The epistolary format used in these letters was discussed in a previous note; here I will be discussing only those details which are distinctive of the second letter.
“These (things are) said (by) the (one who is) the first and the last, who came to be dead and was (made) alive”
The introduction (to Jesus) in each letter includes titles and phrases characteristic of the risen/exalted Jesus, reflecting attributes of deity. They are drawn from the vision in 1:11-16ff—here the titles repeat the declaration in vv. 17b-18a (cf. the note on these).
The body of the main address (from the risen Jesus) here is found in vv. 9-10. Unlike most of the other letters, it is not a mixed message (praise and blame), but is entirely one of praise and exhortation. This seems to reflect a degree of persecution faced by the congregations in Smyrna, which was not faced, to the same extent, by believers in the other cities. This is presented dramatically by the first statement (in verse 9):
“I have seen your (di)stress and poverty—but you are (in fact) rich!—and the insult(s) [blasfhmi/a] (coming) out of the (one)s counting themselves to be Yehudeans [i.e. Jews], and (yet) are not, but (are actually) a gathering together [sunagwgh/] of the Satan.”
The suffering of the believers in Smyrna is due to two factors: (1) distress/pressure (qli/yi$), i.e. from outside forces, and (2) poverty (ptwxei/a). This latter term means that they are poor in a material (and/or socio-cultural) sense, while actually being rich (plou/sio$) in the eyes of God (i.e. in a spiritual sense). Both factors are relevant, since believers with a higher socio-economic status generally are less likely to endure suffering and persecution.
While the difficulties for the congregations in Ephesus are described as coming from ‘false’ Christians, the suffering in Smyrna is the result of attacks from the Jewish communities in the city. This, of course, is familiar from the accounts of Paul’s missionary work in the book of Acts (9:23-25; 13:45ff; 14:5, 19; 17:5-8, etc), and confirmed at several points in his letters (e.g., 1 Thess 2:14-16). For Christians today, especially those in the Western nations, the descriptions in the New Testament of Jewish/Christian hostility, with corresponding anti-Jewish statements, can be most troubling, in light of the long and tragic history of ‘Christian’ persecution against Jews. However, this should not cause us to ignore or gloss over the historical reality of another time and place. There were genuine conflicts between early Christians (many of whom were Jewish) and certain segments within Judaism.
Here the Jewish attacks are described as blasfhmi/a (“insult”), a word which often is used in a religious context (i.e. insult against God), as preserved in English by the transliterated form “blasphemy”. There can be no doubt that the religious connotation is intended here; any attack against believers in Christ is effectively an insult (i.e. blasphemy) against God. The grim irony is that Jews who attack believers, perhaps fueled by a sense of religious devotion, are actually committing “blasphemy” and insulting God Himself. We do not know the specific details related to this “insult”, but it may have involved the denouncing of Christians to the provincial (imperial) authorities, which could then lead to interrogation, imprisonment, etc. The context of verse 10 suggests that this is likely the case.
The Jews who insult/blaspheme in this way are considered to be false Jews, just like the would-be apostles in vv. 2-3. The same sort of derisive language is used: “the (one)s counting themselves to be Jews, and (yet) are not”, i.e. they are not truly Jews (cf. Rom 2:17ff, 28-29). There is no real reason to doubt that such persons were genuinely Jews from a religious-cultural standpoint. The basic idea being expressed, almost certainly, is that those who attack believers in Christ, rejecting Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, have departed from the true Israelite/Jewish religion. This would be all the more likely if the “insult” involved denouncing believers to the Roman authorities. The question of religious identity, for both Jews and Christians of the period, was complex and difficult. Most of the earliest Christians came out of a Jewish religious-cultural background, and yet lines of conflict and separation were present almost immediately. We know of this conflict best from the account of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 (cf. also chaps. 10-11 and 21:17-26), and from many passages in Paul’s letters (esp. throughout Romans, and most of Galatians). The declaration in v. 9b is sharped with the concluding words, that these ‘false’ Jews are actually “a gathering together of the Satan”. The word sunagwgh/ (lit. “leading/bringing together”) is, of course, the typical term for a Jewish religious gathering and/or place of worship, transliterated in English as “synogogue”. Parallels for this expression are found in the Qumran texts, such as 1QH X.22 (“assembly of Belial”); 1QM 15:9; 1QH XIV.5; XV.34 (“assembly of wickedness”, etc). Cf. Koester, pp. 274-6.
This language is repeated in 3:9, which will be discussed in turn.
The statement(s) in this verse function as a prophecy (foretelling) of what believers in Smyrna will soon experience:
“Fear none of the (thing)s which you are about to suffer. See, the one casting (evil) throughout [dia/bolo$, i.e. the Devil] is about to cast [ba/llein] you into a (prison) guard (so) that you might be tested, and you will have ten days of (di)stress.”
This clearly indicates that believers will be put in prison, probably for the purposes of interrogation rather than as a term of punishment. The delimitation of “ten days” is most likely a figurative approximation, symbolizing a definite (though relatively short) period of time (Gen 24:55; Num 11:19, etc). A motif of ten days of “testing” is found in Daniel 1:12ff (Koester, p. 277). In light of this impending suffering, Jesus, in his message, provides a special word of exhortation:
“You must come to be trust(worthy) [i.e. faithful] until death, and I will give you the Crown of Life.”
A special honor is given to the one who endures suffering for Jesus’ sake to the point of death. The “crown” (ste/fano$), or wreath, typical woven out of laurel leaves, etc, in the context of Greco-Roman culture, is given as an honor to one who is victorious in competition (i.e., athletics, military battle) or who has given distinguished service to the people. The word (and concept) appears seven more times in the book of Revelation (3:11, etc), and is used occasionally by Paul (1 Cor 9:25; Phil 4:1; 1 Thess 2:19), and elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., 1 Peter 5:4, “crown of honor/glory”).
The concluding exhortation/promise in the letters always begins: “[To] the (one) being [i.e. who is] victorious…”, followed by a description of the (heavenly) reward the believer will receive, after death, or at the end-time following the Judgment. Here the promise is related to the idea that some believers in Smyrna (and elsewhere in Asia Minor) will face death for Christ’s sake in this life:
“The (one) being victorious would not suffer injustice [i.e. injury] out of the second death.”
Being put to death as a Christian involves a terrible injustice (a)diki/a, lit. without justice); yet, the believer in Christ has the comfort and security of knowing that he/she will not be harmed in any way (i.e. suffer no injury [a)diki/a]) by the “second death”. This expression is eschatological, conveying the idea that there is final death for the entire person (the soul, etc), which follows the physical death (of the body). According to a traditional line of Jewish thought (fairly common, it would seem, at the time), at the end, those who are dead (righteous and wicked both) will be raised and enter into God’s Judgment. The righteous would enter into the blessed (heavenly/divine) or “eternal” Life, while the wicked would experience the opposite. The latter is depicted most dramatically in Rev 20:11-15; 21:7-8.