The ancient city of Smyrna, located just thirty-five miles north of Ephesus, had a long and illustrious history. The city enjoyed an accessible harbor, a prosperous economy, fertile fields, and close ties with Rome. It was the site of numerous pagan temples, of a significant library, and of various landmarks of stunning Greek architecture. Alexander the Great was determined to make Smyrna a model Greek city. It boasted an advanced culture where art, philosophy, and religion flourished. Caesar was worshipped as the supreme deity.
Within this city was a small band of Christ-followers, and they affirmed lordship only in Him. This resulted in severe persecution: they were treated as outlaws, hunted as animals, tortured, burned alive, boiled in oil, fed to beasts, and drowned by weighed stones. Their jobs were snatched from them and their homes were destroyed.
Jesus Christ is no stranger to pain. He personally sent a letter of encouragement to these believers in Smyrna (there is no correction given to this assembly). He emphasizes His encouragement in three statements of solidarity that begin with the phrase I know. “I know your tribulation.” This wording refers to slow stress and pressure that results in being smashed to death beneath the weight of an enormous boulder. “I know your poverty.” They were destitute, yet Jesus referred to them as being rich in matters of the kingdom. “I know the slander that you endure.” This was the unfair abuse leveled against them by religious Judaizers (which are referred to as “the synagogue of Satan.”)
The assembly in Smyrna is given two commands from Christ, and two names of Christ are mentioned to support their resolve. They are told to “stop being afraid” and “keep on being faithful”; they were told this by the one “who is the First and the Last” and “who was dead and is now very much alive.” Even the name Smyrna reflects the myrrh plant, which has to be crushed to give forth a sweet fragrance. Myrrh is found throughout the Scriptures – especially in reference to the sacrifice of Christ, and here it is used in reference to the martyrs in this city. Some referred to Smyrna as the crown of Asia Minor, but it is Christ who gives a crown to those who have suffered. These are the overcomers who received the stephanus or the crown (wreath) of joy in ultimate victory.
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