2:8 “To the angel of the assembly in Smyrna, a wealthy city some forty miles north of Ephesus, which continues today under the name of Izmir. It was so prosperous and beautiful in its day that it competed with Ephesus and Pergamos for the title, “the first of Asia,” and was called “the lovely—the crown of Ionia—the ornament of Asia.” The Smyrnans claimed that Homer had been born there, and in John’s time maintained a museum in his honor. Smyrna was also known for its massive theater, in which John’s disciple Polycarp would be martyred in 169 ce. His martyrdom was just one of many in that city. Moreover,
Smyrna was a center of the emperor worship, having won the privilege from the Roman Senate in ad 23 (over eleven other cities) of building the first temple in honor of Tiberius. Under Domitian (ce 81-96) emperor worship became compulsory for every Roman citizen on threat of death. Once a year a citizen had to burn incense on the altar of the godhead of Caesar, after which he was issued a certificate.”
To this city, no stranger to martyrdom and death, Yeshua commands, write: “The first and the last, the Eternal One Himself, as we saw demonstrated in the previous chapter, who was dead, and has come to life, and by whose Resurrection we have the assurance of our own, says these things:
2:9 “I know your works, oppression, and your poverty (but you are rich) in contrast to the Philadelphians who are rich in material things and poor in Spirit. As Yeshua said in the famous Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. . . But woe to you who are rich! For you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20, 24). Yeshua continues, and the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews, and they are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. This strange passage has been taken by many Christian commentators to refer to the Jews who persecuted the Christians. However, nowhere in the New Testament are Jews who reject the Good News called anything other than Jews. Rather, we see two other possibilities here:
- This phrase refers to Jewish believers being persecuted in the synagogue by “secular” Jews, of whom Paul writes, For circumcision indeed profits, if you are a doer of the law, but if you are a transgressor of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision (Rom. 2:25) and For even they who receive circumcision don’t keep the law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised, that they may boast in your flesh (Gal. 6:13). We see this today where Jews who have themselves ceased to keep the Sabbath, the Feasts, or anything else in the Torah tell Messianic Jews that they are fake or false Jews, “Christians” (i.e., followers of a Gentile religion) in disguise.
- This could also refer to Christian Replacement Theology which, claiming to be “Spiritual Israel,” claims all of the promises of the World to Come to Israel for itself, even the Land given to Abraham and his seed. Of course, such individuals never accept the curses that are upon Israel for her disobedience, leaving those for “Israel of the flesh,” imagining that by confessing Yeshua with their mouths they are immune to such judgment, even when their deeds—especially against Yeshua’s own people—prove them liars.
To these, Yeshua said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mat. 7:21). Likewise Paul warned, Don’t be conceited, but fear; for if God didn’t spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. See then the goodness and severity of God. Toward those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in his goodness; otherwise you also will be cut off (Rom. 11:20-22). Those who did not continue in kindness towards their Jewish brethren, both the Nazarines and those currently in unbelief, were indeed cut off from the olive tree of Israel and by their own stated intent formed a new body.
2:10 Don’t be afraid of the things which you are about to suffer for God didn’t give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control (2Ti. 1:7), the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father! (Rom. 8:15). Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested like gold is tested. They will call on my name, and I will hear them (Zec. 13:9). Therefore you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been put to grief in various trials, that the proof of your faith, which is more precious than gold that perishes even though it is tested by fire, may be found to result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Yeshua the Messiah (1Pe. 1:6-7).
And you will have oppression for ten days. These ten days are ten periods of persecution decreed by ten emperors of the Romans:
- Domitian (81-96)
- Trajan (96-98)
- Hadrian (98-117)
- Antonius Pius (117-138)
- Marcus Aurelius (161-180)
- Septimius Servius (193-211)
- Decius (249-251)
- Valerian (253-260)
- Aurelian (270-275)
- Diocletian (303-305)
Diocletian’s decree of persecution actually survived his reign by eight years, meaning that the tenth persecution actually lasted ten years, from 303-312 ce. During this time Messianic Jews, commonly called the Nazarenes, continued to uphold faith in Yeshua HaMashiach for salvation and yet still kept the Torah. We have already seen that Justin Martyr bore witness to their existence. Indeed, the Nazarenes continued well into the fourth century and were commented on by Ephiphanius, who noted that “they are trained in the Law, in circumcision, the Sabbath, and other things.” These Jewish believers were persecuted by all sides: By the Jews, for believing that Yeshua was the Messiah and for refusing to fight in the two rebellions against the Empire; by the Gentile Christians, for continuing to keep Torah and Jewish customs; and by the Romans, for the double crime of being both “Christians” and Jews.
To these who never compromised and never faltered, though they were doomed to death and obscurity, Yeshua says, Be faithful to death, and I will give you the crown of life. Of all the seven assemblies, only Smyrna and one other survive as cities to this day. Smyrna is now known as Izmir in the nation of Turkey, and is a thriving sea-port. The faith and perseverance of the Smyrnan believers not only gave they themselves a crown of life, but resulted in life in the city in which they dwelt. Yeshua reiterates His promise, saying, 2:11 He who has an ear, let him hear and obey what the Spirit says to the assemblies. He who overcomes won’t be harmed by the second death, the judgment of eternal separation from the Living One, as we will see in chapter 20.
- Yeshuistim – a new name for Messianic Jews! (roshpinaproject.com)
- Yad L’Achim: Israeli missionaries going abroad to preach Yeshua (roshpinaproject.com)