Smyrna is the only one of the seven places mentioned that has survived as a modern city, the third largest in Turkey. Today it is known as Izmir, a popular seaside destination for tourists, with its sunny climate and mild winters. It is beautifully situated, with a backdrop of mountains and a secure harbor overlooking a large bay. It is sometimes referred to as “the pearl of the Aegean.” Its turbulent history has been one of invasion and conquest by many different peoples, including Greeks, Lydians, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders and Mongols. In the early twentieth century, Kemal Ataturk liberated the city and the Greek and Armenian populations were summarily expelled. Since 1922 it has remained a Turkish city.
The Lord described Himself as “the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive.” This would have been a comfort to suffering saints of Smyrna whose lives seemed uncertain and tenuous under the constant threat of persecution and martyrdom. Their fierce trials were a result of their faithfulness to Christ, but He was the abiding One who had been on earth and passed through the same. He had suffered at the hands of wicked men who plotted against Him and eventually nailed Him to a cross. There at Calvary He willingly gave up His life, and yet death was not the end! On the third day, despite all the precautions they had taken to prevent His resurrection – the stone, the seal, and the soldiers – He triumphed over death and rose from the dead. The eternal One, the ever living One, was the bedrock of their faith.
It is noticeable in this letter that there was no word of criticism. That is not to imply that the church was without any faults, but at that particular time its overriding need was for comfort and courage to go on. The name Smyrna comes from myrrh, a bitter substance that releases a sweet smell when it is crushed or burned. Such were the lives of the hard-pressed Christians there; their bitter suffering produced a Christlike fragrance.
The record of history tells of ten great waves of persecution under various Roman emperors in the time of the early Church and subsequent trials in the centuries that followed. Through them all, the Lord has never taken His eye off His people. He has known of every affliction that has assailed them, not only in the general sense but also in the particular details of every believer’s life, including the daily indignities of suffering for Christ – scorn and mockery, discrimination, loss of employment, poverty, starvation, harassment, physical abuse, imprisonment, and much else besides. He knows and understands when His suffering children feel discouraged and wonder to themselves, “Will it ever end? Does anyone care? Will we manage to go on?”
John also reminded them that things are not always what they seem. Although the believers of Smyrna appeared poor in the eyes of others, they were possessors of spiritual riches that could never be taken away. Though their vocal and vicious opponents laid claim to be the true followers of God, they were, in fact, motivated by Satan himself.
The Lord issued a forthright call to take courage and fear not. These words have often come from the God of heaven to His children here upon earth in times of great need. He never uses words without good reason, so if He exhorts us to fear not, it is because He knows there is the danger that we might succumb to it under the pressure of circumstances. Fear can overwhelm and paralyze us. It can cause us to panic so that we try to run away and hide. Fear has also caused some to compromise and deny the Lord.
The Lord Jesus told His disciples: “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luk 12:32). Christ spoke these words as He prepared to leave His little band of followers. He warned them of difficulties and trials to come, but He then encouraged them to trust in God and continue to live selflessly even in His absence. When He returned, He hoped to find them waiting and working as faithful stewards for their Master.
He did warn those in Smyrna that some of them would suffer imprisonment by their enemies. This would be motivated by the devil himself. The mention of “ten days” of testing suggests a limited period with an end in sight. God never abandons His children in prison – He is there with them. Just ask Joseph, Daniel, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul or Silas!
To those whose lives would end in martyrdom, the Lord promised a special reward, “a crown of life.” Additionally, the overcomer was reassured that he would not be touched by “the second death.” The second death is the eternal punishment awaiting the unbeliever (Rev 20:14). Those who have been born only once will die twice. Those who have been born twice, meaning that they have been born again through faith in Christ, will die only once, or maybe even not at all should they still be alive when the Lord returns for His Church. In contrast to the rest of humanity, the Lord Jesus Christ was born once but did not need to be born again. He died only once and will never die again!
An Application for Today
From the early days of the Church, Christianity has been a life-or-death struggle. The devil has constantly opposed the work of God. He has stirred up violent oppression in his quest to stamp out and eradicate the people of God, but, paradoxically, the outcome has been that persecution has purified, strengthened and emboldened the Church. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” wrote Tertullian in AD 197. And then again, we recall that the power of Christ can transform a life completely: Saul of Tarsus, the arch-persecutor of the early Church, became the apostle Paul, the greatest missionary this world has ever seen.
It is clear that the work of God is still under attack, and in every continent of the world Christians are suffering for their faith. In this regard, nothing has changed. Even in the western world, the pressure is increasing and the liberty to teach and practice the truth of the Bible is being undermined. It may not be long before the words “fear not” acquire a special relevance to many more of the Lord’s people.
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.