Troublesome Topic: The Possible Symbolism of Smyrna

What the city was known for: Among believers in Jesus the reputation of the city of Smyrna was the threat of death from political powers.

Smyrna had been given special privileges by Rome. The people there were also fickle—they would do whatever they needed to do to suck up to the powers that be. That fickle, fake attitude, also affected the way people treated the followers of Jesus, for the letter speaks of the “slander of those who say they are Jews (people of God) but are of the synagogue of Satan.”

It was the center of the worship of the god Dionysius. Dionysius supposedly died each winter and came back to life each Spring. That was not unique. It was thought that Baal, as the fertility god, also went to the place of the dead, or the underworld, each winter and returned to the land of the living each spring. Jesus indicates that He is the one who truly has come back from death. You will notice that death is a common theme in the letter to Smyrna. John’s disciple, Polycarp, was martyred in Smyrna; that was after John died, but it shows the atmosphere of the place. The letter to the church in Smyrna mentions persecution a handful of times, confirming the reputation as a threat of death from political powers. Verse 10 says, “Do not pull back in fear from the things you will assuredly suffer very soon. Take heed of this—the DEVIL will surely cast some of you into prison soon in order to test you, and you will be hemmed in and under intense pressure for ten days.” This requires action from those in power, not just the common people. (See footnote for Revelation 2:10 regarding the symbolism of “ten days”).

The Christian church flourished there more so than in most other places. That is typical of places where there is life-threatening persecution; instead of stamping out the church, the church grows. How much of that growth had happened while John was still alive we do not know.

What the city’s name meant: The name Smyrna means “Myrrh.” This was an oil that was known, like many other oils of that day, to be refreshing and reviving of one’s emotions and energy. It soothed. Because of its aroma, it was also used in wrapping a body for burial. The play on words was this: The city pretended to be a refreshing place, but if you were a worshipper of Jesus, the ointment used to refresh, would instead be used to bury you. These people, known for their ability to soothe, would kill you if you professed the name of Jesus.

The next lesson is: The Possible Symbolism of Pergamum