The church at Smyrna is the only congregation where John mentions imprisonment for believers. To be sure, the imprisonment of believers is not only associated in the New Testament with saints who live in Roman Asia. In Acts (5:21-23; 16:23; 23:18), Hebrews (10:34; 13:3), and the Pauline letters, the Apostles (2 Cor. 6:5; 11:23), Pauline co-workers (Rom. 16:7; Col. 4:10), and those believers pursued by Saul (Acts 8:3; 22:4; 26:10) were often destined for prison. The testimony of the Apostolic Fathers presents similar evidence.
Two items about the imprisonment in Smyrna are noteworthy. The association of imprisonment with the idea of being “tested” and the use of the phrase “ten days” stand out. John certainly uses the number ten at other times in Revelation, but his other uses of the number ten typically relate to the ten horns, or ten kings, or ten diadems associated with the evil beast in chapters 13-17. Other than these occurrences of the number “ten” in Revelation, this number does not seem to fit into the general numerology of the book.
Only in one other place in Scripture is there a similar association of the term “ten” with the idea of being tested, and that is in the book of Daniel. John not only knows the book of Daniel, but relies upon it frequently for his imagery (esp. Daniel chapters 7 and 10). Chapter one of Daniel seems to provide the source of the “ten days” imagery used in the letter to the congregation in Smyrna.
The saints in Daniel chapter one are situated in Babylon, just as the believers of John’s day also live out their days in their own Babylon, Rome. Even with only a superficial reading of Daniel one, it is hard to miss the fact that assimilation is the primary temptation for Daniel and his friends. The Babylonians are making every effort to assimilate Daniel and his fellow Israelites into Babylonian culture and religion by getting them to forsake Jewish laws and mores which help them maintain their holiness. The issue revolved around their diet. Daniel knew that if he chose the “royal food and wine” of Babylonia (Dan. 1:8) rather than “vegetables and water” he would be defiling himself (Dan. 1:8). This dietary test lasted for ten days (Dan. 1:14). Daniel and his three Jewish friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, all remained faithful throughout the ten day temptation. They resisted the temptation of assimilation and for their faithfulness God rewarded them with blessings (Dan. 1:17-20).
The saints in Smyrna, at least some them, now face their own temptation. John warns them with these words, “Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days.” (Rev. 2:10). If the death of Stephen (Acts 7) and later martyrs is any indication, we know that persecutions never attempted to kill all the believers. This symbolic “ten days” of testing and tribulation at Smyrna would, however, lead to the death of some believers. John’s statement about being “faithful unto death” (Rev. 2:10) clearly referred to death by martyrdom. There is a firm promise of blessings for the followers of the Lamb who loved Christ more than their own lives. For those who were willing to resist Roman assimilation even on threat of death, there was the assurance of the “crown of lIfe” (Rev. 2:10) and the knowledge that they would not “be harmed by the second death” (Rev. 2:11), which is “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur” (Rev. 21:8).
The temptation of assimilation lies close at hand in every generation. Sometimes it seduces through seemingly innocent tests like those Daniel and his friends had to experience. At other times it comes in more dramatic contexts with more painful consequences, like those choices that had to be made by believers in Smyrna. In every instance, in every culture, in every age, the seduction of assimilation is always like the “lips of an adulteress that drip honey, and whose speech is smoother than oil (Prov. 5:3). This probably explains the words, perhaps the plea, of Jesus at the end of each letter, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev. 2:11).
One thought on “Tested in Smyrna”
First thing that popped in my head about assimilation for this age is the TV. I told Ken and he asked me if I was willing to give it up. I wish I was. Wow. I feel this pull to get a flat screen, even when the old, bulky one we have works fine. And a new one is certainly not in the budget. We/I can argue good things about the TV, but for the most part, it smells like the world. Hmmm. Dare I post this? Dare I listen to the SPIRIT?