The city of Smyrna was located about thirty-five miles from Ephesus (today, it is known as Ismir). It was a famous city in ancient times, highly regarded by the Roman authorities for its devotion to the Emperor. In later times, it retained its prominence. The author of the comments on Revelation in the Matthew Henry commentary says that in his day it was well-known to merchants.
The origins of the church in Smyrna are unknown. It is not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul says that when he was in Ephesus all of Asia heard the word of God (Acts 19:10), so it is likely that the gospel was taken from Ephesus to the surrounding locations. What we have here may be a letter to a daughter church, a church that, unlike its mother church, receives no condemnation from Jesus.
The city of Smyrna itself had undergone a kind of resurrection. Old Smyrna had been destroyed in 580BC, but the city had been rebuilt about 290BC. The name of the city means myrrh and it is often pointed out that myrrh has to be crushed in order for its fragrance to be spread. It is not hard to see the relevance of those two features to the message that John is told to send to the church there. The letter mentions future resurrection and current crushing.
The church in Smyrna is famous for a persecution that took place about sixty years after this letter was sent. In AD155, the well-known Christian Polycarp was put to death in Smyrna. He was the leader of the church at that time. In words that he said at that time, he revealed that he had been a Christian for eighty-six years. That would take us back to around AD70, which suggests that he had already been a believer for twenty years when this letter arrived from Jesus. Polycarp survived the suffering at that time, but later as an old man he gained the martyr’s crown.
The church in Smyrna does not get a rebuke from Jesus in his letter. We know that they were a congregation of imperfect people, because every church is composed of such. Like every church, Smyrna has something to teach us. Ephesus tells us that we can lose our first love as we engage in church life. Smyrna tells us that we can have a warm, glowing, burning love for Jesus in the most difficult of circumstances.