Among the seven cities of Revelation 2 and 3, it is rather striking that two of them have nothing bad said about them whatsoever. And yet while people often point to themselves and call themselves Philadelphians (and, showing a distinct lack of brotherly love, call others Laodiceans, after the lone city of Revelation 2 and 3 that receives no commendations), there is no corresponding rush of people that consider themselves to be Smyrnans, despite the fact that Jesus Christ has nothing but praise for that city as well. Since it puzzles me that despite the striking similarities of the biblical praise of these cities, there is a stark difference in how people identify with Philadelphia much more than Smyrna, I thought it would be worthwhile to provide a comparative study of what Revelation 2 and 3 say about these two cities in the hope of uncovering at least some of the reasons why so many people identify with Philadelphia and so few with Smyrna, at least within my own experience.
To understand why Smyrna is largely forgotten as a model of faith, it is necessary to understand the message to the church at Smyrna. Revelation 2:8-11 reads: “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, ‘These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life: “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.” ‘ ”
Later we will note some parallels between the two blessed cities of Philadelphia and Smyrna, but let us note here that the reason why Smyrna is relatively forgotten as a model of faith is because few people, especially comfortable people in comfortable existence, tend to like to dwell on the issue of martyrdom. It is clear that Smyrna’s persecution does not result from their own lack of faith, or their own disobedience. They are not threatened with the loss of their lamp because of their own lack of faith. They are told that they will be thrown in prison and killed, and that they simply have to endure, in the knowledge that they will only die once and then receive eternal life.
In our well-intentioned desire to avoid glorifying martyrdom in the sense that some would call terrorists martyrs, or even because the thought of giving up one’s life for one’s faith seems to be too high a price in this age of doubt and skepticism, we neglect that sometimes one must choose between honorable death before God and betrayal of our faith. We would prefer other options, but sometimes they do not exist. I know that I have never been arrested and thrown into prison, but I live every day with the possibility that it could happen and that the choice is not in my hands. Perhaps this makes me more likely to recognize the faith of the brethren in Smyrna, a faith that was strong enough to sustain them under massive persecution, more than most others would, because I do not see the distance between their life and my own as all that great.
Let us understand something very plainly, though. The brethren of Smyrna do not suffer because they deserve it. They suffer because by being refined in the fire they are able to understand that sometimes we must suffer, being good, simply because this present world is evil. And whenever good becomes a threat to evil, good will be persecuted, and will have to endure unjust persecution, because might and right are seldom to be found in the same hands at the same time. We all ought to desire lives that are full of joy and blessings and richness in all manners of the word, but sometimes we are faced with the choice between being rich in the spirit and being rich in the flesh, between eternal life and avoidance of painful death and imprisonment. If we are faced with those grim choices, we ought to choose to be like the brethren of Smyrna, bravely facing the first death, aware that they would be untouched by the second death and would receive the crown of glory at the return of Jesus Christ.
Likewise, understanding the familiar message to Philadelphia makes it very clear why so many more people readily identify with Philadelphia than with Smyrna. Revelation 3:7-13 reads: “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write, ‘These things says He who is holy, He who is true, “He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and He who shuts and no one opens”: “I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name. Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie–indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you. Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come to the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast to what you have, that no one may take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” ‘ ”
Philadelphia has an immensely enviable position, if one is permitted to use the word. For their faith and their perseverance they are rewarded with avoidance of the hour of great tribulation that comes on the whole world before the return of Jesus Christ. They are given massive rewards in the New Jerusalem, including the role of pillars in the temple of God in His Kingdom. It is the avoidance of suffering because of one’s faith that makes the experience of the Philadelphian brethren so immensely appealing to so many.
That said, there is a lot about Philadelphia that is appealing as well–we must not forget the possession of the key of David, and the fact that despite their little strength that God gave them an open door. It is immensely appealing to any fairly small group to think of themselves as the brethren of Philadelphia, given an open door and great benefits because of their faith. How accurate such a self-identification may be is always up for question, but there is no doubt that the appeal of people assuming that they possess keys of knowledge and the promise of deliverance from trials that others do not is immensely appealing, and therefore the appeal of self-identification for the brethren of Philadelphia is not mysterious in the least.
Nevertheless, despite the strong difference in the popularity of Smyrna and Philadelphia, their similarities are truly more profound than their differences. Let us look at at least a few of those similarities and differences and recognize that the massive disparity in the popularity of the two cities rests on a very narrow base of differences, which says more about ourselves than it does about the brethren of either Smyrna or Philadelphia, whomever they may be depending on one’s scheme of interpreting Revelation.
For example, it is notable that both Smyrna and Philadelphia are the only cities that have to deal with the synagogue of Satan. I have written about this matter elsewhere , but I would like to touch on it again briefly here. The genuine faith and love of the brethren of Smyrna and Philadelphia is strongly contrasted to the lack of faith of the Synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews (Sabbath keeping Christians, as the case may be) without truly being called. It is the persecution from these false Christians that leads to the difficulties faced by both the godly believers in Smyrna and Philadelphia. While it is impolite and unwise to speculate on the identity of the Synagogue of Satan, it is clear that a mere doctrinal belief in the Sabbath, when not combined with genuine love for God and for one’s neighbor, is not sufficient for salvation. This ought to be a warning for us to make sure that our belief system includes godly practice and not only godly knowledge.
Another strong similarity between Smyrna and Philadelphia is the absence of criticism for these two congregations by Jesus Christ. Any time a congregation can be weighed and evaluated by Jesus Christ without searching criticism, that congregation can be viewed as godly, and ought to be viewed extremely highly by believers in general. We all know that we have many problems ourselves, and these problems tend to be written large in our congregations. When a congregation can remain faithful to God despite the difficulties of this life, they deserve even more higher praise than for merely having reached a godly state in the first place, which is difficult enough. Clearly both Smyrna and Philadelphia are worthy of praise for the fact that Christ can commend them both so warmly.
Both Smyrna and Philadelphia also share a similar call to persevere and remain faithful. For Smyrna the call to remain faithful is in the sense of remaining faithful unto death through persecution and imprisonment. Obviously this is not how most people would want to be faithful, but if we live in evil times, we must make the best of the situations we find ourselves in. For Philadelphia the praise for their perseverance leads to deliverance out of a time of trial. This does not mean that Philadelphia is somehow better than Smyrna, only that the sovereign will of God decides to bless one with eternal life after intense suffering despite the fact that they are godly and that the other is blessed with deliverance from suffering as a result of their faith. And God has the right to choose what to test us with, because we are His creation.
There are few differences in terms of the blessings promised. The blessing promised to Smyrna is that of eternal life. Given that they have been told to endure persecution and death, the promise of eternal life is given to remind them that their suffering will end but their glory will not. The church in Philadelphia is given a longer blessing, including that of having the name of Christ and of New Jerusalem and being a pillar in the temple of God. Still, the difference in length between the much longer blessing given to Philadelphia and the much shorter message to Smyrna counts for more than does the difference in stature or praise for the two congregations in terms of the blessings promised to each.
Indeed, the fundamental difference that accounts for the difference in popularity between the two faithful congregations is the fate that they are promised. Because Smyrna is promised tribulation and death and Philadelphia is promised a reprieve from both, Philadelphia is seen as much more desirable than Smyrna as a model. Nonetheless, it is instructive to compare Smyrna to Laodicea, in that while both are promised great tribulation, Laodicea’s suffering is as a result of their lukewarm relationship with God, which requires the endurance through trials to overcome, while Smyrna is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time through no fault of their own. Similar suffering and trials does not necessarily imply a similar spiritual state.
In examining the difference between Smyrna and Philadelphia in terms of their messages and their popularity, it is clear that from our perspective we tend to value the escape from suffering and tribulation more than the difference in moral and spiritual state between believers, congregations, and situations. In examining the distinction between Smyrna and Philadelphia, we see that two basically similar congregations with high praise by God simply happen to be in different situations regarding persecution. Since we can never tell whether we will be counted worth to escape from persecution or whether God will call on us to remain faithful through persecution, we should all do well to develop an appreciation of the perseverance of Smyrna in a similar way as we already for for Philadelphia. If we are called upon to suffer bravely, we need to develop the strength of character to remain faithful unto death, even if we would all prefer to live in peace.