See commentary on Revelation 2:2.
tribulation and poverty
The connection between tribulation and poverty is found in the likelihood that their goods were plundered due to persecution for their faith (Heb. Heb. 10:34). How contrary is the condition of the church at Smyrna from that of the church in Laodicea which was lacking persecution and abounding in goods (Rev. Rev. 3:17+). Yet, the Smyrnaean church received no word of condemnation while the Laodicean church received no word of commendation!
Greek has two words for poor: penia means having nothing superfluous, ptocheia means abject poverty, destitution. [This verse] uses the latter.1
you are rich
The church at Smyrna could not be accurately judged by external measures. As Trench observes: there are both poor rich-men and rich poor-men in his sight.2 The riches of the church at Smyrna were laid up in heaven (Mtt. Mat. 6:20; Mat. 19:21; Luke Luke 12:21; Jas. Jas. 2:5). There is one who makes himself rich, yet has nothing; And one who makes himself poor, yet has great riches (Pr. Pr. 13:7).
Material goods have no ultimate value, but will all be destroyed. Knowledge of this reality should bring a shift in priorities towards spiritual things which are truly lasting (2Pe. 2Pe. 3:10-11). The church at Laodicea had great material prosperity, but Christ said they were wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked (Rev. Rev. 3:17+).
That these Jews are the natural seed of Abraham can be seen by the description of their assembly place as a synagogue4 and by the analogy of Scripture (Rom. Rom. 2:28-29; Rom. 9:6; Php. Php. 3:2-3). These were the unbelieving Jews of Smyrna, who had physical circumcision, but lacked the circumcision of the heart:
For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God. (Rom. Rom. 2:28-29)Such Jews relied upon their physical decent from Abraham, but denied him as father by their actions. John the Baptist warned the Pharisees and Sadducees, and do not think to say to yourselves, We have Abraham as our father. For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones (Mtt. Mat. 3:9).
They answered and said to Him, Abraham is our father. Jesus said to them, If you were Abrahams children, you would do the works of Abraham. But now you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did not do this. You do the deeds of your father. Then they said to Him, We were not born of fornication; we have one FatherGod. (John John 8:39-41)Paul noted that only a subset of the Jews were the Israel of God (Gal. Gal. 6:16). This believing remnant within Israel were the true Jews:5
But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, In Isaac your seed shall be called. That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. (Rom. Rom. 9:6-8)He warned the Philippian church to beware of the mutilation (a euphemism for the physically circumcised unbelieving Jews, Gal. Gal. 5:12):
Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation! For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: (Php. Php. 3:2-4)The unbelieving Jews were the major threat to the early church (Acts Acts 13:50; Acts 14:2, Acts 14:5, Acts 14:19; Acts 17:5). This threat was compounded because Christians initially enjoyed protection from Rome by being considered a sect within Judaism. Since Judaism enjoyed protection as a recognized religion by Rome, so long as Christianity was seen as a sect within Judaism, persecution was minimal. But the fundamental rift between Judaism and Christianity eventually brought persecution, not only by the Jews, but also from Rome.
The gathering of Christians at Smyrna is church ἐκκλησίαις [ekklēsiais] , whereas the gathering of these blasphemers is synagogue συναγωγὴ [synagōgē] . The difference in words is significant making it unlikely that Jesus is describing some other group of Christians who hold faulty doctrine concerning their Jewishness. Some interpreters take this verse as describing Christian groups who hold to Replacement Theology. While we are opposed to Replacement Theology, such an interpretation appears to us to be a subversion of this text to serve the ends of the interpreter rather than accurate exegesis.7 Jesus tells the Philadelphian church that members of the synagogue of Satan say they are Jews and are not (Rev. Rev. 3:9+). They undoubtedly were Jews in the national sensephysical offspring of Abrahambut lacked faith in Messiah Jesus.
Persecution by the Synagogue was something that Jesus had promised (Mtt. Mat. 23:34; Mark Mark 13:9; Luke Luke 21:12; John John 16:12) and Paul had experienced (Acts Acts 9:20-23; Acts 13:45-50; Acts 14:2; Acts 17:5-10; Acts 18:6, Acts 18:28; Acts 19:9; Acts 22:22). John 8:44).8 Persecution by the unbelieving Jews was heightened by the belief that they alone had the true understanding of God:
The measure of their former nearness to God was the measure of their present distance from Him. In the height to which they were lifted up was involved the depth to which, if they did not continue at that height, they must inevitably fall; and this, true for them, is true also for all9This persecution by Judaism was especially troubling because it meant the loss of the protection Christianity initially enjoyed while considered a sect within Judaism:
The letters in Revelation suggest that Jewish Christians were tempted to escape persecution by seeking some form of identification with Jewish synagogues, which were exempted from emperor worship, and that Gentile Christians were tempted to compromise with trade guild cults and even the emperor cult in order to escape persecution. Such a situation is more likely to have been present toward the end of the first century rather than earlier.10
According to Roman law, religions were considered illegal outside their country of origin, . . . The only exception to this law was Judaism, the practice of which was allowed throughout the Empire. Christians were probably considered a sect of Judaism until 70 A.D., though they likely would not have been completely disassociated from Judaism in the minds of pagans in the years following 70 A.D. After that date, Judaism made formal attempts to dissociate itself from Christianity.11
Judaism had a special privilege that the Romans allowed only them, freedom from worshiping the Roman gods and participating in the Greco-Roman cults. Christianity was considered part of Judaism at least through the Jewish War (A.D. 66-70) and also benefited from this privilege. However, Judaism tried more and more to separate itself from Christianity and get the Roman Empire to recognize that Christianity was not exempt. . . . the Romans imposed on Jews [the Judean tax] that allowed the Jews freedom from participation in the imperial cult. Christians refused to pay this tax; thus the Jews denounced Christians as not being true Judeans and as being troublemakers.12The intensity of the hatred of the Smyrnaean Jews for Christians was illustrated in the burning of Polycarp some years later: [The martyrdom of Polycarp] was in the year 165, but the attitude of the Asian Jew towards Christianity had been determined at least seventy years before.13 The most striking instance [of persecution by Jews] actually relates to Smyrna: the Jews gathered fuel on the Sabbath for the burning of Polycarp (Mart. Pion. 4; Cadoux, pp. 378-79).14 These things happened with such swiftness, quicker than words can tell, the crowd swiftly collecting wood and kindling from the workshops and baths, the Jews being especially eager to assist in this, as is their custom.15
Although it seems best to understand the text as describing unbelieving Jews (true physical offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), some have noted the trend among cults (e.g., Jehovahs Witnesses, British Israel) of claiming to be Jews, One common element among cults is to claim to be the real Jews by declaring themselves to be the 144,000 Jews or the ten lost Tribes of Israel.16
If the Jews had recognized their Messiah, what is here described as a synagogue of Satan could have been described as the church of the living God.
1 Monty S. Mills, Revelations: An Exegetical Study of the Revelation to John (Dallas, TX: 3E Ministries, 1987), Rev. 2:9.
2 Richard Chenevix Trench, Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1861), 100.
5 For more on the believing remnant, see 1K. 1K. 19:18; 2K. 2K. 19:4, 2K. 19:30; 2K. 21:14; 2K. 25:22; Isa. Isa. 1:9; Isa. 6:13; Isa. 7:3; Isa. 10:20-22; Isa. 28:5; Isa. 37:4, Isa. 37:31-32; Isa. 46:3; Isa. 59:21; Isa. 65:8; Jer. Jer. 5:10, Jer. 5:18; Jer. 23:3; Jer. 50:20; Eze. Eze. 5:3; Eze. 6:8-10; Eze. 9:8; Eze. 9:11; Eze. 11:13; Joel Joel 2:32; Zec. Zec. 11:10; Mic. Mic. 2:12; Mic. 7:18; Zec. Zec. 13:8-9; Rom. Rom. 9:6, Rom. 9:27; Rom. Rom. 11:5, Rom. 11:17, Rom. 11:25.
7 This method of identifying Jews is hard-pressed to produce any exegetical support either within the Apocalypse or in the rest of the NT. Besides this, if they had called themselves Jews in this mystical sense, why would they be named as the principle source of calumny against the church? . . . It is inexplicable why a person who was not a physical descendant of Abraham would claim to be so and then turn to persecuting fellow-Christians without recanting this claim. The context demands that the offenders be of the physical descent of Abraham.Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 165.
8 John MacArthur, Revelation 1-11 : The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 71.
9 Trench, Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia, 102.
10 Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 13.
11 Ibid., 30-31.
14 Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 67.