Smyrna was an ancient city in Asia, located 35 miles northwest of Ephesus. Its name is derived from the myrrh tree, whose resin is used for burial and medicinal purposes. Although bitter to the taste, the more the plant was beaten the sweeter was its scent. Smyrna’s modern name is Izmir, and has become Turkey’s third largest city. Smyrna was Asia’s center for the ancient cult of emperor worship. In 23 AD the city was chosen from eleven other cities in Asia to be granted the privilege of building a temple to Tiberius Caesar. Having a provincial temple was not only considered a great honor, since it enhanced the city’s prestige with Rome, but it also was a source of a great amount of revenue for the city and her inhabitants. Ancient Smyrna was the home of Homer and also a famous Christian, Polycarp, who was martyred cir. 155 AD. Polycarp was Smyrna’s first bishop, and tradition tells us he was appointed by the Apostle John.
In Revelation 2:8 Jesus describes himself as: “the first and the last, who was dead and is alive.” The phrase “the first and the last” describes Jehovah or Yahweh in each of the Scriptures where the phrase is found: Isaiah 41:4; 44:6 and 48:12. The phrase is used as a title only of the Lord God of Israel. It is interesting, however, that in the list of the kings of Judah, some of the kings have their acts described as “first and last” – but the phrase in those Scriptures lacks the article (1Chronicles 29:29; 2Chronicles 9:29; 12:15; 16:11; 20:34; 25:26; 26:22; 28:26; 35:27). So, the title can mean: he who has been with (his people) from the very beginning, and will remain with them until very end (cf. Matthew 28:20).
The phrase: the first and the last as is used of God in Isaiah 41:4 is in the context of his being in control of all that occurs in terms of judgment. He is the one who sets up kings and judges other nations by the hand of the king he enables (Isaiah 41:1-2). No one can harm his servant (Isaiah 41:3), and it is the Lord, the first and the last who determines the seasons of the king’s power (Isaiah 41:4). From this, the church of Smyrna would have been able to understand that nothing can occur to them that the Lord has not allowed. No harm could come to them that the Lord did not permit, and any trouble or peace will last only as long as the Lord has determined.
In Isaiah 44:6, the phrase: “the first and the last” takes on a different perspective. There it is one of intimacy and salvation, and the Lord speaks of his chosen ones (Isaiah 44:1), the ones whom he had birthed (Isaiah 44:2). He will bless his people in their time of trouble, and pour out his Spirit upon their children (Isaiah 44:3). In other words, they who are born by means of the Gospel the church preaches will grow strong, even during this season of trouble (Isaiah 44:4, cf. 44:3). They will be called by the name of the Lord and will identify with him (Isaiah 44:5), because he is their protector, and they know only him as God (Isaiah 44:6). Accordingly, the church of Smyrna would understand that they had no reason to fear any trouble they might face, because even in the trouble the Lord would be a very present Helper. He would even bless their labor in the Gospel, so that many who see their faithfulness will praise God and submit themselves to him through the Gospel the church preaches.
The phrase: “the first and the last” also appears in Isaiah 48:12. There, it is used as a warning against his people who have rebelled against him. The Lord says they are a stiff-necked people, who refuse to submit to him (Isaiah 48:1-6). It is the Lord who has prophesied unto them who have rebelled against him from the very beginning (Isaiah 48:7-8). For his own name sake he had restrained his anger and continued to purify his people through the trouble they endured, and even now he doesn’t wish to destroy them who are called by his name (Isaiah 48:9-11). Therefore, the Lord, the Creator of all that is (Isaiah 48:12-13), calls to his people to come out of Babylon (Isaiah 48:20; cf. Revelation 18:4), because he will destroy her (Isaiah 48:14-19; cf. Revelation 17:1-18). If they obey the Lord, then he will enable them to drink from the Rock, but there is no rest for the wicked (Isaiah 48:21-22). The church of Smyrna, therefore, would see from this that their persecutors would either repent and believe the Gospel, or they would be judged swiftly by the Lord who protects his disciples.
With the words: “was dead and is alive” ( Revelation 2:9) Jesus is reminding his people that he had conquered the grave, and he holds the keys to it and death (cf. Revelation 1:18). This was meant to encourage believer is Smyrna, because Jesus was about to tell the church of Smyrna that some of them would die during this season of persecution (Revelation 2:10), but death and the grave are not to be feared, because Jesus had already conquered both through his own death and resurrection. Therefore, since Jesus rose from the dead, the churches in Asia, and Smyrna in particular, could have confidence that they would too.