The Church At Smyrna

by David Padfield

Our Lord's second epistle to the seven churches of Asia is addressed to the church at Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11). Of all the letters this one contains the most continuous and unbroken tone of praise for the recipients, for our Lord is in thorough sympathy with the congregation He is addressing.

Smyrna Izmir TurkeyIn all probability the church at Smyrna was founded by Paul during his third evangelistic journey (53-56 a.d.). This would seem a safe conclusion from Acts 19:10, where we read that "all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks."

Smyrna is now known by it's Turkish name, Izmir, and has a population of three million people, making it Turkey's third largest city and second largest seaport.

Smyrna gained prominence in the 9th century B.C. and thrived before Lydians from Sardis destroyed the town in 600 B.C. In 334 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered Smyrna and refounded it atop Mt. Pagus, now called Kadifekale.

As early as 195 B.C. Smyrna foresaw the rising power of Rome and built a temple for pagan Roman worship. In 23 B.C. Smyrna was given the honor of building a temple to the Emperor Tiberius because of its years of faithfulness to Rome. Thus, the city became a center for the cult of emperor worship -- a fanatical religion that later, under such emperors as Nero (ruled A.D. 54-68) and Domitian (ruled A.D. 81-96), brought on severe persecution for the early church. Polycarp was martyred in the stadium at Smyrna in 155 A.D.

Introduction To The Letter

This letter comes from Jesus Christ, "the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life" (Rev. 2:8). Christ was aware of the great affliction being suffered by the saints at Smyrna. He represents Himself to them as the One who was dead and came alive to give them strength in the knowledge of His sovereignty over death and life (cf. Rev. 1:17-18). This sublime language repeats the eternity of the One who addressed the church -- One whom death itself could not vanquish. The risen Christ experienced the worst that life could do to Him -- He died in the agony of the cross (Gal. 3:13), so no matter what happened to the Christians of Smyrna, Jesus Christ had already been through it. "For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are..." (Heb. 4:15).

Christ conquered the worst that life can do -- He triumphed over pain and death and He offers us the way to victorious living. This letter was intended for the benefit of the Smyrna Christians to encourage them to be faithful unto death, or martyrdom, with no fear of the consequences.

What The Church At Smyrna Experienced

There was "tribulation," which indicated affliction and physical violence at the hands of Jewish and heathen persecutors and oppressors. The apostle Paul said, "all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (2 Tim. 3:12).

To the pure eyes of Christ only two churches, Smyrna and Philadelphia, needed no rebuke. These same two, and only these, were warned to expect persecution.

The brethren at Smyrna were to endure poverty and a lack of physical necessities. The Greek word for "poverty" (ptocheian) "is used of the 'poverty' which Christ voluntarily experienced on our behalf, 2 Cor. 8:9; of the destitute condition of saints in Judea, 2 Cor. 8:2; of the condition of the church in Smyrna, Rev. 2:9, where the word is used in a general sense" (W. E. Vine).

You can picture the pagan world ridiculing them for their claim of worshipping the Creator of all things while their God would not bless them with affluence -- but their poverty is a part of their tribulation.

In spite of physical poverty the Lord said, "but you are rich" (Rev. 2:9). How much better it is to be poor in the eyes of the world, but rich before Christ (cf. Acts 4:13). The church at Laodicea was rich in its own esteem, but poor in the sight of Christ (Rev. 3:17). Men of the world looked at the saints in Smyrna and saw nothing but poverty, but He who sees not as man sees, saw the true riches they had (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16 -- 5:1). Their treasure was in heaven (Matt. 6:19-20).

They were also going to endure the blasphemy, slander and misrepresentation of the Jews who reviled, railed, and showed contempt against the Christians in Smyrna. The Jews considered themselves as the "synagogue of God," but were actually the "synagogue of Satan." Judaism was a legal religion and, by offering prayers to the emperor, they escaped the fate of the Christians.

Nothing is accidental in this book, so it is worth noting these phrases: "The synagogue of Satan" is mentioned in Smyrna (Rev. 2:9), representing the Jewish antagonism to the church. "Satan's throne" was in Pergamos (Rev. 2:13), representing the heathen. "The depths of Satan" were found in Thyatira (Rev. 2:24), representing the heretical.

We sometimes assume the early Christians were persecuted because of the truth for which they stood and the morality they preached -- this would have interfered with the passions of men. While this is true, it does not tell the whole story, for Satan is behind all of the persecution we might suffer. "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph. 6:12). Satan accuses the brethren (Rev. 12:9-10), sifts us as wheat (Luke 22:31), and oppresses us by physical suffering (Acts 10:38).

They were also going to be imprisoned. The Jews turned Christians over to the Romans because they would not confess Caesar as Lord, and many would be cast into prison. Prison was thought of by the writer as a prelude to execution, and was understood in that sense by his readers. Oftentimes prison would do what torture could not. Those who had endured torture were returned to prison to see what hunger and thirst, cold, darkness and chains would do. Little by little their courage and steadfastness could wear down.

Death or martyrdom would be a likely occurrence. Smyrna was the very center of Roman religion in Asia Minor. As early as 195 B.C. a temple to Dea Roma ("Rome the goddess") had been built in Smyrna. In 25 A.D. many cities of Asia Minor vied with one another for the honor of building the temple to Tiberius -- the honor was granted to Smyrna because of its worship of Rome.

When Christians refused to burn incense to the emperor of Rome as god, they were accused of treason and sentenced to die. Polycarp, an elder of the church at Smyrna, was martyred for this very crime.

Polycarp suffered much for Christ's sake as Eusebius, the church historian, tells us. The Roman Proconsul commanded him to swear allegiance to Caesar, saying, "Swear, and I will set thee at liberty; reproach Christ." How courageous was Polycarp's reply: "Eighty and six years have I now served Christ, and he has never done me the least wrong; how, then, can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?" Further efforts to make him deny his Lord failed, and Polycarp was condemned to be burned at the stake.

When the day came for him to be burned alive, those responsible for the burning wanted to nail him to the stake, but Polycarp protested saying: "Let me alone as I am: for He who has given me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails to stand without moving in the pile."

He was then not nailed to the stake but only tied to it with his hands behind his back. The Jews joined with the heathens in crying out for his death. He died on Saturday, February 23rd, 155 A.D. Crowds of Jews broke the Sabbath law by carrying wood for his fire.

Be Faithful Until Death

In view of the harsh treatment the church was undergoing, Jesus comforts them by saying, "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" (Rev. 2:10).

The great Captain of our salvation never conceals what those who faithfully live for Him will have to bear for His name's sake. Christ says of Paul, "For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name's sake" (Acts 9:16).

"About to suffer" indicates that the church was just entering into a long period of Roman persecution, which was introduced by Domitian and would extend to the days of Constantine (313 a.d.). The reason not to be afraid is that Jesus is eternal and victorious over death (Rev. 2:8), and He is all-knowing (Rev. 2:9) and He is rewarding (Rev. 2:10-11).

The length of our faithfulness is to extend "until death." Faithful at home and abroad. Faithful in prosperity and adversity. Faithful through the whole course of our lives. The church is not advised to curry favor with the world by compromise. The ugly truth is that Christians tend to avoid suffering by compromising with the world. Sadly, many Christians do not seem to challenge and rebuke unbelievers by their integrity, purity and love and as a result the world sees nothing in their life to hate. The world hardly notices the church in many areas (Acts 17:2-6; 28:22).

To Him Who Overcomes

For the Sadducees, the Epicureans and the Buddhists, death introduces us into nothingness -- it is the end of all things. For the faithful child of God it is the beginning (cf. John 14:1-3). We can know that we have eternal life (1 John 5:11-13).

The Lord offers not the royal crown (Gr. diadema) but the victor's crown (Gr. stephanos). Many had striven in the games and received a victor's crown -- these crowns were made of leaves that died. Our crown lasts because it is made of life.

Our "crown" is spoken of in many New Testament passages. "And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown." (1 Cor. 9:25). "For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming?" (1 Thes. 2:19). "Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing." (2 Tim. 4:8). "Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been proved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him." (James 1:12). "When the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away" (1 Pet. 5:4). The word "of" in each of these phrases means, "which consists of." The Lord is offering us a crown "which consists of" life, glory and righteousness.

Conclusion

There is nothing in life or death, in time or eternity that can separate us from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:38-39). Knowing that Christ loves us regardless of earthly circumstances, cast "all your care upon Him, for He cares for you" (1 Pet. 5:7).

Photographs from Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey)