Seven Letters to Seven Churches: The Letter to Smyrna
Today as we continue our series Seven Letters to Seven Churches, we come to the second letter mentioned in the book of Revelation by John the Elder, who was exiled on the island of Patmos. This very brief letter written to the church in Smyrna also comes straight from the heart of the living Christ.
I invite you to turn with me to Revelation 2. John’s letter includes no condemnation, no correction, and no issue with which to confront the church. Instead, he encourages the church of Smyrna, which is facing extreme pressure.
Hear now the Word of God.
“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. 9 I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
11 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.”
This is the Word of God for the people of God.
We travel up the coast of Asia from Ephesus along the Aegean Sea and come to Ismere, a city now in the modern country of Turkey. We continue to the beautiful city of Smyrna, which some have called the “Flower of Asia.” Like Ephesus, it had an excellent harbor. Commerce thrived there.
I suppose that if any place had municipal vanity, it would be Smyrna. The city was rich in culture, philosophy, music, and the arts. A magnificent public library, theater, and arena were built there. Historians claim that Smyrna was birthplace of Homer.
High above this city were temples encircling the top of the hill. The first temple, built in 195 B.C., honored the goddess Roma. A second, built in 26 A.D., honored the emperor Tiberius. Others in the ring honored Zeus and the Greek goddess Sybil. Looking from the sea to the crest of the hill near Smyrna, a person would say that the collection of temples resembled a crown. Thus, Smyrna became known as the Crown, as well as the Queen City. The Chamber of Commerce was very proud of the city.
The very name Smyrna means myrrh. You remember that myrrh is an embalming spice the Magi brought to the Christ Child in Bethlehem. In order for the fragrance to be released, myrrh must be crushed. Smyrna is a fitting name for this particular town. We see here the connection between the crushing pressure of persecution to the Christians and death.
Though this city was one the most beautiful in the entire world at that time, it was facing contamination caused by its own doing. In reading commentaries on the book of Revelation, I found that one problem at Smyrna was the raw sewage dumped into the Aegean Sea. When the wind was blowing in just the right direction, the sewage remained close to the coastline. Why would I point out such a characteristic? You know the adage, “Beauty is only skin deep.”
Smyrna also had a contamination of the spirit among those who were enemies of the church. A very large number of citizens there – about 10,000 – were of the Jewish faith, and Judaism was recognized as a legal religion. Known for its unwavering loyalty to Rome, Smyrna was granted the status of a free city. Rome trusted that the people would be completely devoted to its rule. No army of occupation resided there, but it did have a strong Roman presence.
Unlike Judaism, Christianity was against the law in Smyrna. The Christian church received pressure from two sources. Collusion existed between the temple and the empire. The Jewish community actually became tattle-tales, creating slander and rumors about the Christians. The Roman authorities, not willing to tolerate any kind of civil disturbance, immediately squelched problems by placing the offenders in prison, persecuting them, and even putting them to death. Christians could expect to be persecuted. The conspiracy between the Jewish community and the Roman authorities is the same force at work in the crucifixion of Jesus. John offers only encouragement as he addresses the plight of the church. Most of these Christians were impoverished, coming from the lower classes. Many were slaves.
It is very difficult to know the meaning of the ten-day imprisonment that John forecasts in our text. Some reference the book of Daniel when the Hebrew children were tested for ten days, refusing to eat food the king provided. John’s use of this number in Revelation is his way of saying, “This persecution will not last forever. There is a limit on how long this harassment will occur.” The truth is that the persecution lasted much longer than ten days.
The book of Acts records that the synagogue often instigated persecution against Christians. That was the case in Antioch, the case in Iconium, the case in Lystra, and the case in Thessalonica. The Jewish community here in Smyrna brings completely outlandish, far-fetched charges against the church. These slanderous rumors grew and developed, resulting in the terrible persecution of the Christians. John calls the Jewish community in Smyrna the “synagogue of Satan,” meaning, “The persecution originates in the mind of Satan. He brings these charges. He is behind the persecution.”
What were these charges? First, the Jews accused Christians of cannibalism. During times of worship the Christians observed what is called the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper. The notion of taking the body and blood of Jesus sounded like cannibalism to those unfamiliar with the faith and its symbolism. The Jewish community saw no connection with the Passover meal.
Second, the Jews charged Christians with incest. The Christians called each other brother and sister and greeted each other with a holy kiss. They also talked about love, agape love, which Jesus taught us to have for each other. Those outside the church combined those details and concluded, “They are having an orgy over there. Their relationships are incestuous.”
Third, the Jews charged the Christians with breaking up marriages and families, a charge that actually had some truth. One member of a family becoming a Christian often divided the family. Father and son might be divided against each other. Parents were divided against children and husbands against wives. Jesus himself said, “I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). He knew that family members would be pitted against each other. The truth is that when one person in the family accepts Christ but others do not, conflict results.
We might think of this conflict as something that occurred only in long ago times or only in faraway places. Persecution has happened here in this very church. I recall a mother who came to church faithfully with her three children.
One Sunday I complimented her. She actually arrived at church a little late, but I said, “That’s fine. I commend you for coming and bringing your three children. I know how hard it is to get children ready for church on Sunday mornings.”
She answered, “Pastor Kirk, you will never know what I go through when I bring my children to church. The sarcasm from my husband when I return home is unimaginable. He ridicules me unmercifully.”
That persecution happened right here in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Fourth, the Jews charged Christians with atheism, saying they neither worshipped in the synagogue or in the various temples on the hill nor offered sacrifices to idols. As far as most of the citizens of Smyrna were concerned, the Christians were not worshipping, regardless of what they did in their meetings.
Fifth, the Jews charged Christians with insurrection and arson. Numerous Roman Caesars demanded that every person in the region declare, “Caesar is lord!” and make an offering to the emperor. Christians refused to recognize the rulers in that manner. They declared, “Jesus is Lord, no other.” Because the Christians talked about fire when discussing the final judgment, the Jews charged them with being arsonists.
John calls the Christians to stand firm in the face of this persecution. He reminds them that Jesus is the first and the last, that Jesus is the beginning and the end, and that Jesus was dead but now alive. Christ suffered in the same way that these Christians were suffering; but he endured, conquering the very worst that the synagogue and empire could dispense. John calls on these Christians to follow the victorious pattern they see in Christ Jesus.
In our text today, we see that John also promises that those who persevere will receive the crown of life. Two Greek words are translated crown. The word from which we get diadem means a royal crown for a king. John, however, uses here the other Greek word, which means a crown of joy, a crown of victory, a crown of life, as in the crown given to a victorious athlete. He says that those who overcome, those who endure, will receive this crown that represents triumph. Sometimes we see references in the New Testament to the crown of righteousness and the crown of rejoicing. You remember that Jesus himself wore a crown, a crown of thorns replaced by the crown of glory.
John reassures the church that though their persecution will be difficult, they will ultimately be triumphant. They will not suffer the “second death,” a term used only in the book of Revelation. We will see the same term later in Chapters 20 and 21. The consensus among scholars who have considered the meaning of “second death” is that the term refers to the death that comes in judgment to those who do not know Christ. John is saying, “If you overcome now, you will not face that second death. Christ, who conquered even death itself, has already done that for you.”
John conveys the same hope that Paul offers to the Christians in Rome in his treatise. In Romans 8, Paul reminds us of some great truths of our Christian faith.
18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is going to be revealed to us.
31If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
A boy named Polycarp, about the age of some of our older Scouts, lived in Smyrna during the formative years of the church. He witnessed the critical transition between the deaths of Jesus’ original apostles and the beginning of a second generation of Christians. He became a Christian as a child, and tradition says that the Apostle John discipled him. He must have been deeply impressed when this letter was received and read in the church. He became a leader of the church, first as a priest and then as the bishop of Smyrna. He served in that capacity for many years, gaining the respect of both the Jews and Romans. Polycarp, who traveled extensively, was widely known throughout the Roman Empire. In his later years he was a reconciler, trying to settle disputes among Christians.
His only existing writing is a pastoral letter written to the church in Philippi. From reading the letter, we know that he was not well-educated. He was unpretentious, humble, and very direct. Did he have a heart for the Lord!
Polycarp confronted one of the church’s most troublesome heretics, a brilliant man named Martian. Polycarp called this Gnostic who had gone astray “the firstborn of Satan.” Polycarp was actually responsible for converting many from Gnosticism into the Christian faith.
Polycarp was an old man of eighty-seven when the Roman authorities took him into custody. It is not exactly clear why he was suddenly subject to arrest. When he learned of the Romans’ intent, he planned to await their arrival in his home. After a time of prayer, he told friends of his vision and said that he understood he must die by being burned alive.
Those friends persuaded him to flee to an estate just outside of the city. Of course, it did not take long for the Romans to discover that location. Learning of Polycarp’s imminent arrest, the friends again urged him to flee; but Polycarp replied, “God’s will be done.” He invited the soldiers inside the home and hosted a meal for them.
After the meal, the soldiers escorted the elderly bishop to the local proconsul where he was interrogated in front of a large crowd. Many of Polycarp’s admirers were there. He seemed unfazed by the interrogation and actually exchanged some witty banter with the proconsul.
Finally the official lost his temper and threatened, “I will throw you to the wild beast! I will burn you at the stake!”
Polycarp responded, “Your fire will last only a little while, but the fires of judgment reserved for the ungodly cannot be quenched.”
Angered, the proconsul ordered that he be seized and nailed to the stake so that he could be burned at the stake. Polycarp’s vision had proved to be true.
Polycarp stopped the soldiers, saying, “Leave me as I am. God, who grants me the courage to endure the fire, will grant me the courage to remain on the pyre.”
The individual who chronicled Polycarp’s martyrdom recorded that Polycarp was not nailed to the stake. After Polycarp prayed aloud, the fire was lit and his body consumed. The chronicler noted that the air did not reek of burning flesh. Instead, a fragrant aroma similar to that of baking bread permeated the air. Others who witnessed this burning said it was like the refining of gold or silver in fire.
Scouts, we make the pledge, “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God.” That greatest and highest pledge is not just for Scouts. We must all pledge to do our duty to God above every other entity. We must pledge our devotion to God above devotion to our country, above devotion to our families, and above devotion to our church. If we keep that promise, circumstances will not always go well for us. At times we will be excluded. We will not receive invitations to some parties. We will be ridiculed and maybe even persecuted. That is certainly the situation for many Christians in the world today who are true to God and their Christian faith. When we accept Christ, we make a covenant, a promise, that we are will live our lives as best we can to honor God.
Have you made the covenant to put God above everything else, to give Him your unwavering devotion? Have you made the decision that come what may, God, who has been faithful in so many ways, can count on you to be faithful to Him? Are you willing to give your life for Christ? He gave his life for you. He gave his life for Kirk. If you keep the promise to be true to the faith and to stand firm, you will receive a crown. Paul said, “I have kept the faith, I have finished the race. Now there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award me on that day…” (II Timothy 4:7-8). We invite you to accept Christ as your Savior.Kirk H. Neely © February 2013