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The Churches of Revelation: Part 3 – Smyrna

Revelation 1:20 – The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

Smyrna was a large city on the coast that reached 30 miles inland. Originally, the Lelages lived there until, in 1100 BC it was taken by the Aeolian Greeks. In 688 BC it passed to the Ionian Greeks. It was again taken in 627 BC by the Lydians.

In around 300 BC, the city was abandoned and rebuilt by Alexander the Great. It was moved southwest of the previous city and surrounded by a wall. It became one of the main roads to the interior of the area and a top-notch trading center. It also became the top port for exporting. During the Roman rule, Smyrna was considered the most beautiful city in Asia Minor, rilvaling Pergamos and Ephesus. The streets were all paved and the schools of science and medicine were the best around. They had a theatre that could seat 20,000.

In 23 AD a temple was built to Tiberius and his mother, Julia. It was connected to the temples to Zeus and Cybele. It was one of the most ornate temples in all of Asia Minor.

Smyrna became a Christian city very early in the first century. The bishop of the church in Smyrna was Polycarp, one of the original church fathers. He was also the first post-New Testament martyring. He was discipled by John and appointed as bishop by some of the original apostles. He was uneducated and direct. He took on the Gnostic leader, Marcion, calling him the “first born of Satan.”  His only existing writing is a pastoral letter to the church in Philippi. Polycarp fled to an estate outside the city when he was 86 and when the Roman soldiers came knocking on his door, he knew what they were there for. He simply said to them, “God’s will be done.” At that, he let the soldiers in and they took him without a struggle.

When he was placed onto the pyre to be burned, the Roman soldiers would typically nail the person to the wood to prevent him from jumping out of the fire. He simply said, “Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” The fire was lit and consumed his flesh and he never flinched. The Roman who chronicled the burning said of the moment that his flesh was “not as burning flesh but as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in a furnace.”

Revelation 2:9a –  I know your affliction

As we begin to dig into Revelation 2:8-11, Jesus lays out another quality of a church that we will come to know. The first quality was shown in Ephesus, love for one another. This second quality is suffering. The Bible is very clear that we will suffer for our faith. Some will be persecuted unto death and others will see a more mental or emotional suffering instead of physical.

James tells us that tribulation has a perfecting work. Peter says that after you have suffered for a while, the Lord will make you perfect. Paul told the Thessalonians that their suffering has produced endurance, perseverance, and hope.

The church in Smyrna was a church that suffered.

James 1:2-4 – Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

The letters in Revelation are to actual churches, but they also show examples of churches through history, because churches will encounter suffering. This means that these 3 verses give us instruction, as the church, on how to deal with persecution.

Smyrna is about 40 miles north of Ephesus. This is one of 2 churches that do not get condemnation. Jesus does not discuss the sin in the church of Smyrna. There is no mention of punishment.

Based on what we read throughout the New Testament in James, Peter, and Thessalonians, we see what suffering brings. It brings perfection. One can only assume that the sin in this church has been purged through the suffering which they have gone or will go through.

During this writing, Domitian was the Caesar. He was a murderous dictator who launched a massive persecution against the church of Christ. And because of the persecution that Smyrna undergoes, they have become pure.

Hypocrites do not hang around when persecution occurs. False Christians won’t sacrifice and go through the pain. Persecution destroys false faith but strengthens true faith.

According to the book of Acts, the ministry that was happening in Ephesus during the first few years after Jesus’ resurrection led to a Great Awakening of sorts to the cities surrounding Ephesus but we don’t know who planted the church in Smyrna.

Acts 19:10 – And this went on for two years, so that all the inhabitants of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the message about the Lord.

Smyrna had a very close relationship with Caesar. Since Caesar was to be worshiped as a god, being a Christian in a city with a close relationship with Caesar was a dangerous act. Some historians says that there were mass executions of Christians in Smyrna.

Another interesting note is that the name “Smyrna” means “myrrh” in Greek and we know what the importance of myrrh is. It started as a perfume in the New Testament which then became associated with Jesus’ death.  It becomes the picture of suffering for this church. In order for myrrh to create its beautiful smell, it needed to be crushed. God allowed Satan to crush this church in order for them to yield the sweet faith that comes from suffering.

But one interesting thing about this city is that, even though it was seen as the most beautiful city in Asia Minor, the architects forgot drains. So when rains came, the streets would literally flood with raw sewage. So the beautiful smell of myrrh was not the daily smell in Smyrna.  It goes to show the underlying problems of a sinful city, it can look beautiful on the outside but be ugly on the inside. Whereas the church was ugly to look at, crushed from persecution, but was pure on the inside.

As we look at those who were persecuting, verse 9 says that it was those who “say they are Jews but are not.”  So these are physical, or cultural Jews, but not practicing Jews. Romans 2:28 says that “He is not a Jew who is one outwardly, he is Jew who is one inwardly.” The Christians in Smyrna were being persecuted by those who claimed to be Jews. They would run to the Roman proconsul and have them arrested, jailed, beaten, and killed.

Revelation 2:9 – I know your affliction and poverty, yet you are rich. I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.

Next, in verse 9, this was a poor church. There are 2 Greek words for poor. The first is penea, which means you are not wealthy. You have only enough to satisfy your basic needs. Jesus didn’t use this word. He used ptochos. This word means you have nothing at all. Complete destitution. Because of their poverty, many of them must have been slaves.

But Jesus doesn’t end there. He says that this church is rich spiritually. When you look at the churches in the world that are growing at fast rates, they are not the American or European churches. They are the churches in Syria, Iraq, and other countries that have persecution among Christians.

When we get to verse 10, Jesus tells this church that things are only going to get worse for them. Satan is going to jail some of them. And then it gets worse. He says that some will even be put to death.

But what do they receive for going through all of this?

The crown of life.

This is not a physical crown like you would get in a Miss America contest. This is life. This is eternal life in Christ Jesus. But it is even more. It is a full life filled with spiritual satisfaction in this life.

So we see that a persecuted church is one which shows a purity that Jesus commends. I pray we in the Western church get the opportunity to experience that kind of purity. It would mean our churches would shrink and our lives would not be much to the world, but to see a faith grow as Smyrna’s did would fulfill my bucket list.

Revelation 2:10 – Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. Look, the Devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you, and you will have affliction for 10 days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.

Next week we will look at the next city, Pergamum.

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