Summary: A first-person narrative as Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, whose big idea is "be faithful, not fearful."
Have you ever suffered for your faith? Even a little? To be faithful and be treated badly seems wrong to us—and it is wrong! There is malice in the world, such cruelty that only comes from the evil one, the destroyer. But our Lord prophesied as much, didn’t he? “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Blessed are you when you are mocked and persecuted and lied about because you are my followers. Rejoice and be glad! For great is your reward in heaven.”
SETTING & CHARACTER
Allow me to introduce myself: I am Polycarp, bishop of the church at Smyrna, a seaport in the Roman province of Asia. However, for you I’ll introduce myself as Polycarp, bishop of the lampstand at Smyrna, in the kingdom of God. The name Smyrna, means “myrrh.” Myrrh was a perfume used in the anointing oil of the Tabernacle and in embalming dead bodies. My hometown was a wealthy and beautiful place with large, glorious boulevards. The center of town was called the Golden Street. (Today, I know what a real golden street looks like, but then I didn’t know better.) We were among the most prosperous cities in the region, but for some reason, Smyrna always had an inferiority complex when it came to Ephesus. We were just 35 miles upcoast of Ephesus to the north—both seaports, and important centers of commerce. Ironic that in contrast to Ephesus, which is today a deserted ruin, Smyrna is still a large seaport with a population exceeding 200,000.
I was the bishop of the church at Smyrna for over 50 years. I started in my early thirties, teaching the Word, showing the Way. I didn’t know what I was doing, but our church was patient with me, and recognized & accepted the Lord’s calling. As I matured in my faith I continued teaching the Word and showing the Way, and my influence spread throughout the region. In 50 years of ministry you meet a lot of people. I was grateful for the encouragement of my mentor, Ignatius of Antioch. I was grateful for the opportunity to meet a boy named Irenaeus, whose love for God’s truth was so passionate even in his youth. And I stood in opposition to the heretic Marcion, who discarded whatever scriptures did not fit his presuppositions, and led many astray. In any age, there are always those who bow to no authority beyond themselves.
Our church was up against it. The enemies of the faith were aggressive and cruel. It was a dangerous thing to be a Christ follower in Smyrna. There was no knowing what might happen to you. In AD 26 Smyrna won the right to erect a temple to the emperor Tiberius. It was a center for Caesar worship. The cult of Empire and Emperor, of Rome and Caesar, was a matter of great pride in Smyrna. Did we Christ followers refuse to sprinkle incense on the fire which burned before the emperor’s statue? Of course we did! To do so would be idolatry. We could not call Caesar Lord when Jesus was our Lord. But our unwillingness to conform was interpreted by our fellow Smyrneans as a disgraceful, even treacherous lack of patriotism.
Now Smyrna was also the center of a large Jewish population with a strong influence on the Roman authorities. Because Judaism was recognized as an official religion, Jews were exempt from emperor worship. The first Christ followers considered ourselves Jews—“heirs of the promise.” However, if the Jews wanted us out of their synagogues, they could turn them over to the Romans, saying, “they say they are Jews, but they’re not,” thereby subjecting us to persecution.
In church history, the most severe persecution has come from religious people. The persecution at Smyrna was made especially poignant by the fact that the great enemy was the local community of Jews. They were God’s people racially, but not really, and were in fact blaspheming God as they persecuted His church under the guise of serving Him. It was economic pressure from these Jews that brought the church to poverty, and slanderous accusations by them (“Satan” means “accuser”) that led to persecution.
You might be surprised that in the midst of wealthy and prosperous Smyrna any of its citizens should have been poor. Some of our number belonged to the lower ranks of society. Others, I’m proud to report, had such unselfish love for the underprivileged, they had contributed generously to their needs. But neither of these factors constituted persecution. Rather, in our resolve to go straight in business, we renounced shady methods and thereby missed some of the easy profits which went to others less scrupulous than themselves. And many Jews and pagans refused to trade with us or employ us when they learned we were Christ followers. Make no mistake—it does not always pay to be a Christian.