Summary: To remain faithful in the face of pressure, we need to be grounded in our identity as followers of Christ, with knowledge, obedience, and love.
We spend one Sunday a year praying for persecuted Christians around the world. Of course there’s the “Martyr of the Month” column in the newsletter, and occasionally our bulletin inserts will highlight a trouble spot or a new martyr. But that’s all the time most of us spend on it, because it’s not part of our daily life. The closest most of us will come to persecution is to hear someone condemning Christians for being intolerant. But it’s closer than you might think. How many of you read about Patrick Cubbage, an honor guardsman at a New Jersey veterans' cemetery, who was fired last October for saying "God bless you" at gravesite flag presentations?
Have any of you wondered how you would react if you had to choose between your faith and your job? What about your faith and your freedom? What about your faith and your life?
The Christians of Smyrna were intimately acquainted with persecution. Smyrna lay just 35 miles north of Ephesus on the west coast of what is now Turkey, on the Aegean Sea, almost due east from Athens. It was the loveliest of all the cities and was sometimes called “the Ornament of Asia,” “the Crown of Asia,” or sometimes “the Flower of Asia.” The word “Smyrna” itself means “myrrh,” a sweet perfume used in embalming dead bodies, and included in the holy anointing oil used in the Tabernacle worship in the OT. [Ex 30:23]
Smyrna is the only city still standing to whom Paul wrote one of these letters. The new name is Izmir, and there is little evidence of the city that throve there 2000 years ago. But it’s still there, and thriving. It’s Turkey’s second largest port, after Istanbul, and the third largest, with over one and a half million inhabitants.
Smyrna had been a Greek colony as far back as 1000 B.C. Around 600 B.C. it was invaded and destroyed by the Lydeans, and for 400 years there was no city there at all. Then in about 200 B.C. Alexander the Great had it rebuilt and repopulated. It was built with streets that were broad, straight, sweeping, and beautifully paved. The city had experienced death and had literally been brought back to life.
Smyrna had also been granted the status of “free city” since, unlike many other cities in the region, had been staunchly faithful to Rome. It was the first city in the world to erect a temple to the goddess Roma and to the spirit of Rome. It was also a center of emperor worship. It was a city which gloried in its idolatry, and was rewarded for it. Other literature from the period shows that the city was also noted for its wickedness and its opposition to this new Christian religion.
Now, the outlines to the letters to the seven churches are very similar to one another, so in order to pick out what’s important we have to look at the differences.
The letters all start with Jesus introducing himself, saying “I am. . . “ To Ephesus he described himself as “he who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” [Rev 2:1] But to Smyrna he introduces himself as “the first and the last, who was dead and came to life.” What do you suppose the significance might be? First, it’s a reminder that Jesus is God, because that title “the first and the last” is one used of The God of Israel in the Old Testament. “I am the first and I am the last, and there is no God besides Me.” [Is 44:6] It’s a reminder that Jesus has unlimited power. The reference to the fact that Jesus “was dead, and has come to life” may also refer to Smyrna’s own history, as a city which had died and come back to life. Jesus was even greater, even more powerful than Alexander the Great, the one responsible for their previous resurrection.
The next section of each letter is the diagnosis, the inspector’s official report on the condition of the church. It always begins with the words “I know.” It’s a reminder that this Jesus, the blazing figure with a sword in his mouth, knows everything about each one of us, including the things we’d just as soon no one ever knew. Jesus is the living word, and the writer to the Hebrews tells us,
“the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. [He 4:12-13]