Summary: What can we learn today from the churches at Smyrna and Pergamum, one of the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 ?
Why would letters be written to these churches?
Well, Smyrna was a very important centre of trade, with a valuable harbour, and big wine business. It was a very beautiful city, even outstanding. In all the civil wars, the people of Smyrna always chose the right side to be: it was politically important. So, it was an important place in the world of the early Christians. However, there were two things that made life very difficult for the residents of Smyrna. One was the worship of Caesar and things Roman. The other was a very large and strident Jewish population. So, Smyrna is an important, strong, wealthy, city, with a good presence, but Christians fearful of both Jews and Romans.
Pergamum had the dubious honour of being the most illustrious city in Asia. Firstly, Pergamum was a capital city, with the atmosphere that only a capital possesses, like Edinburgh, Paris or Berlin. It wasn’t a trading city, like Ephesus or Smyrna; its greatness came from being a capital city. It also had the most famous library in then world, and very close connections with all thing literally. It was also a famous religious centre, though, sadly, for every form of worship except Christian.
This letter to the church in Smyrna begins with great titles of Christ: the first and the last. Here was some certainty. This was an uncertain time and place to be a Christian, with the twin dangers of Jews and Caesar worshippers. Then follows the second title: He who was dead and is alive again. This, of course, is the resurrection. So, in this uncertain city of Smyrna, there is a message of great certainty in Jesus Christ and his resurrection.
We then hear that there have been a great many troubles that the church at Smyrna has had to endure. Firstly there was tribulation. The Greek word is pressure. I’m sure there’s plenty of us here who know all about pressure. Christ allowed the Church in Smyrna to cope and meet the very many pressures that they met.
Then they had to endure poverty, to the point of being destitute. This isn’t something that we can very easily empathise with. As people in this country go, we’re probably among the better off, and as the world goes, our country is definitely among there best off. The early Christians were generally poor, but those in Smyrna were much poorer than average, which was even more striking given how rich the city as a whole was. They were probably poor because their homes had been robbed and pillaged by people who persecuted them for being Christians.
As Smyrna was a strongly Jewish city, the Christians there were always in danger from slanders from the Jews. Nowadays we have good relations with the Jews, but it wasn’t like that in the first days of Christianity.
So, how does this sorry tale from Smyrna end? It ends with the crown of life. The author, John, didn’t mean a crown like a royal crown, but it does mean just about every other kind of crown – that is to say the crown of victory, as if they had won a race; the festal crown; and also, in Smyrna, a reward for municipal service.