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.
These Christians lived in a very uncertain world, but the certainty that they had was Jesus Christ and his resurrection. They were under great pressure, they were destitute, they were slandered by the Jews. And yet, through all this, they remained faithful to God. And for that they were rewarded with the crown of life.
Turning to the letter to Pergamum, it begins telling the church there that they are living in a city where the work of the devil is rampant, but the implication is not they are about to go somewhere else, but they need to go on living there. They cannot pack up and escape, they are stuck there. The point is that their role is not to run away from a difficult situation, but to conquer it.
John commends the Christians at Pergamum for this holding fast. Whatever had gone on, they had held fast to Christ. A particularly difficult moment is mentioned when Antipas, about whom we know almost nothing, was killed for being a witness to the faith.
But by verse 14 the whole tone of this letter changes. The praise stops, and rebuke begins. It seems that there were people who were leading them astray. In one direction they had been encouraged to eat food that had been used as sacrifices. This seems, at first sight, to be fairly harmless, but the problem was that it brought them into too much association with the pagans and their sacrifices. In their situation, the pagans had the upper-hand, and it was them converting the Christians and not the other way around.