Summary: The church made perfect by suffering
Unto the Church in Smyrna, Write
Last week, we examined the letter the Lord directed John to send to Ephesus. This week we will examine the letter sent to Smyrna. As we will see, the situation in Smyrna was quite different than that of Ephesus. Jesus addresses these letters to address the individual situation He finds in the churches and addresses them accordingly. At the same time as we have before noted, these letters were meant to be read by all of the churches as well. As Scripture, they speak to us today as well.
The city of Smyrna was about thirty five miles northwest of Ephesus. It had eagerly allied itself with Rome in the past and was rewarded accordingly. It was the first city in Asia Minor to acknowledge the divinity of the Roman state, and was early in the establishment of the worship of the Emperor as the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords”, the god who presided over the “Eternal City” of Rome. Christianity, which made the same claims of Jesus, and more, would certainly have come into collision with this view.
The city of Smyrna also had a large Jewish population. The Jews were specifically exempted from worshiping the Emperor or the local deities of the trade guilds. This was a reward for their early support of Rome. They were also allowed to worship God anywhere in the Roman world and not just in Palestine. In place of the sacrifices and worship of the Emperor as a god, the Jews were allowed to substitute prayers and respect to Caesar and state. As long as the Romans counted the Christians as a sect of Judaism, Christianity was offered this same privilege.
However, the Jews in Smyrna were zealots in their persecution of Christianity. The Scripture records again and again the depth of Jewish hostility against both Jesus and His followers. Jesus, contrary to Jewish Law was handed over to the Roman government for execution. Stephen was stoned. Saul before his conversion hunted down the Christians with a mad hate, hauling them off to prison and death. After Paul’s conversion, he became the target for Jewish persecution. The Jews arose up against him at Damascus. Then we can see after having the Jews influencing the Roman authorities at Antioch Pisidia to cast Paul out of the city, they hunted him down over one hundred miles of countryside to Lystra, where they influenced the local authorities to stone Paul and leave him for dead. The Jews in Thessalonica came to the authorities there to arrest Paul for treason against Rome after hiring the rabble of the city to rise up against the Christians. Paul makes mention of this in 1 Thessalonians in agreement with the account in Acts.
Even after more than half a century after Revelation, a horrific account of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Christian bishop of Smyrna demonstrates that even at this time, the Jews had a fanatical hatred of Christians. Not only did they as a group demand that the Romans execute Polycarp, an eighty-six year old man, but to burn him at the stake. Even though it was the Sabbath day, they eagerly gathered the necessary firewood. And when the flames could not get started and they had to execute him by piercing his body with a sword, they tried to prevent the release of Polycarp’s body to the Christians for burial.
From this, and from the text, we can get a pretty clear picture of the Christian’s plight at the time of the Book of Revelation. The Jews consistently stirred up the Roman authorities to dispose of the Christians. They would let the authorities know that the Christians had been excommunicated from the synagogue and therefore outside the sphere of protection offered to Judaism. They actively named the Christians to the Romans in the hope of their arrest and execution. The Jews also shared in the reward by getting some of the Christian’s property which was confiscated. They would let the Romans know that the Christians were an enemy to Caesar and the state.
We don’t know who started the church at Smyrna or when. We do know that the church had come under the authority of John who addresses Smyrna as one of the seven churches.
Exposition of the Text
Like the letters to the other churches. Jesus begins it by saying “Unto the church in Smyrna, write”. Some have noted that “Smyrna” is spelled the same as the Greek word for Myrrh, which was used as an aromatic burial spice. It was one of the gifts which the Magi offered the infant Jesus. And a very large quantity of the very expensive spice was used in Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea’s preparation of the body of Jesus for burial. It may be a coincidence of words here, but John is fond of double meanings. Myrrh would be very descriptive of what was happening to the Christians at Smyrna. They were suffering death, confiscation, and exile for their faith. In this they were following Jesus who was betrayed by Judas, betrayed by the Jews to Pilate, exiled out of Jerusalem, had His only possessions, His clothing confiscated, and then put to death. Even though Myrrh was the savor of death to this world, it was the aroma of eternal life to God.