Be Like Smyrna [2-20-22]



As we've seen, of the seven letters to the seven churches in The Revelation to John, only two churches escaped some sort of criticism or strong disapproval. Smyrna was one of those churches. What was it about them that made them stand out?


Let's start with geographical context.


Smyrna was about forty miles north of Ephesus. It's population was probably around 200,000. Three or four centuries before the time of this letter, it had been destroyed by foreign invaders, only to be rebuilt about a century later. That rebuild brought with it, famous at its time, a stadium, library, and one of the largest theaters in the region.


These changes brought economic prosperity to Smyrna. A huge road allowed for trade to pour out of and into the city. The region also produced great varieties of produce, which were broadly exported, as well.

Smyrna is the only one of the seven cities still in existence. It is now Izmir, Turkey. Here's a picture:



There remains an active Christian community in Izmir.


Culturally, Smyrna was mostly pagan. They built a temple in honor of Dea Roma, or "Goddess of Rome." Its major thoroughfare was bookended by a statue to their local deity, Cybele, at one end and Zeus at the other. About 30 years before the birth of Jesus, they were awarded the privilege of building a temple to emperor Tiberius. It was a wildly prosperous, multicultural, pagan city. Perfect place to plant a church with a counter-cultural message. The church was an outlier in Smyrna.


First, let's set the stage. Remember what we saw in Revelation 1:17-18:

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades."

This is how Jesus introduced himself to John at the beginning of the

revelation. This is the magnificent, unrivaled image of who Jesus is and what he did on the cross. It is, without a doubt, the best and only way to begin this sacred conversation.


So here's the letter written to a church in the rich, vibrant, very pagan city of Smyrna {Revelation 2:8-11}:

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

“‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’


Here's what the Christians at Smyrna already knew. They knew persecution. And that persecution would continue for generations.

Probably the most well-known persecution was the martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, around 155 A.D. When he refused to acknowledge Caesar as Lord, he was placed on a pyre to be burned. People were horrible back then, just as they have always been, down through the ages. My wife and I just finished a jigsaw puzzle depicting people and events from the Tudor reign of England hundreds of years ago. There were scenes from daily life, with the likes of William Shakespeare writing and a shepherd tending his flock, as well as two beheadings and one guy getting burned at the stake. The good…the bad…and the ugly in puzzle form.


Things got really ugly for Polycarp when he refused to worship the emperor. According to witnesses, here is what Polycarp said on the day of his death:

"Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the

wicked."

Ironic that he was burned at the stake for refusing to burn incense to the Roman emperor. His last words were, "I bless you, Father, for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of martyrs I may share the cup of Christ."


Polycarp was discipled and nurtured in that faithful church at Smyrna. That's who they were. They would not succumb to the hostility and pressure of their pagan culture. And the pressure was definitely there. It was real. Perhaps they were persecuted and economically poor because they were counter-cultural…they refused to go along to get along.


Here's what happened in hostile environments like Smyrna. Unless you bowed to the emperor cult and the region's deities, you were shut out of many commercial and financial opportunities. Worse, as you quietly went about making a living, if a rival or competitor learned you wouldn't burn incense to the emperor, they would rat you out. You either had to do it or you were deprived of your livelihood. So when Jesus said he knew of their poverty, they all knew what caused it. They refused to say, "Caesar is Lord." They would only say, "Jesus is Lord," which could be a death

sentence.


These were faithful followers of Jesus Christ. As we saw last week, the church at Ephesus started out gangbusters and then lost their way. Here at Smyrna, no amount of persecution or hardship could drive them from the narrow path of following Jesus. They were devout, dedicated, committed Christians who were strong, settled, confirmed, and anchored believers. That's what suffering does. It drives you deeper into the arms of Jesus.


That is exactly the point of this letter…to encourage them in their suffering. It gets to the heart of the point and purpose of The Revelation to John. Here's something you might want to write down:

THE CHURCH MUST CONTINUE TO BE FAITHFUL EVEN THOUGH IT MAY LEAD TO DEATH.


They were a remarkable church. They persevered. They remained faithful to the truth of the gospel. I sometimes wonder how I would hold up under that kind of persecution. We are in no way, shape, or form anywhere near close to how the Christians at Smyrna were persecuted. Our threats come in more subtle ways. There is the insidious pressure of materialism. It breaks my heart when I hear people equate prosperity or material gain with God's favor or depth of faith. Our pressure is to fall for the misguided belief that we were put on earth and called to Christ to have our best life ever. Our pressure is to conform to the culture in some pretty repugnant ways. We don't want to be on the wrong side of history, after all. Our pressure is to tolerate a culture of abortion because of some science-denying quibble over when life begins or a rejection of a life newly created with its own inherent right-to-live. We face an almost daily onslaught against our devotion to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.


Sure, none of us will be burned at the stake or sent to prison. But we need the example of the no-compromise faith of the Christians at Smyrna. We need to be inspired by the fragrance of their sacrifice.


Here's an interesting connection between that fragrance and the name of the city.

"Smyrna" is from the Greek word for myrrh. The root is the word mara, which means "bitter." If you remember, from the Book of Ruth, her mother-in-law, whose name was Naomi {which means winsome, a name and meaning which I love} had experienced so much tragedy and loss in her life that she said her name from now on would be mara. Some wheels are starting to turn, right? Myrrh was a resin used to make a beautiful fragrance for embalming. Remember what the Wise Men brought to Jesus. Myrrh…Smyrna. And it also had some sort of sedating property. Mark reports that Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh on his way to be crucified. But he refused it.


John 19 says when Jesus' body was prepared for burial, one of the things they covered his body with was myrrh, or Smyrna. Throughout Scripture, we get these glimpses of God's sovereign purposes expressed through so many beautiful connections.


The fragrance of the church at Smyrna was their faithful devotion to Jesus Christ regardless of the cost. And so verse 9 says, "I know your tribulation and your poverty {but you are rich}." The word translated tribulation, means "to be crushed, to be pressed." Just like myrrh had to be crushed to gain its anointing fragrance. Interesting choice of words.

Quickly, here are the three main reasons they were persecuted.

First, they opposed emperor worship.

We've already looked at that. They were non-conforming and non-compliant with many of the edicts and expectations from the emperor.


Second, they rejected pagan worship.

Smyrna was overrun with temples and festivals surrounding gods and goddesses, which involved all kinds of sexual exploits and debauchery. The Christians at Smyrna were out of sync with their culture in every way.


Third, they were considered blasphemers by the Jewish community of Smyrna.

As a result, they were persecuted by many in the Jewish community at Smyrna.


Really, there was so much that went wrong for them. But the one thing

that was always right was their devotion to the truth of the gospel. No matter what the cost. Hopefully we can say as much about our lives.


Finally, the letter ends with a promise:

Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.

In other words, "You are going to be persecuted. Be faithful unto death, and I'll give you the crown of life. Be faithful unto death."


That is the final point of the letter to Smyrna and it is the primary point around which the entire book is organized. The point is perseverance. Here's something else you might want to write down:

THE GREAT TRUTH OF PERSEVERANCE IS THIS - IF YOU ENDURE, YOU ARE A BELIEVER.

That is exactly what Jesus said in Matthew 24:13, "But the one who endures to the end will be saved." Also, this from Jesus in Matthew 10:22, "You will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved." True believers will go through hardship. True believers will suffer. True believers will not fit in with the culture. True believers will pay a price for being different from everyone else. But everything true believers go through they will go through triumphantly.

They will be victorious. Even when it feels like your worst life ever, it will

be your most victorious life ever.


Finally, it all ends with a promise. Regardless of the hardships or trials of life, it will all end well. You will be given the crown of life. Simply put, through faith in Jesus Christ, death will have no hold on you. That's the promise from The Revelation to John - however this life ends for you, you are going right on into eternity.


Let's Pray:

LORD, THANK YOU FOR THIS BRIEF, YET WONDERFUL GLIMPSE INTO THE LIVES OF YOUR FAITHFUL PEOPLE FROM LONG AGO. BY THEIR TESTIMONY WE KNOW THAT, REGARDLESS OF WHAT COMES OUR WAY, WE WILL BE FAITHFUL THROUGH TIMES OF TRIAL, TUMULT, OR TRAGEDY. WHENEVER AND HOWEVER THAT MOMENT COMES, MAY WE BE FAITHFUL IN DEATH. MAKE US A

TRIUMPHANT CHURCH, TO YOUR GLORY WE PRAY. AMEN.



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