A Message to the Church in Smyrna (A Fragrant Church)

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Kieran Beville (D.Litt, Ph.D, BA, PGDE) is Pastor of Lee Valley Bible Church (Baptist), Ballincollig, Co. Cork, Ireland and Visiting Professor of Intercultural Studies and Practical Ministry at Tyndale Theological Seminary, Badhoevedorp, Netherlands. He has written several books and numerous articles and he has taught intensive courses in Theology and Biblical Studies on leadership training programs in Eastern Europe, the Middle-East and India.

The city of Smyrna was located approximately thirty-five miles north of Ephesus. It was a prosperous city with a population of over one hundred thousand in John’s day (c. A.D. 95). That location had been inhabited for over three thousand years and no one knows for sure who founded Smyrna or exactly when it was established. A massive earthquake destroyed the city a few years before the birth of Jesus, but it was rebuilt and thrived. It possessed a safe harbor, where ships from all over the world came to buy and sell goods. It was called ‘The Crown City’ because it was surrounded by hills that resembled a crown. It was also known as ‘The Flower of Asia’. Smyrna was famous for its music and culture. When the city chose a motto to be imprinted on their coinage, they chose the phrase: ‘First in Asia in size and beauty’.

Myrrh

Several characteristics made the city special in its day. First, it was famous for the production of myrrh. This substance came from a shrub-like tree that produced a bitter gum. When the leaves of this tree were crushed, they exuded a very fragrant odor. Myrrh was used as a perfume by the living and an embalming agent for the dead. Myrrh was mentioned in association with the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus. (Matt. 2:11) Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh (as a painkiller) when he was on the cross, but he did not take it. (Mk 15:23) Nicodemus brought myrrh to anoint the body of Jesus for burial (Jn. 19:39). The word myrrh means “bitter” and it came to be associated with suffering and death.

A Planned, Religious and Free City

Among the other factors that made the city of Smyrna special is the fact that it was a planned city. Most cities of that day just evolved without design. Smyrna and its streets were planned down to the last detail. It was a very religious city with many temples dedicated to the pantheon of gods and goddesses they worshiped. There were temples dedicated to Zeus, Cybele, Asklepios, Apollo, and Aphrodite, among others. In fact, there was a street that was paved with gold that ran from the temple of Zeus to the temple of Cybele. How that was protected from plunder is anybody’s guess! While pagan religions dominated the life of Smyrna, there was also a thriving Jewish community there.

Smyrna was a free city.  That means that it was an autonomous, self-governing city. However, they were intensely loyal to Rome. On one occasion, the citizens of Smyrna stripped the very clothing off their backs and sent these garments, along with all the food they could muster, to Roman soldiers who were cold and hungry on the battlefield.

A Crushed Church

In this beautiful, wealthy, pagan, and free city, there existed a struggling Christian community. The church in Smyrna was undergoing intense persecution. The Lord Jesus came to them with a word of comfort for their dark days. He told them that even though they appear to be so weak and so poor, they were, in fact, rich beyond imagination. There is a word of consolation here for everyone who has ever or will ever suffer for Christ’s sake. 

Smyrna was a crushed church. It is easy to see that this church was going through intense problems because of their testimony for the Lord Jesus. They were letting their light shine in a dark world, and they were being persecuted for it. Jesus told them: that they would have “tribulation.” The word means “pressure.” It was used in that day to refer to crushing an object under the weight of very heavy stones. The etymology of the word is interesting. The word “tribulation” comes from the Latin word tribulum. It refers to the stone wheels that were used to crush wheat to separate the kernel from the husk. This church was paying the price for their allegiance to Jesus. The pressure was on and they were suffering.

The Lord knows and cares when his people suffer. Isaiah, speaking prophetically about the Messiah, said, ‘he was crushed for our iniquities’ (Isaiah 53:5 emphasis added by italics). It is worthy of note that the emblems of bread and wine used universally today to remember the Lord’s death (in obedience to the Lord’s command when he instituted this ordinance, at what is called The Last Supper) undergo a crushing process. Wheat must be crushed to make flour, which must in turn be baked in an oven. Therefore, too, Christians can undergo crushing experiences and endure the intense heat of affliction in the cauldron of life. This is particularly so in countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith. Likewise, the grape undergoes a process of crushing and fermentation. When the children of Israel returned from Babylonian captivity and confessed their sin, they also acknowledged that the Lord was aware of their suffering even in the distant past: “And you saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea.”―Nehemiah 9:9.

The persecution experienced by the believers in Smyrna did not come only from the pagans in Smyrna. Verse nine reveals that they were also suffering at the hands of the Jews. The Jews in Smyrna joined with the idolaters in that city to defeat and destroy the Christians by whatever means necessary, just as the Pharisees and Herodians had united to kill Jesus. Jesus calls them “the synagogue of Satan” and accuses them of slander against these believers.

False Accusations

Why did the people of Smyrna hate the believers so much? There are several reasons. First, the Jews and the pagans accused the Christians of cannibalism. Christians observed the ordinance of communion and part of that observance was eating the bread and drinking from the cup.  These emblems represented the broken body and the shed blood of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 11:24-26). Clearly the meaning of the Lord’s supper was either seriously misunderstood by those who interpreted this ordinance in a literal way (not allowing for metaphorical language in the words of Christ relating to these emblems) or it was grossly misrepresented by those who had a predisposed antipathy to Christians. Many Jews resented Christians because they were ushering in a new order that effectively disenfranchised the Jewish power base. 

Second, when the Christians gathered, they would often hold what they called ‘agape feasts.’ These ‘love feasts’ were times of fellowship with one another, but also a time of remembering the Lord with the bread and cup.

The pagans, however, accused the Christians of engaging in orgies, reflecting perhaps something of their own depravity.

Third, the Christians were hated because their beliefs and practices often split families. This was what Jesus said would happen (Matt. 10:34-36). Thus, Christians were accused of being anti-family.

Fourth, Christians were accused of being atheists because they did not worship the many gods of the pagans and because they used no statues and icons in their worship.[1] So, any natural disasters or other calamities were blamed on the Christians for incurring the wrath of the gods.

Fifth, Christians were accused of being political enemies of Rome because they refused to say: “Caesar is Lord!” Every Roman citizen was required to do this annually. To fail to do so brought severe punishment and even death.

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Poverty 

Jesus said, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich).” The word “poverty” speaks of being absolutely destitute. These poor people had nothing of this world’s goods because of their relationship with the Lord Jesus. They were probably denied jobs and promotions because of their testimony. These people had nothing in a city that possessed everything. 

Prison

In verse ten, Jesus told them that there will be more trouble ahead. They will face more persecution. They were informed that “the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days”. The “ten days” mentioned here might mean that their persecution would be severe, but brief. They are made aware that more pain and suffering is coming their way, including imprisonment.  Prison in that day was nothing like it is today. When people went to prison under the Roman system, they did not receive a college education, learn a skill and spend their days writing books and watching television. When a person went to prison in those days, it was often to await execution. When the death sentence was passed, it could be carried out in a number of different ways. One might be killed by a sword, burned alive, thrown to wild animals, or any of the dozens of other cruel methods of torture and torment they had devised. This was a suffering congregation which was about to undergo an even worse period of tribulation.

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The Martyrdom of Polycarp

One example of their suffering comes to us from history, some years after they received this letter. In A.D. 155, the bishop of the church of Smyrna, Polycarp, was martyred for Jesus. He possibly had known John, the apostle of Jesus and author of Revelation.[2] Polycarp was arrested at the request of an angry mob that cried: “Away with the atheists; let Polycarp be sought out!”[3] The old preacher was given the opportunity to renounce Jesus. The magistrate, who did not want to see the old man die, said, “What harm is there in saying, Lord Caesar?” However, Polycarp refused. When they entered the stadium, where the executions took place, they tried again saying: “Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, away with the atheists.” Polycarp fixed his gaze on the crowd, waved his arms at them and said, “Away with the atheists!” The magistrate again attempted to get Polycarp to renounce his faith and said, “Swear, and I will set you at liberty, reproach Christ.” To that, the old man cried out, “He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” After a few more attempts to get him to renounce Jesus, they led him away to the stake and burned him alive. As the flames rose around him, he was heard to pray and rejoice in Jesus.

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Sharing in the Fellowship of Christ’s Suffering

Everyone who will live a holy, separated, dedicated life for Jesus Christ, in any generation, will face persecution (2 Tim. 3:12). This should not be a surprise. Jesus said that it would be this way (Jn. 15:18-25; Mk. 13:13; Jn. 16:33). The reason the world hates the believer today is the same reason the world hated the believers then. They detest the unique and universal claims that Christians make concerning Christ. This cuts across their liberalism, pluralism, immorality and amorality. Christians who speak not only of heaven but also of hell, judgment and accountability are despised. The world has an aversion to believers because believers will not join in their abominations. In a world that reveres tolerance as the supreme virtue, Christians will be loathed because they are seen as intolerant.

A Consistent Church

Smyrna was a crushed church but it was also a consistent church (v.9a). Even though they were paying a high price for their faithful love and service to the Lord Jesus, these people did not back away from their profession of faith. It would have been easy to do so. It must have been tempting. But they stayed the course and demonstrated a faithful testimony for the glory of God. Remember that Smyrna was famous for myrrh. It was only when the leaves of the tree were crushed that their fragrance was released. These people were being crushed under the terrible and terrifying pressure of persecution, and they were releasing the fragrance of love and faithfulness to Jesus into the atmosphere of Smyrna.

A Positive Testimony

Jesus sent seven letters to seven different churches. Five of the seven churches received words of rebuke and correction. Only this church and the church at Philadelphia received no corrective words. The Lord had been observing their walk and he was pleased. The church in Smyrna had a powerful testimony. Jesus said to them, “I know your works”. In spite of all the darkness around them, these people continued to be a light for Jesus in the midst of an ever-darkening world. Their enemies did not intimidate them. They were not so frightened by the hatred of their opponents that they compromised. They proved they were genuine and that their faith was real by the way they conducted themselves in that society. Their testimony was powerful because they stayed the course and stuck to the task for the glory of God. In this, they were exemplary.

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Profession and Practice

In the present world, where darkness, wickedness and opposition to the Christian way of life abounds there is a tendency to back off the message, to tone things down. Within the walls of the church Christians are relatively safe from the critics and the enemies of truth. But believers cannot impact without confronting it. Believers need to step out of their comfort zones and into the world with the message of salvation. The apostle Paul said,

Philippians 3:8-10 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith, 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed to his death;

What a bold statement. It was not just rhetoric. If a Christian church would be a powerful witness for the Lord Jesus then it must live out its profession, regardless of the personal or public cost.

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Comforted

Smyrna was a crushed and consistent church, but it was comforted by Jesus. The Lord came to this beleaguered church and gave them a message of comfort they desperately needed to hear. Jesus said, “I know your works”. The Lord of glory had taken a personal interest in the church in Smyrna. The word “know” means to know by experience. Jesus was saying, “I know you are having it tough, but you need to know that I am in this with you. I experience everything they do to you. When they do it to you, they do it to me.” Was this not after all what Jesus said to Saul in his dramatic Damascus road encounter with the risen Christ? In that incident, Jesus said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4 emphasis added by italics). Jesus takes the persecution of his church very personally indeed. He wanted them to know that they were not alone in their struggle. He is always close to the suffering saint.

It is greatly encouraging to know that Jesus is with his people every step of the way (Hebrews 13:5). When they are ridiculed and rejected, he knows all about it because it touches him too: ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses’ (Hebrews 4:15). He can help his people weather the storms and endure the pain. The Lord is involved in the suffering of believers. He is not a detached, distant and indifferent observer. Pain always has a purpose.

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Victory is Secured

When Jesus came to this church, he came as “the first and the last”. He came as the one “which was dead, and is alive”. Things might have appeared out of control, but they were in the hands of the Lord. Jesus is still sovereign. Jesus has been there. He told these saints that he knew what they are facing because he has already faced it. The people hated him. They persecuted him. They crucified him. But he ultimately prevailed. He has been through trials and emerged victorious. He is able to help his people when they face persecution and hatred. No matter what persecution the child of God encounters the Lord has already been there. He has already secured the victory. Surely, the believer can proclaim with confidence: ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ (Romans 8:31). The heavenly perspective in times of trial, testing and tribulation is summed up in Paul’s letter to the Roman church:

Romans 8:35-37 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being put to death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”[56]

37 But in all these things we are more than conquerors through the one having loved us.

 

No Uncharted Waters

Thousands of years ago, when men were beginning to take to the seas, their maps did not show the world as it is known today. They were only able to represent the places to which people had already sailed. In the places where men had never been before, in those unexplored, unknown areas, they would write on their maps: “Here be dragons”. When Christians are voyaging on the seas of life and come into places that are new to them they may be certain that the captain of their salvation has gone before them. In such stormy and frightening seas, the believer can say with certainty, “Here is Jesus”. There are no uncharted waters for the believer.

Heavenly Treasure

Jesus said, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich)”. They may have lacked this world’s goods, but their faith and the faithful display of their testimony was an investment in heaven. The incarnate Christ once said: 

Matthew 6:19-21 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

19 I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of the heavens, and whatever you may bind on earth will already be bound in the heavens,[209] and whatever you may loosen on earth will already be loosened in the heavens.” 20 Then he commanded the disciples that they should tell no one that he was the Christ.

Jesus Foretells His Death

21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day.

These people had nothing, yet they possessed everything. (2 Cor. 6:10)

is-the-quran-the-word-of-god UNDERSTANDING ISLAM AND TERRORISM THE GUIDE TO ANSWERING ISLAM.png

Keeping What is Given Away

A certain wealthy believer had given away great sums of money over the years. When the stock market collapsed in the Great Depression, he lost the remainder of his resources and was left penniless. Someone asked him: “Are you sorry you gave away all that money?” The man answered: “Oh no!  What I gave away is all I have left!” The Christian life is an investment in the Kingdom work of the Savior. The believers in Smyrna were investing in heaven but heaven was also investing in them. In fact, heaven was their inheritance, not because of their suffering and poverty but because the Lord who was rich became poor for their sakes and suffered for their sins.

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A Victor’s Crown

A believer may endure hell on earth for a while, but there will be no hell for them in eternity. The Lord promises them “a crown of life.” That word for crown refers to the “stephanos” or the laurel crown that was given to victors in the ancient Greek games. This church looked like a bunch of losers to the world around them. In reality, they were mighty victors, waging spiritual warfare in the name of Jesus Christ. The day would come when they and their faith would be vindicated. There may be trials, tribulations, pain, and persecution, but the followers of Jesus are on the road that will take them home to be with Jesus.

[1] Atheism in the ancient Greco-Roman world did not mean what it means today. In those days it referred to those who declined to worship the official/authorized ‘gods’.

[2] I am not dealing with issues of authorship here there are disagreements about which John wrote Revelation,  not so much in the historical-grammatical tradition but rather in the historical-critical tradition of hermeneutics.

[3] In the ancient Greco-Roman world an atheist was a person who did not worship the official, authorised ‘gods’.

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