Rev. 2 : 8-11
“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty‑‑ yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of 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. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.” . Smyrna foresaw the rising power of Rome and built a temple for pagan Roman worship. In 23 BC, Smyrna was given the honour of building a temple to the Emperor Tiberius because of its years of faithfulness to Rome. Thus, the city became a centre for the cult of emperor worship‑‑ a fanatical “religion” that later brought on severe persecution for the early church. Smyrna, known today as Izmir, is the chief city of Anatolia and one of the strongest cities in modern Turkey. (from Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary) (Copyright (C) 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers). A rich, prosperous and dissolute city of Ionia (40 miles N. of Ephesus), was largely inhabited by Jews bitterly opposed to Christ and Christianity. Today, the modern country of Turkey’s two major cities include Istanbul (formally Constantinople) and Izmir (formally Smyrna). Turkey still remains the largest unreached nation in the world. A deep seated resistance of the people to any form of Christianity makes witnessing difficult, which is usually inflamed by Muslim misconceptions in regard to Christian doctrines (see Operation World 1993). Thus we see that the believers in this part of the world still face great difficulties.
For Smyrna alone (of all the seven churches) there is no word of blame. (Zondervan Pictorial Atlas.). On his third missionary journey, Paul visiting Ephesus taught the Word of God for two years laying the foundations for the Church in Asia. It is not recorded that he visited Smyrna, but somehow the Gospel reached that city and the local church was born and grew to be a very effective witness. The church in Smyrna is not mentioned anywhere else in Scripture other than the two references in the book of Revelation .
The only other references to the church in Smyrna is found in the pages of church history where it is recorded that the church was a strong and faithful witness in spite of the difficult situation in which they found themselves. “It is recorded that one Polycarp, bishop of the church at Smyrna, was a great leader and example to the congregation. The Roman emperor Antoninus Pius was succeeded by his son Marcus Aurelius Verus, in association with his brother Lucius. During this period Asia was thrown into confusion by the most savage persecutions, and Polycarp found fulfillment in martyrdom. The account relating to Polycarp states that when he first heard the news of the other believers who were martyred, remained unperturbed, but was finally persuaded by his friends to go to a farm only a short distance away from the city. There he devoted himself night and day to constant prayer to the Lord, that God would grant peace to the churches throughout the world. Three nights before his arrest, while at prayer he saw in a trance the pillow under his head burst into flames and burn to a cinder. Awakening at once, he interpreted the vision leaving his friends in no doubt that for Christ’s sake he was to depart this life by fire. Late that evening he was arrested, and rather than fleeing, he gave himself up saying ‘God’s will be done’. They brought him to the city, where the chief of the police tried to persuade him to deny his Lord; to which Polycarp replied ‘for eighty‑six years I have been His servant and He has never done me wrong; how can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?’ Finally realizing that Polycarp had no intention of denying his Lord, the proconsul announced that Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian; to which the whole mass of people, Gentiles and Jews alike, boiled with anger and shouted that he must be burned alive. The crowds then went to collect logs, the Jews as usual joining in with more enthusiasm than the others. The men in charge then lit the fire, and the result of Polycarp’s martyrdom was that ‘the whole crowd was astonished at the difference between the unbelievers and the elect.” (from The History Of The Church by Eusebius).
Peter, in his first letter, wrote to the believers “scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (Smyrna, as already mentioned was one of the cities of Asia), reminding them that they had been given a “new birth into a living hope…” ; no doubt, this was the experience of the many martyrs including Polycarp. This was the message from their risen Lord through the apostle John, as the Lord Jesus Christ commended them for their effective witness . “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer”; what do we suffer for Christ’s sake today? Is it rejection from our peers? Rejection by our family? Rejection from our co‑workers? Such suffering is little compared with the suffering experienced by the believers at Smyrna; they were able to identify with the expression of Paul in his letter to the Roman believers: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”<Rom.8:18>. May we too have this experience as we seek to be an effective witness to the society in which we live today.
The believers at Smyrna were “faithful unto death” , as we have seen that many of them were indeed put to death for their faith. But this was not the end: the promise was “I will give you the crown of life”. They were indeed crowned with “life everlasting”; their death, by becoming food for the wild beasts or fuel for the fire, was only the opening of the door into the very presence of their Lord where they would enjoy life for evermore . Many in modern times have been called to suffer for their faith at the hands of wicked and ungodly people; and God, I am sure, has rewarded them. I do not know when, or if, I will be called to suffer for my faith, but it is my prayer that I will be as faithful as they were. Therefore, let us be faithful in our witness to others that they also will see the person of the Lord Jesus Christ in us. As Polycarp said to his executioners: “the fire you threaten burns for a time and is soon extinguished: there is a fire you know nothing about ‑ the fire of judgment to come and eternal punishment, the fire reserved for the ungodly”. There is nothing that can be physically done to the child of God that can separate him/her from the eternal love of God, as believers in Christ we cannot be “hurt at all by the second death”!. May we endeavour to have the same commendation as the believers at Smyrna. The “second death” will “hurt” only those who, throughout their lifetime, have continually rejected the love of God expressed in His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Such people will be condemned to “eternal death” and separation from a holy God .
Let us, therefore, always seek to be “overcomers”! “for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” <1 John 5:4-5>.