Series on the 7 ChurchesDr. Denny
Today we will travel north from Ephesus to Smyrna–35 miles–distance to Cheriton.Exit the beautiful city of Ephesus that we are studying on Wednesday night and move northward on the Ephesian Road along the Aegean coast and off in the distance, about 35 miles north of Ephesus, you will see one of the gems of the ancient world—the city of Smyrna. It tumbles down off Mt. Pagos, a small mountain rising about 1250 feet above the Aegean Sea. It was a gorgeous place, praised by so many ancient writers. It’s dominant, stately buildings rested atop the mountain and the homes dotted the hillside all the way down to the harbor.
Mark Twain–The Innocents Abroad–Tells the story of visiting Smyrna as a tourist. He went into a little church on the site and after a small fee was given a candle as a souvenir. He placed it in his hat and as the day unfolded the sun melted it and grease ran down the back of his neck. Twain noted with humor that all that was left was a “sorry-looking” wick. (see His drawing of the spot).
The Ephesian Road leads into the ancient city through the Ephesian Gate. Here on the top of the mountain, a great fortress was built in the time just after Alexander the Great. The fortress and a great theater and a gymnasium all look down the slopes toward the sea, toward the harbor that made Smyrna such a magnificent city of old.
Smyrna is the home of Homer the famous bard of the classical Greek period. The modern city of Izmir has grown over and around the ancient city. There are but a few ruins there today. A few pillars stare in silence down empty stretches of former thoroughfares, rows of foundation stones that mark a few forgotten streets.
Smyrna is the home of Homer the famous bard of the classical Greek period. The modern city of Izmir has grown over and around the ancient city. There are but a few ruins there today. A few pillars stare in silence down empty stretches of former thoroughfares, rows of foundation stones that mark a few forgotten streets
At the turn of the first century, when John writes the last book of the NT, Smyrna was the home to a persecuted church. Times were tough here. Christians were outcasts from the local Roman society. Poverty ruled the lives of these believers. Poverty in the midst of plenty for Smyrna was a rich city. Its harbor was fed by the Hermus River that took merchants far inland to peddle their wares. But the Christians were having it tough.
John writes about this in verse 9. “I know your tribulation and your poverty. . .” The reputation of suffering had spread throughout the region. John, who lived in Ephesus, knew how tough things were there. And with a gentle touch adds a wonderful parenthetical phrase in his letter to the church when he says “but you are rich.”
Listen carefully. Do you hear the whisper from the throne of grace? “But you are rich” almost seems like an afterthought but it brings such comfort to the wounded heart. It seems as if John pulls them aside, their dirty and torn robes draping off frail and weary shoulders and puts his arms around them all. And in a whispering voice reminds them that life is not measured by material things. Life isn’t the sum of gold coins in a safe or a mansion on a hill. Life and love are really measured differently in the eyes of God. You have what really matters, whispers the aged apostle to this hurting flock. You have wealth the world cannot see. You have the love of God in your hearts. You have love for one another. You have a song that your persecutors cannot hear. ‘You are really rich.’
The source of their tribulation is made clear in the text. A synagogue of Satan existed in Smyrna. By this John meant that there were Jewish residents who resented this cult of Jesus and who wanted to destroy it. Each Sabbath day they met not to worship but to gossip and scheme on how to harm the Christians. The Jesus cult was unwelcome in Smyrna. These Jews were pressuring the government to do something about it.
Jesus encountered Jews like this Himself. John 8:31-38 (Read verse 37—‘I know that you are Abraham’s offspring: yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you.’’
It was the apostle Paul who defined a true Jew. He said, ‘A man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; And circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit’ (Rom. 2:29).
Clearly, these Jewish people in Smyrna were not Jews of the heart and soul. They were shallow and empty worshippers of Abraham. And they hated the new followers of Jesus living among them and they did all they could to make life difficult for them.
*Surely there is comfort for all saints who face difficult times by these words of John. He tells us that all of our trials, persecutions, tribulations are known to the Savior. For it is the Lord Himself speaking in verse 9 when he says with such loving consolation, ‘I know your tribulation. I know your poverty.’ I know all about you. I’m walking right beside you. You’re not alone even if you do live in Smyrna.
*I heard a few days ago that Mrs. White, a former teacher friend of mine who taught Civics across the hall from me when I first started 9 years ago, was not well. She had retired about 4 years ago and I had n’t seen much of her anymore. She had been a dynamic teacher in her younger years but when I got there she was already changing. She didn’t like the kids much anymore. The kids would tease her. They would play tricks on her and try to get her angry. I heard she was in the nursing home beside Chesapeake General. So Friday after I got off from work I went to see her.
I stepped into her room past the first bed where another patient lay and pulled the curtain aside and stared down at her in the hospital bed. She was curled up, staring at the wall. Her face was strange to me, very thin and gaunt, her eyes sunken and her expression remote. But when she saw me, she brightened and I recognized her voice. It was her, sort of. As I talked with her, I kept thinking back to when she was just across the hall, robust and talented and with a rich history of expertise in her field. Now she was but a ghost beneath a hospital sheet.
But somehow I wanted her to know someone cared for her. I wanted to bring a personal touch. And that is what Jesus does to these suffering saints in Smyrna. He tells them as he stands close to them in their suffering time, «I know. . . I know. . . I’m here. . . I know your tribulation, I know your poverty. I see you behind the curtain. I haven’t forgotten you.
Verse ten teaches us a remarkable lesson in life. I thought surely when I got to verse ten I would hear the Savior say as he passed his words of comfort on to these suffering saints that He would end this period of hurt at once. I thought he would say, Don’t worry anymore. I’m here and I will make sure this pain ends at once. But he doesn’t say that!—He says to them and to us also, that sometimes trials and difficulties are good for us. And so some of you are going to be cast into the brig for 10 days. When this happens, be faithful unto death. And I will give you the crown of life.»
The crown here is not the royal crown of regal authority. It is not the Diadema but rather the stephanos, the wreath awarded to the winner of the games. It is the crown of achievement given to those who remain faithful to the Lord in times of suffering. The Lord doesn’t abolish their suffering. He doesn’t sweep in with a legion of armed angels tramping through the city streets, blotting out the persecutors. No. He merely agrees to step into the brig with them. He will go with them into the exile of testing, not abolish it.
*It was not many years after this letter to Smyrna was written, about 50 years or so, that these words «Be faithful until death» come true. For the first documented martyr of the faith beyond the first century takes place here in Smyrna. For it is here the great father of the ancient church Polycarp lived and worshiped.
When you hear the name Polycarp, bow in deference to his amazing life. He was born just after Paul was murdered by the Romans. His life and memory are embedded in the last first century. He knew John who lived in Ephesus just down the road. He knew many other people who had witnessed the life of Jesus first hand. Polycarp is the living connection between the first and second century. He brought that first-hand link to the apostles with him to Smyrna. He was a godly and courageous pastor and bishop. Polycarp bore the very tribulations and poverty of the saints in Smyrna.
Polycarp heard one day that the Romans were coming to arrest him. He was 86 years old now and still active and leading the church. His followers urged him to flee. ‘Run, pastor. Run while there is time.’
‘No. I will not run.” And he didn’t. He merely went home and waited for them. And when they banged on his door he opened it and greeted the soldiers. They dragged him off to the arena and stood him before the Roman proconsul. A huge crowd of onlookers watched with soap opera eyes as the Roman consul interrogated him. Polycarp stood calmly and answered with and courage. Finally, the Roman judge got angry and ordered him to renounce Christ and he would spare him. Here is what Polycarp said to the Roman judge and to the thousands of onlookers in the stands. “For 86 years I have served Jesus, and he has never done me wrong. How can I now blaspheme my King who saved me?”
This angered the Proconsul who ordered him to be nailed to a cross and burned at the stake. Polycarp asked the soldiers not to nail him. He would not need nails. “Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” The year was AD 155.
And it is here as we hear the crackle of the branches burning beneath the saintly Polycarp that we hear the echo of John’s text in verse 10: “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” How ironic it is that it would be John’s personal friend Polycarp who would literally live these words out in the arena.
Smyrna was the suffering church. No ill word is spoken against this church. Their suffering refined their spirits and kept them pure. What is the word spoken to the Drummondtown Baptist Church? It is this. Be faithful in all you do. Do not be alarmed at times of sufferings. Be reassured that the Savior will go with you through your time of testing.
Ancient letter describing the death.
Photo of ancient smyrna–