Fear Not: Jesus and Smyrna

Fear Not: Jesus and Smyrna

Fear Not: Jesus and Smyrna.

“Don’t be afraid! Do not yield to fear in the face of the suffering to come, but be aware of this: the devil is about to have some of you thrown into prison to test your faith. For ten days you will have distress, but remain faithful to the day you die and I will give you the victor’s crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10).

Church members are hauled off to prison for believing in Jesus. Pastors are tortured and killed by the authorities. The church is under attack from all sides, from hostile mobs to civil authorities. Yet the struggling church remains strong. They endure the persecution and continue to function as the local Body of Christ. Is this in 21st century China, Iran, North Korea? No, this is 1st century Smyrna, in western Turkey. And Jesus commends the church in Smyrna in glowing terms. Unlike His prophetic words to the other six churches in Revelation, the Lord’s word to Smyrna has no rebukes, no corrections, no judgments. Jesus simply affirms the believers there, and encourages them to stay strong in the Faith.

Jesus. The resurrected Christ introduces Himself to the Smyrnian church as “the First and the Last.” This is a direct reference to God’s self-revelation in Isaiah 48:12, “Listen to me, O family of Jacob, Israel my chosen one! I alone am God, the First and the Last.” Jesus is enthroned in heaven, coequal to the God of the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh, the Beginning and the End. In His introduction here, Jesus also reminded the believers that He was dead but is now alive. This is a wonderful confirmation of His deity and His power over sin and death. But it’s also an encouragement to the believers there: I am with you, and just like I was resurrected, your church will also come  back to life even when everything seems to be dying. And you will assuredly arise from the dead for life everlasting if death comes your way during your persecution.

Smyrna. The name of this city means “sweet-smelling,” and the name comes from the word “myrrh,” an embalming spice. Myrrh is a symbol for suffering, and the city lived up to its name in how it treated its Christian church. This prayer written in 1330 by Tauler could well have been written for ancient Smyrna: “May Jesus Christ, the King of glory, help us to make the right use of all the myrrh that God sends, and to offer to Him the true incense of our hearts, for His name’s sake. Amen.” Smyrna was located midway between Pergamum and Ephesus, and enjoyed an excellent harbor on the Aegean Sea. It was known as the pride of Asia, because it was the most beautiful city in that entire region. It was prosperous because of its many industries, and because it maintained a strong allegiance to Rome. Smyrna was thus a center of Caesar worship and boasted at least six extravagant temples for cultic worship of Roman gods. Smyrna had paved streets, and even a famous “Street of Gold” that extended from the seashore all the way to a nearby mountain. Smyrna had an acropolis, beautiful buildings constructed near each other in perfect orderly fashion, and a huge stadium for their athletic events and civic activities. Smyrna was also a highly regarded center of scientific learning. Smyrna was an attractive, exciting place to live, unless you were involved in their little Christian church.

Hostile Forces. Despite its wealth, beauty and opulence, Smyrna was a very difficult place in which to be a Christian. There were two hostile forces in the city that made life miserable for the believers: The Roman authorities, and an active anti-Christian Jewish community. The Romans continued their persecution of the Christians because the church refused to worship the emperor or any Roman gods. So the pagan cults that worshiped Caesar or the gods harassed the church without mercy. The Jewish community was more complicated. Remember that St. John, the writer of this book, retained a strong Jewish core to his Christian faith, and he believed that one could be a follower of Jesus and remain Jewish. Evidently there was a group of people in Smyrna who claimed to be Jewish, but were insincere in their Judaism and consistently compromised their beliefs. John quoted Jesus as saying that this pseudo-Jewish assembly was not a synagogue of Yahweh, but a synagogue of Satan. Strong words. This thought hearkens back to Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome, in Romans 2:28-29: “For you are not a true Jews just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you were circumcised. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law. Rather, it’s a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.” This unfaithful assembly of Jews were violently opposed to the Christian community, and did everything they could to harass the believers. They were also known to be in collusion with the Romans, and informed on the Christians to the Roman authorities for their lack of loyalty to the emperor. Jesus believed they were doing the works of Satan in their persecution of the Christians. With all this hostile opposition, the church there struggled mightily. In the midst of Smyrna’s splendor and wealth, the Christians were instead poverty-stricken and lived under the constant threat of persecution. But  Jesus commended them for their faithfulness in the midst of their suffering, and said that they may be poor in the things of this world, but they were rich in the things of God. Materially poor, spiritually rich. So fear not, Jesus says. Don’t be afraid. You have what it takes to remain faithful while you suffer.

Ten Days. There has been much speculation as to what Jesus meant here. Some translators have said that the Ten Days is just an oblique reference to a short term of suffering. But that doesn’t make sense since their suffering lasted a long time and continued through many emperors. Others remark that the Ten Days refers to ten distinct time periods of persecution under ten Roman emperors. That makes more sense, because it appears that is what actually happened.

Polycarp. Persecution in Smyrna continued through the 2nd century, as is clear from the martyrdom of Polycarp. He was the bishop of Smyrna during mid-century, around 155 AD, and was martyred for refusing to call Caesar “Lord.” When asked to deny his faith, this early church leader said these words before he died: “For 86 years I have served Christ, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and Savior?” The riled up pagan mob assaulted him and dragged him to the athletic stadium. He was made a public spectacle as he was burned to death at the stake.

Crown of Life. Smyrna was famous for its extravagant athletic games in its enormous stadium. At these games, the winner of a contest would always receive a victor’s wreath as a trophy. Jesus is saying here that the victor’s crown of eternal life is given to those who remain faithful in the face of death, those who endure their suffering to the very end. The faithful in Smyrna can claim with Paul his words in 2 Timothy 4:6-8: “As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits me – the crown of righteousness.” 

Final Thought: Fear of Persecution. There is currently a Smyrna church, a persecuted church, in many different countries around the globe. They are embracing Jesus’ words to Smyrna as their own. For those of us who are not undergoing persecution, let us remember to lift up these suffering Christians in prayer, and remember that persecution is a very harsh reality for many Christians around the world. For them, these words in Revelation are not abstract, but are meaningful in a personal, painful way. For many, the only hope they have are Jesus’ encouraging words about the victor’s crown of life. Pray that the suffering church would be fearless as they bear witness to Jesus Christ and live lives true to the gospel, faithful in their time of uncertainty and distress.

“Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.”  (Philippians 4:6-7, the Message).