John Bradshaw - Smyrna
Izmir, the third largest city in Turkey, Izmir is a beautiful bustling coastal city of more than 3 million people. It's a port city, and it's a tourist destination, especially as it's only 35 miles from Ephesus. But while Izmir is a modern city with excellent shopping and restaurants, it's a fascinating blend of the new and the old. Back in time, Izmir was called Smyrna. It was home to the second of the seven churches addressed by Jesus in the book of Revelation. The name Smyrna comes from the word "myrrh," which was used as a perfume, a fragrance, and is mentioned throughout the Bible. Back in Genesis 37, when Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery, he was taken to Egypt by a group transporting spices and balm and myrrh. The woman in the Song of Solomon described her beloved as "a bundle of myrrh". Myrrh, of course, featured in the life of Jesus.
The wise men brought Mary and Joseph gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Myrrh featured in the suffering of Jesus. While He was on the cross, they brought Him something to drink that was mixed with myrrh. That was to dull the pain He was experiencing. And when He died, myrrh was used to embalm Jesus' body. An interesting thing about myrrh, it's derived from trees, trees which grow in Africa and the Middle East. It begins as a resin that the tree produces when it's stressed, or wounded, more to the point. Harvesters will make cuts in the trees, and the trees will then bleed the resin, which can then be utilized in a variety of ways. When John wrote the book of Revelation, Smyrna had developed into an important city. Geography alone helps explain why Smyrna would have been important to early Christians. Its location meant that travelers from Greece and other places would have come here. And Christians could easily be sent from here, either internationally or deep into the heart of Asia Minor.
This area, the agora, which means "an open place," was the center of life in ancient Smyrna. This part of the city was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 179 AD, but it was then rebuilt under the auspices of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. There was a huge altar to Zeus right here, Zeus being the Greek equivalent of the Roman god Jupiter. There was a large Jewish community in Smyrna during the first century after Christ, and that may well be the reason that Christianity appears to have sprung up in the town really quite early. Perhaps the most famous Christian from Smyrna was the bishop Polycarp, who would suffer martyrdom for his faith in 153 AD. Ignatius of Antioch, another famous Christian martyr, is said to have visited Smyrna and written letters to Polycarp. Irenaeus, perhaps the most prominent Christian theologian of the second century AD, was probably a native of Smyrna.
The message Jesus gave to this church encompasses a period of intense trial, suffering, and persecution for the Christian community. In the words of Jesus, "And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, 'These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life: "I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things... you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. 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. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death."'"
Considering the theme of this letter, let's look at how Jesus described Himself. He called Himself "the First and the Last," basically repeating what He said in Revelation, chapter 1, where He called Himself "the Alpha and the Omega". Now, alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. And Jesus said, "That's me, eternal. I was here before you got here, and I'll be here long after you're gone". He wanted them to know, especially in their extremity, that they were being guided and watched by the divine Son of God. Jesus referred to Himself as one "who was dead, and came to life". You can see why He'd say that to this church. Smyrna, the church that would be bled, injured, but who through that injury would produce a sweet fragrance and would honor God. In a moment, some of the secrets of ancient Smyrna, including an insight into the number 666. I'll be right back.
We're in Izmir, Turkey, a busy modern city and the location of the ancient biblical city of Smyrna. Jesus addresses the church of Smyrna in the book of Revelation and says, "I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan". As with each of the letters to the seven churches, Jesus says, "I know your works". He's saying, "I know more about you than just your profession. I know what's really going on in your life". Now, that's not ominous. That's reassuring. Jesus is saying, whatever you're facing, whatever challenges you've got going on in your life right now, He knows, and He cares. The focus of the message to Smyrna is the forecast of serious trouble ahead: tribulation, poverty, suffering, and prison. This is why the church of Smyrna is so often called "the persecuted church".
If the time period covered by the church of Ephesus is that of the first century after Christ, the period of Smyrna covers the following two centuries when the Roman Empire subjected Christianity to fierce, even brutal, persecution. It's important to remember that the early Christians were not persecuted by the Roman authorities because they worshiped Jesus. All the various peoples of the Empire had their own religious beliefs, gods, and practices. But what made the Christians different was their refusal to add to their religious devotion the worship of the Roman emperor.
Stephen Williams, a British historian and the author of a biography of the Roman emperor Diocletian, makes this statement: "It was scarcely enough for Bishop Dionysius to protest that Christians were loyal citizens who prayed for the health of the Emperors. What could the most reasonable magistrate reply except to ask why, in that case, they could not demonstrate their loyalty in the proper way like everyone else? Rome was tolerant, but it was not a modern secular liberal state which demands very little of its citizens beyond passive compliance with the law. Genuine loyalty could hardly be divorced from worship of the genius of the Emperor in the way that was laid down".
We're going to come back to Emperor Diocletian because the persecution that took place during his reign was actually predicted by Jesus in His message to the church at Smyrna. But that statement by Stephen Williams, it reminds us of a Bible story, a story found in Daniel, chapter 3, about three young Hebrew men. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had assembled rulers and people from every province of his empire to the plain of Dura to bow down and worship a golden image made to symbolize the glory and power of his person and his kingdom. The three young men, officials of his court, refused to bow and were condemned to death as a result. In the end, God delivered them from the flames. And Nebuchadnezzar was forced to acknowledge God's power over that of the gods he worshiped. But what made Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego different from the others in that assembly was that the others were willing to worship the golden image in addition to the gods they already had.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, by contrast, refused to worship any god but the One found in the Bible, whose first commandment declares, "You shall have no other gods before me". This commandment is what got Christians in trouble with the Roman Empire. No other gods except the God of Scripture. And it made no difference at all to the Romans that the act of worship of the emperor was forced. Listen to the historian again: "What mattered to gods and men was not a person's belief but its expression in acts, not his private silent vows but his public oaths and commitments. Jupiter saw your actions, not your thoughts". But God, on the other hand, says, "For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart". Pagan worship focuses on the exterior, what a person does publicly. But the God of heaven looks on the heart. Forced worship doesn't cut it with God. But with Satan and false religion, force and manipulation are common.
Here at the agora in Smyrna is something fascinating that echoes in the book of Revelation. On the walls here are a number of graffiti, not in the vandalism sense but in the original sense where graffiti were inscriptions or figure drawings. Along with pictures, there are isopsephisms, in which the numerical values of the letters of a phrase add up to a certain sum. One example here is, "I love the girl whose number is 1,308", which may be the name of Tyche. Now, Tyche was a goddess to the people of Smyrna called "the protectress of the city". The most well-known isopsephism is found in Revelation, chapter 13, verse 18, where it says, "Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666", the number of the beast, or the antichrist, of earth's last days. Like the church at Ephesus, the first of the seven churches, it seems that the church of Smyrna included false believers.
Now, Jesus doesn't elaborate on how the believers in Smyrna were dealing with the problem, but His words make it clear that He was very aware the problem existed. When Christ spoke of "those who say they are Jews and are not," we should keep in mind that according to the New Testament, "He is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart". In the book of Galatians we read, "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise". So when Jesus speaks of "those who say they are Jews and are not," He isn't talking about an ethnic identity but a spiritual identity. And the Bible is clear just how little Jesus thinks of hypocrisy. For the same reason, in His message to the Christians of Smyrna, Jesus is denouncing those who falsely profess the Christian faith as blasphemers, as members of the "synagogue of Satan". Those are strong words, and they apply as much to professing Christians today as they did to Christians of long ago. Jesus would go on to give the church of Smyrna some bad news. There would be suffering. He even tells them how long that suffering was going to last. We'll look at that in just a moment.
Up here on Smyrna's acropolis, or the high point of the city, the summit of the city, was the theater, which could accommodate up to 16,000 spectators. Roman streets ran through here, meaning it's almost certain that Paul and his associates walked these very grounds. And it was right around here that a man named Polycarp was martyred, not especially surprising given Jesus' message to the church at Smyrna. In verse 10 of Revelation, chapter 2, Jesus says, "You will have tribulation ten days". Now, what is Jesus talking about here? When was this prophecy fulfilled? In the symbols found in Bible prophecy, a day represents a year. You'll find this expressed in Numbers 14:34 and Ezekiel 4:6, in which years are represented by days in predicting periods of trial and adversity, which ultimately end with triumph and victory. We see this day-year symbolism demonstrated most powerfully in Daniel's prophecy of the coming Messiah in Daniel, chapter 9, in which the angel Gabriel says to the prophet, "Seventy weeks are determined for your people and for your holy city".
Some Bible translations actually say "seventy weeks of years" in this verse. That's because it's clear from what this passage is predicting that years, and not weeks, are in focus. Daniel 9:25 says that from the issuing of the Persian decree to restore and build Jerusalem till the coming of the Messiah would be 69 weeks of years, 483 years. You can't get from this decree to the time of Jesus the Messiah unless the weeks described in this prophecy represent weeks of years. So when Jesus speaks to this church of a future persecution lasting 10 days, this is referring to 10 years. History tells us that this persecution began during the reign of the emperor Diocletian and that it was brought to an end 10 years later by the emperors Constantine and Licinius.
Stephen Williams the historian tells us what happened at the start as well as the conclusion of this 10-year period: "The persecution was launched at Nicomedia on the Kalends of March", "Kalends" is the first of March, "the Kalends of March, festival of the god Terminus.... Lactantius, who was present, says it began with a symbolic act of demolition. The newly built church of Nicomedia, which stood in full view of the imperial palace, was surrounded by the Prefect, accompanied by military commanders and treasury officials. The doors were forced, and guards seized the ornaments, church furniture, and whatever else could be removed. Volumes of the scriptures were burnt. Then a guards unit advanced in battle order with all the equipment for besieging a city, and within a matter of hours had pulled the whole building to the ground. Diocletian and Galerius watched the operation personally from the palace".
The persecution that followed was some of the worst persecution in all of human history. People were slaughtered. Many were tortured cruelly. So many people were in prison. The clergy were all in prison. Church property was destroyed or confiscated. And every copy of the Scriptures that could be found was burned. There was a lot of bloodshed. But then in February of 313 AD, 10 years after the persecution began, the Edict of Milan was signed that ended that persecution. Church property was returned. The church was recognized again. And the 10 days, or 10 years, of persecution were over. Jesus had promised His suffering saints, "Be faithful [unto] death, and I will give you the crown of life". Paul wrote to Timothy about the "crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing".
In a foreshadowing of what was promised in earth's last days, many people proved faithful unto death, and their Savior's reward awaits them at the resurrection of the righteous dead when Jesus returns. The apostle Paul says that when Jesus returns, "The trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible". Jesus closed His message to the church of Smyrna with the promise, "He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death". The book of Revelation talks about two deaths. The first one is the death that's going to come to all of us, unless you're alive and translated at the return of Jesus. But that first death is temporary. And it's of far less consequence to the Christian than is the second death, the one from which there will be no resurrection. The book of Revelation talks about the second death in one of the very last chapters of the book, where it describes the kinds of people who, unrepentant without having found faith in Jesus, cannot be saved and will be lost forever.
"But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death". Jesus' message to the persecuted faithful of the church of Smyrna was that if they proved victorious, if they were among the overcomers, even if they should suffer, they at last would escape the second death awaiting the lost. Now, there's no doubt someone's wondering why Jesus just didn't shield His people from this kind of trouble. But clearly there's something more important than avoiding terrible hardship. It's God's plan for us to develop faith in Him to the extent that no matter what happens, we'll trust Him anyway. That we'll say, like Job, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him". That we "count it all joy when [we] fall into various [temptations]," as James wrote.
God wants us to develop faith in Him that trusts Him no matter what. It's easy to overlook, but persecution is not extinct in our world today. It still happens, even in our present supposedly enlightened age. But before Jesus comes back, it's going to get much worse. According to the book of Revelation, just like in Daniel's time, an image will be set up, not literally but spiritually, and all the world will be forced to bow down and do it reverence, and all but a faithful remnant, who "keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ," will be swept up in this terrible trial. We might learn a lesson from the experience of Polycarp, who it's said was a disciple of the apostle John before becoming a church leader and theologian and the bishop of Smyrna.
Now, in this case, "bishop" means "a church leader," rather than denoting an affiliation to any particular denomination we'd recognize today. It was a difficult time to be a believer in Jesus. Christians were being mercilessly persecuted. Polycarp was convinced to hide to safeguard his life. But his location was discovered, and he was urged to deny Jesus in order to save himself. But his answer was, "Fourscore and six years I have been serving Him and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me"? The elderly man was executed for his faith in Christ.
You know, everywhere you turn there's evidence that things are rapidly wrapping up for Planet Earth, and the book of Revelation indicates that there are going to be some challenging times. God is calling on His people, no matter what, to be like myrrh under pressure, to be fragrant. In fact, that's a key message of the book of Revelation, which was written right here on the island of Patmos by a man who was under arrest for crimes he did not commit. That was a terribly difficult trial for John, and yet he was fragrant for Jesus through it all. So what's confronting you? And what might confront you? God's call to you is that no matter what the pressure, whatever the difficulty, you can be fragrant for Jesus always.