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Smyrna, the Suffering Church

Smyrna is an ancient city (today İzmir in Turkey) that was founded by the ancient Greeks at a central and strategic point on what is today known as the western coast of the Aegean Sea.  Founded at the head of the gulf of Smyrna (today the gulf of Izmir) that reaches about 40 miles inland it was ideally located as a distribution point for a large portion of the region. 

The city originally founded by a people known as the Lelages was conquered and taken by the ancient Greeks about 1100 BC and became a prominent city of the region for hundreds of years.  around 627 BC the region was conquered and became the Lydian Empire.  Smyrna was conquered and sacked by a king named Alyattas III between 609 and 560 BC.  Smyrna was not utterly destroyed and continued to exist for many years but not as the grand city it formerly was. 

When Alexander the Great, a Greek, swept through with his conquests, Smyrna was included and became part of the consortium of nations united under him.  This became what is known as the Hellenistic age.  Alexander recognized Smyrna's potential for trade and strategic advantage and ordered the city rebuilt.  During the years 301 to 281 B.C., Lysimachus entirely rebuilt it on a new site to the Southwest of the earlier cities, and surrounded it by a wall. Standing, as it did, upon a good harbor, at the head of one of the chief highways to the interior, it quickly became a great trading-center and the chief port for the export trade. In Roman times, Smyrna was considered one of the most prominent cities of Asia Minor, alongside Pergamos and Ephesus.

Pagan worship in Smyrna

Smyrna was loaded with Pagan worship to false gods in the first century. There were many temples dedicated to pagan worship built in the city.  Among them were the temples of:

Zeus, who in Greek mythology was the king of the gods, the ruler of Mount Olympus, and the god of the sky and thunder.  This is where the Olympian games were celebrated.  The Romans worshipped Zeus as Jupiter. 

Athena who was believed to be the daughter of Zeus and was an armed warrior goddess, and appears in Greek mythology as a helper of many heroes.

In 23 AD a temple was built in honor of Tiberius and his mother Julia, on the Golden Street, connecting the temples of Zeus and Cybele.  Tiberius reigned as Roman emperor in imperial Rome after Augustus from 14 AD to 37 AD. 

Cybele or according to the Romans, Magna Mater, which means earth mother was a particular favorite of emperor Augustus. Cybele represented the fertile Earth, a goddess of nature and of wild animals.  This temple burned in 111 BC and was rebuilt during the reign of Augustus.

Recent archaeological discoveries in old Smyrna have revealed the figures of Hermes, Hestia, Dionysus, Eros and Hercules. 

While this is not an exhaustive study of pagan worship in Smyrna, it is sufficient to demonstrate the level of false worship the Christians of the time were up against.  They worshipped the one true and living God for which there were no statues or idols or alters.  The God of the Christians was and still is absolutely intolerant of the worship of other Gods. In addition to this, Christianity requires us to stand against such pagan worship and this caused great tension and strife between the Christians and those who worshipped pagan gods. 

Also worth mentioning along with the pagan worship is the false worship of the one true and living God.  Smyrna also had a large population of Jewish people who were rightly proclaiming the one true and living God, but had rejected Jesus Christ as the messiah.  In addition to the persecution of the Romans, the Christians also faced the Jewish persecutions which was considerable. 

Christian Persecution in Smyrna

During the Roman persecutions many Christians suffered the most dreadful torments here. They were put to death at the stake, or by wild beasts in the amphitheater; their properties confiscated by the empire, enslaved, abused and tortured; and the only test applied to them was whether they would throw a few grains of incense into the fire as a sacrifice to the Roman emperor, or whether they would refuse.

The Jewish population hated the Christians and frequently turned them in to the Roman authorities as conspirators against the emperor for refusing to bow down to worship him. 

John had a disciple named Polycarp who was a prominent Christian leader in Smyrna. Polycarp was probably 25-30 years old when John died. Polycarp himself lived until he was martyred around 156 A.D. in Smyrna.  According to history. he was tied to a stake in the amphitheatre, pierced through the heart by a Roman soldier and then burned in front of an audience of tens of thousands of Romans screaming for his death. 

Later on in the Revelation, John writes of the wrath of God being poured out on His enemies in the form of natural disasters which depleted the wealth of Rome and eroded her power.  Smyrna was destroyed by an earthquake in 178 AD and had to be rebuilt by the Roman Empire.  It was too important a city located strategically and geographically to leave in ruins. 

Revelation 2:8
"And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These things saith the first and the last, who was dead, and lived (again):"

Angel means messenger. Some scholars believe this would be one of the men overseeing that particular congregation and some say it is the Holy Spirit symbolized in the perfect seven stars in Jesus' right hand mentioned earlier.  Either way, the message delivered is the same. It is my opinion that the messenger is the one perfect complete divine Spirit of God. 

The first and the last, He was dead and lived again is obviously Jesus Christ.  No Christian would have any difficulty recognizing this symbolism, however someone unfamiliar with the resurrection of Christ would have no idea what this was referring to. 

It is significant to note here and in the individual messages addressed to the specific churches that Revelation is directed specifically toward them, not to people and circumstances 2000 years removed.  Whatever the Revelation meant to those to whom it was addressed is what it must mean today.  The principles taught within the Revelation are timeless, but the events depicted therein are of that time period. 

Revelation 2:9
"I know thy tribulation, and thy poverty (but thou art rich),

Jesus told the church at Smyrna He was aware of the tribulation they were living through.  The church at Smyrna was also poverty stricken.  The reason for this was that during the time of the writing of Revelation, the imperial cult known as the "Concilia" was enforcing emperor worship.  People who refused to worship the emperor were forbidden to buy or sell anything, their properties were confiscated and they found themselves homeless.  They could not have good jobs, they were rejected by the population and consequently were poverty stricken as a result.  The poverty they were suffering in this rich society was part of their persecution. 

How ironic it is that the poorest, social rejects and outcasts of society were the real priests and kings of the times.  All of the majestic wealth and shining temples meant nothing in the end.  The poorest people of all were the real saints, living off the table scraps of the wealthy, being oppressed, hated and rejected.  This was nothing new. 

2 Corinthians 4:8-11
8 We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;
9 Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed;
10 Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.
11 For we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.

They were poor in material wealth, but in the wealth that mattered they were rich beyond description.  What a wonderful way for Jesus to comfort them and assure them of their final victory.  Our wealth today is by no means measured by our material possessions.  We could have nothing and still be rich in Christ. 

Matthew 16:26-27
"For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world , and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?  For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works."

"and the blasphemy of them that say they are Jews, and they art not, but are a synagogue of Satan."

The considerable Jewish population were said to be guilty of blasphemy.  Evidently they were participating in whatever they had to in order to avoid the persecution of the Romans.  They were most likely burning incense to the emperor which was all that was required to satisfy the requirements to worship him in most cases.  They claimed to be God's children but they are not.  The synagogues they met in for prayer were not of God, but of Satan. 

"Fear not the things which thou art about to suffer:"
God is telling them it's going to get worse, don't fear. 

"behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried"
The devil is not literally going to throw them into prison.  This is going to be accomplished by his followers, those who are serving him, even out of ignorance.  Christianity, if not already, will soon be illegal in the Roman empire.  Christians are going to be thrown in prison and face death if they refused to renounce God and worship the emperor.  Some of the Christians in Smyrna, not all of them are going to face this imprisonment.

"and ye shall have tribulation ten days."
Obviously this is not a literal period of time.  All of the Christians in Smyrna were not going to be rounded up at the same time and thrown in prison to be persecuted for 10 literal days.  The number 10 represents completeness so something is going to be brought to completion during this period of time.  

"Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life."
Those who are going to be cast into prison are commanded to be faithful unto death in order to receive the crown of life.  Many of the Christians cast into prison by their enemies are going to die.  God would not tell them to remain faithful unto death unless this was going to be necessary. 

A Christian is to be faithful unto death. The thought is to be faithful even if the price you must pay is death. It is said that Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor, was once enraged at 40 Christian men because they would not bow down and worship his image. He commanded them to be stripped naked and to stand on a frozen lake until they were ready to renounce God. But when dawn broke the next morning, 40 nude men were found dead on the ice. They were "faithful unto death."

In the letter to the church at Pergamos Antipas was specifically mentioned as one who was "faithful unto death."

"He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches."
Those who can and will listen must heed what is being said.  Notice the message is said to be what the "Spirit saith".  Let's call our attention back to the seven stars in Jesus' hand.  Seven being the number which represents the perfect divine.  The message to the church at Smyrna like all the others is coming through the Spirit.  The one perfect messenger to all the churches then and today through God's written word. 

"He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death."
The second death will be the great day of the Lord as mentioned by Him in John 5:28-29 "Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice,  And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation."  The second death is the resurrection of damnation where the unsaved will be cast into Hell. 

Let's note that Jesus does not offer to take away the suffering of the faithful Christians of Smyrna.  In fact he acknowledges they are already being persecuted but informs them it is going to get much worse.  Nevertheless, He makes a promise to all who overcome that He will give them a crown of life. Christ tells them not to fear death for eternal life awaits them. This promise should be a comfort to us as well for it is made to all who would live faithfully and overcome the wiles of evil.  The Christians of the first century had to remain faithful unto death.  We can be assured we must be likewise faithful unto death today.  Those of all ages who overcome the persecutions, and tribulations to come and remain faithful unto death will not suffer the resurrection of damnation. 

In summary, Jesus had nothing bad to say to the Christians at Smyrna.  They were faithful.  Their works were acceptable just like the works of the Ephesians but the Christians in Smyrna obviously had their hearts in the right place.  Their deep poverty was nothing to be ashamed of, in fact they were rich in what really mattered.  The church in Smyrna serves as a shining example for us today.  Let us likewise be rich in works no matter what oppression may arise, and let us all be comforted by the fact that we serve a God that finds our works and love and dedication acceptable and offers us mercy and eternal life in the end.

Church of Christ Lessons on the Revelation of Jesus Christ

1.  Understanding Revelation
2.  Symbolic Objects in Revelation
3.  Understanding the Numerical Symbolism in Revelation
4.  Identifying the Opposition Characters in Revelation
John's Introduction to the Churches of Asia

6.  John's Vision of Jesus Christ
7. The Church who Left Her First Love, Ephesus
8.  Smyrna, the Suffering Church
9.  Pergamum, the church in Hell's Headquarter
10.  Thyatira, the church that Condoned Sin
11. Sardis (The Dead Church)
12. Philadelphia (The Church With Opportunity)
13.  Laodicea (The Lukewarm Church)

14.  Letter to Your Church
15.  John's Throne Vision (chapter 4)
16.  God the Redeemer Revealed  (chapter 5)
17.  God the Avenger of His Children (Chapter 6)
18.  Who Will Be Able To Stand  (Chapter 7)
19.  The First Four Trumpets
(Chapter 8)
20.  The Fifth Trumpet (Chapter 9:1-12)
21.  The Sixth Trumpet Announcement (Chapter 9:13-21)
22. The Little Book and the Unutterable Thunders (Rev 10)
23.  The Seventh Trumpet Announcement (Rev 11)
24. The Conflict (Revelation 12)
25.  Revelation 13 (Identification of the First Beast)

26.  Revelation 13 (Identification of the Second Beast)

27.  Chapter 14 (The Victorious Lamb and the Redeemed)
28.  Revelation 14 (The Turning Point)
29.  Revelation 14 (The Sickle and the Winepress)
30.  Chapter 15 (Comfort for the Saints)
31.  Chapter 16 (Bowls of Wrath)
32.  Chapter 16 (The Battle of Armageddon)
33.  Chapter 17 (The Scarlet Woman)
34.  Chapter 18 (Fallen  is Babylon)

35.  King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Chapter 19)
36.  The Fall of Satan  (Chapter 20)
37.  Heaven, the Home of the Soul  (Chapter 21)
38.  The Spirit and the Bride Say Come  (Chapter 22)
39.  The Dating of the Revelation

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Revelation 21:5-7

And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.  And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.  He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.