Today I began a tour of the seven churches of Revelation (Found in Revelation chapters 1 through 3). The reason for this trip is not really sightseeing, but of course I am actually visiting each of these sites. I am going, with friends and leaders from the Church of Glad Tidings, to pray about what God might be speaking to us through the prophecies to these churches. What are just a few verses in scripture comes alive as we view the actual sites and learn the full stories of these towns and the spiritual climate of the day.
To the Church in Smyrna
8 “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. 9 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. 10 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.
11 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.” (Revelation 2:8-11)
Smyrna of the New Testament Church was located in Izmir, Turkey and was built by Alexander the Great. Alexander crossed the bay from old Smyrna and was hunting in the forest. He came across the temple of the god “Nemesis” (the Greek god of retribution and indignation). As he was resting under a tree two demons/beings came to him and told him to build a city here to appease the gods/demons. Alexander the Great then had his generals build a city here. It is located on a hill on the opposite side of the bay from the ancient Smyrna. The city was walled from a port area along a small hill. On the hill was a fortress (castle) which is where the palace and soldiers guarded the city.
The fortress on the hill was where the elite rulers lived. In times of siege it would be the last fortress protecting the city. It had an underground cistern on the top of the fortress which could supply the entire city of Smyrna. The water to supply this mountain fortress was one of the most amazing aqueduct features in Turkey. A water pipe made from stone and clay brought the water to the mountain fortresses because the water source in the mountains around Pergamum was higher than the surrounding hills, they were able to provide water to the mountain fortress of Smyrna without ever using pumps.
Patmos, where John prophesied the book of Revelation, was a short distance away in the Aegean Sea. Smyrna was the second church which received a word recorded in Revelation. The word in summary said:
- The believers in Smyrna were persecuted and treated badly.
- Through their persecution (afflictions and poverty) they became rich in Christ. (i.e. “Storing up treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-20)
The angel in the church in Smyrna said, “I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” This is a powerful statement. The New Testament church was already well established and no longer linked to the Jewish synagogues, however, the “followers of Jesus (the way)” often worshipped in synagogues and met with them. In many places, like Smyrna the Christians had long been cast out of the synagogue. It is likely that this is saying the persecution was coming from within, among brothers, and not pagan religions. Believers are told to prepare for this.
The angel warned the believers, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer.” This means, even though they have faced persecution and poverty, they were about to be confronted with a genocidal wave of persecution against them. They were told to not be afraid. The devil would put some in prison, test others, but the persecution would last for 10 days. Smyrna today, is the city Izmir, Turkey, and currently is a city of some 5 million people. It is the third largest city in Turkey. Today, there are only approximately one thousand Turkish believers in this city.
The angel said to “BE FAITHFUL”. Further encouragements included that they must be faithful, even if it is to cost them their lives. The Bibles says to be faithful “to the point of death.” The crown of life will be given to those who are faithful. I think it is important to note that no one can live expecting to be martyred nor choose the time of his martyrdom, however, a believer must be faithful to the calling of God all the time. Persistence and being faithful to God’s calling is crucial, apparently, in a final reward.
The final encouragement is, “He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.” Overcoming speaks of persistence again and being faithful. A natural death will not hurt you.
John, the beloved, was the last Apostle of Jesus to die. One of his disciples was Polycarp, who became the overseer of the church of Smyrna. Polycarp was the one receiving this message for the church in Smyrna. It was warning him personally about a coming great persecution where he would likely be killed.
Polycarp, was the leader of the believers here, however, he was a leader of a minority religion. In fact, Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire at this time. Why was it illegal?
There are a few clear reasons, but one being that Christians would not worship Cesar as god. Secondly, Christians were persecuted because of Greek democracy. Yes, democracy. The god of America, which was learned from the Greeks.
You see, city-states in the time of Hellenism (Greek influence) were heavily influenced by the philosophy of democracy. In fact, every city had their own rules and laws. Democracy was the rule of the law as determined by the people. It was through democracy that many millions of Christians died. Democracy was not a peaceful ideology, it was an ideology which convinced and forced people to follow the local city leaders. Each city was different. If you respect the local laws, you are a good citizen. However, if you don’t respect the laws, you cause a break in the peace and the society must punish that person. So, in Greek democracy, the majority rule. The majority were the elite. The elite were the political leaders and religious leaders.
Historically, Smyrna was the first city to ask the Emperor to build a temple to worship him. It was a temple dedicated to “The god Roma” (Rome). The temple was built in 195 BC. So they were worshipping the Roman Emperor as god. The Christians went against this concept and were in the minority. Just like today, many states use majority religion to control others. By worshipping the ‘the god of Rome’, they will get favor with the wealthy and important leaders in Rome. It is for political control.
Polycarp, and the Christians, were breaking the peace and going against the democratic rules by not approving worship of the god of Rome. Polycarp and the believers in Smyrna (and other cities) were guilty of breaking the peace and going against majority.
In the Hellenistic cities, they had organized sports and entertainment for the people. This included horse races, chariot races, fighting between animals, gladiators fighting wild animals, other gladiators and also Christians (and other enemies of the city-state).
Polycarp was convicted of going against the democratic laws. The slander was likely encouraged and brought up by the Jewish people living in Smyrna. Jews often had contact with the followers of Jesus and opposed them because many Jewish people were following this “new group/denomination” of “Christians”. Polycarp was tried and sentenced to be executed. They told him, however, if he recanted Christ, then they would let him live. He replied, according to the prophecy over the church of Smyrna, that “Christ has been faithful to him for all these years, so he could never reject Christ.”
They tied him to a stake to burn him, however, but he wouldn’t burn. The fire was not consuming him. He was also not in pain when they were trying to execute the death sentence in the middle of the stadium with the people of Smyrna watching on. So, the soldiers stabbed him with a spear to kill him. He died by the spear. It was in 156 AD.
The Apostle John walked and talked with Jesus and received the message from our Lord personally. Polycarp, did not know Jesus personally, however, he was a personal disciple of John himself. He was only one person removed from our Lord himself. Polycarp would have known about Peter denying Christ in the last days from Peter’s friend. Polycarp would have known how every Apostle of Jesus was executed and his own teacher exiled to a remote island. Persecution was very personal to him. This calling was even more important to him.
Polycarp remained faithful to the end. Jesus is telling the church of today to be ready like Smyrna. Be faithful to the end. Expect persecution. Jesus, himself, will receive us with a crown of life after our second death if we overcome and remain faithful.