Stephen Caswell © 2004
Poor Governor Pliny!
Pliny, Roman Governor in Asia Minor in the early Second Century, was so puzzled about the Christians brought before him for trial that he wrote his famous letter to the Emperor Trajan asking for his advice. A certain unknown Christian was brought before him, and Pliny, finding little fault in him, proceeded to threaten him.
· I will banish you, he said. You cannot, was the reply, for all the world is my Father’s house.
· Then I will slay thee, said the Governor. You cannot, answered the Christian, for my life is hid with Christ in God.
· I will take away they possessions, continued Pliny. You cannot, for my treasure is in heaven.
· I will drive thee away from man and thou shalt have no friend left, was the final threat. And the calm reply once more was, You cannot, for I have an unseen Friend from Whom thou art not able to separate me.
· What was a poor, harassed Roman Governor, with all the powers of life and death, torture and the stake at his disposal, to do with people like that?
Last week we looked at Ephesus, the Church that lost its first love. Tragically they also lost their light. Today we will look at Smyrna a suffering Church. As Ephesus represents the apostolic church, so Smyrna represents the martyr church which covers the period from about a.d. 100 to approximately a.d. 314. Suffering purified the early Church and renewed its love for Jesus Christ once again. Today we will see the Correspondence, the Commendation & the Counsel. There’s no Condemnation given to Smyrna.
1. The Correspondence
Revelation 2:8: 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:
a. The City
The second letter was addressed to Smyrna, a large and wealthy city 35 miles north of Ephesus. Temples to Cybele, Apollo, Asclepius, Aphrodite and Zeus were located in Smyrna. It was also an important center for emperor worship where people burned incense to the genius of Caeasar. Anyone refusing to acknowledge Caesar as Lord was boycotted by the entire city.
Like Ephesus, it was a seaport. In contrast to Ephesus, which today is a deserted ruin, Smyrna is still a large seaport with a present population of about 200,000. It has one of the most beautiful harbors you will ever see. In fact, Smyrna was one of the loveliest cities of Asia. It was called a flower, an ornament, and it has been called the crown of all Asia. The city remains a functioning community today called by a Turkish name Izmir. One report said that 1/3 of them are professed Christians. Because of Islamic rule they meet in secret. Izmir is the largest city in Asia Minor and may soon overtake Istanbul.
b. The Church
The letter is addressed to the angel or pastor at Smyrna, Polycarp. He was the Apostle John’s personal disciple and pastored the Church from a.d. 95 until his martyrdom in a.d. 155. The Church at Smyrna was an offshoot of the Ephesian Church. It probably started while Paul ministered at Ephesus for 3 years and all Asia heard God’s Word. The name Smyrna means bitter and is related to the word myrrh, a fragrant perfume. Myrrh was used in the anointing oil of the tabernacle. It was also used to embalm dead bodies. The alabaster box of perfume poured on Jesus’ feet would have contained myrrh. Myrrh and aloes was used to embalm Christ’s body when He was buried. When John wrote this in a.d. 95 they were suffering persecution. Today, there’s still a Church in Smyrna.
Revelation 2:8: 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:
Firstly, Christ says that He is the First and the Last. In Revelation 1:8 Jesus said: I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, says the Lord, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. In saying this Christ reminded them that He is the infinite, eternal Sovereign Lord of all. There was nothing before Him and there will be nothing to follow Him. He has the final disposition of all things. He fills everything, and rules over everything. The Church would be encouraged to know that Christ is in control.
Secondly, Christ says that He was dead and is alive. Here, Christ is portrayed as the eternal One who suffered death at the hands of His persecutors and then was resurrected from the grave. Jesus Christ is the Resurrection and the Life who conquered death and Satan. These aspects of Christ were especially relevant to the Christians at Smyrna who, like Christ in His death, were experiencing severe persecution.
Jesus Christ knows us better than we know ourselves. Therefore, He appears to us in a way that will meet our deepest need. To Ephesus He appeared as the one who walks in the midst of the Churches. He saw their works, controlled their ministers and had authority to remove their light if they didn’t obey. To a suffering Church like Smyrna Jesus sympathizes with them having suffered Himself. He is acquainted with our grief.
2. The Commendation
Rev 2:9: 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.
The believers at Smyrna suffered greatly for their faith. The word tribulation, θλῖψις, means oppression, affliction, trouble. It means to press together or crush.
Christ saw their suffering. He knew their struggle. The members were persecuted, probably because they refused to compromise and say, Caesar is Lord. They would not worship Caesar or any other pagan god. The local people saw this as being unpatriotic. Yet in their suffering they clung to Christ and endured. They might have felt forgotten, rejected. But Christ encouraged them and told them He was pleased with them.
Why did Christ allow them to suffer? Doesn’t He care? Yes Christ does care about us. He knew all about their suffering and He knows about ours. Christ used their suffering to make them lean on Him more. And this is what happened, they cherished Christ all the more. Suffering helps us to see things from an eternal perspective not an earthly one. It sharpens our spiritual focus. These saints remind me of the Church today in China, Sudan, Nigeria and Indonesia; persecuted, pure and deeply in love with Jesus Christ.
An interesting fact about myrrh is that it has to be crushed before it gives forth any fragrance. The more it is crushed the more fragrant it becomes. When the saints at Smyrna were crushed and trampled they produced a beautiful fragrance to Christ. Their tribulation sent the Gospel out with an aroma of God’s grace. 2 Corinthians 2:14-15: Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.
Persecution didn’t destroy the Church it purified it and many other people joined it. It removed all hypocrisy as no one dies for something they don’t believe in. Their aroma attracted others to Christ. God used their suffering to conform them to the image of Jesus Christ. Let us not see suffering as evil but as a tool that God uses to shape us and mould us to be like Jesus Christ. The Church at Smyrna would not compromise to avoid persecution. Do we compromise our faith for material gain or to avoid ridicule or suffering? Let us hold fast to our faith and run to Christ when trials come!
· The Church of Christ has been founded by shedding its own blood, not that of others; by enduring outrage, not by inflicting it. Persecutions have made it grow; martyrdoms have crowned it. – Jerome
· Every time her blood was shed, each drop became a man, and each man thus converted stood prepared to pour out the vital current from his veins to defend the cause .… Christ’s church never sails so well as when she is rocked by the winds of persecution .... nothing has helped God’s church so much as persecution. - Charles Spurgeon
Secondly, the believers at Smyrna were poor. The word poor, πτωχεία, means extreme poverty, destitute. Because the believers refused to worship Caesar they were boycotted by society. Smyrna was an important center of the Roman imperial cult, and anyone refusing to acknowledge Caesar as Lord would certainly be excluded from the guilds. This would mean unemployment and poverty. They were totally destitute.
My Job At Ingham’s Chickens
In Australia we don’t suffer physical persecution for our faith. But Satan can certainly oppose you if you witness for Jesus Christ. Last year I worked at Ingham’s for 6 months. During that time I got to know a lot of the workers and supervisors there. Most of them knew I was a Christian since I shared my testimony and the Gospel often. I probably missed some opportunities, but took most.
A few weeks before I finished I left a Christian tract on the lunch room table for people to pick up and read. A few hours later I was called to the office and had to explain my actions to the big boss. I was threatened with the sack if I gave out any more tracts. I was told that I would be watched from then on. This happened because one person complained about one tract I had left on the lunch room table. He and the boss took offence to the message of sin and judgment, and the need for repentance.
Sometimes believers use the wrong standard to measure things by. The Laodiceans boasted that they were rich. But Christ said the Laodiceans were wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked. The church at Smyrna thought itself poor, but Christ called them rich. The Lord isn’t impressed by material wealth. He looks for spiritual riches. James 2:5: Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? Their suffering had only increased their riches. These saints lived by eternal values, not earthly ones. The only thing to go beyond the grave is our relationship with God and our family in Christ. People count not possessions. True riches are spiritual not physical.
True wealth is love, service and sacrifice for Jesus Christ. 1 Timothy 6:17-19: Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.
A large Jewish community also thrived in Smyrna. The Jews, of course, did not have to patronize the imperial cult since their religion was accepted by Rome; but they wouldn’t assist the Christian faith. The Church at Smyrna suffered blasphemy from these Jews. Blasphemy βλασφημία, means speech that defames or denigrates, to slander. Obviously the Jews at Smyrna had rejected Christ and anyone else that followed Him.
A true Jew is not one physically or racially, but spiritually. This is why Christ disowned them, calling them the Synagogue of Satan. Let us recognize that our struggles are not with flesh and blood, but our enemy is Satan. He uses people to accomplish his purposes. This shouldn’t surprise us since Satan is always accusing the saints before God’s throne. These Jews spoke against the Christian Church and turned the people against them. So, from both Jews and Gentiles, the Christians in Smyrna received slander and suffering. Nevertheless the Church had won Christ’s approval and that’s what really counts.
In December 1994, a Nigerian Christian named Gideon Akaluka was accused of desecrating the Koran by using its pages as toilet paper. Although the local court found no evidence to convict him, they detained him for security purposes. He was imprisoned in Bompai, in the city of Kano. On December 26, the guards at the prison were overpowered by Muslim fanatics, seeking vengeance for Akaluka’s alleged blasphemy. The mob forced its way into the prison and dragged Akaluka out of his cell. As the prison guards watched helplessly, the terrorists beheaded him. After hoisting his severed head on a spike, they paraded it around town, ending their march at the residence of the emir, the local Islamic spiritual leader.
The Church at Smyrna was persecuted, poor and their name was profaned. Would we be faithful in those kind of circumstances? What value system do we live by earthly or eternal? Are we compromising our faith? Are we willing to suffer ridicule for Christ?
3. The Counsel
Christ was pleased with the works of the Church at Smyrna. He gives no condemnation to them at all. In Christ’s counsel, He commands them to be courageous.
Revelation 2:10a: Do not fear any of those things which 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.
a. Be Fearless
Firstly, Christ commanded the Church at Smyrna to be fearless. He wanted them to be courageous. He assured them that He knew the devil’s plans and was in complete control of the situation. Some of the believers would be imprisoned and tried as traitors to Rome. Yet their tribulation would not be long; in the Bible, 10 days signifies a brief period of time. Jesus knew the future and was in control of it all. He would give them grace to cope with anything, including martyrdom. Suffering is a privilege we receive from Christ. Matthew 10:28: And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
God has a purpose in our suffering. It’s not wasted. The word test, πειράζω, means to try, to discover the nature or character of something by testing. God allows short periods of tribulation to test His people and purify them. He uses suffering to remove the dross of self and sin out of our lives. We run to him like children who have skinned their knee. God uses our suffering to draw us closer to Him.
1 Peter 4:12-13: Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.
No goldsmith would deliberately waste the precious ore. He would put it into the smelting furnace long enough to remove the cheap impurities; then he would pour it out and make from it a beautiful article of, value. It has been said that the Eastern goldsmith kept the metal in the furnace until he could see his face reflected in it. So our Lord keeps us in the furnace of suffering until we reflect the glory and beauty of Jesus Christ. Job recognized this. Job 23:10: But He knows the way that I take; When He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold. Job’s endurance and faithfulness was precious in God’s sight.
Trials do not last forever; they are for a season. When God permits His children to go through the furnace, He keeps His eye on the clock and His hand on the thermostat. If we rebel, He may have to reset the clock; but if we submit, He will not permit us to suffer one minute too long. The important thing is that we learn the lesson He wants to teach us and that we bring glory to Him alone. 1 Peter 5:10: But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.
God’s Refining Fire
A few of years ago I asked the Lord why we were going through heavy trials, with no end in sight. There were financial burdens, spiritual burdens and struggles, Sandy had a miscarriage and we seemed to be on our own in it all. The only answer I got was that I was just where God wanted me to be. He was teaching me lessons I needed to learn.
b. Be faithful
Revelation 2:10b-11: Be faithful until 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.
Secondly, Christ commanded the Church to be faithful even unto death. Jesus died for them and they must be willing to die for Him. Death was not to be feared because Christ had conquered death and has given eternal life to all who love Him. 2 Timothy 2:11-12: This is a faithful saying: For if we died with Him, We shall also live with Him. If we endure, We shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He also will deny us.
Polycarp pastured the Church for 60 years and was then martyred for His Lord. As he entered into the stadium, a voice came from heaven; ' Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.' When he was taken before the proconsul he inquired whether he were the man. And on confessing that he was, tried to persuade him to a denial saying, ' Have respect to your age, ' and with many other things said to 'swear by the genius of Caesar; repent and say away with the atheist's'. But Polycarp looking at the lawless heathen, groaned and looking to heaven waved his hand at the crowd and said 'Away with the atheist's.'
The magistrate pressed him hard to 'swear the oath and I will release thee; revile the Christ', but Polycarp said 'Fourscore and six years have I been His servant, and He hath done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?' The proconsul persisted in pressing Polycarp to recant. But Polycarp replied I tell you I am a Christian. If you would like to know of the doctrine of the faith appoint me a day and I will declare it to you. The proconsul threatened to give Polycarp to the wild beasts if he didn’t repent.
Polycarp told him to bring the beasts as he would not change from a good confession to make a bad one. Then the proconsul threatened him with fire since he despised the beasts. Polycarp said this fire would burn for but a season and then be quenched: but the proconsul was ignorant of the fire of future judgment and eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. After this the proconsul marveled at his steadfastness and his grace filled countenance. These events happened quickly and the crowd placed wood under him as he was tied to the stake.
Polycarp began to pray after this and blessed the Lord for granting him the privilege to be numbered amongst the martyrs. After this the wood was set alight, but the fire would not touch him and seemed to arch about him. His body seemed to glow like baking bread and a sweet aroma could be smelt. In despair the executioner was sent to thrust him through with a sword, which brought forth a quantity of blood that extinguished the fire. The crowd marveled at difference between the death of a believer compared to unbelievers. The fire was then lit again to burn his body, however Polycarp was now in the presence of the Lord.
God holds dear the life and death of His children. He loves us and cherishes our love and loyalty to Him above all else. Psalm 116:15: Precious in the sight of the Lord Is the death of His saints. The death of God’s children is precious to God because they are now safely home with Him. They have been saved out from amongst the many that perish. The Lord cherishes His precious children and longs to have us with Him in His house. Even more so when God’s children love Him and lay down their lives for Him.
When the people stoned Stephen, he saw Jesus standing at God’s right hand in heaven waiting to receive Him. Because Stephen was faithful unto death He experienced God’s glory. The important thing for believers is faithfulness, standing true to Christ no matter what the government might threaten to do. According to Fox’s Book of Martyrs, five million believers died for Christ during this period in Church history. Yet the Church Age of Smyrna was one of growth and expansion. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. In 1998, 60,000 believers were martyred for Jesus Christ. More have died for the Lord in this century than all rest together. Jesus Christ knows every one. He cares about them and rewards their faithfulness.
The Promised Reward
Christ promises the Crown of Life to those who persevere unto death. We are encouraged to contemplate what awaits us after death, namely, eternal life. Death is but a doorway into the presence of God.
James 1:12: Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. The second death will not touch any of God’s people. The second death refers to eternal separation from God in the Lake of Fire, or hell. Revelation 20:14-15: Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.
Today we saw a Crowned Church, the Church at Smyrna. They suffered for their faith and remained in love with Jesus. They had spiritual values. Their riches were found in their relationship with Jesus Christ. This Church is still going today. What a testimony to the grace of God and the faithfulness of His people. They endured persecution for Him.
Numbers 6:24-26: The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace.