“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. 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. 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. 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. (Rev. 2:8-11)
Smyrna (modern day Izmir) was originally settled a thousand years before Christ. It was an important port city, rivaling Pergamum and Ephesus as one of the greatest cities of the Roman empire. Smyrna was a technologically rich area that included schools for science and medicine. Smyrna included a 20,000 seat amphitorium and “The Golden Way,” a wide boulevard connecting the temples of Zeus and Cybele.
Jewish hatred for the early Christians seems to have been particularly fierce in Smyrna. Polycarp, an early disciple of the apostle John, was martyred there. He was threatened with imprisonment, wild animals and finally execution by fire. When given one last opportunity to recant his faith in Christ he replied, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has never done me wrong; How can I blaspheme Him, my King, who has saved me? I am a Christian.” He was taken to the place of execution but requested not to be bound to the stake. “Leave me thus,” he said, “He who strengthens me to endure the flames will also enable me to stand firm at the stake without being fastened with nails.”
Even in the days before Polycarp, the small church in Smyrna seems to have stood bravely for their faith in a pagan pre-Christian culture. Of the seven churches to whom Jesus spoke, only Smyrna and Philadelphia escaped censure. Smyrna was a city of stark contrasts, and these contrasts are evident in Jesus’ letter to the believers there.
In verse 8, Jesus refers to himself as “First and the Last,” the one who “Died and came to life again.” In verse 9 Christ recognizes their affliction and poverty, yet reminds them that they were rich. Reflecting the apostle Paul’s assertion that “A man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code (Rom 2:29), Jesus warns the Smyrnan believers against “Those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” The contrasts continue in verse 10 as Jesus encourages the believers not to be afraid even though suffering was imminent. He tells them that they will be imprisoned, but only “For ten days.” His letter ends with a final contrast, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
What does this message with all its contrasts, written to believers in Smyrna 2000 years ago have to say to us? First, the letter recognizes that individually we are often a mix of great internal contrasts. We wrestle with issues of faith and doubt, we vacillate between obedience and disobedience. Sometimes we are spiritually strong and at other times we face near exhaustion. How encouraging in the midst of our contrasts and conflicts to hear Jesus say, “I know you.”
Secondly, there are significant contrasts within our staff. Some of us are “process” minded—we think in terms of planning, organization and efficiency and others of us are “people” minded, focused primarily on the social aspects of Christian community. Some of us are “big picture” in our thinking and others see the essential details. Some have been on staff here for decades and others are fairly new to Autumn Ridge. Some have years of ministry experience and we benefit from rubbing shoulders with new people with new ideas. Others are just beginning their ministry career and benefit from rubbing shoulders with seasoned ministers. Just like the believers in Smyrna, we each need each other!
Finally, the church we serve is one of great contrasts and diversity. Some are affluent while others struggle financially. Some have spent many years earning advanced degrees in medicine and engineering while others have made a career by working hard with their hands. Some are spiritually mature and have followed Christ for many years while others are just beginning their life of faith.
First, we all serve the same Christ, the one who describes himself as “First and the Last.”
Secondly, we are all part of a great victorious family, for the Christ who joins us as one is the one “Who died and came to life again.” Because he lives, we will live also.
Thirdly, all believers regardless of time, place or position have the assurance that Jesus knows what we are facing. One common phrase rings throughout the letter to the seven churches, “I know your works…”
Fourth, the letter reminds us that suffering is an inevitable and essential part of the Christian journey, but that the Christ who knows us sustains us in our suffering.
Finally, the central unifying feature of all believers of every age is hope. Not a “maybe so…” “hope so…” kind of faith, but a settled confidence in the object of our faith, the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
The letter to the church at Smyrna ends with a message of resounding hope, “He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.” ~ Bill Price