Revelation 2:8-11; Matthew 24:9-10; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:16-17; 2 Timothy 3:12; Hebrews 11:36-38
Summary: Within the city of Smyrna, there existed a struggling Christian community undergoing intense and withering persecution. The Lord Jesus came to them with a word of comfort for their dark days. Even though they were poor, they were, in fact, rich beyond imagination.
In our look at the seven churches of Asia Minor described in Revelation, Chapters 2 and 3, we come to the second church the Lord Jesus addresses in terms of testimony and steadfastness to the Gospel. This is the church in the city of Smyrna, which was located about 35 miles north of Ephesus. Smyrna, in the days of the Roman Empire, was a prosperous city with a population of over 100,000. That location has been inhabited for nearly 3,000 years, and no one knows for certain who founded Smyrna or when it was founded.
The city was destroyed by a massive earthquake a few years before the birth of Jesus but was rebuilt and thrived. It possessed a safe harbor where ships from all over the known world came to buy and sell goods. Smyrna was called “The Crown City” because it was surrounded by hills resembling a crown. It was also known as “The Flower of Asia.” When the city chose a motto to be imprinted on their coinage, they chose the phrase, “First in Asia in Size and Beauty.”
Smyrna was known for its production of myrrh, which came from a shrub-like tree that produced a bitter gum. When the leaves of this tree were crushed, they exuded a very fragrant odor. Myrrh was used as a fragrance by the living and an embalming agent for the dead. Myrrh was mentioned in association with the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus (Matthew 2:11; Mark 15:23; John 19:39). The word “myrrh” means “bitter” and came to be known with suffering and death.
One particular characteristic worth noting was that Smyrna was a “planned city.” The city and its streets were planned down to the minutest detail. It was a very “religious” city, having numerous temples built and dedicated to the plethora of gods and goddesses they worshipped. There were temples dedicated to Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, Asclepios, and Cybele, among others. Smyrna had a gold-paved street that ran from the temple of Zeus to the temple of Cybele. While pagan religions dominated the life of Smyrna, there was also a thriving Jewish community as well. Smyrna was also a “free city,” meaning that they governed themselves yet were very loyal to Rome.
Within Smyrna, there was also a Christian community that was struggling under the constant onslaught of both intense and withering persecution. As posted in the introduction to this message, the Lord Jesus came to them with a word of comfort for their dark times. He wanted them to know that even though they had little in the way of material wealth, they were, in fact, rich beyond imagination. This will be explained as we go further into this study.
In terms of prophetic interpretation, the church of Smyrna represents the period of church history between the years 100 and 312 AD when the emperors of Rome and other officials inflicted varied and horrendous persecution upon the followers of Christ. The words Jesus gave to Smyrna apply to everyone who has or ever will suffer for the sake of the Gospel.
The church in Smyrna faced persecution from not just the pagans but also by a large number of the Jews who were openly hostile to the message of Jesus. Both the Jews and the pagans formed an alliance with the goal of defeating and destroying the Christians by any means necessary. Jesus referred to them as “the synagogue of Satan,” accusing them of blaspheming (slandering) His name and the believers living there.
Why was there such animosity toward this church? There were several reasons. The first is that the pagans and Jews accused the Christians of practicing cannibalism. The Christians kept communion (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26), and part of that observance was the eating of the bread and drinking from the cup, representing the broken body and blood of the Lord Jesus. The pagans and Jews saw this as the practice of eating literal flesh and drinking blood, not understanding (or not wanting to understand) the significance of what Jesus had established within the church.
When Christians gathered, they would hold what was known as “Agape (Love) Feasts,” which was nothing more than a time for fellowship and worship where they were enjoying each other’s company (Hebrews 11:25). The pagans heard of this and then accused the Christians of engaging in orgies.
Another reason for hatred against the church was that following Jesus often resulted in family splits, which is what He said would happen (Matthew 10:34-36). Thus, Christians were also accused of being anti-family. They were also accused of being “atheists” because they did not worship the many deities of the pagans and because they used no statues and icons in their own worship. So, when any natural disaster occurred, they blamed the Christians because their “unbelief” had incurred the wrath of the gods.
Christians were also seen as enemies of Rome because they refused to say, “Caesar is Lord.” Every Roman citizen was required to do this once a year. Failure to comply meant severe punishment and even death.
The church of Smyrna faced poverty for siding with Jesus. They had nothing of this world’s goods and were denied jobs and promotions because of their testimony. These saints of God had nothing in a city that possessed everything. No doubt, they were the source of mockery and ridicule both by the citizens and the devil himself for their stalwart belief in Jesus. If this was not enough, more trouble lay ahead for them. They would also be subject to brief but severe imprisonment. It seemed as if nothing would let up for them.
It should also be noted that being thrown in a Roman prison almost always resulted in a death sentence for the prisoners. The Romans had cruel and barbaric ways of putting people to death, including crucifixion (for non-Roman citizens), being beheaded, burned alive, or thrown to the wild animals in the varied arenas and coliseums that blanketed the Roman Empire.
The reason why the world hates the believer today is the same reason why they were hated in that day.
They used a variety of excuses to justify their reasons, but the truth is that the church was hated because they loved Jesus. That is the reason why the world still hates us in this day and age, and it won’t get any better as the days draw near for His return (Acts 1:8-11; John 14:1-3; 1 Corinthians 15:51-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Revelation 3:10).
The world system hates us because we tell them that there is ONE WAY to God and that His name is Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Philippians 2:9-11). They hate us because we tell them that they are headed for hell unless they repent. They hate us because we will not conform to their trends, ideologies, expectations and demands that we compromise, water down, or minimize the truth of the Gospel message (Romans 1:18-32, 3:10-18, 23). They hate us for being “narrow-minded” or “intolerant,” and we are not afraid to say so (Romans 1:16-17).
Their hatred is not going to go away any time soon. The Bible says that their hatred of us and God will get much worse, even in the face of intense judgment and terror of the Great Tribulation, as taught by Jesus on the Mount of Olives and confirmed later in the book of Revelation.
Even in the midst of these troubles and turmoil, Smyrna held firm in their faith and love for the Lord Jesus. He saw this and was pleased with their walk and testimony. He knew their works and how they were a light in the darkness of that city. They never buckled under the pressure of intimidation or hatred of their opponents. They proved the genuineness of their faith. They stuck to their “spiritual guns” and stayed the course.
What of us today? Do we stay focused on the task of remaining faithful to Jesus and the Gospel? Do we go out into the world and proclaim the truth of God, or have we become content to remain within the walls of our church building and not interact with a world that is heading to hell? Do we buckle too easily under the pressure of the world’s demands? Are you allowing the world system to bully you into silence or shame for the sake of the Gospel? We should, as a church, not have a “comfort zone” to which we can retreat when things get too difficult or dangerous. If the Lord Jesus and the apostles could go out into the paganism and indifference of both the Roman and Jewish world and boldly make a stand for the truth, then what is our excuse?
Remember, we have to give an account of what we have done for the LORD in this lifetime (1 Corinthians 3:11-17; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 9:27). We should not face Him empty-handed because we decided that our sacrifice of silence was better than bold obedience to the cause of Christ (1 Samuel 15:22). Too much blood has been shed across the centuries for the sake of Christ and Him crucified. Why should we consider ourselves any different?
I can guarantee that persecution against the people of God IS going to grow and get worse, not just in other nations and regions of the world but here in the USA as well. The example of Smyrna should rebuke us and have us return to our first love and give the Lord Jesus all due glory, honor, and service. Remember, He asked what it profited for anyone to gain the world yet lose their soul (Matthew 18:6). Do not let that be your epitaph for remaining silent or ashamed of the Gospel.
(My thanks to Alan Carr and the Sermon Notebook for the basic outline of this message.)