A Letter By Jesus To The Church In Smyrna: In The Age of The Roman Rule
I hope you have all had a lovely and blessed festive season, filled with the love and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I hope this Christmas season also rekindled your love for others and most importantly your love for Jesus.
Now, back to the seven churches series.
Today, we are looking at the letter by Jesus to the Church in Smyrna according to,
8 And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;
9 I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.
10 Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.
11 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.
While doing my research on what was going on around the church in Smyrna, I honestly had no idea what to write, and this not because there is nothing to write, but because of my inability to find the words to express the heartbreaking conditions surrounding this church.
But I thank God, that He doesn’t ask us to use our worldly wisdom, but guides us with what to say and in this case to write.
The astounding thing about these letters, is that they not only apply to those specific churches they were addressed to, or a forecast of the church ages overtime; but also to individuals. God knows what kind of Christian each individual is in relation to the seven church messages. That is, if one is a compromising christian, a lukewarm christian, an enduring christian, or even a persecuted christian.
Now, these articles are never written with the intention to condemn anybody, but to illuminate the light of truth who is Jesus Christ; and to bring us all, including me, to a point of reflection in our relationship with Jesus everyday. And therefore, I pray it will be so as well with you.
Smyrna today, known as Izmir; is one of the strongest cities in modern Turkey. It is a city filled with life and plays a major role in the Turkish economy especially due to its advantageous location along the coasts of the Aegean Sea.
Similar to the previous letters we have looked into, we recall that Asia Minor in the early church age was a hub of pagan worship. And Smyrna was no different. The idolatrous situation was brought about by its alliances to Rome. Around 23 B.C., Smyrna was chosen as the ideal place to erect the temple of the Emperor Tiberius; because of its years of faithfulness to Rome.
Thus, the city became a center for the cult of emperor worship—a fanatical “religion” that later, under such emperors as Nero (ruled 54-68 A.D.) and Domitian (ruled 81-96 A.D.), brought on severe persecution to the early church.
Reviewing the conditions surrounding Smyrna according to the letter;
Poverty and Persecution
I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.)
According to the historical records, Smyrna was severely wrecked by an earthquake around 178 A.D., and was later rebuilt; bursting forth again with life and beauty. A city that was dead and came back to life.
And if these historical sources are accurate, then I find it interesting how Jesus would find a way to relate His messages to the conditions of each church. For this church, He introduces Himself as the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive. And the people in Smyrna knew what it was to experience death, not only the death of their city, but also physical death as a result of the persecution of the Roman Empire.
Unlike the Christians in Laodecia who were amassed in wealth and prosperity, the Christians in Smyrna were stricken by poverty. The laodecian church was outwardly rich but spiritually poor. But Jesus said to the church in Smyrna, “I know your poverty, but you are rich.” This means there was something that the church in Smyrna had that surpassed wealth and riches. They had Jesus and because they had Him, even though outwardly they were poor, they were rich.
Adding to their poverty, the church experienced severe persecution. First, from the Jews who held the Pharisee type of mindset of uncleanness towards the Gentiles and also, the superiority view of being the chosen nation by God. Jews and Gentiles were not of kindred spirits, and so, it was unaccustomed for any Jew to associate himself with a Gentile. And this we see too, when Paul went to Jerusalem to preach the gospel to the Jews. They listened to him up to the point where he said, that God had called him to preach the good news to the Gentiles, after which they almost stoned him to death.
Some of the Jews in Smyrna must have embraced Christianity and they too, were persecuted by other Jews who believed not in Christ, but in the law and the prophets, also in circumcision according to their traditions. Paul, who was a Pharisee in his early years, also known as Saul, was one of these jew types who were zealous in persecuting the church until He had an encounter with Jesus. Jesus was not pleased with these Jews who persecuted His church and addressed it in the letter. “I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.”
Furthermore, the rule of the Roman Empire was slowly deepening it’s roots as some emperors began declaring themselves to be gods demanding to be worshipped. Those who did not comply with these dictates were to be put to death. The Christians in Smyrna were therefore faced with a predicament that would either force them to compromise their faith, or face death for the sake of their faith in Jesus.
Exhortation by Jesus
Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.
It seemed that they were buffeted on all sides. But most of them stood their ground and professed their unwavering faith in Jesus. Many were fed to lions in the Roman coliseums, burned at the stake, beheaded, and others lost valuable economic opportunity because of their faith.
The conditions surrounding this church must have been unbearable. In fact, out of the seven letters to the seven churches, only two churches do not receive any rebuke from Jesus; Smyrna, being one of them. Jesus does not find any fault with them. He identifies with them, understanding their pain and affliction; and comforts them, assuring them of a greater reward.
Now, I would honestly be lying to you if I told you I know for certain what Jesus meant by the tribulation of ten days. This may mean persecution for a brief duration, or maybe even the number of ten Imperial persecutions by the Roman rulers who were to have dominion over this church age. All I can do is speculate.
But with all these bitter sacrifices, in particular martyrdom, Jesus honours their love and sacrifice. He promises to give them that endure unto death, the crown of life and an escape from the second death.
This letter is one of those letters I am drawn to, particularly, because Jesus finds no fault with this church. It is among the shortest letters of the seven churches addressed with much love, comfort and encouragement by Jesus. Something I would personally love to hear from Him. A commendation.
This letter as well leaves us all to review our lives individually; noting we are currently living in a time of great wealth, prosperity, knowledge and education. An age I would liken to the laodecian church. Contrasting with the church in Smyrna, we are extremely blessed with many resources. And Jesus said, “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.” Luke 12:48
Despite the conditions surrounding the church in Smyrna, they held fast their confession and faith in Jesus. Theirs was not predicated on whether they had wealth or not. Theirs was a true love and commitment to Jesus.
I pray that we too, may awake and be girded with His truth and word in these shaky times of our generation. May our service, love and whole life be a sweet smelling savour unto Him, that He may be well pleased with us always and forevermore.
Wishing you all a blessed week ahead and may the grace of our Lord Jesus be with you all.
Featured Image: Turkey Destinations
Historical Sources: Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright (c)1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers