Smyrna: The Afflicted Church

Everybody has childhood heroes. We didn’t know what was happening in their personal life, but we saw the awesome things they did. A popular childhood hero is Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is a bodybuilding champion, a politician, an actor, and more. He has often talked about a struggle in his upbringing in Austria and the adversity that he went through. That’s true of any hero story; there’s always adversity and affliction that you got to overcome. It unfortunately for him and his family in the form of his father Gustav. Gustav had been a military officer for the Austrian army and defected over to the Nazi army before Germany took over Austria. He was on the wrong side even before he had to be. Arnold talked about years after World War Two it ended and how his dad’s drinking had escalated. His behavior just became erratic, and you never really knew which dad was going to show up at which time. Then he talked about this difference that he had in perspective between him and his older brother. Arnold had a motivation by his dad’s behavior to get out and to make something of himself, which he did. But his brother stayed. This led to two very different outcomes. In 1971, after Arnold Schwarzenegger had won his second Mr. Olympia title, he received a phone call that his 24 year old brother had died while driving drunk alone on a mountain road. He hit a telephone pole and that was it. Arnold said “The very thing that made me who I am today was the very thing that destroyed him.”

What builds some up breaks down others.
Adversity defeats some and motivates others.

Last week we studied Ephesus, and now we’re going to move up about 35 miles northwest to the city of Smyrna. Smyrna proudly called itself Asia’s first city, and one of the badges they wore most proudly was just that of their beauty. It’s a beautiful port city. The second thing they were proud of was their loyalty to Rome. They erected a temple to the goddess Roma in 197 BC, and in the year AD 26, so in the time of Jesus, there was a contest in Asia minor for cities vying for the opportunity to build a monument to emperor Tiberius. Smyrna wins the competition, and they get to build the temple. They have immense Roman patriotism.

Jesus draws from this local context of this church and says I want to speak a word of encouragement over you. That reminds us of what we talked about last week. Jesus knows his church. He is the builder and the inspector. When it comes to his inspections of his churches, he gets down into the minutiae. As we learned last week, there are spiritual code violations that Jesus says you need to address, but that’s not the case for the church in Smyrna. This is the only church that Jesus speaks to and there’s not a word of correction; instead, there is a word of consolation. He says I know you are suffering because of your faithfulness. Politically, socially, spiritually, and economically these Christians are paying the price for their faithfulness.

Revelation 2:8 “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” Jesus uses these descriptors of himself because they are specific to the city of Smyrna. He starts with the first and the last because Smyrna is vying to be the first, biggest, best, and strongest. Does this sound familiar? Maybe like a country that has similar values today? Jesus is the first and the last, the beginning and the end, the alpha and Omega. All that the Roman Empire had to offer it paled in comparison to the grandeur and glory of Jesus. The second descriptor is the one who was dead and came to life. Smyrna was a dead city. In the year 580 BC an invading empire came in and absolutely decimated the city. 700 years before revelation is recorded and for 300 years, Smyrna lay in waste until Alexander the Great comes in around 290 BC and resurrects the city bigger and better than ever. Jesus says I’m the first and the last. I’m the one who was dead and was raised to life again, never to die.

Revelation 2:9 “I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Affliction is the word ‘phillipses.’ It means to press or to squash, and it comes from a form of torture that existed in the day whereby officials would stretch out a man, lay him on a stone table, and put weights on his chest one by one until he either gave up the information they wanted or suffocated to death under the pressure. Jesus says to this church that he knows this is what they are facing in that century. Most Christians early on were poor and from the fringes and margins of society. Many of them were enslaved. Also, in that day, the trades people had union-like groups called trade guilds. It was more of a club, and every time these trades guilds gathered they would have meals, meetings, and worship the emperor and a presiding god or goddess. Because Christians didn’t participate in idol worship, they would have not been invited. They would have lost business and networks. They were destitute. Additionally, a lot of Christians would have their stuff stolen from them taken from them with no legal recourse. The only protection came from the government and was in exchange for worshipping the emperor and saying Caesar is Lord.

Yet Jesus says to these believers that he knows the affliction and poverty, but you are rich in the economy of God’s Kingdom. Jesus says that your physical poverty is nothing compared to your spiritual wealth.

There was an ongoing tension between the ethnic Jews and Jewish Christians who had come out of that and become followers of Jesus. In Smyrna specifically there’s a nuance at play. Romans said that Judaism was an acceptable religion because it was an ancestral religion, not something new. So they are accepted socially and protected, but that is not the case for Christians. Christians don’t have the same protection because they’re not participating in everything Rome wanted them to. As the Church of Christ grows, more and more Jews are coming to faith in Jesus, and they are walking the way of Jesus. It began to draw attention and scrutiny to the Jews. Some of the ethnic Jews are starting to slander the Christians in many ways such as speaking badly about them in public or behind their backs or event telling Roman officials that they are refusing to praise Ceasar. Christians could have cracked under the pressure, but they remained faithful.

Revelations 2:10 “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 life as your victor’s crown.” There’s a spiritual battle raging, no matter what you see, no matter what you hear, no matter what you feel.
“Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Ephesians 6:11-12. This is not about flesh and blood; that means the enemy is not sitting in an office in Washington DC. It means the enemy is not sitting at a news desk in New York City. The enemy is not sitting at a marketing table at Disney. The enemy cannot infiltrate and then use individuals in those institutions, but as we seek to fight the enemy, we cannot demonize individuals. Those are people God created, cares for, loves, and died for. The battle is not against flesh and blood; however, the enemy is around and will use any avenue possible. In this case, the enemy is working through a religious group and the government. What else do you need? Notice what Jesus says about this impending imprisonment. The purpose is to test believers.

Maybe you’ve even been taught that persecution in Rome was constant, but that is not the case. It was similar to Arnold and his brother who never knew when dad was going to come home drunk. In Smyrna, they never knew when the winds were going to shift for the emperor or for another Roman official. Right now, there are countless Christians imprisoned in North Korea that have been executed, and we will never know – the same in China. Right now, in Congo, the home country of our brother Benjamin, there are Christians who have already gathered, and they did so knowing that a suicide bomber could end it at any moment. Jesus says the affliction is coming, and when it does, you be prepared to endure the weight of it.

“Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.” Revelation 2:10-11. The second death refers to hell. It is eternal separation from God. This is a perspective that is meant to encourage us that, even in death, what is the worst that someone can do? Even in death, there is life. Jesus uses Rome-specific imagery of the Stefanos crown, the crown of victory. The emperors wore that crown. When a Roman magistrate would end their term in office they would get one of those crowns. They wore them to enter into the temples for Pagan worship. At the top of the Acropolis, at mount Pagos in Smyrna are several buildings that are associated with glory and power, and it was called the crown of Smyrna.

Without the cross, there is no crown.

It was recorded that the city games were going on in Smyrna, and it said that there were these chants that started in the crowd to rid the city of atheists. Atheists were those who do not worship Caesar as Lord, meaning the Christians. There was an old man named Polycarp, and Roman officials go to seize him. When they arrived, he had a staff around him, and he said to the staff, “I want you to prepare for them a meal. I want you to give them all the hospitality that we have to offer.” In exchange he asked for one last hour of prayer. They could hear him praying praise for his people. The Roman officials are enjoying a meal and start asking amongst themselves how they can carry this out. This guy is old, he’s not a threat to anyone, he’s nice, he’s kind, but they’re loyal to Rome above all else. They take Polycarp to the council, and the council gives him a chance to deny Christ, curse the name of Christ, and to say Caesar is Lord. Polycarp responds, “Eighty and six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king?” The council threatens him with being burned alive, but what that official did not know was that, before this, Polycarp had a dream in which fire was set under his pillow while he was sleeping. He went and told his disciples who he was training to follow Jesus that he thought the dream meant he would be burned alive for his faith. So he responded to the threat, “The fire that burns for a time and is quickly quenched, for you do not know the fire which awaits the wicked and the judgment to come and in everlasting punishment. Why are you waiting?” You don’t conjure that faith up in the moment. That is something that is built over time. He knows that death doesn’t have the final word.

William Barclay summarizes well that “In this life it may be that the Christian’s loyalty will bring him the crown of thorns, but in the life to come it will surely bring him the crown of glory.”

Which crown do you want?

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:35-39

We are more than conquerers because of Christ.