The city of Smyrna, situated in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) was among the most prosperous cities in the Roman province of Asia. Presumably, the city was evangelized through Paul's missionary efforts at Ephesus (Acts 19:10). Some forty years later, when Christ critiqued the seven churches in Asia (Rev. 1:11), the Smyrna church was one of the two not faulted by Him.
The church was situated in an environment of wealth. Smyrna's bay on the Aegean shore, forty miles northeast of Ephesus, provided a natural port of commerce for the trade caravans that passed through the Hermas valley. An important business center and one of the most beautiful cities in Asia Minor, Smyrna was called "the lovely ornament of Asia."
The word "Smyrna" means "myrrh," a bitter-tasting, sweet-smelling gum resin exuded by a genus of thorny shrubs. It has medicinal usage and is distilled into perfume oils and incense. The Hebrew word denotes "distilling." In Scriptures myrrh is associated with suffering, death, anointing, and hope. The Song of Solomon uses the word symbolically in describing the hopeful preparations of the
Bride Church for the arrival of her Bridegroom. Myrrh also was a major ingredient in the recipe for the Levitical anointing oil (Ex. 30:23).
In Greek, the word "myrrh" indicates a perfumed oil. It was presented by the Magi to the child, Jesus and, while hanging on the cross, the suffering Savior was offered wine laced with myrrh (Mark 15:23). Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes to embalm the body of Jesus (John 19:39).
Myrrh is a word aptly associated with a suffering church determined not to compromise. Distilled through bitter persecutions and tribulations, the Smyrna church manifested the sweet fragrance of a steadfast loyalty to Jesus Christ. It continued "faithful unto death"(Rev. 2:10).
Wealthy and licentious, Smyrna was the center of a fanatical cult of emperor worshipers. During the reigns of Nero and Domitian (A.D. 37-96), the cult severely persecuted the church. Moreover, the city's employment and commerce were controlled by trade guilds opened only to those who acknowledged the pagan gods. Ostracized, the Smyrna Christians were among the city's poor. But Christ judged them rich with everlasting treasures (Rev. 2:9).
Polycarp, a pupil of the Apostle John, was pastor of the Smyrna church at the writing of the Revelation. He personified the uncompromising steadfastness of the church. He encouraged this stance in his congregation. He once heard that some young Christians, discouraged at being boycotted by the trade guilds, were considering compromise. He questioned them about it.
"We must work in order to eat. We must live," they responded.
"Why must you live?" asked Polycarp.
"We must live to work that our families may live."
"There is only one thing you must do. You must remain true to Christ Jesus!"
Polycarp suffered martyrdom at Smyrna. The pagans considered Christians to be atheists for refusing to acknowledge the idols as gods. In the amphitheater the Proconsul pressed Polycarp to save himself by chanting with the mob, "Away with the atheists!"
Pointing at the crowd, Polycarp shouted, "Away with the atheists!"
"Polycarp, have pity on your great age," urged the Proconsul, "Revile Christ and I will release you."
Polycarp responded, "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!"
The mob shouted for his burning. And, as Polycarp, the pastor of the no-fault church at Smyrna, loudly praised God, the flames released his spirit to Christ.
"Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life" (Rev. 2:10).
Josprel invites readers' comments on this article. He may be contacted at Josprel@localnet.com.