Ephesus acted as a natural gateway to the province of Asia, the beginning of the Imperial postal highway that wound its way north towards Smyrna before trailing further upwards to Pergamos. The name Smyrna means sweet-smelling and is synonymous with myrrh.
In order for the perfume to be extracted from myrrh, the bark must be crushed and bruised. It is a fitting metaphor for the experience that the church at Smyrna had. They faced bitter and trying persecution but instead of destroying them, the bruising trials served to bring out the sweetness of Jesus’ character in their midst.
God often works in this way in the lives of his people; he allows bruising in order for beauty to take its place.
Jesus begins his message to the church of Smyrna with the words “I know”. I know what you’re going through. I know your works and struggles and poverty. I know. Sometimes when we’re struggling through circumstances that seem insurmountable it’s comforting to realize that God knows. He understands our struggles, our pain, our efforts. He knows and with knowledge comes something else; the fact that He cares.
The message to the church of Smyrna is one of comfort and assurance. It is Jesus speaking to his beloved as she is pressed down and walking through the fire and telling her to hang in there because He is walking through the fire with her.
Most historians believe that Polycarp was the leading bishop or minister of the church of Smyrna. The message to Smyrna covers the period of time when the Church went through tremendous persecution under the successive Roman Emperors.
When Polycarp was forced to offer incense to the Emperor as a sign of loyalty and fidelity he refused. He was then sentenced to death and was burned at the stake on Mount Pagus around 168 A.D.
Polycarp’s martyrdom was a small taste of the kind of persecution and suffering the church endured. The Smyrnian period of church history extends from about 100 A.D. to 350 A.D. It was during this time that the church suffered the most brutal persecution under the Roman Emperors. Men like Marcus Aurelius, Vespasian, Diocletian, and Domitian were both sadistic and relentless in their pursuit of Christians.
Many Christians were forced to meet in secret during this period of history. Many were burned at the stake or thrown to the wild beasts in arenas across the empire.
Jesus tells them in Revelation 2:10 that they would endure persecution ten days. Sometimes it helps to know that there is an end in sight to whatever awful thing we have been called to endure. In the case of Smyrna, the church during this period went through ten persecutions under Pagan Roman. It was an era of pain and bitterness but it was also an era of both spiritual purity and power.
Though persecuted the church kept her garments pure and spotless. She was pressed down to the grinding wheel of the oppressor but she did not allow her faith to be broken. Though crushed she emanated the sweet fragrance of Jesus’ love for the Father and His truth.
Of all the periods of persecution, the worst of all took place over a period of ten years under Emperor Diocletian. This lasted from 303 A.D. to 313 A.D. until Constantine took the Imperial throne.
Unlike the other churches, Smyrna is not given any reproof. She didn’t need any. She was neither complacent nor deficient. Her spiritual experience was rich, her love for Jesus steadfast and sure. The church that suffered the greatest persecution is also the church that was the purest.
Jesus tells Smyrna to hang in there. To not lose faith or hope. “Be thou faithful unto death” he urges them “and I will give you a crown of life”
Be faithful even when faithfulness is the last thing on your mind. Be faithful even when it hurts. Be faithful even when it’s dark and there seems to be no light. Be faithful even unto death.
It’s easy to be faithful to God when everything is going our way. To trust Him in the light. But none of this was true for Smyrna. Nothing was going their way and darkness shrouded them like an oppressive cloud.
It was at that moment; when being faithful was hard that Jesus told them “I know what you’re going through but hang in there. Be faithful unto death and I will give you a crown of life”
When the Christians of this era were taken to the arenas to die they were dressed in rags, endured appalling prison conditions, and were generally looked upon as the scum of the earth. It was not cool to be a Christian in the Roman Empire.
But Jesus assured them, for all the shame and humiliation they endured, if they were faithful, there would be a crown awaiting them on the other side of it all.
More often than not in the world, we live in, it’s not cool to be a Christian. You can be laughed at, ridiculed, or crucified on social media for who you are and what you believe. But here’s the thing; Jesus says I get it, I know what you’re going through but hang in there, be faithful even unto death, I have a crown with your name on it, waiting on the other side.