When You’re Afraid of Tomorrow
Studies in the Book of Revelation
Dr. Jim Denison
In this study, we visit Smyrna, the second of the seven churches of Revelation and location of the modern-day city of Izmir. “Smyrna” is translated elsewhere in the New Testament as “myrrh.” Myrrh was a gum resin used to make perfume, oil, and embalming fluid. It was extremely bitter. This city was so named because myrrh was one of the products often traded through its port.
For Christians living in ancient Smyrna, “myrrh” or bitterness was not just a name but a reality. Consider the following five stark areas of contrast between the city and her Christian population.
First, her beauty. Smyrna was a thriving metropolis located 35 miles north of Ephesus. She was a resurrected city–destroyed around 580 B.C. by Alyattes, king of Lydia, the city lay in ruins for 300 years before being rebuilt personally by Alexander the Great as a model city and center for his cultural movement.
Her population of 200,000 made her the second-largest city in Asia Minor. While Ephesus claimed to be the “Light of Asia,” Smyrna was known as the “Glory of Asia.” She owned a famous stadium and library, and boasted the largest public theater in Asia. The city also claimed to be the birthplace of Homer, with a famous monument dedicated to the poet.
In contrast, the Christians living in Smyrna struggled for survival and lived in the most basic simplicity. They experienced none of her beauty and grandeur.
Second, her wealth. The city lay on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea and boasted an excellent harbor. The road leading east from Smyrna extended to the rich valley of the Hermus River, making the city a major export center in the ancient world. While impoverished Christians struggled to support their families and earn the barest of essentials, the rest of their city lived in remarkable wealth and opulence.
Third, her heathen worship. The most famous road in Smyrna was called the “Golden Street.” At one end of it stood the Temple of Cybele, and along its way there were temples to Apollo, Asklepios, and Aphrodite. Inland, where the Golden Street ran into the foothills, stood the Temple of Zeus.
Smyrna was also famous for her devotion to emperor worship. She was the first city in the world to erect a temple to Dea Roma, the goddess Rome, in 196 B.C. (Tacitus, Annals 4.56). In AD 26 the city competed with eleven other Asian cities for the opportunity to erect a temple to Tiberius, the reigning emperor, and won.
In contrast, the Christians of this city met in humble, obscure places of worship, in the midst of some of the most stunning temples and religious shrines in the Roman world.
Fourth, her pride. Smyrna was known as the proudest city in Asia Minor. She claimed to be the first in beauty, first in Caesar worship, and the birthplace of Homer. She was the center of all that was glorious and great. And so her people looked in utter contempt on the poor and humble Christians in their mist.
Choose Caesar or Christ
Smyrna had always been a center of great political influence. In the numerous civil wars of preceding centuries she had consistently chosen the winning side, and the winners were grateful. Her emperor worship and political connections made Smyrna a place of great political prestige and influence. The government which crucified Jesus would do no less to his followers here who commanded little respect from their pagan neighbors.
In Smyrna, the worship of Caesar as Lord was mandatory and enforced. When such worship was offered annually, a certificate was given to the worshiper. Failure to possess this certificate was punishable by death. We have an actual request for such a certificate, found among the artifacts of the Empire:
To those who have been appointed to preside over the sacrifices, from Inareas Akeus, from the village of Theoxenis, together with his children Aias and Hera, who reside in the village of theadelphia. We have always sacrificed to the gods, and now, in your presence, according to the regulations, we have sacrificed and offered libations, and tasted the sacred things, and we ask you to give us a certification that we have done so. May you fare well.
Accompanying the request was an official certificate which read: We the representatives of the Emperor, Serenos and Hermas, have seen you sacrificing. Then the date follows (Barclay, Letters to the Seven Chuches, 29).
Those who refused to burn incense to Caesar and proclaim him as Lord were subject to charges of treason and paganism, and often put to death in Smyrna. Believers here risked their lives daily to follow Christ.
And the Jewish population in the city only made things worse for the Christian church. The Empire had long since given up coercing the Jewish people into their emperor worship. And so they granted them an exemption from this idolatrous practice. So long as they saw Christianity as a Jewish sect, they exempted Christians from emperor worship as well. But the Jewish leaders in Smyrna soon made clear their own rejection of the Christian faith.
And so Jesus says, “I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (v. 9). The Christians faced persecution from their Roman rulers and their Jewish neighbors as well. Things were “bitter” indeed in Smyrna for the followers of Jesus.
Why serve Jesus?
Jesus offers his suffering saints several reasons why they should choose to follow him and not Caesar, even in the face of a very uncertain future.
First: he knows our problems and has conquered them. In verse 8 he claims: “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” Jesus calls himself “the first and the last,” identifying himself with God the Father, who called himself by essentially the same name earlier (1.8). In Isaiah 44.6 the Lord says, “I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God.” Now Jesus claims this same sovereignty for himself. And he makes clear the fact that he “died and came to life again.” He has already defeated our greatest enemy, so we have nothing to fear when we follow him.