Remember the experiences of the congregation at Smyrna

The writer, who attends Church of God services in Bristol, England, wrote a book in 1984 on church history. (It is out of print.)

By Ivor C. Fletcher

BRISTOL, England--Job made a sobering observation about the human experience: that "man that is born of a woman is of a few days, and full of trouble" (Job 14:1).

Each phase of life has its own special troubles or trials. As we pass through childhood, teenage, adulthood and finally old age, we experience the joys and trials of growing up, having relationships, earning a living, marriage, bringing up children and then growing old and dying.

The Bible gives details of the trials of many individuals and groups. We can learn much from such examples. The church congregation at Smyrna, in present-day Turkey, had many trials. Some of the situations the brethren who lived there experienced were similar to conditions we have lived through.

Smyrna, now called Izmir, is a city with a long and proud history. In ancient times it was "the lovely, the crown of Ionia, the ornament of Asia." By New Testament times it had become prosperous but dissolute.

Exactly when the church was established in the city is not known. The apostle Paul spent part of his ministry at Ephesus, 40 miles to the south. None of his epistles is addressed to Smyrna, however, and the congregation may have been established after Paul's death.

Coded terminology

Smyrna was one of the seven churches of Asia Minor to which Jesus sent messages through the apostle John in the book of Revelation. We read:

"Write to the angel of the church in Smyrna and say, 'Here is the message of the First and the Last, who was dead and has come to life again: I know the trials you have had, and how poor you are--though you are rich--and the slanderous accusations that have been made by the people who profess to be Jews but are really members of the synagogue of Satan.

"Do not be afraid of the sufferings that are coming to you; I tell you, the devil is going to send some of you to prison to test you, and you must face an ordeal for ten days. Even if you have to die, keep faithful, and I will give you the crown of life for your prize" (Revelation 2:8-10, Jerusalem Bible).

Looking back on this 1,900 years later, we find the message somewhat obscure, the coded terminology difficult to interpret. What does it mean?

The messages to the seven churches were sent, in written form, to the leaders or pastors of the churches shortly after the apostle John was released from imprisonment on Patmos in 96. According to second-century writers Iranaeus and Tertullian, Polycarp became the pastor or bishop of the church at Smyrna at about this time.

Polycarp lived from around 70 to 156. In his youth he had been instructed by some of the apostles and had talked with many who had seen Jesus. He was ordained by the apostle John. In keeping with the prophecy in Revelation 2, Polycarp was faithful unto death. He died as a martyr at the age of 86.

Although the canon of the New Testament was completed with the book of Revelation, the seven churches of Revelation flourished well into the second century. They continued to communicate by means of letters.

Around A.D. 107 Polycarp wrote a letter to the church at Philippi. One passage reveals information about the communication system that existed between the churches at that time.

Letters from Ignatius

"You and Ignatius have both written to me to ask whether anyone who may be going to Syria could deliver a letter from you there along with ours. I will see that this is done; perhaps by myself personally if I can find a suitable opportunity, or else by someone whom I will send to act for both of us.

"I am sending you Ignatius's letters, as you requested; the ones he wrote to us, and some others that we had in our possession. They are enclosed herewith; you will be able to derive a great deal of benefit from them, for they tell you about faith, and perseverance, and all the ways of self-improvement that involve our Lord. And if you should have any certain news of Ignatius himself and his companions, pray let us know."

Polycarp mentions some letters written by Ignatius. He was the pastor of the church at Antioch. He had been condemned to death by the Romans during a time of persecution.

Condemned criminals were sent to Rome from various parts of the empire, where they would die in the arena as part of public entertainment.

As Ignatius was being taken from Antioch to Rome, under armed guard, the route passed through Turkey. The party stopped overnight at several cities where the churches of Revelation were located.

The various congregations would send members to visit with Ignatius and give him farewell messages. He in turn would write letters that they would take back to their respective congregations.

Hold fast

The seven letters of Ignatius, which experts regard as genuine, contain much more than the final thoughts of a zealous Christian on his way to die as a martyr. The message of Jesus to Smyrna speaks of a "synagogue of Satan" that would prove to be a major source of trial to the congregation.

The letters of Ignatius reveal that some prominent leaders within the church, one of whom may well have been Ignatius himself, were introducing new doctrines that were not supported by the Bible. One such teaching was the concept of going to heaven when you die.

In his letter to Polycarp, Ignatius remarks: "My heart warms to men who are obedient to their bishop and clergy and deacons, and I pray for a place in heaven at their side."

Even at this early date, about eight years after the death of the last apostle, some churches had already abandoned the Sabbath and were meeting for Sunday services.

In his letter to the church at Magnesia Ignatius states: "We have seen how former adherents of the ancient customs have since attained to a new hope; so that they have given up keeping the Sabbath, and now order their lives by the Lord's Day instead."

According to Iranaeus, Polycarp continued to follow the teachings of the apostles and rejected the new teachings. Many years later, towards the end of his life, he even attempted to persuade the bishop of Rome to return to apostolic teachings, but without success.

A major trial that the church at Smyrna had to deal with was to hold fast to the truth of God at a time when many others in the church were rejecting it.

Many of us in this present generation have had to face the same trial.

Be willing to suffer

The other great trial that the Smyrna church had to handle was that of persecution involving imprisonment and even martyrdom. This is mentioned in Revelation 2:10. In about 156 Polycarp was arrested and brought before the governor in the local arena or amphitheater. What happened next is recorded in an eyewitness account.

Urged to worship Caesar

"As Polycarp stepped into the arena there came a voice from heaven, 'Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.' No one caught sight of the speaker, but those of our friends who were there heard the voice. Finally he was brought forward to examination; and when the news spread round that it was Polycarp who had been captured a deafening clamour broke out."

He was urged to worship Caesar and deny Christ but refused to do this.

The governor, however, continued to try to persuade him.

"Take the oath, and I will let you go," he told him. "Revile your Christ."

Polycarp's reply: "Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?"

The governor said: "I have wild beasts here. Unless you change your mind, I shall have you thrown to them."

As it turned out, however, no lions were available. Lions, it seems, were out of season. So, as an alternative, Polycarp was burned at the stake.

The person who recorded this concluded his account as follows: "Such then is the record of Polycarp the blessed. Including those from Philadelphia, he was the twelfth to meet a martyr's death in Smyrna."

Willing to suffer

What are the lessons we can learn from the church at Smyrna?

First, we need to hold fast to the truth, even at times when others in the church have turned away from it.

Second, we must be willing to suffer for the truth, if we need to. We are not all called to a pleasant, easy, trouble free life.

If we are willing to suffer when necessary, we too will receive the crown of life that was promised to the church at Smyrna.

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