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A straight sail from the island of Patmos of approximately 60 miles brings one to the port of Ephesus at the mouth of the river Cayster. Traveling up coast some 35 miles almost due north of Ephesus is the city of Smyrna (population @ 100,000). It is the only one of the seven cities still in existence today (modern Izmir in western Turkey).


Smyrna was a proud and beautiful city and regarded itself as the “pride of Asia.” An inscription on coins describes the city as “First of Asia in beauty and size” (although other cities were certainly more highly populated). The people of Smyrna were quite sensitive to the rivalry with Ephesus for recognition as the most splendid city of Asia Minor.


Of the seven churches, only Smyrna and Philadelphia receive no complaint from the Lord. There is only commendation, encouragement and a promise of eternal life to the one who overcomes. Perhaps the reason there is no cause for complaint is that Smyrna was a suffering church. The letter is devoted almost exclusively to an account of their past and present trials, a warning of yet more persecution to come, and a strengthening word of encouragement from the One who knows all too well the pain of scorn and death.


It’s of more than passing interest that the word “myrrh”, associated symbolically in the New Testament with weeping, burial, and resurrection, is related to the name of this city: Smyrna.But why did the church in Smyrna suffer? The answer is two-fold.


First, as early as 195 b.c. a temple personified as a goddess and dedicated to Rome had been built in Smyrna. The city soon acquired a reputation for patriotic loyalty to the empire and its emperor. In 29 a.d. all Asian cities were competing for the coveted favor of erecting a temple in honor of Emperor Tiberius. Smyrna won! It was a city fervent with emperor worship.


The civil authorities didn’t care so much that Christians worshiped Jesus, so long as they also worshiped the emperor. So when the believers in Smyrna refused to pay religious homage by sprinkling incense on the fire which burned before the emperor’s bust, it no doubt fanned the flames of hostility against them. It was dangerous to be a faithful Christian in Smyrna!


Second, great antagonism existed within the Jewish community toward the church. This no doubt stemmed in part from their conviction that to worship a crucified carpenter from Nazareth was foolishness. Worse still, it was blasphemy (see especially 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). There was also undoubtedly a measure of bitterness at the loss of so many from their ranks to the new faith.


The Jews were known to inform the authorities of Christian activities, the latter being perceived as treason. Jewish antagonism against Paul is well known in the book of Acts (at Antioch in 13:50; at Iconium in 14:2,5; at Lystra in 14:19; at Thessalonica in 17:5; at Corinth they so bitterly opposed the gospel that Paul “shook out his garments and said to them, ‘Your blood be upon your heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles’”). 

Jewish opposition to the church at Smyrna is the focus of v. 9 where Jesus refers to those “who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Clearly, in one sense, these people are Jews, the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who met regularly in the synagogue to worship. Yet, in another sense, i.e., inwardly and spiritually, they are not Jews, having rejected Jesus and now persecuted and slandered his people. Indeed, their gatherings at synagogue are energized by Satan himself. (Yes, this is a harsh word, but it comes from Jesus and must be fully reckoned with.)


But if they are false Jews, who, then, are the true Jews? If they are a synagogue of Satan, who, then, constitute the synagogue of God? John does not provide an explicit answer, but the implication seems clear. George Ladd explains:  

“true Jews are the people of the Messiah. Paul says the same thing very clearly: ‘For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal’ (Rom. 2:28-29). That this ‘Judaism of the heart’ is not to be limited to believing Jews but includes believing gentiles is clear from Paul’s words to the Philippians: ‘For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 3:3). We must conclude, then, that John makes a real distinction between literal Israel – the Jews – and spiritual Israel – the church” (43-44).


What is of paramount importance, however, is that we see the relationship between suffering and sanctity. No one put it better or more to the point than Peter in his first epistle: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7).


This undoubtedly was true of the church at Smyrna. Trials are grievous, says Peter. Let no one pretend they are anything less than painful and distressing. But there is always a divine design in our suffering that, when seen and embraced, energizes the heart to persevere. Observe Peter’s “so that” in v. 7a above. Praise be to God: there is always a “so that” in our suffering, always a higher spiritual end in view for the sake of which God orchestrates our troubles and trials.


Could this possibly be why the church in Smyrna escaped rebuke and was spared the threat of divine discipline addressed to the Ephesians? Had the “genuineness” of their “faith” been proven in (indeed, because of) the fire of affliction? Had the spurious and surface dimensions of their trust in God been burned away, leaving their faith as pure as gold (at least, as pure as faith can be this side of heaven)? Yes, I believe so.


Suffering isn’t designed by God to destroy our faith but to intensify it. That will never happen, however, if we fail to look beyond the pain to the purpose of our loving heavenly Father. His design is to knock out from underneath us every false prop that we might rely wholly on him. His aim is to create in us such desperation that we have nowhere else to look but to his promises and abiding presence.


There is, then, an alternative to cratering under the weight of distress. We need not yield either to bitterness, because things haven’t gone our way, or to doubt, because we can’t figure out God’s ways, or to anger, because we feel abandoned. Rather, we can by his grace strive to see the “so that” in his mysterious and providential mercies. And even when we can’t see it, trust him anyway!