Smyrna—the persecuted church

Visiting the churches of Revelation——2

Orley M. Berg is an executive editor of MINISTRY.


Strabb, the Greek historian, described Smyrna as "the most beautiful of all cities." Noted not only for her beauty but for her illustrious past, Smyrna had given birth to such prominent figures as the Greek epic poet Homer. Today the city still flourishes as Izmir, Turkey's third-ranking metropolis, with a population of 820,000. It was to Smyrna that the prophet John addressed the second of his seven letters.

To reach Smyrna we travel forty miles north from Ephesus, taking the old Roman road. The city crowds the shores of a large gulf, thirty miles long, into which the Gediz (Hermus) River empties, forming a well-protected harbor—the natural terminal of a great inland trade route up the Hermus Valley. Today this harbor is still one of the most important of Asia Minor.

Visitors to Smyrna today find excitement and fascination as they press their way through the crowded bazaars where, amid the screeches of shopkeepers and street hawkers, one can purchase almost anything his heart is set on.

The city boasts a lovely park of broad walkways laced with graceful palms and beautiful gardens. In the park a spacious mall houses a modern archeological museum, fronted by a lengthy reflection pool. Within are relics from the area's long history. (Smyrna was among the last of the cities of Asia Minor to fall to Islam.)

With the exception of the ancient agora, or marketplace, Smyrna contains few remains dating back to Roman times. In John's day the agora was the center of business, leisure, and idle talk. Its crowded shops were interspersed with walk ways and lined with statues and monuments to gods and national heroes. Some of the broken statuary of bygone ages now lie clustered be neath an old shed, while others are jammed into an adjoining yard. However, several of the huge columns that once surrounded the area have been restored to their upright positions.

The pagan temples of Roman times later became Christian basilicas. The meager remains of one occupies a far corner of the agora today. The most intriguing ruins, however, are those of the shops reached by following an excavated trench that takes us underground. There we view the old stone arches that separated the stalls, their tops protruding slightly above the present ground level. Doorways lead to what were adjoining rooms of a thriving business center. Water still flows in the ancient aqueduct. Taking the well-worn stairway, we emerge again to the higher elevation. From above we see the tops of the arches and more of the once-stately columns.

These ruins were once the hustling, bustling center of the city that the beloved John knew so well. Here, perhaps as a result of his ministry, a Christian church was established, and later the second of the seven letters to the churches was addressed to Smyrna.

The principal emphasis in the letter to the Smyrna church is suffering, trial, and persecution. "Fear none of these things which thou shall suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days" (Rev. 2:10).

The name Smyrna means "myrrh," a plant that when crushed produces a pleasing aroma and was often used in embalming the dead. So Christ's followers in Smyrna would be persecuted and many put to death, but their death would be as a sweet fragrance resulting, finally, in a resurrection to eternal life.

Although the message had its local application to the church at Smyrna (as well as to Christians who have suffered for Christ in every age), in a prophetic sense it was particularly appropriate to the experience through which the church would pass from A.D. 100 to A.D. 313. During this period the forecast of terrible persecution was literally fulfilled.

In A.D. 107 Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in Syria and a friend of John the beloved apostle, was thrown to the lions and eaten alive in the amphitheater at Rome.

Even more renowned is the martyrdom of Polycarp in A.D. 155. Born in Smyrna in A.D. 69, he later became the bishop of that city. When asked to renounce his faith in Christ this disciple of John and close friend of the martyred Ignatius responded, "Eighty-six years have I served Him and He has done me no wrong. How can I speak evil of my King, who saved me?" Tradition has it that he was put to the flames, but when the fire refused to consume him he was killed with the sword and then burned.

It was the witness of Christian martyrs that led the famed Tertullian to Christ. Born in A.D. 160 of pagan parents in Carthage, Africa, Tertullian lived a sinful and profligate life until, like Saul of Tarsus at the stoning of Stephen, he was unforgettably affected by his witness of martyrdom and accepted Christ at the age of 30. Thereafter Tertullian became a defender and champion of the Christian faith.

The letter to Smyrna reads in part: "And ye shall have tribulation ten days" (Rev. 2:10). This, very likely, refers to the ten terrible years of pagan persecution brought on by Emperor Diocletian.

Diocletian had established an eastern capital in Nicomedia, present-day Izmit. He embellished the city, creating wide and beautiful boulevards; but in A.D. 303 the city was destroyed by fire. Like Nero at the great fire of A.D. 64 at Rome, Diocletian blamed the disaster on the Christians, using it as the basis for the worst persecution ever to come to the church. The emperor purposed to eradicate Christianity completely from the empire. The bloody war of extermination came to an end exactly ten years later when Constantine issued the decree of toleration in A.D. 313, an appropriate ending date for the Smyrna period.

In A.D. 325, Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea. The tumbling, broken-down remains of the ancient church in which they met at Nicaea (present-day Iznik) brings back memories of that historic council that met to face the Arian heresy. Theodoret, in his ecclesiastical history, describes the gathering of the bishops in words reminiscent of the persecutions through which they had passed.

"Many, like the holy apostles, bore in their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Paul, bishop of Neo-Caesarea . . . had suffered much from the cruelty of Licinius. He had been deprived of the use of both hands by the application of a red-hot iron. . . . Some had had the right eye torn out, others had lost the right arm. ... In short, this was an assembly of martyrs." —History- Ecclesiasticus, book 1, chap. 7.

This same period of trial and persecution for the church is represented in Revelation 6 by the opening of the second of the seven seals. The opened seal depicts a rider on a red horse, the color symbolic of the shed blood, as aptly brought out in the text: "And power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword" (Rev. 6:4).

Smyrna was widely known as the "crown city" because of her beautiful situation between the gulf and the mountains—mountains crowned with the most luxurious dwellings and government buildings. How appropriate, then, were the words of promise to the overcomers of Smyrna, Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life" (chap. 2:10).

The martydom of Polycarp

Polycarp, born about A.D. 69 or 70, was early a disciple of John the Apostle, and became bishop of Smyrna while yet quite young. The circumstances of his martyrdom in old age are described in a letter written by one Marcion, in the name of the church of Philomelium.

The Church of God which dwells in Smyrna to the Church of God which dwells in Philomelium . . . : May the mercy, peace, and love of God the Father and of our Lord Jesus Christ be multiplied.

We write unto you, brethren, the story of the martyrs and of blessed Polycarp, who put an end to the persecution, set ting his seal thereto by his martyrdom.

The time having now come for his departure, they set him on an ass and brought him to the city, it being a High Sabbath. He was met by Herodes, the High Sheriff, and by Herodes' father, Nicetes, who, having transferred him to the carriage, sat down beside him and strove to persuade him with these words: "What is the harm of saying, 'Caesar is Lord,' and offering incense" with more to this effect "and saving your life?" At first he made them no answer, but when they persisted, he said: "I do not intend to do as you advise me." Failing to persuade him, they reviled him and made him descend with so much haste that in getting down from the carriage he hurt his shin. He, as though nothing had happened, paid no heed, but went on quickly with much eagerness on his way to the stadium, where the din was so great that none could be so much as heard.

As Polycarp entered the stadium, there came a voice from heaven saying, "Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man." None saw the speaker, but the voice was heard by those of our brethren who were present. When he was brought in, thereupon a great din arose as soon as they heard, "Polycarp is taken."

So the proconsul asked him whether he were the man. And when he said "Yes," he tried to persuade him to deny his faith, saying, "Have respect to your age," and other such things as they were used to say: "Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, say, 'Away with the Atheists.'" Polycarp, gazing with a steadfast countenance on all the crowd of lawless heathen in the stadium, waved his hand to them, sighed, and looking up to heaven, said, "Away with the Atheists." When the proconsul pressed him further and said, "Swear and I set you free, curse Christ," Polycarp answered, "Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He did me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King, who saved me?"

When the pyre was ready, he put off all his upper garments and undid his girdle. ... So he was immediately girded with things devised for his burning; but when they were about to nail him to the stake as well, he said: "Leave me as I am; for He that enabled me to abide the fire will also enable me to abide at the stake unflinching without your safeguard of nails."

So they bound him without nailing him. And he, with his hands bound be hind him, like a choice ram taken from a great flock for sacrifice, an acceptable whole burnt-offering prepared for God, looked up to heaven.

When he had offered up the amen and finished his prayer, those who had charge of the fire set light to it. And a great flame blazing forth, we to whom it was given to behold, who were indeed preserved to tell the story to the rest, beheld a marvel. For the fire, forming a sort of arch, like a ship's sail billowing with the wind, made a wall about the body of the martyr, which was in the midst, not like burning flesh, but like bread in the baking, or like gold and silver burning in a furnace. For we caught a most sweet perfume, like the breath of frankincense or some other precious spice.

At last when the impious people saw that his body could not be consumed by fire they gave orders that a slaughterer should go and thrust a dagger into him. This being done, there came forth a dove and such a gush of blood that it put out the fire, and all the throng marveled that there should be so great a difference between the unbelievers and the elect; one of whom was the most admirable martyr, Polycarp, an apostolic and prophetic teacher of our time, and bishop of the Catholic Church in Smyrna.

Such is the story of the blessed Poly carp, who with the eleven from Philadelphia was martyred in Smyrna.

The blessed Polycarp was martyred on the second day of the first part of the month Xanthicus, on the seventh day before the Kalends of March, on a High Sabbath, at the eighth hour. He was taken by Herodes, when Philip of Tralles was chief priest, in the proconsulship of Starius Quadratus, in the everlasting reign of Jesus Christ; to whom be glory, honor, majesty, and a throne eternal, from generation to generation. Amen.


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Orley M. Berg is an executive editor of MINISTRY.

May 1978

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