Robert E. Surgenor
Last year in a Boston department store I engaged in conversation with a clerk so as to open the way to effectively give her a gospel tract. Noticing her accent, I asked her what part of the world she came from. With a slight blush, she answered, "Ismir. " I told her that her city was very famous and that she was the first person that I had ever met from that city. She was surprised. Then I told her about the loyalty of the Christians in that city during the first century and gave her a tract. She gladly accepted it. Ismir is Smyrna!
Approaching the City of Smyrna we notice its beauty, being situated on the bay of the Aegean Sea, with a double harbor and hills behind it on the south and the west and a beautiful valley on the east, nine by four miles. As we walk its beautifully paved streets we notice the many schools of medicine and science and its queenly appearance, being crowned with beautiful, towering buildings. Its famous marbled thoroughfare called Street of Gold amazes us as we see it curved around Mt. Pagus, rising 500 feet over the harbor, "like a necklace on a statue goddess." As we walk the Street of Gold we are impressed with certain structures positioned along the way, the first one being the temple of Cybele, goddess of nature. Continuing our walk we notice the shrine of Apollo, the sun god, then the temples of Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, Aesculapius, god of medicine, and finally at the end of our Golden Street walk we come to the very imposing temple of Zeus, the father of all gods, lord of sky, rain, clouds, and thunder. Smyrna's roads were wide, its buildings and temples architecturally perfect! Is it any wonder that Smyrna was called, The Ornament; The Crown; The Flower of Asia? Obtaining some coins we notice their inscription, "First of Asia in Beauty and Size."
Looking towards the east we observe the many caravans moving out with produce from the Hermus Valley and the numerous ships laden with goods for export. Smyrna's exports were second only to Ephesus. On the slope of Mt. Pagus rests Asia's largest theater accommodating 20,000 spectators engrossed in sports. Their yells of excitement fill our ears. Smyrna was prosperous and proud, but alas, its Christians were poor and persecuted. Smyrna worshipped Caesar, the Christians worshipped Christ, thus the Smyrna Assembly was being crushed and their blood flowed. Even though association with Christians in Smyrna could mean the death penalty, shall we visit them? We should, for Christ is there.
To be a Christian in Smyrna was dangerous! The large Jewish community was bitterly antagonistic to them and often stirred up the Roman Government against them. In 195 B.C., Smyrna was the first city to erect a temple to Dea Roma, the goddess of Rome. So loyal was Smyrna to Rome, that when Roman soldiers suffered from the cold in Rome's struggle for supremacy over the Carthaginian Empire, the people of Smyrna stripped off their own clothes to send to them. In A.D. 26, Smyrna erected a temple for Emperor Tiberius as proof of their political loyalty to Rome. It was required of all to yearly enter this temple and place a pinch of incense on the altar and confess publicly that Caesar was Lord, that Caesar was God. When Christianity commenced, Rome was tolerant, for they assumed that Christianity was merely a form of Judaism which was an approved cult, thus exempt from this ritual. However, when a distinction was drawn between the Jew and the Christian, the saints were attacked. To be a Christian was against the law! Persecutions were not continuous, but spontaneous. Imprisonment was the prelude to death. One was a prisoner, until led out to die. With knowledge of Smyrna conditions you will appreciate more fully why Christ presents Himself to this church as He does.
Christs Presentation of Himself
"And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, who was dead, and is alive' or, 'which became dead and yet lived' (Rev. 2:8). Not that life begins a second time after a period of death, but that life persists in and through death.
This statement of Christ would remind the saints of their very own city's history. Their city literally became dead yet lived! It lived 400 years as a village state after the Antatolian system, then was restored as an autonomous, self-governing Greek city. Later it was practically wiped out through an earthquake and its pride and glory laid low in the dust, but once again it revived and lived.
Christ's presentation of Himself would also remind them of the present culture of their city. Their patron deity was the goddess Cybele, whose worship was partially upon her metaphorical descent into death during the winter and her symbolic resurrection to a new life in the springtime. As one writer puts it, "Cybele was merely a shadow; He was the substance." For Cybele's worshippers the story was reenacted each year, but in contrast, Christ died and rose from the dead but once.
What an encouraging presentation to saints that were being led as lambs to the slaughter. He is the first - the origin of all, thus before all in rank. He is the last - the conclusion of all, thus to Him all tend. He is the permanent and abiding One. Thus we see Christ's ability to carry them through everything. He had gone their path and thus could be sympathetic with them in their trial.
The Smyrna saints were living in fear of death. Christ reminds them that He too, had died at the hands of men, but also that He lived again. He had faced the final foe and had conquered its power. Is not this fact the guarantee that we shall live in triumphant power over death also? Brethren, 'neither death, nor life .... shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord' (Romans 8:38-39). "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the first fruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming' (1 Corinthians 15:22-23). What an inspiration to those dear saints in their dark hour. What an inspiration to us today, who though not dying at the hands of men, may be called upon to die through the course of nature.
Since there is no danger for us to be apprehended, being only tourists, let us linger in Smyrna for another month and notice with what words the Lord commends our crushed and cowering brethren in that beautiful, yet brutal city of Smyrna. Perhaps before our visit with them is over - we shall weep.