Smyrna was an affluent town just up the road from Ephesus. They were blessed to be at the mouth of a river and near a sea, which translates into economically prosperous town. It was a town that understood second chances. The town itself had been rebuilt after hundreds of years of being in ruins.
The church in Smyrna spawned out of a Synagogue because in the ancient world that is how the gospel was spread. The Jews in the town enjoyed a special immunity. They did not have to pay the annual tribute to Cesar and participate in Imperial worship. So when the newly converted Christians were kicked out of the Synagogue they were no longer afforded the protection that the Jews had to offer. Because of this, Smyrna became a town of persecution. Yet this and another church are the only two that Jesus doesn’t rebuke.
In this context, what is a good church? Jesus already praised this church, so what were its characteristics. In our American culture when asked what does a good church look like we would probably hear a lot of things. A children’s department like the McDonalds play area, a youth ministry of hundreds that goes from one trip to the next that is highly visible on school campuses, we might say a lead pastor who can preach with style and poise, who wears the right combination of skinny jeans, deep-v’s and caries an iPhone. Our cultural response to this question might be one that offers a ton to the community; the worship experience is like going to one of the best shows. But if you were to read Revelation 2:8-11 you might get the sense that a good church doesn’t actually have much to offer at all. You would probably get the sense that a good church is faithful through much, offers little but is willing to give everything.
When we think of Smyrna the martyrdom of the bishop Polycarp comes to mind. He was arrested on the charge of being a Christian — a member of a politically dangerous cult whose rapid growth needed to be stopped.
Amidst an angry mob, the Roman proconsul took pity on such a gentle old man and urged Polycarp to proclaim, “Caesar is Lord”. If only Polycarp would make this declaration and offer a small pinch of incense to Caesar’s statue he would escape torture and death. To this Polycarp responded, “Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Steadfast in his stand for Christ, Polycarp refused to compromise his beliefs, and thus, was burned alive at the stake. Before he died he prayed that he would be an acceptable sacrifice. When he was thrown into the fire the account of his death was that there was an aroma of bread baking or of gold and silver being refined.
Does the materialism of our day stifle the witness of our churches? Or are our churches willing to give it all and offer little?
Some historical information taken from, Daniels, T. Scott, Seven Deadly Spirits: The Message of Revelations Letters for Today’s Church.