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Chapter 20: The Letter to the Church in Smyrna

These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and lived:

I know thy tribulation, and thy poverty (but thou art rich), and the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and they are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Fear not the things which thou art about to suffer: behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days. Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life.

He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.

He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.

The letter to the Smyrnaeans forms in many ways a marked contrast to the Ephesian letter; it is constructed exactly on the same plain, but the topics are of a very different kind. Of all the seven letters this is expressed in the most continuous and unbroken tone of laudation. It is instinct with life and joy. The writer is in thorough sympathy with the Church which he is addressing; he does not feel towards it merely that rather cold admiration which he expresses for the noble history of the Ephesian Church, a history which, alas! belonged only to the past: he is filled with warm affection. The joy that brightens the letter is caused not by ease and comfort and pleasures, but by the triumph over hardship and persecution, by superiority to circumstances; and the life that invigorates and warms it is that strong vitality which overcomes death and rises victorious from apparent dissolution.

Another marked difference between the two letters is this. While the Ephesian letter appeals throughout to the past history of the Church in Ephesus, and attempts to rouse a fresh enthusiasm among the congregation by the memory of their previous glory as Christians, the Smyrnaean letter is to a remarkable degree penetrated with local feeling and urban patriotism, which must be pointed out in the details, one by one.

The Smyrnaean Church is addressed by “the first and the last, which was dead and lived.”

The meaning of this opening address is obscured by the unfortunate mistranslation, which mars both the Authorised and the Revised Versions, “was dead and lived again.” The insertion of this word again is unjustified and unjustifiable: there is nothing in the Greek corresponding to it, and the quotations from Matthew 9:18, John 5:25, Ezekiel 37:3 (which Alford gives in illustration) do not constitute sufficient defence. The analogy of Revelation 13:2ff corroborates the plain sense of this letter. The idea is, not that life begins a second time after a period of death, but that life persists in and through death. The Divine Sender of the letter to Smyrna “was dead and lived,” and so likewise Smyrna itself “was dead and lived.” If anything should be inserted in the translation to make the meaning quite clear, the word needed is yet, “which was dead and yet lived.”

Again, the phrase “was dead” also is not an exact equivalent of the Greek words: it would be nearer the true force of the Greek to render “became dead” or "became a corpse.”

All Smyrnaean readers would at once appreciate the striking analogy to the early history of their own city which lies in that form of address. Strabo, as usual, furnishes the best commentary. He relates that the Lydians destroyed the ancient city of Smyrna, and that for four hundred years there was no “city,” but merely a state composed of villages scattered over the plain and the hillsides around. Like Him who addresses it, Smyrna literally “became dead and yet lived.” A practical corroboration of these last words is found in an inscription belonging to the fourth century B.C., which mentions Smyrna as existing during the period when, as Strabo says, it had been destroyed and had not been refounded. During those four centuries Smyrna had ceased to exist as a Greek city, but it lived on as a village state after the Anatolian system: then the new period began, and it was restored as an autonomous, self-governing Greek city, electing its own magistrates and administering its own affairs according to the laws which it made for itself.

In a sense both Smyrna and Ephesus had changed their character and situation in ancient time; but the salient fact in the one case was simple change of the city’s position, in the other apparent destruction and death under which lay hidden a real continuance of life. Strabo emphatically says that Smyrna was obliterated from the roll of cities for four centuries; but other authorities speak of Smyrna as a State existing during that period of annihilation. The words of the ancients literally are that Smyrna was dead and yet lived. The two letters are adapted to the historical facts with delicate discrimination; change is the word in the first letter, life under and amid death is the expression in the second.

The idea of life is, of course, to be understood in its fullest sense when applied to a Christian congregation. It implies the energetic discharge of all the duties and functions of a Church. The contrast between apparent destruction and real vitality is expressed in several forms through this letter. The Church seemed poor, but was rich. It suffered apparent tribulation, but was really triumphant and crowned with the crown of life. Its enemies on the other hand were pretenders; they boasted that they were the true Jews, but they were not; they claimed to be the people of God, but they were only a synagogue of Satan.

After the introductory address, the letter begins with the usual statement: the writer has full knowledge of the past history of the Smyrnaean Church. The history of the Church had been a course of suffering, and not, as the Ephesian history had been, of achievement and distinction. The Smyrnaean Church had had a more trying and difficult career than any other of the Asian Churches. It had been exposed to constant persecution. It was poor in all that is ordinarily reckoned as wealth; but it was rich in the estimation of those who can judge of the realities of life. There is here the same contrast between appearance and reality as in the opening address: apparent poverty and real wealth, apparent death and real life.

The humble condition and the sufferings of the Smyrnaean Church are in this letter pointedly connected with the action of the Jews, and especially with the calumnies which they had circulated in the city and among the magistrates and the Roman officials. The precise facts cannot be discovered, but the general situation is unmistakable; the Smyrnaean Jews were for some reason more strongly and bitterly hostile to the Christians than the Jews of Asia generally. But the Asian Jews are little more than a name to us. From general considerations we can form some opinion about their position in the cities, as is shown in chapter 12; but in respect of details we know nothing. Accordingly we cannot even speculate as to the reason for the exceptionally strong anti-Christian feeling among the Smyrnaean Jews. We must simply accept the fact; but we may certainly conclude from it that the national feeling among them was unusually strong.

In an inscription of the second century “the quondam Jews” are mentioned as contributing 10,000 denarii to some public purpose connected with the embellishment of the city. Bockh understood this enigmatic phrase to mean persons who had forsworn their faith and placed themselves on the same level as the ordinary pagan Smyrnaeans; but this is certainly wrong. Mommsen’s view must, so far as we can judge, be accepted, that "the quondam Jews” were simply the body of the Jews of Smyrna, called “quondam” because they were no longer recognised as a separate nation by the Roman law (as they had been before A.D. 70). The reference proves that they maintained in practice so late as 130-37 their separate standing in the city as a distinct people, apart from the rest of the citizens, although legally they were no longer anything but one section of the general population. Many Jews possessed the rights of citizenship in some at least of the Ionian cities, such as Smyrna. The quondam Jews who made that contribution to embellish Smyrna were probably for the most part citizens.

We may also probably infer from the strong hatred felt by the Jews, that at first many of the Christians of Smyrna had been converted from Judaism. It was the Jewish Christians, and not the pagan converts, whom the national Jews hated so violently. Except in so far as the converts had been proselytes of the synagogue, the Jews were not likely to care very much whether Pagans were converted to Christianity: their violent hatred was roused by the renegade Jews (as they thought) like St. Paul, who tried to place the unclean Pagans on a level with themselves.

The action of the Jews in the martyrdom of Polycarp must be regarded (as a succession of writers have remarked) as corroborating the evidence of this letter. In that case the eagerness of the Jews to expedite the execution of the Christian leader actually overpowered their objection to profane the Sabbath day, and they came into the gay assemblage in the Stadium, bringing faggots to make the fire in which Polycarp should be consumed. It must, however, be observed that they are not said to have been present at the sports in the Stadium. The games were over, as usual, at about the fifth hour, 11 AM. Thereafter the rather irregular trial of Polycarp was held; and about 2 PM the execution took place, and the most bitter opponents of the Christians had ample time to hear the news, assemble to hear the sentence, and to help in carrying it into effect. Undoubtedly, many who would abhor to appear as spectators of the games on a Sabbath would feel justified in putting to death an enemy of their faith on that day.

Severe trials still awaited the Church in Smyrna: “The devil is about to cast some of you into prison"...The expression must be understood as symbolical; and it would not be permissible to take “prison” as implying that imprisonment was the severest punishment which had as yet been, or was likely to be, inflicted on Christians. The inference has even been drawn from this passage that death was still hardly known as a penalty for the crime of Christianity, and was not even thought of as a possibility in the immediate future. In fact, such a sense for the term “prison” would be an anachronism, introducing a purely modern idea. Imprisonment was not recognised by the law as a punishment for crime in the Greek or the Roman procedure. The State would not burden itself with the custody of criminals, except as a preliminary stage to their trial, or in the interval between trial and execution. Fine, exile, and death constituted the usual range of penalties; and in many cases, where a crime would in modern times be punished by imprisonment, it was visited with death in Roman law.

The “prison” into which the devil would cast some of the Smyrnaean Christians must be understood as a brief epitome of all the sufferings that lay before them; the first act, viz., their apprehension and imprisonment, is to be taken as implying all the usual course of trial and punishment through which passed the martyrs described in the later parts of the book. Prison was thought of by the writer of the letter as the prelude to execution, and was understood in that sense by his readers.

That this is so is proved by the promise that follows, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life": Endure all that falls to the lot of the true and steadfast Christians, beginning with arrest and imprisonment, ending with execution: that death will not be the end, but only the entrance to the true life, the birthday of martyrdom. The martyr “was dead and lived.”

The importance of this idea in the letter is proved by the conclusion, where it recurs in a slightly varied form: “he that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.” It is this triumph over death that constitutes the guiding thought of the whole letter, just as change was the guiding thought of the Ephesian letter. He that persists to the end, he that is steadfast and overcomes, shall triumph over death: apparent death affects him; but not the complete and permanent death. Here, again, the final promise is seen to be peculiarly appropriate to the character and needs of the persons addressed.

The mention of the crown would carry a special meaning to the Smyrnaean readers, and would rouse in their hearts many old associations. The “crown of Smyrna” had been before their eyes and minds from childhood (as was shown in chapter 19). The promise now is that a new crown shall be given to Smyrna. She shall wear no longer a mere crown of buildings and towers, nor even the crown of good citizens which Apollonius advised her to put on, but a crown of life. The earthly Smyrna wore a mural crown like that of her patron goddess: the true Smyrna shall wear a crown suited for the servants of the one living God.

Another expression which must be taken in a figurative or symbolic sense is, “thou shalt have tribulation ten days.” The “ten days” means simply a period which can be measured, i.e., which comes to an end. The persecution will rage for a time, but it will not be permanent. The Church will live through it and survive it, and has therefore no reason to be afraid of it.

The expression “be faithful,” again, would inevitably remind Smyrnaean readers of the history of their city, which had been the faithful friend and ally of Rome for centuries. It cannot be a mere accident that the only one of the Seven Churches, with which the epithet faithful is associated in the letters, is the Church of that city which had established its historic claim to the epithet in three centuries of loyalty, the city which had been faithful to Rome in danger and difficulty, the city whose citizens had stripped off their own garments to send to the Roman soldiers when suffering from cold and the hardships of a winter campaign. The honour in which Smyrna was always held by the Romans was proclaimed to be a return pro singulari fide (Livy, xxxviii, 39); to Cicero it was “the most faithful of our allies”; and its services were rewarded in A.D. 26 by the permission granted to it, in preference even to Ephesus and Sardis, to dedicate the second Asian temple to the reigning Emperor Tiberius and his family.

The same reflection occurs here as in the case of Ephesus. Some may think that such an explanation of the reason why this special form of words in the exordium of this letter was chosen, and why the epithet “faithful” is applied to the Church, is fanciful and even unworthy. It is evident, however, that the study which is here presented has been made from a different point of view. It is not in accordance with right method to form a priori theories of what is right or wrong, dignified or undignified, possible or impossible, in the interpretation of St. John’s words. The only true method is to take the words, and ask what they mean, and what must the readers, for whom they were in the first place written, have understood from them. Now considering how exactly those words, “was dead and lived,” applied to ancient Smyrna, it seems certain that the reference must inevitably have been appreciated by the Smyrnaeans; and if so, it cannot have been an accidental coincidence. The writer deliberately chose those words to appeal to local sentiment and patriotism. The same remark applies to his choice of “faithful” as the appropriate epithet for the Smyrnaean Church. Not merely had the Church been faithful; the whole city regarded faithfulness as the chief glory of Smyrna; and the topic must have been familiar to all inhabitants and a commonplace in patriotic speeches.

It is evident that the writer of the Seven Letters did not discourage such feelings of attachment to one’s native city, but encouraged local patriotism and used it as a basis on which to build up a strenuous Christian life. The practical effect of such teaching as this is that a Christian could be a patriot, proud of and interested in the glory and the history of his own city.

This gives a different impression of the writer’s character from what might be gathered from later parts of the Apocalypse; but it is not good method to take parts of a book and determine the author’s character from them alone. Rather, the Seven Letters are a truer index to the writer’s character than any other part of the Apocalypse, because in these letters he is in closer contact with reality than in any other part of the book.

Accordingly, we must accept the plain evidence of this letter and infer (as in the Ephesian letter already) that to the writer of the letter the life of the Church in Smyrna was not disconnected from the life of the city; and this must be regarded as a general principle to be applied in other cases. The Church was to him the heart and soul of the city, and its members were the true citizens. Just as the so-called Jews in Smyrna were not the true Jews, but a mere synagogue of Satan, so the Pagans were not the true citizens, but mere servants of the devil. The true Jews and the true citizens were the Christians alone. To them belonged the heritage of the city’s past history: its faithfulness, its persistence, its unconquerable and indestructible vitality, all were theirs. To them also belonged the whole ancient heritage of the Jews, the promises and the favour of God.

In the letter to Smyrna then we see an influence of which no trace was visible in the Ephesian letter. The stock topics of patriotic orators, the glories of the city, are plainly observable in the letter; and the writer had certainly at some time mixed in the city life, and become familiar with current talk and the commonplaces of Smyrnaean municipal patriotism. Patriotism still was almost entirely municipal, though the Roman Empire was gradually implanting in the minds of ordinary men a wider ideal, extending to a race and an empire, and not confined to a mere city. Greece had vainly tried to make the Hellenic idea strong in the common mind; philosophers had freed themselves from the narrowness of municipal patriotism; but it was left to Rome to make the wider idea effective among men.

In the Ephesian letter, on the other hand, it was the eternal features and the natural surroundings of the city that the writer referred to. The Smyrnaean letter is not without similar reference. The writer did not confine his attention to those ephemeral characteristics which have just been mentioned, or (to speak more accurately) he regarded those characteristics as merely the effect produced by eternal causes. He had thought himself into harmony with the natural influences which had made Smyrna what it was, and which would continue to mould its history; and form this lofty standpoint he could look forward into the future, and foretell what must happen to Smyrna and to the Church (which to him was the one reality in Smyrna). He foresaw permanence, stability, reality surpassing the outward appearance, life maintaining itself strong and unmoved amid trial and apparent death. In Ephesus he saw the one great characteristic, the changing, evanescent, uncertain relations of sea and land and river; and interpreted with prophetic instinct the inevitable future. In Smyrna he saw nothing of that kind. The city must live, and the Church must live in it. Sea and plain and hills were here unchanging in their combined effect, making the seat of a great city. The city must endure much, but only for a definite, limited period; as a city it would suffer from invaders, who would surely try to capture it; and the Church not only would suffer along with the city, but would also suffer from the busy trading community, in which the element hostile to God would always be strong.

And history has justified the prophetic vision of the writer. Smyrna, the recipient of the most laudatory of all the Seven Letters, is the greatest of all the cities of Anatolia. At the head of its gulf, which stretches far up into the land, it is at present the one important seaport, and will remain always the greatest seaport, of the whole country. But the same situation which gives it eternal importance, has caused it to suffer much tribulation. It has been the crown of victory for many victors. It has tempted the cupidity of every invader, and has endured the greed and cruelty of many conquerors; but it has arisen, brilliant and strong, from every disaster. No city of the East Mediterranean lands gives the same impression of brightness and life, as one looks at it from the water, and beholds it spread out on the gently sloping ground between the sea and the hill, and clothing the sides of the graceful hill, which was crowned with the walls and towers of the medieval castle, until they were pulled down a few years ago. The difference in the beauty of the city caused thereby shows how much of the total effect was due to that “crown of Smyrna.”

That hill seems at the first view to be only a rounded hillock of 450 feet in elevation. But, when you examine it more closely, you find that it is not merely an isolated conical hill, as it seems from the sea to be. It is really only a part of the vast plateau that lies behind it, and pushes it forward, like a fist, towards the sea. It is far stronger than at first it appeared, for it is really a corner of the main mass of the Asiatic continent, and is supported from behind by its immeasurable strength. Strength surpassing appearance, brightness, life: those are the characteristics of the letter and of the city.

In this letter no one can fail to recognise the tone of affection and entire approval. Whereas the writer urged the people of Ephesus to be as they once were, he counsels the Smyrnaeans to continue as they are now. Ephesus has to recover what it has lost, but Smyrna has lost nothing. The persecution and poverty which had been the lot of its Church from the beginning, and which would still continue for a period, kept it pure. There was nothing in it to tempt the unworthy or the half-hearted; whereas the dignity and high standing of the Ephesian Church had inevitably attracted many not entirely worthy members. The writer looks confidently forward to the continuance of the same steadfastness in Smyrna. He does not even hint at the possibility of partial failure; he does not say, “If thou be faithful, I will give thee the crown”; he merely exhorts them to be faithful as they have been.

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