The Martyr City of Smyrna
July 16th, 1961 @ 10:50 AM
THE MARTYR CITY OF SMYRNA
Dr. W. A. Criswell
7-16-61 10:50 a.m.
You who are watching this service and who you are listening to it are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the eleven o’clock morning message from the second chapter of the Revelation, verses 8 through 11, entitled The Martyr City of Smyrna. This is the second of the seven churches in Asia, the Roman province of Asia, to whom the Lord is sending His message; and this is the word to Smyrna:
And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the First and the Last, which was dead, and is alive;
I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.
Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that you may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days;
That numerical number there refers to intensity; in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs he names ten great persecutions of the church which refers to this era, this Smyrnian story in the history of the church, from the days of the apostles unto the days of Constantine:
ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown, a reward, a stephanos, of life.
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.
There are three other places in this literature of the New Testament where you will find that word smyrna. One is in the second chapter of the Book of Matthew: “And they brought unto Him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and smyrna” [Matthew 2:11]. The second instance is in the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. The evangelist there is describing the crucifixion of our Savior, and he says that some standing by offered as an anesthetic to our suffering Lord wine mixed with smyrna [Mark 15:23]. The third place you will find it in the Scriptures is in the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John. The evangelist there is describing the death of our Lord and His burial, and he says that Nicodemus, “he who came unto the Lord by night” [John 3:2], Nicodemus came with Joseph of Arimathea, and they took down the body of the Lord from the cross and wrapped it in a linen shroud, and that Nicodemus had brought an hundred pounds of aloes and smyrna, and as they folded the body of the Lord, they enfolded the spices; the aloes and the smyrna [John 19:39-40]. In the King James Version of the Bible, that word is translated “myrrh.” It was used for the embalming of the dead. It was used for incense, for aroma, for perfume. And so great, some of the ancients say, was the commerce and the traffic of this great port city in Asia in Smyrna, in myrrh, that the aromatic herb gave its name to the city itself. And in the providence of God, that word “Smyrna,” which is the name of this great city, is a figuration of, a type of, tribulation, and suffering, and martyrdom, and death, for this is the church of great suffering. It lives its life in a fiery furnace and in a fierce and terrible trial [Revelation 2:10].
The church at Smyrna is the only one out of the seven to which the Lord addresses no word of complaint or condemnation. For every one of these seven churches of Asia [Revelation 2:1-3:22], He has some word of criticism. He finds fault in some way… all except this one. For this church, He has nothing but words of encouragement and commendation [Revelation 2:8-11]. This is the church of great suffering and great trial and great persecution.
To my disappointment, preaching the sermon at the 8:15 o’clock service, I found I got just halfway through, and I could hope to do no better in this hour. So the message this morning, of necessity, because of the brevity of time, will be mostly just background.
And I hope that you who listen to it and share in it this morning will be able to listen next Lord’s Day morning as we follow through God’s message of encouragement and commendation and praise to the church that is in trial, for the Smyrnian church was not only then in that city and not only refers to that era when the church went through the fires of Roman persecution, but the Smyrnian church lives today in great trial and suffering in lands beyond the sea. There’s a Smyrnian church at this moment in Red China. There’s a Smyrnian church of great trial and tribulation this hour in the satellite nations subject to the Russian empire, and there is a Smyrnian church in the Soviet Socialistic Republics themselves.
It has a message for us today, and it’s always one of encouragement and of praise and of benediction. Our Lord stands in the midst of the seven golden lampstands, walking among His churches [Revelation 1:12-13], and where He finds a congregation paying the price, offering their life and their blood for the witness of Christ, there does He pause to speak words of love and gratitude and commendation. This is the church at Smyrna.
Now the city was one of the great and is one of the great of the world. As far back in history as history goes, as far as the story of humanity reaches back and back, there was a great city at Smyrna. And there is today a great city at Smyrna: the largest city in Asian Turkish empire. The largest city in Asia Minor today is Smyrna. It has a modern population of about two hundred seventy-five thousand people, which is a large city for that part of the earth. The city of Smyrna was built at the head of a gulf, the Smyrnan Gulf, that reached into the interior of Asia Minor about thirty-five miles. Long ago, the harbor at Miletus and the harbor at Ephesus have been silted up. Long ago, the very cities of Miletus and Ephesus have ceased to exist. But the city of Smyrna has been a great port city, and commercial city, and trade city, and harbor from the beginning of the dawn of civilization to this present hour. The harbor there is one of the finest in all the earth, and especially was it of value to the ancient day because it could be completely shut off in times of war. Smyrna was also located at the end of the road that came down to the great Hermas Valley, and the trade of the interior poured into that port city, as the fleets of the ancient Mediterranean came to exchange wares from all over the Roman Empire.
Smyrna was also a great political center. It had the good fortune of being always on the right side in the Roman civil wars, and the Roman conquerors were not forgetful. They rewarded Smyrna with a status of a free city. It had its own government. It paid no taxes to the empire. It was also an assize city, that is, the Roman courts were located there, and the Roman judges administered justice in Smyrna. It was the proudest of all of the cities of Asia. It claimed to be the glory of Asia. It claimed to be the most beautiful city of Asia. It claimed to be the first of all the cities of Asia. It claimed to be the center of Caesar-worship for all of the East. It claimed to be the birthplace of the great, Greek poet Homer. It exalted in its earthly benefactions and favors.
The Lord may say that He is “the First and the Last” [Revelation 1:17, 2:17]. But, to Smyrna, “the first and the last” were things of the glory and magnificence of this world. And that leads to the last characterization of that ancient city: it was incomparably and magnificently beautiful. As one came into the gulf, the city rose before him from the level of the sea to the tier upon tier of hills behind, rising up to Mount Pagus. And that city was known in ancient times far over the civilized world. In about 1000 BC, the Ionian Greeks conquered it and made it a Greek city; it belonged to the Ionian League.
In about 650 BC, what the Greeks called “barbarians” conquered it, and for about three hundred years it was no longer listed as a Greek city. But when Alexander the Great of Macedon conquered the world, he conceived the idea of rebuilding Smyrna and restoring it as a great and beautiful Greek city, and he did it as a model for the whole world. And what Alexander the Great started, Antigonus and Lysimachus, his generals, carried out. And Smyrna was built as a model of all of the Greek cities of the world, like you would go to Salt Lake City and see there a vast, beautiful layout. From the beginning it was made for a glorious metropolis, so Alexander and Antigonus and Lysimachus did to Smyrna.
It was laid out between the sea and Mount Pagus. And the great streets were wide and broad and spacious, beautifully paved and at right angles to each other, crossing the entire city. The most famous of its streets, and one of the most beautiful in the ancient world, was named “the Golden Street.” It ran from the sea, through the length of the beautiful city, up to the Acropolis on Mount Pagus. At the beginning, on the sea end of the Golden Street was the temple to Cybele. Then, walking a little further, there was the glorious temple to Apollo; then further, the temple to Aesculapius, the god of healing; then further, the temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and then further the incomparably beautiful monument to Homer, whose birthplace Smyrna claimed to be. And then following up the rise of the street to the Acropolis, which was crowned by the temple of Zeus, or Jupiter, those beautiful colonnaded streets made out of white marble, sculptured in architectural arrangement as only the Greek could conceive and execute. It was one of the prizes and one of the jewels of the ancient world.
On the eastern side of the city between a hill to the northeast and Mount Pagus to the southeast, there ran in between the Ephesian road going through the Ephesian Gate. Right by the gate was the gymnasium. Then a little further south toward Mount Pagus was the great Greek stadium. And then on the northern slopes of the Acropolis, was the theater seating more than twenty thousand spectators. It was a beautiful, glorious Greek city in which was centered all of the life and drama and color of Greek culture, Greek life, Greek drama, Greek games, Greek festivals, Greek worship. It was the flower and crown of what Greek genius was able to do in the construction of and the building of a beautiful city.
And therein lay the reason why the little church in Smyrna lived in jeopardy and in constant and continual peril of its life. For you see, there were several characteristics about Smyrna that made it difficult for any man to be a Christian. Anywhere in the Roman Empire—beginning at this era, in this age—for a man to become a Christian was to take his own life in his own hands. It was doubly, trebly, ten times more so in the city of Smyrna. For one reason: the little church at Smyrna—and it is hard to compare these things, for their meeting place was so humble—in a little place there, or in a humble home there ,or in a cottage or a hut yonder, that’s where the church met.
And looking down upon them from the great Acropolis, from those magnificent Greek temples, was paganism and heathenism, the great festival days, dedicated to gods and goddesses. And had the Christians been willing to take their God, and to bring their cult, and to put Jesus in a pantheon with the rest of the gods, nothing would have been said. They had gods galore, they had them up every street, they had statues of them in every home, they were hung on every wall. They dangled down from every chariot. There were gods and goddesses galore: all kinds of them, and had they been willing to make a statue of Jesus and set Him in a pantheon or put Him on a wall, or to dangle Him down from a chariot, they would have welcomed this new deity.
But that was the exact thing the Christian would not do. First, he would not make a graven image of his God, nor bow down before any kind of a graven image of any god, that was the first thing the Christian wouldn’t do. And the second thing was, all of the social and commercial and mercantile life was organized around guilds, and those guilds had patron saints. And for a man to work was to belong to the guild; but to belong to the guild meant to worship the god, to bow down before the image, to buy the little image and display it in his house or in his chariot, or put it on the wall. And when the Christian refused, he stood aloof from the life of the people, and the worship of the people, and the temples of the people, and as such the Christian was plainly a marked man.
Second thing, Smyrna prided itself upon its emperor worship, Caesar worship. And you will have no idea of the background of the Revelation if you don’t thoroughly and meticulously know what it meant when the Roman Empire entered into the worship of the Roman emperor. Nor will you have any idea of the trial and the fiery fury that the church faced in those first Christian centuries. So let’s look at that Caesar worship; why was it such a tremendous threat to the daily life, and very existence of the people of Christ?
Well, it came about like this: the Roman Empire encompassed the entire civilized world. And in its borders was every kind of a city, and a nation, and a tongue, and a language, and a nationality that was then known. And Rome needed desperately some great cohesive, unifying force to hold the empire together; some way to unify that great polyglot mass. There was no such thing extant then as a religion that could be made universal. But one thing could be, and that was the Roman spirit: Dea Roma, the goddess of Rome.
You see, we have a wrong idea about the provincials—the subject people in the Roman Empire—because our study of the empire is almost altogether in the life of Judea and Palestine. Had it not been for the New Testament, we would have been no more interested in the Roman Empire than we were interested in the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire, or the Egyptian dynasties. But because the New Testament came out of those first Roman centuries, we probe into it day and night, finding the background of these early churches and this apostolic ministry.
Now in Judea you had a great bitterness and a hatred against Rome, but that’s not true of the great mass of those provinces. For you see, those provinces were infinitely blessed by the power and might of the Roman government. More than one king willed his kingdom to the possession of the Roman government.
The next city that we come to will be Pergamos [Revelation 2:12-17], and the king of Pergamos willed his kingdom to the Roman Empire. Rome brought what they call the Pax Romana, universal peace, the peace of Rome, and a man’s life, once lived in peril and in jeopardy, now could be lived beautifully, and life flowed on peacefully. Rome built great roads throughout the empire, and they made those roads free of thieves and robbers and brigands. And Rome cleared the high seas of pirates, and Rome made it possible for a man to do business anywhere in the empire. He could support his family; he could build up a fortune. He could travel in security, he could trade anywhere with ease. And the whole life of the men who were merchandisers, and bankers, and travelers, and sojourners in the Roman Empire was one of felicity and one of prosperity and affluence.
Another thing: the people used to be, in those sections of the empire—used to be subject to local kings and despots and tyrants who were accountable to nobody. But now, the entire civilized world under Rome was ruled by Roman law and Roman justice, which was impersonally applied. And the greatest code of laws the world, up until then, had ever known is the code of laws of the Roman government. As we learned our great philosophical directives and principles from Greece, we learned our government, and our law, and our respect for courts and for justice from the great Roman Empire.
Now those people who lived in the provinces, who were thus blessed by the possibility that a man could live in peace and do business anywhere, they were not forgetful. And it was easy in that day for the “Roman spirit” to be deified and for temples to be erected to Rome. Now, the “spirit of Rome” was vague, intangible, and as the centuries passed, more and more the appreciation of the great civilized world for what Rome had brought to them was personalized in a man. And that man was the Roman emperor, and as the days passed, they began to deify the Roman emperor.
At first, the Roman emperors looked upon it in horror. They deprecated every move toward it, and they refused to countenance it, but as the days passed and as the centuries passed, to deify the Roman emperor became an official act. And officially, he became a god. He represented, he incarnated, he personalized all that Rome meant.
Then in the days of the apostle John, in the days of the writing of the Revelation, in those days the last fateful step was taken. In the centuries before and in the years before, the worship of Dea Roma and finally of the emperor was voluntary. It was spontaneous, and anybody who did it, any city that built a temple, any people who bowed down, did it of their own free will. But in the latter part of the first Christian century, in the days of the apostle John, in the reign of Domitian, in those days the last fateful step was taken, and it became compulsory, it came to be a matter of law that a subject of Rome, once a year, had to bow down and acknowledge that Caesar was Lord. And if he did not, he was looked upon as an enemy of the state, and an enemy of Rome, and a traitor to the government. So once a year, all of the subjects of Rome had to take a little pinch of incense and burn it at the high altar before the emperor and bow down and acknowledge Kurios Kaisar: “Caesar is Lord.”
I have copied here two documents from that ancient world, written in the time of the Revelation. One is a request for a certificate that they had bowed down and worshiped, and the other is the little certificate itself; and everybody had to possess these little certificates. Now this is the request for one:
To those who have been appointed to preside over the sacrifices: From Inarous Akeos, of the village of Theoxenis, together with his children, Aian and Heras, who reside in the village of Theadelphia. We have always sacrificed to the gods, and now, in your presence, according to regulations, we have sacrificed and offered libations, and tasted the sacred things, and we ask you to give us a certification that we have done so. May you fare well.”
Now that is the request. Now here is the letter. The certificate:
We, the representatives of the Emperor, Serenus and Hermas, have seen you sacrificing,” and then follows the date.
Now Rome was very tolerant. This was not a test of a man’s orthodoxy; if he’d take that little pinch of incense and burn it before the emperor and bow down acknowledging Caesar is Lord, he could go worship any god that he pleased. He could go worship any goddess that he pleased. Just walk up the Golden Street and bow down before any one of them, or take any little shrine of a god or goddess home and bow down before it there. Or put it in his yard, or on tray, or in an alcove, anywhere, it didn’t matter to Rome. It was not a test of a man’s orthodoxy, but it became a test of a man’s political loyalty.
Now if a man refused to burn that little pinch of incense and to acknowledge “Caesar is Lord,” and to receive his certificate, if a man refused, he was marked as an outlaw, and as a traitor, and as an enemy to Rome, and as a blasphemer of the gods. Now he was looked upon with suspicion. And in a great empire like the Roman Empire, they could not afford to have little gatherings here and there of disloyal traitorous citizens. They could be storm centers of rebellion and opposition. So in the days of Domitian, in the days of the apostle John, Rome passed a law that every subject must bow down and acknowledge, as a test of political loyalty, that “Caesar is Lord.”
And that was the one thing again the Christian would not do! He would not bow down! He was like Meshach, Shadrach, and Abed-nego. At the sound of the dulcimer, and the trumpet, and the psaltery, and the harp, and the high sounding cymbals, every subject of Nebuchadnezzar is to bow down before the golden image. And he that doesn’t bow should be cast into the fiery furnace, seven times heated [Daniel 3:4-6, 19]. And when the sound of the instruments was heard, the whole empire bowed down, except those three young men; and they stood straight up, crowned by the glory of heaven [Daniel 3:12-18].
Same thing, “Just burn this little pinch of incense,” and they were encouraged to burn it, “just bow down and say Kurios Kaisar. We’ll give you the certificate. Go on your way; worship Jesus or any other god or goddess that you like.” But the Christian said, “Kurios Kaisar? Nay! Kurios Iēsous, Jesus is Lord!” And for that reason they cast them into prison, they burned them at the stake, they fed them to the lions. They were destroyed by wild beasts. And for that reason, Jesus encouraged them: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life” [Revelation 2:10].
That is the Smyrnian church. Now, I say one other little sentence before I close about Smyrna itself. You must realize this became typical all over the Roman Empire. Mr. Cox came to me after the early service and said, “Pastor, do you mean that it was just in Smyrna these things particularly obtain?” No, it was true all over the empire. But, it was accentuated in Smyrna because Smyrna prided itself upon Caesar worship. As early as 196 BC, Smyrna was the first city in the Roman Empire to erect a temple to Dea Roma, the goddess Rome. In 26 AD, there were six great cities in Asia that were competing for the right and the privilege to build a temple to Tiberius, the then-reigning Roman emperor. And of those six cities, Smyrna gained the prerogative and the right.
Smyrna prided itself upon its citizens’ loyal to Caesar. That became true everywhere in the Roman Empire, but especially true in Smyrna. For a man to be a Christian anywhere in the Roman Empire between about 64 AD to 310 AD, for a man to be a Christian anywhere in those years was to take his life in his hands, but he was doubly in jeopardy in the city of Smyrna. And there the fires of persecution raged, and there the great pastor of the church was martyred.
And beginning the sermon next Sunday morning, we’re going to follow through the stories of some of the great Christians who laid down their lives in fealty, and in loyalty, and in devotion to the Lord Christ in this city of Smyrna. And the Lord looked upon it, saw the ground drink up their blood, saw the wild beasts tear the church with fangs, saw the flames consume them, looked upon the fierce trial and tribulation. And as He beheld His martyrs laying down their lives, He said: “Be faithful unto death, for your home is not here, and your reward is not here, and your life is not hid in the world, it is hid with Me, in God. Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life” [Revelation 2:10].
It pleases the Lord, the illimitable devotion of His children, and the Lord is honored by the sacrifice of life unto death. It’s a strange thing, this gospel, it’s a strange thing: for it speaks of gold, His deity, yes; it speaks of frankincense, His prayers and intercession and mediation, yes; but it also speaks of smyrna, the myrrh of sacrifice, and tribulation, and devotion unto death; this is the Christian faith [Matthew 2:11].
Now while we sing our song of appeal, somebody this morning to give his life in trust to Jesus, somebody to come into the fellowship of the church, “Pastor, here I am. This is my wife and this is my family,” you come. If you’re in this balcony, there’s a stairway at the front and the back on either side, you come.
There is time and to spare, come. If you are in this lower floor, seated in this great throng, into the aisle, into the aisle and down to the front, “Pastor, I give you my hand. I give my heart to God. Here I am. Here I come.” As the Spirit of Jesus shall lead in the way and shall make the invitation precious to your heart, come. On the first note of the first stanza, come, while we stand and while we sing.
THE MARTYR CITY OF SMYRNA
Dr. W. A. Criswell
A. The word smyrna used three other places in New Testament, translated “myrrh”(Matthew 2:11, Mark 15:23, John 19:39-40)
1. Myrrh used for embalming, for incense, aroma, perfume
2. It has been said Smyrna received its name from this product for which it was renowned in commerce
3. In providence of God the name of this city is a type of martyrdom, death – this is the church of great suffering
B. Only one out of the seven to which the Lord has only words of encouragement and commendation(Revelation 1:12-13,2:8-11)
C. Very ancient and very great city
1. A great trade city
a. The harbor one of the finest in all the earth
b. Located at the end of the road that came down from Hermas Valley
2. An important political center
a. In Roman civil wars it had always chosen the right side
b. Proudest of all the cities of Asia
c. Claimed to be first of all and most beautiful city
d. Claimed to be the center of Caesar worship
e. Claimed to be birthplace of Greek poet Homer
3. An outstandingly beautiful city
a. Built as a model of all the Greek cities of the world
b. Laid out between the sea and Mount Pagus
c. “The Golden Street”II. Things about Smyrna that made life for the Christians a constant peril
A. Idolatry, the multiplication of gods and goddesses
1. Christians were not willing to put Jesus in the pantheon
2. All social, commercial life organized around guilds, which had patron saints
B. Smyrna prided itself upon its emperor worship
1. Rome needed a unifying force to hold vast empire together – spirit of Rome
2. Provinces were blessed by the power and might of the Roman government – PaxRomana
3. The people used to be subject to local kings, tyrants who were accountable to no one, but now entire world under Roman law, justice
4. Spirit of Rome grew to deification of the emperor
5. Worship at first was voluntary – later became a test of political loyalty
6. Christians would not bow down(Daniel 3:12-18, 13:4-6)
a. Thus they were imprisoned, martyred(Revelation 2:10)
7. For a man to be a Christian anywhere in Roman Empire between 64 AD and 310 AD was to take his life in his hands; but he was doubly in jeopardy in Smyrna