The Epistle to the Church of SMYRNA

Revelation 3:8-11

A distance of forty miles separates Ephesus from Smyrna. The modern traveler finds himself journeying between these two sacred cities of the Apocalypse, not as in ancient and apostolic days, by means of horse, or camel, or caravan, but by our own familiar train, the only railway that has as yet invaded the desolation of a country so rich in resources of soil, climate, scenery, and imperishable historic interest.

If we found the city of Ephesus specially associated with John, Smyrna is equally identified with another name of undying celebrity in the Church of Christ. Sailing along the magnificent bay (the finest in the Archipelago), at the head of which the city with its 120,000 inhabitants is situated, the eye discerns on one of the crested heights, amid a cluster of tall cypresses, the white wall which encircles the reputed tomb of POLYCARP, the most famous of the early martyrs. This whole Epistle "to the Angel of the church in Smyrna" has a new pathos and significancy added to it, if we connect it with this honored member of the noble army of martyrs.

A careful reader will at once observe that it stands out pre-eminently from the others—as "the Martyr's Epistle." Its theme is suffering and trial. Nothing could possibly be more appropriate than its "comfortable words," on the supposition that the Angel or chief minister to whom these were addressed, was none other than he, who, we know from the earliest annals of the Christian Church, was an illustrious sufferer for the Gospel's sake, and was enabled so manfully to endure his fiery baptism.

There is what may almost be called a romance of sacred interest about the whole history of this saintly Father; "the blessed Polycarp," as the ancient Church, for successive centuries, seems distinctively to have named him. He had lived to a venerable age, far beyond even the allotted fourscore. In the prime of his youth he had become (and that too by no formal profession, but by ardent attachment) a loving disciple of the Lord Jesus. Thenceforward, he himself tells us, for many a long year he served Him with an unswerving and unfaltering devotion. There was much in the outer circumstances of his life to deepen and stimulate the ardor of this holy love. He was the disciple of John—standing to John very much in the relation of Timothy to Paul—"his dear son in the faith."

Irenaeus, who lived a generation later, touchingly tells how he himself in early boyhood had been honored and privileged with the personal friendship of Polycarp—how he used to hear from his lips what had been told him by John, of Immanuel's person, and converse, and earthly ministry. We can picture the scene; the aged Apostle from Bethsaida—one of the inner circle of beloved Disciples, and the most loved of the inner circle—he who of all the honored twelve had drunk deepest of his Lord's spirit, and had the nearest place at his Lord's side—how would he delight, in the mellowed evening of his days at Ephesus, to recall that matchless fellowship! How fondly would he confide every hallowed memory, as it rose before his mental eye like a dream of heaven, into the ear of the trusted friend at his side!—their walks on the lakeshore of Gennesaret—their confidential communion at early morn or dewy eve on their way from Galilee to the pilgrim-feasts—their silent meditations as they wandered at sunset across the heights of Olivet—or during the last and most solemn closing scenes, at the Supper-table—the Garden—the Cross—the Resurrection morning—the forty days—in short, the "many other things which Jesus did" he so touchingly speaks of in the last verses of his Gospel, and which, though he had the heart, he had no room to record.

Think of him thus making the beloved and like-minded Polycarp the depositary of this unwritten Gospel! Need we wonder that the love of the disciple and saint for his great Lord grew and intensified under such teaching, and that, with a transport of emotion, he could utter the words as his own—"Whom having not seen, we love: in whom, though now we see Him not, yet believing, we rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory"?

After a life of noble consistency, the hour of trial—the hour of suffering arrived. It was under the reign of the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. The storm of persecution was first roused by the malignant enmity of the Jews, who found no difficulty in enlisting and stimulating the passions of the heathen mob. Not ingloriously to evade the hour of persecution, but obedient to the intercessions of his flock, who naturally wished to save for themselves a life of such priceless value—Polycarp took refuge in the adjoining mountains to await there the subsidence of the storm; spending his anxious hours, along with a few others, in wrestling at the mercy-seat—not for his own suffering Church alone, but for the whole suffering children of God scattered abroad. It seemed like a Mount of Transfiguration, where angels and the Lord of Angels strengthened him for the decease which, like a Greater Sufferer, he was about to accomplish.

The cup, however, as in the case of the Prince of Martyrs, was not to pass by him, and he accepted it without a murmur. The secret of his place of concealment was divulged; but the tread of his frenzied persecutors at the door was heard with no words but those of uncomplaining submission. On his way to Smyrna, the magistrate met him, and inviting him into his chariot, sought in vain to shake his constancy. He offered release on condition of retraction. "What hurt," said he, "I beg you, shall come thereof, if you say 'My Lord Caesar,' and do sacrifice, and thus save yourself?" Once more, on reaching the amphitheater, the magistrate gave him the option of having his hands unbound by consenting to curse his Savior. "Be good to yourself," said the magistrate, "and favor your old age: take your oath, and I will discharge you. Defy Christ." The Christian hero boldly replied, in the memorable testimony, "Eighty and six years have I been His servant, yet in all that time has He not so much as once hurt me; how then may I speak evil of my King and Sovereign Lord, who has thus preserved me?"

The judge rose from his seat, and tried to overawe him with the threat, "I have wild beasts to which I will throw you." "Let them come," was Polycarp's reply; "I have determined that I will not turn from the better way to the worse." "Then," said the incensed magistrate, "I will tame you with fire." "You threaten me," returned Polycarp, "with fire, which shall burn for the space of an hour and shall then be extinguished. But you know not the fire of the judgment to come, and of everlasting punishment reserved for the wicked and ungodly. Give me whatever death you desire." His silvery hairs made their silent appeal in vain to his murderers. "To the lion!" was the cry which rose from a hundred voices, alike Jewish and Pagan; and it was only because the beast of prey was already glutted, that they had to resort to the equally terrible alternative of a slow death by burning. The stake was ready. With calm deliberation he stripped off his upper garments and undid his sash—making no remonstrance except for the iron hoops with which they sought to make him fast to the stake. Such appliances he told them were needless, as his heroic steadfastness proved.

To quote the quaint and touching words of the original narrative, "Being bound as a ram out of a great flock for an offering, and prepared to be a burnt-sacrifice acceptable unto God, he looked up to Heaven and said—(truly no nobler page is there, out of the grand liturgy of dying martyrs)—"O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your well-beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have attained the knowledge of You, the God of Angels, and powers, and every creature, and of the whole race of just men which live before You; I give You hearty thanks that You have allowed to bring me to this day and this hour, that I may have my part among the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of Your Son, unto the resurrection of eternal life, both of body and soul, through the operation of Your Holy Spirit; among whom may I be received this day before You as an acceptable sacrifice, as You have before ordained. For which, and for all things else, I praise You, I bless You, with the eternal and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son: to whom, with You and the Holy Spirit, be glory both now and to all, succeeding ages. Amen."

Owing to untoward causes, he had to submit to lengthened suffering. The sword completed what the fire had left undone; and when all was over, the gang of hating Jews, who had been the first to collect the wood for the fire, instigated their heathen accomplices to refuse delivering up the charred remains to the Christians and accord them decent burial. In the words of the old Epistle, which furnishes these particulars, "By his patience he overcame the unrighteous ruler, and received the crown of Immortality."

What a light does this touching tale throw upon the older inspired Epistle, when we bear in mind that all this tragedy of martyrdom, in which other Smyrna Christians besides Polycarp were involved, must have been vividly portrayed to the omniscient eye of Him who wrote, as if by anticipation, the needful message of warning and comfort! What balm-words for the martyred disciples to carry with them to their scenes of torture, and to which they might cling when the growl of the hungry lions was in their ear, or the fuel was collecting in the arena! What was that comfort? "These are the words of Him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again." Heart-stirring theme of consolation! That He who in His Divine nature was from everlasting to everlasting, had, in His lowly suffering humanity, as the Incarnate Redeemer, Himself passed through the terrors of death, and that these terrors, as in the case of His true people, were only the passage and entrance into endless life! What could disarm that amphitheater and these blazing faggots of their horrors, if this could not?

Then the Almighty Speaker proceeds to a more detailed cognizance of their trials. "I know your works and tribulation" (outward persecution) "and poverty" (the spoiling of your worldly goods, which, being a feeble band compared to your adversaries, you are unable to resist)—"but you are rich." Hostile Jews and mocking heathens and ruthless Roman officials may "oppress you, and draw you before the judgment-seats and blaspheme that worthy name by which you are called"—you may be poor in this world, but you are rich in faith, rich in heavenly treasure. You may be looked upon with cold arrogant disdain as the filth and off scouring of all. But very different is the estimate of the mocking undiscerning world from that of Him who sees not as man sees. I know the world-verdict, "Your poverty;" but here is Mine, "You are rich." Beneath the outward tattered garment obvious only to the world's eye, there is a "clothing of wrought gold."

After forewarning of the blasphemous hate of the Jews—those who arrogated to themselves the sacred name and prerogative of God's Israel, but who proved themselves to be rather "the Synagogue of Satan"—He reveals the unseen leader and instigator of all this foul, and persistent enmity. He is styled here in the Greek 'Diabolos'—that is, 'accuser' or 'calumniator'. "Behold the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that you may be tried." Some may affect to discard belief in the literal personality and power of Satan, resolving these into myth and symbolism—mere allegorical representations (like Bunyan's Apollyon), of the force of human depravity and moral evil. But the story of the Church's martyrdoms tells a different tale.

As Christ seemed often to afford precious discoveries of His own glorious presence to the faithful in the hour of their sufferings, so did Antichrist the great counter-worker (with characteristic malignity, and malice, heading his legions of darkness), come into fierce conflict with the powers of light in these stern battlefields of torture and endurance. In both cases—invisible indeed, yet not the less truthful—did Michael and his angels fight against the Devil and his angels. John would, moreover, be prepared by a reference to Satan's power in this opening Epistle, to acknowledge and estimate his activity and influence in the subsequent visions—playing his own terrible part in the nations' future drama as the gigantic propagator of evil—"the god of this world"—"the Prince of the power of the air"—"making war with the saints."

In the present case, the trial, though sharp, is to be brief—"You shall have tribulation ten days. But the Great Captain of salvation exhorts—"Fear none of those things which you shall suffer." In the might of Him—the First and the Last—who, once dying, now lives for evermore, they are to be made more than conquerors! Greater is He who is with them than he that is in the world. And even should a cruel and violent death threaten, they can regard it only as a glorious passage to endless life; they can mount their fiery chariot, and as they are borne upwards in the flames, can sing, "Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!"

He ends with the encouraging and appropriate exhortation and promise to the Angel, in the prospect of what Irenaeus calls "that glorious and splendid martyrdom"—"Be faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life." Very beautiful is this closing promise, whatever figurative meaning and acceptance we may give it. At first sight we may recognize a new and impressive recurrence to the simile which Paul again and again employs in his Epistles with reference to the Grecian foot-race—the runners pressing on to the goal, straining every nerve in the exciting contest—and the crown, the laurel wreath, awaiting the victor at the end of the stadium, ready to be bound around his brows. More than one commentator, however—and we think on good ground—dissents from this interpretation.

There is a harmony and uniqueness of design in the Apocalypse, as in all the other parts of Sacred Writ; and a nice and careful investigation will show, that though the Book itself be full from first to last of emblems, none of these are taken from the customs of the heathen. While the Apostle of the Gentiles never scruples to take a Pagan custom or rite to enforce a sacred lesson, the imagery of the Apocalypse is altogether Jewish, or rather is composed exclusively of sacred symbols, from the Temple candlesticks onwards. And if, as one discriminating writer remarks, the palm-bearing multitude in a subsequent vision seems at first sight to refute this theory (with its reference to the symbol of Greek or Roman triumph), it is strictly speaking no real exception, as a much more natural and beautiful meaning is its allusion to the palm branches of the Hosanna-day used by the multitudes at the great Jewish festival, the 'Feast of Tabernacles'—the eternal commemoration, not so much of victory, as of rest in the true land of Canaan.

The crown of life, therefore, here spoken of, would seem rather to indicate a royal crown—"a badge of royal dignity"—Peter's crown of glory—Paul's crown of righteousness—the crown given to God's king and priest—the crown especially bestowed on the enduring martyr, as in that same record of Polycarp's death already referred to it is said, "he was crowned with the crown of martyrdom."

Yes! we repeat this is emphatically the martyr's epistle—the flame—the prison—the torture—the sword—are traced through it all. We in this peaceful age, when the faggot is quenched, and the dungeon is closed, and the sword sheathed, cannot enter into its especial comforts. But let us, as we close it, feel as if we had been treading sacred ground—tracing words of hallowed consolation which ten thousand trembling hearts have read in their hour of darkness and horror—words which have breathed many a blessed requiem while the tortured flesh was still palpitating and the soul struggling to be free; which have revealed to the sufferers in the hour of death, amid a canopy of smoke and flame, the white-robed angel—yes, the Lord of Angels—holding out to view an unfading diadem.

And what seems its great lesson to us? if not this, LOYALTY TO CHRIST. The Church of Smyrna had no such roll of varied commendation as that which we found recorded concerning the Church of Ephesus. But neither is there in her case the "nevertheless" which qualifies the former, and demands from the lips of the All-Seeing a "Repent." Though nothing, however, specially and distinctly commendatory is said, she is spoken of by implication as "faithful"—suffering and willing to suffer, for her divine Master's sake—poverty, imprisonment, death. For this, the glorious gift and reward of life is hers—the life purchased by her risen Head—a part and portion of His own resurrection-life—" Because I live you shall live also."

Are we faithful stewards to our trust, whatever that trust may be? Are we faithful to our work, whatever that work maybe? Even though we may be painfully conscious of our lack of success—seeing at times our weapons shivered in our hands—the best and noblest efforts and struggles of life—efforts for God and for Christ apparently a failure—the fire burning our work—the tide washing our breakwaters away? Never fear! It is faithfulness, not success, God looks to. The last great words of the Great Day will be these—"Well done," (not good and successful, but) "good and faithful servant."

What we have alone to fear is, what is here unfolded in the closing utterance of all—"the second death"—that death which is the fearful inheritance of the 'unfaithful'—"the faithless and the unbelieving"—that death which has too its transition into life—but it is a life in which the raised and revivified body is married to the lost soul! A fearful thought truly to the sinner, but bringing no terror to the saint; for "he that overcomes shall not be hurt of the second death;" "on such the second death has no power."

Let us be up and doing our appointed task; for soon the allotted term of working will be past, followed by the hour of reckoning and recompense. Death will not come, as in Polycarp's case, with the flame and the sword—but rather most probably with noiseless step and gentle whisper. But that solemn moment we have so often thought of and so little thought of—that moment when the last grain of sand in the hourglass shall run out—come it must—sooner than we dream of. And the great question is, How shall we meet it? Shall it be with the martyr's prayer and the consciousness of fidelity? or with the inward shudder of those who are standing on the brink of an undone Eternity? God save us from such an alternative! Be it ours now to make a heart and life surrender of ourselves to that great Conqueror, who has plucked the sting alike from the first and the second death. Relying on the strength of Him who 'was dead, and is alive, and lives for evermore,' let us feel assured that victory will at last crown our steadfast and loyal allegiance to His cause; and that we shall be able, in some lowly measure, to appropriate that beautiful comment on this whole Smyrna Epistle contained in the words of James, "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him!"