Reading Jesus’ letter to the church in Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11) is like a trip to the chiropractor. As I read it I feel like Jesus is adjusting my understanding of God, the gospel and the Christian life. It is the second letter in a series of seven that Jesus sends to different churches and while it’s the shortest, it certainly packs quite a punch.
I did a bit of background reading on the city and discovered that it was located city some 35 miles north of Ephesus, was extremely prosperous, and incredibly beautiful. It is described on coins as “the first of Asia in beauty and size” and was one of the most, if not the most, exquisite cities the Greeks had ever built. It was strategically placed for trade and must have looked stunning with its buildings sloping down to the crystal clear waters of the Aegean sea. One writer (Aelius Aristides,) at the time described it as like:
“a statue with its feet in the sea rising to it’s crowned head at the hilltop “.
He was alluding to a ring of buildings, temples, shopping malls, and political buildings, that circled a hill towards the back of the city. As well as being rich it had high cultural and philosophical aspirations. It had a massive theatre and claimed to be the birth place of Homer (although other cites claimed that too).
So Smyrna was very prosperous and its citizens, in the main, were very well off. It’s the kind of place that most people would want to live and would look very attractive as a holiday destination.
In the past Smyrna had allied itself to Rome and benefited from its rise in prominence in the region. Smyrna was the first to erect a temple to the goddess Roma (195 BC), the spirit of Rome. It vied for and won the privilege of building a temple to the emperor Tiberias and became the centre of the imperial cult. Just to give you an idea of how fanatical they were, when their assembly heard the armies of Rome had insufficient clothing against a particularly severe winter the people began stripping of their cloths to donate to them.
Smyrna’s fanatical faithfulness to Rome manifested itself in religious ways. While on the whole Rome was pretty tolerant of other religions and ‘gods’ they did rather insist that you also worshiped Caesar. That was part of the cultural glue that held their society together. If you made your alliance to Caesar clear by offering sacrifices to him then Smyrna was a great place to live. You were going to fit in just great. If not, well I’ll look at that next time.