A city on the coast of Ionia, at the head of the gulf, having a well sheltered harbour; N. of Ephesus; beautified by Alexander the Great and Antigonus, and designated "the beautiful." Still flourishing, and under the same name, after various vicissitudes, and called "the Paris of the Levant," with large commerce and a population of 200,000. The church here was one of the seven addressed by the Lord (Revelation 2:8-11). Polycarp, martyred in A.D. 168, 86 years after conversion, was its bishop, probably "the angel of the church in Smyrna." The Lord's allusions to persecutions accord with this identification. The attributes of Him "which was dead and is alive" would comfort Smyrna under persecution. The idol Dionysus at Smyrna was believed to have been killed and come to life; in contrast to this lying fable is Christ's title, "the First and the Last, which was dead and is alive" (Revelation 2:8).
As death was to Him the gate of life, so it is to His people. Good "works," "tribulation," "poverty" owing to "spoiling of goods," while she was "rich" in grace (contrast Laodicea, "rich" in her own eyes and the world's, poor before God), were her marks. The Jews in name, really "the synagogue of Satan," blasphemed Christ as "the Hanged One." At Polycarp's martyrdom they clamoured with the pagan for his being cast to the lions; the proconsul opposed it, but, impotent to restrain the fanaticism of the mob, let them He him to the stake; the Jews with their own hands carried logs for the pile which burned him. The theater where he was burned was on a hill facing the N. It was one of the largest in Asia. Traces of it may be seen in descending from the northern gateway of the castle. A circular letter from the church of Smyrna describes his martyrdom.
When urged to recant he said, "four-score years and six I have served the Lord, and He never wronged me; how then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour?" The accuser, the devil, cast some of the Smyrna church into prison, and "it had tribulation ten days," a short term (Genesis 24:55; Numbers 11:19), whereas the consequent joy is eternal (many Christians perished by wild beasts or at the stake because they refused to throw incense into the fire to sacrifice to the genius of the emperor): a sweet consolation in trial. Ten is the number of the world powers hostile to the church (Revelation 13:1). Christ promises Smyrna "a crown of life" (compare James 1:12; 2 Timothy 4:8 "of righteousness," 1 Peter 5:4 "of glory") in reward for "faithfulness unto death."
The allusion is to the "crown-wearing" (stefanofori), leading priests at Smyrna It was usual to present the superintending priest with a crown at the end of his year of office; several persons of both sexes are called "crown bearers" in inscriptions. The ferocity of the populace against the aged Polycarp is accounted for by their zealous interest in the Olympian games celebrated here, in respect to which Christianity bore an antisocial aspect. Smyrna ("myrrh") yielded its perfume in being bruised to death. Smyrna's faithfulness is rewarded by its candlestick not having been wholly removed; from whence the Turks call it "infidel Smyrna." Persecuted Smyrna and Philadelphia are the only churches which the Lord does not reprove. (See PHILADELPHIA.)
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