I am passionate about traveling. When I was in seminary, I took a trip to the Middle East with a group of seminarians. It was my first visit. I was extremely excited. My childhood fantasy of being like Indiana Jones was becoming a reality.
We went to Jordan: visited places like the ancient city of Petra. We went to Israel, took a dip in the Dead Sea, enjoyed a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. We went to Turkey: visited the cities of the seven churches in Revelation, including Smyrna, the focus of this article.
Smyrna, now the modern-day city of Izmir, can trace its roots to Alexander the Great. Also, many believe that it is the birthplace of the poet Homer. In Smyrna one of their main streets was called the Street of Gold. Other interesting data on the city include the meaning of its name: “Smyrna” means “myrrh,” an aromatic potion that thrice figures in the Gospel records of His life: first as a fragrant spice given to the baby Jesus, then twice in relation to his crucifixion and burial (see Mark 15:23; John 19:39).
Ancient ruins can seem outdated and irrelevant. We relegate them with “That was then; this is now!” But Smyrna does have lessons for us. Such as faithfulness: “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).
I read these words and wonder: whatever became of faithfulness? In a world of frantic busyness, increased skepticism, and broken vows, faithfulness sometimes seems outdated, like ancient ruins.
The message to the church of Smyrna reminds us that faithfulness is fundamental to the Christian journey, a lesson learned by looking at the cross, the church, and the crown.
First, the message to Smyrna reminds us about the significance of the cross: “These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life” (Rev. 2:8). Jesus was faithful unto death, death on a cross (Phil. 2:8). In faithfulness to His mission, He is an example for us today. The cross remains a symbol of hope for us because of His substitutionary sacrifice, and a source of inspiration because of His example of unflinching faithfulness. And He speaks with unique authority: as the First and Last. Alpha and Omega. Beginning and End and everything in between; Lord of the past, present, and future.
Hear His voice in Isaiah: “Listen to Me, O Jacob, and Israel, My called: I am He, I am the First, I am also the Last” (Isa. 48:12). He speaks with the authority of someone who has experienced persecution and was called to be faithful to death. His commitment and love sustained Him through intense sacrifice, rejection, and pain. Likewise, in every generation His followers are called to be faithful, enduring until the end (Matt. 10:22).
The church of Smyrna knew persecution well. They experienced it from Jews who lived there, and from the Romans. Jesus warned that it would worsen (Rev. 2:10). Polycarp, once Smyrna’s Christian bishop, understood the cost of his refusal to call the emperor his Lord. He left us memorable lines: “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”1 And: “I bless you, Father, for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ.”2
For some Christians, persecution for our faith may seem distant. However, in other parts of the world, our brothers and sisters are losing their lives because they want to remain faithful to Jesus. In India several Adventist pastors have been beaten or killed. In China a recent law has forbidden the sale of online Bibles,3 and there continue to be new laws that restrict religious freedom for Christians.4
Nevertheless, the light of hope burns even in Jesus’ call to faithfulness. For faithfulness “until” means that a time is coming when Smyrna will no longer have to suffer. And the promise is for all who reach that point: faithful until death? Here’s your crown of life (Rev. 2:10). Smyrna will share the victory of their Lord, He who was dead and came to life again. Years before John wrote, the city of Smyrna had been destroyed and rebuilt. Smyrna’s saints could understand that though there is death, there will be life again.
How do we learn from Smyrna, when many today never even dream of persecution for our faith? I’m free to express my beliefs and not be persecuted. How can I show faithfulness to faith in the absence of threat? It seems that the real question is not about willingness to die for Jesus, but about commitment to Him whatever the circumstance. Polycarp came to martyrdom only because of who he was in life. Am I as committed as Polycarp to living for Him?
How do we learn from Smyrna, when many today never even dream of persecution for our faith?
A friend of mine told me of sailing from the island of Cozumel in Mexico to the mainland. A sign on her boat said, “Warning. Waters could get rough.” And just as the sign said, the waters got rough. She, along with many other passengers, was throwing up. She felt so bad that she wished she could jump off the ship. Her husband, not nearly as sick, leaned over and said, “Keep your eyes on the horizon.” She did. Staring at the horizon restored her sense of equilibrium, and she was able to complete the journey with no more seasickness.
We need to keep our eyes on the cross. We will be tempted and tested daily, but we, with Smyrna, may remain faithful, and emerge victorious. Jesus, our Savior and Guide, has been here before: He has experienced the tests, tribulations, and temptations; He can bring us through. With Him, after life and death, there is life again, a more abundant life. Keep your eyes on the cross, symbol of love and faithfulness.
The message to Smyrna reminds us that we are called as a community. Attachment to, dependence on a community, is becoming rare. Loud praise of individualism seems to drown out the beckoning call of community. And yes, the choice to follow Jesus is personal: no one can choose for us. But our call also has collective significance. We’re in this together, a togetherness that further molds, and yes, tests our faithfulness. Community can be frustrating at times. It can also spur growth, strength, and healing. There is something about people gathering together with one focus and mission. We strengthen each other to be faithful.
Smyrna had much to inspire. Science and medicine flourished. A library, stadium, and theater that seated about 20,000 people testified to prosperity. However, many believers were financially poor as a result of the persecution they were experiencing. Jesus knew of their struggle: “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich)” (Rev. 2:9). His message was that despite material poverty, they were succeeding where it mattered: they were spiritually rich. And they were because they had chosen to be faithful. Amid daily challenges, they supported each other, and rose together above their difficult circumstances.
Jon Cole, a colleague of mine, lived and taught in Izmir for a year. Recently, as we reflected on community, he shared a story. He needed to find the landlord to pay his rent in person. He found him playing backgammon with a group of friends, and apologized for the interruption. His landlord smiled and said, “No problem; an uninvited guest is God’s guest.” His message was that people and relationships are not an inconvenience.
The gift of community is celebrated in the “We” of one of my favorite songs, “We’re Marching to Zion.” As the chorus says: “We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful, Zion; we’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.”5 We’re marching: I’m marching, you’re marching, we’re marching. Nobody’s doi
ng it alone. We’re a community of faithfulness—to Jesus, to His cross, to our individual integrity, and to our church, the family of faith, in which we journey together and are faithful together. And we are not together to compete against one another: Who’s holiest? Who’s most faithful? Rather, we support each other all the way to “until,” when there’s no more because we’ve reached the finish line. And everyone who covers the distance by faith in Jesus will receive a reward, the crown of eternal life.
Whether we experience turbulent skies or troubled seas, we are assured not only by each other’s presence, but, supremely, by the competence of the Captain of our salvation (see Heb. 2:10).
Some years ago I was heading to Puerto Rico from The Bahamas to take some classes at Antillean Adventist University. I flew to Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, via Miami, Florida. Getting to Antillean Adventist University then required catching a connecting flight from San Juan. Arriving there late, I ran to the waiting area for my connecting flight to Mayaguez. There were four people there. I thought, Praise the Lord, I made it . . . Seems like I’m earlier than most of the other passengers.
After some waiting, they called the flight. There were still only five of us. I wondered, Strange . . . Where’s everyone? Perhaps this isn’t a full flight . . .
We walked out to the plane, and there it was, so small: This looks like a toy; a paper plane.
Five of us quite filled the plane. We strapped in, and off we went, flying over beautiful Puerto Rican beaches, some of the best beaches in the world. The skies were clear, and it seemed like a good day.
But then the winds picked up. The plane began to experience turbulence. It began to shake.
You could feel it struggling against the wind. I held on because that’s all you could do. You can’t always predict turbulence, and you cannot control it. It comes.
Then I saw a red light on the captain’s dashboard. The plane was so small, and I was sitting so close to the captain—all the passengers were! I could easily see the dashboard. Then we heard a beeping sound. As if on cue, my seatmate and I both turned and looked at each other, communicating without words: What is that light? Why is there a light? What is that beeping noise? I’m afraid. Are you afraid? OK, we’re both afraid.
For me, it’s one of the great reassurances in being on an airplane. I’m never alone. There’s company—fellow passengers who feel the turbulence, who are afraid at times, just like me. And there’s a competent captain. There, thousands of feet up in the air, in the midst of turbulence, we’re in community.
The flight continued: smooth skies; rough bumps; occasional terror; and a safe landing, eventually.
Whether the Christian journey involves troubled seas or turbulent skies, we are never alone. We have an expert Captain and fellow passengers on the journey: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross” (Heb. 12:1, 2, NIV).
What joy? The joy of us for company, not just for a while, but throughout the victory celebration when the promise of our text finds its total fulfillment, as the Captain of our salvation crowns us all with immortality, “the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).
Alareece Collie is executive pastor of the University church on the campus of Walla Walla University, College Place, Washington.