Polycarp, Smyrna, and Revelation: A Lesson in Contextualization.

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Allow me to introduce Polycarp, a church father and pastor of the church in Smyrna. According to church tradition, Polycarp was installed as pastor of Smyrna by John the apostle near the end of John’s life. If so, Polycarp served the church in Smyrna for more than 50 years before his martyrdom in 156 A.D.  Why was Polycarp martyred? He refused to bow to Caesar and the gods of Rome, choosing instead to worship Christ alone. As Polycarp neared death by fire, he was urged to renounce Christ and promised freedom if he acquiesced. The aged pastor bravely responded, “Eighty-six years have I have served [Christ] and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

Smyrna was one of the seven churches to whom John wrote the book of Revelation, about 50-60 years before Polycarp’s death. I am convinced that if we are to rightly understand Revelation, we must begin by understanding Revelation in its original context, which is rooted in the seven churches of Revelation 2-3.  Revelation addresses these specific churches, all of which faced certain challenges and problems within. John’s message to these churches includes a mix of commendations, rebukes, warnings, and encouragements specific to each context. When we understand the original context, we will be better prepared to understand the symbols and imagery of Revelation.

It’s interesting to note that Smyrna and Philadelphia are the only two churches not rebuked. Both churches are highly praised for the same reason: they remained faithful to Christ despite persecution. In both churches, the source of persecution includes a “synagogue of Satan” and those “who claim to be Jews” but are not Jews (2:9; 3:9). The popular interpretation is that these groups represent Jewish opponents of Christians. While that may be true, another possibility exists.

It’s possible that John refers to Gentile Christians who have Judaized—that is, gone to the synagogue—for the sole purpose of avoiding persecution and or social ostracism as Christians. This view takes the literal sense of John’s words seriously (those who claim to be Jews but are not Jews would be Gentiles), and rightly recalls that Judaism was a protected religion of the Roman Empire (outside the city of Rome, at least), while Christianity was not. It could be that these turncoats have not only Judaized, they may have also “outed” faithful Christians, resulting in persecution.  If true, these Judaizers may represent the “cowardly,” “the murderers,” and the “liars” sentenced to the “fiery lake of burning sulfur” at the end of Revelation (21:8).

Either way, there is a clear connection between the issues in the seven churches and the blessings and punishments promised at the end (compare chs. 2-3 to chs. 20-22). This is further evidence that much of Revelation was intended to be understood by John’s original audience, rather than serving as a cryptic telegram of end-time events and details.  To those who forsook Christ, Revelation issues rebukes and warns of God’s sure judgment. To those who remained faithful, Revelation commends and encourages while reminding of future reward—inheritance in the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21).

Though I cannot prove it, I’d like to think that the promises and encouragements of Revelation were prominent in Polycarp’s mind as he faced the fires of earthly death. As the aged pastor of Smyrna bravely stood at the stake, perhaps the words of Christ—communicated by John— to the church of Smyrna whispered in his ear: “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).

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