Last post we began our study into the seven churches of Revelation by examining Ephesus. We now move on to the second church listed; Smyrna and see what message God has for us through that church.
“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. 9 I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
11 Whoever has ears let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death” Revelation 2:8-11
In our study of Ephesus we saw that the first mark of a dynamic, living church is love. In examining God’s words to the church in Smyrna we quickly see the second mark is suffering.
What I find interesting about these churches mentioned in Revelation is that it’s not mentioned anywhere else in Scripture. No one knows who founded the church, or anything else about it with the exception of these few words in Revelation.
Smyrna was a suffering church with more suffering was on the horizon. (v. 10) In verse 9 Jesus tells them, “I know your afflictions,” which was more than likely persecution. Though we don’t know the exact form of the persecution, the reason for it probably lies in the history of the city and its deep connection and dedication to the Roman Empire.
A magnificent temple dedicated to “Dea” Rome, Rome personified as a goddess, dominated spiritual life in the city. The people of Smyrna were famous for their devotion and loyalty to the Romans. In the year 25 A.D. many cities were competing for the privilege to build a temple to the Emperor Tiberius and Smyrna won the competition. The cult of Emperor worship prevailed and the Christians refusal to burn incense before the bust of the Emperor seems like the probable cause of the persecution.
This of course made the Christians look un-patriotic and not willing to stand up for the city and its values. The Jews, who were exempt from sprinkling incense before the altar, would be suspect by the population so they more than likely, in order to take heat off themselves, pushed for the Christians to burn incense.
In the middle of the second century, the great bishop Polycarp was martyred, by being burned alive, by fanatical hostility stirred up by the Jewish leaders in Smyrna. A point of interest is that he was probably already a member of the congregation when John wrote Revelation. In fact tradition says he was made head of the church by John when he was sent into exile.
Jesus mentions four trials that the persecuted and suffering Christians of Smyrna had to endure:
First of all they faced poverty (v. 9) and this probably stemmed from the fact that pagans and Jews wouldn’t hire them or trade in their businesses.
Secondly, the Christians faced slander, “I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews but are not,” (v. 9b) The enemies of Christ were making up stories about the Christians, spreading false rumors and speaking evil against them. Christ calls them a synagogue not of God but of Satan, (v. 9) Jesus goes on to mention Satan again in verse 10 where he is referred to as the Devil.
Poverty and slander are bad enough but Jesus tells them worse is to come (v. 10). He goes on to name the third trial that this struggling church had to face, “I tell you the Devil will put some of you in prison to test you, (v. 10) John Stott writes, “The cells of Jerusalem and Caesarea, Philippi and Rome, had been sanctified by the prayers and praises of Christian believers. The darkness had been illuminated by the light of God’s word, and their smells relieved by the fragrance of Christ’s presence.” What Christ thinks of the Church, p. 40
Today, thousands of Christians throughout the world suffer prison for their faith and the Devil continues to believe that if he can only lock the followers of Jesus away he will be victorious over humanity. It didn’t keep the church from growing in the time of the Apostles and will never be successful in our own day.
Recently, a letter was smuggled out of a notorious prison in an Islamic country and the Christian writer, instead of complaining about the treatment, simply mentioned that six people in the prison had become believers.
The forth persecution that brought suffering to the Christians of Smyrna was the death of their loved ones. Jesus encourages them in their suffering by stating, “Be faithful, even to the point of death.” There is no hiding the fact that when we pick up the cross to carry it we could well be facing death. Persecution and great tribulation is coming to this part of the world and we will face many of the same persecutions, as did the faithful Christians of Smyrna, even unto death.
Smyrna suffered because it was a non-compromising church. Jesus doesn’t commend them for their suffering and leave it there. There is no stiff upper lip pep talk intended here. With the acknowledgment of suffering there is also a promise of accompanying grace for the church.
We will pick up on that next post, but let me conclude by saying that God never allows us to face tribulations for the sheer experience of tribulation. Through troubles, storms and pain we discover something about God and ourselves. We learn to trust and rely upon Him regardless of the situation, and from that experience we grow closer to God, trust Him more and put ourselves more fully into His loving care.
* Please remember to pray for the Christians that are suffering under persecution (as did the church Smyrna) for their faith in Christ in many countries around the world. Some of their stories can be found at http://thebeggardanced.com/nine-oclock-club/