The Persecuted Church
The second of the seven churches that the Messiah addressed in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, is the Church of Smyrna. As we continue through the comments Jesus made to these churches, it is important that we remember that all seven churches did exist in the first century. Each church however is also a representative of a specific historical era of time. And, of course, the things said to each of these churches are applicable to all readers as individuals, no matter what time period a person lived in.
One thing that is notable about Smyrna is that there were no criticisms or corrections offered by the Messiah to the believers who were to live in this era. Although the true Church has always faced persecution to one degree or another throughout the entire Church Age, the period of time that this Church represented was one of the very worst.
The text to this Church reads like this:
And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, “These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life: I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.” Revelation 2:8-11
The ancient city of Smyrna is today known as Izmir and is the third-ranked metropolis in Turkey, with a population of about 4.5 million. The ancient city of Smyrna had both a reputation for its beauty and its illustrious historical past. It was located about forty miles north of Ephesus. Smyrna’s ancient harbor–now Izmir’s harbor, is a large, well-protected port and is still one of the most important in Asia Minor.
As Jesus addressed Smyrna, He began by reminding them of Who He is, the First and Last, the One who had been dead but came back to life. It was an important reminder for them at a time when they could use encouragement and some reinforcement of their commitment to Jesus–whom they had not met personally, though they had been mentored by the original apostles.
Jesus here confirms to them that He was intimately aware of their life situations; their works and their poverty and the hardships they were enduring. He also adds that they were in reality rich because they were living for eternal values, riches that could never be taken away from them. Jesus also tells them that He was well aware of the blasphemy of those who wrongfully claimed to be Jews but were really of the synagogue of Satan. History tells us that many of the Jews found it convenient to deflect attention from the persecution they themselves were under by pointing the finger at the Christian community. The Christians were accused of many things, including cannibalism, because of their celebration of communion, partaking of the body and blood”, (bread and wine). The fault of these Jews was no different than those claiming a Christian identity during the Crusades; professing to be doing the work of God as they raped, pillaged, and murdered. They were neither doing God’s work, nor did they have the right to identify themselves as God’s people. All were considered as part of the camp of Satan.
In verse ten, the Messiah warned the Church of Smyrna that there were difficult times coming, but not to fear them. As we look back in history, we can identify the era of the Church of Smyrna to be between 100 AD to 313 AD. Not all of the Roman Emperors were totally committed to the persecution of the Christians, but during this era there were quite a number of them. One could say that the time of greatest persecution of the Christians in this era began ramping up during the reign of Caesar Nero.
Nero reigned as emperor from 54 AD to 68 AD. He was well known and feared for his cold-blooded savagery. It was at his direct personal order that the Apostle Paul was beheaded and the Apostle Peter crucified; Peter, and his wife both chose to be crucified upside down because they did not feel worthy to be crucified in the same way as their Lord. It was also Nero who was responsible for the great fire that burned much of Rome to the ground and then, of course, blamed the Christian community for it. Nero was vicious and wicked but many of the Caesars still to come were even worse.
It was in 107 AD that Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in Syria and a close friend of the Apostle John, was thrown to the lions and eaten alive in the amphitheater at Rome. A better known name from that time was the beloved old Polycarp, a disciple of John, who in 155 AD, in response to the opportunity to deny Christ and save his own life, said these words: “Eighty-six years have I served Him and He has done me no wrong. How can I speak evil of my King, who saved me?” Traditions tell us that the attempt to burn Polycarp at the stake failed and so his executioners resorted to killing him with a sword and then burning his body. It was the testimony of many of these martyred Christians that led great numbers of non-believers to turn to Christ and be willing to offer their own lives when their turn came. The famed Tertullian was one of these. It was at the age of 30 that he witnessed the execution of some Christian believers and, because of their powerful testimony, his own life changed direction in favor of Jesus Christ.
Jesus warned the Church at Smyrna that there were ten days of tribulation coming their way that would test them severely. Historically we can now see that they were to endure the butchery of ten evil, ruthless, barbaric Roman Emperors yet to come. The worst of them all was Diocletian. This man was obsessed and had every intent to wipe Christianity from the face of the earth. Diocletian’s last ten years as emperor were the worst and he alone was responsible for the martyrdom of untold hundreds of thousands of believers. Historians have estimated that at least five million Christians were murdered during the Smyrna Church era. There were of course many killed before that time and it did not stop when Diocletian was no longer emperor. The Christian Church now has a 2,000 year history of martyrs.
It is worth noting the name Smyrna means “myrrh,” a plant that, when crushed, produces a pleasing aroma and was often used for embalming the dead. Christ’s followers in Smyrna would be persecuted and many put to death, but their deaths would be as a sweet fragrance resulting, finally, in a resurrection to eternal life with their Master and GOD.
An interesting side-note has to do with the Magi from the East who had originally brought gifts to Mary and Joseph and the newborn King, Jesus. They brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These ancient Magi, who were a hereditary priesthood of the Medes (known today as the Kurds) brought gifts that were actually prophetic; they spoke to our Lord’s offices of King, Priest, and Saviour. Gold speaks of His kingship, frankincense a spice used in the priestly duties; and myrrh, as we pointed out above, was used as an embalming ointment. In the Millennium, He will also receive gifts of gold and frankincense; but not myrrh. His death was once and for all…and there will no longer be Christian martyrs either!
But, we have not arrived at that time of blessing yet. Many, like the Apostles, bore in their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ. One of the leaders, another man named Paul, bishop of New-Caesarea, had suffered much from the cruelty of Caesar Licinius. He had been deprived of the use of both hands by the application of a red-hot iron. Others had their right eyes torn out; others had lost the right arm. The stories are endless.
Even though the era of the Church of Smyrna officially ended about 313 AD, that did not end the persecution of true believers in Jesus Christ. Evil men have continued to persecute, torture, and murder true Christians for their faith. The Roman Empire was guilty of unspeakable atrocities but the persecution, torture, and murder of Christians during the Dark Ages, mainly at the direct command of the Papacy in Rome, was even more barbaric, if that is even possible! Many millions were martyred because they refused to bend to the will of the Papacy.
And then, about 600 years after Pentecost, Islam was founded. With Islam came another heinous, brutal source of persecution. Muslim forces murdered in the name of religion. Millions, on almost every continent in the world, have been murdered in the name of one religion or another ever since the inception of the true Church at Pentecost. It still goes on today. Whole families are being executed and many Christian churches are being burned to the ground in many places around the world. Christians in the Mideast are being beheaded, burned to death, buried alive, and hacked to death–all under the name of religion. God will soon be intervening into the affairs of this fallen world. Praise God!
Statistics tell us that more Christians have been martyred in the last century than all the centuries previously, since the first century! It seems that there is a steady flow of martyrs arriving beneath that great heavenly altar of Revelation 6:9. The Apostle John described what he saw with these words:
9 When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. 10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer,until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed. Revelation 6:9-11
In conclusion, the Church Age is soon to end. After the true Church is removed and taken into the presence of the Lord, this wicked, Christ-rejecting world will be judged. During that time the blind eyes of the Jews will be opened and they will finally recognize their Messiah–the true Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Nazarene. Jesus will physically return as KING of Kings and LORD of Lords and take this planet back from the hands of the usurper. Satan will be confined and God will show man how this world can have a system of true justice, true righteousness, and worldwide peace and prosperity—just as He intended. I for one am very much looking forward to that! But, I am also listening carefully for that great Trumpet of God to sound, announcing the arrival of the Bridegroom to take His Bride, the Church, away from here during the outpouring of God’s judgment during the Great and Terrible Day of the LORD.
To Be Continued in Part Six: The Church of Pergamos