While the Church of Ephesus was reminded of their need to return to their first love, Christ’s principal message to the Church of Smyrna is that His own love will never fail. In spite of discouraging trials and even intense persecutions, the Lord assures the Christians that He is aware of their sufferings and that they are only temporary. It’s a theme that was important for the Christians of the early centuries who were often challenged with the threat of death because of their faith. Yet Christ’s message continues to be a powerful one. Satan adapts his tactics but he remains as dangerous an enemy in modern times as he was in ancient. Therefore how reassuring to know that Christ’s love for His church has likewise never waned. Before considering Jesus’ important message to the Christians in Smyrna let us take a look at the background of the city and the church.
The city of Smyrna was located about 60 kilometers north of Ephesus. It was a very ancient city having been inhabited by the time of John’s writing for about three thousand years. In John’s day, the city was both large as well as prosperous due to lively commerce resulting from a good harbor. Smyrna was called “The Crown City” because the surrounding hills gave the form of a crown.
The name of the city was derived from a shrub-like tree which produces a pungent gum or resin called myrrh. The word itself means “bitter.” It is mentioned in the Bible as a spice used in the burial of the Lord Jesus. Surely the name of the city and the divine symbolism associated with it as it applies to the Christians under persecution are more than just coincidence.
Virtually nothing is known of the church in Smyrna apart from this reference in the Book of Revelation. It is not mentioned in the Book of Acts nor in Paul’s epistles. The time and manner of its origin remain a mystery. It is evident, though, that the Christians of Smyrna suffered much and endured intense trials. Furthermore, they did so willingly for the sake of their Lord and in love for His Name. There is much we can learn from them.
The message of Jesus to the Christian of Smyrna is the shortest of the messages to the seven churches. It is as follows:
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 NKJV)
Perhaps the most fundamental question that arises is why did the authorities in Smyrna seek to kill the Christians? What had they done? The teachings of Christianity are to live moral lives, to honor those in authority, and to love others. Why should this provoke oppression and persecution?
The simple answer is that the world has no place for Jesus. Jesus said, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you.” (John 15:18)
Nor does the world have any place for Jesus’ followers. Nor for the Christian message. The Christian message is that all of mankind is lost in sin. Furthermore, there is only one way to be reconciled to God and that is through Jesus. Not only so, but the mere fact that a Christian seeks to live righteously serves as a rebuke to the hedonistic and materialistic attitudes of the world. Paul writes, “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” (2 Tim 3:12)
The Lord warned of a specific period of trials through which the Christians in Smyrna would pass, “You will have tribulation ten days.” There are two ways of interpreting this statement.
- The ten days refer to periods of oppression during the time in church history encompassed by the persecuted church. In fact, there were ten emperors who sought the destruction of Christians.
Nero, A.D. 54
Domitian, A.D. 81
Trajan, A.D. 98
Hadrian, A.D. 117
Septimus Severus, A.D. 193
Maximin, A.D. 235
Decius, A.D. 249
Valerian, A.D. 254
Aurelian, A.D. 270
Diocletian, A.D. 284
- The Christians of Smyrna were to suffer during a literal ten-day period lying in the near future.
It is my view that both interpretations are correct. But beyond that, we must remember that Christians throughout history have suffered persecution. In fact, the church was born into persecution. Tradition tells us that every one of the disciples, with the exception of John, died as martyrs. It has been estimated that 300,000 Christians per year have died for their faith since the birth of the church at Pentecost. Indeed, freedom from persecution is relatively rare.
We may consider the story of Asia Bibi as an example. Just recently Asia, a Pakistani Christian woman, was released from prison after eight years of confinement. A simple peasant woman she had been picking berries with Muslim women when they asked her to fetch water from a nearby well. Being thirsty herself, she sipped some water from the cup before taking the water to the others. This brought about a rebuke because as a Christian she was considered to be “unclean.” Condemnation from the others followed and after considerable rebuke for having trusted in Christ, Asia responded, “Christ died on the cross to save me. What did Mohammad ever do to save mankind?” Those words resulted in her detention and imprisonment. After a short trial, Asia was condemned to death by hanging. An appellate court later upheld the sentence. A final appeal was made to the Supreme Court. Asia was confined alone in a windowless cell measuring only 2.4 meters by 3 meters as she awaited trial in the nation’s highest court. A survey showed that ten million Pakistanis would be willing to kill her personally. Two government officials who spoke out on her behalf were assassinated.
Yet widespread and intense international pressure was being brought on the Pakistani government. The result was that on 31 October 2018 the Supreme Court declared Asia not guilty. Violent protests erupted and much infrastructure damaged. Calls were made for the killing of the Supreme Court judges. Although it may seem strange to those living in nations with religious liberty, there is no doubt that persecution of Christians exists even into modern times.
Yet in these verses of Revelation chapter 2, Jesus sends a message of hope and encouragement to those who are suffering through trial. Three specific things are mentioned which will help us in times of persecution and tribulation regardless of the time or circumstances.
How to Be Comforted In Tribulations and Persecutions
- We are comforted by recognizing that Jesus knows all about our situation.
Twice Jesus declares to the Christians in Smyrna, “I know…” Jesus knew about their works and tribulation and He also knew of the blasphemies of their enemies.
The book of Hebrews states, “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15)
Christ describes Himself as He “which was dead, and is alive.” In other words, He knows what the Christians of Smyrna were enduring. He Himself had been persecuted. He had been hated. He had been crucified. But He is also the source of eternal life. He’ll never die again.
- We are comforted when we recognize that we already have all we need
Paul declared, “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37)
- We are comforted when we recognize that we have far more awaiting us in heaven than we can imagine.
Paul wrote, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)
Jesus told the Christians of Smyrna, “I know…thy poverty” but then He added, “but you are rich.” They may have lacked this world’s goods, but their faith and love for Christ resulted in treasures awaiting them in Heaven.
These three teachings must surely have been in the thoughts of the most famous of all the Christians of Symrna, Polycarp, as he faced death for being a follower of Jesus. Polycarp was an old and dear friend of the apostle John. In AD 155, an angry mob called for the aged Polycarp’s death, referring to him as an atheist because he wouldn’t burn incense to the emperor (as was required yearly). He was apprehended and brought before the civil magistrate. The official, taking pity on Polycarp’s gentle spirit and advanced years encouraged him to simply swear an oath to Caesar. “What harm can there be in saying ‘Lord Caesar?’” Yet Polycarp was steadfast in his allegiance to Christ.
On the appointed day of his execution, Polycarp was taken to the stadium. During the time of pleading with Polycarp to compromise his faith, the lions had been used for the execution of other Christians had been returned to their cages. And so when the final order came for Polycarp to be put to death it was decided to burn him at the stake instead.
As they were preparing to nail him to the post, Polycarp said, “Leave me as I am, for He that gives me strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to remain without moving in the fire.” Slowly the flames engulfed the body of Polycarp. As his earthly body was being consumed by the flames he could be heard praying to God and rejoicing in Jesus.
It is worthy of notice that the city of Smyrna still exists (now called Izmir). In fact, the city has grown to double its former size and continues to grow. In the same manner, satanic opposition to the church still exists and can only be expected to further increase. But the love and faithfulness of Christ never fails. It is already infinite and super-abounding. Jesus said, “Lo, I am with you always, even till the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:20)
Jim Haesemeyer (to be continued)