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The Church at Smyrna

The Period of Persecution
(AD 100~312)

And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive; I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.     (Revelation 2:8—10)

Before He was crucified, the Lord warned His disciples, “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Therefore, Christians should not be surprised when persecution arises. Even in this century we have heard the tales of the countless martyrs for the faith in China, India, the Philippines, and so many other places around the world. Here in our own country, the “Christian Right” is continually mocked and maligned by the popular media. One can read the plight of countless martyrs who, throughout the ages, suffered humiliation, torture and death rather than deny the faith in such works as George Fox’s Book of Martyrs.

Yes, persecution has always been with the church. But never has this been so true as during the period immediately following—even overlapping—the Apostolic church age. This period of incred­ible persecution ended only with the ascension of Constantine to the Roman throne in AD 312. This intervening period is the period so often depicted in Christian-versus-gladiator films. It was a time when the catacombs provided a hiding place and refuge from the lions prowling the coliseum, seek­ing whom they could devour.

In all, there were ten official decrees or edicts banning Christianity from the Empire, and sentenc­ing those who refused to renounce their loyalty to the King of Kings to death or worse. This may be foreseen by the phrase, “ye shall have tribulation ten days.” Certainly the message is intended to comfort these martyrs by reassuring them that the period of persecution should last for a finite period of time, and then it would come to an end.

Also comforting is the Lord’s description of Himself to this church. He emphasizes the fact that He also was killed, but behold, He is alive again and shall never die. How appropriate a message for those about to face the ravening lions or the executioner’s ax.

He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that over­cometh shall not be hurt of the second death. (Revelation 2:11)

The Lord closes the letter repeating the formula used in the first letter; an exhortation to those who are willing to hear and understand to listen to the message the Holy Spirit is giving to the church—a message to the overcomers, reassuring them that death is only the prelude to a glorious eternity with God.

Before closing the discussion of this rather short but direct letter to a suffering church, it should be pointed out that in contrast to all of the other seven letters, save one, the letter to the church at Phila­delphia (Revelation 3: 7 – 13), this letter contains only commendation and no hint or trace of admon­ishment or rebuke in any fashion. This is most likely because there is nothing that will purify like persecution. When the axes fall and the bodies begin to pile up, all phonies and fakes and liars find somewhere else to go and something else to do.

We don’t find the Nicolaitans giving these people much trouble. These are people who are living their faith daily, and dying for it. They have no need and no time for professional religious leaders to help them approach God. They and those about them are going on to meet God face to face every day. And through it all, The Lord’s presence is with them. There is nothing a priest or a pastor in a robe and fine vestments can add to their first-hand experience of the Lord.

The Nicolaitans will surface again as soon as the heat is off and there is no longer any danger in being publicly recognized as a great leader of Christians, and when Christian “laymen” are in a posi­tion to be able to afford their services.

Persecution under the Roman emperors was brutal and merciless. As early as AD 64, Nero used the Christians as scapegoats, blaming the fire he himself started in Rome on them. Both Paul and Peter were martyred. The Apostle John himself was, some 35 years later, suffering official banish­ment on a prison island as he penned the vision the Lord gave Him, including these seven letters to seven churches.

Perhaps the most cruel trick of all was that after the supposed establishment of “Christianity” as the official religion of the Empire, that Bible-believing Christians continued to be hunted down, per­secuted and killed for such crimes as reading the Bible, being baptized in water, refusing to worship Mary and the apostles, not to mention refusing to honor the pope as though he were Christ Him­self. This persecution continued right up to the time of the Reformation, and strangely enough, was even perpetrated after the Reformation by some of the reformers (see John Calvin and Servitus, as an example).

So, even though persecution existed from the beginning (see the Book of the Acts), and continues to this day (see missionaries in Mexico), the age of persecution—that is, the period of time when persecution was the predominant feature of the visible church on this earth—lasted a relatively short while and came to an end just as the Lord had promised in the letter to the church at Smyrna. (Smyrna, by the way, is a reference to the fragrant herb myrrh, which releases its fragrance as it is being crushed—an appropriate metaphor for the church that is being crushed by persecution, which crushing releases a “sweet savour” from the Lord’s point of view.)

But would the termination of the official persecution by Rome be a blessing or a stumbling block for the church? The surprising answer is found in the next, third letter, written to the church at Pergamos.

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