The Church at Smyrna
The Period of Persecution
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.
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
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
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.