Revelation 2:8-11, “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.”’
As we’ve mentioned one of the interesting aspects of these seven is that they do represent loose periods of church history with Smyrna clearly representing the Persecuted Church. Though most scholars debate when this Persecuted Church began (100 AD or earlier), they all seem to agree the period came to a definitive end when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD formally legalizing Christian practices within the Roman Empire.
And yet, I personally believe classifying only this particular period of history as being the Persecuted Church becomes problematic for the simple reason that beginning with the Apostles and continuing all the way up to today there has always been a remnant of the church in every generation forced to endure some form of religious persecution.
While Jesus is writing to a literal church in city of Smyrna during the 1st century experiencing incredible persecution, in a much broader and historical sense the letter should be seen as Jesus’ admonition to the faithful remnant ever present throughout church history and always under the threat of persecution!
Profile of Smyrna: Smyrna was located on the western coast of Turkey about 35 miles north of Ephesus. Today it is the modern town of Izmir. Not only did Smyrna have a strategic harbor, but the city possessed straight, wide roads ideal for the transport of goods. Couple that with the fact Smyrna was surrounded by fertile farmland where they produced wine and myrrh it’s not a surprise the city grew in wealth becoming known as “The Crown of Asia.”
Seeing the inevitable fall of Grecian power, Smyrna was unique in that she was one of the first Hellenistic cities to pledge its loyalties to the rapidly expanding Rome Empire. In 195 BC Smyrna cemented this relationship by building a temple dedicated to the “Spirit of Rome.” As such throughout her history Smyrna would remain at the forefront of an Imperial Cult, which by the time of Christ had begun deifying and worshipping former Caesars.
Fast-forward to the end of the first century and the rise of Emperor Domitian… According to history, while Nero had already instigated an initial wave of Christian persecution, it was not until Domitian’s reign that Christian persecution reached its zenith.
Because Nero was mad there had been no logical approach to his persecution of Christians (he’d simply used them as a scape-goat for Rome’s decline); and yet, Domitian proved to be much more dangerous because he was deliberate and systematic in his approach.
In addition to targeting church leaders (example: Apostle John), in order to alienate the growing Christian community, Domitian became the first Caesar to demanded worship as a test of political loyalty and allegiance to Rome. Failure to comply would bring with it severe economic consequences and in many instances certain execution.
William Barclay wrote, “Emperor worship had begun as spontaneous demonstration of gratitude to Rome; but toward the end of the first century, in the days of Domitian, the final step was taken and Caesar worship became compulsory. Once a year the Roman citizen must burn a pinch of incense on the altar to the godhead of Caesar; and having done so, he was given a certificate to guarantee that he had performed his religious duty… All that the Christians had to do was to burn that pinch of incense, say, 'Caesar is Lord,' receive their certificate, and go away and worship as they pleased. But that is precisely what the Christians would not do. They would give no man the name of Lord; that name they would keep for Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone.”
Though there were cities who chose not to strictly enforce this mandate, because of her long loyalty to the Empire the city of Smyrna took Domitian’s edict very seriously. Additionally, I’ve included at the bottom of this mornings study the story of Polycarp who was the Pastor of this church as an example of the type of persecution occurring during this time in Smyrna.
Like He does in His commendation of the Ephesian church Jesus begins by saying, “I know your works…” Here was a church experiencing an unimaginable hardship; and yet, they refused to allow their trying circumstances to deter them from their heavenly calling.
You can imagine this church took Jesus command in Matthew 5:44 to heart… “I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” Amazingly, the Persecuted Church possesses the lasting legacy of still being a Serving Church!
Jesus also says, “I know your tribulation and poverty…” In the Greek this word “tribulation” or “thlipsis” means “a pressing together from the outside.” The word presents the idea of a large stone being used to crush grapes to release juice or an herb to release a fragrant oil (two examples anyone from Smyrna would have been intimately familiar with).
As we’ve noted the political climate in Smyrna had created a set of crushing circumstances for this church. This “tribulation” they were experiencing was pressing them into a decision whereby their convictions carried with them severe consequences. No longer could the church obey the laws of the land. Standing for Jesus now made them outlaws!
Understand, refusing to declare “Caesar as Lord” and pledge their loyalty to Rome immediately resulted in an intense form of economic persecution for these Christians.
Keep in mind, the “poverty” Jesus refers to is not the type of poverty we think of in America. In the Greek “ptôcheia” implies “abject poverty or absolute destitution.” The word literally means “beggary” and speaks of one who has nothing at all.
Because of their stand for Christ these Christians were no longer allowed to participate in the marketplace, their property was confiscated, their membership in the trade-guilds revoked, even their money became worthless as no one was allowed to sell to them!
And if this “tribulation and poverty” weren’t enough Jesus continues by saying, “I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan…” In the Greek “blasphêmia” means “to speak against one’s good name for the specific purpose of causing injury.” It’s akin to our English word “slander.”
And who was speaking “blasphemy” against the church? Jesus says, “Those who say they are Jews and are not, but are of a synagogue of Satan.” Though in a literal sense Jesus is referencing a local synagogue in Smyrna led by Jews who were using the opportunity of this church’s misfortune to pile on, in a much broader sense Jesus is speaking of a persecution against His faithful church by those claiming to know God but didn’t!
Between Jesus’ commendation and counsel to this Persecuted Church, it’s important to point out He provides no criticisms and only seeks to encourage…
I’ve found that often in the midst of persecution, trial, temptation, discouragement, pain, and suffering it’s so very easy for the Christian to wonder if Jesus has somehow forgotten about them. And yet, Jesus directly combats this notion with two powerful words… “I know!”
This Greek word “eidô” is unique because it speaks to more than just the perception of sight, but to the understanding of experience. Jesus is not just telling these Christians that He knew of their suffering, He’s making it clear He sympathized with their suffering!
And yet, “I know” in the ears of a sufferer is only meaningful if the person making the statement has indeed gone through a similar experience. To that point, in Hebrews 4:15 we’re told concerning Jesus that “we have a High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses, because He was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
Keep in mind this word “sympathize” goes way beyond intellectual understanding. In the Greek it literally means “to be affected with the same feeling as another.” Sympathy in a Biblical sense is more about the experiential understanding of one’s heart than the intellectual understanding of one’s mind! “I know” (heart) verses “I know” (head).
This morning I hope you know that Jesus can say with authority “I know your tribulation” because He has experienced the pressure and crushing weight of tribulation Himself. Jesus can say, “I know your poverty” because “though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9) Jesus can say, “I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not” because He had experienced the slander of those claiming to represent God but didn’t. Beyond this… Jesus can say with authority “I know the pain that’s felt when you’re betrayed by a friend or rejected by someone you love.” Jesus personally knows what it’s like to suffer loss, to be misunderstood, tempted to sin, or treated unjustly. Jesus can even say, “I know what it’s like to feel as though God has forsaken you” because on the cross, in the midst of incredible suffering, He to asked the same question we so often ask… “My God, My God why have you forsaken Me.” (Matthew 27:46)
And yet, being able to say “I know what it’s like” ends up being rather meaningless if that same person can’t also say “I know how to overcome!” You see Jesus can say all of these things and more with the complete authority of “I know” because there is no part of our pilgrimage He hasn’t already successfully navigated! Jesus is the victor over all we face! John 16:33, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
I don’t think it’s an accident that before Jesus even utters the words “I know” He first reminds them who He is and what He’d done! Notice how He opens the letter. “These things says…”
“The First and the Last…” This phrase speaks of the divine nature of the infinite God. It refers to His timelessness and complete sovereignty. In the midst of suffering and persecution it’s crucial you remember that Jesus is more than just a mere man, He’s the Most High God sovereignly in control of every aspect of your life.
“Who was dead, and came to life.” This phrase speaks of Jesus’ strength over the most daunting of all enemies… Death itself! By His resurrection Jesus singlehandedly gained the victory over our greatest foe! In the midst of suffering and persecution it’s critical you remember that Jesus is much mightier than anything you will ever experience.
While Jesus has reminded them who He is (the sovereign victorious God who knows), before telling them what to do He reminds them of four key realities concerning persecution:
First… Persecution is inevitable! Jesus says, “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.”
It’s interesting that Jesus never promises deliverance. Instead He does the exact opposite… He warns them that things were about to get much worse! Never forget persecution is a vital part of the DNA of the faithful church. It’s an unavoidable part of the Christian experience.
John 15:20, “Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”
James 1:2-3, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials…”
2 Timothy 3:12, “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.”
Philippians 1:29, “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake…”
1 Peter 4:12-13, “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings…”
Note: With the exception of Jude every New Testament writer speaks of persecution.
Secondly… Persecution has a purpose! “Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested…” Though Jesus is honest that the origin of the coming persecution would be “the devil,” His foreknowledge of this event reveals His allowance.
You see God was allowing “the devil to throw some of them into prison” for the specific purpose “that they may be tested.” Note: The Greek word “peirazô” doesn’t mean “to test” as we typically think, but rather “to make trial of.” The purpose of the persecution was not to test their faith, but to instead demonstrate their faith for all the world to see.
While Satan wanted to crush their witness, this persecution was allowed because God knew it would instead amplify their witness. This many explain why in spite of the slander, tribulation, and poverty they were facing Jesus declares that they were “rich!”
As a direct result of persecution this church had been purified from the pretenders, were galvanized in their calling, and wonderfully glorified Jesus through their faithfulness. It’s true that a church experiencing the fire of persecution often becomes a church on fire! And you know what happens when the church is on fire? She in turn sets the world on fire! You see their crushing (“tribulation”) had released an incredible fragrance!
Charles Spurgeon, “Never did the church so much prosper and so truly thrive as when she was baptized in the blood. The ship of the church never sails so gloriously along as when the bloody spray of her martyrs falls on her deck. We must suffer and we must die, if we are ever to conquer this world for Christ.”
If anything Smyrna illustrates how appearances can be deceiving… This church might have had nothing, but Jesus said they possessed everything! Which should come as a surprise and a rebuke to those “Faith Teachers” who present pain, suffering, persecution, and the lack of material possessions (wealth) as evidence of God’s displeasure and ones lack of faith.
David Guzik observes that “the contrast between material poverty and spiritual riches of the Christians in Smyrna reminds us that there is nothing inherently spiritual in being rich.” How dangerous it is when we measure the effectiveness of a church using only the bottom line!
Thirdly… Persecution has a limitation! Jesus says, “You will have tribulation ten days.” Though there are some who claim these “ten days” represent the ten waves of Roman persecution, this position overlooks the reality the first wave initiated by Nero had already come and gone with the second wave instigated by Domitian well under way… Which is a problem considering Jesus is speaking in the future tense… “You will have.”
It seems more likely the phrase “ten days” was instead an idiom or expression of speech used to signify a short period time. (Examples: Genesis 24:55, Job 19:3, Daniel 1:12) With this in mind it’s significant that Jesus reminds this church of the reality that while persecution may be inevitable it’s not indefinite.
Finally… Persecution has a reward! In Matthew 5:10-12 Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.”
In this letter Jesus gets more specific saying, “I will give you the crown of life” and “He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.” When it comes to Scripture the Bible tells us there are two deaths… One physical and one spiritual. And while it’s true everyone will experience the first death of the physical body, the same can’t be said for the second. D.L. Moody once summed it up this way, “Born once, die twice. Born twice, die once.”
Friend, if Jesus is your Savior, you’ve accepted His atonement for your sins, and you’ve been made alive through the indwelling of His Spirit, the reality is that you will only die once because you’ve been promised “the crown of life.” John 11:25, “Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.”
And yet, if you reject Jesus as your Savior choosing to instead provide your own atonement for sin, following your physical death will come a spiritual death as you spend your eternity paying off a debt your imperfect offering can never satisfy… “The wages of sin is death.”
Understand… Jesus is reminding this church that no matter how bad it gets on earth eternal life is our future! This is why Jesus Counsels: “Do not fear” and “be faithful until death.”
This command “do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer” literally means “stop being afraid.” Understand, fear is born out of the anticipation of loosing something. And yet, what really is there for a believer to fear loosing? What can this world take from me?
You see we can “be faithful until death” because death is not a moment of loss, but rather a moment of incredible gain and unspeakable glory! As the Apostle Paul would write to the Philippians, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain!” (Philippians 1:21)
First, there is a coming persecution of the church in America! Honestly, the winds have shifted, storm clouds are gathering on the horizon, and a storm is heading our way. What is interesting is that, like Smyrna, it would seem the coming persecution will be economic.
While the Bill of Rights protects the freedom of speech and religion it doesn’t seem to apply to the freedom of religious conviction voicing itself in the public square.
Consider how visceral the reaction was to anyone who voiced a concern that Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn might not actually be something to celebrate and instead a dangerous and ineffective way of treating genuine gender dysphoria.
Or how anything other than the full celebration of homosexuality and gay marriage is classified in the square as hate speech and bigotry. Case in point last year Mozilla forced their CEO Brendan Eich to resign because it had been leaked to the media that he made a donation supporting Prop. 8, a California ballot initiative barring same-sex marriages.
Even in Justice Kennedy’s opinion supporting Gay Marriage he acknowledges the logical need for “religious organizations and persons to be given proper protection” in light of the new law. Sadly, we live in a country that has greater protections for internet pornographers than the private individuals desiring to operate a business consistent with their Christian convictions and values.
My point is that in the coming years standing for the truth and refusing to bend when it comes to your Christian beliefs will actually cost you something! And you know… I say bring it on for nothing will bring about revival quicker than a church who’s been galvanized, purified, and made serious about her calling as a result of persecution!
In conclusion… There is an undeniable word for the sufferer! While suffering may be inevitable it isn’t indefinite! The Bible promises there there will come a day when “God will wipe away every tear from our eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
And while the promise of a future reward may not alleviate the anguish you’re experiencing today, you can hold to the reality that your present suffering is not without a divine purpose.
Sweet wine demands the pressing of grapes and the pleasant fragrance of myrrh is only released when the herb is crushed. 2 Corinthians 4:17, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”
Christian, never forget the glory of resurrection first demanded the suffering of Jesus. Isaiah 53:5 we’re told “Jesus was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.”
Finally, Jesus knows… Whether it be tribulation, persecution, trial, poverty, slander, betrayal, rejection, loss, temptation, or even the feeling that God has forsaken you, Jesus is speaking through the void with two simple words meant for your encouragement… “I know” what you’re going through and “I know” how to help you through to the other side.
Friend, Jesus in total control. He’s completely able. And He’s more than willing to be “your refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalms 46:1) This morning may it be that “he who has an ear hears what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
Aside from this reality if you were going to award the title of Persecuted Church to only one time period based on the shear number of persecuted Christians, the last 100 years of church history would be in the running!
George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has recently written, “We have been living, and we are living now, in the greatest era of persecution in Christian history. More Christians died for the faith in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries of Christian history combined.”
It should also be pointed out that while the American church has largely been insulated from and ignorant of Christian persecution the same cannot be said of our fellow believers living in other parts of the world. One international humanitarian agency recently said that in upwards of 80% of all religious persecution in the world today is aimed at Christians.
In his book “The Global War on Christians” John Allen Jr. asserts that nearly half of all martyrdoms in Christian history have actually occurred last century. Some have calculated that “during this past century there have been documented cases in excess of 26 million martyrs when from AD 33 to 1900 we only have documented 14 million martyrs.”
And while that might not seem to validates my previous point, keep in mind Open Doors basis their stats only off of documented cases that are verifiable. One author explains that while reports show that “Christians are suffering in numbers exceeding historic proportions for many reasons the numbers are often difficult to discover.”
If you look into the various annual reports you will find estimates of martyrdom vary widely from a low of 7,300 per year to a high exceeding 100,000.
There are two reasons why it’s difficult to compile these stats and why I think it’s safe to conclude the number of persecutions are more towards the high side:
1. Persecutors of Christians don’t openly report or keep accurate records of the number of Christians they’ve persecuted. Example, the muslim government of Turkey still refuses to acknowledge the systematic killing of up to 2 million Armenian Christians in 1915. To make matters worse countries who have hostile policies towards Christians but who also rely on financial support from the United States actively bury the numbers for PR purposes (Examples: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, India).
2. It’s hard to nail down a number of Christian persecutions when we have zero access to some of the biggest offenders. Examples: North Korea, Iran, and ISIS heald territories.
Recently a defected North Korean soldier recounted in testimony to a human rights group what happened when an underground church was discovered by his unit. (Note: It’s illegal to own a Bible or have an unsanctioned gathering of more than three people in North Korea.) He said they “brought out the church’s pastor, two assistant pastors, and two elders. The five men were bound, placed in front of a bulldozer, and given one final opportunity to renounce their Christian faith. When they refused the soldier recounts how they were crushed to death in front of other members of the church.”
In regards to what is reported it’s clear the situation for Christians living in any region where radical Islam has taken root find themselves in a very bleak situation. From Iraq to Syria, Egypt and Northern Africa, the Horn of Africa to Indonesia today Christians are being systematically purged in what can only be described as ethnic cleansing.
In January of this year Open Doors released its annual World Watch List showing how “Christian persecution reached historic levels in 2014, with approximately 100 million Christians around the world facing dire consequences for merely practicing their religion.” Note: We’ve included links in C316.tv to several articles documenting Christian persecution.
Polycarp was a remarkable example of both the persecution and the courage of early Christians. The year after Polycarp returned from Rome, a great persecution came upon the Christians of Smyrna. His congregation urged him to leave the city until the threat blew over. So, believing that God wanted him to be around a few more years, Polycarp left the city and hid out on a farm belonging to some Christian friends. One day on the farm, as he prayed in his room, Polycarp had a vision of his pillow engulfed in flames. He knew what God said to him, and calmly told his companions, "I see that I must be burnt at the stake.”
Meanwhile, the chief of police issued a warrant for his arrest. They seized one of Polycarp's servants and tortured him until he told them where his master was. Towards evening, the police chief and a band of soldiers came to the old farmhouse. When the soldiers found him, they were embarrassed to see that they had come to arrest such an old, frail man. They reluctantly put him on a donkey and walked him back to the city of Smyrna.
On the way to the city, the police chief and other government officials tried to persuade Polycarp to offer a pinch of incense before a statue of Caesar and simply say "Caesar is Lord." That's all he had to do, and he would be off the hook. They pleaded with him to do it, and escape the dreadful penalties. At first Polycarp was silent, but then he calmly gave them his firm answer: no. The police chief was now angry. Annoyed with the old man, he pushed him out of his carriage and onto the hard ground. Polycarp, bruised but resolute, got up and walked the rest of the way to the arena.
The horrid games at the arena had already begun in earnest and a large, bloodthirsty mob gathered to see Christians tortured and killed. One Christian named Quintis boldly proclaimed himself a follower of Jesus and said he was willing to be martyred, but when he saw the vicious animals in the arena, he lost courage and agreed to burn the pinch of incense to Caesar as Lord. Another young man named Germanicus didn't back down. He marched out and faced the lions and died an agonizing death for his Lord Jesus. Ten other Christians gave their lives that day, but the mob was unsatisfied. They cried out, "Away with the atheists who do not worship our gods!" To them, Christians were atheists because they did not recognize the traditional gods of Rome and Greece. Finally, the crowd started chanting "Bring out Polycarp.”
When Polycarp brought his tired body into the arena, he and the other Christians heard a voice from heaven. It said, "Be strong, Polycarp, play the man." As he stood before the proconsul, they tried one more time to get him to renounce Jesus. The proconsul told Polycarp to agree with the crowd and shout out "Away with the atheists!" Polycarp looked sternly at the bloodthirsty mob, waved his hand towards them and said, "Away with those atheists!" The proconsul persisted. "Take the oath and revile Christ and I'll set you free!" Polycarp answered, "For eighty-six years I've served Jesus; how dare I now revile my King?" The proconsul finally gave up, and announced to the crowd the crime of the accused: "Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.”
The crowd shouted, "Let the lions loose!" but the animals had already been put away. The crowd then demanded that Polycarp be burnt. The old man remembered the dream about the burning pillow, and took courage in God. He said to his executioners, "It is well. I fear not the fire that burns for a season and after a while is quenched. Why do you delay? Come, do your will.”
They arranged a great pile of wood and set up a pole in the middle. As they tied Polycarp to the pole, he prayed: "I thank You that You have graciously thought me worthy of this day and of this hour, that I may receive a portion in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of Your Christ." After he prayed and gave thanks to God, they set the wood ablaze. A great wall of flame shot up to the sky, but it never touched Polycarp. God set a hedge of protection between him and the fire. Seeing that he would not burn, the executioner, in a furious rage, stabbed the old man with a long spear. Immediately, streams of blood gushed from his body and seemed to extinguish the fire. When this happened, witnesses said they saw a dove fly up from the smoke into heaven. At the very same moment, a church leader in Rome named Iraenus, said he heard God say to him, "Polycarp is dead." God called his servant home.