Revelation – Smyrna, The Persecuted Church
“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. 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 2:8-11.
Smyrna was the next city and church of importance in the province of Asia, and was the nearest to Ephesus, being about forty miles to the north. For this reason, the church of Smyrna was the second of the seven to receive the Apocalypse. Smyrna is synonymous with myrrh, which was an aromatic substance used sometimes as a healing ointment but more especially for embalming the dead. According to Psalm 45:8 and Canticles 3:6, myrrh seems to have been the special perfume of Christ as King and Bride-groom. One of the chief ingredients of myrrh was made by crushing and bleeding a plant of the same name. This thorny plant, or tree, is found in Arabia and to some extent in Palestine. It is very bitter to the taste but has a fragrant odor, and the more the plant is crushed and bruised the greater the fragrance. The name Smyrna, therefore, indicates suffering and persecution which prove a blessing. Smyrna would be crushed by cruel persecutions, but as a result of her sufferings, would be anointed for a death and burial that would end in a resurrection and renewal of life; releasing to the world the perfume of heaven. It is impossible to estimate the number of Christian martyrs during those days of persecution, but the persecutors were so sure that the hated sect was entirely exterminated that a coin was struck in celebration of the triumph of the pagan gods over the faith of Jesus.
In the introduction to this epistle Christ identifies Himself as “the First and the Last, which was dead, and is alive.” This introduction is well suited to a church that has passed through bitter persecution. To the church of martyrs was sent a message of good cheer from the One who had triumphed over death and the grave, and had the keys of the tomb in His keeping. By His death and resurrection triumph, Jesus had robbed death of its sting and the grave of its victory. In identifying Himself, Jesus uses the attributes that would bring courage and support to His people during persecution and martyrdom. If they would be “faithful unto death,” they would be given “a crown of life.”
The severe trials would prove a blessing in disguise. Jesus intimates that this was true in His own experience, for He too had been persecuted and slain, but now He is “alive for evermore.” It was persecution and suffering that made manifest the beauty of the character of Christ and made Him a worthy Example of patience under tribulation. (John 15:18-20; 1 Peter 2:20-23.) “From the desert to Calvary, the storm of Satan’s wrath beat upon Him, but the more mercilessly it fell, the more firmly did the Son of God cling to the hand of His Father, and press on in the blood-stained path. All the efforts of Satan to oppress and overcome Him, only brought out in a purer light His spotless character.” The Desire of Ages, p. 759.
City of Smyrna
Smyrna is one of the oldest cities of the world, with a very eventful history. It is located at the head of a beautiful bay of the Aegean Sea. Its size, location, and magnificence made Smyrna one of the finest cities of Asia, rivaling Ephesus to the south and Pergamos to the north. On the slopes of Mount Pagus was a theater seating twenty thousand people, the ruins of which are still visible. Mount Pagus is more than five hundred feet high, and was located in the center of the ancient city. Its summit was crowned with a shrine dedicated to Nemesis, a Greek goddess who was supposed to be a form of Artemis. Because of its splendor and its garland of magnificent buildings, this hilltop was also known as The Crown of Smyrna. Circling the base of the mount “like a necklace on a statue” was one of the finest streets of the ancient world, called The Street of Gold. The city itself was sometimes called The Crown of Ionia. This historical background gives significance to the promise of Jesus, “Be thou faithful until death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” The promise had a forceful and peculiar meaning to the suffering members of the church of Smyrna.
All through her long and eventful history, the city of Smyrna has suffered from besieging armies, massacres, earthquakes, fires, and plagues. About 600 B.C. the Lydians captured and almost completely destroyed the city. It lay in partial ruins for four hundred years but was rebuilt by Alexander the Great and again became a flourishing city. The city was destroyed by a terrible earthquake in A.D. 178, only eighty years after the church received the Apocalypse. It was again crushed to death but was destined to recover, for it was “the city of life.” The city was restored to more than its former beauty and glory by Emperor Marcus Aurelius. There has seldom been a period of two years without an earthquake. The city was almost completely destroyed by a severe quake in 1688, when the earth opened and swallowed up five thousand people. In 1758 a plague almost depopulated the city, and in 1922 the Turks captured and partially destroyed the modern Smyrna.
Smyrna is the only one of the seven cities of Asia which retains anything of its ancient standing.
It is today the largest city of Asia Minor, and is the commercial center of the Levant. The population is reported (as of 2017) to be 2.28 million. The present name under Turkish rule is Izmir. Thousands of ships of all nations visit the beautiful harbor of Smyrna each year, and its annual trade is valued at many millions of dollars. One of its chief exports is the famous Smyrna figs. Large quantities of woolen cloth are also exported. Thus has the city of Smyrna often risen from apparent death “to become one of the first stars in the brilliant belt of the cities of Asia Minor.”
The Local Church
The local church of Smyrna was repeatedly crushed by bitter persecutions and was several times virtually destroyed, but has always been restored to life. This church felt the full force of the pagan Roman persecutions of the second and third centu-ries. Smyrna was the home of Polycarp and the scene of his martyrdom in A.D. 168. The hillside of Mount Pagus, where he was burned at the stake, has since been reddened by the blood of fifteen hundred Christians at one time and eight hundred at another. When asked by the judge to renounce Christianity with its Christ, he replied: “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me wrong, how then can I blaspheme my King, who hath saved me?” Tertullian tells us that Polycarp was consecrated bishop of Smyrna by the apostle John, and with this conclusion agree also the testimonies of Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Jerome.
Tamerlane, the Tartar chieftain, captured the city of Smyrna in A.D. 1402 and massacred its inhabitants, concentrating on the Christians. Smyrna was the last Christian city to hold out against the Turks when they overran Asia Minor. When they finally captured it, in 1424, they put to death most of its Christian population. The destruction of thousands Smyrnean Christians by the Turks in 1922 is fresh in the memories of many. But the local church still lives. Smyrna has, for some time, been the headquarters of several denominational mission enterprises. Located there are a number of Christian schools. A few years ago, it was said that more Christians lived in Smyrna than in any other Turkish city in the world. The local church will doubtless continue till the second coming of Christ, when all the faithful will be given “a crown of life.”
The Smyrna Period
An era of martyrdom, and of the sweet savor unto God of faithfulness unto death, but marked with further developments of defection in the establishment of casts and orders, the license of Judaizing propensities, and consequent departures from the true simplicities of the Gospel. (Seiss, p. 142.) The Smyrna period covered about two hundred years, or the second and third centuries. It was the age of martyrdom, when the pagan Roman emperors attempted to destroy Christianity with the violence of the sword, considering it a form of treason. Christians who refused to forsake their faith were threatened with the loss of all citizenship rights, confisca-tion of property, imprisonment, torture, and death.
During this period Roman rulers and writers bitterly denounced Christianity and reckoned Christians as the offscouring of the earth. Suetonius called Christianity “a novel and wicked superstition.” Christians were “hated for their shameful deeds.” These false accusations made Christians outlaws against the religion and state of the Romans, and thus brought upon them bitter and relentless persecutions.
Justin Martyr, with six other Christians, was scourged and beheaded in A.D. 165. Irenaeus is believed to have been put to death in 202 during the martyrdoms under Diocletian, Eusebius in 304 during the martyrdoms under Diocletian. Eusebius said of these terrible times: “We saw with our own eyes the houses of prayer thrown down to the very foundations, and the Divine and Sacred Scriptures committed to the flames.” “We . . . have observed [in Thebais] large crowds in one day; some suffering decapitation, others torture by fire; so that the murderous sword was blunted, and becoming weak, was broken, and the very executioners grew weary and relieved each other.” (Ecclesiastical History, book 8, Chapter 2.)
But the church of myrrh and bitterness was agreeable and precious to Christ. Though it was persecuted unto death, the very crushing released the fragrance of love and grace and patient endurance that is so precious in the sight of the Master. Someone has said that “during this persecution the alabaster box of Christian fragrance was broken and the perfume has filled the centuries.” It is impossible to estimate the number of Christian martyrs during those days of persecution, but the persecutors were so sure that the hated sect was entirely exterminated that a coin was struck in celebration of the triumph of the pagan gods over the faith of Jesus.
The True Riches
Jesus declared that He was fully acquainted with the tribulation and poverty of His people during this period, but He said they were rich in spiritual things. The pover-ty was doubtless the result of their tribulation, which often ended in death. The original word for tribulation means “to be in straits.” It is distress resulting from being hard pressed, or hemmed in on every side.
Jesus comforted the Smyrneans with the assurance that their poverty in temporal things could not rob them of their spiritual riches. “But thou art rich” is His message to them. They were rich in grace and faith, and had laid up “treasure in heaven.” (Romans 8:32; Colossians 2:3; 1 Timothy 6:18; James 2:5; Matthew 6:20.)
During the first three centuries the church was characterized by material poverty and spiritual power, whereas the modern church is noted for its material wealth and spiritual weakness. Trench says that in the sight of Christ “there are both poor rich-men and rich poor-men.” (Trench, Richard C. Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia. 5th edition p. 107, 1890.)
Spiritual riches constitute the true wealth – that which alone will endure. Many of the most wealthy in material things are moral paupers and spiritual bankrupts. Jesus alone can furnish spiritual treasure, and this He offers to the poverty-stricken church of our generation. He says, “I counsel thee to buy of Me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.” Revelation 3:18.
Smyrna was a Rich Poor Church and Laodicea, a Poor Rich Church
Smyrna was a rich poor church and Laodicea, a poor rich church. It is far better to be poor in the estimation of the world and rich in spiritual things than to be rich in one’s own esteem and the worlds, but poverty stricken in the sight of Christ. Persecution for the sake of righteousness has always been a blessing in disguise. The psalmist beautifully sets forth the beneficial results of divinely permitted trials: “For Thou, O God, hast proved us: Thou hast tried us, as silver is tried. Thou broughtest us into the net; Thou laidst affliction upon our loins. Thou hast caused men to ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; but Thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place.” (Psalm 66:10-12.) Here is the secret of a spiritual experience that leads out of the barren desert into a spiritual oasis.
Church of Satan
Church of Satan. Christ also had knowledge of those false disciples who claimed to be “Jews,”but were rather of the church or “synagogue of Satan.” Although we know upon the evidence of the Scriptures and profane history that the Jews in general joined the heathen in hating and persecuting Christians, the term Jew is here used to depict the disciples of Christ. The term is sometimes used in the Scriptures to represent the true people of God in contrast with the Gentiles, or unconverted. (Romans 2:28, 29; Revelation 2:9; 3:9.) The usual term however is Israel, or Israelite, which is synonymous with Christian.
Paul declared that the children of faith are the true children of Abraham, and that if we are Christians then we are “Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:7, 29.) The term Israel had its origin the night Jacob wrestled with the angel. This is the term used in most instances, and the one more appropriate than Jew, yet we need to remember that Jesus was a Jew and so also were all His apostles and prophets.
The false brethren were not really members of the church of Christ even though their names were enrolled on the church records. They were of “the synagogue of Satan.” Synagogue and Church are virtually synonymous terms, meaning “congre-gation,” or “assembly.” Ancient Israel is called “the church in the wilderness” in Acts 7:38, and “the congregation of the Lord” in the Old Testament Scriptures.
The Christian church is called a “synagogue” in the marginal reading of James 2:2. Satan, the great deceiver and imitator, has a church, or synagogue, which God designates as “Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth.” There are but two churches, and they are rivals. Between them there is no neutral ground. All who are not of the church of Christ are of the synagogue of Satan. The apostasy that began through the loss of love in the latter part of the Ephesian period, continued to develop, and false apostles and disciples multiplied in the church. “The mystery of iniquity” was working even in “the congregation of the Lord.”
Future Persecutions Foretold
In Revelation 2:10 future trials are predicted, including imprisonment. Jesus said, “And ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” In love and mercy, He foretells what is coming, and promises deliverance. Regarding the experience of Paul, Jesus said: “I will shew him how great things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” (Acts 9:16) Christ never entices recruits for His cause by promises of an easy and a pleasant life.
Practically all the Roman emperors during the Ephesian and Smyrnean periods persecuted the Christians, but ten of them were more pronounced in their enmity. These were Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Hadrian, Severus, Maximinus, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian, and Diocletian. As for Pontifex Maximus of the religion of the state, the emperor was the “protector of the Roman gods.” It was therefore his duty to guard the religion of the empire against the inroads of other systems.
For ten prophetic days the persecution was to continue, and during that time Christians would be put under pressure and given “the third degree” of torture. As the result of this, the persecutors were finally convinced that it would be useless to prolong the process. The last and most bloody of these ten persecutions took place under Diocletian, and lasted ten years, from A.D. 302 to 312. Dr. Adam Clarke and other commentators believe that the “ten days” refer especially to this ten-year per-iod based on the day/year prophecy. The “ten days” of trial mentioned represent a period that would test God’s people to the limit of their endurance both in severity and duration. Christians were to pass through a complete baptism of suffering and martyrdom with the assurance of the fullness of Christ’s love and sympathy and the promise of a “crown of life” as the reward of loyalty and steadfastness.
The Promised Reward
The reward offered the church of Smyrna was not only “a crown of life,” but the voice of the Holy Spirit adds the promise, “He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.” “Be faithful to the end even if you have to die, and then I will give you the victor’s wreath of life,” is the Weymouth translation. The promise is not alone to those who maintain their faithfulness to the end of life in a natural sense, but especially to the persecuted when death was the price of their loyalty. The reward is for those upon whom the enemy inflicts his worst tortures, ending even in death itself. The recompense for faithfulness even unto martyrdom is “a crown of life.” Elsewhere Christians are promised “a crown of glory,” “a crown of righteousness,” and “a crown of rejoicing.”
The crown of our text is not a crown of royalty but rather a “garland of life” or a “victor’s wreath.” Smyrna was noted for its athletic contests, when garlands of victory were given to the successful contestants. During this period of persecution millions of Christians died for their faith, but more millions still became Christians as the result of their steadfastness “even unto death.” The blood of martyrs was the seed that produced a bountiful harvest of souls.
To the church of martyrs Jesus declared Himself to be the One who had also suffered martyrdom, but was again alive, with a life that would never end. His death was a triumph, and all who are faithful unto death will be given the crown of everlasting life. Nero lost his crown and Paul his head, but the latter died a victor, with the promise of “a crown of righteousness” and a part of the paradise restored. Polycarp remained faithful even unto martyrdom, and a crown of life and glory awaits him at the resurrection of the just.
Those who maintain their loyalty unto the first death will escape the second death, which will be eternal and from which there will be no resurrection. We need not be too much concerned about the first death, which is temporary and come to all alike, provided we have maintained that union with the Life-giver by which we can escape the second death. On the other hand, those who are born only once must die twice.
The Candlestick of the Church of Smyrna
The candlestick of the church of Smyrna was not removed. It is the only church of the seven that exists today and is still letting its gospel light shine. Smyrna has been known to the Turks as “Infidel Smyrna” because of their inability to destroy the local church. Nor were the emperors of pagan Rome able to extin-guish the light through the agency of persecution.
Smyrna and Philadelphia are the only two of the seven churches that received no reproof or condemnation, and they are the only two of the seven cities that retain anything of their former importance and glory. The Christians of the Smyrna period needed encouragement. There were things that needed to be corrected, but they had about all they could stand without reproof.
The Fires of Persecution Had Purified the Church
The fires of persecution had purified the church, and much of the lost love and works had been regained. Tribulation will also play an important part in the purification of the remnant of the church in preparation for translation. Of them it is said:
“These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Revelation 7:9,13,14.