MESSAGE TO SMYRNA
Only forty kilometers north of Ephesus, the city of Smyrna was the original seat of emperor worship in Asia of the Roman Empire. Long before the dominance of the Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean, Smyrna had manifested its allegiance to Rome. As a port city, it grew to prominence during the growth of the Roman Empire and was known for its beauty and magnificent public buildings.
Located within the city was a temple that was built to honor Emperor Tiberius, one of the Caesars of Rome. As a seat of the Dea Roma (the goddess of Rome), this religion preceded Roman emperor worship. By aligning itself with Rome, Smyrna handed over its faith to Rome when the emperors of Rome began to demand total state and religious allegiance throughout the Empire. In A.D. 26, Smyrna was the first city to make emperor worship mandatory. And because Polycarp, an elder of the church in Smyrna, refused to recant his statements against state religion, he was subsequently martyred in Symrna around A.D. 155.
One major sociological point that modern-day Bible interpreters usually miss is the nature of the society of the small cities in which Christians lived in the first century. If a city had a population of 20,000 to 30,000, everyone in the city knew what was going on with everyone else in the city. No one could live a hidden life, especially when the whole city was given over to pagan religiosity. As Christians sought to preach the gospel, everyone in a city knew who the Christians were.
Now add to this the fact that these small cities politically gave their allegiance to Rome in order to be protected by Rome. Allegiance to Rome eventually meant calling Caesar lord, which was actually a confession of loyalty to Rome. Now if one could not conscientiously do this because he had only one Lord, then there were accusations of insurrection. And everyone in town knew those who would not give allegiance to Caesar by calling him lord. If one lived in a city of one million population or more, then he could possibly conceal his loyalty to Jesus only by meeting secretly in a house with fellow disciples. But other than Ephesus, the largest of the seven cities of Revelation, no disciple could conceal that he was a disciple of Jesus in the other cities. As the fervor of Roman religion grew, the pressure on Christians to bow down before Caesar intensified. And so, Rome eventually unleashed relentless persecution against Christians throughout the Empire because they were considered insurrectionists.
We would suppose that the gospel first came to Smyrna as a result of the outreach ministry of Paul through his teaching in the school of Tyrannus in Ephesus during the middle 50s (At 19:10). Because of its close proximity to Ephesus, we would assume that zealous young disciples of the church in Ephesus saw Smyrna as an early mission city, and thus, they focused on the city in preaching the gospel. Their preaching subsequently led to the baptism of disciples in the city some time during Paul’s two years of teaching in the school of Tyrannus.
A. The comfort and encouragement:
The message to the disciples in Smyrna by the resurrected Jesus begins with His acknowledgment of their faithfulness. “I know your works and tribulation and poverty” (Rv 2:9). In their work, it seems that everything was against them. According to the remainder of the book of Revelation, it may have been that they could neither get jobs nor retain jobs because they refused to recognize Caesar as lord (See Rv 13:16,17). As a result of their refusal, they were boycotted by pagan religionists who sought to manifest their allegiance to Rome by honoring Caesar as the only lord of the people.
1. Tribulation: It is believed that in his early years Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John. In A.D. 155 the Roman Proconsul of Smyrna demanded of Polycarp, “Swear and I will set you at liberty; reproach Christ.” In his old age at the time, Polycarp responded, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He never did me injury. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” And so Polycarp was martyred for Christ in Smyrna by a local government official who did not have the sanction of the government of Rome to do so.
We are sure that Polycarp remembered the life of Jesus and His sufferings. He certainly remembered the prophesied state persecution that John said would soon come upon the Christians of the Roman Empire. In the years to come after Jesus’ message, the Smyrna Christians needed to remember the words of the Hebrew writer: “For since He Himself [Jesus] has suffered while being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (Hb 2:18). And so Jesus left an example of suffering for His disciples to follow.
For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow His steps (1 Pt 2:21).
Therefore, when under tribulation, “let us hold fast to our confession” (Hb 4:14). It is certain that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tm 3:12). Nevertheless, “if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this name” (1 Pt 4:16). We must glorify God in our tribulation, for “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (At 14:22). The Christians in Smyrna had undergone tribulation in the past, but it seems that it was going to get worse before it got better. This tribulation would be coming from state religionists throughout the Roman Empire. John reminded the disciples in all the seven cities that the tribulation was soon to begin (Rv 1:1; 22:6).
Jesus promised the Smyrna disciples that they would suffer “ten days” (Rv 2:10). The number “10” signified that which was complete, and thus, there would be an end to the tribulation that was coming. This is the “little while” of suffering by which the readers of Peter’s epistle were encouraged:
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been distressed by many trials, so that the proof of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is refined with fire, might be found to praise and honor and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Pt 1:6,7).
Someone once said, “A religion that has to be heated in winter, air-conditioned in summer, dampened in dry weather and dried in wet weather, will take one where the temperature cannot be controlled.” And indeed, a faith that is not worth dying for is not worth believing. Those to whom Peter wrote would have their faith tested as those in Smyrna. God would step back for a moment and allow Satan to refine as gold the faith of His children. It is for this reason that Christians can count it with all joy when they fall into different trials (Js 1:2). They know that their faith is being refined for greater things to come. Satan’s efforts to discourage Christians through trials sifts out the weak, but strengthens those who endure.
In this message of Jesus to the Christians in Smyrna, He was laying a foundation for the theme of the unique visions of encouragement that were to follow in the letter. There was a great persecution coming. Since John was in the area, being on the island of Patmos (Rv 1:9), those in Smyrna would suffer the beginning of what Rome would later unleash as state persecution against Christianity. This persecution would carry on for over 150 years, ending only when Galerius issued the Edict of Toleration in A.D. 311. Though the imminent persecution was coming upon these Christians, John called on them to remember the encouragement of the visions of the book. No matter how bad it would get, they must remember the outcome of the persecution:
These will make war with the Lamb and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings. And those who are with Him are called and chosen and faithful (Rv 17:14).
It goes without saying that the modern-day prognosticators of our times seek to steal away the encouragement of Revelation from these early disciples. They do so by making fanciful interpretations of Revelation that are supposed to be fulfilled in our times, things that they assume are in reference to the end of the world. If the encouragement that Jesus made to the disciples of Smyrna were actually meant for us today, then He lied to the church in Smyrna, as well as to all the early Christians who were about to endure the wrath of Rome. But it was as if John knew that there would come these false prophets, for in the very first verse of the book he reminded his readers, including the disciples in Smyrna, of “things that must shortly come to pass” (Rv 1:1). And “shortly” does not mean over two thousand years later. And as if one might forget by the end of the book that the fulfillment of the revelations would come to pass in the time of the first recipients of the letter, John closed the letter with the statement: “And the Lord God of the spirits of the prophets sent His angel to show to His bondservants [in Smyrna, Ephesus, Philadelphia, etc.] the things that must shortly take place” (Rv 22:6). “Shortly” does not mean “short time of persecution,” for how can a century and a half of Roman state persecution be a short time of persecution? John was saying to his immediate readers that the trials they were personally about to endure were immediate. After the death of these immediate disciples, the state persecution of Rome against Christianity would carry on for over one hundred years. Those interpreters who believe that the “shortly” refers to the duration of persecution being brief, need to talk to those Christians who grew up in the catacombs of Rome and never saw the light of day because of the ongoing persecution of Christianity at the time. It is easy to make silly interpretations when one lives outside the immediate historical context.
It takes some awesome hermeneutical gymnastic of twisting Scriptures to contort the phrase “shortly take place” to mean a period of over two thousand years later. But such do the modern-day prophets who are so zealous to find some “sign of the times” in the book of Revelation in order to generate a following of those who are willing to be “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of teaching, by the trickery of men in cleverness to the deceitfulness of error” (Ep 4:14).
2. Poverty: This is where disciples who consider themselves to be of the developing world sit up and listen to what Jesus has to say concerning the advantages of poverty. It seems that the Christians in Symrna could identify with the poor saints in Macedonia, about whom Paul wrote,
… we make known to you the grace of God that has been given to the churches of Macedonia, that in a great trial of affliction, the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty, abounded in the riches of their liberality (2 Co 8:1,2).
As the Christians in Macedonia, the Christians in Smyrna did not allow their tribulation and poverty to detour them from pouring out through works their appreciation for the grace of God. They were as Paul who experienced the grace of God in his own life.
But by the grace of God I am what I am. And His grace toward me was not in vain, but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me (1 Co 15:10).
In our experience throughout the world we have found that poorer brethren are often more evangelistic than those who seek to consume the world upon their own lusts. Consumers have too many other things on their minds than what is most important in life. The poor have the advantage of not having their minds diverted to things and activities of this world, which things they cannot afford. Christians who have few things of this world on which to focus have more time to focus on those things that are not of this world. Disciples who do not have money to involve themselves in worldly activities have time to involve themselves in the activities that lead to the preaching of the gospel. At least all church historians agree on one principle of church growth: The more prosperous a society becomes, the less the church growth within the society.
Jesus knows the state of being of those who have little. But He also expects the poor never to use their poverty as an excuse not to go to work for Him. One may certainly be poor in the possessions of the world, but he must keep in mind what Jesus said to the poor saints in Smyrna: “But you are rich!” (Rv 2:9). What the disciples in Smyrna may have thought concerning their poverty is that they forgot to consider the blessing of not having material blessings. Those who bemoan their low economic state of being must remember their high state of being in Christ.
In their work for the Lord, the Smyrna disciples learned well from what Jesus said on the sermon on the mount:
… do not be worried about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? (Mt 6:25; see 6:25-34).
The one who has put all his trust in God has learned the secret to the contented life. Jesus said that if one stores up goods to secure himself in this life, he will not be “rich toward God” (Lk 12:21). Those who are obsessed with the riches of this world need to remember that God has “chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He has promised to those who love Him” (Js 2:5). For this reason, we would follow Moses:
By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer mistreatment with the people of God than to temporarily enjoy the pleasures of sin (Hb 11:24,25).
“The synagogue of Satan”: It may be that the phrase “synagogue of Satan” is a play on words in this context. It is believed that the Jews persecuted Christians more in this city than the Romans. In fact, one tradition says that the Jews carried the wood to the fire to burn the body of the martyred Polycarp. Therefore, what should have been a synagogue of those who should have welcomed Jesus as the Messiah, was actually a synagogue of those who sought to destroy all that Jesus wanted to accomplish through His disciples in the region. While thinking that they were carrying out the will of God, the Jews were actually working for Satan.
The persecuting Jews of Smyrna illustrate those of all religious groups who believe they are pleasing their god by persecuting those who are the disciples of the incarnate God. But they are as Jesus said of the Jewish religious leaders who confronted Him,
You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not abide in the truth because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and its father (Jn 8:44).
It would certainly be a shocking thing to wake up one day and discover that all one’s religious zeal was actually moving one to work against the will of God. It took Saul three days to morph initially into Paul as he agonized over the fact that he was actually a part of a “synagogue of Satan” worshipers. It is hard to imagine that a religiously obsessed person as Saul would eventually have to confess, “I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and injurious” to God’s people (1 Tm 1:13). Few religious leaders who work against God in their misguided religiosity are able to make such a statement, feeling that they would embarrass themselves before those they have led in rebellion against God for so long. But Paul made the confession. It was as if he could not forgive himself when he wrote to Timothy: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst” (1 Tm 1:15).
We would suggest that everyone who would lift himself up to be a religious leader of the people of God take another look at what “Paul, the confessor” stated in 1 Timothy 1:13:
I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and injurious. But I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.
This would not be a comfortable passage for the arrogant religious leader who has discovered that he has been working against God. Paul’s humble statement that he obtain the mercy of God was based on one major condition: “I did it ignorantly in unbelief.” This one statement is profound in defining the character of a true leader of God’s people. Paul confessed that his behavior was based on ignorance. He thought he was doing that which was true and right. He had always done the best he could with what he knew. How many religious leaders are there who are able, as Paul and Apollos (At 18:25,26), to confess up that they have been preaching error? When honest people learn more, they are willing to change and preach the new truth that they have learned. The mark of a true leader is his willingness to learn more truth, and when he learns more truth from study of the word of God, he believes and does what he learns. And because Paul counted pomp, position and prominence as rubbish to be discarded, he was in all good conscience before God (Ph 3:7,8).
How many religious zealots are there who claim to be working on behalf of their god by persecuting disciples as those Jews who were in Smyrna? Before one is too eager to condemn others to an eternal doom of destruction, he should first look to himself to see if he is not on the membership role at the local “synagogue of Satan.” One can determine if his membership is with the “synagogue of Satan” by the level of harshness he has toward those who disagree with him on minor issues that are not fundamentals of the faith. We must not forget that there are “churches of Satan” out there who are sending their members out with judgments to pronounce upon everyone who does not fit into their legal pattern of religiosity. Those who are quick to pronounce condemnation upon a fellow brother with whom they may disagree should check the membership role of the local “church of Satan.” They might find their names there.
This is the context from which one of the most popular verses of the Bible is taken concerning faithfulness.
1. Faithfulness: “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life” (Rv 2:10). The phrase “unto death” is the same in the Greek text as in Revelation 12:11: “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony. And they did not love their lives to the death.” Therefore, in reflecting on 2:10, we could assume the meaning that Jesus’ encouragement to the disciples in Smyrna was that they should be faithful even if it meant death. Polycarp certainly believed this, and thus would not recant his statements in the face of death. Sweet on the lips of every faithful disciple should be the words,
Blessed is the man who endures temptation, for when he is tried, he will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him (Js 1:12).
It was for this crown that Paul fought in order to finish his destiny. “I have fought the good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness …” (2 Tm 4:7,8). So the faithful can endure tribulation because they know that “when the Chief Shepherd appears” they “will receive a crown of glory that does not fade away” (1 Pt 5:4).
It should at least be as an idolatrous Greek sailor prayed to his deity, “Father Neptune, you may sink me if you will; you may save me if you will. But, whatever happens, I’ll keep my rudder true.” It is correct as someone said, “True nobility is forged on the anvil of experience and fashioned on the battlefield of life.”
Faithful Christians are engaged in a race, a race in which they must struggle to finish (Hb 12:1,2). Paul reminded the Corinthian saints, “And every man who strives exercises self-control in all things. Now they [athletes] do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we an imperishable” (1 Co 9:25). It is the faithful Christian who will be crowned. It will be those who have stayed in the battle who will appreciate the crown.
Blessed are those bondservants whom the lord, when he comes, will find watching. Truly I say to you that he will gird himself and have them sit down to eat, and will come and serve them (Lk 12:37).
2. Overcome: As was made to those in Ephesus, this promise of Jesus of reward for overcoming is made to the faithful in Smyrna: “He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death” (Rv 2:11). What is interesting in the Greek text here is that a double negative is used. In English a double negative is not good grammar, for it would signify an affirmative. But a double negative in Greek is like saying, “Will never, never be hurt ….” It is an absolute. And in the case of the promise to the disciples in Smyrna, there is no chance whatsoever that they will lose their souls if they remain faithful even if it means death.
One may experience physical death as a result of his faithfulness, but he will never experience separation from the eternal presence of God. He will not because he has obeyed the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (See 2 Th 1:7-9). Some good poet of old captured the thought in the following words of an old poem he entitled, In His Steps:
“The road is too rough,” dear Lord, “I cried.
There are stones that hurt me so.”
And He said, “Dear child, I understand.
I walked it long ago.”
“But there is a cool, green path,” I said,
“Let me walk there for a time.”
“No, child,” He gently answered me,
“The green road does not climb.”
“But I wish that there were friends with me,
Who would make my way there won.”
“Ah, yes,” He said, “Gethsemane,
Was hard to bear alone.”
And so I climbed the stone path,
Content at last to know,
That where my Master had not gone,
I would not have to go.
And strangely then I found new friends,
The burden grew less sore,
As I remember long ago,
He went that way before.
Jesus seeks that we hear Him in order to walk with Him down a path of tribulation. And in view of the promises that are set before us, we seek to hear and walk that path. So it is as John wrote, “We are from God. He who knows God hears us. He who is not from God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 Jn 4:6). John was simply saying that we can know the disciples of Jesus who are on the path of tribulation. We can know by their zeal to study what he and the other writers of the New Testament were writing to the people of God. Jesus said, “He who is of God hears God’s words” (Jn 8:47). This certainly means that those who are true disciples of Jesus are studying what God has to say. Good disciples are thus good Bible students. Both Jesus and John are saying that we can identify disciples of Jesus by those who are studying their Bibles. If one is not, then certainly he is not a disciple of the One who would lead him down a road of tribulation by the power of God’s word.
Those who are not studying the word of Jesus, are not listening. Jesus’ message is an exhortation that the disciples of Symrna listen to what He had to say. If they did not, then puff. The flickering flame in Symrna would be gone.
[Schedule for next lecture: March 16]