Commendation of a Persecuted Church

What comfort is there for persecuted Christians? As we saw last time, in Revelation 2:8 Christ reminded a suffering church that He also suffered persecution. More than this, He has overcome death itself.

In Revelation 2:9, the Lord continues His reassuring words to the Christians in Smyrna: “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”

Needless to say, Smyrna was a difficult place to be a Christian. The believers there likely faced persecution on multiple fronts. To begin with, the city was deeply devoted to the worship of Caesar and the celebration of all things Rome. They even worshiped Rome itself—the Dea Roma was a goddess who personified the city. During Domitian’s reign, annual sacrifices to Caesar were mandatory; refusing to offer them was a capital offense. In fact, simply failing to say the words “Caesar is Lord” when prompted could cost a believer his life. While Christians could submit to Rome’s civil authority (see Romans 13:1–7), they could not partake in the idolatrous devotion to Caesar. Maintaining that dividing line made them look like seditious rebels, incurring Rome’s wrath.

In addition, Smyrna was awash in paganism. Pagan temples, festivals, and rituals of every kind dominated the social life of the city. And believers avoided it all. Christians in Smyrna were out of sync with the culture in every way. Moreover, they worshiped an invisible God—a completely counterintuitive idea in the ancient world which led to false accusations of atheism.

Adding to those forms of persecution was their “poverty” (Revelation 2:9). The believers in Smyrna weren’t just poor. The Greek word here (ptōcheia) means they had nothing. They lacked not only basic resources, but also the means to improve their situation. It’s possible that many in the church were slaves. And whatever meager possessions they once may have owned were likely forfeited in the persecution of believers. They were destitute, barely surviving on whatever they could scrounge together.

However, Christ includes a curious parenthetical note: “I know . . . your poverty (but you are rich).” Contrast that with the His condemning words to the church at Laodicea: “You say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17). The Laodiceans might have had material wealth, but in the things that mattered most—faithfulness, holiness, perseverance, and love for God—they were spiritually bankrupt. Conversely, the Christians in Smyrna had nothing, but they were spiritually rich.

Present Persecution

There was one other major front of persecution for the tormented believers in Smyrna. Christ describes it in Revelation 2:9 as “the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” The Jewish community in Smyrna hated the Christians. They spread vicious gossip about the church, poisoning the minds of the people and inciting the local government. Why? Because they fiercely despised the gospel of Jesus Christ and anyone who declared Him to be the long-awaited Messiah.

Israel’s religious leaders endlessly schemed to stifle the progress of the gospel and silence the apostles. Luke recorded many of their attempts in the book of Acts. In Acts 4:18 for example, the Sanhedrin commanded the apostles “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” When the apostles continued, “the high priest rose up, along with all his associates (that is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy. They laid hands on the apostles and put them in a public jail” (Acts 5:17–18). Acts 13 records the Jewish leaders’ reaction to Paul’s preaching in Antioch. “But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began contradicting the things spoken by Paul, and were blaspheming. But the Jews incited the devout women of prominence and the leading men of the city, and instigated a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district” (Acts 13:4550). In Iconium “the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles and embittered them against the brethren. And when an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and the Jews with their rulers, to mistreat and to stone them, they became aware of it and fled” (Acts 14:25–6). Luke tells us the trouble followed Paul and his companions to Lystra, where the “Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead” (Acts 14:19). In Thessalonica “the Jews, becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the market place, formed a mob and set the city in an uproar” (Acts 17:5). That was the kind of treacherous persecution the Jews in Smyrna were bringing against the church. They were so desperate to curtail the growth of the church that they partnered with heathens.

Christ refers to them as the “synagogue of Satan.” This is a chilling commentary on the apostasy of New Testament Judaism. Whatever lip service they still paid to the one true God was worthless after they rejected His Son as Messiah. Their religion was every bit as opposed to God’s truth as the emperor worship and paganism that dominated Smyrna, and their synagogues as spiritually vacant as the temples littering the Pagos.

The identification of these persecutors as “those who say they are Jews and are not” is not intended to say they were merely masquerading as Jews. Instead, it’s an echo of Paul’s statement in Romans 2:28–29:

For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.

By birth they were Jews, but spiritually they were blasphemous pagans and enemies of God.

Future Persecution

The letter to the church at Smyrna contains no rebuke or condemnation. The Lord had nothing but praise for this downtrodden church, and their faithfulness stands as a shining example to all churches everywhere.

However, the letter does carry a warning—not of judgment, but of more persecution to come. In Revelation 2:10 the Lord encourages them, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days.” There are no records to tell us how these prophecies were fulfilled in the church of Smyrna. We don’t know whom the devil inspired to cast them into prison; just that it was a common destination for believers in that city. Nor do we know specifically what occurred during the ten days of tribulation and testing. Some have suggested that the Lord was using figurative language to signify longer periods of persecution, but there’s no indication in the text that the Lord is referring to something other than ten twenty-four-hour days.

What we do know is that persecution of some kind in Smyrna carried on for decades and turned one of the heroes of the early church into one of its most famous martyrs. Polycarp was the bishop or pastor of the church at Smyrna. Tradition tells us he was ordained to preach by the apostle John—a plausible claim, since he was in his eighties when he was burned at the stake in AD 156, only fifty or sixty years after John wrote the book of Revelation. It’s possible he faithfully ministered in the churches of Asia Minor alongside John before the apostle’s exile to Patmos.

The story of Polycarp’s martyrdom illustrates how the entire city was aligned against the church and eager to usher in its demise. History tells us Polycarp died during a festival of public games (under Rome, that meant public executions). The Jews and the pagans banded together and clamored for his head.

Polycarp had no selfish interest in running for his life. He had a dream in which he saw the pillow under his head burning, and was convinced that this was a sign he would be burned alive. But in deference to the church, he did leave the city to stay with friends in the countryside. His pursuers were enraged when they couldn’t find him. They seized two children and tortured them until one gave up his location.

Tradition tells us that even the soldiers who arrested him and returned him to the city did not want to see him die. They pled with him to curse God and say, “Caesar is Lord,” or offer a simple sacrifice to the emperor to save his own life. We’re told the faithful pastor responded, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?” [1]

When news of his capture spread throughout the city, the excitement was so great that crowds gathered whatever scraps of wood they could find in shops and baths to build the bonfire. The Jews were so eager to see him killed that they brought more wood than anyone else, violating the Sabbath in the process. But Polycarp was unmoved by the threat of death. He challenged his persecutors:

Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt. [2]

Tradition tells us that his executioners did not nail him to the stake, as was customary. Before they could, Polycarp told them, “Leave me as I am; for he that giveth me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.” [3] Some accounts include the detail that he seemed so tranquil amid the flames that someone reached in with a sword to hasten his death.

That’s what life was like for the church in Smyrna. Every believer in the church had to live daily in the Psalmist’s bold proclamation: “In God I have put my trust, I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 56:11).

So far, Christ has acknowledged that these believers are persecuted, poor, and facing imprisonment. How can Christians remain faithful in the face of such intense persecution? Next time, we’ll examine Christ’s final word of encouragement to this suffering church.

Used with permission from John MacArthur.

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