Revelation 2:8–11. Smyrna. The Persecuted Church.
Key Notes: Polycarp's martyrdom. Modern persecutions. Horowitz's voice.
Smyrna was a rich and especially beautiful city, widely praised by Roman writers. The Jewish community was faring very well. The Christians, however, were in a wretched state:
•troubled. Tribulation means emotional pressure, harassment--perhaps persecution by the synagogue, here called the synagogue of Satan. (Note Jesus' word in Jn.8:39–44.)
•impoverished. The Greek word indicates total loss of personal goods, not mere poverty.
Christians in the Empire were accused of many crimes:
cannibalism. They ate the body and drank the blood of Christ.
lust. They celebrated a "love feast", i.e. the Eucharist.
breaking up homes. Becoming a Christian disrupted families.
atheism. They refused to honor the Roman gods.
political disloyalty. They would not call Caesar "lord".
incendiarism. They prophesied a fiery end of the world.
•more persecution is in store, but the time is limited ? to ten years. Some associate the prophecy with Domitian's attacks on the Christians.
•imprisonment, usually a prelude to death.
The encouragement to be faithful to death comes from Jesus, "The First and the Last", the One who created the universe, who planned our redemption, and who has all the materials in his hand. And He is the One who died and lives again, our Pioneer, who has gone before, experiencing death for everyone. The promise He gives is eternal life.
Smyrna is famous for the martyrdom of its bishop, Polycarp, in Feb.155AD. It was the time of the annual athletic games. Ten or twelve Christians had already been sacrificed, but the blood lust drove the crowd to demand Polycarp. He was now an old man. He could have escaped, but had a dream that he was to be martyred. The policeman begged him to renounce Christ and save his life, but in the arena he said the famous words:
"Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?" The crowd came flocking with sticks, including Jews, who were violating the Sabbath. He died burned at the stake. Barclay's commentary on Revelation gives the story in more detail. (The Revelation of John. W.Barclay; Westminster,’76)
Tribulation comes from two sources, with different objectives. It comes from God to discipline His people. It comes from Satan to destroy the work of God. The task is to distinguish the two.
In the Old Testament, prosperity was a sign of God's blessing, and tribulation was His judgment, but also part of His redemptive work.
"...He had seen their affliction...." (Ex.4:31). Israel was enslaved by the Egyptians according to the plan of God. (Gen.15:13). Egypt's intent was to destroy the Hebrews, but God's plan was to save them as a nation.
"…when you are in tribulation and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey His voice." (Deut.4:30)
This reference is to the Babylonian captivity, and perhaps also to the second dispersion by the Romans (70AD). In the case of Babylon, or Rome, the intent was destruction, but God's plan was to purify the people.
In the Psalms God brings affliction on the righteous, but also delivers them out of their distress.
"You did lay affliction on our loins... yet You have brought us forth to a spacious place." (Psa.66:11–12)
New Testament teaching is more comprehensive.
1. Tribulation is inevitable. "In the world you have tribulation." (Jn.16:33)
2.The sufferings of the Christian are the sufferings of Christ. As they persecuted Him, so they will also persecute us.( John 15:20). Jesus spoke to Saul, "Why are you persecuting Me?" (Acts 9:4)
"For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too." (IICor.1:5)
"...always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh." (IICor.4:10–11)
"...in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the church...." (Col.1:24)
3.These are "end-times" sufferings. We live in "the close of the age" and its "birth-pangs". Matt.24:3,8. Paul speaks of us "...upon whom the end of the ages has come". (ICor.10:11)
4.Those who bring tribulation on the church will be judged. "God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you." (IIThes.1:6)
5.The threat of tribulation is death. Paul was "often near death." (IICor.11:23). It requires giving our lives back to God.
6.Short of death, tribulation has benefits. "Suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope." (Rom.5:3–4)
How should we react to the widespread persecution of Christians in Asia, Africa and the middle-East? We have been inclined to be
fatalistic: "It is God's will" or
depressive: "We deserve it"or
selfish: "Just so it isn't us" or
patronizing: "Muslims are taught to kill; what do you expect?"
Recently a Jewish political leader, Michael Horowitz, has come to Christians' defense. His viewpoint is political rather than spiritual:
"By their very existence, Christian communities are forces for democracy and modernity and thus great threats to tyrants. Christian communities may not think of their prayers as 'political' acts of opposition to the state. Nonetheless, the inherent message of Christianity is so clearly a call for dignity and freedom and human autonomy as to make it necessarily subversive to tyrants."
He points to the effect of political pressure.
"When seemingly all-powerful Soviet Communists had to bow to worldwide pressure to permit Jews to freely migrate, walls that the Communists had built around churches and political dissidents began to crumble." "...American church leaders" have been enabled "to break out of the quarantine our culture had them penned in...and describe the good Christianity has done for the world." (Christianity Today. Mar.1,1999, p50–55).
Take Courage. Stand firm.