Special series: The Revelation of Jesus Christ
Third in a series of eight
Smyrna: The church in fear of suffering
By James K. Bridges
An early Christian revival, which spread to “all who dwelt in Asia” (Acts 19:10, NKJV), no doubt extended to Smyrna. The apostle Paul, or his associates, brought the “Word of the Lord Jesus” to this community, resulting in the establishment of this Pentecostal church.
Smyrna was considered to be the most beautiful city in Asia, both in architecture and surroundings. Having existed 3,000 years before Christ, it is still in existence today as the third-largest city in Turkey, now known as Izmir.
Despite all its beauty, there were sinister forces at work in the city attempting to destroy the church of Jesus Christ. Smyrna was a center of idolatrous emperor worship. A temple was erected to Tiberius Caesar, and under Domitian it became a crime against the state to refuse to worship the emperor. Christians who refused to acknowledge “Caesar is Lord” were killed or imprisoned. There were also numerous temples erected to the idolatrous worship of Cybele, Zeus, Apollo, Nemesis, Aphrodite and Asclepios. Many of God’s people would pay with their lives as the church was established in Smyrna.
Our world and its major cities are under the same satanic control today.
The identification of the Author
“The First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life” (2:8).
The church is reminded of the eternality of the Lord, “the First and the Last.” This title is often associated with two other titles — “the Alpha and the Omega” and “the Beginning and the End.”
Alpha and omega are the first and last letters in the Greek alphabet. Since Christ is the total embodiment of all truth, wisdom, knowledge and authority, He is sufficient to meet the needs of His people completely and under all circumstances, “from A to Z and everything in between.” To refer to Christ as “the Beginning and the End” is to speak of His timelessness.
James Ramsey, in his commentary The Book of Revelation, pointed out four areas in which Christ is “the First and the Last.”
1) He is the first and the last in creation. “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Romans 11:36).
2) He is the first and the last in providence. “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
3) He is the first and the last in redemption. “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
4) He is the first and the last in faith. “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
For faithful believers who were facing imprisonment and death, it was comforting to be reminded that the Head of the church, Jesus Christ, had trod the path before them victoriously. Hence, He emphasized to them that death was a possibility but it was not the end: He “was dead,” but He is “alive forevermore.” There is victory over death for them because He has “the keys of Hades and of Death” (Revelation 1:18), and the time is coming when Christ will cast death and hades into the lake of fire (20:14). What hope for these suffering believers! Because Jesus himself faced everything the devil could throw at Him and conquered, so the church at Smyrna could count on the risen Christ to lead them to triumph over death. Let us never forget that we are “more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). Because He lives, we too will live (John 14:19).
The evaluation of the church
“I know your works, tribulation, and poverty” (2:9).
Even under severe persecution and dire poverty, the people of the Smyrna church were continuing to serve the Lord. These believers were hard pressed by relentless persecution from fanatics in Smyrna who embraced emperor worship, and from blaspheming Jews who sided with the wrath of the Roman government to destroy the Christians. The Lord refers to the latter as “a synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9).
Christ knows what is still ahead for the church and prepares the believers for a coming wave of persecution that would mean imprisonment for some (2:10). The Smyrna Christians were to remember three things: (1) although men were doing this to them, they must understand that it was the work of the devil; (2) although they would have to suffer, it would only last a limited time and an end was in sight; and (3) because Christ would be with them, they were not to fear the sufferings.
Christ recognizes that the church at Smyrna was in the throes of fear. He helps the believers to see that, for them, this is a time of testing and that, with His help, they would make it through. This church would find, as Paul found, that “[God’s] grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Fear is a foe of the church in every generation. We must keep in constant focus that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). We can overcome any fear through Christ’s love, His strength and a scriptural thought life.
Throughout church history, the church of Jesus Christ has had to confront the fear of suffering, persecution and martyrdom. The World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford University Press, 2001) has indicated that from A.D. 33 to 2000 there have been an estimated 70 million martyrs. Of these 70 million, 25 million martyrs were estimated from A.D. 33 to 1900, while 45 million martyrs were estimated from 1900 to 2000. There were more Christians martyred in the 20th century than in all the preceding centuries. Persecution and martyrdom surface in different parts of the world at different times. Knowing that this is the handiwork of our great enemy, the devil, it will pay the church to be alert and prepared to face the powers of darkness in the strength of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 6:10).
The solution to the existing condition
“Do not fear … be faithful until death” (2:10).
In the face of fear, the Lord’s word is, “Fear not!” In the face of hatred, in the hands of evil men, Christ had stood without fear.
In A.D. 155 Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, stood, like his Lord Jesus, before those who threatened to kill him if he did not deny Christ and acknowledge the lordship of Caesar. Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury; how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” He was burned at the stake, proclaiming that “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.” This he did and thus he died without fear and in faith.
The consolation promised to overcomers
“I will give you the crown of life” (2:10).
Faithfulness has its reward — the crown of life. Scripture speaks of several crowns — of righteousness, of rejoicing, of glory and one that never fades away. These are victors’ crowns, not royal diadems. They are for those who have followed the Lord and have overcome the world, flesh, sin and the devil. John observed that in the presence of the Lord God Almighty we will cast our crowns before God’s throne (Revelation 4:10). The church in Smyrna found that, like her Lord, a crown of thorns had to be worn before they could wear the crown of life.
“Shall not be hurt by the second death” (2:11).
The church in the United States has suffered very little persecution in comparison to the church worldwide. Yet, it is obvious that the church has lost its influence in this country, and the forces of evil are bidding strongly for the soul of this nation. What the future will hold for America remains to be seen. If atheists and pagans gain control of the government, suffering in various stages will begin, which will lead to persecution of the church and eventually to martyrdom. It is Satan’s plan to destroy Christ’s church, but Christ will not allow him to succeed.
We will all suffer the first (physical) death unless the rapture of the church occurs, for “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). However, John identified one of Revelation’s blessings to belong to those who have a part in the first resurrection (20:6). A person fortunate to be in the first resurrection will never be subject to the second death.
John then described the second death as “the lake of fire” into which death and hades will be cast (20:14). The lake of fire is the eternal incarceration of the devil, the antichrist and the false prophet, where this unholy trinity will suffer eternal damnation (20:10) along with “anyone not found written in the Book of Life” (20:15).
What great certainty a believer can have in the midst of persecution. It was the hope Christ gave to Smyrna, and it is the same hope for the church today.
James K. Bridges is general treasurer of the Assemblies of God.
This material will be found in expanded form in an upcoming book to be published by Gospel Publishing House.
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