By Rev. Mark Creech
Christian Action League
August 11, 2022
Smyrna was a city in the Roman province of Asia. It became a prosperous city famous for its wealth, beauty, and magnificent public buildings.
The second letter to the seven churches in Revelation chapter 2 is addressed to the Church’s pastor in this city. The Scripture reads:
“To the angel of the Church in Smyrna write: The First and the Last, the One who was dead and came to life, says: I know your tribulation and poverty, yet you are rich. [I know] the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are of a synagogue of Satan. Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. Look, the Devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:8-10).
Smyrna was a persecuted church. The late M.R. Dehaan, in his book, 35 Simple Studies on the Major Themes in Revelation, summarizes their circumstances and their significance:
“The words that are prominent in this passage are ‘tribulation,’ ‘poverty,’ ‘suffer,’ ‘prison,’ and, again, ‘tribulation.’ The last term perfectly describes the Church of the second and third centuries, when the ancient Roman Empire sought to eradicate the faith of Jesus from the earth. The Christians were burned and beaten, hanged and crucified, cast to lions, and tortured to death. It seemed that Christianity must cease to be. Under ten tyrants, from Nero to Constantine the Great, the Church was persecuted unto death. The history of those two hundred years is the blackest in the history of the Church. Smyrna was chosen as the symbol, therefore, of this Church period. The word Smyrna comes from the word ‘myrrh,’ one of the spices used in the ritual of Israel. It was a fragrant spice, but it had to be crushed and beaten small to give forth its full fragrance and perfume. What a perfect figure for the Church of the persecution of those days! The Christians, too, were crushed and persecuted, but the more they suffered, the more fragrant was their testimony. This period of church history has produced the most amazing records of fortitude and faith on the part of the martyrs of Smyrna, who stood upon the faggot piles praising God and met the lions quoting Scripture and singing psalms. In them, we see the truth of the age-old statement, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.'”
One notable martyr from Smyrna was the church father, Polycarp. It is believed Polycarp became a follower of Christ under the guidance of the apostle John. Some say he may have been the Church’s pastor [the angel] to which this particular letter from Christ was addressed. Others, however, contend this assertion shouldn’t be entertained because it would place the date of the book of Revelation far too late.
The story has it that the Roman proconsul had been searching for Polycarp for days. Christians had recently been executed in the arena because of their faith, and the crowd chanted for Polycarp’s death. After arresting one of his servants and torturing him, they could ascertain where Polycarp was hiding.
When the soldiers arrived at where he was staying, Polycarp simply said, “God’s will be done.” Rather than berate them, he urged his servants to feed the soldiers who had come to arrest and execute him.
The Roman proconsul implored Smyrna’s pastor to deny Christ and promised he would be set free if he did. Polycarp responded, “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
In response, the proconsul threatened to burn Polycarp alive. He replied, “You threaten me with a fire that burns an hour and is soon quenched, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment stored up for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Do what you want.”
When they led him to the pyre to be burned, they did not need to fasten him with nails like others who had been executed in the same manner. He voluntarily walked onto the pyre. As the flames intensified rapidly, even the fire wouldn’t touch him but made an arch around his body. Everyone was in complete awe. In the end, the Romans commanded an executioner to stab him, and his blood poured out, quenching the fire. Polycarp died from bleeding out.
It’s complicated for Americans, who have enjoyed so much religious liberty through the years, to identify with the persecution believers experienced during the second and third centuries. Still, Christians are beaten and martyred for Christ today in other places worldwide. An estimated 100 million Christians are being persecuted for their faith globally.
An Italian journalist, Antonio Socci, has estimated that as many as 45 million people were martyred for Christ in the Twentieth Century. However, Christian agencies and organizations that monitor human rights say that Socci’s figure is too high but agree the number is conservatively between 15 – 20 million.
Although Christians in America hardly ever sacrifice their lives for the sake of the Gospel, there is plenty of evidence that shows Christian persecution is growing and religious liberty is quickly diminishing in the United States.
It’s nearly two decades old now, but David Limbaugh’s, Persecution: How Liberals are Waging War Against Christianity is one of the most alarming books Christians in the U.S. will read. It’s a veritable encyclopedia of how Christians are being driven from public life, denied their First Amendment rights, and actively discriminated against for their beliefs.
In the book, Limbaugh, the brother of the late famed radio commentator, Rush Limbaugh, quotes James Dobson about the unfortunate plight of many conservative Christians. Dobson said:
“Conservative Christians are subjected to such virulent hostility primarily because we pose a threat to the leftist, immoral agenda of the media and entertainment industries. When believers conform to the dictates of Scripture, they have the temerity to stand against abortion, euthanasia, condom distribution, pornography, sexual license, and the tax and spend policies of liberal government. Above all else, religious conservatives are hated because some of them – very few, unfortunately – are willing to oppose the gay and lesbian agenda in all its excesses…Those who take the scriptures literally stand by the side of the highway to perdition, warning travelers that dangers lie ahead and urging them to take a higher road. For this, we are despised. Jesus himself told us we would be hated for what has been called ‘the offense of the cross.’ Ultimately, this is what elicits such hostility from those who are opposed to our system of values.”
In recent years there have been some victories for religious liberty in the Courts. Still, the problem is constant, and threats increase.
Andrew Brunson, a missionary who was unjustly imprisoned for his faith in Turkey for two years, warns Christians in America that they need to prepare for persecution. Brunson said he believes “a tidal wave” is “on the horizon, and it’s coming toward us very quickly. It’s not some far-off threat.”
The Scriptures indicate that in every age, faithful Christians can expect to experience persecution in one form or another. The apostle Paul wrote to young Timothy, “All those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (II Timothy 3:12).
Those persecuted for Christ must remember what Christ said to the Church in Smyrna.
“The First and the Last, the One who was dead and came to life” [Christ] is present amid their tribulation. Christ is never nearer to someone than when they suffer for his name’s sake.
He knows the way the Devil’s cohorts have slandered their names. Leave these malicious people to God. He will handle them. God vindicates the righteous and punishes evildoers.
He admonishes the persecuted not to be afraid. The suffering will be temporary. The maltreatment will test one’s faith to determine the actual condition of their heart.
One may be crushed beneath the brutal feet of one’s oppressor, but a faithful testimony will have the appeal of sweet-smelling perfume. In the end, there will be riches beyond earthly treasures and the “crown of life” for those who remain faithful until death.
“Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches” (v.11).