In case you missed it, here is the introduction to this series, as we look into the seven letters written to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. My attempt is to harmonize the letters with Church History as well as to use it as a sort of diagnosis on today’s churches, looking at the possible pitfalls and necessary cures. Each study will begin with (1) a look at letters in chronological order, (2) we will discuss its historical or ‘end times’ significance, (3) we will look into the symptoms of modern churches and Christians in the context of the passage, and lastly (4) we will diagnose the problem and prescribe the antidote for our own lives and our churches.
– The Danger of “Blind Faith” –
The Letter to Smyrna (what does the text say?):
To the angel of the church in Smyrna write the following:
“This is the solemn pronouncement of the one who is the first and the last, the one who was dead, but came to life: ‘I know the distress you are suffering and your poverty (but you are rich). I also know the slander against you by those who call themselves Jews and really are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of the things you are about to suffer. The devil is about to have some of you thrown into prison so you may be tested, and you will experience suffering for ten days. Remain faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown that is life itself. The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will in no way be harmed by the second death.'” (Revelation 2:8-11, NET)
Historical Application (how does it fit into Church History and/or Eschatology?):
There are elements in this 2nd letter that line-up very clearly to the Era of Persecution, from 95 to 313 A.D. 95 would be the year of the last Apostle’s death (John) and 313 the year in which Constantine made Christianity the favored religion of the Roman Empire. I have debated whether or not this letter and the next don’t actually both pertain to the Era of Persecution, but I’ve chosen this division because it seems to break-up Church History in a more balanced way. If the 3rd letter applies to the Era of Heresies (313-700), it then alleviates the extreme length of the 4th letter – many Theologians seem to prefer this format for the 3rd letter. The 4th letter would then refer primarily to the growth of a heretical Catholic Church and the eventual Reformation (700-1900’s).
There is also a strong contextual element to events that likely happened specifically in the church at Smyrna not long after the letter was written. The reference to the “ten days” of suffering should probably be taken literally as only applying to that time-period – best to not get too ‘cute’ here and fall into allegorizing. The reference to false Jews, probably Judaizers who tried to combine the Law with Grace, is also best understood in the context of the actual church in Smyrna. Galatians goes to great pains to eradicate this dangerous heresy, although the Adventists have revived it in our modern era.
In the context of the Era of Persecution, the connection is clear as it speaks of suffering, being “tested”, prison, and even death as martyrs. This era can be divided into two parts with the (1) People’s Persecution and the (2) Governmental Persecution.
The People’s Persecution was from 95-250 A.D., and was localized, with pockets of persecution arising in various parts of the Roman Empire. Jews heavily persecuted the Christians at the beginning, but after the fall of Jerusalem (70 A.D.) the persecution was largely lead by religious fanatics in the gentile world. Sometimes they would convince the local authorities and even a Caesar to persecute the Christians. The accusations were unfounded yet they spread like wildfire, accusing the Christians of sexual immorality, incest, cannibalism, and even Atheism. This was a ploy by the enemies of Christ, because the persecution drove the Christians to secrecy and thus it was easy to make-up attacks against them since they couldn’t really defend themselves. Some Christians in this era, such as Justin Martyr, did defend against these unfounded attacks from the Jews and Gentiles, but it largely went unnoticed it seems. Christians were publicly hated, often tortured, incarcerated, and even killed as a consequence. Some areas suffered more than others (Rome, Ephesus, Corinth, etc.), and other areas never seemed to suffer much persecution at all.
The Governmental Persecution was from 250 to 311 A.D., being a universal persecution as it was led and funded by the Roman government. The first great persecutor of the Christians was Decius who pronounced an edict to eradicate the Christians in 250. Rome was going through an economic and political crisis during this time, thus they needed a scapegoat. Christianity was growing by leaps and bounds, therefore the idea was created that since many of the Roman populace were leaving the ancestral beliefs the gods were angry with them. If they were to kill the Christians and eradicate their religious beliefs, Rome would again prosper and have peace.
The persecution was not consistent, as some Emperors were much more lenient, but the worst persecutors were Decius, Diocletian, and Galerius. They filled the prisons and Coliseum with Christians who would not renounce their faith. The worst crisis was the “Great Persecution” (303-311 A.D.), and it’s intent was to eradicate Christianity from every corner of the Empire.
Because of the incredible perseverance of the Christians and the conversion of so many to this radical faith, the Emperors failed miserably and eventually gave up. Almost a century earlier Tertullian had predicted: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”. It was something parallel to the famed immortals of the massive Persian army, who replaced every dead body with a new soldier, thus making it seem that they couldn’t be defeated.
Some Christians, perhaps many were never truly saved, gave in to the persecution and saved their lives by rejecting Christ in word or in some deed (often as simple as offering a bit of incense to the Emperor at a local temple). The ancient group of Donatists believed that any who had fallen into this sin were not saved, but they exaggerated it by stating that all who were currently of this group were heathens, thus their future leaders and members were also heathens. It was Augustine who attacked this legalistic and sectarian point of view, showing how every person must be taken individually and that your church didn’t determine if you were saved or not.
These brave Christians who endured these persecutions are to be admired and imitated, for they refused to be faithless to Him who was ever faithful to them.
Modern-Church Application (what kind of churches have these pros and/or cons?):
The strengths of this church are many, speaking of a church that remains steadfast, faithful, and perseverant under trial. The church in Smyrna clearly reminds me of the churches who today are suffering great persecution, be it in Niger, Iran, North Korea and similar areas under radical Islam or Communism. God promises help to those who persevere and many of the Christians have appropriated these promises, willing even to die for their faith. These Christians often lose the support of family and friends, forfeiting jobs, homes, and even their lives. If the Scriptures are to be taken literally, then these persecutions will only grow and expand. It is perhaps no coincidence the “Great Persecution” lasted almost 8 years, whereas the Tribulation will last 7 years, while both are climaxes that lead to an abrupt end of persecution.
The letter reflects on many strengths in this church, giving no weaknesses – unless they were to be faithless in the sight of torture and death. Churches in the West are “flabby” in comparison to those in areas of persecution, and our churches often focus on prosperity, comfort, and “throwing stones” at other denominations instead of focusing on Christ and the Great Commission. We will somewhat exaggerate this weakness (fear of suffering, torture, and death) in order to get some personal application, looking at those who did succumb to persecution and even gave-up their faith.
The truth is that Christians respond in two different ways when it comes to persecution: one is to act like they are not even Christians, and the other is to stand-up for their faith while facing the consequences. Many Christians fear persecution because they are not sold-out to Christ or because they feel ill-prepared to defend what they believe. It was the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 3:15 that told us to be ready to “give a defense” (Lit.: Apologetic) when people ask about our faith, which is our great hope. Those who belong to Christ should prepare themselves adequately to defend what they believe, because while we don’t endure physical persecution in the West, we do endure intellectual persecution.
Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, and those in Sects attempt to shake our faith with logical arguments, faulty science, experience-based faith, and conspiracy theories. Postmodernism tells us that it’s not “socially acceptable” to have a moral backbone and speak one’s mind about it, but that we should just be quiet and have “my truth” and not bother “your truth”. A general sense of “I don’t care” and “no one knows anyways” is pervading the Western mind more and more, making radical Christians seem weird and even contrary to progress.
Symptoms: Strong Christian, speaks openly about his faith, is called “radical” and told to “calm down” by peers (sometimes even by other church members). May face physical persecution or intellectual persecution. May lose many things one loves for the sake of Christ, may also lose respect and opportunities because of the faith. In the worst case one may lose his life as a martyr, honored by God for the perseverance.
Side-effects: Argues without evidence sometimes, may ostracize listener because responses can be harsh and in an attacking mode as it lacks love. Believes in “blind faith” based on ones’ personal experience alone and may be sorely challenged by personal struggles, recurring sin, or doubts about the faith. The doubts left unanswered will grow like weeds among the roses and may attempt to throttle ones faith. Worries about failing in the face of persecution and giving into the hatred of pain, which is so human.
Cure: Must prepare to defend the faith against those who attack it, careful to use both knowledge and genuine love. Must deal with ones’ doubts one at a time in order to ensure one knows why he believes what he believes, thus having the strength to follow Christ at all cost whatever may happen. Hope must be the stronghold, knowing that what awaits us in heaven is both real and of infinite value. Whatever one does to God’s glory echoes in all of eternity, leaving a legacy to the glory of God.