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 pastor of the Church in that city. Scripture reads:
“Write to the angel of the Church of Smyrna: The First and the Last, He who was dead and has come back to life, said: I know your tribulation and your poverty, yet you are rich. [I know] the slander of those who call themselves Jews and are not, but who belong to 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 in jail to test you, and you’ll 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 MR Dehaan, in his book, 35 simple studies on the major themes of the Apocalypsesummarizes their circumstances and meaning:
“The prominent words in this passage are ‘tribulation’, ‘poverty’, ‘suffering’, ‘jail’ and, again, ‘tribulation’. The latter 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. Christians were burned and beaten, hanged and crucified, thrown to lions and tortured to death. It seemed that Christianity must cease to be…This period of Church history produced the most amazing testimonies of courage and faith on the part of the martyrs of Smyrna…In them we see the truth of the age-old statement, ‘The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.’
A notable Smyrna martyr was the church father, Polycarp. It is believed that Polycarp became a disciple of Christ under the guidance of the Apostle John. Some say he could have been the pastor of the Church (the angel) to whom this particular letter from Christ was addressed. Others, however, argue that this claim should not be accepted because it would place the date of the book of Revelation far too late.
The story goes that the Roman proconsul had been looking for Polycarp for days. Christians had recently been executed in the arena for their faith, and the crowd chanted Polycarp’s death. After arresting one of his servants and torturing him, they were able to discover where Polycarp was hiding.
When the soldiers arrived at the place where he was staying, Polycarp simply said, “God’s will be done.” Rather than reprimand them, he urged his servants to feed the soldiers who had come to arrest and execute him.
The Roman proconsul implored the pastor of Smyrna to deny Christ and promised he would be freed if he did. Polycarp replied, “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he has done me no harm.” 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 for an hour and soon dies out, for you ignore the fire of judgment to come and of the eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. But why are you delaying? Do what you want.”
When they led him to the stake to be burned, they did not need to tie him with nails like others who had been executed in the same way. He voluntarily walked on the stake. As the flames escalated rapidly, even the fire didn’t touch him but formed an arch around his body. Everyone was in total awe. At the end, the Romans ordered an executioner to stab him, and his blood spilled out, putting out the fire. Polycarp died of a hemorrhage.
It is complicated for Americans, who have enjoyed so much religious freedom over the years, to identify with the persecution that believers suffered in the second and third centuries. Yet Christians are beaten and martyred for Christ today in other places around the world. It is estimated that 100 million Christians are persecuted for their faith around the world.
An Italian journalist, Antonio Socci, estimated that as many as 45 million people were martyred for Christ in the 20th century. However, Christian agencies and organizations that monitor human rights say Socci’s figure is too high, but agree the number is between 15 and 20 million.
Although Christians in America almost never sacrifice their lives for the gospel, there is ample evidence that Christian persecution is on the rise and religious freedom is rapidly declining in the United States.
He’s almost twenty now, but David Limbaugh’s, Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War on Christianity is one of the most alarming books that Christians in the United States will read. It’s a veritable encyclopedia of how Christians are driven out of public life, stripped of their First Amendment rights, and actively discriminated against for their beliefs.
In the book, Limbaugh, the brother of the late famous radio commentator, Rush Limbaugh, quotes James Dobson about the plight of many conservative Christians. Dobson said:
“Conservative Christians are subjected to such virulent hostility primarily because we pose a threat to the leftist and immoral agenda of the media and entertainment industries. When believers conform to the precepts of Scripture, they have the boldness to oppose abortion, euthanasia, condom distribution, pornography, sexual license, and government tax and spending policies. liberal government. Above all, religious conservatives are hated because some of them – very few, unfortunately – are prepared to oppose the gay and lesbian agenda in all its excesses…Those who take the scriptures literally stand at the edge of the highway of perdition, warning travelers that dangers lie in wait and urge them to take a higher road. For this we are despised. Jesus himself told us that we would be hated for what has been called “the offense of the cross.” Ultimately, this is what elicits such hostility from those who oppose our value system.
In recent years, there have been some victories for religious freedom in the courts. Yet the problem is constant and the threats are growing.
Andrew Brunson, a missionary who was wrongfully imprisoned for his faith in Turkey for two years, is warning Christians in America to prepare for persecution. Brunson said he believes “a tidal wave” is “on the horizon, and it’s coming our way very quickly. It’s not a distant threat.
The scriptures indicate that in every age faithful Christians can expect persecution in one form or another. The apostle Paul wrote to young Timothy: “Anyone who wants to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (II Timothy 3:12).
Those who are persecuted for Christ must remember what Christ said to the Church of Smyrna.
“The First and the Last, the One who was dead and came back to life” [Christ] is present in the midst of their tribulation. Christ is never closer to anyone than when he suffers because of his name.
He knows how the Devil’s cohorts have slandered their names. Leave these malicious people to God. He will manipulate them. God justifies the righteous and punishes the wrongdoers.
He urges the persecuted not to be afraid. The suffering will be temporary. The abuse will test his faith to determine the true state of his heart.
One may be crushed under the brutal feet of one’s oppressor, but a faithful testimony will have the allure of a fragrant 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 ears must listen to what the Spirit says to the churches” (v.11).
Reverend Mark H. Creech is executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc. He served as a pastor for twenty years prior to this position, having served five different Southern Baptist churches in North Carolina and one Independent Baptist in upstate New York. .
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