CLW-13 - The Church at Smyrna: How to Serve Christ Through Affliction

As we open to Revelation 2:8-11 we are opening to the second of Christ's seven personal letters to individual churches of the late First Century. We looked at them as a group, but now we are taking a look at each individual church.

As we read these words, the historical context is that the Church at Smyrna was going through the second wave of persecutions that the Early Church had to endure.

A Short History of Early Church Persecution

Someone told me this week they could save the first half hour of my messages by just "Google-ing" what I talk about, and implied they wanted me to just stick to reading the text of the Scripture. But for the rest of you that are willing, if you will bear with me, I'd like to give you a sanctified mind's analysis of Church History: something that they could never get on Google.

The reason I share with you the background details of each passage we study is to show it to you through the lens of Scripture, and with my own lifetime analysis of these facts, what is vital to increase our understanding. That is actually one of the elements of expository preaching, which is my lifelong pursuit.

Church History records three notable waves of persecution from the Roman Emperors:

  • Wave #1: Emperor Nero (54-68 AD) This persecution was sporadic and limited mainly to Rome, sweeping up Paul and Peter to execution.
  • Wave #2: Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD) This persecution was wider than Nero's, across some of the Roman Empire's provinces, and hitting both the church at Smyrna and exiling John to Patmos.
  • Wave #3: Emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD) This persecution was the greatest of any Roman Emperor against Christ's Church. Diocletian, who was one of the most administrative of all Rome's rulers, began a systematic purge of Christianity, through an Empire-wide eradication of the Church, and he almost succeeded.

For the final nearly 10 years of Diocletian's reign he systematically decimated Christ's church. The main reason that there is not one single complete manuscript of the Bible today, and all we have are 20,000+ fragments and partial manuscripts is because of this one very powerful man.

Under Diocletian's wave of persecution, every church meeting place that could be identified was pulled down; every pastor that could be found was killed; and every copy of God's Word that could be discovered, was destroyed.

The Church came close to extinction in those years.

Why Are They Called the Roman Catholic Church?

Have you ever wondered why the Catholic Church is called the Roman Catholic Church? The answer comes right here in this third and final wave of persecution.

The result of this Empire-wide extermination of the Christianity era was the rise to power of Constantine, who legalized Christianity. When the Roman Emperor Constantine designated Christianity as the State Church, he also merged Rome's entire pagan worship establishment into this State Church. This blending or syncretism of truth (the Early Church) and error (the pagan religions of Rome), are what actually prompted the birth of what we call Roman Catholicism today.

The Roman part of the Catholic Church was the merging of traditions, vestments, orders, practices, buildings, superstitions and priests from paganism into the early New Testament church.

Now open to Christ's letter to this church under this next wave of persecution, and hear His Voice speaking to them through these words:

Revelation 2:8-11 "And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, ‘These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life: 9 "I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 "Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will havetribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death."'

Smyrna Was Under a Wave of Persecution

This second wave of persecution that broke over Smyrna had its start way back during the Life of Christ. The Emperor in Christ's last years was named Tiberius and in 26 A.D. an altar to Emperor Tiberius was built there in Smyrna (just 40 miles north of Ephesus). This was the official start in that city of Emperor Worship.

To stay a happy part of the Empire, one had only to stop by the Temple and scoop a pinch of incense and put it on the fire. Then a certificate was given, like our auto license renewal stickers. That event and paper called a libelli, verified that you had passed. It was an annual homage to the Emperor that became the one action that unified the masses of people in the Roman Empire. 

Now we see the shadow of intense idolatry, falling across the church at Smyrna. In about 94 A.D. Domitian says, get the Christians to go with the flow or pay the price. Can you imagine the pressure?

The whole city is lined up; one by one they come through the archway leading into the Forum area. Soldiers stand guard, the city clerk sits with the registry of names, his pen and a bowl of incense in front of him.

The stream of citizens walk by, take a pinch of the power, drop it onto the coal fire burning in the censor, take their certificate and walk out into another year of peace and security.

There you are in line, if you just go with the flow, your children, wife, husband, friends, job, home-all are secure.

But if you refuse, if you believe that only Jesus is Lord, if you say that Caesar is not God, Jesus Christ is the Lord, then the slow grind of that efficient machine called Rome will begin to hunt you down and either force you to recant, or take your life.

So with that historical backdrop:

The Believers at Smyrna Learned How To Suffer and Die

The most important decision you will ever make in life is how you want to die!

The saints at Smyrna wanted to die in Jesus. They learned the lesson well because, after the letter arrived from Jesus in Revelation 2, their pastor went on to die a martyr's death.

Let me give the last moments of this pastor at Smyrna, who was the last living person from this period that had known the apostle John personally and face-to-face. 

The Jews in Smyrna were violently opposed to Christ's Church and were blaspheming and persecuting the Christians.  This event is not mere speculation because history has left us with an account of the death of Polycarp, the pastor of the Church in Smyrna. Here is the record of his death:

"It was during the time of the public games; the city was crowded; and the crowds were excited.  Suddenly the shout went up: Away with the atheist; let Polycarp be searched for. They came to arrest him, but not even the police captain wished to see Polycarp die. 

On the brief journey to the forum the officer pled with the old man:  What harm is it to say, "Caesar is Lord" and to offer sacrifice to be saved? 

But Polycarp was adamant that for him only Jesus Christ was Lord. When he entered the arena [the] proconsul gave him the choice of cursing the name of Christ and making sacrifice to Caesar or death. 

"Eighty and six years have I served Him," said Polycarp, "and He has done me no wrong.  How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"

So the crowds came flocking with burning coals from the workshops and from the baths, and the Jews, even though they were breaking the Sabbath law by carrying such burdens, were foremost in bringing wood for the fire. 

The soldiers were going to bind Polycarp to the stake, but he said, "Leave me as I am, for He who gives me power to endure the fire, will grant me to remain in the flames unmoved even without the security you will give by the nails." 

So they left him loosely bound in the flames. Pastor Polycarp faithfully died for Christ. 

That was just one incident in the life of the church at Smyrna as they endured the second great wave of persecution.

There is a clear lesson for each of us whether we face such direct persecution, or lesser, but equally persistent trails:

Hope in Jesus When Life is Painful

The message Christ gives in verse 10 is so simple:

"Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.

The entire message to this church is: fear not. The most important lesson for each of us from this church is: fear not. No matter what lies ahead in our daily lives, health lives, career, finances or anything else, the message is simply fear not. God does not give us a spirit of fear - the world, our flesh and the Devil do, but God does not. Instead, in v. 10, Christ says: be faithful, trust Me! Why?

Because look back at:

v. 8 Jesus was Crushed for Our Sins

Look again at v. 8 and the very name of this church is written as: "Smyrna". This word is not only the name of this assembly, Smyrna is also the Greek word translated "myrrh". 

It is a substance taken from a thorny tree and was the chief product of this city, the seaport of Myrrh. Myrrh is always associated with suffering and death, because it is produced by injuring the bark of the tree, each cut made by knife or machete is healed with the resin from which myrrh is refined.

Think of the symbolic message of this spice and the life of Christ:

  • At Christ's Birth while coming in the form of a servant He endured being born into poverty for us, according to Matthew 2:11, wise men came from the East and brought Christ gold, frankincense and myrrh.
  • At Christ's Crucifixion as He suffered the weight of sin, and separation from God for us, according toMark 15:23, He was offered wine mixed with myrrh.  It served as an anesthetic.  His crucifiers were trying to dull His senses so the pain wouldn't be so bad.
  • At Christ's Burial He was placed in a tomb wrapped in myrrh after suffering the wrath of God for our salvation, according to John 19:39: a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pound weight, was used to prepare the body of Jesus Christ for burial in a borrowed tomb.
  • At Christ's Return in Glory He shall be presented with gold, frankincense but, not myrrh according toIsaiah 60:6. Jesus came only the first time as a suffering servant, His Second Coming is as King of the Universe!

Isaiah 60:6 "The multitude of camels shall cover your land. The dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; All those from Sheba shall come; They shall bring gold and incense, and they shall proclaim the praises of the Lord."

Then He will appear as the mighty Sovereign Lord, not the Sufferer. Myrrh is only associated with the suffering present at Christ's birth, death and burial. So, from the very name of this city, and their suffering, we can learn:

How to Die Triumphantly

And unless Christ returns soon, all of us face the inevitability of death. Are you ready?

Have you planned for the spiritual aspects of your death? So many only get the funeral arrangements and life insurance in order. There is so much more to plan and prepare for as a Christian.

The Bible teaches us much about dying right! In the Scriptures we find some good ways to die, as modeled by saints who have gone before us:

Jacob Dies Trusting The Promises Of God (Genesis 47:29; 48:15-16)

  • He Looked for the Land of Promise to the end! Genesis 47:29  And the time drew nigh that Israel must die: and he called his son Joseph, and said unto him, If now I have found grace in thy sight, put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me; bury me not, I pray thee, in Egypt:(KJV)
  • He Followed his Shepherd all the way! Genesis 48:15-16 Then he blessed Joseph and said, "May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, 16 The Angel who has redeemed me from all evil, Bless the lads; Let my name be named upon them, And the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; And let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth." (NKJV)

Joseph Dies Pointing To The Faithfulness Of God (Genesis 50:24)

Genesis 50:24 Then Joseph said to his brothers, "I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." (NIV)

David Dies Exhorting His Family To Follow God (I Kings 2:1-4)

1 Kings 2:1-4 When the time drew near for David to die, he gave a charge to Solomon his son. "I am about to go the way of all the earth," he said. "So be strong, show yourself a man,  and observe what the LORD your God requires: Walk in his ways, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and requirements, as written in the Law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go,  and that the LORD may keep his promise to me: `If your descendants watch how they live, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their heart and soul, you will never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.' (NIV)

Stephen Dies Praising God (Acts 7:59-60)

Acts 7:59-60 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep. (NIV)

Paul Dies Finishing The Plan God Gave Him (II Timothy 4:6-8)

2 Timothy 4:6-8 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day -- and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (NIV)

Peter Dies Reminding The Saints About The Word Of God (II Peter 1:12-15)

2 Peter 1:12-15 So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have.  I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body,  because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me.  And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things. (NIV)

Christ Dies Pointing The Way For Another To Come To God (Luke 23:43)

Luke 23:43 And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise."(NKJV)

Smyrna was in great persecution and stood fast through it; true believers discover Jesus is all I have, and need. By faith they remain faithful to Him, no matter what the price they have to pay. 

We like them can be purified by persecution, and be faithful to the Lord. Christ's message for them and to us today is: Trust Me to the end; Stay true to the end; Suffer for Me.