Smyrna (64-313 A.D.)
Dec 08, 2015
The second church receiving the message from the seven Spirits of God is Smyrna, the church of the martyrs. Historically, the Smyrna church age began when Nero began actively persecuting the church in 64 A.D. It ended finally with Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., at the end of an intense time of persecution lasting ten years.
Smyrna means “myrrh,” a bitter herb representing death. Myrrh is an anointing oil which was used to prepare the dead for burial. The more one crushed it, the sweeter the fragrance. Tertullian, a Christian lawyer (145-202 A.D.), wrote to the Roman Emperor in his Apology, chapter 50,
“The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”
So it was with the martyrs of this time period. They were crushed by the full fury of the Roman Empire, but the more they were killed, the more fragrant the aroma before God and men. Men marveled at their great courage and converted to Christ faster than Rome could kill them.
Revelation 2:8, 9 says,
8 And to the angel of the church in Smyrna, write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this: 9 I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
Christ addressed this persecuted church by the title “The first and the last.” It was to remind them that as alpha and omega (or alef and tav), He foreknew all of their persecution and was in control of it. It is natural for those under persecution to wonder if God has forgotten them, or if He has lost control of history. But Christ says, “I know your tribulation.” Christ was well aware of their persecution, so He assures them that He is the Author of history. This persecution allowed the church to partake of His own sufferings.
Further, Christ says He “was dead, and has to come to life.” In other words, having overcome death by going through it, He encouraged the church of Smyrna to follow His example, knowing that they would receive a better resurrection. Hebrews 11:35 says,
35 Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, in order that they might obtain a better resurrection.
Those Falsely Claiming to be Jews
When Jesus came to earth to claim the throne rights of His father David, the leaders of the temple disputed His claim. They wanted a different sort of messiah, one who would fight the Romans and make them an independent nation. Jesus, however, understood that God had raised up Rome as the iron empire described in Daniel 7:7. To use the power of God to overthrow this fourth empire would have gone against the divine decree in the time of Jeremiah, when God raised up world empires to put Judah into captivity.
Furthermore, the religious leadership did not agree with Jesus’ teachings, for they held the traditions of men, by which they worshipped God in vain (Isaiah 29:13, quoted in Matthew 15:7-9).
The rightful heir to the throne of Judah held in his hands the right to be called a Judahite (or, in Greek, a Judean). If any man of Judah—or any group of Judahites—revolted against the king, or if they moved to another country to start their own independent nation, they were no longer Judahites from a legal standpoint. Their genealogy would not change, of course, but they were no longer Judahite citizens. Neither could they claim status for their nation as the “true Judah.”
Judah was the territory and people that were ruled by the rightful king.
A good example is found in the story of Absalom’s revolt against David. When David and his loyal followers left Jerusalem as a refugee for a time, one might ask which group was truly Judah? Was it the majority of the Judahites who were ruled by Absalom? Or was it the small group who were loyal to David? From a legal perspective, where was Judah at that time? Was true Judah not in exile with David?
Since the New Testament conflict was simply a replay of Absalom usurping the throne of David, we see the same question arise in the first century. Jesus was the rightful Heir to the throne, but his throne was usurped by the chief priests who were acting as spiritual children of Absalom.
When Jesus came to Judah as the rightful Heir of the throne of David, those who recognized His lawful right remained Judahites (“Jews”), but those who rejected Him lost the right to be called Jews.
Knowing this, the Apostle Paul says in Romans 2:28, 29,
28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise [“Judah”] is not from men, but from God.
Those who were recognized by men as Jews were not the group that God recognized as Jews. Men’s opinions, even when they are the majority opinion, are always wrong when they conflict with God’s truth. Hence, when we refer to today’s Jews as Jews, it is understood that we are merely accommodating men’s definition of the term. Having God’s perspective—and knowing the law—we understand that those who follow the King of Judah are the true Jews—if not by genealogy, then certainly by legal citizenship.
John understood this as well. The seven Spirits of the Lord (and the glorified Christ Himself) instructed John to write about “those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” In fact, as we will see later, this was repeated in the message to the church of Philadelphia (Revelation 3:9).
At first glance, this part of the message to Smyrna seems out of place. He was talking about tribulation that was coming to Smyrna, but yet he inserts this statement about false Jews claiming to be Jews. Yet we know that the persecution campaign began with the crucifixion of Jesus and then spread to the church with the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8). The temple then empowered Saul to arrest Christians. Acts 8:3, 4 says,
3 But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. 4 Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.
Saul then went to Damascus, where many Christians had fled. On the way, he found himself arrested by Jesus Himself. He was converted, and later changed his name to Paul in order to show a change in his nature. Later, Paul recalled his early days when writing in Galatians 1:13, 14,
13 For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure, and tried to destroy it; 14 and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions.
We see from biblical history, then, that the so-called Jews were the first persecutors of the church. They often filed official complaints against the church in order to induce Rome to suppress the church or to have Christians arrested. John witnessed these things and wrote freely about the conflict.
It was also common for the authorities to confiscate the property of those who were accused of unlawful behavior. So Christ recognized the “poverty” of the Smyrna church, yet tells them “but you are rich.” They were poor in worldly goods, but they were rich in faith, for they had laid up for themselves “treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20).
As we will see later, the church of Laodicea, which describes the church at the end of the age, had done the opposite of the church of Smyrna. The Laodiceans were rich in earthly goods, but not in the true wealth of the Spirit. It appears to refer to the Prosperity message that has the appearance of faith, but is usually a form of positive thinking.
Be Faithful Until Death
Revelation 2:10 says,
10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast 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.
Men always fear persecution and suffering. But when they understand that God is with them, and that this persecution is built into the divine plan, they may take comfort in knowing that there is purpose in it. Smyrna was told that they were being “tested” to see if their faith was real.
The Spirit focused upon “tribulation ten days,” prophesying of the Diocletian persecution from 303-313 A.D. Diocletian, the Roman Emperor, ordered the destruction of churches, the burning of Bibles, and all Christians to sacrifice to the Roman gods. These edicts were issued in Nicomedia, the capital of the Eastern half of the Empire.
Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea at that time, tells us that he personally witnessed many of the martyrdoms in the city of Tyre, where men were given to the wild beasts. But two years into the persecution, Diocletian was struck with mental illness, forcing him to retire in 305 A.D. He was replaced by Maximian, who was replaced in turn by Licinius.
In those days there were four Caesars—two in the East and two in the West. Diocletian himself had divided the empire earlier in 285 A.D. The main persecutions took place in the East. In the West, the emperors disagreed with the policy of persecution, and so they performed only minimal persecution to satisfy the official government policy. Constantine was one of those Western Caesars, and as he increased in power, he put an end to the persecutions wherever he reigned. Constantine was a British prince. His mother, Helen of York, was a strong Christian.
Constantine issued an edict in 306 A.D. granting religious toleration to the Christians in Spain, Gaul, and Britain. As Constantine gained territory, he extended his policy of religious toleration until finally, after taking Rome itself, he was able to end the time of persecution altogether in 313. So ended the historical Smyrna era of the Church.
The Overcomers’ Reward
Revelation 2:11 says,
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.
Previously, in verse 10, Smyrna overcomers were promised “the crown of life.” James 1:12 speaks of this as well, saying,
12 Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.
No doubt this is the same “crown” that Paul claimed toward the end of his life, when he wrote in 2 Timothy 4:7, 8,
7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8 in the future there is laid up for me a 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 loved His appearing.
It was commonly believed that a special reward—pictured as a crown—was to be given to those who had suffered martyrdom, or who had been faithful through persecution. Some went so far as to say that a believer had to be killed in order to become an overcomer. This gave rise to a change in the meaning of martus, or “martyr.” The original meaning of the word was a “witness,” but soon it referred to one who had been killed as a witness for Christ.
But not all martyrs are killed. An overcomer is not necessarily one who is killed, but one who bears witness to Christ as an Amen person. It is one who has an ear to hear what the Spirit says to the churches, for it is by hearing that one is able to bear witness by saying Amen.
This is part 17 of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Revelation." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones