The Church of Smyrna
Smyrna was the Church of the Martyrs, covering the time from the beginning of Nero's persecutions in 64 A.D. to the Edict of Milan, when Constantine ended the persecutions in 313 A.D. Rev. 2:10 tells the persecuted believers of this church era,
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 unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.
The name Smyrna means “myrrh,” an anointing oil and spice which was used to prepare the dead for burial. The more one crushed it, the sweeter the fragrance. Tertullian (145-220 A.D.) wrote in his Apology, ch. 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.
The “ten days” of persecution that John mentions in Rev. 2:10 are generally taken to include the final ten years of the most horrible persecution of Diocletian from 303 to 313 AD. However, he was only the tenth emperor to make such persecution a policy of government. There were ten Roman Emperors who persecuted Christians as a matter of public policy. These may be thought of as ten “days” or times of persecution and tribulation for this church. They are as follows:
1. Nero (64 AD) 6. Severus (202)
2. Domitian (95) 7. Maximus (235)
3. Trajan (107) 8. Decius (249)
4. Hadrian (127) 9. Valerianus (257)
5. Aurelius (165) 10. Diocletian (303)
The Korah Rebellion
In its Old Testament counterpart we find the Korah rebellion runs parallel to the Church of Smyrna. In that story, Korah and his supporters represent a viewpoint in the Smyrna church, while Moses and Aaron represent God's viewpoint and the overcomers. In Num. 16:1-3 we read,
1 Now Korah the son of Izhar... took action... 3 and they assembled together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?
Korah was a pseudo-overcomer. He believed that all men could hear from God for themselves—and he was partly right. But there was a second truth by which the second was balanced. It is the truth that God does call certain ones to leadership to assist those who are yet too immature spiritually to hear God for themselves. Korah's lack of understanding brought him to the place where he rebelled against God by not recognizing the legitimate authority God had invested in Moses and Aaron to lead Israel.
Finding the proper balance is important. We should not leave our first love of hearing the Word for ourselves; but neither should we despise those whom God has called to various positions of authority in the five-fold ministry (Eph. 4:11). Moses was wise enough to know that Korah was trying to gain the priesthood where he was not called. We read in Num. 16:8-10,
8 Then Moses said to Korah, Hear now, you sons of Levi, 9 is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself to do the service of the tabernacle of the Lord, and to stand before the congregation to minister to them; 10 and that He has brought you near, Korah, and all your brothers, sons of Levi with you? And are you seeking for the priesthood also?
The Church of Smyrna faced this same problem from 64-313 A.D. The people began to install priests and bishops in those days who were not truly called of God. Having left their first love already, desiring other men to represent them before God, they lost the ability to discern who was truly called and who was merely ambitious. Thus, many were fooled, even as Korah had persuaded many in his day to revolt against Moses and Aaron. Even as Korah used truth in the attempt to fulfill his personal ambitions, so also was this manifested in the Smyrna Church era.
The Synagogue of Satan
The Korah rebellion in the days of Moses finds its New Testament counterpart in the Church of Smyrna. Rev. 2:8 and 9 reads,
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 tribulations and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
Korah and his followers, who revolted against Moses, are like the synagogue of Satan that revolted against Jesus Christ, the lawful king of Judah. These were those people who claimed to be true Jews (i.e., of the tribe of Judah), but yet they had risen up against Jesus, the king, the anointed one, and killed Him. Like Korah, they desired a calling that was not theirs, for they desired to “ seize his inheritance ” (Matt. 21:38).
This was the problem among the priests of the old temple in Jerusalem. They killed the King in order to usurp the throne, even as Absalom usurped the throne of his father, King David, and would have killed him if he had been able. This problem is fully discussed in chapters 6 and 7 of our book, The Struggle for the Birthright.
The Korah spirit and the Absalom spirit became a problem in the Smyrna Church as well. As more and more self-called priests and bishops gained power over the people, they usurped the place of Christ as Head of the Church. Like Korah, they desired the priesthood, but had problems of heart idolatry that prevented them from hearing God correctly. If the people had not lost their first love, they would have discerned the true overcomers among them. They would have recognized those that God had chosen.
The Spirit of Understanding
What Korah lacked was the Spirit of Understanding (Is. 11:4). So also did the Smyrna Church lack this Spirit. Only the overcomers within the Church had the benefit of this understanding.
Proverbs 9:10 says,
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One [Heb., kodesh,] is under-standing.
The verse above gives us a biblical definition of understanding. It is defined as “the knowledge of kodesh.” Kodesh is usually translated “holy,” but the word does not really mean “holy” in the sense of being sinless, or perfect—as we normally think of the word today. It means separated (for divine service). In the days of Moses, Aaron and his sons were the priests. They were separated unto God for ministry in the Holy Place of the Tabernacle.
Korah and his followers did not have the Spirit of Understanding to know or discern who had been called as a priest and who was not. Korah was blinded by his own ambition and desire to be a priest.
Likewise, the Smyrna Church began to manifest this same lack of understanding. In refusing to hear God directly for themselves during the Ephesus Church era, they were unable to discern who was truly called of God to be their ministers. The downward slide thus continued into the abyss of depravity and abuse of power that characterized the Church in later centuries.
The Crown of Life
Those overcomers among them were promised “a crown of life,” as we read in Rev. 2:10 (quoted earlier).
Whatever may be the calling of each overcomer, he or she has the Spirit of Understanding and does not desire a calling that is not his or hers. This lack of ambition makes this reward especially significant. The overcomers will rule and reign with Him in the first resurrection. They will be given authority because they were not blinded by ambition and the need to rule. They will be given a crown because they refused to usurp the crown of Christ, whereas Korah wanted to usurp the crown of Moses and Aaron. Rev. 2:11 also 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.
In other words, they will inherit the first resurrection (Rev. 20:4-6). This is the crown, for those who inherit that first resurrection will reign with Him a thousand years (Rev. 20:6). Not all believers will attain this first resurrection. The rest of the believers will not receive their reward of immorality until the general resurrection of the dead at the end of the thousand years. They will receive their reward along with the unbelievers who are raised at the same time (Luke 12:46), after receiving whatever correction that God sees fit.
The statement that the overcomers will not be hurt by the second death implies that those in the Church who are NOT overcomers will be hurt by the second death in some manner. Remember that this is a message to the Church, not a message to unbelievers. This is quite consistent with Paul's statement in 1 Cor. 3:14, 15, which says,
14 If any man's work which he has built upon it [the foundation which is Christ] remains, he shall receive a reward. 15 If any man's work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.
The second death is said to be the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). Such judgment is unthinkable in many churches, because they think of it as a torture chamber that is never-ending. Thus, they immediately dismiss the idea of God judging Christian believers by “fire.” However, I showed in my book, The Judgments of the Divine Law and in other writings that the fire is a symbol of the divine law that is designed to restore the sinner, not destroy or torture him. In this case, the non-overcomers in the Church will be saved, but they will have to go through some disciplinary judgment first. Jesus explained it further in His parable in Luke 12:47-49,
47 And that slave who knew his master's will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, 48 but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few... 49 I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!
God's “slaves” (that is His servants, the Christian believers) who did not obey Him will be judged by the divine law. Jesus here cites the law in Deut. 25:1-3, where a person may receive up to forty stripes, but no more. If a person committed a sin in ignorance of his master's will, he may receive just a few stripes; whereas, if a man sinned deliberately, he could receive many stripes up to forty.
In verse 49 Jesus called this “fire.” It was not literally a fire, but rather the “fiery law” (Deut. 33:2). Jesus said He wished that this “fire” were already kindled. If that fire were really the torture pit that is envisioned by so many Bible teachers, this statement would be totally out of character. How could we imagine Jesus wishing that such torture had already begun? Seeing this “fire” as a corrective measure designed to save people (as 1 Cor. 3:15 tells us) makes Jesus' words fit His character.
God's non-overcoming servants will be raised at the Great White Throne when all are judged according to their works. Unbelievers and believers alike will be judged by the divine law. The difference is that the believers will receive immortality (life) after a short judgment, while the unbelievers will have to wait until the Creation Jubilee when God will be all in all.