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The Church in Smyrna: Persecution

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Seven Messages on Revival and Release from the Book of Revelation: The Church at Smyrna

"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: "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. 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.

"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." (Revelation 2:8-11)

What do you think this letter is about? Persecution? Suffering? Faithfulness? Resurrection? It's about all those things-but it's even more blunt than that. Notice the following verses and their meanings:

Now what do you think the letter is about? Pretty obvious, isn't it? It's about death. Let me give you a bit of background to fill this out just a bit more. When Jesus spoke of being thrown into prison (apparently for ten days), the idea was not a short imprisonment. The Roman justice system didn't use prison as a means of punishment. Rather, prison was a holding pen until a trial could take place. Jesus' warning is that some of the church members will be held for ten days and then they will be tried.

If prison wasn't a punishment according to Roman justice, what was? Roman trials had any of four possible endings: acquittal if innocent--or, if guilty, a fine, exile, or execution. It's apparent from Jesus' prophecy that execution awaits at least some of the believers.

Now here's the rub . . . none of us are likely to be burned alive anytime in the next ten days. This letter can leave us feeling like spiritual wimps. What I want you to see, however, is that death is an issue for all Christians. Paul said, "I die daily." The idea is that he lived to do the will of God, not the will of Paul. Jesus said, "If any man would follow Me, let him take up his cross." Same idea. Every Christian has to come to terms with dying to self. For Christians in Smyrna it was a bit more dramatic and bit more immediate--but the principle was the same. They were willing to lay their lives down for their faith.

Think of it this way. Imagine with me your life to be a roll of quarters. Polycarp (the bishop of Smyrna who was martyred in 155 AD) and those with him were called upon to surrender the whole of the life in one immediate decision. This business of the lamp stand was pretty visceral stuff for Polycarp - he was burned alive. Most of us are not called upon to make such a decision. Rather, for us, it is a thousand smaller decisions wherein we choose Jesus over self. It's a bit like giving the quarters away one at a time rather than all at once.

Either way, the end result is the same. We spend our lives, rather than keep them. That's what being a Christian is all about.

The Battleground

"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. 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. (Rev.2:8-12 NKJV)

You know how a vice grip works, don't you? Two sides come together with force in order to hold something fast by virtue of pressure. Put your hand in a vice grip, turn the handle, and see how it feels. This was the circumstance of the Church in Smyrna.

Let me call your attention to two words in this letter so that you might see both sides of their dilemma . . . "prison" and "slander." To begin with, what placed them in "prison" was their refusal to worship Caesar or to participate in what was also known as "The Roman Imperial Cult." The Romans weren't dumb. There was a great deal more to this worship of Caesar than the worship of a man. They were too smart to worship a man. The Imperial Cult was about something much larger than whether or not Caesar was a god.

Rome's greatest challenge was how to unify its vast empire. In fact, it wasn't just the Romans who wanted to see that happen. Many businessmen, city leaders, and average citizens throughout the Mediterranean world were looking for the same thing. Rome's gift to its era was something known as the Pax Romana, or the Roman peace. After unending anarchy and danger, under Rome there was stability and at least a measure of justice in the ancient world. What had been a dangerous era of rogue states, pirates, roving bands of thieves, and corrupt dealings finally became a world where decent people could conduct themselves with some hope of peace and prosperity. Roman roads allowed commerce to flow. Roman navies kept the seas safe. Roman justice kept unrestrained crime at bay. Roman armies kept rogue states in check-or even crushed them. Rome made the known world safer than it had ever been.

Given the gift of Pax Romana, it wasn't difficult to turn Rome's rulership into a religion of sorts. The goddess of Rome, Dea Roma, was the protector of the world--a religious expression of the Roman peace. At first this was fairly vague and tended to flourish more in the Eastern Mediterranean (including Asia) than it did in the West where Rome was located. As time went by, men's religious sentiments increasingly took hold. It wasn't just Rome who had given the world its stability, but supposedly the gods working through Rome.

Over time this spirit of Rome was embodied in one man: Caesar. Roman religion (which was really about political and economic stability) became a highly developed cult. Temples were built to Caesar. A priesthood established. Religious rites developed. The worship of the emperor was the final stage of a three-century development of an idea: the stability that Rome gave the ancient world was almost godlike.

What then did the worship of Caesar really mean? It was all about gratitude and realism. For all its flaws Rome had given the world a working order. Justice. Stability. A measure of freedom. It was easy to worship such ideas. Going to the Roman Imperial Temple once a year to burn incense was a way of saying, "I'm with the program. I realize how far we've come. I grasp that the alternative for the world is anarchy. And even though I don't really think that Caesar is a god, I think that what he stands for (order) is really important. I don't like the alternatives."

Towards the end of the first century, this worship of Caesar became compulsory. Once a year a good Roman citizen was required to take a pinch of incense and burn it on the altar of the godhead of Caesar. When he did this, he was given a certificate stating that he had performed his religious/political duty. In fact, we have one of those ancient certificates. It reads:

To those who have been appointed to preside over the sacrifices, from Inares Akeus, from the village of Theoxenis, together with his children Aias and Hera, who reside in the village of Theadelphia. We have always sacrificed to the gods, and now, in your presence, according to the regulations, we have sacrificed and offered libations, and tasted the sacred things, and we ask you to give us a certification that we have done so. May you fare well.

The certificate itself reads:

We, the representatives of the Emperor, Sernos and Hermas, have seen you sacrificing.

This wasn't really about religious loyalty; it was about political loyalty. The certificate said, in essence, that you bought into Rome and supported the state. You were a good citizen. The fact that this wasn't really about religion is clear from the fact that Rome didn't care what other god--or gods--you worshipped (or even if you were religious at all). Once you swore loyalty, then you were free to worship Zeus, Jesus, Yahweh, or your mother's big toe. But the imperial cult was a way of saying that, from your heart, you supported Rome and the stability it brought. On the other hand, if you refused this act of worship, then you seemed to be saying that you liked the old order of anarchy and danger. And the only people who liked the old order of anarchy and danger were pirates, thieves, and tyrants. Hmm. Unless you could be made to see the light, perhaps society would be better off without you.

Christians didn't like the old order. The Bible has always taught that government is from God. The problem for Christians was that to go to the Roman altar required stating that, "Caesar is Lord." That's the one thing a Christian couldn't say. For Christians, Jesus--and Jesus alone--was Lord.

Now you see the dilemma. Christians were, in fact, some of the best citizens out there. They worked hard and were honest. They raised their families and contributed to their communities. They served as soldiers and kept the peace. Their own Bible taught them to honor and pray for those in authority. But this one thing--the acid test of Roman loyalty--they could not do.

In some cities, the leaders listened carefully and understood the conflict of faith. They turned the other way on this business and created settings in which Christians could live and contribute. But, in some cities, the leaders were not so tolerant. For whatever reason they insisted on Roman worship, and they would exile or execute those who refused. Smyrna, because of its longstanding and intense loyalty to Rome, was one of those cities where emperor worship was non-negotiable.

That's the "prison" side of the equation. Now let's talk about the "slander" side of the equation.

There was apparently a strong Jewish presence in Smyrna. It also seems that a fair number of those Jews accepted Jesus as Messiah. For those who didn't, salvation of the Jews through Jesus infuriated them, and they sought to destroy this upstart movement. They had their means of doing so in the matter of Roman worship. They knew enough about Christians to know that Christians couldn't proclaim Caesar as Lord. They also knew the city leaders and knew of their heightened sense of loyalty to Rome. With those two bits of knowledge, threatening the Church was easy. All these Jews had to do was go the city officials (with whom they may have already had connections) and turn the Christians in. Furthermore, in doing so they not only destroyed the Church, they also gained brownie points as faithful citizens (and those might prove useful in the future).

Jews bore false witness against the believers in Smyrna, slandering them before the Roman authorities. Their statement was that these Christians were political subversives, and therefore were dangerous to the Empire because they denied Caesar his proper place. The slander in this was that the Christians weren't at all dangerous--they were, in fact, the best of citizens. Yet in a heightened environment of tension, it became all too easy to kill a few Christians from time to time, as "proof" that the leaders of Smyrna were loyal to Rome.


What is this letter really about? I think it's about the spirit of compromise. The Romans wanted a compromise. Compromise is at times a Christian virtue, but there are some things on which we cannot compromise. Who is Lord and who is to be worshipped are among those things that aren't up for negotiation.

Regarding revival, release, and Smyrna, I've noticed that, first of all, little things are often very important. They aren't always important--but oftentimes they are. To the Romans a pinch of incense was a tiny issue. Their thought was, "Come on, be team players. Do your thing once a year so we know you're good guys, and then go to the Jesus thing to your heart's content." To the Christians, this was a critical issue of faithfulness.

I've noticed that the temptation to compromise usually comes in the area of little things. But, in my heart, I know that oftentimes behind those little things are big principles. The church in Smyrna refused to compromise on this issue of fidelity to Jesus Christ. In what seemingly little things are you tempted to compromise? Seemingly little things--but if you do compromise, are you betraying the heart of the Lord in the matter? Wouldn't we all do well to reject the spirit of compromise in our own hearts?

Secondly, I think this is about a willingness to have a costly faith. I have a bag of black, volcanic sand that I keep on my dresser at home. It's not the least bit impressive to look at, but it is holy ground. You see, the black sand in that bag is from Iwo Jima, where my father along with thousands of other Marines fought one of the decisive battles of World War II.

What's makes this ordinary volcanic sand holy? It's blood, isn't it? This sand is taken from a beach where thousands of Americans died for the cause of freedom. What do I observe? It's cost that makes the ordinary holy. The same thing is true of our faith. My faith seems like a ho-hum sort of affair until it starts costing me something. Then I have two choices: I can avoid the costs and my faith will have less and less meaning--or I can embrace the costs and, suddenly, my faith becomes holy.

For the Christians in Smyrna, their faith was holy. It wasn't just that Jesus bled and died for it. They did, too. Let's read some of Polycarp's last words as he was burned at the stake because of his refusal to offer incense to Caesar . . .

"Eighty and six years have I served Christ, and He has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me? I fear not the fire that burns for a season, and after a while is quenched. Who do you delay? Come, do your will." And as the flames consumed his body he prayed, "I thank Thee that Thou hast graciously thought me worthy of this day and of this hour, that I may receive a portion in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of Thy Christ."

We don't live with this kind of persecution as American Christians. Though, it's important to note that we are increasingly being painted as the troublemakers in our land. There are forces at work in our culture that could bring us to the kind of persecution the Christians in Smyrna faced.

But, while that may happen in future times, we still live in comparative ease. I have trouble connecting with faith this costly. I want to think that I would join the company of believers in Smyrna, but how do I know how I would really react? There is, however, one indicator in my life. What price am I willing to pay for my faith now? How do I respond to whatever cost is put in front of me in this hour? Do I keep quiet about Jesus for fear of how my friends might react? Or am I willing to share my faith even though it may cost me some popularity? Am I willing to rearrange my life so that I'll find ways to do the will of God even when it's painful? Am I willing to tithe? Am I willing to repent when I'm wrong?

Do you agree that our faith is most alive when it hurts us? When I have to really put something on the table is when my faith truly means something to me.

I think the application is . . . where is the edge? What costly thing is Jesus asking of me right now? Just as surely as we should reject the spirit of compromise, we should embrace the spirit of cost.

Thirdly, I think this is about comfort. I'm struck by the fact that this church has the full attention of Jesus Christ. The book of Ephesians tells us that Jesus Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father. But the Book of Acts tells us that when Stephen was martyred he saw Jesus Christ standing at the right hand of the Father. The difference is dramatic. When the Church suffers, Jesus stands in attention.

Application: if you're paying a price for your faith, you have the attention of Jesus Christ.

Finally, I think it's about confession. That is, the one confession that really matters . . . Jesus is Lord. And, friends, this brings me full circle. The confession of Jesus as Lord is about to hit our culture once again in massive scale. This time it will be through the movie The Passion. Already our youth and twenty-somethings are mobilizing towards the cause of evangelism. They are making plans to take their friends. They are like the church in Smyrna--they are making a clear confession of Jesus as Lord before those who do not yet believe.

I want to urge you away from compromise, towards cost, and commend you towards comfort. But more than anything else, I want to urge you towards confession . . . the confession of Jesus as our Savior before those who do not know Him.

Smyrna: Emperor Worship and Persecution

Smyrna was, and is, a major seaport on a gulf of the Aegean Sea. Today it is a city of 3 million, the third largest in Turkey . Its second century population was about 100,000. Alexander the Great is the traditional fourth century BC founder of Smyrna, the modern city of Izmir, Turkey , although settlements in the area date back thousands of years. Smyrna was, and is, a major seaport on a gulf of the Aegean Sea. Today it is a city of 3 million, the third largest in Turkey . Its second century population was about 100,000.

There existed in the ancient world a connection between death and Smyrna. Its name is identical to the Greek word for the sweet-smelling spice in which dead bodies were wrapped. A number of mourning myths became associated with Smyrna, particularly that of Niobe whose tear-stained face was thought to be etched in the marble of nearby Mount Sipylus.

During the first century AD, it was renowned for its loyalty to Rome. The Roman writer Cicero called Smyrna "the city of our most faithful and most ancient allies."

The Jews of Smyrna carried animosity for the Christians. That added up to persecution, the topic addressed in the second letter to the churches in Revelation. No archaeological evidence exists for a "synagogue of Satan" mentioned in Revelation. Evidently the synagogue closed its doors to Christians, and its leaders were inciting the Roman authorities to persecute the church.

One of the grounds for the persecution was the refusal by Christians to worship the Roman emperor. Smyrna had a temple to Roma, the deity of the city of Rome, and in 26 AD began construction of a temple of the imperial cult. This was a great privilege. Tiberius chose Smyrna from eleven Asian applicants to become the keeper for the second temple of the imperial cult in Asia.

Neither of these temples survives today as the modern city was built on top of the ancient ruins. However, a well-preserved three-story state agora or marketplace survives. The state agora is perhaps the best preserved in Turkey today. A two-story colonnade surrounded the courtyard. Beneath the north colonnade was a magnificently vaulted basement, which had a number of shops in its north aisle.

Smyrna was noted for its beauty in the ancient world. Some of its coins read "First of Asia in beauty and size"-- a statement continually contested by its chief rivals, Ephesus and Pergamum.

Looming 460 feet over the city is Mount Pagus, or the Kadifekale, the acropolis of the ancient city. It is described by ancient writers such as Aristides as the crown of the city. The reference to "crown of life" in Revelation may possibly allude to the city's acropolis. The site of the ancient stadium on the Kadifekale is covered by buildings today.

Another thing the city is well-known for is the martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. According to tradition, Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John, who lived in Ephesus, about 40 miles to the south. John lived into the 90s AD.

Polycarp was burned at the stake in the stadium in 156 AD. The account of his death was written by the church at Smyrna and sent to the church at Philomelium. Polycarp was 86 years old at the time of his death. His refusal to apostatize is vividly described in the Martyrdom of Polycarp:

But as Polycarp entered the stadium, there came a voice...from heaven: "Be strong, Polycarp, and act like a man." And no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice. And then, as he was brought forward, there was a great tumult when they heard that Polycarp had been arrested. Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul asked if he were Polycarp. And when he confessed that he was, the proconsul tried to persuade him to recant, saying," Have respect for your age," and other such things as they are accustomed to say: "Swear by the Genius [Guardian Spirit] of Caesar; repent; say, 'Away with the atheists!' " So Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd of lawless heathen who were in the stadium, motioned toward them with his hand, and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, "Away with the atheist!" But when the magistrate persisted and said, "Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ," Polycarp replied, "For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"

Smyrna is known also as the home of Sabbatai Zevi. Just to the west of the agora was Smyrna's Jewish Quarter. An incident occurred there in the 1600s important to the history of Messianism. Zevi was born in Smyrna in 1626 to a prosperous broker. Sabbatai was a manic-depressive visionary who was expelled from the city by the other rabbis in the 1650s.

He wandered around the east for a decade, but in the summer of 1665 returned to Smyrna where he became the center of a messianic frenzy. Hysterical scenes of mass repentance, which began in Smyrna's streets, soon spread throughout the whole Jewish world.

When news of Sabbatai's messianic claims reached England , it heightened the expectations of Christians there that the year 1666 was to be apocalyptic.

However, Sabbatai was arrested by the Turks and in September 1666 brought before the Sultan. Faced with the choice of death or conversion, Sabbatai became a Muslim. Many of his disciples followed him into Islam; others refused to believe his apostasy. Sabbatai's heresy survives today in the Judaeo-Muslim sect of the Donmeh.

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