Bible Study Series: Revealing Jesus in Revelation
Revelation Chapter 2:8-17 Smyrna : The church under persecution
by I Gordon
- We'll look at this church's priorities - They were materially poor but spiritually rich!
- We'll look at persecution, then and now - for this was a church under persecution
- We'll explore the command to not be fearful for that was something they, and we, need to know
- We'll conclude with a couple of personal stories of handing the situation over to God no matter what the outcome is!
But let's begin with a quick overview of this letter...
"An ancient city of Ionia, on the western coast of Asia Minor, about 40 miles to the north of Ephesus... The church founded here was one of the seven addressed by our Lord (Rev_2:8-11). The celebrated Polycarp, a pupil of the apostle John, was in the second century a prominent leader in the church of Smyrna. Here he suffered martyrdom, A.D. 155."
Easton Bible Dictionary
- Meaning of Smyrna: 'Myrrh' - Myrrh was extracted from bark resin and was often used in embalming. It is is a pointer to the death and suffering that they would experience.1
- Smyrna was a wealthy city founded three centuries before Christ. Located about 35 miles north of Ephesus it was a major commercial center of Asia Minor.
- Today the city is called Izmir with a population of around 4.4 million people.
- In the Bible Smyrna is only mentioned in Revelation chapters 1 and 2
- Details about the founding of the church are unknown.
- There is not one word of complaint or condemnation about this church. The only other church with no complaint in the seven churches of Revelation is Philadelphia.
- Commendation - They had little and were outwardly poor but were rich in Christ!
- Complaint - None!
- Counsel - Do not fear suffering. Be faithful even if it costs your life
- Warning - None!
- Challenge - Those that overcome will not be hurt by the second death
Over-riding thought: For me this letter is a reminder of what Christians have faced in persecution and martyrdom, and what they do still face in many parts of the world. It is a reminder of how important it is to set aside Christ as Lord in your hearts. It was also a wake-up call against the self-centered 'gospel' that is preached in many Western churches today. And it encourages us once again to place an unknown future into the hands of a known and good God.
"The Smyrnan believers were victims of the "10 percenters". These people reported Christians to the Roman government and were rewarded with ten percent of the "heretics" property. The believers were thus often wiped out financially and many ended up martyred or in prison. Eventually the Christians were given only one choice - bow to Caesar as Lord or be put to a horrible death."
Hal Lindsey, There is a new world coming
But what is important to you is very telling. I had to learn a wee lesson here this week. I had to have a priority adjustment! Just over a week ago I bought a new car. Not new as 'brand-spanking' new but certainly the newest car I've even owned. I was quite chuffed with it. It was very shiny and smart... until that is I drove away after our Bible study homegroup and heard that death sound... I scrapped the back door and wheel guard on the side of a fence that stuck out, resulting in some small dents and scratches. Boy did I feel terrible. Deflated. Stupid. A right ning-nong you could say. I had only had it a week and had already done this! Now, to put things in perspective, at the same time a terrible earthquake occurred in Turkey and Syria which we spoke about in the homegroup. It looks like it will kill tens of thousands. Many more are injured. Countless families lost their entire homes and possessions. People were still trapped in the rubble, trying to cling onto life. And yet as I got home all I kept thinking about was my car and what I had done! Later that night I said to the Lord that I'm just like Jonah. He got all annoyed because a worm ate his vine, taking away a little bit of comfort, but he didn't care if the Ninevite young ones lost their lives (Jon 4:9-11). And here I was getting all bent out of shape because my car, which Mr Panel Beater can fix, has been a little bent out of shape. And I was not caring about things that really are important! Now, having realized this and having confessed it, you might think that was the end of it and I was instantly released from my angst... but no. When I woke up in the morning I was still annoyed at what I had done and kept thinking about it. So how did I get free from this feeling and get my priorities right you ask? Well I decided to ring my wise, sometimes sympathetic mother and see what she had to say. That phone call helped me a lot. It wasn't so much her words. It was more that she just laughed, and couldn't stop laughing actually. And this made me laugh. She clearly didn't take it nearly as seriously as I did and it helped me to realise what was important. Material things come and go. Dents can be fixed. They don't actually matter. God matters. People matter. Eternal matters, matter. What is important to you?
"The ancient account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, in A.D. 168, eighty-six years after his conversion, is very definite, that the Jews “joined the heathen in clamoring for his being cast to the lions; and, when there was an obstacle to this, for his being burned alive; and with their own hands they carried logs to the pile: the Jews being most desperately forward, as is their custom, to render this service."
William Newell, Revelation, A Complete Commentary
Again, Jesus knew all about this as well. He came to His own (the Jews) but His own received Him not! Some Jews believed and followed Him but the majority rejected Him and called for His crucifixion. So it is from first hand experience that Jesus could say to His church 'I know your afflictions...' And, for that matter, He would say the same to you today when you are suffering. And He would also say...
“Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take!
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessing on your head.”
- We have an enemy that does not like to see the church or individual Christians progressing.
- The Devil can only do what God allows. He is a Devil and has Devilish schemes, but he doesn't have a freehand to just do whatever He likes.
- All suffering and trials are a test. With the permission of God, Satan tested Job. This was a very difficult test but one that was, in the end, very beneficial for Job.
OpenDoors records that last year (2022) 5621 Christians were killed for their faith. Approximately 15 a day. It has been said that there have been more martyrs in the 20th century than in the previous 19 centuries combined! One report estimated that 65% of all Christian martyrs have occurred in the last 100 years.5 We should remember that concerning the body of Christ, scripture says: 'If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.' (1Co 12:26)
1. Crown of Life - Perseverance under trials (James 1:12, Rev 2:10)
2. Crown of Glory - Ministering faithfully to God's sheep. (1 Pet 5:4)
3. Incorruptible Crown - Running the race with self control (1 Cor 9:25)
4. Crown of Righteousness - Loving His appearing (2 Tim 4:8)
5. Crown of Exaltation - Winning Souls to the Lord (1Thes 2:19)
And of course all crowns will be cast before the One who truly is worthy of all worship and honor! (Rev 4:10)
May God bless!
The Bible Knowledge Commentary states: "The name of the city, Smyrna, means “myrrh,” an ordinary perfume. It was also used in the anointing oil of the tabernacle, and in embalming dead bodies (cf. Exo 30:23; Psa 45:8; Son 3:6; Mat 2:11; Mar 15:23; Joh 19:39). While the Christians of the church at Smyrna were experiencing the bitterness of suffering, their faithful testimony was like myrrh or sweet perfume to God."
This is a long footnote but it is well worth reading more about the life and martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. David Guzik writes the following:
"Polycarp was a remarkable example of both the persecution and the courage of early Christians.
i. The year after Polycarp returned from Rome, a great persecution came upon the Christians of Smyrna. His congregation urged him to leave the city until the threat blew over. So, believing that God wanted him to be around a few more years, Polycarp left the city and hid out on a farm belonging to some Christian friends. One day on the farm, as he prayed in his room, Polycarp had a vision of his pillow engulfed in flames. He knew what God said to him, and calmly told his companions "I see that I must be burnt at the stake."
ii. Meanwhile, the chief of police issued a warrant for his arrest. They seized one of Polycarp's servants and tortured him until he told them where his master was. Towards evening, the police chief and a band of soldiers came to the old farmhouse. When the soldiers found him, they were embarrassed to see that they had come to arrest such an old, frail man. But they reluctantly put him on a donkey and walked him back to the city of Smyrna.
iii. On the way to the city, the police chief and other government officials tried to persuade Polycarp to offer a pinch of incense before a statue of Caesar and simply say "Caesar is Lord." That's all he had to do, and he would be off the hook. They pleaded with him to do it, and escape the dreadful penalties. At first Polycarp was silent, but then he calmly gave them his firm answer: no. The police chief was now angry. Annoyed with the old man, he pushed him out of his carriage and onto the hard ground. Polycarp, bruised but resolute, got up and walked the rest of the way to the arena.
iv. The horrid games at the arena had already begun in earnest. A large, bloodthirsty mob had gathered to see Christians tortured and killed. One Christian named Quintis had boldly proclaimed himself a follower of Jesus and said he was willing to be martyred. But when he saw the vicious animals in the arena, he lost courage and agreed to burn that pinch of incense to Caesar as Lord. But another young man named Germanicus didn't back down. He marched out and faced the lions, and died an agonizing death for his Lord Jesus Christ. Ten other Christians gave their lives that day, but the mob was unsatisfied. They cried out, "Away with the atheists who do not worship our gods!" To them, Christians were atheists because they did not recognize the traditional gods of Rome and Greece. Finally, the crowd started chanting "Bring out Polycarp."
v. When Polycarp brought his tired body into the arena, he and the other Christians heard a voice from heaven. It said, "Be strong, Polycarp, play the man." As he stood before the proconsul, they tried one more time to get him to renounce Jesus. The proconsul told Polycarp to agree with the crowd and shout out "Away with the atheists!" Polycarp looked sternly at the bloodthirsty mob, waved his hand towards them and said, "Away with those atheists!" The proconsul persisted. "Take the oath and revile Christ and I'll set you free!" Polycarp answered, "For eighty-six years I've served Jesus; how dare I now revile my King?" The proconsul finally gave up, and announced to the crowd the crime of the accused: "Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian."
vi. The crowd shouted, "let the lions loose." But the animals had already been put away. The crowd then demanded that Polycarp be burnt. The old man remembered the dream about the burning pillow, and took courage in God. He said to his executioners, "It is well. I fear not the fire that burns for a season and after a while is quenched. Why do you delay? Come, do your will."
v. They arranged a great pile of wood, and set up a pole in the middle. As they tied Polycarp to the pole, he prayed: "I thank You that You have 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 Your Christ." After he prayed and gave thanks to God, they set the wood ablaze. A great wall of flame shot up to the sky, but it never touched Polycarp. God had set a hedge of protection between him and the fire. Seeing that he would not burn, the executioner, in a furious rage, stabbed the old man with a long spear. Immediately, streams of blood gushed from his body and seemed to extinguish the fire. When this happened, witnesses say they saw a dove fly up from the smoke into heaven. At the very same moment, a church leader in Rome named Irenaeus, said he heard God say to him, "Polycarp is dead." God called his servant home.
J. Vernon McGee lists them as:
- Nero—64-68 (Paul was beheaded under his reign)
- Domitian—95-96 (John was exiled during that period)
- Trajan—104-117 (Ignatius was burned at the stake)
- Marcus Aurelius—161-180 (Polycarp was martyred)
- Diocletian—303-313 (the worst emperor of all).
Yeah... and he can count himself lucky being seen within 7 hours! Welcome to NZ's post-covid and post-vaccine health system! When my brother in law initially shredded his finger and rushed in hospital there was someone in there that had fallen off his motorbike and had been waiting 3 days for help!
Ok then... yes even my once shiny new car!