“Ànd to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These things says the First and the Last, who was dead and is alive: I know your works, and tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich), and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:8,9).

The early Church grew rapidly during the second and third centuries. In contrast to other religions of the era, it was not an elitist body with mysterious rituals open only to the rich and powerful. Within the church everyone was equal, even slaves, so the poor and disenfranchised flocked into the church.[1] This apparent weakness and poverty was actually their source of strength (“but you are rich!”). Lacking social and political power, they relied upon God and He blessed them with spiritual power.

Jesus recognized the positive in the church of Smyrna, but even here it is obvious that there had been a deterioration compared with the Ephesus period. Ephesus was commended for your works, your labor, your patience, that you cannot bear those who are evil,” for testing false apostles, and for hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans. The church of Smyrna has a much shorter list: “Your works, tribulation and poverty.”

As the church grew, Christians faced continuous persecution (I know your…tribulation”), some of it from the Romans, but much of it from the Jews, which resulted in the mutual hatred between Christians and Jews that developed during the Ephesus period.[2] Despite these bad relationships, Jesus did not condemn the Jews, but rather those who say they are Jews and are not.” The apostle Paul clarifies this thought in Romans 2: “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart” (Romans 2:28,29). In other words, born again, Spirit-led Christians are the true Jews. These are contrasted with “you who are called a Jew” who “boast in God…,know His will, being instructed out of the law,” who “boast in the law” but “dishonor God through breaking the law” (vs. 17-23). Of these false Jews he concludes that “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (v.24).

Paul’s words condemning legalism, hypocrisy and law-breaking are mirrored in the message to Smyrna. Jesus says, “I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” By the time of the Smyrna period (mid second through early third centuries) the church was dividing into two categories: those who were “rich” in faith (despite their “tribulation and poverty”) and those who were a “Synagogue of Satan.” The synagogue was the Jewish "church" where the Jews met for instruction in the "laws and traditions of Moses." During the Smyrna era some of the church leaders (those who say they are Jews and are not) were attempting to create a new "Christian" synagogue, in other words, a church with a focus on laws and traditions rather than on Jesus and the Spirit.

The great curse of the Church has never been those outside; it is those inside, who call themselves Christians but are not. Lacking a living relationship with Jesus, they substitute legalism and pressure to conform to the Church’s standards. The law of God has an important role in the Christian life, “for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20); “the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ” (Galatians 3:24). However, no one will ever be declared righteous or worthy of eternal life because he faithfully kept the law or the traditions of the Church.

The key concept of the gospel is that it is “by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). Paul condemned legalism in the book of Galations: “We have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Galatians 2:16). But the false teachers “set aside the grace of God” (v.21), trying to substitute rituals, ceremonies and rigorous dietary restrictions, long vigils, pilgrimages and detailed rules and laws instead of a life led by the Spirit.

These false brethren are called “a synagogue of Satan.” During the second and third centuries the church waged a fierce battle with the Gnostics, who claimed that secret spiritual knowledge, imparted to the elect few, could rescue them from this evil physical world. Although the Church rejected the most serious errors of gnosticism, it still had a legalistic influence.[3] The basis of salvation was gradually changing from a personal union with Christ (“life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life” 1 John 5:11) to a focus on membership and participation in the church and its liturgies (“There is no salvation except in the church”).[4] The legalistic influences in the church of Smyrna were kept in check by “tribulation and poverty,” but the steady development of these doctrines led to more serious compromises during the next period of the Church, Pergamos, when the "Synagogue of Satan" became the "Throne of Satan".

Continue to next section: 2:10 PERSECUTION

[1] “For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called” (1 Corinthians 1:26).

[2] The first persecution of Christians was by the Jews after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8), and the first persecution by the Romans, during the reign of Nero in AD 64, was incited by the Jews who suggested to him that he blame the Christians for the burning of Rome. Around AD 80 the Jews started to include a curse upon Christians in their daily prayers in the synagogues, and this was used as a test to detect covert Christians in their communities, who were then persecuted. The book “Sabbath to Sunday” by Samuele Bacchiocchi details the antagonistic relationship between the early Christians and the Jews.

[3] See Walker, History of the Christian Church, pgs. 92-96. “Christians of the last half of the second and the third centuries lived in an atmosphere highly charged with influences sprung from the mystery religions…The church came to be more and more regarded as possessed of life-giving mysteries, under the superintendence and dispensation of the clergy.” In particular, during the Smyrna period baptism was changed from being a symbol of an inner change which had already taken place in the life of the believer (Romans 6:3-5, Colossians 2:12) into an initiation ritual of purification and rebirth into eternal life, appropriate for infants to free them from “original sin.” The exact wording of the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer came to be seen as sacred, secret knowledge. The Lord’s Supper was transformed from a memorial of Christ’s death for our sins, shared by common Christians whenever thy met, into “the medicine of immortality, and the antidote that we should not die, but live forever,” a sacrifice offered to God by a priest (Ignatius of Antioch quoted in Walker, History of the Christian Church, p. 98).

[4] This famous and much-quoted statement originated with Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage from AD. 248-258.