This video is about Jesus’ message to the church of Smyrna and is the second in a seven-part series on the messages to the seven churches found in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. If you have not seen the previous video it has vital information to help you understand the overall context of the messages to the seven churches.
To review briefly, the messages are addressed to seven obscure 1st-century churches in Asia Minor. Although they were important to those churches, these messages have a much greater purpose. They provide a prophetic overview of the experience of the Christian Church from the time they were written in the late 1st century until the time of the end. Each message describes a distinct period in the universal church’s experience.
The previous video focused on the first message, to the church of Ephesus. It describes the church just after the time of the apostles and into the second century. During this period the church maintained the good works and perseverance that they had while the apostles were still alive, but a fatal flaw crept in: they lost their first love.
The writings that we have from this period show how the rapidly growing gentile church developed a hatred of the Jews who had rejected Jesus and persecuted them. This led to serious doctrinal compromises as they rejected what they considered the Jewish Old Testament.
The second message is to the church of Smyrna. “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘These things said 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 second through the early fourth centuries, which are represented by the church of Smyrna, was a time of rapid growth for the Christian church.
Most of the other religions of the time were exclusive, with mysterious rituals that were only open to the wealthy and elite. But within the Christian church everyone was equal, even slaves, so the poor and disenfranchised found a welcoming home. This apparent weakness was actually a source of strength as this message emphasizes: “I know your poverty, But you are rich!” (Revelation 2:8). Because they were lacking in political and economic power they relied on God and He gave them spiritual power.
Jesus recognized and commended the positive aspects of the church of Smyrna, but it is obvious that there has been a deterioration since the Ephesus era.
The active Ephesus church was commended for her works, labor, and patience, for testing false apostles, and for rejecting those who are evil. Smyrna has a much shorter and more passive list: “Your works, and tribulation and poverty”
As the church grew, Christians faced waves of persecution. Jesus had predicted this in the message to Smyrna: “I know your…tribulation” (Revelation 2:9). Christians blamed much of their troubles on the Jews, but Jesus did not condemn the Jews, but rather “those who say they are Jews and are not” (Revelation 2:9).
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, regardless of their ethnicity. He contrasts these with “you who are called a Jew…(who) boast in God, boast in the law, but dishonor God”. Of these false Jews, he concludes, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:17-24).
In these verses Paul condemns legalism and hypocrisy, and this is a core complaint Jesus has with the church of Smyrna: “I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9).
Many commentators teach that the “synagogue of Satan” refers to unbelieving Jews who harassed the church. But keep in mind that these are messages to the church, not to those outside.
As we just saw in Romans chapter 2, the New Testament refers to faith-filled believers as true Jews or true Israelites. Those who “say they are Jews and are not” are legalistic Christians. The synagogue was the place where the Jews met for instruction in the laws and traditions of Moses.
During the Smyrna era of the third and fourth centuries, church leaders began to create a Christian synagogue, in other words, a church that focused on laws and traditions rather than on Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
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 contrasts saving faith with deadly legalism in the book of Galatians: “We have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Galatians 2:16). But the false teachers of the Smyrna period “set aside the grace of God” v. 21 and substituted rituals, ceremonies, rigorous dietary restrictions, long vigils, pilgrimages, and detailed rules and laws instead of a life led by the Holy Spirit.
During this time the church had a fierce struggle against the gnostics, who claimed that secret spiritual knowledge that was only for the elect few could rescue them from this evil physical world. These ideas had a legalistic influence on the church.
During the Smyrna era, there was a focus on the exact wording of the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s prayer. They came to be seen as sacred, secret knowledge that imparted spiritual power when they were recited.
The meaning of Baptism was transformed. Originally Baptism was a symbol of an inner change that had already taken place in the life of the believer. But in the third and fourth century Baptism became an initiation ritual of purification and rebirth into eternal life, administered to infants to free them from original sin.
The meaning of the Lord’s supper changed from being a simple memorial of Christ’s death for our sins, shared by common Christians whenever they met, into “the medicine of immortality, and the antidote that we should not die, but live forever” (Ignatius of Antioch).
The focus was changing from union with Christ to membership in the Church and participation in its liturgies. A famous and influential quotation originated during this period: “There is no salvation except in the church” (Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, AD 248-258). Contrast that with what the apostle John taught: “Life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life” (I John 5:11).
The biggest change was in church leadership. The early church had elders in every congregation who helped to guide and mentor the believers. But during the Smyrna period, the church leadership was organized into a rigid hierarchy of professional clergy with deacons, priests, bishops, archbishops, and ultimately the pope at the top.
Although legalism was creeping into the church, persecution kept her relatively free of hypocrisy and corruption.
The message to the church of Smyrna continues: “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” (Revelation 2:10). As the Christian church was growing rapidly among the poor and disenfranchised, it came to the attention of the Roman government.
Rome was on the decline during this period, and they needed someone to blame. The church was an organization that taught the poor that all were equal, which taught slaves that all were free, which taught that “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The church also had what they considered a rival government of bishops, elders, and deacons.
In AD 284 Gaius Diocletian was proclaimed emperor, and he immediately began to consolidate his power and bring order to the empire. He soon focused on the Christians as the cause of the many problems of the time because they offended the traditional Roman gods and refused to worship the emperor.
In AD 303 Diocletian made Christian worship illegal. This began a reign of terror that is known in Christian history as “the great persecution.” For ten years churches and scriptures were burned, and Christians, especially the leaders, were cruelly tortured and executed.
The historian Eusebius relates how, during the persecution of Diocletian, ” the prisons, which not long ago had been prepared for murderers and graverobbers, were filled with bishops and presbyters and deacons, readers and exorcists so that there was no longer any room there for those condemned for wrongdoing” (Ecclesiastical History, VIII, p. 6).
Just as an aside, this message is an example of a prophetic principle that we see many times in the books of Daniel and Revelation. The prophecy says, “you shall have tribulation for ten days”. The actual persecution lasted for ten years.
Actually, the persecution that the Smyrna church suffered was in some ways a blessing in disguise. The message to the church of Smyrna reveals a tragic division that was tearing the Christian church apart.
On the one hand, we see the poor and suffering, but still faithful ones. On the other hand, we have the legalistic synagogue of Satan. Corruption and hypocrisy were kept in check by persecution; those who were looking for a path to power or riches were not interested in Smyrna Christianity.
But the seeds were being sown, and they would spring up into a toxic harvest in the next period when Christianity was transformed from a despised and persecuted cult into the official religion of the Roman Empire.
The timeless, universal message for us is that persecution is not the worst thing that can happen. Jesus urged the Smyrna church to “Be faithful unto death” (Revelation 2:10).
We often consider death to be our worst enemy, but Jesus promises that death is not the end: “He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death…and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:11,10).
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