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"The Persecuted Church"
Wednesday AM Bible Study
February 18, 2009
In this second of the seven letters—this one to the church in Smyrna (approximately 25 miles from Ephesus)—the resurrected Lord Jesus encourages His church as it suffers persecution. This letter, like the sixth letter to the church at Philadelphia, is distinct in that it contains no rebuke from the Lord for His church.
I. BACKGROUND ON THE CHURCH AT SMYRNA (v. 8a).
A. Its History. The city of Smyrna itself was so old that there’s no accurate account of its beginnings. It had been rebuilt several times—and is still in existence today as the Turkish city of Izmir. Ancient Smyrna was a city that displayed great loyalty to the Roman Empire; and so, like Ephesus, it was granted the privilege of being a self- governing city. On one very famous occasion, when a poorly-clad Roman army was faced with the prospect of being stuck in bitter winter weather, the citizens of Smyrna heard about it and reportedly took off all their pieces of warm clothing and sent them to the soldiers. Rome so appreciated Smyrna’s devotion that it chose it as the city in which to dedicate its temple to the Emperor Tiberius. And a few years later, when the city was destroyed by an earthquake, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius financed its reconstruction. A strikingly beautiful city, it had well laid-out streets, and hillsides covered with ornate temples and public buildings. The most famous street in Smyrna curved around the slopes of the most prominent hill in city, and was called—perhaps not without good reason—“the Street of Gold”. It was also known for its cultural and civil contributions. It was a center of science and medicine, and was reputed to be the birthplace of the Greek poet Homer.
B. Its Interaction with Christianity. Smyrna was a center of emperor worship. Under the rule of the emperor Domitian, emperor worship became compulsory. Everyone was required to burn incense in worship to Caesar; and everyone who did so faithfully was issued a certificate verifying the fact. Anyone who didn’t have a certificate risked the threat of death. Obviously, this placed the Christians living in Smyrna, who could by no means bow to Caesar, in grave danger.
C. Persecution in Smyrna. One of the most famous martyrs of Christian history was a direct student of the apostle John named Polycarp. Polycarp was a much loved church leader who was arrested and brought to trial when a very old man—some fifty years or so after the book of Revelation was written. He refused to hide from his persecutors; and when finally arrested and brought into an arena filled with an angry mob, he refused to comply with the command to simply say, ‘Lord Caesar’. When the procosul commanded him to deny Christ and swear by Caesar instead, he replied, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” When again commanded, “Swear by the fortune of Caesar,” Polycarp said, “Since thou art vainly urgent that, as thou sayest, I should swear by the fortune of Caesar, and pretendest not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn what the doctrines of Christianity are, appoint me a day, and thou shalt hear them.” In a final effort to get Polycarp to deny Christ, the proconsul told him that he would burn him alive if he didn’t; and to this, Polycarp replied, “Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt.” With that, the decision was rendered to burn him alive. Crowds of people rushed from the stadium and out into the city to gather wood; and the Jewish citizens of the city were, according to the story, the most eager ones of all to help with the burning. Polycarp stood in the fire and bravely died, giving glory to God. The name “Smyrna” came from the Greek word that translated the Hebrew word for ‘myrrh’—the substance used often as a perfume. Myrrh was distinct because it gave off its fragrance only after having been crushed. Hence, it stands as a symbolic representation of the church in the city of Smyrna—being crushed by the trials of persecution, and giving off a sweet fragrance of faithfulness, well- pleasing to the Lord.
II. WHAT THE LORD IS TO HIS PERSECUTED CHURCH (v. 8b).
He is "the First and the Last" (1:11). This speaks of His eternality in the face of the threat of death. He is also He "who was dead, and came to life" (1:18). This would come as great encouragement to the saints who were suffering the threat of death by persecution. He was showing that they had no need to fear death, because He has conquered it.
III. THREE THINGS THE LORD TELLS HIS PERSECUTED CHURCH (v. 9-10).
A. "I Know" . . . (v. 9).
1. He knows their works (v. 10a). Just as He knew the works of the saints in Ephesus (2:2), He knew the works of the saints in Smyrna—except, with respect to the works of the saints in Smyrna, there is no "But I have this against you" from the Lord.
2. He knows their tribulation (v. 10a; i.e., pressure). He wants His precious people to know that He is fully aware of what it is that they’re suffering. He feels the pain they feel, and is sympathetic to the trials they’re under (Heb. 4:15).
3. He knows their poverty (i.e., extreme beggarliness). They no doubt became impoverished by the unjust actions of those who hated their faith in Him (Heb. 10:34). But Jesus wanted them to know that—in reality—they were rich (Matthew 5:11-12).
4. He knows the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews but are not. Those things that were spoken against Him by their persecutors was ever before Him. The Lord speaks of those who say they are Jews but are not. In His reckoning, a Jew is not one strictly by birth, but also inwardly (Romans 2:28-29). Instead, these were a synagogue (congregation) of Satan (John 8:44).
B. "Do not fear . . ." (v. 10b). This is put in the present tense; suggesting that they were fearing right then the things they are about to suffer, and were told to stop fearing them.
1. He lets them know that Satan is about to cast them into prison (1 Peter 5:8; Rev. 12:17). But this, under God's sovereign control, was to "test" them (1 Peter 1:6- 7).
2. He lets them know it would only be for a limited time—"ten days". This may be a literal ten days; or it may be symbolic of the main 10 periods of persecution that historians tell us the early church suffered from the Roman government. In either case, the Lord lets them know that it is in His hand—and the time is strictly limited by Him (1 Peter 3:14-16).
C. "Be faithful . . ." (v. 10c). They were to be faithful to the fullest extent—just as He was (Hebrews 12:1-3). But even if they should be called upon to die for Him, He who was dead and is alive forevermore promises to reward them with the crown of life (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
IV. THE LORD'S CLOSING EXHORTATION (v. 11).
He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death (Rev. 20:6,14). We are not to fear the first death, as our Lord taught us (Luke 12:4-5). If we are in Him who conquered the first death, we have no need to fear the second death.
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