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Local Church at Smyrna

The local church of Smyrna was repeatedly crushed by bitter persecutions and was several times virtually destroyed, but has always been restored to life. This church felt the full force of the pagan Roman persecutions of the second and third centuries. Smyrna was the home of Polyearp and the scene of his martyrdom in AD 168. The hillside of Mount Pagus, where he was burned at the stake, has since been reddened by the blood of fifteen hundred Christians at one time and eight hundred at another. Visitors are shown the spot where Polyearp was supposed to have been martyred and the tomb where he was buried.

Many believe that Polyearp was the "angel," or "minister," -of the church of Smyrna at the time the message of Christ was delivered. This is based chiefly on the statement he made just before his death. When asked by the judge to renounce Christianity with its Christ, he replied: "Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me wrong, how then can I blaspheme my king, who bath saved me?" Tertullian tells us that Polycarp was consecrated bishop of Smyrna by the apostle John, and with this conclusion agree also the testimonies of Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Jerome.

Tamerlane, the Tartar chieftain, captured the city of Smyrna in AD 1402 and massacred its inhabitants, concentrating on the Christians. Tradition says that he built a pyramid of the heads of his victims. Smyrna was the last Christian city to hold out against the Turks when they overran Asia Minor. When they finally captured it, in 1424, they put to death most of its Christian population. The destruction of thousands of Smyrnean Christians by the Turks in 1922 is fresh in the memories of many. But the local church still lives. Smyrna has for some time been the headquarters of several denominational mission enterprises. Located there are a number of Christian schools. A few years ago it was said that more Christians lived in Smyrna than in any other Turkish city in the world. The local church will doubtless continue till the second coming of Christ, when all the faithful will be given "a crown of life."
                                                  The  Smyrna  Period
 "Then came the Smyrna period-the era of martyrdom, and of the sweet savor unto God of faithfulness unto death, but marked with further developments of defection in the establishment of casts and orders, the license of Judaizing propensities, and consequent departures from the true simplicities of the Gospel." (Seiss, Page 142.) The Smyrna period covered about two hundred years, or the second and third centuries. It was the age of martyrdom, when the pagan Roman emperors attempted to destroy Christianity with the violence of the sword, considering it a form of treason. Christians who refused to forsake their faith were threatened with the loss of all citizenship rights, confiscation of property, imprisonment, torture, and death.
 During this period Roman rulers and writers bitterly denounced Christianity and reckoned Christians as the off-scouring of the earth, and Suetonius called Christianity "a novel and wicked superstition." Christians were "hated for their shameful deeds." Pliny declared that Christianity was "an inflexible obstinacy," "a depraved and excessive superstition." These false accusations made Christians outlaws against the religion and state of the Romans, and thus brought upon them bitter and relentless persecutions.

The Smyrna period is known as the era of martyrdom. Justin Martyr, with six other Christians, was scourged and beheaded in AD 165. Irenaeus is believed to have been put to death in 202 during the persecutions of Severus. Cyprian died under the persecutions of Trajan in 258, and Victorinus in 304 during the martyrdoms under Diocletian. Eusebius said of these terrible times: "We saw with our own eyes the houses of prayer thrown down to the very foundations, and the Divine and Sacred Scriptures committed to the flames." "We . . . have observed *in Thebais+ large crowds in one day; some suffering decapitation, others torture by fire; so that the murderous sword was blunted, and becoming weak, was broken, and the very executioners grew weary and relieved each other." (Ecclesiastical History, Book 8, Chapter 2.)

But the church of myrrh and bitterness was agreeable and precious to Christ. Though it was persecuted unto death, the very crushing released the fragrance of love and grace and patient endurance that is so precious in the sight of the Master. Someone has said that "during this persecution the alabaster box of Christian fragrance was broken and the perfume has filled the centuries." It is impossible to estimate the number of Christian martyrs during those days of persecution, but the persecutors were so sure that the hated sect was entirely exterminated that a coin was struck in celebration of the triumph of the pagan gods over the faith of Jesus.

                                                  True  Riches

Jesus declared that He was fully acquainted with the tribulation and poverty of His people during this period, but He said they were rich in spiritual things. The poverty was doubtless the result of their tribulation, which often ended in death. Their earthly possessions had been confiscated ‘by the state. They had suffered "the spoiling of their goods." Jesus assured them that He fully sympathized with them in their tribulation and poverty because of His own experience. The original word for tribulation means "to be in straits." It is distress resulting from being hard pressed, or hemmed in on every side.

Jesus comforted the Smyrneans with the assurance that their poverty in temporal things could not rob them of their spiritual riches. "But thou art rich" is His message to them. They were rich in grace and faith, and had laid up "treasure in heaven." (Romans 8:32; Colossians 2:3; 1 Timothy 6:18; James 2:5; Matthew 6:20.) During the first three centuries the church was characterized by material poverty and spiritual power Whereas the modern church is noted for its material wealth and spiritual weakness. She claims to be "rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing," but in God’s sight she is spiritually "wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked, and in need of all things that would qualify her to be the light of the world. Trench says that in the sight of Christ "there are both poor rich men and rich poor-men." (Page 107.)

Spiritual riches constitute the true wealth-that which alone will endure. Many of the most wealthy in material things are moral paupers and spiritual bankrupts. Jesus alone van furnish spiritual treasure, and this He offers to the poverty-stricken church of our generation. He says, "I counsel thee to buy of Me gold tried in the fire, that thou may be rich; and white raiment, that thou may be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that thou may see." Revelation 3:18.

Smyrna was a rich poor church and Laodicea a poor rich church. It is far better to e poor in the estimation of the world and rich in spiritual things than to be rich in one’s own esteem and the world’s but poverty stricken in the sight of Christ. Persecution and physical suffering usually bring material poverty, but they also have a tendency to increase spiritual riches. Persecution for the sake of righteousness has always been a blessing in disguise. The crucible and the burning fiery furnace are the purifying instruments of love and grace rather than the obnoxious weapons of torture.

The psalmist beautifully sets forth the beneficial results of divinely permitted trials: "For Thou, O God, has proved us: Thou has tried us, as silver is tried. Thou brought us into the net; thou laid affliction upon our loins. Thou has caused men to ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water: but thou brought us out into a wealthy place." Psalm 66:10-12. Here is the secret of a spiritual experience that leads out of the barren desert into a spiritual oasis.
                                                The  Church  of  Satan

Christ also had knowledge of those false disciples who claimed to be "Jews," but were rather of the church or "synagogue of Satan." Although we know upon the evidence of the Scriptures and profane history that the Jews in general joined the heathen in hating and persecuting Christians, the term Jew is here used to depict the disciples of Christ. The term is sometimes used in the Scriptures to represent the true people of God in contrast with the Gentiles, or unconverted. (Romans 2:28, 29; Revelation 2:9; 3:9.) The usual term however is Israel, or Israelite, which is synonymous with Christian. Paul declared that the children of faith are the true children of Abraham, and that if we are Christians then we are "Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise." (Galatians 3:7, 29.) The term Israel had its origin the night Jacob wrestled with the angel. This is the term used in most instances, and the one more appropriate than Jew, yet we should not be too prejudiced against the latter, because Jesus was a Jew and so also were all His apostles and prophets. Jesus declared that "salvation is of the Jews."

The false brethren were not really members of the church of Christ even though their names were enrolled on the church records. They were of "the synagogue of Satan." Synagogue and church are virtually synonymous terms, meaning "congregation," or "assembly." Ancient Israel is called "the church in the wilderness" in Acts 7:38, and "the congregation of the Lord" in the Old Testament Scriptures. The Christian church is called a "synagogue" in the marginal reading of James 2:2. Satan, the great deceiver and imitator, has a church, or synagogue, which God designates as "Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the earth." Revelation 17:5. There are but two churches, and they are rivals. Between them there is no neutral ground. All who are not of the church of Christ are of the synagogue of Satan. The apostasy that began through the loss of love in the latter part of the Ephesian period, continued to develop, and false apostles and disciples multiplied in the church. "The mystery of iniquity" was working even in "the congregation of the Lord."

                                                 Future  Persecutions  Foretold

In verse 10 future trials are predicted, including imprisonment. Jesus said, "And you shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life." In love and mercy He foretells what is coming, and promises deliverance. Regarding the experience of Paul, Jesus said: "I will show him how great things he must suffer for My name’s sake." Acts 9:16. Christ never entices recruits for His cause by promises of an easy task and a pleasant life.

In our text the persecution of the saints is traced to the agency of the devil, the great adversary. The devil cast some into prison that they "may be tried," or rather tempted. The persecution was a temptation from the devil to cause them to become discouraged and give up their faith and hope rather than a trial or test from God, although the Lord often permits temptations to come to us from the enemy in order to test our powers of endurance and to separate the chaff from the wheat. If we take the proper attitude, what the devil designs for our ruin will result in his defeat, our good, and God’s glory.

Practically all the Roman emperors during the Ephesian and Smyrnean periods persecuted the Christians, but ten of them were more pronounced in their enmity. These were Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Hadrian, Severus, Maximinus, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian, and Diocletian. As the Pontifex Maximus of the religion of the state, the emperor was the "protector of the Roman gods." It was therefore his duty to guard the religion of the empire against the inroads of other systems.

For ten prophetic days the persecution was to continue, and during that time Christians would be put under pressure and given "the third degree" of torture. As the result of this the persecutors were finally convinced that it would be useless to prolong the process. The last and most bloody of these ten persecutions took place under Diocletian, and lasted ten years from AD 302 to 312. Dr. Adam Clarke and other commentators believe that the "ten days" refer especially to this ten-year period, the conclusion being arrived at on the basis of a day representing a year in symbolic prophecy.

The "ten days" of trial mentioned in the Smyrnean letter represent a period that would test God’s people to the limit of their endurance both in severity and duration. Christians were to pass through a complete baptism of suffering and martyrdom with the assurance of the fullness of Christ’s love and sympathy and the promise of a "crown of life" as the reward of loyalty and steadfastness.

                                                 The  Promised  Reward

The reward offered the church of Smyrna was not only "a crown of life," but the voice of the Spirit adds the promise, "He that overcomes shall not be hurt of the second death." "Be faithful to the end even if you have to die, and then I will give you the victor’s wreath of life," is the Weymouth translation. The promise is not alone to those who maintain their faithfulness to the end of life in a natural sense, but especially to the persecuted when death was the price of their loyalty. The reward is for those upon whom the enemy inflicts his worst tortures, ending even in death itself. The recompense for faithfulness even unto martyrdom is "a crown of life." Elsewhere Christians are promised "a crown of glory," "a crown of righteousness," and a "crown of rejoicing."

The crown of our text is not a crown of royalty but rather a "garland of life" or a "victor’s wreath." Smyrna was noted for its athletic contests, when garlands of victory were given to the successful contestants. During this period of persecution millions of Christians died for their faith, but more millions still became Christians as the result of their steadfastness "even unto death." The ‘blood of martyrs was the seed that produced a bountiful harvest of souls.

To the church of martyrs Jesus declared Himself to be the One who had also suffered martyrdom, but was again alive, with a life that would never end. His death was a triumph, and all who are faithful unto death will be given the crown of everlasting life. Nero lost his crown and Paul his head, but the latter died a victor, with the promise of "a crown of righteousness" and a part in the Paradise restored. Polycarp remained faithful even unto martyrdom, and a crown of life and glory awaits him at the resurrection of the just.

Those who maintain their loyalty unto the first death will escape the second death, which will be eternal and from which there will be no resurrection. We need not be too much concerned about the first death, which is temporary and comes to all alike, provided we have maintained that union with the Life-giver by which we can escape the second death. On the other hand those who are born only once must die twice.

The candlestick of the church of Smyrna was not removed. It is the only church of the seven that exists today and is still letting its gospel light shine. Smyrna has been known to the Turks as "Infidel Smyrna" because of their inability to destroy the local church. Nor were the emperors of pagan Rome able to extinguish the light through the agency of persecution. Smyrna and Philadelphia are the only two of the seven churches that received no reproof or condemnation, and they are the only two of the seven cities that retain anything of their former importance and glory. The Christians of the Smyrna period needed encouragement. There were things that needed to be corrected, but they had about all they could stand without reproof. The fires of persecution had purified the church, and much of the lost love and works had been regained. Tribulation will also play an important part in the purification of the remnant of the church in preparation for translation. Of them it is said: "These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." (Revelation 7:9, 13, 14.)

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