THE seven churches of Asia were established during the Apostolic era. By the time they had received the messages we read of in The Revelation (chapters 2 and 3), from the Head of the church Jesus Christ, that era of signs and wonders was at an end. Now, there was a lull and worse.
The church in Ephesus had left its first love. The church in Pergamos was tolerating the Nicolaitans with their licentious practices backed by false doctrine. The church in Thyatira allowed in its midst the evil activities of “that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess”. The church in Sardis had but few who had not defiled their garments; and the church in Laodicea had declined into a state of offensive lukewarmness. Only the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia were not censured.
In our own day, especially when there is so much worldliness and error in the visible church, it must be the constant aim of believers and churches to attain to the high standard of those two churches, and, like them, to never tolerate false teachers or immoral practices.
The church in Smyrna had its own problems and well did her divine Head know them. Part of His message to the Christians there was this: “I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty (but thou art rich), and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.” The church there was being persecuted not only by the pagan authorities, but also by the Jews, with their religion of rituals and salvation by works.
We can be certain that if, like the church in Smyrna, believers and churches are resolute in professing Christianity, they will suffer for it. They will suffer especially at the hands of those religionists who reject the gospel of salvation by faith in Christ alone and preach salvation by works. One such religion is Romanism. In those places where Rome is able to suppress Protestantism, it will do so. Today, in Mexico for example, Roman priests, working through their people, have been harassing and driving out from their homes those who belong to what the Pope condemned as “Protestant sects”. Rome is still a persecuting religion. It views what it calls “biblical fundamentalism” as the single most serious threat to its existence.
The message sent by Christ to Smyrna, although suited to comfort her, did not intimate an imminent end of persecution, but rather the continuance of persecution. “The devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days.” This was indeed what happened. Church history informs us that about seventy years after this, in a fierce persecution instigated by the Jews, Polycarp, a minister in the church in Smyrna, suffered martyrdom. The Roman proconsul summoned him and declared, “Swear, curse Christ, and I will set you free.” “Eighty and six years have I served Him,” nobly replied the aged man of God, “and I have received only good at His hands. Can I then curse Him, my King and my Saviour?”
Even today, some people in Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey) “suffer as Christians”. The English Churchman reports that two Christians were arrested for distributing Bibles, and released when charges were withdrawn. A second charge ended in acquittal. They are now charged with “insulting Islam” and are awaiting trial.
As for persecution by Jews, we read in the same periodical that the Israeli Ministry of the Interior obtained some videotapes produced by Ethiopian Christians, and that it “is scrutinising the tapes, identifying each person appearing therein, knocking on their doors and informing the congregants that they are known to be missionaries. Threats have been made against the members of such a community, including speedy deportation”.
But the church in Smyrna in Johns day was given grace to endure under persecution. As James B. Ramsey says in his exposition of the first eleven chapters of Revelation, “Let no suffering church or believer overlook the important fact, that while this church receives not one word of censure, but only confirmation and comfort, that comfort does not consist in any promise of deliverance from their suffering estate while here, but only of grace to bear it. On the contrary, the promise implies that these persecutions shall continue, and shall be permitted to run their complete natural course.”
Were it not for the grace of God being promised and given, not one persecuted believer or Church could obey that divine injunction to Smyrna, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” We know not what persecution may come our way in this age of increasing hostility against Biblical Christianity, but let us be often considering those who, in their own day, persevered in denying themselves, taking up the cross, and following Christ. “This church,” says C. H. Spurgeon of Smyrna (which means myrrh), “was sorely persecuted, but remained faithful. It has been called sweet-smelling Smyrna, the poorest and the purest of the seven.” It is truly an example which says to us, “Shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end: that ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:11,12).