The Church at Smyrna: Part 3 of 5 (series: Lessons on Revelation)
by John Lowe
It was not difficult for maliciously-minded people to spread dangerous slanders about the Christian Church.
None of us can tell what it might cost to remain true to Christ. It seems inevitable that America will eventually suffer as the early church did. None can deny that there is at present many indications of what is coming—liberal churches preaching a social message, a drop in church attendance, increasing atheism, sex, violence, and homosexuality, government inroads into religion, etc. Both our Lord and the Apostle Paul spoke of impending tribulation that would arise during the Church Age (John 16:33; 2 Timothy 3:12). Such a time will separate the true believer from the mere professor (Matthew 13:5-6, 20-21).
The “church in Smyrna” was harboring some form of extreme Judaistic error. Those propagating the heresy are said to belong to the “synagogue of Satan.” Just as God has His followers (devotees) in the world, so does “Satan.” The enemy was active along two lines at “Smyrna.” Within the Christian assembly, he was “Satan,” the adversary, the one who sets up radical teachings in opposition to the gospel. Outside the assembly, he was the devil, the accuser, the forger of the lies and innuendos which inspired the pagan persecutions.
The Lord never minimizes the seriousness of “error.” Some of His strongest language was directed against false religious teachers. They are called “children of the devil,” “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” “a generation of vipers.” At “Smyrna,” He describes their clique within the assembly as the “synagogue of Satan.” He says that the spreaders of the error are blasphemers. This is strong language. We must not dilute it, for error is a serious matter.
10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
The fiery trial soon to be intensified at Smyrna is viewed in three ways: from the human, the satanic, and the divine perspectives. Each perspective emphasizes a different aspect of human suffering—its “misery”, its “mystery,” and its “ministry.”
The Human Level of the Trial—Its Misery. The Lord says, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer.” There is a natural withdrawal from suffering. The Lord encourages His own to boldly face the hatred and the violent opposition of the world. History tells us how the saints of God in those far-off days of the church responded boldly to the challenge.
The long history of the church has been one of constant “persecution.” Many of those whose names have become household words in the family of God have had to “suffer” severely for their faith. Even the 20th century has not been without its martyrs. The church in all ages has suffered intense “persecution” and fiery trials. Who can calculate on the human level the misery of it? “Do not be afraid,” says the Lord. The Lord has promised grace sufficient for every need, but He does not give “martyr grace” until it is “martyr time.”
The problem of human suffering, even for a limited time, has always perplexed faithful Christians. Suffering can be expected for the ungodly, but why should the godly suffer? The Scriptures give a number of reasons. Suffering may be (1) disciplinary (1 Corinthians 11:30-32; Hebrews 12:3-13), (2) preventive (as Paul’s thorn in the flesh, 2 Corinthians 12:7), (3) the learning of obedience (as Christ’s suffering, Hebrews 5:8; Romans 5:3-5), or (4) the providing of a better testimony for Christ (as in Acts 9:16).
The Satanic Level of the Trial—Its Mystery. Satan detests the church and has been its persistent enemy since the moment it burst upon his startled sight at Pentecost. He was not prepared for that. The church was a secret concealed in the heart of God from eternity past. The church has been the object of Satan’s persistent attacks from the very beginning. Saints at Smyrna were about to bear the brunt of one of
his attacks. “The devil will put some of you in prison,” says the Lord. More suffering was coming, yet they should remember that although the Jews and Roman authorities were carrying out the “persecution,” behind any actions against them was the “devil” himself. Satan would cause some of the believers to be thrown into “prison” and even killed. He would put the believers to the “test”—that is, he would “test” their faith. Jesus had told His disciples, “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill you. They can only kill your body; they cannot touch your souls!” (Matthew 10:28, NLT). The “persecution” would continue for “ten days13
”—probably symbolizing that although “persecution” would be intense, it would be relatively short in duration and had a definite beginning and end. God was in complete control. In the true sense of the word, “There is no power but of God” (Romans 13:1). All power is permitted by Almighty God, and the “devil” cannot make one move against God’s child without God’s permission (read 1 Corinthians 10:13, and Hebrews 13:5). God’s purpose in permitting “persecution” to come upon the assembly at Smyrna was to cause the saints to repent and return to Him. Thus God’s saints were purified. Their love, faith, and courage were strengthened. The Lord then challenged the church to remain “faithful” to Christ even when facing “death.”
Satan knows well enough the high dignity and the high destiny of the church. He sees it enthroned in heavenly places with Christ, far above all principalities and powers and every name which is named. When he is hurled from heaven to earth, from earth to the abyss, and from the abyss to the lake of fire, the church will still be enthroned on the dizzy Heights from which he fell. “The devil will put some of you in prison,” says the Lord. There is no mystery about that. The mystery is that He who of holds the universe, who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who controls all the factors of time and space that He permits it! That is the mystery of it.
In light of the “persecution” of the day, the reference to “prison” may infer more than simple containment. It may be a reference to a type of holding cell where a detainee awaits execution. The mention of “ten days” would have been understood by John’s original readers as an allusion to Daniels request to be tested “for ten days” in order to show that God’s commands regarding food would make him and his cohorts stronger than the rest of the men taken to Babylon (Daniel 1:12-15). This was a “test” that proved God “faithful,” as would the “test” of the Smyrnaeans prove they were “faithful.”
The Divine Level of the Trial—its Ministry. God never permits the saints to “suffer” without a cause. In this case, there are two comforting factors which showed that God is sovereign even in Satan’s permitted onslaught on the saints. First, we note the divine reason for this fiery trial. It is simply “to test you.” The church is to be tested, the chaff to be separated from the wheat. Next, we note there is a divine restriction to it. “You will suffer persecution for ten days.” The exact period is marked for the fiery trial to start and for it to stop. On the other side of the trial, the church would be stronger than ever. Tertullian, who lived in the midst of “persecution,” said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” It has been an axiom from that day to this. When Saul of Tarsus made havoc of the Jerusalem church, the saints fled far and wide, taking the gospel with them and spreading it abroad. “The devil,” in his blind rage against the infant church at Jerusalem, simply took the precious gospel seed, stored in the Jerusalem granary, and cast it to the four winds of heaven. Wherever it came to rest, it took root and sprang up in a mighty harvest. That is one of the ministries of persecution.