By Philippe Sterling
PERSECUTED AND POOR, BUT RICH
Have you ever been persecuted for your faith? Have you ever been put at a disadvantage because of your faith? Have others ever hated or shunned you because you were a believer?
The example of the church at Smyrna alerts us to the possibility of being persecuted for our faith and encourages us to remain faithful to Christ. Smyrna derives from the word for bitter, an appropriate description for the experience of the believers who lived there. They experienced persecution and the hardships that accompanied it.
Smyrna was a city about 40 miles north of Ephesus, but not as big. It was a busy seaport and a center of wealth. It still exists today as the city of Izmir in Turkey. One third of its community is nominally Christian. The church has had a continuous Christian presence in spite of persecution.
Smyrna was cozy with Rome. Many Roman citizens lived there. While Ephesus was a center of worship for the local goddess, Smyrna was a center of emperor worship. In AD 25, a temple to the emperor Tiberius was built there. Emperor worship became a matter of pride to the people of Smyrna. Emperor Domitian would later declare himself a god and require all citizens to perform a sacrifice to him, saying, “Caesar is Lord.” This was mostly a political commitment in religious trappings, but believers saw it as idolatry. Once you performed the sacrifice, you would get a certificate. Without that certificate, you were a subject of discrimination and possibly punishment.
There was also a large Jewish community in Smyrna. Although Jews and Christians coexisted peaceably in some areas, this was not the case in Smyrna. Well into the second century, the Jews were strong opponents of the Smyrna church. They repeatedly informed against believers and incited the local governor against them.
Smyrna received its name from its commerce in myrrh, a fragrant herb. The name symbolizes the experience of the church in persecution. Myrrh is associated with suffering, death, and embalming. For example, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus used myrrh for embalming the body of Jesus (John 19:39). It also was one of the gifts the wise men gave Jesus at His birth (Matt 2:11).
Jesus described Himself as the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. Christ, who is eternal, was around before the emperor and would be around long afterward. He had conquered death. As Jesus experienced death and rose in triumph over it, so would the martyrs of Smyrna.
Jesus knew of their affliction, their poverty, and the slander against them. He encouraged them by saying that though materially poor, they were spiritually rich.
The believers had experienced economic persecution. They had lost their jobs, their businesses, and their lands because of their loyalty to Christ. The economic and social life of the city was organized around the religious and imperial cults. When a believer refused to participate in some of their practices, he was marked off. His faith cut him off from the job that he held and from social life.
There was also a pocket of Jewish troublemakers causing problems for the church. By birth and religion these may have been Jews, but this was only in an outward sense. Inwardly, they were not believing and did not have circumcised hearts (see Rom 2:28-29). They were not of the faith of Abraham.
They were rather of the synagogue of Satan. This is not a synagogue building dedicated to Satan, of course, but the people who gathered there planned their assault on the church, putting themselves at the disposal of the adversary (Satan). They circulated false ideas concerning the believers in Christ. They accused them of cannibalism, eating flesh and drinking blood at the Lord’s Supper, incest (love between “brothers and sisters”), and treason—meeting in secret to promote the kingdom of Christ.
Believers are slandered today as well. Believers are accused of hate speech for upholding Biblical values. Believers are accused of being anti-science for holding creation views.
Jesus gave no reproof to this church. He issued no call to repentance. Their trials purified their faith.
The church at Smyrna had suffered at the hands of the Romans and Jews and would suffer even more in the years to come. They would pay dearly for their faithfulness to Jesus. Jesus simply exhorted them not to be afraid and to remain faithful.
One of the most famous martyrdoms happened in the city of Smyrna circa AD 167. A Christian leader there at the time was Polycarp. On a festival day, when the crowds were excitable, a cry against Polycarp went out from the mob, and they brought him before the Roman governor.
Polycarp was given the choice of saying, “Caesar is Lord” or “Jesus is Lord.” He refused to say, “Caesar is Lord.” The governor urged him, “Swear! I will set you free. Reproach Christ.” Polycarp answered with this famous phrase, “Eighty-six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” The proconsul said, “I will burn you with fire if you will not change.” Polycarp said, “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour and after a little while is extinguished. But you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. Why do you wait? Do what you will!” Soon after, the people gathered the wood and burned Polycarp.
Jesus referred to “ten days” of tribulation. It could be a literal prediction of some ten-day reign of terror. Or it may have symbolic meaning of ten periods of persecution from Nero to Diocletian. Most likely, however, it may simply stand for “a short time.” The church at Smyrna grew into one of the most influential churches of its time because its leaders and believers were willing to lay down their lives for Christ.
Jesus promised a crown of life to those who were faithful to the point of death. A crown of laurel was given to those who won races. The believers at Smyrna were winning the race of life. Also, their persecutor, the Roman emperor, wore a crown. In the life to come, the believers would reign with Christ if they remained faithful. The crown is a special reward that is over and above the eternal life that all believers have as a free gift.
Jesus promised that the one who overcame would in no way be hurt by the second death. The second death is being cast into the lake of fire, separation from God forever (Rev 20:14). Jesus employed a figure of speech called litotes. Litotes is an assertion that understates the reality referenced. Jesus was saying that He would abundantly repay the faithful believer for the sacrifice he made. His eternal experience would be as far beyond the reach of the second death as can be imagined.
The glories of the life to come contrast sharply with the dark shadows of persecution and death.
What would Jesus say (WWJS) to the church experiencing persecution? “Don’t be afraid. Remain faithful.”
Jesus assured the Smyrnan believers that they were rich in His sight because of their faithful service.
Persecutors in our culture may mock you, lie about you, or make you lose your job. There is now a name for that: “the cancel culture.” Our culture supposedly tolerates any belief. However, Biblical faith consistently applied is considered shocking and unacceptable.
Let us ask God for strength to persevere when our faith puts us at a disadvantage in today’s world. Also, let us pray for those believers around the world who may be suffering for their faith to an even greater extent than we are.
Philippe Sterling is the pastor of Vista Ridge Bible Fellowship in Lewisville, TX. He and his wife, Brenda, have a son and daughter and several grandkids.