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The Message to Smyrna: Endure Persecution

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The Message to Smyrna

Endure Persecution

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Jesus Christ's message to Smyrna in Revelation 2 is the second of these timeless admonitions for members of His Church. (The message to Ephesus was covered in the December issue.) The setting for this message is the first-century city of Smyrna, "A rich and prosperous city of Ionia, forty miles N of Ephesus, at the mouth of the small river Meles. Anciently, it was one of the finest cities of Asia and was called 'the lovely—the crown of Ionia—the ornament of Asia.' It is now the chief city of SW Turkey, with a population of more than 1 1/2 million" (New Unger's Bible Dictionary, electronic database, article "Smyrna").

Another source adds, "Smyrna's superb natural harbor made the city an important commercial center. In spite of keen competition from the neighboring cities of Ephesus and Pergamum, Smyrna called itself 'the first city of Asia.' As early as 195 B.C., Smyrna was given the honor of building a temple to the Emperor Tiberius because of its years of faithfulness to Rome. Thus, the city became a center for the cult of emperor worship—a fanatical 'religion' that later, under such emperors as Nero (ruled A.D. 54-68) and Domitian (ruled A.D. 81-96), brought on severe persecution for the early church" (Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, electronic database, article "Smyrna").

The very cause that propelled the city to the favor of Rome's leaders—emperor worship—likely provided the impetus for the persecution of God's people. Though the apostles taught respect and obedience to human government and authorities (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:11-17), like Paul, the brethren at Smyrna may have been accused of trying to turn their local city upside down with their Christian beliefs (Acts 17:6). In this environment, Christ told the congregation at Smyrna: "I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Revelation 2:9-10).

Determination to remain faithful to God in the face of trials and persecution was important for the members at Smyrna and it is an important lesson for God's people today. Remember, Christ warns us, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (verse 11). Given the gravity of this warning, it is important to understand some of the biblical concepts that can help us deal with our own modern difficulties. Let's begin by reviewing some New Testament history and instruction on this topic.

Source of Spiritual Persecution

When we face trials and problems in our lives we often see human conditions. Yet the Bible reveals a hidden source of spiritual persecution—an invisible being called Satan, our adversary (1 Peter 5:8). Paul wrote, "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand" (Ephesians 6:12-13).

Earlier, in the parable of the sower, Jesus had taught that some seed of God's Word fell on good ground and produced fruit, while other seed fell on poor ground and didn't produce anything (Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23).

When Jesus spoke of "the wicked one" snatching away the word of the Kingdom, He was referring to Satan who works to take away humanity's spiritual understanding. Jesus also noted that some people didn't continue in the truth very long they stumbled at tribulation or persecution. Others successfully overcame Satan's deception and pressure to forego the truth. They held fast to Christ's teaching in spite of persecution. Notice the inspiring example of one such individual.

Stephen's Example

Shortly after the founding of the New Testament Church in Acts 2, the apostles ordained seven deacons, one of whom was Stephen (Acts 6:1-6). This man, "full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people" (verse 8). Apparently, Satan was greatly upset because "the word of God spread" (verse 7). At this point, it seems Satan influenced another synagogue (congregation) to begin a deadly persecution against Stephen. The devil undoubtedly hoped to destroy Stephen's faith and stifle the growth of the Church of God.

Another congregation called "the Synagogue of the Freedmen" raised false accusations against Stephen (verses 9-14). Almost seven decades later, Jesus told the Christians at Smyrna, "I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan" (Revelation 2:9). Ironically and sadly, people who claim to be godly or Christian can also be instruments of persecution in the devil's hands. The congregation at Smyrna at the end of the first century was facing the same kind of persecution Stephen had faced. Their persecution was coming from people who falsely claimed to be Jews (what the first Christians were called, Romans 2:28-29). Now back to the story of Stephen.

In the face of severe accusations that could take his life, Stephen did not capitulate. Instead of giving in or looking for a compromise to save his life, Stephen appeared to grow stronger in his resolve to obey God and be a faithful witness. In the midst of this trial, the biblical account says, "And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel" (verse 15). Stephen was receiving help from God.

Stephen then preceded to go through some of Israel's history culminating in a powerful statement condemning their resistance to God's laws (Acts 7:51-53).

Though the council became very angry, Stephen, "being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and...said, 'Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!'" (verses 55-56). Just as Stephen had said, this group of people then treated him as their forefathers had treated God's prophets in the Old Testament. God gave him the strength to endure this most severe trial as He gave Smyrna the strength to endure tribulation "ten days," representing a time of great trouble the congregation would soon experience.

The same comfort and help God gave believers then is available today to all who are faithful to God's instructions. As the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:13: "No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it." God promises to help. He will either remove our trials or give us the strength to bear them.

Trials Accompany Conversion

Just as Jesus had predicted in the parable of the sower, persecution often arises when people begin to turn to God. The same thing occurred in the apostle Paul's life. Paul had an active role in the persecution of Stephen and the early Church (Acts 7:58; 8:1, 3).

While Paul was traveling to Damascus to continue his persecution against the Christians, God miraculously appeared to him. Paul was blinded and didn't eat or drink for three days. After Ananias laid his hands on Paul, he regained his sight and was baptized to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:1-18). With baptism, conditions quickly changed.

When Paul ceased being the persecutor, he soon became the persecuted. Paul immediately began to preach "that this Jesus is the Christ. Now after many days were past, the Jews plotted to kill him" (verses 22-23).

The reality is that the people of God have always faced trials and persecutions. It comes with being a Christian. As Paul explained, "Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (2 Timothy 3:12). Interestingly, in the long run everyone, whether Christian or not, will be tested. Revelation 3:10 says there will be an "hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth." Though temporarily unpleasant, trials help us establish and solidify our faith (1 Peter 1:6-7). gGod is with us, every step of the way, through all trials (Romans 8:35-39; 2 Corinthians 1:4). Next let's consider some common difficulties God's people face today.

Family Influence

When we share the same spiritual values, our physical families can lend powerful support to our efforts to live as Christians. When there are competing and differing values, however, there can be pressure to compromise God's truth. Jesus addressed this unpleasant concept saying, "Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to 'set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law'; and 'a man's enemies will be those of his own household.' He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me" (Matthew 10:34-38, see also Micah 7:5-7).

When we turn to God, He expects us to give Him our highest priority and conduct our lives accordingly. Instead of lashing back at those who persecute us, Jesus said, "But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you" (Matthew 5:44).

If our physical families do not share our spiritual convictions, we can take comfort that God provides another spiritual family to offer support and encouragement (Matthew 12:47-50).

Monetary Gain

In the parable of the sower, Jesus said "the deceitfulness of riches" caused some to be unfruitful (Matthew 13:22). The lure of wealth or a big salary can be a temptation to forego pleasing God. Paul warns us: "But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness" (1 Timothy 6:9-11).

This instruction about money often comes into effect with our employment. Most of society is unaware of God's seventh-day Sabbath. Many employers expect their employees to work on this day even though God says otherwise (Exodus 20:9-11). Sometimes God's people can be enticed with higher salaries and more income if they will only work on the Sabbath. In the face of such temptation, we need to remember Christ's instruction: "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth...but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal" (Matthew 6:19-20).

The World

Still another potential temptation for Christians is the world around us. Because the world has a different set of values contrary to God's, James wrote, "Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (James 4:4). While the world can appear to be attractive, the end result of focusing on it instead of God is tragic. Paul wrote, "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?... What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: 'I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people. Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty'" (2 Corinthians 6:14-18, NIV).

At the end of this present evil age, when Jesus Christ returns to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, John, in vision, heard a similar warning for God's people. "And I heard another voice from heaven saying, 'Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues'" (Revelation 18:4). God's people have no other choice we must resist the world and its ungodly influences.

Christ's Encouragement to Us

Before Jesus' crucifixion, He shared some observations about the tests His followers would face. In John 15:18-20, He said, "If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you." He concluded His remarks, saying, "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).

In His message to the church at Smyrna, Jesus was giving the same encouragement. He admonished them and us today to make sure we endure persecution and trials. If we persevere, Jesus promises us "the crown of life" and that we will "not be hurt by the second death" (Revelation 2:10, 11). UN