“Letter to Smyrna – The Poor Church” – Revelations – Day 4

Revelations – Lenten Season 2023

“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:  These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.  I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich!  I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 

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 the crown of life.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death” (Revelations 2: 8-11 NIV).

Revelations – Day 4 “Letter to Smyrna – The Poor Church”

Satanism is a dirty word among Christians, and rightly so.  It evokes scenes of human sacrifice, the Satanic Bible, the dark communion, and other nefarious anti-Christian practices.  I am no expert on Satanism, but I suspect there is more of it in the church than you might imagine.  Let me explain.

“I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9b NIV).

In this passage, Jesus talks about the Synagogue of Satan which we understand to be that group of Judaizers who claim to be Christians themselves but demanded that all of the Gentiles must first be circumcised and become “true” Jews in order to accept the Jewish Messiah.  It seemed like a reasonable request, and it was hotly debated in the early church during the first century. 

The Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15 made it clear that it was not necessary and that a Gentile could become a Christian directly.  After all, both Peter and Paul had the experience of Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit in the same way that the Jewish disciples did at Pentecost, and therefore if God considered them “clean” through the blood of Christ directly, who would dare call them “unclean” (Acts 10:13-15 NIV).

But the Judaizer Christians wouldn’t accept it.  They were not only in opposition to the Jewish Council but also against Peter and Paul as two of the greatest leaders of the church and, ultimately, against the Holy Spirit, himself.  They would boldly claim that God did not love the Gentile Christians in the church unless they were circumcised.  Obviously, that caused some division in the early church.

In fact, it was so bad that when Peter and Paul were in Antioch together having a meal with all the believers in the new church that was being formed there, they had one of the sharpest arguments over this very theme.  Apparently, some Judaizers showed up and joined the meal and Peter got up quickly to go sit with them not just to be hospitable to the new arrivals but so that he wouldn’t be seen to be eating with Gentiles – Christians or not. 

Paul didn’t like that one bit.  Listen to his account of the story.  “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.  Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles.  But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.  The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray” (Gal. 2: 11-13 NIV). 

Can you imagine? 

Paul had to confront him publicly “in front of them all” (Gal. 2: 14b NIV).  And it wasn’t a small issue for Paul.  He considered it an attack on the Gospel itself.  If it is true that you need to be circumcised, then “the offense of the cross has been abolished” (Gal. 5: 11b NIV).  The cross is not needed if circumcision is used. 

Without going into the whole theology of the Old Testament versus the New Testament, suffice it to say that this was a serious issue.  And Paul uses some very graphic language in his rejection of the Judaizers.  “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves” (Gal. 5: 12 NIV).  Perhaps not Paul’s finest hour.  Or maybe it was. 

After all, Jesus called them a “synagogue of Satan” and claimed that they were not real Jews (Rev. 2:9b, 3:9 NIV).  Although they claimed that Gentiles had to become “true” Jews, Jesus claimed that they, themselves, were not real Jews and, in fact, were liars. 

But that was pretty mild compared to calling them a “synagogue of Satan.”  First of all, Jesus clearly sets them outside of the bounds of the church.  They are not Christians even though they claim to be so.  Jesus says that they are part of a “synagogue” the Jewish gathering of believers in the Old Testament Mosaic covenant.  But even worse, they were a synagogue “of Satan.” 

If you were a Jew and went to a synagogue, you were not described anywhere in the Bible as going to a synagogue of Satan.  This was reserved for those who claimed to be Christians but preached and insisted on a gospel that was no gospel at all. 

Paul even makes the statement that if “an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned” (Gal. 1:8 NIV).  We know that phrase as saying let them be “anathema.”  Pretty strong words.  These are not light matters.

It was in the church at Smyrna and Philadelphia where Jesus talked about the “synagogue of Satan”, but it was true in the church at large as well.  Paul fights against these Judaizers at every turn (especially in the letter to the Galatians).  But here in Jesus’ words to the church in Philadelphia, we get an interesting insight into the problem.

Jesus promises the Philadelphians that he “will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars – I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you” (Rev. 3:9 NIV).  Very interesting.  They would arrogantly say that God loved the Jews first and therefore did not love the Gentiles even when they claimed to be Christians unless they became Jews first through circumcision. 

Can you imagine being in a church where certain influential members would tell you to your face that because you are black, or a woman, or off the streets, God does not love you just because you have become a Christian? 

Jesus promises you as well that these people will one day fall at your feet in shame and have to admit that Jesus loved you just the way you are. 

What a message.

But it goes further.  There is more to say.

Are you not amazed, as I am, that this attitude exists in the early church?

I have always had the impression that it was a holy church, anointed for ministry with signs and wonders following.  And yet, Paul fights with Barnabas about Mark (Acts 15:36 NIV) and Paul has sharp words in public with no one less than Peter (Gal. 2: 11-13 NIV). 

In both cases, it appears that they all reconciled.  Paul has some kind words for Mark (2 Tim. 4:11 NIV) demonstrating that they had fully reconciled and were able to be involved in ministry together.  And Peter says some amazing things about Paul (2 Peter 3:16 NIV) even acknowledging that Paul’s writing should be considered as “scripture.”

If these issues and battles existed in the early church which was generally on fire for the Lord and involved in effective ministry, how much more should we be vigilant against Satan’s attacks in the modern church as well (2 Cor. 2:11 NIV)? 

Here are a few things to keep in mind along these lines. 

The first is that Satan was both a deceiver and an accuser.  When someone causes someone to sin (as a deceiver) and then turns around and accuses them, that person is acting in the same way that Satan does.  They are diabolical in their behavior.  It doesn’t mean that they are demon-possessed or not actually Christians. 

The sad truth is that even Christians can act in an ungodly way.  And it happens all the time.  Most often the accuser doesn’t realize that being right in their accusation is no excuse and that they had a role in the deception, temptation, or sin in the first place.  They will protest their innocence, but they must be rebuked with grace all the same with the goal of bringing them back into fellowship with God. 

Secondly, it is always amazing to me how often “another” gospel is preached in an otherwise normal church.  I’m not just talking about the epidemic of liberalism and secularism that plagues the church today but even among evangelical, Bible-believing churches the gospel is watered down and disregarded and even denied by preachers and leaders either in word or in deed.

I remember one influential member of our church saying “I am a good person.  God is love.  It will all work out in the end.”  I’m sorry but that is not the gospel and yet many people in the church believe that because God is love, the rest will work out fine. 

Whatever happened to sin? 

The truth is that you are not a good person.  You are full of sin, and you rebel against God constantly.  It will certainly not work out for you.  In the judgment, you will not stand.  You need to hear the gospel.  You need to be humbled by the truth that it took the cross to eradicate your sin before God.  Nothing less.

And this is only one example of many.  But if you, yourself, do not understand the gospel and what is non-negotiable, how can you recognize “the schemes of the Devil” (2 Cor. 2:11 NIV)?

Is it possible that we have “churches of Satan” within our midst?  Are there groups who are actively opposed to evangelism or true spirituality and are committed to the status quo?  Are there people who provide financial support but only with conditions not aligned with God’s purpose and priorities?

Is it true that certain leaders may preach well but when it comes to what they do, they show that they have no understanding of the gospel?  When they turn away the poor because they bother the church members, do they not deny the gospel?  When the women complain that certain homeless people stink up the chairs and no one can sit near them, what do you do?

When the applecart of our liturgy is upset by those who are emotional, who cry in the service, who lift their hands, who shout out loud, what does that say about our understanding of the gospel? 

When a church has never seen an adult baptism in their lifetime and God begins to move among them and the board fights against it for the sake of the status quo, what must be true?  They have the form of godliness but deny its power. (2 Tim. 3:5-7 NIV) Or even worse, they preach the gospel but do not live it out in their daily lives and prevent others from doing so as well

Now we have entered into the “synagogue of Satan”, and we demonstrate that there is no Holy Spirit within to check our spirit or correct us in our doctrine. 

Where do you think these (and many more) examples come from?  Real life in real churches in more than one country around the world.  If we are not actively pursuing God in our radical discipleship, we run the risk of encouraging this kind of behavior at every level of church life and when that happens, God help us because there is no other help available. 

Godly men and women are rejected, put down, and put in their place, discouraged from preaching to the poor or the ungodly all because it clashes with the established church culture that is already in place.  And the leadership is most often complicit because they have embraced the spirit of politics instead of the spirit of godliness. 

So do not, even for one moment, think that Jesus is speaking only to the early church with something that is specific only to them.  He knows better.  He is speaking to us today just as well. 

Perhaps we don’t have Judaizers to contend with, but we have plenty of “Satanists” living among us who would be horrified at the thought that Jesus would call them a “synagogue of Satan” either in words or in actions. 

The call to radical discipleship is not for the faint of heart and Jesus has every right to rebuke us when we go astray.  After all, it is for our own good. 

The interesting thing about the church in Smyrna is that it is only one of two churches where Jesus really had nothing negative to say to them or to rebuke them for.  Both in Smyrna and in Philadelphia, all Jesus had to say was pretty positive. 

Smyrna was a seaport just north of Ephesus and was considered the third most important city in Asia Minor after Ephesus and Pergamum (the center of government).  The original Greek city was destroyed centuries ago but rebuilt as a seaport by the Romans.  It claimed to be the “first city of Asia” and even built a temple to the goddess Roma and was therefore quite open to the cult of emperor worship which was just starting to be enforced in the region.

We know very little about how the church got started in Smyrna, but it did have a bit of a reputation in the years to come during the time of the Church Fathers.  Ignatius wrote his letters to the churches from there and Polycarp, one of the most famous early martyrs, was burned alive there sixty years or so after the book of Revelations was written.

“I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich!” (Rev. 2: 9a NIV)

Apparently, from the very beginning, the Christians in Smyrna were persecuted actively by the community instigated by the Jews.  Whether by mob violence, looting, or barring from the marketplace, it appears that the “poverty” of the Christians there was a result of living in an antagonistic environment.  And it would get worse. 

Having named the Judaizers as a “synagogue of Satan,” some commentators have assumed that it would be those same Jews (inside and outside of the church) who would get these Gentile Christians thrown into jail.  In Jesus’ own words, he says “the Devil will put some of you in prison” (Rev. 2:10 NIV).  But that may be going beyond what the text is actually saying.  Regardless, the Devil will use the antagonism of the people, whether Jews or not, to make accusations and get the Christians thrown into prison, which was often a precursor to the death sentence. 

We don’t really know what he meant by the comment that “you will suffer persecution for ten days” (Rev. 2: 10b NIV).  There may have been an intensified local attack that lasted only a short time.  We don’t know.  But many commentators also point out that the number ten is the number of completion and Jesus may only be saying that persecution will be limited to the complete time as determined by God.  It is temporary.  It is fixed.  God will bring it to an end. And that’s good news for all of us. 

“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 the crown of life” (Rev. 2: 10 NIV).

What Satan intends as a temptation; God intends as a test. 

When Polycarp stood before a sympathetic Roman officer who tried to persuade him to save his own life, Polycarp saw it for what it was and was “faithful even to the point of death.”  God does not bring persecution upon his people, but rather the Devil as he seeks to exploit the weak spots in the church so that he can intimidate people into abandoning their witness.  And many did.  At the time of Polycarp, many who were being accused claimed that they had abandoned their faith years ago. 

But let me say something about the true situation during the time of Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81-96).  We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the suffering and persecution of the Christians in those first three or four centuries was very intense all the time.  The truth is that it started, as you might suspect, mildly and then increased with time.  It wasn’t until the reigns of Diocletian and Galerius at the end of the third century and the beginning of the fourth century after Christ that persecution was the strongest.  It was the last attempt of the emperors to maintain their pagan beliefs and try to eradicate the Christian church.  But the more they fought it, the more the Christians died, the more their pagan culture looked weak and insipid, and the true light of the gospel shone all the stronger.

That’s not to say that every act of persecution and death isn’t equally as valuable and equally as serious regardless of the numbers, but it is still instructive to get a general feel of the times.  Already since the time of Augustus just before the birth of Christ, emperor worship was encouraged as an act of patriotism – but it was voluntary.  When it came to the time of Nero (A.D. 54 -68), he was far bloodier towards the Christians than even Domitian later on but not because of emperor worship.

The Jews as a people were generally exempt from the demands of emperor worship and so long as the Christians were seen as a cult of the Jewish religion, they were also protected.  But when Nero blamed the fire in Rome on the Christians, they were brought into the limelight and examined as the ideal scapegoats for his renovation project.  The Christians were seen as a separate religion from the Jews and therefore no longer protected.  It probably helped that the Jews disavowed the Christians so there was no danger of a backlash if they were persecuted. 

Much of the persecution was sporadic and local, depending largely on whether the local officials and governor were seeking special favor with Rome or there was a specific situation that could not be ignored. 

Although Nero, himself, instigated the first serious persecution of the Christians it was more about their criminal activity in burning Rome (allegedly) than because of their denial to participate in emperor worship. 

Throughout the three hundred years of persecution, Christians were punished for treason, various alleged crimes, illegal assembly, and introducing an alien cult that led to widespread Roman apostasy (in other words, too many Romans were becoming Christians and forsaking their pagan Roman beliefs).

Talking about Smyrna, Polycarp was martyred sixty-some years after the book of Revelations was written and it was reported that he was the twelfth martyr reported to have died under persecution in that church.  Twelve.  Not yet hundreds.  That would come later.  What was different about Domitian is that the persecution began to be about emperor worship.  It was no longer voluntary, but it would still take some time for the local officials to do something about it.  Many were sympathetic to the Christians whom they thought of as harmless.  Others just thought the whole thing quite distasteful and would have nothing to do with it.  But there were still those who wanted to please their leaders and went out of their way to accuse, imprison and ultimately kill Christians for whatever personal reasons they had. 

So, there were two unpredictable elements that could lead to persecution and death.  On the one hand, the attitude of the local authorities, especially the governor, and on the other hand, who the accuser would be.  And there always had to be an accuser according to Roman law. 

But that is precisely the point.  In true demonic style, many who wanted to harm a particular person, Christian or not, for personal or religious reasons had the mechanisms of the state to help them fulfill their evil desires.  It was not a question of patriotism or the good of the empire that motivated these accusers or the governors that accommodated them, but just like the Sanhedrin pressuring Pilate, the Devil was at his best in manipulating the halls of power for his own ends.

Domitian was famous for his paranoia and suspicious attitude toward everyone around him even among his own household.  But this included as many Stoics as Christians.  And there apparently were Christians at the highest levels of Roman society.  Domitian’s deep sense of inferiority fed the fear that he would be replaced as soon as someone could kill him.  So he began, near the end of his reign, to insist that everyone call him “Lord and God.”  He ordered the execution of his Titus Flavius Clemens, a consul and his cousin, and the exile of Titus’ wife, Domitilla, who was also Domitian’s niece.  Their eldest son was the designated heir of Domitian, so this was an attack against his own family.

Indications are that Titus and Domitilla were Christians and that the assumption of their eldest son to the position of Emperor would put in jeopardy the pagan foundations of the Empire.  They had refused to participate in the imperial cult and were charged with atheism and treason.  No doubt there is an entire story behind those actions, perhaps there was pressure from the Senate to deal with the matter.  In any event, it became common knowledge in the Empire, and among the Christians, that Titus had died a martyr and that his wife was exiled as well.  

Something had changed. 

There was a new sense of vulnerability and confrontation at the deepest levels.  But it wasn’t just about Domitian.  He was a symptom and perhaps a trigger for something far bigger and far deeper than he could have suspected.

After all, within a year or so Domitian would be killed by an assassin’s knife, but the persecution would continue.  It would gather momentum as the Devil turned people against the Christians one by one, group by group, finding the weaknesses and exploiting them in his attempt to protect his precious Roman Empire from the “leven” within. 

Of course, it didn’t work very well precisely because his attempt at eradicating the Christians merely gave them an opportunity to demonstrate the power of God’s love even to their enemies and even in the face of death.  That witness, the witness of the “living martyrs” is what finally conquered the Roman Empire within four hundred years. 

But the church had to get ready. 

They needed to repent, wake up, and remove the rot within their churches.  They had to recover their first love so that they could endure in love as their enemies persecuted them.  It wasn’t just a question of patience or endurance but of persevering in doing what Jesus had taught them.  It was an “endurance in love” that mattered. 

In the same way that suffering is not just about testing our character, it is also not simply a matter of testing our endurance, or of maintaining our integrity until the end.  It was also a matter of how we lived and reacted during that persecution and impending death sentence.

It was not a question of spitting out vile hatred at our tormentors but of following the example of Jesus as he forgave and blessed his tormentors even into the gates of Hell.  That is the testimony and the power that defeated the Roman Empire and is the same power that is available to us today for effective ministry when we embrace the radical discipleship rooted in the perspective of eternity.

The Desert Warrior