Summary: The church of Smyrna shows us today how to live a victorious Christian life in the face of persecution and trial.
It has been said that there have been more Christian martyrs in recent years than there were during the time of the Caesars. According to a study done by Regent University, in 1999, nearly 164’000 Christians worldwide were martyred for their faith, and in 2000 that number was closer to 165’000. With each passing year, the number of Christians who will face death for their beliefs increases. It has been estimated that since AD 70, there have been over 70 million Christians put to death for refusing to renounce their beliefs. This means that on average, just over 36 thousand have been killed each year for their faith.
In light of these statistics, I must ask myself, “What gave those men and women the courage to stand firm in their belief, even in the face of death?” And that question, of course, begs the other: “Do I have what it takes to face death and stay true to my convictions?”
We’re going to answer these questions this morning, as we make the second stop on our journey through the seven churches of Revelation. So turn with me in your Bibles please, as we take a look at the letter to the church of Smyrna, found in the book of Revelation, chapter 2, and starting at verse 8 (read vv 8-11)….
As we can see, the main theme of this letter is – what? – persecution, trial, and tribulation. Notice the very first thing Jesus says to this church: “I know your tribulation.” Other versions use the word “sufferings”, “afflictions”, or “troubles”. Now, when we in the Western world think of persecution, we think of being fired from our jobs for refusing to work on the Sabbath, or being ridiculed for our belief in Jesus. In this sense, I’m sure every one of us has gone through some kind of trouble for being a Christian. But what the church in Smyrna faced was much more severe. You see, the Greek word for tribulation used here is thlipsis, and in a literal sense it means “to crush” or “to apply heavy pressure.” In everyday terms, this was the word used when speaking of the wine and olive presses – the fruits would be put in the presses to be crushed until all of their juices flowed out. Another way this term was used was to describe a form of torture whereby a person was slowly crushed under a giant boulder. And so the church of Smyrna was facing more than mere setbacks in spreading the gospel, more than an interruption in their daily routine – what they faced was determined and brutal opposition, physical torture, and painful death.
Smyrna was a city loyal to the Roman Empire. It was at Smyrna that the first Roman temple was built in honour of Tiberius, and it was Smyrna that first accepted the principle of Caesar worship. Each year throughout the Empire every Roman citizen had to burn incense on the altar to the godhead of Caesar and say, "Caesar is Lord." Because the Christians at Smyrna refuse to participate in this act, they suffered tremendous persecution.
We see also that the persecution was not limited to the physical afflictions suffered by the believers. The letter to Smyrna also indicates that they were a poor church. Again, this word needs to be clarified, for we are not speaking of people who had to work two jobs to make ends meet. There are two Greek words that can be used for poor. One word means needy. Today we might describe it as living hand-to-mouth – getting by, but just barely. But it’s a different word used here in the Greek to describe the church at Smyrna – a word which means to be in the worst possible state of poverty imaginable. This is a church that has had all of their material possessions stripped away throughout the course of their persecution. History also tells us that under the rule of the Caesars, those labelled as Christians were ostracised in their communities; that by law, it was forbidden to buy from them, and it was equally forbidden to sell anything to them. And so we find a church that is being beaten fiercely on all sides, and is at the point of absolute destitution.
Do you understand this imagery of being crushed yet? Is it making sense to you just how severe the persecutions are against this church?
Now, as if the crushing physical and financial blows against this church aren’t enough, we are also told in the last part of verse 9 of Revelation 2, that the church also has “the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews” to deal with. There were in Smyrna those who professed to be faithful to the true God – those who even professed to be followers of Christ, and perhaps associated with the church. They attended the meetings, they said all the right words, they knew all the right answers. But we read that while they professed to be followers of God, they were actually – what? – agents of Satan. Friends, the greatest threat to the church of God is those who are in it.; those whose names are on the books, who attend church regularly, who may even hold church office, but are actually working as enemy agents. They subvert the work of God, they divide the people of God against each other, and they bring hindrance to the work of His church. And how do they do this? Through blasphemy.