Will the American Church Be a New Smyrna?

Rick Phillips

As the Supreme Court deliberates on the question of homosexual marriage, American Christians are bracing for a level of government persecution yet unknown to us.  The fear is that with homosexuality declared a constitutional right, opposition will officially be akin to racism.  Under such a ruling, Christian institutions who refuse to grant homosexual rights may be subjected to official oppression and lose their tax exempt status as non-profit institutions.  Even churches may lose their tax-free status if they refuse to permit marriages between two men or two women.  This would deal a heavy financial blow and may be a precursor to the removal of our religious freedoms, so that public speech against moral perversion becomes a crime punishable by fine or imprisonment. 

Christians who know the book of Revelation will notice a striking parallel between this potential situation and that which Jesus described to the church of Smyrna in Revelation 2:8-11.  This ancient city was a jewel on the Aegean Sea, the chief city of the Roman province of Asia.  With over 200,000 residents, it was noted for its historical loyalty to the Roman empire.  In the year 26 a.d., the city even competed for and won the honor of erecting a temple to the emperor Tiberius and was famed for its commitment to the Roman imperial cult.  As such, the church there was vulnerable to the persecutions that the emperor Domitian was about to unleash on those who would not bow to his supposed deity.

Of the seven letters to the churches of Revelation, the one to Smyrna is the shortest.  It contains no rebukes, but reveals Christ's close familiarity with the sufferings they had and were about to experience: "I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander. . . . Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison" (Rev. 2:9-10).  The word tribulation means pressure of great oppression.  Already, the Christians of this city were financially impoverished, probably because participation in social and economic life was forbidden to those not willing to worship Caesar as Lord.  Jesus is not speaking of a mere removal of tax-exempt status, but the word for "poverty" means a crushing situation in which even basic needs cannot be met.  Their situation reminds believers today that this kind of persecution should not be unexpected by those who name Jesus as Lord.

A second form of persecution took the form of slander, which Jesus says was coming from the Jewish community, who did not want to lose their privileged status by association with the Christians.  We know that Christians in the early church were falsely accused of drowning their children and eating human flesh, wrongly associated with the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper.  This form of persecution is currently escalating against Christians in America, as we are accused of "hate crimes" because of our moral stance against homosexuality.    Jesus warned that more persecution would soon come: "Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison."  When he adds, "Be faithful unto death," it seems that some at least would also be slain (Rev. 2:10).

As Christians brace for official oppression in America, Jesus' words to Smyrna offer a great hope.  Primarily, Jesus declares his sovereignty over such tribulation.  We see this in his ability to foretell these events.  He begins his letter saying, "The words of the first and the last" (Rev. 2:8).  As the Lord of the beginning and the end, Jesus is sovereign over everything in between.  Jesus also foretold that it would not be an interminable persecution: "for ten days you will have tribulation" (Rev. 2:10).  "Ten days" is probably a symbolic number indicating a lengthy but not indefinite period of time.  There would be an "eleventh day" when he would remove the trial.  Jesus also informed Smyrna of the reason for this suffering: "that you may be tested" (Rev. 2:10).  So it will be in America when Christians are forced to pay a tangible earthly price for our fidelity to God's Word.  Will the loss of tax-exemption and the threat of cultural exclusion cause us to yield our allegiance to Christ?  This is the matter about which we should be praying: what truly matters is not whether or not we suffer persecution but whether we remain faithful should it come.  As Christians brace for a Supreme Court ruling that would have been incomprehensible just a few years ago, together with an intensity of opposition we have seldom known, we too should be comforted by Christ's sovereign control over present history.  If persecution comes, we must receive it as a test from our gracious Savior and an opportunity to show his power as we gladly endure it in faith to his Word.

Jesus had a simple message for the believers in Smyrna that is needed by American Christians today: "Do not fear what you are about to suffer" (Rev. 2:10).  Do we doubt our Lord's ability to preserve us under trial?  Do we question his willingness to support us under unjust oppression?  Then of what are we afraid?  Jesus' message to Smyrna reminds us that we have every reason for confidence and joy if we are given the privilege of suffering for his name. 

Jesus' letter to Smyrna included three incentives that American Christians should hold in view.  First, he tells us that even if we are utterly impoverished in a material sense, yet "you are rich" (Rev. 2:9).   If biblically faithful churches should be subjected to punitive taxes and if individual believers are fined or oppressed, we will be abundantly compensated with spiritual riches.  In fact, the very affluence we are threatened with losing is often the greatest barrier to the simplicity, vibrant joy and sheer spiritual wealth we ought to be enjoying.  With this in mind, it is possible that his reference to a trial for "ten days" is an allusion to the testing of Daniel and his friends in Babylon, when they refused to transgress God's law by eating forbidden foods from Nebuchadnezzar's table.  In this case, Jesus was reminding the believers of Smyrna that like Daniel they would emerge "better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king's food" (Dan. 1:15).  Trusting in the same Lord, the believers of Smyrna and America would emerge from tribulation strengthened in faith and with a greater public testimony to the power of our Savior.  Armed with this confidence, the Bible urges to rejoice in the prospect of suffering for Christ, "knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope" (Rom. 5:3-4). 

A second incentive has to do with the eternal glory that is gained by those who suffer for Jesus in this life: "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Rev. 2:10).  This promise connects to the athletic games held in Smyrna, which rivaled those of Mount Olympus in Greece.  Jesus thus promises an ornament of glory, life, and power to crown believers who conquer through faith.  He began the letter by declaring himself the Savior "who died and came to life" (Rev. 2:8), and who thus has the power to give us grace under trial and glory in heaven. 

Third, Christ reminds us of the greatest blessing awaiting us in his soon return: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Sprit says to the churches.  The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death" (Rev. 2:11).  Instead of fearing and reviling the cultural enemies of Christ today, Christians should look on them with pity for the eternal judgment awaiting those who perish with sins unforgiven because of unbelief in Jesus,  and we should make it our prayerful priority to offer a living witness that may lead to the conversion of many unbelievers.  Even if we should be threatened with death (which is not a current prospect in America) we should not fear, for he will raise us to eternal life.  Jesus promises those who endure in faith, "I will give you the crown of life" (Rev. 2:10). 

Jesus placed a single requirement on the persecuted church of Smyrna: "Be faithful," even "unto death" (Rev. 2:10).  There were not to look at the suffering to come with fear but with anticipation of purification and deliverance by our Sovereign Redeemer.  With Jesus in view, we are to make faithfulness for his sake our single goal and most urgent prayer.

When the book of Revelation arrived in Smyrna, one believer who was almost certainly present was Polycarp of Smyrna, who was martyred in 154 a.d. as the bishop of that city.  Church tradition tells us that Polycarp was a disciple of John's who was consecrated to his church office by the apostle himself.  This makes it possible, even likely, that Polycarp was actually the church leader who read this letter when it arrived in Smyrna.  We know that he survived the persecution about which Jesus warned.  But years later the day came when he was required to renounce Jesus or face the penalty of death.  His immortal answer is recorded in church history: "Eighty and six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?"  With that refusal Polycarp was executed by public burning, having been faithful to the end and being certain of the crown of everlasting life from the hand of his beloved Lord.  May his godly spirit - a spirit of humility, meekness, gospel love, and courageous resolve - be evident among American Christians should a time of persecution fall upon us for our loyalty to God's Word.  Jesus told his followers in Smyrna words that surely apply to American believers today: "Do not fear what you are about to suffer. . . . Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Rev. 2:10).