October 31, 2010
I greet you once again in the Name of Jesus!
In our current series in the book of Revelation, we come to the second letter to the churches; the letter to the church in Smyrna. To reiterate, there are seven letters to seven churches, actual Christian assemblies that existed at the time of this writing in the Roman province of Asia Minor. As we have previously stated, there were more than seven churches at this time in Asia Minor. These seven however were chosen for some reason to represent the entirety of the Church Age. There exact order fits the pattern of seven distinct periods of Church history. Had they been in any other order they would not have fit the pattern. This book, as is all of the Bible, is truly amazing.
The number seven figures very prominently in scripture. As E.W. Bullinger points out in his, Number In Scripture: Its Supernatural Design and Spiritual Significance, seven is the number of spiritual perfection. In fact, seven is used like no other number in the entirety of scripture. Seven, according to Bullinger, occurs 287 times; or 7 x 41. I find that very interesting. Likewise, seventh, the fractional part, occurs 98 times, or 7 x 14. Seven-fold, occurs 7 times. So without a doubt, seven is a very significant number. Here we have seven churches, standing as the representative of the entire Church Age. We said last time that the letter to the Church in Ephesus corresponded to the Apostolic Church, or the time period from 30 – 100 A.D.
- SMYRNA – The Persecuted Church (A.D. 100 – Apx. A.D. 300, or at least until the conversion of Constantine)
John writes, 8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, ‘These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life: 9 “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. 10 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.
11 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.” [Rev. 2:8 – 11 NKJV]
Although Christians have suffered persecution since the beginning, and certainly do today; the period represented by the Church in Smyrna, the first three centuries of the Christian Church; was the most severe and most heavily concentrated it would appear from history. In fact, at the time of the writing of the book of Revelation, persecution had broken out in Asia Minor. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says of this time, In Revelation the apostle John is in “Patmos for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev. 1:9). Persecution has broken out among the Christians in the province of Asia. At Smyrna, there is suffering, imprisonment and prolonged tribulation; but the sufferers are cheered when they are told that if they are faithful unto death, Christ will give them the crown of life (Rev. 2:10). At Pergamum, persecution has already resulted in Antipas, Christ’s faithful martyr, being slain (Rev. 2:13). At Ephesus and at Thyatira the Christians are commended for their patience, evidently indicating that there had been persecution (Rev. 2:2, 19). At Philadelphia there has been the attempt made to cause the members of the church to deny Christ’s name (Rev. 3:8); their patience is also commended, and the hour of temptation is spoken of, which comes to try all the world, but from which Christ promised to keep the faithful Christians in Philadelphia. Strangely enough, there is no distinct mention of persecution having taken place in Sardis or in Laodicea. [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1915 edition in an article titled, Persecution.]
We said at the beginning of this section that we can learn much by also examining the meanings of the names of these churches. That certainly holds true here. Smyrna, means, “Myrrh”, which is an aromatic embalming ointment. The name myrrh therefore suggests death. Interestingly, when the Magi gave three different kinds of gifts to the young Christ child, they gave gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I submit to you that gold was a symbol of His deity, frankincense a symbol for His priesthood, and myrrh for His death. This church is Smyrna, myrrh, we know therefore right up front that this will be a persecuted church. This letter is to a church that was suffering greatly. Notice the title that Jesus chose to identify Himself to this church. It was a title that would be especially meaningful to them. He said,
These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life. That’s quite an encouragement to those facing death. He continues, I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich) – Yes, they had suffered greatly. They were going through all sorts of tribulation and persecution. In fact, we know that fifty years after John’s death, Polycarp, the pastor of the church in Smyrna, was burned alive at the age of 86 for refusing to worship Caesar.
Jesus then makes a very interesting statement in the second part of verse 9. He says, I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. I see two thoughts here. First, we know from history that there was a large Jewish sect that had arisen in Smyrna at this time that professed Judaism, and yet joined the Roman government in the persecution of Christians. The Lord calls them, a synagogue of Satan. Quite a statement, wouldn’t you agree? Think of it. They had not only rejected Christ as the Messiah, but were now persecuting His people. They were a tool of the adversary all the way around. Hence, our Lord’s strong denunciation of them. I see another possibility here that I want to touch on briefly.
There are groups of theologians and ministers who teach what has been referred to as, “Replacement Theology.” What is this? It is the view that the Church is the new or true Israel that has permanently replaced or superseded Israel as the people of God. Another term, often found in academic circles, for replacement theology is supersessionism. This doctrine, though widely taught and adhered to for centuries by several groups, is truly a doctrine of demons; and is even connected I believe to an Antichrist spirit. Replacement Theology has been the fuel that has energized medieval anti-Semitism, Eastern European programs, the Holocaust and contemporary disdain for the State of Israel. Sadly, replacement theology has been the consensus of the church from the middle of the second century A.D. to the present day, with few exceptions. Even though the anti-Nicene fathers were predominately premillennial in their understanding of future things, they laid a groundwork that would lead to the rise and development of replacement theology.
Anti-nicence church father Justin Martyr was the first to view the Christian Church as, “The true spiritual Israel” around A.D. 160. Justin’s views laid the groundwork for the growing belief that the Church had superseded or replaced Israel. By the time of Irenaeus, this thinking had become entrenched in Christian theology namely that, “The bulk of Israel’s scriptures are indecisive for the formation of Christian doctrine.” The details about Israel’s future, especially in the Old Testament, are simply missing as a part of the development of Christian theology. In the early centuries of the Christian Church there began to be a de-emphasizing of Israel’s place in prophecy, and then eschatology began to be largely ignored altogether. Even though I had not intended to devote this much space to the discussion of replacement theology, I feel I must not leave this without first examining the impact of replacement theology.
Menachem Benhayim notes, “The doctrine of replacement theology reflects a wide range of Christian thinking, from utterly malignant anti-Jewish hatred to simple misunderstanding and misapplication of biblical texts.” Since Israel is a subject found on just about every page of the Old and New Testaments, to get that subject wrong can only lead to a mega-distortion of scripture. This has indeed been the case throughout the history of the Church. Paul writes in Romans 11:16 – 18; 16 For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17 And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, 18 do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. [Rom. 11:16 – 18 NKJV] Yet, this history of most during the church age has been an attitude of arrogance toward God’s wayward, chosen people – Israel.
What is John’s exhortation to this suffering church? 10 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.
11 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.”’ [Rev. 2:10, 11 NKJV] Death and life is throughout this letter. Again, the promise to the overcomer is an add-on to the true closing, “He that has an ear…”. Jesus is encouraging them in their trials. What about the phrase, “…you will have tribulation ten days?” Many have suggested that the persecution of the early church happened in ten distinct periods:
- Nero A.D. 54 – 68; beheaded Paul, crucified Peter upside down.
- Domitian A.D. 95 – 96; who exiled John to Patmos, where he wrote this letter.
- Trajan A.D. 104 – 117; Ignacius was burned at the stake.
- Marcus Aurelius A.D. 161 – 180; Polycarp was martyred on the Sabbath and burned at the stake.
- Septimus Severus A.D. 200 – 211.
- Maximus A.D. 235 – 237.
- Decius A.D. 249 – 251.
- Velarian A.D. 257 – 260.
- Aurelian A.D. 270 – 275.
- Diocletian A.D. 303 – 313.
Smyrna, the suffering church. Many more lessons could be learned here I am sure. Dear reader, if you have never read, Fox’s Book of Martyrs, I would encourage you to do so. In fact, you can read the entire text of the book online at, http://www.ccel.org/f/foxe/martyrs/home.html. This will help give you perspective.
We will pick up next time with the letter to the church at Pergamos, the compromising Church.
The Weekly Word is found in Revelation 2:12 – 17. Here the Bible says,
12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write, ‘These things says He who has the sharp two-edged sword: 13 “I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. And you hold fast to My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. 15 Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. 16 Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth.
17 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it.” [Rev. 2:12 – 17 NKJV]
Until next time, this is THE WEEKLY WORD.
Pastor Kevin E. Johnson