May the Almighty God bless you all as promised. We hope you have started reading the Book of Revelation with all seriousness. For the benefit of those who have not yet done it, let us start with the promise of Jesus Christ. ‘Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near’ ( Rev 1:3).
Today we are studying about the church in Smyrna. It was located near the modern day city of Izmir in Turkey. Historians say that a human settlement started there around the third millennium BC, and that gradually it became a powerful city-state, to the extent that it competed with Ephesus and Pergamum over the title of the ‘First Roman city in Asia’. Smyrna fell to the Lydian kingdom in the seventh century BC and was later restored at the orders of Alexander the Great. By the late 19th century, Greeks were in majority in Smyrna’s population and it was under the occupation of Greece. But in 1922 the Turkish army captured Smyrna, ending the Greco-Turkish War. During this period the Greek and Armenian quarters of Smyrna were intentionally set on fire which led to an exodus of its inhabitants thereby changing its demographics for ever.
Almost all Bible commentaries mention the church is Smyrna as a ‘persecuted church’ and it is not without reason. Smyrna was among those places that witnessed the martyrdom of thousands of Christians in the early centuries. Conservative estimates put the number of men and women who sacrificed their life for Christ in different provinces of the Roman empire at five million, and a large portion of it was contributed by cities and provinces in the Asia Minor (present day Turkey). During those days every citizen had to proclaim in public that ‘Caesar is God’. Christians would not say it; instead they would proclaim loudly and proudly; “Jesus Christ is God’. This would mean sure death, only the means to vary. Some were burnt at the stake, some were thrown to the lions, some were cut into two, some were put in boiling oil. But nothing could shake their faith in Jesus Christ.
Polycarp, one of the last surviving disciples of John the Evangelist at that time, was the bishop of Smyrna. Like his flock, he was also put to death for his faith in Jesus Christ. Asked to deny Christ for saving his life, Polycarp replied; “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.” His final words were: “I bless you, Father, for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ.” Polycarp was burned at the stake for refusing to offer incense for the Roman emperor. When the fire failed to consume him, the soldiers pierced him with a spear.
Smyrnaeans followed their bishop in faith. They embraced death of the most cruel type, yet did not deny their Saviour. Their hope was not to sustain this indefinite life, but to earn eternal life after death. It is not surprising that when writing to such a church with deep faith in the eternal life promised by him, Jesus introduces himself as ‘the first and the last. who was dead and came to life’ (Rev 2:8). When Jesus says that he is the first and the last, it is a message of great hope to a church passing through untold persecutions. When he says that he was dead but again came to life, Jesus is re- assuring the Smyrnaeans that like Polycarp they also should not be afraid of death. Because their Saviour has already conquered the last enemy called death.
Jesus is all praise for the Church in Smyrna. There is no mention of anything negative. How come it that a church is coming out in flying colors, in the scorecard of Jesus? The reason is simple. It was an afflicted church. It was a poor church. It was a church going through persecution. ‘I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction’ ( Rev 2:9-10).
No word of consolation, no sugar coating. Jesus is telling the church in Smyrna that bitter days are awaiting them. They are going to be persecuted. They are going to be tested. Some of them will be imprisoned. Those who are Jews in name only will attack them with slander. Why did Jesus use these seemingly harsh and curt words for them? Because Jesus didn’t want to keep them in the dark about their future but wanted to strengthen them in faith. The best way to do so is to warn them about the risks of proclaiming ‘Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Cori.1:23). Indeed, the Jews and Gentiles alike persecuted the church in Smyrna. The Greek could not understand the ‘folly’ of a large number of Christians calling a condemned person their god. It is understandable, because they didn’t know Scripture. They didn’t know the prophecies. They needed a god and Caesar came in handy and they had no issue in bowing before him as another god.
But the Jews! They had the Scripture. They had their prophets. They were expecting their saviour. Yet, when he came, they failed to recognise him. It does not mean that all the Jews were against Jesus. But there were some among them who were Jews in name only. In fact they were not Jews but belonged to the army of the devil, they were members of the synagogue of Satan. We see them attacking Jesus at every possible opportunity. We see them behind Judas. We see them behind Pilate’s reluctant judgement and we see them again with stones in their hands to kill Stephen.
When we think of persecution of Christians, there is something that should not be missed. The persecution of Christians at all times comes from two different sources. First is from a political system, that could not understand who Jesus is and how and why he died for us. Second is from pseudo- believers, our own brothers and sisters, who claim to share our faith and tradition. Jesus said that our own people will be against us when we start proclaiming the true gospel. How painful is it to be betrayed by our own people! Jesus tasted the bitterness of being betrayed by his own disciple. David wrote: ‘It is not enemies who taunt me – I could bear that; It is not adversaries who deal insolently with me – I could hide from them. But it is you my equal, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company; we walked in the house of God with the throng’ (Ps 55:12-14).
Cut and paste to our times. Who are persecuting Christians? Our instinct will be to blame Islamic terrorists or communist regimes or religious bigots. True, they persecute the Church in whatever way they can. But at another level, a subtle attack against the very basic tenets of Christianity is being orchestrated and executed by those who are Christians in name only. In fact they are not Christians. Their true address is that of the synagogue of Satan. When some one bearing a Christian name, and flaunting a rosary in his hand encourage the murder of millions upon millions of innocent babies, we cannot bear that nor can we hide from them. When Christian leaders feign ignorance about the massive genocide of Christians taking place at various places, but at the same time seems overconcerned about stray incidents of violence against some other communities, we should understand that it is persecution from our own brethren. When people who are Christian in name only make legislations directly opposing what Jesus taught, understand that it is persecution from our own people. In the coming days, this persecution is going to aggravate. David wrote it not for himself as a fact, nor for Jesus as a prophecy, but for us too as a warning. Always bear in mind that ‘ it is not enemies who taunt us; it is not adversaries who deal insolently with us’.
Paul tells us who a real Jew is. ‘ For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart- it is spiritual and not literal’ (Rom 2: 28-29). Now replace ‘Jew’ with ‘Christian’ and ‘circumcision’ with ‘faith’. You will get an idea about the risks of living a sheep’s life among wolves.
The Bible warns us that a time is coming when the world will be divided into two camps. One for Christ and the other against Christ. It will be a time when the political system that opposes Christ joins hands with a religious system that publicly proclaims Christ but surreptitiously works against everything he said. When we see open rebellion against the perennial teachings of the Church coming from within the hierarchy, we should understand that the synagogue of Satan is going full steam. When we see many Christian denominations act hand in glove with international organisations who promote every kind of abomination, we know that the fusion between a religious system and a political system, both anti-christian to the core, is developing.
Jesus testifies that the church in Smyrna was poor. It is easy for the poor to welcome the gospel. Elsewhere Jesus tells us that it is very difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. We should be alarmed at a false teaching doing the rounds in the name of ‘prosperity gospel’. God’s purpose in sending the good news to us is not to give us prosperity. If any one thinks so, the reason is that ‘the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’ ( 2 Cor.4:4).
Yes, we look forward to a happy life, blessed in all aspects when our Lord returns. The danger of prosperity gospel is that those who preach it, claim that this happiness and glory can be achieved in our worldly life. Now read from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: ‘The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment’ ( CCC 676). It is sheer foolishness to offer right now in time, and right here in history, what Jesus promised to give beyond time and beyond history through the eschatological judgement.
This kind of false teaching ignores the theology of suffering. But Jesus said that there are no shortcuts to heaven and one has to carry his cross. Prosperity gospel cannot prepare, and does not want to prepare the church for facing difficult times, whereas the true gospel is a call to be in constant readiness to follow Jesus to Calvary.
When Jesus says that for ten days Smyrnaeans will have affliction, he was warning about the ten waves of persecution that was to take place during the reign of anti-christian Roman emperors starting from Nero. The message that they are going to be afflicted made them bold. They withstood the persecution with resilience and hope.
Do we ever hear anybody preaching this gospel of affliction nowadays? More pertinent, do we want to hear our priests or bishops preaching that we are going to be persecuted? It is very easy to preach that God is going to bless us, that the evil one will not touch us, that the Risen Lord will save us from all our problems, that our diseases will be healed, that God wants His children to live like princes and so on. But when somebody reminds us that Christian life is not complete without suffering or that the only thing guaranteed to a Christian in this world is persecution, we find it difficult to accept. But there is no other way. Suffering and persecution are our permanent companions and they will be with us all through life till the moment of death. Do not forget that there is a kind of life that leads to death, and a kind of death that leads to life. If we live for ourselves we will certainly die. If we die for Christ we will certainly live forever.
God is allowing sufferings to us for various reasons. It can be a chastisement. It can be an instrument of purification. God wants us to utilise the times of adversity to take our eyes from this world and fix them for eternity. Most important, it is to impart us the knowledge that God will be with us in every adversity. Moses and six hundred thousand Israelites will testify that God was with them while crossing the Red Sea. Daniel will testify that a lion’s den with God’s presence was more comfortable than the royal palace of a godless ruler. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego will testify that they never wanted to come out of the blazing furnace, because God was with them. The Church in Smyrna will testify that ‘ the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us'( Rom 8:18). Smyrna is an invitation to share this hope in eternal glory.
Jesus wanted the church in Smyrna to be faithful until death and promised a reward for their perseverance. ‘Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life’ (Rev 2:10). Jesus who has conquered death has every right to promise us also the crown of life. He is the only person who can give us the crown of life. If we persevere in the battle and conquer the devil we need not fear the second death. ‘Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death’ (Rev.2:11).
Let us bring to mind the passion of our Lord and pray for the strength to withstand every kind of persecution. May our churches imitate the church in Smyrna in these days, when a hostile political system joins hands with an apostate religious system in attacking the true believers, ‘those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus’ ( Rev 12:17).