Suffering, the Smyrna Church and their AD 155 Pamphlet on the Martyrdom of Polycarp

by Reverend Anthony R. Locke
Sermon Series in Revelation # 04

Revelation 2:8-11
English Standard Version

8    “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

9    “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.

10  Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto 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. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.[1]

Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth summoned the disciple John to take dictation for letters He wished to send to certain churches.

Not much of our Bible is direct dictation. The Ten Commandments were given by dictation. The point is that these are some very important letters from “the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

We should be hanging on every word! So, what did Jesus say to the church in Smyrna?

Jesus shares His heavenly perspective on our suffering. The best part is just hearing that Jesus knows about our situation. What was the situation in Smyrna?

Smyrna was a beautiful city set on an ocean peninsula in the Aegean Sea about 35 miles North of Ephesus. At the time of this letter the city was about 1,500 years old.

It was heavily Greek. Each home was built to look like a worship facility honoring one of the Greek deities. They assumed their city’s success was connected to this form of worship.

The city was very successful. 200 years before Christ the city swapped it’s global allegiance to Rome and to prove their loyalty established a religion to the goddess Roma.

This is the same city we know today as Izmir in Turkey. The city is the same size as Atlanta with about 4 million people.

Our own Smyrna, Georgia is named after this Biblical city. The name Smyrna comes from the same root as myrrh which was a beautiful fragrance. Smyrna was beautiful in every respect.

It was a planned city. A street of gold ran from one end to the other starting at the temple of Zeus to the temple of Cybele. From a distance it looked like a golden necklace.

There was a large population of Jews living in the city. You might remember that the Jews were uniquely given protection under Rome to worship only Jehovah.

And Jesus writes this personal letter to the church to address their intense persecution.

Why were the saints in Smyrna persecuted?

The Jews living in Smyrna were jealous that so many of their own were becoming Christian. Rome considered Christians to be a sect within the Jewish religion and so the Christians, like the Jews, were not forced to worship the Greek and Roman gods.

This is in verse 9. These Jewish leaders went to the city officials and convinced them that their own Jewish brothers and sisters who became Christian had abandoned Judaism and should not be treated as Jews.

If they are not Jews then they would be forced to join in the city’s worship of Zeus and Rome or forfeit their right to work. This caused their poverty. The Jews slandered the Christians and blamed any city problems on them for not worshipping the Greek deities.

Jesus says I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.

Calling a religious group a synagogue of Satan is still in use today. During the Reformation the Reformers would label certain religious groups a synagogue of Satan to communicate that, in their opinion, a holy God was no longer leading their corporate agenda or energies.

The ARP Church two years ago labeled the PC USA church in this category. Their corporate church agenda is no longer serving the agenda of a holy God, which became obvious when gays were cleared to serve as pastors.

Jesus sees tribulation coming and instructs us to not fear. There are movements in our country which should cause Christians great concern. Jesus says to be ready for the persecution.

Christian’s in public school systems are bullied, given demeaning labels and forced to suffer.

Principled business men suffer for not being a “team player” when confronting less than honest marketing or financial reports.

Educators who question Darwinism are routinely kept from tenure or advancement.

This last week a religious organization felt forced to sue our government for infringing on their religious rights by requiring them to provide abortions. The votes of a few justices could bring principled Christians under new tribulation.

The laws of our country might someday soon label us intolerant and liable for a hate crime for not celebrating and accepting as normative homosexuality. Christian groups will be sued into financial ruin when this happens.

We must be vigilant as citizens if we are to continue to enjoy our freedoms.

My mother has been greatly troubled for the last two months trying to navigate family politics around plans for a same gender marriage. My mom suffered thirty years ago for voicing her Christian opinions and she doesn’t want to be shunned again. That’s persecution.

In 2 Timothy 3:12 God promised that all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. It should makes us wonder about the genuineness of our faith if we are at peace with this world. Tribulation is here right now for those who stand up for God’s commands.

And Jesus says, Do not fear what you are about to suffer.

Why not? Because Jesus holds the keys to our destiny. These are The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. Jesus conquered death. He promises eternal life.

Death is only a tragedy for the living. See it from God’s perspective. Death for a believer is your graduation into your heavenly reward. And suffering for Christ is like making payments into your 401 retirement account. Your suffering is one way to lay up treasures in heaven.

So be faithful. Persevere in the faith despite the disadvantages your faith causes for you in this world. Look to Jesus and be encouraged.

2 Corinthians 4:8-10 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

Jesus said in John 15:20 Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. Don’t act surprised. Be prepared.

Here’s the promise. Jesus knows your situation and there is a limit to how much He will allow. Verse 10 says that your suffering will last a specific period of time. No more.

So endure suffering like Jesus did. Jesus set His eyes on the prize. You are that prize. Hebrews 12:2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Now, you imagine the glory of Jesus when you suffer.

The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. So Be faithful unto death, and Jesus will give you the crown of life.

Let me wrap up the sermon with an actual story of suffering from the church of Smyrna. For almost two thousand years the Church has told the story of Smyrna’s suffering through the martyrdom of their pastor named Polycarp.

John the Apostle discipled Polycarp while John was pastoring in Ephesus. Polycarp then became the very famous pastor at the church of Smyrna. Polycarp was then martyred on a Saturday, on the 23rd of February, in A.D. 155. Two historians covered these sad events and a booklet was printed in AD 155 to tell this story for future generations. I would be remiss to not share the story with you.

It was the time of the public games. The city was crowded and the crowds were excited. And one afternoon as the games ended someone in the crowd shouted out “Away with the atheists!”

Christians were called atheists because they did not worship the Greek gods.

And the crowd immediately began searching for the leader of the Christians in Smyrna, a man named Polycarp. They wanted to kill him.

No doubt Polycarp could have escaped. Friends ran to find him and told him to leave the city. He chose to remain in his home and hope for the best. A slave connected with the Christian community was tortured and gave them the location of Polycarp.

It didn’t take long for the officials to burst into his home. But what they found shocked them. Polycarp was already preparing a meal for his accusers. As they ate dinner he prayed.

Polycarp was equal to Billy Graham in our time. He was aged and respected.

On the brief journey back to the city the captain of the guard pled with Polycarp to save himself. Quote, “What harm is it to say, ‘Caesar is Lord’ and to offer sacrifice and be saved?”

But Polycarp was adamant that for him only Jesus Christ was Lord.

When Polycarp stood before the proconsul, they gave him the choice of cursing the name of Christ and making sacrifice to Caesar or death. “Eighty and six years have I served him,” said Polycarp, “and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

The  city officials then commanded that he be fed to the lions. He was taken to the coliseum, but the lions had already been sent away and the owners were unwilling to retrieve them.

The proconsul then threatened Polycarp with burning. Polycarp replied: “You threaten me with the fire that burns for a time, and is quickly quenched, for you do not know the fire which awaits the wicked in the judgment to come and in everlasting punishment. Why are you waiting? Come, do what you will.”

When they came to bind him to the post for burning he said “Leave me as I am, for he who gives me power to endure the fire, will grant me to remain in the flames unmoved even without the security you will give by the nails.”

Two historians gave first hand accounts of the martyrdom of Polycarp. His prayer is forever immortalized like the prayer of Steve in the book of Acts.

Polycarp prayed, “O Lord God Almighty, Father of thy beloved and blessed Child, Jesus Christ, through whom we have received full knowledge of thee, God of angels and powers, and of all creation, and of the whole family of the righteous, who live before thee, I bless thee that thou hast granted unto me this day and hour, that I may share, among the number of the martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, for the resurrection to eternal life, both of soul and body in the immortality of the Holy Spirit. And may I today be received among them before thee, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as thou, the God without falsehood and of truth, hast prepared beforehand and shown forth and fulfilled. For this reason I also praise thee for all things. I bless thee, I glorify thee through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, thy beloved Child, through whom be glory to thee with him and the Holy Spirit, both now and for the ages that are to come. Amen.”

Is it any wonder that Jesus looks on the poverty of the persecuted church and says that they are rich beyond their understanding. God views our suffering as a badge of honor.

After the flames terribly tortured Polycarp for an extended period of time, the executioner stabbed him to death to achieve what the flames could not do. And Polycarp finally died.

Hebrews 11:35-40 Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

There are a quarter of a billion Christians living under intense persecution right now. 200,000 are martyred every year for their Christian witness. Their death is heartbreaking, but from God’s perspective, it’s like graduating summa cum laude, meaning “with highest honor.”

Let’s honor their memory too during this Memorial Weekend. May God richly bless you.

[1]  The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

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