Persecution has characterized the history of the church from its very beginning. Peter, John and Stephen were its early victims, and the saints, Acts 8. i, as well as Paul and his companions, were later included. But there was worse to come and the Smyrnean believers are enjoined not to fear “the things thou art about to suffer”, Rev. 2. 10 r.v. The devil was “about to cast some” of them into prison in order that the whole church might be tested, 2, 10 R.v. When “some” suffer, the whole company is affected.
They are called upon to be “faithful unto death” and such are promised a victor’s “crown of life”. Who, indeed, was better fitted to write in such terms than the Lord Himself? Although He is the “first and the last”, although He is God, yet when He became Man, He “died and lived again”, and this was due, among other things, to His faithfulness. Should they suffer even unto death, they would then be but following in His train.
Because of their faith, they had suffered from those who claimed to be the people of God, namely from those who said they were Jews but really were not. “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly”, Rom. 2. 28. To be one of God’s real people the heart must be right. Yet has it not been a feature of the whole of the so-called Christian era that saints have been persecuted by those who have adhered to a Judaistic form of Christianity with its priests, vestments, altar, incense and ritual? Even in the earliest days of Christianity it was the Jewish religionist who persecuted the disciples, and as time went on, that which developed into the Roman Catholic church became the arch-inquisitor against the true people of God. They could say nothing too bad against them (blasphemy) nor do anything too cruel (tribulation).
The well-known persecutions such as that under Diocletian, following the early days of the Church’s pilgrimage, were designed to test the saints. Ten days were proposed to test Rebekah’s decision, Gen. 24. 55; Nehemiah, Neh. 4. 12, and Daniel and his friends, Dan. 1. 12, were all likewise tested for a similar period.
It would seem from the omission of the mention of “works” in this letter (see Rev. 2. 9 r.v.) that the saints at Smyrna were so bitterly persecuted that activity in the service of God was rendered almost impossible. They were between the upper and nether millstones, so great was their “tribulation’. They had doubtless suffered the “spoiling of their goods”, so great was their material “poverty”. But actually they were rich for “all things are yours … and ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s”, 1 Cor. 3. 21-23; spiritual riches cannot be confiscated.
Virtually a conflict was raging between the powers of light and darkness; on the one side was ranged the Lord of glory and His people, and on the other Satan, that is “the devil”, and his dupes. He is ever an imitator. The true bride of Christ is counterfeited by the whore; the true apostles by the false apostles; the true church by the “synagogue of Satan”. This is not Protestantism versus Romanism, but true believers versus false religionists, no matter by what name they may be called. As when the Lord was here, so now the powers of darkness sought to extinguish the true light, but despite the appearance of victory, “the darkness overcame it not”, John r. 5 R.v. marg. The true light still shone, and those who loved not their lives to death would receive the victor’s crown of life in resurrection and glory, as did their Lord, Heb. 2. 9.
Two things were required of them: (i) fearlessness and (ii) faithfulness. How often did the Lord call for these things in the days of His flesh; see Luke 12. 4, 7, 32; Matt. 24. 45; 25. 23. And how greatly did these things shine in His earthly course! For the sufferings of Gethsemane did not spring from fear of death but rather from fear of God, and the opposition of His enemies was because of His faithfulness to His God.
The overcomer is assured immunity from the “second death”. This “second death” is that which follows upon death and hades being cast into the lake of fire. Ponder carefully Revela-tion 20. 5, 11-15, wherein are denned those who will be exempt from, and those who will experience this “second death”. It is such a death as will entail the re-union of body with soul, indestructibly to be conscious of the punitive wrath of God upon them.
It follows that, since no genuine believer will ever be lost, then every such believer must be an overcomer. John 5. 24 is crystal clear on this point. No interpretation of any of these promises to the “overcomer’ must be allowed to upset that statement. But we should search our hearts to assure ourselves before God, and, having confidence toward God, we may rejoice in the assurance that, whatever injustice we have suffered in this life because of our faith, we shall be done no injustice by falling to the second death. The negative “shall not be hurt of the second death” in verse 11 is very emphatic.
This short letter read as relating to the circumstances of their immediate days shows how real is the Lord’s sympathy with those who were then treading a path similar to that which He had trodden. Its preservation to our times is designed to encourage all saints of every era that death does not end all; it is to be followed by a life that cannot be touched. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning”, Psa. 30. 5. When read prophetically, the letter shows how true it is to facts as they developed, the bitter persecutions of the second and third centuries of the Christian age being witness.
How nobly Christians acted when facing death may be learned by reading of the persecutions not only of Diocletian and other remote times, but of Philip II of Spain and Mary Queen of Scots, and many another abuser of secular power who broke themselves on the anvil of God.