“The Wiles of the Devil” series (post #15)
“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.” (Revelation 2:10, N.K.J.V.)
These words were spoken by Jesus to the church in Smyrna. Smyrna was a seaport city located approximately 35 miles north of Ephesus. It was the most beautiful city in Asia Minor and was a thriving center of commerce. It was also known for its wildly zealous loyalty to Rome, to the extreme that it was a center of the imperial cult that worshiped Rome’s Caesar as a god.
Since the worship of Caesar was compulsory in Smyrna, any citizen who wouldn’t say, “Caesar is Lord” was ostracized from the city’s trade guilds. That would result in unemployment and poverty. That citizen could also have his property confiscated. This explains why Jesus said to those Christians, “I know your works, your tribulation, and poverty…” (Revelation 2:9). By the way, the Greek word translated there as “poverty” isn’t even the typical one for “poverty.” Instead, it’s a special one that describes abject poverty.
To make matters worse, the Smyrna church also had to deal with a group Jesus called “the synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9). This was the city’s Jewish synagogue, whose members were motivated by Satan to persecute the city’s Christians. The members of this synagogue were Jews in the genetic sense but not in the spiritual sense (Romans 2:28-29). Their true religion was the worship of Caesar, and they allied themselves with the Romans in persecuting Smyrna’s Christians to the point of death.
This shows us that Satan uses religion, especially any religion that isn’t under the lordship of Jesus Christ, to accomplish his sinister purposes. In the case of the Christians of Smyrna, Satan used the emperor-worship-cult, working hand in hand with the local Jews, to get some of those Christians thrown into prison. Various interpretations have been offered for the “ten days” of the persecution. Some commentators view the days symbolically as ten different waves of persecution that took place under ten different Roman emperors beginning with Nero and ending with Diocletian. Others see them as alluding specifically to the ten-year persecution that took place during the reign of Diocletian. Others interpret the days literally, the idea being that the imprisonment and persecution would be brief but intense.
I tend to side with those who interpret the “ten days” literally, but the overriding point in all the interpretations is that remaining faithful to Jesus would result in the persecution and martyrdom of some of Smyrna’s Christians. As evidence of how bad the persecution would become, historical records tell us that fifty years or so after Jesus spoke these words Smyrna’s pastor, Polycarp, was burned alive at the age of 86 for refusing to worship Caesar. Those records also specifically mention that the Jews of the city carried logs to the pyre on which he was burned.
As for why God would allow Satan to persecute and imprison the Christians of Smyrna during those “ten days,” we don’t have to guess at an answer. Jesus says, “Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days.” Certainly nothing will test one’s devotion to Christ like persecution and imprisonment! Thus continues the classic theme the Bible presents in regards to God counteracting Satan’s work. First, Satan plans to do his evil work in our lives. Second, rather than prevent Satan from doing the work, God allows him to accomplish it. Third, whereas Satan uses the work for one intended purpose, God uses it for another as He brings good out of the bad.
The three promises Jesus made to the Christians of Smyrna were:
- Even though those Christians were poor in an earthly sense, they were rich in an eternal one because they had treasure laid up in heaven (Revelation 2:9; Matthew 6:19-21).
- Just as the winning athletes of Rome’s athletic games received crowning wreaths placed atop their heads, the Christians of Smyrna would receive crowns of life as heavenly rewards for their efforts (Revelation 2:10; James 1:12).
- Those Christians would not be hurt by the second death (Revelation 2:11), which is eternal banishment to the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15).
To get back to the subject of this post, though, Satan worked through human means to get some of the Christians of Smyrna thrown into prison. And if he had the power to do that to them, he can surely create all kinds of injustices (including imprisonment) for Christians today. If you think Christian persecution and imprisonment was something that only happened in the days of the early church, you don’t have a clue what is happening to Christians in various parts of the world in this 21st century.
But lest we walk around scared to death, wondering where Satan is going to strike next, we Christians would do well to read again Christ’s words to those Christians of Smyrna: “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer” (Revelation 2:10). That seems like such an odd thing to say, doesn’t it? I mean, aren’t persecution and arrest frightful things? Well, from a worldly perspective they obviously are, but from an eternal one they only produce greater reward for the Christian. Those Christians of ancient Smyrna are enjoying those rewards at this very moment, and you and I, Christian, would do well to learn from their excellent example.