The Book of Revelation with commentary by Dr. Henry M. Morris and paintings by Ramona Lowe
The paintings are a work in progress and the finished pieces are highlighted in red on Page 2

Page 18

The Church in Tribulation

     In recent decades, there has been much theological disputation as to whether or not the Church will go through the tribulation.  The fact is that every real church must endure some degree of tribulation.  “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).  “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12).  The church at Smyrna is the Lord’s choice to illustrate the suffering church and its needs. 

Revelation 2:8.   And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write:  These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive.

     Smyrna was also a port city, about thirty-five miles north of Ephesus.  It survives today as Ismir, in Turkey.  One of John’s converts, Polycarp, served as a minister there until his martyrdom about A.D. 155.

     No greater comfort could be addressed to a persecuted church than to be reminded that the Lord was still in their midst and that He Himself, as the Creator and Heir of all things, had already conquered death.  In Him, they were certain to gain the ultimate victory.

Revelation 2:9.   I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.

     The Smyrna Christians were not only persecuted but impoverished as a result of their stand for Christ.  Nevertheless they were wealthy because they were laying up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:20) and possessed “the true riches” (Luke 16:11).  Paul also noted that true “ministers of God” would be “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing; and yet possessing all things” (2 Corinthians 6:10).

     There was another problem.  As Ephesus was plagued with men who said they were apostles but were not, so Smyrna was beset by men who said they were Jews but were not.  As false apostles are “ministers of Satan” (2 Corinthians 11:15), so false Jews constitute a “synagogue of Satan.”  Their very claim to be Jews (and therefore God’s chosen people) is blasphemy, Christ says.

     There was, indeed, a very large community of Jews in Smyrna, and these strongly opposed the church and the gospel.  They were directly instrumental in persuading the Roman officials of the city to execute Polycarp.  The records say they even carried logs to the pyre on which he was burned.

     But these were real Jews, in the physical sense at least.  It is possible that the Lord is here referring to the fact that, in God’s sight, those who are truly Jews are Jews who are spiritually in tune with God’s will and thus have received the Lord Jesus as their Messiah (Romans 2:28, 29; John 8:39; Romans 9:6-8).  This is a doubtful interpretation, however, for the New Testament everywhere continues to call those who were born of Jewish stock Jews regardless of whether they were Jews spiritually.  It would hardly be surprising, let alone blasphemous, for the Jewish colony in Smyrna to call themselves Jews, since everyone else did too.

     The probability is that this reference denotes a group who were claiming to be Jews spiritually, but were not Jews, either physically or spiritually.  The church had been burdened almost from its inception with Jewish converts who did not want to separate themselves from the synagogue fellowship and from their lifelong customs, and so were trying to impose circumcision and other aspects of the Old Testament ritual and national ordinances upon the church – not only the Jews in the church but the Gentiles as well (Acts 15:2; Galatians 2:14; Colossians 2:16).  These “Judaizers” influenced many Gentiles, and soon many of these came to believe that conversion to Christianity meant, in effect, conversion also to Judaism and that the latter was to be perpetuated, with some modifications, in the church.  Eventually this would lead to a monstrous system of works-salvation and almost a complete disappearance of the doctrines of salvation by grace and justification by faith.  As one group of false teachers, in Ephesus, wanted to continue the Apostleship, so the other, in Smyrna, wanted to continue the priesthood.  Eventually the two merged in a vast worldly system, with an imaginary apostolic succession and an elaborate visible priesthood, both having (as Nicolaitanes) conquered the laity and placed them again in legalistic bondage under a complex system of ritualistic ordinances, sacrifices, and penances.  This system was experiencing its embryonic develop-ment among cliques in such churches as that in Smyrna, where the heavy outward pressure of the large colony of ethnic Jews was encouraging such compromise.

Revelation 2:10.   Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days; be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.

     Although suffering, including imprisonment and even martyrdom, would be the lot of many in Smyrna, as well as in countless other churches through the centuries, the gracious word from Christ is: “Fear not!” Not even death can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:38, 39) and the martyr’s promised “crown of life” (see also James 1:12) will far overbalance the testing he is called to endure in this life.

     The phrase “ten days of tribulation” has been variously interpreted.  Some have taken it to mean ten years of special persecution which was coming to the church in Smyrna, perhaps being climaxed in the burning of Polycarp, their pastor.  But, if that were so, why did Christ not say “ten years?”  Further, how could this be applied to all other churches?

     Many, assuming that Smyrna specifically represents the period of the great Roman persecu-tions of the church in the second and third centuries, have tried to enumerate ten waves of persecution, the last under Diocletian just before the conversion of Constantine.  But such a list is forced and very arbitrary at best.  And again, why would not Christ have predicted such a situation plainly if that were His meaning?

     The intent of the passage is obviously to prepare the church for intense suffering and yet to assure them it would be very brief and ephemeral in contrast to the endless ages of glory beyond it.  As Paul had said, “For our light affliction which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

     If we assume the “ten days” to be a symbolic expression designed to contrast the brevity of the suffering with its benefits, is there any reason for mentioning “ten days” instead of, say, “seven days” or some other small number?  The most likely parallel reference is in the Book of Daniel, which of course is a book quite intimately related to Revelation.  There, right at the beginning of his ministry (just as Smyrna is at the beginning of the Church Age and the beginning of the Book of Revelation), Daniel and his three Jewish friends offered to undergo “ten days” of what might seem to outsiders to be sacrifice and deprivation (Daniel 1:2, 14, 15) on a diet of only pulse and water.  Instead of hurting them, however, this ten days of “proving” or “testing” (Daniel 1:14), produced most salutary results.  “And in all matters of wisdom and understanding, that the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all . . . in all his realm” (Daniel 1:20).  Ten days of testing, in Daniel’s case, then yielded over seventy years of uniquely effective service for God.

     Just so, Christ assures Christians in Smyrna and all other suffering churches that a brief “ten days” of testing will, if accepted with a resolve to be “faithful unto death,” yield a crown of life and glory that will be ten times greater when Jesus comes.  Furthermore, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” and a patient endurance of unjust persecution has always been one of the church’s most potent tools of evangelism.

Revelation 2:11.   He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.

      What Christ says, “unto the angel of the church” is the same as “what the Spirit saith unto the churches.”  The glorified Lord gives the message, John writes the message, the angel guards and assures the arrival of the message, then the Spirit speaks the message to listening ears and open hearts.

     And the wonderful promise to those who overcome fear and, in their work for Christ, remain steadfast unto death is that death in this world is entrance to life in a better world where they will never face a second death.  Those who die without Christ, however, will also die again (Revelation 20:12-14).

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