The Seven Churches of Revelation, part four

If you’re new to this series, you can catch up here:

Part 1 @

Part 2 @

Part 3 @

Who were the Nicolaitans? @

Book of Revelation, Chapter 2, Verses 8-11:

To the angel of the church in Smyrna, write this:

The first and the last, who once died but came to life, says this:

I know your tribulation and poverty, but you are rich. I know the slander of those who claim to be Jews and are not, but rather are members of the assembly of Satan. Do not be afraid of anything that you are going to suffer. Indeed, the devil will throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will face an ordeal for ten days. Remain faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.

Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

The victor shall not be harmed by the second death.

I’ve introduced my idea about the seven churches being periods in church history; I’m not at all sure I’m right so take all this with pounds of salt. Please. That being said …

Smyrna seems to work beautifully as a type for the 200 years of Roman persecution following the Apostolic Age.

The Apostolic Age ended with the death of the last apostle, John (ca. 115 AD). The Edict of Milan made Christianity legal (313 AD).

Smyrna had a long history of loyalty to Rome, having dedicated a temple to the goddess Roma as early as 195 B.C. It seems well suited to stand as a type for persecution of Christians who refused to worship the Emperor. It was also a wealthy, beautiful port city, which points up the references in the letter about material poverty and spiritual wealth.

However, there is no record of how Christianity came to Smyrna and, apart from this one mention in the Book of Revelation (written in mid-90s AD), the city is not mentioned at all in the Bible.

About 110 AD: As far as I could find, the earliest record we have is The Letter to the Smyrnaeans written by Saint Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, who had been a student of the Apostle John. It discusses theology and church governance, but does not mention Jews or persecution.

About 153 AD: We do have evidence from some decades later that some Jews in Smyrna had become hostile enough to Christianity that they eagerly joined a mob of pagans in burning Smyrna’s Bishop Polycarp to death.

The New American Bible has footnotes for Revelation 2 saying there was a large Jewish community in Smyrna that was very hostile toward Christians, and that accusations made by Jews in Smyrna occasioned the persecution of Christians. It cites the following passages as evidence:

“Acts 14:2, 19; 17:5, 13.”

But … with all due respect … this makes no sense to me.

Acts 14 map

Acts 14 tells us that while Paul and Barnabas were at Iconium, their preaching offended disbelieving Jews and divided the city. There was an attempt by both the Gentiles and the Jews, together with their leaders, to attack and stone Paul and Barnabas, causing them to flee to Lystra. Some hostile Jews from Antioch and Iconium followed them and set off another stoning attempt, so they left for Derbe. After preaching in Derbe, they returned to Lystra and Iconium, then went to Pisidia Antioch, Perga and Attalia, then they sailed to Antioch. Smyrna is way to the west of all these cities.

Acts 17 map

Acts 17 tells us that Paul went to Thessalonica, where the success of his preaching made some of the Jews so jealous that they recruited some worthless men loitering in the public square, formed a mob, and dragged some of the Christians before the city magistrates, accusing them of sedition. The city magistrates fined the Christians and let them go, then Paul and Silas went to Berea. These Jews were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica; many of them became believers, as did not a few of the influential Greek women and men. When the Jews of Thessalonica heard this, they went to Berea and again stirred up trouble. So Paul went to Athens via the seacoast. Smyrna is way to the east of all these cities.

I can’t find any evidence that Smyrna had a hostile Jewish community at the time John had his vision. In fact, all references to this alleged community are based on the letter to Smyrna in Revelation. However, if the cities in the letters were meant as prophetic types, then it is inappropriate to conclude anything from the letters about the actual conditions in the churches in those cities at the end of the 1st c. AD. To do so is to put the interpretation before the evidence.

I’ll talk more in future about the 2d and 3d century persecutions and the letter to Smyrna. First, I need to do more research about the persecutions themselves and hopefully find some hint of what “you will face an ordeal for ten days” might mean. If anybody has any resources, references or clues, I’d appreciate them!



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2 responses to “The Seven Churches of Revelation, part four

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