93) The Crisis Church

Revelation 2:8-11

“And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive; 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.” 

During the Roman period, Smyrna was apparently a city of great beauty and impressive architecture that circled Mount Pagus like a “crown”... (cf. Revelation 2:10 “crown of life”). Walking through the city, one would a see…temples to Zeus (including a large altar), Cybele (the Mother Goddess, near the harbor), Aphrodite, Dionysius, and the Emperors (probably Tiberius in 26 AD and Domitian before 96 AD), the harbor, a library, and a massive agora…In the 2nd century AD, Smyrna built another imperial temple to Hadrian. Along with inscriptions honoring the emperors and statues of Domitian and Trajan, coins issued by the city often depicted emperors and even the imperial temples, so it is obvious that Smyrna was dedicated to the worship of the emperor and the imperial cult…

Written during the time of Domitian and Christian persecution, the church at Smyrna faced even more opposition than most, due to the strong influence of emperor worship in the city, which at that time was required by law and punishable by imprisonment or death. An interpretation of the reference to the “synagogue of Satan” is tentative, but it may refer to Jews who not only opposed Christianity, but also participated in the imperial cult. Like many other cities of Asia Minor, there was a significant community of Jews, including at least one synagogue. Unfortunately, many of these Jews were fiercely opposed to Christianity, and just as Paul and his friends had been opposed and attacked by Jews in other cities, the Christians in Smyrna also faced persecution from not only the pagans, but the Jews. Polycarp, who had known and been taught by John the Apostle, was martyred in Smyrna at the instigation of Jews in about 156 AD (Martyrdom of Polycarp; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History). 

“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.”

The ten days / eras of tribulation can be tentatively identified through history documented in Will Durant’s Caesar and Christ, and the reports of the early church historian Eusebius.

  1. Nero (reigned 54-68) ushered in the first empire-wide persecution of Christians in 64 when a fire burned out of control in Rome for nine days, destroying two thirds of Rome. Thousands of people were killed, hundreds of thousands made homeless and destitute. A hostile public accused Nero of torching Rome in order to rebuild a more luxuriant capitol like Alexandria or Antioch. To deflect their anger away from himself, Nero accused and convicted a defenseless and expendable minority. Christians were executed with exquisite cruelty topped by mocker. Some were covered with skins of wild beasts and left to be devoured by feral dogs; others were crucified; numbers were burned alive with some being covered with pitch and set on fire to serve as torches. Paul and Peter were martyred in Rome during Nero’s rule.
  2. Domitian (81-96) was a profligate like Nero who elevated himself to godhood. He required officials to refer to him in their documents as “Our Lord and God,” and the populace to sacrifice to his image. Remember, a sacrifice unites the identity of the god with the human, and “no man can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). In 93 he organized persecution against Jews and Christians who refused. During this time John was banished to Patmos.

Notice that these two periods of persecution preceded John’s writing while at Patmos, so they aren’t included in the ten “day” but gave the Smyrnans a solid basis to understand and prepare for what was to come.

  1. By 112 persecution of Christians had become so intense that Trajan (98-117) issued a decree that Christians should not be hunted, only punished if encountered. Persecution broke out sporadically in one city at a time as a result of popular uprisings in the same way that riots in America were aroused by certain incidents in particular cities.
  2. In 156 under Antonius Pius Smyrna came under most savage persecution. Consistent with Jesus’ characterization of the unbelieving Jews as belonging to the synagogue of Satan, they inflamed the persecution. We can deduce that the church at Smyrna, like the church at Ephesus under Paul, were winning too many converts and disrupting the financial and power base of the status quo. In a letter sent to other churches detailing the persecution, some martyrs were whipped with scourges to a degree that their entrails and internal organs were laid bare. Some were forced to lie on sharp spikes. After going through every kind of torture they were thrown to the beasts for food. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna and a companion of the Apostle John, was burned alive. It is reported of him that “at all times he taught the things which he had learnt from the apostles.”
  3. In 177 under Marcus Aurelius persecution flared up in mob onslaughts in city after city. Martyrs “heroically endured whatever the surging crowd heaped on them, noisy abuse, blows, dragging along the ground, plundering, stoning, imprisonment and everything that an infuriated mob normally does to hated enemies.” Torture was inflicted through the rack, whipping, mauling by beasts, being roasted in an iron chair, and being burned alive.”
  4. In 193-211 under Severus many overcame torture to remain faithful unto death, like Potameaena of Alexandria. “The judge, Aquila, subjected her whole body to dreadful agonies, and finally threatened to hand her over to the gladiators for bodily insult…Slowly, drop by drop, boiling pitch was poured over different parts of her body, from her toes to the crown of her head. Such was the battle won by this splendid girl.”
  5. In 235-238 Maximin instigated persecution of the leaders only of the churches.
  6. In 249-251 Decius ordered Christians to participate in heathen sacrifices. A letter to the church in Antioch describes how “they all ran in a body to the houses of the Christians, charged in by groups on those they knew as neighbors, raided, plundered, and looted.” One man who refused to utter blasphemous words was cudgeled, had pointed reeds driven into his face and eyes, and stoned to death. One woman was dragged by her feet over the cobbled street, beaten as they went, then stoned to death. One old lady was battered until her teeth were knocked out, then threatened with being burned unless she uttered the heathen incantations. She jumped into the fire on her own. No roadway was safe to traverse, always and everywhere everybody was shouting that anyone who did not join the blasphemous changes must at once be dragged away and burned. A vast number fled the cities, wandering over deserts and mountains until hunger, thirst, cold, sickness, bandits or wild beasts destroyed them. Many were enslaved by Saracens.
  7. In 253-260 Valarien’s seven year reign was marked by strong parallels with John’s description of the Antichrist. At first friendly and cooperative with Christians, he then took measures to rid his empire of them.
  8. In 284 during Diocletian’s reign, despite these persecutions, the church had swelled in numbers and strength throughout the empire. Even the Emperor’s wife and daughter were professing Christians. Old places of worship were torn down and spacious edifices built. “But increasing freedom transformed our character to arrogance…we began envying and abusing each other…with weapons of sharp-edged words.” (Eusebius) An imperial decree ordered the heads of churches everywhere to be imprisoned. During this time a Christian who refused to sacrifice was stripped, hoisted up naked, and his whole body scourged. Vinegar and salt was poured over his lacerated body, then piece by piece his body was roasted in a brazier. Some martyrs were torn to bits from head to foot with shards of pottery as sharp as claws, some crucified, some crucified head-down which allowed breathing so extended the torture even longer, and left to starve to death. Women were stripped naked, tied by one foot and hoisted high in the air head down presenting the most shameful and brutal spectacles. Others had their legs tied to tree branches forced down by the aid of machinery, which, when released back to their upright positions would slowly tear about the limbs of the victims. There are accounts of occasions where on a single day 100 men, women and children were tortured to death in an ever-changing succession of torments for the entertainment of the masses.
  9. in 286-305 under Maximian martyrs were killed in Arabia by the ax (doesn’t sound so bad in comparison, right?) in Cappadocia by breaking their legs, in Mesopotamia by being hung head down over a slow fire to be smothered by smoke, in Alexandria butchered like meat, in Antioch slow roasted over a brazier, In Pontus unmentionable and shameful suffering inflicted in their private parts and bowels.
  10. In 305-313 Maximin, the eastern potentate of a divided and crumbling Roman Empire, banished and attacked Christians.

After Constantine seized the day and the empire from Maximin and legalized Christianity, Smyrna prospered as a commercial gateway to the East, which then attracted the attention of many invaders.

  1. In 1084 the Seljuk Turks destroyed Smyrna and gave their name to the region.
  2. In 1130 the Persians destroyed the rebuilt Smyrna
  3. In 1402 Tamerlaine razed Smyrna and butchered the inhabitants in a legendary orgy of cruelty, raising a monument to himself with a thousand skulls.

In 1922 Smyrna was erased from the map, replaced by the Moslem city of Izmir.

in the final act in Turkey’s genocide of its Christian minorities...Mustapha Kemal’s army entered Smyrna on September 9th, 1922. By September 22nd…fire — lit by Turkish forces — swept through the city and burned the Greek and Armenian quarters to the ground, erasing anything that would remind future generations of their presence…

At the time, the city of Smyrna was predominantly Greek [Orthodox], known for its thriving commercial trade.

Kemal Ataturk, the leader of the Turkish troops, was a firebrand who made it known that he wanted to be called the founder of “New Islam…” The Allied Navy, comprised of the American, British and French ships anchored off the port…were a guarantee of their safety, they thought…

However…The Allied sailors and soldiers watched the Turkish troops unleash their hate on the non-Turkish residents — but…did nothing to intervene in the atrocity. Patriarch Chrysostomos, the head of all the Greek Orthodox faithful around the world, was hanged by Turkish soldiers after being brutally tortured. The atrocities had no end until Smyrna was emptied [of Christians].

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