THE TEN PERIODS OF SMYRNA’S PERSECUTION

 

In Revelation Chapters 2 and 3 Jesus dictated messages to John regarding seven Churches located in what is now Turkey. At the time John was in exile on the Island of Patmos, having been banished there by the Roman emperor Domitian for placing his Christian belief above the worship of the emperor. John’s vision occurred toward the end of the first century, before John was released at Domitian’s death in A.D. 96.

These Churches are, in the sequence that Jesus presented them, Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. The messages generally followed the same seven elements: Church name, the name Jesus chose for Himself in addressing them, a commendation, a concern over a matter that needed correction, an exhortation, a promise to the overcomer, and a closing statement. The closing statement was identical for all seven Churches: He that hath an ear, listen. Two Churches were singled out for having no commendation: Sardis and Laodicea; another two Churches were singled out for having no concern: Smyrna and Philadelphia.

These seven Churches are variously identified as seven Churches representative of Christianity at the time that Jesus delivered the message, as well as Churches that typified the prevailing character of the Church over seven sequential eras of Christianity, and Churches representative of Christianity over the entire Christian era from the first Pentecost to the Second Coming of Christ. In actuality, the views are not mutually exclusive; they all have some validity. Corresponding to the sequential view, Christian theologians have associated an identification and time period for each Church, as follows:

Ephesus: Apostolic, first through fourth centuries

Smyrna: Persecuted, first through fourth centuries

Pergamos: Heretical, first through fourth centuries

Thyratira: Post-Constantine, fifth through ninth centuries

Sardis: Medieval, tenth through sixteenth centuries

Philadelphia: Missionary, sixteenth through nineteenth centuries

Laodicea: End-Time, twentieth century to the return of Jesus Christ to earth

The specific message given to Smyrna is presented in Revelation 2:8-11:

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These things say the first and the last, who was dead, and is alive. I know your works, and tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of them who say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things that you shall suffer. Behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that you may be tried, and you shall have tribulation ten days; be you faithful to death, and I will give you a crown of life. He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches: He that overcomes shall not be hurt of the second death.”

Over the years many Christians have wondered what Jesus meant by the ten days of persecution. I favor the opinion given by John Foxe in Foxe’s Christian Martyrs of the World. During the time interval ranging from A.D. 64 under the reign of Nero to A.D. 313 under Diocletian, Foxe in Chapters 1 and 2 of his work identified ten separate periods when persecution was particularly violent and widespread, typically a result of the Christian refusal to worship the Roman emperor as god. During these and subsequent persecutions, Christians remained nonviolent, holding fast to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, particularly His Word in Matthew 5:43-48 regarding the treatment of enemies:

“You have heard that it has been said, You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy; but I say to you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you, and persecute you. That you may be the children of your Father, who is in heaven; for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love them who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors the same? And if you salute your brothers only, what do you more than others? Do not even the heathen so? Be you, therefore, perfect, even as your Father, who is in heaven, is perfect.”

In fact, as a rule Christians under persecution have, in the spirit of Titus 3:1, generally attempted to follow the dictates of the governments of which they have been subjects. It only has been under a direct conflict of loyalty between God and the government that Christians have practiced civil disobedience. An example of that is given in Acts 5:26-29:

“Then went the captain with the officers, and brought [the apostles] without violence; for they feared the people, lest they should have been stoned. And when they had brought them, they set them before the council; and the high priest asked them, Saying, Did not we strictly command you that you should not teach in [Jesus Christ’s] name? And, behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.

“Then Peter and the other apostles answered, and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.”

Persecution typically is not unexpected in the Christian community, except, perhaps, in those Churches having the Laodicean character. Jesus Himself gave Christians plenty of warning about it, typical examples being given in Matthew 5:10-12 and John 15:18-20:

“Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad; for great is your reward in heaven; for so persecuted they the prophets who were before you.”

“If the world hates you, you know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of this world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also.”

It is an interesting fact that the persecution of the early Christians didn’t harm the Church in the least, but rather helped it grow. It strengthened those Christians who held fast in its wake and in the scattering of those who fled, it served to propagate the Gospel to lands that otherwise would not have known of Jesus Christ and the salvation that He offered.

A summary of Foxe’s take on the ten “days” of Smyrna’s persecution is presented in the table below.

PERIOD DATES PERSECUTOR COMMENT

1 54-68 Nero Peter and Paul killed

2 95-96 Domitian John Exiled to Patmos

3 104-117 Trajan

4 161-180 Marcus Aurelius Polycarp martyred

5 200-211 Septimus Severus

6 235-237 Maximus

7 249-251 Decius

8 257-260 Valerian

9 270-275 Aurelian

10 303-313 Diocletian worst persecution

After Diocletian’s persecution, Constantine became Emperor of Rome and legitimized Christianity, which led to growing complacence thereafter, a condition that continued to worsen until the Reformation, of which Martin Luther played a major part. The persecutions that occurred during the Middle Ages were largely associated with the Catholic Inquisition. Modern persecutions are primarily the result of the Muslim hatred toward Christians and the attempt of morally weak governments to maintain an uneasy peace between themselves and the Muslim communities within their borders.

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