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Smyrna’s Synagogue of Satan


“and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not,
but are a synagogue of Satan”
(Rev. 2:9)

The Martyrdom of Polycarp

The Martyrdom of Polycarp

Up until about the year 83 AD, a full thirteen years before Jesus sent the seven letters to the seven churches, the Jews allowed Christians to attend synagogue and offer prayers in Jesus’ name there.

But a decree was made by all the leading rabbis that to pray in Jesus’ name was blasphemy, and thus the Christians were irrevocably kicked out of the synagogues. It is a cleavage that exists until today, and shall, ’till Christ return for his own.

That decision reflected the anger of the rabbis and much of the Jewish world, that those who became followers of Jesus, and claimed Him to be the Messiah and the fulfillment of the prophets, were enemies of Israel, and the religious freedoms the Jews possessed under 1st C Roman law. With the Christians officially removed from synagogue, they could tell the Roman gov’t that the Xtns were not Jews and were in fact a new religion, which was the very thing Roman law forbade: no new religions.

Some Christians say Rev. 2:9 is divine irony: “the Jews in Smyrna are false Jews, because the Christian Church is the true Jews.” [1]Greg Beale, Revelation, 241 This is a most appealing interpretation for a number of reasons, foremost of which is seeing Christ Himself, in His priestly office at the Father’s right hand, siding with the Gentile Christians against the people of His humble incarnation, the Jews. He appears to replace the ethnic Jew with a new breed, the ‘real’ Jew, or ‘genuine’ Jew – the Christian. That’s the logical conclusion of thinking, ‘true Jews meet in churches, false Jews meet in synagogues.’

This leads some to a second conclusion, that the ‘synagogue of Satan’ in Smyrna was not a synagogue at all, but a church of professing Christians who were actually opposed to Christ. This too is appealing, because we all know such churches abound in our day.

But this creates a reading problem. If Jesus calls a false church a ‘synagogue of Satan,’ why doesn’t He call a true church a ‘synagogue of God?’ Why be so harsh in one direction, but not commendatory in the other? If the false Christians are a synagogue of Satan, ought not Jesus praise the true Christians as the true synagogue of ‘those who say they aren’t Jews, but are?’ Yet history provides us with no evidence of ‘false churches’ using the Roman government to persecute ‘true churches’ in this early period, which is what Jesus says the synagogue of Satan does. Just Jews and synagogues. The notion of ‘false and true churches’ only comes in 150 years later, in Cyprian’s battles with other bishops where he lives, and then only in seed form.

So instead, let’s take the word ‘Jew’ to mean ‘Jew,’ and the word ‘synagogue’ to mean ‘synagogue.’ After all, Jesus doesn’t say ‘false church,’ but ‘Jews who are not.’ So, the ‘synagogue of Satan’ is the Sabbath gathering of ethnic Jews in the Jewish synagogue in Smyrna. But, and here’s where we get confused, they “are not,” even as the apostles of 2:2 “are not.”

Why are they ‘not Jews?’ They failed the inward test of faith in God (Rom 2:28-29; Mat 3:9, John 8:44). Paul said he was “more Jewish” than other Jews because he didn’t put confidence in the flesh (Phi. 3:4). So what do we have? These ethnic Jews in Smyrna were tools of Satan. They met together every Sabbath, and worked together to persecute God’s true people, His elect there in Smyrna.

Which makes me ask, what is the blasphemy of v. 9? It’s a slander, but we aren’t told what the slander is. However, it led into what the Christians experienced in the next verse:

“Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is
about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be
tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days.

Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
(Rev. 2:10)

The whole church was fearful, for they had already suffered persecution. Yet now comes the news that more was coming. So in light of predestined afflictions, what is the most merciful counsel? “Do not fear!” According to Jesus, fear is worse than suffering. Suffering can be done in faith, fear can’t.

“Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill
the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to
destroy both soul and body in hell.”
(Matthew 10:28)

“do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat
or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what
you will put on. Is not life more than food,
and the body more than clothing?”

The word in v. 10 for “tribulation” describes external pressure applied to you in such a way that it creates suffering and sorrow, often overwhelming the mind with fear. Physical reactions may accompany the response – heart palpitations, sleeplessness.

So what is Christ’s counsel? Amazingly, it’s: “Stop fearing!” It’s just like God Himself to put it exactly that way. “Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2).

Furthermore, the testing here is not “testing unto approval” – i.e., unto maturity, but just “testing:” Satan’s test to get Christians to renounce their faith, to elicit inner fear leading to the sin of non-confession of Christ. Jesus tells them to hang in for 10 days – God’s limit’s on Satan’s test (Rev. 2:10).

And what happen at the end of that 10 days? Martyrdom: Be faithful until death.

From Church history we know that the Jews at Smyrna were numerous and aggressively hostile against the church. 50 years after this letter they took an active part in the martyrdom of Polycarp. A circular letter from the church at Smyrna to other churches in the Christian world relates how the Jews joined the heathen in demanding that Polycarp be cast to the lions, or burned alive. They led the way in bringing firewood to burn him to death and attempted to prevent his remains from being given to the Christians for burial (Foxes Book of Martyrs).

Allow me to paraphrase.

polycarp and lionsWhen Polycarp was an old man, at least 85 years old, a flurry of persecution broke out in Smyrna, brought on by the mobs who were thirsting for the blood of the Christians. 14 Christians were seized and dragged to the public arena where they were fed to wild beasts. All but one died gloriously, one even slapping a wild animal that seemed to be too lazy to attack the Christian who was intended to be its dinner.

The crowd was not placated and began to shout for more. Particularly, they began to shout for Polycarp whom they knew to be minister in the church, and who was, at the urgings of his flock, in hiding. The police were sent to find him, and finally did find him, after exacting information of his hiding place from a servant, who was subjected to hideous torture.

The crowd and the local magistrate were present in the arena when Polycarp was apprehended. He was brought before the magistrate in the stands of the arena and immediately tried and convicted while the frenzied crowd shouted for his blood. It was a most unusual and illegal trial that went something like this, the magistrate speaking first.

“Swear by the fortune of Caesar! Repent! Declare: Death to the atheists!” Turning to the mob, with a lift of his head and a wave of his hand, Polycarp shouted, “Death to the atheists!”

But the magistrate knew what Polycarp meant. “Apostatize! Swear, and I will set you free at once! You have but to insult Christ.”

“I have served Him for eighty-six years and He has never done me any wrong. Why then should I blaspheme against my King and my Savior?”

“Swear by Caesar’s fortune!”

“You flatter yourself if you hope to persuade me. In all truth I solemnly declare to you: I am a Christian.”

“I have the lions here, to use as I think fit.”

“Give your orders. As for us Christians, when we change it is not from good to bad: it is splendid to pass through evil into God’s justice.”

“If you do not repent I shall have you burned at the stake, since you are so contemptuous of the lions.”

“You threaten me with a fire that burns for an hour and then dies down. But do you know the eternal fire of the justice that is to come? Do you know the punishment that is to devour the ungodly? Come, don’t delay! Do what you want with me.”

The condemnation was proclaimed; the mob rushed from the seats to gather sticks and faggots, with the Jews gleefully helping along. Polycarp told the soldiers in charge of the execution that they need not fasten him to the stake, for he had no intention of fleeing. The flames leaped high, and Polycarp prayed loud enough for all to hear, and died while from the flames could be heard this prayer from the lips of Christ’s faithful servant:

“Lord God Almighty, Father of Thy beloved and blessed Son, Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the grace of knowing Thee, God of angels and powers, and the whole creation, and of the whole race of the righteous who live in Thy presence; I bless Thee for deigning me worthy of this day and this hour that I may be among Thy martyrs and drink of the cup of my Lord Jesus Christ … I praise Thee for all Thy mercies; I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, through the eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, with whom to Thyself and the Holy Spirit, be glory both now and forever. Amen.”



References   [ + ]

1. Greg Beale, Revelation, 241

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