The Seven Churches, Part III – The Church of Smyrna

Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea represent the different eras of the Christian church from Jesus’ day until the Second Coming. A study on the first church, the church of Ephesus, was given in the November 2004 issue of LandMarks. By way of review, Ephesus was the church that worked hard. They were faithful, and they had right theology and doctrine. But there was one thing they did not have, or at least they had lost—their first love. The Scripture does not say they did not have any love. Obviously they had some, but they had lost that fervor and that real heartfelt love. As a result, the Lord said that He would remove them from being a church for Him. We might question, in our way of thinking, “Could it be that serious, if they had everything else?” If they had right theology and hard work and all of these things, could the issue of love be that serious? The Bible tells us, in 1 Corinthians 13, just how necessary love is: “Though I have [the gift of] prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” Verse 2. The church is to reflect the image of God, and that image is love [charity]. God is love. If we do not have the love of Jesus in our hearts, we do not have anything, nothing else matters. The only way we can develop this kind of love is through conflict and trial.

Even the heathen people have love for those that love them. That is what Jesus said in Matthew 5:43–48. He said that even the heathen people, the Gentiles, and the unconverted love those who love them, and they are patient and loving when everything is going smoothly and when all things are pleasing them.

Sacrifice Self

It is not difficult to love when everything is pleasing, is it? But what shows whether you are a Christian or not is when you love when things are not going right and when you are not feeling right. That is when the Christian character is revealed. The only way that we can develop this kind of love is to sacrifice self, because as long as self is number one in our lives, we will never have love for others. We will always be watching out for ourselves, and we will always be getting our feelings hurt. We have to sacrifice self.

We must be broken on the Rock, as Jesus said in Matthew 21:44, and He is that Rock. When we come to the cross and see Jesus there, bleeding and lacerated, and know that He suffered abuse, bled, and died for our sins, not for His, because He did not commit any sins, our hearts will be broken. When we hear Jesus say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and we see how Jesus died for those who crucified Him, then we cannot stay offended anymore against those who mistreat us. Self must be put away. (Luke 23:34.)

Look at the story of Jesus in Romans 5:6–8: “For when we were still without strength [before we had any strength physically and, as sinners, before we had any strength spiritually], in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrated His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Dear friend, what love! When we were yet in rebellion, when we hated Him, He died for us.

John tells us what that should do for us—what kind of an impression that should make on our minds, what it should do for our characters—in 1 John 4:7–9, 11–13: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. . . . Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him.” There are many people who think they abide in Jesus, but this is how we can know we abide in Him and He in us: “Because He has given us of His Spirit” of love. Verse 13.

Command of God

Verses 20, 21 continue: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God [must] love his brother also.” That, we could say, is the eleventh commandment, but really it applies to all ten.

John 15:9 says, “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love.” Verse 12 says, “This is My commandment . . . .” It is not only an invitation; it is the command of God, because it is what we have to become like, if we are going to get to heaven. “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Verse 12. That is a lot of love, dear friends, that loved us when we were still in our sins. That is a love that loved us when we did not love Him, when we were unloving. But this is Jesus’ commandment: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.” Verses 13, 14. That command was to love one another.

Love to Be Loved

You know, the church will survive only, as the church of Ephesus tells us, as it develops that love of Jesus. The trouble is that everyone wants everyone else to be loving! Everyone wants to belong to a church like that. How many times have I heard it as a pastor? “You know, the church is supposed to be loving, but I do not have any money and no one here has given me any.” I have heard similar words many times. “No one has cared for me, and this is supposed to be God’s loving church.” How unfortunate it is when people are not cared for, but what utter selfishness of the heart such words betray.

The very principle of love is to love when we are not loved. If we have a whole church of people that are just waiting for everyone else to love them and to take care of them and notice them, we would have no love at all, would we? Love is developed when no one shows us any love, but we love in return. It has to start with one person and then two people, and that love will pervade through the whole church just as leaven pervades through a loaf of bread. If we wait to be loved in order to love, we are not yet Christians.

Lost Love

So it was that the church of Ephesus kept the law, and they worked hard, but they ceased to represent Jesus. They were not His representatives. They could not continue to be His church, because they did not represent His character, His love. Do you know what God is waiting for today? It is for that love—His character—to be represented in the church. We are told, in Christ’s Object Lessons, 69, “When the character of Jesus shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own.”

Ephesus was the very first church. It had the apostles with it for most of its existence. If there was a danger in losing that love with John, Paul, and Peter ministering to them, what do you think the danger is for us? But God had a cure for Ephesus. We find that cure in the church of Smyrna.

Smyrna needs special attention. Although we are not likened to the church of Smyrna, we still need to study it carefully. Ellen White never likens us to Smyrna. In fact, so far are we from the church of Smyrna, she only mentions it in her writings twice, and that is just in quoting the Scriptures.

While the church of Laodicea represents us, she often likens us to the church of Ephesus—not to the whole of the church of Ephesus, but she says we, like Ephesus, have lost our first love. “Those who truly love God must manifest loving-kindness of heart.” The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, vol. 1, 135. And then she says something that makes me so sad: “There is nothing the church lacks so much as a manifestation of Christlike love.” Ibid. Oh, does that not make you sad? That is the very thing that will destroy us. That is what Ephesus lacked. She says there is nothing that we lack so much as that very thing—“the manifestation of Christlike love.” It cannot be something that is just in our hearts; it has to be manifested. So the church is often illustrated by the church of Ephesus but never illustrated by the church of Smyrna.

Contrast Smyrna and Laodicea

Smyrna is almost the exact opposite of Laodicea. Smyrna perfectly represents the 144,000 who will come out of the Laodicean condition. When we study the church of Laodicea, the seventh and last church, which represents us, we will discover that God does not say one good thing about the church of Laodicea. How sad! But do you know, He does not say one bad thing about the church of Smyrna; He says only good things about it. Let us look at the contrast between these two churches.

Regarding the church of Laodicea, Revelation 3:17 says, “Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor . . . .” They thought they were rich, but they were actually poor. On the other hand, look at what Scripture says about the church of Smyrna: “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich) . . . .” Revelation 2:9. You think you are poor, but you are actually rich. Laodicea says, “We are rich,” but God says, “No, you are poor.” Smyrna says, “We are poor,” but God says, “No, you are rich.” God does not quite view things as we view them, does He? Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.

Laodicea and Smyrna are contrasted in a parable that Jesus gave, which is recorded in Luke 18:9–14. “He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves [who thought they were rich and increased with goods] that they were righteous [and in need of nothing], and despised others.” Now, you must understand that when Jesus said this, Pharisees were held in great esteem, not like today. Today, we look at Pharisees through Jesus’ eyes, and we, like Him, realize they were not very good. Back then, everyone thought the Pharisees were almost ready for translation. Jesus said, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise [his] eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified [rather] than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Likened to Pharisees

The Pharisees fit the description of Laodicea exactly. In fact, it is interesting how often Ellen White likens us to the Pharisees. I hope that we have accepted all the counsel and that we no longer fit this description. Someday God has to have a people that come out. But look carefully, because the Laodiceans did not think that they were Laodiceans, did they? They thought that they were rich and increased with goods and had need of nothing. Ellen White said that “the spirit that controlled the Pharisees is coming in among this people.” The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, vol. 1, 165. She also stated: “I entreat you, brethren, be not like the Pharisees, who are blinded with spiritual pride, self-righteousness, and self-sufficiency, and who because of this will be forsaken of God. For years I have been receiving instructions and warnings that this was the danger to our people.” Ibid., 166. “There has been a spirit of Phariseeism, a hard, unsympathetic spirit towards the erring [she does not say toward those that we were misjudging as erring, but toward those who really were erring], a withdrawing from some and leaving them in discouragement, which is leaving the lost sheep to perish in the wilderness. There has been a placing of men where God alone should be.” Ibid., 312. Whenever men are lifted up in pride, they always look with spite on other people whom they perceive to be not as good as they. This spirit of the Pharisees is the most difficult, the most incurable, the most hopeless of all the diseases that man could have. “There is nothing so offensive to God or so dangerous to the human soul as pride and self-sufficiency. Of all the sins it is the most hopeless, the most incurable.” Christ’s Object Lessons, 154.

Spiritual Pride

There is nothing as difficult to cure as spiritual pride. Spiritual pride causes you to think that you are humble—because of all the hard work that you are doing for the Lord—like the Ephesians. Many may say, “Lord, if I did not love you, I would not be doing all of these good works.” But, you know, you can work and still not have that love.

When we become spiritual without love for others or for God, it makes us critical toward others. “Whoever trusts in himself that he is righteous will despise others.” Ibid., 151. Do you ever find yourself despising others? Do you find yourself critical of others? That is the spirit of Laodicea. That is the spirit of the Pharisees. The good news is that if we realize it, God can heal and cure that disease just as completely as any other. The only reason He cannot cure it is because most of us do not see it. The Pharisee disease is the disease you do not see. It is like someone who has cancer and does not know it. He thinks he is healthy when he is filled with a deadly disease.

Publican like Smyrna

The publican was like the people in Smyrna. They knew they were sinners, but they were forgiven. They thought they were poor, but they were rich. I want to have the experience of the Smyrnans, do you? My prayer to God is, “If you need to make me poor, in order to make me rich, make me poor. If you need to make me weak, in order to make me strong, make me weak. If, like Paul, you need to take away my eyesight so that I can see, take it away.”

Paul’s experience is given in 11 Corinthians 12:7–10. “Lest I should be exalted above measure,” like the Pharisees and the Laodiceans, “by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Smyrna had the experience of Paul. They considered themselves poor and sinful, but Jesus said they were rich and righteous.

Represents Christians

The church of Smyrna represents the Christians in the post-apostolic era after the apostles died. It is interesting that when the apostles died, the church then became purified. When the apostles were living, they lost their love. After the apostles died, however, the church began to be persecuted by the Romans, and they were persecuted by the Jewish church. Most were poor in this world’s goods, and they had no prophets among them, no apostles—they all had died. The church was scattered, beaten, and cast to the lions, but they remained true and faithful. Most of them died a martyr’s death.

“Paganism foresaw that should the gospel triumph, her temples and altars would be swept away; therefore she summoned her forces to destroy Christianity. The fires of persecution were kindled. Christians were stripped of their possessions and driven from their homes. . . .

“Christians were falsely accused of the most dreadful crimes and declared to be the cause of great calamities—famine, pestilence, and earthquake.” The Great Controversy, 39, 40. By the way, does that remind you of something that is going to happen in the last days?

During the time of trouble, soon to break upon us, “the great deceiver will persuade men that those who serve God are causing these evils.” Ibid., 590. They will turn to the Christians who are keeping the Sabbath, and they will say that it is because of them that they are receiving these judgments.

That was the experience of the church of Smyrna, and the church of Smyrna represents the 144,000 who come out of the Laodicean experience. The church of Smyrna came out of the Ephesus experience, and they were blamed for all these terrible calamities. “As they became the objects of popular hatred and suspicion, informers stood ready, for the sake of gain, to betray the innocent. They were condemned as rebels against the empire, as foes of religion, and pests to society. Great numbers were thrown to wild beasts or burned alive in the amphitheaters.” Ibid., 40. How terrible that must have been! “Some were crucified; others were covered with the skins of wild animals and thrust into the arena to be torn by dogs. Their punishment was often made the chief entertainment at public fetes. Vast multitudes assembled to enjoy the sight and greeted their dying agonies with laughter and applause.” Ibid. They represent those who will come out of a Laodicean experience as they came out of an Ephesus experience of no love.

Result of Persecution

Did this persecution destroy the Christians? Did it make them weaker? Revelation 2:10, 11 answers those questions: “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw [some] of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.” The church before this time had lost their love, but persecution had revived it. You had to love God to be a Christian in those days. You had to love your neighbor to go witness to him, because he might turn you in to the authorities.

The fires of persecution, rather than destroy the church, purifies it. How sad that we have to have persecution to be purified. It would be wonderful if we could be purified without it! In the last days, we are going to find that all of God’s counsels are going to go for naught until the persecutions come, and then the church will be purified. We are told we will be so sad that we did not do in times of ease and prosperity the things we could have done, because now we will have to do them with persecutions. (See Testimonies, vol. 5, 456, 457.)

Malachi 3:3, 4 says that in the last days, “He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver.” The church is not going to remain in a Laodicean condition. It is going to be purged and purified, “that they may offer to the Lord an offering in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasant to the Lord, as in the days of old, as in former days.” Daniel 12:10, speaking of the last days, says, “Many shall be purified, made white, and refined.” They will be purified and made white through trial. The more the church is persecuted, the stronger the church becomes.

Satan Plants Banner

Satan saw that he was losing the battle, so he had a council and came up with a new tactic, which brought about the end of the church of Smyrna. The Bible then goes into a different church, Pergamos, which we will study next month, but here is the tactic that Satan came up with to destroy the church, or Smyrna: “In vain were Satan’s efforts to destroy the church of Christ by violence. . . . The gospel continued to spread and the number of its adherents to increase. . . .

“Satan therefore laid his plans to war more successfully against the government of God by planting his banner in the Christian church. . . .

“The great adversary now endeavored to gain by artifice what he had failed to secure by force. Persecution ceased, and in its stead were substituted the dangerous allurements of temporal prosperity and worldly honor.” The Great Controversy, 41, 42. Satan’s representatives enticed the Christians, telling them that they would not call them a cult anymore, if they would just modify some of their theological understandings. If the Christians would give a little and Satan’s representatives would give a little, they could become one happy family.

It was during this time that Constantine decided that he was not gaining anything with the Christians, and he needed a united army. He marched his whole army through the river and then declared they were all baptized Christians—even the pagans! He permitted them to continue meeting on Sunday as the pagans always had, figuring that Sunday, instead of being the day of the sun, S-U-N, would now become the day of the Son, S-O-N, commemorating His resurrection. The idols that the pagans had been worshipping, representing Venus and Mars and Jupiter, now represented Peter and Mary and Jesus.

It became popular to be a Christian. Everyone could be a Christian in peace, but the church was in fearful peril. Prison, torture, fire and sword were blessings in comparison with this. As long as persecution continued, the church remained comparatively pure, but as persecution ceased, converts were added who were less sincere and devoted. The way was opened for Satan to obtain a foothold.

Dear friend, do not fear persecution. There is something much worse than persecution. It is Laodiceanism. That is what we need to fear—Phariseeism, legalism, work without love, Nicolaitanism. Smyrna was the opposite of Laodicea. Smyrna was persecuted but pure. Laodicea was at ease, but it was not pure. Smyrna was stripped of worldly goods, but they were rich. Laodicea was invested with worldly goods, but they were poor. Smyrna was perishing, but God said, “You will live.” Laodicea was living, but God said, “I will spew you out of My mouth.” Thus Smyrna is the opposite of Laodicea, but not only is it the opposite, it is also the cure for Laodicea.

Purge Unconverted

In Testimonies, vol. 4, 89, we read that, “Prosperity multiplies a mass of professors. Adversity purges them out of the church.” I want you to notice something, however, lest anyone should misinterpret the Scriptures. Adversity and persecution do not convert the unconverted; they merely purge them out of the church. Anyone who is waiting for a time of trouble and persecution to be converted is going to be sadly disappointed.

“Let opposition arise, let bigotry and intolerance again bear sway, let persecution be kindled, and the halfhearted and hypocritical will” not be converted. The Great Controversy, 602. Now, I added those last few words, but let me paraphrase what Mrs. White says. Those who are already converted will become more converted, but those who were not converted will find themselves, like the five foolish virgins, outside the door. They will say, “Oh, Lord.” He will say, “I am sorry; I never knew you.” (Matthew 25:11, 12.)

Dear friend, the time of trouble is coming. We find, in Daniel 12:1, that a time of trouble is coming on this world before Jesus comes such as has never been since there was a nation. That time of trouble is going to include persecution such as happened with Smyrna. It is nothing to fear, unless we are not ready today. In fact, we are told that whenever we live godly, there will be persecution. (See The Acts of the Apostles, 576.) Evidently, the only reason there is not persecution today is because we are not living godly. “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” 11 Timothy 3:12.

Do we think that Satan does not have enough control of the world today that he could bring persecution if he so desired? He does not want to bring persecution right now. He does not want to wake up anyone. He is doing just fine the way things are. Let them sleep on in peace and prosperity and riches. We have not excited the wrath of Satan. He is happy with the way we are.

Fidelity Under Trial

Smyrna is an example of fidelity under trial. They were the purified remnant that came out of the church of Ephesus. They were a type of the 144,000 who will be a purified remnant that come out of the Laodicean condition. The people of Smyrna still had to overcome. Persecution did not do the overcoming; it merely showed what was inside and helped refine and polish them. They still had to overcome.

At the beginning of this article we read, in 1 Corinthians 13:3, that even if we give our bodies to be burned, and give all our goods to feed the poor, if we do not overcome selfishness and develop the love of Jesus, none of that will do us any good. In Revelation 2:11, we read the words spoken to the people of Smyrna in whom God found no fault, as far as was recorded. Nevertheless, He says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.” They still had to overcome. Persecution does not make the lukewarm righteous. It did not make the people of Ephesus have love, but it did polish those who were living up to all the light they had, and that is what the time of trouble will do for the Christians in the last days.

In Maranatha, 273, we are told that “the time of trouble is the crucible that is to bring out Christ-like characters.” A crucible is a boiling pot where silver is refined, for example, and where the impurities come to the top and are strained out of the silver. So it is when troubles come, when those things that should not be in our characters are revealed, we can then take them out of our characters, and God can purify us. Those that go through to the end and are translated must go through the experience of Smyrna, because there is coming another time like that which existed on the earth in the days of Smyrna.

Preparation Time

Today, God is getting us ready for that time of trouble. How does He do it? By giving us little troubles today with which we can practice. The Ministry of Healing, 481, says, “The faithful discharge of today’s duties is the best preparation for tomorrow’s trials.” How do we prepare for tomorrow? If we keep up with the trials today, we will probably have plenty to do. But that is all we have to do, because if we do that, we will be ready for tomorrow. This is why we are told, in James 1:2–4, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have [its] perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” Verse 12 says, “Blessed [is] the man who endures temptation; for when he has been proved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” God is faithful. He will never permit anything to come to us for which He has not at least tried to prepare us and for which He has prepared us, if we will endure the trials of today. That is all we have to do.

We look at the trials today and at times they get us down, but if we realize that all we have to do to make it through the time of trouble and get to heaven is to survive cheerfully the trials that come today, with God’s help, we can do that. God has promised to give us strength for today. Dear friend, if we will just keep up with the trials and troubles of today, we will have strength to handle the ones tomorrow. If we will conquer the temptations of today, we will be ready to master the troubles of tomorrow. But if we do not conquer the troubles of today, we will not be ready for the trials of tomorrow.

Jeremiah 12:5 says, “If you have run with the footmen, and they have wearied you, then how can you contend with horses? And [if] in the land of peace, [in which] you trusted, [they wearied you,] then how will you do in the floodplain of the Jordan?” It is to us God speaks these closing words. It is to us, those who are going to make up the 144,000, those that come out of their Laodicean condition, that God speaks. “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw [some] of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.” Revelation 2:10, 11.

Dear friends, our privilege is even greater than was the privilege of the Smyrnans, for they who endure the trials of the last days will not even suffer the first death. They will be translated. They will not even be hurt by the first death, for we are told, in 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “Then we who are alive [and] remain shall be caught up together with them”—those from Smyrna and all the other righteous people who have ever lived—“in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.”

The message to the church of Smyrna is, “Be thou faithful even in trial.”

To be continued . . .

Pastor Marshall Grosboll, with his wife Lillian, founded Steps to Life. In July 1991, Pastor Marshall and his family met with tragedy as they were returning home from a camp meeting in Washington state, when the airplane he was piloting went down, killing all on board.