Satan and the Devil
Jesus’s letter to the believers in Smyrna is one of only two that held no correction about the practice of their faith, or spiritual health. There was nothing for them to repent of.
Jesus knew what they were going through, and it was awful. Crushing oppression, poverty, and soon the horrors of first-century prison. They were pressed in on every side, and particularly reviled by those who Jesus said only claimed to be God’s people but really were not—they were aligned with God’s adversary, and therefore called Σατανᾶς | Satanas, in English Satan.
These blaspheming adversaries of God would soon become slanderers and false accusers, of ὁ διάβολος | ho diabolos, the devil, whose testimony would lead to the seizure and imprisonment of many from among the Christian assembly. But, Jesus promised, do not be afraid. Your faith is being tested and proven courageous and strong. As you persevere even unto death, so I will give you the Crown of Life.
Some have wondered if the ἄγγελος | angelos (which means messenger) of Smyrna might have been the Apostle John’s disciple Polycarp.
Martyrdom of Polycarp
In a riveting scene from the Martyrdom of Polycarp, recorded in antiquity by Marcion in a letter sent by the church of Smyrna to the church in Philomelium, Phrygia, Polycarp became the embodiment of the very courage and bold faith Jesus enjoined of the assembly in Smyrna.
But to Polycarp, going into the stadium, came a voice out of heaven: “Be mighty, Polycarp, and conduct yourself courageously.”
Then, on the one hand, no one was seeing this, but on the other hand, our ones who were present heard the voice. Then, finally he bringing him forward, there was a great clamor from those who heard, that Polycarp had been seized.
Consequently, he being brought forward, the proconsul asked him if he were Polycarp. And of he who confessed it, he was persuading to deny, saying: “Respect your age,” and other following things, as it was a custom to them to say: “Take an oath by the fortune of Caesar, change your mind, say ‘take up the atheists.’”
But, Polycarp, dignified, his face to all the crowd that [was] in the stadium, lawless Gentiles looking on, and shaking the hand at them, groaning and then looking up into heaven, said, “Take up the atheists.”
And insisting urgently, the proconsul then saying: “Take an oath, and I release you, revile the Christ,” responded Polycarp: “Eighty-six years I serve Him, and He never wronged me; then how I am able to blaspheme my king, the one who saved me?”
But who again persisted of him and who said: “Take an oath by the fortune of Caesar,”
he answered: “If you vainly imagine, in order that I take an oath by the fortune of Caesar, as you say, and you are pretending to be ignorant of me, who I am, with clarity listen: I am Christian. But if you desire of Christianity to learn an account, assign a day and listen.”
Responded the proconsul: “Persuade the people.”
But Polycarp said, “You yourself I deemed worthy at least to have an account: for we have been instructed from the beginning also to authorities—on behalf of God having put in place—according to what is suitable, to show honor, this not injuring us: but those I do not believe are worthy of this, to defend myself to them.
Then the procurator said: “I have wild animals, I will throw you to these, if not you do not change your mind.”
But he said: “Summon them, for it is impossible for us to repent from the better over the worse: but beautiful to turn away from the difficult things toward the righteous things.”
Then he again said to him: “I will destroy you with fire, if you disregard the wild animals, if you do not change your mind.”
But Polycarp said: “You threaten fire which keeps burning for a time and after a little while which is extinguished: for you do not know this fire which is preserved for those who are destined, the ungodly ones who are separated then to eternal punishment. But rather, what are you hesitating for? Cause what you will.”Marcion, Martyrdom of Polycarp, strophes 9-11, my own translation
Polycarp was martyred by being burned alive in 155 CE at the age of 86.
Jesus told the Smyrnian Christians they would suffer imprisonment for ten days.
Theologians vigorously contest what this specific number might represent.
A Limited Time
A number of commentators think ten days represents a limit God has put on this time of testing. There is no record of a literal ten-day period in history when Christians from Smyrna experienced slanderous accusations that landed them in prison. Ten, therefore, would mean a limited time, or a brief time.
Ten Waves of Persecution
Some have surmised—considering Revelation to be both apocalyptic and prophetic in the style of Daniel’s prophecies—that days represent eras or times. Certainly now, Christians in a number of lands are experiencing the level of crushing oppression Jesus spoke of. Perhaps the final era of persecution will be that spoken of later in Revelation and corroborated in Daniel, a period of three and a half years.
Or, possibly, the number ten spoke of the ten emperors from Nero to Diocletion who leveled heavy persecution against Christians, and sometimes also on other religious groups who seemed to undermine, countermand, or otherwise resist the official religion of Rome. Persecution was sometimes brutal and fierce (particularly under Nero), lasting for three centuries under these emperors, periodically with brief respites in between.
Many scholars point to the final ten years of this three-hundred-year span, from 303-313 CE, that came under the reign of Emperor Diocletian
A religious conservative and faithful adherent to the ancient gods of Rome, Diocletian began a series of reforms in the fall of 302 CE. Eighteen months previously, an important ceremony involving sacrifices and divination had ended inconclusively. Christians within the larger imperial household—meaning the emperor’s palaces, servants, workers, armies, and clients—were blamed.
- All members of the royal court were commanded to make sacrifices for purification of the palace.
- All military personnel down to the lowliest foot soldier were commanded to perform sacrifices to the gods, or be discharged.
- Galerius, eastern potentate in the Roman triumvirate, was even more passionate in purging the empire.
- The extermination policy towards Christians was launched in February of 303 CE
- Many people were killed by sword, burned at the stake, or sent enslaved to mines and quarries.
- Churches were razed to the ground, scriptures were destroyed, unspeakable acts of torture were exacted on Christian victims, and executions of Christian leaders began in earnest.
By 311 CE, Galerius admitted defeat in forcing Christians to return to Rome’s religion. Instead, the blood of the martyrs had only strengthened those who were left, and Christianity had spread even more. Not long afterward, Diocletian died, and the worst of the waves of persecution came to an end.
In another ten years, Constantine would come surging forward, an unexpected and unlikely outlier who believed Christ was his benefactor. The tide of change would sweep Christianity from the persecuted fringe to safety as Rome’s new official religion.