By the end of the Ephesian era, the true Church of God was facing adversity. Seeds of rebellion and heresy had sprouted, causing it to go into apostasy and fragment into smaller sects. The teachings of the original apostles had been trivialized and, in some cases, thrown out completely. Many who claimed to follow Christ now focused on His person instead of the news He brought.
As doctrines were compromised, the truth’s simplicity all but vanished. Personal standards diminished. Many members began amassing wealth and strove to live “comfortably.”
Ministers and deacons equally forgot their duty to protect the sheep, and themselves slipped into doctrinally unsound teachings. Although these apostates purported to hold onto what had originally been taught, those who had been instructed by the apostle John knew better. They understood God’s Law was without compromise.
By this time, many of the older leaders trained under the original apostles had died. This left their children and recent converts to incorrectly establish a new purpose and direction for the Church—one which was more “flexible” and “inclusive.”
The scattered few that remained steadfast were termed Nazarenes (followers of Jesus of Nazareth) or Ebionites—a derogatory name meaning “poor” or “pauper.” This nickname was two-fold: Ebionites did not possess many material goods, and they were believed to lack the “enlightened understanding” of other groups.
Many looked down on these followers of God because they interpreted the Bible literally. People from such differing factions mistakenly believed that despite their own smug rejection of certain of the apostles’ teachings—including the true Church doctrine—they were still following Christ.
This time of mixing truth with error resulted in the second church era: Smyrna.
Before his death, the apostle John wrote about attitudes that would be present during the era of Smyrna: “And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things says the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive [Christ]; I know your works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but you are rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which 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 unto death, and I will give you a crown of life. He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches; He that overcomes shall not be hurt of the second death” (Rev. 2:8-11).
While Smyrna’s apostasy and martyrdom happened thousands of years ago, parallels between this era and God’s small flock now shed light on what the Church will face in the future.
After John’s death, Polycarp succeeded him. A man of strong faith, Polycarp was determined to teach the truth. His stalwart stance made a significant impact on many of God’s people.
Mr. David Pack references Polycarp’s influence in his book Where Is the True Church? – and Its Incredible History!: “His efforts of admonishing and encouraging the brethren must have been of vital importance at this crucial period. Equally encouraging as his letters, was his example of boldly standing up for the truth when so many had given in to heresy.”
Mr. Pack also states, “But the vast majority of those who left the fold were unmoved by Polycarp. Perhaps God intended that His servant Polycarp give them ample, merciful warnings of the seriousness of their actions. This he did.”
Under the influence of the teachings of Simon Magus, who claimed he was a true apostle, as early as AD 120, the Church of God in Rome gradually began to twist Church doctrines, and substituted pagan teachings from the Babylonian mystery religion.
As heresy subtly spread, a conflict arose in the Church of God regarding Passover observance. The bishop at Rome insisted on keeping the celebration of the pagan festival of Easter.
Polycarp determined to go to Rome and personally confront the presiding bishop, Anicetus, about it. But Polycarp’s efforts to proclaim the truth were useless against the rising tide of paganism infiltrating what was considered the true Church at the time.
The Passover controversy was recorded by Iranaeus, a former member of the true Church who joined with those wanting to celebrate Easter. He records: “For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe it [the Passover], because he had always observed it with John the disciple of our Lord, and the rest of the apostles, with whom he associated; and neither did Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe, who said he was bound to maintain the practice of the presbyters before him” (An Ecclesiastical History to the Year 324 of the Christian Era).
A short time after Polycarp’s meeting with Anicetus, he was arrested by authorities for refusing to worship the leader of the empire at that time. According to the well-known ancient historian Eusebius, the 87-year-old apostle was burned at the stake in Smyrna in AD 155. The account, however, states that the fire did not harm him, so he was pierced with a sword.
After Polycarp’s death, his faithful student, Polycrates, became leader of the Church. A strong and committed man, Polycrates faced many of the same issues as his predecessor. He too was forced to confront the presiding bishop at Rome over the issue of observing Passover on the 14th of Abib.
Yet the current bishop was even more determined than Anticetus to support false doctrine, and began disfellowshipping those who refused to accept Rome’s new teaching.
By AD 200, only 100 years after the apostle John’s death, the church at Rome had changed the Sabbath from a feast day to a day of fasting, and encouraged everyone to refrain from doing business on the first day of the week, not the seventh.
Also during this time, additional laws of God began to be compromised, such as those regarding clean and unclean meats, along with several other established traditions. Those who constituted the remaining true Christians were thrust out of what had once been the true Church.
The Church organization set up by the apostles now took on a different form, with little resemblance to the original Church. Those few who remained faithful to the true teachings became the object of disdain and persecution. In many cases, they were forced to flee to other countries to keep God’s Law.
Those who faced persecution fractured into three groups. The first was pharisaical in its approach to doctrine and it rejected many New Testament writings. The second group was increasingly liberal and leaned toward accepting the traditions of the Roman church. This group used allegories to twist scriptures to suit their own agendas. The third group, which clung tenaciously to the truth, was made up of what had once been called Nazarenes.
While each of the groups held onto some of the same teachings, only the third group held fast to all of the truth—and was the true Church of God. Sound familiar?
The striking parallels between these three groups and the Church today are evident. As a different “gospel” began to be preached, which centered on the person and virtues of Christ rather than His message, the true gospel about God’s kingdom became muddled by everyone but the true Church.
The few scattered faithful continued to worship God in Spirit and truth. Yet their refusal to accept common doctrines of others around them infuriated their adversaries.
In “Anoint Your Eyes” – Christ’s Warning to His People, Mr. Pack writes: “All three groups of Ebionites existed side by side during the Smyrna era. The former Nazarenes, who maintained the apostles’ teachings to the letter, were fewest in number and most despised by the majority—yet were accused of causing division by not joining the majority.”
This is often said of God’s modern-day flock, The Restored Church of God!
Ten Years of Tribulation
By the third century, persecution and hatred toward the Church of God had increased. Many members fled to areas in the far West of the Roman Empire, settling in Spain, France and the British Isles.
During the Roman rulership of Diocletian (AD 303), those caught keeping the Sabbath and other practices of God’s Church were imprisoned, tortured or killed.
In AD 306, Constantine became emperor and made “Christianity” the state religion. Several years later, in AD 313, he issued the Edict of Milan, which allowed some religious tolerance. This edict was tremendously helpful for true Christians. It put an end to the time of severe tribulation and persecution that lasted from AD 303 to AD 313, which Christ prophesied would afflict Smyrna (Rev. 2:10).
Although the edict was helpful for God’s Church for a time, the proclamation led to other problems. Since Constantine, a sun-worshipper, viewed his brand of Christianity—the same kind accepted by the Roman Church—as a way to cement unity among pagan and professing Christians, he decreed that the day of the sun—Sunday—would now be the “Sabbath.” This helped him gain favor with the large majority of Christians who were against observing the seventh day.
In AD 325, Constantine further fortified his power by convening the council of Nicea, which condemned the practice of true Christianity, forcing the Church to flee into exile.
Written for Today
Little is known about this Church era after this time, as the numbers of members dwindled into the pages of history. But Smyrna’s example of triumph is recorded for a reason: to teach us lessons and see patterns of what happens when false Christianity becomes part of a state religion—the Church is forced to flee.
Consider: the era of Smyrna began after an apostasy had taken place among God’s people. This defection from truth in the Ephesian era was followed by an even greater apostasy in the early Church that required both Polycarp and Polycrates to initially attempt to reason with the head of the bishop at Rome about not compromising any of God’s true doctrines.
In both cases, the meetings did not turn out well, and each man was either killed for defending the truth or kicked out of what was once the “Church” by the top “Christian” leader at the time, simply for standing fast and holding “traditions which [they] had been taught” (II Thes. 2:15) by the aging apostle John.
Each of these men also led groups of people who realized the truth could not be compromised. In the end, after being persecuted by the government, and then even more by a false religious system, they had no choice but to go into hiding.
With these parallels in mind, read Christ’s words from Revelation 2 and apply them to the Church’s situation today: “I know your works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but you are rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan” (vs. 9).
Strong’s Exhaustive Bible Concordance defines the words tribulation as “pressure,” and poverty” as “beggary.” The Restored Church of God has always been considered to possess the least amount of funds of any of the larger groups. It has always faced pressure to compromise, show more “love,” and be “tolerant” of doctrines that are outright heresy! It has always faced pressure to let down its standards by those in groups that splintered from the Worldwide Church of God. These groups often self-righteously claim they follow Christ’s teachings, although they “do not the things” which He says (Luke 6:46).
It is in this environment that the Church has to finish the Work. As prophecy advances, those in the true Church will face increasing “pressure” to compromise—both from those of professing Christianity and those once associated with God’s Church. Yet God understands what forces His servants are up against. He says that because we possess His truth, we are spiritually “rich.” This spiritual richness allows us to have enough faith to endure what is to come—if we do our part to draw close to Him.
Now consider Revelation 2:10: “Fear none of those things which you shall suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that you may be tried…be you faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life.” Later in the same chapter, in verse 11, it states, “He that overcomes shall not be hurt of the second death.”
As Christ’s Return approaches, God’s Church will face more persecution. While we may be called to testify in front of others, “there shall not a hair…perish” (Luke 21:18) if we have faith to endure. We must be as faithful to receive the “crown of life” God promises.
While the world grows darker, we must remember that by overcoming this world—effectively leaving it and admitting that we are “strangers and pilgrims” (Heb. 11:13) on the land—we will be able to qualify to rule in the kingdom, just as those who remained faithful during the era of Smyrna did.
Following apostasies in the eras of Smyrna and Philadelphia in the second and 20th century, respectively, only one group within each era held on to all the truths of God. As a result, Christ did not need to correct either Church era in Revelation, as He did with all other eras. This is significant.
Mr. Pack writes in his book about the Church’s history, “In the case of the Ebionites and throughout Church history, the remnants that continued as the true Church of God were those few who tenaciously held to all the truth they had been given and compromised on none of it! Once the trend of compromise had begun, the process continued until the group spiritually collapsed. From all indications, those who survived spiritually were those tenaciously holding to, and fully living by, all of God’s doctrines. They valued the truth, treasuring it as the pearl of great price. Upon being tested on this point, many thousands in the true Church of God endorsed those spiritual convictions of eternal rewards—at the price of their temporary, physical lives. In the course of human history, few have possessed such profound insight.”
May this be true of us today!
To learn more about the era of Smyrna and how it parallels today, read Where Is the True Church? – and Its Incredible History! and “Anoint Your Eyes” – Christ’s Warning to His People.