Chapter 5: Fighting to Save the Truth
Just a few decades after Christ’s death, a dark curtain fell on the history of God’s Church. Concerning this time period, Mr. Armstrong wrote in Mystery of the Ages, “Already the curtain was rung down on the history of the true Church. You read of it in the book of Acts, but it doesn’t go much beyond that. But the curtain seems to lift, and we begin to get a little bit of the history in about a.d. 150. There we see a church calling itself Christian, but it’s a totally different church, as different as night is from day, down from up, or black from white. But it called itself Christian.”
Notice what Gibbon recorded in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “The scanty and suspicious materials on ecclesiastical history seldom enable us to dispel the dark cloud that hangs over the first age of the Church.” Mr. Armstrong often referred to this time period as “the lost century” because in secular history, as he wrote, “the history of that Church was lost.”
The book of Acts ends abruptly, several years before Paul’s death. John wrote his epistles and the book of Revelation around a.d. 85 to 90.
Continuing from Mystery of the Ages: “Scholars and church historians recognize that events in the early Christian Church between a.d. 50 and 150 can only be seen in vague outline—as if obscured by a thick mist.” (This is the same “lost century” he referred to in The Incredible Human Potential as occurring from a.d. 70 to 170.) Some Bible authors who wrote after a.d. 50, such as Peter, Jude and John, provided some details of the a.d. 50 to 90 period of Church history. But the primary purpose of their writings was not to chronicle events of the day, so the history of that period remains obscure. And the obscurity grows far thicker after a.d. 90.
Mr. Armstrong quoted from a book titled A Handbook of Church History, by Samuel G. Green: “The 30 years which followed the close of the New Testament canon and the destruction of Jerusalem are in truth the most obscure in the history of the Church. When we emerge in the second century we are, to a great extent, in a changed world” (emphasis mine throughout).
We do have some insight into this obscure time from secular sources. However, an element of caution must be used when studying secular history regarding the first- and early second-century Church. It is extremely difficult to tell who was a true Christian and who was false. As historian Edward Burton wrote, “The fugitives from Jerusalem … while some became true disciples of Jesus, others, as in the case in spreading of new opinions, may have imperfectly learnt, or ignorantly perverted, the real doctrines of Christianity” (Lectures Upon the Ecclesiastical History of the First Three Centuries). From secular history, the one measure we can safely use to determine which people were part of God’s true Church and which were not is the doctrines they taught.
Changing Doctrines, Traditions
This much we know for sure: The main protectors of the “faith once delivered” resided in Asia Minor—not in Rome.
The churches in the west, led by Rome, began to hold doctrines different from those of the true believers in Asia Minor. The leaders of the church in the west began to introduce the worship of Mary. They changed the day of worship to Sunday under the guise of honoring the resurrection of Jesus, even though there is abundant scriptural proof that the resurrection did not take place on Sunday. (You can prove this for yourself by requesting a free copy of our reprint article “When Was Christ Crucified and Resurrected?”) They rejected Passover and instead began to observe Easter. They began to question the holy days and all things “Jewish.” The leaders in the west also began to develop theories concerning the nature of God. They asked questions such as who and what was Jesus—was He God and man? A lot of controversy developed over doctrinal issues.
Though Rome was the capital of the western empire and eventually the capital of “Christianity,” the religion it promoted was far different from the one established by Christ. The continuation of what Christ established could be found further east, in Asia Minor.
There, from the city of Smyrna, presided the human leader of the true Church at the time—Polycarp.
We gain insight into the history of the Church after the Apostle John’s death through the scant history that remains of his successor. Tradition tells us that Polycarp was born of Christian parents around the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. He became a disciple of John after John was released from Patmos and he set up his base of operations at Ephesus. There, John canonized the New Testament as we know it today. He also trained young Polycarp, probably at the school of Tyrannus in Ephesus where the Apostle Paul had taught years earlier (Acts 19:9).
John prepared Polycarp to lead the Church into the second century, and Polycarp fought faithfully to preserve “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.”
Fighting to Save the Truth
This time period is described in Revelation 2:8-11 as the Smyrna era of God’s Church.
We examined the transition from the Ephesus era to the Smyrna era in the last chapter. When John was in prison, trouble grew in the Church (3 John 9-10). Evil Diotrephes gained power, and John’s faithful followers were kicked out! This is how the Smyrna era began. The Ephesus era began with a blaze of glory, but it ended in a cesspool of shame! The people of that era lost their first love. Then God had to move His lamp to the Smyrna era.
John’s death around a.d. 100 symbolized the death of the Ephesus era.
Polycarp, who was serving as a minister in Smyrna, took John’s place as physical head of the Church under Christ. Polycarp presided over God’s Church for about half a century after John’s death. His apostleship, based out of Smyrna, represented the early years of the Smyrna era, though there were other small congregations of God’s true Church scattered throughout Asia Minor, Syria and Judea.
Under Polycarp’s direction, God’s Church in the east strove to faithfully follow the commandments and traditions as taught by Jesus Christ. They kept the seventh-day Sabbath, the holy days, and the Passover on Nisan 14.
The writer Eusebius (a.d. 260-340) gives us accounts of Polycarp’s fight to save the truth. Perhaps the most important event in Polycarp’s ministry was his battle to preserve the Passover. The churches in the west had established Easter Sunday as the memorial for Christ’s resurrection. They stopped keeping the Passover. God’s Church in the east continued the custom of observing the Passover at night using the new symbols of bread and wine. The controversy that developed became known as the Quartodeciman Controversy. Quartodeciman is Latin for 14th. The 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica says this about the controversy: “There is no indication of the observance of the Easter festival in the New Testament, or in the writings of the apostolic fathers …. The first Christians continued to observe the Jewish festivals, though in a new spirit, as commemorations of events which those festivals had foreshadowed. Thus the Passover, with a new conception added to it of Christ as the true Paschal Lamb and the first fruits from the dead, continued to be observed ….”
Even the name of this controversy shows where God’s true Church was. Those fighting to preserve the keeping of the 14th would only be the true Church. The Jews, by this time, were keeping the 15th of the first Hebrew month as the Passover. The church in the west was keeping Easter. The true Church was alone in holding to the doctrine of setting apart the only date that commemorates the primary act in God’s plan of redemption for mankind—the beating and sacrifice of Jesus Christ our Savior.
Encyclopedia Britannica continues: “Generally speaking, the western churches kept Easter on the first day of the week, while the eastern churches … kept [Passover] on the 14th day. St. Polycarp, the disciple of St. John the Evangelist and bishop of Smyrna, visited Rome in 159 to confer with Anicetus, the bishop of that see [area], on the subject; and urged the tradition, which he had received from the apostle, of observing the 14th day …. About 40 years later (197) the question was discussed in a very different spirit between Victor, bishop of Rome, and Polycrates, metropolitan of proconsular Asia …. Victor demanded that all should adopt the usage prevailing at Rome …. The few who afterwards separated themselves from the unity of the church and continued to keep the 14th day were named Quartodecimani, and the dispute itself became known as the Quartodeciman Controversy.”
Tradition tells us that Polycarp was more than 80 years old when he confronted Anicetus. He returned to Smyrna, where he endured continued persecution from the Roman government. He suffered continual isolation from the churches in Rome, but he would not change doctrine. Though he was an old man, he fought vigorously against doctrinal heresy. Polycarp was arrested shortly after this confrontation and burned alive for failing to worship Caesar. (Eusebius describes the miracles surrounding this event in great detail.)
After Polycarp’s death, the apostolic mantle—and the work of protecting the truth—fell to his disciple, Polycrates.
As we read in Encyclopedia Britannica, Polycrates also had to deal with a corrupt bishop at Rome, the heart of the Roman Empire. By the time Polycrates went to Rome, Victor occupied a seat of great religious and political influence. He demanded that the true Church and other worldly Christian churches in the east submit to the power and authority of the bishop at Rome.
Victor wanted to enforce Easter worship. Polycrates refused to give in and held firm to Passover observance. He wrote, “We, for our part, keep the day [Passover] scrupulously, without addition or subtraction. For in Asia great luminaries sleep who shall rise again on the day of the Lord’s advent, when He is coming with glory from heaven and shall search out all His saints ….” He listed several of God’s people who had already died, including Philip, the Apostle John and Polycarp. “All of these kept the 14th day of the month … in accordance with the gospel, not deviating in the least but following the rule of the faith.”
Polycrates concluded by stating his determination to follow the same pattern. “So I, my friends, after spending 65 years in the Lord’s service and conversing with Christians from all parts of the world, and going carefully through all Holy Scripture, am not scared of threats. Better people than I have said: ‘We must obey God rather than men.’”
This has always been the policy of God’s Church and His true apostles. In the first century, the Jewish high council commanded Christ’s apostles to stop their work. “But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19‑20). They knew they had to obey God and not worry about human opposition. Later, Peter and the other apostles were brought before the high council a second time. The council tried even harder to intimidate them. “Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). These were the words Polycrates boldly used in his letter to Victor i
According to tradition, Polycrates lived through most of the second century, dying at an old age. During the next several centuries, the struggle to preserve the truth became even more intense. Persecution and martyrdom were rampant.
Synagogue of Satan
It is interesting that Christ uses the phrase “synagogue of Satan” in His message to the Smyrna era (Revelation 2:9). He also mentions it to the Philadelphia era (Revelation 3:9).
Remember, during the later years of the Ephesus era, God’s Church developed some serious spiritual problems. Paul warned the Thessalonians, “For the mystery of iniquity doth already work …” (2 Thessalonians 2:7). Paul understood that some unscrupulous men had crept into the Church. These men attempted to draw disciples after them. Paul specifically warned the Ephesian ministry to beware what they did and taught (Acts 20:29-31). Paul could well see what was about to strike God’s Church: Many ministers and members were going to turn away from God.
The “mystery of iniquity” that formed during the Ephesus era eventually led to the formation of the apostate church. These false leaders and brethren claimed to be Jews, but they were not. They claimed to be led by Christ, but they were led by Satan. This “synagogue of Satan” caused considerable trouble to the people of God during the Smyrna era.
In this end time, the “mystery of iniquity” was also at work within the Church while Mr. Armstrong was alive. His authority held it back until he was taken out of the way. The end-time “synagogue of Satan” developed into the Laodicean era. The Laodicean era came after the Philadelphia era (Revelation 3:14-22). The Laodiceans turned away from God. But there were serious problems in the 1970s before the Laodicean era began. This was a sign that the Laodicean problem was extant before Mr. Armstrong died. The synagogue of Satan was the Laodicean era in embryo! Once Mr. Armstrong died, the Laodicean era was born; the rebellious Laodiceans became very active. Once they turned away from God, they came under Satan’s rule, and disastrous things resulted. We will study into this subject in much greater depth in Chapter 10.
Characteristics of Smyrna
Attributes of the cities in Asia Minor that Christ designated to typify the seven eras of God’s Church give us insight into those eras. For instance, some characteristics of the city of Laodicea match the spiritual attributes prevailing in the Laodicean era. The same is true of Smyrna. Just as Christ described Himself to the Smyrna brethren as He “which was dead, and is alive,” so the city itself, once in ruins, was later rebuilt and is a living city today (Izmir, Turkey).
Smyrna stands with Philadelphia as one of only two Church eras that Jesus Christ did not directly correct. The other eras succumbed to division, but these two eras kept God’s government and remained faithful.
The recent history of God’s Church shares many similarities with the Smyrna era. Those who hold fast to the Philadelphian standard in this Laodicean era are much like those within Smyrna who, despite their limited strength, kept doing the Work after the Ephesus era lost its first love and stopped preaching the gospel.
The Smyrna era was characterized by persecution aimed at Christians. It is important to realize that not all those killed were necessarily faithful Christians. A false Christian movement, contrary to the “faith once delivered,” had been growing. Rome’s persecution did not discriminate between true and false Christianity.
In a.d. 98, Marcus Ulpius Traianus, better known as Trajan, was elected emperor by the Roman Senate. He viewed Christianity as a sacrilegious threat to the state-supported religion and deserving of punishment. He began a significant persecution against believers, and his successors, Hadrian and Antoninus Pius, continued the carnage. It was under Antoninus Pius that Polycarp was martyred. The violence continued under Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Maximinus Thrax and Valerian. Christians were hunted down as outlaws and either burned at the stake, beheaded or crucified.
When Diocletian ruled as emperor (a.d. 284-305), he initiated a persecution that surpassed all the previous emperors. He issued an edict in a.d. 303 requiring uniformity of worship: Any individual who refused to worship pagan Roman gods or the image of the emperor was declared an outlaw of the empire. He enforced this edict with an iron fist.
All those claiming to be Christians were in immediate danger: Christians suffered the loss of personal property; places of worship were burned to the ground; copies of sacred writings were destroyed. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands suffered torture and death. Diocletian even had a commemorative coin minted to memorialize the eradication of Christians.
Diocletian’s persecution, again, did not differentiate between false and true Christians. Many of the bishops at Rome, though not true believers, had their lives taken from them.
Then, on October 28, a.d. 312, an incredible change took place. On this date, Constantine defeated his chief rival and brother-in-law Maxentius (son of the old western Emperor Maximian) at the Battle of Milvian Bridge near Rome. This victory ensured Constantine’s sole rule over the empire in the west.
In an unprecedented move, Constantine sought a meeting with Miltiades, who was in charge of the local Christian groups in Rome. By this time, the bishop at Rome was generally accepted as the leader of Christianity in the western portion of the empire. The Roman bishop had also become unofficially known as the pope.
During this meeting, Constantine explained to the wary bishop of Rome that he was victorious because of divine inspiration. Just prior to battle, Constantine had seen a vision of a flaming cross in the sky. Above the cross were written the words “in hoc signo vinces” (“in this sign conquer”). Moved by the vision, Constantine had a cross imprinted on the standards and shields of his army. He fought the battle in the name of the Christian God. He believed this brought him victory over Maxentius.
In front of Miltiades, Constantine professed his newfound faith: “Christianity”! In a.d. 313, he issued the Edict of Milan granting all Christians full freedom to practice their religion. Constantine encouraged all Roman citizens to follow his example and become Christian—although pagan worship continued to be tolerated until the end of the century. Constantine moved the bishop of Rome into the luxurious Lateran Palace.
Miltiades died in January 314. His successor, Silvester, was crowned as an earthly prince and regally dressed in imperial robes. Constantine also appointed many so-called Christians into high government offices. He also funded the construction of many new church buildings.
Although he was not baptized until days before his death in a.d. 337, Constantine recognized and gave his blessing to this false version of Christianity. He devoted state support to this church in a way that began to increase its power significantly. This was an incredible, history-making event. Christians from prior centuries would never have believed it.
The White Horse
The emperor had become a “Christian”! The government that had so viciously persecuted the church was now its ally. The age of persecution was officially over. Or was it?
The original apostles had taught that Rome would fall and that Jesus Christ would return to set up God’s Kingdom. It had been nearly 300 years since Christ walked the Earth. People asked, why hasn’t He returned? Many Christians knew that the Scriptures stated the Church would be small and persecuted. The persecution had ended. The false Christians—specifically the Catholic Church—were given prosperity and political power. No Bible prophecy stated that the Church of God would become a great and powerful political force. The Bible states that it would be a “little flock.” What could all of this mean? Christianity was thrown into deep confusion. Many began to question their beliefs.
Some few faithful Christians began to understand that prophecy was being fulfilled. Faithful ministers warned their flocks to beware of deception. Jesus Christ had said, “For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many” (Matthew 24:5). Just because Constantine claimed Christianity, that did not make him a true Christian.
Jesus Christ had also revealed to John in the book of Revelation that a war-making religious power would come on the scene. “And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see. And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer” (Revelation 6:1-2). These verses about the first horseman of the apocalypse aptly describe Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and what he later did with religion throughout the empire. History shows that Constantine laid a foundation for succeeding years of false Christianity, particularly its role within the Holy Roman Empire. Many people were put to death at the hands of the war-making rider on the white horse—the actual symbol Christ used to prophesy of the rise of false Christianity!
The Trinity Controversy
In a.d. 321, Constantine issued an edict forbidding work on “the venerable day of the sun [Sunday].” The churches in the west had begun to worship on Sunday instead of the seventh day of the week, Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.
In 324, Constantine defeated Licinius, emperor of the eastern empire. He pronounced himself sole emperor, effectively making Christianity the dominant religion of the entire empire.
In 325, Emperor Constantine called together a conclave of bishops from throughout the empire. This meeting became known as the Council of Nicaea. Constantine called the council together to promote unity and uniformity within Christendom.
For all this time, there had been controversy over the truth about God because of the introduction of false Babylonish ideas. In Mystery of the Ages, Mr. Armstrong wrote about this controversy “between a Dr. Arius of Alexandria, a Christian leader who died a.d. 336, and other bishops, over calling God a trinity. Dr. Arius stoutly opposed the trinity doctrine, but introduced errors of his own.”
This debate was “settled” by the Council of Nicaea. “Constantine was not then yet a ‘Christian,’ but as political ruler he assumed control. The [Nicene] Council approved both the Easter-Sunday doctrine and the trinity. Constantine, then civil ruler, made it a law. But he was not able to make it truth!” Mr. Armstrong concluded.
Imagine a political ruler establishing law and doctrine in the Church. There is no way such a satanic work could be done in God’s true Church!
It was from this discussion that the doctrine of the trinity as many churches understand it today was finally formalized—three centuries after Jesus Christ’s ministry!
In the midst of this controversy, Satan tried to inject the trinity doctrine into the Apostle John’s writings. Read 1 John 5:7-8: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy [Spirit]: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.” Of the italicized text in these two verses, Mr. Armstrong wrote, “They were added to the Latin Vulgate during the heat of the controversy between Rome and Dr. Arius and God’s people” (ibid).
Note this: John mentions the Father 16 times and the Son 24 times just in his epistles. He wrote those at the same time that Simon Magus was teaching the trinity! All the way through his epistles, his Gospel and in Revelation, John refers over and over to the Father and the Son—except when you get to this scripture, where there are three! Something is not right! Imagine the power of the devil to somehow insert that doctrine into this sacred text, and later, even into the royal King James Version!
“There was a real reason why the archdeceiver Satan wanted that spurious verse added in the Latin Vulgate from which it crept into the Authorized Version,” Mr. Armstrong continued. “The trinity doctrine completely does away with the gospel of Jesus Christ.” That’s what was being destroyed and blotted out during John’s time—and sadly, the same thing happened in God’s Church in modern times as well.
That satanic deception confused people. That is the way Satan works: Once he takes away someone’s understanding of the gospel and the Family of God, he can deceive them all the more. Here he injected a false doctrine that destroys the gospel!
Do you vividly see the power of Satan the devil? This world does not know the devil, or it wouldn’t be deceived by him (Revelation 12:9).
Here is more that Mr. Armstrong wrote on this important subject in Mystery of the Ages: “The word trinity is not used anywhere in the Bible. … The very first idea or teaching about God being a trinity began in the latter half of the second century—a hundred years after most of the New Testament had been written. The counterfeit Christianity spawned by Simon the sorcerer was promoting it vigorously along with the pagan Easter. But the true Church of God vigorously resisted it. The controversy became so violent it threatened the peace of the world.”
“The trinity doctrine limits God to a supposed three persons. It destroys the very gospel of Jesus Christ! His gospel is the good news of the now soon-coming Kingdom of God—the only hope of this world and its mixed-up mankind!” he wrote. “The trinity doctrine, by contrast, is the doctrine of the great false religion called in Revelation 17:5: ‘Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth.’
“By that doctrine, along with others, Satan has deceived all traditional Christianity.” All of it!
Persecution Aimed at True Church
The second major decision made by the Nicene Council dealt with when to keep the Passover. Many people in Asia Minor still commemorated Christ’s death on the 14th day of the Hebrew month Nisan. This was viewed as a “Jewish” day (even though the Jews kept the 15th). Rome and the churches in the west focused on Christ’s resurrection, not His death. They held a “Passover” celebration at sunrise, Sunday morning. The Council of Nicaea ruled that the ancient Christian Passover remembering the death of Jesus was no longer to be kept. Those who kept Passover would be killed! The western custom was to be observed throughout the empire. This custom became known as Easter.
Most “Christians” accepted the outcome of this council. However, a minority of true Christians held fast to the original Passover ceremony. Constantine took swift action against all those who held to the truth. A new age of persecution began: false Christians killing true Christians.
Notice what Constantine wrote to all the churches after the Nicene Council closed: “At this meeting the question concerning … Easter was discussed …. First of all, it appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this … feast we should follow the practice of the Jews …. Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd. … [I]t has been determined by the common judgment of all, that the … feast of Easter should be kept on one and the same day.” Thus, by Constantine’s authority, it was decreed that Easter must be celebrated on Sunday—and that Passover was forbidden!
This was a turning point in the history of the world
To those who ignored the decrees of the council in order to follow God’s truth, Constantine wrote the following official letter: “[T]o speak of your criminality as it deserves demands more time and leisure than I can give …. Why not at once strike, as it were, at the root of so great a mischief [referring to the truth of God] by a public manifestation of displeasure?
“Forasmuch, then, as it is no longer possible to bear with your pernicious errors, we give warning by this present statute that none of you henceforth presume to assemble yourselves together. We have directed, accordingly, that you be deprived of all the houses in which you are accustomed to hold your assemblies: and … [we] forbid the holding of your superstitious and senseless meetings, not in public merely, but in any private house or place whatsoever …. [T]ake the far better course of entering the Catholic Church …. [W]e have commanded … that you be positively deprived of every gathering point for your superstitious meetings, I mean all the houses of prayer … and that these be made over without delay to the Catholic Church; that any other places be confiscated to the public service, and no facility whatever be left for any future gathering; in order that from this day forward none of your unlawful assemblies may presume to appear in any public or private place. Let this edict be made public” (Eusebius, Life of Constantine, Book 3).
Constantine personally and actively championed the military operation to eradicate Passover-keepers, whether they were in God’s true Church or worldly churches.
Constantine’s goal was to force everyone to join the Catholic Church. Many of those who refused to surrender to the doctrine and worship of the Catholic Church were slaughtered. Those who had formerly been oppressed—now having the power of Constantine’s state behind them—became oppressors. “Those of the true Church who dared to disagree with their doctrine were branded as heretics, worthy of punishment,” Mr. Armstrong wrote in Mystery of the Ages.
This was, in embryo, the spiritual war discussed in Revelation 12 between God’s true Church and Catholicism.
This wave of persecution specifically fulfilled a prophecy given to the Smyrna era of God’s Church, found in Revelation 2:10: “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” In Bible prophecy, a day often symbolizes a year in prophetic fulfillment (Numbers 14:34; Ezekiel 4:6). This day-for-a-year principle applied to Constantine’s persecution, which began after the Council of Nicaea and lasted for the next 10 years. Many perished during this decade.
Persecution preceded this time, and persecution followed it, but Christ draws particular attention to this especially brutal period in the midst of the Smyrna era. The reason is surely because of its connection with the great false church. The Council of Nicaea had freed Catholics from persecution and, for the first time, enabled them to begin directing the persecution that followed. The tribulation was aimed far more directly at the true Church.
The name Smyrna comes from the root word myrrh. Myrrh is a sweet-smelling herb that has a bitter taste. Anciently it was used while embalming the dead. The Smyrna era truly was a bitter time for God’s true Church, but its works were sweet-smelling before God. God highly praised this era (Revelation 2:9).
Christ commanded the people of Smyrna, “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer ….” Do you sometimes fear? Do you fear to face the challenges of doing God’s Work? Christ tells us not to fear what is coming. We don’t have to fear anybody but God.
The persecution during this 10 years was the most brutal and sustained of the Smyrna era—but it wasn’t the end. It actually set the stage for even worse persecutions to follow!
Though Constantine died in a.d. 337, the church he supported, which claimed to be the one that Christ founded, remained strong—and an enemy of the true people of God. Around a.d. 365, the Catholic Council of Laodicea wrote this in a famous canon: “Christians must not Judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather, honoring the Lord’s Day [referring to Sunday]. … But if any shall be found to be Judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ.”
“This decree of a.d. 365 definitely shows that there were true Christians observing the Sabbath,” Mr. Armstrong wrote (ibid).
A little over a decade later, in a.d. 378, Emperor Gratian granted the title of “high priest” to the bishop of Rome, the pope. It was also during this era that the city of Constantinople—which Constantine had founded in a.d. 330 to control the commerce, politics and religion of southeastern Europe—reached its height of influence.
During this time, faithful Christians were continually forced to flee from their homes and property. “The small remnant of Christians of the Smyrna era fled once more—to seek the religious freedom they needed to practice their beliefs,” Mr. Armstrong continued. “They left few records. Occasionally they appear as a footnote of history, rejected as heretics, ridiculed, and hounded by their enemies. But their strongest testimony comes from Jesus Himself, in His words of encouragement to the Church that was at Smyrna”—recorded in Revelation 2:8-11. “I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) …” (verse 9). The world called these people Ebionites, meaning poor or destitute. They lived lives of poverty, but they were rich in faith and truth!
Rome was removing any Christian opposition to Catholicism, but the true Church would never die (Matthew 16:18). To survive, Church members who were faithful to the apostolic traditions moved out of the major population centers and territories of the Roman Empire, scattering to the furthest bounds of the empire’s influence.
Details are sketchy, but we can trace the trail of the Church as the people wandered through Europe, fleeing to the east, to the west and to the north. They settled in the mountains and valleys across Europe and Asia Minor, from the British Isles, across northern and western Europe all the way to Cappadocia and Armenia in the east. William Jones’s The History of the Christian Church records, “Multitudes … fled like innocent and defenseless sheep from these devouring wolves. They crossed the Alps; and traveled in every direction … into Germany, England, France, Italy and other countries.” A History of the True Religion, by Andrew Dugger and Clarence Dodd, states: “We shall now trace the general dispersion of the Church of God as she was scattered throughout the various countries of Europe and Asia …. We find the identification of the true Church, both by the name and doctrine, scattered from Palestine to Spain, and from the Piedmont valley of Italy to Scotland, Ireland and England.”
There is not much documentation recording the lives or the work of God’s people during this time. One reason is the fact that life was difficult. No doubt there was some leadership, but there is nothing recorded, or at least preserved, that we can rely on to document leadership or accomplishments during the next 200 to 250 years. Even if records were kept, history shows that the civil and religious authorities of the time were aggressively suppressing and destroying such documents.
In addition, the known world was descending into chaos during this period of history. The world had known relative stability for about 400 years under the Pax Romana provided by the empire. However, by the end of the fourth century, Rome was in serious decline. When Emperor Theodosius died in 395, the empire was divided between his two sons. It would not be united again for over 150 years.
During those years, the Roman world became overrun by barbaric, militaristic peoples. The Gothic and Germanic tribes came from Northern Europe. Some attacked from Northern Africa. Even Attila the Hun came from Asia and invaded Europe, appearing in Italy in a.d. 452.
The former Roman Empire was dominated by the Vandals under King Genseric during the middle of the fifth century. The Vandals sacked and looted Rome. They brought great destruction and defaced the city. Our modern word vandalism comes from this very history!
Following the Vandals, another Germanic tribe took over Rome: the Heruli. They were led by Odoacer, who became known as the first King of Italy in a.d. 476.
Theodoric was king of another European tribe, the Germanic Ostrogoths. He invaded Italy and, after a three-year war, killed Odoacer with his own hands in 493. He moved more than 100,000 people into the area and ruled Rome until his death in 526.
This overview of history gives insight into the conditions under which God’s people were trying to survive during the fifth and sixth centuries. Can you imagine doing a work amid all this warfare and barbarism? Can you imagine much documentation surviving? No wonder God’s people rarely appear during this time—and when they do, only as a footnote of history.
‘Judaizing’ in Britain
For refuge from persecution, some of these people migrated to the British Isles, an area on the edge of the Roman Empire. Britain ceased to be a Roman colony in a.d. 410, as Rome was consumed with fending off the Goths. Even further west, Ireland—an island that Rome never conquered—also allowed a measure of religious freedom from an empire that had essentially outlawed Sabbath-keeping. History records a migration of colonists from Asia Minor to Ireland around this time.
In a.d. 430, Pope Celestine sent Palladius to the Irish “already believing in Christ.” He only stayed a short time, apparently because he was not well received. Later, in a.d. 598, Pope Gregory sent Augustine to take “Christianity” to this region. When Augustine arrived, “[H]e found the inhabitants were already professing Christians!” (Herman Hoeh, “Where Did the Twelve Apostles Go?”).
Though these people in this area just beyond Rome’s reach had already been practicing a form of Christianity, it was not what the bishop of Rome had in mind! Their form of Christianity was different from Catholicism. Among them were a small group of people, scattered throughout Ireland and Scotland, who kept the Sabbath and observed Passover on the 14th day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar. They believed in the supreme authority of the Bible and a literal interpretation of it. They adhered to all of the Ten Commandments—believing God’s law defined sin, and that God’s grace established the law. They abstained from unclean meats as outlined in Leviticus 11. There is also evidence that they practiced foot washing (John 13) and the blessing of children (e.g. Matthew 19:13-15)—not infant baptism. They taught repentance and faith as prerequisites for baptism. They looked forward to the Second Coming of Christ and the resurrection of the firstfruits at His coming. They taught that unrepentant sinners would be punished with the second death in the lake of fire, not live forever in a fictional hellfire.
So among a minority of people living in the Celtic Isles, we find the “doctrine of Christ” as outlined in Hebrews 6:1-2: “… repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.” They also opposed the trinity doctrine, celibacy for priests, repetitive prayers, prayers to saints and angels, and the idea of “original sin.”
When Augustine visited the area on orders from the pope, he spoke of encountering people who believed “grievous and intolerable heresies” and were “given to Judaizing.”
In his 1850 book A General History of Ireland, Sylvester O’Halloran noted: “The constant enmity between Ireland and ancient Rome prevented any kind of friendly intercourse. The doctrine of Christ came not from thence [Rome] here, but from the churches in Asia.” He wrote that in the sixth century, “Christianity was in the most flourishing condition in Ireland. They had … received [it] from the Asiatics”—that is, from Asia Minor, not from Rome.
These people were ridiculed and persecuted by those wanting religious affiliation with Rome. Wilfrid, one famous Romanizer, said, “[D]o you imagine that they, a few men in a corner of a remote island, are to be preferred before the universal church?” Much of the understanding we have of what these people believe comes from the persecution launched against them from the Romanizing forces that eventually held sway over the area (i.e., the Synod of Whitby in a.d. 664; Queen Margaret of Scotland’s well-documented and publicly declared mission to rid her country of Sabbath keepers and those observing Passover instead of Easter).
This area was eventually overtaken by the Catholic Church. The blending of Catholic tradition with the already entrenched Druidism of the region created a poisonous combination of false religion that prevented any significant existence of true believers there until centuries later. Many of these true believers compromised with false religion and fell away. But by then, God’s Church was more firmly planted in the eastern borders of the Roman Empire and somewhat on the European mainland.
Faithful Unto Death
Christ’s final words to the Smyrna era read: “[B]e thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death” (Revelation 2:10-11). Jesus Christ told these saints—and us—not to fear what is coming. We do not have to fear anybody but God.
Look at the trials the Smyrna brethren experienced. What a challenge—but what an end! The first part of verse 10 says, “[B]ehold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison”; it was not men who cast them into prison, but the devil! Men are used by Satan. He orchestrates all of the serious persecution against God’s loyal saints. Many people scoff at Satan because they don’t know him or understand his power! That power has them in abject bondage. John, who transcribed these messages to the churches, knew both God and the devil. Satan was very real to him. John knew that Satan is our great adversary. If we get thrown into jail or killed, it is the devil empowering such evil. He is the real source of our persecution. Satan’s primary goal is to destroy God’s Work and His people.
God promised the people of Smyrna, however, that they would not be hurt by the second death. The second death hurts, and it hurts forever, because that person is dead forever! It is the greatest hurt we could suffer. You can die the first death for God, however, and the next waking moment you will rise into majestic splendor forever! You will receive a crown of eternal glory.