I believe the history of the church at Smyrna confirms a futuristic interpretation of the book of Revelation. By this, I mean that chapters 4–22 are still future and not, as some assert today, historical or symbolical in meaning.
Let me clarify: it’s on the basis of Scripture I believe what I do about the rapture, the tribulation, and His reign upon the earth during the millennium.
However, because these beliefs are so often attacked on the basis of church history, I want to take you on a fresh journey of church history in this and subsequent posts. I will begin with the church at Smyrna.
I can already see many of you rolling your eyes at the mere mention of history while others are eager to get started. I will try to make this as interesting and painless as possible.
The Book of Revelation Was Sent to Smyrna
The Lord, through the apostle John, addressed the book of Revelation to the “angels” or messengers of seven churches (see chapters 2 and 3). Smyrna was the second church to which the Lord specifically spoke.
As most of you know, the Apostle John penned the last book of the Bible while exiled on the Island of Patmos. Picture an old man with long gray hair and a scruffy beard writing what he saw and heard onto a scroll.
Once finished with Revelation, John waited for a ship to arrive and take the scroll back to the seaport of Ephesus. During the course of several years, the book made its way from the church in Ephesus to all the other locations mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3. The second stop most likely would have been the church in the city of Smyrna, just north of Ephesus.
At this point you may be asking, “What does this prove?” By itself it does not prove anything. However, we know two of the men in Smyrna who quite likely would have read the book to the believers there . . . and we know what they believed about the millennium.
The Church Leaders at Smyrna
Polycarp was the bishop, or lead pastor, at Smyrna during the time the book of Revelation arrived in the city. Polycarp, a great man of faith, would years later be burned at the stake as he boldly proclaimed his love for Jesus.
Polycarp was a key disciple of John. The apostle later appointed Polycarp to his leadership position at Smyrna. We know much from the New Testament about the mentor and disciple relationship of Paul and Timothy. John and Polycarp had a similar affiliation.
Another key person in the church when the letter arrived was Papias. This young man listened to the apostle John teach on at least one occasion, but Polycarp was one who trained Papias in the faith. As a disciple of Polycarp at the time the book of Revelation arrived in Smyrna, it’s not a stretch to assume Papias participated in reading it.
We do not have any writings directly from Papias that have survived, but an early church historian named Eusebius (AD 263-339) quoted Papias as writing this, “There will be a millennium after the resurrection of the dead, when the personal reign of Christ will be established on earth.”[i] Papias believed in a future return of the Lord to set up a literal millennial reign of Jesus upon the earth, which would begin after a resurrection of the dead. Papias’ testimony regarding the millennium matches a literal and futuristic reading of Revelation 20:1-6.
Eusebius, who did not believe the same as Papias, complained often of Papias’ fervent belief in Christ’s future reign upon the earth.
Polycarp did not go into detail regarding his beliefs about the millennium in his writings. However, he asked a couple of questions in the book he wrote, The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, which indicates a belief in a literal millennium. He wrote this: “But who of us are ignorant of the judgment of the Lord? Do we not know that the saints shall judge the world? as Paul teaches.”[ii] Here Polycarp quotes 1 Corinthians 6:2 where Paul refers to a future time when we as believers would reign with Jesus.
It’s also safe to assume that Polycarp adopted a premillennial viewpoint based on the beliefs of his two most famous disciples. Eusebius described Papias as an ardent advocate of a future millennium. The writings of Irenaeus, the star pupil of Polycarp, also display a firm belief in the literal interpretation of the entire book of Revelation.
If John intended his book to be either historic or symbolic of the struggle between the church and evil in the world, he failed. Those most familiar with the apostle and his teaching regarded his book as foretelling the future, and they were from the most persecuted church of Revelation 2–3.
The Testimony of Irenaeus
Irenaeus grew up in the church at Smyrna and later became the Bishop of Lyons in France. He also wrote a book entitled Against Heresies in AD 180 in which he refuted the errors of Gnosticism. In this book, we also discover his beliefs regarding the tribulation and return of Jesus.
In Against Heresies, Irenaeus described the future reign of terror of the antichrist, the return of Jesus in the clouds, and the setting up of His kingdom as all future events. Although the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed 110 years before Irenaeus wrote his book, he nonetheless described the antichrist defiling the temple at the midpoint of the tribulation just as the prophet Daniel foresaw and Jesus predicted (see Dan. 9:27 and Matt. 24:15).[iii]
In book 5, chapter 30 of Against Heresies, Irenaeus wrote about the tribulation, the reign of the antichrist including his use of the number 666, and the Lord’s destruction of the antichrist at His return. He also spoke of Jesus “bringing in for the righteous the times of the kingdom.” He referred to all these events as actually happening at a future time. He saw John’s description of the tribulation as prophecy.
Irenaeus’ futuristic interpretation of Revelation speaks volumes. He was in a position to know how the early church viewed the book of Revelation from his association with the church in Smyrna, his closeness to the beloved apostle through Polycarp and Papias, and as a prominent theologian of his day.
If John wrote Revelation as an allegory of the church’s first century struggle against evil and its oppressors as many amillennialists assert, it seems highly unlikely, if not impossible, that this view would have changed to a futuristic outlook in such a short amount of time. How does a symbolical struggle in Revelation 4–19 become a literal and future tribulation with an actual antichrist in a matter of decades?
Irenaeus grew up in the second church to read the book of Revelation, and he received instruction in the faith from the most prized disciple of the apostle John. Yet, writing in AD 180 he regarded both the tribulation as described in Revelation 4–19 and Jesus’ Second Coming as future events.
Are we to believe that Irenaeus would have regarded events from the book of Revelation as future if they had already happened as others assert today? How could that even be remotely possible given his close ties to Smyrna and Polycarp, John’s disciple?
Furthermore, if Smyrna, one of the most persecuted churches of its day, did not regard Revelation 4–22 as symbolical of their conflict with evil, why should we? If John’s intent was symbolical, would he not have made sure that those suffering the most understood it that way, especially at a church that he knew so well?
All the evidence favors a prophetic viewpoint of the book of Revelation 4–22 on the part of the saints at Smyrna. Does this not fortify the case for premillennialism?
I believe it makes an exceptionally strong case.
Jonathan C. Brentner
[i] Eusebius, “Ecclesiastical History,” Ante-Nicene Library, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987) Vol 3, p.39
[ii] Polycarp, “The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979) Vol. 1, p. 35
[iii] Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979) Vol. 1, p. 560