The Times of the Gentiles
In the First Epistle of Peter which was written quite a few years after the Church had been brought into being, there is evidently a note of warning of a storm about to break over the Church of God. This is marked all through it. The first suggestion is found in the first chapter where we read, “Kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation, ready to be revealed in the last time. Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations.” Here a “needs be” for heaviness instead of joy, as the portion of the saints, is hinted at, and this is maintained all through the Epistle until we reach the fourth chapter, where at verse 12 we read, “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you.” Further on in the chapter it is said, “The time is come, that judgment must begin at the house of God,” and he does not leave any question in the mind as to what he means by the house of God, for he immediately adds, “And if it first begin at us.” In the next chapter the theme is continued when he says, “Humble yourselves therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time. Casting all your care upon Him for He careth for you. Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil as a roaring lion, goeth about, seeking whom he may devour; whom resist, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world. But the God of all grace, Who hath called us unto His eternal glory by Christ Jesus after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.”
Now observe how this fits in with the condition exhibited in the letter to Smyrna. In Peter’s Epistle the words, “suffer” and “suffering” occur very frequently — fifteen or sixteen times — and in Smyrna the first message is “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer.” Again in Peter’s Epistle Satan is represented as a roaring lion; here the word is, “Behold the devil shall cast some of you into prison.” Frequently people speak of Satan as a roaring lion as if that were his normal attitude, but that is a mistake. Peter is bringing him before us as the persecuting enemy when he so speaks of him. But further Peter speaks of praying that “after they have suffered a while” they may be delivered, which is in perfect accord with the letter to Smyrna which limits the time of trial to a period described as ten days, showing that the time of the trial is measured, not by Satan but by the Lord. It was always so, as we have seen.
The “needs be” for this trial we have already noticed. The first step of departure has already been taken and the Lord would keep the saints from going farther in this path. So He allows Satan to move against them with his old-time hatred of everything of God, permitting him to use every weapon he can command to crush this thing that God has planted in this world for the glory of His Son.
It will be noticed on our chart that alongside of Smyrna is found a sinister figure meant to represent Satan. It will be remembered that he is the principal character in the second of the parables of Matthew 13. But not as an open enemy but as one working underhandedly is he there presented, oversowing with bad seed the field which had already been planted with the good seed of the Word of God. The link between the letter to Smyrna and the parable is the prominence of Satan in both and the reference to “them which say they are Jews and are not but are of the synagogue of Satan.” In the letter to Smyrna he is brought before us in both characters — in his subtle work of seeking to destroy the work of God by imitating it and also in his savage and cruel work of crushing it by violence.
Let us notice first of all the synagogue of Satan as the Jews are here called. It seems a terrible term to apply to a religious body, and falsely-named charity would not so speak. But let us reflect a little. When the Church was first formed the greater part of it was made up of Jews who were brought out of Judaism. What was left was simply made up of men who had hardened themselves against God in spite of every appeal that could be made to them. The line was clear-cut. “The Lord added to the Church such as were being saved,” and the rest were left like a rotting carcass filled with hatred of God and His testimony. Their synagogues were the gatherings together of those who were simply the enemies of God and willing weapons for Satan to use for his purposes of destroying the work of God. And he used them, first for sowing his seed and then for the expression of his deadly hatred of the saints. The work of God in sowing the seed of the Word had hardly begun when he became active in this work. We are only as far as the 15th of the Acts when we find him busy. Paul and Barnabas had been engaged for some time among the Gentiles when, we are told, “Certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Here is surely the enemy at work, but who are those whom he employs? Jews, unquestionably. And what was the seed they sowed? The law of Moses without doubt. How subtle this is. Those poor Gentiles who had received the gospel through men of Jewish birth were, naturally, an easy prey to Satan when he sent men of the same race with what purported to be more of that Word which they had already received. At this time his efforts were defeated, for when the matter in the providence of God was submitted to the apostles and others, they issued a declaration, repudiating the men who had disturbed the minds of the saints and freeing them in the fullest way from the burdens they would fain have fastened on them. This defeat however did not daunt Satan or his emissaries, for we find him returning to the work again and again, finding at last a foothold even in Jerusalem itself. In Acts 21 when Paul revisited the city, he was informed, “Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe, and they are all zealous of the law.”
In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians we find the Apostle Paul complaining bitterly of these men. He says, “Such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel, for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing, if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness, whose end shall be according to their works” (2 Cor. 11:13-15). They were the inveterate enemies of Paul especially, following him with bitter and relentless fury, withstanding him wherever he went, first by imitating and then by open opposition. And this was because his ministry was among the Gentiles whom they hated with utter and unreasoning violence. No wonder the Lord here describes them as the synagogue of Satan. From among them Satan recruited his ranks, whether to sow the deadly seed or to openly oppose, and they willingly yielded themselves to his work, doing his bidding with heart and voice. How they gloried in blaspheming that Name so dear to the Christian heart — they were the synagogue of Satan.
But the power of the world as represented in its government did not at first persecute the Church of God. This is plain from the Acts of the Apostles. All the violence came from the Jews. But a change is coming as predicted by Peter and Satan is allowed by the Lord to now enlist in his army the Roman government. This period of the history of the Church is well-known in the annals of the world. For many years the empire of Rome had left this new religion at peace, in keeping with its general policy towards all religion. But through circumstances, hardly worth noticing, because behind them were the unseen powers, whether divine or diabolical, alarm had been awakened throughout the empire and instead of indifference there was intense interest, which led to edict after edict being issued by the emperors of Rome, condemning the Christians to every form of cruel death and their property to confiscation. Many details as to this awful time can be found in Church histories dealing with this period but we confine ourselves to the main features that are outstanding in these letters. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and Miller’s Church History can be purchased and they are both helpful in this respect.
What was the effect upon the Church of this time of tribulation? What is the effect of the fanning mill on the wheat? The winds of persecution only drove away all who were only nominally attached to the truth of God and caused the real to shine out in a way that dumbfounded the adversaries. Apparently there was recovery from the down-grade that He marked in Ephesus. It is touching too to notice the manner in which the Lord presents Himself in addressing the church at Smyrna. He sees His loved ones in the furnace and although He knows the needs be for this and indeed has planned it for their blessing, yet He will not add to the heat of the flame by a word of reproach. Rather will He sustain them in the sorrow and reveal Himself to them as One Who has passed through death and is beyond it forever, and who abides in His love and care, the First and the Last.
This is so markedly in contrast with the way in which He presents Himself to the church which follows this one that we think it is a suitable time to call attention to this feature of these letters. Each one is different as may be easily seen and this ought to excite enquiry. But as we have not noticed the one already passed (in the letter to Ephesus), let us pause a moment and look at it. He speaks of Himself as “He that holdeth the seven stars in His right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks.” This is His introduction, so to speak, to the whole series of letters which give His judgment of the course of the Church as His witness on earth.