Has it ever occurred to you that 1 in 8 Christians are persecuted for following Jesus? I guess for many of us that’s not something we are aware of or even think about. Yet when we come to the word of God, as Jesus speaks to his church in the book of Revelation, this is a reality for the church of Smyrna. Here Jesus shows his concern for them by reminding them that they are in his hands, they are the true people of God and their persecutions are only temporary. All this is particularly important for today as we live in a culture that doesn’t deem Christianity as good. In light of this, the words of Jesus will remind us to expect persecution, count the cost of following Jesus and draw strength from Jesus.
Jesus begins his message in Revelation 2:8-11 with “The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life” Like in Jesus’ words to all the seven churches, it is a contextualised introduction for each church in Revelation. Here for Smyrna, Jesus signals that he is the sovereign Lord over all history as he is the first and the last. But not only that, but he is also the risen Lord, who has conquered death through his resurrection (Rev 1:17-18).
Jesus’ identification as sovereign makes complete sense when we see that the church of Smyrna is undergoing persecutions for their faith. In verse 9, Jesus assures them, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” This verse reveals to us the church faced all kinds of trouble socially and economically for their faith in Jesus. The historical context suggests both the Jewish community and the Roman authorities brought about persecution to them. The Jews had harassed the church for not being Jewish. While the Roman authorities didn’t like the church for disobeying the command to worship the emperor. These factors made the church of Smyrna a very unpopular group of people in the life of this city.
While it is clearly not pleasant to be in persecution, Jesus gives the church of Smyrna reasons to not fear. Firstly, because they are in the hands of Jesus, who is in complete control of all history as the first and last. The same Jesus who already experienced persecution to the point of death but had overcome it through the resurrection. This should greatly encourage the church of Smyrna as it is never a surprise for God to have their people go through persecutions. Their Lord and saviour, Jesus, has undergone worse suffering yet came out victorious. They should be relieved that they are on the right side of history even amidst present suffering for their faith.
Secondly, Jesus affirms their status as the true people of God. This is picked up when Jesus says that these Jews in Smyrna “are a synagogue of Satan”. Theologically, this is a huge deal. The Jews were always represented as the people of God. However, this all changed with the coming of Jesus. Those Jews who had actively rejected Jesus are now rejecting God. Instead, they are described as enemies of God. By implication, the church of Smyrna who rightfully put their faith in Jesus are the true people of God. This should serve as an encouragement that they need not fear the threats from the Jews since they are God’s people in Christ.
Lastly, their persecutions are only temporary. Jesus says this from verses 10 to 11, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death’”. From these two verses, it’s made clear by Jesus that their present sufferings will not last forever. All that they are currently experiencing will cease. Moreover, those who persevere in their faith will receive the crown of life, which is eternal life with God. They will avoid the “second death”, not condemned to spend eternity in God’s wrath. When temporary persecution is viewed in light of spending eternity with God, that should serve as an encouragement to not fear and to keep persevering for life to come.
While the threats of the Jewish & Roman persecution are non-existent today, what still stands now is the increasing pressure of professing the Christian faith in Australian culture. The increasingly secularised culture is pushing the Christian faith to be seen as irrelevant. Some might argue that Christianity is considered dangerous to wider secular society. Looking at the example of a high-profile rugby player, it’s even possible to face professional and economic damages for being an outspoken Christian. Like the church of Smyrna, Australian Christians live in a culture that doesn’t view Christianity favourably. With this in mind, I offer three applications drawn out from Jesus’ words to the church of Smyrna.
Expect persecutions to come
Through the church of Smyrna, we are helpfully reminded of the reality that persecution is expected for all who follow Jesus. In Australian culture, Christianity used to be the prominent religion held by a majority of society. It might then be shocking for us when the broader culture begins to be antagonistic to those in the Christian faith. But this passage in Revelation reminds us to expect persecution to come. It should be of no surprise that a culture that rejects Jesus would reject his followers too.
Not only that, but the expectation of persecution should also remind us of the real persecutions experienced by the wider body of Christ. Open Doors Australia states that 1 in 8 Christians are currently experiencing some form of persecution across the globe. Living in a post-Christendom Western country, we are only beginning to have a taste of the continuous trials experienced around the world by our brothers and sisters. So, as we live through this climate of cultural change in Australia, let’s not live with naivety that this couldn’t possibly be our future. Let’s expect persecution to come as Scripture promises.
Count the cost of following Jesus
Living in a culture where it is easy to follow Jesus, we often underestimate the cost of following him. As we begin to soberly expect persecution to come, we’ll soon find ourselves counting the cost of living for God. So, let’s consider what areas of life do we find it hard to give up for Jesus? For some this could be your studies, career or relationships. It might look like holding more loosely to your experiences and possessions. Whatever that might be, the day will come when we are expected to lose all of it for Jesus. And when that comes, I hope you have counted the cost. And you are ready to carry the cross and to deny yourself. So that you too can follow Jesus on the narrow road.
Draw strength from Jesus
As difficult it might be for us to expect persecution and to count the cost of following Jesus. May we draw strength from Jesus as we live through whatever God has ordained for us. Our Lord and Saviour, who is the first and last, is in complete control of all time and circumstances. If we do go through the pain and suffering of persecution, may we remember that we are in his safe hands. We can draw strength from knowing, it is not out of his control. Nor will it be a surprise that we will go through this. And as we do suffer for our faith, we have one who already walked before us in our place and experienced the pain of rejection by his very own people. May we be comforted that Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf is our assurance of the eternal life that is promised. So, when the time comes, no matter how we suffer through persecution, let’s draw strength from Jesus.
Through Jesus’ words to the Church of Smyrna, we are reminded of the reality of persecution for those who follow Jesus. However, there are many reasons to not fear. As Christians, we are safe in his hands, are truly God’s chosen people and know that persecution is only temporary. So, friends, as you treasure these truths in the face of the increasing pressure of being a Christian. Let’s expect persecutions to come, count the cost of following Christ and draw strength from Jesus.