In Revelation 2-3, the Lord of the church, Jesus Christ, speaks to seven churches and gives them an assessment of their spiritual condition and exhorts them to heed His words to them. There are many lessons that can be learned from the words of Jesus to these seven churches, for, while these churches were real, first century churches, they are also representative of the spectrum of churches that will exist throughout the time between Christ’s advents. In that light, I want to look at these churches in terms of what they teach us about persecution.
One of the most obvious features of the book of Revelation is that it is set in a context of persecution. John writes the letter from the island of Patmos, because he has been exiled there “for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” Up until the return of Christ in 19:11ff, there are episodes throughout the book where believers are being persecuted because of their faith in Jesus. So it is with these two chapters devoted to Jesus speaking to His churches. What can we observe and learn from these chapters?
First, it is interesting that, of these seven churches, five receive a rebuke from Jesus and a command to repent, and two do not. Notice that the two churches that are not commanded to repent, Smyrna and Philadelphia, are both undergoing persecution of some degree. Jesus mentions “testing” to both these churches and He does not mention testing to the other churches.
The churches that are being tested do not need to repent, because the persecution is the means of creating a fire that burns away the dross of carelessness and worldly thinking.
In the book of Revelation, both the apostle John and the Lord Jesus are commending persecuted believers for their endurance in the face of suffering and they are, at the same time, warning those who are not persecuted of their greater spiritual danger. Why a warning of greater spiritual danger? If you are NOT undergoing persecution to some degree, then you are in greater danger of drifting from the truth. More ominously, without persecution, you are in greater danger of believing that you are in Christ and are saved, when, in fact, you have no basis for such a belief. Fierce persecution will not allow for anemic doctrine or lukewarm worship, but without the flame of testing, pretenders can deceive and be deceived (2 Timothy 3:13) and false teachers can propagate lies with relative impunity.
Persecution purifies the church and drives true believers to the Word. When the heat intensifies and testing rages, true believers cling tenaciously to the Word (2 Samuel 23:10), they pray fervently and urgently (Acts 4:24-31; Romans 12:12), and they gather together with other believers for fellowship and encouragement.
When there is no cost of entry, people will drift in and out of the church as their preferences and convenience dictate. Many weak churches can arise when there is no persecution to separate the wheat from the chaff. Weak churches attract those who want to appear religious because they provide religious respectability but do not demand obedience or insist on any doctrines. Apostate churches appeal to worldly people who want a form of godliness without any biblical substance (2 Timothy 3:5). But when the flame of persecution is ignited, the flimsy and the false are easily seen and the true churches are the ones who take the heat of opposition.
So, persecution is the best means for the church to remain pure. But there is another thought on this. Biblical history shows us that opposition leads to singleness of purpose and a refusal to be distracted from the goal, whereas ease usually leads to a person’s undoing. Joshua fought for many years to conquer the land of Canaan, and Joshua was a hero. But following Joshua we have the book of Judges, where the land has been all but conquered and there is relative peace. What happens? With no identified leader and no opposition, the nation of Israel degenerates into a bunch of warring tribes fighting among themselves. Or consider David and Solomon. David was constantly fighting against Saul and the Philistines, trying to establish Israel and give them rest from the other nations. During this time, David is too busy to think about other sinful things. As soon as David has the nation under control, however, he is wandering around on his roof looking at bathing women. And then comes Solomon. He inherits a kingdom that has conquered all its enemies on every side and enjoys peace. Solomon increases and displays his prodigious wealth and builds the temple, while he has 700 wives and 300 concubines. In the end Solomon follows the gods of his wives and his heart is drawn away from the Lord. Ease appears to be not as good as it used to be. Or what about the church of the early apostles in the book of Acts compared to the church after Constantin? The early church is bold and courageous and takes the gospel from “Jerusalem and round about to Illyricum” (Romans 15:, unafraid of anything and with the motto of, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” But in 325 AD Constantin makes Christianity one of the accepted state religions of the Roman Empire and persecution is dramatically reduced. As a result of that decision, the Christian church goes flabby and weak.
The Lord ordained persecution as the means of growing a strong and healthy church. Let us embrace it and run with endurance (Hebrews 12:1).
SDG rmb 1/20/2020