To listen to some of my Christian friends, one would think that the church in America is suffering terrible persecution. Often particular groups are pointed out as the persecutors.
Now I know that many of us have in some way experienced this – job discrimination, ostracism or taunting by family and/or acquaintances. Many also fear the possibilities and the unforeseen future (see FEAR, 11/15/2006). I’d like to say a few things to put our fears and sufferings in perspective. One of the best ways, I believe is to look at a biblical suffering church, the second of the seven churches that Jesus addressed in the book of Revelation (2:8-11):
8. And to the messenger of the church in Smyrna write: These things says the First and the Last, who became dead and came to life:
9. I know your affliction and your poverty – but you are rich – and the slander from those who say themselves to be Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
10. Don’t be afraid of the things you’re going to suffer. Look, the devil is going to cast some of you into prison so that you may be tested and you will have affliction ten days. Become faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life.
11. The one who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches: The overcomer will in no way be harmed by the second death.
This is a church that was really going through it. They were going through affliction. They were poor – the Greek word is ptocheia – it had the idea of abject poverty, having nothing, reduced to begging. From what follows, it appears that poverty is not caused by those forces which are usually blamed, but by the external persecution they were experiencing. Perhaps because of their faith they were ostracized by those who had formerly done business with them. Perhaps they had lost jobs or been ejected from the family business.
They were slandered – and this by those who professed to be followers of a God-given religion. History has shown that what happened in Smyrna has happened elsewhere and is still going on today. Jesus told us this would happen: “ … an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God” (John 16:2b).
And Jesus doesn’t give them a lot of hope for avoiding future suffering. He rather promises imprisonment and even death as awaiting them in the future.
Jesus does give hope, but hope of a different kind.
1. First, He tells them that He has gone through what they are going through – all the way to death – and He’s triumphed. He became dead and came to life (verse 8).
2. Secondly, He knows. He doesn’t ignore those who suffer, even though at times we may think He does (verse 9).
3. He tells them that they are actually rich. Their wealth, however, is not wealth as measured by the standards of this age.
4. He promises a reward for the sufferer – the crown of life. (He’s not promising eternal life here. That’s already ours through faith in Him – His death for our sins and His resurrection). This is a reward that He will give those who are faithful through testings (verse 10; James 1:12).
5. He promises that though the believer will go through physical death, he will never suffer the second death (verse 11; cf. 20:6, 14; 21:8). We will spend eternity with Him.
I believe much of our worrying as American Christians is caused by the fear that we may have to suffer, coupled with the hope that we won’t. But look at what Paul told Timothy: “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Or what Peter told his readers: “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled” (1 Peter 3:14). It’s coming!
And there are many Christians, many churches, throughout the world, who are suffering imprisonment, ostracism, even death for merely being Christians. In North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, other Communist and Islamic countries. Christ is not popular in this world. And He told His disciples: “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:18).
Paul told us that, as members of one body we all suffer with these: “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (2 Corinthians 12:26).
How can we join them in their suffering? By recognizing the fact that others in the body do suffer horribly and that our relative ease here is not the norm. By spending time in prayer for those who are persecuted and for their persecutors. By giving to those organizations that aid the sufferers and their families. By telling others what is going on.
NOTE: For more on today’s persecuted church see: http://www.win1040.com/; http://gfa.org/gospelforasia; http://persecution.com/about/index.cfm?action=vom