There are over 260 million Christians living in just the top 50 countries which rank high on the World Watch List for persecution against Christianity.
The number of Christians killed last year for their faith is 2,983 and 9,488 churches and other Christian buildings were attacked in these top 50 countries.
Last year alone, 3,711 Christians were arrested without a trial then were sentenced or imprisoned.
These statistics I read off of Open Doors website put my frustration of a friend teasing me for my dedication to Christianity into place. We in America overall have avoided much persecution compared to our fellow brother and sisters in Christ around the world. I don’t personally know anyone who has been beaten or imprisoned or even killed for their faith. Not to say there is no cultural push back to the wester Christian; rather, our fight is more on the level of verbal and legal blows to those who hold objective morality. Yet even so, we often can’t comprehend the shared suffering with Christ in which many Christians in the past and present partake.
Our privilege in the West does not exclude us though from learning from the words of Jesus to the church in Smyrna. We can be inspired and convicted by this blessed church.
Write this message to the angel of the church in Smyrna. This is the message from the one who is the First and the Last, who was dead buy is now alive:
I know about your suffering and your poverty–but you are rich! I know the blasphemy of those opposing you. They say they are Jews, but they are not, because their synagogue belongs to Satan. Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. The devil will throw some you into prison to test you. You will suffer for ten days. But if you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life.
Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. Whoever is victorious will not be hatmrf by the second death.
Before we dive further into the encouragement to this suffering church, I do need to make a statement. In no way is Jesus excusing any anti-Semitic feelings or actions when he says the Jews here are apart of the synagogue of Satan. The Jewish people in Smyrna were accusing the Christians of being non Jewish therefore abandoning them from the covering they had from persecution by the Romans. Judaism is an ancient monotheistic religion that existed long before the Roman empire, therefore they were excused from the worship of all of the Roman’s gods and emporer. In the early church, Christians still considered themselves Jewish as they did not abandon the Old Testament but saw Jesus as the fulfillment of it. We today too must remember and respect the roots of our religion. The Israelites were God’s chosen people. By God’s love and grace through Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross all people can now be his children. We cannot make the sin of the Jews in Smyrna better by sinning in return in our hatred towards Jewish people. Rather, we should mourn that they don’t have fulfillment in Jesus. We should pray for them as I’m sure the Christians of Smyrna did when they hear that Jesus instructions us to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). We should love the Jewish people so that we would not construct a barrier for them coming to Christ.
I think it’s unfortunate that we today in America have so little concept of suffering for Christ. As Christians, we should expect to be persecuted. In John 15:18-25, Jesus reminds us that if the world hates us, it’s because we belong to Christ and the world first hated him. In fact, in this passage, it says if we belong to the world instead of Christ, the world will love us. So if we are living a life that doesn’t involve some level of persecution for our faith, we may need to worry that our values are aligning more with the wave of culture than the rock of biblical faith. As an early North African theologian, Tertullian, put it, “No one can obtain the kingdom of heaven without first passing through testing.” While our suffering will likely not cost us our lives as it did to those in the church of Smyrna, we can still share in the suffering of Christ because we are living for Him and standing up for truth.
The church of Smyrna was richly blessed because of their suffering. Jesus himself promised them that should they remain faithful, even to death, the would receive a crown of life. Paul proved he understood this concept of blessing through persecution when he wrote this in Romans 8:18: “For I consider the sufferings of this present time not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” While I’m sure the Christians of Smyrna were exasperated at times and questioned the reasoning for their current trials. They were trying to do what is right yet were punished for it. Yet, they were some of the richest of all Christians because of their lack in this life. In sharing Christ’s suffering, they also were able to share in His glory.
We don’t need to be afraid to suffer for the sake of the gospel. In fact, we should expect to suffer. Craig S. Keener said, “‘Suffering’ and the ‘kingdom’ are inseparable parts of our inheritance in Jesus.”
We today can be convicted by the message to the church of Smyrna if we don’t experience any kind of push back whatsoever for our faith. We should ask ourselves if we are holding to true biblical values or if we are hiding our light. We can also be encouraged by this message if we are going through trials because of our faith. We can rejoice if we suffer! For we know that however hard the persecution in this life may be, we will richly blessed in the next life should we remain faithful to the God who saves us.
Photo by Nagesh Badu