Continuing to think through some missional applications of the seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor, we need to consider the theme of suffering. As we learn to live the narrative and “indwell God’s story”, our individual and corporate life's will increasingly be shaped by the story. As the church lives out her mission and becomes the “contrast community” she was called to be, persecution will inevitably follow.
Persecution is explicitly mentioned in two of the letters we have examined. Jesus knows of the tribulation of the believers in Smyrna and encourages them in the face of what they are about to suffer while calling them to be faithful even unto death. Also, Antipas was martyred in Pergamum, and despite this the other believers were holding fast.
Three other letters speak of the enduring church, though violent persecution is not necessarily the source of suffering. The Ephesian church was “enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake” under pressure from false apostles (from what we know about the circumstances in Ephesus it is likely that Christians were the object of intense vitriol and violence; see Acts 19). Thyatira is commended for their patient endurance and called to “hold fast” to what they had, not yielding to temptation, false teaching or persecution. Philadelphia is suffering from the false Jews who comprise the synagogue of Satan, but are patiently enduring.
Sardis and Laodicea do not appear to be suffering any degree of persecution at the time of writing (or be in significant danger of suffering except under the judgment of God). This lack of suffering is likely due to the degree to which they had sinfully assimilated themselves into the pagan culture. The conclusion that can be drawn from these letters is that faithful churches will likely suffer and need to endure tribulations that may include persecution, whether slander or violence.
Stott writes, “If the first mark of a true and living church is love, the second is suffering.”
This has certainly proven true through large swaths of the church’s history and is true in many places across the globe today; yet, in the West the church has enjoyed a relative amount of ease and comfort. That is not to say there has been no pockets of persecution even here in the United States , but on the whole, this has not been the norm. This should lead us to ask two poignant questions.
First, why are we not facing more opposition? Is it because God has blessed us with a period of peace and allowed the church to flourish or is it because we have become so sinfully accommodating to our culture that we are no threat to the status quo. I believe there is some truth is both answers and both need to be thoughtfully explored, though likely the latter is more to credit/blame. Again, Stott writes, “We shrink from suffering. The ugly truth is that we tend to avoid suffering by compromise.”
Secondly, the we need to ask if we and our churches are prepared for suffering and persecution should the situation change. How would the church fare if she were to face the same kind of persecution and suffering that Pergamum did, or Ephesus? Faithful shepherds will, as we see Jesus doing throughout these letters, prepare the church for suffering. Keener states it bluntly, “If we have not prepared ourselves and our congregations to die for Christ’s name if necessary, we have not completed our responsibility of preparing disciples.”
I believe there are five important ways we need to be preparing ourselves and our churches for suffering. First, we need to remind ourselves that suffering is normal for the faithful Christian; it is their lot. Peter tells us as much, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). Demonstrating this truth will be natural for the pastor committed to telling the grand story of Scripture: Abel was murdered by a jealous brother for his righteous offering. The people of God suffered in Egypt. The prophets suffered and were persecuted by unrighteous kings and queens. Peter and Paul are a part of this suffering story. The story includes people who, though righteous, suffered. This part of the story needs to be heard in our churches, for as much as we would hate to admit it, the “prosperity gospel” has found an all too eager audience in our evangelical churches. Suffering is seen as something to be avoided and even a sign of divine displeasure. People have been taught that being in God’s will is a safe place, free from danger or hardship. So we need to start by reminding ourselves and our churches that suffering is normal, and according to Jesus would inevitably come to his followers.
Second, suffering needs to be put in the context of God’s love and commitment to do his people’s good. Of course God disciplines his children, as every loving father does. But even beyond discipline which calls for repentance, God allows his people to suffer persecution to test and refine their faith (see James 1:3,12; 1 Peter 1:7). There is a mysterious element to God’s will as it relates to suffering: in some instances God rescues from violent persecution while at other times he allows his church to suffer greatly. Yet, in both circumstances, we must place the outcome within the context of God’s love and concern for their ultimate good. Keener comments, “Suffering has a way of reminding us which things in life really matter, forcing us to depend radically on God, and thus purifying our obedience to God’s will.”
Third, God's promise His grace is sufficient to see us through the suffering needs to be heralded over and over again. Jesus makes his intimate knowledge of and presence with the churches a point of emphasis in each of the seven letters – he is the one who walks among the seven golden lampstands and “knows” them. To some this would be disconcerting, for Jesus knew their failings. But, for the faithful church enduring persecution it was meant to be an encouragement. Jesus knew their struggle, was with them in the midst of it, and offers his strength to endure it.
Fourth, we need be pointed to Christ and his pattern of suffering. Jesus himself does this in the letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia. To the suffering church at Smyrna Jesus identifies himself as the one “who died and came to life”, reminding them that he too suffered but also that he prevailed. The church at Philadelphia had taken to heart “the word about my [Jesus’] endurance”, noting and emulating his pattern. Of course this theme is an oft repeated one throughout the New Testament. For example, Hebrews 12:3 encourages the believer, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” Churches need to sound this note clearly – our suffering is something the author of our faith himself endured and it is, in some mysterious way, participation with him in suffering.
Finally, we need to think often about the hope we have if we will endure. Setting aside the conditionality of these promises for a moment (more on that soon), we need to have our eyes set on our future hope so that we grasp what it is that stands to be gained on the other side of patient suffering. The glory the believer will attain and the reward of eternity in God’s perfect shalom needs to be a theme we come to often in our teaching, preaching, praying, and conversing. This is the focus of each letter’s conclusion – the right to eat from the tree of life in God’s paradise, immunity from the second death, hidden manna, a place in Christ’s kingdom, white garments, the crown of life, God’s name, sitting with Jesus on his throne, etc. The sufferings the believer endures will only seem “light and momentary” if we know and long for the true “weight of glory” that will be granted to those who endure.
Keener sums this call to be ready for suffering up well, “Revelation prohibits us loving our lives more than his gospel; it summons us to follow the model of Antipas as faithful witnesses, no matter what the cost.” Being faithful to our mission will lead to suffering, but Christ, our suffering servant walk with us through it and rewards us richly after we have suffered "a little while."