The Persecuted Church: Being Steadfast Through Trial and Tribulation
Study Posted on October 11, 2023
Focus Scripture: Revelation 2:8-11
Key Verse: Revelation 2:10
Table of Contents
Watch & Listen
Our study this week picks up with Jesus’ messages to the seven churches of Asia Minor as recorded in the Book of the Revelation of Christ. Our study takes us to the church in Smyrna which represents the persecuted (and martyred) church as they faced much tribulation. Have you ever been persecuted? How did you handle being persecuted and do you believe you dealt with your persecutors appropriately? One must be steadfast in faith in order to deal with and overcome persecution.
The Church in Smyrna
It is made very clear in the opening verses of our study this week that this message is to be delivered to the Church in Smyrna. It should also be clear that Jesus is the one sending the message as He is the “first and the Last” and He is the one who was “dead and came to life” (Rev. 2:8).
This is a greeting that calls attention to Jesus’ sovereignty and that He is Almighty and everlasting. To be clear, Jesus was making it clear, once again, that He is aware of all things and that He has overcome all things. So, already, we can see the hints laid out for us that if you’re going through great struggle, you already have the power available through Christ to overcome whatever it is you may be going through.
Tribulation of the church
Now, let’s focus our attention on the church in Smyrna. Smyrna was an ancient Greek city that actually still exists today though it has had quite the history. After a change of names in the 1930s, Smyrna is now known as Izmir which is a province of Turkey. At the time of Jesus’ message to this church, we are told that those who were of this church were facing tribulation.
In Revelation 2:9, Jesus commends this church for their “works, tribulation, and poverty.” So, those who were of this church were faithful believers that put their faith into action. Sadly, them moving in faith brought about the attention of those that would despise them. I suppose that many of us often draw this same kind of attention today because we may get down on our knees, after winning a tennis tournament, and pray to the Lord. (I say this in reference to Coco Gauff winning the US Open and being criticized for praying after doing so).
Because of their faith, those that made up the congregation of this church also suffered from poverty as they lacked in material wealth. Most of those that made up the early church did not have much, materially speaking, though all the people would come together and share in what they did have (Acts 4:32-37). In my personal opinion, I don’t think much has changed within today’s church as many believers that attend church are not millionaires and billionaires.
Now, though those of the congregation in Smyrna lacked in material wealth, we will see that Jesus said they were rich. What did Jesus mean by this? How could they be considered rich though they lacked in material wealth? The answer: they had spiritual wealth through their faith in Christ; they were blessed and highly favored.
There are many people that do not truly understand what it means to be blessed and highly favored. So, let me define for you what it means to be blessed and highly favored. To be favored by the Lord means that you are loved by Him and to be blessed by God means that God has made you content in your soul. Gaining a bunch of material wealth does not define whether the Lord loves you or not; this is a big misconception that has led many people in the wrong direction when it comes to having faith in the Lord.
Those that were of church in Smyrna serve as the example of truly being blessed though they didn’t have much money and riches; even though they lacked, they were still content in their soul. Something we should understand is that contentment in the soul is greater than the temporary happiness that can come from the world.
I believe that something all believers must learn is how to be content with what God has given to them. Sadly, many of us don’t know how to be content. I was speaking with someone a month or so ago about the history of our people and how we essentially were raised to grind and hustle in order to gain.
So, learning how to be content often gets confused for someone settling for less rather than someone learning how to be satisfied in their soul. I believe that so many of us give ourselves heartaches and pains because we are trying to keep up with what others have when it may not be meant for us to have what they have. So, we must learn how to be content with the blessings that God does give to us rather than trying to go out and create our own blessing.
The persecutor of the church
So, who were those that troubled the believers of this church? Some of their persecutors, we will see, should have actually been their biggest supporters. We are told that they were being troubled by those that said they were Jews but were not Jews because they blasphemed (Rev. 2:9). What does this mean?
By that point in time, Jews had began to spread throughout Greece. In fact, through scripture, we know that Jews made up part of the congregation in the early church along with Gentile believers. At the same time, there were other Jews that despised those that, in their eyes, went against the Mosaic Law. You should remember that Paul, when he was known as Saul, was in the crowd of those that persecuted the early church because of this reason.
In John’s gospel, there is an occasion where Jesus told the Jews that He was the light of the world (John 8:12). He then said to them that if they abide by His truth, it would make them free from the bondage of sin (John 8:31). The Jews who Jesus spoke to at that time chose to disregard what He was saying and argue that they were already free as they were the descendants of Abraham; they claimed that they had “never” been in bondage (John 8:33).
The problem, however, is that those Jews were not living with the same kind of faith that Abraham had. Jesus explained to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham (John 8:39) … You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him (John 8:44).” So, the hearts of those Jews was for wickedness and because of that, they could not understand the divine truth Jesus shared with them.
John wrote in his first epistle that those who deny that Christ came in the flesh are of the spirit of the antichrist and are not of God; they stand only to persecute those that believe in God’s only begotten Son (1 John 4:2-3). So, these Jews blasphemed who they were supposed to be in that they did not abide by the word of God, but rather, they moved against His word. Let us remember that the definition of blasphemy is to disregard and to move against the Spirit of God – His workings.
Persecution of the church
Jesus’ message to the church in Smyrna serves as both a warning to the persecutor and a word of encouragement to the faithful believer undergoing persecution. Jesus warned in our key verse, “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days (Rev. 2:10).”
The “ten days” spoken of did not speak to ten literal days, but rather, it covered the period of these believers living under ten emperors (64 AD – 313 AD). During this period of time, the early church faced much persecution; Paul was beheaded, several others were martyred, and John ended up being exiled to Patmos because they did not deny their faith. In this same period, history records how Ignatius, the bishop of the church in Antioch, Syria, was martyred and even Polycarp, the bishop of the church in Smyrna, was also martyred because of his faith.
The persecution of the church was so severe at that time that you could imagine that some believers would go into life preservation mode which is why Jesus sent them these encouraging words. Jesus warned them of the tribulation to come and then He encouraged them by saying, “be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
This warning and call to be steadfast in faith puts me in mind when Jesus warned the disciples that they would be hated and face tribulation. Jesus said to the 11, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (John 16:33).”
The Lord has never hidden from us that His children, those of sincere faith, would not live lives that were completely easy – we will have our hardships. However, we can overcome those hardships through steadfast faith! Again, Jesus has said to those that follow Him, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (John 15:19).” This is Jesus, again, telling us that they we will be despised, hated, and persecuted because of our walk of faith.
Facing persecution today
If you are ever despised because of your faith, you should not be shocked. Will it feel good to be despised because of your faith? Absolutely not. Should you stop having faith because the world despises you? As I said in my sermon – When the Haters Hate on You – you should keep moving in faith because you will overcome your haters by your faith in the Lord.
Today, in modern day Smyrna – Izmir – Christians still face persecution.
You see, it is easy for one to be faithful in what God is doing for them when the sun is shining bright in the sky and the birds are chirping. Yet, it is extremely difficult for one to remain faithful when the dark clouds roll in and it begins to storm. That said, it is during those storms where we must be steadfast – not budging – in our faith.
As James said in his letter, you and I must let patience – faith – have its perfect work so that we may be perfect and complete (Jas. 1:4). The storms overcome us and we fall apart when we begin to lack faith. Let us remember that Jesus said that those who listen and abide by His word can face those terrible storms and their house will not fall (Matt. 7:24-25).
As believers, we must learn to simply flow down the stream of faith wherever the current of God will carry us. Yeah, there are going to be some disturbances along the way as our persecutor will try to disrupt the current. All believers will face some tribulation that may even push some of us to the limits of our faith, but know this – your steadfast faith will ultimately end in victory where God will reward you.