If you are a Christian, you will be persecuted.
Scripture clearly tells us that persecution is an essential part of the Christian life (Acts 14:22; 2 Timothy 3:12). Thankfully, God’s Word also assures us that persecution is never without a purpose.
Through the years, I’ve had the privilege of traveling through Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. On those trips, I met with many pastors who had suffered severe persecution in communist Russia. They told me what it had been like—how they couldn’t get an education or keep a job. They lived under constant surveillance and abuse by the authorities. Some were banished to Siberia, and I heard of many more who had died for their faith. Most churches were forced to meet in secret, always knowing that discovery could mean imprisonment, torture, and even death. That was life under the aggressive atheism of communism. And we know Christians today live under similar circumstances in parts of the world still dominated by communism or Islam.
However, after the Iron Curtain fell, what amazed me was the remarkable strength of those persecuted churches. Everywhere I went, I met devout, dedicated Christians. The years of persecution had forged them into a pure church, zealous for the truth and deeply devoted to Christ. Their faith was alive and genuine, unleashed after years of suffering through fierce opposition.
In Revelation chapter 2, we see Christ’s own words to believers in a similar situation (Revelation 2:8–11). The believers in Smyrna were also purified by persecution, and praised by the Lord of the church for their steadfast faithfulness. Theirs was the kind of Christian character that is born out of hardship and opposition.
Persecution with Purpose
When the Lord told His disciples, “I will build My church,” in Matthew 16:18, He included the promise that “the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” The “gates of Hades” was a common euphemism for death. What He was saying is that Satan was going to attack the church with deadly force. And as church history reveals to us, Satan has continuously waged a relentless, hell-bent assault on the church. The entire world system hates God, His Word, and His true church.
As a result, Christians should expect to face persecution. In 2 Timothy 3:12, Paul said, “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Peter told his readers, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). Suffering is not out of the ordinary, but neither is it without purpose. “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). That is the divine comfort for believers—that we do not toil and suffer in this world in vain. James tells us to greet trials and suffering with joy, “knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:3–4). Consider this: For Christians, there is no such thing as meaningless suffering. The Lord is always refining us, always sharpening us for the building of His church.
There are also the purifying effects to consider. Hypocrites and charlatans don’t stand up in the face of persecution; they run. Heretics and hirelings don’t last long when the church is under fire. And those who make merchandise of the faith are forced to close up shop when the very name of God is outlawed. Persecution purges the church of false teachers, false gospels, and false professions of faith. If the church today is on the cusp of another wave of persecution—as it seems—it will be beneficial. As Peter said, even the fiercest persecution comes to us with great spiritual benefits. It perfects and confirms our faith, it strengthens our commitment to the Lord, and it establishes His church in the world aligned against it. Persecution doesn’t destroy the church; it makes it strong.
Paul declared that reality out of his own experience:
And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)
Such was the case in Smyrna.
Located on the coast of the Aegean Sea almost forty miles north of Ephesus, Smyrna was, historians tell us, the most beautiful city in Asia Minor. From the bay, the city stretched up into rolling foothills and the Pagos, a hill that was home to temples in honor of several gods and goddesses, including Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, Asclepius, and Cybele. To cover all the religious bases, they had temples for Caesar and Rome as well. Smyrna was also known for science, medicine, and academics. Homer was supposedly born in Smyrna (there was a temple for him, too). It was also one of the oldest cities in the region, possibly first settled as early as 3,000 BC. The Smyrna of the apostle John’s day had been rebuilt in 290 BC by successors of Alexander the Great. Unlike Ephesus, Smyrna is still a thriving city to this day. It’s now known as Izmir, one of the largest cities in Turkey.
And in Smyrna, there are still Christians. While most of the churches are Catholic, Coptic, Orthodox, or Syriac, there are indications that faithful, Bible-believing Christians still live in Izmir to this day, under fierce persecution at the hands of Muslims. The Lord eventually removed the lampstand from Ephesus (Revelation 2:5), but there is still light in Smyrna.
We don’t know when the gospel first reached the city. The church was likely founded during Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, when “all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10). Acts doesn’t give us any insight into the life of the church at Smyrna. The few biblical details we know about this faithful congregation come from Christ’s own words to them in Revelation.
As the Lord does in each of His letters to the seven churches, He begins by vividly identifying Himself as the letter’s author. To the church at Smyrna, He refers to Himself as “the first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life” (Revelation 2:8). This is an echo of the Lord’s comforting words in John’s initial vision: “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades” (Revelation 1:17–18).
“The first and the last” was an Old Testament title for God (see Isaiah 44:6; 48:12). It’s an affirmation of Christ’s divine nature and authority. Christ asserts that title again at the end of Revelation, proclaiming, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13). Our God is eternal. He was already in existence when all things were created, and He will remain after the destruction of all things. He transcends time, space, and all of creation.
And yet, for the sake of wretched sinners, He “was dead, and has come to life.” How does an infinite God die? Only in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, as He took on human flesh to die a substitutionary death on our behalf. Peter tells us Christ was “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18). He died as a man for sin and now lives, as the author of Hebrews puts it, “according to the power of an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16). Death could not hold Him. The body of Jesus died and went into the grave. But “Christ . . . was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay” (Acts 2:31). His resurrection from the dead is the proof that God accepted His sacrifice as full atonement for sin. The resurrection is also the guarantee of our hope for an eternity with Him.
Those would have been particularly comforting words to the beleaguered church of Smyrna. Despised, pursued, oppressed, and outnumbered; there could be no greater encouragement than to hear from the Lord Himself, who suffered far worse than they had been chosen to endure (see Hebrews 12:3–4). With the Lord by their side, they could face any threat—even death itself. They could cling to Christ’s promise in John’s gospel, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die” (John 11:25–26). Death could not hold them any more than it could hold Him.
Notice that Jesus does not comfort His suffering sheep by taking away their suffering. Instead, He reminds them that He transcends temporal matters and, through their union with Him, so should they. The following verses contain more comforting words from the Lord to this downtrodden church. In the days ahead we’ll to examine those words more carefully.