It would be a mistake to think that those who suffer violent, degrading persecution are, by the very nature of their circumstances, better Christians than those who do not. The fact is that Christians respond to persecution in a number of different ways; some positively, others less so. You see, the biggest danger facing Christians who face persecution of varying degrees is not so much the persecution, itself, but the pull to compromise with the surrounding culture and to embrace their values and to downplay their distinctiveness as followers of Christ in order to better insure their personal peace and affluence.
Take for example, the churches in Revelation 2-3. When faced with persecution, some Christians, like the ones in Ephesus, in their zeal to defend the faith, become bastions of strict, unloving and closed orthodoxy (2:1–7). These Christians are so often concerned about the dangers of the world that they forget that the church exists for the world. Others, like the believers in Smyrna, need to be encouraged not to give in to fear in the face of suffering (2:8–11). The scourge of false doctrine creeping in from the outside endangers other persecuted churches, like the one in Pergamum (2:12–17). Yet others, like in Thyatira, struggle to maintain ethical and moral purity, especially when the culture demands compromise in order to continue to make a living (2:18–29). The church in Sardis illustrates that persecuted Christians are not immune from spiritual deadness (3:1–6), while some churches, as in Philadelphia, need to be encouraged to look beyond their own neediness to the opportunities that God has placed before them (3:7–13). The Laodicean church might well represent the church that, like in Corinth, forgets that this world is not all there is. Such churches deal with opposition by assimilation into the culture and adopting the trappings of success. They forget that the time to sit on thrones is in the future (3:21), not today. The task of the Christ’s Church is to carry the cross in the pursuit of the goals of the kingdom of God. By pursuing the goals of this world, the Laodiceans may have removed the offence of the cross, but they had incurred the offence of Christ.
It would not be hard to provide you with present-day examples of each of these churches in restricted and hostile nations around the world. This is why The Voice of the Martyrs takes so seriously the call to bring biblical training to persecuted believers around the world. The Bible is a book written by persecuted believers for persecuted believers, equipping them to stand to and to be faithful witnesses in a world that is intent on silencing their voice, extinguishing their lamps, and even removing their very presence.
The call to all believers in Revelation 2-3 is the same. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 2:29, 3:6, 3:13, 3:22). This admonition (like Jesus’ similar words in the Gospels) is an allusion to Isaiah 6:9-10 where God warns the remnant of His people not to participate in idolatry. Like Israel, the churches in Revelation 2-3 were in danger of compromising with the surrounding culture and embracing their values in their struggle to survive in the midst of increasingly hostile society. For some churches the beastly nature of compromise was more subtle, while for others it was far more blatant. The call is to stop listening to the siren call of compromise with its promise of peace and affluence and instead listen to the words of Jesus. These churches had not yet succumbed fully to the idols of their culture but some were in the process of doing so, while others were facing the temptation.
The same is true for us. It is never easy to follow Jesus. At least, it should not be if one is following Him faithfully. The temptations that these seven churches faced are the same that we must overcome by God’s grace and the help of His Spirit. Great and wonderful promises are given to those who listen to the words of Christ and overcome: the privilege of eating from the tree of life in the renewed creation (2:7); a crown of life (2:11); sustenance to complete the journey and assurance of entry into the kingdom of heaven (2:17); authority to rule over the nations as an inheritance in a place where there is no night (2:26–28); white garments fit for appearing in the presence of God with the multitude of those who have loved, served and acknowledged Him before men, with the pledge that Christ will acknowledge them before the Father (3:4,5); an assured place in the kingdom (temple) of God, with a new ownership, citizenship, and identity in Christ (3:12); and the right to reign with Him in His kingdom (3:21). With such promises, how can we listen to the tempting voices of our society without recognizing that by succumbing, we are truly selling our birthright for a bowl of stew (Genesis 25:33)?