Counsel for a Persecuted Church

All Christians will face persecution (John 15:18–20). Some will be mistreated more than others. The church in Smyrna, for instance, suffered intense persecution that lasted for decades. After commending them for faithfully enduring persecution, Jesus warned them that even more was coming (Revelation 2:9–10). Yet even this church had a reason for hope and endurance.

Christ’s letter to the church in Smyrna closes with a promise of the blessing to come: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). Don’t read that as an ultimatum. The Lord was not giving them yet another hurdle to clear on top of everything else they had already endured. Rather, it’s simply an encouragement to keep doing what they had already faithfully been doing, and to bear up under the fierce opposition aligned against them.

In themselves, believers don’t have the capacity to maintain or protect their faith. If we could lose our salvation, we certainly would. Instead, it’s the Lord who holds us steadfast in faith. Christ repeatedly declared this glorious truth to His disciples.

I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:28–29)

“This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39).

In his epistle to the Romans, Paul dismisses any concerns about the security of our salvation:

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? (Romans 8:28–31)

Scripture is clear: If you are a believer, you will persevere in the faith. Not because of any inherent strength in you–you have no such strength in yourself. But God Himself “is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy” (Jude 24). And He does hold His people fast. “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (2 Timothy 4:18). That means if you are truly a believer, your faith will endure to the end. True faith is proven in the fires of persecution. It survives triumphantly.

What does that mean for people who reject Christ and walk away from the faith? John answered that question in his first epistle: “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).

In that sense the Lord is not merely promising the believers in Smyrna a reward for their perseverance. Perseverance is the reward, as it bears unimpeachable witness to the genuineness of their faith. And those whose faith is validated by a faithful life will enjoy the crown of eternal life with their Lord and Savior.

The letter ends with a comforting note, to the believers in Smyrna and to the wider audience: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death” (Revelation 2:11). Persecution can cost believers a lot. It can damage our livelihood. It can rob us of our homes and possessions.

It can sever families and destroy relationships. It can cost us our freedom and our health. In some cases, it costs us our lives. There is no guarantee that we are safe from any of that while we are in the world.

But the Lord promises that His overcomers, believers (see 1 John 5:4–5), will not face the second death. We may have to endure physical death, but there is no threat of spiritual death for those who know and love the Lord. Revelation 20:12–14 describes the spiritual death we’ve been delivered from:

I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

If you truly love the Lord—if your faith is verified by a life of faithful perseverance—you’ll never experience that. If you are a true believer with a faith that overcomes all the persecution Satan can hurl at you, even to the first death, you will never experience the second death. Instead Christ says to you,

Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. (Revelation 22:12–14)

In the face of suffering and opposition we need to remember the limits of Satan’s persecuting power and the glorious, eternal rewards that await those who persevere.

It’s worth noting that smyrna is the Greek word used for myrrh, a strong fragrance used by the Jews to mask the scent of dead bodies. John 19:39–40 tells us that Nicodemus brought roughly a hundred pounds of myrrh mixed with aloes to wrap Christ’s body for burial. But myrrh was precious and hard to come by. It was made from the resin of small, thorny trees. Only when it was thoroughly crushed would it yield its pleasing fragrance.

In that sense the church at Smyrna was aptly named. God permitted Satan to crush these believers under constant persecution, and Christ’s letter to them confirms the heavenly aroma of their faithfulness.

The suffering church at Smyrna stands as an example for all persecuted Christians to follow. Although they faced vicious persecution, they were “faithful until death” (Revelation 2:10) because of their unwavering love for Christ, their eternal reward. Like Paul, they boldly faced death because their greatest desire was “to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). They understood that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). And because they faithfully confessed Jesus before their persecutors, Jesus will confess them before the Father (Matthew 10:32).

Are you prepared to be faithful to Christ in the face of persecution? Are you willing to suffer humiliation, hostility, and alienation? If Christ has saved you, you will endure persecution, your faith will be proven genuine, and you will receive the crown of life instead of the second death.

Used with permission from John MacArthur.

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