A generation ago, the world called Christians fools because they believed in Jesus as He is revealed in the Bible. Today the world calls Christians bigots because they believe what Jesus teaches in the Bible about right and wrong. We are in a time when being faithful to Jesus is becoming more costly. The cost may continue to increase, but we must resolve to overcome and to remain faithful.
I believe that the book of Revelation is especially relevant today but maybe not for the reason that many might expect. The church always finds special comfort in the book of Revelation when the church is experiencing persecution. We are today experiencing what may prove to be the early stages of a time of persecution. Some Christians have experienced various forms of persecution because they could not in good conscience provide certain services upon request for a same sex “wedding.” Some Christians in the medical profession may have been excluded from certain positions because they could not in good conscience take the life of a criminally innocent person either in the womb or in old age. Some Christian teachers may not be welcome in certain schools because they will not teach young children racial prejudices or sexual perversions. These are just a few examples, but I think that they are sufficient to give a sense of the times in which we are living. We don’t know if this persecution is going to intensify and expand, and we don’t know to what degree it will affect our own lives. We pray for a coming spiritual awakening that will radically change the direction in which our culture has been heading. Yet as long as persecution is on our horizon, the book of Revelation will have a special relevance for us. What was comforting to those seven churches in the closing years of the apostolic age can also provide comfort for persecuted Christians from then onwards down to the end of the age.
We find some insights on enduring persecution in Jesus’ letter to the church at Smyrna, found in Revelation 2:8-11. We learn here that Jesus is well aware of the church’s difficulties in a hostile world. In verse nine, Jesus said to the church at Smyrna, “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich) …” When we first read this, we might assume that this church existed in an impoverished area where jobs were scarce and resources were limited. But no, Smyrna was a large and prosperous city. The Christians there were poor because of prejudice against Christians. One could not there openly confess Christ and also get ahead socially and financially.
Like every pagan Greek city, Smyrna had its own patron deity. In addition, each trade guild would also have a patron deity. There were occasions when and situations where everyone was expected to give a certain token worship to a particular pagan deity, whether the patron deity of the city or the patron deity of a trade guild. Many would not take kindly to Christians who in principle refused to participate. Many would quickly blame such Christians for offending the gods whenever anything bad happened in the city.
Yet what was perhaps an even greater challenge in Smyrna was the rising cult of Caesar worship. The city of Smyrna had been loyal to Rome long before Rome became the dominant power in Asia Minor. About 195 B.C., Smyrna became the first city in the world to build a temple dedicated to the worship of the goddess Rome. In A.D. 26, all the major cities of Asia Minor petitioned Rome to be the site of a new temple dedicated to the worship of the Roman Emperor Tiberius while he was still alive and ruling. Smyrna was chosen for this honor and became a temple warden for the imperial cult. Cicero, the Roman orator, called the city of Smyrna Rome’s most faithful and ancient ally. We can only imagine what it would have been like to have been a Christian in the city of Smyrna during Roman times and to have refused to offer a pinch of incense to the goddess Rome or to the Roman Emperor Tiberius.