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“Encouragement and Exhortation in Testing”

Nov.13, 2011 Rev.2:1-7 Int’l Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church


On this International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, we may feel a little outclassed when we hear the stories of believers in other countries who have to endure torture, ridicule, threats, and eviction on account of their faith in Christ. But in the second chapter of Revelation we find a communique from our Lord that’s meant to encourage the whole church. And as He speaks, we can discern that He knows the situation of every church, every disciple, and seeks to encourage us to stand firm for Him.

    The first point of encouragement is that JESUS HOLDS US AND IS IN OUR MIDST. Who’s talking in chapters 2 and 3? For that we have to look back to 1:12-16 where John describes the risen Jesus in blazing glory, transformed from the regular human appearance He had during His earthly ministry. Jesus is walking among 7 golden lampstands, and holding 7 stars in His hand. In v20 He identifies the ‘lampstands’ as the 7 churches in the Asia Minor preaching-circuit, and the stars as the ‘angels’ or ‘messengers’ (same Greek word) of each church. The simplest meaning would equate these with the ministers or pastors of each church.

    Isn’t that an encouraging vision in itself? Jesus Himself is, in a spiritual sense, walking among the churches – not just off beyond a cloud somewhere. When you’re having a bad day, He knows about it! When a congregation is struggling in some way, whether finances or division amongst members or facing opposition from others outside the church, Jesus is going to be aware of that immediately. He’s ‘right there’ among His people. And He’s holding us in His hand: the verb in v1 is actually stronger than just ‘hold’, it can be translated ‘hold fast, keep carefully’. That’s especially encouraging for me as a pastor (I’m no ‘angel’ but by definition I’m a ‘messenger’), but elsewhere Jesus spoke of holding every believer: John 10:27-29, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.” So, when you’re going through a difficult time, remember Jesus is holding you.

    Note that it doesn’t mention how big any of these churches are; you don’t have to be a megachurch to be a lampstand! Any size lampstand throws off light, and light makes a QUALITATIVE difference in the darkness. So He’s talking to little churches here as well as bigger ones - size is irrelevant. Jesus told His followers early on, “You are the light of the world...Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:14,16)

    A second point of encouragement here is that JESUS KNOWS WHERE WE’RE AT. V2, “I know your deeds...I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people...” Jesus knows what’s happening with us. A commentator notes the particular form of the verb ‘to know’ here in the Greek emphasizes “mental vision which photographs all the facts of life as they pass”. He sees what’s going on in our lives - our efforts, our trials, even our attitude - such as not being able to tolerate wickedness. He says, “I know your deeds, your hard work” - how you’ve kept plugging away even when you thought nobody noticed. There is a reward for your labour! It hasn’t somehow slipped below the Lord’s radar. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1Co 15:58) He sees it and takes note.

    A third note of encouragement has to do with the concept of victory in v7. Jesus promises, “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” NLT, “To everyone who is victorious...” The Greek verb is nikao as in “Nike” of sporting fame: “to conquer, carry off the victory, come off victorious.” It’s a verb that seems to be a favourite with John (maybe the faster runner than Peter and others, eg the dash to the tomb on Easter morning – did John shine in sports in his younger days?). To churches that are struggling or encountering persecution, ‘victory’ can maybe seem artificial or out of reach. But whence does the victory come? Jn 16:33 Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble.But take heart! I have overcome [nike’d] the world.” In John’s first letter we read, “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, [WHY?] because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world...Everyone born of God overcomes the world.This is the victory that has overcome the world, [WHAT?] even our faith.” (1Jn 4:4, 5:4) The key to victory is Jesus within us! He’s greater than the devil, who is after all a creature - a fallen angel. Our reliance on Jesus, our trust in Him and commitment to Him - our faith - is the victory that overcomes, that conquers; not our own strength.


While the prominent starting note is one of encouragement, the Lord also includes a challenge to the church. To begin, we are to work hard without wearying. V2a, “I know your deeds, your hard work...” 3b, you “have not grown weary.” Same verb root in both places.

    Jesus is addressing mature, established churches that have been operating for some time. The date of the letter may be about 95 A.D.; the church in Ephesus, where Paul ministered, was going well before 60 A.D.- so at least 35 years old. LWCF is about 10 years old; are we ‘growing weary’? Yes it’s an effort to set up and take down each week; it takes effort to prepare Sunday School lessons and look after nursery; it’s work to do your homework for a Bible study, for Elders to keep in touch with the folks in their households. It takes time and energy to cook community outreach breakfasts and deliver Good Food Boxes; and to make time for VBS in your summer holidays IS a sacrifice. But that’s how you sow Kingdom seed into young lives! Jesus is urging us to endure, to not grow weary or flag in our work.

    A second exhortation is that we stay keen for the truth, be discriminating in a good way, and not lose our ‘edge’. Vv2b and 6, “I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false...You have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” (The Nicolaitans seem to have been a Gnostic group that capitalized on freedom in the gospel as an excuse to live immorally.) Christ is keen for us to stay passionate for the truth, to train our minds to run in Biblical tracks rather than let them be shaped by the attractive media and categories of the world. It’s so tempting to let the latest video or video game or popular show on TV pressure us, conform us to its mould. Are you keeping passionate for Christian truth and concepts and principles? Do you know where to find some verse that support what you’d say in a discussion?

    And vv4-5 take us back to something that’s supposed to be basic to our identity as Christ-follower: something that ought to be THE factor by which the world recognizes we belong to Jesus. He rebukes: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” Strong words - get back to loving, as at first; you may need to really repent if your heart’s grown hard or indifferent, either toward God or your neighbour. Love is a verb: do it!

    And a last note of exhortation is His call for us to endure suffering and hardship, to persevere. Beginning of vv2&3, “I know...your perseverance...You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name...” The word behind ‘perseverance’ can be translated ‘steadfastness’, endurance; to ‘endure hardships’ is to ‘bear up’. Those who ‘bear children’ know that’s not usually an easy thing!

    For many Christians in the world today, persecution puts a painful point on perseverance. Suffering is their daily reality. The IDOP.ca website has many examples of our sisters and brothers in Christ bearing up under incredible hardship for the sake of belonging to Jesus. You can also find there an excellent article by Glenn Penner in which he sets forth a Biblical basis for the whole subject of suffering for the sake of righteousness. [QUOTING]


“Persecution is normative for the follower of Christ historically, missiologically, and (most importantly) scripturally...There can be no discipleship without persecution; to follow Christ is to join Him in a cross-carrying journey of reconciling the world to the Father. That this journey is set in the context of conflict, self sacrifice, and suffering is alluded to as early as Genesis 3:15 when the Lord affirms that Satan's judgment, accomplished through human instrumentality, will bring deliverance to the offspring of the woman, but it will take place in a process of bruising and pain. The deliverance will come through the bruising of the serpent's head, but in the process the heel that bruises him will be also be bruised...

    “The thrust of the book of Job is how a man of God suffers not because of sinfulness of himself or creation but because of righteousness and calls for trust in God in the face of such a paradox. This train of thought is amplified by the call of the prophets to look ahead to the Day of the Lord, believing that history is under the control of an Almighty God who, from the foundation of the world, has set His plans in motion of reconciling the world to Himself.

    “All of this comes into focus with the coming of Jesus Christ, the revelation of the triune God. Through Christ, we see, among other things, that sacrificial love is in the very nature of who God is. To suffer and die to accomplish His Father’s purposes was not to be unexpected; Jesus could not be God and do anything but. Weakness, suffering and sacrifice are God's modus operandi. This is how God accomplishes His work: not through strength or compulsion but through love and invitation. As so, the Servant of God suffers and dies, as do those who follow Him. This is to be expected; this is God's way of reconciling the world to Himself. A cross-centered gospel requires cross-carrying messengers. When Jesus declared, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16:24), these words are to be taken much more literally than we are accustomed to doing...The demand of Jesus on His followers is to tread the path of martyrdom. As He prepared to send His disciples out as sheep among wolves...He told them that they would likely die in the process of carrying out their ministry. In order to build His Church (Matthew 16:18), His death was necessary, as He points out in 16:21. This is the foundation. Without Christ's death there is no redeemed community. But just as Christ's cross was needed to establish His Church, our crosses are needed to build His Church (16:24). Both are needed. As Josef Ton observed, "Christ's cross was for propitiation.Our cross is for propagation." To be called to follow Christ is to receive a call to suffer (e.g.Acts 9: 16; 14:22; 1 Thess 3:3; 1 Peter 2:21; 3:9, 17).

    “It was this understanding that sacrifice, suffering, shame, and even death were the normal cost of discipleship that fuelled the evangelistic efforts of the first century Church. They did not expect to experience all of the blessings of heaven in this world. They knew that by their faithfulness, even unto death, they were storing up rewards in heaven. Contrary to the Western belief that it is a blessing not to be persecuted, they knew that it was the persecuted who are blessed (Matthew 5:10-12). Rather than following the common Western practice of thanking God for the privilege of living in a free country where we do not suffer for Him, the early Christians thanked God for the honour of suffering for His sake (Acts 5:41). They knew that in order to bring life to others, they must die; to see others experience peace with God, they would have to suffer the violence of the world; to bring the love of God to a dying world, they would have to face the hatred of those whom they were seeking to reach. It is in this context that the biblical authors described spiritual warfare; not freedom over bad habits or psychological problems, but the brutal reality of witnessing to the faithfulness of God in the face of suffering, sacrifice and death. It was only in this context that the purposes of God would be accomplished.

    “This is also the reality of persecution today. We continue the task of taking the gospel to the end of the earth, knowing that He goes with us and that we do not suffer alone...

    “Yes, there may be terrible suffering, but suffering is not the worst thing that can happen to the child of God; disobedience to the Father is.

    “As we witness the testimonies of courageous persecuted brothers and sisters in person or through reports, it is worthwhile to reflect on the words of Peter, ‘For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly’ (1 Peter 2:19 ESV). In these words, Peter defines grace as being enabled to endure suffering due to one's faithfulness to God. As we read the accounts of those who have suffered for the sake of Christ, we might be justified in saying that, from the world's perspective, those who endure persecution are heroic. But from God's perspective, Peter reminds us, they are recipients of grace. Peter stresses that enduring suffering is evidence that God is at work in one's life. There is no glory for the sufferer. No hero worship. No merit for those who are able to endure hardship, no boasting of one's achievements. It is evidence of God's grace. It is all a work of God, from beginning to end...”

    Challenging words! Such a contrast to the ‘prosperity gospel’ that is promoted in too many Western churches. With that as a foundation, that ‘theology of suffering’ informing our view, I’d like to close today with the story of one man from Egypt as an example of a Christian like you or me but who finds suffering and persecution everyday realities. [IDOP 2011 video excerpt]