I. TO OVERCOME PERSECUTION, COMPRISING TRIBULATION, POVERTY, TRIAL, IMPRISONMENT, AND THE SLANDER OF THE DEFORMED RELIGION OF SATAN
The second epistle is written to Smyrna. This epistle reveals that we need to overcome persecution, comprising tribulation, poverty, trial, imprisonment, and the slander of the deformed religion of Satan (Rev. 2:9-10a). Smyrna basically shows us only one thing—persecution. Do we love the Lord? Do we give Him the preeminence in everything? If we do, we must be prepared for persecution.
Persecution will come to us from many directions. Persecution may come to a brother from his wife. When he did not love the Lord as the first item in everything, he had no problem with his wife. But when he began to love the Lord by giving Him the preeminence in everything, his wife noticed that he was different. Now her husband was giving the preeminence to someone else besides her.
In my home town of Chefoo, we had a brother who was working in the Chinese customs making good money. He was very worldly, and his wife was very happy to go along with him in their pursuit of worldly amusements. One day, however, he began to love the Lord, giving the Lord the preeminence. He gave the Lord the first place in everything. That was a big change with him. As a result, the wife became very unhappy because her husband no longer desired the things of the world.
Because this brother had such a positive change toward the Lord, he wanted to invite some brothers to his home for fellowship. He told his wife that one evening he would invite a few brothers to their house for dinner. I was one among these brothers. We all went happily to this brother’s home for fellowship. When we sat down to eat, his wife served us with cold leftovers. The brother felt so bad about this that he was moved to tears. Instead of being affected by the situation, however, we all partook of the food set before us in a joyful way in support of our brother. This brother suffered much persecution from his wife because of his decision to make the Lord first in everything.
Some parents persecute their children because of their children’s love for the Lord, and some children persecute their parents because of their parents’ love for the Lord. The mother-in-law may persecute her daughter-in-law for loving the Lord. This is why the Lord said that a man who puts Him first will have enemies from his own household (Matt. 10:36).
The persecution revealed in the epistle to the church in Smyrna comprises tribulation, poverty, trial, imprisonment, and the slander of the deformed religion of Satan. The deformed religion of Satan was the synagogue of Satan (Rev. 2:9). At the Lord’s time and at the early apostles’ time, the synagogues of the Jews had become in the eyes of God the synagogue of Satan.
According to history the saints during the time of Smyrna had tribulation for ten days (v. 10). As a sign, the ten days here indicate prophetically the ten periods of persecution that the church suffered under the Roman emperors, beginning with Caesar Nero in the second half of the first century and ending with Constantine the Great in the first part of the fourth century. Roman history tells us that the Roman Empire had ten periods of time to persecute the Christians.
We may feel that unlike the saints in Smyrna we have a good government today, but persecution can come to us from many other directions. Thus, as the loving seekers of Jesus, we must be prepared to suffer. The martyrs for Christ can be martyrs physically. Paul suffered such a martyrdom (2 Tim. 4:6). Many of us, however, may not suffer a physical martyrdom, but a psychological martyrdom or a spiritual martyrdom. The aforementioned brother who was mistreated by his wife was surely a martyr under her persecution. He used to come to us for fellowship, and we tried our best to support him and comfort him. In a very positive sense, he was a martyr for the Lord’s interest. He would not change in his feeling for the Lord, and he has never changed.
Even among the elders in the church, there may be the experience of martyrdom. One brother among the elders might be very strong and controlling. He may be a good brother who loves the Lord and the church, but he controls the other elders. The other elders may feel that they cannot function under such a brother, and they may want to resign. Someone may ask them, “Don’t you love the Lord? Don’t you love the church? Don’t you have a loving care for all the saints?” They would say that they do, but they find it unbearable to serve under such a strong brother. But if these brothers resign, this means that they resign from martyrdom. Thus, they are missing the opportunity to be martyred, an opportunity which may never return in their lifetime. How good it is for these elders to be martyred under a strong brother who is like a dictator!
In 1935 and 1936, I was assigned to the work in northern China. The elders in the church in Peking could not get along with one another. They frequently wanted me to come and help them. I spent two or three days to fellowship with them, and they felt that their problems were solved, but a week later they called me again to come and help them because they still could not get along. These elders had the opportunity to be overcoming martyrs in the church life.
When the apostle Paul asked the Lord three times to remove the thorn from him, the Lord’s response was, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9). The Lord allowed the thorn to remain with Paul so that Paul would be able to enjoy the Lord as his all-sufficient grace. Sufferings, trials, and persecution are often ordained by the Lord for us that we may experience Him as grace. Hence, in spite of Paul’s entreaty, the Lord would not remove the thorn from him.
We do not need to travel all over the earth to experience suffering and persecution. There is persecution for us to experience in our local church. There is a narrow door at the front of the church life, but once we make the choice to enter into the church life, there are no “back doors” and no “fire escapes.” In a sense, all of the saints in the church life become our persecutors. When we initially came into the church life, everyone was pleasant to us. That was our church life honeymoon, but the honeymoon does not last long. After we have stayed in the church life for a number of years, we realize that the Lord uses nearly all of the saints to deal with us.
Some saints told me that they could not bear to stay in their locality and that they wanted me to help them choose a better place. I always say that the best place is the present place. No place is better than the present place. Many saints eventually were convinced by me. They realized that they should not move to another locality according to their personal preference. If they move to another locality according to their choice, the place to which they move will eventually be worse to them than the place from which they came. In the church life, we cannot avoid “persecution.”
We need to overcome all kinds of persecution by being faithful unto death, not loving our soul-life (Rev. 2:10b; 12:11b). Then we will be rewarded with the crown of life (2:10c), and we will not be hurt by the second death (2:11).
(The Overcomers, Chapter 3, by Witness Lee)