When we think of the book of Revelation, the first things that come to mind are mysterious symbolism and apocalyptic imagery. But one of its most significant characteristics may be one we tend to miss: a consistent message of hope to the persecuted church.
Persecution is described in all parts of Revelation, and its historical context provides a reason for this. John’s apocalyptic writing most likely dates to the ad 90s, during the reign of Emperor Domitian. The persecution of Christians reached a climax at this time. Many were executed, and John himself was banished to the island of Patmos.
When we see this historical context clearly, we grasp the importance of Revelation’s message of “hope despite persecution.” We see it in John’s introductory words to his fellow believers: “I, John, both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ . . .” (1:9) — words that set the tone for the whole book.
We especially see this theme of endurance under persecution in the letters to the seven churches (Revelation 2 and 3). These are written as imperial edicts, but John makes it clear that Jesus is the king of kings (and emperors) to whom we must listen. Just as imperial Roman edicts proclaimed, for example, “Hear what Domitian says,” so the letters of Revelation all include “hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:7, et al.).
Just as imperial edicts would often say “I know what you have done” to their recipients, so the seven letters repeatedly stress Christ’s words: “I know your works . . .” (2:2, et al.). The letter to Smyrna makes this theme clear: “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty . . . Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. . . . and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (vv. 9, 10).
We can learn much about persecution and hope from these seven letters. Consider two vital facts:
- The letters, except for Sardis and Laodicea, contain encouragement regarding perseverance in persecution. But persecution is not mentioned in Sardis and Laodicea. They are said to be either asleep or blind.
- Conversely, each church is given some correction, apart from Smyrna and Philadelphia, historically the two most persecuted churches. Of the seven, the most fiercely persecuted congregations are the only ones praised without reproach.
Thus we must never presume persecution comes upon believers because they are not sincere or holy enough. If anything, the opposite is true: Churches that are not persecuted may not be spiritually alive.
This is not just a message regarding persecution in John’s time (1:19). Today Christianity is the most persecuted religious faith in the world. More people have reportedly died for their belief in Christ during the last century than in all nineteen previous centuries. In the twenty-first century, the number has increased even more. But if there is a single, unifying message in Revelation’s letters to the churches, it is that God sees their trials and promises that whatever is taken from them by persecution will be returned in the kingdom at an infinitely greater level — whether relationships, positions, possessions, or life itself. In this we rejoice!