The Church under Pressure



In Revelation 1:9 John introduced himself as our ‘brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus’. He did not at this point define or describe the suffering, apart from noting its direct connection with their allegiance to Jesus.

When we come to the letters to the seven churches in chapters two and three we find that this suffering has multiple faces. It is not, as we might assume, confined to physical persecution. Although physical persecution repels and horrifies us, and can kill us physically, it is not necessarily the most dangerous form of Christian suffering. There are pressures that, although they do not harm us physically, are part of those ‘schemes’ of the evil one in which his purpose is to deceive and destroy us spiritually, and through that spiritual deception and spiritual destruction to either terminate or discredit the testimony of Jesus. While physical persecution is blatant and therefore easily recognized, these other pressures are far more subtle, and because of that subtlety more able to trap us before we are aware of them.

We find in the seven letters:

The pressure of physical persecution, including death
Physical persecution, including death, is mentioned or inferred in 2:3; 2:10; 2:13. Also inferred in the word ‘hardship’ are the financial sanctions that were exercised against those who refused to participate in the idolatrous worship of many of the trade guilds. Financial sanctions against Christians are a key focus in 13:16,17.

The pressure of false teaching
In 2:2 we read of ‘those who claim to be apostles but are not’; they are termed ‘wicked men’ and ‘false’. In 2:6 and 15 we read of the ‘Nicolaitans’, whose practices Jesus says he ‘hates’. These false teachers seem to have some connection with ‘the teaching of Balaam’ [2:16] and ‘that woman, Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess’ and who by her teaching was misleading God’s servants [2:20]. In 2:9 we read of ‘those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan’ [in 3:9, where they are called liars’]. To give in to this pressure from false teachers, to accept what they were saying, was to revert to idolatry, and to listen to and learn from Satan. Part of the pressure of false teaching was the associated pressure to relax moral standards; this is particularly evident in 2:14 and 20.

The pressure of familiarity and complacency
We get a hint of this subtle, but dangerous, pressure in 2:4, where Jesus rebukes the church in Ephesus for forsaking its ‘first love’. We see it more urgently in 3:1,2 where Jesus informs Sardis ‘you are dead’ and ‘about to die’ and urges them to ‘wake up’ [verse 3]. Finally, Jesus describes the church in Laodicea as ‘lukewarm’ and defines their ignorance of their real condition: ‘You say, “I am rich, I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realize that are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked’ [3:17]. So familiar were they with the words of the gospel, so ignorant of their real condition, that they were totally unaware that no one among them really believed that gospel. There was no need here for Satan, in his purpose of ridding the world of the testimony of Jesus, to exert the pressures of physical persecution; no need for Satan’s messengers to bring in their corrupt teaching. His oldest weapon, human pride, human independence, was already hard at work, blinding these people to their desperate need of Jesus Christ and his salvation.

This all raises the question: ‘What kind of pressure is your church experiencing today?’

Is it the obvious and painful pressure of physical persecution or financial sanctions?

Is it the less painful, but more spiritually harmful, pressures of false teaching and of the pressure to conform to the moral norm of your society?

Is it the ultimate pressure, the original pressure, that exalts the human, but is really the spiritual destruction of the human – that pressure to ignore God, to live independently of God, to trust in oneself rather than in God and his Word?

© Rosemary Bardsley 2015