The first mark of the church is love. The second is suffering.
Please do not misunderstand me. Christians are not masochists. We do not fetishize suffering or go looking for martyrdom. But if two thousand years of Christian history are a reliable guide, martyrdom may come looking for us.
I freely concede that persecution and martyrdom are far from the minds of most American Christians. For all the religiously conservative complaints about secular humanist domination of the media, the fact is that Americans have near-total freedom to practice, publicize, and proselytize for their respective faiths—or non-faiths, as the case may be. No one, to my knowledge, rots in an American jail because he or she is a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, or atheist.
The same freedom of religion does not obtain for many Christians around the world. Nina Shea marks the disparity with these words:
Millions of American Christians pray in their churches each week, oblivious to the fact that Christians in many parts of the world suffer brutal torture, arrest, imprisonment, and even death—their homes and communities laid waste—for no other reason than that they are Christians. The shocking untold story of our time is that more Christians have died this century simply for being Christians than in the first nineteen centuries after the birth of Christ. [Think about that!] They have been persecuted and martyred before an unknowing, indifferent world and a largely silent Christian community. And as their suffering intensifies, our silence becomes more stark.[i]
John’s Apocalypse is not silent about the persecution of believers. Rather, for John, Jesus is a martyred Christ and his followers form a martyr’s church. Revelation 1:5 and 3:14 describe Jesus as “the faithful witness.” (“Witness” translates the Greek word martys, from which we get the English word martyr.) Antipas, the Pergameme martyr mentioned in 2:13 is also a “faithful witness.” We share Christ’s title, it seems, when we share his fate—the cross.
These days, we ask ourselves. “What would Jesus do?” But as John Howard Yoder points out, “there is no general concept of living like Jesus in the New Testament.” He goes on to argue, “There is thus but one realm in which the concept of imitation holds…. This is at the point of the concrete social meaning of the cross in its relation to enmity and power. Servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness absorbs hostility. Thus—and only thus—are we bound by New Testament thought to ‘be like Jesus.’”[ii]
Like Jesus, the church at Smyrna faced persecution and death (Rev. 2:8–11). And like Jesus, the Smyrnans were promised “the crown of life” for enduring those horrible realities (verse 10; cf. Heb. 12:1–2). Although they did not seek suffering, they were willing to endure it for Christ’s sake.
Why? Because of love. John thus correlates love and suffering as the church’s first two marks. Indeed, they are inseparable, for as John Stott notes, “A willingness to suffer for Christ proves the genuineness of our love for him.”[iii]
[i] Nina Shea, In the Lion’s Den: A Shocking Account of Perseuction and Martyrdom of Christians Today and How We Should Respond (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1997), 1; emphasis added.
[ii] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 130, 131.
[iii] Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 178.