Striving to Be Conquerors
1. (a) What congregation next receives a message from the glorified Jesus? (b) By calling himself “the First and the Last,” of what did Jesus remind the Christians in that congregation?
TODAY, ancient Ephesus lies in ruins. But the destination of Jesus’ second message is still the site of a bustling city. About 35 miles north of the ruins of Ephesus is the Turkish city of Izmir, where four zealous congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses are to be found even today. Here, in the first century, was Smyrna. Note, now, Jesus’ next words: “And to the angel of the congregation in Smyrna write: These are the things that he says, ‘the First and the Last,’ who became dead and came to life again.” (Revelation 2:8) By stating this to those Christians in Smyrna, Jesus reminds them that he was the first integrity keeper that Jehovah directly resurrected to immortal spirit life and the last to be so raised. Jesus himself would resurrect all other anointed Christians. He is thus well qualified to give counsel to his brothers, who hope to share immortal heavenly life with him.
2. Why are all Christians comforted by the words of the One who “became dead and came to life again”?
2 Jesus led the way in enduring persecution for righteousness’ sake, and he received the due reward. His faithfulness to the death and subsequent resurrection are the basis of hope for all Christians. (Acts 17:31) The fact that Jesus “became dead and came to life again” proves that whatever has to be endured in the cause of truth is not in vain. Jesus’ resurrection is a source of profound encouragement for all Christians, especially when they are called on to suffer for their faith. Is this your situation? Then you can take courage also from Jesus’ next words to the congregation in Smyrna:
3. (a) What encouragement did Jesus give the Christians in Smyrna? (b) Though the Christians in Smyrna were poor, why did Jesus say they were “rich”?
3 “I know your tribulation and poverty—but you are rich—and the blasphemy by those who say they themselves are Jews, and yet they are not but are a synagogue of Satan.” (Revelation 2:9) Jesus has no criticism for his brothers in Smyrna, only warm commendation. They have suffered much tribulation because of their faith. Materially they are poor, likely because of their faithfulness. (Hebrews 10:34) Their main concern, however, is with spiritual things, and they have stored up treasures in heaven, as Jesus advised. (Matthew 6:19, 20) Hence, the Chief Shepherd views them as being “rich.”—Compare James 2:5.
4. From whom did the Christians in Smyrna suffer much opposition, and how did Jesus view those opposers?
4 Jesus notes particularly that the Christians in Smyrna have put up with much opposition at the hands of fleshly Jews. In earlier days, many of this religion determinedly opposed the spread of Christianity. (Acts 13:44, 45; 14:19) Now, just a few decades after the fall of Jerusalem, those Jews in Smyrna are showing the same satanic spirit. No wonder Jesus views them as “a synagogue of Satan”!*
5. What trials lay ahead for the Christians in Smyrna?
5 Faced with such hatred, the Christians in Smyrna are comforted by Jesus: “Do not be afraid of the things you are about to suffer. Look! The Devil will keep on throwing some of YOU into prison that YOU may be fully put to the test, and that YOU may have tribulation ten days. Prove yourself faithful even to death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10) Here Jesus three times uses the Greek plural form of “you,” showing that his words embrace the congregation as a whole. Jesus cannot promise that the trials of the Christians in Smyrna will soon end. Some of them will continue to be persecuted and cast into prison. They will have tribulation for “ten days.” Ten is a number that symbolizes earthly completeness or entirety. Even those spiritually rich integrity keepers will receive a thorough testing while in the flesh.
6. (a) Why should the Christians in Smyrna not be afraid? (b) How did Jesus conclude his message to the congregation in Smyrna?
6 Nevertheless, the Christians in Smyrna should not be afraid or compromise. If they remain faithful to the end, there is laid up for them as a reward “the crown of life,” in their case immortal life in the heavens. (1 Corinthians 9:25; 2 Timothy 4:6-8) The apostle Paul viewed this precious prize as worth the sacrifice of everything else, even his earthly life. (Philippians 3:8) Evidently, those faithful ones in Smyrna feel the same way. Jesus concludes his message by saying: “Let the one who has an ear hear what the spirit says to the congregations: He that conquers will by no means be harmed by the second death.” (Revelation 2:11) The conquerors are assured of immortal heavenly life that cannot be touched by death.—1 Corinthians 15:53, 54.
“Tribulation Ten Days”
7, 8. Like the congregation in Smyrna, how was the Christian congregation “fully put to the test” in 1918?
7 Much like the Christians in Smyrna, the John class and their companions today have been and continue to be “fully put to the test.” Their faithfulness under trial marks them as God’s own people. (Mark 13:9, 10) Shortly after the Lord’s day got under way, Jesus’ words to the Christians in Smyrna brought real comfort to the small international group of Jehovah’s people. (Revelation 1:10) Ever since 1879, these had been digging out from God’s Word spiritual riches that they freely shared with others. But during World War I, they met up with intense hatred and opposition, partly because they did not get caught up in the war fever and partly because they were fearlessly exposing the errors of Christendom. The persecution that they received at the instigation of some of Christendom’s leaders came to a head in 1918 and was comparable to what the Christians in Smyrna received from the Jewish community there.
8 A wave of persecution in the United States of America was climaxed when the new president of the Watch Tower Society, Joseph F. Rutherford, and seven associates were sent to prison on June 22, 1918, most of them with 20-year sentences. They were released on bail nine months later. On May 14, 1919, the appeal court reversed their erroneous convictions; there were shown to be 130 errors in the trial. Roman Catholic Judge Manton, a knight of the order of St. Gregory the Great, who in 1918 had refused bail to these Christians, was sentenced later, in 1939, to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of $10,000 on six charges of soliciting and accepting bribes.
9. How were Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nazi Germany treated by Hitler, and with what reaction by the clergy?
9 During Nazi rule in Germany, Hitler completely banned the preaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses. For years, thousands of Witnesses were cruelly confined in concentration camps and prisons, where many died, while some 200 young men who refused to fight in Hitler’s army were executed. The clergy’s support of all of this is evidenced by the words of a Catholic priest, published in the newspaper The German Way of May 29, 1938. In part, he said: “There is now one country on earth where the so-called . . . Bible Students [Jehovah’s Witnesses] are forbidden. That is Germany! . . . When Adolph Hitler came to power, and the German Catholic Episcopate repeated their request, Hitler said: ‘These so-called Earnest Bible Students [Jehovah’s Witnesses] are troublemakers; . . . I consider them quacks; I do not tolerate that the German Catholics shall be besmirched in such a manner by this American Judge Rutherford; I dissolve [Jehovah’s Witnesses] in Germany.’” To this, the priest added: “Bravo!”
10. (a) As the Lord’s day has proceeded, what persecution have Jehovah’s Witnesses faced? (b) What often resulted when Christians fought for religious freedom in the courts?
10 As the Lord’s day has proceeded, the Serpent and his seed have never ceased to fight against the anointed Christians and their companions. Many of these have been imprisoned and viciously persecuted. (Revelation 12:17) Those enemies have continued to ‘frame mischief by law,’ but Jehovah’s people steadfastly insist: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.” (Psalm 94:20, King James Version; Acts 5:29) In 1954 the Watchtower magazine reported: “More than seventy countries at one time or another during the past forty years have made restrictive decrees and have persecuted Jehovah’s witnesses.” Where it has been possible to fight for religious freedom in the courts, these Christians have done so and have come through with resounding victories in a number of countries. In the United States Supreme Court alone, Jehovah’s Witnesses have won 50 victories.
11. What prophecy of Jesus concerning the sign of his presence has been fulfilled upon Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Lord’s day?
11 No other group has been so conscientious in obeying Jesus’ command to pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar. (Luke 20:25; Romans 13:1, 7) Yet, no other group has had members imprisoned in so many lands under so many different forms of government, and this continues to the present time in the Americas, in Europe, in Africa, and in Asia. Jesus’ great prophecy concerning the sign of his presence included these words: “Then people will deliver you up to tribulation and will kill you, and you will be objects of hatred by all the nations on account of my name.” (Matthew 24:3, 9) This has certainly been fulfilled upon the Christian Witnesses of Jehovah during the Lord’s day.
12. How has the John class fortified God’s people against persecution?
12 To fortify God’s people against tribulation, the John class has continually reminded them of the substance of Jesus’ words to the Christians in Smyrna. For example, as Nazi persecution started, The Watchtower in 1933 and 1934 carried articles such as “Fear Them Not,” which discussed Matthew 10:26-33; “The Crucible,” based on Daniel 3:17, 18; and “Lions’ Mouths,” with Daniel 6:22 as the key text. In the 1980’s, during which decade this book was first published and Jehovah’s Witnesses suffered vicious persecution in more than 40 lands, The Watchtower fortified God’s people with articles such as “Happy Though Persecuted!” and “Christians Meet Persecution With Endurance.”*
13. Like the Christians in Smyrna, why have the Christian Witnesses of Jehovah not been afraid of persecution?
13 Truly, the Christian Witnesses of Jehovah are suffering physical persecution and other testings for a symbolic ten days. Like the Christians back in Smyrna, they have not been afraid; nor do any of us need to be afraid as troubles worsen here on earth. We are prepared to endure under sufferings and take even ‘the plundering of our belongings’ joyfully. (Hebrews 10:32-34) By studying God’s Word and making it our very own, we will be equipped to stand solid in the faith. Be assured that Jehovah can and will guard you in your integrity. “Throw all your anxiety upon him, because he cares for you.”—1 Peter 5:6-11.
About 60 years after John died, 86-year-old Polycarp was burned to death in Smyrna because he would not recant his belief in Jesus. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, a work believed to be contemporaneous with this event, states that when wood was being gathered for burning, “the Jews were extremely zealous, as is their custom, in assisting at this”—even though the execution took place on “a great Sabbath day.”
See The Watchtower of November 1, 1933; October 1 and 15, December 1 and 15, 1934; May 1, 1983.
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For many years, historians have been providing testimony regarding the integrity of the German Witnesses of Jehovah during the Nazi regime. The book Mothers in the Fatherland, by historian Claudia Koonz, published in 1986, has this to say: “The overwhelming majority of all Germans from non-Nazi backgrounds found ways of existing under a regime they despised. . . . At the other end of the statistical and ideological spectrum were the 20,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses who, practically to a person, unequivocally refused to render any form of obedience to the Nazi state. . . . The most cohesive group of resisters were sustained by religion. From the first, Jehovah’s Witnesses did not cooperate with any facet of the Nazi state. Even after the Gestapo destroyed their national headquarters in 1933 and banned the sect in 1935, they refused to do so much as say ‘Heil Hitler.’ About half (mostly men) of all Jehovah’s Witnesses were sent to concentration camps, a thousand of them were executed, and another thousand died between 1933 and 1945. . . . Catholics and Protestants heard their clergy urge them to cooperate with Hitler. If they resisted, they did so against orders from both church and state.”