The True Wealth of the Suffering Church

You have probably seen one of the paintings. Perhaps Warner Sallman’s or William Holman Hunt’s. Jesus is standing outside a door holding a lantern, knocking. The paintings were inspired by this famous verse:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:20)

The paintings look peaceful, and Jesus looks meek and gentle. But this is misleading.

The Mercy of Hard Words

When Jesus spoke these words through the apostle John, he was addressing Christians in the church at Laodicea. Do you know what was on the other side of the door? Wealthy, prosperous Christians whose love for Jesus had grown lukewarm — Christians who thought they were doing fairly well, but didn’t know they were actually “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:16–18). And it was no meek Jesus that came knocking. He had come to “reprove and discipline” (Revelation 3:19).

And Jesus’s hard words were a great mercy. The Laodiceans didn’t seem to be aware of the danger they were in or, if they had some idea, didn’t grasp just how serious it was. Jesus came to wake them out of their prosperity-induced stupor with a dose of reality. They needed to see what they had become; they needed to see their true poverty. And then he invited them, through repentance, to open the door to him and receive his incredible grace.

True Wealth, Real Poverty

Jesus’s word to the church at Laodicea is a haunting one to us prosperous, Western, twenty-first-century Christians. What is it about prosperity that tends to have such a spiritually deadening effect on us?

We know that prosperity itself is not an evil. If it were, Jesus would not have promised us “treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20). Whatever that will be, we are to understand it in terms of how we understand treasures on earth.

But Jesus is clear that treasures on earth tend to have a dangerously seductive power over our fallen nature. Our tendency is to fall in love with earthly treasures instead of God, making them a great danger to us (1 Timothy 6:10). So Jesus tells us not to lay them up on earth (Matthew 6:19), but to keep our lives free from the love of money (Hebrews 13:5).

It is a great irony that earthly material wealth can lead to the true poverty of faith (James 5:1–3), and material poverty can lead to the true wealth of faith (James 2:5). It’s ironic because wealth is not itself an evil (unless attained unjustly), and poverty is an evil of the age in which we now live.

Something about the deprivation of earthly comfort encourages us to seek true wealth by trusting God in Christ for everything (Philippians 3:7–8; 4:11–13). And something blinding about earthly wealth can cause us not to see true wealth when it is looking us in the face (Mark 10:21–22).

Look to the Suffering Church

How do we know how much we resemble the Laodicean Christians? We don’t get much help by relative comparisons with other prosperous Christians (“I don’t love money that much”). But it is very helpful for us to look at and listen to Christians who suffer, or have suffered, for the sake of Christ.

Nik Ripken has served us wonderfully in his book The Insanity of God. He tells stories of Christians who have paid a high price to follow Jesus — from hundreds of interviews he’s conducted throughout the former Soviet Union, China, the Middle East, West Africa, and elsewhere. What he reports is both beautiful and convicting.

This is no collection of hagiographies; it is no romance of persecution. It is a real look at real people who have really suffered and have known the reality and provisions and interventions and sustaining grace of God in ways that seem to be very rare in the West.

It is like stepping into the world of the New Testament, where it seems insane that God would choose a handful of seemingly weak, foolish, politically unconnected, often materially disadvantaged people (1 Corinthians 1:26–27) to preach his gospel in societies that sought to violently stomp it out. The societies ended up disappearing. The gospel endured.

And now Nik has served us again by producing the film The Insanity of God. It is playing in theaters across the United States this Tuesday, August 30. I viewed a pre-release version, and it affected me almost as deeply as the book.

Is Jesus Worth It?

I rarely recommend a book or movie so highly. The book and the movie help us breathe a different air — much more like Jerusalem in AD 35 than Minneapolis in AD 2016. Much more like the air of the church in Smyrna (Revelation 2:8–11) than Laodicea (Revelation 3:14–22).

Ripken says this near the end of the film:

The gospel continues to be authenticated by what people are willing to suffer for the cause of Jesus Christ.

This is true. And it’s convicting. Looking at the price that suffering Christians are willing to pay for Christ makes us ask what we are willing to pay. What risks are we willing to take to bring Jesus to the unreached? Is Jesus worth it?

Our response to these questions in light of the testimonies of persecuted believers will help us more than almost anything else assess how much we are infected by the Laodicean illness. The more we don’t want to look, the more we need to. And if it turns out that we are more lukewarm than we thought, to receive Jesus’s rebuke is a great healing mercy to us.

Don’t let this opportunity pass. See the movie. Read the book. Let the suffering church show you what true wealth is. It will increase your desire to leave the poverty of earthly treasures in order to experience more profoundly, and to show more boldly, that Jesus truly is worth it.