Blessed: Revelation’s Message to Persecuted Believers with Karen Ellis (Episode 9)

This article is part of the Blessed: Conversations on the Book of Revelation with Nancy Guthrie series.

Patient Endurance

Nancy Guthrie talks with Karen Ellis about what it looks like for believers to patiently endure persecution.

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Blessed

Nancy Guthrie

Blessed, by bestselling author and speaker Nancy Guthrie, gives individuals and small groups a friendly, theologically reliable, and robust guide to understanding the book of Revelation.

Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:13 - Are We Facing Persecution?

Nancy Guthrie
My guest today is Karen Ellis. Karen, thank you so much for joining us.

Karen Ellis
It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be asked.

Nancy Guthrie
Karen’s work explores the zones where Christian endurance, the African American church experience, and theological ethics intersect. She directs the Edmiston Center for the Study of the Bible and Ethnicity at Reformed Theological Seminary where they study Christian endurance. I’ve got to say, Karen, that when I read “endurance,” I think “Revelation.” They study Christian endurance on the margins of today’s society. She is currently a PhD candidate in church history at the Oxford Center for Mission Studies in Oxford, England. She holds a Master of Art in religion from Westminster Theological Seminary, and a Master of Fine Art from the Yale School of Drama. I’ve just got to say, Karen, what a variety of studies you have invested yourself in! It’s amazing. Karen is an ambassador and vocal advocate for International Christian Response, which provides spiritual and material assistance to Christians who live in countries hostile to the gospel, enabling them to proclaim the truth, plant churches, and persevere. When I read “persevere,” once again I think “Revelation.” That leads us perfectly into talking about the book of Revelation—this call to persevere. So Karen, right when we get started in Revelation in chapter 1, it tells us it is written down by someone living under persecution. He’s been exiled to Patmos, and he tells us exactly why he was exiled. He says, “On account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” John lives in a day when Caesar is called lord and god, but John says, No. That designation is reserved for the Lord Jesus. Jesus is Lord and God. Because of that bold testimony, John has been exiled to a rocky island prison. In Revelation 1:9 John says, “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus.” He’s writing to those seven churches in Asia in his day, but I think he’s also writing to us. But perhaps those of us in the West don’t think of ourselves in those terms of facing tribulation, kingdom, and patient endurance. Do you think that’s true?

Karen Ellis
I think the way we render, even just sociologically, people groups as a whole kind of stands in our way, and that informs how we think about that. I think the global body as a whole actually tends to see ourselves as separated by geography and language and governments and people groups because that’s the tangible, right? But I’m finding that teaching on union with Christ and that the language of “the body”—why are we a body? Why are we in union with Christ in a body—in his body—and he refers to us as his body? Why is body language so important to the life of the Christian? Who do we see included in that body? I think for the genuine Christian I’ve always taught that the most significant number in approaching persecution—because you get a lot of statistics. You get a lot of numbers—numbers of people who are suffering, numbers of people who have been martyred—but the most significant number is one. For us, one is not a statistic; it’s a state of being. We’re one because Christ said we should be so. He offers that three-fold prayer to the Father in the garden for himself, his disciples, and—to your point—for future generations of believers who are going to bear his name. John 17 gives us some clues into the significance of our oneness, and he’s saying all of this in John 16–17 in the context of what they’re going to suffer. I think that’s remarkably important. He’s telling us, Your oneness is connected to my life of dying and rising again, and your oneness in my body is connected to your oneness as a people. There aren’t any other temporal relationships—not on earth and not in relation to God the Father—that are based on physical and spiritual and prayer-wrought union with the entire person of Christ. Therefore, it’s our primary identity. When one part of the body—in this single organism that is him—when one hurts, Paul tells us the whole body hurts. We are a single organism referred to as Christ’s body because he’s given us his life-giving breath and body to share. When I teach on that and I help people understand that we are one and that we should be thinking of ourselves not as “the persecuted church” and “the non-persecuted church,” I tend to think of ourselves as people who live in the free-er world and people who live in the restricted world. But we’re all one group, one body of Christians. It’s not an us/them proposition. There’s an interesting thing happening today that I think is really exciting. I was a very small cog in the whole process, but I helped facilitate a letter of encouragement from house church pastors in one region and one language to another all the way across the world. It was a group of folks in one region that has experienced anti-Christian hostility—legislated, systematized, cultural, the whole nine yards—and they were writing a letter of encouragement to a group who is just beginning to experience the pangs of suffering for the name of Christ. The letter was saturated with, We know where you’re about to go, and it’s going to be okay. It felt so New Testament epistle-like. We’re not talking about writing more canon here; this isn’t extrabiblical revelation. But it just reflected a reaching out across the globe that I think is unusual at this point in church history and that we haven’t seen in a very long time—one church writing to another across geographic lines and reminding them, We are still one, we know where you’re going, we’re praying for you, and we are with you. Hold on just a little while longer. Everything is going to be alright.

08:27 - What Does It Look Like for Believers to Patiently Endure?

Nancy Guthrie
Beautiful goal. I noticed on your website you have in really large letters, ENDURANCE. I couldn’t help but note this repeated phrase in Revelation. It comes over and over again. In fact, I would define the message of Revelation as this: a call to patient endurance of suffering for our allegiance to Christ, and a refusal to compromise as we wait for his kingdom to come. Let me ask you this: What does it look like today for believers to patiently endure?

Karen Ellis
Of those who persevere to the end of their natural lives, there are two things that mark their lives. First off, an incredible vision and commitment that results out of that vision. The second is Spirit-wrought ability to endure. Some of the things that people endure are so inhumane and beyond our understanding of how a person could yield their bodies to physical pain. It really is a Spirit-wrought reality, so there is a supernatural aspect to it. I think they’re marked by an understanding that their suffering has purpose and that their suffering has meaning. That’s difficult to say, too, because we’re talking about an incredible range of people—not just geographically today but historically—who have had different levels of access to the word of God. Some of them don’t even have some of the books that we’re able to study, Some of them are one-day-old Christians, and all they have is their faith.

Nancy Guthrie
This is mind-boggling to me.

Karen Ellis
It is, right? I think we tend to think of Christians around the world experiencing and having access to the same things that we do, but many of them don’t. One more thing that I would say seems to mark the testimonies and the stories that I experience and handle is an understanding of the presence of God. I love how you do Bible, Nancy. I’m just going to say that. I’m going to step into a Guthrie moment here. If we were to track presence from Genesis to Revelation, we had God’s presence in the garden. And then we lost his presence. Then, we carried the presence of God throughout the Old Testament in tabernacle form and in ark form. Then, we get the presence of Jesus Christ coming and dwelling among men and women in physical form. Like, Oh my goodness! We can touch him! We can see him with our eyes! And then he leaves us his Holy Spirit. Then, we are ushered, in Revelation, around the presence of his throne, finally back in the place where we were supposed to be, where we were created to be all along. I think that those who have experienced suffering in some of the most lonely, isolated situations would say that the presence of God has been one of the most significant factors of their ability to endure.

11:54 - Persecution vs. Marginalization

Nancy Guthrie
Today in the West, we hear people suggest that they are beginning to experience persecution. I know that you have a world-wide perspective on that. Sometimes I’ll see someone claim they are being persecuted, and I think to myself, Is that really persecution? Is someone just disagreeing with you, or just not like you? I’ve heard you make a differentiation between persecution and marginalization. Will you talk to us about that?

Karen Ellis
Sure. Even Scripture tells us that there is a range of hostilities that a believer can experience. You can experience hostility, resentment, being cast out of your family, and all the way to full-blown martyrdom. And then there’s a spectrum of responses in between. I’ve observed three groups in places where saints may be experiencing soft marginalization: persecution seekers, persecution deniers, and persecution realists. Sometimes persecution seekers exaggerate their claims or use persecution as a catch-all phrase to escape the consequences of their actions. Sometimes we’re not being Christ-like. It’s a convenient escape hatch. But I think with persecution on any level in any place, it’s good to ask where the focus is in the telling of the story. Many times those who are experiencing genuine persecution more often point away from self and to Christ. They don’t readily say, Look at me! Look at how I’m suffering! Their words and actions say more, Look to the One who suffered for me. That’s a good indication. Who are you pointing to in your suffering? Other times, there are overlapping identities being marginalized, like in the cases of American Christian slaves who faced discrimination because of their ethnicity, and sometimes also their faith. There’s a book called House of Bondage by Octavia V. R. Albert. She was an ethnographer in the reconstruction period, and she went and got the testimonies of Christians who had come out of slavery who were discussing their religious freedom violations while they were enslaved. Also, advocacy organizations have to have clear parameters to know whether a demographic is experiencing legitimate anti-Christian persecution. Open Doors defines it as any hostility experienced from the world as a result of one’s identification with Christ. And then they give you the range: hostile feelings, attitudes, words, and actions, all the way to martyrdom. But then they also tell you in the Bible that persecution is defined differently. I think that’s where those of us who may be feeling soft marginalization from our families or our cultures need to kind of switch our thinking to go into places like Matthew 5 where Jesus says in the beatitudes that persecution is actually a blessing. We don’t necessarily want that, but he defines the word for us in Luke 6 using four verbs: “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil because of the Son of Man.” Note that it’s Jesus in us who is the reason for and the target of persecution.

15:30 - Is God Sovereign over Persecution?

Nancy Guthrie
Revelation has its beatitudes as well—seven “blessed are those” statements. They’re centered on the same things: allegiance to Christ. When we get to the middle of Revelation we read, “Blessed are those who die in the Lord.” It is stated in the context of persecution and being put to death for one’s faith. That’s consistent in the book of Revelation too. Let’s look into a few passages of Revelation and see what they add to this conversation. I’m thinking first about the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and Revelation 3. We know some of those churches were not facing persecution yet, but others were. John is told to write to the church in Smyrna, “The devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation.” He tells them to be faithful unto death and that he will give them the crown of life. I just have to say this really goes against how many of us view the Christian life in which we see prayer as a mechanism to get God to make our lives easier. So, we hardly know what to do with a God who is sovereign over our suffering. Jesus’s message here is not that he’s going to show up and take away the suffering. Isn’t that so often what we’re hoping the answers to our prayer will be? Rather, his answer is that it is actually going to increase for a specific amount of time that he intends. Numbers are used symbolically throughout the book of Revelation, and Jesus tells Smyrna that their suffering is going to last for ten days, which communicates his sovereignty over the length of their suffering.

Karen Ellis
And it has an end.

Nancy Guthrie
Yes! It has an end to it.

Karen Ellis
Praise the Lord! It has an end!

Nancy Guthrie
This isn’t going to last forever. Let me ask you: As you interact with persecuted believers, how do they wrap their heads and their hearts around a God who could save them from death, but instead tells them to be faithful unto death?

Karen Ellis
Suffering carries with it an identity mark with it all throughout Scripture. There’s something to that, that he’s like, This is the life of my people. I think a biblical worldview understands at least two things, that the pattern of the life of Christ and the telos and purpose of suffering in the biblical economy matters. We live after the pattern of the One we follow. That’s all over Scripture. We in the free-er world often repeat the, Well, no death, no resurrection. No resurrection, no Pentecost. No Pentecost, no power. No power, no glory—and so on and so on. These saints are actually living those phrases in real time. It’s not theoretical. Your suffering has identity borne up in it, and it has meaning at the center of living, costly endurance for the faith. You don’t find methods or an approach to faithful living. You find that person of Jesus Christ. He permeates and empowers the entire experience of suffering for the faith. We don’t suffer for nothing. It’s almost similar to me in my mind’s ear to what we say about baptism. He was baptized unto us so that we could be baptized into him. We die his death to display his life, his power, and show forth his resurrection glory. This is how you will know my people. This is the life you are going to live. You’re going to live like me. In doing all of that, we show forth a sovereign God. A God who is sovereign even over our suffering, and gives meaning and purpose to it.

Nancy Guthrie
Is not the life of the disciple going to be like the life of the master? We really see that picture of our lives, following the pattern of our master. We’ll see it more clearly in Revelation 11. Let’s look first, though, at Revelation 6. In chapter 6, these seven seals begin to be opened, and when the fifth seal is opened, John sees something. He’s written it down because it’s something the believers in his day needed to see, and I think it’s something you and I need to see. He looks and sees and we read, “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” When I read that it’s like a picture of the reality that we read about in Romans 8, that nothing can separate us from the love of God—not famine, not sword, not anything. Where are they? They’re under the altar, in the place of God’s protective presence. What do you think it would have meant for this first audience of this book to see this image? What do you think it means for persecuted believers today to see it?

Karen Ellis
I would think that maybe in the earliest days—and this is just my imagination running—I would think they would have heard these letters and seen the faces of their immediate families, their fellow servants, and their loved ones under this altar. In our day, I think we would picture the same. But the size and population would be immense because of how much history has now happened. To me when I read those passages, it shows me that, first off, those who suffer are not alone. Loneliness is huge in the suffering world, and it goes to the power of community and the power of us being a global body and a historical body, because the loneliness is real. I know there was a period in the 2000s where a lot of people in the underground churches were saying, You’ve forgotten us. We’ve been forgotten. Can you imagine? How important that is for the marginalized to be seen. The second thing it says to me is that those slain for the name of Christ—all who have been killed on the earth (Rev. 18:24)—all those who have been beheaded and those who refuse to bow down to the false idols of their generation—whatever they were when they were experiencing (Rev. 13:15)—those people are going to be honored. And third, there’s going to be justice. He’s telling us he’s working it out and he’s going to keep his word, as our sovereign Lord, to avenge. When the righteous and true one balances the scales at the end of history under the old order, all of us are going to be satisfied with his judgments.

Nancy Guthrie
That is so much what the book of Revelation is about! In fact, we get to hear these people he sees underneath the altar. We read in Revelation 6:10 that they cry out, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” They’re told to “rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” I have to tell you, when I read that I think, How often do my prayers ever sound like that? That’s what the prayers of heaven sound like—longing for God to come and set things right for those who have given their lives in allegiance to him. It’s convicting to me in terms of the content of my own prayers. It helps to explain the rest of what we’re going to read in the book of Revelation. Revelation is a picture of God saying, I’m not going to tell you how long, at least in terms that will be completely satisfying to you, but you can be sure that I will, in fact, set things right. Here’s what it’s going to look like: the day is going to come when you’re going to celebrate my justice. You won’t be embarrassed by it. Karen, I think many people today, when they read about judgment in the Bible, they feel a little bit embarrassed by it. But the book of Revelation reveals, actually, a celebration of God’s perfect justice, not embarrassment over it. In fact, a celebration that those who have slain God’s people out of their hatred for God are themselves being slain in this book.

Karen Ellis
It feels like a massive dose of reality. Again, it’s a confirmation of identity as being possessed and set apart as his. I love how they call out to “sovereign Lord.” They’re not just affirming their own identity in him, but they’re affirming, We know who you are! You’re going to fix this! I feel like this really hearkens back again to his very words in John 16 and John 17: “All these things I have told you so that you will not fall away.” These things are going to happen. They’re going to put you out of the synagogue. Anyone who kills you will think they’re offering a service to God. Which shows you that some of the persecution is coming from the corrupt institutional church, or the temple in that day. “They’ll do such things because they’ve not known the Father or me. I’ve told you this so that when their time comes you’ll remember what I warned you about them.”

Nancy Guthrie
You said this is a huge dose of reality for them and for us. It’s a huge dose of a bitter reality. But the fifth seal gives way to an interlude in chapter 7 that is also, I would say, a dose of reality, but actually a dose of a hopeful reality. It’s this picture of, Yes, you may lose your lives in this battle, but here’s who’s going to be protected in the midst of this. And who will that be? Those who have been sealed to Christ. If you are in Christ, the message of chapter 7 is that you are going to be able to stand before Christ. You’ll be eternally protected because you’ve been marked as belonging to Christ. Yes, you may lose your life, but you will not lose your soul. It’s a picture that the day really is going to come when you and I will be, body and soul, reunited in the presence of Christ in a new creation. That’s certainly what we see when we get to Revelation 21 and Revelation 22, after this great resurrection day. I think to some people that just sounds like religious talk that couldn’t really feed the soul and spirit to stand firm. But it is what the Bible presents to us again and again to take hold of, to generate courage in us for standing firm. As we look deeply into it and as we savor it and allow it to work its way through us, the Holy Spirit uses it to generate that patient endurance we need for these things.

Karen Ellis
Seeing the one face to face whom you’ve taken by faith, that he’ll be waiting to embrace us at the end of all things, has to be an incredible comfort and an amazing vindication of belief. Faith made sight. And that’s stunning to me.

27:49 - What Does Victory Look Like?

Nancy Guthrie
Now, let’s jump to Revelation 11. It gets at what I think you were talking about before in terms of identification with Jesus, our Master, that we would expect the shape of our lives to take the shape of his life, and that we could expect treatment from the world that hates God to be like the treatment Jesus received. In Revelation 11, John speaks of two witnesses, which I think he’s talking about the church because he also describes them in terms of olive trees and lampstands. We know from earlier in Revelation that the lampstands represent the church. It says in Revelation 11:7–11 that when these witnesses have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt. And, of course, when we read that we realize these are two cities that are notorious for hating God. But then it says that this is the city where their Lord was crucified, which we know was Jerusalem. So, perhaps there’s a reference here that Jerusalem has become that kind of city that actually hates God. It continues, “For three and a half days some from the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies”—that’s the dead bodies of these two witnesses—“and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb”—so there’s disrespect for them here—“and those who dwell on the earth”—meaning, those who are not in Christ—“will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents”—which says it’s like a Christmas day celebration because they’ve killed these witnesses—“because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth.” But then it continues, “after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them.” Karen, it’s a picture of exactly what you were talking about, that we can expect to be treated, perhaps killed, like Jesus was treated and killed. But there’s also hope presented here; the hope that we can also expect to be raised like Jesus. Our union with him is going to mean suffering now, but it’s going to mean glory later. It might mean death now, but it’s going to mean resurrection later. Throughout Revelation, John calls those he’s writing to to overcome, or other translations use the term “conquer.” But you can’t help but note that in other passages they are being conquered. And yet, he describes that as actually being victory. I wonder, from your interactions with persecuted people, do they use this word “overcome” or “conquer”? Do they have a sense of what victory looks like—persevering to the end?

Karen Ellis
Local congregations are dealing with a lot of the same things that we are. They’re planting churches, they’re living life. They’re living life with the undercurrent, or overcurrent sometimes, of persecution, but they’re planting churches, they’re building schools. They’re meeting quietly and some are meeting publicly because they’re allowed to. They’re struggling with the same issues that we are.

Nancy Guthrie
They’re trying to get their kids educated.

Karen Ellis
Yes. They’re living life. They’re dealing with the same things that people were dealing with in the New Testament—false teachers, corrupt teachings, sheep stealing.

Nancy Guthrie
Making a living.

Karen Ellis
Making a living. Battling idols—cultural idols. Uncertain conversions. Battling the allure of state-approved worship centers and corrupt religious institutions. In some instances, some places have slavery to deal with, and they’re addressing the role of women. All of these conversations are there, and the faithful are living and navigating all of it in a hostile society that is antagonistic towards transformational biblical Christianity, which provides the answer to all of those things. So, it’s difficult to say if that is a recurring them or a recurring leitmotif. Now, I will say that we’re also seeing publishing projects come out of some closed countries where we can actually look into what they’re teaching. This is huge. This is really exciting. If you’re familiar with The Center for House Church Theology, they have ten publishing projects they’re working on of bringing what is actually being taught in the pews to the rest of the world, and translating them into numerous languages. That’s really exciting. We can get a glimpse into what kind of teaching actually is sustaining them.

33:01 - Praying for Persecuted Believers

Nancy Guthrie
Karen, if one of the impacts of studying Revelation is that we are shaken out of our apathy in regard to the suffering of our brothers and sisters around the world and we think, I want my prayers to reflect what I see in the prayers of heaven in Revelation, how might we go about learning how and what and who to prayer for?

Karen Ellis
As far as organizations go, the Edmiston Center has a number of partners that we love the fact that they’re producing content that we can share with our students to help them understand the dynamics of living in marginalized situations. The first one you already mentioned—International Christian Response USA—they’re working alongside church planters and providing legal aid and educational initiatives. Global Catalytic Ministries (GCM)—witnessing one of the largest disciple-making movements in the world right now. There’s a lot to learn from them about disciple-making under hostility. Help the Persecuted is a fantastic organization supporting people in countries where Western missionaries can’t go. The Center for House Church Theology, which I already mentioned, their publishing projects, I think, are going to be extremely valuable assets for understanding soft marginalization to full-blown martyrdom. And then, one of our essential partners is Prayer Current out of Canada. They are reexamining prayer through the Bible; the kind of prayer that has led to the most significant revival and renewal movements in history, and returning to the simplicity of New Testament style prayer and living. All of those are great resources for continuing to understand our changing world. There’s always some form of resentment against the gospel. It’s built into it. There is an offense in the gospel. Whether that is cultural, communal, familial, or legislated and governmental, you’re going to experience it somewhere whether you live in the free-er world or not. So, having these resources at your fingertips, and, of course, the Edmiston Center resources are going to be really helpful as we experience soft cultural marginalization in our own context.

Nancy Guthrie
That’s so helpful. I’m so grateful to have you, my sister and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus. Grace and peace to you as you seek to overcome by the blood of the Lamb.

Karen Ellis
Amen, dear one. Thank you so much.



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In this new podcast, Nancy Guthrie—author, Bible teacher, and podcast host—leads listeners to a deeper understanding of the book of Revelation through conversations with respected Bible scholars, pastors, and other Bible teachers.


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