Faithful Unto Death

A common saying I hear today when someone has been going through an extended period of distress is, “They deserve some happiness.” The implication is, based on how bad things have been, it’s time for some easy living. The idea that we deserve some happiness is a gross misunderstanding of our true situation. No one deserves anything but God’s wrath and judgment. Anything we experience other than that is due to God’s mercy and grace, both the common mercy and grace he shows to all people and the special mercy and grace he shows to his elect. When it comes to believers that are enduring some type of suffering, many times the expectation is, when the particular difficult circumstances end, life will be better. After all, when Job’s suffering was complete God restored to Job twice as much as he had before (Job 48:10). This is not always the case, though. One of the churches mentioned in Revelation is an example of this.

Revelation was written to seven churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Jesus, through the apostle John, gives a specific message for each church. The messages follow a similar pattern, and part of this pattern is the acknowledgement by Jesus that he knows what is going on in the life of each church. (“I know,” is found in the message to each church.) For most of the churches Jesus gives praise then follows that praise with “but I have this against you.” I say most because he does not say this for the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia. For these churches Jesus has no admonition or rebuke.

The message to Smyrna is the shortest message to any of the churches, a mere four verses.

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’” (Revelation 2:8-11 ESV)

Jesus tells the believers in Smyrna he knows their tribulation and poverty. The believers at this time were experienced severe persecution. Clearly much of the persecution in Smyrna came from the Jewish population of the city as the text says the Jews of the city slandered the Christians. (Note that in the messages to the two churches that had no rebuke, Smyrna and Philadelphia, a “synagogue of Satan” is mentioned.) My purpose here is not to examine the actual persecution but to note what Jesus promises this persecuted church, this church for which Jesus had no admonition or rebuke. He promises even more suffering and tribulation. You would think Jesus would comfort this church by promising them relief from the suffering because of their faithfulness. Not so. After acknowledging their trouble he says, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.” Jesus says the devil will throw them in prison in order to test them, and they need to be faithful unto death. Being faithful unto death means being faithful to the end, even if that end is death from the hands of the unbelieving world.

This reminds me of Hebrews chapter 11, the chapter of faith. After proclaiming many of the victories given to Old Testament saints the author flows right into the suffering and testing endured by many of the Old Testament saints. Note the change in the middle of verse 35.

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Hebrews 11:35b-38 ESV)

Regarding Smyrna, Jesus does not explain the purpose for the further testing, but we know from other places in Scripture that testing is not without purpose. Testing is not so God can find out how we are doing. He does not give exams so he can assign a grade. His testing produces in us the godly character that brings praise and glory to our great Redeemer (see James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:6-7, and Romans 5:1-5).

Jesus told the church at Smyrna the testing would last ten days. This does not indicate the length of the testing but that the testing would be complete. That is, the testing would accomplish its purpose. So also, testing in our lives will end when God intends for it to end, and it will accomplish what God has purposed. And sometimes the testing involves things going from bad to worse.

Fortunately the promise of more testing was not the last promise Jesus gave the church at Smyrna. He offers one more promise to those at Smyrna that are faithful unto death: the crown of life. What a promise! The crown of life represents the eternal life we have in Christ. Just as the believers at Smyrna did not deserve the crown of life so we do not deserve the crown of life. Being faithful unto death does not ultimately demonstrate our faithfulness to God but God’s faithfulness to us. As 2 Timothy 2:13 says, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” We are right to be relieved and thankful when periods of distress end, but what Jesus promises is much greater than a return to smooth sailing in this life. The promise of eternal life, which is, as John 17:3 says, knowing God and Jesus, gives us hope when life’s circumstances are not improving and maybe even are getting worse. As Romans 5:5 says, this “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” This hope never disappoints.

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