Jesus, the risen Son, claims to know our suffering—both in the present and the future—but He doesn’t always respond in the way we might expect or offer what we’re looking for: words of comfort (like Psalm 23) or words of valor (like Eph. 6:10–18 or Josh. 1:8). Sometimes, He gives us marching orders.
In the case of the church in Smyrna, he gave four words of instruction:
Be faithful until death.
The Curious Message
In the city of Smyrna stood a temple dedicated to the Roman Emperor Tiberius, a constant reminder to the believers there of the spiritual battleground on which they lived. Likely because of this temple, the Romans made Smyrna the seat of their “Caesar-cult” and did everything possible to squelch the testimony of Christ in the city. 1
Scripture doesn’t record for us how the gospel came to Smyrna, but given its proximity to Ephesus, it’s a good guess that the efforts of Paul and John there had a gospel impact on its neighbor to the north. These cities are the first two addressed by the Son of God in Revelation 2, but the letter to Smyrna stands out. Unlike most of the other recipients of these letters, Christ says nothing negative about the church in Smyrna; neither does He specifically commend their works. Instead, He gives them another message:
“Write to the angel of the church in Smyrna: Thus says the First and the Last, the one who was dead and came to life: I know your affliction and poverty, but you are rich. I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. Look, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you, and you will experience affliction for ten days. Be faithful to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
“Let anyone who has ears to hear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will never be harmed by the second death.” (Rev. 2:8–11, emphasis added)
Jesus said be faithful until death.
I have to wonder how the Smyrnaean church responded. I know how I’d be tempted to react: “What? That’s all? You’ve got to be kidding! Are we missing a page?” But that really is the whole message: “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
It’s the same message the Son has for us.
Be Faithful Because Christ Is Risen
Each of the letters to the churches begins with a picture of Christ that connects to the content of the correspondence. In the case of the letter to Smyrna, the Son is called the “First and the Last, the one who was dead and came to life.” This opening image reminds the believers at Smyrna that they can be faithful because Christ has conquered the grave.
I don’t know what specific horrors Rome had for Smyrna, but I know that their empire conceived of some pretty nasty ways to punish and exterminate people. (If you want a grisly rabbit hole, just Google the topic.) So, I can imagine that whatever these brothers and sisters were going to face in Smyrna, it was probably going to be pretty gruesome—and I’m sure they knew it too. Christ wants them to remember that no matter what the devil may find to do to them—through imprisonment or worse—the grave is not the end. The way He finishes the letter backs this up: “The one who conquers will never be harmed by the second death” (Rev. 2:11).
The concept of persecution for most of us bears no resemblance to the atrocities conceived of by Rome. Imprisonment in our day would be like a night at the Plaza Hotel for our Smyrnaean counterparts who suffered in jail. But that doesn’t change the message. Christ has conquered the grave. Nothing—whether inhumane or passive aggressive—can ultimately destroy you.
The sting of death is gone, the victory of hell is defeated. Christ is risen.
Be Faithful Because God Is Still God
After reminding them of His victorious resurrection, Jesus tells the church at Smyrna that He sees them. He knows exactly what they’re going through now and what they’re about to go through. He knows that they’re suffering. He knows that they’re slandered by people posing as Jews. He knows that they’re impoverished.
Not only that, He knows what’s coming. He knows what Satan plans to do and for just how long he’s going to do it. Maybe this seems like fake news. Who cares if God knows if He’s not going to do anything about it anyway? However, a closer look reveals that these words offer hope, not despair.
First, these words from Christ remind us that we’re not forgotten. The One who knows each sparrow when it falls (Matt. 10:29) and the name of each star in the sky (Isa. 40:26), knows you. David, in Psalm 139, rhapsodizes about God’s intimate omniscience:
LORD, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up;
you understand my thoughts from far away.
You observe my travels and my rest;
you are aware of all my ways. . . .
Your eyes saw me when I was formless;
all my days were written in your book and planned
before a single one of them began.
God, how precious your thoughts are to me;
how vast their sum is! (Psalm 139:1–3, 16–17)
Not only does God see and know, but He doesn’t lose His sovereignty as persecution happens. Christ tells Smyrna what the devil is about to do. Again, this may seem like a slap in the face rather than a balm. On the contrary, it shows that Almighty God has not slid off His throne. His crown remains firmly in place, and His sovereign rule has not been jeopardized by Satan’s cunning. Just as He allowed Satan to try Job, He allowed him to throw believers in Smyrna into jail. Satan is always on God’s leash, even if Satan thinks he’s gotten the upper hand.
Finally, we see that God limits the suffering of the believers in Smyrna. Just as He did with Job, God puts boundaries in place that Satan will not be able to cross. In this case, there is a deadline. The Smyrnaeans will be in prison for “ten days.” It’s entirely possible that that number is symbolic and doesn’t mean 240 hours (though maybe it does). The point is that their suffering has an end. God will not allow them to suffer one second too long.
The same is true for you and me. God sees, He allows, and He limits. He will never allow the testing to go too far, to last too long, or to be too difficult.
Be Faithful and Remember the Prize
The reward for faithfulness may fall short of our expectations. Christ tells the church in Smyrna that if they’re faithful until the end, He will give them the crown of life. I don’t know exactly what the crown of life is, but I do know that it’s delayed gratification for hard-fought endurance. Most of us would rather have an immediate reward—like no suffering!
Whether a literal piece of headwear or a symbol for some other reward, the crown of life reminds the Smyrnaeans and us to keep eternity in view. This life is not all there is. We press on, not to receive our “best life now,” but because of the Promised Land that we will enjoy forever. The writer of Hebrews, speaking to a group of persecuted Christians, put it this way: “Let us then go to [Jesus] outside the camp, bearing his disgrace. For we do not have an enduring city here; instead, we seek the one to come” (Heb. 13:13–14).
What “Be Faithful” Doesn’t Mean
An article like this could lead to some false assumptions about remaining faithful, so let’s dispel some of those conclusions by discussing what being faithful doesn’t mean.
- Being faithful doesnot mean being stoic. We’re not called to a life of emotionless, stone-faced, endurance. The book of Psalms and even Jesus Himself demonstrate that we can be faithfully committed to the kingdom of God while still experiencing and expressing deep, visceral emotions.
- Being faithful doesnot mean being ascetic. Asceticism is the belief that holiness is achieved through physical deprivation. Remaining faithful to Christ, however, does not mean that we need to seek out suffering or inflict it upon ourselves. God will orchestrate circumstances perfectly; our job is to be faithful no matter what He puts in our path.
- Being faithful isn’t flashy. Faithfulness is a commitment to, as Elisabeth Elliot famously said, “Do the next right thing.” It’s not about giftedness or size of platform or audience. It’s about daily obedience, even when circumstances stink or when no one is watching.
Suffering is coming. It may look like the imprisonment of Christians, as in Smyrna; or it may look completely different. Regardless of what shape it takes, let us heed the Savior’s instructions.
Be faithful until the end.