What it Means to Remain Faithful
Revelation 2:10, “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”
Those were the words of Jesus as recorded by John, the last living Apostle of Christ on earth. He was writing to a severely persecuted group of Christians in the city of Smyrna which in the first century was a city in Asia Minor. If you were to look on the map and try and pinpoint Smyrna, you would want to look for Izmir in the country of Turkey just east of the gulf of Izmir. It reaches about 40 miles inland and in the first century was ideally located as a distribution point for a large portion of the region.
One of the things that made this area of the world significant enough that Jesus chose to point them out by inspiration is the degree of Pagan worship that existed in Smyrna at the time. Smyrna had temples built to Zeus, (Jupiter to the Romans), Athena (Daughter of Jupiter) and Cybele, (Magna Mater or Earth mother to the Romans). In 23 AD a temple was built in honor of Tiberius, the Roman Emperor between 14 AD and 37 AD.
Now what makes this fact the most significant to this study is that worship to Zeus, Athena, Cybele and others was voluntary, however, worship to Tiberius was not. There was an organization of people in the Roman Empire who were tasked with the setting up of temples to the Emperors and promoting the worship of them. This was a propaganda measure aimed at bolstering the popularity of the emperor within the Roman society. This organization was known in history as the imperial cults, sometimes referred to as the “Concilia”. They had the authority from the emperor to force people to worship the emperor by whatever means they could contrive. Those who refused to worship the emperor were often times severely punished. The punishment for refusing to worship the emperor came in several forms. A few of the means by which Christians were punished were persecution, imprisonment, seizure of property by the authorities and the denial of the ability to work a job or buy and sell goods and food. The Christians in Smyrna were poverty stricken and were considered the lowest class in the society.
The non-Christian Roman society thought nothing at all of worshipping many pagan gods so when the imperial cult showed up and said “Hey, worship the emperor or suffer the consequences” they simply complied and went on about their business. To them worshipping an emperor was no different than any of the other supposed gods of their society.
But to a Christian, offering any kind of worship to any god other than Jehovah was strictly forbidden and doing so carried the consequence of loss of fellowship with God. The Christians knew this and as a result, were imprisoned and severely persecuted for it. Smyrna had a temple built to Tiberius, emperor of Rome. And Christians living in Smyrna at that time would have been targets of the imperial cult.
The time this letter was written was somewhere between 70AD and the turn of the second century. Christianity was made illegal in Rome after 64 AD when emperor Nero blamed the burning of Rome on the Christians in order to spin the blame away from himself on to someone else. So at the time this letter was received and read, it was illegal in Rome to even be a Christian.
It was no accident that Jesus had a message for Smyrna about worshipping false gods. Now with a little back ground information let’s read our opening text again starting in Revelation 2:9 and then 10…”I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.
10 Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”
Jesus said, I know you are working hard, and that your tribulation is bad and that you are living in poverty. But don’t fear, worse times are coming for you. Be brave, be courageous. Jesus says the Devil is going to cast some of you into prison. Christianity is illegal so you are going to be thrown into prison. You are going to be tried in court and you are going to suffer for your faith. You are going to suffer tribulation for an undisclosed period of time sufficient to complete God’s purpose. Be faithful even to the point of your death and I will give you a crown of life. Some of the Christians reading this letter were going to be put to death for their faith. And history records that Christians living in the Roman empire did. Many of them died, some of them suffering horrific deaths. Our brothers, our sisters, our brethren died in Smyrna because they were Christians and they refused to bow down and worship the emperor.
In Verse 11 Jesus went on to say some words that when understood in their proper historical context should make every single Christian who ever lived hang their heads in remorse for the Christian souls living in Smyrna and facing what was soon coming their way. And from these words, we today are going to make some applications to our own Christian walk. Jesus said in V11,
“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.”
“He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death” The second death…. Hebrews 9:27 reads, “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” There’s the first death. That is a physical death and we are all facing that some day, unless the Lord comes while we are yet living. The second death is eternal condemnation and can be avoided for those living in Smyrna who were able to overcome the tribulations they faced and remain faithful. Within those words contain what we call the logical opposite. If those who overcome do not face the second death, then those who do not overcome will face the second death.
God expected the Christians in Smyrna, who were already living under some of the worst persecution and oppression in the history of Christianity to overcome, to remain faithful, to not give up, when it got worse, even to the point of death. Failure to do so resulted in facing the second death, or eternal condemnation.
It was important to those Christians living in Smyrna that they remain faithful and they were told that and they understood that. History records that Christians of the day endured horrific torture and persecution at the hands of their oppressors and many went to their deaths doing it.
Here’s a question for us today; let’s fast forward to the 21st century; Same God, Same Jesus, same gospel, same cross, same faith as the Christians living in Smyrna…
We today live in a free society, with our right to worship God unmolested and freely as we choose guaranteed by our Constitution. Our abilities to work and earn comfortable livings for ourselves and our families, free from religious persecution is written in to our national laws. We don’t have to worry about a government agency bursting through our doors and dragging us away to prison for being Christians. We don’t have to worry about being unable to feed our families because we’re setting in jail for being a Christian or refusing to worship the leader of our earthly country of residence.
Before we look at the question that by now everyone here has already figured out is coming, let’s pause for a minute and look at Luke 12:48… Jesus is speaking here of servants who knew what was expected of them but refused to obey… Well, we have the word of God and we know what is expected. So with that in mind, let’s read Luke 12:48, “But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”
Jesus says more is expected from those who have been given more. Jesus expected the horribly oppressed Christians in Smyrna to remain faithful, even to the point of death or suffer eternal condemnation. They didn’t have what we enjoy in our society today did they? Christians living today in the 21st Century, in the United States of America have got it a lot better than the Christians living in Smyrna in the 1st century.
Here’s the question we all know is coming… How much more so are God’s expectations for us today to remain faithful than they were for the Christians living in Smyrna? He didn’t cut them any slack. He said be faithful or be condemned, no matter what. What about us today? Does it not make sense that we today are at the very least expected to remain as faithful as they were then? Even to the point of death. I can guarantee you that Christians living today who may be lying in a bed surrounded by friends and family at their deaths are expected to be just as faithful at the moment of death as Christians living in Smyrna who were expected to be faithful even when doing so meant their death.
James wrote to Christians as recorded in James 5:19-20, “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; 20 Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins”.
KJV.. The death James is referring to in that passage is the second death Jesus mentioned in Revelation 2:10. A soul cannot die a physical death. James is talking about a spiritual death which in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is described as “eternal destruction from the presence of the Lord.” Jesus paints a very vivid picture of Hell in Mark 9 where he referred to as the fire that shall never be quenched and the worm that never dies. The worm eats the flesh of the dead. The idea expressed here is that there will never be a point at which there will be nothing for the eaters of the dead to feed upon. The worms never die because that which they feed upon will never be consumed. The fire of Hell will never end and the condemned who are doomed to suffer in eternal fire will never reach a point where they are no longer food for the maggots. The worm never ever dies.
John paints another picture of Hell in Revelation. Hell is depicted as a “lake of fire burning with brimstone” (Rev 19:20). Brimstone is combustible sulphur which gives off choking suffocating fumes when it burns. Those who are condemned for worshipping false gods “…shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night…“, (Revelation 14:10-11).
Hell is an indescribably horrible place of never ending pain, misery, suffering and despair. It’s the eternal home of all the angels who sinned and all the thieves, murderers, rapists and other evil people who ever lived. It’s dark, it’s burning, the company is bad and it’s eternal. It’s a place where we will suffer the agony of death forever but never die. We don’t want to go there, we don’t want to be there, we don’t want to live there.
The Hebrew writer had much to say about remaining faithful. In Hebrews 3:12-14, we read, “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. 13 But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end“.
And then again in Hebrews 10:38-39, “Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. v39 But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; [a place of utter and eternal condemnation], but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.”
And then again in Hebrews 12:25, “See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven”
The Hebrew writer warned his Christian brethren not to draw back, not depart from or draw back from God. If it were not necessary to remain faithful then we would not be warned against it with the promise of eternal condemnation. God isn’t going to threaten anyone with something that isn’t real. He’s not going to warn us to remain faithful or face eternal and complete destruction if it’s not possible for a Christian to suffer it.
Peter also gave Christians a very graphic and vivid picture of what awaits a child of God succumbs to false teachers and fails to remain faithful in
2 Peter 2:20-22, “For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning.
21 For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them.
22 But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.”
The Christians in Smyrna were expected to remain faithful to the point of death no matter the circumstances. If Christians living in the first century under the the worst persecution imaginable were told to remain faithful or suffer eternal condemnation, then we can be assured that all Christians in the 21st century must remain faithful too.
Thankfully, those who may have fallen away and become entangled in the pollutions of the world have a remedy. All is not lost. Even though the future is hopeless for those children of God who have turned from the way of righteousness, like the prodigal son, they can repent and return and regain their fellowship with God in Christ.
In our study of the introductory text in Revelation 2:10 we learned that 1st century Christians were expected to remain faithful, even to the point of death. Jesus had no words of condemnation for the Christians in Smyrna but He did for most of the other churches he wrote to in the first three chapters of Revelation.
The Christians in Ephesus had left their first love. Well that’s a picture of Christ as the bridegroom of the church. They were guilty of leaving Christ as the authority, or the head of their church. Jesus told them to repent or lose their fellowship with God. (Revelation 2:1-7)
The Christians in Pergamos were tolerating false teachers within their midst. They were told to repent and overcome or be judged by the word of God. (Revelation 2:12-17)
The Christians in Thyatira was condemned for allowing and participating in sexual uncleanness in their midst. They were told to repent and overcome or face condemnation. (Revelation 2:18-29)
The Christians in Sardis were condemned for incomplete or imperfect works. They were to told repent and overcome or face condemnation. (Revelation 3:1-6)
The Christians in Laodicea were accused of being lukewarm in their faith, They were told to repent and overcome or face condemnation. (Revelation 3:14-22)
To the Christians in Smyrna, Jesus simply said remain faithful until death. He warned them not to mess up no matter what happened. Those Christians got words of encouragement because they were facing some greater problems yet to come. Five of the other six churches Jesus wrote to had already messed up and were not as faithful as Jesus expected. They all got the same exhortation.
The were all told to Repent… which is a sorrow of heart which leads to a turning away from sinful behavior. In short, they had to stop doing those things they were forbidden to do and start doing the things they were supposed to do.
And finally, they were all told to overcome those things which were standing between them and Christ. Overcomers master, conquer, defeat and prevail over the obstacles that lie between them and God. And every single one of these groups of Christians were promised a home in heaven with God if they were successful.
If repenting and overcoming worked for those Christians living in the 1st century, it’ll work for Christians living in the 21st century just as well. There was still hope for them and there is hope for us today if we need it.
It’s a bad thing for a Christian to fall away from God’s righteousness and lose their home in heaven. But it’s a far worse thing for a Christian to die in a fallen state. While we yet have breath in us, if we have fallen away, we, like the prodigal son can return home. We can say we are sorry, we can repent of the things that caused us to lose our home with God and we can overcome. Nobody can go back and change their beginnings. But each and every one of us, if we need, can stop right we are, change directions and change our ending.
1 John 1:7-9
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.
8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.