Be Faithful To the Point of Death
Key Verse 2:10c
“Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
The subject of death has always been a source of discomfort for all human beings to say the least. Death is scary and mysterious— a monster lurking at every corner of life, ready to strike at its victims one by one. Since the dawn of time, death has been that insatiable ogre who has swallowed up countless lives and continues to do so. And since the dawn of time, man has been searching for a remedy, an antidote to this awful thing we call death, but to no avail. The Bible calls death the final enemy. Even in the midst of life, death has haunted mankind from the cradle, casting a pall of gloom on life rendering it impotent in the face of death. For generations, death ruled the heart the soul and the very life of us all— until the coming of the One Man Jesus. Jesus didn’t just heal the sick and teach radical teachings that shook the foundation of religion. Jesus’ greatest act in life was to submit to death. In doing so, he shattered the bonds of death, tamed it, and conquered it with a glorious resurrection. Upon his resurrection, Jesus also shattered the mystery about death, and opened the gateway for us not only to defeat death, but to lose the fear of it, and to see beyond its dismal shroud to life everlasting— to eternity— to the very heart of God and his Kingdom.
Another subject that most human beings are uncomfortable with is that of suffering. We hate suffering. We hate the notion of suffering. We avoid every road that seemingly leads to suffering. We abhor suffering as if it were a hideous disease as appalling as death itself. We do the things is life that most reduce any avenue to suffering. Did we mention that we hate suffering? We hate it with a passion. That was the reaction of all humanity from the dawn of time— till the coming of Jesus. Just as Jesus broke the bonds of the death and took away the edge of our fear of death, Jesus also did the same with the truth about suffering. I say truth because suffering is as much a Christian virtue as is say, prayer or peace, as love or hope. Jesus suffered beyond imagining for the three and the half years he was with us, the Immaculate Prince who walked and lived in our filthy slums of life, who bore our filthy sins, who shared our filthy lives— when he had suffered enough with us, he then surrendered himself to those who called themselves human beings but were in fact beasts and creatures of darkness. They mocked him and taunted him, struck him and beat him, spat on him and dragged him to the cross where they also crucified him. No human being could ever suffered what Jesus went through, for his suffering was not only the anguish of the body, but also the anguish of the soul. Jesus who bore our sins upon himself suffered the most from the burden of our sins, as well as from God his Father turning his face away from him.
If death had been our final enemy, then suffering was as much a final enemy of humanity as well. Until Jesus died and resurrected. When that happened, something amazing also happened in the heart of— not all men— but in the hearts of those who have since taken to faith in Jesus. That faith not only rescues us from sin, from death, from the final insult of decay, but it rescues us from the pain of suffering. Not that Christians do not suffer as all human beings must. But that the pain of suffering is dampened in its pains, for it bears meaning and purpose, and it also bears some strange kind of joy— the joy of knowing that we suffering with him, for him, and for each other. That in itself is our victory. The Christian has overcome the fear of death. The Christian has also embraced the prospect of suffering in a way that no worldly person can understand.
And that is the story of this passage. Without understanding the essence of what Christianity is all about, it is impossible to make sense of what message the Lord had for his church in Smyrna. A mystery of mysteries that Jesus has no rebuke for these people, but only a strange and unfamiliar encouragement to the eyes of those who do not understand the Christian faith, and the hope we hold in life and in death, and yes also in the suffering that we must go through in life for his name’s sake. As the apostle says: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” (Acts 14:22)
When Jesus dictated the letter to the church at Smyrna, his words were few but eternally powerful, confirming the truth that suffering is very much a part of the Christian experience. That we need not despise our sufferings, need not avoid them, but embrace them as that side of faith that elevates us to being witnesses to the gospel and the resurrection that is ours in the Lord. Read verse 8. “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” Look how Jesus introduced himself to this particular church. It has a message to those who were suffering greatly in Smyrna. The message is that after his suffering and death, Jesus rose from the dead. Those words are not just words. They are a message of victory to those who are suffering for Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus is the mightiest power every witnessed in heaven and on earth. Creation is God’s awesome power. But the resurrection is greater yet for it proves that God is ever in control of life and death. He rules life and death and resurrection, and is able to give it to anyone he chooses. To the people of church of Smyrna, this message was particularly important. From him who was dead and who is now alive, from the glorious victor of all— to his suffering people in Smyrna. His final message is two fold: Remain faithful and Overcome.
Read verse 9. “I know your afflictions and your poverty–yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” They had renounced their sins and had accepted Jesus’ forgiveness. They had abandoned their worldly desires and their hopes and dreams in this world in order to embrace God’s hope of salvation for all who believe. In the process they had suffered great losses in the world. They had lost friends and family members who shunned them and labeled them as Christians— an insult. But according to Jesus they were rich— far richer now than they had ever been— for they were rich in faith and in faithfulness. They were rich in Jesus and in his grace.
But there is nothing more precious to them than to know that the Lord knows of all their afflictions, that he knows of their poverty. In addressing his people in Smyrna, the Lord began his words with an intimate identification with their afflictions and sufferings. To them, these words were priceless. For there is nothing more comforting than to know that God knows our sufferings and identifies with them. Sometimes the greatest comfort for those who suffer is to share in their suffering. Jesus shared in their suffering. He shared in their affliction. He tasted their poverty. He lived it. And now he reigns in heaven and still knows their deepest agony, their painful losses, their afflictions, sorrows and the life of poverty that was bequeathed to them upon confessing the name of Jesus. Most worldly Christians think that with the faith comes the wealth and the blessings of God. But they never stop to think that God’s blessings may well be afflictions and poverty— to share in what Jesus had shared in order to bring the final victory to our hearts and lives. Praise God whose truth is greater than the lies of Satan, who continues to trick Christians into believing that God would not allow suffering, but that God would bring about the good life.
Jesus did not lie to these people in Smyrna. Jesus identified with their suffering. Jesus also recognized that their sufferings were not only their Christian faith, but that they suffering for that faith as well. According to verse 9, they were suffering at the hands of Jews who were not Jews at heart. They suffered at hands of those who were prompted by Satan to slander the good name of Christ Jesus which the Smyrna church upheld at an enormous cost. They not only suffered but their children suffered as well. Their jobs suffered. Their daily life was immersed in the anguish these Jews who were not Jews were inflicting on them. We are not sure what those afflictions are. But we know that they were great afflictions that were undeserved and carefully tailored by the enemies of the cross and of Jesus. Yet Jesus did not lie to them. Nor did he give them any sign of relief that they would recover from their afflictions. The Lord simply identified with them, to give them a comfort that no worldly person can ever know. For our comfort comes from knowing that the hand of God upon us, that our rewards, that our true recognition and our immense riches come to us through the Holy Spirit who lives in us.
Yet Jesus indeed encouraged them in their afflictions. Read verse 10. “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” They suffered greatly at the hands of God haters, at the hands of those who hated the cross of Jesus, and who hated Jesus, if not by their mouths then by their actions. For no Christian who knows Jesus personally can willingly inflict suffering on his brother or sister in the Lord. Sometimes we do that. In our pain we turn our pain outward and inflict suffering on those who are closest to us. That is not deliberate. It is rather a sign that we are suffering too much, and that we do not know how to deal with it. When we have forgotten to love beyond measure and to bring peace among ourselves. But Jesus was speaking of another kind of suffering. Jesus comforted them by telling them that their suffering is not without cause or meaning. The cause was not the Jews who were not Jews, for these, in rejecting Jesus, gave themselves over the devil who is the greatest enemy of Christians and of the cross of Jesus. Jesus himself comforted them that they will suffer, but that their suffering was because the devil is angry that they have held on to the truth and rejected the lies. He was angry that they had not ran away from their sufferings and afflictions but had instead embraced them as a cost of discipleship, as a cost for being Jesus’ own people.
Jesus commanded his people not to fear their sufferings. That is the greatest of commands of the Lord. Not to fear suffering is to exhibit the highest form of faith. Faith in Jesus who is forever the Lord over life and death, the sovereign over all our situations. Faith that nothing can happen to us when we know that Jesus is with us, that our sufferings, whatever they are, are dear to God, who some day will give us such comfort as no one has ever seen or known. These Smyrna Christians should not be afraid of suffering. What a glorious command to have! Do not be afraid of suffering. Its all that he told them. We too must not fear suffering. We too must look upon our small sufferings as God’s gift to strengthen, to encourage, to mature, and to discipline our bodies and souls to serve God’s purpose best. As Jesus suffered to serve us and God’s purpose, so also we are called to suffer. As the apostle Peter tells us about suffering: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” Therefore we must not fear suffering. How can not fear suffering when the whole world shuns it and avoids it and runs away from it as from a disease?
Read verse 10 again. “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” How beautiful are these words. They teach us how to suffer with dignity— with all the dignity of Christ Jesus who suffered on our behalf. Jesus gives them the secret of not fearing suffering. It is in faithfulness. To be and to remain faithful to Jesus and to the way of the cross to which he has called us. It is hard to be faithful to Jesus and to the way of the cross when the whole world abhors these and ridicules them. Even Christians speak ill of any kind of suffering that a Christian comes across in life. Some even say that those who suffer, do not have the faith to demand of God his blessing, his riches, his abundant inheritance that is for us even now. How foolish. How diabolical are these words that corrupt even the best of Christians. We must remain faithful. Faith to Jesus, for he redeemed us with his blood. We must remain faithful to the way of the cross, for it was Jesus who taught us that “Anyone who comes to me must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.” The teaching of the cross is no mystery. The whole new Testament testifies that the after Jesus, the apostles took up the cause of the cross to the whole world— to a world that hated the cross, but with faith some had embraced it.
Some who do not like suffering become duds, useless people in God’s history, busying themselves with activities but never attaining to the full measure of God’s calling, which is faith and faithfulness, with is hope and sacrifice, which is patience and endurance, and love above all else. Suffering is no misfortune. It is the crown on our heads that identifies as Christians, as Jesus’ people, as those worthy of being called by that name that is above all other names. Amen.
The secret to not fearing suffering is remaining faithful to Jesus and to the cross of Jesus. We can do that when we love Jesus more than we love ourselves, more than we love our own comforts and privileges and all the amenities that life gives or promises to give us. How gracious are these words: “Be faithful.” We can be faithful when we come to Jesus day after day, and confess our love for him, and recommit our selves to his glory and honor. It is only then that Satan cannot move us to betray the most essential of Christian values— love God and love others. In loving God we serve his purpose and in loving others, we bring the gospel of life to their very doorstep. How precious are these words: “Be faithful.” How faithful must we be? To what extent am I to be and to remain faithful? Jesus tells us “to the point of death.” Why such a harsh teaching? It is not harsh when we remember that true faithfulness has no limits, that its is boundless and measureless. Faithfulness is glory crucified. It is desires and wants crucified, for we follow the example of him who was faithful to us even unto death. When Jesus died, he did not die for the righteous, but for the unrighteous. He died for us who were his enemies. He died to set us free from all things that bind us to this life which is perishing.
To what result is our faithfulness? He will give us a crown of life. That is the end result of extreme faithfulness, not shame and defeat but glory and victory in Jesus. The crown of life is God’s great gift to his children who were banished from the kingdom because of sin and restored to the kingdom because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. We can ask for no more. Anyone who desires more than the crown of life purchased by Jesus’ blood, is not worthy of the crown of life. We must be faithful and we must be thankful that Jesus promised us eternal life.
Sometimes it is hard to be faithful. Sometimes it is hard to be faithful to the point of death. So Jesus again counsels the Smyrna Christians in verse 11. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.” The second death is hell. For those who die outside of Christ, death is not the end. It is only a step to the second death which is eternal condemnation. But Jesus counsels us to be faithful. And he counsels us that regardless of what life gives us or taunts us with, we must overcome. We must live the life of those who are worthy of the gift of eternal life given to us by him who died and is alive again. Praise God who counsels us to be overcomers. Praise God who wants us to overcome any hurdle in life, even at the point of death, in order to be counted among the hordes of overcomers in the kingdom of God. Amen.