“Be Thou Faithful Unto Death”

“Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” —Revelation 2:10

THE words of this text are part of the message given to the church at Smyrna. It was the second of seven messages recorded in the Book of Revelation, and generally applied to the second period of the Gospel church, designated as 100 A.D. to 325 A.D. By this time all the apostles except John had fallen asleep in death, and, therefore, it is believed John was used as the messenger. It was a time of bitter persecution of the Christian church; Smyrna means ‘bitter’, and conveys the same thought as the Hebrew word ‘marah’.

Seven messages to seven churches are recorded in the second and third chapters of Revelation. Each one is a message to the church in a certain period of the Gospel Age. There is a pattern in these messages, whereby our Lord first acknowledged their service and zeal, and after doing so said, “But I have somewhat against thee.” He then told them of their lack, or how they had gone astray.

To the church in Pergamos he said, “Thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate.”—vs. 6

To the church in Thyatira he said, “Thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.”—vs. 20

To the church in Sardis he said, “I have not found thy works perfect before God. … Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments” (Rev. 3:4), implying that most in Sardis had.

To the church in Laodicea he said, “Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing, and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.”—vss. 15,16

But our Lord does not find fault with the church in the Philadelphia period, nor the church in the Smyrna period, except to mention to Smyrna the blasphemy of the unfaithful. (Rev. 2:9) Instead, he tells them he knows of their tribulation and poverty. When he mentions their poverty, the Lord is quick to tell them, “But thou art rich!” And they were indeed, because our Lord had called and chosen them.

The church in Smyrna did not have the failings which were to become so prevalent in the later periods of the church. Rather, bitter persecutions were their lot, which they endured faithfully. It is also noteworthy that the reward to be given for faithfulness included the promise that they would “not be hurt of the second death” (vs. 11), another way of saying their reward would be immortality. The family of mankind after their restoration from Adamic death face the prospect of second death if they should willfully disobey God. But those who become members of the Christ class will never be in danger of the second death, because they will be immortal. Death will be impossible.

This promise to the church at Smyrna is in sharp contrast to the reality of their ongoing experiences. The persecutions they were enduring involved physical violence so severe that premature death often occurred. The Romans imprisoned and tortured the Early Christians. They also used them to amuse their nobility and subjects by forced participation in sadistic games. In these games the usual format was gladiators pitted against beasts. Often Christians were thrown into the arena instead of gladiators. Foreknowing these circumstances, our Lord encouraged the brethren in Smyrna to be faithful unto death. This exhortation has continued to be appropriate for all God’s people, even to our day, regardless of the nature of the trial.

The church of that period also saw the beginnings of the Antichrist system, as ambitious leaders came upon the scene. The Apostle John, the messenger to the church of that era, about 100 A.D., wrote of this event in the latter years of his life:

“Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that Antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.

“But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things. I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth. Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is Antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son. Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: [but] he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also.

“Let that therefore abide in you which ye have heard from the beginning. If that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye also shall continue in the Son, and in the Father. And this is the promise that he hath promised us, even eternal life. These things have I written unto you concerning them that seduce you.”—I John 2:18-26

Soon after John’s death, and since all the other apostles were already asleep in death, the parable of the wheat and the tares, given by Jesus, began to be fulfilled. “The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.”—Matt. 13:24,25

The phrase, ‘while men slept’, refers to the apostles’ falling asleep in death; and the ‘enemy’ is the Devil. The Adversary, indeed, was successful in causing imitation Christians, ‘tares’, to come upon the scene. The statement in the message to the church at Smyrna could refer to such ambitious leaders who may have come, initially, from Israel: “I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not.” (Rev. 2:9) In the apostle’s time, those of the sect of the Pharisees sought to impose the Law of Moses upon new Gentile converts. Their spirit was contrary to that of Christ. This same spirit, and the same type of false teachings were set forth by deceptive teachers during the Smyrna period of the church.

Thus Smyrna had to contend not only with persecutions at the hands of pagan Rome, but, additionally, with grasping leaders and false Christians. They faithfully endured all of these sets of circumstances, responding to the exhortation of our Lord, “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.”—Rev. 2:10

Since so many of their trials in real life took place in the coliseum, the arena became an illustration of Christian experiences. Prior to the Smyrna period, in the days of the apostles, such incidents were already occurring to many of their brethren. The Apostle Paul uses the picture of the coliseum when he writes of “being appointed to death,” making reference to the “looking on” of others, and especially applying this simile to events in his Christian life. (I Cor. 4:8,9) The stadium, of course, is the world in which we live, and when Paul uses this illustration he has in mind the fact that angels and men are the onlookers of our battle. He was combating the concept of some brethren in Corinth that the reign of Christ had started, and consequently they were reigning. With irony, he said, “Now ye are full, now ye are rich, ye have reigned as kings without us; and I would to God ye did reign, that we also might reign with you.”—I Cor. 4:8

The position taken by some of the Corinthian Christians was that God had bestowed upon them prosperous livings. In sharp contrast, the apostle pictures himself, and the other apostles, in an arena as spectacles to angels and the world, appointed to die. The meaning of the phrase, ‘God hath set forth us the apostles last’, seems to allude to the practice in the games at Rome where the last event was saved for those who were thrown into the amphitheater to die at the hands of gladiators, or by beasts.

In this letter to the brethren at Corinth, the apostle also mentions the need for being faithful as stewards, and, furthermore, that he should not be judged of anyone in the performance of his stewardship. Then he contrasts the erroneous view that some had, namely, that sacrifice, trials, and sufferings were over. He speaks again in an ironical manner, of his own experiences, saying, “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honorable, but we are despised. Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place; and labor, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless: being persecuted, we suffer it: being defamed, we entreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the off scouring of all things unto this day. I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you.”—I Cor. 4:10-14

By these strong words he hoped to shock many of them into reality. The fact was that the time in which they were living was, and continues to be, a time for testing. We are not spared any of the difficult experiences of the world of mankind. All these are used as part of our training and development by God to become associated with our sympathetic High Priest.

The Roman arena, in ancient times, was used also for games other than the violent ones where death to some person or animal was inevitable. Many of these were competitive in nature, and were the origin of our modern-day Olympics. In such events, spectators cheered their favorites on to victory, when often a crown-like wreath was received as prize. The emphasis of these games was not on a lust for blood, but rather on skills for success.

The Olympic games were established by the ancient Greeks in 776 B.C., and were held every four years until 396 A.D. However, there were no games during the Dark Ages. Upon being revived in 1896, they have continued to the present day. It is noteworthy that no wars were fought when the games were held; they were a symbol of peace. Among the main events were the footrace, the pentathlon, boxing, and chariot and horse racing. The Apostle Paul used two of these events, the footrace and boxing, as illustrations concerning the Christian life.

These pictures are given to us in I Corinthians 9:24-27: “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air; but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.”

In the ancient Olympic games, no one could participate unless he had previously trained intensively for ten months to develop particular skills, living a rigorous life, having practiced self-denial by avoiding gratification of the flesh. The contestant had to offer proof of having met these qualifications before he would be allowed to put forth his best efforts in the competition to win the prize. The prize, as described by the Apostle Paul, was merely a perishable crown. But those who compete in the race for the prize of the high calling do so to gain an imperishable crown.—I Cor. 9:25

We can compare the required training for the ancient Olympic games to the Christian’s necessary study of God’s Word and his application of Christian principles in daily life. The development of their skills can be likened to the development of the fruits of the Holy Spirit by the Christian. The need for self denial practiced by the contestants of that era, and their putting aside of the gratification of the flesh, reminds us how we are required to sacrifice and to lay down our lives in the service of God. All this training is then put to the test in the final contest. So, too, we need to persevere in our battle with the world, our flesh, and the Devil, for as the Apostle Paul has said, “Ye have need of patience, that after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise.”—Heb. 10:36

Specific applications were made by the Apostle Paul of the footrace, and boxing, the two events he selected as illustrations of the Christian’s development. He uses the footrace to show the need for proper grounding in the faith, and boxing to demonstrate character development. This figure of a footrace is again employed by Paul in the Book of Galatians.

Many brethren from the province of Galatia were Jews who started in the Christian way still adhering to the Law Covenant. The Apostle Paul desired to help them understand that the Law had led them to Christ, and that having come into the body of Christ, they no longer were under the Law. But they drifted away, and once more became enmeshed in the same problem, causing Paul to write to them again on the matter. In his second letter he established first his special selection as an apostle, told of the unique revelations he had received from God, and then he told them of certain Judean brethren who attempted to convince Gentile converts in Antioch to be circumcised according to the Law. Finally, Paul attended a conference which was convened at Jerusalem to resolve this important matter. He reported the results, using the illustration of a racecourse: “I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that Gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain.”—Gal. 2:2

Here Paul used the racecourse as an illustration of his proper understanding of the doctrines of Christ which others were trying to subvert. He said, “Neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised: and that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: to whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the Gospel might continue with you.”—Gal. 2:3-5

As he continued to explain to them in detail their position in the body of Christ, and the grace covenant pictured by Sarah, he admonished them further, climaxing his comments by using the racecourse again as an illustration:

“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised that he is a debtor to do the whole Law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the Law; ye are fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love. Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?”—Gal. 5:1-7

And again, with this same illustration in mind, Paul said, “So run, that ye may obtain the prize.” (I Cor. 9:24) And, once more, “I therefore so run, as not uncertainly.”—I Cor. 9:26, Diaglott

Boxing is also employed by Paul as an illustration of character development, or of controlling the flesh. He said, “Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. … So fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.”—I Cor. 9:25-27

Character development depends on subduing the fleshly imperfections and conforming to the image of Christ. Our shortcomings and failings constantly assert themselves, giving us trouble, and we need to beat them down as did the combatants in the Olympic games.

As we strive to become champions, we are being watched. The picture of an arena is used by Paul, and the onlookers, in this case, are the faithful people of the Old Testament. The thought is not that they are alive and looking upon us, but rather that their achievements were so worthy of imitation that we should follow in their steps. As we are victorious, Paul says that their deeds “look upon us,” since we have followed their examples. The apostle listed many heroes of faith, telling us of their successes in being faithful.—Heb. 11

With such examples before us, we are now to run the race as if they were the audience in a large amphitheatre. In particular, we are to look to our trainer and coach, Jesus, who has run this course before us, and has been highly, completely successful. “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin. And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him.”—Heb. 12:1-5

The trials and tests are indeed difficult, but we cannot avoid them if we are to gain the crown of life. “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.” (James 1:12) The cross and crown emblem, used so widely by Bible Students, has the oft-stated significance, “If you bear the cross, you will win the crown.” This is usually combined with our text in Revelation 2:10, as a motto.

The experiences of the church at Smyrna are summarized very well in the words of Jesus when he told his disciples of events which would befall them prior to his presence. “Jesus … said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.”—Matt. 24:4-13

In the middle of all these trials and tests to the church in Smyrna would come the Antichrist. “Many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. … For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.”—vss. 11,24

Indeed, we have seen how false religious systems have sprung up in the interval of time from the Smyrna period of the church to the present Laodicean period. These systems have been largely responsible for the fulfillment of the prophecy concerning the putting to death of many faithful saints, even as in the Smyrna period. “Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake.”—Matt. 24:9

The conditions of apostasy are mentioned in every period of church history since the Smyrna era. But, in the last period, with the return of our Lord, he said he would no longer tolerate the conditions fostered by the apostate church system, but would take positive action against them. This action has precipitated tests upon all the Lord’s people living in the Laodicean period. We read of these in the message to the church of Laodicea: “I know thy works, that thou are neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore and repent.”—Rev. 3:15-19

The last verse of this message is similar to the words of the Apostle Paul: “Ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.”—Heb. 12:5-11

In this message the necessity and importance of chastening experiences is made clear. The manner in which we endure these ordeals, and the spirit that we manifest, is part of the arena picture. We are being watched. Will we become bitter because of the trials, or will we accept them as necessary for our development? The wrong spirit, if not purged, can affect the standing of the Lord’s people. The apostle cautions us saying, “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled.”—Heb. 12:14,15

The positive course to be taken is to seek holiness without which no man can see the Lord—this is the sure way to become an overcomer in the arena. The severe, difficult experiences are necessary if we are to gain the prize, and the Lord is very interested in our attaining victory. Hence he says, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous, therefore and repent.”—Rev. 3:19

It only remains for us to cooperate with him in this program, since Jesus has done his part. Through his ransom sacrifice he made possible our hope of entering into the presence of God, which is depicted by the Most Holy of the Tabernacle. Paul’s words indicate this: “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an High Priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.”—Heb. 10:19-22

We can be assured that God will do his part in helping us to achieve our goal, even as Paul reminds us, “Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised.)”—Heb. 10:23

But our task is to be faithful in meeting his requirements, and how can we accomplish this? The answer to this question is that we do it by mutually helping one another to achieve the love and good works which the Lord wants. “Let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”—Heb. 10:24,25

But we cannot be victorious alone. First, daily we need God’s help, strength, and guidance, and that of his Son, Jesus. At this time we have the special invitation extended by Jesus of permitting him to come into our hearts and to learn of him. “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” (Rev. 3:20) Are we availing ourselves of this privilege? Have we invited him to sup with us?

We also need the help of our brethren. We cannot become isolationists, but must make every effort to meet with others of like precious faith, so we can encourage one another to love and good works. If we do this we shall receive our Lord’s approval, promised to the church of the Laodicean period. “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.” And the fulfillment of our text, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev. 2:10), will be our victory in the arena of this present evil world.

There is nothing that can stand in the way of our victory! Unless we allow them, no foe can prevent us from gaining the prize! The Apostle Paul gives us this added assurance, “As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.” (Rom. 8:36,37) May we be inspired by these promises! Let us put forth every effort to gain the victory and the prize—the crown of life—through Christ who strengthens us, and through the Father who assists us to do his will. Let us be more than overcomers!

Dawn Bible Students Association
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