The Church Strong In Tribulation - Rev. Herman Hoeksema
8 And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;
9 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.
11 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.
The church in Ephesus represents the church in the beginning of her decline, though she is still strong in doctrine and in discipline. The church in Smyrna, in distinction from that of Ephesus, represents the church in the midst of tribulation, but rich and strong in every respect, as may be gathered from the fact that the Lord evidently has nothing to complain about her.
The Church In Smyrna
The city of Smyrna was a beautiful city, situated north of Ephesus on a bay of the Aegean Sea. In respect to business and industry it might well rival Ephesus for the honor of being considered the first city of that time. Perhaps it must be largely attributed to this fact that there were many Jews living in Smyrna, who, as usual, belonged to the well-to-do and influential class of people in the city. Also in Smyrna there had been founded a church of Jesus Christ, just as in the city of Ephesus. But as we already suggested, a comparison of the two letters which are written to these congregations respectively will show that there was considerable difference between them.
In the first place, there was a difference outwardly, as to their relation to the outside world. Of Ephesus we receive the impression that also in an external sense it was a rather strong congregation, large and flourishing and even able to assert itself over against the world from without to a certain extent. It is true that also in its case the Lord suggested that it was subject to the ill will and mockery of the world: for He speaks of their patience and power to bear. But we do not get the impression that it was persecuted at the time by an overwhelming power of the world. In respect to the church in Smyrna, however, this is quite different. Of this church we are told that it is poor and in tribulation, that the people of God in the city were slandered and falsely accused, that they were persecuted and killed all the day long.
In the second place, however, there evidently was also a marked spiritual difference which is worthy of our attention. Of Smyrna we read that it was rich though it was poor; of Ephesus, that it had left its first love. In the case of Ephesus we read that the Lord has something against it; nothing of the kind is found in the epistle to Smyrna. Ephesus is warned with a threat that the candlestick will be removed out of its place if she does not repent. Smyrna receives nothing but the most beautiful and comforting promises and commendation. Hence, we may characterize the church in Smyrna as the church that is strong and rich in tribulation.
Smyrna's External Condition
The external position of the church in Smyrna and her relation to the world is indicated, first of all, in the words: "I know thy works, and tribulation." The ARV, correctly, does not have the term "works." The word employed in the original for "tribulation" denotes a condition of oppression, of being hard pressed, of being in narrow straits. It indicates that the world from without exerted a pressure upon the little congregation which was well-nigh unbearable, which threatened to leave it no standing room in the city. The world hated the little church, and pressed down upon it from every side with a view to its ultimate destruction. It persecuted her, revealed its hatred and contempt in many ways, and caused the members of the congregation to suffer because of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus. It appears that at the time when this epistle was written to Smyrna, this persecution assumed chiefly a social aspect. It does not seem that at the time the people of God in Smyrna were already brought to the scaffold and to the stake. This form of persecution still lay in the future. At the present they were the objects of social persecution, so that they had no standing room in the midst of the worldThat this is true is indicated, first of all, by the phrase, "and thy poverty." The church of Smyrna was poor, not spiritually, but materially and socially. Spiritually they were rich, as the Lord informs us. But in a social sense they were poor. Perhaps they had already experienced a foretaste of that form of persecution which will be dominant at the time of the supreme and ultimate manifestation of Antichrist, when the people who refuse to receive the mark of the beast and the number of his name shall be allowed neither to buy nor to sell. It is not impossible to imagine that especially under the influence of the influential Jews they were deprived of many privileges which others enjoyed. They could not do business as others did. They could not make headway in the world from a material and social standpoint, as could the Jews. Perhaps they were even directly deprived of some of their property: their goods were confiscated because of their testimony of Jesus. At any rate, the church of Smyrna was poor. They had no social standing. They were not rich in earthly possessions. Perhaps they gathered for public worship in a miserable little shanty of a church. Perhaps they could not even decently provide for the necessity of the angel of the church, who, according to some, at this time was Polycarp, who also suffered martyrdom in Smyrna. It was undoubtedly with great difficulty that they could maintain themselves as a church in the city.
This social form of their tribulation is indicated still further in the words, "and the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan." The believers in Smyrna were slandered, blasphemed, reproached, reviled. The Jews, who, no doubt, could exercise a very subtle and powerful influence in the city, utilized every opportunity to revile the name of the members of the little congregation. Exactly what was the nature of their slander we are not directly informed in this epistle of the Lord to the church of Smyrna. Yet we may easily surmise the character of their reproach. For the Lord describes these blasphemers, first of all, as those who call themselves Jews, and are not. No doubt they belonged to the nation of the Jews. In a national sense they were children of Abraham. And, as usual, they were proud of this prerogative. They made it a special claim that they were the children of God because they were children of Abraham according to the flesh.
The Christians, who made the same claim, were, of course, considered to be and branded as impostors. From this it may be inferred what was the nature of their slander. They publicly called themselves Jews, though in the true sense of the word they were not. They insisted openly that they were the only people of God, that they still expected the Messiah, and that therefore the Christians, who claimed that the Messiah had already come, and who proclaimed Him as their King, were nothing but a dangerous sect, dangerous to the state because they might easily incite the people of Smyrna to rebellion against the proper authorities and persuade them to acknowledge no other king than Jesus of Nazareth. At the same time, they must have slandered the little church in the very name of their professed King. The Messiah of the Christians was nothing but a crucified criminal,-something which must have been extremely horrifying and repulsive to the rest of Smyrna's population: for the cross was foolishness to the Greeks. However this may have been, it is certain that the slander of those Jews was directed against the believers of Smyrna because of their testimony of Jesus. Principally they slandered the Christians in Smyrna because of the bitter hatred of the Jews toward the Christ Who had come. For although they called themselves Jews, they were not. Not the national Jews, not the natural descendants of the father of believers, are Jews in this dispensation, but only they that are partakers of the faith of Abraham and that are justified by faith in Christ Jesus.
This faith in Christ and justification in His blood these so-called Jews simply despised with their whole heart. They did not believe in Christ. They rejected Him and crucified Him again. They trampled under foot the blood of the new covenant. And therefore they were no Jews in reality. On the contrary, they were a synagogue of Satan, as the Lord informs us. No doubt the Jews possessed a synagogue in the city of Smyrna. Literally the word "synagogue" signifies an assembly, a gathering. And therefore the Lord characterizes these men who call themselves Jews, and are not, as a gathering under the leadership of the devil. Satan is their chief, and he inspires all that they do. He therefore is also the instigator of their slander. We may also infer from this description what was the nature and the contents of their slander and blasphemy. For the name Satan means "opponent, adversary." He is the opponent of God and of Christ and of His people in the world. And as he had gained the leadership in the synagogue of the Jews in Smyrna and instigated their malignant and pernicious blasphemy, we may easily understand what sort of reproach was cast into the teeth of the little flock. The slander of these Jews was decidedly antichristian. They were reviled for Christ's sake. As Christians, followers of the despised Jesus of Nazareth, they had to bear the reproach and hatred of the world about them. They became for the sake of Christ objects of most bitter hatred and invidious contempt.
However, this could not be the end. More tribulation and persecution were yet to come. The deepest stage of their suffering had not yet been reached. Now they were poor and slandered, social outcasts in the city of Smyrna for Christ's sake. But the malignity of the synagogue of Satan could not be satisfied by mere slander and words of reproach. Even as this malevolent slander had its root in their bitter hatred against Christ and His church, so it could not cease before it had manifested itself in actual persecution of these Christians. Of this the Lord forewarns them in the words: "Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer." And He continues: "Behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days." It is more than probable that the poor Christians of Smyrna themselves already had a presentiment of the fierce persecution which was presently to break loose over their heads. Hardly could it be different. Persecutions of the church generally do not break out all of a sudden, without any precursory signs and warnings. When we hear the distant rumbling of thunder and see the dark clouds gather threateningly, we know that presently the storm will break forth in all its fury. Thus it is with the persecution of the church. It may come very quickly, but hardly without any premonitions on the part of those who are persecuted. Thus it must have been in the congregation of Smyrna; and they must have understood that the evil slander of the Jews must finally develop into actual persecution. Dark clouds must have been gathering at the horizon at this time. The very form in which the Lord sends His message indicates clearly that this persecution is not far off, that the days of trouble and tribulation are nigh at hand. For the Lord writes that they are about to suffer some things, and that the devil is about to cast some of them into prison. The very atmosphere must have been pregnant with indications that persecution was about to break out. And the hearts of the poor believers in Smyrna may well have been filled with fear and gloomy forebodings of the near future.
Cheer And Encouragement
Just because of this the Lord sends them the message of cheer and encouragement. He surely does not comfort them by assuring them that persecution shall not come, that suffering and trouble shall not touch them. But, while predicting that suffering will be their lot, He encourages them and writes: "Fear none of those things." Do not forget! This is the Word of Him which was dead, and, behold, He liveth!
Fear not! This is the positive message of the Lord to the church in tribulation. He not only cautions them in advance, so that they may be fully prepared; but He also comforts them and encourages them to face the future without fear. He does so, in the first place, by assuring them that it will be Satan who is the prime author of their tribulation. They will be cast into prison, and for ten days they will have tribulation. But they need not be ashamed of their reproach and suffering, nor need they fear. On the contrary, they may deem it an honor to be in oppression, for the simple reason that it is the devil who causes it all. Indeed, it is a glorious comfort to know that the devil is persecuting us. To suffer persecution from the hand of the righteous and just is unbearable; but to be an object of the devil's hatred is principally a cause for rejoicing. Perhaps these Christians in Smyrna will be treated by the civil powers in the city as criminals and rebels, and be branded as such before all the world; but nevertheless, they must be mindful of the fact that behind these municipal authorities and behind these malignant Jews is the devil, inciting his agents to do their hellish work. It might be grievous to them to be publicly exposed and treated as dangerous criminals; but to know that the devil was behind it must be for them a cause of serene satisfaction. For to be an enemy of the devil is to be a friend of Christ. To be persecuted by the adversary is the best proof of our belonging to God's party in the world.
Moreover, the Lord encourages them by informing them concerning the essential character of their future suffering. They will be cast into prison in order to be tried. This, indeed, was not the devil's purpose: for his highest aim was their apostasy from the truth. But above the devil stands the almighty God. And the powerful Priest-King walks in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks. His purpose will, after all, be reached. And therefore, also by this explanation of the character of their future suffering the Lord encourages His church. In the fact that the character of their suffering will be a trial they have the assurance that they are not unconditionally delivered to the power of the devil, but that they are safe
in the hands of their Lord. It is He that employs even the devil to reach His own divine purpose. Besides, this is a source of comfort to them because it assures them that they shall be faithful to the end through the grace of their Lord. It will not be their downfall. In their own strength they would never be able to stand persecution; but by the grace of Christ they will certainly persevere even unto the end. As they consider themselves, fear, no doubt, fills their hearts: the fear that they shall become unfaithful and deny Him Whom their soul loves. But now they are informed that this will not be the ultimate outcome of their persecution. It will assume the nature of a trial. God will try His people, in order that the strength of His grace may become manifest to the world and to the devil, and that thus His own name will be glorified. To be worthy to be thus tried, to be deemed worthy of being a manifestation of God's grace over against the devil and the wicked world, is a cause of joy and a source of mighty comfort!
Finally, the Lord encourages His church with a view to the coming suffering by informing them as to the time of its duration. They shall be in tribulation ten days. This measure of time, no doubt, has symbolic significance. For even though this period should be understood in the literal sense of the word as applied to the congregation of Smyrna, the symbolical significance would by no means be excluded, no more than the recognition of the historical existence of the seven churches prevents us from considering them in their typical character in relation to the church of all times. But besides, it may safely be adopted as a general rule that the indications of time and space in the Book of Revelation are to be taken in the symbolical sense of the word. Not all the numbers occurring in the book can possibly be taken in the literal sense; but on the general basis that they are symbolic of some higher spiritual reality, they can all be interpreted. And therefore, also these "ten days" we take in the symbolical sense. And then we agree with interpreters in understanding this expression as being indicative, in the first place, of only a short period. But the brevity of the period is not to be found in the number ten: for in itself this number may indicate a long as well as a short period of time. No, that the time of their persecution will be comparatively short, though severe, is expressed rather by the fact that it is measured not by years, or months, but by days. In comparison with the glory that shall be revealed in us, the apostle Paul has it, the suffering of this present time is not worthy of consideration, Romans 8:18. When viewed in the light of the ages, the tribulation of the church in this dispensation is always insignificantly short. So also in respect to the tribulation of the church in Smyrna: it will last but ten days.
The figure ten, however, implies a far greater comfort: for it is symbolic of a far higher reality than the mere fact of brevity. Ten is a number which is very frequently employed in Scripture, and it often occurs in the Book of Revelation. The antediluvian period was comprised of the lifetime of ten patriarchs. Before the heart of the king of Egypt is inclined to let the children of Israel go to serve their God, ten great plagues are sent upon the country. Life in its totality is measured by ten great spheres, indicated by the division of the law into ten commandments. The Lord in His parable speaks of ten virgins, and of servants entrusted with ten pounds whom He will place over ten cities. In the Book of Revelation we read of the ten horns of the great red dragon, of the ten horns of the beast and of his ten royal diadems, of the ten kings who shall hate the harlot with whom they first commit fornication, (chapters 13 and 17). Now if we consider this number in the abstract, there can be no question of the fact that it is a round number, that whatever other number is multiplied by it must also be a round number. As such it beautifully serves as a symbol of completeness and fulness.
But if we consider the passages in which the number ten is employed, we soon find that there is still a more specific significance attached to the number ten. The general idea that lies at the basis of its employment in Scripture seems to be that of a fulness, completion, totality, of the measure of anything, whether it be of time or power or action, of reward or punishment, determined solely by the fixed plan of God Almighty. And therefore, in our text it denotes neither that the time shall be either long or short, nor that the Evil One shall be permitted to develop his full power in persecuting the church of Smyrna; but it indicates that a certain definite period is allotted to the devil during which he may persecute the church of Christ, a period which is determined not by himself, but by the will and counsel of the Lord. The devil possesses no power of himself, nor can he sovereignly decide upon the persecution of the church. His power and authority are characterized and symbolized by the number ten. It is both limited and meted out to him by God. It is always the same with the devil as in the case of the history of Job. The devil must approach God for permission to afflict God's servant. And when Satan fails to induce Job to apostasy by depriving him of all that he has in the world, he must again turn to the Most High for permission to continue and to aggravate his attack upon Job. The devil, therefore, can never proceed beyond the limits set him by the Almighty; neither can he reach any other end than the purpose of God in the affliction of His people in the world.
Thus it is with the church in Smyrna, And this is applicable to the persecution and suffering of the church of all ages. The devil possesses power to oppress the church, no doubt. He will make life hard for the faithful in the world. He will rage against them in all his fury. We must expect this. But the blessed comfort for the church lies in the fact that the power of darkness is under the absolute control and sovereignty of Him that walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks. The King of the church has received all power in heaven and on earth: power, too, to control the devil, the mighty adversary of Christ and His cause and His people in the world. And when the full measure of his time and power has been meted out to him according to the will of God, the Lord bids him stop, and he can stir no more against the church. What mighty comfort for the church in tribulation! The devil can do her no harm, but must serve the purpose of God in Christ. The gates of hell cannot prevail against us. Under the mighty protection and care of her great King the church has nothing to fear. "In the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world."
Smyrna's Spiritual Condition
It is evident from all this that tribulation can never harm the church. It is simply a trial, by which the church is sanctified and purified and strengthened in the faith. This is also evident from the epistle of the Lord to the church in Smyrna. Does the tribulation of the church in Smyrna, present or future, cause weakness and fear and trembling in the church? Does it lead the church away from its Lord and cause it to enter into the camp of the enemy? Exactly the opposite is true. The condition of the congregation in Smyrna was as good as possible. The church was in as flourishing a condition as might be expected in this dispensation. In proof of this there is, in the first place, the negative observation that the Lord in this letter mentions no cause for rebuke. This is surely sufficient to justify the inference that there was nothing worthy of blame in the congregation of Smyrna. If there had been, the Lord would have called the attention of the church to it. He was thoroughly acquainted with the condition of the church. And if there had been any reason to reprove, He surely would have known and expressed it.
Nor must we entertain the erroneous idea that the Lord would have overlooked the weakness of this specific congregation and passed it in silence in view of the fact that in its tribulation it had need of encouragement rather than of rebuke. This would have been fatal and detrimental to the church.
No, there is nothing to criticize. There is no reason to reprimand the church in any respect. And again, also here we must remember that it is not the individual believer, but the church as a whole that Jesus is addressing. It is not so that the members of the congregation in Smyrna had already reached perfection, and that they sinned no more. But addressing the congregation as a whole, the Lord finds no weakness, mentions no cause for rebuke, for the simple reason that it did not exist. The church at Smyrna possesses all the favorable features of the church in this dispensation. It does not present any of the weaknesses and signs of degeneration found in others.
But, further, this sound condition of the congregation is positively expressed by the Lord when He says, "But thou art rich." Its condition is exactly the opposite of the church in Laodicea. The latter was rich and luxurious, filled to the full and in need of nothing, suffered no tribulation; yet it was poor and naked in the consideration of Him Who walketh in the midst of the golden candlesticks. But the church of Smyrna is outwardly destitute, poor and despised, a social outcast, in the midst of tribulation, and with more severe persecution to be expected in the near future. In this respect it offers a complete contrast to the church of Laodicea. But although the church in Smyrna was outwardly poor and in miserable condition, nevertheless she was spiritually rich, rich in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
There is no reason to limit this assertion of the Lord as to the condition of the church in Smyrna. It implies that it is rich in all the treasures and blessings of grace. She was rich in the knowledge of the truth. She was rich in works and patience. She was rich in bearing the cross and revealed a strong spiritual life in the midst of tribulations. The church in Smyrna had not lost its first love, as was the case with the church in Ephesus. Strong the church was in the faith, firm in hope, ardent in love, abounding in works, patient in affliction, and in the midst of tribulation expecting the day of the Lord, the day of perfect deliverance. Rich the church was, undoubtedly, in sound, experiential knowledge of the truth. The members of that church were prepared to give testimony of the hope that was within them at all times. They were rich in actual fact. Though the world hated them, deprived them of their possessions, made them poor and naked and miserable from the temporal point of view, yet they knew that their King was the Lord of heaven and earth, and by faith they were saved in hope. Indeed, the church in tribulation is rich!
This is always true. It is not only applicable to the church of Smyrna, but equally so to the church in tribulation in all ages. It has even become proverbial that the blood of the martyrs has become the seed of the church in history. Never does the church offer a more miserable and pitiable aspect than in times of prosperity from a worldly point of view, times of peace and abundance. Never is its condition more precarious than when it caters to the good pleasure of the world and craves for wealth and glory and honor after the measure of the world. The church of Laodicea is a warning example. But, on the other hand, it is equally true that the church is never more nearly perfect in this dispensation than when it is called upon to fight the battle of faith, to suffer and endure affliction for the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
This is but natural. The question might be asked: why is it that the church of Smyrna, and the church in tribulation generally, is strong and rich? The answer is not difficult to find. In the first place, there is, no doubt, a theological reason. Scripture reveals to us that among the elect of God there are not many wise and noble and rich in the world. The reason for this is very evident. The church does not exist for its own glory, but for the glory of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And therefore the church does not exist for the purpose of showing forth its own strength and abundance from a natural point of view, but of manifesting the grace and power of the Lord her God. This it can do no more clearly than in times of tribulation, when it becomes manifest that it possesses no resources, no strength, no faith, no hope, outside of Christ; that its all is in Him; that from Him it receives its strength to stand and to be faithful.
Besides, there is also a spiritual reason why the church in tribulation flourishes and is strong. The root of its life is faith. For by faith it is connected with Him Who walks in the midst of the golden candlesticks. By faith only it receives all the treasures of salvation. The stronger and the more conscious this faith is, the more the church will grow in grace and increase in all spiritual riches in Christ. But what is more conducive to the exercise and strengthening of faith than a period of outward poverty and tribulation? It is when the storm howls in the woods that the oak strikes its roots more deeply and firmly into the soil and is strengthened. So it is when the storm of persecution sweeps through the church that the latter strikes the roots of its faith more deeply into Christ and draws from Him more consciously the very strength of its life. And therefore, it is especially in times of trouble that the church flourishes: for at such times it is taught to cling to its powerful King, and seeks its all in Him.
Finally, there is also a historical reason for this concurrence of tribulation and spiritual strength and prosperity in the church of Smyrna and with regard to the church of Christ in tribulation in all ages. In times of prosperity and wealth and peace, when the church is honored rather than despised in the world, there is a grave danger that many an Israelite who is not spiritually of Israel becomes member of the church in the world from carnal motives and for selfish reasons. It becomes a matter of honor, or even of common decency, to be a church member. Hence, many join the church. These carnal members are a veritable danger to the church of Christ. They often become dominant, and assume the leadership in the church. They impose their carnal desires upon the church. They lead her into the world, and, of course, to destruction. They are of the world, and they would make the church a part of the world. In times of persecution, however, when church membership and the reproach of Christ are inseparable, this danger does not exist. On the contrary, when the faithful must suffer persecution and reproach for Christ's sake, the church is cleansed of these hypocrites. They are exposed in their carnal nature. If he must lose his life because of it, there is no danger that the hypocrite will join himself to the church or that he will remain in her midst. And therefore, also from this point of view it is not difficult to understand that in times of persecution and tribulation the church is spiritually blessed.
What then? Shall we wilfully incite the malignity and enmity of the world, and strive for the martyr's crown?
Our answer is: there is absolutely no occasion for any such thing. If the church is truly faithful, faithful in its confession and in its walk, unfurling the banner of its King, and walking in the light in the midst of a world that is in darkness, the latter will naturally hate her, and the reproach and suffering from the side of Antichristendom are inevitable. But in all this we need not be afraid. For especially the sufferings for Christ's sake work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose. Besides, the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us.
Admonition And Promise
Now let us see how the Lord comforts the church in Smyrna.
First of all, we call your attention to the manner in which the Lord announces Himself to the church of Smyrna, We observed in connection with the former letter that these announcements, these Self-introductions of the Lord to the churches, are in harmony with the condition of the church which is addressed. Thus it was with regard to the church of Ephesus, where the Lord introduced Himself as the One that walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks and that holdeth the seven stars in His right hand. This is also the case in regard to the church of Smyrna.
Here He introduces Himself as the One Who was dead and lives again, as the first and the last.
It is scarcely necessary to point to the appropriateness of this announcement, especially with a view to the condition of the church in tribulation. It is certainly adapted to fill the members of the faithful church with courage and hope in the midst of suffering. Christ is the first and the last. He was before all things and before all history, and He will be when this dispensation shall have come to its finish. He is the principle of all that is, and its purpose. He stands above all time and controls all history. He will be the last also in the sense that He shall prevail in the battle against the devil and against the power of Antichrist. Not the devil, not the powers of evil, shall be the last on the battlefield; but Christ shall be the victor! Even with death He was in battle, and He remained victor. For He was dead, and He lives again. He stands, as it were, before the congregation in tribulation, holding the keys of death and of hades in His right hand, and saying' "Behold, my people: I have overcome death, and have the power to open and to close, to condemn and to deliver! I, even I alone, am He that controlleth all these things!" And therefore, with that powerful victor as their Savior and their King, they need not fear the enemy. The devil may cast them into prison, and terrible tribulation may come in the near future. What of it? Christ has overcome the devil, and he is subject to Him alone. Yea, even death may threaten them, as is implied in the admonition which follows. Nothing can harm them. Christ has power even over death. And in due time He shall deliver them and give them life and glory.
This latter assurance the Lord gives them directly in the admonition, "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life." Faithfulness surely is one of the most beautiful virtues that exists, even from a natural point of view. It implies, in the first place, that there exists an established relation between two persons, or parties, whether it be a relation of friendship or of mutual contract and agreement. It implies, in the second place, that this definite relation is put to the test, whether it be by a long period of time or by adverse circumstances, which make it difficult to keep the agreement or the bond of friendship. And, in the third place, it implies that in spite of these adverse circumstances the relation remains as it always was. A friend in times of prosperity is nothing special; but in adversity the faithfulness of a friend is put to the test.
In the spiritual sense, faithfulness is the chief virtue of the covenant people. They belong to God's party in the world. They confess Christ as their King. The question is whether at all times they will be loyal to their King in the midst of a world which hates Him. There exists a certain definite relation between the King and themselves. And the question is whether they shall publicly confess that relation, never deny their King or be ashamed of His name, no matter what happens. Thus it was in the congregation of Smyrna. In times of prosperity it is not so difficult to confess Christ as their King. When He scores victory upon victory, it is an honor to belong to His church. Our faithfulness is not manifest. But when because of His name we are subject to persecution, the objects of the mockery and reproach of the world, when the confession of His name is the cause of trouble and much tribulation, then to confess that name is faithfulness. The church in Smyrna, was in tribulation. It could expect a still more severe form of persecution in the future. Yea, according to this very admonition, they might expect that their lives would be demanded as a toll for their faithful confession. And therefore, to them comes the exhortation: "Be thou faithful unto death..." For this last phrase does not merely exhort to a faithfulness unto the hour of death. It is not merely a phrase denoting the extent in time. But it indicates a causal relation between faithfulness and death. It means: be faithful even if confession of My name should cause physical death.
As we have already suggested, history informs us that this exhortation was literally heeded by the gray-haired angel of the church in Smyrna. He was placed before the very alternative of denying the Lord or of being put to death. And, placed before this definite choice, he answered: "Eighty-six years have I known and confessed my Master, and He has never done me any harm. Shall I then now deny Him? Never!" And he died the martyr's death. History also speaks of thousands and thousands who have followed old Polycarp in this path of martyrdom. But they have become partakers of the beautiful promise which the Lord adds to this exhortation: "And I will give thee a crown of life!"
By "crown" in this connection you must not understand the royal diadem: for the original indicates that a wreath of victory is meant. Evidently the meaning is: I will give thee eternal life as a crown of victory. And do not imagine now that this is merely a meaningless form of expression. Surely, we all shall inherit eternal life. Nor is the relation such that we shall merit that eternal life in our own strength or even by our own faithfulness. It is because of Christ's obedience that this eternal life is ours. But if once we shall stand in glory among the one hundred forty-four thousand of the elect of God, we shall notice that the glory of that throng is varied according to the different degrees of reward each shall receive. And among them shall also be those who wear the crown of life, those whom eternal life adorns as a crown of victory in a special sense of the word. They are those who have been in special tribulation, who have not loved their lives unto death, who have been faithful unto death in the most literal sense of the word. More than others, they shall appear as victors and shall occupy a victor's place of honor in the new creation.
Finally, the Lord closes also this letter to the church of Smyrna with a general admonition and promise: "He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death."
We all are in the midst of the battle of faith. We may not all be called to sacrifice our lives upon the altar of faithful confession. We surely all must fight. And in the battle against sin, the world, and the devil and his whole dominion, we must overcome. Not in our own strength, not by sword and cannon, but spiritually, in the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, we must overcome. And to him that thus overcometh the Lord promises that he shall not be hurt of the second death. From our point of view, the first death is the separation of body and soul, or physical death. The Lord does not promise His church that they shall not be hurt of it. Surely, also His people die that death, and often die it violently. But though they may experience temporal suffering and want, though they may be called upon voluntarily to descend into the valley of death for the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus, they shall not be hurt in the real sense of the word.
The second death does not touch them. And therefore, the first death is merely a transition to everlasting life. This second death is eternal death, absolute separation from the Fount of all good in everlasting woe. Of that death the fornicators and the unfaithful shall be hurt. But he that overcometh shall pass through the first death into glory everlasting!
"He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches."
What doth the Spirit say?
Be faithful unto death! Seek not the things of this world. For the things of this world pass away, and behind them lurks the second death. Be faithful, 0 church of God, in the midst of the world, no matter what happens. In serious times we are living, indeed: serious, because we hear of wars and rumors of war as never before; but serious still more, because of the rather general apostasy from the truth and from the God of our salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord. And therefore, be faithful, and confess Him Who is your King. And if the struggle should become hard, and the battle well-nigh impossible to endure, then look upon Him Who walketh in the midst of the golden candlesticks, Who is your guard and protector at all times. He is the first and the last, Who was dead, and is alive! And He holds the keys of death and of hades forevermore!
Be, therefore, faithful unto death; and receive the promise, "I will give you the crown of life!"