Faithful Unto Death to Gain the Crown of Life

A sermon on Revelation 2:8-11 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 3/6/2005

Have you been face to face with the death of someone you loved? I have not – yet. But in August of  1995, twice I came close.

Jack Gill was my friend and mentor. A 52-year-old high school science teacher, Jack had been an elder at our church in Williamstown for more than 20 years. He preached about 25 sermons a year. He was the first person to suggest that I preach in that church. Early one evening that August, we received a phone call from another elder, telling us that Jack had died suddenly of a heart attack that morning, while on vacation at the Jersey shore.

Less than two weeks later, about 7 on a Sunday morning, Beth was nursing Joel, who was 8 months old at the time. Our oldest five children were still asleep; we were enjoying a quiet, and all-too-rare moment with the three of us alone together. Suddenly Joel stopped nursing, and went limp. Beth called out, "Coty! Something's wrong with Joel!" Thinking he must be choking on something, I picked him up and opened his mouth. Not seeing anything, we desperately tried to get him to respond to some stimulus, any stimulus. Nothing seemed to work. The previous evening I had held our guinea pig in my arms as he died; I now prayed, "Oh, Lord! Is this precious boy going to die in my arms also?"

I have never experienced such gut-wrenching pain; afraid of losing my son, I would have done anything to bring him back: but there seemed to be nothing I could do: I was helpless.

Those of you who have been face to face with death know that it can be terrible. It can be ugly. You know that death is our enemy.

In today’s passage, Jesus speaks to a church facing difficulties, and tells them that things are going to get worse.

But He is the One who died and came to life! He controls death. So He says, “Do not fear! Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

Let’s read today’s passage:

And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: 'The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life."'I know your tribulation and your poverty ( but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.'” Revelation 2:8-11

We’ll look at this passage under three headings, three things we must know to fight the fight of faith:

Expect Suffering

Two weeks ago we pointed out that Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 follow a similar pattern:

·        Each begins with the addressee, always the angel of a church in Asia Minor.

·        Each then says it is from Jesus, describing Him frequently using words from John’s description of Him in chapter 1.

·        In most cases Jesus then says, "I know something good about you . . ."

·        He then follows this by saying, "But I know something bad . . ."

·        He then makes a threat and/or an exhortation: “Therefore . . ."

·        He then calls for all to hear this statement, not only those in the church addressed.  

·        He then makes a promise to those who conquer or overcome.

Question: What part of this pattern is left out of this letter? Jesus says nothing bad about this church! He makes no criticism whatsoever.

Yet, although this is a faithful church, they are suffering. Jesus says He knows their tribulation and their poverty.

Furthermore, this is not just the normal suffering of living in a fallen world. The church in Smyrna faces persecution because of their faith in Jesus. We see this in verse 9, where Jesus says they face “the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not.”

What is the reason for this persecution? Most likely, emperor worship. The Roman emperors beginning with Augustus claimed divinity. Residents of the empire had to make a periodic sacrifice to the emperor, or declare, “Caesar is Lord.” For many, this was simply perfunctory. The equivalent today would be making such a statement with your fingers crossed. But faithful Jews could not make that statement – fingers crossed or not! So the government granted Jews an exception; they did not have to acknowledge Caesar as divine. For the first several decades after the resurrection of Jesus, the Romans simply considered Christianity to be a sect of Judaism. But by this point, the Jews themselves in some locations were saying, “These guys aren’t Jews – they practice a different religion! There should be no exception for them! Let them suffer!”

The initial effect of this was economic persecution – so Jesus says, “I know your poverty.” Christians could be excluded from the trade guilds, since guild membership required periodic sacrifices. They thus could lose their profession and their income. But at times, the cult of the emperor would become more prominent, and then failure to acknowledge Caesar as Lord could lead to imprisonment or even death.

As Paul wrote about 30 years earlier, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted”(2 Timothy 3:12). For the church in Smyrna, this was certainly the case.

Furthermore, things are going to get worse! In Revelation 2:10, Jesus says, “Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison.” Thus, Satan himself will get involved!

So how can we summarize these statements on suffering?

1) Suffering is real. – we are not Buddhists, saying all is illusion, and we just need to get rid of desire. Jesus knows their suffering. He acknowledges it as real.

2) Suffering is not necessarily the result of sin, since Jesus makes no criticism of this church.

3) Suffering may come from the most religious people around – the Jews in this case.

4) Suffering may get worse and worse – Jesus says things will get worse.

5) Satan himself may be involved in our suffering.

If this was true for the church in Smyrna, should we expect anything different? So do not be surprised! Expect suffering! There’s a war going on, and we are in it.

But the message is not, “Keep a stiff upper lip while you suffer.” Jesus instead tells the church in Smyrna to:

Know that God is in Control

When we suffer intensely, we are tempted to feel like no one understands. Because our pain is so strong, we are tempted to think that no one has ever experienced such pain before. The old African-American spiritual captures this feeling: “Nobody knows da trouble I seen”. But that spiritual wisely continues, “Nobody knows but Jesus.”

That’s what Jesus tells the church in Smyrna in Verse 9. You may have overlooked these words at firs, but they are vital: “I know your tribulation and your poverty.” Jesus knows! He sees! He knows your pain. He knows your tears. He cares.

We must hold on to that truth: Jesus knows.

But He says even more in the middle of verse 10. Although, as noted above, He says their suffering will get worse, He also says, “For ten days you will have suffering.” What does He mean? And why does He say that?

Can you think of another test in Scripture that lasted for 10 days? There is only one: Daniel and his friends, as related in Daniel 1:12-15. Remember, Daniel and his three friends were taken captive to Babylon as part of that empire’s attempt to incorporate ethnic minorities into one state. The goal was to bring in talented individuals from all groups, to train them in Babylonian ways, and then to use them in the civil service. Daniel and his friends were thus ripped out of their homes, out of their culture, and taken to the capital city of the empire that held sway over their country. They were well-treated, since the emperor intended to use them in his service, but they were expected to live like Babylonians. In particular, they were given meat to eat that had not been slaughtered according to Jewish dietary laws. Although they are only teens, Daniel and his friends wisely go to the man in charge, asking him to allow them to eat only vegetables for 10 days, and then to see how they look. God grants them special grace, and at the end of the trial period they look even better than their colleagues. So they are allowed to continue to observe their dietary laws.

What is the lesson of this story? God honors and protects those who are faithful to Him. God is in control.

This test of  “10 days” alludes to the story in Daniel. This could be literal allusion, meaning the church in Smyrna would suffer for exactly 10 days. To my mind it seems more likely that this is a promise that the lesson of the story in Daniel will hold here – and that the suffering will last for a limited period of time. So Jesus says, “Expect your tribulation to get worse. But know this: I will limit its length. It may seem like it will never end, but I am in control. I will end it. Be faithful like Daniel, and I will bring you through.”

Indeed, Jesus shows that He is in control with His first words of introduction (verse 8): “The words of the first and the last.” This expression also is an allusion to the Old Testament, this time to Isaiah 44:2 and 6, which read:

Thus says the LORD who made you, who formed you from the womb and who will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. . . . Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.”

Thus, if He is first, He is before all things – He knows the origin of all things; indeed, He is the origin of all things:

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities- all things were created through him and for him. Colossians 1:16

And if He is last – and if He knows right now that He will be last - then He must be in control. By saying He is last, Jesus saying, “When all the battles are fought, all the terrorist acts are over, all the prophets are done speaking, all the wise men are finished thinking – I am still King, I am still God. I am in control.”

Note the implication here: The Christians in Smyrna are tempted to say, “We’ve got the Jews against us! We’ve got the Roman Empire against us! We’ve even got Satan against us! Oh no! This is terrible!” But Jesus says, “Yes, all these are against you. I know. And you will suffer. But know this: They can do nothing against you that I do not allow.”

Otherwise, how could Jesus say the suffering will last only 10 days? How could He say, “Do not fear!”  How could He say, “I am the first and the last”?

My friends, this is also the case with you and me. You need not fear the enemies of Christ. You need not fear any government. You need not fear Satan Himself. For Jesus is the King of Kings! He is in control!

But there is more:

Know that God Uses Suffering as the Way to Life

Jesus makes this point in several ways in this brief passage. Look first at verse 9:

“I know your tribulation and your poverty – but you are rich!”

Poverty is not an illusion – the church in Smyrna really is poor by the standards of the world. But Jesus says, “You have no earthly riches, but you have treasure in heaven!”

This is what Paul says about Himself in 2 Corinthians 6:10:

as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.

This, indeed, is what this week’s Fighter Verse says:

Whom have I in heaven but You? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. Psalm 73:25

Poverty or riches here on earth mean little. The ultimate riches are those in Jesus. Indeed, knowing Jesus is the ultimate in riches. So Having Jesus is having the greatest riches of all – and monetary poverty is unimportant.

But Jesus says more than that. He says He is not only wealth. He is life itself. Right at the beginning of today’s passage, as Jesus introduces Himself, Jesus says He is the one who “died and came to life” (v8). Thus, Jesus says, “Don’t fear death! I’ve conquered death! And those who are in me are raised with me!” As Paul says in Romans 6:5:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

To be a Christian is to be crucified with Christ to our old self, and to be in union with Christ for all eternity. And that is life!

Jesus says this in a striking way to Martha in John 11: Lazarus, Martha’s brother, is dead. She has just told Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Jesus responds,

"Your brother will rise again." Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die." John 11:23-26

Jesus says, “There’s something more important that you’ve got to see, Martha. Yes, your brother will rise on the last day. But I am not just a healer of diseases! To know Me is to have life! I AM the LIFE. Death has no power over anyone who is in me!”

That’s why Jesus is able to say in verse 10, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

Listen carefully: Anyone who is faithful unto death is believing in Jesus, trusting in Jesus. And if you believe in Jesus, if you believe that He is worth more than all the world has to offer, then you are in Him. And He is life itself. You have the crown of eternal life.

So in verse 11 Jesus promises to the one who overcomes that he “will not be hurt by the second death.” What is the second death? This is explained in Revelation 20:14-15:

Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

The second death is thus eternal punishment, having the wrath of God on you forever and ever.

But the one faithful unto death need not fear that second death. Jesus says, “You’re not going to be hurt by the second death. The first death is painful. It is often ugly. But for those who believe, the first death is the door to life with me. The second death, the lake of fire, is painful – for all eternity. And if you overcome, if you conquer this temptation to fear and doubt, you will not be hurt at all by the second death.”


What is the message to the church of Smyrna?

Jesus says, “I know you are suffering now. I know you are tempted to fear because it looks like you will suffer even more. You’re right. You will suffer more. But don’t fear! Yes, Satan is behind all this – but this is not happening apart from my knowledge and my plan! I will limit it – and this will result in good, not evil. So be faithful! Believe me! Follow me, trust me, even if following me leads to your death! He who is mine has Life – even if he dies. So trust me! And rejoice!”

What about you? How are you suffering now? What type of suffering do you fear?

I don’t know what type of suffering you will face, but I can guarantee you: You will suffer in some way. How will you respond?

Don’t be surprised. Expect suffering. But know that this suffering gives your faith the opportunity to prove its worth. As Charles Spurgeon writes,

To trust when there is no cause for fear, is but the name of faith, but to be reliant upon God when occasions for alarm are abundant and pressing, is the conquering faith of God's elect.

Faith is faith when we believe in the face of danger and suffering.

Faith is faith when we believe even though NOT believing looks a lot safer.

But know this, my friends: Ours is not a blind faith. Ours is not a faith that “things have a way of working out.”

So do you want to know Him more than you want life itself? Are you willing to give up anything – are you willing to suffer – so that you might know Him?

Four years ago, Veronica Bowers, a missionary, was flying in a small plane over Peru with her husband and infant son. The Peruvian Air Force mistakenly shot at the plane, killing Veronica and her baby. Miraculously, the wounded pilot was able to land.

At the funeral service for Veronica and the baby, Elizabeth Elliot read this poem by Martha Snell Nicholson – a woman who herself suffered much, living for about three decades in bed as an invalid:

I stood a mendicant of God before His royal throne
And begged him for one priceless gift, which I could call my own.
I took the gift from out His hand, but as I would depart
I cried, "But Lord this is a thorn and it has pierced my heart.
This is a strange, a hurtful gift, which Thou hast given me."
He said, "My child, I give good gifts and gave My best to thee."
I took it home and though at first the cruel thorn hurt sore,
As long years passed I learned at last to love it more and more.
I learned He never gives a thorn without this added grace,
He takes the thorn to pin aside the veil which hides His face.

Let’s pray. Can you pray this prayer with me?

Lord: We want to see you. We want to know you. We want to delight in you above all things. Yet we fear. We fear what you might ask of us. We fear that we won’t be faithful unto death. We fear that we might shrink back. So open our eyes. Enable us to see you as the first and the last, the one in control. Enable us to see you as the source of life itself, so that we need not fear death. Give us faith – faith even to death – so that we might glorify you above all things. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 3/6/05. The entire funeral service for Veronica (‘Roni”) Bowers is available at . The Spurgeon quote is from Treasury of David on Psalm 56:3, available online at . Greg Beale’s The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans, 1999) was helpful as usual, in particularly pointing out the allusion to Daniel 1.

Copyright © 2005, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

This data file may not be copied in part, edited, revised, posted on the internet, copied for resale or incorporated in any products offered for sale, without the written permission of Thomas C. Pinckney, (send email), c/o Desiring God Community Church, PO Box 620099, Charlotte, NC 28262.

(return to main sermon page)