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Faithful Unto Death

Seven Churches   •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  41:46
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Faithful unto Death
Revelation 2:8-11
On Thursday, October 1, 2015, an armed man entered into Umpqua Community College in Oregon and began shooting people. In one classroom, he would ask people if they knew God. If they answered “yes” he would say “Good because you are about to see God” before shooting them in the head. Still people would answer yes when he asked them.
People have given their lives for their faith since the very beginning of Christianity, people have refused to renounce their faith even if it meant certain death. Whether from the threat of being thrown to the lion to being confronted with a gunman in the world today.
Denouncing Christ would have given them their freedom and their life but many stood strong in the face of death and would not deny their faith. They paid the ultimate price.
Why do people persist when surrendering would save their lives? What keeps people faithful, how can they remain faithful even unto death?
This morning as we look at the second of seven letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, we are going to discover the answer to being faithful even if it means death.
This letter to the church in Smyrna is all about Jesus. It may seem like the letter is about the suffering and persecution that the church in Smyrna is about to undergo, but from what Jesus says about that, it becomes clear that the suffering and persecution are just a stage built for the drama that displays the worth of Christ.
It teaches us how to be faithful even if it means death.
It’s easy to lose sight of this reality, so we should study what Jesus says to these churches because he means to help them live in light of it, that’s why God gave “The Revelation,” so that his people would know “the things that must soon take place.”
Let’s pray and we’ll read our text for this morning.
Pray!
Revelation 2:8–11 ESV
“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.’
Our first idea is:

Jesus is bigger than death

Jesus tells John to write “to the angel of the church in Smyrna.”
The statement at the beginning of each of the seven letters recalls an aspect of the description of Jesus in 1:9-20, and in each case what is mentioned is relevant for the contents of the rest of that particular letter.
In this case, Jesus identifies himself as “the first and the last, who died and came to life.” There is depth here that cannot be grasped. Think as far back as your mind can go, and know Jesus was there before all that.

He is the first

He is “the first,” before all else that is. He cannot be preempted. Just thinking about him as “the first and the last” will bring your mind to the breaking point. Jesus is bigger than our ability to understand.

He is the last

He is also “the last.” Nothing will endure longer than Jesus. He is before and after everything. By identifying himself as “the first and the last,” Jesus is explicitly claiming divinity. This is equivalent to God the Father identifying himself as “the Alpha and the Omega” in 1:8.
Jesus identifies himself with the Father. This is what scholars refer to as “high Christology.” It is so high that the air is not only so thin it makes us dizzy, the atmospheric pressure at this height crushes lungs. Jesus is God!
Jesus goes on in 2:8 to say that he is the one “who died and came to life.”
How does “the first and the last” die? Who would have imagined that God could, or would, die? He is before and after all that is, and yet he entered into the course of history, was killed, and rose from the dead. There are no categories for these kinds of claims in the religions and philosophies of the world. Being “the first and the last” makes Jesus eternal.
How can one who is eternal die? I don’t know how but I know that it did.
The death and resurrection of Jesus means that death has no power over him. He is bigger than death itself, and given what the church in Smyrna faces, that reality is one they must keep in their minds if they are to be faithful.
When you think about the end of your life, do you recognize the fact that Jesus has conquered death? When you think about dangerous situations you might face, the noise in the night that means an intruder might be in your home; when you think of life-threatening danger, do you remember the victory of Jesus over death?
Applying to our fears the knowledge that Jesus is bigger than death should make us courageous.
Courage is a great thing, but it is not our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is to live in ways that show our confidence in Jesus. When we are courageous because we know that Jesus is bigger than death, we honor Jesus. And when we put ourselves in harm’s way in order to protect others, or even to save their lives, because we love Jesus and know that he is in control and trust him to take care of us—even if we die—we are following Jesus.
If you don’t know Jesus, you can’t follow him. If you don’t know Jesus, you don’t know the one who has conquered death and freed us from the fear of it. Maybe you’re not sure what it means to know him.
Think of the way that he died to protect others, to deliver those who would trust him from the power of sin and death, and know that he can deliver you. He is able to save. He is mighty to save. Believe that. Know him as Savior. Trust him.
If you trust him, he will save you.
He is the only hope you have to be delivered from the power of sin and death. Do you feel your need for him? Don’t you want “the first and the last, who died and came to life” to stand between you and the awful forces of sin and death?
Let’s keep these truths in our hearts. Jesus is the first and the last. He died and came to life. He is bigger than death. He has conquered death. And let’s be courageous because we trust Jesus and follow him by laying down our lives for others just as he laid down his life for us.
Jesus is bigger than death.

Jesus knows our suffering

After Jesus announces himself, he says that he knows three things. First:

Tribulation

What could be more comforting to the church in Smyrna than Jesus saying to them, “I know your tribulation”?
Tribulation is painful and wearisome. It pecks away at us little by little, chipping away at our joy, taking the wind out of our perseverance, and things only get worse as tribulation drags on. Jesus doesn’t trivialize their suffering by telling them it isn’t really that bad, He doesn’t demean them by telling them that if they were stronger it wouldn’t bother them so much and he doesn’t cheapen their experience by offering unsympathetic advice.
Jesus lifts up their suffering with the simple and comforting words, “I know your tribulation.”
One of the most discouraging effects of suffering is that we feel alone. When Jesus tells the church in Smyrna that he knows their tribulation, he is reminding them of his presence with them.
The second thing Jesus knows is their “poverty.”

Poverty

The church was poor. The tribulation probably resulted from the wealthy people in Smyrna opposing Christianity because they thought that this new religion was going to displease the gods, it was going to make Caesar unhappy, and it would definitely not raise the city of Smyrna to new heights of prominence in the Roman Empire.
In fact, the values of this new faith were at odds with the values of the Roman Empire.
So, the little church in Smyrna was opposed by the power structures in the Empire and had no financial resources and no influence in society. Or so it seemed.
Jesus says to them, “I know your tribulation and your poverty.”
This means that the Lord of lords, the King of kings, the one to whom Caesar will bow the knee, knows them, knows their need, and he adds, “but you are rich.” This is the same paradox expressed by Paul when he described himself
2 Corinthians 6:10 ESV
as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
Though we may not have what the world counts as riches, we have what is truly wealth. By telling the church in Smyrna that they are rich, Jesus is redirecting their perspective away from worldly standards and reminding them of what matters.
Brothers and sisters, we are rich because we have what will save our lives.
When Jesus comes on that white horse, outdated clothes, beat-up cars, and houses that have seen better days will no longer indicate a lack of wealth. The only thing that will matter is whether or not you have the gospel. And if you have the gospel, you are rich indeed. This wealth is yours if you will trust Christ.
But don’t trust Him to have a worldly type of wealth. It won’t make you rich or give you an abundance of money.
How do you measure your economic standing?
Is it by the brand of cell phone you can afford or the amount of money you can throw away on entertainment or travel? Or do you measure your economic standing by the fact that Jesus has reconciled you to God and made you a child of God who has promised you the world, life and all things as your inheritance?
Those who are wealthy often display a careless indifference about all they have. We Christians ought to feel something similar—not that we disregard the goodness of the things that God has promised. But we will feel a certain freedom from all that God has promised to give us, so long as he gives us the one thing we cannot do without: himself.
Trust Him so that you can be reconciled to God, so you can treasure Him.
The third thing that Jesus tells the church in Smyrna that he knows is “the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”

Slander

The Romans had granted the Jews an exemption from required participation in the Roman Imperial Cult with its festivals and celebrations. They did not have to take part in Roman idolatry while everyone else was required to participate.
The Jewish slander here probably has to do with Jews denouncing Christians to the Romans.
As long as Christianity was under the Jewish umbrella, Christians were also exempt from required participation in the growing Roman Imperial Cult. If the Jews began arguing that Christians weren’t Jews, Christians who refused to participate in Roman idolatry could face retribution.
Something like this seems to be going on in Smyrna, and Jesus says that he knows “the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”
Jesus denies the status of “Jew” to those who do not serve the Jewish King, Jesus himself. He identifies their true allegiance: they are those who gather in synagogues to celebrate Satan’s kingdom, not God’s. God’s kingdom is advancing with Jesus at its head and all who oppose Him are allied with a rebel kingdom whose lord is a liar and murderer.
Christ said that those who are not for him are against him. And in John 8:44 Jesus told his Jewish opponents that they were of their father the Devil.
Whose side are you on?
Jesus is bigger than death, He knows our suffering

Jesus calls us to be faithful

Having saying that he knows what they are facing, Jesus tells the church in Smyrna,
10 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…
We should see several things here before we read the rest of this verse. First, he tells them not to fear what they are about to suffer.

Don’t fear

The only thing that will keep the church from fearing what they are about to suffer is their living on what Jesus has said to them. He is “the first and the last, who died and came to life” and he has assured them that he knows what they suffer and knows who their enemies are. Because of who he is, and because he will be with them through the suffering, they can be free from fear.
Second, he identifies who is at work in their suffering, “the devil is about to throw some of you into prison.”

The devil is at work

There is no question here about who is in the right and who is in the wrong. There is none of this nonsense suggesting that maybe if the Christians were less rigid, or maybe if they were more open to the possibility of there being more than one right way, they wouldn’t be suffering. None of that garbage from Jesus. He recognizes who the enemy is, and it is clear that those who oppose his people are diabolical. The devil is about to have them arrested.
Third, there is a purpose, “that you may be tested.”

There is a purpose

God is using the devil’s persecution to test and prove his people. And when his people come through the test, they make God look good, for only God could preserve them.
Fourth, Jesus tells them that “for ten days you will have tribulation.”

It won’t last forever

It seems that “ten days” here points to a full but limited amount of time. I don’t think we should read this as a literal reference to ten twenty-four-hour periods of time. What if they wind up imprisoned for longer than ten days? I don’t think that’s the point because Jesus knows how long their suffering is going to last (and in comparison, with other periods of time in Revelation like the thousand years in chapter 20) the ten days of their suffering is relatively short. They can hold on to the end because it is a relatively short period of time.
And then we get the audacious command, “Be faithful unto death.”

Be faithful

Only Jesus could make this kind of demand. Only Jesus has the authority to place this kind of obligation upon people. Only Jesus has the ability to reward those who would obey this command. The command to “be faithful unto death” proclaims that it is more important to be faithful to Jesus than it is to go on living.
Jesus is worth dying for. And if he is worth dying for, then he is worth living for. Only those who are gripped by something worth more to them than life can be truly courageous. And courage is precisely what Jesus calls the church in Smyrna to in this command. He is proclaiming to them that he is better than life.
Those who experience his goodness, who know him this way, know the truth that Jesus spoke:
Mark 8:35 ESV
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.
Jesus promises life to those who are faithful unto death. He says, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” This is the only way to life: death. Death to self. Death to sin. Then you will be dead to the world and dead to fear. You will also be alive by the power of the Spirit and through faith in Jesus.
Jesus is bigger than death, He knows our suffering, calls us to be faithful,

Jesus promises life

Revelation 2:11 closes the letter to the church at Smyrna by calling those who have ears to hear, and then the promise of life is restated a little differently, “The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.”
In this context, conquering clearly means remaining faithful to Jesus even unto death, and it means the same thing in 12:11. Those who conquer in this way “will not be hurt by the second death.” We see what the second death is in 20:14: “This is the second death, the lake of fire.” The second death is a death that those who are thrown into the lake of fire will experience forever.
The only way to avoid it is to believe in Jesus and to live like you believe in Jesus, being faithful unto death.
During the summer, when the temperatures soar, there are days that I don’t know if I can keep going. It becomes a struggle to keep going, to keep climbing the hills and steps and to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It gets harder and harder and I wonder if will I make it to the end.
Maybe when you think about faithfulness unto death, you wonder whether you will hold up all the way through. Maybe you know people have broken, who’ve given up or thrown in the towel and you aren’t certain whether you would be able to “be faithful unto death.”
Jesus must be bigger than life to us.
God’s word is true. If we know Jesus, we know he is bigger than life, better than life. God gets the glory as people who know him declare that it is better to die than to live without him.
We need this. Not just because some of us might die for Him, but because all of us live. The life worth living, the life worth dying for, the life that is lived to and through and for God through Jesus Christ – that’s life even if it means death.
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