Be faithful Unto Death (Revelation 2:8-11)

The most famous disciple of the Apostle John was a godly man named Polycarp. Polycarp became the Bishop the Smyrna. Smyrna was a densely populated Jewish city with strong ties to Roman loyalty. Polycarp would have been in his mid-twenties when he first heard brief John’s Revelation and the letter from Jesus Christ to the church at Smyrna. As a young man he had to make a choice to follow Jesus Christ. In choosing to follow Jesus, he was choosing a life of persecution, of earthly poverty and constant opposition. Polycarp made the choice to follow Jesus. According to Church history, Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John. John was probably 60 years older than Polycarp, but John’s influence over this young man strengthened the church at Smyrna during his day and long after the Lord called him home.

      John served as a missionary to the future by giving his life to the next generation. The message John gave in life was a message embraced by those in face of death: to be faithful to Jesus Christ. I pray that whatever stage of life you find yourself this morning, a young man or woman in the beginning of your life or a senior saint nearing the end, I pray that you would be faithful to Jesus Christ. He is worth it.

Be Faithful to the Living One

            Jesus begins every one of his letters to his churches with an aspect of the vision of Revelation 1:9-20. Jesus begins his letter to the church at Smyrna with a reminder that He is God and in control of all things. Revelation 1:8,

And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

Jesus is alone sovereign over all history. He is eternal. He is the beginning and the end; the first and the last. The prophet Isaiah uses this phrase three times in his chapters of hope (40-48). Every time he uses the phrase, he is referring to God. Jesus is God. He is the second person of the Trinity. He is equal to God the Father and although his is equal to God the Father he as a very different role in our salvation. Jesus is our mediator who purchased our salvation by offering himself in our place.

            It is hard to faithful to God in a fallen world. Faithfulness is unswerving allegiance and steadfast trust in God. There is a multiplicity of temptations for believers. There is wealth, comfort, and pleasure that appears more attractive than the life of poverty, tumult, and denial. How can we remain faithful? We remain faithful by looking to Him who calls us to be faithful. The One who calls us to be faithful was the one who was faithful on our behalf. Jesus died for our sins. He committed no wrong. He knew no sin. He was innocent of all transgression. He was faithful to every word and in every way to God the Father. And although he was perfect, he remained faithful unto death. He was obedient to death even death on the cross. The One does not only demand your faithfulness, he provides you an example.

Jesus was faithful unto death, but he also came back to life. There is a great promise in faithfulness. The resurrection is our reward. 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.” 1 Peter 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you.” Psalm 16:6, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places, indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” Psalm 16:11, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence, there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

Following Jesus is worth it. He is glorious Savior and promises a glorious inheritance. When we are tempted to drift from Jesus, we must remember what he has done for us and what he has promised to us.

Polycarp was arrested for his faith. There was a warrant out for his arrest and he was traveling from house to house to avoid capture. During one period of prayer, it was revealed to him by the Lord that he was to be burned for his faith. Polycarp was brought into the stadium surrounded by a crowd that wanted him dead.

“Are you Polycarp?” the Roman proconsul asked. “Yes.” “Swear to Rome, and I will set you free. Curse Christ!” “For eighty-six years,” replied Polycarp, “I have been his servant, and he has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”

In the hour of Polycarp’s greatest test, he remembered the kindness and mercy of the Savior. Jesus had done him no wrong, but saved him. In the hour of your temptation, whether it be at a computer screen, in your office, or at the dinner table with your family over the holidays, remember the Jesus is the first and the last, who died for you and came to life again. He will do you no harm.

Be Faithful in the Loss of Wealth

            There are threats to our faithfulness. One of the greatest threats is a loss of wealth. Jesus begins the letter to the church, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich).” Jesus knows the cost paid by his disciples. Smyrna was a largely Jewish city with strong ties to the Roman imperial cult. The imperial cult permeated virtually every aspect of the city and often even village life in Asia Minor, so that individuals could aspire to economic prosperity and greater social standing only by participating to some degree in the Roman cult.[1] As Christians refuse to participate in the Roman cult, they were ostracized from society and became poor. They would not have moved up the social ladder, but would most likely not been hired in the first place and/or the community would have avoided their businesses. To follow Christ in the 1st century often meant choosing a life of poverty. And yet, Christians chose to be poor rather than denying the Lord Jesus Christ.

            Will you be faithful in the loss of wealth? Will you choose to be poor rather than deny Jesus Christ? There are members of our church that have made that decision. Members who were part of businesses with dishonest practices that chose to walk away from those businesses rather than dishonor Christ. Beloved, we have members now who are daily pressured to deny Christ in their workplaces. Are you praying for their strength to be faithful? As the moral revolution continues to unfold, more and more Christians will lose their jobs simply by holding to a Christian sexual ethic. Holding to a biblical view of marriage will cause you to lose your job. When you are facing the temptation of the loss of wealth, will you be faithful?

One of the marks of the early church was a familial sharing of resources. They all gave to each other as any had need. Faithfulness in the loss of wealth is a community project. We must be willing to bear each other burdens including financial burdens when our brothers and sisters stand for Christ in the public sector. Let us choose to be poor with Christ than rich without him. Jesus reminded the church that even though we are poor in earthly means, we are rich in the spiritual realm. Even here Jesus is reminding us to follow him, 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Jesus became poor so we would be rich.

Beloved, do you view your wealth as a tool to make others spiritually rich? As we move into a season of increased persecution for the church, it will take the resources of the entire body to encourage faithfulness. Let us commit to living as a spiritual family and give freely to all who have need.

Be Faithful in the Loss of Reputation

            The Christians at Smyrna also faced persecution in their reputation. Proverbs 22:1, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” The reputation of Christians was under attack at Smyrna because certain “Jews” were more interested in protecting their own freedoms. Jews had certain rights under the Roman law. They did not have to worship Caesar as Lord. They were afforded certain rights for the peace of the Roman empire. Christians were initially viewed as a Jewish sect and were afforded similar rights under the Jewish umbrella.

As Christianity grew, Jews began to slander Christians and further separate themselves from believers. Jesus offers some strong words to encourage the church, “I know…the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Paul writes in Romans that a true Jew is not one outwardly, but inwardly and circumcision is a matter of the heart done by the Spirit. These Jews in Smyrna were not true Jews at all but were following Satan. Satan is the Accuser of the brethren. He is the one who spits false accusations against God’s people. These were false Jews and followers of the Slanderer.

Do you realize that every time you slander another person (speaking untruth to harm their reputation) you are following the ways of Satan? The tongue is hard to control. James says it is a restless evil. We must recognize sins of the tongue and repent of how we may have fallen into temptation. We also must be resolute in trusting Jesus with our reputation. It is natural to want to defend ourselves to others. When my reputation has been slandered, there is a part that wells up in me that wants to defend myself against those false accusations. Slander hurts for more than one’s pride but can hurt the reputation of the gospel and witness of Christ. And yet, God is first and the last. He is still in control of it.

Here again, we must look to Christ, 1 Peter 2:23, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” We want to treat others with gentleness and respect so that when we are slandered those who revile our good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:16). If we are insulted for the name of Christ, we are blessed. (1 Peter 4:14) We must continue to entrust ourselves to our faithful Creator while doing good to others. (1 Peter 4:19). Give your reputation to Lord.

Be Faithful in the Loss of Breath

            The church at Smyrna was facing the very real possibility of death. Jesus exhorts them not to fear because he is the living one. We always face death as Christians remembering that our God has promised us a resurrection. Revelation 2:10,

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. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.

The devil is going to work through human agents to persecute the church. He always has and he always will use earthly agents to tear down the church. And God is going to use the wickedness of persecution to purify his church. The church will be tested. 1 Peter 1:6-7,

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

God will use our trials to strengthen and confirm our faith. And our trials, don’t miss this, will result in praise and glory and honor of Jesus Christ.

            The ten days of tribulation are probably not referring to a literal ten-day period of persecution, but a symbolic period of testing where they can prove themselves faithful. The ten-day test is most likely alluding to Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego ten-day fast in Babylon where they chose not to defile themselves with the king’s food. Daniel and friends have always been models for faithfulness in the face of death. God spared Daniel from the lion’s den. God spared Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace. Therefore, God will spare the church at Smyrna by giving them the crown of life. As God will spare us if we are faithful to the end. 

            Polycarp would have heard these words as a young man. As he grew into the bishop of Smyrna, there were probably many times when he recited these words to the people. Be faithful unto death and Jesus will give you the crown of life. And by God’s grace, he lived by those words. Polycarp was brought into the Roman stadium and was put on trial. They asked him to recant by shouting and waving his hands towards the Christians saying, “Away with the atheists,” as Christians were referred to that day. Instead, Polycarp was commanded to look behind him to the Christians but instead looked toward the crowd in front of him and waving his hands bellowed, “Away with the atheists.” The Proconsul continued to threaten Polycarp,

“I have wild beasts,” said the proconsul. “I shall throw you to them if you don’t change your attitude.”

“Call them,” replied the saint. “We cannot change our attitude if it means a change from better to worse.”

“If you make light of the beasts,” retorted the governor, “I’ll have you destroyed by fire, unless you change your attitude.”

Polycarp answered: “The fire you threaten burns for a time and is soon extinguished. There is a fire you know nothing about—the fire of the judgment to come and of eternal punishment, the fire reserved for the ungodly. But why do you hesitate? Do what you want.”

The proconsul was amazed, and sent the crier to stand in the middle of the arena and announce three times: “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.” The crowd roared in unison that Polycarp must be burned alive.

Polycarp was trusting in the words of Savior and King, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Polycarp has stood in a long line of faithful Christians who stood faithful unto death. They trusted Jesus for the crown of life.

Be Faithful for the Life to Come

            There are two deaths in this world. There is the first death when our bodies perish from this life and there is the second death where our bodies and soul perish forever in hell. Revelation 20:14, “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.” This is what Polycarp meant when he said, “There is a fire you know nothing about—the fire of the judgment to come and of eternal punishment, the fire reserved for the ungodly.” The ungodly are those whose names are not written in the book of life.

Jesus desires your name to be written in the book of life. Jesus came to give life and live more abundantly. Jesus says, “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.” Jesus calls out to all who will hear his voice. The one who conquers in faith will not be hurt by the second death. They will perish in this life only then will experience the blessed inheritance of the saints.

The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. How do we conquer? The way we conquer is to be conquered. We are only conquerors if we try to save ourselves. We cannot save ourselves. We are ungodly and unrighteous. We deserve the second death, but God sent through the Living One. Jesus Christ came to die and rise again. Jesus conquered the second death through his resurrection. We conquer by allowing Jesus to be our conqueror. We surrender to his Lordship. We bow to him as King. It is only by being conquered by Christ that we will conquer with Christ in the life to come.

We all must make a choice. Will we bow our knee to Christ or to our own will? Polycarp was a young man when he made the choice to follow Christ. He said, “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?” When the time came and the wood was placed his feet, Polycarp prayed,

O Father of thy beloved and blessed Son, Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to know thee, the God of angels and powers and all creation, and of the whole family of the righteous who live in thy presence; I bless thee for counting me worthy of this day and hour, that in the number of the martyrs I may partake of Christ’s cup, to the resurrection of eternal life of both soul and body in the imperishability that is the gift of the Holy Spirit.[2]

Polycarp took the cup of Christ of death and the hope of his resurrection. He believed in the promise, “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life.” Friends, I pray who heed the words of Christ as Polycarp did. Be faithful, be steadfast, be immovable in the hope of the gospel, be loyal unto Christ, be faithful to death. Be conquered by Christ so that you will conquer the second death with Christ. He has promised the conqueror’s crown; will you receive it?

[1] Beale, G. K. (1999). The book of Revelation: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 240). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.

[2] Boa, K., & Kruidenier, W. (2000). Vol. 6: Romans. Holman New Testament Commentary (403–404). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.