Faithfulness Unto Death

Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

Revelation 2:8-11 | September 18 - Sunday Morning,

Sunday Morning,
September 18
Faithfulness Unto Death | Revelation 2:8-11
Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

Most people don’t consider that they will die. They assume they will go to heaven. They think there’s a way to avoid death and they don’t have to think because everyone just goes to heaven and consequently most people spend more time trying to avoid death than they do spending time preparing and making sure they’re on the path to heaven.

If we live as Christians simply to avoid death, we are not living as Jesus would have us live. He said you can avoid that second hellish death and though you may face martyrdom, you can live a glorious, joyous life, because on the other side of the first death, is eternal life. James 1:12: Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trail for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him.

Father in heaven, our prayer is simple. Give us ears, give us courage, no matter the time, no matter the opposition, no matter the circumstances. For Jesus’ sake we pray. Amen.

Revelation chapter 2, verses 8 through 11. Continuing with our series through the seven letters to the seven churches, this morning to the church in Smyrna. Revelation chapter 2, beginning at verse 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. ‘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.’”

Polycarp was born in A.D. 69, so just before the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of the Temple, well within the lifespan of some who would have been eyewitnesses to Christ and his work. In fact, Polycarp was a disciple of John, who wrote this book of Revelation. He was a friend of Ignatius and he was a mentor to Irenaeus. He lived to be 86 years old, and for the second half of his life he served as the bishop of Smyrna, which we just read is the second city in Revelation, today the modern city of Izmir in Turkey.

There is one surviving document we know that came from Polycarp. It’s called the Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians. It’s been translated into English. You can read it. Maybe take a half hour to read it. Probably dates to around 108 A.D., that is shortly after the death of Ignatius.

Polycarp by all accounts was a venerable man, highly respected for his holiness and orthodoxy. Irenaeus tells the story that on one occasion when Polycarp came face-to-face with the gnostic heretic Marcion, Marcion asked, “Do you recognize me?” to which Polycarp responded, “I do, indeed. I recognize the first born of Satan.” So he didn’t mess around.

He famously died a martyr’s death in 155 or 156, and when he died the church at Smyrna sent out a letter, “To tell the story of those who have suffered martyrdom, especially blessed Polycarp, who as though he had set his seal by his martyrdom brought the persecution to an end.”

So if we have a late date for Revelation around 90 A.D., then this is some 65 years later, not that long.

Here’s part of the story, the martyrdom of Polycarp. You, too, can read that. It’s been translated into English. It would take maybe a half hour to read. Here’s part of the story. Picking things up after Polycarp has been arrested and he’s being brought into the stadium in Smyrna.

“But as Polycarp entered the stadium, there came a voice from heaven: ‘Be strong, Polycarp, and courageous.'” Or some translations, “be strong and play the man.” “And no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice and then, as he was brought forward, there was a great uproar when they heard that Polycarp had been arrested. Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul,” so the governor, “asked if he were Polycarp, and when he confessed that he was, the proconsul tried to persuade him to recant, saying ‘Have respect for your age’ and other such things as they were accustomed to say. The governor said, ‘Swear the genius of Caesar. Repent. Say away with the atheist.'”

Remember, they considered the Christians to be atheists because they didn’t have any statues, they didn’t have idols. You couldn’t see their god, so they said they were atheists.

So he tells him, “‘Swear by Caesar, or recant. Say away with the atheists.'” And I don’t know if this meant to be humorous at the moment of his almost death, but here’s the story “Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd of lawless heathen who were in the stadium. He motioned toward them with his hand and then groaning as he looked up to heaven said, ‘Away with the atheists.'” Meaning the atheists.

Well, the magistrate was not happy with this. We read when the magistrate persisted and said, “‘Swear the oath and I will release you. Revile Christ.'” This was typical Roman procedure. It wasn’t the procedure at this time that you would try to stamp out every Christian, but if somebody ratted you out, often your family, and you were brought there, then you were made to recant. And if you would just swear by Caesar, recant Christ, just let them go. They weren’t so much concerned that the Christians were going to overthrow the Empire, but they thought this, “This is a bad look for Rome. If they refuse to swear by Caesar, if they refuse to worship our gods, then we must punish them.”

“Polycarp replied, ‘For 86 years I have been His servant and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’ There proconsul continue to press him to recant Christ and swear by Caesar and Polycarp refused. He said, ‘Now if you want to learn the doctrine of Christianity, name a day and give me a hearing.’ The proconsul told Polycarp, ‘No, persuade the people of your Christianity.’ Polycarp replied that he had been taught to respect the rulers and authorities and he would be happy to meet with the proconsul, but this was a lawless mob and he wasn’t going to waste his time.”

“So the proconsul said, ‘I have wild beasts if you don’t change your mind.’ Polycarp said, ‘Call for them.’ The proconsul said, ‘You will be consumed by the fire.’ Polycarp said, ‘You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come do what you wish.’ Polycarp was then found guilty of confessing to being a Christian. When the crowd learned that it would not be possible to set a lion loose,” that’s what they called for, “then they shouted for him to be burned alive. So the men prepared the pyre and stripped Polycarp of his clothes, and as they were about to nail him to the stake, Polycarp interrupted. ‘Leave me as I am, for the One who enables me to endure the fire will also enable me to remain on the pyre without moving.’ Then Polycarp prayed a final prayer and when he said amen, the men in charge of the fire lit it. Seeing that Polycarp was not being consumed by the fire, they then ordered an executioner to thrust him through with a dagger, and so finally Polycarp was dead.”

This letter reported this man was certainly one of the elect. The most remarkable Polycarp, who proved to be an apostolic and prophetic teacher in our own time, bishop of the catholic church, meaning the orthodox, universal church in Smyrna. Later in the letter we read such is the story of blessed Polycarp, although he, together with those from Philadelphia, was the 12th person martyred in Smyrna, he alone is especially remembered by everyone so that he is spoken of everywhere, even by pagans.

That was Smyrna in 155 or 156 A.D. It appears that some 65 years earlier the Christian church in Smyrna was facing many of the same trials. Notice the Lord Jesus says in verse 9, “I know your tribulation and your poverty.” This was a church that had more pain than they had money. They were hated, they were harassed, they faced the prospect of persecution and even death in this city of Smyrna.

Smyrna was a very pro-Rome city. It had been for a long time. Centuries earlier, during the period when Rome was struggling with Carthage for supremacy, Smyrna sided with the Romans. It was the first city, in fact, in the ancient world, to build a temple in honor of Rome. In 23 B.C. Smyrna won the special privilege to build a temple to Emperor Tiberius. For almost 300 years Smyrna had a close connection with Rome. It had a fierce loyalty to the Caesar, to the Emperor.

But interestingly, Revelation here doesn’t blame the Romans for the persecution that’s coming, though they could be the ones to mete it out, the executioners. But in particular it blames some of the Jews. Roman subjects were required to offer sacrifice to Caesar as a god. But the Jews had been given a special exemption. They could offer sacrifices in honor of the emperors, not as gods but as rulers. It was a way for Rome to save, kind of save face and yet not have to go through this extermination of all the Jews, so we’ll let them get by on a technicality. Just do the sacrifices, just do the ritual, and if you want to say you’re doing it to the emperors as rulers, to honor them, and not as gods, then so be it. And this allowed the Jews and the Romans to coexist.

But here in the second half of the first century, several things had happened to make this situation untenable. One, starting with Nero, Christians were blamed for things in Rome and were being persecuted, at least intermittently. As long as Christianity was a sect of Judaism, there was little trouble. But here’s the second thing that had happened in 70 A.D. with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, Judaism and Christianity start to form as two different paths and two different religions, no longer just another sect, Judaism had lots of sects, but as a different religion. So they didn’t have the same protection.

The third thing that had happened is by the end of the first century, some Jews had compromised with Rome. You can understand how this might happen. Over time, the distinction between sacrificing to the Emperor as a ruler to honor him, and sacrificing to the Emperor as a god, well, that gets pretty fuzzy, and in some people’s minds a difference, a distinction without a difference. So some of the Jews no longer had qualms about revering Caesar along with the Old Testament God, as is often the pressure to syncretism.

Putting this altogether, you can understand why in some parts of the Empire it was the Jews who sometimes instigated this persecution against the Christians. Now even saying it that way can make us nervous, is this anti-Semitism? Well, no, notice what this letter says: The slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not.

Remember Paul said to the letter in Romans that “those are Jews truly who are ones inwardly, written on the heart.” So this letter is saying these are not spiritual Jews as we would understand the people of God, but they are people who have stirred up trouble.

Remember this is a letter from whom? It’s a letter from Jesus, who is the Jewish Messiah. This is the apocalypse revelation written down by John, who was a Jew, so we ought not take this to be some sort of anti-Jewish polemic. But in this context, in Smyrna, apparently, it was some of the Jews, whether because they felt like the Christians had sold them out or because they were worshiping another god, or they claimed to have had the Messiah, they would sometimes rat them out and be the informers that would then bring upon the Romans to these Christians in Smyrna. It was a difficult situation.

But this letter, you notice, is shot through with encouragement. In fact, as I said last week, the two most struggling churches, the ones facing the greatest weaknesses, at least in an earthly sense, Philadelphia and Smyrna, are the ones about whom Jesus has nothing but good to say: I know your tribulation and your poverty. That right there was meant to be comfort. Jesus knows.

And I wonder if those of you this morning who are facing uncertain times, facing hardships, illness, chronic problems, test results, wayward family members… Can you hear this comfort? The Lord knows. He knows your broken heart in a way that no one else does. He knows the fear that you have. He knows your tribulation. Not only that, but the Lord Jesus can sympathize because He, too, is a man, a human being, even now in heaven, the God-man. He knew what it was to suffer as a man. He knew what it was to face external temptation when that suffering came.

Not only that, but to receive from Jesus this comfort, it’s not simply the comfort of a really good friend who can put an arm around you or a counselor or a therapist or a pastor who can listen to you say and say, “I feel so bad for you.”

But notice who this Jesus is. This is the one, verse 8, “The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.” It is in the transcendence of God that His eminence is so much comfort. We don’t have a weak God. We don’t have a little God. We don’t have a small Christ who is coming and just saying, “Oh, I will shed a tear for you.” No, this is the One who is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last. He died and He came to life, therefore whatever happens to you, Christian, whatever befalls you, Smyrna, whatever happens among you, Christ Covenant, know that I’m the beginning and the end, and even if you die for your faith, listen to the One who died and came to life.

Jesus does not offer a rebuke to Smyrna. He comes with comfort. He comes with comfort, and notice He comes with commands. Two commands.

Number one. Verse 10: Do not fear what you are about to suffer.

We would like if He had said, “Do not fear because you won’t suffer.” I would much prefer that. “Don’t fear, it’s all about to get better.” He doesn’t say that. You’re going to suffer. Some of you will be thrown into prison for a time. What you’re about to suffer need not be fearful.

Most of us, if we’re honest, are scared of suffering. I don’t want to suffer. I don’t look forward to it. I don’t invite it. I don’t want it to come. Suffering is suffering. That’s what it is. So we don’t have to long for it and want it. There’s nothing that says we can’t pray for it to be removed. In fact, we do. But here God says don’t be surprised, don’t, when it comes, do not think God is against you. Don’t think you’re the only one to whom injustice has ever happened. Don’t think you’re the only one to have this struggle. We will suffer. Do not be afraid.

And don’t be afraid about what you would do and what you would be like should you face, the church at Smyrna, what they faced. Or the story of Polycarp. You read these stories of the martyrs and even allowing that perhaps the Church spoke at times with some exaggerated spirituality, maybe, yet we believe that it’s historically true and happened and happened much like that. Don’t you find those martyrdom stories inspiring and yet utterly overwhelming? I would never think to say, “Away with the atheists.” I would… Would I stand fast? Would I run away?

Well, Jesus said something about this. Remember? He told the disciples do not worry about what you will say in that day. That grace, should that come, and for most of us, maybe all of us, it won’t come like that, but when the opposition comes, when the moment comes at your workplace, you’re going to go along with this program or who knows what happens to your job. When that moment comes, you trust that the Lord gives you the words to say, gives you the courage. There’s no point in being fearful now. Jesus will be there with you.

It’s a very human response to fear death. Most of us fear death, but as a Christian we’re called to hope. Fearing death is natural, but Jesus means to set us free. Hebrews says “since the children have flesh and blood, He, too, shared likewise in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy the one who holds the power of death, that is the devil, and set free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”

Yes, death is an enemy, and we mourn for death. We lament death. Yet Jesus came that it would not keep you in bondage, because the end of this life, for the Christian, is the beginning of a life that is far better.

So the first command to the Church – don’t be afraid what you’re about to suffer.

Which naturally leads to the second command, at the end of verse 10 – Be faithful unto death. Be faithful unto death.

If you’re faithful unto death, you will get the crown of life. Faithfulness in the midst of persecution doesn’t mean you just grin and bear it, you suppress it, you pretend like it doesn’t hurt. Of course it does. Faithfulness means you keep bearing witness to Jesus. You’re faithful. You don’t get angry with God. You don’t reject your Savior. You don’t doubt His goodness. You don’t forget His promise. Be faithful even unto the point of death because brother, sister, friend, when you’re faithful to the point of death for Jesus, you get a crown of life.

Suffering. We all know the occasions where suffering brings out the absolute best in people, and we’ve seen it in our own church. They’re such a testimony to God’s grace. But we also know that suffering brings with it many temptations. When we suffer, we’re tempted to doubt God’s goodness, to question His sovereignty, to find Him less glorious, to wonder if He’s left us or forsaken us. Tempted to disbelieve the Word of God.

And it happens. Sometimes people do. Those who seem to be strong in the faith prove to not have been in the faith.

Jesus calls us to overcome. That’s the cry in each one of these churches. And if the challenge in Ephesus was lovelessness, here it is the hatred of those who do not love Christ, or love the truth. Will you praise Him in pain? Because the one who overcomes this present, temporary, fleeting pain will not be pained by the second and everlasting death. That’s the promise in verse 11. The one who overcomes, who conquers, will not be hurt by the second death, that is, the eternal punishment in the lake of fire. You got, there’s two deaths, and unless Jesus comes back in our lifetime, we all face the first death, but not all have to have the second death.

The church in Smyrna was a church of paradoxes. They were poor, but Jesus says, “You’re rich.” They were persecuted by Jews who Jesus says were not really Jews. If they die faithfully, they get a crown of life. If they overcome in the first death, they will not be hurt by the second death. That was the comfort for the church at Smyrna.

What does it mean for us? Let me finish with three points of application. Knowing that we are not facing these exact circumstances, and we can be thankful for it, what does this mean for us? Three points of application.

Number one – let us pray for the persecuted church.

I hope you have that somewhere in your regular rhythm. For me I have it written down. Certain things I try to pray for each day, certain things I try to pray for on a day of the week, and persecuted church is one of those. Some of you perhaps pray for it every day, that would be wonderful. Try to set an example from time to time to pray for it here from the pulpit. Pray for the persecuted church.

The Word of God tells us to have compassion for our brothers and sisters who are facing difficulty and prison and opposition, and some will even pay the ultimate price of martyrdom. Certainly Christians in many places are relatively free from that threat, but at all times there will be part of the Church that will be called upon to make the good confession in the midst of danger, hostility, and death.

Just to give you some numbers from the time of Jesus to the year 2000, so just say about 2000 years, there were roughly 36 billion people on the planet. So you add them all up, and what? We’re at 7, 8 now? So 36 billion total. Of those 36 billion who have lived in the past 2000 years, by a very generous estimate, 12 billion were evangelized, had some access to the Gospel. 8 billion called themselves Christians in some broadest sense of the word. And of those 8 billion Christians in the 2000 years since Christ, even nominally Christian, about 70 million have been martyred by one definition or another, a little less than 1%. That is a big number.

Some of those Christians have been killed by other Christians. That sadly has happened. More were killed by other religious groups, and far and away, most of those Christian martyrs were killed by the state, some 55 million out of those 70 million. Of those 70 million that scholars estimate, 70 million Christian martyrs in the history of the Church, 45 million were killed in the 20th century, in the last 100 years. Almost half of those were murdered, starved, died in prison camps in the Soviet Union.

Currently 160,000 Christians, by one estimate, are martyred every year. Some put it much lower than that, if it’s actually killing you because you confess Christ, the higher number is if in some way the state has starvation or death or opposition to religious groups, including Christians. That number of about 0.8% of Christians throughout history, in fact, has been constant over many centuries. That about 1 out of 120 Christians in the broadest sense of the term, may face martyrdom for the cause of Christ.

In many parts of the West, though not facing yet death, are facing increasing hostility and discrimination, not the likes of which our brothers and sisters may see in Afghanistan or North Korea or parts of northern Africa, but yet facing opposition, persecution.

Remember Jesus says those who utter all kinds of false things about you, who slander you, that, too, is a kind of persecution and we ought to pray that we will not grow spiritually flabby as a church should we be called upon to face persecution.

Which leads to a second point of application. Number one – pray for the persecuted Church. Number two – let us be faithful even in our limited kinds of persecution. We don’t want to exaggerate it, we don’t want to claim that we’re facing what other people are facing. Clearly gathering in this place we’re not, we’re not living under the Taliban. We’d be fooling ourselves to make any sort of comparison.

Yet Paul told Timothy that anyone who desires to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. That is to say, even in Charlotte, North Carolina should you be a true, passionate, on fire, biblical Christian, absolutely in love with Jesus, no matter what it counts, at some point you will face opposition. It may be in your classroom, when they think that all your beliefs make you a bigot. It may be in the workplace when you will not agree to do the advertising campaign they want to do, or the training that they’re making everyone do.

It may mean that you are faithful in the midst of opposition, when your own children make different choices, sad choices, sinful choices, and say that you don’t love them and you’re not loving if you won’t affirm what they’re doing.

Kids, young people, you will face even more pressures. They will be subtle, but they will be there. They will be there on your social media feed, they’ll be there on your Instagram, calls to be like-minded ally in things that Christ cannot commend. There will be a temptation to want to raise your flag as well and say, “Here I am, you can count on me.” Or to wear the sort of clothes that everyone would wear. Or see the movie or tell the jokes or visit the websites that everyone else. Or do with your weekends what everyone else would do.

Will you be willing to be faithful when you’re misunderstood as a Christian? And what you do and what you believe and how you carry yourself is thought strange? And worse than strange, is thought hateful.

Then finally, number three – let us remember death is not the enemy. You may say, “Well, wait a minute, Pastor. Where, O death, is your victory? Where is your…?” Yes, death is an enemy for sure, but there is a worse enemy. We see it here in this text – it’s the second death. Jesus Himself said, “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul, rather fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”

If only everyone could live knowing deeply this one true fact. The first death is not avoidable. The second death is.

Many people have is just the opposite. They don’t think anything of the second death, that’s not a possibility, but maybe there’s some way with the right potions and the right exercise and the right diet, “I don’t actually have to face my own mortality.”

We could put it like this – death comes to us all, heaven does not.

Most people don’t consider that they will die. They assume they will go to heaven. They think there’s a way to avoid death and they don’t have to think because everyone just goes to heaven and consequently most people spend more time trying to avoid death than they do spending time preparing and making sure they’re on the path to heaven.

If we live as Christians simply to avoid death, we are not living as Jesus would have us live. He said you can avoid that second hellish death and though you may face martyrdom, you can live a glorious, joyous life, because on the other side of the first death, is eternal life. James 1:12: Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trail for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him.

And anchoring every one of these commands, I said this to the leadership training on Friday night, there’s a reason that chapters 4 and 5 come after chapter 2 and 3, because it is the vision of the One who sits on the throne that is the antidote for everything that challenges the churches in chapters 2 through 3. Whatever the church is facing, and here in Smyrna it was persecution, hatred, opposition, suffering, what they need to see more than anything is not a 12-step plan, not a 3 steps to their better life now, they need to know ultimate reality of the One who sits on the throne and they need to know the ultimate reality that will be theirs should they be faithful unto death.

We have to remember the reality to come which will last forever and the reality that exists now. Jesus is not going to lose. He’s already won.

Let me finish, then, where we started. I started with the story of Polycarp. I absolutely love how the story ends. This comes in chapter 21, the final chapter in some of the manuscripts of The Martyrdom of Polycarp. It’s marking out the date and time of his death. Listen to what it says: “Now the blessed Polycarp was martyred on the second day of the first part of the month Xanthicus, seven days before the Kalends of March, on a great Sabbath, about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. He was arrested by Herod when Philip of Tralles was high priest, during the proconsulship of Statius Quadratus, but while Jesus Christ was reigning as King forever. To Him be the glory, honor, majesty, and eternal throne, from generation to generation. Amen.”

I love that. Here’s the mayor, here’s the governor, here’s the president. Oh, by the way, it’s while Jesus Christ was reigning as King forever. And they will come and go, and the worse they can do to you is put you to death. And Jesus will reign now and into eternity.

Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we give thanks for Your many blessings. Would You hold fast Your Church around the world, facing so much more in opposition than we face, and when we are called upon to face whatever trials and difficulties, whether suffering at the hands of others or suffering from natural disasters and infirmity and the age of life, may we be faithful even unto death. In Jesus we pray. Amen.