“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, ‘These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life: I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Revelation 2:8-10 (NKJV)
The church in Smyrna was suffering a great deal because of their faith and faithfulness to Jesus. They were suffering tribulation, poverty and slander. From what I could tell in my study they were suffering extreme versions of all of these. The tribulation felt like they were having the life crushed out of them. The poverty was so extreme that they literally had nothing. They were enduring constant slanderous attacks. This all was happening simply because of their faith and faithfulness to Jesus. From what Jesus says here, it doesn’t look as though things were going to get better anytime soon. In fact, things were probably about to get worse. Satan is about to crank up the opposition to the church and many of them are going to find themselves imprisoned for Christ.
This makes Jesus’ charge to the church even more fascinating. Despite the fact that things are about to get even worse, Jesus doesn’t charge them to lighten up. He doesn’t tell them to have some balance and not be as committed to Him. He doesn’t tell them to go with the flow and try to fit in. In fact, His charge to them is exactly the opposite. He tells them to be faithful unto death. Don’t back up, don’t let up and don’t shut up. Press on in faithfulness and if you are given the choice between letting up and dying, choose death. Be thou faithful unto death. That is an amazing thing to say.
It’s easy for us to look at this and say that’s exactly what we’d do. It’s easy for us to say it because we aren’t likely to be faced with that choice. There is a better chance of us getting killed in an auto accident than there is of our faith and faithfulness to Jesus leading us to a place where we would have to choose between continued faithfulness and death. But that doesn’t mean that this still isn’t a challenging passage. Are we willing to be faithful unto death or have we drifted in our faithfulness?
Are we willing to be faithful unto death if that faithfulness means that we must labor away in a hard place with little fruit if that was what God wanted? I know that pretty much every book and seminar says that this will never happen unless you are unfaithful, irrelevant or don’t have the proper systems in place. Modern teaching says that every church should be growing numerically or something is terribly wrong.
I’ll be honest there is a part of me that wants to believe that this is the case. However, what I read in Scripture challenges this view. Think about the prophet Isaiah for instance. We love the story of God calling Isaiah in Isaiah 6. The vision of God high and lifted up saying “Who will go for us” and Isaiah crying out, “Here am I send me.” That is such good stuff. What we forget however is what the rest of the chapter says.
We don’t have time to go and read it but let me paraphrase it for you. After Isaiah says “Here am I send me” God says, “Go and preach. They aren’t going to listen. They’ll really never see and they aren’t going to change. Keep it up until the cities are laid waste and the land is utterly desolate.” I don’t know about you, but if that had been the message preached at my ordination service, I would have curled up in the fetal position and cried. But Isaiah went out with that and was faithful unto death.
What if God’s plan for your ministry, your church or your life is for you to faithfully labor away without there ever being much visible fruit? Will you leave to find a better gig or will you be faithful unto death? Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. This doesn’t justify laziness and a lax attitude toward the ministry. We can’t set back, watching TV while eating donuts and say, “Oh well, this is just a hard place and there probably won’t be much fruit here.” Laziness IS unfaithfulness.
However, we have to understand that there are going to be varying levels of fruitfulness and much of this is the way God plans it. Every person who stands in the pulpit to preach won’t be Billy Graham. Every person who tries to plant a church won’t be Rick Warren. Everyone who assumes the role of pastor won’t be John MacArthur. For every one that is freakishly fruitful there are probably 2-3 that aren’t. Faithful, godly people, labor, strive, pray and fast but see very little fruit. That’s just the way it is. Are you willing to be faithful unto death if this is what faithfulness means for you?
Are we willing to be faithful unto death if that faithfulness means that we must labor away in obscurity? We are all familiar with the great heroes of the faith listed in Hebrews 11. One of the things that fascinates me about Hebrews 11 is what we read toward the end of the chapter. Listen to what it says.
“…others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise:” Hebrews 11:35-39 (KJV)
There are three things that stand out to me about this passage. The first is the suffering that these folks endured. We are told that they went through cruel mockings, scourgings, bonds, imprisonment, they were stoned, sawn in half, slain with the sword, they lived destitute, afflicted and tormented. That all sounds really bad.
The second thing that stands out to me is that their names aren’t given. We do not know for certain the names of the people mentioned in this passage. They suffered and died in their service to God and their names are known only to God. They lived and died in obscurity.
The last thing we see is that they were men and women of faith. They were faithful. The picture isn’t that those who were mentioned by name earlier were faithful and these unnamed people were less than faithful. No, these unnamed people were every bit as faithful as the people listed by name earlier in the chapter.
Here is what I take from that. Some are going to faithfully serve God and stand out and be known. While others are going to faithfully serve God, blend in with the crowd and no one but God will ever remember their name.
What if God’s plan for your ministry, your church or your life is for you to faithfully labor away in a tiny church where no one ever knows your name? Are you willing to be faithful unto death if this is what faithfulness means for you?
So, have you drifted in your faithfulness to Jesus? If yes, does that answer bother you? It should. We should always be bothered when we recognize we are drifting from Jesus. Take some time today and pray through these specific requests.
Jesus, please show me if I’ve drifted in my faithfulness to you.
Jesus, please show me how to be fully faithful to you.
Jesus, please strengthen my resolve so I can be faithful unto death.