Be faithful until 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. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death. (2:10b–11)
As previously noted, Christ has no reprimand for the faithful church at Smyrna. He closes the letter with some final words of encouraging counsel. Those who prove the genuineness of their faith by remaining faithful to the Lord until death will receive as their reward the crown (stephanos; the victor’s crown) of life (cf. James 1:12). The crown (reward, culmination, outcome) of genuine saving faith is eternal life, and perseverance proves the genuineness of their faith as they endure suffering. The Scriptures teach that true Christians will persevere. That biblical truth was understood by the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith, who wrote “They, whom God has accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.” That is the unmistakable teaching of Scripture (e.g., Matt. 10:22; 24:13; Mark 4:13–20; John 8:31; Col. 1:21–23; 1 John 2:19).
As noted in chapter 4 of this volume, the phrase He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches closes each of the seven letters. It stresses the vital significance of what God says in Scripture, and emphasizes believers’ responsibility to heed it. The promise to he who overcomes (all Christians; cf. the discussion in chapter 4 of this volume) is that he will not be hurt by the second death. Though persecuted believers may suffer the first (physical) death, they will never experience the second death (which is not annihilation but conscious, eternal damnation in hell; Rev. 20:14; 21:8). Not is the strongest negative the Greek language can express.
The persecuted, suffering, yet faithful church at Smyrna stands for all time as an example of those who “have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance” (Luke 8:15). Because they loyally confessed Him before men, Jesus will confess them before the Father (Matt. 10:32).
10 The speaker’s command immediately follows, since no word of verdict or fault is spoken of. The prospect of further and imminent suffering may have made the believers at Smyrna fearful: “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer” (lit., “Stop being afraid …”). The risen Christ reveals that some of them will be imprisoned by the devil in order to test them, and they will have ten days of persecution. Who will do this—whether Jew or pagan—is not stated. The testing will show where their true loyalty lies. For a faithful and suffering church, Christ offers further trial and suffering, even “to the point of death.” “Ten days” may denote ten actual days or constitute a Semitism for an indeterminate but comparatively short period of time (cf. Ne 4:12; Da 1:12). In the first-century Roman world, prison was usually not punitive but the prelude to trial and execution; hence the words “be faithful, even to the point of death.”
For those who would face martyrdom out of loyalty to Christ, there was to be a “crown of life” given by Christ himself. Those at Smyrna would be familiar with the term “the crown of Smyrna,” which no doubt alluded to the beautiful skyline formed around the city by the “hill Pagos, with the stately public buildings on its rounded sloping sides” (Ramsay, Seven Churches, 256). The “crown” usually referred to a garland of flowers worn chiefly in the worship of pagan gods such as Cybele or Bacchus, who was pictured on coins with a crown of battlements. Faithful servants of the city appeared on coins with laurel wreaths on their heads (Barclay, Seven Churches, 39). As the patriots of Smyrna were faithful to Rome and to their crown city, so Christ’s people are to be faithful unto death to him who will give them the imperishable crown of life (Jas 1:12; 1 Pe 5:4).
10 The church is told not to be afraid of what they are about to suffer. Jesus had counseled his disciples not to fear those who could kill the body but not the soul (Matt 10:28), and Paul had warned that the godly would be persecuted (2 Tim 3:12). Yet as the time approached, believers needed to be admonished lest the threat of martyrdom would cause the fainthearted to relinquish their hold on Christ. They must recognize that while the persecution would be carried out by Roman authorities, it was in reality the devil himself who was responsible for their plight. He is the one who would try their faith through imprisonment and tribulation. Most commentators note that in the ancient world prison was a place where the accused awaited execution. Acts 16:23 and 2 Cor 11:23 would suggest that it also served as a place of temporary confinement and punishment.
Believers at Smyrna (or at least some of them) are to suffer persecution for ten days (or “within ten days”). Opinions vary about the time intended. Most view the ten days as a round number indicating a short period of time, but others hold it to be a prolonged but definitely limited period.19 The latter interpretation is more in keeping with the seriousness of the impending crisis. The church is to continue faithful even though it may lead to death (cf. Rev 12:11; Heb 12:4). The reward for faithfulness is the crown of life, that is, the crown that is life itself. It is not the royal crown (the diadēma) that is promised, but the wreath or garland (the stephanos) that was awarded to the victor at the games. Its value lay not in itself but in what it symbolized. According to Pausanias, Smyrna was famous for its games (6.14.3). With others, Bruce thinks that the imagery is suggested by the circle of colonnaded buildings on the crest of Mt. Pagos called the crown of Smyrna.
10. The Smyrneans are not to be afraid, though suffering is certain. Some will be imprisoned, and this is ascribed to the devil. But God is supreme. Even through the devil and evil men he works out his purposes. The imprisonment will be to test you. The clear implication is that God will see them through the test. This is so even if, as a number of commentators think, prison was simply a place of confinement while awaiting execution (against this view are passages like Acts 16:23; 2 Cor. 11:23).
Ten days (the time of Daniel’s testing, Dan. 1:12–15) may well point to the completion of their suffering: ‘It is only for a limited time that you will have to endure, even though endurance will be tested to the limit’ (Niles). It certainly points to something more than three and a half days, which is John’s usual expression for a trial of limited duration. Yet even ten has its limit. Not Satan but God has the last word. In a memorable expression the church is exhorted, Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life (cf. Jas 1:12). Death, which people fear so much, is set in sharp antithesis to life, which alone matters. There is an article with life (though not with death). It is ‘the’ life, eternal life, that is in mind. Crown (stephanos) means a wreath or chaplet, and is to be distinguished from the royal crown (diadēma). The stephanos was the trophy awarded to the victor at the games, and the same word was used of the festive garland worn at banquets by all the guests. Here it is plainly the victory wreath, which would be specially appropriate in Smyrna, a city famous for its Games. The believer who remains faithful even when it means death will receive the trophy of victory. His crown is life.
2:10 “Do not fear” This is a PRESENT MIDDLE or PASSIVE (deponent) IMPERATIVE with the NEGATIVE PARTICLE which meant to stop an act already in process. These churches were afraid. Persecutions were a sign of their salvation and God’s blessings (cf. Matt. 5:10–12).
© “the devil is about to cast some of you into prison” Behind evil human leaders lurks a supernatural personal force of evil.
The term Satan is an OT title and description of a covering cherub (cf. Ezek. 28:12–16). His God-given task was to provide a rebellious, self-centered alternative to mankind and thereby accuse them when they yielded to temptation (cf. Gen. 3; Job 1–2; Zech. 3). There is a development of evil in the OT. Satan was created as a servant and progressed into an enemy (cf. An Old Testament Theology by A. B. Davidson p. 300–306).
It is surely an assumption that the highly figurative language of Isa. 14, which directly refers to the arrogant King of Babylon and Ezek. 28, which directly refers to the prideful King of Tyre, ultimately identifies the spiritual pride and fall of Satan. The language of Ezek. 28 is taken from a description of the Garden of Eden. It is difficult to accept a description of a human, historical, pagan king in angelic terms taken from Eden (cf. Gen. 3). However, Ezekiel does the very same thing with the King of Egypt in chapter 31. He is described as a huge tree in the garden of Eden.
All believers long for more information, especially about the origins of God, angels, evil, etc. We must be cautious of turning metaphorical, prophetic description into dogmatic theology. Much modern theology comes from isolated, figurative texts mixed with modern writing, both theological and literary (Dante and Milton).
In the NT he is called the devil (cf. 12:9, 12; 20:2, 10), which is a composite Greek term meaning “to throw across,” “to slander,” or “bring accusations against.” This again reflects his task of accusing and tempting. These terms are synonymous in the Revelation (cf. 12:9; 20:2). See Special Topic: Personal Evil at 12:9.
© “that you may be tested” This term is used in two senses: (1) believers are tested so as to show their true faith and grow stronger (cf. 2:10; Acts 14:27; Rom. 5:3–4; 8:17–19; Heb. 5:8; Jas. 1:2–4; 1 Pet. 4:12–19) and (2) unbelievers are tested to show their unbelief and deserved judgment (cf. 3:10). In Revelation the Christian’s trials are called “tribulations,” while the unbelievers are subjected to “the wrath of God.”
There were two Greek terms translated “test,” “try,” or “tempt.” One had the connotation of “to test with a view toward destruction” (peirasmos, peirasmo). The other terms (dokimos, dokimazo) were used with the connotation of “to test with a view toward approval.” Satan tempts to destroy; God tests to strengthen (cf. 1 Thess. 2:4; 1 Pet. 1:7; Gen. 22:1; Exod. 16:4; 20:20; Deut. 8:2, 16; 13:3; Judg. 2:22; 2 Chron. 32:31).
© “ten days” There has been much speculation about the phrase “ten days”: (1) some say that it referred to a literal ten day period of persecution in the city of Smyrna in John’s day; (2) others say that because ten is the number of completion, it simply meant a complete number of days of persecution; or (3) some say that it referred to an unspecified period of persecution. The good news is that it has a limit. The persecution will end!
However, in an apocalyptic book one is never sure if the numbers are used figuratively or literally. If the number was often used in the OT and inter-biblical apocalyptic literature with a symbolic meaning then probably it is figurative. The most often used symbolic numbers are 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 12 and their multiples.
© “be faithful unto death” This is a PRESENT MIDDLE or PASSIVE (deponent) IMPERATIVE which emphasizes the believer’s need to continue in faith even if it means physical death (cf. Matt. 2:13; 12:11; 10:22; 24:13; Luke 12:4; Gal. 6:9). Some believers were and are killed. This is the paradox of the sovereignty of God and our experience in a fallen world.
© “and I will give you the crown of life” This was the victor’s crown called the “stephanos” (cf. 1 Cor. 9:25). It was the reward of Christian martyrs. We learn from Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, 4:15, that there were many martyrs, including Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna. There are also other crowns (rewards) mentioned in the New Testament (cf. 2 Tim. 4:8; Jas. 1:12; 1 Pet. 5:4; Rev. 3:11).
John uses the term for life, zoē, to refer to eternal life, resurrection life (cf. John 1:4; 3:15, 36; 4:14, 36; 5:24, 26, 29, 39, 40; 6:27, 33, 35, 40, 47, 48, 51, 53, 54, 63, 68; 8:12; 10:10, 28; 11:25; 12:25, 50; 14:6; 17:2, 3; 20:31; Rev. 2:7, 10; 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:6, 27; 22:1, 2, 14, 17, 19). True life is far more than physical existence!
10. “And do not be afraid of anything you are about to suffer. Look, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
- “And do not be afraid of anything you are about to suffer,” Once again Jesus utters the words “do not fear” (1:17). Now addressing each individual believer, he expands the saying to “don’t be afraid of anything.” He who is in full control of every situation knows what lies ahead of his people; he reveals that they are about to enter a period of suffering.
- “Look, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison that you may be tested.” The Christians in Smyrna must be fully aware that they are fighting a spiritual war in which they confront the devil. Hence, they are told to be alert, for the devil will incite the authorities so that some people of the congregation will be imprisoned with the distinct possibility of being put to death. This will strike fear into the hearts of the believers, who can expect to endure confiscation of property and goods, extreme poverty, and slander. But incarceration, at times without trial, may result in death. Jesus says that this threat to their lives is to test their faith in him.
Imprisonment may be a measure to subdue a rebellious person, an arrest while the guilty person is awaiting trial, or a prelude to his execution. The context of verse 10, “be faithful unto death,” implies that incarceration of the Christian will be an “interim period of suffering in anticipation of martyrdom.”
- “And you will have tribulation for ten days.” This is the second time that the term tribulation occurs (v. 9). But here its duration is specified: for a ten-day period. In Revelation, the number ten conveys the meaning of fullness in the decimal system. It is a symbolical number to express the completeness of the period of suffering, which is neither long nor short but full, for its termination is sure.
- “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Throughout the history of Smyrna her citizens had been faithful first to the Greeks and then to the Romans. Faithfulness to Rome was a well-known characteristic of the people in Smyrna, but now Jesus calls these followers to be faithful to him. Jesus is called “the faithful one” (1:5; 3:14; 19:11) and so is Antipas, the martyr in Pergamum (2:13). Now the saints in Smyrna are asked to pay the sacrifice to be faithful to death.
In view of Smyrna’s city layout, commentators have no problem seeing a connection between the crown of the city and the crown promised to the faithful followers of Christ. But the words of Jesus are “the crown of life,” which make them different and meaningful. The phrase probably was idiomatic—it occurs also in James 1:12—and can be translated “the crown, that is, fullness of life.” It is emblematic of the “highest joy and gladness and of glory and immortality.” If the saints in Smyrna pay with their life for the testimony of Jesus, they will receive imperishable life in eternal glory.
2:10 (Command). Of all the churches, only Smyrna and Philadelphia escape criticism. This struggling church, however, now hears a message it may have dreaded. Therefore, the Lord’s command begins with do not be afraid. The suffering in Smyrna is about to get worse. The tribulation will expand to the point that some church members will be thrown in prison. The intense persecution will be restricted to ten days, probably a symbolic number standing for “a limited period of time.” This persecution will extend to the point of death. Behind it stands the devil, that is the same Satan who had inspired Jews to harass the Christians.
This suffering from Satan does not prove the Lord is powerless—he is the First and the Last. This particular suffering comes because God has determined to test you. While the Lord’s tests are not pleasant as we undergo them, they have a good goal. The suffering of the Smyrnan Christians will show that the crown of life was not idly given them. This “crown of life” is the victor’s crown rather than the king’s crown; here it symbolizes “eternal life,” identical in significance to “eating from the tree of life” in Revelation 2:7. The only other biblical instance of “crown of life” uses the same symbolism James 1:12—“Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”
2:10 prison. In the Roman system of justice, prison was a place where persons were held until their case was adjudicated. During this time they would be tested (i.e., tortured; cf. Acts 22:24) on the premise that if enough pain was inflicted, the truth would come out.
ten days. Like seven, the number ten is another image for completeness, fullness, totality. The Torah was built around ten commandments; it took ten men to form a legitimate community for worship; ten righteous people would have spared Sodom (Gen 18:32); the Tabernacle had ten curtains enclosing it (Exod 26:1). Here it may mean that the tribulation will run its full course.
remain faithful even when facing death. Part of the full course of tribulation might lead to death, either through the “testing” or as the outcome of the case. Here Jesus’ identification of himself as the one “who was dead but is now alive” (2:8) becomes crucial when he calls them to be faithful even when facing death.
crown of life. The outcome of such death will be a consummated life: “the crown of life.” (For this image, see 2 Tim 4:8; Jas 1:12; 1 Pet 5:4; all of which refer to the outcome of faithfulness.)
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