The second church Jesus addressed in the letters of Revelation was the church in Smyrna. While at first the admonition does not sound as harsh as the condemnation of the Church at Ephesus, Jesus does give a qualifying stipulation to the Church at Smyrna regarding their admission into Heaven, which is quite sobering:
“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this: I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say 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 cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. 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’.”
– Rev 2.8-11
The Church at Smyrna was (is) facing severe persecution by which some will be cast into prison. Jesus, because of their fate, defines Himself as “the first and the last, who was dead and has come to life” (v 8). He does this to remind them of the fact that their salvation rests in the fact that Jesus walked the path which they are destined to walk. He, in fact, walked a more difficult road of tribulation and death. And in all of this He is sovereign, He is the first and the last – He is in control of all things. Jesus is aware of the false prophets in their midst, just like He was over the Pharisees, and He knows that they have been faithful in the midst of the false teaching.
Jesus’ admonition, based on His sovereignty and His understanding of having walked through what they are facing, is to not fear and persevere until the end. The New Testament teaches us a doctrine of salvation known as “the Perseverance of the Saints”, which essentially states that everyone who has been saved will persevere until the end, and unless one perseveres until the end, he has not been saved.
Jesus taught this plainly,
“But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.”
– Matt 24.13
James echos Jesus:
“Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.”
– James 1.12
Paul also taught this truth:
“If we endure, we will also reign with Him;
If we deny Him, He also will deny us…”
– 2 Tim 2.13
And the author of Hebrews:
“For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end…”
– Heb 3.14
We also see clearly that some will infiltrate the Church, utilized by the devil to create discord and problems, but they are false prophets and wolves in sheep’s clothing. We will ultimately know these by the fact that they do not continue with the faith or they will stray so far from the Truth that they will become evident:
“They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”
– 1 John 2.19
“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.”
– Matt 7.15-20
This is an extremely difficult doctrine to grasp. Some people, throughout the generations since Jesus’ ascension have suffered to the point of death for the sake of their faith, and some have had little to no persecution. The early church suffered greatly under some of the Roman Caesars, and the church actually split over this doctrine. Some people gave in under the persecution, and denied Jesus verbally. Some people avoided taking a stand and hid. While others claimed Jesus and suffered greatly. Some of those who never denied Jesus and survived considered those who did deny or who avoided taking a stand as false believers and desired to excommunicate them from the Church.
We see the provision made for Peter, who denied Jesus three times and was restored, and thus need to be able to test the fruit of those who might falter in a moment of weakness. But we also see the clear teaching that there are many who will be proven to be false prophets and false believers, and we need to be able to discern them when possible.
Thankfully, God looks on the hearts of men and He alone has the final judgment over the sincerity or validity of one’s faith. We also know that it is God who gives us faith and God who is working out our salvation in our lives:
“…for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
– Phil 2.13
“For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
– Phil 1.6
“…if we are faithless, he remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself.”
– 2 Tim 2.13
But let us take the admonition of Jesus seriously. He commanded us to be faithful until death, and if we do so we will receive the crown of life! We will be given eternity in His presence. We may suffer persecution, we may be put in jail. We may have to make a bold claim of faith in the face of an enemy of Christ, and if we do so, we will follow in the footsteps of Jesus and immediately be with Him in eternity.