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.
This verse is in the second of the letters Jesus dictates to seven churches. Smyrna, the second church addressed, was a faithful church. In fact, Jesus had no correction for them at all. What He did have for them is a message that is unpopular with American believers: you will have tribulation.
Augustine wrote, “God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.” Jesus said that we would have tribulation in this world (John 16:33). Suffering; tribulation is part and parcel of being a believer. It is not, however, one of the more popular promises to lay claim to.
Looking it up, the word that is translated tribulation means “a pressing together; pressure.” Pressure is promised. A recent album release includes the lyric “not a diamond without the pressure.” It is true. Without pressure, there is no diamond. Without pressure against my muscles, there is no strengthening. Even in work, adequate pressure prevents sloppiness and lethargy. There is a level of pressure that is healthy and good and needful.
I do not suffer tribulation the same way as other believers throughout the world. I will not claim to be persecuted, because I do not think it true. What I need to do, in light of this verse, is to take a metaphorical step back and reframe the picture of my life as it is right now. There are things that are difficult; things that make me feel pressured. And that, whether I realize it or not, is the fulfillment of a promise. And is good for me. I do not like it, but I need it.
What the church in Smyrna was about to go through was imprisonment and possible death — why else would Jesus encourage those believers to Be faithful until death? — but Jesus was telling them that He was in the midst of it all. Suffering? He is there. Difficulty? He is there. Death? He says, in verse eight, that He was dead, and has come to life. Even in death, Jesus is already there waiting for those who are His. Emily Dickinson wrote:
Life—is what we make of it—
Death—we do not know—
Christ’s acquaintance with Him
He—would trust no stranger—
Just His own endorsement—
All the other Distance
He hath traversed first—
No New Mile remaineth—
Far as Paradise—
His sure foot preceding—
Base must be the Coward
Dare not venture—now—
Death should not terrify me, because even there my Lord awaits me. How bad can my other, terribly minor, tribulations be?
It occurs to me that Jesus did not tell these believers that they were going to die as a result of the tribulation. He says, Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. No mention there of when or how death might come for any believer, only a promise that faithfulness to Him all the way to my death — whenever and however it comes — is rewarded with the crown of life.
My takeaway from these rambling thoughts and this awkwardly beautiful promise — it feels awkward to be promised life for being faithful all the way up to death — is twofold. One, I am promised pressure (tribulation) and I should expect it. As the lyric says, “not a diamond without the pressure.” Pressure, in the right measure, is a very good thing. Second, being faithful to my God is rewarded. It is rewarded in many ways, not least of which is the comfort of knowing that He is with me no matter the circumstance.
Jesus, thank You for this message. Thank You that Smyrna was encouraged to endure the pressure that was coming and that You extend that same encouragement to me. Please strengthen my weakness when the pressure comes so that I might endure and You be glorified.