acknowledges that He who is the First and the Last is going to allow this to happen. The devil will cause some believers to be put in prison. Roman prisons were ghastly places where prisoners knew they could be hauled out of their cells and executed at any moment.

But the Lord has three words of encouragement for those who will endure this severe form of persecution, three statements to strengthen and embolden the hearts of the believers in Smyrna:

First, He says, "The devil will put some of you in prison to test you." Many people interpret these words to mean that God seeks to learn how committed they are by this test. But this can hardly be the case since God already knows their hearts. He knows what we are able to endure even before we are subjected to it. The fact is, it is not God but we who learn from the testing we go through!

When we go through pressure or persecution or affliction or prison experiences it is we ourselves, not God, who learn from that test. We discover how much we have matured in Christ, and how trustworthy God is in times of trouble. Trials strip away our artificial and superficial supports and force us to lean on the only support that is truly reliable: the grace and strength of God Himself!

Second, He says that the persecution will last only a limited time. "You will suffer persecution," He says, "for ten days." What exactly does the Lord mean when He says "ten days"? We will examine that question more fully in a moment, but for now we can be encouraged to know that the Lord sets the limits to our suffering. The test will not last longer than we can endure. If the Lord says the test will last "ten days," then there is no force on earth that could make it last eleven days! The pressure under which the Smyrna congregation suffered would not last forever.

Third, He says, "Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life." We can be certain that "the crown of life" had a special significance to the Christians in Smyrna. The city was fronted by the coast of the Aegean Sea and flanked by a hill known as the Pagos. The crest of this hill was ringed by a circle of pagan temples, giving the appearance of a crown resting on the brow of the hill. Because of this crowned hill, the city of Smyrna was often called "the crown of Asia." This feature was a source of status and pride to the citizens of Smyrna.

But in the second letter of Revelation Jesus says that He will give to the Christians of Smyrna an even better crown the crown of life, the enjoyment of eternal life in glory! These words of reassurance to the church in Smyrna remind us of Paul's statement in Romans that "the sufferings of this present moment are not to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us." And elsewhere Paul writes, "This light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us to produce an eternal weight of glory."

We are continually encouraged by the fact that these trials, testings, and pressures are producing something of eternal value in our lives.

As we discussed in chapters 2 and 3, each of the seven churches of Revelation represents a period of church history. According to this prophetic view the church in Smyrna represents a period called "The Age of Martyrs," which lasted from about A.D. 160 to the rise of the first "Christian" emperor, Constantine the Great, in A.D. 324. To call this period "The Age of Martyrs" is not to suggest that this was the only time in history when Christians have been martyred. Believers have suffered and died for their faith and their Lord from the earliest days right up to the present day. In fact, it might surprise you to learn that the century that has seen the most Christians put to death for their faith was not the first, second, or third century, but our own twentieth century!

But it was during the Age of Martyrs that Christians were persecuted in ways almost beyond our ability to describe or believe. Their bodies were torn apart, joint from joint, upon the racks. Their fingernails were pulled out. They were wrapped in animal skins and thrown into sports arenas to be gored by wild animals for the amusement of others. They were covered with tar, suspended in Nero's gardens, and set alight grisly human torches to illuminate the festivities of the pagans. Other atrocities against the faithful, as gruesome or worse than those I've already mentioned, are described in Fox's Book of Martyrs.

One of the prominent early casualties of the Age of Martyrs was Polycarp, bishop of the church at Smyrna. As a young man Polycarp had personally known the apostle John. Perhaps he had even heard the vision of Revelation recounted from the lips of the apostle himself. Without question, Polycarp knew well the words of the letter from Jesus to the church in Smyrna: "Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. . . . Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life."

In A.D. 155, at the age of 86, Polycarp was brought before the Roman proconsul at Smyrna, who demanded that Polycarp take an oath renouncing Christ and placing his trust in "the Luck of Caesar." Polycarp refused. "Eighty-six years have I served the Lord Jesus," replied the bishop. "He has been faithful to me. How can I now be faithless to Him and blaspheme the name of my Savior?"

Enraged, the proconsul sent a messenger out into the city to proclaim that the bishop Polycarp had admitted to being a Christian. The messenger gathered a mob together in the arena of Smyrna. There the mob built a pyre of kindling, sticks, and planks, while clamoring that Polycarp be handed to them. The speed with which the bloodthirsty mob was assembled is clear evidence of the intense anti-Christian hatred that poisoned the city of Smyrna.

When Polycarp was delivered to the mob in the arena, several of the people brought forth hammers and nails with which to nail the bishop's hands and feet to the stake to keep him from struggling. "Put away those nails and let me be!" said Polycarp with such an air of authority that the men put down their hammers and nails. "The One who gives me strength to endure the flames will give me strength not to flinch at the stake."

As the wood was piled around his feet and ignited, Polycarp turned his eyes skyward and said, "O Lord God Almighty, Father of the blessed and beloved Son, Jesus Christ, I thank you for giving me this day and this hour, that I may be numbered among your martyrs, to share the cup of Jesus, and to rise again to life everlasting."

Let's look again at the Lord's promise to the church at Smyrna: "You will suffer persecution," He says, "for ten days." History tells us that there were ten separate periods of persecution in the Roman Empire. There were ten edicts of condemnation against the Christian church issued by Roman emperors, beginning with Domitian in A.D. 96 to Diocletian, the last emperor before Constantine.

In verse 11, the Lord appeals directly to each individual believer in the church of Smyrna:
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death."

To understand the term "second death" we need only to look near the end of Revelation, in chapters 20 and 21, where the phrase "second death" appears three times. There we are shown in vivid, graphic terms what is meant by "the second death." It is the terrible lake of fire, the symbol of the final judgment of all those who refuse the gospel of the grace of God. The second death was not originally prepared for humanity, but for the devil and the rebellious angels yet it will be shared by those human beings who align themselves with the devil by refusing God's grace.

The "second death" involves complete, eternal separation from God, a torment of soul and spirit that is so devastating that it is depicted by the effect that fire has on the nerve endings of the human body. It is the fate demanded by those who say, "I don't want anything to do with God. I don't want God in my life." The God of love, of grace, of mercy, the God who gave us all free will, will at the final judgment give people what they have demanded all their lives a total and complete separation from His love.

"If you listen to the message of this letter," says Jesus, in effect, "if you trust me in times of pressure and persecution, I will give you the gift of eternal life and you will have nothing to fear from the judgment of God. You will be kept safe from the second death."

This is the hope Paul rejoices in when he writes in Romans 8,

Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Except for those believers who are alive when Jesus returns, we are all destined one day to die. Some people reading this book will die quietly in their sleep. Some are no doubt certain to go through great suffering, although the Lord has promised it will not be more than they can bear. Some who read these words may even be martyred for their faith someday, just as Polycarp and so many other Christian saints of past and present ages have been.

Whatever happens, however death may come to us, we have the promise of Jesus that, as His faithful followers, we can never be hurt by the second death. So let us determine, as the believers of Smyrna determined, that we shall be faithful until death, no matter how or when that death shall come, secure in the fact that nothing, nothing, nothing in heaven or on earth will ever separate us from the love of God.