Faithful unto death

In a Baptist context baptismal services are normally wonderfully exciting occasions. But when I was at Cambridge as a student, I found baptismal services incredibly sobering occasions. For the church I attended had the custom that as each baptismal candidate was baptised we sang some words of the Risen Christ to the church at Smyrna (Izmir): “Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev 2.10). Sung to a haunting tune from Mendelssohn’s Elijah (Number 305 in The Baptist Hymn Book of 1962), this baptismal sentence has become unforgettable for me.

These words of the risen Christ were addressed to a church which was beginning to experience persecution. “Do not fear what you are about to suffer… Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life”. Is it just coincidence, I wonder, that probably the most famous early church martyr was Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who died for his faith in AD 156? Polycarp was denounced to the government, arrested, and tried on the charge of being a Christian. When the proconsul urged him to save his life by cursing Christ, he replied: “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” The magistrate was reluctant to kill a a gentle old man, but he had no choice. With that Polycarp was then burned at the stake.

Of course, persecution was not restricted to Smyrna. In the very next letter to the seven churches, we read of the church of Pergamum, where Antipas, “my witness [Greek: martus], my faithful one” was killed. And of course, down through the centuries – right up to the present day – men and women have been losing their lives for Christ.

However, although the primary reference is to martyrdom, I believe that the application of Rev 2.10 to baptism is justifiable. For, in baptism we identify with the Christ who died for us. A valid commentary on Rev 2.10 is surely to be found in the words of Paul to the church at Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6.3-4). To go the way of Jesus is to go the way of death. As Jesus himself said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8.34).

When John was writing his letter to Smyrna, death was simply a possibility: faith was to be kept “even if it means death” (GNB). But within the context of life-long discipleship, the meaning shifts: we are called to keep the faith until the day we die – here not martyrdom, but perseverance becomes the issue; what John calls “patient endurance” (hupomone: see Rev 2.2, 3, 9; 3.10).. In the West, where persecution is almost unknown, this means that we are called to a life-time of resistance to the cultural pressures of our day – we are to stand our ground and hold fast to our baptismal confession that ‘Jesus is Lord’. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who eventually was to die for his courageous stand against Hitler, wrote:

“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.

When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.” [The Cost of Discipleship, SCM Press, London 1948, 44.]

Finally, as a Christian minister, however, I see another challenge – to be faithful to the one who has called me into his service. To stay the course of Christian ministry, in spite of pressures that come not only from outside the church, but also within the church too! That too can require a good deal of “patient endurance”.

Thank God, there is a reward: “I will give you the crown of life”. Here probably there is an allusion to the garland or laurel wreath given to the victor at the games for which Smyrna was famous (see 2 Tim 2.5; also 1 Cor 9.24-25 & 1 Pet 5.4). Another possibility is that John may have in mind the representations, applied in the ancient world to divine beings s well as to morals, of a crown of light around the head, to indicate glory: in other words, ‘be faithful unto death, and I will crown you with glory in the life of the age to come’. Whatever, God promises to vindicate his people. Here is something to hold on to when life gets tough!

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