The crown of life is reserved as a reward for those who have laid down their lives for their faith. This also applies to all who were severely persecuted and who bore the reproach of Christ through suffering, beatings and ridicule.
According to 1 Peter 4:12-16,19 the martyrs are seen as partakers in the sufferings and afflictions of Christ because they are in the heat of the battle against the forces of Satan. This kind of sacrifice is precious to God and the oppressed are encouraged to accept their suffering joyfully: Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life (Rev. 2:10).
This promise is addressed to the church in Smyrna. Smyrna means bitterness and as such it is representative of the bitter suffering of the persecuted church of Jesus Christ throughout the ages. The ten days of tribulation evidently refers to the age of fanatical religious persecution which characterised the reign of ten consecutive Roman emperors, from Nero in 64 AD to Diocletian in 312 AD. The property of Christians was confiscated and robbed, many sought refuge in secret catacombs, they were thrown into prison under inhuman conditions, many were thrown to lions in the arenas in Rome, while others were burned at the stake.
The emperor Constantines acceptance of the Christian faith early in the 4th century did not bring a permanent end to the persecution. Medieval Europe gradually became the scene of intensified action against Christians who refused to accept the authority of the Roman Church. So-called holy wars were waged against true Christians who fled to remote parts of the Alps and sought refuge in caves.
There have always been faithful servants of Jesus who risked their safety and even their own lives to keep the flame of the faith burning in a hostile world. They realised and accepted the full implications of Christs words when He said that He would send His disciples out as lambs in the midst of wolves (Lk. 10:3). In the world they would be hated and persecuted (Jn. 16:33; 17:14), but like the three friends of Daniel in the furnace, they would never be forsaken.
The Protestant reformation in Europe also claimed a frightfully high price in the blood and tears of Christian martyrs Hebrews 11:32-40 was almost literally rewritten in the histories of these heroes of the faith. They had such an important and far-reaching influence on the survival and advance of the Christian gospel that some historians claim that our present (perhaps soon past?) religious freedoms can to a large extent be attributed to the unwavering testimonies of French Huguenots who gave their lives to defend the faith.
The persecution was to increase in scope and severity and, under the onslaught of communism, claim the lives of more martyrs in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries put together. When communism started to crumble, evangelical Christians began to encounter rising hostility from human rights and radical Islamist movements, increasingly powerful interfaith alliances, and humanistic, multi-racial, multi-faith or Islamic governments. The popular religious trend in the world today is the New Age philosophy that all religions worship the same God, so must accept each other as brothers and sisters in a one-world faith. Evangelical Christians are increasingly branded as judgmental, uncompromising isolationists who resist efforts to create a new one-world religion by refusing to link hands in unity with other religions.
It is under gloomy circumstances such as these that the true worth of the Christian faith is powerfully manifested. It is imperishable in the midst of the strongest persecution and to many people remains the highest aspiration in life. Its inherent strength is evidenced by the fact that some of the most cruel oppressors were conquered by the power of divine love while their helpless victims prayed for them.
The gospel of Christ did not reach us by easy means or without cost. It was confirmed by the testimonies of millions of martyrs who laid down their lives for it. They sealed it with their blood and in this way made a major contribution to its survival. Through their heroic actions they confirmed the validity and truth of our faith beyond any doubt. In critical situations they were willing to pay the highest price to defend the Christian faith against the vicious, satanically inspired attacks aimed at its total destruction.
It is clear that costly sacrifices for the sake of the gospel are required even in countries where no religious persecution occurs. Also, the Lord often allows severe afflictions in the lives of His people to test their faith, mostly in the form of sickness, bereavement, financial setbacks or other disappointments, in order to help them feel their need to depend upon Him fully, and to give them the opportunity to encourage others and take a clear Christian stand in life (2 Cor. 1:3-10). Those who do not become bitter or despondent as a result of their trials and afflictions but allow themselves to be purified and edified by these experiences, will also receive a crown from the Lord on that day: Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love Him (Jas. 1:12).