Rev 2:8-11, Genesis 15:1-19, Daniel 1
And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and took up life again. I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that 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 throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto 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. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’
We continue to listen to Jesus as He instructs the church in Smyrna. We know that these words of His are important, not because they are often put in red letters in English Bibles, as the word of Christ, but because of the levels of discourse that we can perceive. God has sent Jesus to tell John to speak to the angel who is guardian over the church of Smyrna what these Christians need to hear. The significance of the message is borne out by the complex way in which it is transmitted to those who need to hear it, and so also to us. Consider all the authority figures—God himself (1:1), the risen Jesus speaking to John (1:19) John the apostle relating all of his vision, the guardian angel of Smyrna superintending the message, and the holy book itself, which Jesus has told John to write for our benefit (1:19; 22:16). God the Father, God the Son, a guardian angel, the apostle or elder John, and Scriptures *all agree that this is important. We are on holy ground!
What Jesus has to say is utterly significant. He introduces himself as the one who has himself died and taken up his life again. And he ends by promising that anyone who conquers in him cannot be harmed by what he calls the “second death.” This is a message surrounded by victory—the victory of the one who trampled down death by death, and the promised victory of those who remain faithful.
God is known for telling his people beforehand those things that are helpful to them. This is not a matter of satisfying human curiosity, or of God helping out a shaman or wizard who wants power over the future. It is a matter of his making us knowledgeable, when it is helpful for us, concerning his divine counsel. We see this in John’s gospel when Jesus tells his disciples, whom he has just called friends, what will happen concerning his death: he says that he has told them about this so that they will not lose faith. But he has also said that the Father is actually including them in His plans, and wants them to “know what he is doing.” Though intimate knowledge of God, through the Holy Spirit, is a key characteristic of those who are in Christ, we can even catch glimpses of the confiding God at key points in the Old Testament.
To Abraham, the friend of God, the plan of God was laid open during an eerie visionary experience.
After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless….” And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
And he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation…”
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…” (Gen 15:1-19)
Abram is told more than he personally needs to know. But this intimacy with God comes after he has already believed God, and it concerns his descendants, who will be “as the stars” in number and in brilliance, and who will possess the land that God has promised. Yet God does not hide the “shadow side” of this future history—his descendants will also be slaves for some time, and will only see the promise after four generations. Abraham can know these things, the good and the bad “for certain,” and be “at peace.” And these words come accompanied by two signs—one from nature itself, as Abram looks at the stars, and one from a special ritual supervised by God. God lowers himself to be like a human king who “cuts a covenant” with this patriarch. In ancient days, the two parties to a covenant would walk through the pieces of slaughtered animals, as if to say, “may my fate be like this if I do not keep my side of the bargain.” God does even more than take part in such a ceremony. He actually sends mystical representatives to go through the pieces—a smoking pot and a flaming torch—and does not require Abraham to go through at all. God himself ratifies the agreement.
And so it is with Jesus and his church. It is HE who has made everything ready, and it is He who assures us, through the visionary John, both what is in store for them, and what he has promised. Smyrna is in for trouble—tribulation, testing, even (it is implied), death. It is not as though these Christians have already had an easy time. Jesus affirms them for standing firm in the truth, even when scorned by those who were Jewish, who had not accepted Jesus as Messiah—those who called themselves a “synagogue” (a holy gathering) for God, but who were really under the Devil’s deceptive influence. And more trouble is to come. But Jesus tells them this in a sequence that is meant not to terrify them but to strengthen them for the ordeal. He begins by saying, “I know all about you;” He goes on to tell them “Do not fear;” only then does He tell them about the hard times to come; again He encourages them to “Be faithful, even unto death.” Then finally, He promises, “I will give you a crown.” Commentators have struggled over why Jesus speaks about a trial that lasts for 10 days. Some have suggested that this is a short time, relatively speaking, but long enough to lead to martyrdom for some of them. It is possible that there is an echo here of the youths with Daniel, who refused to eat food offered to idols, to be assimilated to the idolatrous Gentile ways of living. The king allows them to eat only vegetables, for a trial period. This is what we hear: “So he listened to them in this matter, and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s food” (Dan 1:14-15). If this echo is intended, then the suggestion may be that this affliction will be like the test of the youths with Daniel, who were obedient to God, suffered hardship, and in the end were revealed as glorious to those who did not believe in the Lord. I only suggest this, and am not at all certain that it is an intended reference. However, even without being sure of the ten-day reference, we do grasp the overall message—affliction is to come upon those at Smyrna for a limited time, yet God will still be with them, and they should not be afraid.
We might think that this is all framed only for those at Smyrna. But, as with the first message, Jesus broadens the scope to all those who have ears opened by the Holy Spirit. And what the Spirit says is striking: “Listen everybody: the one who conquers in Christ cannot die twice.”
This second death is really the one that should concern them, not the first one. But as Jesus promised his apostles, they should not be afraid, because He has overcome the world (John 16:33b). The book of Revelation is the only place in Scripture where this “second death” is mentioned. We should take notice of this, because many think that the Old Testament is the book of hell-fire, and the New Testament has moved beyond that to sheer grace. In fact, Jesus had a good deal to say about the consequences of disobedience, and this not only in the visionary book of Revelation. Indeed, he warns in the gospels, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). So this saying of the Apocalypse is in harmony with Jesus’ warning regarding the fact that there are some things worse than bodily death. There is an eternal death, a second one, which is later described in the book of Revelation as the permanent abode of God’s enemies, Death and Hades (20:14), and the fit place for those who have not repented of cowardice, faithlessness, detestable actions, murder, sexual immorality, sorcery, idolatry, and lies (21:18). However, this warning is given only after we have heard two words of encouragement in the book—this one that is given to Smyrna, and a matching one given in chapter 20:16: “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him.”
Those in the Church of Smyra, and those of us with ears to listen to what the Spirit is saying, are promised that the second death cannot conquer us. Instead, we will share in Christ’s resurrection, and be both priests and rulers with Christ. Like Abraham, we are being brought into the counsel of God Himself, as He discloses His plans for humankind, to bring them to life, and to destroy death and Hades. While in the body, even those who are poor, like the Christians Jesus addresses in Smyrna, are laying up for themselves true riches—the riches of ruling with Christ, who tells us what God has planned for us, and for His world.
This admission into God’s plan is not meant to give us a sense of superiority, or of power, but to encourage us, when the difficult times come, that Christ has already experienced the worst that death and sin can do, and has come out the other side. In so doing, he has blazed the trail for us, and promises us, with him, a crown. Abraham was told about an earthly inheritance that his descendants would have, after a time of tribulation. The church at Smyrna, and those of us who heed this message, are given something far more precious—the hope of sharing in the resurrection of Christ, eternal life, a new heavens and new earth. We may not, like some Christians past and present, be experiencing much outward persecution. But this period of Lent can serve as a training period for whatever may come our way. Let us, like the Church at Smyrna, be content with the little that we now have, knowing that Christ is preparing for us a weight of glory that we can hardly imagine. Thanks be to God!