Revelation Commentary 2:8-11, to Smyrna.
The church in Smyrna.
Smyrna was a cosmopolitan city seaport on the Aegean coast and stationed along the major trade route through the Hermes valley with the river Hermes emptying into the sea through the port. The city was carefully planned with streets laid out in straight lines and many temples including temples to the emperors Augustus and Tiberius.
The city of Smyrna was, in a sense, the little brother to Ephesus but just as strategic to the Roman Empire. It had its own library, plethora of temples and a stadium that could seat 20,000. It was also the second city in the area to be made a centre of the imperial cult worship of Rome and was given a temple in honour of Roman religions.
At the time of John’s writing the despot Domitian was Emperor and expected the empire to worship him as a god. If you did not worship him then you were going to find life difficult and there were plenty in Smyrna who wanted to get the Christian community into trouble (such as some of the Jewish population).
In the Roman Empire the Jews had suffered incredible hardship after the wars with Rome and decimation of the Temple in Jerusalem. Although the Jewish population was still afforded some privileges by the empire they now had to pay a special tax. Due to their present circumstances many local synagogues would have been very uneasy at any attention being drawn to their community and did not want to be associated with Christianity in any way whatsoever.
“John insists that those who denounced the Christian community were not true Jews, implying that he and others who professed faith in Jesus were the legitimate representatives of Israel’s tradition. Determining who belonged to the Jewish community was an important matter because Jewish people received certain types of legal protection.”
Koester in ‘Revelation and the End of all Things, p 64
The synagogue of Satan.
In John’s day the church was still growing, despite increasing persecution. Many had initially come to Christ from a Jewish background and embraced Jesus as the Messiah. They, like Paul, would have spoken in their local synagogues about the good news of Jesus Christ. Because of this many non -Jews came to see Christianity as another wing of Judaism and in this we have another reason why Judaism wanted to distance itself from Christianity.
Jesus speaks of the synagogue (congregation or assembly) at Smyrna as the synagogue of Satan. At first glance this can seem anti-Semitic, yet it is not. The reason it was called the ‘Synagogue of Satan’ was because of the slander and accusations made against the church. Even within Judaism there were rifts between differing groups and some were particularly aggressive in their dislike of Christians.
“Because the language about the non-Christian Jews (2:8; 3:9) now sounds offensively and dangerously anti-Semitic – and would be, if repeated outside its original context – it is important to recognise here an intra-Jewish dispute. This is not the gentile church claiming to supersede Judaism but a rift like that between the temple establishment and the Qumran community, who denounced their fellow-Jews as “an assembly of deceit and a congregation of Belial’ (1QH 2:22).
R. Bauckham in the ‘Theology of Revelation’ page 124.
The sacrificial system in Judaism had been attacked at many times during its history. For example we have the infamous Antiochus Epiphanes who had, for a brief period, dedicated the Jerusalem temple to Zeus (circa 167 BC). Many decades after this we have the sacking of the temple in AD70 at the hands of General Titus, who set up the worship of Roman standards. In light of this we can understand how offended many Jews would be at the thought that Jesus is the Messiah.
In reality the efficacy of the temple sacrifice had ended at the death and resurrection of Christ, to which all O.T. sacrifices point. From an earthly point of view there is also no physical temple (in the sense of bricks and mortar), yet from the perspective of the Kingdom of God there is.
Paul stated to ordinary, everyday people who had accepted the gift of life in Jesus, “You are the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 3:16) with the words of Peter also reminding believers that they are ‘living stones (1 Pet 2:5).
Some of the members of the Jewish community in Smyrna had the word of God in their hands, yet the word of God did not have them, so to speak. They had not embraced the Messiah and were still ruled by the old nature and views of scripture rather than the leading of the Spirit. Jesus constantly came against those who had the word of God (eg some of the teachers of the law) yet were not always open enough to receive it in their hearts (Mat 9:3; Luke 6:2). Many who did embrace the truth were ostracised by their families and communities. However, even in the most difficult of circumstances, they found the Shepherd King with them in all that they went through.
Throughout history men, women and children have often testified to the power and presence of God in the most horrific circumstances. One man’s whose testimony to God’s goodness in the midst of darkness was Richard Wurmbrand.
Richard Wurmbrand was a Romanian pastor imprisoned for his faith under the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, the General Secretary and leader of the dominant communist party in Romania from 1965-1989. Ceausescu’s regime collapsed after he ordered his troops to shoot anti-government demonstrators in the city of Timisoara, the main social, economic and cultural city in western Romania at that time.
During his lifetime Richard Wurmbrand spent many years in prison and, on occasion, saw men in his own cell slowly beaten to death over a period of months. Yet Wurmbrand could still speak about the joy he felt in his heart at the nearness of God – so much so that he would sometimes dance despite the hunger, pain and cold. He said that he did not care about what the prison guards thought of him, he just danced for joy as David did, at the closeness and wonder of God’s love. Life was unbearably tough, yet God was with Him.
Another story which speaks of a small man embroiled in the might of Nazi power yet who still shone for Christ is that of Maximillian Kolbe. His story goes like this:-
In the summer of 1941, a prisoner escaped from his cellblock in Auschwitz. As retaliation, the remaining prisoners in the block were lined up, and ten of them were sentenced to death. It would be a slow, excruciating death from thirst and starvation. On hearing his name called, one of the condemned men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out in despair, lamenting the fact that he would never see his wife or children again.
At that moment prisoner number 16670 stepped forward, offering himself as a substitute for Gajowniczek. Joining the nine condemned men, Maximilian Kolbe was led off to an underground bunker where he would eventually die. Bruno Borgowiec, an assistant to the janitor and an interpreter in the bunkers, told how Kolbe led the condemned men in prayer and singing day after day. Borgowiec could hear their prayers and singing resounding in the corridors of the bunker, so much so that he had the impression he was in church.
One by one the men died off until only the priest Kolbe was left. Impatient to reclaim the cell for new victims, the Nazis decided to kill him by injecting him with carbolic acid. Bruno Borgowiec tells of watching Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips; hold out his arm to the executioner. After excusing himself so he would not have to witness the priest’s death, Borgowiec later returned to find Kolbe leaning in a sitting position against the back wall with his eyes open and his head dropping sideways. He described his face as “calm and radiant.”
What was it like for Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man whose life was spared? Every year on August 14th the day Kolbe died, he returned to Auschwitz to pay honour to the man who had saved him. A few years after Kolbe’s death, he described his feelings about what had happened when Kolbe chose to stand in his place of death:
“I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I the condemned am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger. Is this some dream?
I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this. The news quickly spread all round the camp. It was the first and the last time that such an incident happened in the whole history of Auschwitz.
For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian. By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant. But now, on reflection, I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise.”
Gajowniczek lived to be ninety-five, dying in Poland in 1995. Another Auschwitz survivor by the name of Jerry Bielecki declared that Kolbe’s death was “a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength…It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp.” What Kolbe did is a picture of what Jesus has done for us. It’s a little version of God’s big story of redemption, the story of a King who stood with His people in Smyrna and stands with His people today.
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that 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.” Romans 8:37-9.
At times we can find ourselves struggling for a whole host of reasons that don’t always seem to make sense. Yet in all things there is the encouragement from the word of God and testimonies from every decade in every century of men, women and children who can still testify to the power and presence of God.
“The church is called to live the kingdom of God as a fundamental, and constant, interruption in the reign of evil and as a persistent reversal of the ways of the world. If the church takes this seriously, the rulers of the darkness of this age, the creators or orders old and new, cannot, and will not, sit easily upon their thrones.”
A. Boesak in ‘The Tenderness of Conscience’ page 101.
Jesus knew all about the church at Smyrna and was aware of how they suffered at the hands of others. He was also aware of how poor they were and encouraged them to look to Him: the First and the Last, who was dead but is alive, forever more.
The First and Last (Rev 2:8).
A young woman who was imprisoned and interrogated for converting from Islam to Christianity in Iran was asked what it was about Christianity that made her leave Islam. In reply to the question she said,
“Christ said, ‘I am the first and the last.’ There is no one before Him, no one after Him. Christ’s completeness is evident in His love. Even the most sinful people on earth can feel God’s love through Jesus. He was the perfect man, who sacrificed His life on the cross for our sins. By paying the price we could never pay. He gave us the priceless holy gift of freedom – freedom from sin and freedom from religious laws we could never perfectly follow as imperfect mortals.”
Maryam Rostampour in, ‘Captive in Iran’ pages 185-6.
The title ‘First and Last’ is taken from Isaiah 44:6 where we read, “I am the first and the last and beside me there is no God.” God is the One who declares the end from the beginning and the whole of history is in His hands; He is the One who calls all people to turn to Him.
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no-one can snatch them out of my Father's hand.”
God is the One who reaches out from the very beginning to bless man and who will bless man with a new name (fully restored nature:-Eph 2:10 and Rev 2:17). But what does it mean when Jesus says that the Father gives Him people?
The whole of Israel had been given God’s teaching, but only those who were open to God and listened to God and learned from Him would be drawn to Jesus (John 6:44).
Jesus said that no one could come to Him unless the Father drew that person (John 6:44). What He is saying is that those who are open to the Lord and seek Him rather than live by their experiences or religious thinking of the day would be encouraged by His Father to see the truth. He would, in grace and mercy, draw those who might have some reservations yet remained open, to seeing the truth. An example of this is seen in response to lepers and the man who struggled in his faith concerning the healing of his son (Mat 9:24); Jesus healed him (Mat 9:25-27).
Jesus wants the suffering church at Smyrna to clearly see who He is: The First and Last One and was dead but is alive for evermore. He is the absolute master over all life and also death.
The ‘resurrected city.’
Smyrna was known as a ‘resurrected city’ because despite having almost ceased to exist, it had been raised to prominence by Alexander the Great when he took over the city. Jesus is the ‘resurrection one’ and through His sacrificial death and resurrection all believers will one day be resurrected.
At Jesus’ crucifixion, when He gave up His spirit, the curtain temple was torn, the earth shook and rocks were split open. Tombs broke open and the bodies of holy people were raised to life. After Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared before many people (Mat 27:50-53). There will be a physical resurrection and therefore we have to see suffering and death in the context of this much bigger picture. The death of a believer is not the end but the end of the beginning as they move into fullness of life.
“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord for ever.” 1 Thess 4:16-17
Jesus also points out to the church in Smyrna that He is aware of their afflictions and of their poverty (from a worldly perspective), yet they are rich. At that time the poverty the church experienced would have come about through being ostracised from city guilds; but why?
To work in many of the trades of the day required being part of a guild that also involved worshipping pagan deities. In refusing to do this many Christians would have suffered a loss of work as did those who were boycotted by people who refused to purchase items from the Christian community. A not dissimilar boycott occurred in Germany a few years before the Second World War when people stopped purchasing from Jewish shops.
Smyrna had strong links with Rome, who sought to control life from the cradle to the grave. Yet one who is outside of time has stepped into time and experienced suffering and death and resurrection. As Paul writes, “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). God strengthens His people out of His glorious riches and through the power of the Holy Spirit (Eph 3:16).
“And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”
A recent article from the Voice of the Martyrs tells of how God reached into the lives of fifteen families in a village in Chiapas, Mexico. The area was under the control of Zapatistas guerrillas and when the families told them they were not satisfied with their old religious ways and wanted to seek God they were kicked out of their homes. For the next year they lived in a large stable with the Zapatistas refusing to let anyone help them. The guerrillas see themselves as the protectors of the indigenous people of Chiapas and control everything from land ownership to religious practices. The religious practices were a combination of Mayan ritual and Catholic practice.
When a woman called “Ruth,” (a Voice of the Martyrs partner) heard of their difficulties she fasted and prayed and then went to find them. On reaching them she found they had already been without food or water for over three days. When she arrived, she saw the guerrillas, but no one tried to stop her. As she gave the families food and water, they were so hopeless that they wouldn’t even look in her eyes.
After they had eaten, “Ruth” showed them a gospel tract that included a picture of baby Jesus in a manager. The families, sleeping in a stable, immediately felt a connection. They listened as Ruth shared the gospel using The Story of Jesus tract, and they were moved to hear that God understood their circumstances. They placed their trust in Jesus Christ that day.
Ruth and the local church continued to visit the new Christians and provided for their needs. Together, they prayed that God would provide a way for them to get their own land. Several months later, the Mexican government interceded by providing them with three hectares (7.4 acres) of land. Though they would need to purchase the land, the government would provide 75 percent of the funds. God continues to reach out to people, often through ordinary everyday people who are able to do things far beyond their natural abilities through the presence of the Holy Spirit with them.
Suffering even to the point of death.
One of the most famous martyrs from Smyrna was a Bishop called Polycarp (80-167) who was said to have been a disciple of John. Before being executed he was asked if he would confess Caesar and deny Jesus. His response was that he had served God for eighty-six years so why would he deny God now. All around our world there are amazing stories of how, even in the worst situations, Christian can still reach out with the love of Christ. Take, for example, North Korea.
In North Korea, one of the most brutal regimes on the planet, a woman called Chun was caught trying to escape from the country. She was imprisoned and tortured, yet in this environment of suffering and death she heard about Jesus. She wrote, “I was beaten and tortured so badly that I could barely stand up. The prison cell was dirty, small and overcrowded. There were so many women that I could not lie down." She then said, "There was one lady who was really kind to me. When I was in so much pain she invited me to lay my head in her lap. She prayed for me. It was my first encounter with the love of Christ."
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
The love of God for man is seen in many incredible ways throughout scripture and we pause now, before moving on, to look at one of them.
Abram and looking to the God of the covenant.
Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, God conflates His love with ours. Love does not seek to destroy, but to uplift, as we are helped to become the people God always intended us to be. An example of this love is seen in God’s relationship with Abram and the changing of His name from Abram to Abraham. We pick up the story in Genesis chapter fifteen where God said to Abram that he should not be afraid and that it was God who was Abram’s shield and reward (Gen 15:1). Abram believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness – despite his failings he trusted God and not self. We then read of God enacting covenant with Abram.
In the ANE (Ancient Near East), families and friends would be called together to witness two individuals or parties entering into a covenant with each other. A covenant was regarded as a deep, binding relationship, like a marriage, and would have life and death implications. Those entering into covenant would cut themselves and sign an agreement in blood. They would also keep the cut open to form a scar as a continual sign of the covenant relationship on the body of those entering into it. We see the grace of God in that Jesus kept scars on his wrist, feet and side. We will come back to this later.
The two families would now be seen as one (hence one in marriage today) and would sometimes take a part of each other’s name. If one family were suffering the other family would help; if one man’s wife died, the other would then support them.
The serious binding nature of the covenant would also be enacted by passing through pieces of a sacrificial offering to God. In passing through there was the recognition of two individuals or groups bound together and also serious nature of the covenant. Those who broke covenant were spoken of as becoming like the dead animals.
Imagine how shocking it must have been for Abram when he realised that God wanted to enter into a covenant with him. Abram prepared all the parts yet there was one part that God did not involve him in: the blood sacrifice.
There is no way that Abram could have kept his side of the covenant, no matter how hard he tried. God was aware of Abram’s desire (righteousness) but also his inability. He placed Abram into a deep sleep and passed through the covenant sacrifice himself. Through God’s intervention and covenant blessing Abram had moved from being a man to the place of being the man receiving and living out what it means to be as someone made in the image of God.
After a covenant ceremony, families would sometimes take a part of each other’s name and incorporate it into their own. A modern day example of this could be that a Miss Edwards marries a Mr Willson and they became Mr and Mrs Willards.
One of the Hebrew names for God is Yahweh which is from a Hebrew root meaning ‘breath’ and carries the extended meaning of ‘to exist.’ From this we see that Yahweh speaks of the Lord who raises us up and therefore the One who resurrects and restores life even in the worst of circumstances.
In Genesis 17:4-5 we read of God speaking of his covenant with Abram and saying, “No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you the father of many nations.” In this we see part of Yahweh’s name incorporated into Abram’s. Because God was now in covenant with Abraham, Abraham was to become the father (source) of many nations as the ‘Life-breather’ (Yahweh) worked with him.
Because God is in covenant with His church through Jesus as our representative (1 Cor 15:45,47) we have hope no matter what is happening.
Secure and led by the Spirit.
As already mentioned, the suffering church at Smyrna which was known for its poverty (in a worldly sense) was actually rich in the Lord (2 Cor 8:9, James 2:5). All believers were secure in Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit, (Eph 1:13; 4:30), a deposit of what is to come.
“Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”
2 Cor 1:21-22
God wants all believers to see themselves from His perspective and live in and through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. When God makes His home with us there is the leading of the Spirit (Rom 12:2; Gal 5:16-18) as opposed to depending on that which is transient and passing. There is also the presence of the Holy Spirit (Ex 33:15; 1 Thes 3:13) and communication of the Spirit revealing the will of God to us through our minds and hearts (Phil 2:1-3; Rom 12:2). However this does not mean we don’t go through times of suffering and Jesus speaks of this to the church at Smyrna in saying they would suffer persecution for ten days, yet should remain firm even unto death. From a worldly perspective this can sound rather negative so there is a need to set it in its biblical framework.
'Why ten days?’
The book of Revelation is couched in Old Testament imagery. In light of this we could justifiably relate the ten days to the book of Daniel.
Daniel was a forcibly displaced man who found himself in the most powerful earthly kingdom of the day: Babylon. The objective of his captors was to totally dominate and indoctrinate Daniel and others in such a way that they would become ambassadors of the Babylonian cause.
In Babylon, Daniel could have tried to start a low-key protest movement or just kept his head down. He could have been wowed by the size and opulence of Babylon and allowed his situation to draw him away from God; yet he did not. Instead Daniel sought to serve God in any way possible and did so through adhering to the dietary laws of Israel which, at that time, meant not eating meat with blood in it. Despite all that was against Daniel and his friends, God granted them favour and at the end of ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food (Dan 1:15).
In speaking of ten days the church at Smyrna is reminded that God is in charge and that all things will come to their end one way or another. God was aware of a small man – Daniel – in a very large and powerful city whose power and size were no match for the King of heaven. He is fully aware of what is going on in Smyrna and He is fully aware of what is going on in our lives today. As Isaiah once wrote…
“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the Lord. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
We now let’s turn to see what the Bible has to say about death. Jesus told the church at Smyrna that they were to remain faithful even when facing death and that they would not be hurt by the second death; but what is death?
“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.”
Death speaks of separation from our natural environment, (ultimately God’s presence and blessing) with death, in this respect, coming into the world through sin. Paul speaks of death as the wages of sin (Rom 6:23), it having had a hold over humanity since the fall. Yet due to God’s incredible intervention, Paul is also able to say “The gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 6:23).
In Hebrew thought death is the end of that which is dying. From this we see that death is a process and not just an end. For example Adam was told he would die if he transgressed God’s law (Gen 2:17-18), yet death did not immediately occur. What did occur was separation from God.
In breaking God’s law man began to reap the harvest of his sin. He also began to die biologically, yet death is not just the end of life in this sense. It is the weaker end of life and existence outside covenant. Note for example Luke 23 where we read the father’s words concerning the return of his younger son: where he says, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:24).
“Death renders everything in life meaningless. In Ecclesiastes 12:1-5 he likens the aging process to an encroaching storm. The deteriorating body is represented by a house that, along with its inhabitancies, slowly falls apart.”
Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, Page 198
In the ANE death was called the ‘land of no return,’ being, from man’s perspective, an inescapable prison. However the first death is a temporary prison. In the Old Testament the place of the departed was called Sheol and in the N.T Hades. Those who had departed, however, could still be brought back by God (speaking of God as the resurrection and the life). For example we see God suspending what had become the natural sequence of events in the raising of the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-15), Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:51f) and Lazarus (John 11:40f).
God is the only One who has absolute power over death, yet the death of His Son was necessary for death and sin to be conquered and fallen man set free. Jesus conquered sin at Calvary, through His sacrificial death (Rom 5:12-21) and conquered death when He rose on the third day (Rom 6:9-10).
For those outside of Christ the end of biological existence is the culmination of the first death, whilst for the believer, the first death is a ‘resurrection’ - a more intense form of life. For example, the thief on the cross was told that on that very day he would be with Jesus in paradise. Yet at that point Jesus had not yet returned to His Father (John 20:17).
“The first Adam had a perishable, inglorious body and brought death, whereas the last Adam had an imperishable and glorious body and brought eternal life. The first covenant was temporary and led to death (e.g. Heb 8:13), while the second was eternal and led to life. Neither in Revelation nor in 1 Corinthians nor in Hebrews does “first” function as an ordinal in a counting of things that are identical in kind.”
G. K. Beale in ‘The Book of Revelation,’ p100
Those who have not accepted Christ as Lord and Saviour will rise from the grave and stand before the judgement seat of God for final sentencing. They will be thrown into what is pictured as a ‘lake of fire’ which is the second death (Rev 20:14; 21:8). This ‘lake of fire’ speaks of not having put feet on the rock that is Christ Jesus and also of the sheer holiness of God which rightfully demands payment for all wrong-doing.
It is totally impossible for Christians to be harmed by the second death because judgement has already occurred over our lives concerning salvation. We are saved through Christ alone and are called to die to what the self has become by way of the world, on a daily basis.
“Having lived through nine years of the Lebanese civil war and through the Israeli invasion of Lebanon the summer of 1982, I understand the affirmation “I die every day.” This is the speech of someone who goes out each day wondering it if will be his last. Included in this is the never to be forgotten feeling at a rogue checkpoint when stopped by heavily armed militiamen. On such occasions one is convinced, “I will not be alive five minutes from now.” The fall of 2009 I was privileged to meet Mr Paul, the senior manager of “Hotel Rwanda” during the massacres that took place in Rwanda in 1994. For the three-month period of the massacres, Mr Paul “Died every day.” It was the look in the eye. We understood each other. Paul the apostle breaks into very strong language indeed the language of oath taking, as he declares, “I die every day.”
K. Bailey in, ‘Paul through Mediterranean Eyes, p 452
Death amidst persecution is often seen as a victory for the persecutor and a sign of weakness for the vanquished. In reality death for believers at Smyrna at the hands of the Roman ‘crown’ could not prevent them receiving their heavenly crown, speaking of participation in the rule and reign of Christ.
“Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.”
“Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
2 Tim 4:8
“And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”
1 Peter 5:4
There will be a final ‘calling of time’ concerning the way this world continues to live yet for the believer there is no fear of the second death because all our sins are covered by the work of Christ. This world in its present state will end, but we are not going to end with it. As Paul writes:
“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”
1 Cor 15:51-52
When Paul uses the term ‘sleep’ he is referring to believers who had departed our present part of existence and who await the fullness of life. It does not matter whether we are alive (in the sense of here and now) or dead (having gone through the first death), all will be resurrected and all will be changed.
“In our own era after the turn of the millennium, when medicine has prolonged life beyond all earlier imagination, it is important not to lose sight of Paul’s emphasis on release from degenerating capacities…”
Prof A Thiselton, in 1 Corinthians p 1297
As Prof A. Thiselton writes in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, outside of the N.T. the language, ‘twinkling of an eye’, can denote “the rapid wing movement which causes the buzz of a gnat or the twinkling of a star; in other words it really is instantaneous.”
In his book, ‘Paul through Mediterranean Eyes, Kenneth Bailey makes the point that when Jesus is really acknowledged as Lord and Saviour – our Lord Jesus Christ – our problems start to be dealt with as the ‘life’ of death is destroyed. In the context of the Corinthian church he speaks of what ‘death being destroyed’ looks like in the church.
“The Corinthian divisions will disappear; their community-destroying sexual irregularities will stop; their offences to the consciences of others will come to an end; their worship wars will be over; and their denials of the resurrection will be no more. The resurrected Jesus is “Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
K. Bailey in, ‘Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, p 475
Everlasting life: Clothed with the imperishable.
“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory."
1 Cor 15:54
We can follow the imagery of clothing (speaking of the work of God) from Genesis (Gen 3:21), through Zechariah (Zech 3:4f), past the picture of a robe being placed on the prodigal (Luke 15:22) to being clothed in Christ (Gal 3:27). The perishable is clothed with the imperishable. In Christ all things are made new.
"Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
1 Cor 15:55-57
“I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10).
Smyrna was a tiered city of small houses and from a distance they looked like a crown with the highest point being referred to as the ‘crown of Smyrna.’ It was also a city that was famous for its games and also had a symbol of a wreath on the gates to the city.
In speaking of the crown of life (note that this crown is given and not earned) Jesus reminds the church that earthly death cannot destroy the heavenly life. In the suffering church there are many who lose their lives (or what remained of them this side of eternity) yet the church continues to grow and those who die enter fullness of life in a kingdom that does not perish, spoil or fade; a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Heb 12:28).
The imagery of a crown would not be lost on those who heard the letter to Smyrna being read out. For example many would know about the ‘crown of consecration’ (Nezer), which was placed on the mitre of the High Priest and which signified the consecration of the priest as representative of the people (Ex 29:6).
“They made the plate, the sacred diadem (‘nezer’ = crown), out of pure gold and engraved on it, like an inscription on a seal: HOLY TO THE Lord.”
Kings in Israel were also set apart with a crown being placed on their head (2 Kings 11:12), yet it is through the work of the One who wore the crown of thorns (Mat 27:29) – the ‘crown’ of the curse (speaking of incompleteness and death), that we now receive the crown of life. The imagery of a crown also speaks of God’s work where believers, the fruit of His work, are spoken of as a crown (1 Thess 2:19-20).
“Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” 2 Tim 4:8
The church at Smyrna: recipients of amazing grace.
“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ. And so through him the "Amen" is spoken by us to the glory of God.”
2 Corinthians 1:20
It has been said that the best way for us to prepare for the future is to know more about the God who is present now and what He has done to secure the future for us. He is the One who is never caught unawares and in His dealings with man we continuously see amazing grace.
The Hebrew word for ‘grace’ is ‘chen,’ and at its ‘heart’ this word carries the picture of fencing in and protecting life. The One who wants to protect us is the One we have offended most, yet His love is not weakened by our rebellion and failing. Because of His work and His work alone there is the offer of forgiveness, reconciliation and the protective care of a loving heavenly Father. Let us remind ourselves of this again before moving on.
To enter the sheepfold of the great Shepherd (Psalm 23, John 10:1, 14) we need to accept our need of forgiveness, which comes from the One we have offended most and then ask for it. From this amazing offer and all that God says and does, we see that grace is exclusively His gift to us (Eph 2:8); a gift that, by its very definition cannot be gained through personal effort or achievement. In humbling ourselves (breaking down the walls we have built because of insecurity and pride), we partake in this grace that is generously and willingly given through Christ alone.
“Every grace with which life is adorned, the grace which covers every sin, every natural endowment we possess, every gift which we can lay at the service of the Church, any office we may hold… God gave it, God did it, it is God’s grace; all is of God.”
Dr W. Barclay, ‘New Testament Words’, p64
The New Testament word for grace (‘charis’) continues to reveal grace as an undeserved, unmerited blessing and favour from another: from the Holy One (Isaiah 5:16).
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Grace has nothing to do with receiving a reward. A reward is something that is given in return for good or evil already done. Note, for example, that hypocrites, who liked to pray in a place where they were seen, had already received their reward - they had been seen! (Mat 6:2).
Salvation is not a reward which God gives us as payment for the good we have done. We are saved by grace alone and our obedience does not make us more saved because it is totally through Jesus. What our obedience does is enable us to receive more of what God has already provided for us. To understand this, just pause and think about the following statement…
“If you respond to someone’s invitation to go to their house for a meal, your response does not earn you the meal; instead it enables you to benefit from what has already been provided.”
As we gain wisdom, knowledge and understanding (Prov 3:5-6, Eph 1:17) we grow in maturity under the anointing of the Holy Spirit and can benefit more fully from the ways of the Lord.
Whilst we cannot earn or maintain salvation in our own strength, the Bible does speak of rewards; yet how is this possible?
Firstly, let’s remember that the rewards that the Bible speaks of (1 Cor: 3) do not refer to good works keeping us saved. As we have already stated, 1 Cor 3:15, Eph 2:8-9 and Titus 3:5 clearly reveal that good words do not save.
Rewards flow out of the salvation that is already ours through Christ, and are not a part of earning salvation (note Eph 2:9). Rewards are an encouragement to do what is right, and are not given because we deserve them. For example, a parent might give a young child £1 for helping clean the family car, even if the part the young boy or girl had cleaned needed to be cleaned again afterwards!
“Wisdom is seeing everything from God’s perspective. It is knowing how to use the knowledge that comes from the Lord.”
J. Mason, ‘An Enemy Called Average’, p109
We are the ‘saved by grace’ ones and like the church at Smyrna, we will not be hurt by the second death and like the church of Smyrna there is going to be a day that outshines any day we have lived this side of eternity as we stand with Him.
“For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."