“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.” (Revelation 2:11 ESV)
“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:11-15 ESV)
Recent shifts in theological thought have moved many away from the belief in a literal hell. And for many who still accept the concept of hell, the debate centers around whether or not it is a place of eternal punishment, or one of limited duration. Honestly, while I do believe the Bible teaches that there is a literal, eternal hell (a place of eternal separation from God); I don’t spend a whole lot of time talking about it. Don’t misunderstand me; people need to be aware of the horrific reality of eternal separation from God. Frankly though, most times I think we’re best served when our conversation is centered around the beauty of the One who came to bring us life. But in order to deal honestly with the final comments of our Lord in his letter to the church in Smyrna, hell does need to be a part of the conversation.
Remember Smyrna was a church that faced great poverty and persecution. Both the Jews and the Romans represented a clear and present danger to anyone who called himself a Christian. Because of their faith in Jesus, the believers in Smyrna literally had their life on the line. They knew firsthand about martyrdom, and in time, they would experience it even more. Jesus had written to the church through the Apostle John and encouraged them to stop being afraid, but rather be faithful even to the point of death. A crown of life awaited the faithful. Now, Jesus closes by giving the assurance that while faithfulness in this life may result in death, the victorious need not fear the second death. What a comfort this must have been to a group of people who faced immanent danger at all times. They were reminded that this present life is not all there is. There would come a day of judgment and ultimate finality, but the church in Smyrna needed to know that the eternal life they were experiencing in Jesus would continue even if they were martyred for their faith. They had nothing to fear.
Many in our churches today are honestly terrified and just “holding on ‘til Jesus comes and raptures us out of here.” There are also those who see no need to concern themselves with what’s going on in the world because after all, “ Wont be long and we’ll be outa here boy!” I don’t think that’s the message Jesus gave to the church in Smyrna, nor is it the message given to us who read the book of Revelation today. They weren’t going to be spared. They were going to suffer. But the promise is that even in death, they would live because He himself is life. He was the One who died, but lives. The believers in Smyrna were not promised rescue from their present circumstances, but they were promised that forfeiture of their present lives in no way signified the end.
Listen church of the 21st century. We live in a real world, with real issues. We can’t stick our heads in a hole in the ground and pretend everything’s alright. Our relationship with Jesus will by definition cause us to be directly involved in world events. Our faith may indeed demand the ultimate price. However, even if being faithful to Jesus ends up costing us our homes, our comforts or even our very lives; there is the promise of eternal life in God’s very presence. Brothers and sisters, this life is not all there is and we need to live and serve with that in mind. We American Christians spend so much time worrying about our precious rights, what we deserve, and how we’re going to fight and take it all back for Jesus. Funny thing is Jesus tells those in Smyrna, “Some of you won’t make it through this, but be faithful, because even in death you will live.” There is no exhortation to buy weapons or protest the unfair treatment they were suffering. No, Jesus comforts and strengthens them by reminding them that though they should die, they will live eternally, unharmed by the second death.
Ever heard of Polycarp? (No, it’s not some kind of weird fish.) He was an early Christian Father who actually sat under the teachings of the Apostle John and served as Bishop in Smyrna. He paid for his faith with his life. It is said that although his martyrdom occurred on the Jewish Sabbath, their hatred for him was so great that they broke Sabbath law and were among the first to gather sticks for the fire with which he was to be burned. He was given a chance to deny Christ and save himself. But Polycarp responded with: “Eighty and six years have I served Christ, and he has never done me wrong. How can I deny the King who saved me? I do not fear the fire that burns for a season and after a while is quenched. Come, why do you delay? Come do your will.” And then he prayed, “I thank thee that thou hast graciously thought me worthy of this day and of this hour that I might receive a portion in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ.”
There are so many of our brothers and sisters being killed every day simply because they are Christians. We’ve all heard of what is going on in Egypt, and that’s just what’s in the news right now. Such suffering and persecution may indeed come our way as well. I pray that you will be comforted by the words of our Lord spoken to his church in Smyrna: “Stop being afraid. Be faithful in your suffering and I will give you the crown of life. You have no need to fear the second death. I am the first and the last, the one who died and lives!”