Toward the end of the first century, Christians in the city of Smyrna were facing a very difficult persecution. It likely had to do with the imperial cult. People were commanded to show their devotion to the Roman empire by performing an act of religious devotion toward the emperor. And failing to do so could cost believers social status at minimum. Eventually, refusing to worship the emperor would cost certain Christians their lives.
Revelation 2:8–11 – 8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. 9 “ ‘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. 10 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. 11 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.’
Notice a few things in the text above. AS Jesus speaks to this church, a church full of people facing death, he first identifies himself as the one who died and yet lives. Jesus wants to be sure that the Christians who face persecution do not think they are alone. The Lord Jesus has been there and done that. HE has suffered. He has died. And he has conquered death. That should give hope to believers, as we realize that our hope is in the one who already beat the grave.
Second, notice that Christ knows what is coming. Jesus can tell the people that the persecution is coming. HE can tell the people where the persecution will come from. And he can tell them how long that persecution will last. Even if ten days is a figurative term for a short period of time, Jesus is clear that this season will come, and it will go. Do not think your troubles catch Jesus off guard. Nor should you think that, just because Jesus loves you, he will always keep you from pain. God uses our hardships to our good and his glory.
Then notice how faithful Jesus calls the Christians to be. They are to be faithful unto death. Jesus knows that the coming persecution in Smyrna will cost Christians their lives. People will die under this one. And Jesus calls on his followers to be ready.
It is good for us to recognize that our service to the Lord can cost us more than discomfort. It can cost us our lives. And when we grasp that we could in fact die for our faith, it should have the effect of strengthening us. I’m not suggesting that we develop a morbid fascination with martyrdom, or we develop an attitude of pessimism that assumes defeat at every turn. But, I am suggesting that the Lord wants us to be prepared to face death on his behalf. And when we have accepted that we could die for our faith, we will be strengthened by God to face whatever is thrown our way.
Then, at the end of this section, Jesus says that the one who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death. Christian, understand that it is not the first death that we are to aim to avoid, but the second. In Revelation, we learn that the first death is common to humanity; it is physical death. There is a day to come when all who die will be physically resurrected. There is a first resurrection, the resurrection of those under the grace of God. They will rise to life and blessing forever. They will never face death again. There is also a second resurrection, a physical resurrection of all who have never gotten under God’s grace and have died as his enemies. Those will face the second death, a spiritual death, which is to be cast into hell forever.
Jesus is telling this church that their hope is in the resurrection. There hope is in the life that Christ offers. There hope is to be found in Christ, under his grace, and to live eternally with Jesus in perfect joy. Their hope is to avoid the second death because they have entrusted their very souls to Jesus. And folks who have the resurrection and life in front of them will be willing to face physical death in the here and now, because they know that there is not a second death to hurt them.
The book of Revelation speaks much about the hardships that Christians can face in this life. Whether it be something at the end of the age, or whether it be first century folks facing persecution, the message is the same. Christ is victorious. Christ has conquered death. Christ will give eternal victory to those under his care. So we can stand strong. Even if the world tries to take our livelihood or even our lives themselves, the word cannot take from us what matters. The word and the devil cannot take from us the eternal life to be found in Jesus who conquered death and who will raise us up to live with him eternally.