Persecution and Promises
In Smyrna itself, John highlights the persecution these believers will face. Because they live in a blasphemous society, they will be attacked from the “synagogue of Satan” as hated enemies of Rome. The promise of imprisonment and martyrdom awaits many of them. How would you respond if this was the message delivered to your church this Sunday? What we view as “religious persecution” in America today is a great contrast to what these early believers endured.
With recent archaeological discoveries of ancient inscriptions and literature, it is very possible that the “ten days” mentioned by John in Revelation 2.10 “was a period in which those who were to be sent forth in gladiatorial combat were imprisoned.” If this view is accurate, then this lends support to the notion that Christians were being used as targets in these gladiator events. They would be imprisoned for ten days and ultimately receive a death sentence by means of the “sport.”
Here’s a brief description of these games at this time:
The Amphitheatre was likewise the scene of capital executions. Persons condemned to death were delivered up defenseless to the wild beasts. This was the penalty which was most frequently inflicted on the Christian martyrs.
These believers were promised no exemption from the first death. They received no promise of mercy to be bestowed upon them. The outlook looked bleak and the possibility of death was quickly becoming a reality.
Christians died in the arena, too. Their religion prohibited them from taking part in the imperial cult and worshipping their deified rulers, and their refusal to recognize one of the state’s major festivals made them guilty of high treason, one of the worst crimes punishable by death in the Amphitheatre.
This appointment with death is one that we all must keep (Hebrews 9.27). Becoming a Christian doesn’t rescue us from this death – but it does from the second death!
For many of the churches in Asia Minor, John has to address them and their need for repentance. The church at Smyrna was not called to repentance; rather, they were encouraged to remain faithful – even unto death if that’s where their convictions took them.
In the first death, the one that is imminent and from which no rescue is promised, these believers would experience a separation of their spirit / soul from their body. In the second death, unbelievers will experience a separation of their spirit from the very presence of God.
Yet, while the discussion of the second death is usually in negative terms, the beauty of this passage is its positive promise that overcomers will not be harmed by this coming eternal separation.
Within this context, John has addressed the believers in Smyrna, and by extension, he has revealed what the Spirit says to all of the churches. Observe the words in Revelation 2.10:
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.
By way of observation, John notes that it is the devil, working through the synagogue of Satan, who is behind the intense wave of persecution. The devil is the accuser of the brethren, the enemy, the slanderer – our personal adversary. Yet, here the words of Jesus carefully. Some of these believers will be cast into prison for the purpose of being tried, tested, proven. Though the instigation was diabolic, God still accomplished His purposes through it.
Then, within this context, comes the statement of faith: these overcomers will receive a crown of life. This “crown” is distinguished from the royal diadem. Instead, this crown is that one made from the laurel wreaths and given to the victors. It is literally the reward handed out in victory. The reward that is promised here is “life.”
That this “crown of life” refers to eternal life is made clear in verse eleven. John equates this reward with not being “hurt of the second death.” For the overcomers, there is no promise that life will be easy; but there is a better promise in that we will spend eternity with our blessed Savior – that’s perspective!
What is of special blessing here to these readers is the assurance embedded in this promise. John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has chosen the strongest possible grammatical construction to convey this certainty. A literal translation, though not quite how we would say it in English could be rendered: “The one who overcomes will absolutely not – in no way – be harmed or hurt by the second death.” For those that physical death seemed like a very real probability, this certainty that the second death could not hurt them was a great source of comfort.
While we have discussed this “not be hurt of the second death” in the context of eternal life, we still have not actually defined what is meant by “second death.” This is not the only place in Revelation where John mentions this concept. It will resurface in 20.6, 14, and 21.8. In both 20.14 and 21.8, “second death” is defined as the eternal separation of the unbeliever in the lake of fire. This fate is something that will never be able to hurt the one who believes in Christ. What a great promise of eternal security!
For the next promise, we move to Pergamos!
Just joining us on the journey? Follow the links below to see the previous posts. (To minimize the number of links, I’ve only added the first part of each section.)