Revelation – Bigger than Death – 5

Revelation 2:8-11“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. “‘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.’

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What is a famous quote you like? Like one you always remember? A quote I love and quote often is from an early church father named Tertullian. It is, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The actual quote of his where this comes from, in his response to defending Christianity to the Roman Empire, is, “We multiply whenever we are mowed down by you; the blood of Christians is seed.”[1] Christianity spread because of Christians being killed for their faith. If your faith causes you to be killed, it means you truly lived it.

If you are going to live for Jesus no matter what comes your way, “Jesus must be bigger to us than death itself.”[2]

Jesus is bigger… (vs 8)

Jesus is bigger…than time. Let’s stretch our brains for a little bit. Think back as far as you can remember. What’s your first memory? Now, go back even further. Picture the times of Jesus, 2000 years ago. Now, go back another 2,000 years, like the time of Abraham in the Bible. Can you think back that far? Even though Jesus came after Abraham, Jesus once said,

John 8:58 – “Before Abraham was, I am.”

Now, go back another 2,000 years or so. What’s happening? The events of Genesis 1 and 2, when God created everything. You know what the Bible says about Jesus and those times?

John 1:1-31 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

Now go back another not 2,000 years, but 2 billion years. Jesus is there. And he’s before then and before then and before then. Our brains can’t even handle the capacity to think about it. And Jesus is there. We see in this verse, Jesus is “the first and the last.” What He is confirming here is simple, and it is an essential doctrine. Jesus is God. This is one of the core doctrines that sets Christianity apart from other religions that believe in God. Jesus is not only bigger than time, but he’s bigger than our greatest threat.

Jesus is bigger…than death. We not only see who He is in relation to eternity, but we see who He is in relation to life and death. James Hamilton said,

“The death and resurrection of Jesus mean that death has no power over him. He is bigger than death itself, and given what the church in Smyrna faces, that reality is one they must keep in their minds if they are to be faithful.”[3]

Hear what else he says, bringing the application to our lives:

“Applying to our fears the knowledge that Jesus is bigger than death will make us courageous. Courage is a great thing, but we must keep in mind that courage is not our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is to live in ways that show our confidence in Jesus.”

Knowing Jesus is bigger than death gives us confidence to truly live. This means that you can face whatever comes your way. And as we already saw with the church in Ephesus, Jesus stands with and amidst his churches. Whatever you face, He is with you, and you can get through.

Jesus knows His people in their suffering. (vs 9) He says he knows three things in this verse: their tribulation, their poverty, and the slander against them. Here’s something I want you to see here. Jesus doesn’t minimize their suffering. He acknowledges it. He knows it. He knows it’s hard to be put down for your faith. He knows what it is to be hated for your beliefs. He knows what it is to experience betrayal from those closest to you. He knows what it is to suffer and die.

Hebrews 4:15 – For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

In terms of their persecution and poverty, they were mistreated by both the Romans and the Jews. Jews had certain protections under the law in Smyrna. As long as Christianity was considered a sect of Judaism, they had the same protections. But the Jews were likely jealous of the inroads Christians were making and tattled to the Roman authorities. So, those protections where the Jews didn’t have to worship Caesar were removed from the Christians, leaving them persecuted and poor.[4]

Warren Wiersbe further explains,

“The members were persecuted, probably because they refused to say, “Caesar is Lord.” Smyrna was an important center of the Roman imperial cult, and anyone refusing to acknowledge Caesar as Lord would certainly be excluded from the guilds. This would mean unemployment and poverty. The word used here for poverty means “abject poverty, possessing absolutely nothing.”[5]

They were poorer than poor. There was no earthly benefit to being a Christian.

In the times of your grandparents and even your parents, it was culturally beneficial to be a Christian. Society looked at you as morally upright and in good standing. Now, to be a Christian means you are morally evil. There are no cultural benefits to following Christ in your time. You have to constantly go against the flow of culture. This church in Smyrna knew what that was like far more than we do. But although they didn’t have anything this world could offer, they had far more than this world could ever give. In Christ, we have more than the world can offer.

“Though we do not have what the world counts as wealth, we have what is in reality wealth.”[6]

Jesus refers to the value of the kingdom of God as a buried treasure or pearl of great price (Matt 13:44-46). It’s worth far more than anything you give up. But that’s not how many people live today. They would rather have the applause and riches of the world than the riches of Christ. One commentator said, “The early churches were marked by material poverty and spiritual strength. Churches today seem to be noted for their material wealth and spiritual weakness.”[7] If your faith is in the things around you, you will do whatever it takes to keep those things. If your faith is in Jesus, even though you leave all behind, and even if you die, you gain everything.

Jesus calls His people to be faithful unto death. (vs 10) He says they are about to suffer, but it won’t last forever. That’s what the ten days means. It’s a definite/finite amount of suffering. When you know the pain is coming to an end, no matter how intense, you can endure it all the more. Like when you get a shot, you can bear the pain because you know it won’t last long.

2 Corinthians 4:17-1817 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

If you can face death, you can face whatever life throws at you. And Jesus holds the keys to death. He has defeated it. Nothing man can do to you can separate you from the love of God (Romans 8). The worst they can do is kill you. And then you are with the Christ you died for. “Jesus is worth dying for. And if he is worth dying for, then he is worth living for.”[8]

There was a disciple of the apostle John named Polycarp who is the first martyr for faith in Christ that we see outside of the Bible.[9] And his death gives evidence of the suffering and death that this letter to the church in Smyrna speaks of.[10] Polycarp was the pastor of the church in Smyrna. In AD 155 he was arrested, quickly tried, and put to death. “He was burned at the stake and then stabbed to finish the job.”[11] In his trial, when they asked him to swear by the fortune of Caesar, change his mind, and curse Christ, he said, “’Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’ The proconsul said, ‘I have wild beasts. I shall throw you to them, if you do not change your mind.’ But he said, ‘Call them.’”[12] When they threatened him with fire he said, “The fire you threaten burns but an hour and is quenched after a little; for you do not know the fire of the coming judgment and everlasting punishment that is laid up for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will.”[13] He then faced the fire without being shackled because He knew God would allow him to endure and what was awaiting him was life, not death.

Jesus promises His people life. (vs 11) Jesus refers here to the “second death.” What does that mean? Do you die after you die? Is Hell not real and instead there’s some form of annihilation, as some believe? Later in Revelation we see what this second death is. It is what Polycarp went through as he was dying, but it will last forever.

Revelation 20:14 – Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

The second death is a death that those who are thrown into the lake of fire will experience forever. This is the outcome for ALL those who are not in Christ. All those who haven’t received the free gift of salvation. Jesus says here in this letter, those who believed in him and lived like it, being faithful unto death, have no need to fear the punishment that is to come…the second death…and what happens when you don’t have death? You have life. That’s what Jesus purchased for and promises us. The choice is ours…life or death. Punishment or pardon.

This whole message and this letter to the church in Smyrna can be boiled down to these two statements: In Jesus, you don’t need to fear death, and you are given true life. If Jesus is worth dying for, He is worth living for.

To conclude, hear what William Ramsay said, and take it to heart.

“It costs to be a dedicated Christian, in some places more than others. As end-time pressures increase, persecution will also increase, and God’s people need to be ready (1 Pet 4:12). The world may call us “poor Christians,” but in God’s sight we are rich!”[14]

[1] Tertullian, Apology, De Spectaculis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1960), 227.

[2] James M. Hamilton, Jr., Revelation, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 74.

[3] Hamilton, Revelation, 76.

[4] G. K. Beale, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2015), 61.

[5] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2007), 1041.

[6] Hamilton, Revelation, 78.

[7] Jimmy Draper and Donna McKinney, Revelation: The Letters to the Seven Churches, January Bible Study 2019 (Nashville: Lifeway Press, 2018), 36.

[8] Hamilton, Revelation, 80.

[9] Daniel L. Akin, Exalting Jesus in Revelation, Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary (Nashville: B&H, 2016).

[10] William M. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1979), 273.

[11] Akin, Exalting Jesus in Revelation, 50.

[12] Akin, Exalting Jesus in Revelation, 51.

[13] Cyril C. Richardson, ed., “Martyrdom of Polycarp,” in Early Church Fathers, trans. Massey Hamilton Shepherd Jr., First Touchstone edition (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 153.

[14] William M. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1979).


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