"And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive; I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. 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. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death."
This is the letter to Smyrna, that Christian city of the ancient world, the one that up until the early 20th century was predominantly Greek and Christian city within the Ottoman Empire, until the Greeks were expelled during the Greek-Turkish war in the 1920s.
Here we see Christ reminding us that this world is still, as it was from the beginning, under the domination of an evil power, and that those who dedicate themselves to His service can expect persecution and suffering. This was written during some of the first persecutions under Nero and Diocletian, but it foreshadows some of the great persecutions that were to arise under the Roman Empire, and then under Muslim Ottoman rule.
But he promises, too, that those who "overcome" those persecutions will be rewarded. Not only will he save his people from death, but also from the second death, i.e. hell.
COnsider that phrase, "the second death". What a powerful, and chilling, description of hell and damnation. One of the things we fear most, as human beings, is death. Even animals would fear death to the extent they could understand it. Most of all, we fear death because it represents the cessation of what we can see as the tangible and visible signs of life. For all we know, it really is the end of our existence, the entrance into pure nonbeing, and even if it isn't, it is a great mystery. We fear it as we fear darkness, because we can't see beyond it. It represents the great unknown.
Christ promises us, and we have good reason to believe, that there is life beyond the grave. And not a shadowy ghost-life, either, but a life fuller and richer than the lives we live on earth. But he warns us, too, that just as life in heaven is better than earthly life could ever be, so hell will be worse than death could ever be. As bad as physical death is, the death of the soul is so much worse.
Christ ends this letter, though, not on a warning but on his promise. He didn't come to condemn the world, but to save it, and he wishes not that anyone should choose the second death, but that we all might "have life, and have it abundantly". For he is "the first and the last", in that beautiful phrase which will be echoed again at the end of the book. He has always existed, as the Logos, second person of the trinity, the object of His Father's love, and He will exist forever. And he has triumphed over sin, hell, and death.
Blessed be His kingdom, now and forever. Amen.
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