Sermon Text: Revelation 2:8-11
Date: September 24 & 25, 2016
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
Revelation 2:8–11 (EHV)
8 To the messenger of the church in Smyrna write:
The First and the Last, who was dead and came to life again, says this:
9 I know your suffering and your poverty—but you are rich. And I know the blasphemy that comes from those who say they are Jews but are not; rather, they are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear anything that you are about to suffer. Look, the Devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you will be tested, and you will suffer for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.
11 Whoever has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.
The First and the Last Protects Us
1. This world has nothing for us
2. Death can do nothing to us
When you own a car and you have a “bumper to bumper” warranty, what does that imply? Theoretically, it should be that from the front bumper to the back bumper and everything in between is covered from any defects or malfunction (although, we probably still do well to read the fine print of what is covered and what isn’t). But the idea is that from the front to the back of the car, everything is guaranteed.
Jesus describes himself as the “First and the Last” in our lesson this morning. Elsewhere Jesus uses the same idea when he calls himself the Alpha and the Omega, or in English we might say, the A and the Z. Jesus always has been and always will be. He encompasses all things. That means from the start of our lives to the end he is there to protect. That means that no moment of our lives is outside of his jurisdiction and his ability to help and intervene. There is no sin that he has not died for. There is no moment that we can find ourselves outside of him. And unlike that warranty of that new car, there’s no fine print to review or be concerned about. His promises are all-encompassing, eternally applicable, and irrevocable.
Near the end of the 1st century AD, the Christians living in the city of Smyrna (known today as Izmir in western Turkey), were going through some struggles. As Jesus directs the apostle John to write letters to seven different churches at the beginning of the book of Revelation, the Christian congregation in Smyrna is one of the seven. This letter has the unique attribute of being the only letter in which Jesus offers no criticism got his people, but only encouragement. Jesus reminds that that as the First and the Last, he is able to and in fact will provide everything they need for time and for eternity.
We don’t know all of what was going on in Smyrna, but we can make some assumptions based on the encouragement Jesus gives. He says, “I know your suffering and your poverty—but you are rich. And I know the blasphemy that comes from those who say they are Jews but are not; rather, they are a synagogue of Satan.” These Christians were going through a number of trials, not the least of which was their poverty. They were perhaps just barely surviving, worldly speaking, and they were being harassed by some people who were perhaps trying to force them to live according to their moral standards rather than God’s. They were being berated and people were harsh with them, but this harshness came from Satan himself.
Jesus goes on: Do not fear anything that you are about to suffer. Look, the Devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you will be tested, and you will suffer for ten days. Not only harassment and slander, but prison time was going to come as well, perhaps largely because of their faith. Jesus tells them that they don’t need to worry because their suffering will only last for “ten days.” Numbers and lengths of time in the book of Revelation, as in other prophetic books of the Bible, are often used symbolically. 10, throughout Revelation, is a number of completeness, and days are a short length of time (compared to months or years). So Jesus is not saying that they would be in jail for ten, 24-hour days. But rather, that their suffering would have a finite end, and in the end, it would not be too long. The one who is the First and the Last would see them through this short suffering from beginning to end.
Perhaps if they had just acquiesced to the world’s demands, be it this so-called “synagogue of Satan” or others around them, they might have been better off, worldly speaking. Maybe their poverty was the result of persecution for their faith, so they would have more financial and professional success if they just tossed Christ aside and lived as the world lived.
But the Christians in Smyrna recognized that the world had nothing for them. The one who is the First and the Last was providing everything they actually needed, from the start to the finish of their lives. They were looking beyond this life to eternal life. They didn’t need worldly riches or comfort. They didn’t need to live harassment-free lives, because something far greater was coming. At this late date in the 1st century AD, they might have already been familiar with and living by the apostle Paul’s words when he wrote to the Romans some 30 years earlier when he said, “I conclude that our sufferings at the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18, EHV). They had something far better coming and it would be foolish to give it up.
So too, if we exchange our faith for earthly riches or comfort, we become the rich man in Jesus’ parable. Worldly wealth does not exclude you from heaven, but if that is your focus or my focus, it detracts from what is truly important. As we were reminded of last week, no amount of money can buy forgiveness for our sins or buy eternal life. But we don’t need it to, because it’s already been given to us. The world has nothing for us that truly matters because all of this world’s riches will pass away. By comparison, God’s eternal riches will endure to forever. So we don’t need to worry about being rich or poor or somewhere in between. Like the Christians in Smyrna, whether by the world’s standards we are wealthy or poverty-stricken, we are eternally rich in Jesus.
That eternally wealth means that we do not need to fear anything. If we have a lot of worldly wealth, maybe that alleviates a lot of fear. If we’ve got a lot of money in the bank, we might not need to worry where food, clothing, or shelter are going to come from. We might not have to be concerned if the car breaks down or medical bills come in. But all of that has a limit. We could lose all of our earthly wealth in a scam or a poor investment or a robbery or fire. But eternal wealth is permanent—and it also makes us permanently safe. Our lives are covered, “bumper to bumper.”
Death is the ultimate equalizer, right? Lazarus and the rich man differed about as much as two people possibly could in this life, but they both still died. All people to one degree or another fear death, or at least fear the unknown of the process of dying. Very likely, it’s not going to be pleasant.
For the Christians in Smyrna, it seems maybe the persecution they faced was going to ramp up considerably, and perhaps would even include being killed for their faith. But what assurance does Jesus give to them? Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.
They did not need to fear what people could do to them, because eternal life was waiting for them. It wasn’t worth giving up on Jesus to save your skin in this life because it wouldn’t be all that long until eternal life would come. Here, forsake Jesus and you’ve got maybe 70, 80, or 90 joyous years and then you have an eternity of hell. However, if you forsake the world, you’ve got maybe 70, 80, or 90 difficult, cross-laden years before entering into an eternity of joy without sin or pain or sorrow. The math doesn’t make any sense to do anything but be faithful.
Jesus assures us, He who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death. The “crown” Jesus promised earlier was often used in terms of an award for winning an athletic contest. Here he says those who are “victorious” will not be hurt at all by the second death. But ultimately, the victory he’s talking about isn’t our faithfulness or our dedication to our faith in spite of opposition. He’s talking about his own victory that he has won for us.
We can easily get wrapped up in how strong our faith is and how dedicated we are to our God. But that can easily miss the point entirely. The point isn’t you or your faith. The point is your Savior and what he’s done for you. He faced death head-on and came out victorious on the other side. And that victory was not to show us that it could be done. That victory was done for us. We couldn’t do it, but Jesus could. And he did it for us. Now, because our sins are gone, death can do nothing to us. The second death, which is hell, holds no terror for us because Jesus has removed our sins. We are his, now and forever. Nothing can hurt us. Nothing can remove us from him. We are eternally safe with our eternal Savior.
The First and the Last will protect from every attack all of our days until we are with him in eternal life. He is the “bumper to bumper” warranty on our lives. He is our eternal, all-encompassing Savior. He is with us today—eternal life is yours today. The second death cannot have you. The world has nothing for you. You have everything that you need, and so much more. Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; his mercy endures forever! Amen.