Sermon preached on July 17, 2011 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2011. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at http://www.cantonnewlife.org/.
Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.
Last February I was surprised by a headline in a newspaper that said, "Children Swimming With Polar Bears". When I went to the article I couldn't believe it because it looked like two young children were in a pool swimming just inches from two polar bears. My heart sank when I saw it because the first reaction was that the children must have been in mortal danger. Polar bears are ferocious creatures that could kill a child in an instant. The newspaper article contained another picture that showed a young girl swimming happily in the pool with a bear.
But what you couldn't seen in the pictures was a wall of shatterproof Plexiglas that was installed in the middle of the pool, dividing the children's part from the polar bear's part. The Plexiglas is 2 inches thick and was designed to withstand anything polar bears could throw at it. The children were perfectly safe. The pool was an initiative at Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat in Cochrane, Ontario. It offers visitors, including children, the opportunity to come face to face with world's largest land predator—the polar bear. The pictures of the children with the polar bears are disturbing, even when you know the Plexiglas is there—because they show the polar bears looking at the children.
But the children were perfectly safe. The illusion of danger was false. The children are actually in a heated wading pool that is open to the public from May to October. The kids were having a great time. On one of the web sites they even had a video of the kids, laughing, giggling and splashing next to the polar bears. They were in no danger at all.
That's the way it is for those who are in Jesus. You are absolutely safe. Although there were dangers all around the Christians at Smyrna, although some of them were going to be put in prison, although some of them were possibly going to be killed—they had absolutely nothing to fear. That's the message of our text. Jesus said to the Christians in Smyrna,
"Do not be afraid of
what you are about to suffer.
I tell you, the devil will put
some of you in prison to test you,
and you will suffer persecution
for ten days. Be faithful,
even to the point of death,
and I will give you the crown of life.
He who has an ear,
let him hear what the Spirit
says to the churches.
He who overcomes
will not be hurt at all
by the second death."
The main thing you should realize from our text is
how safe you are in Jesus. There is no need for you to fear death or anything that man can do you to you.
Jesus tells us here about the absolute safety of His people. It's just like when Jesus sent out the 72 and they returned to Him with joy and said, (Luke 10:17–20)
"Lord, even the demons
submit to us in your name."
"I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority
to trample on snakes and scorpions
and to overcome all the power
of the enemy;
nothing will harm you."
There are two things that Jesus tells them that show the safety of His people. First He tells us that they will receive the crown of life. Second, He tells them that they will not be hurt at all by the second death. I believe these two things refer the two different aspects of death—physical death and the lake of fire—and show us that we don't have to fear either.
Let's look at both of these things.
First of all, the crown of life.
What is the crown of life?
Revelation 20:4-6 helps us here because it is closely related to our text. Meredith Kline points out several parallels between the two sections of Scripture. Revelation 20, like our text, speaks of martyrdom. Both mention the devil. Although Revelation 20 doesn't speak of crowns, it does mention of thrones, which is very closely related. Revelation 20 also refers to the mark of the beast, the mark without which no one can buy or sell. This reminds us of Smyrna and the poverty that came upon them because of their faithfulness to Jesus. They could not buy or sell. Revelation 20 also refers to the second death and how it has no power over those who have part in the first resurrection. Kline writes, (The First Resurrection. WTJ 37, 1975: 373-374)
'There is also the intriguing possibility of a relationship between the numerical symbols of the ten days of tribulation (2:10) and the thousand years of reigning (20:4, 6). The intensifying of ten to a thousand together with the lengthening of days to years might then suggest that the present momentary tribulation works a far greater glory to be experienced even in the intermediate state as the immediate issue of martyrdom."
All these parallels suggest that the same thing is in view in our text and in Revelation 20. Believers go through the same experience in both texts. If this is true, there are two possibilities.
One the one hand, it could be that what was happening in Smyrna prefigured what was going to happen to the church at large near the end time. In the future the church is going to undergo almost the same struggles and triumphs as the church at Smyrna experienced in the first century.
On the other hand, (and I think the true meaning), it could be that what happened to the Christians at Smyrna, (and other Christians throughout history) is described (in part) in Revelation 20. Thus, if we want to know what the crown of life means, we can go to Revelation 20:4 for the meaning. It says,
"I saw thrones on which were seated
those who had been
given authority to judge.
And I saw the souls of those
who had been beheaded
because of their testimony for Jesus
and because of the word of God.
They had not worshiped the beast
or his image and had not received
his mark on their foreheads or their hands.
They came to life
and reigned with Christ a thousand years."
But it doesn't matter which one of the two possibilities you decide is correct—the main lesson is the same—the crown of life denotes a royal crown and it shows that during the intermediate period (the time between the death of a Christian and the second coming) faithful Christians rule with Christ.
We may have an image of this in Revelation 4 as well. There we have a picture of the throne in heaven. Verse 4 says,
"Surrounding the throne
were twenty-four other thrones,
and seated on them were
twenty-four elders. They were dressed
in white and had
crowns of gold on their heads."
We're not sure who the 24 elders are. I think that they represent the church of the Old Testament and the New Testament—as in the Old Testament there were 12 tribes and in the New Testament we have 12 apostles. But that understanding is a little problematic because in Revelation 5:10 the elders seem to distinguish themselves from those whom God saved. While that's not a fatal objection but it has led other Christians to believe that the 24 elders refer to angelic beings who represent the saints. But in either case—the church is represented by the 24 elders. The elders have crowns of gold. They are sitting on thrones. They rule with Christ. That is our standing in Christ.
If this interpretation is correct, it would have been a great practical help to the persecuted Christians in Smyrna.
They were facing death and Jesus' words had great pastoral relevance for them. They did not have to fear martyrdom. Jesus is showing them that He has defeated death. For them, physical death was victory. They did not have to fear any aspect of death—death, in all its parts and fulness—had no real claim on them. It could not hurt them at all. They could die with confidence knowing that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord—reigning with Him. They could die knowing that they would immediately awake with the crown of life. Death for them was victory.
Paul A. Rainbow writes, (Millennium as Metaphor in John's Apocalypse. WTJ 58, 1996: 219)
"John is a master of paradox. Just as in the Fourth Gospel the humiliation of Jesus on the cross is his "glorification" (John 12:23), and in the Apocalypse the Christian martyrs are those who have "conquered" the beast (12:11; 15:2), so in 20:4–6 those who have lost all for the Lamb's sake have actually gained their lives. The scene in 20:4–6 presents in pictorial form the message of Christ to the church of Smyrna: "Do not fear what you are about to suffer…. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life…. He who conquers shall not be hurt by the second death" (2:10–11)."
Many Christians today seem to look down on the intermediate state. They're not at all like the apostle Paul who said, (Philippians 1:23–24)
"I am torn between the two:
I desire to depart and be with Christ,
which is better by far;
but it is more necessary for you
that I remain in the body."
Most Christians today aren't like that at all. If they get a terminal illness they want to be healed. They would rather live than die. There's part of that that is understandable. Human beings were never meant to die and have our body and soul separated. It is true that the intermediate state has something incomplete about it. Body and soul are separated. Paul even refers to this in 2 Corinthians 5:4 and says the intermediate state is one in which we will be 'unclothed'.
But the reality is that the intermediate state is glorious. Jesus promises those who are faithful a crown of life. The crown of life does not just refer to our eternal state after the final judgment—it is relevant for us the moment we die. When we die we receive a royal crown—we receive participation in the royal life of God. It is glorious.
The second aspect of the crown of life is—'life'.
It is a crown of 'life'. To get some idea of this life we need to look at Revelation 7:13–17. It says,
"Then one of the elders asked me,
'These in white robes—who are they,
and where did they come from?'
I answered, 'Sir, you know.' And he said,
'These are they who have come
out of the great tribulation;
they have washed their robes
and made them white
in the blood of the Lamb.
Therefore, 'they are
before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will spread his tent over them.
Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd; he will lead them
to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear
from their eyes."
The scene that we have there is of victorious saints being in God's presence to enjoy His presence in blissful peace and comfort. (Poythress, p. 119) Poythress writes,
"At the heart of blessing is the presence of God and the Lamb, and their care for the saints. The picture here anticipates the final peace of 21:1-4; 22:1-5."
Think of the best, the most enjoyable, the most fulfilling moments of your life, the pinnacle of happiness, joy, comfort and peace. Or think of the time when you've most felt God's presence and received a great blessing from that. Or think of the most satisfying moments you've experienced from working at something, figuring something out, accomplishing something—the pinnacle of fulfilled striving. Those moments will pale in comparison to the blessings you will enjoy when you are ushered into God's presence. With Him we will be fully satisfied. There we will experience a much greater measure of life—the life that Jesus spoke about in John 10:10,
"I have come that
they may have life,
and have it to the full."
Faithful Christian, the moment you die will be the moment you will experience life like you never experienced it before. You will receive a crown of life and find yourself participating in the royal life of God, ruling with Him. How blessed you will be.
The second thing we see from our text is that
the crown of life will prevent Christians from being harmed by the second death.
The second death refers to the lake of fire. It is what our sins deserve. In Revelation 20:10 we read that the devil will be cast into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. There they will be tormented forever and ever. Later in Revelation 20 we are told that death and Hades will be thrown into the lake of fire and that the lake of fire is the second death.
That fate is unspeakably horrible. But those in Jesus will not be hurt at all by the second death. Our final state is described in Revelation 21 and 22. How wonderful it is going to be. Revelation 21:1–7 says,
"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth,
for the first heaven and the first earth
had passed away,
and there was no longer any sea.
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem,
coming down out of heaven from God,
prepared as a bride
beautifully dressed for her husband.
And I heard a loud voice
from the throne saying,
Now the dwelling of God is with men,
and he will live with them.
They will be his people,
and God himself will be with them
and be their God.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
There will be no more death
or mourning or crying or pain,
for the old order of things has passed away.
He who was seated on the throne said,
'I am making everything new!'
Then he said, 'Write this down,
for these words are trustworthy and true.'
He said to me: 'It is done.
I am the Alpha and the Omega,
the Beginning and the End.
To him who is thirsty
I will give to drink without cost
from the spring of the water of life.
He who overcomes will inherit all this,
and I will be his God
and he will be my son.'"
Revelation 22:3–5 describes the new city. It speaks about the tree of life.
"No longer will there be any curse.
The throne of God and of the Lamb
will be in the city,
and his servants will serve him.
They will see his face,
and his name will be on their foreheads.
There will be no more night.
They will not need the light of a lamp
or the light of the sun,
for the Lord God will give them light.
And they will reign for ever and ever."
Christians, how you should be rejoicing in Jesus.
How thoroughly Jesus has defeated Satan.
Jesus, by virtue of His death and resurrection, has defeated death and Satan. Paul A. Rainbow says that Revelation 20 is a, (Millennium as Metaphor in John's Apocalypse." WTJ 58 (1996): 221)
"graphic image of the utter subordination of demonic power to divine control during the present age, and its unique unveiling of the Church Triumphant."
Jesus rules. Praise Him. Thank Him for the glorious things He is going to do for you. Jesus fought with the forces of evil against us and emerged victorious. He has thoroughly defeated Satan and death. Hebrews 2:14–15 refers to His defeat of Satan. It says,
"Since the children have flesh and blood,
he too shared in their humanity
so that by his death he might destroy him
who holds the power of death
—that is, the devil—
and free those who all their lives
were held in slavery by their fear of death."
Death, too, has been defeated. This is made clear in 1 Corinthians 15. The whole chapter proves that. It will be enough to quote just a few verses, (verses 53–57)
"For the perishable
must clothe itself with the imperishable,
and the mortal with immortality.
When the perishable
has been clothed with the imperishable,
and the mortal with immortality,
then the saying that is written
will come true:
'Death has been swallowed up in victory.'
'Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?'
The sting of death is sin,
and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God!
He gives us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ."
Death has been defeated. Notice how it said that this perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable. Jesus now holds the keys of death and hades. G. K. Beale sums it up, (The Book of Revelation: p. 245)
"Christ's resurrection gave him power over the entire sphere of death (he now has "the keys of death and Hades," 1:18b), which enabled him both to bind the satanic prince of that realm and to protect his own people from its ultimate harmful effects."
This is one of the things that is brought to the fore in Revelation. You'll remember in chapter 1 Jesus declared, (Revelation 1:18)
"I am the Living One; I was dead,
and behold I am alive for ever and ever!
And I hold the keys of death and Hades."
Jesus introduced Himself to the church at Smyrna as, (Revelation 2:8)
"the First and the Last,
who died and came to life again."
Jesus has conquered death for us. He has triumphed over it. We have nothing to fear from it.
Lastly, for those of you who aren't Christians,
this means that unless you go to Jesus you're not going to receive a crown of life, you're not going to escape the second death.
It won't be life you'll experience, it won't be happiness, satisfaction, joy and peace—it will be the opposite of that—death, in all its parts and fulness. Your part will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Don't let that happen to you. Repent of your sins. Go to Jesus. Find life in Him.