If you’ve been following the refugee crisis in Europe you may have heard the name Izmir. It’s the third largest city in Turkey and is situated on the Aegean coast. Refugees have come from Syria to Izmir in their thousands and from there, have been finding any means possible to get across to Europe, or in many cases, just to get to the Greek Island of Lesbos.
Izmir is an ancient city that was originally called Smyrna, the second city addressed in a letter by the apostle John to seven churches in Western Turkey. It was the birthplace of one of the world’s richest men, Aristotle Onassis, but was also the home of Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna in the second century, who according to tradition died a martyr.
This post is the second in the series based on John’s letter to the seven churches. You can read what he said to the church in Smyrna here.
As with each of the letters, John begins by telling us something about the character of Jesus. “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.”
To a church that was suffering persecution, this was a very powerful introduction. This message is from Jesus himself, the first and the last. The beginning and the End. The Alpha and the Omega. The Smyrnan church had seen religious fads come and go. Smyrna was one of the first cities to engage in the worship of Roman emperors. They had seen the worship of Greek gods and goddesses. But Jesus, John reminds them, is the first and the last. What they needed was constancy and stability in a changing, and frightening environment.
On an earlier occasion John had written in what has become known as John’s Gospel. It started with these words: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”
Now at the beginning of his letter to the seven churches, John says: “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him; even those who pierced him; and all peoples on earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen. I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Jesus is God. He is the creator of the world. He is the beginning and he will return at the end to bring all things to fruition. The message to the church in Smyrna in the face of persecution was first of all a reminder that despite the poverty caused by the opposition they were receiving, they were rich in Jesus. Secondly they were told not not be afraid, and thirdly the call was to be faithful.
The message of John to the seven churches is a message of hope that Jesus is coming and that there will be a victor’s crown for those who are faithful to him.
He finishes his letter to the church in Smyrna in a similar way to each of the churches. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Listen up, Church. Then he concludes by saying: The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.
Hang on, what’s the second death? Perhaps this had been part of John’s teaching that was already known by the church in Smyrna, but we don’t become aware of it until we get to Revelation 20 where it says: “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”
This is a very graphic and frightening depiction of the end times, but the message of John’s letter is not a message of fear, but the promise of victory. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.
The church in Smyrna is facing persecution that will lead to imprisonment and even death. Yet Jesus comes to them: Jesus, the First and the Last, who died and came to life again and says: I know your afflictions … I know about the slander … Do not be afraid.
There is victory for those who confess and repent of their sins, receive his gift of love and forgiveness, and continue as faithful followers. And the promise is that these will not be hurt at all by the second death. That’s great news.
This is the second in a series I have been preaching through at Maida Vale Baptist Church entitled, Listen Up, Church”, based on Revelation 1-3.