A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 2:8-11
A question I was asked with surprising frequency when I served as a pastor was, “Why didn’t Adam and Eve die when they ate the fruit? Didn’t God say they would?” Seems pretty clear, right?
“And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.'” (Gen. 2:16-17)
He said “when you eat from it,” right? Not, “If you eat from it, someday you’ll die.” Not, “If you eat from it, you could die at any time.” No, “When you eat from it you will certainly die.” When. At that moment. That instant. Right? Did God forget he said that? Did he chicken out? Is he like one of those parents that issue over-the-top threats of penalties for disobedience to their kids (e.g. “If you ask, ‘Are we there yet?’ one more time I am going to take away all of your toys FOREVER'”) and then realize they can’t possibly follow through, and subsequently their kids learn to ignore them? Is that what God is like? Did he just change his mind? Did he realize he was being a little hasty before, and decided to take it down a notch?
No. God did exactly what he said he was going to do.
But death isn’t mainly what happens when your heart stops beating and your neurons stop firing. Death isn’t mainly a physical event. Death is mainly a spiritual event. Physical life and death are merely shadows and pointers toward the truest forms of life and death, which are spiritual. According to Scripture, just because you’re breathing doesn’t mean you’re alive. Not in the truest sense. And just because your heart stops doesn’t mean you’re dead. Not in the deepest sense (cf. Rom. 5:12-21).
That idea of death and life is at work in God’s message to the church at Smyrna. God, through John, is encouraging them to persevere through the attacks and persecution of their opponents, who in this case are people claiming to be Jews. But John makes it clear—as Paul did on several occasions (see Romans 2:28-29 and 9:6)—that they’re not really Jews at all (v. 9). Being born into a Jewish family doesn’t make a person Jewish. Only being born (again) into God’s family through faith in Jesus can make a person a true Jew. These “so-called Jews” who are persecuting the believers in Smyrna aren’t truly Jews at all because they are attacking the followers of the Jewish Messiah. Which is why God calls them a “synagogue of Satan” (v. 9). They’re certainly not Satan-worshipers. But in aiding and organizing the persecution of followers of Christ, they have become a group of people in league with Satan.
The believers will be under attack from this group (and likely others) for “ten days,” a symbolic period of time drawn from Daniel 1:12-15. Revelation is constantly alluding to Daniel, Ezekiel and others, and this is a great example. The “ten days” recalls Daniel and his three friends’ time of intense and painful testing to reveal whether they would remain faithful in suffering, or would compromise with pagan religions. God is essentially posing the same questions to the believers at Smyrna: Will you remain faithful through suffering? Or will you take the easy road of compromise? Will you trust me even when it hurts? Or will you mix and match ‘gods’ and beliefs to suit your own needs and comfort?
How they answer that question will have eternal ramifications. As it will for us.
God says to them, and to us, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.” (v. 11)
The second death. That’s the one that counts. N.T. Wright explains:“There are, it seems, two forms of death. The first is the bodily death to which all will come except the generation still alive when the Lord returns. Jesus has already passed that way, and those who belong to him can know that he will first welcome them on the other side and then, at the end, raise them to new life in his final new world. But the ‘second death’ is the ultimate fate of those who steadfastly and deliberately refuse to follow Jesus, to worship the one God who is revealed in him. This ‘second death’ will, it seems, do for the entire personality what the ‘first death’ will do for the physical body.” (Revelation for Everyone, 18).
In other words, the “first death”—what happens when your heart stops beating and your brain stops sending signals—is pretty inconsequential. We tend to make a huge deal out of it. But it is significant only as a time marker. What happens before that moment in time determines what will happen after that moment in time. That’s it.
Those who persevere in faith and faithfulness to Christ before that time marker will not be touched by the second death. The final death. The death that entered the world with Adam’s sin. But those who make up their own god to worship—a god made to their liking; a god that doesn’t have a timeless will; a god whose standards merely mirror the standards of whatever time and culture we happen to live in; a god made in our image… They will find themselves swallowed up by the second death. And that’s the one that counts.
So, may we refuse to worship a god of our own making. May we drink deeply of the life that flows only from the God Who Is. May we trust and treasure Christ. May we follow him alone, and not ask him to follow us. May we trust that his sacrifice on our behalf is alone and entirely sufficient to endear us to God. And as his sons and daughters through Christ, may we enjoy life. Life forever. Life for real.