"He that overcomoth shall not be hurt of the second death."— REV. ii. 11.
TWO of the seven Churches—viz., Smyrna, to which our text is addressed, and Philadelphia—offered nothing, to the pure eyes of Christ, that needed rebuke. The same two, and these only, were warned to expect persecution. The higher the tone of Christian life in the Church the more likely it is to attract dislike, and, if circumstances permit, hostility. Hence the whole gist of this letter is to encourage to steadfastness, even if the penalty is death.
That purpose determined at once the aspect of Christ which is presented in the beginning, and the aspect of future blessedness which is held forth at the close. The aspect of Christ is—" these things saith the First and the Last, which was dead and is alive;" a fitting thought to encourage the men who were to be called upon to die for Him. And, in like manner, the words of our text naturally knit themselves with the previous mention of death as the penalty of the Smyrneans' faithfulness.
Now, this promise is sharply distinguished from those to the other Churches by two peculiarities : one that it is merely negative, whilst all the rest are radiantly positive; the other that there is no mention of our Lord in it, whilst in all the others He stands forth with His emphatic and majestic " I will give" ; "7 will write upon him My new Name"; "J will make him a pillar in the temple of My God." The first peculiarity may partially account for the second, because the Giver is naturally more prominent in a promise of positive gifts, than in one of a merely negative exemption. But another reason is to be found for the omission of the mention of our Lord in this promise. If you will refer to the verse immediately preceding my text, you will find the missing positive promise with the missing reference to Jesus Christ: "I will give thee a crown of life." So that we are naturally led to link together both these statements when taking account of the hopes that were held forth to animate the Christians of Smyrna in the prospect of persecution even to the death; and we have to consider them both in conjunction now. I think I shall best do so by simply asking you to look at these two things: the Christian motive contained in the victor's immunity from a great evil, and the Christian motive contained in the victor's possession of a great good. "He shall not be hurt of the second death." "I will give thee a crown of life."
I. The Christian motive contained in the victor's immunity from a great evil.
Now, that solemn and thrilling expression " the second death" is peculiar to this book of the Apocalypse. The name is peculiar; the thing is common to all the New Testament writers. Here it comes with especial appropriateness, in contrast with the physical death which was about to be inflicted upon some members of the Smyrnean Church, But beyond that there lies in the phrase a very solemn and universally applicable meaning. I do not feel, dear brethren, that such a thing ought to be made matter of pulpit rhetoric. The bare vagueness of it seems to me to shake the heart a great deal more than any weakening expansion of it that we can give.
But yet, let me say one word. Then, behind that grim figure, the shadow feared of man that waits for all at some turn of their road, cloaked and shrouded, there rises a still grimmer and more awful form, " if form it can be called which form hath none." There is something, at the back of physical death, which can lay its grip upon the soul that is already separated from the body; something running on the same lines somehow, and worthy to bear that name of terror and disintegration: "the second death." What can it be? Not the cessation of conscious existence ; that is never the meaning of death. But let us apply the key which opens so many of the locks of the New Testament saying about the future, that the true and deepest meaning of death is separation from Him who is the fountain of life, and in a very deep sense is the only life of the universe. Separation from God; that is death. What touches the surface of mere bodily life is but a faint shadow and parable, and the second death, like a second tier of mountains, rises behind and above it, sterner and colder than the lower hills of the foreground. What desolation, what unrest, what blank misgivings, what peeling off of capacities, faculties, opportunities, delights, may be involved in that solemn conception, we never can tell here—God grant that we may never know! Like some seacreature, cast high and dry on the beach, and gasping out its pained being, the men that are separated from
God die whilst they live, and live a living death. The second is the comparative degree, of which the first is the positive.
Now, note again that immunity from this solemn fate is no small part of the victor's blessedness. At first sight we feel as if the mere negative promise of my text stands on a lower level than what I have called the radiantly positive ones in the other letters ; but it is worthy to stand beside these. Gather them together, and think of how manifold and glorious the dim suggestions which they make of felicity and progress are, and then set by the side of them this one of our text as worthy to stand there. To eat of the Tree of Life ; to have power over the nations ; to rule them with a rod of iron; to blaze with the brightness of the morning star ; to eat of the hidden manna ; to bear the new name known only to those who receive it; to have that name confessed before the Father and His angels; to be a pillar in the Temple of the Lord; to go no more out; and to sit with Christ on His throne :—these are the positive promises, along with which this barely negative one is linked, and is worthy to be linked: "He shall not be hurt of the second death."
If this immunity from that fate is fit to stand in line with these glimpses of an inconceivable glory, how solemn must be the fate, and how real the danger of our falling into it I Brethren, in this day it has become unfashionable to speak of that future, especially of its sterner aspects. The dimness of the brightest revelations in the New Testament, the unwillingness to accept it as the source of certitude with regard to the future, the recoil from the stern severity of Divine retribution, the exaggerated and hideous guise in which that great truth was often presented in the past, the abounding worldliness of this day, many of its best tendencies and many of its worst ones concur in making some of us look with very little interest, and scarcely credence, at the solemn words of which the New Testament is full. But I, for my part, accept them ; and I dare not but, in such proportion to the rest of Revelation as seems to me to be right, bring them before you. I beseech you, recognise the solemn teaching that lies in this thought, that this negative promise of immunity from the second death stands parallel with all these promises of felicity and blessedness.
Further, note that such immunity is regarded here as the direct outcome of the victor's conduct and character. I have already pointed out the peculiarities marking our text. The omission of any reference to our Lord in it is accounted for, as suggested, by that reference occurring in the immediately preceding context, but it may also be regarded as suggesting—when considered in contrast with the other promises, where He stands forward as the giver of heavenly blessedness— that that future condition is to be regarded not only as retribution, which implies the notion of a judge, and a punitive or rewarding energy on his part, but also as being the necessary result of the earthly life that is lived; a harvest of which we sow the seeds here.
Transient deeds consolidate into permanent character. Beds of sandstone rock, thousands of feet thick, are the sediment dropped from vanished seas, or borne down by long dried-up rivers. The actions which we often so unthinkingly perform, whatever may be the width and the permanency of their effects external to us, react upon ourselves, and tend to make our permanent bent or twist or character. The chalk cliffs at Dover are the skeletons of millions upon millions of tiny organisms, and our little lives are built up by the recurrence of transient deeds, which leave their permanent marks upon us. They make character, and character determines position yonder. As said the Apostle, with tender sparingness, and yet with profound truth, "he went to his own place" wherever that was. The surroundings that he was fitted for came about him, and the company that he was fit for associated themselves with him. So, in another part of this book, where the same solemn expression, "the second death," is employed, we read, "These shall have their part in .. . the second death ": the lot that belongs to them. Character and conduct determine position. However small the lives here, they settle the far greater ones hereafter, just as a tiny wheel in a machine may, by cogs and other mechanical devices, transmit its motion to another wheel at a distance, many times its diameter. You move this end of a lever through an arc of an inch, and the other end will move through an arc of yards. The little life here determines the sweep of the great one that is lived yonder. The victor wears his past conduct and character, if I may so say, as a fireproof garment, and if he entered the very furnace, heated seven times hotter than before, there would be no smell of fire upon him. "He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death."
II. Now note, secondly, the Christian motive contained in the victor's reception of a great good.
"I will give him a crown of life." I need not remind you, I suppose, that this metaphor of "the crown" is found in other instructively various places in the New Testament. Paul, for instance, speaks of his own personal hope of " the crown of righteousness." James speaks, as does the letter to the Smyrnean Church, of "the crown of life." Peter speaks "of the crown of glory." Paul, in another place, speaks of "the crown incorruptible." And all these express substantially the one idea. There may be a question as to whether the word employed here for the crown is to be taken in its strictly literal acceptation as meaning, not a kingly coronal, but a garland. But, seeing that, although that is the strict meaning of the word, it is employed, in a subsequent part of the letter, to designate what must evidently be kingly crowns—viz., in the fourth chapter— there seems to be greater probability in the supposition that we are warranted in including under the symbolism here both the aspects of the crown as royal, and also as laid upon the brows of the victors in the games or the conflict. I venture to take it in that meaning. Substantially, the promise is the same as that which we were considering in the previous letter, "I will give him to eat of the Tree of Life" ; the promise of life in all the depth and fulness and sweep of that great encyclopaedical word. But it is life considered from a special point of view that is set forth here.
It is a kingly life. Of course, that notion of regality and dominion, as the prerogative of the redeemed and glorified servants of Jesus Christ, is for ever cropping up in this book of the Revelation. And you remember how our Lord has set the example of its use when He said, "Have thou authority over ten cities." What may lie in that great symbol it is not for us to say. The rule over ourselves, over circumstances, the deliverance from the tyranny of the external, the deliverance from the slavery of the body and its lusts and passions, these are all included. The man that can will rightly, and can do completely as he rightly wills, that man is a king. But there is more than that. There is the participation in wondrous, and for us inconceivable, ways, in the majesty and regality of the King of kings and Lord of lords. Therefore did the crowned Elders before the throne sing a new song to the Lamb, who made redeemed men out of every tribe and tongue, to be to God a kingdom, and priests who should reign upon the earth.
But, brethren, remember that this conception of a kingly life is to be interpreted, according to Christ's own teaching of that wherein royalty in His kingdom consists. For heaven, as for earth, the purpose of dominion is service, and the use of power is beneficence. "He that is chiefest of all, let him be servant of all," is the law for the regalities of heaven as well as for the lowliness of earth.
That life is a triumphant life. The crown was laid on the head of the victor in the games. Think of the victor as he went back, flushed and modest, to his village away up on the slopes of some of the mountainchains of Greece. With what a tumult of acclaim he would be hailed! If we do our work, and fight our fight down here as we ought, we shall enter into the great city not unnoticed, not unwelcomed, but with the praise of the King and the pagans of His attendants. "I will confess his name before My Father and the holy angels."
That life is a festal life. The garlands are twined on the heated brows of revellers, and the fumes of the wine and the closeness of the chamber soon make them wilt and droop. This Amaranthine crown fadeth never. And the feast expresses for us the felicities, the abiding satisfactions withont satiety, the blessed companionship, the repose which belong to the Crowned. Royalty, triumph, festal goodness, all fused together, are incomplete, but they are not useless symbols. May we experience their fulfilment!
Brethren, the crown is promised not merely to the man that says, "I have faith in Jesus Christ," but to him who has worked out his faith into faithfulness, and by conduct and character has made himself capable of the felicities of the heavens. If that immortal crown were laid upon the head of another, it would be a crown of thorns ; for the joys of that future require the fitness which comes from the apprenticeship to faith and faithfulness here on earth. We evangelical preachers are often taunted with preaching that future blessedness comes as the result of the simple act of belief. Yes: but only if, and when, the simple act of faith, which is more than belief, is wrought out in the loveliness of faithfulness. "We are made partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm unto the end."
Now, dear friends, I daresay that some of yon may be disposed to brush aside these fears and hopes as very low motives, unworthy to be appealed to; but I cannot so regard them. I know that the appeal to fear is directed to the lower order of sentiments, but it is a legitimate motive. It is meant to stir us up to gird ourselves against the dangers which we wisely dread. And I, for my part, believe that we preachers are going aside from onr Pattern, and are flinging away a very powerful weapon, in the initial stages of religious experience, if we are afraid to bring before men's hearts and answering consciences the solemn facts of the future which Jesus Christ Himself has revealed to us. We are no more to be blamed for it than the signalman for waving his red flag. And I fancy that there are some of my present hearers who would be nearer the love of God, if they took more to heart the fear of the Lord and of His judgment.
Hope is surely a perfectly legitimate motive to appeal to. We are not to be good because we thereby escape hell and secure heaven. We are to be good, because Jesus Christ wills us to be, and has won us to love Him, or has sought to win us to love Him, by His great sacrifice for us. But that being the basis, men can be brought to build upon it by the compulsion of fear and by the attraction of hope. And that being the deepest motive, there is a perfectly legitimate and noble sphere for the operation of these two other lower motives, the consideration of the personal evils that attend the opposite course, and of the personal good that follows from cleaving to Him. Am I to be told that Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who went to his martyrdom, and was " faithful unto death," with the words on his lips: "Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me nothing but good; how shall I deny my King and my Saviour?" was yielding to a low motive when to him the crown, that the Master promised to the Church of which he was afterwards bishop floated above the head that was soon to be shorn off, and on whose blood-stained brows it was then to fall? Would that we had more of such low motives! Would that we had more of such high lives as fear nothing because they "have respect to the recompense of the reward," and are ready for service or martyrdom, because they hear and believe the crowned Christ saying to them: "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life."