Through Death to Life

(Psalm 23, Psalm 135:15-18; Revelation 2:8-11)

What do you think of when I mention myrrh? It was one of the gifts offered by the wise men to Jesus and his parents, and as the carol “We Three Kings” reminds us each year, the perfume of myrrh was one of the smells of death. Myrrh and aloes were used in funeral preparations to make the body ready for burial; and during the Crucifixion, Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh to help ease the pain. Myrrh is strongly associated with suffering and death. Wondering why I’m talking about this? The Greek word for myrrh was “smyrna.”

Now, this is almost certainly a coincidence, but it was understood to be a significant one, because Smyrna was a city of suffering in both mythology and its history. In myth, it was connected with the story of Niobe, who mourned for her children (who were killed by Apollo and Artemis for her pride). In recorded history, as the Kingdom of Lydia was rising to the power that would make its King Croesus famed for his wealth, Smyrna fought them off for many years before they were finally overcome. In revenge, the Lydians destroyed the city. People continued to live there, but they were not allowed to rebuild the walls, mint coins, or do anything else that a city could do. It was over three centuries before the city of Smyrna was allowed to come back to life—and they did think of it as a resurrection, comparing their city to the mythical phoenix.

Another important point about Smyrna is that it was regarded as an unusually beautiful city (especially by Smyrnians, who loved to brag about it). They praised it for its harmonious architecture, rising symmetrically to its battlements, and then to the fortified top of Mount Pagus that rose behind the city. They used various images to express this, but their favorite was the crown; this became the primary symbol for the city, appearing on all its coins. It was not, however, a crown of life. When the city of Smyrna sought to honor one of its citizens, the highest honor it had to give was a crown—and in every case we know of, the crown was awarded posthumously.

Finally, it appears that the Jewish community in Smyrna was particularly unpopular, and particularly hostile toward the Gentiles of the city; this resulted in a stark division between Christians and Jews in Smyrna, with almost no Jewish converts, and exceptionally vicious persecution of the church by the local Jews. To give you an idea, when Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was burned alive a century later, some of the Jews actually went out on the Sabbath to gather fuel for the fire. Combine that with everything else that we’ve talked about, and you can see why the church in Smyrna was suffering.

Which makes it remarkable that Christ has no complaint against them, only praise and encouragement. They have been suffering, they are oppressed and poor, but they have remained faithful, and their hearts have not grown hard or cold; they have not lost their first love. There’s no major problem with the church, nothing big they have to address—they just need to be prepared to hold fast, because as bad as things have been for them, worse times yet are coming.

This is why he says in verse 10, “Do not fear.” You are going to suffer, but don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid, because the one who’s speaking to you is the first and the last, the one who died and came to life. He was there at the beginning, he’s already there at the end, and he’s here all along the way, all through life, every step. He is always present, always faithful, and he’s already faced the worst this world can possibly do to you. They can abuse you, they can torture you, they can kill you—he’s been through all of it, he knows it all well, and he knows what he’s asking you to bear, because he already bore all of it for you. You will not have to bear it alone, because he bears it with you.

And here’s the key: “Be faithful even to death”—not just up to that point, but all the way through it—“and I who died and came to life will give you the crown of life.” Here the echoes of culture ring loud. They could look out at their city, which had been destroyed and then reborn, which gave out crowns but only to be put on people’s tombs, and which had the power to take their lives, and know that they did not need to fear because someone far more powerful was on their side—the one who is Lord even of life and death. They did not need to fear because death was not the end, and did not mean defeat; even suffering and death were included and overcome in the plan of God.

This wasn’t a new thought. After all, the psalmist doesn’t say, “Even though you lead me near the valley of the shadow of death, you show me a way around it so I don’t have to pass through.” The thing is, though, a lot of people live as if God had made them that promise, and they don’t hear his word telling them otherwise. We see the reason for that in Psalm 135: we become like what we worship. What we put first in our lives is what we worship most truly, and when we set our hearts on things other than God—when what we want most and love most are things of this world—then we grow spiritually deaf and blind, because the things of this world cannot give sight, and cannot teach us to hear. That’s why these letters are addressed to “him who has an ear.

Being deaf to the voice and call of God is a terrible thing, but never more than when suffering comes—and it always does. We all pass through the valley of the shadow of death sometimes; for those who are there because they’ve wandered in by themselves, it’s a fearful place, with no certain hope and no clear direction. But if we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow and we know ourselves to be sheep of the Good Shepherd, then we have hope and we have a direction; we know that we’re only there because he has led us there, that he is guiding us through it each step of the way, and that he will lead us out the other side.

And yes, the time will come when the shadow will close around us completely, and we will finally emerge not into the light of this world, but into the life of the next; but for those who walk with Christ, even that is nothing to fear, for it is the final victory. Those who are faithful even to death share the victory and resurrection of Christ, and live to die no more; the one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. This is our promise through times of trial and tribulation; this is our hope in the face of our enemies.

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