We often think of Revelation as a prophetic look at the second coming of Christ. We think of the judgment that awaits the world because “He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him” (Revelation 1:7). We tend to look at the promise of God’s wrath in horror, but also with a sense of relief that it will not fall on us.
But before the visions of the book of Revelation reveal the subject of God’s judgment against unrepentant sinners and the return of Christ, it opens with three chapters addressed to churches. Specifically, Christ dictates a message through the apostle John to the seven churches in Asia Minor: “Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and Laodicea” (Revelation 1:11).
Those were actual congregations located in towns throughout what we know today as Turkey, listed in an order that follows the ancient postal route. Each of these churches were founded as fruit of the apostles’ ministry (primarily Paul), with Ephesus serving as the mother church for all the others in that region. Toward the end of his life, John ministered in the church at Ephesus, giving him an intimate connection to all those congregations.
When the Lord delivered to him the Revelation, however, John was living in exile in a penal colony on the rocky island of Patmos.
On the night Christ was arrested, the Lord Himself had warned His disciples that persecution was coming: “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. . . . If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:18, 20).
It did not take long before persecution was in full force. The church faced opposition from the very beginning, initially from Israel’s religious leaders. Likewise, it endured the hostile suspicions of Rome. Roman culture was dominated by pagan and debauched religion. Christians could not fit in or partake of much that constituted everyday life in that wicked society. Moreover, Christianity simply made no sense to people steeped in Roman culture. The doctrine and practice of the early church was so utterly misunderstood that the Romans falsely accused Christians of cannibalism, incest, and other sexual perversions. Rumors spread that Christians were atheists and political dissidents because they would not worship Caesar as god. In AD 64, the Roman emperor Nero played on these long-held suspicions to distract from his own misdeeds. That year, when a fire devastated much of the city of Rome, the public suspected Nero was to blame. Nero shifted his deserved blame to the Christians, instituting an official campaign of persecution against them across the city and beyond. It continued throughout the rest of his reign. During that first wave of Roman persecution, both Peter and Paul were executed, along with countless others who were hunted down and slaughtered for sport.
Also during Nero’s reign, Rome waged a bloody war to suppress Israel’s hopes for independence. Nearly a thousand towns, villages, and settlements across Israel were burned to the ground, with their inhabitants massacred or scattered. In AD 70, Jerusalem was overthrown and the temple destroyed. What was once the capital city of God’s kingdom on earth was now in the total control of pagans.
Just over a decade later, Rome initiated another wave of persecution under the emperor Domitian. This second campaign against the church lasted longer—from AD 81 to 96—and extended throughout the empire. Rome’s assault on the church was organized and militarized. Thousands of Christians lost their lives while others were banished or fled. Historians tell us it was during this period that Timothy was clubbed to death. Tertullian—who was born about sixty years after the apostle John died—claimed that “the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile!”  Tertullian, On Prescription Against Heretics in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, trans., Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. (New York, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), 3:260. Lacking firsthand witness testimony, we needn’t insist on the veracity of that tradition, but it does accurately reflect the ferocity of Rome’s campaign against Christians. Nero was said to smear Christians with pitch or pine resin and bind them in papyrus or bundles of wood. Or he might crucify them on crosses soaked in creosote. He would then pierce their throats so they could not scream, and set them ablaze while still alive, using them as torches to illuminate his garden parties.  John Granger Cook, Roman Attitudes Toward the Christians: From Claudius to Hadrian (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 77–78. Cf. Tacitus, Annals, 15:44.
In Revelation 1:9, John tells us he was sentenced to the island prison of Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” Preaching the gospel was a crime punishable by death. Patmos is not at all the island paradise some might initially imagine. It’s actually a crescent-shaped rock jutting up out of the Aegean Sea, roughly ten miles long and five miles wide. In John’s day, it was a desolate, isolated place, nearly forty miles off the coast of Miletus, between Asia Minor and Athens. John’s sentence likely included the forfeiture of all his property and possessions, along with any civil rights he enjoyed under Roman law. Although he was living in exile, he was essentially given a death sentence, since he would spend the rest of his life doing hard labor in the quarries, with meager food and desperate living conditions. Already in his nineties, John could not have expected to survive for long on Patmos.
Like Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29, however, the physical pain John endured could not compare to his anguish over his beloved churches in Asia Minor and their defection from the authority of God’s Word. From the letters Christ dictated to the individual churches we know they were engaged in a variety of sinful behaviors, including sexual immorality, idolatry, and hypocrisy. They were tolerating sin and compromising with the pagan culture surrounding them. They willingly accommodated false teachers and even helped spread their heresy. In many ways, they were examples that would be emulated by churches in subsequent ages, including evangelical churches across the Western world today.
Twenty-five years before John’s vision on Patmos, the apostle Paul warned of the dangers facing the early church. He urged Timothy, “Do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:8). In verses 13–14, Paul charged him to “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me. . . . Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.”
Paul knew persecution and suffering would reach Timothy’s doorstep. He also knew how easy it would be to crumble and compromise when threatened with prison, torture, and death. Throughout his final epistle, he sought to prepare his young apprentice for future trials. He continued in chapter 2:
Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. . . . Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 2:1, 3)
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. (2 Timothy 2:15–17)
Flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness. . . . But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations. (2 Timothy 2:22–23)
Paul’s concern wasn’t just for Timothy, but for the whole church. He understood the spiritual threats that loomed on the horizon for God’s people:
In the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these. . . . But evil men and imposters will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2 Timothy 3:1–5, 13)
Throughout his ministry, the apostle Paul carefully warned about the danger of succumbing to false teachers and the need to be vigilant and discerning in the face of their threat.
Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting. (Romans 16:17–18)
But he also understood that the fight to maintain the doctrinal and moral purity of the church is not exclusively external—that plenty of threats come from within as well:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:3–4)
As he prepared to leave the Ephesian church, Paul gave the elders there a vivid warning to guard the flock God had entrusted to them:
I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert. (Acts 20:29–31)
Not thirty years later, that church had drifted from their love for Christ into empty piety, while several of the surrounding congregations had succumbed to some of the very corruptions Paul warned of.
As the oldest surviving apostle, John had lived long enough to see many of his beloved churches in Asia Minor succumb to Paul’s prophetic words. And now he was going to receive a call for their repentance from the Lord of the church.
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