Someone in Costa Rica asked me to preach about “John in Patmos.” And I realized that, it’s an excellent subject for bored, shut-in, and isolated people during COVID!
First, a little background. John wrote that he was on the island of Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev. 1:9b). Patmos was a small island, at a distance of 100 kilometers by sea from Ephesus, which had been the center of John’s ministry for many years.
To be exiled, shipped off to a small and remote island (in Latin the sentence was called deportatio in insulam, “deportation to an island”) was a penalty typical in the Roman Empire, for men – women received other punishments. For its victims, it involved separation from one’s people, family, and country; a punishment of isolation, separation, and shame.
Of course, it was a relatively light sentence: the worst was crucifixion, and tradition says that Andrew and Peter were put on the cross. And deportation to an island was a nuisance to carry it out, since it involved transport, many soldiers, food, supplies. That’s why deportatio was reserved for special cases: when a man was a political danger, but not violent; for a popular man whose death would cause public uproar; and also for men who taught “superstition” (and so the Romans defined Christianity). An island was a natural prison, because no one was going to swim 100 km to escape; the few who did try might hire someone with a boat.
And so John was stuck on Patmos, an island of 35 square kilometers: that is, one could walk its length in a single afternoon.
John had already done much in his life and was elderly, in his 80s at least. After Jesus’ resurrection, he had served 60 plus years, for the most part in the city of Ephesus; there he directed the regional churches and wrote a gospel and epistles. According to tradition he went to Patmos for a couple of years and then was released. He returned to Ephesus and died there.
So, what did the Apostle do in Patmos? Retire from ministry? Not at all! For God had a plan for him, just as he has a plan for all of us.
God had a plan for John on Patmos; I suggest two applications that are especially relevant in this year of COVID.
Patmos and COVID – Application #1: Writing the Book of Revelation
God’s plan for John, principally, was to write a book, to hand on to his people a blessing. Today we hear some Christians say, “Revelation scares me, I don’t want to read it!” Well, if a believer is afraid of the book, he probably misunderstands it. Revelation challenges us, encourages us, represses us, yet it must not frighten us.
What is the theme of Revelation? Is it to reveal the future; to foresee the antichrist; to describe pestilences and signs? Yes, but, there’s a deeper goal. The word “revelation” comes from the Greek apokalupsis; that is why in some Bible translations it is titled “The Apocalypse.” And God’s plan for John was to reveal Christ himself. In the first chapter, John had a vision of Christ, which begins like this: “I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man…” (1:12-13).
The focus of this book is not the Devil, not the various beasts, but God on his throne and Christ the Lamb. I encourage you to read Revelation 4-5. (Or in fact, you can read the whole book in less than an hour and a half, or listen to a recording HERE). And it reveals the destiny of the people who are in Christ (in 19:6b-8) –
“Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.”
So, during a period of pandemic, one may live in terror; or one can receive the message of Christ’s revelation, that the King of creation is our “the Lord God Almighty,’ who was, and is, and is to come.” (4:8)
Patmos and COVID – Application #2: Meaningfulness, despite Isolation
In Patmos, John was isolated. Yes, he had interaction with the guards, and probably with the inhabitants of the island. We also can surmise that he was able to send his new book to Ephesus and the other cities of Asia via a messenger or messengers. However, he was disconnected with the churches. This must have been especially painful for the apostle, since his friends were going through difficult times: persecution, temptation, false doctrine. He could not preach, teach, advise, visit, travel to churches.
Today, due to COVID restrictions, we too experience isolation and boredom. And someone may fall into the idea that: I cannot serve the Lord as I have done, or as I will in the future. So, in this chapter of my life, God has set me aside! I may as well binge-watch Netflix.
However, look at what John says in Rev 1:6 – Jesus has made us “has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father” (See my articles on the subject: “The Universal Priesthood of the Believers” and “Me? A Priest?“). We are priests, on duty, no matter what pandemic is afoot.
Let’s compare the set-up in this age the priesthood under the old system. Back then, the priests were taken from one tribe, more accurately, a small sub-section of a tribe; they were male; at least 30 years old, and they were retired when they were 50 years old. And just maybe, a priest could serve in the Most Holy Place. For example, it says in Luke 1:8-9, about the father of John the Baptist: “Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.” Maybe it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him.
Not so for us in the New Covenant! No matter your race, your tribe, your gender, your age, your situation during COVID, you are now and always a priest. The Holy Spirit does not rest nor put us on a shelf. And God will gladly reveal to you, what is your sacred, priestly task, today or any day – it is only a matter of asking him.
“An Isolated Apostle – Can God still use him?” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor in New Testament, ESEPA Seminary, San Jose, Costa Rica