John, the author, was a famous man. He had been one of Jesus’ main disciples. He had travelled around the countryside, teaching people and helping them. He had done some miracles. He’s not dangerous or a threat to the government, except that he was preaching the kingdom of God. In Rome, there was no king but Caesar. We start to think it doesn’t pay to be the nice guy.
John is promptly arrested and shipped off to the rocky island of Patmos. It isn’t like Alcatraz, but it’s no Bahamas either. He had been a nice person, going about doing good things, honoring God with his life, and then this happens. Everything can go south pretty quickly, no matter who you are or what you are doing. We all know what this feels like: you feel deserted or betrayed, your hopes are thwarted, your momentum is stalled, and your goals have been chopped off. Psalm 23 says, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley…”
Here’s the point: When John was in exile, Jesus came and revealed himself. The truth translates to us: When we are in exile, Jesus comes to us and reveals himself to us. You may think that’s just a bunch of churchianity and cliché, but it’s because you haven’t learned to see with the right eyes. A candle in a lighthouse, with the right lens, can be seen for miles on a dark night. The lousy parts of life, with the right understanding (and I didn’t say “perspective”) can be the most revealing.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, a man who suffered severely in the Russian concentration camps of the Gulag, believes that the most significant consequence of his suffering was a renewed relationship with God. He wrote, “Formerly you never forgave anyone. You judged people without mercy. And you praised people with equal lack of moderation. And now an understanding mildness has become the basis of your uncategorical judgments. You have come to realize your own weaknesses—and you can therefore understand the weaknesses of others. Your soul, which formerly was dry, now ripens from suffering.”
Darkness and aloneness create more openness. When you stop to think about it, you can see far further in the night than in the day, because in the night you can see for light years. In the same way, there are things you can only see when you are down. It’s only when we’re down that other barriers are removed and certain “windows” are open. Now, not to be naïve, darkness and aloneness can create more a sense of lostness, too. That’s why we need understanding.
Jesus appeared to John that day, and many times after that. Some things just become more clear in exile, when you feel deserted, when your hopes are thwarted, your goals are chopped off, and your momentum is stalled. John tells us very clearly that because of his “night vision,” he knows what he saw, and it is true and reliable. What did he see? The Word of God and the testimony of Christ. Why do we need to know this? Because when the chips are really down, every evidence will be that God does not exist, that he doesn’t care, or that he has lost control. We are too easily deceived by our circumstances, and we misinterpret them. We cannot live by our eyes or our circumstances. In exile, with our eyes focused on Christ, we are actually able to perceive, and not just “see” (v. 2—“…to everything he saw…”).
As God’s kingdom (and all believers are God’s kingdom, v. 9), we are part of what God is doing in the world, no matter what our situation. He is our authority, and we follow his lead. As part of what he is doing, we share his values, and agree to his direction. As God’s kingdom, we belong to each other as sharers of a common identity, with a commitment to each other based on our commitment to the King. Our work is mutually beneficial because we are all serving the same Lord, targeting the same goal.
“Blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in.” (v. 3). You have to make this part of your life.