Revelation 1:9, “Stone Walls Do Not A Prison Make”

I, John, both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the island that is called Patmos for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.  

The title of this post is taken from a well-known phrase in the last stanza of a poem written by Richard Lovelace, an Englishman, in 1642.  He was in jail for opposing the idea that bishops should not have civil authority.  His poem has the viewpoint that, because of his love for a woman and her love for him, those who wine and dine festively, or the fish who swim in the sea, or the birds who soar through the air, didn’t enjoy the liberty he did.

While John certainly never knew this poem, he did know the liberty of which it speaks.  Though imprisoned himself, he had a freedom in spirit that the world knows nothing about.

Indeed, although the Lord could have brought it about any other way He chose, without John’s experience on Patmos, we might not have the Revelation.  It’s a testament that, in the words of Psalm 48:14, God will be our guide, even to death, though it wasn’t yet time for that for John.  Still, Psalm 23:4 indicates that the paths of righteousness of 23:3 may lead through the valley of the shadow of death.  Unless the Lord comes back first, they will lead through that valley.

Revelation 1:9 opens the second part of the chapter, which deals with the vision John saw that opens the book.  Verses 1-8 give us the verification of the truth, accuracy and authority of the book.

Our verses tell us –

What he was suffering:  tribulation.

Literally, “the tribulation,” that is, a particular one.

Perhaps a look at the mental and religious climate of the times might help us to understand this phrase.

“Religion” was the binding factor of ancient society, with each nation or region having its own gods.  Rome was faced with the fact that it was an international empire with a multitude of peoples, civilizations, languages, customs, histories and religions.  Rome tried to solve this problem and give a sense of unity to such diversity by personifying the State under the name of the goddess Roma.  Rome still tolerated other religions, although considering them to be inferior, seeing this as a logical and reasonable way to foster unity.  Rome felt that one more god, the imperial god, wouldn’t bother the polytheism of the day.  She even went so far as to recognize the unusual stubbornness of the Jews, who would not worship any god but theirs.  Gradually, however, the emperor became the focus of worship, with this finally become mandatory under Domitian, during whose reign John was imprisoned.

For a time, Christianity was viewed as merely another sect of Judaism and shared in Roman toleration, as we see in the life of Paul, who used his Roman citizenship more than once to his advantage.  Yet the violent hatred of the Jews for the “sect of the Nazarene” showed that these two beliefs differed radically.

Rome generally frowned on any club or society, viewing them with suspicion because of the ease with which such organizations could hide or foster unrest.  Clubs had to register, they could not have a leader and they could not meet more than once a month.  It’s doubtful that local assemblies of believers followed any of this.

There were several other puzzling aspects of this new belief, as well.  Christianity was neither a local or national religion, but spread rapidly among all the nations of the Empire.  Worse, it spread among all classes, even among the countless slaves, who were always a possible source of trouble.  At the same time, it wasn’t long before even members of the household of Caesar named the name of Christ, cf. Philippians 4:22.

Furthermore, Christians kept aloof from much of ordinary society.  The worst thing about them, though, the thing that finally led to their attempted destruction, was their absolute refusal to give the customary reverence to the Emperor.  To the Roman, this was no big thing; it was merely showing loyalty to the State.  We might call it “patriotism.”  The first-century Christian viewed it as an act of blasphemy, with a narrowness the Roman officials couldn’t understand, though the records show that they tried to reason with them.  It all boiled down, especially in the eyes of the Christian, but finally also to the Roman, if in opposite directions, to this:  Who is superior, Christ or Caesar?

As we mentioned above, emperor worship rose gradually.  Julius Caesar was the first to be deified after his murder in 4 BC, and his adopted son and heir was called “son of god.”  Emperors after him had varying attitudes toward this practice, most accepting it, though some didn’t take it very seriously.  Domitian was the first to demand divine honor and saw in Christianity a threat to his claim.  Serious, widespread persecution began during his reign.

It’s true that Nero had persecuted Roman Christians in about 64 AD, blaming them for the burning of Rome, but his persecution, though cruel beyond words, was confined to Rome and believers suffered for supposed crimes, not for their faith.  After Domitian had become Emperor, he executed his own cousin, Flavius Clemens, and banished his own wife, who was also his niece, Flavia Domitilla.  They had become Christians.

It was under the persecution by Domitian that John was sent to Patmos.  And we know that John suffered as a Christian because he was imprisoned for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.

I’m afraid we’re headed in that direction ourselves.

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