Thursday morning at our Pastor’s Retreat our speaker, Rev. Kim Smith, DS of the Iowa district, spoke from this passage and shared some very personal experiences describing times of suffering that he had experienced in his own ministerial career. I won’t share those details, but the topic really brought to my mind the place of suffering in a Christian’s life. And John’s experience as described in this beginning chapter of the Book of Revelation certainly points to some critical realities in our Christian walk.
We sometimes are guilty of trying to sugarcoat the picture of the life of a Christian, suggesting that if we have enough faith, we will never be discouraged or will never have any problems or will never be stressed out. We interpret songs like “Sweeter Every Day” in a way that ignores the reality of what life is really all about.
But John the Apostle reminds us that life isn’t always easy and sweet. Sometimes it can be pretty harsh. Let’s look at this passage:
I. A COMPANION IN SUFFERING
a. John using the words, “your brother and companion in the suffering …” identifying a kindred spirit among fellow Christians. This idea of suffering seems to be very prominent in the New Testament. And the idea of “companions in suffering” causes me to pause and consider John’s companions. And my mind is immediately drawn to the 12 Apostles whom Jesus had chosen and who were trained to be leaders in the Church Age.
b. We know what happened to Judas Iscariot, but what happened to the other Apostles of Jesus? One sources gives this account of each of their demises:
• Simon, AKA Peter: Simon-Peter, who was appointed by Jesus the leader of the new sect, is viewed by Roman Catholics as the first pope, was eventually martyred in Rome during the reign of the emperor Nero. As the story goes, Peter asked to be crucified upside down, so that his death would not be the equal of Jesus and the Romans supposedly obliged.
• Andrew: According to 15th Century religious historian Dorman Newman, Andrew—the brother of Peter—went to Patras in western Greece in 69 AD, where the Roman proconsul Aegeates debated religion with him. Aegeates tried to convince Andrew to forsake Christianity, so that he would not have to torture and execute him. But when that didn’t work, apparently he decided to give Andrew the full treatment. Andrew was scourged, and then tied rather than nailed to a cross, so that he would suffer for a longer time before dying. Andrew lived for two days, during which he preached to passersby.
• James (son of Zebedee, AKA James the Greater): Acts 12:1-19 says that James was killed with a sword. The newly-appointed governor of Judea, Herod Agrippa, decided to ingratiate himself with the Romans by persecuting leaders of the new sect. After James was arrested and led to place of execution, his unnamed accuser was moved by his courage. He not only repented and converted on the spot, but asked to be executed alongside James. The Roman executioners obliged, and both men were beheaded simultaneously.
• Philip: Philip, the first of Jesus’ disciples, became a missionary in Asia. Eventually, he traveled to the Egyptian city of Heliopolis, where he was scourged, thrown into prison, and crucified in 54 AD.
• Bartholomew: Bartholomew supposedly preached in several countries, including India, where he translated the Gospel of Matthew for believers. In one account, “impatient idolaters” beat Bartholomew and then crucified him, while in another, he was skinned alive and then beheaded.
• Thomas: Apparently Thomas preached the gospel in Greece and India, where he angered local religious authorities, who martyred him by running him through with a spear.
• Matthew: According to legend, the former tax collector turned missionary was martyred in Ethiopia, where he was supposedly stabbed in the back by an swordsman sent by King Hertacus, after he criticized the king’s morals.
• James (son of Alphaeus, AKA James the Less): [James]… one of the longest-lived apostles, perhaps exceeded only by John. At the age of 94, he was beaten and stoned by persecutors, and then killed him by hitting him in the head with a club.
• Thaddaeus, AKA Lebbaeus, Judas or Jude: According to several stories, he was crucified at Edessa (the name of cities in both Turkey and Greece) in 72 AD.
• Simon the Canaanite AKA the Zealot: Simon preached in Mauritania on the west coast of Africa, and then went to England, where he was crucified in 74 AD.
• John: John was the only one of the original disciples not to die a violent death. Instead, he passed away peacefully in Patmos in his old age, sometime around 100 AD.
–Taken from http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/killing-jesus/articles/how-did-the-apostles-die
c. While accounts of the deaths of the Apostles vary, they all agree that John’s Apostle Companions all died violent deaths. And, no doubt, there were many difficult times prior to their deaths. And, if we didn’t know better we might think that John got off easy. But Historians tell us otherwise. After Peter along with many other Christians was martyred under the orders of the Roman Emperor Nero, and the subsequent burning of Rome that Nero tried to blame on the Christians, Nero fled and committed suicide. Emperor Domitian succeeded him and continued the persecution of all those who refused to worship him as a god. He learned that John the Apostle was in Ephesus and he ordered him arrested and brought to Rome. Domitian determined to execute John by having him lowered into a vat of boiling oil. Now, I am told that oil boils at 3times as hot of temperature as water. Somehow, miraculously, John survived. We don’t know what other indignities John suffered, but as the Book of Revelation begins we are told that he was at that moment living in exile on the Isle of Patmos. The Romans used this island as a penal colony for political prisoners. We are told that it was essentially a lava covered desolate and rugged place. And that is where John was. And some sources believe that this was where John eventually died. It was a place of torment for a man who would have been in his late 90s whose punishment was “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”
d. So where is the “sweeter as the days go by” in the lives of these men of God? What did Jesus promise? In the last discourse of Jesus before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus said to his disciples in John 16:33, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Troubles will come. Life will be difficult at times. And remember how James and John came to Jesus and asked that they be allowed to sit at his side when his kingdom was established? In Mark 10:38-40 we read, 38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” 39 “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” What was the cup? It was the cup of suffering and death. James became the first of the Apostles to be executed. And John we know about…
e. There are so many examples of those early Christians enduring trials and suffering. In Acts 5:41, after the disciples had been called before the Sanhedrin and flogged because of their preaching, we read, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” And Paul who was called “The Apostle to the Gentiles” gives a long list of his sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11. In 2 Corinthians 1:8 he makes this statement, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.”
f. These are just examples of those “Companions in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance…” And John was truly at a dark place in his life—tortured and tormented by a pagan government, forced to live in a hostile and almost unlivable place, and probably suffering in his body from the abuses he had experienced earlier, and now nearly 100 years old and knowing that the end was near. Our speaker this week kept reminding us that the resurrection only comes after death—and Lazarus was dead 4 days before he was raised to life again! John must have thought he was close to that 4th day!
II. THE BENEFITS OF SUFFERING
a. Over the centuries there has been much debate and books written about the problem of Suffering. Why does a Good God allow His people to Suffer? I would be foolish to think I could give you a perfect answer to a question with which scholars still struggle. But there are some insights in the scripture that point us in the right direction. In Romans 5: 3-5 Paul wrote, “3 Not only so, but we[a] also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” In Hebrews 2: 9 & 10 we read, “…But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because He suffered death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting for God, for whom and through whom all things exist, to make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
b. Andrae Crouch in his song, “Through It All” said it well:
I’ve had many tears and sorrows,
I’ve had questions for tomorrow,
there’s been times I didn’t know right from wrong.
But in every situation, God gave me blessed consolation,
that my trials only come to make me strong. I thank God for the mountains,
and I thank Him for the valleys,
I thank Him for the storms He brought me through
For if I’d never had a problem,
I wouldn’t know God could solve them,
I’d never know what faith in God could do. Through it all,
through it all,
I’ve learned to trust in Jesus,
I’ve learned to trust in God.
Through it all,
through it all,
I’ve learned to depend upon His Word.
III. THE PATIENT ENDURANCE OF SUFFERING.
a. John was at a low point from all outward appearances. How did he cope with this? Verse 10 gives us the answer: “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit…” What do you do on the darkest days of your life? Do you withdraw from the world and from the church and hide in a corner somewhere? Do you join the song of despair, “Gloom, despair and agony on me”? Do you have a major pity party? Do you blame God for your troubles and declare Him as unkind or unjust? John chose instead to “be in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.” And look what happened: He wrote, “I heard behind me a loud voice… [and] I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me.” (Verses 10 & 12). I’m not sure what John was looking at. It may have been the barren landscape. It may have been at the scars from the burns on his skin. It may have been at all the troubles he had been enduring. But whatever it was he was seeing, the voice he heard came from behind him. And it was the voice of Jesus—who knew exactly where John was and exactly what John was experiencing. And in the midst of a dark time in John’s life, we see that Jesus was right there with him! And in that moment, John chose to stop looking at whatever he had been looking at, and he turned around and saw Jesus! And, Jesus gave him this great book of prophecy that has captured the imaginations of people ever since as we think of the coming of Christ and the End of this Age.
This morning I don’t want to misrepresent what it means to be a Christian. There is peace and joy that God gives to us. There are blessings far beyond what we deserve. But there are also dark days. There will be times when people misunderstand you, disagree with you, get mad at you, turn against you. There will be times when like Paul the pressures of life seem far beyond our ability to endure. But we are not alone. Like John, we are brothers (and sisters) in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus…”
In those dark days, keep your faith. Remember Lazarus was dead 4 days before he was resurrected! And remember, when all is said and done, Jesus told John, “I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
It isn’t our circumstances that have that last say. It is Jesus. Know that He will keep His Word!