In the Isle of Patmos
April 9th, 1961 @ 10:50 AM
IN THE ISLE OF PATMOS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
4-09-61 10:50 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the eleven o’clock morning message entitled In the Isle That is Called Patmos. In the Revelation chapter 1 verse 9, “I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ” [Revelation 1:9].
The brother of Titus, the Roman Caesar, was named Domitian. Titus was that gifted general, the son of Vespasian, also a mighty man of war. Titus was the man who led in the destruction of Jerusalem when his father, Vespasian, was called to be the Roman Caesar. Titus was an able and wise ruler, but before his reign was extended, he died, and his brother Domitian ascended to the throne. Domitian was altogether unlike his father Vespasian and his brother Titus. Domitian was a bloodthirsty and cruel tyrant. He was the first of the Roman Caesars who demanded that all of his subjects address him as “Our lord and god.” He was the first of the Roman Caesars to make images of himself, place them in all of the places of worship in the empire, and demand that the people worship him as God. The lot of the Christians was extremely cruel; for to them, as to us, there is no God but God, and we know Him in Jesus Christ [John 14:8-9]. And to bow down to a graven image of any kind is unadulterated, sheer idolatry [Exodus 20:3-5]. Especially was the lot and the life of the Christians difficult in Asia Minor, because they were so numerous in that part of the empire, and the mandate that they bow and worship the image of Domitian as god was extremely cruel to them.
The pastor in the church of the capital city of the Roman province of Asia was named John, the sainted disciple of the Lord, now in the age of his life. And in that Domitianic persecution, John was exiled to the island of Patmos [Revelation 1:9]. Patmos was just one of the many places to which Domitian exiled those who had incurred his wrath. Patmos is a little rocky island about twenty-four miles west, into the sea off of the Asia Minor coast, directly opposite the ancient town of Miletus; a little rocky island about twenty-five miles in diameter, very rugged and very mountainous. Apparently John was not chained, nor guarded, nor was he cast in a dungeon. He had free access to all of the confines of the little island. And in that rugged place, so fitting, he saw this sublime revelation called “The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ.”
He speaks of himself in this first chapter in the words of our text: “I John, who also am your brother, and your companion in trial, and in suffering, and in persecution, and in tribulation. I was in the isle that is called Patmos; because of the preaching of the word of God, and because of the testimony of Jesus Christ” [Revelation 1:9]. This is not strange, or new, or unusual, that John in trial is in exile in suffering. For Jesus had said that the mark of His disciples was their persecution and their suffering. In the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5:1-7:29], our Master said, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake … Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you … Rejoice, and be exceeding glad … for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” [Matthew 5:10-12]. In the apocalyptic discourse of our Lord in Matthew 24:9, our Savior said, “They shall deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for My name’s sake.” In the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, in the comforting discourses spoken in the upper room, our Lord said, “In the world ye shall have tribulation” [John 16:33]. And the apostle Paul, in the last letter that he wrote, addressed to his young son in the ministry, said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:12: “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” It is a mark of discipleship. And the endurance of suffering and trial is a mark of the favor of heaven and the blessing of God.
The whole New Testament is a record of the sufferings of the people of our Lord. John the Baptist died in his own blood [Matthew 14:10]. Our Savior was crucified beneath the open sky, raised from the earth [Matthew 27:32-50]. And the story of the church from the beginning is written in blood and in tears. In the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts and verse 1, “At that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem” [Acts 8:1]. And then begins that long list of illustrious martyrs that continues to this present hour. Stephen is stoned outside the city of Jerusalem [Acts 7:58-60]. The head of James, the brother of John who wrote the Revelation, is severed from his body by the cruel sword of Herod Agrippa I [Acts 12:1-2]. In the Revelation 2:13 our Lord speaks of His martyr Antipas who was put to death for the word of God in the city of Pergamos.
When the Book of the Hebrews was written, in a time of great trial and trouble, the author of the Hebrews made appeal to the little church that we go outside the gate, without the camp, bearing the reproach of our Lord [Hebrews 13:13]. When the Book of the Revelation was written, Polycarp was pastor at Smyrna. And Polycarp was burned at the stake. When the Book of the Hebrews was written, Ignatius was pastor of the church at Antioch. He was condemned there to die. He was taken to Rome and there torn by wild beasts, the first Christian to die in the Roman Coliseum, which had just been completed. This is the story of the people of our Lord through all of the generations and through all of the centuries. And I am to speak this morning on why it is in the elective purpose of God, the Lord permits His people to be persecuted.
The first reason is this: out of the trial, and the martyrdom, and the imprisonment, and the sorrows, and the tribulations of God’s people, God speaks His truth to our souls. This is seen so plainly in the epistles of Paul. Most of Paul’s ministry was spent in prison. Doesn’t that seem a vast waste of life, when he could have been preaching to the Dalmatians, or to the Spaniards, or to the Gauls, or to the Libyans, or to the Ionians? But most of his life as a Christian was spent in the confines of a dungeon. Why did God allow that? Because out of the confines of those prisons, Paul sent the letters that comprise practically all of our New Testament. Out of the sufferings of the life of Paul, we have revealed the great truths of God that are the very foundation of the life of the churches of Jesus Christ. Out of a life that was bruised, and hurt, and buffeted, and beat, these great revelations were made known. And had it not been for the sufferings, and the tears, and the incarcerations, there would never have been revealed to us these mighty truths of the living God.
We find an illustration of that in the Apocalypse itself. There would never have been the writing down of the Revelation had John remained as the pastor in the church at [Ephesus]. But in that hour of great trial—that call for an unusual word of comfort to God’s people—and in the solitary, lonely exile on the mountainous, rocky, lonely isle of Patmos, John saw these great apocalyptic revelations that are written down for our comfort and our encouragement in the final book of the Word of God [Revelation 1:9-19].
You find an illustration of that in the life of our great Baptist preacher, John Bunyan. Because he refused to turn aside from preaching the gospel of the Son of God, he was placed in Bedford Jail for twelve solid years. One of the most pathetic passages in all English literature is John Bunyan as he describes the hurt in his heart looking outside of the jail window, looking upon the face of his poor little blind girl named Mary, selling laces that John Bunyan had made in the jail; selling laces in order that the family might have food to eat. It brings tears to your heart as John Bunyan describes the hurt in his soul as he watches his blind little girl in hunger, and in need, and in rags. Yet out of that incarceration and out of that tragic imprisonment, in those twelve years of lonely confinement we have the Bible of the secular literary world; next to the Holy Scriptures itself, the most loved, the most read, and the most famous of all of the literary productions in human life, Pilgrim’s Progress, the vision of the triumph of the Christian in the weary journey from this world to the world that is to come. And had it not been for the trial and the tribulation through which John Bunyan passed, he had not seen those visions and that allegory that we know in Pilgrim’s Progress.
A second reason why God allows the suffering, and the martyrdom, and the imprisonment, and the trial of His people: it is found in the discovery—the rediscovery—of the truth of God that has been darkened by the devices of men, but that is brought to light in the fires of the martyrdom of God’s people; truth that is buried by the devices of men, truth that is hidden away by these who propose to be the priests of the Most High God. That truth would die, it would perish from the earth, had it not been resurrected by the martyrdom of God’s people. Back yonder in the early 1300s and 1400s, our Anabaptist forefathers, later called Baptists, brought to light the great truth of the living Word of God. But they did so by the martyrdom of their lives:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow,
Between the crosses row on row.
[John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”]
But before there was any battle fought in Flanders fields, our Baptist forefathers died for the truth of God.
One family I think of is that of John Deswarte, his wife and his six sons. The inquisitors came and arrested John Deswarte, and his wife, and four of his sons, the two younger being away from home. The neighbors told the two younger boys of the tragic plight that had overwhelmed their father, and mother, and brothers, and said to the two younger sons to escape for their lives. Those boys said to one another, “Let us not save ourselves, but let us die with our father and with our mother!” When the father saw the two younger boys coming to him, he asked, “Sons, are you ready to go with us to the New Jerusalem?” And those two boys replied, “We are.” And in the city of Lisle the father, and the mother, and the six sons were burned altogether at the stake. Out of the martyrdom of God’s children was born again the knowledge of the Word of God. When they burned Master Ridley and Bishop Latimer in Oxford, Master Ridley began to cringe before the mounting flames. And Bishop Latimer said, “Master Ridley, be of good cheer. We shall light this day a fire in England that, please God, shall never go out.”
One of the famous sonnets in all literature is this sonnet written by John Milton, who at that time was the secretary to the great commoner, Oliver Cromwell. How come him to write it was this: without knowledge, unawares, the Romanists descended upon the Waldensian Christians, our Baptist companions in northern Italy who lived in the Piedmont valleys. The attack came unannounced, the latter part of December in the year of 1400. They had no opportunity to defend themselves, and they fled in the dead of winter to find refuge in the snow-covered heights of the towering Alps. Many of them were slaughtered in the valleys before they could escape to the heights of the mountains. There they were, in those mountain passes and on those mountain peaks, mothers carrying in their arms a cradle with a baby and leading with the other hand such children as could walk. After the first night: the next morning, more than fourscore little babies were found dead, frozen in their cradles or lying in the snow by the side of their dead mothers. When the furious attack was lost, the Romanists took one mother holding an infant in her hand and hurled her down to death. Three days later, the mother was found dead, but the baby was still alive in her arms. With great difficulty were they able to free the stiff, cold arms of the mother from the living child. I tell you these things so you can understand this famous sonnet, one of the greatest in all literature, written by John Milton. Listen to the words of the beautiful sonnet as he writes:
Avenge, O Lord, Thy slaughtered Saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold;
Even them who kept Thy truth so pure of old.
When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones,
Forget not; In Thy book record their groans,
Who were Thy sheep, and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled
Mother and infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O’er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway
The tripled tyrant—
talking about the pope of Rome, “the tripled tyrant”—
that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who, having learned thy way,
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.
[“On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”; John Milton, 1655].
And when we get into the Revelation, we will understand what John Milton referred to when he said, “may fly the Babylonian woe.” But out of that martyrdom of our forefathers and out of the sufferings and tribulation of those Christians, arose the dawning of the great Reformation, and the preaching of the gospel of the Son of God, and the far-flung missionary endeavor that has blessed the dark continents of the world. That’s God’s way of bringing to light His glorious truth that is hidden underneath the strange and peculiar devices of men.
There is a third reason why God, in His elective purpose, allows the persecution of His people. It is found in the bringing to light and to life and the scattering abroad of the Holy Word of God. For it was the avowed purpose of those who claim to be the followers of Christ that the Bible should be an unknown Book, buried out of sight, never read, never translated, never known, never preached. For the light of the gospel of the Son of God destroys error, and is mighty to the pulling down of the households of those who bow before graven images and who worship idols.
In those days, there arose a man by the name of John Wycliffe. He did for the English language what Martin Luther did for the German language. Martin Luther practically created the modern German language. John Wycliffe practically created the modern English language, the language you and I speak today. He was the first man to translate the entire Bible into English. And out of the format of that Word of God, there was sealed, there was congealed, there was solidified that spoken word that is your mother tongue and mine. But the Romanists, in hatred, sought the life of John Wycliffe. And when he died before they could lay hands upon him, John Wycliffe’s body was disinterred from the ground. John Wycliffe’s body was dug up out of the earth in which it had been laid. And John Wycliffe’s body was burned, and his ashes scattered on the bosom of the river Swift. But the river Swift pours into the Avon. And the river Avon runs into the river Severn. And the river Severn pours into the sea. And the sea laves the continents of the world. And the Book that John Wycliffe translated into English became the Bible that I hold in my hand and was preached wherever the civilization of the English nation did proceed. And out of that glorious testimony of John Wycliffe, Martin Luther wrote this famous hymn:
Flung to the heedless winds
On the waters cast,
Their ashes, shall be watched,
And gathered at the last.
And from the scattered dust,
Around us and abroad,
Shall spring a plenteous seed
Of witnesses for God.
Jesus hath now received
Their latest dying breath,
And vain is Satan’s boast
Of victory in their death.
Still, still, though dead, they speak,
And, triumph-tongued, proclaim
To many a waking land
The one availing name.
[adapted from “Flung to the Heedless Winds”; Martin Luther, 1523]
And when the converts of Wycliffe were burned at the stake, the Bible of Wycliffe was hung around their necks that the Scriptures might burn with the martyred bodies of the preachers of the gospel of the Son of God. But the fires lighted the world, and the fires gave to the nations of the earth the knowledge of the name of the Son of God. And out of its light and out of its burning, God’s Word was given to the world.
Why does God allow His people to be persecuted? Out of the travail of their sorrows, and out of the tears of their troubles and sufferings; birth, travail, out of it liberty and freedom is born. It is hard for us to realize that in the United States of America, on the shores of this American continent, the preaching of the Son of God was interdicted. The fourth day of June in 1768, there were three Baptist preachers arraigned in the courthouse in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, in the town named Fredericksburg. On this fourth day of June, those three Baptist preachers were brought before the king’s court. In great decorum, the king’s judges have taken their places behind the bar. And the king’s attorney is standing ready to prosecute the three Baptist preachers. And the offense is slowly, formally read by the clerk of the court: “For preaching the gospel of the Son of God contrary to the statute in that case provided, and consequently disturbers of the peace.”
But while those pompous preparations were, and formalities of the court were proceeding, and while the clerk was getting ready to read the indictment, there dismounted from his horse in front of the courthouse, a plain man, a young fellow who was becoming known as a brilliant patriot. His name was Patrick Henry. He had heard of the arraignment of those three Baptist preachers. And he had ridden sixty miles from his home in Hanover County in order, unsolicited, to defend those three men before the king’s court. And as he entered the house unnoticed, the clerk in that slow formal of manner, was reading the indictment for preaching the gospel of the Son of God. When he had finished, the attorney, the king’s attorney, arose and said what few words he thought were necessary to condemn the men. And the judges seated in the court were preparing to pronounce sentence against those three Baptist preachers. At that moment, Patrick Henry, who unnoticed had gone beyond the bar to sit with the lawyers, reached out his hand and took from the clerk the indictment. And holding it in his hand, he said, and I quote from one of the most eloquent pleas in recorded history, Patrick Henry said:
May it please Your Worships, I think I heard read, as I entered this house, the paper I now hold in my hand. If I have rightly understood, the king’s attorney of this county has framed an indictment for the purpose of arraigning and punishing by imprisonment three inoffensive persons before the bar of this court. May it please the court, what did I hear? Did I hear it distinctly, or was it a mistake of my own? Did I hear an expression as if a crime that these men whom Your Worships are about to try are charged with—what? For preaching the gospel of the Son of God!
And Patrick Henry paused and three times waved that indictment around his head, then lifting his eyes up to heaven exclaimed, “Great God!” Then he continued:
May it please Your Worships: in a day like this, when truth is about to burst her fetters, when mankind is about to be raised to claim his natural and inalienable rights—when the yoke of oppression which has reached the wilderness of America, and the unnatural alliance of ecclesiastical and civil power is about to be dissevered—at such a period when liberty—liberty of conscience—is about to awake from her slumberings, and I inquire into the reason of such charges. If I am not deceived, according to the contents of the paper I hold in my hand, these men are accused of preaching the gospel of the Son of God. Great God!
Another long pause, in which Patrick Henry held up the indictment in his hand. Then the great, brilliant, young lawyer proceeded:
May it please Your Worships: there are periods in the history of men when corruption and depravity have so long debased the human character, that man sinks under the weight of the oppressor’s hand, and becomes his servile, his abject slave; he licks the hand that smites him; he bows in passive obedience to the mandates of the despot and in this state of servility he receives his fetters of perpetual bondage. But, may it please Your Worships, such a day has passed away. From the period when our fathers left the land of their nativity for settlement in these American wilds, for liberty—for civil and religious liberty—for liberty of conscience, to worship their Creator according to their conceptions of Heaven’s revealed will; from the moment they placed their feet on the American continent and in the deeply embedded forests, sought an asylum from persecution and tyranny—from that moment despotism was crushed; her fetters of darkness were broken, and Heaven decreed that man should be free—free to worship God according to the Bible. Were it not for this, in vain have been the efforts and sacrifices of the colonists; in vain were all their sufferings and bloodshed to subjugate this new world if we, their offspring, must still be oppressed and persecuted. But, may it please Your Worships, let me inquire once more, for what are these three Baptist preachers about to be tried? This paper says, “for preaching the Gospel of the Son of God.” Great God! For preaching the Savior to Adam’s fallen race!
When Patrick Henry reached that culmination, the court, the audience, the spectators were amazed! And the face of the prosecuting attorney was pale and ghastly, and he was unconscious that his whole frame shook as in a quake. And the judge, in a tremulous voice speaking for the court said, “Sheriff, discharge those men.” And out of the sufferings of those Baptist preachers, observed by Jefferson, and Madison, and Monroe, they wrote into the basic document that governs the United States of America religious freedom.
Liberty of conscience: where did it come from? Out of the sufferings, and the imprisonment, and the tribulation, and the tears, and the heartache of our brethren. “I John, who am also your brother, and companion in tribulation . . . was in the isle that is called Patmos, because of the word of God, and the preaching of the testimony of Jesus Christ” [Revelation 1:9]. God has an elective purpose in these sorrows and in these trials. Out of them His truth is made known to the world, and in its travel, these great gifts that bless our lives forever are born. In this day, and in this hour, I hear the call of the author of the Book of the Hebrews: “Let us go forth unto Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach” [Hebrews 13:13].
I haven’t time to speak of the refugees from Red Communist China that I talked to when I was in Hong Kong. One pastor’s wife, her mind deranged, demented, insane, because of the awful horrors of the persecution; and her husband, our Baptist pastor of the little church in the interior China, crippled and maimed, and in that time, and now, I am sure, with the Lord, in that time, waiting for the summons of God that he die, so destroyed by the awful trial and persecution. Our brethren bear that today, at this moment, this Lord’s Day. We have had men here in this pulpit who have been assassinated in China since I have been pastor of this church, and others who have been guests of our people are now in prison, in vile and filthy dungeons in China. All over these worlds, all over these nations, this same thing: our brethren and companions in tribulation, “in the isle of Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ” [Revelation1 :9]. I read this just a few days ago from the pen of one of our professors in the seminary at Southwestern:
It was a beautiful Sabbath day, and the Christians sang worshipfully as they prepared for the preaching service in the home of a friend. But the solitude was only temporary. The first inkling the evangelical Christians got of their attackers was when men burst into the room and began beating men and women alike. Lined up like cattle, they were marched into the main part of the city, mocked on public display, and thrown into jail.
Sounds like a description of the persecutions of the early Christians, doesn’t it? But it isn’t, it occurred only a few months ago in Columbia, South America.
All over this world, Christians in prison; Christians beat and hurt, their homes burned, their houses of worship destroyed, the preachers slain; all over this world, the fires of darkness and the rioting of those who would destroy the testimony of God and the Word of our Lord Jesus Christ. Why doesn’t it die? Why isn’t it killed? Why isn’t it slain? Because “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” And the more men die for the faith, the more men turn to it. And the more the churches of Christ suffer, the more brilliant and able and mighty for the tearing down of empires is the testimony of the Word of God. This is our call and our place. This is God’s will for us; a great commitment, a lifelong and everlasting devotion at any cost and at any price; these are the servants of God. These are they who are ready to lay down their lives for the preaching of the Word of Jesus Christ; “in the isle of Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus” [Revelation 1:9].
Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follower of the Lamb,
And shall I fear to own His cause,
Or blush to speak His name?
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas?
Are there no foes for me to face,
Must I not stem the flood,
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
To help me on to God?
Sure, I must fight, if I would reign;
Increase my courage, Lord;
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy word.
[ “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” Isaac Watts, 1721]
“I John…your brother, and companion in suffering and tribulation…was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the preaching of the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ” [Revelation 1:9]. This is our witness, sealed with our lives and our blood unto death.
While we stand and sing our invitation hymn, somebody this morning to give his heart to Jesus [Romans 10:8-13], somebody to put his life with us in the fellowship of the church [Hebrews 10:24-25]; while we sing the song and while we make appeal, will you come and stand by me? “Pastor, this is the commitment of my life until death, not just for a day or an hour, not just when things are quiet, and soft, and easy, but this is a commitment of my life to Christ in the daytime and in the night, in the springtime and in the winter, in easy times and in hard, in youth time and in old age, in life and in death; so help me God, here I stand. I commit my faith and my heart and my life to the Lord Jesus Christ, and here I come, and here I am.” To put your life with us in the church, would you come? To give your life in trust and in faith to Jesus, would you come? While we stand and while we sing.