Though Alcatraz Island was originally a lighthouse for San Francisco Harbor, it’s better known as the most feared penal colony in American history. Inmates called it “The Rock,” and it was a foreboding place even for my wife and me to visit as tourists several years ago.
The Apostle John was sent to the Alcatraz of his day. Patmos Island was a penal colony for the worst of Rome’s offenders. His crime? Being the apostle of love and preaching a gospel of peace.
Tradition says John as an aged man was pastor of the Ephesian church and constantly walked among the people exhorting them to love one another. He was the St. Valentine of the New Testament.
Like St. Paul before him and John Bunyan after him, John wrote words from prison that yet impact the world. The book of Revelation gave hope to believers suffering under Emperor Domitian, and reminds modern believers that though evil exists, it won’t endure.
John began Revelation with seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey. He addressed the first letter to his former church at Ephesus. He commended them for their ministry, tenacity and commitment to the truth, but he also criticized the church for having “left your first love.” John didn’t explain whether this meant the church had lost their love for God or for one another. Either is sad.
If he meant the former, how strange it sounds that a ministering congregation would serve God for any reason other than our love for him! Jesus warned in Matthew 6 that religious people could give money, pray and fast in order to earn the praise of others, and in so doing, forfeit the praise of God. We must be careful we don’t serve God in order to get praise and commendation from others. As the old hymn says, “winning the smile of God brings its delight.”
But could John have challenged the church because they fell out of love with one another? Sadly, this often happens in the body of Christ. Many have allowed a thoughtless word or deed to separate them from brothers and sisters in the faith and affect their relationship with the church.
Bill was once a parishioner. He stopped me in the parking lot of his business to say he knew he wasn’t the Christian he should be because he hated a man in our church.
“God won’t bless me until I deal with this, will he?” Bill asked.
This was what teen-agers call a “no-brainer.” As John wrote in an earlier letter: “How can you say you love God, whom you can’t see, if you hate your bother whom you know?” (1 John 4:20).