John of Revelation was a man of some consequence in the earliest Christian church. He was there at its creation, and was far more than an acquaintance of its founder: Jesus Christ. He first knew Jesus from a distance when a disciple of John the Baptist. After his recruitment from the shores of Galilee he developed into probably the closest associate of Jesus along the journey to the cross. With the ascension John was known as one of the apostles. While an apostle he continued in relationship with Jesus through the promised Holy Spirit.
John’s godliness and obedience had been consistent over the years him being more closely connected to Jesus for a longer time than any man then alive. Indeed that consistency in the word of God and the testimony of Jesus had brought him to Patmos as a Roman exile.
One Sunday morning John put the ordinary things of life onto the back burner and went out to pray. That praying in the spirit was a carrying on in that multi-decade relationship with Jesus. In the verses leading up to this lesson we know that John heard a voice. He said that he turned to see the voice and was given an eye-full as described in verses 12-16. It was a wonderful eye-full and in the next verse (below) we see how he responded.
“17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.” (Revelation 1:17–ESV)
Falling: Not optional
What happened? Jesus presented himself to John first with his voice inducing John’s turning and what was John’s response? He fell down as though dead.
There is something about God’s presence that exceeds man’s capacity to cope. When God comes down people go. Notice that John’s long term relationship with Jesus did not prevent the falling, the immobilization of his being.
Familiarity did not breed contempt. Neither did it breed equality or collegiality. God was still God. John was still his creation. It was God’s doing that placed John into the position he was in. Man may have a role on the earth, but God is still busy arranging and rearranging, styling the events after his own incontrovertible will.
Notice, also, that the presence of God does not kill people. When it comes people fall…as though dead. God’s arrival touches and activates something primal. That primal thing is fear, terror even. Some may want to run, if they could. Others might want to die or hide from God, but those options, also, are not offered. The people remain, immobilized yet conscious in God’s presence awaiting his move.
The move of God
“17 …But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not…’ ” (Revelation 1:17–ESV)
Jesus, John records, laid his right hand on John saying, “Fear not.” Hearing those words was a great relief. In my first approach to this passage I presumed “Do not be afraid,” as words of antidote to the paralysis that Jesus’ presence induced. They were taken as something nearly miraculous or supernatural spoken to get this phenomenon out of the way; to “untaser” him if one sees the falling down in like terms with being tased. Then John would be able to recuperate and get on in hearing what Jesus came to say.
That view though melted as I continued on in the study of this. It seems more correct to view the balance of verse 17 and all of 18 as part of a recuperation and encouragement. Briefly let us shift to lessons of life.
Life is a stretch to maturity
2 Count it all joy, my brothers,when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4–ESV)
–Basic algebra is not how to test a physicist.
Testing of faith produces maturity leading to completeness. This is a thing true for all people, and John the Apostle was not exempt. We know that John was a man who valued faith; think back to Jesus’ interaction with the doubting disciple: Thomas. John made sure to record Jesus’ words that said blessed are those who believe without sight. The whole package of the disciples had been tested during the period when Jesus was dead. Testing, though, was not just for that period it was for all time alive on earth.
Consider how tests are built. They are built to investigate what is known. A person cannot be tested in areas thoroughly known. Think of a physicist. To test such a person in their knowledge of algebra is a waste of time. Such scientists are far beyond algebra using methods of calculus and more as tools of their trade.
So here are two ideas: 1) life is invested with tests of faith, and 2) tests are given at the edge of one’s capacity. Let us merge them in the life of John, a man whose faith had grown to an advanced level. John would have to be drawn to extremities to arrive at the point of testing. Life is about a stretch to maturity.
What was John’s faith stretch?
It began along the shores of Galilee and John easily trusted, easily appropriated Jesus’ lessons on faith. One of the most excellent, intimate moments of Jesus with his disciples was recorded by John in what we know as John 14. In the early words of that lesson Jesus said he would go and prepare a place for them and then would return and take them unto himself. Well as John was the last disciple standing and Jesus had not returned to take them to be again with him this lesson of Jesus may have seemed to fall short.
–John’s faith stretch.
John wasn’t immune from doubt. Perhaps he had to be dragged further over the rocks of life to induce it, but he was human like us. In order for John to be tested he had to go through attempted martyrdom and exile. He had to be the last apostle standing. It seems likely that the exile was both God’s intention to reveal to his church the framework for the end times as well as to test his remaining apostle. John was being stretched further than he had ever gone before.
While John was there and perhaps at his breaking point Jesus came. We are not tested beyond what we can bear Paul had written to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 10:13). John was not exempt from this manner of God. When Jesus came to John the test had finished. The stretch of faith had gone as far as God deemed it should go. In reading these words let us hold loosely in our minds that John may have faltered on Patmos or John may have had faith on Patmos. We are not immediately told, but view the passage from each direction and you can be blessed.