Dead Ends: The Frustration of Invisible Boundaries, Non-Working Doors, and Immovable Objects (Revelation 1)

I am quite accustomed to walls.  They seem to have a certain load-bearing quality that is particularly useful when supporting additional structures such as ceilings and extra stories in a building.  They separate rooms quite well, and keep the outside where it belongs, namely on the other side of the wall.  All very appreciated elements for me.  But just as I appreciate the raw beauty of a waterfall in its native environment much more than I enjoy seeing one pouring through my ceiling and onto my carpet in my home, the same can be said for walls.  In their proper context they can be quite enjoyable and in the right setting life-altering (bathroom stalls, you just keep on doing what you do… there are certain things a man simply can’t “un-see”).  But when walls take that unwanted leap into a different setting, say in the middle of a street, they lose their luster very quickly and become an obstacle, a nuisance, or sometimes even an adversary.
The first time you saw one of these in a game, you probably thought you did something  wrong.  Maybe the screen turned a different color, or a sound effect gave a clearly negative reaction to your attempt to progress.  It is especially prevalent in open world games but you can find them almost anywhere.  Dead ends.  Invisible barriers that separate the player from what appears to be more to explore. Doors that seem to be unaware that they are doors and act more like walls.  They have been a component of gaming for as long as there have been video games, and as our entertainment has grown larger in scope and budget they have been camouflaged differently but they all serve the same purpose.  Restraint.

At first, these restraints were technological by nature.  Items would appear three-dimensional from a distance through clever shading techniques but reveal themselves to be flat upon closer inspection.  Areas that from a distance appear to be reachable were merely world building techniques to create a sense of scale and were never meant to be explored.  Or perhaps the developer simply ran out of time to build proper interiors so they simply closed them off to ship the game by its release date.  But despite the best of intentions, the end result remains: disappointment and the still burning desire to see what exists on the other side of the barrier.

I believe most of us find the idea of restrictions undesirable.  We live in an unprecedented age of freedom of choice, allowing us to communicate at will to people around the globe and travel tremendous distances in the shortest time spans in human history.  We want our coffee customized, our food order ready in less than a minute, and our game worlds 100% interactive.  I mean, seriously, why even put a door on the building if it can’t even open?  Why build the appearance of mountains in the distance and roads to explore if they can’t ever be accessed?  And this challenge extends to our real world, where every day we find paths that are closed off or the mirage of opportunity that dissipates upon contact.

Maybe it’s a career that you anxiously desire but despite all of the job postings nobody returns your phone calls.  Perhaps it’s a lack of education, funding, or skill set that keeps you from exploring new possibilities.  Or it could be a physical ailment or disability that keeps you on the wrong side of the window watching everyone live the life you wish you could live.  Being restrained by circumstances, especially those beyond your control is a frustrating and draining experience.  And for our survivor we turn to someone who may have written one of the most well-known and recognized books of the Bible… John the Revelator, the man who wrote the book of Revelation.

Few books have captured the attention of believers and non-believers alike the way Revelation does.  Thick with post-apocalyptic imagery and layered with deeper meanings, John’s magnum opus tells the graphic story of the end of the world and the beginning of the new age graphically and colorfully.  But John did not write this while he was on a leave of absence from work, nor did he receive this vision from God during a nice, relaxing vacation.  As the Lord has shown so many times throughout Scripture, He has a time and a place for everything and for this particular revelation He needed John’s undivided attention.

I don’t want to engage in too much church tradition here, so to the best of our abilities we will stick to the facts as they are presented.  The writer of the book identifies himself as John, and this leaves the possibility open that he could be anyone from John the Apostle to literally any other follower of Christ named John.  Which John he is becomes less important than how he identifies himself in Revelation 1:9, where he explains that he is, “a brother and companion in tribulation” and that he was on the isle of Patmos, ” for the Word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ”.  Church historians have established this island as a place of imprisonment, and based on what is found in this verse along with what is historically known all arrows  point to John being exiled to this prison island for his adherence to the Christian faith.

As John is about to explain, this bitter situation is going to serve a grand purpose.  But before he knew that he was about to author the definitive work on Armageddon, he was simply a man who has been stripped of his freedom and hopelessly exiled on a prison island for His faith in Christ.  At this point, many of the apostles and Christian leaders of his day had been systematically hunted down and put to death, and followers of Christ were enduring intense persecution that essentially forced them into being an underground movement.  If this truly was John the apostle writing this, then it is fairly certain that he is the last living member of the group of twelve disciples who followed Christ.  With that backdrop, it is no wonder why he would start by explaining that he is a “co-sufferer” with those that he is sending this to.  Times were tough for anyone aligning themselves with the cause of Christ, and the author is sharing his experience as he was facing an incredibly uncertain future as a guest of the state in the Patmos penal colony.

I hate to speculate on someone else’s frame of mind, so I’m just going to envision myself in this scenario.  Sequestered away from all I know, and with the looming threat of execution based on the whims of a collection of Caesars who were becoming increasingly unpredictable, this would seem like a pretty desperate situation.  With the knowledge that most of my contemporaries had already met their end I would assume it’s just a matter of time before my number is called.  It would be easy to see this as “the end”.  A holding pattern of an existence on a lonely island, with nothing left to do but convert some oxygen into carbon dioxide and call it a day.  The situation appeared hopeless, and it would be pretty hard to see this circumstance serving any sort of beneficial purpose.  Furthermore, it would be unimaginable that this prison was about to provide John with a gift that would influence all of humanity for the rest of eternity.  Hyperbole you say?  Let’s continue on…

With nothing but barriers surrounding him, John continued to faithfully serve the Lord as found in Rev 1:10.  And this faithfulness was about to be rewarded in a big way, as God literally opened up the heavens and gifted John with the largest vision ever recorded.  From seeing Christ in all His glory, to the spectacle of the four horsemen and the judgments of God being unleashed, all the way through to personally seeing heaven in all its splendor… John saw wonders beyond his ability to comprehend.  However, this was not his gift to hoard, but to SHARE.  And this sharing was going to require some time, some effort, and a heaping portion of that good ol’ fashioned elbow grease.  After literally experiencing the “End of Days” the job fell to him to write all of this down and ensure it was disseminated to all of the churches.  Have you ever written 23 chapters using scrolls and quills?  I am not even sure most of us still use the dated and antiquated form of writing that many words physically anymore now that most of our writing is done electronically.  I cannot imagine this was a small undertaking, and it had to have been incredibly time-consuming.  And depending on his situation, it is highly possible that there was not a Staples or Office Depot on the island.  Meaning any copies of this (he was instructed to at least give this to the seven churches in Asia) would ALSO have to be handwritten.  This would not be fast or easy, but it is because a prisoner in a cave sat on a rock and wrote this down that we have the book of Revelation to read, study, and use to make movies starring Nicolas Cage today.

When would John have found the time to do this if he was busy running a church, or owning his own multi-billion dollar business, or perhaps busy raising twelve kids and a flock of sheep?  The Lord set up a season of RESTRAINT for John so he could serve this incredible purpose without distraction.  John was selected and set apart specifically for this moment, and what had previously seemed to be restrictive barriers confining him to a hopeless predicament was actually yet another demonstration of the foreknowledge and planning of the Father to put his child in the perfect place at the perfect time to do what he could ONLY accomplish in this setting.

Many times I have felt the frustration of being stuck in a holding pattern, staring at what appears to be a vast expanse of opportunity that I am unable to explore because my forward progress is thwarted by unseen forces.  The Isle of Patmos experience doesn’t typically feel like the birthing ground of a fulfilled purpose.  It can seem lonely, lifeless, frustrating, scary… and when you are living there it is easy to wonder if you have been forgotten or discarded.  Sometimes restraint resembles punishment, as both tend to involve a period of confinement.  But as John’s example showed us, he was not being punished by God nor was he forgotten.  His greatest accomplishment was simply waiting for this exact time and place to align with John’s sign of faith and patience in his Master.  The Lord has been known to find creative ways to get some alone time with His children from time to time, and this may seem extreme but it was the perfect place for the revelation to be unleashed without interruption.

A critical note here that cannot be missed:  John is not found sitting in the corner drawing angry stick figures on the cave walls or throwing a pity party.  He shows the maturity of a seasoned follower of Christ who has experienced the highest of highs as well as the lowest of lows.  If this is John the apostle, he was there to see Christ raised up to heaven during the ascension but he has also stood at the foot of a cross where his naked Savior breathed his last breath during his crucifixion.  The feeling of being restrained runs absolutely counter to all of our human desires to have freedom of choice, of movement, and of autonomous action.  And when you are in this state of temporary confinement, there is a subtle but critical distinction between acceptance and actual submission.

Acceptance is good, but it does not bring the revelation.  All acceptance means is that you have reconciled the reality of your situation in your mind and are no longer in denial or open rebellion against it.  John demonstrated submission to the Master and His will by continuing to serve and worship faithfully despite his setting.  Getting tossed in the lion’s den is never the start of a good time, but it is certainly no place to have a negative attitude.  And taking a ride in the belly of a giant fish is probably quite uncomfortable, but it can also be very productive if you allow your heart to bow down to the plan of the Father.  When all paths lead to invisible walls and you feel forgotten or alone, choose to worship and serve God anyway.  It was the praise and worship of Paul and Silas that broke their chains along with the locks on the doors of all the other prisoners when they were wrongfully detained.  And as John prayed, even in his state of exile, the final book of the Bible was unraveled for him to watch and record.  Your next step forward might require a period of restraint, but it is in this place of stillness that the still, small voice of the Lord can be most easily heard.

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