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Agents of the Apocalypse
A Riveting Look at the Key Players of the End Times
By DAVID JEREMIAH
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2014 David Jeremiah
All rights reserved.
It was a Sunday morning in the first century AD, and the members of the Ephesian church were gathering to worship in the spacious atrium in the villa of Marcellus, a wealthy Roman convert who freely offered his home as a meeting place.
As the members arrived, their faces were taut with uncertainty. Tension filled the air, like a mooring line ready to snap. The meeting began as usual, with a hymn, but today the church sang with little feeling. Their minds were distracted by the ominous rumors coming out of Rome. After a prayer and a reading from the prophet Isaiah, Tychicus, one of the deacons, stood to address the congregation.
"Dear brothers and sisters, the church leaders have asked me to inform you of evil tidings. A decree has just been posted in the forum telling us that the Roman emperor Domitian has assumed the title 'master and god.' He has demanded that everyone in the empire swear an oath to worship him. He has already launched an aggressive campaign to enforce the edict in every city under Rome's jurisdiction. What is worse, he has especially singled out Jews and Christians because he suspects our disloyalty to Rome."
A voice from the crowd called out, "Are the rumors true that the edict has already been enforced in some of the other churches?"
The deacon nodded soberly. "A fortnight ago Roman soldiers invaded all the Christian homes they could find in Pergamos and demanded that every member immediately take the oath of worship to Domitian."
"Did they do it?" another tremulous voice asked.
A pained look crossed Tychicus's face. "It grieves me to report that two-thirds of them gave in and took the oath."
A gasp rippled through the crowd. "What happened to those who would not bow?" someone asked.
"I am sorry to tell you that they were brutally flogged and executed. And we can be sure the same thing will soon happen here in Ephesus."
The room fell silent. Finally someone asked, "What can we do?"
At that moment, an aged man who had been sitting to the side stood slowly, aided by the staff in his hand. Unlike the other faces in the room, his showed no distress. In fact, he positively radiated joy. "It was almost as if his face glowed," one member later observed.
The apostle John faced the group. "My dear brothers and sisters," he began, "you ask what we can do. There is but one answer." At the age of ninety, his voice still rang out clear and strong. But there was a warmth in his delivery that dissolved much of the tension in the room.
"We can stand ready to give back to our Lord Jesus Christ what He has given to us. He gave us life by giving up His life, and we must do no less for Him."
"Perhaps we should stop meeting for a while," Marcellus said. "That would keep us from being so visible and identifiable."
"No, that is exactly what we must not do," John replied. "We must look at this trouble coming our way as a test of our faith. Will we love our Lord enough to stand firm and suffer with Him? Or will we turn our backs on the One who gave us the greatest gift of love in history? With such trouble coming, we need more than ever to meet together in order to support and encourage one another to stand strong. If we stop assembling, we will isolate ourselves and lose the strength we draw from each other. We must never stop meeting, no matter how severe the persecution."
"As long as this threat remains, we have decided that we should meet all over the city in separate homes," Tychicus said. "The Romans will never be able to find us all. Some of us may fall, but the church in Ephesus will survive."
"And, I hope, grow even stronger in the face of the persecution," John added. "Sometimes I fear that we are becoming complacent and that the love we originally had for our Lord and for each other is beginning to cool. Persecution could rekindle that love by drawing us together as we face a common danger."
"Why is God letting this happen?" a voice cried out from the back. "We have been loyal and dedicated. We have done many good things in Christ's name. Yet the more good we try to do, the more the world seems to hate us."
"Do not marvel, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you," John replied. "Our Lord and Savior was perfect in every way, and yet the world hated Him. People hate what they do not understand. We should look on this coming trial as a great honor. We are being chosen to share His cross and His sacrifice for us. Many who have already died for Christ have received their suffering with joy. In the years since His death and resurrection, all my fellow apostles, including that late-coming firebrand Paul, have been called to suffer death for Him. I am the only apostle remaining who has been denied that honor. And now that I see it on the horizon, I welcome it with all my heart. I urge all of you, my dear brothers and sisters, to remain steadfast and true to Christ, no matter the cost. You will receive a reward in heaven that will make your sacrifice seem as a mere trifle."
John resumed his seat, leaning heavily on his staff. After another hymn and several prayers, the assembly dismissed.
As usual, the members clustered around John with questions or prayer needs, or simply to bask in the man's magnetic presence. But today a tense undercurrent ran through the conversations. It wasn't long before Marcellus pushed his way through the group and stood facing the apostle. His face was as red as wine, and his eyes blazed with anger.
"How can you ask us to do this?" he demanded. "I have a wife and five young children. Do you expect me to just stand by while they are tortured and slaughtered? I will not do it! The rest of you can meet next Sunday like cattle waiting for these Roman butchers. But not I! You must find another place to meet. There will be no worship here until this crisis has passed. I am perfectly willing to live for Christ, but it's too much to ask me to die for Him!"
Without another word, Marcellus turned on his heel and walked away. Soon the remaining members dispersed to their homes. How would they react when the Romans came? They weren't entirely sure. Would they face the crisis with the courage of their apostle John or with the fear of Marcellus?
* * *
The following Sunday, a small group of families assembled in John's home to worship. Five of the expected twenty-three members were not in attendance. Nothing was said about those who were missing, but the morning prayer included a petition that all would regain their courage and stand fast. After a few hymns, a Scripture reading, and more prayers, John stood to speak.
Suddenly the door burst open, and eight Roman soldiers barged in. They were dressed in armor and carried swords. The startled Christians stared wide eyed, and mothers drew their children close to them.
The commanding officer opened a small scroll and read the emperor's demand. "You must cease to worship your God," he proclaimed. "It is lawful to worship only Domitian."
After the reading, one of the soldiers held up a bronze statue. It was over a foot tall and bore the precise image of the emperor's face.
The commander rolled up the scroll and said, "The emperor Domitian requires that you show your compliance with his order this day by bowing down before his image. If you refuse, you will be put to death."
Not one of the Christians moved. This was a fragile moment, and they all knew it. If any of them broke and bowed to the image, others might lose courage too and do the same. After a tense moment of silence, the commander nodded to his men. They drew their swords.
A woman near the front shrieked and fell to the floor. She knelt before the image and swore the oath. Her husband quickly followed, as did four other members. But the rest of the assembly held firm, some of them mouthing silent prayers.
"The six of you who yielded have saved your lives, for whatever they are worth." The commander made no effort to hide his contempt.
As the six scrambled out the door, the officer strode toward John. "I believe you must be the one your people call John the Apostle."
"I am he," John replied.
The commander turned to his soldiers. "We have finally found him, men—the ringleader of all the churches in Asia Minor. This is the chief rebel who has led thousands of citizens to deny the authority of Rome and worship a man who was executed as a criminal."
The commander turned back to John. "Word of your disloyalty has reached the ears of the emperor himself, and he has a special punishment reserved for you. Instead of slaying you outright, he wants to make you suffer until you wish you were dead. Your fate will show your followers the futility of resisting Rome."
The commander seized John and shoved him out the door. The other soldiers followed and bolted the door from the outside, trapping the Christians who remained within. One soldier produced a torch, lit it with his flint, and set fire to the house. As the soldiers led John toward the Roman garrison, John could see the house begin to blaze.
They were fifty paces away when the commander stopped and turned toward the now-flaming cottage. "What is that noise?"
"It is singing," John replied. "My faithful brothers and sisters are singing a song of praise to their true Lord, Jesus the Christ, whom they will meet face-to-face within this very hour."
John leaned heavily on his staff, struggling for breath, but they forced him to march on. Upon arrival at the garrison, he was handed off to a prison guard, who clamped chains on John's ankles and dragged him out to the yard. The soldiers stripped him to the waist, chained his wrists to a post, and flogged him with a metal-studded whip. Then they locked the apostle inside a damp, reeking cell. For several days he lay there suspended between life and death.
Yet in spite of his shredded back, the filthy conditions, and the meager food portions, John never cursed his guard. The soldier, impressed by John's perseverance, began to slip additional food to him. Over the next few weeks, John's wounds healed, and eventually he was able to stand and limp about his cell. One day the guard called for him to come close.
"I have learned what is to become of you," he whispered. "You are to be taken to the Isle of Patmos, where you will be exiled for the rest of your life."
"Patmos!" John repeated. He knew of the island—an infamous dumping ground for Rome's convicted prisoners. "When will I be sent to exile?"
"In two days. You will not be fed well on the voyage—and not at all on the island. I will bring you a small sack with bread and grapes that you can slip under your robe and smuggle aboard the ship."
"Thank you, but if it's all the same to you, I would much prefer a roll of parchment and a vial of ink."
"I will do what I can."
* * *
Two days later John boarded a ship leaving the Port of Ephesus for the three-day voyage to Patmos. Beneath his robe he carried a flat leather bag containing his parchment and ink.
The ship—a converted Roman merchant vessel—was propelled by a single square sail and forty oars below deck. The departing exiles were forced to man the oars—with the exception of John, who was still wearing ankle chains, and three others, who were exempted because of age or disability. They were kept on deck near the prow of the ship.
As the ship sailed into the port on Patmos, John looked out on a landscape of barren hills, arid fields of sand and salt, and rocky crags dotted with brambles and stunted trees. As the prisoners disembarked, each was given a three-day ration of dried meat and fish. "That's all you get," the quartermaster told them. "When it's gone, you're on your own."
John soon learned that the exiles were on their own in other ways as well. They would not only have to gather their own food but also would have to find shelter. While there were two or three crude settlements that had been built on the ruins of ancient towns, these struggling villages provided no protection from the island's population of exiled criminals. The only law was self-preservation and survival.
Incoming exiles either found their own shelters among the island's caves or built huts from rocks and deadwood. When John was aboard the ship, he had heard rumors that the far side of Patmos was the least populated. He reasoned that food and shelter would be more readily available there, so he headed out on a trek across the island.
The aged apostle was nearing exhaustion when he stumbled upon an abandoned cave. It overlooked the sea, and a trickling stream flowed nearby.
Born and raised a fisherman, John gathered some tough vines and wove together a serviceable net. He hobbled down to the shore and climbed onto a promontory that was strewn with boulders. When he reached a ledge overhanging the deeper water, he dropped the net, retaining his hold on its long leaders, and waited. Two hours later he returned to the cave, his makeshift net filled with three large crabs and two silver fish.
* * *
As the days wore on, each like the one before it, John began to feel that his life had become meaningless—that he was doomed to live out his remaining time on earth without purpose. He often wondered why he hadn't been martyred like his fellow apostles.
One bright Sunday, after his morning worship and midday meal of fish and berries, John hobbled off toward his favorite spot overlooking the sea. He sat down on his usual rock, shaded by a towering boulder, and gazed out on the gray-green water. Placing his parchment on his lap, he took out a quill to write a letter.
That's when it happened.
A great voice boomed from just behind him. "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last." The mighty words reverberated through the heavens like rolling thunder.
John dropped his quill and began to tremble. Nearly paralyzed with terror, he could hardly bring himself to look toward the source of the voice. But there was something so compelling about that voice that he finally had no choice but to turn around.
Before him stood the most magnificent and majestic Man he'd ever seen. His face shone with the brilliance of the sun. He was clothed in a shimmering robe of pure white that was bound about His chest with a golden band. His hair was white—not the lank, faded white of advanced age, but the vibrant, glistening white of pure snow.
The Man's eyes burned into John's soul like piercing flames. In His right hand He held seven brilliant stars. When He spoke, the words rolled off His tongue like tidal waves. Everything about the Man exuded such perfect beauty and glory that John's senses were overwhelmed. He fell to the ground in a dead faint.
He was awakened by a gentle touch on his shoulder.
"Do not be afraid," the Man said, His voice so infused with love and warmth that John's fear dissolved like wax in the sunlight.
"I am the First and the Last," the Man said again. "I am He who lives and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death."
John realized that he was once more in the presence of the Lord he adored. He basked in waves of unforeseen joy.
The golden voice told John to take up his quill and record the wonders about to be revealed to him—wonders concerning things existing and things yet to come. John, now filled with expectation, sat again with the quill in his hand and the scroll on his lap.
The voice spoke: "What you see, write in a book...."
Immediately the Lord began to dictate warnings, rebukes, and commendations to the seven churches that had looked to John as their patriarch. As John completed the final letter, the vision of Christ vanished, and His voice called from somewhere above: "Come up here, and I will show you things that must take place after this."
In that moment, the familiar landscape of Patmos faded, and John gazed awestruck at what no earthly human being had ever seen—the very throne room of heaven. Vision after vision followed—some horrifying to behold and others majestic beyond imagination. As the last vision faded, the apostle heard these final words: "I am coming quickly!"
Suddenly John found himself sitting back on his rock in the shade of the boulder. He had been given a vision of things to come—a message that would assure the Lord's churches across the world that although terrible persecution loomed in their future, their ultimate triumph in Christ was certain.
"Yes, Lord, please come quickly," he said as he rolled up the scroll.
* * *
THE SCRIPTURE BEHIND THE STORY
The apostle John, in writing his great book from the Isle of Patmos, joined an exclusive band of chosen servants who had received similar instructions from the Lord and had done their work under adverse circumstances. Moses wrote the Pentateuch in the wilderness. David wrote many of the psalms while fleeing from the murderous King Saul. Isaiah wrote while watching his nation degenerate, and according to tradition, he died a martyr's death. Ezekiel wrote while he was in captivity in Babylon. Jeremiah's life was one of trial and persecution. Peter wrote his two letters just before he was martyred. Paul wrote his letters amid being beaten, shipwrecked, stoned, and robbed, and while facing hunger, thirst, cold, nakedness, slander, and just about every other kind of tribulation known to humankind (2 Corinthians 11:24-28). (Continues...)
Excerpted from Agents of the Apocalypse by DAVID JEREMIAH. Copyright © 2014 David Jeremiah. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc..
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