The Aegean Sea parted against our hull as we made our way from the coast of Kusadasi, Turkey, to the northwest end of the Dodecanese Islands. We pulled into the narrow isthmus that divides the island of Patmos in half and serves as its harbor. The Wind Spirit anchored offshore, and we boarded a tender for port.
On our way in to the docks, the island’s terrain reminded me of what I saw on scuba diving trips to Cozumel, Mexico. The blue sea looked like Disney World water, but the island itself looked scrubby and primitive. Once ashore, we chartered a motor coach and snaked uphill along winding roads with breathtaking views of the island and the Aegean. As we neared the top, I saw a row of discarded toilets on the hillside to my left. I couldn’t resist and quipped to two friends: “Those must be the Saint Johns.”
We pulled into the Monastery of Saint John and descended several flights of steep steps. A familiar sign, “No photographs,” welcomed us to the Holy Cave of the Apocalypse—where tradition says John received the book of Revelation.
The cave seemed hardly a cave—more like an enclosed depression in the hill. The small room has a single window on the left and an altar in front, with about a dozen empty seats facing it. Beneath a low-hanging outcropping of rock to my right, a small cloth hung on the bare cave wall.
A priest, dressed head to foot in holy garb, eyed those of us with cameras and scrutinized our motives the whole time. His critical gaze irritated me at first, but I determined to return his glare with kindness.
“Hello, good morning,” I told him genuinely. He nodded abruptly and looked away with a deadpan face.
“Please sit,” came another voice. Our group began to fill in the seats. I stood in the back as another priest began his talk.
“This is the cave where John received the Revelation.” He then pointed to the outcropping. “You can see where the rock split three ways when God called to John, indicating the three Persons of the Trinity.” He pointed first to the floor and said, “John slept here,” and then to an indentation in the wall, “and being an old man, he put his hand here to help himself up.” Finally, the priest walked to the slanted cave wall draped with a cloth. “Here John wrote the Revelation.” Good grief, I thought. I half expected to be shown outside where he relieved himself.
Okay, so maybe all these details are correct. Don’t I also get excited in Israel when I see somewhere I know an event took place? Don’t I also at times venerate the trivial and ignore the essential? Absolutely.
After the brief lecture, I walked over to the window that would have been John’s view out of the cave and cast a glance across the azure Aegean Sea. I pictured myself as John, an old man. Most likely in Ephesus, the aged apostle had already written the inspired Gospel that bears his name. I’m sure he shook his head or his eyes welled up—or both—as he inked his quill and remembered Christ’s wise and patient words, his own immaturities, and the long years it took to get the glory-seeking arrogance out of his pursuits.
Then one Sunday on Patmos, the resurrected Jesus appeared to John and told him to pick up his quill again. “Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches” (Rev. 1:11). The first of those letters went to John’s familiar city—Ephesus.
What if God inspired three books of Scripture for your church and also sent two apostles to minister among you for years? Ephesus got both.
The apostle Paul devoted three years as a missionary living in Ephesus. Later, when imprisoned in Rome, Paul penned the book of Ephesians to this vibrant church. Paul also would write two letters to Timothy, the church’s pastor. Finally, the apostle John lived there and probably wrote the Gospel of John before his exile to Patmos. What great teaching Ephesus received!
No wonder Jesus commended them as John wrote to them from Patmos (see Rev. 2:1–3). They had stood firm in both their deeds and their doctrine for thirty years. Wonderful!
“But I have this against you,” Jesus continued, “that you have left your first love” (Rev. 2:4).
Amazing—this church had received three books of Scripture and two resident apostles! While other churches struggled against heresy, Ephesus had guarded their deeds and doctrine. Yet they had failed to maintain their devotion. Moreover, they had left it.
I imagined myself standing again in Ephesus at the end of the Arcadian Way. The silting of the harbor had removed the city’s economic influence, and now the Aegean Sea sits miles from the ruins.
I began to relate that silting to the spiritual life—the silting of the heart, not the harbor. Grain after grain of busyness, year after year of neglected devotion to Jesus, had finally reduced a church of such doctrinal strength to devotional attrition. The Ephesian Christians had lost their first love by allowing the silt of spiritual indifference to accumulate over the years. It can happen to anyone. Even to you and me.
As believers, we never outgrow the basics. We either build on them or abandon them. We can wake up after a number of years and discover that our lack of passion for Jesus has gradually silted Him five miles away from our hearts. We then find ourselves living in the ruins of once-vibrant spiritual lives. How does this happen?
Our hearts begin to silt when we content ourselves with maintaining a level of godliness that makes cultural Christianity our standard. In other words, compared to most Christians, like Jim or Susan or Pastor Ted, our spiritual life meets the standard. We seem in great shape. Our challenge has become spiritual maintenance rather than spiritual growth. And our hearts fill with silt without our knowing it.
But the pattern for the Christian life has never been other Christians—it is Christ. How easily we can forget that. Do we strive to become like Him or like our Christian culture? Do we give our all to Him—or do we just give what’s necessary to keep up appearances? It takes guts to answer those questions honestly. It takes even more courage to change.
Like the Ephesians, we often feel that godly behavior and orthodox beliefs are all that God expects. But it isn’t. Jesus Christ wants our affections—He wants to be our first love. In every situation in which we live and serve, in every action, our motive should find its root in love for Jesus. The goal is love, and love expresses itself in those ways we often confuse as the goal (see 1 Tim. 1:5). Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength is still the greatest commandment (see Deut. 6:5; Luke 10:27).
“Remember from where you have fallen,” Jesus told them, “and repent and do the deeds you did at first” (Rev. 2:5). Jesus always wants to take us back to where our relationship with Him began—back to our first love.
I think this is why Jesus took His disciples back to Galilee following His resurrection.
After John put down his quill from writing to the Ephesians, he might have closed his eyes and listened. Hearing the sound of the waves run ashore on Patmos, he could have imagined a different shore far away where Jesus had spoken to another who had lost his first love.
“Do you love Me?” Jesus’ question came to Peter. And the question also comes to us.
Everybody wants to grow spiritually until we discover what growing costs us. When the difficulty of love and obedience really hits the Christian life, many stack their crosses in the corner of the courtyard and no longer walk the Via Dolorosa. Like those who hollered to Jesus as He hung dying, “Save Yourself, and come down from the cross!” (Mark 15:30), so we assume we shouldn’t bear a cross either—and because Jesus can remove it, He should. We presume this, even though He has told us the exact opposite.
Jesus was willing to disappoint His disciples so that they would experience the joy of forgiveness of sin—a joy they did not even know to hope for in their blind zeal for glory. Jesus was willing to disappoint everyone but the Father. Ponder that for a moment. Jesus loved His own enough to disappoint them, to allow them to question His power and to struggle against their own weaknesses, in order that they could experience true joy in the long-term.
Jesus is willing to disappoint you for the same reason.
After our ship pulled away from the island of Patmos, the place where God’s revelation came to a close, I could still make out the Monastery of Saint John on top of a hill. Cathy and I sat on deck of the Wind Spirit and read portions of the book of Revelation while we looked at the very place where God inspired John to write it. In a few days, we would be home again, back to the ends of the earth where Christ commissioned us. Back to the crosses He has called us to bear. Back to the privilege of following Jesus.
I don’t think it’s enough to come to the lands of the Bible—or to the Bible itself—just to ask questions or to walk where Jesus walked. Questions about faith should never be simply rhetorical. They must have answers, and the answers must reveal themselves in a changed life. Our questions must also dig deeper to consider why we’re willing to change.
“Do you love Me?”—Jesus already knows our answer. But He asks so that we may know. For therein lies our motivation.
The Aegean Sea beneath our hull and the Sea of Galilee that washed ashore at Tabgha both echoed in my mind. They reminded me of the probing words of Jesus, recorded through John’s pen: “You have lost your first love.” They remind me of Jesus’ gracious command: “You follow Me.”
My life must grow to where all I do flows from a love and an affection for Jesus, who died and rose and will return—out of love for me. What an unspeakable privilege to walk in His footsteps every day.
From Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus, © 2008 by Wayne Stiles (ThM, 1997; DMin, 2004). Published by Regal Books, www.regalbooks.com. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Dr. Stiles serves as executive vice president and chief content officer at Insight for Living.