Walking On Oil

The blue sky and the blue sea melted into a luminescent white mist, obscuring the horizon. The Aegean Sea was an undulating pool of glass with the waves splashing softly. Above, the sky was a bright, deep blue, streaked with some high white clouds. John was standing on the eastern edge of a small peninsula. Everywhere he looked he saw blue or white; everywhere except the island behind him. The sea always made him think of Lake Tiberius. Even in Ephesus, when he went down to the shore he would look at the sea and long for the lake. Sometimes, when the commander was away, the soldiers would take him fishing. But it was never the same. The sea was nothing like the lake. The water was salt, the fish were different. And sitting in the boat with your gaoler was nothing like fishing with James and Peter.

Turning around he could see the hill rising up in a vain effort to assert itself over the island. For some reason he always thought of the transfiguration mount when he looked at the hill. Mount Tabor rose up out of the plain where it dominated the skyline for miles and miles; this mount rose out of the sea to become the highest place on a tiny, hilly island. There were some mountains near Ephesus. They towered over the river valley like towers in a mighty fortress. And the Temple Mount always gave one pause to see it—or it used to.

A tear came to his eye as he thought about the Temple. It and much of Jerusalem had been destroyed. But that was not enough. The Romans had to vanquish Masada too. Some god this emperor’s brother had been. A devil was more like it. He had all but said so to the emperor’s face.

Libel was the charge. And through a series of strange events the accusation had brought him to this lonely island. Patmos. It could have been worse. Domitian could have had his way. Instead, the governor sent him here, with a warning from the emperor that the only way off the island was to walk across the water. Apparently Domitian thought that was funny.

John turned back to the sea. He stepped carefully. His foot went straight through the water to the sand below. Every day he tried, knowing that it was nearly twice as far to the nearest island as it was across Lake Tiberius. And while ten Roman miles might not seem far, he kept thinking about Peter. John could not help but remember that night and Peter’s account of it.

Peter stood up and looked at his friends. The eyes of his friends were full of fear, all that is, except for John. Not that John wasn’t afraid, but that John had heard and, in spite of his fear, was looking at him with encouragement. Had the apparition called him?

The wind howled, blew spray on him and seemed to suck the breath out of him. He almost sat down, but caught John’s eye. “He did call you,” John mouthed, or maybe said, but the wind blew the words away. How, then, did either of them hear the call? Peter glanced out at the approaching apparition. Had it called him? It wasn’t a ghost was it? Then he really looked at it.

Once again, it called him. Fear vanished. It was, it really was their friend. Joy filled his soul. He looked at the apparition, stepped up over the gunwale, then down. The surface held. He took another step. Still firm. His courage grew. Another step. It was solid! He could walk, just like…

A gust of wind blew hard against him, his cloak flapping. He pulled it around him and lifted his right foot. As he stepped the fury of the wind nearly blew him over. Fear welled up inside him and he looked at the wind. Fear overcame him. He actually saw the wind. It was just air, but he could see it.

Instantly, he was soaked, trying to swim in the fury of the storm. Frantically, he searched for Jesus, hollering, “Lord, save me!”

Jesus reached out, took his hand and pulled him up. Standing on the surface of the lake they stepped into the boat together.

Peter did walk on the water; but he also sank into the sea. John knew he couldn’t walk across the sea: he really was afraid that, just like Peter, he might sink. Besides, where would he go? Jerusalem was gone. The governor of Asia had sent him here, he could not go back to Ephesus. It may have been the governor’s orders, but it was with the emperor’s approval.

Nero had been crazy, John thought, but these Flavian emperors were tyrants. Vespasian had been a relief at first, then he sent his son, Titus, to Jerusalem. This Domitian, however, was a shrewd tyrant. But it was worshiping the emperor and his family that really angered John. Domitian’s first act as emperor was to proclaim the dead emperor, his brother Titus, a god. And John had expressed his doubts as to Domitian’s ability to make a man a god. “God became man once, but man can never become God,” he preached. That was twelve or thirteen years ago. Still, people remembered.

It really was a poor charge against him, but the emperor was paranoid. He had begun a purge all of those who opposed him. The purge was not religious, it was political. Many Patricians and Equestrians had been exiled and some had been executed. And Christians, by refusing to even pretend to worship Jupiter and Minerva, much less Domitian himself, had been caught up in the purge.

John had answered the emperor simply, but truthfully. At one point he thought Domitian might just whip him. But the emperor would not tolerate what he called libel and the death sentence had been proclaimed. Then John had done a very stupid thing. He called out to the emperor, asking, “So you say that Titus is a god? Did he walk on water? I saw Jesus walk across Lake Tiberius. Where is Titus now? Jesus I saw rise again after you Romans crucified him. And later I saw him ascend into heaven. Where are your brother’s bones? They’re still in your mausoleum. What kind of god did you make him, that he is still in the grave?”

Silence filled the court like a heavy, oppressive fog. John almost laughed as Domitian began to turn purple. “Fill a cauldron!” the emperor ordered, choking with rage on the words, “fill it with oil and make the fire blue hot. Strip him and parade him naked through the streets to the cauldron. Build steps. He can step up to the rim and walk across the boiling oil. Then we will know who is a god.”

It wasn’t huge. Maybe four feet in diameter. A big black iron tub mounted on stones over a roaring fire. Just off to the side were the steps, newly made, and ready for his ascent.

“If you get to the other side, just jump down. I didn’t build any steps for that side.” The centurion laughed.

John grinned, “Well, the emperor told you to build one set of steps. Why make jokes about following orders? The God of Heaven will take care of me no matter what happens, but who will take care of you?”

The centurion growled, “The fire is not hot enough. You, Archelus, guard him. Send for me when the flames turn blue.”

It took several minutes for the blue flames to begin licking the sides of the cauldron. The heat forced everyone back a couple of feet. A messenger took off after the centurion and John began to feel fear.

John began to pray. In the middle of his prayer he had a vision. It was a memory of the twelve in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was walking toward them over the water. Peter stepped out of the boat and walked a couple of steps, then sank. Jesus reached down, pulled Peter up to the surface and they stepped into the boat. Afterward, Peter had described it to all of them. “It was because I was afraid,” he said, “if I had trusted Jesus I would not have sunk. I took my eyes off of Him. I looked at and saw the wind and fear overcame me.” John had not forgotten those words.

Then a second vision came to John. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were standing before the fiery furnace. John could see them being cast into the furnace and Jesus walking in the furnace with them.

His third vision was Paul before Nero. It was much like his appearance before Domitian. Paul was preaching. He tried hard to convert Nero, but Nero was lost. Then John saw something amazing. Nero was lost because he wanted to be lost. And John knew that this Domitian would not believe even if John did walk across the boiling oil.

He kept at his prayers even when he heard the noise of the emperor approaching. The centurion barked orders at him. He stood up and walked toward the cauldron. Heat blasted from under it. Some soldiers shoved the steps up against the cauldron. He climbed up and stood at the edge. Domitian was saying something, but he paid no attention.

The surface of the oil was smooth. Odd, he thought, the oil should be boiling. Maybe, just maybe, the Lord was going to give him this unwanted miracle. But no, it wasn’t about him, it was about Domitian. The emperor wanted to see this miracle. He would make a plaything of John. Somehow claim that he, Domitian, had made the miracle. No, John thought, there would be no miracle today.

“Domitian!” The emperor looked up, shocked that this prisoner should address him as an equal. “The Lord has given you today, Domitian, to know that He loves you. He wants you to repent and be saved. He has cleared your schedule. You will get no petitioners today. No generals will seek audience. Today you will be in solitude, to pray and to repent. You will see no miracle here. The Lord loves you, Domitian, he knows your heart. He will not give you this fancy. You will not make a show of me. I will sink into the oil, but it is you who will burn.”

Before Domitian could speak, he jumped feet first into the cauldron. The oil was hot, but not hot enough to kill him quickly. He would be in the oil for a long time before it finally burned him enough to kill him.

Eventually the soldiers pulled him out of the oil. Domitian and the crowd had left immediately after he had jumped into the cauldron. He did have some burns, which the soldiers treated. The soldiers who pulled him out of the oil were excited. They reminded him of children telling their parents about the games. “Who is this Jesus?” they asked, “what kind of god is he?” “Is he equal to Jupiter or is he more like Neptune or Apollo?” “How did he keep the oil from burning you?” John was amazed at the comments about the emperor. They whispered, “Did you hear the emperor yell when you jumped into the cauldron?” and “You were right, he did burn!” and “You could see fear in his eyes.”

There were five or six soldiers coming and going while his burns were treated. They transferred him to a prison cell. There he told them about Jesus. They came when they were off duty, sometimes late at night, bringing their friends with them. He told them about Adam and Eve, explaining sin to them. He told them how Jesus was born and how he died as payment for their sin, too. He explained repentance and being born from above. And he told them to love one another. Then one night they brought pitchers of water and asked to be baptized. So he reached through the bars of the cell and poured water over each one in turn. Later, he learned from them that the governor was unhappy about this. “He will turn all my soldiers into Christians!” and so it was decided to send him to Patmos.

The sun was up above the mist that still obscured the horizon. The wispy clouds had drifted away leaving the sky the same crystal blue as the sea. Waves gently splashed at his feet. It was going to be another hot day. He headed back to the cave he used for shelter wondering what his Lord had prepared for him to do this day.


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

John was exiled on Patmos for eighteen months. During that time he was given the visions that became The Revelation to John, the last book in the New Testament. Domitian’s paranoia ended with a successful assassination conspiracy and the Senate proclaiming Nerva the new emperor. One of Nerva’s first acts was to pardon the exiles and permit them to come home. It would be another two centuries before the Roman emperor accepted Christ Jesus.

This story is adapted from an old legend. Many years ago I read that St. John had tortured by being boiled in oil, but that he survived.

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