The Book of Revelation is one of the most widely debated and misinterpreted books of the New Testament Bible. From the timing of the events disclosed within its chapters to the time in which Revelation was actually written, the shroud of mystery pertaining to the Book of Revelation has yet to be completely unlocked. It is well known, however, that a man named John authored this apocalyptic writing (Rev. 1:4,9). Revelation 1:9 says this man named John was on an island called Patmos when he wrote the Book of Revelation.
According to Rodney W. Francis, author of “The Gospel Faith Messenger,” Patmos is “A sterile island about 30 miles in circumference, in the Aegean Sea, South West of Samos and 45 miles West of Miletus in Asia Minor (Francis, 2015).” Francis goes on to mention that on account of its rocky, barren and desolate nature the Roman government used the island as a place of banishment for criminals. The prisoners were compelled to work the mines of the island. The Emperor Domitian banished the revelator John to this island in A.D. 95 (Francis, 2015). John even says he was there for the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ so more than likely John was a prisoner of the Roman Empire as Paul had also been for testifying about Jesus Christ.
In verse 10 of the text John says he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day when he received the revelation which was to be delivered to the seven churches in Asia. Some biblical commentaries such as Halley’s Bible Handbook state that “the Lord’s Day is celebrated on Sunday the first day of the week in remembrance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Halley, 2014).” This is interesting because John goes on to mention in verse 12 that the One Who spoke to him was “One like the Son of Man,” a term often used to describe Jesus in the Gospels. While analyzing John’s visions as written in the Book of Revelation, it is evident that John addresses the condition of Christ’s church, the sovereignty of God and the return of our Lord and Savior in this apocalyptic literary writing through the fulfillment of prophecy. The uncovering of John’s life and isolation as it pertains to the Book of Revelation is essential to understanding the message he brings forth. So who exactly is this man named John?
John is a son of a fisherman named Zebedee and the brother of another disciple of Christ, James (Matt. 4:21-22). James and John are the second set of brothers to become disciples of Christ directly after the first set of brothers, Andrew and Simon called Peter. It is interesting to note that both set of brothers were fishermen and three of the four brothers formed the inner nucleus of intimate disciples to Jesus (Chadwick, 2016). These four brothers were residents of a place called Galilee which became a huge focal point during the life and ministry of Christ. Galilee was a place mostly known for its political prowess (Callahan, 1998). Fishing was a far less important source of food and income for the people of Israel, since the Philistines and others controlled the seacoast and what fish were available usually came from Lake Galilee and the Jordan River (Hanegraaff, 2008). The statement that Jesus made to Andrew and Simon called Peter after He came upon them makes a little more since now. “Then He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’” (Matt. 4:19) With John having such a close relationship with Jesus it isn’t surprising that John sees Jesus in the Spirit while he was imprisoned on the island of Patmos (Rev. 1:10).
John was also among those present in the Upper Room during the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:13). After the Pentecost, each disciple, now called apostles, were sent out to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission to make disciples of the nations and to preach the gospel to every living creature. So why does John find himself imprisoned on the island of Patmos? After Peter and John were freed from their prison cell in Acts 5:17-20, the angel of the Lord commanded them to go and testify to the people. This the Apostles did until the council took them again, beat them, and charged them not to preach anymore. But “daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.” (Acts 5:40-42). The only other times we here about John are when he and Peter go to Samaria in Acts 8 and in Galatians 2 when He, Peter and James sent Paul and Barnabas to preach to the Gentiles. There isn’t much more mentioned about John after that until we get to the Book of Revelation. The information about John’s exile to Patmos comes from Polycarp, an early second-century bishop who knew John personally who was martyred about A.D. 155, after a lifetime of Christian service and Irenaeus, who had earlier heard Polycarp’s powerful testimony of John and his writings, preserved the story (Anderson, 1984). Irenaeus, from Polycarp, dates the book of Revelation shortly before A.D. 96 (Anderson, 1984). Below is an excerpt from “Reign of Terror” on UNRV History’s page:
On the surface Domitian’s reign consisted of no more ‘terrorizing’ acts than the
emperors that preceded him, but his relationship with the senate and aristocracy
helped to foster a tarnished image. Additionally, his strict moral policies, including religious censorship in the form of Jewish (which in Domitian’s view included
Christians) taxation, helped establish an appearance of persecution that some later
writers mistakenly focused on. His father, Vespasian, had already established a
Jewish tax (fiscus ludaicus) as a form of punishment to the Judeans for their
disloyalty. The proceeds humiliated the Jews by funding the pagan Temple of
Jupiter, but the payments did allow them to continue in their own faith without
recourse from Rome. Domitian sought to expand the tax to anyone who appeared
to live a Jewish lifestyle avoiding the imperial and traditional pagan cults.
This concept included the fledgling Christian community who shared a great deal
of traditional customs and ideology with the Jews. Domitian viewed such mono-
theistic faiths as a form of atheism, since these people denied the true Roman
pantheon. While such an attitude later developed claims of a great Christian
persecution (beginning largely with Christian writers Eusebius and Tertullian), Domitian’s policy remained one of taxing those who refused the Roman pantheon,
not singling out religious deviants for execution or other physical punishments.
These were the political conditions in which John was ministering. Now it can be clearly seen why John is on the island of Patmos in the Book of Revelation. It is equally important to note that execution and banishment were the two main forms of punishment issued by Emperor Domitian of Rome (Anderson, 1984). So where was the church during this time of persecution?
Chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation shows the letters John wrote to the seven churches of Asia according to the instruction he received from Jesus in his vision. A brief background of each church will help in understanding Christ’s message(s). The first church is Ephesus. Jesus commended this church for their hard work, perseverance, intolerance of wicked men, tested false apostles, endured hardships for Christ and had not grown weary (Rev. 2:1-3). However, Jesus says the church had forsaken their first love and were in need of repentance although the church hated the practices of the Nicolaitans which Christ did as well (Rev. 2:4-6). When Paul came to the church at Ephesus, he weeded out the false doctrines and pagan practices (Webster, 2016). The goddess of worship in this city was the Greek goddess Artemis and Diana to the Romans, goddess of fertility (Webster, 2016). This was mostly likely home to John in A.D. 66 (Webster, 2016). Jesus mentioned this church hated the practices of the Nicolaitans. The Nicolaitans were descendants of the Antioch church father Nicolas who believed that total separation between Christianity and occult paganism wasn’t necessary (Renner, 2016). It is easy to see that Jesus is warning them that they are slowly backsliding into the ways of the unbelievers and are in need of serious repentance. Verse 7 of chapter 2 is Christ’s promise to those who overcome the temptation to backslide, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.”
Next, in chapter 1 verses 8-10, Jesus addresses the church of Smyrna which is the city where John’s companion Polycarp was from (Keeth, 2008). The Greek word translated ‘Smyrna’ was used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) to translate the Hebrew word for myrrh, a resinous substance used as a perfume for the living (Matt. 2:11) and the dead (John 19:39) (Keeth, 2008). This is one of the two churches that Jesus commends only. He says He knows of their affliction, poverty and of the slander they have received from the Jews of the synagogue of satan. What exactly did Jesus mean by this? Myrrh’s association with death perfectly pictures the suffering church at Smyrna because like myrrh, produced by crushing a fragrant plant, the church at Smyrna, crushed by persecution, gave off a fragrant aroma of faithfulness to God (Keeth, 2008). The spiritual climate during this time was one of hostility. It was dangerous to be a Christians citizen living in Smyrna because if you failed to acknowledge Caesar as Lord, you could lose your life (Grace to You, 1992). Verse 8 Jesus says He died and came back to life again. This is to assure the church at Smyrna that their suffering will not be in vain so they are to endure even to the point of death. His promise was that, “He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death” (Rev. 2:11), which is the judgment of the world that has yet to come.
The church of Pergamum was not so highly regarded by Christ. This church was commended for its ability to remain true to Jesus by not renouncing their faith in Him (Rev. 2:12-13). However, just as Balaam, they taught the people of the city to sin by sacrificing to idols and engaging in sexual immorality (Rev. 2:14). Unlike the church at Ephesus, Pergamum had some who held to the teachings of the Nicolaitans and so Christ urged them to repent or they would face judgment from the sword of His mount, His Word (Rev. 2:15-16). Pergamum was primarily a church made up of Gentiles who had been converted out of paganism and have now gone back and picked up some of their pagan habits (Grace to You, 1992). By the time John penned this letter, it had been the capital of the Roman province of Asia Minor for somewhere between 250 and 300 years (Grace to You, 1992). Why had this falling away from Christ taken place? Pergamum was the capitol of the Roman Province and of Caesar worship which was required at least once a year by all (Grace to You, 1992). More than likely fear of death gripped this church and initiated their backsliding. Christ promises to give a new name (redeem) to those who take heed to his warning and they will receive hidden manna (He’ll make a way for them to endure their persecution).
Thyatira was by far the smallest city of the seven but received the longest letter from Christ. Christ commended them on their deeds of love, faith, service, perseverance and for doing more than they did at first (Rev. 18-19). Nevertheless, this church tolerated sexually immoral false prophets, such as Jezebel, who sacrificed to idols (Rev. 2:20-23). Those who followed after the ways of Jezebel will suffer intensely and even die (Rev. 2:22-23). Thyatira was a military buffer city to Pergamum and came to be called the city of “unceasing sacrifice” from the damaged it underwent over the years from war (Carr, 2003). This is why Christ commends the church of Thyatira. Their suffering from war and destruction over the years had been tremendous. Unfortunately, there was a temple in the city dedicated to fortune and was the center of occult worship presided over by the female oracle Sambathe (Carr, 2003). Now it becomes clear that Jesus wasn’t talking about the actual woman Jezebel but those who walk in her ways. This city was plagued with occult worship and would suffer greatly without repentance. Jesus promised those who had not followed after Jezebel that He would not impose any other burden on them (Rev. 2:24). Instead, He encourages them to continue to hold on to what they have and He will give them authority over the nations (Rev. 2:25-26).
Sardis, a church known to be alive but is actually dead, is admonished to wake up (spiritually), strengthen what remains and is about to die, remember what they have received (heard), obey and repent (Rev. 3:1-2). In verse 3 Jesus references a future prophecy about His return saying, “Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.” John will explain later in the Book of Revelation what Jesus meant by His coming like a thief in the night. Jesus does tell this church there are some who have not fallen asleep and thus brings hope to the entire church that they may recover from their current spiritual state. Jesus promises to never blot out the names of the spiritually awake from His Book of Life but will acknowledge them before God and the angels (Rev. 3:5).
The city Philadelphia in the United States is known as the “City of Brotherly Love” which is ironic seeing as the church in Asia with the same name was known for the division between the Christians and Jews who dwelt there. Non-Christian Jews accused Christians of being usurpers and insisted that Jews and not Christians had the open door to God’s presence and the keys to the kingdom (Kroll, 2015). Jesus starts by identifying Himself as the One Who is holy and true implying that no one else is. He also reminds the church that He is the One Who holds the key of David (whose bloodline He descended from) and what He opens no one can shut as well as what He shuts no one can open (Rev. 3:7). Isaiah 22:22 mentioned a man named Eliakim who would be a kind of gatekeeper with power to control entry into the royal kingdom and he would decide who could or could not have access to the king (Kroll, 2015). In this metaphor, Jesus is the equivalent of Eliakim. The Jews were claiming that the Christian Gentiles were not God’s people and therefore could not inherit God’s Kingdom. Jesus is reassuring the Gentiles that He has placed a door before them that the Jews cannot shut so they too can inherit God’s Kingdom. These Jews will ultimately have to acknowledge that Christ loves the church. They will recognize that the church is composed of the true people of God, rather than the Jews as a nation (Kroll, 2015). Verse 11 of chapter 3 encourages the Gentiles to hold fast to what they have so that no one can take their crown which is still a reference to the Jews who are attempting to place them in spiritual bondage. This message wasn’t just for the Gentile Christians, however. It was also for the Jews who had converted to Christianity and were therefore labeled as apostate Jews by their families (Kroll, 2015). Once again Jesus goes on the reference another event John prophesies about later in Revelation and that is of the new Jerusalem that is coming down out of the sky (Rev. 3:11-13; 21).
Finally, there is the church Laodicea. This is the only church that does not receive praise from Jesus for anything they have done. Yikes! Jesus introduces Himself as, “the faithful and true witness,” Who spoke and did only what the Father commanded him, no matter the consequences (Kroll, 2015). This is a sharp contrast to the Laodiceans, who witnessed only to their own supposed spiritual works (Kroll, 2015). This church was known for putting their confidence in themselves because of the wealth they collectively held. Notice in verse 17 of chapter 3 when Jesus tells them they are poor, blind and naked. This is because the city of Laodicea was famous for the soft, black wool it produced and its ancient medicine, particularly an eye salve (Kroll, 2015). Each item, finance, wool and eye salve is addressed. It’s interesting how Christ spoke specifically to the churches in ways in which only that church would understand. Christ urges the church buy gold from Him refined in His fire so He can make them rich, clothe them and put salve on their eyes (Rev. 3:18). The person who overcomes will sit with Him on His throne.
Without going any further, we have seen how each letter to the church is ended with a glimpse into the future that has not manifested yet, even to this day. If Christ has already mentioned these future events, why does He go to great lengths to explain them further in the Book of Revelation? Perhaps the original intention was for the seven churches to receive a more in-depth description of what He was referring to so that each church may respond accordingly. We have always been taught that the Book of Revelation was for everyone in every age since it is a book of prophecy, however, it is clearly displayed here that the book’s original audience was the seven churches of Asia.
John and the Book of Revelation
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