SYNOPSIS – Exiled to the isle of Patmos, John is a “fellow-participant” in the tribulation with the seven churches of Asia – Revelation 1:9.
The opening vision follows the introduction of John who was exiled to the isle of Patmos off the west coast of Asia Minor for the “testimony of Jesus.” He does not begin his story by holding up his apostolic credentials but, instead, by identifying himself with the plight of the churches in Asia. Though isolated on Patmos, nevertheless, he is a “fellow-participant” with the churches in the “tribulation and kingdom in Jesus.”
(Revelation 1:9) – “I, John, your brother and fellow-participant with you in the tribulation and kingdom and endurance in Jesus, was on the isle that is called Patmos for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”
Patmos included a penal colony. The island had a large enough population to support a gymnasium, an Acropolis, and religious shrines to the Greek gods Artemis and Apollo. Its geographic isolation made it an excellent location to banish political undesirables – It was only accessible by ship.
Political offenders could be exiled under the penalty of deportation – in insulam. This included the confiscation of property and the loss of civil rights. The purpose was banishment and isolation – It did not necessarily involve forced labor.
Church tradition held that John was forced to labor in the mines on Patmos; however, this is uncorroborated and there is no evidence that mines ever existed on the island – (William Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches).
Another regulation under which individuals were exiled was relegatio in insulam. This did not mean the loss of property or civil rights. This sentence could be imposed by a provincial governor if he exiled the offender to a location within his jurisdiction – Patmos belonged to the province of Asia. According to the church father Tertullian, John was exiled under this law – (De Praescript. Haer. 36).
It is unlikely the emperor himself would take any interest in the case of a minor provincial like John. After A.D. 64, Roman authorities began to view Christianity as an illegal religion. It ceased to be considered a Jewish sect, and under Roman law Judaism was a legal religion with defined legal rights. Once Christianity became illegal believers could be compelled to participate in the imperial cult or pay the penalty for refusing to do so.
A local magistrate might be inclined to leave well enough alone. However, he was required to make an inquiry and to undertake prosecution when warranted. If someone charged a Christian for refusing to acknowledge the divine dignity of the emperor, the local magistrate would have had little choice but to investigate and to mete out the required punishment if the person was found guilty.
In the second chapter, the letter to Smyrna describes the “slander of them who say they are Jews and are not,” which uses the Greek noun blasphémia for “slander.” While the term can mean “blasphemy” in a religious sense, in this context, it more likely denotes “slander” or false legal charges made against believers. Consequently, some saints in Smyrna faced imprisonment, loss of property, even execution – (Revelation 2:9-10).
John found himself on Patmos “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” The preposition dia or “on account of” indicates either that he went to Patmos to proclaim the gospel, or that he was banished there because of his preaching activity. The second alternative is the more probable one – John was a “fellow participant” in the “tribulation and the endurance.”
Internal and external evidence favors the understanding that John was exiled to Patmos as the result of legal banishment. This explains why he identified so readily with the suffering churches of Asia – He was their “fellow-participant.
John does not hold up his apostolic authority. He is simply “John,” which suggests he is a known quantity to the churches of Asia. More relevant, he aligns himself with their plight – He is a “brother and fellow-participant in the tribulation and kingdom and endurance in Jesus.”
He introduces himself to his readers simply as “I, John,” using an emphatic Greek pronoun egō – “I, myself.” The beginning and the end of the book include this self-identification. A first-person tone permeates the entire work – It describes things that John saw and heard – (Revelation 1:9-10, 21:2, 22:8).
“Fellow participant” or sugkoinōnos denotes joint participation. It is related to the Greek term rendered “fellowship” elsewhere – (1 Corinthians 9:23, Romans 11:17, Philippians 1:7).
The single Greek article or “the” in the clause modifies all three nouns – (tribulation, kingdom, endurance). This means the three nouns are grammatically linked – Each is part of a whole. To be “in Jesus” means tribulation, kingdom, and endurance, what it means to follow the Lamb, and to “participate” with his servants in the kingdom.
“Tribulation” translates thlipsis, a “pressing together,” hence “pressure, distress, trouble, tribulation, affliction.” “Tribulation” is something already experienced by the church at Smyrna, and which it is about to endure again.
In a later vision, John will see an innumerable multitude “coming out of the great tribulation.” In Revelation, “tribulation” is not something God inflicts on the ungodly but, instead, it is what faithful Christians endure on account of the “testimony of Jesus” – (Revelation 7:9-14).
Likewise, the churches participate in the “kingdom.” An inference is that the kingdom is a present reality. When they experience the “tribulation” the churches also participate in the kingdom. Believers already participate in the reign of Jesus; already, the churches constitute a “kingdom and priests” – (Revelation 1:6, 5:10, 20:4-6).
Also, to be “in Jesus” includes “endurance.” The call to endure is a theme threaded throughout Revelation. Jesus promised the Philadelphians that “because you kept the word of my endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial.” The assault against the “saints” by the “Beast from the sea” is identified as the “endurance and the faith of the saints” – (Revelation 2:2-3, 2:19, 3:10, 13:10, 14:12).
John is an active participant in the visions recorded in the book and functions as a surrogate for his readers. He does not attempt to hide his occasional missteps. He is the guide for the readers of the book, yet he remains one of them.