SYNOPSIS: The book of Revelation is addressed to seven actual churches in the province of Asia in the first century and sent by John from exile on the isle of Patmos on account of the Gospel – Revelation 1:8-20.
The opening vision centers the reader’s attention on Jesus Christ and his care for the churches of Asia. At least one assembly faced imminent persecution. John does not begin by holding up his apostolic credentials but, instead, identifies himself with the plight of the churches. He is a “fellow-participant” with them in the tribulation.
The first vision consists of two segments: John’s vision of the Risen Christ walking among his churches, and seven messages from Jesus to the seven “messengers” of the churches. The vision includes the commissioning of John, a description of what he saw, and its interpretation.
Patmos – (Revelation 1:9) – “I, John, your brother and fellow-participant with you in the tribulation and kingdom and endurance in Jesus, was in the isle that is called Patmos for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”
The island of Patmos was a penal colony; it had a large enough population to support a gymnasium, an Acropolis, and shrines to Artemis and Apollo. But its geographic isolation made it an excellent location to banish political undesirables and 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. Only the Emperor could impose that penalty.
Later church tradition held that John was forced to labor in the mines on Patmos; however, this is uncorroborated. There is no evidence that mines ever existed on the island in the Roman period (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 the offender was exiled 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).
Probability supports this latter option. It is unlikely the emperor 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 rights. Once Christianity became illegal believers could be compelled to participate in the imperial cult.
A local magistrate might be inclined to leave well enough alone. However, he was required to make an inquiry and to undertake prosecution, if warranted, if someone accused a Christian of refusing to acknowledge the divine dignity of the emperor. If a Christian so refused a local magistrate had little choice but to convict him or her and mete out the required punishment.
The letter to Smyrna describes the “slander of them who say they are Jews and are not,” which uses the Greek noun blasphémia. While it can mean “blasphemy” in a religious sense, it more likely denotes “slander” or false accusation in this context. Christians were accused to local authorities by their opponents for activities offensive to Roman sensibilities, but accusations that were “slanderous” in the eyes of Jesus. Consequently, some saints faced imprisonment, loss of property and privilege, even execution (Revelation 2:9-10).
John came to be on Patmos “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” The preposition dia (“on account of”) indicates either he went to Patmos to proclaim the gospel or was banished there because of his preaching activity. The second alternative is more probable; John is a “fellow participant” in the tribulation.
Internal and external evidence favors the understanding that John found himself on Patmos as the result of legal banishment. This explains why he identified so readily with the suffering churches of Asia, 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. More relevant, he aligns himself with the plight of his churches. He is a “brother and fellow-participant in the tribulation and kingdom and endurance in Jesus.”
“Fellow participant” or sugkoinōnos denotes joint participation (Strong’s – #G4791); it is related to the Greek for “fellowship” (1 Corinthians 9:23, Romans 11:17, Philippians 1:7). The single Greek article (“the”) in the clause modifies all three nouns (tribulation, kingdom, endurance), which 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” (Strong’s – #G2347). Tribulation is something already experienced by the church at Smyrna and 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 what faithful Christians endure on account of their testimony (Revelation 7:9-14).
The churches participate in the “kingdom.” An inference is the kingdom or reign of Christ is a present reality. If they experience the “tribulation” now, they 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 the “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 test.” The assault against believers by the Beast is identified as the “endurance and the faith of the saints” (Revelation 2:2-3, 2:19, 3:10, 13:10, 14:12).
“I came to be in Spirit in the Lord’s Day”
John declared, “I came to be in spirit in the Lord’s day.” The verb is ginomai, “to become, to come to be.” It signifies a change of condition or state. The tense is a past action seen in its entirety. “I came to be” depicts a singular event at a specific point in time. John found himself suddenly “in spirit.”
“I came to be in the spirit in the Lord’s Day” is balanced with the preceding clause, “I came to be on the isle called Patmos.” Both use the first person and the aorist tense form of ginomai and the preposition en (“in”). This is a link between John’s receipt of the vision and his banishment.
The repetition of the preposition en marks a spatial contrast. Roman magistrates may have placed John on Patmos, but Jesus, “in the spirit” placed him in the day of the Lord, where he saw the whole situation from Christ’s perspective.
The single occurrence of ginomai in verse 10 is modified by two prepositional clauses: “I came to be in spirit in the Lord’s Day,” more literally reads, “I came to be in spirit in the lordly day.” John found himself “in spirit” and “in the Lord’s day.” Both nouns are the indirect objects of the verb, “came to be.”
Whatever “Lord’s day” refers to is part of this “in spirit” experience; John found himself “in the Lord’s day” as a result of being “in spirit.” The “Lord’s day” more accurately translates as “lordly day.” There is no evidence that the church ever designated Sunday the “Lord’s Day” in the first century, a tradition not attested before the late second century A.D.
“In the spirit” and similar terms refer to out of the ordinary visionary experiences. Revelation uses the same term four times and at key literary junctures to describe John finding himself “in spirit” (Revelation 4:2, 17:3, 21:10).
Elsewhere in Scripture, the “day of the Lord” refers to a coming day of judgment on the wicked and vindication of the righteous, not the first day of the week. This is the intended sense here (compare Isaiah 13:6, Joel 1:15, 2:31, Amos 5:18, Obadiah 15, Zephaniah 1:7, Malachi 4:5, 1 Corinthians 5:5, 1 Thessalonians 5:2).
Having found himself “in spirit,” John was projected into “the day of the Lord.” The book of Revelation does not use the term “day of the Lord” again; however, note several similar clauses:
- “The great day of their wrath has come” – (Revelation 6:17).
- “The great day of God, the Almighty” – (Revelation 16:14).
- “In one day, her plagues will come” – (Revelation 18:8).
Four times John “came to be in spirit” – each time he was transported to a different location. He “came to be in spirit” before the Throne, in the “wilderness,” and on a “great and high mountain” before New Jerusalem (Revelation 1:8-10, 4:2, 17:3, 21:10).
“I heard behind me a Great Voice like a Trumpet”
Upon hearing a great voice, John turned to see one like “a son of man in the midst of the seven lampstands.” The “great voice like a trumpet” alludes to Exodus 19:16-18 where Mount Sinai was covered by a thick cloud with thunder and lightning. All Israel heard “a loud trumpet’s voice” out of the cloud and trembled.
“What you see write in a scroll”
John is to record all that he sees, the stress being on the visual aspect (though John also “hears” many things). He is to send all that he writes to seven churches in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. The order in which the cities are listed is the same sequence by which a traveler from Patmos would visit each after landing in Ephesus.
“Write what you see in a scroll” is a verbal allusion to Habakkuk 2:2: “Yahweh answered me and said, ‘Write the vision, make it plain on tablets that one may read it swiftly.” This passage was already echoed in Revelation 1:3, “The one who reads,” that is, the things written in the prophecy. The Habakkuk passage was Yahweh’s response to the prophet’s complaint; How could a just God allow an attack by Babylon against Judah?
John is commissioned to record a vision for all to read that lays out the final chapter of God’s redemptive plan for His people. John must write it all down in a scroll to make it plain to the churches of Asia.
One Like a Son of Man
John sees a figure like a “son of man” walking among seven golden lampstands and holding seven stars. This develops the themes of suffering, kingdom, and priesthood from the Prologue. Christ as the judge is now added to the mix with imagery drawn from Old Testament passages.
The opening line echoes Zechariah 4:1-2. An angel roused the prophet to behold another round of visions: “once more the angel who was speaking with me roused me up, just as a man might be roused up out of his sleep.” John saw one “like a son of man,” a human figure. As the vision unfolds, it becomes clear this is the Christ exalted with all authority. The voice that mediates the vision is, therefore, that of Jesus (Daniel 7:13-14).
Additional language from the Book of Zechariah is present. John sees “seven golden lampstands.” This refers to the stands that hold lamps, not to the lamps themselves. After the “son of man” figure, the seven “lampstands” and “stars” are the central features of the vision. Zechariah also saw a “lampstand all of gold,” in his case, a single lamp with seven branches like the seven-branched Menorah in the Tabernacle. John sees seven lampstands rather than one with seven branches (Exodus 25:31-40).
The lampstands suggest a sanctuary setting. John sees the Son of Man walking among the lampstands while attending to them. The priests in the Tabernacle also tended lamps, trimmed their wicks and removed old ones, and replenished with oil where needed. The “one like a son of man” alludes to the Greek Septuagint version of Daniel 7:13-14:
“Behold, with the clouds of the heavens one like a son of man was coming, and he approached the Ancient of days and before him they brought him near; and to him were given dominion and dignity and kingship.”
The son of man is arrayed in a full-length robe adorned with a golden belt, all of which points to his priestly office (Leviticus 8:1-13). The description of the Son of Man’s glorious appearance borrows heavily from the tenth chapter of the Book of Daniel:
(Daniel 10:5-6) – “Then lifted I up mine eyes and looked, and, behold, a man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with the bright gold of Uphaz, whose body was like Tarshish-stone and his face like the appearance of lightning, and his eyes were like torches of fire and his arms and his feet like the look of bronze burnished, and the sound of his words was like the sound of a multitude.”
In Daniel’s final vision, a man “clothed in linen” gave him an understanding of what would befall his people in later days. The predicted events were described in Daniel chapters 11-12. The Book of Revelation alludes to this because of its focus on what happens to God’s people in “latter days.” The voice John heard “like the sound of a multitude” also echoes this vision of Daniel.
The “sword” wielded by the Son of Man is not held in either hand; instead, it flashes out of his mouth. This symbol of a double-edged sword occurs several more times in the Book of Revelation. It symbolizes the authoritative word of Jesus and is reminiscent of two additional messianic passages, Isaiah 11:4 and Isaiah 49:2 (“He made my mouth like a sharp sword” – Also, Revelation 2:12, 2:16, 19:15-21).
John reacted to this overwhelming sight and “fell at his feet as dead.” This another parallel from Daniel 10:1-14 – Daniel found himself “in a deep sleep upon his face with his face to the earth.”
The Son of Man next proclaimed, “I am the first and the last, the living one, and I became dead and living am I unto the ages of the ages! And I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” “First and last” alludes to three passages from the Book of Isaiah:
- (Isaiah 41:4) – “I, Yahweh, first, and with them who are last.”
- (Isaiah 44:5-6) – “Thus says Yahweh, I am first and I last.”
- (Isaiah 48:9-15) – “I am the same, I the first, yea, I the last.”
“First and last” parallels the claim of God in Revelation 1:8 (“I am Alpha and Omega”). Jesus lays claim to this high privilege because of his obedient death. As a result, he now rules with God from the Throne and with absolute authority (Revelation 3:21-22).
“I am the living one and I became dead.” This refers to his Death and Resurrection, and it grounds the visions of Revelation in the sacrificial death of Jesus. He is highly exalted because of his faithful obedience unto death (Philippians 2:6-11).
“I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” This signifies the authority Jesus now possesses. Death is an enemy of God and destined for destruction. Hades is the abode of the dead corresponding to the Hebrew concept of Sheol. With his exaltation, even hostile cosmic forces are subservient to Jesus.
More important, death no longer has the final word over the destiny of the churches. God promised his “servant, Eliakim the son of Hilkiah,” to lay upon him “the key of the House of David…to open and none shut” (Isaiah 22:20-25, Revelation 20:14, 21:1-4).
“Write what things you saw, what they are, and what will come to pass after them.” In the Book of Daniel, a man in linen promised to show Daniel “what will happen to your people in the last of the days.” Jesus now reveals to his churches “what things must soon come to pass.” The “last days” have arrived with his Death and Resurrection. What was once remote is now at hand; “soon” rather than “in later days” (Daniel 10:1-14, Revelation 1:1-3, 1:19, 4:1-2, 22:10).
John must write down all the things he saw, what they “are,” and what “things are going to come to pass” after them. What he “saw” refers to the visions of the book. What they “are” refers to the interpretations of the visions given in it. “Are” translates the Greek verb eimi, here in the plural number and present tense. This understanding is demonstrated in the next verse. John saw “seven lampstands“; however, in reality, “they are” (eisin) “seven churches.” Likewise, the seven stars “are” seven “messengers” or angels.
This same verbal formula is used elsewhere to introduce interpretations. For example, the seven “lamps of fire” ARE (eisin) the “seven Spirits of God“; the “seven horns” and “seven eyes” ARE (eisin) the “seven Spirits of God,” the golden “bowls of incense” ARE (eisin) the “prayers of the saints.” The Two Witnesses ARE (eisin) “two lampstands” (Revelation 4:5, 5:6-8, 11:4).
“The mystery of the Seven Stars and the Seven Lampstands.” The “mystery” is that the seven stars and lampstands symbolize seven “messengers” and seven “churches.” The Book of Revelation interprets its visions symbolically, not literally. The Greek term translated “messenger” may refer to human or angelic messengers. At this point, it is not clear which is meant. But the pronounced blessing on “he who reads and they who hear” its words may be a clue. Did John send one messenger to read the book in each of the seven churches, or were seven men dispatched to each city with a copy for each of the seven congregations?