John of Patmos: A Controversial but Possible Portrait
WHO WAS THE AUTHOR OF REVELATION?
It was during the latter half of the first century that a man prepared to embark on a short voyage to an insignificant island in the Mediterranean. Ordinary as the trip must have seemed to his fellow travelers, it was destined to cause ripples in history that have still not abated.
The man called himself John, and the departing port was most likely Ephesus, a bustling city of almost half a million. The greatest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World dominated its prosperous life: the famed Temple of Artemis. No doubt John heard the Ephesians quote the poet Antipater, who had seen the wall of lofty Babylon on which was a road for chariots, who had visited the hanging gardens, and the magnificent statue of Zeus at Olympia, and the Colossus of Rhodes, and the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus. But when he saw the house of Artemis reaching to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and he declared, “Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on anything so grand.”
John, however, was not impressed. He was longing for the time when this temple would come crashing down. Soon, he hoped.
All this luxury, all this grandeur—he was sick of it. He couldn’t bear the tunes of the harpists and minstrels, flutists and trumpeters celebrating the gods. He hated the sight of people dressed in fine linen of purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, jewels, and pearls.
Showing off. Clamoring. Living.
The sound of the millstone filled the air. Lights shown through the windows of houses in which artists pursued their craft. In a courtyard adorned with flowers, a bridegroom and a bride laughed in celebration, their friends and family clapping joyously.
“It will all be silenced. It will all be thrown down,” John might have mumbled to himself as he shielded his eyes from the opulence around him and made for the harbor.
But it was no better there. The port was the hubbub of commerce. Merchants ordered servants around to load and unload cargo: iron, bronze, silver, gold, silk, and cloth; scented wood, ivory, and marble; cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots. And slaves. Human lives.
Did John only think of condemning this thriving culture when he arrived at the isolation of the island? Perhaps. Or perhaps even now he spoke under his breath: “All your dainties and your splendor will be lost to you, never to be found again. You will all weep and mourn. All you shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and merchants—you will all cry at the loss of your riches. It will happen. Soon. And then it will be my time to rejoice.”
John, we have to understand, was a radical. He deemed the materialism of affluent Roman society an enemy of God. But not only that. He also ran counter to many of his fellow Christians. It appears that he had just visited the cities that lay along the main commerce road of what is now western Turkey, and he had found the state of the church appalling.
Laodicea, for one, that center of wool trade and monetary transaction. Had not the Master said that you cannot serve both God and Mammon? Well, the Christians there were trying to serve both, John thought. Rich and satisfied, they were. Spiritually lukewarm. If they did not renounce this world, the Master would spit them out of His mouth. They would go to the place where all worshippers of Mammon were going.
The same in Sardis. With few exceptions, the whole church was spiritually dead. Unless they became more radical and stopped being out to gain the acceptance of society, their names would be blotted out of the Book of Life.
And in Thyatira he had met a woman teacher whose Christianity was so liberal that she even encouraged others to eat the normal meat from the marketplace, which had been sacrificed to idols. God was bound to intervene soon, though. She and all her followers would feel the brunt of God’s disciplinary action, of this John was sure.
Similar teachings were spreading in Pergamum, and in the great metropolis Ephesus the Christians were so caught up in their daily lives that they had lost their initial zeal for God.
But there was hope. A minority of believers was not under the spell of Mammon. They were poor and vulnerable in this world, yet strong in God. Some of them lived radically enough to suffer persecution, such as the dear believers in Philadelphia and Smyrna, who had run into repeated problems with the local synagogue leaders. And in Pergamum one Christian had even been killed for his faith, just like Jesus. A martyr.
In John’s view, the church needed more martyrs: people who were willing to live in direct opposition to their own culture. Some were doing it, and they had to be encouraged, but all the others needed a wake-up call. “Come out of her, my people!”—This was the message the Christians needed to hear. “Separate yourself from the godless society around you, from the money and luxury, the feasting and singing, the marrying and toiling. Come out and seek the Lord!”
This, at least, John intended to do on the island to which he was headed. The ship was leaving the harbor now, and already he was feeling better as the noises of the merchants were swept away by the wind of the open sea. After months of pagan city life, God’s sun shining on the clear turquoise of the Mediterranean water must have felt to John like a welcoming presence from on high.
Yes, he was going to Patmos, one of many small islands between Macedonia and Asia Minor. Hardly anyone was living there. Solitude.
Why he was going? Well, he himself only said it was “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev. 1:9). This might mean that he was banished there by the Roman authorities for having stirred up too much trouble on behalf of the Christian message. It is doubtful, however, that someone who did not hold any influential position in the empire would be silenced by exile. Senators, relatives of the emperor, government officials, high ladies, famous poets and philosophers—all those might for one reason or another be sent into exile. But some leader of what was seen as merely a quarrel within Judaism? Someone who was most likely not even a Roman citizen, such as Paul had been? There were more expedient ways to silence a non-citizen quarrel maker.
Still, one shouldn’t rule it out. There could have been factors we are not aware of.
But it is equally possible that the phrase “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” simply means that John went to Patmos voluntarily in order to seek God. One clear message in the Book of Revelation is that Christians ought to separate themselves from Roman society, which John viewed as being on the brim of destruction. What better way of putting his own message into practice than fleeing the madness himself? And what more convincing place from which to write such a message than a remote island?