Years ago, in my first ministry, I was mid-stride of my sermon on a Sunday evening when I noticed that one of my elders, an elderly man, was head-back, mouth-opened, and, to me, looked dead. “What do I do? What if he’s dead? What if he isn’t dead? All these questions ran through my mind as my cadence slowed. What made matters worse, he couldn’t hear thunderclap if it were right on top of him. What was I to do? As I continued preaching, I happened upon a point in my sermon that I could build. Nay, I could crescendo! For those unaware, a crescendo is when in music, the score may start soft, or piano, and build and build. My voice built and built as with passion, I preached the Word! Nothing. “Oh no, he’s died in worship!” I thought. What could be worse? Do I stop preaching and point this out? His wife was right beside him but so fixed on what I was saying she didn’t even notice. “I know: I’ll pound on the pulpit!” As I’d reached the heights of my vocal projection, I worked in a timely “pound!” on the pulpit like a gospel preacher of old. Slowly, he revived. “He’s not dead! Thank you, God!!!”
You could ask any preacher about the things they’ve seen from the pulpit, and you’ll hear some exciting stories. Some would be funny, others just sad. Imagine, however, you’re on an island in worship one Sunday, and God gives you a revelation. This is what happened to John the Divine, as he’s later called in church history. Tradition has it that John worshipped in a cave which is today referred to as The Cave of the Apocalypse, a popular pilgrimage site for those who would visit Greece. When he received his vision, John is reported to have dictated it to Prochorus, his disciple, and one of the first seven deacons from Acts 6:5. What was John doing when he received this Revelation? Was he alone or with other Christians? These are all questions that interest us, and some to which we have nothing but to speculate, so we’ll stick with what we know.
Setting the Scene
We know that John was on the island of Patmos when he received the Revelation (1:9). How he came to be there isn’t altogether clear, but the most plausible explanation has been that he was sent to the island due to his evangelistic endeavors, which were perceived as a threat to the Roman Empire. One might wonder how the good news of Jesus might appear to threaten the mighty Roman Empire, but such a query is quickly answered by the fact that preaching Christ as Lord as much pitted Him against Caesar (Acts 17:7). The conversion of citizens amounted to an uprising, so the leaders of Christians, among whom was John, were targeted with the hopes that the movement would be quelled.
We know that political opponents, or those out of favor with Caesar, were often exiled (Tacitus, Ann. 14.50; 15.71), and many have offered that Patmos was one such island to which they were sent, the Apostle John himself being one.1 That it was the apostle and not some other John that wrote the work is attested to as early as 166 CE by Justin Martyr (Trypho 81.15).2 Irenaeus, in 202 CE, offered that John received his revelation “towards the end of Domitian’s reign”3—which was from 81–96 CE. If this is, in fact, accurate as many scholars suggest it is, we have a general time frame in which to set the writing, which may explain much of the material contained therein.4 Domitian was hostile to not only Christians, history records, but to even several senatorial families—murdering and exiling a number of them. This eventually led to his assassination and a formal condemnation from the senate, but, first, let’s back up a little farther.
The first formal Emperor of Rome, Augustus, undertook many religious reforms that resulted in an exaltation of the emperor cult. All first-century emperors favored it too, and Caligula, Nero, and Domitian provoked marks of adoration. Domitian insisted on having the title Dominus et Deus (“Lord and God”). Such worship proved one’s loyalty to the emperor as well as the wellbeing of Rome herself, and where of all places was the most robust center of the imperial cult but in Asia—the very place where John addressed the Revelation. In the ancient world, Asia had been the epicenter of emperor worship since Augustus, and these issues are likely what prompted the persecution and Revelation of John to surface.5
We know where John was—in exile on Patmos—and we now turn to what he was doing when the Revelation came: he was ministering to the Lord, likely through prayer (Rev. 1:10; cf. Acts 13:1–3). Why do we surmise that he was ministering to the Lord? Because he notes that it occurred on the Lord’s Day or Sunday as we’d call it.6 On any given Sunday, Christians assembled to worship God. Since John was in exile, he might have only been with a small group, so the formal assembly, as we regard it, was somewhat absent. John, nevertheless, was still capable of worshiping God and while exiled and in worship, he likely was facing East as was the custom of the Jews and early Christians, and he “came to be in the Spirit” (cf. Acts 10:10; 22:17). John uses this phrase four times altogether in the Revelation: here in 1:10, when he’s taken to see the heavenly throne in 4:2, the prostitute Babylon in 17:3, and the New Jerusalem in 21:10. These visions follow the motif of Ezekiel, who also in exile received visions (Ezek. 11:24; 37:1).
What John Gave Us
The next question is what John gave us: a blueprint of the end times as some believed? Or a message to those in the first century that they clearly would have understood? I certainly favor the latter. John told us at the very beginning what he was giving us: a book of prophecy (Rev. 1:3; cf. 22:7, 10, 18–19). In the first century, we know that prophets were in the church because they are listed second behind only the apostles who were heads of the church on earth in the Lord’s place (cf. 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11). John makes reference to the prophets several times in this letter (Rev. 10:7; 16:6; 18:20, 24; 22:6, 9). Since John gave a book of prophecy, though confusing it may be at times, we must treat it as we would any other book of prophecy: historically and literarily.
On the Western Front during the Great War, the allies were struggling against the Germans. Germany had tapped the allies’ phone lines and was able to break their codes. As American forces are working on a solution, a captain heard two of his soldiers speaking in a strange language. These two soldiers were Choctaw, and they were speaking their mother language. When the captain confronted them, they probably thought they were in trouble because, at the time, such was actually forbidden. They could have been sent to a reeducation program to rid them of using that mother language, but the captain figured that if he couldn’t understand them, then the Germans wouldn’t be able to either. As it turned out, the Germans couldn’t break the code. The war ended not too long after using the Choctaw Code Talkers, and in WWII, the Navajo Code Talkers would take center stage.
Similar to how the Germans couldn’t break the Choctaw code, understanding Revelation is somewhat of a mystery. Because the visions are so mesmerizing and overwhelming shouldn’t mean that we should make the book say something it doesn’t. John inasmuch told us that these things were “signified” (Rev. 1:1). I know folks hold sincerely held beliefs about this speaking about the end times and the signs of the times, but here’s a reality we must face: we cannot use this book to determine when Jesus will come, because no one knows (Acts 1:7; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Peter 3:10). What we know with certainty is that Jesus will come, and when He does, we best be ready.