The Isle of Patmos - (Rev 1:9)

Synopsis:  Exiled to the isle of Patmos for his testimony, John is a “fellow-participant” in the Tribulation with the suffering churches of Asia.

John on the isle of Patmos
Patmos is a small island in the Aegean Sea approximately ninety kilometers west of Ephesus. It is eleven kilometers long by seven kilometers wide. It is one of the smaller islands of the Sporades archipelago.

Roman literature identified the chain as a place of exile for political offenders (Tacitus, Ann. iii. 68; iv. 30; v. 71).

The island was not 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 other troublemakers. 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. Its purpose was banishment and isolation; it did not necessarily involve forced labor. Only the Emperor could impose this penalty.

(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.”

Later church tradition held John was forced to labor in the mines on Patmos, but this tradition 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). Nor was hard labor necessarily included in his banishment.

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 personal interest in the case of a minor provincial. After A.D. 64 Roman authorities came 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 that included exemption from emperor worship. Once Christianity became illegal believers could be compelled to participate in the imperial cult. The refusal was tantamount to treason, if not insurrection.

A local magistrate might be inclined to leave well enough alone. However, he was required to make inquiries and 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 also was used for “slander,” false accusations. Christians at Smyrna were accused or exposed by opponents to local authorities for activities offensive to Roman sensibilities, accusations that were “slander” in the eyes of Jesus; consequently, some saints faced imprisonment, others were even executed (Revelation 2:8-11).

The emphasis on the poverty in Smyrna suggests economic deprivation as a result of this “slander.” Other passages in Revelation indicate Christian witness meant economic loss (Revelation 3:17-18, 13:1-18).

John came to be on Patmos “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” The preposition dia or “on account of” indicates either John went to Patmos to proclaim the gospel or was banished there because of his preaching activity.

The second alternative is more probable. First, John is a “fellow participant” in the tribulation. Second, in Revelation saints are persecuted for the “testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 6:9, 11:7, 12:11, 12:17, 20:4). Third, the almost identical clause in Revelation 6:9, the “fifth seal,” where martyrs were slain “on behalf of (dia) of the word of God and their testimony (martyria).” And, fourth, “testimony” or martyria has judicial overtones.

The common strategy of the apostles was to evangelize urban centers. Patmos’ isolation and small population made it an unlikely target for gospel preaching.

Internal and external evidence favors the understanding that John found himself on Patmos as the result of legal banishment, which is why he could identify himself with the suffering churches of Asia as a “fellow-participant.”

John does not identify himself as “apostle” or otherwise indicate his official status or authority, he is simply “John.” This suggests he is a known quantity to the churches of Asia. But what better fits his purpose is to identify himself with the plight of his churches.

John is, therefore, a “brother and fellow-participant in the tribulation and kingdom and endurance in Jesus.” “Fellow participant” or sugkoinōnos denotes joint participation; it is related to the Greek for “fellowship” (compare, 1 Corinthians 9:23; Romans 11:17; Philippians 1:7).

In the Greek sentence, a single definite article (“the”) modifies all three nouns (tribulation, kingdom, endurance, all in the dative case). This means the three nouns are grammatically linked; each is part of a whole. To be “in Jesus” means tribulation, kingdom, and endurance, the three characterize what it means to follow the Lamb.

Tribulation” translates thlipsis, a “pressing together,” hence “pressure, distress, trouble, tribulation, affliction.” “Tribulation” is something the church at Smyrna has already experienced and is about to endure again. In his vision of an innumerable multitude, John saw a group “coming out of the great tribulation.” Tribulation is not something to avoid but to endure (Revelation 2:9-10, 7:14).

Tribulation occurs “in Jesus.” In the book of Revelation, tribulation is not something God inflicts on the ungodly, but what faithful Christians endure on account of their testimony (the ungodly undergo “wrath” – 6:16; 11:18; 19:15 – compare, John 16:33, 1 Thessalonians 3:3, 2 Thessalonians 1:4-6).

The churches are participants in the “kingdom.” An inference is that the kingdom or reign of Christ is on some level a present reality; believers already participate in his reign. Already the churches constitute a “kingdom and priests,” a term repeated elsewhere (Revelation 1:6, 5:10, 20:4-6).

When Satan is cast down a voice proclaims, “Now is come the salvation and power and kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ.” The Lamb’s possession of the sealed scroll signifies his authority and worthiness to rule over history and the Cosmos (Revelation 5:5-12, 12:10-11).

Also “in Jesus” is the “endurance.” The call to endure in witness for Jesus 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).

Tribulation, endurance, and the kingdom all take place “in Jesus.” They typify church life because believers are identified with Jesus, the “faithful witness.” Jesus inaugurated the kingdom by his death and resurrection. His disciples reign with Jesus in the kingdom, but they do so while experiencing opposition and persecution (Revelation 1:18, 2:26-27, 5:6-10).