John, A Fellow Participant in the Kingdom

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

John on Patmos

Commentaries on the book of Revelation include discussions about the identity of John. Who was he? Is he the same person as the Apostle John, the son of Zebedee (John of Patmos does not identify himself as apostle or son of Zebedee)? Some argue the author of the book must be a different John.

Attempts to identify John are important, but it is all too easy to overlook the important role he plays in the narrative of the book.  He provides functional information about what he is and why he is in his situation on Patmos that paint a model for his first-century audience to emulate.

(Revelation 1:9) - “I, John, your brother and fellow-participant in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance in Jesus.”

John introduces himself as “I, John.” In doing so, he uses the emphatic Greek pronoun egō or “I.”  The beginning and end of the vision include this self-identification. A first-person tone permeates the book since it describes things that John saw and heard. Revelation is, thus, a narrative of what John saw, heard, and what he experienced “in the spirit,” beginning with his exile on the isle of Patmos (Revelation 1:9-10, 21:2, 22:8).

When he addresses the churches of Asia, John needs no further introduction besides his name, evidence that he was well-known to the seven assemblies addressed. He ascribes no office or title to himself; instead, he designates himself as their “brother and fellow participant.”

John participates with the churches in “the tribulation, kingdom, and perseverance in Jesus.” He is a partner with the suffering saints of Asia in their times of tribulation, a “fellow-participant.” He stands with the churches, not over them.  In verse 1, he identifies himself as a “slave” or doulos of Jesus Christ, a designation applied to believers throughout the book. (Revelation 2:20, 7:3, 10:7, 11:18, 19:2, 22:3, 22:6).
John is an active participant in the book’s visions and functions as a surrogate for his readers. He does not attempt to hide his occasional missteps. He is the guide of the readers of the book, yet he remains on their level. 

In the opening vision, John finds himself suddenly “in spirit” where he hears a great voice “behind him.” The location of the voice is important; John’s description echoes the words of Ezekiel 3:12 (“The Spirit lifted me up, and I heard behind me the voice of a great rushing, saying, Blessed be the glory of Yahweh from his place”). This background shows that John has been taken unawares by the suddenness of his experience. Whatever he was doing, the vision came upon him unexpectedly, its source was external to him.

He heard the voice “behind him” because he was not looking for it; he was not prepared for the experience and or seeking it through meditation or any similar method.  This was not a self-induced vision; it was a revelation received from Jesus.

John understands some things about what he sees in his visions but, also, he fails to understand what he sees at key junctures.  In the vision of the innumerable multitude, for example, one of the elders asks him the identity of this group. John responds, “My lord, you know.” The elder explains the image by identifying the multitude as the redeemed from every nation that is in the process of coming out of the great tribulation.

Likewise, in his vision of the Throne, John is unable to answer the question, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and its seals?” Not only can he not answer the question, but he also weeps profusely as it is left hanging.  John can give accurate descriptions of what he sees but often does not understand what the images mean; a third party must intervene to explain them (Revelation 4:55:6-1417:7-18).

John is an active participant in his visions.  When commanded, he does exactly what he is told.  He writes only what he is commanded to write.  When ordered to eat the little scroll, he does so.  When directed to measure the temple, he acts promptly and with precision.  He experiences physical sensations.  When he eats the little scroll, he finds it sweet as honey but bitter when swallowed (Revelation 10:4-10, 11:1-2).

When John sees the Great Harlot, who is “drunk with the blood of the saints,” rather than revulsion, he wonders at her “with great wonder.”  This is precisely how the ungodly react to Babylon and the Beast (“they wondered after the beast”). An angel must rebuke John for wondering after the Harlot. This “failure” emphasizes the appeal and seductiveness of the Harlot.  She momentarily seduces even God’s prophet.  This is a warning to the readers of the book, some of whom are being seduced by the “prophetess, Jezebel,” a seductress already inside the churches (Revelation 2:18-23, 13:3, 17:6-7).

When one vision comes to an end, John is overwhelmed and prostrates himself before an angel.  In reaction, the angel rebukes him sternly:

Do not do that!! I am a fellow servant of yours and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus; worship God” (Revelation 22:8-9).

John was a real person who received a vision from an external source.   He reacted to its strange images in many of the same ways Christians have done ever since he wrote them down.  He saw and heard things he did not understand.  When asked to explain what he saw, he was stumped.  Frequently, John required a third party to interpret a vision.

John reacted often with deep emotions. For example, he wept profusely when no one was found worthy to open the scroll.  He experienced sorrow, fear, and wonder.  He was taken in momentarily by the splendor of the Great Harlot.  Twice he made the error of rendering homage to an angel.

It is the reader of the book who benefits from John’s experiences.  Like John, he or she needs the book’s images explained.  At some points, John was able to explain his visions but, at other points, he required interpretations by a third party. By means of his wonderment at the Beast, the reader is warned:  Do not be seduced by its glory or power By his twice-committed error, the reader is forewarned against venerating angels (compare, Colossians 2:18).

John’s role in Revelation is to be a stand-in or surrogate for his readers and, thereby, to involve his audience in his visionary experiences.  John is the vehicle God used to communicate the vision, but the vision is intended for all the churches. The summons to follow the Lamb wherever he goes is a call to participate in the “tribulation and the kingdom and the perseverance in Jesus.”

Comments