Isle of Patmos

SYNOPSIS - John was exiled on the Isle of Patmos for his testimony, making him a “fellow participant” with the seven churches in the Tribulation, Kingdom, and Perseverance “in Jesus” - Revelation 1:9.

Island Photo by Marek Okon on Unsplash
Marek Okon on Unsplash
The isle of Patmos is a small island in the Aegean Sea approximately ninety kilometers west of the city of Ephesus. It is eleven kilometers long by seven kilometers wide. It is one of the smaller islands of the Sporades, an archipelago off the west coast of Asia Minor. 
Roman literature identified this island chain as a place for the exile of political offenders (Tacitus, Ann. iii. 68; iv. 30; v. 71).

The island was not a penal colony. It had a population large enough to support a gymnasium, an acropolis, and shrines to the Greek gods Artemis and Apollo. However, its geographic isolation made it an excellent place to banish political undesirables and other troublemakers. It was accessible only 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 partaker with you in the tribulation and kingdom and endurance in Jesus, came to be in the isle that is called Patmos, because of the word of God, and the witness of Jesus.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
Later church tradition claimed 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 during or prior to the Roman period (William Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches). Nor was forced labor necessarily included in his banishment. John only mentions “tribulation,” but this is part of his identification with the churches of Asia also suffering tribulation and persecution.

Another regulation under which individuals were exiled was the sentence of relegatio in insulam. This did not mean the loss of property or civil rights. It 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).

Church Isolated - Photo by sergio souza on Unsplash
By sergio souza on Unsplash
Probability supports this latter option. It is unlikely the emperor would take a personal interest in the case of a minor provincial. After A.D. 64 Roman authorities came to view Christianity as an illegal religion and ceased to be considered a Jewish sect. 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 (Strong’s - #G988). While it can mean “blasphemy” in a religious sense, it also was used for “slander”; that is, false accusations. Christians at Smyrna were accused 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 2:9-10).

The emphasis on Smyrna’s poverty suggests economic deprivation as a result of this “slander.” Other passages in the Book of Revelation demonstrate Christian witness meant an economic setback for the Christians of Asia (Revelation 3:17-1813:15-18).

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 John went to Patmos to proclaim the gospel, or that he was banished there because of his preaching activity elsewhere.

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

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

Lighthouse in Storm - Photo by Michael Krahn on Unsplash
Photo by Michael Krahn on Unsplash

Internal and external evidence favors the understanding that John found himself on Patmos as the result of legal banishment. He, therefore, identified himself with the suffering churches of Asia as a “
fellow-participant.” John does not identify himself as “apostle” or, otherwise, indicate his status or authority; he is simply “John.” This suggests he is a well-known figure to the churches of Asia. However, 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 (Strong’s - #G4791) denotes joint participation; it is related to the Greek term used elsewhere for “fellowship” (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). 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 things characterize what it means to follow him.

Tribulation” translates thlipsis, a “pressing together,” hence “pressure, distress, trouble, tribulation, affliction” (Strong’s - #G2347). “Tribulation” is something the church at Smyrna had experienced already and was 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, 7:9-14).

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” – Revelation 6:16, 11:18, 19:15).

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 of Asia are part of a “kingdom and priests,” a term repeated elsewhere in the book (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, 12:7-11).

Also, “in Jesus” is the “endurance.” The call to endure by bearing faithful witness for Jesus during tribulation and persecution is a theme threaded throughout the Book of Revelation. For example, The assault against believers by the Beast is identified as the “endurance and the faith of the saints” (Revelation 13:10, 14:12). Jesus promised the faithful church at Philadelphia:
  • (Revelation 3:9-10) - “Lo! I give them of the synagogue of Satan, who are affirming themselves to be Jews and are not—but say what is false—lo! I will cause them that they shall have come and shall bow down before thy feet, and shall get to know that, I loved thee. Because thou didst keep my word of endurance, I also will keep thee out of the hour of trial, which is about to come upon the whole habitable world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
Tribulation, endurance, and kingdom all take place “in Jesus.” These things typify church life because believers are identified with Jesus, the “faithful witness.” He inaugurated the kingdom by his death and resurrection. His disciples reign with him in the kingdom, but they do so while experiencing opposition and persecution.

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