The Visions of John of Patmos, as depicted in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
9 Ἐγὼ Ἰωάννης, ὁ ἀδελφὸς ὑμῶν καὶ συγκοινωνὸς ἐν τῇ θλίψει καὶ βασιλείᾳ καὶ ὑπομονῇ ἐν Ἰησοῦ, ἐγενόμην ἐν τῇ νήσῳ τῇ καλουμένῃ Πάτμῳ διὰ τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τὴν μαρτυρίαν Ἰησοῦ. 10 ἐγενόμην ἐν πνεύματι ἐν τῇ κυριακῇ ἡμέρᾳ, καὶ ἤκουσα ὀπίσω μου φωνὴν μεγάλην ὡς σάλπιγγος 11 λεγούσης, Ὃ βλέπεις γράψον εἰς βιβλίον καὶ πέμψον ταῖς ἑπτὰ ἐκκλησίαις, εἰς Ἔφεσον καὶ εἰς Σμύρναν καὶ εἰς Πέργαμον καὶ εἰς Θυάτειρα καὶ εἰς Σάρδεις καὶ εἰς Φιλαδέλφειαν καὶ εἰς Λαοδίκειαν.
12 Καὶ ἐπέστρεψα βλέπειν τὴν φωνὴν ἥτις ἐλάλει μετ' ἐμοῦ: καὶ ἐπιστρέψας εἶδον ἑπτὰ λυχνίας χρυσᾶς, 13 καὶ ἐν μέσῳ τῶν λυχνιῶν ὅμοιον υἱὸν ἀνθρώπου, ἐνδεδυμένον ποδήρη καὶ περιεζωσμένον πρὸς τοῖς μαστοῖς ζώνην χρυσᾶν: 14 ἡ δὲ κεφαλὴ αὐτοῦ καὶ αἱ τρίχες λευκαὶ ὡς ἔριον λευκόν, ὡς χιών, καὶ οἱ ὀφθαλμοὶ αὐτοῦ ὡς φλὸξ πυρός, 15 καὶ οἱ πόδες αὐτοῦ ὅμοιοι χαλκολιβάνῳ ὡς ἐν καμίνῳ πεπυρωμένης, καὶ ἡ φωνὴ αὐτοῦ ὡς φωνὴ ὑδάτων πολλῶν, 16 καὶ ἔχων ἐν τῇ δεξιᾷ χειρὶ αὐτοῦ ἀστέρας ἑπτά, καὶ ἐκ τοῦ στόματος αὐτοῦ ῥομφαία δίστομος ὀξεῖα ἐκπορευομένη, καὶ ἡ ὄψις αὐτοῦ ὡς ὁ ἥλιος φαίνει ἐν τῇ δυνάμει αὐτοῦ.
17 Καὶ ὅτε εἶδον αὐτόν, ἔπεσα πρὸς τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ ὡς νεκρός: καὶ ἔθηκεν τὴν δεξιὰν αὐτοῦ ἐπ' ἐμὲ λέγων, Μὴ φοβοῦ: ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ πρῶτος καὶ ὁ ἔσχατος, 18 καὶ ὁ ζῶν, καὶ ἐγενόμην νεκρὸς καὶ ἰδοὺ ζῶν εἰμι εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων, καὶ ἔχω τὰς κλεῖς τοῦ θανάτου καὶ τοῦ ἅδου. 19 γράψον οὖν ἃ εἶδες καὶ ἃ εἰσὶν καὶ ἃ μέλλει γενέσθαι μετὰ ταῦτα. 20 τὸ μυστήριον τῶν ἑπτὰ ἀστέρων οὓς εἶδες ἐπὶ τῆς δεξιᾶς μου, καὶ τὰς ἑπτὰ λυχνίας τὰς χρυσᾶς: οἱ ἑπτὰ ἀστέρες ἄγγελοι τῶν ἑπτὰ ἐκκλησιῶν εἰσιν, καὶ αἱ λυχνίαι αἱ ἑπτὰ ἑπτὰ ἐκκλησίαι εἰσίν.
9 I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, ‘Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.’
12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19 Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
This passage, Revelation 1: 9-20, presents John’s preparatory vision on the island of Patmos, where John has been exiled. This part of Chapter 1 can be divided into three sections: verses 9 to 11 introduce the main subject of the rest of the letter, although the rest of the document assumes the characteristic shape of apocalyptic writing, in which John recalls a series of visions; verses 12-16 describe how John turned around in the direction the voice was coming from, and what he saw; and verses 17-20 tell us about John’s reaction to what he saw, and what he had to do about it.
Here John briefly but dramatically and forcefully recalls the circumstances under which he experienced the first of several – perhaps seven – visions. The vision revealed in this chapter is sometimes called the “initiating vision.”
John experiences this first vision on the rocky island of Patmos. The island of Patmos is about six miles wide and 10 miles long. It is a small, rocky, Greek island among the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea, close to the western coast of modern Turkey, about 35 miles west of Miletus and 65 miles south-west of Ephesus.
Miletus is where the Apostle Paul in 57 AD met the elders of the Church of Ephesus near the close of his Third Missionary Journey (Acts 20: 15-38), and the city where Paul left Trophimus, one of his travelling companions, to recover from an illness (II Timothy 4: 20), perhaps as late as 65 or 66 AD.
At the time John was on Patmos, the island was an established place for the cults of Apollo and Artemis, which had their principal centres on the Anatolian coast at Didyme and Ephesus.
Today, Patmos is a popular package holiday destination, but it was far from that in John’s time! His time there was no sun-sand-and-sea holiday. It was a lonely barren place to which political dissidents, agitators and prisoners were banished. John says he found himself on Patmos, that he had come to be on Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
Tradition dating back to the time of Clement of Alexandria says that John had been banished to Patmos from Ephesus. There he is said to have endured hard labour in the quarries. Whatever we think of this tradition, John, in any case, found he was separated from his Churches in Asia Minor because he had been preaching the Gospel openly.
Perhaps John was thinking that his ministry had come to an end. But God bursts in dramatically, just as he did into the lives of the Old Testament prophets, and commissions the exiled and ageing John for a new assignment. Indeed, although John would not have known it at the time, in retrospect we see God’s revelation or disclosure to John as the culmination or the end of God’s self-revelation in Scripture. This is the last and final canonical book of the Bible, and it comes to us through the revelation to and the writings of a man who may have been as old as 90 at the time.
In Revelation 1: 9, Saint John says: “I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”
With this renewed introduction, John prepares his readers for the narration of a vision he has received from the Risen Christ (see verse 1).
For a third time, John identifies himself by name in a style similar to that used by prophets such as Daniel (for examples, see Daniel 8: 1; II Esdras 2: 33). He is not merely John, but John “your brother.” The word brothers [and sisters] (ἀδελφοί) is used regularly to describe the followers of Christ as a body (see Matthew 28: 10; Romans 1: 13; I Corinthians 1: 10; Hebrews 3: 1; James 1: 2; &c), while the title brother (ἀδελφὸς) has a specific meaning in the Apostolic Church: it is used for the apostles and elders (Acts 15: 23) and for Paul (see II Peter 3: 15), but it also establishes John’s relationship with the fellow-members of his Churches.
John’s self-identification is more than merely giving his name, though. He shares:
● the persecution that comes with being a follower of Jesus.
● what it means to be in the Kingdom of God – the present, even if invisible, reign of Jesus.
● the patient endurance of Christ.
John says he shares in, is a fellow partaker of the persecution or affliction and the kingdom. The word used here for one who shares or who is a fellow partaker here has its roots in word κοινονια (koinonia, fellowship, partnership, communion). He is a brother or fellow-partner in Jesus in communion with the other members of his Church circle, “in the persecution and sovereignty and steadfastness.” He is in fellowship with the Risen Christ and so in fellowship with all who belong to Christ. Because Christ was crucified, raised, and glorified, all Christians living after that are in the tribulation or end time. Because all Christians have been given the Holy Spirit, all must share in that tribulation, which will include suffering, tests, and temptations.
However, while we are in the tribulation, we are also in the kingdom – we live in two worlds. John too shares in the patient endurance in Christ. Christians must go through patient endurance until Christ comes again in glory.
Saint John is both on Patmos, in a physical sense, and in the Spirit, in a spiritual sense. On earth we suffer, but spiritually we can still be triumphant. In verse 10, he says: “I came to be in the Spirit on the Lord’s day …” There are parallels in earlier apocalyptic literature: “Then the spirit lifted me up, and I heard behind me a loud, trumpet-like voice” (Ezekiel 3: 12).
He found himself, or he came to be, he was in the Spirit. What do we mean by saying something like “I am in the Spirit”? Does it mean to be caught up in the state of worship? Does it mean to have a mystical experience? Does it refer to a state of religious exaltation and ecstasy? Is he in some religious trance?
This all happened on the Lord’s Day, which, by then, was a common designation in the Church for Sunday (see Acts 20: 7; I Corinthians 11: 20; Didache 14: 1; Ignatius, Letter to the Magnesians, 9:1; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 4.26.2). John was worshiping on a Sunday when he had this vision. In the Early Church, this meant he was taking part in the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist, the breaking of the Bread, the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper.
John is then told to write down what he sees in a book and send it to the seven churches of Asia. The churches are listed not in alphabetical order, but as they appear in a geographical circle on the western coast of Asia Minor, spreading out in either direction from Ephesus – Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea – and this order is then used in chapters 2 and 3 for each letter addressed to each Church. Why did John choose these seven churches, and not some others such as, say, Miletus?
Each city is important in its own right. Smyrna and Pergamum are important in the classical world, for example. Pergamum had a great library, and it is said its name gives us the word parchment. But these cities may also have been key administrative centres, and centres from which communications were delivered to other outlying areas. But there is also a sense in which seven symbolises perfection, and completion, so that any address to seven churches is an address to the Church as a whole.
Saint John then turns around towards the voice – just as Mary Magdalene turned around in the garden on Easter morning – and he, like her, sees Christ himself. John both hears and sees the voice.
Saint John also saw seven golden lampstands or menorahs. Seven is significant because in the Bible and in the Jewish tradition is the image of absolute fullness and completion. Zechariah has an image too of Israel as a seven-branched candelabra (Zechariah 4: 2-11). The seven lampstands are the seven Asian churches.
There among the seven churches, John sees one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest, clothed like a high priest from the Old Testament (see Exodus 28: 4, 29: 5; 39: 29). The Son of Man is a title Jesus uses of himself in the Fourth Gospel (for example, see John 5: 26-27). But the description of one like the Son of Man also echoes Daniel’s description of the human-like figure who arrives on the clouds of heaven and who assumes dominion over an everlasting kingdom (Daniel 7: 13-14). This figure accepts worship, yet directly approaches the throne of God, possesses the attributes and rights of God, yet also appears to be very human. The long robe with a golden sash is like the robes of the High Priests, for, of course, Jesus is our great high priest. This is the risen and glorified Christ, Christ the great high priest.
John then describes Christ according to his physical appearance: his hair, his eyes and his feet, as well as his voice. White hair is not a popular physical attribute of Christ in most popular portrayals, but the image is consistent with other apocalyptic literature. The white hair and beard, symbolic of purity and holiness, are also used by Daniel (7: 9) to describe the “Ancient of Days.”
His eyes are flamed like fire, a characteristic that recurs in the letter to the Church of Thyatira (Revelation 2: 18) and in the description of the Messianic Victor (19: 12) – a poetic way of describing his insight as well as his majesty. The eyes that are like flames of fire symbolise divine omniscience and judgment: Jesus can see into the hearts of all, and his gaze can reach into the darkest depths of humanity.
The description of bronze-like feet, glowing in a furnace is a way of describing strength and stability. The priests were bare-footed when they served in the Temple. Those feet would son be soiled and stained. But the feet of Jesus here are pure and unsullied.
His voice is like the roar of many waters, which is an Old Testament description of the voice of God (see Ezekiel 43: 2). Like the waves crashing against the rocky shores of Patmos, Christ’s voice booms out over the seas to those who listen in the Church.
In his right hand, Christ holds the seven stars, later identified as the angels of the seven churches (verse 20), God’s messengers in those seven churches. From his mouth comes a “sharp, two-edged sword.” The double-edged word or gladius was short and only a few feet in length, but was lethal in close, hand-to-hand combat, effective in achieving its purpose, and cutting both ways. What Christ says “cuts both ways.”
The face shining like the sun with full force recalls the Transfiguration, when Jesus shone in glory before Peter and James, and, of course, John too (Matthew 17: 1-8; Mark 9: 6). Once again, John’s reaction to the transfigured and glorified Christ is to fall on his face before the feet of Christ. Because the glory of Christ is brighter than the sun, John falls down at his feet. Then Christ tells John to get up and not be afraid for he is to write down the mystery of the seven stars and the seven lamp stands.
This is intense drama. Then, as John falls down in worship before the feet of Christ, Christ places his right hand on John’s shoulder; the same hand that holds the whole Church together, offers reassurance and life to the individual believer. Christ reassures John with the words: “Do not be afraid” (Μὴ φοβοῦ). How often did Christ say this in the Gospel stories? The last time he said this was shortly before his crucifixion (John 14: 1, 27). And this reassurance is followed immediately by another typical Johannine phrase: “I am” (ἐγώ εἰμι).
The titles Christ uses for himself here are divine titles, the very titles that define who God is, the source of life itself.
Then John receives his commission. He is to write down what he has seen (past), what is (present) and what is to come (future). This commission introduces us to the contents of the rest of the book.
Did John write these things immediately? In Chapters 2 and 3, John dictates the letters.
The meaning of the stars and the lampstands and the stars are then explained in the context of the angels and the churches of Asia Minor. Angels are messengers, and the word is used in the Old Testament of both human and heavenly messengers or God.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group on 15 April 2009.