Verse 9 introduces the first vision of the book of Revelation. It differs from the other visions and visionary cycles in that the seer is addressed directly by the risen/exalted Jesus, rather than a heavenly intermediary. It is, however, compatible with the subsequent vision-cycles, in that it also follows a seven-fold pattern. The vision is closely connected with the seven “letters” which follow in chapters 2-3—it is the risen/exalted Jesus of 1:9-20ff who addresses the seven congregations.
Insofar as the book of Revelation utilizes an epistolary (and rhetorical) framework, 1:9-20 could be regarded as the narratio—the section in which the facts and background of the case are narrated. This encompasses the “letters” in chaps. 2-3. The historical character of the section is certainly indicated from the initial declaration by the author:
“I, Yohanan, your brother and com(panion) together (with you) in the (di)stress, and (in) the kingdom and (our) remaining under [i.e. enduring] in Yeshua—(I) came to be in [i.e. on] the island called Patmos, through the word of God and the witness of Yeshua.”
This clearly establishes the setting for the visions of the book: a seer/prophet named Yohanan (Grk. )Iwa/nnh$, “John”) was residing on the island of Patmos. This small island, in the Aegean off the coast of Asia Minor (approx. 40 miles SW of Miletus, and not too far from Ephesus), was scarcely deserted, as might sometimes be imagined. There were communities living there, with a thriving culture. Even so, according to tradition, “John” was banished to Patmos, and many commentators would concur with this. The use of the verb form e)geno/mhn (“I came to be”) suggests that Patmos was not John’s normal place of residence. His reason for being there is explained as “through the word of God and witness of Yeshua”. This could be understood two ways: (1) it was for the purpose of preaching/witnessing (i.e. missionary activity), or (2) it was the result, or consequence, of his preaching/witnessing. The latter seems most likely (the reference to “the distress” suggests some measure of persecution); if so, then he may have been relegated to the island by provincial authorities (Roman province of Asia), according to a known mode of punishment (relegatio ad insulum). Christian tradition provides numerous speculative details on how/why John was relegated to Patmos. For more on the background/setting, related to Patmos, etc, consult any reputable Commentary (e.g., Koester, pp. 239-43) or Bible dictionary.
This is the third time that the author/visionary of the book is identified as Yohanan (“John”), and it is worth examining briefly several possibilities as to just who this “John” might be:
- It is a pseudonym, presumably referring to John the Apostle
- It is John the Apostle, son of Zebedee, in accordance with what came to be the established tradition
- It is a different “Elder/Presybter” (presbu/tero$) named John, possibly the same person who authored the second and third Johannine letters (2 Jn 1; 3 Jn 1)
- It is a separate and distinct John, an influential minister (and/or prophet) in Asia Minor
Critical commentators today are not as inclined (as past generations) to view the book as pseudonymous, despite the fact that much Apocalyptic literature is pseudepigraphic in nature (cf. my earlier article on these terms). The book is generally lacking in the kinds of details and references one might expect if the author were presenting himself as a famous (apostolic) figure. Some Christians chose the third option above, identifying the author with a second-generation Elder/Presbyter named John (cf. Eusebius, Church History III.39.4-6; VII.24.7ff). However, the main lines of Christian tradition identified the author as John the Apostle, an identification which appears to have been reasonably well-established by the end of the 2nd century (cf. Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho 81.4; Irenaeus Against Heresies III.11.1, 16.5ff; V.30.3; Clement On the Rich Man §42, etc).
The problem with the traditional view is that there is simply nothing in the book to suggest that this “John” is an Apostle and one of the Twelve (i.e. John the son of Zebedee)—indeed, Rev 21:14 could be seen as indicating the contrary. Thus, it is probably simpler (and safer) to rely upon the detail which the book itself provides—this “John” was a minister of some influence in Asia Minor (the area around Ephesus, etc), toward the end of the first century A.D., and may have been specially gifted as a prophet.
In discussing verse 2 (cf. the earlier note), I pointed out that there the genitive case in the twin expression “the word of God and the witness of Jesus” was subjective—that is, God is the one giving the word and Jesus is the one witnessing (to it). Now, however, in verse 9, the same expression occurs in a slightly different context, indicating that the genitive has switched to the object—i.e., the believer’s witness to Jesus, and the proclamation of the word/account (lo/go$) of what God has done (through the person of Jesus). Both of these aspects continue through the remainder of the book.
The introduction to the first vision continues with verse 10:
“I came to be in (the) Spirit, in [i.e. on] the day belonging (to) the Lord, and in back of me I heard a great voice as a trumpet (saying)…”
This description of the setting in vv. 9-10 involves three elements with the expression “I came to be in/on…” (e)geno/mhn e)n):
- “on the island called Patmos” (location)
- “in the Spirit” (condition)
- “on the day belonging to the Lord” (time)
Central to this scenario is the detail that John was “in the Spirit” (e)n pneu/mati). This expression appears frequently in the New Testament, especially in Luke-Acts and the Pauline letters. It has a relatively wide range of significance, but often relates specifically to the prophetic aspect of God’s Spirit at work among his chosen people—cf. Mark 12:36; Luke 2:27; 4:1ff; 1 Cor 12:3ff; 14:2-3ff. The four occurrences in the book of Revelation (also at 4:2; 17:3; 21:10) are particularly important as they establish the spiritual basis—at four key points—for the prophetic legitimacy and authority of the visions. At each point, where there is a distinct change of setting in the visionary landscape, there is a note that this occurs “in the Spirit”. It is possible that the language itself may be drawing upon the book of Ezekiel (cf. 3:12; 8:3; 37:1; 43:5).
We should also here take note of the expression “on the day belonging to the Lord [e)n th=| kuriakh=| h(me/ra|]”. This “day belonging to the Lord”, using the adjective kuriako/$, occurs only here in the New Testament, but is found elsewhere in early Christian writings (Gospel of Peter 9:35; 12:50; Didache 14:1; Ignatius, Magnesians 9:1; Justin Martyr’s First Apology 67). It is typically translated “Lord’s Day”, and refers to Sunday, in association with the day of Jesus’ resurrection. However, we should also here recognize a deeper symbolism to the expression. The adjective kuriako/$ essentially means “belonging to the Lord [ku/rio$]”; and, while it is rare in the New Testament (elsewhere only at 1 Cor 11:20), in Greco-Roman usage it can relate to (Roman) imperial authority. Thus, it is likely that we have here a subtle, but significant, foreshadowing of the contrast, between the Kingdom of God and the (worldly) power of the Roman Empire, which is to become a major theme in the remainder of the book. Cf. Koester, p. 243.
Finally, which must consider the description which concludes the introduction in verse 10: “in back of me I heard a great voice as a trumpet”. In form, this seems to resemble Ezek 3:12 LXX, which is worth quoting:
“And the Spirit took me up, and down in back of me I heard (the) voice of a great shaking [i.e. earthquake] (saying)…”
Here the “great voice” is rather described “as a trumpet” (w($ sa/lpiggo$). In both Jewish (Old Testament) and early Christian tradition, the sounding of a trumpet often marks heavenly and eschatological phenomena (cf. Joel 2:1; Zech 9:14; Matt 24:31; 1 Cor 15:52; 1 Thess 4:16; and five more times in the book of Revelation, 4:1; 8:2, 6, 13; 9:14). In particular, a voice “like a trumpet” may be associated with the manifestation of God (Theophany), such as the famous appearance at Sinai—Exod 19:16; 20:18; Heb 12:19 (cf. also Psalm 47:5, etc). This is the first of several details in the vision which treat the appearance of the risen/exalted Jesus like a theophany. I list these here, to be discussed in more detail in the next daily note:
- A great voice like a trumpet
- The prophet turning to “see” the voice
- The seven golden lamps
- The white hair and fiery eyes
- The shining/fiery appearance of the feet
- The voice like the sound of rushing water
- Holding (seven) stars in the right hand
- Face shining like the sun