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John is our faithful narrator on this journey through Heaven and Hell. He's a prophet and a seer of sights, a man of great faith and even greater vision.
Well, that or he's an insane person. Take your pick.
Even though he claimed to have spoken directly with God, Jesus, and various choirs of angels, overall John of Patmos is actually a pretty humble guy. After all, he managed to write a whole book of the Bible about his visions, but he hardly talked about himself at all. The only things we know about him for sure are:
• he's Christian (1:9).
• he lives on a Greek island called Patmos (1:9).
• he saw tons of crazy stuff (1:1-22:21).
And that's about it. We don't know what his position was in the church, how exactly he found himself living on a Greek isle, or why God chose this particular guy to write down all the details about the end of the world.
That said, we can do some pretty good guessing.
It's pretty clear that John is a Christian, though he probably would have thought of himself as more Jewish. Back in the early days of Christianity, lots of Jesus's followers were Jewish (like the man himself). That's probably why John seems to know the Hebrew Bible forward and backward. It's also probably why he pays homage to Jewish apocalyptic literature left and right. He's kind of like the Quentin Tarantino of the end of the world.
In the 1st century, there were lots of conflicts and differences between Jewish Christians and their gentile friends who had converted. But, though their backgrounds were different, they both had the same big problem.
See, today Christianity is one of the most popular religions in the entire world, but that was definitely not the case way back in the 1st century. Nope. Christians were a tiny minority and most were under the control of those big baddies the Roman Empire. The Romans controlled a huge chunk of the world at this time. They liked to pick wars with people, and when they won, they would take the land, enslave some of the people, and force them to assimilate into the Roman way of life. Not so nice.
This meant that people who were under the thumb of Rome were supposed to be doing what Rome wanted them to do, i.e., worshipping Roman gods. Because Christians only recognized one true God—Jesus—they absolutely refused to do this.
So they were in a bit of a pickle… and that's how John finds himself in his new home.
John has taken up residence on the island of Patmos. A nice enough place, though it doesn't seem like he really wants to be there. Some scholars think he might have either fled to Patmos to avoid being arrested as a Christian or been exiled there. (Have you seen the travel brochure? It's a pretty sweet place to be in exile.)
John is actually in pretty good company among the banished. Some of the greatest writers in the world did their best work once they were forced from their homes. Ovid wrote The Metamorphoses. Dante completed the Divine Comedy. And Victor Hugo cranked out a little masterpiece known as Les Misérables.
Being banished can be a powerful thing. For John, he's away from other Christians, so, naturally he chooses to write to them (and for them). He's also clearly got lots of time to think. We mean a lot. That probably explains the next bit.
When it comes down to it, Revelation reads like one big long revenge fantasy. Here you have a guy who's been banished for his beliefs (he's lucky, others have been killed), and he's looking for some payback. The entire Book of Revelation is basically what John hopes God will do to all those anti-Christian tormentors out there.
Surely he's not the only one who wants to see Romans crushed like grapes in a giant wine press until their blood flows out on the ground. Christians all over the Empire must have been scared and hopeful that God would somehow intervene on their behalf. That's probably why the letter became popular enough that it wound up in the Bible. People kept passing it along and crossing their fingers that it would all come true.
But John isn't just in the revenge game, he's also trying to lift some spirits. As long as reading about the bloody, graphic death of your oppressors is what lifts your spirits, that is. He wants to encourage his fellow Christians to just hold on a little longer. Don't give into the Roman authorities. Jesus is coming back very soon and he's going to make everything right.
Obviously, the keeping-the-faith-in-the-face-of-death thing is a pretty tall order. Christians weren't too keen to be martyred after all. But, John is advocating a kind of radical discipleship where Christians must worship and obey God no matter what the cost. No cheating. Even if it means you'll be beheaded (source, p. 1187).
So how does John go about conveying all this? He writes about his visions from God. John tells us that "he was in the Spirit on the Lord's day," (1:10) when he first starts to see all this weird stuff. And what are John's visions really? Wishful thinking (see: revenge fantasy)? Insanity? Drug-induced delusions? Or is it all one big, important message from God?
People are generally suspicious of anyone who claims to have seen a vision. See the Virgin Mary in your grilled cheese? Might want to keep that to yourself, because your friends and family might think you've gone off your rocker a bit.
But visions can also be another word for the imagination. When J.K. Rowling had the idea for the Harry Potter series she said, "It came into my mind when I was on a train to London. Harry as a character came fully formed" (source). What does that mean? Was it a vision, in the same way a view of Heaven came into John's mind? When John says, "I saw…" does he really mean, "I imagined"? Can God speak to people through the imagination?
Loads of people have had visions. They're all over the Bible for starters. Daniel. Ezekiel. John the Baptist. They all see visions that they claim are from God. Even Descartes had a vision that inspired him to study science.
So maybe—just maybe—John and Revelation aren't all that weird?