John: In Light of the Future 

The apostle John’s final written work, the book of Revelation, concludes the collection we call the New Testament. It is also known as the Apocalypse, from the Greek term apokalypsis, meaning “the revealing” or “the unveiling” (in this case, of things to come). Because it is filled with strange visions, blood and smoke, terrifying warfare, fearsome beasts, and evil rulers, much of the book reads like a nightmare of the worst kind, though it eventually resolves in a new, peaceful world that is eternal. There are many who question the book’s authorship. But conservative scholars, basing their opinion on the earliest traditions, believe Revelation to be an authentic work by the apostle John. Its themes extend John’s Gospel and his three pastoral letters and provide the Church with an essential perspective on end-time events and the transformation of this Age of Man.

The Unveiling” nevertheless remains obscure to most people who take the time to read it. Even notable theologians have stumbled over its contents. In the preface to early editions of Martin Luther’s New Testament translation, the reformer famously said, “Let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him.” He judged the record of John’s visions to be “neither apostolic nor prophetic,” though over time he came to a different view. English Bible scholar J.B. Phillips expressed similar misgivings. He wrote in the introduction to his 20th-century version, “I was naturally tempted to omit this book altogether from my translational work.” He noted that this was the course John Calvin had chosen in his New Testament commentary.

Tradition has it that toward the end of his life John was living at Ephesus (in today’s Western Turkey). Growing opposition to the followers of Jesus likely brought about his exile on the nearby Roman island of Patmos. It was there that his final work was inspired. Later, perhaps back in Ephesus again, in obedience to the command to write down specific messages and the details of what he saw in vision, he produced Revelation. As John records, looking back on his experience, “[I] was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus [and heard a voice] saying, ‘Write what you see in a book’” (Revelation 1:9b, 11a).

Author and Audience

The Apocalypse begins with a statement about the origin of its contents, its author and its purpose: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw” (Revelation 1:1–2).

God the Father gave Jesus the message about future events. Jesus in turn conveyed it to one of His followers, John, via an angel and through visions, so that God’s people (“servants”) would have foreknowledge of what was to happen at the end of this phase of human history. The early part of the text also contains important information for Jesus’ followers with respect to how they should respond to their socio-political setting in light of what is to come. It is important to note that John did not claim the book as his personal work. As noted, he was commissioned to write down all he saw and heard—and send it in the form of an extended letter to seven church congregations (verses 4, 11, 19).

Private Knowledge

The book’s opening verse clearly states that Revelation’s initial audience was limited to the servants of God. John is “your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus” (verse 9). This was not a public message at the time of its delivery. Today, of course, it is public in the sense that it appears in millions of Bibles in hundreds of languages and dialects. But that does not necessarily mean that this broader group has understood or will understand it. The book’s reception throughout history proves otherwise. Despite its ready availability, most people have been puzzled by it.

And the disciples came and said to Him, ‘Why do You speak to them in parables?’ Jesus answered them, ‘To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted.’”

Matthew 13:10–11, New American Standard Bible

The reason is bound up in a seldom-grasped biblical truth found in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus often spoke to the public using allegories. Matthew records a series of them that concern the kingdom of heaven. It is often thought that Jesus spoke this way to make his meaning clearer. But that is not what Matthew shows. Having heard Jesus publicly deliver the parable of the sower, His disciples asked Him, “‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ And he answered them, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given’” (Matthew 13:10–11).

The word secrets is translated from the Greek musterion, meaning “the unmanifested or private counsel of God, (God’s) secret, the secret thoughts, plans, and dispensations of God . . . which are hidden from human reason, as well as from all other comprehension below the divine level, and await either fulfillment or revelation to those for whom they are intended” (W.F. Arndt, F.W. Danker, W. Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2000).

Jesus said privately in explaining the parable of the sower to His followers, “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:13). The disciples were in a different category: “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (verse 16).

John sheds further light on this private knowledge in his Gospel. He records the following response by Jesus to a disbelieving audience: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Shortly after this, as a result of Jesus’ words, many who were initially open to Him cut off their access and “turned back and no longer walked with him” (verse 66). It comes as no surprise, then, to find that for the most part in the book of Revelation, the public has a very negative reaction to God and His message, and that the book is written for God’s people as they await the Second Coming.

Thus John is writing to the Church when he says, “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen” (Revelation 1:5b–7). This is a message that would not make much sense to outsiders with its references to the Father; to Christ and His sacrifice, His return and His role; and to the future of His people.

Nor would the following have meaning for those outside the Church: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9–10). John is writing for the Church when he records these words of angelic beings in praise of Christ.

Revelation’s defined audience is indicated in many more passages throughout the book, including but not limited to chapter 6:9–11, regarding the martyrdom of believers; chapter 7:1–4, with its reference to the protection of God’s people; chapter 8:1–4, which mentions the prayers of the saints; and chapter 12’s identity and history of the Church.

The second and third chapters of the Apocalypse are especially Church-oriented in that they contain specific detailed messages to the seven congregations mentioned initially in chapter 1 (verse 11). Though the congregations are not named individually after the first three chapters, the book’s postscript says, “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (Revelation 22:16, emphasis added). So Revelation begins and ends with a reference to its specific audience.

Seven Messages

The seven churches were located in the Roman province of Asia. They formed a loop beginning at Ephesus and proceeding north and east, then south and west, via Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea, and then back to Ephesus. But why were there only seven stops on John’s itinerary? Were there only seven congregations in the region? It seems unlikely. We know that a few years earlier there were churches at Troas, northwest of Pergamum (Acts 20:5); possible at Miletus, south of Ephesus (Acts 20:17–18); and in the Lycus Valley at Colossae and Hierapolis, close to Laodicea (Colossians 1:2; 4:13).

It’s helpful to note that the book of Revelation has many collections of seven: seven stars, seven angels, seven lampstands, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven heads, seven crowns, seven bowls and seven last plagues. In biblical literature, seven signifies completion, a totality, a whole. Thus the seven congregations represent the whole Church and the messages to them have application to the whole Church through time till the present day. Each congregation received a message specific to it from Christ Himself (Revelation 1:11–20), to be read by all seven in the context of the entire book. John delivered these messages and records seven times throughout chapters 2 and 3, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (see also 2:23).

Though the messages are individual, there are commonalities that lead to the conclusion that they deliver the same essential information repeated seven times for maximum impact. While the possibility of compromise of belief is evident in all locations, the more obvious common elements are commendation (except in the letter to Laodicea), rebuke (except in the letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia), exhortation, and an encouraging promise to those who will make the necessary personal changes.

Ephesus: Losing Zeal

Ephesus was a major port and the administrative center of Asia with a population of about 200,000. At the western end of a major highway, it housed one of seven wonders of the ancient world, the Temple of Artemis, or Diana. As such the city was named neokoros or “temple warden” of Artemis (see Acts 19:35). Ephesus also had a temple to Julius Caesar and the goddess Roma, and others to Augustus and later Hadrian. If cities wanted to attract funding and favor from Rome, they would ask permission to build such temples and would sometimes be granted the title neokoros as a result. Toward the end of the first century, the Ephesian city fathers proposed a shrine to the emperor Domitian (81–96 C.E.) and his dynasty. He agreed, and the Flavian family, which also included the emperors Vespasian and Titus (the destroyers of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.), was celebrated in a temple, the outlines of which can still be seen in the ruins of the city. As a result of Domitian’s favor, Ephesus was named guardian of the emperor-worshiping imperial cult in Asia in about 89 C.E. Emperor worship involved offering sacrifices before the statues of the emperor(s).

It was probably during Domitian’s reign that John was on the island of Patmos. The Greek writer Philostratus says that at the time the islands off the western coast were full of exiles. Was it that John refused to engage in emperor worship, having been reported by some opponents? Whatever the cause of his stay on Patmos, it did not last long. Domitian’s successor, Nerva (96–98 C.E.), freed all exiles not guilty of serious infractions. If John now returned to Ephesus, he was free there to write down and distribute the account of what he had seen and heard.

Christ’s message to the Ephesian church begins, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary” (Revelation 2:2–3).

In its early years, the church at Ephesus was characterized by zeal, by patience in trying circumstances, and by a devotion to good works. They were even willing to question the authority of people claiming to be apostles but who came with a false message. Being a crossroads city, Ephesus attracted certain kinds of people, including wandering religious teachers.

An example of this from Paul’s time in Ephesus is found in the book of Acts. Luke writes, “Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims” (Acts 19:13). The later false teachers who said they were apostles fit into this category of itinerant teachers. The church at Ephesus had been faithful in many ways and had not compromised by listening to such people. But in other ways they had let down. They had become neglectful, and their good works were no excuse for not changing where they needed to. So John’s letter also had some words of warning from Christ: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Revelation 2:4–5).

The low character of surrounding society had affected the church. It had grown less enthusiastic about the truth that Paul had first taught. Now 30 to 40 years later, the fervor that the church at first felt for its new knowledge had lessened. This can happen to anyone. This is why the message to the Ephesian church was to wake up, to recognize their sad state, and to repent, or change. Christ told them to remember the excitement of their first commitment to His way of life. He knew that they were capable of holding firm. He indicates this in His next statement: “Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (verse 6). Apparently the Ephesians were still able to distinguish between right and wrong in respect of this group—followers of a man named Nicolas, who taught that it was possible to be a believer and still commit immoral acts. This would have been a convenient argument for those who wanted to compromise.

The Ephesian congregation, then, had grown less zealous, but they had not succumbed completely to the pressure to compromise their high moral ideals. Christ’s message to the Ephesians ends with a warning and a promise to His followers in all times: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (verse 7).

Smyrna: “Hold Fast”

Smyrna, about 40 miles or 65 kilometers north of Ephesus, had a population of about 100,000. The city was known for its wealth, beautiful buildings, good wines, science and medicine. In 195 B.C.E., Smyrna had become the first city in Asia to build a shrine to the goddess Roma. It was also a port city and vied with Ephesus and nearby Pergamum for imperial favor by setting up temples to the emperors. In 23 C.E. it was granted permission to build a temple honoring Tiberius, his mother (Livia) and the Senate. That temple led to Tiberius bestowing on the city the coveted title neokoros—temple warden of his imperial cult.

It seems that by John’s time the Jews at Smyrna had begun to oppose the followers of the Way. He records the opening of Christ’s message: “The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan’” (verses 8–9). The confrontation between Christ’s followers and the Jews had come to a head, and perhaps the Jews were turning them in to the authorities, charging them with anti-Roman behavior. There is certainly evidence that such denunciations and resulting punishments took place during the rule of Emperor Trajan (98–117) in the nearby province of Pontus-Bithynia, according to a letter from Pliny the Younger to the emperor written between 110 and 113.

Do not fear what you are about to suffer. . . . Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

Revelation 2:10, English Standard Version

Jesus’ message to the church at Smyrna was one of encouragement to hold fast: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (verse 10). This was a time of intense persecution. And some would even have to die for their beliefs. The followers in Smyrna needed a message to fortify those who would pay the ultimate price of faith.

The willingness to do what is inconvenient or unpopular, even in the face of suffering, is vitally important in all ages. The second message concludes with the encouragement to go forward despite the obstacles, because the reward is unparalleled—eternal life: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death” (verse 11). The “second death” is a reference to the fate of those who will knowingly refuse to go God’s way once their eyes are opened.

The potential for compromise reflected in the case of Smyrna concerns putting submission to humans ahead of loyalty to God.

Pergamum: Satan’s Throne

Pergamum (Pergamos or Pergamon) has a history stretching back to at least the fourth or fifth century B.C.E. In 133 B.C.E., the last remaining ruler of the Pergamene dynasty, Attalus III, willed the city to Rome. Known for its high level of culture, Pergamum fostered early aspects of what we know today as the medical arts and psychotherapy. With health-giving springs and a medical center named after the Roman god Asklepius, the city attracted people from all over the known world.

You are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me. . . .” 

Revelation 2:13, New Revised Standard Version

In John’s time, Pergamum was one of the largest cities in the province of Asia, with a population of about 120,000 people. It was also the location of various pagan shrines. Its temple for Athena was attached to a library of 200,000 volumes that rivaled the great Egyptian library at Alexandria. The use of parchment made from animal skins and bound into books was perfected in Pergamum, the word parchment coming from the name of the city. The city’s elaborate centerpiece was the altar to Zeus, celebrating the Pergamene victory over the Gauls in 190 B.C.E. Much of the altar was removed in the late 19th century and can be seen in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. Priests are said to have offered sacrifices at the altar 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The dominance of this pagan structure, set on a volcanic plug high above the surrounding countryside, may explain the reference to “Satan’s throne” in the message to the believers there (verse 13). The association of altars with thrones is an ancient one. It may be that “Satan’s throne” also refers to the cult of Asklepius, symbolized by a serpent (Revelation 12:9 names Satan as “that ancient serpent”). Another possibility is the fact that Pergamum was the seat of Rome’s power to persecute those in the region who would not participate in the imperial cult. It was, after all, the first city in Asia to build a temple to an emperor (Augustus), and it became the center for the imperial cult generally in the province. Soon after John recorded Revelation, the area adjacent to the altar saw the construction of a new temple to the emperor Trajan (98–117).

Through John, Christ identifies Himself as the One “who has the sharp two-edged sword”—that is to say, the encouraging and corrective Word of God that comes from His mouth. He continues, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells” (verses 12–13).

Antipas is thought to have been the first follower of Christ to be martyred in Pergamum. Later tradition says that during the emperor Domitian’s reign, he suffered a gruesome fate, being slowly roasted to death in a brass kettle.

Not all that happened in the congregation in Pergamum brought commendation. Christ’s message also included a complaint: “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth” (verses 14–16).

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Revelation 2:17, English Standard Version

The reference to Balaam is to the event where a pagan priest cunningly counseled the Moabites on how to get the Old Testament Israelites to sin (Numbers 22:3–6; 31:16). He did so by blending sexual immorality and idol worship. This explains the second reference in the book to the Nicolaitans. As at Ephesus, the followers of Nicolas were active in Pergamum at the time of John, and the pressure to conform to false teaching with respect to immorality must have been very strong. The message to the church there is rounded out with a statement for every follower of Christ caught in compromise over sexual immorality: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (verse 17). Believers who will not compromise—and so overcome or conquer—will be given eternal life, symbolized here by access to God’s spiritual food in contrast to “food sacrificed to idols,” and favorable judgment (the white stone), and a new name that will identify them as God’s own immortal children.


The first three congregations mentioned in Revelation were challenged by the demands of the imperial cult; each city along the western coast of Asia vied with the others for reputation and status in the eyes of Rome. Their locations also presented individual pressures to compromise: personal negligence (Ephesus), social conformity (Smyrna), sexual immorality (Pergamum)—all played a role. Each of the seven messages contains urgent information for Christ’s followers then and in all ages: stand firm in the face of society’s pressure to conform; do not compromise basic beliefs or forsake Christ’s example. Though the social world of those times was very different from the 21st-century world, similar challenges exist.

Next time we continue with the remaining four messages to Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.