Part 13 John the Apostle
This is the thirteenth in a series that examines the references to prisons and prisoners in the Bible. In this article we will consider the Apostle John, who spent some of his last years as a prisoner on the island of Patmos and from there wrote the book of Revelation.
Most of what we know about John the Apostle comes from the information recorded about him in the gospels, the book of Acts and the history and traditions of the early church. We know that John’s father was named Zebedee, that his brother was James the Apostle, they were fisherman and that he followed Jesus when he was called while fishing (Matthew 4:21-22). By putting together the facts related in several passages about those present at the crucifixion it is possible to conclude that John was the cousin of Jesus (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25) which might explain why the Lord requested him to care for Mary (who would have been John’s aunt) in her old age.
John was one of the closest disciples of Jesus and was present at some of the most important events in his ministry, such as the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the transfiguration and the garden of Gethsemane. He is most likely the one referred to in the gospel of John as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” In his first Epistle John describes himself as an eyewitness to the events of Jesus life (1 John 1:1-3). Clearly John had a very close and intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ while he was on Earth, and the impact that had on the rest of John’s life was profound. If John had not believed with all his heart that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead there is no rational explanation for why he did not simply return to fishing after the crucifixion and fade into obscurity like others that followed the various messianic figures that were common in first century Palestine (Acts 5:36-37).
We know that John, like the other Apostles, was willing to suffer all kinds of hardship rather than renounce his faith in Jesus Christ as the savior and king of Israel. We read of his first encounter with imprisonment in Acts 4, when he and Peter were put in jail by the Jewish leaders because they healed a lame beggar in front of the temple gates and then proclaimed the truth about Jesus Christ to the Jewish people assembled there. After that John and the other believers experienced intense persecution for many years because of the Jews opposition to the message of Christ. John continued to faithfully proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom of God in Jerusalem and was described by Paul as one of the “pillars” of the Jewish church (Galatians 2:9).
In Revelation 1:9 John says that he was on the island of Patmos when he received the visions which were recorded in the book of prophecy. Early church history tells us that John had been exiled to this tiny island in the Aegean Sea which was probably a Roman penal colony at the time during a period of persecution of Christians under the emperor Domitian who ruled Rome from 81-96 AD. God chose to reveal the final words of scripture to a man that was sitting in a Roman prison.
Prison and bondage is a scriptural metaphor for man’s condition outside of Christ in which everyone is enslaved to sin and the flesh. When the gospel is preached and people believe the message of salvation, suddenly the chains fall off and the prison doors are thrown open and for the first time a person can experience true freedom. For that reason it is appropriate that the portion of the Bible that describes the ultimate triumph of God’s good over evil was revealed to a person that was himself in prison. Given those conditions, it is likely that the message of Revelation was that much more powerful to John. John’s final vision for the world is one in which perfect fellowship between God and creation is restored, sin and death have been destroyed and God will wipe away every tear from the eyes of His people. Being a prisoner, as John was, would only make the reality of God’s triumph that more glorious and awe inspiring.