As a prophet, John immediately recounts for his readers a prophetic experience, which he is careful to locate as to place and time. The place was the island of Patmos, and John was there because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus (v. 9; compare v. 2). The time was the Lord's Day, and John had gone into a prophetic trance (I was in the Spirit, v. 10). It is important to understand that John is not necessarily giving his present location. He is consistent with Paul and other New Testament letter writers in not furnishing a "return address" (the only possible exception is "Babylon" in 1 Pet 5:13). We cannot assume John is still on the island of Patmos any more than we can assume it is still "the Lord's Day" (see note at v. 10) as he writes, or that he is still in the same prophetic trance. He never mentions "the Lord's Day" again, and when he is "in the Spirit" he says so explicitly (4:2; 17:3; 21:10).
A tradition as old as Tertullian (third century) interprets the phrase because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus to mean that John was temporarily banished to Patmos, possibly by a Roman provincial governor, because of his proclamation of the Christian message (Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics 36; see Caird 1966:21-22). This may well be true, yet John places no emphasis on his own unique predicament and makes no appeal for sympathy or support. On the contrary, he calls attention to the common lot of all Christians: in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus (compare Acts 14:22; 2 Thess 1:4-5). This is understandable if his exile on Patmos is over by the time he writes (Michaels 1992:16-17).
Every other time John is said to be "in the Spirit," he is taken somewhere, whether to God's throne in heaven (4:2) or to a desert (17:3) or to a very high mountain (21:10), and is shown a vision. Here he stays where he is, on Patmos. At first he sees nothing, only hearing a voice behind him. It is a loud voice like a trumpet (v. 10), yet recognizably a real voice with real words, not just any sound. The voice tells him to write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea (v. 11).
Just as John's self-introduction in verse 9 supplemented his letter's opening greeting from "John" (v. 4), so his account of the voice in verse 11 spells out precisely what churches were included in the letter's address to "the seven churches in the province of Asia." The language in both places ("the seven churches") gives the impression that these seven were the only Christian congregations in the province of Asia, but this was not the case. Two others are mentioned in the New Testament (Colossae and Hierapolis, Col 1:2; 4:13), while two more (Tralles and Magnesia) are addressed, along with Ephesus, Smyrna and Philadelphia, in early second-century letters from Ignatius of Antioch. In view of the symbolic importance of the number seven throughout the book of Revelation, it is likely that these seven were intended to represent all of the Asian congregations, and perhaps all Christian congregations everywhere.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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