The few words that John speaks about himself bespeak much about his style of leadership and ministry. With so many of the 7 churches of Revelation entangled in assimilation to the urban values and religions of Roman Asia, it certainly would have been easy for John to give prophecies about the virtue of assimilation and the wisdom of making peace with Rome. Instead, John has a lifestyle that mirrors a devotion to the testimony about Jesus and God’s word. Accordingly, it was “because of the word of God” (Rev. 1:9) that John finds himself relegated to the island of Patmos. There is no need to resort to the melodramatic embellishments given by later Christian authors or modern commentators to describe the circumstances of John’s stay on Patmos. We, in fact, do not know the details of his circumstances on the island of Patmos.
Roman authors do inform us, however, that this form of punishment by exile was not unusual for individuals that Roman rulers and administrators regarded as dangerous to society and governmental authority. In fact, being sent off to some island away from the encouragement and love of family, friends, and supporters was regarded as a badge of achievement by many Roman dissidents of John’s time. Depending on the severity of the crime and the status of the one being condemned by Rome, punishment could range from death, to hard labor at the mines, to torture, to imprisonment, or to deportation. John’s punishment was certainly less severe than that of Antipas (Rev. 2:13), but his leadership is seen in his willingness to stand firm no matter what Rome imposed upon him. In this regard John is certainly a “companion in the sufferings” of all the Christians in Roman Asia (Rev. 1:9).
In the midst of all the variety of societal and familial estrangement that John and other believers experienced, he expresses his solidarity with the Christians on the mainland by means of the familial term “brother.” There is no familial hierarchy in John’s leadership style; John is not their father, but their brother.
Another facet of John’s leadership style is his candor in acknowledging his own sins. Transparency is not always evident in modern Christian leaders. There are two identical episodes toward the end of Revelation that display John’s sinfulness and his willingness to acknowledge it. Both in Revelation 19:10 and in 22:8-9 John depicts his own willful participation in idolatry, specifically angelolatry. John stops his idolatry only because he is commanded to by the angel, who instructs him to “worship God” instead. Either John’s theology was so flawed on this topic that he did not know it was wrong to worship angels, or he knew it was wrong, but did it anyway. In a book that is very hard on the sin of idolatry, whether committed by pagans or Christians, John reveals his own temporary participation, even twice, in this very sin which he so strongly condemns. That kind of honesty is not always easy to find in Christian leadership.
Would it not be an encouragement for the modern church if her leaders were prophetic enough to incorporate some of John’s leadership style?