“What do we know of the life of John the Apostle after the day of Pentecost?” Ensign, Jan. 1984, 50–51
Richard Lloyd Anderson, professor of Ancient Scripture, Brigham Young University. The Bible account contains very little about John’s life after the final ascension of the Lord.
John was, of course, involved with the other Apostles in the great outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. On that occasion, the Twelve Apostles were “all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues.” (Acts 2:1–4.) Peter then stood and delivered a powerful sermon to the many other people present.
In the third chapter of Acts, we read of Peter and John healing a man who had been lame from birth. For that act, and for preaching to the people, the two Apostles were arrested by the priests and the Sadducees. In response, Peter and John boldly testified of Christ, and the rulers let them go. (See Acts 3–4.)
On another occasion, they were again imprisoned, “but the angel of the Lord by night opened the prison doors, and brought them forth,” telling them to again testify to the people. (See Acts 5:17–20.) This the Apostles did until the council took them again, beat them, and charged them not to preach anymore. But “daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.” (See Acts 5:40–42.)
The last reference to John in the book of Acts is in chapter 8, when Peter and John went to Samaria to bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost on Philip’s converts there. (See Acts 8:14–17.) The remainder of the book of Acts is essentially the record of Paul, with a few experiences of Peter.
The next we read of John is in Galatians, where Paul mentions that Peter, James, and John had sent him and Barnabas to preach to the gentiles. (See Gal. 2:9.) We learn no more until the book of Revelation, which records the vision John had on the Isle of Patmos. In the opening lines of that account, John refers to himself as “your brother, and companion in tribulation” and says he was “in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.” (Rev. 1:9.) Apparently John had been sent to the island because of his testimony. But why? And who sent him there?
The information about John’s exile to Patmos comes from Polycarp, an early second-century bishop who knew John personally. Polycarp was martyred about A.D. 155, after a lifetime of Christian service. Irenaeus, who had earlier heard Polycarp’s powerful testimony of John and his writings, preserved the story. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.20.4–7.)
Irenaeus wrote about A.D. 175. Of John’s Revelation he says, “That was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.” (Against Heresies, 5.30.3.) Domitian, emperor of Rome, was assassinated in A.D. 96, after building an unenviable record of unmerited executions and banishments. Included among his victims were his near relatives, Flavius Clemens, whom he executed, and Flavius’s wife Domitilla, whom he banished to the island of Pandeteria, off the Naples coast. Their crime was religious belief—possibly Christianity. “The charge brought against them both was that of atheism, a charge on which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned.” (Dio Cassius, Roman History, 67.14.1–3, Loeb Classical Library.) This charge of atheism, of course, may simply refer to their turning from the Roman gods, perhaps to the Christian God.
Irenaeus, from Polycarp, dates the book of Revelation shortly before A.D. 96. Domitian’s predecessor deported “some to the most desolate of the islands” (Suetonius, Titus 8), and Domitian apparently followed that example. Patmos certainly qualifies as desolate. The island is butterfly shaped, some ten miles long and stretching to five miles wide on the upper and lower portions. It is barren, rocky, and steep. Wells are scarce, and until sea-conversion technology water was captured in basins through rainfall. The arid climate presently supports a mere 2,500 people, and the local guide book gives the “census” of a little over 11,000 trees. The experience of being on Patmos today is a reminder of the possibility of great spirituality under adverse conditions. If John was not imprisoned, he would have barely existed, working in the chill or hot seasons. There is no evidence that forced labor was required, for living in bleak isolation was considered punishment enough.
After Domitian’s assassination, Nerva became emperor. Nerva’s reign brought an unseen change, for he “restored the exiles.” (Dio Cassius, Roman History, 68.1.2.) After John’s release, according to Irenaeus, he labored in the Ephesian area “up to the times of Trajan.” (Against Heresies, 2.22.5.) Trajan began his rule in A.D. 98.
During that period, John apparently wrote his Gospel and letters. Ireneaus gives us the sequence of John’s writings as Revelation first, then the Gospel of John. Beyond that, many good scholars insist that John’s letters must have been written after his Gospel, since they refer back to the teachings “from the beginning” (1 Jn. 2:7), specifically the powerful Last Supper discourse, which is recorded in detail in the Gospel.
This understanding shows how much is behind John’s profound testimony in the opening of his first letter. There he spoke of the Lord, who “was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.” (1 Jn. 1:1.)
At this point, John had not only heard Jesus’ personal teachings of eternity, but he had glimpsed eternity in the transfiguration and ascension. He had not only felt the wounds of the resurrected Lord, but on the Isle of Patmos he had seen the Lord and heard his voice. (Rev. 1:15.)
John outlived his exile under Domitian; he lived to bear his testimony, in writing, in a book that has gone to nearly all the world. He lived through the apostasy of the early Church, and he continues to live in a translated state today, for the Lord promised him, “Thou shalt tarry until I come in my glory, and shalt prophesy before nations, kindreds, tongues and people. …