The Structure of Revelation – Pt.1
Last week we looked at four major interpretive approaches to the book of Revelation and concluded that they all had something to contribute. This morning, we will not have time to consider the various outlines that have been proposed, but among those who take an eclectic approach to the book, there is general agreement about the structure.
Dennis Johnson portrays the importance of the structure of Revelation with the analogy of a puzzle.1 “Hard-core jigsaw enthusiasts” chastise the weak-minded individuals who cheat by looking at the box lid. However, everyone begins by finding the pieces with the straight edge in order to frame the puzzle. The structure provides a frame for us to begin working on the details inside. The structural frame of Revelation is the seven cycles of recapitulation which cover the entire period between the first and second coming of Christ.2
Read Revelation 1:1-3
A strong case has been made that Revelation follows the same structural patterns found in Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah.
So before we look at the structure in more detail, let’s consider…
The Importance of the Old Testament
There are somewhere between three to five hundred allusions to the Old Testament in four hundred and four verses. The Old Testament permeates the whole book! In order to interpret the symbols correctly, we must be aware of these allusions. John usually alludes to Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. But, the only books excluded from his allusions are Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and Haggai.3
The allusions contain modifications from the original Hebrew and Greek (LXX) sources.4 He does not appear to depend upon a single manuscript or even a single family of manuscripts. He generally combines elements from several passages that match the theme or subject he is addressing.
One significant example is John’s frequent allusions to passages about Israel, which he applies to the Church.5 For instance, in Exodus 19:6, God calls Israel a “kingdom of priests.” But in Revelation, John applies that same idea to the Church (1:6; 5:10) which he sees filled with members from every tribe, people, and nation (Rev. 7:9).
Again, in Revelation 1:7 John speaks of “all the tribes of the earth,” but Zechariah 12:10 is only concerned with the tribes of Israel. This occurs so often throughout the book, that Vanhoye suggests “universalization” as one of John’s categories of interpretation. John takes passages related to Israel, and universalizes them to refer to the Church, which is the true Israel or “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).
Now, consider this for a moment. Remember where John is located. He’s been banished to the island of Patmos. In all likelihood, he does not have access to his Old Testament scrolls. His writing in Revelation reflects his memory of the Old Testament combined with divine inspiration. He described what he saw of this vivid vision. And what he wrote down was filled with biblical language found in 36 of the 39 Old Testament books! Charles Spurgeon quipped about John Bunyan, “Prick him anywhere—his blood is bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him.” How much more true would that be of John the apostle?
Something else that informs the structure is…
The Importance of Repetition
Hendriksen notes the repetition of content. He sees seven parallel sections with each section covering “the entire gospel age” between the first and second coming of Christ. Each section contains promises to the Church, references to the judgment of the world, and visions or comments regarding the final judgment or the great consummation.
In other words, we should not expect chronological order, but cyclical order. Instead of drawing a timeline from chapters 1-22, we should look for key phrases and thematic shifts that point to recapitulation. Don’t think of verbatim repetition. Rather, we’re provided with several points of view, different angles on the same subject.
The order within each cycle doesn’t necessarily follow chronological order either. That’s true even where the seals, trumpets, and bowls are numbered. They may very well happen simultaneously or in some other order, in history. What is clear, is that John is describing the order in which he saw each component taking place in his vision (4:1; 5:1; 7:1, 9; etc.).
Let’s consider some examples of this cyclical order. Hendriksen contends that the time references in sections 3 and 4 are parallel. In 11:2, the nations are granted 42 months to “trample the holy city” while the two witnesses (the Church) are given 1,260 days to prophesy. 1,260 days is the same as 42 months (1,260/30 = 42). In the next section, 12:6, we find the woman fleeing to the wilderness to be nourished by God for 1,260 days. In 12:14 John also describes this timeframe as “time and times and half a time” (3.5 years). So all of these time references make up the same length. Whether we read about 3.5 years, or 42 months, or 1,260 days we are referring to a period of events that run parallel to each other. This means that the trumpets are sounding at the same time as the war with the dragon (which makes perfect sense).
Furthermore, we can see that the trumpets are also parallel with the bowls, both of which allude to the plagues in Exodus:
- Earth (8:7; 16:2)
- Sea (8:8; 16:3)
- Rivers (8:10; 16:4)
- Sun (8:12; 16:8)
- Hell (9:1-2; 16:10)
- Euphrates (9:14; 16:12)
- Judgment (11:15; 16:17-21)
New details are found in each section of Revelation, but the repetition is made apparent by thematic and literary clues.
There are many connections between each section, but one of the most prominent parallels is the first and last section. They form a kind of inclusio that ties the whole book together. The opening section contains several promises for those who persevere through persecution (2:7, 11, 26-27; 3:5, 12, 21). Each one of these promises finds fulfillment in the new heavens and new earth (21:2, 7-11, 18-23, 27; 22:2, 4-5, 16). When God brings “imperfect anticipation to perfect consummation,”6 the church militant will become the church triumphant! Now is the day of salvation! Repent and believe and persevere, for the time is near!
- Johnson, Dennis, Triumph of the Lamb, 25. ↩︎
- This is opposed to those who see a mostly chronological order. Although futurists see a general chronology as being the natural reading of the text, most will admit to some recapitulation at various points, and especially in Rev. 12-14. Beasley-Murray is a futurist who sees a consistent recapitulation throughout Revelation. ↩︎
- Kistemake, Simon, NTC: Revelation, 17-18. ↩︎
- Beale, G.K., NIGTC: Revelation, 77-78. ↩︎
- Beale, 91-92. ↩︎
- Beale, 136. ↩︎