The Structure of Revelation – Pt.2
Last week I mentioned that we made it to our final introductory sermon. And we certainly did. But what I didn’t say was that we would be looking at that final introduction in two parts…
We began our consideration of the structure of Revelation, last week, by showing John’s dependence upon the Old Testament. We cannot understand Revelation without taking his frequent allusions to 36 of the 39 books of the Old Testament into account. We also looked at some examples of the repetition that we find in the book. We noted how the units of time in sections 3 and 4 (42 months, 1,260 days, “times, times, and half a time” = 3.5 years) are parallel because they all cover the same length. Then we compared the trumpets with the bowls and found that they each deal with judgment on a particular part of the earth in a parallel fashion.
The main idea is that The structural frame of Revelation is the seven cycles of recapitulation which cover the entire period between the first and second coming of Christ.
Vern Poythress provides some detailed outlines in his commentary that are excellent, but I find this seven-fold outline simple and comprehensive enough.1
Instead of reading one passage, we’re going to take some time to read a portion of each section this morning. But before we begin, let’s ask the Lord for his help in understanding it.
I. The Earthly Struggle
- Seven Churches (1:1-3:22) This section emphasizes the unity of Christ and his Church. He is with her, standing in her midst. He calls her to repent of her spiritual lethargy and compromise with the world. She is called to remain steadfast in her struggle against worldly temptations. The continual refrain throughout these letters is “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). Note the expectation that all of the letters in Revelation 2-3 would be read to everyone listening. So the church in Ephesus heard what was said to Smyrna and they were encouraged to hear the Spirit’s words to them all. Though the first century churches in Asia Minor are the initial subjects, these exhortations are relevant to every church in every age. The Church’s trials purify true believers, removing the dross from their lives, and ultimately bring them closer to God.
- Seven Seals (4:1-8:1) The scene transitions to the heavenly throne, with all of its splendor and glory, and the Lamb who is worthy to take the scroll and open its seals. Christ our King, riding on a white horse, conquers his and our enemies repeatedly, throughout this present age. Each seal that is opened reveals another element of the spiritual warfare the Church, on earth, must face. The sixth seal shows the final judgment (6:15-17):
“Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
That is followed by the glorious heavenly consummation of the seventh seal (7:15-17):
“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
- Seven Trumpets (8:2-11:19) In response to the prayers of the persecuted Church, God’s judgment is depicted through seven trumpet blasts. These judgments, like the persecutions, span the entire present age. Thirteen times we read “a third” referring to the destruction or corruption of the earth, trees, sea, sea creatures, ships, rivers, waters, sun, moon, stars, and mankind. These trumpets don’t utterly wipe out evil. Idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality remain (9:20-21):
“The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.”
While these partial judgments take place throughout history, the Church witnesses: “And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them” (11:7). But they come come back to life and God calls them to heaven (11:11-12). Then we read of the final judgment (11:18):
The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.
The judgment described by this seventh trumpet, is universal and complete.
II. The Heavenly Struggle
- Spiritual Conflict (12:1-14:20) Behind all of this earthly conflict and destruction lies an age-old conflict between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15). Satan is depicted as a dragon seeking to devour Christ, “the male child”, at his first coming (12:5). When this fails, he pursues the woman and the rest of her offspring, which represents the Church (12:17). The dragon forms a counterfeit trinity with the beast and the false prophet. They also employ the help of the harlot, Babylon. They unite to destroy the Church, but all of the elect (144,000 “who had been redeemed from the earth,” 14:3) are found standing victoriously with the Lamb on Mount Zion! Once again, the section closes with the final judgment (14:14-15):
Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. And another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to him who sat on the cloud, “Put in your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.”
Although Christ’s enemies are ultimately defeated at the same time in history, Revelation depicts their destruction separately.
- Seven Bowls (15:1-16:21) Those who identified themselves with the beast are filled with hatred for God and live in unrepentant rebellion against him (16:9, 11; cf. 9:21). They ignored the warnings of the trumpets, so they will experience the bowls of God’s wrath. Again, this is clearly representative of the final judgment which will conclude with a shout from the throne of heaven declaring “It is done!” (16:17).
- Final Judgment (17:1-20:15) The next enemy to be defeated is the great prostitute who made the earth drunk with her sexual immorality. All those who identified with her will mourn her death (18:9-20), while the saints in heaven will rejoice in her defeat (19:1-5). These saints are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb (19:6-10), because the rider on the white horse has conquered the beast and the false prophet (19:11-21)! The Millennium, once again, shows us the entire age between Christ’s first and second coming which involves the binding of the dragon from deceiving the nations (20:1-3), as well as the reign of the saints from heaven (20:4-6). Finally the dragon is defeated (20:7-10), followed by the final judgment (20:11-15):
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
- Final Reward (21:1-22:21) Notice the contrast between the harlot and the bride:
17:1-3 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters…And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns.
21:9-10 Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.
The final judgment of the previous section leads us into the consummation of the new heaven and new earth (21:1-8). Again we hear the declaration “It is done!” now in terms of our final redemption (21:6). The bridegroom is now united to his bride forever! The Lamb is seated on the throne surrounded by “the river of the water of life,” and the ultimate tree of life (22:1-5). The epilogue includes blessings upon believers, exhortations for seekers, and Christ’s promise that he is “coming soon” (22:6-21).
Can you see the argument for parallel cycles? I honestly don’t see a better way to read Revelation than the one laid out for us by this structure.
In addition to seeing recapitulation, it’s also obvious that there is an increasing level of intensity from one cycle to the next. Destruction escalates from quarters (6:8) to thirds (ch.8) to the whole earth (ch.16). Although the trumpets are parallel with the bowls, they aren’t as devastating. They bring partial judgment and warning that is followed by the universal wrath of the bowls, but they represent the progression of the same event.
The same is true of the triumphant victory and the picture of heavenly glory. What begins with hints of praise and thanksgiving, by the end, becomes an endless feast and celebration.
Time and time again, as we make our way through this book, God is reminding us that we must choose whom we will serve. Will we compromise with the world, uniting ourselves with the counterfeit purposes of the Dragon, the Antichrist, and the false prophet? If so, we can be certain that our fate will be the same as theirs—eternal judgment in the lake of fire.
There is nothing light and fluffy about Revelation. It doesn’t beat around the bush. Its warnings are no less serious because of their figurative presentation.
However, we can be just as certain that if we belong to the King of Kings by faith, we will not only conquer death and evil through him, but He will usher us into an eternity of ceaseless joy with him! May that increase our hope of his return, and encourage us to share that hope with others.
- Hendriksen, William, More Than Conquerors, 16-19, 21. Beeke, Joel, LCC: Revelation, 10. ↩︎