Biblical Research & Education Resources
Blaine Robison, M.A., M.R.E.
The Structure of Revelation
Published 12 August 2013; Revised 8 October 2014
Sources: Bibliographic data for works cited may be found at the end of the article.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic writings and message I use the terms Yeshua (Jesus), Messiah (Christ), Tanakh (Old Testament), and Besekh (New Testament).
Defining the structure of Revelation is a matter of considerable difference of opinion among commentators. Two basic views form the foundation for individual approaches. One view is that Revelation is a straightforward chronological story, in that not only does John tell the reader the order in which he received the visions and revelations, but also the order of occurrence of the prophesied events. The second view is that no chronology of prophesied events can be asserted, because some material seems either to be a repetition of previous material or completely out of sequence. Some scholars have noted that in Jewish apocalyptic literature it is common for the narrative to offer a sweeping summary of complex events with later regressions to add more detail (Gundry 75). Revelation is certainly not a flashback from the future telling a simple sequential story. For example, Chapter Eleven treats events at or near the end of the great tribulation and Chapter Twelve goes back to the birth of Yeshua.
The earliest attempt to represent structure in the Besekh began in the fourth century when chapter divisions were first introduced into manuscripts. Perhaps the most artificial system for Revelation was developed in the latter part of the sixth century by Archbishop Andrew of Caesarea in Cappadocia who wrote a “spiritual” exegesis on the book. Instead of starting with the content of the book, Archbishop Andrew arbitrarily divided the book into 24 logoi, or discourses, because of the 24 elders sitting on thrones around the throne of God (4:4). He further considered the triune character of body, soul and spirit of each elder and so divided each discourse into three parts, making a total of 72 chapters in the book (Metzger 23).
While there may not be consensus among commentators on the structure of Revelation, Mounce aptly observes that there is progress in the book. From the beginning the book takes the reader on an exhilarating ride toward the final victory over Satan and the establishment of God’s eternal kingdom. The basic structure, of course, is to be found in the very sequence in which John tells his story. The transition points seem to be connected with the number “seven” (letters to seven congregations, the seals, trumpets and bowls) and John’s frequent assertion of “I saw.” Beginning in Chapter Six John’s story is actually what was contained in the Book (or scroll) of the End of the Age, which he was shown in Chapter Four. The chronology of the Book of the End of the Age seems to be interrupted at times, which commentators call “Interludes,” to give the congregation more information about the leading characters and events of the end-time drama.
Developing an outline of Revelation almost presumes to know the mind of God, yet the thematic series of “sevens” give structure to the Revelation of Yeshua:
I. Introduction to the Revelation of Yeshua (1:1-20)
In the first chapter John (John) the Apostle, as a prisoner on the island of Patmos, introduces the reader to the occasion and purpose of writing this great work. The highlights of the first chapter are the glorious appearance of Yeshua the Messiah as John was in worship on the Lord’s Day and the Yeshua’s instruction for letters to be sent to seven congregations.
II. The Seven Messages (2:1 – 3:22)
Chapter Two and Three contain brief messages for seven congregations in Asia. Each message conforms to a consistent composition format that has long interested commentators. Each letter is addressed to the overseer of the congregation, although members are invited to make personal application of the exhortations. Five of the seven letters contain words of praise for personal conduct and service and similarly five of the seven letters confront a problem in the overseer's life and character. For these problems Yeshua identifies a penalty or punishment if he does not repent. Conversely, in all the letters Yeshua promises a prize to those who overcome the world.
III. The Book of Seven (Ch. 4:1 – 5:14)
In Chapter Four the scene dramatically changes from letter writing to John’s trip to heaven where he stands before the great throne of God, records the sights and sounds surrounding God’s presence and is promised an unveiling of the future.
Chapter Five continues the visit narrative and John witnesses the awe-inspiring worship of the four living creatures and the angelic elders. John is shown a book with seven seals containing the decrees of God about the future, indeed, the very last days of the earth. The Lamb of God, Yeshua the Messiah, on the basis of His atoning sacrifice is given the authority to open the seals so that all the saints may know what the Father has chosen to reveal.
IV. The Seven Seals (6:1 – 8:1)
Chapter Six begins the disclosure of the mysteries of the last days that have been kept hidden since the foundation of the world. The book John was shown has seven seals, but the seventh seal reveals seven trumpets of judgment (Chapter 8–9) and the seventh trumpet will announce the final events immediately preceding and concurrent with the return of Yeshua (Chapter 11, 15-16, 19).
Many commentators regard Chapter Seven as an interlude that does not necessarily follow the sixth seal as a chronological event. However, 7:3 does foreshadow the trumpet plagues of the seventh seal, so the events of this chapter may happen during the period of the sixth seal. Here John witnesses the sealing of 144,000 Messianic Jews and the arrival in heaven of an innumerable host of martyrs from the great tribulation.
V. The Seven Trumpets (8:2 –11:19)
The trumpet judgments of Chapter Eight and Nine strongly resemble the story of the plagues on Egypt in the time of Moses (Ex 7-11) (Juster TOC). The calamities announced by the trumpets do not wreak total devastation to the earth and they are not God’s final wrath. More destruction follows in the bowl judgments, and, during the trumpet judgments, God still offers grace in response to repentance (9:21).
In Chapter Ten, which may function as an interlude during the sequence of describing the trumpets, John reports meeting an angel with a special book. While the contents of the book are not revealed, John is reminded that an important prophetic ministry awaits him.
Chapter Eleven may constitute another interlude and briefly tells of the instruction for measuring a temple and two witnesses who have a vital ministry for God in the final days of the earth. At the close of the ministry of the witnesses the seventh trumpet finally sounds with its announcement that the Kingdom of the Messiah has arrived in its fullness, the wrath of God comes upon the wicked and the saints are rewarded.
VI. The Seven Signs (12:1 – 19:21)
John is now given the “big picture” of the war against God that Satan has fought since the beginning of time, structured around seven signs: the sign of the woman (12:1), the sign of the dragon (12:3), the sign of the beast from the sea (13:1), the sign of the beast from the earth (13:11), the sign of the seven angels (15:1), the sign of the harlot (17:1) and the sign of the Messiah (19:11). In war an important duty of leadership is to keep subordinates informed of the greater plans and issues at stake so they can understand how their individual sufferings and sacrifices matter to fulfilling the overall strategic aim. John’s experience is a reminder that no matter how intense and ferocious Satan has executed his campaign to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10), in the end the victory belongs to God and His saints.
The beast was introduced in Chapter Eleven in the account of the two witnesses, but in Chapter Thirteen John is given the background behind the dragon summoning the beast from the abyss and the beast’s activities as he dominates the religion, economy and politics of the earth in its final days. Chapter Fourteen brings the reader to the waning days of the earth where the 144,000 Israelites make another appearance, the gospel is proclaimed for the last time and doom for those who have taken the mark of the beast looms ever closer.
Chapter Fifteen continues the story of the seventh trumpet and includes an account of the sign of the seven avenging angels and a time of worship that functions as a commissioning ritual before they begin their divine service. Chapter Sixteen details the seven last judgments on the earth, most geophysical in scope, that finish God’s judgment on the reign of the Antichrist. The trumpet plagues, though punishing in the suffering inflicted, still offer time for the world to repent and turn to God. The account of the bowls does not recapitulate the trumpet judgments, but with the bowls of wrath God recognizes that the followers of the beast have hardened their hearts against the mercy of God.
Chapter Seventeen and Eighteen describe the fall of Babylon and give more information on the identity of the beast. Chapter Nineteen commences with exuberant rejoicing in heaven over the destruction of Babylon, followed by an announcement of the marriage supper of the Lamb, and then paints a vivid portrait of the Second Coming of Yeshua the Messiah and King and His victory over the Beast and Satan.
VII. The Seven Blessings (20:1 – 22:21)
Chapter Twenty brings the reader to those epic events that mark the end of the present age and transition to first the millennial kingdom and then the eternal kingdom. While not specifically enumerated the close of Revelation presents seven wonderful blessings that every believer anticipates: the judgment of Satan, the resurrection, the reign of the saints, the death of death, the new creation, the New Jerusalem and the new Eden (20:1 – 22:5). Central to the story of this chapter is the confinement of Satan to Hades concurrent with a thousand years of the Messiah’s reign on the earth. During this period the saints are granted the privilege of sharing Yeshua’s authority over the nations and the Torah becomes the law of the land, bringing the peace and prosperity for which mankind has longed.
The intermediate age closes with the last satanic rebellion, the second resurrection, the great white throne judgment and the final determination of eternal destinies. With Chapter Twenty-One the scene transitions from the millennial kingdom to the “riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (Eph 1:18). God will make all things new for eternity: a new heaven, a new earth, a new city and a new life. Chapter Twenty-Two brings John to the end of his great apocalyptic encounter with its vision of the blessedness of the eternal kingdom and final exhortations to those who share in it.
Copyright © 2006-2014 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.