The Unity of Revelation
John uses a convention of images, themes, styles, and literary forms to tell his divine experience. The fundamental challenge is how to explain the numerous parallel passages and repetitions within the book?
The source and character of its images and narrative patterns can be understood appropriately and in depth only in the context of the Old Testament, and extra-Biblical documents. It uses images and themes from canonical Jewish literature (Daniel and Ezekiel).
Revelation consists of several different component elements— epistolary, prophetic, proverbial, and liturgical forms. Among the compositional devices by which smaller elements are ordered and subordinated to a larger, complex work, the most obvious is the sevenfold nature of Revelation.
The number seven (7) has been suggested as an ordering principle. The use of number seven is evident (seven lampstands, seven churches, seven eyes, seven spirits, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, seven angels). This repetition is the result of the use of sources, and the literary design.
Synopsis of Revelation
Revelation 1:9-3:22: John reports his visions in a first-person narrative. He states he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, in which the Lord Jesus Christ, One like the Son of Man, orders him to write to the seven churches in Asia: Ephesus, Symrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. John gives an elaborate description of the One like a Son of Man. Each message follows the same sequential pattern: (1) a command to write, (2) an identification of its speaker, (3) a description of the church’s situation, (4) accusations against the churches, (5) a call to repentance, (6) a warning that the speaker will come to them, (7) an admonition to listen, and (8) a promise to the victorious.
Revelation 4:1-11:19: In chapter 4, John hears a voice which calls him upon through an open door in heaven. He describes the elaborate Throne Room, and the One who sits on the Throne (4:1-11). Special attention is drawn to the “slain Lamb” who shares honor and glory with the One who sits on the Throne (5:1-14). The Lamb has the power to open a scroll sealed with seven seals, each of which brings earthly destruction or a heavenly scene (6:1-8:1).
In between the sixth and seventh seals John see two visions— one of visions of the sealing of 144,000 from the tribes of Israel (7:1-8), and one of an innumerable crowd whose garments were washed in the blood of the Lamb (7:9-17).
After incense and prayers offered by an angel before the altar (8:3-5), seven angels sound seven trumpets which brings more earthly destruction or a heavenly scene (8:6-11:19).
As with the sixth and seventh seals, visions occur between the sixth and seventh trumpets (10:1-11:14). The fifth trumpet brings destructive forces like locusts from the bottomless pit (9:1-3). John encounters a Mighty Angel with an open scroll (10:1-11), who commands him to measure the temple of God (11:1-2), and tells him of a story about the fate of Two Witnesses for God (11:3-13).
The blowing of the seventh trumpets brings considerable dramatic suspense, heavenly worship, the opening of the heavenly temple, and a theophany (11:15-19).
Revelation 12:1-14:20: Chapter 12 introduces a series of characters. A pregnant woman clothed with the sun comes into conflict with a Great Red Dragon (12:1-6; cf. 12:13-17). There is a war in heaven, in which the archangel Michael battles victoriously and cast out the same Dragon (12:7-12).
John sees a ten-horned, seven-headed beast with great authority rise from the sea (13:1-10), and a two-horned, lamb voiced beast with the number 666, coming up from the earth (13:11-18).
These visions of terror contrast with the visions of the 144,000 with the Lamb on Mt. Zion singing a new song (14:1-5); three angels proclaiming the eternal gospel, the fall of Babylon, and the fate of the worshippers of the beast (14:6-13); and the reapers of the earth (14:14-20).
Revelation 15:1-19:10: Chapter 15 introduces another series of seven. A scene of heavenly worship (15:1-4) followed by seven angels with seven golden bowls filled with the plagues of God’s wrath coming out of the heavenly temple (16:1-17). Phenomena occur again in the sky (16:18-21, cf. 11:19).
The seven bowls are followed by a series of visions describing the Great Harlot Babylon and her destruction (17:1-19:6) that concludes with a feminine image of the Bride of the Lamb (19:6-10).
Revelation 19:11-22:5: The heavens open once again and John sees the One sitting on a white horse with a robe dipped in blood and inscribed “King of Kings and Lord of lords.” The birds gather for the Great Supper of God at which they gorge themselves on human flesh, while the Word of God, victorious over the beast and his followers, kills them and throws them alive into the lake of fire (19:17-21). The dragon, Satan, is chained in the bottomless pit for a thousand years, while Christ and his followers reign, the millennium (Rev. 20:1-6). After the thousand years are over, Satan is loosed again upon earth. He gathers God and Magog to march against the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire from heaven destroys them. Satan is cast into the lake of fire, where along with the beast and false prophet, they are eternally tormented (20:7-15).
John sees a new heaven and a new earth, as well as the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven, prepared as a bride (21:1-5). The One on the Throne declares all things new and promises a blessing to those who conquer but damnation to the rest (21:6-8). The New Jerusalem is described in detail (21:9-22:5).
Revelation 22:6-21: As the book began it closes with a series of confirmatory statements that the contents of the book are from God and blessed are those who hear it (22:6-20). Liturgical like exclamations are inserted proclaiming that the end is near, followed by an epistolary closing (22:21).
Sources of the Apocalypse
Revelation shares with all apocalypses the importance of scripture as a source for its language. John rarely quotes from the OT directly. He alludes to it, paraphrases it, and combines various passage from it.
Style, Diction, and Idiom of the Apocalyse
The subtle connections among words, phrases, sentences, and scenes in the Revelation. The organization of the Revelation is more complex than a summary suggests. John’s language does not simply flow in narrative or logical sequence, it plays on formal, thematic, metaphoric, symbolic, and auditory levels of association.
Irony is another figure of speech that occurs in Revelation. Dissembling and concealing occur together. The true meaning reverses what appears. Irony appears with words that play on different meanings. John often creates puns and plays on different meanings of a word. When considering the meaning of a word at any specific instance, its range of meanings may also be present.
The linguistic unity of Revelation is established through linking narratives, made up of seamless unbroken sequence. Notice contrasting units, reversed relationships, accumulation of images, and circularity. Figures of speech abound in Revelation as comparisons, similes, metaphors, and word plays.
The Hebraic Style of the Apocalypse
It may be said though John wrote in Greek, he thought in Hebrew. “The linguistic character of the Apocalypse is absolutely unique.” (Moulton, Prolegomena, Studies in the Apocalypse, pp. 79-102) The Greek of the Apocalypse differs from that of the LXX, other versions of the OT, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha and that of the papyri. It is evident from the text that John is “full of his subject, and is “a true artist” (Charles). John uses Greek sources translated from Hebrew (LXX). “He has rendered many Hebrew expression literally and not idiomatically.” It appears he never mastered Greek idiomatically and the Greek of his time. At times the Greekneeds at times to be translated into Hebrew in order to discover its meaning and render it correctly in English.
Structure and Outline of the Apocalypse
There is little agreement about how the book as a whole is to be outlined. However it is recognized that Revelation is a tightly woven complex literary unit. The repeating phrases are a crucial literary junctions throughout every major section of the text. Revelation 1:19 implies a broad three-fold structure of the book (“what John has seen, what is now and what will take place later”), and may be a key to interpretation. There is a broad representative outline composed of the prologue (1:1–8), the seven letters (1:9–3:22), the seven seals (4:1–8:1), the seven trumpets (8:2–11:19), and the seven bowls (15:1–16:21). However these are interrupted by sections referred to as “interludes” or “parentheses,” such as 7:1–17. Then there are smaller parentetical segments that stand between the ends and the beginnings of other sections, such as 8:2–5, and 15:2–5. There is a radical disagreement about the literary outline of chs. 17–22.
The most plausible outline divides the Revelation into seven sections. However these sevenfold division must be seen as a subordinate division of the broader four-fold division of 1:9-3:22, 4:1–16:21, 17:1–21:8, and 21:9–22:5. Each of the four sections are marked by the repeated phrase “…in the Spirit” (1:10, 4:2, 17:3, 21:10), based on the Daniel 2 markers.
John introduces a new vision by the clause “I saw,” with the occasional insertion of “I heard.” The first person narrative creates clear breaks between visions and events. John’s story speaks of his firsthand witness of God’s word and the testimony of Jesus Christ.
1:17 I saw Him (One like the Son of Man)
4:1 After these things I saw… a door open in heaven
5:1 I saw a Book in the hand of the one sitting on the throne
5:2 I saw a strong angel
5:6 I saw a Lamb
5:11 I saw and heard the voice of many angels
6:1 I saw a Lamb
6:1 I heard one of the four living creatures
6:2 I saw and behold a white horse
6:3 I heard the second living creature
6:5 I heard the third living creature
6:7 I heard the fourth living creature
6:8 I saw and behold a pale horse
6:9 I saw souls
6:12 I saw… a great earthquake and the sun, and…
7:1 After these things I saw four angels standing…
7:2 I saw another angel ascending from the rising sun
7:9 After these things I saw and behold a great crowd
8:2 I saw seven angels before God
8:13 I saw and heard an eagle crying
9:1 I saw a star out of heaven fall to the earth
9:17 I saw the horses
10:1 I saw another angel
11:1 I was given a measuring rod and I was told…
12:10 I heard a loud voice in heaven
13:11 I saw a beast rising out of the sea
14:11 I saw and behold the Lamb and 144,000
15:11 I saw another angel in heaven and seven angels
16:1 I heard a great voice from the temple
16:13 I saw three spirits as frogs
17:3 I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast
17:6 I saw the woman
18:1 After these things another angel
19:1 After these things [I heard]
19:11 I saw heaven opened
19:17 I saw an angel standing in the sun
19:19 I saw the beast and the kings of the earth
20:1 I saw an angel coming out of heaven
20:4 I saw thrones and those seated on them
20:11 I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it
20:12 I saw the dead
21:1 I saw a new heaven and a new earth
21:2 I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem
21:22 I saw no temple
22:8 I heard and I saw
Charles, R. H., The International Critical Commentary: The Revelation of St. John. Edited by S. R. Driver, A. Plummer, C. A. Briggs. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1979.
Thompson, Leonard L., The Book of Revelation, Apocalypse and Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Ford, J. Massyngberde, The Anchor Bible: Revelation. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
Beale, G. K., The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Book of Revelation. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.