In common with other apocalyptic writings, the Book of Revelation has a highly detailed structure,
with some remarkable patterns. This all may appear rather complicated, but having an awareness of the structure will be a great aid in the interpretation of this book.
The risen Jesus commanded John to write down what he saw (1:11). He was then given a succession
of visual images which he recorded in writing in this book. Many of these visions are introduced with the
words, “And I saw” or “And I looked” (The 'And' is often omitted in the English translations). These visions were almost certainly given in the order recorded, but that does not necessarily mean that they portray events which happen in a chronological sequence in history. As we read through the book we will soon notice that there are several sets of seven numbered visions. These are seven churches (ch 2-3), seven seals (ch 6-7), seven trumpets (ch 8-11) and seven bowls (ch 15-16). The seven letters to churches in Asia are given without a break from 2:1 to 3:22. However in two sections, the seven seals and the seven trumpets, there is a break following the sixth, before the seventh is introduced. The seven bowls are described without any break.
An overview of the structure of the Book of Revelation can be viewed by clicking here
Before the main part of the book is a short introduction to the whole book (1:1-8) containing the title of the book (1:1-3), a greeting from John (1:4-5a), and a declaration of praise to Jesus (1:5b-8).
Letters to seven churches (1:9 - 3:22)
The first major section of the book contains the letters to the seven churches (2:1 - 3:22). This begins with a setting describing John on the island of Patmos receiving a vision of the risen Lord Jesus and being commanded to write down what he sees and send it to the seven churches (1:9-20).
Seven seals (4:1 - 8:1)
The second major section contains the description of the opening of the seven seals (6:1 - 8:1). This begins with a much longer setting describing the heavenly throne room, where John sees God the Father sitting on the throne, and the Lamb who is the only one worthy to open the scroll (ch 4-5). The next two chapters describe the seven seals being removed from that scroll. The sixth seal (6:12-17) describes the dramatic events of the great day of wrath, at the end of which, the question is asked, “Who can stand?” This is followed by two interludes, the 144,000 sealed servants (7:1-8), and the great multitude (7:9-17). Both of these are introduced with the words, “After this I saw”.
Seven trumpets (8:2 - 11:18)
The third major section describes the seven trumpets (8:2 - 11:18). Again there is a short setting describing the angels standing before God making ready to blow the seven trumpets (8:2-6). Between the fourth and fifth trumpet is a brief announcement of three woes which will affect the inhabitants of the earth, the unbelievers (8:13). These will be at the blasts of the three remaining trumpets. After the fifth trumpet it is stated that the first woe has passed, and two are still to come (9:12), so the fifth trumpet (the locusts) was the first woe. The sixth trumpet (9:13-21) describes the judgement on the hour, the day, the month and the year on a third of mankind, and that the remaining two-thirds do not repent. This is again followed by two interludes, the mighty angel with the little scroll (10:1-11), and the two witnesses (11:1-13). After these two interludes is another announcement that the second woe has passed (11:14), the sixth trumpet. It also states that the third woe is coming very soon, the seventh trumpet. So the last three trumpets are the three woes (8:13), dividing the trumpets into two sections, the first four, and the last three.
Seven signs (11:19 - 15:4)
Between the seven trumpets and seven bowls is the fourth section of the book describing a series of
seven visions which are not numbered, but each of which are introduced “And I saw” (12:1 - 15:4). I have called them the seven signs, because the first is described as a sign or portent (12:1). Before these is another very brief setting of God’s temple in heaven being opened (11:19). The first sign is of the woman, dragon and male child and the war in heaven (12:1-18). The second is the beast from the sea that demands worship (13:1-10), and the third is the beast from the earth making people worship the first beast (13:11-18). The fourth sign is the Lamb and 144,000 on Mt. Zion (14:1-5), followed by the fifth, being three angels making loud proclamations (14:6-13). The sixth sign is the harvest of the redeemed and the wicked (14:14-20). Before the seventh sign is another brief portent or sign of seven angels with seven plagues which will end the wrath of God (15:1). This is a preview of the next section, the seven bowls. The seventh sign is the sea of glass and the saints singing the song of Moses (15:2-4).
Seven bowls (15:5 - 16:21)
The seven bowls form the fifth section of the book (16:2-21), and are described without a break.
They also have a short setting of the temple of the tent of witness in heaven, and the seven angels being told to go and pour out their bowls on the earth (15:5 - 16:1). Like the trumpets, the bowls are also divided into two sections, the first four and the last three. There is a parallel between the first four trumpets and first four bowls. In both sections they affect the same parts of the physical creation: the first of both affect the earth, the second the sea, the third the fresh waters, and the fourth affect the sun and heavenly bodies. The difference is that the trumpets are partial judgements affecting a third of each, but the bowls represent total judgement, bringing complete destruction.
Judgement of the prostitute / Babylon (17:1 - 19:10)
The next section introduces the great prostitute Babylon and describes its judgement (17:1 - 19:10). It begins differently from previous sections, but uses very similar wording to the section introducing the bride Jerusalem (21:9 - 22:9). John is invited by the angel to see the judgement of the great prostitute (17:1) and sees a vision of a woman on a scarlet beast, whose name is Babylon (17:5). Then follows a lengthy and detailed explanation that the angel gave John (17:6b-18). There are then seven voices from heaven proclaiming the destruction of Babylon (18:1 - 19:5). The first voice declares that Babylon is fallen (18:1-3). The second calls God’s people to come out of her because judgement is coming (18:4-20). This also contains three laments from the kings, merchants and seamen, who have profited from Babylon. The third voice is an angel with a great millstone (18:21-24). The fourth is the multitude in heaven (19:1-3), the fifth the twenty-four elders and four living creatures (19:4), and the sixth a voice from the throne (19:5), all of whom are rejoicing and singing, “Hallelujah!”. The seventh voice is a great multitude announcing the marriage supper of the Lamb (19:6-8). The section concludes with a blessing, affirmation of the words of God, and John being rebuked for worshipping the angel (19:9-10).
Seven judgements (19:11 - 21:8)
The next section is a set of seven judgement scenes (19:17 - 21:8), which are not numbered, but each are introduced with “And I saw”. It returns to the earlier pattern of a setting followed with a set of seven. In the setting, heaven opens and Jesus appears on his white horse (19:11-16). The first judgement is the call to the great supper of God (19:17-18), and the second describes the overthrow of the two beasts (19:19-21). The third judgement is the binding of Satan (20:1-3), and the fourth is the rule of the martyrs for 1000 years (20:4-10). (There is only one 'And I saw' in the Greek of 20:4). The fifth judgement is the great white throne (20:11) and the sixth is the judgement according to the books (20:12-15). The seventh and final scene is the new heaven and the new earth and the holy city Jerusalem descending from heaven (21:1-8).
Vision of the bride / Jerusalem (21:9 - 22:9)
The final major section is the vision of the bride Jerusalem (21:9 - 22:9), which parallels and
contrasts with the description of the prostitute Babylon (17:1 - 19:10). Again John receives in invitation from the angel, this time to see the bride, and is shown a city, Jerusalem. He then is given a long description of the city (21:9-21). Then follows a description of seven things in the city, or not needed in the city (21:22 - 22:5). The first is that there is no temple (21:22), the second that there is no sun or moon (21:23-24). They are not needed because God and the Lamb are there. The third is that the gates are never shut (21:25-27), and the fourth is the river of the water of life (22:1-2a). The fifth is the tree of life (22:2b), and the sixth is the throne of God (22:3-4). The seventh is that there is no more night (22:5). As with the section describing Babylon, this section concludes with an affirmation of the truth of the words (22:6), a blessing (22:7), and finally John being rebuked (again) for worshipping the angel (22:8-9). This time the order of the affirmation and blessing is reversed.
The book concludes with a short epilogue containing statements of the truth of the prophecy and warnings not to change it (22:10-20), and a final benediction (21:21).
Before each set of seven is introduced, there is description of the setting, which is always the throne room in heaven. These settings describe something in heaven being opened, often some part of the heavenly temple. This is followed by dramatic manifestations like flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, and the appearance of angels or of even Jesus himself.
||"In heaven a door stood open" (4:1)
||"The golden altar before the throne" (8:2)
||"God’s temple in heaven was opened" (11:19)
||"The temple of the tent of witness in heaven was opened" (15:5)
||"Heaven opened" (19:11)
'In the Spirit'
In four of the settings the phrase 'in the Spirit' appears. It seems that when there is a change in
location, John is taken there 'in the Spirit'. In the first, John receives a command from the risen Jesus, and in each of the last three John receives an invitation, saying, “Come and I will show you”, one from Jesus, and two from an angel.
'In the Spirit' comes in the setting of the following sections:
||John on the island of Patmos receives a command from Jesus (1:10)
||John invited by Jesus up to come up to the heavenly throne room (4:2)
||John invited by the angel to see the great prostitute (Babylon) and taken to the wilderness (17:1)
||John invited by the angel to see bride (Jerusalem) and taken to a great high mountain ( 21:10)
The setting for the trumpets, the signs, the bowls and the judgements is the heavenly throne room, so there is no change in location.
In a number of places in the book something is mentioned briefly as a preview, which is later expanded upon with a fuller description.
|Activity of the beast from the sea
|Activity of the beast from the earth
|Seven plagues (bowls)
||15:5 - 16:21
|Judgement on Babylon
||17:1 - 18:24
|The Holy City Jerusalem
||21:9 - 22:9
The day of wrath - scene number six
In Jewish apocalyptic writing the number six has a strongly negative association. Looking at the
structure of this book, the number six of each section appears to describe the final judgement. The sixth seal (6:12-17) describes dramatic cosmic manifestations affecting the physical world and different groups of people attempting to hide from God and the Lamb because the great day of wrath has come. The sixth trumpet (9:13-21) describe three plagues coming from the heads of 200 million horses which destroy one third of mankind on the hour, the day, the month and the year. The sixth sign (14:14-20) describing the harvest, declares that the hour to reap has come and treading of the great wine press of the wrath of God. The seven bowls are all judgement, but the sixth bowl (16:12-16) describes the gathering for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. In the sixth of the trumpets and of the bowls the River Euphrates is mentioned (9:14, 16:12). The Euphrates was the northern boundary of the promised land (Gen 15:18), beyond which were violent enemies like the Assyrians and Babylonians. It was also the eastern boundary of the Roman Empire, beyond which were the Parthians, a continuous threat to the power of Rome. So each of these sixth scenes describe the final judgement on the great day.
The glorious future - scene number seven
The number seven in Jewish apocalyptic was the number signifying perfection or completeness, so it is not so surprising that the seventh scene of each section describes something wonderful. The seventh seal (8:1) is half hour of silence, so we cannot say much about that. In the description of the seventh trumpet (11:15-18) a voice declares that the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Messiah (past tense) (v15). It also describes God as the one “who are and who were” (v17). The “is to come” is missing, suggesting he has already come. It also says that the wrath has come (past tense), and the time for rewarding the saints. This would suggest that this scene describes the glorious state beyond the final judgement. The seventh sign (15:2-4) describes those who conquered the beast singing the song of Moses and the Lamb, and declaring that “your judgements have been revealed” (past tense). Again this a glorious victory scene. In the seventh bowl (16:17-21), a voice declares, “It is done!”, then it previews the destruction of Babylon. In the seventh scene of judgement (21:1-8), there is a new heaven and new earth, with the former one passing away. The holy city Jerusalem is coming down from heaven, where there will be no more mourning and crying as God will be with his people in glory. This also previews the description of the heavenly city Jerusalem. So each of these seventh scenes describe the future glorious state.
This will leave us with the following overall structure: The seven churches, and the first five of the seals, trumpets and signs all represent events during this present age. The number six of each represents the final judgement, and the seventh of each represent future glory.
The bowls represent the final judgement, as they end the wrath of God (15:1) and because they are
total judgements. So beginning with the bowls and continuing almost to the end of the book are scenes describing the final judgement. Six of the seven bowls, the voices proclaiming the fall of Babylon and six of the seven scenes of judgement are all descriptions of the great day of wrath. They all describe the same event, but from different perspectives. They describe how all the different enemies of God’s people will be judged on that great day, focusing on each in turn.
Looking at the churches, seals, trumpets and signs, which represent events during the present age, the following changes in focus will be noted. The letters to the seven churches describe what is happening on earth, from an earthly point of view, in actual churches in Asia at the end of the first century. At the beginning of chapter four, John is taken up to heaven in the Spirit, to see what is happening on earth from a heavenly point of view. This is described in the seven seals and trumpets, portraying the persecution taking place and partial judgements. At the start of the seven signs, the focus changes to spiritual beings, the dragon and beasts, showing us what is happening in spiritual realm and the spiritual battle that is taking place. It shows that the persecution being suffered in the churches has a demonic source, but the forces of darkness have been defeated by the Lamb.