Many books in the Bible deserve the title epic, none more than Revelation. The book of Revelation brings to a close the great epic story of God’s redemption and restoration of his fallen creation. All that has transpired in God’s amazing story is for the praise of his glory. He is the central actor, the main character and the great director in the drama of redemption. In the final book of the Bible we find God bringing together all the loose ends of his plan to its complete consummation. All his promises are fulfilled and his eternal purposes fully realized in Christ. In this fitting end of the story, God’s glory is fully displayed for all to see and marvel. The brokenness of the world is made new and the eternal state is experienced according to the perfect will of God.
The book of Revelation is a difficult book for most people to read and understand. It’s easy to see why.The literary style and symbolism of the book is so foreign to most modern readers. John is known for his nonlinear structure, and it is especially so in Revelation. There are a variety of interpretations of the book even among scholars. It is hard to find many things in the book on which most people can agree. Yet with careful study one can understand the powerful message the book means to convey. When reading the Bible, and especially in the book of Revelation, it is important to understand what the Bible actually says, not what someone may claim it says. We want to know the truth of God’s word.
What kind of a book is Revelation? It seems pretty clear from the introduction (1:1-8) that the book combines three genres (types of writing): letter, prophecy and apocalypse. In 1:4 we find the standard structure of a letter at the time of the book’s writing, “John to the seven churches that are in Asia; grace and peace to you from . . .” Revelation is, first of all, a letter from the Lord Jesus through his messenger John to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia (modern day Western Turkey). It is also pretty clear that the letter is for all the Church, even though it is addressed to these seven churches. The book also contains seven particular letters to each of the seven churches in chapters two and three.
The book is also prophecy in the full biblical meaning of that word. We know this because 1:3 reads: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” Being prophecy, the book is filled with predictions about the future as well as many prophetic oracles of judgment. These prophecies are revelatory in keeping with the true nature of biblical prophecy.
And finally, the book of Revelation is an apocalypse. The very first verse of the book states, “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servant John.” In this verse the word revelation is the Greek word, apokalupsis. This word means revelation, manifestation or appearance and is the basis for a special kind of Jewish literature in the ancient world. Apocalyptic writing is unfamiliar to most people, and therefore the main reason it is hard to read. Biblical apocalyptic literature is a special type of literature. It is seen in parts of some Old Testament books like Daniel, Zechariah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel and also in many intertestamental non-canonical books. These books written between the Old & New Testaments that are helpful but not inspired by God or authoritative. Apocalyptic literature has certain distinct characteristics that make it so unique and powerful.
Characteristics of Apocalyptic Literature:
First, they have a high degree of symbolism. Many things in apocalypse cannot be taken literally or they become nonsensical. Most recognize that there is a lot of symbolism in Revelation, but the question remains as to how to interpret the symbols. The key to interpreting the symbolism in Revelation is not modern counterparts to the symbols (those are always changing), but their Old Testament usage. The OT in general is very important in understanding the book of Revelation. The book is saturated with OT allusions and references while having no actual quotes from the OT. But with reference to the symbols, the key to understanding them is found in how the OT uses the symbol. A symbol that is used more than any other is the number seven, which is used 55 times. If you want to know the message from God in Revelation it is imperative you understand the symbols.
The second characteristic of apocalyptic literature is that it presents an epic battle between good and evil. This battle is depicted in terms of a sharp dualism between good and evil. In this battle it often looks as though evil is winning, but good will ultimately win because God has sovereign control over the outcome of the fight for good. This is for the purpose of his glory. The call is always to join the side of good so as to be part of the victory.
A third characteristic of apocalyptic literature is that it is always looking to the end times. This focus comes out of the epic battle between good and evil. The great battle culminates in the end of time, which is orchestrated by God. It must always be born in mind that all apocalyptic literature is highly eschatological (end times). To loose sight of this feature is to grossly misunderstand its message. The point is that God is moving history and the epic battle of history to this climax of the end that ushers in the heavenly ideal paradise of the eternal messianic kingdom. Wherever one is in the history of this epic battle he/she is to look to the end with its final victory. This orientation brings comfort and strength in the battle.
The fourth and final characteristic of apocalyptic literature is that it is highly visionary. The one who communicates the revelation here is John who receives visions from God mediated through angels. The book of Revelation is almost totally visionary, which is seen in the repeated phrase, “I saw.” Jesus commands John to write the visions he received for the benefit of the Church. These visions, because they are visions, are highly picturesque and symbolic depicting events that will unfold in the plan of God with the ultimate end of bringing in the eternal kingdom of God.
The Structure of Revelation
At first glance the book of Revelation seems a bit random, but in fact it is highly structured. As with all biblical books, the structure is to communicate its message. The book has an introduction (1:1-8) and a conclusion (22:7-21) with three main sections (1:9-3:22; 4-16; 17-22:6). Each of the main sections has two parts. The two parts are related in that the second flows out of the first. In the first main section (1:9-3:22) the two parts are: Vision of Jesus Christ (1:9-20), and Letters to the Seven Churches (2-3). The letters flow out of the vision. The two parts of the second main section are: Throne Room Vision (4-5), and Three Cycles of Judgment (6-16). Again, the three cycles flow out of the Throne Room Vision. And finally, the two parts of the third section are: The Last Battle (17-20), and the New Creation (21:1-22:6). The book of Revelation can get complicated and confusing. If it starts to seem that way to you remember to return to the simple outline below.
Revelation at a Glance
1. Introduction (1:1-8)
2. Vision of Jesus Christ & Letters to Seven Churches (1:9-3:22)
3. Throne Room Vision & Three Cycles of Judgment (4:1-16:21)
4. The Last Battle & The New Creation (17:1-22:6)
5. Conclusion (22:7-21)
- Introduction (1:1-8)
Outline of the Introduction
- Prologue (1:1-3)
- Greeting (1:4-5a)
- Doxology (1:5b-8)
The book of Revelation begins with what is often called the prologue in the first three verses. These initial verses set the stage for everything that follows. In it we learn that this book is a revelation of Jesus Christ. This probably has a double meaning of a revelation from Jesus and a revelation about Jesus. This revelation was given to Jesus by God so that the servants of God, Christians, can know what will happen in the future. The church was under persecution and from a human perspective its future might look uncertain. This revelation will give them insight and encouragement.
John received this revelation by an angel of God who was sent to make it known to him. The words “make known” means to signify or even symbolize and shows the nature of the revelation John received. John was faithful to the revelation and bore witness to all he saw. At the end of the prologue John pronounces a blessing on the one who reads and those who hear and obey this prophecy.
The second part of the introduction is a greeting (1:4-5a) very typical of a letter at that time. This greeting has a trinitarian structure. Grace and peace are sent from God the Father (the One who is and who was and who is to come), from the Holy Spirit ( the seven spirits before the throne) and from Jesus Christ (the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth). Each of these three descriptive titles of Jesus is very significant. He is the faithful witness because he said and did all the Father sent him to say and do. Followers of Jesus must do the same. He is the firstborn from the dead guaranteeing a resurrection to all his followers. And he is the ruler of the kings of the earth, not just in the future but he is sovereign over all history to the fulfillment of his eternal plan.
And finally, we have a doxology (1:5b-8). This is a praise giving glory to Jesus because out of his amazing love for us he released us from our sins by his sacrifice on the cross and he made us a kingdom, priest to his God and Father. This is a testimony to the total grace of God to believers in the plan of redemption. Everything we have and are we owe to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
2. Vision of Jesus Christ & Letters to Seven Churches (1:9-3:22)
Outline of Vision of Jesus Christ & Letters to Seven Churches
- Vision of Jesus Christ (1:9-20)
1) Call to Write (1:9-11)
2) The Glorious Vision of Jesus (1:12-16)
3) Call to Write (1:17-20)
2. Letters to Seven Churches (2:1-3:22)
1) Letter to Ephesus (2:1-7)
2) Letter to Smyrna (2:8-11)
3) Letter to Pergamum (2:12-17)
4) Letter to Thyatira (2:18-29)
5) Letter to Sardis (3:1-6)
6) Letter to Philadelphia (3:7-13)
7) Letter to Laodicea (3:14-22)
This is the first of three main sections in the book. As stated earlier, each section has two parts. In each section the second part flows out of the first. So, in this first section, the first part is the vision of Jesus Christ. Flowing out of this amazing vision of Jesus is the letters to the seven churches. As we will see, the letters are intimately shaped by the vision.
Each of the seven letters have the following structure:
- Description of Jesus from chapter one Vision,
- Praise for Faithfulness,
- Rebuke for Unfaithfulness,
- Call to Repent,
- Consequence of Rejection
- Promise to the Overcomers
- Call to Hear what the Spirit says.
There is no rebuke for Smyrna & Philadelphia and no praise for Sardis Laodicea. Also, elements 6 & 7 are reversed for the first three churches.
3. Throne Room Vision & Three Cycles of Judgment (4:1-16:21)
Outline of Throne Room Vision & Three Cycles of Judgment
- Throne Room Vision (4:1-5:14)
1) Glory to the One Sitting on the Throne (4:1-11)
2) Glory to the Lamb Who was Slain to receive the Scroll (5:1-14)
2. Three Cycles of Judgment (6:1-16:21)
1) Cycle One: Seven Seals (6:1-7:17)
2) Cycle Two: Seven Trumpets (8:1-11:19)
3) Break: Redemptive History (12:1-14:20)
4) Cycle Three: Seven Bowls (15:1-16:21)
The second main section of chapters 4-16 is the Throne Room Vision (ch. 4-5) and Three Cycles of Judgment (ch. 6-16). Again the throne room vision serves as the foundation and fountainhead of what transpires in the three cycles of judgment. The judgment on the world throughout history comes from the throne and the Lamb. This central section forms the bulk of the book and the heart of its teaching.
Break: Redemptive History
Just as there was a break between the sixth and seventh seals and trumpets, there is also a break between the second cycle of judgments (trumpets) and the third cycle of judgments (bowls). The break is a symbolic representation of all of redemptive history (12:1-15:4). There are seven parts to this section:
- The Spiritual Conflict (12:1-17),
- The Beast from the Sea (13:1-10),
- The Beast from the Land (13:11-18),
- The Lamb & the 144,000 (14:1-5),
- The Message of the Three Angels (14:6-13),
- The Son of Man Harvest (14:14-20),
- The Saint’s Victory (15:1-4).
These visions cover all of redemptive history from the covenant to Abraham with the promise of a seed (Christ) through the time of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection on to the final judgment and the eternal state of blessedness.
4.The Last Battle & The New Creation (17:1-22:6)
Outline of the Last Battle & The New Creation
- The Last Battle (17:1-20:15)
1) Babylon the Great Prostitute (17:1-18:24)
2) Return of Christ (19:1-21)
3) The Millennium, The Rebellion & The Great White Throne (20:1-15)
2. The New Creation (21:1-22:6)
1) New Heavens & New Earth and New Jerusalem (21:1-8)
2) New Jerusalem Described (21:9-27)
3) The River of Life (22:1-6)
The third and final main section of the book of Revelation is The Last Battle & The New Creation (17:1-22:6). This last section brings closure to the book and the story of the Bible. God redeems his people and judges the world. He brings his plan of redemption to its fulfillment. All the promises of the Bible funnel down to the events of this section. As with the previous two main sections there are two parts with the second part flowing from the first. The New Creation flows out of the Last Battle that culminates human history.
5. Conclusion (22:7-21)
Outline of the Conclusion
- Call to Obedience & Promise of Blessing (22:7-9)
- Prohibition on Sealing the Book & Blessing on the Cleansed (22:10-15)
- Invitation to Come, Curse on Altering the Book & Final Promising of Coming (22:16-21)
The book of Revelation and the holy Scriptures end with three words from Jesus, the Lord of the Church. The first word is a blessing on those who keep and obey the words of the prophecy of the book of Revelation (22:7-9). He prefaces this blessing with encouraging words of his imminent return. The first recipients of the book were under heavy suffering for their faith, as many since have been. These words are of immense comfort. Jesus is coming soon and in the meantime he is with his people. They will be blessed as they keep, guard and treasure, the word of God in their lives.
The second word form the Lord Jesus is a word of warning and promise (22:10-15). Jesus is coming soon to execute justice on the world. Therefore, John is not to seal up the words of the prophecy of the book. The words of the book are to be known and understood. Another blessing is pronounced on those who wash their robes, which means to be holy by keeping the words of the book and thus remain undefiled by the world that turns away from the truth of the Lord. The judgments of the book are directed towards those who are rebellious and unbelieving.
The final word from Jesus is a word of encouragement to live in the expectation of his return. Jesus extends an invitation to all who will come. If anyone is longing in spiritual thirst, they can come to the water of life without price. The grace of God in Jesus Christ is available to all who will answer the invitation.
A final warning is given. If anyone adds to the book, God will add to them the plagues of the book. And if anyone takes away from the book, God will take away from them a share in the tree of life and the holy city.
The book of Revelation is an amazing and awe inspiring message from God and conclusion to the Bible. Everything the Bible communicates comes together here in Revelation. God completes his plan of redemption and restores his creation to his original purposes. In all this God displays the greatness of his glory and grace.
The book of Revelation and the Bible ends with Jesus promising that he is coming soon. “Amen. Come Lord Jesus!”