The author of Revelation often embeds clues about the organization and key ideas of the book in the transition texts. One of those transition texts is Revelation 1:19. In this text he lays out the plan of the whole book. It begins, “Write, therefore, what you have seen” (my translation). This sentence parallels verse 11, “Write what you see.” Verse 11 is present tense and verse 19 is past tense (Greek aorist indicative). This means the entire vision of Revelation was seen by John between the command in verse 11 and the command in verse 19. Having seen the vision, he is told to write it out and begins that process in verse 19.
What has John seen? Two things: “The things which are” and “the things which are about to happen after these things” (Rev. 1:19, my translation). So the book of Revelation will include both things current at the time of the seven churches, and things which were yet to come from their perspective. One part of John’s vision focuses particularly on the time in which John lived, and one part focuses on events that will follow after John’s time. For our purposes, the key question is, How do we know when John is addressing his time and place and when he is addressing the things which would happen after his day?
In Revelation 4:1 (my translation) Jesus says to John, “Come up here, and I will show you the things which these things must happen after.” This is a nearly exact parallel to Revelation 1:19. So beginning with Revelation 4:1, the rest of Revelation focuses primarily on John’s future. While there are flashbacks to the cross (Rev 5:6; 12:11), to the enthronement of Jesus (Rev. 5:6-14), and even events before creation (Rev. 12:4), the primary focus from chapter four to the end of the book on is events future from John’s day.
What, then, are “the things which are” in Revelation 1:19? Evidently, everything between 1:19 and 4:1, namely the messages to the seven churches. While the seven messages have powerful implications for the whole Christian era, their primary focus is on the situation of those seven churches, and on the messages that Jesus brings to them. Unlike most of the book of Revelation, the messages to the seven churches are not an apocalyptic prediction of future events, they read more like the letters of Paul or Matthew 24. As such they are applicable directly to the original readers and also to readers throughout the Christian era (see Rev. 1:3). As such, they can also be applied to the various eras of church history, with which they fit fairly well.
Careful attention to Revelation 1:19 shows how key texts of Revelation can help readers see the structure in John’s mind and in the mind of the One who gave him the vision.