The Structure of Revelation (Rev 4)

The structure of Revelation is partly evident in the text, but not without complications, which explains why there is little agreement among scholars on the book’s structure. The search for a structure usually begins with the four, numbered, seven-fold visions in the book; the seven churches (2:1 – 3:22), the seven seals (6:1 – 8:1), the seven trumpets (8:7 – 11:18) and the seven bowls (16:1-21). Each of these visions is preceded by an introduction related to the sanctuary (the seven golden lampstands—1:12-20; the heavenly throne room—4:1 – 5:14; the altar of incense—8:2-6; and the heavenly temple scene—15:5-8). Each of these introductions/visions forms a natural division of the book’s structure. The material between the trumpets and the bowls (12:1 – 15:4) also forms a natural division of the book. A sanctuary introduction to that section (reference to the temple in heaven and the ark of the covenant) can be found in Revelation 11:19.

The biggest challenge to any structure of Revelation is what to do with the second half of the book, especially chapters 17 and 18. It appears that there is a natural division in chapters 19 and 20, with a focus on the final events of earth’s history (19:1-10), the Second Coming (19:11-21) and the millennium (20:1-15). The search for a sanctuary introduction leads to 19:1-10, which has many of the elements found in an earlier sanctuary introduction, Revelation 4-5. The final natural division of the book is the New Jerusalem narrative (21:1 – 22:5). In this section of the book, the sanctuary setting seems to have merged with the vision as a whole. There is no temple there because the New Jerusalem itself is the Most Holy Place (a perfect cube—Rev 21:16, cf. 1 Kings 6:20), God and the Lamb dwell in city (21:22), and there is face to face contact with God before the throne (22:3-4). This makes a total of seven sections in the structure of Revelation; seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, 12-14, seven bowls, the millennium and the New Jerusalem.

What remains to be structured are two things, the opening (1:1-8) and conclusion (22:6-21), and chapters 17 and 18. The opening and conclusion have many parallels with each other and are fittingly called the Prologue and the Epilogue. Some see in chapters 17 and 18 an eighth section of the book, focusing on the Fall of Babylon, But an eighth section would be surprising, considering the centrality of the number seven in the book. A better approach is to note the many connections between the sixth and seventh bowl-plagues (16:12-20) and chapter 17. Since chapter 17 portrays the fall of Babylon the prostitute, and chapter 18 portrays the fall of Babylon the great city, both chapters offer a fitting expansion and conclusion to the seven bowl-plagues.

Some scholars have noted a chiastic structure in the above outline. The Prologue and Epilogue have many parallel elements, as do the Seven Churches and the New Jerusalem sections. The Seven Trumpets and the Seven Bowls are also clearly parallel. The resulting outline highlights the centrality of the vision of Revelation 12-14. Unlike the Greek/Western tradition, the central purpose of the book is not found in the conclusion, but in the center, the location of the heavenly war and the three angel’s messages. This has important implications for interpretation.

Prologue (1:1-8)
I. The Seven Churches (1:9 – 3:22)
II. The Seven Seals (4:1 – 8:1)
III. The Seven Trumpets (8:2 – 11:18)
IV. The Great War (11:19 – 15:4)
V. The Wrath of God (15:5 – 18:24)
VI. The End of Evil (19:1 – 20:15)
VII. The New Jerusalem (21:1 – 22:5)
Epilogue (22:6-21)

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