Since we are beginning a series of sermons on the book of Revelation, I thought
it would be helpful to discuss the structure of the book in writing rather than in a
sermon. I hope it will be helpful as we go through the book. Looking in a “big
picture” at the book of Revelation is a lot like looking at a jigsaw puzzle. There
are many odd-shaped pieces that are challenging to put together. However,
there are straight edges that mark the puzzle’s boundaries and fitting those pieces
together provides a frame of reference for making the odd-shaped pieces mesh into a coherent picture. Revelation is a book that is very challenging and complex, yet the picture is simple enough to grasp. In Revelation certain aspects of the text stand out as signposts and boundary markers that yield its structure.
At the broadest level, Revelation is composed of a beginning, a middle and an end, i.e. a prologue (1:1-8), a body (1:9-22:9) and an epilogue (22:6-21). The prologue introduces the book’s content and genres. With respect to content, Revelation concerns “the things which must soon take place” (1:1), events which will affect the forces then threatening Christ’s churches in western Asia Minor. With respect to genre, Revelation is a book of prophetic vision (“all that we saw” (1:2), “the words of the prophecy” (1:3). Revelation is also an epistle and contains the four standard components of an epistolary opening: identification of the author (John) and recipients (the seven churches in Asia), followed by a greeting that extends divine grace and peace to the recipients (“from Him who is, who was and who is to come; and from the seven spirits…and from Jesus Christ”) and an expression of praise to God (“to Him who loves us…be the glory and the dominion forever and ever”).
As per epistolary literature the greeting and praise sections are expanded to foreshadow themes that will appear in the body and in the epilogue. Some of those themes are God’s grace and peace on the churches, God’s sovereignty over the past, present and future, the Spirit’s presence before the Father’s throne, and Jesus Christ the faithful Witness, His resurrection-victory, and supreme dominion. In other words the supremacy of the triune God will be prominent in all that John will see and write. The book is aptly introduced as the Revelation of Jesus Christ because He is not only its speaker but also the subject.
At the other end of the book, the epilogue returns to the same themes introduced in the prologue. God sends His angel “to show His bondservant the things which must soon take place” (22:6, 16; cf. 1:1). The book’s sixth benediction, like the first, is pronounced on the one who “heeds the words of the prophecy”. The promise, “the time is near” also recurs (22:10; cf. 1:3). The divine self designation mirrors chapter one. The deity of the Son is made plain (“first and the last, beginning and the end,” 1:17; cf. 21:6). “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all” (22:21) corresponds to the opening (1:3-4).
The epistolary structure of the prologue and the epilogue reinforces the principle that Revelation is Jesus’ public correspondence with His churches in first-century Asia. Its message addressed the challenges confronting their life of faith just as 1 Corinthians addressed the issues confronting the church in Corinth. And just as 1 Corinthians speaks to us as much as those in Corinth, so Revelation has much to say to us today.
The body begins with the opening vision of “one like a Son of Man” who appears in blazing glory to commission John as prophet (1:9-20). This scene introduces the reader and hearers to the visual mode of Jesus’ message and to the symbolic significance of the images that John will record. The Son of Man interprets two images of the opening scene: the lampstands among which He walks and the stars that He holds (1:20). Many other features of this vision had already been invested with symbolic significance by their appearance in Old Testament prophecy.
The body closes with a vision of the New Jerusalem as “the bride, the wife of the Lamb, and the promise of uninterrupted joy in God for those who cling to the words of the prophecy (21:9-22:9). Since this final vision discloses Christ’s pure and peaceful bride in contrast to the beast’s vile and violent harlot, the two women are introduced with words so similar that the parallel cannot be missed
“Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.” And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns.” (Revelation 17:1-3)
“Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” (Revelation 21:9-10)
Thus the body opens with a vision of the heavenly Bridegroom, the Son of Man, and it closes with a vision of the heavenly bride, the new Jerusalem. Toward the end of the body are the contrasting visions of the judgment of the harlot Babylon and the joy of the bride Jerusalem. Between the portraits of these two women are visions that portray the last battle between their respective champions: the Warrior of the Word of God, the church’s Husband, defeats and destroys the beast and the dragon, who had sustained the harlot. In this last battle scene the Word’s fiery eyes and the sword proceeding from His mouth remind us of the opening vision of the Son of Man. The body closes where it began: with Jesus and His protective love for His church.
The content of the body is dictated by the Son of Man in the opening vision: “Therefore write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things” (1:19). Although it might appear to be a threefold list, the first description includes the other two: write the things which you have seen, namely, “things which are” (the present situation), and the “things which shall take place after these things” (future trends and events).
So John must write his visions which concern the present (John’s time) and the future. The present includes the situation of the seven churches, known by Christ who walks among them and accurately diagnosed in His seven letters (chapters 2-3). Each letter also contains a promise that is focused on the future, usually to be fulfilled in the new Jerusalem. Therefore, the letters of Revelation 2-3 concern primarily the church’s present circumstances, but they also promise things yet future.
Revelation 4:1 marks a transition to the future, for when John is summoned into God’s heavenly court, he hears the promise, “I will show you what must take place after these things”. Thus Revelation 2-3 describe the present and what follows John’s prophetic initiation in Revelation 4-5 (and 10-11) concern what would be future from the standpoint of John’s reception of the visions of Patmos. The fact that these events symbolized in the visions of Revelation 4-22 were future when John received the visions in the first century does not, however, tell us which of the events are future at our time, at the turn of the 21st century. Moreover, some of the visions symbolize events that predate the situation of the present situation of the seven churches in Asia Minor. The presents trials confronting the Asian congregations were local expressions of the forces and figures symbolized as the beast, false prophet and harlot in the cosmic conflict section (12-22). So the visions of Revelation 4-22 concern primarily the “things which will take place” in the future, but they also show the cosmic context of the church’s present struggle.
Structure of the Big Picture: A Working Proposal
In view of the structural markers we have surveyed, I propose that we piece together a frame such as the following to guide us as we seek to assemble the rest of the puzzle:
Title, chain of transmission, promise of blessing (1:1-3)
Epistolary opening (1:4-6)
Announcements about and by the coming King (1:7-8)
“The things which are”: Christ is with His churches and knows their conflict (1:9-3:20)
Vision of the Son of Man (“I became in the Spirit”) (1:9-20)
His seven letters to the churches (2:1-3:20)
“The things which shall take place after these things”: Christ will defeat and destroy His enemies (4:1-22:9)
Scroll opened: Current and coming woes, precursors of the end (4:1-11:8)
Vision of the One on the throne and the Lion/Lamb (“I became in the Spirit”) (4-5)
The Lamb opens seven seals: instruments, rationale, and climax of current and coming woes (6:1-8:1)
Interlude: Sealing of Israel, worship by the nations (7)
Vision of the incense altar (8:2-6)
Sounding of seven trumpets: current and coming woes sound warnings, prefiguring coming wrath (8:7-9:21, 11:14-18)
Scroll delivered: The cosmic conflict of the ages (10:1-22:9)
Vision of angel with scroll, seventh trumpet, open temple (10:1-11:19)
Interlude: Temple measured, witnesses killed but victorious (11:1-3)
The combatants revealed (“a great sign…another sign”) (12-14)
The end of God’s wrath (15-16)
The harlot’s judgment (“Come, I will show you…he carried me away in the Spirit”) (17:1-19:10)
The last battle (“heaven opened”) (19:11-20:10)
The end of the first creation and arrival of the new creation (20:11-21:8)
The bride’s glory (“Come, I will show you…and he carried me away in the Spirit”) (21:9-22:9)
God sent His angel; “I am coming quickly,” so blessing is promised to the one who keeps the prophecy (22:6-9)
“I am coming quickly,” so the book must not be sealed and blessing is promised to those who wash their robes; Jesus has sent His angel (22:10-16)
The Spirit and the bride invite the thirsty to come and petition the Lord Jesus to come; the book must not be altered; “I am coming quickly” (22:17-20)
Epistolary benediction (22:21)
A substantial portion of this article was gleaned from Triumph of the Lamb, a commentary on Revelation by Dennis E. Johnson.