Revelation’s fourth chapter represents an important shift in the book. Even though the first three chapters have plenty of symbolism, they’re still fairly down-to-earth in their message. Reading the first part of the Apocalypse isn’t too different from reading Paul’s letters, which are manageable for most readers.
Then we come to chapter 4, and oh boy, do things get complicated!
As the scene opens, John is suddenly invited to step into heaven to witness a sequence of visions depicting the things that must take place in the future. (That is, the future from John’s perspective — there is much debate about whether or not most of it is still future for us). These visions are highly symbolic, and a great deal of context is needed to really piece together what they represent.
Further complicating matters is the fact that the chronology or sequence of these visions isn’t always linear! There are repetitions, flashbacks, and even flash-forwards that we don’t always pick up on if we aren’t sensitive to Revelation’s literary design.
And so this is the part of the book where many readers start to feel overwhelmed. To continue the flight metaphor from my first post on Revelation, this is when we start feeling turbulence and the “Fasten Seatbelt” light comes on! All of that means that this is the part of the book where we need to read most carefully. It’s easy to get lost in all the mystifying details and lose sight of the forest for the trees.
Before I jump into deep-dives on specific passages, I thought it would be helpful to lay out for readers what I personally believe to be the overarching flow of thought or plotline of the visions in Revelation 4-22. In particular, we want to consider the three main cycles of sevens in the book: the seven seals (chapters 6-7), the seven trumpets (chapters 8-14), and the seven bowls (chapters 15-19). It may feel like you’re on a roller coaster as you’re reading this part of the Apocalypse, but hopefully this overview will help prevent you from getting whiplash!
I’m going to try and avoid going into too much detail or argumentation (you can consult the commentaries listed below for more technical discussion) and instead just give a zoomed-out view of Revelation’s plot as a whole, the way I’ve come to understand it after hours of reading and research on the book. My goal here is not to pick apart alternate views, but simply to present what I think is the reading that best fits the data of the book itself.
A lot of laypeople – especially those who’ve been taught Revelation by Dispensational interpreters or who only know the Left Behind books – assume that all of Revelation’s scenes unfold linearly, one after another, in a straightforward sequence. But that’s actually not how most academic interpreters understand this portion of the book. It’s not quite that simple.
One factor that every reader needs to consider is that in the sixth and seventh seals, the seventh trumpet, and the seventh bowl, there are repeated elements that symbolize the end of the world, the Day of the Lord. These elements include thunder, fire, a great earthquake, and the onset of judgment day. This means that Revelation brings us all the way to end of history three times, then rewinds to look at the last days from another angle. Each series of calamities is also interrupted by a literary interlude – a scene that goes into greater detail about certain themes of the story Revelation is telling, sometimes involving flashbacks to different points in time.
For example, after the sixth seal is opened in Rev 6:12-17, we’re given indications that the end has arrived – the sky disappears, the earth is shaken to its core, and all of humanity trembles before the Lord’s coming in judgment (in other words, it’s the arrival of what the Old Testament described as the “Day of the Lord”). But then, in chapter 7, we get a flashback where angels declare that the earth is not to be harmed yet until God’s people have been sealed for identification (7:3).
Even though John sees this “after” he saw the seals opened (7:1), this vision likely depicts an earlier point in the story, before the judgments on the earth have begun. It steps back to answer the rhetorical question raised in the final verse of chapter 6: “who is able to stand” in God’s judgment? The answer is the people in chapter 7: the remnant sealed by the Lord and the saints who are redeemed through their witness. By the end of chapter 7, John gets a glimpse forward of the end of the story, where he sees the full and final number of the saints emerging out of the end of the Great Tribulation (7:9-17).
This is the pattern of all three judgment cycles: we get a big-picture scene of cascading judgments leading all the way to the end of history, followed by a more zoomed-in discussion of the fate of the people involved. Then we rewind back to the middle of the action in the tribulation to look at it from another angle (the fancy word scholars use to describe this repetition is “recapitulation”).
It’s also possible to think of Revelation’s structure as being sort of like a telescope or, if you’ve ever seen one, a Russian nesting doll: each cycle of judgment is nested within and emerges from the previous one, zooming in to events surrounding the end. The sixth and seventh seals contain the seven trumpets, and the seventh trumpet contains the seven bowls, but all three sets conclude with a vision of the final ending.
Turning to the seven trumpets, we see the same pattern, this time with even more complexity. We get six judgments, then an interruption, then the seventh in the sequence depicts the end of the world, followed by a rewind. Here the interlude contrasts the themes of judgment and witness: The horrifying plagues of the first six trumpets don’t result in any repentance (9:20-21), but they’re followed by scenes about the faithful witnessing of martyrs, which does result in repentance (11:13). When the seventh trumpet is blown, we once again see signs that history is concluding – the kingdom of the world is now declared to have become the kingdom of the Lord and of his Christ (11:15), and there is once again terrifying lightning, thunder, and an earthquake.
Then comes an even lengthier digression in chapters 12-14, where John is shown the heart of all this conflict: the war in heaven between Satan (depicted as a great Dragon) and the people of God. When Satan fails in his efforts to destroy Christ and his people during Jesus’ earthly ministry, he commissions two monstrous “Beasts” to do his dirty work for him by persecuting the church. This flashback explains the chaos and demonic activity we’ve been glimpsing already in Revelation 6-11. Then Revelation 14 again zooms forward to the very end of the story, with the Lamb standing victorious, announcing the victory of God’s kingdom, and culminating with the great harvest of humanity for deliverance or judgment at the end of history (14:14-20).
In chapters 15-16 we rewind again to shortly before the end, to watch as the bowl judgments are poured out on the empire of the Beast. The sixth bowl hints at a great and final battle (Armageddon), but we don’t get to learn more about this battle until chapter 19. The seventh bowl brings us to the end of the story a third time, then we get another interlude (chapters 17-18) describing the terrible empire of “Babylon” and revealing more about the identity of the mysterious “Beast” from the pit. Finally, chapters 19-22 bring the action to a close with the return of Christ, the final defeat of Satan and his agents, the millennial reign of the saints, final judgment, and the regeneration of creation.
Phew! That’s our whirlwind view of the plotline of Revelation’s visions from 30,000 feet. In later posts I’ll examine some lessons we can glean from specific passages, but for now I hope this helps you keep track of how the Apocalypse tells its story.
Sources/Further Reading on the structure of Revelation:
Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, BECNT (Baker, 2002), esp. pages 269-271.
G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, NIGTC (Eerdmans, 1998), esp. pages 121-151.
Buist Fanning, Revelation, ZECNT (Zondervan, 2020), esp. pages 58-63.
The Bible Project, “Overview: Revelation Ch. 1-11,” YouTube video (posted Dec 14, 2016).
Ralph J. Korner, “‘AND I SAW . . .’ AN APOCALYPTIC LITERARY CONVENTION FOR STRUCTURAL IDENTIFICATION IN THE APOCALYPSE,” Novum Testamentum 2000.