How does Revelation configure space and time?

I am contributing the chapter on Revelation to the forthcoming Cambridge Handbook to Apocalyptic Literature, and this is what I am planning to say about time and space in Revelation. Any observations welcome!

As part of the extended epistolary opening (which runs from Rev 1:4 to 1:11), John locates himself temporally, spatially, relationally and spiritually in a series of ‘in’ statements which are usually obscured in English translations:

I, John, your brother and companion
in the tribulation and kingdom and patient-endurance that are ours
in Jesus was
in the island called Patmos…I was
in the Spirit
in the Lord’s day…

This striking succession of ‘in’ phrases (Greek en, idiomatically translated by a variety of phrases in ETs) locates John temporally—explicitly ‘on the Lord’s day’, implicitly in the recent past, more or less contemporaneous with his readers—and spatially ‘on the island called Patmos’. The relational dimensions of this are both explicit and implicit; John is ‘brother’ to those to whom he writes, using the most common term in the early Jesus movement that redrew the boundaries of familial loyalty around allegiance to the proclamation of the kingdom of God in the person and teaching of Jesus (see the foundational example of this in Matt 12.46–50 and pars). But his spatial location also has implicit relational overtones, since from Patmos John is just able to see the hills on coast of the Roman province of Asia surrounding Ephesus, the nearest of the seven cities. He is at some distance, but as a pastor he is not remote.

Spiritually, he and his readers are ‘in Jesus’, a phrase that has echoes of the central theological term of incorporation within the Pauline corpus ‘in Christ’.[1]But John understands this incorporation to include ‘tribulation’ as well as ‘kingdom’, and in doing so is both following the temporal claim of Peter that Pentecost signifies the beginning of the ‘last days’ (Acts 2.16–17) and Paul’s teaching that entry into the kingdom of God will entail ‘tribulation’ (thlipsis) or suffering (Acts 14.22). John’s spatial location on Patmos also has an implicit theological, or perhaps mythological significance, being 70 miles due west from Delos, the arena where the central action of the Python-Leto myth was played out, which John draws on extensively in the central narrative of Revelation 12.[2]

The classic definition of the apocalyptic genre, developed by John J Collins and others, highlights both the temporal and spatial aspect of apocalyptic literature, reflecting the fact that, in other apocalypses, the ‘seer’ is taken on an other-worldly journey.[3]The Book of Revelation appears at first to conform to this, with John being invited to ‘come up here’ to see ‘what must take place after this’, and apparently going through a door into a heavenly throne room (Rev 4.1). But this sense of ‘otherworldly journey’ is disrupted as the text develops. Although John enters this heavenly throne-room, he never appears to leave it, even at the very end of his vision report, and what he sees appears to alternate between the heavenly and the earthly with no clear distinction. The audition of the 144,000 which becomes a vision of an uncountable people in chapter 7 is located explicitly on earth, but the next vision of the 144,000 is quite clear heavenly, located on a spiritual ‘Mount Zion’ where they sing ‘before the throne’ (Rev 14.3). in Rev 13.6–7, the first beast ‘from the sea’ (later simply called ‘the beast’) blasphemes and makes war against God’s people, who are described as ‘those dwelling in heaven’. They are contrasted with ‘the inhabitants of the earth’ (a phrase repeated 10 times in 3:10; 6:10; 8:13; 11:10 twice; 13:8; 13:14 twice; 17:2; 17:8) who follow the beast, and this partition of humanity corresponds to the partition between those who receive the seal of the living God in Rev 7.2 (which appears to be identified as the ‘name of the lamb and his Father’ in 14.1), and those who receive the mark of the beast (mentioned twice in Rev 13.16–18 and in 14.9, 11; 16.2; 19.20 and 20.4, making seven occurrences in all). This points to the spatial references in the text functioning together as an extended metaphor for humanity’s spiritual state, and the descriptions of the heavenly realm as suggesting a spiritual, prophetic perspective on the mundane realities of the earthly realm.[4]The consummation of his vision report is the coming of the New Jerusalem down from heaven to earth, where the two realities finally converge.

Any simple configuration of Revelation’s temporal dynamics is immediately challenged by the large-scale structure of the text. Revelation certainly has an eschatological focus, as with other apocalyptic texts, and the closing chapters have a particular eschatological finality about them. However, almost every major earlier section also includes final eschatological motifs, linking with the closing visions, and these often correlate with one another. So, for example, each of the series of seven seals, trumpets and bowls ends with an eschatological motif, following some sort of interlude—the one associated with the final trumpet being particularly developed:

The kingdom of the world has become
the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,
and he will reign for ever and ever. (Rev 11.15)

There are also eschatological anticipations at the end of the vision-interval between the sixth and seventh seals, in Rev 7.15–17 (‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst…’) and in the central, pivotal narrative in Rev 12.10–12 (‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah…’). In this way, throughout the text, the eschatological finale casts its shadow (or, perhaps better, casts its light) ahead of itself into the early narrative sections. This sense of recapitulation and anticipation reminds us that John’s repeated use of ‘And I saw…’ indicates the temporality of his vision experience, and not the temporal significance of the events that the visions symbolize.[5]

The pulling forward into the present of the final reality is also effected by the deployment of two key eschatological terms, ‘woe’ and ‘tribulation’.

The association of ‘woe’ with eschatological judgement is made clear in chapter 18, where the fall of the great city Babylon (symbolically representing Rome as an archetypal human empire) is mourned with double woes by three groups—the client ‘kings of the earth’, merchants, and sea captains—who have until then profited from the city’s power and trade (18.10, 16 and 19). But the proclamations of ‘woe’ are brought forward as a disruptive overlay on the sequence of seven trumpets. In Rev 8.13, a flying eagle (a pagan symbol of divine guidance) declares the final three trumpet blasts to be a three-fold ‘woe’, and this is confirmed for the fifth and sixth trumpet blasts by a repeated formula in 9.12 and 11.14:

The first woe has passed; two other woes are yet to come.

The second woe has passed; the third woe is coming soon.

But the strong anticipation (that the final trumpet is the third woe) is disrupted, with no mention of ‘woe’ in relation to the final blast, which instead leads to a declaration of eschatological triumph. So where is the third ‘woe’? It actually comes in the following chapter and is connected with the victory of God’s anointed one (‘Messiah’) achieved through his death on the cross:

Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
Butwoeto the earth and the sea… (Rev 12.10–12)[6]

This statement connects the preceding narrative, and the identity of the ‘male son who will rule the nations with a rod of iron’ (12.5, compare 2.27 and 19.15), with the ‘lamb looking as though slain’ in 5.6 and further back to the atoning, kingdom-forming death (‘blood’) of Jesus in 1.5–6. The time of woe is, therefore, the time in which John is writing and in which his readers are living—a time of ‘tribulation, kingdom and patient endurance’ (1.9) as John set out from the very beginning.

The dual nature of the present time is expressed numerologically by John in the three equivalent phrases ‘time, times and half a time’, ’42 months’ and ‘1,260 days’ which link together the otherwise highly differentiated chapters 11 and 12 (occurring in 11.2, 3, 9, 11, 12.6 and 14). The first phrase derives from Daniel’s half-week of tribulation in Daniel 7.25 and 12.7, which is then calculated as being equal to either 1,290 or 1,335 days. John changes this calculation by eliminating any intercalated months, so it equals 30 x 12 x 3.5 = 1,260 days or 42 months.[7]This then corresponds with the 42 years and 42 stations of the wilderness wanderings listed in Numbers 33 (‘the stages of the journey’). For John and his readers, the present time of tribulation is also the time of Exodus wanderings; they have been ‘freed from [the slavery] of our sins’ (Rev 1.5) but have not yet entered the Promised Land.[8]

This present age therefore has, according to John, a double significance. It is a time of victory, since the death of Jesus has brought the final, eschatological victory of God into the present. And yet that victory is not yet completely realized, and the Enemy and the enemies of God are still at large, causing the people of God to suffer and even die. This ambiguous nature of the present time in fact forms the very basis of the appeal of the risen Jesus through John to invite his readers to ‘conquer’ (2.7, 2.11, 2.17, 2.26, 3.5, 3.12, 3.21)—living out the as-yet-not-fully-realised victory of the lamb, rather than succumbing the apparent but passing power of their opponents.


[1]For a detailed study of the ‘in Christ’ language in Paul, see Constantine Campbell, Paul and Union with Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012). See also Michael J. Gorman, Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015).

[2]The Python-Leto myth functioned as imperial propaganda in which the emperor played the part of Apollo who vanquishes Python the chaos monster. Rev 12 inverts this, so that the Christ figure has the role of Apollo, bringing order and peace, and the Roman Empire (and with it all human empires) depicted as the beast from the sea is allied with the chaos monster, Satan.

[3]‘An apocalypse is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world’. John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016).

[4]We see a similar metaphorical development in the language of ‘staying’ or ‘abiding’ (the Greek verb meno) in John’s gospel. In the opening scenes, it appear to function as a reference to a physical place (‘Where are you staying?’ John 1.38), but by the ‘last supper’ discourses it becomes a key term of spiritual discipleship and faithfulness (‘If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing’ John 15.5).

[5]It is often overlooking how striking it is that most of Revelation is written in the past tense, considering that (unlike other apocalyptic work) John is not writing a vaticinium ex eventu. The only extended use of the future tense is found in the angel’s narrative of Rev 11.3–10, followed by an abrupt switch to John’s prophetic past tense in verse 11.

[6]This observation runs contrary to a number of major commentators, including Koester, Revelation who (p 504) asserts that the third woe mustbe the seventh trumpet, even though it is not mentioned—but is picked up by a few; see p 175 in James L. Resseguie, The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2009).No other commentator notices that the word ‘woe’ comes 14 times in all, which points to the occurrence in 12.10 as being a part of the wide scheme of eschatological reality.

[7]On the multiple significance of these numbers, see Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy.chapter 11 ‘Nero and the Beast’, especially pp 401–404.

[8]This explains the prevalence of Exodus references; the book is alluded to 53 times. See Ian Paul, Revelation: An Introduction And Commentary (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2018)p 39 and Judith Kovacs and Christopher Rowland, Revelation: The Apocalypse to Jesus Christ (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004)pp 284–295.

5 thoughts on “How does Revelation configure space and time?

  1. Hi Ian

    Just reading this with first cup of tea of the day on hols. Thanks again for your inspiring work. One small typo: para beginning, “The classic definition” the word “alternative” needs to change to “alternate”. Shalom.

  2. It is true and significant that John remains in heaven, never explicitly returns, and what he experiences can loosely be said to be experienced from that heavenly vantage point. As you mention, he also mixes and matches heavenly and earthly settings after 4.1-2.

    As to whether he is himself on the sand of the sea (depending on one’s reading), on the land taking the scroll from the angel, in the desert seeing the scarlet woman, etc etc – it seems that he is wherever suits the narrative. Other considerations are subservient to the inclusion of the right symbolic details in the right order in the narrative, regardless of how illogical the mechanics of travel sound.

  3. A very interesting essay – and so the rendering of 1.10 becomes rather important. Might not ???????? ?? ???????? ?? ?? ??????? ????? mean something like ‘I found myself in the Spirit in the Day of the Lord!’ ? The Day of the Lord is rather obviously what Revelation is all about – and what John is saying from the start, but obscured by translators’ insistence that John is simply telling you what day of the week it was!
    Then Revelation reads rather differently – for the Day of the Lord is a familiar theme of the prophets. Instead of simply being a vision of the end, the book becomes what it says it is: revelation of how Jesus the Messiah transforms all we thought we knew from the prophets about the Day of the Lord – and therefore how to live in the meantime as people of hope however difficult life might prove in the meantime.

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