If you pick up any study of the Book of Revelation, chances are you will quickly come across an analysis of its structure. This is true of any New Testament book or letter, but in the case of Revelation there appear to be an urgency to the quest. As you are about to plunge into the dense undergrowth of the jungle of imagery, the need to have some points of navigation feels more desperate; perhaps, as we wrestle with a text which exercises such mastery over our senses and emotions, we need a way to fight back, and exercise our customary textual mastery over it.
Within academic studies, you will generally find an awareness of the complex challenges of pinning down Revelation’s structure, and then a proposal—but there are a good number of different proposals, and the question then is how can we reconcile them with one another. Within popular studies, you will generally find the claim that ‘my insight gives you THE KEY to unlocking the Book of Revelation!’—and then you find that it just does not fit the text or have any coherence! A common approach here is to propose that Revelation has a chiastic structure, that is, it is composed of a series nested visions (or in a pyramid, depending on how you present it visually) so that the early sections mirror the later ones in reverse order. The only problem with this scheme is that it doesn’t actually match the text, or that the sequencing is out of order, both of which is true in this example. The author must immediately qualify the proposal by claiming that ‘the similarities are not hard and fast rules’, in other words, the evidence isn’t always there! If John had wanted us to see a chiastic structure, couldn’t he have done a slightly better job of making it clear? (I am also intrigued by noting that some of these ‘structuring’ schemes end up being more complex than the text they are supposedly explaining!)
In looking for structure, we need to take into account four features of the text. The first is that Revelation has a very large number of explicit markers of structure, often making use of the number seven. Most obviously, there are seven messages to the Christian assemblies (ekklesiai) in chapters 2 and 3, seven seals that are opened in chapter 6 (concluding after an interlude in 8.1), seven trumpets that blown in chapters 8 and 9, and seven bowls that are poured out in chapter 16. In addition, there are patterns of seven within the text which not explicitly signaled or counted, such as the seven occurrences of the term ‘sickle’ in chapter 14, and the seven unnumbered visions in chapters 19 through to 21 (see introductory comment at 19.11). These features serve to bind together different sections of the text into unified blocks. Complementary to that are the use of particular phrases by John which appear to signal the introduction of a new focus or the arrival or a new character, the most common being ‘And I saw’ (kai eidon) which occurs frequently at the beginning of major sections as well as at the start of subsections within them. John also makes use of noticeable changes of style of writing: the vision of Jesus in chapter 1 takes the form of a vision report, but chapters 2 and 3 have their own distinctive style and structure (see comment introducing this section); the language shifts again at 4:1; then again at 6:1; there is a change of focus at 7:1—and so on. The most noticeable break (observed by all commentators) comes at 12:1, where John uses the language of a ‘sign appeared’ instead of ‘and I saw’; what is less often noticed is that the preceding section in chapter 11 is the only section of the text cast in the future tense.
This leads to the second observation: that within each of these larger units there is a clear microstructure. Some of these structural elements are clearly signaled, such as the shared structure of the seven messages, whilst others are less obviously signaled, but are evident nonetheless, such as the four-fold structure of chapter 12, as it moves from the narrative of the woman and the dragon, to the account of heavenly angelic warfare, to the hymn of praise, and back to the opening narrative of the woman and the dragon. Many of these are indicated in English translations by means of paragraph breaks. There are other structuring features which are only evident on a close reading of the text, such as the six angels in two sets of three that give structure to the harvest visions in chapter 14.
The third feature of Revelation’s structure, which is only evident when looking at the text as a whole, is the striking discontinuity between different units. This is drawn to our attention by the various abrupt changes in language and in the changes of dramatis personae from one unit to another, as is evident when we look at the characters themselves. At first there appears to be little in common between the six main descriptions of Jesus—in the epistolary greeting, the vision in 1:12 that follows, the image of the lamb on the throne, the male child in chapter 12, the one like a son of man in chapter 14 and the rider on the white horse in chapter 19. The angels of the seven assemblies quickly disappear from view, as do most of the angels that we meet however splendid they appear—and the revealing angel mentioned in 1:1 and 22:16 never appears at all! The beast from the land abruptly changes into the false prophet (16:13) and the beast from the land then becomes the scarlet beast ridden by the great prostitute (17:3). Other characters in the drama disappear without trace, most notably the woman clothed with the sun, whom we last see waiting in the desert, protected by God. This discontinuity led an earlier commentator, R H Charles, to argue that Revelation was originally a series of separate units that was edited together by a series of clumsy and ignorant editors, and a similar theory of multiple composition was again proposed by David Aune.
The main problem with these theories is that they do not adequately take into account the fourth feature of Revelation’s structure: the widespread occurrence of links and connections between different sections. The most obvious of these occur in the messages to the seven assemblies in chapters 2 and 3, in each of which the opening greeting links back to the first vision of the exalted Jesus, and the closing comments include an anticipation of the New Jerusalem in chapter 21. Connections can also be seen in the hymns at the end of chapters 7 and 11 which also anticipate the final vision of the new creation. Some sections do not obviously belong to one larger section or another, but function to link one to another. For example, 1:9–11 looks like a continuation of John’s epistolary greeting from verse 4, but it also looks back to the opening verses in reiterating John’s commission, and then leads into the vision of the exalted Jesus. In 11:1, John is ‘told’ as he was in 10:11, so these verses look like a continuation of the encounter with the mighty angel of 10:1—but they lead directly into the account of the two witnesses which continues to verse 13. And the ‘woes’ announced by the eagle in 8:13 are not completed until 12:12, and have some connection with the ‘woes’ of 18:10, 16 and 19.
But there are other, more subtle connections throughout the text. Although in other ways chapters 11 and 12 are quite distinct, not only in the characters featured but also in the style of John’s writing, they are linked together by the use of the threefold time period described as ‘time, times and half a time’, ’42 months’ and ‘1,260 days’ (11:2, 3, 9 and 11 and 12:6 and 14) which are only used in these two chapters.
Overall, then, we have stronger marks of structure and continuity in Revelation than in any other biblical book. But alongside that, we also have stronger marks of difference and discontinuity than in other biblical books. I think the reason for so many conflicting theories is simply that each approach gives different weight to these different aspects of the text, or prioritise some markers or continuity over others, which then gives different answers to the question of the structure of the text.
This is nicely illustrated when reading the messages to the assemblies in the seven cities (not, please note, letters to the seven churches). When writing my commentary, I found it helpful to lay out the text visually:
There is much that can be said about this—but in relation to structure, three things are striking. First, there is a very clear, explicit shape to the letters, and at time this is so strong that whole sentences are repeated (mostly at the beginning and end) verbatim from one message to the next. But, secondly and equally clearly, there is a good deal of variation within this structure. So the messages are all of different lengths, and there is no obvious pattern in this. Thirdly, the overall shape has some marks of a pattern in it—there is some symmetry, not least in the fact that the second (to those in Smyrna) and the second to last (to those in Philadelphia) both lack any rebuke. But, fourthly, there are also very clear structural disruptions to the structure. The most striking is the reversal of the order of ‘Whoever has ears…’ and the promise of victory from the first three to the last four messages (based on other series that come later, if there was a change we would expect it to be 4/3 and not 3/4). Also important, and often missed, is the addition of affirmation following rebuke to Ephesus and Sardis. This disrupts any attempt to offer a comprehensive explanation of an overall, controlling structure. Perhaps there were things that John, passing on the words of Jesus, just needed to say?
All this raises some interesting questions about what we are doing when we a looking for the structure of Revelation. First: are we looking for a structure that is there in the text, and seeking to highlight what John was doing? Or are we in fact imposing our own structure in order to help us (and other readers) understand what is going on in this complex text? There is nothing wrong with the latter—so long as we admit that is what we are doing, and don’t then claim that this is the structure of the book. This leads to a second question: why do we seek a structure? Some readers seem to treat Revelation’s structure as another elements of its secret code, and finding it gives them power not only over the text, but over other readers who are looking to them for guidance. If, instead, we are wanting to help people engage with the text, then our proposals should be easy to see and easy to defend, pointing people back to the text rather than our structural interpretive scheme.
Perhaps the most interesting question of all (and the one almost never asked) is: why did John structure his text in this way at all? My sense is that, in offering a vision which included images of chaos and destruction, he is presenting it within a carefully crafted vessel, reminding his readers that the chaotic events of the world they live in are held in the ordered and ordering sovereignty of God.
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