How Does Revelation Unfold?
The first few verses of this prophetic-apocalyptic letter tell us that there is a blessing for those who hear its message and take it to heart. The rest of chapter 1 introduces us to John and describes his vision of “one like a son of man” (Jesus) who walks among the seven golden lampstands (the churches). John has been selected to write the revelation of Jesus Christ on a scroll and to send it to these churches.
Chapters 2–3 contain the seven messages to the churches. These messages generally feature a description of Christ, followed by his commendation, complaint, warning, and promise for the church. At the end of this long introduction, the readers have a clear sense of who Jesus is (the Sovereign Lord) and what he expects of his followers.
Vision of God and the Lamb (4:1–5:14)
The seven messages set the scene on earth and clarify the dangers that the church faces: persecution and compromise. In chapters 4–5 the scene shifts to heaven, where God reigns in majestic power from his throne. All of heaven worships the Creator. Also worthy of ceaseless praise is the Lion-Lamb (Jesus), who alone is able to open the scroll. By his sacrificial death the Lamb has redeemed a people to serve God.
Opening of the Seven Seals (6:1–8:1)
The stage has been set and the unveiling of God’s ultimate victory formally begins. This section marks the first of a series of three judgment visions, each with seven elements:
- Seven seals (6:1–8:1)
- Seven trumpets (8:2–11:19)
- Seven bowls (15:1–16:21)
In the first two series—seals and trumpets—there is a dramatic interlude between the sixth and seventh elements.
Chapter 6 begins with the opening of the first four seals—the famous four horsemen of the apocalypse: conquest, war, famine, and death. The fifth seal consists of the martyrs’ question, “How long, Sovereign Lord?” The sixth seal concludes with the question, “Who can withstand it?” as the Lamb pours out his wrath.
Before the opening of this final seal, there is an interlude in chapter 7 consisting of two visions. In the first, the servants of God, numbering 144,000, are sealed with divine protection (7:1–8). The second describes a great multitude of believers standing before God’s throne (7:9–17). Even as the seals are removed, God is careful to encourage and assure his people by revealing what awaits them in heaven. With the opening of the seventh seal in 8:1, there is a dramatic pause before the next series of seven.
Sounding of the Seven Trumpets (8:2–11:19)
The trumpets reveal God’s judgment on a wicked world. They are patterned after the plagues of Egypt leading up to the exodus. In spite of the ever-intensifying judgments, the “earth-dwellers” (a common term in Revelation for unbelievers) refuse to repent (9:20–21).
Once again, before the seventh element in the series, there is an interlude consisting of two visions: the angel and the little scroll (10:1–11) and the two witnesses (11:1–14). These visions once again offer the saints encouragement and instruction about what they should do as God carries out his purposes in history. With the seventh trumpet we return again to a scene of heavenly worship and are told that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (11:15).
The People of God versus the Powers of Evil (12:1–14:20)
Revelation 12 explains the real reason why God’s people face hostility in this world: the conflict between God and Satan (the dragon). Satan attempted to destroy Christ (the male child) but was defeated decisively by Christ’s death and resurrection. As a defeated enemy with a limited amount of time to do damage, Satan vents his rage on God’s people. Fee and Stuart rightly observe that “chapter 12 is the theological key to the book.” Knowing the real reason for persecution and the certain outcome of victory encourages the people of God to persevere to the end. Chapter 13 introduces Satan’s two agents for waging war against God’s people—the beast out of the sea (13:1–10) and the beast out of the earth (13:11–18). Pagan political power joins forces with false religion. The dragon and the two beasts constitute a satanic or unholy trinity resolute on seducing and destroying God’s people.
But in chapter 14 the reader is once again given a glimpse of the blessings of the final future that God has in store for his people. In spite of the persecution they now face in this world, the followers of the Lamb will one day stand with him on Mount Zion and sing a new song of redemption. Following this heavenly scene John records three angelic proclamations about God’s judgment, followed by two visions of judgment using the images of a grain harvest and a winepress. This final part of chapter 14 reminds us that God’s judgment of evil is certain and encourages the saints to remain faithful to Jesus.
Pouring Out of the Seven Bowls (15:1–16:21)
Chapter 15 features seven angels with seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God. The bowls follow the seals and trumpets as the final series of seven. Chapter 16 describes the pouring out of these seven bowls on the unrepentant world. The plagues are devastating, uninterrupted, universal manifestations of God’s anger toward sin and evil. God will make Babylon the Great (the Roman Empire in the first century) drink the “wine of the fury of his wrath” (16:19). In response the earth-dwellers not only refuse to repent, they go so far as to curse God (16:9, 11, 21).
Judgment of Babylon (17:1–19:5)
From this point on in the book of Revelation John sets before us a “tale of two cities”—the city of humanity (earthly Babylon destined for destruction) and the city of God (heavenly Jerusalem, where God will dwell among his people forever). Chapters 17–18 depict the death of Babylon, the great mother of prostitutes. Babylon undoubtedly represents Rome, a pagan power said to be “drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus” (17:6). The funeral laments of chapter 18 give way to the explosive celebration in heaven as God’s people rejoice over Babylon’s downfall (19:1–5).
God’s Ultimate Victory (19:6–22:5)
This section of Revelation portrays God’s ultimate victory over the forces of evil and the final reward for his people. The scene opens with the announcement of the wedding of the Lamb (19:6–10) and the return of Christ for his bride (19:11–16). The Warrior-Christ returns, captures the two beasts and their allies, and throws them into the fiery lake of burning sulfur (19:17–21). The dragon, or Satan, is bound (20:1–3), during which time Jesus’ faithful followers reign with him (20:4–6). Satan is then released from his temporary prison only to join the two beasts in eternal torment (20:7–10). The dead are judged by him who sits on the great white throne. Anyone whose name is not found written in the Book of Life is also thrown into the lake of fire (20:11–15). At this point death itself is judged.
Having judged sin, Satan, and death, God ushers in the eternal state of glory. There is a general description of “a new heaven and a new earth” in 21:1–8, followed by a more detailed presentation in 21:9–22:5. There will be no more crying or pain or death—God is making everything new (21:4). The Old Testament promise that God would live among his people finds its ultimate fulfillment here (21:3). There is no temple in this city of God because God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple (21:22). God’s victory is complete, and the fellowship he desired with Adam and Eve is now recovered in a restored garden of Eden complete with “the tree of life” (22:1–2). The curse of sin is removed, and redeemed humanity is once again able to walk with God and see his face (22:4).
Revelation closes with a final blessing on those who keep “the words of the prophecy written in this scroll” (22:7) and a warning for those who practice sexual immorality, idolatry, and the like (22:15). This book is an authentic revelation from God and should be read faithfully to the churches (22:6, 16). Jesus assures his people that his return is imminent (22:7, 12, 20). And John responds with a prayer statement that Christians of all times can make their own—“Come, Lord Jesus.” In the meantime, John writes, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen” (22:21).