Structure of Revelation — An Introduction
By Graham Dull
In order to gain an understanding of the Book of Revelation, it is necessary to acquire a knowledge of its literary structure.
The aim of this article is to outline its Structure and Parallels.
Many readers come to Revelation with a sense of dread. We see in places a strict literary structure. For instance, the messages to the seven churches are very structured, but this strict structure is mixed with a confusing array of seemingly random statements and pronouncements.
Adding to the confusion is John’s extensive use of Imagery. There seem to be angels and beasts coming at us from all sides. Wrestling with these can lead us to distraction, and we may despair of ever coming to a real understanding of the book.
The good news is that the ‘Revelation of Jesus Christ’ is much more structured than we ever imagined. And when we understand the structure, we can more readily understand the substance.
I am indebted to Richard Bauckham for his insight into the parallelisms which define the major sections of Revelation. His book, “The Climax of Prophecy,” gives a common sense outline for ‘The Revelation of Jesus Christ‘. I highly recommend his first chapter, “Structure and Composition.”
Parallelism is a literary technique used in the book of Revelation.
What is parallelism? Parallelism exists where there is a ‘similarity of structure‘ in a pair, or series of related words, phrases, or clauses. The paired parallels share common words, or common thoughts, and show a degree of repetition.
The majority of Christians will probably best recognise the use of parallelism in the Psalms.
It is ‘poetic.’
Parallelism is used as a poetic device. Indeed, it is the basis of Hebrew poetry. It involves the repetition of thoughts using different words. A glance at any of the Psalms or Proverbs will show this to be the case.
It ‘expands the meaning.’
Repeating the thought gives it emphasis, and restating it in different words develops and expands the meaning.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Note the similarity of thought between the first and second line. The second line parallels the first.
For example, “whom shall I fear?” parallels “of whom shall I be afraid?”
This is an example of ‘synonymous parallelism’ because the two thoughts expressed are similar.
“The Lord watches over the way of the righteous
but the way of the wicked will perish.”
Here is an example of ‘contrasting parallelism’ where opposite thoughts are expressed.
Note the contrast. Two groups are presented, one group is righteous and the other is wicked. The righteous are protected by God, while the wicked perish. The two distinct groups have contrasting destinies.
The poetic nature of the Psalms relies heavily on such parallelism. And parallelism is used extensively throughout the Psalms and other poetic books of the Old Testament.
Parallelism in Revelation
John uses parallelism throughout Revelation. He uses it frequently. He uses parallelism to structurally divide the narrative. He uses it to provide clear meaning to otherwise ambiguous passages wherein the second instance of the parallel amplifies the first.
In seeking to understand John’s use of parallels, we need to start with those which define the major divisions of the book.
Parallelisms define the ‘Structural Divisions of Revelation.’ There is a Prologue, a Prophetic Section A-B, a Prophetic Section C-D , and an Epilogue.
I will progressively work through these ‘upper level’ parallels which clearly define the structure of the book.
To define the Prologue/Epilogue seems a good place to start.
Rev 1:1a and 22:6b provide a structural parallel. These verses define the beginning of both the Prologue and the Epilogue.
“The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.”
“The Lord, the God who inspires the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”
In the verses above, I have underlined the parallelism.
Five aspects are immediately clear. (1) God, (2) his messenger, (3) the act of showing, (4) his servants, and (5) the things that must soon take place.
The key thought is this
- God gave / him (Jesus) / to show / his servants / what must soon take place
- God sent / his angel / to show / his servants / the things that must soon take place
Because of this parallel, we can confidently determine the beginning of both the Prologue and Epilogue.
It is my purpose in this essay to show that such parallels as these are not random, and neither are they accidental.
The ‘Parallels‘ in Revelation have been placed with the same deliberate intentions that the authors of the Psalms and Proverbs utilized parallels. The parallels are there — because their authors put them there.
The commencement of both ‘Section A,’ and ‘Section B‘ are defined by the ‘1:10/4:2 Parallel.’
“I was in the Spirit”
“I was in the Spirit”
The parallel is clear. On both occasions John was in the Spirit.
Section A (1:9 — 3:22).
The first Prophetic Section begins at Rev 1:9 — and just one sentence into the narrative — John announces, “I was in the Spirit.” This phrase is the literary clue that John employs to show that a new Section had begun. I have labelled this ‘Section A,’ or ‘Prophetic Section A.’ (All Sections — A, B, C, and D are prophetic in nature.)
In Rev 1:10, John stated that he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and the glorified Christ appeared to him. John clearly knew who it was because Christ identified himself with the following words. He said, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever!” (1:18)
Following Jesus’ self-introduction, he then gives John the messages to the seven churches.
Section A concludes following the message given to the last of the seven churches — Laodicea. This clearly is a fitting and appropriate place to divide the narrative. Section A is complete.
Section A is defined as Revelation 1:9 — 3:22.
Section B (4:1 — 16:21)
Following the messages to the churches, the narrative continues —
Rev 4:1, 2
“After this I looked… At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it.”
“I was in the Spirit” (4:2) is the Parallel Phrase to Rev 1:10. This phrase is associated with the transition of the vision on earth (concerning the seven churches) to the vision in heaven (concerning the throne of God, and subsequently, how God and those in heaven are working for the redemption of mankind).
While the words, “I was in the Spirit,” are not quite the very first words of either introduction, they are markers that John has used to indicate that a transition has taken place. Notice below, how both parallels occur just a short way into the narrative.
Section A begins —
Rev 1:9, 10
“I, John, your brother and companion… On the Lord ’s Day I was in the Spirit.”
Section B begins —
Rev 4:1, 2
“After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven… At once I was in the Spirit.”
The ‘1:10/4:2 Parallel’ defines the beginning of both Major Sections A-B.
The ‘17:3/21:10 Parallel’ defines the commencement of both ‘Section C,’ and ‘Section D.’
“carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness.”
“carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high.”
On both occasions, John was carried away in the Spirit.
In the first instance, he was carried into a wilderness to view the demise and destruction of wickedness and the wicked. The wilderness appears to be an extremely appropriate backdrop for such an event.
In the second, he was carried to a great, high mountain where he views the eternal kingdom of God, and the glorious righteousness of those who dwell there. The grandeur of the mountaintop compliments the greatness of the kingdom.
The contrasting parallelism is clear. The downfall of the wicked is contrasted with the glorious eternal kingdom of God for the redeemed? What could provide more of a contrast?
The ‘17:3/21:10 Parallel’ defines the beginning of both Major Sections C-D.
Here is a summary of the “in the Spirit” Parallels
|A||1:10||“I was in the Spirit”|
|B||4:2||“I was in the Spirit”|
|C||17:3||“carried me away in the Spirit”|
|D||21:10||“carried me away in the Spirit”|
Are these legitimate Parallels? YES.
Did John, the author of Revelation intend them to be Parallels? YES.
Has the concept of Parallelism been unnaturally forced upon them in any way? NO.
They are legitimate. They pair together perfectly. As we continue to explore, we will find many more examples of perfectly matching parallels.
Additional Parallels introducing Sections C-D
Further parallels also help to define the introductions of Sections C-D. These reinforce and reaffirm that the “in the Spirit’ parallels are indeed major markers within the book.
I list them below.
“One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls/ came and said to me…”
“One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls/ full of the seven last plagues/ came and said to me…”
Also ‘Parallel 17:1b/21:9b’
“Come I will show you/ the punishment of the great prostitute.”
“Come I will show you/ the bride, the wife of the Lamb.”
Again, ‘Parallel 17:5/21:10’
“Babylon the Great, the mother of prostitutes”
“the Holy City, Jerusalem”
The above parallels firstly introduce the angel/s who’s talking with John. On both occasions, he was ‘One of the seven who had the seven bowls.’
They identify two women — one a prostitute, the other a bride. They identify the two backdrops to which John is carried, one being a wilderness, the other a great high mountain. They name the two cities — Babylon and Jerusalem.
They contrast the adultery of Babylon with the holiness of Jerusalem.
Parallels set out side by side — Sections C and D
|Passage||Rev 17:1-5||Rev 21:9, 10||Passage|
|17:1a||"One of the seven angels / who had the seven bowls / came and said to me…"||"One of the seven angels / who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues / came and said to me…"||21:9a|
|17:1b||“Come I will show you / the punishment of the great prostitute…”||“Come I will show you / the bride, the wife of the Lamb…”||21:9b|
|17:3a||“Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit / into a wilderness”||“And he carried me away in the Spirit / to a mountain great and high”||21:10a|
|17:3b-5||“There I saw a woman… The name written on her forehead was a mystery: / Babylon the Great, the mother of prostitutes”||“and showed me / the Holy City, Jerusalem.”||21:10b|
These are contrasting parallelisms.
- There are two districts — one a wilderness, the other a great high mountain.
- There are two women — one corrupt, the other pure.
- There are two cities — one to be destroyed, the other eternal.
These Parallels confirm, and more firmly establish the beginning of Prophetic Sections C-D.
Four Prophetic Sections
The four ‘In the Spirit’ parallels introduce ‘Four Prophetic Sections‘ into which Revelation is divided.
The ‘Prophetic Sections’ of Revelation
Parallels not only mark the beginning of Sections, they also mark their ‘conclusions.’ They mark where they begin — they mark where they end. (I will continue to work through these parallels.)
Before we can fully complete this task, we need to consider two things.
(1) John interweaves the narrative of the Sections.
(2) Sections C-D also include two Judgement Scenes in ’19:11—20:10,’ and ’20:11—21:8.’ (I will come to these shortly.)
Interweaving of the Narrative
It is necessary to note an important method by which John links the major sections of the narrative together. He links the sections by providing an ‘interweaving of the narrative.’
This particular feature is so well recognized within Revelation that generally all commentators will refer to it. It is a feature which is impossible to miss.
John repeatedly uses this technique of interweaving throughout the book.
Here is an example.
The Epilogue is interwoven with Section D
John commences his Epilogue ‘just a fraction‘ before he completes Prophetic Section D.
Prophetic Section D comprises Rev 21:9—22:5 >>
at which point it is interrupted by the beginning of the Epilogue at Rev 22:6, 7 >>
then Section D reemerges again and concludes at Rev 22:8-11 >>
allowing the Epilogue to continue to the end of the book Rev 22:12—21.
Interweaving of Section D and the Epilogue
|Section D — Main||21:9—22:5|
|Epilogue — Beginning||22:6, 7|
|Section D — Ending||22:8-11|
|Epilogue — Main||22:12—21|
The Table above shows how the sections alternate. Section D — Epilogue — Section D — Epilogue.
Verses 6, 7 of Revelation 22 could easily be moved down ‘so that they follow verse 11,’ and this re-arrangement would unite all of Section D, and likewise unite all of the Epilogue.
This re-arrangement would produce the following result.
Section D would combine together (21:9—22:5) and (22:8-11)
and this narrative would be followed by the Epilogue (22:6, 7) and (22:12—21)
Such an arrangement would sit comfortably. But John has chosen to ‘interweave these passages together.’
How can we clearly identify which verses belong to Prophetic Section D, and which belong to the Epilogue?
The division between the two is recognized because of two sets of parallels.
The first identifies the ‘endings of both Prophetic Sections C and D.’
The second defines the ‘beginning of the Epilogue‘ by means of the parallelism linking it to the Prologue.
We will examine these one at a time.
Defining the Prologue/Epilogue (Parallel Set 1:1a/22:6; also 1:1b/22:16)
This set of parallels unites the Prologue and Epilogue.
First Set 1:1a/22:6
The verse which commences the Prologue (1:1a) is parallel to the verse which commences the Epilogue (22:6). (This we have noted earlier.)
Both verses state the same essential message that God sent his messenger to show his servants the things which must soon take place.
Clear parallels do link the introduction and the conclusion of the book. This is a structural principle of the Book of Revelation.
This principle identifies certain verses (22:6, 7) as indeed belonging to the Epilogue, as they tie the Epilogue and Prologue together.
Thus the Prologue and Epilogue are easily recognised through Parallel 1:1a/22:6.
Second Set 1:1b/22:16
There is a second parallel united to the previous one. It is closely related in content. It is found in (1:1b) in the Prologue, and (22:16) in the Epilogue.
In the Prologue it is stated that God sent his messenger to John. In the Epilogue Jesus sent his messenger to the churches.
God sent his messenger (1:1b), Jesus sent his messenger (22:16).
Revelation begins with the statement that God sent his messenger, and ends with the statement that Jesus, in turn, sent his messenger.
The parallel helps to identify which passages actually belong to the Prologue and the Epilogue.
Defining the End of Section C-D (Parallel 19:9, 10/22:8, 9)
This parallel unites the endings of Prophetic Sections C-D.
There is a clear and unambiguous parallel between the words in 19:10 and 22:8, 9.
“At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers and sisters who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!”
For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.
“I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. But he said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your fellow prophets and with all who keep the words of this scroll. Worship God!”
Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near. Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy.”
Four distinct points are made in this parallel.
- John fell down at the feet of the angel and attempted to worship him. (19:10) (22:8)
- The angel said, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you…” (19:10) (22:9)
- The angel then said, “Worship God!” (19:10) (22:9)
- The angel makes a statement concerning the “prophecy” of the book. (19:10) (22:10,)
John is forbidden to worship the angel, he is admonished to worship God. With this identical experience, John closes the narratives of both Prophetic Sections C and D.
This parallel clearly identifies the ending of Section D. And it affirms that Section D and the Epilogue are indeed interwoven. (Refer again to the previous Table.)
More Examples involving the Interweaving of the Narrative
Interweaving of the narrative is a technique which John frequently uses. It affects the structure of the narrative.
Here are two more examples.
John presents six seals (6:1-17), he inserts a narrative (7:1-17), then after this break, he presents the seventh seal (8:1).
John presents six trumpets (8:2—9:21), he inserts a narrative (10:1—11:14), then after this break, he presents the seventh trumpet (11:15-19).
Interweaving of the narrative is a well recognized feature of Revelation.
Two Judgement Scenes (19:11 — 21:8)
Two Judgments fill the narrative between Section C (Babylon) and Section D (Jerusalem). They form a transition from the narrative of one to the description of the other.
The Judgement scenes bring an end to Babylon, and prepare the way for God’s Holy City which is without any trace of sin.
‘White horse,’ ‘White throne’ (Parallel 19:11/20:11)
19:11 “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True.”
20:11 “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them.”
In the first judgement there is seen a ‘white horse,’ in the second a ‘white throne.’ White is significant in Revelation, it relates to God, purity, and judgement.
Elsewhere in Revelation there is another judgement scene which also corresponds in this respect. It occurs in 14:14 and it describes “a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like a son of man.”
In each of these passages, there is someone seated on something ‘white’ — seated on a white horse, seated on a white throne, seated on a white cloud.
The two scenes that are relevant to the Transition are 19:11 and 20:11.
The ‘White Horse’ judgement scene begins with 19:11. I have labelled it ‘Judgement C’ because it relates specifically to the ‘Prophetic Section C.’ As the two sections share common themes, it is appropriate that they share the common Label ‘C.’
Judgement C brings Section C to an absolute and final conclusion.
Section C —
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute…
‘Judgement C’ begins with ‘the rider on the white horse’ carrying out this judgement.
Judgement C —
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war.
A mighty battle takes place. The rider on the white horse conquers. He is victorious.
Climactic events are recorded in Revelation 19:20. The pronouncement is made that the beast and the false prophet were captured and both of them were thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulphur.
Likewise the devil also was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur (20:10).
But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped his image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulphur.
And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown.
This judgement destroys the Devil and all his agents.
Following their defeat by ‘the rider on the white horse,’ this confederacy of the devil, the beast, and the false prophet cease to exist. They are not heard of again.
This judgement occurs within the section labelled ‘Judgement C.’
Judgement D (20:11—21:8)
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them.
God is seen seated on his throne. And the dead are judged (v 12).
In contrast to ‘Judgement C’ wherein Satan and his agencies are destroyed, ‘Judgement D’ relates solely to mankind and determines who may be counted worthy to enter the everlasting Kingdom of God.
Revelation 20:12, 13 describes this judgement.
Revelation 20:12, 13
The dead were judged according to what they had done… 13… each person was judged according to what he had done.
Verse 15 gives further detail.
If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
For mankind, there are two possible outcomes — to enter the kingdom of God, or receive the same fate as the Devil had received as recounted in ‘Judgement C.’
‘Judgement D’ defines the judgement of mankind, and it determines who shall enter the Kingdom of God.
‘Judgement D’ therefore belongs to ‘Prophetic Section D’ (Revelation 21:9 to 22:11), which section defines God’s perfectly pure eternal kingdom.
Just as the ‘White horse, White throne’ Parallel introduces the judgments, another Parallel concludes them.
‘Lake of burning sulphur’ Parallel (20:10/21:8)
Both judgment scenes conclude with this parallel.
Judgement C — Conclusion
Revelation 20:10 “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”
The devil, the beast, and the false prophet are thrown into the ‘lake of burning sulphur.’ That is the only option available to them.
Judgement D — Conclusion
Revelation 21:7, 8 “He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.
But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars — their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death.”
There are two options available to mankind — (1) to inherit God’s kingdom, or (2) to go into the ‘lake of burning sulphur’ along with the devil.
‘Judgement C’ focuses on the judgement of the beast, the false prophet, and the devil.
‘Judgement D’ focuses on the judgement of mankind, as to whether or not their names are written in the ‘book of life.’ Those found worthy will share in the inheritance of God (Revelation 21:7).
In the first judgement, the Devil is assigned to the ‘lake of burning sulphur;’ in the second, the Wicked receive the same fate.
So far throughout this article I have identified many of the Parallelisms which define the structure of Revelation.
They provide Introductions
Parallels introduce (define the start) of the Prologue and Epilogue; the Prophetic Sections A, B, C, D; and the two Transitional Sections labelled Judgement C-D.
They provide Conclusions
They not only ‘introduce’ the sections, they also ‘close’ them.
Parallels conclude (mark the close) of Sections C-D, and the Judgments C-D.
It is through these parallels that we discern the structure of the book. If we do not recognise them, the narrative is thrown into confusion.
|'God gave him to show' (1:1)||Prologue|
|A||‘I was in the Spirit‘ (1:10)|
|B||‘I was in the Spirit‘ (4:2)|
|C||‘carried me away in the Spirit‘ (17:3)|
|‘white horse‘ (19:11)||C — Judgement|
|‘white throne‘ (20:11)||D — Judgement|
|D||‘carried me away in the Spirit‘ (21:10)|
|'God... sent his angel to show' (22:6)||Epilogue|