How does Revelation 1-3 connect with Revelation 4-22

Thu, 23/11/2023 - 10:25 -- James Oakley

The other day, I wrote about how I've been reading through the book of Revelation, as I seek to work out the kind of book it is and how it communicates.

I explained how Revelation 4-22 is a single, coherent story, rather than a series of disjointed scenes. Regardless of whether the characters and events have equivalences in the real world of human history, the key question becomes what the story communicates. We enter into the world of the story, rather than decoding the story.

That much is true of Revelation 4-22. I promised I'd write some thoughts on how Revelation 1-3 and Revelation 4-22 are connected.

I argued last time that Revelation 4-22 is a single story, with many of the characters never leaving the stage after the scene where they dominate. The throne, elders and living creatures stick around. The angels with the bowls stick around. The dragon and the two beasts stick around. The people marked with the mark of the beast stick around.

So if Revelation 4-22 is a coherent whole, is the vision in Revelation 1:10-20 all part of the same vision? I'd argue not. Note that the "voice like a trumpet" speaks at 1:10 and 4:1, suggesting that 4:1 is the start of a second vision akin to the first (albeit much longer).

A distinct portrait of Jesus

The vision in Revelation 1:10-20 is a vision of the risen Jesus in all his glory. There is a small amount of overlap with descriptions in Revelation 4-22. (Specifically, the rider in Revelation 19:15 has a sharp sword coming out of his mouth, echoing Revelation 1:16). But, on the whole, the language in Revelation 1:10-20 is not repeated in Revelation 4-22.

A distinct vision

More significantly is the change of location and a clear marker that a new vision is being started. The key phrase is "I was in the Spirit" (Revelation 1:10; Revelation 4:2), which seems to indicate the start of a vision scene.

[John is also taken to a new location "in the Spirit" in Revelation 17:3 and Revelation 21:10. However, this is a new location within the same vision (partly as indicated by many of the same characters continuing their story-lines), rather than entering into a fresh vision. Within the world of the vision, he is transported to another place.]

John is "in the Spirit" (Revelation 1:10; Revelation 4:2). John sees and hears many things. John falls at the feet of the one showing him the vision (Revelation 1:17; Revelation 22:8). John is told what to do with what he's just seen and heard ("Write, therefore, what you have seen", Revelation 1:19; "Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll", Revelation 22:10).

The 7 letters

Where do the 7 letters (Revelation 2-3) fit into this? It's tempting to see them as a separate section, coming between the two visions (Revelation 1:10-20; Revelation 4:1-22:11).

However, each letter starts with the phrase: "To the angel of the church in X write:". Those are the words of Jesus. Jesus asks John to write each of these 7 letters to the angels of the corresponding churches.

This becomes clearer still when you look at how each of the 7 letters starts: "These are the words of him who …" In each case, that description is filled out with one aspect of the description of the risen Jesus in Revelation 1:10-20. This both sharpens the sense that these letters are the words of Jesus, but also ties the letters to the vision that precedes them.

So the letters do not fall between the two visions. The first vision is one where John sees the risen Jesus, and then the risen Jesus addresses John - both to comfort him, and to ask him to write what he has seen and the letters Jesus is about to dictate.

Having said that the language of the vision in Revelation 1:10-20 is largely disjointed from the language of the vision in Revelation 4:1-22:11, we do need to note that the letters bring in language from Revelation 4:1-22:11. Specifically, the promise to "the one who is victorious" is almost always drawn from the main vision of the book.

The letters themselves are really important. If Revelation 4:1-22:11 is a single vision-story, and the meaning is not to be found in decoding it, then the letters make clear Jesus' assessment of these 7 churches and what he wants them to do as they receive this book of Revelation (comprising all 7 letters, and the rest of the 2 visions). As the main vision draws the reader into its story, it will be so that the churches can put into practice the needs indicated in Revelation 2-3.

One principle of reading the Bible well is to realise that the Bible gives us its own interpretation. Narratives are recorded so as to teach the lesson intended. They don't just tell us what happened; they teach us by recording what happened in such a way as to make the lesson plain. To put it another way: The Bible gives us both the meaning and the application. Applied to the book of Revelation, if we are to let the book itself give us meaning and application, teaching and response, we need to bring Revelation 2-3 and Revelation 4-22 together. Revelation 4-22 tells a vivid story that draws us in and teaches us; Revelation 2-3 gives the context for which that story is told and the life-lessons to be lived out in response. If we teach Revelation 2-3 without Revelation 4-22, the lessons will be relevant but sterile. If we teach Revelation 4-22 without Revelation 4-22, the lessons will be vivid but the applications either fanciful or abstract. The two together gives us vivid teaching that lands in the nitty gritty of real church life.

Finally, we note that the number 7 represents totality. The 7 churches do not each receive a personalised edition of Revelation, with their own letter inserted between Revelation 1:20 and Revelation 4:1. Each church receives a complete copy, containing all 7 letters. Certainly, each church needs to pay special attention to the letter addressed to its own angel. But the 7 churches here also represent the church in totality, and the message that every church needs to hear is a synthesis of the specific messages addressed to each of the 7. This helps modern-day Christians reading the book of Revelation. Their response to the vision chapters will be found across the totality of Revelation 2-3.

I will post separately with some thoughts on what we get when we bring these 7 letters together.

Opening greetings

Revelation 1:1-9 is a distinct section introducing the book.

Before we get to Revelation 1:10-3:22 (the vision and the words of Jesus), Revelation 1:1-9 contains John's own greetings and introductory comments.

Concluding remarks

Revelation 22:12 starts a distinct concluding section. Without any introduction, Jesus starts to speak.

The angel is speaking in Revelation 22:9-11, telling John not to worship him because he is not divine. By contrast, it's clear that Revelation 22:12-16 contains words of Jesus himself ("I, Jesus" in Revelation 22:16, but also "First and the Last", Revelation 22:12 recapitulating Revelation 1:17).

Revelation 22:17-21 is a more general conclusion. Jesus speaks again during Revelation 22:20, but the rest of this section is an interplay of John addressing his readers, the Spirit and the bride inviting the readers, John warning against altering the text, and his own response to Jesus.

Structure of Revelation

Let's put this together, then. Here is the shape of the book as a whole

  • Revelation 1:1-9. John introduces this book.
  • Revelation 1:10-3:22. Vision number 1. John sees the risen Jesus and falls at his feet. Jesus speaks to him, to identify himself and tell John not to be afraid, before telling him to write down what he has seen and specific messages to each of the 7 churches.
  • Revelation 4:1-22:11. Vision number 2. John is taken (in the Spirit) into heaven, where he sees and hears many things. He falls at the feet of the lead angel showing him these things (presumably the one referred to in Revelation 1:1), who tells him not to do so, before telling him not to seal the scroll because the time is near (compare Revelation 1:3).
  • Revelation 22:12-21. Jesus speaks again to John, to explain again that these things are soon, and he has sent his angel to John for the benefit of the churches (compare Revelation 1:1). John has a final exhortation for his readers, sandwiched between words of response from "the Spirit and the bride" and John himself, both of whom say "Come".
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