The storyline of Revelation 4-22

Tue, 09/01/2024 - 19:44 -- James Oakley

In November, I ran a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. Preparing to preach it, some day, I've been trying to get to know the book, to work out how it functions, how it communicates, and so on. I've wanted to do this deductively at first, which means reading the text lots and lots of times, and noticing things.

So far, I've had 3 posts:

  • Revelation as story. Maybe, rather than trying to find the key so we can decode Revelation, we need to recognise it as masterful story-telling, and let it speak to us. Maybe we don't need to decode all the details, "this is that", for it to enter us into its world. In part, we recognise that there is a sequence to the book of Revelation. Characters remain on the stage after their time as lead character is done. Even if later parts of the book speak into space-time events that have already been addressed earlier on, they do so further on in the story that is Revelation
  • How does Revelation 1-3 connect with Revelation 4-22. Revelation 1-3 contains letters to 7 churches in the Roman province of Asia Minor. Revelation 4:1-22:5 contains an extended vision. The vision is designed to speak into the lives of those churches. We need to study chapters 1-3 to enter the world of those churches and hear what the risen Jesus wants to say to them. We need to study chapters 4-22 to allow the vision to speak for itself. Without both halves, we won't hear and apply the book correctly.
  • Tuning in for Revelation applications in chapters 2-3. I then looked at chapters 2 and 3, to notice the recurring patterns and message that Jesus had for those 7 churches. As we read 4:1-22:5, these are the main applications we can expect to find the vision addressing.

I then paused for a month and a bit, as my attention went onto other things in the run-up to Christmas. But I'm looking again at the book of Revelation, and it's now time to turn to the other half of the book, 4:1-22:5. We had needed to see the applications in chapters 2-3, at a glance, so we can have them in mind as we read 4:1-22:5. Just as importantly, we need to see the story of chapters 4:1-22:5 at a glance, so we can have it in mind as we read. To put it another way, if 4:1-22:5 tells a single, coherent, unfolding story, it helps to have an overview of the plot. That way, we don't confuse our seals with our trumpets, or the beasts of chapter 13 with the beast of chapters 17-18.

So let me tell you the story of Revelation 4:1-22:5 in outline.

Please note: This is not me attempting to summarise the message of the book of Revelation, or of each chapter. This is not answering, "What does this part of the story communicate?". This is answering, "Where does the story itself go at this point?". Of course, the story is told so as to communicate, and so as to effect change in the first hearers. That comes later. For now, I want to get the story itself straight, and in what follows I try deliberately not to start to blend in the lessons we are being taught.

To give you a rough idea, in the English, Revelation 4:1-22:5 is roughly 9,200 words long. This summary is just under 1,000. So I leave out most of the details. All the details in Revelation matter. So I'm sure you could make a case, for just about anything I've omitted, that it doesn't do the book justice to leave that bit out. But I've tried to include enough to get the main contours of the story clear, so we can read the details and know where we are. 1000 words is long enough not to over-simplify, short enough to give us a meaningful glance.

At the end of this post, I'll summarise much, much more, so we can see the structure of the book literally at a glance.

Summarising the Story

  • 4: In heaven, John has a vision of God on his throne. Around the throne are 4 living creatures (like a lion, like an ox, with a human face, like an eagle). Surrounding the throne are 24 elders on their thrones. The living creatures and the elders praise God as creator.
  • 5: But God holds a scroll that is sealed, and no creature can even look inside. But the Lion, the Lamb, is able because he has triumphed. The elders and the living creatures sing a new song, praising the Lamb. Surrounding the whole scene are a myriad of angels, who praise the Lamb. And then every creature joins the song, praising God and the Lamb.
  • 6: The Lamb opens the first 6 seals. The first 4 see different coloured horses ride out bringing judgements on earth. Number 5 shows the souls of martyrs waiting for justice. Number 6 brings an earthquake and the sky rolls up. All types of people hide from God’s coming wrath.
  • 7: Four angels at the 4 winds hold back the wind until 144,000 of Israel are sealed. John sees a multitude from every nation, wearing white, joining the praise to God and the Lamb. The angels fall down and worship. One of the 24 elders explains that those in white are those who have come through the great tribulation. God will shelter them as they serve him before his throne.
  • 8-9: The 7th seal is opened, to half an hour’s silence. 7 angels are handed 7 trumpets. Another angel offers incense to God. Angels 1-4 sound their trumpets, and judgements occur on earth. Angel 5’s trumpet opens the abyss, to smoke and locusts that sting like scorpions. Angel 6’s trumpet sees 200 million mounted troops released to kill and maim. The rest of mankind does not repent.
  • 10-11: An angel comes down from heaven, stands on the sea and the land, and proclaims no more delay. This angel gives John a scroll to eat. He’s given a measuring reed to measure the temple. Two witnesses will prophesy for 42 months, before being killed by the beast from the abyss. They come to life after 3 and a half days, and go up to heaven. Angel 7 sounds his trumpet, and loud voices (including the 24 elders) praise God.
  • 12: John sees a woman in heaven, about to give birth, and a dragon with 7 heads and 10 horns. The dragon tries to eat the newborn child, who is snatched to heaven, and the woman flees. The dragon (Satan) is cast down to earth by Michael and his angels. He pursues the woman, spewing a river to sweep her away (the river is swallowed by the earth), before fighting the rest of her offspring.
  • 13: A beast comes out of the sea, given power by the dragon. It blasphemes, and fights God’s people, with authority over every nation. A second beast comes out of the earth, given the authority of the first beast to make people worship an image of that first beast. Only those who receive a mark may trade. The number of its name is 666.
  • 14: John sees 144,000 virgins who follow the Lamb; they sing a new song. Three angels fly overhead announcing the gospel, the fall of Babylon, and a curse on all who receive the beast’s mark. One like a son of man, and two angels, reap the earth like grapes; a large amount of blood flows.
  • 15-16: Those victorious over the beast sing the song of Moses, then seven angels are handed seven bowls with the final plagues of God’s wrath. They pour them on the earth bringing great suffering. Mention is made of the dragon and beasts. The suffering did not bring people to repentance. The 7th bowl triggers a great earthquake in the city.
  • 17-18: John sees a woman dressed in scarlet, “mother of prostitutes”, “Babylon the Great”; the kings of the earth committed adultery with her. She was sitting on a beast with 7 heads and 10 horns, all of which represent certain kings. They’ll fight the Lamb, but the Lamb will win. The beast will hate the woman and ruin her. An angel proclaims her fall; a voice tells God’s people to come out from her. The kings of the earth mourn the loss of their trading partner. An angel throws a millstone in the sea; so Babylon will be thrown down and never found again.
  • 19: The fall of Babylon triggers two cries of Hallelujah from a multitude, one from the elders, then another from the multitude. Blessed are those invited to the Lamb’s wedding. A warrior sits on a white horse, and the kings of the earth come out with the two beasts to wage war. He throws the beasts into the lake of sulphur alive, and kills the others.
  • 20: An angel opens the abyss and locks the dragon, the devil, there for 1000 years, while those who had been martyred and not received the beast’s mark reign with Christ. Satan is released from his prison, and gathers the nations for battle. But fire destroys them, and the dragon is thrown into the lake. Books for judgement are opened and each person is judged. Death and Hades go into the lake, as do those not found in the book of life.
  • 21-22: A new heaven and a new earth. Jerusalem comes down from heaven, bringing God to live with people, and an end to pain. God makes everything new. The city has the 12 tribes on the gates and the apostles on the foundations. But the wicked, those not in the book of life, are excluded. The river of life flows through the city, with the tree of life. There is no need for light.

Notice in the case of the 3 things that happen in sevens (seals, trumpets and bowls), there is in each case a delay. First, we meet the 7 things that are about to happen (seals to break, Revelation 5:1; trumpets to sound, Revelation 8:2; plagues to pour, Revelation 15:1). Those 7 things eventually happen (seals broken, starting Revelation 6:1; trumpets sounded, starting Revelation 8:7; bowls poured, starting Revelation 16:2). But in each case, something else happens between the 7 objects being presented and the 7 events occurring. Before the seals are broken, someone has to be found who is worthy. Before the trumpets are sounded, incense must be offered. Before the bowls are poured, the victors of chapters 12-13 must sing their song before the sea of glass.

Really Short Summary

Now let's try and identify the main sections that Revelation 4:1-22:5 moves through, so we can see where we're going much more briefly. Let's get it down to 250 words, and see the patterns and structure.

  • 4:1-5:14 — Vision of heaven. Creatures, elders, angels, creation praises God and the Lamb (who alone can open the seals on the scroll).
  • 6:1-8:1 — Seven seals opened. Seals 1-4 = horses. Seals 5-6 = longer effects. Pause to seal 144,000, who praise God and the Lamb. Seal 7 = silence.
  • 8:2-11:19 — Seven trumpets blown. Trumpets 1-4 = plagues. Trumpets 5-6 = longer effects.  Pause for (a) angel with edible scroll, and (b) two witnesses who prophesy, are killed and come back to life. Earthquake. Trumpet 7 = loud praise.
  • 12:1-13:19 — Woman gives birth. Dragon tries to eat child, then fights her other offspring. Dragon (=Satan) gives authority to beast from the sea, who gives authority to beast from the earth.
  • 14:1-20 — 144,000 virgins who follow the Lamb. Three angels overhead with announcements. Harvest of the earth by son of man and two angels.
  • 15:1-16:21 — Seven bowls poured out. First, the victorious sing God's praises. Then angels are given the bowls of wrath. Then they pour them out. The beasts are still in the story. Bowls 1-5 = plagues. Bowl 6 = longer effect. Bowl 7 = earthquake.
  • 17:1-19:21 — Woman, "Babylon", "mother of prostitutes", sits on a beast who attacks her. Babylon is fallen, never to rise again. Hallelujah! Warrior on a horse defeats the beasts of chapter 13 (thrown into lake of fire)
  • 20:1-15 — Satan bound for 1,000 years; martyrs rise to reign with Christ. The dead are judged. Satan, death, those not in the book of life — all thrown into the lake of fire.
  • 21:1-22:5 — New heavens, new earth, new Jerusalem, river of life, tree of life. No more curse, need for light.

Hopefully that's helpful. Next time I write about Revelation, I plan to talk about Old Testament allusions.

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