14. Literary Structure

All interpreters who come to the Scriptures are faced with attempting to grasp the literary structure of the text. It doesn’t take the new believer very long to discover that passages which one had always assumed were strictly sequential are found, upon further investigation, to be presented in a nonsequential fashion suitable to the purposes of the writer. This becomes most evident by studying a parallel gospel which presents each gospel writer’s material in parallel columns.1

Some of the same issues arise when we come to the book of Revelation. How is the presentation of John to be understood? Are the seals, trumpets, and bowls sequential? Or do similarities between some of them imply the different passages are describing different details concerning the same event (repetition or recapitulation)? This process is complicated by the wide variety of conclusions interpreters reach concerning the literary structure of the book. Depending upon what elements of the book are seen as most determinative in outlining the material, different results are obtained.

A blessing and curse of John’s Apocalypse are the many commentators who have attempted to interpret the book. This is especially true of the many outlines proposed for its literary structure. The diverse proposals are a maze of interpretative confusion.2

This rather complete lack of consensus about the structure of Revelation should caution the reader about accepting any one approach as definitive.3

Although there are many different views concerning the structure of the book of Revelation, two primary views have been recognized: the sequential view and the simultaneous or recapitulation view. Most other views are a variation on one of these. “The basic structural question is whether John intended his readers to understand the visions recorded in his work in a straightforward chronological sense or whether some form of recapitulation is involved.”4

The structure of the Apocalypse is determined, in part, by one’s understanding of whether the three septet [sets of seven] judgments are sequential or simultaneous. The sequential view understands the seals, trumpets, and bowls as successive judgments that proceed out of each other. The simultaneous view sees a recapitulation of the septets in which the judgements are parallel to each other. Each recapitulation reviews previous events and adds further details.5

A fundamental issue in discerning the plan of the book of Revelation is how to explain the numerous parallel passages and repetitions within it. The book itself suggests that the number seven is an ordering principle by presenting seven messages, seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. The parallels between the trumpets and bowls are especially close and seem repetitious. Some commentators have explained the repetition as the result of the use of sources. Others have seen the repetition as part of the author’s literary design. The literary design has been seen as describing a linear sequence of events within history, including the past, present, and future. Another theory is that the same historical and eschatological events are described several times from different points of view.6

Other ways of dividing and organizing the book are also possible. For example, making a primary division based upon different visions,7 emphasizing the contrast between scenes in heaven versus their results on earth,8 or some other literary artifact such as spiritual transitions. Tenney calls attention to the fourfold literary structure marked by transitions where John “was transported in consciousness to a new scene of action where spiritual realities and future events were disclosed to him.”9

In the Spirit
Section TopicTransition VersePhraseLocation
Prologue: Christ CommunicatingRev. Rev. 1:1+--
Christ in the ChurchRev. Rev. 1:9-10+“I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day”“on the island that is called Patmos”
Christ in the CosmosRev. Rev. 4:1-2+“Immediately I was in the Spirit”“up here” (heaven)
Christ in Conquest Rev. Rev. 17:3+“So he carried me away in the Spirit”“into the wilderness”
Christ in ConsummationRev. Rev. 21:10+“And he carried me away in the Spirit”“to a great and high mountain”
Epilogue: Christ ChallengingRev. Rev. 22:6+--


1 See [A. T. Robertson, A Harmony of the Gospels (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1950)] and [Robert L. Thomas, A Harmony of the Gospels (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins Publishers, 1978)].

2 Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 108.

3 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), 46.

4 Ibid., 45.

5 John A. McLean, “Structure of the Book of Revelation,” in Mal Couch, ed., Dictionary of Premillennial Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1996), 373.

6 Adela Yarbro Collins, “Book of Revelation,” in David Noel Freeman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1996, c1992), 5:696.

7 “The seven visions are as follows: (1) Seven churches (Rev. Rev. 1:9+-Rev. 3:22+); (2) Seven seals (Rev. Rev. 4:1+-Rev. 8:1+); (3) Seven trumpets (Rev. Rev. 8:2+-Rev. 11:19+); (4) Seven symbolic figures (Rev. Rev. 12:1+-Rev. 14:20+); (5) Seven bowls (Rev. Rev. 15:1+-Rev. 16:21+); (6) Seven judgments (Rev. Rev. 17:1+-Rev. 19:10+); (7) Seven triumphs (Rev. Rev. 19:11+-Rev. 22:5+).”—Edward Hindson, Revelation: Unlocking the Future (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2002), 5.

8 “When God has described a scene as taking place ‘in Heaven’, and caused Heavenly voices to give the key to what is to follow in another scene which immediately takes place ‘on earth’; and this is done seven consecutive times; is it not strange that writers on the Apocalypse should overlook this exceedingly simple arrangement.”—E. W. Bullinger, Commentary On Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1984, 1935), 117.

9 Merrill C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1957), 32-33.