The Book of Revelation:
Overview & Substructure
Let me get right to a bit of exhortational candor: if you are lazy, if you do not like to study, if you do not like to think deep, the book of Revelation will remain largely closed off to you. You can understand the basic themes of the book, but you will not swim in amazement in that promised blessing uniquely attached to the book (Rev 1:3). Also, the book will remain largely closed off to you if you are depending only on personal revelation (illumination) to understand the book. The book is a skyscraper of many floors of information--spiritual, practical, geopolitical, historical, linguistic, ethnolinguistic, cultural--and understanding these diverse layers requires diligent study. As with anything in the born-again life, God will not do everything through a personal revelation or a sudden miracle. In fact, focusing disproportionately on personal revelation often leads to wrong logic and wrong conclusions about a variety of subjects, not just the book of Revelation. If you want the unique blessing of 1:3, you will have to pray, yes, receive occasional illumination, yes, study deeply, yes also, study deeply over time, yes also, think deep and stretch the wineskin of your mind, yes also. The words of Revelation 13:18 speak far beyond the immediate context and apply to the entire book (NASB): Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate...
A kiss from the Spirit upon the intellect He Himself gave you. Love Him with all your mind in the book of Revelation.
(1) The book of Revelation was written immediately to the seven churches of western Turkey, second to the churches of the circulatory system of that time, third to the entire bride, fourth to Jews who would become believers during the events of the book, and fifth to literally anyone.
Revelation was written to five concentric circles of audiences. It was written immediately to the seven churches of western Turkey. Revelation 1:4 says (NIV), ...to the seven churches in the province of Asia... When we study the locations of the churches in chapters 2 and 3, we realize this refers Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey.
Second, Revelation was written to all the first-century churches in the circulatory system of that time. We get an idea of this regionwide courier system in Colossians 4:16 (NIV): After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.
Third, Revelation was written to the entire bride of Christ, the worldwide church of any and every generation. Revelation 22:17 says, The Spirit and the bride say, "Come!"
Fourth, Revelation was written to Jews who would become believers during the events of the book (7:3-8, 14:1-5). This is why it was written with the imagery, vocabulary, and literary techniques of the Old Testament prophets. This is why it looks and sounds and feels like the fortieth book of the Old Testament. At that time God will direct believing Jews to the book of Revelation. They will quickly discern its meaning (quicker than a Gentile believer would) and add to the preaching force of those days.
Fifth, Revelation was written, literally, to all humanity or anyone who will listen. 1:3 says (NIV): Blessed is the one who reads, and those who hear the words of the prophecy and keep the things which are written in it... And 22:17: ...Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life. Notice, also, how the blessings and curses of 22:18,19 are written to literally anyone and everyone: I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll. Revelation was ultimately written to every single individual in the human race.
(2) The book of Revelation is an explanation of the most important apocalyptic phrase, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ".
Revelation 1:1's first five words are, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ." Everything that follows is not about the Antichrist, not about Mystery Babylon, not about the Great Tribulation, not about the fiery red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on the heads, etcetera etcetera, but about how those entities and events runway the revelation of Jesus Christ. If we do not understand this preeminent apocalyptic phrase the book cannot make complete sense.
This phrase, "the revelation of Jesus Christ", is introduced by each of the three highest New Testament leaders, Paul, Peter, and John. They do not give a full explanation of the phrase, they only mention it briefly, like an appetizer, and move on. They do, however, give us enough information to frame and timeframe the phrase. Revelation is the full unveiling of the phrase's meaning, the full meal, so to speak. Read the following verses slowly and thoughtfully, noticing especially "the revelation of Jesus Christ" or some version of that phrase therein. All underlines are mine.
1Corinthians 1:7-8 (NASB): ...you are not lacking in any gift, as you eagerly await the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm
you to the end, blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
1Peter 1:7 (NASB): ...your faith, being more precious than gold which perishes though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise, glory, and
honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
2Thessalonians 1:6-10 (NASB): For after all it is only right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are
afflicted, along with us, when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those
who do not know God, and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These people will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away
from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes to be glorified among His saints on that day, and to be marveled
1 John 3:2 (NASB): Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will
be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.
Romans 2:5 (NASB): But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath and
revelation of the righteous judgment of God.
We learn from these verses "the revelation of Jesus Christ" means the Second Coming, also called "the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1Co 1:8), the time when He reveals Himself to the entire planet as He is (1Jn 3:2), in full divine glory (2Th 1:10). We also learn from these verses the revelation of Jesus Christ will happen at "the end" (1Co 1:8). It did not happen in AD70, nor throughout church history, nor at any other time, but, Paul says, it will happen at "the end".
(3) The book of Revelation describes the world just before the revelation of Jesus Christ, which involves specific individuals, entities, and events.
Individuals like the beast person (a self-worshipping dictator and warlord) and entities like the beast empire (the final version of imperial Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome, and Turkey conglomerated into one) are realities on earth just before the revelation of Jesus Christ. To counteract these unprecedented realities and save souls before Jesus returns, God will raise two miracle-working prophets, 144,000 Hebrew preachers, and other faithful believers to minister to that last generation. They (We?) will succeed greatly, because "out of the great tribulation" (Rev 7:14) will come "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language" (v9 NIV).
The book of Revelation, then, describes the individuals, entities, and realities that will immediately precede the revelation of Jesus Christ. God wants us to understand and minister this information in the spirit of prophecy. About those days, Daniel 11:33 (NASB) says, And those who have insight among the people will give understanding to the many... And 12:3 says (NIV), Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.
(4) The book of Revelation was written with the imagery, vocabulary, and literary techniques of the Old Testament prophets.
There are 404 verses in Revelation. A conservative estimate calculates around 280 of those verses are references or allusions to specific Old Testament passages (69%); a generous estimate places that number at around 360 (89%). This means a whopping 70-90% of Revelation is prequeled in the Old Testament, and therefore, cannot be understood without significant expertise in the Old Testament. You can understand the basic themes of the book, sure, but not the details, not the astounding multidimensional richness. If we are lazy, if we do not like to study, if we do not like to think deep, the book of Revelation will remain largely closed off to us.
Revelation is a linguistic labyrinth, a type of word maze. The halls or corridors of that labyrinth are the Old Testament prophets--their imagery, their vocabulary, their literary techniques. For example, one of the main literary gambits the Hebrew prophets used was this: borrow immediate circumstances to make apocalyptic prophecies. They would start a message by addressing the present, then they would shift into an apocalyptic timeframe. Daniel chapter 2 and chapters 7-12 do this constantly. Isaiah also does this constantly. The other prophets also do this to differing degrees.
Here is how it works. You will be reading a passage about, say, the historical king of Assyria, then, all of a sudden, the grammar changes and the prophet starts talking about an apocalyptic Assyrian king, the Antichrist. Or, you will be reading about some historical judgment coming on disobedient Israel, then, all of a sudden, the grammar changes and the prophet is now talking about worldwide judgments that end human civilization as we know it. The Hebrew prophets often used this history-to-eschatology technique and the Holy Spirit continued using it in the book of Revelation. The Spirit borrowed many first-century circumstances, especially from Greco-Roman culture and the Roman empire (more on this in #5), to make apocalyptic prophecies. Without understanding this communication technique and first-century history you simply cannot understand major parts of Revelation.
(5) The book of Revelation was written with many Roman references and illustrations, but it is not about the Roman empire. It is about that all-important apocalyptic phrase, the revelation of Jesus Christ, and what leads up to it.
In one sense Revelation is like the fortieth book of the Old Testament, in another sense it is like a primer on Roman headlines and cultural symbols. The book is ultimately not about the Roman Empire, but the Spirit skillfully borrowed many Roman referents to make apocalyptic points.
For example, consider the four horsemen (Rev 6). The Romans loved chariot racing the way we Americans love football or baseball or basketball. There is even evidence of horse racing as far back as Romulus' founding of Rome in 753 BC, and certainly among the Greeks. By the time John wrote Revelation around 95 AD, Roman emperor Domitian had been in power almost fifteen years. And Domitian loved, loved, loved the chariot races.
Chariot racing in first-century Rome was divided into four colored teams: white, red, blue, and green. Sound familiar? These colored teams garnered zealous fanbases, and in the later empire, even political and religious aspects. The horses and their riders were well-trained, well-funded, and were quite a phenomenon in Roman culture. Again, think of American football, or my sport, soccer, in some countries. When Domitian came along, he introduced two new colored teams, the Golds and the Purples.
Subtext & Divine Sarcasm
See the subtext and divine sarcasm of the four horsemen of Revelation 6? Consider further the following.
Rome's chariot races happened at the Circus Maximus. When John wrote Revelation the venue could host 150,000 to possibly 250,000 spectators. It was the center of attraction and attention for Rome's citizens. In direct contrast and with sarcastic subtlety, God presents His own horsemen at His own center of attraction and attention: the throne in heaven.
Rome was amused with the entertaining spectacle of the horse races. In direct contrast and with sarcastic subtlety, Heaven is sobered by the revelation of what God's horses will bring upon the earth.
Rome's races consisted of not one, but multiple, chariots from each color team (three Whites, three Reds, etc.). They would strategize with one another to ensure their color won, regardless of which specific rider won. In direct contrast and with sarcastic subtlety, God does not need multiple chariots to accomplish what He wants, He only needs one horseman, and furthermore, only one horseman at a time. See how God is taking sarcastic shots at Rome while revealing eschatology?
In Zechariah's time, and certainly at other times also (Ps 68:17), God used/uses multiple chariots. The point here is not that He cannot or does not ever use multiple chariots. Rather, in the immediate historical context of Revelation, He is taking a sardonic shot at Rome, the ruling antichristic empire of the day, that loves and uses multiple chariots to win something as mundane as a horse race, while He can change the state of an entire planet with just one single horseman.
In Rome's chariot races the four traditional colored teams were White, Red, Blue, and Green. The Blues were one of the two strongest (Greens the other). In the parade of God's four horsemen, the four colors are white, red, black, and green. Notice the only difference is that God substitutes black for Rome's blue--another sardonic shot at Rome, and humanity as a whole. While Rome's blue chariots represented the economic might of Rome (imagine the cost of feeding, training, and caring for numerous horses and their riders), God says a black horse is coming that will devastate the economics of last-days Rome and the entire world (Rev 6:5,6).