The Order of the Book of Revelation

by
William Arnold III
WmArnold@gmail.com


Introduction · Various Opinions on the Order · A Biblical Approach · Literary Flow vs. Chronological Order

Introduction

Attempt to understand the book of Revelation has given rise to a great deal of controversy. I think it is because of this controversy and the variety of opinions surrounding this book that so many ministers avoid it altogether. This is very sad because it is the only book in the Bible which gives a specific blessing to him "who reads and those who hear" its words (1:3), and it is an epistle written to the church (v. 4).

Various Opinions on the Order

The opinions range from a strict chronology to the idea that there is no sequence of events whatsoever. A strict chronology is impossible. For instance, Revelation 14:1 has Jesus standing on Mount Zion with the 144,000 Jews when the bowls are still yet to come in chapter 16 and his return in chapter 19. Revelation 11:15-19 states that Jesus has now received the kingdom and begun to reign, that the time for the dead to be judged has come, and that it is time to destroy those who destroy the earth. All of these are events which take place after the Tribulation. Revelation 7:15-17 seems to depict eternity (compare to 21:3-7). Revelation 10:7 states that with the seventh trumpet "the mystery of God is finished." In 13:1 John first sees the Beast coming out of the sea which would be very difficult to reconcile with what has been going on if this is when he first appears (especially chapter 12). Revelation 12:4 is best understood as taking place in eternity past with verse 5 as a reference to the birth and ascension of Christ (although some would understand it differently). Revelation 14:17-20 describes the harvest by the angels which Jesus said would take place at the "end of the age" (Matt. 13:39). Both 14:8 and 18:2 describe the fall of Babylon as if it has just taken place. Revelation 6:12-14 describes the great cosmic signs which Jesus said would take place "after the tribulation" (Matt. 24:29). And both 6:14 and 16:20 describe the disappearance of all mountains and islands.

Among those who fall between a strict chronology and the idea of no sequence whatsoever, there are two major schools of thought concerning how to understand the order of the book of Revelation. The first is the view which sees the seals, trumpets, and bowls as sequential with some of the events in between as being interruptions of this order. The second view sees the seals, trumpets, and vials as all leading up to the end. It sees this as the same story told from different points of view, similar to the different accounts in the gospels. Each time John describes events that lead up to the return of the Lord and the end of the age from a different perspective.

A Biblical Approach

Now the difference between these two views is significant. I will attempt to show that the second is to be preferred. This is based primarily on the similarity of events described towards the end of the seals, trumpets, and bowls as demonstrated in the following chart:

Sixth and Seventh Seal

Sixth and Seventh Trumpet

Seventh Bowl

1. A great earthquake

2. Voices, thunderings, lightnings, and an earthquake

3. Angel cried with a loud voice

4. Every mountain and island taken out of their way

5. ---

6. ---

7. Day of his wrath is come

8. Silence in heaven

9. Great multitude in heaven

10. ---

1. A great earthquake

2. Lightnings, voices, thunderings and an earthquake

3. Great voices in heaven

4. ---
 

5. Great hail

6. Temple opened; voices heard

7. Thy wrath is come

8. Mystery of God is finished

9. Time of the dead

10. Kingdom given to Christ

1. A great earthquake

2. Voices, thunders, lightnings and a great earthquake

3. Great voice from heaven

4. Every island fled away and the mountains were not found

5. Great hail

6. Great voice out of the temple

7. Fierceness of his wrath

8. "It is done"

9. First resurrection (ch. 20)

10. Christ reigns 1,000 yrs (ch. 20)

Although some of these are debatable there seems to me to be overwhelming evidence here linking these events. The most logical understanding is that these are describing the same events with some giving more details and some leaving out details. This is more plausible than the idea that all these things take place multiple times. We could look at several of these events, but I want to focus on one in particular: I grew up on an island. Imagine that every island on the planet disappears. Now imagine that every mountain is leveled. Think about it: THIS CANNOT HAPPEN TWICE! Mountains and islands do not "grow back" after five or six years. If nothing else, at least these must both describe the same event.

Not only do these events parallel each other, but they parallel other passages. For instance, the sixth seal parallels the description of the end by both Jesus and Joel:

Joel (Joel 2)

Jesus (Matt. 24)

John (Rev. 6)

1. In the last days (Acts 2:17)

2. Sun into darkness, moon into blood

3, 4. Wonders in heaven . . .

 

5. . . . and in the earth

6. Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD

1. After the tribulation

2. Sun darkened, moon does not give its light

3. Stars fall from heaven

4. Powers of the heavens shaken

5. ---

6. Then the Son of Man appears in the sky

1. At the sixth seal

2. Sun became black, moon like blood

3. Stars of heaven fell to earth

4. Sky receded as a scroll

5. Mountains, islands disappear

6. Jesus is seen / day of his wrath has come

Jesus plainly states that the great cosmic signs would take place "after the tribulation." John has them occurring at the sixth seal. We must therefore conclude that at least the sixth seal is after the Tribulation. Furthermore, the seventh trumpet (Revelation 11:15-19) clearly describes the end and is said to finish the mystery of God (10:7) as was already stated.1 Also, as John is approaching the seventh trumpet he is told that he "must prophesy again concerning many peoples and nations and tongues and kings" (10:11). This leads me to believe that the sixth and seventh trumpets bring us to the end, and then John starts back over from a different perspective listing different events with the bowls.2 Finally, it seems likely that this seventh trumpet parallels Paulís last trumpet in 1 Corinthians 15:52 and Jesusí trumpet in Matthew 24:31.

Literary Flow vs. Chronological Order

Although I do not see a strict chronology, I do see a literary flow of the book of Revelation (characters are usually introduced into the story before they are discussed, such as the 144,000 in chapter 7 and the great harlot in chapter 17). This type of structure may seem strange to us, but it is common in other parts of the Bible and fits very well with the Semitic style of the book. In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus describes the first 3 ½ years (beginning of sorrows) followed by the second 3 ½ years (Tribulation) and finishes with the coming of the end (Matt. 24:4-14). Then he returns to discuss the midpoint in verse 15 and the second 3 ½ year period again in verse 21. This is similar to the story of creation in Genesis 1 and 2. Moses tells the whole story and then returns to expound on the creation of man in more detail. This is how I understand the seals, trumpets, and vials. They are increasingly more telescopic of events leading up to the end.


Footnotes

1. Compare to Daniel 9:24, where the completion of the seventieth week is said to "seal up vision and prophecy." <back>
2. Even Pentecost recognizes this point, cf. J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), 187-188. <back>

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