As Vern Poythress would stress about the book of Revelation, there are many ways to outline the book. I will be relying heavily on Poythress for any posts on Revelation, but as you might imagine I am not simply rehashing his teaching but in some ways simplifying it and in other ways changing it. The two main methods of outlining are to look at the literary structure in terms of formal structure or rhetorical structure. The former is the focus of this post. We will observe the latter and its implications in later posts.
This letter of John to the seven churches has a prologue and epilogue. The prologue says, “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (Rev 1:1-3).
The epilogue says, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen” (Rev 22:18-21).
The book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature. This word apocalyptic comes from the Greek for Revelation in 1:1, apokalupsis (depending on your transliterating standards). The word has to do with the action of uncovering, disclosing, revealing (to use words in a lexicon). The word “prophecy” is mentioned in both the prologue and epilogue. Prophecy is more than just telling the future (pro=before, phecy=telling), but indeed is a telling forth of the will of God (pro=forth, phecy=telling). But there are many reasons that we would call this apocalyptic literature rather than prophetic literature. Some OT prophetic books include apocalyptic chapters. Nevertheless, this is a New Testament Writing (the epistles) rather than a New Testament Prophetic Book (Acts). I am not suggesting that the book does not contain “a prophecy” since the book even says it does, just that it is not a prophetic book (i.e. I am talking about the genre identification of the book).
First of all, it is literally one of the writings rather than a prophetic book based simply upon the formal structure. It is an epistle (it is a letter). “John to the seven churches that are in Asia…” (Rev 1:4). Secondly, we see wisdom and other themes more associated with the writings than the prophets even in the prologue and epilogue (cf. Rev 1:3 and the language in Rev 22:18f concerning adding and subtracting). Third, the book builds upon all of Scripture but particularly upon the Book of Daniel (which is one of the writings, not the prophets). Fourth, the place in the canon is not next to Acts but at the end of the NT writings.
Some content and literary characteristics of apocalyptic literature, of which the Revelation to John is an excellent example, include an emphasis on eschatology (speaking of last things), a goal of bringing comfort to the suffering and emphasizing patience in the midst of it, reporting of dreams and/or visions, and the use of fantastic imagery (like multi-headed beasts) and symbolism. As Poythress says, a boy about 12 years old told him, “I read it just like a fantasy, except that I knew it was true” (The Returning King, 14). In fact, the best way to appreciate the difference between prophetic books and apocalyptic books is simply to read them. Children with active imaginations will tend to enjoy and understand apocalyptic. Even better than to read it is to hear it and keep it (Rev 1:3). It is not a puzzle that you need an expert to solve. And you cannot calculate a date and time for the end by using it (Matt 24:36, Mar 13:32).
The epistle includes an introduction (Rev 1:4-9). And then we hear four visions. The first is a vision of Christ “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Rev 1:10). The second is a vision in heaven “in the Spirit” (Rev 4:2). The third is a vision in the wilderness “in the Spirit” (Rev 17:3). And the fourth is a vision on “a great, high mountain” also “in the Spirit” (Rev 21:10). Then Rev 22:6-17 is a conclusion to the epistle. The first vision includes the messages for the seven churches. The vision in heaven takes us through the 7 seals, 7 trumpets, symbolic figures and harvest, and the 7 bowls. The vision in the wilderness covers the judgment of Babylon, the white horse judgment, and the white throne judgment. The fourth vision is of the new Jerusalem. It is noteworthy that the four visions fits the 3+1 pattern of wisdom literature.
So the largest formal section markers are “in the Spirit” introducing each of the four visions. Poythress observes that “kai eidon” (“and I saw”) or some variation on that often helps you to subdivide each vision. The first vision is naturally divided into two — the encounter with Christ and the messages to the seven churches. The former can be divided with “I saw” (“eidon”) at Rev 1:12 and then “and when I saw” (“kai ‘ote eidon”) at Rev 1:17.
The second vision includes a throne vision, “after this I saw” (“meta tauta eidon”) at Rev 4:1; the scroll “and I saw” (“kai eidon”) at Rev 5:1-2 twice, Rev 5:6 and Rev 5:11; the seven seals with “and I saw” (twice) and “and I heard” at Rev 6:1-2), “I heard” at Rev 6:3, “I heard” (twice) and “and I saw” at Rev 6:5-6, “I heard” and “and I saw” at Rev 6:7-8, “I saw” at Rev 6:9, and “and I saw” at Rev 6:12, then what Poythress calls a parenthesis and marked by “meta touto(a) eidon” at Rev 7:1 and 7:9, then the seventh seal is marked by silence at Rev 8:1. The point being that seeing and/or hearing mark the opening of each section of the seven seals (easy enough to divide without these syntactical markers). The seven trumpets include these markers less often at Rev 8:2, 8:13, 9:1, and 10:1. It is easy enough to divide out for each angel but these markers help, especially for the two subdivisions for the fourth and sixth angels. The phrases resume in frequency to what we saw earlier with the beast in Rev 13:1, 11, 14:1, 6, 14, 15:1-2 (twice) beginning the seven bowls, Rev 15:5 saying “and after this I saw.” The phrase “and I saw” also appears at Rev 16:13 but does not help in dividing the bowls up, easy enough to do without markers.
The third vision also can be divided noting these kinds of phrases. “And I saw” occurs twice in the first section (Rev 17:3, 6), “after this I saw” at Rev 18:1), “and I saw” at Rev 19:11, 17, 19, 20:1, 4, twice for the great white throne section at Rev 20:11-12, and then again at Rev 21:1. The phrase appears twice to open new major sections throughout the book of Revelation.
These observations highlight that this prophecy is a “vision” that is seen and heard. This always reminds me how the Torah notes that it is a less direct form of revelation (i.e. Numbers 12:6-7). The comparison there was with the words of Moses who was faithful as a servant in all the house of God. But we might as well compare to the words of Christ who is faithful over God’s house as a son (cf. Heb 3:5-6). That is, apocalyptic literature can be understood as we were saying earlier by children but it is a less direct form of revelation, which must be taken into account when being interpreted. The main reason for this being that apocalyptic literature is best suited for a time when one cannot come out and say something too directly because it may spur persecution.