Reading Revelation can be a daunting endeavor. All the violence, destruction, bizarre and outlandish imagery, and cryptic symbolism make for a story that is difficult to read and even harder to make any sense of. This article presents a brief summary of the Revelation story. In my book From Fear To Love: Transforming Revelation , I explain the book of Revelation quite completely and sensibly but in a very unique and surprising way; however, this article is simply a condensed re-telling of the Revelation story without explanation, interpretation, or commentary. Just knowing what the story actually is can be the first step to understanding the book of Revelation or to understanding Biblical prophecy in general.
First, here is an outline of the book of Revelation:
The headings in the following summary of the story correspond to the items in the outline above.
The book begins with greetings from John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, to those who will read his book and to the seven churches in the Roman province of Asia (part of Turkey today), which John will address in greater detail later. John then tells us about his visions, which begin with a vision of the Son of Man (Jesus). John gives details of His appearance, such as that He had “hairs...as white as snow,” “eyes...as a flame of fire,” and “feet like unto fine brass” (1:14-15). One important detail is that “out of His mouth went a sharp twoedged sword” (1:16). Later in the story, John refers to the various details of His appearance in this initial vision. For example, the sword coming out of His mouth appears later in the Armageddon story.
This section also includes Jesus’s instructions to John, “What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia” (1:11) and “Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter” (1:19).
Next, Jesus gives John messages to send to the seven churches. The seven messages foreshadow later events and characters in the main body of the story, and these messages all have the same basic structure.
Each message has these four elements: 1. A partial description of the Son of Man, mostly from the vision of the Son of Man in chapter 1 but also some doctrinal ideas and some prophecies of Messiah. 2. A statement of what the Son of Man knows about that church, its people, and their situation. Although each one is different, they all begin with, “I know thy works.” 3. Statements of praise for good qualities and actions, criticisms of bad qualities and actions, expectations for future behavior, and sometimes threats or promises of what will happen if they do or do not follow the instructions. 4. A promise of some benefit to those who “overcome.” Many of these promises are rather cryptic and symbolic. Nothing ever says just what they have to overcome.
Then, the main body of the story, what I call the “action part” of the story, begins. The first scene is the first description of heaven (chapter 4). John is transported up to heaven and he describes what he sees there: God sits on a throne surrounded by a sea of glass. Out of God’s throne come thunder, lightning, and voices. Besides John and God, the only other beings there are twenty-four elders and four mysterious “living creatures” which bear some resemblance to seraphim and to the creatures in Ezekiel’s visions in the Old Testament. The creatures and the elders worship God constantly, day and night, without rest or pause.
At the end of that scene of heaven, the transition to the next episode of the story occurs as a Lamb, who is “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (5:5), takes a sealed scroll from God. Although the four creatures and 24 elders were the only beings there in chapter 4, now many angels and other creatures appear.
The Lamb opens the seals, of which there are seven. As He opens each seal, a new calamity is inflicted on the people of earth. These calamities include the famous “four horsemen of the Apocalypse” plus additional problems--war, violence, disease, death, famine, persecuted saints, natural disasters, and more. The Lamb opens the first six seals, unleashing the first six problems on earth (6:1-17). Then, before the seventh seal, there is an interlude (7:1-17) in which 12000 people from each of the tribes of Israel plus a multitude from all nations are saved from the various sufferings. The seventh seal (8:1) is merely a transition to the next series of calamities.
This pattern of a series of seven calamities will occur twice more in the story; the pattern of revealing all but the last calamity in the series, followed by an interlude and then the last of the series, repeats once more. In the third series of seven calamities, there is no interlude after the sixth calamity.
The next section after the seals is the sounding of seven trumpets (8:2-9:21). As each trumpet sounds, a new calamity strikes earth until the sixth trumpet's calamity. Then there is another interlude (10:1-11:14). During this interlude, a great angel comes down from heaven, holding a little book. John is told to eat the book. It tastes sweet in his mouth but is bitter in his stomach. Then John measures the temple, and two witnesses appear. They have various sorts of powers, are killed, and then are resurrected. At the sound of the seventh trumpet (11:15-19), the kingdom of God is declared.
Next comes a fairly long interlude, after the trumpets and before the final series of calamities, the bowls. I call this interlude the “central interlude” because it occurs at the center of the story (chapters 12-14). A woman gives birth to a male Child, which a dragon wants to devour, but the Child is “caught up unto God” and the woman flees to the wilderness (12:1-6). John introduces several antichrist figures: Satan, the dragon, the beast from the sea, the beast from the land, and Babylon. In this interlude, John tells us a lot about the first four but almost nothing about Babylon. Three angels make announcements. Then the Son of Man reaps the harvest of the earth, and an angel also harvests the ripe grapes of earth and puts them into the “winepress of the wrath of God” (14:19). A large amount of blood comes out of the winepress.
The final series of seven calamities comes next, the bowl judgments (chapters 15-16). The King James Version calls these bowls “vials,” but most modern translations use the word “bowls.” Seven angels each pour out the contents of one bowl onto the earth, each causing one of these new calamities. In this series, there is no interlude before the last calamity of the series. With the sixth bowl, “unclean spirits like frogs coming out of the mouth of the dragon,...the beast, and...the false prophet” (16:13) call the kings of earth to battle at Armageddon. This is not yet the battle of Armageddon; it is only the call to battle. This is the first mention of a new antichrist figure, the false prophet. It is also the only mention in all of Revelation (and in all of the Bible, for that matter) of the name Armageddon.
Then comes the fall of Babylon (17:1-19:10), “MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH” (17:5). This is one of the longest sections of Revelation, but we can summarize it shortly: She is closely associated with the beast, power, wealth, and blasphemy. Kings, nations, and people of the earth enjoy luxurious living and engage in drunken revelries of fornication and blood with her; she herself is drunk with blood and she makes people of the earth drunk. When she falls, there is much sadness and lamenting on earth, but heaven celebrates her fall. There is an announcement of the wedding of the Lamb and that His bride has made herself ready.
Armageddon is next (19:11-21). Christ appears on a white horse in heaven; the beast, the kings of earth, and their armies are gathered to battle against Christ (having been called to battle earlier in the sixth bowl). An angel invites the birds to feast on flesh at “the supper of the great God.” The beast and the false prophet are captured and tossed into the lake of fire and brimstone. The armies are slain by the two-edged sword of Christ’s mouth.
Armageddon is followed by the capture of Satan (20:1-3), a judgment, and the millennium when some people “lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (20:4-6). After the millennium, Satan is released to deceive the nations again, but that is short-lived and he is captured again (20:7-10).
Then there are a new heaven and earth, which John calls New Jerusalem (21:1-22:5), the final scene of heaven. Interestingly, almost everything about this final scene of heaven is different from, even opposite to, the first heaven in chapter 4. For example, the first heaven is up in the sky; the final heaven is down here on earth. In the first heaven God is anthropomorphic, sitting on a throne, isolated from people by the sea of glass; in the final scene of heaven, there is no sea and God is everywhere, giving light everywhere so that they don’t even need candles. Out of God’s throne come thunder and lightning in the first heaven, but the water of life comes out of God’s throne in the final heaven. The first heaven is barren and stark, with nothing there but thrones, crowns, the sea of glass, and the four strange creatures; the final scene is one of great beauty and abundance of good and valuable things.
I invite you to read more of these articles (“Some Short Articles About the Book of Revelation”) and to read my book to see the book of Revelation explained more sensibly and completely than any other explanation of which I know. My explanation finds Revelation to be an uplifting story of human spiritual progress in learning to know God and ourselves.
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