For many, the structure of the book of Revelation has become their hermeneutical key. If only we could figure out its structure, we could understand its meaning. I do not believe that approach is bound to succeed.
Nonetheless, Revelation is a highly structured work, and I would argue moreso than many of its contemporary apocalypses. Its structure is complex, interlocking, multi-level, and marked. Complex, in that Revelation exhibits a number of structural elements, and is not easily reducible to a nice outline. Interlocking, in that segments of the work are deliberately interwoven, especially at their hinge points. Multi-level, in that Revelation may better be seen as having a number of structural analyses that overlay one another, rather than a single level of linear structural segments. Marked, in that Revelation primarily indicates structural features through distinct language markers.
With that in mind, I identify these structural features of the book:
1.The whole of the book is framed by an epistolary framework. This is evident in chapters 1 and 22.
2.The phrase ‘in the Spirit’ functions as a marker for 4 major movements in the book. In chapter 1, it denotes the visionary experience of John himself, and in chapters 4, 17, and 21 to indicate visionary-translocation and the introduction of a major vision segment.
3.The forbidden-angel-worship elements, in 19 and 22, function to mark chapters 17-22 as two distinct and parallel vision accounts, designed to contrast Babylon and the New Jerusalem.
4.The highly structured nature of the messages to the seven churches in chapters 2-3 links, by means of the description of Jesus in each, them back strongly to the picture of Jesus in chapter 1.
5.Chapters 4 and 5 function as a unit in describing the heavenly throne room.
6.Chapters 6-8:5 is structured by the sequence of 7 seals, the numerical marking functioning as a distinct ‘marker’. 8:2 exhibits interlocking with the second sequence of 7.
7.8:6-11:19 is structured primarily by the sequence of 7 trumpets.
8.10:1-11:13 (and 11:14 as transitional) function as an extended interlude, locking both the Seal and Trumpet sequences into the events of the throne room 4-5, and the commissioning of John (ch 1).
9.Chapters 12-15 form a complex structural unit. Despite attempts to see a 7-fold vision here, the lack of distinct markers should count against this. Nonetheless 12-15 should be read as a recapitulation of cosmic history in highly symbolic terms, culminating in final judgment in 14:14-20. 15:1, 5-8 interlocks this series with the following.
10.Chapter 16 contains the third sequence of 7, the 7 bowls. The interlocking element of 17:1 connects the twin visions of 17-22 with the rest of the book. 16:8 should be read alongside 11:19 and 8:5, as markers of eschatological judgment.
11.A number of phrases should be read with attention to visionary sequence rather than temporal chronology. Foremost among these is the repeated ‘after these/this I saw’. Revelation’s structure features trans-temporal symbols as well as multi-perspectival retellings of chronologically simultaneous events.
Broadly speaking then, I outline the structure Revelation along these lines:
Ch 1: Introduction and the vision of Christ
Ch 2-3: Messages to the Seven Churches
Ch 4-5: Vision of the Heavenly Throne Room
Ch 6-8: The Seven Seals
Ch 9-11: The Seven Trumpets
Ch 12-15: Visions of the Cosmic Conflict and the Unholy Trinity
Ch 16: The Seven Bowls
Ch 17-20: The Fall of Babylon and the Final Judgment
Ch 21-22: The Coming of the New Jerusalem and the New Creation
22:6-21: Final exhortations and epistolary framework
Revelation: An Introduction