The Structure of Revelation: Four Visions

Interpreters have offered varied “outlines” of Revelation as they attempt to understand how the drama of the Apocalypse unfolds. There are some significant areas of consensus (such as recognizing the cohesive nature of the  septets, particularly the seals, trumpets and bowls). Given the diversity of “outlines,” no single outline can claim certainty and certainly not my own.

Nevertheless, readers organize what they read as a way of making sense of the movement within the drama, seeking its coherence, and understanding its prophetic call. This is unavoidable. Sometimes the recognition of formal structures helps us to hear the message more clearly. There is value, then, in recognizing a structure and paying attention to how others have understood the structure.

In previous posts, we have noted how the book has begun with (1) an entitled superscription (1:1-3) and (2) an extended salutation (1:4-8). While these both set the tone for hearing the book and root us theologically, the body of the book begins with the first vision.

My own sense of the structure is based upon four-fold use of “in the Spirit” as it appears in the Apocalypse.  The “revelation” is something John “saw” while he was “in the Spirit.” This language identifies four distinct (but overlapping) visions similar to how Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones is introduced with the same language (Ezekiel 37:1).

“In the Spirit” appears in the following places in Revelation:

  • Revelation 1:10 — John sees the risen Christ on the isle of Patmos.
  • Revelation 4:2 — John watches events unfold from the heavenly throne room
  • Revelation 17:3 — John watches events unfold from an earthly wilderness
  • Revelation 21:10 — John inspects the New Jerusalem from a high mountain on the New Earth.

This visionary notation structures the Apocalypse into four visions (a fuller schematic outline is available here):

  1. Vision One – The Kingdom Begun: Jesus Has Overcome (Revelation 1:9-3:22)
  2. Vision Two — The Kingdom Comes: The Heavenly Perspective (Revelation 4-16)
  3. Vision Three — The Kingdom Comes: The Earthly Perspective (Revelation 17-21:8)
  4. Vision Four — The Kingdom Fully Realized in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:9-22:7)

In the first vision John, exiled on the isle of Patmos, encounters the risen Christ who gives him a message for the seven churches. John records the messages and sends them to the seven churches. The vision calls the church to repentance, commitment and faithful endurance.

In the second vision John is transported into the heavenly throne room of God. There he sees the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb who enters the throne room to open the sealed book in the right hand of God. The drama of the book unfolds through the opening of the seven seals, the sounding of the seven trumpets, and the pouring out of the seven bowls of wrath. The seventh bowl is the climax of the vision. John watches the whole series of events from the throne room of God; he has a front row seat in the heavenlies.

In the third vision John is placed in an earthly wilderness. No longer in the divine throne room, John is now on the earth. He sees (and identifies) the whore of Babylon, the complicity of the kings and merchants in her rape of the earth, rejoices over the destruction of earthly powers and the binding of Satan in anticipation of the final judgment. The climax of the immediate drama is the millennium preceded by the defeat of the enemies of God and followed by the Great Judgment.

In the fourth vision John is placed on a high mountain in the new heaven and new earth. From this lofty vantage point, John sees and is thus able to describe the New Jerusalem where God dwells with humanity.

We might think of these four visions as four acts in a play or four movements in a piece of music. They each contribute to the full effect of the work but they also have a certain independence, that is, they are to be read in a self-contained way. They each tell their own story that contributes to the whole.

However, we should not read them as autonomous. Rather, they are intimately integrated with each other.  For example, the first and fourth visions have many overlapping themes, shared language, and similar points. In the same way, the second and third visions are actually two perspectives on the same reality, that is, they overlap  or the second tells the same story from a different perspective.  The second vision views the drama “from above” while the third vision views it “from below.”

So, we might think of it this way:

  • Vision 1: Addresses the specific concerns of the seven churches and calls for their commitment to the kingdom of God in the hope of the New Heavens and New Earth.
  • Vision 2: God acts in justice against the kingdoms of the earth as the seven seals, trumpets and bowls of wrath are released.
  • Vision 3: The kingdoms of the earth are described in terms of their sins and destruction as the kingdom of God rejoices and reigns.
  • Vision 4: The new heaven and new earth are opened for those among the seven churches who have overcome and defeated the powers in their own lives and communities.

Visions 2 & 3 are not disconnected from 1 & 4. On the contrary, John’s address to the churches is assumed in 2 & 3 as the call for faithful witness and endurance are repeated. It is the seven churches of Asia that will endure the drama that is about to unfold. They hear the call in the first vision and embrace the hope of the fourth vision, but they must live through the drama of the second and third visions.

This does not mean that these visions have no significance or meaning for the contemporary church. Quite the contrary, the position that the seven churches of Asia occupy in relation to their culture is the same position the present church occupies in relation to her culture. The dangers, temptations, and powers are the same. The conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the earth is ongoing and incessant until the fullness of the reign of God is realized upon the earth. The drama continues as it repeats itself in culture after culture, in epoch after epoch.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

4 Responses to “The Structure of Revelation: Four Visions”

  1.   clifford west Says:

    so if I’m reading this correctly, you believe we (the church) will be here during the great tribulation. also can you point out the significance (importance) of it being 4 visions instead of a reminder that he was in the spirit and the same vision.

  2.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    It seems like the church has always been “in the wilderness,” and that the tribulation is something the church is always undergoing.

    I think it is four different visions. Four times Revelation says John was “in the Spirit,” which I take to men that on four different occasions he had four different visions.

    •   clifford e west Says:

      couldn’t this be Johns way of just reminding the reader that he is engulfed by the Holy Spirit and that all the things he is writing about is of God and not of himself. Or that he must be wrapped in the Spirit to be protected from the things he is seeing and where he is?

  3.   Joey Says:

    Just to drop you a line to thank you for this helpful reference! Needed to find the 4 “in the Spirits” and didn’t have my notes with me.

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