PMW 2018-034 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
With the publisher’s notice that my commentary on Revelation due out this coming Summer, my thoughts return to John’s glorious drama. And with my current research for a commentary on Matthew 21–25, which will involve this passage’s structure and flow, my interest in outlining biblical narratives is re-kindled.
The Determination of Revelation’s Outline
Unfortunately, Revelation is an extremely difficult book to outline. As we might expect from both its cascading judgment visions and its climacteric spiral movement, analyzing its intricate structure is a difficult task that has tested the mettle of John’s most devoted students. Most would agree with Richard Bauckham that “the book of Revelation is an extraordinarily complex literary composition.” David Aune concurs: Revelation is “an elaborately designed and ingeniously crafted literary work.” Indeed, its structure is extremely complicated, quite fascinating – and vigorously debated.
Thus, as Grant Osborne observes: “outlines of Revelation vary perhaps more than any other book of the Bible.” E. S. Fiorenza laments that “one can almost find as many different outlines of the composition as there are scholars studying the book.” After my own several years of researching Rev, I disagree with Fiorenza and Collins: there seem to be more outlines than interpreters!
Aune (notes that “the problem of the literary analysis of Revelation, despite many proposals, remains a matter on which there is no general consensus among scholars.” F. J. Murphy comments that “even today, almost two thousand years after its writing, scholars continue to propose new analyses of Revelation’s structure, but there is still no general consensus on many aspects of its principle organization.”
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Eugenio Corsini wisely notes that “the reason for these difficulties is obvious, as we do not have the slightest indication of how the original author wished to subdivide his work.” W. J. Harrington agrees: “Beyond some obvious indications (the septets, for instance) it is not possible to be sure of any structural intent of the author.”
David Barr highlights a likely problem in this regard: “Whereas our concern is to divide the book, John’s concern was to bind it together.”
The Development of Revelation’s Outline
In my commentary I employ only the most basic framework structured around John’s four “in Spirit” (en pneumati) experiences (1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10), three of which are closely aligned with the visionary “come and see” commands (4:1; 17:1; 21:9). This structure highlights the simplest structural feature, presenting the material in four primary visions indicate “major transitions within the whole vision” (Bauckham).
This simple structuring of the book avoids the complexities of wrestling with highly debated framework arguments. Instead, it picks up on this distinctive phrasing that highlights John’s prophetic experience (1:10; 4:2) and Spirit-transport (17:3; 21:10). As M. C. Tenney notes this phrase is significant in that “each occurrence of this phrase locates the seer in a different place.” I select this very basic structuring because it reflects Rev’s drama-form (suggesting the four most important scene changes) and judicial character while avoiding unnecessary complexities and debatable assertions. Let me explain.
The first “in Spirit” section. As he traces the prophetic lawsuit motif in Revelation, Alan Bandy insightfully argues for the judicial implications of John’s “in Spirit” experiences. He points out that the first “in Spirit” section (1:9-3:22) shows John under judicial censure on Patmos to where Rome banishes him. While there Christ directs him to write Revelation and send it to the seven churches (1:11). In the following seven letter-oracles Christ will engage an investigative judgment of the churches.
We may discern this from both Christ’s visionary appearance and his oracles. He appears as the Son of Man with flaming (i.e., dross-burning, searching) eyes and a two-edged (i.e., penetrating) sword (1:14, 16; 2:18, 23; cp. Heb 4:12); then he criticizes and warns the churches (2:4, 5, 14, 16, 20, 24; 3:2-3, 17, 19). Christ’s judicial criticism is designed to show “all the churches” that “I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according your deeds” (2:23). Bandy observes that “the first vision corresponds to the covenant lawsuit speech designed to promote repentance and faithfulness.” Furthermore, I would add that his “in Spirit” experience proleptically involves him in the Day of the Lord judgment (see exposition at 1:10; cp. 6:17; 16:14).
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The second “in Spirit” section. The second “in Spirit” experience escorts John into heaven (4:1-2a) where he sees God’s throne and heavenly courtroom (4:2b-4). There we see the lightning and thunder (4:5) which signify the terrifying theophany from which the judgments flow out against God’s enemies (4:1-16:21) – with important interludes protecting God’s people (7:1-17; 10:1-11:19). While there in the Spirit John witnesses a session of the divine council (4:1-5:14).
The third and fourth “in Spirit” sections. The third (17:1-21:8) and fourth sections (21:9-22:5) have strong introductory parallels, establishing a clear relationship between them and a climax to the whole judicial procedure.
The third section has John “in Spirit” while an angel transports him into the wilderness where he will hear the harlot’s sentence and witness her judgment. The harlot is drunk on the blood of the saints (17:6; 18:24) and intoxicates the nations with her passion to destroy (18:3), so that she deserves a double payback (18:6). Her destruction is sure because “the Lord God who judges her is strong” (18:8, 20). Heaven will praise God’s judgments against her (19:1-3). Her judgment ultimately comes from Christ who appears as the divine warrior (19:11-19).
The fourth “in Spirit” section has one of the seven judgment angels carrying John to a great high mountain where he sees the vindication and reward of the saints (21:9-22:5). In their reward they inhabit the strong, well-protected heavenly Jerusalem come down to earth.
My Decision on Revelation’s Outline
Employing the preceding observations, and since virtually all commentators agree that Revelation has a prologue (1:1-8) and an epilogue (22:6-21), my basic outline will be:
Part I. Introduction (1:1-8)
Part II. In the Spirit on Patmos (1:9-3:22)
Part III. In the Spirit in Heaven (4:1-16:21)
Part IV. In the Spirit in the Wilderness (17:1-21:8)
Part V. In the Spirit on the Mountain (21:9-22:5)
Part VI. Conclusion (22:6-21)
This judicial structuring fits nicely with my understanding of Revelation as focusing on God’s divorce and Israel and his taking of a new bride, the universal Church of Jesus Christ.