We need to see the Book of Revelation as a whole before examining its individual parts.  Many people get confused about this book because they read it as if it was a simple narrative, telling the story from beginning to end in chronological order.  They do not realize that John wrote this book using a characteristically Jewish style of writing that requires a different interpretive approach.  We need to be aware of these styles.  Otherwise we will “read into” John’s message things that he did not mean.

In the Western world we are used to expressing ideas in the framework of a logical outline.  When we tell a story or describe an event, we expect it to be told as a narrative, with a linear progression of ideas from beginning to end.  (“This happened, then this happened, then this happened next, and finally, this happened.”)  However, the Jewish writers did not always write in this manner.  Although they could tell a story in narrative form (the historical books of Kings and Chronicles are good examples of historical narratives), they had other styles of writing as well.

The Jewish culture delighted in painting word pictures in order to describe or illustrate truths. They wanted to be able to “experience” or “feel” the truth, rather than just understand it.  The Apostle Paul noted this cultural difference in 1 Corinthians 1:22 where he contrasted the learning styles of the Jews and the Greeks: “Jews demand a sign; Greeks search for wisdom.”

In order to create these word pictures, Jews often used a “repetitive” form of writing (also known as “parallelism”), where subjects were repeated over and over again in order to paint the complete word picture of the topic.

For instance, the Book of Proverbs is a good example of this Jewish writing style.  The sage would present a particular truth in the first line (“Trust in the Lord with all your heart”) and then repeat or expand upon that truth in the next line (“And lean not on your own understanding.”)  Taken together, both lines give the full picture of what is meant.  However, the picture is still not complete.  The writer intends the reader to look at allthe references to the subject in his book.  Hence, the Book of Proverbs was not categorized subject by subject (as we would want to do with our Western, logical educational styles).  Rather, each subject (such as wisdom, the tongue, work ethics, etc.) is presented from different perspectives over and over again throughout the whole book!

In the New Testament, the letters of Peter, James, and John also follow this repetitive pattern.  For instance, John’s first letter talks about love over and over again, interspersed with other topics like fellowship, sin and forgiveness, etc. (which are also repeated again and again).

On the other hand, Paul used the Greek, or Western, style of writing.  Though he was trained as a Jewish rabbi and could understand the Jewish manner of expression, he was also schooled in the Greek and Latin cultures.  He was the perfect person for God to use in order to make the bridge between the Jewish way of expressing God’s truth and the Western world’s method of learning.  Therefore, we can see why Paul’s letters are easy for us to outline.  They follow a logical sequence of thoughts.  We can also see why it is impossible for us to make such sequential outlines of James or 1 John.

Why is this important?  Because the Book of Revelation should be interpreted from the perspective of this Jewish form of writing!  Otherwise, it will not make much sense.  Contrary to most interpretations, I will demonstrate that the Book of Revelation does not follow a strict sequential format.  Instead, it is the written account of a series of John’s visions.  It is only our Western-based assumption that causes us to think that each vision is followed sequentially by the events described in the next vision!

For instance, most readers see the seals, trumpets and bowls in chapters 4-19 as a timeline of events that will happen one after the other, as the following chart shows:

One Period   A Subsequent Period  The Final Period

of Time:         of Time:               of Time:

7 SEALS          7 TRUMPETS                7 BOWLS

Followed by:

THE RETURN OF CHRIST

However, this system of interpretation presents us with many impossible and irreconcilable contradictions within the text.  For instance, chapters 4-19 describe Jesus as coming back to earth in triumphant glory at least two different times! (And this number does not count the pretribulation interpretation of a secret coming in order to rapture the church before the Great Tribulation even begins!)   We read that “The kingdom of this world become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ…” at the blowing of the last trumpet in Revelation 11:15.  However, we also see Jesus returning again at the Battle of Armageddon in Revelation 19:11-20. All kinds of  explanations are given by interpreters in order to avoid this “contradiction.”  However, if we understand the Jewish style of expression in the book, there is no need to have Jesus could come back secretly, or to stop temporarily on His way back in the mid-heaven, or to come back at the middle of the so-called “seven year tribulation,” in order to reconcile these passages.

Another difficulty in interpreting the seals, trumpets and bowls as consecutive events is seen in the very nature of their effects upon the earth!  How could such catastrophes take place in rapid succession without severely affecting the economic and political life of the end-time kingdom of the Antichrist?  We have shown that this kingdom will be one where the people praise their secular savior because he has brought them final peace and prosperity.  People will be exclaiming, “Peace and safety!” (1 Thessalonians 5:3a).  Such a statement cannot be made when the sixth seal, for example, has the sky “rolling up like a scroll” near the beginning of the “seven-year tribulation;” or the sixth trumpet has one-third of mankind involved in a major world war!

A better way of understanding the Book of Revelation is to see the seals, trumpets, and bowls as all describing different aspects of the same time period – the Great Tribulation, as follows:

One Period of Time:

SEALS – one prophetic vision of that time
TRUMPETS – a second prophetic vision of that time
BOWLS – a third prophetic vision of that time

Following the Jewish repetitive style, each of these apocalyptic pictures builds upon the previous one, and thereby gives us a complete view of God’s judgment.  This interpretation will be made perfectly clear in our discussion of the individual judgments later in this chapter.

What makes the Book of Revelation even more complicated, however, is the fact that within each section concerning the judgments of the seals, trumpets and bowls are even more visions.   These visions give expanded details of what life on earth will be like during the judgments.  It would have been better if John could have put parenthesis marks around these visions so that we could follow his train of thought more easily!  For instance, after the sixth seal is opened in Revelation 6:17, the kings of the earth respond, “…the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”  This question is then answered in one of these “parenthetical” visions.  The whole next chapter tells us that God will seal two groups of people for their protection and ultimate deliverance: 144,000 Jews and a great multitude of people from every tribe, nation, and tongue.  Then, after this explanation, the primary vision concerning the seals resumes with the opening of the seventh seal in Revelation 8:1.  This same pattern is repeated in the visions of the trumpets and the bowls, adding greater confusion for those who take a sequential approach to the book!

However, if we recognize how the Jewish repetitive style works, we will see that each parenthetical vision (also called an “interlude” or an “excursus” by commentators) builds upon the previous one.  With each elaboration, we are given more details about end-time events and characters.  We are introduced to the Devil, the Beast, the False Prophet, mystery Babylon, etc.  Each interlude builds upon the information we have been given in the previous one.

For instance, we have just seen how the first parenthetical vision introduces us to the two groups of people who will be sealed by God in order to be able to stand before Him at the judgment (the Jewish believers in one group and the Gentile believers from every nation in the other).  The next interlude occurs between the blowing of the sixth and seventh trumpets (Revelation 10:1 – 11:14).  Here, we are given more information about the work of evangelism among the Jews in the last days (Revelation 11:1-14).  Following the blowing of the last trumpet in Revelation 11:15-19, we have another parenthetical vision before the vision of the bowls is described.  This interlude gives further elaboration of what will happen during the last three and one-half years of human history to the two groups of people.  It describes God’s protection of the Jews from Satan’s wrath (Revelation 12:1-16) and the devil’s persecution of the rest of God’s children who believe in Jesus (Revelation 12:17).  Next, we are given more information about the kingdom of the Antichrist (referred to in passing as “Babylon the great” in Revelation 14:8) and those who will receive his mark (Revelation 12 – 14).  Finally, the last interlude gives more detail regarding the judgment upon this end-time kingdom of Babylon (Revelation 17-18).  So, we see that each new interlude builds upon the previous ones, describing life on earth in the last days in greater and greater detail.  Like the seals, trumpets, and bowls, these interludes are not meant to be taken sequentially.  Rather, they all describe different aspects of the same period of time, thereby giving us the complete picture.

An Overview of the Book of Revelation

Now we can look at the Book of Revelation from a better perspective.  We can organize and group our puzzle pieces in a manner where they will all fit together!  Instead of trying to arrange them into a single line, we have shown that they fit better in groups!  As we have noted, Revelation is a compilation of a series of visions.  These visions describe three main scenes: (1) Jesus, the Lord of His Church; (2) Jesus, the Returning King; and (3) Jesus, the Lord over All.  The first section deals with John’s vision of Jesus as Lord over His Church.  The second section is a series of visions that describe in scene after scene the judgment of God upon sinful man and the climatic return of Christ.  The final section gives us a brief glimpse of Jesus as He institutes His Kingdom.

Chapters 1-3 Jesus, Lord of His Church

1 The Vision of Jesus

2-3 Jesus’ Words to His Church

Chapters 4-19 Jesus, the Returning King

Chapters 4-8:1 The Seven Seals

4-5 Jesus, Worthy to Open the Seals

6 The First Six Seals

7 (Elaboration, answering the question, “Who is able to stand, when the great day of God’s wrath has come?”)

8:1 The Seventh Seal

Chapters 8:2-14 The Seven Trumpets

8:2-9 The First Six Trumpets

10-11:14 (Elaboration concerning events taking place in heaven and on earth during this time.)

11:15-19 The Seventh, or Last, Trumpet

12-14 (More elaboration concerning end-time events in heaven and on earth.)

Chapters 15-19 The Seven Bowls of God’s Wrath

15 The Introduction of the Bowls

16 The Bowls poured out

17-18 (Elaboration by an angel about the judgment of God upon the end-time kingdom of the Beast.)

19 The Return of Christ

Chapter 20-22 Jesus, Lord Over All

20 The Heavenly Rewards and Hellish Punishments

21-22 The New Heaven and the New Earth

Now we are ready to unlock some of the mysteries of the Book of Revelation!

[1] In fact, the primary reason many people believe in a mid-tribulation rapture (half way through the so-called “seven-year tribulation”) is because they interpret the passage in Revelation 11:15 as the same last trumpet that Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 15:52 when Jesus comes to resurrect the dead and rapture those who are remaining alive on earth.