Where does the book of Revelation begin?
That probably sounds like a strange question to ask, but it is helpful to recognize that this book does not travel along a strict linear timeline from point A to Z. We need to read this book with all of our artistic creative imagination brought to the forefront. Revelation should be “analyzed” as a work of art – not as mere words on a page that follow in a neat and tidy progression. For example, a famous symphony by Mozart or Beethoven would be a good analogy. These masterpiece symphonies typically begin with no more than bits and pieces of a recurring theme. As the piece progresses these fragmentary melodies gradually come together but it is not until midway through the piece that everything climaxes with a familiar theme. Only then will a novice listener be able exclaim, “Oh, I recognize that!” By contrast, the listening experience for an individual who is already very familiar with the symphony is much more rewarding since he or she can pick up on all the subtleties and nuances that have pointed to the main melody from the very beginning.
OK, I recognize that some people hate classical music, but you get the point! We need to understand that there is a central theme in the book of Revelation and that everything ties into this central theme. Once we have identified what this central theme is we begin to see echoes of it reverberating through every verse and chapter. This understanding also allows us to appreciate the dramatic and exhilarating climax of the book! Click on the “read more” button below.
In the movie “Vantage Point” the story is told of the attempted assassination of the United States President from the perspective of several different individuals. As the subtitle to the movie indicates, “8 strangers, 8 viewpoints, 1 truth.” After the conclusion of one person’s unique view of the story, the movie travels back in time to experience the same event from the eyes of another observer until finally the single major event is viewed from every possible angle. Each window into the story provides a different and important aspect that fills out the reality of what actually happened. Finally, all of the various viewpoints collide together to produce a very intense climax. The book of Revelation should be read in this way as opposed to a pure linear timeline.
As Sigve Tonstad would say, “It appears more persuasive to hold that the author’s technique combines recapitulation and progression, and that the repetition also indicates gradation.” (1) For example, “The trumpets are worse than the seals, the bowls are worse than the trumpets.” (2) Elizabeth Fiorenza would refer to a “dramatic motion picture [analogy] whose individual scenes portray the same person or action each time from a different angle or perspective, while simultaneously adding some new insight to the whole…[Revelation] is end-oriented rather than cylic or encyclopedic.” (3)
When I was in high school and college I played in a brass quintet and became acquainted with the “The Art of the Fugue” by J.S. Bach. This was probably the last work that Bach composed and was sadly unfinished by only one or two pages. It is considered by many to be a mathematical work of art. Kirnberger wrote, “The Art of the Fugue is more difficult in the entire science of compositions than this, each of the four voices have not only its own fluent melody, but all of them have a uniform character which is maintained so that in their union, a single perfect whole is created.” I am fascinated by the complex descriptions of this work which unfortunately exceeds my understanding of music theory. Listen to the words of the John Stone:
“For me, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge (‘Art of the Fugue’) is tantamount to a sacred text, an artwork so quintessentially perfect in form, so unutterably beautiful from the dual perspectives of the mind and heart, intellect and emotions, that the best thing I usually think I can do in facing it is to remain silent. And having studied it intensively for years, played through it countless times on the piano, written a book about it, it is generally in silence that I contemplate this music – in the portable, never-skipping player of my mind…The massive work he left behind, complete to us except for perhaps a single missing page of manuscript, is among his greatest achievements, an apotheosis of fugal composition, a teaching manual put into practice, and perhaps a mystical road map to the universe. I write that last suggestion somewhat tongue in check, having at one point been convinced of its truth. As much as I realize now the subjective nature of such exhortations, I nevertheless continue to be amazed and awed by the otherworldly splendor of this music.”
We should have an even greater sense of awe and reverence for this last book of the Bible and study it with at least the intensity that John Stone put into “The Art of the Fugue”! Intuitively, we would expect that God would finish the Bible with a masterpiece work of art that would tie up all the loose ends into one grand harmony. The book of Revelation does just that! Richard Bauckham would say that “Revelation has been composed with such meticulous attention to detail of language and structure that scarcely a word can have been chosen without deliberate reflection on its relationship to the work as an integrated, interconnected whole.” (4) Bauckham has the same awe and praise for Revelation that Stone has for Bach: “The Apocalypse of John is a work of immense learning, astonishingly meticulous literary artistry, remarkable creative imagination, radical political critique, and profound theology.”
What I find remarkable though is that Revelation not only weaves together as a single book in a spectacular way, but also with the other 65 books of the Bible. For example, continually we are taken back to the fragmentary theme in the first few chapters of Genesis. While the description in Genesis of “the snake [who was] the most cunning animal that the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1) is incomplete and leaves many unanswered questions about why a “bad animal” is in God’s garden in the first place, the picture in Revelation now brings this story to the larger theme and fills in all the pieces. War is described as breaking out in heaven and that “The huge dragon was thrown out” – and if we have any questions about how to connect the dots as to the identity of this dragon who was thrown to the earth, John makes it very clear – “that ancient serpent, named the Devil, or Satan, that deceived the whole world.” (Revelation 12:7-9)
Notice the contrasts and parallels between Eden and Revelation that create virtual bookends of the Bible:
In Genesis, the enemy describes God as an untrustworthy and arbitrary liar (Genesis 3:1-5) while in Revelation God “is called Faithful and True” (Revelation 19:11) and Jesus is referred to as “the faithful witness.” (Revelation 1:5) These expressions have polemic overtones and are best understood in the context of accusations that have been made that require a faithful and true witness. Meanwhile, the snake in the tree that made the accusations about God is unmasked as “the Devil, who deceived them…” (Revelation 20:10)
In Genesis, God’s mere presence caused his children to tremble in the bushes (Genesis 3:8) and God later would say to his friend Moses that “No one can see my face and live.” (Exodus 33:20) In Revelation, God’s people are now “protected by his presence” (Revelation 7:15) rather than harmed by it, and ultimately all fear of God is abolished as “They will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads.” (Revelation 22:4)
In Genesis, God said that “Because of what you have done, the ground will be under a curse.” (Genesis 3:17) In Revelation, “Nothing that is under God’s curse will be found in the city.” (Revelation 22:3)
In Genesis, Adam and Eve lost access to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:24) In Revelation, “I will give the right to eat the fruit of the tree of life that grows in the Garden of God.” (Revelation 2:7)
In Genesis, because of the separation from God, Adam and Eve were warned of a hard life of struggles, hardship and ultimately death, “You were made from the dust, and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19) In Revelation, union with God is restored and death is no more, “Now God’s home is with people! He will live with them, and they shall be his people. God himself will be with them, and he will be their God. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes. There will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain. The old things have disappeared.” (Revelation 21:3,4)
In the next article, we will reflect in more depth on chapter 12 as the “starting point” or the central theme of Revelation. This is the tune that we should be whistling if we have just read Revelation from cover to cover. It is chapter 12 that “makes explicit for the first time that the combat myth is the conceptual framework which underlies the book as a whole.” (5)
– Written by Dr. Brad Cole
- Tonstad, “Saving God’s Reputation”, 22
- Lambrecht, “Structuration”, 103
- Fiorenza, “Vision”, 33 and 36
- 4. Bauckham, “Climax of Prophecy”, x.
- Collins, “Combat Myth”, 231