There is joy in discovering the architectural design of John's Apocalypse. This hidden design cannot be discerned by the usual approach of dissecting the book into separate parts or chapters. The book of Revelation is an indivisible, organic unit, an ingeniously balanced com position. The beauty of its parts and counterparts becomes visible only in light of its total structure.
The literary analysis
Early visions in Revelation are regularly developed more fully in later ones. A prime example is the seventh trumpet in Revelation 11, which is widely recognized as a preview of the subsequent visions in Revelation 12-20. One cannot understand the prophecy of the seventh trumpet (Rev. 11:15-19) adequately except in the light of the expanding visions that follow (Rev. 12- 20). No chapter in the Apocalypse must therefore be isolated from its context as an independent revelation.
Also, the central unit of Revelation 12-14 must be understood in the light of subsequent chapters, which clarify the earlier symbolic portrayals. For example, the term Babylon occurs for the first time in Revelation 14:8 without any explanation or clarifying reference. However, the subsequent chapters (Rev. 16-19) further elaborate the meaning of Babylon. Other examples of this kind of approach are visions of the red dragon with seven heads and ten horns in Revelation 12 and of the sea beast with seven heads and ten horns in Revelation 13. An informed interpretation of these symbols requires the input of the vision of the scarlet beast with seven heads and ten horns in Revelation 17.
In short, the proper approach to understanding Revelation 12-14 requires a contextual interpretation. This larger view leads to the conclusion that Revelation 12-20 constitutes a developing unit characterized by a progressive revelation of the same controversy between good and evil.
In a similar fashion, the judgment of God on the persecutors of His people is gradually developed in the portrayals of the wrath of God in Revelation 14-19. While the third angel's message warns against the coming outpouring of God's wrath in "full strength" (Rev. 14:10, NIV; akraton: unmixed [see RSV]), the subsequent chapters disclose that this ultimate outpouring of God's wrath will consist in the seven last plagues, "because with them God's wrath is completed" (Rev. 15:1; also 16:1-21).
This contextual and structural approach of Revelation 12-14 is crucial for the discovery of the biblical meaning of Armageddon as the culmination of the last plagues. This contextual method will prove to be the corrector of popular yet erroneous interpretations.
The theological perspective
Beyond this literary analysis, an understanding of the message of Revelation 12-14 also requires a theological perspective. This inquiry searches for the connections of every apocalyptic term and name with the Old Testament and its covenant promises and curses. More than any New Testament writer, John borrows Hebrew words and concepts to describe the theological significance of Christ's church. The Hebraic style of John's Apocalypse is now universally acknowledged. R. H. Charles established that John did not use the Septuagint, but the Hebrew text of the Old Testament for the hundreds of allusions to Moses and the Prophets.1
The fact that John also uses Old Testament passages in Revelation 12- 14 is absolutely essential for the proper interpretation of this key section. The apocalyptic phrase "Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great" (Rev. 14:8, NIV) is borrowed from a fusion of two prophetic passages which predicted the fall of the Neo-Babylonian empire (Isa. 21 and Jer. 51).
Such literary correspondences prove to be indicators of a typological connection between Israel's history and later church history. The implications of a biblical typology are often overlooked, yet prove to be of crucial importance. Such a theological relationship fore shadows, in essence, the high calling but also the failure of the Christian church.
The principles that ought to guide the Christian interpreter are determined by the gospel of Christ.2
A further theological characteristic of the Apocalypse is its repeated phenomenon of contrasts. John clarifies the characteristics of truth by contrasting them with falsehood. He places the faithful remnant of God's people over against their Babylonian opponents. Babylon is placed in stark contrast with the New Jerusalem, the Lamb in opposition to the beast, and the glorious woman in heaven (Rev. 12) is contrasted with the prostitute sitting on many waters (Rev. 17). In this contrasting imagery many have discerned an ironic parody or mimicry of the work of Christ. This style serves the purpose of creating a theological antithesis, a helpful method for differentiating or contrasting truth and error more sharply.
Progressive revelation in Revelation 12-14
Revelation 12-14 is justly considered by many as the keystone or central vision of the Apocalypse. Leon Morris discerns "seven significant signs" in Revelation 12-14, which he calls "another series of visions" in the Apocalypse.3 Others discern different subdivisions or scenes, while they maintain the unity of chapters 12-14. This idea of a central unit comprised in these three chapters gains strength if one considers the infrastructure and gradual progression of the Apocalypse as it moves toward the end-time in its overall narrative.
Revelation 12 covers the whole covenant history of the Christian church. Thus the purpose of Revelation 12 goes beyond warning the Christian believers against persecution by encouraging them to persevere until the end. This chapter presents as its central vision the heavenly acclamation of victory over Satan, combined with the celebration of the inauguration of Christ as the rightful king of heaven and earth (verses 7-12). The excursus in the narrative quite naturally looks beyond earthly history to the origin of all hatred and cruelty against the woman of God. It reveals the depth dimension of all persecution of God's children by pointing out the real enemy of the church and of Christ.
A heavenly warfare is seen to be inciting the earthly wars against God's people (verses 7-9). However, the reason for doxologies and jubilation is the victory of Christ over Satan now (verse 10). As in Daniel 7-12, so Revelation 12 offers a panoramic view of church history seen from God's perspective. It shows how God began His work of redemption through Jesus the Messiah, and how Satan tried to destroy the Messianic redemption for humanity. Revelation 12 thus sets the stage for the rest of the book, which progressively enlarges the conflict between Satan and the followers of Christ on earth (Rev. 13-19) until the everlasting peace of Paradise is restored (Rev. 20-22).
Revelation 13 portrays the temporal triumphs of the ancient dragon through the activities of his two earthly allies or agents: the ten-horned beast from the sea and the two-horned beast from the earth.
This raises the urgent question How is Revelation 13 related to Revelation 12? The answer is of crucial importance for how we understand the final events in the book of Revelation. One recent author asserts: "The events of chapter 13 follow chapter 12 in chronological order."4 Accordingly, he projects the visions of Revelation 13 in the future. This innovative concept requires a close examination.
The assertion that Revelation 13 follows chronologically after Revelation 12 is based on the assumption that "the story which began in chapter 12 is continued without interruption in chapter 13."5 But this assumption is not justified. In both Daniel and Revelation the order of the visions is not intended to present a chronological sequence. The literary structure of both apocalyptic books reveals a persistent pattern of paralleling panoramas of covenant history. The visions of Daniel 2,7,8, and 11 are to be understood as progressive parallel visions, each elucidating important aspects of the whole picture. This is confirmed by comparing the explanations of the interpreting angel of each vision.
The parallel style of Daniel's visions is equally apparent in John's Apocalypse. The series of the seals (Rev. 6) ends with the final judgment of God. The following series of the trumpets (Rev. 8; 9; 11) resumes a description of the church age with a progressive emphasis on the end-time.
The visions of Revelation 12, where Christ receives all authority by virtue of His self-sacrifice (verses 10,11), cannot follow chronologically after the vision of the seventh trumpet in Revelation 11:15-18, where He has already begun to reign. Rather Revelation 12 presents a review of the entire church age, starting with the first advent of Christ.
The three visions within Revelation 14 apparently do not teach a chronological order of fulfillment. The threefold message of Revelation 14:6-12 obviously must be proclaimed prior to the vision of the Lamb with His victorious 144,000 followers (verses 1-5). This vision of the 144,000 overcomers has therefore been called an interlude, a scene of end-time "assurance."6 Again, describing things in a chronological sequence is clearly not the intent of the writer.
The visions of judgment in Revelation 15 and 16 only enlarge the vision of the world harvest in Revelation 14:14- 20, where the righteous are redeemed and the wicked are destroyed. Likewise, Revelation 17, which further explains the punishment of Babylon, does not follow chronologically after Revelation 16, where Babylon has already been destroyed.
These examples should alert us against assuming that Revelation 13 follows Revelation 12 "without interruption." First of all, there are two indicators of an interruption between Revelation 12 and 13. Revelation 12 concludes with John's statement: "And he stood on the sand of the sea" (RSV in NASB in Rev. 13:1). The NIV translates: "And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea" (verse 1). The statement of John about this new location on the seaside (cf. Rev. 12:4) explains why the dragon could spew water "like a river" at the woman to sweep her away (Rev. 12:15).
The next vision (Rev. 13:1-10) discloses by what dramatic means the dragon will persecute the saints and blaspheme God's name. The closing statement of Revelation 12 also looks forward to Revelation 13. Revelation 13 begins with a new vision: "And I saw," which reveals some important connecting links with the panoramic view given in Revelation 12. The first link is the time phrase for the period of persecution, 42 months (Rev. 13:5; cf. 12:6, 14). The same time symbol was used in Revelation 11 to signify the predetermined period of "trampling on the holy city" (Rev. 11:2; cf. verse 3). There is no legitimate reason to assume that the equivalent time symbols are different time periods. A new vision does not automatically suggest a chronological sequence succeeding a previous vision. The immediate context indicates whether a new vision amplifies a previous vision or continues the historical narrative.
Once again the equivalent time symbols in Revelation 11-13 indicate that all these chapters are parallel visions that progressively illuminate each other. We therefore must reject the assumption that the vision of Revelation 13 continues the narrative of Revelation 12 without interruption.
Wars against the saints
A second indicator that Revelation 12 is further expanded in Revelation 13 is the corresponding wars against the saints in both chapters. Revelation 12 forecasts two consecutive wars against the church of Christ: the first one in verses 6, 14-16, and the second one in verse 17. The first warfare against the church is characterized by the time symbol of 1260 days and three and a half times (verses 6, 14), which establishes a definite link with Daniel 7:25. This Danielic connection requires the backdrop of the long-range vision of Daniel 7. It discloses that the three and a half times or 1260 days of Revelation 12 must be reckoned as the period of supremacy of the little horn of Daniel 7, and not of pagan Rome. These 1260 days refer therefore to the dark Middle Ages, when many thousands of people were persecuted and martyred for the alleged crime of "heresy."
Revelation 13 begins with the vision of a sea beast with 10 horns that connects this vision unmistakably with the portrayal of Daniel 7! The sea beast incorporates all four beasts in Daniel 7 (verses 1, 2), indicating thereby the progress of time through to John's visions. The sea beast exercises its authority against the saints for "42 months" (verses 5-7). These two features (warring against the saints and the time period) correspond exactly with those in Daniel 7 and Revelation 12. Therefore they must be identified with each other.
In Revelation 12, the final warfare against the saints is called the dragon's war against "the rest of her offspring those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus" (verse 17, NIV). The meaning of this brief statement of warfare is expanded further in the last vision of Revelation 13. This vision (Rev. 13:11-18) shows how a two-horned beast came out of the earth as the second ally of the dragon. This land beast will exercise its authority to enforce the worship of the revived beast in all the world (verses 12-14). This vision thus enlarges the final war against the faithful remnant people of God (Rev. 12:17). It predicts the world wide enforcement of a special mark, "which is the name of the beast or the number of his name" (Rev. 13:17, NIV). This final warfare against the remnant church in Revelation 13:11-17 is the amplification of Revelation 12:17. This persecution of Christ's followers is presently still an unfulfilled prophecy. But its universal extent and climactic place in human history positions this religious war at the center of God's end-time message in Revelation 14.
God's final appeal
The threefold message of Revelation 14:6-12 represents God's final appeal or ultimatum to a world united in rebellion against its Creator. Therefore, this message constitutes the central burden of the entire Apocalypse and conveys a specific alert signal to the end-time generation. At the same time, Revelation 14 contains the most dreadful curse ever pronounced on mortal beings the wrath of God without divine mercy (verses 9- 11) and the comforting assurance of the presence of Christ for the overcomers (verses 1-5). It is important to observe that the message of Revelation 14:9-12 corresponds precisely with the persecution initiated by the land beast in Revelation 13:15-17. A comparison of both passages shows the historical parallel. (See Diagram 1.)
These parallel passages show that the threefold message of Revelation 14:6- 12 does not follow Revelation 13 chronologically, but instead refers to further aspects of the same time period. God responds immediately to meet the final challenge of Satan. In fact, He even forewarns the church of the final test of faith. The vision of the harvest of the earth in Revelation 14:14-20 naturally follows chronologically after the time of the threefold warning message of verses 6-12.
The vision of the 144,000 victorious saints who stand on Mount Zion with the Lamb fits at the conclusion of the final conflict. It is placed before the three angels' messages, however, in the Hebrew style of stressing the glorious outcome of God's people already in advance, by way of an interlude.
Reviewing the seven visions of Revelation 12-14, we conclude that these three chapters are interwoven indivisibly. As a unit they show a progressive expansion and increasing emphasis on the end-time. The literary composition of Revelation 12-14 shows two parallel structures (see Diagram 2).
The literary and thematic correspondence between Revelation 12-14 show intentional linkages that repeat and expand previous visions. Revelation 13 does not cover the full panorama of chapter 12, but begins to enlarge the section of religious persecution of the 1260 days in Revelation 12:6, 14, and then moves to the final conflict of verse 17 by enlarging on it with a description of the mark of the beast (Rev. 13:13-18).
Revelation 14 presents God's coded response or counterpart to this end-time conflict of Revelation 12 and 13 by urging the saints to overcome the beast and its mark (cf. Rev. 13:15-17 and 14:9-11). The summation of Revelation 14:12 shows a striking correspondence with verse 17. Both end-time passages identify the faithful saints as those who keep the commandments of God and who persevere in the testimony or faith of Jesus (Rev. 12:17; 14:12). These link ages indicate that chapters 12-14 are not intended as uninterrupted sequences, but as parallel compositions, each of which zooms in more closely on the final events of the church age.
Only when this infrastructure of Revelation 12-14 is settled can we proceed with confidence to relate these apocalyptic portrayals to the wider contexts of the Apocalypse (especially to Rev. 15-19) and to the larger contexts of the New and Old Testaments. This method may protect us against some of the misrepresentations that abound today. At the same time it opens up for us a deeper and clearer understanding of apocalyptic prophecy, critical to our experience as Christians today and in the future.
* Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are from the New International Version.
1. R. H. Charles, Studies in the Apocalypse (Edinburgh: T. andT. Clark, 1915), p. 88.
2. See H. LaRondelle, The Israel of God in Prophecy: Principles of Prophetic Interpretation (Berrien Springs, Mien.: Andrews University Press, 1983) and Chariots of Salvation (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1987).
3. Leon Morris, The Revelation of St. John (Grand Rapids, Mien.: Wm. Eerdmans, 1973), p. 155.
4. L. Wilson, The Revelation of Jesus (Bruston, N.Y.: Teach Services, 1990, 1992), p. 230.
5. Ibid., p. 230.
6. C. M. Maxwell, God Cares, (Boise, Id.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1985), vol. 2, p. 349.