The Book of Revelation is considered by many to be an odd book, often misunderstood and even discounted for its wild imagery and visionary scope. But it’s an important part of Scripture, containing many lessons, truths, and other nuggets of wisdom Christians should meditate upon.
Still, it’s sometimes confusing, almost dreamlike tone makes certain aspects hard to understand, such as the timeline.
What is the timeline of Revelation, and how can knowing this help us understand it better?
What Is the Book of Revelation About?
Most people describe the Book of Revelation as an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world. The 22 chapters are thought to be an account by the Apostle John, and they open with a number of visions in which Jesus appears to John and describes all that is to come — cosmic battles, forces of evil, angel armies, and more. John then goes up into heaven, where he is shown not only God’s throne but also a revelation about the future.
“The revelation from Jesus Christ,” the book begins, “which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw — that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near” (Revelation 1:1-3, NIV).
Revelation was written around AD 90 or 95 to the seven churches in the Roman province of Asia to encourage them to stand strong and hold fast to their faith. It is considered to be “apocalyptic literature” and details a number of frightening predictions about the future, including four horsemen of the apocalypse who bring different disasters upon the earth.
What Is the Timeline of Revelation?
John’s account notes that he was on the island of Patmos when, “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: ‘Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea’” (1:10-11).
Next comes John’s vision of Christ, who appears to him in a robe with eyes of blazing fire and holding seven stars in his right hand (1:14,16). Jesus urges John to write all of this.
The next two chapters offer words of warning, chastisement, encouragement, and wisdom to the seven churches in what is today Turkey.
Chapter Four begins with John seeing a door to heaven before him, and he is invited to come within so he can be shown the future. In heaven, John sees the magnificent throne of God with a host of astounding sights — glorious jewels, hybrid animal-human creatures, crowns and singing, rainbows, and flashes of lightning.
Next, John sees God on the throne holding a book or scroll of seven seals, and only the Lamb (Christ, the Messiah) is worthy to open it.
The seven seals are opened, then come seven trumpet judgments, and then come seven bowls of God’s wrath, all while a mighty heavenly battle is waging between the angels and devils.
Most of us can guess the end, if we don’t already know: God wins, evil is defeated, and God’s multitude all live forever and ever.
What Are the Seven Seals of Revelation?
The seals are then opened and revealed — the first four are the four horsemen of the apocalypse (white, red, black, and pale), the fifth shows those saints who have been slain, and the sixth offers a sinister, terrifying scene of the earth ravaged by earthquakes, falling stars, a black sun and a blood-red moon, and leveled mountains.
Then John sees the 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel who are “sealed” (7:4), as well as a “great multitude” (7:9), martyrs and those who suffer.
Finally, the seventh seal is opened, and there is “silence in heaven for about half an hour” (8:1), and then John witnesses seven angels with seven trumpets who extend seven cataclysmic judgments.
What Are the Seven Trumpet Judgments?
The judgments, also called “bowls,” are as follows: hail and fire mixed with blood, with a third of the earth burned up; then a mountain is thrown into the sea and a third of the sea turns to blood or is destroyed; the star, Wormwood, falls and poisons a third of the waters on earth; and a third of the sun, moon, and stars are destroyed.
Fifth comes a plague of locusts, and after this comes the sixth trumpet judgment: the release of the four angels, who bring death to a third of the earth through a mighty and horrific cavalry.
Before John finds out what is in the seven bowls of God’s wrath, he encounters an angel holding a “little scroll” (10:2). Seven thunders speak, but their voices are sealed up, and John is unable to record it. John is then instructed to eat the scroll, which he does.
Next, John measures the temple and is told the holy city (thought to be Jerusalem) will be trampled for 42 months, but God will send two witnesses who will prophesy for 1,260 days, warning the world about God’s wrath to come. These witnesses will be killed by a beast but will be resurrected by God in three and a half days (11:11).
Then the seventh trumpet blasts, and we are told, “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a severe hailstorm” (11:19).
What Are the Seven Bowls of God’s Wrath?
Next, John describes a great war in heaven. A giant red dragon battles with a pregnant woman and her child, who both are rescued by God. A vast battle ensues between the devil and God’s army, led by the archangel Michael and his angels, who triumph.
Two horrific beasts emerge, one from the sea and one from the earth, and many on earth are deceived and worship them, though John urges God’s people to stay faithful and trust God will win (13:9-10).
Then, Christ appears atop a mountain with His 144,000 “sealed” from all the tribes of Israel (14:1). Three angels fly about, glorifying God, and then the great “harvest” begins, when Christ and the angels swing their sickle. The grapes are gathered and thrown “into the great winepress of God’s wrath” (14:19).
Finally, the last seven plagues of God’s wrath are introduced. Seven angels carry “seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God” (15:7).
The seven bowls of God’s wrath are then poured out upon the earth: first painful sores, then the sea turns to blood, then rivers and springs become blood. From the fourth bowl comes the “sun scorch” plague as the sun sears people with intense heat. The fifth bowl brings darkness, and the sixth bowl brings the drying up of the Euphrates River.
The seventh brings the climax: a catastrophic earthquake, then the destruction of Babylon.
How Does Revelation End?
Next comes a massive celebration, or “hallelujah,” over Babylon’s fall, with God’s multitude singing and shouting in joy (19:1-6), and the glorious triumph of Christ over the enemy (19:19-21).
After the victory, John describes the “millennial kingdom,” the 1,000-year reign of Christ, and what follows, which is what he calls “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1). Eden is restored and with it the river of life and tree of life (22:1-2).
The angel with John reminds him of the truth of this prophecy and the ultimate purpose of the vision: “to show his servants the things that must soon take place” (22:6).
The Book of Revelation concludes with the urgent reminder and warning that Christ will again return and that His followers must stay strong and faithful, so they do not experience the wrath of God.
Revelation can indeed be confusing — it’s not always clear whether it should be read chronologically, where the war in heaven is happening between the trumpet blasts and the subsequent pouring out of the bowls of God’s wrath, or figuratively as if the war is ongoing and the seven seals, blasts, and bowls occur in tandem with the other events.
We know that God is beyond time. God created time. As Revelation 22:13 asserts, God is “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”
What matters most is trusting the main purpose of Revelation: that God will triumph in the end, and if we cling tight to faith and resist caving to the fear and temptations of evil, we can avoid God’s wrath and be part of His victory.
For further reading:
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/DutchScenery
Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.