Imagine watching the final play of a football game from several different camera angles.
Angle one from the pylon cam: a player scores a rushing touchdown.
Angle two from behind the goalposts: he scores the touchdown and spikes the ball.
Angle three from the blimp: he scores a touchdown, spikes the ball, and the crowd rushes the field and fills the stadium.
Our understanding of this one event grows in intensity and meaning as it’s shown from multiple angles. In his classes at Reformed Theological Seminary, Michael Kruger uses this helpful metaphor to explain a biblical literary device called recapitulation.
Recapitulation is the act or instance of summarizing and restating a narrative to give a different emphasis or perspective. One biblical book that employs recapitulation with stunning effect is Revelation.
Seeing the World Through 7s
Revelation is notoriously confusing, but it doesn’t have to be. Yes, there are dragons, angels, antichrists, and (seemingly) multiple returns of Christ. But if we read this book through the lens of recapitulation, it becomes easier to understand.
It’s widely agreed that Revelation is structured by the repetition of sevens—seven churches, trumpets, bowls, and so on. But questions arise about the sequence and scope of the successive sevens. How do they hold together? When do they occur? How far does each one extend? Recapitulation helps us answer these questions.
Revelation isn’t meant to be read merely as a chronology of fantastic events. It should be seen as one set of events repeated seven times, each with increasing intensity.
Revelation isn’t meant to be read merely as a chronology of fantastic events. It should be seen as one set of events repeated seven times, each with increasing intensity. Revelation is apocalyptic—a genre defined by images, symbols, and references to the Old Testament and John’s ancient world. It’s intended to help the churches to whom it’s written see the world in a different way.
As Richard Bauckham writes, “The effect of John’s visions . . . is to expand his readers’ world, both spatially (into heaven) and temporally (into the eschatological future).” This accords with other ancient Jewish apocalyptic literature (like Daniel and some extracanonical books), but unlike extrabiblical literature, Revelation remains distinctly Christian and Christ-focused.
What Do the 7 Sections Depict?
The seven sections depict the two advents (or arrivals) of Jesus and the time between them. In different ways, they each tell the same story of Jesus returning to save and judge. Read this way, we see John’s clear and repeated emphasis on the final judgment, and we see the one event of Jesus’s return in its all-encompassing beauty.
1. Revelation 1:1–3:22
From the beginning of the book, the number seven holds symbolic weight. Bauckham argues that the seven spirits before the throne (1:4) symbolize the Holy Spirit in the fullness of his power and presence to the churches. Moreover, Jesus addresses seven churches. These churches represent all churches that will exist in the inter-advent period, or the period between Jesus’s first and second comings.
We know this because in Jewish apocalyptic literature, the number seven represents perfection or wholeness. It’s no coincidence there are seven churches, lamp stands, seals, scrolls, and days of creation; seven-times sprinkling at the altar; and seven years of jubilee. As G. K. Beale notes, “Seven in the OT and Revelation figuratively refers to completeness and fullness.”
2. Revelation 4:1–7:17
The second section features the scroll, the seven seals, and the 144,000. The scroll represents God’s plan for the inter-advent period.
The seven seals represent the trials placed on earth during the inter-advent period, culminating in God’s judgment. As the seventh seal is opened, we see our first angle of Jesus’s return.
The 144,000—12,000 from each tribe multiplied by 12—shows the fullness of God’s people in Israel and the church (12 tribes and 12 disciples). The focus isn’t on numerical precision but on a group so large that no one can number them, from every tribe, nation, and tongue.
3. Revelation 8:1–11:19
The seven trumpets are blown. John transitions to a different angle of the inter-advent period, with a pattern that holds the same across each series as the individual trumpets are blown. As Beale states, “Toward the end of each series, there’s a description of judgment followed by a depiction of salvation.”
The focus isn’t on numerical precision but on a group so large that no one can number them, from every tribe, nation, and tongue.
The trumpets usher in God’s judgment in seven areas of creation—the earth, sea, rivers, heavens (sun, moon, and stars), pit of the abyss, river Euphrates, and lightning and hail. In chapter 11, we also see Jesus’s return from a second angle increasing in intensity as the 24 elders worship God. The final judgment leads to a rewarding of saints small and great. The words here for the final judgment are used again in 20:12, clueing Revelation’s reader into the reality that the judgments of Revelation 11 and 20 are the same event viewed from different angles.
4. Revelation 12:1–14:20
This section features the second coming again, as the great dragon, Satan, persecutes the church. If this event is meant to follow chapter 11, the chronology would be confusing. It’s better to see this section as another recapitulation, and the intensity increases as John uses the imagery of a bloody winepress for God’s great harvest judgment.
5. Revelation 15:1–16:21
In this fifth section, John describes the seven bowls that represent God’s wrath poured out. They climax in the great battle of Armageddon.
In 16:17, the voice from the throne says, “It is done!” If read chronologically, it would be difficult to understand the finality, but this is another camera-angle vision of the end.
6. Revelation 17:1–19:21
Recapitulation is especially clear here. As J. D. Shaw points out, rather than seeing the events in succession, the vision returns to chapter 12. All the characters on Revelation’s world stage begin to fall. Babylon, the beast, the false prophet, and (as we’ll see in chapter 20) the Devil himself are cast into the lake of fire. The only two characters left on the stage are the woman and the child. This is the great battle and the marriage of the church to the Lamb.
7. Revelation 20:1–22:21
The battle again! This final vision highlights the triumph of Christ and the ultimate victory of God’s redemptive plan. It includes the binding of the great dragon (20:1–3), which shows Christ’s victory over evil. Satan is restrained and unable to deceive the nations or hinder the advance of the gospel for a thousand years. Lastly, the new heavens and new earth are revealed. God dwells with his people, and there’ll be no more sin, suffering, or death.
Throughout the book, when John uses phrases like “after this” or “after these things,” he’s not denoting the historical chronology of the events he describes. Rather, he’s chronicling the order in which he saw a series of visions. The different angles display God’s judgment and ultimate triumph in Jesus Christ—the one great event of his return.