The Flow of Time in Revelation 19:11-21:8
by James Akin
1. The Structure of Revelation
In order to properly evaluate the millennium, it is necessary to view the passage in which it occurs in relation to its broader context. In a previous paper1 I argued that the broader context in which the millennium passage occurs is 19:11-21:8. This conclusion was reached by conducting a literary analysis of the book in which I looked for exegetical clues suggesting how the text should be divided. The overall result of the study was the following outline:
Seven Letters 1:9-3:22
Seven Seals 4:1-8:1
Seven Trumpets 8:2-11:19
Seven Signs 12:1-14:20
Seven Bowls 15:1-16:21
The Whore of Babylon 17:1-19:10
Seven Sights 19:11-21:8
The Bride of Christ 21:9-22:11
The key portion of this outline for our purposes is sections 6-8. It has long been noted that there is a parallelism in Revelation between the Whore of Babylon and the Bride of Christ. While conducting my literary analysis, I discovered that the two passages discovering these women have readily identifiable boundaries. Both of them begin when one of the seven “bowl angels” (from section 5) approaches John to take him to see a vision of the woman in question (17:1 and 21:9). Both sections end when John tries to worship the angel who has shown him the vision and the angel rebukes him (19:9-10 and 22:8-11).
2. The structure of Revelation 19:11-21:8
The end of the Whore section (19:10) and the beginning of the Bride section (21:10) thus form the boundaries for the block of material between them (19:11-21:9). This block displays clear evidence of being a united block of material. The passage is governed by the recurring literary formula “And I saw” (Gr. Kai eidon). The occurrences of this formula divide the text into seven sections, each describing the sights John sees. These seven sections begin at 19:11, 19:17, 19:19, 20:1, 20:4, 20:11, and 21:1.
Looking at what John tells us he saw is instructive:
“I saw” Jesus and “the armies of heaven”
“I saw an angel standing in the sun”
“I saw the beast and the kings… and their armies”
“I saw an angel coming down out of heaven”
“I saw thrones on which were seated…”/”I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded”
“I saw a great white throne”/”I saw the dead”
“I saw a new heaven and a new earth”/”I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem”
In the first section John sees a leader and his army. In the second, he sees an angel. In the third, he sees a leader and his army. In the fourth, he sees an angel. In the fifth he sees thrones and one group of the dead (martyrs). In the sixth he sees a throne and another group of the dead (non- martyrs). In the last section he sees the new creation and the new Jerusalem. The pattern John is seeing is leader creation. If this block of text were a poem we would say that it has an A-B-A-B-C-C-x rhyme scheme.2
Because of the recurring literary formula, the seven blocks of text, and the symmetrical relationship between these seven blocks (via their “rhyme scheme”), we have good evidence that this material constitutes a distinct section on its own and that it is not a part of either of the two city sections which surround it. In fact, not only is it a section, but it appears to be an additional heptad, besides the heptads of the seven letters, seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. We may refer to it as the “seven sights.”
The division of the text would thus be as follows:
Christ and his army 19:11-16
The angel standing in the sun 19:17-18
The beast and his army 19:19-21
The angel with the chain 20:1-3
The thrones and the martyrs 20:4-10
The Throne and the dead 20:11-15
The new creation 21:1-8
The millennium is discussed in sections 4 and 5 of the text. The when the millennium occurs will be dependent on how these two sections relate to those around them, which in turn depends on how the flow of time proceeds through these sections in general.
3. The flow of time through Revelation
When we attempt to establish this, we enter one of the most intriguing subjects concerning the book of Revelation. It is easy to establish that there is a generally forward flow of time through the book of Revelation. This is evident from the fact that at the beginning of the book we have events which obviously describe the first century (e.g., the letters to the seven churches, 2:1-3:22) and at the end of the book we have material that clearly applies to the end of history (e.g., the general resurrection and Great White Throne judgment, 20:11-15). Thus between the beginning and the end of the book there is an obvious forward flow of time. Because of this general flow, stretching across the whole book, we have prima facie evidence for there being a forward flow of time through any particular passage.
But it is equally easy to demonstrate that this flow of time is not even. There are passages in Revelation in which we clearly return to an earlier period. The most notable of these backward shifts occurs in 12:1, where we see the Woman clothed in the sun who gives birth to Christ. By shifting the focus of the text back to the birth of Christ, the flow of time reverts to a period before the book of Revelation itself was even written.
Another clear reversion to a previous period of time occurs at 17:1. In 16:19, after the seventh bowl of wrath has been poured out, we read, “God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath.”3 Then in 17:1 one of the bowl angels approaches John and tells him, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits on many waters.” He then takes John out in the desert and shows him a vision of the Whore of Babylon which begins before God’s judgment falls on her, when she is still ruling the earth and persecuting the saints. Because this vision begins before the judgment of 16:19 is given to the Whore, the flow of time in Revelation has therefore doubled back to a prior period.
4. The flow of time in Revelation 19:11-21:8
With this as background, we may approach the text of 19:11-21:8 and look for clues telling us how time flows within this segment. Because of the general forward flow of time throughout the book, we have prima facie evidence for a forward flow of time in this section, however we have seen that this cannot be taken for granted and that the text may at times shift backward to describing a time earlier than ones previously recorded.
a. Christ and his army
The first of the seven sights John sees is as follows:
11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. (Rev. 19:11-16)
It is unclear how this section relates temporally to the prior section, which dealt with the judgment on the Whore of Babylon. Because it is the first of the seven sights, we cannot yet compare it temporally to any of the other sights. We may however look at how time flows within the block of text itself. Does the text simply present us with a static image of Christ and his army or does it present us with a moving picture?
There are some indications in the text that suggest John did not see this simply as a static picture. The statement that the armies of heaven “followed him on white horses” and that a sword “issues from his mouth” are both suggestive of motion occurring in the vision, but neither suggests any significant forward temporal motion.
In addition, there are certain references to the activities of Christ which will occur after this particular vision will rule (future tense) the nations with a rod of iron, he will tread (future tense) the wine press of God’s wrath. But these are merely parenthetical remarks inserted into the text and, again, do not indicate any significant temporal motion.
For this reason, it appears that the vision of Christ and the armies of heaven is a largely static image which does not advance the plot within itself but serves as a benchmark to set the stage for what is to transpire. It is what a film director would call an “orientation shot” that gives the viewer a frame of reference for what is about to happen. Given the indications in the text (the fact Christ is riding a horse, which was the animal of war to the Hebrews, the facts his robe is dipped in blood, that he has armies following him, that a sword proceeds from his mouth to smite the nations, and that he will tread the wine press of God’s fury) it is clear that what is about to happen is a great battle (either spiritual or literal).
b. The angel standing in the sun
The second sight is as follows:
17 And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, 18 so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and mighty men, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, small and great.” (Rev. 19:17-18)
Here an angel issues an invitation to the birds of the air to come and feast on the corpses that will be produced by the great battle alluded to in the previous vision. Although the invitation refers to future acts of birds (the feasting they will perform after the invitation is given), there is no significant advance of the plot within the vision itself. Neither does there seem to be any significant temporal advance from the preceding vision. The invitation of the angel seems to serve mainly a dramatic purpose, to increase suspense by building anticipation before the battle. We began to anticipate the great battle in the preceding vision, and the invitation of the angel serves to heighten our anticipation of the battle by building dramatic suspense. There seems to be no significant temporal advance either within this vision or beyond the preceding vision.
c. The beast and his army
The third sight is as follows:
19 Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war against the rider on the horse and his army. 20 But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshipped his image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. 21 The rest of them were killed with the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh. (Rev. 19:19-21)
Verse 19 serves as another “orienting shot.” In the first vision we saw Christ and his army
With verse 20, however, we do have a significant advance in the plot. The results of the great battle begin to come in. We are told that the beast and the false prophet were captured and thrown into the lake of fire (v 20) and that the remainder of the beast’s army was killed with the sword coming from the mouth of Christ (v 21a) with the result that all the birds gorged themselves on the flesh of the corpses (v 21b).
This definitely indicates forward temporal flow. The plot is being advanced. The battle alluded to in vv 11-19 is engaged, with the result that the opposing leaders are captured and judged, the opposing army is slain, and the birds feast in the aftermath of the battle. Thus while vv 11-19 seem largely static, we have undeniable forward motion in vv 20-21, which advances beyond what is recorded in the preceding verses.
d. The angel with the chain
The fourth sight is as follows:
1 And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. 3 He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time. (Rev. 20:1-3)
Within this vision we see definite temporal motion. The angel first descends (v 1), seizes and binds the dragon (v 2), throws him into the abyss (v 3a) and locks it over him (v 3b). This is clear forward motion within the bounds of the vision itself.4
The question that must be settled is how this vision relates to the preceding vision. Is it a continuation of the events recorded in that passage, the defeat of the enemies of Christ, or could there be a jump backwards in time here? Several factors indicate that it is a continuation of the preceding events:
First, we have already seen the literary architecture of this section, how the seven sights have a highly structured relationship: leader creation (A-B-A-B-C-C-x). This structure, coupled with the fact that we have not experienced major backwards jumps in time in the preceding visions and that we will not experience major backwards jumps in time in the succeeding visions, argues that there is no major backwards jump in time at this point in the structure.
Second, the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet have been established by Revelation as the chief enemies of Christ in the book. They were introduced together (cf. 12:1-13:18), together they gathered people for the great battle against Christ (16:13-14), and now they are defeated together at that battle (19:19-20:3). Some have called them the “unholy trinity” of the book of Revelation. The defeat of the dragon in 20:1-3 is thus a continuation of the defeat of the enemies of Christ, which was begun in 19:20 with the defeat of the beast and the false prophet.
Third, we will see below in 20:10 that after the thousand years the dragon will be “thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown.” The allusion to the beast and the false prophet already being in the lake of fire prior at the time the dragon is thrown in shows that the events of 19:20 occurred prior to the thousand years, not after it. Since the devil’s bondage is what begins the thousand years (20:2-3), the events of 19:20 must occur before or at roughly the same time as the events of 20:2-3. Thus there is no major backwards jump in time in 20:1-3.
Therefore, we conclude that the events of 20:1-3 are a continuation of the events of 19:19-21
e. The thrones and the martyrs
The fifth vision is as follows:
4 I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years. 7 When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison 8 and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth
In a full-scale commentary on Revelation, there are many questions to be decided concerning this verse, such as who are those sitting on the thrones,5 whom they have authority to judge, whether the souls of the martyrs are resurrected physically or in heaven,6 and whether they reign with Christ from heaven or on earth, and whether the thousand years is a literal thousand years or a potentially much longer period. However, these questions are not questions we are concerned with here.
It is clear that the events of this vision must begin at the same time or after those of 20:1-3. It is the binding of the dragon that inaugurates the thousand year reign of Christ and the saints. Thus we again have a forward advance in plot (and a static or forward advance in time) over the preceding vision.
There is also forward advance in time within the vision itself. First, we have an advance in time in v 4c. While v 4a-b serves as an orienting shot in which John sees the thrones (v 4a) and the souls of the martyrs (v 4b), there is a forward advance in time as John sees the souls of the martyrs “come to life” or “live” (v 4c), either physically or in a heavenly sense, an event which v 5b describes as “the first resurrection.”7
Second, we have an advance in time in v 7. Whereas 20:3c contained a parenthetical remark referring to what will happen at the end of the thousand years, here we actually begin to see the events following the thousand years played out in front of us (vv 7-10). The dragon is released from his prison (v 7), he again deceives the nations (v 8) and gathers them for battle (v 9a), but God judges them (v 9b), and the dragon is cast into the lake of fire where the beast and false prophet already are (v 10).
In this vision we thus have a movement in time spanning from the events at the beginning of the thousand years (vv 4-6) to those after the thousand years (vv 7-10). Not only does this vision advance us in time and plot over the preceding vision, it also advances significantly in time and plot within itself.
f. The Throne and the dead
The sixth sight is as follows:
11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:11-15)
Verse 11 begins with a static orienting shot of God on this Throne (v 11a), but then motion enters the picture as earth and heaven flee away from God but are unable to find a place to hide (v 11b). Then John sees a static orienting shot of the dead standing before God (v 12a), followed by more motion as the books are opened (v 12b), then the book of life is opened (v 12c), and finally the dead are judged (v 12d). Although there is a significant amount of forward plot motion within verse 12, it is unclear whether John intends us to see a significant advance in time between verses 11 and 12 (i.e., that the events in verse 12 occur significantly later than the events in v 11).
Verse 13 seems to open with a genuine motion backwards in time. The resurrection of the dead in 13a precedes the judgment mentioned in 13b, which is certainly the same judgment mentioned in 12d. Thus after seeing the judgment of the dead in 12d, we jump back in time to see their resurrection, then move forward again to view their judgment another time.
Verse 14 may also record another jump backwards in time as death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire (v 14a). Unless these two are to be taken as demonic entities,8 the reference to them being thrown into the lake of fire is a non-literal event which either refers to the resurrection mentioned in 13a (indicating another slight backwards jump in time) or an affirmation that death and Hades are forever obsolete (in which case a backwards temporal jump is not indicated).
In v 15 we may or may not have a slight forward motion in time, depending on whether v 15 is taken as describing how the judgments of v 12d and 13b were carried out or whether it describes what happens immediately after those judgments are completed.
In summary, there is some slight forward motion within this vision,9 which proceeds from the resurrection, through the general judgment, to the condemnation of the damned.
This vision also represents an advance in plot and time over the previous vision. There we saw a preliminary judgment exercises by those on the thrones and a preliminary resurrection of some sort (v 4); here we see the final judgment and the final resurrection. There we say the last rebellion in the history of this creation (vv 7-10); here we see the destruction of this creation (v 11b). Here the entire emphasis is on the finality of God’s plan for this creation, as all are assigned their final fates by the general judgment.
g. The new creation
The seventh sight is as follows:
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” 5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7 He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars
Verse 1 begins with a static orienting shot as John sees the new heaven and the new earth. In v 1b we have a time cue indicating that this vision advances temporally over the previous one. John tells us that the first earth had passed away (v 1b), an event which was recorded in 20:11b, when heaven and earth fled from God’s presence. Thus vision thus occurs after the accounts were settled concerning the previous creation.
In v 2 motion enters the picture as John sees the New Jerusalem descending from heaven. In vv 3-4 we have a voice from the Throne (presumably Christ’s voice) which interprets this event for us and tells us how the eternal order will unfold: God will live with men (v 3b), will wipe away all their tears (v 4a), and there will no longer be any evils (v 4b).
In v 5a we have what may be a slight backwards motion in time as God proclaims that he is making (present tense) all things new.10 In v 6a God proclaims the completion of his new creation (“It is done”) and then (v 6b-8) offers an evangelistic appeal, promising eternal life to those who overcome but warning of damnation for the wicked.
Thus this vision as a whole is later in time than the preceding vision, though within it the vision moves forward (as John sees the city descend), then seems to jump backwards slightly (as God proclaims he is re-creating the world), and finally moves forward again (as he pronounces his new creation complete).
To review what we have seen, an analysis of the time and plot cues in the text of Revelation 19:11-21:8 reveals a definite overall forward motion in time. This motion is uneven in places; at times the text does not advance significantly and at other times it races forwards. And the motion is not without reversals; there are within the passage what appear to be minor jumps backwards in time. But the overall flow of time from one vision to another is definitely forward.
The passage begins with a series or orienting shots which set us up for the battle between Christ and his enemies. First we see a vision of Christ and his army (19:11-16). Then an angel issues an invitation to the birds to come and clean up after the battle (19:17-18). Then we see Christ’s enemies, the beast and his army (19:19). Following these orienting shots we begin to receive the results of the battle. The beast and false prophet are captured and consigned to the lake of fire (19:20), the remainder of the army is slain (19:21a), and the birds feast on their bodies (19:21b). Then an angel descends to bind and imprison the last remaining enemy of Christ mastermind behind it all dragon which is Satan (20:1-3). Following the dragon’s imprisonment, John sees judges upon thrones, those who were martyred by the beast are resurrected (physically or in a heavenly sense), and they reign with Christ for a thousand years (20:4-6). Following this, the dragon is released from his imprisonment, he again deceives the nations, and stages the last rebellion of world history, in which he is defeated by divine intervention (20:7-10). The plot advances further as John sees the great reckoning, which settles all accounts from this creation, as he sees God sitting in judgment (20:11a), heaven and earth flee away (20:11b), the dead are raised and judged (20:12-14), and the wicked are condemned (20:15). Then, finally, John sees God’s new creation which replaces the old one (21:1), and he sees the New Jerusalem which coming down from heaven (21:2), with Christ’s own description of the new, beatific order (21:3-4), and God’s own evangelistic appeal concerning how the readers of Revelation should prepare themselves for these realities (21:6-8).
To summarize the flow of time from vision to vision, the first two and the beginning of the third are more or less static, orienting shots that set the reader up for the first battle between Christ and his enemies. Then in the third and fourth visions we have the results of that battle. Following this there is a first resurrection and period of Christ’s peaceful reign in the fifth vision, followed by the release of Satan and the final battle between Christ and his enemies. Then in the sixth vision we see the destruction of this creation and the final resurrection and judgment. Lastly, in the seventh vision, we advance beyond this creation into the new creation and the eternal order.
5. Implications for the interpretation of Revelation
We began this paper by noting that Revelation 19:11-21:8 may be called the crux interpretum of the book. The reason is that an analysis of the flow of time in this passage limits the options that are open to an interpreter. Because there is a forward flow of time from vision to vision, the thousand years occurring in the fourth and fifth visions must come after the coming of Christ depicted in the first vision. This forces the interpreter to conclude one of two things: Either (a) the coming of Christ depicted in 19:11-16 is not the Second Coming, but some other coming (such as a coming of Christ in judgment on Jerusalem in A.D. 70, possibly alluded to in the Olivet Discourse of the synoptic gospels, or a coming of Christ in judgment on pagan Rome in the early centuries of Church history) or (b) the thousand year reign of Christ is an event following the Second Coming.
Because of the arguments in favor of the millennium not occurring after the Second Coming (a fact which is alluded to in the Nicene Creed, which proclaims that Jesus will return in glory to judge the living and the dead, not come in glory and then sometime over a thousand years later judge the living and the dead), the former view must be preferred. The event of 19:11-16 is not the coming of coming of Christ at the end of time but a prior coming in judgment, one carried out during the early Church age.
copyright (c) 1995 by James Akin
1 James Akin, The Structure of Revelation, unpublished.
2 We also ought to add that a judgment takes place at each of the throne blocks: the unnamed ones who were seated on the thrones “had been given authority to judge” and when John saw the unnamed One sitting on His throne, the books were opened and “the dead were judged” parallelism.
3 Scripture quotations taken from the New International Version (NIV).
4 We also have, in v 3c, a reference to what will happen when the dragon is released, but this is a parenthetical remark that does not advance the flow of time within the vision itself.
5 If we are to read the reference to thrones here in context of what the book has already said, the occupants of the thrones would most naturally be the twenty-four elders from chapter 4. In that chapter, we see the twenty-four elders seated on thrones surrounding the Throne of God (4:4). Here in the fifth and sixth visions John sees thrones with unnamed judges sitting on them (20:4) and the Great Throne with an Unnamed Judge sitting on it (20:11). The reason that the occupants of these are unnamed is that their occupants should be obvious given what has already been said in the book: They are the twenty-four elders and God.
6 The theory that the first resurrection is regeneration, the giving of new life to a Christian, cannot be sustained in this passage. Here the resurrection follows the death of these individuals, which is explicitly stated to be their martyrdom for the cause of Christ. Had they not already been regenerated they would never have resisted the beast and allowed themselves to suffer martyrdom for Christ to begin with. Even if they had suffered martyrdom in an unregenerate state, they would have been in original or mortal sin and gone to hell. Regeneration occurs before death, not after. Thus the resurrection in this passage must either be an earthly, physical resurrection, or some sort of heavenly resurrection, in which the martyrs are elevated to a greater state of heavenly life/beattitude with Christ.
7 Verse 5a contains a prediction of what will happen at the end of the thousand years, but this is a parenthetical remark that does not disturb the flow of time in the text itself, much like 20:3c.
8 Cf. 9:11, where Abaddon is the angel ruling the Abyss.
9 Though there is also at least one brief backwards jump (v 13a).
10 This may indicate a slight backwards motion since God proclaims he is creating the things which John has just seen as already created.