Narrative is important to a fuller understanding of the meaning of the Book of Revelation.
By Steven Grabiner
The Book of Revelation is like no other in the New Testament. It impacts all of the senses of the reader in a manner that the Epistles and the Gospels do not. The sights, sounds, smells, voices, and thunderings mix with a jarring juxtaposition of images and Old Testament references to create a continuous assault on the mind. A tremendous artistic effect works upon those who read or hear its contents. Despite the effort and thought that went into the composition of the book, however, interpreters frequently disagree regarding the main theme of the work.
Critical commentaries tend to see the Roman Empire as the primary force behind John’s imagery and his narrative tapestry as a well-drawn parody of Roman rule. Other commentaries place the emphasis on God’s sovereignty as Revelation’s overarching interpretive framework. This perspective tends to focus on how God’s rule is manifest throughout the storyline.
Unquestionably, Revelation interacts with its historical setting, and the original reader would see in the oppressive power of Rome an attempt to overturn God’s rule. Likewise, modern readers are reassured that God does eventually reign supreme in the universe. However, these interpretations generally overlook or minimize an important motif in Revelation. Too frequently the role that the cosmic conflict plays in the narrative as a whole—and its position as a dominant motif—is emphasized less.
A variety of scholars have attempted to redress this situation, by exploring more fully the extended nature that the war in heaven theme exerts on the narrative. Recent attempts to do this include Antoninus King Wai Siew’s The War Between the Two Beasts and the Two Witnesses: A Chiastic Reading of Revelation 11:1–14:5; Sigve Tonstad’s Saving God’s Reputation; Benjamin Steed Stubblefield’s unpublished dissertation, The Function of the Church in Warfare in the Book of Revelation; and, to a lesser extent, Laszlo Gallusz’s The Throne Motif in the Book of Revelation.
If the cosmic conflict is to be seen as the undercurrent of the entire Book of Revelation, then there should be evidence of this throughout the storyline, and not only in those chapters that explicitly describe the conflict. Narrative criticism can help uncover the contribution that the characters give to the storyline, as well as discerning some of the verbal threads that John uses to tie the war-in-heaven theme to his entire work.
Despite the complex theological and historical aspects of the book, Revelation lends itself to a narrative reading. It is a strange and unusual story, one not frequently encountered elsewhere, but a story nonetheless. Unique attributes are embedded in Revelation’s narrative, being highly episodic and deep with imagery drawn from the Old Testament and other backgrounds. Nevertheless, it lends itself to a narrative reading with its characters and the unfolding of an ongoing storyline.
An important facet of a narrative reading is to clarify the function that a character has in highlighting the emphasis within the plot. An understanding of how the characters are portrayed helps to unfold the storyline. Characters are described in a multiplicity of ways, emphasizing their depth. Some characters are defined by a single attribute. Others are simply agents within the story with no dimension to them. Yet others are full-fledged and realistic. Naturally, in a work of fiction, characters are constructs of the author, merely created to fulfill a role. Nevertheless, the reader learns about them in the same way one learns about characters in a historical narrative, such as the Gospels. The author reveals details about the character by describing them, or through showing their actions, recording their speech (or the words of others), or revealing their thoughts.
In Revelation, the main characters are described through names, titles, and descriptive appellations. God is overwhelmingly described as “the one sitting on the throne” (4:3, 9, 10; 5:7, 13; 21:5).1 “Lamb” is the most frequent title for Christ, but “lion” and “son of man” are also used (5:5–8). Satan is described as a “serpent” and “dragon,” reflecting the dual nature of persecutor and deceiver (12:9; 20:2).
Satan as Character
Despite the appearance of Satan throughout the narrative, many readings of Revelation view him as effectively powerless, simply a foil to God’s sovereignty, or as a material representation of evil. If Revelation is to be seen as dealing with the larger biblical theme of God’s way of confronting evil, however, Satan’s role demands a closer reading. Tonstad notes that “the rhetorical situation of Revelation is cognizant of an opposing will and agency” in a way that surpasses many interpretations of the book.2 John portrays this opposing will and agency as one of the defining traits of Satan.
In works of fiction, characters are simply constructs of the author. Their purpose is to fulfill a role in the ongoing story. Characters can be viewed as part of the overarching backdrop for the story, not to be seen as persons but as part of the setting. The opposite of this view is to see any person mentioned as a “character” within the story. One needs to be able to distinguish between characters who play a central role in the plot and those who simply give dimension to the story.
A narrative reading of the Bible, while not diminishing the historicity of the characters, will also ask: What role does this character accomplish in the storyline? An author reveals the characters either through their physical description or through their actions, speech, or thoughts. Satan as a character in the narrative is continually described as the chief antagonist. His one aim is to wage what appears to be a futile war against a sovereign God. Characters that are typically identified with a single characteristic, idea, or quality are considered “flat” in narrative critical terms. Round (or full-fledged) characters have a complexity that is not easily expressed in one sentence. From this perspective, Satan would be considered flat and not fully developed, an ancillary figure in the storyline, not a main one, a foil to God’s sovereignty, not a real threat.
However, a further consideration must be brought to bear when making a critical judgment on the role of a character. Flat characters typically do not surprise. The “test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way.”3 Given this added dimension of character development in the narrative, the depth and position of Satan as character calls for re-evaluation. Several points in the plot of Revelation demand a more nuanced reading in relation to Satan’s role. This is particularly true in Revelation 20:1 to 3, where Satan is, at first, left alone in his single-minded war against God. The story unfolds with his being bound by a mighty angel and then inexplicably released to once again carry on his unremitting attacks. It is the surprising and inexplicablerelease that gives the reader pause. The unexpected and hard-to-understand nature of his renewed attack forces the reader to pay closer attention to the overall weight Satan carries in the storyline.
Why, at the very end of the story, when the conflict appears to have been resolved, must Satan be set free for one more attempt at deception and overthrow of the government of God? Suggested answers range over a wide territory in search of clarity. The scope of solutions includes the faulty nature of the text, John’s loss of interest in his story, the depersonalization of Satan, a demonstration of God’s sovereignty, and merely as a foil to allow the martyred saints to receive their reward. None of these is convincing, as they ignore the continued role that Satan plays in the narrative. Considering the storyline as a whole, including the larger biblical context, three deductions relating to Satan’s role must be considered:
1. Satan’s imprisonment, followed by the surprising release, contributes to filling out his character and demonstrates that he holds a central role in the development the plot of Revelation. This role is drawn from the wider range of the Old Testament. John’s description of Satan as “that ancient serpent” (20:2) refers the reader back to Genesis 3. This is also on display in Revelation 12, where the key elements of the Genesis story are brought to view. The serpent of old, the woman, and the child all direct the reader to the broad allusion to the Fall and entrance of sin into a perfect world. Thus the agent and cause of the primordial questions about God’s justice and character is on center stage at the final end of the battle. In this way, John places the spotlight on Satan, not in an admirable way, but to highlight his significance to the narrative as a whole.
2. Satan’s solo appearance demonstrates his uniqueness in the unfolding human drama. Beginning with Revelation 13, Satan unites with the sea-beast (vs. 1) and the land-beast (vs. 11) to facilitate his war against God’s rule. This unholy trio continue their work through to chapter 19, where the final battle is initiated. It is important to note that while this battle begins in verse 11, there is only a temporary interruption when two of the three leaders are taken and thrown into the lake of fire (vs. 20). The battle continues after the one thousand years, when it is finally completed (20:8). During the ultimate battle, Satan at first has the stage to himself. His earthly allies have been destroyed. At this point in the prophecy, the second resurrection has not occurred, and thus he alone continues the fight. This position gives Satan significance that will not be overlooked by the careful reader.
3. Satan’s persistent role as deceiver is integral to the ongoing story, and this characteristic is founded upon the larger biblical narrative. Satan is bound in order to prohibit him from carrying on this work of deception (Rev. 20:3), which is what he proceeds to do immediately upon gaining freedom (vs. 8). The last mention of the devil, before he is thrown into the lake of fire, refers to his deceptive traits (vs. 10). This should be seen in the light of the backdrop of the Genesis narrative as well. There, the ancient serpent fomented a deception that led the woman to distrust God’s provisions. Her response to God’s query as to what she had done is that “‘the serpent deceived me, and I ate’” (Gen. 3:13, NIV). Satan’s words and innuendos act as a destabilizing force in the Edenic world. John picks up this larger theme and incorporates it into his storyline.
These three strands weave a picture that demonstrates the force of Satan’s character in the storyline. He is at work to deceive humanity about the nature of the truth of God. It is from these strands that “Revelation weaves a compelling theodicy.”4 The denunciations deployed against God demand a compelling response. Satan is not a flat character in the narrative, but plays a principal role in bringing accusations against God’s government. This conclusion is supported by other narrative clues as well. In particular, the background activity of Satan in Revelation 13 under his description as the dragon, adds to the development of his character.
The chapter is replete with images that demonstrate the dragon’s intention of fulfilling a “God-like” role. Each of these must be seen against the framework of his ongoing attacks against God. As Revelation 13 opens, the dragon stands by the sea, apparently seeking reinforcements. He is intent on carrying out his warfare against the seed of the woman and thus continuing the battle that began in Eden. To that end, he turns to the sea, the symbol of chaos and hostility, to call an ally who will work with him in the battle. A third ally, the beast arising from the earth, joins them. These three powers form a trinity of evil, in which the dragon takes the status of God. The narrative has Satan disappear from the action, though his presence is still manifested. The following observations buttress this understanding:
● The beast resembles the dragon in significant ways. Both have seven heads and 10 horns and are wearing diadems (Rev. 12:3; 13:1). In the narrative, only Satan, the sea-beast, and Christ have diadems. The location of diadems is significant as well. The dragon bears the diadems upon his heads, while the sea-beast bears them on his horns (12:3; 13:1). This indicates that the dragon is the ruling authority in the triumvirate. In this way, the narrative depicts Satan as a counterpoint to God.
● The dragon gives his throne to the sea-beast (Rev. 13:2). The throne is a significant image in the storyline. It is most frequently used to represent God’s rule and government. One of the main points in the conflict is underscored when Satan claims his own throne and then transfers it to the beast. As Christ joins the Father on His throne (Rev. 3:21), the beast joins the dragon in sharing the throne, stressing the nature of the counterfeit and the attempts at overthrowing the rule of God. The action raises the issue: Is God worthy to rule, or should another take His place?
● John places the spotlight on the dragon’s activity that is manifested through the beast. The dragon, though cast out of heaven, still empowers his agents. This emphasizes the fact that “he is still actively executing his schemes,”5 although from behind the scenes. That the beast and the Lamb both receive a deadly wound is frequently noted as the most striking aspect that John employs of the beast’s counterfeit of the Lamb. The implication behind the imagery is that the Lamb has experienced a resurrection by the power of God. The sea-beast likewise experiences such a resurrection by the power of the dragon.
● The rhetorical questions “‘Who is as great as the beast?’” and “‘Who is able to fight against him?’” (Rev. 13:4) are textual markers that point out the intensity of the conflict. These questions echo Exodus 15:11, which asks the question, “‘Who is like you among the gods, O Lord?’” The questions as posed in their relation to the sea-beast are framed as a challenge to God. The beast, with the dragon receiving deferred worship (Rev. 13:4), now attempts to replace God. As Craig Koester perceptively comments: “The outcome of the Lamb’s work is that the world worships God the Creator (5:10, 13), but the outcome of the Beast’s work is that the world worships Satan the destroyer (13:4).”6
● A less-frequently recognized portrayal of Satan’s role is highlighted by John’s use of the verb to give. The passive form is frequently used in Revelation to describe a divine passive, communicating God’s activity behind the scenes. For example, the four angels were given permission to harm the earth and sea (Rev. 7:2); much incense was given to the angel by the altar (8:2); the woman was given wings to flee from the persecution of the dragon (12:14); the bride is given fine linen (19:8) and the redeemed are given authority to rule (20:4).
Within Revelation 13 the verb appears in a cluster of verses, all of which describe the activity of the dragon and the beast. It is found in verses 5, 7, 14, and 15. Commentators generally view the meaning of the word translated as given in this context as limiting the activity of the beast and thus indicating God’s sovereignty. Though God’s dominion is universal, and the storyline ultimately ends with His throne, the sole point of focus while earth and heaven flee (20:11), this reading misses an important consideration. The narrative continues to demonstrate the work of the dragon in attempting to replace God’s government. John underlines this by using the active form of given twice before introducing the passive forms.
The dragon is the one who gave power, authority, and his throne to the beast. He obtains ultimate worship because he gave authority to the beast (Rev. 13:2, 4). As the beast also receives a mouth that speaks blasphemy (vs. 5) and receives authority to act for 42 months, the most-natural reading is that the dragon gives these to his surrogate, the beast. As God gives the woman a place to flee for a time, times, and half of a time (12:14), the beast is given authority to persecute for the equivalent time period (13:5). This is commonly seen as a divine restriction on the beast’s activities. A closer reading, however, suggests that this is part of the texture of John’s development of the role of Satan. Instead of indicating a divine passive, the usage of given here signals Satan’s role in giving the sea-beast and the land-beast their position in the controversy, as part of his attempt to gain jurisdiction over God’s kingdom.
These textual markers highlight that Satan’s character is more than simply a foil to be played against God’s sovereignty. Satan’s role in the narrative is consistent, but it is also dynamic. The importance of Satan as a character in the narrative lends support to the contention that Revelation is better read in the light of conflict theme with the resultant theodical concerns. John’s picture of Satan is drawn from a wealth of Old Testament images that, when woven together, raise issues of great importance.
It is widely recognized that Revelation chapters four and five play an extremely important role in the unfolding of John’s storyline. Together, these chapters form the “theological fountainhead and anchor point”7 for the entire book. The thematic and literary unity between these two chapters is well demonstrated. Several threads unite the chapters, among which are the position of the elders, the living creatures, and the angelic beings. The strong connection between the hymnic portions (4:11; 5:12) that include the ascription of worth, and the reception of key attributes by the object of the hymns, play a decidedly important role in supporting this reading.
As the fulcrum of Revelation, the images found here introduce not only the opening of the seals in chapter 6, but also the rest of the visions that comprise the body of Revelation. This paradigmatic section influences one’s interpretation of the entire storyline. A common explanation is that this first throne vision communicates God’s sovereignty and His reign throughout the universe. Aune states that these chapters “anchor each series of events in the sovereignty of God, who controls events that transpire upon earth.”8 Klund argues that the opening vision depicts God’s sovereign reign over all creation.9 Beale takes the purpose of these chapters as the demonstration that God and Christ are sovereign. He argues that “the hymns make explicit the main point of the vision and of the whole chapter: God is to be glorified because of his holiness and sovereignty.”10 Many readings of Revelation’s plot proceed from this perspective, that God’s sovereignty is the foundation of the document and everything unfolds from this vantage point. God’s dominion is clearly in view, but it needs to be remembered that it is a rule contested by the attempts of Satan to undermine God’s authority. Though there is no explicit mention of his rebellion in this passage, there are thematic hints that connect this passage to the war in heaven leitmotif.
A close reading of the narrative does indeed uncover numerous literary connections that encourage the reader to allow the heavenly conflict to form the framework of interpretation. First, there are thethematic connections that link chapters 4 and 5 with chapters 12 and 13, and the resulting impact these pivotal chapters have on the following storyline. Fekkes notes the many links that comprise a literary connection between the two units and concludes, “Rev[elation] 12 and 13 are apparently to be understood as the antithetic parallel to chs 4-5.”11 He bases this conclusion on a number of conceptual associations among the four chapters.
The counterpoints of the dragon, the sea-beast, and the earth-beast as imitators or a false triumvirate to be compared with the One on the throne, the Lamb, and the seven-fold spirit are well noted. In addition to this, is the strong verbal thread slain (Rev. 5:6; 13:3) connecting the two sections. Both the Lamb and the sea-beast are slain but still live, implying a resurrection that calls forth the universal acclaim that is given to both the Lamb and the beast (5:12, 13; 13:3). The text contains a close identification of the beast with the dragon (13:4), which is a reflection of the intimate relation between the Christ and God. The Lamb receives the scroll from the One on the throne, and therefore receives power (5:7, 12). The sea-beast receives power and a place on the throne of the dragon (13:2).
Fekkes also underlines that both sections focus on the presentation of an agent (Rev. 5:5, 6; 13:1).12 Both agents receive authority to function and participate on the throne of their benefactor (5:6; 13:2). Finally, a hymn (13:4) is used to strengthen the contrast between Christ and the sea-beast. The hymn posits a contrast between the two characters and the sources of their authority. This short hymn is in correspondence to the larger hymnic section in chapter 5. The acclamations of the hymns in chapters 4 and 5 find a “distorted counterpart” in the scenes of chapter 13. Connecting these two sections helps define the “composition of the book,”13 and thrusts the heavenly conflict into the forefront for interpretation. As Fekkes points out, the issue facing the readers of Revelation is not merely political, nor is it only a local situation that is under consideration. Rather it is “spiritual, suprahistorical, and part of the ongoing struggle between God and Satan, and their followers.”14
Second, the image of the throne places the conflict theme in the foreground. An important and multivalent image, the throne conveys the concept of the heavenly court and the underlying assaults on God’s rule of the universe. These attacks are the result of Satan’s determined slander over the way God’s rules. While earthly emperors may lay claim to obedience and fealty on the part of their subjects, the image of the throne points to a greater conflict. The prophet’s concern is not God’s sovereignty over Rome, but His ultimate sovereignty over a universe infected with rebellion. This conclusion is strengthened by the dramatic use of the throne throughout the narrative.
The narrative ends with the throne distinctly identified as belonging to God and the Lamb (Rev. 22:1, 3). In a world free of sin and without any curse, their united rule extends into eternity. This highlights once again the connection between God and Christ, underscoring that what the Lamb does, God does. Their sharing of the throne represents the unity of action between them. The throne imagery not only conveys the truth that the throne is disputed territory, but points to the way in which that territory is secured. The accusations and slander of the dragon are overcome through the sacrifice of the Lamb.
The throne, and the One sitting upon it, becomes the only remaining image in the final judgment, and John powerfully makes it the sole object of attention. “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” (Rev. 20:11, NIV). This movement underlines the vindication of the One sitting on the throne as the “fabric of the universe dissolves as if to leave no competing point of reference.”15 It is at the end of the narrative that the throne stands in isolation, finally free from any competing influences and in unchallenged supremacy. Thus the central role that the throne plays in the opening chapters also directs the perceptive reader to the spiritual battle that comprises Revelation’s undercurrent.
John also uses a verbal thread that makes clear that one of his main concerns is the question: Who will ultimately rule? In addition to the importance of the image of the throne, is the posture of the one upon it. The phrase describing God as the one “sitting on the throne” is a key theological term in the storyline. Barbara Rossing highlights that this expression underscores an opposing imagery that runs throughout Revelation. Babylon is pictured (17:1, 3) as “sitting” upon the beast and upon many waters. This description of Babylon is John’s main appellation for this power that is opposed to God’s rule (17:1, 3, 9, 15). This part of the narrative culminates with Babylon’s boast of being enthroned as queen (18:7).16
Babylon’s attempt at rulership is displayed as a deliberate contrast to the throne-room scene in chapters 4 and 5. There are several verbal connections between the passages. Among these are the transportation “in the spirit” and the invitation “‘Come. . . I will show you’” (Rev. 4:1, 2; 17:1). In both scenes, jewels are mentioned as accompanying the one seated (4:3; 17:4). Through the contrasts John is making it clear that the threat to God’s sovereignty is a central motif within the book. While God is upon a throne, Babylon is upon a beast, which is clearly a satanic figure, if not a representation of Satan himself.
A third narrative consideration that contributes to an understanding of the plot is the tension within the heavenly council evidenced in chapter 5. This tension arises in relation to the seven-sealed scroll (5:1) and the search for someone who is worthy to open it (vss. 2, 3). The scope of those involved, extending to every part of creation, accentuates the point that the issue confronting the divine council is of incalculably great importance.
While this is clearly a moment of consequence in the council, not all of the details are transparent in their meaning. In particular, the scroll has generated much discussion as to its origin, contents, and function. Alan S. Bandy, while not venturing to specifically identify the scroll, does examine its function within the narrative. Noting the Old Testament parallels (Eze. 2:9, 10; Dan. 12:4) of the scroll’s lamentation, mourning, and woe, he deduces that the scroll has a connection with divine judgment. The description of the scroll being sealed supports his reasoning. He concludes that it must be some form of legal document that is “only accessible to the authorized recipient.”17 It is the search for that recipient that raises the tension within the divine council.
The next scene (“‘and I saw’”; Rev. 5:2) focuses John’s attention on a strong angel who functions as a herald for the divine council. The angel places a question before the entire universe: “And I saw a strong angel, who shouted with a loud voice: ‘Who is worthy to break the seals on this scroll and open it?’” (5:2). John’s emphasis on the absence of anyone within the entire universe as being worthy compounds the sense of crisis: “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll and read it” (vs. 3, NIV). John’s personal expression of anguish at the inability of anyone worthy to open the book serves to increase the discomfort for the reader.
The verbal thread “worthy” occurs seven times in Revelation. The first and last uses describe polar opposites. In Revelation 3:4, the faithful in Sardis are worthy to walk with Christ. In 16:6, the unrighteous are worthy to drink blood for their part in the martyrdom of the saints. The remaining five occurrences are found in this section (4:11; 5:2, 4, 9, 12, 16.) Schimanowski sees the expression as representing the leitmotiv of the passage. The verbal connection between the first and second references demonstrate that the worthiness of the One sitting on the throne is paramount to the heavenly council. God’s worthiness is connected to the worthiness of the one who can open the scroll. As Boring observes, the “figures of God and Christ flow into each other.”18 Seen from this perspective, Tonstad is correct in his conclusion that God’s worthiness, proclaimed in the first hymn, “stands or falls with the. . . perceived worthiness of the Lamb (5:6).”19
In sum, the thematic links in chapters 12 and 13; the dominance of the throne imagery; and the narrative tension all point the careful reader to the larger conflict theme that undergirds the masterpiece that John constructs. Collins’s observation that “the problem facing the heavenly council is the rebellion of Satan which is paralleled by rebellion on earth” is well supported by a close reading of the larger narrative.20
Two important considerations must be taken into account as one attempts to discern John’s overarching concern in writing the book. The position that Satan has a character in the book is fuller and rounder than generally considered. He is not simply a hapless foil to God’s activity, continually stumbling from one failure to another. While not minimizing his defeat, he is portrayed as a persistently deceptive antagonist, committed to overthrowing God’s rule. His overthrow was accomplished only by heaven’s most dramatic means, the slain Lamb (Rev. 5:6). The undercurrent of the storyline is the war that Satan tirelessly pursues, and the means that God employs to bring about his defeat.
The narrative details serve to reinforce this observation. The verbal threads that tie the two main chapters that focus on the war in heaven (Revelation 12 and 13), with the paradigmatic opening chapters (4 and 5), direct the careful reader to allow the cosmic conflict to influence his or her interaction with the entire book. The other verbal threads, including the image of the throne, and the consternation of the heavenly council point the reader to detect that beneath the surface of Revelation, is an undercurrent of conflict and turmoil swirling around God’s right to rule. If this conclusion can be sustained through further study, it would contribute to seeing every phase of the story as seeking to answer the question: Who is really worthy to rule the universe? The answer to that question is clearly found in the image of the slain Lamb.
Steven Grabiner, Th.D., is President of Outpost Centers International, a mission organization dedicated to helping laity engage their talents in service, serves as an Adjunct Professor at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.
NOTES AND REFERENCES