The Thematic Approach to Interpreting Revelation

Appendix 1: The Thematic Approach to Interpreting Revelation 

The book of Revelation is a very exciting book and comes with a blessing to those who read it. Nevertheless, it is far from being an easy book to understand. Part of the challenge is due to a tendency to interpret the book of Revelation chronologically rather than thematically. Though there is some chronology in the book, it is primarily laid out thematically.  

If we read the judgments of the seals, trumpets, and bowls with a chronological-sequential method then those would represent nineteen completely separate judgments occurring at different times during the tribulation. That is, the seal judgments would all play out, then the trumpets would begin and then the bowls would follow after the last trumpet judgment (many scholars follow this scheme). It would look like this:  

Table 12. Chronological view of Revelation. 

Nevertheless, within the seals, trumpets, and bowls, there are recurring, interrelated themes with various levels of detail, perspective, and intensity. This means John laid out the series of visions in the order that they were communicated to him and not as nineteen different and sequential judgments. It is like looking at a diamond with many facets and seeing inside the same thing.  

Figure 55. Facets of a diamond. 

Or it is like if John were given a tour of a television control room where before him were dozens of screens. All the scenes of a particular show are being shot at the same time. For the sake of illustration, let us imagine that the show has five distinct scenes. Each scene has separate cameras and cameraman to capture it. John merely sees the video feed. Each scene is complex and requires varying camera angles to appreciate the complexity.  

Some cameras are placed above the set to get a wide angel – top-down approach. Other cameras zoom in on the face of the main characters. Finally other cameras pan to give the greater perspective. The seals, trumpets, and bowls are related events different vantage points (camera angles) so the readers get a more detailed understanding.  

Figure 56. TV control room. 

We could imagine this like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In the chronological approach, we first eat a piece of bread, then eat the peanut butter, then the jelly, and finally we eat the other slice of bread. In the thematic approach, however, we simply stack them on top of the other and eat them at the same time. In other words, the seals in Revelation 6 relate to the bowls in chapter 16. Just like a piece of layered cake, we slice through the cake and eat a cross-section all at once.  

Recapitulation 

Understanding the seals, trumpets, and bowls as a series of recapitulations or reiterations (stacked layers) means that John was initially given a grand, bird’s eye view and then subsequent chapters go into supporting details of what has already been revealed. Using the stacking of layers idea like in an animated movie helps us picture how Revelation is organized. 

Figure 57. Example of layering from the movie “Monsters.” 

Layering is illustrated nicely in modern animation techniques (like Monsters Inc.) which start with a basic story reel sketch that tells the story. Why don’t they just stop there? Because it does not convey the entirety of the message. The subsequent layers add depth, color, detail, lighting, and animation to create a composite image. By the time we get to the final product right down here, it really feels like it is a feature film. 

The seals are like the story reel giving us the basic story overview. While lacking depth, color, and detail, they take us from the beginning of the story to its finish. The trumpets and bowls add the texturing, color, and fine details to the same events so we have a rich composite image.  

We see repeating themes (recapitulations) in many books of the Bible. For example, Genesis chapters one and two are often accused of being different accounts. Yet we see in chapter one an overview of the entire creation week, whereas chapter two focuses only on day six and the creation of man. Hence, we can conclude that chapter two is thematically related to chapter one. Sure, chapter one comes first in the book but the content of both chapters is thematically related and are the same story. Chapter two fits within the framework of chapter one. We see the same issue with Exodus 14 and 15 where the events happen in 14 and then Moses and Miriam recount the events in 15. They are the same events (themes) but told in different ways.  

Hence, the seals, trumpets, bowls, and in fact all of Revelation chapters 6-19 are a series of visions of many layers to form a composite image. This means that there are repeating themes in the seals, trumpets, and bowls. Seals 1-7 are the overall plan of the great tribulation. The subsequent trumpets and bowls are looking at those events in either greater detail or from a different angle and with a progressive intensification of events (from 1/3 to everything). The seventh seal, trumpet and bowl all end at the same event: the return of Jesus. They are stacked one upon another or stair steps, if you will, where they keep getting more intense, and the timeframe keeps getting squished down, until finally they all culminate at the same moment with the return of Yeshua. We see the thematic arrangement throughout Revelation. 

Figure 58. The seventh seal, trumpet, and bowl end with the return of Jesus. 

Earthquakes in Revelation Six and Sixteen are the Same 

Let’s consider how the earthquakes from chapters six and sixteen are one and the same event. There is an earthquake in the seventh and last bowl, which is described as:  

“a great earthquake, such a mighty and great earthquake as had not occurred since men were on the earth” (Rev 16:18).  

The language is very significant because it tells us that this would be the greatest of all time. John follows up with us by saying “every island fled away, and the mountains were not found” (Rev 16:20). This language is identical to the many descriptions of ultimate shaking that will take place on planet earth. 

The mini apocalypse in Isaiah 24 describes how “the earth is violently broken, The earth is split open, The earth is shaken exceedingly” (Isa 24:19). This earth will be so utterly moved that it “shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall totter like a hut; Its transgression shall be heavy upon it, and it will fall, and not rise again. (Isa 24:20). To fall and not rise again is parallel language to Revelation 16 – this is the worst ever earthquake never to be duplicated. We find many other passages of this as well:  

  • He stood and measured the earth; He looked and startled the nations. And the everlasting mountains were scattered, The perpetual hills bowed. His ways are everlasting. (Hab 3:6) 
  • The mountains melt like wax at the presence of the LORD, At the presence of the Lord of the whole earth. (Ps 97:5) 

Isaiah 2 explains how:  

the day of the LORD of hosts Shall come upon everything proud and lofty, Upon everything lifted up– And it shall be brought low– Upon all the high mountains, and upon all the hills that are lifted up; (Isa 2:12, 14) 

That passage goes on to say in the Day of the Lord, when the mountains fall: 

They shall go into the holes of the rocks, and into the caves of the earth, From the terror of the LORD And the glory of His majesty, When He arises to shake the earth mightily. (Isa 2:19) 

In chapter thirteen, Isaiah says:  

Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth will move out of her place, In the wrath of the LORD of hosts And in the day of His fierce anger. (Isa 13:13) 

The description is identical to what we find in Revelation six in the sixth seal: “every mountain and island was moved out of its place” (Rev 6:14). Isaiah 2 merely says “they” whereas Revelation says: 

“the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains,” (Rev 6:15).  

Thus, we have an unprecedented earthquake in which earth’s topography and geography change at a cataclysmic extent, so much so that mountains and islands move causing people to flee and hide in caves. Just like in Isaiah 2, they hide because it is the Day of the Lord.  

and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! (Rev 6:16) “For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev 6:17) 

Are we to believe that the mighty men of the earth are throwing in the towel in Revelation 6 and fully admit that the day of Jesus’ wrath has come? Yet in chapter 16 “the kings of the earth” and “the whole world” assemble for “the battle of that great day of God Almighty” (Rev 16:14)?  

The thematic method sees parallel language and themes as being witnesses of the same event merely from different perspectives and with varying details. Revelation 6 and 16, Isaiah 2 and 24, Habakkuk 3, and others all speak of the kings of the earth gathered to the battle of the great Day of the Lord, the day of God and the mother of all earthquakes that will utterly shake the entire earth so that it will fall and not rise again and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. The day is so scary the kings, commanders, and all involved in the battle run into the caves for protection from the Day of the Lord.  

Consider how the 2011 Fukushima 9.1 earthquake caused phenomenal damage to buildings and great loss of life. Now imagine the kind of destruction planet earth will experience when every island falling into the sea and every mountain crumbling! The word “every” precludes the event from happening twice; that means it happens once and there will be no repeat. Therefore, Revelation 6 is the same event as Revelation 16 and Isaiah 24, (etc.). Such an event will happen only once never to be repeated. The earth will fall and not rise again. The language in all the passages speaks of the Day of the Lord when this will happen.  

Heavens open 

Another prevalent theme in Revelation (and other scriptures) is the opening of the heavens. We discussed the veil between heaven and earth in Corrupting the Image 2 in great detail and we will not restate it here. Suffice it to say that the opening of the heavens is an end-of-the-world event that will only happen once when heaven itself and earth will pass. We should be aware that the opening of heavens is in direct connection with other phenomena: 

  • The Day of the Lord, since the Lord Jesus at this point is already engaged in the second coming 
  • the dramatic (structural) changes of heavens itself 
  • the elements of cataclysmic proportions accompanying these changes in heaven 
  • the oncoming great battle that Jesus is about to fight 

By way of the heavens opened John directs our eyes to the temple of God in Rev 11 where the dramatic noises are accompanied by hail as well: 

Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place. (Rev 6:14)  

This event is spoken of in Revelation 19 as well when Jesus is said to make war against the Beast and the world’s armies.  

Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True… And I saw the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army. (Rev 19:11, 19) 

This same battle (Armageddon) is described in Revelation 16 as well where the Beast, kings of the earth, and their armies are ready to fight against Jesus: 

the beast…the kings of the earth and of the whole world…to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty. (Rev 16:13, 14).  

In the seventh and final bowl where the greatest earthquake also happens, we are told:  

And there were noises and thunderings and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such a mighty and great earthquake as had not occurred since men were on the earth. (Rev 16:18) And great hail from heaven fell upon men… (Rev 16:21) 

This is not the first time that we have encountered “noises and thunderings and lightnings” in Revelation. Those same noises, thunderings, lightnings, and an earthquake happen in the seventh seal. In that period, there is silence in heaven “for about half an hour and “the seven angels” are “given seven trumpets” (Rev 8:2). Next John saw  

another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. (Rev 8:3) And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand. (Rev 8:4) Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and threw it to the earth. And there were noises, thunderings, lightnings, and an earthquake. (Rev 8:5) 

We see this theme repeated in Revelation 11 which also includes hail falling: 

Then the temple of God was opened in heaven, and the ark of His covenant was seen in His temple. And there were lightnings, noises, thunderings, an earthquake, and great hail. (Rev 11:19) 

The opening of the heavenly temple happens in chapter fifteen as well: “the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony in heaven was opened” (Rev 15:5). After the opening of temple of God in heaven, the final judgments commence on the earth because, as we saw in chapter nineteen, that is when Jesus comes back to engage in the great battle of the Day of the Lord.  

The opening of the heavens is found in many other places in Scripture as well. Peter describes the Day of the Lord and the opening of the heavens:  

But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. (2 Peter 3:10) 

Isaiah 34:4 is identical to Revelation 6:13-14 where stars fall like figs and the sky recedes like a scroll: 

the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll; All their host shall fall down As the leaf falls from the vine, and as [fruit] falling from a fig tree. (Isaiah 34:4) 

Isaiah speaks of this moment repeatedly again “the heavens will vanish away like smoke… (Isa 51:6) and then “Oh, that You would rend the heavens! That You would come down!” We have been granted a peek full of awe and drama from our earth into the events of heavens passing, as if we were looking up from earth and witnessing how the open heaven that had been hidden to us before by the veil, is passing away.  

But we are also shown the frightening events happening at our level, our sky and earth level. 

 He gives the important detail “That the mountains might shake at Your presence” (Isa 64:1) which helps us provides us with the same details as we have seen in the other passages. Jesus then reiterates this moment concerning his return. 

“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (Matt 24:29) “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. (Matt 24:30) 

Jesus simply summarizes Joel about the sun, moon, and stars, and then Isaiah regarding the falling of the stars and then tells us how people will mourn (be distressed) when they see him, just like Isaiah said in chapter two.  

Paul also spoke of this same event by mentioning the uncovering / unveiling / revealing of Jesus where apokalupsi, apo = “away from,” kalupsis = veil to the Thessalonians: “when the Lord Jesus is revealed (apokalupsi) from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance…” (2Thess 1:7-8). Paul’s language of “revealing” is parallel to Isaiah: “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together..” (Isa 40:5). Paul then combines that with the retributive nature of his coming, associated with fire and vengeance, just like Isaiah: 

  • For behold, the LORD comes out of His place To punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity (Isa 26:21)  
  • “I have trodden the winepress alone…And trampled them in My fury; Their blood is sprinkled upon My garments… (Isa 63:3)  
  • For behold, the LORD will come with fire And with His chariots, like a whirlwind, To render His anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire. (Isa 66:15)  

Hence the opening of the heavens is an event that only happens once in the Day of the Lord which will cause the elements to melt, mountains to shake and the greatest of all earthquakes the world has ever known. The multitude of passages referring to the openings of heavens shows us that the thematic approach resolves the burden of trying to explain the different aspects of the judgments. Rather, the thematic interpretation says if one verse quacks and walks like a duck and another passage quacks and walks the same, then they are the same passage.

Table 13. Thematic Revelation passages related to the 6th Seal. 

The Seven Seals as a Template of the Tribulation 

We have considered the earthquakes and opening of the heavens in detail to demonstrate that they are in synchrony with each other. The thematic approach inherently searches for multiple witnesses to establish sound doctrine. In Scripture matters are established by two or three witnesses. In other words, other passages support the contextual meaning of an event as the Holy Spirit revealed it in the text of the Scripture. Interpreting Revelation thematically reveals multiple witnesses which with varying and progressive perspectives. Using the seven seals as a template for the entire 

1st Seal: rider on white horse with bow, crown, goes out conquering 

  • Rev 13:1-4: Beast w/ characteristics of former empires & 7 heads & 10 horns, receives dragon’s power, throne, authority 
  • Rev 17:3 Beast with 7 heads & 10 horns carries the woman 
  • Other Scriptures of the Beast: Dan 7:7-8; 8:10-13, 23-25, Ezek 38:17; 39:8. 

2nd Seal: rider on red horse takes away peace, men kill each other 

  • Rev 11:5-6: 2 witnesses strike earth w/ plagues 
  • Other Scriptures about no peace: Deut 17:6; Zech 4:14; Mal 4:4-6 (Moses & Elijah) 

3rd Seal: scarcity of food (increasing intensity until Jesus’ return) 

  • Rev 11:5-6: 2 witnesses strike earth w/ plagues 
  • Rev 8:7: 1st trump: 1/3 trees and grass burned up >> 4th bowl: sun scorches with heat 
  • Rev 8:8: 2nd trump: 1/3 of seas become blood, 1/3 die >> 2nd bowl: All seas blood and every creature dies. (Rev 16:3) 
  • 3rd trump: 1/3 of rivers blood and wormwood >> 3rd bowl: all rivers blood 
  • Other Scriptures: (Isa 24:6-7), (Joel 1:10-20) new wine fails, field wasted, barns broken, day of the Lord comes 

4th Seal: Death and Sheol gain authority over all humans (around the middle of Daniel’s 70th week) allowed to kill  

  • Rev 13:7 granted to make war with the saints and overcome them. Authority over every tribe, tongue, and nation.  
  • (Rev 9:11) Abaddon / death / Destruction / King of the Abyss / Sheol kills one third of mankind 
  • Other authority Scriptures: Isa 28:15; Dan 7:25; 8:25, 9:27  

5th Seal: Martyred souls under altar given white garment 

  • Rev 7 – multitude from Trib in white 
  • Rev 12:13-17: “Flood” of people (per Jer 46:7-8 & Isa 8:7) persecute kill believers  
  • Rev 13: killed for not taking mark 
  • Rev 17:6 the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and the martyrs of Jesus 
  • Rev 20 non-mark-takers beheaded, resurrected to reign with Jesus 
  • Other martyrs Scripture: Dan 12:1, 7, 10; Isa 24:4-6, 48:10 
  •  Zech 13:8-9; Hos 5:14-15, Mal 3:3; Dan 11:35; Joel 2:12-14 

6th Seal: sun, moon, stars darkened, sky recedes, mountains & islands move, battle-day of Lord, world armies hide from Jesus 

  • (6th seal) sun black as sackcloth, moon like blood. (Rev 6:12) 
  • He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. (Rev 6:12
  • 4th Trump 1/3 Sun, Moon, stars darkened: Then the fourth angel sounded: And a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them were darkened. A third of the day did not shine, and likewise the night. (Rev 8:12) 
  • 5th trump Rev 9:1-2: abyss opened, sun, moon, stars darkened by smoke (increasing intensity)  
  • And he opened the bottomless pit, and smoke arose out of the pit like the smoke of a great furnace. So the sun and the air were darkened because of the smoke of the pit. (Rev 9:2) 
  • >> 5th bowl Rev 16:10 Darkness and pain 
  • Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom became full of darkness. (Rev 16:10) 
  • Other darkening Scriptures:  
  • “And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth: Blood and fire and pillars of smoke. (Joel 2:30) The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD. (Joel 2:31) 
  • Behold, the day of the LORD comes, Cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger, To lay the land desolate; And He will destroy its sinners from it. (Isa 13:9) For the stars of heaven and their constellations Will not give their light; The sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon will not cause its light to shine. (Isa 13:10) 
  • sun darkened; moon will not give its light (Matt 24:29) 
  • (6th seal) stars of heaven fell to the earth as a fig tree. (Rev 6:13) 
  • the LORD will punish on high the host of exalted ones. (Isa 24:21) 
  • All their host shall fall down…as fruit falling from a fig tree. (Isa 34:4) 
  • the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (Matt 24:29) 
  • (6th seal) the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up (Rev 6:14) 
  • Rev 11:19 the temple of God was opened in heaven 
  • Rev 19:11 heaven opened…He judges and makes war. 
  • Other Scriptures: Isa 34:4, 64:1; 2Pet 3:10 
  • (6th seal) Every mountain & island moved (Rev 6:14) 
  • 7th bowl Rev 16:18 largest ever earthquake – affects all mountains and islands (so they are not found Rev 16:20), hail,  
  • Isa 2:13-15; 13:13; 24:19-20; 40:4; Jer 4:24; Hab 3:6; (Ezek 38:19-20 all shake, all mountains thrown down) 
  • (6th seal) Battle w/ Jesus / kings, great men, commanders, hide in caves & in the mountains, “the great day of His wrath has come” (Rev 6:15, 17) 
  • 6th bowl Rev 16:12: Euphrates runs dry & nations gather to Armageddon for the battle / day of the Lord 
  • 6th trump: Rev 9: angels released from Euphrates, kill 1/3 mankind, Pabilsags on earth 
  • Rev 14:16-20 winepress, earth reaped, blood to horses’ bridles  
  • Rev 19:11-21 Jesus treads winepress, Battle / Day of the Lord 
  • Rev 19:17-18 Birds called to eat flesh of kings, commanders, etc., Ezek 39:4, 17-20 
  • Isa 2:10, 19; 26:21; 63:3; 66:15-16; Joel 2; 2Thess 1:7-8; Matt 24:30; Ezek 38:18 fury on my face 

7th seal: (& trump & bowl): Lightning, thunders, noises, earthquake, It is finished, Babylon destroyed 

  • Lightning, thunders, noises, earthquake 
  • the seventh seal…silence in heaven for about half an hour. (Rev 8:1) there were noises, thunderings, lightnings, and an earthquake. (Rev 8:5) 
  • the temple of God was opened in heaven…there were lightnings, noises, thunderings, an earthquake, and great hail. (Rev 11:19) 
  • And there were noises and thunderings and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, (Rev 16:18) 
  • Ezek 38:22 hail, brimstone 
  • Finished! 
  • in the days of the sounding of the seventh angel…the mystery of God would be finished. (Rev 10:7) 
  • the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!” (Rev 11:15) The nations were angry, and Your wrath has come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that You should reward Your servants the prophets and the saints…And should destroy those who destroy the earth.” (Rev 11:18)  
  • Then the seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” (Rev 16:17)  
  • Ezek 39:29 God hides his face no longer 
  • Babylon judged 
  • Rev 14:8 “Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city 
  • the great city was divided…the cities of the nations fell. And great Babylon was remembered…(Rev 16:19) 
  • Rev 18:2 Babylon is fallen 
  • Rev 19:2 Jesus judged the harlot  
  • Ezek 39:21 God sets glory among nations, Isa 48:1-8 

Conclusion of Thematic Approach 

We have seen that the thematic method, with its many recapitulations, is used repeatedly in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Revelation takes us up to the end many times and then tells the story again from another perspective. Indeed, in the middle of the book, the angel told John: “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings” (Rev 10:11). To interpret the book chronologically causes many problems such as every mountain and island moving out of their place twice which we are told is impossible. The thematic approach to the book focuses on parallel language and when we do that, we find an abundance of identical passages in the prophets and the words of Jesus – passages that super-impose showing they are referring to the same event.