The last book in the bible can be a right pain to understand. How do we deal with beasts coming out of the sea, bowls, trumpets, stars falling, and all of the rest of the odd things we read about? I’m going to attempt to provide an overview to help you find understanding, or at least start the process. As you do this, remember that you probably have an idea what Revelation is all about (rapture, tribulation, mark of the beast, etc. and what some of these things mean). It's important when reading the Revelation that you don’t assume that you’ve got it right yet. It’s possible that you’ve heard something that someone once said, and thought it made sense, but please keep in mind that there might be another explanation which could be better. With open minds, here we go!
An Overview of the Whole Thing
The Introduction (Chapter One) - shows the calling of the prophet John (who also wrote the gospel of John) and describes John’s commission to write down and share this revelation from God
Messages to Specific Churches (Chapters Two and Three) - this is information from God for seven local churches and their local problems and successes. The advice given to these churches can inform our churches today of what to do if they are in a similar position to one of these.
The Hard Stuff: Visions, Symbols, and Things That Need to be Interpreted (Chapter Four to Chapter Twenty Two Verse Five) - John goes to heaven in a spiritual state and is shown a bunch of amazing images which are similar to the amazing images seen by some of the Old Testament prophets. God’s judgement and wrath on His enemies is described; and mixed up with this without much obvious structure are promises of protection from harm, overcoming of evil, and the eternal joy of heaven for God’s people. Various amazing things are seen and described by John.
The Conclusion (Chapter Twenty Two Verse Six Until the End) - After the overwhelming scenes described in the previous 17 or so chapters, the final summing up message draws the reader/hearer back to the main message to take from the revelation given to John; and that is the immanent return of Jesus which brings ultimate judgment for the wicked and ultimate deliverance for the saved.
A Note on the Way I’ve Divided the Book into Sections
(Don’t read this bit if you don’t feel a need to)
About 800 years ago, an Archbishop (Stephen Langton) divided the bible into chapters and verses for an easy way to find parts of the bible. We need to be aware that these, along with the mini titles, paragraph divisions, and study notes, were not from God as part of the bible He gave us. People have added them for various reasons, some good and some bad, but we can use them as long as we don’t let them influence our understanding in a way that misses what the bible is really saying.
The way I’ve divided Revelation up is meant to be a way that helps people get a handle on this book which can come across as a right mess of imagery and symbols. My way is only one way, but I think it will help draw attention to the useful bits.