Most people who read the Book of Revelation for the first time get the impression that it is a confusing onslaught of incomprehensible symbols with no apparent structure or organization. Is this true, or did God inspire a highly organized structure that is a vital key to understanding the meaning of the Book of Revelation?
We can start with the observation that some of the words and phrases at the beginning of Revelation are also found at the end. For example, the phrases “To show his servants the things which must shortly take place” (Revelation 1:1, 22:6) and “The time is near” (Revelation 1:3, 22:10) are not only identical at the beginning and end of the book, but are found nowhere else in Revelation or even in the rest of the Bible. It turns out that there are quite a number of identical or analogous phrases at the beginning and end. This is the first clue that Revelation is organized as a chiasm.
Chiasms are found frequently in the Old Testament. When a passage is arranged as a chiasm it is divided with the first half being a mirror image of the second half. In other words, as we progress forward in the first half and backward in the second half we find words, phrases, symbols and themes that have a close relationship to one another. This is definitely the case in Revelation; as we move through the first half of the book we find that it is divided into sections that have the same words and themes as are found in the analagous sections of the second half. To see a table of these relationships click on the link to the book “A Revelation of Jesus” section 1: Chiastic Literary Structure.
How can we know where one sections ends and the next one begins? A careful study reveals that Revelation is divided into 10 sections, and each section begins with a scene from the heavenly sanctuary. The book of Hebrews tells us that the sanctuary of the Old Testament was a model of the true sanctuary in heaven—Christ is “a minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man” Hebrews 8:2. The heavenly sanctuary contains the throne of God, various items of furniture such as the seven-branched lampstand and the altar of incense, and various individuals such as the Lamb, the 24 elders and four living creatures. Combinations of these items and individuals are found at the beginning of each section (and nowhere else in Revelation). For example, at the beginning of the second section John “saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a (priestly) garment down to the feet” Revelation 1:12,13.Everything that follows is part of the second section until we arrive at the next sanctuary scene at the beginning of chapter 4.
To summarize, the Book of Revelation is divided into ten sections. Each section begins with a scene from the heavenly sanctuary. Each of the five sections of the first half has a mirror image in the second half. The identical or analagous phrases, symbols and scense that are found at the beginning and end of Revelation are also found in the second and ninth sections, the third and eighth sections, the fourth and seventh sections and the fifth and sixth sections. The chiastic structure of Revelation creates a mirror image that looks like this:
The chiastic structure is certainly impressive when you see it laid out (as you can see in chapter 1 of “A Revelation of Jesus”), but it was not something that John created in order to impress his readers; in fact, it is doubtful that he even knew that he was creating a chiasm. But far beyond being interesting and impressive, the chiastic structure is crucial in understanding the Book of Revelation. First of all, the purpose of a chiasm is to emphasize its peak or climax. In Revelation we have an even number of sections, which means that there are actually two climaxes (E-1, E-2). The two climaxes identify the two major themes of Revelation which we can identify by studying the climax sections. The first climax section of the first half of the book (E-1) is found in Revelation chapters 12 and 13, which focus on Satan’s final attack against God’s people, culminating with the image, number and mark of the beast. This shows us that the first half of Revelation (chapters 1-13) focuses on Satan’s attacks against God’s kingdom. The second half (chapters 14-22) focuses on God’s victory which brings an end to sin, Satan, suffering and death.
Besides helping to identify the theme of Revelation the chiasm also helps us identify the themes of the individual sections by comparing their mirror image sections. The chiasm also helps us to understand the meaning of the symbols and images, and to know if they are symbolic or literal. And the sanctuary scenes of the chiastic sections have a progression that corresponds to the annual Old Testiment sanctuary services, and this helps to establish the timeline of Revelation. The chiastic literary structure of Revelation is one of the most important breakthroughs in understanding the Book of Revelation. This short article is just an introduction, and many more exciting details are found in “A Revelation of Jesus” (click the link “Book” at the top of this page).