Rightly Dividing the Apocalypse
by Arthur M. Ogden

"Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). Approval before God is dependent upon rightly dividing or "handling aright" (ASV) the word of God. Dealing with God's word correctly is the predominant thought of this text and rightly dividing it is an important part of handling it right. All of us recognize the importance of properly outlining the books of the Bible. A failure to identify correctly the chief subject matter can lead to the wrong interpretation of a passage.

The book of Revelation, like the other books of the Bible, must be correctly divided. Most commentators recognize the need to divide the chapters into major sections. While these may differ with each commentator, the need to divide it is underscored by the tremendous amount of confusion which results otherwise.

Suggested Major Divisions

Some students of the Apocalypse divide the book into two major divisions, Chapters 1-11 & 12-22. Homer Hailey uses these divisions of the book calling part one "Conflict And Judgment Within And Without The Church" and part two "War And Victory!" (Revelation, An Introduction and Commentary). Ferrell Jenkins follows this format also calling the first division "Worthy is the Lamb!" and the second division "Saints Victorious!" (Studies in the Book of Revelation). Certainly, dividing the book this way emphasizes what is apparent, the rule of Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords and the saints victorious in every conflict.

Others divide the book into four sections, Chapters 1-3, 4-11, 12-22:5, & 22:6-21. Of the more prominent ones who follow this order are Weldon Warnock (Message From Patmos, p. 69) and Foy E. Wallace, Jr. (The Book of Revelation). Wallace designates the four divisions "The Visual Prologue" (1-3), "The Apocalypse of The Conquering Christ" (4-11), "The Apocalypse of The Victorious Church" (12-22:5) and "The Apocalyptic Epilogue" (22:6-21).

The I.S.B.E., under the title "Revelation of John" by James Orr (Vol. 4, p. 2585), divides the Apocalypse into five divisions. W. Hendriksen's "More Than Conquerors" caught the attention of many brethren forty to fifty years ago. Hendriksen divided the book into seven divisions. Of this he said, "These seven sections run parallel. Each of them spans the entire dispensation from the first to the second coming of Christ. This period is viewed now from one aspect; then from another" (p. 25). The position is known as "Progressive Parallelism."

The divisions given to the book differ with varying commentators and may run anywhere from two to fifteen. Jim McGuiggan's 1976 commentary divides the book into fourteen (14) chapter divisions with no more than three chapters in each division: 1, 2-3, 4-5, 6, 7, 8-9, 10-12, 13, 14-15, 16, 17-18, 19, 20, 21-22 (The Book of Revelation, pages 16-19). McGuiggan's divisions recognize obvious breaks in the visions though a couple of them may be questioned.

How to Determine Divisions

Every story told or sermon preached can be outlined to emphasize the chief points and make it more comprehensible for the hearers. Any sermon that cannot be properly outlined probably lacks continuity and clarity. I divided the sermon I preached last Sunday morning into six major points besides the introduction and conclusion. I noticed in the preparation and presentation of the lesson that many of the points were partly repetitious of previous points. Some could have easily said, "You have already made that point." I had, but it was necessary for me to make it again in order to develop the new point which went beyond the previous one. The fact that repetition took place did not mean that I had failed to outline my lesson correctly. It simply emphasized that the part repeated was necessary to making the new point.

Forty years ago, I was taught that outlining our material was important to the proper presentation of our thoughts. It is necessary to introduce our subject matter in which we explain to our audience the proposal for the lesson. In other words, we tell our audience what we intend to tell them in the presentation. Then we come to the body of our discussion where we tell them what we are going to tell them. We may have several things to tell them or we may have only one thing to explain to them, but divide it up so they can comprehend it more readily. When we are through telling them what we intended, conclude our remarks by briefly going over again what we have told them. I have generally followed these instructions through the years.

General Divisions of Revelation

It is easy to see that the Apocalypse follows the above format in its development. The book has an introduction, body, and conclusion. There may be some differences of opinion as to where the introduction ends and the body begins but all can see that these three divisions exist. I am of the opinion that the real body of the book begins with chapter 4 where the purpose stated in 1:1 and 19 begin to be addressed (cf.4:1). While this makes the introduction rather long (chapters 1-3), it establishes what was being revealed, who revealed it, whom it was revealed to, and why. The previously stated purpose (1:1, 19) that begins to unfold in chapter 4 was completed by the time we reach 22:6. "The Lord God of the holy prophets sent his angel to show unto his servants the things which must shortly be done." The rest of the Apocalypse (22:6-21) forms John's conclusion. Chapters 4-22:5 constitute the body of the book. This is the section where John revealed what he was told to reveal to God's servants.

The Body of Discussion

Chapter 4-22:5 constitute a large volume of material. It would be helpful to divide it for ease of remembrance. We readily see that there are times when the subject material changes. Nearly all commentators agree that a natural division takes place between chapters 11 and 12. It is also observed that while these divisions are very similar and cover the same things, there are some differences. Chapters 4-5 present the throne of God with Jesus Christ coming into authority. Chapter 12 begins with Jesus coming to the throne of God and receiving His power and authority as the Christ (vs.5,10). Chapters 4-11 only go as far as the destruction of a city while chapters 12-22:5 go beyond the destruction of the city all the way to the judgment and beyond (20:11-15). If both sections show the destruction of the same city (the context demands this conclusion), then the two sections are parallel to that point in the presentation.

Dividing chapters 4-11 into one major division within this discussion will assist us in emphasizing its major point, namely, Jesus Christ is King. His rule is established in chapter 5 and, by the time we arrive at the end of this section, He has demonstrated that He is firmly in control (11:15-17).

I believe another major division of the remaining material is warranted. Chapters 12-19:10 take us through the destruction of a city called Babylon the Great. This is the same city destroyed in chapter 11. This section does not end here, however. It continues by picturing the destruction of those agents which brought an end to Babylon and continues all the way to the judgment (20:11-15). This is followed by the appearance of the New Jerusalem. A division should be made here regardless of how we view the New Jerusalem. (1) If we view this glorious city as the righteous in heaven, it is the beginning of a new order and should be considered as different for that reason. (2) If we view New Jerusalem as the glorious church of Christ, it should be considered separately because it is not intrinsically related to the previous divisions of the Apocalypse. This means we divided body of the book into three divisions making a total of five all together.

Sub-Divisions

The major divisions of the Apocalypse are easily sub-divided. Chapters 4-11 may be divided this way: (1) The throne of God, chapters 4-5; (2) The opening of the first six seals, chapter 6; (3) The first interlude, chapter 7; (4) The sounding of the first six trumpets, chapters 8-9; (5) The second interlude, chapters 10-11:14; and (6) The sounding of the seventh trumpet, chapter 11:15-19. Chapters 12-20 may be divided similarly: (1) The underlying conflict, chapter 12; (2) Satan's Helpers, chapter 13; (3) The Lamb, the three messages and the reapings, chapter 14; (3) The seven bowls of wrath, chapters 15-16; (4) Babylon the Great and her destruction, chapters 17-19:10; (5) The lingering conflict, 19:11-20:10, and (6) The final judgment, 20:11-15.

Conclusion

For public presentations I divide the book into four sections: (1) Christ among the Churches, 1-3; (2) The Heavenly Apocalypse, 4-11; (3) The Earthly Apocalypse, 12-20; and (4) The New Jerusalem, 21-22. The first and fourth divisions are related because both deal with the people of God. The first division portrays God's people on earth as members of the local churches and the fourth division envisions God's people spiritually as the New Jerusalem (cf.Hebrews 12:22-25). The middle divisions of the book are also related. Both uncover clues to the events shortly to be carried out. The second division (4-11) deals with those things as ordered and directed by the throne of God. The third division (12-20) deals with them as carried out by earthly instruments. They cover the same things from different points of view.

It is not my intention to impose any of these divisions of the book upon you. It is rather my desire to motivate and stimulate your involvement in this neglected part of our Bible. May your study of the Apocalypse be a fruitful one.


This page is Copyright 1997-98 by Alex Ogden, All Rights Reserved.
This page was last updated on Thursday, May 28, 1998.


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