The Book of Revelation is probably one of the most confusing books in the Bible, and the one which has the greatest variety of interpretations. However, it is possible to make sense of it, and gain inspiration from it, if we ask the right questions. The most important question to ask is, “What did this book mean to the original readers?”. We need to start with the assumption that John and his readers in the seven churches in Asia understood the book, and it had a message for them.
The correct title of the book is "The Revelation of Jesus Christ" (1:1). We should keep it clearly in mind that the book is primarily about Jesus Christ, and shows us Jesus in his ascended glory and power. We should also note that the Book of Revelation is rooted in the Old Testament. Although there are no quotations, there are constant allusions to O.T. images, people and events.
Another important question to identify its literary type. Firstly it is a letter: it records visions given to John to be written down and sent to seven real churches in first century Asia (1:10). All other New Testament letters address issues and concerns in the churches they were written to, and the Book of Revelation is no exception. Secondly it is a prophecy: a word from God addressing their current situation, to be heard and obeyed (1:3). It is not primarily a prediction of a future, although it does speak about future events, particularly the second coming of Christ and the final judgement.
Thirdly it is written in an apocalyptic style: This was a popular Jewish style of literature between 200 BC and AD 100, but mostly unknown to us today. The message was expressed in vivid or even bizarre symbolism, claiming to be a revelation from an angel to a great figure of the past (Abraham, Moses etc). Their message was that, although times are currently difficult, God will finally intervene and destroy evil, bringing in the Messianic age. They have been called "Tracts for hard times". The writers were very pessimistic about the present world, looking to God for deliverance. Although Revelation is not a standard apocalyptic book, it does share some of the characteristics of apocalyptic literature.
Both Revelation and apocalyptic literature used symbols to express spiritual truth. John was shown visions which he then described in writing. The symbols in the visions convey a deeper meaning. John helps us in explaining many of the symbols he uses (eg. 1:20), so we need to look for these explanations and use them as a basis for interpretation. Many of the symbols have the same meaning in the rest of the Bible. Examples would be God’s people being described as the bride Jerusalem, and the enemies of God being the harlot Babylon.
Many problems in interpreting Revelation come from an over-literal interpretation, especially with the numbers. Most, if not all the time, numbers are used to express concepts, rather than statistical units. Only a few different numbers and their multiples are actually used in the book. These are: 3, 4, 7, 10 and 12, and multiples of them. In apocalyptic literature, numbers had standard meanings, and had the same association in the Old Testament. The number “three” was the divine number (the Trinity). The number “four” represents the created world (four corners of earth). The number “seven” is the perfect number: the divine number plus the number of the created world (3 + 4), and represents God's completeness, perfection, fullness or totality. The Old Testament is full of sevens, as is the Book of Revelation. The number “ten” represents the complete human number, or worldly power. The number “twelve” is the number for God's covenant community: the divine number multiplied by the number of the created world (3 x 4). There were twelve tribes of Israel and twelve disciples. In Jewish thought the number “six” had negative associations, of falling short of perfection.
How should we read the book?
We should begin by reading the whole book from beginning to end, noting the main themes. Then we should observe the text thoroughly, looking for the main characters and seeing how their descriptions are contrasted. We should note the ways the believers are described, and their destiny, in contrast to the descriptions and destiny of the unbelievers. We can find the main themes by spotting frequently repeated words, and by noting the many descriptions of worship and the songs of praise to God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb (Jesus). This is one of the most important themes, as a choice is given between worshipping the beast and worshipping Jesus.
We should notice the persecution taking place, and the frequent mention of martyrdom, together with the calls for patient endurance by the believers. John was on the Island of Patmos, a Roman prison camp, where he had been sent because of his testimony to Jesus (1:9), when the risen Jesus appeared to him. Notice also that although God's people will experience tribulation, they will never experience the wrath of God, which is reserved for unbelievers and those who persecute the church.
What was happening in Asia?
The cult of Caesar worship was beginning in late first century Asia and grew stronger over the next few decades. The current Roman emperor was claimed to be an incarnation of a god. Domitian was addressed as "Dominus et Deus" (Lord and god). There were temples to Roma in several of the cities of Asia. In later years, all citizens of the Roman Empire were required to worship the emperor. Once a year, all people had to go the Roman temple, burn a pinch of incense to Caesar and say "Caesar is Lord", and curse Christ. Any who refused would be executed, often by being burned alive. There was a clear choice between worshipping Christ or the Emperor.
In Revelation, John is given visions which allow him to look behind the events of the day to see the spiritual situation. He sees that the lie that the emperor was God was inspired by Satan, to deceive the whole population of the Roman empire. The empire is personified as a beast demanding worship, inspired by the dragon, Satan.
What is the message of the book?
The Book of Revelation has a timeless message, showing that conflict comes whenever the state demands worship and allegiance which is only due to God and the Lamb. The beast is a picture of anti-Christian government in all times: the Roman government for John's times and many others since. Christians are called to maintain a faithful testimony to Jesus, even if they may be martyred. The Book of Revelation brings the encouraging message to those being persecuted that despite present appearances, God is in control of history and of the church. Even though the believers will experience suffering and death, and will appear to be defeated, they will be triumphant in Christ, who will judge his enemies and save his people. He has already won the victory on the cross, and promises that all believers will share his victory, and can look forward to a glorious eternity with him, and see God face to face (22:4).
If you want more help in understanding this book, I recommend that you read my book on Revelation: "The Lion and the Lamb". You can order this book on the Julian's Books page.
There are articles about the different Views of Revelation and the different views of the Millennium in the NT Studies section. There are notes on the authorship of the book in the article about Revelation in the NT Books section.