Interpreting the Symbolism in Revelation (Revelation 1:1-3)
If you don’t catch something in these sermons, you can always find them on our website by Monday afternoon. I know dating Revelation was pretty technical. Introductory information is always a bit technical. But it’s also important to keep biblical truth accessible to children. That’s no less true of Revelation.
Children, read Revelation with your parents. I suggest that not because you need their help, but because they need your help.1 You have an ability to see the big picture in ways your parents can’t. You won’t get tripped up on all of the details adults have heard in the past that tend to cloud their interpretation more than help it.
One such stumbling block is the idea of symbolism. For many, symbolism seems like a cop out. Those who refuse to take the Bible seriously read everythingsymbolically. In contrast, shouldn’t we read the Bible literally wherever possible? Doesn’t Scripture become untrustworthy if it speaks figuratively? Ryken’s Bible Handbook responds,
To say that the mode is symbolic is not to deny that the characters and events are real. What is at stake is how the characters and events are portrayed. The symbols speak of realities—beings who really exist and events that really do happen.2
And frankly, no one denies that Revelation speaks in symbols. The question has always been: what spiritual and/or physical realities do those symbols represent?
Read Revelation 1:1-3.
How Should We Interpret the Book?
When did/will the events described in Revelation take place in history? There are four basic approaches to interpreting Revelation.
- Preterists primarily find fulfillment at the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD), although some consider the Fall of Rome in the fifth century AD as the fulfillment of Revelation. In either case, the description of tribulation has no reference to the future. The events happened shortly after John wrote.
What I appreciate about the Preterist view is its relevance to the original audience. Revelation speaks of events “that must soon take place” (1:1). There is a blessing for hearing and keeping it’s prophecy “for the time is near” (1:3). Therefore, we must find application to those first century readers in Asia Minor.
It’s always important to consider how the original audience would’ve understood the text. If my interpretation would make no sense to the first reader, I should abandon my interpretation. How we interpret the symbolism in Revelation should be rooted in examples they would understand.
However, I cannot stop there. I need to see its relevance in our own age. In addition, if Daniel 2 and 7 predict a universal judgment at Christ’s second coming, it’s difficult to understand why that judgment would be limited to Israel or Rome in Revelation.
- Futurists await fulfillment just before the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Anyone who has read The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey or The Left Behind Series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins has a pretty good idea of this approach. With the help of websites like prophecynewswatch.com, futurists come up with engrossing interpretations of the demonic locusts (Rev. 9:7-10) as a fleet of helicopters attacking the world’s population. Now, could you imagine any first-century reader coming away with anything close to the interpretation described by futurists? That’s the primary problem with this view.
However, several passages throughout Revelation clearly describe the time just prior to Christ’s return. While I disagree with the futurists speculations about those events, they do fill us with anticipation for Christ’s return. That, in and of itself, is healthy and biblical. In fact, the great hope of the first readers was the return of Christ.
Yet, the entire period between the first and second coming of Christ is “the latter days” (Hos. 3:5; Mic. 4:1), or the “last days” (2 Tim. 3:1), or “the last hour” (1 John 2:18). Therefore, much of what we read in Revelation will have past, present, and future manifestations of fulfillment.
- Historicists believe the majority of Revelation provides a chronological overview of Church history from Christ’s first coming to his second coming.
This approach was standard among most sixteenth century reformers. For instance, Jonathan Edwards thought he was living between the sixth and seventh bowl.3 It rightly values the seven first century churches addressed, as well as the future second coming of Christ. However, they view everything in between as visions of Church history in chronological order.
The creative historicist can certainly find vague connections to particular people and events in chronological order, but there is no way anyone could be certain that their connections were right. In addition, like the futurists, Rev. 4-19 becomes nonsensical to the first readers. How could the early church “keep what is written” (1:3) about events fulfilled in progressive stages over the course of two-thousand-plus years? This view is dependent upon subjective information, which is why there is no unity among historicists. Ironically, as Reformers who helped define the principles of Sola Scriptura, their view often lacks an awareness of John’s allusions to relevant passages in the Old Testament.
- Idealists are less concerned with specific events, rather they find spiritual principles that are repeated throughout the church age.
Idealists do not find chronological order, but patterns of recapitulation presented from different viewpoints with different imagery. Revelation is presented in cycles of events that repeat themselves. According to this hermeneutic, John’s words have direct application to those suffering under the persecution of a Roman Emperor. It also relates to those suffering in later eras under other evil dictatorships. And, finally, it points to a future period of tribulation that will be the climactic expression of evil. The first to articulate this interpretive view was Augustine in the early fifth century.
My approach to Revelation represents something of a combination of all these views, with a hearty emphasis upon a modified version of the Idealist method.4 Both the Preterist and Futurist views tend to minimize application to the present day because fulfillment has either already occurred in the past or it still awaits a future fulfillment. The Historicist begins to correct that tendency by finding ongoing relevance to the text. All of the views have something to contribute, but none of them are adequate by themselves.
With these interpretive lens, let’s consider…
How Should We Interpret the Symbolism?
John’s vision is filled with symbolic imagery. The scenes are so vivid and change so frequently it’s like watching a movie.5 We are meant to see what John sees, to visualize the images as if we were standing next to him. And yet, there are some images that combine so much symbolism that visualization becomes almost impossible (Rev. 5:6).
Although John actually saw something, what was depicted in his vision and described for us, is symbolic. Donald Richardson explains,
Symbolic writing…does not paint pictures. It is not pictographic but ideographic… The skull and crossbones on the bottle of medicine is a symbol of poison, not a picture… The fish, the lamb, the lion are all symbols of Christ, but never to be taken as pictures of him…”6
Revelation is often treated like one ultra-long parable or allegory. Just as people often misinterpret parables by attaching each element to a spiritual component, they do the same with Revelation. On the other hand, instead of spiritualizing every element that is described, others may attempt to read it in a perfectly literal sense.
It reminds me of an image I came across on the whiteboard in seminary. The image was depicting the bride in Song of Solomon (ch.4). Her eyes were doves. Her hair was a flock of leaping goats. Her teeth were a flock of sheep. Her lips were a scarlet thread. Her cheeks were halves of a pomegranate. Her neck was the stone tower of David decorated with the shields of warriors. Truly, she was hideous. Poetry, like apocryphal literature, is full of symbolism. It is a mockery of the genre to read it literally.
Instead of reading literally-where-possible, we should be reading symbolically-where-possible.7 This is evident from the opening verse. God “…made it known…” (1:1) alludes to Daniel’s statement to King Nebuchadnezzar, “A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this” (Daniel 2:45). The word can mean “signify” rather than simply communicate. It frequently describes Jesus’ miracles as “signs”. Greg Beale argues the word means “communicate by symbols” here. That is precisely why John uses another related verb, “to show.” Making something known visually necessarily involves symbols. Beale notes,
The allusion to Dan. 2:28-30, 45 indicates that a symbolic vision and its interpretation is going to be part of the warp and woof of the means of communication throughout Revelation.8
Daniel interpreted the king’s dream about the statue as symbolically representing major kingdoms.
Let’s go back to our consideration of the beast. The Idealist would interpret the beast as a reference to state opposition to Christ, in all of it’s historical embodiments. Thus, there are first century examples of the beast such as Nero and Domitian. But we might also find examples in the likes of Hitler and Stalin. None of these however, are the final and climactic embodiment of the Antichrist, for that is reserved for the period just prior to Christ’s Second Coming. Whereas the Futuristand Preterist will focus on specific individuals and events related to the beast, the Idealist sees the pattern and principles by which the beast operates as having the most relevance to our understanding.
Further, with an awareness of the Old Testament we should find relevant aspects of Redemptive History to bring home the message in a very gospel-centered way. Adam was created in the image of God (1:27) and he served as the representative for all his descendants. Because of Adam’s headship over humanity, his fall into sin, plunged humanity into a state of sin.
Mankind would have remained in that state of sin were it not for the second Adam, Jesus Christ, who perfectly obeyed (where the first Adam failed) and then died, bearing the penalty for all his children. In Christ, Christians have transitioned out of a state of sin and misery, into a state of salvation by a redeemer.
But then, in Revelation, a third figure comes along. The beast of Revelation 13:1-10 attempts to become a third representative for humanity. He offers a counterfeit work which deceives many into following him. The beast is likely symbolic of a particular human being or institution, but as beast he is subject to the last Adam. As Vern Poythress points out,
Genesis 1:28 indicates that the beasts are to be subordinate to Adam. And in the last days, the last Adam will make all beasts subject to him, including this great Beast.9
Seeing the deceitful schemes of the devil and his minions laid out for us in Revelation helps us to gird ourselves with the whole armor of God (Eph. 6:10-20). We can now see through John’s vision that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
Revelation shows us the reality of spiritual warfare. But even more importantly, it shows us Who wins! God’s promises become a firm foundation: “The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose, I will not, I will not desert to its foes; That soul, Though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”10
- Poythress, Vern, The Returning King: A Guide to the book of Revelation, p.13 ↩︎
- Ryken, Leland and Philip, with James Without, Ryken’s Bible Handbook, 631. ↩︎
- Johnson, Dennis, Triumph of the Lamb, 355. ↩︎
- Some have labeled this the Eclectic method of interpretation since many Reformed theologians have now adopted this approach. It highlights the best aspects of each method and discards their weaknesses. See Greg Beale, NIGTC: Revelation, 48-49, and Joel Beeke, LCE: Revelation, 8-9. ↩︎
- Hendriksen, William, More Than Conquerors, 37-38. ↩︎
- Ryken, 628. ↩︎
- Johnson, 12. ↩︎
- Beale, 51-52. ↩︎
- Poythress, 21 ↩︎
- George Keith “How Firm A Foundation” ↩︎