Provided Interpretations

Revelation communicates symbolically, and it provides the reader with many key interpretations of its images

Compass - Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash
The book of 
Revelation provides the reader with several interpretations of its key images. For example, in the first vision, the “seven golden lampstands” represent seven churches. And the book is consistent in the application of its symbols. Thus, “lampstands” symbolize churches, “stars” represent angels, “incense” portrays the “prayers of the saints,” and so on - [Compass - Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash].

Near the start of the book, John is commanded to record the things that he “sees,” and what they “are.” This provides the pattern for interpreting the book’s images, and the very first vision demonstrates how the book communicates symbolically.
  • (Revelation 1:19-20) - “Write, therefore, what things you saw and what they are; and what things are going to come to pass after these things. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw on my right hand, and the seven lampstands of gold; the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are seven churches.

John “sees” Jesus as the “Son of Man” figure standing among “seven golden lampstands” while holding seven “stars.”

SYMBOLISM


What they are” refers to what they represent, namely, churches and angels. At the very start of the book, John is told the contents and purpose of its visions:
  • (Revelation 1:1) - “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him, to show his servants the things that must come to pass soon, and he signified through his angel to his servant John.

The Greek verb rendered “signified” is sémainō, a verb related to the noun for “sign” (semeion). It means “to signify,” “to show by sign.”

Thus, the book specifies its medium of communication - visionary symbolism. The visual aspect is emphasized throughout the book by the repeated references to what John “sees” (fifty-six times).

Write what they are.” John is commanded to record what he sees, and what those images “are.” In the clause, the English term rendered “are” translates the Greek verb eisin. Here, it is in the present tense and plural number, that is, “they are.”

The verb refers to the explanations provided for many of the visions. John is to record the description of each vision, and what the images “signify.”

FIRST VISION & INTERPRETATION


The first vision and its explanation do exactly that. John “sees” the risen Christ walking among seven golden “lampstands” while holding “seven stars.” But the “stars” represent seven “angels” (“they are” - esin), and the “seven lampstands” symbolize seven “churches” (“they are” - esin). The same Greek verb form or “are” (esin) is used in each clause.

The book interprets at least nine more images using this same verbal formula. In each case, the images are not literal. They represent something else. For example:
  • The “seven lamps of fire” before the throne “are” (esin) the “seven spirits of God” - (4:5).
  • The “seven eyes” of the Lamb “are” (esin) the “seven spirits of God” - (5:6).
  • The bowls of incense “are” (esin) the “prayers of the saints” (5:8).
  • The great multitudes “are” (esin) those who “are coming out of the great tribulation” - (7:13).
  • The two witnesses “are” (esin) the “two olive trees and the two lampstands” - (11:4).
  • Three unclean spirits like frogs “are” (esin) the “demons” sent to gather the kings of the earth - (16:13-14).
  • The “seven heads” of the Beast “are” (esin) “seven mountains” on which Babylon sits - (17:9).
  • The “ten horns” of the Beast “are” (esin) “ten kings” - (17:12).
  • The “waters” on which Babylon sits “are” (esin) “peoples, multitudes, nations and tongues” - (17:15).

The same formula is employed elsewhere to interpret symbols but using the singular form of the same Greek verb, or eimi (or similar verbs in the present tense). Note the following examples:
  • The great city that “spiritually is called” (kaleitai) “Sodom and Egypt” - (11:8).
  • The “great red dragon who is called” (kaloumenos) the Devil and Satan - (12:9).
  • Martyrdom IS (estin) the “endurance and faith” of the saints - (13:10).
  • The endurance of the saints IS (estin) they who “keep the faith of Jesus” - (14:12).
  • And gathered them to “the place called” (kaloumenon) in the Hebrew tongue; “Armageddon” - (16:16).
  • The “great whore” IS (estin) the “great city” with dominion over the kings of the earth - (17:18).
  • The “fine linen” IS (estin) the “righteousness of the saints” - (19:8).
  • The “lake of fire” IS (estin) the “second death” - (20:14, 21:8).
  • The “dragon and ancient serpent” IS (estin) the “Devil and Satan” - (20:2).

ANGELS


Angels provide explanations. For example, John sees an “innumerable multitude” arrayed in white robes before the Throne. One of the twenty-four elders explains that the multitude represents “they who are coming out of the great tribulation, and they washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” - (Revelation 7:9-17).

Later, John is “carried away in spirit into the wilderness” where he sees a “woman sitting on a scarlet beast full of names of blasphemy; having seven heads and ten horns.” The figure had a name and “mystery” written on her forehead, “Babylon the great; the mother of the harlots and of the abominations of the earth” - (Revelation 17:1-6).

The term “mystery” demonstrates the woman does not represent the ancient city of Babylon in Mesopotamia. Her true significance must be unveiled. The angel with John does just that, stating that “she is the great city that has sovereignty over the kings of the earth,” a city linked to “seven mountains.” As described, she can only symbolize Rome - (Revelation 17:15-18).

The images are often bizarre, and some even portray physical impossibilities. A woman arrayed “with the sun” and the moon “beneath her feet,” for example, cannot be literally true. A lamb does not have “seven horns” or “seven eyes.” Animals do not have “ten horns” or “seven heads.” The imagery is symbolic, not literal.

GENUINE REALITIES


This does not mean the visions are allegorical. The book is concerned with real events that “must come to pass.” But John does not time travel into the future. His descriptions are not how a first-century man would attempt to describe strange technologies and scenes from a remote future. For that matter, most of the language is drawn from the Old Testament.

John receives his visions when he “comes to be in the spirit.” There, he sees images and hears explanations from angelic beings. The symbols point to concrete realities but are not themselves real.

The failure to understand how Revelation communicates symbolically produces incorrect and often bizarre interpretations.

To comprehend the book’s message, the reader must pay attention to the interpretations provided by the book, along with literary context, and how Revelation applies language from the Old Testament.



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