Provided Interpretations - Revelation

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- Revelation communicates symbolically and provides many important interpretations of its images

The book of Revelation itself provides many interpretations of its images. For example, the first vision explains that the images of “seven golden lampstands” and “seven stars” represent churches and angels, respectively. The first vision demonstrates how the visions of John communicate information symbolically - [Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash].
  • (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 was told to write down the things that he “saw” and they “are,” and the future realities to which they point. This description provides a pattern for interpreting the images from his subsequent visions. What John “saw” was Jesus standing among “seven golden lampstands” while holding seven “stars.” What they “are,” that is, what they represent, are churches and angels.

At the very start, John was told the contents and purpose of the visions he was about to receive:
  • (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  (Strong’s - #G4591), a verb related to the noun for “sign” (semeion). The latter term occurs seven times in the book, sémainō is found only in its first verse. It means, “to signify,” “to show by sign.” Thus, the book specifies its medium of communication - visionary symbolism. This visual aspect is emphasized by the repeated references to what John “saw” (fifty-six times).

Write what they are.” John was commanded to record “what things you saw,” and what “they are.” This last verb translates the Greek verb eisin in the present tense, third person, and plural number, that is, what they “are” - (Revelation 1:19).

The things John “saw” were the images in each vision. What they “are” refers to the explanations provided for each vision, where applicable. Therefore, John was to record both the description of each vision and what he was told each one “signified.”

The first vision and its explanation do exactly that. John “saw” the risen Christ walking among seven golden “lampstands” and holding “seven stars.” But the stars represented seven “angels” (“they are” - esin), and the “seven lampstands” symbolized seven “churches” (“they are” - esin). The same Greek verb form for “are” (esin) is used in both clauses.

The book interprets at least nine more images using this same formula. In each case, the images are not literal, and 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 using the singular form of the 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 whoreIS (estin) the “great city” with dominion over the kings of the earth - (17:18).
  • The “fine linenIS (estin) the “righteousness of the saints” - (19:8).
  • The “lake of fireIS (estin) the “second death” - (20:14, 21:8).
  • The “dragon and ancient serpentIS (estin) the “Devil and Satan” - (20:2).
Angelic beings provide explanations of the images to John. For example, he saw an “innumerable multitude” arrayed in white robes standing before the Throne. One of the twenty-four elders explained that the multitude represented “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 was “carried away in spirit into the wilderness” where he saw a “woman sitting on a scarlet beast full of names of blasphemy; having seven heads and ten horns.” This 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” makes clear the woman did not represent ancient Babylon in Mesopotamia. Her true significance had to be unveiled. The angel with John did just that, stating - “She is the great city that has sovereignty over the kings of the earth,” a city linked to “seven mountains.” This could only refer to Rome - (Revelation 17:15-18).

The images are often bizarre, 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.” Such imagery is symbolical, not literal.

This does not mean the visions are “allegorical.” The book is concerned with real events, ones “that must come to pass.” But John did 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 received visions when he “came to be in spirit,” saw images, and heard explanations from angelic beings. The symbols point to concrete realities but are not themselves real. The failure to understand that Revelation communicates symbolically will produce incorrect and even quite bizarre interpretations. To comprehend its message, it is most important is to pay attention to the interpretations provided by the book itself.


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