A Provided Tutorial

John on Patmos
(Revelation 1:19) - “Write what things you saw and what they are; and what things are going to come to pass after these.”
The Book of Revelation provides several interpretations of its visionary images, interpretive keys to its message to the churches of Asia. Its first vision provides an example, a “tutorial” on how the book applies its symbols. This includes a formula for recognizing the presence of provided explanations.
In the book’s first vision, John is told to write down, “What things you saw and WHAT THEY ARE,” and informed that the seven golden “lampstands” represent seven churches and the “stars” he saw in the hand of Jesus symbolize the seven angels or “messengers” of the churches. The clause, “what they are,” is used numerous times in subsequent visions to introduce their explanations.
The first verse of the book explains that Jesus “signified” his “revelation” to John. This translates the Greek verb, sémainō. It is related to the noun for “sign” or semeion (cp. Revelation 12:1, 12:3, 13:13, 13:14, 15:1, 16:14, 19:20). This verb form occurs only in the book’s first verse. The verb means to “signify, show by sign or token” (but compare John 12:33, 18:32, 21:19, Acts 11:28, 25:27). Thus, the book communicates through visionary symbols.
The visual aspect of Revelation is emphasized by the repeated references to what John “saw” (e.g., “and I saw…”), with the verb for “see” occurring fifty-six times. Revelation 1:2 states that John “testified to all things that he saw.”
Write what things you saw and what they are, what things are going to come to pass after these” (1:19). What John “saw” refers to the images and symbols in his visions. “Are” translates the Greek verb eimi (“to be”), here in the present tense, third person, and the plural form; that is, “they are”.
The second clause, “what they are,” refers to the meaning of the symbols provided by the explanations given to John, often by an angel. He must record both the description of each vision and any explanation provided; that is, what its imagery signifies.
This clause is the signal when Revelation provides an interpretation, as the next verse demonstrates (Revelation 1:20). The “loud voice” John first hear interprets the two symbols from his first vision: the seven stars “are” (esin) seven angels and the seven golden lampstands “are” (esin) seven churches. Neither stars nor lampstands are “literal” objects; they symbolize other realities.
This same clause or “formula” reoccurs several times; in each case, a vision’s images are not “literal” but symbolic. For example:
1.     The Beast’s ten horns “are” (esin) ten kings (17:12).
2.   The waters on which Babylon sits “are” (esin) “peoples, multitudes, nations and tongues” (17:15).
 The “Two Witnesses” from Revelation 11:4 are said to represent “two lampstands.” The verse does not explain what a lampstand symbolizes but there is no need since Revelation is consistent with its symbolism. Since “lampstands” represent churches, the “Two Witnesses” also represent churches.
The same formula is employed to interpret other symbols but with the singular form of the verb. Note the following examples:
1.     The great city that spiritually is “called” (kaleitai) Sodom and Egypt (11:8).
2.    The great red dragon “who is called” (kaloumenos) the “Devil and Satan” (12:9).
3.    Martyrdom “is” (estin) the “endurance and faith” of the saints (13:10).
4.    The endurance of the saints “is” (estin) they who keep the faith of Jesus (14:12).
5.    The great harlot “is” (estin) the great city with dominion over the kings of the earth (17:18).
6.    The fine linen “is” (estin) the righteousness of the saints (19:8).
7.    The lake of fire “is” (estin) the “second death” (20:14; 21:8).
8.   The dragon and the ancient serpent “is” (estin) the “Devil and Satan” (20:2).
The images are often bizarre and portray physical impossibilities, such as a woman “arrayed with the sun.” A lamb with seven eyes or a beast with seven heads is symbolic, not literal. Revelation itself interprets its visions symbolically; the symbols point to realities but are not themselves real.
Revelation is not an “allegory” meant to portray timeless truths. It is concerned with real challenges facing the Church; its images symbolize real events “that must come to pass.” But John did not time travel into the future and his descriptions are not how a first-century man would describe strange technologies and scenes from the future.
John received visions when he “came to be in spirit.” In those visions, he saw images and heard explanations. The failure to understand that Revelation communicates symbolically can only produce incorrect interpretations. Fortunately, the book provides a significant number of interpretations so that the reader is not left clueless.