Provided Interpretations in Revelation

Books - Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash
By Kari Shea on Unsplash
Revelation frequently provides interpretations of its symbols and visions. For example, its first vision explains that images of golden lampstands and stars represent churches and “messengers,” respectively:  “Write, therefore, what things you saw and what they are; and what things are going to come to pass after these” - (Revelation 1:19).
John was told to write down what he “saw,” what the things that he saw “are,” and the future realities to which they point. This passage establishes a pattern for interpreting many of the book’s symbols. Verse 20 provides an example of the application of this formula.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him, to show to his servants the things that must come to pass soon, and he signified through his angel to his servant John” (Revelation 1:1).
The Greek verb rendered “signified” is sémainō, a verb related to the noun for “sign” or sémeion. The latter term occurs for “sign” seven times in Revelation; sémainō occurs only here. The verb means to “signify;” to “show by sign or token.” Thus, Revelation specifies the medium of communication used in it: visionary symbolism. (Revelation 12:1, 12:3, 13:13, 13:14, 15:1, 16:14, 19:20)
This visual aspect is emphasized throughout the book by the repeated references to what John “saw.” The verb used for “see” occurs fifty-six times in the book.
Write what they are.” John is commanded to write “what things you saw.” then what “they are.” This translates the Greek verb eisin in the present tense, third person, and plural number (Revelation 1:19).
What things he “saw” are the symbols seen in each vision. What they “are” refers to the explanations provided by each vision, where applicable. John is to record both the description of each vision and what he is told each one “signifies.”
The first vision and its explanation do exactly this. John “sees” the risen Christ walking among seven golden “lamp-stands” and holding seven stars. John is told the seven stars “are” (esin) “messengers” and the seven golden lampstands “are” (esin) seven churches. The same Greek verb form is used in both clauses (Revelation 1:12-20).
Revelation interprets at least nine more images using this same formula. In each case, the visionary symbols are not literal descriptions but represent something else. For example:
1.       The “seven lamps of fire” before the throne “are” (esin) the “seven spirits of God” (4:5).
2.      The Lamb’s seven eyes “are” (esin) the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth (5:6).
3.      The bowls of incense “are” (esin) the “prayers of the saints” (5:8).
4.      The great multitudes “are” (esin) those who “are coming out of the great tribulation” (7:13).
5.      The Two Witnesses “are” (esin) “the two olive trees and the two lampstands” that stand before the Lord (11:4).
6.     Three unclean spirits like frogs “are” (esin) spirits of demons sent to perform “signs” to gather the kings of the earth to the war of “the great day of God the Almighty” (16:13-14).
7.      The seven heads of the Beast “are” (esin) seven mountains on which Babylon sits (17:9).
8.     The ten horns of the Beast “are” (esin) ten kings who have not yet received power to rule (17:12).
9.      The waters on which Babylon sits “are” (esin) “peoples; multitudes; nations and tongues” (17:15).
The Two Witnesses represent “two lampstands.” The verse does not explain what lampstands symbolize but Revelation previously applied this symbol to churches. Thus, they represent churches (Revelation 11:4). The same formula is employed elsewhere to interpret symbols using the singular form of the verb (eimi) or similar verbs in the present tense. 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.      Imprisonment or 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.      And gathered them to “the place called” (kaloumenon) in the Hebrew tongue; Armageddon (16:16).
6.      The description “in the Hebrew tongue” is a clue to the significance of the name Armageddon and the scriptural source behind it (Zechariah 12:11).
7.      The great harlot IS (estin) the great city with dominion over the kings of the earth (17:18).
8.     The fine linen IS (estin) the righteousness of the saints (19:8).
9.      The lake of fire IS (estin) the “second death” (20:14, 21:8).
10.  The dragon and ancient serpent IS (estin) the “Devil and Satan” (20:2).
Angelic beings that accompany John provide several explanations of the images he sees. For example, John sees a great innumerable multitude arrayed in white robes standing before the throne and the Lamb that consists of individuals from every nation. When asked who they are and from whence they came one of the twenty-four elders explains; “they are those 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).
John is “carried away in spirit into the wilderness” to see a “woman sitting on a scarlet beast full of names of blasphemy; having seven heads and ten horns.” She has a name, a “mystery” written on her forehead, “Babylon the great; the Mother of the Harlots and of the Abominations of the earth” (Revelation 17:1-6).
 Mystery” makes clear she is not the literal city of Babylon in Mesopotamia, whether ancient or rebuilt in the future. Her true significance must be unveiled. The angel with John states that she represents “the great city that has sovereignty over the kings of the earth,” a city linked in John’s day to “seven mountains.” This can only refer to Rome (Revelation 17:18).
The images in Revelation are often bizarre and even portray physical impossibilities. A woman arrayed “with the sun” and the moon “beneath her feet,” for example, cannot be a literal description. A lamb does not have seven horns or seven eyes; animals do not have ten horns or seven heads. Such imagery is symbolic, not literal.
Some commentators insist Revelation’s images must be interpreted “literally.” However, the book itself interprets many of its visions and signs symbolically. The images are not to be taken “literally”; they represent some other reality.
This does not mean that Revelation is “allegory” or one long parable. It is concerned with real issues and its contents concern real events, ones “that must come to pass.” But John did not time travel to the future; his descriptions are not how a first-century man would attempt to describe strange technologies and scenes from the future. Much of the language and imagery are drawn from the Old Testament.
John received visions when he “came to be in spirit” where he saw images and heard explanations. The symbols point to definite realities but are not themselves real. The failure to understand that Revelation communicates symbolically, and the insistence on interpreting symbolic representations “literally,” can only produce incorrect and often truly bizarre interpretations.
Most important is to pay attention to the interpretations provided by the book rather than importing popular notions and experiences into its visions.


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