Interpretations Provided

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

Compass - Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash
provides numerous interpretations of its visions. For example, the first vision explains that the “seven golden lampstands” represent seven churches. Moreover, it is consistent in its application of symbols - “lampstands” symbolize churches, “stars” represent angels, and “incense” portrays the “prayers of the saints.” - [Compass - Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash].

John was commanded to record what he “saw,” and what those things “are.” This provides the pattern for interpreting the images from his visions, 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 “saw” Jesus portrayed as the “Son of Man,” a priestly figure who was standing among “seven golden lampstands” and holding seven “stars.” What they “are” - what the two things represent - are churches and angels.

Moreover, at the very start of the book, John was told the contents and purpose of its visions - “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.” - (Revelation 1:1).

The Greek verb rendered “signified” is sémainō (Strong’s - #G4591), which is related to the noun for “sign” (semeion). It means “to signify,” “to show by sign,” and so, the book specifies its medium of communication - visionary symbolism.

And the visual aspect is emphasized throughout the book by the repeated references to what John “saw,” a total of fifty-six times.


Write what they are.” Here, John is commanded to record what he sees, and what the images “are.” The English term “are” translates the Greek verb eisin, which is in the present tense and plural number, that is, “they are.” This refers to the explanations provided for many of the visions. John was to record both the description of each vision, and what the images “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” represent seven “angels” (“they are” - esin), and the “seven lampstands” symbolize seven “churches” (“they are” - esin). The same Greek verb form rendered “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 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 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 to John. For example, he saw an “innumerable multitude” arrayed in white robes 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.” 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).

Mountains Dusk - Photo by v2osk on Unsplash
[Photo by v2osk on Unsplash]

The term “
mystery” demonstrates that the woman does not represent the ancient city of Babylon in Mesopotamia. Her true significance has to 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.” That could only refer to Rome - (Revelation 17:15-18).

The images are often bizarre with some even portraying 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 images are symbolic, not literal.

But the visions are not allegorical and concern real events. John does not time travel to the future, and his descriptions do not represent how a first-century man would describe strange technologies from a remote future. The language is derived 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.

To comprehend the book’s message, it is most important to pay attention to the interpretations provided by the book, along with literary context, and how Revelation applies language from the Old Testament to the situation(s) of the churches in Asia.



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