The book of Revelation and Symbolism

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The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.
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Many of the questions surrounding the contested interpretation of the book of Revelation concern how we should read the imagery that John uses. Is it literal? Symbolic? If they are symbolic, what do they mean? I think that the imagery and the numbers used in the book are symbolic, and not intended to be understood literally. G. K. Beale explains why. He interprets the book of Revelation symbolically, because he interprets literally.

Beale shows that the Greek word for the phrase “made it known” (or “communicated it” in the NASB) is σημαίνω or sēmainō. This can be translated a few ways, but Beale says it should be “communicated by symbols.” So it could read “He communicated it by symbols by sending his angel to his servant John.” On top of that, there is a vital allusion to in the opening verse of Revelation. Key phrases in of , are also used in . In Daniel, the context is someone interpreting a dream where there is a symbolic vision. Here, Beale uses the scripture to interpret scripture. Beale sums it up like this:

“Scripture is of a piece, it is unified. I think that throughout the book of Revelation John is referring all over the place to Daniel. And when you go back to the Old Testament context and go back to the New, it always illuminates the New Testament text. So I think John is using this in light of the context of Daniel, and he is saying “These visions in Revelation are communicated symbolically in the same way that Nebuchadnezzar had that vision [in ].” . . . is a programmatic verse for whole book; that’s why we call it the book of Revelation!”

This verse literally says that the book is mainly going to be symbols. So we should interpret the rest of the book symbolically. Listen to Beale’s talk here.

1:1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.

1:1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,

28 but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. Your dream and the visions of your head as you lay in bed are these: 29 To you, O king, as you lay in bed came thoughts of what would be after this, and he who reveals mysteries made known to you what is to be.

2:1 In the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his spirit was troubled, and his sleep left him.

1:1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.

John to the seven churches that are in Asia:

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”

12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. 19 Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

28 but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. Your dream and the visions of your head as you lay in bed are these: 29 To you, O king, as you lay in bed came thoughts of what would be after this, and he who reveals mysteries made known to you what is to be.

2:1 In the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his spirit was troubled, and his sleep left him. Then the king commanded that the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams. So they came in and stood before the king. And the king said to them, “I had a dream, and my spirit is troubled to know the dream.” Then the Chaldeans said to the king in Aramaic, “O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation.” The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, “The word from me is firm: if you do not make known to me the dream and its interpretation, you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins. But if you show the dream and its interpretation, you shall receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. Therefore show me the dream and its interpretation.” They answered a second time and said, “Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will show its interpretation.” The king answered and said, “I know with certainty that you are trying to gain time, because you see that the word from me is firm— if you do not make the dream known to me, there is but one sentence for you. You have agreed to speak lying and corrupt words before me till the times change. Therefore tell me the dream, and I shall know that you can show me its interpretation.” 10 The Chaldeans answered the king and said, “There is not a man on earth who can meet the king’s demand, for no great and powerful king has asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean. 11 The thing that the king asks is difficult, and no one can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh.”

12 Because of this the king was angry and very furious, and commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be destroyed. 13 So the decree went out, and the wise men were about to be killed; and they sought Daniel and his companions, to kill them. 14 Then Daniel replied with prudence and discretion to Arioch, the captain of the king’s guard, who had gone out to kill the wise men of Babylon. 15 He declared to Arioch, the king’s captain, “Why is the decree of the king so urgent?” Then Arioch made the matter known to Daniel. 16 And Daniel went in and requested the king to appoint him a time, that he might show the interpretation to the king.

17 Then Daniel went to his house and made the matter known to Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, his companions, 18 and told them to seek mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that Daniel and his companions might not be destroyed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon. 19 Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night. Then Daniel blessed the God of heaven. 20 Daniel answered and said:

“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
to whom belong wisdom and might.
21 He changes times and seasons;
he removes kings and sets up kings;
he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding;
22 he reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what is in the darkness,
and the light dwells with him.
23 To you, O God of my fathers,
I give thanks and praise,
for you have given me wisdom and might,
and have now made known to me what we asked of you,
for you have made known to us the king’s matter.”

24 Therefore Daniel went in to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to destroy the wise men of Babylon. He went and said thus to him: “Do not destroy the wise men of Babylon; bring me in before the king, and I will show the king the interpretation.”

25 Then Arioch brought in Daniel before the king in haste and said thus to him: “I have found among the exiles from Judah a man who will make known to the king the interpretation.” 26 The king declared to Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, “Are you able to make known to me the dream that I have seen and its interpretation?” 27 Daniel answered the king and said, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, 28 but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. Your dream and the visions of your head as you lay in bed are these: 29 To you, O king, as you lay in bed came thoughts of what would be after this, and he who reveals mysteries made known to you what is to be. 30 But as for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because of any wisdom that I have more than all the living, but in order that the interpretation may be made known to the king, and that you may know the thoughts of your mind.

31 “You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. 32 The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. 34 As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.

36 “This was the dream. Now we will tell the king its interpretation. 37 You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, 38 and into whose hand he has given, wherever they dwell, the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all—you are the head of gold. 39 Another kingdom inferior to you shall arise after you, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth. 40 And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things. And like iron that crushes, it shall break and crush all these. 41 And as you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom, but some of the firmness of iron shall be in it, just as you saw iron mixed with the soft clay. 42 And as the toes of the feet were partly iron and partly clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. 43 As you saw the iron mixed with soft clay, so they will mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay. 44 And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever, 45 just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.”

46 Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face and paid homage to Daniel, and commanded that an offering and incense be offered up to him. 47 The king answered and said to Daniel, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery.” 48 Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. 49 Daniel made a request of the king, and he appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego over the affairs of the province of Babylon. But Daniel remained at the king’s court.

2:1 In the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his spirit was troubled, and his sleep left him.

9 thoughts on “The book of Revelation and Symbolism”

  1. Hello Simon,

    From the conclusions you have drawn here I’d be interested in simply knowing (not for the sake of debate, solely of interest – being, I’m *assuming* that you are a Baptist of some form) where you land eschatologically?

    Thanks,
    Matthew

    1. Hi Matthew,
      I hold to a postmillennial position, eschatologically speaking. The covenantal structure throughout the Bible, along with the coherence of a partial-preterist reading of prophecy, lead me to this conclusion. I don’t know many postmillennialists in Baptist circles, and I’m definitely the odd one out at our church in that regard.

  2. Thanks Simon. Interesting point. Thanks for that! Two comments…
    First, that means interpreting Revelation symbolically IS interpreting it literally: that is, according to the literature. Those who want to interpret it over-literally are basically getting the genre wrong and reading the comics in the newspaper the same as the front page. Literal interpretation means interpreting according to the literature.
    Second, the book is FULL of Old Testament allusions – almost every verse. Often the specific numbers, symbols, etc, come from there, and that’s why they’re being used. They would probably seem much less strange to us if we knew our Bible’s well. I suspect we don’t know our Bible’s well!

  3. Yes – we read Revelation the same way we would watch “Shrek.” A sound knowledge of movies and nursery rhymes is required to get the jokes, and also a familiarity with standard Biblical storylines so we can tell when it is being turned on its head to make a point.

    From memory, even Beale gets things wrong. Revelation is not a polemic against imperial Rome but against Jerusalem’s harlotry with Rome. It’s also a replay of : the “individual” sins of Adam, Eve and the serpent have become corporate, or institutional. It was now the false prophet (Herodian antichrist), the harlot (Herodian worship) and the beast (the empire to be conquered by sacrificial witness, not compromise).

    Structure is also important. The book follows the same structure as Ezekiel: the old house is “slain” and a new one is “raised up.” But instead of Northern and Southern Israel being reunited through “death” in Babylon, here it is Jew and Gentile, as the body of One New Man.

    1. Hi Mike,
      Thanks for your thoughts. As we previously discussed, I can’t follow you on everything you’re saying (Herodian antichrist, worship, etc . . . ). However, I agree with your conclusion about Revelation being about primarily about Jerusalem and not Rome. And maybe you’re right on some of the parallels in Ezekiel, now that you mention it. So, yes, structure is important, along with symbolism. You’ve done a lot more work on that than I ever will, though!

      And I think your’s and Martin’s comments about comic books and ‘Shrek’ are telling. Except that I would have thought that some interpretations are a bit darker. Maybe ‘Corpse Bride’ is a bit closer in theme and tone. ;)

    1. That’s fine, Matt. Thanks for tip, also. I read the review of that one on the Gospel Coalition website. Looks like a helpful round-up of the pre-trib-Dispensational position. I assume that, as a Master’s man, you’re with them on this one.

  4. Thanks Simon,
    I haven’t taken the eschatology classes yet – I’ve taken Hermenutics and obviously that plays a large part in where you land.
    Oh that review :) . Lead to some interesting discussions.
    Anyway, I’d recommend that book & this by one of the authors: http://theologicalstudies.org/resource-library/eschatology-articles
    I look forward to learning more about a topic I have certainly neglected.
    Have a great week!

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