SYNOPSIS: The book of Revelation communicates symbolically and provides many of the necessary interpretations of its images.
The book of Revelation provides many interpretations of its symbols and visions. For example, the very first vision explains that its images of golden “lampstands” and “stars” represent churches and messengers, respectively. What this first vision demonstrates is how the visions John received from Jesus communicate information symbolically. Note well the conclusion to the opening vision of Jesus as the glorified “Son of Man”:
(Revelation 1:19-20) – “Write, therefore—what things thou hast seen and what they are; and what things are about to come to pass, after these things: The sacred secret of the seven stars which thou sawest upon my right hand, and the seven lamps of gold:—The seven stars are messengers of the seven assemblies, and, the seven lamps are seven assemblies.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
In this passage, John is told to write down what he “saw,” what those things “are,” and the future realities to which they point. This description presents a pattern for interpreting many of the images of the book’s subsequent visions, and Verse 20 provides a clear example of its application. What John “saw” was Jesus standing among “seven golden lampstands” while holding seven “stars”, and what they “are” – churches and messengers.
At the very start of the book, John is told the contents and the purpose of what he about to receive:
(Revelation 1:1) – “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.”
The Greek verb rendered “signified” is sémainō (Strong’s #G4591), a verb related to the noun for “sign” or semeion (#G4592). The latter term occurs for “sign” seven times in the book of Revelation. Sémainō is used only here in the book. The verb means, “to signify,” “show by sign.” Thus, the book specifies the medium of communication is uses – visionary symbolism. The visual aspect is emphasized throughout the book by the repeated references to what John “saw” (fifty-six times).
“Write what they are.” John is commanded to record “what things you saw,” then, what “they are.” This last verb translates the Greek verb eisin in the present tense, third person, and plural number, or “are” (Revelation 1:19).
Thus, the things that John “saw” are the visual images or symbols in each vision. What they “are” refers to the explanations provided for each image, at least, where applicable. Therefore, 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 that. John “sees” the risen Christ walking among seven golden “lampstands” and holding “seven stars.” However, the stars actually “are” (esin) seven “messengers” and the lampstands “are” (esin) seven “churches.” The same Greek verb form or esin is used in both clauses.
Revelation interprets at least nine more images with this same formula. In each case, the images are not literal, they represent something else. For example:
- The “seven lamps of fire” before the throne “are” (esin) the “seven spirits of God” (4:5).
- The Lamb’s seven eyes “are” (esin) the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth (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” that stand before the Lord (11:4).
- 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).
- 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 who have not yet received power to rule (17:12).
- The waters on which Babylon sits “are” (esin) “peoples; multitudes; nations and tongues” (17:15).
Note well – the Two Witnesses represent “two lampstands.” The verse does not explain what lampstands symbolize; however, the book previously applied this symbol to churches. Thus, the “two lampstands” represent churches (Revelation11:4-13). The same formula is employed elsewhere to interpret symbols using its singular form 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).
- Imprisonment or 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 description “in the Hebrew tongue” is a clue to the significance of the name Armageddon and the scriptural source behind it (Zechariah 12:11).
- The great harlot IS (estin) the great city with dominion over the kings of the earth (17:18).
- The fine linen IS (estin) the righteousness of the saints (19:8).
- The lake of fire IS (estin) the “second death” (20:14, 21:8).
- The dragon and ancient serpent IS (estin) the “Devil and Satan” (20:2).
Angelic beings that accompany John provide explanations of the images he sees. For example, he sees an innumerable multitude arrayed in white robes standing before the throne and the Lamb, one 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).
Later, John is “carried away in the spirit into the wilderness” where he sees a “woman sitting on a scarlet beast full of names of blasphemy; having seven heads and ten horns.” This Great Harlot 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).
The term “mystery” makes clear this woman is not a literal city or Babylon in Mesopotamia, whether an ancient or a rebuilt city in the future. Her true significance must be unveiled. The angel with John does just that when he states, “She is 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 17:15-18).
The images in Revelation 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 symbolic, not literal. While some commentators insist the images must be interpreted “literally,” the book itself interprets many of them symbolically.
This does not mean that the visions are “allegorical” or one long parable. The book is concerned with real issues and its contents concern 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 and imagery is drawn from the Old Testament.
John received visions when he “came to be in the 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 will produce incorrect and often bizarre interpretations.
To comprehend the book’s message, it is most important is to pay attention to the interpretations it provides rather than importing popular notions and experiences into its images.