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Chapter 5 Deciphering Symbols Using Your Secret Decoder Ring In This Chapter _ Understanding why Revelation uses symbolism in the first place _ Surveying the major symbols that John uses in Revelation
Deciphering Symbols Using Your Secret Decoder Ring
In This Chapter
_ Understanding why Revelation uses symbolism in the first place
_ Surveying the major symbols that John uses in Revelation
The modern mindset is practical. After all, most people lead extremely busy lives — so much so that when they want information on something, they don’t want to have to jump through hoops. When it comes to the most popular films of the year, for example, the box-office winners are usually ones with a straightforward plotline. Films rich in symbolism, abstract concepts, and vague imagery usually play only to a few diehards in the art houses.
Not surprisingly, then, people living in the twenty-first century often have difficulty in getting a handle on the symbolic nature of Revelation. The first five books of the New Testament are in a clear narrative style as they depict the ministry of Jesus and the early church. The next set of books — letters by Paul, Peter, and other Apostles — are practical in nature, and you may very easily see them as applicable to your life. But when you get to Revelation, its symbolism can be a shock to the system.
In this chapter, we introduce you to the symbolism and imagery of the book of Revelation. We start off by telling you why John used apocalyptic symbolism. After that, we survey some of the major symbols you encounter in the book.
Giving John’s Readers a Heads-up
People today live in a world of disclaimers. Before you drink a hot cup of coffee, your cup displays The beverage you are about to enjoy is extremely hot. Or if you watch a full-screen DVD or video at home, you see the following before the movie begins: This movie has been modified from its originalversion. It has been formatted to fit your screen.
In Revelation 1:1, John gives readers his own disclaimer — that the letter that they are about to read will contain symbolism. In the New King James Version of the Bible, Revelation 1:1 begins, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants — things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John [. . .]” .
People often used the Greek word semainein, translated as “signified” (or “made it known” in the NRSV), when talking about Delphic oracles in ancient Greece. Oracles were prophetic decrees revealed by a priest or priestess, communicated through symbols. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses the same word in Daniel 2:45 when talking about the interpretation of a symbolic dream.
In reading the word semainein, the original readers would’ve known right off that John’s writing was going to define and convey truth through figurative or imaginative pictures rather than through plain text. In other words, because God “signified” the message, readers should expect God to communicate his message through symbolism. This symbolism was not meant to obscure truth but was simply the mode of communication chosen to convey it.
Given that principle, some commentators go even further in terms of how to interpret Revelation. They suggest that in spotting semainein, the original readers would have known, as a general rule, to interpret Revelation figuratively until it’s plainly obvious that they should do so literally.
The simple truth is that almost everyone today would’ve preferred for John to be Captain Obvious, laying out the Revelation of Jesus in as clear a manner as possible. Understanding the point of the book would be so much easier if specifics such as these were used:
_ Jesus will be coming back on March 3, 2019. Be there or be square.
_ Beware, the Antichrist will be named Gilligan. His cohort will be known as the Skipper.
_ The Millennium is a figurative term meant to represent the Super Bowl halftime show.
In other words, instead of Scripture, almost everyone would prefer a glorified legal document that lists out the complete facts of the last days. After all, with such a document in hand, people wouldn’t need to wrestle with the interpretations. If lawyers didn’t get involved interpreting the obvious, you’d simply need to decide what to do with the information John presented in his book. But we have what we have.
So why exactly did John write Revelation with a heavy dose of symbolism? We examine several possible reasons in this section.
Following Biblical Tradition
Although Revelation may be best known for its use of symbolism, the reality is that symbolism is present in many parts of the Old and New Testaments.
In the Old Testament, God often speaks though the prophets in symbols. The books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah make heavy use of apocalypticimagery, a literary device that employs wild and rich symbolism to represent historical events, nations, and persons.
Jesus may not have used common apocalyptic symbolism in the Gospels, but he did speak through parables, which are, in effect, symbolic stories meant to define and illustrate truth. In Luke 8:10, he says, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.’” In other words, people who genuinely want to discover his truth will do so, but those who do not will somehow miss out on what exactly he’s trying to say.
Those words from Jesus become even more significant when you see the message that Jesus gives to the seven churches in Revelation 2–3 at the end of his personalized messages: “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
Adding Greater Meaning than Plain Text
You know the old saying a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, in the same way, symbolism and imagery can provide greater meaning to define truth than plain words alone. Consider, for example, John’s use of the name “Babylon” to describe a great evil power in Revelation. To any Jew, the mere mention of Babylon would have dramatic and emotional significance given the history of what the real-life ancient Babylon did to the Israelites in their history. Therefore, the symbol of Babylon in Revelation had a much greater impact on John’s original readers — Jew and gentile alike — than if John would’ve left it as an unnamed demonic force.
With a twenty-first century Western mindset, symbolism is often considered a form of illustration. In other words, people have a truth or fact and then use a symbol to illustrate or help to explain the concept. For example, consider the truth that, according to the Bible, God sacrificed his son Jesus because God loved the world. A Westerner may explain this by coming up with a story about a father who makes the agonizing decision to let his son die while stuck on the train tracks instead of killing everyone aboard the train by derailing it.
However, from John’s mindset, this thinking is reversed. Instead, from a Middle Eastern perspective, parables and symbolism actually define meaning and truth; they don’t just illustrate truth. In other words, you can glean real insight from discovering the details and essence of the story instead of just trying to summarize the main point of it.
The Old Testament prophets and Jesus himself often used symbolism and parables to get the attention of their listeners. Even today, the use of symbolism and imagery gets people’s attention more than straight text does. After all, in a church sermon on Sunday morning, the congregation always seems to pay more attention when the pastor or priest provides an illustration or tells a story instead of delivering a straight sermon of bullet points.
Symbolism engages a reader’s head and heart. It forces readers to take an image and interpret it by actively considering it in light of their knowledge base and personal experiences. In the process, they make more mental connections and are more likely to remember the image and the message behind it.
John’s imagery certainly adds shock value to get the churches out of complacency. For example, describing Babylon as the harlot or prostitute in Revelation 17 can provide a deeper impact than merely writing, “Babylon represents something really bad you need to watch out for.”
Symbolism works only if readers have the tools and experience to interpret it. Thus, symbols can help bond the reader and writer and provide continuity among stories.
To the modern-day reader, John’s symbolism seems strange and foreign. After all, the reader today is removed in several ways from people of the early church — culture, language, knowledge of the popular literary genres of the day, and so on. In fact, some scholars have compared the symbolism of the modern political cartoon to that of Revelation. A political cartoon, after all, makes little sense unless you understand the symbolism and issues being poked fun of.
In contrast, believers in the churches of Asia Minor would’ve understood the symbolism because of their knowledge of both the Old Testament and the popular pagan myths of the day in the Roman Empire. To the original readers, the symbolism was not a special “Bible code” for which you needed special expert knowledge.
As Chapter 3 describes, the vast majority of symbols that John uses in Revelation originally appeared in the Old Testament from prophets such as Daniel and Ezekiel. Therefore, when you look at the symbols in the context of the entire Bible, then all of God’s prophecy and plans begin to make more sense as one cohesive message across the pages of the Bible.
Keeping Some Secrets
The book may be called Revelation, but symbols provide enough ambiguity to keep it from being a tell-all. Some level of mystery protected the original readers and encouraged believers to continue to look to God for guidance.
When you look at the political and social context of most apocalyptic literature, you see that most of its authors wrote in times of turmoil and distress.
Regardless of whether John scribed Revelation during the 60s or 90s CE, he certainly wrote during a time of intense trouble and persecution.
Therefore, he may have used symbolism to mask his message of hope from potential persecutors. If that’s true, then those who really want to discover the truth will do so, but skeptics will never understand.
Though commentators often fall into the trap of trying to circumvent this fact, the ambiguity of symbolism prevents people from pinning God down on the exact details concerning the last days. After all, consider the major interpretations of the book.
Preterists read Revelation and see its fulfillment as having already taken place in first century.
Futurists look at the way the world is heading and see its fulfillment as happening in the future. Idealists point to cycles of evil throughout history as proof of fulfillment. At the very least, this diversity of opinion should humble people as they seek answers.
A newcomer to Revelation’s imagery may conclude that interpreting Revelation is as easy to do as trying to learn to speak Kanji while you’re gagged and blindfolded in a Turkish prison. In other words, pretty difficult stuff! However, although some aspects are challenging and prone to different interpretations (see Chapter 4), there are some common perspectives on many of the symbols you encounter as you read through John’s book. Use the rest of this chapter to get a bird’s eye view, and then dive deeper into the symbolism in Part III.
Discovering the meaning
of the major symbols
We are largely devoted to exploring the symbolism of Revelation. In fact, you can’t go a page or two in reading Chapters 6–15 without coming across some discussion of John’s imagery.
However, to get you started, we provide a brief overview of many of the major symbols in Revelation. Use Table 5-1 as your reference to where you can find complete details on a particular symbol
The opening verse of Revelation 5 begins by talking about a scroll: “Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals.” The scroll proves to be anything but an ordinary document. It’s something like a last will and testament because the information revealed on the contents describes the eternal inheritance of those who believe in Jesus. But at the same time, it’s a message for God’s people right now.
In Revelation 6, the seven seals on the scroll are opened one at a time. Therefore, the breaking of each seal is an event — a judgment — that takes place before the reading of the scroll’s “last will and testament.”
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
The breaking of the first four seals in Revelation 6 reveals four horses, known collectively as the four horsemen of the Apocalypse; they’re differentiated in part by their colors — white, red, black, and pale green:
_ White horse: The rider on the white horse, equipped with a bow and adorned with a crown, comes out to kick some booty. Some take this rider to be Jesus himself, symbolizing the spread of the Christian gospel across the world. Others contend the rider is the exact opposite — the Antichrist, wearing the disguise of white but bent on destruction.
_Red horse: The rider on a red horse is clearly a bad dude, spreading violence and war wherever he goes.
_ Black horse: The rider on the black horse symbolizes the famine and starvation that occurs because of the economic inequality that exists
between the haves and the have-nots.
_ Pale horse: The rider of the pale horse is none other than Clint Eastwood. Okay, seriously, the pale rider symbolizes the death that follows in wake of the red and black horses.
The Day of the Lord
The Day of the Lord is a key term to understand when you look at Revelation as well as the Old Testament prophets. It refers to judgment, the future time in which God “holds court” and passes judgment on the world. It’s also associated with the time in history in which God’s will for the world will be fulfilled and complete. The term itself appears 19 times in the Old Testament and 4 times in the other New Testament books. In Revelation, the Day of the Lord is associated with Revelation 6:17 and 6:14
When the seventh seal is opened in Revelation 8, there’s silence in heaven for about half an hour. The silence is noteworthy because it signifies a point of no return for the existing world — the old is passing away and the new is beginning. John reveals the full details of that new world in Revelation 21. So why 30 minutes? The jury’s still out on that one. Some believe that the vagueness of the time “about half an hour” implies that the exact time can’t be discerned from the text.
In Revelation 8, John tells of seven trumpets that are played by seven angels. The trumpet was an important symbol in the history of God’s people. It was used to direct and lead the Israelites during their desert wanderings as well as during wartime battles. Not only was it a rallying call, but it was also a reminder of God’s directing them and fighting on their behalf.
The trumpets in Revelation 8 signify the “amplification” of judgments in the last days leading up to the Second Coming of Jesus; they serve as a reminder that God is leading the fight.
Babylon is a dominant military and political power in Old Testament history, but it also appears in Revelation 14. Some believe that readers should take this reference literally, holding that ancient Babylon will rise again in the Middle East as a powerful force in the world and the seat of the Antichrist’s power. Others see Babylon as symbolic of first-century Rome. Another view is that Babylon represents the capital of the Antichrist’s empire.
Like the seals and trumpets that come before them, the seven bowls in Revelation 16 symbolize a set of judgments on humankind during the last days. The seven bowls represent the final, terrible, unprecedented stretch of activity just before the Second Coming of Jesus.
In Revelation, John speaks of a 1,000-year reign of Jesus, a timeframe that’s commonly referred to as the Millennium. Here are the traditional interpretations:
_ Premillennialistsbelieve that this is a literal 1,000-year period that will take place following the Second Coming of Jesus. Many premillennialists are also dispensationalists, who believe that human history is divided into seven “dispensations” (eras), which are represented by the seven churches of Revelation 2–3.
_ Amillennialistsbelieve the Millennium is purely figurative, referring to the current church age or the reign of deceased saints with Jesus in heaven (or perhaps both).
_ Postmillennialists believe the Millennium occurs prior to the Second Coming of Jesus; it’s an age in which the world will be transformed by the gospel.
Assembling the Cast of Characters
Within Revelation, John provides a memorable cast of characters whose imagery often overpowers the text and brings it to life. Here’s a brief look at some of the most significant figures.
Early on in Revelation 1, John talks of a vision he had in which a mysterious person stands in the midst of seven lampstands. John describes him in vivid detail:
“[He was] clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.”
In this passage, John is speaking of Jesus. The description seems like a rather scary picture of Jesus until you understand the symbolism:
_ The robe and sash refer to the attire worn by Jewish high priests.
_ The whiteness of his head and hair symbolizes either Jesus’s purity and holiness or his wisdom and dignity.
_ His fiery eyes depict divine omniscience (complete knowledge) and judgment.
_ His bronze-like feet contrast with the soiled feet of fallen humankind and the pagan gods’ feet of clay.
_ His mighty voice symbolizes his sovereignty and power.
_ The seven stars represent the angels of the seven churches (Rev. 1:11), which are the chief focus of Revelation 2–3.
_ The two-edged sword from his mouth symbolizes the lethal power and penetration of the words of Jesus.
_ The radiance of his face conveys his divine nature.
The 24 Elders
Scholars have several theories about the 24 elders in Revelation 5. Some see them as glorified people who represent the either the entire people of God (Jews and gentiles) or else just the New Testament church (Christians). Others believe they’re angelic choirs singing praises to God in heaven. A few contend that John is referring to a 24-point star god of ancient Babylonian mythology.
The mighty angel in Revelation 10 is a source of debate. Some contend that the mighty angel is Jesus because he’s described in terms usually associated with God. Others counter, saying that nowhere else is Jesus depicted as an angel. Instead, they suggest that this reference is talking about an archangel, maybe even Gabriel. Archangels play an important role throughout biblical history.
The Two Witnesses
Revelation 11 introduces readers to “two witnesses” who will prophesy for 1,260 days while wearing sackcloth. John then refers to these two individuals as “two olive trees” and “two lampstands.”
Some interpret the two witnesses as the ongoing witness of the church. Others interpret the passage more literally and see them as two preachers preaching to Jews in Jerusalem. Of course, exactly who that dynamic duo is leads to further debate.
Some options include Zerubbabel and Joshua the high priest, the Law and the Prophets, Peter and Paul, Israel and the church, Enoch and Elijah, and Moses and Elijah.
The 144,000 in Revelation 7 has long been a subject of debate and resentment.
Some people believe that this group of people symbolizes all Christians.
Others think that this refers to Jewish Christians because the passage
mentions the tribes of Israel. A final interpretation is that the 144,000 is an
elite group of Christians (perhaps martyrs) who have special status because
of their devotion.
John describes the pregnant woman in Revelation 12 as being “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” Once again, people have various perspectives on who exactly this woman symbolizes. Some see her as the people of God since the very beginning (ancient Israel and the church).
A second view is that the imagery is a Christianized version of ancient myths. A third view is that the pregnant woman is Domitia, the mother of the Roman emperor Domitian’s son; he declared her to be the “mother of God.” Some Catholics hold that the pregnant woman is the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus.
The symbolism of the pregnant woman in Revelation 12 is subject of much discussion, but there’s little debate over the red dragon that’s menacing the woman. The red dragon, adorned with seven heads and ten horns, is Satan himself.
The Wings of a Great Eagle
When reading about the wings of a great eagle in Revelation 12, you may wonder whether J.R.R. Tolkien picked up on this imagery when writing TheLord of the Rings. Some see the creature as the same eagle referred to in Revelation 8:13. If so, then John is talking about an angel providing protection for faithful believers during the last days. Another take is that John is actually speaking of a powerful kingdom that uses an eagle as a symbol.
The Beast and His Mark
In Revelation 13, John writes about two of the most intriguing symbols in all the book: the beast and the mark of the beast. According to Revelation, the beast, who is a false prophet, will require his followers to receive a number stamped on their right hands or foreheads; the mark is required for surviving in the world economy. That mark, says John in Revelation 13:18, is 666.
Many have long speculated on whether 666 is a literal number or a symbol for something else. Some futurists have speculated that Social Security numbers, bar codes, microchip implants, or some other identification technology is the mark of the beast. Others see 666 as pointing to an address, area code, or the numeric value of a person’s name.
Since the early days, many have speculated on the identity of the beast, identifying him as Nero Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Hitler, as well as modern leaders ranging from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton.
Most scholars do believe that the beast symbolizes an actual person.
However, they maintain that 666 is symbolic, especially because the number six appears elsewhere in Scripture as a sign of imperfection and fallenness.
Please place your name on this sheet, photocopy your questions and answers on a separate sheet of paper and turn in at the beginning of class:
1 - What is the significance of the Scroll with seven seals? [Rev 5:1]
2 - Why did John cry when no one in all of creation was found worthy to open the scroll and lose its seals? [Rev 5:2-4]
3 - Who was it that held the scroll and who was it that took the scroll? [Rev 5:2-7]
4 - Why did the four living creatures and the 24 elders worship and praise Jesus after He took the scroll? [Rev 5:8]
5 – How many angels, living creatures and elders were worshipping around the grand throne? [Rev 5:11-13]
6 - Please explain why every creature in heaven, on the earth, under the earth and in the sea would worship God the Father and Jesus. Would this include even those that are not saved, even those in hell? [Rev 5:13]