The book of Revelation and Symbolism

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.
(Revelation 1:1-2)

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 Revelation 1:1 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 Daniel 2:28-29 in the opening verse of Revelation. Key phrases in verse 1 of Revelation 1, are also used in Daniel 2:28-29. 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 Daniel 2].” . . . Verse 1 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.

9 Comments

  1. Matthew

    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

    • Simon (Author)

      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. Martin Pakula (Author)

    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. Mike Bull

    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 Genesis 3: 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.

    • Simon (Author)

      Hi Mike,
      Thanks for your thoughts. As we previously discussed, I can’t follow you on everything you’re saying (Herodian antichrist, worship, Genesis 3 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. 😉

    • Simon (Author)

      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.

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