Symbolism in Revelation

by Hugh DeLong

As you are reading through Revelation, one of the things that should be abundantly evident is that the book is not about literal events. We see dragons with tails able to knock a third of the stars of heaven onto the earth (and yet the earth not only survives but is only partially destroyed). We see dragons and beasts, some with 7 heads. We see Jesus but he is a lamb with its throat cut riding on a white horse. We observe a bottomless pit and behold, it is ‘in the earth’. We know that a bottomless pit would just open up “in China” and those thrown into it would just come out the other end.

In chapter one John beheld Jesus holding seven stars in his right hand and standing in the middle of seven lampstands. We are then specifically told that the lampstands are the churches and the stars are the angels of the churches. What John saw were lampstands and stars; What they signified (stood for, meant, are) were angels and churches. What you see in Revelation is not simply to be understood literally but one must understand what is signified.

Thus, John wrote concerning the things in this book that God "signified it by his angel unto his servant John" (Revelation 1:1). The verb here (Greek: semaino) appears six times in the New Testament and is translated as ‘signify’ all six times in the KJV. Strong’s defined it as "to give a sign, to signify, indicate. 2 to make known”. The noun form of the Greek is translated as “sign” 50 times, “miracle” 23 times, “wonder” three times, and “token” once. This then was the word used for the miracles that Jesus did -- they were signs. They signified something about Jesus. They pointed to a truth about Jesus (that he was the Son of God - John 20:30-31). In Revelation, many of the things we see in these visions are signs that point to something. They are not literal.

People seem to understand this -- until they want to make something literal. People see ‘harps’ and ‘clouds’ and take them as literal materialistic things. They see ‘times’ (1000 years, 3 1/2 years, etc.) and want to make them literal years. They see dragons with stingers in their tails that hurt only ungodly people and want to make them ICB missile launchers (how is that taking things literally?).

The biggest problem for me is that with all this selective literalism, they make the book totally non-understandable to John and the Christians who were being persecuted in the first century. What would a war over oil in the Middle East mean to a suffering church in Ephesus? What would the destruction of a Chinese army mean to the Christians in Smyrna (who had never even heard of a place called China)?

When the various beasts are understood to signify the instruments that Satan was using to bring persecution to the church of the first century, they would be comforted and strengthened in their faith to know that the church would be victorious in this struggle. Though our enemies may be different now, the principle of our victory by remaining faithful to Jesus yet is applicable.

John began this book: "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near” (Revelation 1:3).

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