13 October 2017

Interpreting Revelation – A Tutorial

Open Book

(Revelation 1:19) - “Write what things you saw and what they are; and what things are going to come to pass after these.”
         The Book of Revelation provides a number of interpretations of its key images, interpretive keys to its message to the church. Its first vision gives an example, a “tutorial” if you will, on how the book applies its symbols, including a formula for recognizing interpretive explanations (Revelation 1:19-20).

         In the first vision John is told to “what things you saw and what they are,” then informed that the seven golden “lamp-stands” represent seven churches and the “stars” seven angels or “messengers.” The clause, “what they are,” is used repeatedly in other visions to introduce more explanations.
          The first verse of Revelation explains that Jesus “signified” his disclosure to John. The Greek verb used, sémainō, is related to the Greek noun for “sign” or sémeion. The latter is used for “sign” seven times in Revelation (12:1, 12:3, 13:13, 13:14, 15:1, 16:14, 19:20), though sémainō occurs only once in Revelation. The verb means to “signify, show by sign or token” (see John 12:33, 18:32, 21:19, Acts 11:28, 25:27).[1]  Thus the book communicates through symbols given in its visions.
          This visual aspect of Revelation is emphasized by the repeated references to what John “saw” (e.g., “and I saw…”). And the verb “see” occurs fifty-six times. Revelation 1:2states at the outset that John “testified to all things that he saw.”
          “Write what things you saw and what they are, what things are going to come to pass after these” (1:19). What John “saw” refers to the actual images and symbols. “Are” translates the Greek verb eimi (“to be”), which here in the present tense, third person and plural, that is, “they are”. The second clause refers to the meaning of the symbols provided by explanations given to John, usually by an angel. John must record both the description a vision’s images and any explanations provided; what the images signify.
          This clause is the signal in Revelation when it provides explanations, as the next verse demonstrates. A voice interprets two symbols seen by John in his first vision: the seven stars “are” (esin) angels or “messengers,” and seven golden lamp-stands “are” (esin) seven. Neither stars nor lamp-stands in the vision are “literal” or real things; they represent other realities.
         This same clause or “formula” is so used at least nine more times. In each case, a vision’s images are not “literal” but symbolize something else.

  1. The “seven lamps of fire” “are” (esin) the “seven spirits of God” (4:5).
  2. The Lamb’s seven eyes “are” (esin) the seven spirits of God (5:6).
  3. The bowls of incense “are” (esin) the “prayers of the saints” (5:8).
  4. The multitudes “are” (esin) those “coming out of the great tribulation” (7:13).
  5. The Two Witnesses “are” (esin) “the two olive trees and the two lamp-stands” (11:4).
  6. Three unclean spirits like frogs “are” (esin) spirits of demons sent to perform deceptive “signs” to the kings of the earth (16:13-14).
  7. The seven heads of the Beast “are” (esin) seven mountains on which Babylon sits (17:9).
  8. The Beast’s ten horns “are” (esin) ten kings who have not yet received sovereignty (17:12).
  9. The waters on which Babylon sits “are” (esin) “peoples, multitudes, nations & tongues” (17:15).
         The Two Witnesses in Revelation 11:4 represent “two lamp-stands.” The verse does not explain what lamp-stands symbolize, but there is no need to do so since Revelation applies its symbolism consistently. In Revelation 1:20 “lamp-stands” represented churches and so the Two Witnesses in some capacity also represent churches.
         The same formula Revelation 1:19 are employed to interpret other symbols but with the singular form of the verb. Note the following:
  1. The great city that “spiritually” is “called” (kaleitai) Sodom & Egypt (11:8).
  2. The great red dragon “who is called” (kaloumenos) the “Devil and Satan” (12:9).
  3. Martyrdom “is” (estin) the “endurance & faith” of the saints (13:10).
  4. The endurance of the saints “is” (estin) they who keep the faith of Jesus (14:12).
  5. The great harlot “is” (estin) the great city with dominion over the kings of the earth (17:18).
  6. The fine linen “is” (estin) the righteousness of the saints (19:8).
  7. The lake of fire “is” (estin) the “second death” (20:14, 21:8).
  8. The dragon and ancient serpent “is” (estin) the “Devil and Satan” (20:2).
         The images in Revelation are often bizarre and can portray physical impossibilities, such as a woman arrayed with the sun and the moon beneath her feet. A lamb with seven eyes or a beast with seven heads is symbolical, not literal. Revelation itself demonstrates that its visions are interpreted symbolically. Symbols point to realities but are not themselves real.
         Revelation is not an “allegory” portraying timeless truths. It is concerned with real issues and challenges facing the Church; its contents symbolize real events “that must come to pass.” But John did not time travel to the future, and his descriptions are not how a first-century man would attempt to describe strange technologies and scenes from the future.
         John received visions when he “came to be in spirit.” In those visions, he saw images and heard explanations. The failure to understand that Revelation communicates symbolically can only produce incorrect interpretations.

[1] - Merrill C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001), p. 186; Plutarch, Moralia, 404E; Xenophon, Memorabilia, I, I, 19; Marvin Vincent, Vincent’s Word Studies (New York: 1886).

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