The language of Revelation is highly symbolic. Notice what John says.
- “And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John” (Rev. 1:1).
- “Now a great sign appeared in heaven…” (Rev. 12:1).
- “And another sign appeared in heaven…” (Rev. 12:3).
- “Then I saw another sign in heaven…” (Rev. 15:1).
The signs were symbolic of the real. They did not necessarily translate into a literal meaning. For instance, God is described as being like “jasper” and “sardius” (Rev. 4:3). No man has seen God, so we know He is not giving us the literal picture of God. Besides, who among those that believe think God is actually made of stone?
Further, consider the description of Jesus. He is called the Lion and Lamb (Rev. 5:5, 6). Are we to understand there is an actual lamb in heaven? No. The Lion and Lamb both refer to Christ and each carries a specific meaning.
Who is the dragon (Rev. 12:3, 4, 9)? The devil. Is Satan really a lizard-like animal with scales? You and I know it simply isn’t so. While the devil is a real being, he is not a big lizard.
Numbers are used extensively throughout the Revelation. A quick overview will help in understanding some of the symbolism in the book.
One (1) stands for unity and independence like the one mind of the ten kings (Rev. 17:12, 13).
Two (2) implies strength as in Revelation 11:3, 4 where it talks about two witnesses. See also Ecclesiastes 4:9-11.
Three (3) is the number of completeness as it relates to divinity. Think of the Godhead or the three woes of Revelation 8:13.
Four (4) is completeness with reference to earthly matters; four corners and winds of the earth (Rev. 7:1).
Five (5) represents a short, definite period of time (Rev. 9:10; 1 Cor. 14:19).
Seven (7) is the chief number for completeness or perfection. It appears 54 times in Revelation. The seven churches of Asia are completely representative of all churches (Rev. 1:4).
Ten (10) is yet another complete number, representative of the whole. Notice the ten horns and crowns of 13:1.
Twelve (12) carries the connotation of religion. Think of 12 tribes or 12 apostles (Rev. 21:12).
Three and a half (3 ½) is incomplete and/or hardship. In Revelation 11:2, 3 we see 3 ½ years mentioned as a short time of misery. See also James 5:17.
When these numbers are combined or arranged in various ways they give us an idea of the meaning behind the image. For instance, 12,000 from each tribe (Rev. 7:5-8). This number derives from 10 x 10 x 12; completeness with a religious overtone; the fullness of God’s people, if you will.
It helps when studying this book to keep some basic thoughts in mind. First and foremost is what did it mean to the people who receive it (Rev. 1:4)? Did it have any application to them or was it written in their day only to have meaning 2,000 years later? It seems to me basic logic answers this. God wrote it for the benefit primarily of the people who first received it. Surely we realize they did not receive the letter in vain.
Next, it is imperative to believe whatever is taught in the book of Revelation cannot contradict what is taught elsewhere in Scripture. As already noted, the book is in prophetic, apocalyptic language. The great majority of the rest of the New Testament is not; it is written in plain language. Thus, would it be better to filter everything else through Revelation or Revelation through everything else? In other words, which do we use as a “control” to compare the other to? Obviously, it is wiser to hold to the plain language and allow it to determine or govern what we see in Revelation. Remember, truth cannot contradict truth (Gal. 1:8, 9).
Further, John made it clear the things written in the book were to “shortly take place” (Rev. 1:1; 22:6). He said the “time is near” (Rev. 1:3). Does that mean we are still looking for fulfillment in our time or at some point still in the future? Certainly not.
Finally, we must be cautious with the signs and symbols. Knowledge of Old Testament prophetic language and signs is helpful. We cannot press an interpretation too forcefully. Yet, we may definitely deny some interpretations that others have because they contradict plain teaching in other parts of God’s Word. Also, we should not get too caught up in details. Not every facet and aspect of the symbols have significance. Some things are there to fill out the picture being drawn. It makes for a complete picture that has meaning overall, but not every detail can be given a specific, definite application.
Steven F. Deaton