The Symbolism of Revelation
Written by Dr Andrew Corbett, adjunct lecturer in Hermeneutics (Bible Interpretation) at Tabor College Tasmania and President of ICI Theological College Australia [June 8th, 2009]
The Book of Revelation has variously been described as so mysterious that it simply cannot be understood. But this has not stopped some from speculating about what its symbolims means. Such speculation is based on the assumption that the Book of Revelation is uniquely symbolic. But what are the implications of the idea that Revelation is written with consistent Biblical symbolism in how we understand its message?
In fact, it can be shown that the Book of Revelation is saturated in Old Testament imagery and symbolism. Understanding this should help us to avoid abusing this profound Book with ridiculous speculation that forces such contemporary events as the European Union, the United States, modern Iran, and computer technology into the text.
The United States of America is not mentioned or even referred to in the Book of Revelation!
To suggest that contemporary events or nations are referred to in Revelation is to disregard the plain statements of the Book itself. No amount of symbolic appeal can be reasonably or (Biblically) used to make the USA foretold in the Book of Revelation. The opening verses of Revelation plainly state when its message is for.
Rev. 1:1 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,
Rev. 1:3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.
The opening verses also plainly state who the intended (original) audience is and therefore who the message affects-
Rev. 1:4 ¶ John to the seven churches that are in Asia:
The Book of Revelation then unfolds along these two parameters: its events were immediate and somewhat local. But it becomes immediately obvious within the first chapter that the language of the Book of Revelation is the language of the Old Testament. For the First Century (original) readers it would have been like taking an exam and experiencing that most unusual emotion of relief that only comes from when you actually know the answers to every question on the exam! The opening verses take some of the most obvious Old Covenant language and symbolism and immediately apply it to its Christian audience. For example-
Rev. 1:6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Is a citation and adaptation of-
Exodus 19:6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”
Then the next verse of Revelation 1 is often eisegetically made to mean that Jesus is a pseudo-space-traveller-
Rev. 1:7 Behold, he is coming with the clouds
Unlike the way this expression has generally come to be understood, the various expressions of the Lord coming with clouds in the Old Covenant indicates God ending something. In Exodus, the expression is used to mark an end to Israel's slavery and the beginning of something else (the 'Mosaic' Covenant)-
Exodus 19:9 And the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud..."
In Isaiah 19 the expression is used to mark an end to the Egyptian Empire-
Isaiah 19:1 ¶ An oracle concerning Egypt.
Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud
and comes to Egypt;
and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence,
and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.
Sometimes the Old Covenant conveys the same idea of Lord ending something by judging without referring to clouds-
1Chronicles 16:33 Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.
Psalm 96:13 before the LORD, for he comes,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
and the peoples in his faithfulness.
Psalm 98:9 before the LORD, for he comes
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.
The original audience who would have been familiar with the Old Covenant language and symbolism would most probably have realised what this expression meant in Revelation 1:7 - God was about to judge and bring something to an end. Rather than assume we know what this expression points to (most speculation claims this expression foretells the return of Christ), our goal should be to understand what the original audience understood- or more aptly, to understand what the author intended the expression to mean. This expression seems to be also used by the prophet Daniel-
Daniel 7:13 I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
Daniel 7 seems to foretell the close of the Old Covenant, the destruction of Jerusalem for rejecting the Christ, and the establishment of the Kingdom of Christ. One like the Son of Man coming on the clouds of Heaven (Daniel 7:13) describes Christ being presented to His Father to establish His New Covenant Kingdom-
Dan. 7:14 And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
Revelation 1:5 describes Jesus Christ as the King and in Revelation 1:6 it says He has a kingdom. Interestingly, it seems that Jesus Himself refers to Daniel 7:13 in Matthew 24:30-
Matthew 24:30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
Jesus goes on to tell His disciples that this prophecy and every other one He makes in Matthew 24 will be fulfilled within their lifetime-
Matthew 24:34 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.
If we force the expression coming on the clouds to mean the return of Christ, this text and the texts in the Book of Revelation become nonsensical and make, as many atheists claim, Christ to be a liar (since He did not return within the generation of His original audience). But if we accept that the expression means what it meant in the Old Covenant then this text and the time-frame references within the Book of Revelation make perfect sense and can be historically demonstrated as having been fulfilled exactly within the forecasted range of fulfilment (before 70AD).
The Book of Revelation Describes The Close of the Old Covenant and the Impending Destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD!
Some of the other symbolism in the Book of Revelation also becomes clearer when we follow the same path of understanding into how the language is established in the Old Covenant. For example, the term "beast". In Daniel 7 this expression is used to describe "rulers". In Daniel 8 the ruler from across the sea (not from "the Land") is identified as the Emperor of Rome. This is how Revelation 13 uses the same expression. Further in Revelation 13 another beast is described as being the beast from the Land (or, of the earth, Greek word= "ge" also translated as "land"). The ruler of the Land was the Jewish High Priest. In Revelation 13 it is the beast from the Land who orders that allegiance be given to the beast from the across the sea. That is, Jerusalem forms an alliance like iron and clay against Christ-
John 19:15 They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”
Rather than foretelling the coming of a yet-to-be Antichrist, Revelation 13 was describing events right on the door-step of the original audience. Interestingly, it was Nero who was the Roman Emperor at the time of Revelation being written and his name in gemetria adds to six hundred and sixty and six.
The pace of the Book of Revelation slows dramatically with chapter 20. While chapters 1-19 use immediate language ("now", "at hand", "near") chapter 20 introduces the concept of a thousand years. Within the Book of Revelation it is chapter 20 which forms a natural division between imminent and distant. It can be shown that chapters 1-19 have already been fulfilled and while principles and devotional applications can be drawn from their contents for today, it is the closing chapters that are future for us. Any speculation that Revelation 1-19 must be fulfilled again when we can demonstrate that it has already been fulfilled demands the question: Why?
I have written a fuller explanation of the book of Revelation in my eBook- THE MOST EMBARRASSING BOOK IN THE BIBLE (click here to read a preview).
Dr. Andrew Corbett, Legana, Tasmania, June 8th 2009
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I have written a fuller explanation of the book of Revelation in my eBook- THE MOST EMBARRASSING BOOK IN THE BIBLE (click here to read a preview). The application from the Book of Revelation is that despite what appears to be an impotent Church struggling to serve an apparently impotent Christ, the Church is in reality made up of overcomers who lay down their lives gladly to promote Christ and His Gospel. In so doing, the Kingdom of Christ is extended, prayers are offered and heard, miracles are graced, and the believer can die with infinite hope that their Lord will keep them for eternity and clothe them with a new body which can not be subject to pain, injury, sorrow, or sin. With this knowledge we can endure momentary hardship during the brevity of this life on earth. We can be assured that our greatest delights and deepest moments of fulfilment are yet to come in the life to come.
John 5:25 ¶ “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
Dr. Andrew Corbett, Legana, Tasmania, Australia
Download Dr Corbett's eBook The Most Embarrassing Book In The Bible.