Unveiling the Symbolism in Revelation
Introduction to Revelation
The purpose of this glorious vision is to unveil Jesus Christ. Since He is spirit, He is hidden from our physical eyes. In order for Him to become visible to us, we need to see Him spiritually. Just as the Christ was hidden in the physical Jesus, so He is now hidden in those who have been born again. The unveiling of the Christ within us takes place when we recognize our union with Him and His nature becomes our nature. All fleshly thinking and actions have to be overcome. In this vision we see what God does to rid us of all our fleshly reasoning and ideas.
Understanding this vision makes us aware of God's eternal power within us, and brings us encouragement in the midst of apostasy, difficulties and trials. It takes us out of the natural realm and brings us into the spiritual realm - into the precious results of the internal workings of God in us. John saw the saints who had overcome the nations - and these nations symbolize all the opposing forces that are raging in the carnal mind against Christ. He saw them receiving the fulfillment of the promise of reigning together with Christ. Only those who have overcome the nations within them can reign over the nations of this earth. They will reign in righteousness and truth, and the inhabitants of this earth will enjoy peace!
This book was written by John, the youngest of all the apostles. When he began to follow Jesus, he was probably no more than 16 or 17. He outlived the other apostles. John did not believe in the pantheon of Roman gods, so he refused to bow to the emperor, and was probably accused of being an atheist. It is said that they tried to kill him by boiling him in oil. When that did not work he was banished to the island of Patmos - a very small rocky island in the Mediterranean - to eke out a living as best he could. There was no way of escape. Living conditions were extremely difficult, especially for an old man, probably on the edge of his nineties! Although many claim that his exile entailed hard labor in the island's quarries, this is not recorded. Neither do we know how long he had been on the island when he received this revelation from God. John was freed in October of 96AD after Domitian's death. Apparently he returned to Ephesus after his release.
Scholars say that the Greek in this book is not as good as the Greek in the rest of the New Testament. There are both similarities and differences in the Greek from John's previous writings, and the dissimilarities may be due to the fact that the subject matter is very different. The images in this exciting and strange drama were hard to describe, and John had to write fast and had no time for grammatical corrections. Before his banishment he may have had people around to correct his Greek whenever he wrote anything official, but on this island there was no one to help him. Some scholars think that John may have dictated what he saw to a secretary, but there is no scriptural evidence to substantiate this.
As John was meditating on God, he was suddenly taken out of his surroundings and shown vision after vision of such strange and unfamiliar scenes that he could not find words to describe them, so he needed to compare them with familiar things!
Symbolism and its Interpretation
Since this vision was signified to John, its message is contained in symbolism, and therefore it is not to be understood literally. The symbolism has to be simple enough for saints to comprehend, yet difficult enough to hide it from pagans, emperors and the religious hierarchy, for if they could understand it, that would make it even worse for the Christians. The true message needs to be hidden from the uninitiated and revealed to the initiated! So the code that unlocks the interpretation of the symbols must be so simple that Christians can receive the key, but so mysterious that even the most self-righteous pagan cannot understand it. God did not give Jesus Christ a message that is too difficult for Christians to understand. Those who are being persecuted for their faith need to understand this message.
Symbolism gives us a deep and wide scope of understanding with just a few words. The explanations given in revelation are very brief in comparison with what could be written, but the symbolism tells us so much more than words can express.
A blessing is promised to all who understand and heed the message of this book, so it must apply to Christians of that time as well as to Christians in every generation. A message that does not apply to everyone cannot bless everyone. If we view these visions as prophecies of future historical events, we will miss the blessing this book is intended to bring us. If these events are taken out of their symbolic meaning, they do not apply to everyone in every generation; they would only apply to those who live in a certain future time in history. If we interpret these visions according to our own ideas, it becomes very scary. However, it is for every Christian in every generation, not only for those living thousands of years down the line.
Our interpretation has to unveil Jesus Christ. We are not looking for a physical Jesus, but for the corporate, spiritual Christ. Christ is not complete without His body - the church. So the unveiling of Jesus Christ takes place through the inward processing that rids us of all our fleshly thinking. This brings us into oneness with His thinking, and Christ receives a church without spot or wrinkle. The signs and symbols reveal the workings of Christ in the individuals that form the bride of Christ! Everything is brought into the light of Jesus Christ.
There is a reason for placing this book at the end of the Bible, for it is filled with allusions to the books that precede it. The various symbols have a direct or implied reference to another part of the Bible. For example, it mentions the new Jerusalem. In Galatians 4 we read about the Jerusalem that is in slavery with her children, and the Jerusalem that is above - the free Jerusalem. When we learn the significance of Jerusalem in the Bible, we have the key to its meaning in Revelation. The same thing holds true for Babylon, the beasts, the witnesses, the serpent, etc. The Bible gives us the key.
The characters and events have symbolic meaning. To interpret the symbolism we need to draw from both the Old and the New Testaments, and heed any explanations given in the text. 1 Cor. 10:3-4 is a good example in showing us how Old Testament events symbolize spiritual realities. Paul wrote, "And all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ." The manna symbolizes the bread of life that we have in Christ, and the water from the rock symbolizes the living water that Christ gives us. To interpret this vision correctly we need to be willing to let go of our preconceived ideas, and receive the Holy Spirit's understanding.
Eastern people feel at home with symbolism. They often think in symbolism, and convey ideas symbolically in speech, writings and paintings. The symbolism that Chinese art embodies was explained to us by an artist when we were teaching in China. This gave us a greater appreciation of their paintings. Likewise, an understanding of the symbols in Revelation is necessary in order to receive the promised blessing. The drama enacted before John is not for entertaining us, but for teaching us spiritual realities.
Most of the born-again believers in the first century did not own a copy of the scriptures, but the teaching they had received would clue them in to the meaning of the symbols. The Holy Spirit has to reveal its spiritual meaning. If a Roman would read this book, he would consider it stupid because he did not have the key to unlock the code. The code is only revealed to those who have learned to see spiritually and have learned to listen to the teaching of the Spirit.
The Spirit teaches us that beyond our natural world, there is a real world where Jesus Christ is central, and we are caught in a tension between the two worlds. Since the natural world still seems very real to us, it is very difficult to relinquish this idea. Yet this is a prerequisite to understanding this book. Here we see that everything is based on the salvation we have in Christ; everything finds its fulfillment in Him. It teaches us that we do not have to despair in the midst of difficulties and affliction, for Christ is our provision in every situation. Drawing on His power makes us overcomers. God wants us to rest in this glorious fact!
An unveiling displays what is already in existence. Every Christian throughout the ages must experience this unveiling. What a relief it is to know that the unveiling of the Christ in us does not need any great accomplishments on our part, for that would be self- effort. The unveiling takes place through our submission and obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ. As we receive truth and walk in obedience to truth, the manifestation of the Christ will take place. We are not trying to anticipate what Christ will do historically, but we are observing what He is accomplishing in His saints! The salvation that Christ has completed is now being worked into His saints.
Our mind needs to be transformed so that it can come into agreement with the mind of Christ. There is an ongoing battle in us if we do not believe the mind of Christ within us. This has nothing to do with a great battle between Jesus and the devil, for the latter has already been defeated! Our carnal mind is ever in opposition to the mind of the Spirit, and tries to rule us forcefully and persuasively. This book teaches us that we have to be cleansed of all our carnal thinking and learn to live in the obedience of faith!
Revelation teaches us to interpret what is happening within us in the light of what needs to be accomplished in order for us to be conformed to His image! We view the present in the light of the end. The sufferings we have to endure are needed to produce the finished product! It is like sewing a dress - every cut and stitch is made with the finished product in mind. To the uninitiated, the cutting up of beautiful material looks unreasonable, wasteful and destructive, but when the finished garment is on display, it looks gorgeous! So the Master is working in us - some things are painful and often misunderstood, but the end result is beautiful!
This vision is divided into seven visions, yet it is one vision. The first is in chapters 1-3; the second is in chapters 4-7; the third in chapters 8-11; the fourth in chapters 12-14; the fifth in chapters 15-16; the sixth in chapters 17-19; and the seventh or final vision in chapters 20-22. These visions are not to be viewed as occurring consecutively; they are all part of one vision, and each one gives us light on a certain aspect of the unfolding of Jesus Christ to us and in us. These visions reveal that Christ is our protection against all evil, and that victory is ours in Him. It ends with the church and the Spirit in full unity proclaiming the same message of invitation for all to come! The Lord reigns! Hallelujah!
The numbers in Revelation are also symbolic. For example, seven is the number of divine completeness. This number is repeated again and again: seven visions, seven stars, seven Spirits, seven churches, seven golden lampstands, etc. Just like seven different colors are needed to complete a rainbow, so there are seven aspects needed to complete the whole. We know there is only one Holy Spirit, but here we have seven Spirits - the seven Spirits are the Holy Spirit in His totality.
Faulty Natural Interpretations
If we overlook the fact that this message was symbolized to John, many fanciful and carnal interpretations will result. These interpretations may be given in all sincerity, but that does not make them right. A natural interpretation supports a futuristic view of natural events that take place in apostate Christianity. So Napoleon, Mohammed, Hitler, Mussolini and Sadat, in turn have been seen as the Antichrist - but then they all died!
In spite of the fact that these predictions were all wrong, many Christians quickly forget that fact, and continue in their fanciful predictions. Their lack of repentance is illustrated in one of the great Pentecostal evangelists of the past, who wrote a book that "absolutely proved" that Mussolini was the Antichrist. The day after Mussolini died, instead of offering an apology to the world and admitting his mistake, the evangelist thanked God that he had sold all the books before Mussolini died. After Sadat died, a Christian bookstore sold the book that proclaimed Sadat as the Antichrist, for half price without explaining the reason for its reduced price. We took advantage of the sale and felt tricked when we got to that part. The once popular book, "88 Reasons Why Christ Will Return In 1988" is now obsolete. All these popular carnal ideas were wrong! All the various ideas about the mark of the beast as an actual number are also wrong.
Many expositions of Revelation are concerned with future events - events that are to take place during the end-time. Have you ever wondered what is meant by "end-time"? Are they events that take place just before time ends, and there is only eternity, or are they events that shall precede the so-called "second-coming" of Christ? I say "so-called" because Christ has already come a second time at Pentecost. In 2 Cor. 3:17 it says, "The Lord is the Spirit." Since the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, Christ came again in the Spirit at that time. Every coming again is now over and above the second time!
Notice also that the Bible does not mention a "second-coming". This designation has been coined by the carnal mind of man. The only reference to a second appearing (not a second coming) is in Heb. 9:28. "So Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him." He is not appearing to deal with sin a second time. In His glorious priesthood He appears to us for salvation. Time and again He appears to us to bring us encouragement, understanding, etc.
There is a difference between appearing and coming, but the translators have not been careful in their translation of these words. A research of these words in Strong's or Young's Concordance reveals this. The scriptures say Christ will come again! He has come again, for He lives and abides in us; He is here, for He has promised never to leave us or forsake us; He comes again in those who have been changed into His image. Every time we receive a new revelation of Christ, He comes to us in our awareness. The Spirit (Christ) is omnipresent; He fills all things. He is always with us and He never leaves us nor forsakes us. So how does He come again? Because we are not always aware of His presence, He can only come to us time and again in our awareness of Him. Whenever He manifests Himself to us in revelation and in power, we say He came to us. And of course, He did!
It grieves us to say that most Christians do not recognize that Jesus is no longer physical. In 2 Cor. 5:16 we read, "Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer." The only way we can see Him in physical form is when He is revealed in the overcomers. It is to our advantage that He has come again in the Spirit! Now we can all have fellowship and communion with Him at the same time. We don't have to go to Jerusalem and stand in line for years and years to have a ten-minute meeting with Him!
The Recipients of this Revelation
This revelation of Jesus Christ was not only for John, but for all the bond-servants of Jesus Christ. A bond-servant is someone who desires to remain a slave because he loves his master. (Ex. 21) This book is written to those who love Christ to the point of being willing to stand up and be counted, and if necessary, to die because of their allegiance to Him. They are His love slaves forever!
Becoming a Christian at that time, truly meant being a slave of Jesus Christ. The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. (Acts 11:26) The name, Christian, was given them by pagans. The pagans heard them talk about Christ, and that they belonged to Him exclusively - they were His slaves, so they nicknamed them the Christianos - the slaves of Christ. ANOS at the end of a word simply means "the slaves of". The pagans used it as a derogatory term.
It is helpful to know that the Greek word for witness is MARTUS or MARTUR. A martyr is one who bears witness by his death. A declaration of facts is also translated witness, and this helps us to understand its relationship to testimony (MARTURIA). The Greek word for a false witness is PSEUDOMARTUS or -TUR. John "testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw." (Rev.1:2)
A witness had a martyr mentality; that is, he had already faced the issue of death. Therefore the idea of martyr and witness was never separated. In those days (as in some countries today) those who became witnesses of Jesus Christ, faced the fact that they would most likely suffer persecution and death. They considered this eventuality before they were baptized.
Over the years the word "witness" has degenerated and lost its martyr mentality. The thought that we might be forced to exit this world as a punishment for being baptized, would never enter our minds. To us witnessing means giving a testimony about Jesus. To the early Christians it meant things like the loss of a job, loss of a home, probable torture, death or banishment - as in the case of John.
The first century Christians were under great persecution, and needed sustenance and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. They were not interested in a world figure posing as an Antichrist. They were not toying around with future events that Christians are so concerned about today. They may have had a better understanding of the fact that the natural mind is anti-Christ than most Christians do today. Since God promised a blessing to everyone who reads this book and heeds its words, it cannot be about things that only apply to those who live in the far-distant future. Unless it applies to all people in every generation, that would be a mockery!
Nowhere in the New Testament do we see people becoming Christians in order to escape hell or to go to heaven after they die. They didn't even think in those terms. They had a wonderful perspective of the greatness of the salvation God had provided for them. They believed that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, and that life in Christ was worth more than physical life! If we say we believe, but our actions don't reflect that belief, it is only a mental belief - not a heart belief.
This letter was written to seven churches that were on the mainland over which John had been the pastor and overseer. Though there were many other churches on the mainland, these seven were very strategically placed. The seven churches are listed in the order that a messenger from John in exile on Patmos would have visited them. From Patmos he would have crossed over to Ephesus, and then taken a circular route ending in Laodicea. After the church had read the letter, it was in a position to pass it on to the next church. In most cases these churches stood at the head of a valley, or at a pass beyond which were other churches.
To understand the Christians who lived at the time this book was written, it is helpful to know a little about the historical context. >From history we learn that the Roman emperors had brought a lot of good, like roads and civilization. The people were happy to respond by worshiping Caesar. This became a long-standing custom in Rome, but the enforcement depended on the emperor and his officials in the far-flung empire.
This book was written approximately 95 A.D. At that time Domitian was the reigning emperor of the Roman empire. He was fanatical in his insistence that emperor worship be strictly enforced. He insisted that the people had to proclaim him as their lord and their god. Emperor worship was intended to bring cohesion to the empire. Some emperors were not as concerned about it as others, and under their rule the Christians had an easier time. Domitian was assassinated in September 96AD. He was also the last of the twelve Caesars.
Christians refused to stand before a statue of the emperor, and say, "He is lord." In fact many of them would simply say, "Jesus Christ is Lord." They also preached that "Jesus Christ is Lord and God." That not only annoyed Caesar, but it made him so furious that he arrested Christians, imprisoned them and fed them to the wild beasts.
Christians living on the mainland of Asia at that time were noted for being jobless and homeless. Their civic rights were taken away, and they were called traitors, third-class citizens and considered to be lower than slaves. They were bullied and thrown out on the streets, and many had to live in caves. Many lost their lives; if they were not killed, they died of hunger.
It was in Pergamum that emperor worship was first instituted, and therefore the most fanatical about it. Here the very first temple was built in honor of a Caesar. They also had many patron deities. For example, every blacksmith had to worship the same patron deity in order to become a blacksmith. If the patron deity was Venus, their worship of Venus included all kinds of immorality and sexual orgies. If Christians refused to participate in those things, and this part of the ceremony was overlooked, they still needed to worship the emperor in order to get a job. When we visited Japan a number of years ago, remnants of this custom were still visible by the altars that adorned the yards of some people's homes.
Understanding the symbolism will bless us by unveiling the power and greatness of our Lord Jesus Christ and His wonderful salvation! Let's keep this in mind as we study these visions.