PMW 2020-043 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
By all accounts, Revelation is a difficult book. But naive Christians make it even more difficult than it needs be. A serious problem tripping up the modern would-be interpreter is the assumption of literalism when approaching Revelation. Too many contemporary prophecy students resist the symbolic approach to John’s glorious prophecy. “Literalism!” becomes the rally cry for those who believe Revelation lies in our approaching future.
I would point out that despite the popular claim of literalism: no one takes Revelation literally. We take it as God’s truth, to be sure. And it certainly deals with factual historical events. But we cannot take it as God’s truth in literal form. Let us see how this is so.
When interpreting any literary work, we should always listen carefully to the author himself. Especially if he provides information affecting the proper approach to interpreting his work. Certainly Revelation is considered the most difficult New Testament book to interpret. Given the widespread interest in Revelation, this exacerbates the difficulties in presenting John’s message in the modern context. Consequently, hermeneutic methodology becomes a paramount concern for the would-be interpreter. Interestingly, in his Gospel John shows the problem of literalism among Christ’s early hearers: by thinking literalistically they misconstrue Jesus’ teaching regarding the temple (John 2:19–22), being born again (3:3–10), drinking water (4:10–14), eating his flesh (6:51–56), being free (8:31–36), being blind (9:39–40), falling asleep (11:11–14), and his being king (18:33–37). This problem is exacerbated in Revelation with its rich imagery field.
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In the very first chapter of Revelation we find the first clues to John’s presentational method. He specifically informs his readers of the symbolic nature of his visions, and provides insights into how the reader should transpose his visions to understand his point.
John’s Opening Announcement
John wastes no time in alerting his readers to his symbolic approach. In the very opening sentence he declares:
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must shortly take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John.” (Rev. 1:1)
Here he informs us that Revelation is given “to show” (Gk.: deixai) the message being “signified” (Gk.: esemanen) by His angel (Rev. 1:1, NKJV). As Friedrich Düsterdieck notes: “The deixai occurs in the way peculiar to semainein, i.e., the indication of what is meant by significative figures.” In fact, forty-one times John says he “sees” these prophecies (e.g., Rev. 1:12, 20; 5:6; 9:1; 20:1).
Premillennial commentator Robert Mounce observes in this regard: “The revelation is said to be signified to John. The Greek verb carries the idea of figurative representation. Strictly speaking it means to make known by some sort of sign (Hort, p. 6). Thus it is admirably suited to the symbolic character of the book. This should warn the reader not to expect a literal presentation of future history, but a symbolic portrayal of that which must yet come to pass.” John encourages his readers to expect figurative symbols rather than literal events.
John’s Opening Vision
In fact, John’s first vision sets the pattern for later symbolic interpretation by presenting a vision then interpreting its key elements in a non-literal way. In Revelation 1:12–20 he records a vision of Christ walking among lampstands. On the literalist assumption the vision should be teaching that the Lord walks among candles in heaven. However, John will not allow that.
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In verse 20 Jesus interprets the vision for us: “As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Rev. 1:20). So then, even though John himself actually saw seven stars and seven lampstands, the stars represent “the angels of the seven churches” and the lampstands represent “the seven churches.” This is what John himself teaches; we cannot dismiss this important clue to symbolic interpretation.
John’s Continuing Practice
What is more, John does not simply provide us one sample of his symbolic method. Several times in Revelation he stops to provide interpretive insights into the visions.
In Revelation 5 John sees a lamb with seven eyes. Even the most naive literalist recognizes this Lamb represents Christ the Lord, for he is called (not literally!) “the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Rev. 5:5). After all, the angels of heaven sing his praise as the Redeemer of God’s people (5:9–10) and as glorious because of his work (5:12). In the next verse he is praised equally with God the Father (5:13). In Revelation 14 the Lamb’s name is associated with God’s name on the elect of God (14:1).
John also provides interpretive directives on one of the more unusual features of the vision of the Lamb. He explains the “seven eyes”: “And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth” (Rev. 5:6). The vision’s seven eyes do not mean that the Lamb literally has seven eyeballs in his head. John tells us so himself.
Despite John’s speaking of “incense” in the angelic bowls in heaven, he re-directs our understanding. He clearly states that the incense which John actually saw really represented the “prayers of the saints”: “And when He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, having each one a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8).
In Revelation 17:7, 9–10 the interpreting angel clears John’s confusion by noting that one image really represents two altogether different realities: “And the angel said to me, ‘Why do you wonder? I shall tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns. . . . Here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits, and they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while” (Rev. 17:9–10). So then, not only do the seven heads not portray seven literal heads on one actual beast, but they symbolize two other realities: seven mountains and seven kings.
And what shall we say of the horns on the beast? They are not horns at all — even though certain mammals do actually possess horns made up of a bony core covered with a sheath of keratinous material. The interpreting angel interprets this for John and for us: “And the ten horns which you saw are ten kings, who have not yet received a kingdom, but they receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour” (Rev. 17:12).
Even the water John sees should not be understood as referring to H2O. Rather, the angel explains: “And he said to me, ‘The waters which you saw where the harlot sits, are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues’” (Rev. 17:15).
As we can see, John provides us with enough explanatory samples for interpreting Revelation that we should be able categorically to declare that the book should not be interpreted according to the principles of literalism.
Continued in next article.