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The whole Bible is the Word of God—inerrant, authoritative revelation. That revelation is in words, and those words come to us in a variety of literary styles. For example, some parts of the Bible are history, and some are poetry. Both forms are the revelation of God, but they must be read somewhat differently for their meaning to be properly understood. When biblical history says that David was a shepherd, it means that he tended sheep. When the poetry of Psalm 23 says that the Lord is our shepherd, it means that the Lord cares for His people in a way that is similar to the way that a shepherd cares for his sheep. To insist that Psalm 23 teaches that the Lord tends sheep is to miss the point completely. To interpret Scripture properly and to truly understand its meaning, we must recognize the various ways that the human authors of the Bible were inspired to write and what they intended.
Careful attention to style and the intention of the author is particularly important as we approach the book of the Revelation. There John is writing prophetically and using a great many word pictures that often have a poetic quality. Consider, for example, John’s description of Jesus in the heavenly temple in the first chapter of Revelation. He does not name Jesus explicitly, but his meaning is clear. He sees “one like a son of man” (Rev. 1:13), and initially the picture he paints seems straightforward: “clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire” (Rev. 1:13–14). Already we may have questions. Does the glorified Christ in heaven literally have white hair? That is possible, but John may also be speaking somewhat poetically and suggesting the maturity and wisdom of Christ. Does Christ in heaven have eyes like a flame of fire? Again, John may be teaching us the intensity of His searching sight rather than the color of His eyes.
These questions are really answered for us by John in the final two elements of his description of Jesus: “From his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength” (Rev. 1:16). Clearly, John is teaching that from the mouth of Jesus comes the sharp, judging Word of God in the spirit of what we read in Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Even more certainly, when John writes that His face was shining like the sun in full strength, he shows that his description goes beyond the literal appearance of Jesus in heaven in order to communicate its meaning. If the face of Jesus was literally shining like the sun, then John could not have seen His hair or His eyes or His mouth. John writes of the shining of the face of Jesus to show His glory and the fullness and purity of light that is in Him.
Why has John chosen to write with these word pictures? One reason is that they communicate very powerfully the meaning that he wants us to understand. To write that Jesus’ face was shining like the sun is a very effective way of telling us about Him. A second reason is that this style will slow us down, will draw us in, and will make us think. We must not try to speed-read this book but must meditate carefully on its images.
Think, for example, of the Trinitarian blessing pronounced on the churches by John (Rev. 1:4) where the Holy Spirit is presented as “the seven spirits who are before his throne.” Is John teaching that there are seven Holy Spirits rather than one? Is he teaching that the Holy Spirit has seven parts? No. He is using the number seven symbolically to indicate the fullness and perfection of the Spirit in all that He does. This interpretation is supported by Revelation 4:5: “From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God.” Just as the seven torches stand for the seven spirits, so the seven spirits stand for the Holy Spirit. Indeed, most of the time in this book numbers are meant symbolically.
We see this use of word pictures in Revelation 5:5, where the victor who can open the scroll is described as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David.” Here again, John is clearly referring not to a literal lion but to the strength and sovereign power of Jesus. John dramatically changes the image, when he sees not a lion but a lamb: “I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (v. 6). Jesus is the powerful Lion and at the same time the sacrificial Lamb who has horns of power as well as the fullness of the Spirit of God.
The examples that we have considered to this point are quite easy to recognize and understand. They also show us that John often uses symbols that he later interprets. In Revelation 1:12, John refers to seven lampstands and in verse 20 explains that the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
As we move further into the book, we certainly find images that are more difficult. Think about the fifth trumpet, which brings a plague of locusts. These locusts look like horses with human faces, women’s hair, lions’ teeth, wings, and tails with “stings like scorpions” (Rev. 9:10). So, literally, what is this plague? Is it a plague of locusts, horses, scorpions, or some composite monster yet to be created? One writer more than a century ago thought it referred to soldiers on horseback with rifles firing behind them. Such an interpretation is not actually literal and seems now more than a little silly. If we take the images as symbolic, they make sense. They represent a plague or judgment brought by many swarming and powerful entities that can poison and torment. John says that this judgment is a temporary one, lasting five months. Five months represents a long but not interminable time of suffering.
Just as the images and numbers are almost all symbolic in the book of Revelation, so are the time references. All the time references—from one half-hour to three and a half years—are rather short. In context, these times are almost certainly symbolically speaking of the relatively short time of suffering for the righteous in this world. The only exception in the book is the reference to one thousand years (ch. 20). What can this mean? If John describes the time of the suffering of God’s people as short, he describes the time of victory and relief as very long. Whatever else it means, this shows us that God is directing history for the good of His people. (I give a much fuller discussion of these themes of images and symbols in my Ligonier teaching series Blessed Hope.)
John promised that whoever reads this book aloud and hears it and keeps it will receive a blessing (Rev. 1:3). We will indeed be blessed as we read it slowly, thoughtfully, and meditatively, asking what God is teaching us through the images He uses.