You are hereThe Serious Error of the Literal Hermeneutic in the Interpretation of the Book of Revelation
The Serious Error of the Literal Hermeneutic in the Interpretation of the Book of Revelation
by Duncan McKenzie
Dr. Hindson, in his article “The New Last Days Scoffers” talks about the dangers of preterism. His first criticism of preterism is that it uses a hermeneutic that is less literal than that used by dispensationalists. In this article I will examine this accusation as it relates to the book of Revelation and seek to answer the question of which is a more correct hermeneutical approach to Revelation, the literal or the symbolic.Dr. Hindson, in his article “The New Last Days Scoffers” talks about the dangers of preterism. His first criticism of preterism is that it uses a hermeneutic that is less literal than that used by dispensationalists. In this article I will examine this accusation as it relates to the book of Revelation and seek to answer the question of which is a more correct hermeneutical approach to Revelation, the literal or the symbolic.The Serious Error of the Literal Hermeneutic in the Interpretation of the Book of Revelation: A Response to Dr. Hindson’s Attack on Preterism
The majority of the following article is an excerpt from a forth coming book (hopefully in 2005) entitled The Antichrist and the Second Coming. The book is a systematic look at the sections of Scripture that have traditionally (and I believe correctly) been associated with Antichrist. The book is 630 pages double spaced (that will shrink some in book form); it is essentially finished but I need an editor if there are any out there with the qualifications and experience for such a large project. The chapters are the following:
Chapter 1 Introduction and Daniel 2.
Chapter 2 The Little Horn of Daniel 7
Chapter 3 The King of the North and the Time of the End (Dan. 11:36-12:13)
Chapter 4. The Man of Lawlessness 2 Thess. 2)
Chapter 5. Introduction to Revelation
Chapter 6. The Beast From the Sea and the Beast from the Land (Rev. 13)
Chapter 7. The Beast and the Harlot (Rev. 17)
Chapter 8. The Beast and Babylon (Rev. 18)
Chapter 9 The Second Coming (Rev. 19)
Chapter 10 The Millennium and New Heaven and New Earth (Rev. 20-22)
Chapter 11 Where are we now?
Dr Hindson in his article “The New Last Days Scoffers” talks about the dangers of preterism. His first criticism of preterism is that it uses a hermeneutic that is less literal than that used by dispensationalists. In this article I will examine this accusation as it relates to the book of Revelation and seek to answer the question of which is a more correct hermeneutical approach to Revelation, the literal or the symbolic.
Dr. Hindson wrote the following about the “faulty hermeneutic” of preterism.
“Preterism rests on a faulty hermeneutic and raises serious concerns for sincere students of Scripture. Consider the following; Preterism:
1. Destroys the Literal Meaning of the Bible. Once you start arguing that the language of prophecy cannot be taken literally, you are not that far removed from not taking the rest of the Bible literally either. Preterists are following the dangerous path of liberalism which began denying predictive prophecy and soon rejected the literal interpretation of creation, the flood, the virgin birth of Christ, His vicarious death and bodily resurrection.”
This sound pretty serious; preterism is a slippery slope to liberalism. Deny the literalistic interpretive approach and pretty soon you will be denying Jesus. In this article I will be specifically looking at the language of prophecy in the book of Revelation and will be arguing that it is error to interpret the images of the book literally.
It is imperative that before one ventures into the book of Revelation that one has some guidelines for how it should be interpreted. One’s hermeneutic (method of interpretation) will to a great extent determine the conclusions one comes to concerning the book. Osborn said the following along these lines. “Perhaps more than any other book, our understanding of the meaning of Revelation depends on the hermeneutical perspective we bring to bear on it.”1 Those who are looking at Revelation as a collection of literal physical events will be interpreting the visions very differently than those who see the events as more symbolic in nature. Most of the differences between futurism and preterism can be traced to differences in how the images of Revelation are interpreted. Most of these differences center around how literally or symbolically one interprets the images of Revelation. Again one’s conclusions on Revelation will to a great extent be determined by ones interpretive approach, thus one must be careful that the foundation one is building their interpretations on is sound.
The book of Revelation is also known as The Apocalypse. This title is taken from Revelation 1:1 where we are told that the book is a revelation (Gr. apokalypsis) of Jesus. The Greek word apokalypsis means an uncovering or unveiling. A common understanding is that what is being unveiled in Revelation is the future. While it is true that the book of Revelation is for the most part unveiling future things (things near to when the book was written Rev. 1:1, 3; 22:6, 10),2 this is not the primary unveiling of the book. The primary unveiling of the book of Revelation is an unveiling of the spiritual realm. That is, Revelation is an unveiling the invisible realm of the spirit making it visible by way of symbols. The only way one can show something that is invisible (as the spiritual realm is) is to use a symbolic representation (e.g. a spiritual being such as Satan is symbolized by a dragon, Rev. 12:9).
The question of how much of Revelation is symbolic and how much is literal is one of the first questions that any reader of Revelation should consider. Much of Revelation is clearly symbolic. No one looks for a literal seven headed beast or a harlot that rides on it (Rev. 17:1-6) or a lamb with seven eyes and seven horns (Re. 5:5-7) or locust from the abyss (Rev. 9:1-3) etc.. While these things are clearly symbolic, what about something like the 2 witnesses? Many look for two literal witnesses (Rev. 11:1-14). This bring up the question of how does one determine what is literal and what is symbolic in Revelation? Is the book mostly literal or mostly symbolic or a combination of both? If it is a combination of literal and symbolic images, how does one determine which images are literal and which are symbolic? Before I address this question I think it is important to define the terms “literal”, “symbolic” and “symbol”. Webster’s New World College Dictionary 3 gives the following definitions of these words:
LITERAL (3a): based on the actual words in their ordinary meaning; not figurative or symbolic /the literal meaning of a passage/.
SYMBOLIC (1) of or expressed in a symbol or symbols.
SYMBOL (1): something that stands for, represents, or suggests another thing; esp., an object used to represent something abstract; emblem /the dove is a symbol of peace/
The slain lamb with seven eyes and seven horns on God’s throne (Rev. 5:6-14) taken literally (“the actual words in their ordinary meaning”) would mean an actual dead lamb with seven eyes and seven horns sitting on a physical throne in heaven. Taken symbolically this slain lamb would stand for or represent something other than simply a dead lamb that came to life. I trust this is a pretty clear example. The book of Revelation is not talking about a literal slain lamb here; it is talking about Jesus, the Lamb of God, God’s perfect sacrifice for man’s sin (John 1:29). The Lamb here is obviously a symbol (“something that stands for or represents… another thing”). Notice that just because a symbol is being used does not mean the meaning it is conveying is not real. The meaning of the symbol of the slain Lamb on the throne is much more real and profound than the meaning of a literal physical lamb of the throne would be. This is an important point, it is just one example of many in Revelation where the symbolic interpretation is clearly the correct one and the literal physical interpretation is incorrect.
Symbolic understandings of scriptural passages are viewed with suspicion by many who hold a high view of Scripture. This is primarily due to the excesses that have arisen from symbolic interpretations (like saying that the Second Coming happens every time a person accepts Jesus). Just because something is symbolic, however, does not mean the thing it is symbolizing is less of a reality. For example the symbolic understanding of the white hair of the Son of Man (symbolic of His eternality as the Ancient of Days, Dan. 7:9) is far more powerful than a literal understanding (that Jesus has white hair). Although the interpretation of the symbolic passages of Scripture can be difficult at times, the way to stay on track is to let Scripture interpret Scripture; the place to find the meaning of the symbols of Revelation is in Scripture.
There is another meaning that is sometimes given to the term literal. R.C. Sproul wrote the following on this:
The orthodox Protestant hermeneutic follows Martin Luther’s view of the sensus literalis. There is much confusion today regarding the “literal sense” of Scripture. Luther means that one should interpret the Bible according to the manner in which it was written, or in its “literary sense.”…To interpret the Bible “literally” in the classical sense requires that we learn to recognize in Scripture different genres of literature. Poetry is to be interpreted as poetry, and didactic passages are to be interpreted according to the grammar of the didactic. Historical narrative must not be treated as parable, nor parable as strict historical narrative. Much of biblical prophecy is cast in an apocalyptic genre that employs graphic imaginative language and often mixes elements of common historical narrative with the figurative language. 4
While I totally agree that different forms of literature in the Bible should be interpreted differently, I find that the sensus literalis definition of literal confuses the issue here. That is, while sensus literalis correctly says that different genres in the Bible are to be read differently it does not precisely define what the correct way to interpret a given genre is. It is a little like the saying “do the right thing.” While this is a truism, it is not of much help if the right thing is not defined; different people have different definitions of what the right thing was in a given situation. Using the sensus literalis definition of literal, all commentators would say they interpret Revelation literally because all would maintain that they are interpreting it the way it should be interpreted. For example, using the sensus literalis definition of literal, I would say that my symbolic interpretive approach to Revelation is the literal approach. Again, this confuses the issue, I thus prefer to use the dictionary’s definitions of literal (the actual words in their ordinary meaning) and symbolic (something that stands for, represents or suggests another thing) in discussing interpretive approaches to Revelation.
Consider what Revelation says about itself in terms of how literal or symbolic the images in it are. In Revelation 1:1 we are given the following introduction to the book: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by his angel to His servant John.” W.E. Vine gave the following definition for the word translated “signified” in Revelation 1:1: “SEMAINO, to give a sign, indicate (sema, a sign: cp. Sign, No. 1), to signify, is so translated in John 12:33; 18:32; 21:19; Acts 11:28; 25:27; Rev. 1:1, where perhaps the suggestion is that of expressing by signs.” 5 emphasis added. Osborne agrees with this meaning of semaino. “This term has a special purpose, for it is the verb cognate of the Johannine term (semeion, sign) and yields the idea of “making known” by means of symbols. This is particularly apropos in light of the predominant symbolism of the book.”6 Using this definition of signified, the meaning of Revelation 1:1 is, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it [communicating it by way of symbols] by his angel to His servant John.” Of course the meaning of any word is ultimately defined by the context it occurs in. When one looks at the whole book of Revelation as context (with all its symbolic images), it lends overwhelming support to the proposition that semaino in Revelation 1:1 means making known by way of signs.
I don’t think anyone would deny that Revelation has many symbols in it. It is my contention, however, that symbolism is the primary mode of communication of the book, that essentially all the images in it are symbols.7 In trying to differentiate symbolic from literal images in Revelation many interpreters operate on the assumption that how bizarre an image is should be the criterion between what is literal and what is symbolic (i.e. if the literal sense makes good sense then look for no other sense). Essentially absurdity is the criterion used by the literalist to determine if something is literal or symbolic in Revelation. According to this line of thinking, a lamb with seven eyes and horns is bizarre (and thus a symbol) while two witnesses are not bizarre (and thus they are literal). I totally disagree with this method of interpretation; the two witnesses are just as much a symbol (a symbol of the witness of God’s people, see end note for a defense of this)8 as is the Lamb with seven eyes and seven horns. Again the primary means of communication of Revelation is by way of symbolic images; it is not an assortment of symbolic and literal images.9
Even though it is my contention that the images in Revelation are symbols, the foundation underlying the understanding of this symbolism is the historical-grammatical method of interpretation. Gundry wrote the following on the importance of this:
…we must presume that the text as it stands had a meaning for the author and his first readers. We want to discover that meaning. The path to discovery lies along the line of historical-grammatical interpretation, which assumes that the language of the biblical text, including its symbolic language, grows out of and speaks to the historical situation of the writer and his readers. To take a non-referential view of language, particularly of symbolic language, may open up possibilities of contemporary interest and deconstructive play, but it blocks the path to historical understanding.10
Before one can begin to understand what John wrote (whether it is to be taken literally or symbolically) one has to know what the words that John used meant to him and his audience at the time in history that he wrote. Thus the symbolic interpretation of Revelation that I am advocating is built on the historical-grammatical method of interpreting Scripture. I make this point because some associate the historical-grammatical method only with literalism.
Even though I see essentially all the images in Revelation as being symbolic (i.e. unveiling the spiritual realm by means of symbols), there are physical referents contained within these symbols. The reason for this is to aid in the identification of what the symbols refer to. For example harlot Babylon is dressed up in the attire of the high priest as well as the furnishings of the Temple (Rev. 17:4; 18:16). The merchandise of Babylon (Rev. 18:11-13) consists of the materials found in the Temple building as well as the merchandise used in its sacrifices and offerings. Massyngberde Ford had the following comments on this:
In [Rev. 17:]4 scarlet again appears, but this time in conjunction with purple. This combination, together with the mention of Gold, precious stones, and pearls, might remind the Jewish reader of the offerings for the sanctuary which comprised gold, silver, bronze, blue, purple and scarlet, fine linen, goat’s hair, rams skin, acacia wood, oil spice, incense, and for the ephod onyx stones (Exod 25:3-7 and the products in Rev. 18). Similar materials and colors are mentioned in Exod 26:1 (the tabernacle curtains), 26:31 (the veil for the tabernacle, 26:36 (the screen for the door of the tent), and 27:16 (the gate or screen for the court). The garments for the priests have similar colors gold, blue, purple and scarlet, fine linen; cf. Exod 28:5, 15, 23. These colors were not associated only with the sanctuary but also with the vestments of the high priest. These required much more gold work as well as jewels for the ephod; Exod 28:31, Josephus Antiquities of the Jews. 3.159-61. In Ant. 3.151-78 Josephus describes the apparel of the ordinary priests and the high priest, including the ephod (Exod 28:6) and the turban or crown of gold (Exod 28:36-39).11
Carrington said the following about the merchandise of Babylon, “The long list of merchandise in 18:11-13 is surely a catalogue of materials for building the Temple, and stores for maintaining it.”12 While the harlot Babylon is a symbol (of the old covenant Temple system that the Antichrist, the beast, would destroy), there are physical referents contained in her description that are for the purpose of aiding in the identification of what she is symbolic of.
Another example of a physical referent contained in a symbol in Revelation is found in Revelation 16:21, “And great hail from heaven fell upon men, every hailstone about the weight of a talent. And men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail, since that plague was exceedingly great.” This plague brings to mind the seventh plague of Egypt (Exodus 9:18-26) where God rained great hailstones on the Egyptians. The hailstones of Exodus were said to be very heavy but the hailstones in Revelation are said to weigh a talent each (around a hundred pounds!). Such heavy hail is a natural impossibility (As of 1999 the world record for hail was around two pounds).13 The reference to one hundred pound "hailstones" in Revelation is not talking about literal hail; it is symbolic of the Roman bombardment of Jerusalem during its siege. Josephus tells us that these stones were shiny white (like hail) and weighed a talent each.14
The reason that Revelation symbolizes the bombardment of Jerusalem with 100-pound stones in the form of one of the plagues of Egypt is because this was a fulfillment of one of the curses that God had said he would bring on His old covenant people when they broke the covenant. God had said He would bring the diseases and plagues of Egypt on His people when they broke the covenant (Deut. 28:58-61); this is why Revelation uses the motif of the plagues of Egypt so frequently (cf. Rev. 16; see my article Revelation, Book of the Covenant Curses). Thus the 100 pound white stones that the Romans were raining on Jerusalem are portrayed symbolically as 100 pound hailstones. Again, the “hail” in Revelation 16:21 is not literal hail, it is symbolic of the one of the covenant curses that God said He would bring on His old covenant people when they broke the covenant. While the hailstones of Revelation 16:21 are symbolic, contained in this symbol is a reference to the weight of the great white stones that the Romans were raining on Jerusalem. Again, this aids in identifying what the symbol of the plague of hail is referring to.
To support my assertion that virtually all the images in Revelation are symbols, let me give an overview of how Jesus is revealed in Revelation. We are told that the book of Revelation is a revelation of Jesus (Rev. 1:1). While this probably means that Revelation is an unveiling from Jesus (given to Him by His Father),15 the book of Revelation also contains an unveiling of whom Jesus is. This being the case, the manner in which Jesus is revealed should give a good indication of whether my assertion that the message of Revelation is primarily being communicated by way of symbols is correct or not. I am going into detail on this because, as I have said, one’s interpretive approach to Revelation will dictate many of one’s conclusions concerning the book. To just wade into Revelation and interpret the images without a systematic understanding of how to do it is a mistake. If one says that some of the images in Revelation are symbolic and some literal, what is the criterion that one uses to make that differentiation? The degree of absurdity of the image (the criterion of the so called literalist) is not an adequate criterion. Again I am maintaining that essentially all the images in Revelation are symbolic, that it is an unveiling of the invisible realm of the spirit by way of signs. If there is one place in Revelation where Jesus is portrayed in a literal manner then my assertion that Revelation is made up of symbols will be shown to be in error.
The first place we see Jesus in the book of Revelation it is as “One like the Son of Man” (Rev. 1:13). This Son of Man is in the midst of seven lampstands, has seven stars in His right hand, white hair and a sharp two-edged sword coming out of His mouth (Rev. 1:13-16). We are told in Revelation 1:20 that the seven lampstands are symbolic of the seven churches and that the seven stars in the Son of Man’s hand are symbolic of the seven angels of these churches. We are not told the meaning of the sword coming out of the Son of Man’s mouth, but we know that a sword in other parts of the New Testament (the sword of the Spirit) is symbolic of the word of God (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12). Revelation chapter 19 confirms this usage as we see Jesus (referred to in the passage as the Word of God) warring with the sword that comes out of His mouth (Rev. 19:13-16). The voice of this Son of Man (which is like the sound of many waters) also supports this, as it is the same as the voice of God (cf. Ezek. 43:2). Just as the sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth is not referring to a literal sword neither is the white hair referring to Jesus’ hair color. To find the meaning of the white hair one has to go back to Daniel chapter seven. In that chapter the Son of Man is seen coming to the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:9-14). The Ancient of Days (God the Father) is seen as having white hair (Daniel 7:9). White hair (something that comes with advanced age) is being used there as a symbol of the eternality of the Ancient of Days. In Revelation chapter one the Son of Man having white hair is likewise symbolic of the eternality of Jesus.
The literal interpretation of Revelation 1:9-20 would be that Jesus has white hair and a sword for a tongue with physical stars (v. 16) and keys (v. 18) in His hand. The symbolic interpretation would be that Jesus is the eternal Word of God who holds His church, and the very power of life and death, in the palm of His hand. The combination of the image of the Son of Man with the Ancient of Days (the white hair, symbolic of eternality) is especially powerful; it reveals Jesus to be a combination of both God and man. Notice that the symbolic interpretation here is much more powerful than the literal interpretation. As with the Son of Man in Revelation 1:10-20, the meaning of the symbols in Revelation is sometimes found in the immediate context (e.g. Rev. 17:1, 15), sometimes in other places in the book (for example in Rev. 17:18 Babylon is called the great city; in Rev. 11:18 we are told that the great city was where Jess was crucified), sometimes in the New Testament (e.g. Rev. 1:16; Eph 6:17), often in the Old Testament (For background on Revelation’s use of the symbol of a harlot in Rev. 17 see Ezek. 16, 23). Many times one has to go to all of these sources (as I just did with the Son of Man passage of Revelation chapter 1) to get the full depth of meaning of a given symbol or group of symbols.
The next place we see Jesus is in Revelation chapter 5, there He is pictured as a slain Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. I trust that it is pretty clear that the Lamb here is a symbol and not a literal lamb. The symbol of a slain lamb speaks of Jesus being the fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice. In the words of John the Baptist, Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) The depth of the symbol of the slain lamb is great but basically it speaks of how God passes over our sins because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross (God’ Passover Lamb). The symbol of a Lamb is the most common way that Jesus is portrayed in the book of Revelation. Here are some of the references:
The Lamb on God’s throne in heaven (Rev. 5:6)
The Lamb is worshipped in heaven (Rev. 5:8-14)
The wrath of the Lamb (Rev 6:16)
The tribulation saints washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:14)
The Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev. 13:8)
The Lamb and the 144,000 standing on Mount Zion (Rev. 14:1)
The song of Moses and the Lamb (Rev. 15:3)
The marriage of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7)
New Jerusalem is the bride of the Lamb (Rev. 21:9)
The 12 apostles of the Lamb Rev. (21:14)
God and the Lamb are the Temple and Light of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:22-23)
The throne of God and the Lamb (Rev. 22:1)
We are told that the seven horns and seven eyes of the Lamb are symbolic of “the seven spirits of God” (Rev: 5:6). It is important to notice that numbers are being used symbolically here. The number seven is the sacred number of God. In creation we are told that God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it (Genesis 2:3). In the book of Revelation the number seven is used this way and carries the symbolic meaning of that which is holy to God. Much of the time when you see the number seven in Revelation you can substitute the idea of that which is “God’s” or “God’s holy”. Thus the seven spirits before God’s throne (Rev. 4:5) speaks of God’s Holy Spirit; it is not speaking of seven literal Spirits of God. Similarly the Lamb with seven eyes and seven horns is symbolic of the fact that Jesus, the Lamb of God, possesses God’s Holy Spirit (Rev. 5:6). A case can be made that the seven eyes and seven horns also symbolize that the Lamb possesses God’s knowledge (symbolized by the seven eyes) and God’s authority and power (symbolized by the seven horns). Again, I trust that it is self evident that Jesus is not a literal lamb let alone one with seven horns or seven eyes. Taking the picture of a slain lamb literally would mean there is an actual lamb with seven eyes and horns on the throne of God. Taking the slain lamb symbolically speaks of Jesus as the perfect sacrifice for man’s sin; the seven eyes and seven horns speak of Jesus possessing the Spirit of God as well as God’s knowledge and power. Again the symbolic interpretation is of how Jesus is portrayed (as a lamb) is much more powerful (and sensible) than the literal interpretation.
The next place in the book of Revelation that we probably see Jesus is in Revelation chapter 10. The symbolism is so strong here it is not totally clear whether the Angel in Revelation 10 represents Jesus or is merely a strong angel. The reason I believe that this Angel symbolizes Jesus is because of the many symbols of deity (as well as God’s covenants) that the Angel possesses. First, let me make it clear that Jesus is not an angel; He is the eternal Word of God who became flesh (John. 1:1-14; Rev. 19:13). The strong Angel of Revelation 10 may symbolize Jesus as the Old Testament’s Angel of the Lord, a term often given to God when He would appear physically. When Moses met the Angel of the Lord in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2) it was clear that the “Angel” was God himself, Yahweh (Exodus 3:13-15).The Angel of Revelation 10 may also contain a reference to the Messiah as the Angel or Messenger of the covenant (Mal. 3:1).
If this strong Angel of Revelation chapter 10 is referring to Jesus then the figure of an angel is being used as a symbol here. Jesus is no more a literal angel than he is a literal lamb; both are being used as symbols. David Chilton wrote the following about this strong Angel:
The strong Angel can be none other than Jesus Christ Himself, the “Angel of the LORD” who appeared in the Old Testament. This will be clear enough if the description of this Angel is compared with that of Christ in 1:14-16, and of God on His throne in Ezekiel 1:25-28. There are, however, further indications of the divine identity of this strong Angel. First, the Angel is seen clothed with a cloud-an expression that should call to mind the Glory Cloud. And while the Cloud is filled with innumerable angels (Deut. 33:2 Ps. 68:17), there is only One who could be said to be clothed with it… Second, the Angel had the rainbow upon His head. We have seen the rainbow already in 4:3, around the throne of God; and Ezekiel says of the One whom he saw enthroned that “there was a radiance around Him. As the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezek. 1:27-28). Third, the Angel’s face was like the sun. This fits the description of Christ in 1:16 and in Matthew 17:2, the account of Christ’s transfiguration… Fourth, His legs were like Pillars of fire. This refers to some of the most complex imagery in all the Bible. Obviously, the phrase is intended to remind us of “the pillar of fire and cloud”-the Glory-Cloud of the Exodus (Ex. 14:24). As we have seen, it is the Lord who “wears” the Cloud (Deut. 31:15) 16
When the mighty Angel of Revelation 10 speaks it is like a lion roaring (v. 3). This metaphor is used for God speaking in Amos 3:8 “A lion has roared! Who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken! Who can but prophesy? Notice how the next thing John is told he must do after the Angel roared is to prophesy (v. 11). Similarly when the Angel calls out the seven thunders sounded. Thunder is also been likened to the voice of God (Ps 29:3). Ultimately whether this strong Angel represents Jesus or not, it should be clear that powerful symbols are being used here. To take the literal interpretative approach and say that this is just some angel with a rainbow for a hat and pillars of fire for feet (Rev. 10:1) who is holding a physical book (Rev. 10:2) is to miss the depth of meaning that is being communicated here. Again notice that to find the meaning of the symbols one needs to be familiar with the rest of Scripture, especially the Old Testament.
The next place we see Jesus is in Revelation chapter 12. There He is symbolized as “a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron.” This Child after being born is caught up to God’s throne (Rev. 12:5). Revelation chapter 19:13-15 tells us that the one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron is the Word of God, Jesus (Rev. 19:13-15). The reference to Jesus ruling over the nations with a rod of iron is taken from the Septuagint’s translation of the second Psalm where it is referring to the Messiah.
Declaring the ordinance of the Lord: the Lord said to me, Thou art my Son, to-day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I will give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the ends of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt rule them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces as a potter’s vessel. (Psalm 2:7-9 LXX)
In Psalm 2:7 when God (the Father) says, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten Thee” He is talking about when He raised Jesus from the dead, the resurrection. We are told this in Acts chapter 13:33-34
… that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘YOU ARE MY SON; TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU.’ And as for the fact that He raised Him up from the dead, no more to return to decay, He has spoken this way; ‘I WILL GIVE YOU THE HOLY and SURE blessings OF DAVID.’ Acts 13:33-34 NASB emphasis added
Revelation chapter 12 is showing us this resurrection “birthing” of the Messiah. Thus the male Child after being born is caught up to God’s throne (Rev. 12:5). Once again what is being shown here is not Jesus being born on earth, but His being “born” when God the Father raised Him from the dead (Acts 13:33). This first born Child in Revelation 12 is a symbol of Jesus as the first born from the dead (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5). Just as there isn’t a literal lamb on the throne of God neither is there a literal male child sitting on it.
Revelation chapter 12 is introduced with the statement “Now a great sign appeared in heaven…” (Rev. 12:1). Chilton had the following comments on this:
St. John alerts us from the outset that we must give careful attention to the subject of this vision, for the symbol of the Woman here is a great sign. “Literalists” would have it that the use of this term implies that most of Revelation is to be taken literally. But this is to miss the point. St. John is not saying that this passage, in contrast to the rest of the book, is a “sign”, for he has already told us that the entire book is composed of “signs” (1:1). The point here is that this is a great sign, an important symbol, central to the interpretation of the prophecy as a whole. St. John is telling his reader to think carefully about the Biblical meaning of the sign. 17
The mention of a great sign in Revelation 12 speaks of the importance of the sign not that Revelation 12 is symbolic as opposed to the rest of the book which is literal. So far we have not found one literal depiction of Jesus in the book of Revelation. Instead we have found very powerful symbols that unveil some of the depths of who He is.
The next place we see Jesus is in Revelation chapter 14:14-15
Then I looked, and behold a white cloud, and on the cloud sat One like the Son of Man, having on His head a golden crown, and in His hand a sharp sickle. And another angel came out of the temple, crying with aloud voice to Him who sat on the cloud, “Thrust in You sickle and reap, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” Revelation 14:14-15
We have already seen this “Son of Man” in Revelation chapter 1. There He had white hair, a sword for a tongue and was holding seven stars. Now He is sitting on a white cloud with a crown on His head and a sickle in His hand. Again, I trust that it is fairly clear that this is symbolic. Jesus, the Son of Man, does not hang out on a literal cloud with a literal sickle in His hand. The cloud symbolizes the deity of Jesus, as clouds are God’s mode of transportation (Psalm 104:3; Isaiah 19:1; Nahum 1:3). The sickle that the Son of Man is holding represents Jesus gathering together (harvesting) those who are His at the end of the age. John the Baptist in speaking of the judgment that was coming on the Land of Israel used this analogy of harvesting.
But when he was many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. Matthew 3:7-12 emphasis added.
After the Son of Man gathers the grain of the earth (or Land) in Revelation 14:15, an angel comes and gathers the vine of the Land and the “grapes” are thrown into the winepress of the wrath of God in Revelation 14:19. This is the same subject that John the Baptist was talking about, some of those of Israel would be gathered into God’s house while others would be gathered and destroyed (also see Matt. 13:36-43 for more on the symbol of an end of the age harvest). Neither John the Baptist nor the author of Revelation is talking about literal wheat or trees or grapes or sickles or axes or winepresses. These objects are being used as symbols of God’s AD 70 end of the age gathering together of His own and separating out for judgment those who were not His (cf. Matt 13:41-42).
The next place we see Jesus is in Revelation chapter 19 where we have an unveiling of the Second Coming.
Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS…And I saw the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army. Revelation 19:11-16, 19
Again we see Jesus with a sword coming out of His mouth. Which makes more sense, that Jesus has a literal sword for a tongue or that this is symbolic of the fact that He is the Word of God? (Ephesians 6:17, Hebrews 4:12) The fact that we are told in this context that He is called the Word of God (Rev. 19:13) supports the symbolic interpretation. Again the symbolic interpretation (that Jesus is the Word of God) is much more powerful than the literal interpretation (that Jesus has an actual sword coming out of His mouth). Jesus and the armies of heaven that are following Him are seated on white horses. Heaven does not contain stables that house millions of white horses. The symbol of a white horse has been used in the sixth chapter of Revelation to represent a conqueror (Rev.6:2). Thus the white horses are symbolic of Jesus, the conquering Word of God, and His victorious army. The many crowns on Jesus’ head are symbolic of the fact that He is the KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. The armies of heaven that follow Jesus are clothed in fine linen. Earlier in Revelation chapter 19 we were told that the fine linen is symbolic of the “righteous acts of the saints” (Rev. 19:8). While all this is symbolic language the truth behind it is profoundly real. Again, it is the literal interpretation that misses the meaning that is being communicated by Revelation.
Looking at the way Jesus has been portrayed in Revelation so far, notice that no one will ever see Jesus with white hair, a sword for a tongue and stars in His hand (Rev. 1:9-20) or as a lamb with seven eyes and seven horns (Rev. 5:6) or as an angel clothed in a cloud with pillars of fire for legs (Rev. 10:1) or as a male child on God’s throne (Rev. 12:5) or on a cloud with a sickle in His hand (Rev. 14:14-15). These things are all symbolic of powerful spiritual truths and events. So it is with the portrayal of the Second Coming in Revelation 19; it is no more a literal depiction of a visible event then the other portrayals of Jesus. In Revelation 19:11 John says he “saw heaven opened;” John is seeing into the invisible realm of the Spirit here (cf. Ezek. 1:1). The warfare that is being shown in Revelation 19:11-21 is spiritual warfare, Jesus warring against the demonic beast from the abyss (Rev. 17:8). The Second Coming as it is portrayed in Revelation 19:11-21 is no more a literal visible representation than is a lamb on the throne of God (Rev. 2:21). Revelation is unveiling the invisible realm of the spirit making it visible by way of signs.
The next place that we see Jesus is on a great white throne. “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them.” Revelation 20:11. While we aren’t specifically told it is Jesus here, in John 5:22 we are told that “the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son.” Thus it would appear that it must be Jesus (or Jesus and the Father in unity, as it is “the throne of God and of the Lamb.” Rev. 22:1) on the throne here judging the world. That we are told of a white throne is not a look at the color scheme of the furniture in heaven. The white throne is symbolic of God’s righteousness and purity as He judges the world (cf. Rev. 19:8).
Lastly, in Revelation chapter 22 we have Jesus proclaiming that He is the Alpha and Omega, (the first and last letters in the Greek alphabet, Rev. 22:13; cf. 21:5-7 where this is a title for God), the Root and Offspring of David as well as The Bright and Morning Star (Rev. 22:16). Jesus is not literally the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. He is not a literal star. He is not a literal root. He is the offspring of David on His mother’s side, but ultimately He is the eternal Word of God. It is obvious that the titles Alpha and Omega, Root and Offspring of David, Bright and Morning Star are not to be interpreted literally, rather they are powerful symbols telling us wonderful truths of who Jesus is.
If one analyzes the way Jesus is revealed in the book of Revelation it is always by way of symbols. Although the images of Jesus in Revelation are symbols these symbols contain powerful meanings. These symbolic meanings are much more powerful than if the images were interpreted literally (i.e. the actual words in their ordinary meaning). When interpreted correctly (using Scripture to interpret Scripture) the symbols of Revelation point to the magnificence of whom and what Jesus is, especially His deity. It is a sound rule of Biblical interpretation that you interpret the less clear passages of Scripture by those that are clearer. When one examines the clearer passages in Revelation (the passages that reveal Jesus), every time the unveiling is by way of symbols. Not once do we see a literal description of Jesus in the Book of Revelation. If the literal method of interpretation in Revelation fails consistently in regard to its interpretation of Jesus, can it be expected to do any better with the rest of the book? I find this to be compelling evidence that when we are told that Revelation was “signified” (Rev. 1:1) it means the truths being unveiled in the book were revealed by way of symbols. This leads me to the conclusion that the literal method of interpretation of the book of Revelation (or any method of interpretation when it reverts to literalism) will be a misinterpretation of the truths that are being communicated by the book.
Often literalists (which again is very much a relative term as even the staunchest literalist sees a good deal of Revelation as being symbolic) attempt to dismiss the symbolic interpretive approach to Revelation as a liberal hermeneutic. Consider the following demonization of the preterist interpretive approach by dispensationalist leader Thomas Ice; I have underlined some of the highlights.
In this chapter, we have seen that preterism arose and grew in a climate of theological and exegetical deviancy. The original proponents of preterism in recent centuries are among those who have practiced a critical or rationalistic approach to interpreting the bible. For example, preterists interpret key prophetic passages such as Zechariah 12-14, Matthew 24, and the book of Revelation in the same way liberals approach the entire canon of Scripture. Thus, preterism is a toxic and dangerous framework in which to cast God’s holy word…I believe that the spirit of our postmodern times, shaped by a dominant mysticism has led some individuals to become more open to a less literal hermeneutic. This, in turn, has lead some exegetical minds to see the supposed shadow of the biblical text instead of the letter, or what is actually written…the zeitgeist of our day nudges the mind toward the allegorical and not the literal, the shadow instead of the clear, and the mystical rather than the physical…Preterism, both partial and full, is a dangerous perspective that will, over time, eat the heart of the biblical expectancy of our Lord’s return. We have seen that while preterism has a murky beginning and past, if it continues to grow and exert increasing influence upon American evangelicalism, then it will deprive more and more of the comfort and motivation that the blessed hope has historically produced in the lives of an expectant church. 18
While I do appreciate and agree with Ice’s desire to defend a correct interpretation of Scripture, he is working overtime in his mud slinging and scare tactics here. He accuses the preterist of theological and exegetical deviancy, of having a critical and rationalistic approach to Biblical interpretation (i.e. liberal), of being a toxic and dangerous framework, postmodern, mysticism, a dangerous perspective that eats the heart of biblical expectancy (at the rate he was going, I was half expecting him to say that preterists eat the hearts of children and puppies). While it is true that some liberals use a symbolic interpretive approach to Revelation, and I don’t agree with all preterist interpretations, the meanings that I have derived from my examination of Jesus in Revelation are by no means liberal (or deviant, toxic, dangerous etc). Even though I am not a liberal, Ice still does not allow for my interpretive framework (which he would seek to stigmatize as being liberal). Ice says “just because a conservative e scholar uses a liberal approach to biblical interpretation does not cleanse the interpretation of the fact that it is the result of a naturalistic hermeneutic.”19 I almost have to laugh at this point; my position, that Revelation is unveiling the spiritual realm by way of symbols, is hardly a naturalistic hermeneutic. Naturalism seeks to explain away supernatural phenomena by way of naturalistic explanations. My approach says that Revelation is showing the spiritual realities that were the driving forces behind the soon coming events of AD 67-70. About the only thing consistent about Ice and his consistent literalism when it comes to the interpretation of the images of Jesus in Revelation is that he is consistently wrong. The unveiling of Jesus in Revelation is always by way of symbols. Those who pride themselves on their literalism when it comes to interpreting Revelation should carefully consider these things. They should not unthinkingly buy into the rejection of a preterist interpretive approach just because it sees the majority of the images in Revelation as being symbols.
Again, the reason I have devoted so much time to examining how Jesus is revealed in Revelation is to develop a more systematic method for interpreting the book. As I have said, this is crucial because one’s method of interpretation will to a large extent determine one’s conclusions on the book. If Revelation is to be interpreted in a symbolic manner then preterism may be right, it may be possible that the events of Revelation (including the Second Coming) were fulfilled in the first century (as the book claims, Rev. 1:1, 3; 22:6, 10). If Revelation is to be interpreted in a literal manner then preterism is definitely wrong as the things in Revelation have not yet happened in a physical literal way. The literalistic interpretation of Revelation leads one to the rather strange conclusion that only the first four chapters of the book were meant for the recipients of the book. 20 If this is true it is inexplicable why the original audience was never informed of this fact (in fact they were told just the opposite that the time of the fulfillment of the prophecies was at hand). Again, one needs to carefully examine one’s method of interpretation of Revelation. If one says that the book is an assortment of literal images and combined with symbolic images (I don’t think anybody claims that Revelation is all literal) then one should have systematic way of determining what is what (i.e. what is literal and what is symbolic). For example, most literalists would say the falling of stars to the earth in Revelation 6:13 is more or less literal but the falling of stars to earth in Revelation 12:4 is symbolic (of angels); how consistent is this? The symbolism of Revelation is consistent throughout the book; just because a given image is less fantastic than another image (eg. the two witnesses as opposed to the beast with seven heads and ten horns) does not mean it is to be taken as less of a symbol. The literalist hermeneutic essentially relies on the criterion of absurdity. It an image is absurd or fantastic it is taken as a symbol, if it is not absurd or fantastic it is taken as a literal physical depiction. This criterion of absurdity of the literalist is overly simplistic, inadequate and just plain wrong.
1. Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Moises Silva (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 18.
2. Revelation 12:5 is an exception to this. It is showing the AD 30 spiritual birth (i.e. first born from the dead, Rev. 1:5; cf. Rom. 8:29) and ascension of Jesus.
3. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 3rd. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1997).
4. R.C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998) 65.
5. W.E. Vine, Merrill R. Unger and William White Jr., An Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984), 1043.
6. Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Moises Silva (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 55.
7. There are a few exceptions to this but they are usually clear in their context. For example the seven churches were seven literal churches (although they also symbolized God’s church as a whole in John’s day). Similarly the eight kings of Revelation 17:10-11 were eight demonic kings that worked through eight specific rulers. These examples are exceptions; as Beale said symbolism is “part of the warp and wood of the means of communication throughout Revelation.”
8. Beale (Revelation, 574-575) gives a number of reasons to support the idea that the two witnesses are used as a symbol of the new covenant community. Essentially they are the following. 1.) In Revelation 11:4 the witnesses are said to be “two lampstands”; in Revelation 1:20 lampstands are used as a symbol for the seven churches which were representative of the whole of God’s church. That there are two lampstands in Revelation 11 (as opposed to seven) may be due to two being the required number for legal witnesses (Deut. 19:15) as well as referring to the Jewish and Gentile components to the church (Eph. 2:14-16. 2.) The beast is said to make war with the two witnesses and overcome them (v. 7); this is what was said in Daniel 7 about what the little horn would do to the community of the saints (Dan. 7:21). 3.) The 2 witnesses prophesy for 1260 days, which is the same length of time that the new covenant community (the new covenant “mother,” Gal 4:24-26. and her children) spend in the wilderness (Rev. 12:6, 17). 4.) The two witnesses are said to give “testimony” (Rev. 11:7), elsewhere in Revelation it is the community of believers that gives testimony to Jesus (Rev. 6:9; 12:11, 17; 19:10; 20:4). 5.) Finally the two witnesses are prophetic twins, that is, the powers of Moses and Elijah are attributed equally to both the witness, not divided among them. It is easy to recognize that a given image in Revelation is a symbol when it is something that is out of the ordinary (i.e. the beast with seven heads and ten horns, the Lamb with seven eyes and seven horns, the harlot riding on the beast etc.). When a symbol is not extraordinary (like with the two witnesses) it is easy to lose focus of the symbolic nature of Revelation and start looking for two actual persons who were the two witnesses. Looking for two people who were the two witnesses is as big a mistake as looking for an actual harlot that rode on the beast; they are both symbols.
9. Many of the images do contain physical referents in them, however.
10. Gundry, “The New Jerusalem: People as Place not Place for People” Novum Testamentum 29 (1987) 255-256.
11. J. Massyngberde Ford, Revelation, The Anchor Bible, vol. 38, eds. William F. Albright and David N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 287-288.
12. Phillip Carrington, The Meaning of Revelation, (London: Society for Promotion Christian Knowledge, 1931), 287
13. Hail is the result of frozen drops of water bouncing up and down in the atmosphere due to strong updrafts. Every time a piece of hail goes up in the atmosphere it freezes some more and forms another layer of ice, getting bigger and heavier. When the hail gets too heavy for the updrafts to keep it in the air it falls to the ground. Thankfully this happens way before hailstones reach a weight of a hundred pounds.
14. Josephus wrote, “The engines of all the legions were masterpieces of construction, but those of the tenth were supreme. Their quick-firers were more powerful and their stone-throwers bigger, so that they could repulse not only the sorties but also the fighters on the ramparts. The stone missiles weighed a talent and traveled two furlongs [approx. 375 m.], and their impact not only on those who were hit first, but also on those behind them, was enormous. At first the Jews kept watch for the stone-for it was white-and its approach was intimated, to the eye by its shining surface, as well as to the ear by its whizzing sound. Josephus, The Jewish War, 5, 6 3, trans. Gaalya Cornfeld (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 370-372, emphasis added.
15. Ladd, A Commentary on Revelation, 21.
16. David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance (Ft. Worth: Dominion Press, 1987), 259-261.
17. David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance (Ft. Worth: Dominion Press, 1987), 297.
18. Thomas Ice” The History of Preterism” in The End Time Controversy, Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers 62-63, 65, 66.
19. Ice, 65
20. Walvoord wrote the following along these lines.
“Most of the struggles of scholars attempting to interpret the Book of Revelation stem from a failure to understand that the Book of Revelation is a book of prophecy and that prophecy has a chronological order. This becomes the key to unlocking the Book of Revelation. As pointed out before (cf. 1:9-20), John was instructed, ‘Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later’ ((v. 19). Simplistic as this statement is, it provides an inspired outline of the book of Revelation, referring first to what was, that is, the experience of John seeing Jesus in His glory in chapter 1; ‘what is now,’ the messages to the seven churches which refer to the present age as the seven churches represent churches in this present age; and then what will take place later,’ referring to that which is future. Confusion in the interpretation of Revelation stems almost entirely from the failure to observe this divine outline. The opening of chapter 4 with the phrase ‘after this,; referring to the churches should make clear that from chapter 4 on , the Book of Revelation is dealing with future events.” John F. Walvoord, Every Prophecy of the Bible (Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1999), 542
I agree that everything after chapter 4 is prophecy. Notice, however, what Revelation 22:10 says about this prophecy, “Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.” The time for the prophecies was near in the first century not thousands of years in the future. Walvoord claim that the messages to the seven churches represent the “churches in the present age” means that even the letters to the seven churches weren’t really addressed to the original audience. This may be a popular idea with dispensationalists but has absolutely no Scriptural support. Even in the letters to the seven churches are references to the soon to be Second Coming (e.g. Rev. 2:5, 16, 25; 3:5, 10-11).