Interpreting the Book of Revelation: Part 1

Rev blog photo

It has been a great privilege to study and preach through the book of Revelation these past few months (You can listen to the sermons here). What an encouragement to see the church grow and hear the reports of robust theological discussion in the Growth Groups.
Due to the nature of the series it was not possible to go into too much detail or spend a lot of time on some of the finer points. My aim in these articles is to give some more clarity; hopefully there will be quite a few Aha! moments.
Over the next few weeks I will seek to explain my current understanding on the following topics: The 7 Cycles, the two witnesses, the 42-month period, the Mark of the Beast, the Millennium, and the New Jerusalem. If there is anything else you would like me to cover please email me at
To begin with let’s focus on an aspect of verse 1 which will hopefully help us to be as consistent as possible in our interpretation of Revelation. Verse 1, for me, is paradigmatic for the whole book:
The revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave Him to show His slaves what must quickly take place. He sent it and signified it through His angel to His slave John (HCSB)
Notice the word signified. It is a translation of the Greek word sēmainō.
The *Oxford English Dictionary* states that the word *semantic *originates
from this Greek word. To signify means to make something known through
symbols. Earlier in verse 1 the revelation of Jesus is given *to show *what
must take place. So, right at the commencement of Revelation John is
letting us know that God is going to use symbolic communication to teach
His church.[1]


Now most people realise instinctively that Revelation is a book full of
symbolism. Even those who shout the loudest that they take the book
literally, (I would argue that I am reading it literally, in terms of its
genre, and that they are reading it in a rather wooden, literalistic way)
are inconsistent when they come to the locusts, the dragon and the beasts.
No one, I presume, expects a literal dragon to start flying around (If you
do, perhaps it's time to stop watching *The Hobbit* movies).

If most of Revelation is symbolic then how do we interpret it? When it
comes to symbolic language there are four levels of communication. First
there is the linguistic level; the written words. Secondly, there is the
visionary level; the things that John saw e.g. dragon, lampstands etc.
Thirdly, there is the referential level; the historical referent of the
vision. Finally, there is the symbolical level; what does the symbolism
reveal about the historic referent.[2]


Perhaps this example will make things clearer. In Revelation 1:12-16 John
sees a human-like figure with white hair, eyes of fire and a sword
protruding from his mouth. Level one is simply the words in the text. Level
two is what John saw. When we come to level three we are seeking to
determine what/who the historical referent is. Fortunately, this passage is
not difficult, the referent is Jesus Christ. Level four is when we ask what
do the symbols reveal about Jesus Christ, the referent. I would argue that
the white hair symbolizes His wisdom, the fiery eyes show His righteous,
holy omniscience and the sword signifies the power and authority of His

To be consistent with symbolic literature you must make sure that you do
not miss any of the steps. Don't jump from the linguistic to the
referential without dealing with the fact that John is having a vision and
that there is symbolic meaning.

Lord willing this will be fleshed out in the coming weeks (Please note I am
not using the word *fleshed* in a literalistic way).