You might be wondering what the warrant is for all the symbolic interpretation of Revelation I’ve been engaging in over the past week, and you’re right to ask. If I just have some misguided phobia for the literal sense then that doesn’t in itself justify the interpretative course I’ve taken- I could just be a habitual allegorizer, doing whatever I please with the text. No one likes that guy.
No, it’s because the opening of Revelation is programmatic in establishing the course of right interpretation. The first verse of Revelation 1 informs us what literary mode we will be dealing with in our wrestling with this text: apocalyptic. Apokalypsis is not Greek for “end times devastation” or anything of that sort, so any and all such big budget disaster movie connotations should kindly see themselves out the door now. Apokalypsis means “uncovering;” that’s why the book is referred to both as the Revelation of John and the Apocalypse of John- it’s an unveiling, the revelation of something unknown or only half understood at best. Take a look at verse 1 of Revelation 1:
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.
John in this opening passage is laying down the trajectory for us to properly understand what he is writing. The way John (and, by logical extension, God and Jesus) wants us to grasp the text’s meaning is at odds with the popular hermeneutical maxim that says, “Interpret as literally as possible unless you are forced exceptionally into taking a passage figuratively.” Revelation is to understood in a thoroughgoing symbolic fashion unless a passage plainly demands to be understood as literal.
(As a side note, a literal interpretation properly understood is an interpretation that is line with the author’s intention. What many people when they say “literal” is “literalistic,” which is another beast altogether. Literalistic interpretation gloriously misses the point the same way a child does when she asks to play outside with you and you answer, “Yeah, in a second.” You work on what you’re doing a little longer, trying to wrap it up, and she asks again, “Can we play now?” “Yeah, I just need a second,” you answer. She’s had enough. “It’s been a second already!!!” she explodes, exasperated. That’s literalistic interpretation for ya- “let the reader understand.” (Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13:14))
Two things from this opening settle the matter for us.
1. We are informed the book is apokalypsis and so it will consist in large part of mysterious images that picture spiritual, eschatological realities. It is a notoriously symbol-laden literary genre, so being told right out that the book is apocalyptic (in many cases apocalyptic literature doesn’t flat out tell you, so thanks John!) should instantly establish we will be dealing primarily with figurative language in the passages to come.
2. John helps us further by telling us flat out that the nature of what he has seen and heard from God is symbolic discourse. This one is especially crucial because it clinches the fact that we aren’t supposed to put our literal goggles on for the rest of the book. What we have happening here is an allusion back to Daniel 2:28 as it is rendered in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). Check the margin of your Bible if you have one. The phrases “things which must take place” and “has made known” is the lifted directly from the Daniel passage, as well as the word “revelation”; this is an intentional echo on John’s part, the first of many allusions to Daniel (and the rest of the Old Testament) throughout the rest of Revelation. The allusion is to Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a towering statue being shattered by a stone that becomes a mountain and fills the earth. I don’t I need to remind you that the dream was not to be interpreted literally, as though it was a prophecy of some Japanese monster movie creature wreaking havoc all over the globe. No, it was symbolic discourse and its right interpretation was symbolic. That is why Daniel and John both use the word semaino. This word can mean “communicate,” or to “make known,” or “signify.” How should it be understood? As always, we should let Scripture interpret Scripture- the immediate, apocalyptic context of Revelation and the nature of the Daniel allusion unmistakably point towards “signify,” i.e. “to communicate by symbols.” Now, I know the dudes at Master’s Seminary and Dallas wouldn’t concur with this translation of the word, but seriously- the word has to be understood according to the intention of Daniel back in Daniel 2. That controls the meaning in Revelation 1. I don’t know what else to do but conclude with Greg Beale and others that the theological presuppositions of the Master’s and Dallas guys skew their interpretation of the text and lead them into pretty gross misunderstandings of what the book says.
None of this is original to me; I’m only following the lead of interpreters such as G.K. Beale who let the text dictate the method of interpretation. Forget the juvenile thrill of inciting controversy by disagreeing with some major figures- the payoff from this is that Revelation actually belongs to my Christian experience now. It’s actually profitable to read! Chapters 4-20 don’t belong to some distant future, divorced from my setting in time. Revelation depicts realities that are present now, aiding me in my discipleship and steadying me against the fear of the enemy- right now! So I commend reading Revelation now and appropriating the comfort and strength it was originally intended to administer by reading it the way it was intended to be.