Revelation Interpretive Difficulties

This book of Scripture is called “apocalyptic” writing, and it is a form of prophecy. Apocalyptic writing is a type of literature that warns us of future events but in which the full meaning is hidden to us for the time being. Apocalyptic writing is almost a secret, giving us glimpses through the use of symbols and imagery of what is to come. We may not know the meanings now, but time will reveal it.

The key to unlocking these imageries is seeking what they meant back then, to the early church, to the first century Jew and Christian and how the churches in Asia Minor would have understood them, not what they mean in a current newspaper, 2000 years removed, which also removes any cultural or language understandings.

Apocalyptic writing is found in Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Matthew as well as in Revelation. Prophecy, as literature and meaning for us today, contains past, present, and future events. Examples include the many prophecies concerning Jesus that already have been fulfilled, and parts of Daniel and Revelation, as well as Matthew 24 that will yet come to pass. Prophecy does not always follow a clear logical and systematic pattern, often jumping from thought to idea to another point and so forth. It also may jump over large periods of time. Thus, in Prophecy, we need to be aware of two essential forms of language.

First there is the Literal (Didactic). This is the simple and direct meaning, or in other words, what it says is what it means. It has a plain meaning. Zechariah, chapter seven is a good example, as are much of Isaiah and Jeremiah. The imagery had a clear meaning to the people to whom it was first presented, so don’t jump to conclusions or read in what is not there. If you get frustrated with it, put it aside. Most Bible scholars debate the meaning, so it is improbable that you will have a clear insight. Some people are not ready or able to comprehend this part of the Bible; if so, that is OK! Focus on the parts of Revelation that are crystal clear.

The second form of language is the Figurative (Predictive). This is the category into which most of prophecy and thus Revelation falls. We are to always view prophesy with the attitude that it has a plain meaning until we have clear and compelling reasons to place it in the figurative category.

Our task is to determine the points and ideas that apply today and point to tomorrow.

The bottom line is that it will happen at some point in history, and come to pass in a literal and plain way. We may not understand it until it is right on top of us. Daniel 7-12; Joel 2; Isaiah 11; and Zech. 4 are clear examples of figurative language. Furthermore, some of the language in Revelation is “word pictures” that John is trying to describe in their language and culture as well as technology, such as Daniel, chapter seven, and many parts of Revelation. For example, if he was describing events we might see in our lifetime, how would he describe a helicopter if he had never heard of or seen one? For most parts of Revelation, John was using imagery from Ezekiel, Daniel, and other Jewish literature that they would have known. Unfortunately, today few of some so called Bible scholars who write the popular books are even aware that there is an Old Testament, let alone how to inductively read it.

The key to the understanding of Revelation is in the Old Testament!

Apocalyptic writing can also be cryptic and symbolic such as the fish which was a secret greeting to see if another person was a Christian, too. When we come to words that seem peculiar to our modern minds such as stars, the first-century Jews would know that it meant “angels.” Lampstands meant “churches;” the phrase, wife of the Lamb meant “Jerusalem,” and the great prostitute was a covert slogan to refer to “Nero” or any corrupt leader in power. Babylon was referring to Rome (Rev. 1:20; 17:1-5, 18; 21:9-10). Consequently, the inscription key is understanding the Old Testament and Jewish customs and thought, not today’s newspaper headlines!

It is important to note that 28% of the Old Testament is prophecy, most of which came to pass in the life and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. The New Testament has over 20% prophecy too, of which most (although this is debated) have not yet come to pass. Thus, prophecy is important because God has dedicated a significant portion of His Word to it.

Again, do not read in what is not there!

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The Popular Apocalyptic Images

The Beast!

The first thing that comes to mind that people love to speculate about is the beast, which was a maxim, meaning a persecuting power and/or a people who are demonic and evil. The beast in the original Greek refers to a “bestial” man, one who is brutal, savage, and ferocious. In context, this infers that the sea is a dwelling place for monsters, suggesting terrifying, repulsive, and evil things that seek to lead the world and the Church astray. This passage also gives comfort and hope because it depicts how God is still in control—even over the beast, and even in times of insurmountable chaos and suffering (Job 7:12; 41:1; Psalm 74:13; 89:9-10; Is. 27:1).

Whenever the “beast” makes his “appearance,” it may not be the same person all of the time such as the antichrist; rather, it is a metaphor or a theme of intent rather than a specific personality. At this place in Revelation, the beast denotes someone of power and influence who is doing the persecuting (Psalm 87:4; 89:10; Is. 51:9; Dan. 7:3-8, 16-25). Thus, any dictator, or gossiper for that matter (Rom. 1), can be a beast. Some say this indicates that the antichrist will take over the Temple and John is seeking to prevent or at least slow it down; however, this is not shown in the text or context (2 Thess. 2:3-4).

This term, the beast, from a literary, historical, or theological perspective does not denote a singular person being an antichrist, although the theme as John uses in First John does apply as opposing Christ. These two metaphors, beast and sea put together in Revelation 13 in this literature type, refers to the tenacity, fierceness, and repulsiveness of this beast, which is evil and has evil motives. In John’s time, this also represented the Romans or any secular, pagan authority because Rome was birthed near the sea in its Mediterranean location as compared to the inland Asia Minor churches. This term was also a symbol for Rome that had an eagle with 12 wings and three heads coming out of the sea on its banners (Dan. 7:3; Rev. 11:7; 13; apocryphal book 4 Ezra 11).

The Antichrist!

Thus the term beast has more to do with who are the beasts in your life? Once in a sermon, Augustine asked his people if any of them were antichrist, as in opposing Christ in character or unfaithfulness. The First John definition of antichrist, the only place in Scripture this term appears, simply means anyone who opposes Christ. It isn’t about an ominous, opposing personality rising up and tricking us; rather, it is about our willingness to be tricked. God gives us a mind and the incredible resources of His Spirit and Word; we have no excuse to be disloyal to our Lord.

The call here is to heed the warning, not engage in vain speculation; rather, we are to make sure we are lined up to Him, loyal to our LORD! This means that as we lead our lives and run our churches, we have to seek Him and ask, are we being disloyal to our Lord? If so, guess what? The antichrist is not a political figure; it is us…you! We are the ones who are opposing Christ! This aspect is far more important that the speculations, because it all comes down to one thing, loyalty. Are you devoted to Christ or a slave to your will and to the manipulations of others?

666!

Another popular image is six hundred and sixty-six (666). This was a symbol typical of first-century Jewish apocalyptic riddles usually known to the audience for which it was written; John’s readers knew who he was talking about. It perhaps referred to Nero, and thus was a warning about making loyalty-oaths to Caesar. It was not a secret code to the hearers, only to those outside of the Church such as Roman officials. This was also a common way to express or warn about godlessness or those opposing Christ (could be attributed to a specific person such as Nero, or to any person in opposition to right and God) while avoiding unnecessary reprisals. Some commentators have said this is “the trinity of evil”, referring to the number of the antichrist who seeks to combat God and His people.

This is called, in the Greek, a “triangular number;” it is used as a parody or a word play in the first century, referring to someone or something else. It was also a cryptic code word that referred to Nero, using the Hebrew translation of the Greek numerical values. This type of code is called “gamatria” where each of the letters in the Greek or Hebrew has an equivalent numerical value, such as alpha, which stands for one. This was not secret but common Jewish thinking; Jesus, in the Greek (IhsouV), has a numerical correspondent to 888. Some early Christian thinkers, such as Irenaeus, have attributed this to Euanthas or Lateinos or Teitan; Martin Luther thought it might refer to a Pope Benedict, and/or to other various evil Popes. In addition, 666, as a number, is diametrically opposed to the perfection of the number seven which means fullness and completeness.

Thus, the theory of the numerical value is that a future antichrist may have a name equal in numerical value to 666 when it is written in Greek. “Nero Caesar” is 666 in the Greek when transliterated from the Hebrew (Matt. 24:15, 36-51). There is no reason or call to seek to decode this; it is not about the world’s population hitting 6,666,666,666 that may have happened in Nov 2006, or some mathematicians’ theory or whatever the theory of the day is. Thus, this term 666 could be attributed to a specific person such as Nero, or to any person who is in opposition to righteous and God. In this way a first century Christian can avoid unnecessary reprisals.

The various theories of 666 do not always take into account what it meant then, which is crucial for our understanding and application of His Word. For example, the numerical value as that of a future antichrist may not be accurate, because it is also the name for “Nero Caesar” when it is written in Greek, transliterated from the Hebrew (Matt. 24:15, 36-51). Sometimes the plain meaning is far more important to us than what speculators have come up with. We are to be watchful to those who oppose Christ and make sure we are not opposing Christ in thought, word, or deed, taking oaths, or making promises that counter Christ’s principals!

The Mark!

Another popular apocalyptic symbol is the mark. Mark basically means ownership and control; in its context, it also refers to a forgery of the seal and love of God given to Christians (Ezek. 9:4-6; Rev. 7:2-8; 14:1; Rev. 13-14). This “mark of the beast” is about who controls us—Satan or God. This beast forces people to bear the mark as a way to control and also as a counterfeit to the Holy Spirit that “marks” a true believer. In addition, this is also a pattern of the stranglehold that has been repeated throughout human history, such as the trade guilds that controlled who could buy or sell in the midst of the church at Thyatira (found in Revelation 2:18-29.)

Also, it is the corruption as exhibited in John’s time by both Jewish and pagan priests, and especially the emperor cults. Additionally, it is also represented in countries that are run with totalitarian tactics by corrupt officials and/or dictators. There are countless speculations on this, but it really denotes, from the word meaning and the context, that it is a metaphor for ownership and control, but the means by which this will occur is unknown. All we can do is see how this has played out before and be ready for the future. Fear mongering over technologies and personalities are beside the point; neither Satan nor God need technology to make this happen, because it has happened before in grand scale without it. However, since we do have it… (Eph.1:13; Rev. 14:9-11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20 and 20:4).

The Dragon!

And of course, there is the dragon or Red dragon…. The term “dragon” literally means “serpent” or “sea monster” such as the leviathan, and for the Jews, it symbolized monstrous evil (common in Canaanite and Mesopotamian myths), and Heracles and his battle with the hydra. A dragon is also a description of Satan who is the enemy of God, who is a terrifying and destructive beast, and who seeks the total devastation of God’s people. This image is not meant to terrify us, but to show us how he and evil work together so we can beware and defend. This was also a metaphor for Babylon and the enemies of Israel and God. It is very unwise to read in meanings that are not there to this and other metaphors (apocryphal book, “Bell and the Dragon;” Gen. 3:1-15; Psalm 74:13-15; 89:9-10; Is. 27:1; 30:7; 51:9; Ezek. 29:3; Luke 10:18; 11:14-23; John 12:31; Col. 2:15; Rev. 12:7-9; 13:2; 20:2).

Many times, the metaphors are directly from the Old Testament, as Scripture interprets Scripture. For example, the Sea turned into blood. This term is indicative to the first plague in Egypt (Ex. 7:20-21). It means the ultimate destiny of mankind as being judged and the preparation for the Second Coming and/or the Last Judgment. This is also called “eschatological;” it is from God and His judgment, not the pollution from man’s industrial machine. Volcanic upheavals can also produce this effect from God’s direction—see Revelation, chapter six notes (Is. 15:9; 2 Pet. 3:10-12; Rev. 6:13; 9:1). If there is a metaphor you do not get, just place it in our search engine on our website with the word Revelation and we probably have covered it, or use our online Bible Study Aides channel.

Apocalyptic writing can also be cryptic as representing something else and symbolic such as “IXIOUS,” the “fish” which was a secret greeting in the early Church, which was under persecution from Jewish leadership, Rome, family clans, and peer pressure. Thus, this was a greeting (not in Scripture) to see if another person was a Christian, too. IXIOUS was an acronym and is not directly in Scripture in this form, but the meaning and the words spelling the acronym are. In the early church Christians evading persecution would write out the Greek word for fish, “IXIOUS”, or the symbol <>< which stood for Jesus, Christ, God, Son, and Savior. This acronym stood for who Jesus was—the Savior; not a man or a half-god/man hybrid like Hercules, but the Mighty One of the Universe, humanity’s God and Savior (just as the name Jesus meant).

How does Apocalyptic Literature Work?

Apocalyptic literature is written in symbolism, poetry, and imageries, as well as in an Old Testament prophecy style (Matt. 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 21; Rev. 1:2-4; 19:9; 22:7-19), all woven as a tapestry to describe literal events but with a twist, using language with symbols that are cataclysmic, words that are exaggerated, and metaphors that may be lost to a 21st century person. Such imagery is often used for God’s judgments and the end of days. These forms of language (genre) are often combinations of narrative (story form) and prose (poetic) written in vivid imagery and rhythmical phrases that are intended to express a deeper but not necessarily a hidden meaning that a “regular” word would not convey.

Take our English word, “bull.” It normally means a male cow, but in context, it refers to not just a farm animal, but also could mean someone who is aggressive, an upswing in the stock market, someone who is clumsy, or slang for someone who is telling a lie. This simple word can be exaggerated for a purpose just as Daniel and most of Revelation uses language to express a point. Apocalyptic writing is also found in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Matthew 24.

Apocalyptic literature is a combination of narrative and prose written in vivid imagery and poetic phrases that are intended to exaggerate for a purpose, such as in Daniel and most of Revelation. Apocalyptic writing is a more specific form of prophecy. Apocalyptic writing is a type of literature that warns us of future events, but the full meaning is hidden to us for the time being. Apocalyptic writing is almost a “secret,” giving us glimpses of what is to come through the use of symbols and imagery. We may not know the meanings now, but time will flush them out.

Metaphors are very evident in apocalyptic writing, which is also more than a specific form of prophecy. Apocalyptic writing is a type of literature that uses vivid symbolism at the same time, it encourages and reassures the reader that God is in control and they do not need to fear as long as they fear Him.

Apocalyptic writing is almost a “secret,” giving us glimpses of what is to come through the use of symbols and imagery. It is secret only because when we read it in English (or any language that is not 1st century Greek) nearly 2,000 years later, we do not understand it. Will someone 2,000 years from now realize that a “bull market” does not mean that a farmer’s truck broke down and a cow got loose in a store? Or, when Jesus says He is the bread of life (John 6:35) does that mean we only find Him in a bakery? Does it mean Jesus is a door, a light, a rock, hears sheep, or that He went to every city, or the Lord’s Supper is cannibalism (Matt. 5:14; 9:35, Luke 22:19; John 10:9, 11)?

We may not always know the meanings now, but time will flush them out; we can know a lot more if we just take some time to research it. The key to unlocking the code of Revelation is simple; just ask, what did it mean to a first-century Jew?