Author: Ron Graham
The Revelation of Christ (Revelation 1-5) >Seven Scenes in Heaven >Excursus on interpreting prophecy
At this point in our studies of Revelation, we have looked at the prologue and the vision of Christ, including the seven messages. Some of the studies were expositions and others were overviews. Before we look at any more visions, the following overview will help to prepare us. It discusses interpretation.
We often hear criticism that the message of Revelation (and prophecy in general) is "spiritualized". When people use the term "spiritualized" they mean that prophecy is "not taken literally". For example where a vision in Revelation has a period of "1000 years" (Revelation 20:1-3) this is supposed to represent a literal thousand years in human history. If you say it signifies something other than that, then you are said to be "spiritualizing" and not taking God at his word.
We need some clear thinking about "taking the word of God literally" and this clear thinking is even more necessary if we are to rightly understand the book of Revelation. Fortunately, in some cases the book of Revelation interprets itself. So these instances serve as examples of correct interpretations.
The principle in these instances is no different to the type and antitype principle that is common in the Bible. For example, King David was a “type” of Jesus Christ (who is the “antitype” of David). In simpler words, David symbolized or signified Jesus Christ. Hence the prophecy says, "My servant David will be king over them" (Ezekiel 37:24), David here signifying Jesus Christ. However whilst David (the “type”) signifies Christ (the “antitype”), the type is as literally David himself as the antitype is literally Christ himself —a literal David signifying a literal Christ. This may be a little hard to grasp at first, but the lesson will clarify the principle for you.
As a simple example, the "great city" in a certain vision was literally "where their Lord was crucified" but it is "spiritually called Sodom and Egypt" (Revelation 11:8). So we know this city is literally Jerusalem, where Jesus was killed. It is named figuratively Sodom and Egypt. The meaning or signification is spiritual. Spiritually and morally, Jerusalem was of the same nature as the wicked city of Sodom and the idolatrous kingdom of Egypt.
As another example, take the dragon in one of the latter visions (Revelation 20:2). Here John is telling us what sign he saw (a dragon) and what it signified (Satan the devil). John literally saw a dragon, and it signified Satan —a very literal devil. The literal dragon was figurative of a literal Satan.
John tells us clearly how he came to write the book. "Jesus sent and signified [the revelation] to his bond servant John who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw" (Revelation 1:1-2). When John says that he saw a dragon (Revelation 20:1-3) he meant literally that he saw a dragon in a vision.
I'll throw in a couple of other examples for good measure. John understood that the golden bowls of incense in another vision signified the prayers of the saints (Revelation 5:8). These were literal bowls which John literally saw in a vision, signifying literal prayers which the saints literally offered. Likewise, John was told by Jesus that the seven golden lampstands seen in another vision stood for the seven churches (Revelation 1:20). These were literal lampstands signifying literal churches in literal towns and cities.
It's obvious, isn't it, that signs do not signify themselves? The dragon did not signify a dragon, nor did a bowl signify a bowl, nor did a lampstand signify a lampstand. Those signs however were themselves literal things literally seen; and what they signjified were also quite literal things.
As one more example, when John says that he saw "a door open in heaven" (Revelation 4:1) he means that he "literally" looked and saw, and what he saw was a "literal" door. We understand that that door represents Jesus who said "I am the door" (John 10:9). In that sense the door is "taken figuratively". However we also understand that John really did see a door. In that sense the door is "taken literally". John's testimony is "literal" in that he did really see these visions and all the things in them that he describes. In this sense, we most certainly "take the book of Revelation literally".
As we said, clear thinking about "taking the word of God literally" is needed. Oddly, we can resort to the rainbow to help us understand the pitfalls of “literal” and “figurative” language.
Let's get out of the Book of Revelation for a moment, and look at a very clear and straightforward case. God told Noah that the rainbow is a sign of God's covenant never again to destroy all flesh with a flood (Genesis 9:8-17). Now you can see that every word of that is quite literal. There is no "figurative language" there. God is not "spiritualizing" the rainbow. Both the rainbow and the covenant are "literal" and one is a sign and reminder of the other.
So we have a "literal" rainbow, don't we? Yes, and the same rainbow is "figurative" isn't it? There is some subtle semantic quicksand here, and we should be careful to avoid it by not treating the terms "literal" and "figurative" as mutually exclusive. The rainbow is "literal" because it is an actual rainbow in the sky. The rainbow is at the same time "figurative" because it signifies a covenant God made.
The book of Revelation is interpreted literally as the rainbow is. John "literally" saw and heard things in his visions, just as we "literally" see the rainbow in the sky. The things John saw stood "figuratively" for facts revealed in the gospel, just as the rainbow stands "figuratively" for the covenant God revealed to Noah. The facts revealed in the gospel are "literally" believed by Christians, just as people "literally" believe the rainbow covenant. This rainbow approach to Revelation cannot fairly be called "spiritualizing prophecy" or "not taking prophecy literally".
In his visions, as a matter of fact, John twice saw a rainbow (Revelation 4:3, 10:1). John saw a literal rainbow on the angel's head. But what does it mean? It is not "spiritualizing" to see that literal rainbow as figurative of Christ’s covenant of promise including the forgiveness of sins. That's simply seeing the message and meaning in the vision.
Since we are talking about "spiritualizing" prophecy, let's give one final example that clarifies what might well be regarded as "spiritualizing" the word of God. John saw a creature resembling a calf. We might say that this signifies the sacrifice of Christ our High Priest which he made when he offered himself to be nailed to a cross (Revelation 4:7). We might say that this is also represented in the Lamb that John saw (Revelation 5:6). That is not "spiritualizing" the vision is it?
However, suppose we took an approach something like this: —"Jesus did not literally die on the cross as a sacrifice for sins. Rather, his death was such an act of injustice that it serves to make people determined to be just, and to liberate others from injustice. The crucifixion thus became an icon of redemption." Now that sort of statement could be regarded as "spiritualizing" because it makes figurative or symbolic what is really literally true that Christ died for our sins once and for all so that God could forgive us.