Provided Interpretations

The Book of Revelation communicates symbolically, and it provides several interpretations of its images. For example, it states that the “Seven Golden Lampstands” represent seven congregations. Likewise, the “Seven Stars” held by the “one like a Son of Man” symbolize angels or “Seven Messengers.” Pictures of the smoke of “incense” rising to heaven represent the “prayers of the saints.” And so on.

Near the start of the Book, John was commanded to record the things that he “saw,” and what they “were.” This provides a pattern for interpreting the Book’s visionary images, and its first vision demonstrates how Revelation communicates symbolically.

Visions - Photo by Matt Noble on Unsplash
[Visions - Photo by Matt Noble on Unsplash]

  • (Revelation 1:19-20) - “Write, therefore, what things you saw and WHAT THEY ARE; and what things are going to come to pass after these things. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw on my right hand, and the seven lampstands of gold; the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are seven churches.

At the commencement of his first vision, John “saw” Jesus pictured as the glorious “Son of Man” figure who was standing among “seven golden lampstands” and holding seven “stars.” He was dressed in the robes and accouterments of a High Priest.

In the vision’s explanation, the Greek clause rendered as “what they ARE” refers to what the images represent. In this case, Seven Assemblies and Seven Messengers. Moreover, from the very start, John was told the contents and purpose of the Book’s visions:

  • (Revelation 1:1) - “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him, to show his servants the things that must come to pass soon, and he signified through his angel to his servant John.

The Greek verb translated as “signified” is sémainō, a verb related to the noun for “sign” (semeion). It means “to signify,” “to show by sign.” Thus, the Book specifies its medium of communication - visionary symbolism. The visual aspect is emphasized throughout Revelation by repeated references to what John “saw” (fifty-six times).

John was commanded to record what he saw, and what those images “are” (“Write what they are”). In this clause, the English verb rendered as “are” represents the Greek verb eisin. Here, it is in the present tense and plural number - “they are.” It refers to the explanations provided by the narrative for many of the Book’s visions. Thus, he was told to record what many individual images “signified.”


The first vision and its explanation do exactly that. John “sees” the risen Christ walking among Seven Golden “Lampstands” while holding “Seven Stars.” The “stars” represent seven “messengers” (“they are” - esin), and the “Lampstands” symbolize seven “assemblies” (“they are” - esin). The same Greek verb form or “are” (esin) is used in each clause.

The Gook interprets at least nine more images with this same verbal formula. In each case, the images are not literal and represent something else. For example:

  • The “seven lamps of fire” before the throne “are” (esin) the “seven spirits of God” - (4:5).
  • The “seven eyes” of the Lamb “are” (esin) the “seven spirits of God” - (5:6).
  • The bowls of incense “are” (esin) the “prayers of the saints” (5:8).
  • The great multitudes “are” (esin) those who “are coming out of the great tribulation” - (7:13).
  • The two witnesses “are” (esin) the “two olive trees and the two lampstands” - (11:4).
  • Three unclean spirits like frogs “are” (esin) the “demons” sent to gather the kings of the earth - (16:13-14).
  • The “seven heads” of the Beast “are” (esin) “seven mountains” on which Babylon sits - (17:9).
  • The “ten horns” of the Beast “are” (esin) “ten kings” - (17:12).
  • The “waters” on which Babylon sits “are” (esin) “peoples, multitudes, nations and tongues” - (17:15).

The same formula is employed elsewhere to interpret symbols but by using the singular form of the same Greek verb, or eimi (or similar verbs in the present tense). Note the following examples:

  • The great city that “spiritually is called” (kaleitai) “Sodom and Egypt” - (11:8).
  • The “great red dragon who is called” (kaloumenos) the Devil and Satan - (12:9).
  • Martyrdom IS (estin) the “endurance and faith” of the saints - (13:10).
  • The endurance of the saints IS (estin) they who “keep the faith of Jesus” - (14:12).
  • And gathered them to “the place called” (kaloumenon) in the Hebrew tongue; “Armageddon” - (16:16).
  • The “great whore” IS (estin) the “great city” with dominion over the kings of the earth - (17:18).
  • The “fine linen” IS (estin) the “righteousness of the saints” - (19:8).
  • The “lake of fire” IS (estin) the “second death” - (20:14, 21:8).
  • The “dragon and ancient serpent” IS (estin) the “Devil and Satan” - (20:2).


Angels provide John and his readers with pivotal interpretations. For example, John saw an “innumerable multitude” arrayed in white robes before the Throne. One of the twenty-four elders explained that the multitude represented “the men who are coming out of the Great Tribulation, and they washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” - (Revelation 7:9-17).

Later, John was “carried away in spirit into the wilderness” where he saw a “woman sitting on a scarlet beast full of names of blasphemy; having seven heads and ten horns.” The figure had a name and “mystery” written on her forehead, “Babylon the great; the mother of the harlots and of the abominations of the earth” - (Revelation 17:1-6).

The term “mystery” demonstrated that the woman did not represent the ancient city of Babylon in Mesopotamia. Her true significance had to be unveiled. The angel did just that, stating, “She is the Great City that has sovereignty over the Kings of the Earth,” a city linked to “Seven Mountains.” As described in Chapter 17, she symbolizes Rome - (Revelation 17:15-18).

The images are often bizarre. Some even portray physical impossibilities. A woman arrayed “with the sun” and the moon “beneath her feet,” for example, cannot be literal. A lamb does not have “seven horns” or “seven eyes.” Animals do not have “ten horns” or “seven heads.” This is symbolic rather than literal language.


This does not mean the visions are allegorical. The Book is concerned with real events that “must come to pass.” But John did not time travel into the future. His descriptions are not how a first-century man might attempt to describe strange technologies and scenes from a remote future.

For that matter, much of the language is drawn from the Septuagint Greek version of the Old Testament. John received his visions when he “came to be in the spirit” where he saw images and heard explanations from angelic beings. The symbols pointed to concrete realities but were not themselves real.

The failure to understand how Revelation communicates symbolically produces incorrect and often bizarre interpretations.

To comprehend the Book’s message, the reader must pay attention to the interpretations provided by the text, its literary context, and how the Book of Revelation applies language from the Old Testament. Moreover, it very often does so in unexpected and paradoxical ways.




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