One of the fascinating but underappreciated aspects of the visions of Revelation is the symbolism used to portray the church as it exists on the earth awaiting Jesus’ return. Much has been made of the images/metaphors used for the church in the rest New Testament. The church is pictured as a body, a flock, the Israel of God, priests, the temple, etc. The book of Revelation adds some beautiful and profound images of the church to help us understand who we are in Christ as we live in a hostile world.
Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near. (Revelation 1:3, NKJ)
The book of Revelation is, perhaps, the most misunderstood book in the Bible. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not a “road map” of future events that will happen around the time of the Second Coming of Jesus. Rather, it is a book about the church as it is exists on the earth right now. It is difficult to interpret because it is a book of symbols. As John writes in Revelation 1:1, “… And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant, John…” G.K Beale argues that the word translated “signified” can mean “to communicate by symbols.” So Revelation is a communication from God through His servant John to the church done by means of symbols. Symbols are not reality; they are pictures of reality. Nowhere in the universe will we find a seven-headed, ten-horned sea monster that is part leopard, part bear, and part lion (Revelation 12:1-2). We will find something even more hideous, which is institutional powers arrayed against the people of God and intent on destroying the church. To have any hope of accurately understanding Revelation, we must grasp that it is a revelation in symbols, and we must learn to interpret the symbols properly. The interpretative key is realizing that the symbols come, almost exclusively, from the Old Testament Scriptures. The symbols are not drawn from our newspapers or our history books, they come from the Bible.
It also helps to understand the context in which Revelation was written. The book was written to persecuted Christians living in the Roman Empire in the first century. Many interpreters seem to forget that the book is actually a letter written to “the seven churches which are in Asia” (Revelation 1:4). The book had meaning to its initial audience and, as sacred Scripture, it has meaning to us today as well. Interpreting the locusts of chapter 9, for example (“They had tails like scorpions, and there were stings in their tails.”), as Apache helicopters outfitted with Stinger air-to-air missiles, is to rob the book of having any legitimate meaning to its initial audience. Asking, “How would this vision have been understood by its initial audience,” is critical to getting at the true meaning of the book. When a proper, historical-grammatical hermeneutic is used, the incredible value of the book to the church today unfolds.