The Book of Revelation has vivid imagery and interesting characters as you read through its pages. There are details of four horsemen, strange creatures with faces like eagles, men, and calves, and is a dragon with feet that are shaped like a bear that come out of the sea. These images have caused many to scratch their heads and speculate about what these things may, or many not be, and how to explain their meanings.
There are those in Christianity that say we should interpret (or explain) these vivid images found in the Book of Revelation using what is known as the allegorical method of interpretation, which is defined below:
A representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.
To those who believe in an allegorical (or spiritual) method, the images and events in the Book of Revelation are figurative. This means the language of this book goes beyond the literal words that are written so a person can come to an even deeper meaning of spiritual truth. Alan Piper notes this when he comments:
The Book of Revelation is full of symbolic numbers. Since we have seen that Revelation is a book of prophetic visions, the elements of which are symbols of spiritual realities, it makes sense that the numbers present in the book would be symbols of something else, not just random quantities.
Leo Checkai. Dominicana.com. Opening the Book of Revelation. Retrieved February 24, 2017 from http://www.dominicanajournal.org/opening-the-book-of-revelation-x/
This type of interpretation is found in the writings of Augustine, who believed that every passage of sacred Scripture contained four different interpretations (or meanings): the “literal,” the “allegorical,” “the moral,” and the “eschatological.” For example, according to Augustine Israel in the “litera”l sense was a nation called of God, and given a land. Israel, in the “allegorical” sense, also refers to the universal church, which would be the “true spiritual Israel” that would inherit the earth in the age to come. In a “moral” sense, Israel had the 10 Commandments, but the universal church is morally bound to them, but not the other 600 laws because those were fulfilled by Christ. In an “eschatological” sense, Israel refers to the New Heavens and the New Earth when the people of God will finally inherit the earth.
Others in Christianity state we should interpret (or explain) these detailed events in the Book of Revelation using what is known as the literal-grammatical method. This means the words that are in the Book of Revelation should be taken in their plain and normal sense, in relation to the context of the paragraph. This does not mean that a person who observes a literal-grammatical method of reading the Bible does not recognize figurative language, as website explains:
This means that we start out by taking the words in their most normal meaning. If I say My house is red, you will understand what I mean. There would be no question about it. However, if I say Listen to this parable about the Homeowner, or used comparative words like the word like as in like a roaring lion, you would understand that my words might not be meant to be taken literally, but possibly figuratively.
Endtimes.org. The Literal Grammatical Historical Method. Retrieved February 24, 2017 from http://www.endtimes.org/grammat.html.
When it comes to God’s word, what is the best method of interpretation one could use in observing the author’s intent in the Book of Revelation? Let us examine some of the biblical reasons why the historical-grammatical method is not only the best way, but is the way of interpreting the Book of Revelation.
The Book of Revelation is prophetic: John, inspired by the Holy Spirit, points out that book is prophecy in verse three:
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel 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. Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.
Revelation 1:1-3 NASB
Prophecy in the Old Testament did have figurative language (e.g., Joseph’s dream, Nebuchadnezzar dream, the prophets of Israel, etc.). However the images and figures were always explained by the one who was interpreting the prophecy. In short, because John describes this book as prophecy, the reader does not have to hypothesize, theorize, allegorize, or spiritualize, the meaning of the events laid out in the Book of Revelation. We should expect the interpretation of the book be laid out in order for us by the author who gave us the prophecy, so that we may understand and be blessed by it (Rev. 1:3).
The numbers and times in the Book of Revelation are specific: When a person observes the numbers in the Book of Revelation in their plain meanings one can see these numbers are extremely specific. For instance, the numbers mentioned concerning Israel and how God will pour His Spirit on a specific amount of people (i.e., 12,000) from each of the 12 tribes (Rev. 7:4-8). When the Lamb (who is Jesus) breaks the seventh seal, there is a specific amount of time that the heavens are silent (i.e., a half hour)(Rev. 8:1). The scorpions of the earth are given the ability to torment people who rebel against God for a specific period of time, which is five months (Rev. 9:3-5). There is a specific number given to the army after the sixth trumpet has sounded, which is 200 million (Rev. 9:16). The two witnesses are allowed to prophesy for a specific number of days, which is 1,260 (Rev. 11:3).
How would one who uses the allegorical method interpret these specific numbers mentioned here? There would be no reason to explain the specific numbers and times in the Book of Revelation any other way, other than in their plain literal sense.
The images that are seen in the Book of Revelation are explained by the author: There are many images found in the book of Revelation and these images are explained by the writer with much detail. For instance, the Lamb, having seven horns and seven eyes, that took the book from God is Christ because the image of the lamb appears as if it was slain (Rev. 5:1-3). This is also proclaimed by the twenty-four elders who sing that the Lamb is worthy to take the book because of His death He purchased men from every tribe, tongue, language, and nation (Rev. 5:9). At the beginning of the seal judgments, the four horsemen are also described in detail (Rev. 6:1-8). The red dragon described in the Book of Revelation, we are told by the author, is Satan (Rev.12:1-9). Even the beast that comes out of the earth in Chapter 13 is described in clear terms (Rev. 13:1-10).
How would one who adheres to the allegorical method explain these passages when the images are already explained to us by the author? One need not find a “spiritual,” “moral,” or “eschatological” meaning in any of these passages because the meaning of these symbols have already been given.
The literal-grammatical method is the way we should read, and interpret, the Scriptures because the Book of Revelation according the qualities mentioned above demands to be read this way. To attempt to find a more “spiritual,” “moral,” or “eschatological” meaning in this book is missing the intent of what John, through inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wanted to communicate. Let us observe the words in their plain, normal sense, paying close attention to the surrounding context of the passage. By doing this, we will honor the intent of the author, and glorify our God, giving Him due recognition for all of His future works. Amen.
Until next time…
Soli Deo Gloria!