In my first post in this series I wrote about various systems of interpreting the book of Revelation which have become more stumbling blocks than foundation stones. More subtle problems arise from within these systems. For instance, some schemes present a linear chronological flow of time within the book; some spread the book over an imaginary 2,000 year calendar, while others press the bulk of Revelation into a carefully sequenced end-time period. This confuses readers considerably because in Revelation time is actually presented cyclically, not chronologically (more about this in my next post). Some systems of interpretation force the reader into understanding Revelation as a literal depiction of actual space-time creatures, people and events. This leads to bizarre portrayals, like the Lord Jesus having a sword in place of a tongue (REV 1:16). Yet, the book of Revelation presents truth almost exclusively through symbols, sounds, images, colours, and numbers. Then, just to confuse us more, the various interpretive systems make liberal use of words and terms that are not found anywhere in scripture – words like The Tribulation, Rapture, and Millennium. This wouldn’t be a real problem if these words were not used as labels for doctrines; but they are.
At the very end of my last post I asked you to read Rev 1:19-20 and spot the two ‘keys’ featured there. Perhaps a bit unfair but I am hoping that you have been puzzling over this a little. Coded messages require a key of some sort to unlock their meaning. Some complex puzzles also require a key, a starting point, or a vital piece of information. Because the book of Revelation is essentially a ‘mystery’ (Rev 1:20) written in symbolic language, it too requires a key.
The Futurist school presents Rev 1:9 as the key; ‘Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter’. (KJV) The idea is that Chapter 1 records what John ‘hast seen’, Chapters 2 and 3 record ‘the things which are’, and the rest of the book records ‘the things which shall be hereafter’. This may appear neat but it is nonsense. The Living Bible captures the intended meaning of the Greek used in this verse as; ‘write down what you have just seen and what will soon be shown to you.’ Another natural way of translating the phrase would be; ‘write down what you see because they relate to both the present and the future’. There is no structural key here.
Ironically, the actual interpretive key to Revelation appears in the very next verse, which reads, ‘The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.’ The very first verse of the book has, ‘He sent it and signified it…’ (HCSB) The Holman’s Bible has a footnote explaining ‘signified’ as ‘made it known through symbols’. The revelation of Jesus Christ was given to John, and to the whole, church through all ages, by means of symbols and in verse 20 we are given the key to interpreting these symbols.
Stars are symbols for angels and lampstands are symbols for churches. Here is what we need to note; the symbols are both biblically based and appropriate. Job 38:7 equates morning stars to angels and Isaiah 14:12 refers to Lucifer as a fallen morning star. How appropriate, as angels are celestial beings of great magnificence. A lampstand is an equally appropriate symbol for the church, for are we not supposed to be the light of the world? (MTT 5:14-16) Lamps also feature in several places in scripture in relation to the ‘church’ of the Old Testament (Ex 25:37, 2 Chr 4:20, Zec 4:2). Another aspect of the Rev 1:20 key is that both heaven and earth are represented. The stars represent heavenly beings and the lampstands represent earthly churches. The symbols of Revelation therefore represent both heavenly and earthly characters and events.
A third feature we cannot afford to miss is that it is Jesus who is portrayed as holding the stars and walking among the lampstands, and it is he who is speaking to John, and to us. The book of Revelation is to be understood as an unveiling both of Jesus himself and of principles, events, and characters, both heavenly and earthly, by means of appropriate symbols. If we miss this then the book will remain a mystery and we will fail to receive the great blessing that God has for us through it. In my next post I will present the seven-fold structure of the book of Revelation and armed with this, and the interpretive key, we will be able to unlock much of what this wonderful book contains.