Hand a copy of the Apocalypse to anyone for their first reading and they will be completely overwhelmed by it. Even if the person is familiar with the rest of the New Testament, he will be bewildered by this book. It is different. While there are Old Testament books and a few New Testament texts containing similar language, Revelation probably contains more of this kind of language than all the rest put together. What kind of language is this? What purpose does it serve? How do we deal with it, and how do we decipher the message embedded within it?
The language is often called "Apocalyptic." This term is used to describe the language because the first Greek word in this book is apokalupsis (translated in our English versions as "The Revelation"). The word means "an uncovering, or unveiling" (Thayer). The language is designed to uncover (reveal) "things which must shortly come to pass" (Revelation 1:1). This is its purpose but this does not describe the language. The message of this book was signified (sign-i-fied) to John (1:1). This indicates the abundant use of signs (symbols) in its presentation. Words and phrases are used to signify, symbolize and reveal what is otherwise hidden. We may with accuracy call the language of Revelation sign or symbolic language.
Additionally, we observe John describing various scenes which unfold before the mind's eye. Various scenes develop, as in a play, creating mental pictures designed to reveal to us the "the things which must shortly come to pass." Some scenes are detached from the others (cf.1:10-20; 21:1-22:7). Other scenes change interconnecting from one scene to another (cf. chapters 4-11; 12-20). The scenes change much like a novel, movie or TV show, yet they are interrelated to carry the story line through to the end. For this reason, I like to call the language of the Apocalypse "pictorial," i.e., "evoking or suggesting a mental image or picture" (Webster's New World Dictionary). This was one way the people of John's day could view a documentary or a movie.
There must be some reason John used pictorial language. When asked why He spoke in parables, Jesus responded, "Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given" (Matthew 13:11). Jesus uttered many parables which had to be explained before His listeners could grasp the meaning. He used them to reveal truth to His disciples and to hide it from His enemies. The parables also make lasting impressions upon us. Who can forget the parable of the sower once he understands its message? There was purpose behind the parables, and they served their objective well.
The purpose of Revelation was stated early. "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to show unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass" (Revelation 1:1). Like the parables, the pictorial language of the Apocalypse reveals truth concerning impending historical events. Not everything portrayed in the Apocalypse was future, however, because John was instructed to "Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter" (Revelation 1:19). So, there are past, present, and future occurrences visualized in the scenes which unfold.
The Apocalypse also hides its message from those who are not God's servants. One need not be a genius to conclude that it contains a hidden message. Our first reading revealed this. Yet, this book was written to show God's servants things that were shortly to be done (1:1; 22:6). They could read, understand, and keep the things written within it (1:3). We may ask, "How could God's servants in that day read and understand what is so difficult for His servants today?" The answer is rather simple. Those Christians still possessed spiritual gifts to assist them in understanding (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:4-11). By the gifts they could receive revelations and interpretations (1 Corinthians 14:26) by which they could "understand all mysteries" (1 Corinthians 13:2). When we add the fact that the people of John's day were acquainted with current events, we can see how they could apply the language to their historical setting more readily. In contrast, we have only the various signs and symbols of the book to draw on, yet, we can use them as a starting place in our investigation of the text. By carefully studying similar language found elsewhere in the scriptures, we should be able to uncover the basic message directed to those saints and the lingering one for us today.
Furthermore, the scenes in the Apocalypse make lasting impressions upon us and, once we grasp the central message of the book, it will never leave us. The scenes are so bizarre they fascinate us. They create a desire within us for more information. Understanding becomes a challenge to many and the desire of all. Countless are the attempts to establish the identity of the historical events portrayed but in time their application to the language of the book is proven elusive and false. Only the truth is lasting. Once we find it, an impression is made upon our minds that will last forever.
The purpose of the book of Revelation, then, is to reveal, conceal, and secure. It reveals things shortly to come to pass to God's servants, conceals them from the enemies of God's people, and secures them firmly in the minds of those who understand (1:3). One of the great spiritual blessing we receive from this book is some degree of understanding.
Pictorial or sign language is difficult even though we deal with it every day. There are simple and complicated forms. Our road signs are visual signs designed to give us messages. Some signs give us a message to read. Others contain symbols designed to get the message across to us. The signs are not literal, yet they give us messages that are literal. For example, if we see a sign along the highway with an arrow curving to the left, we know there is a curve in the road bearing to the left. The sign is not the curve but it tells us a literal curve is ahead. All of us have seen "deer crossing" signs. The picture on the sign is not a deer but it warns us that a real deer may be crossing the road ahead. We have many such signs along the highway. In recent years, our road signs have taken on new symbols so illiterate drivers can read them. These signs are meaningless, however, unless we learn from their creators what they stand for.
Most of us are familiar with the language used to communicate with the hearing impaired. Unless we have studied this language and learned what it means, it is useless to us. However, those who understand what each gesture means readily perceive the message spoken by such language. The different movements of the fingers and hands form mental pictures in the mind of a person and the message is received. Pictorial and/or sign language has been with us for a long time. We use it every day. It is time to apply the same rules by which we understand our everyday sign language to the book of Revelation.
The pictorial language used in the Bible works much the same way as the above examples in our modern society. We must learn what the signs mean before we can interpret them. The Bible is our best source for understanding the use of its sign and pictorial language. Here are some suggestions on learning the meaning of the different signs: (1) Look for explanations of the signs in the text. Many times John explains the meaning of a portion of a picture. We must not ignore his explanations. They serve as a beginning point around which we can build the rest of the picture. (2) Compare similar pictures found elsewhere in the scriptures. Corresponding pictures often represent the same things. (3) Recognize that some signs are so obvious they need no further identification, i.e., the Lamb of God is clearly understood to be Jesus Christ. (4) Use common sense to decode the rest.
The process of learning to understand the language of the Apocalypse will never end. In this way, the book is like the rest of the Bible. No one has totally exhausted the scriptures. There are many things yet to learn, and we will not digest the book of Revelation over night either. Include it in you studies. Take your time. Observe, compare and remember what you learn for future reference. Eventually, you will prevail. You will broaden your understanding of pictorial language, the book of Revelation and the rest of the scriptures.
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This page was last updated on Thursday, May 28, 1998.