Revelation: The Interpretation of the Book
Is it symbolic or literal in nature?
by Dr. David R. Reagan
Please don’t be deceived by those people who come along and say, “The book of Revelation is apocalyptic; therefore, you can’t understand it.” That’s a bunch of nonsense — just nonsense. I heard that for years. “It’s apocalyptic! It’s apocalyptic!” The word scared me to death. It sounded like a disease.
All the term means is that the book of Revelation is a type of prophetic literature that uses a lot of symbols. Because it contains so many symbols, some people teach the book as if it were a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland story for adults. Part of that approach is to explain away the vivid picture images by spiritualizing them to mean anything the teacher desires. The only limit is the imagination. This is an unsound approach.
Keep in mind that symbols are used for a specific purpose. They stand for something. They have a literal meaning behind them. They were not selected pell-mell by the Holy Spirit when He inspired book, and they do not stand for just anything we may desire.
Take Jesus, for example. In the Bible He is referred to as the “Rose of Sharon” (Song of Solomon 2:1) Now Jesus is not a rose, but the statement that He’s the “Rose of Sharon” communicates something real about Him. It tells us that He’s beautiful, that He’s glorious, that He’s wonderful, that He’s the spiritual aroma of God. He’s also called the “Bread of Life” and the “Fountain of Life.” Each of these symbols is used to emphasize a different facet of His character. Think how improper it would be to refer to Him as “the Tumbleweed of Texas”! That symbol conjures up the image of something that is ugly and rootless, subject to every whim of the wind.
The same is true of symbols all through the Bible. When a symbol is used, always look for the literal meaning behind it. God does not use symbols randomly, just pulling them out of the sky as if they have no meaning whatsoever.
Using First Coming Prophecies as a Guide
If you will look at apocalyptic books in the Old Testament, like the book of Zechariah, you will see that the First Coming prophecies contained in this literature meant exactly what they said. This is an extremely important point because the way in which First Coming prophecies were fulfilled is the best clue to how Second Coming prophecies will be fulfilled.
Let’s consider some examples from the book of Zechariah. The prophet said that the Messiah would come on a donkey and that He would ride into Jerusalem on that donkey. (Zechariah 9:9) Now, I’m sure that some of our liberal theologians today, if they had lived back before the coming of Christ, would have taken that verse and said, “Well, of course, this verse doesn’t mean what it says. This is apocalyptic literature. All apocalyptic literature must be spiritualized. The Messiah certainly isn’t coming on a donkey. That’s silly. All the verse means is that He’s going to be a humble person.” Wrong. The verse meant what it said. Jesus came on a donkey, exactly as prophesied in apocalyptic literature (Matthew 25:1-9).
Zechariah also prophesied that the Messiah would be betrayed by a friend (Zechariah 13:6) for thirty pieces of silver (Zechariah 11:12). He said the Messiah would be pierced (Zechariah 12:10) and that He would have wounds in His hands (Zechariah 13:6). All these prophecies proved to be literal rather than symbolic.
Concerning the Messiah’s Second Coming, Zechariah said He will come back to the Mount of Olives and the mountain will split in half when His foot touches the ground (Zechariah 14:4). The Messiah will speak a supernatural word, destroying the Antichrist and his forces with a plague (Zechariah 4:12). And in Zechariah 14:9 it says, “On that day the Lord will become king over all the earth.” I believe those words mean exactly what they say.
Accepting the Plain Sense
Another key to understanding the book of Revelation, a very important key, is to accept the plain sense meaning of each passage. Even if you don’t understand it, the best rule of thumb is to just accept the plain sense meaning. My “Golden Rule of Interpretation” that I use throughout the Bible from beginning to end, whether it’s prophecy or not, is this: “If the plain sense makes sense, don’t look for any other sense, or you will end up with nonsense.”
Because I realize that prophetic literature contains symbols, I don’t like to use the term, “literal interpretation.” I prefer the term, “plain sense interpretation.” Yes, there are symbols, but symbols have meaning. And when symbols are used, I look for the meaning of them. Again, if the plain sense makes sense, don’t look for any other sense, or you will end up with nonsense!
Remember, God doesn’t write in riddles to purposefully confuse us. He knows how to communicate. Normally, He says what He means, and He means what He says. Try always to accept the plain sense meaning. If you don’t understand it, don’t worry about it. Put aside what is confusing and hang on to what you do understand. Don’t give in to the temptation to spiritualize a passage to death or allegorize it. It is a serious thing to play loose with God’s Word.
The spiritualization of Scripture is actually a blasphemous act. The reason is that when you start spiritualizing God’s Word, you start playing god, for you can make the Scriptures mean whatever you want, rather than what God intended.
Believing When It’s Difficult
The best commentary I have ever read on the book of Revelation is one called The Revelation Record by Dr. Henry Morris. Right at the very beginning he makes a statement that made me want to shout “Hallelujah!” He says, “The book of Revelation is not hard to understand. It’s just hard to believe. If you will believe it, you will understand it.” What a profound insight! And it’s so true. Don’t forget it.
Accepting the plain sense meaning applies even when you don’t understand the passage. Let me give you an example. In Revelation 9 it says that in the end times an army of 200 million is going to march out of the east toward Israel. At the time that was written there weren’t even 200 million people in the world. Can you imagine the early readers of the book trying to figure out what that meant? Today, one nation, China, can send an army that large against Israel. You see what I mean by accepting what it says even if you don’t understand it?
This is one of the reasons I have always held the writings of C. I. Scofield in high esteem. He is the man who in 1909 produced the very first study Bible — a Bible with explanatory notes.3 He gave a literal interpretation to Ezekiel 38 and 39, concluding that these chapters prophesy that Russia, together with specified allies, will invade Israel in the end times. Commenting on this interpretation, he stated, “I don’t understand it. I can’t explain it. But that is what it says. Therefore, I believe it.”
That statement required a lot of faith in the literal meaning of the Word of God. Think of it — in 1909 Russia was a Christian Orthodox nation and Israel did not exist, nor was there any prospect that Israel would ever exist!
The Impact of Technology
Modern technology has helped us to understand many prophecies that previously have been a mystery. For example, in Revelation 13 it says that when the Antichrist is revealed, he’s going to be accompanied by a person known as the False Prophet. This False Prophet will make an image of the Antichrist, and that image will seem to come alive. People will worship the image. For thousands of years people have had to wonder what was meant by the reference to an image that appears to be alive. Scholars wrote many pages giving the passage all kinds of spiritualized explanations. Today, with the technology that we have, it is not at all difficult to make a robotic or digital image that appears to be alive.
Forty years ago I went into a theater at Disneyland. When the curtain opened, I saw a person who looked like Abe Lincoln sitting on the stage. He got up, walked over to the edge of the stage, grabbed his coat lapels, and proceeded to deliver the “Gettysburg Address.” The person was so lifelike. I thought he was an actor. He wasn’t. The person was a robot.
The Bible says the False Prophet will make an image of the Antichrist that will appear to come alive. I think we should believe the Bible means what it says.
In the same chapter of Revelation, chapter 13, we are told that every person on earth during the Tribulation period will be required to have a mark of the beast (either his name or number) on their forehead or on their right hand in order to buy and sell. For centuries, this was a prophecy whose plain sense fulfillment was difficult to comprehend. But no longer. Today, with the kind of technology that we have with computers and lasers, such a mark is something that is readily possible. Nonetheless, until recently people just had to accept by faith that the passage meant what it said.
Another example is found in Revelation 11 where it says that during the Tribulation two great witnesses of God will testify for three and a half years. They will perform mighty miracles and then be killed by the Antichrist. Their bodies will lie in the streets of Jerusalem for three days, and it says all the people of the world will look upon them. Then, suddenly, they will be resurrected and taken up to Heaven. Needless to say, before the Soviet Sputnik in 1957, that passage was difficult to explain. How could all the world look upon two dead bodies lying in the streets of Jerusalem? Today, there’s nothing to it. All you do is take a TV camera, point it at them, and zap the transmission up to a satellite. Instantly, the whole world can look upon those bodies without any difficulty at all.
Summing It Up
People have spent centuries explaining away God’s Word simply because they did not necessarily understand it. I’m saying take the plain sense approach. Assume that God wants to communicate, that God knows how to communicate, and that God says what He means and means what He says. Believe that symbols stand for something literal, and accept them for their plain sense meaning. You will start understanding the book of Revelation.