Read Revelation 13:1, Daniel 7:1-3, and Ezekiel 1:1-14. What is the one thing that all these visions have in common?
Revelation 1:1 further states: “And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John” (NKJV, emphasis added).
Here we find a very important word in the book. The word “signified” is a translation of the Greek word semaino, meaning “to show by symbolic signs”. This word is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), in which Daniel explained to King Nebuchadnezzar that, by the statue made of gold, silver, bronze, and iron, God signifies to the king “what will take place in the future” (Dan. 2:45, NASB). By employing the same word, John tells us that the scenes and events of Revelation were shown to him in vision in symbolic presentations. Guided by the Holy Spirit, John faithfully recorded these symbolic presentations as he had seen them in the visions (Rev. 1:2).
Thus, for the most part, the language used to describe Revelation’s prophecies must not be interpreted literally. As a rule, the reading of the Bible, in general, presupposes a literal understanding of the text (unless the text points to intended symbolism). But when we read Revelation – unless the text points to a literal meaning – we need to interpret it symbolically. While the scenes and events predicted are real, they usually were expressed in symbolic language.
Keeping in mind the largely symbolic character of Revelation will safeguard us against distorting the prophetic message. In trying to determine the meaning of the symbols used in the book, we must be careful not to impose on the text a meaning that comes out of human imagination or the current meanings of those symbols in our culture. Instead, we must go to the Bible and to the symbols found in its pages in order to understand the symbols in the book of Revelation.
In fact, in trying to unlock the meaning of those symbols in Revelation, we must remember that most of them were drawn from the Old Testament. By portraying the future in the language of the past, God wanted to impress upon our minds that His acts of salvation in the future will be very much like His acts of salvation in the past. What He did for His people in the past, He will do for them again in the future. In endeavoring to decode the symbols and images of Revelation, we must start by paying attention to the Old Testament.