Book of Revelation full of symbolism

Friday, October 26, 2018 - Updated: 9:19 am

QUESTION: I am trying to read the New Testament Book of Revelation. What do we know about its author, purpose and meaning?


ANSWER: Questions have arisen regarding the book’s author. We know from evidence in the text that his name is John (see 1:1, 4, 9) and that he wrote the book from the island of Patmos. Whether this John is the same as the author of the fourth Gospel is a more difficult question. There are reasons for and against this opinion.

Terms used in both John’s Gospel and Revelation are found nowhere else in the New Testament. However, the original Greek of each of these two books is so different in style that one might conclude that they are the work of two different authors. In any case, the book seems to have been written by a person of considerable authority during a time of persecution in the first century of Christianity.

To understand the Book of Revelation, it is important to consider both apocalyptic and prophetic writing in the Old Testament.

Prophetic writing consists of an interpretation of the signs of the times in relation to the past (God’s already revealed word) and to the future (what will happen to us if we do not follow God’s will).

Apocalyptic writing is a special form of biblical literature that flourished between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D. It features elements of world catastrophe, climactic conflicts of good and evil, and allegorical descriptions of contemporary history. This type of writing is found in the Book of Daniel as well as in the prophecies of Zechariah and Joel.

The author of the Book of Revelation seems quite familiar with these two strains of biblical literature and employs them effectively. Thus, the Book of Revelation is both prophetic and apocalyptic. It places events of the present (particularly persecution) in the context of the past (God’s word) and future (conflict of good and evil).

One feature of the Book of Revelation that causes most questions is the use of symbolism. This is very characteristic of both the prophetic and apocalyptic style. Thus, a woman represents a nation (12:1) or a city (17:1); horns represent power (5:6); eyes, knowledge (1:4); wings, mobility (4:8); trumpets, a divine voice (1:10); white robes, glory (6:11); palms, victory (7:9); and the waters, evil and death (13:1). It would be a mistake not to appreciate the symbolic intent and value of these images or to take them literally and out of their proper context.

The use of numbers is also important to the Book of Revelation, and they too are symbolic. Seven (used 54 times) points to fullness or perfection; 12 (used 23 times) also indicates perfection (cf. 12 tribes); four (used 16 times) symbolizes universality (cf. four winds and four points of the compass); and 1,000 and 144,000 as symbols of immensity. The number 666 (that of the beast in 13:18) is derived from the numeric value of “Caesar Nero” written in Hebrew characters.

While all of this is interesting, we must not allow it to divert us from the central message of the Book of Revelation. The book is meant to convey to its readers that their lives and future are not left to politics or mere chance, but rest with God, and that Jesus is the ultimate victor.

Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy

Sepulcher in Glade Mills.

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