The Imagery of the Book of Revelation

The Imagery of the Book of Revelation

Written by W. Robert Godfrey |
Tuesday, December 20, 2022

John promised that whoever reads this book aloud and hears it and keeps it will receive a blessing (Rev. 1:3). We will indeed be blessed as we read it slowly, thoughtfully, and meditatively, asking what God is teaching us through the images He uses.

The whole Bible is the Word of God—inerrant, authoritative revelation. That revelation is in words, and those words come to us in a variety of literary styles. For example, some parts of the Bible are history, and some are poetry. Both forms are the revelation of God, but they must be read somewhat differently for their meaning to be properly understood. When biblical history says that David was a shepherd, it means that he tended sheep. When the poetry of Psalm 23 says that the Lord is our shepherd, it means that the Lord cares for His people in a way that is similar to the way that a shepherd cares for his sheep. To insist that Psalm 23 teaches that the Lord tends sheep is to miss the point completely. To interpret Scripture properly and to truly understand its meaning, we must recognize the various ways that the human authors of the Bible were inspired to write and what they intended.

Careful attention to style and the intention of the author is particularly important as we approach the book of the Revelation. There John is writing prophetically and using a great many word pictures that often have a poetic quality. Consider, for example, John’s description of Jesus in the heavenly temple in the first chapter of Revelation. He does not name Jesus explicitly, but his meaning is clear. He sees “one like a son of man” (Rev. 1:13), and initially the picture he paints seems straightforward: “clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire” (Rev. 1:13–14). Already we may have questions. Does the glorified Christ in heaven literally have white hair? That is possible, but John may also be speaking somewhat poetically and suggesting the maturity and wisdom of Christ. Does Christ in heaven have eyes like a flame of fire? Again, John may be teaching us the intensity of His searching sight rather than the color of His eyes.

These questions are really answered for us by John in the final two elements of his description of Jesus: “From his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength” (Rev. 1:16). Clearly, John is teaching that from the mouth of Jesus comes the sharp, judging Word of God in the spirit of what we read in Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Even more certainly, when John writes that His face was shining like the sun in full strength, he shows that his description goes beyond the literal appearance of Jesus in heaven in order to communicate its meaning. If the face of Jesus was literally shining like the sun, then John could not have seen His hair or His eyes or His mouth. John writes of the shining of the face of Jesus to show His glory and the fullness and purity of light that is in Him.

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