As noted in Back to the Future, in the Book of Revelation, John gives us another figure of the “seven Spirits of God,” but this time the figure is “seven eyes.” Are they seven literal eyes? No, not at all, but they are a picture of something else, that something else being the “seven Spirits of God.”
When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. (Revelation 5:8)
Are the bowls in the Book of Revelation literal? No, here John helps us to see that the “bowls full of incense” are not literally, bowls full of incense, but rather “the prayers of the saints.”
Revelation 1:1 - Pt 3
John writes in the 12th chapter of the Book of Revelation,
And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Revelation 12:9)
Are we dealing with a literal serpent? No, here the symbolism of the great dragon is plain; he is Satan.
Here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits…. (Revelation 17:9)
Heads are heads, right? Wrong, they are seven mountains. They symbolically represent something other than what they are called. We cannot, must not interpret them literally.
The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour. (Revelation 17:12)
Are the ten horns really ten horns? No, they are not; the ten horns are not horns at all but they are symbols for ten kings.
And he said to me, “The waters which you saw where the harlot sits, are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues.” (Revelation 17:15)
Let's Look Inside
Water is water? No, the waters are not to be understood literally either for they symbolically stand for peoples, multitudes, nations and tongues.
The woman whom you saw is the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth. (Revelation 17:18)
But the woman, she certainly is a woman! No, the woman is not a woman at all but the figure stands for a great city.
In these passages from the Book of Revelation, we see how John infallibly demonstrates his method of writing and the proper method of interpretation for that writing. He writes figuratively and must be interpreted figuratively. He has gone to extremes to make his point. It is nothing short of amazing that so many have ears that cannot hear and eyes that cannot see. What more could John have done?
John needed to provide his readers with these instructions and insights in his method of writing the Book of Revelation because of the human tendency to deal concretely with spiritual truths expressed figuratively. Christ also had to work to get His audience to see beyond the sign or symbol in order to grasp the spiritual truth He was attempting to express.
For instance, when He said, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19) the crowds and religious leaders took offense, for they could not grasp the figure of His death and resurrection. Dispensationalists continue to take offense and insist that the Temple be rebuilt just as the unbelieving Jews in that day understood Christ’s words. As Philip Mauro says, “…had the record stopped there, it would doubtless be insisted by some in our day that that great edifice, which has been meanwhile destroyed so completely that not one stone remains upon another, is to be miraculously restored in the coming millennium.” Actually, that is exactly what they insist!
Philip Carrington sums up Jesus’ reliance on figurative language and expressions nicely by noting that, “The poetry of Jesus has it [figurative language] to a superlative degree; camels are swallowed or passed through needles’ eyes; mountains are thrown into the depths of the sea; a man gets a tree-trunk stuck in his eye.”
When Christ spoke to Nicodemus about the new birth, Nicodemus, a literalist, missed the figure and tried to apply it to a physical birth (John 3:3-10). When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, He offered her “living water” (John 4:10-14); but she, thinking literally, inquired about His lack of something to draw the water with. He, however, was speaking figuratively of the Holy Spirit. On another occasion Christ offered His flesh and blood to the crowd.
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:53-54)
But thinking literally they missed the figure, "As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore" (John 6:66).
And consider these words of Christ,
Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37-38)
“We might well wonder what would have been made of this saying by those who insist upon ‘literal’ interpretations, had it been left unexplained….”
And still on another occasion Christ offered them spiritual freedom,
So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." (John 8:31-32)
They, however, thinking literally, again missed the figure and insisted that they being children of Abraham were already free. These are just a few of Christ’s many uses of figures that drive home critical lessons of spiritual significance. And notice that all these examples are found in the Gospel of John, the John who wrote the Book of Revelation!
Clearly, Christ loved to convey great truths in symbols and figures during His earthly ministry and John duly records that in his gospel. Now once again in the Book of Revelation Jesus communicates in figures and once again John faithfully records the message. So when studying the Book of Revelation, keep in mind Christ’s use of many “signs” to communicate truth, for that, says John, is how the Apocalypse was written.
It is important to recognize that some who do not embrace or even understand the symbolic nature of the book, often, see those who focus on the symbolic character of the Book of Revelation as enemies of the “true” meaning of the passage. As one author puts it, “to this day, in the minds of many, a non-literal interpretation is synonymous with liberalizing tendencies which are equated with denying the validity of the Word.” And another observes “…they think that when we talk about spiritual meanings we are trying to find a low and cunning way out of what the book actually says….” Of course, not only are we not trying to find a way out of what it actually says, we are trying to find out what it actually says! And to understand the figures as figures teaching spiritual truths is to understand what it actually says.
J. Marcellus Kik deals with this issue saying, “There is just a little misunderstanding in the minds of some people when you state that certain expressions in the Bible are figurative. They feel that it robs them of reality and makes them meaningless. That is not true. Figurative expressions stand for realities. The “Lamb” stands for the reality of the sacrificial atonement of Christ. The “Dragon” stands for the reality of Satan’s power over ungodly nations…. The figurative expressions help us to understand the spiritual realities and they help to portray them to the mind.
It must be understood that the dichotomy that prophecy is interpreted either literally or figuratively is incorrect. A Biblically literal method of interpretation makes no such distinction. Instead, a Biblically literal method of interpretation insists that “…symbols be treated as symbols, images as images, and plain indicative statements as indicative statements. The problem rests in correctly identifying the literary genre of each passage.” What we have here is not a dichotomy between those who interpret the Bible literally and those who interpret the Bible figuratively or spiritually (and therefore by implication erroneously). What we have is a distinction between those who apply the genre of Scripture to obtain the literal meaning of each passage, and those who do not believe that the metaphors, symbols, signs, figures of speech, or similes of the author should generally be interpreted figuratively, but rather literally.
So, if I am to take the Greek word, semaino, literally, “I will have to interpret the Book of Revelation symbolically.”
It is interesting that those who call themselves “literalists” will in the section on visions and symbols interpret the figures, metaphors and symbols of Book of Revelation literally. But, they will then in the didactic sections reverse themselves and interpret the non-symbols, like the timing words, “near,” “quickly,” and “at hand” figuratively. Such a confused handling of Scripture is hard to understand, and certainly hard to sympathize with.