Christ “communicated it by His angel to His bond servant John” (1:1). The word communicated is the Greek word is esemanen meaning to give a sign, indicate, and translated in the KJV as signified. Osborne says it means to make it known by symbolism. However, it also has a more general meaning of make known, declare, or manifest, as reflected in the NASB.
There is no question that Revelation makes a heavy use of symbols. It has been observed that the presence of symbols has led to two extremes: One has led to the idea that the existence of these symbols “shows that this book cannot be understood and must simply be interpreted in terms of a general conflict between good and evil, the good winning out in the end.” The other extreme is it leads to unchecked speculation and sensationalism, which in some instances led to date-setting of upcoming events. Both of these extremes are to be avoided.
To many students of the Word the use of symbols in Revelation has led to the faulty assumption that nonliteral interpretation is intended. For example Beale says, “The predominant manner by which to approach the material will be according to a non-literal interpretive method.” However, “a symbol is a representative and graphic delineation of an actual event, truth, or object.” Reality lies behind every symbol.
Prophetic symbolism can be interpreted normally, by the customary use of language. By normally and customary, we mean by grammatical-historical methods. This method includes coming to understand the intention and understanding of the writer; the understanding of the reader in his day; and the significance (or application) of the text. While this is generally known as the literal method, this does not mean wooden literalism (as some accuse), but to understand the passage “in the context of the normal, usual, customary, tradition ranges of designation which includes ‘tacit’ understanding.” Symbolism is a part of normal, usual, customary part of language. In other words, one follows the normal, customary rules of language. If it is symbolic, it is to be governed by the rules relating to the understanding of symbolic language. Osborne is correct in his statement that “there is a false dichotomy between ‘literal’ and ‘symbolic’ in many circles.” The meaning is not found in the interpreter’s mind, but within the Biblical text. Symbolism represents something that is literal otherwise the symbol has no meaning. Avoid the extremes. “The revelation given to John, symbolic though it may be, is to be interpreted just as one would interpret the rest of the Bible” notes Thomas. Chafer tells us that “Bible terminology is always the simplest of any literature, where symbolism is employed in the text, it will, almost with exception, be so indicated.”
The three main rules for the interpretation of symbols are:
- Immediate context. The immediate context, if not revealing the symbol, gives key clue to what the symbol means. Stanton observes, “When a symbol or sign does appear in the Revelation, it is often plainly designated as such in the immediate context, together with what the symbol represents.” An example of this is Revelation 20:2 where the dragon, that old serpent is identified as the Devil, Satan.
- Remote context. When the immediate is not clear, the meaning might be seen in another context by similar or analogous symbols used elsewhere in prophecy. Thus, “times and times and half a time” (Rev. 12:14 with Dan 7:25, 12:7) along with Daniel’s 70th week (Dan. 9:26-27). Tan goes on to say, “In instances where the meaning of a symbol is not readily understood, one must withhold decision on the case until contexts, parallel passages, and the harmony of prophetic symbolism have been consulted.” These things must not be overlooked.
- “It must be noted that not every word-picture in prophecy is a symbol. Many of these are plain, everyday figures of speech.”
 Grant Osborne, REVELATION, 55.
 Tony Garland, THE TESTIMONY OF JESUS CHRIST, 1:55.
 Ibid, 55.
 Gregory K. Beale, THE BOOK OF REVELATION, 51.
 Paul Lee Tan, THE INTERPRETATION OF PROPHECY, 152.
 Barnard Ramm, PROTESTANT BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION, 11.
 Osborne, 15-16.
 Robert Thomas, REVELATION 56.
 Lewis Sperry Chafer, SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY, IV:259.
 Tan, 163.
 Quoted by Tan, 163.
 Ibid, 164.
 Ibid, 164.
 Simon J. Kistemaker, NTC: REVELATION, 77.