Perhaps both the beauty and mystery of Revelation come from John’s staggering use of symbols. As we read Revelation, we should not expect its symbols to act as codes. Symbols and codes are very different. Codes assume a direct one-to-one correspondence. Symbols do something much more powerful. They encapsulate powerful stories, often in ways that transcend words.
Every culture has symbols. For example, the American flag is a symbol. It doesn’t have a one-to-one correspondence to anything. Rather, it conveys a spectrum of images, emotions and values such as bravery, courage, sacrifice, and loyalty. Within that symbol are “codes.” The fifty stars represent the fifty states. The red and white stripes represent the original thirteen colonies. But the symbol of the American flag transcends any one-to-one correspondence. And its power is that it transcends words. It enforces deep emotions, values and a worldview. That’s why candidates from different political parties can use the American flag as a symbol in their campaigns, even though their agendas and priorities differ. They’re relying on the power of symbol to communicate beyond words.
We must keep the power of symbol in mind as we read Revelation. Richard Bauckham reminds us that Revelation creates “a symbolic world which its readers can enter and thereby have their perception of the world in which they live transformed.” This symbolic world provides a “set of Christian prophetic counter-images which impress on its readers a different vision of the world: how it looks from heaven to which John is caught up in chapter 4. The visual power of the book effects a kind of purging of the Christian imagination, refurbishing it with alternative visions of how the world is and will be.”
Revelation’s symbols are charged with perception-altering power because they draw from the original readers’ context within Roman culture as well as their vast familiarity with the Old Testament to create a “complex network of cross-references, parallels, contrasts, which inform the meaning of the parts and the whole.” Just like a country’s flag waving on a field of battle can strengthen weary troops, Revelation’s symbolic world stokes faith and courage for Jesus’ people to overcome in the midst of temptation and persecution.
So within this vibrantly visual world, we shouldn’t feel compelled to find a one-to-one correspondence for everything John writes. We don’t need to look for comparisons between Revelation’s symbols and current events in the news. Rather, like the original audience, we should let Revelation’s rich symbolic world shape our imaginations. This requires effort in learning the cultural symbols and Old Testament allusions familiar to John’s audience. But the rewards of immersing oneself in John’s rich imagery is worth the effort.