Revelation 1:1 and the Interpretation of Revelation

G.K. Beale’s commentary on Revelation, which is probably the best commentary on Revelation ever written in the entire history of the church, has a very interesting (and convincing) take on Revelation 1:1, and the use of the Greek word “semaino.” Beale notices that in BAGD (Beale’s commentary came out before the third edition of BDAG), the definition is more generally “make known, report, communicate” without specifying the precise nature of that communication (Beale, 50). This is a caution on what follows. Beale’s argument for “semaino” depends on the LXX translation of Daniel 2 as being in the background to Revelation 1:1.

In Daniel 2, “semaino” refers to something more specific: revelation by means of signs and symbols, or pictorial revelation. It is symbolic communication. Daniel 2:45 LXX demonstrates this by connecting “semaino” to the signs seen by the prophet. Beale argues that, although the more general term “make known” is certainly part of the semantic range of the word, “its more concrete and at least equally common sense is ‘show by a sign'” (p. 51). It is very important at this point to note that all three uses of the verb in John’s Gospel have to do with pictorial representation of Jesus’ death and resurrection (12:33, 18:32, 21:19). The cognate noun “semeion” refers to signs and symbols. John picked “semaino” in Revelation 1:1 over the common and more general term “gnorizo” on purpose, according to Beale. He argues that “the allusion to Dan. 2:28-30, 45 indicates that a symbolic vision and its interpretation is going to be part of the warp and woof of the means of communication throughout Revelation” (p. 51).

The implications of this for the interpretation of Revelation are fairly immense: “[A] number of authors of both popular and scholarly commentaries contend that one should interpret literally except where one is forced to interpret symbolically by clear indications of context. But the results of the analysis above of 1:1 indicate that this rule should be turned on its head” (p. 52). He acknowledges that not all parts of Revelation are going to be symbolic or metaphorical. However, “Where there is lack of clarity about whether something is symbolic, the scales of judgment should be tilted in the direction of a nonliteral analysis” (p. 52).

At this point, a lot of people might get really, really nervous. Does this approach mean that I can make the symbols mean anything I want? Absolutely not. Symbols do not communicate anything if they communicate everything. Even words themselves can have a symbolic meaning. If I start off a sentence by saying, “Four score and seven years ago,” a literate person will know exactly what I am referring to. They will not be expecting me to go off on a history lecture about World War II. The fact is that the symbolic imagery of Revelation has its roots in the Old Testament. So, although we should be interpreting Revelation in a way that recognizes its inherent symbolism, we should also recognize that such symbolism has a built-in control called “the rest of the Bible.” John always operates in the symbolic world of the Bible. Furthermore, Revelation ties all the threads of the Bible together, and so we should expect the rest of the Bible to be pointing the way forward to Revelation.

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4 Comments

  1. January 11, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    Interesting. Compare Stephen S. Smalley, from his 2005 commentary on Revelation: “The subject of ‘he disclosed (the revelation)’ is Jesus himself, who made it known (esemanen) to his servant John. The word translated ‘made known’ in this text (from the verb semainein) is characteristically Johannine (cf. John 12.33; 18.32). It derives from the root (semeion, a sign), which is the fourth evangelist’s term to describe the miracles of Jesus, the significance of which he is concerned to explain. So, in this setting, esemanen means more than ‘he indicated.’ It has the force of ‘signifying,’ or (as in the translation) ‘disclosing’ deep truths. The seer will, inevitably and consistently, interpret the truth he receives symbolically, and this should warn the reader against an interpretation of Revelation which is literal and (although anchored in history) purely historical.” “The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse” by Stephen S. Smalley (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), pp. 27-28.

  2. Reed Here said,

    January 12, 2014 at 9:06 am

    Picked it up. Put it down. Picked it up. Put it … hopefully get through it this time. Agree completely with your assessment of the quality of this on Revelation. It is worth taking time working through. Beale have done an exceptional job of demonstrating Scripture with Scripture in Revelation.

  3. Craig H Robinson said,

    January 13, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    “The fact is that the symbolic imagery of Revelation has its roots in the Old Testament.”

    Amen. Which means one must know and understand the OT first. If one does not read or understand the OT, it is basically impossible to understand the imagery of Revelation. The reader may still be able to get the general sense of Revelation, but any guess as to the specific meaning of symbols will almost surely be wrong.

  4. Craig H Robinson said,

    January 13, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    A couple years ago, I was sitting in a Sunday School class taught by a DTS professor who made a surprising point. One because, it was the opposite of what I expected a dispensationalist to say, and two, because I had never thought of it before. He made the point that throughout the OT (and NT), all visions where given through symbolic language. John is clearly seeing a vision in Revelation. So basically, the most “literal” way to take Revelation, is to take it symbolically (my conclusion not the profs). The OT has already set the standard on how the vision should be handled.


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