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.