Helps for Understanding Apocalyptic Images

Revelation 1:12-13

12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands,
13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like [the Son of Man]… .

Clarity of Scripture

One of the attributes of Holy Scripture is that it is perspicuous (e.g. “has clarity of meaning”). We should be careful about this clarity, though. This does not mean that all Scripture is clear in all parts to everyone. It does mean that the Gospel is clear so that anyone can understand its meaning and be saved without extraordinary learning. Other matters in Scripture require learning beyond the ordinary — study in Biblical interpretation and application in a Bible college, graduate school or seminary. Apocalyptic is one of those areas that requires some specialized learning. 

Helps for Reading Apocalyptic Images

Guide_to_the_End_Times (3)I chuckle at some interpretations of Revelation in the popular magazines and books. Like art, the interpretations of Revelation often say more about the interpreters than they do about Revelation.

The illustration pictured left is from a popular book on prophecy. I like the sign around his neck with statements crossed out and revised —

“The end is here near
definitely going to happen
at some point in the future.”

Date-speculations are prevalent in modern books on prophecy. The books have to change often to keep up with the news programs the authors listen to and apply directly as fulfillment of Revelation.

Example from The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (click here to read Rev. 6:1-8)

The confusion in meaning is due to the strange nature of apocalyptic images. See the figure below from YouTube entitled “Revelation: 6 Seals, Four Horsemen of Apocalypse — Islamic Domination of Israel.” This interpretation would not have occurred to the original audience. Helicopters were not invented in the 1st Cent. How could those who were required to listen to the Revelation and apply it to their lives have imagined helicopters as fulfillment? To mention another, 1st Century persons had not seen American Indians.

Four horsemen and helocopters

Where would the original audience have gone to interpret the four horsemen? They would have turned to the Old Testament. These images come from Ezekiel 14:12-21 and Zechariah 6:1-8. (Click on these links if you wish to read the passages; See Beale, p. 124 below).

“Therefore, the [four] horses in Rev. 6:1-8 signify that natural and political disasters throughout the world are caused by Christ in order to judge unbelievers who persecute Christians, and in order to vindicate His people.” (see Beale, p. 125, below). 

Beale’s interpretation is compatible with the 1st Cent. Christian and the 21st Cent. Christian, too. (We will deal more in depth with the Four Horsemen vision when we get to Revelation 6.) 

We need to understand that the literary type (genre) of apocalyptic belongs to the 200 BC–AD 200 world and not to ours. However, this does not mean we are without help in understanding apocalyptic.

Editorial Cartoons in Our Culture are Helpful

Editorial cartoons in newspapers (which are a part of our world) resemble apocalyptic images, and we understand these obtuse cartoons. (see Ryken, p. 458-469, below).


Editorial Cartoon from Investors Business Daily

Do we have any trouble “reading” these meanings? Here’s an interpretation of the cartoon above — both major political parties, no matter which is in power, pick the pockets of the taxpayers. We can tell which party is depicted because these images are a part of our culture — the Elephant and the Donkey.

Apocalyptic images are from the Old Testament and are re-interpreted and applied as a means of communicating John’s visions to us. As I quoted in a previous post, “The seen vision had to become a written vision,” so we could receive it. (see Fee below). 

The Vision of Christ in Rev. 1 is of Messiah as Priest-King and Judge in a Temple Setting in Heaven

The writer of the general Epistle of Hebrews states Jesus is a Priest. But not just another Aaronic priest. Hebrews 6:19-20—

 19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.


Tabernacle layout from Logos Software

In the figure above, we see the Tabernacle itself. Two rooms on the key are:

(6) the Holy Place, where Aaronic priests regularly entered to perform their priestly rites;

(1) the Holy of Holies (or the most holy place) (3) separated by a Veil.

Only a High Priest could enter the most holy place once a year to offer blood of atonement. The only way he could be retrieved if he died inside the Most Holy place was by dragging him out by a rope tied to his leg. This was serious business and God impressed this upon the priests!

Hebrews 7 amplifies Christ’s Priesthood with details about Melchizedek—

1 For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him… . (see ESV below; emphasis mine).

Jesus our Priest-King appears in a heavenly, temple setting in Rev. 1. We need to see the resemblance of this scene to the OT Tabernacle and Temple. Also, John adapts the images to his vision. We will see these adaptations and their significance in the next few posts. 

B. B. Warfield famously described the Old Testament as a room “fully furnished but dimly lit.” By that he meant that all the fundamental elements of the gospel were revealed in the Old Testament but awaited the coming of Jesus Christ to be bathed in glorious light. (see Campbell below).

Next time the more about the vision! 


*The Son of Man = “The term “Son of Man” is to be regarded as a proper noun that does not need the definite article in the original.” We rightly add it to the translation. Hendriksen, William. (1939). More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation (p. 58). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Beale, G. K. (2015). Revelation: A Shorter Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

ESV. English Standard Version accessed from

Campbell, Iain. (2010). “Why the Old Testament?” Accessed January 21, 2019 from

Fee, Gordon D. Revelation (New Covenant Commentary Series). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Ryken, L. and T. Longman. (1993). The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishers). The Essay by Ryken on Revelation is helpful in setting the parameters of interpreting apocalyptic images correctly. 

© 2019 C. Richard Barbare All Rights Reserved

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