Troublesome Topic: Types of Symbols Used in Revelation

Layers of Meaning Using Multiple Symbols

There are times when more than one symbol is used with similar meanings. When two or more symbols that have the same meaning are used together it is an obvious emphasis of that meaning. A good example of this is Rev 21:21 where we read that the “the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.” Here we have four words which mean “pure,” all stacked on top of each other.

Symbols with Double Meanings

In many aspects of life, one reality often negates a different reality; we cannot have things both ways. However, the nature of symbolism is that double meanings are indeed possible. Not only are double meanings possible, they are relatively common. God used double meanings at various times in the Bible so the Israelites learned from that and began to look for double meanings. Thus, do not be surprised when I explain in the footnotes that a certain symbolic word can mean one thing, or another thing, or both. Context was what determined which meaning was intended. John’s readers were familiar with the various symbolic meanings a word could have, so if more than one meaning could fit the context without needed to be twisted or contorted, they would easily assume that both of them were intended.


The possibility of double meanings has another element to it. Just because it was seen as symbolism did not mean that it could not also be a literal reality.

John’s vision includes some things that could be real and symbolic at the same time. The use of symbolism is usually clear, but the use of something that is both real and symbolic at the same time is not as clear. There are a number of things in Revelation which carry a powerful symbolic message. Will they be fulfilled in a literal sense as well? Maybe. Maybe not. I would say usually not, but we cannot know for sure.

As an example, consider the use of “white robes” in Revelation. Will the saints in heaven actually be dressed in white robes, or does this point to purity? We can be sure that it points to purity, but it may, or may not refer to actual clothing. We don’t know if we will have any clothes at all in heaven. In the garden of Eden Adam and Eve did not need clothes until after they sinned, so my guess is that we will not have, or need clothes in heaven. Do believers need to wear white robes while here on earth? No. It is symbolism, pointing to our inner purity. If believers were expected to wear white robes here on earth, someone could easily pretend to be a follower of Jesus simply by wearing a white robe. Such pretending is contrary to everything God teaches in Scripture about the nature of purity. So you see how we can be more confident about the symbolism than about any possible physical reality.

Multiple Meanings in One Symbol

Some symbols have several layers of meaning, making it hard to describe the imagery apart from a full sentence. That is the richness of symbolism; one word could call to mind an entire set of meanings. I try my best to give you the various layers of meaning without being too verbose or cumbersome, but the people of that day would have caught the full impact of each symbol without any explanation. For an example of multiple layers of meaning see the in-text comment on “the seven golden lampstands” (Rev 1:20). This example includes three symbolic words but the breadth of symbolic impact for those three words is astounding.


There are some things that I call quasi-symbols. They are:

1. Words used as symbols in Revelation that were not normally seen as symbols in that culture.

2. Words that are not really used as symbols, but they have more meaning than the normal meaning ascribed to that word. They don’t really fit in the category of true symbolism, but they are half-way between a non-symbol and a symbol, thus a quasi-symbol.

What Are Some Images Explained in John’s Vision and Others Are Not?

There are a few cases in Revelation when an image is used and then its meaning is given. This was done because its meaning would not have been obvious to the original hearers. There are two reasons why it would not have been obvious: 1) They did not use that thing as a symbol so it was something totally new, or 2) it was indeed used as symbolism but it was being given a different meaning than its normal symbolic meaning.

 Most of the imagery used in Revelation is of the normal kind, the type that does not need to be explained because it is obvious to the reader or hearer. It is obvious, however, only to those that are accustomed to using such symbolism, to those who understand it naturally without explanation. It is part of their culture, part of their natural thinking process. Our symbolism would not be obvious to people of ancient times, and their symbolism is not obvious to us. That is why we need to study it, and that is why I am making this resource available.

The next lesson is: The Seven Cities Can Represent Differing Types of Opposition