Structure and Symbol in Revelation

Studies in Revelation—Lesson 5

by Reta Halteman Finger

The Woman and the Dragon, Revelation 12:1-4
The Woman and the Dragon, Revelation 12:1-4
by Internet Archive Book Images, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the many reasons people find Revelation incomprehensible is because they can’t follow the plot. This book includes a great deal of drama and excitement, but where is it going? Years ago, as I watched Sesame Street on TV with my preschool sons, the little blue muppet Grover would dance across the stage and talk about stories. “Stories,” he enthused, “have a beginning, a middle, and an end! You don’t have a story unless you have all three of these.” I was impressed, but later realized that Grover had learned that from the Greek philosopher, Aristotle.

As a single book with 22 chapters, Revelation would have confused both Grover and Aristotle. It actually would be more accurate to use the title “Revelations” in the plural, because it is composed of three distinct experiences of Altered States of Consciousness (ASC) experienced by the prophet John. And even though John may have recorded his visions when they happened, they may have been compiled by a later editor. We can see this in the opening paragraph (Rev 1:1-3), which speaks of John in the third person. John himself only begins speaking in verse 4, where he uses the typical greeting and salutation for a Greco-Roman letter, similar to how the Apostle Paul begins each of his letters:  “From _____, to _____. Grace and peace….”

The drama of the letters

The action begins with verse 9. John explains how he was “in the spirit on the Lord’s Day,” in an “altered state of consciousness” (ASC), when he both hears and sees the “Son of Man”—or The Human One—in 1:13. Many symbols describe this glorified Jesus (more on that later). As he dictates to John a letter for the “guardian angel” of each of the seven local churches in Asia Minor, these symbols are repeated to identify him. The vision then ends abruptly with the final letter to Laodicea in 3:22.

The drama of heavenly worship

Revelation 4:1 begins with “After this…”, implying some time later. Although the vision of letters takes place on earth—on the island of Patmos—here John walks through a door in the sky, into heaven! (4:1). He sees the throne of God and a scroll sealed up with seven seals. No one is worthy to open the seals until a Lamb arrives on the scene and opens them one by one, revealing symbols of human history. This is followed by angels blowing seven trumpets in (sometimes confusing) succession. Chapter 11 ends with what could easily function as the climax to this book: when “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah.”

The drama of the woman, the dragon, war, and the New Jerusalem

But the Apocalypse continues, and human history begins all over again with the struggle between good and evil personified by a woman, a dragon, and a warrior. This vision lasts from 11:19 to the end of the book, where a view of the heavenly Jerusalem encourages the suffering believers on earth to remain faithful, for Jesus is coming “soon.” This ending takes us right back to the beginning of the book, with its promise of things that will “soon” take place (1:1) and a poetic promise that Jesus is “coming with the clouds” (1:7).

David Barr thinks that the easiest way to follow the story of the Apocalypse is to see it as a drama having three interconnected acts. They are definitely related to each other, but they are not chronological or consequential (New Testament Story, p. 447).

The challenge of symbolic language

In order to get a driver’s license in most places in our world, we have to learn a range of international shapes and lines—symbols that convey vital messages to help us drive safely. The octagonal stop sign, the diamond shapes with wiggly lines that tell us to slow down, warnings about railroad crossings, and many more. Aliens landing on earth, however, would have no clue what they mean. Likewise, readers in the twenty-first century do not instinctively know the meaning of the many symbols and numbers we confront in first-century apocalyptic literature.

If we take symbols literally, we miss the point. Jesus appears awkward with a two-edged sword coming out of his mouth (1:16), but it merely symbolizes his word of judgment. On the other hand, if we interpret these symbols to make sense in our world today, we’ll get it wrong, since the intended audience knew nothing of our culture and time. My late father, an avid dispensationalist, thought that the huge locusts of Revelation 9:7-10 were military tanks driven by soldiers, something unknown in the ancient world. Barr’s general rule for reading an apocalypse is never to take it at face value. “Revelation,” he says, “does not mean what it says; it means what it means. And to unravel what it means, we must avoid taking symbols literally, keep a rein on our imaginations, and not ignore the historical context” (New Testament Story, p. 440).

Before the next lesson, read the first chapter of Revelation and make a list of all the symbols. Write down what you think each one might mean, either from something John says or by guessing. In the next lessons, we’ll discuss author and date, as well as beginning to unpack the meanings of these symbols.

Further questions for discussion or reflection

1.  How familiar are you with symbols in Revelation either taken literally or applied to current situations?

2.  Have you read any of the Left Behind books or watched films created from these stories? How do they handle symbols?


Reference: David L. Barr, “The Dawn of a New Day: The Apocalypse of John,” in New Testament Story: An Introduction, Fourth Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009, 429-470.


Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.