Symbols and Numbers in Revelation

by Chuck Huffine

The symbols and numbers in Revelation can cause much confusion and fear. The early Christians, while already persecuted for their faith, were about to undergo a much more terrible persecution. God meant to comfort his persecuted people with this book, not scare them. Much of its symbolism draws on a knowledge of the historical, poetic and prophetic writings of the Old Testament. Chapters 4-22 use symbolic language to a great degree. John is writing what he sees in the revelation. As Jim McGuiggan says, we should be asking ourselves, “This is what he sees, what does it mean?” Symbols used in Revelation include numbers, seals, trumpets, bowls, measuring the temple, and many others. (Some of these are explained in the other two articles on Revelation in this issue.)

Numbers Used Symbolically

The number seven can be found almost anywhere you look in Revelation. It speaks of completeness and perfection. In Chapter 1, Christ walked among seven churches. The seven horns and seven eyes (5:6) symbolize Christ’s perfect power, vision and knowledge. Even the sea-beast is described as seven-headed (13:1), which would point to the completeness of his power. His power doesn’t supersede God’s power, but in the context of the world, the beast seems to be full of power.

The number six falls short of seven. This is man’s number. Man was created on the sixth day. Revelation 13:18 states that the number of the earth-beast is man’s number, 666.

Like seven, the number 1000 implies completeness and perfection. The psalmist writes that “the cattle on a thousand hills” belong to God (Psalm 50:10). This doesn’t mean that the cattle on the hills after number 1000 belong to someone else. It means that all cattle belong to God. God is faithful to a thousand generations (Deuteronomy 7:9). This doesn’t mean that his faithfulness stops after a thousand generations. It speaks of the completeness of his faithfulness. And so, the binding of the devil for a thousand years (Revelation 20) probably is not a literal thousand years, but is a complete binding, until the short time that he would be set free.

The number twelve is the number for God’s people. Israel consisted of the twelve tribes. Jesus chose twelve apostles. Chapters 7 and 14 describe the people of God as numbering 144,000. This is twelve squared times one thousand. It certainly doesn’t limit the number of saved people to 144,000, but rather shows the completeness of God’s people.

Major Symbols in the Book

In Revelation 5, John wept because no one worthy could be found to open the scroll. The scroll was sealed. In ancient times, documents were often sealed by rulers to keep those who were not authorized from handling the document. No one could be found who was worthy to open the seals, except for the slain Lamb. Only the Lamb of Isaiah 53 was worthy to open the seals. As the Lamb opened each of the seven seals, another part of God’s plan was revealed.

At the opening of the seventh seal in Chapter 8, two attention-getting symbols are used to emphasize the importance of the upcoming events. The first is silence, for about a half hour. Imagine thirty minutes of silence at a meeting or during a television program. I would start to squirm after fifteen seconds of silence. The other symbol is that of the trumpets. Trumpets were used to sound an alarm and get people’s attention. God wants to get the attention of the oppressors before he starts to pour out punishment on them (2 Peter 3:9).

The events which follow each of the trumpets resemble the plagues that were inflicted on Egypt in Exodus. What the plagues were to Egypt, the trumpets were to Rome. These are warning judgments, not necessarily literal occurrences. The message here is the same message God sent to Pharaoh, “Let my people go” (Exodus 6:11).

In Revelation 11, John was given a reed to measure the temple. In the prophets, measuring is a part of separating and giving significance to something. Here John is to “measure the temple of God and the altar, and count the worshipers there.” He is to exclude the outer court, as it was given to the Gentiles. We know that Christians are the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16). God allowed the ungodly to penetrate the outer areas of the temple, but never the inner sanctuary. This is a picture of God’s people being persecuted, but protected.

In Revelation 12, the woman flees to the wilderness for 1,260 days. This time frame seems to be equivalent to the phrase “a time, times and half a time.” Verses 6 and 14 equate these two time frames. Also in 11:2, the holy city will be trampled on for 42 months. Each of these seems to represent a time period of three and a half years. In Daniel 7:25, Daniel prophesied that the saints would be oppressed for “a time, times and half a time.” There was a significant three-and-a-half-year incident in the Old Testament, the drought and famine in Israel when Elijah fled to the wilderness (See 1 Kings 17, also Luke 4:25 and James 5:17).

The three-and-a-half-year famine during Elijah’s time is likely what God is reminding the people of here. This was a period where Elijah and the righteous remnant suffered but were sustained by God. Elijah was driven to the wilderness for three and a half years, but he was fed miraculously by the ravens and then by the widow at Zarephath. God always takes care of his people during the hard times. The wilderness experience here in Revelation is most likely not a literal 1,260 days, but a symbolic reminder of Elijah’s experience in the wilderness. Even though the suffering of the church would be terrible, they had the assurance that God would take care of them just as he took care of Elijah during the famine. This doesn’t mean that God would make things easy for the church; many died senseless deaths at the hands of the Romans, but God sustained the saints throughout the persecutions. The church continued to grow and thrive in spite of persecution. Those who suffered and died knew that their lives were safe and hidden with Christ in God. The power of the Roman Empire was not complete. Not only was it just temporary (the church has far outlived the empire), but they also could kill only the body, not the soul (Matthew 10:28). It was a busted seven, three and a half. This should be a tremendous comfort for us as well.

The pouring out of the seven bowls of God’s wrath (Revelation 16) is more of the plague-like punishments sent to the Roman Empire. The plagues were meant to bring the oppressors to repentance (16:9, 11), but they were so hooked on sin that they would not repent.

The symbols and numbers in Revelation represent great comfort for God’s people during the terrible persecution that Christians endured in the early years of the church and throughout the ages. Much of this symbolism draws on an understanding of the Old Testament writings. The symbols demonstrate how God would sustain his people during times of suffering, just as he sustained and protected the faithful in Israel. It is my hope that we will find comfort today, not fear, in the book of Revelation.

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