Reading Prophecy As Literal and Symbolic

There are ways to read prophecy that will give the reader different interpretations of what has been written. This is a key reason as to why there are so many variations of beliefs coinciding with the book of Revelation. As a dispensationalist, a main element to how I interpret the Bible is that I read it as literal. I do not pick and choose which pieces of the Bible really happened and which are allegories or metaphors. In my interpretation, each book is to be taken literally and read according to its genre. A historical narrative is not a mythological story that portrays a moral message. It’s something that actually occurred in the past.

Just like historical narrative, prophecy has its own way of being read literally. It’s called literal and symbolic. When reading prophecy, I interpret it as an event that is literally going to occur, but the imagery within the prophecy is to serve as a guide to the real figures, places, and events.

For example, in Revelation 1:12-20, John gives a description of the “Son of Man.” In verses 13-16, we see descriptions like, “hairs of his head were white, like white, wool, like snow,” “eyes were like a flame of fire,” “feet were like burnished bronze,” and “from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword.” The words don’t read, “He had eyes on fire” or “His hair was snow.” No, these descriptions are there to reveal characteristics of the real person.

Standing before John is a person who is like a son of man, but not quite. There is something more to him that is not completely of man. We see a person who has stark white hair. What does white hair often represent? Age, wisdom, and discernment. The person before John is wise. We also see that his eyes were like fire. This person can see beyond what normal men can see. He can pierce into the soul of man. A two-edged sword comes out of this person’s mouth. He has the word of judgment. This person is powerful.

This person speaks to John and gives further description of himself. He calls himself “the first and the last” and “the living one.” He says, “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Is this person beginning to sound familiar? All of these clues point you to the one and only fully God and fully man, Jesus Christ. The one who died, resurrected, and stands in the midst of the church interceding on our behalf. It is Jesus who comes to John and initiates this message of Revelation to the churches.

As important as reading prophecy literally and symbolically to understand what’s written, there’s another factor that helps: reading the Old Testament. These clues that are given in Revelation are not the first time they’ve shown up in prophecy. Read Ezekiel 1:26-28; 43:1-6 and Daniel 7:9-14; 10:5-14 to see if you find anything similar to what John saw and documented.

And that, my friends, is a brief look at how to read prophecy literally and symbolically.

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