In the first verse of the book of Revelation John signals to his audience how the book of Revelation is to be read. Notice that God gave Jesus this revelation “to show” not to tell, his servants the things that must soon take place. The ESV Study Bible states, “The terms, revelation, to show, to make it known, and he saw prepare the reader and hearers for symbolic visions.” Many translations read in verse 1, “He made it known.” The HCSB and NKJV read, “He…signified it by his angel.” Our English word signified gets at the idea appropriately. He sign-i-fied the revelation, that is, he put it into signs and symbols.
Grant Osborne says the Greek word, “Yields the idea of making known by means of symbols” (Baker Exegetical Commentary, 55). Robert Thomas also states, “…in nonbiblical literature, it [this Greek word] already had a usage related to symbolic divine communications with men” (Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary, 56). This tells us we must adapt how we study this book. When we communicate with one another, we assume that we are speaking literally, unless something in our language demands us to take it symbolically. We study the scriptures the same way. We take the words of God literally and straightforward unless something in the text demands an idiomatic or figurative interpretation. When Jesus started talking about planks and logs in our eyes, we know that Jesus is speaking figuratively, using imagery to teach a principle. With the book of Revelation, the preface has told us to reverse our method. The book has been put into symbols and signs. Therefore we should read the book as symbols unless something in the text demands otherwise.
Now, let me make an important point. Just because Revelation is full of symbols does not mean that there is not a literal or historical fulfillment. The images represent a literal or historical event. The book of Revelation is not fanciful myths and stories. The symbol represents something actual and real. The red, octagonal stop sign represents the literal act of stopping one’s car. The point is that we should read Revelation seeking the meaning behind the images. We cannot take the numbers, locusts, scorpions, dragons, beasts and other images found in the book at face value. They represent something and our goal as readers is to determine the meaning of those symbols. We take the book of Revelation as symbols representing something unless something clearly shows us that the image is not symbolic.