In preparing for a class on Revelation, one of the most helpful things I have read is the discussion of symbolism in G.K. Beale’s commentary. As Beale explains, symbolism has four levels of meaning:
- The linguistic level – the actual words used to describe the symbol.
- The visionary level – the actual visionary experience narrated by the author.
- The referential level – the particular historical referent of the symbol.
- The symbolic level – the truth that is conveyed by the symbol.
To illustrate these levels, imagine that you pulled up behind a truck with this sticker on the bumper-
The linguistic level is the phrase, “Don’t tread on me.” The visionary level is the picture of a coiled snake, baring its fangs and ready to strike. The referential level is the American Revolution, in which this flag was produced as a warning to Great Britain not to overstep its authority over the colonies. And the symbolic level is the current political situation, in which the bearer of this bumper sticker is issuing a similar warning against governmental overreach.
Now, let’s apply these levels to the imagery of Revelation 13.
And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast (Revelation 13:1-3).
- The linguistic level describes a beast from the sea, and calls to mind a similar description in Daniel 7:1-8, where Daniel sees four great kingdoms depicted as monstrous animals.
- The visionary level creates a horrifying impact, a giant sea monster! This has roots in the OT images of creatures like Leviathan, used by the prophets to depict evil powers (as in Isaiah 27:1).
- The referential level is clear in light of the first century context of Revelation. Imperial Rome, with its commitment to idolatry and its persecution of Christians, has become a blaspheming beast. And the suicide of Nero and near unraveling of the empire is vividly portrayed by the detail that “one of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed” (Revelation 13:3).
- What would be the symbolic level, then? God instituted human government to be His servant (Romans 13:1-4). But when earthly powers decide to be god rather than serve God, they become grotesque in the evil they perpetrate. They turn into monsters.
Viewing the symbols of Revelation in this manner helps to root the book in its historical context while at the same time providing us with timeless truths about the nature of the struggle between God and evil.