How Can I Recognize Biblical Symbolism?

The key to interpreting biblical symbolism is to remember the literature we are reading. Some Christians assert that we must interpret these passages literally, as giving a more or less detailed description of historical events, either past or future.

Dave Jenkins
Chinese Bible, A christian kindergarten teacher was arrested and is now being watch because she shared her Christian faith with students

In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian stops at the Interpreter’s House to be shown a number of visions designed to teach important spiritual lessons. 

First is a picture of a man looking to heaven, holding a book, wearing a crown, and pleading with men to listen. The meaning is that Christians should listen only to faithful and holy Bible teachers. 

Second, he is shown a large parlor filled with dust. A man comes to sweep, but the dust merely flies around the room. Then a girl comes and sprinkles the room with water, after which the room is easily swept clean. 

This vision illustrates how the broom of the law cannot clean the heart until it is sprinkled with the water of the gospel.

Further visions illustrate a variety of spiritual lessons important to Christian life. The reader of Pilgrim’s Progress realizes that Bunyan is presenting allegories because of how he names his characters. 

The man who witnesses the gospel is called Evangelist, the pilgrim is Christian, he is led astray by Pliable and Obstinate, and he receives his visions in the house of a man named Interpreter.

Rightly Reading Revelation

Revelation is not an allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress, but a book of apocalyptic visions. Still, like Bunyan’s masterpiece, Revelation functions in a way that cues how we should read it. From the very beginning, Revelation employs symbols to depict redemptive-historical realities. 

In chapter 1, Jesus appears amid golden candlesticks that represent the churches (Revelation 1:12), holding stars in his hand that symbolize angels (Revelation 1:16,20), and with a two-edged sword coming from his mouth that depicts the sharpness of his message (Revelation 1:16). 

We are clearly to interpret these images symbolically. The same is true of John’s use of numbers, including “seven” to depict the completeness of the Holy Spirit (Revelation 1:4) and “144,000” to depict the vast multitude of the redeemed drawn from the 12 tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of Christ (Revelation 7:4).

The key to interpreting the detailed visions of Revelation chapters 11-13 is to remember the literature we are reading. Some Christians assert that we must interpret these passages literally, as giving a more or less detailed description of historical events, either past or future. 

This approach forgets that the very nature of Revelation encourages the symbolic interpretation of these visions, just as the nature of Pilgrim’s Progress compels us to interpret John Bunyan allegorically.

Revelation 11:1-2 and Interpreting Revelation

The passage on the temple’s measuring in Revelation 11:1–2 most clearly illustrates the significance of the differing approaches to interpreting this book. The main reason for the difficulty and importance of this passage is that it forces us to make a clear decision about how we are going to handle Revelation. John writes in Revelation 11:1-2

Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, “Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months.” 

The end of chapter 10 depicts John eating a scroll just as Ezekiel had eaten a scroll in Ezekiel 2:8–3:4, and the beginning of chapter 11 depicts John measuring the temple just as Ezekiel had watched the temple being measured in Ezekiel 40–48.

Many believers think that the temple measured here is a future temple — a literal building — that will be rebuilt in Jerusalem. This temple, though, is a figurative way to describe the people of God. Notice in Revelation 11:1 that “those who worship there” are to be measured. 

A Theology of the Temple

The Bible’s theology of the temple is not about a building so much as it is about God being with his people. The early chapters of Genesis present the Garden of Eden as a temple in which God communes with man. 

After the expulsion from Eden, the tabernacle and temple are built so that God can dwell among his people, and the tabernacle and temple are thereby meant to recapture the Edenic experience. When Jesus comes, he fulfills and replaces the temple, and as God, he once again walks with man. 

Then Jesus fulfills the sacrificial system through his death on the cross, and he pours out the Spirit on the church. The indwelling of the Spirit makes the church the new temple. 

The goal of this whole trajectory is not a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, but a day when the whole of creation will be like the Holy of Holies in the new heavens and the new earth. 

So, while Revelation predicts there will be a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, the temple becomes a symbol for the church, which is God’s temple, because the church is indwelt by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19).

The measuring of God’s people that we see in Revelation 11:1 is a symbolic depiction of God’s knowing exactly where all his people are. He is taking stock of them so that he can protect them all. None of God’s people are overlooked. None of God’s people will be forgotten. 

This means that “the court outside the temple” and “the holy city” that is trampled for “forty-two months” is a reference to the way wicked people will rule over the world on “the holy city” (Revelation 11:8). 

The temple in Revelation 11:1 is a reference to the church, and the reference to “the court” and the “city” in Revelation 11:2 signifies the rest of the world. The world is God’s. He made it. He owns it. He deserves glory from it. 

But for this 42-month period, he protects only the church. The rest of the world, though it belongs to God, will be trampled by “the nations.” Thus, what John describes here in Revelation 11:2 interprets and fulfills Daniel 7:23.

Safe in His Presence

Briefly explaining these things is necessary to understand Revelation 11:1-2 and rightly interpret the material to come in the following chapters of Revelation. It remains crucial, however, for us to apply these verses as they speak to believers today. 

The message is that living in an age that is hostile to Christ and his followers, Christians must draw close to God, trusting in Christ’s blood, calling on God in prayer, and gathering with fellow believers for worship. 

The Lord extends his measuring rod to encompass those who are close to his presence, establishing a barrier to keep them safe for a salvation that will be revealed at the end of the age.

A special warning is given here by the Apostle John to merely nominal believers, those who attend church but do not belong to the spiritual body of Christ’s true followers. They are like the Gentiles who were admitted to the former temple’s outer courts.

 “Do not measure the court outside the temple,” John is told in Revelation 11:2, showing that those who are Christians in name only are not protected by God. The nominal, worldly church “is given over to the nations” (Revelation 11:2). 

Apart from a living faith in Jesus, and a commitment to God’s Word, the institutional church and its apparatus are annexed by the world. It is from the nominal church that much of the persecution is launched against true believers. 

This happens today in false teaching pouring forth from unbelieving seminaries and worldly church pulpits. Therefore, John’s vision gives a challenge: Are you a Christian in name only, not having received the Bible’s message in obedient faith and salvation through faith in Christ? 

Revelation 11:2 gives a dreadful description of those who occupy the periphery of the church but do not worship “in spirit and truth” in the temple of Christ’s true church.

Understanding not only how history ends but also the times in which we are currently living. John’s vision urges true Christians to dwell close to God’s presence. The altar that John mentions speaks both of our reliance on Christ’s atoning blood for forgiveness and of the altar of prayer where we call on God for help. 

He further mentions, “those who worship there” (Revelation 11:1), speaking of our calling to join the body of Christ’s believers who worship in the holy place of the Christian congregation. There, safe in God’s presence, we are measured, known, and kept safe within the holy precincts of the Christian church.

For further reading:

Does the Bible Contain Allegory

What Is Revelation All About?

What Is the Biblical Significance of the Number 7?

What Does the Bible Say about the New Heaven and the New Earth?

What Does it Mean That the Word of God Is Alive?

What Did Jesus Mean When He Said, ‘I Never Knew You’?

What Is a Lukewarm Christian?

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Chris Liu

Dave Jenkins is the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, and the Host of the Equipping You in Grace Podcast and Warriors of Grace Podcast. He received his MAR and M.Div. through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @davejjenkins, find him on Facebook at Dave Jenkins SOGInstagram, read more of his writing at Servants of Grace, or sign to receive his newsletter. When Dave isn’t busy with ministry, he loves spending time with his wife, Sarah, reading the latest from Christian publishers, the Reformers, and the Puritans, playing golf, watching movies, sports, and spending time with his family.

Originally published January 08, 2021.