Just so that we don’t completely turn the page on this book of the Bible and think it is too frightening let me point out a couple things that might be of interest. If you go to vs. 8 you will hear about a great mountain burning with fire which is thrown into the sea. This is Mt. Vesuvius and we know that it tragically erupted and covered Pompeii in 79AD. John would have been alive then and would have known about this event. So this is certainly an event which historically had taken place and John was referring to it so the people who were reading his writing could say with certainty: “Yes, I know of that happening.” It was an opportunity for them to relate to the writing in a way that we can understand as well. So much of the imagery that John uses we can’t understand and we don’t know the symbolism. It is reassuring to hear about a mountain on fire being thrown into the sea and point to a historical happening to which it refers.
But what does that mean in regards to what we understand as far as prophecy. Isn’t John telling us things in Revelation that will take place when judgment day comes? Is everything that John says descriptive of events that were current events or is he sharing anything predictive that will happen when Jesus comes back? I’m on the side of descriptive versus predictive. I believe that John is writing to a community which desperately needs a word of comfort and assurance and so he uses words and imagery that this small community would understand, and potentially no one else would.
We know that the early Christian community used symbols and words to mean something that others would not necessarily understand. For example, the word ICTHUS is one that they used as a code name for their community.
This symbol was a code for Jesus. The word ichtus, which is written in the fish, means, literally, fish in Greek. But ichtus was also an acronym for Jesus Christ, Son of God, our Savior. We would never know that, those living in the 1st century who were not Christians would never know that. Just like when John speaks about seals and censors we don’t really know what he was talking about, but I’m sure the first century community did.