Revelation Rule #5: Colors and Numbers

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

(This post is part 6 of my 8 part series on interpreting Revelation faithfully. You can read the other posts in the series here.)

Revelation Rule #5: The colors and numbers are symbolic.

A few weeks ago we discussed the nature of apocalyptic literature and how this literary type uses symbolic images to convey special meaning. In many ways, Revelation is art, or even poetry, and functions as a form of "resistance literature."

But what do the symbols mean?

And, as one well-meaning student of mine once asked, can they mean different things to different people the way that art often does?

First, it's important to note that the numbers and symbols used in Revelation are frequently used throughout the rest of Scripture. We see colors and numbers used symbolically in both apocalyptic literature (such as Zechariah or Daniel) and even in the book of Exodus. In other words, John isn't really doing anything new. He is using his own Jewish tradition, and because of this, his Jewish Christian audience would have a solid understanding of John's allusions.

Second, because of this rich tradition, we can have a fairly good idea about the symbols in Revelation, too. A good lens through which to think about symbolism is the world of film. Even though each movie we watch is written, directed, and produced by different people in different eras, they often utilize the same symbolic imagery. Light and dark symbolize good and evil. A character who wears gloves is probably hiding something. Even the direction a new character laterally walks into a scene reveals their character (right to left often indicates an antagonist).

Let's take a look at what some of the colors and numbers mean.


Royalty, extravagance
The "great harlot's" (Rome's) clothing (17:3-4) 
Purity, resurrection, victory
Clothing of the faithful (3:4-5) 
Death, evil
The dragon (12:3) 
Blood, violence, power obtained through violence
One of the four horses (6:4) 
Wealth, divinity (real or false)
The Son of Man's sash (1:13) 


In the ancient world, numbers were often qualitative, not just quantitative. This is a bit difficult for us in the modern world to understand, because for us, 3=3. The end. But in John’s world, the number 3 communicated something beyond mathematics. There was a symbolic quality about 3.

For instance, because the ancients thought that the world was flat, they described the world as having 4 corners. Thus, by using the number 4, John was communicating something that was universal or present within all of creation. It is something that carries to all 4 corners of the earth.

Here are some other common number meanings in Revelation (and in the whole Bible):

A group of things, divinity (Trinity)
The one who was, is, is to come (1:4)
Universal in all of creation
The heavenly creatures (4:6-8)
Imperfection, incomplete
The Beast’s number (13:18)
Complete, perfect
The stars in the Son of Man’s hand (1:16)
12 (and its multiples)
The fullness of God’s people (12 tribes of Israel or 12 disciples)
The woman’s crown (12:1)
1,000 (and its multiples)
A very large number (equivalent to us saying a million – their numbers didn’t go up as high as ours!)
Heavenly angels (5:11)

What other forms of symbolism have you seen in the Bible?

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