“Apocalypse” means to unveil, or to reveal. In English we translate it “revelation.” In Hebrew writings, “apocalypse” was a genre, a particular classification of writing style. Apocalyptic styled writing used symbols to represent events in dramatic style.
We find apocalyptic speech all through the bible. It is common in the Prophets of the Old Testament, especially when speaking of God’s coming judgement, or themes related to the coming kingdom of God in the Messiah. Ezekiel, for example, used symbols to describe the renewed creation in the gospel.
Jesus also used apocalyptic styled narrative in the Gospels, especially when speaking of God’s coming judgement. He did this because it was the common language of the day, understood by his listeners. Apocalyptic language is sometimes mixed in through other kinds of writings. It can suddenly appear in what is otherwise straight forward text. When we see apocalyptic language anywhere in scripture, we should be able to recognise it and then understand it as intended in ancient Jewish culture.
It is common in modern times to interpret many symbols in scripture literally, especially when we find them used in the New Testament. For example, Jesus speaking in Matthew 24 about his coming, or Peter speaking in 2 Peter 3 about the coming judgement, or Paul speaking in 1 Thessalonians 1:7 about the coming of the Lord. These passages use phrases from the Old Testament that symbolically represent future events. It is incorrect to interpret these images literally.
Right at the beginning of Revelation, John states the nature of his writing: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,” (Rev 1:1) John says that his text is an “apocalypse,” which in the Hebrew tradition means a symbolic unveiling. He said the things that were to shortly come to pass were “made known” to him through the angel. The Greek for “made known” means to “signify” using signs. It is the use of indirect language.
That is, Revelation is symbolic language about events that were to shortly transpire within the history of the early church, during the lifetime, or shortly after the lifetime of John. It is a mistake to interpret the symbols of the Revelation in a literal manner.
This doesn’t mean that apocalyptic language is entirely symbolic, with no concrete historical reference. This would make the language mystical, which isn’t the Hebrew nature of biblical narrative. It would be gnostic, or Platonic, to suggest that Revelation had only symbolic meaning, with no earthly reference to the times in which it was written. This would give it only a “heavenly” or spiritual significance, devoid of real application to specific events. The symbols in Revelation addressed real judgements to occur within the time it was written, just as symbols employed in the Old Testament Prophets did. Apocalyptic symbols have an historical referent, they are not simply mystical teachings.