Q. In your Revelation study guide you say that there’s a symbolic meaning for the numbers in the book. 3 means God, 4 means creation, 7 means perfection, 10 means completeness, and so forth. Did John really write with all of this in mind?
(The Revelation study guide can be read online or downloaded for free from this link.)
I believe he definitely did. Throughout the book of Revelation, John is drawing on a stock of recognizable symbols from the First Testament. This stock includes some commonly-used numerical symbols that would have been meaningful to John’s readers.
For example, in the First Testament, 10 represents completeness in the human dimension, since people usually have ten figures and ten toes. That’s why God gave an epitome of the law in the Ten Commandments. The number is also used in this sense when Job says to his friends, “Ten times now you have reproached me.” This is not a literal count, because the friends have only spoken five times to that point in the book. But the number means “You’ve reproached me as many times as a human can bear.” Ten meaning what is complete or ultimate in human experience is also seen in Daniel’s vision of the four beasts. The last one, representing a supreme empire, has ten horns. The image and the number with its significance are echoed in John’s description of the dragon in Revelation.
To give another example, since there were twelve tribes of Israel, the number 12 represents the covenant community in the First Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus himself appealed to this symbol when he chose 12 apostles. Through this number he was declaring that a new kind of covenant community was coming into existence through his life and ministry. In Revelation the number 12 is used throughout the book to represent the community. See how many times it’s used in the depiction of the New Jerusalem, for example. (See the Daniel-Revelation study guide, p. 131.)
Twelve can also be used in multiples and in combination with other numbers. There are 24 elders in the heavenly throne vision to depict the continuity of the first and new covenant communities. The number 144,000, for its part, comes from 12 x 12 x 10 x 10 x 10, representing the fullness of the community of believers throughout time and space from the first and new covenants. (I have a separate post about this, “Who are the 144,000 in the book of Revelation?“)
Examples like these show us what an intentional part numbers play in the book of Revelation’s symbolism, echoing the First Testament background. As for some of the other numbers in the book, as I write in my Daniel-Revelation study guide:
• 3 represents God, who’s often described in three-part phrases (“who was, and is, and is to come”) and ascribed triple attributes (“holy, holy, holy”; “glory and honor and power.”)
• 4 is the number of creation. It’s represented in the heavenly throne vision by four living creatures, and it’s also described as having four parts: heaven, earth, under-earth, and sea. The song of every creature ascribes four attributes to the Lamb: praise, honor, glory and power. There are other uses of the number 4 to symbolize creation later in the book, for example, in the following vision, “four angels standing at the four corners of the earth holding back the four winds”.
• The number 7 (4+3) represents perfection and completeness. The Lamb has seven horns and seven eyes; these symbolize his absolute power and knowledge. The scroll has seven seals because it contains the definitive judgments of God. The seven churches at the beginning of the book are symbolized by seven lamp stands and seven stars. While these are actual churches, they’re also representative of the church as a whole; what’s written to them is also addressed to the wider community of Jesus’ followers. The throne vision depicts the “seven spirits of God.” As a translation note in the NIV explains, this is the “seven-fold” Spirit of God–the perfect (divine) Holy Spirit. The angels, in their song, ascribe seven attributes to the Lamb, acknowledging his divine perfections.
We see in all of these ways, as I write in my study guide, that “in addition to visual symbols drawn from earlier Scriptures, the book of Revelation also uses numerical symbols. Certain numbers in the book are like ‘logos’ that point to key characters and themes.”
For the symbolic meaning of the number 666, see this post.