Did John see Revelation as a vision?

Most ordinary readers of Revelation assume that John had some sort of vision, and that what we have is a more-or-less straightforward description of what he saw as if he was describing a picture. But there are several reasons for qualifying this kind of understanding.

The first relates the nature of visions and spiritual auditory experiences. I have once had what I would describe as a ‘vision’, and several times experienced what might be called auditory revelations, including as recently as early 2017. I could tell you what the content was – but it is less easy to be specific about what the experience entailed, how I felt I knew what I knew and how either experience related to normal experiences of seeing or hearing things in everyday life. (If you have not had an experience like this, then ask someone who has.) The second reason is the recognition that there is an established form of literature known as ‘vision report’, particularly in texts similar to Revelation among Jewish apocalypses, and there is considerable debate as to whether the authors or their audiences necessarily assumed that the text originated with an actual visionary experience. To take a modern parallel: when Martin Luther King said ‘I have a dream’ I do not think that anyone imagined that he was reporting to them something that he had experienced while he was asleep.

But even more important evidence comes from the text itself. John quite often describes things that make no literal sense, or are inconsistent or incomplete, and these indicate that he is more concerned with the meaning of the words he uses – and their symbolic significance in the light of Old Testament texts he is drawing on and contemporary Graeco-Roman symbolism – than in writing a report about meaningful things that he has seen. It is not actually possible for a rainbow to ‘have the appearance of an emerald’ (4:3); English translations often try to make sense of this by rendering it as ‘shining like an emerald’, but this is not the language that John uses. In his vision of the throne room, it is often not clear how the location of each group (living creatures, angels, elders) fits with the location of others, and the description develops through the text as John adds further details which are quite prominent (such as the altar before the throne) and it is odd that he did not mention these previously if he was simply describing a scene. In his description of the New Jerusalem, he describes it as ‘like jasper, clear as crystal’ when jasper is an opaque gem (21:11); the walls of jasper, though the city is of gold (21:18); the foundations decorated with gems, then actually being gems (21:19); the walls are ‘144 cubits’ but John does not tell us in which direction (so English translations usually supply the missing detail, 21:17); and John does not really make clear the relationship between the central street, the river of the water of life, and the (single) tree of life which appears to manage to grow on both sides of the river (22:1–2).

On the other hand, John’s text is constructed with extraordinary attention to the details of the words he is using. John repeats key words with certain frequencies. He careful repeats a phrase but with consistent variation, such as the fourfold ‘every tribe and language and people and nation’ repeated seven times but never twice in the same way, and similar repetition-with-variation in the seven mentions of the living creatures with the elders. And he re-uses and reworks Old Testament texts and ideas from all over the canon of Scripture. These all point to a text that has been composed with extreme care over some time.

Perhaps the most telling feature is John’s own focus on his words, rather than the visions themselves (1:3, 19:9, 21:5). In the final affirmation, the angel almost appears to step out of the scroll and address John’s audience direct, referring to all that John has written as ‘trustworthy and true’ (22:6). And at the end of the text, John finishes his letter with an ending in striking parallel to the ending of 1 Corinthians where Paul takes the pen from his amanuensis to sign the letter off himself (1 Cor. 16:21–24). In the same way, John appears to ‘hand his pen’ to Jesus to allow him to sign himself off (in place of Paul’s ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ we have the first person ‘I am coming soon!’, 22:20). For John, it is clear that it is the words he has written, more than anything else, which constitute what he has been given by God as the ‘revelation of Jesus Christ’ (1:1), and it is to the words – and not any speculative reconstruction of what his vision might have looked like – that we must attend.

Did John have a vision (or series of visions)? (The episodic nature of the text suggests that John might have had a series of visions. But the overarching presentation of what John writes offers the whole as a single visionary experience.) If he did, he has reported it in a very careful way. We don’t have a vision; we have a vision report, a text, and we should attend to it. John’s aim is not to impress us with his visionary experience, nor (necessarily) to encourage us to have our own. Rather, John wants us to order our lives in the light of the truth about God that these vision reports reveal to us.

There is an analogy here to the relationship between the events reported by the gospel writers and the texts that they have written. There is a constant temptation to use the texts that we have as a window to reconstruct the events that they report and then make sense of them. But the gospel writers have given us a record of their own understanding of the events and their interpretation of them. Though the events are of vital importance, a belief in the authority and reliability of Scripture implies that we need to attend to their understanding and interpretation of the events, at least as much as to the events themselves. This is an imperfect analogy with John’s visions – but in both cases our focus needs to be on the words that we have been given and what they mean.

(My commentary on Revelation, published by IVP in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary series, will be available in April 2018. For a briefer introduction, see my Grove booklet How to Read the Book of Revelation.)

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15 thoughts on “Did John see Revelation as a vision?”

  1. Thank you. I find that both helpful and challenging. Might it be compared with a so-called modern art canvass which we (most of us!) see as rather confusing, part clear, part ‘what on earth is that?’ Then the expert says….It means this….’ The canvass is essential but the meaning is the point… And maybe then one can read the meaning back into the canvass.

  2. Thank you Ian. When thinking about ‘John the Divine’ am reminded of my time at Westcott and some seminar and bar banter about Theology as poetry, no more or less. It reminds me also of time spent at Fulbourn Psychiatric Hospital as part of a placement in Clinical Pastoral Theology where we were presented with a journal article – by whom and from when I cant remember, but I know where it is – which places Paul’s ‘conversion’ on the road to Damascus as the locus classicus of a temporal lobe epileptic fit.
    This is by way of saying that God works through well ordered as well as less well ordered brain chemistry. In more recent times we can see examples of this in people like Christopher Smart (“Rejoice in the Lamb”). Maybe too easy to think laterally here and view apocalyptic writing in this way: that the writings in some way are the products of the imaginations or experiences of those who are mentally unwell. It might not be helpful to mention some of the theorizing and conjecture that John was “under the influence” and whereas this is by no means condoning the dabbling in mind-altering substances as a means of revelation, it cannot be precluded as an explanation – like most arguments which come mainly from science. I have been known to attain terrifying lucidity after a few shots of espresso,

  3. Great stuff, it has the virtues of a sermon by being full of the unexpected and intriguing – all the better when commentaries are like that.

    Genre, structuredness (very unlike a dream), visions sometimes functioning non-visually (more symbolically), attention to the here and now, accuracy to scripture – all these things are not at all like most dreams we know; they are however like a vision in the sense of a burning impression and message.

    If it’s a vision-report then it would normally be pseudonymous; John is not beyond clever double-meanings, indeed he can’t resist them. It is hard to see how the whole can be written in the Apostle’s name by the Elder. But the writer may have the wit to be deliberately ambiguous about their (semi-merged) identity, at least at times (e.g., Rev.1, Jn 21.24). Jesus emphasises strongly to the seemingly dead one, receiving his beatific vision, that he has overcome death; the faithful one then receives the ‘come up hither’ just as do the faithful 2 witnesses, which are in one sense Peter and Paul in the view of several.

  4. To me the book of Revelation seems like a careful production based on biblical precedents and resources–many of those weird references that don’t make sense–like the 144-cut wall “as the measurement of a human being” or the glittering emerald rainbow–seem to have other functions; for example the emerald rainbow is part of an image borrowed from Ezekiel 1, while the 144-human-cubit wall of seems to help readers understand the boundary of the sacred city as somehow metaphorically interrelated to the “144,000” Jewish saints who’s lives and deaths have defined the Christian tradition. (I think it’s Richard Bauckham who talks about the importance of special verbal cues for auditors trying to align the visions?).

    It’s not impossible that a prophet named John had some kind of organic mystical vision experience, but the final product is something very polished and intentional–even if there is a historical “dream” experience in the background, that dream/vision experience has been packed with intratextual cues and exegetical references and formal invitations for auditors to engage in interpretive projects, and that speaks to me of collaborative production.

  5. I quite like the Introduction in the Jerusalem Bible, which calls The Book of Revelation:
    “A tract for the times, written to increase the hope and determination of the Church on earth in a period of disturbance and bitter persecution, and prophesying the certain downfall and destruction of the Roman imperial power”.

    Sadly, for some fundamentalist Christians, who take such writing literally, a certain part of the text gives them license to criticise the Roman Catholic Church, an interpretation which gives poetic license for its denigrators.

    • Yes, I see, very understandably and rightly, the deepest of sadness in view of the unjust persecutions and martyrdoms so far suffered in the latter 60s AD; and also an assurance of dramatic vindication, and of revenge, and a lot of promise that what has been sauce for the goose will soon be sauce for the gander. You have an imperial white horse? Oh boy, do *we* have a white horse. You have a great lake in your Domus Aurea? It’s nothing to our lake. You burnt our people? Oh boy, will you get burnt. You have a miraculously-born and miraculously-protected leader / god? Ours is greater. You have no idea who is the true emperor, the true King of kings and Lord of lords.

  6. I will wait for this book. It will be interesting to see if you have dared to comment on my theories about the link between Revelation, especially Revelation 6 and 12, and Babylonian divination. I saw you downloaded my paper on academia.edu My theory is bold and unfortunately people just turn silent instead of commenting it…

  7. Careful readers of the Bible know that consideration of context is critically important to an accurate understanding of any passage. The same applies to entire books of the Bible – it’s important to understand the context in which they were written. From about 300 BC to about 200 AD, apocalypticism was a common genre of pious writing, by both Jews and Christians. The literary device generally used was a purported vision experienced by the writer, in which he is given a guided tour – of the future, of heaven, of hell, etc. – by a heavenly being who provides commentary and explanation. Symbolism pervades apocalypses, again as a literary device.

    Daniel 7 through 12, written about 167 BC, provides a taste of this literary genre, but outside the Bible other examples are numerous. Look up 4 Ezra (also known as 2 Esdras), 2 Enoch, and 3 Baruch, which closely resemble Revelation in many respects. In fact, some 17 Jewish apocalypses survive today, along with some 16 Christian apocalypses besides Revelation.

    Does anyone take Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to be an actual account of Scrooge’s ostensible visions of Christmas past, present, and future? Of course not. Yet the book is a modern-era version of antiquity’s apocalyptic literary genre.

    This is not to say that there is no legitimate biblical message in Revelation; of course there is. But recognition of the book’s full context makes clear that it is not the report of any actual visionary experiences. It is an example of a genre of pious literature of its era, and modern Bible readers should recognize that.

    Allow me to make a shameless plug for my 2015 book Testing the Apocalypse: The History of the Book of Revelation. The history of the controversies surrounding Revelation in the early Church is fascinating.


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