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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