Biblical Research & Education Resources
Blaine Robison, M.A., M.R.E.
Revelation: A Book of Visions
Sources: Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of the article. Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Torah (Law), Besekh (New Testament), Torah (Law), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
In biblical times God spoke to the patriarchs and prophets of Israel in visions and dreams, as the Lord declared, "Listen to what I say: when there is a prophet among you, I, ADONAI, make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. (Num 12:6 CJB). The dominant feature of Revelation, consistent with former Hebrew prophetic writings, is the incredible sights John witnessed while "in the Spirit." John frequently introduces these experiences, which could be called visions, with "I looked" or "I saw," and these phrases serve to emphasize Johnís personal experience as a witness to the events described. John was not the first servant of God to receive visions. Indeed, in biblical times, God typically revealed Himself to His prophets through visions and it was considered a tragic loss when God withheld communication in this manner (cf. 1Sam 3:1; Ps 74:9; Ezek 7:26; Amos 8:11f).
The first mention in the Scriptures of a vision is the call of Abraham (Gen 15:1). Following Abraham, vision recipients included Jacob (Gen 46:2), Moses (Ex 24:9-11; 25:9, 40), Nadab, Abihu and the seventy elders of Israel (Ex 24:9-11), Samuel (1Sam 3:15), Nathan (2Sam 7:17), Iddo (2Chr 9:29), Zechariah (2Chr 26:5), Isaiah (Isa 1:1), Ezekiel (Ezek 11:24), Daniel (Dan 8:1), Amos (Amos 1:1), Obadiah (Obad 1:1), Nahum (Nah 1:1) and Habakkuk (Hab 2:2). In the Besekh Zechariah (Luke 1:22); Peter (Acts 9:10), Cornelius (Acts 10:3), Paul (Acts 16:9; 18:9; 26:9; 2Cor 12:1) and, of course, John (Rev 9:17), received visions from God.
Many scholars interpret the term "vision" in prophetic works as a Spirit-inspired insight because of the frequent use of the poetic format, instead of accepting the literal meaning of the word as a direct pictographic message from God. The Hebrew word for vision is derived from the verb meaning to "look," "see" and "behold" (TWOT 1:274F). In many of these incidents, such as Nahum, the vision was a straightforward communication in written form that God intended the prophet to copy and proclaim to the nation. Other times the vision gave direction to a prophet or apostle concerning the will of God. However, some prophets, such as Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah and John, received visions that not only included symbolism, but definitely strange sights outside of their experience, which revealed the awesome Creator God and offered ominous portents of the future. In these cases of pictographic messages the prophet required the assistance of an angelic emissary to understand Godís message. Even then it is not likely that the prophet completely understood the significance of the glimpse into the future.
God also used dreams to communicate His will and to portend the future. Sometimes God spoke in a dream to offer personal guidance, such as to Abimelech (Gen 20:3), Laban (Gen 31:24), Solomon (1Kgs 3:5), Joseph (Matt 1:20; 2:13, 22), the Magi (Matt 2:12), and Pilateís wife (Matt 27:19). Most of the dream occurrences in Scripture, however, were visionary, prophetic and often contained symbolic elements that troubled the recipient and others who heard the dreams. Jacob (Gen 28:12; 31:10f), Joseph (Gen 37:5-10), an Egyptian cupbearer and baker (Gen 40:5), Pharaoh (Gen 41:1), a friend of Gideon (Jdg 7:13), Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 2:1; 4:5), and Daniel (Dan 7:1) were recipients of such dreams. For every visionary dream an interpretation is offered and invariably all the visionary dreams in Scripture had a bearing on the welfare of Israel or Godís sovereign plan for Israel.
The writer of Hebrews summed up Godís method of revelation this way: "God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son" (Heb 1:1f NASB). Paul warned about listening to false prophets who take their stand based on visions they have had (Col 2:18). The primary test of whether a vision comes from God is the principle of two or three witnesses (Matt 18:16). The revelation that John claimed to have received from Yeshua is reliable because Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah had the same or very similar experiences.
In a specific example, God revealed the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzarís first dream vision not only to Daniel but also his three friends (Dan 2:23). The two-or-three witness principle is also illustrated in the story of the Egyptian Pharaoh who had two visions that told the same story. God revealed to Joseph that the second vision repeated and reinforced the message of the first vision. Similarly, the books of Daniel and Revelation contain visions with repetitive elements, but with a single message about the future. Finally, John affirms the two-or-three principle in the source of the content of Revelation, namely the Father, the Son and the Spirit (Rev 1:1, 2:7). Revelation has the marks of tri-unity.
The best model for interpreting Revelation may be found in the experience of Daniel. He was called upon to explain dreams and visions that were received by Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar and God answered Danielís request for understanding into these perplexing mysteries. Daniel also sought Godís explanation of the visions he received. In each case God answered Danielís prayer and insight was given. If Danielís experience serves as any kind of standard for interpretation it establishes that divine revelations given by vision have substantive meaning. That is, the meaning of a divine vision is not limited to esoteric spiritual principles, but relate instead to real historical, contemporary or future events.
The sights John saw were clearly fantastic. In fact, someone has said that Revelation is not difficult to understand; it is difficult to believe! The modern intellect simply cannot imagine events coming to pass as they are described in Johnís report, which may account for the many imaginative, if not bizarre, interpretations that have been offered down through history. However, taking Revelation seriously and truly letting it present its own message is the best way to understand this wonderful book and gain the maximum benefit from its truth. Where the visions are not explained fully, following the basic rule of "Scripture interprets Scripture" is the safest course to follow.
TWOT: Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. 2 Vols. ed. R. Laird Harris. Moody Bible Institute, 1980.
Copyright © 2006-2016 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.