4 Things about Visionary Prophecy in the Bible You Need to Know
This article is adapted from chapter two of New Testament scholar S. M. Baugh's book, The Majesty on High: Introduction to the Kingdom of God in the New Testament.
The most important Old Testament background to visionary prophecy is in Numbers 12. This passage records God’s displeasure with Aaron and Miriam when they tried to undermine Moses because they too were agents of revelation (i.e., prophets): “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (Num. 12:2). But the Lord rebukes Aaron and Miriam and contrasts the way he speaks normally through prophets with his revelation to Moses:
And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord.” (Num. 12:6–8)
1. Visions and dreams are the normal mode of prophetic revelation.
The clear implication from Numbers 12:6–8 is that visions and dreams are the normal mode of prophetic revelation. This is confirmed elsewhere when visions are said to characterize a prophet much like counsel characterizes the activity of an elder and teaching of the law characterizes the ministry of a priest (Ezek. 7:26; cf. 1 Sam. 3:1; 2 Chr. 32:32; Zech. 13:4). Prophets have visions and dreams. This is how they normally receive a communication from the Lord.
2. Prophecies are called "riddles."
What is important to note about prophetic visions from Num 12:6–8 is that they are called “riddles” (Num. 12:8; cf. Judg. 14:12–19; 1 Kgs. 10:1; Dan. 8:23; Ezek. 17:2; Prov. 1:6)—which the NASB vividly translates as “dark sayings.” I like that rendering. The visions which characterize normal prophecy are not straightforward, clear communication such as Moses received, but full of riddles, mystery, and symbolism—dark sayings. Therefore, we should expect the book of Revelation, again which John himself calls prophecy, to be full of mysterious symbolism since it is visionary prophecy.
3. A true prophet is invested with the Holy Spirit.
Another feature of prophecy is that a true biblical prophet is invested with the Holy Spirit (Neh. 9:30; Zech. 7:12; 2 Pet. 1:20–21) which is true of John in the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:10; 4:1–2; 19:10; 22:6). Furthermore, true prophets have “stood in the council of the Lord” (although in a visionary experience through the Spirit) “to see and hear his word” (Jer. 23:18; cf. 1 Kgs. 22:19; Amos 3:7; Rev. 1:12). In contrast, false prophets have not stood in the Lord’s council; and therefore, “They speak visions of their own minds” (Jer. 23:16–18; emphasis added). We should keep this latter point in mind when we turn to Revelation 4, since this chapter records John’s own experience in the divine council chamber to confirm his commission as a true prophet of the Lord.
4. Visionary prophecy is marked by symbolism.
As I mentioned, visionary prophecy is marked by symbolism which is part of what makes it “dark sayings” or riddles. This seems rather obvious, but it is remarkable how people interpreting Revelation seem to forget this at times. Symbolism is especially obvious in the places where we are explicitly told this. For example, John sees a fearfully divine-human person (the risen Lord Jesus) walking amid seven golden lampstands and holding seven stars in his right hand (Rev. 1:12–13, 16). The Lord tells John outright that these lampstands and stars are symbols for the seven churches being addressed in the book and their “angels” (who are themselves symbolic) (Rev. 1:20).
It may not always be easy to figure out what Revelation’s symbols mean (see Rev. 7:13–14), but with careful study of the Old Testament and contemporary New Testament background, nearly all of Revelation can be understood sufficiently enough to discern the Lord’s message to us.
To learn more about biblical prophecy and the kingdom of God, check out The Majesty on High: Introduction to the Kingdom of God in the New Testament by S. M. Baugh.
S. M. Baugh is professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary California. He is the author of A New Testament Greek Primer, A First John Reader, and Ephesians: Evangelical Exegetical Commentary.
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