In the book of Revelation, John, the Evangelist, teaches by means of vivid visions and dreams the apocalyptic prophecy that expresses what the final days would be. There are two books in the Bible that represent the revelatory literature: Daniel, in the Old Testament, and Revelation, in the New Testament. Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse (from the Greek word for ‘unveiling’ or ‘revelation’), has a reputation of being a mysterious book. John was deported to the island of Patmos for the sake of faith. So, living there in exile he wrote the Lord’s message. The images and style of John follow partly the popular form of literature at the time of Jesus. In the first part of his book, John interprets contemporary events and in the second part he tells God’s plan of salvation.
We all know that John’s language is poetic: symbolic images and other literary devices shape John’s style.He felt the need to use a kind of enigmatic language (symbols) in order to escape further prosecution of the Roman Empire. Surely this explains only part of the style of the book of Revelation. Now let’s remember that John had also to face the difficulty of expressing in human language images of things never before seen by the human eye.
The inaugural vision in Revelation (Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, NRSV, 1989) is a good example. The scene shows the Lord’s presence in all his glory. John confesses that “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1, 17). How did the Evangelist describe our Lord?
John uses a figure of speech called simile to describe his vision. A simile is an indirect comparison of two unlike things using like or as to make the comparison explicit. Remember that a metaphor is a direct comparison. In brief, John uses figurative language. Let’s consider then the verses of the inaugural vision cited above.
John (Revelation 1, 14-16) describes the Lord’s head and his hair; his eyes; his feet; his voice; and his face. For example: “His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire”. The similes used can be grouped in two sets. The first set has words that represent characteristics of the sun (e.g. brilliance, white, fire, burnished bronze, sun shining), while the second has words that represent the sea (e.g. wool, waters). These are two effective Christian symbols: the sun stands for Jesus, while the sea stands for divinity. We see that John’s similes refer to symbols that, then, refer to values. This is a fascinating way of explaining things. John could describe that superb vision with vivid similes.