Of all the visions in the Bible, Ezekiel 1 probably comes closest to rivaling the work of Salvador Dali. The vision that moves towards Ezekiel in electric billows is surreal and portentous—heavy with an accumulation of dramatic unrest. A storm wind blows in from the north a massive cloud flashing with fire. Deep within the fire glows a mysterious alloy of gold and silver. Suddenly, strange creatures emerge out of the fire; creatures that would rival the best of any medieval bestiary. They’re called the four living creatures and each of them has four faces—man, lion, ox, eagle.
The scene overpowers the senses and presages solemn transactions with Majesty. Stuff’s about to happen. That is clear. But what does it mean? Like all visions, it requires interpretation. But where do we turn for help?
Another biblical vision gives us some principles for how to go about this.
Take the vision Peter saw on that rooftop in Joppa—a great sheet descending from heaven full of animals, and a voice, “Slay and eat.” Peter was utterly perplexed and couldn’t understand what it meant. The voice seemed to contradict the dietary restrictions in Leviticus 11. While pondering the vision, the Spirit spoke to him and he eventually understood—the animals represent the Gentiles, who are no longer unclean and should be brought into the fellowship of the church through the gospel.
How to Understand Vision, aka the Word
From this example, I see three elements required to understand visions in the Bible. And since, in actuality, every biblical text is visionary—unveiling the vision of God’s eternal economy—all Scripture requires interpretation (although much of it is difficult to interpret, cf. Heb 5:11).
The three elements are:
I’ll take them one post at a time.
Peter was pondering over the vision. (Acts 10:19)
Understand the matter, and consider the vision. (Dan 9:23)
It is not easy to understand the Bible. We need to pray over and ponder certain portions again and again.
First, we must ponder what we see. That is, we must consider it deeply, thoroughly, carefully, and prayerfully. This is to muse on the word, which implies pray-reading, worship, conversing with oneself, careful consideration, and much reconsideration. The early church used the word ruminate—to chew the text like a cow. Cows chew, swallow, regurgitate, chew, etc. before digesting. Before we really digest a text we must do the same. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) told the monks in his abbey, “Be pure ruminants.” It may sound funny to you, but it is a crucial part of understanding the Word.
Capturing the Light
How much do you chew on the text to process what you see and digest it in your understanding? I confess I don’t chew enough, but I’m learning to. The next five weeks I plan to chew on the five designations of the New Jerusalem. Last week I spent about an hour with two brothers chewing on HALF of the first designation—the “new” in New Jerusalem. When we chew, we capture the light and retain it in our understanding. Then it becomes a long-term nourishment, not short-term inspiration. Think Instagram posts versus Snapchat. I don’t want Snapchat revelation, the kind that disappears the next day. I want to be able to scroll back through years of revelation in a moment.
When what we read becomes a truth in our being, this nourishment remains forever….The only way for the truth to get into you is through your mentality. Then it remains in your memory. If you do not understand, the truth cannot get into you. The truth gets into you through your mentality, your understanding. Also, if the truth gets into your memory, it becomes a constant and long term nourishment.
Spiritual Speed Eating
I often suffer from spiritual speed eating, scarfing down big bites of text without even chewing. Then, because I’m eating so fast, I overeat, get indigestion, and don’t digest things well. Maybe I’m trying to rush through the text to finish my reading schedule or get on to the rest of my day. But reading without adequately considering the text is a sure way to miss God’s speaking. We should prayerfully consider as we read and then muse on what we read throughout the day. Like Joseph in Matthew 1, our pondering affords God an opportunity to speak to us (Matt 1:20).
It’s possible to truly see something in the word, but not understand it. In fact, this is what Isaiah was told to say to the obstinate nation of Israel, “See indeed, but do not understand” (Isa 6:9). To understand what we see, we must not let that light go. When you whisper, “wow” as you read, that is the sign you saw something. Don’t let that flash subside. Retain the light by pondering and considering the revelation with a seeking heart. Follow Daniel’s pattern, “And when I, Daniel, had seen the vision, I sought an understanding of it” (Dan 8:15). “Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand this matter… your words were heard; and I have come because of your words” (Dan. 10:12).
Understanding is a Gift in the Light
If you consider what you see and set your heart on it, God will begin to make it clear. The Bible is like a secret door in a wall that responds if you touch it in the right place—the text opens up when we probe it with our renewed mind and prayerful spirit. One of Paul’s last words of encouragement to Timothy, his young successor, was, “Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in all things” (2 Tim. 2:7). What Timothy was charged to consider was all “the things which you have heard from me” (2:2), which was the full explanation of the heavenly vision Paul saw (Acts 26:19). When we consider the text with a seeking heart and praying spirit, understanding dawns. The Lord gives understanding. It is not something we wrench out of the text by our intellectual acumen. Light is a gift. Light begets light. Or as David said, “In Your light we see light” (Psa 36:9).
This is how Watchman Nee sums it up:
When [God’s] word is revealed to man in the New Testament, its light first shines into man’s spirit as a flicker. This creates a burden within man’s spirit for the word. This light can fade away quickly, and man must catch its glow by exercising his own mind. He has to “fix” this light with his own thoughts or else the light will seemingly disappear….He has to inquire of God for utterance that he may receive one or two sentences that crystallize his light. He may ponder, and a phrase may come to him. Then he may write down the phrase… and he may speak it out….The more he speaks, the more the light within his spirit that has been captured with his mind is released.
Moving with What we See
Pondering the Word takes time, but it is essential if we want to end up not only moved by what we see but moving with it. God moves in and according to His divine revelation. If we really see it, we cannot remain unmoved spectators in its presence. Vision moves us. If we don’t see and understand the vision, we will either not move or move in the wrong direction. But if we see it, we will become it, and begin moving with it. Daniel saw the visions and understood them. He not only became a man of preciousness (Dan 10:11); he became a man of action.
But the people who know their God will show strength and take action. (Daniel 11:32)
1. Witness Lee, Life-Study of Revelation, Ch. 53
2. Witness Lee, Elders’ Training, Book 3: The Way to Carry Out the Vision, Ch. 9
3. Watchman Nee, CWWN, Vol. 53: The Ministry of God’s Word, Ch. 5
4. This is what Karl Barth said about Paul’s effect on people, in the first preface to his commentary on Romans.