Word Study #165 — Vision, Sight

This is another fascinating investigation prompted by a reference at church to one of the incidents where Jesus restored the sight of a blind man, that segued into a question of what actually constitutes “vision” or “sight.” Although the common English usage tends to equate those two words, it is interesting that while classically, all three Greek nouns, optasia, horama, and horasis, could also refer to anything visible, or to the act of sight, in the New Testament, they uniformly refer specifically to supernatural revelations: and these are surprisingly few. If you can discern any pattern or reason for this, please add your insight!

With the exception of Jesus’ instructions to the disciples regarding their experience of his Transfiguration (Mt.17:19), and Paul’s generic reference in II Cor.12:1, every incidence of any of these words involved an individual being provided with divine instructions or information that would have been accessible to him in no other way: from Zachariah in the temple (Lk.1:22) receiving a “heads-up” about John’s birth, to news (Lk.24:23) of Jesus’ resurrection! How else could Ananias (Ac.9:10,12) have connected with Saul, the persecutor, or Peter, still an observant Jew, (Ac.10:3, 17,19, 11:5) with Cornelius, the Roman centurion? It’s no wonder that shortly thereafter, Peter was uncertain of the physical reality of his release from prison (Ac.12:19)! Macedonia had not been on Paul’s agenda until his vision (Ac.16:9, 10). Notice that each of these experiences was sufficiently recognizable as being from the Lord, that it resulted in prompt obedience, as Paul noted later at his trial (Ac.26:19).

The verbs, on the other hand, present more of a challenge. In the New Testament, “ordinary” seeing is virtually always noted with verbs or participles. However, it is not always clear whether the “seeing” is natural or supernatural. There are five primary words translated “see” or “look”, and lexicographers seem to have found them as difficult to differentiate as we do. (The “other side” of this concept, when something or someone “appeared” to a person or group, will be considered later). Here, we are concerned with the observer’s perspective.

Probably the easiest is blepo – L/S: “to have the power of sight, to perceive or be aware, to look or expect, to behold or see.” The only times it refers to anything less physical is when combined with one of the other terms: notably the charge of “looking, but not seeing” (Mt.13:13-17, Mk.4:12, Lk.10:24, Ac.28:26), where there is a shift to a form of eidon; and accounts of healing where the result, anablepo, is used (Mt.11:5, 20:34; Mk.10:51,52; Lk.18:41-43; A.9:12-18).
Anablepo, L/S: “to look up, to recover one’s sight, to revive”, also describes Jesus’ gesture in prayer (Mt.14:19, Mk.6:41, Mk.7:34, Lk.9:16); his calling Zacchaeus out of the tree (Lk.19:5), and watching the rich folks at the temple treasury (Lk.21:1).

Horao, L/S: “to look or see, to have sight, to pay attention, to behold, discern, or perceive; to observe, to look out or provide for”, and also “to see in a vision, to appear in a vision”, is also the etymological source of two of the nouns, horama and horasis. Clearly, more than physical perception is indicated in references to “seeing God” (Mt.5:8, 24:30,64; Jn.1:18), “the Son” (Mk.13:26, 14:62; Lk.17:32, 21:27), or “the Father” (Jn.6:46, 14:7, 16:16,17) and to Zachariah’s vision in the temple (Lk.1:22). Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances may fall into both categories (I Cor.9:1, 15:5-8). Jesus reports his own experience, (Jn.8:38,57), and John refers in I Jn.3:6 4:20, and III Jn.11, to evidence that a person has not seen the Lord. There is, however, no New Testament reference to purely physical blindness that employs horao, but it is this word with which, after listing things of which we cannot be certain in this life, John concludes (I Jn.3:2), “We do know that when he is revealed, we will be like him, because we will see him as he is!” Increased “exposure” to the Lord himself enables closer resemblance to his example!

Theoreo, likewise, L/S: “to watch, look at, behold; to be a spectator at games, to contemplate or consider, to speculate”, although occasionally used in these rather mundane contexts, has clearly supernatural reference in the reaction of unclean spirits to Jesus’ presence (Mk.3:11, 5:15), Jesus’ statements in Jn.14:7, 19; 16:10,16, 17, 19, that “the world” cannot “see” him, in the vision granted to Stephen at his death (Ac.7:56), and Peter’s experience (Ac.10:11) noted earlier. Jesus also used theoreo in Jn.6:40, 62 and 12:45, of disciples “seeing” either himself or the Father, and his promise that if a person “keeps his word” they will “never see death” (Jn.8:51) – a statement as enigmatic now as it was when he said it!

The most difficult to sort out of all the words for “seeing” is eidon, which is the irregular aorist tense of both horao (to see) and oida (to know)! It has no present tense form. Only the context can give a clue to whether it is “seeing” or “knowing” that is intended, so one must bear in mind that there is a sense in which they may be synonymous. Any choice is, of necessity, arbitrary, and open to challenge. L/S lists “to mark or observe, to meet a person, to experience, to perceive, examine, or investigate, to appear or seem to be, to be acquainted with facts, situations, or individuals.” Bauer adds “to become aware, consider, take note; to perceive what happened, to see with one’s own eyes.” A form of eidon commonly refers to a person “seeing” a supernatural vision (Mk.1:11, Jn.1:33, Lk.1:12,29; 9:32; Ac.7:55, 9:12, 10:3,17; 11:5,6,13; 16:10, and 48x in the Revelation). It also describes situations which we might label as “insight”, understanding or perception, as in Jesus calling out his disciples or responding to crowds (too numerous to list), the Magi “seeing” (and recognizing the import of) a star (Mt.2:2,9,10); people flocking to John the Baptist (Mt.11:8,9 and parallels), or the Pharisees demanding to “see” a sign (Mt.12:38).
The idea of evidence or experience is present in several post-Resurrection situations (Lk.24:39, Mt.28:6,17; Mk.16:5, Jn.20:20,29), as well as the statements about “seeing” or “not seeing” corruption/decay (Ac.2:27,31; 13:35-37) or death (Heb.11:5), the Kingdom of God (Jn.3:3, Mk.9:1), and miracles, signs, and wonders (Jn.4:48, 6:26).

One aspect that may be unique to the New Testament is the combination of “seeing” with responding to a perceived need, both in the judgment scene of Mt.25:37-39 and the parable of the “good Samaritan” (Lk.10:31-38), an example that Jesus had set consistently throughout his ministry (Mt.5:1, 8:18, 9:36, 14:14, Mk.6:34, 9:14, and many others). John, in his first epistle, uses theoreo for the same idea (3:17), and he and Paul (Ac.26:19) both clearly imply that genuine “vision” or “seeing” requires obedient response.

Although a “vision” may be granted to the Lord’s people in times of extreme stress for comfort or encouragement, as it was to Stephen (Ac.7:55) and Paul (II Tim.4:17, Ac.27:23, 18:9), its ultimate purpose is neither to serve as a warm cuddly blankie nor to create private, other-worldly ecstasy. It is simply one of the many ways that the Lord makes assignments and supplies instructions, strength, and encouragement to his faithful people.

It is also significant, from the opposite perspective, that the same word, tuphlos, is used for both physical (Mt.12:22, 21:14) and spiritual (Mt.15:14, 23:16-19, 24-46; Jn.9:39-41) blindness. Even though the latter category is usually a matter of choice rather than misfortune, the remedy for both is also the same: accepting the gift – or restoration – of sight at the gracious hand of Jesus, and following him.

Lord, open our eyes that we may truly see – and having “received our sight” (Mt.20:34, Mk.10:52, Lk.18:43), immediately get up and follow Jesus along the road!

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