Apocalytpics Now, Part 1
The Bible contains many apocalyptic passages that can seem strange, confusing, intimidating and frightening to people who have not read the Bible but just hear bits and pieces in passing, and to spiritually mature regular Bible readers alike. Responses can vary between extremes of ignoring apocalyptic passages to being obsessed with them.
Modern fascinations with fearful apocalyptic themes of the end are very evident today in popular entertainment media like movies, television and music, and in documentary interpretations of real current events. These fascinations often turn into flurries of fretful activity as some people try to prepare for a cataclysmic end to the world in response to predictions by cultish leaders. This happened last year and it is happening again this year. Countless websites offer information and solicit money for books on how to prepare and survive or just to support the cause. People are stockpiling supplies and buying underground condominium bunkers in hopes of surviving into a new age beyond the cataclysm.
Rather than ignore or obsess over apocalyptic Bible passages, careful reflection upon these important texts offers rich rewards in understanding God, the nature of his commands that reflect His character, His ethics and His provisions for our salvation. Rather than relegating these writings to a far away future, God means them to inspire us to godly living now. This is why John could introduce the book of Revelation by saying, "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near" (1:3). Knowledge of God's future victory brings blessings in the present, now. God intentionally included apocalyptic passages in his comprehensive Biblical ethics for moral living in the present and to convince us of His wisdom, power and ultimate victory. It is no coincidence that He ends the Bible with an apocalyptic book.
The History of Apocalyptic Writing: Old, New and Inter-Testament Times
Apocalyptic writings in the Bible have close ties to moral dilemmas in the history of Israel and the early church. From the beginning of the Bible's history of the human race, spiritual cosmic forces play an important role in rupturing and shaping the relationship between God and people.
The frequency and intensity of apocalyptic passages increase toward the ends of both Old and New Testaments. Apocalyptic writing increased in proportion to Israel's theological, moral and political problems notably from the eighth century BC until beyond the AD 70 destruction of the Second Temple further into the times of the rabbis.
The New Testament contains apocalyptic visionary passages from its beginning in the Gospels, through the letters of Paul, Peter, and Jude, and concludes with perhaps the most powerful apocalyptic book of all time, Revelation.
The tree of life figures prominently in the beginning of the Bible in Genesis 2 to 3 and at the end of the Bible when overcomers "eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God," and the healing of the nations in Revelation 2:7 and 22:2. In one sense, the Bible's apocalyptic literature reveals the final resolution of God's positive system of ethics vs. the negative morality of his enemies and the world without him.
As the moral climate deteriorated in the divided kingdoms of northern Israel and Judah after the zenith of the monarchy under David and Solomon, apocalyptic passages emerged in the writing prophets, such as in Isaiah 24-27. Old Testament apocalyptic writing intensifies during and after the exile, as in portions of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah and Malachi. Joel contains apocalyptic writing but scholars debate his date arguing for times well before, during and after the deportation to Babylon.
Exile for the Jews meant living under the domination of foreign power and the temporary loss of the land of promise and the temple. Change accelerated as successive world powers swept through Israel's homeland, the Persians, Greeks and Romans. Through the later writing prophets, notably in Daniel 7-12, God used apocalyptic passages to foretell and illuminate the unfolding of world history in advance of the coming of His Messiah and events following His life on earth, His death and His resurrection.
By the time Jesus arrived, the social pressures of living as a minority power in their own land lead to apocalypticism that manifested itself in specific lifestyle responses such as in the isolated community at Qumran. They had their own ethical system interwoven with apocalyptics as in The Rule of the Congregation found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (document 1QSa, a.k.a. an appendix to the Manual of Discipline). It specifies that it is "the Rule for all the congregation of Israel in the last days."
As the Greek empire arose and split, military conflict escalated over Israelite soil, notably in the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids. In these times between the testaments, and following, Jewish apocalyptic writing outside the Hebrew Bible canon flourished and occasionally included its own messianic expectations. Examples include 1 Enoch: Apocalypse of Weeks, Jubilees and The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness.
The tension between the moral state of the world and the ethics of God's kingdom increased toward the ends of the first century and apostolic age. The Roman Empire dominated and profoundly affected life for Christians and Jews leading up to and following the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. John wrote Revelation in the context of the overwhelming force of Roman imperial power.
Apocalyptic writing often dealt with themes of historical events or "otherworldly journeys." ¹ Some of the major parts of apocalyptic writings are cosmology (the origin and fate of the universe), primordial events (at the beginning of time), reconciliation of past problems, persecution, upheavals in the last days, judgment, destruction, cosmic transformation, resurrection, afterlife and ex eventu prophecy (these are prophecies that are future to the leading figure[s] in the apocalypse but past to the current earthly writer and readers). The general hope of the writers is that positive cosmic forces from another world will correct ethical wrongs and injustices in this one, thus making God's worldview triumphant.
New Testament Apocalyptics Now
Jesus and the New Testament writers are of course descendants of the same national culture that produced the Old Testament and other Jewish apocalyptic writings. From Matthew to Revelation, their work contains many apocalyptic sayings and passages that reflect their Semitic Jewish origins, Old Testament ethics and the concern of reconciling a fallen world with the eternal reign of God. Jewish history reveals that apocalyptic writing was a genre that Israel's relationship with God through their faith, politics and social pressures had well defined by New Testament times. The narrative and apocalyptic passages in the New Testament contain hundreds of direct quotes, allusions and verbal parallels to both the Hebrew and Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) available to the New Testament writers in the first century.
In the New Testament, the noun apocalypse means revelation, disclosure. The book of Revelation begins with the words, "The Revelation [apocalypse] of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place, and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John" (1:1). The verb form means to make something fully known, to reveal, to disclose, to bring to light. This is especially true of God's revealing things we could not otherwise know.
Both the noun and verb appear throughout the New Testament in and outside of purely apocalyptic passages. Most uses refer to the revealing work of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Paul is the most frequent user of the words. Many refer to revelations pertinent to God's theological development of the New Testament in its present time and following. Many uses have a future orientation.
At its core Biblical apocalyptic writing is about God and the consequences and triumph of His way of living in time and eternity. He is the main character and focal point. In Revelation, the Father and the Spirit focus attention on Jesus, the Lamb. The Biblical apocalypses speak of the future but call for action now in repentance, steadfastness in faith and high moral conduct.
The New Testament church lives in front of a horizon of expectation about our future hope that God is victorious and triumphant over evil, injustice and death. He will bring "new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:13). This horizon is clearly visible from Matthew 3 to Revelation 22 and in many Old Testament passages. God means for His apocalyptic words to have a positive impact on how we live now. Yes, we are preparing for a cataclysm, not by stockpiling supplies and buying underground shelters, but by purifying our hearts and loving God and each other. We will be able to stand before Him on the great day with confidence because of what Jesus has done for us.
Lord willing, in part two of this article we will begin to mine the depths of several apocalyptic passages for their insights into God and His expectations and hopes for our lives now.
Footnote ¹. John Collins provides helpful information about the history of apocalyptic writing in
The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature.