Apocalyptic literature in the Bible

We’ve been looking at some pretty large chunks of the Bible; we’ve looked at the Gospels and Acts, last week we looked at the Book of Moses or the Torah; this week I want to look at one of the most challenging types of Bible literature, at what is usually known as ‘apocalyptic’ literature. The best-known example of that sort of thing is the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, but more than half of the book of Daniel belongs in that category, and so do some parts of the gospels, including some of Jesus’s own words, so let’s see if we can get a handle on it, to use a homely metaphor.

Homely metaphors aren’t a bad place to start, actually, because the first step in using this element in Scripture in our own spiritual lives is understanding that the kind of language used here is symbolic rather than literal. Jesus Himself said that the stars would fall from Heaven before His own generation passed away, but that did not happen in any literal sense. So Jesus was either wrong, or was speaking symbolically or metaphorically. Those who believe Jesus is the Son of God won’t believe that He was wrong, so He must have been using symbolic language. And these very vivid symbols involving the complete disruption of the most basic elements of normal life, the kind of thing we only experience in very weird dreams, are actually the basic elements of apocalyptic language. Whether it is in Daniel, or the Gospels, or in the book of Revelation, it is symbolic, not literal language. I believe that this is agreed by Christians of all persuasions in all ages; the differences arise over what the symbolism means.

What I’m going to do today is look at the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, and to show you some of the landmarks, to give you a rough idea of how the book works as a whole; and then to look at one particular theme in the book and see how it restates by means of symbols one of the basic elements of our faith.

The biggest landmark in the book, of course, is the final judgement, the idea that the world will end with God judging the lives of everyone who has ever lived and giving them the reward or punishment that their lives deserve. This begins at the end of chapter 20, and is described in terms of God appearing to all human beings, even the dead coming forth from the grave, the book of life being opened, and everyone being judged by what is in the book, and then the coming of the new heaven and the new earth, the new Jerusalem, and then the end of every evil, even death, and all things being made new. Jesus said much the same thing in much the same language: Jesus said the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from Heaven… and then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory (Mk 13:24f). Revelation says I saw a great white throne and Him Who sat upon it; from His presence earth and sky fled away (20:11). Then follows the judgement: in Jesus’s words, it’s Christ gathering His elect from the four corners of the earth, in Revelation’s words it’s the One on the throne reading the book and admitting those whose names are written in it to the new heaven and the new earth.

This judgement is the event that ushers in the happy ending promised to all who believe in Christ. The rest of the book of Revelation is about what comes before that judgement; it’s about how you and I can prepare for it, how we can make sure that we are gathered with Christ’s elect, that we are ushered into the new Jerusalem.

These words about the end times must not be read in the hope of discovering the date of that time; these passages are not given to us for that purpose. Jesus tells us that no one will ever know when that is going to happen, so don’t waste your time trying to work it out. The symbolism in Revelation is about sin and salvation, not about the date of the end times. Let me give you a simple guide to understanding symbolic language of every kind, whether it’s in Scripture or anywhere else: when you hit the right interpretation, it confirms itself by its consistency with other things you already know or can discover. When you’re doing a crossword puzzle, for instance, a wrong answer soon reveals itself because it conflicts with other answers you know to be right; a right answer soon confirms itself because it leads you to other right answers. Or if you’re trying to get around Paris with the help of one of those phrase-books, and the phrase-book tells you that ‘ou est la plage’ means where is the police station you’re very soon going to discover that something is wrong. If the book says it means ‘where is the beach’ and you try the phrase on someone and they do actually show you a beach rather than a police station, then the rightness of the translation is confirmed.

And the key to understanding the book of Revelation is its symbolism’s own consistency with the rest of God’s word. Wrong interpretations soon reveal themselves when judged against the rest of Scripture. That’s why any interpretation that suggests we can know when the end is coming must be a wrong interpretation, because it conflicts with Jesus’s own teaching that we will not know when the end is coming. Right interpretations—and I use the plural deliberately, I’m convinced there are many different right interpretations of the apocalyptic symbolism in all these books—will be confirmed by the teaching of the rest of God’s word. The possibility of different interpretations is what allows God to speak to us through them in the circumstances of our own lives, which are all different.

Let’s look at one symbol that crops up several times in the book of Revelation, the theme of battle and victory and defeat, and see how that works. Much of the symbolism in the book is expressed in terms of warfare: there are the four horsemen of chapter six attacking mankind with the swords of death, disease, destruction and decay; the angels of chapter nine are described as troops of cavalry, covered with armour and going forth to war; there is the archangel Michael fighting against the dragon in chapter 12; there is the battle at Armageddon in chapter 16; and the rider on the white horse who smites the nations with his sword in chapter 19.

If you turn to chapters two and three, and I urge you to turn to p 1028 of the Bible provided rather than take my word for it, you can see how significant this theme is for every Christian. Chapters two and three contain the words of Christ to seven churches that were flourishing at the time the Book of Revelation was written. To each church Jesus has words of encouragement and words of warning; each church is doing some things right and some things wrong. And at the end of His words to each church, Jesus says, He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will… and then follows a promise which varies in each case. It’s the language of warfare and victory I want us to notice: the one who conquers. And who is it who is involved in battle here? It could be any member of any of these churches, couldn’t it. The first church, in 2:1, is the church of Ephesus, and Jesus concludes his words to that church by saying To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. The next church, in 2:8, is the church in Smyrna, a church in different circumstances, but Jesus concludes his words to that church also by saying The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. In each church to which Jesus speaks, there are those in that church that Jesus encourages to do battle and conquer. And they are, presumably, the ones who can hear what the spirit says to the churches; the two concepts are coupled in all seven examples.

And the conquest referred to is the victory over sin that leads ultimately to salvation and eternity with God. We know this because the phrase comes up again in the last section of the book, which describes the final judgement and the inauguration of eternal happiness in God’s presence. In chapter 21 God is sitting on the throne, the books have been opened, those whose names aren’t written in the book have been thrown into the lake of fire, the first earth and heaven have passed away and the new heaven and the new earth have come, death has passed away, mourning and crying and pain have passed away, and in 21.6 God says, It is done! The final goal of God for His creation, perfect and eternal bliss with Him, has been achieved at last. And from this climax, God speaks again to those who aren’t there yet, for whom this is still in the future, and He says, To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be My son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death. Remember 2:11, the one who conquers shall not be hurt by the second death. He who conquers in each of those churches is the same one who conquers finally, who is with God for ever in paradise.

And the battles described in between the passages at the beginning and the passages at the end of the book are, at least on one level, the struggle against sin in which the spirit is calling all of us to persevere. The message to every Christian is this: it won’t be easy to sin, it is a battle in which we can expect to be defeated over and over, but as long as we don’t stay down, there is hope of victory in the end. The Christian life is a life, a life-time in fact, of warfare against sin and temptation, against forces that are eager to do us harm.

This message is certainly consistent with the rest of Scripture, the parts that are in ordinary (metaphoric) rather than symbolic language. Hebrews 12:4, In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. II Corinthians 10:3, Though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. Language that echoes Jesus’s own, Who said, Don’t think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matt 10:34). Likewise the call for endurance and faith. Jesus Himself said He who endures to the end will be saved (Matt 10:22), and we can all remember, I’m sure, many other passages in Scripture calling for patient endurance in the struggle against sin.

There’s another point made by Revelation that is helpful for us to remember, especially when we find ourselves wearying in the struggle, giving up hope of victory, as we all do. It’s the reminder of how helpful God’s word is to those who are struggling, and even that it is God’s word that brings the power of Christ to bear on our side, that wins us the victory. In the book of Revelation the other side, the enemies of God, are symbolised by a terrifying beast like a dragon; in chapter 19 this beast is destroyed by Christ, through the power of His word. The beast is captured and killed by the sword of him who sits upon the horse, the sword that issues from his mouth (19:21). What issues from his mouth is of course his word—and the sword is also used elsewhere in scripture to describe the incredible power of God’s word. The sword of the spirit, which is the word of God, says Ephesians 6:17. The word of God is living and active, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart, says Hebrews 4:12. Twice in Revelation a figure that can only be understood as Christ is portrayed as having a sword issuing from His mouth: His power is His word, and His word achieves His purposes.

As you and I struggle with sin day after day, we have in God’s word a mighty weapon. It was given to us for that purpose, and no matter where we turn to in it, we find it attacking sin, encouraging holiness, encouraging perseverance and faith. Are you using the weapon of God’s word in your struggle? My experience has been that those who fall away from their Christian commitment are those who never made the word of God their own personal weapon, who relied on their own wisdom or their own power. When your sins are so strong that the passage in God’s word that you’re familiar with don’t seem to overcome them, go to the extra-strength version in Revelation, or Daniel, or Matthew 24.

God’s word, attacking sin, encouraging holiness, encouraging perseverance and faith. The Book of Revelation, the book of Daniel, Jesus’s own apocalyptic imagery, does that just as the rest of God’s word does; it has the same message as the rest of Scripture, but in the words of poetry and drama rather than the words of theologians. The message is, the good news is, that Christ has conquered evil, and that when we trust Him as saviour and follow Him as Lord, we will one day, a day that we cannot know beforehand, share in His victory.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by celindascott on February 27, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    Thanks very much for this. I’ve had trouble with the apocalyptic literature in the Bible, but seeing the way you present it–symbolically, and tied in with the rest of the Bible–makes it easier to understand. –About “the sword of the spirit”–an illustration of this is the true story of a Protestant prayer group led by pastor Trocmé and his wife in southern France, which sheltered Jewish refugees during WW II. A film was made of the events called _Weapons of the Spirit_. Years before the film, Philip Hallie, a philosophy professor at Wesleyan University, wrote a book called _Lest Innocent Blood be Shed_ about the same events. it was a study of how a choice for doing good was made, in the midst of choices to do evil. The following linked article tells about the WW II events, but also about Trocmé’s studies at Union Theological Seminary before the war, where there was sympathy for Marxist protest in the face of injustice. However, his own conviction that the faith, prayers, and actions of individual people acting in small groups influenced him to lead his parishioners in southern France as he did.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s