Humans have a fascination with the end of the world. That partly must be because we’re sentient creatures, the image of God, and therefore intuitively understand that the universe is headed somewhere. By “headed somewhere” we mean that there is a divine purpose to everything.
In Greek philosophy, there are two ways that the universe could have gone: cosmos and chaos. The universe is a cosmos, meaning that there is a clear order to how it works. There are laws of physics and laws of nature. Contrast that with chaos, which to understand today, look no further than western civilization.
So we live in a cosmos. Everything is headed somewhere. There is a purpose. Times and epochs have beginning and endings. That must mean that this time or epoch has an ending. And meaning is intimately tied up in how things end. A marriage that ends only because of the death of a spouse is not summed up as a tragedy but as a good marriage.
Scripture gives us information about how things will ultimately end up. But it doesn’t usually do so in a straightforward fashion with erudite and sophisticated essays. When it comes to the end of things, Scripture often sticks a specific form of literature. It’s full of vivid imagery and metaphor (read: not boring). And if we pigeonhole that literature into what we wish it said instead of what it does say, we will make all sorts of silly conclusions. Which brings us to today’s word.
Apocalyptic. Adjective. A genre of literature having to do with the revelation of unseen divine behavior or workings outside of human control.
The Bible is full of apocalypses. In the book of Isaiah, many call chapters 24-27 “Isaiah’s little apocalypse.” The book of Daniel, which even though it does have sections of storytelling, is an apocalypse. Sections of the gospels take the form of apocalyptic literature. And of course, when most Christians think of apocalypse, they think of the whole book of Revelation.
If anyone calls it Revelations, let him be anathema.
Popular notions of “the apocalypse” are of the end of the world, scorching heat, and death as far as the eye can see. Natural disasters take over land and sea, and bodies are strewn throughout the streets.
And while biblical apocalypses contain elements of those things, they are not the primary focus of the texts. The biblical apocalypses are concerned primarily, and almost solely, with one thing: the sovereignty of God.
If you read Daniel and look for Russia, Biden, or any number of contemporary entities, you’ll either be disappointed or have your own show on TBN at 3:00am.
If you read Revelation and look for God’s total control over where things are headed, which if we’re honest, never look that good, then you’ll have your spine straightened and your knees strengthened.
Things may look bad, but they’re never as bad as they should be. Things may look worse than yesterday, but the God of yesterday is the God of today and the God of tomorrow.
When you read Isaiah’s little apocalypse, you read about what God is going to do. Wealth will no longer be a means of safety. The earth will be made desolate. All of this is in graphic detail, and it’s because of God’s judgment on Israel for their faithlessness. The land will look like a field after harvest: bare. Israel needs some explanation for why they’re in the position they’re in. In other words, they need to see behind the curtain. They need to know that God is in control.
Daniel is often divided into two sections: chapters 1-6 and 7-12, but the book is more interconnected than that. Even if it mixes storytelling and apocalypse throughout, it always deals with these “kingdoms” that will fall. Daniel even received interpretations of the dreams he had, which reinforced what he saw behind the curtain.
In Matthew 24-25, we read the same kind of imagery. The sky falls, the land is scorched, and people die. But those are the consequence of wickedness taking over the world. Jesus even quoted Daniel.
Sometimes people ask, “What’s the point of living like a Christian now if everything just gets destroyed and things are perfected in the age to come?” Funny you should ask, because it seems as though Jesus knew what was in the heart of man.
Matthew 25 consists of a few parables that deal with the unexpected nature of the incoming of the kingdom of God. The theme of them all is consistent: be ready. There will come a day when the sheep and goats will wind up in different places as a consequence of their lives lived now. Live like a Christian now because Jesus said to. Is there a better reason?
Revelation becomes more clear when it’s read in light of the previous biblical apocalypses. Beyond Isaiah and Daniel, there are bounties of apocalyptic sections in Ezekiel, Haggai, and Zechariah. You’ll come across the same imagery and many allusions from those books in Revelation. Suddenly, the scales fall from your eyes. Revelation is no longer a primer in astrophysics.
Revelation gives us an explanation of why the world is the way it is. But, it does this by means of perhaps the clearest, most awe-inspiring picture of the way things really are in heaven. Chapter 5 is like standing in the place where the ocean meets the beach, and you slowly begin to take a step backward. You see things now that were only in your periphery before. You keep taking steps backward, and you begin to see things more and more awesome. This is the throne room of God.
In that throne room, seals are opened on a scroll. Every time a seal is broken, something happens on earth. And those things sound a lot like Old Testament apocalypses. That tells us that what happens here on earth has been decided in heaven.
So when we read biblical apocalypses, we don’t need to be afraid or look for politicians or Communists. We need to look for God.