Definition of apocalypse: a) a class of Jewish or Christian writings that appeared from about 200 B.C. to 350 A. D., that were assumed to make revelation of the ultimate divine purpose.
b) a prophetic revelation, especially concerning a cataclysm in which the forces of good permanently triumph over the forces of evil.
The phrase “apocalyptic literature” is used to describe the use of symbols, images, and numbers to depict future events.
(continued…) These kinds of passages are what Bible scholars call ‘apocalyptic literature,’ and you find this sort of thing throughout Scripture. In the Old Testament, it is in Daniel and Ezekiel and some of the other prophets. In the New Testament it is in passages like this from the Gospels about the end of the world, and then, it is especially found in that mysterious last book of the Bible, Revelation.
Apocalyptic language can be harsh and violent. There is often talk of wars and famines and earthquakes and troubles galore. But it is realistic. The major themes of this type of literature read like the daily paper. So these verses have always been most popular with those folks attempting to pin-point the end of the world—and, since the themes of the apocalypse always sound so much like the daily news, these predictors are always predicting the end of the world any day (and have been doing so for centuries).
Apocalyptic literature is, by nature, negative, violent, and unpleasant– but real. The message is that the world is coming apart at its seams, the heavens are turning ominous and dark, and you better be prepared to meet your Lord. Negative and violent, yes, but it has the ring of truth and relevance. Have you been keeping up with the news out of North Korea? Or Iran? Or ISIS? The Biblical writers thought in terms of God bringing about a quick end to this earth. They had no idea of the kind of apocalypse mankind itself would one day be able to unleash upon ourselves.
But even these apocalyptic passages in the Bible are not without “Good News.” Jesus will sometimes refer to all those troubles as ‘birth pangs,’ that is to say, great pain, that is followed by great joy—good news (Mark 13:8, Matthew 24:8, and John 16:20-22) . In Luke 21:28 Jesus says, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Then Jesus he says, “When you see these things happening, you will know that the kingdom of God is at hand.” More good news. And even that strangest of all books, Revelation, contains also some of the most wonderful and promising imagery of heaven. Still more good news. But the bad news is always, also there, along with the clear message from Jesus that that is how it is going to be for a while– bad. It’s going to be bad, and then it will get worse, he says. Even the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
The world as we know it, the security that we have worked for, the strength that we have– none of it will last very long. The world, as we know it, is not what God had in mind, and it will one day be turned upside-down. And that part is not good news to me. I’ve worked my way into a little bit of stability and security, and I don’t care to get that all turned upside-down. Not now anyway. My wife and I like our house, our kids are doing fine, and retirement is within sight. I am in a rut, and that is right where I want to be, and want to stay. So the Bible’s apocalyptic literature is not my favorite Bible reading. I’m looking forward to heaven when I die, and whenever God decides that should be, is fine with me. But in the meantime, I don’t need anything getting turned upside-down.
Methodist minister William Willimon was once asked to address the ladies’ group of his congregation on the question, “What does the book of Revelation have to say to us today?” He was serving a well-to-do congregation out East and the meeting was to be held at the home of one of the congregation’s most well-to-do families. The whole nation was doing well in those days. There was peace, the economy was about as good as it gets, and his congregation was doing just fine; and he was doing great. And it was a nice day, and they were meeting in the back yard of a two-million dollar home overlooking a beautiful river. And there is nothing wrong with any of that, but he had to think long and hard about what he should say about such a dark and chaotic book, in such a serene and wonderful setting.
Willimon decided to say this: “What does the book of Revelation have to say to us here today? Well, to put it simply, NOTHING—nothing we would want to hear, anyway. This book was written for Christians in desperate times, threatening times, deadly times. As for you, if you don’t have anyone in jail for their faith, if your world is not on fire and your life is not in danger and your day in not filled with endless turmoil; if all your hopes are not dashed, and your dreams in shambles, well, then, you might not get much out of this book. Things are going pretty well around here,” Willimon said, pointing out the obvious, and then adding, “so it is going to be a bit of a reach for you to see as good news this message of Revelation that all hell is going to break loose one of these days, and the world as we know it is going to be upended.”
“On the other hand,” he went on to say, “if you were on the run, hiding out in a cave in Nigeria, because Boko Haram terrorists just murdered your husband while you watched, and violated you, and burned down your village, and you still don’t know where half of your kids are; well then, you might be ready to hear, as a word of hope, this apocalyptic message from the last book of the Bible, that this present world is not what God had in mind; but, that God is not finished with it yet, and is right now on the move to break down what is, in order to one day build up something new.”
What we see in apocalyptic literature, and how we hear it, all depends on where we are and how it is going for us here. The situation in Nigeria is far closer than ours to the first century world of the New Testament. (continued…)