The immediate thought most of us have when hearing the word apocalypse is destruction. From modern doomsday novels to movies like the Viet Nam era Apocalypse Now, we associate the word with war and destruction. The word apocalypse actually comes from a Greek word meaning to reveal or to uncover. So, right off the back we have to adjust our view of Biblical apocalyptic literature. In and of itself, it does not refer to disaster and hopelessness. Instead, it refers to an unveiling of something hidden. In this case, it is the final chapter in the story of Jesus Christ and His victory over sin and evil.
In this paper I plan to shed some light on the understanding apocalyptic literature, the characteristics of apocalyptic literature, and how a person should interpret biblical apocalyptic literature. How to understand apocalyptic literature? Understanding the meaning of the word apocalypse is key to grasping apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic, as a term in the common language or dictionary definition, means something that is written in a warning and threatening way. It is scary, awkward, and about boding evil. The dictionary tells us it is presaging people of imminent disaster, exaggerated predictions, or allusions of the last days.
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However, this is not what it meant in the original Greek or Hebrew or in the time this term was penned. What did it mean? It means “discourser of events,” and that is what it literally and truly means to us today, too. It also means an “uncovering” or “unveiling,” and “Revelation” means “discourser of the apocalypse. ” Apocalyptic is not meant to scare us or keep us away from interpreting Scripture; rather, it is meant to help us understand God, victory, hope, grace, God’s plan, and that He is indeed in control.
The only people who should be scared are those who reject and hate Christ. When we see how this literature operates, it will help us greatly as it discloses for us the unfolding of historical events past, present, and future, with God’s plan and purpose being the ultimate goal. There for, if we take the time and effort to understand this type of genre, it will make things clearer for us it will expose, not conceal what God has for us. We need to realize that all languages use symbols and metaphors including Greek and Hebrew.
If we assume a word is literal when it is not, we will make a wrong conclusion that will lead us and others away from the correct teaching. Then, if we teach it, we lead others astray from the correct teaching all because of our pride or ignorance of not correctly interpreting Scripture or reading the Bible for all that it is worth. For example, a parable should not be treated as history, nor should poetry (both of which contain many symbols) be treated as straightforward narrative; the same goes for apocalyptic literature.
Most of the apocalyptic literature in Daniel and Revelation came to the writer as inspired by the Holy Spirit in visions. These are visions that came to them from God and or an Angel, with imageries that need to be put into human based words, but no words have the power or substance to contain the meaning. Therefore, a metaphor is used, as it is able to contain far more information about the “secrets” of Heaven and End Times than what a few sentences could. These images are usually explained and known to the writer and audience, but not so much to us today (Dan. –12; Rev. 4:9). What are some of the characteristics of apocalyptic literature? Apocalyptic literature is written in symbolism, poetry, and imageries, as well as in an Old Testament prophecy style (Matt. 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 21; Rev. 1:2-4; 19:9; 22:7-19), all intertwined as a textile to describe literal events but with a twist, using language with symbols that are cataclysmic, words that are exaggerated, and metaphors that may be lost to a 21st century person. Such imagery is often used for God’s judgments and the end of days.
These forms of language are often combinations of narrative and poetry written in vivid imagery and rhythmical phrases that are intended to express a deeper but not necessarily a hidden meaning that a regular word would not convey. Take our English word, “bull. ” It normally means a male cow, but in context, it refers to not just a farm animal, but also could mean someone who is aggressive, an upswing in the stock market, someone who is clumsy, or slang for someone who is telling a lie. This simple word can be exaggerated for a purpose just as Daniel and most of Revelation uses language to express a point.
Apocalyptic writing is also found in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Matthew 24. Apocalyptic literature is a combination of narrative and poetry written in vivid imagery and poetic phrases that are intended to exaggerate for a purpose, such as in Daniel and most of Revelation. Apocalyptic writing is a more specific form of prophecy. Apocalyptic writing is a type of literature that warns us of future events, but the full meaning is hidden to us for the time being. Apocalyptic writing is almost a secret, giving us glimpses of what is to come through the use of symbols and imagery.
We may not know the meanings now, but time will flush them out. How to interpret apocalyptic literature? We have to be careful how we interpret the Bible. Most of the time, we are to take his word literally; it means what it means and says what it says. However, in the genre of apocalyptic literature, the language is clear, such as the word, “lamb,” which is used often. We know what a lamb is and we know that Christ is described as a lamb, but do we also know that Jesus is the lamb been slain which means that Christ is the sacrifice?
A lamb is the common animal that was slain and sacrificed for the atonement of sin and used for trade. Jesus replaces this lamb as the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice for our redemption. When you see the word, lamb, it is most likely referring to sacrifice and our Lord who offers us salvation (John 1:29; 1 Pet. 1:18-20). In contrast to the image of a lion which means sovereign and judge, the lamb was considered the weakest of all animals, needing constant attention and care just to survive. A lamb would die in the wild, whereas the lion would thrive.
The image of the lamb was common in apocalyptic literature, also meaning victory and power through, and sometimes over death (Ex. 12:12-13; Isaiah 53:7; John 1:29; 21:15; Rev. 17:14). You can see that these images and themes have or will have history and significance. When we come to words that seem peculiar to our modern minds, such as stars, the first-century Jews would know that it meant “angels”. Lampstands meant “churches;” the phrase, “wife of the Lamb” meant “Jerusalem,” and the great prostitute was a covert slogan to refer to “Nero” or any corrupt leader in power.
Babylon usually referred to Rome (Rev. 1:20; 17:1-5, 18; 21:9-10). Babylon the Great mainly referred to Isaiah’s mockery of sin and those who follow it as a harlot does. It is a contrast of evil governments in resentment to God and God’s Kingdom, the captivity of the Jews under Babylon and its moral decadence, and the early Christians under Rome, which was also steeped in immorality. This is also a reference to how people are led captive into sin. It was a metaphor that meant to sin and fall into seduction, meaning what lures us away from faith and what replaces faith.
The application of this phrase is that seduction becomes corruption; this can range from pagan worship and atheism to following what is fruitless and meaningless while ignoring our Lord. This is not necessarily referring to one specific person or entity or political system, but pointing the faithful to what is evil in general. Nor, does this mean that Babylon will be rebuilt or restored in some way. This theme is about enmity to God and people’s participation in it which is in direct contrast to what Christ offers and is—Pure and Holy (Is. 1:9; Jer. 51:7-8; Dan. 2:35, 4:30; 44; Rev. 13:1-18; 16:19; 17:1-5; 18:3; 18:2, 10, 21, also 4 Ezra). Another apocalyptic word is star. A star in ancient cultures was a popular expression for divinities or angels; context is the key. Is it talking about messengers, things to come, or stellar events such as astrology? If it is a message being delivered, it could refer to a mighty angel, or refer to a cosmic disturbance, an Angel or servant, or an instrument of God (Rev. 8:10; 9:1-11; 20:1).
Context and commonsense are the keys. These images are metaphoric, or symbols of specific themes in judgment. The obvious is that the actuality of this passage is pointing to God’s power, but these events are not necessarily verbatim, as it would be seemingly impossible. How could one star, much less billions upon billions land on this plant that is a billion times a billion smaller? The answer is, it is figurative, and it is a mystery how this will be eventually played out and what we will see.
This is a depiction, just as a first century Jew would read and write. What we do know is that it will not be the same! The point of this metaphor is that no one is immune from experiencing God’s judgment. The entirety of the universe will bear witness to God’s will as an incredible phenomenon, displayed in the cosmos, that will herald Christ’s Second Coming (Mark 13:24-26; Luke 2:25-27). Overall, it is important to note that 28 percent of the Old Testament is prophecy, most of which came to pass in the life and work of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The New Testament has over 20 percent of some form of prophecy too, of which most (although this is debated) has not yet come to pass. Therefore, apocalyptic literature is important because God has dedicated a significant portion of his word to it. Again, do not read in what is not there. We are given a clear warning in Revelation 22:18-19 not to add in our ideas or take a way His precepts and then teach what is false. I believe it is ok to speculate academically, research, and argue and deliberate over the views, but we are not to seek or read in what we want and then miss what he as. Bibliography Stein, Stephen L. , ed. The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. Vol. 3, Apocalypticism in the Modern World and the Contemporary Age. New York: Continuum, 2000. McGinn, Bernard, ed. The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. Vol. 2, Apocalypticism in Western History and Culture. New York: Continuum, 2000. Himmelfarb, Martha. The Apocalypse: A Brief History. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Cook, Stephen L. The Apocalyptic Literature. Interpreting Biblical Texts. Nashville: Abingdon, 2003.