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Apocalyptic Literature

It’s the apocalypse! But what exactly does that mean? In this video, we look at how to read biblical apocalyptic literature well.

How to Read the Bible Series Jun 9, 2020


Introduction [0:00-0:22]

Jon: It’s the end of the world! The moon turns to blood, mountains crumble, mutant-locusts swarm. These are just some of the strange images we find in parts of the Bible called “apocalyptic.”

Tim: And while most people think the biblical word apocalypse means the end of the world, it actually doesn’t mean that at all!

Jon: So let’s talk about how to read apocalyptic literature in the Bible.

What Does Apocalypse Mean? [0:23-0:059]

Jon: So wait? The apocalypse doesn’t mean the end of the world?

Tim: No. Apocalypse is a Greek word that means “to uncover” or “reveal.” An apocalypse is when you suddenly see the true nature of something that you couldn’t see before.

Jon: Because I don’t always see things the way they really are.

Tim: Right. We all develop familiar ways of seeing the world that can limit or blur our vision.

Jon: So an apocalypse is like a revelation.

Tim: Right. Now, in the Bible, an apocalypse is when God pulls back the curtain to show someone what’s really going on in the world from a divine perspective.

Jon: For example...

Apocalyptic Stories in the Bible [1:00-1:48]

Tim: Take Isaiah the prophet; he’s suddenly transported in a vision into God’s throne room1.

Jon: Oh right. He’s in God’s temple, described as a bridge between heaven and earth.

Tim: And there God gives him a divine perspective on Israel’s past, present, and their future2.

Jon: So that Isaiah can bring challenge and comfort to God’s people in his own day.

Tim: Or think about the apostle Paul, who was trying to stop the movement of Jesus. But then he gets stopped in his tracks by a vision of the risen Jesus himself3.

Jon: Yeah. He realizes that he’s fighting against the very thing that he’s been hoping for, and it changes the course of his life.

Tim: So these apocalypses give people a heavenly perspective on their earthly situation. And they can give hope, or they can challenge you.

Jon: Or make you change everything.

Apocalyptic Literature in the Bible [1:49-3:32]

Tim: Now, those are biblical stories about people having an apocalypse. There are also whole sections of biblical books where a prophet describes extended apocalyptic dreams and visions. People call this apocalyptic literature.

Jon: And reading these dreams and visions is difficult. I mean, they’re filled with strange images, like let’s take Daniel. He sees ferocious beasts coming up out of a dark sea trampling people on the land4. And then a character called “the son of man” is exalted to rule the world5. What is going on?

Tim: Yeah, apocalyptic literature is written in a poetic, imaginative style, and it’s packed with symbolism.

Jon: How can I know what these symbols mean?

Tim: Well, first, by studying the rest of your Bible! Apocalyptic imagery is based on biblical design patterns that begin in the book of Genesis and then develop throughout the Bible. Like the chaotic sea in the first sentences of the Bible that God tames but doesn’t eliminate as he orders creation6. And so the sea becomes an image of danger, death, and cosmic chaos.

Jon: And the dry land which comes out of the sea is the safe, ordered place where humans are supposed to rule as God’s image.

Tim: Yes, and also on the land are beasts that humans are supposed to oversee7. But keep reading, and the humans are deceived by a beast8.

Jon: And start acting like violent beasts.

Tim: Exactly. Now, sometimes a prophet will tell you what a symbol means. Like in Daniel, we’re told those beasts symbolize violent human kingdoms9. But more often, the authors just assume you know how to trace an image through the biblical story to understand its meaning.

The Book of Revelation [3:33-5:31]

Jon: Now, let’s look at the last book of the Bible, The Revelation, because it’s one really long vision. The whole thing is an apocalypse!

Tim: Yeah. And it works the same way. It begins with John the visionary transported to God’s throne room where he sees the risen Jesus as the exalted king of the world10.

Jon: But Jesus is depicted as a bloody lamb11.

Tim: Right. It’s a design pattern showing how Jesus is the sacrificial lamb from Israel’s Passover and from the Day of Atonement. He gave his life for the sins of the world. And then John sees the ultimate beastly dragon, that spiritual power that energizes violent earthly empires; it’s cast out by Jesus, the world’s true king12.

Jon: Yeah. Now, that reminds me. When I read The Revelation, I’m struck by all this cosmic destruction and violence. I mean, it happens over and over and over.

Tim: Yeah. In The Revelation, there are three seven-part cycles of God’s judgment, and it’s another design pattern that connects the stories of the flood, the ten plagues on Egypt, and the exile to Babylon, and even more. These are moments when humans unleash so much violence and death into the world that God hands them over to self-destruction. It’s like a reversal of creation in Genesis chapter 1 as God allows the world and humans to sink back into darkness and disorder.

Jon: That’s sobering.

Tim: It is. But remember, in Genesis 1 God overcame darkness and chaos with his light and life. And so too in The Revelation, the death of Jesus and the death of the world as we know it is the pathway into the renewed creation that began with the resurrection of Jesus.

Jon: And so while The Revelation feels like the end of the world....

Tim: It’s actually about the beginning of the renewed world, where heaven and earth are reunited and God’s human images rule all creation in the love and power of God.

Conclusion [5:32-6:33]

Jon: Okay! This is a lot to take in.

Tim: It is. And there’s a lot in these books that is still hard to understand. But the purpose of apocalyptic is very clear: to give us a heavenly perspective on our earthly circumstances, so that every generation of God’s people can be challenged, comforted, and given hope for the future.

Jon: Alright, we did it! In this series on how to read the Bible, we looked at all the styles of writing in the Bible––narrative, poetry, discourse.

Tim: And we learned how to read all of the main sections of the Bible.

Jon: This is sophisticated and beautiful literature, and I can see why the Bible is one of the most influential books in human history.

Tim: Yes. Every part fits into the unified story that leads to Jesus and invites us into a lifetime of reading and meditation. There’s a whole new world just waiting to be discovered in your Bible.

1. Isaiah 6:1-4
2. Isaiah 6:8-13
3. Acts 9:1-9
4. Daniel 7:1-7
5. Daniel 7:13-14
6. Genesis 1:1-9
7. Genesis 1:26-28
8. Genesis 3:1-13
9. Daniel 7:15-18
10. Revelation 1:9-20
11. Revelation 5:6-8
12. Revelation 12:7-10
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