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Theologizing the End: The Apocalypse

Did you know that “Apocalypse” does not mean “the end of the world”? Did you know that the word “rapture” is never used in the Bible? Did you know that the Greek word antichristos, translated as Antichrist, is never used in the book of Revelation? You read that correctly. The Antichrist is never mentioned in Revelation. Did you know that most of the popular interpretations and speculations about the “end times” were not as popular until the 19th Century? The “futurist view,” or what I like to call the “Left Behind” view, was popularized by the ministry of John Nelson Darby. Particularly when his writings and interpretations were included in the Scofield Reference Bible.

Why is this important? I believe it is important for us to recognize that there are thousands of years of Church history that preceded the popularization of the “futurist”/dispensational view. I also believe it is important for us to recognize when we are imposing assumptions and interpretations on the text. When we begin with a particular framework it is easier to force the text into that framework. For example, the common views on the Antichrist and the Beast are that they are one in the same. Exegetically speaking, I do not think a very good argument can be made that that is the case. In fact, I don’t think either refer to one single person, but I get ahead of myself.

I believe we impose assumptions on the Bible all the time, but especially so with Revelation. We can’t help but come to the text with certain presuppositions. The goal is to be aware of those presuppositions and try to enter into the historical context of a passage in a way that allows our presuppositions to be challenged.

As Fee and Stuart note,

…the primary meaning of the Revelation is what John intended it to mean, which in turn must also have been something his readers could have understood it to mean… …one may not assume, as some schools of interpretation do, that John’s readers had to have read Matthew or 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and that they already knew from their reading of those texts certain keys to understanding what John had written.

I pause here to explain this quote. Early Christians reading John’s letters did not have the Bible’s we have today. So, to hitch our hermeneutical understanding of the Revelation to other NT passages goes beyond the understanding John’s original audience would have likely had access to. Fee and Stuart continue, “Therefore, any keys to interpreting the Revelation must be intrinsic to the text of the Revelation itself or otherwise available to the original recipients from their own historical context.”[1]

I think it is important to acknowledge that the Revelation was written for a specific audience. The Scriptures are for us, but they were not originally written to us. Please understand what I am saying. The Scriptures are living and active. God speaks through them to us. But, the original meaning that the human agency God used to pen the words matters for correct interpretation. This involves recognizing the context of the audience Paul, Peter, John, and Mark (etc.) were writing to. This means we will come out with a better understanding of the letters to the Corinthians if we have a good grasp on what was happening in Corinth among the believers at the time.

William Hendriksen writes,

On my desk lies a recently published commentary on the Apocalypse. It is a very ‘interesting’ book. It views the Apocalypse as a kind of history written beforehand. It discovers in this last book of the Bible copious and detailed references to Napoleon, wars in the Balkans, the great European War of 1914-1918, the German ex-emperor Wilhelm, Hitler and Mussolini, and so on. But these kinds of explanations, and others like them, must at once be dismissed. For what possible good would the suffering and severely persecuted Christians of John’s day have derived from specific and detailed predictions concerning European conditions that would prevail some two thousand years later? A sound interpretation of the Apocalypse must take as its starting point the position that the book was intended for believers living in John’s day and age.[2]

I agree with these author’s sentiments. Not only do I agree with them, but I truly believe their points are paramount for good exegetical study of Scripture. Reading the Revelation as if it is intended to reveal to modern day Americans what happens to America on the global scene is to read it wrongly.

So, the rest of this post, I will address what “Apocalypse” does actually mean. I will discuss the genre of Revelation as “Apocalyptic Literature.” Then I will address some things about the purpose and context that motivated the writing of Revelation, authorship, and date of writing.

Apocalyptic Literature

The term “Apocalypse” is a translation of the Greek word apokalypsis which means “to lay bear, manifest, or make known” or more simply, the title of the biblical book—Revelation. “Apocalypse” is a genre of literature that has a long history in the Jewish Scriptures and intertestamental writings. (For examples of OT apocalyptic literature see portions of Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and parts of Isaiah.) John was extremely familiar with the Jewish library of apocalyptic literature and alludes to symbolism and imagery from those writings frequently and with fluency.

The fact that John was familiar with Jewish apocalyptic literature and refers to it often means that some of the keys to understanding the Revelation were accessible and familiar to John’s original audience. Longman and Garland note, “…the language and imagery were not as strange to first-century readers as they are to many today.”[3] I cannot express this enough: Revelation was not written as some sort of secret code for believers to decipher over 2000 years later.

Do the insights transcend time and place thereby offering truth to believers everywhere from every time period? Yes. Do the eschatological visions paint a picture of things yet to come when Christ returns? Certainly. But, a purely futurist understanding of Revelation renders the writing unintelligible for the expressed audience that John is writing to. Simply “taking the Bible literally” would require that we take seriously the original audience to whom John states he is writing. Further, sometimes “taking the Bible literally” is not taking it “seriously.” What I mean by that is this: failing to take into account the obvious literary style and genre of the Scriptures is to not take them seriously on the level the authors intended. Interpreting a metaphor literally fails to capture all that a metaphor is intended to communicate. Interpreting a parable as if it is history or apocalyptic literature as if it is wisdom literature will simply lead to poor interpretation and potentially lead to poor biblical theology.

Apocalyptic literature “unveils” or “reveals” reality from God’s perspective. It is sort of like when a muscle car is covered by a protective car cover. The shape and profile of the covered object is clear enough that one can see that it is a car, but the captivating appeal of a 1960s muscle car is only most clearly realized when it is uncovered. Apocalyptic literature pulls back the curtains on human history—past, present and future—to reveal things from God’s perspective. Ultimately to reveal and reassure believers that God has not abandoned his plan to restore and renew all of creation. The Bible Project states it like this, “[Apocalypses] were symbolic visions that reveal a heavenly perspective on history in light of its final outcome.”[4]

Stylistically, apocalyptic literature had several common characteristics. One characteristic is that apocalypses were concerned with the “Day of the Lord” (Old Testament) and/or the Second Coming of Christ as it relates to the vindication of God’s faithful people. Apocalypses were usually born out of a time of exile, persecution or oppression and the held out the hope that God would bring about Justice for Israel/God’s enemies. In this way, apocalypses very much look forward to the end of this present age as we know it and the fulfillment of the goodness of the age to come. However, “Apocalypses in general, and the Revelation in particular, seldom intend to give a detailed chronological account of the future.”[5]

Another common characteristic is that apocalypses were highly stylized using images from fantasy rather than reality.[6] That is not to say the meaning of the symbolic imagery is fake. It is to say that the meaning lies in understanding the purpose the stylized metaphor serves. Another stylistic characteristic is the use of numbers as symbols.

Apocalypses were also literary works from their inception. A number of the other books of our Bible were originally birthed in an oral tradition whereas apocalypses originated as written works. Another common charasteric is pseudonymity, but John diverges from this characteristic by identifying himself as the author (Rev. 1:2).

Purpose, Authorship, Date

The purpose of John’s writing is to encourage believers to remain faithful to following Jesus in the midst of intense persecution. Think about that. The purpose of John’s writing was to encourage believers, not to scare them. Hendriksen writes,

The theme is the victory of Christ and of His Church over the dragon (Satan) and his helpers. The Apocalypse is meant to show us that things are not what they seem. The beast… seems to be victorious…[but Christ] conquers death, Hades, the dragon, the beast, the false prophet, and the men who worship the beast. He is victorious; as a result, so are we, even when we seem to be hopelessly defeated.[7]

Christians were being targeted by Rome. There was a very real temptation to give up on “The Way” and compromise with the way of Rome. John is reminding believers that Jesus already was, is and will be victorious despite what current trials would have them believe. This truth transcends time and place. This truth is relevant to you and me today. In order to understand the gravity of this transcendent truth, it is important to first realize that the purpose of the Apocalypse was to encourage and inspire hope in first century believers.

As already mentioned, the reason believers were on the verge of losing hope was because of persecution. The date of writing is one of some debate. Most scholars place the writing of Revelation sometime in the late-60s to mid-90s AD. I lean towards the later date, but within the range of both dates intense persecution was happening in the Roman Empire. If the earlier date is more accurate, it would place the writing of Revelation within the reign and persecution of Nero. If the later date is more accurate, it would place the writing within the reign and persecution of Domitian.

Nero was the first Roman emperor to intentionally persecute Christians, but Domitian was as cruel if not more so. The Roman historian Tacitus (56-120 CE) writes about Nero’s persecution of the Christians stating, “…And perishing they were additionally made into sports: they were killed by dogs by having the hides of beasts attached to them, or they were nailed to crosses or set aflame, and, when the daylight passed away, they were used as nighttime lamps.”[8]

However, by the time of Emperor Domitian Caesar worship had not only become more widespread, it was demanded by Domitian. “Once a year everyone in the Empire had to appear before the magistrates to burn a pinch of incense to the godhead of Caesar and to say: ‘Caesar is Lord.’”[9] Once people expressed their devotion and loyalty to Rome by means of worshipping Caesar, they were given a certificate called a libellus. Some have suggested that this certificate permitted buying and selling in the Roman market places.[10]

The authorship is also an issue of some debate because of writing styles and a few other nuances. The debate is whether the “John” identified was the Apostle John who authored the 4th Gospel, or another John. I will simply land here on a more “traditional” view that it was the Apostle John and the differences in writing style are in part due to the difference in genre (Apocalypse versus Gospel). Hendriksen notes, “The early Church is almost unanimous in ascribing Revelation to the apostle John.”[11]

[1] Fee, G. D. and Stuart, D. (2003). How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. (p. 254)

[2] Hendriksen, W. (1967). More than Conquerors: An interpreationa of the Book of Revelation. (p. 16)

[3] Longman, T and Garland, D. E. (2006). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. (p. 573)

[5] Fee, G. D. and Stuart, D. (2003). How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. (p. 257)

[6] Fee, G. D. and Stuart, D. (2003). How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. (p. 251)

[7]Hendriksen, W. (1967). More than Conquerors: An interpreationa of the Book of Revelation. (p. 14-15)

[9] Barclay, W. (1976) The Revelation of John. Volume 1. (p. 15)

[11] Hendriksen, W. (1967). More than Conquerors: An interpreationa of the Book of Revelation. (p. 20)

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