Flying scrolls. Red horses. Beasts coming out of the sea. Winged women. The list goes on. Apocalyptic literature in the Bible is like a cross between science fiction and Marvel comics. And the Bible has a fair bit of this sort of thing. Daniel sees visions in Babylon, Zechariah sees visions in the ruins of Jerusalem after the exile, and John sees visions on the island of Patmos.
Apocalypse means “revelation,” but many Christians feel like they come away actually knowing less after reading apocalyptic portions of Scripture. If this literature is truly an unveiling, a revelation of truth, why is it so difficult? Why is it so obscure? And if these passages are so unintelligible, so confusing, why did God give us these parts of the Bible? And why name these visions “revelation”? Why not “deep weird” or “holy obscure”?
The Bible gives us several clues to these questions. First, apocalyptic language is not wholly different from every other genre in Scripture. It may be a concentrated form of imagery and symbolism and poetry, but Scripture is full of these elements in various concentrations. From the symbolism of sacrificial ritual to recurring literary motifs to parables to explicit typology and allegory, apocalyptic passages are not so atypical. Throughout Scripture, God is routinely pointing at the world, at history, at people and seeing more than we can see, more than meets the eye.
Second, and related to the previous point, there are a number of places in Scripture that point us to creation itself. All symbolism, all ritual, and all language, for that matter, arise out of the contours of creation. God creates the sun, moon, and stars and calls them “rulers” from the first week of creation; a river flows out of the garden and divides into four streams running down into the world. There’s a shape embedded in the world, and Adam is implicitly invited to explore it, to navigate it, to imagine the world and his place in it from a certain angle.
Even the creation of the first woman suggests something along these lines: the man is cut open and the woman is created from his rib. She is named woman because she came from man. Language mimics reality, it echoes creation, and there is a shape, a pattern, reoccurring patterns that haunt all of history. The Psalmist says that the heavens declare the glory of God, day unto day utter speech, night unto night declare knowledge. In other words, the whole world is constantly talking, murmuring, shouting about God and about His glory. And so we should ask: What is His glory? Well at least one biblical answer is that it is the glory of God to conceal things, to hide things (Proverbs 25:2). And it is the glory of kings to search them out.
Third, there’s much to the story of history that simply is apocalyptic. And I don’t mean Tim LaHaye apocalyptic, I mean that reality is layered with meanings, piled with nuance and complexity, dripping with density. But speaking of Lahaye, even if I may find the Last Days Madness humorously bad theology (and I do), I suspect that there is some sliver of truth buried in the harlequin end times novel genre – and that is the fact that God’s word is actually concerned with real, live history.
I may not be compelled to believe that the locusts coming out of the bottomless pit in Revelation 9 are apache helicopters ushering in the end of the world, but that’s not because God would never address historical events or apache helicopters, it’s because I believe there are good exegetical reasons for concluding that John was seeing a vision of something else. But the instinct is a good one: we should look at the world and try to see it through apocalyptic eyes. We are not crass materialists, and we believe this story has a Storyteller, an Author.
Last, the greatest apocalyptic moment in the Bible is often missed. It’s a scene of evil powers gathered in counsel against the Lord and against His Anointed. There are lying spirits and false testimonies all done in the dead of night. The innocent victim is beaten to a bloody pulp and a crown of twisted thorns is hammered into His skull. He is declared guilty of heresy, of treason, of revolution, and a murderer is released. He carries His cross up to a hill called the place of the skull, and there the Maker of the universe is nailed to a tree. The sky grows dark in the middle of the day, and the earth quakes, and many of the saints come up out of their graves and walk like friendly zombies into Jerusalem to see their old friends. And in the temple, the veil is torn from top to bottom.
This is the greatest apocalypse of the Bible, the center of the revelation of God, the unveiling: forgiveness of sins, reconciliation to God, all things made new. But it is a stumbling block to Jews, foolishness to Greeks.
Why does God give us difficult passages? For the same reason He gives us difficulties in life. For the same reason He gives us challenging employers and challenging children and difficult relatives and painful sickness. In other words, apocalyptic literature is really not that much stranger than life. We may grow numb and accustomed to the horrors and oddities of the world, but it is hardly less obscure.
Do you really understand world politics? Do you really understand global economics? Do you really understand your wife? Your kids? But the point isn’t to stump you. The point isn’t to frustrate all your attempts to understand. The point is a river that runs out of Eden and spreads to the four corners of the earth. The point is a map, a treasure map, and the world spread out before you.
Why does God give us anything difficult? Because He wants us to wrestle with it. Or better: He wants us to wrestle with Him. He wants us to grow tenacious in our studies, to grow intellectual and spiritual muscles, determination, vigor, curiosity, hunger. And the glory is that this is not merely an exercise. These are not mere drills. There’s a kind of postmodern relativism that gets exited about the notion of adventure, about the notion of teasing out texts and hunting for meaning in the galaxy of words and symbols and signs. But for these pseudo-searchers, everything is up for grabs, meaning is always in process, truth is not really out there, certainly nothing that you can actually come to know.
But for the Christian, for the man or woman who has met Jesus, the world has become infinitely more real, more solid, more lovely. And the God who made it is infinite goodness, infinite glory. But the path into the presence of the Infinite God is not paved with illusions and random tribal symbols and Celtic fonts just to keep everybody guessing. No, when God gives us a puzzle, a vision, a dream, a symbol, a hardship, a tangle, even a failure: it is a true gift, a piece of reality, some small truth wrapped for us to find, a clue, a thread, a trail of bread crumbs or winged women or trumpets or beasts coming out of the sea.
Jesus came healing the blind, and on one occasion He explained that the blind are those who know they are blind, but those who don’t think they are blind actually are. We need Jesus to give us new eyes, new sight. We need our eyes opened by the power of His Spirit to see God’s Word and the World as it actually is. This means that we need apocalyptic eyes. We need to see the horrors of evil and the glories of God’s goodness. We need to see the cross for the true revelation of God’s love and justice that it is.
When a baby is baptized, we need to see God overthrowing empires and raising up His saints to rule on thrones. When we hear a man proclaiming the gospel fearlessly, we need to hear trumpets blaring and mountains splitting and rivers of water running out into the streets. When we feast at the table of the Lord, we need to see a wedding banquet, a bride beautiful beyond imagining, every tear wiped away, and trees of life springing up all around, bursting with fruit and healing the nations.
This is not our imaginations running away from us; this is the truth of God teaching our imaginations to run after His glory.
And to find it.
Toby Sumpter is Pastor of Trinity Reformed Church, Moscow, Idaho.
To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.