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THEOLOGY > Future > Considerations > Apocalyptic Literature     


“Apocalyptic” is derived by transliteration from the Greek word, apokalupsis, meaning “an unveiling, uncovering, disclosure,” thus a “revelation,” the name of the last book of the Bible. The concluding book begins with: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ”; the Greek word is apokalupsis.

Apocalyptic literature was prominent among the Jews between Malachi and the end of the New Testament. Some writers feel that its rise was exacerbated by the loss of a direct word from God via the prophets, and by the fact that the long anticipated Messianic kingdom had not materialized. Whether these facts can be supported or not, the Jewish writers did imitate, enhance, and enlarge upon the books of the Canon that more or less reflect this type of literature: Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. Often pseudonyms or names of prominent Jewish personalities were used by the authors to evoke some sort of authority or acceptance for their writings.

But it is a mistake to equate or group the apocalyptic writings of the Bible with Jewish literature or similar literature from other cultures. Because this is commonly done, perhaps the word “apocalyptic” should never be used of Biblical literature; or, possible, the word should only be used of Biblical literature. The use of “apocalyptic” to refer to both types of literature, Canonical and non-Canonical, only confuses the perceived relationship of the two. Distinguishing words could be used for each of the distinct types of literature, such as “prophecy” for Biblical books, and “apocalyptic” for non-Biblical books. Instead of specifying the similarities between the two, the dissimilarities should be stressed; the two are in fact essentially different.

It is improper to conclude that the writers of the Bible, especially the New Testament,  borrowed from non-Biblical authors, seeking to adapt and use them for a more noble purpose. It is a mistake to give priority to non-Biblical apocalyptic literature and to assume that Biblical writers were influenced by them when they wrote. This is true because all non-Biblical apocalyptic writings are man-made, created in the human imagination and without claim to Divine Revelation.

In stark contrast, all of the Biblical apocalyptic writings are inspired by God and directly revealed by Him to the authors, with this claim being made by the authors. So the content of Canonical writings equates to “the word of God” or “the word of the Lord,” phrases repeatedly used by the prophets. Even John refers to the content of his book as “the Revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:1). This is to affirm that John and the writers of the Old Testament did not choose the medium of the message—both medium and message were of God.

In is essential to differentiate between the medium and the message: the message is conveyed or delivered by the medium, but the medium is not the message and should not be confused with the message. Or, worded in a another manner, the medium should not be projected upon the message, so much so that the interpretation focuses unduly on the medium rather than the message. Once the medium is acknowledged, then attention can be focused on the hermeneutics. The interpreter should not be so infatuated with symbolism that the concept of symbol detracts from the interpreter’s ability to contemplate the message in the symbolism or interferes with the interpreter’s belief that there is a message.

Apocalyptic language in the Bible is language characterized by signs or symbols that are used in order to teach Truth concerning the future. It is one of the types of literature used by God to teach man. Additionally, apocalyptic literature relates either to heaven or the future or to both. Usually there is cosmic conflict between good and evil—God and Satan—leading to a final confrontation in which good triumphs. Central to this type of literature is symbolism, so that the historical—really the eschatological—is presented in non-historical terms, but the historical is definitely intended by the terms.

The use of symbols
does not indicate that the historical is divorced from the writings,
but that the historical is taught through the use of the symbols.

The Greek word in Rev. 1:1 is esāmanen, an aorist form of the verb, sāmainō, which means “to indicate, make known, predict.” The verb is associated with the noun, sāmeion, which means “miraculous sign, sign, miracle.” The NKJV uses “signified,” but the NASV uses “communicated” and the ESV translates the verb by “made it known.” Obviously the word conveys more than just the idea of making known or communication; it has the idea of communication but also within the word is a hint at the method of communication—it is through signs and/or symbols. Revelation, therefore, is a book of symbolism, not the entire book but much of the book.

Symbolism does not mitigate against the teaching of facts, people, places, and events, all of which are literal. The symbols represent reality, a true and concrete reality—through the symbols information is communicated.The following examples illustrate the point:

lampstands – represents churches (1:20);

stars – signifies angels or pastors (1:20);

Lamb – represents Jesus (5:6, 12);

red dragon – depicts Satan (12:3, 9);

prostitute – said to be Babylon, or perhaps a subtle reference to Rome (17:1, 5);

white horse – indicates royalty, power, triumph (19:11);

thousand years – may indicate a literal thousand years, or an indefinite period of time; the point is that the two words do teach a time-frame that is literal (20:1-7).

Some symbolism is obvious, without room for much debate; some of the symbolism is specifically explained; and some of the symbolism must be interpreted and dogmatism is not proper (see: Eschatological Humility). But there is a message or truth in the symbolism—they symbolism is not empty.

Though written in signs and symbols, the message is still understandable. In fact, the name of the book of Revelation conveys the idea of uncovering, not covering-up, of disclosure, not enclosure. The idea is to unveil; it is to make known, rather to keep from being known. In Rev. 1:1 the text indicates that the purpose of the revelation is “to show to His servants.” It is to show “the things that must soon take place,” therefore, the purpose is not merely to suggest, teach general lessons, or provide a resource for reflection, but the purpose is to reveal concrete, literal events. Whether the events are considered to be a part of Roman history or end-time history, the point is still the same: the Revelation consists of things that will occur at some point in the future. And the veil has been removed in order that those things may be known.

Return to: Considerations;  Next Section: Eschatological Perspective

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