I write a column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible and the ideas that it expresses. The first one was on the phrase ‘Word of God’, and second on ‘Justice’ and the third on ‘Mission’. This one, published in Preach Magazine issue 23 Chaos and Truth, explored the word ‘Apocalypse’.
The coming of the Apocalypse
The apocalypse is at hand! Up goes the cry whenever something chaotic is about to happen. Thus we have apocalyptic weather, apocalyptic economics and politics—and there is even a whole genre of disaster movies known as ‘apocalyptic’. The term indicates a situation where the normal structures of life disappear, overwhelmed by the chaotic and the catastrophic. But where did the term come from, and what does it mean?
It is actually the first word in the last book of the Bible, which begins Apocalypsis Iesou Christou, usually translated ‘The revelation of Jesus Christ’, thus giving its name to the Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation. But the idea was a long time in development, and ‘apocalyptic’ has come to refer to a whole genre of ancient literature.
Fractured from God
The biblical narrative begins with the idea that God is the rightful ruler over all of creation, and God shares that rule with humanity made in his image. But with the advent of human sin, God’s relationship with the world has been fractured, and he no longer rules as he should. God calls Abraham to be in covenant relationship with him, and then forms the nation of Israel, in order to re-establish his rule of justice and peace, so that one day ‘the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea’ (Hab 2.14).
But the story of Israel is the story both of God’s determination to restore creation, and Israel’s failure to collaborate with it. This is illustrated starkly in the cycle within the Book of Judges: Israel is oppressed; they cry out to God; he sends a ‘judge’ or leader to rescue and deliver them; they live in peace; then they forget God and end up being oppressed just as before. So the cycle begins again. We therefore see in the prophets a gradual fading of the hope that God will rescue Israel, restore the world, and establish his rule within history, since history itself appears to have become corrupt because of human sin.
The Hope of a New Age
Instead, a hope develops that God will bring this world (or ‘age’) to an end, and begin again by establishing a new order of things. Just as the Spirit of God brought order out of chaos in the beginning, in creating the world, and God formed a people for himself in the Exodus out of the chaos of slavery in Egypt, so God will begin a new creation, with the old order passing away.
All the stars in the sky will be dissolved and the heavens rolled up like a scroll…See, I will create new heavens and a new earth…’(Is 34.4, 65.17)
This was a widespread Jewish hope at the time of Jesus. In this ‘age’, God’s people experience oppression by their enemies; the people continue in sin; the worship of God is imperfect. But God’s anointed leader will come, defeat all God’s enemies, and will re-establish true worship. The dead will be raised, and judgement will come, and the Holy Spirit of God will be poured out on all his people. This, for most Jews, that is what they heard when Jesus’ proclaimed ‘The kingdom of God is at hand’, and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead signalled the beginning of the ‘age to come’. What was surprising was that the present age continued alongside the breaking in of God’s kingdom, so a future, further hope remains, of this evil age finally coming to an end.
This understanding, found throughout the New Testament, is expressed most vividly in the Book of Revelation. It uses imagery from the Old Testament, especially Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, but also from pagan ideas (including Stoic philosophy), to describe this present evil age, alongside the coming kingdom brought about by Jesus’ death and resurrection, and already present in the world in the form of the people of God—no longer merely ethnic Israel, but all those (Jew and Gentile) who follow Jesus (Rev 7.9).
According to Revelation, the chaos of the apocalypse already is here! The violence and chaos of the contemporary world is evident in the ‘four horsemen’ of conquest, war, famine and disease, and death. But the return of Jesus will bring is an end to chaos, and a re-establish the peace and order of the original creation in a new world without sin (Rev 21.1–6). And this ‘new creation’ is something that, according to Paul, we already begin to experience by faith (2 Cor 5.17), as we start to live Jesus’ resurrection life in the present, looking forward to its fulfilment in the age to come.
(You can buy my commentary on the Book of Revelation in the Tyndale series here.)
(You can find out more about Preach magazine and subscribe through its website here.)
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