The Apocalypse is one of the themes from the Bible that fascinates and frightens people the most. We are often captivated by the images of beasts, dragons, angels, demons, wars, fire, and plagues, while also finding ourselves uncomfortable with the idea that these words might be describing our world.
Some people have made it their life-long work to study apocalyptic themes and arrange their day to day living around their belief that the end of the world is coming soon. Some move out far from major cities, build bunkers for protection and stockpile food. Others preach in the streets about the doom that is to come.
Many people do understand the word “apocalypse” to mean “catastrophe”, “disaster”, or even “destruction of the world.” In our current culture, people understand the word “apocalypse” to refer to a terrible event.
In the Bible, however, the word “Apocalypse” means something different. Our word in English comes from a Greek word - Apokalupsis - that means “Revelation.” This is where the book of Revelation gets its name from. In Greek, the name of the book is literally Apocalypse, which appears in the first line of the book:
“The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.” (Revelation 1:1 NIV)
Apocalypse is about God revealing a message, about information being shared.
Apocalypses go further back than Revelation, however. There is actually a style of writing called “Apocalyptic.” It’s a genre of literature, like “poetry,” “sci-fi,” or “biography.” Apocalyptic started among the Jewish people as they tried to answer complicated questions about politics, religion, and the future. They used images of wild beasts and dangerous animals to represent different kingdoms and world powers, and often the scary and violent things that happen in this kind of writing simply reflect the reality of human wars and politics.
The book of the prophet Daniel was written in this style, and the book of Revelation picks up on Daniel’s ideas. When you understand the style of these books, it becomes easier to understand that these writers were not trying to scare their audience, but rather pass on a message from God that revealed truth and gave people hope.
There is one more important thing to know about apocalyptic prophecy: these predictions are certain and unchangeable. During much of the Old Testament, the role of Prophets is often more about forth-telling rather than foretelling. In other words, prophets would speak to people in their present circumstances and try to communicate God's will for them in that moment. Prophets weren't always "predicting the future," but rather were trying to lead people back to God in their present moment. When these classical prophets did predict future events, they did so often in conditional ways: if you do the right thing, this will be the result, whereas if you do the wrong thing, something else will happen.
The classical era of prophecy saw God giving his people a chance to change their ways, correct their mistakes, and learn how to do the right thing. The prophets often alluded to the agreement ("covenant") that God had made with Israel, and the blessings and curses that were arranged for those who either held up or broke the deal (Deuteronomy 28-29). When it became clear that Israel would not keep up their end of the covenant and the curses associated with breaking the covenant kicked in, God and his prophets had to take on a new plan.
Now, instead of the sometimes conditional promises God had made through classical prophecy, God would begin to speak through apocalyptic prophecy about things that would unconditionally take place. As human life descended further and further into chaos, God revealed a plan that would not depend on human cooperation - one where he himself would step in and bring the human story to a conclusion that we never could.
Daniel & Revelation were written to show that God knows about the violence, danger, fear, and pain that people live through in this corrupt world, and that He has a plan to deal with all this evil and one day make things right. The “Apocalypses” of the Bible reveal that God still loves this broken world and wants to save it from itself.
Read Revelation 1:1-3. Just based on this introduction, what are your first impressions of the book of Revelation? What is the tone like? What is going to be "revealed"?
The book of Revelation is not the first book of the Bible to use the apocalyptic style. Daniel is another famous example. Read through Daniel 7 and answer the following questions:
- How did Daniel receive this information? If you had a similar experience, would you consider it a message from God? Why or why not?
- Are the beasts in this chapter literal monstrous animals, some kind of demon, or something else?
- At the very end of the chapter (verse 28) how does Daniel react to the whole ordeal? Does he understand everything he saw? What does this mean for modern readers of these kinds of books?
Compare the description of the Ancient of Days (God) and the "Son of Man" in Daniel 7:9-14 to the description of Jesus in Revelation 1:12-16. What similarities or differences do you see? What is the book of Revelation saying about those two characters from the book of Daniel?
Read Jeremiah 33:14-26. Does this sound like a conditional prediction or something that will happen no matter what? Explain in your own words what God is promising to do for his people. When was this fulfilled? Would you consider these events "apocalyptic?" Why or why not?