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"Apocalyptic Literature Made Easy…Hah!"


Read Daniel 7:1-14

          We have now moved into the second half of the book of Daniel which I trust you noticed was very different in tone than the first half.  In the first half of the book are stories that contain miracles sent by God to show his sovereignty in the midst of his captive people.  The second half may seem to contain stories that would require a miracle in order for you to make sense of it!  The second half of the book of Daniel contains some of the very earliest examples of what is known as apocalyptic literature.  Because they are also prophetic in nature—they foretell the future in some way, they are apocalyptic prophecies.  At the risk of sounding too much like a theological seminar, let me give you a definition of apocalyptic literature.  Apocalypse is a type of literature that tells a story where God speaks to someone typically through a dream, a vision or an angel.  The message communicated reveals a future reality pertaining to end times salvation within the context of a fantastic, otherworldly setting.”  [Paraphrased from a commonly accepted definition]  More simply, apocalypse is a form of written communication where God reveals his future end-times workings through the use of often graphic and startling signs and symbols.

          In the Bible there are three main sources of this kind of literature.  Here in Daniel is the earliest example, but the prophet Ezekiel also employs this.  Perhaps the best known example of this in Ezekiel is his vision of the valley of dry bones in chapter 37.  The best known Biblical example of apocalypse is in the book of the Revelation, which is filled with all sorts of otherworldly creatures and phenomena.  Many of us have doubtless noticed that there are two extreme responses that tend to manifest in various people as it relates to these kinds of texts.  The first is to neglect these texts.  Sadly, this is perhaps the majority response of the church.  This kind of literature is seen by many to present far too many challenges to understand and there is seemingly no real way of knowing if you have discovered the “right” meaning of the text.  Because there are so many other parts of the Bible that are at least as important and not nearly as complicated, why spend time trying to solve these seemingly impossible word puzzles in these sections of Scripture?  Many in the church think this way.

          On the other end of the continuum is a second extreme.  These brothers and sisters don’t neglect these texts. Their tendency is rather to obsess over them.  There are more than a few believers who have spent far more time on these apocalyptic sections of Scripture than on any others because they are, for any number of reasons smitten with this kind of literature.  Many are fascinated because they believe these texts provide for the believer an inspired crystal ball into the future where they can, through careful interpretation be able to know with precise detail how today’s global headlines fit into the overall mosaic of God’s future plan. Graeme Goldsworthy, in his book “The Gospel in Revelation” points out that this second obsessive tendency of some believers contributes to the extreme of neglect in others.  Speaking of the book of Revelation, he explains a common reason why people are hesitant to study it.  He writes, “When the modern prophets and futuristic gurus have finished their extraordinary explanation of every visionary detail, and have mapped out the most complex chain of events due to start just about any time now, the ordinary reader is frightened almost out of his wits.  His fright is not so much caused by the awful events that are imminent, but by the measure of expertise required to interpret the intricacies of this unusual and familiar book. Better leave it to the specialists!” [Goldsworthy, 155-156]

          Sadly, many hear the “Biblical” end-time prognosticators relate with spell-binding enthusiasm and in mind-numbing detail the precise relationship of all the graphic symbols in apocalyptic literature to present day world events. They treat these sections of the Bible as if they were a quarterback’s end time play book.  They confidently declare God’s specific strategies for the next and almost certainly final period of redemptive history.  When other believers hear these intensely complex interpretations, they tend to glaze over and assume they could never be smart enough or diligent enough to understand all that and so they just avoid those sections of the Bible.  In an attempt to help people at both ends of the spectrum, before we move into this apocalyptic section of Daniel, this morning I want to give five truths that I hope will be helpful as we seek to correctly understand this kind of Biblical literature. 

I am NOT giving you five keys to unlock all the secrets of this kind of literature and I would urge you to be wary of anyone who tells you they can unravel all of these apocalyptic mysteries.  As we’ll see, church history reveals that people who make those kinds of claims have a very bad track record in terms of their accuracy.  We must not think that interpreting this kind of text can be made easy.  It is at points very difficult, but this should not intimidate us or keep us away from the tremendous blessing found in these sections of Scripture.  As John says of the apocalypse he records at the beginning of The Revelation, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” [Rev. 1:3]  We dare not miss the blessing that comes from knowing and applying the God-exalting, life-altering truths found in Biblical apocalypse.

          The first truth that is essential in rightly approaching these kinds of Biblical texts is:  Because the Bible is purposed to reveal and magnify God and his redemptive plan for humanity, when we study any part of the Bible, we must give priority to looking for God.  Jesus says in John 5:39, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,” The Scriptures are about God—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, we should come to every text, regardless of the literary type, with this question at the top of our list—“What does this reveal to me about God—his nature and his activity?” Apocalyptic texts featuring beasts covered with eyeballs and multi-winged mammals are never ultimately about the beasts—that is not where their meaning lies.  I have seen elaborate paintings of some of these grotesque apocalyptic images and wondered if the painter hadn’t wasted his time because the life-changing truth of the text is not found in the images or symbols themselves, but in what they ultimately point to and they always ultimately point to God and his redemptive activity.  Don’t let the graphic images intimidate you—work through them with the question—where is God in all this—what is He doing? 

          Related to this is another question that springs from 2 Timothy 3:16-17.  Paul tells us, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”  These apocalyptic sections of the Bible are part of the “all scripture” to which Paul refers.  That means we should ask of these texts, “How does this verse or passage train me for righteousness that I may be competent, equipped for every good work?  Ultimately, the way any Biblical text does that is—it confronts you with Christ and various aspects of the gospel.  Ask yourself—“Where is Jesus here—how does this relate to the gospel?”  Don’t misunderstand.  Those kinds of God-centered questions do not necessarily provide easy or immediate answers—as John Piper reminds us, the Bible contains “diamonds of truth to be mined not leaves to be raked.” This is work, but those guiding questions will help keep you from getting off track.

          A second helpful truth we must apply in interpreting these texts is:  We must be humble in our interpretation of apocalypse, particularly in the area of offering precise “Biblical” predictions of future events.  Because this is a difficult area of study, we should offer our understanding of Biblical prophesies about specific future events with a good dose of humility.  One of my professors liked to illustrate the tricky nature of Biblical prophecy by citing Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts chapter two. You’ll recall that the Holy Spirit had come in power; people were speaking in foreign languages they had not learned, and tongues of fire were resting on all these people who had been waiting for the Spirit.  The atmosphere was so strange that those watching assumed these believers had been drinking.  In that specific context, Peter says to the crowd, “But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: 17" 'And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams;  18even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.  19And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;  20the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood,  before the day of the Lord comes, the great and  magnificent day.  21And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  Peter is saying that a new day has dawned in salvation history—the age of the Spirit, if you will.

          My seminary professor reflected on that text and rightly concluded that no one in that context of Pentecost with the tongues of fire and mysterious foreign languages would have been thinking, “You know, I’ll bet this is the fulfillment of Joel chapter two where he prophecies different kinds of prophetic expressions determined according to age group and heavenly wonders, complete with a blotted out sun and blood red moon.” Given the events of the day, only someone directly inspired by the Holy Ghost would have at that moment made the connection between these events and Acts chapter two.  Now that we look back on the events, we can see how this is true, but at the time, this would have been obvious to no one except God and his inspired apostle.  The moral of that story is NOT that interpreting Biblical prophecy requires direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but it does help us to see that it should be done with a good dose of humility.  That kind of humility is warranted in light of the nature of apocalyptic literature.  Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart speak for many other Biblical scholars when they say, “Apocalypses seldom [not "never"] intend to give a detailed, chronological account of the future.  Their message tends to transcend that kind of concern.” [Fee/Stuart, 211]  In Daniel, the second half of the book communicates essentially the same message as the first half.  That is—God is sovereign over the affairs of humanity even in the midst of trials and unanswered questions.  The message of the first narrative half of the book is crucial in helping us to understand the message of the second apocalyptic half.

          Bob Stein reminds us that the symbols used in apocalyptic literature are not “photographic portraits of future events.”  Philip Ryken clarifies, “The fish, the lamb and the lion are all symbols of Christ, but never to taken as pictures of him.  Those who would argue that the Biblical authors were indeed taking a prophetic snapshot of one specific, future end-time crisis event perhaps need to be reminded that those who have interpreted apocalypse this way have a less than impressive track record.  Mark Noll, in his book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” says the history of this kind of interpretation “cannot inspire confidence.”  He goes on to say, “Historian Dwight Wilson has expertly summarized a dismal tale:  The current crisis was always identified as a sign of the end, whether it was the Russo-Japanese War, the Suez Crisis, the June War, or the Yom Kippur War.  The revival of the Roman Empire has been identified variously as Mussolini’s empire, the League of Nations, the United Nations, the European Defense Community, the Common Market, and NATO.  Speculation on the Antichrist has included Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, and Henry Kissinger. [Today some would add Mikhail Gorbachev and Prince Charles]…The end of the “times of the Gentiles” has been placed in 1895, 1917, 1948, and 1967.  “Gog” has been an impending threat since the Crimean War, both under the Czars and the Communists.”  This dismal record has inspired the witticism known as “Murphy’s Armageddon Observation:  Those who don’t learn from the past are condemned to write end-times books.  Corollary: God doesn’t read prophecy books.” 

This list doesn’t include the little book called “88 Reasons why the Rapture Could be in 1988” or dozens of other such books written by authors who have spent countless hours with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other trying to connect the alleged apocalyptic dots between the two.  All of that could have been avoided if these people would have understood that these sections of Scripture were not written to reveal a puzzle to be solved, but rather a God to be worshipped.

A third important truth in this context is:  Because the “end times” began with the first advent of Christ, we must see apocalyptic texts and symbols as having multiple fulfillments that provide each generation a sense of urgency to live and preach the gospel.  The New Testament teaches that “the end-times” began with the first advent of Christ.  That truth must frame our understanding of end-times prophecy.  The notion that each apocalyptic text or symbol has only one, final fulfillment is patently mistaken and accounts for the dismal record we just heard. Graeme Goldsworthy is again helpful as he relates this truth to the specific image in Revelation known as “the mark of the beast.”  In Revelation 13 John writes that the beast or antichrist “…causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.”  In the next verse John reveals, “his number is 666.”   From these verses, end-times teachers typically warn their followers of a cashless society where if you want to buy or sell anything, you will need a computer chip embedded under your skin as a sign that you worship some world tyrant above Christ. 

Something like that could indeed happen.  It’s certainly plausible, but John originally wrote to people who knew nothing of computer chips that could be placed under skin as an identifying marker.  You cannot interpret this text as if it had absolutely no relevance to its original hearers.  What the current end-times speculators posit is possible, but this text was originally written to encourage believers not to compromise their faith before an increasingly hostile Roman Empire.  The point is:  The “mark of the beast” has been manifest in some form in every generation when the church is tempted to sell out to the world.  In light of this, I think Goldsworthy is headed in the right direction when he says of this multiple fulfillment of this symbol, “…the mark of the beast must symbolize unbelief, rejection of Christ and the gospel.  [Goldsworthy, 327]

Because these texts and symbols have multiple fulfillments, Hitler was antichrist, Bin Laden is antichrist and one day the Bible seems to teach there will be one final antichrist to whom the others pointed.  The problem occurs when believers NEED and are certain that THEIR particular antichrist must be the FINAL, ultimate one.  Instead of allowing the bad guys of our day and today’s “wars and rumors of wars” to remind us of the present day urgency of our task to go to the nations with the gospel, we can instead waste time making out end-time prophecy charts and scaring off other believers from these important texts with r incredibly complex and highly speculative end-time interpretations.

A fourth and related truth is: We must understand our fallen tendency to read our own biases into Biblical texts, especially ones that are not explicitly clear.  We all have biases we bring to our reading of the Bible.  No one but God has perfect 20/20 vision of the truth of Scripture.  Our minds are fallen and so are our desires.  One reason people in every  generation believe their antichrist is THE ultimate antichrist is because they have a bias.  That is—they WANT to be the ones present when the end comes. People who believe the church will be raptured out of this world want to be on board that heavenly rocket ship.  That’s a bias and it can EASILY and imperceptively put a slant on the way we look at the text.  Again, Mark Knoll is helpful here.  He says, “Modern difficulties created by speculating on prophecy resemble the problems created by the penchant for conspiratorial thinking, which also has a long history among evangelicals.  Both prophetic speculation and conspiracy thinking depend preeminently on the mind of the observer for their understanding of the world.  Prophecy buffs apply a grid from Scripture to their understanding of the world; conspiracy theorists bring a similar grid from what they know to be true in general to what they are experiencing about the world.  Neither takes seriously the information presented from the world itself.  Both have much more confidence in their minds than in the evidence of their senses.” [Noll, 174-75]  We can allow our pre-conceived grids to dictate our thinking on a topic even if it contradicts something that we are clearly observing.  Let me give an example of what he is talking about.  These biases of the mind seen in our “grids” help explain some unbiblical attitudes among certain present day believers.  Some believers, with a particular grid that they think is Biblical assert that the United States should never be critical of national Israel irrespective of what they do because their grid says, “Those who bless you, I will bless and those who curse you I will curse.” They allow that grid, which is informed by their understanding of national Israel’s end-times role, to obscure a much larger Biblical grid given by Jesus and the other prophets through their clear moral and ethical teaching.  That includes the truth that everyone and every nation should be held to the same standard of right and wrong—“God shows no partiality…”[Gal.2:6]

A fifth and final helpful truth in interpreting apocalyptic literature is also a well known principle of interpretation of all Biblical texts.  That is:  We must allow clear Biblical texts to guide our understanding of less clear texts.  There are several clear Biblical mandates that, if we follow them would keep us from getting far off the track in our understanding of less clear apocalyptic texts.  Here are two.  The first is Acts 1:6-8.  Jesus is about to ascend to the Father and he tells the disciples, “So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?"  7He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.  8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." 

          The apostles come to Jesus with a very common end-time question of their day, “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”  In other words, they ask Him, “Lord, we notice you are about ready to leave and you haven’t yet restored God’s people to their end-time place of prominence spoken of by the prophets and even you, Lord.  Are you going to do that now?”  Jesus responds by saying in effect, “the timing of the execution of the Father’s plan is not your concern—that’s the Father’s business.”  That truth alone would eliminate so much that passes for prophetic teaching today.  And then he says in verse eight, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will by my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  Jesus essentially says, “Leave the timing of the full restoration of the kingdom to the Father, as for right now—your commission is to bring people into the kingdom through your supernaturally empowered witness here and there and to the end of the earth.”  One implication is crystal clear—spend less time trying to solve puzzles about end-time dates and more time being used of the Father to bring that date nearer—be my witnesses!

          This is an echo of what Jesus says in our second text in Matthew 24:14.  He says, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”  Though this verse is very clear, it would be wrong to assert this text has not been debated. The point for now is simply that this text is not apocalyptic and its meaning in the context of the gospels is clear. The end of this age will come when the gospel goes out as a testimony to all the nations.  Then, it will be plausible for people of every nation and tribe and language and people to gather and worship around the throne of God as Revelation seven tells us.  After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,  10and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"  11And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,”

          That’s what all of God’s people should long for and in this astonishing text in Matthew 24, Jesus teaches that WE—Christ’s church are God’s means of grace to help bring about the end of this age as we pray and send and go.  The clear implication as it relates to apocalyptic literature is—we need to do far less prophetic speculating and far more praying and sending and going to the nations.  Also, when our fire for world mission is dimming, we must go back and stoke it with texts like this one from Revelation chapter seven.  As we allow these truths to impact our understanding of apocalyptic texts like those we will be studying in Daniel seven, may God give us the grace to see his sovereign majesty magnified to the point where we would ache with a longing for others who are now blind and dead to see him and know him for His glory.


Page last modified on 12/10/2006

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