“Yea and a sword shall pierce through thine own soul; that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:35).
One of the better trends present within modern scholarship regarding the Bible and Christianity is the recovery of the emphasis on the “apocalyptic” nature of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. “Apocalyptic” scenes unfurled as His birth was announced; the Holy Spirit spoke through Stephen, Anna, and others regarding the “apocalyptic” dimensions of the Kingdom Jesus would inaugurate (e.g. Luke 1:1-2:38). Jesus Himself would serve as an “apocalyptic” prophet, warning about the day of the Son of Man which would soon come (Luke 21:5-28). “Apocalyptic” scenes heralded Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and proclamation of the Kingdom of God in Christ (Luke 23:26-24:53, Acts 1:1-12, 2:1-41).
The major difficulty with “apocalyptic” involves our understanding of what “apocalypses” represent. People imagine an apocalypse as the end of the world, often according to some Hollywood treatment of the idea, with a generous number of explosions, cosmic drama, global violence, and the like. “Apocalypses” in Scripture do imagine times of distress, difficulty, and suffering with the ultimate vindication of God and His purposes, yet are not imagined to be as dramatic as modern man would expect.
We must remember that the Greek term apokalupsis means “an unveiling, a revelation.” Thus the book of Revelation is often called the Apocalypse of John, since God unveiled the things John saw in Revelation to him (cf. Revelation 1:1). God has very much unveiled His cosmic and ultimate purposes for His creation through Jesus His Son and His Kingdom (Ephesians 3:1-12). Yet the life and death of Jesus, and the establishment of His Kingdom, would itself expose and reveal much about people.
This latter form of an “apocalypse” is what Simeon has in mind as he holds the baby Jesus in Luke 2:25-35. The Holy Spirit had told Simeon how he would see the Christ of God before he would die; the Spirit directed him to Joseph and Mary as they brought Jesus into the Temple (Luke 2:25-27). Simeon first blessed God, content to depart from this world in peace since he had seen the salvation God had prepared in the presence of all nations, a Light of revelation (Greek apokalupsin) to the nations, and the glory of God’s people Israel (Luke 2:28-32). Simeon then had a more sober message for Mary: her Child would be the cause of the rise and fall of many in Israel, a sign spoken against; the thoughts of many hearts would be revealed (Greek apokaluphthosin), and a sword would pierce her own soul (Luke 2:34-35).
To this end Jesus’ life and proclamation would be an “apocalypse” for Israel, a catalyst to make known the hearts of men. Throughout His life and ministry Jesus lifted up the poor, the downtrodden, the meek, and those in distress, and continually challenged the religious authorities and establishment. That establishment would conspire against Him (Luke 22:1-2). Their craven desire for power and standing would be made evident. Their fears of irrelevance and devastation were exposed. All Israel was exposed for their embrace of the politics of insurrection and the way which would lead to death in choosing Barabbas over Jesus (Luke 23:18-24).
Ever since the proclamation of the good news of Jesus of Nazareth has proven to be an “apocalypse” for those who would hear it: a catalyst to expose what people really think and feel. Those who hear it and accept it must be fully transformed by the experience, conforming to the cross-shaped path of suffering and humiliation endured by Jesus (Romans 12:1-2, 1 Peter 2:18-25, 3:14-18, 4:12-19). Those who deny it, reject it, or try to suppress it expose their embrace of various idols, ways of this world, and/or love and affection for the things of this life. The Word of God indeed discerns the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12-13).
Likewise, various trials and moments of distress in life become “apocalypses” for people, both individually and collectively: beyond the trial, difficulty, and distress inherent in such experiences, much is exposed, revealed, and unveiled about who people really are and how they really think and feel about things in the process. Such forms of exposure need not be negative: the positive character traits and strengths of people can often shine in the midst of pain and suffering. We are all familiar with stories of people going the extra mile for others in a time of difficulty and distress. We hopefully have all seen people who have maintained their character and integrity in the face of distress and death.
Unfortunately many other such “apocalypses” reveal ugliness in us and in other people. We get more easily flustered and frustrated than we might have thought. We might become pettier and lash out at others. As anxiety and fear levels escalate, many fall prey to wild eyed theories peddling fear and suspicion; others make it painfully clear who they have thought represents “us” versus “them”; what truly is important to people is made evident. Those from whom you might have “expected better” prove less mature in response to distress than you might have hoped. People stop being “nice” and start getting “real,” and the result is often less than pretty.
Character is not only exposed in what we do when we think no one else is watching; it is also exposed in times of great distress and trial as anxiety and fear escalates. We drop the pretenses and the highly cultivated external avatar of ourselves; we see our character and our disposition as a person seeing his or her “natural man” in the mirror (cf. James 1:22-25). A lot of character traits or unprofitable behaviors we had thought we had overcome flare up again. The whole mess can prove rather unpleasant!
Personal or collective crises shake up the status quo and expose the compromises, faults, and weaknesses in our foundation and character. The experience can be tragic and its results lamentable, yet it does not have to be this way. It all depends on what we do with what we learn about ourselves and others in the wake of an “apocalypse.” Many seek to get back to “normal” and act as if nothing really happened, or nothing was really exposed. Not much is gained or learned. What has been exposed is lost on such people who have preferred to maintain and uphold the lie. The final “apocalypse” will likely not go well for such people.
But we can also learn from what we have seen and experienced, repent, and lament. We can prepare ourselves for a future “apocalypse” in humility and self-examination and prove less likely to respond in immature and/or ugly ways. We can recognize the ugliness of what we have seen about ourselves and turn from it to accept the discipline of God in Christ and seek to be more like Him. Such is only possible when we allow the sword of the Spirit to do its work in us (cf. Hebrews 4:12-13)!
Thus apocalypses truly reveal, and what we have learned from the exposure we should not easily dispose. The question is whether the revelation of an apocalypse will reinforce our delusions in living a lie or will lead us to lamentation and repentance in becoming more conformed to the Crucified One. May we submit to the Lord Jesus and His purposes, transforming our ways of thinking and acting, lest our hearts are exposed unto condemnation in the final Apocalypse!
Ethan R. Longhenry