The Unveiling

“Yea and a sword shall pierce through thine own soul; that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:35).

Apocalypses reveal.

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

The End of Their World

“And when I shall extinguish thee, I will cover the heavens, and make the stars thereof dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over thee, and set darkness upon thy land,” saith the Lord YHWH (Ezekiel 32:7-8).

You either flock to “apocalyptic” passages of Scripture or prove at least a little apprehensive about them. They look weird. Hollywood could take notes on what is portrayed.

Many are convinced no such passage has been yet fulfilled since we have not seen such cosmic signs in the sky. Yet maintaining such an expectation unnecessarily literalizes prophetic imagery, creates impossible expectations, and misses out on the prophet’s main lesson. People read apocalyptic passages and expect the end of the world; the prophet is warning the people regarding the end of their world.

Ezekiel’s message regarding Egypt in Ezekiel 32:7-8 can help us better understand the nature of such “apocalyptic” prophecies. From 587 until 585 Ezekiel received a series of messages against Pharaoh and the Egyptians; one such message came in 570 and represents the final prophecy given by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 29:1-32:32). Ezekiel’s prophecy against Egypt remained consistent throughout: YHWH would send the king of Babylon and his army against Pharaoh and his host, Pharaoh would be humiliated, the people would suffer exile, and Egypt would no longer rise as a kingdom among the nations. Ezekiel 32:7-8 is given in this context; in Ezekiel 32:11, he explicitly associated this “apocalyptic” message with the promise of the arrival of the king of Babylon against Egypt.

This “apocalypse,” therefore, was expected quite soon. Nebuchadnezzar did send a Chaldean Babylonian army against Egypt in 567 to help deposed Pharaoh Wahibre (Apries) regain his throne against the upstart Ahmose II (Amasis). The invasion proved unsuccessful. The Egyptians would not experience an exile in the way Ezekiel originally promised, but the “apocalypse” would come upon their land: Ahmose’s son Psamtik III would be defeated by Cambyses king of Persia in 525, deposed, and exiled to Susa. Egypt would be incorporated into the Persian Empire, and beyond a brief stint of home rule in the 4th century BCE, would continue to serve as a pawn for successive empires until 1953 of our own era.

For us today such a conclusion might seem underwhelming, and not much of a fulfillment. It does not seem sufficiently dramatic to us. Yet consider the situation from Ezekiel’s own perspective. When he was born around 622 BCE the world around him remained as it had been for the better part of 500 years: sure, the kingdoms of Israel and Aram had fallen to the Assyrians, but the Assyrians still ruled, Babylon laid in wait, Jerusalem stood, and Egypt remained as it had been for millennia. A visitor from a few centuries earlier would have recognized that world. By the time Ezekiel received these messages from YHWH, Assyria had fallen, no longer a going concern; Chaldean Babylon was now ascendant; Jerusalem had been destroyed. Within another century Persia, in Ezekiel’s day one among many peoples subject to the Medes, would conquer the known world, eliminating both Babylon and Egypt as independent nations. This was a completely new world; nothing like it had ever been seen. Surely the collapse of the Late Bronze Age kingdoms proved more catastrophic, and yet even then Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt remained. Babylon had been founded in 2300 BCE; Assyria, 2500; Egypt, 3100. Within one century all would fall, never to rise again. All of them had in their own way oppressed Israel the people of God; all of them were denounced by the prophets; all thus endured the Day of YHWH.

Therefore, even though by our standards we might find it hard to accept these “apocalyptic” prophecies met their fulfillment, the historical evidence makes it difficult to argue otherwise. Assyria was at the apex of its power under Ashurbanipal who died in 631 BCE; who could imagine it would be destroyed 20 years later? Josiah of Judah oversaw a renaissance in Judah; within 25 years of his death Jerusalem and its Temple would be destroyed, and the Davidic Kingdom of Judah would never rise again. Nebuchadnezzar presided in Babylon as king of the world; within 25 years it would all become the possession of a king and a nation which was not even an independent force when he died. Ahmose II and his fellow pharaohs of the Twenty-Sixth dynasty presumed to restore the glory of Egypt and imitated Old Kingdom art; yet Egypt in their day would become subject to distant foreigners, and would remain so for about as long as it had enjoyed independence. All of these collapses happened suddenly. The world had not ended; but their world was gone, never to return.

If we understand the gravity of the events which took place between 625 and 525 BCE, we would recognize how imagery like the sun, moon, and stars turning dark is more than appropriate. Everything the people of the nations had taken for granted for centuries, if not millennia, was suddenly overturned. For anyone who was invested in the status quo which had developed in the first half of the first millennium BCE the events proved to be an unmitigated disaster.

No one would come out the same. Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and the small surrounding nations would undergo Hellenization after the conquest of Alexander the Great, syncretizing their cultural and religious ideologies with those of the Greeks. Some Judahites would return from Babylonian exile, yet they would not return to the syncretized ways of their ancestors; Second Temple Judaism would prove as uniquely distinct from the practices of the days of the Solomonic Temple as it would from the Judaism which developed after the second Temple was destroyed.

Such is how it goes with “apocalypses.” The world does not end, but the world will never be the same again. A world has come to an end.

As Christians we confess Jesus as Lord of lords and King of kings; we recognize the nations of the world are empowered by God but enslave themselves to the powers and principalities over this present darkness (Romans 13:1, Ephesians 6:12, Revelation 13:1-18, 19:16). We look forward to the day on which the Lord Jesus will return and fully defeat death, the final enemy, and receive unto Himself all of every nation who serves Him, and to share in eternity in the resurrection of life (1 Corinthians 15:20-58, Revelation 20:11-22:6). In the meantime we have every confidence that the nations and their fates remain in the hands of God just as they did in the days of the prophets; the fact John can see judgments on Rome in terms of the judgments against the nations according to the prophets provides such testimony.

To this end we might well experience “apocalypses” as we await the ultimate Apocalypse, the final appearance of Jesus, the Son of Man and Risen Lord. These “apocalypses” are not the end of the world, but they will represent the end of a world. They might be personal in nature; they might afflict a particular group of people; they may afflict a nation or the entire world. In these times things people took for granted and assumed to be predictable become so no longer. What used to be “normal” becomes impossible. Life might well go on for many, but it will not look like it did before.

God has never promised to remove us from such forms of distress, but He has left us the same promise He has always left His people in difficult times. He will strengthen and sustain us through whatever we must endure, but only if we turn to Him and cling to Him as our refuge and strength. Ultimately we have no basis in confidence and reliance on any thing in this creation, and “apocalypses” remind us of this: they all fade and fall apart (1 Peter 1:23-25). At the same time, nothing in the creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:31-39): no force can tear us away from God. In Christ we can endure anything as long as we maintain our faith and trust in Him come what may.

No one ever asked to live through an “apocalypse.” No one wants to experience a day and time in which metaphors of cosmic dislocation seem just about right or perhaps even a little understated. And yet according to God’s sovereign purposes such times come upon mankind. They end a world; but they have not yet ended the world. They have often allowed for transformation and new life to grow. Whether we live in times of comfort or distress, stability or “apocalypse,” we do well to maintain our confidence in God in Christ, and not in anything He has made, and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Wars and Rumors of Wars

“And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that ye be not troubled: for these things must needs come to pass; but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there shall be famines and earthquakes in divers places. But all these things are the beginning of travail” (Matthew 24:6-8).

As Jesus begins to describe to His disciples how the end will come for Jerusalem, He encourages them to not be disturbed at all the rumors of destruction that they will hear. Instead, He lays out precisely what will happen, and how its destruction will be made evident, and how He will be vindicated on that day (Matthew 24:9-36).

Ever since Jesus spoke these words, there have been the proverbial “wars and rumors of wars” regarding His final return in glory. The number of predictions of Jesus’ imminent return is legion; a generation sees signs of the end in their own day and age. They go the way of all flesh, and the generation after them still finds all kinds of reasons to justify why it is that the Lord will return in their own generation.

This is no different today. 1843, 1844, 1914, 1975, 2000, among other dates, have all come and past. Now we hear of 2012. After that another date will crop up. Yet more “wars and rumors of wars.”

Let none be deceived: a day will come upon which the Lord will return. If you believe that the creation will continue just as it always has, Peter would like to remind you of the days of Noah, and how no one was expecting the apocalypse that took place then (2 Peter 3:1-9; cf. Genesis 6-9). Thus it will be when the Lord returns: the day will come as a thief in the night (Matthew 24:43, 1 Thessalonians 5:2). No special predictions, no special warnings. In fact, it would hardly be surprising if the Lord intentionally does not come back on a popularly set forth date for that very reason!

Believers in Jesus Christ are not to be troubled by these “wars and rumors of wars.” Instead, they are to be perpetually ready for His return (Matthew 24:45-25:30). If you are a servant of God faithfully serving God daily, will it matter if the Lord returns tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, or even in the next millennium?

Let us be sober-minded, realizing that our generation is no more or less special than any generation that has gone on before us. The Lord may return in our generation, but it will not be because of the “wars and rumors of wars.” If Jesus returns after we die, He has not proven unfaithful to His Word! Nevertheless, we should be prepared, for we do not and cannot know exactly when He will return. Let us be profitable servants of God while we have the chance!

Ethan R. Longhenry