Jesus and Apocalyptic Imagery

Jesus and Apocalyptic Imagery

The apocalyptic genre takes old images of the past, and the author applies them to his present people and discusses near-term important events that would soon happen in their future. In Matthew 24, Jesus plunders the pages of the Old Testament, grabbing pregnant images and metaphors, to speak volumes of information to His disciples in just a few sentences.

And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.
—Matthew 24:31

An Eschatological Rosetta Stone

As one of the engineering divisions, of Napoleon Bonapart’s army, was preparing another Egyptian building for demolition, one of his lieutenants inadvertently stumbled upon one of the greatest archeological discoveries of the modern era, the Rosetta Stone. Built right into the wall of that house, moments from being torn to the ground, was a massive stone text with an inscription written in three different languages, that would unlock the keys to understanding Egyptian Hieroglyphics from that day forward. Before that find, the pictorial language was nothing more than esoteric images arranged neatly on pottery shards and on the sides of ancient buildings that scholars could not make heads or tails of. Yet, after that, the entire world of the ancient Egyptians opened up like never before. The key had been found.

If you carry this as a metaphor over into the world of Biblical studies, the apocalyptic genre is very much like those Egyptian Hieroglyphics. The genre is not only well known for its confusing images, words, signs, and symbols, which are arranged in the most obfuscated ways, but it has also been a source of confusion among the scholarly community who come up with one theory after another attempting to crack the code. Thankfully for us, the Rosetta stone we need to interpret these events has already been found.

Instead of looking at current geopolitical events, reading Reddit subthreads about the rise of Luciferians and Ancient Freemasons, or buying that tinfoil hat from the cooky guy on Youtube, the key to understanding the Biblical apocalyptic genre is found right in the pages of Holy Scripture. Unlike most genres of the Bible, apocalyptic is entirely dependent upon past revelation, since it borrows language, images, and symbols that come right out of Scriptures that were previously recorded. With that, the key to understanding the prophecies that are given in this genre will not be found in piecing together current events 2000 years disconnected from their author but will be found in understanding the Old Testament Scriptures those authors were alluding to.

Today, I want us to look at a poignant example of this. If you have been following along with this blog, our thesis has been that, in the prophecy given to His disciples in Matthew 24, and especially in the apocalyptic section listed in verses 27-31, Jesus was not talking about the end of the world or of human history but was instead speaking about the doom that would soon befall wicked Judah. To support such a claim we have cited linguistic evidence, historical data, first-century extra-Biblical sources, contextual factors, and other lines of compelling data to resoundingly prove our premise. Today, I would like to add a few more cherries on top of this rather large Sunday.

Brought to You Courtesy of Red, White, and Blue Apocalypticism

One of the distinguishing features of the apocalyptic genre is that it communicates urgent news and important truth, using ancient signs, symbols, characters, and figures. The writer, who had an urgent message to share with his contemporary audience, would ratchet up the intensity of his message by reaching back into the annals of his past, resurrecting common images, stories, and characters from their shared collective history and experience, employing them in the story-world of his apocalyptic vision. Wow, that was certainly a mouthful… How about a country music example to drive home my point?

After the harrowing events of September 11th, one of the songs that captured the American heart and became a ballad of courage for so many was “Courtesy Of The Red, White, And Blue”, which was written by country music legend Toby Keith. In that song, Keith masterfully employed American apocalyptic images in order to threaten destruction upon the terrorists who had weaponized planes against our people. Addressing the terrorists directly, Keith bellowed out the following lines:

Hey Uncle Sam, put your name at the top of his list
And the Statue of Liberty started shakin’ her fist
And the eagle will fly, man, it’s gonna be hell
When you hear mother freedom start ringin’ her bell
And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you…
Brought to you courtesy of the red white and blue

If you were living in the year 40 AD or 4000 AD, none of this would make the least bit of sense to you. But, it is obvious to all twenty-first-century Americans what Toby Keith is saying. He does not have an angry uncle named Sam who is fond of making kill lists. Some Statue that is dedicated to Liberty did not come to life in fist-shaking fury. Mother freedom (whoever that lassie is) did not begin ringing any strange bells. And some object that is colored red, white, and blue did not come to life to fight any actual battles. All of this is apocalyptic imagery.

Toby Keith is borrowing from the common canon of American iconography, not only using these well-known images but also bringing them to life in visionary and war-like ways. Why is he doing this? Because this powerfully communicates the message of vengeance and doom that would soon come upon those who attacked America. This is why Uncle Sam in the song, a symbol of American Patriotism and troop recruitment, is going to gather up the soldiers for war. This is why the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of our ordered liberty and national freedom, is angered when that same freedom is in jeopardy. And that is why the nation will become unified in administering furious justice, which is represented by the red, white, and blue flag that is raining munitions down on top of the terrorist’s heads. All of these images are apocalyptic and we understand them easily because they are our national images.

The same is true for the first-century disciples. While their images may look different than ours, the symbols Jesus used would have been meaningful to them and would have communicated intense judgment and fury was soon to come upon the enemies of God. If we have any hope of understanding this passage, we cannot employ our images, our categories, and our presuppositions. We must endeavor to understand their images and symbols so that the passage comes to life in all its honky tonk glory.

The Angels Sent Forth

Jesus told them

And He will send forth His angels…

After Jesus describes the 40-year period of trials that would lead to Jerusalem’s downfall (24:4-14) and the Roman / Jewish war that will leave the old covenant city as a smoldering pile of rubble (24:15-26), He switches to the apocalyptic genre in verse 27 to drive home His point with visionary intensity and a sobering finality. As we discussed in the previous two articles, the sun, moon, and stars (which are Genesis 2 images of celestial covenantal rule) were reacting to the judgment of Judah, by going dark, refusing to give their light, and falling out of the sky. The heavens were also shaking which is a common prophetic image for the upheaval of nations.

We also discussed how the tribes of the land (all those within Judah and Jerusalem) would see the sign of Jesus’ heavenly enthronement (An image coming out of Daniel 7), where Jesus ascends up to the Ancient of days and sits upon His throne to reign over His blood-bought Kingdom. This caused the people of Judah to mourn as they were being destroyed, not because they regretted their actions, but more like those who weep and gnash their teeth in hell.

In verse 31, however, Jesus switches His apocalyptic referent. He is no longer talking about the grim events that will be coming upon Judah when they are punished with fire in AD 70. Now, He moves on to share what will happen to the church, who suffered tremendously during this forty-year period of time. More specifically, He addresses how redemption will be accomplished in this unique era between the ages. What do I mean between the ages?

Redemption between the Ages

As the old age of temples, priests, sacrifices, and priests was coming to a jarring halt and the new age of Christ’s Kingdom was dawning, this forty-year period from AD 30 to AD 70 became a unique era where both ages coexisted simultaneously. This created more than a little confusion among Christians who converted from Judaism. Should they worship in the temple or in their homes? Should they be circumcised any longer or not? Should they worship on Saturday or Sunday? And I am sure you can imagine more than a few additional questions that life-long Jews would need to have answered while the temple and Judaism were still standing.

One of the questions we know they were asking is where do the believers go, who were killed during the overlapping of ages? For instance, suppose a Christian was killed by a band of Jewish zealots in the year 55 AD. What happened to them, since the old covenant kingdom had not been fully put away? Since their temple still stood? Since Jesus had not yet returned in judgment against them? Do the martyrs, who died before all these things took place, get all of the blessings that Jesus promised?

Paul’s Answer

Paul addressed this question to the Thessalonian church, who was asking the same question, in the mid 50’s AD. Apparently, there was a band of fools that had infiltrated the church and were attempting to convince people that Jesus had already returned and those who died before His judgment coming against Judah would miss out on the resurrection (See 2 Thessalonians 2:1-10). Paul not only assured them that Jesus would return soon to punish the Jews (in 2 Thessalonians 2) but in 1 Thessalonians 4, he also assured them that all who believed in Christ would be gathered into the savior’s Kingdom regardless of when they lived and died. They would not miss out on the resurrection!

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