Tag Archives: defining apocalyptic

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (25): Revelation 12

A good reason to choose Revelation 12 as a sample passage for detecting apocalyptic is that it is widely seen as a center and key to the entire book. In addition, Adventists understand Revelation 12 to offer an apocalyptic prophecy of three sequential stages of Christian history. The first stage is the Christ-event back in the first century (Rev 12:1-5). The third is the final battle between the dragon and the Remnant (12:17). The second is the vast middle period of 1260 years of papal supremacy in the Middle Ages and beyond. Let’s take a careful look at the chapter in light of the previous work in this paper to see whether it best reflects the historicist sequences of apocalyptic prophecy, or whether it should be interpreted along the lines of classical prophecy.

First of all, chapter 12 does have a couple of the textual markers that indicate passage of time. In Rev 12:6 the woman is taken care of by God in the desert for 1260 days. In Rev 12:14 she is taken care of for a time, times and half a time, presumably the same period as 12:6. So Revelation 12 is not describing a single event, but a considerable period of time. This alone inclines an interpreter to see Rev 12 in apocalyptic terms rather than those of classical prophecy.

This impression is enhanced when the reader realizes that the cryptic phrase “a time, times, and half a time” (Rev 12:14) is unquestionably based on a couple of the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel (Dan 7:25; 12:7). Further study leads to the discovery that Rev 12 builds on Daniel throughout. The dragon of Rev 12:3-4 has a number of the characteristics of the beasts of Daniel 7 and of the little horn (Dan 7:7,24; 8:10). Among other things, if you total up the number of heads and horns among the four beasts of Dan 7 you get seven heads and ten horns. The war in heaven of 12:7-9 makes several allusions to Daniel (Dan 2:35; 10:13,20-21; 12:1). This broad utilization of Daniel’s apocalyptic prophecies enhances the impression that Rev 12 should be interpreted along similar lines.

Finally, Revelation 12 contains a number of character identifications with their typical time sequences. First, a woman appears in heaven, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head (12:1). 12:1-2 is based on the Old Testament image of a virtuous woman as a symbol of faithful Israel (Isa 26:16-27; 54:5; 66:7-14; Hos 2:14-20), anticipating the arrival of the messianic age. So the woman of Rev 12 has a “pedigree” that carries back well into Old Testament prophecy. According to Isa 66:7, she is the faithful Israel that longed to give birth to the Lord’s salvation. But in verse 5 she acts in the context of the vision, giving birth to a male child who is generally recognized to be a symbol of Jesus. So her character and actions described in 12:1-2 are clearly prior to the actions in verses 5 and the actions of verse 5 are prior to the actions of verse 6. After she gives birth to the child (12:5) she is seen fleeing into the desert for a lengthy period (12:6). So the experience of the woman in Rev 12:1-6 is actually depicted in three stages; 1) the time of her appearance and pregnancy, 2) the time of giving birth, and 3) the time of fleeing into the desert.

The second character to be introduced in this chapter is the dragon (Rev 12:3-4), who represents the devil, or Satan (Rev 12:9). The dragon’s initial action in the context of the vision is described in 12:4, where he waits before the woman, seeking to devour her child as soon as it is born. Scholars widely recognize that the dragon’s attack on the male child in Rev 12:5 represents Herod’s attempt to destroy the Christ child by killing all the babies in Bethlehem (Matt 2:1-18). But the description of the dragon, as it was with the woman, carries back to a time before the events of the vision.

The dragon’s pedigree is seen in the heads and the horns of Daniel 7 (Rev 12:3), it is the embodiment of the kingdoms of the world in service of Satan. His pedigree, in fact, goes all the way back to Eden (“the old serpent”– Rev 12:9,15). And prior to his attack on the woman, his tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to earth (Rev 12:4), an allusion to Daniel 8:10.

But the dragon isn’t finished when the male child gets away in verse 5. The dragon pursues the woman into the desert (12:13-16) and eventually makes war with the remnant of her seed. So the dragon in chapter 12 is actually described in terms of four successive stages, 1) his attack on a third of the stars (12:4), 2) his attack on the male child (12:4-5), 3) his attack against the woman herself (12:13-16), and finally 4) his war against the remnant. The character and actions of both the woman and the dragon suggest the successive periods of a historical apocalypse.

The third character to be introduced in this chapter is the male child, the woman’s son. The scene is reminiscent of Gen 3:15, where the seed of the woman is the one who will crush the serpent’s head. This character introduction is unique in the sense that instead of describing a pedigree or prior action on the part of this male child, the introduction focuses instead on action beyond the time of the vision. Using the future tense, He is described as the one who “will rule (me,llei poimai,nein) all the nations with an iron scepter” (Rev 12:5). This allusion to Psalm 2:9 describes Jesus’ judgment role at the end of time. The very next phrase reverts to the visionary past, “her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.” In 12:5 reference is made, then, to the birth, the ascension, and the ultimate victory of Jesus Christ. The death of Christ on the cross is only brought into play in verses 10-12.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (24): Detecting Apocalyptic Sequences II

Old Testament Roots
When reading the Book of Revelation one is plunged fully into the atmosphere of the Old Testament. No book of the New Testament is as saturated with the Old as this one is. But while it is not difficult to recognize the central place of the Old Testament in the Book of Revelation, it is difficult to determine exactly how it is being used there. A reader acquainted with the Old Testament quickly notices that Revelation never directly quotes the Old Testament, rather it alludes to it with a word here, a phrase there, or a concept in another place. Careful and consistent application of method is essential to recognizing the Old Testament subtext to the apocalyptic prophecies of Revelation. Such a method is laid out in the report from the Daniel and Revelation Committee in the early 90s.

The importance of the Old Testament in Revelation can be seen by a second look at the character introduction passages examined above. The vision in which Jesus is physically introduced to the reader (Rev 1:12-16) is based on a variety of Old Testament texts. The golden lampstands are a reminder of the lampstand in the Old Testament sanctuary (Exod 25:31-40) and the vision of Zechariah (Zech 4:2,10). Jesus’ dress recalls the dress of the High Priest in the same sanctuary (Exod 28:4,31). The voice like rushing waters reminds the reader of the appearance of Almighty God in the book of Ezekiel (Ezek 1:24; 43:2). The two-edged sword coming from Jesus’ mouth is reminiscent of Yahweh’s judgments through His messianic Servant in Isaiah (Isa 11:4; 49:2). The reader’s appreciation and understanding of Revelation’s apocalyptic-style symbolism is greatly enhanced by following up a veritable mosaic of Old Testament allusions.

But what ties all these Old Testament allusions together is a comprehensive utilization of the descriptions of two characters in the book of Daniel, the Son of Man of Dan 7:13-14 and Daniel’s mysterious visitor in 10:5-6. Virtually every detail of the description in 1:12-16 is found in those two passages. The same Jesus who walked and talked with ordinary people here on earth is described in terms of the mighty acts of Yahweh and of His heavenly and earthly messengers in the Old Testament. The parallels to the Old Testament lend much meaning to what otherwise would be a bewildering and incomprehensible description. So Jesus is depicted in this introduction as a heavenly priest, cosmic ruler, and divine judge. In 1:17-18 he exercises his priesthood in his merciful gentleness to John, 1:19-20 makes clear that his royal rule will be exercised in judgment, both positive and negative, toward the churches. And this marvelous passage right at the beginning of the book of Revelation emphasizes its strong ties to the apocalyptic book of Daniel.

The description of the two witnesses (Rev 11:3-6), on the other hand, is based on the lampstand passage of Zechariah (Zech 4:2-3,11-14), and also the exploits of Moses and Elijah in the Old Testament (cf. Exod 7:17-21; 1 Kings 17:1; 2 Kings 1:10-12). The two witnesses are prophets like the great prophets of the Old Testament; Moses, Elijah and Zechariah. But the prophets in Revelation all bear witness to Jesus (Rev 1:9; 2:13; 12:11,17; 17:6). The richness of these background narratives is crucial to understanding what John was trying to say in writing the visions out as he did. So careful attention to the Old Testament becomes a crucial part of the process by which apocalyptic prophecies need to be understood.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (23): Detecting Apocalyptic Sequences

Before we take up the analysis of Revelation 12, I would like to lay out some principles for detecting apocalyptic sequencing in the symbolic visions of the Apocalypse. It is not appropriate to force a chapter into the historicist mode if that was not the intention of the text. We must allow the characteristics and purposes of each text to emerge out of the text. Only then can we accurately determine whether the chapter is a historical apocalypse or not.

Textual Markers
A significant indicator of an apocalyptic historical sequence is the presence of terms and developments in a text that indicate the successive passage of time. A major reason that the Daniel and Revelation Committee, for example, saw the trumpets as more apocalyptic than the seals was the presence of significant textual markers that time was passing as you moved through the trumpets, while such textual markers are completely missing in the seals.

The seven trumpets (Rev 8:2-11:18), for one thing, contain a number of time periods. There is a period of five months (Rev 9:5,10), a period of forty-two months (Rev 11:2), a period of 1260 days (11:3) and a period of three and a half days (11:9,11). No such periods of time are found anywhere within the seven seals (Rev 4:1-8:1), with the exception of the half-hour at the close. The sequential nature of the trumpets is strongly confirmed by the woe series after the fourth (Rev 8:13). The first woe (fifth trumpet) ends before the second begins (9:12) and the second (sixth trumpet) ends before the third (seventh trumpet) begins (11:14). Trumpets five, six, and seven, therefore, not only occur as a sequence of time, each is completed before the next begins. This is a strong parallel to the apocalyptic sequences of Daniel. One further marker of the passage of time in the trumpets is found in Rev 10:7. There the blowing of the seventh trumpet immediately follows the completion of God’s mystery, which is defined as the preaching of the gospel through God’s servants the prophets. The textual markers in the seventh trumpet, therefore, strongly suggest that the vision of the seven trumpets is to be interpreted as an apocalyptic sequence of historical events. Further research also indicates that the trumpets run from NT times (the time of the human author) to the end of time.

Character Introduction
Another significant indicator of the passage of time in Revelation is the literary strategy we could call character introduction. Consistently throughout the book, the author of Revelation introduces characters in general terms before describing their actions at the time of the vision. In other words, when a character appears in the book for the first time, there is a general description of the character’s appearance, and often a number of prior actions (and occasionally even future actions), followed by a description of the actions the character takes in the context of the vision’s own time and place setting. These character introduction passages normally offer clear markers of sequence.

When Jesus is introduced to John in chapter 1, the historical setting is John’s location on the Island of Patmos (Rev 1:9). John then goes into vision and sees one like a son of man. This is the first appearance of Jesus in the book, although He and His works are mentioned earlier (1:1,4-7). While this passage (Rev 1:9-3:22) has few other characteristics of an apocalyptic prophecy, there is a clear movement in time taking place as you work through the passage. John first hears Jesus’ voice sounding like a trumpet (1:9-11), then he sees and describes Him (1:12-16), then he experiences His comforting and explanatory words (1:17-20), finally he hears His messages to the seven churches (2:1-3:22).

A similar thing happens in chapter 11. The visionary setting of the two witnesses passage is Rev 10:8-11, where a voice out of heaven and the angel of the previous vision (Rev 10:1-7) engage John in a prophetic action (10:8-10), followed by an explanation. As we have seen from our study of Daniel 2 and 7, explanations come to the prophet in terms of his own time and place. Since John continues to be engaged (Rev 11:1-2) and addressed (11:3ff.) in Revelation 11, the standpoint from which John experiences chapter 11 is his own. It is not surprising, therefore, that the major time markers of 42 months and 1260 days are expressed in the future tense (Rev 11:2; Rev 11:3. These periods of time were future from the perspective of John.

The two witnesses themselves are introduced with a description of their appearance and an overall description of their characteristics and their actions in the present (11:4-6) and in the future tense (11:3). These present and future tenses are to be understood from the perspective of an explanation to John in terms of his own time and place. The entire character introduction passage (11:3-6), the elements in future tense (3) as well as those in present tense (4-6), occurs prior to the visionary description that follows (11:7-13).

The following time sequence, therefore, is evident in Rev 10:8-11:12. John is engaged and addressed by a voice from heaven and a visionary angel in his time and place. He then measures the temple, which is to be trampled for 42 months in John’s future, presumably the same period as the 1260 days of 11:3. Then the two witnesses are introduced. Whoever they are, they clearly exist in John’s day (present tenses) and have an ongoing existence. At some future point from John’s perspective, the two witnesses pass through a 1260 day period of testimony. It is only after that period of testimony that the martyrdom of these witnesses and their resurrection is to occur.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic: Defining Terms

As we all struggle with the consequences of COVID-19, many people want to know what the Bible in general, and biblical prophecy in particular, may offer that can guide us in these challenging times. So I decided to offer a series of reflections on the issue of interpreting biblical apocalyptic; the genre of literature to which the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation belong. I have addressed this topic at a scholarly level for nearly forty years now, but my purpose is to keep the blogs readable for the general audience.

John J. Collins of Yale University, whom I count as a friend, has worked with a team of scholars for some fifty years now on how to define “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic.” (Among his many works, I recommend the following as a first read on this topic: The Apocalyptic Imagination, third edition, Eerdmans, 2016.) The term “apocalypse” is drawn from the introductory phrase of the biblical book of Revelation (Rev 1:1) and means “revelation” or “disclosure.” From the second century AD onward, it became increasingly used as a term for extra-biblical works of a character similar to Revelation. So modern scholars are not out of line in applying the label “apocalyptic” to a whole collection of similar works existed in ancient Judaism, such as Daniel, Ethiopic Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch and other works produced before and contemporary with Revelation.

Collins’ team of scholars analyzed all such texts from 250 BC through 250 AD and developed a definition based on their common characteristics. The definition they developed was published in Semeia 14 in 1979 and remains the scholarly consensus to this day: “An apocalypse is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.”

As I understand this definition, an apocalyptic work like Daniel or Revelation is revelatory literature, which means it claims to communicate information from God to humanity. This is accomplished in the form of a story, a “narrative framework.” The revelation is communicated to a human being by “otherworldly beings” such as angels or the 24 elders of Revelation. The revelation discloses “transcendent reality,” that which is beyond the ability of our five sense to apprehend, about the course of history leading up the God’s salvation at the End, and about the heavenly, “supernatural” world.

While not present in the above definition of apocalypse, scholars also distinguish between two types of apocalyptic literature, the historical and the mystical. The historical type, characteristic of Daniel, gives an overview of a large sweep of history, often divided into periods, and climaxing with a prediction about the end of history and the final judgment. The mystical type of apocalypse describes the ascent of the visionary through the heavens, which are often numbered. While one might be tempted to view these two types of apocalypses as distinct genres, several ancient writings, including the book of Revelation, mix elements of both types in one literary work. For Seventh-day Adventists, the historical type has been of primary interest.