Understanding Apocalyptic

Understanding Apocalyptic

At this time of the year, every year, the Revised Common Lectionary offers us some passages from the Gospels that are strikingly vivid and dramatic. Each year we end “the church’s year” with an excerpt from the long apocalyptic speech that Jesus delivered to his disciples, some time after they had arrived in the city of Jerusalem. This year, a couple of weeks ago, we read Mark 13:1–8, with the striking line, “this is but the beginnings of the birthpangs.”

Also, each year, the church’s “new year” begins with an excerpt from the same speech—usually from later in the speech—and from another Gospel (whatever is the Gospel for that new year). This time around, as we move from The Year of Mark into The Year of Luke, we read Luke 21:25–36, with the equally striking claim, “when these things begin to take place … your redemption is drawing near”, in the first week of the new church year.

This long speech that Jesus gives (reported with slightly different variations in Mark 13, Matt 24, and Luke 21) is a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery, drawn from the traditions and patterns that are found in the increasingly apocalyptic fervour of prophetic oracles delivered through the history of Israel. The apocalyptic character of the speech means that it certainly makes a mark!

Indeed, this speech confirms the thoroughly apocalyptic character of the teaching of Jesus, right through the Gospel accounts. His parables about the kingdom are apocalyptic, presenting a vision of God’s promised future. The call to repent is apocalyptic, in the tradition of the prophets. The demand to live in a way that exemplifies righteous-justice stands firmly in the line of the prophetic call. Such repentance and righteous-just living is as demanding and difficult as giving birth can be.

“Apocalyptic” comes directly from the Greek language—the language in which the words of Jesus are first recorded, in the Gospels. It means an uncovering, a revealing, a making clear—in other words, a revelation. In Greek, the title of the book of Revelation is “Apocalypsis”. So an apocalyptic message is one that uncovers or reveals what lies ahead, in the plan of God.

Jesus was, indeed, a prophet of apocalyptic intensity. But how do we make sense of this dramatic language in the context of the post-Enlightenment scientifically-aware world of the 21st century? How do visions of turmoil and warfare, oracles about fiery destruction and fierce retribution, relate to our contemporary world?

One way of understanding this kind of language and these kinds of speeches, whether by Jesus or any number of the prophets, is to claim that these words were spirit-inspired predictions, from long ago, of the turmoil and conflict that was to take place in the future. These words may relate to the times immediately in the future of the writer (in the late 1st century in the case of this Gospel passage). Or they may point forward in time, to events well beyond the time of the reader, even into our own times (that is, the 21st century).

Like the final book in the New Testament, Revelation, this speech of Jesus in Mark 13 has been interpreted by fervent believers throughout the centuries as providing evidence that the end of the world was at hand. “Repent, now” is the message that is proclaimed—repent, before the end comes, and it is too late.
Another line of interpretation holds that this kind of language needs to be understood as inspired scripture, which provides us with clear doctrinal statements about what is called “eschatology” (the study of the end times, the last days).

If this were the case, the words of Jesus could be mined as a source for teachings about “the last days”, instructing us so that we are aware and informed. It may not be that we are right in the midst of those “last days”, but we are able to interpret and understand what is happening—to know exactly where we are, now, in the alleged timetable of events leading up to “the last days”.

However, there are difficulties with both lines of interpretation. Neither understanding actually reflects the nature of the literature, nor the purpose for which each of the apocalyptic oracles and speeches were given in their own time. It is important to understand the literary nature of apocalyptic writings, as well as the social-historical context in which such works came into being. The same applies for Mark 13.

There are three key apocalyptic elements that help us to “make sense” of the intensely dramatic, vivid language that Jesus uses. The first is that we need to be clear about the historical context within which this Gospel was written. The author of this work was writing in a context fraught with tension, conflict, and bloodshed. Israel had been under foreign occupation for centuries. From the time that Roman troops had occupied Palestine, in 63 BCE, tension and conflict had grown.

In the year 66 CE the governor, Florus, demanded money from the Temple treasury in Jerusalem. This was too much for some Jews; hostilities broke out in various places across Palestine. The war which resulted lasted eight years; in 70 CE, the Temple in Jerusalem would be burnt to the ground, and by 74 CE, all active Jewish resistance to the Romans would be quashed.

In this setting, amidst the battles fought in Galilee, Samaria and Judaea, apocalyptic hopes were inflamed. Many of the Jews actively fighting the Romans believed that their actions would help to usher in the long-promised kingdom, in which God would reign over Israel and foreign troops would be banished. Perhaps a significant number of the followers of Jesus also believed that the kingdom of God was drawing near, as Jesus had proclaimed some decades earlier, in the events of their own day.

Should the followers of Jesus, then, join with the rebel groups in rising up against Rome? Was the way to the kingdom to be won through conflict, martyrdom, and military victory? Or was there another way? In this context, one writer chose to answer these questions by writing a whole story in which he remembered what Jesus said about how people were to follow him. We call this work the Gospel of Mark.

Some decades later, it had become clear that this uprising did mark the end of Jewish practices in Jerusalem (the Romans had expelled Jews from the city and renamed it with a Roman name). The Romans had won the war, and their grip on,power was unshakeable. (Their Empire would continue to expand for some centuries to come.)

So as Luke writes his account of Jesus, a few decades after Mark, he has to come to grips with the fact that “the end” did not, indeed, come with these events. God did not intervene. Life continued on under Roman rule. So whilst Jesus is remembered for his apocalyptic fervour—Luke maintains the structure and content of the speech found in Mark, with a number of variations—the message of Jesus is put into a different context, with an emphasis on the fact that ongoing faithfulness, and bearing witness to that faith, was to be a key marker.

Luke, even more than Mark, backs away from having Jesus call for a radical uprising. Luke intensifies the Markan call to discipleship, and throughout this Gospel he provides still more examples that indicate that Jesus is calling for faithful following of the way that leads to the cross. The initial apocalyptic fervour of Jesus is somewhat muted in this later account; but the cost of discipleship and the urgency of the call to follow remains strong.

So, as Jesus is in the forecourt of the magnificent Jerusalem Temple (Luke 21:1, 5), he sets out the way that his disciples should respond. During this apocalyptic discourse, Jesus has indicated that the situation still to come will be one of persecution: “they will arrest you and persecute you” (21:12), there will be betrayal and death (21:16), “you will be hated by all” (21:17), and false preachers will arise (21:8).

In this context, the fundamental act of discipleship will be to bear witness to the way of Jesus: “this will give you an opportunity to testify” (21:13) and “the words and wisdom” for this testimony will be given by Jesus himself (21:15). The role of the disciple will be to remain faithful throughout these trials: “by your endurance you will gain your souls” (21:19).

The need for such faithfulness is underscored by the closing words of Jesus’ teachings: “be on guard … be alert” (21:34, 36). Jesus had not advocated joining in the armed uprising; he counselled faithful following of his way of service. Luke’s account underlines and emphasises the importance of this response.
In reading apocalyptic material (such as Mark 13 and Luke 21), we also need to consider their typical literary characteristics. There are a number of common features in apocalyptic texts, which are striking in their impact and powerful in their capacity to invite attention.

What is central to all apocalyptic writings is a clear portrayal of a stark conflict between good and evil, which often comes to a head in a grand cosmic battle. To put it in populist terms, apocalyptic texts “spin a good yarn”. They use the techniques of dramatic storytelling, or of good action films. They are vivid and compelling accounts.

Jesus is, by and large, adhering to the conventions of the genre, as he presents his graphic portrayal of what lies on store for his followers in this speech, which Mark says was delivered on the Mount of Olives, opposite the Temple (Mark 13:3)—although in Luke’s account, he is still within the Temple itself (Luke 21:1, 4; see also 21:37–38). In making use of this genre, Jesus demonstrates that speaking in apocalyptic terms is actually doing political theology within a specific socio-historical context. This is the third key element in seeking to understand apocalyptic.

Apocalyptic is “political theology” because it explores faith in the context of the realities of life in the polis, the city. It often provides a counter-narrative to the dominant story of the rulers and those in power, exposing the evil of their ways and proposing an alternative world in which righteous-justice will reign supreme.

The people of Israel, even from the time before they were taken into exile, had lived under the shadow of the dominant world power of the time—the Assyrians, who conquered the northern kingdom; then the Babylonians, who took the southern kingdom into exile; then, after a return under the Persians, an apparently more benign power, there came the crushing power of the Macedonian empire as Alexander the Great and his troops swept into the Jewish homeland.

Tellers of apocalyptic tales invited their listeners, living in times of crisis, to suspend disbelief, watch the vision unfolding, hear the angelic interpretation, even undertake the heavenly journey that the author retells; and to do this with expectation and hope.

Apocalyptic is always written in the midst of despair; despair fuelled by foreign invasion, murder and rape during the pillaging of that invasion, enforced slavery, religious repression, cultural imperialism, and societal oppression, with the loss of much-loved traditional practices and customs, disconnection from the homeland (the place where God resided), and a continuing sense of having been abandoned by God.

In the midst of all of this, apocalyptic texts invite their readers or listeners to have hope: hope that God would act; hope that despair would be dispelled and life would flourish once now; hope that the familiarity of traditions would be reinstated; hope that the evils perpetrated by the invading oppressors would be rectified by acts of divine revenge; hope that life, even in their own time, would be transformed into a realm where righteous-justice was in force, where the evils of lawlessness were dispelled.

There are clear, sharp pointers to the political situation of the time in which many works of apocalyptic are written—from the time of the Seleucid rulers (from the 180s BCE) through to the Roman conquest of Judaea (63 BCE) and on into the period we call the first century CE, when Jesus lived and then the Gospels were written. These works are political. 

All of this, this, it should now be clear, is what Jesus was looking to in his parables of the kingdom, in his teachings about living with fidelity to the covenant with God, in his invitations to his followers to walk the way he walks, leading to the realm of God’s kingdom. His visions of cataclysmic times, in the apocalyptic speech of Luke 21, provide a hope-filled declaration that, despite the turmoil of the times, God is indeed acting to intervene in events, overturn evil, and institute the righteous-justice of God.

And all of this is intensely contextual, thoroughly political, firmly directed towards the injustices perpetrated under the religious and economic system of the Temple and the cultural and religious oppression of the Roman colonisers. In Mark’s account, Jesus refers to the “birth pangs” that are just beginning (13:8). They herald the coming good times when “the great power and glory” of the Lord is evident (Mark 13:26; Luke 21:26). In Luke’s version, this is the time when “summer is near” (21:30).

That is the kingdom of God, in which much fruit is borne (Luke 8:15), much growth occurs (13:19), new life will emerge (9:22; 9:44; 18:33; 20:38); righteous-justice is enacted by God (20:15–17); and love of God and neighbour is practised by those in that kingdom (10:26).

Out of the darkness and despair, the agony of the birthpangs point to the hope of abundance that has been persistently proclaimed by Jesus. And so, we might pray: may that time come, may that kingdom be a reality, even in our time, even in our place; or, as Jesus taught us to pray, in thoroughly apocalyptic terms: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as in heaven.”

Rev. Dr John Squires is Presbytery Minister (Wellbeing) for Canberra Region Presbytery and the Editor of With Love to the World. 

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1 thought on “Understanding Apocalyptic”

  1. Thx for this clear call, John. Two quick responses if I may. First I observe that , while ‘Apocalyptic is always written in the midst of despair’, this article is not in the midst it is historically and intellectually safe. There are many among us who are in despair, and we are no Neighbour if we cannot take an apocalyptic stance more viscerally and sympathetically. Aboriginal families, pacific islands, young adults – all sinking lower each decade, beneath the weight of
    current politics. This passage is for us to practice.
    Secondly, while you refer to the repeating patterns in history thatcharacterise apocalyptic, you restrict this passage in context very narrowly, 68-70CE. This is in my view a recurring pattern in New Testament scholars, to back flip on recurring patterns! The time of Caligula and Nero and more beside could equally provide these contextual readouts. So, I agree on the major point but not its narrow application.

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