Apocalyptic Language

Scripture is replete with metaphors, symbolism and figurative language.  However, many insist that we must take Scripture literally.  “It says what it means and it means what it says”.  But is it that simple?  When we read Peter quoting the prophet Joel in Acts 2:19,20 what conclusions do we draw? What assumptions do we make?

19I will show wonders in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20The sun will be turned to darkness                              Joel 2:28-32 (parallel)
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great
and glorious day of the Lord.

Is Peter speaking of a yet future 2nd coming of Christ and the powerful cataclysmic events that were to accompany His appearance?  We reason that these events must still be future since there are no known historical references to “the sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red”; and most of us have heard time and again that the 20coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord” is going to happen sometime in our lifetime, some 2,000 years removed from the first Pentecost.  According to scholar Gary Demar in Last Days Madness, doomsday end-of-the-world scenarios have been presented back to at least the 3rd century. (Review of Demar)

However, it is at this point that we need to be very discerning, not just believing things because they have been repeated with authority ad infinitum.  If we do we may be in danger of arriving at false conclusions.

Let’s look at the following doing our best to put on our 1st-century glasses.  At the beginning of the 2nd chapter of Acts Luke announced,  1“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.” Further, we read, 5Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” and 6each one heard them speaking in his own language“.

What was the reaction of the people?  Some were 12Amazed and perplexed, and they asked one another, “What does this mean?”  while  13some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.

So In verses 15 and 16 it’s clear that Peter was interested in offering an explanation of what the people were witnessing.  He replied, 15These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel:

So as Peter began quoting Joel it first should be noted that he changed “afterward” to “in these last days”. And given the presuppositions of many Christians today who presume we’re living in the last days, some might find this curious. Francis The wondrous acts they all were experiencing this was a direct response to the events at hand.  In the beginning of his quotation of Joel he said something that some might find curious;  17” ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” He’s

Could the phrase in the last days refer to a time period other than the 21st-century?  Isn’t it quite clear that Peter is offering an explanation as to why these men heard and saw a tornado-like wind coming from above; tongues of fire sitting on each of them; and the miraculous way uneducated Galileans were able to speak foreign languages that they had never learned?  God truly was pouring out his Spirit!

At this point, if you are willing to consider that the last days Joel was referring to could be the 1st century, then the next logical question is how could they call it last days if time continued?  (click on last for a detailed explanation as to why this term was used)

Let’s move on to the topic at hand – Apocalyptic Language (mp3).  We’re going to analyze Old Testament Scripture to see how this type of cataclysmic language is used and interpreted.  One of the very useful rules of interpretation is that Scripture should be interpreted in the light of Scripture.

So here’s the $64k question: Has the apocalyptic language in Acts chapter 2 ever been used before?  Let’s take a look at a few passages in the Old Testament and see what we find.

  • Who prophesied the following words?
  • What were these events referring to?
  • Would you expect a literal fulfillment of these words?
  • Is there any record of these actual events taking place?

9 See, the day of the LORD is coming 
  —a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—
   to make the land desolate
and destroy the sinners within it.

10 The stars of heaven and their constellations           Isaiah 13
   will not show their light.
   The rising sun will be darkened 
   and the moon will not give its light.

13 Therefore I will make the heavens tremble;
   and the earth will shake from its place
at the wrath of the LORD Almighty,
   in the day of his burning anger.

How about this next few verses… We should ask the same questions:

  • Did the heavens actual dissolve?
  • Did the sky roll up? Did the streams turn into a thick black tar-like substance?
  • Did smoke rise forever?
  • Will no one ever set foot on that portion of land again?

3 Their slain will be thrown out,
   their dead bodies will send up a stench;
   the mountains will be soaked with their blood.

4 All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved 
   and the sky rolled up like a scroll; 
   all the starry host will fall 
   like withered leaves from the vine, 
   like shriveled figs from the fig tree.                               Isaiah 34

9 Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch,
   her dust into burning sulfur;
   her land will become blazing pitch!

10 It will not be quenched night and day;
    its smoke will rise forever.
    From generation to generation it will lie desolate;
    no one will ever pass through it again.

Let’s look at a few more. Is this truly referring to a cataclysmic event? If so, is there any record of these things literally happening?

7 When I snuff you out, I will cover the heavens
   and darken their stars;
   I will cover the sun with a cloud,
   and the moon will not give its light.

8 All the shining lights in the heavens                           Ezekiel 32
I will darken over you;
  I will bring darkness over your land,
  declares the Sovereign LORD.


4 The mountains melt beneath him 
  and the valleys split apart, 
  like wax before the fire,                                                  Micah 1
  like water rushing down a slope.


5 The mountains quake before Him 
  and the hills melt away.
  The earth trembles at His presence,                             Nahum 1
  the world and all who live in it.


10 It grew until it reached the host of the heavens, 
    and it threw some of the starry host down to          Daniel 8
    the earth and trampled on them.

Were the above verses referring to the kind of cataclysmic events portrayed in the Left Behind series? In other words, were the prophecies fulfilled as stated (stars falling from the sky etc.) or were these prophetic warning referring to metaphoric hyperbole signifying coming destruction? Let’s look at the background of the above verses.

    • The first group of verses from Isaiah 13 was clearly referring to the fall of Babylon to the Medes in 539 BC. (read verse 1)  So, are there historical and/or scientific records which validate the prophesied events as having taken place exactly as stated? In other words, did the heavens actually shake or did the earth move out of its orbit (which would have ended all life on earth)?
    • In Isaiah 34 the prophet, Isaiah announces the desolation of Bozrah the capital of Edom late in the sixth century BC.  (read verse 6)  If this passage was taken literally/physically, it would be assumed that the sky actually lost its light. Did these events take place as stated or are these symbolic words of the coming annihilation of Bozrah?
    • Then in Micah 1:5 Micah foretells how God will come down to earth in wrath against the sins of  Israel. Did the earth split and did the mountains melt, or is this type of decreation language referring to God’s wrath poured out against a group of people?
    • What was Nahum referencing in Nahum 1:5?  Did God’s presence cause hills to crumble and mountains to quake so that all the world felt it? Though clearly, God could cause geothermal upheaval at the command of His will, is that what is inferred by these statements of judgment?
    • Lastly, Daniel spoke of stars falling from the sky and then trampled. Literal or figurative? In reality, Daniel was referring to the destruction of the Jewish people by Antioch Epiphanes.

“All of the examples above sufficiently illustrate what is actually self-evident, that in prophetic language the most terrible phenomena are used to represent God’s judgment and His awesome power. The imagery, if literally fulfilled, would have to result in the total dissolution of the world or the destruction of the universe when in fact it is meant to describe:

  • the downfall of a dynasty
  • the capture of a city
  • or the overthrow of a nation!

If the decreation type language we have examined above has the meaning that we have assigned to it, then similar language throughout the Bible should be understood in the same manner. This method of understanding the Scriptures is known as “analogia fide” and is an accepted interpretation principle used by Bible scholars.

There are some who would dispute the above understanding by saying that if we interpret one part of a discourse literally then we are bound by consistency to interpret the entire prophecy in the same manner. This group would contend that in Matthew 24:29–31 if we interpret verse twenty-nine figuratively then the rest of the chapter must also be interpreted figuratively since “you cannot have it both ways to suit your theology.”

29“Immediately after the distress of those days
   the sun will be darkened,
   and the moon will not give its light;
   the stars will fall from the sky,
   and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

30“At that time the sign of the Son of Man will
   appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth
will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming
on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.
31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call,
   and they will gather his elect from the four winds, 
   from one end of the heavens to the other.

This would mean that in context of Matthew 24 the words, “Judea,” “mountains,” “housetop,” and “field” must also be interpreted figuratively. This sort of reasoning supports a literal understanding of ALL words that appear in this text! This method of interpretation is ludicrous. A serious study reveals that writers of the various Biblical books occasionally use Hebraic expressions through a series of figurative terms. This type of apocalyptic language is incorporated in the midst of a very plain and understandable narrative of factual (literal) information.”

Learning about the uses of apocalyptic language is but one small piece that will ultimately help us put the puzzle together.  So it may help to break down artificially constructed walls that are not secured to the foundation of interpretation.

Remember to put on your first-century glasses when reading the Scripture, especially when attempting to understand prophesy and the study of last things (eschatology).

The Bible was undoubtedly written for our benefit and it is clear that it has a timeless quality in its application.  However, we must read it from the audience’s point of reference, understanding of the era in which they lived, while considering the genre of literature used.

For example, it’s so tempting and almost second nature to read verse Acts 2:40, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”, to assume that since we have corruption today that this is a direct reference to our generation. However, because a passage may apply to us in our generation (when we see our country in moral decline), does this give us the interpretational freedom to assume that these verses in Acts are specifically directed at us? We need to guard against egocentricity, believing every NT prophetic time-sensitive statement is referring to the 21st century. This same error has been repeated for centuries.

We must step beyond the temporal/physical/literal. Jesus said He was the bread of life, but does anyone think His body was composed of wheat flour? When God refers to “the cattle on a thousand hills” we realize that the this is a figure of speech and that God is not expressing His limitation. In John 6:51 Jesus said “…If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.”  In the very next verse, the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  So, this woodenly literal interpretation was as common in the first century as it is today.

The Scripture is replete with parables, symbolism, metaphors, and apocalyptic language. Therefore, it is imperative to consider the genre of the passage and the type of language used if we have any hope of coming to the correct understanding.

Consider the following passage from Matthew’s account of the Olivet Discourse. This passage must be read through the lens of Jesus’ disciples as they were sitting on the Mount of Olives. As you read, if you don’t check your 21st-century presuppositions at the door, this passage cannot be correctly interpreted. If we don’t realize that when Jesus refers to “you” that it is not us, we will forever be lost in a sea of confusion and ultimate misinterpretation.

3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples
came to him privately. “Tell US,” THEY said, “when will this
happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of
the end of the age?”
4 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives YOU.
5 For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ,
and will deceive many.
6YOU will hear of wars and rumors of wars,
but see to it that YOU are not alarmed. Such things
must happen, but the end is still to come.
7Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.
There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.
8 All these are the beginning of birth pains.
9 “Then YOU will be handed over to be persecuted and put to
death, and YOU will be hated by all nations because of Me.
10At that time many will turn away from the faith
and will betray and hate each other,
11and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.
12Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold,
13but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.
14And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a
testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
Matthew 24:3-14

If these words were written solely to those living in our generation, which many appear to believe, then what a cruel hoax this would have been. When Jesus said, “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death“, to whom was He speaking? Clearly not us?

Some insist that the Olivet is a Ground Hog’s day type prophecy such that it was fulfilled in the first century but yet still remains unfulfilled in a much larger worldwide context. But this kind of “double fulfillment” hermeneutic is nowhere sanctioned by any inspired writer of Scripture. It’s solely wrought in the minds of modern-day interpreters. Consider the following pieces to the prophetic verses which cannot possibly support Ground Hog’s day prophecy.

  1. “…but he who stands firm to the end will be saved“. How many ends could Jesus be speaking of?
  2. This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world [oikoumene – Roman Empire] as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will comeSo, how many times must the Gospel be preached to the whole world? And again, how many ends are there?
  3.  Therefore when YOU see the ‘abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (Let the reader understand).” Not only did Jesus say “when YOU see” (clearly referring to His followers) but one wonders how many abomination of desolations there are supposed to be? 
  4. then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains…  How can one flee Judea if they live in Florida? This is clearly 1st-century specific. I have no idea how one can claim that this is a duplicated worldwide 21st-century event.
  5. And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath  If this is speaking of 2017 or beyond, what difference would it make if travel was in the winter or on the Sabbath? By contrast, Sabbath and/or winter journeys in first century Palestine were very tough. Again, is it remotely plausible that Jesus was speaking about events taking place in the 1st-century and then again in the 21st-century?
  6. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.” How can there be the greatest tribulation that shall never be equaled, twice? This verse alone destroys the double fulfillment argument. Taking it a step further, in World War 1 and 2 there was far more death, tragedy, and destruction than was endured in either the Neronic Persecution (which devasted the early church) and the war of the Jews (which completely annihilated Israel), but that’s not the point of this verse or this passage. Jesus was targeting the specific set of circumstances that would never be again.
  7. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened.” How can these be doubly fulfilled? How could “those days have been shortened”, twice? 
  8. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” 

Let us be wise in our interpretations and remember that the Scripture was written FOR us but not directly TO us.

When we begin to get past faulty presuppositions and free ourselves to come to what may at times be uncomfortable conclusions, then we are on the road to gaining a greater appreciation and understanding of God’s word.