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When I was a kid, I used to sit with my dad and listen to baseball games in the cool of his barbershop in the blistering heat of Florida summers. In our neck of the woods, we could only get Yankee games (that’s the NY Yankees for those of you that are not familiar with American baseball). I would sit and listen and try to imagine what it was like to be in the park and watch Mickey Mantle play.
Often, I would hear the announcer say that the batter was looking to the third base coach for a sign. I had no idea what that meant because I had never seen a live baseball game, even a high school game, at that point in my life.
Some years later, after my folks bought the first TV in the little Southern community that I lived in and we finally were able to receive something besides “snow” and an occasion signal, I saw my first major league game.
Then, I understood what signs were, but did not understand what they meant. Baseball signs go all the way back to the late 1800s when a deaf player named Dummy Hoy, certainly not a politically correct way of referring to someone today, requested the third base coach to raise his left hand to indicate a ball and his right hand to indicate a strike. As a deaf player, the pitchers were quick pitching him while he was asking the umpire if the previous pitch was a ball or a strike. So “signs” in baseball was born. They developed into some pretty sophisticated stuff over the years. The purpose: to keep the other team from knowing what is going on as the next possible play.
Ever listened to quarterbacks call plays? They are in code. The players with the code in hand understand what is going to happen; the opposite team, well, they are left to guess what’s coming.
When I was serving in the military in the US Air Force, I had a Top Secret clearance. We would get coded messages and someone had to decode them. If you read the original message, you would have no knowledge about what was being said. You needed the codebook to help understand it.
It is fair to say, that different areas of life have different codes and we have all kinds of codes that we read. We can understand them because we have the code to understand them.
In the first reading of Revelation, we spoke (wrote) briefly about the genre of literature of the book we call Revelation. It is Apocalyptic Literature, and it is early-coded material. If we try to read it as the Left Behind writers have done, along with hundreds of other authors trying to decipher the text, without giving due attention to what the possible codes are, we will surely misread it, misunderstand it, misuse it, and often put words into the mouth of God that he never said and does not intend to say.
When I say “code,” I do not mean some mystical code hidden deep within the words of the book that requires you to have a magic formula to decode words every so often in the text wherein the real message of the text is hidden. I’m not talking about having some kind of urban-legend-decoder ring popular in USAmerica beginning in the 1930s. Nor am I talking about the rash of recent “code” books claiming to help us uncover “hidden” meaning in the text. These books all had a rather Gnostic insider’s feel to them.
Let me confess upfront. I don’t have the codebook. However, I do know something about the kind of literature that the book purports to be. If we get a grasp on that angle, we will have an easier time reading and understanding the text.
Why Apocalyptic Literature?
In the story of the First Testament, we discover that Israel had an undefeated and indestructible hope that they were the chosen people of God (Genesis 12.1-9).
The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him.
From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev (NIV).
From Abraham forward, the Jews began to believe that they were destined to be the greatest nation in the world and would eventually have world supremacy because they were the people of God. Solomon was viewed as the apex of this nationalistic belief.
The Hebrew prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. still cherished the hope that Israel’s repentance and renewal would lead to a recovery of this lost ideal. The term day of the Lord, which denoted the desire for God to intervene and promote Israel to a superior place, was ever-present in the message of the prophets. Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who were prophets of the Exile, and believed that Israel would be restored and revived in her homeland. They believed that Israel, as a purified nation, would fulfill her appointed destiny in the world and she would have a new king from the family of David.
Prophetic hopes were nourished through the Babylonian Exile (586–536 B.C.). It was difficult for them to reconcile that they were God’s chosen people who were destined for world supremacy, but yet they were captive in a foreign land first by Assyria, then by Babylon, then Medo-Persia, and later Rome, with only a brief respite during the Maccabean period.
Captivity and Exposure to Zoroastrianism (A Stimuli for the Hebrews)
Added to this onset of pessimism and rejection was the contact that Israel had in the Exile with some ideas of Iranian religion. This ancient form of Persian Zoroastrianism taught:
- A cosmic struggle between good and evil.
- A hope of the sudden arrival of a god on the earth.
- A resurrection and judgment of all humankind.
- A world destroyed by fire.
- A final victory of a god with a new beginning of world history.
The Restoration Period showed a rise in this kind of literature, (Ezek. 40.1-48.35; Daniel 7.1-12:13; and Zech. 1.1-14.21).
The Intervention of God (Intertestamental / Second Temple Judaism)
When one lives with expectations but finds no resolution for the expectations, a feeling can often rise that nothing can be done about the present situation. This happened to Israel during this long period of time. They believed that God must intervene in human affairs and fulfill his promises to them as a nation. They still held the conviction that their destiny was to be the greatest nation that would afford them world supremacy, but they discovered that they had to adjust the present situation.
The Development of Time
In this segment of their history, the Jews developed a belief about how time occurred. How were their expectations going to play out and be fulfilled? How could they understand where they were in God’s plan. From this period of turmoil in their national history, they developed the following way of thinking about time.
The Present Age
The present age was wholly and totally bad. It was beyond redemption and could not be transformed. There was only one way out: total destruction. The Jews waited for the end of all things as they were.
The Age to Come
The age to come was wholly and totally good and righteous. It was the Golden Age in which God would be in charge. In this age, God’s chosen people would at last be vindicated. They would receive their rightful place in world history. Out of this development of their concept of time arose an obvious question: How was the present age to become the future age?
What was the transition? The transition would be when God would blast the present age out of existence. The day when God would come to destroy the present age was called the day of the Lord.
The Day of the Lord
The day of the Lord would be a terrible time of terror, destruction, and judgment. During this time, things as they are would be totally destroyed. The day of the Lord would be the birth pangs of the new age to come. Apocalyptic Literature is set within the background of these events: the present age which is evil; the transition period which is the day of the Lord; and the age to come, which would be the golden age of good with God in charge.
What is Apocalyptic Literature?
Apocalyptic Literature is literature that is composed of dreams and visions. There are five features that historically mark most examples of Apocalyptic Literature.
- Visionary Experience. The visionary experience of the seer would announce the content of his message, which was usually conveyed in an extended dialogue between himself and a heavenly counterpart (e.g., Zech. 1.18f.; 4.1). The writer is visibly overcome by the situation which meets him, usually the encounter with a heavenly reality. He may fall into a trance, or lie prostrate on the ground, or manifest great agitation in his spirit.
- Ancient Names. The use of ancient names like Enoch, Abraham, Moses, and Ezra to conceal the identity of the seer is a common device, which leads to the description of Apocalyptic Literature as pseudonymous, though there was no intention on the writer’s part to deceive the reader.
- Dualistic. The present struggle between God’s people on earth and their enemies is unequal because of the cosmic setting of the real conflict. Their thought is dualistic. They see the earthly struggle of the Jewish people in light of the great rivalry between God and his enemy, Satan, or Belial, or Mastema, or Azazel. The ultimate victory of God is assuredly predetermined.
- Symbolic Language. Because the setting of the apocalyptic literature is other-worldly, it is natural that the language used is symbolic and dramatic. Angels and demons are the contestants. They engage one another through the medium of mythological and zoological figures, such as dragons, monsters, members of the animal kingdom, and species of reptiles.
- Hope and Encouragement. The apocalyptic writer addressed a message of hope and encouragement to his readers as well as a call for patience in the interim between the dark present and the glorious future.
It was necessary for it to be cryptic, i.e., use symbols and pictures. There was a continual attempt to describe the indescribable, to say the unsayable, and to paint the unpaintable.
The more tyranny, the more vengeance one wanted! The more held down, the hotter the vision of deliverance. Events were written in code. They were deliberately couched in language which was unintelligible to an outsider. Many events will remain covered because the code is lost.
It would appear that the more you know about the historical background and the situation of such books, the better you can interpret and grasp their meaning.
A List of Jewish Apocalypses
The Book of Enoch contains visions of world history and the history of Israel, from the time of Enoch to the present-day, and looks toward the impending end. The Sibylline Oracles were written in Greek by a Hellenistic Jewish apologist who was thought to imitate the pagan oracles. The Ascension of Isaiah has a definitely Christian character and contains a prediction of the prophet’s death, being sawed in two. The Assumption of Moses was written originally in Aramaic but extant only in a Latin translation or an earlier Greek translation. Moses is portrayed as predicting the history of Israel from the time of the entry into Canaan to the time of the writing. The Apocalypse of Baruch contains a discussion on the problem of suffering and evil and provides an answer: the present evil age will soon pass from existence and the Messianic age will come. Fourth Ezra records seven visions given to Ezra in Babylon. It contains much imagery and phraseology that appear in the New Testament, especially in the Book of Revelation.
- Book of Enoch. Known as 1 Enoch or Ethiopic Enoch, dating from c. 170 B.C. and following. It contains visions of world history and the history of Israel, from the time of Enoch to the present-day, and looks toward the impending end. It is by far the most important of the nonbiblical apocalypses. Read the Book of Enoch here.
- The Sibylline Oracles. Written in Greek by a Hellenistic Jewish apologist who was thought to imitate the pagan oracles. Words are put into the mouth of a prophetess named Sibyl who is identified as Noah’s daughter-in-law, who purports to predict the course of world history and the coming of the Messianic age with its peace and prosperity. Read The Sibylline Oracles here.
- The Ascension of Isaiah. It has a definitely Christian character and contains a prediction of the prophet’s death by being sawed in two. Read The Ascension of Isaiah here.
- The Assumption of Moses. It was written originally in Aramaic but extant only a Latin translation or an earlier Greek translation. Its date is somewhere between A.D. 6–30. Moses is portrayed as predicting the history of Israel from the time of the entry into Canaan to the time of the writing. The book centers on the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes (169-164 B.C.) and has a pronouncement concerning the coming Kingdom of God and the end of the world. Read The Assumption of Moses here.
- The Apocalypse of Baruch. This book is closely related to 2 Ezra’s dating (A.D. 100-130). It contains a discussion on the problem of suffering and evil and provides an answer: the present evil age will soon pass from existence and the Messianic age will come. Read The Apocalypse of Baruch here.
- Fourth Ezra. This book is a mixture of Jewish and Christian thoughts. Dating A.D. 90–100, it records seven visions given to Ezra in Babylon. It contains much imagery and phraseology which appears in the NT especially in the book of Revelation. Read Fourth Ezra here.
Christian Apocalypse: REVELATION
The book of Revelation was written using the pattern of two ages (the present evil age and the age to come) with a transition period (the day of the Lord). The major difference between the Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic is the Second Coming in Revelation is often thought to equal the day of the Lord in Jewish Apocalyptic writings.➨ About DrWinn
Winn Griffin has functioned as a publisher, Bible teacher, pastor, and writer for over forty years. He has taught in the church, college, and university systems during that time. He is the founder and president of Seeing the Bible Live Ministries and Publisher at HarmonPress.
He loves spending time with his family, collecting baseball cards, watching movies, eating banana sandwiches, traveling, reading mystery stories as pBooks and eBooks on his Kindle, and watching sports. He has been awarded a Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts and two Doctor of Ministry degrees. His first doctorate was in Biblical Studies while his second doctoral program was at George Fox University, Portland, OR, in Leadership in the Emerging Culture. He is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature.
He is happily married to Donna Faith and they have three adult children: son and daughter-in-law and one daughter and live in Washington State.
- George Eldon Ladd. A Commentary on the Revelation of John
- Leon Morris. The Book of Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries)
- Robert H. Mounce. The Book of Revelation (The New International Commentary on the New Testament)
- Robert H. Gundry. Church and the Tribulation: A Biblical Examination of Posttribulationism
- Gordon D. Fee. Revelation (New Covenant Commentary Series)
- Marvin Pate, et al. Four Views on the Book of Revelation (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) Part of Counterpoints: Bible and Theology (31 Books) | by Zondervan.