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cripture 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".  Is it that simple?  When we read Peter quoting the prophet Joel in Act 2:19,20 what conclusions do we draw? What assumptions do we make?

19I will show wonders in the heaven aboveImg602.jpg Img247.jpg          
         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)Looking for New Heavens & a New Earth - Part 1Looking for New Heavens & a New Earth - Part 2
         and the moon to blood
         before the coming of the great
         and glorious day of the Lord. Days of  

Is Peter speaking of a yet future 2nd coming of Christ & 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  We reason that these events must still be future since there are no known historical references to "the sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red"; and most of us have heard time and again that the 20"coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord" is going to happen sometime in our lifetime, some 2,000 years removed from the Day of 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)Lesson 30Audio

However, It is at this point that we need to be very discerning not just believing things are so simply because they have been repeated with authority ad infinitum.  If we do we may be in danger of arriving at false conclusions and miss some valuable understanding of God's Word. 

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, 5"Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven" and 6"each one heard them speaking in his own language". 

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

So In verses 15 and 16 it's clear that Peter is interested in offering an explanation to what the people are witnessing.  He says, 15" These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! 16No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:"

When Peter begins to quote Joel, has he gone off on a tangent speaking about things that would take place thousands of years later or did he directly address these wondrous acts of God as current events? 

it appears to be a reasonable assumption that Peter's comments were a direct response to the events at hand.  In the beginning of his quotation of Joel he says something shocking;  17" 'In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people." 

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 & saw a tornado-like wind coming from above; tongues of fireclipart_firelight_010.gif 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 1st century then the next logical question is how could they call something last if time continued?  (click on last for a detailed explanation for another valid explanation as to why this term was used)

Let's move on clipart_firelight_005.gifto 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.  Verses need to be taken in context. 

Here's the 64k question: Has this type of 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 the 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 of Holy Scripture...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 couple 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.

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

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         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 all these verses referring to what is being written in the Left Behind series as the end times?  If not, then did they take place as stated or were they statements meant as a metaphors of destruction?  Let's look at what we know abou the above verses.

    • The first group of verses from Isaiah 13 were clearly referring to the  fall of Babylon to the Medes in 539 BC. (read verse 1)  Are there historical or scientific records that validate any of the physical events that seem to be implied in the above verses!
    • 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 we would assume that the sky actually lost it's light.  Did these events actually take place literally as stated or are these symbolic words of a 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 & the mountains melt or is this type of language referring to God's wrath against a group of people?
    • What was Nahum referencing in Nahum 1:5?  The result of God's presence.  Does His being cause hills to crumble & mountains to quake so that all the world can feel it?
    • Lastly, we have Daniel speaking of stars falling from the sky & then trampled.  In Daniel 8:10 the prophet is referring to the destruction of the Jewish people by Antioch Epiphanes. 

"All of the examples above are sufficient to 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 language we have examined above has the meaning that we have assigned to it, then similar language throughout the Bible can 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 as "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.
 
        31And 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 the words, "Judea," "mountains," "housetop," and "field" must be figurative. This reasoning then supports a literal understanding of ALL words that appear in the text! It is difficult for us to understand how such an argument can be put forth by anyone who has seriously studied the Scriptures. A serious study clearly reveals that writers of the various books of the Bible at times write expressions through a series of figurative terms, but incorporate all of this in the midst of a very plain and understandable narrative of factual (literal) information."1

In closing, learining about apocalyptic language is but one small piece that will ultimately help us put the puzzle together.   It may help to break down artificial walls that are not secured to the foundation.  

Remember to continue to put on your first century glasses when reading the Scripture, especially when attempting to understand prophesy and the study of last things (eschatology).  Surely the Bible was 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 & in the understanding of the the era in which they lived.  It's so temping to read verse 40 in Acts 2, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.", assumed that since we have corruption today that this is a reference to our generation.  Simply because it may apply (when we see our country in moral decline), does not give us the freedom to assume that these verses in Acts, were directed specifically to us.  So let's not be so egocentric and believe that every time statement in the New Testament is referring to the 21st century and beyond.

We must step beyond the finite.  Jesus is the bread of life but we would all agree that his body isn't composed of wheat flour.  When God refers to "the cattle on a thousand hills" we know that the one 1001th hill was not His.  Let's not make the same mistake as those spoken of in John chapter 6.  How did they react to Jesus' statement in John 6:51? "...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?"

The Scripture is repleat with parables, symbolism, forshadowing and apocalyptic language.  If we view the prophesies of Scripture with our 21st century glasses, we will waste our time chasing down rabit trails trying to identity VISA as the mark of the beast or the next Middle East crisis as the sign of the end. 

With everthing that's in you Read Matthew 24 in context as though you were a 1st century Jew - no 21st century presuppositions:

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.

If these words were writen solely for the benefit of those living in our generation then it is this writer's opinion that this was a cruel joke.  When Jesus says in verse 13, "but he who stands firm to the end will be saved", is He telling the truth to the hearer? (for an outstanding series of sermons on Matthew 24 click on this link)

Let us be wise in our interpretations and remember that the Scripture was written for us but not to us. 

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

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1This section is attributed to the author of the CECC website as a part of Learning Activity 30.
 

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