Among followers of Jesus, there are two common approaches to Bible prophecy of the end times. The first is to avoid the subject because biblical prophecy is confusing, difficult, and controversial; these believers trust God to sort it all out.
The second common approach is to study the Bible carefully so that we can know, in advance, precisely what is going to happen; various interpretations of the prophetic material results in a number of scenarios.
The Book of Revelation
The key to all this effort is the book of Revelation.
There is no question that the Revelation is a mysterious and fascinating book, but one element often overlooked in approaching Revelation is that it is an example of the apocalyptic literature that was common when it was written. Disregarding this fact leads to irrelevant conclusions.
4 Ezra as an Example of Apocalyptic Literature
Previously, we looked at the First Book of Enoch as an example of apocalyptic literature that has much in common with Revelation; if you have not read that post I encourage you do so. Another apocalyptic work is 4 Ezra, written by a non-Christian Jew about the same time John wrote the Revelation.
4 Ezra was a response to the crisis of the Roman destruction of the temple, and it shares much of the imagery of the book of Revelation. I believe comparisons between the language of the two books are quite apparent.
Behold, the days are coming when those who dwell on earth shall be seized with great terror, and the way of truth shall be hidden, and the land shall be barren of faith…and the sun shall suddenly shine forth at night, and the moon during the day, Blood shall drip from wood, and the stone shall utter its voice; the peoples shall be troubled, and the stars shall fall.
So when there shall appear in the world earthquakes, tumult of peoples, intrigues of nations, wavering of leaders, confusion of princes, then you will know that it was of these that the Most High spoke from the days that were of old, from the beginning.
On the second night I had a dream, and behold, there came up from the sea an eagle that had twelve feathered wings and three heads…And I looked, and behold, on the right side one wing arose, and it reigned over all the earth.
And while it was reigning it came to its end and disappeared, so that its place was not seen. Then the next wing arose and reigned, and it continued to reign a long time. And while it was reigning its end came also so that it disappeared like the first.
And I looked, and behold, a creature like a lion was aroused out of the forest, roaring; and I heard how he uttered a man’s voice to the eagle, and spoke, saying,
“The Most High says to you, ‘Are you not the one who remains of the four beasts which I had made to reign in my world, so that the end of my times might come through them?…you will surely disappear, you eagle, and your terrifying wings…so that the whole earth, freed from your violence, may be refreshed and relieved.’”
Behold, a wind arose from the sea and stirred up all its waves. And I looked, and behold, this wind made something like the figure of a man come up out of the heart of the sea.
And I looked, and behold, that man flew with the clouds of heaven; and wherever he turned his face to look, everything under his gaze trembled, and whenever his voice issued from his mouth, all who heard his voice melted as wax melts when it feels the fire.
After this I looked, and behold, an innumerable multitude of men were gathered together from the four winds of heaven to make war against the man who came up out of the sea.
And I looked, and behold, he carved out for himself a great mountain, and flew up upon it…when he saw the onrush of the approaching multitude, he neither lifted his hand nor held a spear or any weapon of war; but I saw only how he sent forth from his mouth as it were a stream of fire.
All these were mingled together, the stream of fire and the flaming breath and the great storm, and fell on the onrushing multitude which was prepared to fight, and burned them all up.
Understanding the Apocalyptic Tradition
The correspondence between 4 Ezra, the book of Enoch, and the book of Revelation is obvious. The book of Revelation is not unique but is only an example of a genre common when it was written. In order for us to understand the book of Revelation, we must acknowledge it for what it is—a book of comfort for believers living in very stressful times. It is not a prophecy of the end times.
Learning context about something as important as the Bible is a lifelong endeavor, but it is well worth the effort. Trying to grasp the Bible without understanding context and genre has resulted in tremendous confusion. Next time, we will look at one more early apocalyptic book that influenced the imagery of the book of Revelation—Daniel.
I invite your comments and observations below.
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Have a great day! ~Tim