Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature

We have to be careful how we interpret the Bible. Most of the time, we are to take His Word literally; it means what it means and says what it says. However, in “apocalyptic” literature or genre, the language is clear, such as the word, “lamb,” which is used often. We know what a lamb is and we may know that Christ is described as a lamb, but do we also know that Jesus is the Lamb… been slain which means that Christ is the sacrifice? A lamb is the common animal that was “slain” and sacrificed for the atonement of sin and used for commerce. Jesus replaces this lamb as the ultimate sacrifice—the sacrifice for our redemption. When you see the word, Lamb, it is most likely referring to sacrifice and our Lord who offers us salvation (John 1:29; 1 Pet. 1:18-20). In contrast to the image of a lion which means Sovereign and Judge, the lamb was considered the weakest of all animals, needing constant attention and care just to survive. A lamb would die in the wild, whereas the lion would thrive. The image of the lamb was common in apocalyptic literature, also meaning victory and power through, and sometimes over death (Ex. 12:12-13; Isaiah 53:7; John 1:29; 21:15; Rev. 17:14). You can see that these images and themes have or will have history and significance.

When we come to words that seem peculiar to our modern minds, such as “stars,” the first-century Jews would know that it meant “angels.” Lampstands meant “churches;” the phrase, “wife of the Lamb” meant “Jerusalem,” and the great prostitute was a covert slogan to refer to “Nero” or any corrupt leader in power. Babylon usually referred to Rome (Rev. 1:20; 17:1-5, 18; 21:9-10). Babylon the Great mainly referred to Isaiah’s mockery of sin and those who follow it as a “harlot” does. It is a contrast of evil governments in antagonism to God and God’s Kingdom, the captivity of the Jews under Babylon and its moral decadence, and the early Christians under Rome, which was also steeped in immorality. This is also a reference to how people are led captive into sin. It was a metaphor that meant to sin and fall into seduction, meaning what lures us away from faith and what replaces faith. The application of this word/term is that seduction becomes corruption; this can range from pagan worship and atheism to following what is fruitless and meaningless while ignoring our Lord. This is not necessarily referring to one specific ominous person or entity or political system, but pointing the faithful to what is evil in general. Nor, does this mean that Babylon will be rebuilt or restored in some way. This theme is about enmity to God and people’s participation in it which is in direct contrast to what Christ offers and is—Pure and Holy (Is. 21:9; Jer. 51:7-8; Dan. 2:35, 4:30; 44; Rev. 13:1-18; 16:19; 17:1-5; 18:3; 18:2, 10, 21, also 4 Ezra).

Another apocalyptic word is star. A star in ancient cultures was a colloquialism for divinities or angels; context is the key. Is it talking about messengers, things to come, or stellar events such as astrology? If it is a message being delivered, it could refer to a mighty angel, or refer to a cosmic disturbance, an Angel or servant, or an instrument of God (Rev. 8:10; 9:1-11; 20:1). Context and commonsense are the keys. These images are “metaphoric,” or symbols of specific themes in judgment. The obvious is that the actuality of this passage is pointing to God’s power, but these events are not necessarily verbatim, as it would be seemingly impossible. How could one star, much less billions upon billions land on this plant that is a billion times a billion smaller? The answer is, it is figurative, and it is a mystery how this will be eventually played out and what we will see. This is a depiction, just as a first century Jew would read and write. What we do know is that it will not be the same! The point of this metaphor is that no one is immune from experiencing God’s judgment. The entirety of the universe will bear witness to God’s will as an incredible phenomenon, displayed in the cosmos, that will herald Christ’s Second Coming (Mark 13:24-26; Luke 2:25-27).

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