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Eliphas Levi

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Biblical apocalyptics

by Milton Spenser Terry


The Greek word Apocalypse (d.noKdXwpi<;) means an uncovering, or laying open to view; a disclosure. This idea has been, through Latin ecclesiastical literature, transferred into our language by the word Revelation. Both these words have become common in theological literature, but in English usage the term revelation has acquired a wider meaning, and is employed to denote the entire body of religious truth as set forth in the Holy Scriptures, while the word Apocalypse is confined more particularly to the last book of the New Testament canon, and to a number of pseudepigraphical works of a similar literary character. In the language of the New Testament, however, the word apocalypse denotes a divine revelation of something that was before unknown to men. The salvation introduced by the coming of Jesus Christ is spoken of as a light destined to serve as an apocalypse to the nations of the earth (Luke ii, 32). The Gospel itself is said (in Rom. xvi, 25, 26) to be an apocalypse of the mystery of redemption through Christ, which was kept in silence from eternity until preached by Jesus and his apostles. Paul declared that he received his gospel, not from man, but through an apocalypse of Jesus Christ (Gal. i, 12); and many years later, acting in conformity with an apocalypse, he went up to Jerusalem and laid before the brethren a statement of the Gospel which he preached among the Gentiles (Gal. ii, 2). He claimed also to have been favored with visions and a superabundance of apocalypses (2 Cor. xii, 1, 7). But in a manner to be more particularly observed is the heavenly manifestation of Jesus Christ himself, in his execution of judgment on the wicked and awarding glory to the righteous, called "the apocalypse of the Lord Jesus" (1 Cor. i, 7; 2 Thess. i, 7; 1 Peter i, 7, 13 ; iv, 13). It is called in Rom. ii, 5, an "apocalypse of the righteous judgment of God." In special harmony with this idea the one prophetic book of the New Testament is entitled the "Apocalypse of Jesus Christ."

An apocalypse is in its nature associated with prophecy ; for no genuine prophet of God goes forth with an authoritative word except he first receive some manner of heavenly apocalypse. But we must distinguish between apocalypse and prophecy. Paul recognizes this distinction in 1 Cor. xiv, 6. Apocalypse is to be understood especially of the heavenly disclosure, in the reception of which the man is comparatively passive ; prophecy denotes rather the inspired human activity, the uttering forth of the truth revealed within. He who receives an apocalypse sees, hears, feels, realizes in some way that the "hand of God" is upon him, making known within his soul what was not thus known before; but he who prophesies proclaims the word of revelation, and may accompany it with exhortation, warning, and rebuke. The apocalypse is generally concerned with impending or future events; the prophesying may deal alike with things past, present, or future. Where the subject-matter of a prophetical book consists mainly of instruction, expostulation, threatening, or rebuke, we call it prophecy, and think especially of the personal human activity that gives utterance to the word; when, however, it consists mainly of visions of the unseen world, symbolical descriptions, and a forecasting of future judgments and mercies, we call it apocalypse, and think of extra human and supernatural disclosures.

The biblical apocalypses, therefore, are those sacred books and portions of books which contain revelations or disclosures of God's view of things. They unfold a concept of the world and of man which may be thought of as the superior gift of one who has been exalted above the world, and has looked upon the movements of "many peoples and nations and languages and kings" as they appear before the throne of God. Such revelations magnify the idea of God's interposition in all the affairs of men and nations. They emphasize with mighty assurance the doctrine that the wickedness of the wicked must sooner or later meet righteous retribution, and that the obedient children of God shall be crowned with glory. They accordingly admonish us that the world had a beginning, has its cycles and ages and dispensations, and moves steadily onward to a divinely foreseen goal. Many of the questions of biblical eschatology fall properly within the domain of apocalyptics, and should be studied in the light of the fully developed organism of the biblical revelations.

Biblical apocalyptics has for its province that entire body of canonical literature which represents the idea of special divine revelation as above defined. Its scope is therefore very extensive. It aims by means of pictorial communications to disclose what is important for man to know about the creation and government of the world by the ever-living God. The most ancient traditions of Israel embody truths which appear, in some oases, to be cast in apocalyptic form, but the more notable apocalypses are devoted to the disclosure of God's purposes of judgment and salvation. Especially do they reveal the kingdom of God in its age-enduring conflict with the powers of evil. Many of these revelations were given in times of trouble and discouragement, when the people of God were suffering bitter wrongs. The inspired seer was enabled to look beyond the evils of his own times and behold the great day of the Lord approaching. Beyond the great and terrible day of divine judgment on the evildoers he saw a blessed golden age in which all wrongs were to be recompensed, and eternal dominion and power and glory were to become the portion of the true servants of God.

2. Idea And Methods Of Revelation.

The first clear perception of any truth as it dawns upon the human understanding may be properly called a revelation. It may come in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, or it may come gradually, and after long and laborious search. It is as truly a revelation in the one case as in the other. It may come as an intuition of the soul; it may be suggested by the word or action of another; it may be given in a dream, and so vividly as to impress one with an ideal never to be forgotten. It may be communicated by the direct and formal impartation of a thought from one intelligent person to another. But whenever a new idea gets possession of a man, no matter when, where, or in what manner he acquires it, it is of the nature of an apocalypse. How many have said, upon perceiving some new truth, "That was a revelation to me!"

God revealed himself to the Hebrew prophets in many separate communications and in many different modes (Heb. i, 1). As modes of revelation visions and dreams are mentioned in Num. xii, 6. When Abraham was about to receive a momentous disclosure of the woes and triumphs of his posterity it is said that a deep sleep and a horror of great darkness fell upon him (Gen. xv, 12). Probably all men have at some period of their lives been deeply impressed by images conveyed to them in dreams. When the eyes are closed in sleep, and the conscious operations of sense are suspended, there often come upon the soul vivid reminiscences of recent cares, or pictures of impending trouble, and sometimes startling premonitions of events to come. These may or may not be revelations, but it is easy to see that they may be the method by which a revelation can be conveyed to the mind. Jacob's dream at Bethel was a real apocalypse of the great future of his posterity in the history of redemption. The dreams of Joseph and of Pharaoh were symbolic revelations of things that were to come. In Judg. vii, 13, 14, we read of the presageful dream of a Midianite, which inspired one party with dismay and another with triumphant hope. Nebuchadnezzar's dream and Daniel's night vision (Dan. ii and vii) are conspicuous elements of the most formally apocalyptic book of the Old Testament. Such premonitory dreams are wont to leave a spell of trouble on the soul (comp. Dan. ii, 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 15, 28; Gen. xli, 8), and the impression may remain for years.

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