As the liturgical calendar comes to a close, our focus in the liturgy shifts to a more apocalyptic note. The readings on Friday and Saturday come from the book of Daniel and concern the mysterious visions of “one like a Son of Man.” The gospel texts are parables about vigilance regarding the end times.
In our common usage, “apocalyptic” usually means “pertaining to the end of the world.” But this isn’t the precise sense in the Scriptural usage. Apocalypse, after all, comes from a Greek word that means “unveiling” or “revealing.” Apocalyptic literature uses lurid images, often cosmic in scale, to describe events and actions that unveil God’s will to us.
The Book of Revelation—also called John’s Apocalypse—does this in a particular way. Many have seriously misread it, as if it were an elaborately coded message about the end of the world. But this misses the point of John’s Apocalypse. It isn’t about predicting the end times. John the Presbyter wrote it to Christians suffering persecution.
John is caught up to heaven in a vision, and he sees an angel holding a scroll with seven seals. A vision accompanies each seal as it is opened. When the fifth seal is opened, John the Presbyter sees the martyrs standing below the altar. They cry out, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?” (Rev 6:10).
The psalmist complains, “Why, O Lord, do you hold back your hand?” And, “Why do you keep your right hand hidden in your cloak?” (Ps 74). The cry of the martyrs is no different. They long for God to make Himself present and act decisively. This is what the psalmist desires, too. Thus the psalms beg: “Lower your heavens, O Lord, and come down!” And, “Reach down with your hand from on high; rescue me, save me…” (Ps 144).
When we suffer difficulties and distress we also ask, “Where is God?” Or complain to Him, “Why don’t you act?”
To persevere in difficulty we need hope, and that is why the Book of Revelation was written. Hope aims at a future good that is difficult to attain. When we face the arduous problems of life, we need the theological virtue of hope so that we can cling to God. The “unveiling” of God’s will reassures us that He infallibly orders all events with sovereign power—that His perfect goodness will unfailingly give us the fullness of His goodness.
It turns out then, that “apocalypse” is what we really want to get us through life. We want Him to rend the heavens and come down, to bare His mighty arm—to reveal Himself to us. For without it we simply wither away and die.
This should give us pause, for this God Who reveals Himself comes in salvation and in judgment. He is not the God of niceness, but the very God Who appeared to Job in the whirlwind. Perhaps we ought to think about these things when we pray to that mighty God, Whose coming will split the heavens so that they curl up like a scroll, shake the mountains, and lay all the earth utterly waste. And then perhaps we may eagerly pray the final words of the Scriptures: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20)
John Martin, Great Day of His Wrath