But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken…And I will show wonders in the heaven above, and signs on the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke: the sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the day of the Lord come.
Matthew 24.29; Acts 2.19-20
What a calamity, what a terrifying event! Surely it must signal the end of the world, the collapse of the universe, and the Final Judgment. But that’s not what is under consideration. Those passages describe two separate events that occurred approximately forty years apart in the first century AD. They are but two examples of an ancient and intriguing literary form known as “apocalyptic.”
Nothing in modern literature compares with apocalyptic expression. It flourished for brief periods of time in Palestine among Jewish writers between the seventh century BC and the end of the first century AD and reflected directly upon the religious and political conditions existing during that period.
Apokalupsis (apocalypse) is a Greek word meaning “to reveal, uncover, or disclose.” However, its method of revealing employs graphic and often grotesque images and figures, making the message impossible to understand to the unschooled reader.
Apocalyptic writers saw themselves and their nation as victims of cruel aggression by heathen, godless enemies. They sought to magnify the conflict between good and evil. Therefore, the scenes depicting good are always filled with brilliant light, myriads of angels, majestic thrones, and invincible warrior-kings, while the scenes of evil are dark and foreboding with headless martyrs sprawled beneath the feet of alluring harlots who work in concert with horrible monsters to achieve the ultimate evil end, the complete overthrow of righteousness. To be sure, literal battles were fought, and people were physically oppressed and persecuted, but the apocalyptic writers saw the real war as being waged “in the heavenlies,” in the spiritual realm.
Everything in the apocalyptist’s environment was subject to an alternative identity. Colors were used to represent warring factions. Even numbers assumed sinister meanings, for example the number “666” in the book of Revelation. Seven is a number representing deity, perfection, and completeness. Six falls just short of being divine, just short of being complete and perfect. So “666” is the ultimate expression of incompleteness, failure, and ungodliness.
The sun, moon, stars, and heavenly bodies are portrayed as the kings, kingdoms, and authorities of the world. Thus the fall of a king or kingdom would be described as a heavenly calamity — the sun would go out, the moon would not shine, the stars would fall, and the heavens would be rolled up. Isaiah 13.10 is a passage describing the fall of Babylon, but the writer describes her fall in apocalyptic imagery:
For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; the sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will not shed its light.
Another example is Isaiah 3.3-4, a prophecy concerning the destruction of Edom, a small and insignificant kingdom southeast of Judah in the Negev desert. Yet at her fall,
All the host of heaven will wear away, the sky will be rolled up like a scroll.
Obviously the world did not end with Babylon or Edom. They have been gone for over 2500 years, and the sun continues to shine, the moon still beams, and the stars still twinkle. Similarly, the passages quoted at the beginning refer to the same kind of events. The first, Matthew 24.29, describes the fall of the Jewish nation, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the Temple. That event occurred in AD 70 when the Romans sacked Jerusalem. The second reference, Acts 2.19-20, is a quote from an Old Testament prophet (Joel 2.28-32), and in his Pentecost sermon, Peter states that the events taking place at the time he was speaking were the fulfillment of the Joel prophecy. In other words, a transition of power and authority from one dispensation to another was occurring, the end of one covenant and the beginning of a new one.
Apocalyptic writing is figurative literary expression. Whereas it certainly describes actual events, it portrays them in images that cannot and must not be taken literally. For all its mystery, its wonder, and its fascinating imagery, apocalyptic is essentially an enormous hyperbole!