Dear Sisters and Brothers,
One of those big scary words that is tossed around from horror movies to fire-and-brimstone sermons is Apocalypse, an old Greek word that meant “to uncover or disclose.” But these days the word is usually meant as “end of the world,” but we need to remember that most endings are also beginnings.
The oldest apocalyptic story in the Bible comes in Genesis chapters in seven, eight, and nine. It is the story of the Great Flood and Noah’s ark. Although it is a story about how the world ended, it is also the story of how the world had a fresh start. All apocalyptic stories can be seen that way; a dramatic ending followed by rebirth.
In Mark 9, Jesus begins to talk about “the kingdom of God coming in power.” He speaks of a new beginning that is also an end of the world as it is.
In the thousand years between King David and Jesus, apocalyptic stories had become widespread in different religions around the Mediterranean. The religion of the Magi (in present-day Iraq) took to it very seriously and were probably the first people to say “Repent, for the end of the world is nigh.” They believed in two gods that were opposed to each other would eventually fight and sort things out. The ancient Greeks with their whole pantheon of gods and goddesses also latched on to the idea.
The main books of the Bible that resemble the apocalyptic stories of the Greeks are the later chapters of Daniel, and the New Testament book of Revelations. The visions and prophesies tend to resemble the dreams described and interpreted by Joseph in the book of Genesis (chapters 37 to 41).
And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
This is understood as an apocalyptic statement. A new beginning is coming for the world, so the world is also ending. It may be a reference to the timing of Christ’s return to the Earth after his ascension into heaven, but also may be a reference to his own death and resurrection… or the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
Then we move into the story of the Transfiguration, which also has something to say about the end and rebirth of the world.
After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.
And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”
In the Transfiguration the three central disciples (Peter, James, and John) see Jesus revealed as something more than they had previously seen. Jesus is seen speaking with Moses and Elijah (the lawgiver and the great prophet) though we are not told what they said. Immediately, Peter tries to suggest that they build enclosures so this moment can be stretched out for days, but a voice comes from above, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” And suddenly things return to normal and Moses and Elijah are gone. The message from the Father is still fresh when they make their way down the hill. Does the message mean that the disciples should listen to Jesus more than to Moses and Elijah? Or does the message simply mean, “Quiet down and pay attention to my Son?” We don’t know the precise answer. Jesus tells them to not mention this event until after they had witnessed “the Son of Man raised from the dead.”
As they come down the hill, we find that the three disciples are having a deep conversation about “rising from the dead” and what it might mean. But what they ask Jesus is about the return of Elijah before the Apocalypse (as taught by the Scribes).
Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.”
The most common interpretation of this text is that Jesus is making a reference to John the Baptist, who had somehow embodied the predicted return of the prophet Elijah… to usher in the new age. This parallels things said in the three other Gospels. Since the Bible has no other stories that resemble “reincarnation,” we don’t know how to take this except to say that John the Baptist was exactly like the prophet Elijah or Elijah’s spirit somehow lived within him. If this interpretation is wrong, then we don’t know what Jesus means about the return of Elijah.
We tend to read all apocalyptic stories about the future, but most of them are about things that happened long ago. Apocalyptic stories foretold events like the defeat of the Jews and their imprisonment in Babylon six centuries before Christ. Other stories included prophesies of destruction at the hands of the Greeks and the Romans (that happened between 325 BC and 74 AD). The book of Revelations is primarily about events in the first and second centuries. But we read verses like Mark 9:1 as if they were written about people of our generation, when Jesus is clearly talking about the disciple’s generation.
For every rebirth of the world there is an ending. For the core of Christian belief, the last day of the Old World was Good Friday (the crucifixion day of Christ). Easter is the story of how the new world began, a world where death no longer had the last word. The world of being judged by your deeds died with Jesus on the cross. On Easter morning, the world was reborn as Jesus rose from the tomb. That is our central apocalyptic story.
Through the first century people expected another Apocalypse to come at any moment. There was a strong belief that the Second Coming (the bodily Return of Christ) would happen before the death of the last eyewitnesses to the Gospel events. Many people expected the second coming would happen soon after the harsh Roman persecution of the church in 64 AD. As the first century was ending, many Christians thought the return of Jesus was long overdue. That was nineteen centuries ago.
So, we continue to wait for the return of Jesus, though he also tells us “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20)
Predicting “the Apocalypse” has been a Christian past-time for eighty generations. There is something very dramatic and strangely hopeful in wanting to see your oppressors destroyed and the world renewed to its former pristine glory. But our task is not to stand around and predict when Jesus will come to the rescue. Our task is to be faithful sharers of God’s love and to embody Jesus to the world until he comes or until we die and join him in heaven. Our task is also to be caretakers of the earth that God has put our hands. We are responsible for the care of all people and all nature, until the day that Jesus relieves us of that responsibility.
It is okay to ponder prophesies but be aware that they are often distorted to sell books and to manipulate people with fear. But in the deeper sense, it is always Good Friday and Easter. Apocalyptic theories often distract people from more fruitful Christian endeavors. Death dies with Christ and new life comes with the promise of a new day.
Questions to Ponder: Why should any world event terrify us if we already have the promise of salvation in Jesus Christ? Should we spend our time waiting and wondering about Christ’s return or should we let him guide our actions today?