Prophetic Apocalyptic Language
Note: The following material has been contributed to this web site by Jim Gunter, firstname.lastname@example.org
This material is a continuation of Position Paper #15 on this web site and that Position Paper should be read prior to reading this one.
Joel 2:28-32—God’s Judgment on the House of Judah and Jerusalem:
The next old testament judgment prophecy that I would like to examine is the prophecy by Joel in Joel 2. In this entire chapter, God, through the prophet Joel, pronounced judgment on His own people, the house of Judah, the vast majority of whom had forsaken the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, and were playing the harlot. Their history is one of disobedience and idolatry, as was her sister, the house of Israel. In 721 B. C., Yahweh had given the house of Israel a writ of divorce (Jer. 3:8), and delivered them into the hands of the Assyrians, at which time their “kingdom” came to an end, as they were taken captive and dispersed among the nations (Gentiles).
Sadly enough, Judah did not learn from the plight of the house of Israel (ten northern tribes). As Yahweh said: she (Judah) “was more treacherous than her sister Israel” [Jeremiah 3:8-11]. God even sent her away into 70 years of exile in Babylon, albeit, she still forsook her Lord. By the time of the first coming of Jesus, Judah had become nothing less than a rotten, putrefying corpse [See Matthew 23:29-38; 24:28]!
In vss. 28-32 of Joel’s prophecy, God said:
“And it will come about after this, that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; And your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions, and even on the male and female servants, I will pour out My Spirit in those days. And I will display wonders in the sky and on the earth, blood, fire, and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who escape [Matthew 24:16 – believers in Jesus – the righteous remnant or elect of Judah – jg], as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls” [See also Matthew 24:16].
I’m sure you would agree with me that this is one of the most quoted passages (at least part of it) in the Scriptures. We recognize it as prophecy from which Peter quoted a portion on the Day of Pentecost [Acts 2:16-21]. At that great event, the apostles (who were Galileans) were proclaiming the Word of God to Jews from every nation under heaven, in their own native tongues. This being, because the apostles were endowed with the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit (the gift of tongues being one of those gifts). As this was noised abroad, some of the Jews were mocking and charging the apostles with drunkenness. In response to that charge, Peter offered Joel’s prophecy as evidence that what they were witnessing, was exactly what the prophet Joel had prophesied centuries earlier. But my dear friends, as wonderful as that part of the prophecy is, it seems that most of the time, when we read from Peter’s quote on Pentecost [Acts 2:16-21], we seem to give all of our attention to only three verses [See Acts 2:16-18], while seemingly just brushing hurriedly over vss. 19-21. These verses say:
“And I will grant wonders in the sky above, and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and vapor (columns) of smoke, before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come. And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Why, just look at the treasure trove of information in those words! For sure, these verses should not be separated from the rest, but should remain in concert with the verses preceding them; all as a unit! The reason for this is because they are all parts of the same prophecy! Please let us now look further into that prophecy?
First, we clearly see signs and symbols that were very similar to those that appeared in all the other “old testament” prophetic passages we examined. And we found that all of the signs and symbols were indicative of things centered around “God’s judgment” on a nation of people. So I would ask, why should it be any different in this case? Surely, if we are shown what those signs and symbols meant in the “old testament,” what possible reason could there be, to assume that they would mean something entirely different in the “new testament scriptures?” Obviously, 1st century Jewish disciples would not have understood them any differently! Am I making sense here? If you would please look in both Peter’s quotation of Joel [Acts 2:16-21], and also Joel’s original prophecy [Joel 2:28-32], I believe you will conclude that it is indeed a prophecy of God’s judgment on the house of Judah, Jerusalem, and the temple, when Jesus wielded His sword of judgment (the Romans and their allies) on them in 70 A.D. Moreover, regarding this same prophecy of Joel, the apostle Peter tells us, in about 65 A.D. (only about 5 years before its fulfillment), “the end of all things is at hand…”[1 Peter 4:7]. The same “all things” of which Jesus spoke in Luke 21:22. James, who wrote in the same time period as Peter, in James 5:9, clearly said: “…behold the Judge is standing right at the door.”
Judgment and Salvation to come Simultaneously:
I also believe you will see in this prophecy of Joel, that there was both salvation and judgment prophesied, and would be fulfilled within the same time-frame; “salvation” for those Israelites who would accept their Messiah and the gospel, and “judgment” for those Israelites who would not.
Some well-meaning believers insert a time gap of at least 2,000 years between Acts 2:16-18 and 19-20. They apply vss. 16-18 to Pentecost and then apply vss. 19-20 to a perceived future “end of the world.” Then they pick up with vs. 21 and apply it and the rest of the chapter to Pentecost. Perhaps the reason for this is because they cannot envision how “judgment and salvation” could come within the same time-frame.
But please look again with me, briefly, at a portion of Joel’s prophecy from which Peter quoted—[Joel 2:31-32]. He said:
“The sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and awesome Day of the Lord come. And, it will come about that, whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered. For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, there will be those who escape, and the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls.”
Notice Joel’s uses of the phrases, “will be delivered,” “those who escape,” and “the survivors.” Very interesting, I believe! Please notice that all of the things of which Joel spoke were to take place “in those days [vs. 29].” Yes, the same “those days” in which God said He would, “pour out His Spirit upon all flesh [vs.28]:” the same “those days” in which He would, “display wonders in the sky and on the earth [vss. 30-31].” Good folks, I must say, I find that very interesting to say the least; so interesting that it causes me to ask such questions as these:
1. Who are those that were to be “delivered?”
2. From what were they to be “delivered?”
3. Who are those who would “escape?”
4. From what would they “escape?”
5. Why are those who would escape, “in Jerusalem?”
6. Who are the “survivors?”
7. What would they “survive?”
Because the old covenant scriptures have by now, clearly established for us the meaning of prophetic, apocalyptic language, we will now proceed into the new covenant scriptures, for it is there where we will find the answers to each of the seven questions above regarding Joel’s prophecy.
Let us first consider those whom Joel said would be “delivered” and those who would “escape.” Good folks, I believe these are the same faithful Jews that we read of in such passages as Mat. 24:16 and Lk. 12:32, that is, the remnant of faithful Jews/the little flock who accepted the Lord Jesus as their Messiah during the 40-year transitional period from Pentecost (30 A.D.) to the “last days Judgment,” which was to come upon the house of Judah, Jerusalem, and the temple, in 70 A.D. I would like to demonstrate this by use of the words of our Master Himself, beginning in Matthew, chapter 23.
Here, Jesus is speaking in the temple for the last time before His arrest. Here, He verbally blistered the unbelieving Jews, especially the chief priests, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees! In this discourse, He charged them with, not only their gross hypocrisy, but also with “the murder of the prophets” [vss. 34, 37]. And please note carefully where He said, that upon “them” (i. e., unbelieving 1st century Jews – jg) would fall the guilt of “all” the righteous blood from Abel to one of God’s prophets named Zechariah [vs. 35]. He further said in vs. 36:
“Truly, I say to you, all these things shall come upon ‘this generation’ (that then-present, 1st century generation-jg).”
Of their temple, Jesus said in vs. 38:
“Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!”
Matthew 24: Judgment Pronounced in the Olivet Discourse:
Immediately following those words, Jesus and His apostles left the temple. This brings us then to chapter 24 where Jesus, to His disciples, gave what is commonly referred to as, “His Olivet Discourse.”
Folks, in my view, this chapter is of utmost importance because it is the chapter in which the Master, from a back-drop of that old testament imagery, uses the same language as the prophets to describe the fall of Jerusalem, the temple, and the Jewish nation. This monumental event of 70 A. D., would bring a complete end to the old covenant or Mosaic age [Daniel 9:26-27; Daniel 12:9, 13; Matthew 24:3, 14]. For sure, by this time the inspired writer of Hebrews wrote his epistle in about 64 A.D., the old Mosaic covenant was “becoming obsolete, growing old, and thus ready to disappear” [Heb. 8:13].
Now as Jesus and His apostles depart from the temple, His disciples pointed out to Him, all the great, elegant, and beautiful buildings that comprised the temple complex. At this time, their Master said to them in Matthew 24:2:
“Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down.”
We can only imagine how utterly shocked and perplexed the apostles must have been to hear such an announcement from their Lord! And so they asked Him in vs. 3:
“Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of Your coming (Greek-parousia), and the end of the age” (Gr. “aion,” meaning “age,” not world or planet-jg).
Before telling them exactly what the “sign” of His “coming” would be, He first informed them of some terrible things that were going to happen prior to “the sign” they had asked for; things of which He gave them warning, so as to not be misled or caught off-guard [vs. 4]. Those things were:
1. Many false Christ’s would appear [vs. 5].
2. They would hear of wars and rumors of wars. But the end is not yet! [vs. 6].
3. Nation would rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom [vs. 7].
4. Famines, pestilences, and earthquakes would come [vs. 7].
5. Many among the apostles and disciples, would be delivered up, and killed [vs. 9].
6. There would be a great falling away [vs. 10–See also Acts 20:29-30; 2 Thessalonians 2:2-3, 5-7].
7. Many false prophets would come [vs. 11- See also 2 Peter 3:2; Jude 4:17-18].
8. The love of many to grow cold [vs. 12].
The Gospel would then be preached to the whole world [vs. 14]. After this had been accomplished, then “the end” would come. Paul declares at the time he wrote his epistle to the Colossians, that the preaching of the gospel to the whole world (Roman empire) had been accomplished [Colossians 1:23; Romans 10:18b].
And finally, it is in vs. 15, where Jesus tells His apostles exactly what the sign would be, of which they had inquired in vs. 3. He said:
“Therefore, when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand).”
And so it was then, that the believers were to recognize that Jerusalem’s desolation was at hand, because those were, “the days of vengeance in order that all things which are written may be fulfilled” [Luke 21:20, 22].
Matthew records Jesus saying, that when that happened, there would come:
“a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall be” [Matthew 24:21].
This would be the same tribulation of which Daniel prophesied in Daniel 12:1. Daniel said:
“…And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued” [Comp. Matthew 24:16].
Good folks, it is here, that I will invoke those words of Joel’s prophecy. I’m sure you remember that he said there would be those, “who would escape from Judea” [Joel 2:32]; those “who would be delivered” [vs. 32]; those “who would be survivors” [vs. 32]. In light of those statements, please consider now Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:16; Luke 21:20-22, as He warned His apostles:
“Then let those who are in Judea, flee to the mountains. Let him that is on the housetop not go down to get the things out that are in his house…” [Matthew 24:16].
“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is at hand. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are in the midst of the city depart, and let not those who are in the country enter the city; because these are days of vengeance, in order that all things which are written may be fulfilled” [Luke 21:20-22].
Yes, these would be the same Roman armies, of whom the angel told Daniel, would “finish shattering the power of the holy people (house of Judah–jg)” [Daniel 12:7].
Good folks, to me it seems clear, that as a result of Jesus’ warning to His apostles (who would, in turn, teach all other disciples in Judea), to flee to the mountains when they saw the Roman armies and their allies surrounding the city. And in this way, they would be “delivered (saved).” They “escaped” from Jerusalem; they were “survivors” because they did in fact, “flee to the mountains.” Josephus recorded that the Jewish Christians fled Jerusalem, to the city of Pella, in the hills of Perea, with no record of any of them perishing! Just as a side note, it’s also interesting that this statement, “flee to the mountains,” is the source of our idiom, “head for the hills.”
Dear believer, in light of this testimony, it is much clearer to me now, why Peter kept exhorting the Jews on Pentecost to,”be saved from this perverse generation” [Acts 2:40]. The KJV renders it, “save yourselves from this untoward generation!” For many years, it was my understanding that Peter, here, had reference to their, “being saved from their sins.” But, I can see now that I was mistaken. Peter had already given them instructions concerning forgiveness of their sins back in vs. 38. But those 3,000 Jews, who became Christians that day, were subsequently instructed by the apostles of Jesus, of the same imminent destruction spoken by Jesus to His apostles in Matthew 24. In my own mind, those particular words of Peter implied that their submission to Jesus and the gospel, would not only save them from their sins, but at the same time, by way of subsequent instruction from the apostles, would save them from the great tribulation and destruction that he quoted from Joel’s prophecy, which was soon to be fulfilled.
Let us now go back to that prophetic, apocalyptic language that Jesus used to describe exactly what would happen immediately after the great tribulation of Matthew 24:21. In vss. 29-31, He said:
[vs. 29] “…the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky and the powers of the heavens will be shaken, [vs. 30] and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. [vs. 31] And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.”
What I would like to call to your attention in this passage, are the words of Jesus in vs. 30 which say: “…and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds…”
Do you remember in our study of the old covenant scriptures, we found that the figurative phrase “coming on the clouds” was used frequently as a symbol or sign. For example, the picture of God coming in judgment of Egypt, “riding on a swift cloud” in Isaiah 19:1, or when He came in judgment on Ninevah in Nahum 1:3, with the clouds being the dust under His feet, or as David said in Psalms 104:3, “He makes the clouds His chariot.” Then there was the cloud upon the mercy seat atop the ark of the covenant, which symbolized the very “presence” of God. So, when we put all of these things together, it becomes quite clear that the expression, “coming on the clouds” was commonly used to symbolize God’s presence in judgment on His enemies. And so, in light of all of these facts this, I believe begs the question:
If we understand what the expression, “coming on the clouds” symbolized in the “old testament,” what do you suppose we should think when we see the exact same expression used in the “new testament?” Wouldn’t that expression still mean the same thing? Good folks, I believe the answer is obvious!
The reason I ask these questions is because it is the understanding of many Christians today (just as it was once mine also), that this verse teaches that when the Lord Jesus would come the second time, He would come in physical, bodily form, and that in doing so, He would come on literal physical clouds.
First, please let me say, that I would never be critical of anyone who has this understanding. I can certainly understand why one would think thusly. But then I find myself asking more questions; questions like:
Didn’t Jesus say in Matthew 16:27-28, that He was going to come “in the glory of His father?”
And didn’t Jesus also say in that same passage, that He was going to come in the lifetime of some of those who were listening to Him?
And didn’t He say that He was to return in the same manner as His Father?
Well, if that’s the case (and I certainly believe that it is), then wouldn’t He have to, come on the clouds just like His Father? After all, the scriptures said that The Father came into Egypt “riding on a swift cloud.” And clouds are also “the dust beneath His feet!” And as David said, the clouds were “the Father’s chariot!”
But because “clouds” in the old testament were symbols of “God’s power, presence, and coming,” I run into a problem of explaining this. For example, I don’t believe that it would be the understanding of any one of us, that the Father “literally/physically rode into Egypt on a physical cloud,” when He brought Judgment upon those people. So then, why should we demand that when Jesus returned, He could not do so, without coming in “physical form?” Also, why would He have to come on a “literal physical cloud?” I’m also reminded that Jesus is no longer in “physical” form, but rather is “a Spirit.” Paul, in perhaps 58 A. D. said of Him in 2 Cor. 5b:
“…even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet (now) we know Him no longer.”
I would like to offer just one more passage from the perspective that I view this matter of Jesus “coming with the clouds of Heaven.” After having been betrayed by Judas, He is delivered into the hands of the Jewish authorities. Shortly thereafter He is brought before Caiaphas the high priest. It is here that Christ uses that expression one more time. And folks, I believe you will find the High Priest’s reaction to what Jesus said, to be both interesting and also quite informative! In Matthew 26:63-65, Caiaphas said to Jesus:
“I adjure you by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus said to him, ‘you have said it yourself, nevertheless I tell you, hereafter (you) shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven’. Then the high priest tore his robes saying, He has blasphemed; what further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy!”
O what a marvelous passage! Don’t you just love it? Good folks, please consider this with me: Have you ever wondered why Caiaphas, upon hearing Jesus say, “hereafter you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven,” reacted as he did? Did you ever wonder just why he became so enraged and infuriated that he would literally “tear his robes,” and then make the most serious charge of blasphemy against Jesus? So, why all of this rage simply because Jesus told him that he would see Him “coming on the clouds of heaven?” Just what was it in those few words of Jesus that set him off like that? Well, I believe if we would consider a few things here, Matthew will give us some insight into that!
First of all, let us keep in mind, that every Jew was extremely well-learned in the old covenant scriptures, having been taught them from their early childhood [2 Timothy 3:15; Acts 13:27; 15:21]. And being “high priest,” this would have been especially true of Caiaphas! Therefore, when Jesus declared that he was going to see Him “coming on the clouds,” it infuriated him for one simple reason: Caiaphas knew as well as anyone, and better than most, what “coming on the clouds” meant. He was all to familiar with those judgments that we just covered in this study, where “God the Father” came down from Heaven, on the clouds of heaven. And now, here’s Jesus making the same claim for Himself. In other words, “like Father, like Son”—thus the charge of blasphemy!
Caiaphas knew that every prophetic utterance that pictured God “Coming on the clouds,” was also a symbol of His coming in judgment! For example:
1. He knew very well that it was God who “rode on a swift cloud” in judgment on Egypt [Isaiah 19:1].
2. And he also was very familiar with Nahum’s prophecy, which spoke of the clouds as being, “the dust under God’s feet.” And he knew this was God’s judgment on Nineveh!
3. And, he certainly knew of David’s marvelous declaration that the clouds were God’s chariot [Psalms 104:3].
4. And last, but certainly not least, he was all too familiar with Joel’s prophecy of judgment that was to come upon that nation (Israel) in “the last days” of that old covenant age; the same prophecy that Peter later quoted on Pentecost! In that prophecy of Joel, he employed all of the catastrophic, celestial imagery in describing that great judgment upon Jerusalem, the temple, and the nation!
And so, with Caiaphas knowing about these things regarding the Father’s coming in judgment, and now hears Jesus declaring to be the very Son of God, and would come in the very same manner as His Father, and in His Father’s glory, he just couldn’t handle it. In today’s parlance, we would say that Caiaphas completely “lost it;” he had a “total melt-down,” tearing his priestly robes!
Yes, dear friends, just as the Babylonians saw (perceived) God “riding on a swift cloud” into Babylon, God, with all judgment having been committed unto Him by His Father [John 5:22] came riding on the clouds of judgment on Jerusalem, the temple, and the Jewish nation in 70 A. D. Yes, I understand that to be the same “coming on the clouds” mentioned by John in Revelation 1:7, and yes, the same coming of which He had promised when He said He would come “in the glory of His Father,” in the lifetime of some of those that stood in His presence in Matthew 16:27-28, where He earlier announced His coming.
Good folks, I don’t pretend to speak for anyone but myself here, but in light of all the “old testament” examples of God’s judgment on His enemies, I am fully persuaded, that all of the apocalyptic imagery of the sun and moon not shining, the stars and constellations either falling from the sky or not shining, were simply figurative language; signs or symbols of something or someone, other than themselves. In other words these things symbolize the fall of kingdoms, governments, and individuals in authority upon whom God’s judgment fell. Therefore, I believe those celestial calamities, just like in Yahweh’s judgment on Babylon (Isa. 19) are meant to be taken figuratively and not literally, otherwise the material fabric of our universe would have been destroyed many times over through the centuries!
If this little study accomplishes nothing more than to cause us all to think and be more aware of the purpose of prophetic, apocalyptic speech, it will be worth the effort, and I will be thankful. And I would only hope that when we see such imagery used by Jesus or His apostles in the “new covenant” scriptures, and especially in The Book of Revelation, that we use reason and consult the source of such language—the “old testament scriptures” so that our imaginations do not run wild, causing us to miss the real message the language was designed to convey. This, I believe, will keep us safe from the 47 foot rattlesnake!
For this reason, I am persuaded that all of us need to study more in the old covenant scriptures so this doesn’t happen to us. I realize more every day, just how deficient I am in those ancient oracles, and how badly I need to devote more of my time in those sacred pages of our Father. May the Lord richly bless you with His grace and peace.
Yours in Him,