I am speaking in particular here to Christians, believers, those maybe who grew up in organized church. I would usually say that the one truth that brings the most dramatic transformation in a person's life is the heart revelation that God is love. I still think that is true.
But then we go to a church. Then we pick up a Bible that was written in another place, another time in history, spanning thousands of years of insight, by approximately 39 different authors and in cultures very different than our own. Don't get me wrong. There is remarkable unity, progressive revelation, and clear teaching.
So how can we get this wrong: "God is love!"?
Well, we come to scriptures that just don't seem to jive with the life of Jesus that confuse us. We come to language that sounds like God is going to destroy the entire planet in anger. We read passages where the stars will fall from the sky and the heavens will be rolled up like a scroll. We come across words that seem to indicate that the end is near and God is angry.
Then slowly but surely, because we don't understand this one thing I'm going to show you, we allow the beautiful revelation of the love of God to become opaque. The glory of it fades away and our view of God devolves into religion's man-made version of God.
Would you like to possess a key skill for interpreting the Bible that will renew your vision of the love of God?
It is understanding how the culture of the Middle East used apocalyptic, cosmic language. If you "get" this, gradually passages will begin to make sense through THEIR lens instead of through the dark shades of religion.
What Is Apocalyptic Cosmic Language?
Let's start with an example. Psalm 18 is a Davidic song of David. Feel the drama of the song:
7 Then the earth shook and trembled;
The foundations of the hills also quaked and were shaken,
Because He was angry.
8 Smoke went up from His nostrils,
And devouring fire from His mouth;
Coals were kindled by it.
9 He bowed the heavens also, and came down
With darkness under His feet.
10 And He rode upon a cherub, and flew;
He flew upon the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness His secret place;
His canopy around Him was dark waters
And thick clouds of the skies.
12 From the brightness before Him,
His thick clouds passed with hailstones and coals of fire.
13 The Lord thundered from heaven,
And the Most High uttered His voice,
Hailstones and coals of fire.
14 He sent out His arrows and scattered the foe,
Lightnings in abundance, and He vanquished them.
15 Then the channels of the sea were seen,
The foundations of the world were uncovered
At Your rebuke, O Lord,
At the blast of the breath of Your nostrils.
16 He sent from above, He took me;
He drew me out of many waters.
17 He delivered me from my strong enemy,
From those who hated me,
For they were too strong for me.
Sounds like God came in a cosmic display of his power and anger right? Hail, fire, coming down, lightning, the foundations of the earth opening up. Wow!
Did that really happen? No.
Wait... don't think I'm rejecting the bible. I'm only rejecting your interpretation of it. Do you know what happened? This song of David is prefaced with this notation: "To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David the servant of the Lord, who spoke to the Lord the words of this song on the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul." That's it. It was a song recounting how God delivered David from the hand of Saul and his armies (see 2 Samuel 22). The earth didn't quake. The oceans didn't break open and expose the channels of the sea. God simply delivered David in battle.
It was a very natural event to every single person around them. It was grandiose figurative-metaphorical-hyperbole... exaggerated language to make a point.
Let me give you another one that is more cosmic from Isaiah 13:
6 Wail, for the day of the Lord is at hand!
It will come as destruction from the Almighty.
7 Therefore all hands will be limp,
Every man’s heart will melt,
8 And they will be afraid.
Pangs and sorrows will take hold of them;
They will be in pain as a woman in childbirth;
They will be amazed at one another;
Their faces will be like flames.
9 Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
Cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger,
To lay the land desolate;
And He will destroy its sinners from it.
10 For the stars of heaven and their constellations
Will not give their light;
The sun will be darkened in its going forth,
And the moon will not cause its light to shine.
Notice again the similar language. Will every man's heart literally melt? It is hyperbole, exaggeration to confront the heart with pictures that will cause people to wake up. They didn't possess movies and television and local news. Instead the prophets used grandiose language to paint a heart picture that would awaken the people. It wasn't literal.
In particular this is an event that took place in history in the past. "Wait, you mean the stars fell from the heavens and the sun went dark?!" No, it didn't. Isaiah 13:1 is the context: "The burden against Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw." This was a prophetic prediction of the fall of Babylon in 689 BC! When the prophets used the language of sun, moon and stars, it referred to the governmental powers of the day. It meant kings, queens, governors, and leaders would fall from power.
God did not literally come out of clouds, darken the sun, nor cause the moon to cease its light. He can. But he didn't. Do you remember Joseph in Genesis 37:9? He had a dream in which he saw the sun, moon and stars bowing down to him. Did it mean the astronomical entities would bend their knee to him? No, his family knew exactly what it meant. The leaders of the family and the sons would literally bow to him.
Notice how Sennacherib uses grandiose language to describe his victory over Babylon:
“I made its destruction more complete than by a flood. That in days to come the site of that city, and (its) temples and gods, might not be remembered, I completely blotted it out with (floods) of water and made it like a meadow” (Daniel D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, 1926-1927, Vol. 2, p. 152).
So what happens when we read verses in Revelation 12:
12 I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. 13 And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. 14 Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place.
Do you think that suddenly after thousands of years of using prophetic, apocalyptic, cosmic grandiose language to impact people's hearts the prophet John suddenly switched his mode of operation? Do you think that Jesus, the ultimate prophet, suddenly spoke to the very same culture but meant something totally different? Of course not.
The book of Revelation was spoken to THEIR generation, to THEIR culture, with THEIR mindset. It is filled with nearly 400 references to Hebrew scriptures to prove it. And yes, evidence suggests that the book of Revelation was written before the fall of Jerusalem. That in fact, was the purpose of the book... to warn them before the Great Jewish Tribulation.
Jesus didn't just come to take us to heaven one day. He came to reveal the heart of the Father. So his mission included being called "'Jesus' for he will save HIS people from their sins." In some places "his" means all humanity. But in this case Jesus the Jewish prophet foresaw the coming destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. He came to the Jewish people and proclaimed that the spiritual kingdom that was promised in Daniel had arrived within him, and would soon manifest as the earthly kingdom of Judah was removed.
He was like a man standing in the middle of the road crying out for them to turn around. He was trying to save them from Rome's crushing defeat, not by destroying Rome, but by warning them to flee when they saw the Romans coming (Mt. 24-25). He begged them not to get caught in the fires of Gehenna (literally Valley of Hinnom) where their bodies would burn for months after the city burned to the ground. It was the end of the age of the old covenant, the end of the age of Law, and the end of physical Jerusalem as the place of worshiping God. History tells us this is exactly what happened.
The language of the New Testament carries the same apocalyptic, grandiose, cosmic, heart language designed to turn their hearts from the certain destruction Rome would bring them. He came to save them from themselves, from THEIR sins, and what their violence would produce in bringing the wrath of Rome on them.
When you "get" that, literally hundreds of scriptures will open up to you and you will "see" God wasn't burning them in hell, he wasn't killing them with a literal sword, and he isn't destroying the universe because it is evil. He was the one standing in the way saying, "Repent" (change your mind from your violent ways) and trust the kingdom of God. He was the Christ that they crucified through partnership with the same Rome that would destroy them. Yet from that cross Jesus said, "Father forgive them, they know not what they do."
God is love. Period.
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