The Gospel is really quite epic. Over the course of thousands of years, God reveals himself more and more clearly through various means, prophets, and events. He makes it more and more clear that salvation from the problems of the world (sin, evil, etc) are not going to come about through ordinary earthly means, but from God Himself. In the final few centuries before Christ, it started to become more and more clear that God would reveal himself more directly than ever before. This ultimate self-revelation would bring an end to sin and evil throughout the world; it would finally vindicate the remnant of his faithful people; it would bring about righteousness for the people of the earth; it would be the end of the age.
In doing this, God was going to act through someone very special and unique. That person was anticipated with many names. Moses pointed to a future Prophet that would be even greater than he was. David acknowledged a greater King that would succeed him. Several prophets write of an anointed one (Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek). To Ezekiel and Daniel he was often called the Son of Man. In the book of 2 Esdras (in the Apocrypha) he’s anticipated as the Son of God*.
With this truly epic work of God, it is only appropriate that some of prophetic writings that foretell it in a grandiose apocalyptic style. In the Bible, the books of Zechariah, Daniel, and Revelation have substantial sections of writing that are apocalyptic. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Matthew, Mark, and Luke also have noteworthy apocalypses in them. In popular culture today, the term apocalypse is equated with mass destruction in an end-of-the-world scenario, but biblically and theologically an apocalypse is an unveiling or a revealing – hence Revelation. Yes, the ultimate final revealing of God at the end of the age is accompanied with a final judgment and purification of the world, and so images like the Four Horsemen (below) are biblically associated with the Apocalypse, but the emphasis of the term still belongs to the revealing of God, not the destruction of earth.
Lately I’ve been reading 2 Esdras, one of the books of the Apocrypha. It is not accounted as canonical scripture by any Christian church (except a few outliers on the fringe of Oriental Orthodoxy), but it is listed in the 39 Articles of Religion as an “additional book” that the Church does read for instruction in morals and whatnot. By way of brief explanation, Ezra & Nehemiah were historically considered one two-part book, and two other books also attributed to Ezra also sat alongside them in many Greek and Latin Bibles. In the English-speaking world we’ve kept the names of those other two books in their Latin form (Esdras instead of Ezra) so we can tell them apart more easily. Historically speaking, 1 & 2 Esdras were most likely not written by Ezra, but written in his name later on. 1 Esdras is mostly history, almost precisely repeating the end of 2 Chronicles and the bulk of the book of Ezra. 2 Esdras, on the other hand, is almost entirely made up of visions, and some of it can be quite explicit about the Gospel events to come.
Chapter 7 has a fascinating preview of the Gospel worth pointing out.
For behold, the time will come, when the signs which I have foretold to you will come to pass, that the city which now is not seen shall appear, and the land which now is hidden shall be disclosed. And every one who has been delivered from the evils that I have foretold shall see my wonders. For my son the Messiah shall be revealed with those who are with him, and those who remain shall rejoice four hundred years.
The movement from unseen to visible (both the “city” and the “land) is typical of a divine revelation: what was previously unknown will finally be made known. Plus, the references of city and land work well with the fact that Jesus would preaching about and establishing the Kingdom of God; and, as Saint Paul would observe, God’s people would be looking to the heavenly Jerusalem – a city unseen – rather than the visible earthly Jerusalem. But that’s our New Testament insight barging in… all this text really says is that a great revelation will occur when the Messiah shows up in the midst of God’s people, and they will rejoice with him.
And after these years my son the Messiah shall die, and all who draw human breath. And the world shall be turned back to primeval silence for seven days, as it was at the first beginnings; so that no one shall be left. And after seven days the world, which is not yet awake, shall be roused, and that which is corruptible shall perish.
In the first quote, the Messiah is said to live for 400 years, and now here the Messiah is said to be dead for seven days. Are these just bad predictions? No, this is apocalyptic writing. This literary genre is meant to read like an epic tale, not like a dry history book of the future. 400 years of life and 7 days of death depict the grand importance of the life and death of the Messiah both by using dramatically large numbers and by using symbolically significant numbers. People make this kind of mistake with the writings of the Bible all too often, trying to line up Daniel’s “weeks of years” and Revelation’s “thousand years” with chronological history – apocalyptic writings such as these are not meant to be understood in such shallow and mundane terms.
It’s also fascinating to note how the language here anticipates New Testament language quite vividly. The world “shall be roused, and that which is corruptible shall perish.” This is very much like what St. Paul would write to the Corinthians. In the death of Christ, we who are united with Him also die; and in the resurrection of Christ, we who are united with Him also arise. We put off that which is perishable (sin) and put on that which is imperishable (the righteousness of Christ).
And the earth shall give up those who are asleep in it, and the dust those who dwell silently in it; and the chambers shall give up the souls which have been committed to them. And the Most High shall be revealed upon the seat of judgment, and compassion shall pass away, and patience shall be withdrawn; but only judgment shall remain, truth shall stand, and faithfulness shall grow strong. And recompense shall follow, and the reward shall be manifested; righteous deeds shall awake, and unrighteous deeds shall not sleep.
The text moves straight to the final judgment. As with the canonical writings of the Old Testament, Esdras does not clearly distinguish the first and second advents of Christ. Unlike many similar Old Testament passages, however, Esdras has the events of the Gospel uncluttered, in historical order! The description of the resurrection of the body, wherein all the dead are raised, shows that what was taught in the New Testament was already present in Jewish belief. The dead will be raised, God will take up the role of judge, and the good and the evil will be separated.
Then the pit of torment shall appear, and opposite it shall be the place of rest; and the furnace of hell shall be disclosed, and opposite it the paradise of delight. Then the Most High will say to the nations that have been raised from the dead, `Look now, and understand whom you have denied, whom you have not served, whose commandments you have despised! Look on this side and on that; here are delight and rest, and there are fire and torments!’ Thus he will speak to them on the day of judgment — a day that has no sun or moon or stars, or cloud or thunder or lightning or wind or water or air, or darkness or evening or morning, or summer or spring or heat or winter or frost or cold or hail or rain or dew, or noon or night, or dawn or shining or brightness or light, but only the splendor of the glory of the Most High, by which all shall see what has been determined for them. For it will last for about a week of years. This is my judgment and its prescribed order; and to you alone have I shown these things.
This is like what is found in Revelation 20 and 21 – the opening of two opposite destinations: a lake of fire (or furnace) and paradise. This day of judgment is said to have no sun or moon or stars (or several other normal earthly features), “but only the glory of the Most High.” This seems to emphasize that what is going on there is the province of God alone; all things come from Him and all things will return to Him. It also suggests an eternal judgment, as the earthly means of measuring time (sun and moon) are said to be absent. That Esdras describes this to “last for about a week of years”, again, is not to be understood numerically but symbolically. Seven is a complete number; the eternal rest of God’s people (also mentioned in this quote) is the final and ultimate Sabbath, and the New Testament book of Hebrews also spends a couple chapters saying the same thing.
So even though the book 2 Esdras is not canonical scripture, its witness to the historical anticipation of God’s people regarding the coming Christ is both educational and inspirational. It’s fascinating to see such accurate depictions of what would come to pass. It’s exciting to see the Gospel of Christ celebrated so dramatically before it even happened. May God’s people never cease to be fascinated by and excited about the Gospel!
* Footnote: Some scholars argue that the first 2 chapters of 2 Esdras were written by an early Christian and stuck onto this otherwise Jewish book. If that’s the case then the “Son of God” reference is a Christian insertion, not a Jewish prophecy. However, in the book of Daniel, when the pre-incarnate Christ appears in the furnace with the three young men, King Nebuchadnezzar describes him as “a son of the gods,” which is close enough to “Son of God.”