Living the Apocalypse Fr. Stephen Freeman

apocalypticThere is a genre of Scriptural writings that are described as “apocalyptic.” The book of Revelation, in Greek, is called “The Apocalypse.” Ezekiel and Daniel also have very strong passages described as apocalyptic. The term is very straightforward: it means “revealing what is hidden.” These books are described as “making known hidden things,” because their message is disguised under rather outlandish descriptions: beasts with ten horns, heavenly cities, and buildings that come down to earth, plagues and angels and solemn warnings. Over the centuries, these books have been the playground for those who claim to understand their “secrets.” Indeed, speculation in apocalyptic literature is a booming industry in contemporary Christianity. But these books are only “apocalyptic” in the most extreme way. It is correct to say that the Christian faith is inherently apocalyptic and that all that went before it was hidden. Understanding this will help make sense, in particular, of how the New Testament treats the Old.

Consider these statements by St. Paul:

But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. (1Co 2:7-10)


To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, (Eph 3:8-11)

St. Paul characterizes the gospel of Christ as something that has been “hidden from ages and from generations” but is now being made known. He also notes both that the gospel has been purposely hidden from the “rulers of this world” (meaning the demonic rulers of the age) but is now, expressly being made known by the Church “to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” He is not saying that the gospel is hard to understand, but that has been hidden on purpose by God. How has the gospel been hidden?

Generally speaking, the reality of the gospel was hidden beneath the life of Israel and beneath the figures of Scripture. The rulers of Israel, in Jesus’ day, had an expectation of a Messiah. However, they very much expected a Messiah whose coming was of a piece with Israel’s history and direct march through time. As such, they expected a warrior king who would deliver the nation from the Gentiles and set up a kingdom of righteousness in this world. They had no expectation of a hidden Messiah, nor did they expect a Crucified and Risen Messiah. Christ’s own disciples seem to have shared Israel’s expectation until they were corrected by Christ Himself after the resurrection.

These are clear facts, without contradiction.

The prophetic witness to Christ in the Old Testament is characterized primarily by its hiddenness. Christians have become so familiar with the traditional interpretation of certain prophetic passages that they have become unable to hear how they sound(ed) to Jewish ears. The famous Servant Songs of Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 53). We hear in them, prophecies of the very details of Christ’s suffering and death on the Cross and the promise of His victory. But we must remember that we see these things in hindsight. To this day, these passages are interpreted in Judaism as referring to the Jewish people as a whole. They were not verses of unfulfilled Messianic hope that hung over the consciousness of Israel as it longed for its deliverance.

Christ Himself spoke in parables and was berated for it. Moreover, He specifically characterized the Kingdom of God as hidden.

Another parable He spoke to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened. (Mat 13:33)

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Mat 13:44 NKJ)

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Mat 13:44-46 NKJ)

This hidden aspect of God’s work (the mystery from before the ages) is enshrined in parables, allegories, types, shadows, figures, etc. St. Ambrose, writing in the 5th century said: “The Old Testament is shadow; the New is icon, while the ‘heavenly things’ [the age to come] is the truth.’ (Off. 1.238) St. Maximus later repeated this description. The New Testament is not the historical unfolding of the historical Old Testament, it is the revelation in this world of that which was hidden in the Old Testament, but now made known through the Church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.

This approach to the Scriptures came to be dismissed and even despised in more modern times. One strain of thought that clearly fueled this attitude was the rise of Nominalism in the West. Nominalism rejects “inner meanings,” certainly as anything more than ideas in our heads. Things are simply things, and words nothing more than the names we call them. Straightforward moral examples and historical events, interpreted largely in their own historical context, became the preferred way of seeing the Scriptures. Prophetic statements began to be seen as flatly predictive rather than possessed of irony, allegory and paradox. Historical-critical studies that dismantled various historical claims of other Christians, would be unthinkable without the assumptions of Nominalism. The battles between conservative historicists and liberal historical critics, however, take place on a battleground foreign to the world of the Fathers.

The New Testament’s treatment of the Old, and the proclamation of a “hidden” gospel, proclaims as well that reality itself has a “hidden” quality. Only if the truth can be made known in shadow and icon is the world, in fact, as the Orthodox Christian faith says it is. This is also the character of a truly sacramental worldview. Catechesis in the Orthodox Church, as well as the continuing education of its people, should be grounded in the worldview of the Fathers. If the gospel is hidden, then we must know how to find it. This is the path that lead