What does apocalypticism have to do with me? Is there a practical point to all of this?
First allow me, if you will, to address this issue of “application.” It is admirable to be conscious of our need to obey God in every way we can, and it is commendable when someone learns a new truth from God’s word and they ask “is there some kind of corresponding behavior that goes with this?” This desire to make sure that we are fulfilling our responsibilities is good and we do not wish to denigrate or diminish it. However, not everything in the Bible translates directly into some kind of action or obedience. Some do, but not all.
Please consider an example. The author of Hebrews wrote to a group of Christians who were facing hostility and opposition, perhaps even persecution. They were weary of being rejected by their friends, family, and society, and many of them were thinking about quitting. What was the author’s solution to this problem? He instructed them about the high priesthood of Jesus. Now, learning accurately the high priesthood of Jesus does not result in something that we “do,” in the sense of an action or a behavior. Instead, it results in the creation of an attitude, it creates in our minds an image of unprecedented access to God. Armed with this knowledge, the original readers would then rekindle their zeal, which would translate into perseverance. But zeal and perseverance are not “actions” in the classic sense of that word. They are more like attitudes, motivations, or determinations.
Now, perhaps, we can begin to understand the practicality of understanding the Bible’s apocalyptic worldview. It does not necessarily have a particular action associated with it, but instead it teaches us a perspective about our relationship with God (which translates into several expressions of behavior).
To put it succinctly, conversion is supposed to be an “apocalyptic event.” Remember, an apocalyptic event is one in which there is a sudden and drastic display of God’s power that results in the removal of evil, and a cleansing and a change from a situation of sin to a situation of rightness. When it comes to our lives, the power of God in the gospel (Rom 1.16) is supposed to have the same effect on us personally. When confronted with the gospel, our response is supposed to be that we repent, we decide to stop living the old life of sin immediately. We break with our past and begin new lives.
What is the most famous conversion story in all the Bible? Correct: the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. He was on the way to Damascus, pursuing his normal way of living, when quite suddenly the light flashed and the Lord spoke to him. In a moment, Saul was knocked into a different perspective. It was one which he could reject if he wished, but to his credit he “was not disobedient to the heavenly vision” (Acts 26.19). Within a few days he was preaching the gospel of Christ in the synagogues of Damascus. The change was sudden and drastic. It was apocalyptic.
Now someone may say “Wait a minute. Saul’s conversion is a special case. The Lord does not regularly appear to people in a heavenly vision to encourage them to obey the gospel.” That is correct. The miraculous element of Saul’s conversion is not a pattern for conversion. But the drastic and sudden change required by the gospel is a pattern for all conversions. Remember what Ananias said to him? “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22.16). Delay was incompatible with the apocalyptic nature of his experience.
Do you remember when Peter, James, and John became apostles? After teaching the multitudes from one of their boats, Jesus performed the miracle of the great catch of fish among these fishermen. They were overwhelmed by the display of divine power they had witnessed, and Peter came to see, for the first time, just how special Jesus was. In response, Jesus called the men to take up a new life of “catching men.” Luke then reports that after they “brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him” (Luke 5.11).
Was this the first time any of these men had ever met Jesus? No. John 1 makes that clear. Also, the narrative in Luke 5 seems to imply that these men had met Jesus before. Their willingness to let him use one of their boats points in this direction. But the time came when Jesus presented them with a decision: either continue in your normal life of fishing, or take up a new life in the kingdom of God. They chose the latter, and immediately made the change. That is, their decision had an apocalyptic quality to it.
Do you recall the “call of Matthew”? The gospel account says “After that He went out and noticed a tax collector named Levi sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ And he left everything behind, and got up and began to follow Him” (Luke 5.27f). Was this the first time Matthew and Jesus had ever met? My guess is that it was not. I imagine that Jesus had been by that tax booth on several occasions as he travelled throughout Galilee preaching the gospel. But somehow Jesus had made an impression on this man. Maybe it was as simple as Jesus saying “Hello” to him (because Jews did not speak to tax collectors). Maybe it was a nod and a smile (because Jews were not friendly to tax collectors). Maybe it was a handshake. And perhaps Matthew had heard the stories about Jesus as people came through his tax booth. Whatever it was, the day came when Jesus offered an invitation for Matthew to become one of his disciples. Matthew accepted the invitation without delay. Again, his decision had an apocalyptic quality to it.
It is not insignificant that Luke presents these two stories in close proximity in his narrative. Both are stories of people who made sudden decisions to follow Jesus. Not rash decisions, but sudden decisions.
This element of making a life-changing decision and acting on it quickly also appears in the stories in Acts. The people who heard Peter’s sermon on Pentecost were baptized on “that day” (2.41), at least 3000 of them. The Philippian jailer was baptized “immediately” (16.33). The people at the house of Cornelius obeyed when they heard. Some of the men of Athens became believers when they heard Paul’s speech at the Areopagus. The disciples of John the Baptist obeyed the gospel “when they heard” Paul tell them the rest of the story (19.5).
Now there is something here that applies directly to us today. It should not take a lifetime to decide whether you want to be a disciple of Jesus. Nor should it take a lifetime, once you have decided that, to make good on the decision and follow Jesus whole-heartedly, with commitment and dedication. Sure, we will all grow in our knowledge and service, and that does not happen in a weekend. Maturing is a life-long process, but making a commitment is not. Our commitment to Jesus should reflect the apocalyptic nature of the call and power of the gospel. “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9.62).
A sermon: “When the Kingdom of God Comes Upon You” — http://www.palmettochurchofchrist.com/media/uploads/sermons/2012/01/When_the_Kingdom_of_God_comes_01152012.mp3