Do you know about the apocalypse craze that captured the imagination of teenagers and young adults in the early 2000s? Animated by interest in the Mayan calendar, many were obsessed with the “end of the world,” supposedly foretold by the Mayans, whose calendar ended on the year 2012.
We have a kind of obsession with the “end times”—think of all the apocalyptic books and movies. In the Bible, though, the apocalypse doesn’t simply mean the “end of the world.” Rather, it’s a revealing or unfolding of that which is real. Literally, the word apocalypse means “unveiling.”
We catch a glimpse of this unveiling in the book of Ezekiel.
In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. (Ezekiel 1:1 ESV)
Through Ezekiel’s apocalyptic vision, God pulled back the curtain of the physical world. The heavens opened. Ezekiel saw reality—the seen and the unseen. This first verse of Ezekiel alone piques our curiosity—what did he see?
Before we answer that question, we need to know why Ezekiel saw this vision from God.
Ezekiel was a prophet to the exiles from Israel’s southern kingdom, Judah, in 597 BC. The foreign power, Babylon, had violently taken these people from their homes. In other words, God had displaced his people from the land he had given them because of their sin and rebellion against him. Ezekiel lived among the exiles in this foreign land.
A songwriter in the exile laments: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4). How can God’s people worship in such tragic circumstances? If ever God’s people needed to hear from God, it was now. So in his kindness, God sent Ezekiel to the exiles to speak for him—to reorient them to reality. Ezekiel helps the exiles see themselves, God, and their future all from God’s perspective.
God appoints Ezekiel to be a “watchman for the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 3:17). Some of the visions he sees serve to remind the disoriented Israelites that their sins brought about their tragic circumstances. These visions are warnings from God that if they did not turn from their sin, further tragedy would befall Israel, but if they do turn from sin, God will forgive and renew them. Ezekiel tells the exiles that God offers them a chance to “turn away from all his that he has committed and [keep] all my statutes” so that he may “surely live” (Ezekiel 18:21 ESV).
The book of Ezekiel opens our eyes to the majesty and greatness of God.
Ezekiel also sees visions of God himself. Though Ezekiel and his contemporaries are displaced by Babylon, no longer in Israel, God still visits him in a “chariot” (Ezekiel 1:4-28), symbolizing that God’s power and presence are not confined to only Israel. He is sovereign over all places and people. Ezekiel seems to struggle to describe God. Contrast the long descriptions of the “four living creatures” (Ezekiel 1:4-25) with the rather short and terse description of God (Ezekiel 1:26-28). In contrast to the creatures, God is difficult to describe—what we see of him is merely a “likeness.” This is because he is holy and unlike anything else in all his creation. The book of Ezekiel opens our eyes to the majesty and greatness of God.
Finally, God comforts these exiles with visions of the future: God will gather his people again (34:11-24) through a Shepherd; he will bring life to our dead bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14); This Shepherd will be a King and unite God’s people (37:22-28); God will overcome and defeat all of Israel’s enemies (38-39); and, finally, God’s presence will be restored among his people, with the new temple (Ezekiel 40-48).
Though Ezekiel sees visions of the “end of the world,” this apocalyptic literature in the Bible is different in the Bible than popular understandings of the apocalypse. Ezekiel’s visions are filled with grand and hopeful promises.
Above all of these is God’s promise to give us his Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26), who will remake us and bring us life—life with him (36:28). The keen Bible reader will see how Jesus fits into each of these future promises. Indeed, the cries of God’s people to be delivered and restored is answered in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
What determines your vision of God, the world, and your future? Open Ezekiel and ask God to make his vision your own.