The five apocalyptic moments in the synoptic gospels.

Sudden revelations of the nature of Jesus.


Inspired by pages 392-395 of N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God.

The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), all contain five narrated events that serve to reveal, suddenly and even perhaps inexplicably, the nature of Jesus to the gospel reader. I call these five events apocalyptic moments.

The Greek term αποκαλυψις gives us the English word apocalypse. When we hear this word we often think of the future or of end of the world, but in reality it appears frequently in the New Testament and is usually translated as revelation. This Greek word derives from two Greek roots, απο (away) and καλυπτω (to cover), and thus means something like the taking away of a cover, an uncovering, or a revelation.

An apocalypse in the Bible can be the revelation of the past, of the present, or of the future. Certain passages and sometimes entire books in the Bible are said to be written in an apocalyptic mode (if only a passage) or genre (if an entire book).

An example of an apocalyptic passage that reveals the past would be Ezekiel 28.12-16:

Son of man, take up a lamentation for the king of Tyre and say to him: Thus says the Lord God: You were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God. Every precious stone was your covering, the sardius, topaz, and diamond, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, turquoise, and emerald with gold. The workmanship of your timbrels and pipes was prepared for you on the day you were created. You were the anointed cherub who covers. I established you. You were on the holy mountain of God. You walked back and forth in the midst of fiery stones. You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, till iniquity was found in you. By the abundance of your trading you became filled with violence within and you sinned; therefore I cast you as a profane thing out of the mountain of God, and I destroyed you, O covering cherub, from the midst of the fiery stones.

This passage is apocalyptic because it reveals things that ordinary human sight and insight could never see. The same holds for the passages below.

An example of an apocalyptic passage that reveals the present would be 2 Kings 6.8-23:

Now the king of Syria was making war against Israel; and he consulted with his servants, saying: My camp will be in such and such a place. And the man of God sent to the king of Israel, saying: Beware that you do not pass this place, for the Syrians are coming down there. Then the king of Israel sent someone to the place of which the man of God had told him. Thus he warned him, and he was watchful there, not just once or twice. Therefore the heart of the king of Syria was greatly troubled by this thing; and he called his servants and said to them: Will you not show me which of us is for the king of Israel? And one of his servants said: None, my lord, O king; but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedroom. So he said: Go and see where he is, that I may send and get him. And it was told him, saying: Surely he is in Dothan. Therefore he sent horses and chariots and a great army there, and they came by night and surrounded the city. And when the servant of the man of God arose early and went out, there was an army, surrounding the city with horses and chariots. And his servant said to him: Alas, my master! What shall we do? So he answered: Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them. And Elisha prayed, and said: Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see. Then the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw. And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. So when the Syrians came down to him, Elisha prayed to the Lord, and said: Strike this people, I pray, with blindness. And he struck them with blindness according to the word of Elisha. Now Elisha said to them: This is not the way, nor is this the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek. But he led them to Samaria. So it was, when they had come to Samaria, that Elisha said: Lord, open the eyes of these men, that they may see. And the Lord opened their eyes, and they saw; and there they were, inside Samaria! Now when the king of Israel saw them, he said to Elisha: My father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them? But he answered: You shall not kill them. Would you kill those whom you have taken captive with your sword and your bow? Set food and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master. Then he prepared a great feast for them; and, after they ate and drank, he sent them away and they went to their master. So the bands of Syrian raiders came no more into the land of Israel.

An example of an apocalyptic passage that purportedly reveals the future would be most of the apocalypse of John, of which 1.1-2 says:

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants, things which must shortly take place. And he sent and signified it by his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, to all things that he saw.

Some students of the Bible believe that the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are somewhat apocalyptic, for in these three texts the true spiritual identity of Jesus of Nazareth, physically just a carpenter from a backwater town in Galilee, is revealed. These scholars identify five apocalyptic moments in these three gospels, five events in the life of Jesus that revealed his sonship, messianic status, and divinity.

What follows is the list of these five events from the gospel of Mark; the parallels in the gospel of Matthew and that of Luke are also referenced.

First, the baptism, Mark 1.9-11 (refer also to Matthew 3.13-17; Luke 3.21-22):

It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately, coming up from the water, he saw the heavens parting and the spirit descending upon him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven: You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.

Second, the dialogue at Caesarea Philippi, Mark 8.27-29 (refer also to Matthew 16.13-16; Luke 9.18-20):

Now Jesus and His disciples went out to the towns of Caesarea Philippi; and on the road he asked his disciples, saying to them: Who do men say that I am? So they answered: John the Baptist; but some say Elijah, and others say one of the prophets. He said to them: But who do you say that I am? Peter answered and said to him: You are the Christ [the messiah].

Third, the transfiguration, Mark 9.2-8 (refer also to Matthew 17.1-8; Luke 9.28-36):

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and he led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them. His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them. And Elijah appeared to them, along with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus: Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah (because he did not know what to say, for they were greatly afraid). And a cloud came and overshadowed them; and a voice came out of the cloud, saying: This is my beloved son. Hear him! Suddenly, when they had looked around, they saw no one anymore, but only Jesus with themselves.

Fourth, the trial before the high priest, Mark 14.61b-62 (refer also to Matthew 26.63b-64; Luke 22.66-70):

Again the high priest asked him, saying to him: Are you the Christ, the son of the blessed one? Jesus said: I am. And you will see the son of man sitting at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven.

Fifth, the crucifixion, Mark 15.37-39 (refer also to Matthew 27.50-54; Luke 23.46-47):

And Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and breathed his last. Then the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. So, when the centurion who stood opposite him saw that he cried out like this and breathed his last, he said: Truly this man was the son of God!

In texts in which Jesus is constantly concealing his true identity from people, these five events stand out as Dothan moments, as it were, when his divine nature is briefly uncovered and those around him can see who he is.