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Confusion, Nearness, and beginning to look at the text of Revelation


So over the past few weeks, I’ve done a lot of background for studying the book of Revelation as part of my Difficult Passages series. Below I’ll briefly list out what I’ve covered before looking at the actual text this week.

First, I gave a brief introductory note, where I described the overarching views of the book.

Then, I looked at different views of history, most of which fit in the “futurist” view, which led to

Different views on the Millennial reign of Christ.

Next I noted that the book of Revelation fits in the style of literature known as Apocalyptic, which…

I noted is the style of the book of Daniel.

Finally, last week, I talked about how John, and other Christian Apocalyptic writers, use language like some rappers, including Jay-Z.

A word of warning

Revelation, even with all this background, can get confusing. What I am going to offer over the next few weeks is my particular interpretation. It is by no means undisputed. It is, however, one that does justice to the book of Revelation within its own particular genre, something which many interpretations fail to fully consider. I happen to think it is correct, but I am not so arrogant as to believe that it must be correct, and agree that, within certain limits, it is something we can (and possibly should) debate (respectfully) about.

With that said there is a helpful graph, done by someone else, for understanding Revelation, available here.

Into the text: Soon is not soon

Today, I’m going to be very brief (as it is something of a re-introduction) with my examination. In chapter 1, John says, in verse 1, that the things he describes “must soon take place,” and, in verse 3, that “the time is near.” What? I though this was about the future. Well, there is the option to take a preterist, or partial preterist view, which I describe in this post, but that isn’t particularly satisfactory, particularly when you look at the last few chapters which can only be describing the end of the world, which would not be close to John’s time. So what does he mean?

I think we need to understand how time worked for the early church. We tend to think of time as a straight linear progression, and I can already hear the Dr Who references coming in, but resist the urge.

I’m apparently failing to take my own advice

Instead, the early church saw time in two distinct ways: chronos, which is how we tend to think of time, and kairos, which is usually interpreted as “opportune time.” However even “opportune time” misses the point a bit. To be sure kairos is the word used in verse 3. Really, it has less to do with “time” as a set of cause and effect events, and more to do with a period characterized by some aspect.

So, for instance, when I am recalling the time I started dating my wife, I could say “oh, back in 2002…” but even then, my timing isn’t precise. I mean I met her in 2001, I did go on an awkward non-date date in September of 2002, we actually started dating shortly thereafter, but I didn’t really date her as my future spouse until 2003 (I mean I was intentional in dating before, but really intentional then). And we were engaged the following year, so she really was externally my future spouse, and we kept dating after we were married the following year. Now at which point could I say I started dating my wife? In chronos time I would need to make some decision was to what counted as “Dating as my wife” and what didn’t. Then I could pin point it. However, all of that occurred when I was in college. So, I usually just say “back when we started dating, when I was at OBU….” Now, precision isn’t as strong here, but accuracy is. Even then, though, I don’t use that language for accuracy’s sake. I just don’t think of the years as much as I do the period of time I was there. That was my “in college” time. We do this frequently, such as referring to when we lived at “that” house, or dating time “BC” and “AC” (Before Children, After Children). Our time was characterized in a specific way, by certain overarching events.

That is how to understand kairos. John is saying these eschatological (that word means “end of time”, and I’ll be using it a lot), things are near, and Christ’s reign is near. He’s not confused or mistaken about the intervening (almost) 2000 years. He’s talking about a different time that is running counter to the time of this world. The kingdom of God is near and will soon occur, and, because it is characterized by Jesus’ resurrection, it is an end of the world (eschatological) sort of Kingdom. Thus Christ’s reign and the end of the world are always “near” in that sense. In many ways, then, Revelation is a call to shift your kairos from “this present evil age” to “the Kingdom of God.” It is near, and not far from you. For you to overcome, these things must soon take place.


Side note: Not every week will be so focused (here only on 3 verses), but I will try to hit the highlights and the overarching trajectory of the book, as well as address most of the more troubling or difficult bits.


Jay-Z aint got nothing on me: Revelation’s use of language

Two weeks ago, I said that Revelation was written in an already dominate style of Jewish apocalyptic, which we see in Daniel, and last week I briefly highlighted those distinguishing characteristics. I didn’t mention nationalism, which is true of Daniel, because it’s not true for Revelation, which is concerned with a nation not [‘ek tos’] out of this world. However, despite taking up most of the other aspects of Jewish apocalyptic, Christian apocalyptic literature also adds its own flair: they use language differently; and I’m not talking about Greek versus Hebrew.

Throwing off oppression

If you don’t recall, one of the key elements of apocalyptic literature is that it is from the perspective of the oppressed. In many ways it seeks to throw off oppression. The ones who seem defeated are actually triumphant. Those who are weak now will be lifted up. Those being persecuted will overcome and endure, if they remain faithful. All oppression will be overthrown (and is, in a very real sense, already overthrown). One of the most interesting examples of this is how the book of Revelation uses its language.

It is no secret that the Greek of Revelation is some of the most difficult in the New Testament. What is surprising to many, though, is that many of the words in Revelation don’t show up anywhere else in the bible, many of them don’t even show up in the written record we have other than here or there (and often times only in other Christian apocalyptic literature). This kind of thing happened in the apocalyptic sections of Joel (we are guessing on the different types of locusts), but there, most scholars are pretty sure Joel is drawing on seldom used words. In Revelation, it seems like some of the words are just made up. In the early copies of the book, many of the words are misspelled. It’s not that the copyists and scribes were lazy or careless. They are intentionally misspelled. Not only is the language used symbolically, it is used to quite literally throw off oppression. The dominate language of the Roman Empire, the Empire that, with Nero, had begun to oppress Christians was being “flung off” through its intentional misuse. Even when they use standard language, though, these writers (including John) change what the words mean. Words of derision or things to be despised become badges of honor, or names they use in their community.

It’s like old school rap

A professor in college made this analogy once (Bobby Kelley), I was a bit incredulous, until he made me aware of the music of a group like public enemy (if you want to avoid offensive lyrics, stop the video at 1:30 because it starts the song “fight the power” which does contain some “course” language):

Now if we look at that we see a few things. Sirens blaring, a voice saying “this time the revolution will not be televised.” What revolution? People coming out in military uniforms. In 2008 it may be nostalgia for their older album, in the 70s, 80s and early 90s, (and in some places even today), this was an oppressed group (the African American population) taking back power. Even the next song is politically charged from a group who saw themselves as part of a struggle against those who would beat a man for being black (Rodney King). That’s why they “fight the power.”

In the same way, the members of Public Enemy (despite the behavior of Flavor Flav), are incredibly intelligent. They don’t use language in its nontraditional sense because they don’t know any better, but specifically because they refuse to talk like their white oppressors (this coming from a WASP). It is a power move. Giving power to the powerless. While later groups would take a more explicitly violent turn (the so-called “gangsta rap”) the early pioneers were more about gaining power now through rhetoric and political mobilization. Even the use of different words, like the N-word, a terrible insult in its initial intent, suddenly is adopted by some rappers and becomes “their word.” I can’t use it anymore (not that I ever did) because they’ve taken control of it. Let’s bring this more up to date.


While a lot of modern rappers don’t fit this same mode of giving power to the powerless, I think Jay-Z perhaps does so best (at least some times). Let’s take a few examples.

In his song “Brush your shoulders off,” Jay-Z takes the word “pimp” a derisive term referring to criminal activity and often used tovia Wikimedia Commons via Flickr by ThaCreator [mm.art] from Chicago and NYC, USA demean the style of clothes some African Americans wore, and redefines it (or builds on earlier redefinitions):

If you’re feelin’ like a pimp,

Go on brush your shoulders off.

Ladies is pimps too.

Go on brush your shoulders off.

This is crazy baby, don’t forget that Jay told ya

Get/ that/ dirt off your shoulders.

In the song, he is telling people to stand tall. To let the insults and problems of the world roll off because they are a “pimp” which has suddenly (or rather, over the years) become a positive term. One more example, but I won’t quote the lyrics.

In “99 problems,” Jay-Z relays a variety of problems he is having, mostly related to being poor, young, or black. The tag line, which is catchy, is in effect that despite these problems he feels bad for those whose “girl problems” are so bad they feel they need to insult and demean the women in their life.

His point is not to say that he has his woman in line (like a dog), or has no girlfriend, but to say that he doesn’t view his relationship as a problem. It’s a wake-up call to say, in effect, “quit complaining about minor things, or insulting each other, we have real genuine problems that need addressing,” though delivered in a much more catchy way than that.

The Point

This is how Revelation should be read. As though you are a young black man in the early 80s listening to a rap record for the first time. Revelation was written to and for an oppressed people group (Christians) to show them that they weren’t really oppressed, they needed to stay together, and that they were winning the fight (which is not against flesh and blood). The analogy doesn’t carry all the way, but it does at key points.

Disclaimer: If you look up the lyrics to these songs, be warned they are very crass and use a lot of foul language. I am not saying they are “Christian” musicians, per se, but trying to give a more contemporary example of how a medium was used in order to help give a better picture of what John’s intent was with the book of Revelation.

What do I mean by “apocalyptic”? Revelation (Difficult Passages)

Quick Review

Last week, I stated that the book of Revelation (like other Christian Apocalyptic literature, which is not in the biblical canon) is actually an attempt, in many ways, to imitate the earlier Jewish form of apocalyptic. The reason I am taking the time to talk about the genre of Revelation is that it can too easily be misunderstood or misinterpreted if we don’t take that into account. To be sure there are other examples of Jewish Apocalyptic, also non-canonical, that help us to see the characteristics of the genre. Next week I’ll talk about the uniquely Christian contribution to the genre, but this week I want to focus on the characteristics of Jewish apocalyptic, most of which we find in Daniel and Revelation. (Well, not the first one)

The Characteristics

  1. Pseudonymous: This one really doesn’t apply to either Revelation or Daniel in my opinion (I explain in a sec). Most Apocalyptic literature is written under an assumed name (such as “The book of Enoch” for Jewish literature, or “The Apocalypse of Peter” for Christian Literature). Usually the idea was that it had been written long ago and was only just now being discovered. Because it deals with events at the end of the world, this gives it an additional sense of urgency because the end could be closer at hand. The fact that the authorship was false (and usually known to be false) is likely why other examples were excluded from the canon. However, usually there is a phrase where the writer is supposedly told to “seal these things up” until the time is much closer. No such phrase appears in either Daniel or Revelation. In fact, John is specifically told not to seal them up because they will soon take place.
  2. It is something hidden now revealed: This is accomplished by some of the rejected apocalyptic literature by claiming the message was sealed until now (while in Revelation it’s very heavily against “sealing” things, often breaking seals). The point is that the message is so beyond the speaker/author it could only come by supernatural means. One could not look around and see that this was the case (while other prophets often condemn the people for not already knowing the content of their message from what God had previously told them).
  3. Future orientation: Isn’t this just prophecy? Well yes and no. Prophecy technically refers to someone with a message for a people right then and there, and the prophet is just the person who relays the message from God. Sometimes this includes a future element, but usually there isn’t one at all. (For instance, in Jonah where is the future element?). Even when there is a future element, though, it is usually very vague and can easily be applied to the present situation of the author/prophet as well. The one exception is Isaiah who, after chapter 40 delivers a message to Israel in exile (though it applied to his audience then), and eventually gives a specific message relaying the identity of the historical redeemer (Cyrus/Darius). However, his reason for doing so is not to give a message about the future. Rather, he is demonstrating how the God of Israel (Yahweh) is the only genuine god and that other gods and idols are silly. Thus the specific future is offered as evidence (because only the true God could do that). Contrast that with Daniel and Revelation, though, who talk about future events, for the sake of talking about future events. They want to relay what will happen.
  4. The future is set: While the intervening history may be a little more open, in both Jewish and Christian apocalyptic there is a sense that certain key events, particularly those at the end of the world, are set in stone. They are going to happen. God, Yahweh, is going to come back and establish his throne. It is inescapable.
  5. The message is mediated: In contrast to the prophets who receive their message direct from Yahweh, the writer of Apocalyptic literature receives his message indirectly. While this may come in the form of a vision, it also occurs via an Angel, something not previously seen as a bearer of a lengthy message. While Ezekiel, in particular, utilizes the concept of vision, in the book it is clear that the vision is direct from God (and other times, Yahweh speaks directly to Ezekiel). On the other hand Daniel either receives his vision from an Angel or just says he had a vision, without relaying the source.
  6. Use of fantastical imagery: There is imagery that seems to clearly not belong to this world. Animals of a kind never seen before. Statues too massive to be real. This is common place in apocalyptic literature. Again Ezekiel shares some of this (which has led some to argue sections of Ezekiel should be apocalyptic not prophetic), but on the whole it doesn’t fit the genre.
  7. Contrasting “Present” with “The End”: There is a sense of a huge disparity between now and then (the end of the world). What is happening now will be destroyed (often violently) and give way to what happens at the end, usually God acting as King in a more explicit visual than is seen throughout the rest of the bible.
  8. Intentional obscuring of the message: The use of symbolism is not meant to convey multiple connotations necessarily (though it may do that), as in other biblical literature, but is intentionally done to obscure the meaning. There are a few reasons for this: 1) To intentionally give a sense of uncertainty to the reader so they don’t rely exclusively on that writing, but look to other literature (Gospels and Torah). 2) To add to the otherworldly sense of the writing. 3) To ensure it could only be completely understood by those who were part of the “in crowd.” That is, only the community to which it was intended would have the necessary information to understand what was being written. This was important because…
  9. It is written from the perspective of the oppressed: The writers are generally writing from a position of powerlessness, and speaking to a time when God will reign in power. There is coming a great upheaval. This perspective of oppression is likely the most important feature. Think about Daniel, which was written from those in the exile. Revelation was written either in the reign of Nero (early date) or Domitian (later date) both of whom began a massive campaign against Christians. This will also play into the unique features of Christian Apocalyptic I’ll get into next week.

Defining the genre of Revelation (Difficult passages)

I’m currently in a series within my difficult passages post on the book of Revelation.

After defining some of the major viewpoints on Revelation last week and the week before, this week I’d actually like to talk about what genre Revelation is (which is important for understanding what, exactly, Revelation is trying to say).

Some have argued that Revelation is prophecy. The problem with that view is that “prophetic” books are not the same as books that talk about the future. Just so I am clear, prophecy is not defined upon whether or not something tells the future (how is Jonah prophetic?). Rather, prophecy is a message from the LORD that speaks to a situation contemporary with the prophet, and which may possibly, but not necessarily, have something to say directly to future groups of people (Yahweh). Yet prophetic books seem to conform to certain styles of writing including, but not limited to, receiving a message direct from the LORD (YHWH). Revelation is distinct from that because the message is not direct from God, but is mediated to John through an angel. Instead it has something in common with another Hebrew genre, of which there is only one book represented in the Old Testament. Here’s a hint: the book gets really really weird.

It’s Daniel. Sorry to those who picked Ezekiel (which is pretty weird, but definitely a prophecy book). Daniel, despite often being grouped with prophecy, is Jewish Apocalyptic. The biggest shift between prophecy (some of whose elements carry over) and apocalyptic is that it is delivered by an angel, which for Daniel starts about halfway through the book. Other characteristics: more frequent use of animal imagery, much broader in focus (i.e. the whole world and all of time, not just Israel), much more fantastical imagery (though Ezekiel approaches this at times), and similar things.

How do we know this is a separate genre? Well there are other writings, which were rejected for canonicity, that meet these criteria (and sound quite a bit like Daniel). Revelation also fits well with this genre in many of its elements, and was labeled early on in the church as the Apocalypse of John (there are other Apocalyptic books also). So to understand something about how John works we need to also understand something about how Daniel, and similar books, work.

Unfortunately for this post, I am pretty worn out from preaching this past weekend (a 40min bit on the 2 chapter of 1 John), so I’m leaving it at that. But I’ll pick up again next week.

Different views on the Millenium

Last week, I talked about the different views on the book of Revelation generally. This week, I’m going to expand the “futurist” view and talk about what are known as the main “Millennial” views (or Millennarianism). That is, how do we understand the relationship between Christ’s return and his 1000 year reign on earth.

I’d like to start out by noted that, in the early centuries of the church (from about the 3rd century to the 5th century) Millennariansim, or “Chilliaism” (from the Greek for 1000) were considered borderline heretical in many Christian groups. Now, they are all but standard. Still, one can be  “futurist” and not hold any of these views. I’ll outline them as they historically developed.

  1. Historic Pre-millennialism: The earliest systematic view. Really it only said that Christ would return and then begin his reign on earth, they weren’t even that specific on the 1000 years being literal (in fact, it’s not until the last group when the number begins to be taken more literally). The view is that the world will continually get worse until Christ returns to end that.
  2. Amillennialism: This was almost certainly Augustine’s view, though he likely wouldn’t have used that language. This is the view that the book of Revelation should be taken much more metaphorically. While Christ is still likely to return visibly again, he is reigning now. However the kingdoms of this world are not gone, and so the two are in conflict. This has a lot in common with the view of the Kingdom of God as it appears in the gospel, which likely explains its appeal. It is not really a millennial view, but gets grouped with them anyway.
  3. Post-millennialism: This is the view that the world will continue to get better (or more and more people will get saved) until Christ’s Kingdom is established on earth, at which point, Jesus returns. This is a much more optimistic view of humanity and history than most other views. It also tends to only find large followings during widespread revivals, which makes sense considering what is happening. Notably, Jonathan Edwards likely held this view.
  4. Pre-millennial Dispensationalism: The clear favorite among evangelicals today. Like the “historic pre-millenialism” it states that Christ will return in order to (prior to) establish his reign on earth. However, there is the added “dispensational” element. Now dispensational theology has a lot of different interpolations, but the basics of it is this: there are different dispensations of God’s grace upon earth, generally identified as discrete covenants in the Old Testament. (For instance, Adamic dispensation, Noahian dispensation, the Abrahamic dispensation, etc.). The exact differentiation between these varies, particularly on whether the apostolic dispensation is different from the current dispensation of grace (which is really a question about whether one is a cessationist about spiritual gifts, or more charismatic/pentecostal). At any rate, the final dispensation is the millennial reign of Christ. Dispensational Pre-millennialists argue that, although the bible only speaks of one return of Christ, there are really 2 returns: one visible and public, one invisible and secret. The invisible and secret coming happens first and is usually called the “rapture.” Even if people don’t phrase it in those terms, the discussion of anything involving a rapture distinct from the visible return of Christ is based in disepensational theology. There are other commonalities as well. In generally they argue that literal (i.e. ethnic or political) Israel plays a key role (and in particular an exact 144,000 Jews), that there is one identifiable and historic anti-Christ yet to have come, that there will be a literal war on earth, and that there will be a seven year period that is exactly seven years known as the tribulation. There may be disputes over whether the rapture occurs before, during or after the tribulation (pre-, mid-, or post- trib). In general they think along he same lines, though. Think Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth or the ever popular Left Behind books.

The last option seems to be the current dominate option, particularly among evangelical Christians. The reasons for this are debatable, but it perhaps lies in part with the history of the late 19th and early 20th century. Dispensationalism as an organized systematic theology did not exist prior to the end of the 19th century, when J. N. Darby gave a series of lectures (in 1840 actually)

John Nelson Darby (I can see how this guy could lead to Left Behind)

in Geneva that were later published in English translation at the end of the 19th century. While not initially popular, the creator of the first study bible (Cyrus Scofield) liked the ideas so much he included them in his notes. As a result of this, the ideas became popular and were included as one of the (some say the) fundamentals during the fundamentalist controversy that hit most denominations in the early-mid twentieth Century, and hit Southern Baptists in the 70s and 80s.


Next week, I’ll start actually looking at the book of Revelation (well sort of).


4 (or 5) Different Views of the Revelation’s message regarding history

Ok, so let’s jump right in with the different views of where the message of Revelation belongs.

What do I mean by that, first of all? Well, no one disputes, really, that the first three chapters comprise letters to genuine, historical churches. Where the disagreement begins is with how to treat chapters 4 through 21. Here I’m going to outline the major camps involved in how to interpret this:

  1. Preterist view: This view states that everything described (or almost everything), including the return of Christ is metaphorical language and describes events that happened near the time of its writing. This time frame is either prior to 70AD (the destruction of the temple), prior to 150AD (the height of Domitian’s persecution of the church) or prior to 250 (on a much later date for writing). This means everything can be traced to an historical occurrence. This is considered heretical in many circles, in large part because it claims that Christ has already returned in a “spiritual” sense. There are very few advocates of this today.
  2. Allegoricist view: This view states that the message is really “timeless” and one cannot identify anything in the book with specific events or people in history past, present or future.
  3. Historicist view: This view claims that Revelation recounts the whole of history in metaphorical language. For instance: they may try to identify certain types of locusts with certain military weapons throughout history (from long bows, to guns, to tanks, to helicopters, etc.)
  4. Futurist view: By far the most popular claims that all, or almost all of the events following chapter 4 refer to things that have not yet occurred (or have only recently occurred) and generally believe that the timeline for these events is fairly short.
  5. The option view is called Partial-preterist: This is a view that states that significant portions of the book of Revelation occurred near the time of writing, but advocates are very careful to say other parts, in particular the return of Christ, have not yet occurred.

It should be noted that, with the exception of option 1, these views are not mutually exclusive, and often combined together. The

St John on Patmos by Hieronymus Bosch (obtained via Wikicommons)

most frequent combination involves 2, 5, and a little of 4. I think I’ll stop there for now, but next week, I’ll further divide option 4 and talk about the different views within that option for the book of revelation. For the time being though, I’m trying to keep things fairly simple.

Do you gravitate toward one or more of these?

Diving into Revelation (Part 1): Difficult Passages

Alright, so this was suggested a while back, and I’ve avoided it until now, but I’m going to go ahead and dive into the book of Revelation, one of the most confusing, argued about, misunderstood, misread, questioned books of the bible. Today I’m going to offer something of an introduction to what I intend to do with the series (which I suspect will be long running), and, if this doesn’t get too long, a brief introduction to the book.

First, the disclaimer. It seems pretty arrogant at the outset to give what is the interpretation of the book of Revelation. John Calvin was so bothered by the possibility of grossly divergent readings of the book that he thought that while it is good for Christians to read the entire bible, it might be better if they read everything except the book of Revelation, leaving that for trained scholars and elders to teach them (incidentally, he wrote a full commentary on every biblical book except revelation). So let me get one thing out there. I am not purporting to give the possible reading. Instead, what I will hope and try to do is give some of the general possibilities for looking at Revelation before following my own guide.

I should also note that I am not a New Testament Scholar. While I am familiar with the bible and have taken a lot of Greek, my graduate studies have not focused on Greek nor on the New Testament in the same way that a degree in “Bible” or “New Testament” would. Instead, I am trained as a theologian. Therefore, when I do get to my own commentary, it will be a (biblically informed and grounded) theological commentary on Revelation.

Let me also list some other disclaimers:

  1. I really don’t like Tim LaHay’s Revelation: Illustrated and Made Plain (Published in the mid-70s). I’ll try to hold my bias in check, but LaHay assumes quite a bit of superior knowledge about the book that he has no place to assume. The bible

    Hagee at Christians United for Israel [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons (Where are the giant posters?)

    should always, and Revelation in particular, be approached with a certain level of humility and a genuine acknowledgment that not only could I be wrong, but on some non-essential points, I probably am wrong (or at least have failed to grasp the full meaning).
  2. I will not be doing any John Hagee style Midrash. I’m not one for giant billboards or TV cameras. Plus see point 1). If youwant John Hagee, go find John Hagee, I’m sure there’s something online right now.
  3. When I talk about the variety of views that one can take for reading the book of Revelation, I will certainly give and try to explain some views I do not hold nor agree with in any sense. Still, I want to be fair to those with whom I disagree and so I will try to remain impartial when I explain those views. If I fail to do so in future posts, please call me out on it.
  4. There is a lot of Old Testament imagery and references in Revelation. I will go back into the Old Testament in an effort to see how the images are being used in the book of Revelation.
  5. If you comment (and please feel free to comment), please don’t call it “Revelations”. There is no “s” on the end of the book. I know it’s silly, but it’s a pet peeve of mine. This is the record of a single vision of John, it was one revelation by one person. (I realize I may have just invited lots of comments composed entirely of “Revelations”, but oh well).
  6. Let me preface this point by saying I don’t have a vendetta against Christian fiction (at least not all Christian fiction). I think C. S. Lewis has some great stuff (Space Trilogy anyone?). I think Francine Rivers is an exceptionally gifted writer (I’m secure enough in my masculinity to admit reading some of her books). Max Lucado’s children’s books are great. But, forgive me, I cannot stand the Left Behind series. I know it’s one of the best selling fictions books of my lifetime, and yes I read the first three, but I just don’t like it. I even saw the Kirk Cameron movies on it (yes that’s movies, plural), but didn’t like them. So, if you are wanting Christian apocalyptic fiction to feature in this blog. I’m

    Sorry Hal Lindsey, you’re playing second fiddle now in the hot Christian-Apocalyptic-but-what-happens-to-those-still-on-earth-after-the-rapture sub-sub-sub genre of books

    sorry to disappoint you. Maybe I’ll change my mind once the Nicholas Cage remakes come out (yes that’s really a thing).

  7. Let’s always keep in mind that, regardless of your view of Revelations ( ;D ), it is independent of your status before God. Unless you get really crazy (like saying Jesus is actually one of the beasts), having differing views of Revelation does not make you a heretic. This a book whose interpretation is one of the most disagreed things that there is. So let’s have a conversation about it (seriously in the comments), but let’s keep it a civil one.
  8. If you join the conversation (which, really, please do), remember the words of Martin Luther: “Sin boldly!”
  9. As will often be the case, and is here, I will likely go on for too long with one section. If the pace gets too plodding, I may leave the series for a while and do something else before coming back, but I’m only posting things in this series on Mondays, so I don’t think variety will be an issue.

Martin Luther King, JR day

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr Day. Also, it being a Monday, I have in the past addressed “difficult passages” in the bible. Today, in light of the day it is, I offer a passage that we likely understand in thought, but fail to put in practice.

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28 (KJV)

How do we as Christians reconcile this with the quote often attributed to the Rev Martin Luther King, JR:

The most segregated hour in America is eleven o’clock, Sunday morning.

It was true then and its true now. The two should not be. Think on this and how we, the Church, should be one as Christ is one with the Father.

By Phil Stanziola, NYWT&S staff photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Difficult Passages 1 Samuel 28

This past week the people over at The Gospel Coalition asked Dale Ralph Martin some hard questions about 1 Samuel 28 the episode involving the witch of Endor (the non-George Lucas one), Saul, and Samuel. As I would expect, Martin does an excellent job with the three questions and you can read his response here. He is asked three questions about the passage:

  1. Is the spirit the witch summons actually Samuel? Or a demon acting like Samuel (1 Sam. 28:14-15)?
  2. Where is Samuel coming from—especially since he says Saul and his sons “shall be with me” (1 Sam. 28:19)?
  3. The Bible paints very different pictures of Samuel, Saul, and Jonathan. Yet Samuel seems to say they will all be in the same place (Sheol?). Should we assume anything about Saul’s salvation from this? (1 Sam. 28:19)

He lays out the various options, and does a good job explaining question three and two, for the most part. However, Martin is a bit more cautious (surprisingly) than I’d suggest, particularly with the first question. He simply lays out the options and doesn’t give an argument for any one of them in particular. I think we can afford a little bit more specificity than that. Here’s my attempt to do so. In other words, while I don’t disagree with Martin, I think a little bit of elaboration might be in order.

First, Martin notes the various options, which I repeat here for the sake of ease. It could be the case that either the witch actually summons Samuel through the forbidden act of necromancy, the witch summons a demon who merely looks and acts like Samuel, God allows this forbidden means to work so Samuel can appear to convey a message, or the witch is a fraud and is shocked when Samuel actually shows up.

I think we can begin by eliminating some of these options. While it might be possible that this is merely a demon who acts like Samuel, this seems very problematic and should probably be rejected. The message given by what appears to be Samuel seems to very clearly come from God. While it is certainly true that God could use the demons, since he has absolute sovereignty, to convey his message, such a position is not very attractive for two reasons. First, there is the idea of God using an entity with its own distinct will against that will. The very idea that demons were able to rebel in the first place suggests that they have some sort of free will. Likewise, if we are to assume that God is not responsible in any way for our sin we should argue that we have a free will and are not unwilling tools. Thus the idea of God using a creature, even a demon, against its will places in jeopardy all of freedom, including human freedom. Besides, most ethical codes note that it is immoral to use a free person without respect for the ends of the person. This does not mean we cannot stop someone from doing exactly what they want, but to compel them, not through convincing or negative consequences, seems somehow immoral, and I don’t think God ever changes what morality is to fit his purpose (rather he somehow uses and integrates our freely arrived at decisions in his greater plan). It is difficult to see how a demon would willingly convey God’s message considering that everything about their actions is geared towards rebellion against God. However, if this is not convincing, the second reason should be. Even if it is not a moral violation to use a demon in this way, ultimately by making Saul believe Samuel is speaking to him, if it were not Samuel it would be deceptive. Do we really want to say that God engages in deception? Even if God does not directly engage in it in this scenario, if he is allowing a demon to be deceptive in order to convey his own message, this still seems counter to the way in which God acts. Thus I would be inclined to say this is not and cannot have been a demon, but is instead Samuel himself.

This brings us to the second issue. How does Samuel get there? Is he summoned via necromancy? Does God permit it to work? Again, I think it a bit dangerous to assume that God would work through a forbidden and sinful act to directly convey his message (i.e. his message being conveyed is entirely contingent upon a willful sinful act taking place). Besides, we have the bewilderment of the witch herself. Regardless of whether the witch was genuine or a fake, I think we have to accept that Samuel appeared to Saul in order give this message, but that this appearance was independent of the witch’s actions.

Now this presents another problem, particularly for those who have been reading my Tuesday speculative posts. If I maintain that there isn’t an immaterial soul that is entirely separate from our bodies, then what is going on here? The text does not say it was an immaterial spirit that appeared. Instead, it seems that something was seen, which would run counter to the idea of immateriality. Further, the word could mean spirit, figure, object, any number of words that suggest a visible something that can’t necessarily be defined (it could be a body, but needn’t be one). But how would Samuel be seen at that time? There is a term for this that has been taken up and applied theologically called “prolepsis.” It is literally talking about appearance, but it has been elaborated to its more basic sense of seeing ahead of time. In other words, it is a vision, or appearance, of the future. In this instance, on my view, it is seeing the future day when the dead are alive again, and it is this Samuel who speaks to Saul. In other words, the medium is seeing, and Saul is hearing, through time. This is a possibility because of the nature of eternity. When Christ returns and we are transformed, this world remains (though is likewise transformed), but we are no longer bound by only our current space-time. In fact, it seems we exist in a much broader space-time where time as we know it begins to lose or shift in meaning. In this way, the future persons can convey messages with us (by God’s sovereignty) today.

What do you think? Any other problems with this passage? Any other passages you’d like to see covered here?

Difficult Passages: 2 Samuel 24 vs 1 Chronicles 21

And we’re back to looking at difficult passages in the bible. This week, I’d like to look at the instance of David taking the census as recorded in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21.

Right of the bat, we have a bit of a discrepancy in these parallel passages that are otherwise in agreement (sometimes word for word agreement). 2 Samuel 24:1 says:

Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.”

While 1 Chronicles 21:1 says:

Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.

So, first question:

Who incited David?

Short answer: Satan did. Today in theology we often talk about the “active” and “passive” or more frequently “active” and “permissive” will of God. To say God allows something to take place, we recognize, is not the same thing as saying God is the one who directly causes it to occur. God actively redeems his people because he permitted them to sin of their own volition. The Ancient Hebrew mindset, it seems, did not account for such a strong distinction. It seems they would have been able to recognize the difference if they talked about it (hence the distinction that was made by the (later) writer of Chronicles), but nothing in their language could directly account for this. In either case, it remains that the two passages in juxtaposition make clear that Satan directly tempted David, David freely chose to give into this temptation, and that God allowed it all to come about because he was sovereign over the entire situation. The difference in the two passages, though, brings out a different emphasis in both. While in the Chronicles passage the idea is that David had gone so low as to succumb to the temptation of the devil, in the Samuel passage, the main idea is that God did not abandon Israel nor was God’s sovereignty ever in question. Given the themes of both books this makes sense. Chronicles seems heavily “David focused” and Samuel seems heavily focused on the relationship of God to the rulers of Israel (and how their rule is paralleled or not by God’s rule). This brings us to the next question:

What’s so bad about a census?

It is true that nothing specifically forbids a census in the Hebrew bible (per se), despite the incredibly popular rabbinical tradition that seems to be based upon this. So what’s the big deal? Well there are a few things: first, in Numbers the precedent is set that the census is done at the request of the LORD (YHWH), not by personal ambition. Lest we think this is a bit too shaky, we should note that the primary instruction for how a census should be conducted is Exodus 30: 11-16; which is place directly in the middle of instructions for building the tabernacle (and worship). This places the census completely within the context of divine relations to people, not secular ambition.

Still, even if we grant that David was not doing anything wrong by doing the census in itself, it appears he did not conduct it according to the way set out in Exodus 30. Specifically, it states that a small offering (half a shekel) was required of every person who was counted in order to act as a “ransom” for their lives to make a symbolic atonement (so taking a census was a very serious thing). This money would then be used or set aside specifically for worship to God. There is no indication that this was done (in fact it is strongly implied that God was the furthest thing from David’s mind when he did this). This brings us to the final question

Why was everyone else punished for what David did?

There are actually two things at play here. First, Israel was collectively redeemed as a family. Thus their fate was held together for all of them. When one sinned they all were held accountable. That may be at play, and certainly there are other passages have this idea in them, in which case the punishments are actually redemptive not punitive (they save the person punished, in the next life, lest they be destroyed for their actions now and forever). However, there may be a more individual accountability also.

Again, referring to the Exodus 30 passage, it was required by the law that when a census occurred an offering to God be collected from every person who was counted. That was not David’s responsibility only (even if he should have asked for it), but the responsibility of every person counted. Keep in mind that, at least concerning the Torah, these laws were drilled into every person from an early age. Everyone was thus fully responsible for the law and adherence to it once they were old enough to have learned it (this is what the contemporary Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah are intended to represent: adulthood comes about once the law has been thoroughly studied). Thus each person was responsible and God’s anger was with all of Israel. Also, considering it was only half a shekel, this was a relatively insignificant amount of money.

What do you think? Other questions? Also, please suggest future passages to be covered below.

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