Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How to Survive As an Eschatological Agnostic

I was once at a Christian bookstore with a fellow pastor, because we were about to attend a rousing debate on the openness of God. As we were burning time, we bought some coffee at the bookstore and decided to take a look around. At this point we took part in a favorite pastoral past-time, recommending books. At the time I was preaching through the book of Revelation, and I pointed out a book edited by Steve Gregg. It is a commentary on Revelation that lists each of the four main views on the book (Historicist, Preterist, Futurist, Idealist) in parallel columns, so that you can easily see the differences in how each system interprets various passages. The guy I recommended it to began to look at me as if he had never seen me before. I think I even heard an audible gasp escape his throat. He exclaimed, "Why on earth would I want to read THAT book!" I said, "So you can peruse other views, making your knowledge base more well rounded." He then said, "Why would I want to know what other people think?"

I was blown away by the anti-intellectualism, especially for a guy attending a debate on the openness of God. If you are confident in your own beliefs, what does it hurt to look at things through someone else's eyes. Knowledge is not something to be afraid of.

So, what do you do when you get these gasps from fellow Christians? How can you survive as an eschatogical agnositc? I'm not going to lie. It is difficult, because everyone wants to pigeon hole you into one view or another. It never fails; every time I begin a discussion about the end-times with someone, they immediately want to know what perspective I come from. Which is understandable, but often uncomfortable.

I have been a die-hard dispensationalist. I have toyed with Covenant Theology. I once thought about becoming a partial preterist. I tried on historic Pre-millennialism for a while. After that I went back to dispensationalism (The Progressive variety). I have run the scope of views, however, certain things about my end-times' beliefs have never changed. I have always believed that at some point in the future Christ will come back for his own, that he will resurrect all people and separate us based on what we believe about him, (judgement), and that he will usher in a new heavens and a new earth. Beyond these, is any of the rest of it really that important?

We know that there is a seventieth week of Daniel, seven seal, trumpet, and vial judgments, a coming man of lawlessness, a battle of Armageddon, some sort of rapture, a marriage supper, a millennium, and a battle of Gog and Magog. How exactly they are fulfilled, when they are fulfilled, and in what order, is a matter of great complexity. We have all created systems that include each of these events. Most of us are trying to be as honest as we can with the Bible. The truth, though, might not be possessed exactly by any of us. Let's face it. Prophecy is hard to interpret. Even when we have a prophecy and its fulfillment, many times it raises as many questions as it answers like Psalm 22, Daniel 8, or the various prophecies about Zedekiah for example, which I want to talk about over the next few weeks.

I tell my congregants when I preach on difficult subjects, that my view is not a threat to theirs. If you interpret the passage differently, as long as you are honestly dealing with an inspired text, then feel free to disagree. You don't have to agree with me just because I am the pastor. Other views are not threats to us, especially if we have truth on our side. If we possess the truth, then we should welcome learning about and debating other views.

When we interpret Scripture there are levels of authority. It is like standing on the branch of a tree. When you are next to the tree, you are on some pretty firm footing. However, each step that you take away from the tree, you are in a more precarious spot. Many of our doctrines we can proclaim loudly from right next to the trunk, doctrines like the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, salvation by grace through faith, the trinity, etc. Other doctrines have less authority because we have to pile up passage upon passage or throw in leaps in human logic. With each leap we take we move farther out on the branch. We could still be right, but we need to be humble enough to admit that we might not have a corner on the entire truth. I think that when we are dealing with end-times' philosophies we are at the very ends of the branch. Don't get me wrong. I have no problem with people who have strong views; I have strong views of my own. But . . . I think there needs to be a measure of humility when we discuss things where we are way out on limbs.

All of this to say: if you want to survive as an eschatological agnostic, keep your fat mouth shut. If you believe as I do, that these systems are very complex and full of human logic at many levels, then you also believe that it is not a big deal if you disagree with someone. So, my advice is to keep quiet, unless asked point blank. I don't think that views on this issue should create big divides, so why would I insist constantly that I am more enlightened than everyone else. I think the dispensationalist could be right! I think there is a small chance that the preterist could be right. So, why would I just seek to antagonize these people over what I view to be a minor issue? I won't and I urge you to do the same.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Cosmic Christmas: Accuser vs. Advocate

Were you ever taunted on the school playground. "Hey four eyes!" "Get out of here carrot top." " I don't like you pizza face!" You get the idea. Well, my favorite taunt is, "I'm rubber and you're glue; whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you." If you step up and exclaim this taunt, you have definitely won!

Now we get to the meat of Revelation 12. It is the heart of the Christmas story and can really be summed up with the above taunt. We no longer have an accuser. Our sins have been forgiven. We are rubber and Satan is glue; whatever he says bounces off of us and sticks to him!

Christ's victory over Satan on the cross enabled Michael to have a heavenly victory over Satan. We have seen Michael and Satan battle before. In the book of Jude we find a strange story where Michael and Satan are fighting over the bones of Moses. Here, because of the actions of Christ, Michael takes Satan to school! Jesus said during his ministry that he came to destroy the work of the devil and that is exactly what he did!

According to Jewish tradition Michael is one of seven archangels. As far as our canon goes, Michael is the only known archangel. The book of Daniel prophesies that he will have a huge role in shifting power in the end-times, and Jewish tradition pictures him as a protector for Israel, kind of like a defense attorney. Here he protects God's people militarily. He and the angelic host that answers to him battle against Satan and his minions and they win, barring Satan any access to heaven.

But, what does it mean that Satan is barred access to heaven? In what sense? In the OT, we see that Satan is part of a heavenly council (Job 1-2; Zech. 3; Ps. 82, etc.). The most famous example of that is in the book of Job. God invites Satan, who is one of the spirits around his throne, to take a look at Job, because he is a very godly man. Satan states his counter hypothesis. The only reason that Job is righteous is because of how nice God is to him. Satan asks for permission to strike Job, so that they can see how righteous he really is. So, Satan becomes Job's prosecuting attorney. He accuses Job of not really being godly. He accuses him of being a fair-weather friend, only loving God because God has been so kind to him.

We see the exact same thing in Zechariah 3. Satan stands at the right hand of God accusing Joshua of sin. The Lord rebukes Satan, because Joshua's sins have been forgiven. His filthy clothes have been replaced with clean clothes. Before Christ's work, in a sense, accusations could stick. However, now that Christ has purchased redemption, accusations fail to stick to saints. Therefore, there is no longer a place for Satan accusing before the throne of God. He has now been kicked out of heaven and thrown down to earth for good!

All of this means that the hymn of Revelation 12:10-12 is the heart of this entire chapter and explains John's main point very plainly. Our accuser has been replaced with our advocate. Under emperor Domitan (emperor when Revelation was written), the image of accuser would have been very frightening. This would have reminded John's readers of the paid Roman informer who made a career out of accusing people. During Domitan's reign, Christianity was illegal, so they had many run-ins with these "accusers".

Here we see Satan as the ultimate paid informer, trying to accuse the saints in any way possible. But now, the accuser has been thrown out of the courtroom and held in contempt. He will never be allowed to return and accuse God's people. He has been disbarred. His accusations have no basis because of Christ's work of atonement.

Jesus is now our new defense attorney and nothing Satan does or says can change the reality of the situation. Our sin is gone because of Christ's work! This is the heart of the Christmas story. Nothing can stand against God's kingdom, not even the gates of hell. So, when you think about Christmas or Revelation 12 think about that old playground taunt, "I'm rubber and you're glue; whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you!"

Monday, December 21, 2009

Comsic Christmas: Quail-man and the Battle for Heaven

Am I the only one that watched Nickolodean's Doug? I know I'm not. I am probably the only one who will admit it. If you won't admit it, let me explain the show. It was about a kid growing up in a normal town, with normal parents, a normal sister, and a blue best friend. Granted, Doug was a bit of a loser, but so was I.

One interesting feature of the show was that every event usually occurred in two different realms. The first realm was his own personal life. Perhaps he is fighting with his sister or tying to talk to a girl he likes. The main point is usually how he overcomes these obstacles. But . . . the same events occur in another realm, in his head. Everything he does in real life affects the storyline in his head.

For instance, let's say he is struggling against a bully in his real life. In his head he becomes a superhero, named Quail-Man, and the bully grows into a huge monster. They begin to fight. The rest of the show cuts between these two realms, and whatever happens in real life is translated into some crazy outcomes in his imagination. If he gets embarrassed in front of a group of people by a bully, then in his head the monster grabs Quail-man and throws him into the moon. If Doug somehow manages to get back at the bully, Quail-man will descend from space and deal a blow back at the monster.

The place where the real drama is happening is in reality, the image in his mind is just an illustration of how he feels about it. I believe that is what we have here in Revelation 12. The story operates on two levels. The first level is what is happening on earth. The image of the son showed us that Jesus is dealing a death blow to Satan through his death on the cross, resurrection, and exaltation. But . . . Jesus' atoning work also affects events in heaven. It gives the archangel Michael the power needed to sign an eviction notice for Satan. Michael is able to cast Satan out of heaven for good, and the Devil is no longer allowed to accuse the saints. Isn't that a great truth?! Because Christ died for sins, Satan can no longer accuse us!! Instead of an accuser, we have an advocate!

Unfortunately, in some views this great truth gets lost, because it doesn't fit in their chronology. Some see a defeat or fall of Satan and take this back to the beginning, to Satan's supposed fall from heaven. He wanted to be more powerful than God, and his pride caused his fall. However, iss that what this passage is talking about? I don't believe that an honest reading of this passage in context would lead to that conclusion. It seems clear that this event is linked with the Jesus' work on the cross. This defeat was enacted by Christ's death and resurrection, and did not take place before the fall of man.

Some dispensationalists believe this fall of Satan happens at the mid point of a 7 year tribulation period. Others put this fall at the beginning of the tribulation, saying that the appearance of the saints in heaven drives out the presence of Satan. In this view, salvation in Revelation 12 is watered down from redemption to being saved from the plagues during the end-times. What a travesty! This beautiful passage about the joy of our salvation is destroyed in order to save a system. This passage is an artistic description of our salvation from sin and accusation because Christ has taken our penalty. It is a wonderful picture of the gospel.

The preterist comes closer, but still distorts the point. Michael becomes an image for Jesus and his angels are images for the apostles. They carry forward the message of the gospel and bind the dragon and reduce his power. They cite John 12:31, "Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out." So, this becomess a historical earthly event, taking place under the power of apostles preaching the good news. However, I believe that this passage is even more significant than that. It is nothing short of the utter defeat of Satan at the hands of Christ It describes our accuser being tossed out of heaven, because of our advocate's nail scarred hands.

What do you think? I will flesh out some implications of this next.

Logical Point of Interest:

Please don't let your system crush beautiful passages of Scripture. I am not sure how all the chronology here fits, but I refuse to re-explain this passage, because it doesn't fit nicely in my boxes. I urge you to do the same.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Cosmic Christmas: Looking for Clues

I am a big fan of Monk. It is kind of sad to me that this season was his last, but so goes life! Even Tony Shaloub, that great thespian of our age, needs a break. Doesn't he have more important roles to fill than Monk, like the crazy shop owner from Men in Black or the many-headed guy from Spy Kids?

Watching Monk has taught me one thing. Everything leaves a mark. There are always clues to be found, and with the proper context, you can take those clues and solve the mystery. We have been looking at three apocalyptic images here in Revelation 12, the woman, the child, and the dragon. In one instance the mystery was easy to solve, because John did it for us. In the other two, however, we need to focus on the clues from context and see if we can solve the mystery.

The last mystery we need to solve is the identity of the woman. She is by far the most controversial image of the three. When you think of someone giving birth to the Messiah, who naturally pops into your head? Is it Mary? Well . . . many believe the woman here does refer to the woman. They focus on the one clue, that she is the mother of the Messiah, and then jump to the conclusion that this must be the literal mother of Jesus. But is this correct? Let's take a look at all of the clues that John gives us:

1. She is clothed with the sun.
2. The moon is her footstool.
3. She wears a crown of twelve stars
4. She is very pregnant and having labor pains
5. She gives birth to a male child, who will rule the nations with an iron rod

First, we need to remember how the symbol and the referent match up. When we looked at the dragon, we learned that John does not necessarily see things how they are, he is seeing images that represent something else. The description that we are given is not about physical appearance, but each physical characteristic is a clue that tells us something about the figure. We need to take a close look at our physical clues and try to solve the mystery of what they refer to.

What are the clues about the sun, moon, and stars intending to tell us about the woman and her identity? We already discussed how the main background for the Apocalypse comes from the Old Testament. Is there any story you can think of that focuses on the sun, moon, and stars.? We also have to keep in mind that we see twelve stars. I think this brings to mind Joseph's dream. Remember when he had a dream about how he and his brothers were stars and his mother and father were the sun and the moon? And how they gathered around him and bowed before him? In this passage from Genesis the sun, moon, and stars represent the future of the nation of Israel. The twelve stars representing each of the twelve brothers.

If it is true that Israel is being hinted at here, why through the image of a woman? Throughout the Old Testament we see that God refers to the nation of Israel as a woman. In Jeremiah 2:2 he calls Israel his own bride. She stands in contrast to the whore of Babylon that we meet later on in Revelation, who represents humanity in opposition to God.

Why is she in in pain? She is in pain because she is about to give birth. We saw last time that she is about to give birth to the Messiah, who will rule with an iron scepter. This phrase comes straight from Psalm 2 which speaks about the Davidic King and later came to be associated with the ideal Davidic King, the Messiah, whom we now know is Jesus. In other words, we see Israel here in pain because she is about to bring forth the Messiah.

As we think about Israel during the time of Christ, we see a woman in pain, longing for her Messiah. This wasn't really true even a century before Christ., because Israel had its own land with its own king during the Hasmonean dynasty, and a future Messiah was not really at the front of their minds. In the first century BCE, however, with the advent of Roman rule, messianic expectations began to rise. When will we get someone to break us from the yoke of foreign rule? Jesus was brought forth during a time when Israel was suffering from "pre-messianic" expectation (cf. Mounce, 232).

We all agree then, right? The woman is Israel! Unfortunately, no! Most scholars throughout the centuries have understood the woman to refer to Mary or to Mary in a pre-incarnational form giving birth to Jesus. Today, that view is relegated mainly to Catholicism.

Most in protestantism agree that the woman refers to Israel, but that begs a further question, "Who is Israel?" The dispensationalist normally sees the woman as national Israel, and not the church. They have already made a logical choice that Israel and the church are distinct, and that colors how they interpret this woman. The A-mill interpreter does the same thing on the other side. Since there is no or little difference between Israel and the Church, the woman refers to the combined people of God.

Does the woman here refer to Israel alone, or is the church part of the referent as well? We see this woman again after the death and ascension of Christ described in this very chapter. She is persecuted by the devil for a three and a half year period, though she is protected by God. After trying several times to kill the woman and being supernaturally thwarted, the dragon gives up and turns to her offspring. Her children are described as those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony about Jesus. If we assume that the woman refers to Israel, then who are her children? Are they individual Jews? Are they the church? Are they individual Christians? Her children definitely sound like Christians to me. Christians who overcome by holding fast to God in the face of persecution. This is where the when of this passage becomes very important. When is this taking place and who is on the earth. Is this during the church age? During a future tribulatoinal period? When?

The preterist has already logically concluded that this chapter was fulfilled in the first few centuries of the church. They then have to find a historical fulfillment that has already happened. They have also logically concluded that the church and Israel are the same, so the woman represents both Jews and Christians in the world. Most preterists believe that the woman is faithful Israel and that her escape is when all of the Palestinian Christians flee from Jerusalem before its destruction in 66-70 CE. Then, the dragon turns his attention on all of her offspring, which are Christians not in Jerusalem but in the outlying gentile areas. But . . . is this really what the woman is? Is she just Palestinian Christians? Are her children merely Gentile Christians?

The point I am trying to make with these images is simple. This passage is very difficult to interpret, and what makes it even more difficult is all of the logical conclusions that we already carry with us. We have already assumed so many things, that we are no longer free to take the passage on its own merits, we must force it into our system. Everyone is guilty of this. It is just the nature of the game. But, in my opinion, this truth makes our conclusions a little suspect and tells me we should hold them with a little humility.

Personally, I believe that this chapter is describing the period between the birth of Christ and the end of days. The woman initially refers to the nation of Israel, in the pain of expectation for the coming Messiah. However, I believe the image also refers to the Church as we move along in time past the ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ. Gentiles are grafted in to borrow words from Paul. The devil in his anger tries to destroy the people of God, but he cannot. This was already predicted by Christ in Matthew 18, "Upon this rock I build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it." The Devil will not and cannot destroy the people of God. So, in his rage he turns his attention against the offspring of the woman, who in my opinion are individual believers of the church age. We have seen this persecution on both small and large scales for two thousand years. But while Satan can kill individual believers, he cannot exterminate the church, since she is supernaturally protected by Christ.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cosmic Christmas: The SON - Possibilities vs. Probabilities

TV editors are magicians, and they are what make reality television slightly less than real. These people are virtually omnipotent. They can make the viewer feel for the character of their choice. They do it by playing on our emotions. It is just human nature to root for the underdog. So, they juxtapose a team making a humble comment with another team making a huge arrogant statement. "I just don't know if we have what it takes to win this next task." Right next to, "We are the best people ever to be a part of this show." And magically, we all begin to root for the humble rather than the proud.

Who is the Child?

We sort of find ourselves in a similar situation in Revelation 12. We encounter a weak newborn child and a horrifying scarlet dragon ready to scarf him down. Who do you want to win? The irony of the story lies in the fact that with all of the dragon's menace and power, he is actually no match for the child. Which brings us to our question for today, "Who is the child?"

First of all, let's clarify our clues:

1. The child is born of the woman
2. The child is male
3. His destiny is to rule all nations with an iron rod
4. He is caught up to God and his throne (immediately?)

The identify of the child is clear to me, though not all agree. John is referencing Christ. He quotes here a prophecy pertaining to a future Davidic King (Solomon? Messiah? Both?). The prophecy is about how God will give this future king universal dominion over the nations. Most New Testament authors apply words from Psalm 2 to Christ at one time or another. John is doing the same here. He is connecting Christ with this future ruler who will defend his people from the nations like a shepherd defends his sheep. This is proven by two other references in Revelation to the iron rod. The overcomers from the church of Thyatira are also promised to reign with this ruler in Rev. 2:27, and in 19:15 we see this prophecy realized completely when Christ rides in on his white steed to rule with his iron rod. It couldn't be much clearer that John intended us to think of the child as Jesus.

If we are correct and the image of the child refers to Christ, then we have his whole ministry envisioned here, from birth, through death and resurrection, all the way to his exaltation to the right hand of the father. The author of Hebrews tells us that after Christ accomplished the cleansing of sin, he sat down at the right hand of the father in heaven (1:3). This is an apocalyptic technique called telescoping, where many events are scrunched together without allowing for breaks in time.

A Case of the Possiblies:

Thankfully, most agree that this image refers to Christ, however, there are always those who buck the obvious because it doesn't fit nicely into their end time philosophical system. Some (not many) dispensationalists equate the child with the church and the child's ascension with the rapture of the church. This helps their system in a couple of ways. First, it allows them to have another text to bolster their pre-trib view. Second, it allows them to skip the church age. To many dispensationalists, Revelation 4-18 has nothing at all to do with Christians, but only with the Jewish nation. It becomes convenient for them to be able to skip to the end. Going right from the birth of the church to its rapture, firmly placing the rest of the chapter during Daniel's Seventieth week.

If the dispensationalist identifies the child as Christ, he has to find another spot to fast forward, so that the rest of the events described in Revelation 12 occur during the tribulation rather than the church age. In other words, their interpretation of this passage, like all others, is constrained by prior logical choices. They have already assumed a radical distinction between Israel and the church and that the book of Revelation is for the most part chronological. Therefore, they can't let the text speak for itself, they are forced to make interpretive decisions based on prior interpretive decisions, creating a more and more complex house of cards.

I am not just beating up on dispensationalists, but virtually all interpreters. The preterist is no different. Their problem only comes later with the identity of the woman and her flight. They are forced to deny the plain message of the text based on prior convictions.

All of this to say that we can't just make the text say what we want it to or what fits into our system. To the best of our ability we need to be able to set down our prior philosophical and logical ideas and try to figure out what our author intended. Here it is clear. John was referencing the life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and exaltation of our Lord, as the rest of the chapter and book reveals. To identify the child as the church is possible, but not probable.

When I taught Greek, I had to explain this distinction often. When you understand the myriad of ways that a participle (or any other part of speech) can be translated based on its tense, voice, mood, etc., you can get overwhelmed. Then you begin to say things like, "Anything is possible!" In a sense that is right, there are a great deal of possibilities, but there are only a few probabilities, because both historical and literary CONTEXT limit us. The child could possibly be identified as many different historical figures or institutions, but there is only one probable identification, Christ. Once we agree on that basic truth, it will unlock the beauty of the rest of this chapter AND its connection with Christmas!

Hermeneutical Points of Interest:

Historical and Literary Context knock out "possiblies," so that only "probablies" remain.

Telescoping is a technique where many events are simplified and gaps of time left out, mostly used in prophetic and apocalyptic literature.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Cosmic Christmas: The Dragon is the Key

The key! I've got the key! The key to unlocking the meaning of images in Revelation.

The dragon is the key! Have you ever seen The Christmas Story? If you haven't, just tune in to TBS around Christmas time, I believe they play the movie about 144,000 times.

In the movie, Ralphie's favorite radio show is Little Orphan Annie. At the end of every broadcast the announcer gives out a secret coded message. Only those who have sent away and received the special decoder ring can figure out what the message says. For months Ralphie waits for his decoder ring to come in the mail. When it finally comes, he is so excited. He rushes into the bathroom to uncover his first secret message. Once he has uncovered the message he becomes severely disappointed, because it turns out to be just a commercial for Ovaltine.

Well, here in Revelation 12 I believe we have have the official decoder ring for John's Apocalypse. John introduces us to one of the most vivid images in his work, and then he interprets that image about as clearly as you can. The identity of the dragon cannot be debated, because John tells us exactly who he is. When we first meet him, John gives us several clues about his indentity and nature:

1. He is a monster (dragon)
2. He is large (great)
3. He is red
4. He has seven heads
5. He has ten horns
6. He has seven crowns
7. With his tail he swept away a third of the stars
8. He wants to harm the woman and eat her child

If we only had these clues, we might be able to identify the dragon, but I am sure that there would be a great deal of debate. John stopped all of that debate, by telling us exactly who this dragon is. The answer is in verse 9, "so the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him." We've found our decoder ring!

Can you get any clearer than that? I don't think so! Here is the key. John is not seeing things how they are, he is seeing things in figures or images that represent something else. We are given a hermenuetical guide as to how the image and the referent correspond. The description that we are given is not a physical appearance, but each physical characteristic is a clue that tells us something about the figure. For example, the dragon is red because Satan has a murderous intent, not because Satan is actually red.

Ancient mythology is filled with images of dragons, including some that make their way into our Old Testament. For instance the Leviathan was a great monster of the deep from Canaanite legend and Rahab was the female monster of chaos. These images were brought into our Old Testament mainly to speak of the enemies of God and his people. In Ps. 74:14 the nation of Egypt is called Leviathan. In Isaiah 27:1 both Assyria and Babylon are called Leviathan. The Pharaoh of Egypt is likened to a great monster (Ezek 29:3). The Old Testament is replete with instances of God's enemies being likened to a monster. That phenomenon is what we have here. That is the background for John's use of a dragon to represent the arch-enemy of God and his people, the Devil.

The red character symbolizes Satan's murderous intentions, as we see him lying in wait to eat the child as soon as it is born. In Egyptian myth Set-Typon is depicted as a red crocodile, also symbolizing his evil designs. Jesus tells us that Satan has been a murderer from the beginning. (John 8:44). The two clues that are even remotely debated are what the seven heads and crowns refer to, and what the stars are that Satan casts to the ground. Which leads us to a large hermeneutical divide between students of the Apocalypse; how to interpret numbers. Are they as a rule literal or symbolic. This is an issue that we will have to tackle, but I don't have the strength or the time at the moment.

Even though there is agreement about the general picture of who the dragon is. Many disagree over how he manifests himself in history at this point. The historicist identifies the dragon with Imperial Rome, which persecutes the child who is the church. The enemy is indeed Satan, but he is animating the opponents of God. Most preterists view the dragon as the Satanic culmination of all four beasts from Daniel. So, here the dragon represents Satan's attempts through all of these pagan empires to persecute God's people, culminating in Rome's destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD under Titus. The idealist sees the dragon as Satan and his attack on the woman and the child as Satan's continual struggle to best God and destroy the church. The dispensational futurist sees the dragon as Satan animating the revived Roman empire in the end-times, against the Jewish people. Finally, the non-dispensational futurist, sees the dragon as Satan trying to stop Christ from accomplishing his work on the cross, and then trying to destroy the people of God and individual Christians.

We should look more at these individual views of Revelation, but we will do that at a later time. All of this to show, that just because we agree on the referent of the image (Satan), does not mean that we agree on how this image infiltrates history.

What do you think about the dragon and how he worms his way into history?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Cosmic Christmas - Part Two (Rev 12): Harry Potter and Prophecy

What does Harry Potter have to do with Revelation 12? It's simple; let me explain. In the Harry Potter saga we read a prophecy that changes the wizarding world forever. A child will be born as the seventh month dies who will have the power to vanquish the Dark Lord. At this point the evil sorcerer whose demise is hinted at feels a little threatened. He believes the prophecy and thinks that this child needs to be taken out of the equation for his own protection. So, he sets out for Harry's home when Harry is only a little older than a year. In this particular scene we see our three main images from Revelation 12: the woman (Harry's mother), the child (Harry), and the evil monster (Voldemort). We also see that as powerful as the monster is, he is not quite powerful enough to destroy a tiny baby. In fact, in sweeping irony, it is the child who demolishes the monster.

These three images, the mother, the child, and the monster, appear quite frequently in the literary world. We find similar plots in both pagan mythology and in the Old Testament. There was a popular Greek myth during the time of Jesus about the pregnant goddess Let (Lucan, Bell. 5.79-81). When she reached her time to deliver her child, she was pursued by a dragon named Python who wanted to kill her and her coming child. It was generally agreed that this yet to be born baby would bring about Python's destruction. Python thought that if he could just kill him as a helpless child, then he could protect himself. Unfortunately for Python, Leto happened upon a tiny little island called Delos, and Poseidon buried the island under the sea to hide her. It was on this island that she was protected while she gave birth to the god, Apollo. When Apollo reached the ripe old age of four days, he set out on a quest to kill Python and succeeded. The monster thwarted by the child.

In Egyptian myth we meet our three images in the story of Set the red dragon (Plutarch, De Iside 355D-358F). This monster pursues the pregnant goddess (the mother) Isis. Set cannot get to her and she gives birth to Horus (the child). When Horus reaches maturity, he sets out and kills the red dragon.

This story line even made itself into the political world of John's day. In AD 83 the Roman Emperor's son died tragically. Upon his death, Domitian named his son a god and the child's mother, the mother of god. Coins of this period show Domitia as the mother of gods enthroned with a scepter and a crown. Others show the dead child sitting on the globe of heaven playing with the seven starts which represented the seven known planets at the time.

Some have proposed that these three characters in Revelation 12 were intended as a political and religious statement against these coins. In other words, these coins proclaim that Domitian's wife and child are lord and savior, but John is telling us that the real Lord and Savior is Jesus, the Lord of heaven, who will rule with a rod of iron. While tempting to see chapter 12 as a polemic against Domitian, I personally don't think that is the correct background.

I believe the background comes from our own Genesis 3. In this passage of Scripture we again meet our three images, the mother, the child, and the monster. After Adam and Eve's (the mother) fall from grace, they are cursed by God. Part of that curse is again to the serpent (the monster). God foretold in that curse that there would always be animosity between the seed of the woman (the child) and the seed of the snake. The offspring of the snake will nip at the heel of man, but man will crush his head. In the original context, I think this refers mainly to the animosity that humans still have with snakes. Later tradition, however, including biblical tradition picks up on this curse as applying to the struggle between Messiah and Satan. Satan wages war with the Christ, trying to destroy him, but does nothing more than nip at his heel. But . . . because of what Christ did on the cross, he has finally and completely crushed Satan's head. The real meaning of Christmas.

These are the three images we are going to talk about the rest of this week. Hopefully, nailing down the background as an interpretation and explication of Genesis 3 will help us on the road toward clarifying the referents of these three symbols.

Hermeneutical Point of Interest:

The book of Revelation is filled with rich images, but these images are not normally of John's own making. He draws heavily on images from the Old Testament in virtually every verse of his Apocalypse. This is called intertextuality. Often, these background passages provide us with the necessary tools to help us interpret John's intention more precisely.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Cosmic Christmas - Part One (Revelation 12): The When?

When you think of Christmas, I am sure that you think about blood red dragons that eat infants, right? Or maybe you think about the earth opening up and swallowing Satan’s vomit. How about a serpent being thrown out of heaven and never being allowed to return? I am sure you think about these things rather than mundane things like Christmas trees, Santa Clause, and stockings hung with by the chimney with care.

If you don’t think about dragons and serpents, maybe you should. I believe that Revelation 12 is an artfully crafted masterpiece that captures the essence of Christmas almost better than any text in the entire Bible. So, over the next few weeks, I want to explore it. Take a look at the who, what, when, where, and why of Revelation 12, and at the same time focus on the true meaning of the Christmas season.

For now, let’s just orient ourselves into this part of Revelation and the general picture of what is going on. The chronology of the book of Revelation is hotly contested like just about everything related to this wonderful book. I will dive into this topic deeper at a later date, but a cursory explanation is needed right now. The book starts off with a prologue focusing on Jesus himself walking among the seven churches (1). This chapter introduces us to the main character and explains to us that it is Christ who commissions John to write down his visions and impressions. From there we move into seven letters from the risen Lord to seven literal churches of the first century (2-3). After that the cosmic drama begins. We first get a glimpse into the very throne room of God, where the Father is being worshipped and we learn that all of things about to be recounted are under his sovereign control (4). Then, Jesus steps forward and we learn that he is the only one who is worthy to set the end time events in motion. It is here that he begins to open the seven-sealed scroll (5). This begins three sets of seven judgments. The first set is called the seal judgments (6).

After we learn about this series of afflictions, we have our first pause in the chronology, often called an interlude (7). Here, we are introduced to the 144,000. They are set apart and sealed before the judgments even begin. Therefore, this event must take place before the seal judgments begin. Also, at the end of this interlude we see the immeasurable multitude in heaven after the completion of the time of tribulation. This must take place after the subsequent series of judgments that are still to come. So, the chronology is interrupted. That leads us to an important question. How many times in the book does this happen? If we can agree on a few of these interludes, what about others that we don’t agree on? This is something we will explore later.

After this first interlude, we return to our chronological sequence. We see a list of the trumpet judgments which end up being worse than the seals before them (8-9). Then we meet our second interlude (10-11). An angelic Paul Bunyan appears and gives John a scroll and asks him to eat it. First, it is sweet, but then it turns bitter in John’s stomach. This scroll contains the account of the witnesses, their ministry, death, and resurrection. Now, however you view these witnesses, it is generally agreed that the start of their ministry is at the beginning of the seventieth week of Daniel. In other words, their protection described in chapter 11 begins before the seal judgments begin. So, we see another break in chronology from the three series of judgments.

Let’s skip ahead to where we are sure that the chronology picks up again. That is with the seven bowl judgments in chapters 15 and 16. That leads us back to our initial question. Where does chapter 12 fit in the chronology? In my opinion, which you will quickly see in the following month, chapters 12-14 form a third interlude. The beginning of chapter 12 goes back to before the coming of Christ and this break extends to chapter 14 which takes us all the way to final judgment. So, that is how I view chapter 12, as a break from the basic chronology of Revelation and as a bird’s eye view of salvation history.

Now, we are ready to take a look at this complicated, but beautiful chapter of Scripture. Over the next week I want to look at the “Who?” We will focus on the pregnant woman, the dragon, and the child, and see if we can determine with certain who these characters are, and why we are introduced to them.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Eschatological Agnostic

Have you ever tried building a house of cards? God must not have blessed me with the necessary patience. Now that I think about it, I don’t have enough patience to walk between my front door and my car, let alone to sit and spend an hour leaning playing cards against each other.

I did, however, build a few back in the day, when I was a child and had unlimited time and little imagination. The proper way to build a house of cards is to take two new playing cards and carefully lean them together in the shape of a “V.” After creating several “V’s,” you place more playing cards flat on top of them. The problem comes when you get about two or three levels high. If you’re like most people, your house of cards soon becomes structurally unsound and then topples to the ground, causing an amazing amount of frustration and the desire to banish card-house building from all human civilization.

Well, I look at eschatology in a very similar way that I see houses of cards. They are elaborate structures based on logical conclusions drawn from leaning one interpretation against another. As we pile up conclusion upon conclusion, our systems become more and more complex, until they are straining under the weight of human logic and not biblical principle. I think we all mean well, but that doesn’t stop us from looking down our noses at people who buy into a different house of cards than we do.

For a long time, I have thought about becoming an eschatological agnostic. I don’t mean that I don’t care about the end times or even that I don’t have an eschatology of my own. What I mean by this phrase is that I recognize the complexity of this issue and believe that humility and honest searching not combativeness should be the norm.

When I first started out as a pastor, I found myself intentionally avoiding the subject of eschatology. Why? Why would I ignore such a large part of the counsel of God? The answer is easy and can be summed up in one word, fear. I didn’t want to come to a conclusion other than the party line. I cared more about having a job than following my conscience. And, I am not alone. In my interactions over the years I have found many pastors and professors who feel the same way. They feel restrained from dealing honestly with the Bible out of fear of their eschatology being used as a litmus test against them in the future. Is that what you want from your pastors and professors? Or would you rather your pastor feel free to deal as honestly as he can with the Scripture before him? My mentor modeled this honesty for me, and I have found that it characterizes my own ministry, for good or for ill.

There are two types of churches that are the norm when it comes to eschatology. First, there are the “my way or the highway” churches. These churches are passionate in their point of view and either outright claim or imply that those who disagree with them are heretics. I absolutely love the church I grew up in, but when I was a teenager it was this type of church. I remember as a budding youth in a very dispensational church that we had an A-mill youth leader. To this day I don’t know what he was doing at our church. He had to be frustrated out of his mind.

At one point he began to teach a Sunday school about the different end-times views. He explained to us briefly the difference between various takes on the millennium. I remember being very interested as a kid, because I didn’t even know that other views existed! Even the names of these views sounded glamorous to me. However, all hopes of hearing more about them were dashed. The very next Sunday that particular youth leader wasn’t up front anymore; instead our pastor was up front, towing the partyline. To this day I have no real idea what happened, but I know what I assume.

The other kind of church is the “O we don’t talk about that” church. These churches avoid any difficult issue because it has the potential to be divisive. They don’t want to say anything to offend people or rock the boat, so they ignore complex issues all together. Have you ever asked yourself, “Why can’t there be a third kind of church?” A kind of church where main doctrines such as the deity of Christ, salvation by faith, the trinity, and the inspiration of the Bible are embraced with gusto, while secondary complex doctrine are held with open hands. Held loosely, but still not ignored. A kind of church where people are free to hold a different opinion and state it plainly without the fear of being labeled divisive or a heretic. I am sure churches like this are out there, but I fear they are the exception and not the rule.

I know that by labeling myself an eschatological agnostic I am endangering myself, especially from the community of faith that I grew up in and cherish. My point isn’t to say they are wrong; it is to ask for a degree of humility and teachability. Maybe the systems are so big and the Scripture it is based on so complicated to interpret with precision that we should be careful what we label orthodox and what we label heresy. Maybe our assumptions and logic have crept in, set up shop, and skewed how we look at major passages of Scripture. In this blog I want to look at the concept of eschatology on a variety of different levels: hermeneutics, exegesis, logic, and theology. My aim is not to create a new system, but to open an honest dialogue, and to push us toward the understanding that this issue is not as easy as some would have us believe.