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.