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.

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