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.

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