Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Antichrist: Alive and Well?

Did you know that the Antichrist is alive and well today? I once learned that in Sunday school class. We were studying the book of Daniel and our teacher said that he firmly believed that the Antichrist was a strapping young lad alive and well somewhere in the Balkans. How did he know that he was alive and well? I don't know! I've heard many people saying that we are living in the end-times, because our culture is falling away from Christianity, maybe that influenced his thinking. But . . . people have believed they we're in the end of times for thousands of years. We could have thousands of years to go. Cultures have also fallen away from God before (think about the Roman Empire for instance), what makes ours more important than other cultures in God's program.

Why did he think he was living in the Balkans? I also don't know! It probably has something to do with the Dispensationalist idea of a revived Roman Empire, and then they associate this Empire with the European Union. I just had someone tell me two week ago that there are 21 nations in the EU at the moment, the Bible says that there will only be 10. He was predicting some bloody wars coming down the pike for Europe. They get this number 10 from the book of Revelation, but is that really what that passage says? I've even heard recently that Barack Obama is the Antichrist, but I heard the same thing about Bill Clinton when he was in office. Many times people just call politicians they don't like the Antichrist. I had a friend recently who wrote an article on why he could be the Antichrist (tongue in cheek, I believe).

So, what does the Bible really say about this enigmatic figure? We live in an era where anyone can get a platform, whether through the internet or on TV. So, we need to ground our understanding not in what we have heard people say, but in a proper interpretation of what God's word says. That of course is not going to answer all of our questions, but it will narrow down possibilities.

I want to take a look at this topic, and I would like your feedback. Has the Antichrist already come? Preterists believe that. The Antichrist is Titus or Caligula or some other historical figure. Is the Antichrist still to come? Futurists believe that a really evil dude is yet to appear on earth immediately prior to Christ's Second Coming. If he is still future, what will he be like? I'm going to start by analyzing fairly straight-forward descriptions of the Antichrist and move on to the crazier ones.

First, I want to take a look at what 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 says about the Antichrist, or as Paul calls him, the man of lawlessness. In 2 Thessalonians the church in Thessalonica was dealing with false teachers, who were proclaiming that the Day of the Lord had already taken place. Paul writes this letter mainly to correct this faulty doctrine. Paul contends that this day of rest and retribution hasn't taken place yet. Indeed, there are still many things that need to happen first:

1. A rebellion or apostasy (3a)
2. A rebel revealed - The Man of Lawlessness (3b-4, 8-9)
3. A restrainer is removed (5-7)
4. A great deception (10)
5. A delusion sent from God (11-12)

Paul's argument is that these these haven't happened yet and that is proof that the Day of Lord hasn't come yet. Therefore, I take it that whoever Paul is talking about is not a contemporary of his, but someone to come at some point in the future. Another clue that this has yet to happen is that Paul tells us that this man of lawlessness will be destroyed by the breath of Christ at his 2nd coming. I wasn't there, but I don't believe that Christ came back in 70 CE. I personally think this passage is talking about a figure who will be revealed in the future, just prior to the return of Christ. So, if that is true, then what does this passage teach us about the Antichrist?

First of all let's look at what he is called:

1. Man of Lawlessness

The KJV translates this as man of sin, but the actual word more commonly refers to the idea of lawlessness. In other words, the first thing we learn is that this guy pays no attention to God or what God would want.

2. Son of Destruction

This is said of one other figure in the New Testament, Judas. In John 17 we learn that Judas was a son of destruction, which meant that he was destined for destruction before he was even born! Is that what Paul means here? If that is true, then the Antichrist is also destined for destruction. It just makes sense to compare the Antichrist with Judas. In both cases these men allowed themselves to be used by Satan to do his bidding, and because of that they will be judged severely.

We also learn some other things about the Antichrist here:

3. He will exalt himself above every god

It doesn't matter the god or object of worship, the Antichrist will set himself above it, whether it be Bhudda, Allah, the true God, or a soda pop can. He will make himself the object of worship.

4. He will set up an abomination of desolation

This language comes from Dan. 7, 8, 9, and 11, which hopefully I will take a closer look at later. Daniel predicted that a lawless one would come and desolate the altar in the Temple. This prophecy was fulfilled with Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BCE. He outlawed Judaism and sacrificed a pig on the altar. However, Jesus, John, and Paul all pick up on this prophecy from Daniel and describe another lawless one still to come who will also set up an abomination of desolation. Antiochus declared Olympian Zeus to be god, but the Antichrist will declare himself to be god.

5. He will be destroyed by the Lord

The Antichrist might seem powerful, but his power is nothing compared to the power of the Lord. When Christ returns he will destroy him with the breath of his mouth (Is. 11:4) and wipe out any reminder of him. The Antichrist is not someone to be feared, because this guy is no match for our savior.

6. He will perform false miracles by Satan's power

The Antichrist will perform signs, wonder, and miracles, probably seeking to parody the work of Christ. When Peter preaches in Acts 2 he tells the crowd that Jesus' ministry was confirmed by signs, wonders, and miracles. These "signs" won't be illusions, magic tricks, or card games. These will be real miracles by the power of Satan and will lead many astray. We will see more of this when we talk about Revelation 13.

7. He will deceive many

He won't deceive the elect, but only those who are perishing, and God will help him out. God will sened a delusion on this group of people so that they believe the propaganda of the man of lawlessness. We see the same phenomenon in Romans 1. The people turned to idols and worshipped them, so God turned them completely over to their idolatry. God's spirit no longer strived with them, instead he let their evil reach its fullest. The same thing will be true in the end. Those who believe the deception will be further deluded by God because of their delight in evil and their rejection of the truth.

It is easy to get caught up in an eschatological frenzy and believe someone who tells you that they have all the answers. You watch a guy on TV who picks up a newspaper and demonstrates how all the headlines are fulfillments of prophecy. It sounds cool. We do have some information about this fellow, but we don't know everything, especially whether or not he is alive and living in the Balkans. I want to leave you with this today. Would you only chew gum that someone else already chewed for you? I urge you to search the scriptures for yourself, don't eat ABC gum! Anchor yourself in what the Bible says for sure, and what it doesn't say for sure let go.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Daniel 8: Part 2 - The goat with comsetic difficulties

Every winter I get a cold sore on my lower lip, and let me tell you, there are few things I hate more. They look terrible, feel gross, and you can tell by the look in people's eyes that you disgust them. The up side is that they are temporary and go away after a week. This poor goat wasn't as lucky. His cosmetic difficulty was a big horn right between the eyes, that breaks off and is replaced by all sorts of other wacky horns. I guess at least I don't have a big horn problem every winter. Let's take a look at the prophecy about this cosmetically challenged goat.

Prophecy #2 (Dan. 8:5-8) The goat:

The ram is powerful, but not as powerful as our next colorful character, the goat. What do we learn about the goat?

1. He was from the west of where Daniel was located (which was Babylon, modern day Iraq).
2. He crossed the land so swiftly that he didn't even touch the ground.
3. He possessed a super long horn right between his eyes.
4. He charged directly at the ram and stuck it as hard as he could.
5. He broke off the rams two horns, so that the ram was helpless.
6. He trampled the ram and no one could rescue the ram from the power of the goat
7. The goat continued to become more and more powerful.
8. Until one day, the large horn was broken inexplicably.
9. Then, four horns grew in its place extending north, south, east, and west.

Angelic Interpretation of Prophecy #2 (Dan. 8:21-22)

Gabriel tells us a few things about this goat in his angelic explanation. He lets us know the identity of the goat; he is the king of Greece. He also tells us that the large horn that was in between the goat's eyes was an image for the first king of the Greek Empire. The four other horns demonstrate that the Greek Empire will be broken into four sections, each with their own king. Yet, none of these kings will be as powerful as the first.

The fulfillment of Prophecy #2

First off, the large horn represents the king of Greece. It couldn't be clearer that this prophecy is about Alexander the Great, who instituted a policy of expanding Greece and Dominating Darius and the Persians. However, Alexander was never technically "king" of the Greek Empire. He was "king" of Macedonia, and was technically just the "governor" of a coalition of Greek city states. which his father assembled. Is it a problem that the prophecy doesn't use the precise political title for Alexander and merely calls him king?

Also, Gabriel calls Alexander the FIRST "king" or more technically "governor" of the Greek Empire. But . . . his position and title were the exact same as his father, Philip, making him the second "king" not the first. Wouldn't we then assume by just reading the propehcy that Philip is being spoken about? The fulfillment makes us take a second look. Maybe first doesn't necessarily mean first. Maybe it means the first important king of Greece. Alexander is the one who started to push the boundaries of the Greek Empire, first by liberating, then by conquering. So, for observers from foreign lands, Alexander would appear as the first and pre-eminent leader of Greece. What I want you to take note of is the lack of precision in prophecy about titles and even about some details, like Alexander not technically being the first king of the Greek Empire. If this is true in prophecy that has already been fulfilled, we should expect in prophecies that are yet to be fulfilled.

When the prophecy speaks about the collapse of the ram (Medo-Persian Empire) at the hands of the goat (Greek Empire), it mentions only one great battle. As history plays out, it does not happen in one main battle, but several decisive defeats at different locations. Also, when the ram is defeated, we see that its horns are broken off. In the image of the goat, the horns represent kings, first Alexander and then the kings after the Empire is broken apart. However, in the image of the ram, the horns represent the kingdoms of Media and Persia respectively. So, just because a horn represents something in one image, it doesn't necessarily mean that it will mean the same thing in another image. Notice the versatility of images as they relate to prophecy even within a few verses of text.

Finally, let's take a look at the breaking up of the Empire. We are told by Gabriel that the great horn breaking off represents the death of Alexander. After Alexander's untimely death, four prominent horns step up into his place, and we are told that these horns represent four kingdoms that would arise from Alexander's Empire. History doesn't fit this prophecy as conveniently as we would like. The death of Alexander led to many great power struggles over who will rule what. Originally the plan was for Alexander to have a successor. Some believed it should be his brother, but he had mental problems. Others thought it should be Alexander's son by Roxana, but he was still in the womb. When this original plan fell apart, a guy named Perdiccas took control of the empire and appointed Satraps who were loyal to him over many different regions of the empire. This struggle led to six main wars over 60 years and finally ended with three main kingdoms (Antigonids, Seleucids, and Ptolemys), not four. What should we think about this?

For a very brief period during this time of struggle, there were four separate kingdoms (Cassander took Macedonia and Greece, General Lysimachus took Asia Minor and Thrace, Seleucus I Nicator went with Mesopotamia and Syria, and Ptolemy I, Egypt and Palestine). However, this was very brief, complicated, not what was true immediately after Alexander's death, and soon settled into just three. So, was Daniel merely referring to this brief period in the middle of the struggle? Didn't he foresee that only three would end up surviving in the end? What is clear is that if we were living in the period of Daniel and reading this prophecy, we would assume that the Greek Empire would end up in four sections, north, south, east, and west, and that the transition would have been easy. We would have been wrong.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Ram Down By the River (Daniel 8)

The other night I was sitting across the table from an old friend. An old friend who just happened to have finished his dissertation on the latter part of Ezekiel. I thought that this was a good opportunity to pick his brain. I had just been reading through the book of Ezekiel in my own personal Bible reading and had a few questions. So, I winged a few his way. I forgot momentarily that this was a man who had spent years with this passage reading everything that had ever been written on the subject. As he dived into his answer, I found myself drowning in new information. My original question was answered very well, but his treatise brought many more questions to mind. In other words, his explanation created more questions in my brain than answers.

When we are dealing with prophecy, often we have a corresponding fulfillment either later on in the text or in history itself. These fulfillments when compared to the original prophecy answer many questions, but they also raise just as many. I want us to take a look at Daniel 8, an apocalyptic prophecy about events fulfilled in the intertestamental period, and we will see that the fulfillment and prophecy when compared raise many questions, in spite of the fact that we also have an angelic interpretation of the prophecy in the chapter as well. (For a detailed look at this passage and others like it cf. Sandy, D. Brent, Plowshares and Pruning Hooks, (Downer's Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), pp. 112-116).

Prophecy #1 (Dan. 8:3-7) The ram with two long horns

We meet in these verses a ram down by the river (No, I didn't say "a van down by the river"). He has two horns and one of them is longer than the other. While Daniel is watching, the shorter horn grows to be longer than the long one. This ram charged out to the west, the north, and the south, and no one could stop it or help its victims. The ram was so powerful it could do as it pleased.

The Angelic Interpretation of Prophecy #1 (Dan. 8:20)

Gabriel gives us one clue about the ram, his identity. The ram represents the kings of Media and Persia.

The fulfillment of Prophecy #1

The interpretation tells us that the ram is the KINGS of Media and Perisa, however, Persia only had one king at the time the Greeks conquer it. Is this a problem? Also, when Daniel wrote the kingdoms of Media and Persia were in partnership like Daniel describes, but by the time Greece comes along Media has been swallowed up by the Persian empire. In other words, there is only one horn on the ram left, though there are still two when the goat defeats the ram in the vision. If we were interpreting this passage in the time of Daniel, wouldn't we assume that the kingdom of Media-Persia had two kings at the time of its defeat, since the ram had two horns and the angel tells us they represent the KINGS of Media and Persia?

We are also told that the ram was very powerful and butted its way out to the west, north, and south. In Esther 1:1 we are told that Perisa extended itself east as well, all the way to modern day India. Is this a difficulty? Why doesn't Daniel forsee in his vision the butting out to the east? If we were just reading Daniel's prophecy and interpretation without the historical fulfillment, we might think that the Persian empire wouldn't extend itself into the east in the future, but we would be wrong.

Finally, we are told that no one could stand against the Persian empire, however, in 490 BCE and in 480 BCE the Greeks successfully resist the Persians. Is this a difficulty? I believe it highlights the fact that Daniel was focusing on the power of the Persian empire and was using hyperbole, overstatement, or exaggeration to get this point across. If this is true, how much unfulfilled prophecy might contain overstatement or hyperbole? It is a frightening question to ask, because we don't know. We will look at some more of this passage next week. What do you think? Do you see this as having bearing on our interpretation of similar visions in Revelation or not?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Psalm 22 and the New Testament

If I can't beat my nine year old at horse (whom, by the way, I can pulverize), then it stands to reason that I won't be able to beat Michael Jordan. If I can't beat my brother-in-law at golf (which is true), then it stands to reason that I won't be able to beat Tiger Woods. If I can't eat a double cheeseburger (depends on the day), I probably won't be able to eat a triple. This argument is an ancient Jewish interpretive technique (Qal Vahomer) and a main tenet of logic. If something is true in a lesser case, then it stands to reason that it will also be true in a greater case. So, if prophecy is difficult to figure out even when we have a prophecy AND its fulfillment (the lesser case), then it will surely be difficult to figure out when we just have the prophecy (the greater case).

Let's take a gander at Psalm 22 in order to highlight the difficulty of interpreting prophecy. It is messy even when we already know how it is fulfilled, and we expect to know how unfulfilled prophecy will come to fruition?

Psalm 22 is a lament psalm. After you get done reading it, you can feel the intensity of David's emotions. He is feeling a great deal of pain. David starts out in the first 12 verses of the psalm contrasting his present trouble with God's past mercy. He points out to God that he has helped others in the past who called on him, and he asks a simple question of God, "Why won't you help ME now!?" In the second part of the psalm (13-22), David focuses on his enemies. They have him surrounded and want him dragged away and killed. David calls on the Lord for deliverance and thanks him ahead of time for his salvation. In the last part of the psalm (28-31), David invites people to praise God for helping him and for all those who suffer and are mistreated.

If we just had Psalm 22 by itself without any New Testament reference to it, we would simply view it as any other lament psalm: a record of David's trouble and his request that God help him out of it. However, the New Testament quotes and alludes to the psalm a few times as prophecy. Most of them are implicit, but the one in the Gospel of John is very explicit. So, in what sense is Psalm 22 prophecy? It definitely is not written like prophecy. It is written like a record of David's trouble.

The church as a whole has long regarded Psalm 22 as a prophetic messianic psalm that details the agony of Jesus' suffering (22:1), the brutality of the crucifixion (22:16), and the joy of the resurrection (22). They cite John's use of the psalm to prove this theory. Let's take a look at this portion of John:

Now when the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and made four shares, one for each soldier, and the tunic remained. (Now the tunic was seamless, woven from top to bottom as a single piece.) So the soldiers said to one another, “Let’s not tear it, but throw dice to see who will get it.” This took place to fulfill the scripture that says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they threw dice.” So the soldiers did these things.

The passage John refers to is none other than Psalm 22:18, "They are dividing up my clothes among themselves; they are rolling dice for my garments." It is clear that John believed this verse to be more than than just David recounting his escapades with bullies, but why? Does that mean that the entirety of the psalm is messianic? Is it possible that this entire psalm is solely about Jesus and has nothing to do with David? Would David's original readers have thought this a prophecy about a future Messiah? I doubt it. It wasn't interpreted this way between the testaments at all. So, are there two different meanings of this verse, a plain meaning and then a further prophetic meaning that was unknown until the New Testament? Was John putting David's words into a new context under the influence of the Spirit? I wish I could say that these are easy questions to answer, but they aren't. And, I am not going to satisfy your curiosity today, or give you an easy to digest way of looking at this. I want you to feel the tension, because there is tension.

Prophecy is difficult to understand EVEN when it has already been fulfilled. Now imagine saying with certainty that the beasts of the fifth trumpet (Rev. 9) are actually going to be Huey Helicopters! What are your thoughts?