Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 3)

August 22, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first and second blogs in this series are here and here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here.]

Have You Not Read the Scriptures?

“But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”  Matthew 12:7

Shank reads Scripture with the goal of getting it “right” in order to be saved. One must be baptized for the “right reason,” and one must be faithful to the “true [right] church.” We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right. So, if you don’t get it absolutely and precisely “right”—in teaching and practice—then one is lost and “headed for eternal destruction.”

The Right Baptism and Right Church

What must we get right? Here is Shank’s list, at least as it appears in the book:

  • Baptism is absolutely necessary
  • Baptism for the right reason is absolutely necessary
  • Faithful to the true church of Christ
  • A right name
  • The right organization (autonomous congregationalism)
  • Right leadership (when qualified: elders, deacons, and evangelists)
  • The right “articles of worship” in the assembly
  • Weekly Lord’s Supper and only on Sunday
  • Weekly free will offerings and only on Sunday (no tithing)
  • A cappella singing
  • Teaches the biblical plan of salvation, that is, how to obey the gospel through hearing, believing, repenting, confessing and being baptized.

These are teachings and practices within churches of Christ that have a long history of discussion. I will not take the time to deal with each one in the list in this short blog, though they are important and deserve attention (and I have done some of that in the ebook). Rather, I am more concerned about what lies underneath, that is, the assumptions that shape this way of reading the Bible.

But, first, there are at least two problems with the list itself. Notice (1) what is missing from this list. When Randall seeks to identify the “true church of Christ,” there is nothing about the ministry and mission of the church but only the form and procedures of the church. The list says nothing about what the church does outside the building, how it ministers to the poor, or what the mission of the church is. That is not to say that Shank does not have opinions about these points—I would assume he does and sometimes they come out in marginal ways in the book, but his book defines the nature of what it means to talk about the church in an evangelistic tract. His purpose is polemical—to convince denominationalists that their denominations are wrong. Consequently, it is not ultimately about the fullness of the church of God and its mission in the world, but rather about specific items that, in effect, defend the teaching and practice of the “churches of Christ” (the ones with that name on their signs) in contrast to the denominations.

(2) I also have a problem with the function of this list. Is every one of these necessary in order to have a faithful church? Must one be a member of a group of Jesus-followers who practice Christianity in precise conformity to this list in order to be “faithful to the church”?

If we answer “Yes,” then it is rather strange that the New Testament does not have this list somewhere present within its pages as a list? If this is a prescribed list, then where is the list of prescriptions within the pages of the New Testament?

If we answer “Yes,” then are we an unfaithful church if we are missing any one of these items or fail to do them perfectly? Is this also true if a congregation does not minister to the poor, fails to speak out against injustice in the world, refuses to fully integrate, etc., etc. How perfect does a congregation need to be in order to be “faithful,” and how well must a congregation comply with this list in order to be “faithful”?

Such a list does not appear in the New Testament, and Paul, for example, does not engage congregations through his letters in ways that assume a kind of perfectionism or an assumption of prescribed list of forms that identify the true church of Christ. Instead, he calls us to transformed living, encouraging assemblies that conform to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, living together in love, and a missional orientation to the world. Paul points us to the heart of Jesus rather than to the forms of a legal code.

Consequently, Shank’s evangelistic tract reads quite differently from the New Testament itself. While Shank’s book is filled with prescribed, perfectionistic legal technical lists about how to “do church,” there are no such lists in the New Testament, and what lists there are encourage transformed living (e.g., Galatians 5:22; 2 Peter 1:5-8).

Legal Approach to Scripture

Shank, in effect, uses the Bible to discover the law codes embedded within the story and finds them even where there are no codified prescriptions in the text. Narratives are turned into legal prescriptions. This seems reasonable to Shank because his primary question is, “What does the Bible require us to do?” So, he searches for the requirements and finds them in narratives and letters in order to construct a pattern for the church. And, surprisingly (if indeed the Bible is intended to provide such a pattern), this pattern is nowhere simply and/or fully stated. It has to be pieced together like a puzzle, and we have to find the pieces scattered throughout the Bible. We must connect the dots through inference, assumptions, and expectations of what we think the Bible is supposed to tell us.

Shank expects a pattern and therefore searches till he finds one even if he has to piece it together with examples and inferences. He has to fill in the blanks with more than explicit statements. And where the pieces (specific commands) are missing, we infer their presence (by example or inference). In effect, he finds it because Randall followed an interpretative model (coupled with assumptions) that constructed the pattern for him without questioning the exegesis (interpretation) of the texts utilized and without recognizing his assumptions about how he is reading the Bible.

This is a major concern with Muscle and A Shovel. It reads the Bible with a central concern to discover something it expects to find, and the book assumes that the way to find it is to piece together scattered prescriptions (and non-explicit [even unstated] prescriptions like examples and inferences) in order to construct a pattern that is not explicitly there.

There is a better way to read the story of God in Scripture.

Here lies a fundamental difference between how Shank reads the Bible and how I read it. For Shank, the fundamental question the Bible answers is, “What does God require of me?” For me, the fundamental question is, “What is the story into which God invites me?” The former is a legal question, but the latter is a missional one. The former wants to know what is legal or illegal. The latter wants to know the divine mission and how we might participate in it.

Muscle and a Shovel misses the central story of Scripture. Shank reads the Bible with a legal concern operating at the heart of his hermeneutic. This obscures the missional nature of Scripture itself. There is little to nothing in Muscle and a Shovel that gives us much hint about the grand narrative of Scripture—a loving God who created and nurtured the world for the sake of loving fellowship, who chose Israel as a light among the nations, who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth to redeem the sin, pain, and hurt of this world, and who poured out the Holy Spirit to sanctify and empower a community that they might be dedicated to good works. As an evangelistic tract, it does not tell the story of the gospel. Rather, it converts people to a church pattern, the data for which is mined out of Scripture, abstracted from its original historical context, and then used to construct something that does not exist in Scripture, that is, a specific legal blueprint for how to do church. It converts people to a plan (a church pattern) rather than to Jesus.

When Paul called Titus to teach sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), that healthy teaching included an ethical life, an understanding of what God has done in Christ, the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, and the hope of eternal life (Titus 2:2-3:8). It did not include the specifics of a church pattern as outlined in Shank’s book. Rather, telling the gospel story (much like Paul summarizes in Titus 3:3-8) is how one builds communities of faith who are dedicated to good works. I don’t think Muscle and A Shovel followed that pattern, that is, the book does not follow the example of Paul in teaching the great truths of the Christian faith.

The hermeneutical (how we read) shift from “shaped by a story” (regulated by the gospel story narrated in the ministry and life of Jesus, anticipated by Israel, and lived out in the early church) rather than “codified in the prescriptions” (rulebook) is a huge one for many people. The former permits contextualization while the latter is rigid replication. The latter often thrives in fear (did we get that right?) or arrogance (we got it right!) while the former stimulates incarnational, missional practice (how might we embody the story in our context?).

When we read Scripture though the lens of a legal, perfectionistic lens, we have to get it right in order to be saved. We have to be baptized for the “right reason,” and we have to be faithful to the right church. We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right.

When we read Scripture through the lens of a missional God, the story unfolds as the divine pursuit of a people whom God transforms into the image of God for the sake of mission to the world. That story is more about direction than it is perfection, and God accepts and welcomes imperfect seekers.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

When I finished reading Shank’s book, I was neither angry nor enthused. I was sad.

Over my forty-plus years of preaching and teaching I have slowly shifted from reading Scripture as a legal textbook designed to provide a specific pattern to reading Scripture as a story in we participate by imitating God. Rather than servile slaves whose obedience is rewarded and disobedience is punished based on keeping the technicalities of the law, we are God’s partners in the divine mission who are enabled by the power of God to participate in the unfolding story of God. 

The fundamental problem with Muscle and a Shovel is that it exalts sacrifice over mercy (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 12:7). It assumes that humanity was made for rituals (baptism, church patterns, etc.) rather than rituals made for humanity. It prioritizes “sacrifice” (ritual patterns) over “mercy” (transformation).

In other words, Muscle and a Shovel makes the same mistake that the Pharisees made. It does not understand that God desires mercy over sacrifice, that is, God embraces the heart that seeks mercy over the heart that exalts rituals—even prescribed ones!—over seeking, trusting hearts.

May God have mercy!

 

 


Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 2)

August 21, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first blog in this series is here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here. In my first post, I described the purpose of Shank’s book and the ways in which I appreciate its effort. However, I have some serious concerns about the book which I will now address in two posts. A full review of 21,000 words is available here.]

Gracious Speech

Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.”   Colossians 4:5-6

Kindness to All

How Shank describes “denominational” leaders and churches is polarizing and disrespectful. This is a significant problem.

It sets up a not-so-subtle contrast—even if true—between “the denominations” and “the truth” that is emotional in character. The portrayal of denominational leaders as unhelpful and greedy, for example, contrasts with Randall and real truth-seekers. Denominational leaders are dismissed categorically. This plays well emotionally in some quarters, but it is an unfounded generalization.

Denominational leaders do not come off very well in this book. They are “arrogant Pastors” (8:1115), and Michael’s Baptist Pastor, in particular, is “condescending” (8:1083), “pompous” (9:1149, 28:4778), greedy (23:3694), and “lives off our donations while [he] parks his fat a__ in that fancy chair that we pay for” (8:1095). “Denominational preachers seem to love and crave the glory that is of men more than the glory that is of God” (28:4752). They are nothing but “false teachers” (30:5063) who pervert the gospel (40:6543-45) and thus are anathema (cursed) by God. Pastors, or “denominational preachers,” are “religious experts” (24:3858), “high-paid, well educated, professional clergyman” (24:3884) who “no longer endure sound doctrine” (28:4747) and demand others “call them by a spiritual title [Reverend] with a word that’s used in the [KJV] Bible exclusively for God’s name” (28:4744). This language judges motives, sincerity, and their love for God.

As such, the narrative implies a personal, character-driven, question: Who will you believe? Would you believe Michael’s pastor who “responded in a condescending tone that conveyed an unspoken message which told me I was stupid for wasting his precious time with such a rudimentary and trivial question” (8:1084) or Randall who was “encouraging, meek, respectful, and it was evident that he really loved God” (5:853)? The narrative sets us up so that if we believe the denominational preachers, then we have chosen the “bad” character in the narrative over the hero in the story. This is nothing more than an emotional appeal based on broad generalizations and narrow experiences.

Denominational churches don’t come off well either. While I could go point-by-point with repeated misunderstandings and caricatures of denominational teachings (including Michael’s historical errors, which abound in the book–see my book review for some details), I will note only how Michael assesses the “Community Churches.” His critique is particularly harsh based on a visit to a Bible class in an unidentified community church. From this experience (and a few others) he provides a sweeping characterization of community churches. They are “no brain, no backbone, all fluff” and they stand “for almost nothing” (20:3222). Recognizing his attitude “wasn’t exactly Christian,” he regarded the community church folk as “a bunch of idiots” (21:3267). The “Community Church crowd” is “sweaty-palmed, weak-kneed, rosy-cheeked, wishy-washy, feel-good, stand-for-nothing, ineffectual, spineless, let’s-all-hold-hands-and-just-get-along garbage” (21:3293). They “accept everything except true Bible unity,” and the community he visited “needed psychiatric help” (22:3547).

The language is unkind and lacks gentleness. Michael’s rants sound more like extreme political rhetoric (whether left or right) than something that belongs in an evangelistic tract proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Scripture calls us to a different sort of engagement with people than what is reflected in these attitudes expressed by Michael (and some stated by Randall). Hear the word of God:

“Remind them…to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” Titus 3:1-2

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” James 3:17

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, apt to teach, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.” 2 Timothy 2:24-25

I leave it to the reader to judge whether Shank’s book reflects the values expressed by the above Scriptures.

The book does not listen well. Denominational preachers and churches are summarily dismissed as inept and ignorant. The narrative oozes with disrespect for others, and there is no extended attempt to listen to them, their views, or give them a fair hearing. Counter-arguments are rarely advanced, and nuances are overlooked. Denominational preachers and churches are caricatured rather than heard. It is insulting rather than spiritually forming.

Jesus calls us to be, like God, “kind to the ungrateful and evil” (Luke 6:35) and to live with mercy toward others (Luke 10:37) because “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

The book’s language appeals to emotion, prejudice (towards education, ministerial profession, etc.), and class-envy.

Honest Hearts

Honesty is a key word in Michael’s story. It appears, in some form, thirty-four times. It is the undertow of the book. Honesty is the key virtue in reading the Bible correctly. And, of course, honesty is a godly virtue.

At the same time, the way honesty appears within Michael’s story is condescending and lacks humility. Since Michael was honest, and if everyone else is as honest as he was and as diligent as he was, then everyone would come to the same conclusion that he did. In other words, people are only truly honest and sufficiently diligent if they agree with Michael.

Michael sometimes recognizes that there are many honest people among the denominations. To his credit, he acknowledges that there are good, honest, and sincere people in various denominations (17:2532, 24:3804) though “blind guides” lead them (24:3861). But—and this is the significant point—they are misguided, deceived, or satisfied with their present circumstances to the extent that they will not question received traditions. In other words, denominational people (especially leaders) won’t deal honestly with the text or its context. “They won’t reason together honestly,” Michael opines, “They won’t sincerely listen” (5:815). Such judgments of motives are unkind, and Michael has no way of knowing whether they are actually true or not.

It is almost as if when one disagrees with Michael, they are insincere and dishonest. Is that really a fair characterization? Is that the standard of honesty? Is one dishonest because they disagree or thinks that a text should be interpreted differently than Michael interprets it?

Michael believes that his particular understanding of the “gospel is so simple that every person of sound mind and accountable age can understand it and obey if they choose to,” and this will happen if “honest-hearted people” read the Bible for themselves. In other words, if you are honest and your use your muscle and shovel (show due diligence), you will agree with Michael. And if you don’t agree with Michael, then you—assuming you are of “sound mind and of accountable age”—are dishonest, lazy (including apathy and other similar vices), or, more ominously, rebellious and unwilling to listen to the truth.

Randall, in fact, says: “Mr. Mike, there is no rational spiritually honest person in the world who can refute God’s plan of salvation” (that is, the way Randall construes that “plan;” 35:5782). And, Michael counsels, “if you are honest with yourself and with God you’ll flee from man-made denominations” (38:6165). “No honest individual after studying” the Bible could do otherwise (39:6375).

Listen to how Michael summarizes this point near the end of the book (39:6279)

Denominationalists refuse to accept the entirety of God’s plan of redemption for mankind. They ignore the elements that they simply don’t understand or refuse to accept.

However, when honest, sincere, good-hearted, moral, Truth-seeking people research the entirety of the Scriptures, they consistently and unanimously find God’s marvelous plan of redemption and salvation, which is [and then we have the five steps of salvation listed, JMH; my emphasis]

So, if one does not come to the same conclusion as Michael, then they lack one of the virtues listed. They are dishonest rather than “honest,” or they are insincere rather than “sincere,” or they are malevolent rather than “good-hearted,” or immoral rather than “moral,” or apathetic rather than “Truth-seeking,” or perhaps they were too lazy or apathetic to research it sufficiently. But if anyone has these moral virtues along with a due exercise of muscle and a shovel, then they will join with everyone else who has those virtues because it is consistent and unanimous in the lives of good-hearted, honest, moral and sincere people. In summary, if you don’t agree with Michael, you are either “ignorant or dishonest with God’s Word” (39:6366).

I think that is an unfair account of life. It lacks humility and kindness. In other words, it loudly declares to fellow-believers in Jesus, “I know I’m right, and if you disagree with me, then there is something wrong with you! There is something wrong with your heart!”

May God have mercy!

 


Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 1)

August 11, 2014

 [Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here.]

Obeying the Gospel

In 2011, Michael Shank published the story of his own conversion. He describes how he was convicted by his encounter with the word of God when an African American co-worker named Randall led him through Scripture. Previously, Michael was a church-going Baptist whose sincerity was authentic and whose life was decent and moral but less than thoroughly dedicated. In other words, Michael was “Christian” in mostly a nominal sense (4:582-596).

He was awakened from his apathetic slumbers when Randall, in the light of 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, asked, “have you obeyed the gospel of our Lord?” (3:449). Michael soon learned, through Randall’s gentle questioning, that “saying the Sinner’s Prayer is not obeying the gospel of Christ” (3:478). This set Michael on a quest, mostly under Randall’s tutelage, to “know what the gospel was and how people obeyed it” (3:484).

Searching raised many questions for Michael, which Randall addressed. They discussed baptism, how the church is organized (pastors, elders, bishops, deacons), what kind of music a church should use (instrumental?), denominationalism, Calvinism, unity, and tithing as well as other questions. Michael wanted to know the truth—he asked religious leaders, read his Bible, researched at the library, and studied with Randall.

In the end, Michael and his wife Jonetta were baptized at the Jackson Street church of Christ in Nashville, TN.

The book is an evangelistic narrative. Michael Shank came to the conclusion that though he was “saved” at the age of eight in a Baptist church and was immersed at the age of thirteen in a Baptist congregation, he had not really obeyed the gospel. He only obeyed the gospel when he was baptized on March 15, 1988 at 1:15am (38:6004).

Not only an evangelistic narrative, the book is an extended evangelistic tract. Towards the end of the book, Michael invites his readers to obey the gospel:

            “Friend, if you’ve read this book in its entirety you have been taught of God” (38:6103).

            “Someone gave you this book for a reason….Will you obey the gospel of Jesus Christ or will you reject it?” (38:6112, 6121)

Chapter Thirty-Nine, after a brief history of the Sinner’s Prayer, outlines “God’s marvelous plan of redemption and salvation, which is” (39:6278ff): hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized.

Michael portrays his own conversion story as an objective search for truth in the Scriptures. His final chapter (Forty) begins with this appeal

            Please let me point out something that I hope is completely apparent. I’ve used no personal interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. I’ve merely shared my story and revealed the Scriptures of God just as it happened.

            Here’s the hard part. Will you accept the simple, plain, straight-forward teaching of God’s Word (40:6502)?

Consequently, Michael encourages everyone “to get out your shovel and dig. Read the Word for yourself. See whether the things I’ve shared with you in this book are really so” (40:6560). It takes “muscle and a shovel” to discover for oneself what the Bible teaches. It takes some persistent willingness (muscle) and honesty (shovel) to dig deep enough—to work hard enough—to discover the “Truth.” “It takes a heart that is willing to dig. It takes an honest heart (Luke 8:15) that is willing to lay aside preconceived ideas” (24:3846).

What Did Michael Find When He Dug Deep?

The “Truth” Michael discovered was essentially “proper scriptural baptism,” and how this ushered him into “the true church of Christ,” which is the body of Christ (26:4246). This is the basic message of the book, that is, it is “about the gospel and the church of our Lord” (22:3562). Baptism is the moment God saves because it is the moment we reenact the gospel; it is the “split second in time” when sins are washed away (38:6075).

This is a critical discovery for Michael. Since it is the gospel that saves and baptism is the reenactment of that gospel, God saves in baptism because of what God does in baptism. Consequently, Michael emphatically states, “The argument that men and women can be saved before baptism is a lie. It originates from the father of lies who was a murderer from the beginning and in whom is no truth” (21:3453, emphasis in original).

Baptism is only biblical if the believer submits to it for the “right reason.” Specifically, Randall said, “If you get into the water of baptism thinking that your sins are forgiven before you get into the water, you’re not being baptized for the right reason. That’s not Bible baptism” (35:5677). The “right reason” is to be baptized for (in order to receive) the remission of sins in accordance with Acts 2:38 (21:3360). So, Michael reasoned, “if I got into the water thinking I had no sins, I was not baptized for the remission of sins. I wasn’t baptized like those in the Bible were baptized. It wasn’t biblical” (36:5872).

God adds the baptized to the church, the body of Christ. What group is that on the contemporary scene? What are the criteria for identifying the “church of Christ”? “The way you identify the true church of Christ today is” by what “it teaches and how it practices” (26:4247).

Randall has a rather long list and it is a particular sort of list (a summary begins at 32:5380). Here is the list—“Plain Bible teaching with no human opinions” (25:4194):

  • biblical name or descriptor (25:4136)
  • non-denominational (25:4172)
  • autonomous congregationalism (25:4180)
  • governed by elders, served by deacons, and headed by Christ (25:4180, 27:4464)
  • “five articles of worship” on the first day of every week, including the Lord’s Supper, prayer, singing, giving and preaching (26:4251)
  • the Lord’s supper every first day and exclusively on Sunday (26:4281)
  • singing without instrumental accompaniment (26:4361)
  • free will offerings without the regulation of tithing (27:4349)
  • teaches the biblical plan of salvation, that is, how to obey the gospel (30:4960).

The church of Christ practices and believes only what is prescribed in the Bible. It is the New Testament church because, guided by the New Testament alone, it neither adds nor subtracts from what is prescribed there.

In essence, Muscle and a Shovel is about how to obey the gospel and what constitutes the true church of Christ. According to Shank, one must be immersed in water for the right reason (for the remission of sins) and be “faithful to the [right] church” (25:4005) in order to have eternal life.

This explains one of Randall’s earlier statements, which startled Michael, and—no doubt—astounds others. Nevertheless, it is the clear import of what Randall taught Michael.

“Mr. Mike,” [Randall] said meekly, “from my understanding of God’s Word, if you’re a member of a denomination, whether it be Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Mormon, any church that Jesus Christ did not establish and buy with His blood, there’s no question that you’re headed toward eternal destruction” (6:941).

What I Appreciate

I value a non-denominational approach to Christianity, a high view of the independence and importance of the local congregation, the government of the congregation by wise, experienced, and godly elders, weekly communion at the table of the Lord, and an emphasis on congregational generosity rather than imposed financial programs.

I also value believer’s baptism. I appreciate how baptism is given more significance than the “Sinner’s Prayer.” Indeed, I have argued, as Michael also ultimately concludes, that baptism is the sinner’s prayer (cf. my 2004 Down in the River to Pray with Greg Taylor, p. 197).

I welcome the reports of baptisms that arise from the reading of Muscle and a Shovel, and I rejoice when anyone is immersed in obedience to God out of an authentic trust in Jesus as Redeemer.

What I most appreciate about the book is how Randall serves as a model for us.

In fact, Shank says this is one of the major reasons for publishing the book. He wanted to encourage us: “Will you become a Randall?” (40:6736). When he reviewed the notebook that he rediscovered in 2008, he knew “Randall’s attitude, approach, love, sincerity, persistence, scriptural ability, compassion, faithfulness, and desire to save the lost was a story that needed to be told” (40:6652).

One of the most encouraging aspects of the book is how everyone is called to read the Bible for themselves without a slavish dependence upon creeds, Pastors, or traditions. Everyone must pick up the shovel and dig; pick up the Bible and study it. Everyone must take responsibility for their own spiritual journey, including whether and how they read the Bible.

Another formative aspect of the story was its inter-generational and multiracial nature. Randall is African American, and Michael is Caucasian; Randall was in his mid-thirties, and Michael was twenty; Michael served in a higher capacity in the company for which they both worked. Michael was baptized at the Jackson Street church of Christ, which is, arguably, the “mother” of all African American churches of Christ. Marshall Keeble called this Nashville (TN) congregation home, and Alexander Campbell (African American), S. W. Womack, G. P. Bower, and Keeble planted it in 1896. The Jackson Street church has long honored God in many ways, especially in their support of evangelism and a passion for the lost. So, this is a beautiful testimony to how two men can study together, love each other, and embrace each other in the Lord despite their social, economic, generational, and ethnic differences. It truly embodies Colossians 3:11—what matters is a renewed image of God, not our economic, social, or ethnic status.

The relationship between Michael and Randall illustrates how one person can lead another into deeper discipleship. Michael saw the testimony of Randall’s life, and Randall loved Michael enough to speak into his life. The fruit of this relationship is the heart of the story.

In my next two blogs, I will address some of the book’s serious deficiencies.


Peace and Inheritance (Joshua 13-21)

July 2, 2014

Inheritance (or, possession) occurs fifty times in the book of Joshua, and everyone of them, except for five (11:23; 23:4; 24:28,30,32), occur in chapters 12-21. Further, the verb “to possess or inherit” occurs nine times in Joshua, eight times in Joshua 13-21. So, fifty-three of the fifty-nine occurrences of this word group occur in Joshua 13-21 That is a fairly solid clue to the book’s major emphasis in its second half (and all but two occurrences are found in Joshua 13-24).

The first half of Joshua narrates the entrance of Israel into the land of Canaan and the successful northern and southern military campaigns that secured the land for Israel (at least much of it). The final line of chapter eleven signals the end of the “conquest” (at least in terms of major offensives): “And the land had rest from war.” Chapter twelve recounts the victories.

The last verse of Joshua 11, however, also introduces us to the major theme of Joshua 13-21.

So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.

Two ideas in this conclusion to the first half of Joshua are particularly significant for the theology of Joshua in the second half of the book, and they are intertwined.

First, “the land had rest from war” (also Joshua 14:15). This theme extends into Judges both positively (3:11, 30; 5:31; 8:28) and negatively (18:7, 18). In the former, God gives Israel “rest” through liberating them from oppressors. In the latter, the Danites slaughter a peaceful, quiet (“rest”) town for their own selfish ends; they seize what does not belong to their “inheritance.”

“Rest” appears in the Chronicler’s history. It is what God gives to Israel when they seek Yahweh (cf 2 Chronicles 14:1, 5-6; 20:30; 23:21). In those days of “rest,” there was “no war” (2 Chronicles 14:5).

“Rest” reappears in the prophets as part of the promises of God. The righteous will rest, but the wicked will not (Isaiah 14:7; 30:15; 32:17; 57:20). Ultimately, God’s people will find rest in the land once again without fear (Jeremiah 30:10; 46:27). Both Isaiah and Micah see a time when the nations will learn war no more, the earth will be at peace, and no one will be afraid (Isaiah 2; Micah 4).

The “rest” that God intended for Israel in Canaan is also the rest that God intends for all nations. God created the heavens and the earth for peace rather than war; it was for “rest” rather than chaos. God created and rested; God created and dwelt with humanity. The heavens and the earth are God’s home (Isaiah 66:1-2), and it is given to humanity as a “rest.” Chaos, sin, and the rule of the principalities and powers subvert God’s intent, but there yet remains a “rest” for the people of God (Hebrews 4:4, 8, 10).

Second, God gave the “land for an inheritance to Israel.” Joshua 11:23 is the first time the noun appears in Joshua. The land is Israel’s inheritance (cf. Numbers 34:2; Deuteronomy 4:21, 38; 15:4; 19:10; 20:16; 21:23; 24:4; 25:19; 26:1; Psalm 105:11; 136:21-22), just as Israel itself is God’s own “inheritance” (possession; Deuteronomy 4:20; 9:26, 29; 1 Samuel 10:1; 1 Kings 8:51-53). God gives Israel (God’s own inheritance) an inheritance.

Joshua 14:2-3 summarizes the division of the land:

Their inheritance was by lot, as the Lord had commanded Moses for the nine and one-half tribes. For Moses had given an inheritance to the two and one-half tribes beyond the Jordan; but to the Levites he gave no inheritance among them.

 Joshua 19 is peppered with this line:  “This is the inheritance of the tribe….” Forty-five times in Joshua 13-21 the writer, by the use of this term, stresses the theological meaning of this moment. Israel’s possession of the land is an inheritance from Yahweh.

This language has both creational and eschatological meaning.  God’s gift of the land to Israel is analogous to God’s creation of the earth. God gave the cosmos to Adam and Eve, and “placed” (rested; Genesis 2:15) them in the Garden to serve and protect it (which is a priestly task). Adam and Eve were priests in God’s temple, God’s home. This was God’s inheritance for humanity. God created humanity so that it might reign with God within the creation–to live within the creation as God’s partner in the cosmos.

This is eschatological as well since the new heaven and new earth are what God creates as an inheritance for redeemed humanity. What Israel inherited in the book of Joshua is a type of the inheritance that God will give to humanity. A day is coming when not only Israel is the “heritage” of God, but also Egypt and Assyria are God’s people and the work of God’s hands (Isaiah 19:25). A day is coming when the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).

God gives the land, and God gives rest. At the same time, Israel was an active agent in the process by which the land came to rest from its wars. Israel defeated many kings (Joshua 12), but there was yet much of the land that Israel had not yet taken possession of (Joshua 13). Israel was engaged in a process of clearing the land; a process of eliminating (subduing) the chaos (Joshua 18:1).

Just as God placed humanity in the Garden and they were told to subdue the chaos in the rest of the earth (Genesis 1:28), so God’s people (like Israel before them) are given the task of subduing the chaos. Within the story of Jesus and the church, this task is not a violent one but rather the pursuit of peace and righteousness. The church “subdues” the chaos (including sin and unrighteousness) through redemptive suffering rather than violent revolution. Through that pursuit “rest” for all nations will emerge as God renews all things through Jesus.

Our kingdom task is to subdue the chaos through practicing peace. God promises to renew the earth and create a anew heaven and new earth where righteousness and peace dwell (2 Peter 3:13).

In this way, God will fulfill the promise to Abraham. The land Abraham was promised was but a reflection of the promise to humanity in creation itself. Abraham, according to Paul, was mad the “heir of the cosmos” (Romans 4:13).  In Abraham’s seed, in the Messiah, we have become the heirs of Abraham (Galatians 3:29). We are the heirs of the cosmos, and in the new heaven and new earth we shall inherit the earth and enter into God’s rest.

***This is the substance of a lecture given at Lipscomb’s Summer Celebration 2014***

Below is the handout I gave to the class:

Joshua 13-21
John Mark Hicks
Summer Celebration 2014
Lipscomb University

Claiming the Inheritance (Joshua 13-21)

Brief Outline of Joshua (adapted from David Malick)

I. The Book of War
A. Preparation for Conquest (1:1-5:15).
B. The Prosecution of the War (6:1-11:23).
C. Battle Report (12:1-24).

II. The Book of Inheritance.
A. East of Jordan Inheritance (13:1-33).
B. Caleb’s Inheritance (14:1-14).
C. West of Jordan Inheritance (15:1-19:48).
1. Judah (15:1-63).
2. Joseph: Ephraim and Manasseh (16:1-17:18).
3. The Sanctuary (18:1)
4. Remaining Tribes (18:2-19:48).
D. Joshua’s Inheritance (19:49-51).
E. Cities for Justice and Ministry (20:1-21:42)

III. Epilogue: Covenant Life in the Land (22-24).

Key Texts

Joshua 11:23 — So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.

Joshua 18:1 — Then the whole congregation of the Israelites assembled at Shiloh, and set up the tent of meeting there. The land lay subdued before them.

Joshua 21:43-45 — Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to their ancestors that he would give them; and having taken possession of it, they settled there. And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their ancestors; not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.

The Inheritance

Verb: Josh 1:6; 13:32; 14:1; 16:4; 17:6; 19:9, 49, 51 = nine occurrences.
Noun: Josh 11:23; 13:6-8, 14, 23, 28, 33; 14:2-3, 9, 13-14, 20; 16:5, 8; 17:4, 6, 14; 18:2, 4, 7, 20, 28; 19:1-2, 8-10, 16, 23, 31, 39, 41, 48-49, 51; 21:3; 23:4; 24:8, 30, 32 = fifty occurrences

Rest

One Word Group: Josh 1:13, 15; 3:13; 4:3, 8; 6:23; 21:44; 22:4; 23:1 [Gen 2:15; 8:4; Exod 16:23-24; 20:11; 33:14; Deut 3:20; 5:14; 25:19; Isa 14:7].
Another Word Group: Josh 11:23; 14:15 [cf. Isa 14:7; Jer 30:10].

Josh 1:13 — ‘The LORD your God is providing you a place of rest, and will give you this land.’

The Sanctuary – Renewed “Garden of Eden” (Joel 2:3; Ezek 36:35)

The whole congregation assembled (or, the whole assembly gathered, LXX)

“Whole congregation” (Exod 12:3, 47; 16:1-2, 9-10; 17:1; 35:1, 4, 20; Lev 4:13; 19:2; Num 1:2; 8:9, 20; 13:26; 14:7; 15:25-26; 16:5-6, 11, 16, 41; 25:6; 26:2; 27:20; Josh 22:12, 16, 18, 20; 1 Kgs 8:5; 2 Chr 5:6).

“Assembled” (Ex. 32:1; 35:1; Lev 8:3; Num 1:18; 8:9; 10:7; 16:3, 19, 42; 20:2, 8, 10; Deut 4:10; 31:12, 28; Josh 22:12; 1 Kgs 8:1; 2 Chr 13:3; 28:1; 2 Chr 5:2; 20:26).

Tent of Meeting

Exodus language for the Tabernacle (Exod 27:21; 28:43; 29:4; 29:10, 30, 32, 42, 44; 30:16, 18, 20, 26, 36; 31:7; 33:7; 35:21; 38:8, 30, 32, 40; 40:2, 6, 12, 22, 24, 26, 29, 32, 34). 135 usages of 146 are in the Pentateuch.
Only usages in Joshua are in reference to Shiloh (18:1; 19:51).

Land Subdued

“Subdued” is the language of Genesis 1:28 (word only occurs 13x in OT)
Subdued land/nations (Num 32:22, 29; 2 Sam 8:11; 1 Chr 22:18)
Language of God’s grace (Micah 7:19; Zech 9:15)

Theological Perspectives

1. Israel was God’s third act of new creation—a renewed people.
2. God intended Israel to rest with God, become a light to the nations, and claim the whole earth as God’s dwelling place.
3. God intends to fill the whole earth with God’s rest, and God’s people are the instruments of that peace in the world.
4. We have been grafted into Israel, we are the heirs of Abraham in Christ, and the earth is our inheritance.


Stepping into God’s Future (Joshua 3:1-17)

June 30, 2014

[An audio version of this is available here.]

Contemporary visitors to Palestine rarely, if ever, find the Jordan River imposing. It seems relatively shallow, not very wide, and quite calm.  Wading across does not seem like much of a problem–except that it would take one from the modern state of Israel into the modern state of Jordan or vice versa. The ramifications of that move might not be very pleasant. Today, the Jordan River itself poses no threat and prompts no fear.

So, why did Israel linger three days at Jordan’s shore? Why were they intimidated by this river? And why is crossing the river such a big deal in the book of Joshua? In Joshua 3-4, the crossing is referenced twenty-one times! The Jordan River is mentioned seventy times in Joshua with twenty-eight of them in Joshua 3-4. It functions as a critical and significant moment in the story of Joshua.

Further, the songs and prophets of Israel regarded it as one of Yahweh’s great redemptive feats. In Micah 6:5, the movement from Shittim (east side of the Jordan) to Gilgal (west side of the Jordan) is one of the mighty acts of God! This moment in the history of Israel parallels the crossing of the Sea itself.

For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over,  so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, and so that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” (Joshua 4:23-24.)

The ancient river was very different from the one we now see.  Today, the river runs low because its water is used as a resource by the states of Israel and Jordan for drinking and crop irrigation. The flow of water has become so limited that the Dead Sea is drying up.

However, in the ancient world the Jordan River was intimidating. John Beck has assembled an impressive collection of evidence to demonstrate this (JETS 48.4 [2005] 689-99). Since there were no bridges until the Roman era, people crossed the Jordan in the dry season when they could wade across at points where tributaries flowed into the river  because silt builds up there or they floated across on animal skins or bundles of reeds. Israel, on the plains of Moab, probably crossed where the Wadi Qilt meets the river near the head of the Dead Sea.

However, when Joshua stood at the Jordan River, it was at flood stage. It was Spring (March-April) towards the end of the rainy season (Joshua 4:19). Coupled with the melting snows of Mount Hermon, the Jordan River became a formidable obstacle. Beck estimates that the water would have been 10-12 feet deep and as much as one hundred and forty feet wide. In those conditions, the Jordan’s “violent current” endangered lives. In fact, ancient Christian travelogues warned pilgrims that the current was strong, and occasionally pilgrims drowned in the Jordan. A thirteenth century letter complained that the Jordan was practically impassable. One nineteenth century explorer, William Lynch, related his harrowing experience on a riverboat where he feared for his life.

The crossing was so difficult and treacherous that the Greek general Bacchides refused to pursue the Jewish leader Jonathan across the river (1 Maccabees 9:48) while the Pereans decided to battle the Romans on the west bank of the river rather than cross it (Josephus, Wars, IV.7.5). Jonathan escaped but the Pereans were slaughtered.

Just as Assyrian generals listed river crossings as “renowned acts” in their reports, this crossing secures Joshua’s position as the successor of Moses. “That day,” Joshua 4:14 says, “the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel.” More importantly, like at the Red Sea, Yahweh defeated the waters and redeemed Israel, and as a result Israel learned to “fear” the Lord (Exodus 14:31; Joshua 4:24).

But this is not the whole story. The imposing physical character of the Jordan creates a dramatic moment, like at the Sea, where Yahweh rescues Israel, but there is more.

J. Michael Thigpen points to the contest between Yahweh and Baal at the river (Trinity Journal 27ns [Fall 2006] 245-254). The Jordan River crossing demonstrates that Yahweh is a “living God” who is the “Lord of all the earth” (Joshua 3:10, 13). This is a polemic against Baal.

The Baal Epic was discovered in the 1930s at Ugarit. It dates from some time in the 1300s B.C (roughly the same era the Joshua account portrays). It tells the story of the god Baal, the Canaanite storm god, who was responsible for the fertility of the land and the seasons of rain. At one point in the story, Baal battles the god Yamm (sea) who is also called Nahar (river). Baal defeats Yamm (who represents both sea and river) and is hailed as king. He is given the title “Lord of all the earth.”

As Yahweh’s people approach the Jordan River at flood stage, they face the might of Canaan’s god.  Baal, after all, brings the rains, ensures the harvest, and the flood is a sign of Baal’s mighty power. The river Jordan was not only intimidating because of its natural obstructions, but more importantly it terrorized Israel because it was associated with the reign of Baal.  It is a sign that, as the Baal Epic describes Baal, that “mightiest Baal lives.” Baal rules Canaan.

When Yahweh creates dry land for the crossing, Yahweh defeats Baal. Just as he defeated the waters of chaos and the gods of Egypt at the Red Sea, so here Yahweh defeats “mighty Baal” so that “all the peoples of the earth” might know that Yahweh is the “Lord of all the earth.”

Israel steps into the water and experiences the power of Yahweh who holds back the waters so that they might cross into a new land, their inheritance. The crossing of the Jordan, then, is not only a defeat of chaotic waters (as in creation itself) but also the defeat of a competing power (Baal). At the Jordan, Yahweh exercises power over both chaos and other powers. God redeems Israel from the powers and secures their safe passage into their inheritance.

Israel crosses the Jordan to become a nation that will light up the world for other nations. They are to become a new Eden in God’s creation. They are to model life with God and how people live together in peace, joy, and righteousness. They enter Canaan commissioned by God to realize God’s kingdom on the earth. But, as we know (and as we well know in our own lives), they failed to fully realize that mission.

The biblical story invites us to see Israel’s Jordan River crossing as our own. This is not simply the history of Israel, it is the story into which we plunge as well. It is the story of Jesus.

We remember how Jesus passed through these waters in his own baptism. John the Baptizer immersed in these same waters–probably even in the same vicinity–where Israel crossed into the new land. For Jesus to step into those waters was to step toward the cross; the shadow of the cross hung over the waters of Jesus’s baptism. It was the moment when he embraced his future suffering for the sake of the future of the world.

Jesus, through his own baptism, experienced God’s redemptive love and heralded a new Exodus and a new inheritance for the whole world.  We follow Jesus into that same water. We, too, have stepped into the water in order to proclaim the one true, living God who defeats the powers that enslave and oppose us. Through our baptism we become God’s new creation and herald the coming of the new heavens and new earth, our own inheritance. Entering the waters of baptism is to take up our own cross, and consequently we must count the cost.

Jesus, through Jordan’s waters, entered into a new world, the world of the kingdom of God. Jesus embraced the ministry of the kingdom in order to bring the reign of God into the world so that the will of God might be done on earth as it is in heaven. We who have followed Jesus into the water also embrace this new world, the kingdom of God. We become the instruments of that kingdom. We, like Israel, embrace the mission of God in the world. We follow Jesus into the ministry of the kingdom for the renewal of God’s good creation and the transformation of the world. We are people who have stepped into the water with Israel, with Jesus, to embrace the newness of the Kingdom of God

The Jordan also represents something else in the story of God. It is where the people of God receive their inheritance.  Israel inherited the land by promise, and we who are also Abraham’s children share in that promise. God appointed Abraham the “heir of the cosmos” (Romans 4:13).

Like Israel, we stand on the Jordan’s stormy banks. We crossed the Sea in our baptism and we have journeyed through the wilderness of life nourished by the bread and wine. We now face those stormy banks; we face death itself.  Like the Jordan in front of Israel, it is imposing and threatening. But we step into the water with confidence and boldness. We pass through the waters of death in order to embrace the promised inheritance. We pass through the waters where we rest from our labors (Hebrews 4:1-13).

When Israel looked across that water, they saw an imposing current and the walled city of Jericho. It looked inhospitable. It engendered terror, uncertainty, and anxiety. There was no one on the other side to assure them or quiet their fears.

However, this is not true with us. We look across the Jordan and we see the resurrected Jesus enthroned at the right hand of God and holding the keys to Death and Hades. We step into God’s future and trust that God reigns in the world.

We no longer fear. We are not afraid to step into the water. We look forward to the new heavens and new earth (1 Peter 3:13). Neither the depths of its waters nor the gods that claim its power hinder our approach.

We step into the water because of the one who beckons us from the other side. We step into the water because of the one who has cleared a path for us. We step into the water because it has become dry ground. Death (water) has become life (a dry path to our inheritance).

***This is the substance of a keynote address at Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration on June 30, 2014 in Nashville, TN***


Groaning, Weakness, and the Holy Spirit

June 28, 2014

The Holy Spirit groans with us and for us. We are not alone in our weaknesses.

See my new post at Wineskins.org. http://wp.me/p4a1Ft-oN


In Memoriam: The Obituary of David Lipscomb (1917)

May 26, 2014

The death of David Lipscomb was front page news in Nashville, Tennessee. This article appeared in the Nashville Tennessean and the Nashville American (November 12, 1917, p. 1).

DAVID LIPSCOMB, NOTED PREACHER AND EDITOR, DIES

End Comes to Founder of Nashville Bible School at Age of 86 Years

by Wayne W. Burton.

Silencing an evangelist’s voice familiar in Tennessee a half century ago and stilling an editor’s pen that made a record of not one failure to contribute weekly to the press for a period of forty-five years, death came at 11 o’clock last night to David Lipscomb, founder of the Nashville Bible school, teacher, preacher and author, editor of the Gospel Advocate for a period of fifty-one years, and perhaps the most widely known representatives of the Church of Christ of his day. The end came at his home on the Nashville Bible school campus, from general infirmity and old age.

The end came not unexpected. The venerable evangelist passed his eighty-sixth milestone January 21 of this year, and during the past several months of a general decline in health thousands in many states who have long known him through his writings and through the press had been led to realize that the end was not far away. Several months ago, for a period, his death was momentarily expected. But he rallied again, and soon again was in his chair reading his Bible from two to five hours a day, which those about him say has been his practice, and perhaps not an over-estimated reading average for him over a half century. Wednesday night he suffered a relapse, attended by effects scarcely other than a continued deep sleep. From this sleep he never awoke.

Elder Lipscomb is survived by his wife, who was Miss Margaret Zellner of Maury county, and to whom he was married July 23, 1862. Their only child died in infancy. One half brother, John Lipscomb of Franklin county, and two half sisters, Mrs. L. J. Woods of Franklin county and Mrs. Ellen Gardner of Winchester, also survive him. His only full brother was William Lipscomb, well-known Christian church evangelist who died in 1908. Granville Lipscomb, another prominent minister of the same church, who died in 1909, was a half brother. The deceased was a half brother also to Horace G. Lipscomb of the Lipscomb Hardware company, who died a few years ago.

He was an uncle of A. B. Lipscomb, pastor of the Russell Street Church of Christ, and managing editor of the Gospel Advocate, and of Horace S. Lipscomb, assitant principle of the Nashville high school.

Elder Lipscomb, until only a few years ago, led an unusually active life. As early as the spring of 1909, however, he suffered a severe attack from colds, followed by a general breakdown. From this time the decline was gradual, hastened by some two or three paralytic strokes. Often on Sundays, however, as long as strength permitted, he preached somewhere in the city, usually at the Bible school chapel or Third and College church, though he did so sitting in a chair. Soon his waning powers limited his strength of voice to sermons of fifteen to twenty minutes, and for a year or more past he made no pulpit effort, being confined to his home. On the first day of each week, however, though not strong enough to meet with the congregation, he observed the communion service with his family at home, as he taught the church should observe the institution each Sunday, emulating the practice of the New Testament churches.

Founds Churches; Active in Missionary Work

Aside from the Bible School, Elder Lipscomb was one of the founders of the Gospel Advocate, and of the Fanning Orphan school, and mainly through his pioneer efforts were established nearly one-half of the thirty-odd congregations of the Christian church of this city. A complete list from his early work to the present shows fifty-odd congregations through his own efforts. Most of these were in Middle Tennessee. For many years he had been a moving spirit in the work of the Nashville Christian church congregations toward sustaining several missionaries and certain publication work in and around Tokio [sic], Japan, and other points in the foreign missionary field.

In the 50s, when he came to Nashville, there were only three congregations of the Disciples in Davidson county, one being on Church street at the present site of the Vendome theater; another at the Fanning Orphan school, then Franklin college, and another at Owen’s chapel. In South Nashville Elder Lipscomb preached, first to an audience of five, resulting in the establishment of the Third and College church, of which he was the senior Elder to the time of his death. He preached in the army barracks in North Nashville, resulting in the establishment of the Eighth Avenue church. He started the work that resulted in the establishment of the Woodland street congregation, in the late 70s; also that of Foster street, that of old Line street an that of Reid avenue. He was one of the few of the old guard remaining who remembered the preaching of Alexander Campbell, in the building at the present site of the Vendome theater, and that of President James A. Garfield, in later years, at the same place. From this building the congregation moved to the present Vine Street church. In his early work Elder Lipscomb was associated with Elder F. M. Carmack, father of Senator E. W. Carmack; J. W. McGarvey and other distinguished leaders in the work of reformation as inaugurated by the Campbells, Barton W. Stone, and others.

Was Profound Writer; Plea for Christian Unity

Widely known in many states, Elder Lipscomb’s prominence and influence was attained, not through official position in the church, the Disciples having no general church organization, and hence no official church position with further power and authority than that of the elder and deacon of the local congregation. Elder Lipscomb, in fact, especially emphasized this doctrine, of the organic independence of several congregations, urging congregational organizations with elders and deacons after the pattern of the New Testament congregations, but urging against general or denominational organizations with power to write creeds of church government or for overhead control of the congregation, separating the congregations into denominations. He urged a strict adherence to the practice and worship, as well to form of organization, of the New Testament churches, opposing instrumental music in connection with the worship. This was his plea of Christian unity, and on this point, as well as on other tenets of the Disciples, he was regarded throughout the north and the south, for some years, as perhaps the strongest authority, or at least had written more along these controverted points than any other living man.

Sketch of Life of Elder Lipscomb

David Lipscomb was born in Franklin county, Tennessee, January 21, 1831, and was a son of Granville Lipscomb, who had removed to Tennessee from Virginia in 1826. In young Lipscomb’s early life the family removed to Illinois, but returned to Franklin county a year or two later. The father held strong convictions against slavery, adn upon going to Illinois freed his own slaves at his own expense. Young Lipscomb attended school a while in Virginia, going to and from the state a number of times on horseback.

In 1846 he entered Franklin college under the presidency of Tolbert Fanning, for whom the Fanning Orphan school was named. He graduated in 1849. He then entered farming and business life, going to Georgia for awhile, where he managed a large plantation. He returned to Franklin county and later to Nashville.

During the war of the sixties he emphasized his view against the right of Christians to go to war, and in behalf of those who adhered to the belief, he negotiated with Jefferson Davis, president of the confederacy, and the federal government, obtaining relief on such grounds from army service as had been granted to Quakers.

In 1866 Elder Lipscomb, associated with Tolbert Fanning, revived the publication of the Gospel Advocate, which had been established ten years before, but suspended during the war. In 1870 Elder E. G. Sewell became associate editor, so remaining to this day. Elder Lipscomb has contributed freely to other religious journals, including the Christian Leader of Cincinnati, and is author of a  number of volumes. Among the volumes are his commentaries on acts of the Apostles, John’s Gospel and the epistles of Jude, Peter and John, in separate volumes, “Queries and Answers” and “Salvation From Sin,” the last two being compiled from his writings by J. W. Shepherd, and his “Civil Government–Its Origin, Mission and Destiny and the Christian’s Religion to It.”

A quarter of a century ago, associated with James A. Harding, E. A. Elam, William Anderson and others, Elder Lipscomb founded the Nashville Bible, his purpose in view being to establish an educational institution in which the Bible, along with the other literary branches, should be used as a textbook and a daily study by every pupil. To this he donated the greater part, of all that he had, including a site of sixty acres, and in the school he taught for twenty years, refusing any monetary consideration whatever. The establishment of other similar schools followed, carrying out the Bible textbook idea, one at Bowling Green, Ky., one at Odessa, Mo., another at Berry, Ala., and several others in Texas, Oklahoma and Canada. How well this feature succeeded, from a literary point of viewpoint is attested to by the fact that all the state educational institutions now give the pupil full credit on this feature, as well as others, of the Bible school work.

Early Life and “Call” to Ministry

Until well along in manhood Elder Lipscomb had not entered the ministry, nor had he seriously thought of doing so. But the story runs this way: There were few preachers and fewer churches. An eminent evangelist of the day well known to Lipscomb and one of the most popular pulpit orators of the south had labored extensively with the Tennessee congregations. This evangelist adopted views extremely radical, however, according to the Brotherhood, losing his doctrinal bearings and making “shipwreck of the faith.” The result under the existing conditions was widespread confusion and general discouragement among the congregations. Lipscomb had greatly admired the brilliant but erratic preacher, but now needly recognized the need of the congregations for teaching and encouragement. If the treasure was committed to “earthen vessels,” he reasoned, now was the time to defend it. This realization of such duties devolving upon him, he accepted as his “call” to preach to them and rally them to more effective work. From the work he never retired. Had the evangelist not made this misstep, Elder Lipscomb said, I might never have preached–a score of others might not. And thus in every apparent calamity he reasoned that some good may somehow result, overbalancing its ill effects.

Story of His First Sermon

A trace of Elder Lipscomb’s optimism and perseverance of later years might be observed in a story told of his first sermon. The place was a schoolhouse near McMinnville. The appointment had been made; the time came; the young preacher had his text ready. He had his sermon ready–he thought. In the audience was an elderly evangelist, Elder Stroud: thrilled with feelings of anxiety for the young man as great as the parent feels for son or daughter at the graudation address. The young preacher found the text, and read it.  It didn’t connect, however, with the prepared sermon. It would not do to stop, so there was nothing to do but keep on reading. The chapter was finished, and still nothing led to the sermon. The young preacher then said, “Brother Stroud, will you please preach the sermon today.” Elder Stroud arose to the pulpit. He was discouraged. He tried, but the sting of disappointment and sympathy for the young preacher was having its effect. It was too much; the speaker was overcome, and as confused as young Lipscomb had been, he left the pulpit, calling on the third man to finish the day’s sermon. En route home from the church Elder Stroud and young Lipscomb had ridden some miles before approaching the delicate subject.  The former, still discouraged at Lipscomb’s failure–not thinking of his own–sympathetically said, “Brother Lipscomb, don’t be discouraged at today’s results.”

“I’ll try not to be,” the young preacher replied, “but I must confess that it is a little discouraging to see one become so confused and have to leave the pulpit who has been preaching as long as you have.”

First Acquaintance with E. G. Sewell

It was early in the 50′s that the two men first met each other, who were destined to labor in such fellowship, in a common cause, for so many years to come, down to an old age for both–David Lipscomb and E. G. Sewell. They were about the same age–Elder Sewell a few months older. Elder Sewell had commenced preaching; Elder Lipscomb had not. Their first acquaintance was formed at a business meeting of a country congregation, near McMinnville, the meeting having been called to discuss some plans for the ensuring year. Elder Sewell had been attending school at Burrett college. Later, when he entered Franklin college, the two became further acquainted, both stopping often with William Lipscomb, one of the pillars of the college. Within a few years the two were associate editors on the Advocate, associates in the evangelistic field and co-laborers together in a new history of church development in Nashville and throughout Middle Tennessee.

Highly Charitable; Lipscomb, the Man

A single trait in Elder Lipscomb’s character that left upon every associate its indelible impression was his man-to-man attitude and personal frankness. As in manner he was composed and sedate, his conversation was earnest, direct and business-like. He was little inclined to the humorous; his conversation directed along other lines of sober and earnest thought. His straight-forward attitude of openhearted frankness begat the confidence that every word came from the heart. The man’s judgment he addressed; never his self-pride. Though ever ready to commend for a good dead done he did so on the ground that the doer of the act appreciated more its real worth than the more compliment paid. He never sought to praise unduly or magnify another’s virtues. He was too true to the man himself for that; too full of that sane, sober, openhearted frankness of man-to-man friendship.

Another trait in Elder Lipscomb’s character which along would have ranked him among men was his gentle firmness and indomitable courage of convictions. In preaching or writing upon any subject, or in any course he saw to be right, he was absolutely immovable at the hand of criticism or the wave of popular sentiment, while against the tidal wave of criticism, solitary and alone, if need be, he moved on, unswerving and undisturbed. He was cool, though aggressive. Though aggressive he was considerate and kind, and though considerate he was uncompromising. He was plain and direct without harshness, yet charitable and gentle without weakness. While liberal and kind-hearted–even tenderhearted, yet he sought not to allow the more even tenor of his way to restrain him from the advocacy of the right or from combatting error from the course he saw to be good.

Another trait of Elder Lipscomb in a marked degree, strong and contagious to those coming in contact with him, was his optimism. He was persevering and untiring, and in the face of discouraging consequences or even failure maintained an attitude of cheerful indifference. At apparent failure of any task undertaken he yet maintained aspirations of hope, or either took courage in the fact that his full duty was done in the undertaking.

Elder Lipscomb was among the men who are truly charitable. He delighted in helping the worthy needy and poor, standing ever ready to contribute of his means or his personal service. His largest single donation was that of sixty acres as a home for the Bible school. He contributed freely also to the Fanning Orphan School, and to church missionary work, home and foreign.

Elder Lipscomb was not oratorical, but impressivo and clear. The former he never sought to be; the latter needed not the effort. His bearing in the pulpit was as gentle and considerate as it was frank and unreserved, and as natural as the sunshine. His diction was clear and his motive to clearly establish his position with the arguments at hand. Further than this he relied on the merits of his cause and the honesty and intelligence of the mind addressed. For those who came in contact with him it appeared as but natural to say that he was among all men the most tolerant. To those who differed from him whether in private conversation or public controversy, he was ever charitable and never unpleasantly combative. Years ago, with denominations of other religious views, he engaged in many public oral religious debates and it was ever said of him by those who differed from him that he was ever kind and considerate. “See how much you can find to agree on,” he said, “and not how widely you can differ.” He possessed absolutely not a semblance of that blustering, bull-dozing, dominating, domineering air of driving or forcing an opinion on others.

Another characteristic highly marked in the  man was his unpretentious manner of doing things. He was bold, but retiring and unassuming. In his daily walk and manner there was never the least discernible effort on his part to appear striking or spectacular, and not the least indication of any susceptibility to praise or flatter in any form. In his entire nature was absolutely not a trace of anything that could have been interpreted as a desire for “vain glory.”

To him the realization of a good deed done was more than the more praises of men. Others he treated as on the same plane; flattery he knew not the use of, nor appeared he in the least susceptible to it. He sought no notoriety and never tried to inflate his undertakings by advertising. He cared not for front page position; he rather shrunk from publicity. Even previous publication of his biographical sketches did violence to his feelings.

Elder Lipscomb never despised the day of small things. He never counted the day lost that accomplished a good deed, whether toward the strong and the wealthy or the man of lowly station. In all his work, religious, editorial and otherwise, his paramount purpose was the upbuilding of the church and the furtherance of the gospel which he maintained as the only promised “power of God unto salvation,” and more to him than all else was the welfare of the cause for which eh gave his greatest labors. He loved to associate with the poor, and much, if not the greater part, of his preaching was to small audiences in destitute places. He preferred the quiet, unassuming walk, and his life was free and far from ostentation in any form. There was no desire for the outward show, no attempt at pomp, nod display, no form of ostentation in the life of David Lipscomb.

The funeral of Elder Lipscomb will be held from the South College Street Church of Christ this afternoon at 3:30 o’clock. The services will be conducted by Elders C. A. Moore, E. G. Sewell, J. C. McQuiddy and E. A. Elam.

The following nephews and friends will serve as pallbearers: David C. Lipscomb, Horace S. Lipscomb, H. Leo Boles, John E. Dunn, Sam H. Hall of Atlanta and John T. Lewis of Birmingham. Internment will be at Mt. Olivet.

 


Joel 3:18-21 — The Lord Dwells in Zion

May 24, 2014

Joel begins with lament over the famine and drought as Yahweh’s army threatens Jerusalem with desolation, but it ends with abundance and water-filled ravines as Egypt and Edom become a wilderness. This reversal happens because “Yahweh dwells in Zion.”

“In that day,” Joel announces, the fortunes of Israel are reversed. “That day” links Joel 3:18 with Joel 2:28 and 3:1. “That day” is an eschatological day. It may have some historical referent as Judah experiences renewal on occasion, but the picture is apocalyptic. The vision here is similar to Ezekiel’s new temple (Ezekiel 47) and Zechariah’s apocalyptic vision of Jerusalem (Zechariah 13:1; 14:1-8). “That day” is the day of new creation when “all flesh” is saturated with the Spirit of God; this is the day that has been in Joel’s “mind’s eye” since Joel 2:18. It is the day when God makes all things new.

That day includes both judgment and blessing.

Egypt and Edom, two traditional enemies of Israel like Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia (Joel 3:4), are judged. Egypt, with its Nile-based culture, and Edom will become a “desolation” or a “desolate wilderness” (both words derive from the same Hebrew root).  Joel previously used this language to contrast a desolate wilderness with the Garden of Eden (2:3). In other words, Egypt’s desolation is their uncreation, and consequently, like the northern army in Joel 2:20, Egypt is driven into “a parched and desolate land.” It is a land without water, without the Nile.

The lands surrounding Israel–north (Tyre, Sidon), southwest (Philisia), south (Egypt), and southeast (Edom)–will experience the “uncreation” that followed the exile from Eden in Genesis 3. God will set things right; Yahweh will execute justice on the earth. These nations had shed “innocent blood” and violently mistreated Israel, and consequently they will become like a people exiled from the Garden of Eden, that is, exiled from the presence of Yahweh.

That day is also a day of blessing. The wadis which thirst for water on the east side of Jerusalem will flow with water.  The rainwater that sometimes filled these wadis (or ravines) ultimately flowed into the Dead Sea, and they contained water only when it rained. That is why the vegetation along these wadis is sparse and includes only plants and trees that can survive without much water. Joel describes these wadis as the “Wadi of the Acacias” (or Shittim). Acacia trees grow in dry places. God promises, however, that even the dry places will be filled with water.

This water will flow from the temple of God, just like in the visions of Ezekiel and Zechariah. Israel will no longer depend on rain, but rather a river will flow from the throne of God. At present there is no river in Jerusalem; it is wholly dependent upon rain. But this vision, where water flows from God’s dwelling place, assures Israel that there will be no more dry places in Israel and no more fear of droughts. The once dry stream beds will flow with water from God’s presence.

The water God supplies will generate prosperity.  Just as the drought brought famine, so a plenteous water supply will bring abundance. The mountains, with their growing vines, will drip with “sweet wine,” and the hills, where the cattle graze, will “flow with milk.” The harvests will return and the animals will rejoice. No more drought, and therefore no more famine. Never again will Jerusalem suffer. God will provide because “Yahweh dwells in Zion.”

This is vision is dear to the heart of Christians as well. We know it through John’s vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22.

When the new heavens and new earth appear, the new Jerusalem will descend upon the new earth. Within that city is a Garden where the tree of life grows by a river that flows from the throne of God and the Lamb. There is no temple there because the city is itself the temple. This is where God and the Lamb dwell.

There is no more chaos, no more night, no more threatening waters or armies, and there is no more death. God is the light of the city, and we will see God face-to-face.

On that day, the land will rejoice, and the animals will rejoice, and the people of God will serve their God because “Yahweh dwells in Zion.”

 


On Children, Baptism and David Lipscomb (1914)

May 23, 2014

While there are many variations along a continuum, credobaptists (that is, those who baptize believers) approach children within the faith community in two major ways. On the one hand there are the revivalists, but on the other hand there are those who emphasize nurture.

Revivalists believe that children within the faith community, at some point, become sinners (some might think they are born such or at least guilty of Adamic sin) when they reach an age of accountability (however that is defined). They believe children are objects of evangelism. So, many credobaptists encourage children to say the “Sinner’s Prayer,” and those among Churches of Christ baptize only those who confess they are sinners. The latter are baptized in order to be saved, and they would (according to many) be lost without that baptism, though identifying the age at which they became lost is ambiguous (and often worrisome for parents).

Those who emphasize nurture believe children grow up in faith as part of a faith community. They are maturing disciples rather than lost sinners. They are baptized, then, in order to affirm their faith, own their discipleship, and receive God’s promised blessings. They are baptized because Jesus was baptized and because Jesus told them to be baptized.

I have previously argued in a couple of books on baptism, an article in the Christian Standard, and on this blog that the latter approach is the better one. I will not rehearse those arguments here, but I did want to point to a historical precedent within Churches of Christ.

David Lipscomb did not think one had to impose “a heavy weight of guilt” upon those who were “reared in the training and instruction of the Lord.” When those so nurtured want to be baptized, it is sufficient that they want to obey the Lord.

When one reared in the training and instruction of the Lord like Timothy desires to enter Christ, his case is divine inspiration to guide him. The little girl’s wish to be baptized because Jesus wanted her to be, is as much the direction of the Spirit of God as for the murderers of the Lord to ‘be baptized into the remission of sins.’ Those desirous to learn and do the will of God while children cannot be oppressed with a heavy weight of guilt, but find direction into the body of Christ, where all evils are banished and all blessings abound. Were one as faithful as the Son of God to be found, it would only be necessary that he be baptized to fulfill the will of God. [David Lipscomb, "A  Summary. No. 2," Gospel Advocate 56 (1 January 1914), 11.]

I think Lipscomb offers some godly advice for parents, ministers, and youth leaders.


Nashville Tension — 1892 General Christian Missionary Convention

May 20, 2014

The Nashville Tennessean, in an article entitled “ALL DELIGHTED,” described the proceedings of the General Christian Missionary Convention’s 1892 annual meeting (October 21, 1892, p. 8). This was a highwater mark in the tension within the Stone-Campbell Movement (or, American Restoration Movement). The missionary societies held their convention in the capital of its opposition. There were three:  the domestic (American Christian Missionary Society), the foreign (Foreign Christian Missionary Society), and the Christian Women’s Board of Mission.  David Lipscomb and others considered this an affront to the good feelings of members who sincerely opposed the society on biblical grounds. The Convention appeared in the Gospel Advocate‘s backyard!

The Convention

The Convention was held at the Vine Street Christian Church, and “Rev. G. A. Lofton, the pastor of the Central Baptist Church” gave the Convention a “hearty greeting.” The attendees heard reports of mission work from around the world, including India, China (Edward F. Williams), Australia, England, and Japan (particularly C. E. Garst) among other nations.  Some of those who spoke included women as, for example, “Miss Judson, of Dunburg, Conn., a voluntary missionary to India.” “Miss Minnie Henley, of England,” was “preparing for missionary work in Africa” as a medical doctor and spoke to the convention about her plans. The meeting’s worship times included a solo by “Miss Kate Gillespie, of Nashville,” and Mrs. Garst sang a solo in Japanese as well. And The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement also had a prominent role in the meeting; their work was described as “working for purity everywhere, and for constitutional prohibition. Their purpose was to protect the home.”

The membership of the Convention counted twenty-eight states and five countries among its ranks. The Presidents of Drake and Bethany Colleges were present and addressed the assembly.

The Convention in 1892, through the arm of the Foreign Christian Missionary Society, supported “104 missionaries–33 males, 23 females and 48 native helpers,” including China, India, Japan, Turkey, Scandinavia, and England.  And Miss Bonner, of Fayetteville, met with potential supporters from Tennessee after the close of the meeting to garner support for her Paris (France) mission. The Convention inspired her commitment.

On the closing night, C. C. Loos, the president of the Convention, remarked that this was the largest attendance in the Convention’s history and that Nashville had received them cordially and enthusiastically. There were full houses at practically every session. “What a grand brotherhood there was at Nashville!” The paper reported that the convention had been “remarkably quiet,” and that it “had made a profound impression on the city and the people for the missionary cause.”

The Loyal Opposition

However, not everyone in Nashville was happy. Indeed, the Convention–in many ways–was the last straw for David Lipscomb and others. They thought it was intrusive and simply unchristian manners to bring the convention to Nashville.  Moreover, the many ways in which women participated in the convention and their prominent role in the missionary work disturbed the hearts of Nashville’s conservatives. The way women were highlighted and promoted was a turning point for many.

They did not remain silent. Several leaders prepared a statement for the Convention, which was “introduced by C. M. Wilmeth.”  Here is the text of the statement:

“To the General Christian Missionary Convention, Assembled in Nashville, Tenn.

Dear Brethren in Christ:

Inasmuch as your body is now in session in this city purports to represent the churches of Christ, untrammeled by creeds, and there is a conspicuous absence of many myriads of brethren whose sentiments are voiced in such periodicals as the Gospel Advocate, Christian Leader, Octographic Review, Firm Foundation, Christian Messenger, Christian Preacher, Primitive Christian and Gospel Echo; and,

Inasmuch as your [sic] assembled in the State of Tennessee, which contains about 40,000 Christians who profess to practice the primitive order of things, and perhaps not more than 1,000 of these thoroughly sympathize with your organization; and,

Inasmuch as arguments and appeals have been made on the floor of your convention to win these brethren over to your ways, we respectfully submit to your august body this memorial.

1. That we, believe as we do, that all should be one in Christ, of the same mind and of the same judgment, speaking the same things and endeavoring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, cannot countenance the corruption of the pure speech of the Bible, and do deeply deplore the grievously divided state of the church; whereby brethren are embittered against each other, congregations are torn asunder and sections are arrayed one against another.

2. That, believing as we do, that whatsoever is not of faith is sin, we cannot conscientiously co-operate in the organization or workings of any missionary society, home or foreign, with officers unknown to the New Testament and terms of membership at variance with the spirit and genius of the Gospel, it being our firm and abiding conviction that in building up such societies we are pulling down that which our fathers labored to build up and are sapping the strength of the church for which Christ died.

3. That, believing as we do, that the scriptures furnish us unto all good works, and that preaching the gospel stands pre-eminent as a good work, we bodily affirm and earnestly contend that the Bible contains a divine system of evangelism, powerful enough to shake the Roman Empire in its day and perfect enough to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth; and we modestly submit that, putting this faith into practice; we have demonstrated in our [sic] this divine plan is effectual, in that without other organization the primitive gospel has been planted in this region, a mission among the Indians has been sustained for many years, a mission in Turkey has been established and the Volunteer Band in Japan supported.

4.  That we, in consideration of the aforesaid truth and facts, come before you with brotherly love and beseech you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you abandon these organizatoins that found no necessity or recognition in apostolic times, and that you concentrate your zeal and energies in the churches of God, under the direction of their heaven-appointed officers, which we all admit to be common and scriptural ground, thereby removing a cause of wide spread division and bringing about that union and co-0peration in which there is strength and which will enable us to make more rapid conquest of the earth for Christ, and to this end we present this memorial and for this consummation devoutly to be wished shall we ever pray.

C. M. Wilmeth
David Lipscomb
E. G. Sewell,
J. A. Harding,
M. C. Kurfees,
and others

 Comments on the Above

This statement by the “loyal opposition” represents a unifying force within what became known as the “Churches of Christ.” This united the Texas  (Firm Foundation), Indiana  (Octographic Review), and Tennessee Traditions (Gospel Advocate). The opposition to the missionary society staked out an identity for Churches of Christ.

They opposed the missionary society on several grounds.  Hermeneutically, there was no support for the human institution within the apostolic record.  Theologically, the society supplanted the local congregation as the highest organization of Christ’s body, which was charged with God’s mission. Practically, it was unnecessary (evangelism and missions happen without it through churches) and misdirects the energies of the body of Christ (supporting the society rather than focusing on the mission).

The appeal for unity is rooted in both the biblical text and in the common ground between the two parties in practically the same way that Alexander Campbell argued for unity through immersion. The common ground is that everyone agrees that mission through the local congregation is biblical (just as all agree immersion is baptism); so the church should do and unite upon what they all agree is biblical. If one loved unity and Scripture is sufficient, why not simply divest ourselves of all questionable practices and unite upon what everyone agrees is biblical?

Conclusion

Alas, rather than unity and mission, the 1892 Nashville Convention marked the beginnings of a clear organizational, ecclesiological, and theological divide between the “Christian Church” (ultimately Disciples of Christ) and the “Churches of Christ.”

This became apparent in Nashville itself. While previously congregations in Nashville were known as the “Christian Church,” by the late 1880s and 1890s congregations were increasingly distinguished as “Christian Church” and “Church of Christ.”  In 1887, according to the Daily American [April 10, 1887, p. 9), there were five congregations, each named "Christian Church" in Nashville (Church Street [800 members], Woodland [250], North Edgefield [150], North Nashville [250], and Gay Street [African American, 850]). Soon, however, the name “Church of Christ” began to appear with regularity as new congregations were planted. [The South College Street Church, planted in 1888, was the mother church for 35 other congregations in Nashville through the use of tent meetings during the first 20 years of its existence. See David Lipscomb, "South Nashville Church of Christ," The Nashville American (January 17, 1906), p. 8.]

The distinction is apparent in this blurb in Daily American (Oct 2, 1892, p. 6) regarding the Green Street church which was a church plant of the South Nashville Church:

The non-Christian Church on Green street is nearing completion. It is located on the lot that was used by Elder John T. Poe recently with the tent meeting. When completed it will be used by the Filmore-street congregation and be known as the Green-street Church of Christ.

Thus the distinction between the Christian Church and the Church of Christ appears in Nashville.


Joel 3:1-17 — The Nations Held Accountable

May 16, 2014

In the first half, Joel called Israel to lament and repentance, to fasting and assembly (Joel 1:1-2:17). In the second half, Joel assures Israel that their gracious and compassionate God will “restore their fortunes.”

Yahweh promised a new creation where even the soil and animals as well as the people will rejoice (Joel 2:18-27). Yahweh promised to saturate “all flesh” with the Spirit (Joel 2:28-32). And in this section, Yahweh promises to hold the nations accountable for how they have treated Israel (Joel 3:1-17).

“In those days and at that time” is how the text continues the story of God’s renewal. The judgment of the nations–the judgment of evil itself (Joel 3:13)–is part of that future which renews creation and saturates “all flesh” with the Spirit. The timing, then, is dependent upon how the previous texts are interpreted.  I have suggested that they have both historical and an eschatological or apocalyptic meaning. In other words, while the text addresses the situation of the original audience, it also envisions a future reality. It addresses the nations that surround Judah, but it also anticipates (even promises) a day when all the nations will be judged in the context of a new heaven and a new earth (something analogous to Revelation 20:11-21:5).

Consequently, Joel addresses Tyre, Sidon and Philistia, and alludes to Egypt and Edom, but ultimately “all nations” are in view, including present ones. God will hold all nations accountable; Yahweh will put every one of them on trial and render a verdict. In essence, then, Joel assures his audience that God has noticed how the nations have treated Israel and that God will act in judgment against them, and this assurance also carries an eschatological assurance that one day–in the coming days or the last days–God will “restore the fortunes” of Israel.

To “restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem” (3:1) is to end the exile. The phrase literally means “return the captivity.” Exact dating is unavailable for Joel. This potentially could be the end of the Assyrian or Babylonian exiles, but the names of those peoples are absent from Joel’s account. Most likely, Joel’s work appears in the post-exilic period (after the return from Babylonian exile), but the people of Israel are still awaiting the end of the exile.

They were still waiting under Roman oppression when John the Baptist appeared to announce a new Exodus (quoting Isaiah 4o), and Jesus suffered as the Servant who was wounded for the sake of Israel (Isaiah 53), and God put out the Spirit upon a restored (renewed) Israel (Acts 2:17-21, quoting Joel 2:28-32). The appearance of Jesus the Messiah was the beginning of the end to Israel’s exile, and the appearance of the new heaven and new earth will end the cosmic exile that reaches back to when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden.

The Lawsuit (3:1-8)

As Dillard’s commentary on Joel recognizes (Minor Prophets [Baker]), this lawsuit proceeds according to form:

  • the accused are summoned (3:1-2a)
  • the accusations are read (3:2b-3)
  • the accused are interrogated (3:4a-b)
  • the verdict is announced (3:4c-8)

Yahweh gathers “all the nations” to the “Valley of Jehoshaphat.” While moderns sometimes refer to the Kidron Valley (what lies between the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives) as the “Valley of Jehoshaphat,” there is no ancient identification of this valley. This is an unknown geographical reference, and perhaps we are not supposed to think geographically but metaphorically.  “Jehoshaphat” means “Yahweh  judges.” Yahweh brings the nations to a “valley of decision” (Joel 3:14) for “judgment” (from the verb shaphat). God has summoned the accused to hear a divine verdict.

The nations are summoned because they (1) scattered Israel among themselves (the diaspora), (2) divided the land God had given Israel among themselves (annexed to their own nations), and (3) sold the people into slavery for the sake of their own immoral pursuits (prostitutes and drunkenness). The nations are judged for what they have done to Israel, and in this judgment their unjust acts also judge how they have treated others as well.  When the nations scatter people (including refugees), annex land that does not belong to them (whether by fiat or violence), or empower the slave trade (including sex-trafficking), God holds nations accountable.

As an example–or, better, as a metaphor for all nations, Yahweh interrogates Tyre & Sidon as well as Philistia. These are historic, traditional enemies of Israel on their northwestern and southwestern borders. They have troubled Israel from the beginning to the time of Joel (presumably, post-exilic era; cf. Zechariah 9:1-8). The Phoenicians, particularly, were known for their slave-trading (Amos 1:6-9; Ezekiel 27:13). But who are they to Yahweh? They are not Yahweh’s heritage. Why, then, do they presume to act against Yahweh’s people so arrogantly and without fear?

Because of their injustices, God will turn their deeds back on them. As they enslaved Israel, so God will enslave them. Indeed, when Alexander the Great destroyed Tyre in 332 BCE, he enslaved 30,000 people, and the same happened to those living near Gaza (Philistia) at the time. In other words, God executes a lex talonis, that is, God does to them what they did to others. This is the verdict that God announces to the nations. This is divine justice–it permits evil to sow its own seeds of destruction.

The nations pursued violence and greed (silver, gold, and treasures), and enslaved the people of God. Yahweh, however, will not let such enslavement stand. The one who liberated Israel from Egypt will also liberate them from their forced exile.

The Oracle (3:9-17)

The prophet, given the dynamics of a trial, speaks for the court. Joel calls the opposing parties to battle.

To the Nations:  “Stir up the warriors!” (Joel 3:9)

To Yahweh:  “Bring down your warriors, O Lord!” (Joel 3:11)

The prophet summons each to battle (Joel 3:9-11). In one sense Yahweh gathers the nations (3:2), but in another sense they arouse themselves for battle (3:11). The nations will enlist everyone–even the weak must become warriors. Farmers must become warriors–using the language that reverses great prophetic texts that proclaim peace; they will turn their farming implements into weapons instead of the reverse (cf. Micah 4; Isaiah 2). This is a full scale effort–everyone, all the nations against Yahweh’s host.

And then Yahweh speaks (Joel 3:12-17). This section of the oracle begins and ends with the voice of Yahweh (note the first person singular).

The nations will stir–they will gather for battle, but there is no battle. It is a harvest of judgment as Yahweh “sit[s] to judge all the neighboring nations.” This is a courtroom scene rather than a battlefield. The valley is not a piece of geography, but the place where God decides the fate of the nations.

God’s judgment is uncreation–it is the reversal of creation itself. The nations may gather, but the ice will crack beneath their feet. The sun is darkened and the stars no longer give their light. The “heavens and the earth” (a la Genesis 1:1) shake! The creation convulses as the the nations fall before the voice of the Lord. This is apocalyptic language to describe the ultimate shaking of the nations on the day of Yahweh.

While the nations crumble, Zion and Jerusalem are a refuge for the people of Israel because it God’s home, God’s dwelling place. God dwells within Israel. The promise of the Exodus–that God would dwell with Israel–is fully realized when God dwells on the holy hill of Zion in Jerusalem and “strangers shall never again pass through it.”

“Never again”–similar to the promises in Joel 2:26-27–lingers in the ears of Israel. “Never again” is eschatological language among the prophets. It is the language of the new heavens and new earth in Isaiah 65:  “no more”…not again…will Israel hear the sound of weeping, or an infant live but a few days.

When that day comes–when the nations are judged, creation renewed, and the Spirit is fully poured out on God’s people–we will “know” that the Lord our God dwells among us.

In the new Jerusalem upon the new heavens and new earth, God will dwell with humanity. There will be no night there–nothing will be darkened.  There will be no chaos, no death. And there will be no temple since God and the Lamb will make their home in that new city.

 


David Lipscomb: A Sermon at the Penitentiary (1900)

May 14, 2014

This sermon by David Lipscomb appeared in The Nashville American (February 21, 1900, p. 5). I thought it was interesting to read what Lipscomb said to those incarcerated at the “State Prison.”

I thought the reference to “character” rather than status, place or position was a veiled reference to looking at the heart of a person (or as MLK put it “the content of their character”) rather than the color of their skin.

Lipscomb is also interested in obedience as it leads to transformation. We love God through obedience so that we might experience gradual transformation, and this includes the ordinances, of which assembling on the Lord’s Day is one. All of God’s commandments (ordinances, ways) are designed to transform us into the image of Christ.

Character makes a difference in life, and a transformed character is the goal of the Christian “religion,” which “rebinds” (restores) us to God.

Here is the text in full.

What the Lord Requires of Israel.

Sermon by Elder David Lipscomb at the State Prison.

The following sermon was preached Sunday by Elder David Lipscomb at the State penitentiary:

He read Deut. x., 12-13: “and now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all they heart and with all they soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord, and his statues which I commend thee this day for thy good.”

The speaker, said in part, that God through Moses spoke this to the Israelites, but that the principles upon which God deals with man are always the same. He is spoken of in this connection as the Lord God who is the God of Gods and Lord of Lords, a great God, a might and terrible God, who regardeth not person nor taketh reward.

He spoke of how difficult it was for men to treat impartially their fellow-man without regard to place or position, and not solely in respect to their characters. But this was characteristic of God, who regards not the persons of men whether they be in high or low stations, but as they are in their characters before him, whose judgment is righteous and impartial. He said the Christian religion was designed by its divine Author to lift mankind from sin and shame to the attainment and cultivation of the Christian character.

The speaker said, being once interrogated as to what is religion, at the time he was puzzled to give a satisfactory answer to his querist or even to himself. The world religion means a rebinding. As applied to Christianity it means to rebind man to his Maker, from whom he had been separated by disobedience. Man could only be rebound to God by returning in obedience to God, retracing, as it were, the steps which had separated him from God. This could be effected through Christ, whom God had sent into the world for this purpose. He only could restore man to union and harmony with God. We were taught in this text to “fear God,” but this fear meant not to dread God in terror and alarm, but to reverently regard his holy name, his word and his ordinances.

The speaker alluded to a common popular error which taught that every man should walk in his own ways, but that God commanded man to walk in God’s ways, and in all of them, not to add to nor diminish aught from them. He said to select such ways of God as pleased us and reject those which did not suit us was not to obey God at all. To do only what pleased us and reject other commandments of God was but to walk in our own way and not God’s. It was a fatal error. God often gave tests of faith by requiring us to do things not agreeable to us. This was well illustrated in the case of Abraham who was commanded to offer up Isaac, his only child of promise. God might have foreknown that Isaac would be spared, but Abraham did not. His faith was increased by this test. So every test of our faith should result in our good, to give us stronger faith.

This text also teaches us to love God. God said to the Jews that he loved even strangers. He would do them good. Love was intensely practical. God’s love is manifested in what god does. So our love for God must be manifested in obeying the commandments of God in what we do.

The speaker said all our love, fear and service of God was not to benefit God, but as taught in this connection was “for thy good.” God was omnipotent and needed not this help of man, as many vainly suppose.

He said to shirk or doge a duty to God did not cheat God, but him who avoided the duty, and it would soon be manifest by an incompetency that would put one to shame. The pupil who dodged his lessons at school did not cheat the teacher, but himself. Some church members chose the Lord’s day to visit the sick instead of going to the assembly as God required. They could visit the sick at other times. They, too, cheated themselves and not God.

It was the design of all our worship and service of God to make us more and more like God in spirit and character. In proof of this the speaker read and explained II Corinthians iii.18, in which it is said, “We all with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the spirit of the Lord.” This image was spiritual. It was of gradual formation. It was the result of a constant adoration and worship of God as seen in the life and character of Jesus Christ. This growth of the inner or spiritual man to the image of Christ, though certain and sure, we were yet unconscious of it at any particular time. This was illustrated by the youth who, however anxious to grow to manhood, was never able to see the growth of one day. Measurements at longer intervals would clearly indicate growth. It was so in the Christian life.

This image was never perfected while in the flesh. Although the flesh became weaker day by day and the inward man stronger day by day, it was yet impossible for the weak eyes of mortality to behold Christ in his glorious perfections. Now, we could only see him, as it were, in a glass, in mere outline. A perfect vision of Christ to the eyes of flesh would be too blinding, as the disciples experienced on the Mount of Transfiguration or Saul saw on the road near Damascus. But we shall be strengthened to behold him in his glory. We are “now” the sons of God, but it doth not yet appear what we shall be.

The afflictions of life are the chatisements of a kind Father who feels more than his children the strokes of correction. The afflictions of life are brief and light, however severe in themselves, in comparison with the glory which shall be revealed in us. He will change this vile body and fashion it like unto his glorious body.

The gospel of the Son of God, by its transforming grace, can make the lowest and most degraded of earth to be the peer of the brightest angel that vies around the throne of God.

All were urged to make an earnest effort for a higher and nobler life.


David Lipscomb: South Nashville Churches of Christ (1906)

May 10, 2014

While doing some research in Nashville newspapers, I encountered this piece by David Lipscomb:  “South Nashville Church of Christ,” Daily American (January 17, 1906), p. 8.

I thought it was interesting for several reasons.

1.  It illustrates that Lipscomb thought church planting was the way to grow the kingdom.

2. It illustrates the use of tent meetings in the planting of churches, and how other churches supported the planting of those communities.

3. It illustrates the use of “lay” (my term) preachers, that is, bi-vocational ministers, in the growth and maturing of congregations.

4. It illustrates why Nashville has so many Churches of Christ. Lipscomb promoted the planting of many small congregations who managed their own affairs (did their own teaching, missions, evangelism, etc.) rather than consolidating into large congregations. Small but many was better than few but large, according to Lipscomb.

Here is the piece in full:

“South Nashville Church of Christ

BY ELDER DAVID LIPSCOMB

To the Editor of the American:

An item in The American, Monday morning, concerning the South Nashville Church of Christ and its work, is so full of mistakes that it is easier to write a new account than to correct it.

The South  College-street Church was first organized in its present house of worship eighteen years ago. After a few years of successful work, the Green Street, the Carroll Street, and the Flat Rock churches were begun by a number withdrawing from this church to do so. The old Bible School  Church, Highland avenue and West Nashville churches were formed largely by members from this church.

Since the formation of the church eighteen years ago nine or ten preachers have been developed in the church. Tents have been greatly used by the congregation in its work in reaching the non-church going and the people generally. A tent is sent, with a preacher, to hold a meeting, receive what contributions are offered, without asking any, report to the church, and what is lacking in these contributions to sustain the work is supplemented by the churches engaged in the work. Oftentimes the sending of the preacher and tent a few times will arouse such an interest in the place or in some neighboring church that they will support the meeting without cost to those sending, except for the use of the tent. Yet, if the tent had not been sent it is most probable nothing would have been done.

The first tent meeting was held in South Nashville by J. A. Haring, principal of Potter Bible College, of Bowling Green, Ky. He also held very successful meetings in East Nashville, out of which grew largely Foster-street Church.

For  four or five years past the South College-street Church, the old Bible School, the Tenth, West Nashville and Green-street churches have kept two or three tents at work. One has been kept almost constantly at work in and around Nashville. A church has been established on the Dickerson pike, and one at the New Shops within the last year. Churches have been established by the use of these tents at Monterey, Baxter, Erin, Dayton, Graysville, with others in Rutherford, Cannon, Warren and Montgomery counties, Tennessee; Trion and Atlanta, Ga.; Huntsville and Wilsonville, Ala.

Counting the churches formed out of the South Nashville Church, we count thirty-five congregations planted by this work, two of which have dissolved and united with other contiguous churches. There are eight or ten other mission points that promise churches at an early day. During the past summer over 500 persons were baptized through this work. During the last few years as many as 2,000 have been baptized.

Elder E. A. Moore, of South Nashville, has looked after the collecting and disbursing of funds. S. W. Morrow, of the old Bible School Church, has largely done the purchasing and managing of the tents. A number of churches established by the tent work have purchased tents, and become centers of operation for doing similar work around them. Dayton, East Tenn., and Trion, Ga., are examples of this. Other churches in West Tennessee, Arkansas, Canada and California have been moved by the example of this work to do likewise. Much of this work has been done by working men, who have, by conducting the worship, looking after the affairs of the church and studying the Bible, become good, efficient teachers of the word, while following their ordinary avocations for a living. They can more effectively reach their fellow-workmen than can those who rely on preaching as a  means of support. When a preacher can say to his congregation: “I know you are all tired with your day’s work, as I am and I will try to not weary you,” he touches a chord of sympathy in that audience that is worth more than learning, to lead them to good.

With the hours of labor per day the earnest working man can find time for study, and preparation, that will enable him to appear with credit before any audience. There are a number of such preachers in Nashville. It has not been the policy of the South College-street Church to encourage the collecting of a large membership in one body. This with a fine house may flatter the preacher and attract numbers, but to scatter the large congregations into a number of worshipping bodies and leave them greatly to depend on themselves, will call out the activities, develop the talent, give practical experience to the religious lives of the masses of the people, and give the most reliable class of religious people to be found in any community.


Joel 2:28-32 — I Will Pour Out My Spirit On All Flesh

May 7, 2014

Joel’s lament liturgy in the first half of the book envisioned the devastation of Israel by a locust plague (or perhaps an invading army). That impending disaster also represented a future apocalyptic disaster. Joel is working at two levels–the immediate moment but also a future cataclysm.

Israel’s response to such news, as with all other human beings, is to lament. The prophet calls them to assemble, repent, and pray. They cry out to the Lord because they know Yahweh is gracious and compassionate. Yahweh will save those who call on the name of the Lord.

In the second half of Joel, Yahweh responds to the prayers of the people. Yahweh promises a fruitful land (Joel 2:18-27), a new Spirit (Joel 2:28-32), and a judgment of hostile forces (3:1-19). The promised land includes not only a renewal of Israel’s Edenic life in the land (a restoration of Israel) but also a new creation itself (a renewal of Eden).  That same dual aspect is present also in the promise of a new Spirit.

Poured Out Spirit

Concomitant with the renewal of the land is the pouring out of the Spirit. While the language is sequential, they are nevertheless tied together. God’s new creation is saturated with the Spirit. The restoration of Israel–when it is fully restored–will include the presence of God’s Spirit among the people.

The significance of this text is difficult to overestimate. It stands in stark contrast with Numbers 11 where in the face of tremendous burdens God helps Moses by equipping seventy elders (“old men”) with the Spirit. Though Joshua is puzzled by this, Moses hopes that a time would come when “all” Yahweh’s “people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29). This is that moment! Joel envisions a time when God will answer Moses’s prayer.

Numbers 11:24-25

Joel 2:28-29

Seventy

All

Prophesy

Prophesy

Men

Men and Women

Old

Old and Young

Free

Free and Slave

The Spirit of God will rest upon “all flesh,” and so fully led by the Spirit that everyone will “dream dreams,” “see visions,” and “prophesy.” This language means that everyone will experience God’s life as they all see the world through God’s vision. The Spirit–poured out on “all flesh–will saturate the community of God, and the Spirit will give life, power, and vision to “all flesh.”

This is a radical vision. Israel’s life was hierarchical (elders) and patriarchal (males) though there were notable “exceptions” (e.g., Deborah, Miriam, and Huldah). Older free males stood at the top of the social structure, but this vision levels the playing field in a significant way:  all, old/young, male/female, and free/slave. The young, enslaved, and female will now also fully experience the Spirit. God will live in and through “all” rather than only through seventy older free males.

Apocalyptic Vision

When would this happen? When would God pour out the Spirit upon all flesh?

The text locates this outpouring “after” the emergence of Edenic Israel in Joel 2:18-27, that is, after the restoration of Israel. Within the context of Joel this is difficult to identify with any historical specificity.

If we regard Joel as a liturgical lament, then the divine response of (1) renewed land, (2) renewed [Spirit-led] people, and (3) divine judgment is something happens after Israel’s repentance (their calling on the Lord). It is a general liturgical form, but it also has an apocalyptic meaning and intent.

Apocalyptic language appears in Joel 2:30-31. This describes a cosmic shake-up. It is the appearance of the “great and terrible day of the Lord.” God, in effect, uncreates! In other words, what Joel describes is a disturbance that resembles the undoing of creation itself. The sun, for example, turns into the darkness. The creation (heavens and earth) revert back to chaos. Darkness, fire, and blood fill the creation rather than light and life.

In that great cataclysmic moment God will pour out the Spirit upon all flesh, and those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. A remnant will survive the uncreation.

But what exactly are we talking about?

The Spirit and the Church

Luke narrates the story of Jesus and the church in such a way that the appearance of Jesus is the end of the exile and the restoration of Israel. Indeed, the out-pouring of the Spirit in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost (the presentation of the firstfruits of the harvest) is the beginning of the restoration of Israel.

Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32a in Acts 2:17-21, and identifies the events of that day as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. “This is that,” Peter says.

Exalted at the right hand of the Father, the resurrected Messiah received the promised Spirit from the Father and the Messiah poured out the Spirit upon restored Israel, which begins with the one hundred and twenty gathered in Jerusalem in Acts 1. The Spirit saturates and renews Israel. And this is only the beginning.

Luke tells the story of how renewed Israel expanded to include the Gentiles (“all flesh”) and how women prophesied in this new community (Philip’s daughters in Acts 21:9). The Book of Acts is not so much the “acts of the apostles” as it is the “acts of the Holy Spirit” who leads and guides the church in its mission as a witness among the nations and the full inclusion of women within the community. The inclusion of women is present among the one hundred and twenty in Acts 1:14, and their presence in the community is consistently highlighted in Acts (5:14; 8:3, 12; 9:2, 36-39; 16:13; 17:4, 12). In the light of this emphasis, Luke’s seeming aside about Philip’s daughters (prophetesses) is particularly significant. Joel’s prophecy is progressively realized within the church.

Paul quotes Joel 2:32a in support of the inclusion of the Gentiles. “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek,” Paul writes, because “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:12-13).

Moreover, Paul’s inclusion of women in Galatians 3:28 also seems to echo Joel 2:28-29. The children of God include Jews and Gentiles, males and females, and slave and free. They are all heirs of Abraham, heirs of the new creation. They are, as the renewed Israel of God, the new creation (Galatians 6:15-16).

Galatians 3:26-28

Joel 2:28-29

Jew/Greek

All Flesh

Male/Female as Children of God

Sons/Daughters

Free/Slave

Free/Slave

These children of Abraham are the people into whose hearts God has sent the Spirit (Galatians 4:6). They have received the promised Spirit. Whether Jew or Greek, male or female, free or slave, this new creation is indwelt by and saturated with God’s Spirit.  The effect is that some are gifted with prophecy, including both men and women, Jew and Greek, and slave and free.

The heart of Joel’s vision of restored Israel is that God’s Spirit will empower women as well as men, slaves as well as the free, the young as well as the old, to prophesy. The community, in terms of its prophetic leadership and inSpirited experience, will “no longer” (to use Paul’s phrase in Galatians 3:28) be male, free, and Jewish. Rather, female prophets as well as enslaved and youthful ones will lead the people of God through their prophetic work.

Joel’s vision, as applied by Peter and echoed by Paul, still speaks to the church, and calls the church to lean ever more heavily into the new creation that the Spirit is working among us.

New Creation and the Spirit of God

But there is more. Joel’s vision is not limited to the story of the church working its way through history as new creation emerges within God’s ongoing story with creation. Rather, it speaks to the fuller reality that is yet to appear–the creation of the new heavens and the new earth itself.

Just as Joel 2:18-27 anticipates a renewed Eden upon a new heaven and new earth (a new creation), so Joel 2:28-32 anticipates a pneumatic (Spiritual) existence.

A Spiritual (pneumatic) existence? Yes, but let me explain.

At present the people of God are indwelt by the Spirit of God who is busily transforming us into the image of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18; 1 Corinthians 3:16-18; 6:18-20). In this sense we are already pneumatic (Spiritual) people, that is, we are people whose inner life is animated and renewed by the Spirit of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:12-3:1; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18) even though our outer life–our physical bodies–are decaying day by day.

Pneumatic existence, however, is not simply for the soul. God intends it for our bodies as well. Consequently, the Spirit who now indwells us will also raise our mortal bodies from the grave and give them immortal life (cf. Romans 8:11,23). Paul describes the resurrection body as a “spiritual” (pneumatic) body. It is a body animated and empowered by the Holy Spirit; it is immortal life in an immortal body (1 Corinthians 15:42-57).

The final act of new creation–when new creation fully emerges as God renews heaven and earth–is the resurrection of our bodies, and we will live a pneumatic existence in a new heaven and new earth. When the Spirit is fully poured out, our inner and outer lives will be fully conformed to the inner and outer life of Jesus the Messiah, our resurrected Lord.  Our souls will be perfected by the Spirit so that we are conformed to the image of the Son, and our bodies will be conformed to the image of the Son’s resurrected body. We will be like the resurrected Messiah–fully led, empowered and animated by the Spirit of God.

Come, Lord Jesus!

 

 


Two Chapel Speeches on Lament

April 28, 2014

Below are links to two chapel speeches this year—my only chapel speeches this academic year.

The first was delivered to the whole Lipscomb student body after the loss of Isaac Philips who was found dead in his dorm room in late September 2013. You may view the chapel speech at this link.

The second was delivered at the Abilene Graduate School of Theology chapel on Ash Wednesday (March 5, 2014). You may view that speech here.

Both are focused on lament. The former laments death, and the later laments injustice based on Joel 2:1-17.

 


Joel 2:18-27 — The Promise of New Creation

April 23, 2014

Joel’s propehtic liturgy previously announced the coming of the great “day of the Lord,” which functions at multiple levels. On the one hand, it envisions any impending disaster that is coming upon Israel–whether it is a locust plague, an invading army, or some other communal crisis. On the other hand, it describes an apocalyptic event that will transform human and planetary existence. I think we must read Joel at both levels–the liturgy responds to present crises but also anticipates a future “day of the Lord.”

Joel 1:2-2:11 described a national disaster that prefigured the “day of the Lord.” In the light of such impending doom, Joel implored Israel to return by assembling for a communal fast and prayer (Joel 2:12-17). This is the turning point in Joel’s iturgy. The second half of Joel turns to thanksgiving for and the joyful anticipation of the future. The prophet sees new creation (2:18-27), spiritual renewal (2:28-32), and the defeat of all hostile powers (3:1-21) in Israel’s future.

Just like the “day of the Lord,” these promises function at two levels. They are present realities in the life of Israel that anticipate a future. However or whenever Israel experienced these promises in their history, they also yearned for the day of their full realization. Their present experience of renewal promised a fuller (even eschatological) future. In this sense, Joel’s language is both historical and apocalyptic; it addresses the present and the future.

The liturgy of lament, then, moves to a liturgy of thanksgiving, and the thanksgiving is rooted in God’s promises, that is, what God will do (Joel 2:18-27). The thanksgiving (2:21-24) is the centerpiece of the liturgy, but it is surrounded by a word of grace about God’s gracious and wondrous mighty acts.

A.  The Lord Removes the Dangers (2:18-20)
B.  The Land, Animals and People Rejoice (2:21-24)
A.  The Lord Supplies Israel (21:25-27).

Yahweh’s first concern is Israel’s life in the land or, more broadly, human existence on the earth.  God is “jealous,” and consequently “compassionate,” for the land and its people. Both the land and people belong to God; they are God’s own possession. God acts out of deep emotion for the sake of the land and the people.

Yahweh’s mercy yields a crop in the land (“grain, wine, and oil”) and removes the shame of the people. God drives the invading army into the sea and wasteland, and the stench of the dead locusts reminds Israel that God has delivered them from the disaster.

In other words, God renews the land and brings it peace. God renews Eden in Israel. What was once a “Garden of Eden” (2:3) has become so again. God renews the promise of creation itself, as well as the promise to Israel, that humanity would dwell with God in the land and thrive in harmony with creation. This renewed promise means that all creation celebrates with thanksgiving.

Consequently, God addresses the

soil (2:21)
animals (2:22)
children of Zion (2:23-24)

Fear has disappeared and joy has emerged within the renewed creation. “Do not fear, O soil…you animals of the field.” The soil and animals will “be glad and rejoice”  because the soil will no longer thirst and the animals will no longer starve. God ends the drought. As a result, the trees bear fruit, the vines and figs “give their full yield,” and grain, wine, and oil are abundant. Creation itself, as well as Israel, will rejoice in God’s renewal.

In effect, God renews covenant with both creation and Israel by sending the early and latter rains “as before.” The autumn (early) rains prepare the ground for planting, and the spring (latter) rains enable a rich harvest (cf. Deuteronomy 11:14; Jeremiah 5:24; James 5:7). This was the planting cycle of the land of Canaan, which is still the case today. God covenanted with Israel that the rains would come in their Eden as long as they loved their God, but should they love other gods, Yahweh would shut off the rain (Deuteronomy 11:17; 28:12, 24). The seasonal rains give life to the land, food for the animals, and prosperity to Israel.

This renewal, Yahweh promises, will bring peace to Israel. The verb, translated “repay” by the NRSV, is the verb form of the noun shalom. As in Eden, God will bring peace to the land; God will “restore” (ESV) the years of plenty that were lost in the locust years, the days of the invading army. God will make the land whole once again.

Israel, at peace in a restored Eden, will “eat in plenty and be satisfied,” and “praise the name of the Lord your God” because of what God has done. They will know (Joel 2:27):

that I am in the midst of Israel (divine presence),
and that I am the Lord your God (covenantal relationship)
and there is none else (monotheism).

This knowledge is no mere cognition; it is intimacy. God’s presence within Israel is like God’s presence in Eden, which is God’s presence in the Temple in the midst of Israel. This presence is covenantal, that is, Israel lives in relationship with God. Yahweh is their God and they are Yahweh’s people.  But this is not one God among others. Rather, there is no other God. Yahweh alone is God. This is the heart of Israel’s faith: Yahweh, their God and the only God, dwelling in their midst. Israel is a new Eden, and God lives and walks among them.

The result is that “my people shall never again be put to shame”–and this line is repeated twice in Joel 2:26-27.

But when did that happen? Has it happened yet? It might be hyperbole, but it also might be a kind of already/not yet reality.  Israel has experienced moments of renewal, but they still await the fullness of the promise. There will come a time when Israel will “never again be put to shame,” and this is the hope of God’s people.

A day will come when Israel will live unashamed within the creation, just as Adam and Eve lived in the garden. It is a day when creation itself will rejoice and be freed from the fear of drought and starvation. It is a day when God will dwell in the midst of Israel as God makes a home within the creation. That day is the day when heaven and earth itself will made new, and God and the Lamb will make their home in the new Jerusalem.


Yet Will I Trust Him: Trusting God in the Storms of Life

April 19, 2014

The College Hills Church of Christ in Lebanon, TN, invited me to teach a class on “Yet Will I Trust Him: Trusting God in the Storms of Life” throughout January and February 2014.  It was a good experience for me, though whether it was for everyone else is something I cannot judge. I am grateful for the opportunity.

However, you can judge for yourself.  They have made the videos available on YouTube. The study focused on “five anchors for the soul” which give stability to faith during the storms of life.

1.  Introduction

2.  God loves us and unrelentingly pursues us.

3.  God listens to our laments and invites us to voice them.

4.  God empathizes with our weaknesses and suffering.

5.  God rules over our suffering and gives it meaning.

6.  God wins and empowers hope in the present.

7.  How do we comfort sufferers?

 


Joel 2:12-17 — Assemble and Pray

April 17, 2014

Sometimes assembly is more important than a wedding night.

That doesn’t sound right, does it? But it is the message of Joel 2:12-17. The impending disaster, the day of the Lord, created an urgency within Israel that prioritized the gathering of God’s people over wedding celebrations. A penitent people, according to Joel, should assemble to pray for Yahweh’s mercy, and it must be a corporate act rather than the isolated prayers of scattered individuals.

There is something about corporate prayer that is more important than individual prayer.

The first part of the text is the prophetic call to “return” to God (Joel 2:12-14), and the second half rouses the people to prayerful assembly (Joel 2:15-17). The first half invites Israel to return, and the second summons Israel to assemble as a witness to their return. To assemble, in this context, is to return to God with broken and contrite hearts.

The call comes with the voice of Yahweh, “Return to me with all your heart!” And then it comes with the voice of the prophet, “Return to the Lord, your God.” The double use of “return” (a metaphor for repentance) highlights the reality that Israel had turned away from God, and this is the cause of divine judgment. Joel, however, never identifies any particular sin among the people. Instead, the prophet offers a liturgical form for all sorts of occasions (which is whole book itself, especially Joel 1-2).

Summon the People to Lamentation.
Call the People to Return.
Gather the People in Assembly.
Lead the People in Prayer.
Testify to People about Hope.
Envision a Future for the People.

But first the people must “return,” and return with their “whole heart.” They must “tear” their “hearts” and not just their clothing. Their return must be heart-based rather than an external, ritualistic show. Their lament and fasts must arise from a contrite and broken heart. An external demonstration is not sufficient. Worship–through assembling, fasting, and lamenting–must arise from the heart or it is worthless.

Why should Israel even try? Because of who God is. They seek God because they confess that God “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” They return to God for the same reason Jonah ran away to Tarshish (Jonah 4:2), that is, because God loves, forgives, and renews. This is Israel’s “God Creed.” First revealed to Moses (Exodus 34:6-7), it is pervasive in Israel’s preaching and liturgy (Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:5; 103:8; 145:8). Israel repents because they know Yahweh is merciful and loyal.

However, like the Ninevehites (Jonah 3:9), Israel must not presume upon God’s mercy. “Who knows,” the prophet asks, “whether [Yahweh] will not turn and relent”? Israel’s repentance does not put God in a box; it does not manipulate God or force God into a corner. However God responds to Israel’s “return,” it is God’s decision or else the forgiveness is not gracious.

But the hope is that God will relent, that is, that God would have a change of mind. The term does not mean “repent” as if there is sorrow for sin or evil intent. Rather, in the light of repentance, God may chose an alternative course of action. This is the dynamic that Moses experienced in Exodus 32 where Moses seemingly persuaded God to continue with Israel rather than starting over with Moses. God is dynamically engaged with the creation. God responds Israel’s choices.

The summons comes in a series of imperatives (eight in all).

Blow the trumpet!
Sanctify a fast!
Call a solemn assembly!
Gather the people!
Sanctify the congregation!
Assemble the aged!
Gather the children!
Leave the bridal chamber!

Assembly language piles up in the text. The Shofar (rams’ horn) trumpet signals the time of assembly (cf. Leviticus 25:9; Jeremiah 4:5; even the assembly of all who live upon the earth in Isaiah 18:3). “Call a solemn assembly” is repeated from Joel 1:14, and this language describes other assemblies in Israel (cf. 2 Chronicles 7:9; Nehemiah 8:18). Gathering the people, like gathering in the harvest or gathering armies for battle, evokes a picture of heaping up people in one place. It recalls earlier gatherings in Israel as when Joshua gathered the people at Shechem (Joshua 24:1; cf. Psalms 47:9; 50:5; Nehemiah 9:1; 1 Chronicles 23:2). “Assemble” is a common verb in the Hebrew Bible for the assembling before the Lord (cf. Isaiah 45:20; 48:14), and often refers to how God will assemble or gather together Israel with compassion and renewal (cf. Isaiah 54:7; 56:8; Ezekiel 11:17; Micah 2:12, 4:6; Zephaniah 3:19, 20), including gathering the nations with Israel (Isaiah 66:18).

Everyone is called to the assembly! From young (even infants) to the aged. Nothing should hinder their attendance. Even the wedding night or the wedding should not prevent attendance. Stop the honeymoon! All Israel  must assemble! The urgency of this assembly as a way returning to God in the face of impending disaster demands everyone’s presence.

What happens at this assembly?  Israel fasts, mourns, and weeps. They approach the presence of God at the temple, and through the priests Israel cries out to God. The priests, as intercessors and mediators between God and the people, stand between the temple and its altar–between the presence of God and the sacrifices. They speak for the people and on behalf of the people. They make their case before God; they make an argument.

The priestly prayer in Joel 2:17 is a plea for mercy, and the plea is made on the basis of God’s reputation among the nations (like Moses did in Exodus 32) and on the the ground that Israel’s is God’s heritage. The priests remind God that God’s kingdom is tied to Israel. This is God’s promise to the world itself and so Israel as the heritage of God is the hope of the world. Don’t, they plead, destroy your heritage! The priests argue on the basis of God’s glorious reputation and on the basis of God’s own inheritance within the creation. Their cry for mercy is both dependance on God’s graciousness and a call for God to remain true to God’s own intent for the world.

Through the priests, the assembly confesses, laments, and petitions. The people, gathered at the temple to pray, return to God and throw themselves on the mercy of God.

Sometimes assembly is more important than any other human activity.


Joel 2:1-11 — Eden Despoiled

April 9, 2014

The “day of Yahweh,” or the “day of the Lord,” reverses creation. Through creation God subdued the chaos and gave it boundaries, but divine judgment releases chaos. The “day of Yahweh” uncreates. Eden is despoiled. Or, more specifically in the context of Joel, Israel is threatened with the prospect that the land flowing with milk and honey–the promised land–will turn into a wasteland.

The situation, similar to chapter one, is that some kind of an army is approaching Israel. Some think it is a literal army, such as the Babylonians who besieged Jerusalem in 586 BCE and others think it is another locust plague (perhaps an extension of the one described in chapter one). Most probably, the army–described as a locust swarm–is a metaphor for divine judgment, which is a “day of the Lord” that comes in various forms. It may or may not involve a literal army, but may simply represent divine discipline or judgment. The army is Yahweh’s army; Yahweh rides at the head of this host. Whether literal or metaphorical, the discipline comes from Yahweh.

Dillard (modifying a proposal by Keller) suggests that Joel 2:1-11 has a chiastic structure, and this is particularly illuminating (The Minor Prophets, ed. McComiskey,p. 278).

A. The day of the Lord nears (2:1-2a).

B. Arrival of the army (2:2b).

C. Ravages of the army: chaos (2:3).

D. Conduct of the soldiers (2:4-6).

D. Conduct of the soldiers (2:7-9).

C. Ravages of the army: chaos (2:10).

B. Yahweh’s army (2:11a).

A. The day of the Lord (2:11b).

The chiasm contains four elements: (1) the event is identified as the day of Yahweh, (2) it is described as an army, (3) the result of the invasion is chaos (uncreation), and (4) the army is unstoppable.

In Joel 2:4-9 it is as if someone is watching the army approach from the city walls. They see the war-horses appear on the surrounding mountains, they hear the rumble of the chariots, and they watch the army trample everything in its path like a fire burning through stubble.  Fear fills the city as they watch disciplined warriors stay in formation during their advance and march over defending armies. The soldiers leap up onto the walls and enter homes. Like locusts, they infect every part of the city.

The terror that accompanies the army’s movements is heightened by the fact that this is Yahweh’s army. Yahweh stands at the head of this army, and it is the voice of Yahweh that commands it. This is the Lord’s host, and it is a moment in history when God has decided to act. It is a day when God has decided to uncreate what God created.

The “day of Yahweh” causes the inhabitants–as well as the earth itself–to tremble or quake. It is a day when darkness dawns rather than light (Joel 2:2). The descent of darkness upon Israel reminds them of other great events in its history, including darkness upon Egypt in Exodus 10:22. This darkness, however, is theophanic language; it is the appearance of Yahweh for judgment against a sinful nation (only Zephaniah 1:15 uses the four terms for darkness in this text in exactly the same order). Darkness is often associated with divine appearances or theophanies (cf. Exodus 20:18, 21; Deuteronomy 4:11), and here–like the locust in Egypt in Exodus 10:14–the day is described in hyperbole in order to accentuate its significance. Israel will remember this moment of judgment just like they remember the Exodus except this memory will fill them with fear rather than joy.

Uncreation reverses God’s intent in creation. The images of uncreation are startling. The land of Israel is turned from the “garden of Eden” into a “desolate wilderness.” In Genesis 1-2 God creates Eden out of a formless void that was wrapped in darkness (Genesis 1:2). Eden emerged from that chaos as a divine sanctuary in which humanity could rest with God.

When God created Israel, they were given a land that was like Eden itself. God dwelt among them, rested with them in the land, and protected Israel from even the wild animals. The rhythm of the rainy seasons would provide food, and Israel would live at peace with its neighbors. But Israel did not live by the covenant, and now in Joel (as at other times in its history; cf. Jeremiah 4:22-26) God disciplines them. God despoils Eden. Israel will become a “desolate wasteland.”

Human sin has cosmic ramifications, and the day of the Yahweh causes the whole cosmos to tremble before the Lord. Whereas God placed the sun, moon, and stars as lights in the skin in Genesis 1, during the day of the Lord their lights are extinguished. Darkness will reign upon the earth. Chaos will govern the heavens and earth.

Through creation God orders the chaos, but sin unfetters chaos. Indeed, God even comes at the head of the chaos to discipline and punish those who choose chaos over God’s good order. When humanity lives in covenant with God, order, peace, and tranquility prevail. But when humanity chooses a different agenda–one where they seek their own interests–Eden is despoiled, and God’s good creation is enveloped in darkness.

Israel repeated the story of the original couple. Just as Genesis 3 opened the floodgates of chaos, so Israel’s sin did as well.  And we still do.

The day of the Lord will come again…and again…and again, until that day when God will create anew and fill the earth with the glory for which the creation was intended.

 

 

 


Joel 1:15-20 — Even Creation Groans

April 8, 2014

After opening with a call for lamentation, the text presents two laments (1:15-18 and 1:19-20). The first laments the day, and the second cries out to Yahweh. The first weeps over the  devastation of the land and the suffering of the livestock. In the second both the people and the animals cry out to God because both the pastures and the waters have dried up.

Creation itself laments, not just Israel! Humanity and creation lament together.

First Lament. The first word in Joel 1:15 is “Alas!” (‘ahah). A cry of anguish, it appears in other troubled circumstances (Joshua 7:7; Judges 6:22; 2 Kings 3:10; Jeremiah 4:10; 14:13; Ezekiel 11:13; 20:49). The present crisis–whatever it is–is a day of despair and loss. “Alas” is the voice of lament.

Given the losses that surround them, the people recognize that the day of Yahweh is coming, even near at hand. The “day of Yahweh,” which appears in Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14, is paralleled with “destruction” that comes from the “Almighty.” The “day of Yahweh” is judgment day, and it appears throughout Israel’s history and other nations as moments of divine refinement, discipline, and punishment. It does not necessarily refer to a specific day, but to those times in history where God moved within history to accomplish the divine purpose. In this context, Israel laments the coming “day of Yahweh” in their midst.

The lament is communal. The first person plurals (“our eyes” and “our God” in Joel 1:16) reflect this. The very place where Israel gathered before Yahweh–at the temple–is destitute. Its storehouses and granaries are empty because the fields have yielded no food. As a result, there is no joy in the courts of the temple. The temple has become a place of lament rather than celebration.

The lament is also cosmic. Creation is the subject of verbs in Joel 1:18. The beasts “groan,” the cattle “wander about,” and the sheep “are dazed.” The animals mourn just as Israel groaned in Egypt (Exodus 2:23) or like women in childbirth (Jeremiah 22:23). The cattle are, more literally, perplexed or confused. The sheep are desolate or wronged. The sheep suffer because of the guilt of others.

This cosmic groaning uses the language of breaking hearts and bitter grief (cf. Ezekiel 21:6). The moaning of the animals becomes their prayer to the Creator to whom they look for everything (cf. Psalm 104). When Israel sins, the land and its animals suffer; when humanity sins, creation suffers. As Paul notes, creation itself groans for liberation (Romans 8:18-23), and creation mourns its own devastation.

Second Lament. The first word in Joel 1:19 is “to you” (that is, Yahweh) to whom the prophet addresses the lament. The prophet here intercedes for the people as Joel speaks in the first person (“I”). He cries out (kara’) to Yahweh. While the verb is a general one (normally translated “call”), the context gives it a more distressful meaning. The verb regularly appears in lament Psalms (cf. Psalm 3:4; 18:6; 22:2; 27:7; 30:8; 42:7; 57:2; 69:3; 86:3, 5, 7; 88:9). The verb expresses utter dependance; there is no one else to whom the prophet can turn.

Like the first lament, the second also gives voice to creation, this time the beasts of the field or wild animals (same word as in Joel 1:18). All creation is affected, not just the domesticated livestock of Joel 1:18. The wild animals “long for” God, just as the deer longs for water and humanity longs for God in Psalm 42:2. The verb is from the same root as the Hebrew word for “bed,” so that it represents a desire for intimacy or relationship. The land’s chaos bespeaks a disruption of the communion between the creation and its Creator.

Fire, rather than locust, is the cause of this devastation. Perhaps fire results from stripped plants and drought caused by locusts, or perhaps it is another metaphor (in addition to the locust) for the disaster that has come upon the land. Whatever the case, it is not only the crops that are lost, but the pastures and trees, and the sources of water are also dried up.

Lament is personal, communal, and cosmic. When the earth is devastated because humanity fails to live in ways for which we were designed (that is, to image God in the world), the whole cosmos groans. Creation, like humanity, looks to God for the good things of life, but it also, like humanity, laments when life is frustrated. Like us, creation groans.

Humans have the power to make creation weep!


Joel 1:1-14 — A Call for Lamentation

April 4, 2014

Whether Joel calls for lament in a specific historical situation or provides a liturgical frame for communal lament (or both!), the opening calls the people of God to cry out to God as they weep and wail in their despair.

There are times to lament, and the people of God need the regular rhythms of lament and hope to endure their tragedies, to seek forgiveness for their sins, and to implore Yahweh for justice. Whatever the circumstance here, Joel invites Israel to weep (bacah; 1:5), howl (yalal; 1:5, 11, 13), mourn (‘abal; 1:9), lament (saphad; 1:13), and cry out (za’ak; 1:14).

The first imperative, however, is “hear” or “listen.” The elders (city leaders) and the inhabitants of the land (those who “dwell” in the land) are told to pay attention and notice what is happening among them. The moment has significance. It is something they will tell their children and their children.

Some may read the question, “Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers?,” as a wholly unique event. But perhaps it is hyperbole to highlight the importance of the moment. Israel finds itself in a lamentable circumstance, one of considerable consequence. As a liturgical document, this may not refer to any specific moment but rather anticipates those moments in a people’s history that appear with some regularity. The United States remembers, for example, Pearl Harbor, the death of Martin Luther King, or 9-11. The invitation, then, does not so much announce a unique event as it emphasizes the depth of the lament occasioned by the circumstance, whatever it may be.

In this case, Joel identifies the occasion as a locust plague. In the ancient world, and up until very recent history, locust swarms devastated huge tracts of land. Locust devour everything and leave nothing in their wake. Famine, disease, and poverty follow.

Interpreters differ on how to understand Joel’s use of the plague. Some think it is a metaphor for an invading army (e.g., Babylonians or some other power). Others think it is a literal locust plague. Still others believe the locust function as a metaphor for weighty moments of lament. In other words, if Joel functions as a lament liturgy, the locust plague is a figure for every tragedy that might devastate a nation. Whatever the case may be, lament is the primary concern.

Lament is described in several ways.

  • Wine-makers and drinkers lament the loss of the vines and the lack of new wine (1:5).
  • The priests mourn the lack of crops and vines that would provide drink offerings and grain offerings at the temple (1:9, 13).
  • The farmers, who till the soil and dress the vines, weep over the loss of their crops (1:11).

Nothing is left. There are no resources for a prosperous life; there are no gifts for the temple.  Everything is dried up. Life has lost its joy; it has dried up just like the vines, fruits, and trees (1:12). The lament is so great it is compared to a bride who never had the opportunity to enjoy her husband (1:8); she remains a virgin and her husband is dead.

There is reason to lament.

Religious leaders–the priests–must “consecrate a fast” in a “solemn assembly” (1:14). They are to gather the people–both elders and those who dwell in the land–at the temple, and there the whole assembly will “cry out to Yahweh.” Joel opened his oracle by addressing the “elders and inhabitants of the land,” and the call to lament concludes with the “elders and inhabitants of the land” crying out to God. The whole community gathers to lament.

The call to lament involves several elements which are important for our own practices today:

  1. Take note of the significance of the moment. We should not look past our pain too quickly nor underestimate the importance of our tragedies and hurts.
  2. Take account of the devastation involved that occasion the lament. We should notice the pain people endure and how widespread the pain is.
  3. Gather in a solemn assembly; covenant to fast as an expression of lamentation. We do not have to weep alone. Rather, we should encourage communal forms of lament that give voice to our hurt.
  4. Cry out to Yahweh. We may weep over our losses, but we also seek God in those moments. We address God with our needs; we intercede for ourselves and others. We voice our distress to God.

Lament is a common human experience. It is not about whining or even complaining, but weeping over our hurts, our sins, and the brokenness that fills the world. Rather than isolate, we gather. Rather than silence, we speak. We lament, and God listens.


On Reading the Prophet Joel: A Lament Liturgy

April 2, 2014

The prophet Joel, whose name means “Yahweh is God,” taught Judah to lament and hope. His message announces the coming “day of the Lord,” which entails both judgment–for the impenitent among God’s people and among the nations–and the renewal of God’s vision for the reign of God in the world. Lament and hope.

No one really knows when Joel prophesied or when the literary work that bears his name was written. Scholars have postulated every era of Israel’s history after the division of the kingdom into Israel and Judah. Some think he was a contemporary of Elijah or Elisha, or Amos, or Jeremiah, or Zechariah, or even after Malachi. The temple stands, but no kings are mentioned. Some enemies are identified, but none of them are the superpowers Assyria, Babylon, or Persia. We don’t have many clues.

The words of the prophet Joel come to us undated and without any specific historical context. But perhaps that is neither accidental nor coincidental. It is unusual in some ways but perhaps intentional, that is, its lack of specificity has a purpose.

The clue to this ambiguity is the topic itself: lament and hope. For example, the Psalms often lack historical context, but this is often a good thing. It means the language of the Psalms may fit any number of circumstances; it is not limited to the particulars of a specific moment in history or a narrow experience. Instead, the Psalm is open-ended in its application. It can be used over and over again in similar circumstances.

Joel fits this pattern.  Joel is a poetic, liturgical lament. In the opening two chapters, the prophet calls the people together to lament (1:5, 8; 2:12-14), fast (1:13-14; 2:15-16), and wait for the day of the Lord (1:15; 2:17). Hope, then, is located in God’s gracious response to such lament (2:18. 23, 28-29; 3:1, 18). Lament is followed by hope.

The biblical narrative identifies many occasions when Israel gathered in sacred assembly to lament, repent, and await God’s answer (cf. 2 Chronicles 20:1-17). Joel is a prophetic call for such an assembly (Joel 1:14; 2:15). Consequently, it functions something like Psalm 12 where the liturgy cries out in lament (12:1-4) but waits in hope (12:5-6).

The message of Joel is lament, repent, and hope. Since no specific historical situation is identified or perhaps intended, it becomes a liturgical text that serves Israel in diverse circumstances. It calls the nation to assemble for lament, to confess sin, and to hear the word of hope that God offers.

The people of God need that rhythm in their life. We need lament liturgies to voice our hurts, confess our sins, and embrace the promises of God. We need lament assemblies where as a community we gather in the face of tragedy, national sin, or impending doom in order to draw near to God and seek God’s redemptive mercy. Joel provides such a liturgy.

In the Christian calendar, Lent is the season of lament, repentance, fasting, and prayer….but also hope. Lent follows in the footsteps of Joel, and as Christians embrace the season of Lent they can also give voice to the words and message of Joel.

We lament, but we never lament without hope.

[See my Ash Wednesday Graduate Chapel presentation at Abilene Christian University on March 5, 2014.]

 


Noah the Movie, Part III: There are Biblical Themes There

March 31, 2014

When the filmmaker of Noah described it as “the least biblical biblical movie” ever made [he did not say it was the "least biblical movie"], he was probably referring to the fact Noah the movie is not a mirror image of Noah the biblical figure. Genesis is not the script for the movie. Rather, the script includes 1 Enoch and Jubilees among other ancient Jewish traditions, as well as some postmodern imagination and styled in the genre of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

However, there are dimensions of the movie that are robustly “biblical.” Here are a few.

  • There is a transcendent Creator of the earth
  • The Creator invested humanity with the care of the earth as the image of God.
  • Humanity failed to image God.
  • Cain-Tubal (and the line of Cain in general) is the anti-image of God; represents Cain who killed Abel.
  • The line of Seth represents those who honor the Creator (including Enoch and Methuselah).
  • Humanity is invested with the choice to image God or to create their own world.
  • Humanity pursued its own violent agenda–against creation and against each other.
  • The Creator justly judges humanity’s violence and evil with water–”making it right.”
  • The water is the uncreation of the creation; it is a return to the chaos that existed when God first began to create a habitable space on the earth.
  • The Creator gives life to those on the ark.
  • The Creator’s mercy preserves humanity.
  • The Creator renews life after the flood.
  • The Creator renews the human vocation to care for the earth and fill it.
  • The Creator is “unnamed”–the name of the Creator was not revealed until Moses inquired in Exodus.

Certainly more could be added to this list, but this gives us plenty to ponder!

See Part I for a perspective on the biblical story, and Part II for a review of the movie.

 


Noah the Movie, Part II

March 29, 2014

In my last post, I offered a reading of the biblical flood story, and now I offer an interpretation of Noah, the movie.

Like the biblical story itself, the movie is not a children’s movie.  It is about violence, ecological disaster, and the struggles of a man to fully discern God’s intent as the Creator judges humanity.

The movie has clear links to the biblical story–there is an ark, Noah is the main character, the Creator is judging the world, violence has filled the earth, and there is a flood to cleanse the evil–but the movie is not a “biblical movie,” that is, it does not intend to retell the flood story within the boundaries of what is known in Scripture or even how Scripture interprets the story.  The biblical story “inspires” the movie, but the movie is not the biblical story. Nevertheless, it is an imaginative retelling of themes that are part of the biblical story.

The movie functions, existentially (and thus theologically), as social commentary on human injustice against both the creation and humanity itself. It highlights ecological disaster and human violence. These are the great evils that grieved the Creator and for which the Creator will push the reboot button on the cosmos.

Due to human violence, the earth had become an environmental wasteland. The once green and beautiful earth had become a barren rock with little vegetation. The Creator invested humanity with dominion, and humanity used that dominion for its own sake. Humanity devoured the resources of the earth (including eating the flesh of animals), and this spiraled into violence against each other (including cannibalism). Human dominion was exercised through violence and injustice rather than through loving care.

Noah appears in the movie as a defender of the earth, the animals, and of mistreated humans (he rescues a young girl from death and raises her as his own). He lives within the chaos of a barren (rather than “good” earth) as a righteous person who remembers the story of the Creator and passes it on to his children. His family is light within the darkness, but it is threatened by the darkness. And though yet faithful to the Creator, the family wonders whether or when the Creator “will make things right.” When will the Creator put an end to human violence?

The flood is the Creator’s answer. Noah discerns this through dreams, and with the help of some “transformer rock angels” (my wife’s phrase) the family builds an ark for the preservation of the animals and, seemingly, humanity. But this is where the story takes an awkward though existential turn.

The second half of the movie focuses on Noah’s angst that arises from his perception of the divine intent. Noah, thoroughly disgusted with human evil, believes that the Creator intends to annihilate humanity even as the Creator preserves the creation. In Noah’s mind, the creation is more important than humanity, and humanity has not only been dethroned but must also be eliminated as a threat to the creation. Noah believes that God preserves his family only for the sake of the animals, and once the animals are safely in the new world after the flood, then the Creator will watch over the slow death of humanity itself as Noah’s line dies out (Shem’s wife is barren, and the other two sons have no wives).

The moviemaker adjusts the biblical story in order to create Noah’s angst, and this enables the second half of the movie to focus on the drama of mercy over justice. Noah, as the one in whom the Creator has invested the future (as the Creator originally did with Adam and Eve–who failed!), will not fail his Creator. He will complete the task and ensure that humanity will die out. He knows–he thinks–what the Creator wants, and he will obey. He is, after all, from the line of Seth.

As a result, Noah becomes what the flood judges. He becomes an unmerciful and violent man, which is exactly why the Creator is flooding the earth! He leaves Ham’s woman to die, trampled by humanity’s rush for self-preservation. He violently protects the ark from assault. He announces his intent to kill any female child born from the union of Shem and his wife. He destroys any hope that Shem and his wife might escape the ark. Noah has no mercy, which is exactly how he understood the Creator. He thinks he is fulfilling the Creator’s desire.

The climax of the movie is when Noah holds a raised a knife above his twin granddaughters. Here he struggles to do the will of God, as he understands it. And here he defies the Creator. He cannot kill his granddaughters. He ultimately fails to do the will of God; he fails like his ancestors Adam and Eve. Consequently, once upon dry ground where humanity can flourish once again, Noah drinks himself into a stupor and shames himself. He medicates his guilt with wine.

In time, however, Noah realizes that God never intended to destroy humanity. He should have learned this from his own grandfather, Methuselah, who healed his barren daughter-in-law. He should have listened to the different and merciful interpretation of the Creator’s intent that his wife voiced–she thought in terms of both justice and mercy. He should have seen the gift of life in his daughter-in-law’s womb as the Creator’s new beginning rather than a threat to the new creation. Noah was so blinded by the human condition–so blinded by humanity’s inhumanity–that he could not see the Creator’s gracious gift to his own family and the Creator’s merciful intent to preserve humanity.

In the end, however, Noah does recognize this. He renews covenant with his wife, and he invests in Shem the lineage of Seth. Noah now understands that creation has been renewed, and the Creator has graciously offered a new beginning. Noah tells his children to “be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.” The Creator has given humanity a second chance!

But as we look at the world humanity has created since that time, have we done any better? I think the movie asks this question. Will human violence against the environment and each other once again call for judgment? Is humanity headed toward an apocalypse, or will we learn to balance justice and mercy? Will we embrace the vision of creation embedded in the film’s storyline? Not a bad question to raise!

Clearly, the filmmaker did not intend to follow the biblical script. That would’ve been a short movie! He made the story more about Noah than the Creator.

The biblical story, however, is about the Creator rather than Noah.  It is the Creator who grieves humanity’s violence. The Creator acts to end human violence. The Creator remembers Noah. The Creator remembers the creation, and the Creator preserves it and renews it. The Creator redeems Noah and his family. The Creator covenants with creation and humanity, and the Creator places the covenant sign of the Creator’s mercy and grace in the sky, the rainbow. And the Creator, once again, rests within the new creation!

While I understand why a filmmaker would focus on Noah’s existential angst, human blindness to divine intent, and the struggle to do the will of God, that is not the focus of the biblical story. In this sense, the film does not tell the biblical story but rather tells the story of postmodern angst. “Noah” may be a way of telling that story, but we should not confuse it with the function of biblical drama itself.

Personally, I did not much like the movie. My dislike is not due to the adjustments to the biblical story (I fully expected that). Rather, I thought the film tried too hard to create a dramatic storyline, which ultimately made it implausible (e.g., Cain-Tubal stealing aboard the ark, Ham aiding Cain-Tubal, the transformer rock angels or Watchers). I was left more awed by the special effects than engrossed in the story.

Nevertheless, the story has a point. What will humans do with the earth? How will we treat each other? Can we have a new beginning?

The biblical answer to those questions is rooted in God’s drama rather than in the human drama. We can’t, ultimately, find our hope in humanity. Didn’t the 20th century teach us that? Rather, humanity’s only hope is the merciful God who calls us to a story of redemption, justice, mercy, and reconciliation. That is the story of Jesus.


Noah the Movie: Part I

March 29, 2014

Before the movie, first the biblical story…or at least my reading of that story….

This is not a children’s story. The animals going into the ark two by two do make a classic VBS song and it certainly makes a great flannel graph. But this story is more like a horror movie than a Disney cartoon.

The story is important for our author. It takes up more space than the creation itself and is full of repetition. Why is this that important?

The flood narrative overlaps two sections of Genesis. It is at the end of the “generations of Adam” (5:1-6:8) which carries the human line from Adam through Seth to Noah, and it is the main event in the “generations of Noah” (6:9-9:29) which starts with the approaching flood and ends with the rainbow sullied by Noah and Ham. Both of these generational stories begin with great hope but they both end with disaster. The hope is found in Adam begetting Seth (5:1-5), which recalls creation itself and is found, in the next generation, in Noah’s walk with God (6:9).

Disaster, however, follows.  The line of Seth (“sons of God”) ultimately mixes with the line of Cain (“daughters of men”) and God’s good creation is filled with evil (6:1-7). Noah’s walk with God turns to drunkenness and shame (9:20-27). Both new beginnings have bad endings.

The flood story bridges these two sections in Genesis. The flood is a divine response to evil in the world, but also a new beginning. It is divine judgment but also divine renewal.

Why should the flood story figure so prominently in Genesis? Israel lived in an ancient culture that was saturated with stories about gods, creations and floods. There were multiple creation and flood stories in the surrounding cultures, and many even predate Moses. Many are very similar to the one in Genesis. For example, the family of one human is saved, a large boat, a great flood, the release of a raven and dove, etc.  Israel shared a common “story” about a past great flood with its culture.

However, there was (at least) one significant difference. The Ancient Near East (ANE) stories locate the reason for the flood in the capriciousness of the gods. They are fickle and easily annoyed. They send the flood upon the earth because humans are too noisy!

That is not Israel’s God. Israel reinterprets the flood story in order to say something about Yahweh (or Elohim). Their version is a counter-story that intends to subvert ANE culture itself.  The focus of the flood story is not on how many animals are in the ark or whether the dimensions are large enough for the animals. Its focus is the reason for the flood and what happened to the earth as a result.

God was not annoyed with humanity but grieved by them (Genesis 6:6). God was so grieved that God changed God’s mind (regret) about how the earth would continue. Humanity interrupted God’s sabbath (seventh day) rest.

When God finished the sixth day of creating in Genesis 1, God “rested” (Genesis 2:1-3). This seventh day was not a twenty-four hour period of relaxation and recreation. Rather, God “rested” in the earth, communed with humanity and the rest of creation, and rejoiced over his works. The sabbath rest of God is the communion God has with the creation–it is God resting (dwelling) within the creation. The seventh day is the continued existence of creation itself in communion with God. The seventh day is God’s rest!

But humanity (and “all flesh”) disrupted that rest by filling the earth with “violence.” This is an important term as its repetition highlights the rationale for God’s judgment.  God saw that the earth was full of “violence” (Genesis 6:11, 13). This is the opposite of God’s sabbath shalom. Just as “all flesh” contributed to the “violence” now pervasive upon the earth, so “all flesh” will suffer consequences (Genesis 6:13, 17, 19).

The judgment is the reversal of creation itself. The “waters” (7:6-7) arise from the “deep” and from the “windows of heaven” (7:11). This language comes from Genesis 1 where the waters are given boundaries so that dry land might appear. Now God releases the chaos of the waters. He sends the earth back to its original, uninhabitable state when the waters of the deep covered the earth (Genesis 1:2). The chaos out of which God shaped a habitable earth returns to destroy “all flesh.”

Israel tells the flood story as a polemic against violence rather than as the whims of fickle gods. God judges violence through the flood. Israel takes the flood story and uses it to subvert the culture of violence that dominated the ANE (especially an Israel living in Babylon who had recently suffered from that violence). The flood story tells us what God thinks about violence in the good creation.

At the same time, the flood story tells us about the patience, forbearance and grace of God. Yahweh does not “fly off the handle” in this story. Rather, God is patient with the creation. God strives with humanity for a 120 years (plus however long before that counting began). This is no flippant decision by a whimsical deity. On the contrary, it is a deliberate decision slowly made in the wake of God’s love for the creation.

That love is not only expressed in the grace God demonstrated to Noah, but it is also expressed in God’s gracious renewal of the creation itself. Genesis 8 begins with hope:  “God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals.” This remembrance is God’s gracious orientation toward humanity and the rest of creation. It is God’s determination to renew what he has just destroyed or, to put it another way, “wiped clean.”

Genesis 8 follows the path of Genesis 1.  The wind (or, Spirit, ruach) of God blows over the waters (just as in Genesis 1:2; 8:1). The waters separate–closing the fountains of the deep and the windows of heaven–so that dry land might emerge (Genesis 1:6-10; 8:2). The dry land yields trees and fruit (Genesis 1:11-12; 8:11). And then the animals and humanity walk upon the dry land again (Genesis 1:25, 29-30; 8:15-119).

And God rests once again. This is an important part of the story that most miss. It is easy to miss because the connections of the Hebrew language are lost in English translation. Noah comes out of the ark and worships by offering dedicatory offerings. It is an act of thanksgiving (Genesis 8:20). Significantly, the odor of these sacrifices are “pleasing” (nichocha) to God. This is the important word. It is derived from the same root that describes God’s rest (nuach) in Exodus 20:11. The odor is restful to God. Just as God placed (yanach; rested) humanity in the Garden (Genesis 2:15), so God now rests within the creation once again.

God’s rest in the good creation–the seventh day rest is renewed and continues–is underscored by God’s commitment to the creation. God makes a covenant that renews Sabbath rest for the creation. God will never again destroy every living creature as he did this time even if humans do not change  their violent ways (Genesis 8:21-22). While chaos still exists within God’s creation (humans are there, for example!), the order of God’s creation will remain and the good creation will continue despite the chaos that surrounds it and lives within it. God will never again abandon the creation.

Israel tells this story, in contrast to the stories of the ANE, as both a judgment against violence and as a reminder of God’s commitment to the creation. God is not annoyed with humanity but rather loves them. People live within the grace of the creation even though they despoil it and often treat it violently just as they treat each other. Nevertheless, despite the violence, God sustains the earth, graces it with divine presence, and continues the seventh day through redemptive graces.

God still grieves the sin and the violence, just as God grieved over Israel (Isaiah 63:10), and God grieved in Jesus over Jerusalem. But–thanks to be to God!–the new creation has begun in Jesus Christ. Raised to the right hand of God, he is the firstborn of the new creation. One day, God will renew the creation as God strips the old things (like sin, violence and death) from the earth and makes everything new. On that day, there will be no more sea (no more “waters”) and no more night (“darkness”). God will reign upon the earth and dwell (rest) with humanity in the new creation (Revelation 21:1-5). Everything will be made new again through a refining fire.

[This is a summary of my July 3 (2012) presentation at Lipscomb University's Summer Celebration as part of the Hazelip School of Theology series on Genesis 1-11.]


3 John: When Love is Abused

December 18, 2013

This small letter is the tale of two house-church leaders, Gaius and Diotrephes. One demonstrates love for God’s family while the other seeks a preeminent place in the family. One supports those who are traveling “for the sake of the name” while the other refuses to welcome them.

“The elder”—the same one who authored 1 & 2 John—is connected to both of them. He writes Gaius to commend him but was recently rebuffed by Diotrephes.  Gaius welcomes the leadership of “the elder” while Diotrephes resents it and seeks to limit it.

This brief letter is part of “the elder’s” attempt to deal a situation where Diotrephes has abused his leadership position. Rather than loving the family of God, he has dominated his own house-church.

Setting

Apparently, “the elder” ministers to a number of churches from a central location. Tradition places John in Ephesus where he spent the last years of his life. From Ephesus, it seems, John exercised pastoral care over a number of house-churches in the region. The letter suggests that “the elder” would send out “brothers” among the churches “for the sake of the name,” and he hoped that the house-churches would welcome them, give them a hearing, and support them. He expected that family would show hospitality to other family members (“brothers”) even if they were “strangers” (personally unknown to the host church).  John expected churches to support them because they are “fellow workers for the truth.”

Gaius did exactly this. He did the “faithful” thing, as he loved the “brothers” who came to him. His church welcomed them and supported their work. He accepted John’s pastoral care and sent the “brothers” on their way that they might continue to minister among the churches.

However, Diotrephes did not welcome the “brothers” and apparently resented John’s pastoral care. He not only refused to help but prevented others from helping as well. The “elder” sees this as a power play between him and Diotrephes.

So, the question is whether a house-church and its leadership should support the mission of these “brothers” whom the “elder” sent as his representatives.

Gaius

The “elder” regards Gaius as one of his “children.” Whether this means Gaius was brought to Jesus by the elder or whether it simply means Gaius is under John’s pastoral care is uncertain. Whichever the case, the “elder” assumes a strong relationship between them. He writes to him, prays for him, rejoices over the news of his physical and spiritual health (he is concerned about both!), and praises him for his good works.

Gaius is characterized by several significant phrases, which are absent from the characterizations of Diotrephes and, in fact, stand in strong contrast with how Diotrephes is described. Gaius “walks in the truth” (2x in 3-4), is “faithful” in his efforts (literally, works), and acts in love.

The elder stresses the act of love, a reflection of his “walking in truth.” Gaius acted to support the traveling ministers (“fellow workers”). In this the ministers testified to Gaius’s love as well as his devotion to the truth. The focus of verses 5-8 is his support, which is his act of love for the “brothers.” The question is not one of heresy (that is, truth versus the antichrists of 2 John). Rather, the question is the practice of Christian hospitality that supports the mission of the “elder.” The contrast is not between heretics and faithful believers but between faithful believers and “Gentiles” (unbelievers). The brothers, apparently, are engaged in both pastoral care and evangelistic mission.

Diotrephes

There is some debate about the nature of the problem Diotrephes represents.  Some think that Diotrephes is one of the “antichrists” (Docetics) that 2 John condemns. The emphasis on “truth” in the brief letter may support this as the noun is used seven times. However, the “truth” here may not refer to orthodox teaching but rather loving praxis. To “walk in the truth” is to love the family and support the mission. Further, when John describes his problem with Diotrephes he does not use the term “truth” and neither does he point to any particular doctrinal teaching by Diotrephes. The “elder” is not skittish about identifying heretical teaching (as 2 John demonstrates) and consequently it seems unlikely that he would not identify a specific heresy in this letter if that were the problem.

Instead, the “elder” specifically identifies his ambition as the problem. Diotrephes (whose name means “nourished by Jupiter”) loved to be first. The verb John uses to describe him makes its first appearance in known Greek literature here—philoproteuon.  He loves being first; he loves the preeminence. (Paul uses the term proteuon [first] to describe Jesus in Colossians 1:18.) The problem is not his doctrine but his abuse of power, his selfish ambition. Rather than loving the family, he loves himself.

Apparently, he has some position of power or influence already. We may presume that he leads a house-church. He occupies a position that can refuse John’s emissaries, prevent others from supporting them, and excommunicate (disfellowship or “cast out”) those who do. He seems to exercise autocratic power within his community. We do not know the nature of this position though some think it is the sort of authority selflessly exercised by Timothy or Titus, and others think it may be something similar to the one-Bishop practice of Asia Minor congregations in the early second century (called monoepiscopate). Whatever the nature of his position, he wields an authority that rejects “the elder.” And he exercises it with an authority driven by ambition.

“The elder” will deal with this problem face-to-face when he visits Diotrephes’s house-church. But until then he wants Gaius to know that Diotrephes is headed down the wrong path. While he may be a renowned (or infamous) leader—since Gaius knows him—this is not the person Gaius should imitate.

God and Evil

The problem is not superficial, according to “the elder.” It is the difference between “good” and “evil.” Gaius has acted well but Diotrephes has done evil. The former reflects a relationship with God but the latter is disconnected from God. To live within the love of God is to love the “brothers,” but “whoever does evil has not seen God.” This language reminds us of 1 John where the writer tells us to love not only in word but in deed, and whoever fails to love the family of God does not know God. One cannot say they “have seen God” if they do not love God’s family.

John offers Gaius a different model than Diotrephes. Perhaps Diotrephes was creating quite a name for himself in the region through his own self-promotions and creating doubts in Gaius about his course of action. Whatever the case, John points Gaius to Demetrius who also, apparently, was well known in the region.  Not only does John commend him but also everyone commends him. He has the “testimony”—he has the witness of the church, John, and the truth.

Conclusion

Diotrephes, while no doubt claiming to love the family of God, loved himself more. Selfish ambition shaped his decisions. He abused his power; he abused the love entrusted to him.

John concludes his brief letter with a mutual greeting:  the friends (philoi) greet Gaius and Gaius is to greet the friends (philoi). The one who loved to be first lost sight of the reality that love and friendship are a communal reality.  It is not about preeminence but about shared love in the truth.

Questions

  1. Identify the positive descriptions of Gaius in this letter.  What does this say about the character and life of Gaius?
  2. Who are the traveling “brothers”? What are they doing? Why is it important to support them?
  3. What problem does John have with Diotrephes? What motivates Diotrephes? What power/position does he have within the church?
  4. Is “abused love” a good, helpful or problematic, unhelpful characterization of the situation Diotrephes represents?
  5. Identify some analogous situations in the church or home where love is abused by selfish ambition. What is the root problem? How do the Epistles of John address this problem?

2 John: Discerning Love

December 11, 2013

“The elder” writes to the “elect lady” about “truth and love.” The brief three-verse salutation of the letter (1-3)—a feature that 1 John did not have—uses the term “truth” four times and “love” twice. This signals the theme of the letter as the two major sections in the body of the letter exhort the church to love (4-6) and truth (7-11). The first section reminds the church that the fundamental “command” of the faith is to love each other. The second warns that “many deceivers” (that is, docetists) are seeking an opportunity to influence the church, and they have, in fact, denied the “Truth” (the reality of God in the flesh). The writer has a deep personal interest in the health of the “elect lady.” He is protective but also encouraging. He intends a future visit though he is uncertain when that might happen.

“The elder,” in effect, calls for a discerning love. Love is the command that shapes the church from the beginning and it is still central for communal life. But this love is neither blind nor pluralistic. The community must learn to “love in truth” as they “walk in love.” The community does not believe everything it hears or welcome everyone who comes. The church, because it loves in truth, must discern between “deceivers” and those in whom the truth abides.

Greetings

Who is “the elder” and who is the “elect lady”? The letter’s language is most naturally associated with the author of 1 John. The style, vocabulary, and topics are clearly the same as 1 John. We may assume that elderly apostle John is “the elder.” The title is probably more a term of respect and honor than identification as the leader of a particular congregation. He is “the elder,” that is, he is a senior leader of the Christian movement in that region.

The “elect lady” may refer to a particular woman, perhaps the patroness (even leader?) of a house church, but it seems more likely that it refers to a particular congregation or house church. The letter refers to “your house” (11), which identifies the recipient of the letter with a specific community of believers. They are the “children” of the “lady,” that is, they are the members of that congregation. Consequently, “the elder” warns the congregation (house church) to be discerning about whom they welcome and whom they do not.

“Truth” is important for “the elder.” He “loves” in truth as does everyone who “knows” the truth. Those who “know” the truth love in truth because the truth lives (abides, remains) in them as this same truth is eternally with the community of believers (“us”). The Father and Son are present in grace, mercy and peace with those who live “in truth and love.”

But what is this “truth”? Generally, we should read this term against the background of 1 John itself, which gives a fuller exposition of the “truth” that is assumed in this brief letter. More specifically, we should probably understand “truth” here in contrast to the “deceivers” that carrying a different message to various “house” churches. In other words, the truth is the reality of God’s eternal life incarnated in the person of Jesus. Jesus is the truth, that is, he is the love of God enfleshed for our sakes. In this one God loved us and the truth of eternal life was revealed, embodied, and lived out in Jesus.

Great Joy

The great “truth” of the gospel is embodied in Jesus. The children of the elect lady (house church) walk in this truth when they love just as Jesus loved. This is the “command” which shapes “the elder’s” understanding of how to live the truth. When the truth abides in us we love each other, and this is the command that we obey.

The “command” is both “from the Father” and “from the beginning.” This language points us to the person of Jesus himself who is also “from the Father” and “from the beginning.” When Jesus came in the flesh, he not only embodied this life of love, but commanded his disciples to love just as he loved. The command from the beginning was to walk in love and live in loving community with each other. This language not only reflects the themes of 1 John, it is also a brief summary of John 13 where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. There he not only modeled this love but encouraged them to love each other as a sign of discipleship. This was no new command; it is as old as God’s own life since God is love.

The “truth,” then, is not a series of ideas or a list of subscribed teachings. The truth is the reality of God’s love demonstrated in Jesus that calls us to love just as Jesus loved. God demonstrated that love in the incarnation itself! In obedience to the model of Christ and living in fellowship with the Father and Son, we are called to participate in the love that characterizes the life of God. The “truth” is seen when we love each other.

Warning

This truth, however, has a definite referent. It is rooted in the reality of the incarnation, that is, that Jesus Christ truly came in the flesh. The Word of Life, as 1 John 1 describes Jesus, became flesh. The Son authentically and fully participated in the physical creation. The Son became fully human. This conviction is so central to the Christian faith that anyone who denies it is the “antichrist.” It is so important that no house church should welcome anyone who denies it.

What makes this so central? Why is the incarnation a crux for the Christian community? The incarnation is the claim that the eternal became particular in such a way that the particular revealed the eternal. The incarnation is the presence of God in the flesh; is eternal life enfleshed. God becomes one with us in the flesh so that we might become one with God in the fellowship of the divine community. Coming in the flesh, the Son united the creation with God so that we might participate in the communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Without incarnation—or denying the incarnation—there is no authentic union between God and humanity, and consequently there is no authentic communion.

This union is rooted in love. Through it we experience the love that the Father has for the Son and the Son has for the Father. God is love. When the Son unites with humanity as a demonstrative act of love—both through incarnation, ministry, and death—humanity is enabled to participate in the oneness of the Father and Son. To deny this is to deny the very nature of salvation itself since salvation is fundamentally the mutual indwelling of humanity and God (John 17:20-26).

Consequently, the church must guard itself against the antichrists, the deceivers. They go beyond the boundaries of the truth, that is, they teach something that does not conform to the reality enfleshed in Jesus. The truth is the love of God incarnated in Jesus, but the deceivers deny the incarnation. As such, they transcend the boundaries of what is in fact the case. The “teaching of Christ” does not refer to a broad collection of teachings. Rather, is the “teaching about Christ.” The particular point at stake is whether Jesus came in the flesh or not. The deceivers say he did not but the truth is that he did. To deny this truth is to deny Christ and undermines one’s relationship with the Father and the Son.

In effect, the Christian community has boundaries. One cannot deny the reality of the incarnation and receive the sanction of faithful house churches. “The elder” forbids the house church (“elect lady”) to welcome them or give them status in the church. While some think this refers to hospitality in the home (supporting missionaries)—and it may include that, it seems preferable to think in terms of what welcoming or receiving an itinerant teacher meant in the late first century. The author seems concerned that the church might give this “deceiver” a hearing or give them a teaching role in the church. It is about more than hospitality; it also about leadership within the community of faith.

If the church is to walk in truth and to love in truth, it cannot sanction the teaching of these deceivers who deny the reality of the incarnation that is a definitive revelation of God’s love.

Conclusion

“The elder” wants to visit the church. He knows the value of a pastoral visit and personal encouragement. The brevity of the letter probably indicates that this was written hurriedly in light of an emergency situation. He quickly fires off a letter to encourage the perseverance of the church in the truth as he knows that “many deceivers” have “gone out into the world” to dissuade others. It seems he has received reports that this church rejected the deceivers—perhaps under criticism—and he wants to reassure them that they did the right thing. They do not stand alone. “The elder” supports them and a whole community of believers (perhaps in Ephesus?) supports them.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Imagine the scenario that this letter assumes? Given the contents of the letter, what has happened or is happening in this community? What are the dangers?
  2. What does “the elder” mean by “love” and “truth”? How might we define those terms contextually and against the backdrop of 1 John?
  3. Does the “teaching of Christ” refer to everything Jesus taught or does it refer to what is taught about Christ (specifically, the incarnation)? Why is one interpretation more preferable than the other? How might either be abused in application today?
  4. What does it mean to say that the Christian community has boundaries today? Is this exclusivistic and unloving? What does it mean for the church to be unwelcoming of another? What are the dangers latent in such a discussion? What are the truths that are nevertheless important in such a discussion?
  5. How would you define and illustrate the idea of “discerning love”?

Micah 4 – Hope Despite Injustice and War

October 17, 2013

While the Jerusalem Micah knew was built by blood, destined for destruction, and soaked with injustice (Micah 3:9-12), the future Jerusalem is exalted above the mountains, committed to God’s agenda for the world, and enacts peace within the world. Rather than present injustice and war, the future Jerusalem secures justice and peace. The contrasts are stark.

Micah 3:9-12

Micah 4:1-5

Leaders despise justice. Yahweh will arbitrate justice.
Leaders empower themselves through violence. Nations will no longer train for war.
Leaders give false messages. Jerusalem teaches Yahweh’s ways.
Jerusalem will be plowed under. Jerusalem will be exalted above the mountains.
The temple will be overgrown with weeds. Yahweh’s house will receive the nations.
Nations will bring disaster upon Judah Nations will flow into Jerusalem to learn of Yahweh.
Injustice means economic oppression for the people. Every person will experience prosperity.
Fear abounds due to injustice and war. No one is afraid.

Micah 4:1-5 is a classic salvation text paralleled in Isaiah 2:2-4. Who borrowed from whom or whether they were both dependent upon another source is uncertain, but it is clear that the message stands in stark contrast with the injustices of Judah and the Assyrian invasion. Both prophets, Isaiah in Jerusalem and Micah probably in rural southwest Judah, ministered in a time of injustice and war. Micah, despite the predication of Jerusalem’s destruction, envisions a time when Jerusalem will become the center of the kingdom of God that draws the nations into relationship with God. This is not the case in the present (Micah 4:5), but it is a future hope.

The picture is idyllic. Notice the elements:

  • Mt. Zion is the highest mountain even though it is not now.
  • Nations will come to the mountain of the Lord.
  • Jerusalem will teach the nations God’s ways.
  • God will arbitrarte between nations with righteous judgment.
  • Nations will respond by giving up war and pursuing peace.
  • Everyone will enjoy life and prosperity without fear.

The exaltation of Jerusalem attracts the attention of the nations. They come to Jerusalem for divine judgment (“shall judge between many peoples”) and God settles the disputes among the nations.  The nations, in response, give up their war implements, choose agricultural production, and no longer train for war. The result is that every person will enjoy prosperity and peace because the nations no longer wage war against each other. Everyone will sit (rest, be at peace) under their own vine and fig tree, that is, they have sufficient leisure, food, and drink. This is not merely the absence of war but the actualization of peace. It is a life without fear.

When will this happen? Micah locates it in the “latter days.” Some identify this with a return from exile. But the postexilic community does not fit this description. Nations still waged war and they did not flow to Jerusalem to become disciples of Yahweh.

Others identify it with coming of Jesus into the world or the present reign of the kingdom of God in the world. One might point to Peter’s identification of the “latter days” Joel anticipated with the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost as evidence that Micah’s “latter days” are also fulfilled in this moment (Acts 2:21ff). Nations came to Jerusalem at Pentecost, God poured out the Spirit on all flesh, and the church heralded a message pf peace. In other words, if Micah 4 is fulfilled in Acts 2, then Micah 4 is a spiritualized description of the church. But does this do justice to what is said about the nations (political entities)? Do the nations no longer train for war? This does not seem to be a description of the present world, and the interpretation overspiritualizes what does not seem intended as such.

It seems best to understand Micah’s vision along the line of Isaiah’s “new heavens and new earth” vision in Isaiah 65-66 (also Isaiah 9, 11). Micah envisions a time when nations will live in peace, learn from God, and enjoy life upon the earth. Some place this in a future millennium (a limited 1000 years), but I think it belongs to the New Creation itself, the new heaven and new earth upon which the New Jerusalem will descend. There the nations will receive healing, enjoy the light of God, and live upon the new earth. This, I think, is also the vision of Isaiah. It is the description of Revelation 21-22.

However, we should not think that because this is a description of the new heaven and new earth (if indeed it is) that it has no meaning or application to our present situation. It is important to remember that our present age is the presence of the “already/not yet” kingdom of God.  Even though we do not yet experience the fullness of the kingdom in the new heaven and new earth, we do experience new creation in Christ by the presence of the Spirit. We live in the present reality of the kingdom of God even though it has not yet fully arrived and fully transformed the present old creation into the fullness of the new creation. Or, another way of saying this is that we advocate and bear witness to the coming fullness of the kingdom in the present age. We live, then, as new creatures in Christ whose citizenship ilies with the kingdom of God. We live out the new creation within the old one.

What, then, might this mean in terms of this text? It seems to me that several points are pertinent.

We invite all nations to enter the kingdom of God, that is, to come learn of God. The message of the kingdom is inclusive. The kingdom of God transcends the nations and is not identified with any specific nation. There is no nationalistic exceptionalism within the kingdom of God.

We invite all nations to learn war no more. If the kingdom of God, when it has fully come, includes the destruction of weapons of war and the pursuit of peace, then if the church is the presence of the kingdom within the world it must advocate and pursue peace. The church, as the proleptic presence of the kingdom, is a peaceable kingdom; it is a reconciling and peace-making presence in the world.

We invite all nations to seek peace and prosperity without fear. The vision is that every person will have their own vine and fig-tree, that is, every one will have food and drink. Poverty is not part of the kingdom of God. Even within Israel there was to be no poverty (Deuteronomy 15; cf. 1 Kings 4:25), and the kingdom of God–when it has fully come–will rid the earth of poverty. The church, if it is the presence of the kingdom in the present, must advocate for the poor, call the nations to peaceful prosperity, and seek to develop strategies that deal with poverty upon the earth.

Micah’s kingdom vision–his new heaven and new earth vision–calls the church to live as if the future has already come, as if the fullness of the kingdom of God has already arrived. The church leans into Micah’s vision and owns it as their own.


Revelation 16 – Armageddon

October 14, 2013

The second vision (Revelation 4-16) now comes to a climatic conclusion. Taken up in the Spirit (Revelation 4:3) to the throne room of God, John saw the heavenly worship of the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb who took the book out of God’s hand (Revelation 4-5). Then John saw all seven seals opened (Revelation 6:1-8:5) and then heard the seven trumpets sounded that announced the coming judgment (8:6-11:19). After an interlude which identified the players in the drama (Revelation 12-14), seven angels emerged from heaven’s temple with seven plagues to complete the wrath of God (Revelation 15). These are the seven bowls of wrath that are poured out upon the earth in Revelation 16, and that sequence includes the reference to Armageddon.

The seven bowls of wrath follow a similar pattern as the previous sevens seals and seven trumpets, but with a different purpose. While the seven seals affected one-fourth of the earth and the seven trumpets affected one-third of the earth, the seven bowls of wrath affect everything. The seals and trumpets functioned as warnings in the hope that the inhabitants of the earth might repent, but they did not. The bowls of wrath are God’s final word; there is no reprieve from the seven plagues.

Though the purpose is different, the pattern is the same. The first four plagues (like the seals and trumpets) are grouped together and the final three fall together. The first four bowls are cosmic in nature. God’s wrath is poured out on the earth (16:2), sea (16:3), fresh water (16:4), and the sun (16:8). This is not cosmic destruction but rather apocalyptic descriptions of the dissolution of the imperial persecuting power. The earth is not destroyed but those who worship the beast are afflicted. As the hymn makes clear, the object of judgment is those who “shed the blood of the saints and prophets” (16:6); the cosmos itself is not the object of destruction. The cosmos does not deserve destruction but rather the empire that made war against the saints. The inhabitants of the earth who bear the mark of the beast refuse to repent and rather than giving God glory (as opposed to giving the Emperor glory) they cursed (blasphemed) the name of God. Their stubborn impenitence is the reason for divine judgment.

The last three plagues are focused on the empire itself rather than its earthly servants. The first plague is aimed at “the throne of the beast and its kingdom” (16:10). The second plague is aimed at drying up the Euphrates in order to release “the kings of the east” to do battle against the dragon, the monster from the sea, and the false prophet who is the monster from the earth (16:12-13). The third plague is aimed at the air…and it is over…mission accomplished (16:17). The total effect is what many have identified as Armageddon though actually only the sixth bowl is Armageddon itself.

Before looking closely at the final three plagues, it is important to notice how the seven plagues remind us of the plagues upon Egypt in Exodus. The bowls of wrath infect people with sores, turn water into blood, and plunge the beast’s kingdom into darkness. The Apocalypse describes the collapse of an empire in apocalyptic language that recalls how God defeated the Egyptian empire.  Just as the dragon had empowered the Egyptian empire, so the dragon empowered the Roman empire. Likewise, just as God defeated the Egyptians through plagues and judgments, so God will now overthrow the Roman power. God will avenge and end the persecution of the saints just as he liberated Israel from Egyptian bondage.

Why should we identify this moment with the end of Roman imperial persecution? Several factors are important. One is that the Apocalypse addresses the seven churches of the Roman province of Asia. This is a message for them. It calls for their patience and pertains to their martyrs. Moreover, the prologue and epilogue of the Apocalypse make it clear that the drama the book describes was something that would happen in the near future, not the distant future (Revelation 1:1, 3; 22:10). The promise of Jesus’ coming in Revelation 16 is not primarily the second Advent but the appearance of God’s justice–the wrath of the Lamb itself–within history to defeat the hostile powers that make war against the saints. In effect, the content of the Apocalypse is directly connected to the experiences, trials, and hopes of the seven churches of Asia. The drama does not describe 21st century events.

Another factor is the identity of the beast. He is identified as Nero Redividus. This cannot be Nero in the early 60s, but rather a Nero who would live again or return after being deposed/killed. Nero was a persecuting emperor and the beast is his rebirth as another persecuting emperor.  Moreover, it is the rise of a persecuting power where Christians live in a hostile environment. This hostility is not merely the threat of martyrdom but the danger of cultural accommodation and syncretism. The beast forces the inhabitants of the earth to worship him. Christians in thee second to early fourth centuries lived in that Roman world.

Another immediate factor in this context is the identification of the great city as Babylon. Revelation 17 clearly identifies Babylon with Rome since Babylon rests on seven hills. Babylon is a common late Second Temple Judaism metaphor for Rome since Rome oppressed the Jewish people just as Babylon did. 1 Peter 5:13 also identifies Babylon and Rome. That letter addressed churches in the region of the seven churches of Asia in the first century.

So, what is Armageddon? Etymologically, it is the “mountain (hill) of Megiddo” which is located in the Jezreel Valley. The hill (now Tel Megiddo) over looks the largest valley in Israel (the triangular valley is approximately 20x20x20 miles). Its history includes significant battles both before Israel’s occupation of the land and afterwards (including the defeat of Josiah at the hands of the Egyptians in 2 Chronicles 35:22). In Revelation 16 Armageddon is the place where two great armies assemble for battle.

An army headed by kings east of the Euphrates gather to do battle with the army made up of the “kings of the whole earth” assembled by the dragon, the beast and the false prophet. Clearly the “kings of the whole earth” does not literally mean the “whole earth” as the “kings of the east” are arrayed against the “kings of the whole earth.” Would not the “kings of the whole earth” include the “kings of the east?” The language is accommodated to the claims of the Roman empire who considered themselves the rulers of the “whole earth.” The statues of Roman Emperors held a globe in their hand as a symbol of their power over the “whole world.” Consequently, the imagery describes the armies of Rome assembled to do battle with their dreaded Parthian enemies from the east. This was the great fear of the Roman empire, that is, that another empire would replace it from the east.

But, and this is an important “but,” there is no battle. No battle is described. The seventh bowl of wrath is poured out and it is simply over; it is fini! The apocalyptic drama abruptly concludes, and the armies–though arrayed against each other–never engage. The battle scenario is simply an apocalyptic picture of God’s defeat of the Roman empire.  Just as God plunged the kingdom of the beast into darkness (the fifth plague) and destroyed Babylon with an earthquake (the seven plague), so here God pictures the fall of the empire through the metaphor of a battle, an Armageddon. Much like we might say that Nixon had his Waterloo, so the Roman empire has its Armageddon.

In other words, there is no battle of Armageddon any more than the empire is plunged into a literal darkness or literally destroyed with a great earthquake (or that islands literally fled or mountains disappeared or 100 pound hailstones dropped from the sky). These are all symbols for the catastrophic fall of imperial powers hostile to the kingdom of God in the Roman world. Armageddon is a symbol for the “great day of the Lord,” but it is only one of the symbols; it is only one of the seven bowls of wrath.

The “great day of the Lord” is like other past days in the history of Israel where nations or cities fell (e.g., Babylon in Isaiah 13:6,9; Jerusalem in Lamentations 2:22; cf. Joel 1:15; Amos 5:18; Obadiah 15; Zephaniah 1:7, 14, 18). The fall of powers hostile to the kingdom of God within history are all moments of divine judgment. Those are each a “day of the Lord” as the Lord’s justice and righteousness is revealed against evil.

What, then, is the meaning of Armageddon for contemporary readers of Revelation? It is the confidence that God is at work in history to reveal divine justice and righteousness. While hostile powers will rise at various times and moments, God will ultimately–either within history or at the “end” of history–set things right. Ultimately, the kingdom of God will fully come and a new heaven and new earth will appear where God and the Lamb will reign upon the earth in justice and peace throughout eternity.

There have been multiple “Armageddons” and there will be more. Powers hostile to the kingdom of God come and go, but they keep coming because the dragon is still alive and active (as much as God permits the dragon to be). Saints are called to patient endurance and faithful witness as these times come and go. The assurance the Apocalypse offers is that the God of the Exodus is still active within history and the hostile powers will not win. God may permit them for a time but God will also set things right even though trying times will come again…and again…until God creates a new heaven and new earth.


Revelation 15:1-8 — A New Exodus

October 12, 2013

The harvested followers of the Lamb now sing the song of Moses and the Lamb. They, like Israel before them, celebrate liberation and redemption as they stand by the sea. They have conquered (overcome) the beast and its image and they sing with harps in hand a new song of redemption. Like Israel they celebrate an Exodus, a liberation from bondage. Standing by the sea before the throne of God, they rejoice with praise (both harping and singing).

This is a new Exodus. Just as Israel was delivered from the powers of Egypt, so the church is delivered from the powers of Rome. The dragon has stood behind both and wielded both powers in the service of a demonic agenda, that is, to defeat the kingdom of God in the world. Standing by the sea, singing the song of Moses and the Lamb, the martyred hosts along with all those who have overcome and assembled around the throne of God celebrate their freedom just as Israel did on the other side of the sea in Exodus 15.

Exodus language dominates this chapter. Here are a few connections.

  • Martyrs stand by a sea like Israel did.
  • God poured out plagues on Rome just as was done to Egypt.
  • Rome experiences the wrath of God just like Egypt.
  • Martyrs sing the song of Moses just as Israel did in celebration.
  • There is a sanctuary within the tent of witness just as Israel had a tabernacle in the wilderness.
  • The seven angels are dressed like priests in Israel.
  • The glory of God filled the sanctuary just as it did in Exodus 40.
  • No one could enter the sanctuary just like in Exodus 40.

There is no mistaking the sense of a new Exodus in Revelation 15. The question is what kind of Exodus is this? It is, given the pouring out of the bowls of wrath in Revelation 16, a saintly celebration of the battle of Armageddon. This effects a new Exodus. Armageddon is the equivalent of the battle between Yahweh and Pharoah. Armageddon defeats the powers–the dragon and the two monsters–and liberates the saints.

But when is the battle of Armageddon? That is a question that must await Revelation 16. What is clear is that this chapter anticipates that outcome as God is about to act. Through the seven plagues which are seven bowls filled with God’s wrath, God will complete the judgment of the powers that have threatened the people of God, the powers that have made war against the saints.

We cannot mistake the reality of divine wrath in this picture. The term “wrath” (thumos) appears twice in Revelation 15 (1, 7) but was used twice as part of the judgment descriptions of Revelation 14 (10, 19). This passionate anger is directed toward those who worshipped the beast and persecuted the saints. Indeed, the sea before the throne of God which was so calm and placid in Revelation 4 is now mingled with “fire” (Revelation 15:2) which probably alludes to the fire from the altar that is poured out in judgment upon the earth (Revelation 8:5). It is the fire of God’s wrath (cf. Revelation 14:10,18). God is stirred to action; God is now ready to avenge the blood of the saints. The prayers of the saints, particularly the lament of the martyrs (Revelation 6:10), are now about to receive a final answer from God. The wrath of God is about to be “complete” (or finished; Revelation 15:1)

The hymn–the song of Moses and the Lamb–praises God’s righteous acts. Just as Israel praised Yahweh for the exercise of God’s “burning anger” against Pharoah (Exodus 15:7), so the saints praise God for righteous judgment. Just as the Exodus was the defeat of Egyptian powers that terrified the nations (Exodus 15:14-16), so this divine judgment will move the nations to fear and glorify the name of God. Now that God’s righteous acts have been revealed, “all nations will come and worship you.” The Lord God Almighty is, in the light of these just and righteous judgments, revealed as the “king of the nations!”

God’s acts, while certainly an expression of divine wrath against powers hostile to the kingdom of God, are also redemptive. These acts reveal the reign of God and become means by which the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of God (cf. Revelation 11:15). Through God’s righteous deeds the nations will learn to worship God.

Israel had sung this hope for centuries.  The nations are the inheritance of Israel as they belong to God. Psalm 2 rejoices in the hope that the rulers of the earth will serve Yahweh and that Yahweh’s anointed will rule the nations.  This hope lies in the background of the Apocalypse. The Messiah reigns over the nations and will share that reign with the saints (cf. Revelation 2:26-27 which quotes Psalm 2:9). The Messiah will exercise the “rod of iron” over the nations, defeat the powers, and ultimately heal them (cf. Revelation 19:15; 22:2).

Part of the story of Revelation is that God executes justice within history as well as at the “end” of history. Israel’s exodus from Egypt was both the liberation of slaves and the execution of justice against oppressive powers. God has continued, throughout history, to liberate and execute justice. The Apocalypse, specifically this second vision in Revelation 4-16, is another example of a recurring pattern in history.  Powers, incited by the dragon, wage war, persecute saints, and practice injustice until their cup is full and then God through the processes of history brings justice to bear upon the situation. God, at times, sets things right within history just as he will ultimately make all things new in the new heaven and new earth.

The Apocalypse describes, in apocalyptic language, a process of history by which God patiently tries the powers (seeking their repentance) but ultimately judges their evil. God did it to Egypt, Assyrian, Babylon, Greece, and now, in the Apocalypse, to Rome.  Each, however, was a proleptic moment (one within history anticipating the “end” of history). In each of these divine movements is the embedded promise that God will, one day, set the world right and create a new world of justice and peace.


Sermon on the Mount in Seven Hours

October 11, 2013

Check out some of the Lipscomb Bible faculty taking you through the Sermon on the Mount in seven lessons.  Here is the link. Hope you enjoy them.


Luke 15: Jesus Seeks “Sinners”

October 8, 2013

The book unChristian alerted Christendom that it had an image problem with millennials. Christians are perceived as insensitive, judgmental and hypocritical. Some responses to the book  were skeptical and defensive. Others not only agreed that Christianity had an image problem but they went further. Christianity has a reality problem, that is, contemporary discipleship is often skin-deep and profoundly shallow.

This is not to say that there are no Jesus-followers whose discipleship is deeply rooted in practicing the kingdom of God. It is to say that Christianity’s image problem is often created by Jesus-followers who only know Jesus through the lens of American consumerist religion (“how will this benefit me?”), or American civil religion (“let’s get this country back on track!”), or isolationist separatism (“let’s withdraw from this God-forsaken world!”). Most importantly, this image is created by “disciples” who don’t really know Jesus and thus can’t follow him.

The clash between Christianity’s reality-based image problem and an authentic discipleship is perhaps best illustrated in how Christians tend to approach “sinners.” unChristian claims that it is precisely in this area that Christians are perceived as arrogant, insensitive and judgmental.

I know my reaction is immediately defensive, but my reflection tends to confirm the perceptions.

But before I proceed further, let me focus for a moment on what I mean by “sinners.” I place the word in quotations marks because I want to think about its meaning in the context of the Gospel of Luke. This is Luke’s language for outsiders. They are a class of people who are marginalized, ostracized and avoided by the religious elite who, in turn, influence the devoted faithful to distance themselves from such. They include not only prostitutes and tax collectors but also the poor, the prisoner, and the enslaved. These are the “last” of Jewish society who are intentionally and pervasively shunned by the most devout.

“Sinners,” then, in the Gospel of Luke refers to outsiders, to the unclean, to the powerless within the religious culture of Judaism. And this is the group which Jesus seeks; he seeks “sinners.” This, then, becomes the sore spot, the point of intense critical comment, on the part of the Pharisees and scribes.

This, they think, is Jesus’ weak spot. Cultural perception is on their side. Everyone resents favorable treatment of tax collectors.  Religious folk can make no sense of associating with prostitutes. The powerful wealthy fear any encouragement of the poor. Few might not begrudge a kindness for these groups on occasion, but few would honor the kind of hospitality Jesus shows them. Jesus “welcomes and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).

At bottom the parables of Luke 15 defend Jesus approach to “sinners.”

Jesus is the wealthy shepherd who will leave the ninety-nine to find the one that has wandered away. He is the impoverished widow who will turn the house upside down to find a lost silver coin. He is the fleet-footed father who runs to embrace a returning “sinner.”

Jesus is the good shepherd who joyfully slings the found sheep on his shoulder and calls his neighbors together to rejoice with him. Jesus is the excited woman who calls her friends to share her joy in finding her silver coin. He is the exuberant father who slaughtered the fattened calf to celebrate his son’s return.

What was lost has been found. This is reason to celebrate. Jesus underscores this by highlighting the joy heaven itself feels when “sinners” are found. Friends and neighbors rejoice with the shepherd, the woman and the father. The angels in heaven rejoice with them. God rejoices with them. But there is only one person who is not happy. The older brother….and, we should add, the Pharisees and scribes.

The shepherd rejoices….the woman rejoices…the father rejoices, but the brother is angry. Whereas the parables, up to this point, stress jubilation, the brother introduces a contrast that now becomes the climactic focus. It becomes the point. It becomes an invitation.

But the contrast is more dramatic that we realize with our traditional, western and American eyes. Like the Pharisees and scribes, we can certainly see the point of the first two parables. We may be somewhat surprised that a shepherd would leave ninety-nine in the “wilderness” (eremo) to search for only one. And we might be a bit surprised that a woman would turn her whole house upside down for a single coin. But we understand the joy and excitement that comes from the two finds.

What Jewish culture would not understand, however, is the behavior of the father. The division of property before the death of the father was severely discouraged in Second Temple Judaism as it put the family at risk should the family assets come under stress at a later time. The father risked his future by giving the inheritance early. This shamed the father as well as the son in the eyes of the village and clan.

Further, the father is willing to humiliate himself for the sake of his son. The Jerusalem Talmud says that anyone who loses their wealth to the Gentiles should be cut off from the people. The Talmud describes a ritual where a bowl filled with burnt nuts is broken in front of such offenders and the people announce their ban. While the village and clan would exclude this son, the father runs to meet him and welcomes him to a banquet table. The father humiliates himself by running and shames himself by receiving him when one might expect the patriarch of the family to wait in the shadows to receive his son in private. The father is willing to risk cultural critique for the sake of his son.

Why does the father cross these boundaries? Why does the father shame himself? The answer is a single word found in our text: compassion. Compassion moves the father to risk humiliation. It moves him to bear the shame his son deserves. It moves him to rejoice over what has been found. There is no anger. There is no suspicion. There is no dressing down. There is only surprising joy that does not care what others think.

Two different occasions in my memory bring this home for me. On one occasions I confessed sin to a small group of people. One of my elders was in that group and when he heard my confession he came over to me, hugged me, kissed me and kneeled before me in loving forgiveness. That brother knew the father’s compassion. On another occasion, a person whom I deeply loved confessed sin to a couple of his preacher friends and after that confession they never spoke to him again. They did not understand the father’s love. They were more like the elder brother who thinks differently about this situation.

The elder brother is angry. At one level, this makes sense. Indeed, culturally, we would have expected the father to show a bit of anger himself. The young son had shamed the family, put the family at risk, wasted his inheritance, and returned home as a beggar. Can we trust him again? Does he not need to learn a lesson? Should he not have to prove himself? Anger makes sense.

Anger makes sense when there is no compassion. The elder brother reveals his heart when he confronts his father. His relationship with his father is not rooted in love but in servile fear. He has slaved for his father, resented how the father has seemingly withheld gifts from him, and now envies what the father is doing for the younger son. His anger attacks the younger son by particularizing the nature of his lustful waste (he was with prostitutes–he was with “sinners”!). The elder brother served his father out of fear in the hopes that he might be rewarded. He is angry because he fears the loss of his father’s love, or perhaps he fears the further diminishing of his inheritance. He is angry because he is afraid, and he is afraid because his relationship with his father is founded on reward rather than love.

The father, however, also has compassion for his elder son. He humiliated himself for his sake as well as for the younger son. The father leaves his place at the banquet to go out to plead with him. Where he might have demanded his son’s obedience, instead he affirms his love for him. He sees no distinction between what he has and what belongs to the son–the inheritance is all his. The father loves both his sons and wants nothing more than their reconciliation.

The father has two lost sons but one of them stayed home while the other went into the “far country.” The Father loves both lost sons and welcomes both to the table.

Jesus is the father. Jesus welcomes “sinners” (like the returning son) to the table. He runs to them, embraces them, shares gifts with them, and leads them to the table. He seeks them. He approaches them with hospitality, grace and joy. This angers the Pharisees and scribes. They think it inappropriate, unholy and dishonorable.

The difference is that Jesus loves “sinners.” He humbles himself in approaching others; he incarnates himself to join humanity at the table. He is sensitive to their shame as he bears the shame of their meeting and walk together just as he would bear the shame of the cross. He is forgiving as he eats with them in reconciling hospitality just as even now Jesus meets us at the Eucharistic table of joy and mercy.

Indeed, in the larger Christian story, the Father sends the Son into the far country to retrieve and reconcile sinners. The Son becomes a prodigal himself. The Son follows us into the brokenness of the world, is baptized with us, sits with us in the wilderness, goes to the tables of Pharisees and “sinners” alike, and dies in obedience to the way of the Father. We, too, are called to follow the Son into the prodigal far country to be with “sinners.” We are called to be the father in this story just as we have been the prodigal child as well.

Unfortunately, we are too often the elder sibling.  unChristian describes the elder sibling. Rather than demonstrating hospitality we tend to shun “others.” Rather than showing sensitivity we erupt in anger or we are at least indifferent to their situation. Rather than humbling ourselves to bear their shame we arrogantly demand they cross the street to meet us.

It is little wonder that Christians have an image problem. It is acute because we fail to image Jesus himself. Gandhi was right. The problem with Christianity is Christians.

Nevertheless, in his compassion Jesus endures the shame to invite us, the elder siblings, to join the celebration where we might learn to imitate his seeking so that heaven itself might be filled with joy.

*The essence of a sermon delivered at the ACU Summit on September 18, 2013.


A Lament Homily

October 7, 2013

Last week Lipscomb grieved through a student’s death on campus. The University responded wonderfully and in every way. I was asked to speak in chapel last Tuesday. Here is the link if you wish to hear it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMc39Go6d7Q

Micah 2 – Confronting Economic Greed and Injustice

October 3, 2013

While the first half of Micah’s first oracle assured Judah that God was serious in treating them much like he did their northern neighbor Israel. Yahweh, Micah warned Judah, is about to appear at the gates of Jerusalem with the Assyrian army after they devastate the cities of southwestern Judah. In response to the message, Micah modeled lament and encouraged repentance. But Judah’s wound is infected and the transgressions of Israel abound in her.

At the center of this first oracle, found in Micah 1-2, is a specific rationale for Yahweh’s actions against Judah. Micah 2:1-5 identifies the pervasive economic greed and injustice that existed in Judah. This is a significant reason for Judah’s fiery trial. “Therefore,” Yahweh says, “I am devising disaster against this family” (Micah 2:3).

Micah draws a picture of a powerful elite who plot evil in their sleep and then act on it in the morning. What they want is a man’s inheritance, that is, they want his land. More than likely what is envisioned is a scenario where the man of a household has died or suffered some economic loss which has made his land vulnerable to seizure. Wealthy land-grabbers, exploiting the situation of a widow or an economic downturn, illegally (“oppress”) obtain the family’s inheritance. They seize their land which impoverishes the family but enriches the wicked.

“Therefore,” Micah prophesies, just as they had “devise[d] wickedness” (2:1), so Yahweh is “devising disaster” for them. Their elitist and powerful positions will amount to nothing in that day. Instead of strutting around in their pride and haughtiness, Yahweh will humble them. They will lose their status, power, wealth and inheritance. They will lose their “portion” and others (even the captors or “faithless”) will parcel out their land. What they intended to steal from others will be taken from them. Their taunts will come back to haunt them. Instead of boasting in their acquisitions, they will “wail with bitter lamentation.”  As a result, no one will represent them when the lands are divided; there will be “no one to cast the line by lot in the assembly of the Lord.” Their inheritance will be lost…totally. The first will become last.

Such a message is unbelievable; the wealthy will not hear it. They have a counter message. Demanding that Micah stop preaching such nonsense, they can’t imagine that God’s would be so impatient with them as to bring such a disaster upon Judah.  The wealthy ask….

  • Has the Spirit of the Lord grown impatient? Surely Yahweh would not give up on Judah, the Lord’s own people!
  • Are these God’s doings? Surely Yahweh would not do such a thing!

Micah’s response? Oh, yes, God would. Yahweh is already “devising disaster” for Judah. There is no doubt, Micah notes, that God “do[es] good” to those who “walk uprightly.”  But….

This is an important “but.”  The NRSV translates it nicely.

But you rise up against my people as an enemy; you strip the robe from the peaceful, from those who pass by trustingly with no thought of war. The women of my people you drive out from their pleasant houses; from their young children you take away my glory forever.

The “you” are the powerful who “devised wickedness” in the night that they might implement it during the day. In other words, Micah once again specifies the rationale for the disaster that Yahweh is now devising for them. The powerful treated their own people as an enemy.

What did they do?  The stripped the peaceful–those who were adverse to war–of their dignity and power.  They took advantage of the peace-makers and turned their power against them. They evicted women and children from their homes as they seized their property. In so doing they have stripped the land of God’s glory since the inheritance of the people was now lost, an inheritance God gave them. These powerful land-grabbers stole from God!

But God will treat them just as they have treated others. Just as they evicted women and children and despoiled peaceful men, so now the powerful will “arise and go” from the land God gave them but without any place to rest. Rather than resting in the land of their God-given inheritance, they will now have nowhere to rest or live. Their actions have corrupted that land and brought down upon themselves a “grievous destruction.” They may soothe themselves with false prophets who promise wine and beer, but their messages are “empty falsehoods” though it scratches the itching ears of these powerful Judeans.

Their wealth and power will not matter. Their prophets are deluded. Their future is sealed. Yahweh will assemble Judah like sheep in a pen and Yahweh himself will lead them in captivity. Judah is going into exile.

Micah 2:12-13 is often read as a message of hope where Yahweh gathers and leads the people out of exile. That is possible and is the majority view. However, some (including Harold Shank in the College Press NIV Commentary series) suggest that the text refers to God’s leading Judah into exile.

This answers the question of whether God would do such a thing. Would  God lead Judah into exile? Did not God send Israel into exile? The answer is that Yahweh will gather them, put them in a pen, and break out of the pen as they break through the gate of a city.  Like a king before his army, so Yahweh will lead the people into captivity.

Yahweh has devised disaster for Judah. The false prophets dismiss the idea. Surely Yahweh would never do such a thing, they think.  But God will, Micah says.

In contemporary Christianity we often imagine the sorts of things that God could or could not do. In fact, some theologies limit God’s hand. God would never bring disaster on a city, right? Does God do such things?

Micah says, Yes, God would, did, and does.

Perhaps we should measure our words carefully lest we agree with the false prophets of Judah.


A Lament Prayer: I Hate Death

October 1, 2013

You, God, who made the heavens and the earth and have promised to remake them, hear my voice.

I plea for a hearing because you often seem so distant to me and sometimes I fear that you do not listen. Awake, O God, and hear my prayer for I struggle once again with death. Death has again invaded my world.

God, I hate death. I trust that you hate it, too. Death is my enemy; it is your enemy as well. It rips apart the very fabric of peace, hope and trust. Where are you in the midst of death, O God? Why, O Lord, do you stand so far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

How, God, does death bring any meaning to your world? Would it not be better…would it not be to your glory…that you would rescue us from death so that we might praise you in the land of the living? Where is your praise in the grave? Is your steadfast love declared in the grave?

Lord God, every death raises questions about you, about the meaning of life, and your purposes. I confess that I cannot answer them, and “every death is a question mark”*. Death is like a fog that blinds me.

How Long, O Lord? Will you forget us forever? How long must we have sorrow in our hearts every day? How long must we live with these questions, doubts and tears? When will you rid us of this shroud?

God, take your hands out of your pockets and do something! Arise, O Lord, and destroy this enemy. Redeem us, O God, according to your unfailing love!

God, you are my God, and I entrust my life, including my eventual death, to you.

  • I confess that you, Father, are the maker of heaven and earth.
  • I confess that you, Jesus, were born of woman, lived among us, died with us, rose again for us, and now reign at the right hand of the Father interceding for us.
  • I confess that you, Spirit, are present to transform us and comfort us.

I confess the story is not yet over, and that you, God, will yet rise up and destroy the enemy, and you will give birth to a new world without death and without tears.

Rise up, O God, and give birth to your new world. Create your new world, Father. Comfort us, O Spirit, and come back soon, Lord Jesus.

Amen.

Given in the Gathering (Lipscomb University Chapel) on October 1, 2013 in Nashville, TN in mourning over the death of Isaac Phillips.

*From the song “Come Back Soon” by Andrew Peterson on his “Lost Boys” album.


Micah 1:8-16 – A Lament for the Towns of Judah

September 26, 2013

The fate of Samaria is reason enough to weep (Micah 1:6-7), but Micah’s symbolic act of lament is because Samaria’s incurable wound has come to Judah, even to the gate of Jerusalem itself (Micah 1:9). Micah laments the future of Judah, especially the towns in the southwestern region. This is the region of Micah’s own hometown, Moresheth-Gath.  These are the cities of his childhood and the homes of his own people.

Micah’s lament language is vivid and his actions are symbolic. The word “lament” in Micah 1:8 refers to the act of beating one’s breast. The pain is so deeply felt in the chest that lamenters beat it to express the hurt. The term “wail” may also be translated “howl,” and this makes more sense of the parallel with the jackals and ostriches who are known for their loud, screeching mourning songs.

Micah will not only voice his sorrow, but he will act it out. He will walk barefoot about these cities in a loin cloth (the probable meaning of “naked”). There may be a double meaning here as such attire characterizes captives and slaves as well as mourners.  The prophet’s behavior may not only be an act of lamentation but also a prophetic symbol. Micah preaches, like other prophets have and will, in both word and deed.

Indeed, these towns in the Shephelah of Judah will soon be overrun by Sennacherib’s army in 701 B.C. The Assyrian king established a permanent encampment in Gaza which borders the Shephelah. That army, joined by another that marched down the coast from Tyre to Ashkelon, will defeat an Egyptian force and then march through southwestern Judah. Before it settles at the gate of Jerusalem to lay siege, the Assyrians will destroy 46 walled cities and take over 200,000 captives. The immediate future of these Judean cities is bleak.

Micah’s lament is prophetic warning, but it is also a divine grieving. This is the word of Lord. Micah laments because God laments. The message gives God no pleasure; it carries a bitter taste.

The lament itself (Micah 1:10-16) names eleven cities affected and characterizes their doom in some way. Each characterization is a play on words which is not apparent to English readers but is obvious to those who know Hebrew.

  • Gath — sounds like the Hebrew word for “tell” and might mean something like don’t tell the enemy of our misfortune or don’t speak of the disaster; it is so horrible that we won’t even weep over it.
  • Beth-le-aphrah — means “house of dust” and the city is told to roll itself in the dust as the city will become dust.
  • Shaphir — means “pleasant or beautiful” such that the inhabitants of the beautiful-town will experience devastation; they will experience the nakedness and shame of captivity and lament.
  • Zaanan – sounds like the Hebrew word for “come out;” the inhabitants of the “going out” city will not get away or perhaps that they will “go out” as slaves.
  • Beth-ezel — means “house of another” but the Assyrians will take away any support or help so that they stand alone.
  • Maroth — sounds like the Hebrew word for “bitter;” bitter-town will wait for something good but it will not come.
  • Lachish – sounds like the Hebrew word for “team” (as in a team of horses); Lachish, a fortified city with chariots, is about to do battle as they must hitch up their horses to the chariots.
  • Moresheth-gath – sounds like “dowry;” the inhabitants of the “dowry” town will depart to live with their new husband the King of  Assyria.
  • Achzib — means “deception” and she will prove deceitful to the kings of Israel (Judah?) who depend on her; she will fail to live up to the king’s expectations.
  • Mareshah — sounds like the Hebrew word for “conqueror” and its verbal root means “possessor;” perhaps the pun is that those in the “possessor town” will be possessed by the king of Assyria.
  • Adullam — reminds Judah of the stories of David who hid in the region’s caves; now the glory of Israel will hide in the caves.

The list contains several elements of theological commentary on the devastation of these cities. Lachish, for example, is the beginning of Samaria’s idolatry in Judah. We know that some of kind of idolatrous temple was erected in Lachish and the text probably refers to that (though some think it was the introduction of chariots and horses as a form of military security rather than trusting in Yahweh). Whatever the case, this region–where the invasion of Judah begins–is where the sins of Judah began.

The “disaster” that has come to the “gate of Jerusaelm” is from Yahweh. The term “disaster” literally means “evil,” but it does not necessarily entail a kind of moral evil. Rather, it refers to trouble. Yahweh introduces chaos into Judah and up to the gate of Jerusalem because of Judah’s sins.

After moving through the Shephelah city by city, Micah’s lament ends with a final piece of advice. Parents should join Micah in his mourning ritual. They should cut their hair because their children are going into exile. The “disaster” is devastation and exile.  The wound of Israel is coming to Judah.  It is time to lament.

Nations and communities must learn to lament over their sins and the self-destruction sin brings to a nation or community. Sometimes all we can do is lament as the consequences of sin are inescapable.


New Creation: A Theological Summary

September 24, 2013

“There is the earnest preaching of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come; the development of the guilt of man, the grace of God, the love of Christ, the mystery of the Cross, sin pardoning mercy, adoption into the family of God, with the unction of the hope of the resurrection to everlasting life, of the new earth and the new heavens, &c., &c. These are the soul-stirring, the soul-subduing, the soul-transforming themes of the gospel of the grace of God.”[1]

Alexander Campbell (1865)

Eschatology, epitomized in the idea of “new creation,” is not so much about what happens last and the order in which it happens as much as it is about the future that is already present and at work in the world.

Creation is good, but new creation is better. The creation, though it retains its inherent goodness, is presently frustrated because it is bound over to corruption. It awaits something better; it awaits a glorious liberation. The present bondage will pass away even as the creation itself is gloriously transfigured when the new heavens and new earth appear.

As the present form of the world is even now passing away, the new creation is already present. The children of God experience the first fruits of the new creation through the presence of the Spirit who transforms them from glory to glory. By this the children of God are new creatures renewed in the image of their Creator. Yet the children of God, along with the creation itself, groan for full adoption through the redemption of their bodies. This new humanity, already present by the Spirit through sanctification, will fully appear in the resurrection.

New humanity is grounded in the new human, Jesus the Messiah. The glorified Lord is new creation. He reversed the curse under which creation groans as the kingdom broke into the world through his ministry in the power of the Spirit. He transformed death as the firstborn from the dead by the will of the Father. His Adamic body was transformed into a new body animated by the Spirit of God through which the ascended Messiah reigns in the heavenlies. At the right hand of the Father, ever interceding for the people of God, he has poured out the Spirit upon the church in order to transform them into new community, a new creation. Jesus, as glorified human, will return to redeem humanity and inaugurate the new heavens and new earth so that the glory of the God may fill the creation.

This new humanity embodied in Jesus is the ground of new creation. That new life is our life. Jesus’ new creation kingdom ministry is our ministry. The second Adam’s life-giving body is our future body. Just as the old Adamic life passed away in the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, so our lives—inwardly renewed and outwardly redeemed—participate in the new life revealed in the new humanity of the ascended Lord. Just as our old Adamic life is transformed into a new and glorious freedom, so the creation itself will share in the joy of the children of God.

This story—the movement from the old age to the new age—is pregnant with meaning for church, ministry, and life. As new creatures, we live by the ethic of the new creation. As people translated into the kingdom of God, we live as if the kingdom of God has already come. Anticipating the renewal of creation, we pursue environmental care. We embrace the vision, ethic, and mission of the new creation embodied in the incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Messiah.

This year Harding School of Theology will explore the significant themes, implications, and applications of “new creation” through chapel and special events throughout this academic year. The richness, depth, and visionary importance of this theme define Christianity.

This piece was authored for HST’s Bridge (Summer 2013).


[1] Alexander Campbell, “Orthodox Regeneration,” Millennial Harbinger 4th Series, 5 (September 1865) 494.


Micah 1:2-7 — Yahweh is Coming!

September 9, 2013

The small-town prophet receives a big-time message from Yahweh. Micah announces that Yahweh is coming to Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom Israel. This, however, is about more than Israel. It is  Yahweh’s witness against the nations even though it is the nations who devastate Israel.

The opening address functions as a lawsuit where the prophet stands as a prosecutor who represents Yahweh’s interests. The nations and the whole earth are the witnesses. But the nations are also defendants as the Lord’s witness against Israel is also a witness against the nations. If the Lord will not spare Israel, God’s own covenant people, the Lord will not spare the nations. The sins of Israel are also the sins of the nations, and therefore the judgment of Israel is also the judgment of the nations. So, the nations will not only hear the prosecution as witnesses they will also recognize that the lawsuit equally applies to them. When Yahweh comes to Israel, the Lord also sends a message to the nations.

Yahweh comes from the heavenly “holy temple” (cf. Psalm 11:4; Habakkuk 2:20) to “tread upon the high places of the earth.” Micah describes a theophany. God shows up. The movement from the heavenly dwelling place (“holy temple”) to earth is described in apocalyptic terms. The mountains melt like wax before the fire and the valleys split open like rushing water down a steep embankment. God appears as a consuming (melting) fire and terrifies the earth as we are frozen in fear before a rapid gushing down a ravine.

The “high places” are not merely mountain tops. Rather they are the location of mountain sanctuaries for the gods of the nations and the idols of Israel. God is coming to “tread upon the high places of the earth.” Yahweh will appear at the sanctuaries of the gods and the mountains will melt.  God will “tread” or trample those high places and wash them away as with water.  Yahweh’s judgment is directed at the high places.

This is the transgression of both Israel and Judah, both the northern and southern kingdoms. “Transgression” and “high place” parallel each other in Micah 1:5 just as Samaria and Jerusalem do. The whole of God’s people are under judgment; Yahweh is coming to deal with both.

The emphasis, however, is on Israel. This opening section is the only place where Micah mentions Samaria. The rest of the book will address Judah. It is as if what happened to Samaria is Micah’s object lesson not only for the nations but more particularly for Judah. Jerusalem should learn the lesson of Samaria. Their sins resulted in their exile and if Jerusalem does not return to the Lord, Judah will experience the same judgment as Samaria.

Micah 1:6-7 details the reasons and consequences of this judgment.  The consequence is the metaphorical dismantling of Samaria as a city. While the language is often taken as literal in Micah 1:6, there is no archeological evidence for the total destruction and depopulation of the city. There is evidence of a layer of burnt materials as if the city was assaulted, but the city was inhabited until destroyed by John Hyrcanus in 107 B.C.E. The language, like mountains melting, is metaphorical as it describes the social and political devastation that Samaria experienced in 722 B.C.E. at the hands of the Assyrian King Sargon II.

The sins of Israel that invited this judgment are identified in Micah 1:7. “Carved images” and “idols” are parallel with “wages.” The fire that will consume Samaria will also destroy her idolatry. Samaria cannot trust her gods. “Wages” refer to what Israel paid these gods (as if they were paying prostitutes). They used their resources to serve these idols, even perhaps engaging in cultic practices with prostitutes. But the language is probably metaphorical. Israel prostituted herself by using her “wages” to pay for idols and their worship. Idolatry had infected Samaria. This is her sin.

MIcah’s ministry under the reigns of Kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah included the time when Samaria fell. The catastrophe appears future but the lament that follows (1:8-16) is more suited to the invasion of Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E. It seems most likely that Micah is using a past event (Samaria’s fall) to heighten the drama of Sennacherib’s march through the towns of Judah.  It is as if Assyria marches from the devastation of Samaria to the gates of Jerusalem (even though it is separated by 20+ years). The rhetoric underscores the common sins and plight of Samaria and Jerusalem.

Remember, however, this is not simply about Israel and Judah. It is a “witness” against the nations as well. God may well use Assyria to punish Samaria and Jerusalem, but in so doing they bear witness against themselves. They spell their own doom for the same sins.

Empires may trample others and think themselves justified, even blessed. But their violence bears the seed of their own destruction. “Hear, O peoples,” and watch how the Lord works among the nations.


Revelation 12:7-12 — How Might This War Be Won?

September 6, 2013

Then a war broke out in heaven!

That does not seem a likely place for a war. How can there be a war in heaven? Part of the answer is the two signs that appeared “in heaven” (Revelation 12:1-4). One sign represented the faithful people of God and the other Satan. One represented Israel and the other the powers of Rome. One gave birth to the Messiah while the other sought to devour him. The Messiah was born and when he ascended to the throne, a battle ensued.

The accession of the Messiah to the throne, in principle, spelled the doom of the dragon. He was already defeated. The son cannot be knocked off his throne. Nevertheless, there was a war.

While the fight, like in Daniel 10, is described as taking place in heaven between angelic beings–between Michael’s angels and the dragon’s angels, it was really a war fought upon the earth. The war in heaven is no contest, but the struggle on the earth is a test. But the contest on earth wins the war in heaven!

The dragon–Satan, the devil, the ancient serpent–is cast out of heaven. He has no power there; the throne is already occupied. The dragon, wearing diadems, seeks power. Satan wants to rule, but there is “no longer any place for [him] in heaven.” The struggle has moved from heaven to earth. The son assumed the throne through faithful obedience. Heaven is decided, but the earth is still contested. Consequently, this calls for “endurance” on the part of the saints (Revelation 14:12). Their faithfulness is the key to the battle on the earth (Revelation 13:10).

When the throne of the son was secured and the dragon was thrown back to earth, “a loud voice in heaven” heralded the situation. The announcement is significant as it lays out the stakes in the war that continues upon the earth even though heaven is at secure.  Here is what the voice said (Revelation 12:10-12):

Now have come the salvation
and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah!
For the accuser of our brothers,
who accuses them before God day and night,
has been hurled down.
They have overcome him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony.
They did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who inhabit them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows his time is short.

Similar to Revelations 11:15, this announcement proclaims the reality of the kingdom of God. Heaven is secured. The salvation of the martyrs is accomplished, and God has effected the reign of God in heaven. This is true because the accuser (Satan) is no longer present. Through the faithful obedience of the son and the martyr the accuser has been booted.

Zechariah 3 portrayed an angelic figure who stood before the Lord to accuse Israel of unfaithfulness which, in effect, prevented Israel’s restoration. That accuser, present in the heavenly court, was like a prosecuting attorney. God dismissed the accuser then and does so now as well. Once Satan accused the people of God “day and night” in the heavenly throne room, but no longer. He has been cast out, hurled down to earth.

But how was Satan defeated? Was it a mere exertion of divine power? Was it pure might rather than right? Quite the contrary. It was not power in the conventional sense at all. Rather, it was through the weakness of the cross. It was by the blood of the Lamb and the testimony of the faithful. This does not refer to some kind of penal blood atonement. Rather, it refers to martyrdom which is the result of faithful obedience. It is the suffering of both the Lamb and the martyrs–together they have defeated the accuser. They gave their lives in obedience to God. They were faithful even to the point of dying; their death was their testimony.  The martyrs–including the Lamb–defeated the powers of Satan. Faithfulness defeats the accuser.

In the same way Job defeated the accuser. Does Job serve God for nothing? (Job 1:6), the accuser asked. There is no one who serves God out of love; they all serve him for reward.  But Job proved the satan wrong.  While Job lamented and wailed (like the martyrs in Revelation as well), Job neither cursed nor forsook God. Evil is defeated by doing good; good overcomes evil. Faithful obedience subverts evil.

This is how the victory is won in Revelation. The message of the book calls saints to faithful endurance, to the faithful witness of martyrdom. There is no battle cry except the willingness to sacrifice their lives. There is no call for violent revolution but only the willingness to suffer violence from the kingdom of this world for the sake of the kingdom of God. While faithful witness defeats the dragon, violence would only serve the dragon’s interests.

Heaven rejoices because the saints do not take up the sword but put their necks under it. The “heavens” and its inhabitants (the angelic hosts) are invited to rejoice.  Heaven has been cleared of Satanic powers by the faithful obedience of the Lamb and his followers.

But…and this is an important “but”…the drama is not over. The dragon has been cast out of heaven but still stalks the earth. The earth and the sea are yet subject to the dragon’s hostile activity. The destroyers of the earth (Revelation 11:18) are still at work within the creation. The devil is angry and is looking to make the most of the short time given him.

The “short time” is the same as the 1260 days (or 42 months or 3 1/2 years) that the godly woman hides in the wilderness and the two prophets witness to the nations. It represents the time God has permitted for the persecutors. It is a short time; it is not forever. But it is a deadly test, a time when the followers of the Lamb will be tried by fire.

Heaven has been cleared. The earth awaits redemption. What is our witness?


Revelation 12:1-6 — Two Signs in Heaven

September 5, 2013

The drama of the second (Revelation 4:1-16:20) has not yet ended. We are yet in the middle of it. Heaven has opened the seven seals (Revelation 6:1-8:5) and sounded the seven trumpets (Revelation 8:6-11:19) but we have not yet seen the final, climatic bowls of wrath (Revelation 15-16).  sandwiched between the trumpets and the bowls is the dramatic story of war in heaven and war upon the earth. It functions similar to the interludes that came between the sixth and seventh seals (Revelation 7) and trumpets (Revelation 10:1-11:14). This “interlude” identifies the players in the drama.

It is as if someone has hit the pause button on one screen–the drama of the unfolding sevens–and our attention has been arrested by another screen. The “interlude” of Revelation 12-14 will take us back to the beginning of the story as it reminds us that the conflict between God and the kingdom of this world is a long one.  The conflict was waged in the Garden of Eden, on the shores of the Red Sea, and in the birth and ministry of Jesus. What the followers of the Lamb experience is nothing new; the world powers have always opposed the kingdom purposes of God. The “interlude” identifies and describes the “war.”

John introduces the conflict by describing two signs that appear “in heaven.” The first sign is a woman clothed in creation itself–robed in the sun, standing on the moon and the twelve stars on her head in the form of a victory wreath (stephanos).  The second sign is a blood-red dragon whose seven heads were diadems and whose tail creates havoc on the earth by showering it with a third of the stars. The woman affirms creation while the dragon destroys it. The woman wears a victory wreath like the martyrs while the dragon rules the earth as a destroyer of the earth (cf. Revelation 11:18). The woman is God’s beloved while the dragon is God’s enemy.

Startlingly, the woman is pregnant and feels the birth pangs. She is about to give birth. The dragon menacingly stands in front of her ready to destroy whatever comes out of her. The birth is part of God’s redemptive story and the dragon opposes it.

A son is born. The son, protected by God, inherits a throne when he ascends to God. The dragon’s purpose is frustrated. Though the dragon wears seven royal diadems, the son assumes the throne. The son will reign rather than the dragon. The woman flees the anger of the dragon; she flees from the dragon into the wilderness for safety, a place prepared by God.

God delivers the son by snatching him up to heaven, but the woman is left upon the earth. She hides in the wilderness where she will stay for 1260 days or three and one half years (42 months).

Who are these “people”? What is happening?

The one certain identification in the text is the identity of the son. John gives us an interpretative key. He is the one who will “rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” This alludes to Psalm 2 where God’s anointed king will inherit the earth and the nations will experience God’s wrath. Revelation 11:18 also alluded to Psalm 2. The reign of the kingdom of the anointed (Messiah) began when the son was ascended to the right hand of God to sit upon his throne. The birth and ascension of Jesus are described in Revelation 12:5; the rest of the story–what filled the pages between those two events–is assumed. The readers know the history of the faithful witness who went to the cross in obedience to the Father and was raised from the dead to ascend to the throne. The son reigns.

Who is the woman?  We might say Mary and this would be partly correct but not mainly correct. The woman represents something much greater than Mary herself. The woman appears “in heaven.” The woman wears the martyrs victory wreath. The woman is those who have overcome, but those who overcame before the birth of the Messiah. The woman is faithful Israel. She gives birth to the Messiah. Mary, of course, represented Israel as the one through whom the Messiah came. So, at one level–a literal level–the woman is Mary, but the point is symbolic. Mary represents Israel. The chosen people of God gave birth to Jesus. Perhaps at even deeper level the woman represents Eve from whom the whole of humanity has come; she is the mother of all. She is the one whose seed would crush the serpent’s head. So, we might read this at three levels–Eve, Israel and Mary.

Who is the dragon? As with Mary, we might say that at a literal level the dragon is Herod who sought to destroy the Christ child in Bethlehem. But again the dragon is “in heaven” and the seven crowns and ten horns describe something much larger than Herod himself. The symbolic picture at least leads us to Roman power. Rome, as a world power, opposes the kingdom of God. In Revelation 17 we will see “seven heads and ten horns” explicitly identified with Roman imperial authority. It is not only Herod who seeks to destroy Christ; it is Roman power itself. But there is a cosmic dimension to this figure. The dragon is “in heaven” and is an enemy of the cosmos itself. Indeed, the dragon is identified in Revelation 12:9 as “that ancient serpent called the devil or Satan.” This is the one who opposed Eve herself and led the original couple astray even as he now leads the “whole world astray.” So, we might read this at three levels as well–Serpent, Rome and Herod.

Who, then, is the woman who flees?  She flees into the wilderness just as Israel fled from the armies of Pharoah into the wilderness for safety. But the woman is more than Israel at this point. The woman represents the whole people of God. This is indicated by the length of time she will stay in the wilderness.  It is the same length of time that the two witnesses in Revelation 11 prophesied against the ruling powers. Just as the two prophets represent a witnessing church, so here the hiding woman symbolizes the one people of God, now composed of Jew and Gentile.

The trial that has come upon the whole earth is the result of a cosmic battle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. The cosmic powers of evil are warring against the faithful people of God. This was true in the Garden. It was true at the Red Sea. It was true at the cross. It was true in first century Asia Minor. It is still true. The war is not yet over.


On Reading Micah (Micah 1:1)

September 4, 2013

Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, was from a small town 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem called Moresheth near the Philistine city of Gath. Micah was a rural prophet while Isaiah was close to the seat of power in Jerusalem. Ministering during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah (ca. 750-686 B.C.), he lived in momentous times.

During the time of these Judean kings, the northern part of Israel is annexed by Assyria. By 740 B.C. Tiglath-Pileser (745-727 B.C.) had conquered all of Syria (Aram). In 734 B.C., the Assyrian Emperor acquired a permanent foot in Palestine by annexing what was northern Israel (essentially the Galilee region) and setting up a base of operations near Gath. By 732 all the nations in the Levant were paying Assyria tribute.

When Israel foolishly thought they might remove Assyria’s yoke and refused to pay the tribute, Shalmaneser V (727-722 B.C.) besieged and sacked Samaria in 723/722 B.C. Sargon II (722-705 B.C.) then subjugated Palestine as the smaller states paid tribute as well as putting down a revolt in Egypt in 720 B.C. He had to put down another revolt among the small states in 711 B.C.

When Sargon was assassinated in 705 B.C., the king of Judah–Hezekiah– rebelled along with some of the small states in the region as well as Babylon. They were all hopeful that Egypt would rebel as well. But Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.) ended their hopes by 701 B.C. While Sennacherib did not sack Jerusalem, he decimated the Judean countryside.

In 1830 a six-sided clay prism inscribed on six sides was found in Nineveh in 1830. It is now in the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.  prism1It describes how Hezekiah “would not submit to my yoke” and so he “took forty-six of his strong fenced cities” along with “smaller towns.” He “plundered a countless number.”  He took 200,156 prisoners, “old and young, male and female, together with horses and mules, asses and camels, oxen and sheep, a countless multitude.” As for Hezekiah, he shut him up “in Jerusalem, his capital city, like a bird in a cage.” Eventually, he claims, Hezekiah paid a high tribute, including “thirty talents of gold and 800 talents of silver” along with other “rich and immense booty.”

As a result of this, Sennacherib established a policy (along with his successor Esarhadon [681-669 B.C.]) of non-interference with Judah–as long as Judah did not interfere with the “Via Maris” (the trade route by the sea).  Consequently, Judah remained an independent state.

Micah lived through these turbulent times. He probably experienced numerous Assyrian incursions (including the exile of Israel and its capital Samaria) and especially the devastating invasion of 701 B.C. when Judah was raped by Assyrian power.

What does a prophet say to a people who lived under such powerful threats and through such devastation? This is the message of Micah. It is a filled with warnings and woes, but also hope and witness. Micah laments the fall of Samaria  and warns Judah that they are next if they do not renew their covenant with Yahweh. Micah wants to turn Judah back to God.

The text, as we have it, easily divides into three sermons or homilies. Each begins with the summons to “Listen” ( The first (Micah 1-2) moves from lament over the fall of so many Judean cities (1:2-16) to a rationale for their destruction (2:1-11) but leaves Judah with a hopeful future (2:12-13). The second sermon (Micah 3-5) pronounces judgment upon political and religious leaders (3:1-12) and then glories in Yahweh’s return to his people through a new David (4:1-5:14).  The third sermon (Micah 6-7) begins with a covenant lawsuit (6:1-8) along with a rationale for the judgment of Judah (6:9-16) followed by a lament (7:1-6) but again ends in hope (7:7-20).

Micah’s sermons have a similar pattern. He begins with a lawsuit or judgment oracle, expresses lament, and then offers hope.

Surrounded by the nations and living under the threat of imperial pressure, Judah must choose in whom she will trust. The political dynamics are addressed by Isaiah but Micah, presumably speaking to the rural people of the land in Judah, calls for a faithful life that trusts in the promises of Yahweh. This is where Judah will find hope, peace and security.

The final verses of Micah tell the underlying story. God forgives and delights in steadfast love (hesed). God has not forgotten. God is faithful. God will remember his promise to Abraham.

Though the days are dark, the story is not over.


Revelation 11:15-19 — A Climactic Announcement

August 31, 2013

The drama of Revelation’s second vision (Revelation 4:1-16:21) comes to a climactic moment when the seventh trumpet sounds. The whole of heaven–the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders, myriads of angels and the great multitude–have seen the seven seals opened and all seven trumpets sounded. Heaven anticipates something dramatic.

The seventh horn is trumpeted and “loud voices in heaven” announce the coming reality.

 “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”

The significance of this announcement is difficult to overestimate. It is the goal of God’s work in the world, that is, that the reign of God through the Messiah would destroy hostile powers and fill the earth. It is the essence of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.”

The announcement comes as an accomplished fact to which the twenty-four elders respond. The “loud voices in heaven” are apparently the heavenly host, or perhaps God’s own inner circle (such as the four living creatures).  The redeemed, represented by the twenty-four elders, respond by getting off their thrones, falling prostrate before God and worshipping the one who sits on the throne.

We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
     who is and who was,
because you have taken your great power
     and have begun to reign.
The nations were angry,
     and your wrath has come.
The time has come for judging the dead,
     and for rewarding your servants the prophets
          and your saints and those who reverence your name
both small and great
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.

The thanksgiving hymn explains the meaning of the announcement. It is a eucharistic offering to the Pantokrator (Almighty) Lord God–the one who sits on the throne as the who always has been and continues to be–who now has begun to execute his reign on the earth through his great power. The “time” has come and God’s “wrath” has come.

This timing is about the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and promises. It is for what the church has prayed. Psalm 2 forms the backdrop for the hymn. The nations have raged against God, but now the time of God’s wrath has come (cf. Psalm 2:1-5). The nations have raged against God’s anointed (God’s Christ), but now God’s reign will defeat the kingdom of this world (cf. Acts 4:24-30). The hopes of Psalm 2 are now realized.

The transformation of the kingdom of this world into the kingdom of God’s Christ is the moment when the world is set right, when God’s righteousness prevails. This “setting right of the world” involves judging the dead–the righteous (holy ones [saints], prophets and those who fear God’s name) are rewarded and those who destroy the earth are themselves destroyed. The hostile powers to the kingdom of God are overthrown because they are bent on destruction. They have martyred the saints of God but the martyrs have overcome through martyrdom.  The church–the martyred witnesses of Revelation 11–is not delivered from martyrdom but through martyrdom. This is victory.

What, however, is the meaning of this announcement at this point in the drama of Revelation? Many readers of the Apocalypse divide the book at this point into two halves, chapters 1-11 and 12-22. I think this ignores the literary and visionary divisions within the book (“in the Spirit” at 1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10). The recurrent theophanic description (“peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake”) unites the second vision (4:5; 8:5; 11:19 and 16:18) as it concludes the seven seals, thunders and bowls of wrath. Chapters 4-16 function as a unit that progressively describes the disintegration and end of an empire (the seals only affect 1/4 of the earth, the trumpets 1/3, and the bowls of wrath the whole earth).

The climatic announcement at Revelation 11:15, then, comes in the middle of this progression within the second vision. Even though it announces an accomplished fact, the drama is not yet complete. The final battle has not yet been won. The temple of God is still in heaven (Revelation 11:19) rather than coming to the new earth as the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1-5). The drama has not yet reached its final stage; the story is not over.

So, what is the point of the announcement if it has not yet happened in the flow of the drama? In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, heaven itself announces the future as if it has already happened. Among Hebrew prophets this is known as the “prophetic perfect.” The future is described as it if it were a past event; the future is as certain as the past.

Heaven is certain, and consequently the saints on the earth who are suffering and dying may be certain as well, that the future reign of God will fully come. The nations (including Rome) will be defeated, the martyrs will be rewarded, and the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of God and the Christ. God will win.

The church is encouraged to follow the Lamb like the two witnesses in Revelation 11. Even though the nations rage against God’s anointed people, God’s wrath will one day destroy those who are destroying the earth. Empires will fall, and the kingdom of God will fill the earth.

That future is as certain as the past.  Thanks be to God!


Revelation 11:1-14 – The Witnessing Church

August 24, 2013

On the heels of John’s prophetic commission in Revelation 10:8-11, he is tasked with measuring the temple of God but not its outer court. The prophetic message of Revelation 11 envisions a period of time when God’s people will faithfully witness before the nations. Indeed, the “two witnesses” will imitate the pattern of the Lamb–they will prophesy, they will be martyred, and they will be vindicated through resurrection and ascension. The faithful witness of the church follows the pattern of the Lamb and God does not abandon the witnesses.

Just as the interlude between the sixth and seventh seals focused on sealed but suffering believers (Revelation 7), so this interlude between the sixth and seventh trumpets reveals a measured but suffering church. The interludes address the situation of the church in the midst of a hostile but collapsing empire. The hope of believers is victory and their role is faithful witness.

There are some difficult problems of interpretation in Revelation 11. What is the temple? What is the outer court? Who are the “two witnesses”? What is the “great city” that, in part, collapses? One’s general approach to Revelation will, in large measure, determine the answers to these questions. There is little need to argue this in detail in a brief blog, but it is important to understand the flow of the drama pictured it.

The first moment in the drama is the measurement of the temple. This imagery is drawn from Ezekiel 40:3 and Zechariah 2:1-5. God declares ownership; the temple belongs to the one who sits on the throne. The owner measures the temple. But where is this temple? The only other use of “temple” is in Revelation 11:19 which places the temple “in heaven.” Temple imagery in Revelation is always located “in heaven,” that is, in God’s throne room. Much like Revelation 7:9-17, God’s temple and its worshippers are protected and victorious. Nothing will assault the throne room of God. The temple, then, is–analogous to the 144,000 in Revelation 7–are the sealed people of God whose suffering will overcome the enemy.

However, the “outer court” is unmeasured. Rather, it will be given over to the nations who will trample not only it but the whole “holy city for 42 months.”  The adjective “holy” indicates that we are still talking about the people of God. In one perspective, they are protected and victorious (in the throne room of God), but from another perspective they are under attack.  Indeed, the beast from the Abyss kills the two witnesses (11:7). The imagery is drawn from Daniel 7:21-25. In the second century B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes waged war against the saints and trampled the temple in Jerusalem for a “time, times, and a half” (or 3 and 1/2 years; cf. Daniel 12:5-6). In Revelation 11 the beast makes war against the outer court and the holy city, including the two witnesses. This war will last only for a limited time (1260 days is half of seven years, which is a complete number). The beast wages war against the church and is able to inflict suffering (martyrdom) upon it. The beast (the nations) trample the people of God (the outer court) but the beast cannot destroy the temple (the inner court or sanctuary).

The “two witnesses” are clearly prophetic figures (called “prophets” in 11:10). Their description draws heavily on prophetic images in the Hebrew Bible.  Like Elijah (and John the Baptist) they wear sackcloth. Like Moses they turn water into blood and strike the earth with plagues. Like Elijah they stop the rain. Like Jeremiah they breathe fire (Jeremiah 5:14). Like Zerubbabel and Joshua the High Priest they are God’s anointed olive trees to serve the whole earth (Zechariah 4). They are lampstands. They are the church. The number two is chosen because the Torah required two witnesses for convicting testimony (Deuteronomy 19:15). The church has a prophetic role in the world.

Their testimony, however, comes at a cost. The two witnesses are killed by the beast and their bodies are left exposed in the “great city.” Every use of the “great city” in Revelation refers to the hostile empire that oppresses the followers of the Lamb (16:19; 17:18; 18:10, 16, 18, 19, 21). This “great city” is not the “holy city.”  The “holy city” is the church which is trampled by the nations while the “great city” is the hostile empire–empires like Sodom, Egypt and Rome. The reference to “where also their Lord was crucified” does not mean the literal city in which Jesus died but rather the “great city” that killed Jesus, that is, Rome. The two witnesses will suffer the same fate as their Lord; they will die at the hands of a cruel empire, Rome. Just as Rome crucified the Lamb in Jerusalem, so Rome will display the death of Christian martyrs as spectacles of its power within the empire (the “great city”).

“The inhabitants of the earth,” that is, the followers of the beast, who come from every “people, tribe, language, and nation” (like victorious believers in Revelation 7 who also come from every people, tribe, language, and nation) rejoice over the death of the two witnesses. They glory in the death of the martyrs. It is part of their festive activities as they give gifts to each other. One might hear an allusion to the games in which Christians were martyred during the Roman empire.

One also might hear in Revelation 11 the echo of the cry of the martyrs.  “How long, O Lord” (Revelation 6:9-11). Some believe that Psalm 79 provides a backdrop for the theology of this chapter. The Psalmist laments the destruction of the temple and asks “How Long, O Lord?” They plead for God to pour out wrath upon the nations and to “pay back” their “neighbors seven times.”

Indeed, in Revelation 11 one tenth of the city collapses and seven thousand are killed. 7,000 is a symbolic number (perhaps an allusion to the 7,000 that had not bowed the knee to Baal during Elijah’s prophetic ministry). The city suffers a major disaster but it is not complete. God judged the “great city” (Rome) for its injustice and it appears many turned to God as a result (“feared and gave glory to the God of heaven”). The witness of the faithful martyrs in the context of God’s transformative work of judgment has a positive effect on some.

But the church itself–the two witnesses who ae martyred–is vindicated. The dead witnesses are raised and they ascend into heaven in a cloud.  The witnesses follow the pattern of the Lamb–witness, death, resurrection and ascension. In other words, like the 144,000, as they pass through the trials and overcome through faith, they are received into the throne room of God as victors (cf. Revelation 7:9-17). The witnesses defeat the empire through martyrdom. The witnesses join the assembly around the throne in God’s heavenly temple. This is their “resurrection.” This is not a picture of their literal bodily resurrection, but–like Revelation 7–the movement of the witnesses from earth to heaven, from suffering to victory in the throne room of God (that is, the heavenly temple).

The church is God’s prophetic witness against empires. This is part of its role in the present chaotic world. The witness is not about predicting specific facts or imperial history about the future, but it is a witness that proclaims that the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of God. It is a witness that opposes violence, idolatry, and immorality. It is a witness that God will judge the empires because of their greed, violence, and oppressive power.

But empires kill peacemakers. Rome crucified Jesus and martyred his followers. Empires still kill peacemakers. Empires still oppose the church’s witness. Unfortunately, the church often silences its own witness in the wake of imperial holidays, pledges of allegiance, and imperial benefaction (giving credit to the empire for peace and safety rather than to God).

Followers of the Lamb oppose empires and bear witness against its imperial designs. Like the Lamb, they may suffer and die for that witness, but like the Lamb, God will vindicate them and receive faithful witnesses into the throne room as victors in the conflict between good and evil.


Psalm 3: Yahweh is My Shield

August 22, 2013

Israel read this Psalm against the backdrop of David’s flight from Absalom whose coup d’etat had removed David as King.  The fears and uncertainty aroused by that event provide an emotional context for reading this Psalm. While others may fear for the Psalmist, the Psalmist has no fear. Rather, the Psalmist trusts.

The three-fold use of “many” in verses 1-2 stress the enormous obstacles that this believer faces. Many foes have risen against the Psalmist and many are voicing their doubt about whether God’s faithfulness. The central taunt is that God will not rescue this believer.  Many say that the believer should expect no victory, no salvation, no deliverance. All is lost as far as they are concerned. They believe that God has abandoned the Psalmist.

This fear is common for believers. We often find reason to doubt God’s good intentions for us. We often feel abandoned. Fear often thrives rather than faith, and we sometimes lose our assurance that God is good. This may be particularly true when we hear what “many” are saying. We listen to other voices rather than trust God’s good intentions.

The Psalmist, however, turns to Yahweh in prayer. Three times the Psalmist addresses Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel (3:1, 3, 7).

  • Yahweh, you know how many are against me!
  • Yahweh, I will trust your care for me.
  • Yahweh, rise up and deliver me!

Just as the “many” see no hope for the Psalmist, Yahweh heard this believer’s cry and answered from Zion, God’s holy hill. This response and the assurance of God’s care enables the Psalmist to sleep as Yahweh provides sustenance.  Believers can rest when they are confident that God loves them. This eradicates whatever fear the Psalmist feels about the “thousands” (the “many”) and what they are saying or doing.

Surrounded by hostile powers and living in a hostile environment, believers may very well doubt God’s presence and care. We are sometimes overwhelmed with “thousands” of problems and circumstances that hinder us from living in trust without anxiety. We know this situation well. We have a daily struggle with worry or fear.

The Psalmist trusts Yahweh who is both a shield and the glory of believers. Yahweh protects like a shield; Yahweh defends believers. Moreover, Yahweh is the glory of believers. Rather than shamed by opposition or defeated by fears, we know that God lifts our heads. God raises us in glory and removes all shame as our heads are lifted up. Rather than defeated and shamed by the enemy, God glorifies and honors us.

What does it mean for God to lift up our heads? Life bows our heads sometimes in fear, sometimes in shame. Sometimes we don’t want to face life because we are filled with fear. For God to lift our heads is to enable us to look life in the eye without shame or fear because God’s glory shines in our faces. God honors us. Yahweh lifts our heads so that we might experience God’s gracious presence and loving protection.  Knowing God’s care for us–Yahweh is our shield, we trust that God will hear our cry and answer our prayer. Consequently, we rest peacefully at night and awake in the morning with renewed strength.

The Psalmist’s first prayer was that Yahweh would recognize how hostile and troubled the situation had become. The second prayer affirmed Yahweh’s presence and good intentions for the Psalmist.  The third prayer, however, calls God to act against those hostile to God’s purposes.

The imprecation in 3:7 is quite vivid. The Psalmist prays that God would break the teeth of the wicked. This is covenantal language as “breaking teeth” is the punishment given to those who break covenants (agreements or contracts). It is a prayer for justice against covenant-breakers.

What the “many” supposed is reversed. Yahweh will save (deliver) the Psalmist through setting things right and God will act justly against the wicked who opposed the Psalmist.

“Salvation belongs to Yahweh”–the Psalmist appeals to the God of Israel and seeks God’s blessing on upon God’s people. The ending is not dissonant with the Psalm itself since the “salvation” which belongs to God’s people is the very thing that “many” said was denied to the Psalmist but for which the Psalmist prayed.  God responds out of covenant faithfulness to deliver the covenant people. The Psalmist trusts Yahweh who is Israel’s covenant God, and God keeps covenant promises.

Salvation belongs to Yahweh!


Revelation 10: John’s Prophetic Call

August 16, 2013

After the fourth trumpet an eagle soared across the sky to announce the first of three woes (Revelation 8:13). The second woe followed the fifth trumpet (Revelation 9:12). As readers we expect to hear the third woe after the sixth trumpet in order to  transition to the seventh trumpet. Instead, the third woe does not appear until Revelation 11:14.  Like the pause between the sixth and seventh seals (Revelation 7), the drama again pauses between the sixth and seventh trumpets (Revelation 10:1-11:13). The pauses have similar functions.

The “interlude” of Revelation 7–coming between the sixth (6:12-17) and the seventh seals (8:1-5)–answered the question who could stand in day when the wrath of God and the Lamb is poured out on the inhabitants of the earth? The answer is those whom God has sealed and when those whom God has sealed pass through the trials of life (particularly the martyrs) they stand before the throne of God in victory.

The “interlude” of Revelation 10:1-11:13–coming between the sixth (9:13-21) and the seventh trumpets (11:14-19)–affirms John’s prophetic call and blesses the faithful witness of the church. In other words, the drama of judgment pauses to again describe the condition of the church as it endures the consequences of Roman hostility and God’s judgment of Rome. More specifically, it describes the function of the church during this cataclysmic period of history, that is, to bear witness to gospel and proclaim God’s message.

The first half of the “interlude” or “pause” affirms John’s prophetic call. John stands in the tradition of the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible, especially–as several allusions confirm–Ezekiel and Daniel. The first half of Revelation 10 is modeled after Daniel while the second half of Revelation 10 follows the lead of Ezekiel. John appropriates the apocalyptic images and prophetic acts of these two prophets.  In effect, this not only confirms John’s call, but it also says that his message participates in the tradition of those prophets, that is, apocalyptic messages of judgments against nations. John has been given the apocalypse of Jesus the Messiah that God’s people might know the end to which the empire will come in answer to their prayers for justice.

Revelation 10:1-7 reflects the apocalyptic and prophetic traditions of Daniel 10:5-6 and 12:4-7.  Like Daniel, John sees a great or mighty angel(s) who appears for dramatic announcements. John sees an angel (1) robed in a cloud, (2) crowned with a rainbow, (3) a bright sun-like face, and (4) legs like fiery pillars. Each of these images are divine metaphors drawn from both apocalyptic literature and the Hebrew Bible.  For example, the cloud and fiery pillars remind us of the divine presence in the wilderness during Israel’s wanderings. The rainbow was previously seen in the divine throne room (Revelation 4:3) and the bright face reminds us Roman images of their gods. The angel (messenger) brings a divine message dressed in the metaphors of a divine commission.

Further, the angel is holding a “little book” (biblaridion). What is this “little book”? As is clear from the rest of the chapter, it contains a prophetic message that John is to announce to the nations. But the difficult question is the relation of this “little book” to the “book” (biblios) whose seals the Lamb has opened.  The book lies open and unsealed in the hand of the angel. It seems reasonable to connect the two without identifying them. In other words, it might be that the “little book” is part of the “book” though not necessarily the whole of it.  Whatever the case, the angel brings the book as part of John’s prophetic commission and it stands in continuity with the book the Lamb opened if not part of it.

The appearance of the scroll in the hand of the angel may also mean that further warnings are issued through the seven thunders before the message of the book will be fully implemented. When the angel descended to earth, the angel shouted and the seven thunders roared.  They are about to roll through the earth just as the trumpets. The angel may have appeared to release the thunders. But a “voice from heaven” shut down their revelation. God decides that the voice of the thunders will be sealed up; they will go unheard. John is forbidden to write them down.  In effect, there will be no more warnings.  The seals and the trumpets were sufficient warning.

If the purpose for sealing the thunders was unclear, the mighty angel clarifies so no one will misunderstand. The picture here is foreboding–the angel has one foot on the earth and one on the sea. The angel represents power over all chaos, over the whole planet.  The angel then swears or declares an oath with the right hand raised to heaven (God). The God by whom the angel swears is the everlasting Creator of everything that exists and the language reminds us of Revelation 5:13. The whole creation worships the one who sits on the throne and the angel swears by the Creator.

The message is significant:  “There will be no more delay! But in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.”

The message is good news. What God “announced” to the prophets was, more literally, “gospeled”  to them. It was a proclamation of good news.  God has good news for the faithful witnesses who have struggled against the empire and refused to compromise. The announcement,then, is encouragement for the faithful; God has not forgotten their cry for justice.

The good news is the accomplishment of the mystery of God. The good news, over which the angels themselves rejoice, is that the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of God which is heralded when the seventh trumpet sounded (Revelation 11:15).  The good news is that the faithful witness of the martyrs will be vindicated, and God will set things right. The empire will fail to destroy the people of God and the empire will collapse under the weight of its own sin. The mystery of God–what the martyrs wanted to see but was hidden from them–will be revealed when the martyrs are vindicated.  There will be no more delay; judgment is coming.

Revelation 10:8-11 reflects the apocalyptic and prophetic traditions of Ezekiel 2:8-3:3. John is told to do what Ezekiel was told to do, that is, to eat the scroll. To eat the scroll is to digest the message of the book. It is to accept the commission to prophesy the message of the Apocalypse, or to declare the fulfillment of the mystery of God.

Like with Ezekiel, the book tastes sweet on the tongue but is bitter to the stomach. The commission is received with joy and hope but the message is a sour one. It is a message of woe, mourning, and judgment.  It is good news for God’s faithful witnesses, but it is judgment for the inhabitants of the earth. But the message, as we will see in Revelation 11, contains a sour note even for the followers of the Lamb as many are yet to suffer for their witness.

The significance of eating the book is clear from the words of commission in Revelation 10:11:  “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings.” John will speak a divine message regarding nations and kings, against empires and Caesars.  God has heard the cries of the martyrs and now commissions John to speak the truth about empire. John stands in relation to the Roman empire just as Ezekiel stood in relation to Jerusalem–he is given a prophetic, even apocalyptic, message of judgment.

John eats the book, and therefore he “must prophesy.” John must proclaim the judgment given him. This is his prophetic call.


Psalm 2 – God Reigns Over the Nations

August 14, 2013

Psalm 1 counseled wisdom. Worshippers, as they pray, mediate and sing the Psalms, align themselves with the way of righteousness. Psalm 2 assures these worshippers that Yahweh reigns and even the nations must ultimately submit to the God of Israel. Psalm 2, then, as a further introduction to the Psalter, grounds the worship of and prayers to Yahweh in God’s universal reign. Yahweh provides wisdom through the Torah (Psalm 1) and Yahweh rules the cosmos (Psalm 2). With these themes in hand, the door is open to walk through the hills and valleys of the Psalter.

Psalm 2 offers its theological vision in four strophes. The first depicts the nations in rebellion (1-3) while the second identifies Yahweh as the true locus of sovereignty in the world (4-6). The third affirms the role of Yahweh’s king among the nations (7-9) while the fourth offers some advice for the kingdoms of the earth (10-12). The outer strophes focus on Yahweh’s relationship to the nations while the inner two strophes focus on Yahweh’s own sovereignty.

This is the voice of faith. Israel royal history gives no evidence that other nations (especially empires) should fear Yahweh’s king. Israel (and later the much smaller Judah) are surrounded by vast empires like Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. Their power dwarfs that of Judah. Like Jerusalem (Zion), the nation itself is a small ridge surrounded by higher mountains. In the larger scheme of things, Jerusalem is nothing but a small regional power. Judah’s territory would easily fit between Nashville and Knoxville, TN!

The Psalm’s boldness is profound. It is little wonder that the nations mock Yahweh’s anointed. The nations will simply throw off whatever shackles that Israel might suppose enslaves them. There is no contest.

But the Psalmist, and Israel’s gathered worshippers, see the world through the lens of faith. They envision Yahweh enthroned in the heavens. God reigns over the nations. Eyes of faith can see this when Israel is gathered for worship. Singing and praying the Psalms they see the world as faith envisions it. Yahweh is enthroned and the nations will serve Israel’s God.

Yahweh’s enthronement also means that God’s anointed represents the reign of God in the world. Yahweh anoints a king, calls him “Son,” and gives him an inheritance which is the whole earth. The reign of the king in Israel, then, is a sign of hope; it is the covenant faithfulness of God. The king symbolizes God’s commitment to the Abrahamic promises. Consequently, the enthronement of the king is something to celebrate, and that may be the origin of this Psalm originally. It is one of the “royal Psalms.”

The nations will be judged by how they treat God’s anointed. Cautioned and warned, the nations should serve Yahweh and “kiss the son.”

An Assyrian general or an Egyptian Pharoah must have laughed at such language. Perhaps they were enraged by such claims. In either event, Israel, they must have thought, has lost touch with reality.

Yet, someone placed this Psalm at the beginning of the Psalter. It reminded Israel that as they sang and prayed these Psalms they do so with the confidence that God reigns over the nations and that God’s anointed will inherit the earth itself. Such faith is only nurtured through worship.

It is the kind of worship we find in the Apocalypse. Marginalized in a hostile culture, dwarfed in size by Roman religions, and surrounded by magnificent temples dedicated to Roman gods, goddesses and Caesars, the seven churches of Asia Minor envisioned God and the Lamb, the Messiah, on thrones in heaven. The climax of the Apocalypse (pictured in both 11:18 and 19:19) embraces the vision of Psalm 2 as the Lord’s Anointed defeats the powers of evil in such a way that the earth itself becomes the kingdom of the Lord (11:15). The nations become the heritage of God’s Anointed.

The language of Psalm 2 is our language. We worship the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb (God’s Messiah). We confess that God reigns even though evil and chaos still abound. We hope for the coming of the kingdom of God when the meek will inherit the earth. We live those moments by faith and when we gather to worship God and the Lamb we see it with the eyes of faith, just like Israel in Psalm 2.

So, we boldly pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Come, Lord Jesus!


Psalm 1 – Two Ways, a Wisdom Poem

August 13, 2013

The opening Psalm functions as a kind of preface or introduction to the whole collection. It orients the worshipper to a particular path and the value of pursuing the life the Psalter envisions. Indeed, it offers us a choice.

There is the way of the wicked (sinners, scoffers) and the way of the righteous. There are two ways, two paths, or two directions. One scoffs at life, misses the point of life, and is openly hostile to God. The other yearns to practice the Torah, follow God’s instruction, and incessantly repeats the words of the Torah. Often, however, life is much more ambiguous than that, but our basic orientation is nevertheless pointed in one of two directions.

One way will prosper like a fruit tree by water while the other will disappear like dust in the wind.  As a piece of wisdom this does not mean that there are no exceptions. The rest of the Psalter tells us otherwise as laments and imprecations abound. Rather, wisdom inculcates character development, and, generally, good character will bear good fruit while an evil character will suck the life out of us.  Wisdom orients us even though in tragic moments it may frustrate us (as in the case of Job). Nevertheless, wisdom guides choices, especially in midst of tragedies.

At the same time, the orientation is valuable because every human being must make a choice. Even indecision is itself a choice. We live and we choose. Wisdom provides a far-sighted horizon for choices that lie in front of us. Instead of plunging into waters of immediate gratification, wisdom invites us to walk a long path towards wholeness. It is, in fact, the long path of praying, singing, and even murmuring the Psalms under our breaths.

We choose this long, hard road because we seek transformation rather than gratification. We seek deep-seated joy rather than fleeting happiness.  Even though we know this path has many bumps in the road–and the laments of the Psalms testify to them–we pursue it because we know that Yahweh “knows the way of the righteous.”

We embrace this difficult path because we know that Yahweh is committed to those who pursue it. God is deeply and intimately connected to those who follow the “way of the righteous.”

This introductory Psalm provides essential wisdom for navigating the diverse and wide-ranging emotions that will bubble up as worshippers rehearse, practice, and live out the Psalter. Those who truly hear this wisdom are blessed because Yahweh knows the way they have chosen.


Revelation 9: Imagine Your Worst Nightmare

August 10, 2013

The fifth and sixth trumpets announce the ancient world’s worst nightmares. The terrifying images of Revelation 9 are worthy of our most horrifying apocalyptic movies. It seems 21st century western culture loves apocalyptic movies, whether it is the earth destroyed by a meteor, large armies battling for Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the end of the world in 2012.  We have a fascination with apocalypses…whatever they may be. Perhaps, however, that is no different from first century culture.

Revelation 9 paints two apocalyptic, cataclysmic and terror-inducing pictures. One image arises out of nature and the other from humanity, though they are both in this text the result of angelic movements. One is a destructive swarm of locusts while the other is a huge invasion force. Both were the worst nightmares of ancient peoples as locusts destroyed crops while armies pillaged human treasures (including people). These are nightmares from which one hopes to wake up.

The opening of the fifth and sixth trumpets in Revelation 8:13 is the flight of an eagle soaring overhead and shouting, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth.” The three woes announce the next three trumpets, and the announcement serves as a warning to the inhabitants of the earth.

An eagle pronounces the woe (“angel” in NKJV is based on inferior manuscripts). This is culturally significant in several ways. First, the “eagle of God” (aetos dios) is associated with Zeus (Jupiter) and it was a sign of power and immortality. It was often thought the messenger to/for the gods as the eagle could soar above storm clouds and fly into the presence of the gods.  Second, the eagle was a symbol of Roman power. Every Roman egion had a standard headed by an eagle (aquila). Consequently, this eagle that comes from the one who sits on the throne contrasts with the eagle of Roman power and religion.

The woe, however, is not for everyone. As we will see, the events associated with the fifth and sixth trumpets will not harm those who belong to God (the sealed 144,000). The “those who dwell on the earth,” then, are distinguished from those who are sealed with God’s name. This is the Apocalypse’s language for those who follow the beast rather than God (Revelation 13:8; 17:8). The contrast is between those who “dwell in heaven” (those who belong to God; cf. Revelation 12:12; 13:6) and who “dwell on the earth.” In other words, this is technical language for those whose citizenship is upon the earth rather than in heaven. They are part of the socio-political, anti-Christian powers (cf. Revelation 6:10; 11:10). They look to the powers rather than to one who sits on the throne in heaven for their guidance and life. This is the essence of idolatry.

The Fifth Trumpet

As in Revelation 8:10, a star falls from heaven in response to a trumpet blast, but in Revelation 9:1 this star is personified as one who is given the key to the Abyss. Some identify this star with Satan who fell from heaven. The problem, however, is that what is released from the Abyss opposes the reign of Satan in the world. The locusts attack the inhabitants of the earth who serve Satan’s beasts. It seems better to think of this “star” as an angelic messenger who does God’s work by releasing the locusts. God will use evil (demonic?) to afflict evil (empire).

What is the Abyss or “bottomless pit”? It is clearly a place of evil (Revelation 11:7; 17:8); a kind of prison for evil forces. We might compare it cosmically to “black holes,” though the symbolic language does not intend to identify this as a specific place in the cosmos. Rather, it is apocalyptic language for anti-creation and chaos. The “black hole” of God’s good creation are the forces of darkness, chaos, and destruction. These arise from the deep recesses of both human hearts and the cosmic chaos (good creation arose out of the “waters” of chaos).This anti-creation motif is present in the darkening of the sun.

The scoripion-tailed locusts were given power (divine permission) to torture rather than kill the inhabitants of the earth for torture.  The earth itself, devastated in the first four trumpets, is unharmed by the locusts. This reversal of expectation (we expect locusts to harm the grass, plants and trees) emphasizes the human devestation that the locusts will infllict. They will increase the pain of life for humanity. The inhabitants of the earth will prefer death over life because of their sting. Life will become unbearable. THe plague of locusts, of course, reminds of the similar plague upon Egypt though apocalyptic language is note used in Exodus as it is here (Joel 2 is also serves as a backdrop).

The detailed description of the locusts is the most thorough in the Apocalypse. They are large horse-like creatures with human heads but lion-like teeth. The are armoured and their wings sound like a chariot assault. Their weapon is their sting which does not kill but inflicts unimaginable pain.  But it only lasts five months–a limited amount of time and probably defined by the natural life cyle of locusts. The leader of this horde is Abaddon (Hebrew) or Apollyon (Greek) and both names mean “Destroyer.” This is neither a Roman Emperor nor Satan since the object of destruction is the empire and the inhabitants of the earth. Rather, this is more reminiscient of the “angel of death” (as in 2 Baruch 21:23) who rules God’s realm of the dead (cf. Bauckham, Climax of Prophecy, 65). Abaddon was a name for the place of the dead in the Hebrew Scriptures (cf. Job 31:22; Psalm 88:11; Proverbs 27:20).

These are not modern attack helicopters but an apocalyptic image for a series (five months) of terrifying experiences. The nature of the experience is undefined. It does not have to be defined–it is a nightmare. It is life in a collapsing empire where the security and prosperity of the empire is disappearing. Whatever forces engender that collaspe seem like a plague of locusts. It is a picture of destruction.

The Sixth Trumpet

The sixth trumpet is the second woe announced by the eagle. This trumpet announces the massing of a huge army on the borders of the empire. This is a nightmare that every nation fears, especially when the assembled warriors more than tripled the population of the Empire itself. While the Roman Empire may have been between 50-60 million, the army gathered at the Eurphrates is 220 million. A 220 million man army on the frontier of the Empire dwarfs the size of the Roman legionaries (possibly around 150,000).

This army gathers at the command of God. The voice “from the four horns of the golden altar before God” has divine sanction if it is not God’s own voice.  This voice gives the order to release the four angels who manage the grand army of the Euphrates. That the angels were “bound” may indicate that they are demonic, but this may only refer to how they had been previously limited in their use of the army. They had waited and prepared for this moment. It is an angelic action at the command of God. The army moves against the empire; it moves against the powers or the forces of Satan and evil.

It is actually a mounted calvary–220 million strong. But it is not ordinary calvary. The horse’s heads were like lions’ heads, their tails like the heads of sakes, and they breathed smoke, fire and sulfur. Their breath alone killed one-third of humanity.

For readers within the Roman empire the image of a mounted calvary at the Eurphrate conjures up the terror of a Parthian army which was Rome’s greatest enemy. Rome never defeated the Parthians except to a stalemate on their eastern border. Parthia was an empire that stretched from the Euphrates to what is now eastern Iran. The threat of an invading army from a competing empire has always generated fear whether it is the Mongols in Russia, or the Turks in Europe, or Cold War fears not many years ago. The threat is a constant one in human history.

The apocalyptic image, which includes an exaggerated armed mass of humanity, represents the fear of invasion and massive violence. The voice from the altar assures the seven churches of Asia that the Roman legions are not the real power in the world, and that same voice assures us that no earthly power–no empire–controls their own destiny. God holds the cards and when God plays out the hand, no empoire can stand.

Conclusion

On occasion, it appears, God releases chaos upon the earth for warning and judgment. God is sovereign over the chaos. God permits and even empowers it to disrupt the peace of the empire.

Why does God churn the waters? Revelation 9:20-21 provide one reason. It is the same reason present in many of the prophets of Israel (cf. Amos 4). God releases choas in order to warn humanity about coming judgment. Their choices and lives have moral significance–a reckoning will come. Divinely permitted chaos reminds humanity that God is paying attention to their works and lives. God uses chaos to prompt repentance but it is often ineffective because human hearts are so committed and bound to their own black holes.

Just as the drama pauses again for another interlude, John editorializes on the sins that provide the rationale for divine judgment. He identifies two broad categories: (1) human allegiance to idolatry (“works of their hands”) and (2) human selfishness.

Idolatry is misplaced allegiance. It substitutes something else in the place of God. It worships demons rather than God. Idolatry identifies the source of life and peace with something other than the Creator God. John equates the whole pagan religious system with the demonic and irrational (worshipping gods that cannot “see or hear or walk”).

Human selfishness is at the root of the second category.  The second commandment (the second half of the Ten Commandments) is to love one’s neighbor. Murder, sorcery, sexual immorality, and theft violate that love. It abuses and exploits the other for the sake of one’s own interests.

Love God and love your neighbor. These are the greatest commandments. When humanity pursues a different agenda, God releases chaos as a warning but with a transformative intent. God is not willing that any should perish but that all would come to repentance. Unfortunately, as is the case so many times throughout history, humanity does not repent.


Revelation 7: Who Can Stand in the Day of Wrath?

July 29, 2013

Who can stand on the days when the wrath of God and the Lamb are poured out on empires? That is the question asked when the sixth seal is opened in Revelation 6:12-17. The shaking of the Roman empire, as with all empires, will affect everyone from rich to poor, from free to slave. Who can escape God’s anger as judgment falls upon the empire?

The natural disasters, violence, economic hardship, and war that fall upon empires affects everyone. But this raises the question of what happens to the followers of the Lamb? What will happen to those who bear faithful witness throughout the unleashed chaos that accompanies the opening of the seals in Revelation 6?

Revelation 7 answers that question. Instead of moving to the seventh seal, which the reader eagerly anticipates, the drama pauses to answer the question. The followers of the Lamb are sealed before the seventh seal is opened. This chapter functions as a kind of “interlude” between the sixth and seventh seals in order to illuminate the circumstances of the God’s servants as the seals proceed. Though the empire is undergoing convulsions, the faithful witnesses are “sealed.”

John’s vision identifies two groups of people: (1) the 144,000 in 7:4-8 and (2) the “great multitude” in 7:9-10. Who are theses groups and how are they related to each other? How, then, does this answer the question of Revelation 6:17?

144,000 — The Church Militant

Before the destructive forces of the four winds are released upon the earth, God seals the 144,000.  Four angels were “given power to harm the earth and sea,” but they are restrained from releasing the winds until the 144,000 are sealed. We might imagine that the judgment that the seals represent are  delayed until arrangements are made for the servants of God. In other words, the opening of the seals and the sealing of the servants are  contemporaneous events. As the Lamb opens the seals and judgment begins with the empire, at the same time the servants of God are sealed. God is sovereign over this process.

An angel from the east, an angel with the “rising sun” which bore cultural images of power, comes with a signet ring to seal the servants of God. Animal and slave branding was common in the Roman world, and these are God’s “slaves” (doulous). This seal contrasts with the “mark” that the followers of the beast will receive in Revelation 13:16-17. The nature of the seal might reflect the engraving that was on the headdress of the high priest that functioned “like a seal” which stated “Holy to the Lord” (Exodus 28:36-38). Indeed, eschatologically, everything–even the pots and the pans–will be engraved (sealed) with “Holy to the Lord” (cf. Zechariah 14:20-21). The “sealed” belong to the Lord; they are consecrated to God’s purposes. In other words, the seal is a mark of ownership.

They are “sealed” for protection. This does not mean they will not suffer as the empire convulses and dies, but that they are identified as God’s people throughout the suffering. They are “sealed” in the sense that they will not experience divine judgment (cf. Ezekiel 9:3-10) even as they too experience the travail of the empire’s fall. They are protected in that their faithful witness will usher them into the throne room of God. They will not experience the Lamb’s wrath but the Lamb’s loving embrace.

But who are these 144,000 and what do they represent? Some (like Bauckham, Climax of Prophecy, 216-218) suggest that this is depicted like a military census (cf. Numbers 31:4-6). The servants of God–the “sons (males) of Israel”–are numbered for battle.  It is, in the context of this second vision (Revelation 4-16), a small number compared with the 200,000,000 mounted troops that will gather in Revelation 9:16.

Some believe the 144,000 are either a literal or symbolic number of ethnic Jews who have converted to Christianity, and some even think they are 144,000 Jewish-Christian evangelists in the last days. But there are reasons to doubt that this number describes ethnic Jews. Rather, it appears as a symbolic number for the church (whether ethnic Jews or Gentiles) upon the earth. If this is literal Israel, the tribe of Dan is missing. Are we to believe that literally no one from the tribe of Dan would be represented among faithful Israel? The absence of Dan is probably due to Dan’s association with idolatry (Judges 18:30; 1 Kings 12:29; Testament of Daniel 5:6).

The “servants” of God in Revelation are consistently described as Christians, that is, the term describes all believers (cf. Revelation 1:1; 2:20; 6:11; 10:7; 11:18; 19:2, 5, 10; 22:3, 6, 9). The number 144,000 servants are only male (like an ancient army) and their seal is something shared by all believers in Revelation (Revelation 3:12; 22:4). All believers in Revelation are heirs of Israel as the church–God’s new creation–is a kingdom of priests ransomed by the Lamb (Revelation 5:9-10 with Exodus 19:6).

It is the church upon the earth that is sealed, that is, the church militant. The angel from the east delays the four winds that will “harm the earth and sea” until the church is sealed. Consequently, this must be the church on the earth that is numbered as 144,000. The number is symbolic 1,000 x 12 x 12–the whole church is sealed.

Who can stand the wrath of God and the Lamb? The sealed servants of God who are the faithful witnesses that live in the empire as it begins to crumble.

An Innumerable Host — The Church Triumphant

Question: Who can stand in the day of the Lamb’s wrath (Revelation 6:17)? Answer: The “great multitude” stands before the throne of God and before the Lamb (Revelation 7:9).

There is continuity between the 144,000 and the innumerable host. Indeed, there is movement between them. The 144,000 are the sealed servants of God upon the earth who become part of the innumerable host through their faithful witness, that is, through “overcoming” just as the Lamb overcame. When saints die in the Lord as part of the 144,000, they join the innumerable host from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” that stand before the throne of God and before the Lamb. Who can stand the wrath of God and the Lamb? Faithful witnesses. They stand before the throne of God rather than hiding in the mountain caves (this is the contrast between the end of Revelation 6 and the status of those before the throne). They are the church triumphant, that is, the church that has overcome through faithful witness rather than through violent revolution.

This seems clear from the question elder asks and the elder’s answer. The innumerable host has come out of the “great tribulation” and they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The “great tribulation” refers to the convulsions which the earth experiences. The word “great” does not mean the biggest or necessarily the climatic tribulation, but a severe one (like Jezebel’s in Revelation 2:22). Tribulation is something which John shares with the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 1:9) and which the churches have constantly experienced under imperial pressure (Revelation 2:9). In other words, these are those who have shown themselves faithful during their trials and tribulations living in the Roman Empire. They have moved from earth to heaven, from among the “sealed” 144,000 to join the innumerable host.

The innumerable host is described in Revelation 7:9-12.  The descriptors are illuminating.

  • Size — we have no way of knowing how many Christians populated the Roman Empire at the end of the first century, but this description is surely beyond the imagination of those early believers. They probably saw themselves as small and rather insignificant, but in this vision they see that they participate in a larger and grander assembly than they could have imagined.
  • Multi-cultural — different national identities, different languages, different ethnicities. The Roman Empire included such differences, and the kingdom of God expands the borders of the Empire as “every nation” is part of this heavenly assembly. “Every nation” echoes the promise to Abraham (Genesis 17:5).
  • Liturgical Robes — the assembly is a worshipping assembly gathered before the throne and the Lamb in white robes (which is the Roman color for temple priests and participants). It is the same robe given to the martyrs at the altar in Revelation 6:11 and given to those who come out of the 144,000 and join the assembly in Revelation 17:13-14. Those who wear these robes have access to the tree of life (Revelation 22:14). These robes belong to all faithful believers.
  • White Robes — they are white because they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. This may refer to the expiatory sacrifice of the Lamb, but it may also allude to the blood of their faithful witness, that is, martyrdom.
  • Victory Palms in their Hands — palm branches represent victory and were a regular part of triumphal entries into a city by returning armies and victors. These are those who have “conquered” or “overcome.”
  • Worshipping Assembly — “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Their victory (deliverance or rescue) belongs to God and the Lamb; they did not achieve it themselves.

This innumerable assembly is then joined in praise by the angels, twenty-four elders, and four living creatures as they fall prostrate before the throne to worship God. They echo their previous praise in Revelation 4 & 5.

The difference between the scenes in Revelation 4 & 5 and here in Revelation 7 is the presence of the victors, that is, the innumerable host. Though all creation is present in some sense in Revelation 5, the victors are not specifically identified. But here we now know–through the progress of the drama and the unfolding vision–that gathered with the living creatures, twenty-four elders, and myriads of angels are the redeemed of the ages as well. The faithful witnesses, including the martyrs (perhaps especially the martyrs), are present in the throne room of God and they join the heavenly host in worship around the throne.

Where is this innumerable host? They poem beautifully describes their present experience and eschatologically anticipates the full reality of the new heaven and new earth. This is not yet that as here the redeemed serve God in a temple when there is no temple in the new heaven and new earth. The earth is still undergoing conflict so this gathering is not the final one but the present one. Revelation 7:9-17 depicts the present experience of saints who have died in the Lord.

So, where is this?

before the throne of God
serving in the temple
sheltered by the presence of God

This is a liturgical picture. The word “serve” (latreuousin) is the term used to describe the role of the Levites in Israel’s temple. Before the throne of God and in God’s temple, the multi-cultural assembly is gathered to worship. Their worship is covered by God’s tent (tabernacle) which is the dwelling presence of God–the shekhinah glory that led Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 40:34-38) and dwelled in Israel’s temple (2 Chronicles 5:12; 7:1). This presence will fill ultimately heaven and earth in the new Jerusalem so there is no need for a temple in the Eschaton.

Those before the throne, however, already experience the future. Already they experience the promises of Isaiah 49:10 and Isaiah 25:8–no more scorching heat and no more tears. But, along with the rest of us, they await the fullness of God’s promises in the new heaven and new earth in the new Jerusalem. They yet await the resurrection of their bodies and the transformation of a groaning creation; they yet await the final victory as even more martyrs are continually added to the innumerable host (cf. Revelation 6:9-11).

Before the throne of God, the Lamb is also present as the shepherd of God’s people who guides and waters the people of God so that they no longer suffer. They no longer experience the thirst and heat of the earth but rather drink the living water of God’s presence. There are no more fears and no more tears though they yet await, like the martyrs at the altar, the fullness of the kingdom of God upon the earth.

So, where are those who die in the Lord? They are before the throne of God, they serve God day and night in God’s temple, and the one who sits on the throne shelters them with his presence.

Where are the dead? They are with the Lord.


Revelation 6 – Divine Judgments on Empires

July 20, 2013

The Lamb, having taken the book of prophetic judgment from the hand of God, now begins to open it by breaking the seals. Systematically, the Lamb breaks one seal after another–six in Revelation 6. As each seal is opened John hears and sees a variety of images that evidence divine judgment or are related in some way to that judgment. These images are not the content of the book but rather a series of symbolic enactments that dramatize the process of opening the book. The Lamb is only breaking the seals at this point rather than opening the book itself. The symbolic enactments, however, point to the disintegration of world order and the (re)introduction of chaos into human society. At one level, the Pax Romana is on the verge of dissolution.

The vision unfolds in a pattern of 6+Interlude+1. Six seals are broken in consecutive fashion, but then there is a lengthy interlude (7:1-17) before the seventh seal is broken (8:1-5). While the first six seals portray divine judgment, the interlude answers the question “who can stand the day of wrath” that appears in the last words of chapter 6 (6:17). The prospect of divine wrath (chapter 6) is followed by the assurance of divine love for the people of God (chapter 7).

The Symbolism of the Six Seals

At this point interpretations begin to vary widely. Historicists believe the seals picture the fall of the Roman Empire while Preterists attempt to identify specific seals with specific events relating to the destruction of Jerusalem or the fall of the Roman Empire (depending on how they date the Apocalypse). Futurists generally connect the seals to the Great Tribulation that occurs prior to the second coming of Jesus and many interpreters see allusions to specific contemporary realities (e.g., “red” = Russia or “large sword” = nuclear weapons). Idealists understand the dramatic progression of the seals, trumpets, and bowls as apocalyptic symbols of the recurring conflict between the kingdom of God and world powers without attempting to identify any specific relation to any particular Empire though the battle at the time of the Apocalypse is between Rome and the kingdom of God.

Some futurists, for example, believe the first seal is the beginning of a yet future Tribulation period (based on 7:9ff). But this isolates the text from its first century moorings and disconnects the martyrs in 6:9-11 from the setting of the seven churches of Asia. The seals must, in some way, relate to the social setting of the seven churches rather than merely predict some  specific distant future moment in history.

How one interprets the six seals depends on how one approaches the Apocalypse as a whole and how one understands the unfolding drama.  My own perspective is that the seven churches of Asia Minor find themselves in conflict with Roman claims, power, and imperial religion. Our interpretation must begin with that. The power of the language and its meaning must connect with the immediate audience of this book. As an Apocalypse, however, it addresses a wider audience in terms of its theology, philosophy of history, and the world conflict between God and Satan. My perspective, therefore, is a combination of a preterist-idealist vision.

The Apocalypse offers thoroughly apocalyptic and theological account of the conflict between the church and Rome, but it embedded in that account is the recurring conflict between the kingdom of God and world powers in the future. The Apocalypse offers a theological account of how the kingdom of God relates to world powers by confronting the late first century church with a call to faithful witness in the midst of Roman Empire. Consequently, the Apocalypse is not so much interested in the recounting of history (and thus we should not seek to identify specific symbols with historical events in the first century or twenty-first century) as it is describing the world in which we live where world powers oppose the kingdom of God.

1. The Archer on a White Horse: Conquest.

When the Lamb opens the first seal, one of the four living creatures thundered “Come.” Or, perhaps better rendered, “go and do your thing” as a passive imperative (Fair, Conquering with Christ, 187). This is this divine permission for what is about to happen as is also indicated by the phrase “was given.” Though what follows in the six seals is chaotic, violent, and destructive, God nevertheless is sovereign over it. God permits it, oversees it, and delimits it (only a 1/4 of the earth is affected).

Since it is the Lamb who opens the seal, the rider on the white horse is not the Lamb himself. Though Christ appears on a White horse in Revelation 19:11, this scene is not that one. Rather, this is one of four horses, and this rider carries a bow rather than a sword. The scene in Revelation 19 is climactic, but here the judgment of the six seals is just the beginning.

Instead, the rider on the white horse represents a conquering ruler. This is clear from the conquest language (6:2) and the victory wreath (stephanos). The picture is conquest. It is the disturbance of the Pax Romana, and it is the destiny of all empires–they, too, will be conquered. The bow may allude to Rome’s enemies as the Parthians in the East were a major threat to the Empire in the first centuries CE, but this would only symbolize all of Roman’s opponents rather than identify any specific one.

2.  The Sword-Wielding Rider on a Red Horse:  War.

The second living creature releases (“Come”) a rider on a red horse. The red horse symbolizes bloodshed as the presence of the sword-wielding rider indicates. The rider is given a “large sword” which does not remain inactive. Rather, the rider “was given” (divine permission) the ability to foment war. He removes peace with the result or for the purpose that human beings will kill (slaughter) each other.

3.  The Inflationary Rider on a Black Horse: Famine.

The third living creature releases (“Come”) a rider on a black horse. Since the rider has a pair of scales in his hands, the color probably represents the economic hardship which includes inflationary prices. The amount of wheat and barley available for a day’s wage would only feed a single mouth. Day laborers and their families, then, would ultimately starve. At the same time, the wealthy would continue to feast with their wine. The symbolism might point us to the economic oppression that the wealthy inflict on the poor as they control the markets and prices.

4.  Death Riding on a Pale Horse: Hades.

The fourth living creature releases (“Come”) death itself on a pale horse with Hades close behind. Death exercises control over 1/4 of humanity through a variety of means: sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts. In some ways the fourth rider summarizes the effect of th first three and extends it to other dimensions (pestilence and beasts). The first four seals, then, form a unit of sorts where the primary point is the release of chaotic forces that undermine the “peace and safety” of the Pax Romana, and that of all Empires. No Empire controls the chaos of disease, natural disasters, or even war. Death always comes, even to the greatest Empires.

5.  Martyrs Seek Justice at the Altar: Lament.

When the Lamb opens the fifth seal, nothing is released but rather John sees something that he had not previously noticed. He sees martyred saints “under the altar.” Like the Lamb himself, they had been slaughtered (same Greek verb as in Revelation 5:6, 9). Though many have seen the altar as a reference to the martyr’s sacrifice of their lives, it is better to see the altar as an allusion to the ancient practice of asylum where victims seek justice on the horns of the altar (cf. Oster; Stevenson, Slaughtered Lamb, 143-9). Stevenson suggests that the altar imagery includes the idea of protection for the innocent, justice for the victim, and punishment for the guilty. The souls under the altar, then, are present to claim innocence, justice and vengeance.

Their lament, then, is imprecatory. It not only raises the question of when God will finally act but it also seeks justice for victims. The lament question (“How long?”) resonates with so many biblical laments (e.g., Psalms 6:2-3; 13:1-2). The desire for justice also resonates with many prayers in Scripture (including imprecatory requests in the Psalms, e.g., Psalms 7, 58). The continued cry for justice indicates that the seals are not the final answer to the problem as lament continues both in heaven and on earth.

God listens and God answers. However, the answer is not what one might expect. Rather, the seals do not end the injustice; they do not avenge the blood of the saints. More martyrs are yet to come and join the souls under the altar. The time has not yet arrived for the end to martyrdom, injustice, and oppression. Justice has been delayed until a time of God’s own determination. God is sovereign over the chaos and the persecution; it will end when God decides it is time. God has a purpose for continued persecution.

6.  Humanity Hides: The Wrath of the Lamb.

The sixth seal functions as a response to the martyr’s cry, “How long?” The sixth seal does not answer the question of when God will respond but rather whether the Lamb is indifferent to the suffering of his people. Answer? The Lamb is angry (Revelation 6:16-17).

This anger is expressed in cosmic terms–earthquake, solar eclipse, blood-stained moon, falling stars, devastated crops, a rolled up sky, sinking islands, and removed mountains. Often these are interpreted as end-time eschatological events, but this does not appreciate how the language of the Hebrew prophets has shaped the vision. This language is no different from what one finds in the prophets regarding the fall of empires and nations (cf. Isaiah 13:10-13; 24:1-6, 19-23; 34:4; Jer. 4:23-28; Ezekiel 32:6-8; Joel 2:10, 30-31; 3:15-16; Amos 8:8-10; cf. Ian Fair, Conquering with Christ, 195-196.). The cosmic shake is another way of describing the upheaval of nations which, in many ways, felt like the destruction of the earth itself. More specifically, the language is theophanic, that is, it pictures the appearance of God in the world to destroy evil and enact justice (Stevenson, 150-151). God has showed up and the cosmos shakes. God is beginning to answer the lament of the saints.

It is cosmic in the sense that every human person within the nation or empire is affected by what happens. From the greatest (“kings of the earth”) to the lowest (“slave”), no one can escape the consequences of such national and imperial devastation. The drastic effects of a fallen empire felt by everyone and it creates fear. At the same time, however, only 1/4 of the earth is affected by the seals. The seals are not the final act in the drama; they are only the beginning of divine judgment.

Fear drives humanity to hide from the “face of the one who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.” The heavenly throne room is evoked–the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb, but this is no comfort for those the inhabitants of the earth. God will seek justice for the martyred saints and the Lamb will avenge their blood. Neither God nor the Lamb are indifferent; they are already responding through breaking the seals, and they will ultimately defeat the powers and redeem creation. But only when the time is right.

The Prophetic Meaning of the Six Seals

The second vision (Revelation 4-16) intends to show its original readers “what must take place” in the future (4:1). There is a futurist dimension to the vision, but it is fundamentally future to the original readers (the seven churches of Asia in the late first century).

How, then, should we read this “futurist” picture? Many interpreters–of whatever hermeneutical stripe (Historicist, Preterist, Futurist)–attempt to tie the specifics of the text with concrete historical events. While this may be sometimes appropriate, the overwhelming movement of the drama as prophetic literature is to dramatize the judgments of God against the nations. Specific historical events are not necessary for that and the search for specifics draws attention away from the broad sweep of the drama itself. Further, specifics are always uncertain about the past and speculative about the present or future. Such uncertainty and speculation does not serve the interests of the book well since it introduces fruitless discussions. More importantly, it is better to hear the theological message that warns believers of accommodation to cultural idolatries than to argue about specific historical correlations (which are always uncertain at best).

The drama narrates through symbolism and apocalyptic language the conflict between the world powers and the kingdom of God. This is the fundamental point rather than a chronological sequence of historical events. The cycles of human rebellion and divine judgment, of empires and their fall, are present throughout all human history. Each is an act in the drama which tells the story of the conflict. To treat this literature otherwise is to remove it from its own setting as apocalyptic literature.

So, how do the six seals inform us theologically? At least three points are clear whatever hermeneutical approach one takes.

1. Chaos is present within human history.

The description of the six seals underscores the reality of evil and chaos in the world. We cannot deny the reality of war, famine, injustice, pestilence, and death. We should not too quickly look past that reality to some future hope but rather acknowledge the chaos that fills the present world. This is why the world needs redemption; it is why it needs the book opened. The world needs renewal.

The Christian response to such chaos is at least (1) lament and (2) faithful witness. We cry out for justice and we practice justice.

2.  God is sovereign over history and its chaos.

God permits the chaos. God permits war, pestilence, and famine. This is not an arbitrary permission as we will see in future texts (cf. Revelation 9:20). The seals describe past and present reality but they are also divine acts (God releases the riders through the voice of the living creatures) intended to renew the nations unto repentance. God is so sovereign that he limits the damage (1/4 of the earth) and limits the numbers of the martyrs. God has a purpose and that purpose is present even in the midst the chaos.

3. God listens and responds to the lament of the saints.

Lament is an essential dimension of human experience. Humans question God (“how long?”) and they yearn for justice (“avenge our blood”). Lament is not unchristian since martyred saints are present in the heavenly throne room voicing their lament. Even heaven itself is incomplete and unfinished as long as injustice and chaos exist upon the earth. The anticipation that the Lamb will finally defeat evil and eradicate injustice is the cause of celebration in heaven but it is as yet unrealized. So, lament continues…even in the heavenly Jerusalem.

Conclusion

The Lamb takes the book from the hand of the one who sits on the throne and begins to open it by breaking the seals…one at a time. Each seal depicts the experience of the Empire and believers within the Empire. It is the beginning of divine judgment upon the Empire and it announces the stark reality that chaos will ultimately envelope all empires, even the ones to which people now pledge allegiance.


Revelation 5 – Worthy is the Lamb!

July 14, 2013

While Revelation 4 focused on the worth of the Creator who sits on the throne, Revelation 5 turns our attention to the dramatic investiture of the one who is worthy to break the seals and unroll the scroll. Revelation 4 portrays the reality of the heavenly throne room where the sovereign God, sitting on the throne, receives worship as the great benefactor of the cosmos–the one by whom all creation exists and to whom belong all creation’s gratitude. Revelation 5 portrays the story of redemption as the one who is worthy to open the book is worshipped because that one has redeemed creation from the powers of evil that enslave it. In essence we move from creation to redemption, from the sovereign enthroned one who invests another with redemptive authority, honor and power.

The heavenly liturgy (the service of worship) is interrupted for John when he notices that there is a scroll (book) in the the right hand of the one who sits on the throne. It is an extremely important document as it is sealed seven times, positioned in the right hand of God, and written on the front and back. Further, only one who is worthy may break the seals and open the book, and there is no one worthy present in the heavenly throne room (angelic hosts), or on the earth (living creation), or even under the earth (e.g., Hades). The document has such cosmic significance and importance that no one in heaven and earth (all creation) is able to open the seals. No one has the right or worth to do so.

What is this book? Some think it might be the “Book of Life” in which the names of the redeemed are written. But there is nothing in the context to indicate that identification. Rather, the allusion is to Ezekiel 2:9-10 where Ezekiel is told to speak the words of the book that contain “words of lamentation and mourning and woe.” As one reads further into this second vision (Revelation 4-16), it is evident that the breaking of the seals involves lamentation, mourning, and woe for the inhabitants of the earth. The book is a prophetic word against the powers that have oppressed the people of God and thus contains God’s destiny for them. The book symbolizes God’s intent to redeem the church from the powers even as God judges those powers. The book contains the answer to the question that the oppressed ask: will God ever act to overturn this oppression? The answer is “Yes,” and it is contained in the book.

But, as John observes, no one is worthy to open the book.  A mighty angel asks heaven and earth for anyone to come forward to open the book, but no one comes. As a result John begins to wail in lament. This is no mere wimper, but is the lament of the oppressed; it is the weeping of a people who seemingly see no end to their suffering. John weeps for the church; he weeps for his own flock in Asia. The church laments as the powers continue to oppress.

Lament, however, comes to end in the victory of the one who has overcome (conquered). “Weep no more,” one of the twenty-four elders around the throne tells John. Instead, the elder continues, “look at this!” The elder announces the victory of the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David.” The Lion has conquered.

The elder’s description evokes deeply rooted Messianic images from the Hebrew Scriptures as well as from the literature of Second Temple Judaism. These images are triumphalistic and militant. The “root of David” is found in Isaiah 11:1-10 (cf. Sirach 47:2) which envisions a Davidic conqueror that subjugates Edom, Moab and Ammon. The lion image comes from Genesis 49:8-10 (cf. 4 Ezra 12:31-32) where the nations serve the royal predator. The elder paints a verbal picture of a conquering king who defeats the powers (nations).

But when John turns to see this lion he only sees a small lamb. The Greek term for “lamb” is diminuitive in form, that is, it refers to a small lamb. Expecting to see the powerful king of the beasts, John turns to only see the weakest and most vulnerable of animals, a small lamb. That vulnerability is borne out by the reality that the animal is a slaughtered lamb.

This slaughtered Lamb, however, assumes a position of power, authority and honor. Though once slaughtered (thus killed), the living Lamb now stands next to the throne (at the “center,” in fact) and is encircled by the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders. He has seven horns (representing strength and power) as well as seven eyes (he sees everything). Indeed, the seven eyes are the seven spirits of God, that is, the Lamb is invested with the Holy Spirit and thus is empowered to act throughout the earth. The imagery derives from Zechariah 4:2, 6, 10.

It is the once slaughtered but now living Lamb that is worthy to take the book from the hand of God and reveal its contents; indeed, to execute its contents as the throne’s agent within the world. The slaughtered Lamb is a sacrifical victim, but it was voluntarily assumed rather than a victimization of the Lamb.  The Lion of Judah became a slaughtered Lamb for the sake of redemption. Jesus defeated the powers through faithful witness rather than by violent revolution; the Lion became a Lamb.

The heavenly dignitaries recognize the significance of this moment. Someone, but not just anyone, is now worthy to open the book. When the book is taken from the hand of the one who sits on the throne, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fall prostrate before the Lamb. They worship the Lamb and recognize his worthiness.

If we had any doubt whom the twenty-four elders represented, what they hold in their hands removes it. Enthroned around the throne, they hold harps (kithara)  and bowls of incense.  They perpetually worshipped the one who sits on the throne, and their worship includes musical praise (symbolized by the instruments) and prayer. The kitharas and bowls of incense remind us of temple worship in Israel as they were part of the liturgical cultus (cf. Psalms 33:2-3; 141:2; 147:7; 150:3-5), and this worship continues in the heavenlies. The twenty-f0ur elders are gathered in the Holy of Holies to worship God. They embody Israel’s temple worship in which the twenty-four (both Israel and the church) participate.

These heavenly dignitaries break out into a “new song,” a song of redemption, that declares the worthiness of the Lamb. The Lamb is worthy because

(1) “you were slain,”
(2) “by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation,” and
(3) “you made them a kingdom and priests to our God and they shall reign on the earth.”

This three-fold rationale echoes the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. The slain Passover lamb ransomed Isreal from Egyptian bondage in order to make them a kingdom of priests. God had ransomed Isreal from slavery (Deuteronomy 7:8; 13:5) in order to anoint them a royal, priestly nation (Exodus 19:5-6) which would bless the other nations. In other words, God intended Israel to become a shining light in the world–the new image of God in the world–so that all people might come to know God. God defeated the Egyptian powers in order to release Israel into the world to bless the world.

The “new song” praises the lamb for a new exodus, an “eschatological exodus” (as Bauckham calls it, Theology of Revelation).  In the Apocalypse, the powers (while it was Egyptian for Israel, it is Roman for the church in Asia) oppress, persecute, and enslave the people of God. By the Lamb’s faithful witness through death–he was faithful unto death–he has earned the worth to purchase a people for God. This people will not only come from Israel, but from every nation under heaven. This people will reign on the earth just as God created humanity to reign as divine images from the beginning of creation. They will become a kingdom of priests who will minister in the eschatological temple of God which is God’s good creation. This people will fulfill not only God’s intent for Israel but God’s intent for humanity itself.  They will share God’s dominion over the earth, care for creation, and bless the creation as God’s vice-regents (Genesis 1:26-31; Psalm 8).

In response to this “new song” of redemption, the whole angelic chorus breaks out in praise, ascribing all the honor, wealth and power within creation to the Lamb (rather than to Caesar!). In concentric circles of praise, the four living creatures, then the twenty-four elders, and then the myriads of angels give honor to the lamb. The praise moves from the center of the throne room to its outer edges as all of heaven praises the Lamb.

But the praise does not end there. The praise extends to all creation–”every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea and all that is in them.” The whole creation is filled with the eternal praise of God and the Lamb.  While the Apocalypse always remains thoroughly theocentric (“the one who sits on the throne”), the liturgical scenes do not hesitate to include the Lamb who is worshipped alongside the one who sits on the throne.  The Lamb, at the “center of the throne,” deserves worship and is ascribed divine “worth.”

This heavenly liturgical scene, reflective of Israel’s temple, invites the readers of the Apocalypse to enter the throne room to praise and pray. We praise God and the Lamb while we also pray for the eschatological coming of God’s kingdom.

We join the angels and all creation around the throne. We confess the sovereignty of God. We confess the worthiness of the Lamb. We praise both and ascribe (bless) to them praise, honor, glory, and power. And we continue to pray for the fullness of the kingdom of God when the whole earth will reflect the glory and presence of God and the Lamb. We pray for the end to oppression, injustice, slavery, and persecution. We sing and we pray, and this we do every time we gather as the people of God and participate in the eschatological assembly envisioned in Revelation 4 and 5.


Revelation 4 — Bowing Before the Throne

July 7, 2013

Revelation 4-16 gives us eyes to see the conflict between the kingdom of God and world powers with the eyes of God. We see the conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this earth from a heavenly perspective; we see it from the throne room of God. John, “in the Spirit,” is take up into “heaven” in order to overhear and witness the conflict from God’s own perspective.

Where is this “heaven?” The Apocalypse describes it as “up” there rather than down here. But this spatial language is probably metaphorical. Rather than thinking about “heaven” which celestial beings occupy as “over yonder” or somewhere outside of the space-time continuum, or outside the reality of the cosmos, perhaps we should of “heaven” as a dimension that occupies the same space that our own eyes see. We don’t have the eyes to see the heavenly dimensions of this present space. John is given eyes to see the heavenlies and this is represented as an “ascent” (going up) to “heaven.”

Whatever the case may be, John enters the throne room of God, and this is highlighted in several ways. The centrality of the “throne room” is underlined by the use of the Greek term for “throne” fourteen times in this chapter. The chapter is about who reigns and rules over the cosmos. The elaborate description of the throne room (jewels, rainbow, flashes of lightning, etc.) depicts the presence of the Holy One of Israel, the God who indwelt Israel’s temple. The glory of the temple with its own gold and jewels reflected the glory of God’s heavenly dwelling. The lightening, rumblings and thunder echo the presence of God at Sinai (Exodus 19:16). The rainbow reminds us that the God of creation–the God who redeemed Noah–is enthroned here (cf. Ezekiel 1:28; Genesis 9:13). John has entered the Holy of Holies where the angels still sing, as they did in Isaiah 6, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” This is the God who reigns over the whole earth (cf. Ezekiel 1:26-28). John has entered the sanctuary of the one whose temple is the cosmos itself (cf. Isaiah 66:1).

This, however, is a point of contention in the imperial world of first century Rome. The beast, according to Revelation 13:1-2, is given power, authority, and a throne which the whole world worshipped. John’s readers lived daily with the claims and actions of imperial power. For them it looked as if the whole world worshipped the Emperor and Caesar wielded uncontested power over their lives. For Caesar there was only one throne, and it was his.

John’s visionary experience contests Caesar’s claim. This is foundational for the unfolding drama of Revelation 4-16 (the second vision). God sits on the throne, not Caesar, and God remains on the throne despite Caesar’s attempts to unseat the Creator.

Revelation 4 identifies two sets of “celestial” participants around the throne of God. One set–the four living creatures–probably represents angelic figures while the other set–the twenty-four elders–represents human figures. In sum, angelic and human communities are present before the heavenly throne. They surround the throne with their worship, submission, and obedience.

The description of four living creatures before the throne is drawn from Ezekiel 1:4-21 and Isaiah 6:2-4. We may describe them as cherubim (look like Ezekiel) or seraphim  (sing like Isaiah) though they are not so identified by John. Rather, as close to the throne, they may represent a kind of angelic hierarchy. Whatever the case, they represent God’s all-seeing (lots of eyes!) activity in the world who are never inactive in God’s cause or mission. They continuously praise the one “who was and is and is to come.”

hb_32.143.2The Ancient Near Eastern backdrop for these figures are the Babylonian Shedu (human headed winged bulls) or Assyrian Lamassu (human headed winged lions, pictured to the left). These figures are usually positioned at doorways that guard the entrances to temples, palaces, or holy places. Cherubim, we might remember, tower over the ark of the covenant in the Solomonic temple (1 Kings 6:23-35). One of the best examples of such winged variously headed animals are the Megiddo Ivories discovered from pre-Israelite Megiddo in Palestine (ca. 14th century BCE, pictured below). These are pictured below. Sometimes these animals are represented as carrying royal figures.  Perhaps the four living creatures that surround the throne in heaven function to set off the throne of God, guard access to it, and serve the mission of the enthroned One.MegiddoIronIaIvorySphinx

The twenty-four elders are enthroned humans who are clothed in white and crowned with golden wreaths. Their humanity is indicated by their dress, honors, and number.  The number twenty-four represents the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles (as in Revelation 21:12-14). This is the unity of Israel and the Church before the throne–there is one people of God. Their dress is what is promised the faithful saints of Sardis in Revelation 3:5. White garments represent their religious (perhaps priestly) function in the throne room of God. They are holy servants in God’s Holy of Holies. Their golden laurel wreaths are what are promised to  faithful saints in Revelation 2:10 and 3:11. These are the victory wreaths given to those who have overcome.

The throne before which these celestial figures worship is sovereign. God rules the cosmos, including the chaos of evil. The “sea of glass, like crystal” before the throne probably alludes to chaos and evil within the creation though before the throne it has been smoothed like glass. The sea in the life of Israel represented the chaotic waters that destroyed and out of which evil arose. Even in creation the waters are only bounded and limited rather than eliminated. The sea is the source of evil in Revelation as the beast arises out of the sea in Revelation 13. This sea, however, is placid and smoothed. As Beal notes (Revelation, 328), “John sees the chaotic powers of the sea as calmed by divine sovereignty.” God rules even the chaos of the creation, and consequently God also rules the beasts of Revelation (that is, the world powers). In the presence of God there is no fear of the chaos; God smooths the chaos and ultimately eliminates it in the new heaven and new earth (“there was no more sea,” Revelation 21:1).

Greg Stevenson, A Slaughtered Lamb, interprets the action present in this setting through the lens of benefaction. Benefactors donated wealth, skills and resources to cities and communities for the common good. They did this with the expectation of reciprocity. The community, in gratitude, would honor the benefactors with inscriptions, preferred status, exemption from taxation, or the best seats at the theater.  Often they would be awarded a golden victory wreath (stephanos) to honor their gift.

At the end of this chapter, the four “living creatures given ‘honor and thanks’ ‘to the one on the throne and the twenty-four elders lay their golden wreaths (stephanous) before the throne and then declare God ‘worthy’ to receive ‘honor’.” According to Stevenson, “the message of Revelation 4:9-11 is that God is the ultimate benefactor by virtue of his role as the Creator” (p. 127). There is no other real benefactor; God alone is worthy to be praised as the giver of good gifts and the creator of all that is.

The problem is that within the Imperial world of first century Rome the gods and Emperor were considered the ultimate benefactors.  For example, an Egyptian inscription calls Nero the good guardian of the world (agathos daimon tes oikomenes) and the god Neilos the great benefactor (doreas) of Egypt. The Emperor is the empire’s benefactor who gifts the Empire with what it needs. Revelation 4 stands in stark contrast with such claims and allegiance.

Revelation 4 is a worship text. The heavenly celestials worship the one who sits on the throne. They cry “Holy, Holy, Holy” (the old song of Isaiah 6 which affirms that there is nothing holier than God). This is the Holy One of Israel who has “created all things.” God is worshipped because of God’s being (identity=Holy) and action (creation).  Yahweh is the enthroned benefactor of creation. Only God deserves “glory and honor and power,” and it is only before this throne that the twenty-four elders lay their golden wreaths.

Imagine for a moment Christians emerging from their humble house church after a Sunday assembly to witness the procession to the temple of the Emperor Domitian in Laodicea. Romans visited the imperial temples (including the worship of the Goddess Roma) to acknowledge their benefactor and affirm their allegiance to Rome’s civil religion. The contrast is stark. The humble worship of a Christian assembly gathered in a home paled in comparison to the extravagance of the Imperial cult. While Romans worshipped their benefactor, Christians envisioned the throne room scene of Revelation 4 as they assembled to worship their Benefactor. While the temples of Rome lie in ruins, the Christian assemblies continue to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” in chorus with the heavenlies.

Let us be warned that Christian assemblies should not mix the worship of the enthroned one with civil religion, whether in Rome or America. We assemble to pledge allegiance to the One who alone is the great benefactor and acknowledge God’s holiness and creative work.

Despite how the world looked to the persecuted Christian communities in the Roman province of Asia, God was still on the throne. The hostile powers have not dethroned God. The enthroned God is worshipped by the heavenly hosts just as the earthly churches continue to worship the Creator of all things.


The Second Vision: Revelation 4-16

July 5, 2013

When the seventh angel sounded the seventh trumpet, “voices” (note the plural) announced:

The kingdom of the world has become
the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,
and he will reign for ever and ever.

This, I believe, is the fundamental agenda of the Apocalypse, that is, to announce the coming of the kingdom of God which consumes the kingdoms of this world. The kingdom of God is breaking into the world and ultimately destroys the principalities and powers (to use Paul’s language) that presently de facto rule the cosmos. God will not let that stand since it de jure belongs to God’s reign.

The Structure of the Apocalypse

Revelation 4-16 is the second of four visions.  A superficial reading of the Apocalypse will notice how often John uses the language of “then I saw” or “I looked,” etc. John is a seer–he sees what God will do; he sees the present and coming reign of God.

The four visions in Revelation are highlighted by the four-fold use of “in the Spirit.” This is the language of Ezekiel 37:1 when Ezekiel was carried to the valley of bones. This phrase appears in the following places in Revelation:

  • Revelation 1:10 — John sees the risen Christ on the isle of Patmos.
  • Revelation 4:2 — John watches events unfold from the heavenly throne room
  • Revelation 17:3 — John watches events unfold from an earthly wilderness
  • Revelation 21:10 — John inspects the New Jerusalem from a high mountain on the New Earth.

This visionary notation structures the Apocalypse into four visions (a fuller schematic outline is available here):

  1. Vision One - The Kingdom Begun: Jesus Has Overcome (Revelation 1:9-3:22)
  2. Vision Two — The Kingdom Comes: The Heavenly Perspective (Revelation 4-16)
  3. Vision Three – The Kingdom Comes: The Earthly Perspective (Revelation 17-21:8)
  4. Vision Four — The Kingdom Fully Realized in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:9-22:7)

The Structure and Progress of the Second Vision

The Apocalypse’s second vision (Revelation 4-16) has a well-defined literary structure. The structure shapes the plot and progression of the drama’s movement.  Below is a way of picturing this structural development:

The Heavenly Throne Room: The Sealed Scroll is Seized (4-5)

The Seven Seals are Opened (6:1-8:1)

The Seven Trumpets Herald the Opening of the Scroll (8:1-11:19)

Pause: Seven Participants in the Drama are Identified (12-14)

The Seven Bowls are Poured Out (15-16)

John watches this drama from the setting of the heavenly throne room. He is taken up into the heavenlies in order to observe how God will defeat the kingdom of the beasts (the world powers) and at the same time redeem the followers of the Lamb. John has a “God’s eye view” of the events–he sees them from above rather than from below (he sees the third vision in Revelation 17:1-21:8 from below; he is taken to the wilderness to experience the brokenness of the world).

The sevens, a number that symbolizes wholeness or completeness, link the drama together. This begins in the throne room where the “seven spirits of God” (Revelation 4:5; a reference to the Holy Spirit, I think, given the parallel with Revelation 1:4) are present before the throne of God. Then there are seven seals, seven trumpets, seven thunders (which are silenced), seven actors in the drama and seven bowls. The number unites the vision.

Further, the drama is progressive. The judgments associated with the opening of the seals affect only one-fourth of the earth (Revelation 6:8), but the judgments associated with the heralding of the trumpets affects one-third of the earth (Revelation 8:12). The seven bowls, however, envelop the whole earth (Revelation 16:14). The transitions between the scenes are headed/ended by the language of “thunders, voices, lightnings, and an earthquake” (Revelation 4:5; 8:5; 11:19; 16:18). This is the language of divine presence and action; it is the language of Sinai (Exodus 19:16-19). The covenant God reigns and acts. The God of Sinai is still active in the world.

Some, at least in my experience, tend to think that the God of the Old Testament was more involved in the history of the world than is the God of the New Testament. In the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, God raises up kings and brings them down. Yahweh moves nations, orchestrates their boundaries and times, and is actively purusing a divine agenda in their relationships (even when those relations are hostile). The God of the Greek Scriptures, it is said, is no longer involved in that way. Indeed, perhaps God is not involved at all except for encouraging the spread of the gospel.

The Apocalypse undermines any such Marcionite dichotomy. History–perhaps symbolized by the scroll–is in the hand of God and the one who sits on the throne is calling the shots in the unfolding drama of the Apocalypse. Like Yahweh, the God of Jesus Christ uses nations, kings, and powers for a divine agenda. They serve God; God does not serve them.

The throne in heaven initiates the drama within human history that will culminate in the kingdom of God. The Lamb opens the seals, seven angels who stand before God sound the trumpets, and the seven plagues (bowls) come from the heavenly temple itself. The beasts of the Apocalypse are given power–empowered but also limited by the one who sits on the throne–and then defanged.

God is an active agent and power within human history. Yahweh still sits on the throne and rules the cosmos. That reign, within the drama of the second vision, is increasingly and progressively manifested until Babylon (the kingdom of the beasts) falls and the Lamb is enthroned on Mount Zion (e.g., the New Jerusalem).

The Lamb is God’s agent in the world. The Lion is a slain Lamb who has overcome or triumphed over evil. The followers of the Lamb overcome as well. Followers of the Lamb overcome through faithful witness (including martyrdom) rather than through violent revolution. The Kingdom of God shows up through a suffering lamb and slaughtered followers.

God will avenge the blood of the saints, but the saints follow the Lamb as faithful witnesses in a hostile world.  God protects those who have the Father’s name stamped on their forehead and God will defeat the kingdom of the beast. God will fully realize his kingdom just as we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is heaven.” The followers of the Lamb overcome through endurance, faithfulness, and prophetic witness.

This does not mean that followers of the Lamb are passive in their relation to the kingdom of the beasts. They actively pursue the agenda of the heavenly kingdom in terms of righteousness, peace, and joy, but they are not violent revolutionaries. They follow the Lamb that was slain and leave the rest to God.

We are followers of the Lamb. We follow him wherever he goes (Revelation 14:4). We follow him to martyrdom, to self-sacrifice. Indeed, we are the sacrifical firstfruits that God has purchased and offered (Revelation14:4).  We follow the Lamb to the slaughter, but also into a new life. We follow the Lamb into the grave but into a new creation. We follow the Lamb to the cross and into the joy of the New Jerusalem.

We are lambs–just as Jesus was as he walked upon the earth suffering for our sakes. We follow the path of sacrifical suffering, redemptive suffering. But God has not forgotten. God will redeem and avenge his lambs. Though lambs are still led to the slaughter, the kingdom of God is coming and will come. God will remember his covenant.

The Second Vision as the Heart of the Apocalypse

The second vision is the bulk of the book and, in many ways, its heart.  This section literally unveils (reveals) the work of God in the world. Sitting on the isle of Patmos and living in the urban centers of Asia Minor, the imperial power of Rome appears dominant and controlling. Who can oppose it? And where is God when the saints are martyred and the church has been placed under a hostile siege? While the first vision encourages the faithful and confronts the problems in the seven churches, the second vision pulls back the curtain to peer into the heavenly throne room. Taken up into that throne room, John sees what is really real, what the true state of affairs is.

The second vision announces that God is on his throne and Ceaser has not deposed him. It announces that the Lamb has made the redeemed a kingdom of priests. It dramatizes the opening of the scroll that contains the destiny of the cosmos itself–the scroll is taken by the Lamb from the hand of the one who sits on the throne, its seven seals are opened, seven trumpets hearld its opening, and the seven bowls of wrath are poured out upon the kingdoms of the world (partial content of the scroll).

The second vision encourages readers to believe what they cannot see. God is enthroned even though the world looks chaotic and hostile. The kingdom of God will fill the earth even though the kingdoms of the world look impregnable. The Lamb is also a Lion–a king–who will defeat the enemies of God and secure the realm for God. The Lamb and his followers will sing a new song, a song of redemption, as they celebrate the victory of God in the world.

The second vision is not simply about Rome but it is the fight (war, struggle) that has been played out within the fallen world ever since the kingdom of darkness first entered God’s good creation. It is the struggle of the children of Seth against the children of Cain in Genesis. It is the struggle of Israel against the nations, the struggle of Yahweh against the gods of the nations. It is the struggle of Jesus against the demons, and it is the struggle in which believers are engaged against principalities and powers (and not simply against flesh and blood). It is a struggle that continues today in multiple forms.

The conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world is embedded in the biblical story from beginning to end. The Apocalypse, through the eyes of John, unveils the progression and conclusion of that struggle. The significance of the Apocalypse for contemporary believers is not the specific prediction of specific historical events but the assurance that the struggle is not in vain. God’s kingdom is coming, is even now present, and will ultimately triumph over the kingdoms of this world.


Revelation 3:14-22: Prophetic Oracle for Laodicea

July 5, 2013

Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Laodicea was part of a tri-city area in Lycus Valley of the Roman province of Asia that included Hierapolis (six miles south) and Colossae (ten miles west). Through the influence of Paul’s co-workers, Christian communities were established in all three cities (Colossians 4:13-15). However, only Laodicea is addressed in Revelation 1-3.

Hierapolis was famous for its hot springs while Colossae was watered by cold springs. Laodicea received much of its water via aqueduct from the surrounding hills. Some think this factors into how Laodicea is addressed by Jesus. Whatever the case, Laodicea was located on the crossroads of the north-south and east-west trade routes as well as situated in a fertile valley. This enabled its wealth which is indicated by two large amphitheaters and a hippodrome. The city even boasted a medical school. As a large comerical, agricultural and manufacturing center, the city appeared practically self-sufficient.

Addressor: “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.”

This threefold identification–none of which appears in the Christophany of Revelation 1–is an astounding claim. The only parallel in the biblical canon to the first (“Amen”) is Isaiah 65:16 where, literally, “one will bless by the God of Amen.” This is the one by whom the people of God swear and take loyalty oaths. This leads to the identification “faithful and true witness” as the “Amen” (so it is!) is the one who has borne a faithful and authentic witness in the world as God’s loyal one. This is the one who was obedient to death, even death on a cross. At the same time, this faithful martyr (witness) was also present at the origins of creation as the very agent of creation itself. The risen, enthroned Messiah is also the very beginning (arche) of creation, or–as Colossians 1:15 states it–the “firstborn of creation.” Like God himself (Revelation 21:6), the Messiah is the “beginning and end” of all things (Revelation 22:13). Consequently, this self-identification gives the Messiah divine status, power, and authority. Once again, it is a counter-claim to those made by the Caesars.

Warning: “I know your works…”

For Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-12) this statement was an encouragement. For Laodicea it is an indictment. Their works are neither hot nor cold. Hot and  cold drinks are pleasant and useful at the right time. But lukewarm water is unsuitable for drinking; it is useless and unpleasant. The metaphor Jesus employs is not about hot=good or cold=bad, but rather that hot and cold drinks have a usefuleness while lukewarm drinks are spit out of the mouth.

Laodicea’s works are like a lukewarm drink when a hot or cold one is expected. We reject lukewarm coffee when we expect it to be hot and we wince at lukewarm coke when we expect it to be cold. Like a lukewarm drink, Jesus will spit Laodicea’s works (thus the body itself) out of his mouth.

What is the problem? They boast wealth, prosperity and self-sufficieny. Their problem is their pride. “I” heads the self-descriptions…I…I…I. They abhor dependance on another and see themselves as fully equipped with what they need. But in reality they are very broken people. “Wretched” evokes images of one who has hit rock bottom. Rather than self-sufficient, they are “poor, blind, and naked.” They are destitute and powerless.

The resolution is to turn toward Jesus and “buy” from him gold, garments and salve for the eyes. The metaphor of “buy” is probably drawn from Isaiah 55 where the people of God are invited to “buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1). In other words, though commerical language is used, people may obtain this for the asking. It is an invitation to renew relationship with Jesus. They can become rich, clothed, and seeing, but only if they seek this from Jesus rather than from the commercial culture in which they live.

Jesus’ acknowledgement of their works is a warning about self-deception. They think they are healthy but they are not. So, Jesus confronts (rebukes, reproves) them. This form of discipline arises out of love. Proverbs reminds us that God disciplines those whom he loves (Proverbs 3:12; also quoted in Hebrews 12:6). Discipline intends to disciple or train. It has the potential of bearing fruit that we might share in God’s holiness (Hebrews 12:10). But how we respond to discipline is a choice. One must open the door when God is knocking.

Invitation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”

“Behold” calls attention to the announcement to follow. This is something to which the Laodiceans should pay particular attention. Jesus offers an invitation. Jesus wants to enter the lives of the Laodiceans so that he might eat with them.

The goal is fellowship which is symbolized by eating a meal together. The table has always been a place of fellowship in the history of God’s people. Israel ate their sacrificial meals in the presence of God (Deuteronomy 27:6-7), the church eats the Lord’s Supper in the presence of the living Christ, even eating “with” Jesus (Matthew 26:29), and we anticipate the eschatological Messianic banquet when the Messiah will serve us at the banquet table (Luke 12:35-37). Jesus wants relationship with the Laodiceans and he knocks at the door waiting for them to enter.

We must remember, however, that the one who is knocking here is not the sweet, mild, perhaps even timid Jesus who carries a lamb on his shoulder, but the Christ who appears as the imperial Lord (the Christophany of Revelation 1). The one knocking at the door is the Amen, the faithful witness and the “beginning and end” of creation itself. Be careful when you open the door to this Lord as he will make demands on your life even as he sits down at the table with you.

Promise: “”The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne.”

Jesus is the faithful witness; he is the model of the one who overcomes or conquers. He bore witness to the truth even to the point of death. He is the faithful martyr. His death, however, was not a defeat. Rather, through his witness, he was enthroned with the Father. In the same way, we are promised that if we overcome through faithful witness, we, too, will be enthroned and reign with Christ. Just as the Son sits with the Father on his throne, so we will sit with the Son on his.

Admonition: “Whoever has an ear, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Are we listening?


Revelation 3:7-13 — Prophetic Oracle for Philadelphia

June 28, 2013

Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Philadelphia was the youngest of the seven cities addressed in these oracles. As an agricultural center located at the intersection of major trade routes, it was an important city though its significance was less than other major areas such as Ephesus or Smyrna. The region was known for is vineyards and wine.

When destroyed by an earthquake in 17 CE imperial interests assisted in the rebuilding of the city (specifically Tiberius who exempted it from taxes). The city was renamed Neocaesareia (New Ceasar) and later, after Emperor Vespasian (69-79) honored the city, it was further named “Flavia.” Ultimately, over a hundred years after the writing of Revelation, Philadelphia also received the title of Neokoros (guardian of the temple) which indicates the strength of the imperial cultus in the city.

Philadelphia, then, was an important agricultural and economic center that was also significantly invested in the imperial cult. Syncretistic accommodation was a strong temptation for Christians in this city as their economic interests were tied to the city’s status and indebtedness to the Emperors.

Addressor:  “the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who pens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.”

As “holy” and “true,” Jesus is the “real deal;” he is wholly authentic. But more fundamentally he is what is truly real in the cosmos. Holiness projects justice and truth embodies reality (how the cosmos really is). As the holder of the “key of David,” this one will do what is just and right.

While many interpreters connect the “key of David” with the “keys of Death and Hades” in Revelation 1, this is a misidentification. The latter is plural but the former is singular. The latter is about death, but the former is about authority. The keys of Hades open the door of death, but the “key of David” opens for some and locks out others.

The “key of David” alludes to the function of the royal administrator in Isaiah 22:22. Eliakim was clothed with a robe and sash to symbolize his status in the kingdom and God placed “authority” in his hands. He controlled access to the house of David, perhaps much like a Chief of Staff does for the US President. In other words, no one has access to the king except through Eliakim who has the “key of the house of David.”

In the same way, no one has access to the throne room of God–to the kingdom of God–except through or by the permission (authority) of the one who is holy and true, Jesus the Messiah. With the key, Jesus will open the door so that some might enter (like Philadelphia), but he will shut the door to prevent access to others (like Sardis).

Acknowledgement:  “I know your works.”

Unlike Sardis, Jesus affirms what he knows about Philadelphia’s works. He knows they have “kept [his] word,” confessed his name, and endured the struggles of living in a hostile culture as a small, powerless group of believers. In response to their faithfulness (even “because” of their faithfulness), Jesus announces his blessing. He signals this with the double use of “Behold” (once in 3:8 and twice in 3:9). “Behold” calls our attention to something significant to which the reader is to pay special attention.

“Behold, I have set before you an open door.” Unfortunately, many have understood this in terms of Philadelphia’s grand opportunities like an “open door” for evangelism or something like that. But this ignores the previous mention of the “key of David” which opens and shuts doors. The open door has been unlocked by the key of David, that is, it gives Philadelphia entrance into the fullness of the kingdom of God. They have access to the King, even entrance into the throne room of God.

“Behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet.” Apparently, there was a synagogue in Philadelphia that was particularly hostile to Christians. To describe this synagogue as “of Satan” (perhaps belong to or is empowered by Satan) is not a general description of Jews but reflects the local hostility present in Philadelphia. This synagogue, like the Roman powers themselves, is dominated by Satanic impulses that oppose the kingdom of God. Satan represent the powers in the world that oppose God’s reign.

The promise, however, is that though these Jews claim to be the people of God and the heirs of the prophetic promises, they will discover otherwise. The prophets envisioned the nations coming to Jerusalem to honor the Jewish nation and learn about God from them (e.g., Isaiah 60:14). Jesus reverses this here. Instead the Jews will come to the believers in Philadelphia (representing the nations) to honor them and learn about God. In that moment they will learn that God has loved the nations in Christ. Like the prophet Hosea (1:9), this oracle envisions a role reversal. Though hated by their culture, the believing Philadelphians are loved by God.

There is yet, however, one more promise for Philadelphia given their past endurance and faithfulness to Jesus’ message. “I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.”

Richard Oster’s discussion of Revelation 3:10 is particularly enlightening (Seven Congregations, 177-180). This promise is directed specifically to Philadelphia (“you” is singular); it does not apply, for example, to Sardis. The believers in Philadelphia are promised special care here because of their faithfulness. When God tries the “whole world,” he will protect Philadelphia through it.

The divine trial is not an eschatological one in the sense of some end-time event. Rather, it is a trial through which Philadelphia will be protected as the world experiences divine judgment within history, that is, within the history of the original audience addressed in this oracle. The “hour of trial” is not about length of time as much as it is about the nature of the event–God will test the hearts of the inhabitants of the earth.

The “whole world” should not be read to include Asia, Africa, North America, etc. Rather, it is the Roman world. This what Oster calls “fictive globalism” (pp. 213-215) rather than a literal globalism. It is the way the Roman world referred to itself as they regarded themselves as the “whole world” even though they knew others lived beyond their borders. In other words, the “whole world” addresses the imperial reality of the Roman empire. This is the world, at least in this oracle, that is tried and through which the believers in Philadelphia will be protected.

As Oster notes, “the inhabitants of the earth” is a way of describing pagans within the Roman empire, or more generally, those who oppose the kingdom of God (p. 179-180). It is the way the Septuagint describes the Canaanites who inhabited Israel’s promised land (cf. 2 Chronicles 20:7). The language is apocalyptic as it describes those who oppose the kingdom of God and, consequently, will be tried and judged.

The theological idea of “trial” or “testing” is a significant theme in the biblical narrative. God tested Abraham (Genesis 22:1), Israel in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:1-4), and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 32:31). The Psalmists pray for it (26:2) and biblical authors assume God is constantly testing hearts (Proverbs 17:3; Jeremiah 17:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:4). Testing is part of spiritual formation. When God tries the world–whether persons like Abraham or the pagans of the Roman empire)–God discerns what is truly in human hearts and responds accordingly.

Encouragement:  “I am coming soon.”

While for Sardis this announcement was a warning, for Philadelphia it is an encouragement. Like with Sardis this is not about an eschatological end-time event but is rather about how Jesus will come to protect and comfort Philadelphia during the “hour of trial” that the Roman empire is about to undergo. In consequence, Jesus calls them to hold on and continue in their present course. Otherwise someone may steal their laurel wreath (crown; 3:11). Victory is within their grasp but they must stay the course and endure the “hour of trial.”

Promise:  “The one who conquers, I will make a pillar in the temple of God.”

The promise embraces an eschatological perspective as it looks forward to the descent of the new Jerusalem out of heaven onto a new heaven and new earth (cf. Revelation 22:1-4). Indeed, they will become part of the temple of God itself; they will stand as pillars in the temple. They will stand in the sanctuary of God as a permanent fixture.Erechtheum1

Greg Stevenson points out that sculpting human figures as pillars in sacred architecture was common in the ancient world (cited by Oster, 181-2). The most famous example is the Erectheum on the acropolis of Athens (Greece). The figures are Caryatids on what is known as the “porch of maidens.”

The promise, illustrated by these figures, incorporates the people of God into the temple. Porch_of_MaidensIn some sense, the people of God become the temple. We are the temple of God, or, to put it in words that reflect the picture in Revelation 21, we live in the New Jerusalem which is the temple of God since that is the eternal dwelling place of God among redeemed humanity.

As pillars in the temple of God, we are inscribed with the name of God, the name of God’s city, and the “new name” of the risen One. The picture is similar to the end of Zechariah when everything in the whole city, in the whole world, will be inscribed “Holy to the Lord” (Zechariah 14:20). Everything in the new heaven and new earth will be dedicated to and participate in the life of the God of Israel.

Admonition:  “whoever has an ear, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Are we listening?


Revelation 3:1-6 — Prophetic Oracle For Sardis

June 27, 2013

Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.

At one time Sardis was a wealthy and powerful city. Its citadel, located on an acropolis, was thought impregnable. However, the ancient historian Herodotus tells us that the fortress fell to the Persians in 546 BCE as the Sardians slept comfortably secure on their mighty hill (and again later by the Greeks). The citadel also fell as they slept in 214 BCE during a Lydian revolt. Vigilance, apparently, was not a Sardian virtue. By the Roman era, Sardis had lost its leadership in the region, particularly to Smyrna as it was awarded the imperial temple rather than Sardis. Though still a relatively wealthy city, its power was curtailed by that growing vitality of other Asian cities. One might say that the city had a reputation based on its history of wealth and power in the region but by the first century the city had lost its fangs. It had little bite left.

Addressor:  “the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.”

To hold (literally, “have”) the seven stars in his hand is not only a sign of relationship to the churches but also a declaration of imperial relation to these churches (see comments on Revelation 2:1). It is a statement of care but also of supervision; he holds the seven angelic representatives of the churches in his hand and he speaks prophetically and imperially to each.

What is different in this text, however, is that Jesus also holds the “seven spirits of God” in his hand. Some identify the “seven spirits” with the “seven stars” and thus the seven congregations. That is possible, but it seems more likely that the “seven spirits” are the seven-fold Spirit that speaks to the seven churches (just as every oracle ends with the admonition to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches).

Acknowledgement:  “I know your works.”

Actually, it is no acknowledgement; it is not an affirmation. Rather, it is ironic.  “I know your works,” Jesus says, but those works are lifeless and incomplete. They are no (good) works at all.

The church is like the city. It has a reputation but it is dead. We might surmise that they live in the afterglow of a glorious beginning or they live in the nostalgia of the past. Jesus calls them back to their beginnings–what they had “received and heard” at one point. They are living off their rep rather than living in the present through their works.

Jesus, in rather quick succession, fires off five imperatives to the church at Sardis:

  1. Become Alert or Wake Up – like their city in the past, this church is asleep at the wheel; they need more vigilance.
  2. Strengthen — firm up or support what remains so that the church might again live
  3. Remember — this is not nostalgia but renewing what lies at the roots of this congregation’s beginnings.
  4. Keep — guard and maintain what gave the congregation its lively origins.
  5. Repent — turn away from the dead works and renew the good works that inaugurated the Christian community in Sardis.

These imperatives provide a gird for a congregational restart. It involves (1) remembrance, (2) repentance, and (3) renewal through appropriating past values and strengthening present life.

Warning: “I will come like a thief…”

Since this directed at Sardis, this does not refer to the eschatological coming of Jesus. Rather, eschatological language (“coming”) is used to describe a proleptic event in the life of the church of Sardis that anticipates the eschatological reality. Jesus will come suddenly and unexpectedly to remove their candlestick but it is not at the same time the “end of the age.” Rather, the future judgment will potentially break into the present life of the Sardis church if they do not repent. Jesus will come to Sardis in a proleptic way rather than in a cosmic sense.

Nevertheless, there is some life in the church at Sardis; there are a few who have not “soiled their garments.” Apparently, they have not accommodated the culture or denied the name of Jesus. They are “worthy” to walk with Jesus. Dead churches sometimes have people with living faith.

Promise: “The one who conquers will be clothed in white garments.”

The promise is threefold:  (1) clothed in white garments; (2) permanent inscripturation in the book of life; and (3) the son’s affirmation before the Father. Those are powerful images, but they applied only to those who persevere, that is, those who overcome or conquer. They apply to faithful witnesses, faithful followers of the Lamb.

White garments represent not only clothes washed in the blood of the Lamb, but also they are holy garments which reflect the sanctity involved in walking before the throne of God. White garments are part of both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultic heritage, that is, one wears white in the presence of God. The garments, in effect, reflect the glory of God as well as the consecration of the one who wears it. They are, in effect, priestly garments.

Those who persevere–those who are faithful even to death–will never have their names blotted out of the book of life. This promise is conditioned on “overcoming” and assumes that blotting out is a possibility just as the removal of the candlestick from the presence of Christ is also possible. However, those who overcome are promised that their names are permanently inscribed in the book, never to be removed.

When people follow Jesus as a faithful witness, Jesus will affirm them by confessing their names before the Father in the presence of the heavenly host. This is a powerful image. We all love affirmation, and we love to be affirmed in the presence of greatness. Indeed, some sacrifice everything for the glory of national affirmation. But the Son’s affirmation is cosmic in nature; it is the grandest of all affirmations. Should we not sacrifice everything for it, even our very lives as faithful witnesses?

Admonition: “he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Are we listening?


Revelation 2:18-29 — Prophetic Oracle for Thyatira

June 17, 2013

Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Thyatira, a city which began as a military outpost in the third century BCE, grew into a thriving financial center during the Roman era. A biblical example is Lydia of Thyatira who was a seller of purple (Acts 16:14). There are a large number of inscriptions and monuments that verify the pervasive influence of trade guilds (similar to unions) in the city. This is natural for a commercial center. These guilds, however, were often associated with particular gods, temples, political allegiances, and/or festivals.  This created tremendous social and economic pressure to participate in the various activities in order to maintain social standing and financial opportunities.

Addressor: “the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.”

The risen Messiah identifies himself with three lines but only the last two come from the Christophany in Revelation 1:12-17. This first identification is the only time “Son of God” appears in Revelation. Rather than a theological identification with deity (though it may have that ring when read in the churches), the primary referent–because it is part of the agenda throughout the Apocalypse–is a contrast with Caesar who was often given the title “son of God.” For example, a statue of the Emperor Trajan in Ephesus had an inscription containing the attribution “son of God” (see the picture at Richard Oster’s blog where the title is underlined in red). This understanding of the title accords well with the promises to Thyatira (discussed below).

The firey eyes and bronzed feet are most likely taken from Daniel 10:6 where they describe heavenly figures. The eyes function to highlight a discerning, even judging, gaze (see “searches mind and heart” in 2:23) while the bronze feet probably represent stability and certainty. This Caesar–this “son of God”–stands firm and sees what is happening at Thyatira.

Commendation: “I know your…”

  • works
  • love (agape)
  • faith
  • service (diakonian)
  • patient endurance (hupomonen)

This is an impressive list. Unlike Ephesus, the church is commended for its “love.” The acknowledgement of it works is amplified in terms of their ministry (service) which probably specifies their benevolent activities. They  care for others, and they endure the hardships of their situation. Their works are further commended because they are increasing–they are greater than at the beginning. From appearances, this is a vibrant, ministering,  and loving congregation despite their hardships.

A further commendation appears in 2:24 as some (or many?) have maintained sound (healthy) teaching. They have not bought into the rhetoric of those who follow Jezebel.  It seems that some claimed that they have “learned the deep things of Satan” as some call it. But who names it such? If it is the Jezebel party, then perhaps they claim some “deep” knowledge that rationalizes their practices as if they know how to discern the workings of Satan. If so, they excuse their immorality and idolatry as people who can discern between what is indifferent and what is truly Satanic. Perhaps, then, the claim is to some insight or knowledge that justifies their behavior.  If it is what those who reject the Jezebel party say, then they associate the practices of the party with Satan. If this is so, then Satan once again lies behind this assimilation to paganism, according to the prophet. In either case, the practices of the Jezebel party are deeply rooted in the powers of Satan and thus reflect assimilation to the imperial culture.

There are,  however, a significant number in the congregation who have remained faithful in their witness against accommodation. They reject the Jezebel party and are commended for their faithfulness. Indeed, as the oracle says, Jesus lays no “other burden” on them than “hold[ing] fast” till he comes. perseverance is a key theme among the letters and for the whole Apocalypse. Christ-followers must continue their works, love, and faith until the final realization of God’s new creation emerges in the Eschaton.

Warning:  “But I have this against you…”

Jezebel is probably a metaphor for a particular prophetess in Thyatira who is seducing members of the congregation with her teaching. Two particulars are identified:  sexual immorality and eating food sacrificed to idols. Apparently, this was previously addressed in some way in the hopes she might repent (God is gracious in giving “time to repent”) but she refused. Consequently, Christ will act against her.

The Jezebel imagery is significant as it connects us with the story of Israel’s queen (1 Kings 18-21). She incited her husband to follow Baal and lead Israel into immorality and idolatry. Her leadership in pagan assimilation forms the typology that the prophet employs here.

The specific practices are similar to those found at Pergamum. It is the same problem of cultural accommodation to pagan idolatry and immorality. Here, however, there is a specific leader with a significant following (“her children”). The result for both is the same–death. There is no reason to think this is a form of Christian violence but rather that her (and her children’s) end will be the same as Jezebel as the metaphor of the biblical story is continued. Here it is metaphorical in the same way that the threat against the churches is. Just as Jesus will remove the lampstands from his presence if the churches do not repent, so now Jesus will act to remove Jezebel since she has refused to repent when she had the opportunity.

Christ’s eyes are fixed on his congregations. He searches “mind and heart” and intends to give to everyone what their works deserve. This underscores the significance of faithful witness through persevering in good works. The commendation of Thyatira is the model for this perseverance, but they must also reject the influence and presence of Jezebel. They can tolerate her no longer.

Promise: “I will give…”

  • authority over the nations
  • the morning star

The first gift highlights a major theme in the Apocalypse. The conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world (or world powers) is central to the drama which will unfold in the second vision (Revelation 4-16). The prophet utilizes Psalm 2 in which God addresses the son (king) and promises him the inheritance of the nations as the son will exercise authority over the kingdoms of the earth. The Apocalypse identifies this son with the risen Christ who, enthroned in heaven, now exercises authority over the nations through the unfolding apocalyptic drama. The promise is that those who follow Christ (who overcome and persevere in their works) will share in his reign over the nations; they will rule with Christ. The promise entails the defeat of the world powers that now war against the kingdom of God. [There is a question whether 2:26b is part of the quotation from Psalm 2 and thus addressing only the Messiah or whether it is an application of Psalm 2 to all Christ-followers. I think the latter, but Aune (Revelation) and Oster (Seven Congregations, 154-6) argue for the former.]

The two gifts are connected though it is not obvious to 21st century readers. The “morning star” is explicitly connected with the Davidic dynasty in Revelation 22:16. Further, the morning star (the planet Venus) often appears on Roman coinage and is deeply embedded in imperial and Roman mythology. Oster (Seven Congregations, 160) suggests that the connection between Julius Caesar and the worship of Venus as well as the association of the founding of Rome with Venus generated a strong association between the “morning star” and Roman Emperors (see also Oster’s discussion of this along with some sample coins on his blog). In other words, “John’s use of the ‘morning star’ christology would place  Christ in competition with Caesar.” It is the risen Messiah who holds the stars in his hands and who can dispense Venus as a gift to his followers. Christ, rather than Caesar, reigns and shares his reign with those who overcome and “keep [his] works to the end.”

Admonition: “he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Are we listening?


Revelation 2:12-17 — Prophetic Oracle for Pergamum

June 14, 2013

Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Pergamum competed with Ephesus and Smyrna for importance as all three had imperial temples (Neokoros). It the first city to build a temple dedicated to a Roman Emperor (Augustus in 29 BCE, which was also dedicated to Roma). Pergamum was city alive with pagan spirituality and dedication. Its temple to Asclepios (the Roman god of healing) was renowned and the god adorned the city’s coinage in the late first century. 250px-Pergamonmuseum_PergamonaltarThe large altar of Zeus which is now in the Berlin Pergamum museum (pictured here) was a magnificent marble structure. Pagan and Imperial vitality was as pervasive and healthy as in any city in Asia. As an administrative center, Neokoros of the imperial cult, and medical center based in the Temple of Asclepios as well as the second largest library in the world (next to Alexandria) it was a religio-cultural center for Asia and beyond.

Addressor:  “the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.”

Revelation 1:16 pictures Christ with a two-edged sword coming out his mouth. The sword probably represents the discerning message that pierces hearts and opens up their secrets before God. The sword can heal or destroy; it can regenerate (renew) or devastate. Christ has some sharp words for Pergamum that entail the potential use of the destructive power of this sword.

Commendation:  “I know where you dwell.”

This is practically a concessive. The prophet recognizes the serious situation in which Pergamum Christians live. This church has already experienced legal pressure to renounce the name of Christ and suffered at least one martyr for their resistance. Antipas, about whom we know nothing else, is the only named martyr (“faithful witness”) in Revelation other than Jesus himself.

Pergamum is the location of “Satan’s throne.” This is not a reference back to the “synagogue of Satan” in Smyrna. Rather, this refers to the pagan environment in which Christians lived. Identifying the specific “throne” has proved rather fruitless so perhaps it is best to simply associate it with the vibrant pagan religious life present in Pergamum (including all the features noted above; Oster, Seven Congregations, 135). This city, like others but even more so in Pergamum, was immersed in its dedication to pagan deities and the imperial cult. At one time the capital city of Asia and the virtual center of the imperial cult, perhaps that is sufficient to identify it as “Satan’s throne.” The “throne” here contrasts with the other thrones that appear in Revelation, particularly the “throne” of God in heaven (Revelation 4:2, etc.)

The reference to Satan anticipates how significant his role is in the apocalyptic drama. He is the power behind the Empire as he makes war on the saints of God.

Warning: “But I have a few things against you.”

  • “you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam.”
  • “you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans”

While the saints in Pergamum may not have denied the name of Christ, they have compromised it through a syncretistic tolerance.  Balaam is a well-known symbol of syncretism, assimilation, and compromise as he attempted to subvert the faith of Israel (Numbers 22-24). Beale (Revelation, 248-51) notes that the “sword language” that begins and ends the oracle to Pergamum reflects the language of Numbers 31:8 (also Joshua 13:22) that Balaam himself was killed with the sword.

Whatever the specific teachings of these two groups, the prophet focuses on two practices that compromise the faith:  (1) eating food sacrificed to idols, and (2) practicing sexual immorality. Oster (138) observes that “the combination of idolatry and immorality is part of the stock Jewish characterization of pagan existence (cf. Romans 1:18-32 and Wisdom 14:22-27)” and the specific target of Paul’s call to ethical purity in 1 Corinthians 10:1-21. Like some in Corinth, some believers did not think it inappropriate to participate in the idolatrous festivals and eat food sacrificed to idols (presumably at the temples in connection with their artisan guilds or political associations) as well as pursue sexual lust.

Imperative:  “Therefore, repent.”

Cultural and religious assimilation as well as the toleration of aberrant Christian ethics spelled the doom of the Pergamum congregation. The Imperial Lord Jesus the Messiah warns that he will draw the sword against them and wage war against their practices.  “I will come to you soon,” he announces. This coming is neither redemptive nor eschatological. Rather, it is a divine visitation to remove the lampstand of Pergamum from his presence. Jesus will not tolerate their tolerance for Baalam-like syncretism. Instead, they will experience the wrathful sword of the Lamb that will ultimately destroy the nations in Revelation 19:15

Admonition:  “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

This is a warning not only to Pergamum but also to the other churches overhearing the message to them. It is time to listen and respond accordingly.

Promise: “I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone.”

Given the pressure-cooker in which they live and the suffering they have endured, the promises are significant: (1) hidden manna and (2) a white stone with a new name.

The hidden manna probably alludes to the story in 2 Maccabees 2:4-8 that describes how Jeremiah hide the ark of covenant (containing manna) in the Transjordan region at the time of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. This manna was to remain hidden until God gathered his people in an eschatological harvest. Manna is a symbol of God’s provision, and to receive the “hidden manna” is to experience the eschatological banquet, that is, to eat at the table of God. This stands in strong contrast with eating at idolatrous tables.

It seems we ought to see some connection between eating the manna and receiving a white stone with a new name.  The stone probably refers to some kind of invitation since a general custom was to use stone as entrance tokens to banquets and other events. The new name probably refers to a victory name, a conquering name which is given in light of the victory. Consequently, the total picture probably anticipates our invitation to and entrance into the victorious Messianic banquet. As victors–those who have overcome–the faithful witnesses sit at the banquet table and share in the “new name” that Jesus himself has received (cf. Revelation 3:12; cf. 19:12). Probably the “new name” alludes to Isaiah 62:2 and the newness promised in the later chapters of Isaiah (e.g., Isaiah 65:17; 66:22) which is the “new heavens and new earth.”

The contrast, therefore, is strong. Instead of eating at idolatrous banquets and participating in the fleeting pleasure of sexuality immorality, Christ-followers anticipate eating the manna of God at an invitation-only banquet in the New Jerusalem.


Alexander Campbell, Gratuitous Evil and Meticulous Providence

June 11, 2013

Yesterday I received my copy of J. Caleb Clanton’s new book entitled The Philosophy of Religion of Alexander Campbell (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2013). I had previously read the manuscript in early 2012 and am pleased to see it in print.

Caleb taught philosophy at Pepperdine for several years but now teaches at Lipscomb.  I am grateful that Lipscomb has secured his services as a philosopher, and a philosopher who is interested in mining the resources of the Stone-Campbell tradition.

I deeply appreciate his engagement with the resources of the Stone-Campbell Movement, particularly Alexander Campbell, in the discipline of Philosophy of Religion. Of all the early Reformers, Campbell is the best—perhaps the only choice—for such a project.  However, my appreciation not only extends to the subject matter, but also for how Clanton brings Campbell’s philosophy of religion into dialogue with contemporary discussions. In the language of Vatican II’s aggiornamento, Clanton brings the Campbellian philosophical tradition “up to date.”

Clanton’s work is impressive. His analysis of Campbell’s ideas are fair, clear, and illuminating. His re-contextualization of Campbell’s thought is insightful. He demonstrates that Campbell squarely faced the questions that philosophy of religion raised in the early nineteenth century. Campbell was well-acquainted with the philosophical issues of his day. Not only does this demonstrate that the Stone-Campbell Movement has its own “philosopher,” but that the philosophic tradition Campbell represented may yet still provide some guidance in our current context. And, yet, I think it remains clear—as Clanton’s discussion of the Campbell’s ideation argument for the existence of God indicates—that Campbell, as a philosopher of ideas, is a deeply rooted empirical Biblicist who only ventures into metaphysical waters as a negative apologetic while always staying within sight of the empirical shore.

At the 2012 Christian Scholars Conference I offered a response to Caleb’s manuscript regarding Campbell’s understanding of Arminian-esque theodicy. Campbell’s theodicy, as Clanton unfolds it, is focused on the Free Will Defense, responds to the “Divine Hiddenness” problem, and articulates a high view of providence (even meticulous providence) that denies gratuitous evil.  My response to Clanton is available here.


Revelation 2:8-11 — Prophetic Oracle for Smyrna

June 10, 2013

Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Smyrna, the modern city of Izmir in Turkey, was a long-time ally of Rome, even during its wars with Carthage (North Africa). It boasted a temple to the goddess Roma as early as 195 BCE and won the honor of building a temple to honor Emperor Tiberius in 26 CE.IzmirSmyrnaAgora20004 Consequently, Smyrna had the civic honor of Neokoros (Temple Guardian) as well as Ephesus and Pergamum (cf. Friesen, Twice Neokoros, 57-59). The Emperor cult was alive and well in this city of between 100,000-200,000 people. (The photo shows the remains of Smyrna’s agora  or marketplace where a statue of Zeus was prominent.)

One of the most significant early Christian leaders was from Smyrna–Polycarp. He was martyred in 156 CE. (identified as the “twelfth” martyr from Smyrna) and claimed that he had served Christ for eighty-six years (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 9, 19) which would place him among those addressed in this letter (assuming he lived in Smyrna at the time). We know he was the “Bishop of Smyrna” when Ignatius wrote his letter to Smyrna and subsequently wrote a letter to Polycarp himself (around 112-115 CE). Polycarp’s reputation in the history of the early church is parallel to Smyrna’s reputation in this letter–a faithful, suffering witness to Jesus.

Addressor:  “The words of the first and last, who died and came to life.”

The language comes from the Christophany in Revelation 1:17-18. The first phrase identifies him with Yahweh who is so described by Isaiah (44:6) and the latter identifies him as the one who returned from Hades. This return to life, however, was not simply a resuscitation, but a resurrection or transformation, that is, he is the “firstborn from the dead” (1:5). The language underscores his presence as a divine figure who has overturned the powers of Hades and Death. The reference to death is particularly appropriate as the church at Smyrna will face a testing that will bring them to the edge of death in their faithful witness.

Commendation:  “I know….”

  • “your tribulation”
  • “your poverty”
  • “the slander”

Probably these three are linked in some way. Their troubles are partly economic perhaps brought on by the slander of hostile neighbors. The picture is larger than that, of course, but the interconnection of economics, slander, and troubles is part of the drama in the next vision (Revelation 4-16). Christians were sometimes boycotted and denied economic access; at other times they refused to participate in idolatrous rituals which would have been economically beneficial. Their faithful witness has exacted a heavy price. But their wealth is not found in Roman materialism but in the richness of God’s community.

The risen Christ identifies the source of the slander (literally, blasphemy).  They “those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Oster’s discussion of this line has been one of the more helpful ones to me (Seven Congregations, 120-125). Some believe this refers to Jews who reported some of their former synagogue members to the authorities on the grounds that they no longer contributed the tribute tax demanded by Romans after the destruction of Jerusalem (the Fiscus Judaicus; cf. Suetonius,  Domitian, 12.2; Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 7.6.6). In other words, some Jews may have incited legal proceedings against some Christians on the part of the Romans.

Others, like Oster, believe it is more likely that this is a matter of sectarian hostility between Christians and Jews. Just as Jews began to exclude Christians from the synagogue, so Christians regarded Jews hostile to Jesus as representatives of the powers that lie behind the evil in the world. Satan is the power that lies behind the Empire but Satan also slanders Christians at the synagogue.

This is not a function of anti-Semitism as if Christians hated Jewish ethnicity or hated them as “Christ-killers.” Rather, it is tension born of different loyalties and sectarian division (a tension evident in the Martyrdom of Polycarp [12-13] when Jews are described as those who collect the wood to burn Polycarp). The Satanic image reflects a broad apocalyptic understanding that the risen Messiah is engaged in a cosmic conflict with Satan and whoever opposes the Messiah serves the purposes of Satan. Consequently, Paul referred to his opponents in Corinth as “servants” of Satan (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

There is also a claim here that true Jewishness is not found in ethnicity. Rather, it is found in following the Messiah. Revelation will describe the faithful in terms of Jewish theological roots, even the twelve tribes of Israel (Revelation 7:1-5). For Revelation authentic Jewishness is faith in the Messiah–following the Lamb rather than ethnicity or Torah-keeping.

Imperatives:  “Do not fear…Be faithful unto death.”

The context for these imperatives is the impending “tribulation.”  They have already suffered some trouble, but more is coming, perhaps an escalation. Imprisonment is coming for some and maybe some will even suffer to the point of martyrdom (“faithful to the point of death”). The faithfulness demanded here is not merely a faithfulness until one dies but a faithfulness that might lead to death itself like Jesus himself.

The prophet characterizes this period as a “testing” or some kind of probation. Theologically, God will permit a time of testing. This is a consistent trajectory in Scripture (Genesis 22:1; Psalm 81:7; Jeremiah 11:20; 20:12; Proverbs 17:3; 2 Chronicles 32:31; 1 Thessalonians 2:4). It is one of the ways the people of God are refined. God tries us to see what is in our hearts, that is, where our treasure lies (cf. Deuteronomy 8:2).

The most curious dimension of this probationary period is its length. What does “ten days” symbolize? Some think it identifies a short period of time in contrast to, say, a thousand years. Given the context of probation and testing, it seems more likely that we find the roots of this image in a significant moment of testing that lasted ten days in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Daniel four Hebrew young men are “tested” for “ten days” (1:12-15). The Greek Scriptures (LXX) use the same language that we find in Revelation 2. The “ten days” is probably a metaphor for a period of testing analogous to Daniel’s own testing (cf. Beale, Revelation, p. 242). The question is whether Christ-followers will refuse assimilation just as Daniel and his friends did or will they compromise their faith.

Death as a faithful witness, however, is victory; it brings a “wreath (stephanon) of life.” 747px-Lorbeerkranz_Zypern_remDeath is not defeat as the faithful witness is awarded a victory wreath. A stephanos was given to victors in athletic contests as well as on other occasions (military victories). This is not a royal crown of authority but a victory celebration. The laurel wreath was commonly depicted in Greco-Roman art, even on tombstones where it depicts the reward for a life well lived (see the image at  Oster’s site). 1470091 The coin on the right, minted in Thyatira during the reign of Domitian, pictures Nike holding a victory wreath.

Admonition: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

The “testing” is coming; indeed, it is already here. Who is listening?

Promise: “The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.”

The one who was once dead but is now alive promises the same for those who overcome or conquer. The “second death” is the fiery lake described in Revelation 20:14 or, in common parlance, “Hell”. In other words, there will be no second death for those who die in faith. They will, like the Messiah, live forever. This is the Christian hope–resurrected life.


Response to “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry”

June 6, 2013

The 2013 Christian Scholars Conference is currently in progress. Gary Holloway asked me to present a paper that would respond to the ecumenical 1982 Lima “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.”

I have uploaded the paper on my Academic page and it is now available here.

The paper suggests that the great strength of the document is its fundamental theological orientation but that its weakness is its strongly institutional character.

To figure out what that means I guess one will have to read the paper.

Blessings

John Mark


Revelation 2:1-7 — Prophetic Oracle for Ephesus

June 4, 2013

Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Ephesus was named the provincial capital by Augustus Caesar in 29 BCE and an imperial cult center dedicated to Roma and Divus Julius was established in the city and later followed by a temple dedicated to Augustus. Ephesus was the first city to build a temple to the Emperor Domitian though it was renamed for Vespasian after the death of the unpopular Emperor (the Roman Senate wanted to rid themselves of Domitian’s legacy). Its remains are still visible today, built 89-91 CE. ephesus-domitian-templeA 50×100 meter two-story structure, Ephesus thought it a great honor to be the first city to honor the Emperor (neokoros, a Temple guardian) as a provincial center of the imperial cult for Domitian. As a center of Imperial civil religion Ephesus stressed its allegiance to the Emperor (a statue of Domitian stood in the Sabastoi Temple) as well as to Greco-Roman deities through multiple temples. One could not live in Ephesus without the constant reminder of how religion pervasively shaped daily life (from coinage to festive processions) and was, in effect, a civil religion for the culture.

The interconnection between commerce, religion and public fidelity to the gods is part of the story in Acts 19 when a mob demonstrated at the theatre because Paul’s new faith was diminishing the devotion of Ephesus to the goddess Diana (Artemis). theatre2The theatre could hold 25,000 people and the mob was only quieted after hours of demonstration and the pleading of officials. This illustrates the kind of excitement that civil religion could generate in a Roman city.

Addressor:  “who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” Jesus addresses the angel as a representative of the church–all usages of the English “you” are singular.

The significance of the “seven stars” should not be underestimated. Domitian minted a coin in memory of his dead son. 97-79001089The inscription read: “the divine Caesar, son of the emperor Domitian.” The image of the son is encircled by seven stars as he sits upon a globe.

In other words, it is Christ rather than the Emperor who holds the stars in his hand. He speaks as one whose authority is unquestioned and one who “walks” among the churches. This is the language of living God dwelling among Israel (Leviticus 26:11-12). Christ dwells among his people.

Commendations:  Ephesus is commended for multiple positives.

  • good works and toil (difficult labor)
  • patient endurance and “bearing up” without growing weary
  • tested false “apostles”
  • intolerant of evil (e.g., they “hate” the works of the Nicolaitans)

We might summarize this list under two headings. First, though the Ephesian church was suffering under the pressures of living in a hostile culture, they persevered in good works. Twice John describes their “patient endurance” (hupomone) which means that they have stood up under the pressure. Instead of giving up, they continued their hard work (kopon). Their ministries were ongoing and laborious.

Second, they have resisted the pressures to abandon the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of their faith. They “hate” the works of the Nicolaitans, as does Christ, and they did not accept the message of some itinerant teachers who claimed to be apostles. The Ephesian church was discerning. They recognized the error of both.

Whatever the exact problem the Nicolaitans (probably sexual immorality and idolatry as we will see in future oracles) and false apostles exemplified, Ephesus is commended for its intolerance. I don’t think we should read “hate” as a kind of maliciousness but rather as an ethical resistance to immorality. This is no commendation for malice, abuse, or violence, but a commendation for commitment to the values of the kingdom of God in opposition to what might subvert those values.

The Nicolaitans are identified as an independent group in Ephesus. They have been excluded from the Christian community there and the Christians are commended for it. Ignatius alluded to groups against which the church must guard itself (cf. Ephesians 7:1). The struggle in Ephesus against such groups has been a long one from Paul’s warnings (Acts 20:28-31) to Timothy’s struggles with insidious teachings (1 Timothy 6:3-5). The church, it appears from Revelation 2, had remained faithful in their teaching and their works.

Problem: “you have abandoned the love you had at first.”

It is difficult to know how to interpret what it means to “abandon” or “leave behind” your “first love” or the “love you had at first.” We do not have much in the way of context to identify the specific problem. Love, however, is the key. Given the orthodoxy and orthopraxy for which they are commended, some think their teachings and practices had lost a sense of loving fervor and had degenerated into a kind of formality. They lost their “love.” Perhaps they failed to love each other as tensions rose in discerning false teaching and external pressures. Perhaps it is about whom they love. In other words, perhaps they had lost their focus in terms of loving Christ. Whatever the case their faithful teaching and works were insufficient. The church also needed “love.” Multiple positives do not balance out a loss of “love.”

Warning:  Remember and repent.

There are two imperatives in the text:  remember and repent.  The church is to regain its original vision and return to their original (“at the first”) practices (works).  Presumably this means, in some sense, an infusion of “love” in their practices and communal life.

True to the prophetic genre, the call to repent is significant to the future of the community. The explicit warning is that Jesus will “come” and remove the lampstand from his presence if they do not repent. It is, in effect, a casting out of the church. Though their orthodoxy and orthopraxy is laudable, their lost “love” (should it continue) means that they can no longer expect the comforting presence of the Lord. In that situation, the Lord’s coming is neither redemptive nor eschatological (“end-time”)–it is the present loss of Christ’s presence. They would be cast from his presence when their lampstand is removed.

Admonition:  “he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Are you listening? Do you hear me? The Spirit of God is speaking through the oracle in order to form the church, but the church must listen and respond to effect the kind of spiritual formation envisioned by the oracle. Other “churches” are also overhearing the message to Ephesus–it is not for them alone but for all believers.

Promise:  “I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”

The promise anticipates the eschatological picture of Revelation 21-22. The “tree of life” is located in the Garden of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 22:2 (cf. 22:14, 19). Here the oracle locates the “tree of life” in “Paradise” which means “garden.” This is a clear allusion to the Garden of Eden in Genesis, but it is not a longing for a return to the Garden of Eden. Rather , it is a promise of entrance into the eschatological Garden in the New Jerusalem. The promise is a peaceful and satisfying life. No matter what the Empire threatens, Jesus will give to life to the one who “overcomes.”

The term “conquer” or “overcome” is an important one in Revelation. The promised is conditioned on “overcoming.” The verb is nikao which we know in our culture as Nike (or, victory). To overcome is to gain the victory; it is to successfully persevere or patiently endure as a faithful witness.

Oster (Seven Congregations, 109-113) calls attention to the pervasive symbolism of the goddess Nike (Latin, Victoria) present in the Greco-Roman world. While the term certainly embraced the idea of martyrdom (cf. 4 Maccabees 1:11), Oster suggests that the larger Greco-Roman spirituality of victory is a more important backdrop. The goddess was the source of success, wealth, health, power, and victorious battles. She handed the victors of athletic contests their laurel wreath. goddess-nike-from-whichThose who wanted victory (wanted to “overcome”) sought her blessings. [Nike is here pictured holding a wreath--from a monument in Ephesus.] But for the church at Ephesus “overcoming” is resisting cultural assimilation; it is resisting the cultural turn to the goddess Nike. To “overcome” is faithful witness whether it leads to martyrdom or not. The victory wreath does not come from Nike but from the Lord Jesus. To “overcome” is to persevere in faith.

In the case of Ephesus, victory lies in returning to their beginnings and renewing their “love” while maintaining their orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Resisting cultural assimilation and syncretism, they will share in the victory of the one who has himself overcome (Revelation 5:5).


The “Letters” to the Seven Churches

May 29, 2013

Though almost universally called “letters” to the seven churches of Asia, this is rather insufficient to capture the urgency and message of these words from the risen and enthroned Messiah. The salutation of the Apocalypse (Revelation 1:4-8) bears all the earmarks of a letter, but the subsequent visionary markers (“in the Spirit”) remind us that this is no letter. It is, as identified in the superscription, a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3).

As a prophecy located in the tradition of the canonical Hebrew prophets but at the same time an Apocalypse, we expect prophetic oracles that address the situation of the original hearers. This is exactly what we have in the “letters” to the seven churches. They are prophetic oracles rather than simple letters (though, of course, they appear in the genre of letters). They are filled with apocalyptic imagery, allusions to prophetic literature, and confront and/or comfort the people of God in an increasingly hostile environment. John, through the voice of the risen Messiah, speaks like an Amos, or an Isaiah, or a Jeremiah. He calls the people of God to account even as he also offers them hope.

Almost every commentary on these “letters” notes their repetitive structure, and rightly so as the structure highlights (1) the authority of the risen Messiah, (2) the situation of each church (whether good or bad), and (3) the hope of the new heaven and new earth. This is all couched in the language of an apocalyptic prophet.

In his recent commentary on Revelation 1-3, Richard E. Oster, Jr. discerns a sevenfold pattern for each of the prophetic oracles (Seven Congregations, 91-92). I have adapted his arrangement in this way:

  1. “To the angel of the church” (2:1; 2:8; 2:12; 2:18; 3:1; 3:7; 3:14)
  2. Command to “write” (2:1; 2:8; 2:12; 2:18; 3:1; 3:7; 3:14)
  3. Christophany connection (2:1; 2:8; 2:12; 2:18; 3:1; 3:7 (?))
  4. Acknowledge–”I know” (2:2; 2:9; 2:13; 2:19; 3:1; 3:8; 3:15)
  5. Warnings and Imperatives (2:2-6; 2:9-10; 2:13-16; 2:19-25; 3:1-4; 3:8-11; 3:15-20)
  6. Eschatological Promise (2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:26; 3:5; 3:12; 3:21)
  7. Admonition–Call to Hear (2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:29; 3:6; 3:13; 3:22)

It is important to note several significant features of this sevenfold pattern in the light of their function as prophetic oracles.  First, the oracle arises from the divine council, that is, from a heavenly figure who delivers a message from the divine throne room.  The risen Messiah received a “revelation” from God and now delivers it to the (angel of the) churches through John. This, in effect, is like the Hebrew prophets to whom “the word of the Lord came” (Hosea 1:1; Zechariah 1:1) or the “vision” they saw (Isaiah 1:1).

Second, the message of the prophet confronts the people of God. The overwhelming danger for the churches in Asia is cultural assimilation through idolatry, syncretism, and heterodoxy. This is the same problem Israel faced throughout its history and which the prophets constantly addressed. The emphatic and mostly climactic line in the oracles is the call to listen–whoever has an ear. let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  It is important to notice the plural (churches; cf. 2:7). This indicates the audience is wider than simply the particular church addressed. Rather, whoever has an ear–whoever is within earshot, whoever hears the words read–they should listen to the message. The warnings, promises and imperatives apply to every church and not simply to the specific one addressed (though, of course, it has an acute relevance to the community addressed). The prophetic message, then, is for a broad audience though socially and contextually located.

Third, while the prophet commends and warns, Jesus through John also offers hope through the promise of a future eschatological reality. This binds Revelation 2-3 with Revelation 21-22 as the language of the former anticipates the latter. Hope changes everything and hope enables endurance as a faithful witness. It does not minimize faithful witness but provides a horizon for ordering our lives as disciples of Jesus. Greg Stevenson in his new book A Slaughtered Lamb (p. 120) summarizes it well:

Some have criticized the idea of an end-time resolution to the problem of human suffering, believing that it downplays the need to remedy injustice in the here and now. Eschatology, however, is not about taking our eyes off the needs of this world and focusing them instead on some ultimate consolation. One who embodies the pattern of the Christ must also embody his compassion for the poor, his concern for justice, his outrage at evil, and his actions to reduce human suffering. What eschatology does, what the seven promises concluding these letters do, is challenge our assumptions that God is not faithful unless he provides blessing and comfort in this life. They are a reminder that God’s vision encompasses much more than ours and this material world–as important as it is–is not the totality of existence. The messages of the seven letters are strongly counter-cultural in that they dare to suggest that it is not wealth or comfort or pleasure achieved within the kingdom of the world that matters, but a life lived according to the pattern of a crucified messiah, a slaughtered Lamb, and that that pattern reinterprets all our cultural assumptions.

Though I think Greg introduces the image of the slaughtered Lamb too early (it does not appear till Revelation 5), the point is on target given the whole of the theology of Revelation. The function of hope is not to diminish the present or release us from our commitment to care for others. Rather, its function is to open a window into the fuller nature of reality and glimpse the goal God has for the creation. This hope empowers discipleship and comforts the afflicted.


Revelation 1:9-20 — An Imperial Christophany

May 28, 2013

The Christophany–the appearance of Jesus to John–sets the tone for the letters to the churches (Revelation 2 & 3) and provides the ground for patient endurance through the dramatic conflict that the Apocalypse will unfold in the second and third visions (Revelation 4-16 and Revelation 17-21). It is, therefore, important to pay close attention to how Christ comes to his churches as the first vision opens.

This introduction to the letters to the seven churches easily falls into three sections:  (1) Prophetic Commission (1:9-11); (2) Christophany Described (1:12-16); and (3) Divine Speech (1:17-20).

1.  John is commissioned to write what he sees “in a book” (or on a scroll) and send it to the seven churches.

John has shared  in the suffering of the Christians in Asia Minor. The language of “tribulation” and “patient endurance” reflects the shared experience of cultural hostility. John is on Patmos because he was willing to bear witness to the word of God and Jesus. There is no need to speculate about the horrors of Patmos (or mines, etc.). Rather, John probably suffered from the common practice of exiling or deporting anti-government prophets and astrologers (see Oster, Seven Congregations, 66). John’s insistence on allegiance to the kingdom of God, his warnings about assimilation, and his prophetic denouncement of idolatrous Roman imperialism (all seen in the Apocalypse itself) probably landed him in exile (deportation or banishment). Partners in the kingdom of God will share in its tribulations and will need to persevere in faith. John identifies with his audience.

On a particular “Lord’s day,” John was “in the Spirit.” Since the “Lord’s day” has a specific referent–his audience would know what that is, it appears that it is the common day of worship among Christians. Second century Christians identified this as Sunday (cf. Didache 14.1; Ignatius, Magnesians 9.1; Gospel of Peter 12.50; Barnabas 15.9). Calling it the “Lord’s day” probably contrasts with other days associated with the Emperor or cultic rituals. John fell into a trance on the day of the Lord’s resurrection which is quite appropriate for what he will see.

Given John’s description of his work as a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3), “in the Spirit” refers to a prophetic vision or experience. The model is Ezekiel who received a prophetic visions while he was “in the Spirit” (Ezekiel 2:2; 3:12, 14, 24; 8:3; 11:1; 37:1).

But John hears something before he sees anything. A loud voice sounded like a trumpet behind him. The imagery is important here since trumpets were both Jewish and Greco-Roman symbols for the entrance of the divine.  Trumpets are associated with theophanies in the Hebrew Scriptures (cf. Isaiah 18:3; Joel 2:1; Zechariah 9:14; Exodus 19:16; 20:18) and in Greco-Roman literature the voices of the gods are compared with the sounding of trumpets (see Aune, Revelation). This language, then, announces a theophany (in this case a Christophany).Seven Churches of Asia

What John hears is a commission to write a book. John the prophet (“in the Spirit”) is commissioned to write a prophecy (1:3) based on what he sees. The book, however, has a specific audience, that is, the seven churches of Asia. The message of this prophecy is specifically tied to the experience and life of the churches in Asia (the “seven” probably represents the whole church in Asia). Several of these cities were part of the Koinon (Fellowhsip or League) of cities in Asia that were particularly dedicated to “the local practices of the imperial cult, emperor veneration, and patriotic enthusiasm, ” specifically Laodicea, Pergamum (with imperial temple), Ephesus (with imperial temple), Smyrna (with imperial temple), and Sardis (Oster, Seven Congregations, 71-2). The cultural pressure to participate in the guilds, the processions, the oaths of allegiance, and the sacrifices would have been enormous within this Koinon. The prophecy of this book is designed for and geared toward the situation of these seven churches in Asia.

2.  John describes the first thing he “sees” and it is an appearance of the risen Christ among his churches.

It is important to appreciate the dramatic nature of the Christophany. The description of the risen Christ is both connected to the authority with which he addresses the churches and his appearance as a divine figure. Jesus is the Lord who addresses his congregations in contrast to the Emperor; the church must listen to their Lord rather than to Caesar.

Concerning the first point, parts of the description of Jesus appear in the introduction to each letter to the seven churches as we will see in future posts. But the second point is more significant in terms of the overall impact upon the original audience.

The risen Christ appears in symbols that are heavily grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures and Greco-Roman cultural forms. The Hebrew symbols are drawn from various visionary and theophanic texts, that is, where God appears to the prophets (cf. Zechariah 4:2, 12; Daniel 7:9, 13; 10:5-6; Isaiah 11:4; 49:2). The Hebrew contexts identify what John sees as a heavenly (even divine) figure who bears great authority (speaks with a “great voice”). The Greco-Roman connections, from depictions of Caesar’s own brilliant radiance emanating from his crown (or the Sun-god Helios) and the deity of the Emperor represented by “seven stars” on coinage, depict a reigning god whose authority is unquestioned (Oster, Seven Congregations, pp. 77-80). Consequently, what John sees radiates divine authority and presence that contrasts with that of Caesar and the Greco-Roman gods.

The risen Christ is the “Son of Man.” This is not an allusion to his humanity, but to his glory. The Son of Man is an eschatological title; it belongs to the one who will bring judgment to the earth and set things right. This is the one who comes on the clouds with the power to subdue the enemies of God. The Christophany is a judgment scene. Christ has come to judge the churches and then the empire. st_john_beholding_the_seven_candelabra

This picture of Jesus, represented on the left by Albrecht Durer (d. 1528), is no cuddly friend or a shepherd who carries a lamb on his shoulders. On the contrary, this is an imperial figure–the Messianic Lord Jesus–who comes to address the congregations of Asia.

3.  John is reassured and recommissioned by the living Christ.

The Christophany was terrifying. Like other prophets who encountered the divine, John–perhaps involuntarily–fell down as if he had fainted (cf. Isaiah 6:5; Ezekiel 1:28; Daniel 8:17; 10:9-11). In this instance the glory of the risen Christ was not intended to comfort the churches but to confront them. The vision and John’s response, like Isaiah’s before him (Isaiah 6), prepares us to hear the prophetic oracles (the letters to the seven churches) that will follow. They are, in large measure, judgment oracles that call for repentance, non-conformity, and a counter-cultural commitment to the kingdom of God.

The theological announcement is astounding. There is no reason to fear because the risen Christ is the “first and the last, and the living one.” The first claim associates him with Yahweh, the one who was, is and is to come (cf. Isaiah 41:4; 44:6; 48:12; Revelation 22:13). The second is theological elaboration of what it means to be “firstborn from the dead”–the foundation of new creation itself.  He is the one who lives! GATE-HELL

The resurrection of Jesus is the ground of eternal life. The resurrection inaugurated a new creation where death no longer reigns but Christ reigns. He has the keys–the power to open the doors (gates)–of Hades (the realm of the dead) and Death itself. The “gates of Hades” had a well-known portal (called Plutonium) in what is now southwestern Turkey (see also this re-creation).  On sarcophagi and other depictions, the “Gates of Hades” are locked and closed.  Whoever enters never returns. But the risen Christ announces that he has returned and he has the keys to unlock Hades.

The powers of Hades and Death symbolize the cosmic forces arrayed against the kingdom of God. But they have no ultimate power anymore. The risen Christ has authority over the principalities and powers that presently engulf the earth.

On the authority of the risen Christ, John will write his prophetic message. He will confront the churches and the empire, and he will announce the judgment that is to come against both.

As if to reinforce both the authority of the message and the specificity of the audience, Jesus identifies the seven stars and the seven lampstands. The risen Christ walks among his churches; he is present among them (the seven lampstands). And he holds “the angels of the seven churches” in his hand. The seven stars are some times identified with church leaders (bishops?), or the messengers that brought the letters to the churches, or (most probably) the angelic representatives of the churches before the throne of God. Whatever the case may be, the emotive impact is that the risen Christ has a vested interest in these congregations. They are his and he has come to deal with them.

The function of this Christophany is similar to function of the theophany in Psalm 50. There Yahweh shows up among the assembled people of Israel, but Yahweh does not come to comfort but to judge. Yahweh calls Israel to faithfulness. That is the point of the Christophany.

The opening vision of Revelation is not the slaughtered Lamb who redeems but the Imperial (Lordship) presence that holds the church accountable.


Five Years of Blogging

May 24, 2013

I have been blogging for over five years.  My purpose in blogging has been basically two-fold:  (1) to provide resources for Stone-Campbell history and biblical study that are connected to what I am researching at the time (or teaching in my Bible classes at Woodmont Hills) and (2) to reflect our common journey of faith through the various trials we all experience (pastoral theology).

I have never thought of my blog as one where I engage contemporary controversies, debates or “hot topics” (though I have occasionally ventured there only to confirm that I need to stay focused on my original purposes).

Given my five years of blogging that so many have encouraged (and I thank you!), here are the top five blogs since February 2008.

5.  A Reflection on Psalm 84 for those Grieving Loss

4.  The Egyptian Hallel and the Lord’s Supper (Psalm 113-118)

3. “I Will Change Your Name”

2.  Women in the Assembly: 1  Corinthians 14:34-35

1. Psalm Lines that Comfort Me

Thank you for reading, but most often I write for my own benefit rather than others.  I’m kind of selfish in that way.  :-)


The Structure of Revelation: Four Visions

May 24, 2013

Interpreters have offered varied “outlines” of Revelation as they attempt to understand how the drama of the Apocalypse unfolds. There are some significant areas of consensus (such as recognizing the cohesive nature of the  septets, particularly the seals, trumpets and bowls). Given the diversity of “outlines,” no single outline can claim certainty and certainly not my own.

Nevertheless, readers organize what they read as a way of making sense of the movement within the drama, seeking its coherence, and understanding its prophetic call. This is unavoidable. Sometimes the recognition of formal structures helps us to hear the message more clearly. There is value, then, in recognizing a structure and paying attention to how others have understood the structure.

In previous posts, we have noted how the book has begun with (1) an entitled superscription (1:1-3) and (2) an extended salutation (1:4-8). While these both set the tone for hearing the book and root us theologically, the body of the book begins with the first vision.

My own sense of the structure is based upon four-fold use of “in the Spirit” as it appears in the Apocalypse.  The “revelation” is something John “saw” while he was “in the Spirit.” This language identifies four distinct (but overlapping) visions similar to how Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones is introduced with the same language (Ezekiel 37:1).

“In the Spirit” appears in the following places in Revelation:

  • Revelation 1:10 — John sees the risen Christ on the isle of Patmos.
  • Revelation 4:2 — John watches events unfold from the heavenly throne room
  • Revelation 17:3 — John watches events unfold from an earthly wilderness
  • Revelation 21:10 — John inspects the New Jerusalem from a high mountain on the New Earth.

This visionary notation structures the Apocalypse into four visions (a fuller schematic outline is available here):

  1. Vision One - The Kingdom Begun: Jesus Has Overcome (Revelation 1:9-3:22)
  2. Vision Two — The Kingdom Comes: The Heavenly Perspective (Revelation 4-16)
  3. Vision Three – The Kingdom Comes: The Earthly Perspective (Revelation 17-21:8)
  4. Vision Four — The Kingdom Fully Realized in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:9-22:7)

In the first vision John, exiled on the isle of Patmos, encounters the risen Christ who gives him a message for the seven churches. John records the messages and sends them to the seven churches. The vision calls the church to repentance, commitment and faithful endurance.

In the second vision John is transported into the heavenly throne room of God. There he sees the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb who enters the throne room to open the sealed book in the right hand of God. The drama of the book unfolds through the opening of the seven seals, the sounding of the seven trumpets, and the pouring out of the seven bowls of wrath. The seventh bowl is the climax of the vision. John watches the whole series of events from the throne room of God; he has a front row seat in the heavenlies.

In the third vision John is placed in an earthly wilderness. No longer in the divine throne room, John is now on the earth. He sees (and identifies) the whore of Babylon, the complicity of the kings and merchants in her rape of the earth, rejoices over the destruction of earthly powers and the binding of Satan in anticipation of the final judgment. The climax of the immediate drama is the millennium preceded by the defeat of the enemies of God and followed by the Great Judgment.

In the fourth vision John is placed on a high mountain in the new heaven and new earth. From this lofty vantage point, John sees and is thus able to describe the New Jerusalem where God dwells with humanity.

We might think of these four visions as four acts in a play or four movements in a piece of music. They each contribute to the full effect of the work but they also have a certain independence, that is, they are to be read in a self-contained way. They each tell their own story that contributes to the whole.

However, we should not read them as autonomous. Rather, they are intimately integrated with each other.  For example, the first and fourth visions have many overlapping themes, shared language, and similar points. In the same way, the second and third visions are actually two perspectives on the same reality, that is, they overlap  or the second tells the same story from a different perspective.  The second vision views the drama “from above” while the third vision views it “from below.”

So, we might think of it this way:

  • Vision 1: Addresses the specific concerns of the seven churches and calls for their commitment to the kingdom of God in the hope of the New Heavens and New Earth.
  • Vision 2: God acts in justice against the kingdoms of the earth as the seven seals, trumpets and bowls of wrath are released.
  • Vision 3: The kingdoms of the earth are described in terms of their sins and destruction as the kingdom of God rejoices and reigns.
  • Vision 4: The new heaven and new earth are opened for those among the seven churches who have overcome and defeated the powers in their own lives and communities.

Visions 2 & 3 are not disconnected from 1 & 4. On the contrary, John’s address to the churches is assumed in 2 & 3 as the call for faithful witness and endurance are repeated. It is the seven churches of Asia that will endure the drama that is about to unfold. They hear the call in the first vision and embrace the hope of the fourth vision, but they must live through the drama of the second and third visions.

This does not mean that these visions have no significance or meaning for the contemporary church. Quite the contrary, the position that the seven churches of Asia occupy in relation to their culture is the same position the present church occupies in relation to her culture. The dangers, temptations, and powers are the same. The conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the earth is ongoing and incessant until the fullness of the reign of God is realized upon the earth. The drama continues as it repeats itself in culture after culture, in epoch after epoch.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.


Remembering Joshua: Life is Hebel

May 21, 2013

Hebel

That is an important word for the writer of Ecclesiastes. It is a word that comes to mind on May 21 every year since 2001.  That was the day Joshua died. It was also the day John Robert died in 2008. Indeed, it is a day on which many people have died.joshua-1990-or-so

Hebel

You may not recognize the word, but it is used 37 times in Ecclesiastes (only 70x in the whole Hebrew Bible). At a literal and formal level it might be rendered “breath” and thus allude to the brevity of life.  At a metaphorical level it might be rendered “vanity, empty, meaningless” and thus allude to the pointlessness of life.

Hebel

The word has much more of a punch than even “meaningless” or “vanity” in Ecclesiastes. It encompasses the unfathomable nature of life, the deep impenetrable mystery of life….and death. Bartholomew’s commentary suggests “enigma.” Life is enigmatic because we simply don’t know; we are limited in perspective and we can’t figure it out.

Hebel

But the word has more punch than that. This is why some, like Michael Fox and Peter Enns, suggest “absurd.” Life is frustrating. The seemingly ceaseless, circular, and pointless merry-go-round of life has no goal, no meaning, and no worth. Life–because of death–is simply absurd.

Hebel

What lies behind Ecclesiastes is a whole Hebrew tradition, including the Torah, and more particularly the opening narrative of Genesis 1-11. When Qohelet probes life he finds the narrative world of Abel (the same Hebrew word hebel). The seemingly pointless, absurd and unjust death of Abel at the hands of Cain is a symbol for human existence. Our lives are like Abel’s.

Hebel

We have to give Qohelet his due. We must sit with him–and it would do us good to sit with him for a season rather than move on too quickly. Sometimes we are forced to sit with him as we are overwhelmed with the horror of human existence. We recoil at death of children at nature’s hand in Oklahoma as well as the hand of the mentally ill in Connecticut. Sometimes all we can do is agree with Qohelet, “Everything is absolutely absurd!”

Hebel

Paul alludes to this word (Romans 8:20). He uses the term that the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible used to translate hebel. He recognizes the frustration and futility of the present bondage which enslaves the creation. Life is not as it should be. The creation groans and the children of God lament. We lament days like May 21.

Hebel

And, without forgetting that life is hebel, we also recognize the good and the joys God has provided today. Life is both hebel and filled with the gifts of the Creator.

So today, we lament and we remember that life is hebel.

But we also, today, accept God’s gifts with gratitude and joy.

How do we do both? Some days, I don’t know. Other days, it is obvious. Ask me tomorrow.


Revelation 1:4-8: Jesus is Coming

May 20, 2013

Titled as an “Apocalypse” and described as a “prophecy” in the superscription, the text begins like a letter. It has all the typical elements of standard letter openings from that era but it is also thoroughly Christian, even with a Triune salutation.

Author:   John
Audience:   Seven Churches of Asia
Salutation:   Grace and Peace from

    1.  the One
    2.  the Seven Spirits
    3.  Jesus the Messiah

Doxology:   Eternal Glory and Power to Jesus
Theme:   Jesus is coming
Declaration:   Thus says the Lord God, the All-Powerful

The audience knows the author. He simply introduces himself as “John” which means that he was well known in the Roman province of Asia. Early Christian tradition in the second century identifies him as the Apostle John, the beloved disciple (e.g., Irenaeus, Justin Martyr [according to Eusebius],  Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian).  That is impressive late second and early third century evidence and geographically diverse.  But other early Christians (e.g., Dionysius in the mid-third century and Eusebius in the 4th century) thought the language wasso different from the Gospel of John that it could not be the same person. Whatever the conclusion, it does not substantially affect how we read the Apocalypse. John–known in Asia Minor–is a fellow-sufferer, a leader of the Christian movement who has seen a vision, and has been given the Apocalypse of Jesus the Messiah.

The audience situates the context of the Apocalypse in the Roman province of Asia Minor. The seven churches are identified in chapters two and three, but these are not the only churches in the province (e.g., Colossae). Why these seven? Some suggest it because they were all connected by a circular road or perhaps they were particularly under fire in ways others were not. But it seems more consistent with the nature of an Apocalypse that seven churches were chosen because the number is symbolic (one of many septets in the book)–these seven churches represent the whole church in Asia Minor, perhaps the universal church itself. The Apocalypse, in effect, is addressed to the whole church though specifically contextualized by the life and experience of the churches in Asia Minor.

The salutation, unlike any other in the New Testament, is triune: Father,  Son and Spirit (cf. Bauckham, Theology of Revelation). Each is characterized in a plurality of ways.

  • “The one who is, who was and who is coming” (ESV). The Greek is not standard grammar (apo should be followed by a genitive rather than a nominative), but John does this in order to reproduce the Greek translation of the divine name in Exodus 3:14. In other words, John identifies the Father with Yahweh, the God of Israel. The threefold characterization underscores that Yahweh knows the beginning from the end (the Alpha and the Omega in 1:8), eternally God and eternally present.
  • The identity of the “seven spirits before His throne” is more disputed though I think the Triune context clarifies it. While some identify the spirits with the seven angels of the churches or the seven principal angels around the throne (as in some early Jewish literature) the context here–as part of the inner divine circle (cf. Revelation 4:5) and sandwhiched between Father and Son–points us to the Holy Spirit (cf. the language of Isaiah 11:2-3; Zechariah 4:2, 6. 10). “Seven” reminds us of the fullness of the divine presence in the person of the Spirit.
  • Jesus the Messiah is characterized in three ways. The total effect is to underscore the significance of his death (martyrdom), resurrection (firstborn from the death), and ascension (present reign). This is the firm ground upon which the drama is built–the identity of Jesus means that the kingdoms of the earth have no power over him, and ultimately over his followers. While Ceasar may claim power, it is the Messiah who truly exercises divine power.
    • the faithful witness” — while “witness” (martus) certainly includes his death, it also points to the living witness of his faithful obedience to the Father. He was faithful even unto death (cf. 2:10).
    • firstborn from the dead” — this does not necessarily mean he was the first one to be raised from the dead (though that is true in terms of new creation), but may also mean that among those raised from the dead he is the preeminent one. He is the “firstborn” in terms of inheritance, authority, and power as well as the first to emerge from the grave as a new creation.
    • ruler of the kings of the earth” — probably an allusion to Psalm 89:27, Yahweh’s “firstborn” king rules over all other kings. This description is particularly apt as the conflict within the Apocalypse is between the reign of God and earthly powers (kings). Jesus is the true king, not Caesar.

The doxology is offered to Jesus which reflects an early worship of Jesus as a participant in the divine fellowship. Jesus is praised because he is the one who has acted redemptively on behalf of the people of God. He is the one who loved, freed (by his blood), and appointed us a kingdom of priests. The eternal (“forever and ever”) glory and dominion (power) belong to him. The focus of the doxology is Christocentric though the goal (telos) is the Father.  Jesus acts so that he might offer (or, we might become) a kingdom of priests to “His God and Father.” The ultimate goal is the Father but this is accomplished through Jesus the Messiah. The doxology draws attention to Jesus as a central figure in the drama of redemption.

The language of love, freedom (release from sin), and constituting a priestly kingdom stand in contrast to the kingdoms of the earth. While Caesar may claim a benevolent disposition toward his subjects, praise belongs to the one who has actually loved, freed, and created us. This is something Jesus did by “his blood” (that is, by his faithful witness). The church is a priestly kingdom just as was Israel (Exodus 19:6). The language assumes a continuity between Israel and the Church as the reign of God within the world.

Revelation 1:8 (the thus “says the Lord God” or declaration) functions as an inclusio as it repeats the identity of Yahweh (“who is, who was, and who is coming”). But it also serves to ground the reality and certainty of the “motto” or “theme” present in Revelation 1:7. Yahweh, the eternal God, is the beginning (Alpha) and the end (Omega). Yahweh is sovereign and will accomplish whatever is promised. God is Almighty (pantokrator); the Lord is all-powerful who rules all other powers. Revelation 1:7 is the promise guarenteed by God’s omnipotence.

The dramatic (and thus thematic) nature of the oracle is announced by the interjection–”Behold!” In other words, pay attention to this! Watch this! The presence of the interjection in the salutation underscores the significance of what follows for not only for this section but for the whole book. This is a thematic announcement soleminized by the word of the Lord God Almighty.

John constructs a poetic announcement built on Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 12:10. Jesus is coming with glory (clouds) and the tribes of the earth will mourn. The motto is as simple as this: Jesus is coming. But that is also complicated. What does the text mean by “coming” and how is this played out in the rest of the Apocalypse?

When Jesus addresses the seven churches, twice he promises to come in judgment upon their sins–not in a distant eschatological future, but in the immediate present (Revelation 2:5, 16). The present coming of Jesus anticipates the future coming, but it appears that the “coming of Jesus” is, as Beale (Revelation, 197) argues, “a process occurring throughout history” that culminates in the final eschatological coming of Jesus. Each coming (or visitation) within history, however, is a proleptic experience of the final one (what Christians normally call the “second coming”). Each coming, then, as Fair notes in his commentary, is described in eschatological language as a prolepsis of what is to come.

The theme (motto) is focused on the coming of Jesus in judgment against the “tribes of the earth.” They will lament his appearance, and the “tribes” lament the judgment of God throughout the Apocalypse (cf. Revelation 11:9; 13:7; 14:6) though there are also “tribes” that rejoice in the victory of the Lamb (cf. Revelation 5:9; 7:9). This fits with the context of Zechariah 12 since it envisions a day when God will judge the nations and pour out grace on the righteous.

The motto, then, anticipates the final eschatological coming of Jesus, but also prepares us to hear the Apocalypse in its setting. When God comes in judgment–whether against the church or the “tribes of the earth” within history–it is a proleptic experience of the final coming of Jesus. The seven churches, then, will experience within their own history the mercy and judgment of God in the present as a manifestation of God’s ultimate goal–to cleanse the earth and redeem it. The nations of the earth, particularly imperial Rome within the situation of the seven churches, will also experience the mercy and judgment of God. Each of these, however, bear witness to the final victory of God in the promised eschatological return of Jesus.

Yahweh–who was, is, and is coming–is coming in the person of Jesus who is the resurrected, ascended, and enthroned Lord that rules the kings of the earth. God is continually coming, visiting, acting, judging, and redeeming. As Jesus executes his reign, he comes again and again. No one will escape his notice (eveyone will experience this continual presence of God) and he will judge all the tribes of the earth.

The one who loved us, freed us and made us a priestly kingdom is also the one who judges the earth. His people will praise him and the nations will lament “on account of him.”

Living in a hostile culture, threatened on every side, and tempted to accomodate the pressure through compromise and syncretism, the church may have felt abanonded. God’s response is the “Apocalypse of Jesus,” and the primary theme is:  Jesus is coming. This is no mere distant future promise to a struggling chruch in the late first century. Rather, it is the assurance that Jesus is and will continue to act on behalf of his people as he exercises the reign of God in the world and will ultimately set things right in the creation despoiled by evil.

“Jesus is coming” is a theodic statement–God is present within history and God will set things right. The church can trust this promise both now and for the future.


Stone-Campbell Research Tools

May 18, 2013

I have two good friends who have invested time, money and effort in making some valuable texts and tools available to researchers and those who are interested in reading original texts of significant Stone-Campbell works.

Barry Jones has made available the following texts for PDF searching. You can find them here.

  • Bible Banner
  • Christian Baptist
  • Millennial Harbinger
  • Gospel Guardian
  • Lard’s Quarterly
  • Millennial Harbinger

I have used his PDF files in recent weeks.  I have found them extremely helpful and could quickly find material that otherwise would have taken me weeks to discover through reading hard copies or microfilm.  The state of the scanning is quite good and searchable though with the usual problems of searching these kinds of files.  Nevertheless I have found the PDF files  invaluable.

Bob Lewis is another longtime friend who has been publishing Stone-Campbell original texts through the Web or on Kindle for several years now.  His Stone-Campbell e-Print Library provides Kindle access for several significant works (such as Ketcherside, Leroy Garrett, Richardson’s Memoirs of Alexander Campbell and W. T. Moore’s Comprehensive History of the Disciples of Christ).

Bod has links to significant journals and works on his Stone-Campbell.org website (including Stone’s Christian Messenger).

I recommend supporting and patronizing both of Dr. Jones and Dr. Lewis. They are providing a wonderful service for researchers and those who love reading in Stone-Campbell history and theology.

Blessings on both their efforts!


Revelation 1:1-3 — The Apocalypse of Jesus the Messiah

May 17, 2013

The title, “Revelation of Jesus the Messiah,” is ambiguous, perhaps intentionally so. It may mean the revelation about Jesus, that is, the unveiling of the story at which Jesus stands at the center. Or, it may mean the revelation that belongs to Jesus, that is, the Father has given this story to Jesus for the purpose of disclosure. Perhaps, however, we overanalyze the grammar when it is likely that the point encompasses both: the story the Father gave Jesus to disclose to the churches is about the central role Jesus plays in the cosmic drama of redemption.

Something once hidden is now–in this drama–revealed. The book unveils what lies behind the scenes. We get to peek (more than peek!) behind the curtain. The drama discloses that the Messiah, by the will of the Father, is actively redeeming, claiming, and moving within the world even when the world appears Godforsaken.

The Messiah’s servants (slaves) are oppressed and marginalized. Some of them lament, others compromise. Some are martyred, others accommodate the culture for economic profit. While the martyrs bear witness, others drink the wine of Babylon’s adulteries.

John, however, is a faithful witness. He is the slave to whom the Messiah sent an angel to reveal what is to come. John has testified, as in a courtroom, to the “word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.” He has endured a trial and faithfully testified to the truth. Exiled for his faith, he has participated in the witness (marturian; martyrdom) of Jesus Christ. He has suffered with the Messiah and he has joined the witness of Jesus to persevering obedience.

John has seen the Apocalypse, the drama; it was shown to him. And now, through writing it down, he shows it the servants or the churches of God and his Christ.

Revelation 1:1-3 functions as a superscription to the whole document. It was, it seems, tacked on to the front of the finished product to identify its  nature.  It is an Apocalypse; it unveils the drama of the Messiah’s reign to the oppressed and marginalized servants of God. It is like a movie played on a cosmic stage. Originally, John had a private viewing, but now–written–the movie is available to the whole church, starting with the seven churches of Asia Minor.

The story is not for private consumption. On contrary, the superscription assumes it will be read orally to a community of hearers. We might imagine a public reading of the drama in the assembly of Christians at Ephesus, or Smyrna, or any of the seven churches of Asia and beyond. The Apocalypse is intended to be heard, even performed by a virtuoso of oral interpretation (a lector).

The first of seven beatitudes in the book blesses the oral reader/interpreter as well as the hearers. Blessing, of course, is not a state of self-actualized happiness but the reception of divine grace that empowers us to bless others. The hearers are blessed as keepers–they do what they hear.

The Apocalypse intends transformation. The reading does not bless the status quo, but the obedient. The Revelator calls the hearers to action, to faithful obedience. This is no mere message of comfort and hope but a demanding call to discipleship, that is, to follow the Lamb.

The blessing, however, has a sense of urgency rather than complacency. This is no time to stand around, watch and wait. “The time is at hand.” The drama will happen “soon” (or, when it happens, it will happen “quickly”).

Exegetes and interpreters have haggled over the meaning of this “nearness” for centuries. Some think it means that everything in the Apocalypse will  happen within, say, a generation. Others, think it is simply about imminence as we are always standing on the precipe of the cliff ready to fall off (even though we have been “on edge” for almost 2000 years). Neither seems to entirely fit.

Clearly, as preterists are quick to point out, the drama of Apocalypse impinges on the  lives of the seven churches of the Roman province of Asia. Whatever is unveiled applies to them and this is why John (unlike Daniel, cf. Daniel 12:9) is forbidden to seal the Apocalypse as if its events are distant (Revelation 22:10). Something about this Apocalypse is about to happen right then in the experience of these seven churches. In other words, the drama is about to begin or has already begun. [Fair (Conquering with Christ) calls this proleptic eschatological language.]

That appears to be the major force of the double emphasis (“soon” and “near,” which also occurs in Revelation 22:8, 10, 12). The drama is no distant fairy-tale or meaningless hope in the present. The drama has begun; the curtain has opened. This functions not only to mark time in some sense but, more importantly, calls the church to action. They must hear and obey precisely because the drama has already begun. The church cannot sit on the bench but must enter the game and play out the story as it unfolds. The church is called to urgent action.

The Apocalypse is a “prophecy” not only in the sense of describing events future to the original hearers but in confronting those hearers with the demands of discipleship.While the prophets of Israel peeked behind the scenes and saw the future in some cases, their main function was to prosecute, rebuke, and confront the people of God. They called Israel to renewal and recommitment; they called them out of their injustices and idolatries (cf. Amos). And so does the Apocalypse.

The superscription reminds the oppressed and marginalized church that they don’t know everything (thus they need a “revelation”) while also offering them the hope that God will yet reveal something to them in the hearing of the “revelation of Jesus the Messiah.” But this hearing will demand something from them. Hearing the drama holds the promise of blessing but only for those who follow the Messiah in faithful obedience. The church must decide, and there is no time to wait. The drama has already begun!


On Reading Revelation

May 16, 2013

Last Sunday I began an extended study of the Apocalypse of Jesus the Messiah with a studious, gracious, and interested group of Bible students at the Woodmont Hills Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee. It will be a long journey but, I’m convinced, a fruitful one. I will post along the way as I have other texts we have studied (e.g., Mark, Amos, Zechariah; these and others are available through the “Serial Index” menu).

In this initial post I will address three major questions that shape how one reads the last book of the Christian canon.

First, when reading Revelation, we are reading an “Apocalypse.” It is the first word in the Greek text and it identifies the genre of the document. We should read not this as a historical narrative (like Luke-Acts). It is neither history, poetry, or even letter, though it may contain aspects of it.  It is an Apocalypse which is an identifiable and popular genre of Jewish literature from 200 BCE to 200 CE. There are many examples of this genre outside of Scripture and even in some parts of Scripture (e.g., Daniel).

When we recognize that Revelation is apocalyptic literature then we are able to read it within its own literary conventions. Every genre of literature has such. Historical fiction, for example, creates certain expectations–it is not academic history but the story is set in an authentic historical situation. In the same way, readers of apocalyptic literature have certain expectations.

At the literary level, it uses symbols and drama to convey its message. These symbols are drawn from cultural (Jewish and Greco-Roman) and canonical images. If we do not understand the literary function of these images then we will make connections that are as distant from the intent of the text as reading a newspaper is from fiction. The symbols, contrary to some interpreters, are not intended to hide the message but actually convey the message. But one must understand the symbols to get the intended meaning.

At the level of its message, it assumes an apocalyptic worldview that shapes the drama of the text. The apocalyptic worldview assumes the transcendent sovereignty of God over the events of history, a dualist conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan in which the people of God experience oppression, and the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God in the world. This triumph, however, is eschatological in character, that is, it is a vision of the triumph of the reign of God when the will of God is done on earth as it is heaven.

Recognizing the literary and mythic (meaning “worldview”) character of apocalyptic literature, the symbols and images portray the ultimate victory of the kingdom of God over the kingdom of Satan.

Second, when reading Revelation, we read from a particular vantage point.  We read it 1900 years after its publication, but the original recipients in Asia Minor (the seven churches of Asia) read it from within the own social location. I’m convinced that we cannot legitimately read the Apocalypse without first reading it with the original hearers and then through that reading see its significance for us in the present. We must read it, as my friend W. B. West used to say, with “first century glasses.”

But even when we do so contemporary readers have used various interpretative strategies to understand the contemporary message of the document. There are, in the most simple (even simplistic) terms, four major reading strategies or hermeneutical vantage points, and each of them has their own different flavors.

  1. Preterist Readings.  Radical preterists believe that everything in the Apocalypse has happened or was supposed to happen within the generation of the original hearers. Even the “new heavens and new earth” was either the new covenant of the Christian dispensation or a new political order rather than an eternal state yet to arrive. Moderate preterists believe that the major substance of the book pertains to the events, culture, and life circumstances of the original hearers though the ending of the book pertains to the eternal state described as a hope that all believers embrace.
  2. Continuous-Histoprical Readings. Once more common than it is now, this reading sees the whole history of the church dramatically played out in the Apocalypse from its beginning in the ascension of Jesus to the final act of history. These interpreters seek to correlate 1900 years of history with particular scenes in Revelation and often believe that their generation is the last or near the last (whether they lived in the Medieval, Reformation, or Modern eras).
  3. Futurist. This reading, taking its cue from 4:1-3, understands the major drama of the book as describing the “last days” of the present era with the result that much–if not all–of the book is still future to present readers, or perhaps that certain events within the drama are currently taking place and the end is near. Interpreters, then, seek to correlate present events with the drama of the book from 4:1-19:1 as they look for the second coming of Jesus which they believe is described in Revelation 19 (followed by the millennium in Revelation 20). Interpreters have done this no matter what era in which they lived with the varied results that the beast of Revelation has been the Ottoman Empire, the Pope, Henry VIII, Napoleon, the Kaiser, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Sadam Hussein, etc.
  4. Idealist. This reading locates the described drama within the context of its original recipients but recognizes a larger story playing in the background. While this Apocalypse reflects the cultural, religious and social dynamics of the struggles of early Christians within a Greco-Roman setting, this is but one slice of a larger dramatic pie. The described conflict has happened before (between Israel and Canaanite culture, for example) and will happen again (evil will always find cultural, political and social expression as it assaults the Kingdom of God). Generally, idealists do not see any specific predictions or futurist dramas in the text. Rather, the drama present in the text is symbolic of repeated assaults on the kingdom of God throughout human history in different social, political and cultural contexts.

Choosing between these various reading strategies is complicated but ultimately unavoidable. While the correct approach may not lie in only one but in some combination, one will tend to emerge as dominant. Readers will have to choose which perspective best suits the text and there will be occasion to consider the options as we walk through it.  Presently, I lean toward the Idealist strategy with a strong tint of moderate preterism.

Third, what is the major problem that gave rise to the Apocalypse itself? Why did the seven churches of Asia need a “revelation”?

The most popular and historic answer to that question is that the seven churches needed encouragement, comfort, and hope in the face of persecution. Clearly this is part of the story as the presence of martyrs in the text indicates, and this should not be underestimated. The church lived in a hostile culture if not always hostile empire (in terms of imperial persecutions). The church was commonly subject to economic boycotts as well as mob and official regional violence. The strains and stresses upon the believing community were tremendous. The Apocalypse certainly offers a hope that encourages them to persevere in faith.

But some contemporary interpreters have questioned whether this was the main problem. For example, in the seven letters to the churches martyrdom is not a prominent topic. Instead, the most consistent point is the failure of most of the churches to maintain a viable, faithful witness in the midst of a cultural pressure to compromise their faith. All the churches, save two, are rebuked.

It appears the more significant problem is how Christians were compromising their faith. They were struggling to live faithfully in a hostile culture. One can imagine–and in some parts of the world today it is a reality–how economic boycotts and threats of mob violence might move believers to accommodate their faith to their surroundings in order to remove or mitigate the hostility.

So perhaps the message of Revelation is not so much about comfort and hope in the face of persecution (though that message is there) but the call to radical discipleship that refuses to make peace with the surrounding culture for the sake of respectability and economic benefit. And the siren call of the latter is much more seductive than the stark reality of the former. Perhaps that is the more demanding message for Western Christians while the former is one faced daily by other Christians in various parts of the world.

Stone-Campbell Note:  in recent years we have been blessed with literature on Revelation from several authors, including Archer & Ridgell, Oster, Stevenson, and Fair (all of which I have read with profit).


“Never Again Uprooted From the Land” (Amos 9:15)

May 15, 2013

The last verse of Amos promises Israel that once they are planted in the land they will never again be uprooted. The “never again” language is striking and parallels other promises such as the “new heaven and new earth” text in Isaiah 65 where “never again” (same Hebrew terms) will anyone weep or infants die. “Never again” is eschatological language which fulfills the Abrahamic promise that Israel would inherit the land as an “everlasting possession” (Genesis 17:8).

The problem is identifying when this will happen or has happened.  Here are a few options.

  • Some believe the Abrahamic land promise was fulfilled when Joshua conquered the land and Israel took possession. [But this cannot apply to Amos 9:15 since this is a further promise if not a continuation of the Abrahamic promise.]
  • Some believe the Abrahamic land promise as given Amos 9:15 was fulfilled when Judah returned from Babylonian exile. [But the prosperity envisioned in Amos 9:13-15 does not fit well with the postexilic situation. Further, Israel was not part of the restoration when Judah returned, and clearly the postexilic community was uprooted.]
  • Some believe that Amos 9:15 is a conditional prophecy, but since Israel never returned to God, so God never returned to them. [Conditional prophecy is part of the Hebrew prophetic tradition but there is no indication that this is assumed here. Rather, Amos 9:15 appears as an effect of the rebuilding of the "tent of David" and the inclusion of the Gentiles, and these are assumed fulfilled or in process by James in Acts 15:13-18.]
  • Some believe the Abrahamic land promise (such as Amos 9:15) was fulfilled when the Gentiles were included among the people of God. Consequently, the land promise is spiritualized as equivalent to the church or, at least, spiritualized as referring to the heavenly (celestial) land called “heaven.” [But in Acts 15 James did not quote this section of Amos and was only talking about the inclusion of the Gentiles. The land promise was not up for discussion. To spiritualize the text as referring to either church or heaven is to stand to far outside the Hebrew text and actually subvert the promise itself.]
  • Some believe the Abrahamic promise began to be fulfilled when the modern nation state of Israel was established in 1948. It can only be a beginning because the type of prosperity described in Amos 9:13-15 are yet future it would seem. [But it is unclear whether the modern state has any relation to biblical Israel other than a majority Jewish ethnicity. The modern state is certainly not the land of justice, peace and prosperity that is envisioned for a renewed Israel.]
  • Some believe that the Abrahamic promise will be fulfilled eschatologically, that is, Israel will inherit the land in the new heavens and new earth. [This is my own view.]

It seems to me that the Abrahamic promise is not limited to ethnic Israel but rather also includes the nations.  The inclusion of the nations among the people of God prepares the earth for its renewal. Whether ethnic Israel will inhabit Palestine as it appears in the new heavens and new earth (whatever that might look like) is possible (perhaps probable) but it is unnecessary to theorize about that in order to affirm the larger theological point.

In the article below, reproduced from a previous post, I offer my own perspective on the land promise and its eschatological fulfillment.

The Land as Our Inheritance

When God called Abraham, he promised blessings through which all the nations would be blessed (Genesis 12:2-3). Included in those blessings is the land promise (Genesis 12:6-7). The promised land is part of the Abrahamic promise.

This land promise is both overplayed as some identify the contemporary state of Israel with this land promise and undervalued as others see no fulfillment of this promise in Israel’s Messiah who is Abraham’s seed. The former think that the state of Israel is the fulfillment (or at least the beginning of the fulfillment) of God’s promise to Israel while the later believe the land promise no longer obtains after Israel was returned from Babylonian exile. I would like to propose an alternative as I don’t think either of the above options are viable.

Israel is described as the “people of [God’s} inheritance” (Deuteronomy 4:20; cf. 1 Kings 8:53) The land was part of Israel’s inheritance as the firstborn son of God among the nations (Exodus 32:13; Leviticus 20:24; Deuteronomy 4:21). One need only to skim the Torah, especially Deuteronomy, to recognize the central role the land plays as the inheritance Israel receives from Yahweh as God’s children.

Psalm 37 is a good example how the hope of inheriting the land, living in the land, and experiencing the goodness of God in the land is intergral to Israel’s joy in the Lord. Disturbed by the prosperity of the wicked, the Psalmist assures Israel that those who hope in and wait on the Lord will inherit the land. Six times the Psalmist promises–and Israel liturgically rehearses promise–that Israel will ultimately receive its promised inheritance. They will “inherit the land.” Jesus himself practically quotes Psalm 37:11 when he announces: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).

As part of the Abrahamic promise, the land is not conditioned by the Mosaic covenant. This means that the intent of God to fulfill his promise to Abraham is not conditioned by Torah-obedience. Whether the nation of Israel at any particular time or individuals within Israel at any particular time possess the land is conditioned on Torah-obedience, but the ultimate fulfillment that Israel would inherit the land is unqualified. It is as unconditonal as the promise of the Messiah is.

On the analogy of Paul’s argument in Galatians 3, the promise was before the law and is therefore not ultimately conditioned by the law. Israel will inherit the land as God promised Abraham. It is a divine promise and God keeps his promises. More explicitly, Paul notes that “it was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise” (Romans 4:13).

This is a significant point–a critical juncture. The Abrahamic promise belongs to the children of Israel. The land is part of the Abrahamic promise. The children of Israel will possess the land; it is their inheritance.

But who is Israel? Who are the children of Abraham? Paul is, I think, clear. Since the “promise comes by faith,” it is “guarenteed to all Abraham’s offspring–not only to those who are of the law” (e.g., Torah-obeying ethnic Israel) “but also to those who have the faith of Abraham” (e.g., including the nations). In this sense Abraham is the “father of many nations;” he is the “father of us all” (Romans 4:16-17). The Gentiles (nations) have been grafted into Israel through faith (Romans 11:17). Those who belong to Messiah–those in Christ–are the children of Abraham and thus heirs of the promise (Galatians 3:29).

But does this include the land? Yes, indeed. As Paul phrases it, Abraham was the “heir of the world” (kosmos)….not just the land of Palestine (Romans 4:13). The inheritance of the children of Abraham is the world–the whole cosmos.

This is not a land we possess by violence or by purchase. Rather, we receive it by faith in the Messiah and on the ground of the faithfulness of the Messiah. The “faith(fulness) of Jesus” secures the inheritance for Israel and we participate in it through faith (Galatians 3:22). The Messiah is the heir of the all things and we are co-heirs with the Messiah through faith (Romans 8:17).

The creation is the inheritance of the people of God. We yet await, according to Romans 8:18-25, the full adoption into the family of God when we our bodies are redeemed (resurrection) and the creation is liberated (new heaven and new earth of Revelation 21:1-4). That is our inheritance. John reminds of the whole Abrahamic trajectory (Genesis 17:8) with this language himself in Revelation: “Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children” (22:7).

The Abrahamic promise was first given to ethnic Israel but, by faith and because of the Messiah, it includes the nations as well. Perhaps on the new heaven and new earth the redeemed of ethnic Israel will dwell in Palestine–in the land between the rivers of Egypt and Babylon–but the whole earth will belong to the people of God as they again reign on the earth with God. The kingdom of God will fill the earth!

I think this accounts for Paul’s language about inheritance. He writes about inheriting “the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 5:5; cf. James 2:5). He praises God for the gifting us with the Spirit as a downpayment of our inheritance which will arrive when God has fully redeemed his possession (people; Ephesians 1:14–that phraseology is loaded with Hebraic expression and thought). Through faith, Paul writes, we are “qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light” (Colossians 1:12).

The fullness of the kingdom of God, which is yet future, is our inheritance. It is the ultimate fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise through which God will make Israel a great nation, a great name and bless all the nations. That promise includes the land–the whole cosmos, and it belongs to all those who place their hope in Yahweh’s Messiah.

Consequently, the new heaven and new earth as the renewed (new) creation is integral to the plot line of the story of God from Abraham to the eschaton. The earth is the inheritance of God’s people and one day the reign of God will fill it from the east to the west, from the north to the south. The whole earth, unlike its present condition, will be “Holy to the Lord.”

May your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is heaven!


“We Awake In the Night in the Womb of the World”

May 14, 2013

The above title is the first line in the refrain of Andrew Peterson’s “Come Back Soon.” On Sunday my old and dear friend Dean Barham, in his morning sermon at Woodmont Hills, alerted me to Peterson’s music and particularly this line. It has stuck with me for a few days now.

Yesterday I read Keith Brenton’s funeral eulogy for his wife. He has decided with faith and courage to grieve with hope. I grieved with my friend, prayed for his family, and protested her death.

April 30 to May 22 has become a season of lament for me. April 30th is the anniversary of my first wife’s death (Sheila), May 10 is my deceased father’s birthday, May 21 is the anniversary of the death of my son (Joshua), and May 22 is the anniversary of my first marriage. In the last five years my emotions during this time have been particularly evident to me as I have attempted to face my grief.

But I recognize that my lament is only a small part of the larger dimensions of sorrow within the world. The Psalms evidence this range of lament–lament for evil and injustice and lament over our own sins as well as lament over disease and death. It is not only the lament of an individual but the lament of communities, ethnicities, nations, and, indeed, the whole world.

We all “awake in the night.” At some point we all lose our innocence, and we realize the world is often a dark, lonely, and broken place. “Every death,” Peterson sings, “is a question mark.”

“We awake in the night,” and the refrain continues,

We beat our fists on the door
We cannot breathe in this sea that swirls
So we groan in this great darkness
For deliverance
Deliverance, O Lord.

Peterson’s language evokes Biblical images of chaos (sea and darkness) against which humanity protests (fists). “We awake in the night” when we lose our innocence and experience creation’s chaos.

Existentially, I had my awakening on April 30, 1980. I’ve had several since then as well–some due to tragedy, some due to my own sin and brokenness. But the groan remains the same….”we groan in the darkness” and we cry “for deliverance.” “So,” Peterson sings, “we kick in the womb and we beg to be born.”

We beg to be born. It is “in the womb of the world” where we awake, where we beg, where we groan. We cry for this broken creation to give birth to a new one.

The last song, “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone For This,” on the CD (“Light for the Lost Boy”) brings this yearning to a climax.

There is lament. “Can’t you feel it in your bones, something isn’t right here.”

But there is also joy. The sun comes up every morning, Spring follows Winter, and “beauty abounds.”

There is awakening. Though it is in the night, it is in the womb. Though we cry “How long?” we also pray “Come back soon.” And “when the world is new again,” then the children of the King will sing on, and their mourning will be turned to dancing.

“Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
Come back soon!”


James A. Harding’s “Successful Revival” in Nashville

May 13, 2013

In 1889, James A. Harding conducted an eight week meeting in Nashville, Tennessee.  A total of 123 would be immersed over the eight weeks. Here is the Daily American‘s account of the meeting (August 9, 1889).

Successful Revival

Rev. James A. Harding Pleading for Christ.

The Tent Meeting in Edgefield and Its Progress

Eighty-Seven Conversions and the Interest Continually Increasing–A Gold Harvest

The tent meeting of the North Edgefield Christian Church is now closing its seventh week. Interest in the revival has been constantly growing. All the neighborhood is thoroughly aroused, and large crowds come from other parts of the city,especially from the South Nashville and Woodland street churches.

The tent contains 500 chairs, but the audiences far exceed its capacity. There were 800 last Sunday night. Other denominations are taking part with enthusiasm. There have been 87 accessions to the church, eight professing the faith on Wednesday night.

It is a Grand Harvest

for the Christian Church. At all times wisely conservative, they have nevertheless braved public comment to carry the true gospel into this hitherto uncultivated field. As a result a substantial and handsome brick building has been erected on the same lot with the tent. A mission has been established there for several years, but this is its first meeting of any importance. Rev. J. C. McQuiddy is in charge.

The audience last night was composed of ladies for the most part. Rev. R. Lin Cave and Elders Corbin and Hall were in the pulpit. The minister’s text was Paul’s definition of faith. He treated it in a dispassionate, analytical manner, striving evidently to clearly expound the Apostle’s meaning. He was listened to with the most interested attention. There was one conversion.

Rev. James A. Harding

of Winchester, Ky., has been laboring in this city for some time. The morning meetings, with which the revival was begun, have been discontinued so that he could supervise the publication of his recent controversy with Rev. Mr. Moody in South Nashville. His health is declining under the severe strain, but he intends to continue so long as there is the lest interest manifested. He has covered very nearly the whole ground of Christian faith and duty.

His Preaching

is eminently thorough, plan and practical. His winning points are his earnestness and his perseverance. He is superior to most revivalists in the fact that he is never discouraged. The titles of some of his best sermons are as follows: The True Vine and the Branches, Will Christ Come Again? If So, When and How?, Heaven, The Eunuch’s  Conversion, The Conversion of Saul, and the Christian’s Armor. The common verdict is that his success is most wonderful.

JMH Comment Begins

The sermons on the Second Coming and Heaven are interesting in that his views on both of those points are rather unusual for contemporary Churches of Christ.  His view of the second coming was premillennial and his view of heaven was a renewed earth.  I only wish we had the transcripts of some of those sermons.

The North Edgefield congregation began meeting in 1887 under the preaching of Elder T. J. Stevenson, M.D. as a mission of the Woodland Street church.  J. C. McQuiddy began preaching at the church in 1889–a graduate of Mars Hill  Academy in Florence and office editor of the Gospel Advocate.  The building was dedicated in December 1889 and housed a congregation of about 200 (115 of whom were baptized in this meeting). — This data comes from an article in the Daily American (January 26, 1890).

The debate with J.B. Moody, held in the Central Baptist Church where up to 2000 attended, began on May 27, 1889 and extended for sixteen days.


James Interprets Amos 9:11-12 (Acts 15:13-18)

May 10, 2013

The previous post explored the meaning of the only fundamentally positive text in Amos–its ending, Amos 9:11-15. The text of Amos envisions a future time when Yahweh would rebuild the “tent of David” with the result that Israel would “possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called” by Yahweh’s “name.” This would involve permanently replanting Israel in the land God gave them and blessing them with prosperity.

At least four significant questions emerge from Amos 9:11-15. First, what is the “tent of David”? Second, what is the meaning of “possess” (militaristic or inheritance) in relation to the nations? Third, what is the meaning of the land promise? Fourth, when did or will this happen?

One might imagine that this was fulfilled when Judah returned from exile. But Amos seems to include Israel in this promise (rather than just Judah), and the post-exilic community never experienced the prosperity or the security that Amos envisioned. This is one reason Second Temple Judaism sometimes thought of themselves as still in exile.

In Acts 15:13-18 elder James applies Amos 9:11-12 to the situation of the early Christian community. Is his application a fulfillment? Does Amos 9:11-15 find its terminus in the reality of the Christian movement in Jerusalem? This is where I want to focus this post.

If one compares Acts 15:116-18 with Amos 9:11-12 several significant differences are apparent (highlighted in italics).

Amos 9:11-12

Acts 15:16-17

In that day After this
I will return
I will raise up and I will rebuild
the tent of David the tent of David
that is fallen that has fallen
and repair its breaches
and raise up its ruins I will rebuild its ruins
and rebuild it and I will restore it
as in the days of old
That they may possess the remnant of Edom That the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord
and all the nations who are called by my name and all the Gentiles who are called by my name
declares the Lord says the Lord
who does this who makes these things
known from of old

While there are several differences between the Hebrew text of Amos and James’s citation (which is primarily from the Septuagint), the most significant is found in Acts 15:17.  Whereas Amos announces that “they may possess the remnant of Edom,” the LXX reads “the remnant of humanity may seek the Lord.” Whereas one understanding of Amos is that Israel will possess the land of Edom, James announces that the remnant of humanity will seek the Lord. While Amos may intend the possession of the land of Palestine (including Edom and other nations contiguous with it), James connects the text with the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Christian community.

What happened? How does one move from the Hebrew text of Amos 9 to this Christian text in Acts 15? This is an instructive question as it illuminates the hermeneutical method of the early church as well as early Judaism (see W. Edward Glenny, BBR [2012] 1-26).

At one level, it is possible that James is not simply thinking about Amos though this is the substance of his quotation. James endorses Peter’s testimony about Cornelius as God’s gracious “visitation” upon the Gentiles so as to include them among the people of God. The “words of the prophets,” James says, “agree” with this (Acts 15:15). The quotation is not an exact reproduction of the LXX as we know it (neither is it an exact quotation of the Hebrew Amos 9:11-12). Rather, James–as Luke records it–may conflate several prophets in order to focus his point.

Glenny suggests that Acts 15:16-18 evidence the influence of other prophet texts, including:

  • “After this” is from Hosea 3:5 with a reference to Israel’s return to Yahweh and the Davidic king
  • “I will return” is from Zechariah 8:3 or Jeremiah 12:15 in which context the nations will learn the ways of God.
  • “will seek” may reflect Zechariah 8:22-23 where nations seek Yahweh in Jerusalem
  • Zechariah 2:14-17 lies in the background with the emphasis on the “nations” who become the people of God.
  • “makes these things” may come from Isaiah 45:21 which also alludes to the inclusion of the nations.

These connections reveal that Luke’s summary of James’s speech reflects a wide-ranging interpretation of the prophets regarding the nations–using a word connections that was part of Jewish hermeneutics of the time (called gezerah shavah).  The point (and the quotation) is not solely dependent upon Amos 9. James argues that the Scriptures–the prophets–agree with the witness of Paul, Barnabas, and Peter.

Theologically, experience is insufficient for the early Christian community. Rather, James argues that the prophets agree with said experience and thus confirms its truth of the experience. Scripture must “agree” with the experience of the church if she is to pursue God’s mission instead of our imagination.

At another level, the LXX version of Amos 9 is reflected in the text of Acts 15 which is rather different from standard English translations of Amos. How does the LXX get “remnant of humanity” from “remnant of Edom” as well as changing “possess” to “seek”? In both cases it may be a simple revocalization of the Hebrew text, that is, supplying different vowels to the Hebrew consonants. Edom is close to Adam, for example. Further, Edom may function as a metaphor for hostile nations that are now included among the people of God. “Possess” has the similar consonants as “seek.” The Greek translators, for whatever reason (perhaps a different Hebrew reading or a deliberate hermeneutical strategy like what is evidenced at Qumran; cf. Richard Bauckham, “Jews and Gentiles [Acts 15:13-21]” in History, Literature and Society in the Book of Acts), substitute “seek” for “possess.”  Whatever the case the LXX makes clear that some Jewish readers of Amos understood the text to mean the inclusion of the Gentiles rather than a “possession” (militaristic) of the nations. Even the original reading of “possess” may have included a sense of inclusion as evidenced that the nations would be called by the name of Yahweh. Either way, James’s point stands: the inclusion of the Gentiles is something with which “the prophets agree”.

How, then, does James (within the context of Luke-Acts) understand the “tent of David”? He appears to understand it as already restored and rebuilt in the context of the inclusion of the Gentiles. So, what is the “tent of David”?

Many interpreters link it to the Davidic kingdom or dynasty, specifically in the exalted reign of the resurrected Lord Jesus. Whatever the “tent of David” is it is effected before the inclusion of the Gentiles. God rebuilds the “tent” with the result or for the purpose of including the nations. In other words, God renews the Davidic dynasty in the reign of Jesus the Messiah who inaugurates the Gentile mission in order to include them among the people of God (Israel). The prominence of “David” in the sermons in Acts is an important clue (cf. Acts 2:24-36; 13:22-23, 34-35) to this meaning. In those “sermons” Peter and then Paul directly connect the promise of David with the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus as the promised Davidic king.

But does this do justice to the “tent of David”? Elsewhere in Acts, the term “tent” refers to worship sanctuaries such as the temple or tabernacle (cf. Acts 7:43, 44, 46). The term is consistently used of the tabernacle in the LXX.  Does James use this language in order to recall the temple or sanctuary? Perhaps we might best understand this, with G. K. Beale does (The Temple and the Church’s Mission), as the resurrected Messiah has erected a new temple (sanctuary). In some ways this may be identified with the church, but in other ways it may anticipate the eschatological temple of God which is the heavenly temple which descends as the new Jerusalem upon the new heaven and new earth.

In one sense, James identifies Amos 9 with the inclusion of the Gentiles and thus the reality of the rebuilt “tent of David.” A new temple has been built and/or the Davidic dynasty has been restored. So, is this the fulfillment of Amos 9:11-15? Or, does Amos 9:11-12 simply “agree ” (in harmony with) with the development or progress of redemption? Does Amos 9:11-15 find its terminus in  the establishment of the church (Jew & Gentile) through the reign of exalted Lord? And what of the land promise?

I think we will need yet another post to address those last questions.


Amos 9:11-15: Rebuilding the “Tent of David”

May 2, 2013

Up to this point the text of Amos has announced judgment. The “day of the Lord,” which Israel thought would bring redemption (Amos 5:18), is a divine visitation that will bring disaster (evil) to Israel (Amos 3:14; 5:20; 8:9). Amos 9:11-15, however, announces a startling reversal.

The contrast is pronounced. Whereas “in that day” of judgment Israel’s youth will “faint for thirst” as the nation experiences mourning (Amos 8:13; cf. 8:10), “in that day” of the rebuilding of the “tent of David” the ruins will be repaired (Amos 9:11). “Behold, the days are coming” declares God, but the days entail very different scenarios. Whereas some “days are coming” in which Israel will hear no word from the Lord (Amos 8:11), the “days are coming” in which the fortunes of Israel will be fully restored (Amos 9:13-14). The text parallels the language (“that day” as well as “days are coming”) but contrasts the results.

Despair, at the end of Amos, has turned to hope. Bad news (disastrous curses) has become good news (blessings). What happened? Why this movement here at the end of the book of Amos?

Some suggest that this is an exilic or post-exilic addition to the message of Amos. The reference to David suggests that Judah’s exile and the destruction of Jerusalem lies in the background. Others suggest that Amos has previously given us some indications of hope. For example, there is remnant language in Amos 9:9 as well as the promise that God would not totally destroy “the house of Jacob” (Amos 9:8). Whatever the case may be, the canonical text of Amos ends with hope (and that text dates at least prior to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible several hundred years before Christ).

Hope changes everything. It means that God is not finished with Israel and that God will remember his covenant promises to Abraham despite their sins. And hope is inclusive. The text of Amos is quoted by the James in Acts 15 in defense of the inclusion of the Gentiles with the new faith community called the “church.” Both texts, Amos 9:11-15 and Acts 15:15-18, demand attention. I will address Amos 9:11-15 in this post and address Acts 15:15-18 in the next.

In broad strokes, the hoped announced is clear. At some point in the unspecified future Yahweh will rebuild the “tent of David” so that they might “possess” the land given them and prosper in it. it is a promise of restoration where the “tent of David” is rebuilt, the land replanted, and prosperity abounds.

Amos 9:13-15 is a clear portrayal of the restored fortunes of Israel. They will settle in their land again and plant their crops. They will “rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them.” This is the land that Yahweh gave to them and they will never be “uprooted” from it again. Their prosperity is overwhelming. As soon as they begin to reap their crops, the sower (plowman) will begin his work again. Though the harvest and sowing are separated by months, it will appear that they will overlap–both in terms of grain and grapes. The image that the mountains will “drip sweet wine” and the hills will “all flow with it” provides a luxurious metaphor. The prosperity of this restored Israel will far exceed the luxury and prosperity that Israel knew under Jeroboam II.

The more difficult text is Amos 9:11-12. Several questions arise, including how the text is applied in Acts 15 (which I shall leave for my next post). Two primary questions emerge from the text itself: (1) the meaning of the “tent of David” and (2) what it means to “possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations” called by the name of Yahweh.

The relation between the two questions is clear. The “tent of David” is restored so that or with the result that Israel will “possess the remnant of Edom…” One leads to the other or we might say that one is done for the purpose of the other. Whether purpose or result it is at least an intended result as it is Yahweh who will do it (much like the determination of God in Isaiah 9:6).

But what is the “tent of David”? The introduction of “David” brings Judah into view rather than the northern kingdom alone. The text of Amos has not totally ignored Judah. Indeed, Judah’s own destruction is envisioned in Amos 2:4-5. Yet, the introduction of David (for the first time!) is unanticipated. The “tent of David” raises the interpretative horizon beyond the immediacy of the northern kingdom and points us toward a future for the whole of the nation (as under the past Davidic kingdom).

Most identify the “tent of David” with the Davidic dynasty or the “house” of David. In other words, it refers to the Davidic kingdom, reign, or throne, perhaps even the Davidic empire that subjugated the “nations” mentioned in Amos 1-2. This has merit, but the term “tent,” or “booth,” or “hut” does not really suit this interpretation. Nowhere else is the Davidic dynasty referred to as a “tent,” though it is often called a “house” (1 Samuel 7:11, 13, 15, 27). Further, “tent” has broader ramifications here. It involves walls breached, ruins, and something to “rebuild.” It seems to refer to a city or at least something surrounded by walls.

Another alternative, which seems more likely to me, is that the “tent of David” refers to the temple, its walls, and the city in which it resided, that is, Jerusalem (cf. Dunne, WThJ [2011] 363-367]. The Hebrew term often refers to the “booths” that worshippers would build during the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths). Sometimes the term refers to Yahweh’s heavenly dwelling (cf. “canopy” in Psalms 18:11; 31:20) as well as the “canopy” that will cover Mt. Zion (Isaiah 4:5-6) . Jerusalem itself is identified as “booth” in Isaiah 1:8. Here David’s “booth” (worship dwelling) functions “as a synecdoche for all of Jerusalem” (Dunne, 367) which is the dwelling place of God. This, of course, would not exclude dynastic overtones or even a broader inclusion of the Davidic kingdom. But the focus is on the rebuilding the temple and the city of Jerusalem as a center of worship among the rebuilt cities of the land.

God’s rebuilding project will result in Israel’s possession of the “remnant of Edom” and “all the nations” called by Yahweh’s name. But what does that mean? Up to this point in Amos, both Edom and all the nations are hostile to Israel (cf. Amos 1). Assyria is on the verge of enslaving Israel. Edom, as Israel’s ancient archenemy, symbolizes the nations themselves. The future, however, will reverse this picture. Israel will “possess” the nations.

The critical question is the meaning of “possession.” Some think it Amos envisions a military conquest. Israel’s restoration will include the reconquest of the land promised them through Abraham. This land will include the territories of the nations noted in Amos 1-2 and thereby restore the Davidic and Solomonic proportions of Israel’s empire. To “possess” the land, therefore, is to seize control over it.

But there is another option.The possessed nations are those who are called by Yahweh’s name. “Possession” is closely link to the Hebrew term for “inheritance” or “heir.” The language may point to the reality that nations will also share in the inheritance of the land and thus fulfill the promise to Abraham since he is the “heir of the cosmos” (Romans 4:13).

To be called by the name of Yahweh is equivalent to covenant relationship (cf. Deuteronomy 28:10; Jeremiah 15:16; 25:29; 2 Chronicles 6:33; 1 Chronicles 13:16), and there is only one example of its militaristic use (2 Samuel 12:28 where it is Joab’s name rather than Yahweh’s at issue). Rather than conquering the nations of Amos 1-2 the promise envisions their inclusion in the Abrahamic land promise as well as worshipping Yahweh at the temple in Jerusalem. This is what we see in other prophetic literature (Isaiah 25:6; 56:6-8; 66:23; Zechariah 14:16-19 among many others).

Amos 9:11-15 offers hope not only to Israel but to the nations. The restoration of the “tent of David” will result in the inclusion of the nations. They too will be called by the name of Yahweh. When those days arrive the whole earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord and the meek will inherit the earth (land). The Abrahamic land promise will be fulfilled when the whole earth becomes the Lord’s both in fact as well as by right. Both Israel and the nations will enjoy the land, the blessings of the covenant, and the presence of Yahweh as the “tent of David” is restored.

But what is this “tent of David”? Does it refer to a literal temple rebuilt in the land of Palestine as some expect? Or does it refer to an eschatological temple in the new creation, the new Jerusalem?  I’ll save that one for the next post.


Amos 9:1-10: The Lord of All the Earth

April 25, 2013

The fifth and last vision the Lord gives to Amos (Amos 9:1-4) is, like the previous two visions, followed by an extended comment on its significance (Amos 9:5-10). This last one envisions the total annihilation of an idolatrous sanctuary in the northern kingdom of Israel, perhaps at Bethel (3:14; 4:4; 5:5-6; 7:10, 13). Amos prophesied in the region of Bethel, was opposed by the priest of Bethel, and Bethel was Amos’s primary idolatrous target.

The basic message of the vision is that “not one of them shall escape” (9:1).  This was probably occasioned by how Israel responded to the preaching of Amos. Some were saying, “Disaster will not overtake us” (9:10). The prosperous proud nation did not believe that judgment was coming or that their nation and sanctuaries would tumble. This accounts for the emphasis in this section of Amos (chapters 7:1-9:10). The dire warnings were aimed at an unbelieving and stubborn nation puffed up in the pride of their prosperity.

Amos sees the Lord standing by the Bethel altar and announcing its destruction. With the sanctuary demolished as the capitals of the columns fall upon the worshippers’ heads and everyone who is left is killed by the sword, there is no escape. Without the sanctuary there is no god to whom the people could appeal. Without protection they are slaughtered. Indeed, the image reminds us of Samson who destroy the temple of the Philistines by pushing over its load-bearing columns. What  Samson did to the Philistines, God will do to Israel.

Israel may think it can escape and the vision imagines potential escape routes.

  • to Sheol (grave)
  • to heaven (sky)
  • to the top of Carmel (mountain)
  • at the bottom of the sea (depths of sea)
  • and…in captivity… (Assyria)

In every place God finds them and executes punishment. Twice Amos uses the term “take” (9:2, 3). Previously Amos had used this term to describe Israel’s leaders “taking” taxes and “taking bribes” (Amos 5:11) as well as their boast that they “took” Karnaim (Amos 6:13). Now, God will take them. If they dig to Sheol (deep into the grave), God will grab them or if they hide on the top of Carmel (the beautiful peak within Israel proper), God will grab them. Even if they ascend to the sky or descend into the sea, God will find them. The imagery of the sea–a place of fear and chaos where the serpent frolics–is terrifying. To escape into Sheol or hide in the sea signals their desperation. In the sea, the serpent (sea monster) will devour them even as earlier in Amos this metaphor reminded Israel that even when they feel safe danger looms (Amos 5:19).

Captivity, however, is where many will go. But this is no escape from God’s judgment either. It is, indeed, part of divine judgment, but it is no place of safety. Rather, death awaits Israel there as well. For Israel exile–a new Egyptian (Assyrian) bondage–will result in death.

But the ominous line in this vision is the last. It is, in fact, a kind of summary of God’s present disposition towards Israel:  “I will fix my eyes upon them for evil and not for good.” It seems a rather astounding statement that God intends “evil” (ra’ah) instead of good for Israel.

The term “evil” has a wide range of meaning. It may refer to what some call “moral evil,” but it may refer only to disaster (cf. Amos 3:6) or calamity, even “natural evil.”  It is what happened to Job (Job 2:11; 42:11). The “evil” intended here is the disaster that will shortly overwhelm Israel is Assyrian captivity. It is the “disaster” (evil; same word in Amos 9:10) they hope to avoid, but they will not.  God has determined to bring disaster or calamity (evil) upon the nation; to curse them rather than bless them (as per the Deuteronomic promises of blessing [good] and curses [evil] in Deuteronomy 27-28).

Amos follows this stunning statement with an affirmation of divine sovereignty. Is it appropriate for God to intend “evil” rather than “good” for the covenant people?  Can God justify himself? Amos’s response is fundamentally that Yahweh rules the cosmos (Amos 9:5-7). Yahweh is God.

Amos draws a picture of God as one who controls the chaotic features of the cosmos. Earth dwellers may mourn in response to the chaos that surrounds them, but it is God who “touches the earth,” “builds…and founds,” and “calls..and pours.” God is an active agent within the chaos.

The chaotic results of these divine acts are evident from the language.  The Lord earth melts (and the people mourn). The earth rises and falls like the Nile of Egypt which is probably a metaphor for earthquakes. Yahweh calls the waters present in the upper chambers in the heavens and the waters in the vaults of the earth; God commands them. “Waters” are chaotic in Hebrew theology, but Yahweh controls them. The Lord will pour them out upon the earth. Chaos will devour Israel at the Lord’s command.

This is flood imagery that echoes the great Noahic flood itself. Just as God flooded the earth from the windows of heaven and from the vaults of the deep in order to cleanse its evil in Genesis 6, so God will pour out the waters upon Israel in order bring “evil” (disaster) upon them.

But are we not your people? One can almost hear the response of the people as they listen to Amos. In one  sense Yahweh is the Lord of all nations.  Just as God brought Israel out of Egypt, so God also brought the Philistines from Caphtor (Crete) and the Syrians from Kir (Mesopotamia). The Ethiopians (Cushites) are important to God. Yahweh also cared for all nations, not just Israel. Yet at this moment Yahweh is focused on Israel because of their sin…but he will not totally destroy them. Israel will yet have a remnant. Amos leaves room for hope.

The hope, however, does not avert judgment and the execution of justice. God will shake Israel like a sieve–the grain (the remnant) will fall through but nary a pebble. Sinners will not escape judgment but there will be a remnant. This is the hope of Israel, but even the remnant will experience the “evil” (disaster) that will overwhelm the nation. The innocent will suffer alongside the sinful.

As Deuteronomy 4:26-31 outlines, God promised that he would not hesitate to remove Israel from the land if their sins multiplied like the Canaanites before them. At the same time, the covenant promise  remains–God will faithfully act to receive them again.  “For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath” (Deuteronomy 4:31).

What does God do with a “sinful kingdom”? God is active among the nations. Just as Israel came from Egypt, so the Philistines came from Crete. God’s hand was present in the movement of the nations. The covenant relationship Israel had with God heightens their responsibility, but all nations are accountable to Yahweh. God even yet judges sinful kingdoms (evident from the Apocalypse).

Israel was judged for its economic injustice and idolatry. The nations should pay heed. God’s relationship with Israel was a witness to God’s intent for the creation. The nations, including the United States, should listen, learn, and heed the message of Amos. Just as Israel was not alone among the nations in God’s movement of Peoples, so Israel is not alone when it comes to God’s judgment either.


Amos 8:1-14 — The Pride and Greed of Jacob

April 19, 2013

The dialogue between Amos and Amaziah (7:10-17), which interprets the third vision (7:7-9), is followed by a fourth vision (8:1-3) with a further interpretative comment (8:4-14). Ripe for judgment, Yahweh reminds Israel exactly why they will face eventual calamity. God judges them for their economic practices and the greatest calamity they will experience is divine silence.

In the third vision Amos sees a basket of ripened summer fruit ready to eat (or sell). The fruit must be sold or eaten soon. The time for waiting has passed.

The “end” (the extremity, the end of the road) has arrived. Their sins have brought them to this point and God “will never again pass by them.” There is no more recourse; there will be no more delay. The decision has been made. Their festive temple songs will now become howls of distress and hurt as the dead bodies pile around them and are strewn over the land.

What is the appropriate human response in the midst of such horror? When the  “end” arrives, the prophet calls for “stillness” or “silence.” “Hush,” says the prophet. Perhaps the silence is a reverence for God, maybe even an avoidance. Perhaps it is shock as people look at the devastation around them. Whatever the case, horror begets silence as there is literally nothing to say in the face of such tragic circumstances. It is over; there is nothing more to say.

But Amos does not want to leave Israel without a rationale or some idea of what to expect. The third vision is interpreted by a chiastic oracle (“Hear this,” 8:4).

Rationale for Judgment (8:4-6): Economic Injustice

Description of Judgment (8:7-8): Land Trembles.

From Feasting to Mourning (8:9-10):  Lament

Description of Judgment (8:11-12): Divine Silence

Rationale for Judgment (8:13-14): Idolatry

Two rationales for judgment, seemingly always present in Amos, resurface in this interpretation.  One is economic injustice and the other is idolatry.

Amos complains that Israel’s economic practices oppressed the poor. The prophet identifies the specific practice of lightening the ephah (which measures grain) and weighting the shekel (which measures silver). When merchants use unfair weights and measures, they buy and sell to their own interests. Archeological remains in Tirzah demonstrate that sometimes merchants used two different weights–one for selling and one for buying (cf. Mays, Amos, 144). Prohibitions in the Torah, as well as in Ancient Near Eastern codes, demonstrate that this was a common practice (cf. Leviticus 19:35-36; Deuteronomy 25:13-16).

With such economic advantages, merchants did not like to close their shops on New Moons or Sabbaths. They were more interested in economic gain than they were worship or devotion. Indeed, they targeted the poor and needy as the object of their greed. As Shank (pp. 282-3) points out in his College Press commentary, the merchants short-changed the poor, charged excessive prices, cheated with false measures and weights, forced the poor into slavery who could not pay their debts, and sold inferior quality goods (even the “sweepings” along with the grain). This is called the “pride of Jacob” (Amos 8:7).

“I will never forget their deeds.” I wonder if this should not give the American economic system, or any economic system, pause for introspection.  If God will never forget how the poor and needy were oppressed, cheated, and sold inferior goods for the sake of profit or gain, Americana–including global economics–should “hear this word” of the Lord. If economic practices bring judgment–and this is what Amos specifies rather than sexual immorality–American Evangelicals should heed the warning as they protest the demise of “Christian America” while the poor are caught in the middle of the American economic machine.

Amos, however, does identify a further sin other than economic injustice. The bottom of the chiasm references idolatry. As the people thirst for water due to the judgment of God (ironic in that the judgment is pictured as a flood), the people who swear by the gods (“Guilt”) of Samaria from Dan to Beersheba will know the terror of the Lord. Idolaters will fall, “and never rise again.” Dan in the north and Beersheba in the south (Amos 5:5) were idolatrous worship centers much like Bethel (located in the middle of Palestine). Divine judgment will cleanse Israel of its idolatry. Those who swear by these false gods may look to them, but they will receive no help…either from them or from Yahweh who is now silent.

Amos uses two metaphors to describe the judgment. First, the land will tremble as it is flooded with judgment. Just as the Nile rises and falls every year in Egypt, so the flood of judgment will pour over the land of Israel. The result will be mourning and lamentation.

The second metaphor Amos uses is a famine, but this is not a lack of bread  or water. Rather, it is the silence of God. Israel will get its wish. Just as Amaziah told Amos to leave as they had no interest in his message, so Yahweh will no longer send prophets among the people to warn them of the coming judgment. The flood of judgment will be accompanied by the silence of God. They will want to hear from God and they will seek a word, but God has already spoken and will speak no more to Israel in the context of this judgment.

The middle of the chiasm is striking. Judgment day is a day of mourning. The day is catastrophic–darkness will envelop the land at noon and their festive celebrations will turn into mourning. Everyone will wear the sackcloth of lamentation and shave their heads as they weep. The mourning will be so great it will be as if everyone in the nation is mourning the death of an only son. Lament and bitterness will fill the day; nothing will alleviate the pain and hurt. Israel, which should have mourned for its sins, will now mourn its dead.

The northern kingdom’s sins–unjust economic practices and idolatry–spelled its doom as a national entity. Those categories are important to God–it is about the poor and justice as well as about loyalty and allegiance. “I will never forget any of their deeds” should ring in our ears as a warning to all nations that economic justice and allegiance to the kingdom of God are primary concerns for God.

The Christian Faith, instead of absorbing the cultural values of its context, should embrace the message of Amos and speak prophetically to a culture for whom economics and allegiance are more about self and the nation than about the poor and God.


Lament Songs: We Need More

April 18, 2013

We need more lament songs.

I was reminded of of this while studying Amos 8:9.  The prophet offers the most chilling metaphor for lament imaginable for an ancient Israelite:  “I will make it like the mourning of an only son.”

Children killed in their schools, on the streets of a sporting event, by abuse at home, by terminal diseases, and by tragic accidents. And there is much more than that to lament.

There is so much to lament, and we need more lament songs. Our assemblies, devotions, and private prayers should voice lament just as ancient Israel did (almost half of the Psalms are lament).

I am grateful that my good friends Konstantin Zhigulin, a Russian believer in St. Petersberg (Russia), and Jeff Matteson (a citizen of the United States) have produced a “Lament For the Innocents.” Konstantin leads and Jeff sings in a group called Psalom (Facebook page).  Click on the link and listen to the beautiful tones and words (taken from Biblical texts of lament and hope).

We need lament to voice our anger, bewilderment, misgivings, doubt…and, yes, even praise and hope.  Lament is spiritual therapy by which we process our grief and hurt as we sit on God’s lap…even as we protest, yell, and accuse.  God listens and responds.

At the same time, there is so much for which to be grateful. We are blessed more than we could ever realize or grasp.

So, we give thanks and we lament. That is the life of faith.


“God, I Hate You!” Read Before You Leap

April 17, 2013

(The fourth chapter of my book on the Shack. I publish it here in light of the lament over terror, school shootings and the presence of tragic evil in the world.)

Dear God.

I hate you.

Love,

Madeleine (L’Engle)

I meditated on this brief prayer for months after I read it. Initially, I was horrified by how much I identified with the prayer and I was troubled by the prayer’s resonance in my soul. My first reaction, however, was “I get the point.”

So did Mack. He had become “sick of God” over the years since Missy’s death (p. 66). But he went to the shack at God’s invitation, doubting whether it really was God. As he entered the shack for the first time in over three years his emotions exploded (p. 78).

Mack bellowed the questions most sufferers ask and most often they begin with the word “Why?” “Why did you let this happen? Why did you bring me here? Of all the places to meet you—why here?” In a “blind rage” he threw a chair at the window and began smashing everything in sight with one of its legs. He vented his anger. His body released the emotions he had stored up in it.

Anger, if not resolved or healed, simmers inside of us. It becomes part of our body and we feel it in our chest, stomachs, shoulders, or neck. It destroys us from within. One day it will explode. For over three years Mack had suppressed this anger but now alone in the shack it poured out with a vengeance. “Groans and moans of despair and fury spat through his lips as he beat his wrath into this terrible place.”

Fatigue ended his rampage, but not his anger or despair. The pain remained; it was familiar to him, “almost like a friend.” This darkness was Mack’s “closest friend” just as it was for Heman in Psalm 88:18. “The Great Sadness” burdened him and there was no escape (p. 79). There was no one to whom he could turn, so he thought. Even God did not show up at the shack.

It would be better to be dead, to just get it over with, right? When great sadness descends on us, sometimes—like Mack—we think it is better to simply die and be rid of the pain. We think we would be better off dead if for no other reason than that the hurting would stop. Or, like Job, we might wish we had never been born (Job 3). Contemplating suicide, Mack cried himself to sleep on the floor of the shack.

Rising after what “was probably only minutes,” Mack, still seething with anger and berating his own seeming idiocy, walked out of the shack. “I’m done, God.” He was worn out and “tired of trying to find [God] in all of this” (p. 80).

This scene is Mack’s true self. It is Mack in the shack. It is the pent-up, growing and cancerous feelings of anger, bitterness and resentment toward God. God, after all, did not protect Missy. God was no “Papa” to Missy in her deepest distress and need. The journey to discover God is not worth it. It is too hard, too gut-wrenching, and useless!

In his rage Mack expressed the words that seethed underneath the anger, resentment, disappointment and pain. “I hate you!” he shouted.

“I hate you.” Them’s fighting words, it seems to me. It expresses our fight (or, as in the case of Jacob, wrestling) with God. Sometimes we flee our shacks but at other times we may go to our shacks to find God only to discover we have a fight on our hands because God did not show up. This is Mack’s initial experience.

The word “hate” stands for all the frustration, agitation, disgust, exasperation, and bewilderment we experience in the seeming absence of God as we live in a suffering, painful and hurting world. “Hate” is a fightin’ word—a representation of the inexplicable pain in our lives; a word that is used as a weapon to inflict pain on the one whom we judge to be the source of the pain. Sometimes, perhaps, we are too polite with God. Sometimes we are not “real” with the Creator. Sometimes, like Jacob in Genesis 32, we need to wrestle with God.

I hear God’s suffering servant Job in this word though he never uses the specific term in his prayers. God has denied Job fairness and justice, and Job is bitter (Job 23:1; 27:2). God is silent. God “throws” Job “into the mud” and treats him as an enemy (Job 30:19-20). God has attacked him and death is his only prospect (Job 30:21, 23). Job is thoroughly frustrated, bitter in his soul, and hopeless about his future (Job 7:11, 21). He does not believe he will ever see happiness again (Job 7:7). God was a friend who turned on him—“hate” might be an accurate description of Job’s feelings as he sits on the dung heap.

And yet, just as Madeleine’s brief prayer, Job ends with “Love, Job.” He speaks to God; Job is not silent. He does not turn from his commitment to God; he does not curse God or deny him. He seeks God even if only to speak to him though he may slay him. He laments, complains, wails, and angrily (even sarcastically) addresses the Creator, but he will not turn his back on God (Job 23:10-12; 21:16).

The contrast between “I hate you” and “Love, Madeleine” is powerful. It bears witness to the tension within lament and our experience of the world’s brokenness. Though deeply frustrated with the reality that surrounds us (whether it is divorce, the death of a son, the death of a wife, the plight of the poor, AIDS in Africa, etc.) and with the sovereign God who does whatever he pleases (Psalm 115:3; 135:6), we continue to sign our prayers (laments) with love. We have no one else to whom we can turn and there is no else worthy of our love or laments.

We can all get to the point that we are “done” with God, that is, where we are “done” trying to “find God” in our shacks. The search for meaning, relationship, and love is often frustratingly slow and fruitless. “I hate you” may be the most simple and shocking way to express our feelings about the whole mess.

Sometimes we blurt out language that expresses our feelings but does not line up with our faith. This can happen when our faith is shaken, confused, threatened, or slipping away. It is a common experience among believers when they go to their shacks.

We go to our shacks because we yearn for love, for relationship, for healing, or perhaps because we are desperate and there is nowhere else to go. We sign our prayers with love–”Love, Madeleine” or “Love, John Mark”—as an expression of hope. We want to love, to know love, and experience love. It is out of this yearning we pray; it is out of this love we lament.

It is with love we say “I hate you.”

The poignant irony of that last sentence is, it seems to me, the essence of honest lament in a broken world.


Psalm 84 — The Blessedness of Assembly

April 13, 2013

This Psalm uses the language of love poetry; it has an “erotic intensity” (Robert Atler, The Book of Psalms, 297). “How lovely are your dwelling places,” the Psalmist exclaims.

The term “lovely” is related to the Hebrew terms for “lover” and “lovemaking.” It describes the “love song” between the King and his wife in Psalm 45. Yahweh sings to  “beloved” Israel is Isaiah 5. It is the language of the Song of  Solomon as the wife seeks the “love” of her “beloved” (1:2, 4, 13-14, 16). The Psalm expresses the erotic relationship between God and Israel that “happens” in the courts of praise. It is a moment when we love on God and God loves on us.

This is the voice of a people who love–intensely enjoy–to assemble and sing in Yahweh’s tempple courts. The superscription locates the Psalm among the temple musicians and singers. Associated with the “sons of Korah” who are best known as temple singers, the choirmaster (or chief musician) is directed to perform the music with the lyre. This seems particularly appropriate for a love song.

As a love song, it expresses the intense desire to be present with the beloved. Indeed, the Psalmist is jealous of the sparrow whose nest is near the altar of God (probably nesting in the crevices of the temple stones). They make their home at the center of God’s presence where they find rest and peace. They are close, and the Psalmist is envious. Worshippers want to live near the beloved and find their home in the divine presence.

The intensity is also expressed in somatic language. The singers so long for the courts of God that their energy is totally spent (they faint). This is no silent anguish but rather their hearts and “flesh” cry out. The Hebrew verb indicates a loud and ringing cry. The desire is so intense that the heart and body moan in anticipation and yearning.

The Psalm, then, opens with a lover’s yearning for her beloved. This is what Assembly means for worshippers. It is an experience of love; it is a relational encounter.

Psalm 84, as love poetry, is also a pilgrimage piece. The singers begin their journey to the temple where the covenant people of God assemble to worship through the sacrifice of praise. Their journey is energized by their love and by the anticipation of “seeing” their beloved. In this way, as Mays writes (Psalms, Interpretation, 275), “every visit to the temple or church [assembly, JMH] or meeting of believers is in a profound sense a pilgrimage.” It is a journey into the love and life of God.

This is the context for the three beatitudes that punctuate the Psalm. Three times the Psalm pronounces the pilgrim singers as “happy” or “blessed” (84:4, 5, 12).

The first beatitutde summarizes the opening of the Psalm and provides a context for the second beatitude. The third beatitude rounds out, like a bookend, the point of the second beatitude.  The point of “happy” or “blessed,” of course, is not some kind of self-security but rather a movement of God toward the person. These are people upon God acts so that they experience joy and peace.

“Blessed are those who dwell in your house.”  Like the sparrow, those who make their home in the temple as participants in the Great Assembly are blessed.  They are “blessed” as they continually praise God. Living in the presence of God at the temple, they never cease to experience the loving relationship with Yahweh.

The next two beatitutdes (84:5, 12) complement each other. They are contextualized by the first one. In other words, the beatitutdes and the extended comment that separates them (84:6-11) are true in the context of the Assembly. They are a function of the worshipping assembly itself.

Worshippers find their strength or power in God as their hearts are determined to make the journey into the assembly of God. They have pilgrim hearts that are set on entering the gates of the temple to praise God. They have decided to worship God. And this worship, as the third beatitude notes, arises out of their trust in the covenant God of Israel.

So, what characterizes this pilgrimage, the journey from outside assemby into the assembly? At least three perspectives are present which may shape how we approach assembly ourselves.

First, the pilgrimage is sometimes a movement from sorrow to joy (84:6-7). Pilgrims often move through the “Valley of Becca” or the valley of sorrows or weeping.  The desolate valley becomes a refreshing pool of water. This happens by the strength of the Lord. God empowers worshippers to move through lament into the praise of God’s renewing life. Worship transforms mourning into dancing. Strengthened by God, worshippers learn to move through the tears into the bright sunshine of God’s presence.

Second, pilgrims petition God to protect them and lead them into the joy of assembling in the temple courts (84:8-10). The petition expresses the desire to assemble and is grounded in the preference that pilgrims have for assembly over everything else. This functions at two levels–there is no better place than praising God in the assembly of the saints and being with the assembled saints expresses their fundamental commitment to follow the covenant. They choose assembly over any other place and they choose the tent of Yahweh over tents of the wicked.

Third, pilgrims trust God’s faithful goodness. Pilgrims’ lives are characterized by “blamelessness” or better rendered something like “wholeness” or “integrity.” Pilgrims approach God faithfully; they approach Yahweh with covenantal integrity. This approach is rooted in God’s own faithfulness and the divine predisposition to bless the covenant people. Worshippers enter the divine presence with confidence in the goodness and faithfulness of their covenant God.

Believers love to assemble because they not only love each other but they love the God who draws near in those moments of assembly. The passion expressed here models the intensity that worshippers might share as they approach God with integrity. They know that God is faithful and as they approach God will show up to love on them.

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth–
for your love is more delightful than wine.”
Song of Songs 1:2


Nashville Cherry Street Christian Church Burned (1857)

July 4, 2014

This is the report in Nashville’s Republican Banner (April 9, 1857), page 3.

Destructive Fire!

 CHURCH BURNED!–LOSS $25,000

The cry of fire was raised yesterday morning between 5 and 6 o’clock, by the discovery of flames issuing from a small Carpenter Shop in South Field, near the Depot of the Tenn. & Ala. R. R., which was entirely consumed. The shop and contents, valued at about $1200, were owned by Hartley & Atkinson, and the loss is to them a heavy one. There was a large amount of work in the shop just got out. This fire was the work of incendiaries.

About an hour after the above, and before the Engines had returned to their quarters, the alarm was again given, and flames were discovered issuing from the cupola of the Christian Church on Cherry Street. In a few moments the entire cupola and tall steeple, which were of wood, were enveloped in a flame. In the meantime the flames seemed to be making headway in the interior of the Church, and presently the roof fell in. The steeple continued to burn, until there was nothing left of it but the framework, when it fell with a crash into the Church. The falling of the walls followed immediately, and in a very short time the whole edifice was consumed.

The Christian Church was a new edifice, and one of the most convenient, and the handsomest of the kind, in the interior especially in the city. It was built at a cost of $20,000. There was no insurance, underwriters having refused, we understand, to take a risk upon it on account of the fact that attempts have been made to burn it heretofore.

It is the general and confidential opinion that it was set on fire. The only other way to account for its burning is that it caught from the fire which was discovered an hour previous. But it is believed from observations taken that the fire commenced inside. One of the watchmen informs us that he was passing there in the morning and heard a roaring inside but did not suspect the cause. We hear it reported that two men were seen emerging from the Church about daylight, in the morning, but this report is not authenticated.