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.


Micah 3 — Listen Up, Leaders!

October 10, 2013

Apparently, they don’t have a clue. The leaders of Judah think they know justice; they think they know the difference between good and evil. But their actions tell the truth. The nation’s leadership, including the “heads” (probably judges), the prophets and the priests, is blind to its own injustice as it pursues economic advantage.  They call it “peace” (or, prosperity), but Micah calls it injustice.

This is the second oracle in Micah (note how it begins in 3:1 with “Hear” as in 1:2 and 6:1). The first oracle (Micah 1-2) answered the question whether God is responsible for the coming disaster upon Judah and the answer was “Yes!” This second oracle (Micah 3-5), as Harold Shank notes (NIV College Press Commentary) asks the question whether God is still present in Judah. Given the judgment oracle that heads this homily we might wonder what the answer to that question might be.

Micah 3 is a judgment oracle that easily divides into three sections: (1) the injustices of leaders (Micah 3:1-4); (2) the empty “visions” of their prophets (Micah 3:5-8); and (3) the coming disaster (Micah 3:9-12).

The leaders have exploited their position in the nation. Rather than seeking justice for the people, they have consumed them. The leaders have cannibalized their own people for their own economic benefit. The images are grotesque and chilling. They cut the flesh/skin off the bones and chop up their bodies like meat for a pot for food. The language is shocking and the accusation was, no doubt, appalling. Its function is to shock us and awaken the leaders to their injustices.

The rulers are supposed to know justice. These “rulers” or “heads” are probably city judges who sat at the gates where they administered justice. They were trusted to know what justice was (cf. Micah 3:8). Instead they love evil and hate good (cf. Amos 5:14-15; Isaiah 1:16-17). They consume rather than adjudicate; they enrich themselves rather than do what is right.

Consequently, Yahweh will not answer them when they cry out for their own “justice.” While Yahweh heard the cry of Israel in Egypt (Exodus 2:22), God will not respond to the cry of Judah’s leaders when the “disaster” comes upon them. Because their deeds are “evil” (ra’a‘), they will experience “evil” (ra’).

But, the leaders might respond, our prophets tell us a different story. They say that Yahweh is with us and that no disaster is coming. They claim that the future of the nation is “peace.”

Micah’s response is: “Of course! Your prophets tell you what you want to hear because they know on which side their bread is buttered. You pay them, and they will say ‘Peace.’  You don’t pay them, and they will say ‘War.’ Your prophets merely scratch your itch.”

Leaders are easily deceived when their political (prophet’s as royal councilors) and religious establishment (prophets and priests) affirm their decisions. They legitimize leaders. Civil religion’s function is to sanctify and sanction political decisions. Religious leaders that serve the interests of the state–like these prophets in Judah–are accessories to injustice. What do we make of religious leaders in the United States who want to renew a civil religion that enforced slavery, legitimized the theft of native American lands, and grounded the “manifest destiny” of imperial America? Civil religion will always serve the interests of the state.

“Therefore,” Micah says, Yahweh will not honor their office. God will give them no visions. They are blinded; they do not know the future. They don’t know what will happen. Consequently, they will be disgraced and will have to shut their mouths. God will not answer their requests for insight and wisdom. They will have nothing to say as they are revealed as false prophets who only prophesy for their own benefit. Like the leaders for whom they prophesy, they are only interested in their own economic benefit. They don’t care about justice, goodness or truth. They want their money.

In contrast, Micah is an authentic prophet of Yahweh. Empowered by the Spirit of God and dedicated to justice, Micah identifies the sins of Israel. Micah speaks the truth for the sake of the truth rather than speaking falsehoods for profit. Micah claims to appear before the leaders, unlike their own prophets, in the Spirit of Yahweh!

In the final section, Micah becomes more specific. Their acts of injustice are bribery and the erection of their power structures (“building Zion and Jerusalem”) with violence (blood) and oppression (iniquity). They insulate themselves with their wealth as well as their prophets and priests. The prophets justify their actions and the priests confirm them as neither objects to their injustices. The powerful become more powerful as they mutually encourage each other. With such confidence, they are certain that Yahweh will not permit any “evil” (disaster) to befall them. The temple, the house of God, is in their midst. Surely, they think, God will not destroy his own temple (like in Jeremiah 7).

Micah, however, announces judgment. Zion will be plowed like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the high place will become a wooded height. The temple is not permanent; it is no guarantee of God’s presence where evil abounds and leaders consume their people.

Though Micah’s promise remained unfulfilled in the immediate aftermath of the Assyrian invasion (the Assyrian emperor did not destroy Jerusalem), the prediction is realized in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Perhaps Micah’s prophesy was conditioned on their continued injustices and when God heard Hezekiah’s intercession, God decided against plowing under the temple mount.

In fact, this is what Jeremiah 26:17-19 claims. The elders use Micah in their argument with those who wanted to kill Jeremiah. While some want to execute Jeremiah for his prediction that God will make Jerusalem like Shiloh, the elders reminded the rulers that Micah made a similar prophecy. Rather than executing Micah, Hezekiah prayed and the Lord relented. While the “disaster” (evil) was averted in the time of Hezekiah, the elders fear that without repentance the disaster will yet come to Judah. The elders regarded Micah’s prophecy as a conditional one.

Micah’s ministry was, apparently, sufficient effective to avert the destruction of Jerusalem in his own time. Some leaders heeded the message (like Hezekiah), repented and God relented.

Perhaps this offers hope for every prophet or minister who advocates justice rather than scratching itching ears.


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.


Revelation 14:14-20 — Two Harvests

October 8, 2013

Now the time has come. It is harvest day; the earth will reap what it has sown. The harvest climaxes the drama of the interlude (Revelation 12-14) and prepares us for the final act in the drama, the seven bowls of wrath (Revelation 15-16).

Interpreters are divided. Are there two harvests or only one in this text?  Most believe that there is a single harvest that judges the inhabitants of the earth while some believe that there are two harvests, one (14:14-16) that harvests the followers of the Lamb (in-gathering) and the other (14:17-20) harvests the worshippers of the beast (judgment). Whatever the case, the general point is clear–God accepts martyrs as firstfruits and the inhabitants of the earth experience God’s wrath.

Two harvests, however, makes some sense. The first harvest does not meantion wrath like the second does (14:19). One “like the son of man” harvests the first group while an angelic figure harvests the second. Two different harvesters probably representes two different harvests. Further, harvest imagery was used earlier in the chapter to describe the martyrs on Mt. Zion before the throne of God, that is, they are the firstfruits offered to God and the Lamb (14:5). Martyrs are the firstfruit of a coming harvest. Revelation 14:14-16 may be that harvest. Like grain, the sickle in the hands of the “one like a son of man” reaps the harvest.

The identity of the “one like a son of man” also encourages a two harvest understanding. Some believe that this simply a reference to another angelic figure, but others think it refers to the Lamb. It seems to me that it is unlikely that John would identify Jesus as “one like the son of man” in Revelation 1:13 only to use the same designation of an angelic figure in Revelation 14:14. In fact, the other angels in this section are specifically identified as such (“another angel”) but this is “one like a son of man.” That designation seems to identify the person, that is, it refers to the resurrected though slain Lamb, Jesus the Messiah.

Further, this “one like the son of man” comes seated on a white cloud. There is a regal flavor to this description reminiscient of Revelation 1:7 which promises that the Messiah will come on the clouds both to receive his people and to judge the earth. More importantly, this figure wears a stephanos (a victory wreath). This one stands with the martrys as one who wears the same headgear that they do. The Lamb is a victor along with the martyrs. The faithful witness has come to harvest his followers. As Revelation 14:13 makes clear, the Lamb blesses and gathers his faithful witnesses.

The second harvest is the gathering of grapes which are crushed in the “great winepress of God’s wrath.” The grapes are ripe and it is time to cut them from the vine. The angel who announces this harvest comes “from the altar,” and this reminds us that the altar is where the incense was offered to God which was the prayers of the saints. This harvest is a response to prayer.

The imagery of a grape harvest for judgment is not uncommon. A good example is Joel 3:13 where we are told the “harvest is ripe” and that the winepress is so full that its vats overflow as the grapes are trampled.  Similiarily, the wine vats overflow and become a river of blood that is about six feet high and extending for nearly 200 miles. The apocalyptic image highlights the devastating results of God’s judgment. God will trample the nations like grapes in a winepress and the effects of that judgment will be visible for all to see.

The two harvests envision two destinies. In one the Lamb will reap the earth and harvest his followers so that they might share in his victory. It will be their victory as well as they overcome the beasts. The other harvest is a dreadful picture of ripe grapes trampled by the wrath of God. Their produce is not wine but blood.

The message, at lesast in the context of the whole of chapter fourteen, is clear. One may ultimately stand with the victorious Lamb before the throne of God or one may be crushed by divine wrath in the winepress of God’s judgment. The two harvests are two destinies.


Revelation 14:6-13 — Heaven’s Announcements

October 4, 2013

The players in this cosmic drama are now clear. The dragon (Satan) is making war against the saints (the followers of the Lamb) through two monsters–one from the sea (Roman imperial power) and one from the earth (Asia’s imperial cult). The saints who overcame the monsters through martyrdom are the firstfruits of a coming harvest. They stand victorious with the slain Lamb before the throne of God.

Now the drama is ready for the next act. Heaven and earth are waiting. The Lamb has unsealed the book, God’s angels have sounded the seven trumpets, and the actors have been identified. The drama is ready for its conclusion.

Like a good dramatist, however, the conclusion is drawn out. The drama is extended by rhetorical techniques that hold our attention and test our patience. With the martyrs under the altar in Revelation 6, we cry out, “How long?” When will you end this persecution? When will you defeat the empire?

Instead of moving directly to the concluding seven bowls of wrath (which will come in Revelation 15-16), heaven sends three separate angels flying overhead to announce heaven’s intent.

The first angel offers good news. It carries an “eternal gospel” (euanggelion aiwvion) that is “gospeled” (euanggelisai) to everyone who dwells on the earth, including every ethnicity and language. Though the inhabitants of the earth have, up to this point, worshiped the beast, the angel (messenger) still offers them good news. There is still opportunity. They can yet respond to the gospel.

The message has three imperative:  (1) fear God; (2) give God the glory; and (3) worship the Creator of heaven and earth. This stands in contrast to the demands of the first beast who presents itself as the great benefactor of the Empire and deserving of divine glory. The question is about worship or allegiance. The choice is to which kingdom will the inhabitants of the earth swear their allegiance. They cannot do both; they must choose.

The second angel announces what has not yet happened:  “Babylon is fallen!” Well, not yet…but it is a certain future. God will subvert Babylon because of its extensive sexual immoralities (porneias). Its fall is so certain that one can announce it as already accomplished.

This is the first time the term “Babylon” is used in the Apocalypse. This anticipates the use of the name in the third vision (chapter 17). The name is highly symbolic as it recalls the great enemy of Israel that destroyed the first temple. Jewish literature often referred to Rome as Babylon (e.g., 1 Peter 5:13 uses “Babylon” for Rome), and Rome destroyed the second temple. Babylon is Rome and Revelation 17 will make this clear.

The third angel announces the end of those who are aligned with the beast.  They worship him and its image. Marked by the beast, they have given the empire their allegiance.  Because they drink the wine of its sexual immoralities, they will drink the wine of God’s wrath.

The description of their end is intended to horrify readers. Torment, fire, sulfur, and eternal (aionas aionon) smoke are words that underscore the drastic and permanent end of those faithful to the Empire. Their allegiance to the empire will result in their destruction “in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” Rather than accepting the good news of the “eternal gospel” their end will be marked by smoke that ascends “forever and ever.”

The three angels offered good news and a warning.  The earth still hears the gospel and the saints are encouraged by Babylon’s prospects, but earth’s inhabitants are also warned that their allegiance to the empire will not go well for them. At this moment (Revelation 14:12), John offers an editorial comment (similar to Revelation 13:10). Its intent is to encourage his readers and remind them that the trial is not yet over.

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.

The saints are called to stand up under the pressure (the meaning of “endurance”). They will have to endure the trial and follow the Lamb.  But who are the saints? They are those who keep God’s commandments and keep the faith of Jesus.

Most translations render the final words of Revelation 14:12 as “faith in Jesus.” But the construction is a genitive one (“of Jesus”). While it may be rendered as an objective genitive (faith in Jesus), it seems to me that it is better rendered as a subjective genitive, that is, the faithfulness of Jesus or the faith that Jesus has. The point would be that the saints not only keep the commandments of God but they embrace the faithfulness of Jesus, that is, they follow Jesus even to the point of death. They follow Jesus to the cross. Saints are obedient and faithful to the path that Jesus has paved for them.

This call to faithfulness is followed by a divine blessing. Since the voice is not identified it probably is God’s own voice or perhaps the Lamb’s voice (“a voice from heaven”). The Lamb, it seems, says to John (just as he did in Revelation 1:11), “Write” this down! This is important; it must not be forgotten. Unlike those who worship the beast, those who follow the Lamb are “blessed” in their death.

“Blessed” is a divine act. To die in the Lord is to die blessed. God is no passive observer when saints die. God is blessing them; God is present. Saints do not die alone.

Moreover, the Spirit affirms the Lamb’s blessing. The Spirit is excited. Hearing the Lamb’s beatitude, the Spirit responds with “Yes!” (nai). Exactly! That’s right! Their blessing means that they will “rest” from their works. They have followed the Lamb and now their works will follow them. They have overcome just like the Lamb, and they stand victorious before the throne with the Lamb! The trial is over; there is no more pressure. Now they will rest. Their death is a victory though it is tragic injustice.


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.


Revelation 13:11-18 – A Second Monster

September 28, 2013

The dragon, frustrated by his inability to unseat the Son from his throne or destroy the people of God as a whole, turned his attention to warring against the woman’s offspring, that is, the saints scattered across the Roman world. The dragon called up a beast from the chaotic sea to pursue God’s saints. The beast, invested with the dragon’s authority, blasphemed the name and dwelling of God, and the inhabitants of the earth worshipped both the dragon and the beast. The beast was given power to “conquer” or overcome God’s saints, that is, to kill them. God’s saints, consequently, are imprisoned and slain with the sword (Revelation 13:1-10).

To enforce the authority of the beast upon the earth another beast arises from the earth. While the first beast was from the sea, the second originates on land. This distinction probably intimates that while the first beast, from the perspective of Asia Minor, is a power that originates from beyond their shores, the second beast is more local or regional. In other words, the second beast is a power that resides in the economic, social, political and religious culture of Asia Minor. The beast appears like a lamb (“two horns like a lamb”) but it speaks “like a dragon.” It mimics the Lamb of God; it appears as a small, young lamb, but its voice is hostile. The second beast is the first beast’s enforcer.

What does this second beast do (poieo ["it does"] appears eight times in this section).

  • The beast “does” [exercises] all the authority of the first beast.
  • The beast “does” [makes] the inhabitants of the earth to worship the first beast.
  • The beast “does” great signs, including “doing” [making] fire come down from heaven to earth.
  • The beast “does” signs in the presence of the beast.
  • The beast commands the inhabitants of the earth to “do” [make] an image of the first beast.
  • The beast gives breath to the image so that it might speak and “do” [cause] the death of those who refuse to worship the beast.

It seems clear that the second beast has a religious function. The second beast enforced the worship of the first beast, verified its blasphemous claims with “great signs,” and created a living image of the beast to worship. The religious character of the second beast is confirmed by its identification as a “false prophet” elsewhere in the Apocalypse (cf. 19:20). Calling fire down from heaven also recalls the Hebrew prophet Elijah in his contest with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. The “signs” bespeak the prophetic status of the second beast. It exercises a religious authority.

At the same time we should remember that “religion” and politics were deeply connected in ancient Roman culture. They were integrated rather than compartmentalized. Religion, in large measure, served the state, especially in the imperial cult. Religion was tied to the economic life of the empire. The second beast had economic power. It could boycott those who did not serve the interests of the empire. The second beast fits the religious, political and economic power of the imperial cult in Asia Minor at the time of the Apocalypse. The second beast is the local and regional power of the imperial cult.

The beast, whom the false prophet serves, is identified by the use of gematria (see Richard Oster’s article on this phenomena in relation to Revelation 13:18), that is, a mathematical technique of using the letters of the alphabet to calculate a number. The number of the beast is not a symbolic number but an identifying number. Readers are told to “calculate” (add up as a sum) the number of the beast which is the number of a particular person (man). The term psephizo in Revelation 13:18 does not mean “interpret or figure out” but is a mathematical term which specifics the use of addition or summing up. The number of the beast has a specific meaning, that is, the name of the beast equals the number. Oster and his colleague Allen Black suggest that the use of gematria is equivalent to the modern use of initials or abbreviations. In other words, the meaning of the number was easily recognizable by ancient readers; it has no “hidden” meaning.

The number, however, is uncertain.  A reference in Irenaeus (Against Heresies V.30.1-3) as well as the Greek manuscript p115 demonstrate that the number 616 was present in some copies of Revelation in the late second century rather than the traditional number 666. The variant actually helps confirm the meaning of the number itself as a scribe probably changed the number to clarify it for his own context (whether Greek or Latin).  Here is what I mean.

  • 666 – If one takes the Greek letters for “Caesar Nero” and transliterates them into Hebrew, then the numerical equivalent of the name is 666.
  • 616 – If one takes the Latin form, “Ceasar Neron,” and transliterates the letters into Hebrew, then the numerical equivalent of the name is 616.

Whether the original number was 666 or 616, the result is the same. Nero is the name of the beast. This meshes nicely with the myths circulating in the late first century that Nero was still alive, or that he would come back to life, or that he would be reincarnated. As the first imperial persecutor, Nero was a feared name in Christian circles (as well as Roman ones). It is unnecessary to identify the beast with any particular Roman Emperor. Rather, it is identified with the name Nero whose symbolic presence represented the persecuting power of the Roman state. The beast is personified by Nero who killed Christians.

Another alternative, suggested by Shane J. Wood (in Dragons, John, and Every Grain of Sand), is that if one transliterates the Greek term for beast (thareon) into Hebrew, the number is 666, and if one transliterates the Greek term for beast in its genitive form as it appears in Revelation 13:17 (theriou), then the number is 616. This also could explain the diverse MSS tradition. The name of the beast is the number, that is, the number of the beast is its name.

In either event, the number is not symbolic; it is an actual use of gematria. It is not a contrast between 666 (a human number) and 777 (the perfect divine number). Nor is 666 an evil number in contrast with 777. Rather, 666 is the name of the political power that oppresses the saints of God. The beast, whose name calculates to 666 (or 616), opposes the kingdom of God. Nero–the name of the beast–personifies the hostile powers that oppose the kingdom of God.