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.

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.


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.

Revelation 14:1-5 — Firstfruits Offered to God and the Lamb

September 30, 2013

The church has heard some rather ominous words in the past two chapters. A powerful dragon is making war against God’s saints. The dragon has empowered two monsters (one from the sea and the other from the earth) to exercise his authority upon the earth. They are given the power to conquer or overcome the saints, that is, to kill them. While the dragon cannot dethrone the Son or destroy the church as a whole (just like the inner sanctuary of the temple was protected in Revelation 11:1), the saints are vulnerable (just like the outer court where the two witnesses testified in Revelation 11:2). The church is suffering and will continue to suffer from the dragon’s war.

As previously in the interludes of Revelation 7 and 11, Revelation answers the question that must have dominated the minds of these persecuted saints. Where is the victory in this suffering? It appears that the unholy trinity of dragon and two beasts has the upper hand. They are conquering (overcoming) the people of God. But that is a limited perspective. It is blinded to the reality of the throne room of God. And John now sees that reality…he looked, and “behold”…he sees an amazing scene.

On Mount Zion, the heavenly throne room, John sees the Lamb standing with the 144,000 who had been previously sealed in Revelation 7 with the name of the Lamb and the Father on their foreheads. These are those who refused the mark of the beast and welcomed the mark of the Lamb and his Father. Their refusal to receive the mark of the beast entailed suffering, including economic and social marginalization as well as martyrdom.

The 144,000 are no longer on the earth as they were in Revelation 7:1-8. They are now “before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders.” They have been ransomed or redeemed “from the earth” and “from humanity.” These are those who, having emerged from their earthly trials through suffering and martyrdom, are now present in the heavenly throne room praising God. They have joined the great multitude. They have been redeemed through suffering rather than from suffering. Redeemed from the earth, they now inhabit the God’s dwelling in heaven and John hears their singing.

Their praise thunders across heaven. It is loud and chilling. The sounds were like rushing waters and cracking thunder. The sound is musical–the song is accompanied by harps. The sounds of harps and voices reverberate throughout the heavenly throne room. It is sung by redeemed humanity. Their singing is harmonious, like a single voice (sound) even though sung by 144,000. The number is, of course, symbolic, but they sing a new song as if they were one voice (not voices). They sing about their redemption. Though martyred, they have overcome, just like the Lamb who was also slain by the dragon.

John’s description highlights their faithfulness. Like a mighty army raised to defend the kingdom of God, the redeemed are “virgins” and truthful. The reference to virginity probably alludes to the practice of readied armies avoiding sexual liaisons as they prepare for battle. The parallelism in the text indicates that the point is faithfulness.

Those redeemed from the earth were virgins who did not defile themselves.

These are those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes.

Those redeemed from humanity are those who were blameless because they did not lie.

“Redeemed” from the earth or humanity parallel each other just as “blameless” and “virgins” parallel each other. So also, “did not defile themselves” parallels the fact that they did not lie. The central point is that they follow the Lamb.  They are the Lamb’s army that follows the Lamb into battle, and they do battle through suffering. The defeat the dragon and his beasts through martyrdom. They overcome the enemy when the beasts overcome them. They win the battle, and consequently sing a victory song on heavenly shores, because they follow the Lamb to death. They suffer just as the Lamb suffered. They are faithful witnesses like the Lamb.

The martyrs, and other suffering saints, are the firstfruit of a harvest dedicated to God and the Lamb. The firstfruit is the first of the harvest. The harvest is the full number of the saints whom God will receive into the heavenly throne room, and they are a number that cannot be counted (cf. Revelation 7:9-17). As history proceeds, more will join their number. The 144,000–the suffering saints of the seven churches of Asia or the church in the Roman empire–is the firstfruit of a larger harvest to come.

As a harvest, they are offered to God and the Lamb. They are, in effect, a sacrificial offering. They sacrifice their lives for the sake of the kingdom of God and now they sing their victory song standing by the slain Lamb in the throne room of God.

Despite appearances, then, the beasts do not win. They may overcome and kill saints as the dragon makes war through them, but the martyrs find themselves in the throne room of God singing redemption songs. They inhabit Mt. Zion. They sing before the throne. They stand with the Lamb that was slain. They wear the victory wreaths, not the beasts.

Martyrs continue as even now Syrian rebels kidnap bishops and slaughter whole Christian villages. Martyrs abound in Pakistan where only a few days past a worshipping assembly of believers was violently assaulted. The harvest is not yet complete. The conflict between the dragon and the people of God still continues.

May God have mercy.

Revelation 13:1-10 — The Monster from the Deep

September 29, 2013

The dragon, upset that he could neither unseat the reigning Son in heaven nor annihilate the people of  God upon the earth, decided to make war against the saints. Though he will ultimately fail (and he knows it), he will use whatever resources he can muster to hurt as many as God’s people as he can. He now pursues the offspring of the woman, the followers of the Lamb, and the dragon chooses his weapons…the monsters (beasts).

The dragon stands on the seashore and summons a monster from the deep. The dragon empowers the beast. When the beast is worshipped, it is really the dragon who is worshipped.  The beast is given authority, power and a throne by the dragon. The dragon is the real power behind the monster’s throne, claims and actions. The beast is but one manifestation of the cosmic conflict between God and Satan. It is not the first and neither will it be the last, but it is the monster that the seven churches of Asia encounter daily in the marketplace and civic areneas of their cities. The monster is an evil empire with the human face of its Emperors.

The monster arises out of the sea which is symbolic for the chaos (“waters”) God ordered in creation and defeated in the Exodus (Psalm 74:13-14; 89:9-10). That the monster comes from the sea signals that it is trouble. If that were in doubt, its description would erase any hesitation left. The monster is described as the epitmoe of the enemy of God as it is a amalgamation of elements of the horrible creatures that arose from the sea in Daniel 7. The four beasts of Daniel (winged lion, winged leopard, ravinous bear and a ten-horned unidentified creature) are combined into one image here. Daniel identifies these beasts as kings or kingdoms and the little horn of the fourth beast is the one which makes war on God’s saints.

Just as the beasts in Daniel represent kingdoms that oppose the kingdom of God, so this monster of the deep in Revelation 13 represents an evil empire. Using particulars from Daniel 7 (such as the ten horns and the likenesses of the animals) the vision enhances the horror of this creature.  Its evil nature is seen in that it has ten hours and seven heads just like the dragon (Revelation 12:3) and its authority–its royal diadems–derives from the dragon’s diadems.

Keener (NIV Application Commentary) suggests that there was a consensus in late Second Temple Judaism that Rome was the fourth beast (cf. 4 Ezra 12:10-11; 2 Baruch 39:7).  The seven heads, as we learn later in Revelation 17, represent seven kings. The blasphemous names probably refer to the titles that Emperors assumed such as “Saviour,” “Son of God,” and “Our Lord and God” (often imprinted on coins with Emperors dressed or posed as gods). The head that has a mortal wound but yet lived alludes to a common late first century rumor that Nero was still alive or would return in some form. This was a common belief among some first century Jews (cf. Ascension of Isaiah 4:2-14; Sibylline Oracles 5: 33-34, 137-54, 361-85). As Keener notes, the Christians expected a “new Nero (8.68-72), who would be called ‘a great beast’ (8.139-59).” Early Christians expected that another would arise like Nero who whose opposition to the kingdom of God would rival Nero’s. Revelation 17 will say more about this scenario.

The beast exercies a wide authority. The same spread of nations and ethnicities that live in the presence of God’s heaveny throne in Revelation 7 is also the extent of the beast’s authority. This is another point of contrast between the security of the heavenly throne room and the war that is raging on the earth. The point is not that this is a universal rule over every geograpical region of the earth but rather it represents how the Roman empire portrayed itself as the ruler of the whole globe. Roman claimed authority over the whole world; it is part of the arrogance of the beast.

The beast, representing the cosmic power of Satan, is worshipped by the inhabitants of the earth. The “whole earth” follows the beast, worships the beast, and asks, “who is like the beast?” This is a parody of God and the Lamb.  The offspring of the woman follow the Lamb, worship God and confess that there is no one like God (cf. Exodus 15:11). The language sets up a choice. Whom will you worship? Whom will you follow? Whom will you confess as unlike anything or anyone else in the universe?

The choice is focused on the beast versus the Lamb.  Both represent a larger power and authority. The beast mirrors the interests of the dragon while the Lamb reflects the glory of the one who sits on the throne. The choice is reflected in those who worship the beast in contrast to those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. God knows those who belong to the kingdom of God.

The choice is pressed upon the cosmos as the monster is permitted to exercise authority for three and 1/2 years (42 months, 1260 days). This is the same period of time the woman hides in the wilderness in Revelation 12. It refers to a limited period of time. During this time the beast is permitted and empowered “to make war on the saints and conquer them.”

This is divine permission. God could end the days of the beast any time God willed.  God permits the dragon to empower the beast. God permits the beast to “conquer” (overcome) the saints. This permission is similar to God’s counsel to the martyrs to wait till their number is full. There will be more martyrs; the kingdom of this world will yet wield power and authority over the saints. The beast will overcome them, but in so doing the faithful witnesses overcome the beast, just as the Lamb overcame through faithful obedience.

The way the followers of the Lamb overcome is through faithful witness. They do not take up the sword and engage the war as political revolutionaries. Rather, the witness of the prophetic proverb of Revelation 13:10 is that violence is self-destructive. It has the seeds of its own destruction. The empire takes captives and wields the sword and ultimately the empire will be taken captive and be destroyed by the sword.  The faithful witness Jesus refused the protection of the sword and counseled that those who live by sword will die by the sword. Jesus rejected the use of swords but instead waged the battle through a faithful witness, through suffering martyrdom. The saints will experience imprisonment and sword at the hands of the empire, and their martyrdom and suffering will be the undoing of the empire.

As followers of the Lamb the seven churches of Asia are called to endurance and faith (or faithfulness). They are called to imitate the same faithful witness that the Lamb offered and to endure suffering just as the Lamb endured it. Saints are called to action, but it does not involve a sword. It calls for endurance and faith.

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.