Revelation 16 – Armageddon

October 14, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revelation 15:1-8 — A New Exodus

October 12, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon on the Mount in Seven Hours

October 11, 2013

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

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.

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.

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.

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.