Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Quantum Space by Jim Baggott, Preface

1. My book buying is really out of control. My goal, unattainable, is to read a chapter of something each day and blog it. I've bought too many recently to go one by one. I'm going to wander.

Today I read the Preface of Jim Baggott's recent 2018 book, Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe. I've read/listened to much of another book of his on the Higgs boson. I've also read more than one book by one of the key players in this book, Carlo Rovelli. It was well written.

Every once and a while I find what I consider a really good science book. The best for me was The Perfect Theory, on relativity. Rovelli's book, Reality Is Not What It Seems, is pretty good. There are others I like. I'm hoping Quantum Space is another winner. I've bought plenty that didn't hold my attention.

2. Quantum loop gravity. I don't like the name. I don't like some of its terms (like "spinfoam"). It doesn't capture the imagination. It's a PR loser.

But God has told me it's right and string theory is wrong. OK, maybe it was that sausage pizza. I do like pasta, but I don't like string theory. Never have. I'm afraid I'm with Leslie Winkle on this one. Reality is loopy.

The basic difference is that string theory sees reality as made up of vibrating strings in something like 10 dimensions. Quantum loop gravity sees reality as made up of space quanta. Neither theory can be experimentally tested or verified.

3. In the Preface, Baggott introduces the issue:

  • "There is not one single piece of observational or experimental evidence to support it" (ix).
  • "The quantum theory of gravity is simply the greatest scientific problem of our age."
The problem is that both the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics are both incredibly successful theories. Yet they are incompatible with each other. Quantum mechanics assumes that spacetime is absolute. Relativity does not. 

If string theorists tend to start with quantum mechanics and move toward relativity, loopies like me start with relativity and move toward quantum mechanics. LQG (loop quantum gravity) assumes that space is quantized. These "lumps" of space then interlink into a fabric of interlocking loops, a "spin network." (xii). The changing connections between these networks give rise to a spin foam. This foam added together gives us spacetime.

I think I could come up with better lingo.

4. Two key players form the heart of the story of the last twenty five years of LQC's existence. I've mentioned Carlo Rovelli. In addition to Reality Is Not What It Seems, I also have his Introduction to Quantum Gravity and Spinfoam Theory. The other player is Lee Smolin. I have a couple of his books too--The Trouble with Physics and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity. They are both pretty good with PR.

So I'm excited to read this book.


Monday, October 19, 2020

"Originalism" and Biblical Hermeneutics, Part III

In the last two posts, I've been presenting some basic features of hermeneutics, the philosophy of interpretation. The first post explored the contextual nature of meaning and the ambiguity of language the further removed the interpreter is from its original context.

The second post then looked in greater depth at the dynamics of appropriating a text for a different time and place. Some key points from that post included:

  • Words are polyvalent. Without context or clarification, they can take on multiple possible meanings.
  • The process of canonical collection and consensus formation subtly alters the way a community understands its foundational documents
  • Fundamental principles take precedence over any individual passages that might be in tension with them.
The dynamics of hermeneutics work in general of all interpretation. They may provide some framing insights in relation to the interpretation of a historical document like the United States Constitution.

1. First, the Constitution differs in some respects from the Bible because 1) it was written to us, 2) it is a legal document, 3) it is one document rather than dozens, and 4) it is much closer to us in time and language.

The Constitution is the fundamental legal document of the United States of America. It applies to the government of this country and its citizens. By contrast, most of the Bible is not legal in genre, and the parts that are related to ancient Israel. In that sense, strangely enough, the Constitution is arguably more direct in its application to those who live here than the Bible.

As a single document, as a legal document, we would expect the Constitution's language to be more precise and less susceptible to tension than the books of the Bible. Further, although vast amounts of change have happened these last two hundred forty-four years, we are significantly closer in culture and, to some extent, worldview than we are to the worlds in which the books of the Bible were written.

In short, these factors suggest a greater directness.

2. Second, the principle of contextual meaning applies to the original meaning of the Constitution, just as to any utterance. These words had a meaning in their original context. There were things in the heads of those who ratified these documents that did not make it to the page itself but were how they understood these words.

So when Justice Thomas invokes questions of whether contemporary conceptions were part of the original meaning of the Constitution, he is asking a meaningful question. Clearly when Thomas Jefferson penned that "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence, he was neither picturing women nor people of color in the statement.

The "right to bear arms" had a meaning in that time and place. It had a meaning in each of the heads of those who ratified the Constitution. That meaning was a function of that time. We can ask questions like, "What were they bearing arms to do?

3. However, as a collectively passed and ratified document, we cannot point to a single authorial intent. As I understand the judicial philosophy of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, originalism was not for him about the original intent of the framers but about the original meaning a common person at the time a law was passed would give it.

On one level, this is a wise distinction. It recognizes, for example, that the various individuals who voted at the constitutional convention may have had conflicting perspectives about the meaning of what they were signing. Indeed, the Federalist Papers and the Declaration of Independence are neither part of the Constitution. Madison's thought can give us important clues to the general sense of the Constitution, but he was only one person. His thought or Jefferson's or Hamilton's cannot determine the specific meaning of the Constitutional text.

4. As a text, the Constitution is polyvalent. Its words are susceptible to multiple possible meanings. As a legal document, its language is tighter than most speech. But we still find plenty of debate over how to apply it.

Much of the debate has to do with what it doesn't say, gaps that contribute to its polyvalence. For example, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Does this statement mean that I should be able to have as many "arms" as I want? Does it apply to people with a criminal record? Does it mean it violates my rights to require a background check or a delay of purchase?

The text doesn't address these questions. Interestingly, with the Bible we sometimes find two approaches to things the Bible doesn't say. The Church of Christ, non-instrumental, would say that if the Bible doesn't mention a particular instrument, it should not be used in church. The Church of Christ, instrumental would say that if a particular instrument is not prohibited in the Bible, it can be used in church.

To some extent, the rulings of the Supreme Court are line calls on the gaps in the Constitutional text. Like applying the Bible to today, situations arise that simply did not exist at the time the Constitution was created. If we take the right to bear arms, the sophistication of modern weaponry goes beyond anything the first Americans could have imagined. Similarly, we can ask whether the very concept of a militia is a bit redundant given the police and the army.

5. In such cases, the Supreme Court has to improvise. It has to discern what the general principles and purposes were, the framework, and extend that trajectory to new situations. No legal system can account for every eventuality. It does no service to the American people for the Supreme Court to take the approach, "If it says nothing specifically, we will say nothing specifically." The job of the Supreme Court is decide cases arising under the Constitution. It is the nature of appropriation to extend the underlying foundational principles to new situations.

Not to do so is to allow situations that violate the spirit of the Constitution to prevail simply because the Constitution does not specifically spell out that situation. Like the Bible, not to make such an extension is to give the upper hand to the forces that are actually against the spirit of the Constitution.

Yes there is an amendment process. This was incredibly wise on the part of the framers. It is good that it is really hard to change the Constitution.

These amendments sometimes have supplemented the Constitution in an important way (e.g., no third presidential term, removal of president). At other times they have corrected flaws in the original framing (giving women and former slaves the right to vote). One might argue that there are times when the trajectory of the Constitution should not be a matter of debate but it is. In such cases, an amendment "seals the deal," so to speak.

6. In my opinion, these dynamics make the accusation of "legislating from the bench" somewhat simplistic. Ideally, an amendment would put all such issues to rest. But filling in blanks as best they can based on the fundamental principles of the Constitution is exactly what the Supreme Court is for.

Take the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act. Its intended purpose was not to limit free speech but to maintain a system where elections could work the way they are supposed to work. An amendment would be helpful, but the Supreme Court would not have been legislating from the bench if they had upheld it, in my opinion.

This brings up another issue not dissimilar to the Bible. The freedoms in the Bill of Rights sometimes come into tension with each other. My religion might lead me to want to shut you up, but you have a freedom of speech. What if my speech were treasonous? Does my speech extend to inciting the overthrow of the government? Line calls must be made because none of these rights are absolute--we have to make exceptions when they crash into each other. We have to decide which takes precedence in that particular situation. The Supreme Court is the place to do it if laws are passed that do not appropriately negotiate these competing values.

7. Lastly, there are consensus understandings that have developed over time, as with the biblical canon. Various rulings of the Supreme Court establish precedent. We call it stare decisis, "decision to stand." It keeps us from constantly reinventing the wheel or constantly jerking back and forth.

This seems a sound practice in general, for the Supreme Court largely to leave previous decisions intact. There have been some great and appropriate reversals. Brown vs. the Board of Education rightly recognized that Plessy vs. Ferguson had done nothing but subvert the fundamental principles of the Constitution with its "separate but equal" concept.

And some rhetoric about "strict constructionism" has hid some not so admirable motives. States rights was not the underlying cause of the Civil War. Rather, it was the way the South tried to perpetuate slavery. Similarly, the concept of states rights around the civil rights movement was really about not wanting to be told to integrate. In these cases, the Supreme Court was rightly enforcing the principles of the Constitution with regard to states that did not want to treat people of color equally.

These decisions brought movement toward fulfilling the fundamental principles of the Constitution. By contrast, Constitutional "fundamentalism" plays to the past deficiencies of American culture in the past. It is like the non-instrumentalists who say, "We can't play those instruments because the Constitution doesn't mention them."

I am suggesting an "appropriation" view. We "work out our Constitution with fear and trembling" in situations the original framers could have never imagined. It is not only a sound hermeneutical perspective. It is the one that leans most toward justice, in my opinion.

"Originalism" and Biblical Hermeneutics, Part II

Yesterday I wrote some thoughts on the original meaning of the books of the Bible. These included:

  • The biblical texts had original meanings.
  • Those meanings were a function of what words meant at the time of writing, not a function of how we might use similar words today.
  • The first meanings of the Bible were things God was saying to them, in their thought categories (not to us in ours).
  • God sometimes inspires additional meanings to biblical texts that were not the meanings they had originally.
In Part II today, I want to expand on the question of application of the Bible in light of the above. And, you guessed it, tomorrow I want to think a little about how we might interpret and apply a document like the United States Constitution in the light of hermeneutics.

1. Once a "text" is uttered, it becomes detached from its author's intent to some degree. This happens when you receive an email. This happens when you read a quote all by itself.

If we share a significant amount of context with the author of the text, there's a fair chance we can come close to understanding what the author was getting at. However, you have no doubt seen enough threads on Facebook to know that even what seem to be the most obvious of comments can be misinterpreted, especially tone. If you've ever preached a sermon, you may know that people often take something quite different from your words than you intended.

Words are polyvalent. Without context or clarification, they can take on multiple possible meanings. I truly believe that the Holy Spirit uses this aspect of the Bible to use it as a living word. The Holy Spirit helps us hear in the words what God wants us to hear, even though these meanings are often not meanings that the original authors would recognize.

This dynamic also applies to groups and communities of Christians, and it especially happened prior to the historical study of the Bible. Let me pick a sensitive topic--women in ministry and leadership. There is a wealth of biblical reasons to support women in such roles. There are the examples of individuals like Deborah, Huldah, Mary Magdalene, Priscilla, Phoebe, Lydia, and so forth. There is the theological framing of Acts 2:17, which anticipates that women will prophesy in the age of the Spirit, something we see in Acts 21:9 and 1 Corinthians 11. Galatians 3:28 also gives a general principle.

But there is one verse that sounds like it is on the opposing side, 1 Timothy 2:12. Some Christians put almost the entire weight of a case against women in ministry on this one verse, ignoring all the other passages and instances. In my opinion, while the weight of Scripture clearly points toward the full empowerment of women for ministry and leadership, these voices in the end put all their eggs in the basket of this one verse.

The verse does sound like it's on the other side of the Wesleyan position, my tradition. I call such verses, "naughty verses," and every tradition has them. Let's face it, the Bible is a collection of dozens of books by many different authors written in three languages to multiple audiences to address multiple situations over the course of a thousand years. Such a library is bound to have material that at least sounds like it conflicts with other material!

So I have heard a number of different explanations in my circles for what 1 Timothy 2:12 really meant. These explanations build on the polyvalence of its words. For example, I believe that it is not addressing women and men in general but wives and husbands, a possibility of the Greek. My point is not to argue over its meaning. My point is that denominations get where they sense the need to go by way of the multiple possible meanings of biblical texts.

2. When we look at the Bible as a canon, as a collection of inspired and authoritative texts, we inevitably look at it in a way that is somewhat loosened from its original meanings. On the one hand, bringing diverse texts together into a canon changes their overall context and thus can push in different directions than their original meanings. 

For example, take the placement of the New Testament after the Old Testament. The Old Testament gives us no reason to think that sacrifices would ever stop. The Old Testament gives us no reason to think that the food laws would not be binding at some point on the people of God. Indeed, the Old Testament itself gives us no reason to think that it would one day become an "Old" testament, not when read in context.

But when the New Testament is placed after the Old Testament, we end up seeing an altered storyline, one in which the Old Testament is building to the New Testament. "The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed." The anticipation of a Davidic king in the Old Testament was always about an earthly king of a small earthly kingdom. In the New Testament, every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is cosmic Lord.

Further, there are collective meanings to the Bible that reflect a kind of consensus Christians reached after several centuries of conversation. It is no coincidence that it was after Christianity became both the favored and then the official religion of the Roman empire that 1) the text and contents of the Bible and 2) the orthodox beliefs of Christendom became a matter of agreement. It was not settled that the current 27 books of the New Testament are the right books until about the time that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire. 

It was also about that time that the text of the Bible used in worship stabilized. For over the next 1500 years the basic text that made its way into the King James Version was used. 

And the Nicene Creed became the official creed of Christendom in AD381. This creed locked our current understanding of the Trinity into place. The century thereafter would do the same for the dual nature of Christ as both fully human and fully divine. This is now how we read the texts of the New Testament. You might say it is now locked in as their canonical meaning.

When we read a text like Genesis 1:27 today--"Let us make humanity in our image"--it is natural for us to hear the Trinity in those words. Was the author of Genesis thinking that? Not a historical chance. The author of Genesis was more likely thinking of the heavenly hosts that show up at various parts of the Old Testament (cf. Ps. 82). But from a canonical perspective, there's nothing wrong with reading the verse that way--we know more than Moses did about God because we have the benefit of much additional revelation.

3. So the process of canonical collection and consensus formation subtly alters the way a community understands its foundational documents. 

This is an important process because documents otherwise become problematic as contexts change. And contexts always change. The ability of communities to subtly alter their sense of foundational documents in keeping with changes in context allows those documents to remain pertinent.

For example, there are laws in the Old Testament that Christians have almost forgotten were there. "You will not put on a garment made of two different materials" (Lev. 19:19). It's not entirely clear what the purpose of this verse was in ancient Israel. Christians would generally consider it today to be part of the "ceremonial law" that is no longer binding today.

Scripture itself--most significantly Jesus himself--has given us the key. The whole of the Law, Jesus said, can be summed up in "love God, love neighbor" (e.g., Matt. 22:34-40). We can hold up this principle to the whole of Scripture as a key to discern how specific instruction plays out in our contexts. This is of course a fearsome task we must do together. Some will try to use hermeneutics as an excuse to get out of God's will. But there is no way around it. We have to do it.

Matthew 5 gives us some case studies. Jesus holds up the love principle to several Old Testament laws and shows us how that principle helps us appropriate the Law. In some cases, it intensifies an Old Testament law. We not only must not murder or commit adultery. Love indicates we must not hate or lust.

However, in other cases the Old Testament Law, appropriate for its context, is redirected. Divorce was freely allowed in ancient Israel. But the love principle severely limits it in the New Testament. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is abandoned altogether on an individual level. Any tension between biblical texts is given its tie-breaker. The key principles take precedence over any individual passages that are in tension with them.

4. Even with the key principles, we are not so much interested in the specifics of what was in each author's head as with the general principles that made it into the canon. For example, if Paul had had a son--given the culture of his day--he might very well have beat him in a way we would consider abusive today. If so, Paul would not have seen such punishment unloving. In fact, when Proverbs 23:13 talks about beating a son with a rod, it likely pictures something that would get you arrested today.

The principle Christians would apply today in keeping with the love command is to discipline your children in the sense of training them. The form that such training takes will not likely look the same as such training in biblical days. That is completely appropriate. Doing exactly what they did is not actually doing what they did if it means something different in our context.

We thus look to the "why" of Scripture more than the "what." Must we "greet the brothers with a holy kiss" (1 Thess. 5:26)? A holy handshake accomplishes much the same purpose. And in the time of COVID, an elbow bump works too.

If we do not realize that revelation is always incarnated into the worldviews and paradigms of its original recipients, we will inevitably make God look stupid or become oppressive. John says every eye will see Jesus coming in the clouds in Revelation 1:7. We do not usually realize that we have subtly reinterpreted this verse from how John himself pictured it. He thought the earth was flat, so no doubt pictured everyone on a flat earth being able to look up and see Jesus.

5. God does not want us to apply Scripture in an "originalist" way. God wants us to work together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to re-contextualize its teaching into our paradigms and our worldviews. We typically do it without realizing it. We discipline our children, but we do not beat them with rods. We do not stone a rebellious son to death or put those who practice homosexuality to death (Deut. 21:18-21; Leviticus 20:13). 

This is the problem with Christian fundamentalism. It neither knows how to read the Bible fully in context and in its partial reading mistakes ancient context for the incarnated revelation. It thus mistakenly tries to make our world into the ancient Near East or ancient Mediterranean world, generally missing the essential task of contextualization. It thus makes God look stupid (by mistaking ancient worldviews for God's perspective) and then ends up trying to enforce the wrong points (aspects of the text that relate specifically to that time). 

Indeed, it can end up using the Bible to serve the Devil's purposes rather than God's! This is what happened to many Pharisees, whose "high view" of Scripture became a tool of oppression. This is what happened to those who strongly argued from the Bible in favor of slavery in the early 1800s. It is happening right now in terms of those who would prevent women from obeying the Holy Spirit into ministry. 

When Paul says that the head of the wife is the husband (1 Cor. 11:3), he was saying exactly what Aristotle said in his Politics. There was nothing uniquely Christian about that statement at all. Saying that a wife should submit herself to her husband (e.g., Col. 3:18) was something you might find in the writing of any ancient moralist.

So what is uniquely Christian are those points where Paul elevates the worth and value of the wife. When Paul says, "Nor is the man independent of the woman" (1 Cor. 11:11) or "The husband does not have authority over his body but the wife" (1 Cor. 7:4), those are points to take notice because they are counter-cultural. 

If 1 Peter 3:1 uses wifely submission as a tool of witness in that world and context, it would have exactly the opposite impact in our world today. It would drive people away from the gospel and indeed give free reign to bad behavior on the part of husbands. We have to discern the original point, not always apply the original specifics.

6. I end today's post with an illustration from modern Jewish practice. You cannot have a pepperoni pizza in Old City Jerusalem. Why? Because you must not "boil the kid in its mother's milk" (Deut. 14:21). It is not exactly clear what this command was about originally. We can guess. My guess is that it was addressing some Canaanite religious practice.

But it is certain it had nothing to do with having cheese with meat. Jewish tradition has tried to carry this practice forward but its original sense is pretty much lost. Modern practice is neither originalist nor meaningful, except as a tradition. This is the problem that time and change of context inevitably create. Failure to come to grip with such change only results in strangeness at best, oppression and evil at worse.

Tomorrow we finish this series by looking at how these hermeneutical principles relate to the interpretation and appropriation of a historical document like the US Constitution.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

"Originalism" and Biblical Hermeneutics, Part I

 1. Believe it or not, there is a subject I have spent more time pondering in my time as a New Testament scholar than the book of Hebrews. In fact, I suspect it is the one topic I have thought more about than any other. Hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is the philosophy of interpretation. What is also interesting is that, while I hope I know a number of things about Hebrews, I am actually quite confident about a number of features of hermeneutics. Don't tell the Hebrews guild, but I privately waiver on a number of interpretations of Hebrews for which I might be known. But I have few if any second guesses of my positions on hermeneutics.

2. For example, the biblical texts had original meanings, and those meanings were a function of what words meant at the time of writing. Words do not have meaning apart from contexts. Without human minds interpreting them, they are collections of squigglies. A smoke signal is just puffs of smoke without a human mind interpreting it. A set of flashes from an aircraft carrier is just a series of light pulses without human minds interpreting it.

And both the people generating those signals, those signs, and the people interpreting them do so as a function of potential meanings within their cultures, subcultures, and situations.

3. What of God, you say? Didn't God write Scripture so that the original meanings are God-meanings and not author-meanings? Aren't those meanings for all time and thus for us?

Here I would say there are two-possibilities, both of which I believe are true. First, the first meaning of the Bible in almost if not every instance, was God saying something to them. It would be rather narcissistic to say differently, wouldn't it? "It may say it's to the Corinthians but God was really writing to me." Or, "Revelation wasn't understood until John Darby decoded it in the 1800s so that Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye could finally tell us its real meaning." But surely the seven churches of Asia, to whom it was actually written, thought they knew a little something about what it meant?

"Ken, you're not getting it. It was written to all people in all places--to them and us." No, I get it. That's just not how language works on a specific level. Cultures change. Points of reference change. We share some things in common with other humans because, as humans, we know about eating and drinking and death. There can be similarities either on a broad or narrow level that make it possible for us to get the general picture.

But the specifics of the Bible's first meaning--assuming it means what it says when it says it's written to ancient Israelites, Romans, and others--was first and foremost a meaning that actualized the potential of the range of meanings words had in their time, not ours. We define our words too as an actualization of the potential meanings of words in our times as a function of our cultures, subcultures, and situations. So the person who says, "It was written for all time," is actually saying, "No one could really understand this text to its fullest extent until I came along."

Let me punctuate this point with the following thought. There will almost always be overlap between what the words meant in that context and what it might mean out of the blue to me. An English translation of course is going to pick English words that maximize that potential overlap. But this is a matter of overlap of their meanings and our meanings, varying degrees of overlap. It is not a matter of "It means the same thing for all time." 

To the extent that there are points where the original meaning just doesn't really exist in my world, the hermeneutical point is made. It meant what it meant as a function of their context. It does not mean the same thing for all time. If my off-the-cuff understanding overlaps, it overlaps because my world shares something in common with their world.

4. Another possibility is that God "impregnated" more than one meaning into biblical texts so that it had a first meaning for them but other potential meanings for other people throughout history. Certainly God knew all the countless ways that people would read the Bible, including people not even born yet (if the Lord tarries). I suppose we could have a theological debate about whether God put those potentialities there intentionally or whether God simply dances with us within our own understanding. Maybe for God these two options are the same.

No matter. God does sanction different interpretations of the same words even within Scripture. In its original context, Isaiah 7:14 was a promise to King Ahaz that a virgin would conceive her very first time having sex and that before the child was old enough to tell the difference between right and wrong, the two kings troubling him from the north would be demolished by the king of Babylon. This happened.

Then the Holy Spirit made these same words jump out at Matthew in relation to the virgin birth in Matthew 1:23 in relation to Jesus. Isaiah would have had no idea. That's just not at all likely part of the "original" meaning of Isaiah 7:14. It is a "fuller sense," a "spiritual meaning," a "theological interpretation." God sometimes inspires additional meanings to biblical texts that were not the meanings they had originally. God does this numerous times within Scripture itself, and I believe God does it today when we are reading the Bible.

Let me use the contemporary practice of lectio divina as an example. Lectio divina is the practice of meditating on a passage of Scripture. You read it and then pause to listen to God. It is very much in my mind like the devotional reading that so many of us grew up with. You do morning devotions, think about the Scripture, then pray. The difference is that lectio divina is more methodical, more repetitive, and probably allots more time to listening.

But here let me make a claim. Lectio divina is not about God revealing the original meaning of Scripture to you. Lectio divina is about hearing God speak to you through Scripture today. If you don't know what words could mean at the time a text was written, you're not at all likely to come up with those meanings through lectio divina. Lectio divina is about hearing God speak to you now through the words. It is about a spiritual meaning God might give you for your life today.

5. Let me conclude this first post with a syllogism:

  • Every word (or nearly every word) of the Bible was addressed to people who lived 2000-3000 years ago.
  • They understood the meanings of the words in terms of what words meant in their historical, cultural, and situational contexts.
  • Those historical, cultural, and situational contexts were not only different from ours but, in many cases, dramatically different from ours.
  • Therefore, the Bible was not originally written in terms of my historical, cultural, and situational contexts.
  • Therefore, if I am not aware of this difference, if I don't know points at which the differences are significant, I will likely misinterpret the Bible in terms of what it actually meant. I will likely "misinterpret" it--in terms of its original meaning--often without even knowing it. 
But this is not to lose hope. The Spirit meets us where we are in our reading of Scripture. The Spirit can give new but slightly different (sometimes dramatically different) senses of the words for us, meanings that we need for our contexts and situations. The Spirit gets us where we need to go.

Also very significant, we should read the Bible in communities of faith, where the collective wisdom of the Church and a collective sense of the Spirit can help us. Sometimes our "not original" readings of Scripture aren't the Holy Spirit but that breakfast burrito we had. Reading the Bible together helps us discern what is the Spirit and what is not.

Part II tomorrow.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Revelation 7 Explanatory Notes

Douce Apocalypse Manuscript
Bodleian Library, Oxford
7:1 After this, I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth so that wind might not blow upon the land nor upon the sea nor upon any tree.
In the first two sequences of seven in Revelation, there is an intermission of sorts after the sixth in the sequence. Then the seventh reflects the accomplishment of final judgment and salvation. This chapter gives us the first such intermission. After six images of impending judgment, we get our first glimpse at those who will be saved from the final wrath of God.

God reveals himself within the categories of those to whom he speaks and moves them from there. Revelation is "incarnational"--it takes on the flesh of those who receive it. We likely have an example of incarnational revelation in this verse. We know today that the earth is more or less a globe, a sphere. In John's day, they pictured a relatively flat earth. [1] Indeed, if John were to draw the "land," the earth, he apparently would have drawn it with four corners, as something like a square.

We rightly take this statement metaphorically, even though John may have taken it literally. The point is that the whole earth, the whole "land," is involved. The holding back of the winds likely symbolizes the fact that the final judgment will not commence until the redeemed are removed from the earth. The angels hold back the winds of judgment for just a bit more.

2. And I saw another angel descending from the rising of the sun having the seal of the living God and he cried with a mighty voice to the four angels to whom was given to them to harm the earth and the sea, 3. saying, "Do not harm the land nor the sea nor the tree until we should seal the servants of our God on their foreheads."
One key take-away from this chapter is that those who are "sealed" by God will not endure the full wrath of God in judgment. They will undergo hardship and tribulation to be sure, but the consummation of judgment is for those who refuse to repent before the Lord. The imagery requires the old creation to pass away before the new creation fully comes. The land and the sea and the trees will be harmed in the transition between the old and new creation. But the redeemed will not be part of that conflagration.

The seal on the foreheads of the redeemed, of those who truly serve God, is not a literal seal any more than the mark of the beast in Revelation 13 is a literal mark. The point is that God knows who truly belongs to him. Those who truly belong to him will undergo tribulation but they will be saved from the final judgment.

4. And I heard the number of those having been sealed, one hundred forty-four thousand having been sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 5. from the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand having been sealed, from the tribe of Reuben, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad, twelve thousand, 6. from the tribe of Asher, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh, twelve thousand, 7.from the tribe of Simeon, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar, twelve thousand, 8. from the tribe of Zebulon, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand having been sealed.
It is virtually certain that 144,000 is a symbolic number. One hundred forty-four is a perfect square of twelve, the number of the tribes of Israel. These tribes are all enumerated here. 144,000 is a perfect number, symbolically fitting a perfect, very large amount.

We should also take the distribution of the twelve tribes as symbolic. After all, ten of these tribes were largely destroyed by Assyria in 722BC. Nor does John likely have in mind Israelites prior to Christ, since this is a chapter relating to those who come out of the time of great tribulation (7:14). Here is a warning not to see Revelation as entirely about John's day, for it would take some time to get to 144,000.

It is tempting to see these 144,000 as those ethnic Israelites who believed on Jesus during the tribulation time from the death of Christ to Jesus' second coming. On the basis of chapter 7 alone, it would be easy to see this group as distinct from the group in 7:9 from every people group. This is the "dispensationalist" interpretation that arose in the 1800s. It sees the 144,000 as Israelites who fulfill God's promises to Israel in the Old Testament, while those from 7:9 are Gentiles.

As tempting as this interpretation is, the later mention of the 144,000 in Revelation 14:1-7 steers us away from it. In that later passage, the 144,000 would appear to be all of those who are saved from the earth. In that passage, the message is to all the peoples of the earth (14:6).

We thus see John incorporating those Gentiles who become servants of God into Israel. This is not the obliteration of Jew and Gentile into a third race. It is the incorporation of non-Jews into Israel as the people of God. Those who worship God and the Lamb become part of the twelve tribes of Israel.

9. After these things I saw and, behold, a great crowd that no one is able to number from every ethnos and tribes and peoples and tongues standing before the throne and before the Lamb, having been clothed in white robes and with palm branches in their hands.
Salvation is for everyone. No one is eliminated from the possibility of salvation because they speak a certain language, have a certain color or family, or come from a certain place. Everyone is invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. 

I have struggled to translate the word ethnos. We might render it as "nation," but that is bound to lead us to read modern nation-states into the text. A tribe is a group of people of similar ancestry. An ethnos is very similar but on a larger scale, possibly with more diverse elements within it. The word ethnos in the plural can refer to the Gentiles, the "nations" of non-Jews.

Israel had tribes within it, as mentioned in this chapter, but it might be considered one ethnos. We could say the same for the Greeks. Ancient Athens had tribes but the Greeks as a whole were an ethnos. The people groups mentioned in Acts 2:9-11 were ethnoi. "People-groups" is not a bad translation, although "peoples" appears in the verse as well. Perhaps we can think of ethnoi as including some mix of peoples beyond a pure people-group.

There is a principle here that can be difficult for us humans to hear. God is not an American. There is something very strange and not quite right about a US flag on a church platform. God does not favor the "white" American Christian over the brown illegal who snuck across an imaginary line that some secular nation drew there, as if people truly decide the boundaries of God's earth. America is not the new Israel, despite what some Puritans may have wanted to believe.

God's kingdom cuts across all visible human organizations and societies, including the church. Within the visible church are those who truly have the seal of God on their foreheads and those who have the mark of the beast on their right arms. There are Russians and Iranians who are servants of God and there are descendants of the English Pilgrims who are not.

One can go a long time without realizing that your congregation all looks exactly the same as the dominant cultural group of your tribe or ethnos. Once you notice, it can become increasingly uncomfortable that everyone looks the same, especially if there are many others who are different nearby. We might like to think that anyone would be welcome, but is it true?

Sometimes an all white church can be situated right in the middle of a rich cultural diversity of peoples and completely ignore them. In the mid-twentieth century, people in northern white churches moved to the suburbs to get away from increasing diversity in urban spaces because of the "great migration" of African-Americans from the south. These were families fleeing a space controlled by Satanic Jim Crow practices and laws. For a while, people in those urban white churches would drive in for miles past people who would not have felt welcome at the church in their neighborhood. Eventually, they moved the churches to the suburbs as well.

Sometimes when urban white churches actually did outreach, they assumed that those surrounding people were not believers. Many of them had churches of their own to which the upper middle class white church was oblivious. Black Christians did not simply wait to be included in the white churches where they were not welcome after the Civil War. They founded their own churches and denominations.

God knows nothing of these barriers. Martin Luther King Jr. once mused that Sunday morning was the most segregated moment of the week. But there is no race test in the kingdom. There is no status test in the kingdom. You do not have to show God an ID to prove you belong because he has put his seal upon you himself.

Those who belong among the rescued wear white robes. Their hearts are pure and they have lived in obedience to the King. They are servants whose palm branches show that they know who the true Lord is, and it is not Caesar.

The word "standing" is in the perfect tense. It suggests that they remain standing before the throne and the Lamb. They came to stand and they continue to stand. There seems a sense of finality to their destiny. Those who have opposed God will fall, but they stand. The throne refers to God (the Father) in a reverential way by referring to where his presence "sits." And the Lamb of course is Jesus.

10. ... and crying with a mighty voice, saying, "Salvation [belongs] to our God, who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb.
These individuals are those who are "saved." This expression has become so common that we talk of "getting saved" when we first become a Christian. There's nothing wrong with that use of the word, but it obscures the fact that the Day of Salvation is most literally the day that we escape the wrath of God in judgment. The Day of Wrath is the Day of Judgment, and thus the Day of Salvation is the day that we do not undergo that judgment. To say we have been "saved" before then is a shorthand for "If I continue in faith, I am guaranteed escape from the wrath of God on the Day of Judgment."

All those who have escaped the judgment, from every people on earth, thus proclaim in the throne room that salvation is a property of God and the Lamb.  It's what they do. This is what Paul primarily means when he speaks of the "righteousness of God" in Romans 1:16--"It is the power of God leading to salvation to everyone who has faith."

11. And all the angels have stood around the throne and the elders and the four beasts, and they fell before the throne on their faces and they worshiped God, 12. saying, "Amen. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength [be] to our God forever and ever."
If those who have just been saved "have stood" before the throne, the angels and beasts possibly representing the creation have been standing for much longer. The perfect tense is used once again, indicating that they remain standing before the throne. God sits. They stand, an indication of God's importance and their service. The elders, again, may represent the wise of humanity throughout history, while the saved are those who have served God since the Lamb was slain.

And they fall on their faces, like Isaiah in Isaiah 6. Salvation is accomplished. All is now going to be right in the cosmos, for the first time since the creation. Everything will bow from now on before God, every knee.

So they worship God (the Father). The "Amen" indicates solemn agreement and finality. The terms of this doxology are honor terms that fit perfectly within the honor-shame world of the ancient Mediterranean. "Blessing" is the favor of one's group, and "glory" is the honor of one's group. Of course the blessing of God and the "glory of God" (cf. Rom. 3:23) are infinitely greater coming from God. But the creation cannot but give what little favor and glory it can to its Creator. "Honor" is the esteem of others, the acknowledgement of value and worth.

Wisdom is an obvious property of God, as is strength and power. God has always possessed them and will always possess them. Wisdom is not only knowledge but the ability to process and use that knowledge in the right way. Strength and power belong to God because God is omnipotent and can do anything.

In the end, "thanks" are clearly in order. God has saved his people from destruction. Not because they deserve salvation but because of God's mercy and their repentance.

13. And answered one of the elders, saying to me, "These having been clothed with white robes--who are they and from whence have they come?" 
The elder obviously knows, and John does not. It is a rhetorical question meant to lead us to the key insight on what is going on in this event. The great crowd is wearing white robes, which indicates their purity and righteousness.

14. And I have said to him, "My lord, you yourself know." And he said to me, "These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation, and they washed their robes and they made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
This is the verse from which the expression, "the Great Tribulation" comes. Many will be acquainted with the concept of a seven year period at the end of time just before the judgment. According to this late nineteenth century idea of "dispensations," an evil figure called "the Antichrist" will arise and take control of the world. Israel will be re-established and the temple will be rebuilt. The figure will be so convincing that even many Christians will believe he is the Christ.

This interpretation and interweaving of biblical passages came from an Irish man named John Darby, who thrived in the mid-1800s in Britain. It is quite an ingenious system. However, it runs roughshod over the differences between the various passages it interweaves. For example, the word "antichrist" is never used in the Bible of a single individual. Darby conflated the term from 1 John with the beast from the sea we meet in Revelation 13 and the "man of lawlessness" from 2 Thessalonians 2.

Similarly, the book of Revelation never speaks of a seven year period. We will find the symbolic use of three and a half years in Revelation 12, but Revelation never compounds this number. Darby conflated this number with the seven year "weeks" of Daniel 9. His hypothesis was that one last week of seven years was missing, to be finalized before the judgment.

But Revelation 7:14 gives no time period for this great tribulation. It seems to refer rather to the difficult times of John himself, the time awaiting the return of Christ in salvation and judgment since he left earth. The word tribulation has already been used more than once of John's own day. In Revelation 1:9, John addresses his churches as individuals who share in the same tribulation he is undergoing. He tells the church at Smyrna that he knows their tribulation (2:9-10).

Accordingly, the time of tribulation, like the time of millennium, is now. We are in the tribulation. It is the period between the effective, saving work of the Lamb and his return in judgment. This picture of the rescued is the same picture of the saved that we will see in later presentations in the book of the same scene from a different symbolic perspective.

15. For this reason they are before the throne of God and they worship him day and night in his temple, and the one sitting upon the throne will spread his tent over them.
In the book of Revelation, we see the same basic scenes, the same basic components of the final days, over and over again from different sets of symbolism. So in these last verses in Revelation 7, we are seeing the scene that is presented at greater length at the end of the book in Revelation 21 and 22. This is the scene of the new Jerusalem.

We know from Revelation 21:22 that there will be no temple in the "eschaton," in the time of eternity, the "last time." To be in God's eternal temple day and night worshiping is to be in the new Jerusalem with God throughout eternity. Revelation seems to come from the time after the earthly temple was destroyed, in AD70. This is a time when it dawned on many Christians that they did not need a temple for atonement. Jesus had provided a final and definitive atonement for all time (cf. Heb. 10:14).

God will "spread his tent over them." God will tabernacle with them forever, just as Jesus tabernacled among us when he first came to earth (cf. John 1:14). But this time the earth will be entirely devoted to God. There will be no dissenters. The image of the tabernacle of course comes from the Old Testament when Israel wandered in the desert and God's presence went with them within the "tabernacle of meeting" (cf. Exod. 33:7).

The image of the new Jerusalem requires no sun because God is their light (21:23). Apparently there will be no need for sleep either, so we will be able to worship God (the Father) day and night. These are of course pictures. We should imagine that the reality to which these images points will be far greater than we could now express in words.

16. They will not hunger still nor will they thirst still, nor will the sun fall on them nor any burning.
No doubt hunger and thirst were a greater reality for the believers to whom John writes than they typically are for Western Christians today. This was perhaps part of their tribulation. They did not have running water. There was no government program for the poor. There were no weekends to get out of the sun.

The righted world will not have such problems. All will have food to eat and safe water to drink. They will not have to work under oppressive conditions in the scorching heat. God will be their light. The bread of life will be in their midst.

17. For the Lamb in the middle of the throne will shepherd them and will lead them to springs of life of waters, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
The Lamb becomes the shepherd. The image of a river of life is used later in the scroll (chap. 22). The Great Shepherd who provides living water (cf. John 4:10) will make sure there is no thirst in eternity. The tears that go with tribulation will be abolished in salvation. We long for such a day. Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.

[1] This flatness is probably how every eye can see Jesus when he returns.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

"Sin and Soteriology in Romans," Martinus de Boer

Nijay is Twitter-shaming me to finish blogging through the book. But you don't understand. Five more books have come in the mail!!!
1. I have never met Martinus de Boer but was reminded that his monograph Defeat of Death has been sitting on my shelf for over twenty years. I bought it back when I had ideas. I really like this chapter of the book Sin and Its Remedy in Paul, edited by Nijay Gupta and John Goodrich. It's another snack length chapter of 19 pages. It goes well with a mid-afternoon apple (or half-banana if you don't finish it the first afternoon).

While reading, I thought a couple times of Krister Stendahl's seminal piece, "Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West." It was one of those rare, "YES! Of course!" moments in my thought history. [1] So Sin is a power that Paul does not consider intrinsic to a human being. It is "not to be identified with the human self" (17). Yes! Similarly, repentance is not a major category of Paul's thought as it has come down to us (21n.27). Yes!

I also thought of Stendahl when de Boer spoke of weak flesh as a morally neutral description (28). Paul is not a Gnostic. He does not believe flesh is evil. It's just putty in Sin's hands.

2. I liked so much in this chapter that I did a side-search to see if de Boer was Methodist. Sin is a power... for sure. But "Sin does not exist apart from sinning." Yes! Down with Simon Gathercole (sorry Simon). 

Interesting synthesis on the primal sin: "Adam functions both as a corporate personality whose trespass determines all subsequent human destiny... and as the paradigmatic human being whose sinful deed sets the pattern for his descendants" who repeat his sin (24).

Interesting thoughts on a distinction between "trespass" and "transgression." As I understand him, de Boer links "transgression" to violation of a known Mosaic law. But there are "trespasses" or "fallings away" from Adam to Moses that lead to death. Interesting explanation for the puzzling Romans 5:13-14.

I liked this sentence: newness of life is "a participation in Christ's resurrection life, not just in the future but also now, and is characterized by righteousness" (30).

3. I put a few question marks in the margin. Is the essence of death separation from God? (20) Is sin the failure to acknowledge God? (23). Do humans in principle still have the ability not to sin? (27) 

[1] Don't you love it when someone either puts your thoughts so crisply or opens up a new vista such that your reaction is, "How could I not have seen this before??? It's so obvious! Wittgenstein had this effect on me once upon a time. Stendahl as well.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Luke 1:1-4 Explanatory Notes

Prologue (1:1-4)
1:1 Inasmuch as many took it in hand to compile a narrative concerning the things that have been accomplished among us--
The anonymous author (whom I will call "Luke" for convenience) starts by indicating that he is not the first to present the story of Jesus. [1] The vast majority of scholars would agree that Luke actually used the Gospel of Mark as a source, for reasons that will soon become clear. Many also think that he knew the Gospel of Matthew. Still others think he may have had a collection of Jesus's sayings, sometimes referred to as Q from the German word for "source" (Quelle). In the pages that follow, I will conclude that Luke did indeed use Mark and a collection of Jesus' sayings, yet also lean toward the idea that Luke knew the Gospel of Matthew as well. 

Luke is a "narrative." It is a storyline. As we concluded in the introduction, it is probably more of a history than a biography, although there are clear similarities between the two genres.

The "things that have been accomplished" is language that focuses on what Jesus did and that God did through Jesus. The Greek perfect tense is used, which suggests that these things remain accomplished. Although for those of us who are Protestants it is tempting to focus on the personal and eternal salvation that Jesus brought about, the Gospel of Luke does not focus on these aspects of Christ's mission. Indeed, the Gospel of Luke focuses on the liberation that Jesus proclaimed to the poor, the blind, and the enslaved (e.g., Luke 4:18-19). [2]  

2. just as the eyewitnesses from [the] beginning and ones who became servants of the word delivered to us--
Luke mentions two groups as sources of his Gospel. First, he mentions eyewitnesses. If Luke were writing in the early 80s, any remaining disciples would be quite old. However, Luke may have known them from the time when he first joined the Jesus movement. If the author was a sometimes traveling companion of Paul in the 50s, he would likely have met several eyewitnesses in that decade. [3] 

Meanwhile, individuals like Paul, Barnabas, and Silas would be examples of individuals who later became servants of the word. The author of Acts appears to first meet Paul when Paul arrived in Troas around the year AD50 (Acts 16:10). We do not know if Luke had heard the good news prior to that meeting, but at the very latest Paul then passed on the word to him.

3. ... it seemed also to me, having followed from the beginning all things accurately, to write to you in an ordered way, most excellent Theophilus...
Luke has done his homework. Theophilus can trust him as an accurate presenter of the good news. Luke indicates that he will convey this message "with method." The word does not necessarily mean that he is giving everything in chronological order. As we will see, Luke actually seems to rearrange some events to make the message as clear as possible. [4]

We do not know exactly who Theophilus was. Some have wondered if the name is symbolic, "lover of God." But the adjective, "most excellent," may suggest that he was a Roman governor or official (cf. Acts 23:6; 26:25). We know from Acts 13:12 that even Roman proconsuls could be attracted by the good news. 

We have wondered if Theophilus might have been a patron to Luke's work. The Roman poet Virgil wrote his Aeneid for a patron named Maecenas, who was also a friend of the Roman emperor Augustus. Maecenas would invite friends over for a luxurious dinner and then have Virgil read the latest installment of his work. Perhaps Theophilus invited Luke to do the same in honor of a much more important Lord.

In any case, it is likely that Theophilus was a person of some means. This fact would make the sternness of the Gospel of Luke toward the wealthy quite pointed. It is at least possible that one of the subtexts of the Gospel is the importance of wise stewardship of the resources one has.

If the devotee of Luke-Acts was a Roman official, this would also explain the great care Luke took, especially in Acts, to indicate that Christians were not troublemakers. Trouble often followed them, but not because they were by nature subversive or problematic. It was rather their jealous "competitors" who stirred up controversy, whether it be Jews who did not believe or idol-makers undermined by faith in the one true God.

The ordered narrative, as we mentioned in the introduction, is more of a history than a biography. This is particularly the case since the volume of Acts largely takes place after Jesus has ascended to heaven. In our notes on Acts, we have argued that the two volumes are something like "apologetic history," providing a defense of the faith that they proclaim.

4. ... that you might know the certainty of the words about which you were informed.
With this verse ends the lovely "period" sentence with which Luke begins his work. A periodic introduction is one long sentence with sophisticated words and high grammar. It is quite clear as one reads the Greek of Luke that the author is a person of high education. Only Hebrews comes close in the New Testament to the beauty of Luke's Greek.

Theophilus has heard about Jesus. Likely he has also put his faith in Jesus. The Gospel of Luke will confirm and extend the certainty of Theophilus' faith.  

[1] We do not know for certain that that author was male, but this guess is most likely simply given the culture of the world in which the Gospel was written. However, the noticeable attention given to women in the narrative has led at least one person to suggest that the anonymous author may have been a woman. See ***

[2] In fact, as we will see, Luke modifies Mark's statement that "the Son of Man came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45) to say that "the Son of man came to seek out and save the lost" (Luke 19:10), where the lost in question in Zacchaeus, now restored to the people of Israel. Yes, his sins are no doubt forgiven, but the story says nothing about this fact.

[3] Acts 21:17 indicates that the author of Acts went to Jerusalem with Paul in around the year AD58 and met the leaders of the Jerusalem church. 

[4] Luke uses the same word in Acts 11:1 when Peter gives an orderly account of what had previously happened in chapter 10.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

2 Thessalonians 3 (Explanatory Notes)

3:1 The rest. Be praying, brothers [and sisters] for us so that the word of the Lord might run and be glorified as also [it did] toward you 2. and in order that we might be rescued from the wicked and evil people...
Chapter 3 begins the end of the letter. Philippians 3:1 also begins with this expression, "the rest." If we are correct that 2 Thessalonians comes at the end of Paul's ministry, then Philippians would already be written by the time of 2 Thessalonians. In any case, it is a key indicator of the literary structure of the letter.

These verses seem to indicate that Paul, Silas, and Timothy are under significant pressure at the time of writing. This would certainly be true if Paul were in Rome facing his final hour. If the Jewish War is the context, then all Jews, including Jewish Christians, would be feeling the tremendous weight of the Roman empire on their neck. It is a weight of impending doom, like history is headed toward an inevitable conclusion and there is nothing you can do about it. The chess pieces are in play. The fate is sure. Only God's intervention could change the destination.

Pray. That's the only thing to do. Paul faced Roman authority several times. A writing called 1 Clement suggests he was jailed seven times and exiled once (1 Clem. 5). No action on his part, perhaps not even apostasy, would have saved him at his final appearance. Similarly, the war with Rome could only end in significant loss once it had reached a certain point.

We Christians sometimes find ourselves as the by-standers in world machinations. The nations and empires of which we are part go to war. Evil leaders oppress their own people or outsiders. We did not choose the conflicts between the parties fighting through our homes and cities. Still we can find ourselves run over in the conflict.

Accordingly, Paul, Silas, and Timothy pray for rescue, if it would be God's will. We can pray at any time, knowing that God has the power to stop the world. He often does not. He often reserves his salvation and judgment for another time. Our ultimate salvation is what is important far more than our immediate rescue.

The proclamation of the good news continues regardless of world events or personal tragedy. The word of the Lord continues forth. The reception of the good news brings glory to God. The glory of God is the real story, the real significance, despite the world story and what the world thinks is important.

For not all have faith. 3. But the Lord is faithful, who will strengthen you and will guard [you] from the evil [one].
There is a contrast between the Lord, who keeps faith with his people, and those who would persecute Christians, who do not have faith. Two different nuances of words relating to faith are used. The first refers to those who do not trust in Christ. They have not committed or given their allegiance to him as Lord.

By contrast, the Lord is faithful. The Lord is committed to us. Lord here probably refers to Jesus the Lord rather than God the father. Verse 11 below refers to the "Lord Jesus Christ" as does 2 Thessalonians throughout, including just a few verses previous (2:16). There is no indication that Paul is blurring Jesus the Lord with Yahweh as Lord in this letter. [1]

1 Corinthians 10:13 gives us a similar confidence from God--"God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tested above what you are able but will make with the temptation also the escape so you are able to endure it." 2 Thessalonians 3:3 puts this principle in terms of strength and protection. Jesus will both strengthen you in the time of trial and guard you from the forces of evil, especially from the Devil, the evil one.

4. And we have been persuaded in the Lord about you (pl) that what we are commanding both you are doing and you will do.
It is very motivating when someone believes in you, especially someone whose opinion matters to you. It is instructional to those who are in leadership. Fear does motivate, but you will get much greater and long lasting results if you provide positive inspiration. Paul, Silas, and Timothy are instructing the Thessalonians, and there is some corrective in their instructions. But they ultimately believe in them, that they will do it even though Paul is not physically present with them.

It is good to remind ourselves frequently that the "you" of Scripture is typically plural. In a Western individualist context, it is natural to see the "you" in a passage like this one as me as an individual. But Paul, Silas, and Timothy are addressing an entire congregation--or on the apocalyptic reading, all Christians of that day.

5. And may the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the endurance of the Christ.
A time of persecution and hardship calls for endurance. Paul calls it "the endurance of the Christ." Perhaps Paul is urging us to what is called the imitatio Christi, the "imitation of Christ." This dimension of Jesus is sometimes missed because we so emphasize the divinity of Christ that we do not see him also as an example of what our humanity should be.

Jesus "endured the cross, despising the shame" (Heb. 12:2). This is how the Thessalonians must face the trials that may come. This is the mindset of those who love God. They will endure to the end.

The expression, "love of God," is a little ambiguous. It can refer to a love for God, God's love for us, a type of love, and there are even more possible meanings. Since the verse seems to be a call to a certain kind of action, it seems most likely that Paul is urging them to behave in accordance with a love for God, namely, to endure. Such action requires God's power. Paul prays for God's "direction" to take them down this path.

6. Now we command you, brothers [and sisters] in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to stay away from every brother [or sister] walking idly and not according to the tradition that they received from us.
1 Thessalonians 5:14 briefly addressed those who are "idle," who do not contribute to their families and community with work. It has sometimes been suggested that the Thessalonians were so expectant that the Lord would return at any time that they had stopped working. This hypothesis fits with the idea that some thought that the Day of the Lord had already come (2:2). Why go to work if you think the world as we know it is about to end?

Paul indicates that idleness does not fit with the example he, Silas, and Timothy had left them. We note again that the word tradition seems to suggest a longer relationship with the church than the few weeks of his initial visit. Paul suggests a kind of shaming of them by "staying away." This approach certainly fit with the honor-shame world in which Paul lived.

Shaming would not have the same effect in Western culture because we are largely an individualistic rather than group culture. Shaming comes across as harming, as hateful in the Western world. We would probably deploy other means to reach similar ends. Such means include loving conversation and of course consequences such as those mentioned below.

7. For you yourselves know how it is necessary to imitate us, because we have not been idle among you, 8. nor did we eat bread for free from someone but by work and labor, both night and day, working in order that we might not be a burden to someone among you.
Paul uses himself, Silas, and Timothy as examples. It is significant to note that Paul regularly told his churches to follow his example (e.g., 1 Cor. 4:16). He did not view himself as a moral failure but as a moral example, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

In this particular instance, he uses his work practices as an example. Again, they were not long in Thessalonica on his first visit, but we do not know for certain whether he had other stays of greater length. Acts 20:2 and 2 Corinthians 2:13 indicate that Paul did spend at least one more time in Macedonia, but Acts does not give us a complete account of Paul's movements. 

Either way, we know from places like Acts 18:3 and 1 Corinthians 4:12 that Paul worked with his own hands at tentmaking in order to support his own ministry rather than to draw on the support of the churches where he was at, although he would take support from other churches (cf. Phil. 4:16). [2] He likely used this work as an opportunity to share the good news with Gentiles in the marketplace.

This approach kept Paul and his co-workers from the informal strings of patronage. In the ancient world, receiving gifts (charismata) created informal obligations. It is hard enough to preach to someone who is paying for your livelihood. In Paul's world, it would have been deeply insulting to correct your patron. By working with his own hands, Paul was free to speak the word of God unhindered.

9. Not that we do not have authority but in order that we might give ourselves as an example to you that you might imitate us.
If 2 Thessalonians came at the end of Paul's ministry, then we are hearing echoes of his previous letters. Here we are reminded of what Paul told the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 9:8-14. Those served by ministers like Paul should materially support their ministers as they "tread the grain" (1 Cor. 9:9). So he would have the authority to receive from those churches for whom he works, but he did not invoke it.

Again, he urges his churches to follow his example. In Philippians 4:11, he tells the Philippians that he has learned to be content regardless of his circumstances. Gifts he received from them did not obligate him to them but were rather their sacrifices to God (Phil. 4:18). He did not live off such gifts but supported himself.

10. For even when we were with you we commanded you this, that if someone is not willing to work, do not let them eat.
This verse is the infamous Protestant Work Ethic, made famous in America by Captain John Smith in the Jamestown settlement. According to the lore, some of those in the settlement were not particularly work brittle. In England, they were used to a softer, more privileged life. But Jamestown was in serious trouble, with starvation, sickness, and attack endangering it. It was "all hands on deck" to survive.

There is certainly an important principle here. It is not right for those who can contribute to do nothing while others do all the work for them. But we should be careful not to drive a cultural truck through the verse. For example, this principle could be applied to rich capitalists and their families in the late 1800s living off the hard labor of workers in their factories. It could be applied to slave owners in the antebellum South who sat drinking mint julip while their slaves toiled in the sun picking cotton.

Similarly, it is blind to think that the economic systems of a society do not channel people in particular directions. Generational poverty is a kind of enslavement that makes it difficult for a person to know how to support themselves by work, let alone to have the motivation to pursue it. Western individualism can blind the dominant culture from the encumbrances of people growing up and living under quite different conditions. One can assume an individual freedom and power to act that simply does not exist in the same way for people in different circumstances.

In such cases the structures of society need to be addressed in order to create a playing field where the Protestant work ethic is actually attainable. In the meantime, it would contradict an even stronger strand of the Gospels and New Testament to use this verse to undermine the gospel as good news for the poor. This verse is clearly not directed at the poor to whom Jesus ministered. It is directed at the able-bodied and ably-situated to contribute.

11. For we hear some [are] walking among you idly, doing no work but being busybodies. 12. And to such ones we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ so that, working in quietness, they might eat their own bread. 13. But you, brothers [and sisters], do not tire of doing good.
1. A "busybody" is someone who, rather than contributing in a positive way, goes around causing problems. The concept will be familiar to parents and teachers. If someone does not have anything to do, they may very get into trouble. You may have heard the saying, "Idle hands are the Devil's workshop."

We do not know if an expectation of Christ's immanent return played any role in idleness in Thessalonica. As we mentioned above, few people are going to go to work if you know the world is going to end that day. From the book of Acts, it seems likely that the church at least tried to take care of its own. The weekly communion meal itself was something to count on. It is at least possible that some people grew to depend on the church for their subsistence rather than taking care of themselves.

Millenarian groups may especially face such dynamics. There was such a group in Chicago around the year 1900. [3] They quit their normal jobs and sold their businesses to live together both in the belief that Jesus would soon return and following the model of Acts 2. Yet the Lord did not come back, and since they were in the city rather than the country where they might farm, they could not feed themselves except by continuing to take in new estates and donations.

Paul suggests that those who are able to work and can provide for themselves should. Again, this basic concept must be developed within an understanding of culture and societal dynamics at work on particular segments of society. But the basic principle is fair and just. It is a principle that is found in the Genesis story before the Fall, where Adam and Eve are caretakers of the Garden of Eden. Work is not a product of sin but part of God's cosmic design.

2. Doing good suggests that we do not merely work for our own benefit but for the benefit of others as well. Work thus fits within both capitalistic and communitarian contexts. In a communitarian context, the community works for their mutual good, such as in some of the utopian communities of the American 1800s like the Shakers and community in Oneida, New York.

A philosophy known as "egoism" would suggest that it is immoral to work for the good of others. The philosopher Ayn Rand even wrote a book called, The Virtue of Selfishness. But this is not a Christian perspective. Giving to others from the abundance of our own work fits deeply with the New Testament.

In 2 Corinthians 8:14-15 Paul tells the Corinthians that when they have an abundance beyond their needs, they should share it with other communities in the church that are lacking. Then when they are in need and the other communities are blessed with over-abundance, they will share with them.

Paul did not anticipate a world where Christians would have the level of abundance that many in the American church have. Most people worked to receive a daily wage that was just about enough to provide for their family. Any abundance beyond subsistence could then be shared with others in need.

John Wesley put it this way: "Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can." By "save all you can" he did not mean to store it up in the stock market or a savings account. He meant to buy the generic rather than name brand so you "save" money. So while Wesley earned lots of money in his life from his books and such, he gave almost all of it away and lived frugally.

14. And if someone does not obey our word through [this] letter, take note of this [person], not to associate with him in order that he might be ashamed. 15 And do not consider [them] as an enemy, but warn [them] as a brother [or sister]. 
The motivational technique of shaming appears here again. We have argued above that this approach probably would not have similar effective in the Western individualist world as it did in Paul's collectivist, group culture. For one, shaming makes enemies in our world. It translates as hateful and hostile in our world.

We can thus warn others in other ways in our culture. There is of course the discipline of not giving, the "love must be tough" tactic. We must be careful in so doing, however, for it is not God's will for anyone to starve and those who practice "tough love" can sometimes come across as arrogant and condescending. Be sure that person will win few to Christ but more likely drive them away.

Still, Paul, Silas, and Timothy believed in church discipline. This letter held and authority. There was an implication of withholding upon disobedience. So while we must be incredibly careful not to think ourselves superior to those we try to "help," one can discipline with sincere love.

Again, extreme caution is necessary. For example, one form of racism is "benevolent" racism. This is when a person "gives" to someone from another race with an air of superiority. "Aren't I wonderful for helping this poor person?" Missionaries of the past sometimes fell into this trap of "helping" people in other cultures with an implied sense of their own greatness and cultural dominance.

Closing Benediction
16. May the Lord of peace himself give to you peace always in every way. The Lord [be] with you all.
We now reach the letter conclusion. Paul blesses the Thessalonians with a benediction wishing them peace. Jesus is called the "Lord of peace." Indeed, peace is one of the greatest gifts that God gives his people and, I would argue, is God's most frequent voice into our lives. Many claim to receive other revelations and directions and no doubt many do, but the peace of the Lord is the baseline of God's presence in our lives.

Not all will feel this peace at all times. Many things can scream over the quietness of God's peace. Sometimes our past, sometimes our body chemistry, sometimes the busyness of life will crowd it out. But the peace is the surest presence of God. "Be still and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10).

17. The greeting with my own hand, of Paul, which is a sign in every letter. So I write. 18. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

This verse strongly indicates that Paul is the authorial voice of 2 Thessalonians. It provides his signature, against which other letters can be validated. Even if the rest of the letter had been written by a secretary--a common practice--Paul would take the stylus and write his name in his own hand here. From Galatians, it might have been a known Pauline practice to write something in his own hand at the end of the letter (cf. Gal. 6:11).

We have speculated whether Silas might have been the primary author of 2 Thessalonians. This verse is a strong argument against that theory. However, authorship in the ancient world was more than simply who literally put ink to papyrus. A secretary could also write the edited thoughts of someone (cf. Rom. 16:22). The author was the "authority," the voice behind the words more than the person who put the words onto papyrus. It would be highly speculative, but we could at least imagine a scenario where Silas or Timothy was saying, "This is the authentic voice of Paul, not any other letter in his name you might see."

The closing is Paul's customary closing in which he wishes Christ's grace on the audience. Christ's grace is Christ's favor. It is of course "unmerited" in the sense that we do not earn it or deserve it. Christ's grace are his acts of love toward us, reflecting his goodness to his merit. This grace is for all who trust in him. If 2 Thessalonians were written narrowly to the Thessalonians, then it is a wish of God's grace on that communion, on that house church or collection of house churches. If 2 Thessalonians is an "apocalyptic letter," then it is a wish of God's grace on all believers who might read this letter, including ourselves!

[1] Quite possibly, reference to Jesus as Lord in the earliest church derived from Psalm 110:1--"The LORD said to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand'..." In Hebrew, the two Lords are clearly distinguished: Yahweh and the anointed king. Paul rarely blurs the two uses together, although he can (Rom. 10:13; Phil. 2:11).

[2] See also 1 Corinthians 9:12, 15.

[3] The group, affectionately called the "holy jumpers," ended up in Waukesha, Wisconsin. An account of their story is found in William Kostlevy, Holy Jumpers: Evangelicals and Radicals in Progressive Era America (Oxford: Oxford University, 2010).

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Sin and Its Remedy in Paul, Nijay Gupta & John Goodrich, eds

So many books, so little time. Having tasted a few chapters of Scripture and Its Interpretation, Nijay Gupta's new edited volume arrives on Sin and Its Remedy in Paul. Since I am quite fond of sin, I feel compelled to read several chapters until the next book screaming at me arrives. Start the stop watch.

Nijay writes the first chapter: "Sin in Context: ἁμαρτία in Greco-Roman and Jewish Literature." I both love and hate the fact that the publisher has apparently forced them to write really short chapters. Nevertheless, he packs a wallop in 13 pages--bite size for an afternoon intermission.

He starts with secular literature: Aristotle, Herodotus, Polybius, Strabo, Plutarch, Arrian. Should I be disturbed that he likes Polybius, the Debbie-downer, the most? The primary take-aways from this section are two. First, the word has no particular religious connotations. Second, "most often the terminology pertains to any sort of error, mistake, or offense, with no assumption about motive" (6). It isn't very common in Greco-Roman literature, only used some 200 times in the extant literature we have 

As it turns out, this background is not particularly helpful for understanding the word group in the New Testament, in my opinion. By the way, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics book 5 is interesting on this score. Aristotle has three categories of injury: 1) atychema, accidental injury or harm, 2) hamartema or unintentional offense, and 3) adikema, harmful intent.

The second second section is on Jewish literature. He prefaces with the Hebrew Bible, drawing heavily on Joseph Lam (2016). Transgression metaphors in the HB include burden, debt, path, and stain. Then Mark Boda (2009) considers sin in the Old Testament a "violation of the command of God" (7). But sin is not primarily a legal category in the OT but a religious category.

Finally, Nijay makes his way through Jewish intertestamental literature: Tobit, 1 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, Psalms of Solomon, Twelve Patriarchs, Josephus, Philo. A little more on the intentional side in this sweep, but it could still be used of unintentional harming. Philo is interesting because he sounds a little like Matthew 5 and acts of intent before action.

Bottom line--we'll just have to let the NT speak for itself. None of this background is determinative for how the NT uses the word group.   

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Introduction to Revelation (Explanatory Notes)

I thought I would go ahead and post the introductory material on the book of Revelation. I hate that I'm 16 chapters behind the podcast. Par for the course.

The Genres of Revelation
1. The book of Revelation is perhaps the most unique book in the Bible. A large number of Bible readers are not quite sure what to do with it. Others think they know what to do with it but are quite possibly incorrect. Some fear the book. Others probably love it for the wrong reasons.

In the pages that follow, we have come to see this "scroll" from within the following framework. For one, Revelation partakes of three distinct genres. First, it is a letter to seven churches. We see this fact especially in chapters 2-3. It has an introduction (1:1-8) and a conclusion (22:18-21).

Probably it is a letter to all the churches of that day who might see a copy, but it focuses on seven churches in Asia Minor. These churches are addressed in a clockwise direction, starting southwest with Ephesus, moving north to Smyrna and Pergamum at the top of the clock. Then it addresses the remaining churches moving south and west: Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. 

2. Second, it is a scroll of prophecy. This fact is mentioned several times (e.g., 1:3; 22:7, 18-19). In keeping with the nature of biblical prophecy in general, we also get the strong impression that the prophecy is for the immediate future. In 22:10, John is told to leave the scroll open, because "the time is near." 1:3 says the same thing at the beginning. [1]

Those who take the "preterist" approach to Revelation thus cannot be wrong. This is the approach that sees the book primarily in relation to John's own day. Certainly that is the way that John himself must have understood the book. 

The problem is that it is now it has been two thousand years. Assuming that predictions about the judgment and new creation are meant literally, we must take them in a "futurist" sense. The futurist approach takes Revelation primarily in relation to things that have not yet taken place.

The blurring of that time and end time, stretched out for two thousand years, gives rise to "historist" and "idealist" dimensions to the prophecy. Rome, clearly evoked in much of John's imagery, did indeed fall in the early 400s. So the historist, that seems fulfillments of Revelation across the centuries, is not entirely wrong. The idealist is even more correct to see in the figures of John's day types of figures, empires, and economic systems throughout the ages.

Revelation was thus originally a prophecy about John's own day (preterist), with a blurring into some events at the end of history (futurist). The result is that the key figures and dynamics of John's time have become types of figures and powers throughout the ages (idealist). All the approaches to the prophecy of Revelation thus have some truth to them.

3. Finally, the book of Revelation is an apocalypse. In fact the word for "revelation" in Greek is apocalypsis, and the book of Revelation is sometimes called, "the Apocalypse." We do not exactly have this genre in our current setting, but it was known in particular Jewish circles at the time of Christ. [2]

Accordingly, we probably have to keep two truths in tension with each other as we read Revelation. First, John had a vision or several visions that stand at the origins of the book. We have no reason to doubt his fundamental claim at the beginning that he was "in the spirit on the Lord's day" (1:10). In fact, he uses this "in the spirit" language four times in the book (1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10), at least possibly pointing to four different revelations. 

On the other hand, the book of Revelation is well laid out in a literary pattern that suggests the organizing of this vision or these visions. The genre of an apocalypse might suggest that another aspect of the book is the literary piece. Indeed, we are going to introduce the possibility that the book of Revelation may have been edited over the course of a couple of decades before reaching its final, biblical--or "canonical"--form.

In most Jewish apocalypses, an otherworldly figure comes to an important earthly figure--usually one from the distant past. Such important individuals include people like Adam, Enoch, or Abraham. Then the angelic being then opens up time and space so that the figure can see both what is happening in the heavenly realm and what is about to happen in the earthly realm. The final result is of course that God wins.

Because the literary device involves information given to an ancient figure, the revelation is often about things that are actually in the past to the writer of the apocalypse. Someone like Enoch tells about the future from the standpoint of his character, but it is really the past from the standpoint of the author. Such apocalypses are thus often very accurate until the "prophecy" gets to the actual time the author is writing, because the author usually does not actually know the future.

Revelation of course has little or no element of this sort because John was the actual source of the vision, not some individual from the distant past. If there is any element of this sort involved, it would be in chapter 17 where the book talks about a king that would reign for a little while after John's initial revelation (17:10). Nevertheless, it is possible that the canonical form of Revelation reflects the inspired hindsight of a few years since the original vision(s).

Author and Situation
1. The author of Revelation identifies himself as John. Unfortunately, he does not tell us which John he is. The two main contestants are John the son of Zebedee, the traditional author of Revelation, and another John we know as "John the elder." The church father Papias, writing in the early 100s, mentions both John (presumably) the son of Zebedee and someone he calls John the elder. [3] Dionysius of Alexandria, writing in the mid-200s, argued that the style of the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation were too dissimilar to come from the same hand.

Most scholars would agree with this conclusion. They come to this conclusion not only because of the dramatically different style but because of a significantly different perspective on "eschatology," the nature of end time events. The Gospel of John has a much more "realized" eschatology without urgency, while Revelation has a dramatic sense of urgency. However, there are also similarities between the two (e.g., Lamb of God and word of God imagery). These may suggest a proximity within the early church, such as similar circles at Ephesus.

If we have to pick between the two Johns, Revelation seems to fit the style of a "son of thunder" such as John the son of Zebedee was said to be (e.g., Mark 3:17). His brother James was apparently fiery and bold enough to get beheaded (Acts 12:2). The style of Revelation also fits someone whose first language was Aramaic rather than the easy Hellenistic style of the Gospel of John.

2. John has his vision on the island of Patmos, about 35 miles off the coast of Asia Minor. Presumably he was arrested and tried at Ephesus for testifying to Jesus in a way that caught the attention of the Romans. If, as we are about to speculate, John received his initial vision just after the time of the Jewish War, we can imagine a truly tense time for a Jew to be speaking prophetically. From AD66-70, the Jews of Palestine were engaged in rebellion against the Romans. The war culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD70. 

The Gospel of Mark likely dates also to around this time, just before or after the destruction of Jerusalem. [4] Although Jesus' prediction may not yet have taken place, Mark records Jesus predicting the martyrdom of both James and John (cf. Mark 10:39). Assuming that the author of the Gospel of John were a different John, then the tradition that he lived a long life and died in peace is not contradicted (cf. John 21:23). At the same time, Mark's prediction would be particularly poignant if John were put to death by its time of writing. We could even see the visions of Revelation itself bringing about his death. Then again, he may have lived much longer.

3. The most significant clues to the dating of the core of Revelation come in 17:9-11. John mentions seven hills on which the woman, Babylon, is seated. Babylon is a cipher for Rome. Just as Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, so also Rome destroyed Jerusalem. Although it is possible that some Jews had started calling Rome "Babylon" before this event, the name fits most poignantly after Jerusalem was destroyed.

This fact alone might suggest a date no earlier than the early 70s. Anyone in Asia Minor hearing about seven hills would certainly think about Rome as well. John mentions five kings. Here they would almost certainly think of the first five emperors of Rome: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. Mention that one of these had a fatal wound from which he had healed makes us think of Nero in particular (13:3). He allegedly committed suicide, yet there were rumors that he would eventually return from the East to exact his revenge on the Roman empire. [5] In addition, the name Caesar Nero in Aramaic letters adds up to 666 (cf. 13:18). [6] 

John points to the reign of the sixth king as the origin of the revelation (17:10). If we set aside the year of three emperors (AD69), that would place the origins of Revelation during the reign of Vespasian (AD69-79), which fits the time immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem. It is true that Titus would only reign subsequently for a short time (AD79-81). That would set us up for a finalizing of Revelation's canonical form during the reign of Domitian (AD81-96), which is the traditional dating for the book of Revelation.

If this is the correct way to read Revelation 17, the setting of Revelation is one in which the oppression of the God-opposing empire is extremely apparent. Babylon has just destroyed the "old" Jerusalem. The beast has risen from the sea. John himself is exiled and a potential martyr under the altar in the heavenly throne room of God (6:9). 

The destruction of Jerusalem was a time of great tribulation because the church--not least John himself--did not see itself as something different from Israel. John saw himself as part of the true Israel, the true heirs of the Old Testament and the true people of God. The destruction of Jerusalem was thus felt as an attack on God's people on earth, not an attack on some different religion.

4. In addition to the use of "Babylon" as a cipher for Rome, two other features of Revelation may also support the idea that it comes from the time after the temple was destroyed. First, there is the fact that there is no temple in the new Jerusalem (21:22). Although we are used to the idea of Christianity without a temple, a temple-less people of God may not have been as obvious to the first Christians. In Acts 21:26, Paul offers a sacrifice of purification in the temple. 2 Thessalonians 2:5 speaks positively of the temple at the same time it speaks negatively of its desecration.

I have argued elsewhere that the book of Hebrews may fit the time not long after the temple was destroyed, when some Christians wondered how they would get ongoing atonement in the absence of a temple. Here we see the lights fully go on with regard to the extent of Christ's atonement. The temple was never intended to take away sin (Heb. 10:1-4). It was a foreshadowing of the atonement provided through Christ. Prior to the destruction of the temple, the church may have seen itself as a parallel temple (cf. 1 Cor. 3:16), but this fact does it mean that they fully realized they did not need a temple.

So the fact that the new Jerusalem has no temple fits well with the period after the temple was destroyed, when the early Christians had more fully come to realize that Christ was the only means of atonement they needed.

A second possible indicator of a later date is the extent to which the worship of Jesus is overt in the book. Larry Hurtado has argued that the worship of Jesus is implied by the worship practices of the earliest Christians. [7] They prayed to Christ. They sang hymns to Christ. They confessed Christ. At the same time, Paul's writings and other earlier writings are not as explicit and overt about the worship of Jesus as the book of Revelation (e.g., Rev. 5:14). This fact may suggest a slightly later date for the book. 

Literary Structure
The book of Revelation has a beautiful and intricate structure. It has a letter opening (1:1-8) and a letter closing (22:18-21). Within that opening and closing is the apocalypse proper.

The apocalypse itself has an opening (1:9-3:22) and a conclusion (22:6-17). The opening includes not only the initial visit of Jesus to John (1:9-20) but also the letters to the seven churches of Asia (2:1-3:22). The conclusion of the vision returns to comments from John to those who have heard his vision.

The body of the apocalypse involves three visions, each of which begins with the opening of John's sight of heaven. In the first, John sees the heavenly throne room where there is the worship of God the Father (chapter 4) and Jesus, the Lamb of God (chapter 5). Then the Lamb opens seven seals with accompanying visions of judgment (6:1-8:10). After the sixth seal there is an intermission in the revelation where we see those who have been saved (chapter 7).

The seventh seal then begins seven trumpets (8:11-11:18). There is again an intermission after the sixth seal, in which John eats a little scroll and we are introduced to two witnesses (10:1-11:14). These images probably should not be read either as a linear sequence of events or even as images that have precise correlations to events that will happen in history. They rather give us an overall feel and impression, a "Gestalt" of how bad it will be to be on the opposite side of God in the judgment and how blessed it will be to be one of those saved from God's wrath.

The second vision has a much different feel and is much more allegorical (11:19-19:10). We meet a dragon (Satan) and two beasts. The beast from the sea likely represents the Roman emperor, with Nero as the prototype. The beast from the land (or false prophet) is not only emperor worship but perhaps also the economic systems that oppress in cahoots with the beast and his empire. Two women are also portrayed, one of which is Rome herself, Babylon. The other is the people of God, which consists of both Israel and the church.

The third and final vision is that of the millennium rule of Christ and the subsequent judgment and re-creation of the cosmos (19:11-22:5). If Revelation 7 uses the image of Tribulation for this current period for those who have the mark of Christ, Revelation 20 uses the counter-image of the millennial rule of Christ. Although this is a time of potential persecution, this is also a time when the kingdom of God has been inaugurated. From one perspective, Satan has already been defeated although from another he has been cast down to the earth.

We might picture the overall outline of Revelation as follows: 

There are some potential "fissures" that may suggest that the book of Revelation came together in stages. Hypotheses of this sort are always speculative, but we notice that the instances where John is in the spirit do not seem to align with the literary structure of the book. Similarly, we have two times near the end of Revelation where John falls before an angel and is told to get back up (19:10; 22:9). One would have expected that John would have learned the first time! These two instances also relate to two sections that have close parallels (17:1-3 and 21:9-10; 19:9-10 and 22:6-9) yet also do not align with the overall literary structure of the book.
In such instances, it is tempting to suggest that we are seeing an earlier form of the book. Suggesting such a development of form does not contradict either inspiration or inerrancy. Editing can be inspired as well as writing in one sitting. Similarly, it is surely the final, canonical form that we consider inerrant, although in theory preliminary forms could just as well be inspired and inerrant. In any case, such questions are of little importance when we consider the message of Revelation as a whole.

Central Themes
The central theme of Revelation is surely the triumph of God and the Lamb. At both the beginning and end of Revelation, God and the Lamb are seen to be the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega (1:8; 22:13). Both God the Father and the Lamb are worshiped by humanity, the angels, and the entire creation (4:10; 5:14). Page after page of the book proclaims that "God wins!" and "the Lamb wins!"

Revelation is situation in the time between the victory of the Lamb over Satan and Death and the final judgment, redemption, and re-creation of the cosmos. The victory is already won. The Lamb has triumphed (chapter 5). Satan is already defeated (12:9). There is a sense in which he is already in the Abyss (20:2-3).

The final judgment is assured (11:15; 19:6-8; 20:11-15). The salvation is assured of those who have the metaphorical mark of God on their foreheads will be saved (7:9; 19:1; 22:3-4). There will be new skies and a new earth (21:1).

John and indeed we today live in the in-between time, the "now and not yet." This is a time of great Tribulation for those who are servants of God (7:14). It is also the time of Christ's millennial reign (20:6). The Dragon is both persecuting the people of God now, and yet he is also soundly defeated.

Within this space is the imagery of impending doom for those who continue to fight against God and his victor, Christ who will comes on a white horse in victory (6:2; 19:11). The imagery is not linear, nor does it tightly correspond to specific future events. It gives us a Gestalt, an overall impression and feel for the terror of God's judgment.

Meanwhile, agents of the Dragon continue to persecute God's people. Rome is the original type of Babylon, the prostitute, the evil empire that oppresses God's people, the woman who gave birth to the Messiah. There have been and likely will be others. Nero was the type of the beast from the sea, the type of a power figure who leads the evil empire to oppress and kill God's people. The system of emperor worship, perhaps also the oppressive economic systems in league with the beast, are the false prophet, the beast from the land.

No matter. God and his Christ will reign forever and ever. His victory is sure. Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly!

[1] This urgency also needs to be balanced with the millennial reign of Christ in this current time (chapter 20). The tension may be another hint that the book of Revelation came together in stages. See below.

[2] For more information, see John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).

[3] Papias' words were preserved by Eusebius in the 300s in his Ecclesiastical History 3.39.2-17. For a good exploration of these two individuals as it relates to the Gospel of John, see Martin Hengel, The Johannine Question (London: SCM, 1989).

[4] See my Explanatory Notes on the Gospel of Mark.

[5] This myth of Nero redivivus or "Nero revived" is found in a second century writing called the Sibylline Oracles, especially at 4.119-24; 5.137-141, 361-96. 

[6] See the explanatory notes on Revelation 13 below.

[7] Larry Hurtado, One God, One Lord, 3rd ed. (London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2015).