Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Global Intro to Bible -- chapter 11 -- Theological Interpretation of the Bible

Another day, another chapter. Today's was by Stephen Fowl on theological interpretation. No surprises here. Fowl delights in the de-throning of historical method, which had come to stand as policer of confessional beliefs, had evaluated the historical reliability of the biblical texts, and had governed the frameworks by which evidence was evaluated.

Of course to me this is inevitable. History cannot be escaped, even though we may not be able to see it clearly. History is an autonomous realm because it is what happened, even though we cannot discern it autonomously. We may or may not like it, but it simply is, despite the cloudiness of our vision.

Nevertheless, I also accept the validity of the rule of faith and figural interpretations, which Fowl gives as the two key features of theological interpretation. These are on the other side of Lessing's ditch. I'm not too fond of his sense of "literal" interpretation. I might distinguish three kinds of interpretation of texts: 1) the original, contextual meanings, 2) other "plain" interpretations that are in effect reader-response interpretations, and 3) figural interpretations that take texts metaphorically that were not originally meant to be read that way.

2 Thessalonians 2 (Explanatory Notes)

Finishing up some loose ends. See explanatory notes on 2 Thessalonians 1 here.
2:1 And I ask you, brothers [and sisters] about the arrival of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering to him... 
Here Paul returns to language of the parousia or "arrival" of Jesus back to earth. Our first impression is that we are talking about the second coming, the return of Christ to earth to establish the kingdom of God on earth fully. Our gathering to him could thus either mean the gathering of scattered believers around the world to Jerusalem as the kingdom's center.

It could also refer to our gathering in the air that was mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. As we said there, the meeting in the air is probably not to go off to heaven but a meeting to return to the earth as the judgment commences. The picture is that of going out to the edge of a city in order to re-enter with the king.

2. ... that you not be quickly shaken in mind nor to be alarmed, neither through a spirit or word nor letter as [if it is] through us as [if] the Day of the Lord has come. 3. Do not let someone deceive you in any way.
This is a curious statement. How could one have any questions about whether the Day of the Lord had truly come? The Day of the Lord here seems to be the Day of Judgment. It is a whole world event that commences with the return of Christ from heaven, as mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 4.

One possibility is of course a significant lack of knowledge on the part of the Thessalonians. The Thessalonians may not have understood how it was all supposed to happen. At this point some scholars have wondered if 2 Thessalonians were written before 1 Thessalonians, although we have not concluded in that direction.

They are undergoing persecution. 1 Peter 4:17 speaks of judgment beginning with the household of God before it moved on to the world at large. Perhaps they were interpreting their persecution as the beginning of the final judgment.

Paul, Silas, and Timothy mention a "spirit or word or letter" influencing them. This could indicate some varied teaching in the church at the time. Were there false letters circulating, claiming to be from Paul? The time when Paul was at Corinth seems pretty early in the story of the church for that to be happening. Paul hadn't even begun his letter-writing ministry.

As we mentioned in the introduction, this comment is one data point that has led us to wonder whether 2 Thessalonians could have been written not at the beginning but at the end of Paul's ministry or by Silas in the throes of the Jewish War. In the late 60s, Paul's letter-writing ministry was better known, and so it would make more sense for there to be letters incorrectly claiming to represent his voice.

If Paul or Silas were writing apocalyptically, they would be picturing a letter written to the Thessalonians almost twenty years prior. They would be writing about the circumstances of their own day during the Jewish War through the lens of the letter to the Thessalonians several years before.

For [the Day will not come] unless the falling away should come first and the man of lawlessness should be revealed, the son of destruction, 4. the one who opposes and exalts himself above everything called God or an object of worship so that he sits in the temple of God, claiming that he himself is God.
1. The reference to a "falling away" (apostasia) or "rebellion" is quite ambiguous from where we sit today. It is very common to take it in relation to events that have not yet happened and will happen still in the future. On the one hand, this interpretation makes sense because the ultimate Day of the Lord has not yet happened.

On the other hand, verse 4 pushes us toward thinking Paul or Silas are talking about events prior to the destruction of the temple in AD70. Surely the temple that would come to any first century audience's mind was the temple standing then in Jerusalem. So our first attempt is to find something in Paul's day to which this event might relate. Certainly God will fulfill this Scripture however he wishes. But the text says nothing about a rebuilt temple in some distant future--the New Testament nowhere speaks of such a thing. The most likely referent is the temple about which the Thessalonians or any reader would immediately think.

So was this rebellion to be a falling away within the church, a rebellion within Judaism, or a rebellion against the church or Judaism? Certainly if a Jew set himself up in the temple, that would be a falling away from the faith of Israel. In that scenario, the man of lawlessness would be a Jew that rebelled against true Judaism and set himself in the temple as God. However, we have no evidence of anything of this sort having happened prior to the temple's destruction. It is hard even to imagine. Nevertheless, there is imagery both here and in other places suggesting there were false messiahs during the time of the Jewish War (e.g., Mark 13:5-6).

Was there a falling away within the church? Certainly we have no evidence of a Christian Jew (or otherwise) wanting to set himself up in the temple as God. It is hard for us to imagine a falling way within the church that correlated with someone trying to set themselves up in the temple as God.

The most likely rebellion in view is thus the Jewish War, a Jewish rebellion against the Romans that started in AD66 and more or less ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. We do not have good evidence about how the early Christians viewed this war. In Mark 13:14, Jesus urges his followers to flee Jerusalem before the temple is desecrated, suggesting that most were in that undesirable category of potential collateral damage.

There is some reason to believe that many in the early church did not think rebellion was the appropriate response to Rome. [1] Certainly the Gospels would indicate this was Jesus' approach (e.g., Matt. 5:41). 1 Peter also, which has overtones of Roman oppression (5:13) still urges submission to the emperor and Roman governors (2:13-14). The "rebellion" could thus imply Christian disapproval of the Jewish rebellion against Rome.

Of course the fulfillment of prophesy is often unexpected. We are not in a position to say whether some future time will see the temple rebuilt again and that these events will play out again. We can say that Christians have no need for a temple, for Jesus has offered the sacrifice to end all sacrifices (Heb. 10:14). The veil to the Most Holy Places has been torn in two (Mark 15:38). There will be no temple in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:22). God would not approve of any rebuilt temple.

2. The mention of the "temple of God" seems an interpretive key. There is no hint of metaphor here, especially since Paul and Silas are writing about world events. 1 Corinthians does use temple in a metaphorical way in reference to a local church assembly (1 Cor. 3:16), but the Day of the Lord has a global scope rather than a local one.

Once again, the most straightforward way to take the temple here is in reference to the actual temple, which stood until AD70. [2] Here is a strong indication that the temple was still standing at the time of writing. Nothing is said about a rebuilt temple in the future. Nothing is even said about the temple's destruction. For these reasons, we can presumably date 2 Thessalonians with some certainty to the time before the temple was destroyed.

There are certainly several instances in the Jewish history of the time where pagans had either defiled the temple or tried to defile it. Antiochus Epiphanes, in 167BC, had ordered the temple's defilement. This is what the abomination of desolation in Daniel 11:31 referred to originally. These are images 2 Thessalonians 2:4 would surely bring to mind.

In 63BC, the Roman general Pompey took advantage of a dispute between two Maccabean brothers and effectively took control of Israel for Rome. He marched right into the Most Holy Place of the temple, defiling it. In AD38, the Roman Caligula ordered a status of himself set up in the temple. He in effect wanted to set himself up in the temple as God. However, he was assassinated before he could enforce the plan.

It is thus possible that the "man of lawlessness" could be someone who would assault the temple of that day. Clearly the Romans come into view. Nero was certainly a man of lawlessness, and he was alive at the beginning of the Jewish War. Since Nero put Paul to death, we have a narrow window when Paul could have been alive to write this letter at the beginning of the war.

If Silas were writing in Paul's name, then we have the possibility that Vespasian or Titus were in view. Vespasian would begin the assault on Jerusalem, and Titus would finish it. It would increasingly become conventional to consider Roman emperors as gods upon their deaths. There are potentially interesting parallels here with the beast from the sea of Revelation 17:8-11. It seems to be modeled on Nero and his at least symbolic return. [3]

5. Do you not remember that, while still being with you, I used to say these things to you?
There is a certain irony for us in this verse. We were not there. We do not know all the things Paul used to say to them. We wish he had repeated more here.

It is a reminder that this letter was not written to us. Indeed, nothing in the Scriptures was written directly to us or anyone alive today. These books were written directly to people who have been dead for thousands of years. As Scripture these books are for us. They are the story of our people. They are the instructions of our people. Sometimes God does re-purpose the words and speak directly to us, but that was not their first meaning.

On the hypothesis that 2 Thessalonians came late in Paul's ministry or that it was written by Silas, we might call this verse a "tell." That is to say, it would hint that more was going on in this letter than meets the eye. If Silas were using the form of 1 Thessalonians to write about current events, then this verse might reflect that, almost twenty years previous, Paul had taught about the Day of the Lord. If Paul had recently passed, Silas would be writing with irony, since Paul would truly no longer be with them.

The cryptic nature of these comments would make sense if the Roman empire stands somehow in the background. What if Paul were in Rome awaiting execution when these comments were written? As we speculated in the introduction, a need to hide the subversive nature of the letter might explain the "apocalyptic use" of a previous letter.

6. And now you know what is restraining so that he might be revealed in his own time. 7. for the mystery of lawlessness is already working. Only the one holding back now until he should become from [your] midst.
The cryptic comments and allusions continue. The fact that the audience "knows" makes it clear that this letter is not deceptive. It is not a forgery. There is code language here that author and audience know but to which we are not privy.

That which is restraining the Day of the Lord from happening is both a what and a he. It is "what" is restraining, and it is "who" is restraining. The Holy Spirit is a "what" and a "who," since the word for spirit is neuter but the Holy Spirit is a person. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is in view. On the other hand, these verses seem to be saying more than that these things will happen when the Spirit wants.

On the Silas hypothesis, these comments could refer to Paul himself. The sense could be that unleashing of the Roman "man of lawlessness" would not take place until after Paul was removed from the scene. In that case the audience would know that Paul was now removed and thus that the events of the Day of the Lord--understood perhaps as the events of the Jewish War--was free to unfold.

8. And then the lawless [one] will be revealed, whom the Lord will destroy by the Spirit of his mouth and will destroy at the appearance of his arrival.
Perhaps we have a blurring here into the end times, as we also see in passages like Mark 13 and Matthew 24. This is the same man of lawlessness as was mentioned in 2:3, but he seems to be linked to the second coming. While we might relate what has come before to events of Paul and Silas' day, we are now hearing about Christ's return, as 2:1 said.

This is not the only place where we have this tension. It is there in Mark 13 where the topic is the destruction of that temple, the one destroyed in AD70, but the line of thought jumps to Christ's return. We might argue that the destruction of Jerusalem was a "type" of the final days. It is for this reason that interpreters like N. T. Wright have been tempted to take the coming of Christ in more metaphorical ways, such as relating the second coming directly to the destruction of Jerusalem. [4]

On the other hand, because of this blurring, we cannot be sure that the dispensational interpretation will not in the end prove to be correct. Though we should always do our best to interpret Scriptures like these in terms of what they are most likely to have meant in their first century context, God is free to fulfill them in whatever way he wishes.

9. The [other] arrival according to the activity of Satan with all power and signs and false wonders...
Interestingly, the word parousia (arrival) is used both for the arrival of Christ and the arrival of another. Is it the man of lawlessness? The performance of signs and wonders does not clearly fit the Roman emperors of the 60s. Some scholars at this point have mentioned the expectation of some that Nero would return from the dead. Nero committed suicide in AD68. The beast from the sea in Revelation 13 seems to be modeled on Nero, like a revived Nero (e.g., 13:3). Revelation also mentions a "beast from the land" (13:11-15) who is also called a false prophet (e.g., 19:20) and performs wonders.

10. ... and with all deceit of unrighteousness for those who are being destroyed because of they did not receive the love of the truth so that they might be saved.
Those who are being destroyed could be Jews who rebelled against the Romans. They would surely oppose a Roman man of lawlessness. We have at least two possibilities. On the one hand, this statement could refer to individuals who wrongly side with the man of lawlessness. However, on the hypothesis we are pursuing, it would refer to those Jews who wrongly rebelled against the Romans and thereby brought on the man of lawlessness.

On this scenario, if they had followed Christ, they would have escaped like the Christians who fled Jerusalem for Pella in the Jewish War. But by pursuing the course of rebellion, they ended up destroyed by the Roman armies. The last hold out at Masada perished around AD73. The Romans spent a year piling up dirt to enter this former palace. Then they broke the doors down, only to find that almost everyone inside had committed suicide rather than be captured.

Whoever they were, the individuals in question did not believe in the real Christ. They did not love the truth of a Christ that would come from heaven to save. On this hypothesis, they tried to take salvation into their own hands and take up arms against the Romans. They brought destruction on themselves. As a result, Jerusalem was destroyed, and they all perished.

We human beings are not particularly lovers of the truth. We tend to believe what we want to believe. We can have truth staring us glaringly in our faces and still explain it away. Those who rebelled against the Romans in the Jewish War no doubt thought they were fighting for God. But it turned out to be a zeal without knowledge (cf. Rom. 10:2). Their misguided zeal ended in devastation.

11. And because of this [fact] God sends on them a working of deception so that they believe in the lie 12. so that all those who did not believe in the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness might be judged.
Again, we can read these verses against at least two possible scenarios. On one scenario, those participating in the rebellion misguidedly support the man of lawlessness. They think he is the one to follow. They think he is the one who will be victorious. He is the great and mighty one. He is the one with spiritual power.

The capacity of even those who call themselves Christians to be deceived by worldly power is sobering. There were certainly Christians within Nazi Germany who thought that Hitler's movement represented what is right. They would have considered any talk of a Holocaust a hoax and justified the internment of Jews and others as the rightful punishment of wicked or evil people. We think of New Testament scholars like Gerhard Kittel or philosophers like Martin Heidegger. Even as seemingly honorable a New Testament scholar as Otto Michel seems to have been sympathetic to this law and order figure.

We must always guard against such self-deception. Mark 13:22 suggests that even the elect can be gullible to false prophets and messiahs. In our second possible interpretation, Paul is warning against putting faith in the militants who rebelled against the Romans. The unrighteousness would then be their violent rebellion, and they all did indeed end up destroyed.

Again, we must marvel in the ability of the fallen human mind to see virtue in unrighteousness. Jesus and the New Testament have shown us the true path of righteousness. It consists in loving our neighbors and enemies (e.g., Matt. 5:43-48). Jesus will come again in judgment, but we cannot force his timing.

Second Thanksgiving
13. But we ourselves ought to give thanks to God always concerning you, brothers [and sisters], beloved by God, because God chose you [to be] the first fruit for salvation by the sanctification of the Spirit and by faith in truth, 14. because of which he called you through our gospel for the possession of the glory of our Lord Jesus.
Another one of the parallels between 1st and 2nd Thessalonians is a second thanksgiving section (cf. 1 Thess. 2:13). None of Paul's other letters has this feature but, then again, the traditional dating puts 2 Thessalonians not long after 1 Thessalonians. By the other reckoning, the similarity could be taken as evidence that 2nd Thessalonians is more than just a letter but that it is meant to evoke 1 Thessalonians as background.

The Thessalonian church was not of course the first congregation that Paul planted, even if it was the first to which we know Paul wrote a letter. If 2 Thessalonians was written near the end of Paul's ministry, then it would make perfect sense to think of the Thessalonians as one of the first fruits of his ministry. Certainly from the standpoint of his letters, the Thessalonian congregation stands out as one of his earliest.

Salvation for Paul, as we have observed, primarily refers to the coming day when those who are in Christ will escape the judgment. They "will be saved from wrath" (Rom. 5:9). How have they been "set apart" or sanctified for that appointment? The Holy Spirit has done it on the basis of their faith.

We have in these two verses a short version of Paul's ordo salutis, his "order of salvation." First, God calls. This is not an "unconditional election" but a calling to all who might believe. However, the called are ultimately those who respond to God's calling with faith in the truth. They came to this faith because Paul, Silas, and Timothy preached the good news or gospel to them, the good news that Jesus is Lord.

On the basis of a person's faith in the truth, they are set apart as belonging to God. They are designated as holy. They are sanctified. They are purified. As a result, they will experience salvation from the judgment of God when Christ returns. They will attain to the glory of God intended for humanity in creation but that all humans currently lack because all have sinned.

15. Therefore, then, brothers [and sisters], stand firm and hold fast the traditions which you were taught, whether through word or through our letter.
The mention of Paul's teaching as traditions may again suggest that this letter comes more at the end of Paul's ministry than at the beginning. We remember the language of the Pastoral letters, which speak of the "deposit" of good teaching that Paul is leaving behind (e.g., 2 Tim. 1:14). Paul, Silas, and Timothy left such teaching for them both in person and in the letter of 1 Thessalonians.

If 2 Thessalonians dates from later in Paul's ministry, the Thessalonians might also be aware of some of the other letters Paul had written. He would also have visited them again by that time. Acts 20 indicates that Paul later returned to the Thessalonian church.

16. May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and gave an eternal encouragement and a good hope in grace 17 encourage and strengthen your hearts for every work and good word.
Although chapter 3 will formally close the letter, Paul ends the teaching part of the letter with a blessing. He prays that both Jesus their Lord and God the Father will encourage them and strengthen them to live the life appropriate to God. Far from resisting the notion of good works, Paul expects them both to live and talk virtuously.

The basis for such a blessing is the fact that both the Lord Jesus and God the Father love us. Though the moment may seem perilous, we have an eternal reason to be encouraged. We have hope because of God's graciousness toward those who love and serve him.

The Lord Jesus Christ and God the Father are one in love and purpose. Jesus is Lord. He is the King of Kings, the one God the Father has sent to rule God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. God the Father is the Father, the originator, the source. God the Father is the one from whom and through whom and for whom are all things (cf. Rom. 11:36).

[1] On the other hand, it is intriguing that the disciple Simon is called "Simon the Zealot" (Luke 6:15). The Zealots as a distinct group probably did not exist until the time of the Jewish War, although there were always "zealots" around.

[2] We might note, as an aside, that 2 Thessalonians 2 does not mention the destruction of the the temple. It only implies its defilement. We find an interesting parallel in Mark 13. While the framing of the chapter refers to the temple's destruction, the rest of the chapter only speaks of its desecration.

[3] See my Explanatory Notes on Revelation.

[4] For example, N. T. Wright, "Hope Deferred? Against the Dogma of Delay," Early Christianity 9 (2018): 37-82.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Global Intro to Bible -- chapter 10 -- Modern and Post-Modern Interpretation

Managed to get a chapter of reading in today as well. I read Joel Green's chapter on modern and post-modern interpretation. As with the previous chapter, Green does a good job of plowing through all the usual suspects, giving the teacher of a class a chance to unpack.

And of course I am again aware that I am a strange fish. On the one hand, I side with the sense that a text can have more than one valid meaning. However, I do think there was a qualitative change in historical consciousness in the wake of the Enlightenment, much as the scientific revolution has created a higher scientific consciousness than ever before. 

I do not agree with where Hume took it, but I agree with the fact-value distinction. The historical meaning of the text is the historical meaning of the text (fact). The appropriation of the text is spiritual and artistic (value). They are distinct. They are both valid.

Thus belonging in both camps, I belong in neither.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Revelation 6 Explanatory Notes

6:1 And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals. And I heard one of the four living
Benjamin West
Death on the Pale Horse

creatures saying like a sound of thunder, "Come!"

The seven seals unfold from Revelation 6 to the beginning of Revelation 8 (8:1). Then when the seventh seal is finally opened, there will be seven trumpets from 8:2-11:18. We should not take this imagery literally. It is not a videotape of how the judgment will unfold. The sevens symbolize the perfection and the finality of the judgment. There will be seven bowls of wrath later on.

The whole sequence gives us an impression, an experience, a "Gestalt." The plot is more powerful than if John had simply said, "The judgment will be really bad and you should avoid it at all costs." Yet that is something like its literal meaning. The picture gives us a much more powerful feel for the judgment rather than its literal particulars.
Now that we have seen the throne room of heaven with God and the Lamb, we are about to see the first set of metaphors for the coming judgment of the world. The Lamb opens the first of the seven seals keeping the scroll closed. This is again a single scroll, and written inside and outside on the scroll is apparently the judgment of the world. 
We are not told which living creature summons John to look, but perhaps the fact that it is one of the creatures suggests that the first judgment relates heavily to the creatures of the earth. With thunderous voice, the beast invites John to come and see. He is about to see what it looks like to fight against the God of the universe.
2. And I saw and behold, a white horse, and the one sitting on it having a bow. And a crown was given to him and he went out conquering and so that he might conquer.
There is a certain structure to the sequences of seven we are about to see. In each case, the first four of the seven and the last three of the seven go together in a certain way. Also in each case, there is a brief "intermission" of sorts after the sixth item. Then seventh then represents the finality of the judgment and the victory of God and the Lamb.
The first four seals relate to "the four horsemen of the Apocalypse." Some of the ingredients of John's vision are drawn from Zechariah 1 and 6. Zechariah 1 has four horsemen on red, brown, and white horses. In Zechariah 6, we have chariots pulled by red, black, white, and arguably pale horses. In Zechariah, they patrol the earth and, as appropriate, visit it with judgment.
As we have said, however, Revelation cooks its own recipes with the Old Testament ingredients. In Revelation, the first is the white horse, which some have suggested represents Christ. [1] Certainly Christ is on a white horse in Revelation 19:11-16. In Revelation 19, Christ has many crowns on his head and does indeed go forth to conquer. This is a strong argument, although we wonder why John does not explicitly say so here.
Assuming that Christ is the rider, we see that the judgment has now commenced. Christ leads the first image of judgment in Revelation, and Christ will begin the last picture of judgment in chapter 19. It was certainly the common Christian belief of the early church that Christ would return from the heavens and lead the judgment of the world (1 Thess. 4:16).
3. And when he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, "Come!" 4. And another bright red horse came out and the one sitting on it was given to him to take the peace from the land and that they should slaughter one another and a great sword was given to him.
The second horse would seem to represent war. Here is a reminder that much of God's judgment is simply letting humanity self-destruct. War is the consummate example of humanity's self-destructive capacity. No war is ever necessary in itself. Wars only happen because of the fallenness of humanity.
We are reminded in Mark 13:7-8 of "wars and rumors of wars." In human history it has almost always been the case that someone was fighting with someone. This expression of human sinfulness is judgment in itself for those involved. Part of the judgment is God taking away the peace of the earth by letting sinful humanity destroy each other.
Again, we should not think of these horses as a sequence of events. They give us an impression, a Gestalt of how horrible it is for God to remove his presence from the earth. As Romans 1:28 implies, God's judgment often consists in "giving them up" to spiral out of control.
5. And when he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, "Come!" And I saw and behold, a black horse and the one sitting on it having a pair of scales in his hand. 6. And I heard like a voice in the middle of the four creatures saying, "A choenix of wheat for a denarius and three choenix of barley for a denarius and do not harm the oil and wine." 
The third horse is famine. Economics is an area of clear interest in the book of Revelation. Chapter 18 extensively condemns the merchants of the earth who have become rich off the unrighteousness of Babylon (i.e., Rome). One image of the judgment is the removal of material prosperity and earthly wealth from the earth.
The picture we get in these two verses is one of inflation, a situation where it takes more and more money to buy the same amount of goods. We remember pictures of people in Germany in the early 1920s needing a wheelbarrow full of money to buy something as simple as a newspaper. Inflation is not a new phenomenon. 
A "choenix" was a little less than a quart or about the amount a person might eat in a day. A denarius was about a day's wage, which would be expected to feed an entire family. Some have suggested that the amounts are at least ten times as much as such things would normally cost. [2] The amount in wheat was not enough to feed a family, and the amount in barley might only feed a fraction of a family. 
What is interesting is that, at this point in the symbolism, it is the ordinary person who is affected. The oil and the wine are not touched, which are the stuff of the wealthy. It is the day laborer, the ordinary person, who is harmed in this snapshot of judgment. The ordinary person does usually suffer first in an economic crisis. But the crisis of the wealthy is coming.
The word for "harm" here is adikeo. The writer of 1 John 5:17 says that all "unrighteousness" (adikia) is sin. Revelation 6:6 gives us a window into one fundamental sense of unrighteousness--to do harm to someone or something. I would argue that we get a window here into the fundamental nature of sin in the New Testament--it is to wrong another or to do wrong. More abstract definitions like, "to miss the mark" arguably bring unnecessary philosophical and theological baggage into what is really a much simpler and more concrete sense to these words.
7. And when he opened the fourth seal I heard a voice of the fourth creature saying, "Come!" 8. And I saw and behold, a pale horse, and the one sitting on it, his name [was] Death, and Hades was following with him. And authority was given to them over the fourth of the land, to kill with sword and with famine and with death by the beasts of the land.
The pale horse has Death as its rider, with the realm of Death, Hades, following after. We will see these two characters at the end of Revelation too. Together they represent the current destiny of all human bodies to face physical death.
There are two words used in the New Testament that are sometimes translated "hell." The one that refers to a place of fiery torment is gehenna, and it is not actually used in the book of Revelation. Revelation uses the word hades several times in reference to the realm of all the dead, both righteous and unrighteous. This is in keeping with the way Greeks used the word. Revelation will use the expression "lake of fire" for the other sense (e.g., 20:10). 
The increments of destruction increase as we go further into the seven seals. Again, we probably should not take this sequence as a blow-by-blow of what will happen in time. The crescendo gives us a feel for the intensity of the final judgment for those who are excluded from salvation. These are a picture of its birth pains. So we begin with a fourth of the land dying. They die from war with each other, from famine, and even the animals of the earth rebel against the humanity that was intended to have dominion over them.
9. And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar of incense the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and because of the testimony that they had. 10. And they cried with a great voice saying, "Until when, O holy and true Master, are you [going to] judge and avenge our blood [that came] from those dwelling on the land?
1. The first four seals go together, with the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Now the last three of the seven seals go together as well. The fifth seal highlights the need for justice. The souls of those who had been martyred for their faith cry out. These are not the martyred of all history but those martyred during the time of tribulation between Christ's death and his return.
We do not know how many Christians had been martyred by the time John received his vision. We think that Stephen was the first martyr. Then James the son of Zebedee, possibly the brother of the author, was the first of the apostles to die. Paul and Peter would die at the hands of Nero. We know a number of Christians also died around the year 64 at the hands of Nero. John himself mentions a man named Antipas. Presumably there were enough for John to consider the number significant.
There was no official policy of persecution toward Christians at this time. Indeed, even until Christianity became a legal religion in AD313, persecution was more local and sporadic. There were a few years of sustained persecution, such as the Decian persecution in AD250. But these came and went. Somewhere around AD112, a governor named Pliny wrote the emperor Trajan to ask if he had behaved properly in punishing a group of Christians. The letter reveals that there was no Roman policy toward Christians. 
The martyrs cry out for justice. How long will God allow the wicked to continue undeterred? This cry of "how long" reverberates from the Old Testament in the Psalms. "How long, O Yahweh? Will you forget me forever?" (Ps. 13:1). It is a cry over the problem of evil, why God sometimes allows the wicked to prosper and the righteous to suffer. It is the blood of Abel, that cries out for justice (e.g., Gen. 4:10).
The judgment and eternity are the ultimate answers to the problem of evil. No matter what happens to someone in this life, eternity will sort it out. The wicked may prosper in this brief moment on earth, but they will know a much more permanent verdict. Similarly, this time may be a "light and momentary affliction" (2 Cor. 4:17, KJV), but it will lead to an "eternal glory" for the redeemed. 
2. These verses also indicate clearly that John believes in a disembodied intermediate state for the dead. These are souls in the Greek sense of disembodied persons. They have died. They are not yet resurrected. 
However, the revealed point of these verses is not the precise state of the dead. The main point is that the deaths of the martyred call for justice. At the time of John, those who had put them to death might very well have still been alive. At the same time, we may add these verses to others in the New Testament that point to a conscious personal existence in between our death and our future bodily resurrection.
The altar that is mentioned is the altar of incense (thysiastērion) rather than the sacrificial altar. This altar will feature several times in the book of Revelation. In particular, it relates to the prayers of God's people--apparently both those who are alive and dead. Of course the dead seem to speak to God directly, while we might pray to the God that we cannot see.
In the Old Testament, the altar of incense was located in the outer room of the sanctuary, the "Holy Place" (Exod. 40:5). However, in Hebrews 9:4 it is in the Most Holy Place, the inner room, perhaps reflecting a tradition at the time of the New Testament. It would fit for the altar of incense to be in the Most Holy Place because surely God's throne room represents the innermost sanctum of the cosmos. The prayers of God's people thus now go directly to God. 
11. And a white robe was given to each of them, and it was said to them that they might rest for a little time yet until their fellow-servants might be fulfilled and their brothers [and sisters] who are about to be killed as also they themselves.
They are given a white robe, a robe that indicates their purity and their honor. But it is not time yet for justice to be dispensed. There are more to be martyred before the end comes. Certainly over the last two thousand years many believers have died for their faith at the hand of the wicked.
Even though they cry for justice, we should note that they are at rest. They are not in torment. Indeed, as these are not literal pictures, we should not think that the righteous dead are lacking in anything. We can remember the image of Lazarus in Abraham's Bosom in Luke 16:22. Those who die in Christ will not suffer any more in any way.
12. And I saw when he opened the sixth seal and, behold, a great earthquake came and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair and the whole moon became as blood. 13. And the stars of the sky fell to the land like a fig tree casts its unripe figs as it is shaken by a great wind.
The image of the sun darkening and the moon turning to blood originates in Joel 2:10. In addition to mention of the earth shaking, the verse evokes the imagery of eclipses. In a solar eclipse, the sun goes dark behind the shadow of the moon. In a lunar eclipse, the moon goes red when the earth comes between it and the sun. Such events were quite scary to many ancients and were often thought to be portents of judgment or disaster.
Again, the point is the overall feel of the impending judgment. Revelation may or not be predicting actual eclipses immediately preceding Christ's return. In Acts 2:20, imagery of these eclipses seems to be related to the Day of Pentecost, for example. Sackcloth sometimes symbolizes mourning or repentance in Scripture (e.g., Gen. 37:34; 2 Sam. 3:31; 1 Kings 20:31). These are appropriate attitudes and postures prior to the judgment.
The stars were not seen as burning balls of gas millions of miles away. Sometimes they were seen as heavenly beings. At other times they were lights fixed in the dome of the sky (Gen. 1:15). Of course "shooting stars" or meteors were well known. Later in Revelation we will hear about the fall of angels from heaven, from the sky (Rev. 12:9). 
The fall of stars is clearly a bad foreshadowing of what is coming. They are like unripe figs shaken by a mighty wind. Perhaps this is an allusion to the fall of the wicked angels, "unripe." As we will see, Revelation does not talk about the fall of angels early in the creation but the dethroning of Satan and the angels as part of the victory of Christ and the impending judgment. In any case, the fall of such figs must have been a well-known event in John's day.
14. And the sky split open like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved from their places. 15. And the kings of the earth and the great ones and the chiliarchs and the rich and the strong and every servant and free person hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains.
As we have suggested, Jews and others saw the heavens as layers of sky. For the sky to split open like a scroll being rolled up is for the highest heaven to be exposed to the earth and for the world to see the glory of God. The sinful, wicked earth is exposed to the holiness of God. 
In the face of such unbearable glory, the mountains and islands are moved from their places. If Isaiah fell on his face before the glory of God in Isaiah 6, imagine how the wicked of the earth would feel in the presence of the Almighty God. Those who thought themselves great suddenly recognize their complete and utter insignificance. Kings, people considered larger than life, military generals who commanded thousands--they want to hide. The rich, the mighty, and certainly the servant as well will know for the first time who they truly are.
16. And they say to the mountains and to the rocks, "Fall upon us and hide us from the face of the One sitting upon the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17. for the great Day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?
Again, this is a picture, but it is crystal clear. No one can hide from the penetrating sight and glory of God (cf. Heb. 2:12-13). Far better than facing the unadulterated truth of God's presence would be for rocks and mountains to hide and crush the wicked. "Who may abide the Day of his coming?"
The final verse reveals what this chapter and these seven seals are about. They are a kaleidoscopic picture of what it will be like to meet one's Maker as the enemy. There will be no resistance. God's glorious truth will penetrate every person to the core.
[1] Robert Muholland, Revelation, 168.  
[2] Robert Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 144

Chapter 9 -- Global Intro to Bible -- Pre-Modern Interpretation

It is difficult for me to establish a regular regimen of reading. I have so many interests. There are so many books. I have a day job, which currently leans heavily toward the administrative.

But read I must. Today I blew through chapter 9 of this excellent new volume edited by Michael Gorman: Scripture and Its Interpretation: A Global, Ecumenical Introduction to the Bible. The title of the chapter, "Pre-Modern Interpretation of the Bible" made me think at first it might be hermeneutical in focus. It turned out to be chronological in orientation--pre-the modern era.

Still, it was a good chapter. For a student, I have to think it would be numbing. I already knew the players and content so it flew by for me. But what a firehose if you have no prior background! It seems to me you would almost need someone to walk through the chapter with you. 

Nevertheless, it's all here. These are the things to know about the story of hermeneutics from Christ to Calvin... in 19 pages.

A chapter observed.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Revelation 5 Explanatory Notes

Ghent Altar piece
Jan van Eyck
The Lamb of God
5:1 And I saw in the right hand of the One seated on the throne a scroll having been written on the inside and outside, having been sealed with seven seals.
Revelation 4 is the worship of God (the Father). Chapter 5 proceeds then to the worship and adoration of the Lamb of God as well, Jesus. The primary focus is on Jesus as the Lamb slain for the world.

The drama starts with a scroll in God's hand. Sometimes the word biblion here is translated with the word, "book," but this is misleading. The book form was not widely used at this time. It is a scroll that God holds in his right hand, the favored hand.

The scroll is sealed. In fact it has seven seals. Wax seals not only kept a scroll from unraveling. They could be used to authenticate the sender of a message if an impression was made in the wax by a signet ring giving the seal of the sender.

The majority of scrolls were only written on the inside. An "opisthograph" was less common, with writing on both sides. Perhaps it suggests that the judgments that are to come are complete, thorough, and costly.

2. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a great voice, "Who is worthy to open the scroll and to loose its seals?"
We learn that this special scroll cannot be opened by just anyone. It has to be opened by the right person, someone who is worthy. We do not yet know exactly who that person is as the drama unfolds. Nor do we know yet what the qualifications are for a person who is worthy.

3. And no one was able in the sky nor on the land nor under the land to open the scroll nor to look at it.
At first, no one is found in three of the four domains of the universe of John's day. First, the sky or heaven is mentioned. No angel is worthy to open the scroll. On the land or earth, no one is found. No human, no animal, no tree is worthy. Under the earth is the realm of the dead. No one there is worthy either. The only other possibility would be the sea, but either it is included with the land or it is assumed that no one would be worthy in that chaotic domain.

4. And I cried much because no one was found worthy to open the scroll nor to look at it.
It makes John very sad that no one is found worthy to open the scroll or to look at its contents. Perhaps John knows that this scroll entails justice on evil. When this scroll is opened, evil will come to an end. Justice will be served. All will be made right with God.

5. And one of the elders says to me, "Do not cry. The lion from the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has conquered to open the scroll and its seven seals.
Now for the turning point of the plot. Someone is worthy after all. Someone has overcome. It is the root of David--the Messiah, the anointed one, the Christ. The "root of David" is the branch of David (Jer. 33:15), a shoot from the stem of Jesse (Isa. 11:1). The lion of the tribe of Judah (cf. Gen. 49:9-10) is another metaphor for the king of God's people.

Jesus is worthy because he as conquered. We do not yet know what he has conquered, but we know he has been victorious. Accordingly, he is qualified to take the throne of David.

6. And I saw in the middle of the throne and the four beasts and in the middle of the elders a Lamb having stood as having been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God having been sent into all the land.
The paradox of the revelation is that this king who has conquered has conquered by his death. He is not only a lion and a root. He is a Lamb, a slaughtered lamb. His sacrifice makes him worthy, as we will soon see.

The Lamb is the center of attention. He stands between God (the Father) on the throne and the elders representing victorious humanity and the beasts representing the creation. He has seven horns and seven eyes--the perfect number of completion. They represent the seven spirits of God which are the angels sent out into all the earth and especially to guard all the churches.

7. And he went and has taken from the right hand of the One sitting on the throne.
The Lamb is worthy. No one else can take the scroll, only him. For those who are looking for a sermon illustration, you might consider the comic book hero Thor. Only Thor is worthy to lift his hammer. Others, no matter how strong, cannot lift it.

So only Jesus is worthy to take the scroll from God the Father's hands.

8. And when he took the scroll, the four beasts and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each having a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
Unlike later in Revelation when the angel will tell John to get up, no one is told to get up when they bow before Jesus. Jesus is worthy of their worship. The creation recognizes it. Victorious humanity recognizes it.

The harps of the elders reflect the beauty, peace, and harmony that the Lamb brings to all things. The incense shows that what is about to happen is an answer to the prayers of all the saints, all the "holy ones" who trust in God and Christ. They have been waiting and longing for this moment.

9. And they sang a new song, saying, "Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals because you were slain and you purchased for God with your blood from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.
We now find out why the Lamb is worthy to open the seals on the scroll. The basis is the sacrificial death of Jesus. He is a sacrificial lamb. His sacrifice has made possible the redemption of the world. The price to purchase them was his blood.

From what is said we cannot go much further to explain exactly how this works. Christians in later centuries have tried to expand on the logic of redemption. Is the blood paid to the Devil? Certainly nothing like that is said here. Is this some mathematical substitution of punishment? Such an idea goes well beyond anything said here.

What we can say is that a sacrificial metaphor is used. Jesus' death was like a sacrifice. It was like a payment in blood. There is a sense of satisfying the order of things. God's wrath is not mentioned in this verse. Justice is not mentioned. There is simply a sense that humanity owes something, and the only way to pay that debt is with Jesus' blood.

The redemption is universal in scope. It's value extends to every tribe, language, people, and nation. We should not think of nations at this time like modern nation-states. They are more like realms run by a particular people. So the Romans were Italians who subjugated other people-groups. The people groups (laos) are within the "nations" (ethnē).

10. ... and you made them for our God a kingdom and priests and they will rule on the land.
Those from all these different places have become part of a kingdom, the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of priests and kings. As priests, they administer the worship of God. They bring sacrifices of praise. They mediate the worship of God to those who have not yet believed.

They are kings too, for they will prevail over all the forces that resist God on the earth. Everyone in God's kingdom, both small and great is a king. It does not matter whether you were born a Jew or a Greek. It does not matter if you are a man or a woman. It does not matter if you were born rich or poor. It doesn't matter if you're black or white. Everyone in this kingdom is a king, and everyone in this kingdom is a priest. And we will all rule the earth.

11. And I saw and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the beasts and the elders and the number of them was ten thousands of ten thousands and thousands of thousands. 12. saying with a great voice, "Worthy is the Lamb who has been slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing!"
Now we see how the story will end. We have seventeen more chapters to see it finally, but this is how the story ends, with the celebration of heaven and earth about the final redemption of the cosmos. This is the consummation of the creation, everything in the world as it is supposed to be, as it was created to become.

In the chapters that come, we will argue that the key to Revelation is to discern three moments in the story of history that is becoming. First is the moment of the Lamb that is slain. This is the moment when salvation is accomplished. The rest of the story is simply playing out its consequences.

Another moment is the final judgment/salvation/consummation of history. All will be set right in the cosmos. Those who reject God will no longer be present. Those who are victorious will be saved and will reign. A new creation will commence.

Then there is the in between time, the time in which we currently live. From one standpoint, this is a time of tribulation. From another standpoint, this is the millennial reign of Christ. These three moments are the key that unlocks the imagery of the book.

So in the consummation of all things all creation will praise the Lamb. First, in heaven there are the angels. Ten thousands of ten thousands and thousands of thousands. This is the highest number John could imagine. Then there are the elders and beasts, perhaps signifying the victorious of humanity and the creation.

And what they sing is the worthiness and praise of the Lamb, just as they have sung the praise of God the Father in chapter 4. The chapter divisions were of course not part of the original book. These two chapters go together as a sub-unit of Revelation. They sing those words so familiar from Handel's Messiah: "Worthy is the Lamb who has been slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing."

The Lamb that was slain is the King of kings with all power and strength. Whatever wealth the world might have had is nothing next to he who will now own it all. To the Lamb belongs all wisdom--he is the wisdom and word of God. To the Lamb belongs all honor, glory, and blessing. As we have previously mentioned, these are the currency of an honor-shame culture, the very stuff of praise.

13. And every creation that is in the sky and on the land and under the land and in the sea and all the things in them I heard saying to the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb, "Blessing and honor and glory and power forever and ever."
Now the praise of heaven extends to the earth. All four domains of the creation praise both God the Father and the Lamb--the sky, the earth, the sea, and the domain of the dead below the earth. [1] This is how it will all end, with the cosmos in harmony in unanimous worship of God the Father and Christ.

Their praise is of the glory of them, their supreme worthiness as the objects of worship. Their praise is of their supreme power over all things. Nothing can oppose them. And this worthiness will extend to eternity future. Of this kingdom there will be no end.

14. And the four beasts were saying, "Amen," and the twenty-four elders fell and worshiped.
The beasts and elders concur. "Amen." They are in agreement with the now unison praise of all that is. They fall down and worship both God the Father and the Lamb. They will not be told to get up. The worship of God and Jesus is the way it must be and will be.

[1] Of course this is an example of God meeting the biblical authors within their view of the world. We would not now think of the dead--or hell for that matter--as being at the center of the earth or below a flat earth. This is a picture we have to translate into our sense of the universe, which time may also modify. Having grown up on Star Trek, I always thought of heaven and hell being in another dimension.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Revelation 4 Explanatory Notes

Vision I
Great Throne Room

Douce Apocalypse Manuscript
Bodleian Library, Oxford
4.1 After these things, I looked and behold, a door having been opened in the sky and the first voice that I heard, like a trumpet speaking with me, [was] saying, "Come up here, and I will show you things that are necessary to come to pass after these things."
In apocalyptic literature, a heavenly being comes to an important figure on earth (usually a biblical figure from the past) and reveals to them what is going on in heaven and what is about to take place on earth. The message is inevitably that God wins. In the book of Revelation, Jesus is the heavenly figure and John is the recipient of the revelation.

It is in chapter 4 that the door to heaven is opened. Opening is a major theme of the book of Revelation. The church at Philadelphia has a door opened that no one can shut. When the seals on the scroll are opened, judgment is revealed.

But the most significant opening is the opening of heaven, because that is where the revelation is seen. We can actually outline the book of Revelation in terms of three great openings of heaven and what we might call three great visions in the book. These visions are not sequential but rather give us different perspectives on the same basic reality.

The first of these visions runs from 4:1-11:18 and gives the opening of the seven seals and the sounding of the seven trumpets. The second opening takes place in 11:19 with the opening of the heavenly temple. This vision gives us the symbolism of the dragon, the prostitute and the beasts. It stretches from 11:19 to 19:10. Then the final opening brings us to the end of the revelation, from 19:11-22:7.

The expression, "after these things" is also significant. It also indicates a transition on some level in the revelation. Here it marks a transition from the more overtly "letter" part of the text to the more apocalyptic part.

To indicate the otherworldliness of the speaker, the voice is described as like that of a trumpet. In other places, we will hear that heavenly sounds are like many waters. These are attempts to find reference points on the earth to describe something that is on a completely different scale and magnitude. At the same time, the point of such imagery is the overall experience. As we will argue, Revelation does not give us a play-by-play of future events. It gives us a fantastical feel of the same basic truths over and over again.

2. Immediately I came to be in spirit and, behold, a throne was in the sky and upon the throne, One sitting. 3. And the one sitting was like in appearance to jasper stone and carnelian and a rainbow around the throne like in appearance to emerald. 
John indicated that he was in the spirit in chapter 1, when the revelation began (1:10). There seems to be a sense that to visit heaven requires him to be in spirit rather than in body--at least at this point of his existence while he still has an earthly body. The Jewish worldview at this time saw the earth as flat and the heavens as a layer cake of skies.

In fact, the Greek word ouranos means "heaven" or "sky" interchangeably--they were one and the same in their minds. They thought of heaven as sky, straight up. Thus when Jesus ascends to heaven, he is ascending straight up to the highest sky (cf. Acts 1:11). [1] For this reason, I have often translated the word ouranos as "sky" instead of "heaven" in other translations, so that we get a more accurate feel for what John was thinking.

The throne room of God in heaven is ground zero for the universe. This is the heart of hearts for all that is. Of course even this image is a picture. If God created the universe out of nothing, then God's essence is not in this universe. We may have slightly better categories to think about such things today than John did, but not too much better. The universe has become fantastically more vast to us than it was for John, but it still comes nowhere close to knowing God as God is beyond this universe.

So John must draw upon the most amazing things he knows in order to picture what the throne room of God might look like. He thinks of precious gems--jasper (reddish-brown stone), carnelian (an orange or orange-red stone). He thinks of rainbows and emeralds (green stone). These are only attempts. God himself is beyond our imaginations. Indeed, "he" is not even a "he," for that would require God to have genitalia. These are all metaphors.

Moses may have thought of God having body parts (cf. Exod. 33:20-23), but God has no body. God reveals God-self to us in the vastly inadequate categories of our understanding so that we can catch just a tiny glimpse of who God is. This is how revelation works. We know God by imperfect analogy and by what God is not (negative theology). We should not think of the imagery of Revelation as anything close to literal.

4. And around the throne [were] twenty-four thrones and upon the thrones [were] twenty-four elders sitting, dressed in white garments and upon their heads [were] golden crowns. 
The twenty-four elders appear in three scenes of Revelation--here in chapters 4-5, in chapter 11, and in chapter 19. Twenty-four is a multiple of twelve, so it is a special number, possibly representing the wisdom of the people of God. The leadership of synagogues centered on a group of elders, and we see this structure manifested in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council in Jerusalem.

Early churches likely followed the same leadership structure, with house churches lead by such elders. Perhaps, as Christianity grew, the leadership of churches in whole cities may have been run by a similar council of elders. The city of Jerusalem was probably the first place where city-wide leadership of this sort was established, with James as the focal leader.

Assuming this background, the twenty-four elders may represent the leadership of the church of the ages. We should not think of them as specific people. Together, they represent the church and the wisdom of the people of God. They are dressed in white, showing that they have proved themselves worthy. They have golden crowns of victory on their heads. They have finished the race victoriously.

5. And from the throne went out lightnings and voices and thunders and seven lamps of fire burning, which are the seven spirits of God. 6. And before the throne [was] like a glassy sea like to crystal.
We have already learned that the seven lamps represent the seven churches, which in turn represent the church everywhere. The seven spirits of God are likely the seven angels who watch over those churches, representing all the angels who watch over the universal church. Lightnings, thunders, sounds once again give us a glimpse of the awesomeness of God and God's presence. These are the kinds of metaphors that help the reader grasp the "numinous" character of God--his otherworldly awesomeness.

The glassy sea appears at least twice in Revelation. We see it first here, where its glassy quality suggests it is no threat. The sea was a perilous place in ancient times, often associated with chaos. Ancient creation stories often saw creation as the emergence of order out of a watery chaos, and it is at least possible that this was the original sense of Genesis 1:1-2. The earthly sea in Revelation can also have this connotation, as we see in the beast from the sea in Revelation 13.

But the sea in heaven is glassy like crystal. It is peaceful. It is no threat to the children of God. It will become mixed with fire in 15:2, perhaps in preparation for the judgment. Revelation is not exactly clear on the relationship between this sea and the lake of fire, but the common image of fire may suggest they are the same. We will consider later whether Revelation 21:1 pictures the removal of this sea.

And in the middle of the throne and around the throne [were] four living creatures covered with eyes in front and behind. 7 And the first living creature [was] like to a lion and the second living creature [was] like to a bull and the third living creature [was] having the face as of a human and the fourth living creature [was] like to an eagle flying. 
The imagery here is drawn from Ezekiel 1. Revelation draws a good deal from the "apocalyptic" elements of the Old Testament, the parts with more fantastical imagery about heaven and the future. However, Revelation does not always use the imagery in the same way. You might say that many of the ingredients of Revelation's imagery come from the Old Testament, but it is cooking its own recipe.

In the past, some have tried to correlate the four creatures with something like the four Gospel authors. We do not really have enough evidence to indicate specific referents. It is probably best simply to them of them as John's version of the beasts of Ezekiel. But whereas in Ezekiel each beast has multiple features, these features relate to individual beasts in Revelation. In Ezekiel, each creature has four faces--one of a lion, a bull, an eagle, and a human being. In Revelation, each beast correlates to one of these faces.

In Ezekiel, there is a wheel within a wheel that is full of eyes. Here each beast is. We can only conclude that these creatures see. They see a lot! Perhaps they see everything that happens in the world, so we can be certain that God's does too.

The point is perhaps again to show us that the heavenly is beyond our comprehension. It is a fantastical place that our imagination can only dream of approaching. At the same time, perhaps they also reflect the life of the world that God has created, meaning that the whole created order is involved in the worship of God around his throne.

8 And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, around and within, filled with eyes and they are not having rest, night and day, saying,
"Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,
the one who was and the one who is and the one who is coming."

The vision of Ezekiel 1 itself likely builds on the vision of Isaiah in Isaiah 6. There, seraphim fly around the throne of God crying, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty" (Isa 6:3). John follows the imagery of Isaiah in seeing six wings on each beast (In Ezekiel 1:11, they have four). They praise God the Father ceaselessly. God should be praised at all times. God does not sleep, and neither should his praise ever stop. This is true from the past to the present to the future. God is the one who was and is and is coming. Revelation 1 has already described God in this way (1:8).

Time is an intriguing thing in relation to God. Certainly the Bible indicates that God goes through time with us (immanent). Yet throughout the centuries Christians have also thought of God as transcendent in a way that is beyond or outside of time as we know it. God was before time and is already at the end of time. God knows the future not least because he has already seen it.

God is also the one who is coming. In the person of Jesus, God is coming in judgment. God is also the one coming with salvation to those who are faithful to him.

9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanksgiving to the One sitting on the throne, to the one living forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall before the one sitting on the throne and they worship the one living forever and ever...
Here the whole creation praises God. All creation worships God--the angels and the living creation and humanity. Hebrews puts it this way: "You have come to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to ten-thousands of angels in festive assembly, and to the assembly of the firstborn in the heavens and to God, the judge of all and to the spirits of the perfected righteous" (Heb. 12:22-23). The living creatures represent all the live God has created. The twenty-four elders represent all of victorious humanity.

...and they throw their crowns before the throne saying,
11. "Worthy are you, our Lord and our God,
to receive the glory and the honor and the power,
Because you created all things
And because of your will they were and they were created."
No human crown comes anywhere close to the worthiness of God. Victorious humanity casts these before God the Father. All their worthiness is nothing next to his. Of course this is likely symbolic. It is unlikely that they will constantly throw them, go pick them up, return to their seats only to throw them again and again for all eternity!

God the Father is the focus of worship in Revelation 4. Then this assembly will bow down before Jesus the Lamb in chapter 5. It would take the Church several hundred years to work out the details of the Trinity, how Christians could worship one God and yet there be three distinct persons who are worshiped. The primacy in Revelation is given in chapter 4 to God the Father. [2]

To God belongs all glory and honor. These are not always familiar concepts to us in the western world because our culture tells us to be true to ourselves and not to pay attention to what other people think about us. By contrast, the ancient world was a world of honor/shame, where primacy was put on reflecting well on your group and thus of others thinking highly of us. Honor and glory were highly valued.

God sets the standard for honor and glory. God is the one with all the power. All other glory and honor is to be measured against his standard. All other glory and honor is derivative, reflective.

Revelation draws a sharp line between God as creator and the creation. Not only did God create all things, but they were created for him. It was his decision and no one else's. The continued existence of the creation is his decision and no one else's. Although the wording of the King James Version goes beyond what John was saying, it is certainly true: "for thy pleasure they are and were created."

God did not need to create the universe. God is self-sufficient, in need of nothing outside himself. God created the world because he wanted to, for his "pleasure." He delights in us. He delights in his creation.

[1] A writing called the Testament of Levi pictured going up through three layers of sky before reaching the highest sky where God lives (cf. 2 Cor. 12:2). Another apocalypse called the Ascension of Isaiah has seven layers of sky with God in the highest sky.

[2] The Athanasian Creed of the early 400s would express that the three persons of the Trinity are "equal in glory and co-equal in majesty." The orthodox position is thus that there is no hierarchy within the Trinity.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Revelation 3 Explanatory Notes

The synagogue at Sardis
3:1 And to the angel of the assembly at Sardis write: The one who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars says these things: 
The next church in the clockwise rotation is Sardis. Sardis is a city on the plains of Asia Minor, a little more than fifty miles east of Smyrna. A Jewish synagogue at Sardis has been extensively uncovered and indicates a thriving Jewish community in the city at the time of Revelation.

I know your works, that you have a name that you live and you are dead. 2. Become awake and strengthen the remaining things that were about to die. For I have not found your works completed before my God.
Jesus and John are mostly negative toward the church at Sardis, with almost nothing positive to say. The first remarks are an indictment of their deadness and a call to awake. By contrast, they seem to think that they are alive. Jesus and John say that their works are not complete. They have not gone all the way with their faith. Their faith has not worked its way into all of their life as a church.

There are parts of their faith that are about to die but apparently still have hope. This is what happens when faith does not make itself manifest in our lives. It either grows until it takes over the whole of our lives and is completed, or it wanes until it disappears and we are dead again. It is not static or stagnant. It is always moving, either growing or waning.

3. Therefore, remember how you have received and heard and keep and repent. Therefore, if you do not wake up I will come like a thief and you will never know at what sort of our hour I will come upon you. 
We will find no indication of a doctrine of eternal security in Revelation. Those whose works do not prevail, those who do not emerge from tribulation victorious, will not be part of the kingdom of God. At the same time, there is opportunity to repent. Jesus does not immediately remove the star of a church. The very existence of these admonitions shows that God wants the churches to prevail, and he gives ample warning before cutting them off.

Yet we may not know when God has had enough. Theologically, we can presume that God cuts off no one who has not already left him. God is not a "gotcha" God. God only further "hardens" the hearts of those who have already chosen hardness.

But for those whose hearts have any softness remaining, the reminder of the swiftness of judgment may be just what is needed to snap the person back to repentance. Memory here is important, memory of God's past mercy and faithfulness. Memory of previous forgiveness and grace. A person who is asleep can be awakened before their sleep turns to death.

4. But you have a few names in Sardis that did not defile their garments and they are walking with me in white [garments], because they are worthy. 
Although it did not begin on a positive note, Jesus and John end the letter to Sardis with hope. There are some believers in Sardis who have not "defiled their garments." There are some who have remained true to their initial walk with Jesus. Their actions have proven that they are worthy of salvation. Such individuals truly walk with Jesus.

Some may have difficulty with this sense that "works" matter for salvation. The Protestant Reformation has ingrained in us that justification is by faith alone. Interestingly, the "alone" part does not actually appear in Paul's writings, and James explicitly rejects justification by faith alone (Jas. 2:24).

What Paul teaches is that works of the Jewish Law--especially specifically Jewish "boundary practices" like circumcision and purity laws--cannot earn a person's acceptance with God. However, the "fruit" of the Spirit remained essential for Paul. It may at one point have been difficult for him to imagine that a person who began in Christ would not finish the race with him, but he clearly allowed for that possibility (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:27; Phil. 3:11).

Yet even then, it was not the works that earned or even maintained one's trajectory toward salvation. "Works" of God are empowered by the Spirit and activated by a heart surrendered to God. Works demonstrate faith, as James says (2:18). They do not justify in the sense necessary to enter into the people of God. They justify in the sense of confirming one is in the people of God.

5. The one who conquers thus will be dressed in white [garments], and never will I wipe away his name from the Book of Life and I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. 6. Let the one who has ears hear what the Spirit says to the assemblies.
To conquer, one must prevail. The one who conquers is the one who endures. This is the person who remains faithful. Such a person is guaranteed salvation. This is clearly not "eternal security" in the sense that one can behave in any way and be saved in the end. The assumption is that the person who is saved has conquered.

Jesus is the authorizer of salvation. It is his blood that makes ultimate salvation possible. He is the instrument, the name under which our prayers are authorized to come to God. He is the one who confesses our name before God the Father and the angels. We are his people.

Little uncovered in Philadelphia
7. And to the angel of the assembly at Philadelphia write:
These things the holy [one] says, the true [one], the one who has the keys of David, the one who opens and no one closes, who closes and no one opens.
Philadelphia continues the clockwise trajectory farther and farther inland. Today, very little of the ancient city is unearthed, just a small city block. The sparse ruins are a mixture of a much later cathedral overshadowing some Roman foundations.

Mention of the keys of David and the opening and closing of a door allude to Isaiah 22:22, where the keys are David are given to a man designated by God. This man then has the authority to decide for whom he opens and shuts the door forward. For Revelation, the person in question is Jesus. Jesus is the Son of David, the one with the keys of David. Jesus decides who will be able to go through the door of salvation and for whom that door will be closed.

Jesus does not do this arbitrarily. Jesus and John are not talking about "unconditional election" or "irresistible grace." As we will see with the church at Laodicea, Jesus wants the door to be open. Whether the door is opened or shut has to do with our response to his offer. But no one can open the door in their own power or on their own terms. The door opens on Jesus' terms.

Our lives are full of all sorts of open and closed doors, beyond the question of salvation. Part of our submission to God is being able to accept which doors are opened and which ones are closed. We should not be fatalistic about it. Sometimes a door is open to us but we need to turn the door handle. At other times we push and push and the door is simply locked. The wisdom is knowing the difference.

8. I know your works. Behold, I have given a door having been opened before you which no one is able to close it because you have little power and you have kept my word and you have not denied my name. 
Jesus and John are positive toward the church of Philadelphia. Like Smyrna, they have no critique for this city but only positive things to say. If the door is in danger of closing for others, the door is open for the Philadelphians. They have been faithful despite persecution, despite general powerlessness. When it would have been easier to deny Jesus' name in the short term, they have endured.

9. Behold I am delivering [you] from the synagogue of Satan who call themselves Jews but they are not but are lying. Behold I will make them so that they will come and bow before your feet and will know that I have loved you.
This is the second time Jesus and John have mentioned a "synagogue of Satan," the first being the church of Smyrna. We can imagine a similar situation where the dominant Jewish group in town is in control of the main synagogue in the city. From a worldly perspective, the smaller Jewish group of Christians--quite possibly with some Gentiles in their midst also--seems to be powerless. The dominant group thinks they are the ones in continuity with the Israel of the past.

But Jesus and John indicate the situation is exactly the opposite. The true Jews are the bullied minority that have perhaps been ousted from the main synagogue. The main synagogue is actually the synagogue of Satan rather than the synagogue of true Israel.

In the end, the dominant will kneel before the oppressed. They will know that Jesus and God the Father have loved the church at Philadelphia rather than them. The difference is true submission to God's will, particularly as it has been manifested in Jesus, the Son of David. Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one of Israel, the king.

10. Because you kept the word of my endurance, even I will keep you from the hour of testing that is about to come upon the whole inhabited world to test those who dwell on the earth. 11. I am coming quickly. 
Throughout the book of Revelation, as with much of the New Testament, we get the clear sense that Jesus is going to return soon. It is important to keep this framework in mind as we move through the book. John expected that Jesus was about to return and thus that to speak about his own day was to speak about the end times. We once again remember the early Christian prayer, marana tha, "Our Lord, come!"

In John's mind, what we now call the "preterist" position (Revelation was about the first century) and the "futurist" position (Revelation is about the end times) were one and the same. The intervening time has stretched out the message so that it applies to types of figures in all of history (the "idealist" position). As we said in the Introduction, it is best to read Revelation primarily in light of the first century and then to see its references as archetypal types of figures that continually appear in history.

The Philadelphians will be rescued from the tribulation that is about to come. We should not think of this tribulation as a seven year period. John thinks of the time between now and Christ's return as a time of tribulation. From time to time, the church has faced such tribulation. Sometimes God rescues the church from it. At other times he does not.

The reward to the Philadelphians for their faithfulness is escape from the hour of testing. It is always difficult to process those passages in the New Testament that blur the final judgment with the current situation of the addressees (e.g., Mark 13). The Philadelphians to which Jesus and John speak have come and gone. They may very well have escaped a significant persecution in their day.

A final judgment is also coming. It will come on the whole world. We can safely say from Revelation that while the church is rarely exempt entirely from suffering and tribulation, God will rescue the church before the final judgment of the earth.

Hold what you have so that no one should take your crown. 12. The one who conquers I will give him a pillar in the temple of God and he will never go outside again and I will write upon him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that is descending from the sky from my God and my new name. 13. the one who has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the assemblies.
The final words to the church at Philadelphia are encouraging. This is the second mention of a crown as a reward of honor for those who prevail to the end (first in 2:10). However, the crown is not guaranteed. Technically, no one can take it away from them, but other people can pressure in a way that leads to the abandonment of faith.

Jesus and John use the image of believers as pillars in a new temple. The notion of the church as a counter-temple appears here and there in the New Testament. Peter and John and James the Lord's brother are reputed to be pillars in a counter-temple in Galatians 2:9. Paul calls the Corinthian church the temple of God in 1 Corinthians 3:16.

In the early days of Christianity, this language was probably not meant to suggest that God was replacing the temple but that the existing temple was in such need of purification that a substitute was needed for the time being. But after the temple was destroyed, it became clearer to the early Christians that Christ had satisfied all need for a temple (cf. Hebrews 10:14). Accordingly, there is no need for a temple in the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:22).

The new Jerusalem is mentioned here but will not be mentioned again in Revelation until chapter 21, where it does indeed descend from heaven to earth after the final judgment is completed. Naming had special significance in the biblical texts. It implies identity, and to know someone's name is to know them and thus, in some cases, to have a power over them.

We do not, of course, have any power over God by knowing God's name. We do however have a power that those who do not confess his name do not have. We know the city that will prevail for eternity, and it will not be the city of Rome. The verses do not make clear what the new name of Jesus is. Certainly he is now enthroned as Lord and King.

Ruins of Laodicea, with the white
limestone of Hierapolis in distance 
14. And to the angel of the assembly at Laodicea write: The Amen says these things, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God. 
The final church in the series of seven is the church at Laodicea, forever remembered as the lukewarm church. Laodicea completes the clockwise sequence of churches and is the church that is the farthest south and inland. Jesus is the "Amen," the closing statement to the last church. He is also the "firstborn of all creation" (Col. 1:15), another theme that Revelation shares with the Gospel of John (1:1).

It is interesting that two other churches nearby are not mentioned--the church of Colossae and the church of Hierapolis. Colossae was likely destroyed by an earthquake around 61 and was never rebuilt. However, Hierapolis was a city with a significant Christian presence in the second century. Either the church of Laodicea must have been more prominent at this time or Jesus/John wanted to single it out because of its need for admonition.

15. I know your works that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were cold or hot. 16. Thus because you are lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17. Because you say, "I am rich and I have prospered, and I have need of nothing." 
Nearby Hierapolis was known for its hot springs. Indeed, it still is. Although Colossae had been destroyed by an earthquake several decades before Revelation, there was still the fresh cold water that flowed down from Mt. Cadmus in that direction. By comparison, the water that reached Laodicea by aqueduct was tepid.

In the story of Goldilocks, the middle soup, chair, and bed is just right. In the case of Laodicea, it was just wrong. There is a time when hot springs are just what the doctor ordered. There are other times when a cold drink of water hits the spot. Laodicea was neither. It was something worth spitting out.

What is worse is that they thought they were hot stuff. And they may have had material wealth. They may have prospered from an earthly perspective. The church in America today is a relatively prosperous church from a financial perspective. In God's eyes, however, such things are completely irrelevant to godliness. Indeed, they are more likely a distraction to godliness than a benefit. There are plenty of churches and plenty in the church today who think they are doing great, living pleasant lives of ease.

But you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. 18. I advise you to buy gold from me having been refined from fire so that you might be rich and white garments so that you might wear and the shame of your nakedness might not appear and to rub on eye salve on your eyes so that you might see.
In the case of the Laodiceans, it was not true. Their ease had blinded them. They thought they were rich but they were poor in anything that mattered to God. They likely had great clothing but they were naked in God's eyes. They thought they could see everything so clearly, but they were blind to the things of God.

God's gold is not like earthly gold. Those who hoard. Those who say, "It is mine." Those who think they actually merit what they have and that those without deserve what they do not have--they are poor in God's eyes. They are spiritually naked. They think those with different values are blind when in fact it is they who do not see.

They need the salve of the Spirit to give their eyes sight. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God," Jesus said (Mark 10:25). It is easier for the church to be the church when it is poor and persecuted than when it is prosperous and has power.

19. As many of those as I myself love, I correct and discipline. Therefore, be earnest and repent. 
Verse 19 is perhaps an allusion to Proverbs 3:12, which is also quoted in Hebrews 12:6. It does no good to discipline those who are past redemption, whose hearts are hardened. They do not listen to correction. They are not interested in it, and it often makes them act worse in rebellion. These are they that the Lord simply lets go to their own self-destruction (cf. Rom. 1:28).

But the Laodiceans are still redeemable. They are not so far gone that they cannot be reclaimed. This letter is discipline. John's hope is that they will repent and turn back from their current course.

20. Behold I have stood at the door and I am knocking. If someone should hear my voice and should open the door, I will come in to him and I will dine with him and he himself with me. 
This is a well known memory verse for many of us as a child. In context it indicates that, while the Laodiceans currently have their door closed to Jesus, he is eager for them to reopen it. Contrast their situation with that of the Philadelphians, whose door is open and cannot be closed. In fact, it is opened by Jesus himself.

In the case of the Laodiceans, they are the ones who have apparently shut the door. Jesus was once apparently in the house with them, but not any more. Jesus has not given up on them. He wants to dine with them again. At the end of Revelation, there will be a marriage supper for the church with Christ. That will be true dining, like the Last Supper Jesus had with his disciplines on earth.

21. The one who conquers--I will give to him to sit with me on my throne as I also have conquered and have sat with my Father on his throne. 22. Let the one who has ears hear what the Spirit says to the assemblies.
The final letter ends as the other ones did, with an invitation to those who have ears to hear. Again, the need to prevail to the end is mentioned. Those who turn from God before the end will not be part of the kingdom. Those who conquer will rule with Christ as co-heirs (Rom. 8:17). Jesus himself promised his disciples that they would sit on thrones judging the children of Israel (Luke 22:30).