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Month: May 2016

Revelation 10: The Angel and the Little Scroll (Part 10)

Revelation 10: The Angel and the Little Scroll (Part 10)

Just as chapter 7 was a “break in the action” between the 6th and 7th seals, this next section (10:1-11:14) is also a “break in the action” between the 6th and 7th trumpets. Just as the events in chapter 7 were necessary before the 7th seal could be opened, the events described here in 10:1-11:14 are necessary before the 7th trumpet could be sounded.

There are two “events” that happen in 10:1-11:14. Chapter 10 gives us a scene of a mighty angel with a little scroll. John is told to eat the scroll, and when he does, he finds that it is “sweet as honey” in his mouth, but it turns bitter in his stomach. What does this mean?

Before we get into that, though, there are a few other things in chapter 10 we need to take a look at. First off, there is the little thing about the seven thunders. John hears the seven thunders, and is about to write down what they reveal, but he is told to basically skip them. Strange. So what’s going on?

When one reads Revelation, one sees an “intensification in judgment” throughout the book. The seven seals affect one-fourth of creation; the seven trumpets affect one-third of creation; then there are these seven thunders that get skipped over; and then (as we will see later on), the seven bowls affect all of creation. Therefore, it is logical to assume that if the seven thunders had been written down, they would have affected one-half of creation—to coincide with the progression throughout the book.

In any case, we are told that the “mystery of God will be accomplished” at the sounding of the seventh trumpet. But how will the mystery of God be accomplish. Or, for that matter, what is the mystery of God in the first place?  The answer is given in 11:15—the mystery of God is the completion and purpose in redemption: to make a people for His Name. It is the salvation of the entire creation (i.e. “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ”—11:15).

Revelation 10 AngelWith that, we can now look at how the mystery of God will be accomplished. If the judgments and plagues of the seals and trumpets don’t bring about repentance, what will? The answer is hinted at in 10:8-11. This is where John eats the little scroll, only to find it is sweet in his mouth but bitter in his stomach. Once that happens, he is told to prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings. This scene calls to mind similar instances in Ezekiel 2:10 and Jeremiah 15:16ff. In all three instances, the message is clear: the Word of God is a delight to receive, but it causes pain when its grim nature is fully understood and declared.

One might ask, “But how can understanding the Word of God cause pain?” We in America are surprised at this notion because we have a poor understanding of what following Christ ultimately means.  We do not really suffer for our faith. We think “witnessing” means going out and sharing a few verses with some friends. If we actually suffer in any way, we tend to think that it is because we’ve sinned, or because God is punishing us for not having enough faith. We talk about how Christ was crucified for our sins, but we fail to realize that the picture of Christ on the cross is a people of how Christians are to live their lives.

In short, suffering for Christ is the most powerful witness, much more than even the best sermon or wildest youth group rally. It is this fact that is “hard to swallow” and so bitter. It is this fact that turns our stomachs. The “grim nature” of the Word of God and the Gospel is that being a Christian costs you your entire life—the good parts, the bad parts, everything. There are no half measures with salvation. A Christian who doesn’t suffer, or who doesn’t share in the suffering of others, is like a fish who doesn’t swim because it is afraid of the water—the result is obvious: that fish is going to die.

As we saw with the 5th seal, it is through suffering that the Gospel is spread; it is through suffering that God’s grace is made visible and available to others; it is because of suffering and death that eternal life in Christ is possible.

And that is what we see unfold in chapter 11….

Answers in Genesis, Star Trek….and Khan Ham?

Answers in Genesis, Star Trek….and Khan Ham?

Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter is scheduled to open a little over a month from now. In order to get ready for it, I’m going to post a few things about Ken Ham and young earth creationism that didn’t make it into my book, The Heresy of Ham, that hopefully I’ll make available to coincide with the opening of the Ark Encounter.

In this post, I comment on Ken Ham’s response to Fred Clark, a blogger who has written quite a bit on Ham. Read, Enjoy, Share…and be sure to subscribe to this blog if you haven’t yet.

Answers in Genesis is Like Star Trek…(with better dating methods?)
Star TrekIn a November 18, 2014 blog post entitled, “Biblical Creation is Like Star Trek,” Ham takes on blogger Fred Clark who accuses AiG of using a lot of “scientific sounding words” to make you suspend your disbelief and accept what they say (like “warp speed”). Clearly Ken Ham takes issue with such a characterization of AiG. It’s just not a bunch of “scientific sounding words” that ultimately don’t mean anything—AiG is legit in is scientific objections to, well, everything in modern biology, geology, and astronomy!

Ham first turns to why he has problems with radiometric dating: there are unprovable assumptions behind radiometric dating. Mind you, he ever gets around to exactly stating any scientific evidence that would suggest there are problems with radiometric dating. Instead, what Ken Ham does is…yes, you guessed it…appeal to his two fictitious categories of “observational” and “historical” science! Radiometric dating isn’t reliable because it is historical science, and historical science can’t be tested (because Ham says it can’t be tested)—it is simply beliefs shaped by your assumptions.

On top of that, Ham points out that there could be instances of contamination of rocks that would affect their dating. Fair enough…that certainly is a possibility. But here’s where that objection ultimately fails. Ken Ham would have you believe that scientists simply do one test on a rock, and date the rock based on that one test. He fails to tell you that scientists actually do upwards of forty different types of tests on a rock before they decide how old a rock is. One can reasonable raise questions if only one test says a rock is 60 million years old; but if forty different tests say a rock is 50-60 million years old…really? Ham’s “contamination objection” simply doesn’t cut it. For it to be true, you would have to believe that every rock and all the rock layers around the worldeverything that has been tested and found to be millions of years old—you would have to believe that ALL OF IT has been contaminated…ALL OF IT, WORLD-WIDE. Is that believable? I think not.

And so, Ham believes that measuring the rate of decay of radioactive isotopes is “historical science” that can’t be tested, observed or measured. The only “assumption” made in radiometric dating is that radioactive isotopes decay at a consistent rate; therefore scientists can quite literally “do the math” and figure out how old certain rocks are. But that’s not going to convince Ken Ham, because those scientists weren’t there “way back when,” and things like doing science based on the consistent laws of nature and math—well, that’s just not going to cut it, because it is “historical science” which can’t, by Ham’s own made up definition, have any evidence…except for Genesis 1-11, which Ham claims to be God’s eye-witness historical narrative of the origin of the material universe: “This account of Earth’s history is a reliable one because God was there!”

So let’s be clear: Ham discounts all the types of radiometric dating which point to the earth being millions of years old because He claims the Bible teaches the earth is only 6,000 years old. But the Bible doesn’t teach that. Not only that, but at no time in Church history has the Church ever taught that. Not only that, but solid biblical exegesis of Genesis 1-11 doesn’t teach that.

Observational Science Confirms the Young Age of the Earth….wait…what?
Ham then says:
“Our challenges to the historical science-laden assumptions of radiometric dating are based on our starting point, the Creator God’s eyewitness account of the creation of the heavens and Earth as recorded in His Word, and then on solid, observational science that was done in world-class labs, and that is scientifically documented.”

So right here, he is labelling radiometric dating as nothing more than “historical science-laden assumptions,” admitting that his starting point is his own assumption that Genesis 1-11 is meant to be read as God’s eye-witness account of creation, and then claiming that “observational science” has “scientifically documented” this.

Captain Kirk
KENNNNNNNN!!!!!

But wait a second! Did he just say that observational science done in labs has scientifically documented the age of the earth? How is that possible? According to Ken Ham himself, observational science can only build technology, and the only kind of science that deals with origins is historical science, but that can’t be tested and measured, and subsequently documented! Ham’s own explanation defies even his own questionable logic. I can almost hear Captain Kirk now, “KENNNNNNN!!!!!”

Genetics, DNA….and “Molecules to Man” Evolution
Another reason why Ken Ham rejects evolution is that he claims it requires new information in the DNA code to cause one life form to transition to another life form, or as Ham puts it, “You can’t turn a dinosaur into a bird without the addition of new information! But no known process adds information to DNA that could result in molecules-to-man evolution.”

Well, to the point, Ham is just wrong. Genetics and DNA studies indicate that all the information is already there in the genome. What happens is that, depending on the environment, somehow, there are “switches” within, let’s say, a squirrel’s genetic code that turn off and on. So if in a desert type region, a “switch” is turned on to produce light brown hair on the squirrels of that region, whereas the same squirrel, if put into a different environment, would eventually produce descendants that grow darker brown hair, because the “dark brown hair switch” would be turned on. As incomplete as that example is, the point is this: the adaptation that happens in nature isn’t a matter of “adding new genetic information,” but rather accessing the genetic information that is already there in the genome, behind “genetic locked doors,” so to speak.

The environment is the key that turns certain genetic switches on or off. It truly is amazing. And yes, one could respond with, “Well that’s all fine and good, but that only explains minor changes, not the major changes that evolution claims.” Perhaps…and that is one of the questions I have: to what extent is evolution true? Those are valid questions. But the point here is that Ham’s reason for rejection the totality of evolution is wrong—his claim that it requires new information to be added to the genome is factually incorrect. To put it more simply: he’s lying.

The Law of Biogenesis…(No, Mr. Ham, Evolution doesn’t address it, despite what you claim)
Another objection to evolution that Ham gives is what he calls the “Law of Biogenesis,” which states that life cannot come from non-life. He says, “There is no known way to violate this law, and yet evolutionists have faith that at some time in the past, by unknown processes, life spontaneously arose from non-life.” Well, he’s right on the point that life cannot come from non-life. But he’s absolutely wrong when he claims evolutionists “have faith that at some point in the past…life spontaneously arouse from non-life.” The theory of evolution does not address the origin of life question. It addresses how the variety of life forms came to be once there already was life. Or more simply put, Ham’s objection to evolution is based on an issue that evolution doesn’t address. And if evolution doesn’t address it, how can it be a valid objection to evolution? It can’t.

Here’s my point: regardless of whether or not one believes evolutionary theory, it is a fact as plain as day that Ken Ham makes it impossible for one to adequately investigate the theory because he purposely misrepresents what it even is.

Revelation 9: The 5th and 6th Trumpets–Fallen Stars, Locusts, and a King of the Abyss, O My! (Part 9)

Revelation 9: The 5th and 6th Trumpets–Fallen Stars, Locusts, and a King of the Abyss, O My! (Part 9)

We now come to Revelation 9, and the 5th and 6th trumpets. As I pointed out in the last post, the first four trumpets are similar to the first four seals, in that they should be seen together as a group. Thusly, the 5th and 6th trumpets, like the 5th and 6th seals, follow in the same way. In fact, when you compare both the seals and the trumpets, you see a distinct pattern emerge: (A) the first four seals/trumpets; (B) the 5th and 6th seals/trumpets follow in succession; (C) a pause in the action; then (D) the final seal/trumpet. With that being said, let’s dive into Revelation 9.

The Fifth Trumpet (9:1-12)
When the fifth trumpet is blown, we see a fallen star from heaven come down to earth with a key to open the shaft to the Abyss. What comes out the Abyss are locusts—the majority of this section deals with their description. Finally, we learn that their king is the Angel of the Abyss, whose name (Abaddon in Hebrew; Apollyon in Greek) is translated into English as the Destroyer. So what does this all mean?

Traditionally, the Abyss is identified with the waters of chaos from ancient Near Eastern mythology in general, and the beginning of Genesis in particular: they are the waters that God caused to recede in order to bring forth the land on which mankind can dwell. In Genesis, God is seen as the God who brings order out of chaos, and all throughout the Old Testament this imagery can be seen. Here in Revelation, we see the power of that chaotic Abyss being unleashed into the world—basically, evil is “flooding over” the world, if you will.

But who is the fallen star? One possibility is that it is a reference to the fall of Satan, or to a fallen angel in general, and he is the one allowed to open the Abyss of chaos. In any case, what we see is that God allows him to open the Abyss—God is still ultimately in control, and God can even allow evil, in order to bring about His divine purpose of salvation.

Helicopters
Revelation does not talk about 21st century warfare.

And what about the locusts? One thing is for sure—they are not 21st century war helicopters, as some so-called “end-times experts” have claimed. John is not getting a peak into the 21st century and then trying to describe future war machines to first century Christians.

To understand the locusts, one must look again to the Old Testament. First of all, they bring to mind the plague of locusts from, you guessed it, the Exodus (Exodus 10:1-19). In short, they are instruments of God’s judgment on the enemies of His chosen people. Secondly, they also bring to mind the prophecy of the plague of locusts from Joel 1:4-13, in which Joel warns Judah of YHWH’s coming judgment, and the coming Assyrian invasion. The locusts there represent the invading army coming to punish unfaithful Judah. And so, the image of the locusts here in Revelation should be interpreted along the same lines. It gives us a picture of God’s coming judgment on the oppressors of the servants of God (the ones who have been martyred and are under the Altar of Souls—see Seal 5).

Domitian2
Roman coin with Domitian on it

Finally, who is the Destroyer, the king of the Abyss? To a certain extent, it is ultimately can be seen as Satan, but the early Christians in the Roman Empire would have seen more to it than that. The Hebrew word Abaddon means “destruction,” but the Greek word Apollyon (which also means “destroyer) adds a little twist—it is obviously related to the Greek god Apollo. And the cult of Apollo used the locust as its symbol. Furthermore, a number of Roman emperors like Caligula and Nero identified themselves with Apollo. The Emperor Domitian (the emperor during the time John wrote Revelation in 95 AD) even claimed to be the incarnation of the god Apollo himself.

Therefore, what John is saying here in the fifth trumpet is truly revolutionary: the king of the Abyss, the one responsible for the destruction and torture in their world, the embodiment of the destructive power of Satan himself…was none other than the Roman Emperor. Is it any wonder why Christians were considered to be unpatriotic and treasonous?

The Sixth Trumpet (9:13-19)
The sixth trumpet give another picture of an invading army. The four angels here at the Euphrates River refers back to the same angels in 7:1—in chapter 7, they are told to wait until the servants of God are seals; now here they are released to kill 1/3 of mankind. But why the Euphrates River? And why 200 million troops?

First off—the Euphrates River. In the Old Testament, the Euphrates River acted as the boundary between Israel and the world empires. Any empire, be it Babylon or Assyria, would have to cross the Euphrates River if it were to make its way to Israel. The threats, therefore, to Israel always come from beyond the Euphrates River.

Parthian EmpireInterestingly enough, in the first century AD, the Roman Empire’s chief rival was the Parthian Empire which was also from beyond the Euphrates River. In fact, there was a belief throughout the Roman Empire in the latter part of the first century AD that the evil emperor Nero never really died, but instead escaped to Parthia. Some thought that one day he would come back and attack Rome with the armies of Parthia, from beyond the Euphrates River. So, in short, in the Bible, mention the Euphrates River, and oftentimes it implies God’s coming judgment.

Secondly—the 200 million troops. Is this a literal number? Some “end-times experts” certainly think so. They say that it is a prophecy about China’s army invading Israel. In Greek, though, the actually rendering is “two myriads of myriads” (or “twice 10,000 times 10,000”). The number relates back to Psalm 68:17 (which gives the number of chariots at Sinai), and to Daniel 7:10 (which gives the number of angels attending God on His throne). This “army from beyond the Euphrates River” then is seen as God’s instrument of judgment. Like the locusts of the fifth trumpet, it is a destroying army that is used by God to execute His wrath.

Conclusion (9:20-21)
With the fifth and sixth trumpets, John’s message, though cryptic and symbolic, is nevertheless clear, once you understand the symbolism: the way in which God is going to answer the prayers of the saints and bring His wrath upon the Roman Empire is, ironically, through the destructive actions of the Roman Emperor himself, and the destructive actions of foreign powers.

At the end of the sixth trumpet, though, we are told that the rest of mankind (those who weren’t killed by the destructive powers within and without) still did not repent and did not stop worshipping idols. That sets the stage for what happens next: the plagues of the first six trumpets did not bring about repentance at all. So, what will God do?

That’s in Revelation 10…

Revelation 8: The 7th Seal, Silence, then the Sound of the First 4 Trumpets (Part 8)

Revelation 8: The 7th Seal, Silence, then the Sound of the First 4 Trumpets (Part 8)

We now come to Revelation 8, and the opening of the 7th seal. It is at this point that I want to briefly stop and reiterate a point that I have alluded to before: the importance of reading Revelation, not as some “secret code” that tells the future of the end of the world, but as a coherent literary work. It fits together and makes sense. At the end of chapter 11, I’m going to provide a visual overview of what we have covered in Revelation 1-11. Hopefully, after going through it the way we are doing now, the chart will solidify the coherent unity and message that John is trying to get across.

For now, though, let’s just briefly retrace our steps, starting in Revelation 4 (after all Revelation 1-3 really act as sort of a prologue—the real action begins in chapter 4). So, in chapter 4 we are given a glimpse of God’s throne in Heaven, and in chapter 5 we see the situation: there is a scroll that only the slain Lamb (i.e. Christ) is worthy enough to open.

Then in chapter 6 begins the opening of the seven seals. The first four (i.e. the four horsemen) fit together to reveal the truth of Rome (or any empire really) bent on conquest: ultimately it brings war, famine, and death.  The 5th seal is extremely important because we see the souls of the martyred saints under the altar in Heaven. They ask, “How long?” and are given white robes and are told, “Wait until the full number are killed.” Then with the 6th seal we see the coming of the Day of Wrath of YHWH—the lightning and earthquakes echoes YHWH at Mount Sinai, and God on His throne in chapter 4.

Chapter 7, though, serves as a bit of a break in the action. Before the 7th seal is broken, we see the 144,000—the great multitude—sealed with the seal of God. They are called the servants of God, they are wearing white robes, and they have come through the great tribulation. This is true Israel—the Jews and Gentiles together who have suffered and died bearing witness to Christ. And the thing to remember is this is the full number of whom God told the martyrs under the altar about back in the 5th seal.

So now that the full number is known, it is time for the 7th seal to be opened—and that brings us to Revelation 8.

Revelation 8:1-5: Silence in Heaven
Seventh SealThe thing to remember here is when the 7th seal is opened, the next round of seven emerges—the seven trumpets. In other words, the seven trumpets are the stuff of the 7th seal. In any case, in 8:1-5, when the 7th seal is opened, we are told there is silence in Heaven for “about a half an hour,” during which time an angel with a golden censer is at the altar (you know, the Altar of Souls from the 5th seal), and he is filling the censer with the prayers of the saints (you know, those martyred saints who are…under the altar).

So what’s going on here? Remember, back in the 5th seal, the martyred saints were praying for God’s vengeance on the world. Here, with the incense rising from the altar, the symbolism should be clear. The incense is symbolic of their prayers, and it is rising up to God—God is listening to their prayers. That’s why there is silence in Heaven. It’s as if God told all of Heaven, “Shhh! Stop all that singing praises stuff! I’m listening to the prayers of my servants!”

The next thing that happens is that the angel then takes the censer, fills it with fire from the altar, and hurls it down to earth: and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and a great earthquake” (8:5). Can you guess what this means? If you guessed that this is symbolic of God answering the prayers of the saints by beginning to bring His wrath on the earth, you’d be right! And remember, whenever you read that kind of “thunder, lightning, earthquake” language, think, Mount Sinai, Throne of God—God is about to act.

Revelation 8:6-13: The First Four Trumpets
Four TrumpetsWith that, the next cycle of seven begins—this time, it is seven trumpets. And, just as with the seven seals, the first four fit together. These first four trumpets are filled with Old Testament imagery that you might be able to figure out fairly easily. And, lest I be redundant, what these four trumpets describe is not a future picture of literal, natural catastrophes that will take place during a future seven-year tribulation period.  They do not encourage the reader to look forward into the future, but rather backwards in the past, to God’s judgments upon evil nations who had oppressed Israel in the Old Testament, namely Egypt and Babylon.

The four trumpets unfold in the following manner:

  Imagery OT Allusion
First Trumpet Hail and fire mixed with blood is hurled down to earth Exodus 9:13-16—The Plagues
Second Trumpet A blazing mountain is thrown into the sea Jeremiah 51:25, 42—Symbolic imagery regarding Babylon’s destruction
Third Trumpet Wormwood, the great star, turns the waters bitter Exodus 7:14-24—The Nile is turned to blood

Exodus 32:20—The Israelites are forced to drink bitter water for their worship of the golden calf

Fourth Trumpet 1/3 of the sun, moon, and stars are darkened Exodus 10:21-23—The 9th plague of darkness

Joel 2:30-31—A prophecy of the Coming Day of YHWH

Notice that whereas the destruction associated with the first four seals was 1/4 of the earth, the destruction associated with the first four trumpets is 1/3 of the earth. (Keep that in mind for later on).

The point of the imagery here with the first four trumpets should be obvious now. When seen in the context of Revelation, these trumpets reveal that God will indeed answer the prayers of His servants, and will bring His wrath and judgment upon the evildoers of this world…just as He has done in the past. God’s redemption of His people, and His judgment on their oppressors go hand in hand.

Just as God saved Israel from Egypt, brought His wrath upon Egypt, and brought His people to the Promised Land, so will He do again with True Israel in Christ—only this time the stakes are much higher. This is the Ultimate Exodus from the evil powers of this world into the Heavenly Promised Land—the New Jerusalem in the New Creation.

Simply put, our history as God’s people finds its roots in the Old Testament story of the Exodus. That is the picture we must have if we are to understand the biblical concept of salvation.  Our salvation isn’t some abstract thing: “I’m saved!” Well, okay, but what does that mean? What does it look like? With the Exodus, we are given a concrete example as to what God’s salvation is about and looks like: He is in the business of saving His chosen people (not just “individuals”) from the oppressive and evil powers of this world, and bringing them into the Heavenly Promised Land. Our salvation is the Ultimate Exodus.

Next time, we will look at chapter 9, and the 5th and 6th trumpets.

Revelation 7: The 144,000, the Great Multitude, and the Great Tribulation…Get Ready to be Surprised! (Part 7)

Revelation 7: The 144,000, the Great Multitude, and the Great Tribulation…Get Ready to be Surprised! (Part 7)

At the end of chapter 6, the kings of the earth ask, “Who will be able to stand?” As soon as chapter 7 opens, we start to find out: four angels are standing, then another angel comes forth to seal the servants of God—144,000. Then John sees a great multitude standing before the throne of the Lamb; and then we find that all the angels, the elders, and the four living creatures are standing before the throne, worshipping God.

Great MultitudeNow, chapter 7 of Revelation is the subject of much debate: Who are the 144,000? Who is the “great multitude”? What is the “great tribulation”? In dispensationalist theology, the 144,000 in 7:1-8 are seen as the number of Jews who are to be saved during a literal 7-year tribulation at the end of time, whereas the “great multitude” of 7:9-17 is seen as the believers who are raptured to Heaven either before, during, or after the “great tribulation.” But as I’ve said before in previous posts, such a dispensationalist interpretation is highly problematic. At the very least, it simply does not take into consideration the clear Old Testament imagery and context in this chapter.

The 144,000
First of all, who are the 144,000? Verse 3 tells us: they are the “servants of God.” In the Old Testament, the Jews considered themselves to be the servants of God, the nation of Israel, the chosen people of God. But with the coming of Christ, the chosen people were no longer seen as simply the nation of Israel. In Christ, the “True Israel” was formed. It was to be made up of both Jews and Gentiles, for it was the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham, namely that through his offspring, there would be a great nation (i.e. Israel), and through that nation, all nations would be blessed. These “servants of God,” therefore, are the True Israel in Christ—those who have put their faith and identity in Christ.

144,000So why does it say “144,00” and then name the twelve tribes of Israel? The answer lies in the equation 12 x 12 x 1,000 = 144,000. The number is symbolic of the full number of the chosen people of God: 12 tribes (from Israel—i.e. Jews who put their faith in Christ) x 12 apostles (who went out to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles) x 1,000 (a symbolic number of completion). After all, the reason why Jesus named 12 apostles was because he was making a statement that he was redefining who the True Israel was. Therefore, 12 x 12 = 144 (Jews and Gentiles together) then multiply it by 1,000 (God’s number of completion) and voila: the 144,000 are the full number of believers from the Jews and Gentiles together, fulfilled in Christ.

The Great Multitude
And who is the “great multitude” in 7:9-17? Again, we are told: they are from every nation, tribe, people, and language. This is not a “second group” different from the 144,000. It is the same group. John hears the number 144,000 in 7:1-8, then he sees the countless “great multitude” in 7:9-17. Remember, the 144,000 is to be taken symbolically, not literally (unless, of course, you are a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses!).

So the 144,000 and the “great multitude” is the same group. Here’s something else: we are told that they are wearing white robes. Sound familiar? It should. This “great multitude” is the complete number that God mentioned to the martyrs under the Altar of Souls in the fifth sea. He told them to wait until the full number of their fellow servants are killed. And here is that full number. These are the one who will be able to stand on the Great Day of the Wrath of YHWH.

The Great Tribulation
Furthermore, John is told that these are those who have come out of the “great tribulation.” No, this is not a reference to the dispensationalist idea of a literal 7-year tribulation at the end of time. (Where in chapter 7 does it say anything about 7 years, for that matter?). As I stated in an earlier post, “tribulation” is the Greek word in the New Testament that describes what Christians go through. In the context of the Revelation 6-7, the picture John gives is of those Christians who were martyred and who thus went through that great tribulation. They may have been killed by Rome, but John’s declaration is clear: they are standing before the throne of the Christ the Lamb—the one who has conquered death itself. They are in God’s Temple, and Christ the Lamb is their shepherd.

But one thing must be made clear: “tribulation” is something that the Christians in the first century expected they might have to endure and go through, not something that they would be rescued from.

Conclusion
In any case, the events in chapter 7 act as sort of an interlude between the opening of the sixth and seventh seals. Now that the “full number” of martyrs have been sealed as the servants of God, the time is ready to open the seventh seal…

Book Review: Norman Wirzba’s “The Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity”

Book Review: Norman Wirzba’s “The Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity”

Wirzba, Norman. Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity New York: HarperOne, 2016. (238 pages + notes & index)

Way of LoveNorman Wirzba’s most recent book, The Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity, speaks to our current cultural climate within the American brand of Christianity that often values “right doctrine” over the day to day imitation of Christ in the living out of Christian love. It is not that correct theology isn’t important—it obviously is. But, as Dr. Gordon Fee would often say in his classes at Regent College, “Right doctrine has become the idol of many Evangelicals.” What he meant was that too often we become so obsessed with being right that we forget to live out what is good and loving. Or to put it another way, we are so anxious to nail people up for not agreeing with certain points of our doctrine, we forget that Christ has called us to bear our crosses for the good of those very people—that, essentially, is the “way of love” that Wirzba is encouraging Christians to recover.

In that sense, Wirzba argues that Christianity is best understood as “a training ground in the way of love” (4), and a school in which love is learned: “It is an ongoing training session in which the many versions of love on offer are tried and tested” (7). Now, training is not always easy or fun. It often feels like the first day of working out when you are completely out of shape—it’s going to hurt. What’s more, it’s actually harder than that, because it involves dealing with other people who have their own hang ups and flaws as well.

This reminds me of another thing Gordon Fee said, “God has called us to love the unlovable—He’s called us to be part of the Church.” Translation? Being part of the Church is to be part of a community of flawed, often unlovable people, and to somehow figuring out the way of love within that community. To paraphrase the apostle Paul, you can have all the theology, doctrine, programs, or spiritual gifts you want, but if you don’t have and live out Christ’s love within the community, then you’re just a banging gong.

Real Life Examples of Loving Working Out in Life
In order to illustrate how hard the way of love really is, Wirzba offers a number of real life examples throughout his book of Christians who have done some pretty incredible things in their attempt to live out the love of Christ in the real world. Let me relate just two examples. In chapter one, Wirzba tells of Oscar Romero of San Salvador, who was eventually assassinated because he chose to live out Christ’s love and care for the poor.

And then, in chapter 12, Wirzba tells the story of Maggy Barankitse, a Burundian Tutsi who lived through the massacres that engulfed both Burundi and Rwanda in the early 1990s. Although she witnessed unspeakable atrocities and suffered tremendously, she chose to stay and care for the orphans whose parents had been slaughtered. Amazingly, one of those children went to the neighbor who had killed her parents and asked him to ask her for forgiveness. She knew she had to forgive, because if she didn’t, the hate in her would fester, and she’d never be able to live again. She ended up actually asking that man to be her father…and he agreed. That astounding act of love and forgiveness resurrected life out of death and despair.

New Creation
I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’d be able to do what that young girl did, and the fact that I know I couldn’t tells me how much more I need to learn about love. Nevertheless, Wirzba insists that the way of love is, and will always be, a sacrificial act done in community, committed to seeking the good of others. Yes, it’s hard, but that is the way of love, the way of Christ.

That’s also the way of the New Creation. Wirzba makes it a point to emphasize that living out the love of Christ in the real world isn’t just some abstract platitude, but is actually rooted in the very real “deeper reality,” if you will, of Heaven. He is quick to point out, though, that Heaven should not be seen as some sort of escape from this world, but rather should be seen in the way the Bible actually presents it, particularly in Revelation: the Christian hope isn’t to escape from this world, but to have Heaven come down to earth and redeem and transform it. God created this world and declared it good, so good that He is intent on redeeming it. Therefore, part of the Christian’s calling and mission is to help extend Heaven’s reach in this world. Or as Wirzba states, “Heaven is not found by ascending to some faraway place, but by the love of God descending into the lives of creatures” (207).

This is why “the way of love” is so crucial to understand, for it really does lie at the heart of the Gospel. It is the self-sacrificing within the community for the good of others, in the hope that such an expression of love will actually help transform and resurrect God’s good creation. Or to put it even more simply: the death of self for the good of others that leads to resurrection and the new creation.

And the kicker is that that resurrection of life isn’t something one has to wait for far into the future. Yes, the new creation won’t be consummated until Christ’s comes again, but we can get a glimpse of that future Kingdom of God now, because, as Christ himself said, “The Kingdom of God is near.” Heaven has broken into our present world, and is transforming it from the inside out. The Christian life has no other goal than to be transformed by it, and to take part in the transformation of others.

That is the way of love.

No book review will be able to adequately cover all the richness and insights that can be found in The Way of Love, but hopefully this will be an encouragement to pick the book up and read it for yourself.

Revelation 6: The Opening of the Six Seals–the Four Horsemen, the Altar of Souls, and the Day of YHWH (Part 6)

Revelation 6: The Opening of the Six Seals–the Four Horsemen, the Altar of Souls, and the Day of YHWH (Part 6)

We now come to the part of Revelation where people often get scared. The reason they get scared is because there is very vivid and strange imagery, and they don’t know how to interpret it. Rest assured, though, it is much more understandable than you might think, so let’s jump right into Revelation 6, and the opening of the first six seals.

Remember, in chapters 4-5, the scene took place in Heaven, where John saw a vision of God’s throne room. The dilemma was that no one was worthy to open the scroll with the seven seals. And remember, the scroll is essentially the revelation of God to the seven churches as to what is going on: Why are they being persecuted and killed? Why is Rome allowed to run rampant over the earth? What is God doing?

No one is worthy to break the seven seals and open the scroll until the Lion of Judah appears—but lo and behold, the lion is a slaughtered Lamb. It is Christ, who reigns over creation because He allowed Himself to be sacrificed for the sins of the world. Now here in chapter 6 the next scene unfolds. As the Lamb breaks each seal, the scene shifts to earth: what Christ opens in Heaven is seen unfolding on earth.

The First Four Seals
Four HorsemenThe first four seals need to be seen as a group—they are the “four horsemen” of the apocalypse.  But they aren’t predictors of things that will happen in the future; they are revelations of what was happening at that time in the world. Each horse that comes out with the first four seals has a certain color and a certain description. A chart will help here:

Horse Description
White Horse The rider has a bow and a crown; goes out to conquer
Red Horse The rider is given a great sword; takes peace away; gets people to slaughter each other
Black Horse The rider has balances in his hand; the voice describes high prices and a lack of food
Pale Horse The rider is Death, with Hades behind him; he kills ¼ of the earth through sword, famine, pestilence and wild beasts

Now, some people think that the rider on the white horse is Christ, but there are two problems with this view: (1) How could Christ be the Lamb opening the scrolls, and at the same time be the rider on the white horse? And (2) if Christ is the rider on the white horse, then it is hard to see what connection it has to the other three horses.

Besides, one of the things you will see throughout Revelation is how there are always two contrasting figures (i.e. Babylon vs. the Heavenly Jerusalem; the whore of Babylon vs. the Bride). At the end of Revelation we see Christ riding a white horse, and so we need to see this rider in Revelation 6, not as Christ, but as the contrasting figure. So who is the rider on the white horse? We need to interpret the white horse in relation to the other three. Here’s how it works…

Taken as a group, we can see that the four horsemen symbolize the self-destructive and war-like nature of this fallen world. As the Terminator in Terminator 2 says about the human race, “It is in your nature to destroy each other.” The four horsemen show that very nature, and what it looked like in ancient Rome.

Therefore, the white horse symbolizes the imperialistic and conquering nature of empires. And, given the time, the early Christians would have understood the white horse to be Rome.

The red horse thus is the logical consequence of the white horse. It is war, the result of what happens when empires like Rome are bent on conquest.

The black horse symbolizes the result of war, namely economic ruin and poverty to the country that is conquered.

Finally, the pale horse is the ultimate consequence of all this: death and the grave.

So what do these first four seals reveal? The state of the human race in general, and the destructive forces of Rome in particular.

The Fifth and Sixth Seals
Altar of SoulsThe fifth seal then gives us a sobering and shocking picture: the murdered saints who have been martyred because of their witness to the Word of God. And where are they? They are under the altar of souls. What is this? Well, we must first realize that in the Temple in Jerusalem, the altar was the place where the priests made atoning sacrifices to YHWH on behalf of Israel. In the Old Testament, these sacrifices foreshadowed the atoning sacrifice that Jesus (i.e. the Lamb) made for the whole world.

Now, “atonement” basically means to make peace with God. We have always been told that through Christ’s death we have been reconciled to God. But this picture with the fifth seal shows us something that we don’t often realize. In the Heavenly Temple, who is the sacrifice? The saints—the Christians. And if this isn’t shocking enough, when the souls under the altar ask, “How long, O Lord, until you avenge our blood?” God’s response is this: they are given white robes (which symbolize being cleanse of their sins), and they are told that they have to wait until the complete number of their fellow servants are killed. In other words, the Lord is saying, “Wait, I’m going to let more of you be killed.”

So what is going on here? It’s pretty simple. The fifth seal gives a vivid and shocking picture of what it means to follow Christ. It’s hard for us in the USA to swallow, but for millions of Christians throughout history, this is to be expected—just as the Christians who have been beheaded by ISIS.

Yes, Christ died for the sins of the world, and yes, His death was the atoning sacrifice that made peace with God possible. But how are we, as Christians, to share God’s grace and salvation? Through our own sacrifice and persecution. How do we show the world what God’s grace is all about? We imitate Christ and accept unjust suffering, persecution, and possibly death without resistance. We let our lives be a sacrifice that brings God’s grace into this world.

All throughout the New Testament, this is the way Christians are encouraged to live: live a crucified life, and accept unjust suffering, just like Christ did, for it is through this that God’s grace and Christ’s love are shared. Just read I Peter 2:11-25. This puts an intense challenge to use as Christians. We can’t just say, “Christ suffered and died for you, will you accept God’s grace?” We also, if the situation arises, must also live Christ’s sacrifice out in our own lives. We can’t just talk about the crucifixion—we must accept it in our own lives. After all, why are so many people who have grown up in church so turned off to Christianity? Isn’t it because they’ve heard the teaching all their lives, but have never really seen God’s grace and love lived out among those who claim to be followers of Christ?

The message of the fifth seal is hard: be prepared to imitate Christ unto death. Salvation only comes through suffering.

The sixth seal is fairly easy to understand if you are familiar with Old Testament imagery. It gives us a picture of the coming day of the wrath of YHWH (i.e. the Lord) upon the evildoers of the world. Images of “a great shaking of the land,” “the sun turning black, the moon turning to blood,” etc., are all images that the Old Testament prophets used to talk about when God would finally come and redeem His people, avenge their suffering, and judge the evil people of the world. And let’s be clear: this imagery is not literal; it is metaphorical. In addition, it has echoes of what was experienced at God’s throne in chapter 4, and that also means it echoes the experience Israel had with God on Mount Sinai. Like I said in my post regarding Revelation 4-5, whenever you encounter imagery like this in Revelation, think “God is acting from His throne!”

And since the sixth seal announces that God will soon act, we need to realize that this is precisely what the martyrs under the altar of souls of the fifth seal have asked for: God is getting ready to answer their prayers. And note, God’s people are no longer just Old Testament Israel. They are now seen as people from all nations: Jews and Gentiles. All who put their faith in Christ—these are God’s chosen people; these are the True Israel.

Finally, 6:17 is quite an interesting verse. As the kings of the earth see the Day of the Wrath of YHWH coming, they ask, “Who can stand?” To them, it is obvious that none of them can stand against YHWH. The answer to that question, though, comes in the very next verse that begins chapter 7…

Those who are standing are God’s servants, the 144,000, the great multitude.

And that is a topic for the next post.

Now For Something Completely Different: MY BOOK ON MY LIFE IN TEACHING! “Getting Schooled”!

Now For Something Completely Different: MY BOOK ON MY LIFE IN TEACHING! “Getting Schooled”!

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I want to take the time to shamelessly promote my self-published book entitled, Getting Schooled: The Lessons, Plans, and Life of a Teacher. It is a collection of humorous stories from my years in education, from student teaching, to my time teaching overseas in the Peace Corps, to my time at three different small Christian schools. If you are a teacher, or if you are someone planning to go into teaching, this book will be a humorous and realistic look at the day to day experience of teaching that all teachers can relate to.

You can purchase it at either createspace or on Amazon. The paperback is $7.99 and the Kindle is $2.99. Here is an excerpt from the book.

Freshmen Elections

My first year of teaching in California almost ended before it really began; at least that is what I thought at the time. Before the school year began, the principal had convinced me to be the one of the advisors for the class of 2001. The principal assured me that the “real work” of being a class advisor didn’t really happen until their junior year, when they had to plan the Junior-Senior prom. As far as the freshman and sophomore years were concerned, all I really had to worry about was electing class officers and assisting the class during “Spirit Week” that took place in late February. “It’s a pretty easy way to make an extra $1000,” he told me. So, for an extra $1000, I held my breath and took the plunge…

…And almost never came back up for air. The event that almost caused me to suffocate and drown was the dreaded freshman class elections at the end of the first week of the 1997-1998 school year. Not only did I almost sink deep into the depths that all first year teachers know all too well within my first week of teaching, I almost dragged down every single student in the freshman class with me.

As every first year teacher knows, there comes a time, normally early on in that first year, when you realize that you have absolutely no control of the situation; that the students have your entire fate as a successful teacher in their hands, and are madly bouncing it around like a rubber ball. And since you are an inexperienced novice of a teacher, you do what comes naturally—you panic…and scream at the top of your lungs, thinking that such an outburst will frighten the unruly mob, only to come face to face with the realization that your outburst just adds to the day’s entertainment.

The fateful day started ominously. We were going to be on a special schedule that would allow one full period for each class to have their elections. The class advisors would run the elections and allow the students who wanted to be class officers to give their speeches. After that, the class would then cast their votes. I had to somehow conduct the elections alone and corral 90 freshmen during class elections in the gym. The equation went something like this: me + 90 freshmen + the school gym + 45 minutes = impending chaos. Picture the students as hurricane Katrina, the school gym as New Orleans, and me as the levees. It would be just a matter of time until the levee was going to break.

The bell rang and the freshmen made their way to the gym. Amazingly enough, within 10 minutes I had actually gotten them seated together on the bleachers. Score one for the new guy! The next challenge would be to make sure the aspiring student officers would stay within the five-minute time limit for their speeches. This would not be a problem at all. In an ironic twist of fate, though, this turned into an even bigger problem.

I don’t know what it is like in most high schools, but it has been my experience with the schools I have taught in that there are not exactly a lot of willing candidates for class officers. First, there is the president (normally 2-3 candidates); second, there is the vice-president (2-3 candidates); then there is the secretary (i.e. the friend of one candidate who got talked into doing it); finally there is the treasurer (another friend who acquiesces to be the treasurer the morning of the election). One might think that this would be ideal; after all, that means about 5-8 speeches. That would mean about 30 minutes of speeches and about 20 minutes for voting—perfect timing! That should take up the full period!

Well, not necessarily. Freshmen speeches for class officer can be categorized in one of three ways. First, there is the typical freshman class speech: “Hi…I’m Mike…uh, you know that….Well, I think it would be cool to be class president cuz…ah, I don’t know…just because. I want to help the school…maybe get more snacks in the cafeteria…and… um…yeah, that’s about it.” WOW! That took all of 45 seconds! How long did this aspiring bureaucrat work on that tremendous feat of oration? Granted, these are freshmen, but you’d think one would come up with something more than more snacks in the cafeteria. Second, there is the speech of the one running unopposed: “Hey, I’m Julia! I’m the only one running for treasurer, so looks like I’m it!” WOW! Ten seconds! That must be some kind of record! And let’s face it, it’s kind of gutsy! After all, even psychotic dictators like Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein at least would play along and actually give speeches to at least put forth the illusion of democratic elections.

Finally, there is the speech of that one eager beaver who would talk for the entire period if she could, going on about how she really wants to make this year the best ever, and how she has a laundry list of reforms and proposals that, if the class would get behind, could really make a difference. Unfortunately, it is precisely this kind of student who is not well-liked by most of the class and who doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell to win.

Total those riveting freshman speeches up together, and what you have is a lot of extra time on your hands. In my case, even after I passed out the ballots, had the students cast their votes, and had collected them, I realized that we still had 30 minutes to kill. So, what do you do? I announced to the students that they could sit on the bleachers for the next half hour and talk with their friends until the bell rang. It was at that point that one student raised his hand and asked, “Could we stand up and just walk around in the gym?” I responded, “Sure!” After all, what’s the harm in that? I thought everything would be cool.

Well, it wasn’t cool. What I learned very quickly is that absolutely NOTHING freshmen do is EVER “cool” …or calm…or relaxed. Within the first few minutes, a few freshman boys got into the basketballs and started shooting baskets. Yet within the next few minutes, they had started to play impromptu games of dodge ball with the basketballs. So I went over to them and said, (no, I had to yell a bit, due to the rising decibel level of the freshman noise), “Hey guys! Don’t be throwing the basketballs at each other, okay? I’m not even sure we’re supposed to have them out! So just shoot baskets, or we’ll have to put them away!” Then, since I assumed that they would actually respect my authority, I simply walked back to the other end of the gym to chat with some other students who wanted to hear about my time overseas.

Now, please note a few things about what I said. Virtually everything I told them was wrong. Note first the “okay?”—it doesn’t really evoke “teacher authority” now, does it? It sounds like I’m asking their permission to allow me to tell them to not pelt each other in the head with basketballs. Then, note my second blunder: “I don’t know if we’re supposed to have them out!”  That tells the students, “This guy thinks what we’re doing might be wrong, but isn’t going to do anything about it!” This then plants the thought into their brains, “What else can we get away with?” Finally, I simply walked away, without making sure they actually did what I told…no, politely asked…them to do.

This kind of insight only comes after the kind of experience I endured that day. Five minutes after I walked away, the levee started to break. As I was talking with a few students on the other side of the gym, I happened to look up to see what was going on. By now it had gotten really loud, to the point where I was thinking I needed to tell them they should probably sit down and just talk a little more quietly. To my horror, I saw something I never thought I’d ever see as a teacher: a large group of the freshmen had assembled at the base of the bleachers and had their hands up in the air. They were awaiting the arrival of little Michael Nolf, who had just jumped off from probably the fifth row of the bleachers and who was, at that very moment, flying through the air….getting ready to bodysurf across the gym!

My very first thought screamed through my brain, “I AM SO FIRED!” My very first action was to proceed to scream my head off and possibly do irrevocable damage to not only my vocal chords, but also to the eardrums of the innocent girls who were unfortunate enough to be standing right next to me at the time. Even though we still had about fifteen minutes before the bell rang, I fully intended to keep screaming until the bell rang: “HEY!!!!!! ALRIGHT! EVERYONE GET BACK IN THE BLEACHERS AND SIT DOWN! SIT DOWN! SIT DOWN! GO! GO! GO! RIGHT NOW! SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP! NO TALKING! I MEAN IT!”

The problem with this sort of wild-eyed crazy approach to discipline is that, although it understandably terrifies the more timid and “good” students, it actually backs you into a very small corner—you’ve unloaded your discipline clip and your discipline gun is now empty. And the kids know it!

As I was screaming for all the students to get back in the bleachers, there were a handful of boys who were not intimidated in the least. In fact, they viewed the whole scene as an opportunity for the spotlight, and proceeded to mimic my actions and laugh at how ridiculous I looked. Well, this was something I simply could not tolerate, so I unloaded another salvo of anger: “THIS ISN’T FUNNY! GET BACK IN THE BLEACHERS! SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP!!!” But, as I said before, my discipline gun was out of bullets. Their leader, Marco, was not intimidated at all and aped a few more gestures aimed to humiliate me. And so…. “MARCO! COME HERE!!!” (What was I going to do? I hadn’t thought that far ahead! I was too blind with rage!) “MARCO! GO SIT IN THE CORNER OF THE GYM! GET THAT CHAIR AND FACE THE WALL!”

The reason that was a mistake was that now I had literally given Marco the entire gym floor as a stage. He sat down in the chair next to me, beaming. “NO! OVER IN THE CORNER!” So he started scooting his chair along the gym floor as he remained seated. “GET UP AND WALK OVER THERE!” So he got up and started walking to the corner…. “NO MARCO! TAKE THE CHAIR!” Finally he made his way to the far end of the gym and just continued to make faces when I wasn’t looking. I felt like a helpless fool.

The ironic thing about my horrific baptism into the world of high school elections, though, is that over the course of the next four years, that class and I developed a real bond, and that day eventually achieved iconic status in our collective memory as a class. In fact, the students and I realized it was going to be something memorable by the following Monday. You see, the one thing about that whole event that I did right really was how I handled it after the fact. When those students came back into my class the following Monday, many of them apologized for acting so crazy. I in turn apologized for temporarily morphing into Satan…and then I couldn’t help but crack a smile and laugh.

Soon we were all laughing about it. After all, the whole scene really was funny! A sense of humor goes a long way in teaching. It helps smooth out the rough edges and sooth hurt feelings and potential festering resentment, and in cases like the freshman class elections of 1997, a sense of humor, coupled with a little bit of humility, has the power to transform the panicked thrashings of a first-year teacher drowning in despair into an endearing and fond memory of a miraculous walk on the sea.

In fact, when I e-mailed some of my former students from the class of 2001 for ideas for this book, almost all of them insisted on me telling this story. Make no mistake though, even though I can laugh at it now, at the time I suffered a horrific baptism in the life of teaching. Baptism signifies a death—it is going down in the waters of chaos, and coming up born anew. And on that day of the freshman class elections in the fall of 1997, the levee broke, and prayin’ did me no good. I was going down.

 

Revelation 4-5: God’s Throne Room, the Lamb, and the Scroll (Part 5)

Revelation 4-5: God’s Throne Room, the Lamb, and the Scroll (Part 5)

The Apocalyptic Symphony Starts
With the beginning of chapter 4, we have the “first movement” of the symphony of Revelation—this is where the main concert begins. What we will see is that the main story of Revelation comes in two parts. Part One consists of chapters 4-11, while Part Two consists of chapters 12-22. As we make our way through Revelation, we will see some incredible parallels between the two parts—this is not a coincidence.

Essentially, the literary pattern we can see in Revelation is this. In Part One, we see a distinctly “this world” perspective on the situation the early Church was facing—facing Roman persecution, asking God, “Why?” and waiting for God to act. In Part Two, the curtain is pulled back, so to speak, and we John gives us a glimpse of the larger perspective in the spiritual realm—the real problem isn’t just Rome; it is Satan, the Great Dragon.

As we will see, the very way Part One is laid out is repeated in Part Two. In that sense, Revelation is a little like Ravel’s Bolero. What you notice when you listen to that musical piece is that the same, basic musical theme is repeated over and over again. But each time the theme is repeated, more and more instruments are added and the music intensifies, so that what started out with only one or two instruments ends up with an entire orchestra.

Revelation 4-11, therefore, is like the first movement of a symphony. The focus is that of the “battle” between Christians on earth and the oppressive kings of the earth. Revelation 12-22, though, takes up this basic theme, expands and intensifies it, and showed the eternal and cosmic significance of the Christians’ earthly struggle. In Revelation 12-22 we see that the battle isn’t simply between Christians and evil kings, but it is ultimately between Christ and the Beast, between God and Satan himself.

Revelation 4: The Throne Room of God and Praises
The vision John has in chapter 4 is that of the very throne room of God in Heaven. John’s vision of the throne room of God is loaded with Old Testament imagery. All throughout the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Moses, and Daniel were given visions of the throne of God, and Revelation 4 is no different. The point of chapter 4, obviously, is to emphasize to the Christians at that time (as well as to us) just who the true King of the universe is. Someone who is bloodied in battle has to be given a reminder of who and what he is fighting for.

One thing to note here concerns the various “praise songs” that are sung throughout Revelation. They never really appealed to me that much, mainly because they looked pretty boring—I would read them and immediately think of the choir of the church I grew up in…not my kind of music. Well, I’ve come to realize that when we read these praise songs in Revelation, we need to picture them being sung, not by a small choir, or by a chapel full of high school students who half-heartedly sing, or don’t sing at all. We need to picture these songs being sung with all the passion, feeling, and emotion that human beings can muster. If you love Handel’s Messiah, picture a choir like that singing. Or if you are like me, you might picture something different: maybe U2 singing Gloria….

The Vision of the Throne Room: Chapter 4
IMG_20160519_105020427_HDR (2)When I was in high school, I took a number of art classes. One of the things I did was what is on your right: my artistic representation of what John describes in Revelation 4. The thing to notice in this vision is the sheer symbolism of it all, replete with a host of Old Testament allusions.

First, there is the throne: the rainbow encircling it alludes to the rainbow after the flood in Genesis 9:13-17. Before the throne, there is a sea of glass. Again, “the sea” is hugely symbolic throughout the Bible.

  1. God creates dry land out of the Sea of Chaos (Genesis 1)
  2. God saves Noah from the flood, and brings the ark to rest on dry land (Genesis 6-9)
  3. God saves Israel by bringing them through the Red Sea (Exodus 14); throughout the Old Testament in places like Psalms 74 and 89, and Isaiah 27, God’s salvation of His people is spoken of using this mythological language of God crushing Leviathan in the Sea. If you will, Israel saw themselves being saved through the Red Sea and being brought to the Promised Land, as a “historical re-enactment” of the mythological account of God creating the universe.

Secondly, there are the 24 thrones and the 24 elders on the thrones, clothed in white and wearing crowns. The obvious question is, “Why are there 24?” This will be made clearer as we go through Revelation, but for now we have to realize that 12 +12 = 24. Twelve stands for both the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles who go out to the Gentiles. Simply put, this is John’s way of emphasizing that there is one people of God, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles.

Thirdly, there is the description of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder bursting forth from the throne. This is extremely important to take note: this description hearkens back to Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:18)—the thunder and lightning is a God thing: God is acting. The reason why this is important is that at very specific times in Revelation (namely the seventh seal in 8:5, the seventh trumpet in 11:19, and the seventh bowl in 16:18-24), this kind of description is revisited and expanded. John is not describing actual natural phenomena that will happen—it is his symbolic way of saying “God is acting!” Whenever you come across this kind of language in Revelation, think, “God is at work to save His people and to bring judgment on evil.”

Finally, there are the four creatures around the throne. This is an allusion to both Isaiah’s vision of God’s throne in Isaiah 6, as well as Ezekiel’s vision in Ezekiel 1. They bear witness to the glory of God. Later on, in the New Testament, part of the reason the early Church chose to have four gospels was that they bear witness to Christ much in the same way. In fact, each of the gospels are often represented by these four beasts: Matthew = a man; Mark = a lion; Luke = an ox; and John = an eagle.

The Lamb and the Scroll: Chapter 5
Revelation 5 LambSomething happens in chapter 4 that carries over into chapter 5, is what I call “the ripple effect of praise.” Picture this whole scene as four concentric circles around God’s throne: (A) the four creature around the throne; (B) the 24 elders around them; (C) the many angels around them; and then (D) the entirety of creation.

The praises begin with the four creatures (4:8), and they continue with the 24 elders (4:11). And notice, they are praising God for being the Ruler of all, the great I AM, and for being the Creator.

Then another scene takes place before the “ripple effect of praise” continues…

The One who sits on the throne (i.e. God the Father) has a sealed scroll in His hand, and we learn that no one is worthy to open it. Eventually, we will learn specifically what the scroll contains, but for now it is enough to point out that what is written in the scroll is the defeat of the oppressors of God’s people. It contains the judgment of the enemies of God’s people. The reason why John weeps when no one was worthy enough to open the seals was because it seemed that evil would not be conquered at all.

John is quickly comforted, though. He is told that the Lion of Judah is able to open the scroll. This designation is clearly of the Davidic Messiah. Lions are often seen as kingly, royals beasts, so it comes as a surprise that when John turns to see this lion, he instead sees a lamb—and not just a lamb, but a lamb that had been slaughtered. This is the very paradox of Christ: he’s a crucified Messiah, a slaughtered lamb who is a king, a lion.

John sees the lamb in the center of God’s throne Himself. And once the lamb takes the scroll, all of Heaven who has just been worshipping God the Father now worships Christ the Lamb. This is very important to realize because it deals with the mystery of the divinity of Christ.  Let’s face it, the question, “How can Jesus be both man and God?” is a tough one that no one can fully understand. I doubt Peter, Paul, and John really “fully understood” it, but nevertheless, they were faced with the reality that the man, Jesus, whom they followed was someone one with God.

Once Christ the Lamb takes the scroll, the praises begin again: the four creatures and the 24 elders proclaim He is worthy to take the scroll, because He was slaughtered, and because it was through His blood that God was able to make a kingdom of priests from among all tribes, languages, peoples, and nations (5:9-10).

Christ reigns because Christ sacrificed Himself so that all humanity could be a kingdom of priests for God. Early Church Fathers like Irenaeus of Lyons made it clear that it was through Christ that God was creating a new humanity to fulfill His purposes for Adam all along.

With that, the “ripple effect of praise” continues: the thousands of angels in Heaven join in (5:11-12), and then finally all of creation (5:13). And once that praise hits all of creation, the four living creatures say, “Amen!” (5:14).

And now, the seals will be opened, and the fireworks will begin…in chapter 6.

Revelation 2-3: The Letters to the Seven Churches (Part 4)

Revelation 2-3: The Letters to the Seven Churches (Part 4)

If you liken the entire book of Revelation to a symphony, and if chapter 1 is considered the program to the symphony, chapters 2-3 can be considered the opening overture. They consist of seven specific messages written to the seven churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Now even though they are addressed to specific churches at that time, that doesn’t mean what is written doesn’t (or can’t) apply to us. But it does mean that if we are to properly apply what it says to us, then we must first make sure we understand what it originally meant to them.

Seven ChurchesWhat we find when we read these seven messages is that various churches were faced with various problems: some were being persecuted, some were being led astray by false teaching, some were getting rich, arrogant and seduced by the things of the world, and some were just stale and lifeless. Some things haven’t changed all that much in 2,000 years, for today there are churches with the exact same problems. So as we go through these seven messages, ask yourself, “Which church more closely resembles my church, or the situation of the state of the Church in America today?”

John fashions his seven messages using the same basic formula for each one. Each message is laid out in the following manner:

  1. There is a description of Jesus that corresponds to John’s vision in chapter 1.
  2. There is an encouraging word to the church (i.e. “Good job!” and a pat on the back)
  3. There is reproof to the church (i.e. “You eeediot!” and a slap in the face)
  4. There is a warning and/or instruction
  5. There is a promise to those who “conquer”
  6. There is a final statement: “He who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Ephesus
In his message to Ephesus, Jesus is depicted as the one holding the seven stars and walking among the seven golden lampstands.

ephesusJohn then congratulates them on their toil and patient endurance, and the fact that they don’t put up with “evil-doers.” They also guard against false teaching. They are still standing strong, even in the face of some resistance. Still, John says that they have “abandoned the love you had at first,” and he calls them to repent.

Interestingly, John then congratulates them for hating “the works of the Nicolaitans.” No one really knows who this group is, but some have speculated that since the word “Nicolaitans” is derived from the Greek word nike (yes, like the shoe), and since nike means “to conquer” or “victory,” that this group might be equated with what we might consider the “health and wealth gospel”—“Trust Jesus and get rich, get that Mercedes…and live your best life now!” If that’s the case, then there are a few church leaders in America whom John would probably consider a Nicolaitan.

The promise John gives to Ephesus is that to the “one who conquers” will be allowed to eat from the Tree of Life in the garden of God. This foreshadows the end of Revelation when John sees the Tree of Life in the New Jerusalem.

Smyrna
In his message to Ephesus, Jesus is depicted as “the first and the last, who was dead and came to life.”

SmyrnaSmyrna is the one church the John has nothing bad to say about. The only word he gives to them is positive. Even though the church in Smyrna was undergoing affliction and poverty, John says they are truly rich. We learn that there is a group of Jews in Smyrna who are slandering the church in Smyrna—John goes so far as to call them “the synagogue of Satan.” Now it must be pointed out that John is not being anti-Semitic, after all, he was Jewish. No, he was referring to that specific Jewish synagogue in Smyrna who was actively hostile to the church.

In any case, John tells Smyrna not to be afraid of the coming suffering, and that some of them would be thrown in prison. The test for them would be to stay faithful. If they are faithful even to death, John says they will be given the crown of life.

The promise John gives to Smyrna is that the “one who conquers” will not be hurt by the second death. Now, at this point, “the second death” might seem ambiguous, but it is something that John clarifies at the end of Revelation. Spoiler alert: it’s the lake of fire.

Pergamum
In his message to Pergamum, Jesus is depicted as “the one with the sharp, two-edged sword.”

John indicates that Pergamum is where “Satan’s throne” is—this is not the same as the “Synagogue of Satan” from Smyrna. In all probability is a reference to the Roman authority in Pergamum. Nevertheless, he congratulates the church there for holding fast to Christ, even “in the days of Antipas my witness”—evidently a church member who was martyred there.

PergamumNevertheless, not everything is positive for Pergamum. John says that some of them are holding “to the teaching of Balaam.” In the book of Numbers, Balaam gave advice to King Balak of Moab to send his women into the camp of Israel and entice the Israelites to sleep with them and worship their gods. John is not saying that some in Pergamum are literally sleeping with Moabite women—but he is indicating that some apparently still would frequent some of the pagan temples in Pergamum. This is what John equates with the “teaching of Balaam.”

In addition, some in Pergamum were also enticed by the teaching of the Nicolaitans. John warns them to repent.

The promise John gives to Pergamum is that the “one who conquers” will be given “hidden manna” and will be given “a white stone” with a new name written on it. The manna is clearly a reference to the Exodus, but what about the white stone? In the ancient world, the giving of stones was part of the judicial system—that’s how verdicts were handed down. Basically, John is saying that God will judge in their favor.

Thyatira
In his message to Thyatira, Jesus is depicted as the Son of God who has eyes like fire and feet like burnished bronze.

ThyatiraAfter giving a brief commendation to Thyatira for their love, faith, service, and patient endurance, John spends most of his time with what’s wrong in Thyatira. It has to do with a woman named Jezebel (yet another allusion to the Jezebel of the Old Testament). The problem is similar to Pergamum: some were indulging in fornication and idol food, and apparently this “Jezebel” was someone in the church of Thytira who was encouraging it.

John’s message is simple: Jezebel is going to get punished, and anyone with her when that happens will be punished too. Whatever this teaching of Jezebel was, John calls it “the deep things of Satan.” He then says to the rest of the believers there to hold fast until Christ comes.

The promise John gives to “the one who conquers” is that he will be given authority over the nations (an allusion to Psalm 2:8-9), and he will be given the morning star.

Sardis
In his message to Sardis, Jesus is depicted as the one who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.

SardisThings aren’t looking too good in Sardis—John says nothing positive about it. Instead, it’s pretty much all bad. John says they have a reputation for being alive, but really are dead. He then calls them to repent and remember what they had been taught. If they don’t, John says that Christ will come “like a thief in the night.”

That being said, John can’t resist at least one positive word: there are some in Sardis who are still faithful who, as John says, “have not soiled their clothes.” They will be dressed in white and walk with Christ.

The promise John gives to “the one who conquers” is that he will be clothed in white, and will not have his name be blotted out  from the Book of Life (again, this reference foreshadows what comes at the end of Revelation, where the Book of Life is mentioned again).

Philadelphia
In his message to Philadelphia, Jesus is depicted as “the holy one, the true one” who has the key of David, who opens what no one will shut, and who shuts what no one will open.

PhiladelphiaIn contrast to Sardis, Philadelphia gets only good words from John. Evidently, Philadelphia is a small church with little power, but they have remained faithful and haven’t denied the name of Christ. Apparently, there is a “synagogue of Satan” in Philadelphia as well who is making trouble for the church, and John says that Christ will make them eventually bow down at the feet of the church in Philadelphia. Because they have remained faithful, John tells them Christ will spare them from the “hour of trial” that is “coming on the whole world.” Apparently, they will be spared from Domitian’s empire-wide persecution of Christians.

John’s promise to “the one who conquers” is that he will be made a pillar in the temple of God, have the name of God written on him, along with the name of the New Jerusalem that will come down from heaven—again, all this foreshadows the last few chapters of Revelation.

Laodicea
In his message to Laodicea, Jesus is depicted as “the Amen, the faithful witness, and the origin of God’s creation.”

Laodicea gets only a negative message. The interesting thing about Laodicea was that the city itself was a booming commercial success. It was known for its banking industry, its textile and wool trade, and it even had a medical school that developed an ear and eye ointment. So basically, it was a city known for money, clothes, and eye medicine. If you know this, then you’ll get just how harsh John’s criticisms of the church in Laodicea were: he calls them poor, naked, and blind.

LaodiceaFurthermore, John also accuses the church in Laodicea of being “lukewarm,” and John says Christ will soon spit it out of his mouth. This too is interesting, for there was a nearby city called Hieropolis that was famous for its hot springs. Another nearby city called Colossae (yes, Paul wrote Colossians to the church there) was famous for its cold springs. Laodicea, by contrast, produced only lukewarm, tepid water. Therefore, in his criticism of the church there, John uses that very imagery.

It is here, in the message to Laodicea that we find a famous verse: “I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you and you with me” (3:20).

John’s promise to “the one who conquers” is that he will be given a place on Christ’s throne.

Conclusion
So that’s it—a brief summary of John’s seven messages to the seven churches. As you’ll see as we go through the rest of Revelation, many of the images laid out in these earlier chapters are picked up in the later chapters.

So, which one do you think most describes your church, or the church in America as a whole?

Incidentally, when I was in high school, there was a Christian singer named Steve Camp who had a song called “Living in Laodicea.” Clearly he felt the church in America was like that of Laodicea. In any case, I thought I’d share a bit from my high school days to end this post.

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