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Archive for April, 2009

Most of us understand that the book of Revelation predicts and expects persecution for its readers.  The assumption is that John’s readers were under the constant threat of death for their testimony of Jesus Christ.  Basically, this viewpoint goes something like this: if you don’t worship the emperor, you will be killed.

Ian Boxall, in his commentary on Revelation, takes a slightly different route.  He doesn’t deny that there is some persecution going on, but he sees it strictly as local and not really involving Roman authorities.  “The internal evidence of the messages to the seven congregations (Revelation 2-3) suggests a rather mixed picture.  …actual or impending hostility is referred to for some (e.g. 2:9, 13; 3:9)… there is no clear indication that suffering is at the hands of Roman authorities, or involves formal legal precedings” (p12).

Instead, Boxall, and many others, note that the call not to compromise is just as strong in Revelation.  Within the messages to the seven churches, we see condemnations of “Balaam” and “Jezebel”- OT figures who caused God’s people to stray.  In other words, John’s message is for them not to fall into the trap that these false teachers are laying.

This, of course, has implications for persecution:  “If Revelation is not primarily written to comfort the persecuted, it nevertheless represents a rallying cry to Christians to place themselves in a position in which they might find themselves being persecuted” (p13, Boxall).  If John’s readers are able not to stray, they should expect persecution.

I appreciate Boxall’s attempt to balance, though I have to wonder if he’s overstated his case.  I’m not sure what the Beast of chapter 13 represents if not the powerful oppressor standing against God’s people- making war and conquering them, according to 13:7.  Even the harlot of chapter 17, the seductive power of the comfort the Roman Empire provides, drinks the blood of the saints (17:6). And when Rome is judged, she is judged “with the judgment she imposed on you [the saints]” (18:20).

But the connection with bearing testimony for God and the threat of death is undeniable in Revelation.  Jesus himself is the faithful witness who was put to death (1:5).  Keeping in mind that “testimony” and “witness” are from the same root in Greek, we see how Jesus sets the stage for God’s people in this way.  Read 2:13, 6:9, 11:7, 12:11, 12:17, 17:6 and 20:4- all of them combine the notions of faithful and enduring testimony and the reality of death for that testimony.

John’s original readers dealt with the reality that they were called to compromise their testimony (side note: I’ve noticed that we always word it “compromise our faith,” which indicates to me that we’ve internalized something that was intended to be a public evidence, but that’s another post for another day).  For many, if they did not denounce their exclusive devotion to Jesus Christ, they could lose work, be imprisoned or end up in a colosseum face-to-face with a lion.

But they were also tempted to compromise by enjoying the pleasures that Rome offered- this is especially strong in chapters 17-18.  Why “rock the boat” and cause problems?  Why not keep your mouth shut and enjoy a peaceful and prosperous life like everyone else in the Roman Empire?  When she is destroyed, “the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury… will weep and mourn over her” (18:9).  Would John’s readers be among those who mourn her destruction and the comfort that came with her, or would they rejoice in God’s judgment of her wickedness (18:20)?

So both of these realities- persecution and compromise- are undeniably present in Revelation; Boxall states their connection well.  If one chooses not to compromise, they may face brutal persecution.  John is calling his readers to remain faithful in their witness, even if it means death, in the face of these twin realities.

Does this have anything to do with us?  I think it does.  I mentioned this in teaching the other night, and I keep coming back to it.  I have to wonder if we (by “we” I mean American Christians, since that’s where the vast majority of my experience comes in) focus on the persecution apparent in Revelation because it enables us not to face the compromising aspect of Revelation.  The fact is that we are inundated with temptations to compromise in our culture.  We live in an affluent society where you can pretty much have what you want when you want it. We tend not to notice these temptations (do we not have ears to hear and eyes to see?).

There’s a certain wicked wisdom in using pleasurable temptation rather than persecution to make God’s people ineffective.  It is a powerful tool.  The truth is that you can put a gun to my head and threaten to take my life if I don’t deny Jesus, and I will stand firm, I’m sure of it.  But if you parade by me, day after day after day, the siren call of comfort- power, acceptance, money, home, sex, cars, etc- I am much more likely to compromise my witness.

Perhaps the American church isn’t facing the beast, but we are facing the harlot.  The question remains, will we be a faithful witness?  May we hear the message of Revelation and overcome.

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Thanks again to Adrianna of IVP for a review copy of this book.

We pick up from part 1 of this review, starting with chapter 3, which covers “evidence elsewhere in the Old Testament.” As a reminder, Beale’s thesis statement is “what people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.”  The first review dealt with his introductory chapter (covering assumptions and methodology) and the chapter on idolatry and Isaiah 6.  In this review, we summarize Beale’s treatment of the story of Israelites worshipping the golden calf and idolatry in the Garden of Eden.

Beale shows the verbal connections between Deuteronomy 4:27-28, 29:4- dealing with the earliest history of the Israelite people- and Isaiah 6:9-10 and Psalm 115:4-7.  “Thus the roots of the irony of idolatry are to be found as early as Israel’s first generation that emerged out of Egypt.  And so the wilderness generation and Isaiah’s generation are people who are becoming like the idols they are worshiping, and that likenss mortally injures them” (p76).

Beale demonstrates this in the “golden calf incident” (Exodus 32).  “The point of the comparison between the first generation’s idolatry and that of future generations is that the golden calf idolatry was seen to be paradigmatic of Israel’s future idolatry, so that the latter was patterened about the former” (p77).  We see this in Psalm 106:19-20, in the “stiff-necked” Israelites of 1 Kings 12:25-33 and 2 Kings 17:7-18 (notice in the latter passage “they followed vanity and became vain”), the idolatrous Israelites condemned in Hosea (4:7-17, 8:4-7, 10:5, 10:11, 13:2-3), and in Jeremiah (2:5-11, 7:22-27 among others).  Along with these texts, we see other places where “sensory-malfunction” language is used, the vast majority of which is connected to idolotary (see Ezekiel 12:2).

Even though there are places in this chapter where you have to wonder if Beale is seeing more than what’s there, there’s no doubt that he successfully makes his case that (1) idolatry is prevalent throughout the OT, (2) that the golden calf incident of the wilderness generation is the paradigmatic incident of idolatry and (3) the consequence of this idolatry is becoming like the object worshipped (stiff-necked and stubborn like cattle, “following vanity and becoming vain,” etc).

Beale then turns in chapter 4 to the narrative of Adam and Eve in the garden to discuss the idolatry of the first humans.  He acknowledges that idolatry is not specifically mentioned, but argues that this is precisely what happens.  “Adam’s allegiance shifted from God to himself and probably also to Satan” (p133).  The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the place where judgment occurs (“knowing good and evil” frequently occurs in contexts of kings exacting judgment, and trees are often places where judgments are rendered), and is precisely where Adam failed to judge the serpent and guard the garden (again, Beale admits that “guard/protect” is never explicitly stated).

Keeping in mind that his thesis is “what people revere, they resemble,” Beale notes that Adam “comes to resemble the serpent’s character in some ways.  The serpent was a liar (Gen 3:4) and a deceiver (Gen 3:1, 13)” (p133).  Technically, I’m not sure the logical connection must be what Beale says it is.  In other words, Beale’s thesis is “a leads to b” but that doesn’t necessarily mean “b must be the result of a.”  With that said, it’s not hard to see the connection when you assume his thesis (which is easily demonstrable from elsewhere in the OT).

Interestingly, Beale appeals to Ezekiel 28 to show how the later prophet understood Adam’s sin.  Ezekiel 28:1-10 and 11-19 are successive judgments on the King of Tyre.  The second is often seen as a judgment on Satan (which I disagree with) or Adam, the stance that Beale takes.  So, the King of Tyre, who is judged because he promotes himself to the level of God (vv 2, 5, 9) is judged like Adam, whose heart is also “lifted up” (v17, see vv 2, 5).  “[T]he king of Tyre’s sin and judgment is seen primarily through the lens of the sin and judgment of the figure of Eden instead of his own particular sin, and the latter’s sin and judgment is viewed as a kind of recapitulation of the primeval sin” (p137).

Thus, what we have here is a development from the theme of worshipping an idol of stone or metal.  The specific form of idolatry here is idolatry of self.  “[W]hen we try to enlarge ourselves and try to bring glory to ourselves, then we are actually reflecting our ego in a greater and greater way.  If this is so, then it fits with the particular idea of idolatry that we have noted earlier: The idol that we revere, we reflect, which leads ultimately to ruin” (p140).

In the next portion of this review, we’ll dive into Beale’s treatment of the relevant NT texts.

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The spring is one of my favorite times of the year in our training school because it means our unit on Revelation is finally here.  I enjoy teaching it so much largely because it gives me an excuse to study it and learn more deeply (I hope) the life-changing truths of this book.  It is also one of the biggest challenges in teaching; you never know what kind of background everyone has coming into the class.  Over time I’ve collected a list of resources, so I’ll share them here.

Before I get to them, though, I must give credit where credit is due.  The single most profound influence on my understanding of Revelation comes not from a book but from a professor at Gordon-Conwell, Sean McDonough.  I took his Exegesis in Revelation class a few years back and was amazed at Dr McDonough’s ability to make the text come alive and make sense.  This isn’t surprising, given that he has studied under G K Beale and Richard Bauckham, though he doesn’t mind charting his own course when necessary.  That doesn’t mean that I always agreed with him; I still remember his look of disappointment when I told him I differed from him on the Millennium.  But all in all, his teaching was full of humility, reverence and pastoral insight; I stand in his debt.

bauckham-revelationThe single best book I’ve ever read on Revelation is Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation.  Though it’s short (160+ pages), it packs a lot of good stuff in there.  In my experience, many people coming into a study of Revelation want to know about details.  The problem, however, is that it’s easy to miss what Revelation is actually about because you spend all your time wondering about some small portion of it.  This is where Bauckham’s book comes in handy.  It clearly and concisely demonstrates the major themes of the book and what it teaches about God and His relation to this world.  Phenomenal book.

My favorite commentary is still G. K Beale’s commentary in the NIGTC series.  It contains a wealth of information, especially in regards to the use of the OT in Revelation.  If you don’t know Greek, this will be an extremely difficult read.  If you do know Greek, it’ll still be a bit of work to get through, but well worth your time.  Another beale-revelationdetailed work is David Aune’s 3 volume commentary in the WBC series.  For my kind of teaching, it’s value is less than it would be for someone doing prolonged exegetical work.  I use it as a resource here and there rather than a constant guide.

As far as shorter commentaries go, I’ve been using Ben Witherington’s work in the NCBC series.  It’s one of his better commentaries, in my opinion, and a good counterpart to Beale’s massive work.  Hendrickson recently sent me a review copy of Ian Boxall’s commentary in the Black’s series (Kathy of Hendrickson informed me that they’re coming out with paperbacks of this series, so you might want to wait to purchase it).  I haven’t worked all the way through it yet, but I’ve been thoroughly impressed thus far.  It has replaced Witherington as my “portable commentary.”  Look for a review in a few weeks.  Boxall’s work boxall-revelationreplaces G B Caird’s commentary, which I also own.  I like this one a lot, but most of his good insights have been incorporated into others’ works so I only use it when I run into divergent views and I’d like another opinion.

There are other commentaries I don’t own, but would love to.  Robert Mounce’s in the NICNT series has been an evangelical standard for some time, for good reason.  Grant Osborne wrote the Revelation commentary for the BECNT seriesThe Denver Journal (Klein, Blomberg, & Hecht- which sounds like a good law firm) ranks it above Beale as the top detailed commentary on Revelation, so that has to count for something.  For some reason, though I’m with Osborne over Beale on the Millennium, I’ve still found Beale’s to be more helpful.  Perhaps more time with Osborne could change this, however, so if anyone wants to buy me a Cinqo de Mayo present…

One last commentary I’d like to get my hands on is Craig Keener’s commentary in the NIVAC series.  People I trust rave about this commentary; I regret that I haven’t used it much.  Maybe that could be a Memorial Day present…

Beale and McDonough cowrote the Revelation portion of the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.  Naturally, since I think so highly of their work on Revelation, it’ll come as no surprise that I have a great nt-use-ot1appreciation for their insights here.  And if I haven’t mentioned it already, this book is worth every penny you would spend on it.

For those interested in studying apocalyptic literature in general would do well to consult Mitchell Reddish’s book Apocalyptic Literature: A Reader (which you can often find for cheap at CBD Warehouse sales) and John Collins’ The Apocalyptic Imagination, which we used in seminary.  Reddish has also written a good commentary on Revelation, but in a series is so expensive that it isn’t worth purchasing (seriously, someone needs to inform the Smith & Helwys folks that there’s a recession going on).

I’ve been pleased with the quality of resources on the internet for studying Revelation.  There is always Dan Wallace’s outline and discussion of Revelation.  Wallace is a dispensationalist and teaches at Dallas Seminary, which means I certainly have my disagreements, but I recommend folks read him for his clarity and to get the dispensational side of things.  For an audio teaching, I advise you to listen to Craig Blomberg’s teaching on Revelation as part of his NT Intro class (I’ve mentioned this in my post on 1 Peter resources as well- you can get the idea that I recommend the class).

But perhaps an even greater surprise is the quality of sermons you can find on Revelation from top notch scholars.  Most pastors avoid teaching on Revelation, which, in my opinion, sends the message to the church that it is a book not worth diving into.  After all, if my pastor won’t touch it, why should I?  But, in fact, the message of Revelation needs to be heard.  Tom Schreiner, of Southern Seminary in Louisville, has been preaching on Revelation at Clifton Baptist Church.  You can access the audio of their sermons here (but I can’t promise they’ll be there forever).  The Gospel Coalition website hosts a number of sermons by various preachers, including some by D A Carson on Revelation.  I haven’t listened to all of these, but I’ve been working through his 7 part series on Revelation for a missions conference a few years back.  You can also listen to the audio from a weekend conference hosted by Desert Springs Church and taught by the aforementioned G K Beale (scroll down a bit and you’ll see it).

As an end to this post, I’ll pass along a piece of wisdom from my previously mentioned professor, Dr Sean McDonough.  He remarked that studying Revelation is 50% orientation and 50% perspiration.  In my experience, he’s right.  If you can have a good approach to reading this enigmatic book, you’ll find it is not as difficult as you previously thought.  But, it will require time and effort, perhaps moreso than any other biblical book.  It is not an easy read, both because it is difficult to understand at points and because it contains a convicting message for the church of God.  Read it, study it, be confused by it, allow that confusion to drive you to read it again.  May you be changed forever by this world changing book.

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Welcoming the Newest Boston Bible Geek

My wife, Lisa, and I welcomed our first child to the world last week.  Mary Margaret Pierce was born on 4/15; both mom and baby are doing well.  You can check her out at our family blog.  At some point I’ll resume posting here, but I’m sure you’ll forgive my inactivity in the meantime.

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On Easter Sunday, many pastors around this country will preach about new beginnings.  They’ll draw analogies with the coming of Spring; the budding flowers and chirping birds show us that life begins anew and we can start a new phase of life.  Christ’s resurrection will be spiritualized and said to be significant because it shows us that our lives can be refreshed.

And they’ll all miss the point.

You see, Easter Sunday is the time to deal with the ultimate problem of our existence: death.  Death is the great equalizer.  No matter who you are, rich or poor, strong or weak, you will face death.  Death is the one thing no one can avoid, no matter how many anti-aging creams you buy or how many vitamin supplements you take.  All these things accomplish is prolonging the inevitable.

Death, as we know from Romans 6:23, is intimately connected to sin.  In the same way, Easter Sunday is intimately connected to Good Friday.  You can’t have one without the other; they are inseparable.  Just as Christ died in our place and paid for our sins, Christ is our forerunner in His resurrection.

On Easter Sunday, we celebrate Christ’s victory over death.  Not in some sentimental sense, but in a hard reality.  In His death, Christ experienced the ultimate problem of humanity.  But death, like all other enemies before the Almighty God, is defeated.  Death has been our enemy since the time of Adam, but it is an enemy that has its days numbered.  “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man” (1 Cor 15:21).  To put it another way, Easter isn’t about new beginnings, it’s about victory.

Jesus’ resurrection points forward to the day when His people will also be raised from the dead.  We know that death is not the end of our story because it wasn’t the end of Christ’s story.  Death was, in a real and true sense, defeated on that first Easter Sunday.  And because death was defeated in Christ, all those who belong to Christ will participate in that victory, both now (see the beginning of Romans 6) and fully when He comes back.

So, on Easter Sunday, we celebrate Christ’s victory, but we also look forward in anticipation of the day when Christ returns and we will participate in the ultimate victory over death.  As Paul says, “The last enemy to be defeated is death” (1 Cor 15:26).  Christ’s resurrection points towards the final resurrection, which means the restoration and redemption of what our sin has destroyed.  The final resurrection is the death of death.

Come soon, Lord Jesus.

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Why did Jesus have to die?  As we observe Good Friday, and enter in to Easter weekend, this is an appropriate question.  The stock answer, of course, is that Christ died for our sins;  Jesus died to forgive us from our sins.  While I find nothing wrong about these common answers, I believe that they often assume too much of the one asking the question.

First, the answer assumes an understanding of sin, and humankind’s slavery thereto.  Christ’s death is meaningless and useless if one does not believe in the sinfulness of all humankind, and our inability to be free from it.   The hard fact of our existence is that we consistently “miss the mark” in terms of living out the life for which God created us.  We fall short of God’s moral standard through a depressingly vast, and ever increasing array of thoughts, words and deeds.

Even worse, history has shown that no amount of philosophical or technological progress, and no measure of human effort, no matter how noble, has ever been able to fix it.   If Christ died for our sins, but there is no such thing as sin, Christ died for nothing.  Moreover, if Christ died for our sin, but there is some other way for us to know freedom from sin, whether by deed, word, or personal sacrifice, Christ died for nothing (c.f., Gal. 2:21).

Secondly, the answer assumes an understanding of God’s justice.  Some years ago, I was listening to a debate some between a Muslim and a Christian about God.  When the topic of Christ’s death came up, the Muslim asked the question point blank:  Why did Jesus have to die to forgive us for our sins?  God is almighty and all-powerful; could He not just forgive us?  God can do anything and everything that He wants.  Why is Christ’s death necessary?

The answer is that Christ died because God is just.  If God were simply to let our sins go, to let us slide, then He is not a god of justice.  I’ve met people who chafe on this idea, which they (erroneously) assume paints a picture of a wrathful, angry, sadist of a god.  What we forget is that, if we’re honest about it, we all want a god of justice.  Do we not want evildoers to be punished?  Even the worst sinners among us inherently want justice when we are wronged.  A liar lied to is eager for his deceiver to be brought to justice.  If God lets us slide, then He lets Hitler, Manson and Pol Pot slide, too.  We all want evil to be brought to justice, but the hard consequence of that desire is that we too, are evil, and therefore deserve punishment.

Christ died because God is just, and God cannot do anything contrary to His nature.  As such, there must be punishment for sin; a reckoning for what humanity has done.  So, in a horrible irony, God Himself endures the punishment, which is the worst injustice the world has ever known:  God became man in Christ, and made history by being the first and only human ever to walk the earth entirely without sin.  He came to heal, to teach, to bring life and restoration to the world.  This one, this perfect God-man, was mocked, beaten, and tortured to death by the very ones He came to save.  In executing His justice, God endured history’s most egregious injustice.

Christ died to restore and redeem that which was lost due to human sinfulness.  He died for our sins.  As we reflect on this today, let’s not forget the truths that make this statement meaningful.  Moreover, as God avails us the opportunity to share the hope we have in Christ with others, let us not assume too much.  In America, sin is often a matter of human preference.  Even more, unmerited faith is placed upon our own abilities to solve deep problems, and justice is wrongly subject to our own biassed whim.  Let’s lovingly and carefully proclaim the bad news, that we are sinners answerable to a God of justice, as we joyfully proclaim the good, that “while we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8), and “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life”  (Jn. 3:16).

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Christian Carnival CCLXXI

Just wanted to let everyone know that the latest Christian Carnival is up over at Fathom Deep.  It features Brian’s comeback post on the Sacraments.  Or Ordinances, whichever you prefer.

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