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Archive for May, 2009

A few weeks back I received the latest copy of Missions Frontiers, a magazine that ships to my apartment every other month.  The first thing I would read, like probably all of its subscribers, was Ralph Winter’s editorial.  In this past issue, for the first time in the 30 years of the publication, Winter did not write the editorial.  It was noted by the new editor, Rick Wood, that Winter was dealing with lymphoma and was no longer feeling up to the task.  I knew he was sick, so it didn’t necessarily surprise me.  Still, it took me off guard last week to find out that Ralph Winter had died, on May 20, 2009.

To all of us in fields related to missions, Ralph Winter was a giant.  We speak of missions and evangelism in terms of “people groups” rather than countries.  It seems so obvious to us now: within the geo-political boundaries of a country (say, India) there are any number of people groups that may or may not actually have much connection to each other, despite living under the same flag.  They may have different languages, customs, religions, etc.

So, while the gospel may have reached the Tamil Hindu population, that doesn’t mean India has been reached.  What about the Muslims in Assam?  They’re an entirely different people from the Tamils.  They present a whole different set of challenges to missionaries that must be reckoned with.  The fact that the gospel had penetrated the boundaries of India does not mean that all the peoples of India had been reached.

This is taken for granted by most of us, especially the under-40 crowd.  But before Ralph Winter, it wasn’t so widespread.  I’m not saying he invented the concept of people groups or was even the first to trumpet this understanding, but I think it’s safe to say he was the most influential.

I’ll share one more personal tidbit about Ralph Winter.  Winter was writing something about parachurch missions organizations.  Now, we local church types tend to be critical of parachurch organizations.  Winter noted, however, that churches often failed to live and preach the gospel to all peoples as we see commanded and exemplified in the New Testament. So, he reasoned, he could just as easily refer to churches as paramission organizations.  That has stuck with me ever since.  I don’t ever want my church to be an organization that operates outside the mission of God.  Much of Winter’s life was dedicated to keep that from happening.

I encourage you to poke around the website for the U. S. Center for World Mission, an organization Winter founded.  If you’d like to look into subscribing to Missions Frontiers (donations requested) you can go here.  And if you’d like to pray for unreached people groups, I highly recommend you surf around Joshua Project for a while.

Ralph Winter had a dream of seeing the gospel preached to all nations (people groups) before his death.  I’m sad to say this did not happen.  But his dream was based on the Great Commission, and that has not changed, not matter how many of its faithful spokesmen pass away.

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In his book, Defending God: Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil, James Crenshaw seeks to search the Bible for an adequate response to the problems of evil and “God’s perceived injustice” (p.18).  Here I wish to address the common thread which Crenshaw himself notes as unifying his work: “the abiding tension between justice and mercy” (p.18).  We shall argue that justice and mercy are harmoniously intertwined within God’s character; two parts of a whole which are not in conflict.

Before proceeding, one introductory comment is in order:  Crenshaw’s Biblical search, when subjected to the Biblical canon espoused by orthodox Protestantism, is simultaneously deficient and inflated.  Crenshaw’s search takes place almost entirely within the Old Testament Scriptures; a paucity of references are made to the New Testament (deficiency).  In addition, Crenshaw includes many extracanonical writings (e.g., 4 Ezra, Sirach, 1 & 2 Macabees) under the umbrella of the Bible (inflation).  For the purposes of this post I shall largely ignore this disagreement, save to note here that it cannot be without effect on Crenshaw’s conclusions.  A much more serious aspect of Crenshaw’s view of Scripture, and its consequences, shall be addressed later.

Crenshaw makes his view of justice and mercy clear: the two oppose each other.  The two are “in tension;” they manifest “conflicting demands,” and are even “irreconcilable” (pp.18;91).  Crenshaw opens his book with the dilemma:

Strict justice requires that I get what I deserve, no more and no less.  Mercy allows my just deserts to be set aside, my transgression overlooked or forgiven.  How can the deity perfectly embody both? (p.3).

Crenshaw sees this conflict evident in YHWH’s great self-disclosure:

The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation (Ex.34:6-7).

The problem, according to Crenshaw is that we have compassion “in astonishing juxtaposition” with God’s judgment (p.92).  Even more, how does one square the notion of transgenerational punishment with texts like Ezekiel 18, which seems to invalidate said punishment?

We might first ask where the “conflict” is in this text.  God is one who forgives; God is one who judges.  Are these qualities indeed mutually exclusive in a personality?  Must God be all one or the other?  A straightforward reading would simply indicate that God is revealing balance or fullness to His character: He is a God of forgiveness, but He’s no pushover.  The apparent conflict with Ezekiel 18 is resolved when one considers the different purposes of the two texts.  Where Exodus is a general and explicit revelation of God’s character; Ezekiel is a text written to a specific audience in a very specific situation purposed at stressing individual accountability.

In his fifth chapter, Crenshaw maintains that the Biblical writers struggle to depict a God of an apparent “split personality.”  He draws upon the book of Jonah and Joel in particular to stress his point.  Where Jonah grows angry with God for His compassion, Joel wrestles with the doctrine of God’s compassion while faced with circumstances that instead indicate a wrathful God.  In the end is a God characterized by “Who knows?”  Perhaps God will be merciful; perhaps He will be just.  Implicit here is that He cannot be both.

We must, or course, reject the notion that God maintains a split personality.  Crenshaw does not state so explicitly, but we can only assume that he would not adhere to such doctrine.  The Bible will not allow for such a diagnosis (c.f., Dt. 6:4; Mt. 12:25f), nor will logic: how could a perfect God withstand inner conflict?  So then, how do we answer Crenshaw’s implication that justice and mercy are conflicting aspects of God?  We might consider first his definition of justice, namely that it constitutes getting what one deserves.  We ask, then, what does one deserve?  Taking God to be the supremely holy, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, perfect source of all that is, what is the just desert for any rebellion against Him?  Be it any sin of any magnitude, we cannot but conclude that offending an infinitely good God warrants infinite punishment.

As such, we note great mercy inherent in God’s justice: God’s justice is intrinsically merciful; in fact, He routinely underpunishes.  The two do not oppose each other, but are made manifest in concert with each other.  Even if we take an egregious villain who is bound for eternal punishment in Hell, their existence on earth will be seasoned with God’s mercy.

We could draw upon numerous Biblical examples that show these two characteristics working together in God’s personality, but space permits us to consider only the account of David and Bathsheba as a start (2 Sam. 11:1-12:24).  Crenshaw takes this account to be one of YHWH’s injustice:  David escapes (deserved) punishment while the innocent child of his affair dies, a punishment Crenshaw posits as “the ultimate penalty” (p.137).

In Crenshaw’s view, then, we have of YHWH’s mercy (thus injustice) for David and straight injustice upon his child.  Crenshaw seems to forget Nathan’s prophecy to David, however; YHWH’s punishment for his sin: “Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you” (2 Sam. 12:11a).  The following chapters in David’s life depict in vivid detail how much he did indeed suffer in the conflicts with his son, Absalom.  However, couched in YHWH’s justice is also mercy:  David is not stricken from the throne as an unjust king (as perhaps he ought to be), but further union with Bathsheba results in the birth of Solomon, who continues the Davidic line.

Furthermore, we might disagree that David’s child has paid the ultimate price by death.  Even if we were to ignore any notion of an afterlife and assume annihilationism, is being taken from a life that will no doubt entail much suffering not an act of mercy?  The point weighs in even heavier if an afterlife is considered (i.e., read the New Testament).  Herein is an additional example of YHWH’s mercy made manifest in justice.

As for the book of Jonah, indeed, God’s mercy is the focal point; but His wrath is not out of view.  With Joel, God’s wrath seems more clearly in view; but His mercy is present as well (Joel 2:13-14).  We have no theological dilemma here, but simply different texts of different purposes emphasizing two threads that intertwine to form God’s dealings with humankind.

Crenshaw’s journey through theodicy in the Bible is a provocative one.  Each of his chapters considers an approach to theodicy, and in the end, each is found unconvincing.  This result is inevitable, given the other common thread running through his book.  Namely, that Crenshaw holds a low view of Scripture.  Rather than taking the texts he searches to be the infallible Word of God, they are “mythical” (p.15) and “imaginative” (p.10); Moreover, Scriptural authors tend towards manipulation of God and reader (p.10).  Crenshaw views Scripture as human authors struggling to depict God; not God revealing Himself through human writers.

To take the Bible on terms other than what it claims for itself is to place oneself above Scripture and thus submit it to one’s own categories, rather than submitting to Scripture’s categories .  Crenshaw’s low view of Scripture is what allows him to posit what he calls a “fundamental tenet of theism, that God cannot be known” (p.181).  Indeed, in his view God was not known by the authors of Scripture, hence inherent in them is much struggle to reconcile the irreconcilable.  Since Scripture is suspect to Crenshaw, his task is juxtaposed:  rather than understanding his view of justice and mercy in light of Scripture, he understands Scripture in light of his view of justice and mercy (where have I heard this before?)

In his conclusions about the book of Job, Crenshaw suggests that “God plays by different rules from those projected on the deity by human rationality” (p.189).  Here we fundamentally agree, and wonder why this statement cannot be applied to his views of justice and mercy.  Perhaps in our economy, one cannot simultaneously exhibit both qualities, but in God’s this is clearly the case.

While I stand in radical disagreement with Crenshaw’s position on Scripture, I agree with his closing remarks: the issue of theodicy cannot be resolved, given an infinite God and finite humanity.  We equally agree that this does not relieve us from the task of eagerly seeking out understanding and knowledge; or engaging with such difficult issues.  It is not a ticket to complacency.

As a final comment, our lack of understanding ought not to be construed as a deficiency in Biblical theology.  It is rather something stated positively:  We cannot fully understand God’s ways (c.f., Is. 55:8-9; Job 42:3).  This is not “dodging the bullet,” as is suggested by some (e.g., C.S.Cowles in Show Them No Mercy, p.146).  Appealing to the mysteries of God which we cannot yet comprehend enjoys a long history.  Better yet, it is indicative of a humble posture before God against which I find no good argument.

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After hearing an excellent sermon today partly based on Job, I was inspired to look at Francis I Andersen’s excellent commentary on Job in the Tyndale Old Testament series.  Although I think he downplays the rebuking aspect of God’s speeches in chapters 38-41 too much, I found this quote helpful (though relegated to a footnote on page 270):

It is one of the many excellencies of the book that Job is brought to contentment without ever knowing all the facts of his case.  In view of the way in which the Satan brought up the matter, something had to be done to rescue Job from his slander.  And the test would work only if Job did not know what it was for.  God thrusts Job into an experience of dereliction to make it possible for Job to enter into a life of naked faith, to learn to love God for Himself alone.  God does not seem to give this privilege to many people, for they pay a terrible price of suffering from their discoveries.  But part of the discovery is to see the suffering itself as one of God’s most precious gifts.  To withhold the full story from Job, even after the test was over, keeps him walking by faith, not by sight.  He does not say in the end, ‘Now I see it all.’  He never sees it all.  He sees God (42:5).  Perhaps it is better if God never tells any of us the whole of our life-story.

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The scene is my first class in Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell.  The professor, Dr. Richard Lints, begins his lecture.  His first point, (at least, the first I remember), is that the theological project is not a matter of studying God, or putting God under the microscope, as it were.  Instead, good theology ultimately winds up with us being under God’s microscope.  Our reality, our existence, our thoughts and our feelings, are cast under the awesome light of who God is.  In turn, “who God is” (i.e., theology), informs the very framework of our reality, existence, thoughts and feelings.

John Wesley made a similar remark about Scripture:

In all cases, the Church is to be judged by the Scripture, not the Scripture by the Church.

The leap is not a far one.  If Scripture is the Word of God, then it follows that it too ought to comprise the framework of our worldview.

So what do we do when our experiences or feelings don’t line up with God’s Word?  God’s Word wins.  The theology here is simple enough: as a Christian, I believe God is The Absolute Authority.  Since Scripture is the Word of God, it follows that it is absolutely authoritative in my life.  In other words, nothing trumps it.  If I look up and see a sky that I would call “green,” but Scripture says that the sky is blue, then I – whether by poor eyesight, misunderstanding, or defiance – am in the wrong.  Scripture is the Truth that judges our reality, not the other way around.

I could restate and expound upon this fact in any number or ways, for any number of years, perhaps resulting in any number of yawns from my reader(s).  I do not believe it is possible to overstate this proper attitude towards the Bible.  Why?  Partly because it is easily forgotten, but mostly because it sets the stage for our worldview, and our walk with God.  Examples abound of Bible abuses that arise when we put Scripture on the Procrustean bed of our own agenda, rather than letting it establish for us what our agenda ought to be in the first place.

I recently felt the loving sting of conviction when I realized that I often live life backwards, and let personal experience take the seat of absolute authority in my life.  I am much more modern than I care to admit.  While I believe in miracles, I have to think long and hard to conjure up any personal experience of them.  This creates a tension in my life; one that some might (erroneously, in my opinion) claim is a head/heart separation: I give mental assent to God’s miracle working power for today, but I’ve never experienced it, so it tends to be a cooler, almost academic belief, that is short on faith.  (For the record, I think the head/heart language has just become shorthand for expressing personal beliefs [head] and personal experiences [heart].  I don’t think the Bible understands us as being quite so bifrucated).

So unfolds what I believe is a common Christian struggle: how to align God’s Word with our experience.  Theodicy comes to mind, as do plenty of other common “If God X, then how do you explain Y and Z?” questions.  But, I just played a trick on you.  Did you catch it?  The nature of the struggle is actually aligning our experience with God’s Word, not the other way around.  Again, God’s Word trumps our experience.

Perhaps you don’t feel loved by God; nor do you see any evidences of it in your life, which is marked with hardship.  The fact of the matter is that God still loves you, because that’s what He says.  God’s Word is right; your feelings and experiences are what need adjustment or reinterpretation.  This statement sounds terribly cold; I certainly do not mean to diminish something like human suffering, or suggest for a second that a proposition such as the one above is a panacea to help those in times of trouble.  This is certainly not a suggestion for pastoral counseling.  It is the truth, however; a truth we must cling to when our experience seems to run against the grain of Scripture.

The situation can work the other way, too.  Perhaps we experience a powerful encounter with the Lord, and receive a vision of some previously  misunderstood “truth.”  We might be filled with joy; our lives might even change.  However, no matter the experience, if said vision runs against Scripture, then our interpretation of the experience needs the adjustment, not Scripture.

There is a balance, of course.  God does work through emotions and experience, after all, and we’re God-equipped with senses to take in the world He made.  Praise be, the Holy Spirit dwells within us to empower, guide and reprove us in our walk.  Still, and I heaftily apply this to myself, we are “prone to wander,” as the hymn says.  We have no shortage of ways to do this.  The Scriptues, a vital part of God’s great revelation of Himself to humanity, must remain a centerpiece of our thought and study to help us live according to the Truth.  Even when all evidence seems to come against it, we can cling to it with unyielding trust, because we know the One who spoke it is faithful and true.

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For the first time, we here at BBG are proudly hosting the Christian Carnival, with a special Bostonian flare.  The Carnival is a collection of posts from around the blogosphere regarding a variety of topics written from a Christian viewpoint.  Without further ado, here are the posts with a tour of our fine city (note: I’ll admit the connections are tenuous at times.  I also would have included pictures, but I don’t have time to take them myself and I’m not sure about the legality of taking them off the internet.  You’ll have to live with links, instead).

Taking a walk on State St, visit your financial adviser

Okay, let’s be honest.  Right now, the Financial District probably isn’t the most upbeat place to visit in Boston.  But, while you’re there, you can check these posts out.

FMF presents Tithe Rap posted at Free Money Finance, which “features funny tithe rap my church recently showed.”

ChristianPF presents Sound Mind Investing Handbook Review posted at Christian Personal Finance. “This is a great book for Christians who want to get started investing…”

Scoping out the singles scene downtown

Depending on the outcome of your financial visit, you may feel like celebrating.  So put on your swankiest clothes and hit some of the hot spots downtown.  While you’re at it, check this out:

Martin Roth presents Online Christian dating services: boom in a recession – Christian Counseling Services posted at Christian Counseling Services. “The recession is having a surprising impact – it is leading to a boom in business for online dating services.”

Let’s be honest, Boston is for history buffs

While in Boston, you have to hit the Freedom Trail at least once.  It’s an important piece of American history, including some interesting religious sites, such as Park Street Church and the Old North Church (of “One if by land, two if by sea” fame).  Here is where you’ll encounter some thoughts on history and faith (and of course, some politics for good measure).

Mark Olson presents Looking Back at the March Forward posted at Pseudo-Polymath.  “Some thoughts on The New Testament canon and its formation.”

Shannon Christman presents That Old-Time Religion: Not Good Enough for Me posted at The Minority Thinker.  “Even a well loved Sunday school song can have questionable theology.”

Paul Gable presents May 18, Treatment for American Angst posted at Brushfires of Freedom Warm Hearts and Move Minds.

Take a trip down Boylston St (walk, don’t drive)

The Boston Public Library is one of the finest libraries in America, or so I hear.  If nothing else, you can get a book review or two.

Susan presents Book Review: Same kind of different as me posted at Abooklook.  “Same kind of different as me is a moving account of a deep friendship forged by God to powerfully demonstrate the power of love and forgiveness.”

Your carnival host here at BBG reviewed Ian Boxall’s commentary on Revelation in a post called… well… Book Review: The Revelation of Saint John by Ian Boxall.  Very clever.  I spent almost as much time coming up with that title as I have coming up with the theme of this Carnival.

On your way to the Sox game, stop and chat with the guy with the sandwich board sign

Outside of every Red Sox home game there’s a guy with a sandwich board passing out tracts.  Normally they consist of pictures of people burning in hell.  I admire the guy’s willingness to share, even if I’d do it slightly differently.  Anyway, onto some thoughts on evangelism (note: I looked for a better evangelism connection, but this guy is honestly the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Boston & street evangelism).

Michelle presents Jeremiah 1:4-10 posted at Thoughts and Confessions of a Girl Who Loves Jesus….

Diane R presents Are We Giving Enough Information? posted at Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet.  “Are we giving enough information to unbelievers for them to become true Christians?”

Family Friendly Fenway

Okay, I thought long and hard about what comes to mind when you think of family and Boston.  Most would probably say the Children’s Museum.  But, since I’m hosting this carnival, we’re going with my favorite family destination: a Red Sox game at Fenway Park (as long as you don’t sit in the bleachers).  Word of advice: I know that Fenway Franks are famous, but they’re not as good as advertised.  Get yourself an italian sausage instead.  And visit the Designated Driver booth underneath the seats behind homeplate and promise them you won’t drink and drive.  They’ll give you a free soda.  Thank me later.

Rani presents Prayer of the Week for Children- Birthday posted at Christ’s Bridge.  “Enjoy the new series of children’s prayers.”

Kiesha presents We Need Your Help! Send Our Youth to Cedar Point Amusement Park posted at Highly Favored.

Cross the river and visit the smart people

Across the Charles River is Cambridge, home of MIT and Harvard (and a couple other schools often neglected).  Want to discuss philosophy?  Feel like a good debate on a controversial topic?  Cambridge is as good a place as any to go (but stick with the MIT students, Harvard’s overrated).  NB: Being placed under this category is not a comment on the intelligence level as compared to the other posters in this Carnival; I don’t want to cause controversy in my first hosting job.

Cousin Jeremy presents Solomon, Open Theism, and the Divine Bluff posted at Parableman. “How does Solomon ordering a baby cut in two have anything to do with open theism? A surprising connection between I Kings 3 and arguments for open theism undermines one kind of argument for open theism.”

damascusmoments presents God is back. posted at damascusmoments.

Barry Wallace presents Are you open minded? posted at who am i?. “There’s a time to be open minded, and a time to be close minded.”

Richard H. Anderson presents Hidden Polemics of Divorce posted at dokeo kago grapho soi kratistos Theophilos.

Go Home

Okay, so I was hoping for a little more variety in the posts to show off more areas of Boston.  I guess you’ll just have to visit our fair city and check it all out for yourself.  Thanks to everyone who submitted posts this week.

Submit your blog article to the next edition of christian carnival ii using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

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Special thanks to Kathy of Hendrickson Publishers for a review copy of this book.  I should note that paperback volumes of the Black’s series will be released in the relatively near future.  I have a hardcover copy.

boxall-revelationI have a confession to make.  When I first saw this commentary a couple years back, I asked two questions: who is Ian Boxall and why is he replacing George Caird’s Revelation commentary in the Black’s series?  To address the second question, it’s not that Caird’s commentary is particularly outstanding.  But it was somewhat groundbreaking in its time (so I’m told, since I didn’t exist yet when it came out) and holds a rightful place as one of those older commentaries you ought to check out (of course, referring to it as “older” betrays a certain limited historical vantage point on my part).

As for Ian Boxall, a quick Google search lets you know that he’s a young Oxford scholar who has previously published on Revelation (or a personal fitness trainer, but I’m guessing it wasn’t him that wrote this book).  It wasn’t until relatively recently when I read a positive review of this commentary that I decided I’d check it out.  I’ve searched for a commentary to recommend to students without the requisite Greek knowledge to keep up with Beale and the like.  I own Ben Witherington’s commentary, which fits this category, but am not in love with it.

I have a second confession to make.  I was an idiot for passing over this a couple years ago.  Throughout the commentary I found myself impressed with Boxall’s interpretations (even when I disagreed) and thankful for his, at times unique, insights.

For instance, in the introduction alone I encountered three things I had not fully considered previously.  First, is the importance of Revelation as a visionary text.  Boxall does not deny “that the Apocalypse is also a carefully crafted document” (p4), but he does suggest that perhaps John’s “conscious intention cannot be the determining factor at every points” (p5).  A provocative suggestion, indeed.  I actually felt that Boxall could have explored the importance of the visionary experience in more depth.  What about the majesty of the throne room vision in chapter 4?  How ought this impact the reader?  I can’t help but wonder if, in the search for the meaning of little details, we lose sight of the sheer force of the imagery and its intended effect on the reader/listener.

Second, Boxall attempts to illustrate the importance of the John’s location: Patmos.  True, most interpreters note the importance of his exile (Bauckham being a notable exception) and the location of his readers, but Boxall is just as concerned with Patmos as the location of that exile.  He argues that the visual pagan imagery of Patmos may show up periodically in Revelation (specifically Artemis and Apollo).

Third is the importance of the call not to compromise in Revelation.  Boxall doesn’t discount the threat of persecution for John’s readers, but argues that not enough attention has been given to the threat of compromise.  I’ve already written about this here, so I won’t go any further down that road.

There are, to be sure, some things I disagreed with here and there.  I don’t agree with the contention that the 7 Spirits of 1:4 are angels rather than the Holy Spirit.  I’m confused why he thinks this view “may too readily assume a developed trinitarianism” (p31), yet he can frequently refer to the “Eucharistic” setting of Revelation.  It seems to me that assuming a Eucharistic liturgy is more anachronistic than a developed trinitarian theology.  I’m not at all convinced that the scroll John ingests in chapter 10 is the same scroll from chapter 5.  And so on.

I found myself nodding in agreement more often than not.  The 144,000 of chapter 7 are not only ethnic Jews, but to be understood by the vision of the multi-ethnic multitude.  The angel of chapter 10 is  not to be identified with Jesus.  The 2 witnesses of chapter 11 are “representative figures of the prophetic ministry of the Church” (p164).  Throughout the commentary I was grateful for his demonstation of the importance of Ezekiel for John’s vision, especially in the final two chapters.  Boxall even includes a helpful chart on page 255.  In fact, Boxall has convinced me of my need to beef up the Ezekiel portion of my library.  When you combine this with Beale’s emphasis on Daniel, I begin to wonder how I can understand Revelation without some working knowledge of these two OT books.

(Note: I’m intentionally leaving out reference to his interpretation of the millennium in this review, because in my experience this is the first place students look in determining the worth of a Revelation commentary.  Believe it or not, there is more to the book than 20:1-6)

This is one of the better non-technical commentaries on Revelation, alongside Witherington and Keener.  For those who have a long interest in Revelation, there is enough insight in here to be of great help- he packs a lot into a short space.  For those looking for a reliable guide as they learn the book, Boxall will prove to play the role well.  In my opinion, what the church needs in its books on Revelation is clarity, not cleverness.  Boxall’s commentary is remarkably clear and penetrating without trying to force anything.  And let us remember that there are excellent commentaries out there not written by men with names like Fee, Moo, Carson, Beale etc.  I hope to read more of Boxall’s work in the years to come.

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I originally posted this on my old blog, but since I’ve been working through Revelation again I decided to post it again here.  As I read back over this, I’m still convinced that these are valid points that need to be considered, though they are still thoughts in progress.

One of the most debated passages in the Bible is Rev 20:1-6. What do we make of the “1000 year” reign of Christ and His people? I cannot pretend to have figured this passage out perfectly; it seems to me that each position has its share of problems. Here are the main views taken by scholars, all of which have a good history of interpretation within the church:

Postmillennial– this view sees the millennium happening at the end of the “church age”, preceding Christ’s return. To put it simply, the world will be essentially Christian before Christ returns and His followers are resurrected.

Amillennial– this view sees the millennium beginning with Christ’s first coming and continuing until His return, the picture of Christ and His people reigning in Rev 20 is a present reality. In my opinion, the best recent commentary on Revelation is Greg Beale’s commentary, who is an amillennialist.

Premillennial– this view sees the millennium as a future time after Christ returns to this earth and His followers are resurrected. Within this view are 2 main camps: dispensationalist (one form of which can be seen in the Left Behind series) who add their own distinct flavor (pretribulational rapture, distinction between the Church and Israel), and historical premillennialists, who essentially hold to what I just said above.

I would be classified as a historical premillennialist, but a slightly odd one, because my reading of Revelation often looks more like something an amillennialist would hold (I won’t bother getting into this now, just trust me). I had a friend in seminary who describe me this way: an anti-dispensationalist historical premillennialist with amillennialist tendencies. I’d say that’s pretty accurate.

Anyway, I want to state from the outset that I think each of these 3 views are well within the realm of orthodoxy. This is not a hill I want to die on, I think we can find ways to coexist just fine (though I admit my pleasure in taking shots at dispensationalism). But the millennium, whatever we make of it, is in Scripture so I figure it’s worth at least forming an opinion, no matter how tentative. I’ll say a couple quick things before I begin my short list: 1) I don’t take the 1000 years literally, I think it is a symbolic number just like the other numbers in Revelation; 2) I’m trying to restrict my comments to Revelation 20:1-6 and other passages in this book, since I could go on forever by including every conceivably important verse in the Bible; 3) I do think there are plenty of holes in the premillennial position- it’s just that I think it has fewer big holes than the other positions. Without further ado, here you go:

1 And I saw an angel coming out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. 3 He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time. 4 I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.

1) The issue of Satan no longer deceiving the nations. I’ve often heard a caricature of the premilliennial position that we sit in fear of the devil and his schemes. I’d rather say, in the words of one of my pastors, that we are “in awe of God but aware of the devil” (this, of course, can be true of any of these millennial positions). Elsewhere in the NT Satan is seen as active in our time (1 Peter 5:8-9), which may be enough to see Satan being bound happening in the future. But even more convincing is Revelation 12:12, where Satan is said to be filled with anger because he has little time left. So, as the following verses show us, he decides to wage war on God’s people. That is hard to reconcile with the picture of Satan being bound for a long period of time and his powers of deception being taken away. It is said by some that the words and picture in Rev 20 do not necessarily have to mean that all of his powers are thwarted (Beale gives his reasons for this in his commentary). But I wonder what language John would use if that were exactly the picture he wanted to draw. If he wanted to show that Satan’s powers were no longer useful, what would he say, since apparently “seized”, “bound”, “locked and sealed… to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore” are not strong enough? (And it can’t be something along the lines of “annihilated” since that doesn’t happen until later in the chapter.)

2) Witnesses or judges? Throughout Revelation God’s people are called to be and are portrayed as witnesses in this world. The word “witness” recalls the courtroom, where witnesses offer evidence which may assist in convicting or acquiting someone. God’s people act as witnesses in that they testify for God, and their testimony condemns the world (or can vindicate some if they repent). Throughout this book God’s people are called to be faithful witnesses unto the very end, even if that means their death (that is, after all, following in Christ’s footsteps, see 1:5). However, in Rev 20 they are now seen as judges with Christ. This reflects a change in the Christian’s current state and their state to come. This change comes when Christ returns and takes His throne on this earth, and His followers reign with Him.

3) The martyrs under the altar or reigning with Christ? Ben Witherington points out that the martyred souls in Rev 6:9-11 are under the altar awaiting the judgment of those responsible for their deaths. In Rev 20, the souls of the martyrs are seen as reigning and judging with Christ. In Rev 6, they are told to wait. In Rev 20, they don’t seem to be waiting for anything, they are finally fulfilling their roles as a “kingdom and priests” that is seen in Revelation. In other words, there is a change in their position, a change which is a result of the resurrection.

4) Addressing Beale’s claim that beheaded souls must refer to non-material bodies. Beale claims that psuche (traditionally translated “soul”) does not have to refer to a physical body (as it does in Rev 8:9, 12:11, 16:3- in these passages “living body” may be the best translation), and this is true (Rev 6:9 is a perfect example of this). He also claims that it cannot refer to a physical body here because these folks were beheaded: “an awkward picture emerges: ‘bodies of beheaded people'” (pg 998). This, however, is not a problem if you see these folks as those who have been resurrected. In other words, John sees “the souls of those who had been beheaded” but were now resurrected (therefore no longer missing their heads).

5) If “came to life” refers to physical resurrection in v5, then it is likely to in v4. Beale argues that the meaning of this verb can change within one verse, which is true. But one must provide strong evidence that this is the case. It is possible John changes the meaning that quickly, but doing good exegesis in difficult passages isn’t about proposing what is possible but what is most likely.

6) The problem of “resurrection.” In v4, the “souls” of the martyrs “come to life” and reign with Christ. This is, in John’s words, “the first resurrection” (v5), as opposed to when the “rest of the dead” come to life. For an amillennial or postmillennial interpretation to work, “come to life” and “resurrection” in v4 have to be taken in a “spiritual” sense (though I hate that term, because I don’t think that’s how the Bible uses “spiritual” at all, but it’s the common lingo so I’ll adopt it here) rather than physical. If “first resurrection” refers to a non-material resurrection, then when does the physical resurrection take place? I guess I have a problem with any view that sees “resurrection” as anything other than a bodily resurrection (to be clear, amillennialists and postmillennialists do believe in a bodily resurrection of believers, they just don’t think that’s what’s in view here).

You’ll notice that one of the common themes in these is the change in these verses from the rest of the Book of Revelation. The way the martyrs are described is different from elsewhere in the book. God’s people have now come to life and are resurrected. Satan’s work is described differently here than elsewhere in Revelation (see chapter 12). Something has changed to make all this happen. In my opinion, the best explanation for this is that these verses are speaking of a different time from the rest of the book of Revelation. We are still waiting for these verses to be fulfilled, when Christ will return and His followers will be resurrected just as He was.

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