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Archive for the ‘Revelation’ Category

In my last post, I showed that in Revelation, holding tightly to the “word of God” and the “testimony of Jesus” (or similar phrases) will possibly lead someone to death.  This was a reality for John and his readers, one they were encouraged to face with perseverance (see 13:10).

It would be wrong, however, to think of this message as lacking in hope, although it would certainly be hard to stomach.  So I want to look at the message of hope given in Revelation, lest anyone think Revelation is all bad news.  But let’s heap the grim realities a little higher, first.

Below is a chart showing the connection between faithful testimony/witness and the prospect of facing death because of it.  It’s important to know that testimony, witness and their related words come from the same Greek root.  So whereas we might not make the connection in English (or if we do, it’s purely thematic), there is a linguistic tie-in for these verses.  I’ve underlined the portion about the testimony and italicized the death/persecution references.

 

Following Jesus, the faithful witness, unto death

“Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead” (1:5; cf. 3:14)
“Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city” (2:13)
“the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (6:9)
“when they (2 witnesses) have finished their testimony, the beast… will attack them… and kill them” (11:7)
“they triumphed…by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (12:11)
“the dragon…went off to make war against the rest of her offspring- those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus” (12:17)
“the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.” (17:6)
“I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God” (20:4)

 

A couple things to notice.  One, Jesus is the faithful witness par excellence, who was killed for not turning his back on the truth.  And while Antipas is the only other person referred to as a “faithful witness,” the theme is seen clearly in these other references, where people are killed because they will not recant their witness.  You can’t get more faithful than being marched to death for what you believe and proclaim.

So, to repeat the point: if you remain faithful to your testimony about Jesus, there is a decent chance you will be killed for it.

But there is a message of hope in Revelation, and it shows up in places other than the final chapters.  Notice that Jesus is called the “firstborn from the dead.”  That is, he is no longer dead.  Jesus wasn’t just the faithful witness who paid the ultimate price for his faithfulness; he is the faithful witness who won the ultimate victory.  His resurrection guarantees that death does not have the final say over his life.

Nor does death have the final say over the lives of Jesus’ followers.  That is the message of hope.  Those who follow Jesus will participate in his victory over death on the last day.  All of the persecuted groups in Revelation (the souls under the altar; the 2 witnesses; the 144,000; etc.) await the day of their resurrection and the New Jerusalem.

Part of the goal of Revelation is to encourage its readers to remain faithful witnesses until the end of one’s life.  Of course, for John’s original readers and many other believers around the world being a faithful witness might cause that end to come sooner than it otherwise would.  But just as death is guaranteed (by one means or another), so is resurrection promised to those who belong to Christ.  Yes, the war waged by the dragon and the beast are real and terrible.  But it is temporary.  Resurrection- life in Christ- is eternal.  While Revelation presents a grim picture of the world, underlying the entire message is the hope of Jesus’ faithful witnesses experi

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I’ve said before that I think Richard Bauckham’s little book, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, is the best book I’ve read on what is generally regarded as the most perplexing book in the Bible.  He packs a lot of great information into a relatively small space, offering the reader solid judgments on almost every page.

But, he suggests an odd viewpoint (in my opinion) on the reason why John was on Patmos to begin with.  While the traditional view has been that John was exiled on Patmos, Bauckham presents the possibility that John went there specifically to receive the Revelation that God was about to give him.  So, when John says he “was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus,” he isn’t referring to being punished for those two things at all.  And if you look only at 1:9, this stance has some merit.

But when you look at those two phrases, “the word of God” and “the testimony of Jesus” as they are used in Revelation, it’s hard to come to this conclusion.  See below for how those phrases are used.  I’ve italicized “the word of God” and underlined “the testimony of Jesus Christ” (or something like it, all quotes from the New American Standard).

1:2 [John] who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw
1:9 I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus
6:9 When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained
12:11 “And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death.
12:17 So the dragon was enraged with the woman, and went off to make war with the rest of her children, who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.
19:10 Then I fell at his feet to worship him. But [the angle] he said to me, “Do not do that; I am a fellow servant of yours and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus; worship God. For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”
20:4 Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.

The first instance is still in the introduction of the book, so we don’t see it expounded just yet.  It does, however, set the stage for what is to come.  You’ll see here that almost every instance of these phrases give reason for suffering or are connected to it.  The exception is 19:10, when the angel is speaking to John.

So, we see the “souls under the altar” in 6:9 had been slain because of “the word of God” and their testimony, and the dragon in chapter 12 wages war on those who maintain their testimony of Jesus, and those in chapter 20 were beheaded because of their testimony.  John, in his self-introduction in 1:9, tells his readers he is their “brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation.”  Given the usage of these two phrases in the rest of the book, I find it hard to see this as referring to anything other than John being exiled or imprisoned on Patmos.

Or let’s look at this from a different perspective, of John the pastor and his readers.  Put yourself in the place of his readers (if possible).  You’re facing persecution for your faith, or at least strongly tempted to compromise by all the Empire has to offer (for these two themes, see here).  In reading/hearing Revelation, you’re given a realistic portrayal of what will happen to those who cling to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.  You understand that those two things (which aren’t really two separate ideas) will quite possibly lead you to your death.

Then you go back and see at the beginning that John uses those two phrases of himself, who is your apostolic authority and Spirit-empowered prophet.  But for him, maintaining the word of God and the testimony of Jesus leads him not to death, but to a Mediterranean island that was not, contrary to popular opinion, a backwater deserted Gilligan’s island, but a populated, secure destination.

And he has the right to call himself a “fellow partaker in the tribulation?”  It would seem to me to be a pastoral blunder on John’s part, one I have trouble believing he’d make.

The traditional view, that John was exiled on Patmos, is best supported by the rest of the book.  When people hold tightly to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus in Revelation, they are not rewarded with tropical vacations or personal retreats.  They run the risk of losing their very lives.  Only the densest of John’s original audience could have come away from this book with a different understanding, and John, if he truly was exiled, knew it was a strong possibility for himself.

However, that doesn’t mean that despair wins in Revelation.  The hope of those who faithfully testify to Jesus Christ will be the subject of my next post.

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New Interview, New Bible

It’s probably not new, but “new to me” counts towards my naming trend.   I recently watched this interview of Gordon Fee by Mike Feazell of Grace Communion International.  In it, Fee discusses his latest commentary on Revelation, though he arguably devotes equal time to how we ought to read the Bible.  For readers of Fee, much of what he says will sound familiar, but I still found it to be a refreshing half-hour very well spent.

I was particularly intrigued by his comment that Biblica (formerly IBS) has published a TNIV without verse and chapter designations in the text, allowing the reader to read the text naturally, as it was intended to be read (and originally written!).  For $9 (c.f., $44 on Amazon!), this is probably one of the best Bible study tools available.  Mine is in the mail.

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Finally, the Bible shows us the perfect completion of God’s covenant with Abraham in the book of Revelation.  In fact, all the great Bible covenants are there in the book of Revelation.

  • Noah is there in the vision of a new creation, a new heaven and new earth after judgment.
  • Abraham is there in the ingathering and blessing of all nations from every tongue and language.
  • Moses is there in the covenantal assertion that ‘they will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God,’ and ‘the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them’ (Rev 21:3).
  • David is there in the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, and in the identity of Jesus as the Lion of Judah and Root of David.
  • The New Covenant is there in the fact that all of this will be accomplished by the blood of the Lamb who was slain.

Christopher J H Wright, Salvation Belongs to Our God, p95.

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Note: I promise this post will be more interesting than the title indicates.  If you disagree, I’ll refund your money.

Anytime we encounter lists in the Bible, we’re probably tempted to breeze over them.  There are, after all, more exicting things to get to and lists were something that were important to ancient people but less important to us.  But, they can, at times, reveal something very near to the heart of the biblical authors.

Take, for instance, the list of the tribes of Israel in Revelation 7:5-8.  It would seem straightforward enough, a listing of the 12 tribes is not that difficult to understand, except that when you look closely, the list isn’t quite what you’d expect.  Here is the list in the order it’s presented:

  • Judah
  • Reuben
  • Gad
  • Asher
  • Naphtali
  • Manasseh
  • Simeon
  • Levi
  • Issachar
  • Zebulun
  • Joseph
  • Benjamin

Now, there are a number of listings of the 12 tribes in the Bible, and they almost always differ (Genesis 35:23-25; 49; Exodus 1:2-4; Numbers 1:5-15; 26; 1 Chronicles 2-8).  I want to focus strictly on one aspect of this particular list, though, to demonstrate how it can reveal the author’s intentions.  Levi is left off some lists in the OT, mainly because his sons became the priests of the land and did not receive an allotment of land like the other 11 tribes.  Instead, Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, received land, keeping the number 12 intact. 

But this list is not for land allotments, so Levi makes an appearance.  One would expect, then, that Joseph would be on the list and the number would come out to 12 again, corresponding to the actual 12 sons of Jacob who originally headed the 12 tribes.  Joseph does make this list in Revelation 7, but so does one of his sons- Manasseh.  Ephraim, on the other hand, does not make it (despite his brother’s presence).  Dan, one of the original 12 sons of Jacob, is also left off the list. 

The omission of Dan would seem to be confusing, given the presence of the other 11 brothes, and Ephraim’s absence is also confusing because of his brother, Manasseh, making the cut.  So, the question is: of the available candidates (14 in all, the 12 sons and Ephraim and Manasseh), why were Dan and Ephraim chosen to be left off this list of tribes?

I would venture to guess that the answer goes back to 1 Kings 12:25-33.  I’ll quote vv28-30 (TNIV), with an explanatory comment or two, to make the point:

After seeking advice, the king [Jeroboam, of the Northern Tribes] made two golden calves.  He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem.  Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”  One he set up in Bethel [which was controlled by the tribe of Ephraim, Jeroboam’s tribe], and the other in Dan.  And this thing became a sin; the people came to worship the one at Bethel and went as far as Dan to worship the other.

The tribes of Ephraim and Dan became the centers of idolatry for the Northern Kingdom.  Instead of going to God’s Temple in Jerusalem to worship and offer sacrifices, the citizens of the northern tribes (all except Benjamin and Judah) would worship at these two centers of idolatry.  Hosea even changes the name “Bethel” (meaning “House of God”) to Beth Aven (“House of Wickedness,” see Hosea 4:15; 5:8; 10:5). 

I don’t think the omission of Ephraim and Dan are random or accidental, especially given their roles in the Old Testament as the centers of idolatry.  Idolatry is a grave concern for the book of Revelation because it gives worship that is due only to The One Who Sits on the Throne and the Lamb (see 4:8-11; 5:9-14; 7:10-17). 

The churches of Pergamum (2:12-17) and Thyatira (2:18-29) are warned about new incarnations of Balaam (who enticed the Israelites toward idolatry, see Numbers 31:1-24) and Jezebel (who promoted Baal worship in the Northern Kingdom, see 1 Kings 18; 21:25; 2 Kings 9:22).  The people of the earth worship the dragon (13:4) and the beast (13:8, 11-17), and kill those who refuse (13:15).  Throughout the Bible, adultery and harlotry (chapters 17-18) are images used of idolatry. 

But we are encouraged to “worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (14:7; 15:1-4).  Those who worship the beast and receive his mark will be judged (14:9, 16:2; 19:20-21).  Those who reign with Christ in 20:4-6 are those “who had not worshipped the beast or his image.”   Idolaters are among those who will have no part in the New Heaven and New Earth (21:8; 22:15). 

Looking back at the list of the tribes in Revelation 7, John could have chosen a different way of presenting them.  He could have gone with the originally 12 sons of Jacob, leaving out Ephraim and Manasseh and including Dan.  He could have gone with the 12 tribes as they received their portions of land, leaving out Levi and Joseph and adding Ephraim and Manasseh.  But Ephraim and Dan were the ones omitted. 

I submit it was because of their role in leading Israel into idolatry.  I want to be clear, I don’t take this list of 12 literally, as if no descendents of Ephraim or Dan have any part in the Kingdom of God.  I think there is a theological and literary point John is making throughout the book that is captured in this list, or more specifically, what is omitted from the list.  Those who participate in idolatry, who worship anything other than the only One worthy of worship, have no inheritance in God.

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Richard Bauckham’s book, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, is, in my opinion, the best book written on Revelation (at least for a non-commentary).  Among many strong points, he demonstrates the intentional contrast between the city of Babylon (which is Rome for John’s readers), portrayed as the harlot (chapters 17-18) and the New Jerusalem, seen in chapters 21-22.  I’ve mentioned previously how I’m trying to understand better how Revelation works as a narrative, and the use of contrast is a fairly common literary device in narratives.  I present Bauckham’s breakdown of this contrast (from pages 131-132).

  1. The chaste bride, the wife of the Lamb (21:2, 9) vs. the harlot with whom the kings of the earth fornicate (17:2)
  2. Her splendour is the glory of God (21:11-21) vs. Babylon’s splendour from exploiting her empire (17:4; 18:12-13, 16)
  3. The nations walk by her light, which is the glory of God (21:24) vs. Babylon’s corruption and deception of the nations (17:2, 18:3, 23; 19:2)
  4. The kings of the earth bring their glory into her (i.e., their worship and submission to God: 21:24) vs. Babylon rules over the kings of the earth (17:18)
  5. They bring the glory and honour of the nations into her (i.e., glory to God: 21:26) vs. Babylon’s luxurious wealth extorted from all the world (18:12-17)
  6. Uncleannes, abomination, and falsehood are excluded (21:27) vs. Babylon’s abominations, impurities, deceptions (18:12-17)
  7. The water of life and the tree of life for the healing of the nations (21:6; 22:1-2) vs. Babylon’s wine which makes the nations drunk (14:8; 17:2; 18:3)
  8. Life and healing (22:1-2) vs. the blood of slaughter (17:6; 18:24)
  9. God’s people are called to enter the New Jerusalem (22:14) vs. God’s people are called to come out of Babylon (18:4)

I find this list not only to be a convincing demonstration of the intentional juxtaposition of the two cities, I also find it convicting.  How often do we settle for accepting life in Babylon when we were made for the New Jerusalem?

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We’re about to embark on a three week course on Revelation at our church’s training school, taught by none other than the great Danny.  To help him out, I sent him a list of points that he will want to stress in the class, to avoid common pitfalls.  I only had six points; he gave me the seventh, making the number appropriate for Revelation.  See if you can spot how many errors there are in our suggestions, and please comment with some of your own:

<sarcasm>

  1. Try to think about what each element in Revelation (bowls, beasts, trumpets, frogs, locusts) represents today, since John probably saw images of 21st century technology (locusts=helicopters?) and didn’t know what to call them.
  2. Don’t worry about the Old Testament.  All of the imagery in Revelation is fresh, and unique to John’s letter.  If you search through the OT, especially the prophetical books, you’ll just get bogged down.
  3. Think chronologically.  John is meticulous about placing things in chronological order.  It will help you decide which dispensation he is talking about, and calculate the dates of certain events.**
  4. If you don’t have enough time to read the whole book, you can focus on two things:  (a) What ‘666’ means, and (b) how to interpret 20:1-10.  These are summary headings of what John is saying, and are keys to interpretation.  If you preach 20:1-10, you’ve preached Revelation; no two passages are more important and exhaustive of the book’s meaning.  Christian eschatology is the millenium.
  5. Bear in mind that Revelation is the only book in the New Testament that is eschatological in nature, and exclusively so.  The other NT writers, Jesus inclusive, simply do not address it.
  6. Read the “Left Behind” series to get a clearer picture of what John is talking about.
  7. Make sure you clip news articles regarding the Middle East to compare to Revelation.  You never know when an evil dictator will be revealed to have his first, middle and last names with 6 letters each.

</sarcasm>

Related to the snarkiness above, you’ll note that I’ve not posted in many a week.  As evidenced above, this is mostly because I have nothing interesting to say these days.  Although nobody has complained, I’m hoping to get one (serious) post in before my next child is born, which is in roughly 3 weeks.

**I drive by a stop sign on my way to work that has a bumper sticker on the back of it reading “Jesus is returning on October 21, 1992.”  Clearly these folks didn’t take point #3 to heart.

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