Apr
2020

Are We There Yet? Pandemic and the End-times, Part 5: The Last Battle and the Final Judgment

 

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel, Rome)

FOREWORD:  I started this series of five blogs on March 14, in response to a question from my students:

Specifically, is this the end of days? I have heard a number of students joke and comment about this, and I think the jokes and comments about the apocalypse do indicate a small underlying fear. Among the wildfires in Australia, the tornados in the south, the locusts in Eastern Africa currently, and now this virus … I can definitely see where they are coming from!

Back then, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where I teach, had already made the decision to cancel in-person classes, and to close the campus.  Soon thereafter, Pennsylvania’s governor issued an order for citizens to shelter in place.

Now, Governor Wolf has suggested that May 8 may be the date for us to begin re-opening, slowly, carefully, and by stages.  Nationally, it appears that we may have crested the wave of this pandemic, and that social distancing and other preventive measures may have done their work.  Constant testing and vigilance, and a willingness to return to lock-down if needed, are going to remain necessary until an effective treatment for COVID-19, and ultimately a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, are available.  Still, we can be cautiously optimistic.  Praise the Lord!

I hope that this series has been useful to all who may have been asking if this pandemic was a sign of the end-times.  I also hope it has been a help to any who were interested in, and willing to listen to, what the Bible says about the end of the world, and the ends–that is, the purpose and plan–of God.


In Revelation 20:7-10, John describes history’s final battle in a vision drawing particularly on the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. As in Ezekiel 38—39, the names Gog and Magog represent the final enemies of God’s people. But in Ezekiel, Gog of Magog is the leader of an alliance of kingdoms (Ezek 38:1-6), while in Revelation 20, Gog and Magog symbolize “the nations that are at the four corners of the earth” (Rev. 20:8). In Ezekiel, the LORD brings Gog against Jerusalem (Ezek 38:4); but in Revelation, Satan deceives the nations into rebellion against God and all God’s people (Rev 20:8). In both Ezekiel and Revelation, Gog’s attack comes as a shock: the battle with Gog comes after Israel’s restoration and renewal (Ezek 38:8), while in Revelation, Gog and Magog emerge after a thousand years of Christ’s rule on earth (Rev 20:1-7). As Jim Durlesser writes, “The message of the Gog oracle is that sin, oppression, and the brutality of war are not vanquished without significant effort, and that we ought not become lax or over-confident” (“The Timelessness of Apocalyptic,” in Approaching the New Millennium: Student Book [Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1995]).  In the end, as both Ezekiel and Revelation affirm, victory belongs to God alone (Ezek 38:18-23; Rev 20:9).

The defeat of Gog, Magog, and Satan culminates in the final judgment, after which the condemned are cast into the lake of fire (Rev 20:11-15). With the universe now purged of evil, Death and Hades are themselves thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:14; the CEB has “the Grave” here for the Greek Hades, which the Septuagint uses to translate the Hebrew Sheol: the underworld, or the place of the dead).  Now that Death itself has died (see also Isa 25:7–8; Dan 12:1–3), the world to come is ushered in: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea [an ancient image of chaos] was no more” (Rev 21:1).  Here again John, who was steeped in the language and imagery of Scripture, is drawing upon an Old Testament text: this time, alluding to Isaiah 65:17-18:

Look! I’m creating a new heaven and a new earth:
    past events won’t be remembered;
    they won’t come to mind.
Be glad and rejoice forever
    in what I’m creating,
    because I’m creating Jerusalem as a joy
    and her people as a source of gladness.

Heavenly Jerusalem | Fol. 140v | The Morgan Library & Museum

In John’s vision, the New Jerusalem is a massive golden cube, 1,500 miles long, wide, and high (Rev 21:16)!  I agree with Craig Koester (Revelation, AB 38A [New Haven: Yale, 2014], 816) and Mathias Rissi (The Future of the World: An Exegetical Study of Revelation 19.11-22.15, Studies in Biblical Theology, Second Series 23 [Napierville, IL: Allenson, 1972], 62-63) that the most likely parallel for this image is the inner room of the temple, called the Most Holy Place.  This chamber, where the Ark of the LORD was kept, was a perfect cube, and its walls were lined with gold (1 Kgs 6:20; Ezek 41:4). The point is that the entire city is the holy dwelling place of God, where all God’s people are invited to live.

As in Ezekiel’s vision of the ideal city, John’s new Jerusalem has twelve gates, named with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (see Ezek 48:30-35). However, these gates are never shut (Rev 21:25)–which, since the whole reason for fortified city gates was to keep people out, subverts their purpose entirely!  The light of God’s glory streams its invitation out of the city into the world outside, and John says, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. . . . People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev 21:24-26, emphasis mine).  After seeming to be destroyed forever, the nations are unexpectedly included in the world to come.

Mathias Rissi (The Future of the World, 77-78; see also Koester, Revelation, 822) underlines how surprising this message of inclusion is:

Throughout the book [the kings of the earth] are a clearly defined entity, a collective expression for the holders of world-wide political power who place themselves at the disposal of the Antichrist (17.2, 18). In the end, they hurl their entire massed power against God and his church (16.14; 19.9); but then, under the effect of Christ’s word, they will collapse and die together with their armies (19.19-21). Having been destroyed, they belong now to the ‘dead’, of whom 20.15 speaks. According to God’s judgment they will fall prey to the ‘second death’.

The kings of the earth are destroyed in Revelation’s final judgment.  Yet somehow, here they are, coming through the open gates into God’s holy city! Perhaps after all the lake of fire is not the end. Rissi (The Future of the World, 78) suggests that just as there is a “second death” in John’s visions (Rev 20:14; 21:8), there must be a “second resurrection”:

In 20.6 John calls the resurrection of the church of Jesus ‘the first resurrection’, and he praises all who will have part in it, for whoever is not caught up in it must await the awful reality of judgment in the lake of fire, and can achieve life only through the judgment. This redemption event which finally abolishes the reality of judgment must be a second resurrection which is presupposed by the mention of a first. For the second resurrection—in analogy to the first and second death, both of which signify judgment—can only be a saving reality.

Coming again to Revelation 21:24-26 not long ago in my studies, I was puzzled that I hadn’t seen this before, when as a young Christian I used to pore over these passages, looking for signs of the end.  Perhaps it was because, as a young Fundamentalist, I saw what I knew the text said, and not what was actually there on the page.  Then again, it may be that I didn’t see it because my Bible didn’t say it!  Intriguingly, Rev 21:24  in the old King James Version reads “And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it” (emphasis mine).

Holbein-erasmus.jpg

This translation is based, not on the best Greek text of Revelation, but on ErasmusTextus receptus, which adds ton sozomenon (“the ones who are saved”) following ta ethne (“the nations”) in Rev 21:24. While the reason for adding this phrase is clear, its origin is mysterious: neither the Vulgate nor the majority Byzantine Greek text have this addition, and the critical Nestle-Aland text, Novum Testamentum Graece, does not even list it as a minor variant to be considered.

The seeming contradiction in Revelation regarding the fate of the nations, which evidently prompted Erasmus to add an explanatory note to his Greek text, is not a feature of Revelation alone.  Indeed, it seems likely that, as with so many images and themes in this book, John was inspired by a passage from the Old Testament: specifically, by Zechariah 14.

Themes and images used in later apocalypses appear throughout the book of Zechariah: for example, the angelic interpreter in Zech 1:9, 19; 2:3-5; 4:10-14; 5:3, 6-8, 10-11; 6:5-6; compare Dan 7:15-16; 8:15-17; Rev 1:1-2; the four horsemen in Zech 1:7-17; 6:1-8; compare Rev 6:1-8; and the horns in Zech 1:18-21 (2:1-4 in Hebrew); compare Dan 7:24; Rev 17:9–11.   However, Zechariah 14 is a full-blown apocalypse which starkly describes the final battle between the nations and Jerusalem (compare Dan 11:40—12:1; Ezek 38—39; Rev 20:7-10). As in Ezekiel, it is the LORD who gathers “all the nations against Jerusalem in battle” (Zech 14:2; compare Zech 12:2; Ezek 38:8; Rev 20:8). But at the moment when all seems lost, the LORD intervenes: “The LORD will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle” (Zech 14:3; compare Dan 12:1; Rev 20:9). God the Divine Warrior stands astride the Mount of Olives, which splits in two (Zech 14:4-5; compare Nah 1:5; Hab 3:10), forming a new valley, through which Jerusalem’s population escapes. Once the people are safe, “The LORD my God will come, and all the holy ones with him” (Zech 14:5).

Jerusalem’s security is guaranteed by a death blow to the nations: God sends a plague (!) that rots the flesh of “all the peoples who swarmed against Jerusalem” (Zech 14:12). Panic-stricken, Jerusalem’s enemies will turn on one another (Zech 14:13; compare 2 Chr 20:23-24; Ezek 38:21).  So the LORD and the LORD’s people are victorious, and their enemies come to a particularly messy end.

Sukkot | Builders of Jewish Education

Yet despite the sweeping devastation of plague and war, the enemies of Jerusalem are not after all utterly destroyed: “All those left from all the nations who attacked Jerusalem will go up annually to pay homage to the king, the LORD of heavenly forces, and to celebrate the Festival of Booths” (14:16). The nations come to Jerusalem year after year, to worship the LORD and to celebrate Sukkot! This autumn pilgrim feast is an appropriate time for the nations to come to Jerusalem, as it is also the time set for the reading and veneration of Torah (Deut 31:10-11; Neh 8:13-18). The nations, Zechariah says, join the faithful of Israel in proclaiming fealty to the LORD, and faithfulness to the LORD’s commandments.

Meanwhile, temple holiness has been extended to include all Jerusalem, and even beyond. Every cooking pot in Judah and Jerusalem is fit “to boil the flesh of the sacrifice” (Zech 14:21, NRSV; compare Lev 6:24-30; 22:1-7, 10-16), and even the harness bells of horses in Jerusalem are engraved, “Holy to the Lord” (Zech 14:20)! This democratization of holiness is reminiscent of the Holiness Code (Lev 17—26), but while that tradition sought to make all Israel holy through a heightened sense of purity and impurity extended to each Israelite (“Say to the whole community of the Israelites: You must be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy,” Lev 19:2), here that sanctity is granted by a sovereign declaration of God.

The conclusion of Zechariah 14 seems to back away from this astonishing extension of holiness and inclusion of the nations, as it calls for the expulsion of the Canaanites (Hebrew kena’ani) from “the house of the LORD of heavenly forces” (Zech 14:21). Since Zechariah 14 has already both extended temple holiness to the entire city (Zech 14:20-21), and expressly stipulated the presence of foreigners in the city, at least on Sukkot (Zech 14:16-19), the exclusion of the Canaanites seems odd. With the CEB, we should understand kena’ani here to mean “merchants,” as in Zephaniah 1:11 (compare Hos 12:7[8]; Prov 31:24; Job 41:6; as well as kin’an, meaning “traders,” in Isa 23:8).  Crass commercialism and profiteering are opposed here, not the inclusion of the nations.

Similarly, in the New Testament, all four gospels (Matt 21:12-16; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46; John 2:13-17) describe Jesus driving the merchants from the temple.  In Mark 11:17, however, this act is paired with radical inclusion:

He taught them, “Hasn’t it been written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? [all the Gospels cite Isa 56:7 here, but the phrase “for all nations” does not appear in the other accounts] But you’ve turned it into a hideout for crooks” [citing Jer 7:11].

Zechariah 14 and Revelation 20–21 share the overall pattern we expect to find in apocalypses: the final battle; the timely intervention of the LORD; the defeat of the LORD’s enemies and the final deliverance of the LORD’s people.  But they also share this astonishing element: the full inclusion of the nations.  We should observe that neither text sets forth a universalism shorn of judgment, destruction, and exclusion.  God’s justice, after all, requires that the final victory must mean the vindication of God’s people, and the end of their enemies.  The gates of the new Jerusalem may be open in invitation, but “Nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is vile and deceitful, but only those who are registered in the Lamb’s scroll of life” (Rev 21:27).  Entry into the city is not unconditional, but presupposes the transformation of any who enter.

Yet, God’s grace and mercy require that God’s final victory must also mean the inclusion even of those thought excluded.  The mention of the “Lamb’s scroll of life” calls back to mind the final judgment scene in Rev 20:12:

I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and scrolls were opened. Another scroll was opened too; this is the scroll of life. And the dead were judged on the basis of what was written in the scrolls about what they had done.

While the “scrolls” are a record of the life lived, the “scroll of life” is something else: “In it,” Brian Blount (Revelation: A Commentary, NTL [Louisville, Westminster John Knox, 2009], 374) writes, “names are graciously written—by God (divine passive)—from the beginning of creation.” Blount continues,

By joining these two books—one representing grace, the other representing works—in the same verse, John holds in positive tension these two theological concepts. He recognizes the freedom God gives to each human to make choices, and he weighs the responsibility those choices bear, but he never allows the ultimate eschatological decision to rest with anyone other than God.

We may–indeed we must–affirm the reality of human freedom and responsibility.  Yet God remains God, after all, and reserves to Godself the final disposition of all things.  So Mathias Rissi affirms, “But the victory of grace will in the end be stronger than all the resistance of the unbelief of Israel, and of the nations and kings of the earth!” (The Future of the World, 79).  Apocalypse, remember, is a hopeful literature!  As we stated in the first blog in this series, “We need not worry about the future, friends, not because we know what the future holds, but because we know who holds the future.”  

Apr
2020

Are We There Yet? Pandemic and the End-times, Part 4: Antichrist and the Mark of the Beast

 

In this series, we have been looking at what the Bible says about the end-times, in response to fears that the coronavirus is a sign that the end is nigh.  In the scenario embraced by many American Christians, if the end is near, then the Antichrist must soon be revealed–indeed, as evangelist John Hagee puts it, “The Antichrist is here.”  The Antichrist, many believe, is the coming world ruler, who before the end will force everyone to submit to his rule and wear his sign: the infamous mark of the Beast (Rev 13:16-18).  This is not a new idea.  At the head of this blog is a section of the fresco “The Stories of the Antichrist,” from the Orvieto Cathedral in Umbria, Italy, painted by Renaissance artist Luca Signorelli in 1499-1502.  As Ingrid Rowland observes, apocalyptic fervor gripped Umbria in those days for good (and sadly familiar) reasons:

When the fifty-five-year-old Signorelli climbed up The Rock to earn the hundred and eighty scudi he was paid for this commission, the streets of Orvieto wound among half-ruined buildings of dark volcanic stone; only the Cathedral’s white-and-gray striped marble facade lifted the general gloom. Plague claimed two or three victims a day. The city’s official governor was none other than Cesare Borgia. It must have been relatively easy in that setting for Signorelli to imagine what the end of the world might look like.

Likely candidates for the role of Antichrist have been depressingly common over the years.  My great-grandfather Anderson Boggs, who was a circuit rider in West Virginia and Kentucky, identified the Beast of Revelation 13 with Kaiser Wilhelm.  In World War II, Hitler was a common candidate; later, one or another leader of the former Soviet Union.  I have in my office files a mimeographed screed identifying Ronald Reagan as the Antichrist (Rider on a white horse?  Six letters each in Ronald, Wilson, and Reagan?), and Barack Obama has also been cast in that role.  Some today identify the mark of the Beast with UPC codes, while others insist that the Pope or the United Nations  is the Antichrist.  Seventeen years ago, John Hagee confidently described the Antichrist:

On March 16, 2003, on the eve of the United States’ invasion of Iraq, Pastor John Hagee took to the pulpit to warn of the coming Antichrist. In his sermon, “The Final Dictator,” Hagee described the Antichrist as a seductive figure with “fierce features.” He will be “a blasphemer and a homosexual,” the pastor announced. Then, Hagee boomed, “There’s a phrase in Scripture used solely to identify the Jewish people. It suggests that this man [the Antichrist] is at least going to be partially Jewish, as was Adolph Hitler, as was Karl Marx.”

In the context of the book of Revelation, the identity of the Beast is plain.  When Revelation 17:9 says that the seven heads of the Beast are seven hills, no reader in the Roman period could miss the allusion: the city of seven hills, always and everywhere, was Rome.  John did not envision some distant future.  Rather, as is stated over and over again in this book (Rev. 1:1; 2:16; 3:11; 6:11; 22:6–7, 12, 20), John believed that the end of the world, and so of the oppressive power of Rome, would come soon. 

The mark of the Beast in Rev 13:16-18, like the mark of God on the faithful (Rev 7:3), indicates ownership.  For John, a choice must be made as to whether one stands for Christ, or with Rome: there can be no middle ground (Rev 3:15-16).  The number 666 refers to human hubris: seven is the number of perfection; six is the number of imperfect humanity (in Rev 13:18, the Greek arithmos anthropou could be read, “a human number”), which still falls short of seven no matter how often you write it!  But 666 also likely refers to the vicious emperor Nero (54-68 CE), first to persecute the church.  In Hebrew, letters also stand for numerals, so names are also numbers: for example “David” adds up to fourteen (note how Matthew uses this in Matt 1:1-17).  Nero’s name and title in Hebrew letters (Neron Qesar) add up to 666.

Frei Clemente Rojão: O Segundo Anticristo, o Falso Profeta

John, who identifies the seven heads of the Beast as kings as well as hills, says, “One of its heads appeared to have been slain and killed, but its deadly wound was healed. So the whole earth was amazed and followed the beast” (Rev 13:3).  Although Nero had committed suicide in 68 CE, there were persistent rumors that he was still alive, and had fled to the Parthians, where he was raising a conquering army.  Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius both speak of imposters claiming to be Nero, and the Jewish apocalypse Syballine Oracles both credits that rumor (4:119-123, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments, ed. James H. Charlesworth [Garden City, NT: Doubleday, 1983], 387; 5:137-154, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 396-97), and identifies this Nero redivivus as the instigator of the world’s last great war (5:361-396, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha401-402). Similarly, it seems, John believed that God was about to deliver the world and the church by bringing about Rome’s destruction, following Nero’s imminent invasion from the east.

John’s vision of the Beast was in turn inspired by Daniel’s vision of the four beasts (Dan 7):  four world kingdoms, culminating in the Greek empire established by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, which Daniel said would be the  last.  When Daniel was written, Palestine was ruled by the cruel Greek despot Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BCE).  But, Daniel declared, soon the heavenly armies, led by the archangel Michael, would intervene:

At that time, Michael the great leader who guards your people will take his stand. It will be a difficult time—nothing like it has ever happened since nations first appeared. But at that time every one of your people who is found written in the scroll will be rescued.  Many of those who sleep in the dusty land will wake up—some to eternal life, others to shame and eternal disgrace.  Those skilled in wisdom will shine like the sky. Those who lead many to righteousness will shine like the stars forever and always (Dan 12:1-3).

Antiochus died, and his oppressive regime with him: but of course, the world did not end in the mid-second century BCE.  Later Jewish readers, as well as Christian readers such as the John of Revelation, identified Daniel’s fourth kingdom with Rome (2 Esdras 12:10-12; Rev 17:9): but of course, the world did not end with the fall of Rome, either.  In all the generations since, the promise of God’s deliverance has been continually re-read, and applied to new situations, in the confidence that God’s people will be preserved, and God’s faithfulness will prevail, whatever beasts may emerge to claim the world’s allegiance.

So, what of the Antichrist?  Surprisingly, the term “antichrist” (Greek antichristos) does not appear in the book of Revelation at all.  It is found only four times in Scripture: in 1 John 2:18, 22 and 4:3, and 2 John 7.  The word may have been coined by the author of 1 and 2 John, who identifies himself simply as the Elder.  In these short books, antichristos refers not to one person, but to many: indeed, the Elder warns of a spirit of antichrist.  Tragically, according to the Elder this spirit comes out of the church itself:

They went out from us, but they were not really part of us. If they had been part of us, they would have stayed with us. But by going out from us, they showed they all are not part of us (1 John 2:19).

But the Elder expresses confidence in the community, who know the truth and so will not be mislead by lies (1 Jn 2:20-21).  In fact, the distinguishing mark of antichristos IS the Lie: the denial of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.

The Elder addresses antichristos particularly in his teaching regarding spiritual discernment (1 Jn 4:1-6):

Dear friends, don’t believe every spirit. Test the spirits to see if they are from God because many false prophets have gone into the world. This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a human is from God, and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and is now already in the world. You are from God, little children, and you have defeated these people because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world. So they speak from the world’s point of view and the world listens to them. We are from God. The person who knows God listens to us. Whoever is not from God doesn’t listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

In the New Testament, the rise of false prophets is often a sign of the last days (so Matt 24:11, 24:24//Mark 13:22; and Rev 16:13; 19:20; 20:10).  That is also the position of the Elder in 1 John.  But for this Christian teacher, discerning true prophecy from false is straightforward: as in 1 John 2:22, the denial of Jesus is the evidence of antichrist.  In 1 John 4, antichristos specifically denies the Incarnation:

This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a human is from God, and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and is now already in the world (1 Jn 4:2-3; see also Jn 1:14)

Conversely, the confession of Christ is the means to victory over sin and evil, “because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn 4:4).  This leads to a test in practice: the true spirit of Christ rather than antichristos is shown in Christlike love for one another and for God (1 Jn 4:7—5:5).

God Is Love Collage by Josette Atme | Saatchi Art

1 John 4:7-8 is the Golden Text of the entire Bible:

Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.

What an extraordinary confession: the greatest power in the universe is self-giving, sacrificial love!  This affirmation parallels the most famous text in Scripture, John 3:16-17:

 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

Jesus is the demonstration and proof of God’s love (see also Rom 5:8).

In 2 John, the Elder warns again about antichristos, which denies “that Jesus Christ came as a human being” (2 Jn 7).  But this means more than rejecting the theological doctrine of the incarnation.  The Elder follows Jesus’ example in proclaiming the new commandment of love (2 Jn 5-6; 1 Jn 2:7-8), and it is in connection with the love commandment that his warnings about antichristos are sounded.  The spirit of antichrist denies Christ by denying Christlikeness: the way of love followed, enabled and empowered by Jesus.

So, where is the spirit of antichristos manifest in our world?  Not, to be sure, in UPC codes, or the UN, or the Vatican, or in the gay part-Jewish dictator of Hagee’s xenophobic nightmares.  Rather, the spirit of antichrist is found wherever professing Christians claim to speak in God’s name, but denying Christ’s love, speak death rather than life.  For example, right now, it is necessary for everyone to practice social distancing–not out of fear, simply to avoid contracting COVID-19, but out of responsibility to our neighbors, to slow the spread of the disease: a strategy that seems to be working. Since we may not know whether or not we indeed are carrying the novel coronavirus, we all need to act as though we were infected.  Not only is there nothing noble, Christian, or heroic about needlessly getting infected with this virus, it is actively evil to infect someone else willfully.

Image may contain: tree and outdoor

So when, this past week, Christian pastors such as Tony Spell, leader of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, LA, insisted that their congregations gather despite shelter in place orders, that was the spirit of antichrist at work.  When Christian college president Jerry Falwell, Jr. called his students back to Liberty University, and required his faculty and staff to meet with them, that was the spirit of antichrist at work.  God grant us the courage to condemn the spirit of antichristos, and to pursue the language and practice of love. Let us continue to be examples of Christ’s love as we reach out to each other and to the entire world in solidarity, standing together by sheltering in place.

Apr
2020

The Spring of Souls

In the early church, when sisters and brothers met one another in the holy season of Easter, they would not just say “Hello.”  Instead, they would greet one another with a hearty and enthusiastic Christe anesti–“Christ is risen!”–to which the only possible response is Allthos anesti–“He is risen indeed!”

We cannot meet face to face this Easter, in this season of pandemic.  To insist on that contact would be at best irresponsible, and at worst wicked: since we may not know whether or not we are carriers of the virus, we would be risking not only our own health, but the health of those with whom we came in contact.  But when we meet virtually, by phone or screen, we can still use that ancient greeting, and lift up as one, from our separate places, our Alleluias!

In celebration of this holiest of holy days, John of Damascus wrote this glorious hymn in the sixth century.  This hymn, in John Mason Neale‘s translation, is commonly sung today to a tune by Arthur S. Sullivan.  Have a joyous Easter, sisters and brothers: Christe anesti!

Come, you faithful, raise the strain
of triumphant gladness!
God has brought forth Israel
into joy from sadness,
loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke
Jacob’s sons and daughters;
led them with unmoistened foot
through the Red Sea waters.

crocuses

’Tis the spring of souls today:
Christ has burst his prison,
and from three days’ sleep in death
as a sun has risen.
All the winter of our sins,
long and dark, is flying
from the Light to whom we give
laud and praise undying.

Neither could the gates of death,
nor the tomb’s dark portal,
nor the watchers, nor the seal,
hold you as a mortal:
but today, among your own,
you appear, bestowing
your deep peace, which ever more
passes human knowing.

Alleluia! Now we cry
to our Lord immortal,
who, triumphant, burst the bars
of the tomb’s dark portal;
Alleluia! With the Son,
God the Father praising;
Alleluia! Yet a gain
to the Spirit raising.

Apr
2020

Holy Week in a Different Key: The One Whom They Have Pierced

Via Crucis con P. G. Frassati – Oratoriani

For all its otherworldly mysticism, the gospel of John insists, from its first chapter, on the earthiness, indeed the physicality, of Jesus: “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:14).  Nowhere is this more evident than in John’s account of Jesus’ suffering and death, which is full of realistic details that, to many readers, sound like the words of an eyewitness.  One such detail, found only in John, is this report:

It was the Preparation Day and the Jewish leaders didn’t want the bodies to remain on the cross on the Sabbath, especially since that Sabbath was an important day. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of those crucified broken and the bodies taken down.  Therefore, the soldiers came and broke the legs of the two men who were crucified with Jesus.  When they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead so they didn’t break his legs.  However, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.  The one who saw this has testified, and his testimony is true. He knows that he speaks the truth, and he has testified so that you also can believe. These things happened to fulfill the scripture, They won’t break any of his bones. And another scripture says, They will look at him whom they have pierced (John 19:31-37).

Jewish Art and Food by Debra's Pics and Favs | Seder, Passover ...All four Gospels connect Jesus’ last week on earth with Passover.  But while in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus’ last supper with his followers is a Passover meal (Matt 26:17-19; Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:7-13), in John he is crucified on “Preparation Day,” when the Passover lamb was killed (John 19:14).  The first of the two Scripture citations in this account (John 19:36) actually refers to multiple texts.  Both Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12  direct that the bones of the Passover lamb are not to be broken, while Psalm 34:19-20 avows

The righteous have many problems,
    but the LORD delivers them from every one.
He protects all their bones;
    not even one will be broken.

The breaking of the legs of the crucified was intended to speed their deaths.  If victims of crucifixion were unable to push up to relieve the pressure on their lungs and diaphragm, they would soon suffocate: an end that usually came only after hours, even days, of exposure and suffering.  The religious leaders do not ask a quicker death for Jesus and his fellow sufferers out of mercy or pity, however.  Unburied corpses defile the land (Deut 21:23, Paul’s prooftext for Jesus taking our curse on himself; see Gal 3:13).  Therefore, it is important for these leaders that the condemned men die before sundown, so that they do not die on the Sabbath–particularly this Sabbath of Passover.

Blood and Water From His Side - Chrysostom - Crossroads InitiativeThe executioners see (doubtless to their surprise) that this measure is not necessary for Jesus, who is already dead.  Still, to make certain, they stab him with a spear, “and immediately blood and water came out”–an image that in western Christianity becomes the basis for mystical devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  In John 19:37, the piercing of Jesus’ side prompts a second Bible quotation, which comes (once again) from the second half of Zechariah:

And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn (Zech 12:10, NRSV).

Zechariah here uses a positive image in a negative sense—or at least, in a mournful, penitential one.  As in Joel 2:28-29 (in Hebrew, 3:1-2), God pours out God’s spirit.  But rather than a spirit of prophecy poured out on all people, God pours out “a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (12:10). This spirit sufficiently softens their hearts so that “when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.”

But who is this pierced one?  Our Hebrew Bible reads ‘elay ‘eth ‘asher-daqaru: “to me whom they have pierced.”  The third person forms used later in the verse (“mourn for him . . . weep over him”) suggest that perhaps ‘elay should read ‘elaw (“to him”)—a common scribal error.  Accordingly, the NRSV has “the one whom they have pierced.”  The Greek text of John 19:37, which quotes this verse, reads hopsontai eis hon exekentesan, “they shall look at him whom they have pierced,” which seems to be the form of the saying assumed by most early Christian writers (see The Twelve Prophets, ed. Alberto Ferreiro, Ancient Christian Commentary 14 [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2003], 271-73).

However, the Greek Septuagint keeps the first person reference in Zech 12:10, translating the phrase as epiblepsontai pros me anth’ on katorchesanto (“they shall look to me because they mocked”[?]; note that the Greek texts of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotian instead read exekentesan, “pierced”).  The early Christian teacher Theodoret of Cyrus reads, “They will look on me, on the one they have pierced” (Commentary on the Twelve Prophets, trans. Robert Charles Hill [Brookline: Holy Cross, 2006], 269).  The Latin Vulgate also uses the first person (aspicient ad me quem confixerunt; “they shall look upon me whom they have pierced”), as does the old King James Version: “they shall look upon me whom they have pierced.”  The CEB has, “They will look to me concerning the one whom they pierced;” similarly, the Jewish Publication Society’s translation reads “they shall lament to me about those who are slain.” This is a possible, if awkward, reading.  But if the Hebrew text is correct here, as seems likely from the textual evidence, the simplest and best reading is, “when they look on me whom they have pierced.”  Incredible as it seems, this passage refers to an assault upon God by Jerusalem’s leaders (so André LaCocque, “Et aspicient ad me quem confixerunt,” in Thinking Biblically: Exegetical and Hermeneutical Studies, André LaCocque and Paul Ricoeur; trans. David Pellauer [Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998], 410-12).  The one “whom they have pierced” is the LORD.

There is precedent for this in Zechariah 2:8:

The Lord of heavenly forces proclaims (after his glory sent me)
        concerning the nations plundering you:
            Those who strike you strike the pupil of my eye.

Here, those who assault Judah are regarded as though they had poked God in the eye!  Cruelty to those whom God loves is an assault upon the Divine.  No wonder Zechariah 12:10 calls the people of Jerusalem and their leaders to mourn!

Crucifixion of Jesus - WikipediaFrom early on, Christian readers found in Zech 12:10–13:1 a foreshadowing of Jesus’ suffering and death. In the New Testament, this passage is cited not only in John 19:37, but also in Revelation 1:7:

Look, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye will see him, including those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of him. This is so. Amen.

Zechariah 12:12 actually refers to a variety of religious and secular leaders, all summoned to mourning and repentance: “The land will mourn, each of the clans by itself.”  But John here follows the Septuagint of this verse, which reads kai kopsetai he ge kata phulas (“the earth shall mourn by tribe”). Everyone on earth, John declares, will see the exalted, returning Christ–and everyone will be brought by this revelation to mourning and repentance.

By contrast, the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr read Zech 12:10 as referring to the Jews, who looking on “him whom they have pierced. . . shall say, ‘Why, O Lord, have you made us to err from your way? The glory which our fathers blessed has for us been turned into shame” (First Apology 52, cited by Ferreiro 2003, 271). Indeed, Hippolytus describes those who crucified Jesus, whom he identifies as “the people of the Hebrews,” wailing when they see “him whom they have pierced,” and repenting—but too late, as they have already been consigned to hell (On the End of the World 40, cited by Ferreiro 2003, 273).

No contemporary Christian can–or should–read these words without shame. Jesus was not killed by the Jews, as the Bible and history alike make utterly plain.  But while absolutely repudiating the anti-Semitism of these ancient authors, we can still learn from them. By identifying the “pierced one” with Jesus, whom they certainly regarded as divine, these early Christian exegetes recognized that in Zech 12:10, God is the offended party.  But while in this verse Jerusalem and its leaders have wounded the LORD, God’s response is not to seek vengeance, but to pour out God’s spirit, and so to bring them to sorrow and remorse.

The reference in Zech 12:10 to mourning “as one mourns for an only child” (Hebrew hayyakhid, “the only one”) recalls other texts depicting an extremity of grief (Jer 6:26; Amos 8:10).  Just as the reference to the firstborn (habbekor) recalls the grim story of the tenth plague in Exodus 12:29-32, and the “terrible cry of agony” when the deaths of the firstborn were discovered, the reference to the only child recalls Genesis 22, where Abraham is commanded to give up “your son, your only son [yekhideka] Isaac, whom you love” (Gen 22:2) and the loss of Jephthah’s only daughter (Hebrew yekhidah) in Judges 11:34.  Christian readers are likely to think of John 3:16, which describes Jesus as God’s only child (Greek monogenes; the same word used in the Septuagint of Jdg 11:34 for Jephthah’s only daughter), given up for us.

Friends, grief is an appropriate emotion for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday: grief, sorrow, and deep penitence, for our Lord Jesus has become flesh in every sense.  Jesus has experienced to the full our abandonment, our betrayal, our violence, our death–even our God-forsakenness (Mark 15:34; Matt 27:46).  Piercing one another, piercing ourselves, we have pierced our Lord as well.  But God’s spirit aims to bring us not merely to sorrow and remorse, but to repentance and so, ultimately, to cleansing and wholeness.  As New Testament scholar and Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright reminds in a sermon on the cross, John 3:16 does not say “‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’.”

 

 

Apr
2020

Holy Week in a Different Key: Thirty Pieces of Silver

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HOLY WEEK INTERLUDE:  Next week, we will return to our series about the end-time.  But for now, it seems appropriate to spend some time thinking about this Holy Week, as we reflect on Jesus’ suffering and death, and anticipate his resurrection.

Under the pseudonym Major Vs. Minor, Ukrainian musician Oleg Berg has built an online career by transposing familiar happy songs like Happy Birthday from a major into a minor key, or sad ones like The Godfather theme from a minor into a major key.  Hearing these familiar tunes in a different key has an astounding effect.  The familiar birthday jingle becomes a funeral dirge, while the tragic theme of the Godfather trilogy seems strangely upbeat, even comic, evoking different images altogether.  Listening to this transposed theme, Forrest Wickman of Slate writes,

Do you remember The Godfather, the heartwarming 1972 comedy about one family’s struggles to hold its family business together? The one that had the family rivalry with the Tattaglias, but in which—after a hilarious musical interlude involving singer Johnny Fontane and a talking horse—each family put their differences behind them, in a wild and cathartic cannoli fight, just in time for the christening?

Similarly, I propose, the familiar biblical texts of this Holy Week–so very familiar that, sadly, we may not even hear them anymore!–take on new meaning and new life when we hear them in a different key.  I propose that as we listen to these accounts, we listen also to the passages from the Hebrew Bible that the Gospel writers were themselves reading, which shaped the way that they remembered and communicated the fateful events of Jesus’ last week.  With both themes ringing in our ears, perhaps we will hear in their harmonies and dissonances something new, something we could not hear before.

The Man Who Remembered God - The Armenian Church

Although we may not not know it, some of the most familiar words in the Old Testament to Christian ears come from the last six chapters of Zechariah.  Passages from the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion quoting from or alluding to these chapters of Zechariah include the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt 21:5; John 12:15; cf. Zech 9:9), Judas’ thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26:15; 27:9-10; cf. Zech 11:12-13), Jesus’ prediction of the disciples’ betrayal (“I will hit the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will go off in all directions”; Matt 26:31//Mark 14:27; cf. Zech 13:7), and the piercing of Jesus’ side (John 19:37; Rev 1:7; cf. Zech 12:10).

Why these chapters in particular?  The heavy dependence of the gospel writers on Zechariah 9–14, particularly in their understanding of Jesus’ suffering and death, likely relates to the intensity of messianic expectation in these chapters. This expectation builds on the royal images implicit throughout Haggai-Zechariah 1-8 (Hag 2:20-23; Zech 3:8; 4:6-10a; 6:9-15) but makes them explicit.   So, Zechariah 9:1-10 speaks not metaphorically of a signet ring (Hag 2:23) or a branch (cf. Zech 3:8; 6:12-13), but quite explicitly of a coming king (9:9-10). A prevalent image in Zech 9–14 is the shepherd, an image commonly used in the ancient Near East for the king (10:3-5; 11:4-17; 13:7-9). Further, Zech 12:7, 8, 10, 12 and 13:1 all explicitly name the “house of David” (Paul Redditt, “The King in Haggai-Zechariah 1—8 and the Book of the Twelve,” in Tradition in Transition: Haggai and Zechariah 1—8 in the Trajectory of Hebrew Theology, ed. Mark J. Boda and Michael H. Floyd [New York: T. & T. Clark, 2008], 78).

That said, it is also plain that, in the final form of Zech 9–14, this messianic expectation is qualified and reassessed. As Paul Redditt observes,

the author apparently had struggled to understand why the glorious future the prophets had predicted had not come to fruition and had concluded that the fault lay with the leadership in Jerusalem, not with God and not even primarily with the populace as a whole (Redditt, “The King in Haggai-Zechariah 1—8,” 79).

As a result, while the perspective of Zech 9–14 in its final form is “not incompatible” with messianic hopes, “it does, however, manifest a level of disenchantment” (Redditt, “The King in Haggai-Zechariah 1—8,” 80).  But that very ambiguity may have been part of the appeal of these chapters to the Gospel writers, struggling to come to terms with the scandal of a crucified Messiah.

Judas Repentant, Returning the Pieces of Silver - Wikipedia

In this blog, we will turn specifically to the thirty pieces of silver Judas is given to betray Jesus.  Only Matthew relates this story:

Then one of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I turn Jesus over to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. From that time on he was looking for an opportunity to turn him in. . . .

When Judas, who betrayed Jesus, saw that Jesus was condemned to die, he felt deep regret. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, and  said, “I did wrong because I betrayed an innocent man.  But they said, “What is that to us? That’s your problem.”  Judas threw the silver pieces into the temple and left. Then he went and hanged himself.  The chief priests picked up the silver pieces and said, “According to the Law it’s not right to put this money in the treasury. Since it was used to pay for someone’s life, it’s unclean.”  So they decided to use it to buy the potter’s field where strangers could be buried.  That’s why that field is called “Field of Blood” to this very day.  This fulfilled the words of Jeremiah the prophet: And I took the thirty pieces of silver, the price for the one whose price had been set by some of the Israelites, and I gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me (Matt 26:14-16; 27:3-10)

 

While Matthew cites Jeremiah here, the thirty pieces of silver in fact come from Zechariah 11:12-13:

And I said to them,
        “If it appears good to you, give me my wages;
        but if not, then stop.”
        So they weighed out my wages, thirty shekels of silver.
The Lord said to me,
        “Put it in the treasury.
        They value me at too magnificent a price.”
So I took the thirty shekels of silver
        and put them in the treasury of the Lord’s house.

In Zechariah, these verses are part of a larger narrative: a literary sign act, related in Zech 11:4-17.  The LORD appoints the prophet as a shepherd, relating to other shepherds (evidently, secular and religious leaders of the people).  Like him, these other shepherds are hired hands—although with no sense of loyalty to or responsibility for their charges (compare Ezek 34:1-10; John 10:12-13). Because of the rapacity of these false shepherds, who enrich themselves at the flock’s expense (11:5), the flock is doomed: “intended for slaughter” (11:4, 7).

Finally, the prophet gives up on his charges in disgust, and asks his employers (it is unclear who these are understood to represent) for his wages, if they see fit to pay him. The pay he is given—thirty shekels of silver—is a studied insult. In the oldest law code in Scripture, the Covenant Code in Exodus 20:22-23:33, thirty shekels of silver is the price paid to the slave owner when a slave is gored to death by an ox (Exod 21:32). By giving the prophet this wage, the owners of the flock indicate their contempt for the prophet and his labor—they treat him essentially as a slave, not a hired hand.

The prophet repays their contempt with contempt. Refusing to accept “this lordly price at which I was valued by them” (the sarcasm fairly drips!), the prophet gets rid of it, throwing the money, at the LORD’s direction, “into the treasury in the house of the Lord” (Zech 11:13, NRSV). Many English translations of Zech 11:13 follow the Syriac here, which assumes the Hebrew ‘otser (“treasury;” see NRSV, CEB, JPSV); but the Hebrew text before us actually reads yotser (“potter;” see KJV, NIV). The words sound very similar, making the confusion readily understandable—particularly in a passage that is already fairly obscure!

How much might Judas' 30 pieces of silver be worth today?So–what does Matthew do with this strange story from Zechariah, and why does he ascribe it to Jeremiah?  Remember, Matthew’s tradition told him that Judas had betrayed Jesus for money (Mark 14:10-11). Further, Matthew and Luke both have a tradition connecting the money Judas was given for this betrayal to a field called Hakeldama, or the Field of Blood—although they account for that connection, and that name, in very different ways (compare Matt 27:3-10 and Acts 1:18-20).

So–Matthew first relates the amount the religious leaders paid Judas to Zechariah’s thirty silver shekels (Matt 26:15). Perhaps Matthew sees this amount, as in Zech 11:12, as an insult: Jesus is “bought” from his betrayer with the price of a slave in Torah.  Next, Matthew turns to Zech 11:13, where  the money is put in the LORD’s house, given either to the ‘otser (“treasury”) or the yotser  (“potter”).  Finally, Matthew considers how all of this might relate to the purchase of a field. Both the potter and the field find clear resonances in the book of Jeremiah, where the prophet not only goes to a potter’s house at the Lord’s direction (Jer 18:1-12; see also 19:1-13), but also buys a field (Jer 32:1-15)—placing the deed, for good measure, in a pottery jar (32:14)!

Weaving this all together, Matthew presents a narrative involving Judas’ attempt to return the blood money, throwing the spurned coins into the temple (as in Zech 11:13), his subsequent suicide, and the priests’ use of the money to purchase a potter’s field, which is called (as it was purchased with blood money) Hakeldama (Matt 27:3-8). Then, for the fourteenth and final time in his gospel, Matthew relates an event in Jesus’ life to a Scripture reference:

This fulfilled the words of Jeremiah the prophet: And I took the thirty pieces of silver, the price for the one whose price had been set by some of the Israelites, and I gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me (Matt 27:9-10).

In his account of Jesus’ Palm Sunday parade into Jerusalem, Matthew read Zechariah 9:9  literally: Jesus somehow enters Jerusalem mounted on two beasts, both an ass and her colt (Matt 21:6-7)!  Some see this bizarre image as a mistake, prompted by Matthew’s misreading of Zechariah.  But that is unlikely: Matthew, after all, is the most Jewish of the Gospel writers; certainly, he would have known and understood the Hebrew poetic technique of parallelism.  Instead, this wooden, deliberately literal reading is intended to ram the point home, making absolutely certain that the reader cannot miss the connection between Jesus’ actions and the prophet’s words.

Similarly, it is unlikely that the attribution of Matt 27:9-10 to Jeremiah is a mistake—particularly as the alleged “quotation” is not a quote at all, but a web of complex allusions. These two verses capture elements from Exod 21:32, Zech 11:13, and Jer 32:1-15. By ascribing the whole to Jeremiah, Matthew also calls to mind allusions to the potter’s house in Jer 18:1-12.

Image result for JderemiaH sistine

But the allusion to Jeremiah here also accomplishes another implicit purpose for Matthew. In Matthew’s account of the confession at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus asks who people say that he is, the disciples do not reply simply “one of the prophets” (as in Mark 8:28); rather, they specifically name the prophet Jeremiah (Matt 16:14).  Matthew of course knows that Jesus is not literally Jeremiah reborn.  He is, as Peter rightly declares in this gospel, “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16).  Still, in the suffering, sorrowful prophet Jeremiah, Matthew found a precursor of Jesus, who like that prophet weeps over Jerusalem (Jer 9:1), and is betrayed by his friends (Jer 20:10).

Mar
2020

Are We There Yet? Pandemic and the End-times, Part 3: Apocalypse

 

 

In these blogs, we have been reflecting on what the Bible says about the end of the world.  Our study has been prompted specifically by the concern that the COVID-19 pandemic is a biblical sign of the end-times.  So, does the Bible have something to say about our times?

The answer, actually, has a great deal to do with what question we are really asking.  If the question is, does the Bible speak to our times, the answer is emphatically yes!  Certainly, the Bible has plenty to say about God’s presence with us in times like ours.  Father James Martin in particular has a faithful, encouraging, and biblical word for these days:

In these frightening times, Christians may find comfort in knowing that when they pray to Jesus, they are praying to someone who understands them not only because he is divine and knows all things, but because he is human and experienced all things. But those who are not Christian can also see him as a model for care of the sick. Needless to say, when caring for someone with coronavirus, one should take the necessary precautions in order not to pass on the infection. But for Jesus, the sick or dying person was not the ‘other,’ not one to be blamed, but our brother and sister. When Jesus saw a person in need, the Gospels tell us that his heart was ‘moved with pity.’ He is a model for how we are to care during this crisis: with hearts moved by pity. . . . I don’t understand why people are dying, but I can follow the person who gives me a pattern for life.  

However, if the question is, does the Bible speak of our times–that is, does the Bible predict what is happening to us today, or what will happen to us tomorrow–then the answer is no.  The Bible is not a horoscope, Tarot deck, Ouija board, or crystal ball.  The Bible gives us hope, not by revealing to us what will happen tomorrow, but by assuring us that no matter what happens tomorrow, God is, and will be, with us.

The picture at the top of this post shows the famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as painted by Russian artist Victor Vasnetov.  The image comes from Revelation 6:1-8:

Then I looked on as the Lamb opened one of the seven seals. I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!”  So I looked, and there was a white horse. Its rider held a bow and was given a crown. And he went forth from victory to victory.  When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!”  Out came another horse, fiery red. Its rider was allowed to take peace from the earth so that people would kill each other. He was given a large sword.  When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” So I looked, and there was a black horse. Its rider held a balance for weighing in his hand. I heard what sounded like a voice from among the four living creatures. It said, “A quart of wheat for a denarion [a day’s pay for a laborer], and three quarts of barley for a denarion, but don’t damage the olive oil and the wine.”  When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!”  So I looked, and there was a pale green horse. Its rider’s name was Death, and the Grave was following right behind. They were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill by sword, famine, disease, and the wild animals of the earth.

John’s four horsemen are drawn from the prophecies of Zechariah (see Zech 1:7-17; 6:1-8).   While Zechariah’s horsemen were messengers of peace and deliverance, however, John’s represent war: from the “glory” of heroism, through the depredations wrought by violence, scarcity with attendant profiteering, and of course, disease and death.  But, what does that word “apocalypse” mean?

In everyday English, “the Apocalypse” is a civilization-ending cataclysm.  The entire genre of “post-apocalyptic” fiction, from the “Mad Max” movies to the “zombie apocalypse” and its aftermath (especially in Robert Kirkman’s comic-book series “The Walking Dead” and the AMC television production based on it) builds on this popular understanding of the word.

Image result for Walking Dead

Yet at its source, “apocalypse” is a surprisingly gentle word.  The Greek apocalupsis does not mean doom and destruction.  It means “uncovering,” “unveiling,” or “a revelation.” This is the first word in the last book of the New Testament, which is accordingly called “Revelation” by Protestant Christians, and the “Apocalypse of John” in Roman Catholic circles.

In biblical studies and related disciplines, the term “apocalypse” is applied not only to the last book of Christian Scripture, but also to a number of other texts, both biblical and extra-biblical, that bear a family resemblance to that strange, visionary book. Daniel, the latest-dated book in the Hebrew Bible (likely from around 164 BCE) is called an apocalypse, as it is more like Revelation than it is like any other book in the Hebrew Bible—just as Revelation is more like Daniel than it is like any other book in the New Testament!  Other passages on the left-hand side of the Bible commonly identified as apocalypses (or sometimes, as apocalyptic prophecy) include Isaiah 24—27, Ezekiel 38—39; Joel 2:28–32 (3:1–5 in Hebrew); and Zechariah 14.  In the New Testament, Mark 13 with its parallels in Matthew 24:1–44 (considered in our last post) and Luke 21:5–33 is commonly called the “Synoptic Apocalypse.” In Jewish literature from the first few centuries before and after the Common Era, we can identify as apocalypses such books as 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and the Assumption of Moses.

Of course, “family resemblance,” while evocative, is too subjective and imprecise to be useful. Most scholars today agree on the definition of “apocalypse” as a literary genre developed in 1979 by the Apocalypse Group of the Society of Biblical Literature Genres Project (John Collins, “Towards the Morphology of a Genre,” Semeia 14 [1979]: 9):

‘Apocalypse’ is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.

The essential features of an apocalypse, then, are the revelation of another world to a human seer by a heavenly being.  Sometimes, that other world is the heavenly (or infernal) world (as in 1 Enoch 1—36, called the Book of the Watchers); sometimes, it is the future world (as in Dan 9:20—12:4); sometimes, it is a little of  both (as in Rev 5—6).

We might wonder from this definition how apocalypse is any different than prophecy.  After all, Israel’s prophets do have visions of the divine world (for example, in Isa 6:1-8), and do make predictions about future events (as in Jer 7:1-20).  Indeed, Revelation identifies itself as prophecy (Rev 1:3), and while the Hebrew Bible places Daniel among the Writings (or Kethubim) rather than the Prophets (Nebi’im), our Old Testament follows the Greek Septuagint in placing Daniel between Ezekiel and the Book of the Twelve: squarely among the prophetic books.  

Image result for lateral pass

But apocalypses assume a great gulf between the world of the revelation and our human world.  The supernatural worlds of apocalypses are inaccessible from our world–hence the need for supernatural go-betweens to reveal the vision.  The opening verses of Revelation illustrate this well, with a succession of intermediaries (numerals added):

A revelation of Jesus Christ, which God [1] gave him [that is, Jesus, 2] to show his servants what must soon take place. Christ made it known by sending it through his angel [3] to his servant John [4],  who bore witness to the word of God and to the witness of Jesus Christ, including all that John saw (Rev 1:1-2).

It sounds a bit like a trick football play: God [1] hikes to Jesus [2], who hands off to his angel [3], who laterals to John [4]!

Similarly, the future envisioned in apocalypses is infinitely removed from anything that our own efforts can accomplish.  By contrast, the prophet’s message about the future is intended to influence actions in the present.  As a result, as we have seen, prophetic predictions are conditional (to the consternation of Jonah)!  Prophecy speaks the word of the LORD into a particular context–which is why, in the Hebrew Bible, the “historical books” of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings are included among the Nebi’im, or Prophets.  But regarding the future, God remains supremely free to do as God chooses.

Since the point of prophetic proclamation is a call to action in the here and now, the prophets were commanded to proclaim the word of the Lord (see Amos 7:14-15; Jer 1:7-8; Ezek 3:17-21).  The prophet must speak: indeed, Jeremiah laments,

I thought, I’ll forget him;
    I’ll no longer speak in his name.
But there’s an intense fire in my heart,
    trapped in my bones.
    I’m drained trying to contain it;
        I’m unable to do it (Jer 20:9).

In sharp contrast, Daniel is told, “But you, Daniel, must keep these words secret! Seal the scroll until the end time!” (Dan 12:4; compare Dan 8:26; Rev 10:4). Since Daniel is set in the time of the exile and its immediate aftermath, the “future” it describes is indeed distant (although for the persecuted community actually addressed by this book, that time had come).  But the point is that there is no reason for Daniel to announce his revelation of the future to the world, as it can make no difference: “Many will purify, cleanse, and refine themselves, but the wicked will act wickedly. None of the wicked will understand, but those skilled in wisdom will understand” (Dan 12:10). Intriguingly, Revelation reverses this instruction, although like Daniel, it still holds that the fate it describes is unalterable:

Then he said to me, “Don’t seal up the words of the prophecy contained in this scroll, because the time is near.  Let those who do wrong keep doing what is wrong. Let the filthy still be filthy. Let those who are righteous keep doing what is right. Let those who are holy still be holy (Rev 22:10-11).

This notion of a fixed, inevitable, and unchangeable future is distinctly “unprophetic”—and plainly apocalyptic.  Apocalypses are inherently pessimistic about this world, its future, and the capabilities of human action to bring real change.  So, in apocalypses, the future is unfailingly grim: social order and natural order alike will collapse, so that with this world’s end, a new world may begin.

As Paul Hanson observes, “This world-weariness has been the mark of every apocalyptic movement” (“Old Testament Apocalyptic Reexamined,” Interpretation 25 [1971]: 479). Whether resulting from an experience of exclusion (like the marginalized community responsible for Isaiah 25–27), from self-exile (like the Qumran community that treasured 1 Enoch and preserved the Dead Sea scrolls), from persecution (like Daniel’s community) or from the threat of persecution (like the community of John in Revelation), “world-weariness” is a common feature of the apocalyptic mindset.

Indeed, the same can be said for communities that find particular meaning in apocalypses.  It is no surprise that the threats posed by this pandemic, with its attendant economic struggles and social isolation, have turned the minds of many to this literature.  But an apocalyptic turn of mind does not require actual suffering: the perception of exclusion is enough.  A 2017 poll about discrimination in American society conducted by Daniel Cox and Robert P. Jones found that white Evangelicals–who recall are also the group most inclined to believe in the imminence of the Rapture and the Second Coming–are “the only major religious group in which a majority say Christians face a lot of discrimination” in American society. 

As strange as it may seem, given the often bizarre and violent imagery in Revelation and Daniel in particular, these books are meant to be reassuring!  No matter how bad things now appear, or how bad they may become, the future remains securely in God’s hands–which sets us free from crushing concern and despair about what will happen.  As Paul says to the Thessalonians, we are to “encourage each other [the KJV has “comfort one another”] with these words” (1 Thess 4:18).  This is the message of apocalypse–and particularly of our biblical apocalypses. When instead these texts become a source of anxiety, or an excuse for hostility to one another, they have lost their purpose–as have we.

 

Mar
2020

Are We There Yet? Pandemic and the End-times, Part 2: The Rapture

In the midst of this pandemic, many are afraid–and rightly so.  Already in February, over a month ago now,

Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and epidemic experts from universities around the world conferred. . . about what might happen if the new coronavirus gained a foothold in the United States. How many people might die? How many would be infected and need hospitalization?

Their worst-case scenario, based on the evidence of the disease’s progress elsewhere in the world, was grim:

Between 160 million and 214 million people in the United States could be infected over the course of the epidemic . . . As many as 200,000 to 1.7 million people could die. 

In the face of those numbers, a healthy fear is a rational response.  What is irrational is the blithe refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the disease, and so to increase the likelihood of infection:

First Baptist Church of Dallas, where . . . Robert Jeffress is senior pastor, announced on Friday (March 13) that it would still hold Sunday School and services this weekend.

The church, whose weekly in-person worship attendance hovers around 3,150, said it does plan to implement policies to comply with a recent ban on large gatherings of 500 people or more in Dallas County.

Paula White, a Pentecostal pastor from Florida who heads up the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, is scheduled to headline an evangelical conference that will take place in Phoenix, Arizona, April 9-12. Organizers of the “Passover 2020: Decade of Awakening” conference told potential attendees not to fear the coronavirus because the “Word of God promises us protection from these very things.”

Still, healthy fear is not panic, or despair.  In these blogs, I am speaking to the fear that this pandemic is a biblical sign of the end-times: that the Rapture of true Christians, the punishment of the world through the Tribulation, the final condemnation of the wicked to the Lake of Fire, and the coming of God’s kingdom may be at hand.  However, as the first blog in this series stated, I do not argue that the end-time the Bible predicts is not yet imminent.  Instead, I propose that the Bible does not enable us to predict the future at all.  I have not always thought that way.  But today, as a Bible Guy and professional exegete, my lifelong study of Scripture has persuaded me that God’s future is in God’s hands, not ours, and is for God to know, not us.

Nearly fifty years ago now, when I was fifteen, I received the baptism of the Holy Spirit at a prayer meeting in my family’s living room.  I have no doubt about the reality of that experience, or of its profound effect on my life.  Although I had grown up in the church, I now felt an increased zeal for the Lord.  I always wore (as in this picture) a cross around my neck.  I carried my Bible–for which I had a renewed and passionate hunger–with me everywhere, and was always careful that it was on top of my pile of schoolbooks.  I told everyone about Jesus: in study hall, in the lunch line, on the school bus–whether they wanted to hear or not.  I covered my notebook with Christian slogans: “One Way,” “PTL” (Praise the Lord), and of course, “In case of Rapture, this notebook will be abandoned.”

Image result for rapture will look likeOne of the cornerstones of my young, passionate faith was the certainty that I would one day, very soon, be taken up out of the world to be with the Lord–just before the world was stricken with disaster upon disaster through the seven years of the Great Tribulation.

Certainly, I was not alone in that belief!  Many believers regard Christianity as a means of escape from a world of trouble.  Indeed, John Wesley had “only one condition previously required” for those who sought to join the Methodist societies: “a desire to flee the wrath to come” (John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler; Library of Protestant Thought [New York: Oxford University, 1964], 178).  Many who understand salvation in these terms hope, as I did, that they will soon be taken out of this world together with other true believers in the Rapture, and go up into heaven to live with God.

A whole Christian industry has grown up around this idea, manifest most visibly in the best-selling Left Behind novels by Jerry B. Jenkins, based on the notes of  Timothy LeHaye.   Often, I have seen these books proudly displayed in church libraries and Sunday School classrooms, right beside the Bible.  The Left Behind series has been made into comic books, films, television shows, video games–even, in 2014, a big budget motion picture starring Nicholas Cage.

The idea of an imminent Rapture has been extremely influential.  Remember: according to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, 41% of Americans surveyed expect Christ to return before 2050; among white Evangelicals, this number rises to 58%.

Curiously, for all my love for Scripture and my passionate study of God’s Word, I never realized that the Rapture was not in the Bible.  If you search any Bible concordance for the term “Rapture,” you will not find it (for a little about where the notion of the Rapture originated, see my previous blog). Neither Matthew 24:40-41 nor 1 Thessalonians 4:13, the two passages commonly alleged to describe the Rapture, use the term.  Matt 24:40-41 reads,

At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. 

For many readers, the one “taken” is Raptured, taken up to glory; the one left is, as Timothy LaHaye’s series title has it, “Left Behind,” to suffer the torments and tortures of Tribulation.  But I am not persuaded that this is the best reading of that verse.  The bulk of Matthew 24 offers warnings of coming persecution and trial, not instruction on how to escape them.  Indeed, Jesus tells his followers, “They will arrest you, abuse you, and they will kill you. All nations will hate you on account of my name” (Matt 24:9).

Image result for noah's flood painting

Jesus compares those days to “the time of Noah,” when devastation came suddenly upon a people unprepared:

In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away (Matt 24:37-39).

Likely, then, the “one taken” is not saved, but lost: perhaps metaphorically taken by death or disaster, or perhaps quite literally taken–arrested by the Roman authorities, and hauled away in chains.

Matthew 24 is not after all about us “going up.”  It is rather about Jesus “coming down”! The coming of Jesus, the Human One (literally “Son of Man”), will also be unexpected, and unpredictable:  “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows” (Matt 24:36; emphasis mine).  Jesus himself does not know when this will be!  He compares himself to a thief:

But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house.  Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know (Matt 24:43-44).

The point, then, is to be ready–whenever his coming might be–so that we will not be taken unawares.

1 Thessalonians is Paul’s first letter, and the oldest book (dating to around 50 CE) in the New Testament.  Paul writes to offer reassurance to a struggling church: the first he had established in Europe (see Acts 17:1-10).  The Christians of Thessalonica are concerned because some of their members have died: perhaps from persecution, but perhaps too from illness or old age (1 Thes 4:13-14).  Believing, as Paul had taught them, that Christ’s coming is imminent, they fear that these faithful dead will have no share in Christ’s kingdom.  Paul, however, assures them that, far from being left behind, those believers who have died will have the inside track in the world to come:

What we are saying is a message from the Lord: we who are alive and still around at the Lord’s coming definitely won’t go ahead of those who have died.  This is because the Lord himself will come down from heaven with the signal of a shout by the head angel and a blast on God’s trumpet. First, those who are dead in Christ will rise.  Then, we who are living and still around will be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet with the Lord in the air. That way we will always be with the Lord.  So encourage each other with these words (1 Thes 4:15-18)

Note that Paul does not describe an escape from this world prior to Christ’s return. Rather, “the Lord himself will come down from heaven with the signal of a shout by the head angel and a blast on God’s trumpet,” and as he does so, both the resurrected dead and also “we who are living and still around” (note the present tense; Paul fully expected the end to come in his own lifetime) rise to meet him in the air.  Jesus is not taking the church out: he is descending to the earth, to rule.  So this isn’t an escape plan–it’s a welcome back party!

Isaiah 2:1-5, which also speaks of God’s future, was the inspiration for the monument outside the UN building.

 

Image result for let us beat swords into

Then they will beat their swords into iron plows
    and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
    they will no longer learn how to make war  (Isa 2:4).

Isaiah’s vision of peace is realized in a transformed world, in which Zion, the hill on which Jerusalem was built and atop which the Temple stood, has become “the highest of the mountains” (Isa 2:2)!  Still, the future world of which Isaiah dreams remains our world: it includes not only Israel, but also the foreign nations. Far from being “left behind,” those nations are drawn to Zion by the truth, justice, and peace God establishes there.  As Zion is “lifted above the hills,”

peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the LORD’s mountain,
    to the house of Jacob’s God
        so that he may teach us his ways
        and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion;
    the LORD’s word from Jerusalem.
God will judge between the nations,
    and settle disputes of mighty nations (Isa 2:2-4).

To be sure, this is the LORD’s doing—but God does it, not in some other world, but in this world!  Like Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4, this vision is not about our going up, but about the LORD coming down.

What difference does this make?  If we believe that we are going to be “Raptured out” of this world, we will be far more concerned with being certain that our ticket is punched, and that we don’t miss our flight, than we will be with trying to solve this world’s problems.  After all, if this world is doomed anyway, why should its problems matter to us?  What motivation do we have to care for the world, or for its people?

The damage done by this unbiblical ideology is far reaching. It has made us ignore the plain teaching of Scripture in favor of a fantasy.  Belief in the Rapture has caused us to forsake our God-given responsibility to care for the earth (Genesis 1:26-28) because we are leaving this world anyway.  So called “Bible prophecy”  has caused us to reject Palestinian cries for justice, despite the Bible’s admonitions (Exod 22:21-24Lev 19:33-34Deut 10:18-19), because Israel must be re-established out to its ancient borders so that Jesus can come back.  Although the Bible plainly states that Christ’s church is called to be one (John 17:20-23), this manufactured future history has made us suspicious of ecumenism, because the One World Church will be the tool of the Antichrist.

But what if salvation is not about escape from this world, but about God’s transformation of this world?  Then, we will seek to be a part of what God is doing, here and now, to bring in God’s kingdom.  We will want to be found at our Lord’s coming doing those things that Jesus did among us: feeding people, healing people, freeing people, proclaiming the good news of God’s salvation.

For example, we can do something about this pandemic.  The grim numbers in the CDC’s worst case scenario are not inevitable: by practicing social distancing, by avoiding large crowds, by cancellations and closures, we can slow the spread of COVID-19:

“When people change their behavior,” said Lauren Gardner, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering who models epidemics, “those model parameters are no longer applicable . . . There is a lot of room for improvement if we act appropriately.”

The task before us is immense; our problems–not just this pandemic, but climate change, institutional racism, hunger, poverty–are seemingly unsolvable.  Yet whether we seem to be successful or not, we will not despair, because we know that, in the end, God’s kingdom remains God’s, and that God will bring it into fruition in God’s good time: when our Lord Jesus “comes down” in glory.

Friends, it is time for us to get back to the Bible, and leave “Left Behind” behind.

Mar
2020

The Blessing of St. Patrick’s Day

FOREWORD:  Before launching into my promised series on the end-times in Scripture, I am meeting my obligations as the World’s Biggest Leprechaun by reposting this edited blog entry in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.  Beannachtai Na Feile Padraig Oraibh, friends–May the blessing of St. Patrick’s Day be upon you!

Today, March 17, is the feast of Saint Pádraig–better known as Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.  The saint was likely born in the late fourth century; according to Saint Fiacc’s “Hymn of Saint Patrick,” he was the son of a Briton named Calpurnius.  Patrick was just sixteen when he was kidnapped from the family estate, along with many others, by Irish raiders.  He would be a slave in Ireland for six years.

Once he was free, Patrick studied for the priesthood under Saint Germanus of Auxerre, in the southern part of Gaul.  Saint Germanus took his pupil to Britain to save that country from Pelagianism: together they travelled through Britain convincing people to turn to God from heresy, and throwing out false priests (some say that this is the source of the legend that Patrick drove the “snakes” out of Ireland!).

Despite his experience of hardship and abuse as a slave, Patrick longed to return to Ireland.  He told his teacher that he had often heard the voice of the Irish children calling to him, “Come, Holy Patrick, and make us saved.” But Patrick had to wait until he was sixty years old before Pope Celestine at last consecrated him as Bishop to Ireland.  At the moment of Patrick’s consecration, legend says, the Pope also heard the voices of the Irish children!

That year, Easter coincided with the “feast of Tara,” or Beltane–still celebrated today by kindling bonfires. No fire was supposed to be lit that night until the Druid’s fire had been kindled.  But Saint Patrick lit the Easter fire first.  Laoghaire, high king of Ireland, warned that if that fire were not stamped out, it would never afterward be extinguished in Erin.

King Laoghaire invited the Bishop and his companions to his castle at Tara the next day–after posting soldiers along the road, to assassinate them!  But, according to The Tripartite Life, on his way from Slane to Tara that Easter Sunday, Patrick was reciting his Breastplate prayer (a masterpiece of Celtic spirituality, which has, not at all surprisingly, been set to music many, many times; the links in this blog will take you to a few of these).  As the saint prayed,

A cloak of darkness went over them so that not a man of them appeared. Howbeit, the enemy who were waiting to ambush them, saw eight deer going past them…. That was Saint Patrick with his eight…

Therefore, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” is also called the “Deer’s Cry.”

As the legend of the Deer’s Cry demonstrates, Celtic spirituality is linked closely to nature.  St. Patrick’s teaching embraced God’s presence manifest in God’s creation.  Even the tradition that Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Trinity connects God’s revelation to the natural world.  This is particularly evident, however, in the Breastplate prayer:

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

Patrick embraces a joyful spirituality of nature, wherein a simple herb expresses the mystery of God’s nature, the vibrancy and constancy of wind and water and stone and tree witness to God’s presence and power, and the line between the human world and the animal world, between people and deer, can blur and vanish.

Image may contain: possible text that says 'DID YOU KNOW THAT SAYING THE LORD'S PRAYER TAKES EXACTLY AS LONG AS THE CDC RECOMMENDS YOU WASH YOUR HANDS? Love your nezghbon Love your god. Wash and Pray.'

This St. Patrick’s Day, when fear and the isolation forced on us by this pandemic may prompt us to turn selfishly inward, may we seek God first, and so find fulfillment for ourselves and for God’s world.

Oh, and–Erin go bragh!

AFTERWORD

Here is the complete traditional text of the “Breastplate of St. Patrick.”

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through the belief in the threeness,

Through confession of the oneness

Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today

Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,

Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,

Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,

Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.

I arise today

Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,

In obedience of angels,

In the service of archangels,

In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,

In prayers of patriarchs,

In predictions of prophets,

In preaching of apostles,

In faith of confessors,

In innocence of holy virgins,

In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

I arise today

Through God’s strength to pilot me:

God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to guide me,

God’s eye to look before me,

God’s ear to hear me,

God’s word to speak for me,

God’s hand to guard me,

God’s way to lie before me,

God’s shield to protect me,

God’s host to save me

From snares of devils,

From temptations of vices,

From everyone who shall wish me ill,

Afar and anear,

Alone and in multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,

Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,

Against incantations of false prophets,

Against black laws of pagandom

Against false laws of heretics,

Against craft of idolatry,

Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,

Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ to shield me today

Against poison, against burning,

Against drowning, against wounding,

So that there may come to me abundance of reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,

Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ on my right, Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in every eye that sees me,

Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through belief in the threeness,

Through confession of the oneness,

Of the Creator of Creation.

 

Mar
2020

Are We There Yet? Pandemic and the End-times

First of all–please know that there is no reason to downplay the seriousness of this outbreak.  The World Health Organization does not use the term “pandemic” lightly.  Already, as I write this, there are 155,423 cases world wide, and 5,802 people have died–including, to bring this closer to home, 37 in the US.  By the time you read this, those numbers will only have climbed.  The decision of my school, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, to cancel events at least through May and in-person classes for the remainder of the term, was a measured and responsible decision.  However, there is no need for panic or despair.  We need to keep praying, to keep trusting in the Lord, and to keep on ministering to one another–particularly to those most threatened.

One of my students asked that I consider a question in this blog:

Specifically, is this the end of days? I have heard a number of students joke and comment about this, and I think the jokes and comments about the apocalypse do indicate a small underlying fear. Between the wildfires in Australia, the tornados in the south, the locusts in Eastern Africa currently, and now this virus … I can definitely see where they are coming from!

After I received that email, I saw that this question was being considered by many on line.  Some sources reply to this question cautiously.  Dr. Michael Brown, with the Evangelical Christian Post, writes:

My own understanding is that there will be massive upheaval before the end of the world, in the midst of which there will also be a mighty spiritual outpouring.  But either way, what is clear to me is that we should not view the coronavirus as a prophesied, end-time plague.

But others are less cautious.  In The Trumpet, Gerald Flurry writes:

Where is this leading? We are already experiencing the preliminary stages of what the Bible terms “great tribulation,” in which one third of the populations in America and other Israelitish nations will die—before being directly attacked by foreign enemies!

These horsemen of Revelation and the horses of Zechariah 6 are going to stampede over the Earth! God is already beginning to send a number of globe-rattling events our way! The Wuhan coronavirus and the other diseases breaking out today are only the beginning. He is going to let the world see where its evil ways are leading.

There is nothing new about this.  When I was a young Christian in my teens, I never expected that I would ever grow up and marry, that I would ever have children, or a career.  I knew–I knew–that the world was going to end very soon.  I pored over the books of Revelation and Daniel,  guided by M. R. deHaan and Hal Lindsey.  However, it was Lindsey’s 1970 book The Late Great Planet Earth that most captured my young imagination.

Mr. Lindsey’s end-time vision was a twentieth century American application of premillennial Darbyite Dispensationalism–which is a mouthful!  To unpack that phrase step by step: “premillenial” refers to a particular interpretation of  Revelation 20:1-15, which speaks of a thousand-year reign of Christ on the earth. From early on, Christians read this in different ways.  Some, such as Tertullian, insisted that John referred to a literal future thousand-year reign of Jesus following his return to earth–hence, premillennial (Against Marcion, 3:25). Others, such as Origen, considered John’s visions a metaphor for Christ’s spiritual reign rather than a literal description of future history–hence, amillennial (De Principiis 2.11.2-7).  Augustine advocated a mediating position that for generations dominated Christian interpretation: he read the thousand years as depicting of the age of the church, after which God’s kingdom would be ushered in: that is, postmillenial (City of God 20.7).

In contemporary American Christianity, the  literalism of Tertullian’s premillennial reading dominates.  According to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, 41% of Americans surveyed expect Christ to return before 2050; among white Evangelicals, this number rises to 58%.

What about “Darbyite Dispensationalism”?  In the 1830s John Nelson Darby, an Irish preacher in the Plymouth Brethren church, resolved the Bible’s conflicts and contradictions by dividing history into distinct periods called “Dispensations.”  For example, the ritual laws and Sabbath laws of the Old Testament could be discounted as belonging to a previous dispensation, and hence no longer applying to Christians.  This chain of dispensations extended into the future as well, culminating in a period of wrathful divine judgment from which true Christians would be spared.  Long before Darby, in the late 17th century, the American Puritan leaders Increase and Cotton Mather had preached that the faithful would be delivered before the day of God’s wrath.  But Darby placed that deliverance into a detailed description of future history, and transformed it into a miraculous, supernatural escape plan he called the “secret Rapture.”  This idea was broadly disseminated by Cyrus Scofield through the detailed notes and charts in his extremely popular reference Bible, first published in 1909.

Image result for endtime chart scolfieldBut it was Hal Lindsey’s application of Darby’s ideas in the wake of Israel’s Six Day War that led to the cultural phenomenon described in the Pew study.  Lindsey gave premillennialism a distinctive, tantalizing twist.   With the re-establishment of the state of Israel, sealed by its “miraculous” victory in the Six-Day War, God’s “prophetic clock” had started ticking.  We are now, officially, in the last days.  The countdown to the Rapture has begun.

Hal Lindsey is still on the airwaves.  To my knowledge, he has not weighed in on the coronavirus, but I fear it is only a matter of time.  Strangely, neither Lindsey nor, to my knowledge, any of his followers have ever acknowledged that he was wrong about the end of the world, which he expected to come within a generation (say, 40 years) of the re-establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.  Even if we start the prophetic clock with the Six-Day War in 1967, we are well past the date Lindsey and his followers predicted.

Not that long ago, billboards like this one were sprouting all over the Midwest, after radio preacher Harold Camping announced that, based upon his interpretations of biblical prophecies contained particularly in Daniel and Revelation, judgment day would come on May 21, 2011, and the world would end that October.  Earlier, in 1994, Mr. Camping had announced that that was the year the world would end.  I remember this clearly, because Armageddon was scheduled for October 3, 1994–my birthday!

Mr. Flurry, Mr. Lindsey, and Mr. Camping are far from the first people to believe that they have “cracked the code” of biblical prophecy to unveil future history. They will certainly not be the last.  We have, it seems, an insatiable appetite for this particular way of reading Scripture.  Please note that, while Dr. Brown disagrees with Mr. Flurry about the end-time significance of COVID-19, they agree that Scripture does present a future history, which read correctly will enable us to know when and how the world will end.

Let me be very blunt, friends: I do not agree with this approach to the Bible.  Neither Mr. Camping’s precise predictions, nor Mr. Lindsey’s more vague, but no less wrong, predictions, were in error because their sums were off–so that, as Dr. Brown seems to suggest, while their dates were wrong, their reading of Scripture was still valid.  The problem, not only with these predictions, but with all of those who claim to read a future history in the Bible is that the Bible does not present a future history.  Period.

The difference between the prophets of the Bible and modern charlatans who confidently claim to see the future is a difference not of degree, but of kind.  The prophets of ancient Israel were not better fortune-tellers than Lindsey, or Camping, or (as time will doubtless prove) Flurry.  Rather, the prophets were not fortune-tellers at all, but obedient messengers of God, faithfully passing on to us what God had shown to them.

This may come as a surprise.  Ask nine out of ten people on the street what a prophet does, and they will say “predict the future.”  This seems to be the stance of some biblical texts as well.  Deuteronomy 18:22 certainly seems clear: “The prophet who speaks in the LORD’s name and the thing doesn’t happen or come about—that’s the word the LORD hasn’t spoken. That prophet spoke arrogantly. Don’t be afraid of him.”  Accurate prediction, it seems, is the sure test of the true prophet.

The prophets themselves, however, seem untroubled by this assessment.  It is not at all difficult to find unfulfilled prophecies in Scripture. For example, the prophet Huldah, the woman Josiah consulted to confirm that the scroll of the Law found in the temple was indeed God’s word (2 Kgs 22:11-17), also promised that because of Josiah’s righteousness and humility, God “will gather you to your ancestors, and you will go to your grave in peace. You won’t experience the disaster I am about to bring on this place and its citizens” (2 Chr 34:28//2 Kgs 22:20).  But Josiah did not go down to his grave in peace!  In fact, he died tragically, in battle against Pharaoh Necho (2 Kgs 23:29-30; 2 Chr 35:20-27)–a fact which the authors of Israel’s history surely knew, and yet they let Huldah’s “false” prophecy stand in the text.

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In Jonah 3:4, the prophet (after a fishy detour!) at last arrives at Nineveh to deliver the message the Lord has given him: “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”  But it does not happen. The people (and animals; Jonah 3:7) of Nineveh repent in sackcloth, and God changes God’s mind (Jonah 3:10).

This is deeply disturbing to Jonah, but not surprising.  To explain his earlier flight from God’s presence, which had resulted in his sojourn in the fish’s belly, the prophet declares:

Come on, LORD! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy (Jonah 4:2).

Jonah had not wanted to deliver the message of judgment against Nineveh he had been given because he knew that God was likely to show mercy,  leaving Jonah with the stamp of the false prophet, whose predictions had not come true (as, remember, Deut 18:22 declares) —which was, of course, exactly what had happened. No wonder Jonah is angry!

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Jeremiah spoke clearly, and it seems accurately, about Judah’s future: Jerusalem would fall to Babylon.  But he also delivered to his people God’s challenge:

No, if you truly reform your ways and your actions; if you treat each other justly;  if you stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan, or widow; if you don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place, or go after other gods to your own ruin,  only then will I dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave long ago to your ancestors for all time (Jer 7:5-7).

Although their present course would lead them into exile and destruction, the possibility of a different future lay before them, if they would only claim it (though Jeremiah doubted that they could or would do so; see Jer 13:23).  Rather than presenting an infallible vision of a fixed and unchangeable future, Jeremiah’s predictions were conditional, involving alternate futures, depending upon whether Jerusalem repented, or not.

We must consider as well the many predictions in the New Testament that the end of the world would come soon (for example, Mk 13:30; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Rev 22:12, 20), which, taking them at face value, clearly did not come true.  Within the New Testament itself, this delay is seen not as a problem, but as a sign of God’s grace: “The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives” (2 Peter 3:9).

Image result for christ pantocratorJesus himself puts to rest the pretense that, if we are only clever enough, we can read our future in the pages of Scripture: “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows” (Mark 13:32).  If Jesus does not know, then certainly we do not, and cannot, know.  The Bible is not tomorrow’s newspaper.  It is word of God for the people of God, yesterday, today, and forever.

In my next few blogs, I will look at several texts in both testaments, typically read as predicting the destruction of God’s enemies and the end of the world, and suggest another way of reading them–more true, I would argue, to what the texts themselves actually say.  But for now, hear Jesus’ words:

Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’ Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:31-34).

We need not worry about the future, friends, not because we know what the future holds, but because we know who holds the future.

Feb
2020

What Color is Lent?

winter

FOREWORD: For Ash Wednesday, I am reposting my very first blog entry, from February 21, 2013.  Thank you to my church history colleague (now, my Dean) Heather Vacek, and to our social media guru Melissa Logan, for pushing me to try this new thing, and to David Middleton for setting it up for me–God bless you!   I hope these blogs have been half as fun for you all to read as they have been for me to write.  Certainly, I intend to continue posting as the Bible Guy well into the foreseeable future!

 

This has, thankfully, been a mild winter in Pittsburgh (the picture above comes from 2010). Still, this year as every year, Lent began while winter still held sway. Indeed, even now, with February at long last over and done (how strange that, according to the calendar, February is the shortest month of the year!), the official first day of spring, March 20, seems a long way off.

All of which may seem appropriate. Lent certainly seems a wintry season of the church year: dark, cold, grim, unforgiving. The liturgical color for Lent is purple—an appropriately dark and lugubrious shade. But we are likely to think of Lent even more in winter shades: the penitential black of clerical garb, the gray of Ash Wednesday’s daubs on hands or foreheads, the off-white of sackcloth.

Yet, curiously, the term “Lent” has nothing to do with winter, or darkness, or fasting, or penitence. Etymologically, “Lent” derives from the Middle English lenten and the Old English lencten, and is related to the Old High German lenzin, all of which mean “Spring”!

ground-tuell

Likely we will have difficulty wrapping our heads around this concept. Lent as springtime? Our springtime associations wrap about Easter (a name which, by the way, derives from the Saxon goddess of fertility and the dawn!)—the feast of Christ’s resurrection, acclaimed by John of Damascus (6th century) as “the Spring of souls.” Even in the secular world, Easter is celebrated with signs and symbols of newness and life: eggs, brightly dyed in the shades of spring flowers; bunnies (famous for their fecundity!); and new clothes.

By contrast, these forty days of preparation are appropriately penitential, marked by self-examination, prayer and fasting. Likely, we would prefer to skip the preparation and jump directly into the celebration! But the Lenten disciplines are not optional. Mark reminds us that, after Jesus’ baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12). Jesus could not avoid this time of trial, and neither can we. But this Lenten season need not be grim and colorless. Lent is a green season—a time of growth. Lent provides the opportunity for us to dig down deeper in our tradition, to break up the fallow ground of our cold hearts so that the Water of Life may seep down into the center of who are. Lent is the time for the Spirit to prune away our dead branches so that we may bear fruit. It is then a season of new life—a springtime for our souls!

God grant you, sisters and brothers, a green, growing, God-filled Lent!