How to Read the Book of Revelation: Against Modern Day Astrological Numerology and other Aberrations

Given that according to some prognosticators the world is facing certain apocalyptic and cataclysmic reorientation starting in September 23rd, 2017, I thought I would reshare something I wrote awhile ago that engages with how to interpret the book of Revelation. Since these prognosticators are tying their predictions and prognostications to their interpretation of Revelation 12, it only seems fitting to test such an approach against a critical baseline for how the book of Revelation was originally composed, and for whom. If we push into this “baseline,” I contend, that what we will find will show these modern day prognosticators for who they are; i.e. hucksters (maybe even with good intentions) who haven’t taken the proper time to understand basic hermeneutical rules when it comes to interpreting biblical literature. So in an attempt to help address this issue, I give you the following (realizing that this is only a blog post with major space limitations; so a fuller development cannot be provided here, but hopefully it will provide enough grist for the reader to have some critical hooks to hang their hats of discernment on in this evil age).

Richard Bauckham’s books The Theology of the Book of Revelation & The Climax of Prophecy are resources that all Christians should avail themselves of. Let me provide an introduction, of sorts, into the basic argument of Bauckham’s book[s].  And of course, given the nature of my blogging pattern and style, I will also be reflecting upon the theological and exegetical issues that Bauckham’s writing is touching upon—as well as the more applied and correlative issues that Bauckham’s work only implicates, that is, the popular issues of dispensationalism, amillennialism, premillennialism, & postmillennialism. That said, let me wade us into what Bauckham thinks constitutes the basic trajectory and original purpose for writing the book of Revelation (which will implicate all kinds of things). Here is what Bauckham writes on the original audience and purpose of the ‘Epistle of Revelation’, and then a bit on how Bauckham thinks this reality cashes out in application (theologically and pastorally):

Thus it would be a serious mistake to understand the images of Revelation as timeless symbols. Their character conforms to the contextuality of Revelation as timeless symbols. Their character conforms to the contextuality of Revelation as a letter to the seven churches of Asia. Their resonances in the specific social, political, cultural and religious world of their first readers need to be understood if their meaning is to be appropriated today. They do not create a purely self-contained aesthetic world with no reference outside itself, but intend to relate to the world in which the readers live in order to reform and to redirect the readers’ response to that world. However, if the images are not timeless symbols, but relate to the ‘real’ world, we need also to avoid the opposite mistake of taking them too literally as descriptive of the ‘real’ world and of predicted events in the ‘real’ world. They are not just a system of codes waiting to be translated into matter-of-fact references to people and events. Once we begin to appreciate their sources and their rich symbolic associations, we realized that they cannot be read either as literal descriptions or as encoded literal descriptions, but must be read for their theological meaning and their power to evoke response.[1]

We leave off from Bauckham with a bit of a teaser; he goes on and provides some examples of what he describes in the quote paragraph of above. Suffice it to say, it can readily be observed that Bauckham, even in the small notation above (the quote), is getting at two popular, and I would say, erroneous, ways of reading the book of Revelation. Bauckham is getting at a naked idealism way of interpreting Revelation (as it has been in the history) which usually involves a presupposition of dualism; meaning that the book of Revelation is often construed as an ethereal book that depicts a cosmic struggle between good and evil. While there is an aspect where this is true for Bauckham, we can obviously see that he sees much more particularity, unity, and concreteness to the message and theology and history that make up this book than the classic idealism approach does. And then in the next breath, we also see Bauckham challenging what I will call the futurist, premillennial, dispensational reading of Revelation (the kind given popular expression in ‘The Left Behind’ series of books by Lahaye and Jenkins). He thinks it is in error to read Revelation as if its primary semantic and conceptual pool is predictive in nature; in other words, he sees it as highly problematic to read current events (like ours) into the book of Revelation, as if this was what John and the Holy Spirit had in mind when it was originally penned. Bauckham does not see the book of Revelation as a secret code book awaiting the decoder key (current events) to, in fact, decode it. No, he sees all of the events, people, and picturesque language of Revelation as grounded in a labyrinth of inter-related complexities that bubble up from the Old Testament apocalyptic genre (like that found in Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc.); and then he sees this context being applied to the ‘current’ events of the Roman empire of which the seven churches addressed in the Revelation are located.

There is much more to Bauckham’s thesis about the book of Revelation; like he sees the point of the book of Revelation as most pertinent to the Christians in the Roman empire who were suffering great tribulation and suffering, to the point of martyrdom. He sees the point of the book as primarily something to provide comfort and perspective for those being killed by the Roman persecution of the Christians. He sees the vindication of the Christian martyrs as the crux for understanding the composition of Revelation; and all of the apocalyptic language in the book, as providing God’s perspective over against the secular, mundane Roman perspective which these Christians were inhabiting. Bauckham sees the book of Revelation as predictive, in the sense that God’s people (all of us) will be vindicated at his coming (the second time, based on the first), as he crushes the powers of the nations, but not as the world would think, but as ‘the lamb slain before the foundations of the world’. So we see Bauckham’s vision of Revelation as correlative with the trajectory already set throughout the canon of the Old Testament apocalyptic literature; something like Daniel 2 comes to my mind:

44 “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. 45 This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands —a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.

“The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and its interpretation is trustworthy.”

It is this kind of motif that Bauckham thinks shapes the book of Revelation, but not in light of its promise (like we leave it in the book of Daniel), but in light of its fulfillment, and thus reinterpretation ‘in Christ’. There is much more to say (and I will), but this should be enough for now.

 

[1] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 19-20.

 

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The Second Coming of Christ: Reorienting How We Think of That Through Eschatology and Apocalyptic

Like many evangelicals I grew up under the pale of Left Behind Theology (i.e. Premillennial, Pretribulational, Dispensational theology). Attendant with this type of approach is living with a kind of futurist ‘apocalyptic’ dread (yet at the same time excited anticipation). It is this mood that I would contend has largely created a lot of what we have been seeing Hollywood produce in their dystopian or ‘end of days’ zombie apocalypse types of thrillers; they do so because there’s a market for it. Living this way, the person interprets every hurricane, earthquake, massive tornado, geo-political kerfuffle, and war as portending of the rapture of Jesus Christ for his church. The focus of this mood only gets heightened when things appear to be kicking off in the nation of Israel; since Left Behind Theology believes world history, according to God’s prophetic timetable, is all about the nation of Israel. Proponents of this approach will often refer to Israel, and in particular, Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, as God’s prophetic timepiece.

I thought writing a post on this issue would be timely given what’s currently going on in the world. Don’t get me wrong, my reading of Scripture, and Jesus’s teaching in particular, lends itself to the idea that things will only be getting worse (like birth pangs) right up until the end. And given my current belief (as an amillennial advocate) that we are in the tribulation Jesus spoke of, and the idea that right before he comes a second time there will be unparalleled tribulation (gk. thlipsis) worldwide, what is unfolding in the world as I write this does raise the antennae a bit. It is the intensity of it all; the convergence of seemingly a million points. Now, some of this sense of intensity could be because of our instant exposure to everything, as it is distilled for us via social media. But I think the conflagration of so many things at once—natural disasters, wars, global economic upheaval, genocide, moral rot, super-diseases—does or should suggest that this world, given to the unwilling futility that it is (cf. Rom. 8), is ready for the reality of the sons of God to be revealed in Jesus Christ; in other words, she seems ripe for the return of Jesus Christ.

With the above said, and in an attempt to bring sobriety to this issue, I thought I would try to give another twist on how we approach two key terms that are used to speak of ‘end times’; i.e. eschatology and apocalyptic. Neither term is all that easy to define, particularly because of how they have been used in various contexts. Both terms are Greek in origin, eschatology simply meaning: ‘the study of last times’ and apocalyptic meaning ‘the unveiling’ (in Greek this is the word we get ‘Revelation’ from, as in the biblical book Revelation). But there’s more to it than just these types of lexical or denotative definitions, and it is this range of meaning, per the Christian theological context I want to alert us to. In order to do that I will refer us to TF Torrance to help us get a fuller, more theologically attuned grasp for how the term eschatology and apocalyptic can be used. After we get more depth understanding on this terminology, we will then return to a discussion about the second coming of Christ, and hopefully be able to integrate this thickening measure (by appeal to Torrance) into our discussion. Admittedly, this is probably not what you were expecting when you clicked over to a post on the second coming of Christ, and after reading my first two paragraphs; but bear with me.[1]

Here Torrance gives us a kind of genealogy of how the language of eschatology and apocalyptic have been used; and how he thinks they have been co-opted in an unfortunate way by Left Behind Theology. Within his kind of bemoaning of how this language has come to be used in ill-advised ways, we will also see how he thinks the terminology has and should been used within the history of the church. It is this that I want to draw our attention to, primarily, and what I will respond to further as we pick this discussion back up on the other side of Torrance. Torrance writes (at length):

(a) The loss of mainstream eschatology and the divorce of apocalyptic from prophetic

The main teaching about the last things in the West (apart from isolated thinkers like Bengel) has largely been left to sects whose roots go back into the Anabaptist tradition. Although the extremes of those early Schwärmer have not been repeated to the same extent in modern times, it still remains true that their modern successors have developed an eschatological emphasis that is one sided in its divorce of the apocalyptic view of the kingdom as other-worldly, coming at the end of time, from the prophetic view of the kingdom as breaking into the midst of time and involving history, and therefore that is constantly on the brink of becoming fantastic. Against this apocalyptic eschatology divorced from actual history, the church will always be in revolt, for apocalypse can only have Christian meaning in the closest association with present history.

(b) The relegation of eschatology from the centre to the end of dogmatics

When the church came to formulate her teaching about such doctrines as death and judgement, the life everlasting and the return of Christ, she tended to append it to the end of dogmatics rather uncertainly, failing to grasp these doctrines aright in themselves, and failing to take up the New Testament stress upon eschatology as integral to the very heart of the gospel and to every doctrine of the faith. With a tradition such as this in the church, the words of H.R. Mackintosh have great relevance and point: ‘It is a just and illumining thought that every system of theology should be read backwards at least once, commencing with the last things, since it is in the conclusion that we find the truest index of the whole.’[2]

Okay, let’s try to rein this rather academic sounding stuff back into accessible discussion, and within a context about the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Let’s start with Torrance’s point b, and work into his point a from there. I am going to oversimplify all of this with the hope of making this more understandable for a broader audience; and also with the hope of bringing a broader audience back into a more sober thought process when it comes to “eschatological” or ‘end times’ discussions; a sobriety that I think is lacking in the broader North American evangelical church. In Torrance’s second paragraph (“b”), he is referring to the Apostle’s Creed,[3] he’s critiquing, through his former teacher, H.R. Mackintosh, how even early on ‘end times’ stuff (i.e. ‘the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting’) is essentially annexed or appended to the end of the creed rather than foregrounding it. This, in Torrance’s mind, has the unintended effect of making it seem like creation has been moving in a linear/progressive march forward till we come to the end; but for Torrance, and really for much of the church’s history, this isn’t how end times stuff was thought of (at least not in an Athanasian stream of thought). What Torrance wants to re-emphasize is what another Scottish theologian, David Fergusson, says so well, “The world was made so that Christ might be born.” In other words, what most Christians, of today, think is coming at the “end” of history, in fact was what motivated the beginning of history to begin with; i.e. that creation’s purpose (telos) has always already been conditioned by and for the reality of God in Jesus Christ.[4]

This brings us to Torrance’s point a. Torrance is concerned, and so am I, that because ‘sects’ of Christians (like those who promote Dispensational inspired popularly called Left Behind Theology) have separated thinking about eschatology (in a dualist fashion) from this present [historical] reality, and relegated it to an apocalyptic understanding of things as we see it in the movies; and thus eschatology has more to do with an ‘unveiling’ or apocalypse that is solely futurist oriented (i.e. at the ‘end’ of history), and grounded in some sort of non-worldly (ethereal – Platonic) reality, when in fact an actual Christian understanding of eschatology is grounded in the idea that God in Christ has always already been breaking into the world apocalyptically (dramatically) from the moment he decided to create and give the world its purpose in and from and for his Son incarnate (incarnandus), Jesus Christ. In other words, from Torrance’s perspective, and from much of the church’s perspective in the history (although not as articulate and ‘modern’ as Torrance’s accounting), world history, ‘natural’ history, ‘creational’ reality has always been tensed and conditioned by the apocalyptic in-breaking reality of God’s freely elected life to be God Immanuel (‘with us’) in Christ. Torrance, as do I, sees all of history from an apocalyptic reality; meaning that it has always been grounded by and oriented for the unveiling of his life for the world in Jesus Christ.

This is apocalyptic (!), that the Kingdom of God in Christ (cf. Dan. 2) stands behind and indeed over the kingdoms of this world in such a way that as we read the book of Revelation, for instance, we ought to see all of that imagery, the imagery that finds its reality in God’s ineffable life for the world in Christ, as what this world has always already been up against.[5] Apocalypse, I would contend, along with Torrance, in a properly Christian eschatological accounting of things, understands that creation has always been about recreation in the resurrection of God in Christ; and recreation thus was the impetus for creation to begin with. I.e. the apocalyptic reality and idea that humanity would forever be and stand with and participate in and from the Triune life of God in and through the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

I absolutely failed at making this accessible; it’s still quite academic and dealing with many theological themes, that unless you have the proper context, remains, I would imagine, rather inaccessible. But let me leave us with this: what I am hoping has come through is that as Christians the sensational and ‘fantastic’ reality that orients our whole existence as Christian persons before God is that creation has been infused (not pantheistically or panentheistically mind you) with the dramatic and apocalyptic reality that we were created to be recreated in Christ, in such a way, that we might behold the ‘face of God’ in and through Jesus Christ as the very ground of our lives; as such human history has always been suffused with the apocalyptic reality, in and from the eschatological hope that creation would eventually realize its ultimate purpose as she met her end as a new beginning in the recreation of all things made new in Jesus Christ.

What this should do, at least in my opinion, as far as posture in the world as Christians goes (think of II Peter 3), is that we should live in an expectant state; realizing that even as we see the world apparently unraveling at the seams, we understand that creation, on the analogy of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ always had to go through the rupture of creation to recreation in order to realize its actual purpose for living. The consequences of the Fall, the consequences that the Son of Man entered into for us in his assumption of a fallen humanity, have not left us, but we indeed live with the reality that the eschatology of God’s life in Christ has provided the kind of apocalyptic outlook that we need to maintain as we engage with a world that indeed has no hope but to make it through the next hurricane or big earthquake or threat of WW3. That is, we already, by faith, participate in and from the apocalyptic reality of God, as he entered the drama of human history, culminating in death, and then resurrecting to new life in the resurrection of Christ. As Christians, as an apocalyptic people, as we walk by faith, we need to bear witness to the world that eventually faith will give way to sight. This is the eschatology we live from; from the apocalypse of God’s life made known to the world in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

[1] I’m thinking you were hoping for something more sensational, something more “apocalyptic.” I’m hoping after you read this post you will come away with a new sense for the sensational and fantastic when it comes to thinking about eschatology and the apocalyptic; precisely because you’ll see how central Jesus Christ is to it all. Not just with reference to the ‘future’, but how that future reality has been shaping the beginning (protology cf. Gen. 1.1) from before the beginning; how Jesus has been the reason from time before “time” in regard to what this world was created for to begin with (just look at my little sidebar anecdote from David Fergusson).

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, ed. Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 303-04.

[3] I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Amen.

[4] This has to do with what is called in the Greek protology, or “the study of first things” (e.g. original creation).

[5] See Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, for further biblical theological context.

Messianic War Against this World System: Gaining Perspective on the Presidential Election 2016 from the Book of Revelation

If you’re an American, and unless you live in a corner, something that cannot escape you at the moment is the intensity of the presidential election (as I write this only two days away). Like many of you, I have been involved in various discussions and debates about who the best candidate is or isn’t; my conclusion is that there is no better candidate (between Trump or Clinton). They are both going to promote policies and aims that are anti-thetical to the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, and as such it is impossible for me to vote for either one of them (from an ethical perspective as trumphillarya Christian). The reality is, is that they both have more in common than not. They both promote a horizontal vision of society and the world, whether that be an absolute form of nationalism (Trump), or an absolute form of anglo-globalism (Clinton). They both endorse policies that involve racism— whether that be informed by an inward obsession with Americana, and certain conceptions of what it means to be an American (Trump); or whether that be informed by supporting the House of Saud, radical Muslims in Syria, and elite globalists (Clinton). They both, like Israel, as the prophet Isaiah noted about Israel, have a covenant with death (Is. 29); Clinton, in this regard, more so than Trump, in some ways. They both are continuing the vision of ancient Babylon which is one of empire, and self-promotion (whether that be focused on the homeland [Trump], or globally [Clinton]).

What this presidential race has illustrated to me is how corrupt human government and politics are. It has concretely shown me that this world has been placed under a curse which it longs to be relieved of by the revealing of the sons of God (Rom. 8). Both Trump’s and Clinton’s visions of reality are purely informed by horizontal paradigms of thought, and have appeal only to the base impulses of natural humanity wherein the individual and its self-preservation is elevated to god-like status. But the good news is that there is hope; hope to come, and hope in-breaking currently.

Richard Bauckham, in his little book, The Theology of the Book of Revelation provides prescient insight into the emphases and themes of that often misunderstood book. As he works through the theology of the book of Revelation what he unveils is a vision and hope for the world that is other-worldly, while being radically this worldly. He masterfully shows how the book of Revelation is a book precisely for moments like we are currently experiencing here in the States as we, as Christians, are attempting to maintain perspective relative to the “choices” we have in front of us for our leadership.

In the following Bauckham works through three themes that he sees at play in the book of Revelation; it will be the first theme that we will highlight in this post. This theme gives me much perspective as the reality of how messy of a thing humanward politics actually are in this present evil age. The victory has already been won by Jesus Christ; the victory over evil, horizontal conceptions of human government, and how that gets expressed in the world. As we will see, Bauckham underscores how the theme of messianic war in the book of Revelation functions, or should, as a place of hope and perspective for the Christian attempting to navigate through this evil age. What is presumed, of course, is that as Christians we do indeed live in a violent world, under the control of violent governments who we ought to take a militant posture towards. Note I said ‘militant,’ not violent. The only violence that has any purchase in the Kingdom of the Lamb of God is the violence the Lion of the Tribe of Judah already endured for the world at his cross. It is this reality wherein we as Christians, according to the Revelator, can take a militant stand against this world system. We stand in the power of God, which is the power of the Gospel (Rom. 1:16), and this is the victory we have to proclaim to the world. It is a prophetic word that God’s judgment has already come, and been realized for us in Jesus Christ on the cross; that the heart of human self-destruction and violence has been crushed with Jesus as he put it to death with him (Rom. 8:3) at the cross. And that there is good news of final victory, wherein the final enemy, death, will finally be put under Jesus’s feet as he comes again in his second advent (I Cor. 15). By proclaiming and living out this reality we participate in the victory of the Messiah by capturing the hearts of men and women, boys and girls, of every race, tongue, and nation inhabiting this world. We also bear witness to the fact that indeed a violent, but final end is coming, the final realization of the death of death (cf. John Owen), when the Lamb of God comes with the sword of his mouth (Rev. 19) finally crushing the kingdoms of this world (Dan. 2) by the Stone of his Kingdom; which is the Kingdom of kingdoms. It is this posture and place that we as Christians, according to the book of Revelation, have in this current world system. It is one of fighting, and the church militant; and our weapons of warfare are not fleshly but spiritual (II Cor. 10) through both word and deed, by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all who will.

Here is what Bauckham has to say:

The first is the theme of the messianic war. This takes up the Jewish hope for a Messiah who is to be a descendant of David, anointed by God as king and military leader of his people. He is to fight a war against the Gentile oppressors, liberating Israel and establishing the rule of God, which is also the rule of God’s Messiah and God’s people Israel, over the nations of the world. Essential to this notion, it should be noted, is that the Messiah does not wage war alone: he leads the army of Israel against the enemies of Israel. Many Old Testament prophecies were commonly interpreted by first-century Jews as referring to this expected Messiah of David. The identification of Jesus with the Davidic Messiah was, of course, very common in early Christianity. It is very important in Revelation, partly because for John, as a Jewish Christian prophet, it is one of the ways in which he can gather up the hopes of the Old Testament prophetic tradition into his own eschatological vision centred on Jesus. But it is important also because it portrays a figure who is to establish God’s kingdom on earth by defeating the pagan powers who contest God’s rule. As we shall see, John carefully reinterprets the tradition. His Messiah Jesus does not win his victory by military conquest, and those who share his victory and his rule are not national Israel, but the international people of God. But still it is a victory over evil, won not only in the spiritual but also in the political sphere against worldly powers in order to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Insofar as the hope for the Davidic Messiah was for such a victory of God over evil Revelation portrays Christ’s work in continuity with that traditional Jewish hope.

The prominence of Davidic messianism in Revelation can be gauged from the fact that, as well as the two self-declarations by Christ that we have already considered (1: 17– 18; 22: 13), there is a third: ‘I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star’ (22: 16). The first of these two titles comes from Isaiah 11: 10 (‘ the root of Jesse’) and is used of the Davidic Messiah (‘descendant’ interprets the meaning of ‘root’, rightly giving it the same sense as the ‘branch’ or ‘shoot’ of Isa. 11: 1, which was more commonly used as a messianic designation). The second title refers to the star of Numbers 24: 17, which (in the context of 24: 17– 19) was commonly understood to be a symbol of the Messiah of David who would conquer the enemies of Israel. ‘The root of David’ is found also in Revelation 5: 1, alongside another title evoking the image of the royal Messiah who will defeat the nations by military violence: ‘the Lion of Judah’ (cf. Gen. 49: 9; 4 Ezra 12: 31– 2). Further allusions to the Messiah of Isaiah 11, a favourite passage for Davidic messianism, are the sword that comes from Christ’s mouth (1: 16; 2: 12, 16; 19: 21) with which he strikes down the nations (19: 15; cf. Isa. 11: 4; 49: 2) and the statement that he judges with righteousness (19: 11; cf. Isa. 11: 4).

One of John’s key Old Testament texts, allusions to which run throughout Revelation, is Psalm 2, which depicts ‘the nations’ and ‘the kings of the earth’ conspiring to rebel against ‘the LORD and his Messiah’ (verses 1– 2). The Messiah is God’s Son (verse 7), whom he sets as king on mount Zion (verse 6), there to resist and overcome the rebellious nations. God promises to give this royal Messiah the nations for his inheritance (verse 8) and that he will violently subdue them with a rod of iron (verse 9). Allusions to this account of the Messiah’s victory over the nations are found in Revelation 2: 18, 26– 8; 11: 15, 18; 12: 5, 10; 14: 1; 16: 14, 16; 19: 15. To what is explicit in the psalm it is notable that John adds the Messiah’s army (with him on Mount Zion in 14: 1) who will share his victory (2: 26– 7). Probably also from the psalm is John’s use of the phrase ‘the kings of the earth’ as his standard term for the political powers opposed to God which Christ will subdue (1: 5; 6: 15; 17: 2, 18; 18: 3, 9; 19: 19; 21: 24; cf. 16: 14).

Also derived from this militant messianism is Revelation’s key concept of conquering. It is applied both to the Messiah himself (3: 21; 5: 5; 17: 14) and to his people, who share his victory (2: 7, 11, 17, 28; 3: 5, 12, 21; 12: 11; 15: 2; 21: 7). Once again we note the importance in Revelation of the Messiah’s army. That the image of conquering is a militaristic one should be unmistakable, although interpreters of Revelation do not always do justice to this. It is closely connected with language of battle (11: 7; 12: 7– 8, 17; 13: 7; 16: 14; 17: 14; 19: 11, 19) and it is notable that not only do Christ’s followers defeat the beast (15: 2), but also the beast defeats them (11: 7; 13: 7), so that this is evidently a war in which Christ’s enemies have their victories, though the final victory is his. We should note also that the language of conquering is used of all the three stages of Christ’s work: he conquered in his death and resurrection (3: 21; 5: 5), his followers conquer in the time before the end (12: 11; 15: 2), and he will conquer at the parousia (17: 14). Thus it is clear that the image of the messianic war describes the whole process of the establishment of God’s kingdom as Revelation depicts it. Revelation’s use of this image incorporates the fundamental shift of temporal perspective from Jewish to Jewish Christian eschatology. The messianic war is not purely future. The decisive victory has in fact already been won by Christ. His followers are called to continue the battle in the present. The final victory still lies in the future.[1]

Conclusion

In light of the perversion and corruption attendant to this presidential election, I hope this perspective, indeed, provides perspective. I see too many Christians settling, or even compromising for what they shouldn’t be compromising for; for the kingdom of man rather than the kingdom of Christ. The reality is, as the book of Revelation makes very clear, is that being human means being political; the issue is where we are going to get our politics from. Are we going to get them from the horizontal, or instead are we going to get them from the vertical? It is clear that the politics of heaven intersect with the politics of this fallen earth, just as God’s person in Christ intersects with our humanity in his assumption of ours. As such it is important, I would contend, for us to remember that we are at war; not with people, per se, but with the principalities and powers which inform the politics of man. We need to bear this in mind as we, as Christians, attempt to negotiate our ways through the muck of this world system. We need to keep in mind that earthly policy-makers all work from a vision of the world, at this point, that is informed by impulses that are indeed anti-thetical to the aims of the Kingdom of God. Thus it behooves us, as soldiers in Christ, to take a stand, and engage this political system with the weapons of our warfare which is to proclaim the Gospel of peace and hope for all who will hear.

It is always tempting to begin to conflate the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of man, we see Israel engaging in this type of syncretizing activity over and again with the nations that surrounded them. But again, as the book of Revelation makes clear, we are part of another nation, a heavenly Zion (Heb. 12), which thinks from heaven rather than earth; it thinks from other-worldly and even foolish norms relative to the policies and “ethics” of this world system (I Cor. 1). Let’s remember that we are ambassadors for Christ (II Cor. 5; Eph. 6), and that our primary job as Christians is to bear witness prophetically that Jesus is King, that he has won the victory through his shed blood (I Cor. 6:18,19; Acts 20:28). Let’s not compromise the integrity of our positions as ambassadors for Christ by fighting for a kingdom, this world system, that has already been put to death by the cross of Jesus Christ. Let’s remind this world system that there is real power and real hope available in and from the One who was dead, but now lives (Rev. 1). Let’s remind our politicians that God wants us to choose life, not death (Ez. 32). As far as I can tell, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have chosen Life, instead they have both chosen death; as such their political policies and practices will only portend that. Policies that Christians, as part of God’s Kingdom, ought to be at war with, not in bed with.

[1] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation  (Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition), 68-70.

 

Communism’s, Fascism’s and Other ‘isms” Problem of Scapegoating Considered through Thomas Torrance’s Revelation 6

We live in a time of great upheaval, a time unbeknownst to history before! Yes, the world has waned and travelled ever since the frustration of the original creation occurred (Genesis 3), but we live in an unprecedented time. We live in an interconnected universe through the internet, smartphones, planes, trains, automobiles, and a global community that flits and flutters upon the winds of the atombombslightest geo-political breezes to the disruptive gales of turbulent socio-economic jet-streams. We live in a time of religious and intellectual turmoil such that it is hard to keep track of exactly who’s who and what’s what; to the point that people quit caring unless somehow someone else’s beliefs impinge upon their personal space, their personal self-flourishing. In the 20th and 21st centuries we have seen the rise of fascist to communist dictators, from oligarchic democratically elected officials to self-proclaimed caliphs of Islamo-facist states. We have seen human evil spawned in the supposedly civil and modern age at such levels that no centuries past could hope to counter; we have come to the brink of self imposed destruction through atom bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles, and seen that realized in WW2. As the Apostle Paul declares, we live in an ‘evil age,’ but we do so among a people, enslaved to their own affections and desires, who can’t imagine that all of this has been brought about by their own human inclination. As such people will reek destruction at the highest levels, with mass scope of ruin, and then sit back in self-rationalization and try and find someone else to blame; they could never imagine that what they have done could be construed as evil—Nero, Caligula, Hitler, Mao, the Industrial Military Complex (IMC), among other people and groups come to mind.

Thomas Torrance in his sermon on Revelation 6 as he contemplates on the fifth seal has this to say about such things:

More terrible than the sword, more terrible than pestilence and famine and death, is the spectacle revealed by the fifth seal: “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the Word of God and for the testimony which they held” (v. 9). That is the heart-rending fact about human history, the ingrained enmity to the Word of God, and that all who profess the Word are attacked and wherever possible done to death. That is the apocalypse of evil, the unveiling of the secrets of world-evolution. At the heart of it all there is a malignant evil that hates God and is bitterly opposed the servants of God and of His Word.

In the opening of this seal we have revealed an attempt to eradicate the Church and to uproot the people of God. And what does that mean? It means that after the terrible calamities the powers of the world have brought upon themselves, they try to disown the fact that they are the cause of all the evil and commotion and so they turn upon God’s people and vent their rage upon them as scapegoats. Surely that is what the Nazis did in their persecution of the Jews and the Christian Church upon whom they put the blame for the chaos of the world. That is what militant Communism is still doing in its bitter and subtle attack upon the Christian faith and all that it stands for. But to solve the riddle of chaotic history by slaying Jews and Christians is only a desperate attempt to break open the seal of God’s book of destiny to discover by force the secrets of history, and by force to master the fate of the world. Such a course of history is bound to fail. In Germany we have seen already how it has shattered itself upon the rock of the Christian Church against which not even the gates of Hell can prevail. Have no fear, the same will be true of every new menace. Communism also will shatter itself upon the purpose of God. All such things are to be understood in the light of this chapter. Although the main trend of world history is revealed to be fighting against the divine predestination, God Almighty will not be thwarted. He is patient and merciful and holy. He will deal righteously with all wickedness, but at last He will bring the purpose of His holy love to prevail over every affliction, and every tongue shall praise Him.[1]

We all have this impulse in our natural hearts. But of course this is not the end of the story as the Christians know. Nevertheless, we continue to perdure through a season of time in world history where we see world leaders and the common man growing from worse to worse. We continue to see this pattern of scapegoating that Torrance highlights; and typically the Jews and the Christians remain at the top of this scapegoat list—at least globally considered. But that’s okay, because the Lamb slain yet alive is coming; this world is his, and the last enemy will finally be put under foot!

 

 

[1]Thomas F. Torrance, The Apocalypse Today (London: James Clarke&Co. Limited, 1960), 54-5.

Who is the AntiChrist? Post Reformed orthodoxy’s Answer and Other Traditions

Eschatology in the realm of systematic theology often means something different from eschatology within a biblical exegetical frame of things. Maybe it isn’t that it means something different, per se, but its focus is broader and more hermeneutical; i.e. it doesn’t necessarily get into the nitty gritty exegetical minutiae of trying to figure out what millennial scheme we should hold (i.e.
leoxpremillennial, postmillennial, amillennial, etc.), or who the anti-Christ might be, so on and so forth. Richard Bauckham summarizes this different emphasis well when he writes:

Traditionally, eschatology comprised the ‘four last things’ that Christian faith expects to be the destiny of humans at the end of time: resurrection, last judgement, heaven, and hell. They formed the last section of a dogmatics or a systematic theology, a position they still usually occupy. But in the twentieth century, eschatology ceased to be merely one doctrinal topic among others to be treated after the others; it became something more like a dimension of the whole subject matter of theology. Karl Barth famously claimed in 1921, ‘If Christianity be not altogether thoroughgoing eschatology, there remains in it no relationship whatever with Christ’ (Barth 1968: 314; cf 1957: 634-5). While the content given to the term ‘eschatology’ has varied considerably over the subsequent period, in which Barth’s claim has become a favourite quotation in discussions of eschatology (e.g., Moltmann 1967:39; Pannenberg 1991-8: iii. 532), the indispensable role it attributes to eschatology has been widely endorsed. Moltmann writes, ‘From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology…. The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day’ (Moltmann 1967:16).[1]

I largely subscribe to Barth’s view that Christianity is eschatology through and through. I subscribe to the cosmic nature of Christianity, of the reality that all of creation has its telos from, in, and for Christ. I affirm the reality that this world is God’s world, and this world is the theater wherein God breaks into it through the Son, Jesus Christ, and sets to right all things according to the order of His Kingdom come.

But because I am an evangelical I have grown up in a Christian sub-culture that has given (and continues to give, in some sectors) an inordinate amount of focus to working meticulously through the details of the books of the Bible such as Revelation, I&II Thessalonians, and other prophetic books with a gaze towards answering all of the various “bible prophecy” questions (you know what I mean). This exegetical approach, funded in many instances by an overly wooden-literalistic engagement with the text, has attempted to provide exegetical conclusion to a variety of interpretive questions in regard to such things as: the millennium, who the anti-Christ is, if there is such a thing as the rapture (within the dispensational approach), how current events relate to biblical prophecy and its fulfillment (within the dispensational approach), and many other like foci. To be honest, as much as I have moved away from much of that, it still interests me at some level; even if that interest, at points, is at the level of social-curiosity.

Given my curiosity, I found it very interesting to run across how Richard Muller defines what the Latin language for anti-Christ, antichristus, entailed in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox period (i.e. 16th and 17th centuries). Muller writes at length:

antichristus (from the Greek, ντίχριστος): antichrist; scriptural use of the word is confined to the Joannine Epistles (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7) where a distinction is made between (1) the many antichrists now in the world, who work to deceive the godly and who do not confess Christ, and (2) the Antichrist who is to come who will deny Christ and, in so doing, deny both the Father and the Son. John also speaks (1 John 4:3) of the “spirit … of the antichrist” which “even now … is in the world.” Following the fathers, the medieval doctors, and the Reformers, the Protestant orthodox identify the final Antichrist of the Johannine passages with the “man of sin” or “son of perdition who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God” foretold by Paul in 2 Thess. 2:3-4. The orthodox can therefore distinguish between (1) the antichrist considered generally (generaliter), as indicated by the plural use of the word in 1 John and by the “spirit of antichrist” now in the world, and (2) the Antichrist considered specially (specialiter et kat’ exochen), as indicated by singular usage. The former term indicates all heretics and vicious opponents of the doctrine of Christ; the latter, the great adversary of Christ who will appear in the last days. Of the latter, the Antichristus properly so called, the orthodox note several characteristics. (1) He arises from within the church and sets himself against the church and its doctrine, since his sin is described as apostasia (q.v.), or falling away. (2) He will sit in temple Dei, in the temple of God, which is to say, in the church. (3) He will rule as the head of the church. (4) From his seat in templo Dei and his position as caput ecclesiae, he will exalt himself above the true God and identify himself as God. (5) He will cause a great defection from the truth so that many will join him in his apostasy. (6) He will exhibit great power and cause many “lying wonders,” founded upon the power of Satan, in a rule that will endure until the end of time. On the basis of these characteristics the orthodox generally identify the Antichrist as the papacy, the pontifex Romanus. Some attempted to argue a distinction between an Antichristus orientalis and an Antichristus occidentalis, an Eastern and a Western Antichrist, the former title belonging to Muhammad, the latter to the papacy; but the difficulty in viewing Islam, or any form of paganism, as an apostasy, strictly so-called, led the orthodox to identify Rome alone as Antichrist. They also reject the identification of Antichrist with the imperium Romanum, the Roman Empire, on the ground that the Antichrist is not a secular power or a result of pagan history. Finally, they also reject the identification of any single pope as Antichrist on the ground that Antichrist’s rule and power extend farther and endure longer than the rule and power of any one man. Thus, Antichrist is the institution of the papacy which has arisen within the church and which assumes religious supremacy over all Christians, seats itself in the temple of God, and builds its power on lies, wonders, and apostasy.[2]

Clearly, for the Post Reformed orthodox, the papacy as an institution represents the office of the eschatological Antichrist. I would imagine that this still holds true today, particularly for Orthodox Presbyterians, and maybe the Presbyterian Church of America; i.e. that the papal seat and Vatican city, and what they represent, serve as emblematic and as the embodiment of the personal Antichrist. It isn’t just the Post Reformed orthodox, and the Reformed in general who held, and may continue to hold this view; we once attended a Lutheran church (Wisconsin synod) that made a point to emphasize that they see the Roman See as the embodiment of Antichrist. More sensationalistic than this, evangelicals, of the dispensational sort (like Dave Hunt, Chick tracts, etc.), have also seen the papacy as a potential candidate for fulfilling the role of the Antichrist.

Attempting to answer this question, of the identity of the Antichrist, is not a bad thing in my view; it reflects a people who take the Bible and its various teachings seriously. I may have given the impression, earlier, that I find such things pedantic; I don’t. What I do find pedantic is when people become consumed by the sensationalistic aspects of all of this, and fail to miss the bigger picture of eschatology, theologically and hermeneutically, and what that is all about. It is about God’s Kingdom, come, and coming every day. We live in a world that needs to hear and know that good news. Within that framework, we can attempt to work through the exegetical questions and various biblical foci; but never losing sight that we ought to be living as those who are simply looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

 

[1] Richard Bauckham, “Eschatology,” in John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance eds., The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 306.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 39-40.

The Imminent Return of Jesus Christ in Barth’s Theology. Where’s Jesus?

Even as a little kid, Baptist Fundamentalist that I was, I believed in the imminent return of Jesus Christ. I remember one summer day, in the Pacific Northwest, as a seven year old I was laying out in a field of grass hay that had yet to be cut. I was looking up into the sky with its white cumulous clouds made ever so much more vibrant by the bright blue background of the sky with the sun
resurrectionjesusrays ever so ubiquitously breaking through and hitting me on the face. As I lay there I thought to myself “this would be a perfect day for Jesus to come back.” I pondered that reality for awhile that day, and I haven’t quit pondering since.

As I stated, as a kid, I grew up Conservative Baptist, as such the attendant theology with that was of the typical North American variety: I was a Pre-Tribulational, Pre-millennial, Dispensational Christian (some folks only know of this “type” of “theology” through LaHaye’s  and Jenkins’ best selling series Left Behind). A central pillar of that hermeneutic is the belief that Jesus could come again ‘at any moment,’ as such adherents to this perspective read current events and socio-cultural and geopolitical movements through the lens of Jesus’s “any-moment” return; believing that the worse things get, particularly in the Middle-East and Israel, the more likely Christ’s return is upon us.

Without getting further into that stream of thought I will simply say that I have since repudiated the dispensational hermeneutic that gives rise to the pre-mil/pre-trib-rapture theology embedded in it. What I haven’t given up is the biblical and orthodox belief that Jesus is indeed coming again; the belief that his return is imminent and upon us. Karl Barth had this belief, in his own way, informed by his own theory of history and revelation; it is rather apocalyptical and actualist. But even without getting into that too deeply, I simply want to share the way Robert Dale Dawson describes Barth’s ‘imminent return of Christ theology.’ Dawson writes:

The Imminent Return of Christ

With the perspective gained by this insight we are able to see more clearly why the unshakable and persistent hope of the New Testament community was for the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God. If Jesus Christ was the resurrection and the life, if he was the King who is the fullness of the kingdom, how could the kingdom be anything but close at hand? As Eberhard Busch has it: ‘In joyful hope, we may expect in the future the One who has come already. Thus, or waiting upon him – impatient and at the same time patient – is “expectation of what is near”.’ Claims Barth, ‘If this is the One whom we expect, we cannot expect Him the day after tomorrow, but to-morrow.’ We must not grow weary in hope as did some according to 2 Peter. Having forgotten the promise of the yesterday and today of the Lord, they grew suspect of an imminent expectation of tomorrow. We must rather eagerly await the summing up of all things in his return:

Like the apostles and prophets, like Christians themselves, the angels wait for the consummation of the process inaugurated by the resurrection – a consummation which according to I Pet. 4:7 will also be ‘the end of all things.’ The word used to denote the ‘looking into’ of the angels (parakufai) is the same as that which in Jn. 20:5 is used of Peter when he looks into the empty tomb.

Hence Barth’s eschatology takes shape as a further development of his threefold depiction of the perfect time of Jesus Christ. He is really past, present and future, but now in a way more specific to the perspective of the church – He is past in his Easter time, present in the time of his Spirit and future in the time of his consummate parousia.

According to Barth, once we recognize that the event of Easter and that of the parousia are different moments of one and the same act, we will see that the supposition that ‘there was unforeseen delay in the parousia, or that hope in the parousia was repeatedly deferred, or that the primitive Church … [was] disillusioned or mistaken on the subject in consequence of an exaggerated enthusiasm’ is baseless and ‘condemned from the very outset.’ The New Testament has no need for recourse to such a ‘thoroughgoing eschatology.’

But what then shall we say of our present experience of the kingdom of God? According to Barth:

The kingdom of God is real but not operative. It has come, but not come. It has still to be prayed for. It is present in reality, but not in revelation. To the extent that the New Testament contains good news, but not yet Easter news, the prophetic history of the Old Testament is continued in the New.

The Gospels, says Barth, look not only to the past revelation of Jesus but also to his future revelation. According to Barth, the goal of Jesus was not the saving event of his death alone, but also ‘the subsequent revelation of the meaning of His death, and therefore, the putting into effect of the salvation won in Him for men, for the community, for the whole world.’ We must not see the death of Jesus as an end in itself, but rather as the securing of his kingdom which is yet to be made visible in glory. Busch aptly explains that for Barth the ‘Kingdom of God’ might be called the ‘revolution of God’ for it introduces something entirely new vis-à-vis the given world, ‘something that inaugurates its total renewal.’ For Barth, the New Testament community of believers exists in the movement from commencement to conclusion. That is, ‘it has the completion of inaugurated with the resurrection of Jesus as a driving force behind it and the consummation in His parousia as a drawing force before it.’[1]

What we see in Barth, according to Dawson, is a theology of the Return of Christ shot through with the ‘now/not-yet’ conception of the Kingdom of God in Christ. What we get though in particular with Barth is an emphasis upon the continuity of the coming and resurrection of Christ; such that Easter resurrection is corollary and one-for-one in actuality with what will happen when Jesus comes again. In other words, it is the same primal event—Incarnation, Easter, and Parousia—but with different aspects and thus realized consequences for those living within the event of God’s life in Jesus Christ.

A Personal Turn

Because I like to read theology for spiritual and discipleship reasons, primarily, let me opine a minute on the way this theology of the imminent return of Christ impacts me; particularly in the way that Barth understands it. The same point, although much more raw when I first started contemplating it, that Barth holds to in regard to the continuity between Christ’s “comings” and “resurrections” is a conclusion that was impressed upon me back twenty-one years ago or so. I went through a horrific season (over a span of years) of anxiety, depression, doubt, and spiritual warfare; of the type that I can only now describe as “apocalyptic.” I would have such deep doubt about God’s existence that reality itself seemed to be slipping from me; this would, of course, throw me into deep anxiety and depression—unbearably so. But over and over again, as I walked through this season of dark nights, Jesus always showed up, he always broke through the dower-ness of my heavy and besmirched soul and brought times of refreshment; he would give me a peace that was indescribable. What I came to realize was that this same resurrected Jesus who was breaking into my life personally was the same Jesus who resurrected from the grave, and the same Jesus who would someday break into this world and bring times of refreshment unending.

I see this type of correlation between Easter hope and Second Advent reality in Barth’s theology. I think Dawson has done a good job describing something that sounds technical, but in all reality is very personally oriented in regard to the implications of what Barth is rightly developing in his theology. Maranatha.

[1] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 80-1.

The Christian Bodily Hope as Commentary and Critique on Current Politics

What this current season of political carnival has worked into me is a sense of loss, of hopelessness. But this sense isn’t discordant with what I’ve already felt for a long time in regard to human government and institutions; indeed, this loss is associated with the human condition in general. This condition noted by the Apostle Paul in his own struggle when he asks: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”[1] Humanity lives in a ‘fallen’ state, whether it recognizes it or not; that is God’s conclusion about humanity, and His ‘judgment’ is given in the
hillaryincarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ; the judgment, that indeed humanity is in a situation, left to itself: where there is no hope!

The fact that the two candidates we have before us, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, as a  fact is rather horrifying. But at the end of the day they seem to be types of a logical conclusion to the human condition, and so their arrival at just this time seems fitting relative to the extent to which the human condition has “flourished” in itself. A “flourishing” of humanity that is fitting with its own self-determined self-possessed path of homo incurvatus in se or narcissism; a path where liars are free to be liars, and larceny gets to run unabated. I know we all like to blame the elites for all of this, but in reality we are all at fault; the human condition, the fallen one, has so cultivated a society[s] such that it gives blossom to what we see in the “elites” of our world—something like self-expressions of our inner-selves projected outward and personified in the so called establishment.

Has the picture I’ve been painting caused enough despair yet? It has for me. Despair to the point that I can no longer handle looking inward; I can no longer sustain any hope in human institutions or personages who embody those institutions of self-aggrandizement and self-glorification. My eyes look elsewhere for hope; my hope is eschatological. It is the hope of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the Christian hope of Second Advent; that Jesus, as He promised, is coming again (the parousia). I don’t hear enough Christians speaking about this in North America, but you would think that would be all we were looking to these days. It is what Jesus Himself comforted and reproved the many churches in Ephesus with through his letter to them found in the book of Revelation. Unfortunately things like Left Behind, and Dispensational theology have made many Christians reticent to even speak of eschatological hope when it comes to facing real life crises; such as we face in this current political season. But this shouldn’t be the case, Christians should boldly hope as Jesus wants us to and look to the heavens from whence, as the King James says, ‘our redemption draws nigh’.

To my encouragement this morning as I was doing some reading I came across something very edifying and hope-filled, especially in light of our two options (Donald and Hillary) as reminders of the human condition. I was reading an essay by Richard Bauckham called The future of Jesus Christ. As Bauckham usually does[2], especially when it comes to things eschatological, he provides prescient words for the weary Christian soul; he writes of the genuine hope that we have for the future, and how that hope breaks in on us trumpcurrently afresh and anew, and how that ought to offer us, as Christians, hope eternal and perspective for the moment that allows us to fulfill our vocation as witnesses for Jesus Christ. Here is Bauckham in extenso:

A powerful Jewish objection to the Christian identification of Jesus as the Messiah is that, when the Messiah comes, the world will be freed from evil, suffering and death. As Walter Molberly puts it, in chapter 12 above: ‘The heart of the Jewish critique is simple: if Jesus is the redeemer, why is the world still unredeemed?’ One form of Christian response, and unfortunate one, has been to ‘spiritualise’ redemption in a way that is alien to the Jewish religious tradition. Salvation is reduced to what Christian believers experience as forgiveness of sins, personal justification before God, and virtuous living, with spiritual immortality in heaven after death. But the Christian tradition at its most authentic has realised that the promise of God made in the bodily resurrection of Christ is holistic and all-encompassing: for whole person, body and soul, for all the networks of relationship in human society that are integral to being human, and for the rest of creation also, from which humans in their bodiliness are not to be detached. In other words, it is God’s creative renewal of his whole creation. Here and now such salvation is experienced in fragmentary and partial anticipations of the new creation, and these are only properly appreciated as anticipations of the fullness of new creation to come. But even these anticipations are not limited to a ‘spiritual’ sphere artificially distinguished from the embodiment and sociality of human being in this world. Significantly, what has most kept the holistic understanding of salvation alive in the church, when tempted by Platonic and Cartesian dualisms to reduce it, have been the resurrection of Jesus in its inescapable bodiliness and the hope of his coming to raise the dead and to judge, which makes all individual salvation provisional, incomplete until the final redemption of all things. Hope for the future coming of the crucified and risen Christ has continually served to counter Christian tendencies to pietism and quitetism, spiritualization and privitisation, because it has opened the church to the world and the future, to the universal scope of God’s purposes in Jesus the Messiah.

It has also been a corrective to absolutising the status quo in state or society: either the transformation of Christianity into a civil religion uncritically allied to a political regime or form of society, or the church’s own pretensions to be the kingdom of God virtually already realised on earth. In such contexts the Christ who reigns now on the divine throne has been envisaged as the heavenly sanction for the rule of his political or ecclesiastical deputies on earth. Resistance to ideological christology of this kind can come from the hope of the Christ who is still to come in his kingdom. The expectation of the parousia relativises all the powers of the present world, exposing their imperfections and partialities. This is why it has often been more enthusiastically embraced by the wretched and the dispossessed than by the powerful and the affluent. It embodies the hope that the world will be different, contradicting every complacent or resigned acceptance of the way things are. It offers an eschatological provisio and a utopian excess that keep us from pronouncing a premature end to history, as a tradition of Enlightenment thought from Hegel and Comte to Francis Fukuyama has encouraged people to do and as totalitarian politics is often minded to do in justification for repressing dissent. Thus the Jewish messianic critique of Christian messianism is a necessary one whenever the church’s faith in the Christ who is still to come falters.[3]

maranatha.

[1] NRSV, Romans 7.24.

[2] See Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation; and Climax of Prophecy: Studies in the Book of Revelation.

[3] Richard Bauckham, “The Future of Jesus Christ,” in The Cambridge Companion To Jesus, ed. Markus Bockmuehl (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 268-69.

Hope for Today in the Apocalyptic of the Book of Revelation: Patristic Readings of Revelation

Richard Bauckham’s two books on the book of Revelation, The Theology of the Book of Revelation and The Climax of Prophecy are both excellent (which is an understatement)! I just started a new book (which I will take some time getting through it as I can) called Apocalyptic Thought In Early Christianity (Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History) edited by Robert J. bannerpantocratorDaly, SJ. The first chapter I have encountered is entitled: “I Know Your Works”: Grace and Judgment in the Apocalypse and is written by Theodore Stylianopoulos. As is usual for me study of the book of Revelation, if done right, evokes excitement and wonder. Stylianopoulos’s chapter, even as we are just getting started, is getting off on the right foot!*

I think the theme of Revelation that challenges and excites me the most is the idea of the holiness of God, and that He is Pantokrator (Παντοκράτωρ), ‘Almighty.’ The idea that within that reality we are faced with two kingdoms (no, not of the sort that we get from the so called Escondido Theology), or to get more Augustinian (even though Stylianopoulos does not), with two cities: The City of God juxtaposed with The City of Man.

As Bauckham does so well in his books, he develops this theme found in the book of Revelation: i.e. the theme that God’s kingdom in Christ trumps the kingdoms of this world; and in the book of Revelation, in historical context, the Roman world and its kingdom. As Bauckham underscores, what the book of Revelation is doing, by its appeal to apocalyptic language and imagery, is showing these early Christians (and now us later ones too) through evocative and picturesque language that, indeed, Rome is not it. It is showing the Christians, that while their most immediate experience seems pressing, with all of its visceral and experienced realities, including martyrdom for Christ, that this is not the final reality, or even the total present reality. That standing above and over the City of Man is the City of God, where the King of kings and Lord of lords rules, and is coming from to vindicate the martyrs persecuted for His name. It is this type of apocalyptic reality that I have found hopeful (because God is God and He is Almighty even when it might not look like it), and it is this reality that Stylianopoulos’ further provides layering for as he writes about the choices that the Christian has in the Roman context of whether they are going to serve Caesar as lord, or the living Lord of apocalyptic reality as Lord. If the Christian follows the latter, according to Stylianopoulos, it will look decidedly different than what it looks like to follow Caesar as lord; and it might even eventuate in death. Stylianopoulos writes:

For the seer, there is no room for compromise. The choice is either between Rome and its works (Rev. 18:6) or Christ and his works (Rev. 2:26). The two ways are irreconcilable. Rome’s ways are marked by self-glorification (“goddess Roma”), wealth, luxury, and prosperity by which it deceives and corrupts the nations while concealing its abominations of violence, injustice, wantonness, lies, and slavery (Rev. 18:1–19). Not least, Rome is accountable to God for the blood of the saints who are killed for resisting its idolatrous practices. To follow Rome, as the “earth- dwellers” do, is to participate in its abominations of murder, sorcery, immorality, thefts, all motivated by the worship of demons (Rev. 9:20–21). Thus the saints are commanded: “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues” (Rev. 18:4). This call, of course, is not for physical withdrawal but for a distinctly countercultural way of life in the midst of Greco-Roman society. In contrast, Christ’s way is the way of the slain Lamb bearing testimony to God’s truth and achieving victory through suffering and death. To follow the slain Lamb, as the saints do, is to participate in Jesus’ witness to God’s word and in Jesus’ suffering because of their own witness and suffering in active resistance to the prevailing culture. The assumption is that to live as a Christian is to live in the world and not apart from it. However, the choice provokes conflict and entails suffering, even the prospect of death (Rev. 13:9–10). The supreme ideal is symbolized by the 144,000 martyrs who stand victorious and sing praises before God’s throne. The recurrent calls for faithfulness to God and the Lamb, and the exhortations to patient endurance to the point of death, signify that for the author of the Apocalypse the greatest commendable work is martyrdom itself.[1]

Conclusion

There are many directions we could take all of this, but let me close it this way. In light of the horrific events of November 13th in Paris it would be easy to reduce the evil that we saw on the streets there to the ISIS combatants that executed so many people. But when we consider what we find in the book of Revelation, in its theological implications, what becomes clear is that it isn’t just ISIS, but that it is the kingdoms of this world (including France, Europe in toto, USA, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, etc., etc.) that represent the City of Man in total; the ‘city’ or ‘kingdom’ that stands against the purposes of God and His kingdom in Christ. This does not mean that God does not providentially use (see Rev. 17) the kingdoms of this world to make sure that justice is wrought (Rom. 13). This does not mean that there aren’t clear and bright lines between evil and good (in a relative sense). But what it does mean is that even “good” intentions apart from participation in Christ’s goodness aren’t really good at all. It means that things are quite complicated, and that there is an undercurrent for prestige and power even among countries that appear to be ‘good.’ And as Christians if we desire to live and stand for righteousness in Jesus Christ, that ultimately this will place us at cross-purposes even with the ostensibly good countries in the world. In fact, as we bear witness to Christ it will expose the darkness that underwrites the power present in every human government.

But there is hope, and this is why I enjoy the book of Revelation so much! It shows that while the Beastly kingdoms have their ways, so too does the Kingdom of Christ. And even when things appear one way, as if the Beast, the kingdoms of this world are winning, that in reality they have already been crushed by the King of kings, by Jesus Christ!

[1] Theodore Stylianopoulos, “I Know Your Works”: Grace and Judgment in the Apocalypse in Robert J. Daly, SJ, ed., Apocalyptic Thought In Early Christianity (Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History) (Baker Publishing Group, 2009), 35 Scribd version.

*One critique I have of Stylianopoulos’s essay is that he presumes, in Protestant speak, an Arminian maintenance idea of salvation. In other words, he appears to hold that ‘works’ and ‘conquering’ in the book of Revelation indicate that even though we have been given a glorious gift in salvation through Christ, that it remains possible for the believer to lose this gift. Stylianopoulos is a Greek Orthodox, so rather than reading things through an Arminian lens, what really is bearing on his view in this regard is his Orthodoxy. This disagreement notwithstanding, his commentary on the idea of ‘works and judgment’ in the book of Revelation still bears some good fruit.

Reading the book of Revelation Properly and for Today

*repost with an addendum

I just listened through the book of Revelation yesterday, performed by Max McLean (the NIV); and it was a great exercise. It is different to listen than it is to read, indeed, it is more true to how the original audience would have received it as an circuit epistle (letter) written to the ‘7 churches’. As I was listening to this (back dropped by my current bible reading which just happens to be in the book of Daniel) I began to reflect on the way I had grown up understanding the book of Revelation, and how that has changed, somewhat relative to now.

I grew up understanding the book of Revelation through a Dispensational lens (I am an American Evangelical after all!). The Dispensational lens annexes the whole book of Revelation to a futurist reading (alone). In other words, Dispensationalist readers read Revelation as if all of the visions and apocalypses recorded in this book have to do with future events (even future to our present situation in the 21st century)—which many believe have started to unfold currently. As I said, this approach annexes the whole book of Revelation to the future; and its approach to interpreting the apocalyptic language of Revelation is to do so through a modern day pesher, or the contrivance of relating the language therein with contemporary modes of reality (like nuclear warheads, modern helicopters, etc.). This is in keeping, according to Charles Ryrie, with the sine qua non of what makes someone a Dispensationalist interpreter; that is if you interpret scripture woodenly Literal, the interpreter cannot help but pop out as an Dispensationalist, a Pre-Tribulationist, Premillennial one. But I think this approach is on sandy land.

I read Richard Bauckham’s two books: The Theology of the Book of Revelation and The Climax of Prophecy over a year ago now. He offers an alternative reading—a reading that is actually more historical and mainstream relative to the historic Christian faith than the Dispensational reading [which in itself is not an argument for the validity of the hermeneutic that Bauckham appeals to]. Bauckham emphasizes the genre of Epistle (or letter) as the frame through which we should primarily read Revelation (which is also made up of two other dominant genres: Prophetic and Apocalyptic literature). What this positioning does is to locate the primary audience of this book’s reference to be in the 7 churches mentioned in the first three chapters. If this is the primary audience then this letter or book is oriented in a way that gives shape to the kind of language and appeal that the Revelator would be using; the language would be used in a way that makes sense to this audience in particular, and it would be being ‘revealed’ in a way that is intended to provide the kind of perspective that these early Christian martyrs would need when faced with the ‘Beast’ of the Roman Empire. What this reading does, by way of framing it properly, is that it allows us to read it in a relevant and literal way; a way that understands the usage of the apocalyptic language to find referent in the historical (now) present of its first recipients. As Bauckham develops, all of the language like Beast, 666, the usage of the numbers, etc. all have historical Graceo-Roman explanation and referent to them. And what this usage of language does is to provide the real picture of what is going on for God’s people when up against the Beast (in that period the Roman Empire). What is really going on is that there is a great battle inhering between God and the forces of darkness, but God has overcome the world; and more to the point of these early readers, they should take heart because Jesus has overcome the world, and these martyrs in particular will be vindicated at the second coming of Christ and the establishment (in consummate form) of his Heavenly Zion, the New Jerusalem. This would represent the principled reading of Revelation, its applicational reading works in ‘Perfect tense’; that is, the same truth that was painted through the apocalyptic language of Revelation then, is the same truth and reality that is present now. There is a colossal and global struggle/battle taking place between the kingdom of darkness, and the kingdom of the Son of His love; but take heart, Jesus has overcome this world (Jn 16.33).

The book of Revelation, if read rightly has substantive discipleship properties associated with it. If it is read improperly, it has almost nothing to do with us; other than it gives us a sense of control and gnostic insight into what is purportedly and proleptically to come. Indeed we take heart in what is to come, but only because of what is to come has already come, and is presently breaking in on this world which appears in upheaval. We can have a sense of peace and control, but not because we have a mastery knowledge over the nitty gritty of future events (relative to an idiosyncratic reading of Revelation); but because we know that this world has already lost, and the battle that is supposedly coming is already being waged (in a realized way) right now. We aren’t waiting for all of this Great Tribulation to happen (the futurist reading), it is happening all around us (especially if you live as a Christian in many many parts of the world other than the US and the West); and so we need to take heed to the book of Revelation, and understand that the martyrs and those who have gone before us are indeed sitting in the heavenlies with Christ, ruling and reigning with him (during this realized thousand year period we currently inhabit—the space between the first and second coming of Christ); and that what Dispensationalists are waiting for is currently unfolding before our very eyes (and has been since Christ’s ascension and Pentecost). Maranatha!

Addendum 6/10/14

I have moved a little bit from Bauckham since I first posted this. I still believe that John was writing to the early Christians who he was a part of, but I also believe that there is a futuristic component (i.e. the prophetic genre of this circuit letter) to this ‘Revelation’ from John. I actually think that there is yet a ‘Great Tribulation’ that is distinct from, but related to the Tribulation the world has been in ever since we entered these ‘last days’ (at the first coming of Christ). And I actually believe that the ‘Great Tribulation’ is rapidly approaching, if you are paying attention at all to what is going on in the world, you would know what I mean. This is not to say that there aren’t regions in the world that haven’t been experiencing ‘Great Tribulation’ for centuries, but it is to say that I yet see a particular day (i.e. the ‘Day of the LORD’) yet future, and tied into what Jesus in Matthew 24 called the ‘Great Tribulation’.

And when I originally wrote this post I was leaning heavily amillennial. I am not amillenial at this point, but post-trib premillenial, or historic premil.

Left Behind’s Theology?

October 3rd, 2014, the event everyone has been waiting for: Left Behind with Nicholas Cage will go live in a movie theater near you! What is all of the hype about in regard to the story line that funds the Left Behind movies and books (coauthored by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye)? Glad you asked. The story line behind Left Behind, in case you didn’t know, comes from a theological (and hermeneutical: biblical interpretive) approach called Classical Dispensationalism; which is always characterized by these component parts: Pretribulational view of the Rapture, and Premillennialism. Pretribulational rapture theory is what is most prominent, and indeed the very premise of the whole Left Behind empire; the theory is that Jesus will come secretly for his church and snatch her away (i.e. rapturo) to be with him during the 7 year tribulation period that various biblical exegetes believe will happen leading into the second coming of Jesus which will happen after all hell breaks loose on earth; when Jesus comes back, according to the Pretribulational view, it will be at this point that he sets up his millennial kingdom on earth (Revelation 20), where he will rule and reign for a literal 1,000 years with his glorified bride, the church, over the remnant of people who make it through the 7 year tribulation period. It will be during this period that the Davidic Covenant (II Sam. 7; etc.) will be literally fulfilled, and God’s first covenant people (his earthly people), the Jews will finally have what was promised to them: the Land.  These are the basic contours of thought behind the theology of Left Behind. Since the church, according to Pretribulational teaching, is not appointed to God’s wrath (cf. I Thess. 5.9), and the 7 year tribulation period represents God’s wrath (i.e. ‘the Day of the LORD’), and since the church is not Israel, all of this added together; the Pretribulational theory logically concluded, requires that the mechanism of a rapture be in place so that all of these other prophetically given events can unfold in the literal and orderly way in which the Pretribulational interpreter has come to expect.

Personally, I used to hold to Pretribulational/Premillennial Dispensational teaching; I no longer do. I see serious exegetical and theological problems with the whole approach, but I will have to save why I have problems with it for a later date. Here is the ‘Left Behind’ movie trailer. Enjoy.