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The following graphic comes from elsewhere on WordPress, but it is a timely reminder from the Book of Revelation about those headed for damnation.

‘Who’s Who in Hell’ comes courtesy of K B McGee, and posted elsewhere:

Our first death is our departure from this mortal coil.

The second death is eternal death.

I pray we all avoid it.

What follows are the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 26, 2019.

These are for Year C in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.

Emphases below are mine.

First reading

Luke, the author of Acts, was from Troas, in the western part of Asia Minor. He met Paul at the time of his journey to Macedonia. Paul had originally wanted to go further eastward into Asia Minor, but the Holy Spirit intervened. Paul ended up travelling westward from Asia Minor to Macedonia. Luke joined him, hence the first person narrative. Once in Macedonia, they never met the man in Paul’s vision. Instead, they met a woman, Lydia, a purple cloth merchant. This is the origin of the church in Philippi.

Acts 16:9-15

16:9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

16:10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

16:11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis,

16:12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.

16:13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.

16:14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.

16:15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

Psalm

This Psalm foretells the creation of the Church and the joining of Jews and Gentiles into one joyful flock. ‘Selah’ means ‘heed these words’, ‘pay attention’.

Psalm 67

67:1 May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, Selah

67:2 that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.

67:3 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.

67:4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. Selah

67:5 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.

67:6 The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us.

67:7 May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him.

Epistle

Readings from Revelation continue. John prophesies the New Jerusalem, the Water of Life, the Tree of Life and the Lamb of God.

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

21:10 And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

21:22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.

21:23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.

21:24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.

21:25 Its gates will never be shut by day–and there will be no night there.

21:26 People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.

21:27 But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

22:1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb

22:2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

22:3 Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him;

22:4 they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.

22:5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Gospel

There is a choice of two readings from John’s Gospel.

The first is from Jesus’s discourse during the Last Supper, wherein He says that He must return to the Father, in order that God may send the Holy Spirit. Ascension Day is this coming Thursday, therefore, the reading is particularly apposite.

The second is the moving miraculous healing of the infirm man at Bethesda. No one helped him into the healing waters of the pool. However, Jesus knew and had mercy on the man.

First choice

John 14:23-29

14:23 Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

14:24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

14:25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you.

14:26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

14:27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

14:28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.

14:29 And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

Second choice

John 5:1-9

5:1 After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

5:2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes.

5:3 In these lay many invalids–blind, lame, and paralyzed.

5:5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.

5:6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

5:7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”

5:8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”

5:9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.

Our Lord’s miracles involved not only physical or mental healing but also spiritual healing. We can apply these as lessons in faith: a belief in Jesus as Lord heals our troubled souls.

What follows are the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019.

These are for Year C in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.

Emphases below are mine.

First reading

Peter raises Dorcas (Tabitha) from the dead. The miracle brings many to believe in Christ.

Acts 9:36-43

9:36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.

9:37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.

9:38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.”

9:39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.

9:40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.

9:41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.

9:42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.

9:43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

Psalm

This beautiful Psalm needs no introduction!

Psalm 23

23:1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

23:2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;

23:3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

23:4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.

23:5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

23:6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

Epistle

Readings from Revelation continue with the theme of Jesus as the Lamb of God, the one sufficient propitiation and sacrifice for our sins.

Revelation 7:9-17

7:9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

7:10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

7:11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,

7:12 singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

7:13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”

7:14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

7:15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

7:16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;

7:17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Gospel

Jesus explains that He is the Shepherd whom God has called to look after His people forever more.

John 10:22-30

10:22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter,

10:23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.

10:24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

10:25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me;

10:26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.

10:27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.

10:28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.

10:29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.

10:30 The Father and I are one.”

Wow. What excellent — and moving — readings. I pray that our clergy do them justice.

What follows are the readings for the Third Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2019.

These are for Year C in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.

Emphases mine below.

First reading

This is the story of Saul’s — Paul’s — Damascene conversion. These posts discuss the reading in detail:

Part 1 of Acts 9:1-9: Saul’s — St Paul’s — conversion

Part 2 of Acts 9:1-9: Saul’s — St Paul’s — conversion (includes interesting info from John MacArthur on his own conversion)

Acts 9:10-19 — when scales fell from the eyes of Saul of Tarsus (final part of St Paul’s conversion story)

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)

9:1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest

9:2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

9:3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.

9:4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

9:5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.

9:6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

9:7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.

9:8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.

9:9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

9:10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”

9:11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying,

9:12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”

9:13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem;

9:14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”

9:15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel;

9:16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

9:17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

9:18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized,

9:19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,

9:20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

Psalm

Although David wrote this Psalm as one of thanksgiving for his own deliverance, it also befits Paul’s ministry as Luke documented it in Acts.

Psalm 30

30:1 I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.

30:2 O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.

30:3 O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

30:4 Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.

30:5 For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

30:6 As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”

30:7 By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.

30:8 To you, O LORD, I cried, and to the LORD I made supplication:

30:9 “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?

30:10 Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me! O LORD, be my helper!”

30:11 You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,

30:12 so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Epistle

John gives us the image of Christ as the Lamb of God.

Revelation 5:11-14

5:11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands,

5:12 singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”

5:13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

5:14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.

Gospel

In this moving passage from John’s Gospel, Jesus gives Simon Peter his mandate for ministry as a fisher of men and foretells his death as a martyr. This took place after the Resurrection and the episode with Thomas. John refers to himself in verse 7.

John 21:1-19

21:1 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.

21:2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.

21:3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

21:4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.

21:5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.”

21:6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.

21:7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.

21:8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

21:9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread.

21:10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”

21:11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.

21:12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.

21:13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.

21:14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

21:15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

21:16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

21:17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

21:18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”

21:19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Reading John’s Gospel always makes me feel as if I were there. He really wrote from the human point of view, yet with a true talent for incorporating imagery and themes (e.g., Light versus the Darkness).

I hope everyone has a blessed Sunday.

November 25, 2018 is Reign of Christ Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church year.

I know this particular day as Christ the King Sunday, but it seems that ‘king’ is a triggering word among left-wing churchgoers, including feminist clergy, so the name had to be changed.

The following readings are for Year B. Next Sunday, the first in Advent — the start of the Church year — readings from Year C begin.

Once again, there are two choices for First Reading and Psalm. I have highlighted the second choice in blue.

As one would expect, the emphasis is on Christ the King, as prophesied in the Old Testament and manifested in New Testament writings.

Emphases mine below.

First reading

In this last testament of King David, we are reminded of Jesus’s earthly lineage in Jesse’s family line. These verses can also be read as an anticipation of Christ Jesus.

2 Samuel 23:1-7

23:1 Now these are the last words of David: The oracle of David, son of Jesse, the oracle of the man whom God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel:

23:2 The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.

23:3 The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God,

23:4 is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.

23:5 Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire?

23:6 But the godless are all like thorns that are thrown away; for they cannot be picked up with the hand;

23:7 to touch them one uses an iron bar or the shaft of a spear. And they are entirely consumed in fire on the spot.

Psalm

It is likely that these are Solomon’s words at the time of the dedication of the first temple. They also suggest the coming of Christ — from the House of David. St Peter said that David understood that, in the fullness of time, Jesus would be his everlasting successor (Acts 2:30).

Psalm 132:1-12, (13-18)

132:1 O LORD, remember in David’s favor all the hardships he endured;

132:2 how he swore to the LORD and vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob,

132:3 “I will not enter my house or get into my bed;

132:4 I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids,

132:5 until I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob.”

132:6 We heard of it in Ephrathah; we found it in the fields of Jaar.

132:7 “Let us go to his dwelling place; let us worship at his footstool.”

132:8 Rise up, O LORD, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might.

132:9 Let your priests be clothed with righteousness, and let your faithful shout for joy.

132:10 For your servant David’s sake do not turn away the face of your anointed one.

132:11 The LORD swore to David a sure oath from which he will not turn back: “One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne.

132:12 If your sons keep my covenant and my decrees that I shall teach them, their sons also, forevermore, shall sit on your throne.”

132:13 For the LORD has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his habitation:

132:14 “This is my resting place forever; here I will reside, for I have desired it.

132:15 I will abundantly bless its provisions; I will satisfy its poor with bread.

132:16 Its priests I will clothe with salvation, and its faithful will shout for joy.

132:17 There I will cause a horn to sprout up for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed one.

132:18 His enemies I will clothe with disgrace, but on him, his crown will gleam.”

First reading

The passage from Daniel is a clear prophecy of the second coming of Christ and ensuing judgement. The Lectionary editors omitted the meatier verses (11 and 12) about judgement.

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

7:9 As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire.

7:10 A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.

7:13 As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.

7:14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

Psalm

The Psalm complements the verses from Daniel beautifully with the themes of majesty and awe.

Psalm 93

93:1 The LORD is king, he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed, he is girded with strength. He has established the world; it shall never be moved;

93:2 your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting.

93:3 The floods have lifted up, O LORD, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring.

93:4 More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters, more majestic than the waves of the sea, majestic on high is the LORD!

93:5 Your decrees are very sure; holiness befits your house, O LORD, forevermore.

Epistle

The powerful Epistle from Revelation points to Christ, the King of Kings, who reigns and lives forevermore — and will one day return.

Revelation 1:4b-8

1:4b Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,

1:5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood,

1:6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

1:7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

Gospel

John recorded the exchange about kingship between Jesus and Pontius Pilate at His mock trial.

John 18:33-37

18:33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

18:34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

18:35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

18:36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

18:37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

What a powerful set of readings for a powerfully thought-provoking Sunday. I hope the ensuing sermons are just as stirring.

jesus-christ-the-king-blogsigncomThis year, Ascension Thursday falls on May 9. The faithful recall Christ’s rising to heaven in order to send the disciples — and us — the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday. From that point, we were — and continue to be — in the ‘last days’, awaiting His coming again in judgment.

However, there are Christians who believe that Jesus’s second coming took place with the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. These Christians are called preterists. They believe that His second coming was a spiritual one — a judgment against the nation of Israel.

This is plausible until one begins to look at the New Testament passages about His Ascension, the arrival of the Holy Spirit to the world and Christ’s return. Consider John 16:5-11 (emphases mine):

5But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. 7Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

What follows is Luke’s account of the Ascension — addressed to Theophilus, as is his Gospel — in Acts 1:1-11:

The Promise of the Holy Spirit

 1In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

 4And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

The Ascension

 6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He said to them,  “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

In Mark 13:24-27, Jesus described His return — note the mention of clouds:

24“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

St Matthew records similar words (Matthew 24:29-31):

The Coming of the Son of Man

 29Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

St John used the same imagery in Revelation 1:7-8. John wrote this book around 95 AD. The Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD.

7Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.

 8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

Therefore, it is doubtful whether a spiritual judgment on the Temple and Israel of the day was Christ’s second coming.

In 2004, Keith Mathison wrote a 54-page paper on Acts 1:9-11 and presented prominent preterist views therein (H/T: Beggars All, ‘Acts 1:9-11 and Hyper-Preterism’). Mathison is not a preterist but presents their views and refutes them by studying the meaning of the Greek verbs used in the relevant New Testament verses, principally the two verses in the first chapter of Acts. Seminarians might find the paper useful.

I suspect that many more people today are preterists, even if they have never heard of the term. I was one for many years, but I had not connected all the related New Testament verses — Christ’s own words and the Ascension account. A number of Modernist and Postmodern Christians are probably preterists, in which case, why bother being Christian? As I have said before, if it is all about social justice, one can join a left-wing political party. If Christianity is about charity, well, most world faiths advocate and practice material kindness to strangers.

What, then, is left? The Cross and Resurrection carry little meaning if Christ already returned ‘spiritually’ to destroy the Temple. Therefore, we can disregard Revelation. It’s done, history.

Or is it? Wouldn’t John have written Revelation somewhat differently if it had been about the destruction of the Temple? Why would he have included these verses in Revelation 22?

18I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

 20He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

But, back to Acts 1:9-11. Keith Mathison writes in his paper (p. 50-51):

As we have proceeded through this study of Acts 1:9–11, we have noted in passing some common hyper-preterist objections to the traditional interpretation of this passage. It may prove helpful at this point to respond briefly to an objection that is raised, not by hyper-preterists, but by skeptics. Liberals and skeptics repeatedly claim that the traditional interpretation of Acts 1:9–11 necessitates the adoption of a false three-tiered understanding of the universe as well as the idea that heaven is located at some physical point somewhere in space. This objection is frequently raised in the writings of men such as Rudolf Bultmann and John Shelby Spong. But does a traditional interpretation of Acts 1:9–11 require us to believe that heaven is located somewhere in the sky above the clouds? The answer is no.

He goes on to say that Christ ascended in a way His disciples would clearly understand. He was returning to a place where they could not yet go.

Mathison concludes:

A careful examination of the text of Acts 1:9–11 reveals that the traditional interpretation of this text is the correct interpretation. According to Luke, the lifting up of Jesus was an objectively visible event witnessed by the apostles. They saw Jesus taken up with their own eyes. According to the two men in white, Jesus would come back to earth in the same manner that the apostles saw him go. Whether he was lifted up with the cloud or was lifted up to a cloud, the manner of his going was visible and bodily. The manner of his second coming to earth, therefore,will likewise be visible and bodily. At his second coming all of those who have died in Christ will be resurrected. God will give life to their mortal bodies (Rom. 8:11). The bodies of the redeemed who are still alive at that time will be changed (1 Cor. 15:51). The present heavens and earth will be transformed and freed from the curse of sin (Rom. 8:19–22), and the dwelling place of God will be with man (Rev. 21:3; 22:3). All of his people will be with him forever in a restored creation.  143

I hope that this helps to give greater resonance to the Ascension.

Before moving on to Mark 4, there are two important aspects of the second half of Mark 3 which are worth studying.

One is the notion of Jesus’s ‘madness’, discussed yesterday.

The other aspect, blaspheming the Holy Spirit, is also related to the accusations by the Jewish hierarchy that Jesus had an ‘unclean spirit’.

Both passages are included in the Lectionary for public worship, but they can leave some readers, Christians included, confused.

Here is Mark 3:22-30 (emphases mine):

Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit

 22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” 23 And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. 27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man.Then indeed he may plunder his house.

 28Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”30for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”

John MacArthur says that the parallel to these verses are in Matthew 12:22-32:

Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit

 22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” 25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

Luke 11:14-23 tells a similar story, although without the warning against blaspheming the Holy Spirit. MacArthur says:

The section in between where the leaders call Him satanic, this text in Mark 3 is parallel to Matthew 12. But that happened on another occasion in Luke 11. Luke 11 has a record of almost an identical conversation but it’s different. This all happened in Galilee. The one in Luke 11 happened in Judea. This one happened in response to the healing of a deaf and dumb and blind demon-possessed man. The one in Luke, the situation of the healing was different. What that tells me is that this conversation happened at least twice and the facts are it may have happened a lot. And that lets us know that the Pharisees were doing everything they could everywhere they went to tell people He was satanic. That was their mantra.

Why demonic?

The scribes and Pharisees could see that Jesus was performing miracles. They saw the results of these healing — creative — miracles. Jesus could not have been mad, because He would have been incapable of miracles. However, even a healthy mental state does not produce miracles. Therefore, the miracles came from something supernatural inherent within Him.

They were so set against Him that they spread the rumour that he had demons. Mark 3:30:

for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”

MacArthur explains:

They use the vilest possible slander and blasphemy and say the Son of God is nothing but a servant of Beelzebul. Most people wouldn’t say that. I don’t think most people in Israel would say that. I think it was a hard sell for them to convince the people that this was actually who He was. I don’t think there are very many people that would say that today. Some would, some would say that Jesus was satanic but it’s pretty rare. If you reject Jesus, you probably don’t want to say that, you probably never have said that, you might never have thought that. There are atheists who reject Christianity who don’t go that far. But really, you certainly can’t say that He’s just a good man. If He’s not a lunatic, He’s a very bad man. He is a great liar. He is a massive deceiver. He’s trying to convince people that he’s God and he’s got supernatural power and if he’s not God, that supernatural power has to be satanic.

The name Beelzebul — and others

Mark 3:22 says:

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.”

MacArthur examines this name, as well as others with which the Jews were familiar:

Now Beelzebul had become a name for Satan. There was another one the Jews used, Belial … Beelzebul was a name for Satan. It was basically a name that meant what Mark says they said in the second statement, verse 22, He cast out the demons by the ruler of the demons. Beelzebul was a name to designate the ruler of the demons. And Luke says Beelzebul means the ruler of the demons in Luke 11:15. By the way, that word Beelzebul is used five times in the Old Testament, so it had been around a long time. The Jews were familiar with it and used it.

Now where did it come from? Probably from Beelzebub which came from Baal. Baal means lord and the Ekronites…Ekron was a city in Philistia and according to … 2 Kings chapter 1, the Ekronites had a god named Baalzebub which means the Baal of the high place, or Baal meaning lord, lord of the high place, lord of the dwelling, lord of the temple. That was Beelzebub, that was the Ekronite god.

Well the Jews purposefully corrupted Beelzebub into Beelzebul because when you change it from the B to t he L, it goes from being the lord of the high place, to being the lord of the manure…a very purposeful corruption showing Jewish disdain for the false Canaanitish god. So through the years, this Beelzebul, lord of the dung, or lord of the flies that collect on the dung, had become the name for Satan.

Jesus’s response

Our Lord answered the scribes in a curious yet well known set of verses, more generally used in a political context today. It is easy to forget that Jesus was talking about Satan and not a nation.

Jesus calls his critics toward Him in verse 23. He asked how Satan could cast himself out of someone, then followed up with familiar verses (24 and 25):

24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.

What does this mean? Simply that Satan never works against himself. As Matthew Henry explains:

It was plain that the doctrine of Christ made war upon the devil’s kingdom, and had a direct tendency to break his power, and crush his interest in the souls of men; and it was as plain that the casting of him out of the bodies of people confirmed that doctrine, and gave it the setting on; and therefore it cannot be imagined that he should come into such a design; every one knows that Satan is no fool, nor will act so directly against his own interest.

Jesus was even-tempered with his accusers:

he treated them with all the freedom, friendliness, and familiarity that could be; he vouchsafed to reason the case with them, that every mouth may be stopped.

Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit

Jesus told the scribes (Mark 3:28-29):

28 “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—

The eternal sin is because they say He has an ‘unclean spirit’ (Mark 3:30).

Recall that the Holy Trinity is one in three persons.

MacArthur tells us what blasphemy is not:

You will please notice that it is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit but it’s not denying tongues, or denying a healing, or denying some power display, supposed power display of the Holy Spirit.

However:

It is blaspheming the Holy Spirit by saying Jesus is demonic.

How does that blaspheme the Holy Spirit? Because when Jesus came into the world, the New Testament says, He set aside the prerogatives of His own power. He said, “I only do what the Father shows Me to do, tells Me to do. And He did it by the power of the Spirit.” That’s what the incarnation meant, that when He laid aside His glory, became a man, He restricted the independent use of His divine attributes and He left Himself to the will of the Father and the power of the Spirit. Whatever He did was the Father’s will and was done through the Spirit’s power. So if you say Jesus is satanic, you have just blasphemed the Holy Spirit cause the Holy Spirit doing His work through Him. The Holy Spirit came upon Him at His baptism, the Holy Spirit led Him from there into the wilderness to be tempted, was with Him through His temptation. The Holy Spirit then anointed Him to preach and away He went preaching and doing all His ministry.

If you were there and you saw it and you heard it and your final conclusion was He’s demonic…you’re damned, you can’t be saved because that’s your ultimate conclusion with full revelation. So this is unique to those people who had that full revelation.

From this, some of us might conclude that this was for the scribes and Pharisees’ time, not ours. However, MacArthur draws our attention to St Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews (10:26-31), which says much the same:

26For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? 30For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Matthew Henry observes:

Many of those who reviled Christ on the cross (which was a blaspheming of the Son of man, aggravated to the highest degree), found mercy, and Christ himself prayed, Father, forgive them; but this was blaspheming the Holy Ghost, for it was by the Holy Spirit that he cast out devils, and they said, It was by the unclean spirit, v. 30. By this method they would outface the conviction of all the gifts of the Holy Ghost after Christ’s ascension, and defeat them all, after which there remained no more proof, and therefore they should never have forgiveness, but were liable to eternal damnation. They were in imminent danger of that everlasting punishment, from which there was no redemption, and in which there was no intermission, no remission.

MacArthur says:

Look, we’ve all been forgiven for rejecting Christ, haven’t we? We’ve all been forgiven for rejecting Christ because we weren’t born saved. So we’ve all been forgiven for that. But the one who won’t be forgiven is the one called the apostate who gets full exposure to the truth, full exposure to the gospel, full revelation and makes the final conclusion…it’s not true, I reject Christ. It’s a deception.

If that’s where you end up after full exposure, that’s what’s called apostasy…that’s unforgivable. The Holy Spirit’s testimony is that He is Lord. The Holy Spirit did this mighty work through Him to demonstrate that He is…He is Lord.

This is what Paul was saying to the Hebrews. They were blessed enough to know those who lived and walked with Christ. Today, we have that witness in the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Our rejection of that testimony is a serious thing indeed.

That is not the state in which to leave this world.

MacArthur concludes:

Look, all that’s left for you if your final decision is with full knowledge to reject, fearful judgment, terrifying judgment, severer punishment, the hottest hell is for those who rejected with the most knowledge. There are perhaps some of you who have rejected Christ. Your knowledge is increased today. You are in danger of greater judgment if you conclude that He is not the Lord He claimed to be. You need to be frightened by this. Some of you perhaps have thought that you were guilty of some blasphemy that could never be forgiven. May I remind you in final comments that the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy, and I love this, said this, chapter 1, verse 12, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who strengthened me because He considered me faithful, putting me into ministry even though I was formerly a…what?…blasphemer.” All manner of blasphemy can be forgiven except that final blasphemy that says with full revelation, “I reject Christ.” And you’re left with the fact of explaining His supernatural power as satanic. And you stand then with the crucifiers, crucifying Him again and putting Him to open shame.

Much better to remember Matthew 12:32 says, “You can speak a word against the Son of Man and be forgiven.” We’re all blasphemers of a sort who have been forgiven if we’ve come to faith in Christ. Don’t turn away, get the full revelation and respond in full trust.

Lewis’s trilemma

C S Lewis devotees might say, ‘I was wondering how long it would take to get to this point’.

Others will wonder what Lewis’s trilemma is.

It is an argument used to prove Christ’s divinity:

“Lunatic, Liar, or Lord”, or as “Mad, Bad, or God”

Although the trilemma is so called because Lewis popularised it in a BBC radio talk, it has been around since the 19th century. Wikipedia tells us:

The Scots preacher “Rabbi” John Duncan (1796–1870), around 1859-60:[2]

“Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable.”

Duncan was one of several preachers, both in Britain and North America, to use the same argument, perhaps worded differently.

Unfortunately, modern theologians have criticised the argument.

Yet, Lewis wanted us to see that our condescension in calling Jesus a great man or a wonderful prophet falls well short of the mark:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.[5]

Every household and every so-called Christian school would do well to reflect upon these readings and this trilemma.

I, too, was guilty of condescension towards Jesus Christ. A better study of Scripture helped to dispel such a prideful notion.

I pray that an improved study of the New Testament also works for others in this situation.

Why would Christians think that Socialists would be their allies?  Is Christian Socialism supposed to be a Christian movement with a bit of ‘fair and just society’ thrown in? Or is it half-Christian and half-Socialist?

To (once again) demonstrate that you can be a Christian or a Socialist, but not both, what follows are excerpts from Friedrich Engels’s thoughts on the New Testament — ‘On the History of Early Christianity‘ (1894-1895).

One of Engels’s biographers, Tristram Hunt, describes his subject’s view of God as:

In that sense the latent rationality of Christianity comes to permeate the everyday experience of the modern world— its values are now variously incarnated in the family, civil society, and the state. What Engels particularly embraced in all of this was an idea of modern pantheism (or, rather, pandeism), a merging of divinity with progressing humanity, a happy dialectical synthesis that freed him from the fixed oppositions of the pietist ethos of devout longing and estrangement.

Richard Wurmbrand, in Chapter 3 of Marx and Satan, wrote (emphases mine):

Engels had been brought up in a pietistic family. In fact, in his youth he had composed beautiful Christian poems

Engels had begun to doubt the Christian faith after reading a book written by a liberal theologian, Bruno Bauer. He had had a great struggle in his heart …

Engels never found his way back to the Word of God, joining instead the one whom he himself had called “the monster possessed by ten thousand devils.” He had experienced a counter-conversion.

What kind of person was Bruno Bauer, the liberal theologian who played a decisive role in the destruction of Engels’s Christian faith and who endorsed Marx in his new anti-Christian ways? Did he have any connection with demons?

Like Engels himself, he started life as a believer and later as a conservative theologian, even writing against critics of the Bible. Afterward he himself became a radical critic of the Holy Scriptures and creator of a materialistic Christianity which insisted that Jesus was only human, not the Son of God. Bauer wrote to his friend Arnold Ruge, also a friend of Marx and Engels, on December 6, 1841:

I deliver lectures here at the university before a large audience. I don’t recognize myself when I pronounce my blasphemies from the pulpit. They are so great that these children, whom nobody should offend, have their hair standing on end. While delivering the blasphemies, I remember how I work piously at home writing an apology of the holy Scriptures and of the Revelation. In any case, it is a very bad demon that possesses me as often as I ascend the pulpit, and I am so weak that I am compelled to yield to him…. My spirit of blasphemy will be satisfied only if I am authorized to preach openly as professor of the atheistic system.

Here are just a few thoughts from Engels — completely incompatible with Christianity.  Note the mention of Bauer:

The history of early Christianity has notable points of resemblance with the modern working-class movement. Like the latter, Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people: it first appeared as the religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights, of peoples subjugated or dispersed by Rome. Both Christianity and the workers’ socialism preach forthcoming salvation from bondage and misery; Christianity places this salvation in a life beyond, after death, in heaven; socialism places it in this world, in a transformation of society. Both are persecuted and baited, their adherents are despised and made the objects of exclusive laws, the former as enemies of the human race, the latter as enemies of the state, enemies of religion, the family, social order. And in spite of all persecution, nay, even spurred on by it, they forge victoriously, irresistibly ahead. Three hundred years after its appearance Christianity was the recognized state religion in the Roman World Empire, and in barely sixty years socialism has won itself a position which makes its victory absolutely certain …

One of our best sources on the first Christians is Lucian of Samosata, the Voltaire of classic antiquity, who was equally sceptic towards every kind of religious superstition and therefore bad neither pagan-religious nor political grounds to treat the Christians otherwise than as some other kind of religious community. On the contrary, he mocked them all for their superstition, those who prayed to Jupiter no less than those who prayed to Christ; from his shallow rationalistic point of view one sort of superstition was as stupid as the other …

Bruno Bauer. His greatest service consists not merely in having given a pitiless criticism of the Gospels and the Epistles of the apostles, but in having for the first time seriously undertaken an inquiry into not only the Jewish and Greco-Alexandrian elements but the purely Greek and Greco-Roman elements that first opened for Christianity the career of a universal religion. The legend that Christianity arose ready and complete out of Judaism and, starting from Palestine, conquered the world with its dogma already defined in the main and its morals, has been untenable since Bruno Bauer; it can continue to vegetate only in the theological faculties and with people who wish “to keep religion alive for the people” even at the expense of science. The enormous influence which the Philonic school of Alexandria and Greco-Roman vulgar philosophy — Platonic and mainly Stoic — had on Christianity, which became the state religion under Constantine, is far from having been defined in detail, but its existence has been proved and that is primarily the achievement of Bruno Bauer: he laid the foundation of the proof that Christianity was not imported from outside — from Judea — into the Romano-Greek world and imposed on it, but that, at least in its world-religion form, it is that world’s own product … According to him Christianity as such appears only under the Flavians, the literature of the New Testament only under Hadrian, Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius. As a result the New Testament accounts of Jesus and his disciples are deprived for Bauer of any historical background: they are diluted in legends in which the phases of interior development and the moral struggles of the ‘ first communities are transferred to more or less fictitious persons. Not Galilee and Jerusalem, but Alexandria and Rome, according to Bauer, are the birthplaces of the new religion …

But we have in the New Testament a single book the time of the writing of which can be defined within a few months, which must have been written between June 67 and January or April 68; a book, consequently, which belongs to the very beginning of the Christian era and reflects with the most naive fidelity and in the corresponding idiomatic language the ideas of the beginning of that era. This book, therefore, in my opinion, is a far more important source from which to define what early Christianity really was than all the rest of the New Testament, which, in its present form, is of a far later date. This book is the so-called Revelation of John. And as this, apparently the most obscure book in the whole Bible, is moreover today, thanks to German criticism, the most comprehensible and the clearest, I shall give my readers an account of it …

In fact, the struggle against a world that at the beginning was superior in force, and at the same time against the novators themselves, is common to the early Christians and the Socialists. Neither of these two great movements were made by leaders or prophets — although there are prophets enough among both of them — they are mass movements. And mass movements are bound to be confused at the beginning; confused because the thinking of the masses at first moves among contradictions, lack of clarity and lack of cohesion, and also because of the role that prophets still play in them at the beginning. This confusion is to be seen in the formation of numerous sects which right against one another with at least the same zeal as against the common external enemy. So it was with early Christianity, so it was in the beginning of the socialist movement, no matter how much that worried the well-meaning worthies who preached unity where no unity was possible …

The rest consists in exhorting the faithful to be zealous in propaganda, to courageous and proud confession of their faith in face of the foe, to unrelenting struggle against the enemy both within and without — and as far as this goes they could just as well have been written by one of the prophetically minded enthusiasts of the International.

What kind of people were the first Christians recruited from? Mainly from the “labouring and burdened,” the members of the lowest strata of the people, as becomes a revolutionary element. And what did they consist of? In the towns of impoverished free men, all sorts of people, like the “mean whites” of the southern slave states and the European beachcombers and adventurers in colonial and Chinese seaports, then of emancipated slaves and, above all, actual slaves; on the large estates in Italy, Sicily, and Africa of slaves, and in the rural districts of the provinces of small peasants who had fallen more and more into bondage through debt …

The visions of the Apocalypse, which the author now shows us, are copied throughout, and mostly literally, from earlier models, partly from the classical prophets of the Old Testament, particularly Ezekiel, partly from later Jewish apocalypses written after the fashion of the Book of Daniel and in particular from the Book of Henoch which had already been written at least in part. Criticism has shown to the smallest details where our John got every picture, every menacing sign, every plague sent to unbelieving humanity, in a word, the whole of the material for his book; so that he not only shows great poverty of mind but even himself proves that he never experienced, even in imagination the alleged ecstasies and visions which he describes

As this whole monument is made up of exclusively pre-Christian Jewish material it presents almost exclusively Jewish ideas. Since things started to go badly in this world for the people of Israel, from the time of the tribute to the Assyrians and Babylonians, from the destruction of the two kingdoms of Israel and Juda to the bondage under Seleucis, that is from Isaiah to Daniel, in every dark period there were prophecies of a saviour. In Daniel, XII, 1-3, there is even a prophecy about Michael, the guardian angel of the Jews, coming down on earth to save them from great trouble; many dead will come to life again, there will be a kind of last judgment and the teachers who have taught the people justice will shine like stars for all eternity. The only Christian point is the great stress laid on the imminent reign of Christ and the glory of the faithful, particularly the martyrs who have risen from the dead

There can be no doubt that this book, with its date so originally authenticated as the year 68 or 69, is the oldest of all Christian literature. No other is written in such barbaric language, so full of Hebraisms, impossible constructions and mistakes in grammar. Chapter I, verse 4, for example, says literally: “Grace be unto you … from he that is being and that was and that is coming.” Only professional theologians and other historians who have a stake in it now deny that the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles are but later adaptations of writings which are now lost and whose feeble historical core is now unrecognizable in the maze of legend, that even the few Epistles supposed by Bruno Bauer to be “authentic” are either writings of a later date or at best adaptations of old works of unknown authors altered by additions and insertions

Today’s post concludes with Dr Craig S Keener‘s explanation of various aspects of the Book of Revelation, the final book in the biblical canon.

The following comes from chapters 7 – 10 of his course on biblical hermeneutics, Biblical Interpretation.

If you read yesterday’s entry, you might be wondering about my take on the end times.  I have always been amillenial, although I have read a fair amount of other perspectives, including dispensational ones.

In the main, Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans (including Episcopalians), Presbyterians and Reformed (Calvinist) church members are amillenial.  This means, as I quoted Dr Keener yesterday, that, for us, the concept of the millennium (1000 years in Revelation 20) is symbolicIf you read my chapter-by-chapter series on the Book of Revelation found at the bottom of the Essential Bible Verses page, you will learn about the use of numbers in the book.  This tradition did not start with Revelation but rather in ancient Jewish Messianic literature, which also relied heavily on dramatic symbolism.  The Jews living at the time knew how to interpret these numbers and symbols.  My entries on Revelation link to other sites where you can read more about both the use of numbers and symbolism.  These make Revelation less sensational and more useful in a wider context of Christian life.

It’s important to discuss Revelation, because many Catholic and mainline Protestant churchgoers have been dissuaded from reading it.  Yet, Revelation 1:3 states:

Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.

Part of the confusion for the layman who wishes to know more about the book ends up on a number of sensationalist sites which plot the book’s end times course through history.  Others detail a number of signs which announce that we won’t have long before the end is nigh.  Yet, as Keener explained, many of these ‘signs’ change throughout history.  Therefore, prediction is largely futile and erroneous.

That said, we should understand what Revelation says and know how to interpret its symbolism. This will avoid wasting hours, interesting though they are, reading prediction sites. A Catholic friend wrote me several years ago and said that she had just finished giving a course to her church on the Book of Revelation.  This was, coincidentally, at a time when I had been poring over dispensationalist and end-of-the-world sites.  They contained information I had never had in Catholic school; I was confused.  So, I wrote her back and asked her what she had taught her class.  No reply, even after a friendly reminder, which was unfortunate.  I had to wait until last year to finally amass enough useful information about amillenialism and interpreting Messianic literature.  That’s how I came to write my series!  I did it for myself, but also for you — my readers.  Please do have a look at it.  It will change many misconceptions you might have about Revelation!

Finally — ‘end times’ refers to the period of time between the first Pentecost and Jesus’s second coming.  For all intents and purposes, we have been in the end times for nearly two millenia.

Now onto Keener’s explanation of Revelation, which you will find in full at his link. What follows are some excerpts. Emphases below in bold are mine.

The Use of Symbolism?

Some people argue that we should take everything in the book of Revelation literally. But Revelation is full of images that we cannot take literally. Was a woman literally clothed with the sun in 12:1 (with the moon literally under her feet and twelve stars on her head)? Is Babylon literally the genetic mother of every prostitute in the world (17:5)? Revelation even tells us what some of its symbols represent, making clear that the book includes many symbols (1:20). God could create the sort of monsters described in Revelation 9, but they resemble locusts in Joel’s prophecy, where they are simply a poetic description of either a locust invasion or an invading army (or a combination of both).

Then take as much as possible literally, comes the reply. But why should this be the case? Is it not better to be consistent with how we interpret the rest of Revelation, which clearly has many symbols? The appropriate way to read narratives is normally to read them literally, but as we noted above, that is not the best way to read Hebrew poetry, nor the Old Testament prophecies given in poetic form. Neither is it the way to read New Testament prophecies that use the same mode of symbolic communication as many Old Testament prophecies. Some statements may be literal (we argue that the seven churches are, for example, literal churches), but others (like the woman clothed with the sun) are not, far more often than in narrative. Some scholars, pointing to a Greek word for “signified” or “communicated” in Rev 1:1, even suggest that one of the very terms used for revealing the message to John suggests that it came in symbols. (A related term for “sign” might bear this sense in 12:1, 3; 15:1.)

Jewish writers in John’s day who imitated the writing style of Old Testament prophets (writing a form of literature later called apocalyptic) frequently used symbolism as well (for example, 1 Enoch portrays angels impregnating women as stars impregnating cows). Just as Jewish teachers often used riddles to provoke thought, apocalyptic writings used enigmatic prophecies to challenge the hearers. Even if we had only the Old Testament as background for Revelation, however, we would expect an abundance of prophetic symbolism (for example, see especially Zechariah, Ezekiel, and many prophecies in Daniel and Isaiah).

Whole-Book Context

Revelation offers a running contrast between two cities: Babylon and the New Jerusalem. Babylon is a prostitute (17:5); the New Jerusalem a bride (21:2). Babylon is decked out with gold and pearls (17:4), like a prostitute seeking to allure us with its offer of sinful, temporary gratification. The New Jerusalem is built of gold and its gates are pearls (21:18, 21). No one with any sense would prefer Babylon to the New Jerusalem; but only those with faith in God’s promise wait for the city from above and resist present temptation.

In the days of Augustine (a North African theologian, AD 354-430), Rome fell to northern barbarian invaders, and Christians were dismayed. Augustine contrasted Rome with the City of God; earthly cities and empires decked with splendor will perish, but God’s city is eternal, and his promise to us will never fail. The world demands that one take the mark of the beast, if one wishes to buy or sell (13:17). But for those who refuse to compromise with the world’s kind of food (2:14, 20), God offers a promise of eternal food (2:7, 17) and manna even when the world persecutes them (12:6). Those who think themselves rich may be poor in what matters (3:17), just as those who seem to be poor may be rich in what matters (2:9). Jesus offers the true gold of the New Jerusalem to those who trust him rather than in their worldly wealth (3:18) …

Whole-book context also offers insight into what Revelation may mean when it mentions the mark of the beast. Should we preach about that by simply warning people to avoid something in the future, or does it have something to teach us in the present? Against what most of us have been taught, a consistent reading with the rest of Revelation suggests that this mark may not be visible to people. Notice the other marks written on people in the book of Revelation. For example, believers will become pillars in God’s future temple, and just as other ancient pillars had names inscribed on them, so we will have God’s name and the name of the New Jerusalem inscribed on us (3:12; cf. 2:17). Forever God’s and the lamb’s name will be written on our foreheads (22:4), perhaps like a slave brand or some other kind of brand showing to whom we belong. Jesus comes back with a name written on his thigh (19:12-13, 16), perhaps so John could read his title in the vision. Babylon the great has a name written on her forehead (17:5), but just as Babylon is not a literal woman, we recognize that the inscription is part of the vision, not literally written on a woman’s head.

Just like God placed a mark on the righteous in Ezekiel 9:4-6, so God seals the 144,000 to protect them during his judgments (Rev 7:3). As in Ezekiel, this is a mark that only God himself sees. Because there were no chapter breaks in the original Bible, the first readers would have readily noticed the contrast between the 144,000 and the rest of the world (13:1614:5). Those who follow the beast bear his name (13:17); those who follow the lamb bear his (14:1). The beast, progeny of its master the dragon, has seven heads and ten horns (12:3; 13:1; 17:3, 7). But a second beast is a deliberate counterfeit of the lamb (compare 5:6): he has two horns like a lamb, but speaks the dragon’s message (13:11). A small army of 144,000 follow the true lamb; the rest of the world (the army of which is at least 200 million, 9:16) follows the beast. Each follower has an identifying mark showing their loyalty, either to the lamb or to the beast. Whether those in the world need to see a literal mark showing who belongs to them or simply signs of allegiance, the preaching point is clear: we must be loyal to God’s side, not the world’s, no matter what the cost.

Background

John probably wrote this book while in exile (1:9) in the time of the Roman emperor Domitian. Domitian demanded that everyone worship his statue as if he were a god, and the early Christians refused to give it. This issue was most pressing in western Asia Minor, where the seven churches were; some of these churches already were facing persecution (2:9-10, 13; 3:9). The first audience of Revelation would have found its warning about worshiping the image of the beast (13:15) relevant for their own day! Some of the other churches, however, were compromising with the very world system that was killing their siblings elsewhere (2:14, 20; 3:2, 15-18).

The seven churches of Asia Minor (1:4) were an audience just as real as any church to which Paul wrote. The churches are in the seven most prominent cities of the Roman province of Asia, and are arranged in precisely the sequence that a messenger traveling from Patmos would deliver the letters. Many issues addressed (such as wealth and distasteful water in Laodicea) address precisely the issues we know were relevant to these particular churches. This is not to say that the message is relevant only for the church addressed; Jesus invites everyone to listen in on his message to each of the churches (2:7). But we learn from their example the same way we learned from the churches Paul addressed: we learn the background so we can understand what issues the inspired writer was really addressing.

We spoke above about Babylon. This need no more be a literal name than the false prophets’ parents had literally named them “Balaam” or “Jezebel” in 2:14, 20.  As most Christians through history have recognized, the Babylon of John’s day is Rome. Everyone knew that Rome was a city on seven hills (17:9); Rome even had an annual festival called “Seven Mountains,” celebrating its founding. The imports in 18:12-13 are precisely the imports we know were most prominent in Rome, and in John’s day Rome was the only mercantile empire to rule the kings of the earth by sea (17:18; 18:15-19). Most importantly, Jewish sources (and probably 1 Pet 5:13) already called Rome “Babylon.” This was because Rome, like Babylon, had enslaved God’s people and destroyed the temple.

The implications of associating Revelation’s “Babylon” with Rome are dramatic. In 18:2-3, John hears a funeral dirge over Babylon (just like the dirge over literal Babylon in Is. 21:9). Rome, the mightiest empire the world had yet known, seemed ready to crush the tiny church of Jesus Christ. Rome had exiled the aged prophet John to the island of Patmos (1:9). Yet John hears a funeral dirge over this mighty empire! What faith it must have taken the early Christians to believe this promise that their oppressor would fall; yet John stood on the shoulders of earlier prophets who had prophesied against Assyria, literal Babylon, and so forth, and their prophecies had come to pass. Assyria, Babylon, Rome, and all the other empires of past history now lie in ashes. But the church of Jesus Christ, whom past empires threatened to stamp out, is more widespread than ever before! In a day when the church was established mainly in a few cities of the Roman Empire, John prophesied a church from every tribe and people and nation (5:9; 7:9) and so it has come to pass!

But while “Babylon” for John’s first readers is Rome, that is simply because Rome filled the role in John’s day. If Rome could be a new Babylon, there could be other new Babylons or new Romes, other evil empires that usurp the rightful role of God’s future kingdom. These need not be geographically in Italy any more than Rome as a new Babylon was geographically in the Middle East. In other words, Babylon is the city of the world, like the city called “Sodom” and “Egypt” in 11:8; the world system, in its rebellion against God, is the alternative to the New Jerusalem. But just as the first Babylon fell, just as Rome fell, so likewise the other Babylon’s and Rome’s of history will fall. The final empires will collapse in the day when the kingdom of this world becomes the kingdom of our God and of his Christ (11:15)!

The Roman background might be relevant for understanding the evil king in Rev 13:1-3 and 17:10-11. The first emperor to officially persecute the church was Nero, who burned Christians alive as torches to light his gardens at night. When Nero was killed, however, the belief that he was coming back became so widespread that some impostors rose up claiming to be Nero; a few years before Revelation was written, one false Nero even persuaded the Parthians to follow him across the river Euphrates to invade Asia Minor. Many scholars thus suggest that the head wounded to death and returning to life in 13:3 is a “new Nero.” This does not mean that he is literal Nero come back (any more than the figures in 11:3-6 are a literal Moses or literal Elijah come back); it would simply mean that he comes “in the spirit and power” of Nero (cf. Lk 1:17), i.e., he is being compared with Nero, the terrible persecutor. That is, Revelation uses the language of its day to say, “the future dictator will be like Nero Caesar, just as evil and persecuting Christians just as much.” A Parthian invasion from across the Euphrates was a horrifying image in John’s day, and a new Nero warned of future suffering.

Two further factors support this association with Nero. Revelation speaks of a past king not currently reigning, who would return (17:10-11); Nero was definitely one of the few kings before the current one when Revelation was written. Further, if his name is spelled in Hebrew letters, it comes out to 666. Many early Christians thought that Nero would return as the final Antichrist. There are, of course, other possible interpretations; “beast” in Hebrew letters also comes out to 666, and this point is no less relevant. Whether Nero or not, the final evil world ruler will be a wicked one! And the character of that evil ruler is already at work in others who do evil (2 Thess 2:7; 1 Jn 2:18). Let us never underestimate evil nor forget that in the final analysis, the righteous God is still in control (Rev 17:17).

Other Reapplications of Old Testament Images

We could also note the reapplication of the plagues of Exodus in Revelation’s judgments (chapters 8, 9, and 16), or the city called “Sodom” and “Egypt.” Revelation is not pretending to “predict” the plagues of Moses’ day, nor is the city of which it speaks the literal Sodom or Egypt of old (as if it could be both!)

Let us take one more example, perhaps the most controversial one possible, namely, the length of Revelation’s tribulation. Are the 1260 days (11:2-3; 12:6, 14; 13:5) literal or figurative? Whether they are literal or figurative, several factors warn us not to assume, before investigating, that Revelation must mean them literally. Revelation gets this length of time from similar figures in Daniel (e.g., Dan 7:25; 12:7, 11); but it may address a different issue than Daniel does. In Daniel, this period involves an abomination of desolation (Dan 11:31; 12:11); Jesus shows that at least one of these happened before Revelation was written, within the generation Jesus spoke of it (Matt 24:15, 34; Mk 13:14, 30). (Those who claim that “generation” means “race” there are making up their own meanings for Greek words; the term always means “generation” in the Gospels.)

Daniel’s literal abomination had already been fulfilled before Revelation was written (Revelation was written over two decades after the temple’s destruction!) Further, Daniel’s chronology rests on a symbolic reapplication of Jeremiah’s “70 years” prophecy, after the 70 years were nearly over (Dan 9:2-3, 24). If Daniel could symbolically reapply a number in Jeremiah, why could not Revelation reapply a number in Daniel? Many of John’s Jewish contemporaries also reapplied Daniel’s period of time symbolically, so everyone would have understood this method if Revelation followed it.

This would not mean that Daniel was not literal on this point (as we said, at least one of Daniel’s abominations was fulfilled literally before Revelation was written, according to Jesus); only that Revelation applies the number differently. Because Revelation often uses numbers (like 12,000 and 144) symbolically, it is possible that Revelation borrows Daniel’s number to tell us less about the length of time than the kind of time. But so far we have only argued that it is possible, not that Revelation actually uses the period symbolically. How can we know whether it employs the number symbolically or literally?

In Revelation 12:1-6, the dragon (the devil) opposes a woman and the child born from her. When the child is caught up to rule the nations with a rod of iron, the woman fled into the wilderness for 1260 days. Almost everyone agrees that the child refers to Jesus (cf. 12:17; 19:15); if so, the 1260 days seem to start when Jesus was exalted to heaven (over 60 years before Revelation was written). It begins with the first coming and ends with the second coming. For Judaism, the final tribulation was the period directly before the end (sometimes three and a half, or seven, or forty, or even 400 years), but we Christians recognize that we are already in the end-time. The coming Messiah has already come once, and we who live between the first and second coming live in the end-time, always awaiting our Lord’s return. Just as the lion is the lamb, Christ’s going and return frame the tribulation; all Jewish expectations take on new meaning in light of Christ’s coming.

It is perfectly likely that there will in fact be further intensification of tribulation just before the end, but Revelation’s point, at least in this passage, has a broader relevance to us than that. Our present time in the world is a time of tribulation, but we can take courage, because Jesus has overcome the world (Jn 16:33). The woman and her other children were in the wilderness (12:6, 17), which tells us about the nature of the in-between time. Israel lived in the wilderness between their redemption from Egypt and their inheritance in the promised land. By Christ’s exaltation we, too, have begun to experience salvation; Satan can no longer accuse us (12:10); but we must still endure in this world until Christ’s return (12:11-12).

There is not space here to address whether this is the only sense of the tribulation period in Revelation (I address the issue at greater length in relevant passages in my commentary on Revelation). But the present “end-time” does appear to be the point in chapter 12, and the New Testament often does view the present age as the end-time period. Ever since the first apostles, we have been in the “last days” (Acts 2:17; 1 Tim 4:1; 2 Tim 3:1; Jms 5:3; 1 Pet 1:20; 2 Pet 3:3). Jewish people spoke of the end-time as the “birth-pangs of the Messiah,” but Jesus taught that the birth pangs have already started, whereas the end will come only when we have finished our mission of preaching the gospel to all nations (Matt 24:6-8, 14). Paul declared that even creation is already experiencing birth pangs with us to bring forth the new world (Rom 8:22-23). Knowing that we live in the end-time should affect how we live. Since Pentecost we have lived in the era of the outpouring of the Spirit; we live in an era begun by Jesus and to be finished by him. Therefore we should keep focused on who sent us, what our mission is, and what and whom we are really to be looking for.

Tomorrow: Conclusions on hermeneutics and cultural context

The next few posts concern the Book of Revelation, which Dr Craig S Keener explores in detail in Chapters 7 – 10  of his course on biblical hermeneutics, Biblical Interpretation.

In the introduction to yesterday’s post, I mentioned Hal Lindsey’s 1970 bestseller The Late, Great Planet Earth, which made the rounds of my high school for all four years.  Books like these should be popular only amongst high school students.  Anyone who knows world history will see that there were numerous times in numerous places when, surely, the end was nigh.  Anyone who has even lived through much of the 20th century should be able to see that the world has survived many catastrophes and horrors; some were natural disasters and others were manmade as a result of war and dictatorships.  Unfortunately, people old enough to know better — Harold Camping, anyone? — believe they can predict the end of the world.  Yet, Jesus said:

But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.  (Mark 13:32)

Keener details more of these erroneous predictions below, recurring throughout history.  Emphases in bold are mine.

A History of Misinterpretations

Too often people in the past two centuries have used “newspaper hermeneutics” to understand Revelation, that is, they have interpreted it in light of newspaper headlines. This is why many prophecy teachers have to change their interpretations of the book so often. That they recognize that Jesus could be coming soon, hence that prophecy is being fulfilled now, is commendable, but assertions that some current event definitely fulfills a biblical passage only leads to disillusionment when today’s headlines end up in tomorrow’s trash bin.

One example of newspaper hermeneutics involves interpretations of the “kings of the east” in Rev. 16:12. In the early twentieth century, many North American interpreters thought of the “kings of the east” as the Ottoman Empire, headquartered in Turkey. Of course, the seven churches of western Asia Minor could never have conceived of kings of the “east” as Turkey, since Asia Minor is modern Turkey! But to western interpreters over a century ago, the Turks seemed the most threatening “eastern” empire on their horizon. After the Ottoman Empire was dismembered at the end of World War I, the new threatening “eastern” empire was imperial Japan (an empire that also threatened Korea, China, the Philippines and the rest of Asia). After imperial Japan was defeated at the end of World War II, western interpreters shifted the title to Communist China.

The only common factor in any of these interpretations was that these hostile kings were to the “east” of those interpreting the passage; sometimes the interpretations may also reveal some anti-Asian sentiments, which are unbiblical and ungodly. How would John’s first readers have understood “kings of the east”? To everyone in the Roman Empire, and especially in Asia Minor, the greatest military threat was the Parthian Empire. The Parthian king rode a white horse, and claimed to be “king of kings and lord of lords.” The definitive boundary between the Roman and Parthian empires was the River Euphrates (cf. 9:14; 16:12). Although they ruled in the region of Iran and Iraq, the geography is less important than the image: the most feared enemies of the Empire would invade it. In the end, it was northern barbarians rather than an eastern empire that did the Roman Empire in, but Rome did die by invasion. Yet conquest remains a frightening warning of judgment in any generation, and from any location (6:1-4).

Other prophetic interpretation errors abound. Jehovah’s Witnesses, a cult, wrongly predicted Christ’s return or other end-time events for 1874, 1878, 1881, 1910, 1914, 1918, 1925, 1975, and 1984 . Even Bible-loving Christians, however, have made mistakes in setting dates, contrary to our Lord’s teaching (Mk 13:32). The church father Hippolytus concluded that the Lord would come by the year 500. Saint Martin of Tours believed that the Antichrist was already alive in his day; Martin died in 397, so if the final Antichrist is still alive, he possesses remarkable longevity!

Others have offered “prophetic” interpretations of the news uncritically. Some prophecy teachers in the 1920s embraced a work called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as confirming their teaching; the work is now known to be a forgery used by the Nazis. Many Christians in the 1970s worried about a computer in Belgium called “the beast”unaware that the computer existed only in a novel! Around 1980 I heard a prophecy teacher explain that the Soviet Union would, in the next year or two, invade Iran, take control of the world’s oil supply, and precipitate a world war. Needless to say, his prediction is running behind schedule at best.

Various books (including Richard Kyle, The Last Days Are Here Again [Baker, 1998]; Dwight Wilson, Armageddon Now! The Premillenarian Response to Russia and Israel Since 1917 [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977]) have documented countless claims made by prophecy teachers through history, and especially in the past 150 years, about various contemporary events. These teachers were occasionally right (about as often as astrologers), but were wrong the vast majority of times.

Below is a brief sampling of mistakes in recent history, borrowed from the introduction to my own commentary on Revelation (Revelation, NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000]):

•       Christopher Columbus voyaged to the New World hoping to help precipitate the biblical new heaven and earth

•       During the Reformation, Melchior Hoffman allowed himself to be arrested in Strassburg on the belief that it was about to become the New Jerusalem

•       Also during the Reformation, Thomas Müntzer aided the Peasant’s Revolt of 1524, believing that it would precipitate the final judgment; the peasants lost, and Müntzer was executed. In those days, end-time speculations died hardsometimes literally!

•       When King James I persecuted early Baptist leaders in England they feared that they were enduring the final tribulation

•       Many Americans believed that King George III (probably one of England’s most pious rulers, as John Wesley recognized) was the final Antichrist

•       Many northern ministers expected the U.S. Civil War to establish God’s kingdom in their favor; some ministers expected God to weigh in on the opposite side

•       William Booth, an apostolic leader in the late nineteenth century whose Salvation Army was doing great works for God, believed that the Salvation Army he had founded “had been chosen by God as the chief agency to finally and fully establish” God’s kingdom

More recently, Christians in the U.S. bought over 3 million copies of Edgar Whisenant’s 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988. A friend of mine worked in a Christian bookstore whose owner urged her to sell as many copies of the book by the end of 1988 as possible; the owner warned that no one would buy the book in 1989. Sure enough, Christians failed to buy many copies of his updated version the next year, rescheduling Jesus’ return to 1989. Let it never be said that North American Christians are easily deceived at least twice in a row by the same author the following year. The world was watching, however: the campus newspaper at the university where I was doing my Ph.D. mocked the failed predictions. Others predicted the Lord’s return for various dates in the 1990’s or for the year 2000. As one other writer has pointed out, all predictors of times and seasons have had only one thing in common: they have all been wrong.

Often interpreters have proceeded on the basis of two assumptions: first, that we are the last generation; and second, that all prophecies apply to the last generation. The first assumption is always possible, but we cannot ever assert it dogmatically; every generation, looking at potential “signs” around them, has hoped that it might be the last generation. (Biblically, the last generation needs to do more than hope: we need to finish the task of world evangelization, whatever the cost.) The second assumption is simply wrong; many prophecies were already fulfilled within the Bible or await Jesus’ return. Not all pertain specifically to the final generation before his return.

Views about Revelation

Traditionally, readers have taken one of the following approaches to interpreting Revelation:

1.      Preterist: those who believe that everything was fulfilled in the first century

2.      Historicist: those who believe that Revelation predicted the details of subsequent history which we can now recognize in history books

3.      Idealist: those who believe that Revelation contains timeless principles

4.      Futurist: those who believe that Revelation addresses the future

The historicist interpretation has been largely abandoned because history does not fit the outline of Revelation very well. (This is true even for the letters to the seven churches, which some once read as stages of church history; very few scholars accept this today even in the “dispensational” tradition where it was once most common. Dispensationalism has also changed a great deal since it was founded.)

Of the other views, there is something legitimate in each, provided that we do not use one of them to exclude the other views. It is true that Revelation, like other books in the Bible, was written first to an ancient audience (the preterist view); the book explicitly addresses the seven churches in Asia Minor just like Paul addresses churches in his letters (Rev 1:4), and Revelation is written in Greek and uses symbols that first-century readers would understand. This need not mean, however, that it does not speak about the future or (like the rest of the Bible) articulate principles useful for subsequent generations.

Revelation contains timeless principles relevant for the church in every generation. It also speaks about the future, in addition to the present and the past. Readers may disagree on how much of Revelation refers to the future, but almost everyone agrees that Revelation 1922, at least, is future. Likewise, at least some of it refers directly to the past: the catching up of the child in Revelation 12 (whom most believe to be Jesus) has already happened.

Beyond these points, however, readers have come to startlingly different conclusions about Revelation’s teaching throughout history. We can illustrate this divergence by way of commenting on the “millennium,” the 1000-year period mentioned in Revelation 20. Many readers schooled in a particular tradition may be surprised to learn how many people they respect in church history have held other interpretations …

After the Book of Revelation was finished, the first church fathers (leaders of the early church for the first few centuries) were premillennial; that is, they believed that Jesus would come back before the 1000 years in Revelation. They also were all post-tribulational; that is, they all believed either that they were already in the great tribulation, or that it was future but that Jesus would not return for his church until afterwards. But a few centuries later, by the time of Augustine, most Christians were amillennial. Many believed that when Constantine ended the persecutions against Christians, the 1000 years started, and many were expecting Jesus’ return 1000 years after Constantine. Another amillennial view, more common today and easier to defend from Scripture, is that the millennium is symbolic for the period between the first and second coming, with Christ ruling until his enemies are put under his feet. Not only were most Medieval Christians amillennial, but so were most of the Reformers (including Luther and Calvin). Most denominations founded in times when amillennialism predominated are most amillennial today; the same is true of churches in various parts of the world founded by amillennial missionaries. By contrast, churches founded by premillennial missionaries are usually premillennial! John Wesley believed in two separate millennia in Revelation 20, one in heaven and the other on earth.

Most leaders of the Great Awakenings in the eighteenth- and especially nineteenth-century United States were postmillennial, including Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney. During revivals that brought a large percentage of people in the early nineteenth-century United States to Christ, people exercised faith that “the gospel of the kingdom” would be “preached among all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14). Charles Finney, who may have led as many as half a million people to Christ, and helped lead the movement against slavery, was postmillennial. Postmillennialists believed that they would, through God’s Spirit, establish God’s kingdom on earth, and then Jesus would come back to take his throne. Today most Christians view postmillennialism as naïve optimism, but it was the dominant view of Christians in the U.S. in the nineteenth century.

Another view is first attested in the nineteenth and popular in the twentieth century. This view is called dispensational premillennialism. In or around 1830, John Nelson Darby came up with a system of interpretation that divided Scripture between what applied to Israel (the Old Testament, Gospels, Revelation, and much of Acts) and what applied directly to the church (especially the epistles). Through this system he argued that spiritual gifts were not for the church age, and that there would be a separate coming for the church (before the tribulation) and for Israel (afterward). Once introduced, the view was popularized through the Scofield Reference Bible, becoming popular especially in the early twentieth century. The failure of postmillennial optimism in the nineteenth century and the disintegration of the old, evangelical consensus in the U.S. made this view appear appealing. And after all, who would complain about getting raptured before a tribulation rather than afterward?

We cannot afford the space to debate for or against this view here, but merely wish to point out that most people who hold this view are unaware that no one in church history held this view before 1830. Some today believe that this view is clear; but Christians read the Bible for over 1700 years without anyone, so far as we know, noticing it! (And that, even though most Christians through history believed that they were already in the end-times, and many, like many Christians for the past few generations, that they were in the final generation.) Each view cites verses to defend its position, but each of these verses must be examined in context to be sure of its meaning. That includes views that are widely held today, like dispensationalism; and we should remember that such views widely held today were rarer or (in this case) unheard of in earlier history. For whatever it is worth, the majority of scholars committed to Scripture today are either amillennial or non-dispensational (generally post-tribulational) premillennial, though there are good scholars with other views.

In my opinion, premillennialists have an easier time explaining Revelation 20 itself, but amillennialists other end-time passages (for many, the debate then becomes whether to interpret the more explicit but single text in light of the many but less explicit ones, or the reverse). Since we will all know which view is correct by the time it happens, I see little point in arguing about it. Certainly it is foolish to break fellowship with other Christians over these matters! Why then do I raise the issue? Only to help us be more charitable to those who hold different interpretations of Revelation than we do. If we fight with our brothers and sisters over every single passage we interpret differently, then we will be out of fellowship with most of Christ’s body. The true church is united on the essential matters necessary for following Jesus, but beyond that it is our unity and love that shows the world God’s character (John 13:34-35; 17:20-23).

The real issues for us here must be the practical ones that our methods above can help us fathom. Some issues are very practical but no real Christian disputes them: for example, we all recognize that we must be ready for our Lord to return. But other issues are practical and often missed by interpreters who lack access to cultural background or whole-book context methods

Tomorrow: Symbolism in Revelation

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