Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Missional Reading of the Letter to Ephesus

Throughout the book of Revelation, John reminds the church that her central task is holding firmly to and bearing faithfully the testimony of Jesus. They are to be the light to world, and through their Spirit empowered endeavors, God would bring the nations into his blessing. Add this to the missional impact of the books canonical placement and the reader can see how crucial the theme of God’s mission and the church’s participation in it is to the book. With this background the reader is in a better place to fully understand the missional nature of Jesus’ words to the seven churches.

Each of these short letters, which serve as short introductions to the book as a whole, contributes uniquely to the missional theme of the Apocalypse, and it is these contributions that will be the focus of the next few (seven) posts.

Ephesus is the first of the churches to be addressed. Yamauchi contends that Ephesus was the fourth most important city in the world at the time of John’s writing, only behind Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch in significance, boasting a population of about 250,000 people, and making it the most significant city in Asia Minor, as the title ‘Supreme Metropolis’ indicates. Ephesus’ was at the juncture of three major trade routes, served as the de facto capital city for Asia, and was an important center for trade and banking. Once an important harbor city, the shore now lies more than six miles from the edge of the city – a product of the silting at the mouth of the Cayster River that was a constant problem for the city of Ephesus.

While the city certainly included a Jewish community that enjoyed special privileges, as they did throughout the Asia Minor, the city’s pride in their pagan religion dovetailed with its civic pride in ways that would have made life as a religious non-conformist very trying – for the Jews and the Christians. The city was religiously zealous (see Acts 19) and was home to several important temples, including temples to two emperors, Augustus and Domitian. In fact, Ephesus had the privileged status of being νεωκόρος, “temple warden”, to the imperial cult of Domitian. Most notably though was the Artemision, or temple to the goddess Artemis (Roman Diana). The temple to Artemis was a massive structure, making it one of wonders of the ancient word, and employed thousands of priests and priestesses, many in the role of cult-prostitutes.

The church in Ephesus was likely established by Aquila and Priscila with the aid of Apollos (Acts 18) and later shepherded by Timothy. Ephesus had served as a strategic base of ministry for Paul and his traveling band of evangelists/church-planters for two years, and the city’s importance as a crossroads of travel, commerce, and politics positioned the church there to continue her role as mission outpost for Asia into the future.

Yet, the church was not without issues. From the biblical record, one could safely infer that the church struggled to find unity as Paul lays such a heavy emphasis on unity and oneness in Christ in his epistle. Also, false teaching had become a significant issue threatening the church by the time Paul wrote his letters to Timothy.

These internal concerns and external pressures continued to plague the Ephesian church at the time of John’s exile on Patmos and threatened to undermine the church’s effectiveness in her missional calling. Jesus’ words to this church reflect a deep concern that this church takes her task of being a witness seriously and bring the fullness of her life into alignment with that purpose.

The letter begins, as every subsequent letter will, with the command to write to “angel of the church” followed by the city name. In this letter to the Ephesians, Jesus identifies himself as the one “who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” This self-identification offers comfort and warning to the church. It is a comfort in that Jesus knows them intimately, is ever present in their midst, and holds them in his hand. Ladd points out that the word used in 2:1 for “hold”, κρατέω, is stronger than the word in 1:16, ἔχων, “indicating a firm grasp, indicating that Christ holds his churches firmly in his hand, that they should not be snatched away.”

Yet this is also a warning, for Jesus is in their midst watching them, observing how they live, aware of their successes and their failures. This awareness is made evident in the next verse when Jesus declares that he knows their works (or deeds). This is certainly more than just a passing knowledge of individual acts, good or bad, but denotes the “overall manner of life.” This overall manner of life includes their relentless hard work and endurance in the face of exhaustion, abiding hostility of the surrounding culture, and specifically the ongoing struggle against false teachers.

Jesus commends the church for recognizing the true nature of these false teachers as evil, not simply mistaken or ill-informed, and for not bearing with them. The church held up the teaching of these would-be apostles to the light of truth and proved them and their teaching to be false. This task of identifying and purging false teaching must be seen against the backdrop of the church’s mission, for true doctrine is closely linked with the church’s calling to bear witness. If the church’s message is corrupted or diluted they have failed to bear witness faithfully. Thus, contrary to the oft-expressed sentiment that concern for doctrine is petty and only gets in the way of doing the work of the church, the church that takes mission seriously must take doctrinal purity just as seriously. The church with a compromised message is a church with diminished power, for the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). The church, from its inception, has always “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), understanding that the story and its interpretation as passed on by the apostles was vital for the ongoing existence and missional success of the church.

By Jesus’ account, the Ephesians have been diligent in guarding this deposit of truth and have not indulged the false apostles or their wayward teaching. The church is commended for enduring patiently not having grown weary in standing up for the sake of Christ’s name. Yet, Jesus has a stern admonition for the Ephesian church. They have done the hard work of keeping their doctrine pure, and have patiently endured many things; yet, they have “abandoned they love they had at first”.

What was the nature of the churches defect? The text could be read to mean that they have abandoned the love that had for one another and allowed strife to poison the relationships within the church, maybe degenerating as far as open hostility to one another or possibly settling for mere coexistence. Alternatively, it could mean that they have abandoned the initial love they had for Christ and allowed their devotion to devolve into cold, dispassionate dogmatism. Commentators can be lined up on both sides of this, and Beale offers a third option, namely “that losing their ‘first love’ was tantamount to becoming unzealous witnesses.”

To some extent it is possible to hold all three positions. Love for one’s brothers and sisters in Christ is a key indication of the genuineness of one’s love for Christ (for example, see 1 John 4:7-8). Conversely, one’s love for Christ will naturally flow out into a love for one’s siblings in Christ. In other words, love in one dimension cannot fade without also betraying or leading to a lack of love in another dimension. Moreover, the love that Christians have for one another, which is a product of their love for Christ, will be a powerful witness to the world. Jesus instructs his followers, saying, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The love Christians share for one another has an unquestionable missional component to it. Even when the church turns its attention and affection inwardly, she does so in such a way that she bears witness to the world that they are Christ’s, whose love is sacrificial and open to all. Jesus’ assessment of their condition is followed by a call to repentance and action – “do the works you did at first”. If not, Jesus warns the church that their very existence as a church is in jeopardy.

Again, utilizing the imagery of the lampstand, Jesus threatens to come and remove theirs from its place. Their lovelessness compromises their mission to be his witnesses, which is the very reason for their existence. When the church ceases to serve its purpose, Christ will remove it from the rolls of his churches. Beale states it well, “They will cease to exist as a church when the very function that defines the essence of their existence is no longer performed.”

After again complimenting the church on its lack of tolerance for false teachers, specifically the Nicolaitans (detailed explanation of the false teaching will come in following posts), Jesus offers words of promise to the one who conquers (νικάω).

Overcoming or conquering certainly entails persevering in belief, but the context demands more. Overcoming includes persistence in the faith – denying Christ or abandoning belief would surely disqualify someone from being a conqueror and lead to a forfeiture of what is promised. But conquering also includes, for the Ephesian church, conquering the sin that threatens their ability to be a faithful witness, namely being lackluster in love. In other churches what must be overcome is different – sometimes it is immorality or idolatry, in several it is false teaching, in some churches it is sinful accommodation to the pagan culture, and in others it is the temptation to give in under persecution.

In all, overcoming is linked to being a faithful witness, even unto death, and is thus connected to their faithfulness to their God given mission. Here in Ephesus, the overcomers are granted “to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” This is a wonderful promise which reminds the church of God’s ultimate mission to redeem and restore all things and the assured success of God’s mission. Paradise will be restored and those who have been Christ’s faithful witnesses will be granted life in it. The church’s missional faithfulness is motivated, in part, by her confidence in the ultimate success of God’s mission and his promise to bless those who have partnered with him in it.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Waugh family fun

Last night was a blast...IU women's game to watch my niece, then dinner and games at home with inlaws, nieces and their friends. Mother Bears, Apples to Apples, Skippo, NBA 2K14 tourney...and so many cookies. Not a quiet night, but a blast.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Weekend Furniture Refit

This past weekend I had to make room for a family Christmas present - a new, bigger TV!  We had this nice, rustic pine entertainment center, but the new TV wouldn't fit in the hutch, and the pine finish didn't match any of the wood in our house. So...Dan got to destroy and remake. I had fun. Here's the progress (yes, I'm bragging):

It's not perfect (and the pictures aren't great)...I learned a few things (like shop lighting is really important when sanding/staining).  It's still a really deep piece of furniture for the space...but it's not the prefab pressboard stuff I hate either! 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Multinational Worship & Mission in Revelation

The missional aspect of the book is also evident in its portrait of the multinational, multiethnic and multilingual worship before the throne of the Lamb. “After this,” writes John, “I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ’Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev.7:9-10). Several details deserve comment.

First, John says the crowd of worshippers is innumerable. Beasley-Murray highlights the contrast between this multitude that defies numeration and the numbered tribes in the previous verses. Citing Farrer he observes, "The contrast of the numbered tribes and the innumerable host gives expression to two antithetical themes of the Scriptures. First, God knows the number of his elect; secondly, those who inherit the blessing of Abraham are numberless as the stars (Gen. 15:5)…Whereas the previous vision originally reflected a particularistic viewpoint, John employed it solely to illustrate God’s concern for his people in the last time, and the second vision shows the effectiveness of that concern. John intends his readers to hear the promises of God to Abraham behind his description of this vision, a promise that his descendants would be as countless as the stars in the heavens (Gen. 15:5) or as the sand on the seashore (Gen 22:17)."

Bauckham writes, “The innumerability of the multitude can scarcely be an empirical observation of the Christian church at the time when Revelation was written. Rather, it echoes God’s promise to the patriarchs that their descendants would be innumerable.” Beale adds, “The multitudes in Rev. 7:9 are the consummate fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise and appear to be another of the manifold ways in which John refers to Christians as Israel.” Knowing the vision did not match the reality of his readers, a battered and beleaguered minority, John paints a picture of the success of God’s mission through his church, humble though its beginnings were.

Second, the host is said to be from “every nation.” Osborne argues “’Every nation’ continues the stress in the book on the universal mission of the church to the ‘nations’ and probably recapitulates the OT stress on the procession of the nations to God.” John has, through the record of his visions, already reminded his readers that the Lamb has “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” by his blood (Rev 5:9). He will go on to describe his prophetic ministry as including the task to “prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings” (Rev 10:11); to mention the nations as witnesses to the ministry, death and resurrection of the Two Witnesses (Rev. 11:9); to point out the angelic proclamation of the eternal gospel to “every nation and tribe and language and people” (Rev. 14:6); and, to celebrate nations being liberated from Satanic deception (Rev. 20:3).

All of this multinational activity climaxes with the nations pouring in to the New Jerusalem – “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev 21:22-26).

Revelation picks up and brings to completion the mission of God and his people to the nations.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Lampstands and the Mission of the Church

In addition to John’s emphasis on saints following Christ’s lead in bearing testimony and serving as witness, John connects the church with an Old Testament image that emphasizes her missional nature. In Revelation 1:12, John turns to find the voice speaking to him and sees Jesus standing among seven golden lampstands. Jesus identifies the seven lampstands for John and the reader – they are the seven churches to which John will address his letter.

The Old Testament background is found first in Exodus 25 and the command to Moses to craft a seven-branched lampstand with seven lamps on it for use in the tabernacle. The more significant background for the lampstand imagery comes from Zechariah 4, a passage John draws upon several other places in his Revelation. Beale contends that the lampstand constructed by Moses for use in the tabernacle/temple becomes for Zechariah a symbol for the whole temple, and consequently for the whole of Israel. The lampstand makes a fitting synecdoche for the temple and, by extension, for Israel, for the temple and Israel shared the common mission to bear light in the world. Wright explains, “This whole David-temple-Zion nexus of theological traditions is at one level highly centralized and particular. After all, this is the place and the sanctuary, where YHWH is to be sought because this is where he has caused his name to dwell. Yet in other respects the temple tradition has a remarkable openness to the rest of the nations and an incipient universality that surfaces in a number of texts.”

The openness of which Wright speaks about is evident, for example, at Solomon’s dedication of the temple. Here we see the anticipation that God’s fame will spread to the nations and they will be draw as inquirers to the city of Jerusalem and to the temple. Solomon petitions God to answer the foreigners prayers so that “all the people of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel” (I Kgs. 8:41-43).

Later, Isaiah reflects on the (eschatological) temple as a house of prayer for the nations: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant — these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, "I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.” (Isaiah 56: 6-8)

John’s use of the lampstand imagery for the church is an indication that the church, the New Israel, is to carry on the mission of the true and faithful Israel – being a light to the nations. Ladd offers additional insight, A seven branched candelabrum played in important role in Zechariah’s vision, apparently to represent Israel (Zech. 4:2). In John’s vision the lampstands represented the church, which had now become the light of the world. However, John saw seven separate lampstands, representing the different churches. In the New Testament times the church was not, like the nation Israel, outwardly a single people. In the New Testament view each local church is to be viewed as the church universal in all its fullness. That the unity of the church is not found in organization but in its relationship to Christ is pictured in verse 16, where Christ held seven stars in his right hand. The seven stars were the heavenly counterparts of the seven churches, while the seven lamps were the actual churches. It was their function to give light to the world.

That Jesus was seen walking among the lampstands is an echo of Jesus’ promise to the church that accompanies her commission: Matthew 28:18–20, “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” While the church can never forget her missional calling, neither can she forget that she is accompanied in it by Jesus.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Witness and Testimony in the Book of Revelation

In the last post a made the case the the placement of Revelation at the close of the canon and it's role in bringing the grand narrative of Scripture to a close highlights the theme of mission in and of itself. But, it is not only Revelation’s place in the canon that alerts the reader to its missional significance. The theme of mission is important, though often overlooked, within the book’s twenty-two chapters.

Three repeated themes in the book of Revelation will serve as examples and alert us to the broader theme of mission in the book: the focus on Christ as the “faithful witness” and the call for the church to follow him in bearing faithful witness, the imagery of the church as lampstands, and the repeated mention of the nations (or people of every tribe, tongue, etc.) participating in heavenly worship and in the life of the New Heavens and New Earth.

Witness and Testimony 

John signals to his readers at the outset that the theme of testimony will be a significant one throughout his book. John states, “He [God] made it [the revelation of Jesus Christ] known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw” (Revelation 1:1-2). In v.2 John draws upon the μάρτυς/μαρτυρέω word group twice: as a verb translated “bore witness” and as a noun “testimony”.

The Greek root martyrion had not, at John’s writing, taken on its nuanced significance of one who dies for the faith. However, it is likely that it began to take on this connotation largely because of how John employed the word throughout the Apocalypse. Saints were not, for John, martyrs because they had been put to death; they were put to death because they were martyrs – because they bore witness to Christ. That Jesus’ followers ought to be witnesses and bear testimony should come as no surprise, for they share in the life and mission of Jesus, the “faithful and true witness” (Rev. 1:5).

This theme was also evident in John’s Gospel. Jesus spoke to Pilate saying, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37). Before Jesus bore witness, John the Baptizer was preparing his way serving as a witness (μαρτυρίαν) – to “bear witness (μαρτυρήσῃ) about the light.” Later, Jesus reminds the crowds that not only did John bear witness to him, but so did Jesus’ own works, the Father, and the Scriptures (John 5:30-46). In addition, the Helper who will come to the disciples after Jesus’ departure will also bear witness to Jesus (John 15:26-27).

After Christ’s ascension, the giving of the Spirit will enable the church in its mission as Jesus’ witnesses. Jesus describes this in Acts 1:7-8, “He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But 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.’”

Bearing witness is foundational to the church’s mission. Where she fails to maintain her witness she fails in her God given mission. Michael Goheen asserts, “We would be mistaken if we were to think of Jesus’ call to witness as merely one more assignment added to an otherwise full agenda for the people of God. Witness is not one more task among others: Witness defines the role of this community in this era of God’s story and thus defines its very identity.” Goheen continues, quoting Suzanne De Dietrich, “This witnessing function of the church is not a secondary task, it is her raison d’être, her essential vocation; the missionary task belongs to the esse of the church.”

On this point, the continuity between the church’s mission and that of Old Testament Israel is important to recognize, for many tend to think about mission as going somewhere to do something and of witness as saying or telling. But, beginning with the Old Testament foundations for mission, it’s evident that the going and the doing, saying and telling, are only parts of the mission, and not the most crucial parts at that. Howard Peskett and Vinoth Ramachandra state correctly, “Mission is about being. It is about being a distinctive kind of people, a countercultural, multinational community among the nations. It is modeling before a skeptical world what the living God of the Bible is really like…what was true of Israel’s calling is also true for our calling as the church of Jesus Christ…[we are to be] a ‘display people.’”

Israel and then the New Testament church serve as God’s missional agents primarily by bearing witness to God, his character, his gracious plan of redemption and the nature of the kingdom he is establishing. This bearing witness is not to be conceived of strictly as telling others, but showing and telling.

In beginning his Apocalypse with the repeated emphasis on witness and testimony, John reminds the reader of the importance of witness to the people of God through the ages. John continues making use of this word group throughout Revelation. The souls under the altar have suffered and been put to death because they did what they were called to do – bear witness (Rev 6:9; see also Rev 20:4). Later in the book, the saints gain an ironic victory over Satan (ironic in that they have been victorious even though they have been slain) by the “blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony (μαρτυρίας)” (Rev 12:11). Their testimony has become a weapon used by God in his mission to destroy Satan’s work, undoing the damage he has inflicted on God’s people and God’s world. In Revelation 19 the angel sent to John equates “your brothers” (fellow Christians) with those “who hold the testimony of Jesus.” Holding to the testimony of Jesus is a defining characteristic of true believers.

Revelation 11 makes a significant contribution to the missional thrust of John’s apocalypse. Rather than seeing the two witnesses as two literal end-time prophets, it is more in keeping with the nature of the apocalypse to see them as a symbol of the witnessing church throughout this present age of tribulation and persecution. As argued above, the role of the church as witness is central to the book of Revelation and the two witnesses point to the church’s prophetic role in the world, a role which will certainly give rise to persecution.

Beale makes a compelling case for understanding the two witnesses as symbols for the church corporate. It is significant that John identifies of the witnesses as lampstands, an image which is used elsewhere in Revelation to refer to the church (see Rev. 1:20). In addition, the witnesses are also called olive trees, referring to Zechariah 4. In Zechariah, the olive trees pointed to Zerubbabel, the head of tribe of Judah and to the priest Joshua. The emphasis was on the priestly and kingly nature of Israel, distinctions which now belong to the church, being a kingdom of priests who reign! (5:10).

Third, Rev. 11:7 says the beast makes war with them and conquers them. This is connected to Daniel 7:21 where the last evil kingdom persecutes Israel (now understood to be the church, the true Israel). Moreover, in Rev. 13:5-7 the beast is given authority “to make war on the saints and to conquer them.” The language in 11:7 and 13:5 is nearly identical; hence, it is likely that we’re intended to link the witnesses conquered and the saints conquered.

Finally, in v. 9-13 the entire world witnesses their demise. While some think this refers to TV coverage of their murder and dead bodies lying in the street (i.e. Hal Lindsey), it seems more reasonable to conclude that the witnesses are visible throughout the world because the church is everywhere present. It is before the eyes of the watching world that the church carries on its prophetic activity, bearing witness to Christ and suffering martyrdom as a result. And, it is before the eyes of the world that the church is vindicated by God through resurrection.

Throughout the Apocalypse, John highlights the task of the church to serve as Christ's witnesses, bearing testimony that is faithful and true.  In this we advance God's mission to the world.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Best Books of 2014

I wish I had read more last year, or at least more non-Revelation material (the ThM project sucked up a lot of my reading time).  I did read some really good books though, one's I'd highly recommend. Here's a few:

1. Daniel Taylor Books.  This is a category, not just a single book. Dr. Taylor deserves it. I read three of his books this year leading up to the ECC Seminar; each book was unique, enjoyable, and full of insight.  The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist was the first of the three. Dr. Taylor gives useful advice to the Christian who wrestles with doubt.  I wasn't necessarily a fan of all the parenthetical interuptions (Dr. Taylor's inner atheist giving voice to his skepticism), but the book was, to use and overworked phrase, a breath of fresh air. The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian & the Risk of Commitment was the second book. It's shorter and more philosophical, but contains an interesting narrative (biographical?)  that keeps the readers attention.  Letters to My Children: A Father Passes on His Values is what it sounds like - a series of letters Dr. Taylor wrote to his children through the years in an effort to pass on wisdom, convey affection and continue a spiritual legacy. It's wins the prize (no monetary gift forthcoming, sorry) for my favorite book of the year.

2. Michael Kruger's Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books is a very helpful book.  Through the book Kruger seeks to establish the validity and authority of the NT Canon from the text itself rather than merely looking to the early church, creeds/councils, etc. It is a theological case for the canon rather than a historical case. I smell a future seminar topic!

3. Eric Metaxas' book Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness was a very enjoyable introduction to seven great men and their faith. These certainly aren't deep, extensive biographies, but short introductions to the life and thought (like John Piper's The Swans are Not Silent series).  The book includes one chapter on each of these seven men: George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, John Paul II, and Charles Colson.

4. My work on Revelation 2&3 raised the issue of perseverance of the saints and how we ought to teach the warnings and conditional promises of Scripture to believers. Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Caneday's book  The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance & Assurance was extremely helpful. It's not an easy read and can get a bit tedious, but I haven't read a better, more balanced approach to these texts yet.

5. Ok, now a fun book (actually, a series of seven books).  I found Taylor Anderson's Destroyermen series completely by accident. I love war novels, and I thought that's what I picked up at the library. And, it is a war novel with a sci-fi kinda twist. Captain Reddy's ship is engaged in the a naval battle with overwhelming Japanese power. In an attempt to escape certain destruction, he seeks refuge in the squall.  The squall transports him, his ship and all the men to a different, but similar world (think Land of the Lost).  There they are pulled into another all-encompassing war. Not up your alley? Pick up and read book one, Into the Storm (Destroyermen), I dare you. You won't be able to put it down. Anderson is a fantastic story teller and his characters, human and otherwise, are so interesting. Best series I've read in a very long time (and I'm not a sci-fi kinda guy). 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Mission in the Book of Revelation, Part 2

When we come to the book of Revelation, we cannot neglect its place in the canon. Of course this is true of every book of the Bible, but especially true of the book that brings the grand narrative of redemption to its completion. Considered canonically, the book of Revelation unfolds for the reader the culmination on God’s missional activity and the missional activity of his people.

Calvin famously wrote that the world and history are “the theatre of God’s glory”. Revelation brings us to the final act in history. More than a century later, Edwards wrote, “God having professed this end [His glory]…the principal means that he adopted was this great work of redemption.” Again, Revelation brings us to a climactic manifestation of God’s glory as the redemption of all things is completed.

God’s determination to be glorified in the redemption of all things is a central theme of the prophets’ message and the apostles’ understanding of Christ’s work. Yet, it is the book of Revelation that brings this theme to culmination, weaving together lines of Old Testament prophecy, connecting them to the person and work of Christ and extending them into the future New Creation. Beale comments, “The portrayal of the new covenant, new temple, new Israel, and new Jerusalem affirms the future fulfillment of the main prophetic themes of the OT and NT, which all find their ultimate climax in the new creation. The new creation itself is the most overarching of these biblical promises…”

The drama that began in the shalom of the garden culminates in the perfected peace of the New Jerusalem. Beale explains, “The Edenic imagery describing the city-temple in Revelation 22:1-3 also reflects an intention to show that the building of the temple that began in Genesis 2 but was abandoned will be commenced again and completed in Christ and his people, and will encompass the whole new creation.”

Revelation cannot be considered apart from this context. As the book that most fully envisions the culmination of God’s mission through Christ and his people, mission lies at the heart of a proper understanding of John’s Apocalypse. Genesis and Revelation provide the bookends to God’s covenantal self-revelation. The mission of God and of his covenantal people is introduced in the earliest chapters of Genesis, carried on through the historical narratives, given new life and meaning in the prophets, peaks in the person and work of Jesus Christ, continues on through the apostles and the nascent church, and finds completion in the last chapters of the book of Revelation.

Revelation’s placement within the Christian canon alone highlights the theme of mission. Moreover, John gives good indicators that mission is not merely the background to his writing but also essential to it. He is writing to strengthen, encouraged, and equip the church to continue being (or start being) faithful participants in the mission God has created them for. Next week I'll offer three posts on three different but related missional themes in the book of Revelation.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

To Be Seen or Not To Be Seen

Yesterday I was reading through the Sermon on the Mount in my personal devotions. I'm sure I've noticed this before, but I was struck by two apparently conflicting statements and have been pondering how to reconcile them.

In Matthew 5:13-16 Jesus calls his followers to let their light shine before the watching world. In v. 16 Jesus commands his disciples to "let their light shine before other so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."  This idea is repeated elsewhere in the NT (see 1 Peter 2:12 for example) Our good deeds are to be a witness and bring praise to God who has worked in us to will and to do good (Philippians 2:12-13).

Yet, later in the Sermon, Jesus warns his hearers not to do their good deeds "before other people in order to be seen by them" (Matt. 6:1).  Also, when we give to the needy, Jesus urges us to do it in secret, not letting our left hand know what our right hand is doing (Matt. 6:3).

Of course the difference between these two commands is one of motivation. In the first the person who does the good work and lets their light shine before others is doing so for the purpose of bringing God glory, not self. The second command is given to warn of the danger of self-glorification. This is clear from the context - the one who sounds trumpets to herald their charity is looking for the praise of men, and that will the their reward, their only reward. It's not tough to reconcile the two passages.

But...how do we tell the difference in our own lives and the lives of the church?  Motives are hard to discern, and I acknowledge the deceitfulness of my own heart.  So how do we know if we are doing a good deed for God's glory or for our own praise?

Enter the Holy Spirit. Pray we're sensitive to his promptings, conviction. Ask the Spirit to search the heart and reveal the motives. Without the indwelling Spirit, I don't think there'd be much hope of sorting out our motives (and of course, because we're still sinful our motives will always be a mixed bag). 

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

A Literal Hermeneutic

I have a friend who isn't a believer but reads the Bible. At times he's frustrated by the fact that I don't always employ a literal hermeneutic. It's actually kind of fun to frustrate him with my non-literal understanding of certain parts of the Bible...but is it a responsible fun?  In other words, should we consistently employ a literal hermeneutic?

For some, taking a passage literally means accepting it as true, while taking in nonliterally means disbelieving it's truth or playing fast-and-loose with truth.  This doesn't hold up though. Literal statements can be true or false, and I'm more than capable of disbelieving a literal statement. And, some statements are true, but not true literally. If, for example, I said that I have skeletons in my closet, that would be an untrue statement if taken literally (or is it?). But it's true taken nonliterally (figuratively) - we've all got our issues, don't judge!

When it comes to the Bible, no one, and I mean no one, employs a strictly literal hermeneutic consistently - after all, the word 'literal' means "taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory". To read the Bible this woodenly would lead to the most bizarre interpretations imaginable. That's because the Biblical writers didn't mean for everything to be taken literally. They were as adept at using figurative speech as we are - and we do it a million times a day!

Scripture is filled with exaggeration/hyperbole (i.e. 'he told me everything I ever did'), sarcasm, synecdoches (where a part figurative stands for the whole - i.e. John using the 'the Jews' to refer to those who opposed Jesus, or 'the altar' standing for the whole of the temple, etc). There's also plenty of metaphors/similes, and there's parables and poetry...and don't forget the apocalyptic stuff (heads up - the sword coming out of Jesus mouth in Rev. 19 isn't literal).  There also anthropomorphism employed to describe God - he doesn't literally have hands, arms or nostrils, as God is a spirit, not corporeal. 

Literal is often wrong because, while the writers wanted us to accept the truth of their statements, they didn't want us to take their statements literally. In fact, you can see quite a few examples of people getting it radically wrong because they took Jesus' words to literally, failing to realize his words needed to be interpreted spiritually. Think, for example, of Nicodemus who didn't get the whole 'born again' thing, thinking Jesus was speaking of a literal, physical rebirth when Jesus was speaking spiritually. Or, think of the Pharisees taking Jesus to say the literal temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed and rebuilt in three days when he wasn't speak of the literal brick and mortar temple but his body. Or think of the accusation leveled against the early church that they were cannibals (yep, it happened) because they claimed to be eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ. Most evangelicals I know won't take those passages literally - though I believe we are truly partaking in the body and blood, it isn't the literal, physical body and blood (if you want more on this, check out my four part series here).

Now, admittedly, many who advocate a literal hermeneutic make allowances for figurative language. Ryrie, an influential advocate of a literal hermeneutic, contends that "the literalist (so called) is not one who denies that figurative language, that symbols, are used in prophecy, nor does he deny that great spiritual truths are set forth therein; his position is, simply, that the prophecies are to be normally interpreted (i.e., according to received laws of language) as any other utterances are interpreted- that which is manifestly figurative being so regarded."

Unfortunately, even this watered down version of 'literal' doesn't pass the test, for the NT writers, under the inspiration of the Spirit, don't treat prophecy in the same way Ryrie insists they be treated. For example, in Matthew 2 the writer tells us that Jesus was taken to Egypt to escape Herod and that this was to fulfill what Scripture said, "Our of Egypt I called my son".  Matthew actually is quoting Hosea 11. Hosea 11 is speaking there of Israel's exodus from Egypt. So words that literally pointed to a nation leaving Egypt, prophetically and spiritual speak of Jesus. 

Rather than taking the Bible literally, lets strive to take it faithfully. Faithful means getting at what the author truly intended, and not just the human author, but the divine author. Indeed, the intention of the divine author may go beyond, waaaaaay beyond, that of the human author. The human author may have not have actually even understood what they wrote, not truly!

How then, loosed from the moorings of the intent of the human author, are we to find our interpretive way? We use common sense and a good dose of reason; we allow the Bible to interpret the Bible, the community of the church through the ages to inform our interpretations, and we have a PROFOUND trust in the Holy Spirit to guide!

Monday, December 08, 2014

Mission in the Book of Revelation

For the past two years I've been reading and writing on the missional nature of Revelation, specifically chapters 2&3. I loved the project and thought I'd share some of what I gleaned in a series of posts here.  I started working on Revelation 2&3 initially because I loved that these letters gave insight into Jesus' heart for the local church. In these letters Jesus makes his desires for the church explicit. And, as I studied these chapters and the book of Revelation as a whole, I was convinced that at the top of the list of Jesus' concerns was that the church fulfill her missional mandate.

To some, it may seem counter-intuitive to speak of the “missional theology” of Revelation at all, let alone two chapters that seem so focused on the internal life of the church. Yet, Jesus’ words to the seven churches have a distinct missional character to them that ought to inform their interpretation and application. In fact, I don't think you can apply the imperatives, issue the warnings, or proclaim the promises of these seven letters responsibly unless you connect them to Jesus' concern for the mission of the church.

The mission of God and of his people is one of the central themes in the book of Revelation. While this theme is recognized by many commentators it has gone largely unexplored and unrecognized in the church. For many, the book is filled with puzzles to be pieced together, timelines to be hashed out, and symbolism to be debated. Unfortunately, when we approach the Apocalypse in this manner we overlook key themes, including the theme of mission.

Others are so overwhelmed by the “oddness” of Revelation that they ignore it altogether, thereby missing what Christ has to say to the church. In the end, both those who obsess about every detail in the book of Revelation and those who ignore it altogether need to be reminded of the sweeping storyline of John’s Apocalypse. It is within this storyline that the parts fit together with the whole and it is within this storyline that responsible applications can be made.

Somewhat ironically, the plot of Revelation’s story can be stated succinctly – God accomplishes his mission to redeem his world.

At the outset, it must be acknowledged that various ways of understanding the mission of God compete for prominence. One definition ties God’s mission solely to his redemptive activity. Köstenberger and O’Brein seem to tilt in this direction writing, “The notion of mission in intimately bound up with his saving plan which moves from creation to new creation, and has to do with his salvation reaching the ends of the earth.”[1] Yet, it is possible to conceive of God’s mission more broadly, defined as God’s plan and activity to glorify himself. John Piper is representative of those whose definition of God’s mission is broad, arguing that God’s mission is about worship and glory, asserting, “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.”[2]

Before getting into the mission in Revelation, I should end this post simply by defining the Missio Dei. As I understand it, the Missio Dei is God’s purpose to glorify himself by bringing the whole of his creation to its purposed end, its telos. Bringing his creation to its purposed end will, since the world has been marred by the fall, necessitate a great work of redemption by God in which God’s glory will be magnified.

 [1]  Andreas J. Köstenberger and Peter T. O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2001), 25. [2] John Piper, Let the Nations be Glad: the Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 15.

Blogging Again

For the past...well, long time, I've been focusing on finishing up my ThM and getting the final project submitted. Now that I've checked that off my list, I'd like to get back to blogging. I enjoy it and it helps me think through issues as well as learn to articulate well. I hope it's been of some help to others in the past.

I have a truck load of things I'd like to write about - Revelation (of course), hermeneutics, Christians and culture, perseverance of the saints, union with Christ, men and women stuff, baseball (of course), etc.

I'd also like this to be a place to answer questions. I get a lot of them from friends, in ACGs, and just passing in the halls at church. Why not add to the list of things I don't know, but want to learn more about!? So shoot me questions using the form in the sidebar and I'll do my best - though if you start asking things like 'how does Hegel's philosophy dovetail with Barth's theology?', you'll have to be content with 'I have no earthly idea!'