Posts Tagged With: apocalyptic

Revelation 13: Secret Messages

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At church each week I sit a row or two in front of a former POW from the Vietnamese War.  Ken is an immensely interesting man, both distinguished and completely humble at the same time.  I have heard him tell his stories several times of being detained in the Hanoi Hilton and every time the crowd — whether they were age 8 or 80 — was mesmerized.  Especially intriguing was his account of writing letters home to his wife.  However, these letters were filled with intelligence details written in seemingly innocuous code he had been taught in training for the war.  The Viet Cong would read his mail and pass it along as nothing more than a letter to a wife about remembrances from life at home or purely imaginative scenarios.  Hidden in there were details about how many detainees were there, their conditions, morale, and the sort.

Revelation 13 was the first chapter I ever read in Revelation.  I was 14 and I had heard of this chapter about weird monsters and the number 666.  Sounded like the kind of chapter a kid who listen to Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and who read Stephen King needed to read.  So I did.  And understood nothing that I read.

You may feel the same way today after reading this chapter.  Weird.  Puzzling.

I think it is best to think of this chapter like a letter to a detainee’s loved ones that might seem odd but innocuous to the outsider but had much meaning to those familiar with Jewish apocalyptic imagery and rhetorical devices.  How do you talk about the enemy when they read your mail?  Like this.

As chapter 12 ended we left the seven-headed red dragon Satan as he flooded the earth with waters of evil in an unsuccessful effort to drown the woman who gave birth to Jesus.  Today, out of that sea (a universal symbol in the ancient world of evil) comes a horrific beast.  With seven heads and the watery connection, we know this beast is a servant of Satan.  In the last half of the chapter, another beast arises from the earth who serves and glorifies the first beast.  On what is surely a take-off on the sealing of the righteous in chapter 7, this second beast marks on the right hand and forehead all of those in the area who wish to do business.  Finally, John says that this beast is a symbol for a human and using apocalyptic numerology (gematria) one can determine who this is from his secret number 666.

Yeah, clear as day, right?  Much ink has been spilled on this confusing chapter, and I don’t wish to add to it other than to give an interpretation that I think makes sense (the Internet is filled with scores of other interpretations).  After pulling back the curtain of reality in chapter 12 to show us that Satan is really behind the suffering of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor, John lets the curtain back into place so all we see again are the human agents of Satan’s work of deceit and destruction.  There is a horrible beast of a power that will make the life of the Christians of Asia Minor difficult.  That beast will come by sea.  This is most likely the Roman government as a whole, with seven heads for the seven emperors there had been before this time, the mortally wounded one being the worst of all thus far, Nero.  Then, as the second beast is especially religious (13:15) the beast from the land is likely the government officials and religious personnel from Asia Minor who were especially loyal to Rome and would have put the greatest direct pressure on the recipients of this letter.  We know that greatest ostracizing and disenfranchising tool that natives would have had was the ability to turn people against a Christian’s business.  If you want money bearing the “mark of the beast” (the picture of the Caesar) you will have to play by our rules and leave your superstitions behind.  These Christians knew well the power of this beast.  The symbolic number 666 has been interpreted many ways, but the best seems to be that this is a reference to Nero, based on a popular belief that Nero was so evil he was going to come back to life again (the Nero redivivus myth).  In a sense, Domitian, who brought intense persecution to the Christians of Asia Minor shortly after Revelation was written (if a date in the 80s AD is correct), became that “second Nero.”  Domitian picked up where Nero left off.

In an effort to universalize this maybe we could say that the beast from the sea is any force that uses sheer power to work against God’s kingdom.  The beast from the land is the force that adds religion by coercion and intimidation into the mix.  That happened in the first-century Roman Empire, the tenth-century Roman Catholic Church, the twelfth-century Islamic Middle East, the early-twentieth century Nazi Germany, the mid-twentieth century Iron Curtain Communists, the twenty-first century terrorist camps in Afghanistan, and now the center of Africa as tribe battles tribe and ethnic group kills off ethnic group.  Brute Power and Religion used to support Brute Power has had many faces throughout history.

I believe these are the two verses that would have spoken loudest to the first faithful Christians reading this chapter:

So everyone on earth worshiped it — everyone, that is, whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life belonging to the lamb who was slaughtered. (13:8)

When one sees the immense power of these beasts, it is hard to imagine that anyone could resist doing what they want.  And in the ancient Roman society, most did follow the norm.  But these Christians can take heart that they have an allegiance to one who is even more powerful.  They can be those who will not bow a knee.

But, the Christians of Asia Minor are mentioned in this passage in another place, too:

It [the beast of the earth] was granted the right to make war against God’s holy people and to defeat them. (13:7)

That too is this group of faithful Christians.

And now we are back to what has become one of the paradoxical main themes of this book: There is a great rescue coming.  Hold on.  You will be taken safely through it if you do not give up the faith.  But that rescue is not physical.  You will have to lay this life down and go through the second death in order to live forever with the Lamb.

What do you think of this mysterious chapter?

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Revelation 9: Undeterred Evil and Protected Saints

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With today’s reading we are solidly in the section of Revelation that is both hard to understand in a simple reading and that reveals aspects of God that we neither think a lot about nor welcome.

After running quickly through the first four trumpets, John concentrates his attention on the fifth and sixth.  As the revelation unfolds we see an army of lion-toothed locusts armed like scorpions come up out of the underworld to invade the world bringing torment as they go.  With the sixth trumpet this only intensifies as a numberless horde of long-haired barbarians wreaks havoc on the countryside (bear in mind that the barbarians of northern Europe did in fact bring the end to the Roman Empire in the 400s AD).  More than torment, this army of riders brings death to a wide swath of people.  As a great fan of Tolkien, I can’t help but imagine an army of demented and distorted orcs marching across the land.  Notice the faithful who have been marked on their foreheads by God as His are protected entirely from the effects of the trumpets (9:4).  John now has God unleashing evil forces to punish the wicked.  Maybe we are uncomfortable with this idea of God using evil, but here it is.

Maybe the most amazing point in this chapter is that even after all of this torment, even after a third of the world dies, the people being punished were so bent towards evil that they did not turn from their sinful ways:

All the other people, the ones who had not been killed in these plagues, did not repent of the things they had made.  The did not stop worshipping demons — idols made of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood, which cannot see, hear, or walk.  Nor did they repent of their murders, or their magic, or their fornication, or their stealing. (9:20-21)

Sadly, I have to believe that there are people alive today who are every bit as depraved as these.

What do you think?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Revelation

Recently, a friend and mentor said he and his co-teacher had taught every book in the New Testament in their Sunday School class . . . except Revelation.  It is just too hard a book to teach responsibly.  True!  I am afraid this sentiment is true for many Christians too.  They avoid Revelation out of fear, confusion, or intimidation.  Some so neglect the book they don’t even realize the book is called Revelation (singular), not Revelations (plural).

But many of us also know people who hang out in Revelation to the exclusion of much of the rest of the New Testament.  Every news headline is a fulfillment of some obscure detail in Revelation.  This two-thousand year old book was certainly talking about the European Union or Barack Obama or Pope Benedict.  Making sure people know and agree with these interpretations of prophecy is equally as important as how one treats his neighbor or whether care is given to the destitute.

Whether one avoids the book or camps out in its pages, Revelation is an absolutely incredible piece of literature and fitting end to the Bible.  Personally, once I took a seminary class on the book my confusion over the book was far less.  Now, Revelation is easily in my top five favorite books of the Bible.  More and more I see how the teachings of this book have become integral to my own theology.  There is no way these short posts will help us all overcome our under- or overemphasis on Revelation, but may the last month of this blog help us all gain a new appreciation for this majestic book.

Revelation was written by a man named John.  But which John?  The apostle and writer of the Gospel and Epistles?  Probably not.  There is too many stylistic and theological differences to suggest these were all written by the same author.  Many scholars are content to simple say this is a different John, maybe “John the Revelator,” writing from exile on the island of Patmos just off the coast of Asia Minor near Ephesus.

When was Revelation written is also somewhat contested and a question that many scholars believe can be answered very precisely because of cryptic references in the book.  What most agree on is that the book was written during a period when Christians were being persecuted and therefore had to speak in code.  This would fit the time period of Nero in the 60s AD when Peter and Paul are traditionally thought to have been killed, but an even better case can be made that this fits the 80s when the Roman Emperor Domitian brought about an even bloodier oppression of Christianity.  I tend toward a later date.

What kind of book is this?  Prophecy?  Yes, there is certainly prophecy in the book.  A letter?  We know from the first three chapters that this book was addressed to the seven churches in Asia Minor (where the persecution of Christians in the 80s AD was worst).  Revelation is sermonic and poetic in places, and maybe the best term for the book is apocalyptic, in that it is giving a message veiled in exaggerated, fantastical imagery because of perceived opposition to free speech.  Bottomline: Revelation is good literature.

When is Revelation talking about?  This is somewhat simplified, but there are three main options:

  1. Then — John was addressing people in the first-century undergoing first-century problems, mainly political and cultural persecution.  The main evil in the book is Rome.  The grotesque beasts are emperors and political/economic institutions.  Maybe the last three chapters are talking about the end of time, but the rest of the book has to stay anchored in an ancient Roman context.
  2. Future — John was foreseeing cataclysmic events that would take place at the end of time as Jesus returns and the New Creation comes.  Of course, the beginning of the end could be right now, which is what many people have thought all throughout time since the first-century.  So look for the “signs of the times” all around you.
  3. Always — John was speaking in symbols and by nature symbolism is much more timeless and malleable to situation.  We press the images too far when we come up with singular, specific, time-bound fulfillments.  John is speaking of evil in its many faces and forms, all throughout time.  Thus, John is talking about Rome but also our world today and the Middle Ages and the age to come.

Personally, I prefer the last option, with a heavy emphasis on “then.”

This month we may not break the code on whether Sandy and Katrina, economic cliffs, and re-elections are harbingers on the end-times.  But if we keep our eyes wide open to the big picture I believe we will be encouraged by John’s main point: Do not be discouraged by the darkness you see all around you, God wins in the end!  Better days are coming!  Praise the Lamb who has made the victory sure!

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2 Thessalonians 2: Beware the Man of Lawlessness!

There can be no doubt that today’s passage raises lots of questions, most of which you are not about to get an answer to.  Paul discusses the mysterious “man of lawlessness” (2:3), and lots of ink has been spilled on who or what this is or was.  The opinions are myriad and no consensus has arisen; it would take far more time and space than I have to explore this topic completely (one needs only google “man of lawlessness” to see the ridiculous diversity of opinion).  Interpretations of prophecies like these tend to be shaped by the interpreter’s biases and philosophical presuppositions, so I will reveal mine by saying that I imagine Paul was talking about something and someone that made sense in a first century context, likely connected to politics given the cryptic nature of the prophecy.  At the same time, when has there not been someone who “fits the bill” in many ways?  My desire today is only to deconstruct one concern that people some times have when they come to this passage.

Paul describes the man of lawlessness as a deceiver who leads people astray with his lies.  Some grow concerned then that they will be pulled away from God, almost against their better judgment, by the wiles of this man and his trickery.  Let’s unpack this in good sermonic fashion with a nice dose of alliteration:

The presence of the lawless one will be accompanied by the activity of the satan, with full power, with signs, and spurious wonders, with every kind of wicked deceit over those on the way to ruin, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved.  For that reason God sends upon them a strong delusion, leading them to believe the lie, so that judgment may come upon all who did not believe the truth but took pleasure in wickedness. (2:9-12)

Long before a person falls victim of the man of lawlessness’s lies, he has put himself in a place to be open to that deceit.  The lawless man only leads those who have decided to follow his leading.  Notice how this passage ends: those who believe the lies of this man had already chosen to take “pleasure in wickedness.”  Their love of debauchery had set them up to be led astray; those who like the dark have many reasons for why it is the best way to live.  From this love of wickedness then came denial and an unwillingness to “believe the truth.”  Only then are they hit with the one-two punch of deceit from the satanic man of lawlessness and delusion from God.  As much as it may not line up with the sensibilities that some of us with high, high views of human freedom, yes, it does seem that God will “harden the hearts” of those who have already chosen by their own choice not to respond to his love and grace.  Only then does judgment and destruction come.

In short, the man of lawlessness, as crafty as he may have been (or will be, given your view on latter-day prophecy), is not capable of turning the devoted against God.  To argue such is to claim there is one who can frustrate the plans of God for our salvation with his superior, evil power.  Surely we do not want to claim such a fallacy!  Christians — especially young ones like the Thessalonians — should always be on guard against influences that can corrupt their hearts and turn them against God.  Notice that sound teaching and traditions help one stand firm against the lawless one’s lies (2:15).  But we need not fret that this will happen against our will nor that of a good and powerful God.

What do you think?

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