Posts Tagged With: faithful

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 12: Victory by Faithfulness

In Revelation 12, John pulls back completely the curtain on the Seven Churches’ physical persecution.  Behind the persecutions of the Roman government, the economic embargoes on Christians and their businesses, the ways in which people are making their Christian neighbors feel ostracized and unwanted, behind all of this is the fury of Satan who has been cast out of heaven and is on his way down to the pit of fire.  In this cryptic book, this may be the clearest John gets as to why this is happening.  For that reason, some commentators have called it the center of the book, which it pretty much is chronologically too.

Satan — that ancient, devious, seven-headed red serpent (12:9) — is a defeated foe.  He knew enough (prophecies? conversation with God? his own observation?) to know that Jesus would be his undoing.  He Revelation+12+WOMAN-WITH-CHILDsets out to kill this child at birth.  But this plan is thwarted, and Satan and his angels are cast onto the earth.  Knowing he cannot get to the child, he goes after his mother (a character that no one before the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages interpreted as Mary, rather is either the true Israel with stars for the twelves tribes or more likely the Church where the twelve stars would be the apostles).  Further punctuating his waning power, Satan does not even succeed in drowning the woman with his terror.

Satan is defeated.  Do you believe it?  He does.

We probably have a hard time believing Satan is a conquered enemy because Jesus’ victory over Satan is an “already– not yet” victory.  Think back to yesterday’s post.  Satan suffered his fatal blow at the cross.  That was D-Day.  He is “already” conquered, but the complete victory has “not yet” come.  That V-E Day will be at Christ’s return when the New Creation comes and Satan and his friends Death and the Grave are thrown into the destroying pit of fire.

The original readers of this chapter would have had a hard time believing that Satan was losing power, too.  Evil raged about them.  Rome was Satan’s puppet, and Rome seemed to be winning.  For the recipients of Revelation, their “victory day” was still in the future, in fact they would not see it this side of the second death.  John acknowledges this:

Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to wage war against the rest of her children, those who keep God’s commands and the testimony of Jesus. (12:17)

Rome will not touch the whole Church, but these seven churches in Asia Minor are within Rome’s grasp.  Satan is defeated, but he is trying to take as many down with him as he goes.

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In this pivotal chapter of Revelation also comes the greatest piece of advice the Christians of Asia Minor will get in this book.  How is Satan defeated?

They conquered him by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony, because they did not love their lives unto death. (12:11)

The power of victory resides in the blood of Jesus.  He has purchased their rescue.  But they have a role to play in the reversal of Satan’s power as well.  They must stay true to God.  They must spread the news about the Lamb.  They must let go of the pleasures of this life, not fearing even death itself.  The testimony of their witness — both in their words and their actions of faithfulness to the end — render the power of Satan and Rome powerless to stop them.

What did you notice in this chapter? 

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Revelations 3: The Jesus of the Churches

2171172330103330085S500x500Q85Promises.  We all get a lot of them.  Promises are only as good as the one making the promise.  Making promises isn’t the same as wishful thinking.  To give a good promise you must have the ability to deliver on that promise.  In each of the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor in Revelation 2-3, Jesus makes a promise to bring something — good or bad — to someone because of what they have done or not done.  In every case, Jesus makes it clear he possesses what is necessary to fulfill his promise.

Each of the seven letters starts with a description of the ascended, victorious Christ.  Then at some point in each letter Jesus promises something to either those who have persisted in wickedness or faithfulness.  John has done a masterful job of connecting promises with aspects of Jesus’ description in each letter so that the point is driven home that Jesus possesses the ability to deliver on what he has said. (Click here for a PDF of this chart.)

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We don’t just serve a God of wishful thinking.  Jesus doesn’t just hope he can help us.  We aren’t just crossing our fingers and wishing on a star.  Our God makes promises, and He possesses all that is necessary to fulfill those promises.

What did you notice in this chapter?

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3 John: A Teacher’s Greatest Joy

Nothing gives me greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth. (v.4)

Third John is addressed from the “Elder” again to a man named “Gaius” in an unnamed church.  Gaius represents a contingent in this church, unlike the power-monger Diotrephes, who look to John as their teacher and spiritual father.  As he approaches the end of this life, John wants more than anything to know that his “children” are being faithful to all he has taught them and all he has worked for.

As a high school teacher of Bible, I have been known from time to time to call my students my “kids.”  They kind of are.  I spend more time with them than my own!  And by the end of any year, I really end up caring a great deal about my students.  They are funny and I love the laughs.  They are thoughtful and kind, and one positive affirmation of what we do in class can keep me going for months.  I love to see them struggle with an abstract philosophical or theological idea until they understand it and can apply it to their own lives.  But my greatest joy is when we meet up a few years after graduation and it is clear they are “walking in the truth.”  That makes the long hours, endless grading, hard conferences, and discipling disappointments all worth it in the end.

What did you notice anew in Third John?

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Luke 16: Faithful in Little, Faithful in Much

“Rich Man and Lazarus, Part 1,” prettytexasgal (from Flickr)

Someone who is faithful in a small matter will also be faithful in a large one. Someone who is dishonest in a small matter will also be dishonest in a large one. If you haven’t been faithful with that wicked thing called money, who is going to entrust you with true wealth? (16:10-11)

What constitutes “faithfulness” in this passage?

I think I have always answered that question the way Dave Ramsey or Larry Burkett might want me to.  “Faithful” means managing your money in such a way that you do not lose it and maybe you even gain more.  Faithful is financial.

But then I see the word “dishonest”  in verse 10, so maybe faithful is ethical.  Being faithful with money means not cheating your employer or not selling junk bonds or something like that.

Then we keep reading on in the chapter and I am wondering if Luke doesn’t tell us himself what “faithful” means.  Luke gives us a story contrasting the life of a rich man who has “received good things” (16:25) but goes on to an eternal punishment and a poor man named Lazarus who would have settled for “scraps that fell from the rich man’s table” (16:21) but receives a blessed afterlife.  The implication is that the rich man is being punished for how he has treated or, maybe better said, neglected Lazarus.  If Luke intends for us to read these stories together, then “faithful” is social.  To be faithful means to be compassionate, to care for others, and to use the money with which God entrusts us to ensure the people in our life have what they need, not simply to serve our own interests.

Does that understanding make sense with your reading of this chapter?

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