Posts Tagged With: prophecy

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!

Categories: Revelation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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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1 Corinthians 13: The Better Way

When read by itself, 1 Corinthians 13 is a wonderful passage.  Great for weddings.  An ideal chapter to learn generalities about love.  Nice for ethics (I’ll guess many of us were taught to replace the word “love” in verses 4-7 with our name as a way to determine how loving we truly are).  I would not wish to take any of those things away.

This chapter comes so much more alive when we read it in context — always a good principle for Bible reading.  1 Corinthians 13 is sandwiched between chapters 12 and 14.  We looked at chapter 12 yesterday and saw its focus on spiritual gifts.  Scan ahead and you will see that chapter 14 has the same focus.  Paul’s beautiful diatribe on love is best understood within the context of a church that is using spiritual giftedness of boast and divide.

Recall that we ended yesterday with Paul claiming there is a better gift than tongues or prophecy or miracles, that there is a “better way” to live than the way of competition and glory based on performance (12:31).  What is that better gift, that better way?

If I should have prophetic gifts, and know all mysteries, all knowledge, too; have faith, to move the mountains, but have no love — I’m nothing. . . . Love never fails.  But prophecies will be abolished; tongues will stop; and knowledge, too, be done away. (13:2, 8)

Love is that better gift.  The best way to judge spiritual fervor is love.  A Christian has reached the zenith when they love.  A church can be congratulated when they love.  If you want to pursue a gift, go after love.

And not just any kind of love.  A selfless, sacrificial, enduring love that banishes the attitudes the Corinthians’ competition was bringing: jealousy, envy, pride, anger, and vindictiveness.

Spiritual gifts were only intended to build up a church until the complete and perfect (13:10) outpouring of divine love came to the church, and to a large part that was dependent on the submissive obedience of Christians to the better way of love.  None of the fancy acts we see on those religious television shows with ladies with purple hair and men with perfect haircuts, shiny teeth and designer suits will be in heaven.  They were only a vehicle to an end.  Heaven is most of all characterized by love.  Love will go on for ever.

A church can major in the minors and they may just find it only fractures the bonds of fellowship.  Or they can keep the main thing the main thing and find that it builds up the very building blocks of community.

What stood out to you in a new way in this very familiar chapter?

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Luke 21: Watch Out!

This chapter and its parallel in Matthew 24 are just flat complicated passages.  I remember as a high school senior sitting in Bible class with a very insightful and even-keeled teacher trying to sort out the exact ins and outs of this passage.  We were not very successful.  What pertains to the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple to Rome in AD 70?  What is talking about the return of Jesus sometime in the future?  Did they think both would happen simultaneously?  Was Jesus using the same techniques the Old Testament prophets like Daniel did in which they conflated several events together that though spaced out over hundreds of years would end up being fulfilled in very similar ways?  And none of these questions get into the millennial madness the “Left Behind” folks can do with a passage like this.

I had more questions that answers back then.  I have reread this passage many times since then, and I still have more questions than answers.

But here is what I know.  The most important part of the chapter is not the identification and timing of the events mentioned in this chapter.  What is most imperative to hear and understand is the way Jesus ends this teaching:

So watch out for yourselves that your hearts may not grow heavy with dissipation and drunkenness and the cares of this life, so that that day comes upon you suddenly, like a trap.  It will come, you see, on everyone who lives on the face of the earth.  Keep awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will happen, and to stand before the son of man. (21:34-36)

Jesus is coming again.  The Kingdom will come in fulness.  There is judgment ahead.  There are bleak days ahead too, this passage seems to imply (though, lest we blindly adopt some tribulation concept, when has that not been true?)  Our job in the midst of all of this is to watch our hearts and make our hearts ready, much more than it is to watch the news headlines for clues of the second coming (besides Jack Van Impe has that one covered!)  More tragic than blind eyes that cannot read the “sign of the times” is a calloused, worldly heart that is not ready for the real life that is to come.

Jesus mentions three stumbling blocks to watchfulness in this passage:

Dissipation: According to the World English Dictionary, one “dissipates” by living a life of excessive indulgence in physical pleasures, especially things that are expensive, wasteful, and distracting.  Maybe that vacation we couldn’t really afford because we just had to “get away from it all?”  But is this also the mind candy of the multi-billion dollar entertainment and celebrity industry so that our hearts long to be like them, look like them, and live like them?  Dissipation makes the heart less sensitive.

Drunkenness: Literally, this means to be of altered mind because of alcohol.  But why do people drink?  Lots of reasons.  Beyond the pressure-driven binge drinking of adolescence, maybe the most common reason to drink is to anesthetize the pain of an unpleasant life.  The truth is we can achieve that same numbness with any numbers of “drugs.”  Some of us use food.  Others shopping.  Still others the distraction of television.  Drunkenness impairs our vision.

The Cares of This Life: What a shame to spend a life building and rebuilding barns when they are lost in the end?  We certainly need to be responsible with the roles we have to play in life, but these too can become all-consuming.  For some of us this is our career.  I wonder if my yard is really as important as I some times make it.  Or the car.  Why do we run around so frantically trying to be sure everyone likes us, when there is divine approval that is even more important?  The cares of this life busy our hands and waste our energy.

Instead, Jesus talks about a heart anchored in the age to come, eyes fixed on the goal ahead of us, and hands that pray.  Watch out!

What did you learn from this reading today?  

Categories: Luke | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Luke 4: First Words

Can you identify what book begins with the following classic first lines?  Answers are at the end of the post, if you wish to quiz yourself.

  1. ”It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
  2. ”Call me Ishmael.”
  3. ”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
  4. ”All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
  5. ”You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.”
  6. ”It was a pleasure to burn.”
  7. ”You better not never tell nobody but God.”
  8. ”In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”
  9. ”Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
  10. “All children, except one, grow up.”

Sometimes the first lines of a book or the first words of a character let you know all you need to know about that book or character right from the start.  Remember this first line from Darth Vader in Star Wars?

“Commander, tear this ship apart until you find those plans.”  

Today, Luke gives us Jesus’ first public words in his adult ministry, a quote from the beginning of Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to tell the poor the good news.  He has sent me to announce release to the prisoners, and sight to the blind, to set the wounded victims free, to announce the year of God’s special favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

More about that later.

Sin is big and pervasive.  We are kidding ourselves if we think sin only affects our relationship with God, as if it is some cosmic, spiritual black dot on our heavenly record, which if not dealt with will adversely affect our afterlife in some way.  Sin affects every square inch of our lives.  Sin has a spiritual effect, to be sure.  But it also has social, physical, and psychological effects on life here and now as well.

Think about Adam and Eve and effects of the first, prototypical sin:

  • They are declared guilty and are cursed by God for their actions (spiritual)
  • They are separated from God’s presence, alienation begins between the two of them, and Adam is placed in a position of dominance over Eve (social)
  • They suffer a loss of innocence and feel shame and fear for the first time, all the while trying to shift blame off out themselves (psychological/emotional)
  • The physical hide then must cover themselves, they will experience pain in childbirth and in their work, the ground will be less fertile, and they begin to decay and die bodily (physical)

Sin is an all-encompassing problem that affects all corners of our life.

Now, back to Luke 4.  Jesus arrives on the scene.  Interestingly, Paul will call Jesus the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45; c.f., Romans 5:12).  We have the start of something new as Jesus steps back into the synagogue in Nazareth, his childhood home.  Luke makes it clear this is a fulfillment of prophecy: “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your own hearing” (4:21).  Like a good opening line, we are introduced to the redemptive ministry that will be Jesus’ sole concern for the next three years.  This is Jesus’ raison d’être: I came to reverse and release, heal and forgive, to make new.  True to Luke’s concern for the marginalized, the people mentioned here are the harassed, harried, and undesirables.  For the rest of the book we will watch Jesus accomplish this mission in his short life.

The interesting thing, though, is how Jesus’ declares his redemptive mission will be equally as pervasive as the sin he has come to address.  If sin affects all corners of our lives, Christ’s salvation will cover just as much ground.  Jesus has come to reverse the curse every human has been under since we moved east of Eden.  Notice how all four areas of life in the diagram above are also found here in this statement from Luke 4:

  • Announce the year of God’s special favor (spiritual)
  • Release to the prisoners (social)
  • Set the wounded victims free from “oppression” as the NIV says (psychological/emotional)
  • Recovery of sight for the blind (physical)

Salvation is not only a matter of forgiveness of sin.  Jesus has come to save every inch of us, our relationships, and our world.  Salvation is an all-encompassing solution that affects all corners of our life. 

Now that is something to get excited about!

(Answers: Pride and Prejudice; Moby Dick, Tale of Two Cities; Anna Karenina; Huckleberry Finn; Farenheit 451; The Color Purple; A River Runs Through It; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; Peter Pan)

How did you do on that little quiz?

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Matthew 2: As The Prophets Said

Blessed Good Friday!

Today is a truly somber day, yet “good” nonetheless because of what it means and what comes on Sunday.  It is an interesting juxtaposition to be reading about the birth of Christ on the day we remember his death.  Though, I wonder if death didn’t remain in the back of Jesus’ mind everyday of his earthly life.  Praise God for his faithfulness!

Four times in this chapter we are told that the events of Jesus’ early life are unfolding as the prophets of old foretold:

  • Jesus was born in Bethlehem because “that’s what it says in the prophet.” (2:5)
  • Joseph took his family to Egypt to flee from the murderous Herod in order to “fulfill what the lord said through the prophet.” (2:15)
  • The “murder of the innocents” in Bethlehem was even foretold: “That was when the word that came through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled.” (2:17)
  • Joseph took his family to Nazareth to settle once Herod the Great had died because “this was to fulfill what the prophet had spoken.” (2:23)

Scholars opine that each of the gospels was probably written to a specific audience, just like the letters were.  Many experts see much in Matthew to suggest that it was intend for a Jewish audience.  The emphasis on fulfilled Jewish prophecy about the Messiah is a key piece of evidence for a Jewish background.

Regardless of theory, this chapter reminds us that Jesus didn’t come out of nowhere as a self-styled Messiah.  He is the one talked about long ago.  He isn’t “new” as much as he is “very old.”  Jesus was no after-thought.  He is the long-desired one.  And he is here.  Now.  God with us.

What struck you about this chapter?

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Mark 13: Jesus the Prophet

We have seen the Jesus the Rabbi or Teacher.  We have watched Jesus the Miracle-Worker.  Less so in Mark than we will see in the other Gospels, we have seen Jesus the Man.  We have been teased along with the question whether Jesus is God.  Today we meet Jesus the Prophet.

"The Destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 AD" by Francesco Hayez (1791-1882)

I am afraid this is a greatly confusing chapter to me, and it has been to many people through the ages.  Jesus begins by talking about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which we know from history happened around AD 70.  Mixed in this chapter it seems Jesus is also talking about the end of time altogether when he comes again.  He talks about the coming of the kingdom, which could be associated with either of these two or something entirely different or it could be both.  Stripping the topics apart seems very complicated.

Then we are told that no one can know the time when all of this will happen (13:32).  But we are also given hints of when (13:8, 14, 29).  And last we are told to “keep watch” four times (13:33, 34, 35, 37).  So maybe we can know generally when but not exactly?

Like so many other biblical prophecies I have come to before, I am going to have to give some study time to this chapter some day soon.

What do you think?

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Mark 11: The Expected One, with a Twist

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!  Check out my other blog for some of my favorite MLK quotes if you are interested.

A conversation I had yesterday with a friend named Eddie from Bible class at Highland is running through my head as I read this chapter.  It was the end of class time and I had just taught with Trent (who is probably sorry now that I dragged him into this series) about how the kingdom Jesus so often talks about was a “kingdom-coming,” not the “going-off-to-the-kingdom” we might have been taught to expect when we were growing up.  It is a tough sell to help people see something so familiar in a new light, and I am not sure I was communicating well.  Anyway, Eddie made a perceptive connection back to a class I had taught two weeks ago on how Jesus’ followers then and now tend to turn the “kingdom” into what they want it to be.  Eddie’s point was that if the Jews of Jesus’ time struggled to fully understand the Old Testament prophecies about the kingdom well, then why do we expect that we will understand the prophecies of Jesus and John in the New Testament with perfect precision?  We at least need to be humble about our interpretations.  Nice point!

We tend to want Jesus to be what we are looking for, which is not always what he really is.

The people were expecting a war-lord who would ride into Jerusalem and drive out the Romans.  Jesus finally arrives in Jerusalem in this passage (11:1), the first time in Mark, but he is riding a “colt” hardly ready for war.  That day he looked around like a tourist and rode back out of town to Bethany.  The Expected One didn’t really come as expected.

The temple is the preeminent place for purity.  It was important to the Jewish religious leaders to maintain ethnic purity and to keep pagan money stamped with the Caesar’s image out of the Lord’s Temple.  The Lord comes to the Temple in the form of Jesus and he makes a holy mess because they are pure in all the wrong ways.  Isn’t “my house to be called a house of prayer for all the world to share?” (11:17).

God rewards faith.  Have faith and don’t doubt and you will see amazing things happen (11:22-24).  They just might not be what you were expecting.

If anyone will understand the kingdom it will be the religious establishment.  Jesus should be warmly accepted by them of all people.  But he is a threat to their power.  He seems to be pitting the Jewish religious leaders against the people.  Shouldn’t the Messiah see life like the chief priests and legal experts?

Maybe more to the point today is the one point I do understand from the strange fig tree story in this chapter: it is more important what Jesus is looking for in us.  He is looking for fruit (11:13).

What were you not expecting in today’s reading?

Categories: Mark | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

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