Posts Tagged With: Rome

Revelation 19: A Chorus of Hallelujahs

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Merry Christmas!

I was fortunate that both of my sets of grandparents lived in the same small town, a few hours away from my childhood home.  Every Christmas included a visit with both sides of the family in a grand two- or three-day holiday.  The celebrations with each family couldn’t be more different.  Christmas with my mother’s family was loud with laughter and stories.  There was always an endless game of road hockey, and some of the best cooking you ever would have.  I enjoyed our Christmas visits with my dad’s family just as much but the traditions were very different.  My grandfather would hold court in his living room around a warm fire, where all were invited to solve the world’s problems with appropriately conservative answers.  We children would escape to the basement to shoot pool until we grew old enough to have opinions we could support.  To this day, though, what I remember most was that my grandfather always had classical music playing.  Royal Canadian Brass.  The Boston Pops.  Handel’s “Messiah.”  When my grandfather passed away last year I was given a nut-bowl I had turned him in the seventh grade in woodshop, and a collection of CDs he used to play at Christmas.

George Friedric Handel

George Friedric Handel

Arguably the most popular part of George Friedric Handel’s “Messiah” is the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  Handel set the music in 1741 and his friend Charles Jennens provided the lines of verse.  Interestingly, the three most famous lines of the “Hallelujah Chorus” come from Revelation, and two are found in today’s passage:

Alleluia!  The Lord our God, the Almighty, has become king [reigneth]! (19:6)

On his robe, and on his thigh, is written a name: King of kings, and Lord of lords. (19:16)

Now the kingdom of the world has passed to our Lord and his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever. (11:15)

Amidst the oracles of doom and judgement, the grotesque beast and powerful celestial beings, it is immensely fitting that the fall of Rome ends with the flourish of praise to Christ the Victor we find running throughout this passage.

I enjoyed solving the problems of the world in my grandfather’s living room sipping apple cider and listening to Handel.  I am infinitely more thankful that there is a white rider with a blood-drenched robe who truly can right the world again.  No beast or false prophet can stand against him.  And that is worth a lifetime’s chorus of “Hallelujahs.”

What a great gift for Christmas!

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Revelation 18: A Self-Centered Lament

"The Fall of Babylon, Revelation 18," by Patty Albred (2000)

“The Fall of Babylon, Revelation 18,” by Patty Albred (2000)

Fair weather friends.  Here today, gone tomorrow.  It turns out that’s all Rome’s friends were to her.

A mighty angel comes on to the scene and shouts a death notice for Rome:

Babylon the Great has fallen!  She has fallen! (18:2)

He also makes one last call to God’s people to be a separate people until the end.  We are reminded that holiness is one of the main themes of Revelation:

Come out of here, my people, so that you don’t become embroiled in her sins, and so that you don’t receive any of her plagues. (18:4)

Judgment has come to this wicked woman who thought no harm would come to her, that no one would hold her accountable for her behavior, even the buying and selling of humans (18:13).  But she will be paid back double (18:6).

To be sure, Rome’s fall is lamented.  But not for the reasons we might expect.

The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her, because nobody will buy their cargo anymore. (18:11)

“Alas, alas,” they said, “the great city!  Everyone who had ships on the sea could get rich from her wealth, but in a single hour she has become a desert.” (18:19).

The merchants and mariners who cry over Rome’s demise are really crying for themselves.  They care about photo 1only to the degree it affects them.  They are broken up over their loss of business.  Not exactly compassion now, is it?

Power intimidates.  Power can produce great respect.  Power might even engender admiration.  But power is not the recipe for loyalty, sacrificial kinship, or even love.  When power wanes, so too do the alliances that power brought.  Rome only knew how to operate by power.  The kingdom of the Lamb is the dominion of love.

Tonight is Christmas Eve.  My family has made a bunch to trips to Target and Sam’s Club and the grocery store the past few days.  I am thankful those businesses exist.  As much driving as many of us do around the holidays, I am glad the big oil companies exist.  I look forward to sitting down tonight in peace and order and even a reasonable level of affluence, and I know that I have the sacrifices of soldiers and the tireless hours of civil servants to thank.  But when I sit down tonight it will be with my family whom I love.  Maybe my family of faith too at a nearby Christmas Eve service.  Tomorrow my family will enjoy each other’s presence and we will make time to celebrate the birth of the Lamb.  Love breeds love, not power.

What struck you today?

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Revelation 17: Babylon the Great, Mother of Whores!

When an event like the tragedy in Newtown, CT takes places, it is common that in the news the same event is replayed from lots of different perspectives.  That is the best way to view this section of Revelation as well.  Rather than understanding chapters 16-19 chronologically, we are seeing the same fall of Rome from several viewpoints.

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Today, John sees Rome (code-named Babylon) pictured as a gaudy, drunken prostitute riding on a red, seven-headed, ten-horned beast.  She is drunk on the “blood of God’s holy people” (17:6).  Rome is pictured here as a power-drunk manipulator of the nations, offering base pleasure, riding on the beast of brute power.  So pictured, we can all think of many such prostitutes throughout the ages.  Interestingly, when we talk about two powers — political, cultural, or economic — joining forces in order to increase their market share, we say they are “in bed” with each other.

The description of the beast is quite detailed.  In what is clearly an inferior parody of the Lamb, the Beast is described this way:

. . . when they see the monster that was and is not and is to come. (17:8)

The seven heads symbolize both seven hills (just like Rome was built on) and seven emperors of Rome, much as they did on the seven-headed beast in Romans 13.  The most salient point regarding the heads/emperors of the beast is that there will soon come an eighth head/emperor who “is also one of the seven” (17:11).  This strange statement is best understood as a reference to the soon-to-ascend destructive Domitian, who will be like Nero returning from the dead.  The ten horns are foreign puppet-kings that join the prostitute in her persecution of the Lamb.

In a strange twist of events, as the chapter ends the ten horns and the beast turn against the prostitute, destroying her with fire and eating her flesh.  These ten kings will eventually revolt and overtake Rome.  The prostitute discovers what many have found throughout the ages: “every revolutionary power contains within itself the seed of destruction” (Mounce, Revelation, 320 quoting Lilje).  In opening the door of alliance, Rome also opened the door to defeat.  Power attracts, but them it corrupts and turns people against each other.  Power is Rome’s downfall.

John adds one more point that would have been most important to the first recipients of this book:

God has put it into their hearts to do his will. (17:17)

With all this talk of Satan, it would be easy to think dualistically as if God and Satan are fighting each other with near equal power, heading towards an uncertain end.  John remind us all that God is sovereign and all that is done comes by His hand.  God is ultimately responsible for Rome’s fall.

What did you notice today?

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Revelation 16: Armageddon Begins

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I know, it is the eve of Mayan Apocalypse.  No, this post is not about that.  We have come to the end, at least for Rome.

The seven angels come forward and cast out the contents of their golden bowls onto various aspects of the natural world (the earth, sea, rivers, the Euphrates, sun, sky) and on the throne of the beast (Rome, itself).  The bowls are filled with “plagues” (16:9), and we can’t help but think of the Exodus, especially when people are afflicted with painful sores, water is turned to blood, the world is plunged into darkness, and a river is dried up.  Let there be no mistake.  This is a second Exodus (or a third, if you count the Babylonian invasion, captivity, and return towards the end of the Old Testament).  Rome is another Egypt.  Caesar is another Pharaoh.  Just like Pharaoh, there are hard hearts in the crowd:

They cursed the name of the God who had authority over these plagues.  They did not repent or give him glory. (16:9b)

But unlike the Egyptians, many who softened and begged Pharaoh to relent, the average Roman remains hardened, cursing God and refusing to repent.  In the first two sets of seven, we had an interlude between the sixth and seventh bowl or trumpet which was spoken to the saints directly intending to bring hope.  We have an interlude here, but only for the triumvirate of evil (dragon, beast, and false prophet, 16:13) to gather forces to enter battle from forces marching from the east across the “dried up” Euphrates.  The march to the bloody end continues, and will do so for three more chapters in a grand mix of images.

The term “Armageddon” is a Hebrew derivative and comes from 16:16 where Wright follows several MEGGIDOMAPNICE translations and calls the site of the last battle “Mount Megiddo.”  That translation is not unanimous, in fact, this passage is a hotly contested one.  Is this referring to the city of Megiddo in northern Israel?  Is this referring to a mountain (that Megiddo did not have)?  Is this being used symbolically (which I suspect), as Megiddo had been the site of many pivotal battles between nations from that area of the world?  We run the risk of getting too caught up in specific details.  The fact that East meets West in Israel (some say) in this vision is why people inclined towards latter-day prophecy see some final battle involving the modern state of Israel and tension in the Middle East, especially Iran now (though, wasn’t it Iraq ten years ago?).  Mix religion with American foreign political policy and you can see how this gets messy in a hurry.

Mount Megiddo?

Mount Megiddo?

Back to the Bible: today, it all ends with the seventh bowl, where a divine voice says “It is done!” (16:17) — an echo of the cross? — and the great city (Rome, presumably) both falls in an unparalleled earthquake and is crushed by gigantic hailstones.

I am struck by how the people of the great city have become so depraved that God’s punishment has only caused them to become more set against God and resistant to repentance.  But after the evil we have seem in Newtown, Connecticut and various other places recently, I shouldn’t be surprised.

What made you wonder in this chapter?

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Revelation 14: Living with End-Time Vision

The conflict in John’s visions lets up for a moment, and now things are about to get loud!

John has a new vision, this time of the Lamb and the 144,00 marked on their foreheads for rescue and reward.  Standing on Mount Zion in the ideal city of God safely away from the pressing of the grapes of God’s wrath outside of the city (14:20).  So the praise erupts.  A thunderous, cascade of harps and a new song just for the moment.

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this scene?  How does one ensure he will be there (14:4-5)?

  • Avoid sexual immorality
  • Follow the example of Jesus aggressively
  • Be ready to suffer and sacrifice
  • Speak with utter truth and purity

These qualities would have been especially poignant for the original recipients of this book.  Life in the Roman Empire where they were being progressively pushed towards life-and-death decisions made them daily have to determine whether they were willing to remain unspotted like the 144,000 of this vision (maybe recent Christian martyrs like Antipas who had been faithful unto death, 2:14?).  A little lie about their beliefs could save them some harassment.  Avoiding oppression through participation in the religious cults of the Empire and the trade guilds (unions) of their towns would also place them into sexually immoral situations, for sure.  Were they ready to follow Jesus’ example of holiness even to the point of sacrifice?

Many of us are not in the same immediate threat of physical harm and economic marginalization because of our faith.  But the pull to engage in a culture that is far too sexual and dishonest is still very real.  One can stand out too much in business and culture.  One can be too religious, right?  The call to faithfulness is one we need to hear too.

Begin with the end in mind

Begin with the end in mind

Maybe it helps to think like the second angel mentioned in this chapter:

Babylon the Great has fallen!  She has fallen! (14:8)

Remembering that apocalyptic literature is stated in code, Babylon is certainly a reference to Rome.  As Babylon was the immoral and barbarous nemesis of the people of God in the last part of the Old Testament, likewise Rome is to the nascent Church.  The trouble is that Rome had not fallen.  In fact, when John is writing this Rome is a great height of power.  She still has the ability to make her mark on these Christians (14:9) and to kill.

Maybe the point is that to live faithfully in the midst of hard times requires end-time vision.  We must remain focused on how things end, not how they are right now.  We must bear in mind where each of the forks in the road leads in the end, not what they look like right now.  The Rome of our lives have fallen.  They are fading away.  The Lamb will win in the end.  A new city is coming where the harvest is gathered in for abundant living (14:14-16).  That was certainly one of the reasons for this whole book: the give end-time vision to a persecuted people so as to strengthen their resistance.  Often, we need that encouragement too.

What stood out to you?

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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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Revelation 11: A Turning Point

The-turning-point-in-relationships-signTurning points.  We love them.  Or hate them, depending on which way things turn.  When things start turning in a favorable way, they are the dawning light of a new day.  They possess hope enough to fight on.

D-Day was one such turning point.  Thursday, June 6, 1944.  Tides turned for the Allied Forces on that day.  That Hitler and the Axis Powers had gone from the hunters to the hunted was becoming clear.  However, there was still fighting to be done.  V-E Day would not be for another eleven months, Wednesday, May 8, 1945.

In many ways I read this chapter, seemingly the contents of the bittersweet “little scroll” of chapter 10, as a similar turning point.

John receives a vision of two witnesses guarded safely through a period of persecution (42 months = 1260 days = 3.5 years = time, times, half a time → were all symbolic ways to depict an indefinite period of trial, based on Daniel 8).  However, when that time period is over and their message has been faithfully delivered, protection is lifted and the people of the “great city” of “Sodom” or “Egypt” kill them and leave them for public disgrace.  After 3.5 days, the two are resurrected and whisked away to the heavens.  At this point the angelic chorus of God’s throne-room breaks into unmatched praise and announcement of a decisive turning point.  Now is the time “to destroy the destroyers of the earth” (11:18).

Who exactly are the “two witnesses”?  There are many, many interpretations.  This may be one of the most contested passages in the book.  Almost all see that the two witnesses are described as Elijah (fire devouring enemies, shut up the sky from raining, v.5-6) and Moses (water turned to blood, calling down plagues, v.6), but who or what is being referred to by these figures?  If this vision is talking about actual people, I am most drawn to the suggestion that this would be Peter and Paul, both of whom died during the reign of Nero in public ways in Rome (always the “great city” in Revelation, and understandably like the immoral Sodom and tyrannical Egypt, v.8).

Now, fifteen years later, the Jesus movement did not in fact die as one might have expected it to after the persecutions of Nero.  Almost as if it were “back from the dead,” as strong as ever before, the tables have turned.  There are dark days ahead for the seven churches addressed in this book as Domitian brings a second wave of persecution in Asia Minor, but God will see them safely through this as he did before, at least safely through the second death of martyrdom to the great reward of new life.  Rome dealt its death-blow to those brought to Christ by the apostle to the Jews (Peter) and the apostle to the Gentiles (Paul), but death could not keep her down.  The fate of the kingdoms of the world is sealed at this point.  Victory is in sight.  Rome is going down.  Rome is now the hunted.  Justice is coming.  In many ways, what we will see as we keep on reading will be the undoing of the forces of evil opposed to God.

Verse 15 may be one of my favorite verses in the entire Bible:

The seventh angel blew his trumpet, and loud voices were heard from heaven.  “Now the kingdom of the world has passed to our Lord and his Messiah,” said the voices, “and he will reign forever and ever.”

There is nothing that God is after more than the redemption of His creation — people and place.  This is the New Creation, when this world is rescued from the forces of evil and it becomes the domain of God once again.  Here in the middle of the book we are given a glimmer of the glory to come.

What do you think?

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Revelation 4: Who Is Really Seated on the Throne?

Like all the great prophets of the Bible, one of the first visions John receives is one of God.  Jesus, who can open all doors (3:7), opens the door of heaven and ushers John into the throne-room of the Lord Almighty.  This is the point where I think words are insufficient to express the reality, but John keeps on writing.  I can only imagine that the reality will be even better than this amazing chapter!

There are always those inevitable days when other forces loom on the horizon as god-like.  For the Christians of Asia Minor that force was Roma — the personified power of Rome, a military, cultural, and economic superpower.  At times like this we may know in our head that God is unparalleled even by this force before us, but our hearts and souls sometimes need reminders.  This is when we most need a full-senses reminder of who is really the god of this world.  Maybe that comes in study or worship or service.  For John it came in this vision.  How could he face all that is to come in this book without first seeing this majestic vision of God?

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I am drawn to the four grotesque creatures that surround the brilliant throne of God.  Each in a different way signifies great power.  An ox was the John Deere tractor of the ancient world.  How can agriculture be successful without a good team of oxen?  The skies are dominated by the eagle.  With its sharp talons, keen eyesight, and fast speed prey can only hope to run for cover.  The lion was and to some degree still is the universal symbol for strength.  The ancient Assyrians marched out to battle with lions on their shields.  Today we call the lion the king of the jungle.  But what can out-power all three of these?  A human, well armed and skilled for the hunt.  Standing at the top of the food chain is a well-muscled, intelligent human.  And yet all of these great symbols of power praise the “Lord God Almighty” (4:8).  With their many eyes these creatures see all things.  They know who is most worthy of honor.  Still they praise God.  Nothing escapes their attention; they are always alert, never sleeping.  Still they praise God.  Who else is worthy of such praise?

O Lord our God, you deserve to receive glory and honor and power, because you created all things; because of your will they existed and were created. (4:11)

What caused your heart to sail in today’s reading?

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BONUS: An Introduction to the Thessalonian Letters

We now move from one of the last parts of the New Testament to be written (John) to one of the first (only Galatians and Mark may be older).  We know Paul was in Corinth when he wrote 1 Thessalonians (1 Thess 3:1-2), and we know from an archaeological connection to the mention of the Roman government official Gallio in Acts 18:12-17 that this places Paul in Corinth around AD 51 or 52.  By al appearances, 2 Thessalonians was written shortly after, maybe six months later.

There are some letters of Paul that scholars argue were not actually written by Paul; the Thessalonian letters are not two of these.  There is almost universal agreement that these are authentic Pauline letters.

We see from Acts 17 that Paul and Silas had quick, evangelistic success in Thessalonica even with prominent people in the city.  Just as quickly, though, unbelieving Jews came in behind them to counter their work.  Specifically, a mob was formed that chased Paul and Silas south to Berea and then to Athens, causing hardship for the new Thessalonian Christians like Jason and others.  We should notice the charge brought against Paul and Silas by their opposition: “They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17:7).  Thessalonica was the capital city of Macedonia, a Roman colony widely inhabited by retired military officials in the Roman army and thus loyal to the king.  It is worth noticing that in this milieu, the kingship of Jesus was still so foundational that Paul and Silas did not back down from sharing this fact.

Have you ever done something in a hurry and just hoped it lasted?  If so, you understand why Paul wrote his Thessalonian letters.  We don’t know exactly how long Paul stayed in Thessalonica, but it would have been shortly after the first converts were made.  These new Christians were left unsupported and unguided, which would have been especially challenging as they had converted from paganism (1 Thess 1:9).  In his absence, Paul begins to instruct them through his letters in godly living in a hostile world.

There are no letters of Paul’s that have more to say about the second coming of Christ than these two.  Every chapter of 1 Thessalonians ends with a reference to the second coming (eschatology).  With a doubt, this theme will run throughout all of our reading this week and a half.  Eschatology is not an easy concept, therefore there is no surprise that the Thessalonians were struggling with this new teaching. Whether they should continue to work until Jesus returns appears to be an issue for them as does the cryptic “man of lawlessness” we will read about in 2 Thessalonians.

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BONUS: An Introduction to Peter’s Letters

The author of 1 Peter is almost certainly the Simon Peter of the Gospels; only a few have doubted this.  On the other hand, if there is a letter included in the New Testament that was not written by the person who it claims to be written by (“pseudopigraphic,” is the technical term), 2 Peter is our best candidate.  It is rather different in style, language, and theme from the first Petrine epistle.  The mention of persecution in 1 Peter makes a date in the 60s AD more likely, and by that time in Peter’s life he is traditionally placed in Rome, where he will die by the Emperor’s order in the late 60s.  The cryptic mention to being in “Babylon” in 1 Peter 5:13 is most likely  referring to Rome, as we will see in Revelation.

The apostle Simon Peter is absolutely a classic Bible character.  He ranks up there with Abraham, Moses, and David.  Jesus is in a class of his own, of course.  Peter is well-known, including much of his psychology.  He is a full character.  Impetuous Peter!  If we go to the Gospels to learn about Peter, we must end that character study with a good look at his letters too.  This is where his changed heart comes out the most.

The last recorded instructions Jesus gave to Peter alone were to “feed my sheep” (John 21:15-19).  That he does in grand style in 1 Peter.  Churches in modern-day Turkey that Peter had either started or ministered to in a special way (1:1) are now experiencing harsh treatment in their society.  The recipients are clearly Gentile Christians (with maybe some Jewish Christians thrown in), as they used to live an idolatrous pagan lifestyle (4:3).  Now, because of their devotion to Jesus, they refuse to live in the same coarse way that used to.  As a result, their pagan neighbors heap abuse on them.  This persecution is certainly social versus political; systematic persecution of Christians in Asia Minor by the Roman government won’t start for another twenty years after the death of Peter.  Peter’s recipients were mocked and even harmed physically, but the greatest suffering would have been social ostracism and the economic marginalization that would come from being shunned by their pagan society.  What is the faithful response to suffering a follower of Christ is supposed to give?  This is the main theme of 1 Peter.

Second Peter is either written by Peter at a very different time and place than First Peter (and a convincing case can be made for this) or as more and more conservative scholars are willing to accept, it was written by a disciple of Peter “in the spirit of Peter” or as a way to honor their master.  Efforts would have been made to convey what Peter would have said; good pseudopigrapha did not try to deceive readers and pass unorthodox views off as apostolic.  Regardless, 2 Peter addresses a group of false teachers akin to the early Gnostics we have seen previously this year.  Of special importance in this letter is Peter’s exhortation to his recipients to vigilantly hang on and prepare for the certain coming of Jesus.   

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Romans 16: Phoebe the Deacon?

Let me introduce you to our sister Phoebe.  She is a deacon in the church at Cenchreae.  I want you to welcome her in the Lord, as is proper for one of God’s people.  Please give her whatever practical assistance she may need from you.  She has been a benefactor to many people, myself included. (16:1-2)

Phoebe was a deacon?

Yep.

Maybe that just means “servant,” like the KJV, the original NIV, the ASV says.

However, it seems there is something about the Greek word and the sentence structure that suggests the more formal words “deacon” or “deaconess” work better, as we find in the newest version of the NIV, the NLT, the CEV, and Wright’s KNT.  Also, her role as described in this passage above indicates this was more than just a great servant-hearted woman who worked behind the scenes to make the ministry of the church in Cenchreae work smoothly.  She was the “benefactor” of the Cenchrean church, likely meaning the church there met in her house.  She likely also provided a room for the many traveling missionaries; Paul indicates he had been privy to her hospitality.  All indications are that Phoebe was a well-to-do lady, maybe a business woman like Lydia the seller of purple cloth.  It was possibly this business that took her to Rome — no little expense — and Paul was taking advantage of that agenda.  Phoebe would have been carrying the letter to the Romans to the church there (depicted in the picture above even).  As was custom, she would have read the letter aloud to the church in Rome and been available to answer clarifying questions given that she had just been with the author.  Altogether, Phoebe was an esteemed leader in the early church known for her servant heart and at least this active effort to advance God’s kingdom.

This may be a realization that does not fit with what we have been taught in the past.  That is another perk to a comprehensive reading plan.  But this is an especially fitting way to end a letter that has focused on unmerited grace to all based on God’s love and calling, not one’s identity or status.

As we finish Romans today, what one major theme has really struck you this year as we read through this wonderful book?

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Romans 15: After Romans

What happens after the book of Romans?  Where in the life of Paul does this great book come?

Paul wraps up the teaching of his book halfway through chapter 15, then he starts to wind down this long letter by doing a bit of business.  Paul’s greatest desire is “to announce the good news in places where the Messiah has not been named” (15:20).  Specifically, Paul longs to go to Spain (15:24, 28).  He looks forward to finally coming to the Roman church, something he has not been able to do before now (15:23-24).  Rome will become a home base for his Spanish campaign, providing financial support (15:24).

But first Paul has to complete some unfinished business.  The Christians in Macedonia and Achaia have given Paul money to deliver to the poor Christians in Jerusalem who are suffering from a famine (15:26).  Paul will head back to Jerusalem then come to Rome.  The book of Romans was likely written in Corinth during the time mentioned in Acts 18, then taken by Phoebe to Rome around the same time Paul headed east.

Paul reveals some apprehensiveness about this trip to Jerusalem:

Fight the battle for me in your prayers to God on my behalf. so that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judaea, and so that my service for Jerusalem may be welcomed gladly by God’s people. (15:30b-31)

Acts 21 shows Paul had reason to be concerned.  Paul was quickly arrested in Jerusalem on trumped up charges and almost killed by the Jews.  By the end of Acts Paul does make it to Rome, but not in the way he wished at all.

Did Paul ever get to Spain as he wished?  The Bible never says definitively, but early church fathers Eusebius and Clement of Rome both indicate that Paul was released from house arrest in Rome and took the gospel as far as Spain.  It seems Paul does get his wish in the end, though not in the way he wished.

Isn’t that often how it works?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Romans

Romans is a personal favorite of many people.  Paul, who almost all agree was the author, touches on almost every major theological belief in this great book, so the next three weeks are sure to be stimulating.

Rome was the center of the New Testament world.  A city of several million, it was the political and cultural center of the Roman Empire, home to the Caesars.  Rome was the ancient equivalent to New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong or Tokyo.  Religion was big in Rome, mainly the worship of the Roman gods and the developing Emperor cult, but there was a large, vibrant, and legal Jewish population in Rome as well.  Remember that when Christianity first stated it was considered a Jewish sect so it too was a protected religious movement and not largely persecuted.  Christians would suffer severely in Rome but not for another 20 years after the writing of Romans.

Romans was most certainly written in Corinth around AD 55 and delivered to Rome and first read to the church there by the deaconess Phoebe (Romans 16:1).

The purpose for Romans has been described in many ways.  Martin Luther read his own issues with the Roman Catholic Church into the book and saw Romans as a treatise against works-oriented religion.  It is certainly that, but that characterization has more to do with 16th Century Europe than 1st Century Rome.  Others imagine Paul sitting down and writing Romans as a theological compendium, a statement of his beliefs.  There is too much that is specific to the Roman church for that to be true, plus that would make Romans truly unique amongst New Testament letters.

Like every other letter in the New Testament, Romans is situational.  There was something going on that made Paul write this letter, to a church he had not started nor even visited.  Paul had a habit of setting up home bases for his various mission endeavors.  First it was Antioch, then Ephesus, now Corinth.  Paul’s greatest desire was to get to Spain where the Gospel had not really yet been preached widely (15:23-33).  By all appearance, Paul was preparing this Roman church to be his next launching point for that campaign.  However, this church was a divided church turned inward on itself in no condition to be involved in outward mission.  We know from the ancient Roman historian Suetonius that around AD 49 the emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome because they had been rioting amongst each other concerning a person named “Chrestus” (c.f., Acts 18:2).  This likely was an argument between Jews and Christians over Christ.  So for a span of five years until Claudius’ death in AD 54 when the Jews would have returned to Rome, this largely Jewish church with a defined Jewish flavor became thoroughly Gentile.  Leadership changed.  The culture and practices of the church changed.  Now in AD 55 we have a power struggle and identity crisis in the Roman church, largely involving ethnicity and customs.  Issues like circumcision, food, holidays, a background in paganism, an Abrahamic heritage, and the like would have been hotly debated, and these will pop up a good bit in our readings.  Paul is writing a significantly divided and prejudicial Roman church attempting to help them sort out their problems for the sake of the advancing Kingdom of God.

Background aside, Romans is so popular because the Gospel that all of us needs to hear speaks freedom, hope, love, and faith into every situation, whether in ancient Rome, modern Memphis, the Philippines, Malaysia or Canada.

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Acts 25: Give Me Justice

I have offended neither against the Jews, nor against the Temple, nor against Caesar. . . . I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, which is where I ought to be tried.  I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you well know.  If I have committed any wrong, or if I have done something which means I deserve to die, I’m not trying to escape death.  But if I have none of the things they are accusing me of, nobody can hand me over to them.  I appeal to Caesar. (25:8, 10-11)

Paul is willing to stand trial where he should stand trial.  He is even willing to pay the just price for what he has done, though they will find out that he has done nothing wrong against anyone and shouldn’t be punished at all.  He will jump through whatever hoop they put in front of him, wait in jail as long as it takes, even appeal to Caesar and be shipped off to Rome, just so long as he gets justice.

But injustice Paul cannot abide.  Be framed on trumped-up charges without a fair trial?  No way!  Allow the Jews to spout slanderous half-truths without a response?  Not for a minute!  Be turned over to the bloodthirsty Jews because of some back room deal?  Paul will not stand for that.  That would simply be unjust.

Paul wants one thing: justice.

Following Jesus doesn’t mean we have to just lay down and take it.  Yes, the way of Christ is the path of self-denial and sacrifice, but justice does not have to be ignored in the process.  Meekness is most certainly a virtue (Matthew 5:5), but that does not mean a person has to offer themselves to any malevolent soul that wishes to do them harm.  One can be humble and sacrificial while also upholding and pursuing justice.  We are not called to let injustice proliferate in an already unjust world.  Even Jesus didn’t die because of injustice.  He died to uphold the justice of a God whose holiness had to be honored.

Like Paul, we can humbly serve a world that is not always hospitable.  We can put ourselves in places of discomfort and risk.  But we can do all of this while insisting that justice be done by those whose job it is to ensure it.

What struck you today?

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Acts 24: Resurrection is Key

Paul is confronted by Felix, the Roman governor in Caesarea.  Is Paul truly the rabble-rouser the Jews make him out to be?  That is a serious charge in peaceful Rome.  In response, Paul confesses the following:

It is true that I do worship the God of my ancestors according to the Way which they call a “sect.”  I believe everything which is written in the law and the prophets, and I hold to the hope in God, for which they also long, that there will be a resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous. (24:14-15)

What strikes me here (and in almost every other public address either Peter or Paul gave in Acts) is that resurrection is so foundational to the belief-system of the apostles.  Key to the gospel is resurrection from the dead.  This is mentioned again later in the chapter at 24:21.

I wonder if resurrection is that fundamental to our ways of thinking and talking today.  I more often hear forgiveness from the guilt of sin mentioned in our gospel language.  That is okay.  Of course, forgiveness is important as well, and it was a part of the gospel sermons in Acts too (c.f., Acts 2:38).  But not as often as resurrection.  If we have downplayed resurrection in favor of forgiveness of guilt from sins, what are we missing?  And why have we made this switch?  What does this reveal about us?

Paul is a wanted man.  Leave him alone in Jerusalem for 15 minutes and he is dead.  He is sitting in a Roman jail under suspicions of disturbing the peace.  Rome deals swiftly and decisively with people who upset the Pax Romana.  In Felix, he is talking to a man who more so wants a bribe than the truth, and Paul has no intentions of paying up.  He is headed to Rome, where Caesar’s word is truth, and Caesar has no reason to preserve Paul’s life.

How can Paul maintain such boldness and calm?  Paul has already told us:

I hold to the hope in God . . . that there will be a resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous. (24:15)

What do you think about this?

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Acts 23: Rescued by Rome

Seemingly insignificant things can end up making a world of difference when God is concerned.

Paul is born in Tarsus in Cilicia making him a Roman citizen.  He is born a Jew, and it clear from today’s passage that it is this Jewish heritage that mattered most to Paul’s family.  These were Pharisees, apparently a long line of them (23:6).  Paul’s father will go to the expense and trouble to get him to Jerusalem to train under Gamaliel the Pharisee (22:3).  This is a good education.  By all of his own accounts scattered throughout Acts and his letters, it is this Jewish background that Paul gloried in.

And yet in today’s reading it is Paul’s Roman citizenship that makes all the difference between life and death.  The Jews are ready to tear him “in pieces” (23:10).  A gang of Jewish extremists have pledged not to eat or drink until they kill Paul (23:12).  An assassination plot is hatched (23:15).  But leave it to the Jews and Paul is as good as dead.

Ancient Roman Citizenship Diploma

It is because of his Roman citizenship that the Roman tribune is involved at this point.  The tribune’s greatest desire is simply to preserve peace, but he ends up protecting Paul nonetheless.  The tribune’s palace guard whisks Paul out of the fomenting Sanhedrin.  The Roman respect for law ensures Paul a fair trial.  An army of two hundred foot soldiers and seventy horsemen escort Paul out of Jerusalem and off to a Caesarean prison, and safety as well.  Ultimately, it is Paul’s Roman citizenship that will bring him to Rome so he can give his “testimony about [Jesus] in . . . Rome” (23:11).  Bottomline:

When I [the tribune] learned that he was a Roman citizen I went with the guard and rescued him. (23:27)

Where one is born is not nearly as important as what one does once one is born.  And yet Paul’s place of birth is what rescues him at this moment.

What seemingly insignificant detail from your life has turned out to have made a world of difference?

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Acts 2: They Begin to Get It

This is such an incredible chapter!

I don’t say that because I have been programmed to by my religious tradition that has exalted this chapter since the beginning of the Restoration Movement almost 200 years ago.  They often championed this chapter as a blueprint for receiving Christ in a particular way.  That is certainly in here, but that kind of reductionism misses the point.

Acts 2 is a sunburst of spiritual power.  The original Great Awakening.  It is the start of something new, though it was spoken of  long ago (Acts 2:16-21).  So many things we have been seeing are coming together here, and so many things will launch out from here.  The Celts would have called this one of those “thin places” where heaven touches earth in an explosion of energy, awareness, ability, and change.  Now that is a reason to exalt a chapter!

Amongst other points, this chapter is so wonderful because the apostles finally begin to get this kingdom Jesus has been talking about.

  • They begin to see that “Death” is the real enemy that has to be vanquished not Rome, and that the battle was waged on a cross and in a tomb not in Judea (2:24, 27, 31-32)
  • They were able to grasp that Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise to David to have a descendent on the throne, but that this was a different sort of throne (2:30-31)
  • They boldly claimed that “Jesus is Lord” (2:36) instead of saying “Caesar is Lord,” a common cry by the AD 60s when Acts was written if not in the AD 30s when the actual events took place.  Somehow it was possible for Jesus to be Lord even while Caesar was on a throne.
  • They were understanding that the greatest tyranny comes at the hands of Sin, and the greatest freedom is from this enemy (2:38, 40, 47)
  • They were switching from a worldview that said Israel is our most important allegiance to seeing the fledgling collection of Jesus-followers as the Great Community (2:42-47)

Notice, they didn’t really get it in Acts 1.  Now they begin to in Acts 2.  What changed?  What happened?  The only thing that changed was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit of God.  God is changing them from the inside out.

Let your Spirit come!  Fall upon us now!

What spoke to you anew in this very familiar chapter?  

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