The true measure of how much someone loves us is the extent to which they will embrace genuine sacrifice for us. We know that intuitively. We know that someone loves us if and when that person will sacrifice of their time, their resources, their attention, and their agenda for us. But us is the wrong pronoun here. We want that personally. You want that personally. I want that personally. You want someone who will voluntarily embrace sacrifice for just you, yourself. At a deep, deep level that is precisely what each one of us wants. We each want to be loved individually by someone who considers just me and me alone worthy of sacrifice.
At the same time, many of us doubt our worth, because we know too much about ourselves. I know myself. I know my faults and my failures, my tendencies and my desires. I also have an idea of how I am regarded by others. And you know yourself. You know your faults and failures, your tendencies and your desires. You also have an idea of how you are regarded by others. Since we know what we know about ourselves, we sometimes doubt whether we actually are worthy of sacrificial love. We hope we are. We would like to think that we might be, maybe. But we doubt it, at times.
At the heart of the Christian message is the Cross of Christ. The message is that Jesus Christ was willing to sacrifice himself because he considered us worthy of the cost. He was willing to endure the extreme agony of the brutal, awful cross because he wanted to make reconciliation possible. He loved us. He considered us worth it.
But this only makes sense if Jesus Christ was more than a mere human being. If Jesus was just a historical figure who was executed by the Romans years ago, it makes no sense whatsoever to say that he did what he did because he loves us. It only makes sense if Jesus was somehow more than a mere human. It only makes sense if he was divine, the Son of God. Jesus died for us because he knows us, and knows us in some capacity as God. As part of the eternal Godhead, Jesus loved us and loves us still. And as part of the eternal Godhead, he was was willing to embrace unimaginable sacrifice for us.
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Jesus, speaking of himself in Mark 10:45
Are you worthy of that kind of love? Well, yes and no. Or more accurately, no and yes.
We certainly do not deserve that kind of love. We really are flawed. We really are tainted. We really are guilty. God knows us better than we know ourselves. And that should not necessarily encourage us. God actually knows how vile we can be. God actually knows how crumby our thoughts and intentions are. God knows our worst faults and failures, our ugliest tendencies and our basest desires. He does not sugarcoat or excuse the wrong we have done. He recognizes that we deserve judgment and punishment. God is offended at our failures, even highly offended. Our sin defiles us before God.
But nonetheless, God does not want to punish us. He would rather withhold punishment. Our failures and wrongs put God in a bind. On one hand, we ought to be judged. On the other hand, He wants to show mercy. He wants to show you mercy because He considers you worth the sacrifice. Otherwise, He would not have bothered stooping so low.
Since God loves us, and since His mercy triumphs over judgment, God made a way for us out of our predicament. He shared in our humanity so as to take our punishment. He became a man for our sake. He became mortal and sacrificed himself. God the Father and God the Son agreed to the horror and agony of the Cross. Jesus Christ would sacrifice himself on our behalf, because the justice of God required it, and because God loves us that much.
He gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people for his own possession, eager to do good works.
The Apostle Paul, regarding Jesus, in Titus 2:14.
But there is a catch, a requirement. The catch is that you have to accept Christ’s self-sacrifice as a gift, and give your allegiance to him. He did not die simply because he wants to show you how nice he is. He wants you in return. He wants your love and allegiance in return for the love He showed you. And that is an entirely reasonable expectation and offer. Indeed, that is the best offer you will ever get, bar none.
… and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has set us free from our sins by his blood … to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
From the introductory benediction in the Book of Revelation 1:5-6
Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna was a mere middle man. Polycarp stuck slavishly to Paul. Polycarp demonstrated little to no originality. For the most part, he just parroted whatever the Apostle Paul once said. When he wrote his pastoral epistle to the Church in Philippi, Bishop Polycarp essentially cut and pasted. He could have saved himself a lot of time by simply re-gifting a copy of one of Paul’s old epistles.
Am I fabricating or exaggerating? If you do not believe me or simply want to see if I am exaggerating a bit, go online to EarlyChristianWritings.com and find the Epistle of Polycarp under the Church Fathers tab. Feel free to let me know what you find there.
Why do I bother to inform you of this, you ask? Well, because Polycarp’s parroting of Paul demonstrates an extremely high view of Paul’s authority. It shows that Polycarp considered Paul’s writing to be indisputably binding and unquestionably authoritative. Within one generation of their production, Paul’s epistles were considered scripture on par with the Old Testament scripture. Bishop Polycarp considered Paul’s pastoral epistles to be the very Word of God, so he treated them as such. He copied them slavishly and transmitted them exactly.
Safe to say that Polycarp had an MO, a modus operandi. The sacred writ is to be treated as sacred writ. You must stick to it. You quote it. You defer to it. You teach others to do the same. And you must never, ever alter it. It is never to be violated nor compromised.
Bishop Polycarp must have harped on that point. “You have been entrusted with the Word of Truth, my disciples. Pass it along faithfully and without deviance.” I can imagine Polycarp said something much like that. Alright then, you get it; don’t you? Polycarp was a parrot.
Polycarp’s parroting MO was very probably passed along to his underlings and after-lings (if I may coin a word). I think that is entirely safe to assume. And if it is so, they might have been similarly jealous for the doctrines that they received, since the scriptures and their derivative doctrines cannot be separated.
Therefore, if one of Polycarp’s after-lings claims a received doctrine to be true, perhaps we should be hesitant to think that it is not true.
One of Polycarp’s after-lings was a Greek guy named Irenaeus. Irenaeus became a Bishop himself, the Bishop of Lyons. Irenaeus believed in the Rapture and says so in his book Against Heresies, Book Five, Chapter 29, paragraph 1, in the penultimate sentence. You can find that online at EarlyChristianWritings.com, as well.
If Irenaeus learned the doctrine of the Rapture from Polycarp, you should know that Polycarp also knew John the Beloved/Elder — the narrator of Revelation. Polycarp knew him personally. The train of transmission was from John the Elder to Bishop Polycarp to Bishop Irenaeus. That is a very short train of transmission. And the implications of that are worth mulling over. Perhaps we should not be too quick to dismiss the Rapture as ridiculous.
By its very nature, the Book of Revelation is cryptic. Like a secret code, it is meant to be progressively figured out. Like a jig-saw puzzle, it is meant to be pieced together until it slowly coalesces into an increasingly coherent whole. That should be somewhat self-evident.
Here are some safe assumptions about the Book of Revelation:
Since the Author has a vested interest in the integrity of the text, and since the Author has the ability to safeguard its integrity, you can assume that every single received word of the text is actually meant to be there. Besides conjunctions (perhaps), no word is merely incidental or superfluous. And even some of the conjunctions can be very important. Every word in the Book of Revelation counts. Some count considerably more than others; but every word does indeed count.
You can assume that identifiable word groupings — phrases — are even more important and meaningful than single words alone. This is true even of very short phrases, such as those comprised of two words. For example, if a noun has an adjective, that adjective definitely matters and must not be overlooked. Furthermore, the phrase must be held together when an effort is made to decode the meaning of a particular passage. As pedantic as it may sound, this is a highly and hugely important exegetical insight. Every phrase counts. And phrases count even more than single words.
You can assume that the symbolism within the Book of Revelation will be used consistently throughout. Know this, because it is important. Symbolism, once established, remains consistent throughout the text. It means the same thing whenever it reappears. However, that is not to say that a symbol cannot be developed through the narrative. Individual symbols can be developed, and sometimes are. Sometimes symbols are developed so that they take on additional layers of meaning. But each established symbol has a single consistent meaning at its core. If this were not so, the Book of Revelation would be completely indecipherable.
You can assume that the narrator will drop interpretive hints throughout the text. Indeed, he does just that. He drops hints and even gives straightforward interpretations. That is because the Author wants the text to be deciphered, even if it takes centuries for the Church to complete the task. The Author would not have revealed the Revelation if He did not want it deciphered.
You can assume that the text, when interpreted correctly, will communicate a coherent, necessary, and edifying message. Not only that, you can assume that the message will not contradict the rest of Scripture. That is because the ultimate Author of the Book of Revelation is the same ultimate Author of the rest of the Bible. If not, the Book of Revelation is a spurious, misleading prophecy, and thus does not belong in the Bible. But the Church has long since accepted the Book of Revelation as legitimate and canonical, and with good reason.
You can assume that the rest of Scripture will help a diligent interpreter unlock the symbolism in Revelation. I cannot overstate this. I cannot overstate this. Can I overstate this? No, I cannot. I cannot overstate this. Please do understand how important this point is. It is crucial. Catching and pondering the many, many scriptural references and allusions is vital, vital, vital. It will unlock the Book of Revelation like nothing else. I cannot overstate this. Missing this is precisely how most interpreters go wrong.
You can assume that knowledge of its immediate geographical and historical context will help unlock the meaning of the Book of Revelation. I have a degree in history and have read much about the historical situation in which Revelation was written. It really, really helps make sense of the text. I would go so far as to say that you cannot effectively understand the Book of Revelation without studying its original historical context. Knowledge of the Roman Empire will help you.
You can assume that typology will help an interpreter make sense of the Book of Revelation. History does not repeat itself; but it does rhyme. Typology takes that insight seriously. What happened way back when will happen again — not exactly, but similarly.
You can assume that Almighty God is truly behind the Book of Revelation and that Jesus Christ really did appear to the narrator, John the Elder. It is prophecy, after all. And only God can preordain future events. Oh yeah — you can assume it foretells future events, even future events from our vantage point in history.
Those, then, are what I consider safe assumptions for someone who would interpret this particular text.
This past weekend my wife and I attended a long-delayed wedding. For well over six months, the dread virus had prevented the betrothed couple from publicly exchanging their wedding vows. Nonetheless, after patiently (or impatiently) enduring the pandemic-imposed pause, they had made it to the re-predetermined big day. Their long-anticipated, once-in-a-lifetime day finally, actually arrived. We were happy to witness the ceremony and share the occasion with the two of them.
At the reception afterward my wife and I were seated by the Officiant and his wife. I call him the Officiant because the pretty wedding program said as much. However, based on his eloquence and the poise with which he conducted himself during the wedding ceremony, I knew that the man could be no mere bureaucratic officiant. That was just a temporary title, a role he played in the wedding ceremony. I was very confident that professionally the man must be a preacher. And indeed, he is. All of this background information is just to arrive at the pertinent point that someone decided to seat us near the polished, professional preacher man.
The polished, professional preacher man and I talked over dinner. It ended badly.
Throughout the reception, we periodically talked shop. I told him that I had attended seminary, like him. He informed me that not only did he attend seminary, he once taught at a seminary. In fact, he taught the art of Homiletics, which means he taught aspiring preachers how to preach. No surprise there: Based on the poise, the polish, the quick wit, and the eloquence with which he had conducted himself during the wedding ceremony as the Officiant, I already had him pegged as a prestigious religious professional.
Our dinner conversation was going along quite nicely and cordially until I solicited his highly trained professional opinion on my favorite topic. Perhaps I should have been more hesitant to inject something so awkward into our pleasant banter. But my desire to go beyond conventions and pleasantries got the best of me, as it often does. So I went ahead and presented him with a brief summary of how I interpret the Book of Revelation. He politely humored me for a while, and gave me some considerate, candid feedback. However, he was not sold. He thought I had not established my points well enough. When I tried even more to convince him, he reached the end of his patience with me. He turned to his wife, and asked if she were ready to leave. I had pushed him too hard.
And so it goes. And I cannot blame him. We had not met before; yet I had turned an otherwise pleasant evening into an awkward interaction. When I persisted, he desisted. Of course, it was his prerogative to do just that.
To be candid, I am still quite conflicted about my encounter with the polished, professional preacher man. I am not entirely repentant. If given the same opportunity again, I might do exactly the same thing again. That is because I believe that there are some things more important than meeting the expectations of social propriety. And, in my own defense, I also knew when it was time to quit — sort of, maybe.
The thing is, I actually gave the polished, professional preacher man something worthwhile to think about. He might not have agreed with me. He might not have liked the setting in which I chose to say it. But nonetheless, I gave him something potentially valuable. And I made my pitch somewhat discretely, as only two other people were there to overhear our conversation — his wife and mine.
Jesus did the same thing. On occasion, he deliberately violated social convention. Sometimes, Jesus was intentionally impolite. He did so because he knew that what he had to say was far more important than how he was expected to behave.
Are you wondering what I am talking about? In the Gospel of Luke 11:37-54, Jesus behaves quite badly as a guest at a banquet. He breaks social conventions over and over. To start, he fails to follow the custom of washing up before dinner. His failure to do so shocked his host. Thereafter Jesus berated his host and the gathered religious professionals for being more interested in exterior cleanliness than interior purity. Jesus denounced his host and his fellow guests as fools, and pronounced three woes upon them.
Therefore, I think it is fair to say that Jesus was not polite in that social situation.
But, was Jesus wrong? His behavior was an absolute breach of propriety and convention. The Pharisees were very much offended. And Jesus must have known as much. But he chose to do it anyway. Jesus chose to offend them because he knew what he had to communicate was far more important than a pleasant evening with easy dinner conversation.
Now I do realize that not every dinner conversation needs to be a blunt confrontation with hard truths. But some dinner conversations should be. Sometimes hard things need to be said and heard.
May God grant us the discernment to know when to dispense with propriety and when not.
To start, I should probably give credit where credit is due. The term Eschatological Exodus does not originate with me, but, as far as I know, with (the now semi-retired) Professor Richard Bauckham from Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Personally, I consider Professor Bauckham to be the most important recent and living interpreter of the Book of Revelation. Professor Bauckham may even eventually rank as the single most insightful and influential interpreter of the Book of Revelation (and similar biblical literature) in the last several centuries. Yes, centuries. I know, I know: That’s quite a big claim to make. Yet it may be both apt and true.
Although it has a rather generic title, way back in the early 1990s a younger Dr. Professor Baukham wrote a refreshingly brief, catchingly brilliant, and now-absolutely-essential scriptural study of Revelation called… drumroll… The Theology of the Book of Revelation, which will be abbreviated from hence as TBR. In TBR, Professor Bauckham identifies three primary symbolic themes that recur throughout the Book of Revelation: 1) The Messianic War, 2) The Eschatological Exodus, and 3) The Witness of Jesus. Nowhere is the second symbolic theme, the Eschatological Exodus, more prominent within the Book of Revelation than Chapter Fifteen. To quote Dr. Bauckham regarding that theme:
In 15:2-4 the Christian Martyrs, victorious in heaven, are seen as the people of the new exodus, standing beside a heavenly Red Sea, through which they have passed, and singing a version of the song of praise to God which Moses and the people of Israel sang after their deliverance from Pharaoh at the Red Sea (Exodus 15).
Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, p. 71.
To be something of a fastidious stickler, I will mention here that while Professor Bauckham identifies the triumphant throng as “Christian Martyrs,” Revelation Chapter Fifteen itself does not use either descriptor. Those who have triumphed over the Beast, its Image, and the Number of its Name are called neither Christians nor Martyrs in Chapter Fifteen. Dr. Bauckham is making a slight interpretive move (quite understandably) when he designates the heavenly throng as Christian Martyrs. I will explain why I am taking issue with his subtle interpretive move in a few paragraphs. But as it is, I am getting ahead of myself. We ought to start at the beginning of the chapter with Verse One.
Here in Verse One we are put on notice of utterly terrifying things to come. John, the narrator, sees a sign in Heaven: He sees seven angels with seven final plagues. The Wrath of God is about to be dispensed in seven sequential measures upon the Earth. Hitherto in the Book of Revelation the Wrath of God has not been dispensed on the Earth.
For those who harbor doubts as to whether the Wrath of God has been withheld prior to this point in the Book of Revelation, a quick word study of Wrath and God will yield the following seven references in the Book of Revelation: 14:10; 14:19; 15:1; 15:7; 16:1; 16: 19; and 19:15. I interpret the two references to the Wrath of God in Chapter Fourteen as synchronous with (happening at the same time as) the terrifying events that come with the outpouring of the Bowls of Wrath in Revelation Chapter Sixteen. I would encourage the especially studious to read through those seven wrathful references; and will boldly suggest that if they do so, they will most likely come to the same conclusion: The Wrath of God only begins when the Bowls are poured out, one by one.
Verse One, therefore, lets the reader know that the outpouring of the Wrath of God is about to commence upon the Earth. But nonetheless, our vantage point is still up in Heaven. We are witnesses to what is happening in Heaven Above immediately before all Hell breaks out on Earth Below. Remind me then: What is happening in Heaven? Verse Two gives us the scene and tells the tale.
A celebration is happening. A concert is happening in Heaven Above. There is singing and rejoicing. It is a time of Triumph, an occasion of celebration.
Does that not strike you as somewhat strange? I mean, although all Hell is about to be unleashed on Earth, the seaside throng in Heaven is celebrating some sort of victory. Why is that? What is going on? Who are these triumphant harpists in Heaven?
We are told that the celebrants in Heaven are those who have triumphed over the Beast, its Image, and the Number of its Name. From henceforth I will refer to that nefarious trio as the Notorious B.I.N.N.
Bauckham says that these triumphant celebrants are Christian Martyrs. He is only kind of right about that. The problem is that you might misunderstand what he means with those two words. Christians are not necessarily those who loosely self-identify as such, but those who are really redeemed, the truly faithful, the steadfast Saints throughout the centuries and millenia. And the Martyrs are not necessarily those who have died for their faith, but include all those who have kept the faith and maintained their witness for Christ Jesus. That is because the word martyr originally just meant a witness. In contradiction to the very esteemed Professor Baukham, then, I want to suggest that in Chapter Fifteen we are seeing an even bigger crowd. The throng of triumphant celebrants in Heaven includes not just Christian Martyrs in a narrow sense, but all the Saints through the centuries, right up until the Second Coming or Advent of Jesus Christ. I do mean all of them, every single one, including you and me, hopefully.
To identify the size and compostion of the throng, the Notorious B.I.N.N. serve as perhaps the most important clue. One reason why the Notorious B.I.N.N. are mentioned here is because they will appear in their ultimate and worst incarnations right at the very end of this current common era.
For the sake of clarity, I need to explain what I mean by “the end of this current common era.” When I was a child, the historical timeline was usually divided according to the abbreviations of B.C. and A.D. But for better or worse, that chronological division has since changed. Now the abbreviations B.C.E. and C.E. are used more commonly to divide the timeline. And what do those abbreviations stand for? B.C. once abbreviated “Before Christ”; and A.D. once abbreviated Anno Domini, which translates from Latin to “in the year of the Lord.” To avoid the implicit Christian chronological assumptions of B.C. and A.D., sensitive souls in Academia made a switch to B.C.E. and C.E. over the last 35 years or so. As you may know, B.C.E. abbreviates Before the Common Era, while C.E. abbreviates the Common Era. So now, with this timeline revisionism explained, I will hereby assert and solemnly affirm that according to Revelation Chapter Fifteen this Common Era will come to an abrupt end with the return of Christ, the return of Christ for the Church. When Christ comes back for the Church this current Common Era will end ubruptly. Perhaps, then, the loss of the B.C. and A.D. abbreviations was not actually a loss, theologically speaking. One might argue that Anno Domini, the year of our Lord, actually begins when Christ returns for the Church.
So then, Revelation Chapter Fifteen shows us the scene in Heaven Above immediately after the current Common Era ends. In Chapter Fifteen, Christ has come. The Church has been lifted from Earth and has arrived triumphantly in Heaven. The throng beside the Sea of Glass is celebrating their escape from and Triumph over the Notorious B.I.N.N. and all their persecutors on Earth Below. Just as the Children of Israel were miraculously delivered from their Egyptian enemies through the Red Sea, so all the Saints of God will someday be miraculously delivered from their enemies through Resurrection and Rapture, when Christ himself returns to claim his Church.
And so, moving along to Verse Three, the Trimphant Celebrants are said to sing a particular song of deliverance – the Song of Moses, the Servant of God, and the Song of the Lamb.
If you were to cross-reference Revelation’s Deliverance Song with the original Song of Moses in the Book of Exodus Chapter 15, you might be struck by the comparative similarities and the differences. While both songs celebrate the amazing saving deeds of God, the Original Exodus Song is almost entirely ethnocentric and expresses hostility towards neighboring nations, whereas Revelation’s Exodus Song refers to God as the King of the Nations, and affirms that all the nations will ultimately come and worship God. Given its Anno Domini timing and its heavenly setting, this affirmation is intriguing, because it might allow some measure of hope for eventual salvation, even for those who have been left behind, the inhabitants of the Earth who are about to endure the Wrath of God.
And yes, with the phrase “left behind” I am affirming the reality of the Rapture here. The Eschatological Exodus is the Rapture. They are one and the same event. Revelation Chapter Fifteen show us the scene in Heaven Above immediately after all the Saints, and the entire Church, leave Earth Below. To be honest and fair to Professor Bauckham, I think he would not concur with me here. In TBR and his other books, Dr. Bauckham does not equate the Eschatological Exodus with the Rapture. He just says that those who are beside the Sea of Glass in Heaven are Christian Martyrs (as opposed to all the redeemed Saints and the entire Church throughout history). My question for him and for those who follow him would be how Chapter Fifteen fits in its wider narrative context. As I see it, the reason for our disagreement is because he does not see a sequential, chronological progression from the Series of Seven Trumpets (Revelation 8:6-11:19) to the Series Seven Bowls of Wrath (Revelation 15:1-16:21). I do. I see a clear sequential and chronological progression. There is an important topical excursus between the two series (from Revelation 12:1 through 14:20); but otherwise they follow each other sequentially and chronologically.
Interpretive decisions about how to divide and how to connect the flow of the narrative and the various scenes within Revelation are necessary and inescapable. Whether an interpreter sees a sequential, chronological progression from the Series of Seven Trumpets to the Series of Seven Bowls of Wrath will determine whether Revelation allows for and depicts a Rapture or not, in my estimation.
Plus, I believe that what Paul teaches in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 absolutely requires the Rapture be taken literally and seriously. It is simply what immediately follows the general resurrection of the redeemed. We ascend to meet Christ in the air. We ascend to Heaven, just as Christ himself was resurrected and ascended. We follow the same pattern set by Christ. And Revelation Chapter Fifteen gives us a brief glimpse of their/our celebration upon our arrival in glory.
But back to the passage at hand. In Verses Three and Four, we read the lyrics of the New Exodus Song. The Triumphant Celebrants in Heaven give praise to God for His marvelous deeds, question the folly of not fearing and glorifying the Lord, and affirm both God’s Holiness and the inevitability of His universal acclamation. All of this is of course fitting for what Christ accomplished through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. It would be all the more fitting for what Christ accomplishes if and when he delivers us, the Church, from the final persecution of the Notorious B.I.N.N.
Now we move on the Verse Five. I cannot recall ever hearing someone teach or preach from the pulpit about this particular verse. John the Narrator sees the Temple of the Tabernacle of Testimony in Heaven opened. The Temple of the Tabernacle of Testimony has a nice alliterative ring, with its triple Ts, an alternative translation being the Sanctuary of the Tabernacle of Witness. Significantly, the Church is often called a Temple or a Sanctuary in the New Testament. And I do suggest that the Temple of the Tabernacle of Testimony in Heaven is the Resurrected Church while it resides in Heaven. Here John the Narrator sees the Raptured Church as a Temple or Sanctuary. He witnesses its inaugural opening in Heaven. Based on Old Testament passages regarding the inaugural opening of the Tabernacle and the Temple (see Leviticus 9:22-24; 1 Kings 8:11; and 2 Chronicles 7:1-3), we ought to anticipate something awesome is about to occur. And so something does.
At the Sanctuary Church’s inaugural opening in Heaven, seven angels resembling priests emerge, dressed in their Sabbath finest. They have business to attend to.
The angel-priests are dressed immaculately in clean linen and golden sashes. You might even say that the seven angel-priests are dressed to kill. One of Heaven’s Four Living Creatures gives each of the seven angels a bowl, each full of the Wrath of God. The angels are about to visit Earth, where they will execute divine vengence on the Notorious B.I.N.N. and the pitiful Inhabitants of the Earth.
And though the Sanctuary Church in Heaven is open for the seven exiting angels, the Glory of God makes it entirely impossible for the anyone to enter from the outside (again, this refers back to Leviticus 9:22-24; 1 Kings 8:11; and 2 Chronicles 7:1-3) until after the Seven Bowls of Wrath are dispensed, each in turn. The Sanctuary Church in Heaven is thus temporarily closed to any incoming traffic. Any repentant Inhabitants on Earth must wait until the Wrath of God is entirely spent.
To me, the scenario presented in Chapter Fifteen only makes coherent sense narratively and historically if the Rapture occurs. With the Church off the scene, the Current Common Era comes to a close. Then the truly scary stuff commences.
Thanks to Horrible Hal (Hal Lindsey, that is, whom I honestly do not regard as highly horrible) — thanks to Horrible Hal and other End-Times Enthusiasts, no one takes the idea of the Rapture seriously any more. Okay, yes, that is a wee bit of an overstatement. But as overstatements go, it holds true more often than not. Practically speaking, the rejection of the Rapture is a widespread reality that must serve as any theologian’s operational assumption within contemporary Anglo-American Christian Academia. And the same assumption also applies at most self-respecting, liturgically-formal churches. As a doctrinal and eschatological scenario, the Rapture is widely regarded as rather ridiculous, even embarrassing. Nowadays, the Rapture is usually held in derision by those who are convinced they know better.
But I do believe in the Rapture. When Rapture-skeptics realize that I do in fact believe the Rapture will occur, they usually respond with comments like, “So… do you mean you seriously believe in the Rapture? As in, the sudden disappearance of all true Christians, past and present, from around the globe, upward from Planet Earth? Beam me up, Jesus! Seriously? You do know the word rapture doesn’t even appear in the Bible, right? You really ought to go read what N.T. Wright has to say about that.”
And yada, yada. The (usually polite) ridicule just featured is what the Rapture skeptics will often rehash.
And as I quietly endure the skeptics’ very predictable, polite ridicule, babies jettisoned along with their bathwater come to mind, as do diamonds discarded with dirt. To the dismissive (and potentially smug) skeptics who still might be reading or listening to this, I want to request that you hear me out. Please consider the Rapture again, and try to set any knee-jerk prejudice aside. Please do not immediately reject what might in fact be a valuable interpretive insight just because it has been poorly packaged. Just because the Rapture has often been misrepresented over the last 50 years does not mean it should be rejected without careful scriptural study. I mean, as a kind of parallel, just because zombie movies often make the resurrection look like a freakish scenario does not mean that we should dispense with the doctrine of the resurrection. Similarly, just because the Rapture has been portrayed poorly in low-budget movies does not mean it ought to be discarded. The truly important thing to consider is whether Scripture teaches it will happen.
To repeat and rephrase somewhat, the really important issue is whether Scripture presents the Rapture as a future event that will occur.
So please grab your Bibles, ye studious People of the Book. If you will, look up Revelation Chapter 15. Read it and re-read it. You might not recognize it at first as the thorough-going Rapture passage that it is.
1 Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished.
2 And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. 3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,
“Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations!
4 Who will not fear you, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy.
All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
5 After this I looked, and the sanctuary of the tent of witness in heaven was opened, 6 and out of the sanctuary came the seven angels with the seven plagues, clothed in pure, bright linen, with golden sashes around their chests. 7 And one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever, 8 and the sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished.
Revelation 15:1-8 ESV
At the risk of being harsh, I have a few questions for you. When was the last time you heard a sermon about this passage? When was the last time you heard anything coherent taught about this particular passage? If you yourself were asked to interpret this passage in its narrative context, how would you do? Could you present it coherently, or would you and your listeners walk away completely confused?
These probing questions I do ask because I am willing to bet that the vast majority of skeptics who ridicule the Rapture cannot make much sense of this passage in its broader context, that is, immediately after the events of Chapter Fourteen, and immediately before the Seven Bowls of Wrath are dispensed. However, please realize that these eight verses make perfect sense to those who take the Rapture of the Church seriously. With the Rapture in mind and in place, this passage is completely coherent within the overall contextual flow of the Book of Revelation. It is like a puzzle piece that fits exactly where it ought. And that clean, orderly coherence should give y’all pause, especially because alternate explanations are almost always messy and incoherent.
Please allow me to interpret and explain this passage.
Those who have conquered the Beast, and its image, and the number of its name — who are they, exactly? Most interpreters would agree that these conquerers are true Christians, Faithful Witnesses for Christ. And while that interpretation is not wrong, it is not precise enough. Yes, these are Christ’s Faithful Witnesses, true enough. But more exactly, they are all the Faithful Witnesses who have persevered and thus prevailed through to a particular point in Church History — to its final terminus, to the end of the present age or era. The Beast, its Image, and the Number of its Name (referred to hereafter as the Notorious BINN) will not appear in their final, ultimate, and most fearsome manifestations until the end of this era. Therefore, the Faithful Witnesses who persevere and who thereby manage to conquer the Notorious BINN must necessarily include all of those who live through (and perhaps die during) the very end of this current era.
By the way, and very importantly, please do notice that I do not mean to exclude any of the Faithful Witnesses who died in the centuries and decades before the final days — not at all. Instead, I simply mean to include those who have lived through (and those who may die during) the final tumultuous period of time. The Faithful who prevail over the Notorious BINN include all the faithful throughout the entirety of the age. Chapter Fifteen depicts all the Faithful Saints, from the beginning to the utter end of the Church Age.
Notice where these conquering Saints are said to be standing. They are standing beside the Sea of Glass, otherwise and alternatively known as the Crystal Sea. And where, pray tell, is the Crystal Sea? If I am not mistaken, the Crystal Sea is not on Earth, but is up there in Heaven. Yep, according to Revelation 4:6, the Crystal Sea is situated before the very Throne of God, up in Heaven. (This matters because those who deny the Rapture will often claim that after Christ’s Second Coming his Saints do not go to up heaven, but instead stay on Earth.) So, based on Revelation 15, is it safe to assume that all the conquering Saints have somehow made their way up to Heaven? Personally, I am altogether willing to assume just that. The Saints got there somehow. In Revelation 15:2 all the Faithful, Conquering Saints throughout the entire Church Age are seen standing beside the Sea of Crystal in Heaven. Rapture skeptics need to explain how this is true.
Okay then, exactly how did those conquering Saints get up there to Heaven?
They either made it up to Heaven through Death or through the Rapture. As far as I can tell, the Bible offers human beings no alternative means of transport to Heaven. Death or Resurrected Rapture — those are the only two viable transit options to Heaven. And be very careful before you easily opt for Death as their sole means of transit. In 1 Thessalonians 4:17 Paul claims that some very blessed Christians will escape death altogether. Those Christians will be physically transformed in an instant (for that, see 1 Corinthians 15:51-52), and will meet the Lord Jesus in the air. I would like to suggest that from their meeting place in the air they will (or hopefully, we will) continue to ascend to Heaven, where they/we will find ourselves besides the Sea of Crystal, before the Throne of God. While we are there, absent from Earth, the Seven Bowls of Wrath will be poured out upon the unrepentant upon the Earth. And notice that exact sequential scenario follows the narrative flow of Revelation Chapters 14, 15, and 16, neatly, cleanly, and coherently. Uh huh, it really does.
If this is the correct contextual interpretation of Revelation 15, then the Resurrected Rapture can and should be understood as one and the same as the Eschatological Exodus. That simply means that just as the Children of Israel were once delivered from Egypt by means of the Miraculous Parting of the Red Sea, so the the Church of God will be instantaneously delivered from out of the fiefdoms of this world by means of a miraculous Parting of the Time-Space Fabric. The Eschatological Exodus is the Resurrected Rapture of the Church; and its immediate aftermath is the scene presented in Revelation Chapter 15.
When the roll is called up yonder, will you be there? I do hope to see you beside the Sea of Crystal in Heaven someday, perhaps even someday soon.
Its precise latitude and longitude coordinates criss-cross at 31 degrees, 46 minutes, 41.2176 seconds north of the equator; and 35 degrees, 14 minutes, 9.5748 seconds east of the prime meridian. Many years ago, long before those coordinates had any meaning at all, heaven and earth intersected there, at that very location, give or take a few fractions of a second north or south, east or west. According to the Bible, the Presence and Glory of the LORD God Almighty once dwelt at those coordinates precisely, inside a magnificent temple, in an inner chamber known as the Holy of Holies. But the Glory of God has long since vacated that location, and abandoned those geographic coordinates. In the language of the Old Testament, it might now be called Ichabod. As the Prophecy of Ezekiel depicts using very evocative imagery (see, for example, Ezekiel Chapter 10), it is a God-forsaken place.
Even though the Glory is long, long gone, that same geographic spot is hotly and sometimes violently contested turf, even today, and especially today. If you happen to keep an eye on the international news, you are aware that the Israelis and some of the Palestinian politico-military factions have been firing volleys of rockets and missiles at each other over the last several days. This latest round of renewed claim-staking and blood-letting began last Friday, just a few days ago. And the back-and-forth retaliatory strikes seem likely to escalate into the foreseeable future. Alarmingly, the fighting could ripple into a wider regional war.
Why are they fighting, yet again? Primarily, the two sides are fighting about who controls that once God-forsaken geographic location. And they have even been fighting each other face-to-face, man-to-man on top of that spot, on top of the blocks of stone that cover that geographic location. This past weekend, they were sometimes literally physically fighting each other inside the hilltop complex that now stands where the temple once stood.
But who cares? Why should we care? Does it matter to anyone besides them? Does the fact that the Israelis and the Palestinians are once again fighting at that location — at the place where the Glory of God once dwelt on Planet Earth — does it have any special significance? Or is it much ado about nothing?
It might matter a lot. Whether it matters entirely depends on whether those spatial coordinates and that geographic location continue to have any special significance to the God who once dwelt there in Glory, only to abandon it later. Asked most simply: Has God forsaken that location forever?
It nearly goes without saying that I am here implicitly affirming that the God who once dwelt there is actually the LORD God Almighty, the actual Creator and Sustainer of heaven and earth, and not just a fictional, mythological being. But I will hereby make the implicit explicit. I am assuming and affirming just that. I do believe that the Creator once dwelt in Glory in a gilded chamber on a hilltop in ancient Jerusalem. Indeed, the historical events that transpired on and near that particular hilltop make that claim much more believable, when they are given careful attention and close examination. Prophecies have been made and fulfilled there, repeatedly over the centuries.
If that is indeed so — if prophecies were made and fulfilled there in the past — could it be that prophecies are continuing to be fulfilled there in the present and in the future?
In the Gospel of Luke 21:24, Jesus is recorded as prophesying this about the Jewish citizens of first-century Jerusalem:
They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
And guess what? History has proven Jesus right. It happened just as he once said. They did fall by the edge of the sword, and horribly so. They were led captive among all nations, and for almost two thousand years. And Jerusalem has been trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, and continues to be, especially at the very coordinates where the Glory of God once dwelt.
But when I hear the news reports and watch the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem literally physically fighting with their Gentile neighbors over that God-forsaken location, I do have to wonder if the times of the Gentiles are nearly fulfilled. Time will tell, I suppose.
They were there on the mountainside out of deference to their esteemed Rabbi from Galilee.
Catastrophes invariably provoke variations on one basic theological question: What did God have to do with this event?
One week ago, on Friday, April 30th 2021, an awful tragedy occurred on a mountainside in northern Galilee at an annual nighttime festival called Lag Ba’Omer. Forty-five men and boys were accidentally trampled to death after they fell onto the metal floor of a narrow passageway which had been constructed near a tomb-turned-shrine. No, nothing malicious occurred. There was no bomb. There was no terrorist attack. It was simply a freak accident. It was just far too crowded on the mountainside that night. Too many of their fellow festival-attendees were rushing ahead and pushing through the narrow passageway at once. Someone must have lost his footing; and then a tragic domino effect occurred. The sheer momentum of the crowd crushed forty-five of them.
So why were there so many people there on the mountainside last Friday night? Every year on Lag Ba’Omer thousands of Orthodox Jewish men and boys make a pilgrimage to Mount Meron to venerate a second-century Rabbi named Shimon Bar Yochai, also known as Rashbi, because Mount Meron is where his tomb is located; and Lag Ba’Omer is the anniversary of Rashbi’s death.
Incidentally (and of special interest to me), Lag Ba’Omer translates from Hebrew into English as “the 33rd [Day] of Omer.” The omer are the sheaves of grain that symbolize the 49 days between the end of Passover and the Day of Pentecost (see Leviticus 23:9-21 for a scriptural description of the period). Of course, the end of Passover and the Day of Pentecost are very important holy days for Christians, as well, as one happens to be Resurrection Day, and the other the anniversary of the Founding of the Church. Christians might also find it curious that Mount Meron is considered a possible site for the Transfiguration, when and where Jesus was transfigured into a glowing figure who spoke with the two long-departed Old-Testament figure-heads, Moses and Elijah. This event — this splendid, glowing Transfiguration — happened in view of three of his awestruck disciples — Peter, James, and John (see Mark 9:2-13; Matthew 17:1-13; and Luke 9:28-36). But the whereabouts of the Transfiguration is contested by scholars. Did it actually occur on Mount Meron? We don’t know. New Testament scholars cannot be certain as to where the Transfiguration occurred, because the three Gospel accounts simply say it occurred on “a high mountain.” Still, based on Jesus’ textually-indicated route from Point A (Caesarea Philippi) to Point B (Capernaum), it might well have happened somewhere in between, which would be Mount Meron.
From henceforth however, Mount Meron will be remembered as the place where 45 Orthodox Jewish men and boys were crushed on April 30th 2021 in an awful accident. Predictably, in the week hence, lots of people in Israel are asking just whom to blame for the accident. Someone even wrote an Op-Ed article saying no one person bears the blame, besides God. Although it may sound blasphemous, it is legitimate to ask if the Op-Ed writer was right. Should God be held responsible for the accident? Please ponder the matter with me before you answer that.
Whenever an event like this occurs, people ask the what-about-God question. They ask if God had anything to do with it or not. Theologically speaking, this is called the Problem of Evil, because instances of evil (perceived or actual) leave us wondering why God decreed it or allowed it to occur. Technically speaking, the Problem of Evil is reduced to just a single word: theodicy.
At the risk of sounding far too detached and clinical, over the years theologians (like me) have compiled a number of answers to the theodicy question. A six-point list may seem especially callous. But in the final analysis, detached logical reasons can actually help people grapple with such questions. So here are six possible theodicies — six theological explanations for any given catastrophic event:
Individual Judgment. God is using this catastrophic event to express some measure of displeasure with a person.
Corporate Judgment. God is using this catastrophic event to express some measure of displeasure with a defined group of people.
Individual Testing. God is focusing this catastrophic event instrumentally on an individual basis. That is, God wants to see how an individual person will respond to this circumstantial test. The person’s response will determine growth in his/her character, and may well determine his/her future.
Corporate Testing. God is using this catastrophic event instrumentally on a corporate basis. That is, God wants to see how a group of people will respond to this circumstantial test. The group’s response will determine growth in their corporate culture, and may determine their future course.
Cause and Effect. God is not directly involved in this catastrophe, insofar as it was not divinely ordained as judgment nor testing. However, God did not intervene to prevent its occurrence, either. The catastrophic event in consideration is best explained as a cause-and-effect situation.
Divine Non-Involvement. God had nothing whatsoever to do with the catastrophe in consideration. God neither ordained nor allowed the catastrophe to occur; but it occurred nonetheless. (However, given what the Bible reveals about the Sovereignty of God, I do not believe this can ever stand as a genuine theological option.)
At this juncture, I have a question: Are there any other possible theodicies that I have not listed here? If so, please feel free to let me know what possibilities you might suggest.
As for which of the six explanations fit last week’s Mount Meron accident, I will simply shrug. But if pressed, I would say I think it is probably a combination of the first five explanations — but not the sixth. I do not think the sixth explanation is viable for anyone who believes in the foreknowledge and sovereignty of God.
As a Christian theologian, I do wonder if this catastrophic event will prompt further questions about the irreconcilable claims of two Jewish Rabbis from Galilee, one of whom is buried on a slope of Mount Meron, the other of whom is not.
In Proverbs 8:13a (a = the first half of the couplet) personified Lady Wisdom declares that the fear of the LORD is hatred of evil.
Welcome back to 7th grade! Consider this a remedial crash course in middle school English Grammar and Usage. In American English, we almost always construct our sentences in this order: subject (usually a noun or pronoun) – verb – object (again, usually a noun or a pronoun). Take this sentence as an example: The dog chased the cat. The dog is the subject who does the chasing. The cat is the object being chased. My sole point here is to differentiate between the subject and the object in a sentence. In English sentences, the subject almost always precedes the object, with the verb in between. A relatively simple concept it is, especially for native English speakers, for whom the sequence seems entirely intuitive, and to whom anything ordered otherwise sounds quite strange.
However, this subject-object distinction gets much cloudier and more confusing when we begin talking about prepositional phrases, especially prepositional phrases which use the preposition of. If I were to say “the Love of God” without any additional qualifiers, you cannot know for certain whether I mean the love of God subjectively or objectively. Is God the one who loves, or the one who is being loved? Is God the intended subject or the intended object? We need additional information to determine with confidence whether “the love of God” refers to God as the subject who loves or the object being loved. The preposition of renders the matter grammatically ambiguous without additional qualifiers.
If I were to say, “The love of God sustained me through a crisis,” then you would probably assume that I mean the love of God in a subjective sense. That is, I mean that God loved me, which enabled me to get through a crisis. Alternatively, if I wanted to talk about the love of God in an objective sense, I would do well to phrase it a bit differently, using a possessive pronoun and another preposition. I should say something like, “My love for God sustained me through the crisis.” Okay? Okay.
Now instead of the love of God, let’s consider the fear of the Lord. Should that phrase be understood subjectively or objectively?
Is the Lord himself afraid of something? If so, that would be the subjective interpretation. Or is the Lord the object of someone else’s fear? If so, that would be the objective interpretation.
Almost without exception, the fear of the Lord is to be understood using an objective grammatical interpretation, not a subjective grammatical interpretation. We fear the Lord (and properly so). The Lord, however, does not typically fear anybody or anything. The Lord is the object of our reverent fear; the Lord is not the subject who is afraid.
Therefore, in Proverbs 8:13 when personified Lady Wisdom says that the fear of the Lord is hatred of evil, what she means is that if we properly fear the Lord, we will as a consequence also hate evil.
You probably automatically assumed that, though. So why did I bother to write through the interpretive decision-making process in such detail? If intuition gets you the right answer immediately, why bother with a long drawn-out explanation of how to come to the right answer? The process transfers; that’s why. I did so because sometimes you will come across resembling words and phrases, and similar situations and scenarios where the interpretation is not as immediately evident. When you do, it may help you to be able to consciously think through the subjective/objective differentiation. Okay then? Okay.
Back to Proverbs 8:13a itself, though. What is the implication of Lady Wisdom’s assertion about reverent fear and beneficial hatred? What is its importance?
For one thing, it probably means that we can gauge whether we properly fear (or revere) God by reference to our reaction to evil. Do we dislike evil adequately? If we are indifferent to evil, we demonstrate that we do not revere God as we should. And if we enjoy evil, we definitely do not revere God as we should. How we viscerally respond to evil accurately measures our degree of reverence for God. And that claim is worth pondering. Is it true? If so, what does it reveal about each of us, individually?
Someone might be inclined to push back against the idea of beneficial hatred, though. Hatred is bad; isn’t it? We should not hate anything; right? I once had a conversation with a student about hate and hatred. She was adamant that hate was in itself wrong. I had asked her whether hate was always wrong. She said yes, it is. Given the current political zeitgeist/climate, I realized that I could not press the issue without opening the door to misunderstanding and potentially to accusations, so I let it go. But if I could have, I might have asked her whether it is permissible to hate hatred. Whether someone answers that question in the affirmative or the negative, hatred gets away intact, in one form or another. Most people who frown on expressions of hatred usually only reject particular varieties of hatred, not all varieties.
The verse I am discussing is quite clear, though. We are supposed to have hatred for evil. If we genuinely fear the LORD God, we ought to hate evil. That is what it says and means.
In his Epistle to the First Century Roman Church, the Apostle Paul echos Proverbs’ Lady Wisdom and says something very similar, yet slightly different. In Romans 12:9, Paul concisely writes: Let love be without hypocrisy (or, as some translations positively render it, love must be sincere). Abhor/hate what is evil. Hold fast (or cling) to what is good. Notice that in one verse and three short sentences, Paul pairs love and hate as complementary.
Paul does not explicitly mention the fear of God in this verse because there is no need. The whole chapter presumes that the First Century Roman Christians already revere God and desire to please Him. Paul very practically tells them what it means to properly please God. They should love others without faking it. They should abhor whatever is evil. And they should hold fast to what is good.
What, then, is this evil we are supposed to hate? If we as Christians are supposed to hate what is evil, we should have a very clear sense of what is actually evil, lest we feel obligated to hate something that is not actually evil.
This is where I need to use the word subjective in another sense. Earlier in this post, I was using the word grammatically, wherein the word subjective indicates how a noun or a pronoun functions in a sentence. Now I will use the word subjective in a psychological and moral sense. We each have a subjective or intuitive, personal sense of good and evil. In general, individual human beings are acutely morally sensitive. If I do wrong, I often feel guilty. If I am done wrong, I feel it as a personal offense; and I hold the wrong-doer culpable. So do you, I bet. Most of us recognize expressions of evil as such, and immediately so. In general, we have an extremely strong subjective, intuitive, personal sense of good and evil.
Sometimes, however, we are culturally conditioned to accept and even applaud certain evils. Everyone around us says something is okay, so we end up going along. We lose our subjective, personal sensitivity to the evil that is culturally accepted or endorsed. In such cases, we need the evil to be called evil by an outside voice, or, otherwise, by an insightful cultural non-conformist. Biblically, God would often use prophets as conscientious objectors. The prophets were the outsiders or non-conformists who would call people to recognition and repentance. Sometimes we need to be told (or reminded) that something is actually evil, even if (and especially if) everyone around us is saying and behaving otherwise.
Therefore, if we are to truly abhor what is evil, we need to be willing to listen to voices that might make us feel uncomfortable. If we are to abhor what is evil, we need to be willing to face ourselves in introspection.
Vast portions of the Bible are devoted to just such voices — to the non-conforming, conscience-prodding voices of the prophets, who assailed their neighbors and fellow citizens for their indifference and willful disregard of personal and cultural evils. Isaiah comes to mind immediately, as does Hosea, and Amos, and Micah.
These Old Testament prophets (and others) held up an absolute standard of morality. They insisted that morality was not relative, but was instead established by God. They also affirmed that the same absolute moral standard would be the measure by which God judges us in the end. And that sobering claim is worth pondering. Is it true? If so, what does it portend for each of us, individually?
A few weeks ago a good friend of mine requested that I write a post about a section from Saint Peter’s Second Epistle. To be precise, he asked that I comment on 2 Peter 3:9, which says that God is not slow to fulfill His promise (to come again (in Christ)), as some measure slowness, but is instead patient towards us because He does not wish for anyone to perish, but rather that all should attain repentance. That is what the verse says in explanation for why Jesus has not yet returned.
My friend wants me to talk about that verse with a view to The Eschatological End possibly drawing near now, and also with a view to the tandem doctrines of election and predestination. This, of course is a breeze. It is a quick and easy assignment. Easy, easy, easy, super easy. And lest anyone misunderstand, that would be sarcasm from this blogger. No, and to the contrary, I do not deem this a quick and easy assignment at all. But because I assured my friend that I would give it go, here I go.
Okay, mi amigo, I trust you will recognize my reference to you here. Whether you have any interest in reptilian creatures or not, I am going to use a unique type of lizard to illustrate what I consider to be an important emphasis in Second Peter — that unique type of lizard being the chameleon.
You might incorrectly guess that I will talk about how chameleons have the ability to change their color. That is a very interesting chameleon characteristic, to be sure. And if I thought about it long enough, I might be able to incorporate that curious chameleon characteristic into this post. But actually, that is not the characteristic I have in mind. Instead, I want to talk about how chameleons can see this way and that way at the very same time. My interest here is the Chameleon’s unusual ability to disconnect and reconnect their binocular vision.
A chameleon has both monocular and binocular vision. A chameleon can focus each of its two eyes in two different, separate directions at once, or focus both of its two eyes together in just one direction. If human beings had that trait, I think it would be quite disorienting, as it would likely leave us uncertain as to what others are actually focusing on. “Look here at me, young lizard! Look just at me with both of your eyes focused together! Give me your undivided binocular vision!”
With regard to the future, I want to suggest that Christians ought to have (or at least try to have) chameleon-like divided vision, or perspective. Christians ought to keep one eye on the possible soon return of Christ, and another eye on the long-term future. We ought to live and work as if both are likely to occur, and yet simultaneously realize that only one outcome can possibly occur.
This is the bi-focal perspective that Peter’s Second Epistle presents. Since Jesus will come back like a thief (see the reference in 3:10), Jesus could come back anytime, including today. Yet we need to realize that Jesus might also not come back for a very long time (which is exactly Peter’s point about patience and waiting in verses 8-9). From what I can piece together, Old Saint Peter felt the need to write what he did because the watchful Christians of his day were beginning to feel let down and were increasingly disappointed. Initially, they were eagerly and sincerely expectant. Initially, they really, truly expected to see Jesus return, and at any time. They woke in the morning wondering if today would be the day that Jesus returned. But over time, and as more and more days passed, that eager expectation went unfulfilled over and over, and thus began to fade into uncertainty, disillusionment, and apathy.
Old Saint Peter felt the need to address why it was that Jesus had not returned.
It’s because God is demonstrating patience. God wants to save more people. That’s why. But don’t give up hope that Jesus will return, because God will eventually keep his promise.
Nonetheless, does that inspire any confidence now? Does that well-intended, reassuring promise not ring hollow after nearly two thousand years? Given that the expectations of many generations over nearly twenty centuries have gone unfulfilled, does it not seem like an empty promise now? If the early Christians were losing their patience after less than one hundred years of waiting, is it any surprise if Christians today have lost confidence after nearly two thousand years of waiting?
We Christians give lip service to the return of Christ as a parroted credal statement. But from what I can see, most of us do not truly live like we expect Christ to return anytime soon. Indeed, if someone actually does talk and act like he or she expects Christ to return soon, we worry that person is slightly less than grounded in reality. But that has begun to change, I suppose, given the turbulence of current events.
All that said, the early Christians actually had very good reason to believe that Jesus would return in their day. And for exactly the same reason, we have even more reason to believe that Jesus will return in our day. And that reason is found clearly stated in Scripture. It has everything to do with what Jesus once said could be expected near the time of his return.
Please do not miss or overlook what I said in the last paragraph. And recognize that Jesus seemed to point in two directions at once. He seemed to point to the events of the first century as a reliable indicator of his imminent return. Thus the Christians back then correctly inferred that the events they witnessed (and lived through) should be interpreted as indicative of Jesus’ Second Coming. But to their disappointment, Jesus did not return back then — which inevitably confused and concerned the early Christians immensely, and understandably so. Was Jesus reliable? Was Jesus wrong? Was Jesus mistaken? Did Jesus mislead them?
Peter wrote his Second Epistle to address that growing sense of disappointment. Peter assured them that no, Jesus was not wrong. God’s promise was still good. It was still valid. Jesus would return. He has not returned yet because God is patient and desires salvation for even more people. But Peter’s reassurance did not explain exactly why Jesus seemed to have pointed to their own day and time. The answer to that seeming contradiction would come in another book of the Bible, the last book.
Indeed, one of the primary reasons the Book of Revelation was written was to explain the confusion of the two times. The reason why Jesus seemed to point in two directions at once is because he did. Jesus did just that. The time of Christ’s return will resemble the time immediately following his death, resurrection, and ascension. The End of the Church Age will mirror the very beginning of the Church Age. To repeat: The End of the Church Age will mirror the very beginning of the Church Age. If you grasp that, you will be able to discern the times and seasons with much more clarity. One of the primary reasons Revelation was written was to interpret, explain, and expound upon the delay of Christ’s return. And that is a crucial insight, one you should not forget.
Revelation reveals that the desecration and demolition of the physical Temple in Jerusalem in the first century will be paralleled and mirrored by the desecration and apparent demolition of the Spiritual Temple in and as the New Jerusalem (that is, the Church) in the final days immediately before Christ’s return. The varied symbolism of Revelation reveals that. The desecration of the Temple is how and why Jesus pointed in two historical directions to talk about his return. From the vantage point of when he spoke (in his eschatological comments found in Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21) Jesus pointed to the generation that was there then, and simultaneously pointed to a far future generation. Both the immediate generation and a future generation needed to understand that the desecration of God’s Holy Temple would be for them the sure indication that the End of the Age had come. From my reading of the eschatological material in the New Testament, I contend that Jesus meant to parallel the physical assault upon the Temple in 70 A.D. with a similar spiritual assault against the Church immediately before his Second Coming. The Book of Revelation gives more prophetic details about the period of time immediately before and after that final spiritual assault upon God’s Holy Temple, which could well be the Church.
But what about the question of election and predestination? Does God really desire the salvation of everyone, as the Apostle Peter appears to say in 2 Peter 3:9? If God really does wish to see everyone saved, how are we supposed to understand the tandem doctrines of predestination and election? According to the Great Reformer John Calvin, the Doctrine of Predestination implies that God has pre-determined to save some, but not others. That is the correct way to understand Predestination; right? In responding to this here, I will be somewhat loose and sloppy. From what I can tell from Scripture as a whole, predestination does not apply primarily to individual persons (as Calvin taught) but instead functions more of a corporate category. Predestination pertains especially to the corporate Body of Christ — to those who are “in Christ.” Those who have joined themselves in faith to Christ are thereby predestined for salvation and for glory. Said slightly differently, those who will respond to God’s initiative and will incorporate themselves into the Body of Christ (the Church) by faith are thereby predestined for salvation and for glorification. As for Election, I would say that The Elect are those who remain faithful. The Elect are those individual Christians who maintain their confession and keep the Faith. The Elect are those who remain steadfast and faithful, those who finish the course that God sets before them. Again, for the sake of brevity, this overview is somewhat loose and sloppy. But nonetheless, it is an accurate synopsis of how I see these two tandem doctrines. And yes, I probably ought to go into more detail about this topic in a future post or in future posts.
For now though, back to Chameleons. Like Chameleons, Christians need to keep a ready, watching eye on events that might indicate the nearness of Christ’s return. And I wholeheartedly believe that we are increasingly witnessing events indicative of Christ’s near return. At the same time, we need to keep an eye on scriptural passages like 2 Peter 3, which caution us to take the long view, and call for determined perseverance. Therefore, we must watch like he might return while we are yet alive. And at the same time, we must labor like his return will occur long after we have each individually died.