Horrible Hal

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Horrible Hal – Audio Version

According to a well-positioned and entirely reliable informant, a popular theology instructor at a local educational institution once believed that Jesus Christ was likely to return to Earth before the end of 1988. Someone had convinced him that the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 meant that Jesus could return anytime, but likely no later than 1988. When he returned, Jesus was to take the worldwide Church upward from Earth in an event called the Rapture; and that astonishing event was supposed to transpire no later than the end of 1988. Yet while that year came to pass, the expected Rapture of the Church did not. And now the year 1988 recedes further and further into the past. In retrospect, that same popular theology instructor now looks to that unfulfilled date with both chagrin and wisened dismissiveness — chagrin that he was naïve enough to believe such a silly, errant “the-end-is-nigh” prediction, and wisened dismissiveness for anyone who would again presume to promote speculative eschatology. 

Nonetheless, in spite of repeated misses, the speculators and predictors continue to predict Jesus’ imminent return. And some of them even dare set hard deadlines. Who would be foolish enough to do such a thing? Who would presume to set dates for Jesus’ second coming and promote speculative end-time predictions? If and when the end-of-the-world date-setters are proven wrong — as they invariably are — they make themselves look immensely foolish. They set up themselves and their gullible followers for public ridicule and derisive scorn. And yet one doomsday predictor after another invariably steps forward. They just keep on coming along, predictably mis-predicting that the end is near because Jesus is once again about to return. 

Okay, zany apocalyptic preacher, exactly why should we believe yet another doomsday prediction? What makes you right, unlike everyone who came before you? Is the sky actually falling this time, Reverend Chicken Little? 

Somewhat surprisingly, one of the most famous or infamous of the doomsday-predicting preachers is still active in the ecclesiastical eschatology-speculation business, after fifty-one years of date-setting miscalculations and subsequent adjustments. Yes, although he is now in his early 90s, this particular predictive preacher is still actively at it. He is considered by many to be the very epitome of repetitive eschatological error. And exactly who is this man? At the pinnacle of the heap of nefarious doomsday preachers stands a mustachioed Oklahoman named Hal Lindsey. 

Here, though, is the twist and the kicker. It is something I should perhaps hesitate to admit: I kind of like Hal Lindsey, even respect him. When he speaks about the Bible (even about portions of the Book of Revelation), what he has to say is sound — at least what I have heard. Admittedly, I have only heard and read a little, and should listen to more of what he says. But what I did hear from Hal Lindsey demonstrated real depth of insight. I would even use the descriptive word profound for the recent sermon I watched online. He did not sound like the speculative, slick villain I had been expecting. Yet many Christians have nothing good to say about Hal Lindsey whatsoever.

Let me tell you why. Back in 1970 Hal Lindsey and a co-author wrote a best-selling book entitled The Late Great Planet Earth. It ranks as the 55th best-selling book of all time. And it was on basis of The Late Great Planet Earth that many prophecy-speculators began to believe that Jesus would probably (or definitely) return by 1988. However, this particular speculation fell flat. What Hal Lindsey suggested might someday happen did not happen, and seemingly cannot happen any longer, simply because the global political scene has changed so much since the 1970s. Over the last fifty years, Lindsey has consequently needed to make some adjustments to his prophetic political scenarios. And after a while, many have tired of such adjustments. 

Yet when he speaks on the Bible, Lindsey is learned, sound, and even profound. How can that possibly be? And what does someone do with that? Someone explains why it is so. In my estimation, the main reason Lindsey has gotten Revelation wrong through the years is because he insists on reading and interpreting Revelation too literally.

If you understand his determination to interpret Revelation as literally as possible, Lindsey makes understandable interpretive mistakes. I would argue that Lindsey makes forgivable interpretive mistakes. Lindsey takes Scripture very seriously, and has been doing his best to make sense of Scripture for over fifty years. But his best-selling book made some errant speculative predictions. In the minds of many, it now stands as a massive embarrassment within Christianity. By virtue of at least one major errant speculation, Lindsey (and his interpretive scions) have given end-times eschatology a bad name.    

That all said, at least some of what Lindsey wrote needs to be given re-consideration. If you understand why Lindsey suggested that Jesus might return by 1988, it actually makes a lot of sense. No, of course, Lindsey wasn’t right about it. And history has long since disproved his speculation. But his argument makes sense, nonetheless. Based on some of Jesus’ cryptic actions and explanations, Lindsey reasonably suggested that the generation that witnesses the re-establishment of the State of Israel must be the generation that sees the return of Christ. Since Israel was re-established in 1948, and since a biblical generation is 40 years (or so Lindsey once believed), Lindsey speculated in The Late Great Planet Earth that Jesus Christ would necessarily return by the end of 1988. To be fair, Lindsey was very careful to hedge his speculation about that particular date. But others after him were not as careful. If Lindsey had been writing in a sad old commentary somewhere, his errant speculation would be just a trivial curiosity. But to date, Lindsey’s book has sold well over 15 million copies. And it has even inspired a unique apocalyptic niche in literature and film. 

Sometimes people will say that Lindsey is a false prophet. In my estimation, that is much too harsh. Lindsey is instead a slightly misguided biblical interpreter. He made and continues to make an honest effort at interpreting some very difficult sections of Scripture. By defaulting to a literal approach in interpreting symbolic prophetic material he and like-minded interpreters continue to bend the scenes from the Book of Revelation to unfolding or expected political events. Sometimes such interpretations may in fact work. Alternatively, such speculative interpretations can be (and have been) disproven by ensuing historical events.

Finally and affirmatively, I must say that I side with Lindsey more than many other Revelation scholars, insofar as I do believe that the Book of Revelation actually does predict the future. It actually does give specific details about future characters and events, and especially those in the political realm. I just believe Lindsey is too intent on defaulting to a forced literal reading of Revelation, when a figurative, symbolic reading actually yields a more coherent message.      

How Herman Hears

Friday, February 5, 2021

How Herman Hears – Audio Version

What the Apostle Paul says about the Second Coming of Christ can and should be taken literally. Literally, you should read Paul’s writings literally (most of the time). What John the Apocalyptic Narrator says about the Second Coming of Christ should (almost always) be taken figuratively, and not literally. Figuratively, you should read John’s Apocalypse figuratively. 

If you get and keep that straight, it should help you a lot, even immensely. It will help you (and your community of devoted listeners) avoid a plethora of potentially perplexing problems and may clear up accumulated clouds of contradictory confusion. With the Apostle Paul, do default to a literal reading. With John the Narrator of the Apocalypse, do not default to a literal reading, but instead default to a figurative reading. This will help you. Please try it out, even if you are reluctant to believe me. 

Forgive me. I know I sound pedantic and even tedious. But this point needs to be hammered home, because many, if not most, of the interpretive problems circulating in the churches and especially in pop culture can be explained as simple hermeneutical malpractice. If the word hermeneutics is unfamiliar to you, I will explain it in just a bit.  

Parenthetically (but importantly), interpreting Jesus himself requires both a figurative approach and a literal approach, because sometimes Jesus flips into his mysterious, cryptic mode and speaks figuratively, as when he tells parables in public; and sometimes Jesus very deliberately takes a less mysterious tack and speaks literally, as when he answers his disciples’ questions privately. Since Jesus talks about his Second Coming Advent and the End of the World Age both figuratively and literally, we are left to sort things out a bit. And that is where the Apostle Paul in particular is quite helpful, simply because Paul speaks to his audience more literally.  

But what does the word hermeneutics mean? A hermeneutic is how a reader, viewer, or listener approaches a book, movie, television show, play, or radio program. If you think to yourself, “This television show is probably going to be boring,” you have not only a grudging attitude, but also a skeptical hermeneutic, which will probably make it harder to win your appreciation. Your hermeneutic has everything to do with your expectations of what you are about to see, read, hear, and experience. Your expectation and your hermeneutic: They forever go together. Clear enough; yes?

Usually, we are pretty good guessers, when it comes to our various hermeneutics. What we expect of a play or a movie or a show is often accurate. But sometimes we are not good guessers, at all. Although we were expecting one thing, it turned out to be something somewhat different or entirely different. And when our expectations of a spectacle or an event are wrong, it sometimes has to do with what someone else told us about it beforehand. Other people can and often do mess with our hermeneutic. That is especially true when we consider our hermeneutic influencer a reliable expert. “But my friend told me that this was such a good movie. And she is usually right.”    

When it comes to understanding the Bible, we are often very, very influenced by the Pastor. If he or she tells us that a particular passage must mean something, we usually believe him or her. Naturally so. But do realize that if the Pastor is wrong about the passage in consideration, it might completely skew your hermeneutic — maybe completely, and potentially for the rest of your life. That is why it is good to listen to more than one reputed expert. And it is even better to know the Bible well for yourself. Yes, indeed. 

Now I will let you in on a secret: A lot of pastors have a hard time themselves figuring out and understanding what the Apostle Paul and John the Apocalypse Narrator and Jesus himself had to say about the Second Coming Advent of Christ and the End of the World Age. Part of the reason these pastors have a hard time figuring it out is because they are influenced by scholars who do not recognize what needs to be read literally and what needs to be read figuratively. 

That last sentence actually explains a lot. I hope it carries adequate weight for you. 

You may be wondering at this point why you should believe what I am saying here. Okay, I am glad you asked that. You do not need to believe me, at all. I just want you to hear my claims and consider them. Let them roll around in your head for a while. See if they pass the test of time. You might even ask your pastor if there is some validity to what I am saying. While he or she might take issue with what I say should be read literally and what I say should be read figuratively, your esteemed pastor will likely concede my point about the influence of skewed hermeneutics. Your hermeneutical expectation of a passage of Scripture is very likely to determine how you read it. And that expectation — that hermeneutic — was probably formed by what you heard from the pulpit.      

Much more importantly, go back to the Bible and try to read all those passages about the Second Advent and the End of the Age anew. Are you understanding what you are reading too literally? Are you understanding what you are reading too figuratively? Most readers err one way or the other.

Crass Literalism

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Crass Literalism – Audio Version

Within the last week, one of my readers asked me to cover the thirteenth chapter of Mark. If I am not mistaken, I think that reader wants me to interact with what the Right Reverend N.T. Wright has written about Mark Chapter 13. This, then, is that. 

Since the Right Reverend Wright wrote in an academic manner for his fellow scholars and for seminarians, I might slip back into egghead mode here. If I do, one or two reasons explain the slippage: Reason One – They trained us to write in a particular, peculiar way until it became an ingrained habit. Reason Two – I am striving for clean, concise precision. If you dislike academic jargon and despise seminary-speak, this might not be the blog post for you. But if you’re even moderately tolerant of seminary-speak, please do read/listen on. 

Basically, N.T. Wright claims that Mark Chapter 13 is not about Jesus’ Second Coming, but instead about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE. You heard (or read) that right.  

In response, I will sing my usual refrain: Wright is right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies. Yes, Wright is right when he claims that Mark Chapter 13 is about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE. Wright is quite wrong when he claims that Mark 13 is not about Jesus’ Second Coming. Wright unnecessarily forces a false dilemma on his readers. We do not need to choose between the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE on one hand, and the Second Coming of Jesus on the other. Mark 13 speaks to both and links both. Highly important point.

Some of my readers/listeners might wonder if I portray Wright’s position fairly and accurately. Yes, I believe I do portray it accurately. However, if you want substantiation and if you want to double-check my claims for yourselves, you can locate what he says in his book Jesus and the Victory of God, (hereafter abbreviated as J&VoG) Chapter 8, Section 4, beginning on page 339 in my copy from 1996. You will need to wade through several pages of material, though, to get what I give you in my brief summary above. 

Again, Wright forces a false dilemma. And a lot of people fall for it. Wright argues persuasively that Mark Chapter 13 is about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE, because it is in fact about that destruction of Jerusalem. But it is also about Jesus’ Second Coming. Verses 24-27 ought to erase any doubt as to whether Christ’s Second Coming is also in focus. It is. Here are verses 24-27:

24 “But in those days, after that tribulation: The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not shed its light; 25 the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 He will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

Wright insists that these four verses are entirely metaphorical. He points out that they contain imagery from the Old Testament. And they do. But the implication is that they must not be understood literally, at all. He spends several pages explaining that verse 26 does not mean that Jesus will someday visibly descend from heaven, but rather has already ascended to heaven in vindication, because the word translated as coming can mean either coming or going in the original Koine Greek (refer to J&VoG, Chapter 8, Section 4, Subsection v The Vindication of the Son of Man, pages 360-365). Wright wants his readers to conclude that Mark 13 is solely focused on the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE. It is a “crass literalism” to perceive a “physical collapse of the time-space world” (p. 361) in these verses. 

Is it really a crass literalism to perceive the Second Coming in these verses? Is it a crass literalism to perceive the Rapture in these verses? I ask because verses 26 and 27 read like the Second Coming and Rapture to me.

In Wright’s defense, someone might point out that these verses must be metaphorical because we know enough about astronomy to know that the stars will not literally fall from the sky. Plus, verse 25 says that “the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” What does that even mean? It sure sounds metaphorical. Maybe Wright is right here?

Hang on, though. Such a line of reasoning says more about our contemporary assumptions of what must be literal than about how the original hearers would have heard it. The language of these verses evoke vivid phenomenological imagery. We can visualize a sunset, and still know that really it is not setting because the Earth is actually rotating. But we call it a sunset all the same, because that’s what we see. Likewise, we can visualize stars falling from the sky and imagine curious disruptions to the normal order of the heavens. In a way, this is all quasi-literal language, because it is how it would appear phenomenologically. It would see, sound, and feel as Scripture describes. So though it is not necessarily scientifically literal, it could very well be phenomenologically literal. And significantly, it also can be metaphorical. We don’t necessarily have to choose one way or the other.     

But I have an even more pointed reply to Wright; and that is this: Other passages of Scripture do portray Jesus descending in a second coming, and very literally so. In Acts 1:11 two men dressed in white robes (presumably angels) ask the skyward-gazing apostles a question. They inquire, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Uh huh. 

That’s as literal as can be, N.T. That ain’t metaphorical, at all. Jesus literally ascended upward into the sky. And someday he will descend from the sky. And that we call the Second Coming.

Notice that I am using another passage of Scripture to interpret Mark 13. Is that a legitimate move on my part? Yes, it is. It is legit because of the nature of Scripture. You get pieces of information from here and pieces of information from there on the same topic. Both Mark 13 and Acts 1:11 speak to Jesus’ coming and going, or going away and coming again. You can begin to get a feel for eschatology — for what will happen — when you pull the pieces of information together. Jesus will literally descend from the sky. That is how it will appear to us.

That all said, you can learn a lot of valuable information from N.T. Wright about the Bible. He is right when he says that Mark 13 references the destruction of Jerusalem. He is also (partially) right when he says that the destruction of Jerusalem vindicated Jesus, because Jesus predicted it would happen.

My issue with N.T. Wright is that he forces unnecessary choices on his readers. He misses prophetic parallels, echoes, and patterns, and insists instead on this or that. He puts his readers in a false dilemma. 

Humiliation

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Humiliation – Audio Version

If you are reading this to see how I will attempt to refute the Right Reverend N.T. Wright on the question and reality of the Rapture, please feel free to skip past the historical stuff about Antiochus Epiphanes that follows immediately hereafter, interesting though it may be. However, you will be skipping some valuable information.

King Antiochus IV Epiphanes was a bad guy, a very, very bad guy. From a biblical perspective, Antiochus Epiphanes was one of the absolute worst bad guys ever. He was really, really bad. I wrote about the Greek Monarch Antiochus Epiphanes in a previous post entitled Damnational Geographic and explained why he was so bad. But I did not include an important historical anecdote about Antiochus in that post which I will include now. Antiochus only went totally bad after someone forced him to make a hard unequivocal humiliating choice. Antiochus was forced to decide something significant, and decide it immediately, publicly. He was literally put on the spot, right then and there, in front of his underlings. Only after he was forced to make that very humiliating decision did King Antiochus IV Epiphanes become one of the absolute worst bad guys ever. So exactly what happened? Here I will let brittanica.com tell the tale:

In Eleusis, a suburb of Alexandria, the Roman ambassador Gaius Popillius Lænas, presented Antiochus with the ultimatum that he evacuate Egypt and Cyprus immediately. Antiochus, taken by surprise, asked for time to consider. Popillius, however, drew a circle in the earth around the king with his walking stick and demanded an unequivocal answer before Antiochus left the circle. Dismayed by this public humiliation, the king quickly agreed to comply. Roman intervention had reestablished the status quo. By being allowed to retain southern Syria, to which Egypt had laid claim, Antiochus was able to preserve the territorial integrity of his realm.

A Roman ambassador drew a circle in the sand and in so doing forced Antiochus IV to decide whether or not to withdraw his forces from Egypt and Cyprus. Antiochus knew he could not defeat the militarily superior Romans, so he conceded to Ambassador Gaius Popillius’s demands. Then in his humiliated fury, King Antiochus turned in a raging rampage against the less-than loyal Jews who lived in the territory that he still held. His humiliation turned proud Antiochus into a seething, vengeful tyrant. The Jews would bear the brunt of his fury.

Why share all this information about Antiochus? I am figuratively attempting to get two birds with one stone. As for the first bird, I want to remind my readers and listeners of who Antiochus IV Epiphanes was, because he is a historical prototype of the Antichrist. As for the second bird, this account of Popillius humiliating Antiochus is originally where we get the idiom “to draw a line in the sand” and its variants. Popillius literally drew a circular line in the sand and in so doing forced Antiochus to make an unequivocal decision.

Sometimes lines must be drawn. Sometimes decisions must be forced on the reluctant.

There are things you have to believe. And then there are things that you do not have to believe. There are times we must draw hard and fast lines, and firmly insist that any equivocators make up their minds to be in or out of those lines. And then there are times when lines should not be drawn distinctly — or drawn at all.

Somewhere over Arizona, I believe.

Now I will address the Rapture, and my disagreement with N.T. Wright. Christians do not need to draw hard and fast lines on the question of the Rapture. It is not an essential matter. Fellow Christians will probably disagree with me after what I argue here, no matter how well I argue. But whatever. It is not an essential matter.

That said, I will argue it all the same. If someone were to ask me, “But since you admit that it is not essential, what does it matter?” I would respond with, “In my opinion, the Rapture matters because it makes Eschatology more coherent.” At which point, my hypothetical questioner might completely lose interest and check out, because I dropped an unfamiliar seminary word. “What does eschatology even mean?” N.T. Wright would be familiar with that word, though. He understands it from every direction. 

Let me try again: The Rapture matters because it will help you understand certain sections of the Bible better. I hope I made myself more understandable that time. N.T. Wright would disagree with that claim, though. On his blog, NTWrightPage.com, you can find a brief post entitled Farewell to the Rapture. I encourage you to go read it for yourselves. It is always best to let someone in question speak for himself or herself. And N.T. Wright speaks for himself ably.

He was in a hurry when he signed my book.

If you were to distill everything down, basically N.T. Wright and I disagree about one primary passage of scripture, just one crucial verse: 1 Thessalonians 4:17. It is well worth remembering that, because what someone believes about that one verse will likely determine what he or she concludes about the Rapture. I am going to argue that 1 Thessalonians 4:17 can and should be read literally. N.T. Wright argues that it is metaphorical. In his own words, here is what Wright says:

Paul’s mixed metaphors of trumpets blowing and the living being snatched into heaven to meet the Lord are not to be understood as literal truth, as the Left Behind series suggests, but as a vivid and biblically allusive description of the great transformation of the present world of which he speaks elsewhere.

Therein is the difference. I say it is literal; N.T. Wright says it is not. So who should you to believe and why? Me. Me. Me. Choose me. But that is not the most convincing argument. It might help if you had a better idea of why N.T. Wright does not like a literal interpretation of the Rapture. It has everything to do with his… wait for it… eschatology, his understanding of the End Times. N.T. Wright works within a particular scheme of how history will unfold. He has a hypothetical understanding of the future. That is called his eschatology. For anyone who takes the Bible seriously, eschatology is unavoidable simply because the Bible talks about future events.

Now we turn to the key passage itself. In 1 Thessalonians 4 Paul seems to be describing a future scenario in which Jesus descends from heaven, resulting in the resurrection of the dead (the dead in Christ — Christians who have died) and the ascent of all the faithful to meet Christ in the air. Notice that I skipped a few details; I only did so for the sake of keeping my focus on what I consider to be the three essentials. Essential # 1 – Christ Jesus himself descends from heaven. Essential # 2 – The dead in Christ are resurrected. Essential # 3 – All the faithful ascend (or are caught up) and meet Christ in the air. 

Essential # 3 is what many call the Rapture. And it is extremely controversial. A whole lot of Christians join N.T. Wright in pushing back here with the claim, “Well, that is not literal.” But curiously, they will not argue against the literal-ness of Essentials # 1 and #2. Please do not miss that. Those who reject the Rapture usually know better than to argue against a literal descent of Jesus (because that is taught very clearly in the New Testament); and they know better than to argue against a literal resurrection of dead saints (because, same reason). Nevertheless, they will argue against a literal ascent of all the faithful. That, or they will say that any such ascent must immediately turn into a descent as soon as the Meeting with Jesus in the Air occurs. 

But why? Why take Essentials #1 and #2 literally, but not Essential #3? Well, one reason why some dispense with or modify Essential #3 is because it has an embarrassing, humiliating recent history, a humiliating history which N.T. Wright himself references with the derisive words “as the Left Behind series suggests.” Over the last fifty years, eschatology, aka the End Times, has become a pop-culture fixation. And Rapture-talk has been a frequent source of embarrassment for Christians, time and again. That is one primary reason why N.T. Wright and his devotees want to bid farewell to the Rapture. Understandably so. 

But in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 does Paul present a literal Rapture or not? Historical humiliation aside, a literal reading of the verse makes perfect sense, and is simple and straightforward. The real problem is not with a literal reading of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, but with literal readings of other eschatological verses and passages, as we shall see in forthcoming posts. Sometimes a literal understanding of a biblical passage is the best understanding; but sometimes it is emphatically not. TBC.

Inoculated Against

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Inoculated Against – Audio Version
Are you immune to certain ideas?

Thirty years ago, I asked a young defense attorney if he had ever won an acquittal for a defendant he knew without doubt to be guilty. He gave me an easy yes, and explained that he had prepared a believable but bogus line of defense, a misleading argument that the jury had naively fallen for. As a result, his guilty-as-sin client was wrongly ruled innocent and walked off as free as can be. The attorney had won his case; but justice was not served. Justice did not have its way that day. To my befuddled bewilderment, the young defense attorney was upfront about what happened, and yet completely unbothered. He felt no need to justify what he had done. He took a matter-of-fact and nonchalant attitude about it all. I probably should not have been as surprised as I was. Like the hoodwinked jury, I was rather naïve.

If I had to squeeze a somewhat positive takeaway from my bewildering conversation with the young attorney, it would be this: Well-presented arguments matter, matter a lot.  

Regrettably, a wrong-headed and yet well-presented argument can win out against a better argument presented poorly. Falsehood can have its way if it is presented more persuasively than truth. Truth ought to prevail, to be sure and absolutely so. But how it is presented might matter quite a bit more, at least in the short term.

Why is that, though? The simple reason why the presentation of an arguable claim can matter as much as the truthfulness of its content is because people are often naïve and gullible. Yes, that was a wordy sentence. Sorry. But think it through. How something is presented can matter as much or even more than whether it is true; and that it is because people are gullible.     

Most people will buy a lousy idea if it is spun persuasively enough, and if others they respect fall for it. Consider that an important axiom that you can pocket and revisit. Know as well that it explains a massive amount of foolishness that routinely plays out around you. A lot of people have been inoculated against the truth because they have heard persuasive or pervasive lies. That was well-worded, so I will repeat it: A lot of people have been inoculated against the truth because they have heard persuasive or pervasive lies. Yes, I ought to give you some examples. And yes, I need to explain why I am pointing this out to you.  

As for why I am pointing this out to you, I intend to argue against a first-rate and very influential theologian, whom I will refer to as the Right Reverend. I hope to persuade you that the Right Reverend is quite wrong on something quite big. He once presented a persuasive correction of a controversial biblical doctrine known as the Rapture. And his persuasive correction has become pervasive. Succinctly stated, the Right Reverend says there will be no Rapture. But I mean to correct his correction. Although the Right Reverend is right about a lot, here he is wrong. There will be a Rapture. It is a doctrine that can be established biblically. And we are supposed to expect it. 

But before I get into the nitty-gritty of my arguments for the Rapture, I want to talk about the influence of the Right Reverend. Over a dozen years ago, I went to a local church where a very popular young pastor referred pejoratively to the Rapture as “Evacuation Theology.” The very popular young pastor insisted that God has no intentions of evacuating us Christians out of the world, but instead intends to return to this world and make Heaven and Earth one — one habitation for God and the Redeemed of Humanity. 

Fancy Phrase here: The very popular young pastor was right in what he affirmed, but wrong in what he denied. And that is another important axiom to pocket: A lot of pundits are right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny. How was he right? The popular young pastor was right when he affirmed that God intends to return (Christ) to this world and make Heaven and Earth one habitation for Himself and the Redeemed of Humanity. True, that. But the popular young pastor was wrong when he denied that God will evacuate the Church. On the contrary, according to scripture God will evacuate the Church, albeit for just a little while. 

The message I heard from the popular young pastor had the fingerprints of the Right Reverend. It is very, very likely that the popular young pastor came to his disparaging views of the Rapture — “Evacuation Theology” — either directly or indirectly from the Right Reverend. If I had to bet, I would bet that the popular young pastor read the voluminous and eloquent writings of the Right Reverend in seminary, just like me. Indeed, the Right Reverend is prolific, and one of today’s best-selling Christian writers. The Right Reverend’s name is N.T. Wright, more casually known as Tom Wright. He is a brilliant and important writer. But he is wrong about the Rapture. I need to do more than assert that, though. I need to explain why Wright is wrong and I am right. Did you catch the pun there? 

Allow me to make a caveat here, though: I hardly think of N.T. Wright as a dangerous heretic. Much to the contrary, I think of N.T. Wright as a profoundly important, orthodox interpreter and theologian. He deserves his status as one of the most important living Christian thinkers. But the Right Reverend Wright does get this one very important point very wrong. 

Since Jesus warned his listeners to be vigilant and ready for the eventuality of his appearance and the rapture/the evacuation that will accompany his appearance, it matters much that we affirm its reality (see Luke 17:20-37, which will be one of my key scriptural references). Jesus urged his followers to be ready upon his appearance to immediately and absolutely abandon everything near and dear. Like Noah’s family and Lot’s family — evacuees, in both cases — his followers need to be ready and willing to leave when the time comes. Jesus puts the onus on his followers to be ready, watchful, and willing to leave when the time comes and he appears. This all makes sense if the rapture involves an urgent angelic summons of those who are ready to go. However, it does not make sense if there is no rapture.

But beating N.T. Wright in a debate about the reality of the Rapture will take a lot more than just a few sloppy paragraphs. I have a negative task and a positive task in front of me. The negative task is to debunk his frankly persuasive arguments. The positive task is to more firmly establish my own arguments. Honestly, I might not convince my readers and listeners. But I am going to try, if only because I really do believe the rapture will happen, and could happen relatively soon. For now, though, I just want my readers to be introduced to what the issue is and whom I arguing against.

Discern the Days

Monday, January 25th, 2021

Discern the Days – Audio Version

Yesterday I went to a nearby church to hear a twenty-something-year-old pastor preach. His message ranks as one of the best I have heard in a long time. He preached about the urgent necessity of self-disciplined discernment — discernment pertaining to various news sources, including both broadcast news companies and social media. Although I think he may have avoided the actual word gullible, in effect he urged his congregants not to be gullible news recipients. He encouraged them to seek out the most-factual, least-biased news reporting possible, while insisting that there is no such thing as a completely objective source. He also suggested they choose to listen to diverse and contrarian voices, lest they only hear one bias on a given narrative. It was all very timely and wise advice, especially coming from such a young pastor. I thought he was quite courageous to wade into such a potentially volatile topic from the pulpit. My chief regret about his message had nothing to do with him. I mostly regret that more people were not present to hear his message. He spoke to a very small crowd.

If I had been tasked with giving the same message, I would have toyed with whether to talk about how we are to discern the times in which we live. His concern and mine do overlap somewhat, but are not one and the same. In his message, my young pastor friend was concerned about how we hear the news, that is, about what we perceive to be true and accurate news. I am concerned about that, as well. Doubtless, getting our facts straight is crucially important. Yet I am even more concerned about the grander, broader narrative in which we insert the various factoids which we glean from the daily or weekly news. 

To make my point here, I will use a river analogy. Imagine you are kayaking or canoeing on an unfamiliar river. Various people along the way shout bits of information to you about your immediate situation or your immediately-impending situation. One somewhat-suspicious character yells out, “Beware! There are lots of hungry alligators just ahead!” Another equally-suspicious person counters with, “The fishing hole just around the bend is absolutely fantastic! You should stop a while and fish there.” Whom do you believe? Should you pause to do some fishing or hurry along to avoid voracious alligators? Obviously, it matters greatly whom you choose to believe. But another, even more important consideration would be the anticipated end of the river itself. What if there are treacherous rapids and a dangerous waterfall ahead? Or what if the river empties soon into a placid lake or a beautiful ocean? Knowing that either scenario is true (or at least likely) will change your kayaking calculus quite a bit. 

If the first scenario were believed to be true — if you suspected that treacherous rapids and a dangerous waterfall were soon ahead of you — it might be high time to get to the next dock, regardless of the voracious alligators or the prospect of fine fishing. Neither reputed fact would be as important as getting to the next dock. 

Alternatively, if the second scenario were believed to be true — if you suspected that the river soon ends in a placid lake or a beautiful ocean — your one aim might be to push ahead and push through, regardless of the alligators or the prospect of a fine fishing hole.      

In either case, your anticipated end can significantly change how you perceive your immediate situation or your immediately-impending situation. 

Does the Book of Revelation tell us anything about the end of the river? Does the Book of Revelation help us discern when the end of the river is near? Consider that question carefully. How you answer it might determine how you respond to the news reports you hear.

I argue that the Book of Revelation does help us discern when the end of the river is near. Indeed, I would assert that the Book of Revelation was given to the Church for that very reason. God wants us to be able to discern the End of the Age as it draws near. If that claim comes across as wacky or weird to you, my counter-question would simply be, “Then among the other books of the New Testament, do you believe the Book of Revelation has a unique and distinct purpose? If so, what do you believe that purpose to be?” Again, I believe that the Book of Revelation is in the Bible to help the Church discern the times, and especially to help us recognize when the End is near. To say so is by no means a claim to establish an exact date, but is instead to claim that God has done us the favor of giving the watchful a descriptive and specific heads-up. Otherwise, the Book of Revelation seems to serve little-to-no discernibly distinctive purpose in comparison to the rest of the Bible, other than to perhaps confound and perplex interpreters. If that last sentence is an overstatement, I hope it still carries my point.

Now, to be very specific about the time in which we find ourselves, I wonder if (and even strongly suspect that) we are living in a prophesied period in which the Church appears to be defeated and done. Does Revelation actually teach that the Church will appear to be defeated? That is exactly how I read Revelation 11:1-10. And if it matters to my readers or listeners, a lot of other well-respected interpreters read this passage precisely the same way, which is to say that my interpretation here is not obscure, nor lightly dismissed. Major interpreters understand the Two Witnesses figuratively, just like me. They say the Two Witnesses must be the Church. Immediately before the Two Witnesses are resurrected and taken to heaven, the Witnesses are somehow conquered and killed by the Beast from the Abyss. Do not misunderstand me here. I am not saying that we should all expect to be killed. This is a figurative interpretation, and not a literal interpretation. Not every Christian dies; we know that from other passages in the New Testament, such as 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-53. But the Church of Christ will appear so defeated to its enemies that they will exult in celebration over their triumph, and even exchange gifts with one another. The more I see the Church persecuted around the world — persecuted both politically and culturally — the more I wonder if this is all happening right before our eyes. But to come to such a conclusion does require a figurative reading of Revelation 11:1-10, not a literal reading.

If my readers and listeners are willing to entertain the possibility that my suggested reading of Revelation 11 might be correct and may fit our current time, then I would suggest that the practical implications are straightforward. We need to be calling people to repentance, while there is still time for them to repent. Granted, if anyone does run with this interpretation, she or he might come across as “a bit much” to those around them. Therefore, one has to decide how to approach others. I choose to blog about it.     

Figurative Fig

Audio Version – Figurative Fig

Jesus once cursed a fig tree with the words, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” The next morning, the tree was withered away to its roots, which shocked his disciples. Yes, this is a weird and disturbing portrayal of Jesus. And it is weird and disturbing in more than one way. But it occurred. Jesus cursed a fig tree for real. It actually, literally occurred within Jesus’ final week of ministry before the cross.

Let me explain why I say it actually, literally occurred. The primary reason to say it must have happened is precisely because of its weirdness. His cursing of the fig tree makes Jesus look a bit mad, a bit off. Who in their right mind gets frustrated with a fruit tree and curses it? Perhaps some of us might be impetuous enough to vent our hungry frustration at an unfruitful fig tree; but if we did, we would probably do so under our breath, lest bystanders hear us and think us potentially unstable. Jesus, however, cursed the fig tree loud enough for his disciples to hear; and they in turn decided that the event (and its dramatic, withering aftermath) needed to be recorded for the benefit of all posterity. 

Yet this is undeniably weird behavior from Jesus; is it not? So why would his followers record it? They would not have invented this. Why would they? The whole point of the four gospels is to glorify Jesus and present him as the Savior of the world, as someone who is worthy of complete allegiance. The point is certainly not to make Jesus look impetuous, irrational, and zany. Therefore, his followers would only have recorded and relayed this rather strange and somewhat embarrassing episode if it actually happened. Moreover, it was recorded not just once, but twice, in both Matthew and Mark (see Matthew 21:18-19 = Mark 11:12-14). In addition, it is possibly alluded to in a parable in Luke (see Luke 13:6-9).

Hereafter, I argue that the parable in Luke serves to interpret the meaning of the indubitably historical event which Matthew and Mark both record. Indeed, the parable in Luke Chapter 13 explains the whole event, even if Luke was not intentionally alluding to it. It does not matter whether Luke the Gospel writer was aware of the connection between the fig tree parable and the fig tree historical event. What matters is that the Holy Spirit orchestrated the scriptural inclusion of the parable in Luke and the two recordings of the historical event in Matthew and Mark. Jesus spoke the parable of the fig tree; and he cursed the actual fig tree on separate occasions. The Holy Spirit made sure that everything related to the fig tree was recorded in the Gospels — including the parable and the two historical accounts of the event. The Holy Spirit did so because the parable explains the event. If you read and understand the parable, it becomes clear that Jesus was not acting in an impetuous, irrational, or zany manner. Instead, the entire event was a veiled prophetic pronouncement. The event was an enacted parable. 

The literal fig tree that Jesus literally cursed represented something else. Get that. The fig tree was a representation or a figure of something else. The fig tree was an effigy. The literal fig tree was a figurative representation. The fig tree represented something else. But what might that something else be? What might Jesus have been so frustrated with? Maybe Luke 13:6-9 will begin to help us figure that out.

Luke 13:6-9 tells the story of a conversation between a land owner and a gardener. Although the land owner is unhappy and ready to chop down a particular barren fig tree, the gardener intercedes on its behalf. He appeals for one more year to tend and fertilize the tree. Yet the gardener concedes that if the fig tree fails to yield fruit after a year, then, yes, the land owner should cut it down. Curiously, the land owner is very specific about how long the he had been looking for fruit from this particular fig tree — three years, which is the same length of time as Jesus’ public ministry. Does that mean that the gardener represents Jesus himself? Indeed, it does. The land owner should be understood as God, and Jesus, as the gardener. The fig-tree parable is about God’s impending judgment upon his own chosen people. Luke Chapter 12 and the rest of Chapter 13 bear this frightening interpretation out. In fact, at the end of Chapter 13, Jesus laments over the forthcoming doom of the City of Jerusalem, since its residents had been unreceptive to him, just as they had with previous prophets.

This interpretation is all the more certain when the Old Testament is cross-referenced. Using gardening metaphors in Hosea 9:10-17, God indicts his chosen people for their rebellion and their obstinance. Verses 16 and 17 include an especially poignant prophecy of judgment. But rather than quote them here, I would encourage my readers or listeners to go read those two verses for themselves.  

The barren fig-tree in the Matthew, Mark, and Luke, then, is a figurative symbol, used consistently in every instance. It represents an obstinate, unreceptive group of people — people who should have known better. But you might miss all this if you do not recognize the symbolism for what it is. And this is how prophetic material often appears in the Bible, in terms of representative symbolism. If a reader catches that, it unlocks the manner in which we are to approach a lot of prophetic material in scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments. 

With an overly literalistic reading of the fig-tree curse, Jesus comes across as an impetuous and maybe even capricious person. But with a symbolic reading of the fig-tree curse, Jesus’ actions are entirely understandable as enacted prophecy. The tendency to insist on the most literal interpretation possible can lead to gross misunderstanding and even theological error.   

Damnational Geographic

Damnational Geographic – Audio Version

“I lift my eyes up to the mountains; from where does my help come?” – Psalm 121:1

“Should I stay or should I go now? Should I stay or should I go? If I go, there will be trouble. If I stay, there will be double.” – The Clash

Be careful, Little Feet, where you go. Be careful, Little Feet, where you go. For the Father up above is looking down … _______________ ( …in love? …to judge? ), so be careful, Little Feet, where you go. 

Your geographical whereabouts can help you or harm you, spare you or sink you. That can be an undeniable, stubborn fact. Yet as it stands, it is not a particularly profound statement. The reason why it is not particularly profound is because it is not always true. Sometimes your geographical whereabouts are simply incidental to whatever happens there. Sometimes serves as the controlling word in the previous sentence. The locale and the events thereof can be unrelated — can be. Yes, a bad thing or a good thing may have happened right here, but it might as well have happened over there. There’s no particular connection to be made between this location and the event that happened here. Should an accident or incident occur here, the location ought to be considered akin to an innocent bystander. “I had nothing to do with it. I just happened to be standing here,” said the unsuspecting house where the dastardly deed was done.   

But certain locations are more likely than others to have incidents and accidents. Oftentimes we are well aware of that fact. Still, we choose to go there all the same and nonetheless. Sometimes our chosen whereabouts are not incidental at all. We go where we go (or don’t go) premeditatedly, knowing in advance that we may suffer the serious consequences of going there (or not). The premeditated part is what matters. We were able to weigh our options in advance. We weighed. We chose. We went or we didn’t. And we will reap what we have sown. Did we choose well? Time will tell: Be assured of that.

Heavy stuff to consider, isn’t it? Lest this be too heavy, it ought to be said that most of our daily whereabout decisions are not do-or-die, life-or-death-hanging-in-the-balance in nature. Unless you drive a car — then they are. But I should not negate myself from one sentence to the next.        

Anyway, this is not a meditation on driving safety, but on an event known ominously as the Abomination of Desolation. Yes, another light and whimsical topic is our intended focus here. Sarcasm intended: This is neither light nor whimsical. But I should not negate myself from one sentence to the next.   

The Abomination of Desolation: What is that? And why would anyone write about it?

The Abomination of Desolation is a dramatic, ominous event that occurred at a particular geographical location in the past. More precisely, it is a dramatic, ominous event that occurred at the very same geographical location at least twice in the past. And it is a dramatic, ominous event that will occur at a similar spiritual location in the future.

Brakes squeal here. We yield here. A lot of knowledgable Bible readers (and friends) will hit pause at this point and begin to argue with me about the final sentence of the last paragraph. They will take issue with the words similar spiritual location and insist I say same geographical location. But I said what I meant and meant what I said. If this confuses any of my readers or listeners, I will eventually explain what I mean in the paragraphs to come. For now, just realize that I believe the future Abomination of Desolation, the ultimate Abomination of Desolation to come, will be similar in its character to the previous two occurrences, but not identical in its location. This is a necessary and important distinction, lest we miss it when it occurs. If you look for it in the wrong place, you will likely miss it.    

The term Abomination of Desolation originally comes from the Prophecy of Daniel (see Daniel 9:27 and 12:11). Historically, the first Abomination of Desolation occurred when a frustrated Greek despot known as Antiochus IV Epiphanes invaded Judea and desecrated the Temple in 167 BC/BCE. Among other sordid doings, evil Antiochus the Fourth desecrated the Temple by setting up an image of Zeus there, and by sacrificing forbidden animals, such as filthy swine, upon the blood-consecrated altar there. To say that this desecration was a shocking sacrilege is a massive understatement. It resulted in a violent reactionary uprising and a regional war. In the intervening period, God’s chosen people were unable to worship God as prescribed by the Torah — not until their sanctuary was liberated, cleansed, and rededicated. The Hanukkah holiday is an annual commemoration of that Jewish uprising and the rededication of their sanctuary, the Jerusalem Temple. For our purposes here, please do note why this occurred. It all began when evil Antiochus interrupted and perverted the prescribed worship of God in the Temple by trampling its precincts and imposing his own preferred form of idolatry. 

Significantly, Antiochus IV Epiphanes went even further afield with his sacrilege and idolatry. Antiochus also insisted that he himself was to be regarded as the human embodiment of a god. The name Epiphanes means manifest — as in god manifest. Antiochus had ego issues. 

We have here the beginnings and makings of a working definition, then: The Abomination of Desolation might be identified as an idolatrous political imposition that both interrupts and perverts the prescribed worship of God in his Temple. And the one doing the imposition often — perhaps invariably — make blasphemous grand claims about himself, even divine claims (regarding this, see Paul’s discussion of the Man of Lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4). 

Another oh-so-close Abomination of Desolation occasion occurred when Emperor Gaius Caligula attempted to once again re-purpose the Sanctuary in Jerusalem into a pagan temple. Sometime in 40AD/CE Caligula determined that a statue of himself, a statue fashioned in the likeness of the Roman god Jupiter, ought to be placed in the inner sanctum of Jerusalem’s Temple, a gilded inner room known as the Holy of Holies. This rightly worried one Herod Agrippa, who was both a royal dignitary from the region and a childhood friend of Caligula’s. Herod Agrippa did what he could to dissuade Caligula from his statue-installation scheme. Moreover and more effectively, even one of Caligula’s own political appointees resisted the scheme. The appointed Imperial Governor of Syria, Publius Petronius, very courageously delayed the implementation of Caligula’s orders. By means of his deliberate delays, Petronius ultimately succeeded in thwarting Emperor Caligula, whose assassination meant the end of the whole crisis. But the Temple’s second Abomination of Desolation was only temporarily stalled.   

The actual second Abomination of Desolation occurred 30 years later when Roman legions under the command of the future Emperor Titus overran Jerusalem, killing or enslaving all its inhabitants, and demolishing its Temple in 70AD/CE. This destruction of Jerusalem came in fulfillment of an anguished prophecy that Jesus spoke against the city, because most of its inhabitants had rejected him as their promised Messiah. Within one generation of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the Temple was reduced to ruins; and biblically-prescribed worship there ceased (and to this day has never resumed). The City of Jerusalem and its Temple were left both desecrated and desolate, just as Jesus had foretold (see Matthew 23:37-39).  

Jerusalem’s destruction came under the command of a Roman general named Titus Flavius. Titus thereafter followed his father Vespasian as emperor, and was succeeded by his brother Domitian. All three of these Flavian emperors practiced pagan idolatry. Titus had his troops carry the Temple’s furnishings to Rome as spoils, where they were presented as trophies before the gods of the Roman pantheon. Thus Titus took what was dedicated to God and belonged to God and offered it instead to his own gods. Titus’s brother Domitian would later encourage his subjects to worship his late father, his late brother, and even himself, and even while he was still alive. Sacrilege and blasphemy ran in the Flavian family line, it seems.

All of this is helpful and necessary background information, because someday a foretold third Abomination of Desolation will transpire. Indeed, in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 Paul says that the Day of the Lord will not occur until a rebellion or apostasy occurs, and someone known ominously as the Man of Lawlessness is revealed. The Man of Lawlessness will “oppose and exalt himself against every so-called god and object of worship.” Furthermore, the Man of Lawlessness will “take his seat in the Temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.”

If the Day of the Lord confuses you, just know that it serves as Paul’s shorthand for the return of Jesus Christ. Paul is saying that Jesus Christ will not return for the Church until some sort of rebellion or apostasy occurs, and the Man of Lawlessness presents himself as an alternative god, the one everyone ought to worship. This, I propose, is the third and final Abomination of Desolation. Paul presents precisely this scenario to the Christians in the Græco-Roman city of Thessalonica as the tell-tale sign that Jesus is about to return. Paul’s whole purpose in writing his second letter to the Thessalonians was to reassure them that they had not missed the Day of the Lord. Rather, they could know that the Day of the Lord was at hand if and when the Man of Lawlessness was revealed by his Desolation of Abomination deed.

On basis of this passage in Second Thessalonians and on basis of passages like Revelation 11:1-3 and 13:5-10, a lot of Bible interpreters expect a future world leader will someday set up an image of himself in a rebuilt Temple in the City of Jerusalem. While it is an understandable interpretation, if it is wrong, it could cause us to look the wrong direction.

This is an extremely important point, simply because Paul told Christians to look out for the event. In Matthew 24:15-16 Jesus likewise instructs his disciples with these words: “So when you see the Abomination of Desolation spoken of by the Prophet Daniel, standing in the Holy Place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.”   

A lot of interpreters will immediately react to my last point by insisting that Jesus was talking about the second Abomination of Desolation, the desolation that occurred back in 70AD, when Titus’s Roman legions razed Jerusalem and demolished the Temple. And that is undoubtedly partially right. But “let the reader understand,” including latter readers. I contend that Jesus also means for us to understand he is talking about the third and final Abomination of Desolation, the same event that Paul describes in Second Thessalonians. If so, we are supposed to catch the parallels and the manifest differences between the previous two Abominations and the future third Abomination.

One manifest difference is that no Old Testament-prescribed Temple currently stands in Jerusalem. Yes, Temple furnishings have been made. And yes, there are some who would eagerly rebuild such a Temple, if only they had the opportunity. Nevertheless, there is no such Temple currently in Jerusalem. However, a New Testament-prescribed Temple does exists. It is not in one particular geographical location. Instead it is made of a particular people. According to the New Testament, the global Christian Church is now the Temple of God. 

If the global Christian Church is the Temple of God now, how might the Man of Lawlessness take his seat in it, and proclaim himself to be God in the Church? Perhaps a Man of Lawlessness will somehow have the power to insist that Christians bow to him instead of the Triune God.

And if the Church is the Jerusalem of God, what might it mean for Christians to flee to the mountains when we see the Abomination of Desolation standing in the Holy Place? Perhaps Jesus meant that we should not knowingly associate with a potential Man of Lawlessness or cooperate with his attempts to co-opt the Church and pervert its worship. Instead, we are to distance ourselves from any such personality and eventuality. However we can, we are to withdraw.      

Jesus made it very clear that his return will catch most people unaware and unsuspecting. I wonder if that is because many of us will be looking for events — or for a particular event — that might never occur. I suggest it would be entirely too obvious if the grand debut of the Man of Lawlessness occurs in a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. If instead, the Man of Lawlessness is revealed by what he does to or in the Church (which is both the spiritual Temple and the new Jerusalem, by the New Testament’s reckoning) then far fewer people will notice it when it occurs. Indeed, we have already witnessed instances where various political leaders have insisted that resident Christians give their primary allegiance (that is, their worship) to a designated Head of State, instead of to God. 

Jesus is Lord and God, not Caesar nor any other claimant. So when we see pretenders and usurpers insist on total devotion and ultimate allegiance, it is time to pay attention, and may well be time to be contrarian and withdraw. Be careful Little Feet where you go, for the Father up above is looking down in love (and to judge); so be careful Little Feet where you go. And if at all possible, go attend a Christ-centered church, since that is where you are most likely to find help and encouragement “even more as we see the Day approach” (see Hebrews 10:25).         

Bridesmaids, Beware

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Foolish or Wise?
Bridesmaids, Beware – Audio Version

Sometimes what comes immediately before and what comes immediately after explains that something in between so much better. A frustrated reader can spend hours or even more trying to figure out what a section or particular passage means, but to no avail — none whatsoever. Sometimes the reader’s real problem is the immediacy of his focus, or rather, the narrow constraint thereof. And by reader I happen to mean me. And by a particular passage I happen to mean Matthew 25:1-13, a passage which is otherwise and more catchily known as the Parable of the Ten Virgins, or else, the Ten Exhausted Bridesmaids, or perhaps, the Ten Sleepy Lasses.

For a very, very long time, I could not figure out what Jesus was trying to teach his listeners in the Parable of the Ten Virgins. In my vigorous self-defense, I will point out that most other interpreters (at least those I have read) come across as equally clueless. This is a parable, after all. Parables can be problematic, an interpretive headache. Parables contain a variety of symbols that can be quite slimy and slippery. Still, you might think by now interpreters would have figured it out. You might think.

Jesus, always a masterful storyteller, here tells the story of ten young women — ten virgins — who “went out to meet the bridegroom.” The bridegroom would be Symbol Number One of the parable. Thankfully, Symbol Number One is easy enough to figure out. The Bridegroom is — drumroll — Jesus himself, upon his return, his second-coming, his parousia. We know this because the New Testament often symbolizes Jesus’ parousia as a wedding, with Jesus as the groom and the Church as the bride (for example, see 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:32; Revelation 19:7 and 21:9).   

The story goes on: Five of them are wise lasses, while the other five are foolish lasses. But just who are these maidens, really? And is it anachronistic to think of them like the bridesmaids we see in weddings today? Who exactly is symbolized as these ten virgins? See? It is getting trickier and more slippery already here at Symbol Number Two.  

The story goes on: In case they must wait for the Groom past dark, the five foolish virgins do happen to bring some lamps along, but somehow fail to bring enough oil for their lamps. The five wise virgins also bring their lamps, but have the foresight to bring some extra oil. 

So here we have a few additional parable symbols: darkness, lamps, and oil.

Oil Lamp

To their disappointment, the Bridegroom’s anticipated arrival is delayed well into the night, and so all ten of the bridesmaids get drowsy and fall asleep. At midnight, the ten bridesmaids hear an urgent, awakening cry, “The bridegroom is here!” They all get up and grab their lamps. Though still groggy, the five wise bridesmaids are ready to meet him, with their lamps now lit and with adequate oil. But sadly, the five foolish lasses are caught unprepared and off guard. Their lamps sputter and start going out, because these five foolish bridesmaids did not prepare adequately by bringing enough oil.

Perhaps if this parable were updated for today, the bridesmaids’ situational crisis might be that the batteries for their mobile phones get weaker until they died. And no battery chargers were brought.      

The five foolish lasses then turned nervously turn to the five wise bridesmaids and said, “Hey, we have a problem. We are in a bit of a fix here. We need some more oil. Please share some of yours with us; okay?” But the five wise bridesmaids respond by saying, “OMG! So sorry, but we really don’t have enough for both you and ourselves. Maybe you should hurry out to the store, and go buy some of your own.”

While the five foolish lasses were away to buy more oil, the Bridegroom and his party arrived. The wise bridesmaids who were ready and waiting found themselves totally caught up in the happy moment, and thus completely forgot about the foolish lasses. The entire bridal party then accompanied the bridegroom to the wedding reception, except, of course, for the absent foolish lasses. No one waited around for them to return. They were left behind.

Finally, the foolish lasses found their way to the banquet hall. But when they attempted to get inside the reception, the bridegroom himself went to the door and turned the irresponsible bridesmaids away, saying, “Sorry, you foolish, negligent bridal attendants, but I do not know you.”

And thus it ends, with Jesus warning his listeners to watch, for they are ignorant of the day and the hour (of his appearance). And so we are. And yet we must watch. 

Watch for what, Jesus? How do we know if we are watching like we ought to watch? How do we know who the wise bridesmaids actually are and who the foolish bridesmaids are? In the end, how can we avoid being the un-admitted foolish bridal attendants? You want us to be wise and not foolish: That we do get. But what does this mean for us in practice, Lord? 

If the parable is to be understood, the interpreter obviously needs to explain the symbolism. 

For a long time, I got stuck in the oil, or on the meaning of the oil. I supposed that if I figured out what the oil symbolized, that would take me a long way towards a correct interpretation. But I had gotten ahead of myself, or ahead of the symbolism of the parable, since I had not actually figured out who the bridesmaids were. I had erroneously assumed that the ten bridesmaids were just ordinary Christians, some of whom were wise, and some of whom were foolish. But, as it happens, that ain’t right.

Eventually, it dawned on me: The parable is actually missing a key character, an all-important character. That character is the Bride. In this parable, the bridesmaids are not the Bride herself. They are instead attendants to the Bride. They are her designated servants. They are the bridesmaids. 

Someone at this point may second-guess my interpretation. And I understand why that someone might second-guess my interpretation. Someone may think, “But the passage does not say that the ten virgins are bridesmaids. That’s just your contemporary understanding of it, based on your ethnocentric cultural experience of weddings nowadays. Your interpretation is both ethnocentric and anachronistic.”

And initially, I might be inclined to concede my erroneous interpretive ways. I might defer to that castigating someone, if not for the two passages that sandwich the Parable of the Ten Virgins.       

In the passage immediately before, Jesus talks about two servants, one of whom diligently takes care of his underlings, and the other who abuses his underlings. This is easier to understand. Jesus is talking about leaders who are entrusted with the care of their Master’s populace. Some are good and faithful; others go bad and start abusing their Master’s people.   

In the passage immediately after, Jesus talks about servants who are entrusted with their Master’s resources. Some make wise and diligent use of their Master’s resources and are subsequently rewarded. Others are less diligent, but receive a due reward. One, though, is entirely negligent, and receives a fearsome punishment rather than a reward.

Crucially, all three passages are speaking about the same thing: the faithfulness of appointed leaders in their respective roles. The bridesmaids are actually church leaders. Their assignment is to give light to the Bride of Christ, though she goes unmentioned in the parable. The foolish bridesmaids fail the Bride the worst the very moment she need them most. They let the fire go out before the Groom arrives. They give no light to the Bride. This particular interpretation might seem to be a stretch, if not for the passage that comes immediately before and the passage that comes immediately after. Jesus is speaking to just one topic, the rewards or the punishment that await his appointed servants based on their degree of faithfulness in serving him and his Bride, the Church.     

An astute family member of mine pointed out that Jesus does something very similar in Luke 15: He uses three consecutive parables to illustrate his one point there, which is just how graciously and lavishly God responds to genuine repentance.

Back to this parable, then. The bridesmaids are church leaders entrusted with preparing and teaching the truth of God’s Word. The wise bridesmaids are diligent and faithful in preparing and teaching the truth. The flame of the Holy Spirit continues to shine where they serve because they persist and continue to present the pure truth of the Word, especially in the darkest hour. The foolish bridesmaids have also been entrusted with the solemn responsibility of presenting the truth of the Word, but they fail to do so adequately, and thus the flame of the Spirit is extinguished where they serve. Ultimately, because they have failed to do their part in keeping the flame of the Spirit lit, the foolish bridesmaids themselves are denied entrance into the Kingdom. They are left behind and shut out. Terrifying.

This is sobering stuff. Bridesmaids, beware: You are responsible to continually light the way for the people of God. Give me oil for my lamp; keep me burning. Give me oil for my lamp, I pray. 

Wonder Woman

Audio Version
Interpretive Minds Want to Know: Who is this Wondrous Woman?

As a rule and whenever possible, I use Scripture to interpret Scripture. That’s especially true with the Book of Revelation. Revelation is constantly referencing prior Scripture. Once an interpreter gets a hold of that fact, interpretation of Revelation becomes a matter of looking back to the scriptural allusions and references, and then connecting the dots into a coherent design. 

Following Galatians 4:21-31, the Astronomical Wonder Woman in Revelation Chapter Twelve should be interpreted as the Covenant of Promise. In Galatians 4 the Apostle Paul is arguing for the primacy and superiority of the Covenant of Promise over against the Law of Moses. God’s covenant with Abraham comes before and is better than God’s covenant with the Nation of Israel. Both Christ and the Church are born from the Covenant of Promise. As Christians, we are not Children of the Law of Moses, but Children of the Covenant of Promise. Allegorically, She is our Mother. We are the seed of one covenant, not the other. We are children of promise. We are children of The Promise — the ancient promise to elderly Abraham and Sarah (see Genesis 15:5-6; Genesis 18:10-15). Therefore, Revelation Chapter Twelve draws directly upon Paul here.

Am I wrong to suggest that Revelation Twelve might be alluding the a Pauline illustration? No. In fact, it is quite likely that Revelation would draw upon a known New Testament allegory. Galatia was not far from the Roman Province of Asia. By the time Revelation was written and circulating, the Churches of Asia were familiar with all of Paul’s epistles. Moreover, I believe Revelation also alludes to the Book of Ephesians and the Book of Colossians.

Galatia was right next to the province of Asia.

So, that’s how I interpret the Woman of Revelation 12: She is the Covenant of Promise, which ultimately becomes the New Testament.