Safe Assumptions

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Safe Assumptions – Audio Version
“I am the First and the Last.”

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. 

“And from the seven spirits which are before his throne…”

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.     

Per Revelation 1:20, Lamp-stands or Menorahs symbolize Churches.

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.

Admonition and Emphasis

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Admonition & Emphasis – Audio Version

A bearded, bespectacled theology professor once told his students that they were reading their Bibles much too personally. They were wrong if, when reading about David’s slingshot toppling of Giant Goliath, they extrapolated that God would help them overcome their giant personal problems. That is not the point of the passage, the professor repeatedly insisted. The account about David and Goliath itself makes no such personal promise. We misread the Bible if and when we attempt to pull out unsubstantiated applications and unstated promises from stories like David and Goliath. “So sorry, my naïve college students, but most of those personalized Sunday school lessons you heard while growing up were ~somewhat~ wrong and misleading.” Whether or not such is an exact quote of his, it accurately captures the gist of my professor’s point. He wanted us to know that we may well be misappropriating a lot of presumed promises from the Bible. So an important question begs the asking here: Was he right or wrong? 

My professor left me feeling quite confused and conflicted. On one hand, I did understand his admonition: When reading the Bible, people sometimes do errantly lay claim to presumed promises. And sometimes people come away with questionable applications. Yet on the other hand, something about what he said (or how he said it) felt slightly fishy. It seemed somehow off to me. But what was it, exactly? If asked to articulate or explain my misgivings, I knew I had a problem. I had only a vague sense of how I felt uneasy. But that would never fly. Since I could not explain what bothered me, I chose to say nothing. 

As an aside, do we not find ourselves in that particular position with some frequency? When we are confronted with thoroughly prepared experts, a sense of uneasy befuddlement besets us at times; does it not? And who are we to second-guess the expertise of recognized experts?

Our gut reaction is not necessarily wrong, though. Sometimes we are not wrong to second-guess the experts. With the hindsight of many years and much study, I can now articulate my misgivings. (Not a quick response, I must admit.) What really disturbed me during that lecture long ago was not my professor’s admonition, but his emphasis. In and of itself, his admonition was correct and corrective. However, he emphasized it to such an extent that he left many of his students (including me) wondering if anything they read in the Bible could be taken and applied personally. My professor should have assured us that significant sections of the Bible can and should be taken personally. But he did no such thing. Consequently, he made the Bible (and the God presented therein) much less approachable to us. Not good. 

An axiom can be distilled here: Experts can be entirely correct in the information they convey, but entirely incorrect in the importance they ascribe to that information.  

“Yes, what you say is accurate, teacher; but it is not as important as you seem to think it is.”

Now for a walk through the weedy details we go…

It might be helpful to some of my readers if I explain in detail exactly how my bearded, bespectacled professor was both right and wrong. He was entirely correct when he insisted that a lot of the Bible stories we read are not immediately and personally applicable. Not every promise and not every inspirational message in the Bible applies immediately and directly. The words immediately and directly carry a lot of freight in the last sentence, so please take notice of them. If we misapply messages or misappropriate presumed promises we could well find ourselves both disappointed and ridiculed. So we must not presume upon particular promises and immediate messages that were never, ever intended personally for us. That point could be illustrated with a myriad of tragic examples from history, including very recent history. This, then, was my professor’s admonition. And he was entirely right about this. 

And yet my professor was wrong about something he left implied. By simple omission of balancing biblical information, he implied that much (if not all) of the Bible is not intended for each one of us. But that is wrong. It is wrong because the God of the Bible is not just the God of the there-and-then, but is also the God of the here-and-now. The Bible was and is intended for you — yes, for you personally. And the Bible was and is intended for me, for me personally. The Bible is also intended for us corporately.

How can I claim that, though? Was the Bible not written long, long ago by individuals who knew nothing about you or me? Yes, that is true enough. The Apostle Paul did not have you or me in mind when he initially composed his epistles. So in one sense, we certainly are reading someone else’s long-dated mail when we read what Paul wrote to the Church at Rome, or the Church at Corinth, or the Church at Philippi, et cetera. Since that is true, we must keep the historical particularity of the Bible in mind when we read. 

But what Paul wrote to those long-dead Christians is not just their long-dated mail. It was inspired by the Holy Spirit of God. And therein lies all the difference between Paul’s ancient correspondence and the correspondence of many other ancients. Significantly, Paul and those long-dead Christians were even aware of the fact that what Paul was writing was inspired by the Holy Spirit. If something originates with God, it just might have a transcendent quality — a transcendent quality quite unlike anything that originates with any other source. The books of the Bible have that kind of transcendent quality. They transcend time and place, and speak cross-culturally through the centuries. 

Crucially, this is an all-or-nothing proposition and a point of yea-or-nay, up-or-down, in-or-out faith. Either the Bible originates with God, or it does not. If the Bible does not originate with God, it can be dismissed as unimportant and ignored as irrelevant. But if the Bible did indeed originate with God, it necessarily carries an authority unlike any other document. If it is God’s Very Word to humanity, it should be treated with utmost seriousness and respect.

My bearded, bespectacled professor wanted to stress the historical particularity of the Bible. He was not wrong about that. It was written by historically particular persons in historically particular places to historically particular others about historically particular situations. True. True. True. And true enough.

But in addition the Bible was and is inspired by God, and is intended for you and me today, personally and corporately. Therefore, we must recognize both its historical particularity and its temporal transcendence. If we uphold both of those truths, we can begin to approach the Bible as it ought to be approached. 

With all that said, I have not yet said enough. I have not told you which passages of Scripture do apply directly to us and what promises are applicable to us. Most simply stated, anything written to the earliest Christian communities (churches) can be directly appropriated by us today, but only after careful contemplation and consideration in the context of Christian community, lest anyone misread and misappropriate what Scripture teaches. 

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.

Audacity

Friday, January 22nd, 2021

Audacity – Audio Version

Sometimes you should not show your cards. Sometimes you should. Most of the time you only show the select cards that you believe will benefit you. But both my amateur observations and this card-shark analogy hinge on the presumption that you, the player, are completely invested in your preferred game — that you’re in it to win it. But what if you’re not? What if you’re only in the game for the sake of another player? And what if you do not care if you lose?

When playing games, sometimes I do not care if I win. Sometimes I even want the other player to win. That is true especially if and when I am playing against a child. However, there are times I dearly want to win, so much so that I will go to great lengths to achieve victory. Years ago, my wife beat me in chess — not once, but multiple times. This was entirely unacceptable. My ego was badly bruised. I needed to find a way to beat her. Finally, I managed to pull out a victory. Somehow I did win one game. To this day, I cannot be sure whether I really won outright, or whether she let her childish, overly-invested husband win.

Anyway, I deliberately embarrass myself here because honest introspection is good for the haughty soul. Sometimes ego gets the best of me. When it does, some form of humiliation usually follows shortly thereafter, if not immediately. And we witness that same predictable theme play out repeatedly on the stage of history. In the King James’ idiom, “Pride cometh before a fall.” Yes, it does, again and again.

But the line between pride and due confidence is not always obvious. Sometimes we believe someone to be proud or arrogant when that person is not, but is instead duly confident. For example, my wife is quite good at chess. She really is. And she has ample reason for self-confidence, when it comes to the game of chess (among other things). Yet she is never arrogant about it, nor boastful. If, however, she were to say to you, “I stand a very good chance of beating most people in a game of chess,” she would be right, IMHO. She will not say that, though, so I will say it for her here. You’re welcome, my Dear.

Why am I talking about this? You may be wondering that, at this point. I am talking about this because this blog sometimes gets me in trouble with people I know. Most people are too polite to say so outright, but they believe there is a certain amount of audacity for anyone to claim what I claim. And what is it I claim? I claim that my readers or listeners can learn relevant and important information about very, very controversial sections of Scripture from audacious me. The simple act of posting what I routinely post shows a lot of audacity, perhaps even hubris. Who do I think that I am? A fair question, actually. But most people are too polite and too conflict-avoidant to directly ask that question. That’s okay: If I were in their shoes, I would not ask it either, so I will ask it for them. 

The straight answer to that (usually unspoken) question is this: Rightly or wrongly, I honestly believe that I must blog what I blog. Writing what I do gets me nowhere professionally (at least, not thus far). Nonetheless, the spread of the dread virus affords me the opportunity and time to blog, so blog I will. And my understanding of Scripture is what I sincerely believe I have to offer my readers and listeners, as I have given a lot of time to the pursuit.

That said, there is only one way for anyone to know if what I have to say is actually worthwhile. You have to read it and take the time to consider it. Some people do, for which I am quite grateful. And if you have read or listened to me thus far, thank you. 

Now I am going to show a few of my key cards. I am going to point out exactly where I know most of the experts are likely to disagree with me. And when I say the experts, I mean it. I have read most of the esteemed interpreters of Revelation. Perhaps I should say most of the esteemed interpreters who are published in English (as opposed to German; but most of the German interpreters and theologians eventually get translated into English). Here’s a big card: Most of the esteemed experts would either be uncertain or dismissive of how I interpret the Seven Trumpets, a section of Revelation stretching from the beginning of Chapter 8 to the end of Chapter 11. Yet I will contend that the Seven Trumpets are where I have important insights to offer. And I hope that I can convince some of my readers and listeners to recognize the value of those insights. Yes, I need to be more specific. But I need to take a step back first.

In terms of organization, the Book of Revelation has four sets of seven scenes. The first Set of Seven has to do with the Seven Churches of Asia. This is the least controversial of the four sets. I follow most Evangelical interpreters closely regarding this first set, except that I claim that the respective angel of each of the churches is actually the pastor or bishop. That is a minor point, though. And most of the big interpreters will recognize that my observation might have validity.

Four Sets of Seven Scenes

The second Set of Seven has to do with the Seven Seals of the Scroll, which are broken in succession by the worthy sacrificed Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Interpreters are all over the place in explaining this set of seven. I understand it as having to do with the progressive historical fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.

The third Set of Seven is the Seven Trumpets. This is where I believe I can make an important interpretive contribution. As with the Seven Seals, the esteemed interpreters are all over the place in explaining the Seven Trumpets. I understand the Seven Trumpets as having to do with the progressive historical fulfillment of New Testament prophecy, specifically prophecy concerning the Church and its mission. If you were to go read the Seven Trumpets now, there is a very good chance you will think I am crazy to say what I do. But you will probably miss the symbolism, because you will probably be thinking too literally. Each of the Seven Trumpets is symbolic; and the symbolism is only to be deciphered by looking back to Old Testament references, and, to a certain extent, to portions of the New Testament. Everything I claim here depends on a symbolic, cross-referential reading of the Seven Trumpets. That bears repeating: It all depends upon a symbolic, cross-referential reading of the Seven Trumpets. Yes, I do need to flesh that out for you. And I have fleshed it out in a previous blog post; see Eighteen Interpretive Insights, dated September 8th 2020. 

The fourth Set of Seven in the Book of Revelation is the Seven Bowls of Wrath, which is found in Revelation Chapters 15 and 16. I understand the Seven Bowls of Wrath pertain to the awful events that occur in a fearsome period of time after Christ has returned for the Church, but before Christ has returned with the Church. Notice the wording and the distinction there: returned for versus returned with. I believe Christ does take the Church away for a brief time.       

Of course, there is much more material in Revelation to explain. But this should be a helpful introductory overview for any reader of Revelation. You should know that these four sets of seven are there, and that they each need to be interpreted. The last three sets of seven are sequential in historical chronology, in my reading: first the Old Testament, then the New Testament, and then a very brief, very intense, very terrifying period of time before Christ himself comes to visibly and physically establish the Kingdom of God on Earth. In a nutshell, that is how I understand the bulk of the Book of Revelation.    

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.   

A Sad Old Commentary

Audio Version of A Sad Old Commentary

The word commentary — what does it mean to you? What comes to mind when someone mentions that word? Do you think of a thick, old, rarely-opened reference book that stands unnoticed on a library shelf somewhere, alongside others of its kind, waiting, waiting, waiting, indefinitely waiting in tedious silence, gathering dust, feeling ever sadder and unfulfilled? I do. When I think of a commentary, that is exactly what comes to mind. And although I have been told that books have no feelings nor longings nor pangs of forlorn grief, I am nonetheless inclined to feel pity for sad, neglected, unnoticed commentaries. The months, the years of waiting for a reader must be nigh to insufferable.

Sympathies aside, however, perhaps commentaries go unnoticed for a reason. Most library browsers do not see the particular pertinence of said commentaries, I would venture to say. Otherwise, they would not go neglected. What is a sad, dry, aging commentary even good for? Why bother paging through a commentary? More often than not, commentaries are just books about other books. Sometimes commentaries are even books about books about books. I beg you: Try not to let that confuse you. I will make that concept of bookish regress less abstract in just a few sentences. Though it is not a book, this here blog post is about a particular commentary, which, in turn, is about a New Testament book, yea, the 27th and terminal book. In other words, what you are reading is my own commentary, about a very old commentary, about an even older book.

Hang it there, please. Thinking it through backwards might help. The book at the terminus is the Book of Revelation. The commentary in the middle is Andreas of Caesarea’s Commentary on the Apocalypse. And the blog post most immediate is what you have before you. Simple enough; yes?

Okay then: Now why should you care about what some old, old churchman from Caesarea of Cappadocia said nearly 1400 years ago? And where in the world is this Caesarea of Cappadocia? Starting with the last question first, the city of Caesarea was located not too far from the seven cities mentioned at the beginning of Revelation. Today it is known as Kayseri, Turkey. And as for why should you care about what Andreas of Caesarea had to say about the Book of Revelation, that is a fair question; and I am glad you asked. Many of my readers/listeners probably have never even heard of Andreas of Caesarea before, I suppose. Andreas is otherwise known in the English speaking world as Andrew. The most concise answer as to why you should care about what Andreas-Andrew of Caesarea had to say is this: Andreas-Andrew of Caesarea wrote the first, good, complete, surviving commentary about the Book of Revelation ever, in all of commentary history. Again, Andrew’s Commentary on the Apocalypse was the first, good, complete, surviving commentary.

Yes, I had to write it exactly that way. His commentary is not really the first known commentary on Revelation in history. It is the first good commentary. It is also complete, insofar as it covers the entire Book of Revelation from its first verse to its last. And somewhat surprisingly, it has survived nearly fifteen hundred years. If those four factors are taken together — its age, its quality, its complete-ness, and its having-survived-ness — Andreas of Caesarea’s Commentary on the Apocalypse understandably prompts interest among Book of Revelation aficionados and scholars, even wannabe scholars, like yours truly.

Put another way and summarized a bit, Andreas of Caesarea gives us an open window into how the Book of Revelation was read early-on and understood by Christians very long ago. How, then, did people long ago make sense of the Book of Revelation? Given that they lived much closer to when it was written, did Andreas and the Christians of his day understand the Book of Revelation any better than us today? Or did they understand it worse than us today?  

The answer to that question really depends on whom you count as us today, because we have a wide variety of interpretations circulating today, as you may be aware. Some of our current interpretations are pretty good, while others, not so much.   

Until recently, English speakers did not have immediate lingual access to Andreas-Andrew’s commentary. But about five years ago (that is, in 2015) a good translation from the original Greek was published. The translator’s name is Eugenia Scarvelis Constantinou. She is now a professor of New Testament at a seminary in beautiful San Diego, California.  

Within the last 12 days, I acquired Constantinou’s translation of Andreas’s commentary in an electronic format and began to read it. In particular, I wanted to learn how Andreas interprets some of the more controversial and difficult passages in Revelation. (Incidentally, I also want to know how his working manuscript of Revelation compares with what we now have.) Thus far, I have found what he says insightful and intriguing. That’s not to say that I think he is frequently right. He is not; and one reason he is not frequently right is because he commits himself early on to a particular chronology or textual timeline. Andreas believes that after the first three chapters the rest of the Book of Revelation must necessarily reference the future, and not the past. Because of his commitment to a futurist understanding, Andreas misreads entire sections of the book, IMHO. But then again, a lot interpreters do the same thing today: They commit themselves to a futurist chronology (or alternatively, to a long past chronology), and then attempt to force everything in Revelation to fit that pre-selected chronology. Alas, if an interpreter’s assumed chronology is faulty or skewed it will always distort how the Book of Revelation is read and understood. Yet choosing a chronology is unavoidable, as Revelation by its very nature does require chronological decisions from any would-be interpreter. 

Although I disagree with his chronological scheme, I must say that Andreas’s reading is theologically sophisticated, and surprisingly so. In his favor, Andrew-Andreas understands that much of the Book of Revelation must be read symbolically. And he constantly endeavors to explain the various symbols. I am not surprised by that, though. He was (probably) a native Greek speaker; and knowledge of Greek makes the symbolic nature of Revelation all the more obvious. Sadly, English and English translations often stand in our way of understanding aspects of the Book of Revelation. Sad, but true.    

Finally and to be fair, Andrew-Andreas does get some very important things right. For example, he correctly explains that the introductory benediction in 1:4-5 can be understood as trinitarian, noting that “the One who is, and was, and is to come” can be understood in verse four to refer specifically to the Father, and that the Seven Spirits can be understood as “the activity of the Live-Giving Spirit,” and that Jesus Christ “became a man for our sake,” by which Andreas implies Jesus’ pre-existent divinity. Andreas thus interprets the book’s introductory benediction as a person-by-person-by-person depiction of the Trinity, which is exactly right and how it ought to be understood. Andreas nails the benediction.    

Screenshot of the Commentary

All of these are just a few of my initial reading observations, though. I do look forward to learning more about Andrew-Andreas of Caesarea (Caesarea in Cappadocia, that is) and reading more of the English translation of his Commentary on the Apocalypse.

In conclusion, even very old commentaries should be appreciated, picked up, and read. It makes them feel purposeful, appreciated, and far less lonely. They also have more to offer than you might assume.

Chapter Eleven Bankruptcy

Audio Version

Here in the United States, the two words “Chapter Eleven” are usually associated with debt, insolvency, and bankruptcy. The eleventh chapter of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code provides a means of debt reorganization under court supervision. A Chapter Eleven Bankruptcy becomes an unhappy legal necessity when a corporation or an individual has debt that cannot be met. No one wants to go through the considerable trouble of a Chapter Eleven Bankruptcy. It is always best avoided. But sometimes it has to happen. Sometimes it becomes inevitable. When creditors come knocking and the bills go unpaid, a Chapter Eleven Bankruptcy sometimes becomes unavoidable and necessary. A Chapter Eleven Bankruptcy is unwelcome, unpleasant, and undesirable — except if it ends well. And every once in a while, it does end well.  

Now let’s turn from Chapter Eleven of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code to Chapter Eleven of the Book of Revelation. It ought to be said up front that one major similarity exists between the two Chapter Elevens: yuckiness. They’re both rather unpleasant eventualities. Both Chapters Eleven are very, very undesirable. Like Chapter Eleven of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, Chapter Eleven of Revelation involves a lot of hardship, humiliation, and hostility. For faithful Christians, Chapter Eleven of Revelation is no fun. But it ends quite well.     

Welcome to Chapter Eleven of the Book of Revelation. Welcome to an uncertain future. Expect a bumpy ride. Our immediate future will likely be a dystopian nightmare. Chapter Eleven brings us past the present day and into a dismal future.

In Chapter Eleven you will read about Two Martyrs. The English translation you read will almost certainly say “two witnesses.” Your translation is not wrong; it just fails to catch the nuance of martyrdom that is there. The original Greek word is actually martyr. And in Chapter Eleven, the two witnesses are more than just witnesses. They physically die. They are killed. They are killed for their testimony. They are martyrs. 

Some interpreters will say that the Two Martyrs will be Moses and Elijah. Those interpreters are slightly right and mostly wrong. The Two Martyrs will be prophets like Moses and Elijah. But Moses and Elijah will not be the Two Martyrs. The text never says they will be. Instead, the two martyrs are much more immediate. You and I will potentially be the Two Martyrs. Yes, you may be a martyr. And I may be a martyr. Reconcile yourself to that possibility right now. We are supposed to count the cost. It could well cost you your life. Jesus made that very clear when he called his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. He was serious. 

The Two Martyr-Witnesses: Jewish and Gentile Believers

I forewarned you. This is not a pleasant chapter, at least not up front.

Someone somewhere is asking how I see all this in Chapter Eleven. How do I come to these conclusions? Why do I settle upon this interpretation?

As I mentioned in my last blog-cast, Chapter Eleven presents a number of symbols from the very first verse. It mixes a lot of seemingly strange metaphors. And yet for someone familiar with the Bible, these are easily recognizable metaphors. Most of the metaphors presented in Chapter Eleven are used elsewhere in the Bible as metaphors for just one thing: the Church Universal. We are being presented with a symbolic, metaphorical collage of the Church. 

In the end, when the Two Witnesses are finished with their testimony, the ascendant Beast from the Abyss will make war on them, conquer them, and kill them (see Revelation 11:7). The Beast from the Abyss will bring about their elimination. The Two Witnesses will be slain in the Public Square. Their corpse (singular) will be under close watch. Their corpses (plural) will be left unburied. Their opponents will celebrate their demise, albeit only briefly.

On one hand, this can be understood to mean that the Two Witnesses will be physically killed. On the other hand, it can be understood to mean that the Two Witnesses will be politically or economically eliminated. I mean that the Two Witnesses will be forcibly silenced or otherwise rendered incapacitated. Based on what has happened historically, I think that both types of killing will occur. Not every Christian will be physically killed, but some will. And those who are not physically killed will be incapacitated through social or economic means. The Church will be silenced, sidelined, and persecuted immediately before Christ returns. Yes, I do know in some places this is happening right now. I just think that the scale and the intensity will increase immediately before the Church is resurrected and rescued. When he taught about the events at the end of the age, Jesus instructed his disciples to pray that they have the strength to escape all these things (see Luke 21:36). It is no mistake that his words were recorded in scripture for later generations. We likewise are supposed to pray that we have the strength to escape or endure all these things. 

This is the gist of the first ten verses of Chapter Eleven. This is the ugly part of the chapter. Much happier events are soon to occur. But for now, those happier events must wait. 

Many interpretive questions linger. I did not cover everything in the first ten verses. I know that. I am leaving a lot of questions unanswered. I mean to answer more questions sometime soon. But I wanted to cover the essential message of the first half of Chapter Eleven first. I intend to work through more of the details in upcoming blog-casts.    

To Choose or Not to Choose

Monday, July 13th, 2020

To Choose or Not to Choose, Audio Version

Sometimes you have to choose between two options; but sometimes you don’t.

When presented with a choice between this or that, sometimes you should ask yourself if instead you can choose both this and that. 

Too often, when we are presented with a choice of this or that, we just unquestioningly accept that we have no alternative but to make a left-or-right choice, as presented. In technical language, a this-or-that choice between one option or another is called a binary decision. 

Over thirty years ago, a professor of mine casually warned me, “Beware the philosopher’s dilemma.” In just four words, he taught me an invaluable lifelong lesson. He wanted me to realize that some dilemmas — some choices — need not be binary, even if reputed experts present them that way. Not every this-or-that proposition needs to be accepted as it stands. Sometimes you can and you should ask yourself, “Must I really choose between these two alternatives? Is it possible to have or to accept both?”

In summary then, wisdom obtains in recognizing when a binary choice must be made, and when not. Be wise: Choose only when you must, but refuse to choose when you need not. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to this henceforth as the to-choose-or-not-to-choose question. 

This to-choose-or-to-choose question poses itself regularly when we read prophecy in scripture. For example, sometimes when we read a prophecy, we find ourselves wondering, “Is this prophecy going to be fulfilled literally or figuratively?” And thus you face a seemingly clear this-or-that dilemma. At such a point, you should give careful consideration to how the prophecy might be fulfilled literally. Alternatively, you should also give careful consideration to how the prophecy might be fulfilled figuratively. And finally, you should give consideration to whether the prophecy could be fulfilled both figuratively and literally, because sometimes it can and is. 

This interpretive process is all much easier said than done. Our biases often keep us from thinking through all the options thoroughly. We often interpret a passage with a determination to find what we are hoping to find. We want the prophecy in question to fit a particular model or perspective to which we have already committed ourselves. It is really hard for us to make an interpretive paradigm shift, especially when we have always thought a particular way, and are an established part of a tradition that thinks the same. 

And in a way, that is not all bad. We should be rather reluctant to jettison a long-established interpretation of scripture. But we should not refuse to consider any scriptural evidence that contradicts or alters our preconceptions. Attested, re-attested, and establish-able capital-T truth ought to prevail in our reading and our thinking, simply because God, by virtue of being the source and the goal of created reality, stands always and forever on the side of the truth. Indeed, how could he not? Jesus declared that he himself is the way, the truth, and the life. Ultimately, that must mean that a determined devotion to discerning the truth is the very same thing as a commitment to finding Christ and standing with God. Even venerable ecclesiastical traditions should not keep us from siding with the truth to be found in the Bible or creation.

Consequently, whenever we read prophecy, we need to ask a lot of questions of the passage, and consider a number of interpretive options. We need to respect and listen to the voices of those interpreters who have gone before us and those who stand alongside of us. After all, many of them were and are sincerely trying to hear what the Spirit says to the churches, just like us. But at the same time, we need to be somewhat open to contrarian interpretations, if only because the prophets themselves were often contrarian voices speaking from the ecclesiastical periphery. The establishment is sometimes wrong, thus saith the prophets. 

But to my earlier point, to-choose-or-not-to-choose is a question we must always consider as we read through prophecy. Often we are told we must choose to interpret a passage either literally or figuratively. And sometimes that is indeed true. You have no alternative; it must be this or that. But other times, a prophecy could possibly be fulfilled both figuratively and literally. In such cases, beware the philosopher’s dilemma, and refuse to choose. Ezekiel 37 serves as a prime example of this. Please see my previous post on that passage, entitled Limit Two Refills.