The Demise of Milady Babylon

Friday, March 11, 2022

A piece in an art contest.

Milady Babylon’s days are numbered. 

Some will say that Milady Babylon’s days are long past, that yes, certainly, her days were once numbered; but those days have long since expired. They would contend that Milady Babylon is already deceased and that she has already passed from the historical scene. Milady Babylon’s days have already come and gone, they would argue. But… they would be wrong. Milady Babylon exists yet, for a while longer, at least.     

Now, to call Milady Babylon “milady” might be perceived as somewhat scandalous. After all, Milady Babylon is a woman of compromised virtue, to put things politely and mildly. Older English translations of the Bible use quite strong and rather corse language in reference to Milady Babylon and her preferred occupation. Milady Babylon, you see, debases and sells herself in exchange for money and gifts. If nothing else, Milady Babylon is a material girl.

A painting from an art museum in California.

But if you are at all inclined to think that Milady Babylon might be an actual person, I should quickly correct that. Milady Babylon has the surname Babylon because Babylon was once the seat of a glorious, spectacular empire. Historically, Babylon was a wealthy, beautiful city that oversaw a much wider empire. In the Book of Revelation Milady Babylon serves as a prototype, a pseudonym, and a cipher for another, similar city that was the capital of a much wider empire. That city was Rome. And of course Rome stood as both a city and a vast empire at the time the Book of Revelation was written. Incidentally, the Romans referred to Rome as Roma; and Roma was frequently depicted as a robust, fierce lady.

But that’s not all. Somehow Milady Babylon features quite prominently in the very section of Revelation wherein the Beast of the Abyss rises to power and prominence (i.e., chapters 16-19). This coincidence must not be missed.

According to Revelation 13:2, the Dragon (that is, Satan) empowers the Beast.

So who is this Beast from the Abyss? The Beast from the Abyss is one and the same as the Antichrist, although admittedly the Book of Revelation does not use that particular title. The Antichrist has various monikers in the New Testament, including the Beast, the Antichrist, and the Man of Lawlessness. But whatever his title, this individual (probably a totalitarian dictator) appears right before Jesus Christ’s triumphant final physical return to Earth. I should perhaps repeat that for emphasis. The Antichrist is on the scene when Jesus comes back. And somehow Milady Babylon persists (or perhaps reappears) long enough to see the Beast from the Abyss rise to power. If you doubt me here, please see Revelation 17:16, which says that “the Beast will hate the prostitute … and burn her with fire.”

So then, who or what is Milady Babylon? Revelation 18:21 clearly says that she is a city. Okay, if she is a city, which is she? Well, perhaps we need to recall that Babylon itself was a city and more than a city. It was an empire. Likewise, Rome was a city and more than a city. It was an empire. If a latter-day Babylon reappears at the end of history, can we thus expect it to be an empire or even a civilization?

Maybe, just maybe Milady Babylon represents a decadent, materialistic society or civilization.

If so, brace yourself, because Revelation 18:8 and 18:17 reveal that Milady Babylon goes up in flames “in a single hour.” Nuclear war, perhaps? I admit that I am inclined to see it that way.

Now, you can console yourself with the thought that maybe this is referring to Rome’s demise when it was sacked by the Visigoths many, many centuries ago. Or alternatively, you can read Revelation chapters 16-19 as a coherent sequential narrative, which would imply that Milady Babylon is an empire or a civilization that will meet its sudden fiery demise shortly before the final physical return of Jesus Christ to Earth. Either way, the Book of Revelation reveals that Milady Babylon’s decadent days are definitely numbered. 

Finally, this ugly scenario is one reason I personally hope the rapture occurs beforehand, regardless of how out-of-vogue the notion of the rapture may currently be.

Have a nice day. 🙂

A Lion Before, A Serpent Behind

January 11, 2022

Numbers 10:11-28 details the (divinely?) prescribed processional order of the nomadic twelve and a half tribes of Israel. They first assumed this exact processional order upon leaving Mount Sinai, and thereafter did the same whenever they would decamp and follow the pillar of cloud during their forty year meander through wilderness. According to Numbers 10:14, the tribe of Judah was to take up its banner (or standard) first and commence the procession of the entire nation. With its standard hoisted, the tribe of Judah marched at the vanguard, at the head of the hosts of Israel. The other tribes would follow after. The last tribe to leave camp, according to Numbers 10:25, was the tribe of Dan. The tribe of Dan was always to serve as the rearguard, or tail, of the mass procession, carrying their own distinctive banner (or standard).

The Book of Numbers mentions that four of the twelve tribes had a distinctive banner or a standard. The three tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun (which always camped to the east of the tabernacle) were to march following Judah’s standard. Some of the Levitical priests would follow the first three tribes carrying the deconstructed tabernacle. Then the three tribes of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad (which always camped to the south of the tabernacle) were to march following Reuben’s standard. Following those six and a half tribes, the three tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin (which always camped to the west of the tabernacle) were to march, behind Ephraim’s standard. And finally, the three tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naphtali (which always camped to the north of the tabernacle) were to march last, with the tribe of Dan carrying its standard towards the rear of the procession.

Necessarily, a banner or standard has a distinctive insignia or emblem of some sort. In the case of the fledgling nation of Israel, the emblems adopted by each of the twelve tribes likely derived from metaphors their forefather Jacob used while speaking a final blessing over each one of his sons, as recorded in Genesis chapter 49. If so, then the tribe of Judah’s marching standard would have featured a lion (see Jacob’s declaration in Genesis 49:9). Likewise, simple consistency would dictate that the tribe of Dan’s standard feature a serpent (see Jacob’s prophecy in Genesis 49:17).

A lion went before, a serpent behind.

During their long sojourn through the wilderness the nation of Israel had the figurative head of a lion and figurative tail of a serpent. This, I would suggest, is the biblical background to the symbolism we find in Revelation 9:17-19.

And this is how I saw the horses in my vision and those who rode them: they wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur, and the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths. By these three plagues a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths. For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails, for their tails are like serpents with heads, and by means of them they wound.

Revelation 9:17-19

For this and additional reasons, the army depicted in Revelation 9:17-19 should be understood as the elect people of God, in their sojourn through the centuries between the first and second coming of Christ. Though this might be a different interpretation than you have heard before, the preceding background information can help you understand why I believe it is correct.

A Militant, Jealous, Gracious God

January 8, 2022

In the Book of Revelation, death is often not death.

Not What It Seems?

Regrettably though, even the best interpreters have failed to notice this twist. Instead, they usually just assume that references to death must mean literal, physical death. But the unquestioned assumption that Apocalyptic death must be the equivalent of physical death results in gross distortions and vast misunderstanding of an important section of the text and thus its message. Many readers conclude that the Book of Revelation is disturbingly macabre and not very New Testament-like because of the mass violence, death, and killing depicted therein. That prima facie impression changes dramatically if “all the death and violence” is not read literally, but understood… baptismally. Apocalyptic death should often be read as a baptismal reference in Revelation. And that dramatically changes things.

Yes, baptismal is the best possible word here. The New Testament teaches that when a convert to Christianity submits to baptism that person dies. Oh my! Does the baptized person physically die? Of course not. Typically, ecclesiastical officiants do their utmost to prevent fatal slips or pours that might result in accidental drowning deaths. A high baptism fatality rate would probably discourage most people from participating in the sacrament.

Baptism Saves: 1 Peter 3:21

Nonetheless, the New Testament teaches that someone who submits to baptism somehow dies. Obviously, this cannot be understood as physical death. It must be understood as another kind of death, call it metaphorical or symbolic. Egotistical death, perhaps? 

Conversion to Christ = A Death to Self

My contention is that the author of Revelation takes this non-physical understanding of death and runs with it imaginatively — and quite counter-intuitively. Consequently, much (or at least some) of the violence, killing, and death in Revelation refers not to the automatically assumed horrors of human history, but instead to the triumph of the Cross through evangelism and conversion. In particular, this observation holds true with the Seven Trumpets series, and especially in the incremental, fractional, twelve-thirds of fire, blood, and violence symbolically presented in Revelation chapters eight and nine.

The First of Seven Trumpets – Revelation 8:7

My guess is that many readers/listeners are thoroughly unconvinced by my proposal at this point. One question I anticipate is rather straightforward and simple: “But why? Why would the author of Revelation present evangelism and conversion as violence and death?”

My initial response to that question involves pointing back to the Old Testament — as the Book of Revelation itself so often does. In the Old Testament God is a militant and sometimes violent God. That is an indisputable claim, as anyone who has read the Old Testament knows. The Old Testament God can and does go to war. The Old Testament God can and does shed blood. But then Jesus arrives. At the beginning of the New Testament Jesus comes along and talks a lot about his Father as a loving, patient, merciful, and forgiving God.

So… which is it? Is God jealous, wrathful, militant, and violent? Or is God gracious, kind, compassionate, and forgiving? 


A Deadly Fire Breather from Revelation 9:17-18: One of the Good Guys or Bad Guys?

My suggestion here is that much of Revelation’s militant and violent imagery serves as a subversive, radical re-interpretation of “the battle plan” — the modus operandi — of the jealous, wrathful, militant God of the Old Testament.

Paradoxically, this is one and the same God, before the incarnation of Christ and after. Yes, this jealous, gracious God is indeed thoroughly intent on the death of all his enemies; but this jealous, gracious God much prefers that his enemies die baptismally through conversion, rather than die physically and spiritually.

With that said, in this post I have not actually carefully examined particular and relevant verses from the Book of Revelation. What I have done instead is provide a suggested approach — that is, a unique hermeneutic — for reading through Revelation. I suggest you re-read Revelation (especially chapters eight, nine, and eleven) with this hermeneutic of divinely-sanctioned non-physical warfare. This suggested hermeneutic regards some Apocalyptic instances of death as conversion. Here baptismal death is God’s preferred means of bringing an end to human self-idolatry and sinful rebellion.

If you do use that approach, you will find certain passages in Revelation make much more sense than before. But other passages (usually later passages) might remain confusing. Your potential confusion is because in the end, especially with the Seven Bowls of Wrath series, God does deal more heavy-handedly with those human opponents who refuse his provision for repentance and conversion.   

Subtle and Oblique by Design

Saturday, November 13, 2021

What did Jesus indicate? 

Shop talk. Get ready for some theological shop talk. I must necessarily get detailed and somewhat technical in this post.  

A single word will examined. I want to make a case for translating and interpreting an old Greek word in a very particular way. How this one rather inconspicuous word gets translated does indeed matter. It matters because this one word informs readers of the Book of Revelation as how they should approach and understand the entire book. 

The old Greek word is σημαίνω, which may be indecipherable to you. It is pronounced “say-mah-ee-no.” It is a verb. The most generic way to translate this verb into English is the word indicate. And as far as translations go, indicate works well enough. But the word σημαίνω needs to nuanced according to how it is used in a particular sentence, in a particular context. The context I have in mind is the very first verse of Revelation, in which Jesus indicated something.

For those of you who know a bit of New Testament Greek, you will notice that the word σημαίνω has shape-shifted a bit in Revelation 1:1. That is to say, it appears as a cognate in verse one, as ἐσήμανεν (“es-ay-mah-nen”). The reason the word looks a bit different is because the word has shifted into what we would call the past tense. In case you’re interested in grammatical exactness, in Revelation 1:1 the word ἐσήμανεν should be parsed as follows: It is the aorist – indicative – active – third person – singular. And it can be translated as he indicated

At this point, you might ask, “Okay, the most generic translation of this word from New Testament Greek into English is he indicated; so what? Why should I care?”

Well, there is a problem here, actually. The problem is that John, the writer of the Book of Revelation, uses the word ἐσήμανεν with a slight nuance. And it matters that his slight nuance is recognized. When John uses ἐσήμανεν, he means that something is not stated directly but indirectly. Something is being alluded to or hinted at or even encrypted.   

At this point, I imagine a good friend of mine saying, “But why should anyone believe you rather than the learned Bible translators?” A good question, good friend. What my good friend knows is that most Bible translators do not translate ἐσήμανεν with any sense of indirectness or opaqueness. 

That’s too bad, though. The translators should have caught the particular nuance in usage in Revelation 1:1. But because their semantic range of reference was too broad, they didn’t. They should have narrowed their focus to just how John uses the word. But for whatever reason, they didn’t. If they had focused just upon John’s usage, they would have noticed that John consistently uses the word σημαίνω and its cognates to convey indirectness, as communication that is not immediately apparent, but which needs to be examined carefully and figured out.

And now my friend is saying, “Okay, prove it.”

Okay, I will. It is not that hard. Just do a selective word study of σημαίνω and its cognates. Look at how John consistently uses the word.

The place to start is The Gospel of John, Chapter 12, verse 33. Here is how the verse is translated in the New International Version: “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” The NIV translators used the words “to show” to translate σημαίνων, which is an obvious cognate of σημαίνω. As far as translations go, it is good enough. But notice what the verse means in context. Jesus had indicated or shown how he was going to die. Jesus had not just said, “I am going to be crucified.” Instead, what Jesus had just said was, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all men/people to myself.” Jesus had indicated his manner of death obliquely, indirectly. The observant only caught his oblique allusion/reference after the fact, after his death by crucifixion.

John uses the word σημαίνω indirectly again in John 18:32. As with John 12:33, the word is used in its cognate form: σημαίνων. And as with John 12:33, the word references Jesus’ opaque allusion to his manner of death, that is, by crucifixion. The only significant contextual difference is that the crucifixion is now immediately forthcoming.

John uses the word σημαίνων a third time in John 21:19. This time the allusion is not to Jesus’ forthcoming crucifixion, but to the manner of Peter’s eventual death. But all the same, it is an allusion, and not a direct indication. Jesus does not tell Peter, “Someday you are going to die in a way that you would rather not die.” Instead, Jesus is more subtle and indirect — a bit more opaque and oblique. But he makes his point to Peter all the same.

Therefore, in the Gospel of John, we have not one, not two, but three instances of how John uses the word σημαίνω. Every single time, he uses the word to convey a sense of subtlety and indirectness. Jesus indicates what he wants to indicate opaquely. Only the observant (eventually) catch his drift.

My suggestion, or rather, assertion is that John uses the same word the same way in the Book of Revelation. Jesus did indicate something in Revelation 1:1. He indicated the entire vision — all the content of Revelation — opaquely, indirectly, cryptically. Jesus used allusions and references to say what he wanted conveyed. We do well to keep that in mind as we read and interpret the book. 

To summarize, if my assertion is correct, we are told from the very first verse of Revelation that the book’s content is opaque and cryptic by divine design. The implication is that it requires careful observation, frequent reflection, and protracted study.     

His Message to Smyrna

Thursday, September 16, 2021

His Message to Smyrna – Audio Version

Ninety-nine years have passed since it occurred. But I only learned of it within the last week. 

Yesterday I finished reading a book by Lou Ureneck about the Great Fire of Smyrna in September, 1922. If I were to place a small bet, I would wager that most of my readers and listeners are entirely unfamiliar with the 1922 Fire of Smyrna. So was I, less than a week ago.

Alternatively, I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of my readers and listeners — maybe even all of them — would know exactly what I have in mind if I were merely to drop the names Heinrich Himmler, Nazi, and Auschwitz. I am, of course, referring to the Holocaust during World War Two.          

The 1922 Fire of Smyrna was a foreshadow of the Holocaust, two decades in advance. The perpetrators of the 1922 Smyrna Fire were not Nazis, but another militaristic, nationalist group. Like the Nazis, the violent perpetrators of the Great Smyrna Fire wanted to once and for all rid “their” land of neighbors they deemed inferior, undesirable, and loathsome. The undesirable neighbors in their crosshairs were the Greek and Armenian Christian minorities of Anatolia. To their delight, the perpetrators’ plans prevailed. They were almost entirely successful in ridding their land of their loathsome, undesirable neighbors. Nonetheless, the perpetrators were unable to completely annihilate all their undesirable Christian neighbors. With the help of a few intervening outsiders, a considerable portion of the Christian minorities of Anatolia were delivered from certain death. The book I read is about the rescue effort conducted by the intervening outsiders. The account completely and utterly captivated me.

You will not recognize their names, but Asa Kent Jennings and Halsey Powell should forever be recognized for their great courage, faith, and heroism. I sincerely believe the two will hold a place of high honor in heaven. They saved hundreds of thousands of people from certain death.

Aside from my lifelong interest in history, one of the primary reasons that Ureneck’s account was so compelling to me is because of its locale. Smyrna appears in the Book of Revelation. It is the second of the seven churches addressed by Jesus in the opening section of Revelation. 

If you read what Jesus has to say to the Angel of the Church of Smyrna (see Revelation 2:8-11), it undoubtedly applies to the original recipients, who lived there nearly two thousand years ago. But what Jesus had to say could also (almost) equally apply to the Christians who found themselves besieged by death in Smyrna 99 years ago. Although separated by centuries, the historical situation was very, very similar. And Jesus’ words were equally apt for both situations.

In my estimation, the coincidence of geographic location and recapitulated historical situation speaks to the prophetic nature of the Book of Revelation. I would even say that it is one of many like instances which reveal that God is indeed the ultimate author of the Book of Revelation.   

Fire Flung from Heaven, Part One

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Fire Flung from Heaven, Part One – Audio Version

Shall we just skip Chapter Seven entirely and ignore it away? Maybe it does not matter too much. Just one of Revelation’s twenty two chapters can be overlooked; right? Perhaps it does not contribute much content to the book.

No? 

Well, I mean, after all, Chapter Seven does abruptly interrupt the flow of the narrative. If and when you read through Revelation Chapter Six, you will find the first six of the Seven Seals broken open and presented in quick, orderly sequence. But then Chapter Seven completely stalls the tempo. It disrupts the rhythm of Revelation entirely. You would have every reason to expect the Seventh Seal to come right at the beginning of the Seventh Chapter. But sorry, no, not so. The Seventh Seal is entirely absent and not to be found in Chapter Seven. The grand opening of the final Seventh Seal is delayed for an entire chapter. It makes a seemingly overdue appearance in Chapter Eight. 

Why is that?

Good question. I will attempt to answer that soon and very soon. But first, allow me to make an observation about a narrative pattern within the Book of Revelation. As I have mentioned in a previous blog post, the Book of Revelation is organized around four major heptads — four sets of seven scenes. In the first heptad Jesus Christ gives seven diagnostic messages to seven churches. In the second heptad, Christ, the Lion-Lamb, breaks open seven seals, each of which results in yet another strange scene. In the third heptad, seven angels sound seven trumpets, each of which results in something surreal and catastrophic. In the fourth and final heptad, seven angels pour seven bowls of cataclysmic wrath upon the world. In super-succinct summary, the Book of Revelation presents four core heptads: 1) the seven messages, 2) the seven seals, 3) the seven trumpets, and 4) the seven bowls.

Notably and significantly, three of the four Apocalyptic heptads are interrupted between scene six and scene seven. The Seven Seals are interrupted between the Sixth Seal and the Seventh (interrupted by Chapter Seven). The Seven Trumpets are interrupted between the Sixth Trumpet and the Seventh (interrupted by most of Chapter Eleven). And the Seven Bowls are interrupted between the Sixth Bowl and the Seventh (interrupted parenthetically by just one very curious verse of warning: 16:15, that is). 

But back to the question of why Chapter Seven interrupts the tempo of the opening of the Seven Seals. Why is that? Why the chapter-long interruption? Here’s the reason: It is because no one ever expected the Surprise revealed in the Seventh Seal. The Seventh Seal comes along as a huge historical shock. The Seventh Seal reveals a profound mystery that had been (mostly) undisclosed for centuries.

That mystery is the Church. 

Chapter Seven presents the reader with 144,000 sealed Servants of God. The number 144,000 derives from an equation of 12,000 multiplied by 12 — 12,000 sealed servants from each of the twelve tribes of the Children of Israel. But… gasp! The twelve names listed in Revelation Chapter Seven are historically wrong, since the Tribes of Dan and Ephraim are omitted entirely. These two omissions are not a mistake, though, but instead a clue to the close reader. While the Servants of God do include the Children of Israel, not all of the Children of Israel are Servants of God.

And then Chapter Seven depicts a vast uncountable throng, from every nation, and from all the tribes, peoples, and languages. They, too, count as Servants of God. Since they are where they are — up there in Heaven, dressed in white and worshipping God — they, too, are to be included among the 144,000 elect Servants of God. Gasp, again! This is a surprise, a massive surprise. This is an utter mystery, as it was entirely unexpected. How did all these unexpected foreign people end up there in Heaven?

These unexpected foreign people — all these Gentiles — were/are redeemed from the nations by Christ. They, along with the redeemed Children of Israel, make up the Church of Christ. The mystery is that the Church is comprised of both the redeemed Children of Israel and the redeemed Gentiles.

If this is so, where does the multi-national Church of Christ come from? And when does the Church begin? When is the Church’s birthday?

The Church was born on Pentecost Sunday, on a Sunday morning in May, 33AD/CE, when fire was flung to Earth from Heaven. The fire that was flung from Heaven is the Holy Spirit. In the Book of Revelation the Flung Fire is both the Seventh (and final) Seal (see Revelation 8:5) and the First Trumpet (see 8:7).

But if this Flung Fire is really the impartation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, why does Revelation present the event and its aftermath in terms of blood, death, and destruction? Very good question. My answer is that this should be understood as figurative speech, as non-literal speech. After the Resurrection and before Christ returns, God wages war against His enemies, as He always has. But more often than not, God now battles his human adversaries spiritually, rather than physically. He prefers to overpower them spiritually, not physically. He subdues them using spiritual weapons, not physical weapons. He desires to “slay” them and yet leave them alive physically. God brings the ego to its end and then gives new life by the Spirit. He “kills” us by converting us. We die to ourselves in the water of baptism and are raised to new life as members of the Church.

If this figurative interpretation of Revelation seems like a stretch, I strongly suggest you give it further consideration and not reject it outright. There is quite a bit more to be said in substantiation of it. And it helps make sense of much of what Revelation presents. In fact, it turns whole sections of Revelation upside down, and transforms what at first seems impossibly horrifying into something hopeful and happy.

But I realize I have more work to do to convince you of all that. For now, you might start by reading Hosea 6:5, where God claims to have slain his stubborn, rebellious Chosen People by the words of His mouth. How is it that God slays rebellious people by the Words of His Mouth? Is God’s verbal violence to be understood physically or spiritually?  

Matthew 10:32-42 – Not Peace, But a Sword

To be continued.                 

Opus Alienum Dei

Monday, July 19, 2021

Opus Alienum Dei – Audio Version

Opus Alienum Dei translates from Latin as the “alien works of God” or the “strange works of God.” Here I use the phrase in an interpretive sense, where and when it is applied to five pivotal historcial events which, at first glance, hardly seem like God’s own doing, but mysteriously are claimed by God. Since these events were altogether horrifying, they qualify precisely as Opus Alienum Dei. If the Bible were to be set aside or left out of consideration, these five horrifying historical events might not be obviously attributable to God. However, the Bible says otherwise. In the Bible, God unexpectedly assumes at least some degree of responsibility for these terrible events Himself. And that comes as something of a surprise.

The five events to which I refer include 1) the recurring conflict between two neighboring nations that descended from twin brothers named Jacob and Esau, 2) the Assyrian invasion and dismemberment of the Kingdom of Israel, 3) the Babylonian invasion and decimation of Kingdom of Judah, 4) the perpetually unheeded pleas and warnings of genuine prophets, and 5) the brutal and total destruction of the temple complex in Jerusalem by the Romans. Although this is a blog post and not an academic paper, I have a thesis regarding these five historical events: These five events constitute five of the Seven Seals described in the Book of Revelation.

Two of the Seven Seals are non-horrifying exceptions, maybe, probably. The two Seals that might not qualify as Opus Alienum Dei, as strange works of God, are the First Seal and the last, the Seventh Seal, because they are not altogether horrifying in character. They are awe-inspiring, certainly, but not horrifying. So let’s consider all of the Seven Seals in order, except for the last one, which deserves its own (future) post.

With the opening of the First Seal in Revelation 6:2 comes a Conquering Archer on a White Stallion, otherwise and more simply known as the Rider on the White Horse. Whereas once I thought that the Rider on the White Horse might be any of the many false messiahs — yet another political pretender — now I think that the Rider on the White Horse must be the pre-incarnate, occasionally-appearing, Old Testament Divine Warrior. However, I only came to that conclusion in retrospect, by considering the Seven Seals in a mostly-reversed order, from the penultimate Sixth Seal backwards to the first.

On what exact basis did I come to flip my previously held conclusion? On basis of subtle scriptural allusions, and short, yet specifically-worded biblical references, that’s how. In nearly every single one of its verses, the Book of Revelation drops interpretive hints in the form of scriptural allusions, and/or brief inter-textual references, and/or partial quotes. The Book of Revelation itself provides hints as how to interpret it.

As for the relevant allusions and references to the Rider on the White Horse, I counterintuitively start towards the end of the Old Testament, in the short, obscure Prophecy of Habakkuk. There you will find a retrospective historical poem or sonnet in the third chapter, in Habakkuk 3:3-15. Verses 8, 9, and 11 are especially telling and relevant. This passage recalls God as an equestrian, a horse rider — an archer armed with a bow and with arrows of light — who battles the wicked on behalf of God’s people. In verse 3, Habakkuk’s Sonnet specifically recalls the time of Israel’s Exodus sojourn. That matters because if, as I claim, the Seven Seals do indeed recount the entire biblical history of the ancient Nation of Israel, then the First Seal would necessarily occur about the time when Israel was first constituted as One Nation Under Yahweh. This inaugural constitutional event is otherwise sometimes known as the Theophany at Mount Sinai, which coincided with the Revelation of the Law/Torah. Habakkuk’s Divine Archer-Rider is thus situated on the biblical timeline exactly where my interpretation would anticipate — near the begining, at the founding of the ancient Nation of Israel.

With its archer imagery, this passage in Habakkuk also points directly back to the Book of Deuteronomy Chapter 32, which is a Second Song of Moses (or, perhaps, the Swan Song of Moses, since it occurs immediately before his death). In this final Song of Moses, God is portrayed as an invincible, avenging warrior with a flashing, devouring sword, and, notably, with arrows. Where we see arrows, we might think archer. For those inclined to double-check my reading here, the citation is the entirety of Deuteronomy Chapter 32, but especially verse 23, and verses 39-43.  

As far as my suggested interpretation of the Seven Seals is concerned, this close connection to the closing chapters of Deuteronomy carries an immense amount of weight and importance, since Deuteronomy speaks of all the curses that will come upon the fledgling Nation of Israel if it fails to keep the Covenant made at Mount Sinai. I am arguing that the ensuing five Seals are a symbolic portrayal of the historical outworking of Deuteronomy’s Threatened Curses. That is worth rephrasing and repeating: Five of the Seven Seals of Revelation are a symbolic portrayal of the historical fulfillment and outworking of Deuteronomy’s horrifying, contingent curses.    

The two Old Testament passages cited above are enough to establish that God was depicted as an archer at the time of Deuteronomy. In addition, and for what it is worth, God is also depicted as shooting arrows of lightning in a Psalm of David recorded in both 2 Samuel 22:15 and Psalm 18:14 (incidentally, another Swan Song, as it occurs immediately before King David’s death). Thus the Divine Archer motif is known and established within the historical, Holy Writ of Israel.  

As for Revelation 6:3-4 and the Second Seal, the Swordsman on a Red Horse, I am proposing that the Crimson Swordsman represents the neighboring nation of Edom. As the story of Esau and the red stew in Genesis 25:30 establishes, the name Edom means red; and Edom was a name thereafter applied to both Esau and his descendants, the nation of Edom. The fact that Esau’s descendants became the nation of Edom is repeatedly and emphatically stated in Genesis Chapter 36. 

More pertinently, though, the nation of Edom stood against the nation of Israel on multiple occasions, with the first and defining time in Numbers Chapter 20. Notice that in Numbers 20:18 the Edomites specifically threaten to come against the People of Israel with… what? With, and I quote the hostile people of Edom themselves here: with “the sword.” Therefore, the words the sword have an explicit textual connection in Edom’s first and defining confrontation with Israel. I believe that the Book of Revelation deliberately references and uses this initial, defining neighboring-nation confrontation. 

Edom is mentioned another very significant time in 1 Kings 11:14, when God is affirmed to have raised up Hadad the Edomite against wayward, apostate King Solomon. Solomon had failed to keep the monotheistic covenant and had drifted into idolatry. Thus the curses of Deuteronomy began to befall the Kingdom of Israel, which would soon split in two. Do not miss that God Himself is said to have raised up Hadad the Edomite as an adversary to Solomon. God used the nation of Edom as an instrument to judge Solomon and Israel. This Second Seal, then, is a first obvious instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. Here God uses Israel’s historical adversaries as His means of judgment. The curses of Deuteronomy are beginning to occur through hard historical events.

If we were to super fast-forward through time, we would find that the nation of Edom eventually reappears as adversary to the beleaguered Jewish people much later in their history, in the Babylonian conquest and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC/BCE. In Psalm 137:7 the Edomites are said to have enthusiastically encouraged (and perhaps, even assisted) the invading Babylonians in their demolition of the City of Jerusalem. However, this fratricide met with God’s definite disapproval. In response to their role in the destruction of Jerusalem, the Prophecy of Obadiah foretold certain doom upon the Edomites for their unneighborly, unbrotherly treatment of their cousins, the descendants of Jacob.

As for Revelation 6:5-6 and the Third Seal, the Scale-Holding Rider on the Black Horse, I suggest that Sir Skewed Scales represents the imbalanced, oppressive economic situation immediately before the Assyrian invasion of Israel. I make that inference and connection through study of the scriptural occurrences of the word scales, a word which “happens” to often appear alongside the altogether-telling adjectives deceptive and wicked, as in deceptive and wicked scales. Some key occurrences of the word scales appear in three of the minor prophets: Amos, Micah, and Hosea. In particular, see Amos 8:5, Micah 6:11, and Hosea 12:7. These three “minor” prophets were active in denouncing the economic imbalances and oppression present in both Israel and Judah, while they were still allied neighboring nations, and before the Northern Kingdom of Israel was completely destroyed by the fearsome Assyrians.

The most important and pertinent passage, in my judgment, is Micah Chapter Six, where God foretells of the impending devastation and desolation of Israel. And that is indeed what happened historically. It happened when Assyria invaded, besieged, looted, tortured, and systematically depopulated most of the immediate geographic region. According to the Prophets Micah, Amos, and Hosea this invasion was God’s doing, a judgment against the increase of idolatry and the rampant economic pilfering practiced throughout Israel and Judah. This Third Seal, Sir Skewed Scales, is thus a second instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used the merciless, brutal Assyrians to judge both lapsed covenant kingdoms — both Judah and Israel, but especially Israel, which met its end.

As for Revelation 6:7-8 and the Fourth Seal, the Ghastly, Ghostly Tandem Riders on the Pale Horse, I believe that Grim Duo of Death and Hades symbolize catastrophic judgment in the form of the impending invasion of the Babylonians, who did in fact bring death, mass deportation, and nearly total destruction upon the remaining “Covenant Kingdom” of Judah, and its capital city, Jerusalem. I see a clear scriptural connection here to Isaiah Chapter 28, where God says that he will cancel Jerusalem’s corrupt covenant with… death, and overturn their perverse pact with… Sheol. Sheol is otherwise known in Greek as Hades, and in English as Hell. In other words, God asserts that He alone controls the arrival of death and the entrance to hell, regardless of Judah’s attempted confederations, preparations, and arrangements. God insisted that, try though they may, the idolatrous people of Jerusalem cannot “make a deal with the devil” that will protect them and prolong their lives. This Fourth Seal, the Ghostly, Ghastly Duo, is a third instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used Babylonia to judge unfaithful Judah.

As for Revelation 6:9-11 and the Fifth Seal, the Sacrificed Souls Under the Altar, I would say that they represent all the true prophets throughout the entire Old Testament. I get this notion from the account of the stoning death of Zechariah, the priestly prophet, in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, in combination with Jesus’ denunciation of the Jewish religious leaders in Luke 11:49-51. The Old Testament prophets were always rejected and were sometimes killed for telling the people the truth. The Death of Zechariah the Priest stands as a particularly graphic instance of the kind of violent rejection that met the prophets. Another Zechariah, Zechariah the Prophet, was also one of the last, if not the last of Old Testament prophets. He also may have died as a martyr. Thus, given what Luke 11:49-51 says, and on the assumption that the same passage is alluded to in Revelation 6:9-11, the Fifth Seal encompasses all the (rejected) prophets and their writings throughout the Old Testament. This Fifth Seal is thus a fourth instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used the Prophets to bring judgment upon the People of the Promised Land.   

Finally, as for Revelation 6:12-17 and the Sixth Seal, it speaks both literally and metaphorically of the Roman siege of Jerusalem and its utter destruction. The passage that makes this very clear is Luke 23:26-31, which is when a soon-to-be-crucified Jesus tells the people of Jerusalem to mourn not for him but instead for themselves and their own children. He foretells them that they will call on the mountains to fall on them and plea for the hills to cover (or hide) them. Jesus is foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem within a generation of his death by crucifixion. And so it happened. Revelation 6:16 very clearly echoes Jesus’ Via Dolorosa Prophecy. This Sixth Seal is thus a fifth instance of an Opus Alienum Dei. God used the Roman Legions to climatically judge the unresponsive, unbelieving People of Judæa.      

So there you have it, then: a list of (almost) all the supporting, Revelation-referenced scriptural passages I have found (thus far) to establish my interpretation of the Seven Seals of the Apocalypse. I hope you find it altogether convincing and entirely worthwhile. Look for a future post on how I understand the Seventh Seal.

Six Seals of the Apocalypse

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Six Seals – Audio Version

About 95AD/CE on the small Aegean Island of Patmos, Jesus Christ appeared in a vision to a man named Johan, an exiled political prisoner. Not long before, the Roman Emperor Domitian had ordered that Johan be exiled from the City of Ephesus to the Island of Patmos. Johan had been deemed a public menace. Johan was suspected of sedition, or at least insubordination. He had instructed his growing Christian community to engage in civil disobedience. They refused to show the expected, requisite reverence to Domitian and to his divine, deceased predecessors, as well as his divine, deceased infant son. Naturally, Emperor Domitian was hardly pleased with such brazen disloyalty and impiety. As far as Domitian was concerned, the stubborn, foolish Johan could erode the allegiance of the Ephesian populace with his defiance. The imperial authorities ought be considered very lenient then, as they spared this rebellious Johan his life and merely sent him into exile on nearby Patmos.

Notably, as a much younger man, Johan had been closely associated with a fellow Jew who had also been deemed a threat to the stability of the Roman Empire. Johan was an early disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, who had been tried and crucified 62 years earlier under the charge of sedition. In his trial before the Roman Procurator, Jesus had testified that he was a long-expected king, the Jewish Messiah. Yet in spite of his brutal crucifixion, true believers like Johan continued to spread the rumor that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the long-expected Messiah of Israel. They claimed that he had been resurrected to life from the realm of the dead.

While exiled Johan was unquestionably a historical person, there is some debate about which one of the biblical Johans this Johan was, as his was a very common Jewish name back in the first century AD/CE. Reputable New Testament scholars bat around the question of whether exiled Johan was Johan, son of Zebedee, a Galilean Fisherman (that is, one of Jesus’ original Twelve Disciples), or Johan the Beloved (who was also a close confidant of Jesus, but not one of the original Twelve). Based on some recent scholarship, I personally think it fishy to identify him as Johan bar Zebedee (bad pun intended). Instead, I think it more likely that he was Johan the Beloved, an inconspicuous, unassuming character occasionally glimpsed in the Gospel of John. However, whichever and whomever: I am not heavily invested in the Which Johan? identity debate. It just seems to me that Johan the Elder would have been readily identified and widely celebrated within the Christian community in Ephesus as one of the original Twelve Apostles. But that was never so. 

But why do I keep calling him Johan?    

In English-speaking lands, Johan is almost always translated as John. For some reason unbeknownst to me, in English we pronounce the first letter of his name as a j and drop the second vowel, the letter a; and thus Johan morphs into John. Consequently, in almost all of the relevant literature, Jewish Johan sounds like a Puritan from early Colonial America. He now has the dignified epithet, John the Elder, or John the Presbyter, which is a difference without any real distinction, since elder and presbyter mean the same thing. All of which is to say, if you encounter the name John the Elder, or John the Presbyter, the reference is probably to the Johan, the early Jewish-Christian leader, who received a vision of Jesus Christ on the Island of Patmos, and subsequently (or simultaneously) wrote the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation.  

In an effort to be both literal and accurate, I usually call Johan the Elder John the Narrator, because of his first-person reports in the Book of Revelation. Johan/John serves as the inconspicuous, unassuming Narrator. Throughout the Book of Revelation John diligently testifies regarding whatever he has seen and heard in his vision from Jesus Christ.

A pertinent point: John was also a highly organized word smith. Either that, or the vision itself was presented in a highly organized manner. In any event, John was not a sloppy writer. His material is organized very carefully. It is organized into four easily-identifiable heptads, four series of seven sets. In interpreting the Book of Revelation, my own operating assumption is that the second, third, and fourth heptads represent chronologically sequential periods of time. I contend that the second heptad focuses upon a millennium-long period in the distant past, the third heptad upon the “nearer” past continuing into the present day, and the fourth heptad upon a brief future time period. Do recognize that my operating assumption, while nicely clean, logical, and coherent, nonetheless invites considerable skepticism from some scholars. Not everyone agrees with me. And that would be an understatement.

Therefore, I ought to address the scholars’ skepticism with a careful response. It is incumbent upon me to explain why I believe a chronologically sequential interpretation of the second, third, and fourth Apocalyptic heptads works best and is most faithful to the text.

Incidentally, if heptad is a meaningless word to you, and if my references to sequential heptads sounds like bizarre, pseudo-academic gibberish, please go read or listen to my previous post, entitled Heptads of History. That post should clear up any confusion, hopefully.

And if anyone wonders why I do not give explanatory time to the first heptad, the Messages to the Seven Churches, please stop wondering. I simply don’t see the need. I do not bother with the first heptad because interpreters find little of substance to quibble about. For the most part, others expositors have done a comprehensive and exemplary job of interpreting the first heptad of the Book of Revelation (that is, the first three chapters), so I do not feel the need to revisit it in this post. All you need to know is that (almost) everyone agrees to its original intended time-frame. It was written to seven specific churches just before the turn of the second century AD/CE. If, from henceforth, you recall 95AD/CE as the approximate date for the first heptad, that’s good enough for this present discussion.   

Now, as for the time-frame of the second heptad of the Book of Revelation, I hereby assert and argue that it begins at the Theophany to Moses on Mount Sinai — yes, when he famously received the Ten Commandments — and extends slightly past the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE. An even easier way to characterize that period might be as The Old Testament Age. To claim that the first heptad covers the Old Testament Age might initially seem immensely reasonable proposal, if you operate in a vacuum of Apocalyptic unfamiliarity, and provided you do not open a Bible and go read the relevant passage, Revelation 6:1-17. But if you do actually do read the chapter, you might quickly side with the skeptics. You might even begin to think that I have taken a headlong fall. “How on earth does that overly-confident blogger claim and conjure the majority of the Old Testament into these seventeen violent and bizarre verses?” That is the question I expect to get from those who are familiar with the Book of Revelation.

Okay, a fair question it is. And I am glad you asked, my inquiring friends. Please allow me to explain. Do you mind if I walk backwards while I do?       

Yes, I want to walk backwards while I attempt to explain how the second heptad and the Old Testament Age merge into one picture. I want to figuratively walk you through the passage backwards, because that is the way it all first began to make sense to me.

Let me start with the Sixth Seal (see Revelation 6:12-17), and not the seventh (see Revelation 8:1-5). If you read through Revelation, you will find a considerable gap between the Sixth Seal and the Seventh Seal, indeed an entire chapter — Chapter Seven. The textual gap between these two seals is so wide that readers often forget that the Sixth Seal is not the final seal. In terms of its content, it sure does seem like the final seal. With all the cosmic unraveling and terrestrial displacement depicted, it certainly reads like the very End of the World. But no, it is not the final seal, nor is it actually the End of the World. The event depicted is merely a foreshadowing of the end, the Eschaton. The event depicted is instead the End of an Age, the Old Testament Age. And the event so frighteningly depicted is actually the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70AD/CE. 

How do I know that? How can I be so sure?  

I know that because Jesus of Nazareth is ever-so-briefly quoted in verse 16. And the original quote tells us everything we need to know. The original quote comes from the Gospel of Luke 23:30, spoken as an exhausted Jesus staggers en route to be crucified on Golgotha hill. He is a dead man walking, walking to his death along the Via Doloroso. And he says:

“Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘cover us.’”

In context, Jesus is telling his pre-mortem mourners to instead mourn for themselves and their own children. He is clearly prophesying the coming destruction of Jerusalem. And Revelation 6:16 references a few key words from that very prophecy — mountains, fall, hide/cover. That is our big, tell-tale hint. That is how we can discern that the Sixth Seal of Revelation represents the destruction of Jerusalem.

Not convinced?

If anyone thinks that I am grasping for a connection or stretching things based on a few words, I would counter that you just don’t adequately understand how Revelation gives away its hints. It constantly uses scriptural allusions and references, usually with just a few key words in combination or short phrases. Revelation counts on an interpreter’s biblical literacy. Only the biblically literate will catch the subtle references. Once someone discovers those few key words and phrases, though, they invariably point the interpretive direction needed. If you doubt this, you just need to see more examples. 

Incidentally, having computer technology to do key word searches makes this immensely faster and easier. The precision surprises this scriptural sleuth. Textual triangulation with only a few key words yields helpful and telling results. Try it on your smart phone or computer.     

But what about all the cosmic unraveling in verses 12-17, though? That did not happen during the destruction of Jerusalem; did it? Umm, actually, yes it did, to some extent. Go read Josephus’ first hand account, entitled The Jewish War. He reports baffling occurrences, cosmic curiosities, and supernatural wonders in the days and months preceding the siege on Jerusalem. And Josephus was there personally to witness and record it all for posterity.

One last important point, here: Some of what we see depicted in Revelation 6:12-17 can be characterized as bifocal insight. We have a prophetic view of a literal, historical event; and we have elaboration upon its figurative, spiritual significance. This is simultaneously a freeze frame of the event and its importance. For about a million Jewish inhabitants, doomsday had come, their dread Day of the Lord. It was the end of their world, the end of an entire era.

Now let’s take another step backwards to the Fifth Seal (see Revelation 6:9-11). As with the Sixth Seal, a few key words provide the necessary referential clues. Altar, in particular, stands out to me. As depicted, we behold a macabre scene of deceased martyrs somehow beneath an altar, crying out to God for vindication. So here we have slain holy people (as opposed to sacrificial animals) within close proximity of an altar. Which altar, though? It is probably the huge altar of animal sacrifice in the Temple courtyard, but maybe the much smaller altar of incense within the Temple proper. Okay, that may be something a start. Do we know of any accounts of holy people being slain near one of those two altars? We sure do. At least, the biblically literate do. According to 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, Zechariah the priest was stoned to death at King Joash’s command within the temple courtyard (hence near the altar of sacrifice). The last line of the passage is chilling: 

And when he [Zechariah the priest] was dying, he said, “May the LORD see, and avenge!”

Okay, I think we may be on to something now. Here we have someone slain within proximity to a temple altar and a cry for vengeance. But it would be helpful if we had some additional evidence. Ah, we do. We have Jesus’ harsh denunciation of the Jewish religious leaders in Luke 11:49-51. Jesus informed the religious leaders of his day that they and their generation would be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets, from first to last, A to Z, from Abel to Zechariah. Incidentally, here Jesus is probably referring to another, later Zechariah, who was considered one of the last Old Testament prophets. Very significantly, in verse 51, Jesus mentions both the sanctuary (that is, the Temple proper) and the altar. So here we see the convergence of innocent spilled blood, the altar, the sanctuary, and the threat of divine judgment/vengeance portrayed in this one predictive passage. Yes, now I definitely think we are on to something.

So then, as far as the Fifth Seal is concerned, I am going to conclude that it is referring to the ministry of the Old Testament prophets, which concluded with the close of the Old Testament. Thus far, walking backwards has worked. We are going backwards in time. 

How about the Fourth Seal? Will we take another step backward in time? Let’s see.

With the Fourth Seal we encounter the fourth of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, two riders on a pale horse. In Revelation 6:7-8, we learn that Death and Hades ride on the pale horse, and that they kill with sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts. What are a few possible key referential words here? How about death and hades? Oh, but we ought to remember that hades may need to be translated to the English word hell or the Hebrew word Sheol. So let’s just try death and Sheol. When I do a computer word search with those two words in combination, seven biblical passages result. Two of those passages look particularly promising; and both of those passages are in Isaiah Chapter 28, specifically verses 15 and 18, which speak of a covenant with Death and an agreement with Sheol.

Realize that I selected two out of seven possible passages, not seventy, nor seven hundred — only seven. And based on the judgment-of-Israel theme that we have encountered thus far, I selected Isaiah, because I know from prior reading that Isaiah often prophesies judgment. And guess what? It works again. Isaiah 28 is a prophecy of judgment against the rulers of Jerusalem. And that prophecy was fulfilled when Babylon invaded the Nation of Judah and attacked its capital city, Jerusalem.

Are we still walking backwards in time? Yes, we are. We went backwards from the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, to the prophetic close of the Old Testament, to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. I suspect that our next Seal will take another step back in time. Let’s look at the Third Seal and find out.

In Revelation 6:5-6 we hear a voice announce the approach of a third horse, a black horse. The rider of the black horse carries scales. There is talk about the disproportional cost of wheat, barley, oil, and wine. What are our key referential words this time? I tried scales, oil, and wine; but then I tried just scales. Again, I focused my search on the judgment-on-Israel theme. And again, I found what I was looking for: indictment passages from the Prophets Amos, Micah, and Hosea. Micah 6:9-16, in particular, fits extremely well. God rebukes Israel’s wealthy, and informs them that they will face depravation and desolation. And it happened. Assyrian troops came through and desolated the Northern Kingdom of Israel. 

Yes, we have another step back in time. Our backward progression has gone from a Roman invasion, to the End of the Prophets, to the Babylonian invasion, and now to the Assyrian invasion.  

In Revelation 6:3-4 we are presented with a red horse. Its rider carries a great sword. He is permitted to take peace from the earth/land (probably the land of Israel). Our suggested key referential words this time will be red, sword, and fire. In Hebrew, the word for red is edom. Edom was also an ancient nation, a nation that was an early and recurring adversary of Israel (see Numbers 20:14-21; Isaiah 34:5; Ezekiel 25:12-14; Obadiah). God used Edom to judge the wandering tribes of Israel immediately following a major moral failure at the Waters of Meribah (see Numbers 20:2-13). God also appointed Hadad of Edom to punish wayward King Solomon (see 1 Kings 11:14).

Of all the seven seals, this one stands as most difficult to establish, according to my own criteria. All the same, Edom does mean red; and there are numerous biblical passages referencing both Edom and the sword. And it certainly works chronologically.

And finally, in Revelation 6:1-2 we are presented with the first horseman, the rider on a white horse. He carries a bow, is given a crown, and comes out conquering, and to conquer. The suggested key word is bow, to which arrow seemed a logical addition. Habakkuk 3:1-16 was what I found to be the best fit. This is the Holy One Himself, the ultimate Judge. See also Deuteronomy 32:39-43.

Although I could say a lot more about the Seven Seals, this post does a thorough job of presenting my rationale for interpreting them as some of the most significant, sequential historical judgments of God against unfaithful Israel.  

Heptads of History

Monday, July 5, 2021

Heptads of History – Audio Version

To make sense of the Book of Revelation, a careful reader must necessarily grapple with four consecutive, structural sets of seven: four literary heptads in succession. The word heptad is specialized shorthand for structural sets of seven; it derives from the Greek word ἑπτά, which just means seven.

The first literary set of seven — the first heptad — a reader will encounter in the Book of Revelation is a collection of short diagnostic messages from Christ in Heaven Above addressed to seven turn-of-the-second-century municipal churches on Earth Below, and more precisely, seven pastors and churches within the Roman province of Asia. These diagnostic messages were meant for them, way back when, and yet can and do selectively apply to us, now. 

The second literary heptad is a binding legal document — a scroll secured with seven seals — seals that are ceremoniously and sequentially broken open. The seals are broken open by a uniquely-worthy, universally-worshiped sacrificial Lamb. As the Lamb breaks open each of the seven seals, the narrator of Revelation reports scenes of colored horses, beheaded supplicants, and a terrified and imminently doomed populace. These seven seals symbolically review the sad and sordid Old Testament history of the people of Israel up to (and just beyond) the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE.

The third literary heptad is a drawn-out fanfare of sequential shofar-trumpet blasts, with lots of surreal thirds of plague and destruction along the way — twelve-thirds of surreal destruction, in fact. These seven shofar-trumpet blasts symbolically review, view, and preview the New Testament history of the peacefully-militant people of God: the conquering, persecuted, triumphant Church.

The fourth and final literary heptad is an utterly horrifying “week” of cosmic anti-creative devastation during which the just and judicial wrath of God is dispensed in measure — bowl by bowl by bowl — upon a variety of terrestrial environs and locales. These seven bowls symbolically preview and foretell a dystopian future time period on Planet Earth.

Yes, all quite weird. But that is precisely what a patient, thorough reader will encounter.

Should you attempt to survey the academic scholarship devoted to these four Apocalyptic heptads, you may be surprised at the amount of progress and scholarly consensus that has slowly emerged over the last 50 years, as it pertains to some (but definitely not all) of the symbolism and sections in the Book of Revelation. However, there is still a lot of collegial debate and disagreement about how to pull it all together into a single, coherent message. 

So… is there a single, coherent message? And if so, what is it? 

To answer that, perhaps we need to consider its purpose. A very basic question to ask about the Book of Revelation pertains to its original, intended purpose: Why is it even there? What does it contribute to the Church? Does it have a unique role in the Bible? And if it does, what is that role?

My Edu-ma-cated Assertion: The purpose of the Book of Revelation is to give the Church a selective, interpretive overview of its history and its future — the sweep of Church History: past, present, and future. Revelation reveals Church History from the vantage point of Heaven. Readers of Revelation are given cryptic, symbolic access to God’s own perspective on Church History.  

An immediate corollary: Yes, the Book of Revelation definitely does have a single, coherent message. And the message is that the Triune Sovereign God retains complete control over the course and eventualities of Church History, even when it all seems uncertain, unlikely, and untrue… because at times God’s control and sovereignty over history will seem uncertain, unlikely, and untrue, especially in the tumultous time period immediately before Christ returns. 

Note that I worded the last paragraph very carefully, with particular emphasis upon the period immediately before the Second Coming (or Advent) of Christ, because the Book of Revelation itself focuses a great deal upon that singular period of time. It is a critical period of time in Church History. And the Book of Revelation is intended to prepare the Church for that particular, forthcoming period of time.

Personally, I wonder if and suspect that we may have already entered that tumultuous time period. But I say that with considerable trepidation and great caution, knowing that others have errantly made the same claim in the past.

 

Hearsay

Friday, June 25, 2021

Hearsay – Audio Version

After a worship service a few weeks ago, I deliberately lingered in the pews to socialize for a while. An attorney friend approached me, as he occasionally does. He always makes for an interesting conversation partner. Sometimes, though, we disagree about this or that.

A few weeks ago, we found ourselves discussing a brief passage in a very old and often forgotten text. Almost immediately, we disagreed about its relevance. I said (and still say) that, yes, the passage matters and carries significant authority. He said (and still says) that, no, it does not matter much and carries no particular authority.

You might wonder if by “old and obscure text” I actually mean the Bible. That sneaky approach could have served as a means of surprising you, my listeners. However, I am not attempting to be sneaky here. By “old and obscure text,” the Bible is not what I mean. Instead, my attorney friend and I were discussing a passage from a nearly nineteen hundred year-old doctrinal treatise entitled Against Heresies (aka Adversus Hæreses). 

Against Heresies was written by a Græco-Franco guy named Irenæus. Græco-Franco should give you an easy (if somewhat inaccurate) handle on how to categorize Irenæus. He was kind of Greek and kind of French — Greek, because an older variant of Greek was his native tongue; and French, because Lyons, France is where Irenæus eventually settled and served. Except, the coordinates were in Roman Gaul back then, as France was yet to be.  

Irenæus of Lyon

Anyway, why would anyone get into an argument after church about something Old Irenæus wrote nearly nineteen hundred years ago? Well, because Old Irenæus was just one generation — a single lifetime — removed from John the Narrator of the Book of Revelation. 

Okay. So what? Why is that important?

Well, because by virtue of his proximity, Irenæus probably would have known how John the Narrator of the Book of Revelation understood the Book of Revelation. Right?

I think so. And I said so. I told my attorney friend that. He said, “Sorry, but I don’t think it matters that much. As a trained attorney, I can tell you that your argument would not hold up in court. Irenæus himself was not a direct witness of John. Irenæus’ second-hand account of what John said is merely hearsay. In court, an opposing lawyer would respond to your line of reasoning and shout, ‘Objection! Hearsay!’ And the judge would lower the gavel and say, ‘Sustained.’”

Okay, ouch. So I guess I would lose if I were a lawyer in a court case dedicated to this question. But does Irenæus’ secondhand testimony actually carry no weight? I mean, if someone were to use the same exacting standard of personal proximity and apply it to the Bible, entire books of the New Testament would completely lose their historical value. The Gospel of Luke was not written by an eyewitness to Jesus, but by a careful writer who had access to eyewitnesses of Jesus. The same thing is true of the Gospel of Mark. Do we reject the reliability of the Gospels of Luke and Mark because they were not written by direct eyewitnesses?

In fact and to the contrary, by virtue of their immediate proximity to eyewitnesses and by virtue of their careful re-telling, Mark and Luke are considered highly reliable historical accounts. That is because they were motivated to re-tell the accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds accurately. They strove to be accurate in their hearsay historical accounts. And like Mark and Luke, maybe Old Irenæus was also very careful to be accurate in his hearsay historical account.    

Basically, I am arguing that the hearsay of some is far more reliable than the hearsay of others. At some point, hearsay becomes an expert historical account. Such is the case when adequate diligence is applied in researching the relevant material.

And I will make a further, even more important point: Secondhand hearsay does indeed have value when it can be cross-referenced with other corroborating evidence. The secondhand accounts of Mark and Luke can be cross-referenced with the firsthand accounts Matthew and John, as well as with other historical witnesses and evidence. The same can also be said of Old Irenæus. What Irenæus says about John the Narrator can be cross-referenced with other corroborating witnesses from the same era, such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and the Didaché.

And guess what? All four more or less line up, in terms of chronological events. Their respective accounts regarding John the Narrator and of the chronology of the Book of Revelation can be aligned. Irenæus and his near contemporaries broadly agree.  

But later Christian writers did not agree with Irenænus and his contemporaries regarding the chronology of Revelation. Irenæus had taught with the Second Advent of Christ there would be a Rapture of the Church (that is, a resurrection and immediate ascension) and thereafter a Millennial Reign of Christ. However, later Christian writers like Eusebius and Augustine regarded Irenæus and his contemporaries as theological simpletons who were not sophisticated enough to interpret the Book of Revelation correctly. They rejected the Rapture and significantly adjusted the chronology and substance of the Millennial Reign of Christ.  

Therefore, with regard to the Rapture of the Church and the Millennial Reign of Christ, every knowledgable interpreter of Revelation has had to decide whether to align with the chronology that Irenæus and his theological contemporaries assumed, or align with the revised chronology that Eusebius and Augustine taught later. In general, the early Christian Church believed it to be one way (that is, took a pre-millennial position), whereas the latter Christian Church believed it to be something other. This is a well documented and easily demonstrable matter of fact. 

A Screenshot of Irenæus’ Against Heresies from EarlyChristianWritings.com

In my estimation, generational proximity matters immensely here. Irenæus was only a lifetime removed from John the Narrator. I think Irenæus was far more likely to have heard how John the Narrator himself interpreted the Book of Revelation, and how he understood its chronology of events.