Island Exile

Saturday, May 23rd, 2020

Sailboats in the Fog
Island Exile, Audio Version

Her husband Clemens was executed, by order of the emperor. Flavia Domitilla herself was put on a ship and sent into exile. The emperor had her banished to one of the remote islands off the western coast. Previous emperors had done the same thing. They just shooed away embarrassing or disobedient female relatives. Insufficiently loyal male relatives were usually executed, since alive they were perpetual contenders for the purple. Regrettably, although kin, the males must serve as a mortal example to other wanna-be usurpers. They must die. The females were less of a threat, though. Undesirable female relatives like Domitilla were sometimes shown pity and spared death. Instead, they were simply sent away, shipped into exile. Perhaps someday, if sufficiently remorseful, Domitilla might be be granted clemency. 

Domitilla had offended Uncle Domitian with her infidelity — not of the marital sort, but of the religious sort. Domitilla had withheld due devotion to the ancestral gods, the very gods who had made Rome so great. Like her husband, Domitilla refused to participate in the rites. She would no longer show devotion to Jupiter, Minerva, and the rest of the Roman pantheon. Though she be a near, dear relative of the emperor, Domitilla could not be exempted from punishment, neither her nor her husband. His disgraceful disloyalty to Roma and abhorrent infidelity to its gods meant deserved death, hers meant banishment.

But what about the children? Clemens and Domitilla had children. Emperor Domitian was by no means indifferent to their plight. At least two of Domitilla’s sons already had Domitian’s favor. He had deemed himself their godfather. The emperor himself had no living children. There was thus no heir apparent. Before their parents were even found guilty of treasonous infidelity, the boys had been adopted children by Uncle Emperor Domitian. He had embraced them, adopted them, and renamed them after his father and himself. The boys had been renamed Vespasian and Domitian. Emperor Domitian intended for one or both of the boys to take his place someday, to succeed him. At least one of the boys would someday wear the purple — provided they were loyal, faithful, and worthy, unlike their traitorous parents.    

But Domitilla had an unlikely avenger named Stephanus. Stephanus had been one of Domitilla’s household servants until his services were suspect. Stephanus was accused of stealing from her. Thereafter, Stephanus went rogue and joined the rebellion. He somehow joined up with a group of court conspirators who were plotting to kill Uncle Emperor Domitian. Stephanus either volunteered himself or was designated to do the bloody deed. And do the deed he did. But he himself died in the doing. 

Stephanus assassinated Uncle Emperor Domitian by stabbing him with a concealed dagger. But before he bled out and died, Domitian fought back and returned the favor. 

At news of his death, the Roman Senate was elated. They despised Domitian. And that’s an understatement. Domitian had been a sadistic and vile emperor. He had killed many of them. He had terrorized the rest. Shortly after his death, the Senate damned his memory. Everything that ever glorified Domitian was to be undone, taken down, scratched out, demolished, or scrubbed. Domitian be damned, for all eternity. So it was written, and so it was done.

Domitian was actually bald, and bothered by it.

While all this court intrigue may be interesting to Ancient Roman history buffs, what does it have to do with the Bible? Does it have anything to do with the Book of Revelation?

Yes, it does indeed have something to do with Book of Revelation. Brother Eusebius, who wrote the indispensable history of the early Church, says that Domitian was Emperor when the Book of Revelation was written. And Eusebius is probably right about that. Domitian banished Domitilla because of her infidelity to the Roman pantheon. Both the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church claim that Domitilla was actually a Christian convert and a martyr. Historians generally concur that Domitilla was a convert to Christianity. It seems very likely. If so, Domitilla was exiled because of her steadfast testimony for Christ, just like John, the author of Revelation. Both of them were exiled by decree of Domitian for their faith.      

John was exiled to Patmos.

But wait, there’s more — I would like to suggest the possibility that Emperor Domitian is even prophesied in the Old Testament. Domitian seems to fit the depiction of the arrogant eleventh king in Daniel 7:19-28. Domitian was the eleventh emperor of Rome. And Domitian did enact policies that resulted in the prosecution and persecution of Jews and Christians. 

Further explanation of what exactly Domitian did needs to wait for another blog post, though.

As a take away, realize that God was in control and at work through everything that occurred in those dark days. As a parent, I imagine the anxiety that Clemens and Domitilla must have felt when they were separated from their children by the Roman authorities. Clemens and Domitilla would have been sorely tempted to play along with Domitian’s demands. But they were steadfast. Otherwise, Clemens would have been spared and Domitilla would have stayed home. And we might never have heard of either of them.   

You CBS: A Complete Mispronunciation Guide

Thursday, May 21st, 2020

Atrocious Mispronunciations, Audio Version
Guilty As Charged

Up front, a recommendation: If you’re reading this, I hereby suggest you listen to the audio version. Then you can hear all my pronunciation mistakes and my attempted corrections. 

My wife frequently corrects my pronunciation of words. Admittedly, I do need it, since I am frequently messing up words. Even worse, I often revert to an erroneous pronunciation of a word after hearing the correct way to say it. In my defense, I just say it how it looks in print. They taught me to read using phonics, circa 1975-76. Nevertheless, although I am never a quick study, my wife patiently corrects and re-corrects my mispronunciations, as need be.  

To misquote Shel Silverstein’s poem Smart, “She just closes her eyes and shakes her head, too proud of me to speak.” 

Now I need to make a mispronunciation confession and correction. On May 11th I posted a blog entry entitled The Mark. If you happened to listen to the audio version, you were therein subjected to a repetitive and odious mispronunciation of the name Decius. Throughout, I kept saying DC-us, because that’s how it looks in print, thank you. But the correct pronunciation is actually Dee-schus or Day-schus. It’s something like the word delicious with the middle removed. My apologies, then, to Emperor Decius and everyone who may have suffered the trauma of listening through that unedited recording. So sorry.

The word quintessential serves as another sad example of my mispronunciation tendency. The right way to say the second syllable is “tuh” not “tee.” Invariably, I say “tee” — quin-TEE-sen-schull, because that’s how it looks. Simple phonics, but oh-so wrong.  It’s “tuh” not “tee.”     

May I introduce to you a couple more phonics-unfriendly Graeco-Roman names? One is Josephus, the other, Eusebius. Not Jo-sep-hus and Eww-seb-i-us, but Joe-C-Fuss and You CBS. If you don’t already know their names, you do now. These two rank way up there as very important historical historian dudes. In future posts, I will necessarily reference them. Both of them were historians who wrote shortly after the New Testament was written and circulated. Both of them wrote in Ancient Greek, but lived during the Roman era.

If you’re American, it might be helpful to think of Josephus as a Benedict Arnold. He switched sides to save his skin. Many of his people consider him a loathsome traitor, even now. During the Jewish rebellion against Rome, Josephus received a commission as a Jewish general. Galilee was his to defend. However, he failed miserably. In his final battle, General Josephus and forty of his men were cornered by the Romans in a cave. Rather than surrender, they decided to take turns killing each other. The last man was supposed to then commit suicide. Josephus was the last man standing. But he did not commit suicide. Instead, Josephus left the cave and surrendered to the Romans. He offered them his services. As low as that may have been, Josephus went on to become a first-rate historian. Most of what we know about the Jewish rebellion and Jewish history of that era comes directly from Flavius Josephus. He was an eyewitness to the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70AD. That’s all super-important stuff, if Revelation is an interest of yours. So please remember Josephus. I will refer to him on occasion. 

Chronologically, Brother Eusebius comes not long after General Josephus. Eusebius was both a theologian and a historian of the early Church. Like Josephus, Eusebius fills in gaping historical chasms with crucially important accounts. A whole lot of what we know about the first several centuries of Christianity comes from Eusebius, and Eusebius alone. Without Eusebius’s writings, a lot of early Christian history would be formless and void. Significantly, Eusebius was also familiar with Josephus’s work. Eusebius accurately quotes Josephus, which makes Eusebius all the more credible as a historian. So please do remember Brother Eusebius. I will refer to him on occasion.                

Two final historical connections ought to be made here. First, a quintessential character in the Book of Revelation is the Beast. The Beast is the second person of Revelation’s pseudo-trinity, and thus Christ’s direct diabolical opposite. General Josephus gives us information about an indisputable forerunner of the Beast. His name is Antiochus Epiphanes. He was a Seleucid Dynasty Monarch who desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem and tried to stamp out Judaism.  

Parenthetically, yes, I find his name hard to pronounce. A professor of mine once laughed aloud at my mispronunciation of Antiochus. Phonics — I am forever hooked on and thrown off by phonics. 

A second connection I will make is to point out some additional Revelation-qualified beasties. Brother Eusebius gives us essential information about the Roman emperors who persecuted Christians. In so doing, these emperors behaved much like ferocious arena animals and so qualified as symbolic beasts. These beasties would especially be Nero, Domitian, and Decius. 

Not everyone agrees with me that Antiochus, Nero, Domitian, and Decius are forerunners and prototypes of an ultimate end-times Beast. However, if they studied Church history, they probably would. I will try to convince you of the validity of my position in future posts.

Thank you for your patience with my atrocious mispronunciations, and please stay tuned.     

Arguing with Galileo

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020 — Happy Birthday, Honey!

Arguing with Galileo, Audio Version
Medieval Sketch

“Before answering the adversaries’ arguments,” a contemporary observer reported of Galileo’s debating style, “he amplified and reinforced them with apparently very powerful evidence which then made his adversaries look more ridiculous when he eventually destroyed their positions.”

Dava Sobel: Galileo’s Daughter

When he would debate an opponent, Galileo would not only summarize his opponent’s position, he would “amplify and reinforce” their arguments. Then Galileo would demonstrate the flaws in their position, point by point. Galileo often left his opponents feeling humiliated. In the mind of their audience, there was no question who had thought through the topic better.    

A few days ago a friend of mine suggested I find and watch a recently-released Bible prophecy video. If I were to watch the video, he wanted to know what I think of it. I told him I would look for it online, which I did, with some trepidation and measured skepticism. Still, out of respect for my friend, I did look for it. I found it and watched it. I watched the entire video. Sigh.

Sad to say, a lot of the Bible prophecy-related material online is under-informed junk or worse. I say that based on years and years of studying such material. I feel quite conflicted whenever I receive suggestions or recommendations from friends. But I will often go ahead and watch or listen or read whatever they suggest. Candidly, I usually expect the suggested material to be bad or, at best, bland. And it usually is. But every once in a while, I am pleasantly surprised.      

“Well, you do know that a lot of people approach your blog exactly the same way.” 

Sigh. Yes, I do know that. And honestly, well they should. There is so much under-informed and misleading #prophecy junk online, people should be understandably wary that what I say here might be more of the same. Still, I hope they give me a chance and read or listen anyway.

But it can be discouraging. Sometimes I wonder if I ought to just avoid everything related to Bible prophecy, the Book of Revelation, and the End Times. Most pastors, professors, and bloggers avoid these topics like the plague, except in times of plague, which might be now. With Coronavirus, people show an uptick in interest — albeit, wary interest.

It is admittedly confusing. If someone has not studied through all things End Times, how can they possibly know what is believable and what is not? That’s a good and necessary question. After watching the recommended video, I did follow through with my friend. And he said as much. He has not studied all this, so it’s hard to discern what is right and what is wrong. A lot of the material presented in the video did sound biblical and thus seemed kinda convincing.

In response, here’s what I suggested: Look for whether a presenter ever mentions or shows awareness of alternate positions and interpretations. Like all other prophetic material, the Book of Revelation requires careful interpretation. Does the presenter seem to be aware of alternate interpretations? If all you hear is a dogmatic take on what a particular passage must mean, be very cautious. That should at be a yellow flag. Granted, sometimes a presenter will deliberately avoid mentioning alternate interpretations. Listeners do want a succinct message, so a presenter might opt to KISS, to keep it simple and straightforward. But intellectual integrity will sometimes require a careful interpreter to present viable alternate interpretations.

Here’s another thought: a good interpreter will be able argue their position like Galileo. A good interpreter will understand alternate positions thoroughly and will be able to explain them accurately, even to the satisfaction of an opponent. An excellent interpreter will thereafter be able to explain why his/her interpretation is indeed superior to alternate interpretations.

The Bible-prophecy video I watched failed on these points. The presenter showed very little knowledge of alternate interpretations. He only presented his own camp’s interpretation. A skilled debater with an adequate grasp of the relevant prophetic material would be able to delineate multiple factual and logical flaws in his interpretation, to put matters very politely.

As I write these blog posts, I am attempting to strike a balance between KISS and what I hope is adequately careful scholarship. Frankly, it ain’t easy. It can be a hard balance to find. But I hope to argue somewhat like Galileo, albeit with more tact.  

Revelation 1:3

The Last Temptation of Alexander Hamilton

Saturday, May 16th, 2020

I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of Jesus Christ.

Alexander Hamilton
The gravesite of Alexander Hamilton in Manhattan
The Last Temptation of Alexander Hamilton, Audio Version

The quote from Alexander Hamilton cited above was spoken as an affirmation of faith shortly before his death. Hamilton died on July 12th, 1804, thirty one hours after suffering a mortal wound in a pistol duel. Aaron Burr, a bitter personal and political rival, was the culprit. Burr took deliberate aim and gunned down Hamilton. At the time, Burr held the office of Vice President of the United States. Strange though it may be in our hearing, the Vice President of the United States shot his political rival in a duel, knowing that death was a likely consequence. Worse still, Aaron Burr was never arrested nor prosecuted for the deed. But the duel did forever derail Burr’s political ambitions, which is exactly what Hamilton anticipated and wanted. Though he died in the process, Alexander Hamilton meant for the duel to undo the ambitions and aspirations of Vice President Aaron Burr.

Some historians speculate that Hamilton may have had another motive for the duel, as well. Hamilton felt personally responsible for the dueling death of his son Philip. Philip had dueled and died over a slight to his father’s honor. It’s quite likely that Hamilton, distraught with grief and consumed with guilt, actually had a suicidal death wish. Hamilton probably considered it apt that his own death come by duel, just like his son’s.

A Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by Walter Robertson

Perhaps we can describe that fatal duel as the last temptation of Alexander Hamilton. Notice that it was a temptation in not one but two ways. The duel with Burr was a temptation for Hamilton and a temptation by Hamilton. For Hamilton, the temptation was death by duel itself. And Hamilton used the duel to draw Burr into bloody temptation. If this is an accurate read, then it worked, in both ways. Hamilton was doubly successful, but quite dead in the end.

Aaron Burr was a vindictive, self-serving, unprincipled, ambitious politician. Hamilton knew that. It is precisely why Hamilton opposed Burr. Based on his negative and yet accurate assessment of Burr’s character, Hamilton had reason to believe that Burr would be vengeful and aim to kill in the duel. Hamilton, on the other hand, went into the duel with no intention of shooting Burr. Hamilton intended to miss. Thus Hamilton read Burr’s dark motives accurately. But Burr completely misread Hamilton’s intentions. Had he understood Hamilton’s intentions and the consequences of his own actions, Burr would not have shot Hamilton. But sadly and predictably, Burr did shoot Hamilton. Burr seethed with malice. He wanted to exact revenge. He wanted blood.     

I watched Hamilton examine the terrain; I wish I could tell you what was happening in his brain.
This man has poisoned my political pursuits; most disputes die, and no one shoots.

Lyrics to “The World Was Wide Enough,” sung by a remorseless Aaron Burr in the musical “Hamilton

What does this bit of historical trivia have to do with the Book of Revelation? A lot.

The triune God and the diabolical pseudo-trinity arranged for a deadly duel that put Jesus Christ on a Roman cross. The triune God knew well how his hateful opponents would behave in that situation. But the satanic dragon completely misread God. Had he accurately understood God’s intentions and the consequences of his own actions, the dragon Satan would not have deliberately killed the son of God. But predictably, he did. The dragon was vindictive, self-serving, unprincipled, ambitious, and murderous. The dragon wanted blood.

The dragon’s character hasn’t changed. He is still pure evil. He is still self-serving, unprincipled, and ambitious. He still wants blood — our blood. But we can use his malice against him, through truth-telling and self-sacrifice. When we testify to the truth and practice self-denial, he predictably over-reacts. When he can, he lashes out. He tempts himself to violence. He cannot help himself. It’s his corrupted nature. He wants blood. But ironically, God works it to our advantage. God turns it to redemption. Like Christ before us, we overcome the adversary, even when is able to attack us.   

The last temptation of Christ was actually not a temptation but a double determination. Christ Jesus himself was “tempted” to embrace death, or rather, was determined to embrace death in love — to die for our sake. And God “tempted” the dragon, or rather, determined that the dragon would be allowed to tempt himself and slay the Lamb of God.  And so Christ Jesus died violently, a sacrifice for sin. God foresaw and foreordained that Christ’s death would be the sacrificial undoing of our sin and of diabolical, malicious evil. And in that determination, God was doubly-successful. In death, then, Hamilton and Christ have some remarkable commonalities; but unlike long-gone Hamilton, Christ is no longer dead. It’s encouraging to know that Hamilton professed faith in Christ before he passed.  


Friday, May 15th, 2020

An Aerial View of Manhattan
Skyscrapers, Audio Version

Does New York City have anything to do with the Book of Revelation?

New York City was originally named New Amsterdam. Manhattan Island, now the iconic sky-scraping heart of the city, was largely an unpopulated forest when it was purchased on May 24th, 1626. It was bought with some bartered seventeenth-century trade goods. The buyers were Dutch traders; the seller was Seyseys, chief of the Canarsee Amerindian Tribe. At that time, the Dutch estimated the value of their trade deal to be about sixty guilders. In economic terms, it’s possible a lopsided deal was struck. A novice realtor, Seyseys might have miscalculated a bit. He slightly underestimated the value of the rocky, then-forested island. Like many traders after him, Seyseys misjudged the net worth of his Manhattan holdings, and may have gotten ripped off.

In retrospect, many historical commentators have expressed amazement at the economic exploitation inherent in that initial trade. The urbanization of Manhattan Island was made possible by a massively disproportional deal. In that initial transatlantic deal, one trading partner exploited the naïveté of the other, because, well, they could. It was an intercultural economic injustice. 

In spite of their trading savvy, though, the Dutch were not able to keep control of Manhattan very long. Sovereignty over the island went back and forth between two imperial rivals, between Dutch and British authorities for several decades, until control was formally ceded to the British in November, 1674. All the while, construction projects on Manhattan Island and its surrounding environs proliferated as the European immigrant population grew. Geographically ideal as a port of trade, the British deemed the entire area a crucial imperial holding, and renamed it New York City. That name has stuck, in spite of another change of sovereignty and flag after the American revolution. As names go, though, another might fit the city even better — a much older name.

The Tower of Babel?

Nearly four hundred years have passed since the Dutch bartered their purchase of Manhattan. Over those four centuries, Manhattan caught and surpassed other world-class cities to claim the title of the world’s most important commercial center. That New York City both is in fact a global trade center and has a sky-scraping tower called the World Trade Center may matter much, by Revelation’s Reckoning. At the time the Book of Revelation was written and first heard, the de facto world trade center was indisputably the imperial capital city, that is, Rome. All roads led to Rome, by design. The wealth of the developed world was carried by soldiers, merchants, and slaves as tribute to Rome. Rome controlled the commerce of the entire Mediterranean World, and even beyond. Everywhere else was uncivilized hinterland, as far as the Romans were concerned. And if they could, they would take it someday, civilize it, and exploit it. 

However, in spite of its prominence, the name that the Book of Revelation uses for Rome is not Rome. Instead, Revelation refers to Rome with a code name. In Revelation, the code name for Rome is Babylon. And why does Revelation refer to Rome as Babylon? Rome is called Babylon because of how similarly Rome and Babylon behaved. In its monuments, conquests, and exploits, the Roman Empire resembled the earlier Babylonian Empire. Rome also recapitulated the worst of Babylon, especially in sieging Jerusalem and destroying God’s temple that stood there. 

Somehow though, Babylon reappears in the last days as a villainous vixen. While Babylon is repeatedly called “the Great City” in the Book of Revelation, it is also likened figuratively to a woman. The Romans depicted Roma as a female figure, resembling the Statue of Liberty. But in Revelation, Lady Babylon is always an exploitive seductress. She’s a woman of ill-repute, a harlot. And she lures the naïve until the end, until Christ’s appearance, the Parousia. Then Babylon is dealt her sudden and violent destruction. 

Lady Liberty

Is New York City a latter-day Babylon? In some ways, New York City fits Revelation’s description. The final great city Babylon is portrayed as exceedingly wealthy, as a massive maritime metropolis. But Babylon is even bigger than the Big Apple. Babylon represents a corrupt economic system and an entire commercial network of cities — a money-worshiping, laborer-exploiting, violence-dependent syndicate. Her/their ruin is sudden and fearsome. See Revelation 18:1-24. 

Do we need to be afraid? No and yes. It depends on your holdings. What is your source of security? In the end, the inhabitants of the whole world will experience unprecedented catastrophe and loss, not just those of one city. Money and assets won’t matter, at all. But God’s elect are assured that He is mighty to save, even while the foundations crumble. Cling to the security that only Christ can give. Everything else is destined to fall.

Unexpected Turbulence

Wednesday, May 13th, 2020

Clouds Below, What’s Ahead?
Unexpected Turbulence, Audio Version

Back in the day, in the old pre-flight advisory safety announcements, an airline spokesperson (usually a bored stewardess rehashing a memorized script, intercom in hand) would advise passengers to please wear their seatbelts “in case of unexpected turbulence.” I would often tighten my seatbelt a bit at that point. Unexpected turbulence might occur. I had been told. Have my readers/listeners noticed that the phrase “unexpected turbulence” has been replaced with the words “rough air”? Personally, I prefer the original phrase — unexpected turbulence to rough air. Ruff hair. I’m having a ruff hair day.   

Speaking of which, years ago I worked with a man named Rob. His name, I have tweaked. Rob’s job required that he travel from city to city across a large country in Asia. To traverse the long distances involved, Rob had the option of traveling by train or by plane. To save himself time, Rob would choose to fly, when possible. Rob thus became a frequent flyer, flying frequently over and across a very large country in Asia, one that shall go unspecified. But if you would like to know which one, imagine how someone from Boston might say the word diner. The country rhymes with that. People from Boston often drop the letter r.  

One of Rob’s flights (in the country that kinda rhymes with diner) suddenly got very, very violently bumpy. Without much, if any, warning, the plane flew into some incredibly rough air. Unexpected turbulence… it occurred. Many people on board the flight were not wearing their seatbelts. Human pinball — that’s the description I believe Rob used. People were thrown around the inside of the airplane. People were bouncing off the ceiling of the plane. People got seriously hurt. Rob, however, did have his seatbelt on, probably because he was used to hearing the same old boring, rehashed precautionary announcement. Rob was not hurt, just shaken. By virtue of listening to the same message repeatedly, Rob had been habituated into safety, into wearing his seatbelt. 

To repeat, he had heard the same precautionary announcement, over and over, ad nauseam. He had been habituated, even tediously so, into proper practice. Therefore, when unexpected turbulence came, he was ready, without even knowing it. In the moment it mattered most, he was ready. Although he was very alarmed, he was unharmed, unlike many of his fellow passengers. 

Regarding the very perilous period before his second coming, Jesus emphasized to his listeners the importance of informed readiness: “See, I have told you beforehand.” If you want to know the context of his statement, go read Matthew 24:25 and the surrounding verses. Here’s the same precautionary statement, translated a bit differently: “Behold, I have told you in advance.”

Be Vigilant

We have been told in advance. Expect unexpected turbulence. Be prepared. Be ready. It will come when you’re not expecting it. He will come when we’re not expecting him. All of which is alarming to hear, and ought to prompt some questions, such as: How do I expect the unexpected? How can I be prepared? How can I get ready? How can I protect others around me? What should I do?

Here, let me help you tighten your seat belt. First, you should read the safety instructions provided. They’re easily within reach. All you need to do is take the time to read them. Also, listen to the flight attendants, even if they are boring and mumbling their way through the same old message. They went through extensive training on this — at least they should have. Plus, you usually can tell if they know what they’re talking about. Above all, pay attention to the pilot. He knows what’s going on. He knows what’s up ahead, even when we don’t. You can even call upon him. Unlike a lot of other pilots, he’s truly the very best. And he’s quite willing to hear you and respond to you.

Just so you know, I do have some training as a flight attendant. I cannot see what’s ahead like the pilot can; but I will tell you — from experience and from what I’ve learned — that it feels like we’re already hitting some rough air, some turbulence. It could get worse. I hope I’m wrong. But I think you ought to know. Buckle up, just to be safe.    

Oh, and keep a wary eye on the leader of the country that kinda rhymes with diner. He is behaving a lot like Decius did. See my previous post if this confuses you.

The Mark

Monday, May 11th, 2020

The Mark of the Beast
The Mark, Audio Version

In January 250AD the newly-proclaimed Emperor Decius issued a do-or-die decree, an urgent edict. Decius decreed that everyone in the empire must make a patriotic public offering. Each and every inhabitant of the empire was required to appear in person before a local magistrate in order to make an offering to the gods, for the new emperor. The wording of the edict really matters here: the offering was to be made to the officially recognized gods, for the emperor. Anyone who refused to make the required offering could face the consequence of torture and execution. Only Jews were exempted from the edict, not Christians.

This posed a real dilemma for the empire’s Christians. To comply with an order to pray to their own God for the emperor — that they could do. To appear before a local magistrate and offer their patriotic service or support or money — that they probably could do. But to make a public offering to the pantheon of traditional gods — no, they could not do that, at least not in good conscience. It was a clear violation of a sacred command. God alone was to be worshiped. The emperor’s decree and God’s command were thus irreconcilable. They could obey the emperor or they could obey God; but they could not obey both in this. Christ is Lord, not Caesar, not Emperor Decius, nor his pantheon of officially-sanctioned gods. 

Was Decius Foretold? See Revelation 17:10-11.

Nonetheless, for fear of severe punishment and loss, some Christians reluctantly complied with Decius’s decree. They capitulated and made the required offering. Others, though, held fast to their convictions and refused to make the offering, knowing they were likely to be subjected to torture and execution. And many of them were indeed tortured and martyred, including Fabian, the Bishop of Rome. 

By Revelation’s reckoning, anyone who did comply with the edict thereby took the mark of the beast. Even if they made the offering reluctantly, they yielded to an early version, or prototype, of the mark of the beast. Was it forgivable? Probably so, at least back then. It might not be in the future.

Do recognize that my last paragraph makes a couple of very strong claims. To some of my readers, they may seem completely wrong, or at least too sweeping. How is making a coerced pagan sacrifice equal to taking the mark of the beast? That is a good question, and worth pursuing.

Those who made the sacrifice for the Emperor Decius were given an official certificate called a libellus. Copies of such certificates have survived through the centuries. Those who made the sacrifices would have kept their certificates on hand. They would not have literally kept the certificates strapped to one of their hands. But they would have kept the certificates with them, as a means of ready self-protection against accusation. They kept official certificates that notarized their participation in a pagan ritual where? They kept them on hand, in case they needed them.

Now, fast forward many centuries to the Third Reich and the Nazis. How were Germans taught to show their loyalty to their Führer? With their extended right hand. To avoid any suspicion and to show expected allegiance, they need only raise their right hand in salute of their leader and say two words. Was their salute actually the mark of the beast? Well, it leaned in that direction. It was not necessarily the mark of the beast for everyone who ever did it, because it did not require a deliberate choice against Christ. However, if someone did make a deliberate choice against Christ, such a salute might constitute something akin to the mark of the beast.

From my reading of the Book of Revelation and history, I submit that the ultimate mark of the beast is to be conveyed in a public ceremony, rite, ordeal, or trial. It indicates to all that the recipient has consciously and deliberately repudiated Christ and given his or her allegiance to another master — even if that decision is coerced and made in duress. The mark thus functions as an anti-baptism. It might involve a literal, physical brand or distinguishing mark of some sort, but not necessarily. Whatever form it takes, it is to be avoided absolutely, even if that means enduring a painful death. We see precursors of it now, whenever someone must officially repudiate faith in Christ in order to get ahead, stay afloat, or save their skin. Yes, the prospect of being in such a do-or-die situation is a scary thought. But Christians are called to count the cost, and stay faithful, even unto death.

Time & Again

Friday, May 8th, 2020

Time & Again, Audio Version

What comes to mind when you hear these two questions? If you thought of the worn patience of a child on a long journey, that’s what I intended. When I was young, I used to pester my poor parents with these questions on long road trips. They would assure me — time and again — that they would let me know when we were near our destination. After a while, though, I would resume asking the same questions. Sometimes it is hard for a child to just sit and wait, especially in the midst of uncertainty. That might be true for some adults, too. 

“Are we almost there? When will we get there?”

These two questions are also on the mind of most of us as we read the Book of Revelation, and with good reason. Right up front, Revelation itself gives us ample reason to wonder when. The audience of Revelation is told they can expect a blessing if they listen and keep the words written therein. That’s what Revelation 1:3 says. The same verse then concludes with time-sensitive watch words: for the time is near. Thus the when? question appears at the very beginning of the book. We’re supposed to be asking it.

Someone might be tempted to cynicism here. The Book of Revelation was written almost two millennia ago. Nearly two thousand years ago, Revelation claimed that the time was near. Presumably, the original recipients of the Apocalypse believed that Jesus Christ would appear soon. He would be arriving for them anytime. “Sometime soon Jesus will come for us.” That’s the idea; right? That claim seems rather ridiculous now. It seems like a farce after two thousand years of waiting. How can it be taken with any seriousness?  

It is indeed an important question. It even has its own technical terminology. In seminary-speak, it is called the delay of the parousia. The word parousia means appearance — the appearance of Christ, that is. But simply injecting a bit of academic terminology here is not particularly helpful. Just to identify it with some jargon does not resolve the inherent problem. Why hasn’t Jesus appeared after two thousand years, especially when Revelation says “the time is near”? Why the long delay? Many people reject the reliability not only of Revelation but the entire New Testament on this very point. John and even Jesus were wrong, they say.

Allow me to push back against the cynicism, if I may. The Book of Revelation actually anticipates the delay of Christ’s appearance. It does. I’ll show you exactly where it does in a few sentences. This same delay is also anticipated elsewhere in the New Testament.  

The delay of the parousia can be identified as the entirety of chapter seven… period. An explanation is in order here. Through chapters five and six, we see Christ, the Lion/Lamb, breaking open six of seven document seals. As each of the document seals is broken open, one peculiarity after another is unleashed. The sixth seal depicts human horror at the disintegration of the cosmos and the apparent end of the world. It seems like THE END, except at the very end, it’s not. Surprise! We’re not there yet. The hammer never falls. The climax never comes. Instead, chapter seven comes. Behold, the delay of the parousia, per the Book of Revelation.  

Rather than THE END, the Book of Revelation presents something previously unanticipated: the purpose and mission of the Church. This begins at chapter seven. Christ’s appearance is postponed until the mission of the Church is accomplished. The Book of Revelation shows all this, symbolically.

Since I constrain myself to a word limit in these blog posts, I will have to hit pause for now, just like the Book of Revelation does at the end of chapter six. I am well aware that I am leaving a lot of questions hanging unanswered and a lot of material unexplained. Stay tuned, please. We’re not there yet, but we’re almost there. The time is near; even if it is not here quite yet.

Two Tables & An Ear

Wednesday, May 6th, 2020

Percentage-wise, most of the Book of Revelation focuses on four series of seven topics. In narrative order, the four series are 1) the Apostolic Epistles to the Seven Municipal Churches in the Greek-speaking Roman province of Asia, 2) the Seven Document Seals, as they are progressively broken open by Jesus Christ, the Lion/Lamb, 3) the Seven Clarion Trumpets, and the very bizarre symbolic, yet historic events that occur as those trumpets are sounded, and finally 4) the Seven Bowls of Absolute, Catastrophic Wrath.

In future posts, I hope as best I can to explain the two middle series, the Seven Document Seals and the Seven Clarion Trumpets. Just to prepare my readers, I should say that interpreters of the Book of Revelation vary widely and wildly in how they explain these two sections. Even the most esteemed biblical scholars seem to have trouble making sense of these sections. But I’m going to try anyway. And be forewarned: I am willing to explore some ideas you have probably never encountered before. When I do, I will try to inform you of what I am doing interpretively, and why I am doing it.

The two tables I have included in this post give a big picture overview of some of the narrative topics and polarities in the Book of Revelation. Readers familiar with the book will likely understand much of what I present in the tables, but not all. I hope the material you don’t understand will bring you back to read future posts.

That’s all for today.

Come & Die

Monday, May 4th, 2020

Quotation from The Cost of Discipleship
Come & Die, Audio Version

It almost goes without saying that this call to come and die is not gender specific; it also applies to women. When Christ calls anyone, he calls that person to come and die. This statement, however harsh, is true and worthy of full acceptance. If you do call yourself a Christian, you have received and accepted a friendly invitation to follow Jesus, and with that, a summons to come and die. If you have even the slightest lingering doubt about that claim, go read what Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark 8:34-38. Jesus there issues the call to each of his listeners to deny themselves and take up their respective crosses. That was how Jesus issued his invitation, his altar call. It was and is a clear call — a chillingly clear call to come and die.   

How, then, are we supposed to die? What does it mean for you and for me to deny ourselves and take up our respective crosses? That’s a good question. Yes, it could mean physical death.

Pew-sitting Christians are likely to have heard biographical snippets about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a 20th Century German theologian — a theologian who ranks as a top-tier favorite of pastors and preachers, and deservedly so. Indeed, Bonhoeffer is doubly-deserving of honor. Not only did he pen the devotional classic The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer also died at the hands of the Nazis in the final days of the Third Reich. Many consider Bonhoeffer a modern-day martyr. I believe it is also fair and accurate to say that Bonhoeffer died precisely because he actively resisted a beastly antichrist. Bonhoeffer courageously resisted and defied Hitler. And Hitler was, by Revelation’s reckoning, a forerunner of the beast, that is, a type of the antichrist. Hitler qualifies as apocalyptic beast and an antichrist because he demanded absolute allegiance and loyalty — the kind of absolute loyalty that only Jesus Christ deserves. Jesus is Lord, not Adolf Hitler. Jesus Christ alone is worthy of our absolute allegiance.

Captured Bust of Hitler, Displayed at Fort Bragg

Bonhoeffer died young. He died on Nazi gallows as a relatively young man. But Bonhoeffer’s words live on. Bonhoeffer’s words have outlived himself and Hitler. And someday Bonhoeffer himself will rise again from the dead. Not only Bonhoeffer, though — someday all martyred Christians will be resurrected in victory to life eternal. I hope you will be in that number. I hope you will be one of those martyrs. If you’re a bit confused by my martyr-speak, please go read my earlier blog post on the meaning of the word martyr. The word martyr originally meant witness

This is all very morbid sounding, and thus somewhat repulsive: death, death, and more death. Jesus calls us each to deny ourselves and die. Jesus himself died young, by execution, upon a cross. Bonhoeffer also died a young martyr, executed by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer wrote a book about Jesus’ call to come and die. “Death, death, and more death — please talk about something else.”

Sorry, but the words of a martyr/witness will inevitably end in death. But they will also impart life. Faithful witnesses to Christ will speak words that result initially in the death of self, the death of ego, but then offer eternal life. As Proverbs 18:21 says, death and life are in the power of the tongue. That’s just a fact. If a martyr/witness conveys the gospel message faithfully, a listener will face a hard choice: to die to self now, or die in sin at the end. Death cannot be skirted. Death is unavoidable, either way. That all said, never forget that the gospel is truly good news, for it comes with the incomparable offer of life abundant and eternal. That is the most important part of the message entrusted to us. The cross comes first, but the victory of resurrection follows. That was the pattern for Christ, and is the pattern for each of us.  

Photo from The Passion of the Christ