Burnt or Fired?

Friday, May 1st, 2020

Audio Version

In my last blog post, I referenced the sobering obituary in Leviticus 10 of the deviant, errant eldest sons of Aaron, brother Nadab and brother Abihu. They lost not only their priestly jobs but also their mortal lives to an incinerating blast of furious flame. They were very literally fired.

To speak of their fearsome demise as being fired, might sound glib. But I do have a good reason. I am not just playing cute with terminology. My intent is to demonstrate the important difference between the literal use of a word as opposed to the common use of a word. 

For example, if I were to say, “I got fired today” you would very likely understand the word fired in a common, conventional way, and not in a strictly literal way. We know that the phrase to get fired means that one’s employment was abruptly revoked. That is just how the expression to get fired is commonly used. But it is not the literal meaning — not at all. Hopefully, no one got burnt, singed, or scorched in the event. Someone simply lost their job.   

This confusion of the literal and the conventional can become a problem for us when we read texts in translation, like the Bible. Our tendency is to lean too much on the literal meaning of a word. Unsurprisingly, we want to read things literally. It is seemingly the most straightforward and simple approach. But it is not necessarily the best approach. Sometimes a word is better understood through common convention or specialized use. We need to find out how that word was commonly used or how it might have been understood in a special context.

For example, in the Book of Revelation Jesus is spoken of in many different ways. He is called Jesus Christ. He is called the Alpha and the Omega. He is called One Like a Son of Man. He is called the Faithful Witness. He is called the Son of God. He is called the Holy One, the True One. He is called the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. He is called the Root of David. He is called the Lamb. He is called the Word of God. He is called King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is called the Bright Morning Star. He is called all of these names and titles, and quite a few more.

Some of these names and titles for Jesus are literal. He is literally the Son of God. He is literally the Faithful Witness. But some of the names given to Jesus in the Book of Revelation cannot possibly be literal. Jesus is not literally a lamb. Jesus is not literally two Greek letters. He is not literally a lion. He is not literally a star. We should acknowledge the difference. And we should try to understand these non-literal names and titles within their historical and literary context, and by virtue of their common, conventional use by Christian churches way back in the first century.

Rather than think of the Book of Revelation in strict literal or non-literal terms, it is much more helpful to think of the book in historical and contextual terms. We should ask questions like: How would first-century Christians in the Roman province of Asia have heard and understood this? What would have been their common understanding of this word, this sentence, this symbol, this image, or this reference? 

We should also pursue answers to questions like: What exactly is being referenced here? Is there a historical reference here? Is there a scriptural reference here? That last question is especially important, since subtle scriptural references appear in almost every verse of Revelation. That’s no exaggeration. 

In conclusion, we cannot read Revelation in strictly literal terms. It has too much symbolism. And it contains far too many subtle references. But sometimes Revelation does have literal elements. Since every reader is an interpreter, every reader must try to discern when the book is presenting literal material and when it is not. Revelation itself will often provide telltale clues. Always try to discern whether what you are reading is symbolic, literal, or a blend of the two. 

Terminated and Fired

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Terminated and Fired – Audio Version
Illustration from The Bible Project, The Book of Leviticus

What did Nadab and Abihu do wrong? 

Aaron’s eldest sons Nadab and Abihu served in the tabernacle as duly ordained, incense-offering priests, just like their father. But one day Nadab and Abihu took a bad turn. They became priests gone bad. They offered something strange to the LORD.

It is not entirely clear in Leviticus Chapter Ten what Nadab and Abihu did wrong with their offering. But Nadab and Abihu did do something wrong. Whatever they did wrong must have been pretty bad. It was bad enough to result in their immediate termination. They got fired. 

We know from the incident report that Nadab and Abihu’s dereliction got them summarily fired. They had not followed proper procedure. They had not adhered to clearly stated guidelines. Consequently, they were terminated. They lost their jobs. They were no longer priests.

We know from the same incident report that Nadab and Abihu got fired — fired in the most literal way imaginable. They lost their lives. They lost their lives in a hot, searing blast of flaming, consuming fire. They were burnt alive. They were burnt to death, incinerated. 

So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them; and they died before the LORD.

Leviticus 10:2

Thus Nadab and Abihu were terminated. They were executed. They were literally fired, incinerated.

The whole point of this account is to instill respect — no, something more than mere respect. Try fear. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Do not play games with the Holy One of Israel. Do not mess around with the LORD, for our God is a consuming fire (per Hebrews 12:29).

Someone may protest that this is just an Old Testament account. Everything has changed. Everything is different now. We’ve gone from B.C. to A.D. God does not behave this way anymore. God’s hot wrath has been entirely appeased. As a result of the beautiful and yet gruesome cross of Christ, the LORD has been placated and pacified, once and for all; right? 

Well, yes and no. Yes, the crucifixion of Christ does completely satisfy God’s holy, burning anger against our sin. God’s anger has been dealt with, once and for all. Through Christ’s self-sacrifice on our behalf, God’s burning wrath has been appeased. The big seminary word for that is propitiation. God has been propitiated. And it’s true. And it’s wonderful. It’s why we say that the cross of Christ is not just gruesome, but also beautiful. We can rejoice in that. 

Ultimately, Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment.

And yet the Holy One of Israel is still holy; and Holiness means He is hostile to sin. That has not changed. Sometimes we are too quick to forget that God still hates sin. No, that’s not too strong a statement. God hates sin. God abhors sin. God detests sin — even A.D., even now, regardless of what some may say. 

A conspicuous counterpart to the Old Testament’s account of Nadab and Abihu is the New Testament’s account of that duplicitous husband and wife duo, Ananias and Sapphira. Their rather scary incident report can be found in Acts 5:1-11. Just as Nadab and Abihu had displeased the LORD by means of what they were offering, so Ananias and Sapphira displeased the LORD with their dishonest offering. And just like Nadab and Abihu before them, Ananias and Sapphira promptly wound up dead and deceased. God punished them severely. God pulled the plug on them. Their deaths were meant to serve as an example to their contemporaries and to us. Do not play games with the Holy One of Israel. Do not mess around with the LORD. God can still play tough, as we shall see in forthcoming blog posts about the Book of Revelation.  

Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

Acts 5:11


Monday, April 27th, 2020

Audio Version

When Moses met God, what does the Book of Exodus say happened? What did Moses see? Moses saw a bush aflame, yet not consumed. Why did God reveal himself to Moses from fire or perhaps even as fire? Why does God appear in the midst of fire again and again in Exodus? Does fire have specific scriptural symbolic significance?    

I would like to suggest here that fire is indeed an important scriptural symbol. Fire does have symbolic significance, beginning in Exodus, if not before. And fire continues to have the same symbolic significance through the whole Bible. Somewhat cryptically, Hebrews 12:29 says, “Our God is a consuming fire.” What does that mean? How is God a consuming fire? 

We need to understand that fire signifies something. Fire is a symbol.

So what does fire signify in scripture? What does it symbolize? Some say that fire signifies or symbolizes judgment. Granted, to see judgment makes a lot of sense. Fire often implies God’s wrath and thus judgment. But in scripture fire does not always imply judgment and wrath. For example, consider the burning bush encounter. Through most of the passage the LORD appears in the fire, yet does not initially evince anger — not until Moses repeatedly attempts to refuse the LORD’s commission. Then yes, the passage says that LORD’s anger burned against Moses (see Exodus 4:14). At the very beginning of the burning bush encounter, though, God calls attention to another of his characteristics. A divine attribute is specifically brought to the fore and emphasized. In Exodus 3:5 Moses is told to take off his sandals for a reason. Moses is standing on holy ground.   

Here’s my suggestion: How about seeing fire as holiness, instead? Maybe holiness is a better fit. Judgment is not out and out wrong. It’s just not broad enough. In scripture, holiness is what is signified by fire. I’ll say it again, and for the record: Holiness is what is signified by fire.

Why does it matter? It matters because it will help you understand how the symbolism is used throughout the Bible and in the Book of Revelation. When you hear or read fire in Revelation, think in terms of holiness. It will help. It will help you make sense of what you read.

Another thing comes to mind. If you’re willing to consider the possibility that fire does symbolize holiness, then go back and ponder what you already know about fire. 

Fire is terrifyingly destructive. It can completely consume. It hurts. It even kills. It is incredibly dangerous. It needs to be approached with deliberate forethought and great care. 

But, if approached properly and handled correctly, fire is hugely and positively transformative. Fire means heat. It can heat ovens, rooms, houses, cities. It can also purify and purge. It can empower. It can transform. It can be exchanged and transferred without loss, over and over and over. It gives off light. It’s easily one of humanity’s most important tools. Civilization depends on fire. 

And fire is also intrinsically fascinating. It is beautiful to behold, thus the allure of campfires. And it is mysterious, even paradoxical. What even is it? Thinkers have asked that for aeons.

Given all these qualities of fire, we return to scripture. In scripture God intentionally and often associates himself with fire. It’s an important symbol, a symbol he chooses for himself. Our God is a consuming fire, which is another way of saying God is holy. We are wise to treat him accordingly. And as we read through Revelation, keep that symbolism in mind. It will help.

For further study, read this brief but terrifying account.

P.S. The Bible Project video on the theme of holiness is really good: https://bibleproject.com/explore/holiness/

Germs & Gems

Friday, April 24th, 2020

Audio Version

Far-off places often seem irrelevant. And practically speaking, far off places usually are irrelevant. One unexpected turn of events, though, can drastically and quickly flip our perspective on a location’s personal relevance. A location we once dismissed from our thoughts — that we once ignored as obscure and irrelevant — instead becomes entirely relevant. For example, take Wuhan.  

Six months ago, Wuhan was irrelevant; wasn’t it? As far as I was concerned, it was. It wasn’t even on my radar. At that time, I would have had no particular interest in the events occurring in, say, a cagey wet market or a batty viral laboratory in distant Wuhan. But in the course of a single season, events in far-off Wuhan became increasingly and chillingly relevant — and now drudgingly relevant to almost everyone worldwide. What we couldn’t have known then, we’re all too aware of now. Wuhan suddenly became relevant.

This notion of perceived relevance can be transferred from locations to ideas. What is true of places is true of ideas, at least in terms of perceived relevance. Ideas often originally seem irrelevant. And practically speaking, a lot of ideas actually are irrelevant. Then a turn of events changes everything dramatically. A once seemingly irrelevant idea goes viral, like a virus. Alliteration, anyone? “Viral like a virus.” How’s that for a redundant redundancy?  

But I was talking about obscure ideas. Here’s what usually happens: Academically-inclined people propose their ideas in dissertations, journals, or books. Some other academically-inclined people then discuss and argue said proposals. And usually, very few others care or pay any attention. Only the specialists are interested.    

Some of these ideas are gems, though. Other such ideas are dangerous germs. But we often fail to recognize them for what they are.

If we understood the implications of an idea that is genuinely a gem or actually a germ we would likely be interested. If we could perceive the ramifications of it, we might devote our undivided attention. Our problem is that we lack adequate interest and understanding. We do not see the idea for what it is. Our problem is our perception. We do not perceive it a gem, nor a germ. We do not perceive it correctly. A correct perception would change our attitude. 

Lots of examples could be provided here of ideas that are gems and ideas that are germs.

Christians are stewards of a particular set of ideas. This set of ideas was entrusted to us. In turn, we are meant to pass these ideas to others. These ideas are precious. They are genuinely gems, though they are not alway perceived by others to be gems. Sometimes instead our ideas are perceived to be germs. The onus is on us, then, to convince people that our ideas are gems and not germs. We find ourselves in a contest of competing ideas. Ours is the ultimate gem. 

That is what a martyr does. A martyr attempts to convince others of the truth and the worth of an idea. A Christian martyr is a witness to a particular set of ideas. And a Christian martyr is a faithful witness to him who is Faithful and True — the person originally behind that set of ideas. 

Our set of ideas is meant to go viral. It is supposed to spread from person to person. It is supposed to go from place to place until it has reached every corner of the world. But unlike a virus, it is not something that is simply caught. It is taught. It is explained. And it is celebrated.      

Are you doing the work of a martyr effectively? Are you convincing people that what you have to offer is a gem and not germ?

Counterintuitive Kingdom

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

And I heard a loud voice in heaven proclaiming,

“Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers (and sisters) has been hurled down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 
And they conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives, even unto death.”

Revelation 12:10-11

Audio Version

If you were to condense and distill the whole Book of Revelation down to just two verses, here you go. If you were to memorize just two verses from the Book of Revelation, may I suggest these two? 

The reason I would suggest these two verses is because they are immediately actionable. Do this: Testify. And that: Love not your life, even unto death. Do this and that, and in the end, you shall conquer; you shall triumph. Here is the secret. Here is the key.  

This approach to victorious living only works, of course, if God is God. Otherwise, it is sheer craziness. We know from childhood traumas that this approach is not how you win on the playground. You do not win by consistently affirming what is true. And you certainly do not win by loving not your life, even unto death. Instead, it sounds like a guaranteed way not to win. It’s a sure fire way to get taken advantage of.  

But we play by different rules in the Kingdom of God. And God is looking out for us. 

One of the biggest intended takeaways from the Book of Revelation is that the triune God actually reigns, that our triune God is still seated supreme on the throne, unassailable, and sovereign, even when circumstance would seem to shout the exact opposite.  

A close corollary is that through the grace of God we can triumph, even in extreme adversity. We can triumph when it looks like we are defeated. But we triumph counterintuitively. In this world, we triumph over the coercive, seductive powers by following Christ’s example of faithful martyrdom.

Again, as stated in a previous post, I mean martyrdom in both senses of the word, the original sense of the word and the latter. We triumph through faithful witness. And triumph by “loving not our lives, even unto death.”   

What does it mean for you to be a faithful martyr today?

Everything Written Here Is…

Monday, April 20th, 2020

Audio Option

Everything you read here is indubitably awesome.

Yes, that’s right. It’s undeniably, irrefutably, in-doo-buh-tah-blee AWESOME, squared. Maybe even cubed. Awesome times itself and again.

Someone sent me a text. Someone very helpfully said that my last post was slightly less than understandable. It could have been, should have been shorter. Perhaps I should get to the point quicker. Too much yada, yada. Readers might lose interest. I would not want that; would I?

Someone said that. Someone knows who he is.

I suppose. I suppose someone made a good point. And I should heed that good point.

So today I will try to keep it short and simple. How am I doing, so far?

In Revelation 11:1-14, the protagonist is the Church. The antagonist is the Beast who rises from the abyss. The Beast conquers and kills the Church in the public square; but after a few days the Church is resurrected and brought to heaven in a cloud. Again, the Beast from the abyss conquers and kills the Church; but shortly thereafter the Church is resurrected and brought to heaven in a cloud.

Some of you reading this post or the previous post will not be convinced that the Church is actually the protagonist in this chapter, so I feel the need to try and convince you. I think it’s important that I convince you, because I think we are seeing at least partial fulfillment of this passage in our day. It is happening now. The Church is being attacked. The Church is being conquered. The Church is being killed and left mute and lifeless in the public square. We are living in a day and time of intensifying attacks and persecution. It is in the news, all too frequently. Need I cite some examples? North Korea comes to mind. China comes to mind. But there are more subtle examples, too, much closer to home.

However, if you miss the multi-faceted referential symbolism of Revelation 11 (not to mention the referential symbolism of the rest of the book), you will not be able to connect the dots. You will not make the correct connections. You will not recognize that what it describes is, at least to some extent, occurring right now. It’s happening now, now, now — not later.

The key is to accept my contention that this must be understood as referential symbolism. You need to let go of the literal impulse. No, it’s not literal. It’s referential. And it’s symbolism. In this short section, the Church is depicted symbolically four or five different ways. First, the Church is the Temple of God (an Old Testament reference). Then the Church’s boundaries are expanded slightly to become the Holy City (another Old Testament reference). Then it morphs into God’s Two Witnesses (a New Testament reference), who are also Two Olive Trees, and also Two Lampstands (an Old Testament Reference). Though four or five symbols are used, the primary symbol and reference for the Church here is the Two Witnesses. These witnesses are attacked, conquered, killed, and resurrected, then exalted. That is what happens. We can expect it. It should not take us by surprise.

I tried to explain the symbolism and point out some of the references in my previous post entitled The Two Witnesses. But that post is a bit wordy, convoluted, and tires the reader. So I’ll just ask you to provisionally consider the possibility that I’m not wrong.

If I’m not wrong, it means that you should be on your toes. If I’m not wrong, it means that you should be making the most of these days, as witnesses for Christ. If I’m not wrong, it means that you should be counting the cost, because it is very costly for our brothers and sisters in Christ in many locations.

Yes, I know: scare mongers have thought the same thing for years and years, centuries and centuries. “The End is Near. The End is Near. The End is Near.” Over and over. But no, it never really was near. So why should anyone listen if I cry wolf yet again?

Quite Possibly.

Well, to start, someday someone will be right. Someday, the end actually will be near. Jesus said so. Paul said so. The Book of Revelation says so. If you take the authority of the Bible seriously, then you have to be open to the possibility that someday the end will be near. It’s gonna happen.

Beyond that, I’ll borrow a very contemporary analogy. We are facing a global pandemic. When I say that, I want you to think both of the Coronavirus and the persecution of faithful Christians. Just like the spread of the Coronavirus (which was once just a seemingly far-off epidemic), so the persecution of devout, confessing Christians is increasing worldwide. Persecution has become a global plague, an international affair. While we might not yet be at the point where persecution is coordinated and executed by a single political entity (that is, a final Antichrist or Beast from the abyss), it could come more quickly than we expect. It could foreseeably happen in the near future. Just know that intense and coordinated political persecution of Christians is already happening in many countries. The more widespread and coordinated it becomes, the closer we are to the actual end. That’s how I read Revelation 11. Please consider the possibility that I might not be wrong.

The Two Witnesses

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

Perhaps in a moment of private candor or a slip of indiscretion, someone might admit that the following passage from the Book of Revelation comes across as, well, wildly bizarre:

Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told,

“Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months. And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”

These are the two olive trees and the two lamp-stands that stand before the Lord of the earth. And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed. They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying; and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire. And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, and their corpse will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified.

Revelation 11:1-8

How about you? What do you think of this passage, really? Does it come across as bizarre to you? Is it not wildly weird? If this were not from the Bible, might you be inclined to just write it off as a wild hallucination or as indecipherable gibberish?

As for me, I would readily agree with anyone who calls it bizarre. For many years, I was perplexed and bewildered by its weirdness. Simply said, I could not even begin to comprehend what is meant here.

Then I read some books. Reading books can save you a lot of time, years even. Sometimes other people have surprisingly good ideas and convincing explanations; And it’s well worth listening to what they have to say.

Humility listens. Humility listens to what others have to say.

Alternatively, some books are misleading and unhelpful. Sometimes other people have lousy ideas and convoluted explanations; and it’s a complete waste of your time to listen to what they have to say.

Discernment considers and weighs. Discernment considers competing ideas and weighs alternate explanations. Discernment recognizes what is worthwhile and what is not. Discernment is developed through discipline and frequent use, a lot like a muscle.

Of this passage, some writers say we should see the two witnesses as two individual people who will appear in the last days. These two individuals will be like Moses and Elijah, or will literally be Moses and Elijah. The two witnesses will walk the streets of literal Jerusalem in burlap bag attire, preaching and witnessing. If and when their adversaries attempt to harm them somehow, the two witnesses will literally consume said adversaries with literal fire from their mouths. Literally, literally, literally. This is intentionally a literal interpretation. And out of deference to Scripture and its authority, a lot of Christians are willing to accept this reading, literally.

It is a rather bizarre scenario, though, is it not?

This literal interpretation poses a lot of problems, though. To start and most significantly, no one actually takes this passage literally, all the way through. You cannot. It’s impossible.

The two witnesses are said to be olive trees and lamp-stands. So, these human witnesses are also literal olive trees? Are they also literal lamp-stands? No, they are not literal olive trees nor literal lamp-stands, most will admit. We know for certain that elsewhere in Revelation lamp-stands are not literal, but symbolic. According to Revelation 1:20 the lamp-stands there symbolize particular local churches, at least in that context. So is it not likely that the two lamp-stands in Revelation 11 also symbolize Christian congregations? Yes, consistency would say it is likely.

There are other problems with reading this passage literally. If these are two individual people, who are they? Why is it okay that they burn their opponents to a crisp? Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27)? Why is it different for these two witnesses? In response, the literalists might say that in the Old Testament it was okay for prophets to physically kill their opponents. So the New Testament rules don’t apply to these two re-incarnated, or re-introduced, or resurrected Old Testament-era witnesses.

But why would God revert back to Old Testament rules and ways at the very end? The answer, the literalists say, is that the Church is gone. It has already been vacated from the scene here in Revelation 11. Then the Church will no longer be God’s mean of witness. Instead, these two Old Testament-era prophets are God’s last ditch means of witness.

But hang on… I thought elsewhere the New Testament teaches that the Church is God’s final, ultimate, and best means of witness (Ephesians 3:10, among other passages). So why would God revert to something inferior at the very end, if the whole point is to effectively witness?

Another way to read this passage is as referential symbolism. In my estimation, it works far better to read it as referential symbolism. And theologically, it is much more coherent. This chapter is all about the Church. Revelation 11 speaks symbolically about the Church of Christ, the whole way through. It uses multiple symbols for the Church, all of which refer to other scriptural passages. And that’s a crucial interpretive insight, by the way. All of these symbols reference explanatory scriptural passages. If studied, the references help explain what is going on. Invariably, these references can be spotted as a few key words and or a key phrases.

Thus, the Temple of God at the beginning of the chapter is not the physical temple that once stood in Jerusalem, nor a latter-day rebuilt physical temple, but instead a spiritual building. The Temple is the Church of Christ (Ephesians 2:19-22). The Holy City is not earthly Jerusalem, but a heavenly city (Hebrews 12:22-23); that is, the Church of Christ.

The Two Witnesses are not two Old Testament prophets that somehow re-appear, but are the Church of Christ, which is the fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies.

The Church is spoken of as two witnesses because it is comprised of Jewish Christians and also Gentile Christians (Ephesians 2:11-22). These are two distinct ethnic/religious groups that merge to become one. Therefore the Church is spoken of as two witnesses.

The Two Olive Trees are the Spirit-powered Church. The Two Lamp-Stands are the Spirit-illumined Church (Zechariah 4:1-14). Follow the scripture references through. You will find that all of these symbols can and do apply to the Church of Christ.

Admittedly, there is some symbolism in this passage (like the consuming fire = the word of God) that I am not explaining here. That’s simply because I don’t want to go too long here. But if a symbolic and referential interpretation is embraced, chapter eleven and other passages in Revelation go from being bizarre, indecipherable, and theologically problematic to being comprehensible as a kind of parable. These are apocalyptic parables that are theologically consistent with the rest of the New Testament, and — surprise! — even practical.

A Biblical Plague?

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020

Is the Coronavirus a plague? Dictionary-dot-com asked that question a day or two ago. The staff writer, John Kelly, said no, technically it isn’t a plague. By medical definition a virus, even a pandemic virus, is not a plague. But there was more to the article. Unexpectedly, the writer went briefly theological. He includes this line in his article, “More figuratively, plague can mean ‘any widespread calamity or evil’ especially one considered a direct punishment of God.” By that looser, figurative definition the Coronavirus might indeed be a plague. Is it a widespread calamity? Check, definitely yes — widespread and spreading wider everyday. So stay put at home, everybody. Is the Coronavirus a direct punishment of God? Well, that’s a bit trickier to answer. From a practical standpoint, though, it is the question of God’s involvement that interests me. And it ought to interest other Christians, because it may well be the question in the back of our neighbors’ minds these days. 

The question could be restated this way: Is God somehow behind the Coronavirus? Is this God’s will? Is this God’s doing?

To start, these are tricky, mine-field questions without easy, simple answers. If you do answer with a simple, unequivocal “yes, this horrible virus is indeed a punishment from God” or “no, this virus is not a punishment from God” you open up all kinds ensuing theological problems. In short, God comes across either as a big meanie, or not actually, adequately in control of historical events. It’s a real dilemma, a Catch-22. If there is a God, is he mean or a wimp? Umm… let me think on that. Neither? Neither.

A number of Biblical passages speak to calamities like this. An entire book of the Bible is devoted to the question of calamity and unjust suffering. That book is called Job; and in the end, the eponymous protagonist is not given a particularly clear answer. Instead, Job receives an audience with God. Job is given a chance to voice his grievance directly to God, and given a response from God. When he responds, God does not explain why Job was beset with so many unfair calamities. God just asks Job a lot of questions about how much Job actually knows, and just how well Job would do running the Cosmos.           

With regard to the Book of Job, a crucial point to make is that Job was emphatically not being punished. The various calamities that befell him — including his physical ailments — were not punishments. They were instead trials. Job was not being punished by God, but was instead being tried. His loyalty to God and his faith in God were on trial. And Job came oh-so-close to failing the trial. At the heart of the matter was this question, posed by God to Job in 40:8, “Would you really challenge my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?”

But then again, we should not be too quick to dismiss out of hand the possibility that God can and will use calamities like the Coronavirus to judge or punish some people. Sometimes God does punish sin through calamity. Yes, God does so even now, even after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. But even if God does sometimes punish people through calamity, that does not make God a big meanie.         

Is my assertion true? Does God really behave like he did way back in the Old Testament? Is he still a God who strikes sinful people with plague, disease, and catastrophe? Yes, he is. But he takes no pleasure in it. In Matthew 23:37-39, Jesus laments in grief over the city of Jerusalem, for many of its inhabitants had rejected him and his ministry, and were soon to demand his crucifixion. The result of their rejection of him would be the eventual destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. The destruction of Jerusalem would be God’s doing, but not God’s desire. 

The Coronavirus, then, could be used by God both ways. It could be used as a means to try people and to judge people. Indeed, it seems very likely that God will be consistent to the scriptural script and use it both ways. But we need to avoid behaving like Job’s over-confident frenemies. We cannot know when calamity is intended as trial and when it is intended as punishment. Instead, in the midst of this unprecedented season, the Church, as the Body of Christ, has the clear call to love our neighbors, proclaim the Gospel, and intercede for those who suffer.   

Inkblot Interpretations

Wednesday, April 8th, 2020

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

Revelation 1:3

For the entirety of 2019, I made it my aim to seriously study and, if possible, understand the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. I mean, I studiously and scrupulously studied the Book of Revelation, verse by verse, in great depth and breadth. My intent was to actually understand the book, on the perhaps dubious assumption that it actually can be understood. More than just understand it, I hoped to make it understandable to others. If possible, I even wanted to make a comprehensive slideshow commentary of the book, so as to explain it to a class of eager, on the edge-of-their-seat students. 

For me to even say that I was so intent on grasping the Book of Revelation may worry you, or at very least, may trigger your inner yellow “caution-caution-caution, this guy is likely wacky” strobe light. That I do realize. And candidly, I don’t blame you — at least, not much. If someone else were to approach me and announce that they were intent on very seriously studying and deciphering the meaning of the Apocalypse, I would be inclined to have the same reaction. Who, in their right mind, would even want to do such a thing? 

Don’t you realize that people will perceive you as eccentric at best, and crazy at worst?   

But, regardless the probable suspicion and stigma, I did do it. I set out to seriously study the Book of Revelation. I did it very quietly and inconspicuously, at first. And I tried to do it in the most respectable manner possible. Besides reading, re-reading, re-re-reading, and listening to audio recordings of the Book of Revelation itself, I also borrowed and bought books about it. I read lots of books — old books, obscure books, wacky books, new books, distinguished books, highly respectable books, and how-did-this-ever-get-published books. I made a point of gathering them all, and reading most of them. And I’d be happy to show them to you, should you swing by and express any interest.    

But if that doesn’t impress you much, I would have to nod and agree. A big collection of books does not guarantee that the collector has come to correct conclusions. You would be right about that. If you have the means, it is relatively easy to collect books. It can be impressive. But it doesn’t mean you’ve done any better than all the other would-be, wanna-be expositors of the Book of Revelation. True enough.

But in reading books about the Book of Revelation, what I’ve discovered is that there are a number of scholars who have actually have made some genuine progress in understanding it. They really have. I know that what I just said is merely an assertion. The assertion itself is not convincing. But I will assert it, nonetheless. There are some scholars who really have made headway in making sense of the Apocalypse. If you were to take the time to listen to them, you would come to same conclusion, I’m willing to bet. But you need to be willing to listen. 

What I find, though, is that most people are not willing to listen. They just give you a half smile and walk away. I don’t blame them — at least, not much. 

Messiah Died and Rose Again

Sunday, April 12th, 2020

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.

The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5

Jesus died; but he did not stay dead. He died and rose again.

These are the two essential, indisputable tenets of Christian dogma and confession. Neither may be altered or nuanced — not even a little bit. They are non-negotiable, not mythological, and not relative. They are absolute fact, actual, historical yes-it-happened facts no. 1 and 2. 

So, one must deliberate and decide: Are these claims true? Do you believe these tenets or not? Ultimately, there is no fence-sitting, no middle ground. A choice must be made. You must vote. You either believe and confess these tenets as truths, or you are not actually a Christian. No matter what you say, nor how nice you are. What, then, will you choose?

If the previous statement comes across as overly rigid, too narrow, pushy, or somehow stingy, consider what is at stake. The core of Christian doctrine and the basis of Christian hope hinge on what happened within history, within a very narrow window of time. The hinge of history is played out in the person and the terminal life events of Jesus, the Nazarene, in just three days. We claim that he died a particularly painful, gruesome, and brutal death, but shortly thereafter rose again to life, life eternal. 

There’s very little historical dispute about whether Jesus of Nazareth was actually executed by crucifixion. Most historians will concede that the preponderance of evidence shows this was true. So yes, his death really happened. His crucifixion happened. But in and of itself, as one execution among others, his crucifixion carries little historical significance. It’s just another sad event, another tragedy.

What matters is what happened afterward.

His followers made a big commotion. They made an astonishing claim and, with it, a very big commotion. They went around saying that Jesus of Nazareth did not stay dead. It was a fantastic claim, but not necessarily the first time fervent followers had said something similar. His followers were not just pointing to an ethereal myth. They argued with specificity. They named eyewitnesses. They pointed to exact times and precise places. It actually, historically happened, they said. It was more than just another vacuous myth. 

Jesus died in a particular place, but did not stay dead. Instead, he rose at a specific time and place. What matters is that he did not stay dead. And, a group of witnesses relentlessly and stubbornly verified their claim with times, locations, and names.      

In 1 Corinthians 15:17 the Apostle Paul — who was not initially a follower of Jesus, nor even a believer in Jesus — says that if Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile. Notice that he calls Jesus “Christ” here. That name change is significant. Jesus is his historical name (kind of, it is actually closer to Joshua, but that’s an explanation for another day). Christ is a scriptural title. By referring to Jesus as Christ or Messiah, Paul is using scriptural shorthand to interpret who Jesus was and what he did. That Jesus is the Messiah explains not only the end of Jesus’ life on earth, but the entirety of his life and mission. If you look back to the prophecies of the Old Testament, the explanation of Jesus is there, waiting to be discovered. His life was foretold centuries in advance. His mission was explained in detail, long before he was even born.

In summary, then, as a historian, someone may say that Jesus of Nazareth died a tragic early death, and his followers then went around claiming that he rose again. As a Christian, someone must say that it was the Christ who died, but shortly thereafter rose again, invincible over sin, satan, and death.   

He arose a victor from the dark domain, and he lives forever, with his saints to reign. 

He arose, He arose, Alleluia, Christ arose.