Christian Chameleons

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Christian Chameleons – Audio Version

A few weeks ago a good friend of mine requested that I write a post about a section from Saint Peter’s Second Epistle. To be precise, he asked that I comment on 2 Peter 3:9, which says that God is not slow to fulfill His promise (to come again (in Christ)), as some measure slowness, but is instead patient towards us because He does not wish for anyone to perish, but rather that all should attain repentance. That is what the verse says in explanation for why Jesus has not yet returned.

Slowness

My friend wants me to talk about that verse with a view to The Eschatological End possibly drawing near now, and also with a view to the tandem doctrines of election and predestination. This, of course is a breeze. It is a quick and easy assignment. Easy, easy, easy, super easy. And lest anyone misunderstand, that would be sarcasm from this blogger. No, and to the contrary, I do not deem this a quick and easy assignment at all. But because I assured my friend that I would give it go, here I go.

Okay, mi amigo, I trust you will recognize my reference to you here. Whether you have any interest in reptilian creatures or not, I am going to use a unique type of lizard to illustrate what I consider to be an important emphasis in Second Peter — that unique type of lizard being the chameleon.     

You might incorrectly guess that I will talk about how chameleons have the ability to change their color. That is a very interesting chameleon characteristic, to be sure. And if I thought about it long enough, I might be able to incorporate that curious chameleon characteristic into this post. But actually, that is not the characteristic I have in mind. Instead, I want to talk about how chameleons can see this way and that way at the very same time. My interest here is the Chameleon’s unusual ability to disconnect and reconnect their binocular vision.    

A chameleon has both monocular and binocular vision. A chameleon can focus each of its two eyes in two different, separate directions at once, or focus both of its two eyes together in just one direction. If human beings had that trait, I think it would be quite disorienting, as it would likely leave us uncertain as to what others are actually focusing on. “Look here at me, young lizard! Look just at me with both of your eyes focused together! Give me your undivided binocular vision!”

With regard to the future, I want to suggest that Christians ought to have (or at least try to have) chameleon-like divided vision, or perspective. Christians ought to keep one eye on the possible soon return of Christ, and another eye on the long-term future. We ought to live and work as if both are likely to occur, and yet simultaneously realize that only one outcome can possibly occur.

This is the bi-focal perspective that Peter’s Second Epistle presents. Since Jesus will come back like a thief (see the reference in 3:10), Jesus could come back anytime, including today. Yet we need to realize that Jesus might also not come back for a very long time (which is exactly Peter’s point about patience and waiting in verses 8-9). From what I can piece together, Old Saint Peter felt the need to write what he did because the watchful Christians of his day were beginning to feel let down and were increasingly disappointed. Initially, they were eagerly and sincerely expectant. Initially, they really, truly expected to see Jesus return, and at any time. They woke in the morning wondering if today would be the day that Jesus returned. But over time, and as more and more days passed, that eager expectation went unfulfilled over and over, and thus began to fade into uncertainty, disillusionment, and apathy.

Old Saint Peter felt the need to address why it was that Jesus had not returned.

It’s because God is demonstrating patience. God wants to save more people. That’s why. But don’t give up hope that Jesus will return, because God will eventually keep his promise. 

Nonetheless, does that inspire any confidence now? Does that well-intended, reassuring promise not ring hollow after nearly two thousand years? Given that the expectations of many generations over nearly twenty centuries have gone unfulfilled, does it not seem like an empty promise now? If the early Christians were losing their patience after less than one hundred years of waiting, is it any surprise if Christians today have lost confidence after nearly two thousand years of waiting?

We Christians give lip service to the return of Christ as a parroted credal statement. But from what I can see, most of us do not truly live like we expect Christ to return anytime soon. Indeed, if someone actually does talk and act like he or she expects Christ to return soon, we worry that person is slightly less than grounded in reality. But that has begun to change, I suppose, given the turbulence of current events.

All that said, the early Christians actually had very good reason to believe that Jesus would return in their day. And for exactly the same reason, we have even more reason to believe that Jesus will return in our day. And that reason is found clearly stated in Scripture. It has everything to do with what Jesus once said could be expected near the time of his return.

Please do not miss or overlook what I said in the last paragraph. And recognize that Jesus seemed to point in two directions at once. He seemed to point to the events of the first century as a reliable indicator of his imminent return. Thus the Christians back then correctly inferred that the events they witnessed (and lived through) should be interpreted as indicative of Jesus’ Second Coming. But to their disappointment, Jesus did not return back then — which inevitably confused and concerned the early Christians immensely, and understandably so. Was Jesus reliable? Was Jesus wrong? Was Jesus mistaken? Did Jesus mislead them? 

Peter wrote his Second Epistle to address that growing sense of disappointment. Peter assured them that no, Jesus was not wrong. God’s promise was still good. It was still valid. Jesus would return. He has not returned yet because God is patient and desires salvation for even more people. But Peter’s reassurance did not explain exactly why Jesus seemed to have pointed to their own day and time. The answer to that seeming contradiction would come in another book of the Bible, the last book.

Indeed, one of the primary reasons the Book of Revelation was written was to explain the confusion of the two times. The reason why Jesus seemed to point in two directions at once is because he did. Jesus did just that. The time of Christ’s return will resemble the time immediately following his death, resurrection, and ascension. The End of the Church Age will mirror the very beginning of the Church Age. To repeat: The End of the Church Age will mirror the very beginning of the Church Age. If you grasp that, you will be able to discern the times and seasons with much more clarity. One of the primary reasons Revelation was written was to interpret, explain, and expound upon the delay of Christ’s return. And that is a crucial insight, one you should not forget.

Revelation reveals that the desecration and demolition of the physical Temple in Jerusalem in the first century will be paralleled and mirrored by the desecration and apparent demolition of the Spiritual Temple in and as the New Jerusalem (that is, the Church) in the final days immediately before Christ’s return. The varied symbolism of Revelation reveals that. The desecration of the Temple is how and why Jesus pointed in two historical directions to talk about his return. From the vantage point of when he spoke (in his eschatological comments found in Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21) Jesus pointed to the generation that was there then, and simultaneously pointed to a far future generation. Both the immediate generation and a future generation needed to understand that the desecration of God’s Holy Temple would be for them the sure indication that the End of the Age had come. From my reading of the eschatological material in the New Testament, I contend that Jesus meant to parallel the physical assault upon the Temple in 70 A.D. with a similar spiritual assault against the Church immediately before his Second Coming. The Book of Revelation gives more prophetic details about the period of time immediately before and after that final spiritual assault upon God’s Holy Temple, which could well be the Church.

But what about the question of election and predestination? Does God really desire the salvation of everyone, as the Apostle Peter appears to say in 2 Peter 3:9? If God really does wish to see everyone saved, how are we supposed to understand the tandem doctrines of predestination and election? According to the Great Reformer John Calvin, the Doctrine of Predestination implies that God has pre-determined to save some, but not others. That is the correct way to understand Predestination; right? In responding to this here, I will be somewhat loose and sloppy. From what I can tell from Scripture as a whole, predestination does not apply primarily to individual persons (as Calvin taught) but instead functions more of a corporate category. Predestination pertains especially to the corporate Body of Christ — to those who are “in Christ.” Those who have joined themselves in faith to Christ are thereby predestined for salvation and for glory. Said slightly differently, those who will respond to God’s initiative and will incorporate themselves into the Body of Christ (the Church) by faith are thereby predestined for salvation and for glorification. As for Election, I would say that The Elect are those who remain faithful. The Elect are those individual Christians who maintain their confession and keep the Faith. The Elect are those who remain steadfast and faithful, those who finish the course that God sets before them. Again, for the sake of brevity, this overview is somewhat loose and sloppy. But nonetheless, it is an accurate synopsis of how I see these two tandem doctrines. And yes, I probably ought to go into more detail about this topic in a future post or in future posts. 

For now though, back to Chameleons. Like Chameleons, Christians need to keep a ready, watching eye on events that might indicate the nearness of Christ’s return. And I wholeheartedly believe that we are increasingly witnessing events indicative of Christ’s near return. At the same time, we need to keep an eye on scriptural passages like 2 Peter 3, which caution us to take the long view, and call for determined perseverance. Therefore, we must watch like he might return while we are yet alive. And at the same time, we must labor like his return will occur long after we have each individually died.  

Crass Literalism

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Crass Literalism – Audio Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh huh. 

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

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

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

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