Identification, Please

Wednesday, July 8th, 2020

Identification, Please – Audio Version

At least three other people have shared my first and last name. To my knowledge, one other person has shared my first, middle, and last name. His name was identical to mine. He died within the last fifteen years. He was a resident of the same state, and lived not far away. The fact that he has died and that I am still alive could potentially bring me trouble. In fact, it may have already caused some trouble, as I recently had to take documentary pains to establish my identity with state officials. On that occasion, I had to submit official paperwork to prove that I am who I claim to be, lest perhaps I be an imposter, attempting to steal a dead man’s identity. 

Although I have not needed to have this conversation face-to-face yet, I imagine the day may come when I need to explain in person that I share my name with a deceased person. I may need to say something like this: “Yes, I am actually who I claim to be. Yes, that’s my legal name and has always been my name. Yes, I’m still alive, as you can see. The other guy who happened to have my same name is no longer alive. He’s dead. He died some time ago. He was not me. Same name, but different guy. He’s dead; I’m not. And I have the means to prove that I am who I say I am.”  

The reason I say all this is because people and even whole communities share the same name in the Bible. Consequently, the reader has to keep straight who is who. It isn’t always easy to do. There are two or three Zechariahs in the Bible. There are two or three Joshuas. There are two or three Marys. There are two Sauls. There are two James. There are two or three Johns. 

Usually, the individuals who share the same name are helpfully separated by big stretches of time, which makes it easier to keep things straight. The two Sauls are separated by well over a thousand years; and the latter Saul did everyone a favor by assuming the Græco-Roman name Paul, thereby erasing any confusion. But that is not always true. The three Marys are pretty close to each other in time and place. There is Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, and Mary Magdalene. All of the Marys were closely associated with Jesus. If we had photos of the three Marys, it would be easier. But alas, no photos back then. Someday in glory, it will be easier. 

And then there are cities. Caesarea serves as a prime example. There is more than one Caesarea mentioned in the New Testament. One sits right on the Mediterranean Sea. It is therefore known as Caesarea Maritime. An extremely important New Testament event happened there (see Acts 10, where the Holy Spirit dramatically fell upon a believing Gentile household). The other Caesarea does not sit on the sea, but near a spring in the northern highlands of Israel. It is known as Caesarea Philippi. A crucially important New Testament conversation happened there (see Matthew 16:13-20, where Jesus candidly affirms Peter’s claim that Jesus is the promised Messiah). If you’ve traveled to Israel (which I have not, yet) and visited either or both locations, the two Caesareas should be easy enough to keep separate, since one is a beach-front Mediterranean resort; and the other is definitely not. But if you’re just reading through the gospel accounts, the two cities are not easy to distinguish.

Making matters even more complicated, sometimes one biblical name is deliberately used two ways. Israel is both an individual man (also known as Jacob) and a nation. Ephraim is both an individual man and a region. Judah is both an individual man and a nation. Context usually makes it clear whether you’re reading about a person or an entire nation. But not always. Sometimes biblical writers even deliberately play on the eponymous ambiguity. When such situations present themselves, biblical readers may need to slow down, re-read, cross-reference, and even take some notes. Again, context usually clarifies matters, eventually.  

Now, we must turn our faces toward Jerusalem. When they appear in prophecy, the names Zion and Jerusalem are effectively synonymous; and they are conceptually hard to keep straight. You may want to repeat that statement aloud about fifteen times, because it is an extremely important point to grasp. 

In prophetic literature, the names Zion and Jerusalem are conceptually hard to keep straight.

In prophetic literature, the names Zion and Jerusalem are conceptually hard to keep straight.

In prophetic literature, the names Zion and Jerusalem are conceptually hard to keep straight.

Keep going…

Just be very aware that should you encounter the names Zion or Jerusalem in a prophecy you may be on slippery interpretive ground. In the Bible, Jerusalem is usually what you might guess — that is, a geographically-defined, map-able ancient city. But not always. Sometimes in prophecy, Jerusalem is used as a metaphorical reference or a spiritual designation. Therefore, as a prophecy reader you have to ask yourself exactly which particular Jerusalem or Zion you have before you. Here are some of your interpretive options:

  1. This is indeed and simply Jerusalem/Zion, the literal geographical city.
  2. In this passage, Jerusalem means the populace of the literal, geographical city.
  3. In this passage, Jerusalem stands for something larger, such as the entire Jewish nation.
  4. In this passage, Jerusalem signifies the elect people of God, including Jews and Gentiles.
  5. In this passage, Jerusalem designates not an earthly city, but a heavenly or spiritual city.                  

Since these various Jerusalems play such an important and recurring part in both Old Testament and New Testament prophecies, careful Bible readers cannot escape these interpretive decisions. Which Jerusalem or Zion is this? You have to ask the question, time and again.

When I read the Bible and encounter the name Jerusalem or Zion, I generally start by asking myself if the passage I am reading is prophecy. If the answer is no, then it is almost always safe to assume that it is the literal geographical city or the populace thereof. But if the answer is yes, this is indeed a prophecy, then it matters greatly if I am reading from the Old Testament or New Testament. In general, the Old Testament thinks of Jerusalem in either literal, immediate, and usually negative terms or in futuristic, utopian, and positive terms. In the Old Testament, there is the corrupt, sinful Jerusalem that existed back then; and there is the purified, holy Jerusalem that is to come. But to think of Jerusalem as the entire elect people of God, including even redeemed Gentiles from outside Israel — well, wait… what? That idea is mostly foreign to the Old Testament and a rather surprising mystery, a mystery that is only hinted at here and there, a tiny bit.

In New Testament prophecy, though, that once seemingly foreign mystery comes to forefront. In the New Testament, Jerusalem/Zion is very often a symbol of the entire elect people of God, including Jewish believers and redeemed Gentiles. More simply stated, in much of New Testament prophecy, Jerusalem is one and the same as the Church Universal and Everlasting throughout all of human history. You can repeat that statement to yourself a bunch of times, too.

An extremely important thing to keep in mind is that in the end all the various Jerusalems will merge into just one holy community anyway. The Church Universal and Everlasting in heaven will someday descend down to Earth and be established here as a permanent city, both spiritually and literally/physically. That is because what is now distinct spiritually and literally will someday be fused together. In the end, there will be just one Jerusalem where God will dwell with the redeemed.

For further reading, I would suggest Isaiah 62 and Revelation 21.