Safe Assumptions

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Safe Assumptions – Audio Version
“I am the First and the Last.”

By its very nature, the Book of Revelation is cryptic. Like a secret code, it is meant to be progressively figured out. Like a jig-saw puzzle, it is meant to be pieced together until it slowly coalesces into an increasingly coherent whole. That should be somewhat self-evident.

Here are some safe assumptions about the Book of Revelation:

Since the Author has a vested interest in the integrity of the text, and since the Author has the ability to safeguard its integrity, you can assume that every single received word of the text is actually meant to be there. Besides conjunctions (perhaps), no word is merely incidental or superfluous. And even some of the conjunctions can be very important. Every word in the Book of Revelation counts. Some count considerably more than others; but every word does indeed count. 

“And from the seven spirits which are before his throne…”

You can assume that identifiable word groupings — phrases — are even more important and meaningful than single words alone. This is true even of very short phrases, such as those comprised of two words. For example, if a noun has an adjective, that adjective definitely matters and must not be overlooked. Furthermore, the phrase must be held together when an effort is made to decode the meaning of a particular passage. As pedantic as it may sound, this is a highly and hugely important exegetical insight. Every phrase counts. And phrases count even more than single words.

You can assume that the symbolism within the Book of Revelation will be used consistently throughout. Know this, because it is important. Symbolism, once established, remains consistent throughout the text. It means the same thing whenever it reappears. However, that is not to say that a symbol cannot be developed through the narrative. Individual symbols can be developed, and sometimes are. Sometimes symbols are developed so that they take on additional layers of meaning. But each established symbol has a single consistent meaning at its core. If this were not so, the Book of Revelation would be completely indecipherable.     

Per Revelation 1:20, Lamp-stands or Menorahs symbolize Churches.

You can assume that the narrator will drop interpretive hints throughout the text. Indeed, he does just that. He drops hints and even gives straightforward interpretations. That is because the Author wants the text to be deciphered, even if it takes centuries for the Church to complete the task. The Author would not have revealed the Revelation if He did not want it deciphered.

You can assume that the text, when interpreted correctly, will communicate a coherent, necessary, and edifying message. Not only that, you can assume that the message will not contradict the rest of Scripture. That is because the ultimate Author of the Book of Revelation is the same ultimate Author of the rest of the Bible. If not, the Book of Revelation is a spurious, misleading prophecy, and thus does not belong in the Bible. But the Church has long since accepted the Book of Revelation as legitimate and canonical, and with good reason.

You can assume that the rest of Scripture will help a diligent interpreter unlock the symbolism in Revelation. I cannot overstate this. I cannot overstate this. Can I overstate this? No, I cannot. I cannot overstate this. Please do understand how important this point is. It is crucial. Catching and pondering the many, many scriptural references and allusions is vital, vital, vital. It will unlock the Book of Revelation like nothing else. I cannot overstate this. Missing this is precisely how most interpreters go wrong.

You can assume that knowledge of its immediate geographical and historical context will help unlock the meaning of the Book of Revelation. I have a degree in history and have read much about the historical situation in which Revelation was written. It really, really helps make sense of the text. I would go so far as to say that you cannot effectively understand the Book of Revelation without studying its original historical context. Knowledge of the Roman Empire will help you.

You can assume that typology will help an interpreter make sense of the Book of Revelation. History does not repeat itself; but it does rhyme. Typology takes that insight seriously. What happened way back when will happen again — not exactly, but similarly. 

You can assume that Almighty God is truly behind the Book of Revelation and that Jesus Christ really did appear to the narrator, John the Elder. It is prophecy, after all. And only God can preordain future events. Oh yeah — you can assume it foretells future events, even future events from our vantage point in history.

Those, then, are what I consider safe assumptions for someone who would interpret this particular text.

The Château Apocalypto

The Château Apocalypto and its Four Grand Pavilions

The Château Apocalypto, Audio Version

Welcome to the Château Apocalypto, where time and space stand as no impediment whatsoever to your reliable and knowledgable extraterrestrial guide.

At the Château Apocalypto, your extraterrestrial guide will take you on a breathtaking tour of not just one, not just two, not three, but all four of our Grand Pavilions, each pavilion in its proper sevenfold sequence, one pavilion after the other. 

In the first Grand Pavilion of the Château Apocalypto our reliable and knowledgable guide will spirit you and your fellow travelers back in time nineteen centuries, where you go from city to city a total of seven times, in a diagnostic tour of the Seven Luminary Churches of Græco-Roman Asia. During your tour, you will be asked this most challenging and introspective question, “Of these seven luminary churches, which is most like me and my own community?”

In the second Grand Pavilion of the Château Apocalypto our guide will deliver you and yours straight up to highest Heaven — narratively, that is — where you will witness the indescribable beauty of the Throne of the Almighty and there behold a most worthy sacrificial Lamb, a Lamb who progressively breaks open the shocking and somewhat disturbing seven seals to an entirely important, yea, wholly determinative document — a document that unfurls before you in the telling form of an Ancient Scroll. Reassuringly for you, the sacrificial Lamb asserts his hard-won authority over the seven somewhat disturbing seals of the scroll and its exacting contents.    

Worthy is the Lamb.

In the third Grand Pavilion of the Château Apocalypto our guide will direct you and the rest our guests to gaze downward from your heavenly vantage point upon the earth below. You will be given Heaven’s own perspective on seven of the most significant events in all of human history, each of which is heralded with a Conqueror’s trumpet blast. These seven chronological events unfold during the Church’s wilderness sojourn, beginning shortly after the ascension of the Messiah and ending with his second advent or Parousia. This advent coincides with the resurrection and immediate ascension of the Church herself, an event otherwise known as the Rapture. As it so happens, you are currently living during the midst of the sixth, penultimate trumpet event — an exciting time indeed to follow the Lamb and participate in His conquests!     

Between the third and the fourth pavilions, your guide will prepare you for a difficult and troublesome period. He will personally escort you and your fellow travelers through that difficult and dark season ahead. Your guide will give you an up-close-and-personal preview of the sinister characters and the intense hardships that the followers of the Lamb must endure during the period immediately preceding and immediately following the seventh and final trumpet blast. Although this is an extremely difficult transitional period, it is necessary to endure it, if you desire to make it safely to the Coming Kingdom. And please believe us, you definitely do want to have a place in that Kingdom! Its rewards far outweigh any temporary hardship someone may have to endure.

In the fourth and final Grand Pavilion of the Château Apocalypto, you and your fellow guests will again watch from the safety of Heaven as the deceptive Beast from the Abyss and the pitiful Inhabitants of the Earth are subjected sequentially to the seven bowls of the wrath of God. This is every bit as terrifying a spectacle as it sounds. And yet it is God’s way of demonstrating his righteousness to the Inhabitants of the Earth and of vindicating his faithful followers.

However, the fourth and final Grand Pavilion is not our travelers’ final destination in the Château Apocalypto. Beyond the final Grand Pavilion, the Kingdom of God and a great Eternal City await you, where the Lamb will rule with his saints, and the Almighty will forever reside with those who have faithfully followed God.     

Dual Recipients

Audio Version


What do a distasteful beverage, a clueless customer, an immature child, an impolite host, a triumphant conqueror, and an attentive listener all have in common? Not much, except that through John, Jesus used all six of these illustrations in quick succession to depict, correct, and inspire the Church of Laodicea and its Messenger (see Revelation 3:14-22).

The Messenger of the Church of Laodicea is like a distasteful, disgusting beverage, neither hot nor cold, which (or who) is at real risk of being spat out. 

The Messenger of the Church of Laodicea is like a completely clueless customer who must first be informed of his or her embarrassing lack of discernment, and then be advised as to what he or she actually needs to acquire. 

The Messenger of the Church of Laodicea is like an immature (and perhaps naughty) child in need of firm correction and discipline from a loving disciplinarian. 

The Messenger of the Church of Laodicea is like an impolite host who leaves an invited (and very important!) dinner guest waiting and knocking at the front door. 

The Messenger of the Church of Laodicea might eventually be a triumphant conqueror.

And anyone hearing Jesus’ message to the Church of Laodicea and its Messenger should be an especially attentive listener. 

Suffice to say, to deliver his message to the Church of Laodicea and its Messenger, Jesus used a lot of short sermon illustrations. 

But I ought to make an aside. Why do I insist on being so wordy? Why do I keep referring to the Messenger of the Church of Laodicea, when I could cut out the extra three words and simplify it to just the Church of Laodicea? Good question. And the answer is this: I want my readers and listeners to catch what gets otherwise omitted, almost every time, in English-speaking settings. Grammatically, it is very clear that Jesus is not addressing the whole congregation of believers at Laodicea — at least, not immediately and directly. Jesus is not speaking directly to the Laodicean church en masse. He is instead speaking first and foremost to someone who is the individual messenger of the church.

But why does that matter?

It matters because the grammatical onus of the passage is clearly on an individual, on the individual messenger, who must personally make necessary personal and corporate changes. This messenger is probably otherwise and more commonly known as the pastor. When the messenger or pastor makes necessary personal and corporate changes, the whole congregation will be better as a result. Thus Jesus’ message indicates that good church leadership matters, and that church leaders sometimes need words of correction — even public correction.

Alternatively and admittedly, the messenger could possibly be understood as a collective singular. While this is a more abstract concept, it basically means that the collective church is personified as a single individual. Maybe this is how we are supposed to understand it. Maybe. But it begs the crucial question of why the singular-collective ambiguity would be used there in the text at all. Jesus could just have spoken to the churches using plural pronouns and plural grammatical forms in general. It is easy to do and would have been much simpler, if indeed the whole church is intended. But no, singular pronouns and singular forms are always used, as if Jesus is speaking to an individual person (which I contend, he is). Therefore, the consistent use of singular grammatical forms points to an intended individual recipient, who is best understood as the leader of the church. (Yes, I do wonder why this grammatical point is so hard for English speakers to accept. It is there for the finding.)

But then again, there is an even better and more nuanced way to understand Jesus’ message to the Messenger at the Church of Laodicea. We can and should read it as applicable to both the individual messenger and the entire congregation. Jesus’ message is meant for both an individual leader and for an entire congregation. Yes, Jesus is speaking most immediately and primarily to an individual messenger, who holds a position of ecclesiastical leadership. But Jesus is also speaking indirectly to the whole congregation. Since the message is supposed to be read publicly, the congregation is meant to overhear it, and take it to heart as far as it applies. If the shoe fits… the listeners should each wear it together. Thus the onus is not entirely on the individual leader. It is also on the congregation, personally and corporately. When we hear and read the Message to the Church of Laodicea in particular, and the Messages to the Seven Churches in general, we do well to keep this intended duality in mind. With each of Jesus’ messages, two recipients per church are intended: the individual leader and the whole congregation. We should strive to keep each of the recipients in view, without forfeiting one for the other.  

Perhaps another time we can look at Jesus’ interesting illustration of an impolite host, who leaves an important dinner guest (that is, Jesus himself) waiting and knocking at the front door.

Coming or Arriving?

Friday, July 24th, 2020

Coming or Arriving? Audio Version


Just like English, Biblical Greek has one word that means to come, and another that means to arrive. For the Greek geeks, the words are respectively ἔρχομαι and ἥκω. But although the two words are technically different, they are commonly and casually used interchangeably. Such overlap usage is both understandable and forgivable, because we do exactly the same thing in English. Yes, we do. 

For example, if she were running later than expected, I might text my wife and ask her, “When will you come home?” But if I were instead to ask, “When will you arrive home?” I would mean essentially the same thing. In such a scenario, I am basically using the words come and arrive interchangeably. No big deal; most everyone talks this way.   

But if you think about it, there is technically an itty-bitty difference between the two words. To come home implies and involves the movement, transit, or (in her case) the drive from one starting point to another destination. Alternatively, to arrive specifies not the transit, but the exact ending point of the transit. Someone can only arrive after they have come.  

Therefore, if my wife wanted to mess with me, she could reply to my inquisitive text with something like, “I will come home in about 15 minutes. But I will not arrive home for about 30 minutes.” In which case, I would smirk, because I would realize that she is being unnecessarily technical, when I just wanted a general answer. Plus, she knows me well enough (and English well enough) to correctly interpret my text. I just wanted to know what time she’ll get home. 

But so what? I just spent four paragraphs discussing the difference between the words come and arrive. Why bother discussing the technicalities of common words?    

Well, I bother because Jesus is coming quickly, but no one knows exactly when he will finally arrive. He is coming quickly but arriving slowly. Let me nuance that statement now. On occasion and all along, Jesus has been coming quickly since he ascended to heaven; but he has yet to finally and ultimately arrive. 

Huh?

Jesus has not arrived yet, in an ultimate second-coming sense. That said, I should affirm that he could arrive very soon. Indeed and frankly, I expect his ultimate arrival, his Parousia, in the near future. I even hope to skip the grave and live to see it.   

Alternatively, Jesus has come and continues to come (quickly) through the years. In some manner or another Jesus has already come, even numerous times. For example, Jesus came when he appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus. And Jesus came when he appeared to John on the Island of Patmos. 

Someone will likely protest, “But those appearances do not count! Jesus did not actually come to Earth. Those were only visions or voices.”

Okay, I will grant you that Paul and John may not necessarily have had a physical encounter with Jesus, though in the case of John, that is entirely debatable. But they both really, truly encountered him. Or rather, Jesus encountered each of them. In that way, Jesus did actually come. They had a genuine encounter with the risen, ascended Jesus. And each of them were alive and breathing on Planet Earth when it occurred. Since he appeared to them, it is fair to say that Jesus did come for them.

Please notice that I am making a distinction here between coming and arriving. I am not saying that Jesus has arrived. I am just saying that he briefly came. In the Book of Revelation, this is an important distinction that will help a reader make sense of a lot of Jesus’ statements.        

I would like to suggest that we should recognize the paradoxical validity of both the distinction and the overlap. To arrive and to come can effectively mean the same thing. But they do not always mean the same thing. In the Book of Revelation when we hear Jesus saying, “I am coming quickly,” we should ask ourselves whether he is possibly pointing to brief provisional historical appearances or to his ultimate eschatological arrival. Consider that paradoxical possibility as you read through the Book of Revelation. It might help you make sense of a number of passages. It does make sense of things for me.   

Temple Visitors

Saturday, May 30th, 2020

The Dome of the Rock and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem
Temple Visitors, Audio Version

Temple. This blog post considers the theme of temple and how it relates to the Book of Revelation.

In a previous post, I explained how I was once an angel in Los Angeles. In the original Greek, from which English eventually inherited the word, angelos really just means messenger. A messenger can be a glorious heavenly being or an unimpressive, ordinary earthling. For a while, I worked for a successful county-line law firm as a courier, driving around the greater LA area. As a courier, I had navigate my way through traffic to various court houses and hand-deliver important legal documents and time-sensitive messages. Thus, in my mind, I officially qualify. I can claim that I was briefly an angelos in Los Angeles. 

A few years after I drove and delivered messages for the law firm, someone from my school asked if I would be willing to drive a van for them. A delegation of English-speaking scholars from across the Muslim world was about to come to Los Angeles. Was I available and would I be willing to drive them around? Yes, I was available. And yes, I would drive them around LA.

The year was 2002. September 11th was a very recent and raw memory. The United States State Department, in cooperation with some institutions of higher learning, had arranged for a delegation of English-speaking Muslim scholars to tour the United States. I believe that the US State Department and the American schools hoped that the scholars would return to their respective countries and speak positively about what they saw and experienced in the USA. The tour was an attempt at academic and religious diplomacy. Good PR was surely the goal. I’m not sure if that’s what happened, though. Still, it was eye-opening to be their driver.  

One of the destinations to which I drove the scholars was Wilshire Boulevard Temple. As the name indicates, Wilshire Boulevard Temple is located on Wilshire Boulevard, a road that runs right through downtown Los Angeles. You may have heard of it before. The Temple, which I will abbreviate from hence as WBT, is an impressive historic building that belongs to a Jewish congregation. From an artistic standpoint, WBT visually wows a visitor. It has a big central rotunda, much like most capitol state buildings. If you stand underneath the rotunda and look upward, as I did, golden gilded Hebrew letters and words go around the inside of it. To my surprise and delight, I could read it. I knew exactly what it said. It was the Shema. 

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” That would be Deuteronomy 6:4; and that is the Shema.

For me, it was an electrifying moment. Not long before that, I had taken Hebrew. I stood there, looking upward, and actually read what it said, with ease. And I was struck by the weight and the serendipity of that moment. Representatives of the three religions that lay claim to the monotheism proclaimed in that verse were all gathered there. However, we were hardly in harmony. For one thing, we disagreed about the identity of the temple.

Temple Mount in temporal Jerusalem

The Jewish temple that once stood in Jerusalem — will it be rebuilt someday? For centuries now, the temple’s former location has been a Muslim sacred site. The Dome of the Rock was constructed where the temple once stood. It is there to this day. The site is under the jurisdiction of Muslim authorities. They are determined to hold it. If the Israelis attempt to take control of the location, a regional war will probably immediately ensue. 

With all that in consideration, hear what one of the Muslim scholars asked the head rabbi at WBT. While we all stood around in the office of the rabbi, a visiting Muslim scholar asked him, “Do you want the temple to be rebuilt in Jerusalem?” It was a loaded question. The rabbi’s answer surprised me. It probably surprised the Muslim scholars, too.

The rabbi said, “No, I don’t, because if the temple were rebuilt we would need to resume the whole sacrificial system. I don’t want that to happen.”

Alternatively, there are other Jewish religious authorities who do want the temple in Jerusalem rebuilt. That was not discussed with the visiting Muslim scholars at WBT that day, though.

A lot of Christians have been taught and believe that the Jewish temple in Jerusalem must be rebuilt before Jesus returns. The Book of Revelation briefly mentions “the temple of God” in the first two verses of chapter eleven. Interpreters have to decide which temple is referenced. Is it a rebuilt Jewish temple in Jerusalem, or something else? That is a super-important question. If it is understood to be a rebuilt Jewish temple in Jerusalem, then we ought to intently watch what happens at that contested location in Jerusalem. However, if it is not a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, then fixating on events in Jerusalem is unnecessary. Again, interpretively, a lot hangs the identity of the temple in Revelation 11:1-2.

The temple mentioned in Revelation 11:1-2 is actually the Church, not a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. That is how I read it. We are mistaken to expect a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, which might never happen, anyway. Here, the Rabbi at WBT, along with the Muslim scholars, may have their collective way. There may never be a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, at least, not prior to the parousia of Jesus, that is, prior to the second coming.  

The New Testament repeatedly says that the Church is now the temple of God. We ought to believe it. The Church really is the temple of God now. God’s presence is no longer to be found in a brick-and-mortar building or a stone-and-mortar temple, but in a living temple, in and among the corporate people of God. Ephesians 2:19-22 says as much, and is worth a quick read.

All of this said, the land and the people of Israel are not irrelevant. On the contrary, the nation of Israel is still relevant to Revelation and will be important in The End. After all these centuries of time, God continues to be faithful to the Jewish people for the sake of their ancestors; and they still do have a role to play in the fulfillment of prophecy. Explaining that will have to wait for another day and another blog post, though.