Revelation-Armageddon.com
Jon Paulien Ph.D.
Revelation - Armageddon

Ellen White and the Book of Revelation III

The final blog in this short series summarizes random points of interpretation that can be found scattered throughout Ellen White’s writings, particularly in the book The Great Controversy. The concepts that follow are covered in the order of the texts in Revelation to which they apply, beginning with chapter 1 and ending with chapter 22. White understood the “Lord’s Day,” when the spirit came upon John (Rev 1:9-10), to be the Sabbath day (AA 581:3; YI April 5, 1900). She associates the heavenly scene of Revelation 4-5 with the ascension of Christ to heaven after His resurrection (DA 834-835). The lion and the lamb (Rev 5:5-6) are both symbols of Christ, representing the union of omnipotent power with self-sacrificing love (AA 589:2). The heavenly signs of the sixth seal (Rev 6:12-14) are usually associated with events leading up to the Advent movement in the mid-19th Century (GC 333-334).

While her language falls short of an endorsement, White approvingly reports the predictions of Josiah Litch related to the fifth and sixth trumpets (GC 334-335). The scene of Revelation 10 describes a point in history when the time periods of Daniel have reached their conclusion and the final proclamation of the gospel has begun (MS 59, 1900, quoted in 7BC 971). The two witnesses of Revelation 11 represent the Old and the New Testaments, and the descriptions of the chapter portray how the Bible was treated in the course of the French Revolution (GC 265-288).

Ellen White describes the war in heaven of Rev 12:7-12 in two different, but complementary ways. On the one hand, the scene describes a threat to the government of heaven that occurred even before the creation of the world. Satan, and all the angels who followed him, were physically cast out of heaven at that time (RH January 28, 1909; Letter 114, 1903, quoted in 7 BC 973). On the other hand, the casting out of the dragon reflects the impact of the cross on the affections of the universe (MS 50, 1900, quoted in 7 BC 974). At the cross, Satan lost any spiritual credibility he may have retained in heavenly places (3SP 194-195).

Ellen White understood the sea beast of Rev 13:1-10 to represent the papacy of the Middle Ages (GC 49-60), which is to have an end-time role in opposition to the true people of God (GC 445-450). While many of her statements against the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church are painfully strong by today’s standards (GC 563-581), other statements caution against personalizing one’s opposition to the papacy (Ev 576:1). She also recognizes that time and place need to be considered when expressing that opposition (TM 112:2; Ev 573-577).

Ellen White understood the land beast of Rev 13:11-14 as the United States of America in its end-time collaboration with the Roman heirarchy (GC 439-445). The Mark of the Beast is received when one rejects God’s final call to true Sabbath keeping and instead submits to the end-time enforcement of Sunday worship (GC 445-450). The three angels of Rev 14:6-12 represent believers in God’s end-time message who spread the last gospel message throughout the world (GC 311-312).

Ellen White did not consider the Battle of Armageddon (Rev 16:16) a military affair in the Middle East or elsewhere, to her Armageddon will be a last-day spiritual conflict between the people of God and the forces of evil (note several comments in 7BC 982-983). During that last conflict fundamental spiritual principles will be clarified and people will be brought to decision concerning them. It will be a time when faith is tested rather than physical power or skill (MS 1a, 1890, quoted in 7BC 983).

Regarding Revelation 20, Ellen White was a pre-millenialist. She believed that the millennium will be a thousand-year period after the Second Coming of Jesus. During that period the earth will be desolate of human beings, although Satan and his angels are confined there. The people of God are taken up to heaven at the second coming to spend the thousand years with God (GC 653-661). At the close of the millennium, the wicked of all time are resurrected and God’s people return to earth with the New Jerusalem to witness the final destruction of sin, sinners and Satan (GC662-673). The earth is then destroyed by fire and God creates a new heaven and a new earth in which God’s faithful people will dwell forever in joy and perfect harmony (GC 673-678). In White’s opinion, however, the best definition of heaven is not riches and glory, it is the presence of Christ (undated MS 58, quoted in 7BC 989).
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Ellen White and the Book of Revelation II

Ellen White articulated a high spiritual purpose for the book of Revelation. 1) The book was designed to keep the human agent out of sight and to exalt God and His law (TM 112:2). When readers view the glory of God portrayed there human pride is laid in the dust. 2) The close connection between heaven and earth in the visions was designed to teach that the connection between God and His people is “close and decided” (TM 114:5; AA 586:1). 3) Rightly understood, Revelation enables presenters to “uplift Jesus as the center of all hope” (TM 118:1). Revelation was not designed to satisfy curiosity about the future but to fix human eyes on Jesus and encourage a closer walk with God.

Ellen White’s view of Revelation’s authorship and time of writing was in harmony with the traditions of the Early Church Fathers as well as the conservative consensus around the turn of the Twentieth Century. She taught that the author of Revelation was the last survivor of the disciples, presumably John the son of Zebedee (AA 569:1). The Apocalypse was written in the time of Emperor Domitian, who summoned John to Rome to be tried for his faith, had him cast into a cauldron of boiling oil, and then banished him to the Isle of Patmos, a place of banishment for criminals (AA 569:4-570:4).

Where her statements are clear, Ellen White seems to consistently apply the “historicist” method to the text of Revelation (EW 230:2). “Some of the scenes depicted in this prophecy are in the past, some are now taking place; some bring to view the close of the great conflict between the powers of darkness and the Prince of heaven, and some reveal the triumphs and joys of the redeemed in the earth made new” (AA 584:1). Two examples of her historicist approach: 1) she sees the letter to the church of Ephesus (Rev 2:1-7) as a description of the entire Christian church in the apostolic age (First Century AD– AA 578:1-2, cf. AA 585:3), and 2) the message to Laodicea is particularly applicable to the Adventist people at the end of time (MS 33, 1894, quoted in 7 BC 961).

At the same time, however, she also acknowledges that the book of Revelation was given “for the guidance and comfort of the church throughout the Christian dispensation” (AA 583:1), something more akin to the “idealist” approach. The overcomer promises of all the seven letters, for example (including Rev 2:7; 3:5 and 3:21), belong to all the faithful ones striving against evil throughout the centuries of darkness and superstition (AA 588:1-2). The message to Ephesus offers an example of how to reprove sin for ministers today (MS 136, 1902, quoted in 7BC 956). The message to Laodicea applies to all who profess to keep the law of God but are not doers of it (RH Oct 17, 1899; DA 489-490).

Whichever way one studies Revelation, however, Ellen White sees the book of Revelation fulfilling a special role in the final era of earth’s history (TM 113:0; 115:2; 116:2; GC 341-342). The truths of the book are “addressed to those living in these last days” (TM 113:3; 8T 301). Many parts of Revelation (she cites in this context Rev 15:2-3; 21:2-22; 22:1-5, 14; and 14:2-5) are directly concerned with the ultimate triumph of God’s remnant church (AA 590-592). She believed that her generation was nearing the time when those prophecies would be fulfilled (TM 113:3). So while historicism was her primary approach to Revelation, she understood that the entire book would have special significance for the very last days (TM 116:5; 9T 267). Even the chains of history portrayed there would help God’s people correctly estimate the value of things and discern “the true aim of life” (PK 548:1-2).

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Ellen White and the Book of Revelation

For Seventh-day Adventists the study of the book of Revelation rarely occurs without reference to the writings of Ellen G. White, a highly-respected founder of the Adventist Church and a major female author of the 19th Century. While most of her comments on Revelation seem based more on the scholarship of the time rather than her own personal study or direct revelation from God, the spiritual power of her writings continues to impact people today as much as it ever did. In a short series of blogs, I would like to address her writings on Revelation (which are fewer than most people who know of her realize). The content of these blogs is based largely on my entry “Book of Revelation” in the new Ellen G. White Encyclopedia. References to her books and manuscripts are in the standard abbreviated format as suggested by the Ellen G. White Estate (http://www.whiteestate.org/).
 
Ellen White’s view of the book of Revelation is most clearly discerned in the two major places where she directly addresses her understanding of the context and purpose of the book. The first and most comprehensive treatment was published in the Review and Herald, Feb. 18, 1890 and republished in Testimonies to Ministers, 112-119. The second treatment consists of two chapters in Acts of the Apostles (568-592).

Ellen White’s approach to Revelation was informed by a basic conviction. She believed that an end-time explosion in the understanding of Daniel and Revelation was the key factor behind the rise of the Advent movement. She felt, in other words, that in her time God had lifted a veil off from these books, enabling them to be fully understood (TM 113:3). The book of Revelation, therefore, was addressed to those living in the last days and the time of fulfillment was near (TM 113:3; 115:2; 116:2; 6T 61-62).

Although the Adventist pioneers had invested much in the study of Revelation, Ellen White was convinced that the book had not yet been fully understood (TM 113:2). Those wishing a deeper understanding would need to approach the book “humbly and meekly” (TM 114:4). The deeper understanding of Revelation that they gained would be a great boon to character development (TM 114:3). There would be a “great revival” (TM 113:2) marked by “an entirely different religious experience” (TM 114:3). So the primary goal of Revelation, in her thinking, was not knowledge, but character.

In terms of method, this deeper study would need to take two, somewhat contrasting forms. On the one hand, Ellen White advocated studying Revelation in the context of Daniel, as a follow-up to the visions given there (TM 114:6; EW 231:2). The two books were to be treated as close companions (TM 115:3,4; AA 585:1). On the other hand, she urged people to study Revelation in the context of all the other prophecies in the Bible (TM 112:1). She even went so far as to suggest that in the book of Revelation “all the books of the Bible meet and end” (AA 585:1). So a whole-Bible approach with special attention to Daniel was the basic method she thought should be applied to Revelation. But while Daniel and Revelation are complimentary, the two books are not the same. Daniel contains much that was sealed up (Dan 12:4), but Revelation was not sealed, its mysteries have always been “open to the study of all” (AA 584:1; RH August 31, 1897). << MORE >>

The Concept of Antichrist– Spiritual Lessons

1) According to John 17:3, eternal life is to KNOW Jesus Christ, to make him the very first priority in one’s life. But the history of interpretation offers us an interesting paradox. Through the centuries, people have often been much more interested in knowing the Antichrist than in knowing the true Christ. Few other subjects have attracted as much attention and imagination from religious thinkers. So we need to keep this subject in balance if we wish to maintain spiritual health. The subject of Antichrist must be important or it wouldn’t be featured so centrally as it is in Revelation. On the other hand, it is not the one topic of supreme importance. That topic is Jesus Christ Himself. Antichrist is important because he seeks to take the place of Christ, to disguise him from the many who need eternal life. If we know him we can better avoid mis-readings of the gospel. Thus alongside the message of Christ, there is a valid place for study of the Antichrist, which we are attempting to do here. But such study needs to be kept in a subordinate place in comparison with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

2) We have noticed that the Antichrist figure has worldwide impact and influence, especially at the end (Rev 13:7-8, 14,16). The final spiritual fraud will be global in extent. That means that no one will be excluded from the final test of true versus false worship. There will be no easy escape from the deceptions of the end. So it is important to be prepared; through study, prayer and self-distrust. But the sea beast will not stop with deception. When this does not achieve the desired results, he causes all who refuse to worship the image to be killed (Rev 13:15). He offers the attractive appeal: “Come with me, if you want to live.” Those who believe that the persecutions of the Middle Ages are forever gone, the future holds a big surprise. Those who live through those days will be the ones who do not love their lives even unto death (Rev 12:11).

3) When Antichrist seeks to deceive he does not put something bad in place of something good. That would no more be a good deception than attempting to buy good with play money. Instead, Antichrist seeks to replace the very best with something that is good in its proper place. A candle may give light in its proper place, but when lit on a sunny day it only creates a shadow.
    For instance, obedience (personal righteousness) is a very good thing in its place. Obedience as a response to what God has done for us is a beautiful thing. Believers should live righteous, sober and godly lives by the Spirit (Titus 2:12; 1 John 3:7). But when our personal obedience is put in the place where God’s mighty saving actions should be, that is the theology of Antichrist. The basic error of the medieval church was to make obedience the root rather than the fruit of our salvation. All other errors, such as indulgences, veneration of the saints, and the change of the Sabbath were possible once the gospel itself was forgotten. Antichrist uses the good to undo the best.
    In current evangelical thought and practice there are similar core distortions at times. What members of some churches want to know these days is not, “How can I please God?” but “How can God please me?” “How can church membership make my life radiantly happy, filled with success and contentment?” How quickly the words of Jesus are forgotten: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” And “whoever would save his life will lose it” (Mark 8:34-35, ESV). So as it was in John’s day, there are still many antichrists among us, and some of them don’t even realize it. And perhaps the antichrist that we should most fear is self. << MORE >>

The Concept of Antichrist, Part V

Turning to Antichrist traditions outside the Bible I am particularly indebted here to the scholarly research work of my friend Josephine Massyngbaerde Ford (note her commentary on Revelation in the Anchor Bible series), which she shared as a private paper. In early Jewish and Christian tradition the Antichrist had forerunners like Lamech, Nimrod, Balaam, Achan, Goliath and Judas. He is of Jewish parentage from the tribe of Dan (Gen 49:10-17; Deut 33:22; Jer 8:16; Isa 25:6-8). Note also that the tribe of Dan is not listed in Revelation 7, probably because it served within early Judaism as a tribal prototype of the anti-Messiah at the End.

There were two broad traditions related to the nature of Antichrist. In one tradition the Antichrist would be born naturally from human parents. In the other tradition he would be born from an evil spirit and a whore. He would be a human agent of of the devil mentored directly by Satan himself. His place of birth was generally thought to be Babylon. His physical appearance is described in 4 Ezra 4:29-32 (see James Charlesworth, OT Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1, 568), ApocDan 9:16-27 (see James Charlesworth, OT Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1, 767-768) and The Apocalypse of St. John the Theologian (see www.newadvent.org/fathers/0831.htm, paragraph 3). Many of the characteristics of his appearance were associated with ancient Greek perceptions of shameless personal behavior. The ancients associated physical characteristics with temperament and character. Antichrist would be physically ugly and out of normal bodily proportions.

Increasing moral decadence, wars, plagues, famines and other disasters would precede the Antichrist’s birth. In early Christian tradition, the Antichrist would arise after the fall of the Roman Empire, when the order of the world would collapse. There would also be signs in the day and night skies. He would come as a mighty warrior, proclaiming false doctrines and with great power to deceive. He would perform miracles, move to the Mount of Olives and proclaim himself the Messiah. In some traditions he would even perform a pseudo resurrection and a pseudo-Pentecost.

The beasts of Revelation 13 were often identified with Antichrist by the early church fathers (Tertullian, Augustine, Jerome, etc.). As the serpent and Satan, the dragon of chapter 12 has characteristics of Antichrist as well. The dragon has affinities with Tiamat, the chaos monster of the ancient world, which raged against the gods. The serpent/Satan/dragon, of course, opposed God at creation and will oppose Him also at the end of time.

The two beasts of Revelation 13 may owe their origin to the two great animals described in Job 40 and 41. There is Leviathan, the male sea monster (Job 41:1-34, see also Job 3:8; 7:12; Psalm 74:14; 104:26; Isa 27:1-2), and Behemoth, the female land monster (Job 40:15-24). The sea monster is most frequently identified with Antichrist and our exegesis of Revelation 13 so far strongly affirms the Christ references in the sea beast passage. The sea beast is clearly a predatory beast (lion, bear, leopard), so there is the sense that it is fierce and destructive. There are supernatural qualities to the beast, as he receives his throne and authority from the dragon/Satan.

The second beast also has Antichrist qualities, but within Revelation 13 these fit better under the rubric of a counterfeit Holy Spirit, who takes on Christ’s earthly roles after His ascension (John 14-16). A final blog post will share some spiritual lessons based on this study.
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The Concept of Antichrist, Part IV

A further biblical dimension to the Antichrist concept can be seen in the beasts and little horn of the Book of Daniel, particularly in chapters 7, 8 and 11 (which many scholars have identified with Antiochus Epiphanes, although that historical figure did not meet every detail of the little horn descriptions in Daniel). The strong parallels between Revelation 13 and Daniel 7 have already been noted. Also the parallel between 2 Thessalonians 2:4 and Daniel 11:36-39.

The little horn power of Daniel would have human eyes (Dan 7:8), speak "great things" (7:8, 20), make war against the saints (7:21), speak against God Himself and think to change "times and law" (7:25, Hebrew and Greek; "make alterations in times and in law," NAS, overthrow the stars of heaven and even the sanctuary itself (8:10-11), and operate with deceit and destruction (8:24-25). The king of Daniel 11:36-39 seems the same or a parallel figure within Daniel. He exalts himself over all gods and operates by force. Interestingly, Hippolytus (early church father) saw Daniel 11 as well as Daniel 7 in the background of Revelation 13:4, calling the three horns that were uprooted in Daniel 7 (8, 20, 24) Egypt, Libya and Ethiopia (Dan 11:42-43). So the sea beast image is strongly based in the prophecies of Daniel.

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The Concept of Antichrist, Part III

There are multiple parallels between the sea beast of Revelation 13 and the “antichrist” figure of 2 Thessalonians 2. Both of them exalt themselves to the place of God (2 Thess 2:4; Rev 13:5-6). Both demand worship (2 Thess 4; Rev 13:4, 8, 12). Both use miracles in order to deceive (2 Thess 2:9-10; Rev 13:13-14). And both are destroyed by Jesus Christ at His second coming (2 Thess 2:8; Rev 14:9; 19:11-21). If the beast from the sea represents a counterfeit of Jesus Christ, so does the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2.

Instead of Antichrist, Paul uses the term “The Lawless One” (2 Thess 2:8– ho anomos in the Greek). Many scholars see the language of 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 and 8-9 as modeled on Antiochus Epiphanes, who was understood by Jews of the time as a type of the Antichrist, and also the blasphemous king of Daniel 11:36-39. Antiochus was king of Syria around 165 BC and invaded Palestine, oppressing the Jews. Among other things he sacrificed a pig on the temple altar in Jerusalem, forced Jews to eat pork, and forbad the keeping of the Sabbath.

A flaw in that identification is that the Lawless One in Second Thessalonians is clearly an apostate figure. He usurps the throne of God, sets himself up in God’s temple, and proclaims himself to be God (2 Thess 2:3-4). So he is more of a religious leader than a political leader. Antichrist is not likely a dictator, general or president. They don’t normally demand worship or proclaim themselves God. In 2 Thessalonians 2:9 the lawless one counterfeits the earthly ministry and second coming of Jesus and is then destroyed by the brightness of Jesus’ coming (2 Thess 2:8-9). In Paul there is also a demonic side to this “Antichrist,” he comes “in accordance with the work of Satan (2:9). By his very name (“man of lawlessness,” “lawless one”– 2 Thess 2:3, 8) this figure is one who seeks to undermine the law of God, is arrogant to the point of blasphemy, is an agent of Satan, has characteristics of Satan himself, comes with miracles and signs, tries to deceive the world, and is destroyed with those who follow him.

This figure in 2 Thessalonians is not one of the many antichrists referenced in the letters of John (1 John 2:18-22; 4:3; 2 John 7). This seems to be THE future Antichrist that was still coming in John’s day (1 John 2:19), although the “mystery of lawlessness” was already at work in Paul’s day (see the “spirit of antichrist” in 1 John 4:3).
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The Concept of Antichrist, Part II

Is there one Antichrist or are there many? The biblical answer seems to be “yes.” In the letters of John, the Antichrist is coming in the future, but is already present in the world (1 John 4:3). It seems that for John there were many antichrists in the present, but that these were only the predecessors of THE future Antichrist (from the perspective of John’s day). The “spirit of antichrist” (1 John 4:3, KJV) was already in the world, and it was present in the many antichrists of John’s day. But the full and final incarnation of antichrist was still in the future. The last and worst Antichrist was yet to come.

Revelation 13 seems to support this dual picture of the Antichrist. The sea beast of Revelation 13 has seven heads on one body. From Revelation 17:10 it becomes evident that the seven heads of the beast are consecutive in point of time, even though John sees all seven at the same time. So the slaughter of one of the heads of the beast results in the death of the beast itself. The beast then returns to life with a new head. Notice that in Revelation 13 verses 12 and 14 it is the beast itself that is wounded to death and comes back to life, not just one of its heads (13:3). So this one beast symbolizes the many different forms Antichrist has assumed in his opposition to God’s truth from one age to another.

An important feature of the Antichrist in 1 John is that it is not a furious persecutor, nor is it an agent attacking the church from outside. The primary feature of Antichrist in John’s letters is that of deception. Speaking of the multiple antichrists of his day, John notes that they had appeared within the community and went out from there (1 John 2:18-19). While within the community they misled others into thinking they taught correct doctrine and preached the true Christ. They were, in fact, liars (1 John 2:22; 2 John 7).

Interestingly, Jesus predicted the very situation John was referring to here, except He didn’t use the term “Antichrist.” Instead, Jesus told His disciples that both “false prophets” and “false christs” would appear. So He set the table for John’s plural use of “antichrist.” The work of these false christs would be so deceptive that it would sweep away even the elect, if that were possible (Matt 24:23-25). So Jesus and John agreed on multiple, deceptive antichrists. They also agreed that these antichrists were human individuals, apostate believers. For Jesus, the false christs were coming in His name (Matt 24:5). For John, they were once part of the community that followed Jesus (1 John 2:18-19).

In the letters of John, therefore, Antichrist is much more than a single figure, it is a whole way of thinking and operating. Christians are invited to “conquer” the antichrists by discerning the true anointing from the false (1 John 2:20, 27). As we have seen, there is a strong emphasis in John that the Antichrist would be involved in lying and deception (1 John 2:22; 2 John 7). This is consistent with the Jewish tradition that false prophets would try to counter the true prophet (Deut 18:15, 18) when he would come.

According to John, the Antichrist would come at the “last hour” (1 John 2:18) but in a sense the last hour had already come in the multiple antichrists (1 John 2:18) already present. The last days of John’s community were heralds of the very last days of earth’s history. In the letters of John, therefore, the future Antichrist is brought into the present experience of the church. He saw the Antichrist not as some future outside enemy, but as an internal danger which would lead to secessionist movements within the church. These writings were forerunners of the Reformers, who identified the Antichrist with the Pope. << MORE >>

The Concept of Antichrist

In my recent study of Revelation 13 I have noticed that the multiple ways in which the sea beast counterfeits the life and work of Jesus Christ has caused many scholars of Revelation to identify the sea beast with the Antichrist. This is the first in a series of blogs where I will review what I know about the Antichrist concept in Revelation 13, the rest of Scripture and in the ancient world.

The word “Antichrist” does not occur in the book of Revelation. Within the Bible it is found only in the letters of John (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7). The term “Antichrist” is a compound word in the Greek. It is made up of “anti” and “christ.” The Greek preposition “anti” means “against” or “in place of.” It often expresses the idea of substitution, one is taking the place that belongs to another.

The “Christ” portion of the term, of course, is the Greek equivalent of “Messiah,” the “anointed one.” When used in certain circumstances with a definite article; “the Christ,” it is a title rather than a name for Jesus (Matt 11:2; 16:16, 20; 22:42; 24:5, 23 and parallels in Mark and Luke; also Luke 24:26, 46; John 1:20, 25, 41; 3:28; Acts 2:41; 17:3; Rev 11:15; 12:10, etc.). One could simply translate “the Christ” into English as “the Messiah.” More often, especially without the article but sometimes with it, it can be translated simply “Christ.” In other words, the title became so commonly used for Jesus that it became simply another name for Him (Acts 3:6; 8:12; 10:48; Rom 3:22, 24; 1 Cor 1:10, 13, 17; Gal 3:13-14; Rev 1:1-2, etc.). So at its root in the New Testament, the Antichrist would be someone who substitutes for Christ. He undermines or takes the place that belongs to the Messiah of Christian faith.

Since the term “antichrist” is fairly rare in the New Testament, a full understanding of the concept requires the examination of synonyms within the Bible and narratives in the ancient world outside the Bible in order to reconstruct a full portrait of this personage. In Revelation 13 itself, however, it is clear that the Antichrist figure has worldwide impact and influence, especially at the end (Rev 13:7-8, 14, 16). The final spiritual fraud will be global in extent. No one will be excluded from the final test of true versus false worship. With the help of his friend, the beast from the earth, the Antichrist will enforce a global economic boycott (Rev 13:16-17) and a death decree against all who refuse to worship the image of the beast (Rev 13:15). In a sense he offers the attractive appeal: “Come with me, if you want to live.” According to Revelation 13, those who believe that the persecutions of the Middle Ages are forever gone are in for a big surprise. << MORE >>

Concluding Reflections

Those following the commentary on Revelation 13 day by day know that I agree with the larger picture of Revelation 13 as taught by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This may not be a popular picture in today’s world, but it does provide a penetrating analysis of many of the ills of the western world and also of the source of much conflict between nations and religions. So although that message has its problematic elements in a post-modern world, it is a message that cannot simply be discarded, but needs to be shared at the right time, in the right place, and in the right way. The message about a broken Christian system did not come to Adventists out of pride, arrogance or self-importance. It originated in careful study of Scripture. And as such it cannot be ignored.

I would, however, point out that it is a dangerous message for Adventists (and others) to carry. Any message that offers a criticism of others, however true, can easily draw out the worst aspects of the human condition in those who proclaim it. The message that in some way those who proclaim are better or wiser than those being proclaimed about plays to our inner drive toward pride and self-importance. In whatever setting such a message is proclaimed, it is critical that the proclaimers be drenched in the spirit of Jesus first or the message can bring out the worst in us. Preaching the Papacy is dangerous for human beings, when it happens it must be driven by the Spirit of God and not by our own passions and prejudices.

Not only so, unless the message is shared as part of a larger biblical balance, it can have an unhealthy impact on those who hear it. When it is shared in a disproportionate way, as if this teaching were the primary message of the Bible, it produces unbalanced people who then go out and damage others as well. Unless bathed in prayer and self-sacrificing love, a message of confrontation can be cruel and abusive and even confusing to those who hear it. Like Jesus, the message of judgment must be delivered with “tears in the voice.” I know from painful experience how difficult this can be. It’s time that Adventists talk more openly about this issue and its impact on us as a people. << MORE >>

Is There a Better Way? Part 3

Christianity as a whole is coming under heavy criticism in media and academia and I’d have to say that as a group we’ve earned it in many ways. Many Christians ignore the criticism or seek to minimize it because much of it comes from post-moderns, atheists and non-Christians. While the best way to clean a house is from inside not the outside, our comfortable familiarity with the inside of the house may blind us to things that are obvious to those who visit us from the outside. People with indoor pets or hygiene issues may be used to certain unpleasant odors that hit strangers the moment they enter. When outsiders think of Christians as arrogant, self-important and over-confident, we are unwise to simply ignore the charges or respond in defensive ways. We have many things to learn and many, many to unlearn.

In light of this I am intrigued by the approach to Revelation 13 by the Voice of Prophecy evangelist, Shawn Boonstra. He shared his approach in an recent article: “Ten Years After the Sky Fell,” Adventist Review, September 8, 2011, 16-21. I hope I do justice to his position in what follows.

Of all Christians, Seventh-day Adventists are the one significant group that is willing to admit publicly that something is wrong with modern Christianity. God couldn’t have prepared our outreach to the final generation better. We live in a world that distrusts organized religion, that continually seeks to dismantle Christianity and the culture it has created. We have a message that answers the general sense that it is a mistake to lay all of the blame for the world’s current woes at the feet of Islam, for example. The world’s biggest problems arise from within Christianity itself. Instinctively, many of the secular people around us know it. Such people are desperate for Christians who will honestly admit that Christianity as it has been practiced is rife with problems. We should be like Daniel and accept corporate responsibility for the sins of Christianity (Dan 9:5).

When we describe the sins of the Middle Ages, we can say, “Do you know who this is? This is us. This is how the church behaved in the Dark Ages. These are the crimes of the Christian church and it is about time that we admit it.” This approach does not ignore the truth, but it wipes away the sins of Christianity as an excuse for people to avoid the Bible. It also takes the blame off God for our horrific behavior and puts the blame where it belongs, on us. It takes away the “we/they” mentality and opens the door to honest examination.

One thing we’ve learned from the war on terror is how ready people are to trade liberty for a little security. The whole conspiracy mentality feeds on the sense that there is something clearly wrong with government. The public is increasingly slow to trust in any form of government at all. Our world seems to be spiraling out of control. We can’t control the economy, we can’t control the terrorists, we can’t control the climate, we don’t trust in religion and we don’t trust government. Sounds like the table is being set for the biggest religio-political tyranny of all time. The world will cry for solutions and Satan has waited for thousands of years to provide them.

We have the ability to show them why they have been soured on both Christian faith and worldly government and show them that the character of God is not at all like they have been told. At the right time, in the right place and in the right way, the message of Revelation 13 is exactly what this world needs right now. September 11, 2001 seems to have set the table for something. Human beings, particularly in the Christian west, have broken the planet and denied the way of Christ by our words and actions. We have broken our own hearts. We have spawned the evil that besets us. But there is good news. Jesus is still the answer.
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Is There a Better Way? Part 2

After the sharp comment from my Adventist colleague, the tension in the room hung in the air like a cloud that would never go away. Then a Lutheran colleague, soon to become Bishop of Oslo, spoke slowly and carefully to his Lutheran colleagues. He reminded them of several years of dialogue and mutual growth in understanding with their Adventist colleagues. He reminded them of seasons of prayer, heartfelt testimonies, a common love for Jesus and the gospel, growing friendships and growing appreciation for each other between the two groups. He reminded them of discussions over the Sabbath. Tensions arose then too, but he and his Lutheran colleagues had come to appreciate the beauty of the Sabbath and longed to see something similar happen in their churches. He reminded them of all the learning that had taken place together. Then he challenged them, “Are we willing to throw all that away because we struggle to appreciate one point?” It was one of the most humble and gracious speeches I have ever heard. Instead of reacting to the harsh comment from my colleague, he challenged his own colleagues to manifest the spirit of Jesus and welcome their brothers in spite of the temptation to react.

His comment was followed by similar statements from others on both sides. But as we were coming up to the noon hour and the meal that had been prepared, I could see that the German professor across the table was still distressed. I prayed earnestly that God might give me the right words to say before we broke for lunch. When the time came I asked for the last word (as the one whose paper had started the whole discussion that seemed appropriate to all). I turned to my German colleague and said, “You are worried for the future of your grandchildren. I understand that. I am just as worried for the future of my children. (I am a little younger than him) We wish we could make the right decisions for them, but we realize that in the end they will have to make their own decisions for or against the gospel. We can only watch and pray. Adventists do not believe that the message of the mark of the beast will only split other churches, we believe that it will split us too. We expect many among our ranks to end up on the wrong side at the end. Your grandchildren and my children will face the same decision. Will they follow the radical faith of Jesus no matter what the cost? Or will they take the easy route and follow the path of convenience and worldly approval? In that day Adventists and Lutherans and Catholics will face the same choice. While we Adventists may do it poorly at times, our mission is to prepare the world for that day and for that choice. On that day your grandchildren and my children will face that challenge on the same level.”

His eyes full of tears, the professor nodded and said, “I understand better now. You Adventists ARE being driven by the gospel to say things you feel need to be said. We Lutherans cannot give that message for you, we don’t see the Book of Revelation as you do. But it is clear to me that the unique message you have is one you are driven to present for God. You cannot do otherwise and be true to who you are. Do it wisely, but do it with our blessing. I acknowledge you as brother and sisters in Christ. Your faith in Him is real and it is true. I understand that now.” What a beautiful and gracious spirit the Lutherans extended to us that day. What a gift and a blessing they bestowed on us. Whenever I share the message of Revelation 13, I want to remember my Lutheran friends and their love and concern for us. I want to do it in the same spirit of love and grace toward those who will hear the message as the Lutherans did toward us.

Christians come in many stripes, but they are on a shared journey of discovering and recovering truth. Adventists have certainly taken the lead in the recovering of many truths, but the task is not done and our witness is not perfect. While we must remain true to Scripture, we also have much to learn about kindness, grace and mercy. And other Christians have sometimes been our best teachers in those areas. When it comes to the mark of the beast the key is not so much what we say but how we say it that counts.

To be concluded. . . << MORE >>

Is There a Better Way?

Some of you may be tempted to think, What does he know about presenting messages like Revelation 13? Academics think they know everything, but what they say often doesn’t play where the rubber meets the road. Well in this case I think I can say my rubber meets the road. While it is challenging to share the mark of the beast with an audience of strangers that is unlikely to have a scholar among them, imagine what it would be like the share the mark of the beast with an audience of non-Adventist scholars in Daniel and Revelation! I have been invited to do this on more than one occasion.

A dramatic occasion was a series of dialogues between leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and leaders of the Lutheran World Federation. The Federation provides a loose oversight of more than a hundred church bodies in 79 countries with approximately 70 million adherents. The fourth in a series of week-long dialogues took place near their headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland in 1998. It was on the subject of eschatology, how the two church bodies view the biblical topic of the end of the world. Dr. B. B. Beach of the General Conference public affairs office invited me to represent the Adventist Church’s position on Revelation 13 and the mark of the beast. I would be facing nearly ten Lutheran scholars and officials, several of whom were specialists in Daniel and Revelation. In other words, I couldn’t get away with the kind of easy deductions that uneducated people might accept. I would have to meet the highest standards of logic, reason and biblical exegesis.

What I did not expect was the deep sensitivity among the Lutherans against “Catholic bashing” of any kind. The same group had had a similar series of dialogues with the Vatican and could put the faces of real people into play when I talked about the papal system. It is one thing to talk about the other in the absence of the other. But when the “other” has a face and a name and a shared love for Mozart, the same information can come across pretty lame. While it was very important in a dialogue not to hide unwelcome elements of one’s faith (dialogue is for the purpose of understanding rather than persuasion, and you can’t understand what you don’t know), a great tension entered the room when I shared and we discussed what Adventists believe about Revelation 13.

The tension came to a head when a professor of Revelation from a major German university summed up how he was feeling. “What I hear all of you telling me is that I am OK because the mark of the beast is an end-time concept. But my grandchildren will be lost if they don’t become Seventh-day Adventists! I cannot bear this teaching! I love my grandchildren, and I would rather be lost if it meant they could all be saved. I thought I was dealing with a group of fellow Christians, but now I realize that deep inside you are just another sect or cult (not flattering terms in the German context), you are not really a Christian Church. I am sorry I ever agreed to this dialogue.” He broke into tears and put his head down into his hands.

You could have cut the tension in the room with a knife. A large knot was developing in my lower intestines. After a moment of silence one of the Adventist scholars spoke up and said, “You call us a ‘sect,’ we are no true Christian church. But let me be clear that we don’t care what you think. You can think and say what you want, but we will go on and think and say whatever we want. What you think doesn’t matter.” Somehow that approach didn’t strike me as particularly helpful at that moment! While the German professor was rather abrasive in his own right, he was a sincere follower of Jesus and was truly distressed by the teaching he had heard.

The key perhaps isn’t so much what you share but how you share it. When the mark of the beast message comes across as “We’re better than you and our grandchildren will be better than yours,” there is a prideful aspect to the message that can seem downright wrong to honest, heartfelt followers of Jesus. And in the process we may leave the impression we think God hates Catholics and anyone else that doesn’t toe the line. The reality is that God loves all the creatures He has made and His warnings are designed to redeem not to condemn. The mere fact that the final judgments have been delayed for nearly 2000 years shows God’s love and patience for sinners of all kinds, including Adventist kinds. Perhaps the best way to share the mark of the beast is with the kind of humility that acknowledges how easy it is to lose one’s way. Given enough time, what religious institution has ever avoided putting the institution ahead of the mission? The papacy is the poster child for a problem that has affected all religious institutions to one degree or another.

Story will be concluded in the next blog. . . . << MORE >>

Why Would One Want To? Part 2

For the first two reasons one might want to share the message of Revelation 13, please see the previous blog.

3) A third reason to share this truth at the right time and in the right way is that it is liberating to many people. The truth about the Papacy as a system can bring tremendous freedom to people who have assumed the Papacy was God’s vicar on earth and thus followed every teaching in detail, even those that are disturbing and questionable on the very face of it. Think of the Scala Santa, the holy stairs in Rome. The faithful ascend the stairs on their knees saying an Our Father on every step. Why? Because, as the plaque on the wall says in several languages: “The following indulgences may be received, in accord with the usual conditions: PLENARY INDULGENCE– on all Fridays of Lent, and once more each year on an occasion of one’s choice. PARTIAL INDULGENCE– on all other days of the year, as long as one is sincerely repentant of one’s sins.” This is the very thing that Martin Luther and so many others sought to overthrow 500 years ago. For some this leads to a slavery of righteousness by works. To others it paves the way for  a “do whatever you like” permissiveness. What kind of monstrous picture of God requires sinners to evaluate their salvation by the depth of the callouses on their knees? And these specific indulgences were ordered by the direct authority of various popes.
    I received a taste of the power of indulgences for myself when I was young. After a visit to the Scala Santa, I went to Vatican Square to hear the Easter address of Pope Paul VI on April 4, 1969. To my surprise I heard him say in English (the message was repeated in several languages) that all those present would receive a complete indulgence for all sins past, present and future. So I guess in some sense I’m covered. While that was a whole lot easier than climbing the Scala Santa on my knees, I have to admit that it involved no heart commitment on my part. So if I had taken it as seriously as some in the square probably did, it would likely have led me to a life of carelessness and self-indulgence. Salvation simply by being in the right place at the right time.
    To me it is shocking that in the name of Christ a system that governs the actions of a billion people reduces the gift of the cross to something that can be earned by actions or money. Yet the core teachings of the system they adhere to are seriously flawed. The public face of Catholicism has softened since the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, but it has never changed its fundamental teachings on salvation. Notice the following Papal actions in the last fifteen years: 1) expansion of the ways in which believers can earn indulgences, 2) elaboration on the punishments to be meted out to apostates and heretics (those words could well include you and me), 3) exhortation to believers to make sure that civil legislation respects the duty to keep Sunday, and 4) reaffirmation that priests have the power to forgive sin and to re-create their Creator in the mass. This doesn’t sound all that different from the church of the Middle Ages. I’m sure that the people ascending the Scala Santa include some of the nicest and kindest people on earth. But don’t nice and kind Catholics deserve to experience the freedom of the gospel as much as anyone else?
    It remains official teaching that salvation comes only through the Catholic Church and believers can only receive salvation by participating in the sacraments of the church. Those who refuse these sacraments will suffer eternal damnation, no exceptions. It can be such a relief to Catholics to learn for the first time that Jesus died for them personally, that they can go directly to Him without a human intermediary, that they don’t have to earn the love of the Father. As Jesus Himself said, “I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you.” (John 16:26-27)  If people are being freed by a message, we cannot let embarrassment prevent us from this sacred work. Pope Benedict XVI made it clear that Vatican II did not make any changes to the historic Catholic doctrine concerning salvation. Ironically, a sizable and growing segment of Catholics now believes that the end-time antichrist will arise from within the Catholic Church, probably a pope.

4) Finally, a good reason to share even unpleasant truth is the fact that Jesus is coming. Oddly enough, since September 11, 2001 many Seventh-day Adventists have lost a sense of the nearness of Christ’s coming. They are losing confidence in prophecy at exactly the time when prophetic events seem closer to fulfillment than ever before. If you want detail on this read my book Armageddon at the Door for a detailed picture of the intersection between Bible prophecy and the kind of events that went down in the context of September 11. What an irony. Losing confidence in prophecy at the very time end-time like events are happening. More and more Adventists today see prophecy as antagonistic rather than liberating. They reason that people have enough fear in their lives already. Why burden them with more by studying scary prophetic beasts?
    The best answer I can think of is this: Being prepared for the end of time is better than not being prepared. Jesus is coming back whether we are calm or nervous. The heart of the end-time gospel is Revelation 14, and it includes a warning against counterfeits. Adventists must present Jesus clearly. That is the heart of our mission. And many people won’t see Jesus clearly or be ready for His return unless the truth about counterfeit forms of salvation and other real issues of the end-time are presented in detail. So that is a fourth reason for sharing this message even though it might not be popular to do so.
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Why Would One Want To?

Though potentially negative, Revelation 13 can be quite freeing for Roman Catholics and many others. (1) Whenever a religious body puts the focus on human beings or human institutions rather than God, it exhibits a distorted picture of God. Indulgences, the intercession of Mary and other saints, confession to human priests, the church as a means of salvation (all these are supported by official Catholic doctrine) send the message that God needs to be bribed or interceded with in order to be favorable toward us. The subtle message is: “God is not really on our side. You need us to get through to Him.” On the other hand, the change of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday sends the message that God and His Word don’t have to be taken seriously. The church has the authority to shape God into whatever image it wants. Furthermore, horrific campaigns like the Inquisition, the Crusades and the systematic persecutions throughout the Middle Ages imply that God approves of force in order to “convert” people to His cause. This paints a picture of a God who is arbitrary, judgmental, legalistic and severe. Since these are the characteristics of Satan, the medieval actions of the papacy portray the true God with the character of Satan. At the right time, the right place and in the right way, the message of Revelation 13 can help us to speak well of God.

2) In addition to speaking well of God (in the face of papal distortions), the message of Revelation 13 is important simply because it is the truth. One doesn’t avoid the truth because it is unpleasant or makes us uncomfortable. If the Bible teaches us that the same Christian power that caused so much mischief during the Middle Ages will somehow attain a sequel at the end of time, this is very important information. For example, if we knew from Bible prophecy that Naziism would make a comeback in Germany and a future Hitler was just around the corner, would we hide such a truth from the world? If we had some really nice Nazis for neighbors would we have less to say about the system? There will be a great deception at the end of time. The biggest piece of that deception is that people of faith, doing what they genuinely (in most cases) believe, will be fighting against the true God. And the greatest safeguard against that deception is the fact that we knew ahead that such a deception was coming. It would be dangerous NOT to share such a truth. The deception will be so severe that even the “elect” (Matt 24:24) will find it challenging.

To be continued. . . << MORE >>

“Naming the Beast” in a New Generation

In today’s America the strategy of reaching Protestants by critiquing Catholicism often backfires. Not only are Catholics offended by this “bashing” of the faith of others, Protestants, seculars and “post-moderns” (who will soon be the majority) are also offended at the strategy, finding it inappropriate in today’s world. (If you want to have a better idea of what “post-modernism” is all about see my book Everlasting Gospel, Everchanging World) This outcome raises the legitimate question of when, where and how to share this aspect of biblical truth. Jesus Himself said, “I have many things to tell you, but you can’t handled them now” (John 16:12, my translation). When it comes to outreach and evangelism one must use wisdom, discernment and the guidance of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13-15) in deciding which aspect of truth to share and when. What do we do with Revelation 13 in a post-modern world?

Post-modern culture (most Westerners under 40 years of age and many in other parts of the world) supremely values inclusiveness and tolerance. Differences in religion are seen not so much as problems, but as opportunities to learn and grow. To express a cold and intolerant attitude toward people who differ with you gives the impression that you are not open to learning yourself and thus not worthy to teach. Thus cuts off your ability to persuade and influence others. On top of that, Christianity as a whole is coming under increasingly heavy criticism in media and academia for its behavior over the centuries. In such an atmosphere, Christians expressing intolerance of Muslims and Catholics are playing into the negative stereotypes of Christianity as a whole. In today’s world, evangelism must be attentive to public perceptions, even when they come from atheists or non-christians. The western world is much more diverse than it was a century or two ago. Being “all things to all people” (1Cor 9:22) is becoming harder even as it is becoming more necessary.

Young Adventists today are painfully aware of the contrast between how they have been raised and taught to view Catholicism and their experiences with actual Catholics in real life. There are all kinds of Catholics, just as there are all kinds of Adventists. But on the whole Roman Catholics are at least as kind and caring as most other people. In my own experience that has definitely been confirmed in my encounters with Catholic priests, who have generally been among the kindest, most caring individuals I have known. This experiential contrast underlines the question of what to do with Revelation 13 in a diverse, multi-religious context. I am not questioning what the Bible teaches but how and when to use it at a practical level.

Just because the papacy as an institution is the poster child for clever opposition to God in Revelation 13 doesn’t justify abrasive and ham-fisted prophecy presentations that seem more concerned with causing shock and awe than in wooing people to Christ. There are contexts in today’s world where prophecy is NOT the all-purpose entering wedge that it once was. It may at times do more to offend people than to save them. It is not the primary mission of the SDA church to identify the Catholic Church as the antichrist/beast power of Daniel and Revelation. Our primary mission instead is to proclaim the same good news about Jesus and God that the apostles did, although now in the context of the three angel’s messages of Revelation 14. The goal is to make fully devoted followers of Christ (Matt 29:18-20) who are so grounded biblically that they can withstand the final deception, where the line between God’s truth and Satan’s counterfeit is blurred. In accomplishing that mission, it may be necessary at times to share startling and uncomfortable truths with friends or strangers who have a desire to know more about God’s will for their lives. But in light of what we have just written, won’t that just chase them off? << MORE >>

How Adventists Decided to Call Out the Papacy

At the time of its independence, the United States of America was a country made up essentially of people from northern and western Europe (Great Britain, Scandinavia, France, Germany), with a minority being slaves of African origin. The vast majority of non-native Americans were Protestant in faith; Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationals, Methodists, Lutherans, etc (the one exception to the rule was the state of Maryland, which started out Catholic). These Protestants were a hard-working, strict, relatively sober crowd. During the Irish potato famine of the 1840s and 1850s there was a strong influx of Catholics, particularly on the eastern seaboard. But the numbers of Catholics in the country were still relatively small.

Toward the end of the century, and through the early part of the 20th Century, the bulk of American immigration shifted to southern and eastern Europe. Italians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Bavarians and many other ethnic groups from predominantly Catholic areas began to arrive in massive numbers (the Catholic portion of the US population was 5% in 1850 and 17% in 1920). And their numbers were very much noticed by the mainstream. Working-class Catholics brought with them a love for bars, carnivals and other “pagan” excesses, in the minds of the majority of Americans. This led to a strong anti-immigration and anti-Catholic movement in the United States. These immigrants were described in newspapers as “Catholic hordes.” They had a way of life at odds with the mainstream. A memorable example of this negative press was a political cartoon in the New York Times. The cartoon depicted a beach scene with Uncle Sam wielding a large broom to sweep back the ocean. Out in the ocean were dozens of bobbing heads with a large label “Catholics.” Not very subtle was it?

The Protestant super-majority was extremely concerned about the encroachment of Catholicism on America’s relatively Puritan culture. Many Adventists do not know that in the 1880s most of the mainline Protestant denominations (including Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians) were strict enough to forbid the wearing of wedding rings, thinking that they had pagan connotations (that Protestant ethos began to change in the 1890s). Most also frown on drinking and dancing, among other things. The Protestant majority felt that the influx of Catholics threatened the very fiber of American culture and faith.

Around the turn of the century an Adventist evangelist named Simpson was one of the first to come up with a brilliant evangelistic strategy to take advantage of the situation. If Protestants were so concerned about the encroachment of Catholicism on “the American way,” why were they themselves following the papacy in worshiping on Sunday, instead of on the Biblical Sabbath? If American Protestants were so concerned about the dangers of Catholicism, they should go all the way and complete the Reformation, abandoning all Catholic practices and restoring biblical values. Adventist evangelists held the key, not just to a more biblical faith, but to restoring America’s greatness as a country. This was a powerful appeal that hit home to the mainstream culture in a way that Adventism has struggled to rekindle ever since. << MORE >>

Seventh-day Adventists and Revelation 13, Part 2

But the big question that confronts those who seek to share such a scenario in today’s world is: If this is true, what do we do with such information? Many Seventh-day Adventists not only feel compelled to share it, they often make it the very center and focus of the whole Adventist message in its contact with the outside world. Such motivations have led to the infamous papacy billboard campaign which aroused more anger than curiosity in the communities where these were featured. Others, particularly Adventists in countries that are predominantly Catholic, have chosen not to place this understanding at the forefront of public proclamation. They have instead focused on the attractiveness of Jesus with considerable success, saving the more condemnatory aspects of Adventist teaching for private settings where the reaction can be carefully monitored.

I encountered the latter perspective in the first evangelistic series I ever held completely on my own. It was in one of the inner suburbs of Manhattan, in New York City. Attendance was strong and a lot of people were appreciating the biblical truths that were being presented. My audience included a group of “old Catholics,” people who preferred Roman Catholicism as it was before Vatican II. They were the most enthusiastic of all the people attending. With some nervousness
I approached the day when the topic “mark of the beast” would be shared. I invited my conference president, Merlin Kretschmar, to attend. Kretschmar was a very earnest and conservative SDA who had spent many years working in Brazil (he and his wife later established the Key Encounter [Florida] tourist attraction in retirement). I highly respected his leadership and wanted his support and feedback in my evangelistic endeavors.

When the night came, however, he did not show up. When I asked him later on, he told me that he did not think that topic was a good idea for a public meeting. During his time in Brazil (a largely Roman Catholic country), he and others in the church had stopped using that message in public meetings, finding that it did more harm than good. “But I didn’t say anything about your plan,” he told me, “because I thought you ought to find out for yourself.” Well, I did find out. The following meeting the “Old Catholic” group was not there. With some trepidation I paid them a home visit. The most vocal member of the group spoke kindly to me. “Your meetings were such a blessing to us until that night. But your mark of the beast lecture was very disappointing to us. We feel you crossed a line there. For one thing, it wasn’t good history. You used The Catholic Sunday Visitor and the teachings of catechisms as evidence for Catholic teaching. But they are not the source of official Catholic teaching. Official Catholic teaching is grounded in the decisions of councils and the ex cathedra statements of the Pope. What you did was unfair and wrong and we regret that we will no longer be attending your meetings.”

I could have slapped myself in the face, right in front of him. He was absolutely right. I had learned this in seminary. The official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are based on two things and two things only: 1) official decisions of the great councils (like Vatican II), and 2) ex cathedra statements of made by the Pope himself (ex cathedra is Latin for “from the chair,” statements made with the full teaching authority of the position). If you want to know what the Catholic Church teaches, there is one source. In English the official collection of the relevant documents drawn from the above sources can be found in the book by Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma. I had used the standard approach that I had seen other evangelists use, but had failed to realize that the approach was not only dated, it was not historically accurate. You can get away with that when the audience is already hostile to Catholicism, but in today’s world such hostility is rare.

So when my conference president told me he already knew that and wanted me to find out for myself I thought: Thanks a lot! Now you tell me! I was completely surprised by his reaction because up until then I had thought that I was obligated to make the mark of the beast concept front row and center in every public meeting, even though it created some discomfort in me. Something about it had never felt completely right, but I wanted to do what the Lord wanted me to do, so I went ahead and burned some beautiful relationships. Ever since I have been wrestling with this issue and I will share the results of this wrestling here.

To the Seventh-day Adventists who are reading, here is a small bit of perspective: While the negative messages of Revelation 13 have had central play in much Adventist evangelism over the last century, they are not in the 28 fundamental beliefs of the Adventist Church. Their function is not at the core of what it means to be an Adventist Christian, rather they serve two potential purposes. 1) They serve as boundary markers at the edges of the faith for those who need them. Many people can deal with a little theological ambiguity in their lives, but for those who need clarity, Revelation 13 can provide that clarity. 2) It is an important part of an evangelistic strategy that is more useful in some places than in others. As we wrestle with the usefulness of such a strategy in today’s world the question arises: How did the message about the papacy become so prominent in Adventist evangelism? A short review of American religious history may be instructive.

To be continued. . . << MORE >>

Seventh-day Adventists and Revelation 13

This is the first in a series of blogs on Revelation 13 and the special issues it raises for Seventh-day Adventist evangelism. In this series we will explore what the chapter appears to say about the papacy and how we should relate to such information. I ask what, if anything, should be said about such things in today’s world, where “Catholic bashing” or loud criticism of any other ethnic, racial or religious group tends to close minds rather than open them. The preaching of the gospel requires open minds for success, so one must justly ask if a biblical truth, expressed at the wrong time and in the wrong place, can actually work against the mission of the church.

As Seventh-day Adventists understand it, Revelation 13 covers two main eras of history. The first is the broad sweep of history beginning with the Middle Ages and ending in modern times. The second is the final era of earth’s history, summarized in Revelation 12:17 and climaxing with the mark of the beast and the final battle over worship. Our exegesis confirms (see ongoing Facebook Commentary on Revelation) that the parts of Revelation 13 that Adventists have understood to refer to the earlier period are all in past tenses (Rev 13:1-7, 11). The end-time portions of Revelation 13 (verses 8-10 and 12-18), on the other hand, are in present and future tenses (in the original language). Revelation 12:17 sets chapter 13 in the final crisis. The dragon goes to the “sand of the sea” to call up allies for the final conflict. But each of those allies has a history, the one (land beast: 13:11) much shorter than the other’s (sea beast: 13:1-7). So while the primary focus of Revelation 13 is on the time of 12:17 (the final battle), the history and identification of the two beasts means that nearly half of the chapter deals with the earlier of the two periods.

As Adventists interpret this chapter, the Papacy dominated, persecuted and deceived “the world” from around 538 AD through 1798 AD. It then received a “deadly wound,” including the loss of civil power (the Papal States) that began to be healed when Mussolini returned Vatican City to the political control of the Papacy in 1929. From that time on Adventists anticipate that the power and influence of the papacy will increase until its end-time alliance with the United States produces a dominance similar to what it had in the Middle Ages. In other words, the sea beast of Revelation 13 is the end-time reincarnation of the Papacy of the Middle Ages. The land beast, on the other hand, is something relatively new, a world power that arises outside of the traditional locus of world power, the super-continent of Eurasia. Adventists understand the land beast to be the United States of America. Together, the Papacy and the US will support the dragon/Satan in his final attempt to defeat Christ and His people. In Adventist understanding, that final battle is further elaborated in chapters 14-18.

In this scenario, the United States of America will eventually dominate the world in a way similar to the Papacy’s dominance of Western Europe in the Middle Ages. The events surrounding September 11 have certainly enhanced the plausibility of such a scenario. America has become a “reluctant empire.” But reluctant or not, it is the most powerful empire in the history of the world. Even the minor decisions it makes must be accounted for by every nation on earth. The great irony in this scenario is that the enemies of God and the gospel in the final crisis of earth’s history are identified as the United States and the Papacy, the very entities most closely identified with Christianity in today’s world. In the end, “Babylon” will have a Christian face. The final events will be a surprise to all except those who have most carefully attended to the prophecies of Scripture (and perhaps some Muslims).
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The Ultimate Act of Terrorism

For those of us who experienced it, September 11 was an unimaginable expression of evil at its worst. It fundamentally altered our perception of the world and our own role in the world. But September 11 was not the most evil act of all time. The Holocaust, as chillingly brutal and unfair as it was, was not the most evil act of all time. The Inquisition, the Crusades, the genocides of Armenians, Russians, Rwandans, and Cambodians in the 20th Century, the slave trade across the Atlantic, all of these qualify as acts of systematic pre-meditated evil. But none of them qualify as the most evil act of all time.

The cross was the most evil act of all time. When human beings, for temporary and limited political advantage, crucified the God who came down and lived among us, they acted in the most incomprehensible, unfair and evil manner possible. In rejecting Him, they were doing more than just condemning an innocent man to death, they were destroying the source of their own life and rejecting their own place in the universe. The cross of Jesus Christ is an evil act of infinite proportions. If the human race is capable of such an act, no evil action is unimaginable.

But there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of human evil. God has turned the cross into a powerful act of reversal. The greatest evil ever done has been transformed by God into the most powerful act of goodness ever performed. By death God brings life. Through defeat comes victory. Through shame, humiliation and rejection come glory, grace and acceptance. Through the cross God has turned the tables on evil and death. The greatest evil has become the basis for the greatest good. << MORE >>

Suffering, the Cross, and Experience Today

What difference does it make to believe in the cross today? For me it changes everything about suffering. Some have used undeserved suffering as an excuse to disbelieve in the existence of God. But atheism has not lessened human suffering one iota. If anything it makes it worse, because one is all alone in the suffering, it has no meaning and no future.

But the cross demonstrates several things that make a difference. First of all, it tells us that we are not alone, even though it may feel that way. It tells us that suffering is not a sign that God doesn't care, He cares ever so much, but he doesn’t always intervene to avert pain. God’s absence in suffering is not a hostile one or a helpless one, it has a higher purpose. In the light of the cross we have a reason to endure, even though we may not know the particular reason why. When we suffer without deserving it, we share in the experience of Jesus. When we feel the absence of God in our pain, we share in the experience of Jesus. He went there before us and understands how we feel.

I remember a man who always had a smile for everyone, an encouraging word, a pat on the back or a hug. There seemed to be no limits to his optimism and his joyful spirit. You never heard him say anything bad about anybody. When people in his church got to fussing with each other, he just kept on smiling and praying through everything.

In his 70s, however, his heart began to fail. If anyone could do battle with heart disease through the medicine of laughter and optimism he was the one. When I visited him in the hospital I somehow expected him to be weak but to still be his normal self in terms of optimism. It wasn’t that way at all, however. He poured out his anguish. “Why me? Why now?” This stalwart Christian had lost track of his optimism. I was truly confused, wondering momentarily if I had visited the wrong person. It was unquestionably him, but his spirit had been broken and I could hardly recognize him as a result.

I wondered what I could possibly say that would make any difference in his great hour of need. I thought of the sentiments I mentioned above. I decided to try something.
    I told him, “Harvey, (not his real name) if I were in your situation, I’m sure I’d feel as upset as you do.”
    “I’m sorry I’ve been such bad company today,” Harvey said, “It really does feel better to share how I feel about it with you.”
    “Harvey, did you know that Jesus felt the same way as you do on the cross?”
    “He did? How do you know?”
    “Do you remember what He said on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ That tells me He knows how you feel, and that He thought it was OK to challenge God a little. God would rather hear our honest anger than our silence or even sweet words that aren’t heartfelt.”
    “You really think so?” Harvey asked.
    “That’s what the Bible says,” I replied. “It’s OK to tell God how you feel, even when you don’t feel so good. But you know what I think?”
    “What?”
    “Now you can also understand what Jesus experienced on the cross. He didn’t deserve to suffer and die any more than you do. What He went through wasn’t right, but He endured knowing it would turn out all right in the end. If nothing else you are having a share in the suffering He went through. You can understand Him in a way that I can’t, with all my study and training. If God is allowing you to go through this then He must know that the ultimate good will outweigh the present evil.”

We continued the conversation for a while along the same lines, and then he said, “You know what? Today you taught me something. I was thinking about me. But now I see a bigger picture. Now I understand what Jesus went through for me. This isn’t fun, but if it helps me know God better it is worth it.” Harvey’s perspective had changed. He relaxed against the pillow with a slight smile and a look of peace on his face. You don’t always have to know the “why” of suffering as long as you know you are not alone.

To be concluded. . . << MORE >>

The Suffering God

The book of Job (see previous blog) is not the Bible’s last word on the matter of suffering. The cross is the Bible’s final answer to the problem of suffering. As Jesus was dying on the cross, His greatest suffering had little to do with physical pain from the spikes through His hands and feet, the thorns piercing his forehead, or the torturous effort to breathe enforced by crucifixion. His greatest suffering arose from the apparent absence of God in the midst of His suffering.

Jesus knows from experience what it is like to suffer undeserved suffering and pain. He did not deserve to be whipped, beaten, slapped and spit upon. He did nothing to deserve a sentence of death, a hateful mob, or the torture of crucifixion. To the victims of September 11 and other tragedies the cross says: “God knows, He understands, He has tasted what it is like to suffer without having caused it in some way.”

Like the book of Job, the cross offers up no definitive answer to the problem of unjust suffering. What it does, however, is offer companionship in suffering. The times when we experience undeserved suffering and pain are like our own Friday in Jerusalem. We feel as if our experience were unique, as if no one has ever been more alone. But Jesus Himself went there in depth on the original Good Friday. He understands what it is like to be totally alone, totally rejected and abused. He’s been there and done that. And in a sense He tasted just a bit of everyone’s else’s experience (1 Pet 2:20-24).

But for Jesus the story didn’t end on that Friday although it seemed that it would. When He cried out to God, “Why have you forsaken me?,” He Himself seemed to see no hope for the future. But His suffering and abandonment turned out to be a prelude to the incredible affirmation of Easter Sunday. When He was raised from the dead His acceptance with God was re-affirmed. In some sense the whole human race stands in a new place with God (Acts 13:32-33). The cross has turned human suffering into a prelude.

To be continued. . .
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The Story of Job

The Bible does not leave the issue of personal tragedy and suffering unaddressed. In one of the earliest writings in the Bible, there is the story of a man named Job, drawn up in the genre of a Hebrew play. The story wrestles with the issue of why bad things happen to good people (Psalm 73, on the other hand, addresses the issue of why good things happen to bad people). This story has had such an impact on the world that even in today’s secular environment, nearly everyone has heard of “the patience of Job.”

Job was a very wealthy man, perhaps the richest in the world. But his greatest treasure was his children, seven sons and three daughters. Every morning before the sun rose he prayed that God would protect them through the day. But one day, while Job was praying, his case came up in the heavenly court, although he was not aware of it.

Satan, the prince of evil and darkness, sneaks into the heavenly court with a crowd of “the sons of God.”
    After noting his presence, God offers Satan a challenge, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He worships me faithfully and is careful to do nothing wrong.”
    Satan counters, “Big deal. He’s into religion for what he can get. You’ve given him everything. No wonder he worships you. But mark my words. Take away all he has and he’ll curse you to your face!”
    God responds, “OK, we’ll see. . . Everything he has is in your hands, just don’t hurt Job himself.”

The scene moves back to earth, where one disaster after another falls on Job’s estate. Bandits, fire, marauding armies and storms destroy Job’s animals, servants and possessions, and eventually even his children, leaving him destitute and childless in a moment. Job’s response? He falls on the ground, worships God and says, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (Job 1:21).

After this the scene in the heavenly court reconvenes. God challenges Satan, pointing out that Job’s faithfulness has not diminished, in spite of the great losses he has experienced. But Satan isn’t finished yet.
    “Big deal,” he exclaims, “Skin for skin! A man will give all he has for his own life. But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
    God responds by placing Job in Satan’s control, with only one limitation. Satan must spare Job’s life. So Satan goes out and afflicts Job with loathsome and itchy sores from head to toe. Even his wife turns against him and urges him to “curse God and die.” But Job is not left alone. Three “friends” hear about his troubles and come to console him in his sorrows.

Most of the play is about the attempt of Job’s friends to convince him that God is not arbitrary (Job 4:7-11; 15:17-35). If things have gone wrong for Job, he must somehow be to blame for it (8:1-22; 15:5-6; 22:1-11). God is trying to get his attention (Job 5:17-27). So if Job would just turn to God and humble himself, things would get better (22:21-30). Great friends!

In response, Job denies the charges (Job 7:7-21). He insists that he is an exception to the rules, that he is innocent of anything that would justify his great losses (6:24-30; 13:13-23; 31:1-40). Under harassment from his friends (6:14-23), he begins to accuse God of injustice and oppression (9:13-35; 10:1-22; 27:1-6). In the real world the wicked prosper and the righteous die (21:7-34). And God sits there and watches it all (28:24). Job wishes he had never been born (Job 3:1-19).

After a lengthy and tedious debate the four men fall silent and a fifth appears, named Elihu. In pious pride He comes to defend God against both Job and his friends. Pain is one way God uses to get people’s attention, he declares (33:19-28). God never does the wrong thing, He gives people only what they deserve (34:1-15).

God then surprises all five men, approaching in the midst of a mighty thunderstorm (Job 37:21-22). He speaks out of the storm and addresses Job and Job alone (38:1 - 42:6). At first God seems to support all that the four companions of Job had said to him. He accuses Job of questioning Him with ignorant, empty words. Then He throws a series of unanswerable questions Job’s way. “Where were you when I made the world? You know so much, tell me about it. Have you ever commanded a day to dawn? Have you ever walked the floor of the ocean? Can you guide the stars from year to year, or change their orbits?” And so on.

After Job admits his ignorance for the first time, God pelts him with another series of unanswerable questions. “Do you gather food for the lions? Did you teach the hawk how to fly? Can you tie up a whale like a pet bird? Are you trying to put Me in the wrong so you can be right?” Job offers the only possible response to overwhelming rightness and power. He says plaintively, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

Here’s the catch in the story. God never answers any of Job’s questions, instead He asks Job questions. Nevertheless Job’s attitude is totally changed. Out of his new understanding and relationship with God he is satisfied that God is just. Knowing about God is not the answer to his questions. Knowing God is.

Anyone who comes to this biblical play expecting all the answers to the problem of suffering is likely to be disappointed. Job’s friends are full of answers, many of which are still offered today, but all of the answers get mocked at some point in the book. When God appears, He offers no answers but just a sense of His overpowering greatness.

Perhaps the main point of the book is that none of the general answers to the problem of suffering had anything to do with why Job was suffering. The real reason Job suffers has to do with a wager between God and Satan in the heavenly court. No statement in the earthly part of the book (chapters 3-42) ever returns to that issue, not even the statements of God Himself. So the point of the book seems to be that the limited context of human experience does not allow a satisfying intellectual answer to the problem of suffering. We just don’t have the context to understand, even if the one doing the explaining is God.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that our lives on this earth are hostage to cosmic wagers God is making out there somewhere. After all, Job is only a play, not a detailed explanation of the ways of God. But the point of the play is that our lives are affected by wider issues in the universe as a whole, things that don’t make sense from the perspective of a single planet alone. God’s will is not always done on this earth. As God asserts in the book of Job, to try to explain September 11, the Holocaust and similar events is like commanding a day to dawn, roping a whale or walking on the floor of the ocean! It is just not a realistic enterprise for humans confined to the limited context of this earth.

Why then was Job satisfied with God’s answer, even though it was not a real answer? If nothing else, it was because God cared enough to answer. After all, if God answered all of Job’s questions, how could the story be a comfort to those who don’t get any answers to their questions? But as it stands, Job’s story can be a comfort to those left in the dark. While Job doesn’t get any answers from God, he does encounter Him, and that is enough. To know God is to trust Him.

Perhaps the best news in the book of Job is that undeserved suffering will not last forever. It ended for Job and it will one day end for the human race as a whole. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “The earth is like a stage and we are merely players.” One day a much bigger picture will be revealed. << MORE >>

The Problem With Miracles

In the March 21, 2002 issue of Adventist Review, Stephen Chavez reflected on the arbitrary nature of the events of September 11 and what that had to say about God. Chavez stated that there are two problems with miracles. For one thing, it is hard to tell the difference between a miracle and a coincidence. If a commuter plane goes down and half the people are killed, how many of the survivors were saved miraculously and how many were saved simply because they were sitting in the “right” section of the plane? No doubt those who survived would be inclined to consider their survival a miracle.

Which raises a second problem with miracles. Why didn’t God miraculously preserve everyone’s life? Tragedy is difficult enough to take by itself. But the preservation of even one person in the midst of slaughter, as wondrous as that may be, serves as the frame for a giant question mark regarding the loss of so many.

In the tragedies of September 11 thousands were killed and even more thousands were spared. There is no detectible pattern among the saved or the lost that would offer any explanation. Sometimes it was as simple as who got up and who slept in, or who was located on the 91st floor and who was located on the 92nd. Chavez concludes by suggesting that survivors need to be careful how they celebrate miracles. “Not everyone survives a terminal illness or an automobile accident; not every lost child (tool, dog, wallet, watch) is found.”

To be continued. . .
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When Tragedy Strikes

For many people on September 11, survival seemed to be an accident of location and timing. George Sleigh was a manager at the American Bureau of Shipping, on the 91st floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. He was on the phone in his office when he heard the roar of jet engines. Looking out of his window, he had just enough time to think, “The wheels are up, the underbelly is white and man, that guy is low.” It was 8:46 AM and a Boeing 767 airplane was headed toward him at 500 miles per hour, with 92 people and more than 50 tons of jet fuel aboard. The jet exploded into the building at floors 93 through 98 just above him. The walls, the ceiling and bookshelves in his office crumbled.

Crawling out from under the rubble Sleigh looked up at the exposed beams and concrete underside of the 92nd floor. What he didn’t know at the time was that his concrete ceiling was the floor of a giant tomb for more than 1300 people. Not a single person survived on any of the floors above him, but on his floor and below nearly everyone lived to see another day. The line of survival was as thin as a steel beam or a concrete slab. All of those on the 92nd floor died and everyone on the 91st floor lived.

Counting heads, Sleigh discovered that 11 of the 22 employees at his office were on duty at the time. None were injured. Other than Sleigh’s area the office was largely intact. Sleigh went back to his area to get his briefcase. The closest stairway was blocked, but the second was open. Heading down for several floors, Sleigh and his colleagues found the going quite peaceful. There was nobody behind them. By the time they reached the middle of the tower, Sleigh’s office was engulfed with flames. Fifty minutes later, having become separated from his colleagues in the increasing press on the staircases (more and more people were evacuating and room had to be left for the firemen who were charging up to fight the blaze), Sleigh left the building and was loaded into an ambulance; bruised, bloody, and covered with dust. “Get out, get out,” a policemen yelled, “The building is coming down.”

It was 9:59 AM. The South Tower was collapsing. The North Tower’s highest survivor was on his way to Beth Israel Hospital.
    “Sometimes, I think it was God’s providence that spared me,” Sleigh said. “Other times, I wonder why me and not others. I realize I am a very fortunate man.”
    Why George Sleigh and not 3000 others? Why did God seem to go out of His way to preserve one life when so many other people lost their lives that day?

To be continued. . .
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The Problem of Evil VII: The Implications of the Cross

What was the cross all about in God’s purpose? What difference did it make? I’d like to highlight two things. First, the cross changes the way we look at our personal lives, particularly our mistakes and failures. According to the Bible, human beings are not simply imperfect creatures that need improvement, we are rebels who must lay down our arms. Those who crucified Jesus acted no differently than we would have, given the same circumstances. In other words, the struggle to overcome evil is not, first of all, a social or political task, it is a struggle against the evil within.

This “repentance” is not fun. Acknowledging failure is humiliating and repugnant. But it is the necessary path toward redeeming our lives from the downward spiral of the evil that besets us all. It is the only way to bring our lives into the sunshine of reality. This “repentance” is simply recognizing the truth about ourselves. We will never change until we are willing to be changed, until we recognize that change is needed.

The neat thing about God’s plan is that He understands what this struggle for authenticity is all about. In submitting Himself to the humiliation of the cross, Jesus experienced the kind of surrender we need. In the Garden of Gethsemane He struggled to give Himself up to God’s plan. And the Bible teaches that if we follow Him in His surrender and humiliation, we will also share in His conquest of death and find new life in our present experience (Rom 6:3-6).

Tragedies like September 11 and the Holocaust are more than just the work of a few kooks and fanatics, they are symptoms of deeper issues that plague us all. The struggle to recognize the evil within us all is fundamental to the human condition, whether we acknowledge it or not.

A second difference the cross makes is, at first glance, the very opposite of the first. We all have a fundamental need to value ourselves and to be valued by others. But how can we value ourselves when we recognize that the seeds of evil are within? It seems that the better we know ourselves the more we dislike ourselves and the worse we feel. How can we elevate our sense of self-worth without escaping from the dark realities within? That’s where the cross comes in.

How much is a human being worth? It depends on the context. If they were to melt me down into the chemicals of which my body is made, I understand I would be worth about twelve dollars (make that thirteen, I’ve gained a little weight). But the average American is valued by his or her employer at a much higher level than that, something like $50,000 dollars a year. But suppose you were a great basketball player like Michael Jordan. Suddenly the value jumps to tens of millions of dollars a year. And if you were the nerdy designer of the software everyone in the world uses, you would be valued at tens of billions of dollars (Bill Gates)!

You see, we are valued in terms of what others see in us. But according to the Bible human value is infinitely higher than the value we assign to each other. According to the Bible, Jesus was worth the whole universe (He made it), yet He knows all about us and loves us as we are. When He died on the cross, He established the value of the human person. When the Creator of the universe and everyone in it (including all the great athletes and movie stars that people often worship) decides to die for you and me, it places an infinite value on our lives. And since the resurrected Jesus will never die again, my value is secure in him as long as I live .

So the cross provides a true and stable sense of value. This is what makes the story of that Friday in Jerusalem so very special. The cross is not just an atrocity. It is about God’s willingness to take on human flesh and reveal Himself where we are. It is about the value that the human race has in the eyes of God. It provides hope for a better world. How?

The best hope for a troubled world is an authentic walk with God that not only takes the “terrorist within” seriously but sees in others the value that God sees in them. If every one of us is flawed yet valuable, all other seekers after God become potential allies in the battle to create a kinder and gentler world. Armed with a clear picture of reality and a sense of our value, we can become change agents in the world.

So God’s gift of Jesus Christ provides the fundamental answer to the problem of evil in the world. But that still leaves us with the question “If God cared enough to send Jesus, why doesn’t God intervene more often to prevent catastrophic loss of life? Why is God silent in the face of suffering? Where was God during the Holocaust or on September 11? Or was He there and we just didn’t notice?”

To be continued. . .
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The Problem of Evil VI: The Event of the Cross

When faced with rebellion in the universe, God did something no one expected. He came down to earth in the person of Jesus, a man among men, but a man whose body housed the very presence of God, as much as the temple ever did (Matthew 12:6). This God-man was born in an obscure village and as a man did many amazing things, including healing the sick and raising the dead.

The climax of the story took place one Friday in Jerusalem, a sequence of events dramatized in Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ. The story of that Friday actually began on Thursday night. Jesus celebrated the Jewish Passover with his disciples. He then walked with them down the steep staircase of a street that led from the upper part of Jerusalem to the Kidron Valley south and east of the city.

From there they headed north up the valley to a favorite spot for prayer, in an olive grove called the Garden of Gethsemane, just east of Jerusalem. When they arrived at the garden Jesus agonized in prayer over the events He was about to experience. According to the Bible, Jesus’ agony had little to do with the physical suffering He would experience the next day. Rather, as the “God-man” he was designated to experience all the consequences of human evil in His own person (1 Pet 2:21-24). His death on the cross would sum up all the pain, all the suffering, all the regret, and all the rejection that evil has caused the human race. He would suffer loss of meaning, loss of relationship and all the misery of human sickness and death (Isa 53:1-12). His anguish was much more mental and emotional than physical (in contrast to Gibson’s movie).

After His arrest, Jesus is taken for immediate trial before the high priests of the national religion, Annas and Caiaphas. Due process seems not to have been a concern at the trial of Jesus. False witnesses give their “testimony,” although disagreements among them mitigate its value to the accusers. Torture is used to try to extract a “confession” from Jesus. Over the course of His various trials, He is slapped in the face, beaten with rods, whipped with long cords, mocked and derided. They spit in His face. A “crown” of thorns is pressed into His head. Today such a trial would attract major attention from Amnesty International.

The religious authorities in charge of the trial decided that Jesus should be put to death. But since they had no authority to impose the death penalty, they needed to convince the Roman authorities that Jesus was a serious threat to Rome. So Jesus’ case was bumped over to the Roman governor. After some consideration Pilate sends the innocent man to death by crucifixion.

Crucifixion was a peculiarly Roman form of execution. An individual was required to carry the heavy wooden cross-piece to the place of execution as a public warning to others. Some people were nailed to the cross, others were tied with ropes. The key element, however, was that in order to breathe victims had to exert strength to raise their bodies somewhat. Death came by suffocation when they were no longer strong enough to raise themselves. Death was slow and painful. An additional element of torture was shame and exposure, being hung naked in front of family and friends and in all kinds of weather.

Arriving at Golgotha, the place of execution, Jesus was nailed to the cross through the wrists and ankles and put on display between two common thieves. Three hours later He was dead, more from emotional and spiritual anguish than from physical causes. Rich friends of Jesus then secured His body and placed it in a cave-tomb nearby, closed off behind a huge rolling-stone door.

The story reaches a climax about 36 hours later, early Sunday morning. Several women decide to visit the tomb and anoint Jesus’ body with spices, to preserve it and show Him honor, even in death. But when they arrive at the tomb the stone has been moved away and the tomb is empty. One or two men are standing nearby in dazzling apparel (one witness calls them angels). The women are told not to seek the living among the dead. Jesus has risen from the dead and will appear to His disciples again.

To be continued. . . << MORE >>

The Problem of Evil V: The Role of Jesus

When faced with rebellion in heaven, God decided to neither rule the universe by force nor to sanction the evil that infected it. Instead, according to the great British scholar C. S. Lewis, He did a number of things to gradually turn the tide away from evil and in favor of love and justice. These are also outlined in the Bible. 1) He has provided the conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong that few humans are without. 2) He has provided some, from Abraham to Moses to Paul, with visions and dreams that helped clarify the central issues of good and evil. 3) And He provided the story of a people (Israel, the Jewish nation) and the struggles through which He sought to teach them more clearly about Himself.

Then God did the most amazing thing of all. 4) In Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem in the Middle East, a baby appeared, whose birth we celebrate every year at Christmas time. As the story goes, he was born in a manger, and visited by both shepherds and wise men. He was then forced to flee with his parents to Egypt because he was a threat to the reigning king (Matt 2:1-25; Luke 2:1-20). The reason the Christmas holiday is the high point of the year in Western countries is the conviction that this man, this single, solitary man, was the most important person who ever lived. His name was Jesus.

When Jesus reached adulthood, he went about doing good (Acts 10:38). He had an amazing ability to heal the sick (Matt 8:1-17; John 4:46-54) and, on occasion, even raise the dead (Luke 7:11-17; John 11:1-44). He brought delight to a wedding couple by turning water into wine (John 2:1-11). He fed thousands with a handful of bread and a few fish (Mark 6:30-44; John 6:1-15).

He also taught some memorable things. There were great one-liners like “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12), “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other” (Matt 5:39), and “Love one another as I have loved you (John 13:35).” He told unforgettable stories like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), and the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:18-23). He had memorable encounters with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), a Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42) and a dead man named Lazarus (John 11:1-44).

But none of that is the reason Jesus’ life was the most important in the history of the world. It was the strange habit Jesus had of going around talking as if He were God. Others have healed people, some have even claimed to raise the dead. But Jesus went beyond that, claiming an eternal relationship with God and doing things that only God can do.

Jesus is often referred to as a good man, or even the best man who ever walked the face of the earth. But neither description is accurate. Jesus could not be simply a good man. If a mere man claimed to be God he could not be a good man. To quote Lewis, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.”

If Jesus were merely another prophet, a man among many, he would be a fraud for claiming to be God. But if He is what He claimed to be, God Himself taking on human flesh, then the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are the greatest events that ever happened in the course of human history. And they are the key to explaining how a loving God, who is powerful enough to stop it, could allow so much pain and suffering in this world (but more on this later). << MORE >>

The Problem of Evil IV

While God did not will or practice evil, the possibility of evil lurked in the very freedom God invested in His creation. But once created beings used their freedom for evil and rebellion the question arises: Why didn’t God simply put a stop to evil when it occurred? Why not just eliminate evil-doers on the spot and give their squandered freedom to others more worthy?

 Imagine a couple of angels in heaven having a whispered conversation just outside the pearly gates. One angel whispers to the other, “You know, I’m not so sure anymore that God is as loving and kind as He makes Himself out to be. You know what I just heard. . . .?” As the other angel leans forward to hear the juicy tidbit a lightning bolt flashes out of the sky and vaporizes the complaining angel.

Stunned, the other angel seeks out an old friend. “You won’t believe what I just saw! Charleburt was just saying some negative stuff about God and got vaporized by lightning, just like that! You know, maybe he was right. Maybe God isn’t so loving and kind as He makes Himself out to be.” And at that instant another bolt of lightning flashes out of the sky and vaporizes the second angel.

If this kind of thing were to go on for long, what would all the angels be doing? Looking for lightning bolts, worried that they will be next! It would be the end of love and the beginning of fear in their relationship with God. From that time on they would do the right thing and say the right thing, not out of love for God, but out of fear. So eliminating evil the instant it occurs was not an option for a God of love.

A second option for dealing with rebellion would be to sanction it. God could change His law and character to reflect the new realities in the universe. Everybody would be allowed to do whatever they wanted. But this too would be the end of genuine love. It would result in anarchy, “every man for himself.” Evil would become the reigning doctrine in the universe and a destructive chaos would be the result. Injustice would reach even greater proportions than what we now experience, as everyone sought to take what they could from others. Sanctioning rebellion, therefore, was not an option for a God of justice.

As powerful as God was and is, therefore, the options for dealing with the consequences of freedom were not many. What was God to do? The Bible offers the answer.

To be continued. . .
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The Problem of Evil III

When God created the human race and gave us the gift of freedom, things went terribly wrong. Not because he created them to. Not because He wanted them to. But because that was the only way to leave open the possibility that genuine love could happen.

What went wrong? First, in heaven there was a being (Satan) who became enraptured with his God-given abilities and position and led an insurrection against the government of God (Isa 14:12-14; Ezek 28:13-15). Echoes of that insurrection can be found in Rev 12:7-9, NIV. “And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down— that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.”

Second, Satan did not give up the conflict when he was cast out of heaven, instead he transferred the insurrection to earth by enlisting the support of the first members of the human race, Adam and Eve. In the primeval garden he succeeded in turning their allegiance away from God and to themselves (Gen 3:1-7). In the process, their loving relationship with God was broken, and pain and suffering were introduced into the world, resulting in decay and death (Gen 3:8-24). To make it even worse, Adam and Eve’s rejection of God left them subject to the domination of Satan, who had enticed them to break with God.

From that point on in the Bible it could be said of all human beings, “Every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen 6:5, NIV) The world became a place of greed, exploitation, murder and chaos. From that time on the earthly evidence regarding God’s nature was a mixed bag, tokens of love mixed with portents of suffering and death. And worse yet, the Bible tells us that the world is the chief battleground of a universal civil war, and its citizens are held hostage by rebel forces. Evil does not exist in this world because God is evil, it exists here because the world is enemy-occupied territory.

The question arises at this point. Why didn’t God simply put a stop to evil when it occurred? Why didn’t He stop it in heaven before it ever got to earth? Why not just eliminate evil-doers on the spot and give their squandered freedom to others more worthy?

To be continued. . .
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The Problem of Evil II

The problem of evil all goes back to a choice that God made. When it came time to create beings, God had to decide whether these beings would be controlled by Him or whether they would be truly free. One wonders at times whether it would be better if human beings did not have free will. As “robots” we could be programmed to be good and kind and to function in a way that enhances the good of the whole creation. In a world of such beings things would never go wrong.

But there is a problem. Full robotic control leaves no room for love. Imagine your spouse were a robot with a computer for a brain. Imagine you could program him or her to have the perfect body and to respond with loving words and actions in all circumstances. While this may sound like the perfect partner at first blush, the delight in such an arrangement would quickly wear off:
    “I love you so much,” you say to your favorite robot.
    “I love you with all my silicon,” the robot responds.

When you realize the response isn’t free, the words rapidly become empty. Genuine love requires free will. Genuine love is only meaningful when it is chosen and given as a gift to the other. Genuine love occurs only when someone is also free not to love, or to love someone else. But when someone else is free to love you they are also free to hurt you and reject you. The possibility of love requires the possibility of evil. Freedom is the greatest of all risks.

The bottom line is that love and freedom go together. In order to have one you have to have the other. So when the God who is love, who is the Eternal Lover, decided to create, He also decided to make Himself vulnerable to the choices of His creatures. He made all things good (Gen 1:31), but he also allowed His creatures the freedom not to love, the freedom to reject Him. Ultimately, evil exists not because God is a tyrant, but because He is committed to openness and freedom. Evil exists in this world not because God is powerless, but because He wanted human beings to be powerful in ways that mirrored His own freedom of action.

So God created the world and filled it with loving gifts for the human race. He gave the original humans the gift of His love, but He also gave them the gift of freedom (Gen 1:26-28; 2:9, 16-17). He placed His loving heart in their hands to cherish it or reject it. God opened Himself to pain and suffering in order to experience the genuine love of His creation.

And, according to the Bible, things went terribly wrong.

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The Problem of Evil

There is clearly something wrong with this world. Between acts of genocide, suicide bombers, widespread pollution, random street muggings, sexual abuse and smart bombs that stupidly kill children, we can all tell that some sort of pervasive evil has twisted the minds and hearts of human beings. We long to believe that the world and those who live in it are basically good, but most of the everyday evidence seems to run in the opposite direction. Can God be good and yet allow so much pain and suffering into the world? Is there any reason to hope that something better lies beneath the surface of what we see and experience?

The Bible tells us that things were not always this way. According to the Bible, before there was an Earth, before there even was a universe, there was an Eternal Lover, a Being whose very nature was and is love. “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” this Being declares (Jer 31:3). Before there was an earth or any human being, this loving God envisioned what it would be like to have a universe full of creatures that could love and be loved. Like a woman who falls in love with a baby before it is born, God loved the creation before it was created. “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

The Bible goes on to tell us that God prepared the way for the creation by filling it with innumerable tokens of His love. There are the flowers, almost infinite in variety, with hundreds of shades of every imaginable color, with incredible perfumes running from light and delicate to rich and dusky. There are the fruits, grains, nuts and vegetables, with their infinite variety of smells, tastes and feels (Gen 1:11-12; 2:8-9). There are the animals ranging from the awesome and magnificent, like the lion, the tiger and the bull elk, to the unbearably cute, like the koala, the kiwi, the chipmunk and the meerkat (Gen 2:19-20).

The incredible delight one finds in the plants and the animals is not a necessary feature of existence. We could live without a variety of colors and tastes. We could live without animals. But life would not be nearly as enjoyable. We could also live without the songs of birds, but who would want to (excepting perhaps the annoying screech of the sulphur-crested cockatoo)? And that is only the beginning of God’s gifts.

I could speak about mountains and lakes, beautiful sunsets over the ocean, the smell of fresh-cut grass and many other delights. The Bible tells us that these unnecessary but enchanting features of our world are the gifts of an extravagant Lover, who wants to fill the lives of those He loves with exquisite joy (Eccl 3:13; 5:19; Jam 1:17). And in spite of the evil we experience in the world today, these tokens of God’s love are still there to be noticed and enjoyed. But if God’s intentions were so good, why is there so much pain and suffering in the midst of this beauty?

It all goes back to a choice that God made.

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The Biggest Story Ever Told: Some Concluding Thoughts

What ultimately matters is the kind of picture of God that is found in the Bible. To have an inaccurate picture of God could lead us away from Him, no matter how logical or attractive it may be. Fortunately, we are not left in any doubt. What is God like? Jesus is very clear: “If you have seen Me you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). The Father is just like Jesus. If the Father Himself had come down to earth as a baby, the picture of God would have been no different. For the writers of the New Testament there is no contrast between the God of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New. The Father is just like Jesus. In fact, for the writers of the New Testament, it is also fair to say that Jesus is the God of the Old Testament. There is no division in the godhead. It is the same God in both Testaments seeking to reveal Himself and to be understood.

 

This issue comes close to home for me. I’ll never forget the day, I must have been six or seven years old. There was a horrific thunderstorm attacking the suburbs of New York City, where my parents and I lived. I was in my usual place during storms of that violence: on the floor of the closet in my room. My mom entered the room to see what was going on and I asked her, “Why does it have to thunder like that?” Now my mom was a very good mom. She loved God and was very generous and kind with me. But all mothers can have a bad day or let something slip out of their mouths that they might later regret. On this day she said, “God is angry with all those people who are breaking His commandments.” Now, I knew I had broken a few! So every time the lightning struck and the thunder was about to hit I cowered even lower in my closet!

 

I realize now that it was years before the deepest parts of my being began to accept that maybe God wasn’t quite as judgmental and frightening as I perceived Him that day. Satan is the accuser of both God and the brethren. He is delighted when we think or talk badly of God. When you look at the life of Jesus and the way He responded to His enemies on the cross, how gentle and gracious God must be to small children who are afraid of thunderstorms! If we have seen Jesus, we have seen the Father! (John 14:9) That is what God is like.

 

The stakes are high on this issue. We become like the God we worship. And that likeness is not just in our actions, but brain scans even show changes in our brains related to our view of God. People who think of God as arbitrary, cruel and punitive tend to develop the kind of brains associated with people who are arbitrary, cruel and judgmental. But people who have the New Testament view of God develop the kinds of brains associated with people are are kind, gracious and fun to be with. We become like the God we worship.

 

That leads me to a final point. If the key characteristic of Satan is that he is the accuser of the brethren (Rev 12:10), does that imply that the key characteristic of God in response is as the encourager of the brethren? And if so, what are the implications for our treatment of each other? When we are tempted to criticize, judge and accuse in the name of God are we unwittingly (sometimes) taking on the spirit and character of Satan? We may feel the end justifies the means, but when we exhibit the character of Satan in our work for God, are we not speaking badly of God? Are we not undermining His reputation?

 

What do you think?

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The Biggest Story Ever Told VI: It’s All About Trust

In Revelation 12:11 the people of God overcome the dragon in that they do not “love their lives even unto death.” This is the kind of trust that the story of Job illustrates in the Old Testament. From the phrase “accuser of our brothers” (Rev 12:11) it is clear that the author of Revelation has Job in mind. Job faced the loss of everything that mattered to him, family, possessions, even his health. He continued to trust in God even when everything was lost and death stared him in the face (Job 3:11, 17-19). So Job becomes a model of the kind of faith (trust) that can defeat Satan in the ultimate battle.

 

Trust cannot be forced, it can only be won. When my son commits the same infraction for the hundredth time and then says, “Next time it will be different, trust me,” it is time to explain that trust is earned by consistent action. A person not only needs to do the things that earn trust, but needs to be seen to be doing them. So, ultimately, trust requires freedom, it cannot be forced, it must be gained by actions that inspire trust.

 

Imagine an angel in heaven. I will name him Charleburt (I assume angel names exhibit more variety than those we are familiar with in English). One day Lucifer comes up to Charleburt, looks both ways to see if anyone can overhear, and then whispers that God is not as loving, gracious and kind as He makes Himself out to be. He is really all about power and control. At that instance lightning strikes from above and incinerates Lucifer. What is Charleburt going to think? “Maybe Lucifer was right!” So Charleburt seeks out his best angel friend Sigmefreud (bad pun intended). He tells Sigmefreud what happened to Lucifer and then says, “I’m wondering if he was right!” Just then another lightning bolt incinerates Chareleburt. It won’t take long for all heaven to serve God faithfully— out of abject terror!

 

So the keys to trust in the universe are freedom and what God is really like. Lucifer’s charges cannot be met by force or by God raising His voice. They can only be met by actions that prove God can be trusted. I remember when we found a cat in a tree and brought her home. We named her Mickey. I don’t know what her early experiences were like, but they must not have been good. To this day, ten years later, if anyone picks Mickey up, she quavers with fear until she is put down again. Clearly she somehow learned not to trust human touch. To build even a modicum of trust in her has taken years of patient and gentle interaction.

 

So it is with God. If God is arbitrary, judgmental and severe, we will probably serve Him, but we will serve Him out of fear, not out of love. God desires the love and trust that can arise only from free moral agents. And such love and trust toward God can only happen when we view him as gracious, kind, forgiving and merciful, having our best interests at heart. And such a view of God is really critical for us. We become like the God we worship. If your picture of God is of a Being who is arbitrary, cruel and judgmental, you will tend to become like that. If your picture of God is as kind, forgiving and merciful, you will tend to become like that. One can tell by the atmosphere in a church what kind of view they have of God. And people’s views of God can be hard to change.

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The Biggest Story Ever Told V: A War of Words

The fall of Satan in Revelation 12:9-10 was a fall from influence in heaven. The accuser has no more standing there. Satan carries out a strategic retreat and continues the cosmic war on earth. That means we all play a role in the cosmic conflict. All earthly acts, great and small, make a difference.

But before we explore that further we need to ask the question, What kind of war is this cosmic conflict? Were Satan and his angels using AK-47 assault rifles, tanks, and B-1 bombers? Or was it a different kind of war? A careful reading of Revelation 12 indicates that the cosmic conflict is a war of words rather than a military conflict. Military language is used but the meanings of the language are more mental and spiritual.

Let’s begin with verse 10. Satan is cast out of heaven as the “accuser of our brothers.” The emphasis here is on the kind of words he used to gain influence in heaven. The concept of accuser is thoroughly grounded on the narrative in the Old Testament book of Job. There Satan joins the heavenly council as representative from earth (Job 1:6-7). He accuses Job of being faithful to God only for personal gain and he accuses God of shielding him from anything that could cause Job to doubt God (Job 1:8-11). God allows Satan to take away Job’s possessions but not to touch his person (Job 1:12). When these actions do not change Job’s attitude toward God (Job 1:22), Satan returns to the heavenly court as a representative of earth (Job 2:1-2). He accuses Job of extreme self-interest and in the process subtly accuses God of lying (Job 2:3-6). In calling Satan the “accuser of our brothers” the reader is led to recall Satan’s accusations against Job and his implied accusations against God. The war here is one of words rather than guns or swords.

In Revelation 12:4, the dragon drags a third of the angels from heaven. The surface implication of the wording is that this was by force. But a quick survey of all the usages of “tail” in the Old Testament leads one to Isaiah 9:15, ESV, where the following remarkable words are written: “The elder and honored man is the head, and the prophet who teaches lies is the tail.” So the dragon does not bring a third of the angels of heaven with him by force, he does it through lying words of persuasion.

As noted in the previous blog, “the ancient serpent” mentioned in verse 9 is an allusion to the lies of the serpent in Genesis 3:1-5. So the reference to serpent is not to its punishing physical poison, but to the poison of lying words. The nature of the heavenly war is confirmed in Revelation 12:11: “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives unto death.” The weapons on God’s side in the war are the blood of the Lamb, the word of testimony and willing self-sacrifice. The weapons on the other side of the war are force, deception and accusation. So the weapons in the cosmic conflict are primary words and ideas. The cosmic conflict is a war of words rather than a war of swords.

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The Biggest Story Ever Told IV: Two Separate “Castings Down?”

A feature of Revelation that is extremely important is the allusive use of the Old Testament in virtually every phrase. The author uses a word, a phrase, a name, sometimes the barest hint to alert the reader to incorporate texts, characters, places and stories from the Old Testament into the reader’s knowledge base for the interpretation of Revelation. An example of this is the phrase “the ancient serpent” in Revelation 12:9. As one of the many names of the dragon in chapter 12, it reminds the reader of the one place in the Old Testament where a serpent talks about God (keep in mind that in ancient mythology a dragon is a serpent with wings), Genesis 3:1-5.

 

In Genesis 3 the talking serpent addresses Eve: "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?" He starts out with a lie. Perhaps he knew that when human beings correct an error or counteract a lie they tend to overstate the case in the other direction. And that is exactly what Eve does. Instead of merely repeating God’s words (“of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,” Gen 2:17, ESV) Eve embellishes the rule: “But God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’” (Gen 3:3).

 

Now that the mis-statements are on a roll, the “serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’" In Genesis 3 the mission of the serpent is to tell lies about God. The issue was God’s character. Could God be trusted to tell the truth about the trees in the garden? A very minor issue, but the answer would have huge consequences. In any case, this allusion to Genesis 3 in Revelation 12 is the first hint in our chapter that the cosmic conflict may be a war of words more than a military conflict.

 

Verse 10 locates the throwing down of verse 9 in the context of Jesus ascension and enthronement described in Revelation 5. Now have come the salvation and the power, and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of His Christ.” This is appropriate to the story line, which locates the throwing down in the context of the ascension of the male child. The title “Christ” is found repeatedly in the prologue (1:2, 2, 5, 9) and at other points in the book (11:15; 12:17; 20:4, etc.). In this passage Christ is the equivalent of Michael and the male child, the primary adversary of the dragon/Satan. His central act in this drama is the cross (12:11).

 

But this raises the question, when was the casting down of Satan and his angels from heaven? Was it at the beginning of creation, as indicated in 12:4 and 13:8? Or was it at the ascension and enthronement of Christ after the cross, as indicated in 12:9-11? The latter view is supported also by the cosmic conflict text in the Gospel of John (John 12:31-32). According to Jesus there, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out (ekblêthêsetai). And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." Or were there actually two separate occasions when Satan was cast out of heaven? And if the latter is true where can the language of verses 7 and 8 fit? Does the war in heaven summarized there tie in with verses 9 and 10, as seems evident in the context? Or do they refer to the earlier battle alluded to in 12:4 and 13:8? In context, verses 7 through 10 read like a seamless unit, but evangelists continue to apply verses 7 and 8 to the earlier conflict at the beginning of time.

 

Can the two ways of reading Revelation 12:7-10 be reconciled? I believe they can, and there are hints in verses 7 and 8 that point the way. First of all, in verse 7 I have translated, along with other Greek scholars, “War burst forth.” The aorist indicative of the Greek verb egeneto points strongly to the beginning of something, even though often translated simply “was.” So although the immediate context of verse 7 is the ascension of the male child (12:5), verse 7 harks back to the ultimate beginning of the cosmic war reflected in verse 4. In addition, there are hints in the verses that follow to Old Testament texts that assume an ongoing cosmic war well before the time of Christ (Gen 3:1-5; Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6; Isa 14:12-19; Ezek 28:12-19). In the larger context, then, Revelation 12:7-8 come at the ascension of Christ, but contain strong echoes of the earlier beginning of the conflict.

 

Let me summarize. The cosmic conflict began before creation and continued throughout the period of the Old Testament. But the decisive moment in that conflict is reflected in Revelation 12, the cross and the ascension/enthronement of Jesus Christ. There are, therefore, two falls of Satan reflected in this chapter. In the words of Tonstad, the first was a fall from innocence, from the pure position in which Satan/Lucifer was created (Isa 14:12-15; Ezek 28:12-15). This occurred before the creation of the world (Rev 12:4; 13:8). The second fall, however, was a fall from influence. According to Job (1:6-12; 2:1-6) Satan continued to have access in heavenly places after his initial fall in order to accuse God’s people (Job) and by implication God Himself. But according to Revelation 12:10, it is as the “accuser of our brothers” that Satan is cast down. It is a fall from influence. Until the cross, there were beings in heavenly places who still took Satan’s lies about God and His people seriously. But from the ascension on Satan’s influence in heaven was ended. The geographical focus of the war moved from heaven to earth (Rev 12:12).

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The Biggest Story Ever Told III: Rev 12:7-9

As we move into the core passage of the biggest story ever told, I need to underline an important point: Don’t miss the story! Commentators on the book of Revelation have a tendency to move too quickly from the details of the story to interpretive applications of the various symbols in the story. In the process it is easy to lose sight of the story itself and miss many important details. So in this blog we will notice some details in the story that are often overlooked.

 

There are three characters introduced in verses 1-5 of chapter 12. The big question that arises in verse five is: Where do these characters go? In two cases the answer is obvious. In verse 5 the male child is “snatched up” to heaven in order to escape the dragon. In verse 6 the woman flees into the desert to escape the dragon. The crucial question of the story is: Where does the dragon go? The answer is not obvious at first glance. The story doesn’t tell us. But it is clear that the dragon does not immediately pursue the woman into the desert. That fact is only mentioned in verse 13, after the war in heaven passage of 12:7-12. So it is significant that in verse 7 the dragon is seen to be in heaven battling with Michael and his angels. So according to the story, the male child and the woman split up and head in different directions. The dragon first follows the male child into heaven and later pursues the woman out into the desert. Our interest in the core cosmic conflict story means the dragon’s pursuit of the woman will not be examined in this series of blogs. If you are interested in that part of the story, it is the current subject of the Facebook and Twitter Commentaries that you can keep up with at their respective sites.

 

In Revelation 12:7 we meet a new character in the story, Michael. As with the male child of verse 5, there is no visual description or summary of past actions. This leaves the impression that Michael, like the male child, is not really a new character, but the renaming of an earlier one. Since the dragon’s opponent in the story is also the male child of verse 5 and Christ in verse 10, the most reasonable explanation is that Michael is another way of describing Christ. Such multiple use of characters to describe a single individual in Revelation is common, as was noted in the last blog. After all, in verse 9 the dragon is also called the devil, Satan and the ancient serpent. So verse 7 takes the battle between the dragon and the male child/woman back up to heaven.

 

Verse 8 moves immediately to the outcome of the battle. “And the dragon was not strong enough, neither was a place found in heaven for them (the dragon and his angels mentioned in verse 7).” Verse 9 then gives the multiple names for the dragon and three times repeats the language of verse 4, “thrown down” (eblêthê in various forms). So the “throwing down” of verse 9 is parallel to the “throwing down” of verse 4. But it must be noted at this point that the “throwing down” of verse 4 was in the introduction of the dragon, actions that occurred before the birth of the male child. The “throwing down” of verse 9 occurs after the ascension of the male child to heaven, thus leaving the implication of two separate evictions of the dragon from heaven. How are we to make sense of this? Let’s first note a few more details in the story and then pursue that question. Stay tuned.

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The Biggest Story Ever Told II: Rev 12:1-5

The story begins in Revelation 12:1-5 with the introduction of the three key characters in the drama of the chapter. They are the woman, the dragon and the male child. Before reading the passage it will be helpful to review a literary pattern that is widespread in the Book of Revelation. Wherever a new character is introduced the author begins with a visual description of the character followed by their actions in the past from the perspective of the vision. After the visual/historical introduction, the character then acts within the time frame of the vision itself. So, for example, the two witnesses are introduced in Revelation 11:3-6 with some visual description and characteristics along with a time period in which they have operated (the basic tense of the account is future, in relation to the scene of John’s interaction with the angel in Revelation 10:8-11). Then the witnesses act and are acted upon in the context of the vision that follows (Rev 11:7-13).

 

In Revelation 12:1-2 the dress and standpoint of the woman are described (12:1) along with her condition and actions prior to the birth of her son in verse 5 (12:2). In Revelation 12:3-4, the dragon is introduced with a visual description of his heads, horns and crowns (12:3) followed by his actions prior to the birth of the male child (12:4). Both of these introductions are normal for the book of Revelation. Before going on to the introduction of the male child in verse 5, some comment is needed on an aspect of verse 4. It is said there that the dragon’s “tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth.” So an important part of the dragon’s history is its dragging down a third of the stars of heaven and throwing them to the earth (the concept of “throwing down” plays a major role a little later in the chapter). If we assume that stars here represent angels of heaven (Rev 1:20), the dragon was the cause of roughly a third of the angels being banished from heaven.

 

The big question, however, is: When did that casting down occur? It was clearly before the birth of the male child but how long before? The answer can be found in Revelation 13:8, where the Lamb is “slain from the foundation of the world.” The pain of the conflict has affected the Lamb from the beginning of creation. So back in the beginning the dragon swept down a third of the stars from heaven. This piece of information will become extremely important later on.

 

In verse five we meet the third new character in the chapter, the male child who is born of the woman. But there is a significant difference this time. There is no visual description of the male child nor is any of his history given. The only description given is in the future tense. The male child “will rule” the nations with a rod of iron. Then comes the action of the vision itself. The male child is “caught up” to God and His throne. So while on the surface the male child seems to be a new character, the lack of description suggests that we have already met this character before, in the son of man of chapter one and the Lamb of chapter five and other texts. So the male child represents Jesus, with particular focus on His birth and ascension to heaven.

 

This brings me to another general principle. In the Book of Revelation multiple characters can represent the same person or entity. Jesus is called the son of man, the Lamb, the male child, the Word of God and more. Satan is called the dragon, the devil, and the ancient serpent. The church of the end-time is called the 144,000, the great multitude, the remnant, the saints and more. Multiple characters in the book can end up representing the same thing. This is a crucial aspect of interpretation and helps to simplify the surface complexity of the text.

 

One other interesting principle is that a single character in the book can at times represent more than one person or entity. It is explicit in chapter 12 that the dragon represents the devil, Satan and the ancient serpent (Rev 12:9). But most scholars also note the similarity in this narrative with Matthew 2, where the baby Jesus is threatened after His birth by the soldiers of Herod, the representative of the Roman Empire in Palestine at the time. So in the secondary sense, the dragon of Revelation 12:5 acts through the earthly power of Rome.

 

What about the biggest story ever told? That comes clearly into focus in the next  blog.

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The Biggest Story Ever Told

Some time ago I reviewed the book The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking (see blogs from the summer of 2011). If you read that, you may remember how I marveled at the clarity and simplicity of a book on a very complicated subject. Among the things that Hawking describes well is the scientific search for a Grand Unifying Theory, or what Hawking calls the “theory of everything.” Science has provided large amounts of knowledge concerning many small things. The great mission among some scientists now is to discover a principle that ties all scientific knowledge together into a coherent whole (assuming that is even possible), a “theory of everything.” One could compare this situation to a jigsaw puzzle made up of 100 pieces. If all one had of the puzzle was 13 pieces, could one project the exactly what a finished puzzle of 100 pieces might look like? That’s what is going on in some parts of the world of math and physics right now. Actually, the quest is probably more like trying to configure the whole with just 13 out of a thousand pieces!

 

There is a parallel quest in the realm of philosophy and theology. And here is where it gets particularly interesting to be a Seventh-day Adventist. You see, the Adventist message is grounded on just such a “theory of everything.” It is often called the Great Controversy Theme, the Cosmic Conflict, or The Conflict of the Ages. It is the biggest story ever told, moving from eternity past to eternity future and from highest heaven to lowest hell. It is a grand story of good versus evil, of Christ against Satan. It is a story that involves everyone of us, helping to explain where we came from, why we are here and where we are going, the three great philosophical questions.

 

The Great Controversy theme was most clearly articulated in the writings of Ellen G. White, an early founder and prophetic voice within Adventism. The story lies behind her five volume Conflict of the Ages series, which focuses on the broad sweep of world history, but always with an eye to the larger story in the universe. But Ellen White did not invent the story, neither did any other of the Adventist pioneers. Besides the numerous hints of the cosmic conflict within the Bible itself, aspects of the story can be in the early third century Church Father Origen, the Qur’an, Dante, Milton and C. S. Lewis. Elements of the story also lurk begin the grand epic entitled Lord of the Rings, authored by Lewis’s good friend J. R. R. Tolkien and recently made into a blockbuster movie trilogy.

 

Growing up Adventist, I marveled at the cosmic scope of the story and longed to understand it better. In the process I came to regret how strongly most Adventists based the story on the writings of Ellen White while claiming that they had gotten it from the Bible. Yet the story was always a little harder to coax out of the biblical texts than the more straightforward story telling of Ellen White. So I made it a goal someday to explore the grand, cosmic story more deeply in the biblical text itself. This goal has been encouraged more recently by the work of two other Revelation scholars. First was the Norwegian scholar Sigve Tonstad, whose dissertation on the cosmic conflict theme was published as a book, Saving God’s Reputation. More recently, South African pastor Steven Grabiner completed a dissertation on the relation of the hymns of Revelation to the cosmic conflict theme. I am indebted to both scholars for not only inspiring me to dig deeper into this concept, but also to provide many of the detailed observations about the text of Revelation that have moved my own understanding forward.

 

Starting with the next blog, I plan to begin laying out the fruits of my study into the crucial cosmic conflict text, Revelation 12. That chapter lays out a sweeping view of human history from the birth of Christ to the final battle of earth’s history. It does so all the while with an eye to the heavenly aspects of the conflict that help to shape human history. The study of this chapter, particularly verses 7-12 are at the core of the biblical presentation of the biggest story ever told. (allusion to a famous Jesus movie is intentional)

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The Encourager of the Brethren

Just this morning I was pondering the war in heaven passage of Revelation 12:7-12. My attention focused in on verse 10, where the kingdom of Christ is established in heaven and the dragon/Satan is cast out. What caught my attention was a phrase I was familiar with but have not always been conscious of where it was located in the Bible. According to Revelation 12, the key characteristic of Satan (besides being angry a lot of the time– 12:12, 17) is that he is the “accuser of the brothers” (12:10– or “brethren” in some translations). This concept is based on the Old Testament accounts in Job 1 and 2 and Zechariah 3. There Satan is found dialoguing with God, in the first chapters with regard to Job, and in the latter with regard to Joshua the High Priest. Revelation 12 picks up on this and sums it up in a phrase, “the accuser of the brothers” (in the inclusive way the ancients used male gender terms, this clearly includes male and female).

But if the key characteristic of Satan is that he is the accuser of the brothers, does that imply that God’s key characteristic in response is as the encourager of the brothers (and sisters)? And if so, what are the implications for our treatment of each other? When we are tempted to criticize, judge and accuse in the name of God are we unwittingly (sometimes) taking on the spirit and character of Satan? We may feel the end justifies the means, but when we exhibit the character of Satan in our work for God, are we not speaking badly of God? Are we not undermining His reputation?

It seems to me that the more we speak in behalf of God the more we need to be aware of the subtle messages about God’s character that people pick up when we speak in His name. It’s a heavy responsibility. But it is also a relief. We can leave the judgment in God’s hands and do all we can to encourage people to trust in Him no matter what they have done. It is the job of the Holy Spirit to convict of sin, it is not ours (John 16:8-
11).

There may also be a bit of self-interest lodged in this topic. Notice what James 2:13 says, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” To put this in other words: In the final judgment God allows us to set the standard of our own judgment, at least up to a point. The one who was heartless, judgmental and critical will be required to live up to their own standards. Those who have been gracious, kind and merciful will be treated in the same way. An illustration of the same principle can be found in the parable of Matthew 18:21-35. The man forgiven ten thousand talents shows disapproval of the king’s (God’s) judgment by showing no mercy to one who owes him a few month’s wages. In his second call to judgment he is treated the way he treated his fellow servant.

These texts make me deeply regret every time I have thoughtlessly criticized others, whether to their face or not. The thought that every time I do I am setting a harsher standard for my own judgment is a major incentive to mercy and kindness. (Hopefully at some point I will instinctively act with mercy and kindness toward others simply because that is how God has treated me.) I pledge from here on to speak of others as if they were in the room. What do you think? << MORE >>

Some Thoughts About Being God

The story of Alexander II, Tsar of Russia in the mid-19th Century (see previous blog), is reminiscent of the story of Jesus, assassinated by the very people He was trying to help. Alexander seems to have genuinely wanted to give his people freedom (somewhat like Abraham Lincoln at around the same time). And yet he was blamed for the consequences of that freedom by both the nobles who had lost control over the serfs and by the serfs themselves, who struggled to know how to exercise that freedom in constructive ways. The ultimate outcome was even greater repression from the two successors of Alexander II.

It made me wonder about the challenges God must face in attempting to communicate with human beings. God longs for his creatures to respond to Him freely in love and trust. But then we blame Him for the consequences of our exercising our freedom in ways He has urged us not to try in the first place. When we suffer or are abused, we plead for God to be more of an interventionist in this world, but should God intervene more than he does we would probably accuse him of being arbitrary, judgmental and severe. Then when God does not intervene at our every whim, we accuse Him of being silent when we pray or not caring about our plight. In the words of Yogi Berra (I suspect), “You can’t win for losing.” In the words of Jesus, “I have many things to tell you, but you can’t handle them now” (John 16:12). God would reveal much more of Himself if we were truly open to the truth. But in many ways we blind ourselves to the truth (Jer 17:9), preferring the comfortable and the familiar.

The ultimate way for a God to communicate with humans, of course, would be to take human form and live out what He is like in a context we can understand. But even that has pitfalls all its own. Let’s imagine you are one of the disciples of Jesus. You have just spent a long day in the hot sun walking with Jesus from one location to another. Late in the day you are walking nearby and the wind is just right. You catch a strong whiff of body odor emanating from the Son of Man. At that instant would you be more likely to say, “Wow, He really IS God after all!” I rather doubt it. The very form that God took in order to reveal Himself to us where we are, becomes the very means of doubt.

So I have come to a deeper appreciation of the challenge it must be to be God. I suppose the simplest way out would have been never to create free beings in the first place. But in choosing to create, God chose to create free beings who could love and be loved. And once you do that you open the way to freedom being abused (if you always prevent abuse, then the freedom is not really free). I am glad for both the creation and the freedom. And I am glad that God is willing to do whatever it takes to be made known to us and to preserve freedom in an atmosphere of love and respect. But I have a deeper appreciation of what it must mean to be God. << MORE >>

The Allure and the Fatal Flaws of Communism

Why was Communism embraced by so many Russians? Why is it still attractive to them today? I was in Saint Petersburg on May 9, the celebration of the victory over Naziism in World War II. Old soldiers were strutting around the city in uniform with their chests bristling with medals from the war. As many Soviet flags were being waved around as the new Russian Federation flags. There is clearly a lot of nostalgia for the “bad old days.” The promise of Communism was that everyone would be treated equally. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” It was a noble sentiment and in many ways sounds like the society of heaven. But the idea ran aground on a couple of essential flaws in the human condition, the attraction of power and corruption on the one hand, and the fear of freedom on the other. Let me say a little more about both of these.

In principle the idea that everyone would be treated equally is a noble one and worthy. The issue becomes how to achieve that. In Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution fairly quickly resulted in a new tyranny. Those whom the revolution placed in charge became oppressive toward anyone who disagreed with them (we visited several places of summary execution for pastors, businessmen and intellectuals who dared to think differently than Lenin or Stalin), and quickly used their power to gain economic advantage for themselves. When government is the basis for redistribution of the wealth, the result tends to be that the poor become dependant on government for their existence, and the power of government is expanded, even in a democracy. So revolutions frequently replace one form of tyranny with another. The noble ideas of the intellectuals tend to be overcome by the greed of a new “noble class.” So the human condition undermines the good intentions of those who govern.
   
But there is another side to this dilemma. The enormous wealth of the Russian royal family was a result of extreme inequality in the country. Wealth and power were concentrated in the hands of a few nobility and the vast majority of people were serfs, owned by the nobility, generally restricted to the place where they were born, little more than slaves. But not all of the tsars were happy with this situation. According to Alexei, our guide in Saint Petersburg, Catherine the Great (1762-1796) wanted to free the serfs but didn’t know how best to go about it. She wrote a letter to Voltaire (a French Enlightenment philosopher) asking his advice. He basically responded that people cannot handle freedom until they have been educated in how to use it. So she made minimal reforms to keep a lid on the people’s frustrations, but did not go the entire route of emancipation.

Around the time of the American Civil War, however, Tsar Alexander II (1855-1881) did free the serfs. But not having any experience with freedom, the condition of the people in many ways became worse. Alexander was rewarded for his liberal tendencies with attempt after attempt to assassinate him, not only from the nobility which resented his reforms, but also from the people he was trying to help, who felt that they had been better off when others were commissioned to tell them what to do. Alexander was finally assassinated by a street bomb in the presence of his son and grandson (his two successors). Their resentment resulted in a great repression in the decades that followed, leading to the Communist Revolution with its own millions of martyrs. The irony of the situation is that the day before his assassination, Alexander had signed bills that would have created a two-chamber parliament and moved the country toward a limited democracy. This had not yet been announced to the people, so his son, Alexander III, rescinded this action on his very first day as ruler. Alexander II was assassinated by the very people he was trying to help. << MORE >>

Alexei’s Story

Alexei worked at the Hermitage (palace museum in St. Petersburg, Russia) for 37 years, much of it during the Communist era. During that time churches and religious art were often defaced or ignored. My wife’s favorite church in the whole world, the Church of the Resurrection of Christ (popularly known as Church on Spilled Blood, more on that later), was used to store vegetables during the Communist period. It seems not only blasphemous, it is an affront to any kind of culture and taste. But that is how far the atheistic revolution went. The atheistic theory goes that religion is the cause of war, strife and tyranny. Religion certainly needs to wear that reputation in many instances, but when atheism had its golden chance to show a better way, it became ideological to the point of insanity and destructiveness.

Alexei grew up not knowing about God or even that a book like the Bible existed. His first awareness of the Bible came from colleagues who told him of an entire hall that was covered with hundreds of paintings covering the entire story of the Bible. I saw the expulsion of Adam and Eve at one end and the sacrifice of Isaac about ten meters down from there. When Alexei heard that the entire hallway and many other major pieces of art in the museum were inspired by the Bible, he felt he needed to know the Bible in order to give good tours (through the years he gave tours to celebrities like Jackie Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton). So he went to the Hermitage Library to take out a Bible to learn the background to the art he was studying. But the librarian refused to lend him a copy, telling him the Bible was a dangerous book.

Around this time Christians from overseas would deliberately leave Bibles on window sills or in corners in the hope that someone would pick it up and read it. The administration of the Hermitage instructed all employees that if they found a Bible they had to bring it immediately to the central office, no stopping along the way, on pain of dismissal if they did otherwise. So as Alexei began finding Bibles that tourists left behind, he would read them as he carried them to the office (keep in mind how huge the Hermitage is). He was looking for the dangerous parts he was told about, but he didn’t find anything harmful in it. Little by little on these journeys he picked up bits and pieces, enough to become truly interested.

One day in a restaurant he was seated near a young man who was reading a book. When he realized it was a Bible, he asked the young man where he had gotten it. The young man was a Seventh-day Adventist and invited him to attend church. Alexei went with him the next Sabbath, but kept his interest a secret at work. Things were not much less secretive at the church. When he continued coming the pastor warned him not to give his name to other people in the church or to let them know he worked at the Hermitage. And the church members were equally secretive with him. In those days there was always the fear of informers who would plant themselves in churches to spy out who was attending and who might be a threat to the government (holding different ideas than communistic atheism). So Alexei eagerly read the English Bible he was given at the church and attended faithfully for fifteen years before being baptized and releasing his full identity to the church. Twenty years after the fall of Communism, the older generation of Russian Adventists will still not greet strangers at the church, uncertain as to their motives for being there. The younger generation is much more free to meet and greet. << MORE >>

The Hermitage

I am in Saint Petersburg, Russia (known as Leningrad during the Soviet period). I write this in the afterglow of a visit to the Hermitage, former winter palace of the Tsars and world’s second largest art collection after the Louvre. There is a spiritual story in all this, so stay with me for a couple of blogs.

For those who have not seen the Hermitage I will try to post some photos on Facebook when I return to the US. I think it is safe to say that it is the single most spectacular “palace” in the world (though it has served as a museum for 250 years now). We had the privilege of touring the museum with the former director of storage and preservation of the art collections (now retired). So we got to see all the most famous pieces of art along with some detailed and even spiritual explanations of the people and scenes depicted. According to Alexei (our guide), there are 1054 rooms in the Hermitage, and he has counted 111 staircases (the traditional number that guides give is 117, but no one can find the other six!). To visit every room of the museum would require a walk of about 23 kilometers (about 14 miles). There are 150 curators and if I rightly understood Alexei, each is responsible for cataloguing and preserving 50-70,000 pieces of art, from paintings to sculpture to vases to dishware, furniture, weapons and more. At any one time, only three percent of the entire collection is available for visitors to view.

Yet in spite of this overwhelming embarrassment of riches (it was acquired by the tsars over the centuries at the expense of an impoverished nation), there are many rooms that are so spectacular architecturally that the artwork is almost invisible to the stunned gaze. There is a huge room with giant columns completely covered with gold. In another sizable room the entire walls are covered with gold that has intricate raised designs in it. In another room the detailed filigree combines with balconies, chandeliers, windows, mirrors and parquet floors to create a spectacle that, in my opinion, is unrivaled by anything at Versailles, Neuschwanstein or the cathedrals of Rome. That room was the original hermitage (where Catherine the Great could escape the constant pressure of civic duties and just hang out with her friends), a name that has since extended to the entire complex. What makes the Hermitage unlike all its rivals is that nearly each room is in a completely different style, so that it is not just more of the same, but one surprise after another, each greater than before.

Needless to say, my wife and I had an amazing experience there. We waited two and a half hours in line just to buy tickets and then spent three hours walking the museum. It was well worth the wait. But the best part of the whole visit may have been Alexei’s story, which I hope to get reasonably straight for you in a couple of days.
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The Atonement Sermon

Yesterday was an interesting experience. I had spent significant time each week over three months building a powerpoint presentation that would allow me to cover many Bible texts and complex issues related to atonement in a 25 minute sermon and still have most people able to follow. Then I got up to speak at Loma Linda University Church and the powerpoint never appeared. So I plunged ahead with no visuals. Ten minutes in it became clear that reading a series of Bible texts without giving people time to look them up was losing the audience. So I tossed out the sermon half-way through (I was on a rigid 25-minute clock) and ad-libbed from there. I think it went better after that. If you saw or heard the first sermon, that explains how the style shifted suddenly in the middle!

I saw the head of technology with a desperate look on his face come by the office after the service and asked, “What happened to the powerpoint?” He quickly said he didn’t know but they would try to get it fixed between then and the second service an hour or so later. So I went out for a while pondering and praying what to do next. I came to the conviction that the sermon I had prepared would never work without the powerpoint (it used the visuals of the powerpoint to keep interest and words for the ear to bring content), so I decided to tell them to not even try to fix it and I would just go without it for the second service. (By the way, I don’t blame the crew, they are super competent and great to work with, things like this happen and the flaw may even have been from my computer for all I know.)

I took another walk and rewrote the whole sermon, creating verbal and gesture visuals such as the story of Martin Luther at the beginning and the golf story in the middle. I also had 5-10 extra minutes in the second sermon. It was a much more comfortable experience for me. There were a few things that happened in the last ten minutes of the first sermon that I failed to recapture in the second, but otherwise, the second version is the one I hope most will see (the first was 25 minutes, the second was about 33).

So now you have the rest of the story!

For those who have not yet had a chance to see one or more of those sermons, you will soon (April 13 is already available) be able to stream or order from the church video library at www.lluc.org. style="font-size:"> << MORE >>

Conclusion to “Why the Cross?”

This is the last of a series of blogs on the atonement. They seek to answer questions like What is atonement? Does the term refer only to the cross or are there broader and more extensive meanings in relation to work of Christ both before and after the cross? What really happened at the cross? Was the cross absolutely necessary? Watch the main page of the Armageddon web site for a posting of the original scholarly article which will include the many references and sources that were involved in this research.

We have seen that there are a wide variety of metaphors for the atonement in the New Testament. Not only are these metaphors diverse, but they tend to be intertwined with each other, making it difficult to impossible to separate them and to favor one over the others. The more we understand and respect these various metaphors, the more people can be reached with the message of the cross, as people of a variety of personalities tend to be drawn to one or the other of them. And as the gospel is present to a variety of cultures, we may be led to new biblical metaphors that we had overlooked before or even be led by the Spirit to express the cross in a way the New Testament writers had not thought of. Over time, and as a result of misuse or misunderstanding, some biblical models of atonement may need to be used with caution, if at all. But in all thinking regarding the atonement, we need to be guided by the inspired models placed for us in the Scriptures.

What conclusions can we draw from this brief survey of the relationship between the atonement and the cross?
    1) The English word for atonement is most closely related to the concept of reconciliation. Atonement provides the means and the incentive to reconcile human beings to God.
    2) In the New Testament atonement is clearly focused on the cross, but in Hebrews the principle of the atonement continues in the heavenly work of Jesus Christ.
    3) The human race is in great need of atonement, being unable to save itself. There are barriers between the human race and God on both sides of the equation. Because of sin, reconciliation is first of all very costly to God, He cannot set aside its implications lightly. Also because of sin, human beings need to be drawn away from rebellion and back to relationship with God.
    4) Although sin is a barrier between God and the human race, the purpose of sacrifice is not to change God’s mind with regard to the human race, instead He Himself lovingly provides the sacrifice/ransom/atonement needed to reconcile all to Himself.
    5) Human beings are called to respond to God’s reconciling action with an action of their own.
    6) Although God allows humans to reap the consequences of their own sinful actions, He continually desires fellowship with sinful humans. His love provides all that they cannot perform in order for atonement to take place.
    7) The atonement made at the cross is not limited to some humans or even all humans, but in some sense affects the entire universe.
    8) The New Testament offers a variety of models to explain the atonement. It does not set one view as normative over against the others, and various models could be mingled in a single sentence of paragraph.

In my daily experience and that of the people I know and love life often becomes overwhelming and even depressing. Were we left to ourselves, self-medication might seem the only way out. In the words of a young person I know, “life sucks.” It is filled with tragedy, pain, suffering, and rejection. Into this mess God Himself came down to us and tasted a depth of tragedy, pain, suffering and rejection that exceeds any we have known. And however we describe what happened on the cross, it makes all the difference. Because we have been saved, redeemed, expiated, acquitted, rescued, taught and brought into a new covenant with God, we can begin to see the good, the true, the beautiful, and the just that God has poured into this world. And in seeing the down payment of these things, we also hope in the greater glories to come.
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The Cross as a New Covenant

This is one of a series of blogs on the atonement. They seek to answer questions like What is atonement? Does the term refer only to the cross or are there broader and more extensive meanings in relation to work of Christ both before and after the cross? What really happened at the cross? Was the cross absolutely necessary? When the series is finished, I plan to post on the web site the many references and sources that were involved in this research.

This model comes last for two reasons only. First, it has only received attention in the last few years as a model of the atonement, and, second, I realized in reading the work of others that I had written on this model years before but without connecting the idea to “the atonement.” This is probably my favorite model of the atonement because it is so solidly biblical and clearly goes back to Jesus Himself.

According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus offers His own interpretation of the cross in His comments at the last supper (Mark 14:24; Matt 26:28; Luke 22:20). In all three versions, the cup represents the blood of the covenant and Luke clearly adds the qualifier “new”: “the new covenant in my blood” (I am working with the evidence of the standard Greek text, various translations of Matthew, Mark and Luke privilege different manuscripts). Jesus’ (new) covenant blood is “poured out for many” (Mark 14:24), “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28), or simply “for you” (Luke 22:20).

When Jesus says “the covenant” He could only be talking about the one and only covenant of the Old Testament, grounded in the fundamental event of Israel’s history, the Exodus. After all, Jesus was presiding at a Passover meal as He spoke these words, and a review of the events of the Exodus was part of the Passover ritual. The covenant of the Exodus was the covenant with Abraham, which is grounded in the language of Eden. Clearly, Jesus saw His upcoming death as the decisive event in all of Israel’s history, and by extension, the history of the whole human race.

The language of Jesus’ comments over the cup at the last supper echoes the covenant-renewal blood in Exodus 24:6-8 in particular and the atoning sacrifices of Leviticus more generally. The connection with forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:28) also connects the death of Jesus with the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 and the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31:31-34. Jesus’ death is the means by which the people of God are liberated, forgiven and brought into a new covenant relationship with God.

In the only New Testament account of the last supper outside the gospels (1 Cor 11:23-25), Paul passes on a similar tradition, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood” (verse 25). In the book of Hebrews, the word “covenant” appears 16 times, nearly half the 33 occurrences in the New Testament as a whole. Jesus is there described as the mediator of a new (Heb 9:15; 12:24), eternal (13:20) or better (8:6) covenant that is made effective by His blood or by His death (10:19; 12:24; 13:20, etc.). Not only that, the new covenant promise of Jeremiah is quoted twice in the book (Heb 8:8-13; 10:16-18).

What makes this line of interpretation exciting is that covenant is not only a major category throughout the New Testament, even where the word “covenant” is not used, but this model has the potential of drawing a common thread through nearly all of the previous models. In summary, the new covenant promised in the Old Testament (Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 11:17-20; 36:23-28) was to be a transforming, creative act of God that would generate a renewed covenant people of God. They would be liberated, restored, forgiven, empowered and permanent. The New Testament writers understood that transforming act of God to have occurred at the cross.
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The Cross as a Pattern/Model

This is one of a series of blogs on the atonement. They seek to answer questions like What is atonement? Does the term refer only to the cross or are there broader and more extensive meanings in relation to work of Christ both before and after the cross? What really happened at the cross? Was the cross absolutely necessary? When the series is finished, I plan to post on the web site the many references and sources that were involved in this research.

While “What would Jesus do?” is a common enough phrase, we are not here addressing Jesus’ life as a model for human beings to imitate, but specifically His death on the cross. The New Testament frequently encourages believers to imitate the crucified Christ. The cross as a pattern or model for Christian behavior is explored by scholars in terms of “missional suffering” and “cruciformity.” This is a relatively new perspective although clearly grounded in the New Testament. There are multiple passages that call believers to self-sacrificial suffering after the pattern of Jesus’ suffering on the cross.

Perhaps the best-known call to “cruciformity” is found in the gospels. In Mark 8:34 (NA Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (cf. 8:35-38, cf. Matt 16:24-27; Luke 9:23-26). It is in the context of the cross that Jesus invites the first to be last and to become servant of all (Mark 9:30-35, cf. Matt 17:22-23; 18:1-5; Luke 9:49-50; 17:1-2). The cross sets a new standard for leadership; servant leadership (Mark 10:42-45; Matt 20:25-28). Jesus invites His followers to follow him in the context of the cross (John 12:26, cf. 20-25), then sets the example by washing the disciples’ feet (13:12-17, cf. 34-35; 15:12-13). Hebrews 12:1-2 describes Christian life as a race looking ahead to the crucified Christ as a model. John exhorts the believers that if they know Jesus laid down His life for them, they should do the same for each other (1 John 3:16). And nowhere in the New Testament is this message clearer than in 1 Pet 2:21 (ESV): “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”

Paul delights in becoming one of Christ’s “fools” and urges the Corinthians to follow his steady and constant example of living the cross (1 Cor 4:8-17; 11:1). For Paul, this is not so much a doctrine as a “cruciform way of life.” This cruciform teaching becomes explicit in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 where he urges that one died for all so that we may be constrained to live no longer for ourselves, but for the one who died for us (cf. Gal 5:24; 6:14,17; Eph 5:1-2). This teaching reaches an exalted height when Paul counsels the married in Ephesians 5:25-28 (KJV): “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” So for Paul it is clear that the self-sacrificing love of cross provides the model for every aspect of life. << MORE >>

The Cross as a Revelation of God’s Character

This is one of a series of blogs on the atonement. They seek to answer questions like What is atonement? Does the term refer only to the cross or are there broader and more extensive meanings in relation to work of Christ both before and after the cross? What really happened at the cross? Was the cross absolutely necessary? When the series is finished, I plan to post on the web site the many references and sources that were involved in this research.

While the previous New Testament models of atonement all focus on what God has done to pave the way for human beings to be reconciled to Him, this model of the atonement focuses on the human side of the equation, the effect the cross has on human beings. The human condition is portrayed in terms of ignorance or darkness. Jesus is the one who brings light and knowledge and reveals the true character of God. This perspective is particularly prevalent in the Gospel of John.

In the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel, the coming of Jesus reveals the knowledge of God (John 1:14). Jesus’ intimate relationship with God enables Him to rightly “exegete” (exêgêsato) God (1:18). Jesus is the “light of the world” (8:12; 9:5) who not only reveals God but exposes the true character of human beings as well (3:18-21; 13:1-17). Helping His disciples to know God is at the core of Jesus’ mission (17:3). And at the center of that “making known” is the cross, which in John is described as a “lifting up” which enables all to see the glory of God (17:1). The cross of Christ is, therefore, the supreme moment of revelation.

In the Gospel of Mark everyone, including the disciples of Jesus, struggles with who Jesus is from the beginning almost to the end of the story (Mark 1:27; 2:6-7; 3:21; 4:10-13; 8:13-21). It is only at the moment Jesus dies that the centurion recognizes what the narrator and God have been saying all along; Jesus is the Son of God (Mark 1:1, 9-11; 9:2-8; 15:39). It is the cross that reveals who Jesus is.

This focus on knowledge is not gnostic in character, rather Jesus echos the Hebrew concept of knowledge as involving close personal relationships (Gen 4:1, 17, 25; Deut 34:10; 2 Chr 33:13; Isa 55:5; Hos 6:3; 13:5). Why the cross? To provide human beings with the kind of knowledge that will draw them back to God.

This model of the atonement seems most effective when combined with one or more of the objective models of atonement like sacrifice, ransom or victory. The cross best reveals the love of God if it was necessary, if it had a purpose other than revelation as well. As Ivan Blazen illustrates, a parent racing into a house to save a child demonstrates love for that child. Racing into an empty burning house to “demonstrate love” is not nearly as effective. At Loma Linda University Graham Maxwell powerfully combined the revelation model with the victory model. The issue of God’s character is bigger than just this earth. God’s demonstration of character impacts the entire universe, not just this earth. << MORE >>

The Cross as a Victory over Satan/Sin/Evil

This is one of a series of blogs on the atonement. They seek to answer questions like What is atonement? Does the term refer only to the cross or are there broader and more extensive meanings in relation to work of Christ both before and after the cross? What really happened at the cross? Was the cross absolutely necessary? When the series is finished, I plan to post on the web site the many references and sources that were involved in this research.

The idea of ransom/redemption recalls the Exodus, where God’s redemption of Israel proved also to be a victory over the evil powers under Pharaoh. In fact, Israel’s freedom could not have been obtained without such a prior victory. The language of victory is widespread in the New Testament. It presupposes a somewhat dualistic view of the universe in which spiritual powers and sin hold sway over the human race. Sin, for example, is described as a malignant power in Romans 7:7-11.

Perhaps the clearest text asserting victory over the evil powers is Colossians 2:14-15. While parts of this passage are truly difficult to understand, the main message of these two verses is clear: The cross of Jesus Christ has “disarmed the powers and authorities” (Col 2:15, NIV) through the cross, resulting in forgiveness of sins for the human race (2:13). The language of powers (archas) and authorities (exousias) translates Greek words that have consistent reference to the demonic realm (see Rom 8:38; 1 Cor 15:24; Eph 3:10; Col 2:10). A further clear victory passage is Revelation 12:9-11, where Satan is cast down from heaven as the accuser of the brethren, and is overcome on earth by “the blood of the Lamb” (see also John 12:31; 16:11; Rom 8:35-38; 1 Cor 15:24-25; Phil 2:9-11; Heb 2:14; 1 John 3:8; Rev 5:5-10). The ultimate victory, of course, is the victory over death won by Christ at His resurrection (1 Cor 15:57) and culminating in the resurrection of those who believe in Christ (1 Cor 15:20-22). This theme often puts more emphasis on the cosmic significance of Christ’s death than on its role in human salvation.

Why the cross? Because it was needed to defeat the powers of sin and Satan, freeing human beings to return to God. Jesus is our champion (substitute again?) who defeats Satan for us (cf. 1 Sam 17:8-11). Exactly how the cross defeats Satan is less clearly worked out, but may be hinted at in the next metaphor for how the cross effects the atonement.
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