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?<< MORE >>
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.<< MORE >>
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.<< MORE >>
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).<< MORE >>
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.<< MORE >>
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.<< MORE >>
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)<< MORE >>