Eight (8) Myths of Popular Piety in Good Omens

Last night I finished watching through the Amazon Prime show, Good Omens. I was already familiar with the story, having read the Pratchett/Gaiman book several years ago. The show itself was reasonably entertaining, theologically absurd, sometimes hilarious, often dumb, but through it all David Tennant and Michael Sheen really shone as a pair of 6000-year-long friends haplessly trying to prevent the end of the world.

good-omens-amazon-tennant-sheen-goodomens-106-03098-1-fnl

Good Omens isn’t really about Christianity. What it’s about is, well, itself, and part of that self is to parody the 1976 film The Omen, in which the antichrist is born, placed in the care of an American diplomat, and through those channels brings about the imminent end of the world. Good Omens is that story, but gone screwy, partly because of the actions of Aziraphale, a compassionate but somewhat dimwitted angel, and Crowley, a clever but only accidental demon, who together happen to have struck up an unlikely friendship over the past millennia. Things go wrong, some things go right, some things are silly, and if you like those sorts of things, then Good Omens is definitely worth a few nights of your life. But if your knickers get into a twist over any irreverence associated with Christianity, then this show ain’t for you.

In fact, criticizing Good Omens (as some have been doing), is a pretty clear Proverbs 26:4 moment—that in answering the fool according to his folly, we become fools like him. The show is absurdism, and critiquing it makes the self-styled critic absurd. Much like getting upset about satire, raging about Good Omens proves that the joke’s on you.

In the next paragraphs I’m about to offer a critique of eight religious myths present, and prominent, in Good Omens. But let’s be clear that I’m not really talking about Good Omens. I’m talking about these myths of popular piety that are so common, and so prevalent, that they become part of the fabric of Good Omens without our batting an eye. Let’s dig in.

Adam and Eve with Apple

  1. There’s no mention of an apple in the Adam and Eve story.

I think this is still a surprise to many people. The Genesis text mentions two trees—the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent tempts Eve to take fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but we’re never told what the fruit is. It could have been an apple, yes, but it also could have been a pear, peach, plum, or pomegranate. Come to think of it, since none of us has ever seen a tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we’ve no idea what its fruit looks like anyway. All we know is that it looked good to eat.

  1. Few people in the early history of Judaism/Christianity thought the world was 6000 years old.

The earliest authoritative interpreters we have for the Genesis text (Origen and Augustine) explicitly urge caution in reading the Genesis 1-2 story literally. Much of church history followed their lead, and yet the passion for maths + scripture (which always = confusion) was irresistible for some. It appears that many of the more modern numbers (i.e., 4004BC as creation date) are, in fact, more modern, stemming from new understandings of dating and the sciences. Many early Christians, following Augustine, believed the earth was created instantly, out of nothing, at an unspecified time. All that to say, there is both no consensus in the Church about the age of the earth, and most people in history haven’t lost any sleep over it. I suggest we join them in that practice.

lucifer-luc-viatour-cc-by-sa-3-0

  1. Satan is, in fact, just another angel.

In popular piety, Satan is considered a superbeing, coequal with Christ and God’s chief opponent—as the embodiment of evil—in the universe. But the truth of the matter is that Satan (we believe) is nothing more than a fallen angel. He’s more like Crowley and Aziraphale than like Christ. In fact, some have speculated, his chief opponent in heaven is Michael the Archangel, rather than anyone else. What is more, as many angels appear to have specific functions (see the Angel of Death in the Exodus narrative), Satan also seems to have a specific function—he is the accuser (that’s what ha satan means in Hebrew). He shows up in Job and, well, accuses. He shows up in the Garden and, well, accuses (that God is deceptive). That’s his function. Furthermore, as a (former) angel he has no corporality. That’s what it means to be an angelic being. He also doesn’t have the power to create anything, so the idea that Satan is going to cause a child to be born—his own son—after the pattern of God and Christ is, again, absurd. He doesn’t have that power. He can’t create. He’s just a spirit.

Harrowing of Hell_Fra-Angelico-c.-1440-Museo-di-San-Marco-Florence

  1. Hell belongs to Jesus.

I grimace a little whenever I hear people claim they want to go to hell because that’s where all the party people are. The thing they don’t realize is that Jesus descended into hell, released from there its captives, took Satan himself captive, and now reigns as lord of Heaven, Earth, and Hell itself. Hell isn’t the domain of evil, it’s the place of the dead. The domain of the evil is, for the moment, the earth. At the end, Satan and all his followers will be cast into hell, but they aren’t there yet. When they do go there, they’ll be under the command of Jesus. (That’s right, in Christian theology there’s nowhere to go from Jesus at the end.)

  1. The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” serve Jesus.

No image of the apocalypse has been more evocative than the four horsemen—war, famine, plague, and death, who come to the earth bringing stages of destruction. In Good Omens, the four horsemen are the friends of the antichrist, his servants to bring about the end of the world. But the truth of the matter is that these four horsemen are agents of God. He summons them, they do His bidding, and they serve a function—that is, to remove our capacity to trust in politics (war), wealth (famine), health (plague), and life itself (death). Later in John’s Revelation, another horseman shows up—this time on a white horse, with the words, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” written on his clothes. I wonder, who could this white horseman be?

angel-of-death-3If you really want to get your brain in a pickle, there’s a good chance all the horsemen are angelic powers as well. Death looks a lot like, well, the Angel of Death. War looks a lot like, well, the Angel of War—Michael the Archangel. Plague and Famine are less easy to place, but the plot remains suspiciously similar: functionaries, they serve the functions of the Almighty.

  1. Antichrist is a way of being, not an individual.

Popular piety seems to love the idea of antichrist being a specific person, a kind of anti-Jesus who is the incarnated son of the devil—someone we can look for, and check our news sources to find. But (per myth 3), if we remember that Satan is merely another angel with no creative power, then we’re already in trouble. If we also remember that Satan isn’t even remotely God’s equal, things get more troubling still. And even more worrying is the warning in 1 John 2:18, “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.” Wait, what? Many antichrists? And they’ve already appeared? What’s going on?

The solution to the puzzle is to realize that antichrist is a way of being, not a specific person. If we can discern what it is to be in the way of Christ, then we can work out by deduction what it means to live anti that way. What is the way of Christ? Self-sacrifice, power surrendered in service, kingship by means of a cross. When Satan tempts Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, he offers him all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship. Jesus refuses, and while the temptation may seem bald and obvious (why worship Satan?) the real sting of it was in the opportunity to skip the cross. Come along, Satan may have whispered, you can have all that is yours without the costly suffering and shame. Just bend a knee! To be in the way of Christ is to embrace a difficult suffering after the pattern of Christ. It follows, by deduction, that to be in the way of anti-Christ is to reject self-sacrifice, to cling to power in the service of what we think is right, and to take kingship without a cross. This is how there can be, and have been, and are at this very moment, many antichrists.

New Jerusalem

If you really need evidence for why we’ve got to be informed readers, and competent interpreters of difficult imagery, just look at the stuff created by people reading John’s Revelation too literally.

  1. The world doesn’t end in the Bible, it’s made new.

The whole idea of the world ending is a little odd, especially since our religious text makes it more than explicit that no such thing happens. Revelation 21:1-2 is quite clear, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.” The end of the world is, well, a new world. It isn’t the end, it’s a renewal. And not only is it a renewal, if you look closely you’ll realize that nobody goes to heaven at the end of the story. Instead, heaven comes down. That, in point of fact, is what the book of John’s Revelation is all about—not the end of the world, but the arrival of heaven.

  1. John’s Revelation is not about the future, but the present.

The most pervasive and unfortunate myth of popular piety is that John’s Revelation is about the future. It isn’t. Or, at least, most of it isn’t. Most of it is about the present. There’s a bit of confusion about the language of “end times.” They aren’t coming in the future, they’ve been going on since Christ rose from the dead. The end times are now, and have been now for the past 2000 years. Take the four horsemen again. They systematically strip away all human hopes for change—through power, wealth, health, or the imagination of immortality. When have war, famine, plague, and death not been part of our human story? The horsemen aren’t coming in the future, they’re here now—and they are challenging you to place your hope in something else. Something more powerful, lasting, and eternal. The four horsemen disrupt our false confidences so that we can place our confidence in a more lasting place—on the fifth horseman.

I’m certain that these myths aren’t going away. They’re too deeply entrenched in our religious and cultural subconscious. They also make for such entertaining stories! Of these, Good Omens is good fun, but that’s all it is. If you don’t go to it for your eschatology, you’ll be fine. But you shouldn’t have been doing that anyway.

God, Allah, and the Woman at the Well

800px-Angelika_Kauffmann_-_Christus_und_die_Samariterin_am_Brunnen_-1796Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? The recent suspension of Wheaton College Political Science Professor Larycia Hawkins has given visible and caustic exposure to this question. Publicly declaring her intention to wear the Hijab as a show of solidarity with Muslims, Professor Hawkins also claimed (as partial grounding for her actions) that “we worship the same God.” Those claims caused the Evangelical college to place her under suspension due to their conviction that it conflicted with the college’s statement of faith.

A horde of commentators has weighed in on this controversy, with many immediately misinterpreting the situation as an episode in bigotry or racism. And yet the primary disagreement has been about Dr. Hawkins’s theological claim that the Christian and Muslim God is the same. In this, it appears that some four positions have emerged. One group that we might call Kneejerk Liberalism is marked by their contempt of any fundamentalism. Zealous to focus on love, rather than the knowledge of God, these commentators reject any absolute claims about the nature of God. “Of course Allah and God are the same, so long as the good (and true) followers of each religion love. Love, after all, is the main idea.” Unfortunately, these commentators are theologically lightweight, if not inept. On the opposite side of the spectrum is an ironically similar group, which we might call Kneejerk Conservatism. This group, similar in its theological ineptitude, recoils in horror from any claim that Islam and Christianity might be similar. Their grounding is a healthy fear of the blurring of categories, combined with an unhealthy and uncritical Islamophobia. Neither of these groups of professed Christians contributes effectively to the discussion.

However, there are two more groups of thinkers, both far more theologically grounded. One group, perhaps typified by Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, argues that, indeed, when Christians and Muslims speak about God, inasmuch as we are able to speak about God, we do indeed mean the same thing. The other group, which doesn’t have a typifying figure but is represented by traditional orthodoxy, argues that the differences between YHWH and Allah are too great to conflate, and that the claims that they are the “same God” are unhelpful both to Christians and Muslims alike.

These two positions are worth unpacking further, because they draw us to the nature of language and of our ability to speak about God in any meaningful way at all. We might begin with a question: To what degree does any human speak accurately when he/she speaks of God? It should be clear that no individual is ever able to speak with complete accuracy, but only ever with provisional accuracy. We always speak in approximations. This is one of the reasons for the theological diversity within the Church—no group is able to claim with infallibility that they are worshipping God truly while everyone else is wrong (although many have tried). So, first of all, the question of accurate speech about God is muddied by the problem of human epistemology. We are, in short, not omniscient.

The proposition regarding Christianity and Islam, then, seems to be as follows: to the degree that Muslims and Christians succeed in speaking about God to the best of our epistemological abilities, to that same degree we are speaking about the same God. In other words, the best thoughts of Muslims about God are similar enough to the best thoughts of Christians about God to claim that we are speaking of the same God.

There is something commendable about this line of thinking, namely, that it serves to encourage Muslim/Christian dialogue and that it calls us to a kind of epistemological humility. But there are also a few significant problems. The first and gravest of these is that Islam categorically rejects both the Divinity of Jesus and, by extension, the Trinity. Islam, as a monotheistic religion, is in this respect both actively and aggressively anti-Christian. This introduces an initial logical problem. For the Christian, Jesus is God, but for the Muslim it would be abhorrent to claim that Jesus is Allah. Furthermore, the Christian claims that God is Trinity, but for the Muslim it would be an abomination to claim that Allah is Trinity. His oneness is violated in an essential way by Christian theology. So, at the first, we can see that the initial claims of sameness crumble the moment we step from the abstract to the particular.

Dome of the Rock

The inscriptions inside the Dome of the Rock, built on the historic site of the Jewish temple, specifically reject anyone who says God is “three,” and specifically urge people not to make too much of Jesus.

A second problem is based in methodology. The claim that Christianity and Islam agree in our theology about God draws its strength from the attributes of God—for example, His eternal nature, His unchanging goodness, that He is creator, His holiness, and His monotheistic nature. However—and this is terribly important—our best thoughts about these subjects remain our thoughts; they are human categories which we employ to describe and understand God as He has revealed Himself. The danger comes when we begin to abstract these ideas about God from God Himself. In doing so we begin to elevate our thoughts about God above God, and in the process we inevitably turn those thoughts into idols. God’s goodness means nothing apart from the actions of the God who has revealed Himself to be good. To say that Allah and the Christian God are the same is to say so on the basis of these, our decidedly human, categories.

What Christianity claims, and clings to, is the idea of both History and Revelation. We do not worship God who is the sum of our best thoughts, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, called Yahweh, Who is revealed in power through the person of Jesus Christ. These claims, as the basis of Christian faith, are not abstractions, but records of a real history and a real revealing. On these grounds, to claim that the God who spoke through Jesus is the same who speaks through the Prophet Mohammed is a patent absurdity. The claim reduces God’s self-revelation to a series of contradictions, something that He Himself claims He does not do.

Perhaps an illustration will clarify this difference further. Imagine a German and a Frenchman discussing the nature of nationhood together. To begin, they dGermany and France Flag Pinsiscuss the attributes of nationhood together—love of the fatherland, love of local cuisine, proficiency in local language, similar features in geography, social service, government, and so forth. From one perspective, speaking in the abstract, they can agree that they have many of the same ideas about nationalism, and both might potentially agree that they are nationalists. But the moment you begin to argue that Germany and France are in fact the same the discussion falls apart, smashed upon the rock of history. However similar the conceptions of nations might be, when history is involved two places of different origin cannot be the same. In this historical sense, Christianity and Islam are fundamentally inconflatable.

The attentive thinker will wonder, at this point, about the Jews. If Islam and Christianity are not the same, then to what degree are Christianity and Judaism to be distinguished? Jews worship YHWH, and so do Christians. Do you claim that they are different Gods? The solution, interestingly enough, might be found in Jesus’ words to the Woman at the Well in John 4:19-23

The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.

We should note that Jesus divides those who worship God into three categories. The first category, that to which the Samaritan woman belongs, is those who “worship what they do not know.” The Samaritans, of course, were a kind of half-breed Jew, bred from the members of the exiled northern kingdom with the nations to which they had been exiled. Their worship of YHWH was fundamentally corrupted, much like whatever worship of God exists today in modern Islam, through Jehovah’s witnesses, or Mormons. Each is a group worshipping something they don’t know. The second category is the Jews, who worship what they do know. The Jews, as recipients of God’s call and revelation in history, are worshipping according to that knowledge. They are tradition-grounded worshippers, and the modern Jews should fall into this category unchanged. But here we must observe the third category of worshippers, those who are coming who will worship “in spirit and in truth.” These, clearly from John’s gospel, are the followers of Jesus. There is, therefore, a new worship, centered on Jesus, which supercedes both the false worship made by those who do not know, and the true but incomplete worship of those who do know (at least provisionally).

Christian witness, especially in the Islamic world, will not be served by conflating and minimizing the differences between our two religions. Nor is it served by either the fear of kneejerk conservatism or the contempt of kneejerk liberalism. Instead, after the pattern of Jesus, we must faithfully and graciously reassert the essential points of our historic faith, while at the same time inviting the partial knowledge of our discussion partners into the completion found only in the knowledge of Christ. To do anything less is a disservice to the Church, to our public witness, and to the Lord that Christians claim to worship in Spirit and in Truth.

Two Witnesses in the Scriptures (Revelation 11 Explained)

Awesome powers.

Awesome powers.

Who on earth are the Two Witnesses of Revelation 11, and how are we supposed to interpret this passage of Scripture? If you’ve come with questions, then today I’ve got answers. Let’s begin with a text. Revelation 11:3-6 says the following:

“And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for twelve hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth.” These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. And if anyone wants to harm them, fire flows out of their mouth and devours their enemies; so if anyone wants to harm them, he must be killed in this way. These have the power to shut up the sky, so that rain will not fall during the days of their prophesying; and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with every plague, as often as they desire. [NASB]

As is the case with pretty much everything in John’s Revelation, there is nothing new here, only old things—that is, Old Testament things—in new clothes, and the Two Witnesses are no different. The following seven statements will help us to identify these figures. They will also lead us to some surprising insights into the thought world of the Bible.

1. The Two Witnesses are Moses and Elijah.
Look at the text. It is Elijah who calls down fire from heaven (1 Kings 18). It is Elijah who shut the sky so that it would not rain. It is Moses who struck the Nile and turned it to blood. It was Moses who struck the land of Egypt with plagues. If the Scriptures are any use in identifying these two figures, then the scriptures clearly point to them being Moses and Elijah.

Peter, "Hey, I've got a great idea--let's build tents!"

Peter: “Hey, I’ve got a great idea–let’s build tents!”

2. The same Two Witnesses show up in the Transfiguration.
If you are thinking, “But Moses and Elijah have already died—they won’t show up again” then you need to revisit the story of the Transfiguration in Matthew 17. There, Moses and Elijah show up for a pow-wow with Jesus, after which there is a cloud and a voice from heaven. Note well that in the ascension of the two witnesses in Rev 11:12 there is also a cloud and a voice from heaven. John seems to have the story of the transfiguration in mind when he talks about the two witnesses. Maybe it’s because he was there.

3. The Two Witnesses stand for the Law and the Prophets.
Why those two people? And why do they show up to talk with Jesus? It’s simple—Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets. Now, in 1st-Century-Jewish-Speak “The Law and the Prophets” is shorthand for the Bible. Not parts of the Bible, but the whole Bible as they then had it (cf. Matthew 7:12, 22:40, Luke 16:16, and others). Moses was considered responsible for the five books of the Torah (the Law), and Elijah had become a typological prophetic figure (see John the Baptist’s imitation of Elijah as a further reference point). Together they summarize all of God’s testimony. This, then, is why they are on the mount of Transfiguration: they are authorizing Jesus. Furthermore, they disappear and Jesus remains because Jesus is the fulfillment and summary of all that is within the Law and the Prophets.

oil-lamp4. The two witnesses are ‘olive trees’ because they provide oil which lights the lamps of the Church.
This may sound about as obscure as it gets, but in Zechariah 4 the prophet sees a vision of two olive trees and two lamps. The olive trees provide constant and perpetual oil to the lamps in order to keep them lit. John has taken Zechariah’s image and applied it here. Therefore, if the Two Witnesses are the olive trees and the seven churches are the lamps then John’s point is pretty clear: it is the Law and the Prophets which provide the fuel on which the church’s light shines. If you’re not in the Scriptures, in other words, you’re light is on its way out.

5. The Two Witnesses are summarized in Jesus.
From the transfiguration we have already seen that Moses and Elijah fade while Jesus remains. He becomes, and remains, the summary of all God’s will in all of history. (See also the Lamb who is worthy to open the scroll of history in Revelation 5.)

But there is other evidence as well. When the witnesses are killed John says something a little odd in verse 8, “And their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which is spiritually called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.” Now clearly with the death, resurrection, and ascension of these Witnesses we have Jesus in view here. But John makes it a little more explicit when he points out that they’ve been killed in Sodom/Egypt/Jerusalem.

Any maybe just to make this more explicit, it is worth stating that everything God has done in history is summarized in Jesus. He is the foil, or the solution, to the mystery of history. And therefore John feels free to tell both stories at once—the story of God’s Two Witnesses as Jesus, and the story of Jesus as God’s Two Witnesses.

6a. The Two Witnesses perform a Deuteronomic function—i.e., they stand in judgment.
Here, now, is where things start to get really interesting. We read in Deuteronomy 17:6, “On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.” Similarly, in Deuteronomy 19:15, “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.” The Two Witnesses, in other words, are fulfilling the Deuteronomic requirement before passing a death sentence against the earth. These two—Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, the Scriptures—are the witnesses which confirm the sentence of death against the world.

If you've never seen the movie Beckett, go see it. The excommunication scene is one of the most poignant.

If you’ve never seen the movie Beckett, go see it. The excommunication scene is one of the most poignant.

6b. Compare with Matthew 18.
Here it is relevant to pause and consider one of the places where Jesus quotes this Deuteronomy passage: Matthew 18. There, in the context of church discipline, Jesus says, “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” “Two or three” is the number of witnesses required to pass sentence—therefore this is not a passage about forming a quorum for church, but about executing proper excommunications. (Note that Paul uses the same language in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5 when he talks about expelling the immoral brother.)

6c. Compare with Jesus sending out his disciples two by two.
But one more comparison is also rather stunning. When Jesus sends out his disciples two by two (see Mark 6:7-13) he commands them to perform two functions—one is to witness to the Kingdom, the other is to pronounce curses against those who reject the testimony. Matthew even says (10:15) that it would be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than those cities in the Day of Judgment. Implication? The sending of pairs had a judicial function as much as anything else. Pairs of disciples served as the two witnesses necessary to condemn a place that has rejected the gospel. (I wonder how that might change our training of seminarians!)

7. The story of the two witnesses is the story of God’s work throughout history.
This final point is drawn from the Revelation passage more broadly. In chapter 10 John is commanded to eat a scroll that tastes good in his mouth, but bitter in his stomach. This bittersweet scroll is the word of God’s truth through history—sweet in the mouth because God’s judgments are coming true, bitter in the stomach because of the pain and death which those judgments mean for the world. (In other words, while we take pleasure in God’s vengeance, we must never take too much pleasure.)

That scroll, unrolled if you will, is the story of God’s Two Witnesses in history. They have testified since the dawn of time about God’s character and ways (see Romans 1). The people of the earth have rejected God’s ways (see Psalm 2). The people of the earth in rebellion have murdered God’s prophets—particularly, God’s special prophet, Jesus. But God’s witness, and God’s prophet, cannot be destroyed, and God’s breath (see Ezekiel 37) comes back to reanimate his messengers. The result of this (see also Ezekiel 38) is the final judgment of the earth and the enemies of God.

So, how do we summarize all of this? God’s Law and Prophets stand as Two Witnesses who pass judgment against the world. The world has rejected and still rejects God, but God’s ways will still be victorious in the end.

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We will suffer, as many before us have suffered.

What does this mean for the Church? Well, it means a lot of stuff. It means that we are light for the world when we burn the oil of the Law and the Prophets—that is, when we are a Scriptural people. It means that we know the content of our witness—and its authority—is derived from our Scriptures and not ourselves. We know that if we testify faithfully we will make enemies of the world (i.e., that ‘successful’ witness is liable to get us killed). We know that, after the pattern of the Law, the Prophets, and our Lord, to speak the words of the gospel is to announce something that is both a curse and a blessing (a blessing for those who believe, a curse for those who disbelieve). We know that whether or not we are killed God will raise us from the dead with Christ, and so we have nothing to fear. And we know that, whatever transpires, God wins in the end. The word we preach comes true.

And here the bending of John’s vision takes one last turn—not only are the Witnesses the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah, and the Lord Jesus Christ, but they are also you and me when we testify faithfully both to the believing and against the world. Revelation 11 isn’t so much a description of the future as it is a job description in the present. And that is something on which we had all best meditate seriously.

 

(Bonus Point! Revelation 5-11 is also about the Law and the Prophets.)
Seven seals and seven trumpets! Trumpets are a recurring image of proclamation and summons throughout the Bible. Here they are tied here to God’s work in the prophets—that is, of God speaking through judgment to warn the world. The seals point to the law because they both bind God’s people (i.e., the 144,000) and seal the world in judgment.

Revelation 19—On the Worship of Prophecy

“Oh No! We’re going to get barcodes, right? I heard they’re doing this already in….”

“Revelations is about the end of the world, right? Scary stuff.” On a regular basis I hear some variation of that phrase. And it betrays the fact that many people have many ideas about the book of Revelation and its contents. Few people, however, have actually read that book. Even fewer, it can reasonably be argued, understand it. As one New Testament scholar observes, “Few writings in all of literature have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation.”

From Hal Lindsay to Tim LaHaye, from Left Behind to The Thief in the Night, from an obsession with Israeli politics to Harold Camping, the end of the world is a subject which is, without debate, fascinating to many. We buy books, attend seminars, and watch YouTube videos promising to tell us “how it’s going to happen.” Our focus in all this is in error. And it is an error that John himself addresses in the book of Revelation. Consider his words here:

Revelation 19:9-10

Then the angel said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”

At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, “Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”

In this part of John’s vision an angel announces good news to John—”the true words of God”—about the wedding supper of the Lamb. This ‘supper’ is the long awaited wedding feast of God’s people. They had been promised to God in the Old Covenant. Their betrothal was sealed with the death and resurrection of Christ. Now, the Church awaits the final consummation of her relationship with Christ (mystic union, if you will). To a people who struggle against sin and Satan in the world, whose life is a struggle against foreign powers (that is, to the recipients of John’s Revelation), this is the best news imaginable.

It is such good news that John falls to his feet to worship the messenger. Immediately he is rebuked. “Don’t!” says the angel, “I’m like you—worship God instead!” Seizing John’s attention, the Angel redirects him to Jesus, the object of prophecy.

There are a few observations that are in order here. First, whenever John performs an action in the book of Revelation, I think we are to see ourselves as performing the same action. When John falls at the feet of Jesus in Revelation 1:17, it is because we ought to fall at the feet of Jesus. When John eats the bittersweet scroll in Revelation 10:9-11, it is because we ought also to eat a bittersweet scroll to remind us that the message of the book of Revelation is both good and bad news (i.e., that the telling of the gospel is always tinged with compassion and sadness). When John asks for help interpreting what is going on in Revelation 7:13-14, it is because we ought to be asking for help with what is going on. And here, in Revelation 19, when John falls down in worship at this message, it is because we also might be tempted to worship the word, rather than the One to whom the word points. John stands in our place and as our example throughout this book.

With his body, then, John has identified a great temptation for us who read this book—that we would worship the words of the prophecy rather than the Lord of Prophecy. It is a depressingly overlooked fact that the title of this book is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Not just ‘Revelation’ (or even ‘Revelations’—where did the ‘s’ come from?). The unveiling that this book performs has a highly specific purpose: to reveal Jesus Christ to the world. We are reading to get at Christ, and no other thing.

FINALLY! IT MAKES SENSE!!!!1!

Our human temptation to worship the words rather than the Person to Whom the words point is clearly a kind of idolatry. It shows up in our world in a host of ways. It is present in the endless speculation about the end of the world (e.g., Harold Camping). It is present in the dispensationalist focus on Israeli politics as an indicator of the end of the world. It is present in Left Behind, in The Thief in the Night, in Hal Lindsay and a host of other sources as well. It is present in charts, maps, and diagrams of the end times which are all harbingers of that most deadly of exegetical dangers, the combination of Math + Revelation (which always, incidentally, = Confusion). All these focus on the words of prophecy and obscure the object of that prophecy. In short, we get a ‘Revelation’ that doesn’t focus on Jesus.

There is great pleasure in speculation—it is the pleasure of the conspiracy theory. We feel that by reading this book we now have special, spiritual insight into the end of the world. But Christ has made it clear that his return will be unpredictable (Matthew 24:36), unavoidable (Romans 14:11), and highly visible (Mark 13:26). He has also made it clear that the signs of his imminent return are present even now—wars, rumors of wars, false Christs, persecution (Matthew 24). Furthermore, to read Revelation as a kind of newspaper for the future is a grave error. Eugene Peterson writes that “Everything in the Revelation can be found in the previous sixty-five books of the Bible. The Revelation adds nothing of substance to what we already know” (xi). What this means is that we do not read it for news, we read it to experience teachings we know in new and fresh ways. Given all this, the central message of the book of Revelation is simply this: we live in the end times right now, and Jesus is coming soon. Are you ready for his return?

John offers us this clear warning in Revelation 19. He warns us against speculation and obsession with the prophetic. Yes, these are good words; in fact they are great words! They are the true words of God. But if they take our attention away from Christ rather than driving us toward Christ they are idols and must be destroyed.

Compressed Sight: Revelation 12 and Federalism

Revelation 12 documents what is arguably one of the most vivid and compelling images in all of John’s vision—we read:

1 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.

A representation of John's vision by Giusto de Menabuoi. I wonder why the dragon isn't red...

This is a vivid picture—the woman, radiant and elegant, contrasted with the dragon, wicked and twisted.  Here stands a portrait, placed in the heavens as a sign for all to see, that is expansive in its implications.  I hope, in the exercise that follows, to touch on these implications.

However, before we can address these implications  some preliminary work is necessary.  And this preliminary work is necessary for a pair of reasons—first, because the most common way to read John’s vision—as a word about the future—is the most misleading way as well.  And while there is vast misunderstanding about the nature of apocalyptic literature as a whole, let me say at this point only that John wrote this to the first century Church, that he expected them to understand him, and that his dominant desire was to encourage them while they endured persecution under Roman authority.  Our attention, so long attuned to the future implications of John’s words, has been robbed of its present, rich, and potent encouragement for us.  The second need for this preliminary work is because John’s imagination is fed and fired by his immersion in the Old Testament—in fact, it is not too strong a statement to say that without some knowledge of the Old Testament, the meaning of John’s Revelation is impenetrable.  Permit me, then, to jaunt through this passage now, in as brief a fashion as possible, in order to illuminate some of the images John employs to illustrate his ‘sign’.  From those images, I want to draw our attention to a series of ‘compressions’ that John makes.  From those compressions, I want to make an observation about Federalism.

Mary, crowned as queen in an altar piece by Jan van Eyck

The first ‘sign’ in this passage is the woman, and the description of her clothing echoes one of the dreams of Joseph found in Genesis 37:9.  There, Joseph sees his father (the sun) and mother (the moon) and brothers (11 stars) bowing down to him—Joseph’s dream was a sign, foreshadowing the future when Joseph would indeed be raised above his family in authority in Egypt.  The clothing, here, is the first witness to the woman’s identity—she represents Israel, dressed as God’s elect queen (an image which also hearkens to an abundance of Old Testament references).  But her identity shifts as quickly as we get a handle upon it, because in the next verse (12:2) we read that she is pregnant and about to give birth.  Reading ahead (verse 5), we can see that her child is Jesus, the one who would “rule all the nations with an iron scepter” (a reference to Psalm 2).  Therefore the second witness to the woman’s identity shows that she is Mary, mother of Jesus.

The second ‘sign’ in this passage is of the dragon—seven-headed, seven-crowned, ten-horned, and red (the sevens here document the utter completeness of his evil); displaying his opposition to the ways of God in his disregard for God’s creation (the sweeping away of stars), and in his intentions to devour the child of God’s promised people.  He knows, from the curse declared by God in Genesis 3, that this child will “crush his head” (Gen 3:15).  That he is in fact the same serpent is made clear at 12:9: he is Satan, the devil, the ancient serpent from the garden.  This revelation has two interesting implications: first, that in some sense the woman in our passage is also Eve, and second, that the dragon here is also Herod, who sought to devour the Christ-child at his birth.

The woman in this passage is rescued and preserved for ‘1,260 days’ (v6).  Later, after the dragon has been defeated, he pursues the woman again—she, once again, is rescued—this time for ‘a time, times, and half-a time’ (v14).  The language of ‘time, times, and half a time’ is an echo from the book of Daniel, and stands for a period of three and a half years, which is, for all intents and purposes, identical to 1,260 days.  Here, again, the Old Testament is our friend, and what I believe we must see is that this number—three and a half years—represents the period of exile.  For more clarity in this matter we need to turn back to chapter 11, where these numbers occurred together again, along with a third figure—that of 42 months (11:2—also three and a half years).  This third figure enhances our understanding in a couple of ways; first, because the period of Israelite exile in the wilderness was, in total, 42 years (40 for the exile, 2 traveling to and waiting at Sinai); second (and perhaps more obscurely), that the number of encampments that the Israelites make while exiled is 42 (cf. Numbers 33).  This number, then, identifies not only periods of exile, but also testifies to God’s provision and ultimate plan superintending exile.  And perhaps it is not too far a stretch to observe that the two periods of the woman’s exile equal 7 ‘years’—a completion.  Enraged at his impotence to harm God’s chosen queen, the dragon makes war “against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (v17).  Here, then, the Church steps into view as the target of the devil’s schemes; unable to harm God, to harm God’s son, or God’s chosen queen, he turns his ire against God’s servants.

The Slaughter of the Innocents, a floor panel from Siena Cathedral.

There is a great deal more that can be said, contextually and historically, about this passage, but for our present purposes we have enough information to move forward, and here I would like to draw attention to a number of ‘compressions’ in this passage.  What we must see in this passage is that John has compressed heaven and earth, he has compressed time, and he has compressed individuals and nations.  This ‘sign’ he documents is a sign that points to a heavenly reality, it is an ageless sign, and it is also a representative sign.  Consider, for the next moments, the ways in which these ‘characters’ play throughout all of salvation history.  First, the woman represents Eve, the first queen, and the dragon/serpent is her enemy from the garden, Satan.  There also is prophesied the enmity between her offspring and the serpent.  Second, the woman is nation Israel in Egypt, giving birth to children while Pharaoh, the dragon, attempts to kill her children (and succeeds).  From her comes Moses, a chosen child who leads Israel out of exile (a forerunner to Christ).  Third, the woman is Mary, who gives birth to Jesus, and must flee Herod, another dragon, who kills infants.  Fourthly, then, and with the most impact upon us, the woman is the Church, God’s chosen and radiant bride, we are her children, persecuted by the dragon, and the dragon—especially for John’s audience—is Rome (which, ominously, is a city built on seven hills).  Here, then, in John’s sign, we see that the material and the spiritual are compressed—heavenly realities are revealed in earthly actions; we see that time is compressed—we shift from the beginning of time, to the dawn of the exile, to the birth of Christ, to the new ‘exile’ of the Church in the world; and we see the compression of individuals and nations—the Heavenly Queen/Eve/Israel/Mary/Church acts in a play against Satan/Pharaoh/Dragon/Herod/Rome.

What is the encouragement, then, from this passage? The encouragement is manifold.  First, John is providing his suffering churches with a framework for interpreting the persecution they are undergoing.  Their enemy, he claims, is not Rome itself, but the serpent who has long opposed God’s ways.  John is simply casting into vivid imagery a teaching that Paul casts in statements: “for our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12).  The good news in John’s Revelation is also that this enemy is thoroughly defeated (go read the poem at 12:10-13 and this will become clear).  Second, we can rest assured that we, as God’s chosen Church, are secure with God’s provision during this period of exile—He Himself superintends our care.  Third, that we are marked as targets of the Serpent’s enmity because we declare ourselves through our obedience to Christ—in other words, persecution is a mark of our faithfulness, and we should, in some ways, be ‘encouraged’ that our service to God makes us targets.

A curiosity in this passage is that, though Jesus stands at the centre of this story, he is not its primary focus; the focus falls upon God’s people and the enemy of God’s people.  And this, I suppose, is because the ‘sign’ that John sees stands in the heavens because it is a picture of our entire age on earth—all of the history of God’s people thus far and all the history into the future is captured in this image.  This ‘sign’ testifies to us about the nature of both God’s chosen people, and also about His people’s hate-filled enemy.  And perhaps that is the most encouraging aspect of the entire vision: our enemy is predictable: we can anticipate how he will behave in a given situation.  But so also, in some sense, God is predictable as well, and will always care for and save His chosen people.  Take heart, then! What you are part of is part of the greater story, of which God is victor and you are secure in Him.

An Ikon of Christ

The final observation I want to make is not, specifically, a point that John was making—John’s specific point was the instruction and encouragement of the Church.  This point is something we can extrapolate from John’s image, and although it was not John’s purpose to communicate it, I believe it is part of the fabric of his image.  The final point I want to make is about Federalism.  Federalism is the name of a theological idea which attempts to explain how it is that we (a) participate in Adam’s sin and (b) participate in Christ’s atoning death and resurrection.  Essentially, it states that we all are represented by Adam (as a government representative stands for the people of his/her constituency), and that his actions have correlative implications for us.  And this is where John’s vision is helpful, because John, here, clearly sees a bright correlation between heavenly and earthly realities—his ‘compressions’ testify to a broader picture of what is happening at this moment in what we call ‘reality’.  Employing John’s ‘compressed’ sight, we can take a long view of our salvation history and see the following things: first, that John’s picture provides us with a way to see that Adam sinned, and therefore we all participate in the sin of Adam through this heavenly matrix—more even than that, we are presently participating in Adam’s sin.  And second, John’s compressed sight can also help us to see that the same mechanism is active in applying Christ’s death, atonement, and resurrection to us, and how we (through belief and baptism) become participants in his work for us.  And employing the same implications of John’s compressions, we can see that we are presently dying with Christ—indeed, dying with him each hour of each day—and also presently living with Christ in his resurrection.  And even further, we can perhaps elucidate the sense in which Christ is the “lamb slain from the foundations of the world” (Rev 13:8).  In the end the message I want to communicate is that in the economy of God’s work in the world, events in the past have present and continuing impact.  In other words, the atoning work of Christ is an eternal sign in the heavens which is actively working in and informing our present reality.

So tell me, read this way, are you encouraged by Revelation 12?