Fair Warning

I am always impressed by how well the English use their language. For example, American auctioneers typically say “Going once, going twice, sold!” The English say “Fair warning!” In both cases when the gavel comes down the transaction is settled. The warning given at an English auction says two things. One is that no further offers will be accepted. The other is that the highest bid must be paid.

The Bible contains many instances of God giving people fair warning. Prophecies of destruction tell that a time will come when the cup of God’s wrath will be filled with peoples’ iniquities and it will be too late for people to repent. There are also descriptions of the heavy price that must be paid when people reject God and his standards for human behavior.

Applying this idea to present-day American society is too easy and has been done too often by “premature prophets” for it to have any traction in our culture. Where it has not been applied is to American Christianity. Christians fail to remember that what was destroyed in Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 was religious practices that had their origins in the desert of Sinai at the direct expression of God’s will. What happened there was no less powerful than what happened in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Yet what had been founded in the very presence of the glory of God had become so corrupt that God destroyed it without a chance for repentance and without remedy.

The first three chapters of the book of Revelation give fair warning to the churches of the United States. If their various corruptions are not remedied they will cease to exist in their present form just as the seven churches of Asia Minor to whom John wrote have long since ceased to define the nature of Turkish culture. What are these defects that must be remedied of Christianity is to remain a shaper of American values.

My analysis of our present situation will take the form of descriptions of conceptual churches. These churches are not defined by denomination, institution, closeness to tradition or history but by their attitude concerning Christianity. They are not separate physical churches as one or more of these churches may be gathered at the same worship service. The accommodation of a variety of beliefs is a characteristic of present-day Christianity so individuals in the same congregation can be far apart in their thinking yet safe from any serious challenge to the quality of their faith.

The first and perhaps the largest conceptual church is the cultural church. It comes in several very different expressions. Its characteristic is that its members poll on social issues almost exactly the same as the general population. This means that its attitudes and behaviors are indistinguishable from society in general. The cultural church, by some sort of paradox, tends towards attendance in traditional (mainstream and Roman Catholic) churches and in mega-churches. It exists in traditional churches because they are part of the culture. The mega-churches tend to fit the culture because their purpose is to attract as many people as possible, so they avoid, as much as they can, anything like an emphasis on doctrine that might offend anybody or cause controversy.

The pseudo-Christian church is an expression of ideological liberalism. Like secular liberals it assumes it is the reality and other expressions of Christianity are deviants that can be labeled evangelical or fundamentalist or some such. The pseudo-Christian church is where religion becomes an expression of rationalism. Everything in traditional Christian belief that requires the supernatural is removed as a reality but is given a spiritual significance. For example, the bodily resurrection of Jesus did not actually occur but it signifies something we can have good feelings about.

The pseudo-Christian church closely follows the secular spirit. Thus its big concern now is homosexual rights, before this it was sexual liberation, feminism, environmentalism, world peace, and other liberal causes. It accepts the theory of evolution and whatever else falls into the realm of the popular. You might ask why the pseudo-Christian church continues to affiliate itself with Christianity. The answer is simple, Christianity provides them with tenured professorships, social respect, sources of funding, and keeps them able to think they are something they are not.

The hyper-Christian church ignores the warning C.S. Lewis gave us in The Screwtape Letters about adding things to Christianity. The pseudo-Christian church believes too little, the hyper-Christian church believes too much. It adds worship of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, and miracles as essential elements of the Christian life. It can be given some applause for bringing some fire and spirit, through the charismatic movement, to parts of the cultural church. However, in “amping up” Christianity it raises expectations higher than can be maintained thus causing disillusionment among some of its adherents.

The social-activist church should have longevity as there is a never-ending list of things needing to be done to make people’s lives better. One problem with this church is that it became a social-critique church and many of its members went from seeking to relieve poverty to criticizing the acquisition of wealth. A more serious problem from a spiritual standpoint is a conceit: If we were in charge of the world we could set everything right. The pride revealed in this mode of thinking shows up particularly in the peace and justice part of this church. The foundation of Christianity, for Christ and all believers, is humbleness before the purposes of God the Father.

The self-centered church comes directly from our self-centered society. The core of the self-centered church is an inward-looking view of what Christianity is meant to be. In this church what matters is that God thinks of them highly and lovingly. Their songs contain a lot of I, me, and my instead of second and third person pronouns such as you, he, and his. Their self-centeredness can go as far as to think that God’s happiness depends on their performance as a Christian. They think a lot about their time, their possessions, their safety and their personal peace. Obviously this church does not think much of others except in what way helping them might increase their own self-esteem.

The self-made church has two denominations. One branch believes that we can make Christianity be what we want it to be. Thomas Jefferson, who edited the New Testament to make it say what he wanted to believe, was not the founder of the first denomination but he is a good example of its members. The members of the this branch of the self-made church “cut out” the parts of Christianity that do not suit them or are not in accordance with their lifestyle or social beliefs.

The second denomination of the self-made church seems, at first, to be very unlike the first. Its members generally take the Scriptures very seriously and do their best to follow them. Where they are like the others is that they believe their Christian life and practice have to come from their own efforts. They have to make a choice, sometimes in conjunction with the saying of a prayer, to become a Christian. They are told in this part of their church there are many things they must do as a Christian in their own efforts. These directions, such as reading the Bible, praying, and doing good works, may seem good. However, this do-it-yourself sanctity can prove exceedingly difficult, often leading to the rejection of their Christianity. Or if they are successful in following the directions they are given for leading a Christian life, they can be led into self-righteousness. You can see that participation in either denomination of the self-made church is hazardous for people hoping to find completion in Christ.

There are two other churches that relate to modern philosophy. There is the rationalist church that believes that reason can create a form of Christianity compatible with modern philosophy. The literalist church began as a defense against modern philosophy by trying to make its interpretation of the Bible “scientific.” There will undoubtedly come into being, if one does not already exist, a post-modern church.

There is, as there has been since the first century, a heretical church. The length of time this church has been in existence makes it hard for it to create new heresies but its members keep trying. There is the new deist Church that seeks to allow the compatibility of Christianity and both Judaism and Islam by removing faith in the deity of Jesus Christ and eliminating the Holy Spirit. There is the new-age church that melds Christianity with both new and old forms of spirituality.

I will end my rather long list of churches with the miscellaneous church. This is the place of worship for people who withdraw from society or other Christians, people whose beliefs are so far from normal Christianity that they are a church unto themselves. Their problem is that, and the members of the other churches described here share in it, is that they violate the unity of the one church of which all Christians are meant to be members.

At this point you may be wondering why I left out the good church—the one like your local congregation—from my list. It is a principle of Christian sanctity if we think we are good enough, we are not. If you think your particular body of believers does not need reformation, it most likely does.

What all the churches on my list have in common is they have, in one way or another, turned Christianity upside down. They have made Christianity about people—church leaders, poor people, oppressed people, us, and so forth—rather than about Jesus Christ. We have come to think that it is God’s job to supply the seed, fertilizer and water so we can cultivate our own gardens. We find this much more to our liking than the idea we should be servants in the Lord’s garden.

The second problem with these churches is that those who still believe in the kingdom of God in some way misunderstand its meaning. They are much like the religious rulers Jesus spoke to. They want, and expect, a political kingdom. Someone said something like “Jesus preached the kingdom of God and what we got was churches.” And we do have a multitude of churches. What we do not have is an understanding of the proper role of these churches The function of churches is to serve the body of Christ by evangelism, exhortation, comfort and many other things not to be the be-all and end-all of Christianity. They were intended to be way stations, outposts, hospices and so forth for Christians so they could be fully equipped to live in the kingdom of God.

I do not think there can be a remaking of American society on Christian principles unless there is a return of American Christianity to the truth of Scripture. That will not occur until many, many members of most of the churches are turned right-side-up. That is, they become focused on Jesus and his kingdom as the object of their faith, love and learning rather than anything else.

If the regeneration of a significant part of American Christianity occurs, it will be the work of the Holy Spirit. What we who see the need for this change can do is allow Christ and the Holy Spirit to work in us so we know quite certainly that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. As that happens, we will be freed of our illusions, delusions and ignorance so we can see what is upside-down in American Christianity and rightly work and pray for its becoming as Christ would have it. Thus, if the Holy Spirit choses to honor our efforts, and if Christ’s purposes include a reformation at this time, we will be participants in, and celebrants of, a great revival of Christian belief, and be able to rejoice in the righting of what has gone wrong.

Otherwise, let what I wrote constitute “Fair Warning.”

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Revelation: A Short Version

This post was first published September 9, 2013.

Revelation: A Short Version

Revelation is a difficult book to understand. It is an apocalypse which means it is, in contemporary terms, like a fantasy. Apocalyptic and fantasy writings feature unnatural characters in unreal settings. Fantasy books contain one or more story lines in a given setting. Revelation has its two story lines in different settings and separate sections of the book although the story lines overlap to a certain extent.

The first story line begins with the author of the book, John, on the island of Patmos in approximately AD 95 and ends with the second coming of Christ at, as you can be sure, an unspecified time. The second one begins with the formation of the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai sometime around 1450 BC. This is symbolized in chapter 13 by the descent of a beautiful woman. This second story line never ends.

The setting of the first part of the book (1:1 to 11:18) contains letters to seven churches, Christ as the Lamb worthy to open the seven seals, and the blowing of seven trumpets. These are all related to human history and happenings on earth. The second part of the book is set in heaven. John sees events featuring angels, beasts coming up out of the earth and the sea, and so forth; in other words, he is seeing spiritual events invisible to human eyes.

Revelation was written to encourage Christians to overcome the adversities of this world. These include dysfunctional churches, wars, famines, diseases, death, natural disasters, cosmic disasters, persecution, worldly ideologies, and oppressive governments. Christians have had to endure these things for almost 2,000 years. However, there are seven encouraging promises in chapters 2 and 3 for those who are victorious and continue to believe Christ’s promises.

As any attempt at researching Revelation will show you, there are many questions about every aspect of the book and many different understandings of what Revelation means. This post is not based on any one of the common interpretations of Revelation. It approaches the book as if it were any of the other books of the New Testament. This means it looks at what the book says, considers what it meant to the people who first read it, tries to understand what it says to us, and attempts to see how we can apply it to our lives to come closer to what we should be as Christians.

Story Line One: From About AD 95 to the Second Coming

We are told early in Revelation that the knowledge in the book was given to “his servant John” by sending spiritual messengers in visions to communicate “what soon must take place…for the time is near.” (1:1–3) “Soon” might present a problem to us if we think of Revelation as an end-times prophecy. However, if we think about “to show his servants” (1:1) we can see that the content of the book applies to the first readers of it, the last readers of it, and all of us who are somewhere in the middle. “Near” does not mean that John thought the second coming of Christ was about to arrive but that the history described in Revelation was about to begin.

            The first readers of Revelation were embedded in the first-century Roman Empire. About twenty-five years before Revelation was written the Romans had captured and destroyed the city of Jerusalem and scattered or enslaved the Jewish people living in Israel. The readers were subjects of a powerful, confident, and wealthy government that had a certain amount of hostility to their religion. It is hardly necessary to draw the parallel to our own time.

The first eleven chapters of Revelation provide us with an overview of what has happened, is happening, and is going to happen in the period of history from John’s life until Christ returns. As the threats to our peace and prosperity increase, we are as much in need of assurance that Christ is in charge of history as were the first readers of Revelation, and of reminders that we must remain faithful to him.

The first three chapters of Revelation might be thought the easy part of the book since the imagery is relatively clear (though not everyone agrees as to its meaning) and the basic structure revolves around the situations of seven, most likely existing, churches. The message of these three chapters is that we are to persevere in our faith in Jesus, regardless of difficulties or attractive distractions, so we will receive rewards in the life to come.

Chapters 4 through 6 begin with a throne room scene that is used to establish Christ’s worthiness to be in charge of history, and then they provide us a history lesson. Why would we need one? Because we would like to think we can make a heaven on earth out of a world in “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21).

The breaking of the first four seals reveals the most familiar images in the Bible—the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Most interpretations of Revelation have placed the horsemen somewhere other than in our time and place, generally at the end of the Roman Empire or in an end-times future. However, with our knowledge of history we can see that the horsemen have ridden from John’s time until the present time and most likely will continue to ride until history ends.

The opening of the fifth seal tells us of the martyrdom of Christians that continues even now. It might seem un-Christian for martyrs to complain about delayed justice and the lack of vengeance. Jesus asked God to forgive those who crucified him (Luke 23:34). However, they are not told to forgive their persecutors but are given white robes and harps as a reward for their righteousness.

John’s vision following the opening of the sixth seal apparently includes both geological and astronomical phenomena. Perhaps it foretells the near miss of an asteroid whose gravitational pull triggers a great earthquake. Its breakup produces a meteor shower. The stresses on the earth trigger volcanoes producing dust clouds. This may be what John was seeing.

Chapter 7 gives us images of two groups of people who are removed from the hazards of history. One group, the 144,000 Jews, is given a temporary respite from the troubles of the world in order to find salvation in Jesus Christ. The list of tribes (verses 5–8) does not correspond to any list of the twelve tribes in the Old Testament. This indicates that this passage does not tell us of a formal restoration of Judaism but possibly speaks of Jews as being individually sealed.

The other people are the great number of Christian casualties of history who “are coming out of the great tribulation” (7:14). These are rewarded by being given white robes and palm branches, and the privilege of participating in the heavenly worship of God and the Lamb. The Greek word for tribulation, thlipsis, appears only here in Revelation in the NIV translation.

The opening of the seventh seal at the beginning of chapter 8 produces a rather surprising half-hour of silence in heaven. This may tell us there will be times when heaven is closed and prayers will go unanswered, prophecy will be unavailable, and Christians then must continue to believe in Christ by faith, holding on to the Word and the sacraments. Following the silence, there is the sounding of seven trumpets that bring disasters upon people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.

Chapters 9, 10, and 11 contain many mysteries that, if nothing else, have tested the ingenuity of Bible commentators. We may not want to think about judgments from God because too many times we have been accused of worshipping a wrathful God. Yet, Paul in his letter to the Romans (Romans 1:18–32) appears to speak of God’s wrath as coming upon godless and wicked people and this not just at some final judgment.

At the end of chapter 11 the seventh trumpet sounds. This is the third and final woe to those who have refused to accept God’s righteousness, as it ushers in the time of judgment. It is the Second Coming for those who have remained faithful to Christ. It is also the end of John’s account of history from an earthly standpoint. As Revelation continues we are going to look at the happenings on earth and in heaven from the standpoint of spiritual beings. We are entering a section of Scripture that will need a different kind of thinking, one that may be entirely unfamiliar to us. We need to go to this new method of thinking so we can truly know more of the things of God.

Story Line Two: From the Formation of the Nation of Israel to the New Jerusalem

The second section of Revelation extends from time into eternity. It begins with the formation of the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai and extends beyond time to when and where believers live happily forever in the New Jerusalem. It seems odd that the two story lines of Revelation have different starting places, but that is because they each tell a different story. The first part is about Christians in the world. The second is about the spiritual lives of believers.

Chapter 12 begins with a glorious woman descending from heaven. This describes how God sees the nation of Israel and why the Old Testament is full of expressions of God’s love for her. Satan, pictured as a dragon, goes to war with the woman and eventually drives her into exile. The dispersion of the Jews is depicted by the woman flying like an eagle to live among other peoples. The chapter ends with the frustrated dragon turning his anger from the Jews to the Christians.

Chapter 13 shows us two beasts. The first comes out of the sea and may represent the values and power of the Roman Empire. John’s first readers struggled to maintain their Christian witness and values in a culture opposed to them. We need Revelation to remind us we are not the first, nor will we be the last, Christians to face antagonism, marginalization, and persecution.

It is the nature of the second beast to deceive humanity (13:14). His deceptions may encompass rationalism, materialism, scientism, socialism, communism, postmodernism—in short, all the isms that surround us. The second beast disguises his deceptions by giving them the appearance of good, but we should recognize that all the isms of the secular worldview are fundamentally hostile to Christianity.

The fourteenth chapter begins a series of episodes all of which show us the value of remaining faithful to Christ and the judgments that come to those who reject him. It starts with a group of 144,000 people (vs. 1–5) who have God’s name, then moves on to the second section (6–13) where the people on earth receive a last call for salvation, and next shows the beginning of the separation between those who hear the call of God and those who worship the beast or bear the mark of his name. The third part (vs. 14–20) shows the results of the separation between believers and unbelievers when the end-times arrive.

We are entering the part of Revelation where the accounts are definitely not chronological. For instance, in 14:8 an angel announces, “Fallen! Fallen! is Babylon the Great.” This same pronouncement is made in 18:2 and then elaborated upon. This repetition does not require any critical agonizing. Revelation is not a timeline. It is a vivid depiction of spiritual reality, and how could it be spiritual if it is just like what happens in the material world.

The wrath of God, symbolized by the contents of seven bowls, is poured out on non-Christians in chapters 15 and 16. These seven plagues are said to be the last ones. The results are various forms of spiritual suffering but the unbelievers still continue to reject the rule of God, while their attempt at self-rule is destroyed at Armageddon (16:16).

Chapters 17 and 18 are full of imagery and serve as another challenge to interpreters. The Great Prostitute, whatever she may represent, drinks the blood of the saints but is destroyed by the beast she rides. This is described in 18:4–8 as God giving back to the prostitute the evil she has put into the world and paying her back double for the spiritual blood she has caused to be shed.

Chapter 19 begins with a celebration of the destruction of the Great Prostitute/Babylon and ends with the death of the second beast and the prophet, and those who were deceived by them. In between these two events we get a foreshadowing of the marriage feast of the Lamb and a picture of Christ as a victorious warrior. We are comforted here by seeing the end of the times of evil and knowing we are closer to our final blessing.

In chapter 20, the earth comes to an end. The present earth is not a suitable habitat for those whose names are written in the book of life, and there is no remedy for its defects except destruction. We should note that there is no battle at the gathering of Gog and Magog. Fire simply comes down from heaven and devours the multitude (20:9). Satan is returned to the lake of burning sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were thrown (20:10).

In chapter 21 we come to Christ’s judgment of humanity. The result of his righteous judgment is either a second life or a second death (21:6–8). The second life is given to those who overcome; the second death is for those who are “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars (21:8). It is for all those who reject ultimately the righteousness of God. The second death can be people ceasing to exist. This would be eternal but it would also demonstrate God’s mercy in two ways. It would be short in duration and satisfy those who claim to welcome nonexistence after this life.

Conclusion

We might wonder why so many people risk the second death instead of choosing the eternal life available in Christ. However, we who have chosen life are told in Revelation how hard this choice may become. As for Revelation, we are told to keep its words in our lives so as to do the things it tells us to do. The two different story lines of Revelation, the historical and spiritual, supply the balance we need in our lives as we seek to mature in our Christianity.

Minions

There is a new “minion” movie coming out on July 10. I liked the first two for their cleverness and the minion characters. They began as slaves of an evil master and then found freedom and the will to do what is good.

Since the word servant has no meaning in our culture perhaps we Christians could use minion for our identity in Christ. After all, we are small, active creatures who have been given our freedom from evil and an eager desire to do good things. It’s just a thought.