The Big Story (According to Luke)

We’ve been talking a lot about the “big story” of Christianity recently. Continuing in that vein, I thought it might be helpful to take a closer look at the way that one New Testament writer tells that story. 

Luke has long been identified as the standout historian of the New Testament, often drawing comparisons to the works of Josephus. Many have inferred from this that, because Luke is good at collecting eyewitness sources, he must be less interested in theological or artistic expression than, say, Matthew or John. This misunderstanding stems largely from the naively positivistic split between history and theology in the Enlightenment, but another reason is that the canonical order of the New Testament has kept many readers from approaching Luke’s writings in the way that he intended.  

Recent narrative analysis of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles has shown that their author is a much better storyteller than is often supposed. Luke begins the book of Acts by referring to his earlier volume as dealing with “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (1:1), suggesting right away that the present volume concerns things that Jesus continued to do and teach. As I. Howard Marshall puts it, “The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were intended by their author to be regarded as Part 1 and Part 2 of one single work” (Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentary, 59). 

The narrative unity of Luke-Acts has huge implications for how the two books should be interpreted. Reading them together reveals the theological and artistic brilliance of their author. Luke was a historian, but he was also a literary artist who wished to present the founding story of the church in a particular theological light. 

It is widely recognized that Acts 1:8 provides a rough geographical outline for the events narrated throughout Luke’s second volume: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” What is less often recognized, however, is that Luke’s first volume follows the exact same geographical progression, only in the reverse order. This inverse parallelism, or chiastic structure, is apparent from the geographical references throughout each volume.

While the events narrated in Acts move outward from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria, eventually reaching “the ends of the earth” in Rome, the events narrated in Luke's Gospel move inward from Galilee, through Samaria and Judea, climaxing with the cross, resurrection and ascension of Jesus in and around Jerusalem.

Craig C. Blomberg explains the significance of this for Luke’s overall theological emphasis: “One expects to find the most important part of a chiasm, or inverse parallelism, at its center, and one is not disappointed. The resurrection and ascension, twice narrated, form the heart of the Christian ‘kerygma’ (proclamation) for Luke” (Jesus and the Gospels, 162).

Not coincidently, we find this same narrative emphasis articulated in the early evangelistic sermons which Luke records. There are ten or twelve evangelistic discourses in Acts, and in each of them the cross, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus are all central themes (e.g., Acts 2:22-36; 13:27-39; 17:18). And yet, conspicuously absent from both Luke’s larger narrative and the sermons which he records are many of modern evangelicalism’s favorite subjects, such as hell, penal substitutionary atonement, or the details of the end times.    

Returning to our larger point, however: Luke was not haphazardly writing two separate books with different intentions for each, but rather a highly sophisticated two-volume work of sacred history with one overarching goal. While Mark focused purely on the ministry of Jesus from his baptism to his resurrection, Luke’s aim was much larger. As Marshall puts it, Luke “gathers together the story of Jesus and the story of the early church, and sees these as forming together the foundational narrative of the church” (Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentary, 20).  

The story of Luke-Acts is our origin story. It tells us who we are. And at the center of this story lies the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. That’s the turning point of Luke’s whole narrative because, as far as Luke is concerned, it is the turning point of human history.


Recommended Resources In This Post

Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentary [TNTC]
Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentary [TNTC] By I. Howard Marshall / IVP Academic

In Acts, renowned and ground breaking Evangelical scholar I. Howard Marshall has provided lay persons, teachers, and ministers with an invaluable and accessible resource for studying the book of Acts.

Readers will find that although Marshall is one of the most important scholars of the last 3o years, he delivers his insights and research in a clear and concise manner without compromising details or content. Prepare to be taken on an expert historical journey around the Mediterranean World in this informative and revealing study of the expansion and spread of the Christian faith. This series is an excellent resource for Christians looking to build a solid foundation in Scriptural knowledge.

Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, Second Edition
Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, Second Edition By Craig L. Blomberg / B&H Books

This second edition of Jesus and the Gospels prepares readers for an intensive study of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the events they narrate. Craig Blomberg considers the historical context of the Gospels and sheds light on the confusing interpretations brought forth over the last two centuries. The original 1997 book won a Gold Medallion Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, and this updated version, factoring in new scholarship, debate, critical methods, and the ongoing quest of the historical Jesus, ensures the work will remain a top tool for exploring the life of Christ through the first four books of the New Testament.

All You Want to Know About Hell by Steve Gregg: Buy This Book Now!

678302: All You Want to Know about Hell: Three Christian Views of God"s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin

As most of my friends know, I have been thinking a lot about hell and final judgment over the last year, reading as many books as I can on this controversial subject and having many of my former assumptions challenged by the evidence of Scripture. Of the dozen or so books that I've read over the last year, this comparative study by Steve Gregg, entitled All You Want to Know About Hell: Three Christian Views of God's Final Solution to the Problem of Sin, is hands down my favorite.

Gregg treats the subject with reverence and humility and he doesn't back down from asking the hard questions. At the same time, he takes great care to represent each view in the best possible light, something which many treatments of this subject fail to do. He brings together several decades worth of research and distills it all into an easy-to-understand introduction to the strengths and weaknesses of each of the major views (traditionalism, conditionalism, and restorationism) while at the same time introducing the reader to some of the best scholarship behind each position. The last few chapters dealing with restorationism (or universalism as it is sometimes called) are filled with some of the keenest insights I've seen. Those chapters alone are worth the price of the whole book. 

All of that to say, christianbook.com is currently offering this title at 70% off the cover price ($5.99 instead of $19.99), which is lower than the price Gregg himself has to pay the publisher when he buys copies. So if you are interested in familiarizing yourself further on the question of hell and final judgment, you won't find a better opportunity to get this outstanding survey of the debate. 

Here are a few quotes to whet your appetite: 

“The one fact, above all others, which I have desired to get across is that our view of hell is inseparably joined to our view of God. I believe that many Christians have simply assumed that they already know what the Bible teaches about hell, and have formed their notions of the character of God to accommodate their theory. My suggestion is that this is doing things backwards.”

“If we wish to criticize the reticence of modern preachers to place an emphasis on hell in their evangelism, we must first account for the same reticence found in the preaching of the apostles and evangelists of the early church.”

“All can see that these two sets of texts exist and that some tension exists between them, requiring harmonization. The traditionalist and the conditionalist take the damnation texts to be determinative, and seek to interpret the universalistic texts in harmony with each one’s respective take on that theme. The universalist does just the opposite, arguing that the sovereignty and benevolence of God are the primary themes revealed in Scripture and in Christ, in harmony with which the relatively few texts about damnation ought to be required to conform.”

Big Stories and Little Stories

“A learning space should not be filled with abstractions so bloated that no room remains for the small but soulful realities that grow in our students’ lives. In this space there must be ample room for the little stories of individuals, stories of personal experience in which the student’s inner teacher is at work. But when my little story, or yours, is our only point of reference, we easily become lost in narcissism. So the big stories of the disciplines must also be told in the learning space — stories that are universal in scope and archetypal in depth, that frame our personal tales and help us understand what they mean. We must help students learn to listen to the big stories with the same respect we accord individuals when they tell us the tales of their lives.” - Parker J. Palmer

This paragraph, which comes from Parker J. Palmer’s phenomenal book The Courage To Teach, has helped give language to something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last year. Palmer is talking about “big stories” and “little stories” primarily in the context of the liberal arts, but his insight here is just as easily applicable to the teaching of the church. What is the “big story” of the church? And how does that big story “frame our personal tales and tell us what they mean”? 

To become a Christian is to become enveloped by the big story of what God has done in Christ. The gospel is the universal, archetypal narrative of redemption through which all our little stories find their meaning. It’s not just a set of credal affirmations to which we give mental assent. It’s our origin story, like the story of the Exodus for Israel or the story of Romulus for Rome. It tells us who we are. Just as a bath in the Jordan means nothing without the journey through the Red Sea, so our personal testimonies mean nothing without the testimony of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As Palmer says it, when our little stories become our primary point of reference, disconnected from God’s big story, we easily become lost in narcissism.

This is the whole point of the creeds. To steal an image from N. T. Wright (as if I’ve never done that before): Just like a suitcase carries and protects our clothes while we travel, so the creeds are meant to carry and protect the controlling narrative of our worldview. But the whole point of traveling with a suitcase is so that you can unpack it and wear the clothes inside. You wouldn’t take the suitcase with you if you didn’t intend to wear the clothes. And yet that’s exactly what many churches do with the creeds. We carry them around, post them on the “statement of faith” page of our websites, and go on living in an entirely different set of clothes. 

My family has moved twice in the last year — from Portland to Virginia Beach and from Virginia Beach to Kansas City. That means we’ve visited a lot of different churches looking for a new home church, which has forced us to figure out afresh what we’re really looking for in a local Christian community. Becky and I both come from nondenominational charismatic backgrounds, so naturally we started looking at nondenominational charismatic churches. What I noticed as we visited various communities in that genre, however, is that there is often a very wide gap in charismatic circles between the “little stories” of the community and the “big story” of the wider Christian tradition. 

Such communities are often theologically conservative, having traditional statements of faith that closely echo the early creeds, but the emphasis on Sunday mornings is usually about finding your breakthrough, reaching your full potential, or what the Spirit is doing in our little group right now. In this way, the little stories of God’s presence in the community tend to displace the big story of the gospel and what God did through Christ already — and the result is that people get lost in narcissism.

Now contrast that with Paul’s words at the end of Galatians 2: 

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Paul didn’t just affirm the truth of Jesus’ story and then go on telling his own little story. Rather, he allowed Jesus’ story to completely transform the way he thought about his own story and the little stories of everyone else around him. 

I still call myself charismatic, and I think the rest of the church has a lot to learn from the Pentecostal and charismatic traditions. But what I’ve come to realize over the last year is that it doesn’t matter if I affirm a list of traditional beliefs. It’s only when I give those beliefs their proper place within the big story of my worldview, when I take the clothes out of the suitcase and put them on, that I am truly orthodox. 


Recommended Resources In This Post


96864: The Courage to Teach, 10 Anniversary EditionThe Courage to Teach, 10th Anniversary Edition
By Parker J. Palmer

"This book is for teachers who have good days and bad - and whose bad days bring the suffering that comes only from something one loves. It is for teachers who refuse to harden their hearts, because they love learners, learning, and the teaching life." - Parker J. Palmer in the introduction

Towards Truth And Reconciliation: My Time At IHOP-KC

“Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.” - Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Cape Town and Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

“Loyalty to a ministry involves humbly challenging it when needed.” - Mike Bickle, founder and director of the International House of Prayer

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I was on staff at the International House of Prayer in Kansas City from 2003 to 2011. During my time there I lead prayer teams, sang on worship teams, lead Bible studies, managed the bookstore, organized events, and of course prayed for hours every day. Like most people, the thing that drew me to IHOP was the prayer room itself: a place where Jesus is exalted in prayer and worship constantly, day and night, 24/7. It was like a greenhouse for spiritual growth. I wouldn’t trade my time at IHOP for anything — which is why it pains me to write this post.

About six years ago, after I had been on staff at IHOP for about 7 years, one of the senior leaders called me into a private meeting to address a theological issue that had raised some concerns amongst the leadership. The issue concerned a rumor that I had said something about being “functionally amillennial”. I explained that the rumor must have misconstrued my meaning, because what I had actually said (in response to an amillennialist friend outside of IHOP on my personal blog) was that I agreed with amillennialists on the subject of inaugurated eschatology, that the kingdom is both “already” and “not yet” — something which IHOP officially affirms.

Nevertheless, the leader said that in order for him to “call off the watch dogs” I needed to delete that comment from my blog and submit to a six-month period of probation. He mentioned someone who had recently left IHOP for another ministry as an example and said, “I don’t want what happened to him to happen to you.” He also told me that, contrary to the popular notion of what it means to be a “good Berean,” what the Berean’s actually did was accept Paul’s teaching by faith and then look to Scripture to find confirmation for what they already believed (cf. Acts 17:11-12). This puzzled me for two reasons: first, because he seemed to be addressing me as someone who hadn’t been at IHOP for seven years and who hadn’t already agreed with Mike Bickle’s teachings, and, second, because of the apparent disconnect between what he was saying and Mike’s public encouragement to test everything.

I submitted to the period of probation, which included attending an IHOPU class on the book of Revelation. In one of those classes, during a discussion period, I said something about how John alludes to some OT passage at one point. After class the teacher pulled me aside and instructed me to never use the word “alludes” again, because scholars who use that word supposedly use it because they don’t believe in the truth of biblical prophecy. I disagreed and said that an allusion was simply an indirect quotation. At this point he got somewhat heated, said “Do you know who I am?!”, and began listing his credentials. I then responded heatedly (which I’m not proud of) and said that his credentials didn’t really matter with respect to the meaning of the word in question — although I had a hard time communicating clearly at that point because I felt like I was on trial, which caused me to shut down to some extent.

I told this story and expressed my concerns to Mike Bickle via email last January, after Kendall Beachey published his infamous follow-up to the Rolling Stone exposé Love and Death in the House of Prayer. Mike said he was sincerely sorry that I “felt penalized” for holding different views, but assured me that IHOP leaders “honor sincere questioning” and “do not penalize” staff members or students for holding different views. My negative experience was a one-off anomaly, something easily amended. The only problem is that it was not my only negative experience.

Shortly after that episode, my wife and I were in an end-times Bible study lead by another senior leader. We were discussing Isaiah 7:14 and the way Matthew quotes it in connection with the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:22-23). I mentioned the way Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1, which is not a prophecy, and says that it also was fulfilled in Jesus (Matt 2:15). I suggested that maybe Matthew meant something broader with the word “fulfill” (Greek: pleroo, to fill to the full) than a simple one-to-one realization of prophetic predictions. It seemed like a minor point to me, but the leader shut the conversation down and later called my wife and I into a private meeting with him and another leader. They told us we needed to watch what we say in public and always present a unified front with the leadership of IHOP. But we remained confused about why we were being reprimanded in the first place.

About a year or so after this, after I was no longer on staff at IHOP, I was having a discussion with another senior leader about biblical prophecy on a public forum that he moderates, which is unaffiliated with IHOP. Instead of addressing the points I raised in that thread he started addressing me personally, saying that I was “blind to my own deductive reasoning,” that I had “trapped myself in a prison of my own making,” and that I was “content to pay the Holy Spirit lip-service”. I stopped responding at that point, but several other people reacted to his disparaging remarks, so he shut the thread down. I then emailed him a couple months later seeking reconciliation, but he didn’t respond, so I sent him a private message on the forum, and he said (apologetically) that he was too busy to respond at that point. This was in early 2011.

He finally responded and asked for my forgiveness a few months ago, after I shared my story along side dozens of others in a 75 page document presented to the IHOP leadership team last April. In response to that meeting, Mike instructed many of the leaders who were implicated in that document to apologize to the people they mistreated, and they finally established a standard grievance policy for staff and students. Mike adamantly denies, however, that there is a more pervasive issue in the IHOP leadership culture that might call for deeper reform, insisting in several public statements that “some” people had been hurt by “some” statements made and attitudes held by “some” of their leaders in “some” of their messages and conversations. Mike also insists that IHOP’s vision and values are not based on prophetic words. Both of these statements strike me as being extremely dissociative, if not disingenuous. The recent steps they’ve taken are necessary and encouraging, but they are treating a symptom while denying the cause.

In order to understand my experience at IHOP, you have to understand the role that Mike’s eccentric eschatology plays in shaping the shared identity and controlling narrative of the community. As Dr. Andrew Jackson observes, Mike places a huge emphasis on the idea that this is the last generation and that God is raising up an elite end-time army to prepare the church for the soon-coming great tribulation. Like many similar movements since the late second century, IHOP’s apocalyptic framework goes back to a series of ecstatic experiences, commonly referred to as their prophetic history. In one such experience, Mike believes God spoke to him about raising up “10,000 forerunners” to proclaim an “end-time revolution” that will confront the status quo and usher in the second coming of Jesus. In Mike’s mind, one of the primary purposes of the International House of Prayer is to function as a “spiritual boot camp” to train these end-time revolutionaries. To question that emphasis at any point, therefore, is to question a central boundary-marker of the community.

But things are more complicated than this. On one level, Mike is just trying to be faithful to what he humbly calls his “specific ministry assignment” — a vocation which he believes was given by divine revelation and which just happens to involve training thousands of young adults to change the understanding and expression of Christianity and usher in the second coming of Jesus. But on the other hand, Mike is acutely aware of the fact that this vocation, and the underlying narrative which supports it, is controversial and divisive on a number of levels; so he downplays the most controversial elements of that narrative, saying it is merely his “opinion” that Jesus will return in this generation and that he does not base his ministry on prophetic words. So, for example, while Mike places the belief that Jesus will return in this generation on the lowest tier of his recent “Varying Importance of End-Time Beliefs” document, he also spends the first three chapters of his newest book (which bears the unassuming title 7 Commitments for Spiritual Growth) explaining why he believes this is the last generation and how forerunners should prepare for the years ahead by reading the book of Revelation every week. IHOP leaders are thus faced with the ambiguous task of enforcing this narrative while navigating the disparity between Mike’s two different modes of public messaging, which breeds a culture of dysfunction and control.

I would love to think that my negative experiences were isolated cases, but I’ve heard too many similar stories over the years to not believe there is a larger, more systemic problem. My story pales in comparison with many others I’ve heard. Many of my friends have spent years in counseling to recover from the trauma of their time at IHOP. Many are now agnostic or atheist. I harbor no ill will toward the leaders who mistreated me, which is why I’m not including their names. The real problem, after all, isn’t with one or two abusive individuals. The real problem is that IHOP’s main ideological boundary-markers are defined more by their “prophetic history” than by the clear emphasis of Scripture, the creeds, or even by their own statement of faith — and as long as Mike fails to admit this, the dysfunction and control will continue as people continue to trip over those unspoken boundary-markers.

I’m sharing my story because the problem has gone unchecked for far too long. I have such a deep love for the International House of Prayer and I want to see it grow and thrive into the next generation. But the leadership has made a lot of things central and nonnegotiable that really should be more peripheral and open to discussion. IHOP is at a watershed right now. If they continue to define themselves more by the private experiences of a few individuals than by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they will progressively lose influence and credibility in the wider church, and they will become increasingly isolated and sectarian. If the prayer movement wants to continue into the next generation of Christendom, it will have to rebuild its identity on the rock of the Christian story rather than the sand of its own special narrative.

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The Proto-Resurrection: A Fresh Investigation of Revelation 20:4-6

Introduction

Among the many questions that have puzzled readers of John’s apocalypse over the centuries, the meaning of the “first resurrection” in 20:4-6 is probably the most bewildering. Part of the problem is that the rest of the NT, in line with mainstream Jewish eschatology, seems to envision only one all-inclusive resurrection event at the end of the age, but John speaks of two — one at the beginning and one at the end of the millennium (e.g., John 5:28-29; 1 Cor. 15:51-55). This raises the question: Has John split the one resurrection event of earlier Jewish and Christian expectation into two, or is he using the idea of resurrection non-literally to refer to some other kind of life? Is the “first resurrection” the same sort of reality as its implicit follow-up, the first in a sequential series of events of the same kind, or is it something else? Central to the answer of this question is John’s use of the adjective πρῶτος.

Defining the Term

The BDAG defines πρῶτος as “pertaining to being first in a sequence, inclusive of time, set (number), or space, first of several, but also when only two persons or things are involved.”[1] The word appears over 90 times in the NT, most often in reference to time and number (e.g., “the first day of the Passover” in Mark 14:12 and pars.), occasionally in reference to rank or value (e.g., “the first will be last” in Mark 10:31 and pars.), and only once in reference to space (the “first section” of the tabernacle in Heb. 9:2, 6, 8).[2]

In other words, πρῶτος is a fairly mundane word whose semantic range is roughly equivalent to “first”. The two words are not entirely equivalent, however. In the Hellenistic Greek of the first century, πρῶτος often carries the same sense that πρότερος carried in Classical Greek, that is, “former” in contrast with “latter”, or the first of two.[3] This is the sense it carries throughout Rev. 20-21.[4]

Interpreting the Term

The appearance of πρῶτος in Rev. 20-21 is similar to the usage in Heb. 8-10 and 1 Cor. 15:45-47. Both of those passages employ the word in the contrasting sense of “former” or “preceding” in relation to “latter” or “new”.

In 1 Cor. 15:45-47 πρῶτος appears as the antithesis of δεύτερος (second) and ἔσχατος (last). Here Paul contrasts Christ, as the representative of the new humanity, with Adam, the representative of the old humanity. He uses this antithesis to emphasize the discontinuity between the exalted state of Christ’s resurrection body and the corruptible state of our present bodies. In this context πρῶτος carries the sense of something preliminary and inferior to what follows.

In Heb. 8-10 πρῶτος appears as the antithesis of δεύτερος (second) and καινός (new). Here the “first covenant” (8:7, 13; 9:1, 15, 18) stands in juxtaposition with the “new covenant” (8:8, 13; 9:15) or “second covenant” (8:7). In this context πρῶτος is the equivalent of old, incomplete, outdated.[5] Indeed, as the mediator of the new covenant, Christ “abolishes the first in order to establish the second” (10:9).[6]

The Term Used in Revelation 20-21

In Rev. 21:1-5 πρῶτος is employed in juxtaposition with καινός (new). After the final judgment comes “a new heaven and a new earth” (v. 1), and a “new Jerusalem” (v. 2); indeed, it is the time when God makes “all things new” (v. 5). Similarly to Heb. 8-10, when the word “first” appears throughout this passage, it is used to speak of that which is superseded by the “new”.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away... Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.... See, I am making all things new.”

In this passage, to be “first” means to belong to the old order of the world that will give way to the new when God brings heaven and earth together. In this context πρῶτος does not mean merely the first in a series of like kind; rather it characterizes this world as both different and lesser in kind from the “new” world of God’s consummate redemption. It shows the present transient state of things in contrast with the new creation that will abide forever, just as Paul contrasts our present corruptible bodies with Christ’s exalted body in 1 Cor. 15.

In light of this contextual meaning of πρῶτος, M. G. Kline contends that we should not understand the “first resurrection” in Rev. 20:4-6 as denoting simply the first of the same kind in a temporal sequence of two, but rather a preliminary and inferior sort of resurrection to the ultimate bodily resurrection of the new order.[7] It is a proto-resurrection, an advance coming to life of the faithful souls in heaven as they await the new life of the consummation.

This reading gains further support by observing the relationship between the first resurrection and the second death. The “second death” is not simply the loss of physical life which every person must experience, but rather a death after death, an ultimate death reserved for the wicked (20:14-15). Likewise, the “first resurrection” is not simply the return to bodily life which John envisions for all of humanity (20:12), but rather a resurrection before resurrection, a preliminary coming to life reserved for those who were faithful unto death, who are now blessed and holy because they are exempt from the power of the second death (20:6).

In other words, when John speaks of the second death and the first resurrection, he is in both cases explaining a lesser known reality (eternal punishment and the heavenly intermediate state) by the terms of a more commonly known reality (death and resurrection). In both cases the adjective modifies the noun as carrying a metaphorical meaning. In the case of the “second death” it lets the reader know that this is a more ultimate destruction beyond what we normally refer to as death. In the case of the “first resurrection” it lets the reader know that this is a preliminary stage of life which is anticipatory to what we normally refer to as resurrection.

Conclusion

Contrary to what many readers have supposed, John does not envision two separate bodily resurrections. Rather, his use of the word πρῶτος shows that he has something different and lesser than bodily resurrection in mind for the “first resurrection”. Thus a proper understanding of πρῶτος should put to rest one argument that still enjoys the support of many good scholars despite being far past its expiration date. Coming from Henry Alford’s classic work The Greek Testament, this is probably the single most quoted paragraph by modern commentators of Rev. 20:

“If, in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned, where certain ψυχαὶ ἔζησαν at the first, and the rest of the νεκροὶ ἔζησαν only at the end of a specified period after that first,—if in such a passage the first resurrection may be understood to mean spiritual rising with Christ, while the second means literal rising from the grave;—then there is an end of all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definite testimony to anything. If the first resurrection is spiritual, then so is the second, which I suppose none will be hardy enough to maintain. But if the second is literal, then so is the first, which in common with the whole primitive Church and many of the best modern expositors, I do maintain, and receive as an article of faith and hope.”[8]

The way Alford uses the words “literal” and “spiritual” here is unfortunate, because it confuses the way that words refer to things (literal/non-literal) with the nature of the things themselves (bodily/non-bodily).[9] But given the fact that the “resurrection” of Rev. 20:4-6 is modified by the adjective πρῶτος as carrying the metaphorical sense of something preliminary and inferior to the ultimate bodily resurrection of the new order — just as the “death” of the same passage is qualified by the adjective δεύτερος as carrying the metaphorical sense of something greater and more ultimate beyond the initial loss of life — there is no more reason for following Alford’s law related to the “first resurrection” than there is for supposing that the “second death” must be the same sort of thing as the implicit first death. Unless a new generation of millennarians is willing to reduce the meaning of the second death to the strict literal sense that θάνατος by itself would normally carry, it must be conceded that ἀνάστασις does not in this case carry the normal sense of bodily resurrection.

The broader lesson here, however, is that every word of Scripture matters. At first glance the appearance of πρῶτος in Rev. 20:4-6 might seem to be of little consequence, but on closer inspection it becomes clear that this word carries considerable weight for the overall meaning of the millennium.

______________________

[1] F. W. Danker. (ed.). A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 892.

[2] G. Friedrich and Geoffrey W. Bromily (eds.). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 866, 68.

[3] F. Blass, A. Debrunner, and Robert W. Funk. A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1961), 34.

[4] J. H. Thayer. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 4th Ed. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1901), 555.

[5] TDNT., 866.

[6] Unless otherwise indicated, all Bible references in this article are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[7] M. G. Kline. “The First Resurrection,” Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1974/75): 366-75. Kline has been justly criticized for collapsing the meaning of death and resurrection into one, but his excess in application does not affect his central thesis. The point is not that death equals resurrection for the Christian, but rather that these souls are seen as being alive in spite of having been killed by the Beast. Though they died, yet they live. Their fate is thereby contrasted with the fate of the Beast, who ironically went alive to the “second death”.

[8] Henry Alford. The Greek Testament, vol. 4 (Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, and Co., 1880), 732-33.

[9] G. B. Caird. The Language and Imagery of the Bible (London: Duckworth, 1980), 131-33.

Egocentric Eschatology and a Hermeneutic of Love

“We don’t yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.” - 1 Corinthians 13:12-13, The Message

Image courtesy of Amazon.com

Image courtesy of Amazon.com

I found an interesting book at Goodwill the other day. It’s a theological companion of sorts to the hugely popular Left Behind series called Are We Living in the End Times?. If you’re familiar at all with the Left Behind series, then you can probably guess how this book answers the question posed in its title. Thankfully, unlike their spiritual godfather Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins don’t try to set any firm dates for Christ’s return. They're content with the much safer premise that “we have more reason than any generation before us to believe He will come in our generation” (xi).

The argument LaHaye and Jenkins make in support of their premise is pretty standard fare. It consists mostly of cherry-picking prophetic texts like Daniel 12:4, Ezekiel 47, and Matthew 24:14 and relating them directly to contemporary events like the technological revolution, the reemergence of Israel, and the advance of the gospel. Unfortunately, little attention is paid to the authorial intent or historical context of those verses. They are simply lifted from their native environment and applied confidently, imperialistically, to our generation. “Hardly anyone doubts that ours is a day when people are ‘running to and fro’ and knowledge has increased” (x).

This is nothing new, of course. Ever since the late second century charismatic teachers on the fringe of the Christian faith have gathered followers by claiming that they were living in the last (and, by implication, the most important) generation in history. Only in the last two centuries has this idea come into the mainstream, however, thanks mostly to the influence of John Nelson Darby and the Scofield Reference Bible. Given that the Left Behind series has sold 63 million copies and is now a major motion picture starring Nicolas Cage, it looks like the mass appeal of this pseudo-biblical eschatology has yet to die off.

I might take a series of posts soon to address some of the most popular reasons for thinking that this is the last generation and why that’s not actually what the biblical texts are referring to. But first I want to address a larger problem which feeds and supports this booming industry of end-times speculation. This is the problem of egocentrism.

We all know what it feels like to talk to someone who doesn’t have the patience or empathy to hear us out because they think they already know what we’re going to say before we say it. If we’re honest, we’ve probably been that person on more than one occasion. It takes tremendous effort to step outside of ourselves, to lay down our own expectations and preconceived ideas, and just listen to someone on their own terms. But that’s what we do when we love someone. In the same way, when we come to the words of God in Scripture, our first priority should not be to get something for ourselves or to find confirmation for what we think it should say, but to simply listen, without agenda, to what the text says. Far from being a dry or clinical discipline, biblical exegesis should be the natural outflow of a loving heart.

If we come to God’s word on its own terms, however, we are bound to discover two hard but ultimately liberating truths. First, the Bible wasn't written to us. It was written to people who lived between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago in an environment very different from our own. Second, the Bible isn’t mostly about us—at least, not directly anyway. The Bible is mostly about Jesus, and it invites us to see Jesus’ story as our story, to reshape our lives around his life. Too often, though, we come to the Bible with the expectation that it should speak directly to us and about us, that it should conform to us instead of us conforming to it.

This is why there is often so much unhealthy obsession with biblical prophecy. If the last 2,000 years of failed end-time predictions tells us anything, it’s that we desperately want the Bible to be about us. As Andrew Jackson says it, "the topic of eschatology, especially when it is sensationalized and set as a backdrop to the daily news, can easily appeal to our unhealthy heart motives and ambitions, just as fortune telling, horoscopes, and even spiritual channeling attract non-Christians." We create new "signs of the times" to fit current events and create lists of reasons why our generation is the last generation, the most important generation, the generation the Bible talks about the most. Paul defines prophecy as peering through a glass darkly, but we somehow manage to find our own face on every opaque surface.

The only way to overcome our fallen tendency toward a self-centered reading of Scripture is to have our thinking renewed by the self-giving love of Christ, who “died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15). It’s no coincidence that Paul’s pastoral instruction regarding the use of prophecy is also the most extensive description of Christian love in the New Testament (1 Cor. 13:1-13). What does a mature Christian love look like when applied to the art of biblical interpretation? Answer: Love does not seek its own. As N. T. Wright says it, “Love is the deepest mode of knowing because it is love that, while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality” (Surprised by Hope, 73).

Behind all of this is the recognition that God didn’t speak in a vacuum; he spoke to real people in real time and space, and we hear his word by listening to their words. At its root, then, the act of reading Scripture is an act of empathy: it requires us to step outside of ourselves, outside of our own time and space and likes and dislikes, and into the time and space of others. This is hard to do, not because it requires a special kind of intelligence but because it requires a special kind of love, the kind of love that drives a man to lay down his life for his friends.

This self-giving, others-centered kind of love lies at the heart of the Christian view of everything, not least a Christian view of the future. We must replace our egocentric eschatology with a hermeneutic of love. We must write the words “love does not seek its own” on the doorway of our hearts so that every time we come to God’s word our ears will be open to the story he is telling, not the story we want to hear. Only by affirming and celebrating the “other-than-self reality” of God’s word, by counting everything as loss for the sake of knowing Christ and becoming like him in his death—only then will his story become our story.

All Israel Will Be Saved: An Orthodox Consensus?

How do you interpret Romans 11:26? Be careful how you answer that question, because it’s a major theological boundary marker for many evangelical churches today, an easy litmus test to decide who's “out” and who's “in”. Indeed, judging by the way many evangelicals talk about this subject, one might get the impression it was more important than the divinity of Jesus or justification by faith.

But like many evangelical boundary markers, I can’t help thinking that this question raises the flag of orthodoxy at entirely the wrong place. Let me explain.

There are basically five different ways of understanding Paul's words in Romans 11:26 (these are rough generalizations, of course; there are many variations of these basic positions):

1) The dual covenant view, in which "all Israel will be saved" refers to literally every single Jew—past, present, and future—saved apart from Christ through the Abrahamic or Mosaic covenants.

2) The futurist view, in which "all Israel will be saved" refers to the mass salvation of the surviving remnant of ethnic Israel at the end of the age, either just before or just after Christ's second coming. This view is often (though not always) combined with a dispensational scheme in which these surviving Jews become the primary recipients of all the OT promises contained in the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, having those promises fulfilled in a thousand-year Jewish kingdom.

3) The present-continuous view, in which "all Israel will be saved" refers to the full number of Jews saved by faith throughout the present age, whatever that number might be. This is the view that I personally subscribe to and have argued for at some length.

4) The new covenant view, in which "all Israel will be saved" refers to the elect, the full number of Jews and Gentiles joined together in God's renewed family by faith. This is often called "supercessionism" or "replacement theology" by adherents of the first two views, but that title doesn't really fit since nobody is actually replaced in this view.

5) The (real) supercessionist view, in which "all Israel will be saved" refers to the church as a basically Gentile entity replacing the Jews as God's chosen people.

Views 1 and 5 are the two extreme ends of the spectrum, and neither is truly Christian in my opinion, for they both distort the gospel at a crucial point. View 1 distorts the gospel by positing another way to salvation for Jews apart from Christ, while view 5 distorts the gospel by positing an alternative ethnocentrism in which Gentiles replace Jews.

But placing views 1 and 5 to the side as aberrant, it seems to me that the other three views have more in common than their adherents often suppose. That is to say, whether we take "all Israel" as referring to (2) a remnant of ethnic Israel at the end of the age, (3) Jews saved throughout the present age, or (4) the “Israel of God” comprised of both believing Jews and believing Gentiles—in any case Paul would be stating the obvious.

Of course all Israel will be saved; every tribe and tongue will be saved when it’s all said and done. The necessary qualifications that must be applied to “all” for it to be a realistic Christian statement make the phrase entirely superfluous to what Paul has been saying all along. So, regardless of who “Israel” refers to there, it isn’t a new piece of information to the message of the passage itself and therefore shouldn’t be a hill that anyone is willing to die on. However we understand Romans 11:26, the thrust of the rest of the passage is clear enough, and it should be a gathering point for unity rather than a cause for breaking fellowship.

Paul wants the Gentile believers in Rome to know that God has by no means rejected the original people whom he called, that it’s not as if the Gentiles have replaced the Jews in His plan. His call for ethnic Israel stands now as it always has, for “the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable” (vv. 28-29). He has not ditched the old and started anew (supercessionism), and yet neither has he split his covenant family into two separate groups (dual covenant theology), but rather the Gentiles have been “grafted in” to the one historic people of God (vv. 16-17). Thus they should not boast against the Jews, for it’s upon the shoulders of Jews that they stand; they have accepted a torch which was first received and for two thousand years carried almost entirely by Jews (v. 18). As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “salvation is of the Jews”.

The only appropriate response, therefore, is gratefulness, which is exactly what Paul appeals to as he calls for immediate support for the church in Jerusalem (15:25-27). “For if the Gentiles have been partakers of their spiritual things,” he says, “their duty is also to minister to them in material things.” This, it seems, at least according to Paul, is a key part of the church's mandate; not to blindly support the political state of Israel in all of its endeavors, but in grateful humility to give the best of our resources—our time, money and energy—toward advancing the gospel amongst the Jews, and to support our Jewish brethren who are giving themselves to that end.

Now, according to my view, none of this is based on the Jews having a distinct calling in this age or in the age to come; rather it’s based wholly on the heart of a dynamically relational and loving God who had a friend named Abraham, and on his outrageous mercy that continues to chase that man’s rebellious children—not because he has to, as if he was bound by a contract he now regrets signing, but because he wants to, because his faithfulness remains even when we are faithless.

But this distinct qualification aside, it seems to me that the basic contours of this reading are common to all three orthodox views. Am I correct in thinking this, or am I missing something?

Understanding Revelation: It's always literal, except when it's not, which is more often than we like to admit

The book of Revelation should always be interpreted literally unless it clearly indicates otherwise. It means what it says and says what it means.

Except, of course, for when it describes a wounded lamb with seven eyes and seven horns. Everyone knows that’s Jesus, so it’s an obvious exception.

Or when it describes a sea beast with seven heads and ten horns. We know that imagery from the book of Daniel, so it’s another exception.

And of course there's the other beast that comes out of the earth, looks like lamb and talks like a dragon. That’s clearly symbolic because, well, it comes right after the first beast.

So there are three clear exceptions. But everything else is literal unless the passage itself says it’s symbolic by calling it a “sign”, like Rev. 12:1-3 does with the woman and the dragon.

Or like Rev. 15:1 does with all of the bowl judgments.

Or like Rev. 1:1 does with the whole book.

Oh, wait...

Montanism Revisited: A New Controlling Narrative

Introduction

Sometime around AD165 a man named Montanus, a recent convert to Christianity from Phrygia in the mountains of Asia Minor, began announcing new prophetic revelations from the Holy Spirit about the imminent consummation to world history. Two charismatic women named Maximilla and Priscilla quickly joined his cause and the three of them began to attract a huge following. But the three prophets also attracted sharp criticism throughout the church, and around 177 the movement was condemned by an assembly of bishops as heretical.[1] Like many early heresies, most of what we know about Montanism—or the New Prophecy, as it was called by its adherents—comes from the point of view of its opponents, which makes it difficult to form an accurate and balanced view of the movement. One of the unique features of Montanism, however, is that there didn’t seem to be much consensus amongst its detractors on why it was condemned in the first place.

Many of the more outrageous charges leveled against the movement in the generations after its peak are no longer taken seriously by scholars.[2] An older generation of historians tended to fixate on one or two doctrinal issues, like their formulation of the Trinity or the ecstatic nature of their prophetic experiences.[3] The more recent trend is to seek an underlying sociological explanation—a clash of authority between the rural prophets and the urban establishment, for example.[4] Cessationists like to draw parallels between Montanism and present day Pentecostalism or charismatic movements.[5] Here it will be argued that, ultimately, the New Prophecy was condemned not because of any single doctrine or practice that was manifestly at odds with orthodoxy, or because it posed a threat to existing authority structures, but because it had substantially displaced the controlling narrative of the rest of the church with its own special narrative, enforcing a new shared identity which set it apart from the larger community of Jesus’ followers. This proposal provides a more holistic way of reading the evidence that incorporates the best elements of other theories while setting them in the context of a more persuasive overall hypothesis.

Worldviews and Stories

In his monumental work The New Testament and the People of God, N. T. Wright investigates the historical context and theology of the earliest Christians by employing the category of “worldview”. This approach, Wright argues, has the advantage of addressing historical questions in a more holistic fashion, avoiding the reductionist paradigms which have plagued scholarship.[6] Worldviews, he says, are “the basic stuff of human existence, the lens through which the world is seen, the blueprint for how one should live in it, and above all the sense of identity and place which enables human beings to be what they are.”[7]

One of the primary things worldviews consist of are stories. “Narrative is the most characteristic expression of worldview, going deeper than the isolated observation or fragmented remark.”[8] The stories we tell express our view of reality and our answers to all of life’s biggest questions, including questions related to our own identity and place in the world. These stories and the implicit answers they provide to life’s big questions are in turn expressed through our cultural symbols (festivals, architecture, art, etc.) and praxis (our particular way of living in the world).[9] Analyzing a movement like Montanism from this vantage point—i.e., not just in terms of isolated statements or practices but in terms of the larger narrative and worldview expressed by those statements and practices—should provide a much more fruitful avenue for explaining its condemnation by the wider church of the period.

The church is an international community whose shared identity is based primarily on the good news of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. That is our controlling narrative. It’s not just a set of credal affirmations to which we give mental assent. It’s our origin story, like the story of the Exodus for Israel or the story of Romulus for Rome. It tells us who we are. So the test of authenticity for any would-be Christian community is not ultimately whether they have the right “statement of faith” with the right boxes checked for this or that doctrine, but whether the story of Jesus is the primary source of their shared identity. The key question is not whether the Montanists deviated from orthodoxy on this or that point in their doctrine or practice, but whether the larger narrative which stood behind that doctrine and practice deviated from the central narrative of the rest of the church.

A New Controlling Narrative?

The underlying narrative of Montanism can perhaps be seen most clearly in one of the most well known fragments, attributed by a man named Epiphanius to Priscilla or Quintilla, about the eschatological significance of the movement’s headquarters: “Christ came to me in a bright robe and put wisdom in me, and revealed to me that this place is holy, and that it is here that Jerusalem will descend from heaven.”[10] According to Appolonius, Montanus himself had given the name “Jerusalem” to Pepuza and Tymion, wanting people to gather there from everywhere.[11] These reports are generally believed to be authentic, and corroborative archeological evidence for their accuracy has recently been advanced by the prominent Montanist scholar William Tabbernee.[12] However, several other scholars have recently disputed their authenticity on the grounds that Tertullian, who became a very vocal advocate for the Montanists, never spoke of eschatological events involving Pepuza, but only Jerusalem.[13] If they are authentic, then they provide a striking window into what surely would have been a central feature of the Montanist worldview.

Perhaps a more fruitful avenue for our inquiry, however, would be to analyze statements made by Tertullian himself in support of Montanism. This would have the twofold advantage of (a) starting on solid historical ground and (b) giving appropriate weight to the testimony of a supporter of the movement who wished to present it in the most favorable light. In Tertullian’s work On Monogamy, in which he argues for the unprecedentedly strict Montanist ethic related to marriage and sex, he seeks to rationalize the discontinuity between that ethic and the instruction of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 by appealing to Jesus’ relationship to the Old Covenant: “If Christ abrogated what Moses commanded because from the beginning it was not so... why should not the Paraclete alter what Paul permitted?”[14] This extreme ethic, and the rationalist hermeneutic which Tertullian employs to support it, tells us something crucial about the underlying Montanist narrative.

In many ways Tertullian held a very high view of the Scriptures, but he also wasted no opportunity in declaring the superiority of the new revelations given to the leaders of Montanism through the Paraclete. For him the Spirit was a restorer rather than an innovator, and this new dispensation of revelations was even foretold by Christ in John 16:13.[15] While Tertullian clearly sought to root these revelations in continuity with the Scriptures, however, he also believed firmly in their transcendent quality:

“What, then, is the Paraclete’s administrative office but this: the direction of discipline, the revelation of the Scriptures, the reformation of the intellect, the advancement toward the ‘better things?’ Nothing is without stages of growth: all things await their season... Look how creation itself advances little by little to fructification... So, too, righteousness... advanced, through the Law and the Prophets, to infancy; from that stage it passed, through the Gospel, to the fervor of youth: now, through the Paraclete, it is settling into maturity.”[16]

Erich Nestler points out the inherent danger in this hermeneutic, that it opens the door to all kinds of new doctrines and practices that have no basis in Scripture.[17] But the more basic problem, beyond any potential danger, is that it tells a narrative in which the New Prophecy has functionally superseded the New Testament as the final authority for life and godliness.[18]

This same implicit narrative can be observed in several fragments generally believed to be authentic sayings of Maximilla. “After me there will no longer be a prophet,” she declares, “but the end.”[19] Stewart-Sykes rightly cautions against seeing too much of a contrast between the eschatological orientation of the Montanists and that of the wider Asian church of the period, as seen, for instance, in the writings of Papias and the Epistula apostorum.[20] But the more alarming detail of this fragment, beyond the overly confident note of imminence, is the position in which it places Maximilla herself as the last prophet, the final voice from God to humanity before the consummation. The underlying story is one in which the Montanist leadership are at the center and climax of God’s great eschatological program. Like Tertullian, Maximilla tries to root her oracles in continuity with the words of Christ, giving an appearance of humility: “Hear not me, but hear Christ.”[21] And yet she presents herself as the final interpreter of Christ: “The Lord has sent me as partisan, revealer, and interpreter of this suffering, covenant, and promise.”[22]

If the statements of Tertullian and Maximilla can be taken as representative, then it appears that the Montanists developed a new interpretive framework in order to legitimate their new revelations; they rationalized the areas of discontinuity between their experiences and the New Testament by treating the New Testament in the same way that the New Testament treats the Old Testament, believing that they stood in a new and greater phase of redemptive history comparable to Jesus’ position in relation to the law and prophets. Instead of submitting their ecstatic experiences to the authority of Scripture, those experiences became the rod by which everything else was measured. In other words, it wasn’t as much the fact of ecstatic prophecy in the Montanist movement that made it heretical as it was the function which that prophecy served to create a new shared identity on a basis other than the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As Hippolytus observed,

“They allege that they have learned something more through these [the three main leaders of the movement] than through the law, prophets and Gospels... They attach themselves more to the speeches of Montanus than to the Gospels.”[23]

Summary and Conclusion

When the charges leveled against the Montanists are investigated each as an isolated case, they all appear somewhat forced and the condemnation of the movement looks like either an overreaction or a conspiracy. But when each charge is investigated as part of a larger whole—that is, when each is viewed as a small window into a distinct and comprehensible worldview—then a coherent picture emerges and the wisdom of history is justified. For followers of the New Prophecy, the self-aggrandizing narrative of an imminent consummation to world history—a narrative which focused on their own headquarters as the center of God’s eschatological activity, a narrative confirmed by the charismatic authority of their founding leaders and reinforced by measures of extreme asceticism—this narrative had functionally eclipsed the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the primary source of their peculiar shared identity. This is what ultimately set them apart from the emerging Catholic church of the late second century. This is why they came to be identified more with the name of Montanus than the name of Christ.

The condemnation of Montanism thus stands as a cautionary tale to many would-be Christian movements throughout the world today. Prophecy is a gift to be earnestly desired, and the church desperately needs revival. But true revival is not about discovering something new and different. It's not about moving beyond what God did in the past to something more, something fresh and unprecedented. True revival is about coming back to life. As the word implies, it assumes that the new thing God did already, once and for all through Jesus, is the great turning point of history and the lifeblood at the heart of every Spirit-breathed movement from Pentecost to the Parousia.

[1] William Tabbernee, Prophets and Gravestones: An Imaginative History of Montanists and Other Early Christians (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 11-23.

[2] Erich Nestler, “Was Montanism a Heresy?,” Pneuma (Spring 1984): 70-71.

[3] David F. Wright, “Why Were the Montanists Condemned?,” Themelios 2.1 (1976): 16-17.

[4] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking Penguin, 2010), 138.

[5] See, e.g., John MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 88. It should be noted that none of the early opponents of Montanism claimed a cessation of prophecy in the church, and many of the fathers explicitly affirmed its continuance. Cf., D. F. Wright, “Why Were the Montanists Condemned?,” 18.

[6] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 122.

[7] Ibid., 124.

[8] Ibid., 123.

[9] Ibid., 123-24.

[10] Fr. 11. All Montanist fragments are cited following the numbering of The Montanist Oracles and Testimonia, ed. Ronald E. Heine (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1989).

[11] Eusebius, Church History, 5.18.2.

[12] William Tabbernee, “Portals of the Montanist New Jerusalem: The Discovery of Pepouza and Tymion,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 11 (2003): 87-93.

[13] See, e.g., D. E. Groh, “Utterance and Exegesis: Biblical Interpretation in the Montanist Crisis,” in The Living Text, ed. D. E. Groh and R. Jewett (New York: University Press of America, 1985), 80-81.

[14] Tertullian, On Monogamy, 14.

[15] Ibid., 3-4.

[16] On the Veiling of Virgins, 1

[17] Erich Nestler, “Was Montanism a Heresy,” 74.

[18] I am using the phrase “New Testament” here in the same broad sense as Hippolytus when he says, in the early third century, that the church is steered like a ship by “the two Testaments” (On Christ and Antichrist 58-59).

[19] Fr. 6.

[20] Alistair Stewart-Sykes, “The Original Condemnation of Asian Montanism,” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 50 (1999), 3.

[21] Fr. 7.

[22] Fr. 8.

[23] D. F. Wright, “Why Were the Montanists Condemned?,” 19.

Paul's Radical Vision for Marriage: An Alternative Reading of Ephesians 5

Introduction

Paul’s instruction on marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33 forms one of the most beautiful and profound portrayals of the gospel in the New Testament, which probably accounts for its status as the most popular source material in Christian marriage vows. I often wonder, though, why traditional vows so often contain a line for both the bride and the groom about loving the other while only the bride’s vows contain a line about submission. Yes, Paul specifically instructs wives to submit to their husbands in Ephesians 5, and he doesn’t say anything about husbands submitting to their wives. But he doesn’t tell wives to love their husbands either, and yet nobody assumes this means wives don’t need to love their husbands. And Paul even introduces this whole paragraph by instructing everyone to submit to one another (v. 21).

So why is it so common to think of submission within marriage as the sole responsibility of the wife? For one significant reason. In both Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:3 Paul says that the husband is the “head” of the wife. Traditionally this has been taken to mean that the husband is the “leader” or “authority” of his wife, so that Paul’s instruction to wives is based on the exclusive authority of the husband comparable to Christ’s authority over the church. This reading comes naturally in a patriarchal context where masculinity is defined mostly in terms of being tougher and more driven and femininity is defined mostly in terms of being more gentle and submissive.

Needless to say, there are some cultural assumptions that need to be teased out for us to properly understand Paul’s rationale. The traditionalist view of submission has come under intense scrutiny by recent scholarship, and many have pointed out that the dominant modern understanding of “headship” as “authority over” doesn’t accurately reflect Paul’s meaning. In fact, the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English lexicon, one of the most exhaustive lexicons of ancient Greek, does not include any definition of the word that approximates “leader” or “authority”. While it’s important to keep the debate focused on Paul’s own usage, we have to be careful to avoid interpretive colonialism, reading our cultural use of a metaphor onto Paul instead of allowing Paul’s language to carry the natural resonances of his own culture.

Headship: Authority or Source?

Even in our culture, we sometimes use “head” as a metaphor for authority (like the head of a corporation) and we sometimes use it as a metaphor for source or origin (like the head of a river). The question is, in Paul’s metaphorical use of the Greek word kephale, did it carry more the connotation of “authority over” or more the connotation of “source and origin”? Of course Paul calls women to submit to their husbands “for the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church”—but is his reasoning that wives should submit to their husbands because man possesses an intrinsic authority over woman just as Christ has authority over the church, or that wives should submit to their husbands because man is the source of woman just as Christ is the source of the church?

I think it’s clearly the latter, and here’s why: Paul explains the headship of husbands here in comparison to the headship of Christ. In Colossians 1:18 Paul writes similarly that Christ “is the head of the church body of which he is the beginning, the firstborn of the dead, so that he himself may be first in everything.” Paul’s primary point throughout this passage (Col. 1:15-18) is to show that Jesus is the authority over everything because he is the creator, source, and beginning of everything—and when Paul uses the word kephale (head) in this context, it means “source and origin”.

This point is crucial. In Colossians 1:15 Paul calls Jesus the “firstborn of all creation”, and then he explains what that means in verse 16: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” In other words, being the “firstborn of all creation” means that Jesus is the source of all things, including all thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities. Verse 17 elaborates that he is “before all things” and “in him all things hold together”. So verses 15-17 deal with Christ’s authority over all of creation, and Paul’s logic is that Christ holds ultimate authority over everything because he is the ultimate source of everything.

Verse 18 then homes in on the church as God’s new creation in Christ. And the logic is the same: he is the “head”, the “beginning”, the “firstborn from the dead”—and notice the causal relationship here—“so that in everything he might be preeminent”. In other words, Paul’s logic is the same with Jesus’ authority over the church as it is with his authority over all of creation, and in both cases it is a source logic: Jesus is the origin and source of all creation, and he is the origin and source of the church, in order that he might have the first place as Lord. Note also what he says in 2:16, that Christ is “the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God” (cf., Eph. 4:15-16). When Paul says that Jesus is the head, he clearly means that he is the source.

So when Paul says that husbands are the head of their wives just as Christ is the head of the church, he does not mean that they are the authority of their wives but rather that they are the source of their wives. Besides Ephesians 5:23, Paul uses the metaphor of headship for husbands in one other place, 1 Corinthians 11:3: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” He explains what this means in verses 8 and 9 (after an interesting discussion about head coverings): “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”

Again, it’s crucial that we follow Paul’s logic. In both of the passages in which Paul speaks of a husband being the head of his wife he is thinking on the map of the creation account in Genesis 2, where Eve was made after Adam to be his “fit helper” or “strong equal”. Note that he quotes from it directly in Ephesians 5:31, and alludes to it in 1 Corinthians 11:8. So thinking on the map of Genesis 2, a husband is the source of his wife inasmuch as woman was created from man to be his helper, the joint-ruler of creation, and not vice versa. This source logic in the creation account is the foundation for a husband’s authority over his wife, just as being the “head” (the source of everything) is the foundation for Christ’s authority over everything. But in neither case does the metaphor of headship itself speak of authority.

Mutual Headship

Now, at first glance that might seem like a relatively insignificant distinction to make. But for Paul it makes all the difference in the world, because in 1 Corinthians 11:11-12, just after explaining that man is the source and origin of woman, he quickly points out that woman is now the source of man.

“Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.

This is where the analogy between Christ’s headship and a husband’s headship breaks down for Paul. Christ is before everything, the “first cause” so to speak, but man and woman are now mutually interdependent, mutually the source of one another, so that they share mutual authority over one another. So if headship means source and origin, and man is the source of woman but woman is also the source of man, then what Paul gives us here is a theological foundation for mutual headship and mutual submission. Just as man is the source of woman, so woman is now the source of man, and therefore neither sex is independent of or preeminent above the other.

Going back and reading Ephesians 5 in this light, verse 21 appears much more significant: “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Just as Paul’s instruction for husbands to love their wives doesn’t mean that wives don’t have to love their husbands, so his instruction for wives to submit to their husbands doesn’t mean that husbands don’t have to submit to their wives. Because just as man is the head of woman, so woman is also the head of man.

If you want to see how Paul fleshes out this ethic of mutual submission between husbands and wives, read 1 Corinthians 7:1-4. “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” Some would wish to argue, of course, that because the submission of husbands to wives in this text is focused on their sexuality, that is the only sphere in which wives have authority over their husbands. But why would a wife only have authority over her husband’s body and not over the rest of him as well? In the ancient world sex was just one more way for men to assert their dominance over women. Therefore, in saying that a wife also has authority over her husband’s body, Paul was cutting at the heart of that culture’s patriarchal values and replacing it with an ethic of mutual submission and service between husbands and wives. And thus the principle behind Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 7 can and should be applied elsewhere in marriage beyond sexuality.

So yes, I am called to be the primary covering and authority over my wife, to serve her and protect her and empower her, etc. But she is called to be all of that for me as well. When we vowed to love and serve each other as God's image bearers, that vow included a commitment to subvert the dehumanizing caricatures of masculinity and femininity within our fallen world by striving mutually to show initiative, leadership, and strength, as well as patience, gentleness, empathy, and submission.

The Millennium Revisited: A Revolutionary Reading of Revelation 20 (Part 2)

Before the Millennium

Revelation 20 doesn’t stand on its own. Within the narrative of John’s vision, the millennium is preceded by the judgment of the “beast” and the “false prophet” in 19:11-21. By following John’s allusions to the OT, we can see that the judgment scene of Daniel 7 provides the apocalyptic template for both passages, forming a thematic thread which binds them together (Bauckham 106-7). In order to understand 20:1-6, therefore, appropriate attention must first be paid to 19:11-21. To read chapter 20 apart from chapter 19 is to miss the context of the millennium entirely.

Most readers, of course, have identified 19:11-21 with the second coming. But this does not seem to have been John’s intention. In fact, R. J. McKelvey points out that many of the commonest features of the early parousia tradition, and the OT passages from which they came, are absent from Revelation 19—like the motifs of a cloud theophany, a great trumpet call, the gathering of the saints, and (most significantly) the restoration of creation (McKelvey 78-9). Instead, John’s portrait draws primarily from the “Divine Warrior” passages throughout the OT, a tradition expressed most often in connection with the judgment of nations within continuing history (e.g. Psalm 2; Isa. 63; Ezek. 1; Hab. 3). John has combined that Jewish tradition with the Greco-Roman portrait of a victory procession (e.g. the white horse and red robe) in order to parody the pomp of Rome and boldly proclaim its downfall (Fee 274).

The inability of most commentators to see anything but the physical return of Jesus in this passage is a sign of the wide cultural gap that exists between the literary norms of our world and the prophetic tradition which was John’s native language. A more sensitive reading of the text shows that 19:11-21 is about the vindication of Jesus’ followers and the judgment of their oppressors, the Roman empire and the Caesar cult, within continuing history.

While this scene of judgment meets the faithful as a promise of vindication, however, it meets others as an urgent call to repentance (cf., 3:2-3; 16:15). This passage forms the angelic response to the embarrassing episode of 19:10, in which John himself nearly succumbs to the lure of idolatry. As the seer, John stands as the representative of the churches which he addresses, and his stumbling thus stands as a warning for them; the vision of the rider on the white horse reveals how God will respond to those who do not repent of their idolatry. As Jesus said to the church in Pergamum, prefiguring this scene: “Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth” (2:16).

The Binding of the Dragon

Following John’s narrative into 20:1-3, we must be careful not to confuse the visionary and symbolical levels with the referential level by simply picturing Satan himself bound in chains and imprisoned for a thousand years. To imagine this, and to thereby speak (as both amillennialists and premillennialists are guilty of doing) of the binding of Satan, runs the risk of a gross confusion of categories. Satan is not bound in Revelation 20; the dragon which represents Satan is bound. If we read the text historically, the binding and imprisonment of the dragon most naturally refers to the removal of the deceiving power which Satan held over the nations through the religion of Rome. The dragon is called “the deceiver of the whole world” in 12:9 and 20:3, and according to 13:14 it is through the false prophet (who looks like a lamb but speaks like a dragon) that he “deceives those who dwell on the earth, telling them to make an image for the beast.” With the judgment of Rome and the end of the idolatrous Caesar cult, therefore, Satan’s primary seat of authority is removed, his hands and feet tied, so that Jesus’ testimony can shine forth unhindered.

Thus, with Daniel 7 as his backdrop, John is showing that the suffering of the saints carries greater weight in God’s court than the brutal strength of Empire, and that through their witness the case of their accuser is reversed so that he, and not they, will eventually suffer the sentence of imprisonment and death (cf. 13:10). This reading also makes for a coherent interpretation of the dragon’s release at the end of the millennium (which, incidentally, the standard amillennial reading fails to do): the point is that once again, just like in the first century, there will be a widespread, systemic intolerance to the gospel of the Messiah, as well as a virulent attack against the covenant community that bears and proclaims his name.

The Verdict of Heaven

After the judgment of the beast and the imprisonment of the dragon, John then shows us the other side of the great reversal of fortunes: the vindication of the martyrs (20:4-6). One of the primary questions modern interpreters ask at this point is whether John has all the saints in mind or only the martyrs, but McKelvey is right to point out that this question probably never entered John’s head (82). The prospective martyrs are obviously the party in view here, but within John’s visionary world there are only two parties: those who worship the beast and those who don’t and thereby suffer under his hand (13:15). The martyrs are not presented here as a sub-group of the larger community of faith, but rather as visionary representatives of the whole community portrayed in juxtaposition with the followers of the beast.

But where does this vindication take place? Isn’t it obvious that the millennial kingdom is an earthly kingdom? Not at all, actually. We note first that all of the descriptions of earthly restoration in the closing passages of John’s vision are to be found in the “new heaven and new earth” of chapters 21-22, and not in the “thousand years” of chapter 20. There is no indication of a progressive restoration of the earth or of a return to the promise land in chapter 20, just as there is no rebuilt Jerusalem and no rebuilt Temple (Hill 237-8). Especially considering John’s many allusions to the OT—which constitute our single greatest aid in understanding the way that he, the seer, understood his own vision—it is remarkable that he does not allude to any of the OT passages which have long been labeled “millennial” by both premillennialists and postmillennialists in his write-up of the millennium. In fact, John consistently saves such earthly associations for the post-millennial and eternal new earth of chapters 21-22.

On top of this, we note that the heavenly courtroom scene of Daniel 7:9-14 stands behind the vindication of the martyrs in Revelation 20:4-6. In that famous passage, “one like a son of man” is escorted into the presence of the Ancient of Days and is given dominion over all the kingdoms of the earth. That scene largely forms the OT background behind the vision of Revelation 4-5 as well, where John sees the risen Christ enter the heavenly throne room and receive the authority to complete God’s eschatological plan. If the heavenly scene of Daniel 7 stands behind chapters 4-5, where Christ receives his kingly authority in heaven, then it stands to reason that the martyr’s vindication in 20:4-6 itself belongs in heaven. This is confirmed twice over; first, by the appearance of “thrones” in v. 4, which almost everywhere else in Revelation belong in heaven; and, second, by the parallel scenes of heavenly vindication in 7:9-17, 11:11-13, and 15:2-4.

The Proto-Resurrection

One final point, which I believe puts the nail in the coffin of an earthly interpretation of Revelation 20:4-6, is the argument set forth by M. G. Kline in his article “The First Resurrection”. The crux of the argument is that throughout Revelation 20-21 the word translated “first” or “former” (protos) is consistently used to qualify things which belong to the pre-consummate order, in contrast to those things which are “new”, i.e. consummate. In Hellenistic Greek protos often had the sense of “former” in contrast with “latter”, or the first of two (e.g., Matt. 27:64; 1 Cor. 15:45-47; Heb. 8:13; 10:9). In Revelation 21:1-5 the word “first” is employed in juxtaposition with “new”: the consummation of history brings “a new heaven and a new earth” (v. 1), and a “new Jerusalem” (v. 2); indeed, it is the time when the Creator God makes “all things new” (v. 5)—and when the word “first” appears throughout the passage, it is used to speak of that which is superseded by the “new”. It may be good to see the words side by side to get the effect.

“Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… There shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the first things have passed away… Behold I make all things new.”

In light of this contextual meaning of protos, Kline argues that we should not understand the “first resurrection” as denoting simply the first of the same kind in a temporal sequence of two, but rather a preliminary and inferior sort of resurrection to the ultimate bodily resurrection of the new order. It is a proto-resurrection, an anticipatory coming to life of the faithful souls in heaven as they await the new life of the consummation.

This is confirmed by observing the relationship between the first resurrection and the second death. The “second death” is not simply the loss of physical life which every person must experience, but rather a death after death, an ultimate death reserved for the wicked (20:14-15). Likewise, the “first resurrection” is not simply the return to bodily life which John envisions for all of humanity (20:12), but rather a resurrection before resurrection, a preliminary coming to life reserved for those who were faithful unto death, who are now blessed and holy because they are exempt from the power of the second death (20:6). In other words, when John speaks of the second death and the first resurrection, he is in both cases explaining a lesser known reality (eternal punishment and the heavenly intermediate state) by the terms of a more commonly known reality (death and resurrection). In both cases the adjective modifies the noun as carrying a metaphorical meaning. In the case of the “second death” it lets the reader know that this is a more ultimate destruction beyond what we normally refer to as death. In the case of the “first resurrection” it lets the reader know that this is a preliminary stage of life which is anticipatory to what we normally refer to as resurrection.

The point though, within the narrative of Revelation 20, is that these souls are seen as being alive in spite of having been killed by the beast. The focus of the passage is on their position in contrast with the position of the beast and the dragon and the wicked dead. Their fate is thereby contrasted with the fate of the beast, who ironically goes alive to the “second death”. If we do not bias the case a priori by the clumsy application of a literalist hermeneutic, then I think this reading clearly has the evidence in its favor.

The Meaning of the Millennium

Now, with all of the above in mind, we note that this passage looks back in fulfillment to the promise to the persecuted overcomers in 2:8-11. When John tells the saints in Smyrna to “be faithful until death” so that they will not be hurt by the “second death,” he is directly alluding to the later part of his vision in which the souls of the martyrs “come to life” and reign with Christ for a thousand years, thereby being exempt from the “second death” (20:4-6). In receiving this admonishment from Christ, the struggling saints in Smyrna would be uniquely comforted by the vision of the millennial reign and strengthened to stand fast in the face of persecution. The two passages belong together as promise and fulfillment, which points to at least one dimension of the numerical symbolism of the millennium.

We recall that the saints of Smyrna were told that Satan would be allowed to throw some of them into prison, in order to test them, for ten days (2:10). After the judgment of the beast, however, John sees the dragon himself thrown into the prison of the bottomless pit, not for ten days, but for the greatly multiplied number of a thousand years. Since the number ten represents totality or completion throughout Revelation (e.g., 12:3; 13:1; 17:3, 7, 12, 16), and because of the innertextual relationship between the millennium and the promise to the suffering saints in Smyrna, the “thousand years” very likely represents an intensification or heightening of the imprisonment period of 2:10 according to the law of retribution in kind, or lex talionis.

In other words, the purpose of the numerical symbolism, in its immediate application to the suffering Christians in Asia Minor, is to strengthen the conviction that their momentary light affliction is working the far exceeding glory of resurrection life, a great reversal of fortunes to be rewarded at the throne of the risen Messiah, even prior to their being clothed with new bodies at his return. The number may carry further meaning, but this is its most explicit reference.

Conclusion: Promise or Warning?

In light of all of the above, we conclude that John’s vision of the millennium presents the promise of life to the faithful and a powerful warning to those colluding with idolatry. It pulls back the curtain of history and shows the heavenly antitype to the tyrannous reign of Rome, the preliminary vindication of the suffering saints, and their participation in the priestly reign of the Messiah in anticipation of the day when he makes all things new. This view is thus markedly different from the classic expressions of the three main schools of thought. Instead of trying to create a synthesized eschatological timeline out of John’s vision, it focuses on the purpose of the vision itself in its original historical context. There can be little doubt that the suffering saints of Asia Minor would have received the vision as a promise of reward aimed directly at them, as they faced the prospect of imprisonment and possibly even of death for the sake of staying true to Christ. Whether the vision meets us now as promise or warning depends entirely on where we stand in relation to the testimony of Jesus.

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Bauckham, Richard. The Theology of the Book of Revelation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Fee, Gordon D. Revelation: A New Covenant Commentary. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011.

Hill, Charles E. Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001.

Kline, Meredith G. “The First Resurrection.” WTJ 37 (1974/75): 366-75. Print.

McKelvey, R. J. The Millennium and the Book of Revelation. Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1999.

The Millennium Revisited: A Revolutionary Reading of Revelation 20 (Part 1)

Introduction: Why the Millennium Matters

When Charles Ryrie wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject of the millennium for Dallas Theological Seminary in the late 1940s, he tellingly titled it The Basis of the Premillennial Faith, implying from the outset that other millennial views reflect a very different sort of faith. Similarly, in his classic text The Millennial Kingdom, John Walvoord explains that "millennialism is a determining factor in Biblical interpretation of comparable importance to the doctrines of verbal inspiration, the deity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, and bodily resurrection" (16).

We find the idea of a thousand-year reign explicitly mentioned only once in Scripture, in Revelation 20:1-6. Like the creation narrative of Genesis 1, however, the millennium of Revelation 20 has often become a convenient staging ground for larger ideological battles which in fact have little or nothing to do with the exegesis of the chapter itself. For such a small piece of biblical real estate, Revelation 20 has a remarkable history of being trampled underfoot by warring theologians seeking to extend their own empires.

The aim of this study is to try to move past some of the noise of those battles, in order to hear afresh what the vision would have meant both to the seer himself and to the seven churches which he addressed. My contention is that the preoccupation of most interpreters with the goal of finding a synthesized eschatological timeline—whether premillennial, postmillennial, or amillennial—has only served to obscure the specific function which the passage holds in relation to the rest of John’s vision, which is something much more powerful and challenging than any timeline. I will argue that Revelation 20 must be read in the context of the struggling churches which comprised its original audience, and I will seek to demonstrate that for John and his first-century audience these verses promised the imminent, preliminary vindication of those who followed the Lamb unto death in resistance against the idolatrous and oppressive ideology of the Roman Empire. This chapter contains a vitally important message for the church, but it’s not the message that has preoccupied and divided Christians for centuries.

Before engaging directly with the text, however, we must first address an underlying issue of hermeneutics. The way we read any text is defined to a large extent by the assumptions we make about it. We don’t read a love song or a poem the same way that we read a biology textbook or a newspaper. So how should we read the book of Revelation? Is it mostly a literal description of history written in advance, a spiritual perspective on the battle between God and Satan throughout history, or something else?

The Anatomy of John’s Apocalypse

In one of the most important studies on the subject in recent years, Vern Poythress has argued that a proper reading of Revelation must distinguish between at least four different levels of communication: (1) the linguistic level, consisting in what John wrote and thus involving his own interpretive perspective and authorial creativity; (2) the visionary level, consisting in what John experienced when he was “in the Spirit”; (3) the referential level, consisting in the actual historical realities that the various images speak of; and (4) the symbolical level, consisting in how the visionary images speak of reality and what meaning they give to it by describing it in the ways that they do. Thus, when we read the text of Revelation 5:5-8, for instance, we must distinguish between what John wrote (the interpretive description of his vision with its many echoes of the OT), what John saw (a slaughtered yet living lamb, with seven horns and seven eyes, standing on the throne), what that refers to (the crucified and risen Jesus exalted to God’s right hand), and what significance the imagery lends to its referent (that the cross of Christ is central to the advancement of God’s eschatological purposes).

Recognizing the presence of these four distinct levels of communication throughout John’s vision is imperative for understanding its meaning. Much confusion over the symbolism of Revelation and other apocalyptic literature stems from a more basic confusion over different types of “meaning” (Caird 37-61). When interpreters talk about the meaning of an apocalyptic prophecy, they rarely distinguish between “meaning” in terms of (1) intention, “meaning” in terms of (2) experience, “meaning” in terms of (3) referent, and “meaning” in terms of (4) significance. Of course, it’s simple enough to recognize those various levels with a text like Revelation 5:5-8, as we saw above, but it’s easy to forget when dealing with many other images throughout Revelation, not least the notorious thousand-year reign of 20:1-6.

When it comes to the millennium, futurists regularly collapse the second and fourth levels (the visionary experience and the larger meaning or significance) into the third level (what the experience refers to in the real world), and so they boldly proclaim that an image such as the binding of the dragon must speak of a literal incarceration of Satan, as if Satan was actually a dragon and John was simply witnessing history in advance (Poythress 44-5). But if the genre of Revelation tells us anything, it is that John is less interested in giving reportorial precision on historical reality than he is in giving a heavenly perspective on its significance.

On the other hand, however, idealists are often guilty of collapsing the third level (what the experience refers to in the real world) into the fourth level (the implied meaning or significance that the experience carries), and so they often speak of the meaning of an image, like the “beast” of 13:1-8, as timeless and applicable to the church’s whole experience between Jesus ascension and his return, without any one specific referent. To this we must say, along with George Caird, that the “failure to identify the referent is bound to diminish our understanding of the sense, which is then left hanging in the air” (55).

The False Safety of Literalism

But how do we identify the referent? By what guiding principle should our interpretations be anchored? Here is where the great appeal of futurism lies, for it gives the simplest answer to this question. Influenced by the wider modernist reaction to the allegorical excesses of medieval exegesis, futurists generally default to interpreting Revelation’s imagery in a more or less literal way. This “literal if possible” hermeneutic is made explicit by Robert L. Thomas, who says that the only approach that is “fair and consistent” is to assume that the images of Revelation “have a literal meaning unless otherwise indicated in the text” (35-7).

The underlying assumption behind the literalist argument is that if we allow the language of Scripture to be interpreted non-literally we will then lose all hope of ever getting at its true historical meaning, because we can make it mean virtually whatever we want it to. This assumption is expressed, to varying degrees, even by many non-dispensational premillennialists. Thus Jack Deere, when considering various amillennial interpretations of Revelation 20:4-6, dismisses the idea of a symbolic resurrection with the assertion that “they use an allegorical technique which produces interpretations that are diverse and limited only by one’s fantasy” (Deere 66).

Granted, this fear is justified to some degree by the ahistorical way that many have interpreted the symbolism of prophecy throughout the history of the church (Grenz 41-44). But the literalist method is in fact an extremely ironic stance to take, for it often keeps interpreters from reading biblical prophecy in the way that it asks to be read, grammatically and historically. Like American tourists looking for fast-food fries in France, modern readers often come to the book of Revelation with an entirely wrong idea of what to expect in a piece of literature calling itself an apocalypse. Interpreting Revelation, or any literature from a culture other than our own, takes great care and is always a matter of delicate subtlety.

But if we are sensitive to the text, we must admit that it contains many symbolic expressions that are never clearly explained as such. John never clearly indicates that the “lamb” is not an actual sheep, for instance, or that the “beast” is not an actual monster. But despite our modern predisposition towards literal interpretation, we all understand these expressions to represent something other than the images used to convey them. Why? Because they are obvious to us. But given the fact that these examples already force us to make exceptions to the rule of the literalist method, what basis do we have for insisting that there aren’t other instances of unexplained symbols in Revelation? In tested practice, the principle of “literal if possible” turns out to be an extremely blunt instrument which inevitably fulfills its own fears of subjectivity.

The biggest problem plaguing most popular interpretations of the book of Revelation is that they are not nearly as interested in understanding what the text would have meant in its original historical context as they are in what it can be seen to mean for our own time. While most futurist interpreters assume that the meaning of Revelation will become clearer as the end times approach, generally with the implication we are now at the beginning of that period, the text itself is addressed to seven churches in first-century Asia Minor and intends to speak openly to their contemporary situation (Kraybill 26). Thus, the primary concern of the interpreter should be centered on the authorial intent and the public meaning which the imagery would have carried in the period in which it was given. The true interpretation is not necessarily the one which carries the most perceived value or spiritual application in the twenty-first century, but rather the one which best explains the text as it would have been understood by its original audience. It is the historical method, not the literalist method, that provides the guiding principle to which our interpretations must be anchored.

Reading Revelation Historically: Preliminary Conclusions

Two observations follow immediately from this approach. First, there is now a widespread agreement amongst scholars that the “beast from of the sea” refers to the Roman Empire, and that the “beast from the land” (also called the “false prophet”) refers to the religion of the Emperor which thrived throughout the cities of Asia Minor (Sheets 197). Beyond reasonable doubt, this is how John’s original audience would have understood his imagery. The main issue at stake was whether John’s audience would continue to worship the crucified Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, or succumb instead to the mounting pressure and bow the knee to Caesar (Kraybill 23). If they refused to participate in the Caesar cult then they would have to face the prospect of persecution, imprisonment, and perhaps even death (cf., 2:10, 13). Thus John writes in order to comfort and admonish them to stand strong in the face of this great pressure and to persevere through the coming “hour of trial” which he sees by the Spirit just over the horizon (3:10).

Second, once we recognize the contemporary situation of John’s audience, we can easily understand why the crisis envisioned throughout the book is repeatedly qualified as being “near” and “at hand”. We should not understand such statements in the weak and indefinite sense suggested by a doctrine of perpetual imminence, but in the very real historical sense that the original audience would have undoubtedly understood them. In 22:10 John is told not to seal the words of the vision which he received, because “the time is at hand”. This phrase forms an inclusio with the introduction, where John’s audience is told to keep the words of the prophecy “for the time is at hand” (1:3). On top of this, the phrase “do not seal the words” is an ironic allusion to Daniel 8 and 12, where the prophet Daniel is told to “seal up” the words of his own visions and “go your way” because they refer to a time “many days in the future”, i.e. beyond Daniel’s own generation (Dan 8:26; 12:4, 9, 13). The explicit point in Revelation 22:10 is therefore the exact opposite: unlike Daniel, John is told not to “seal up” the words of his prophecy, because they refer to a great ordeal coming upon his own generation.

All of this context is necessary for an appropriate understanding of the millennium. Now that the ground has been cleared, we are ready to discuss the text of Revelation 20 and its place within the literary narrative of John’s vision. The proof of the reading for which I will argue in the next post will be how well it adheres to the principles discussed above.

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Caird, G. B. The Language and Imagery of the Bible. London: Duckworth, 1980.

Deere, Jack S. “Premillennialism in Revelation 20:4-6.” Bsac 135 (1978) 58-73.

Grenz, Stanley J. The Millennial Maze: Sorting Out the Evangelical Options. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Koester, Craig R. Revelation and the End of All Things. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001.

Kraybill, J. Nelson. Apocalypse and Allegiance. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010.

McKelvey, R. J. The Millennium and the Book of Revelation. Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1999.

Poythress, Vern S. “Genre and Hermeneutics in Revelation 20:1-6.” JETS 36 (1993): 41-54. Print.

Sheets, Dwight D. “Something Old, Something New.” Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.

Thomas, Robert L. Revelation 1-7: An Exegetical Commentary. Chicago: Moody Press, 1992.

Walvoord, John E. The Millennial Kingdom. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959.

This is what the kingdom of God is like...

It is like a man who promised to take his son out for pizza as a reward for mowing the lawn. The boy took to the task cheerfully, but by the late afternoon he had yet to cut a single blade of grass—for he lacked the strength to even start the old gas mower, let alone to push it through the overgrown lawn.

So as evening arrived and the sun began to set, the father came outside, started the machine, and put his strength behind the boy as they worked their way together, row by row, throughout the yard.

Now when the sun had set and job was done, behold, the boy was dismayed; he knew his father to be a just man, and so he naturally thought the previous agreement no longer stood, since he failed to uphold his end of the deal.

But the father was both just and exceedingly generous. Instead of simply taking his son out for pizza, he threw a party at Chuck E. Cheese’s, inviting friends from all around the neighborhood—for where the son’s strength failed, the father’s love abounded.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

The Right Hand of Fellowship

Calvinist? Arminian? Charismatic? I’ve always had a hard time calling myself anything other than Christian. Those other labels are sort of like subgenres in music: it’s all jazz, but then there’s swing, bebop, free jazz, and a dozen other expressions of the form. We need the labels to help distinguish the diversity within the unity, to discuss the merits of each expression, and to help maintain the larger distinctions between jazz and, say, death metal. But unfortunately such labels often do more harm than good, when near-sighted watchmen get the idea that their subgenre is actually the only valid expression and thus build unnecessary barriers to fellowship. John Wesley saw this tendency in human nature when he founded the Methodist movement, and so he made a point of not holding the Methodist gatherings on Sundays so that they would not be viewed as an alternative to the Church of England. In the following excerpt, taken from Character of a Methodist, Wesley brilliantly answers questions about the movement he founded, showing just as much concern for the unity of the faith as he does for its reform. The last two paragraphs are the best.

The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort. His assenting to this or that scheme of religion, his embracing any particular set of notions, his espousing the judgment of one man or of another, are all quite wide of the point. Whosoever, therefore, imagines that a Methodist is a man of such or such an opinion, is grossly ignorant of the whole affair; he mistakes the truth totally…

Neither are words or phrases of any sort. We do not place our religion, or any part of it, in being attached to any peculiar mode of speaking, any quaint or uncommon set of expressions…

Nor do we desire to be distinguished by actions, customs, or usages, of an indifferent nature. Our religion does not lie in doing what God has not enjoined, or abstaining from what he hath not forbidden. It does not lie in the form of our apparel, in the posture of our body, or the covering of our heads; nor yet in abstaining from marriage, or from meats and drinks, which are all good if received with thanksgiving. Therefore, neither will any man, who knows whereof he affirms, fix the mark of a Methodist here—in any actions or customs purely indifferent, undetermined by the word of God…

“What then is the mark? Who is a Methodist, according to your own account?” I answer: A Methodist is one who has “the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him;” one who “loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.” God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul; which is constantly crying out, “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee! My God and my all! Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever!”…

If any man say, “Why, these are only the common fundamental principles of Christianity!” thou hast said; so I mean; this is the very truth; I know they are no other; and I would to God both thou and all men knew, that I, and all who follow my judgment, do vehemently refuse to be distinguished from other men, by any but the common principles of Christianity—the plain, old Christianity that I teach, renouncing and detesting all other marks of distinction. And whosoever is what I preach, (let him be called what he will, for names change not the nature of things,) he is a Christian, not in name only, but in heart and in life. He is inwardly and outwardly conformed to the will of God, as revealed in the written word. He thinks, speaks, and lives, according to the method laid down in the revelation of Jesus Christ. His soul is renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and in all true holiness. And having the mind that was in Christ, he so walks as Christ also walked.

By these marks, by these fruits of a living faith, do we labour to distinguish ourselves from the unbelieving world from all those whose minds or lives are not according to the Gospel of Christ. But from real Christians, of whatsoever denomination they be, we earnestly desire not to be distinguished at all, not from any who sincerely follow after what they know they have not yet attained. No: “Whosoever doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” And I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that we be in no wise divided among ourselves. Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thine? I ask no farther question. If it be, give me thy hand. For opinions, or terms, let us not destroy the work of God. Dost thou love and serve God? It is enough. I give thee the right hand of fellowship.

The Olivet Discourse: Was Jesus Wrong?

Last summer I started a series on the Olivet Discourse (here and here) that I now have no intention of finishing, because I no longer agree with the premise. I still hold to essentially the same view of the relevant gospel texts, but I now feel that I was unfair in my representation of the alternatives (and I must thank my friend Casey Gorsuch for setting me straight). Following the brilliant but deeply flawed work of Albert Schweitzer, and the damaging responses of G.B. Caird and N.T. Wright, I framed the debate as a choice between two basic positions:

If we agree on the authenticity of Mark 13 and its parallels, then we can say either (a) that Jesus expected the actual end of history imminently over the horizon, and that he was embarrassingly wrong in that prediction [Schweitzer], or (b) that he was using vivid metaphors as a way of investing thoroughly historical events with their full theological significance, and that this prediction was in fact powerfully vindicated in the events which transpired after his death [Caird and Wright].

 

Siding with Caird and Wright, I then explained that the basic problem with Schweitzer’s view (a problem which it ironically shares with the futurist interpretations of conservative scholars) is that it fails to understand Jesus’ language in its own historical context, language which was regularly used to refer to events within continuing history. I believe Schweitzer was right to stress the timing of Jesus’ predictions in relation to his contemporary audience (on which, see this post), but he made the same modernist error as the futurist school by assuming Jesus’ language referred literally to the end of the world. I’ve dealt with the OT background of the “coming of the son of man” in this post, and with the OT background of the language of “cosmic collapse” in this post, so you can see why I’ve come to the same conclusion as Caird in his 1965 lecture Jesus and the Jewish Nation:

[W]hatever we may say about the Parousia or Advent of Christ in the epistles, there is a strong case for saying that the Day of the Son of Man in the teaching of Jesus remained firmly in the sphere of national eschatology. Here, as in the book of Daniel, from which the imagery is drawn, the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven was never conceived as a primitive form of space travel, but as a symbol for a mighty reversal of fortunes within history and at the national level… Supposing the prediction of the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven really was an answer to the disciples’ question about the date of the fall of Jerusalem! Is it indeed credible that Jesus, the heir to the linguistic and theological riches of the prophets, and himself a greater theologian and master of imagery than them all, should ever have turned their symbols into flat and literal prose?

I still think Caird makes a powerful point against the literalism of both Schweitzer and the futurists. In Daniel 7 the “coming of the son of man” is a symbol for the vindication of the saints, not a literal description of some supernatural figure’s decent to the earth, and in passages like Isaiah 13:10 and Jeremiah 4:23-26 the language of cosmic collapse is figurative for the judgment of nations, not a literal description of the destruction of the universe.

And yet, there’s a problem here. The extreme literalism of Schweitzer’s position has been set up in such a way that it makes preterism look like the only sensible alternative: Because this language isn’t literal and Jews like Jesus didn’t believe in the end of the space-time universe, it must not refer to the final end but rather to some event of judgment and vindication within continuing history. But why is this the case? Granted the premise that such language isn’t literal and Jews like Jesus didn’t believe in the end of the world, they still believed in an end (read: consummation) to history. So how do we know Jesus wasn’t speaking of the “end of the age” in the same sense as the disciples’ question in Matthew 24:3, i.e. as the climactic, worldwide moment of judgment and deliverance by which God would establish his kingdom finally and fully?

In other words, just because the language isn't literal doesn't prove that it refers to something within continuing history as opposed to something at the end of history. Daniel’s “son of man” is symbolic, to be sure, but it still speaks of the final establishment of God’s kingdom and the end of all tyranny and injustice. Is there any indication that Jesus was predicting anything less? Is there any indication that Jesus envisioned a substantial gap between the destruction of Jerusalem and the final establishment of God’s kingdom, and that in the Olivet Discourse he intentionally spoke to only the first of those two events? What about Luke 21:25-26? Or Matthew 25:31-46? Are preterist interpretations perhaps just as guilty of avoiding the facts as futurist interpretations?

I don't believe so. As I said before, I still hold to essentially the same view of the relevant texts that I set out to defend in those posts last summer. But I thought it was important, for honesty’s sake, to reframe the debate; because when we put the question this way, the answer appears substantially less obvious than I previously supposed. Of course this then puts us in the uncomfortable position of entertaining the possibility that some of Jesus’ prophecy simply didn’t come to pass. But unless we deal with such possibilities openly and honestly, our belief in the authority of Scripture becomes only a lame attempt at reducing our own cognitive dissonance.

Whose Understanding?

So I'm reading about various medieval approaches to the relationship between faith and reason for a class on the history of Christian thought, and I stumble upon an oddly familiar statement from Anselm of Canterbury. Developing the Augustinian method of "faith seeking understanding," Anselm wrote that "The correct order is to believe the deep things of the Christian faith before undertaking to discuss them by reason" (Cur Dues Homo 1.2, emphasis mine). This method should be relatively unproblematic for those who recognize only one authority for understanding the truth (e.g. the Catholic church). But for a Protestant like myself, who has heard Anselm's method echoed by teachers with radically divergent interpretations of the "deep things" of the faith, the question naturally presses: Whose understanding? Which authority should I accept before applying reason? Moreover, how does this epistemology cohere with Paul's admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, or with the example of the Bereans in Acts 17:10-12?

What do you think? Is there a list of nonnegotiables for you, things that must be accepted by faith without reason? Or do you see the relationship between faith and reason differently?

Comparing Worldviews: Christian Theism vs. Metaphysical Naturalism

In his classic apologetic for the Christian faith, Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton tells of his conversion from the philosophy of the day as a matter of finding “a hole in the world” and discovering that Christian theology was “like a sort of hard spike” which “fitted exactly into the hole in the world” (71). Similarly, C. S. Lewis spoke for many when he confessed that “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else” (140). At the conclusion of his book The Reason For God, Timothy Keller writes: “I believe that Christianity makes the most sense out of our individual lives and out of what we see in the world’s history” (222). These men represent three different generations of the Christian faith, and all three came to believe in the truth of the Christian claim after carefully weighing the other alternatives. In particular, as distinguished Western academics, all three men weighed the Christian worldview against its most popular modern contender, metaphysical naturalism, and found the evidence in favor of Christianity.

Metaphysical naturalism is the view that there is “only a physical, natural world without gods or spirits” (Carrier 5). It is a predominately Western worldview which arose through the materialism of the Enlightenment, the empiricism of David Hume, and the evolutionary naturalism of the nineteenth century. As a worldview, it is “essentially an explanation of everything without recourse to anything supernatural”  (Carrier 4). In this sense, a naturalist is not simply someone who studies the natural world, but someone who denies the reality of anything beyond the natural world. It is thus an essentially atheistic view of the world. As Julian Baggini explains, “the arguments and ideas that sustain atheism tend naturally to rule out other beliefs in the supernatural or transcendental” (4). Metaphysical naturalism thus holds two basic beliefs: first, that “the scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge,” and, second, that “matter (or matter and energy) is the fundamental reality in the universe” (Barbour 78). As Carl Sagan says it, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” (4).

Metaphysical naturalism must not be confused with methodological naturalism. The later speaks simply of the scientific method of observation, while the former speaks of a particular worldview, a way of interpreting everything, and as such necessarily goes beyond the domain of scientific observation alone. In order to understand the mechanisms involved in the material world, the material world itself must be studied empirically, thus entailing methodological naturalism. But metaphysical naturalism entails the conclusion that only that which can be empirically verified exists.

In the twenty-first century West, Christian theism and metaphysical naturalism are probably the two ideologies that come into the most public conflict with one another. This conflict is often framed on a popular level as if it was a wholesale battle of faith vs. reason, or religion vs. science, yet such an analysis is far too simplistic, and fails to account for either the history of dialog between religion and science or the philosophical presuppositions which drive the conclusions of metaphysical naturalists. In order to give an accurate account, we must compare the two worldviews for what they are, which are competing answers to life’s most fundamental questions: Who are we? Where are we? What’s wrong? What’s the solution? These questions include but go far beyond the domain of science alone, for they deal ultimately with issues of purpose and meaning. But since the answers to these questions constitute a hypothesis that claims to account for our existence and experience of the world, in order to do justice to both accounts we must first consider the basic hypothesis which each offers.

Who are we? According to Christianity, we are made in the image of God, a special part of the creation that he made and called good (Plantinga 28-33; Wilkins 185-188). We are not animals. Our capacity to learn, love, create, and choose, and the wider impact that this unique dignity has on everything we touch, sets us markedly above the animal kingdom. Likewise we are not gods, but God himself has entrusted us with the task of wisely ruling over the rest of the created order. We are thus key actors in the cosmic drama of redemption (Gen. 1:26-31; Ps. 8:3-8). According to naturalism, however, we are merely complex machines, one species among many, more developed but no different in principle from any other advanced form of life. Our personalities are “an interrelation of chemical and physical properties we do not yet fully understand” (Sire 64). There is no divine goal or purpose to our existence; we happen to exist by a great cosmic coincidence, and eventually we will cease to exist altogether. Since there is no higher goal or purpose to our existence, the worth and quality of our brief lives are whatever we make of them.

Where are we? According to Christianity, we are living in the world created and sustained by the God we worship, standing in between the two climactic moments in his great plan of redemption (Plantinga 19-44; Wilkins 184-185). The whole world does not yet recognize him as the one true God. As a reflection of his love, God has given us the freedom to serve him or reject him, to believe him or ignore him, and many have thus chosen to turn their backs on the author of life, giving their allegiance instead to created things which are, at best, parodies of the truth, and at worst deeply dehumanizing distortions of it (Rom. 1:18-32). God’s kingdom and the kingdom of darkness thus exist for a time side by side, until the day when he will make all things new (Matt. 13:24-30). According to naturalism, by contrast, we are on a planet that at this time happens, by its own processes, to have the right ingredients for us to live and evolve into the thriving species we are today. Since there is no higher goal or purpose, however, there is no larger cosmic drama of which we play a part. The fact that we exist here and now is a remarkable (and, if our universe is alone, statistically improbable) fact, but it is nothing more than that. There is no greater meaning to history, just what we make of it (Sire 68-72; Palmer 160-61).

What’s wrong? According to Christianity, we have abused our calling as God’s image bearers. Instead of reflecting his wise and loving kingdom out into the world, we have turned in on ourselves. Aspiring to be gods, we have acted like animals, and all creation has suffered as a result of our rebellion (Plantinga 47-68; Wilkins 188-192). Death and decay, pain and violence—these are foreign invaders into God’s good creation, given free reign by the sin of men and women, spiraling through our history into deeply ingrained, systemic forces beyond our control (Genesis 3-11; Rom. 3:10-18). According to naturalism, however, nothing is ultimately wrong. Death and decay are not enemies; they are an intrinsic part of our world, and while pain and violence are perhaps regrettable from our vantage point, they are a necessary part of the evolutionary process. Since there is no God to whom we must all give an account, there is no such thing as sin. Morality is simply a social construct that enables us to get along together (Sire 72-76).

What’s the solution? According to Christianity, God himself has done what we could not. When we were all faithless, he was still faithful. Through becoming one of us, and sharing in our plight, he walked out the calling that we had all abandoned, demonstrating what it means to be truly human (Plantinga 69-100; Wilkins 192-200). By dying at the hands of sinful men, taking upon himself the judgment that we deserved but which he did not, he has exhausted the power of sin and death by rising from the dead, and he has thus opened wide the path to righteousness and life for all who come to him in faith and repentance. He will finish the good work that he started, making all things new at his appearing, and we anticipate that great act of restorative justice by living out the pattern laid out for us in his life, death and resurrection (Rom. 8; Eph. 1-2; Col. 1; 1 Cor. 15). According to naturalism, however, since there is no problem, there is no solution. We can work toward the further advancement and prosperity of our species, delaying our inevitable extinction, but this has no ultimate or lasting value. Many naturalists try to escape the nihilism of this conclusion, but all attempts to do so appear artificial and incoherent with the fundamental elements of the worldview itself.

Let’s consider briefly how these two contrasting hypotheses stand up to the data of human knowledge and experience. The naturalist account, we must admit, has the appeal of a relative simplicity which, by comparison, the Christian story lacks. Any explanation of reality that omits reference to the supernatural will inevitably be simpler than an explanation which includes such reference. But it seems that by omitting reference to anything outside of empirical verification, naturalism has gained simplicity at the great cost of excluding much of the data, since there is in fact a whole range of human experience, both in history and in the present, which does not submit itself to empirical verification. As Ian Barbour says it, “If science is the only acceptable form of understanding, explanation in terms of astronomical origins, evolutionary history, biochemical mechanisms, and other scientific theories will exclude all other forms of explanation. I would reply that science relies on impersonal concepts and leaves out of its inquiry the most distinctive features of personal life” (81). From the unrepeatable nature of history to our perception of beauty and moral obligation, the vast and multifaceted experience of human life simply cannot be reduced to the terms of scientific explanation alone. Thus the conclusion of John Polkinghorne: “From the practice of science to the acknowledgment of moral duty, on to ascetic delight and religious experience, we live in a world which is the carrier of value at all levels of our meeting with it. Only a metaphysical account which is prepared to acknowledge that this is so can be considered to be at all adequate” (19).

Of course, naturalists would contest whether such “data” really counts, which brings us to the underlying issue of epistemology. Historically speaking, Christian theism and metaphysical naturalism have held two contrasting accounts of how we perceive reality. These contrasting accounts lie at the heart of the debate between these two worldviews, since the decision we make about what counts as true knowledge decides to a large extent what kind of evidence we allow in court. These two accounts can be labeled logical positivism and critical realism, respectively.

Although its roots go back to the empiricism of David Hume, as a full-grown philosophy of knowledge logical positivism only came of age in the 1920s. And although it has now been “largely abandoned by philosophers, it has had a long run for its money in other spheres, not least those of the physical sciences” (Wright 33). The positivist position asserts that “scientific discourse provides the norm for all meaningful language,” and that the only things worthy of being called true are “empirical propositions verifiable by sense data” (Barbour 79). In other words, science alone is objective, while everything else is subjective. “[The norm] is presumed to be that human beings, with proper scientific controls available, have instant access to raw data about which they can simply make true propositions on the basis of sense-experience. Since it is obvious that not all human knowledge is of this type, the sorts of knowledge that break the mould are downgraded” (Wright 33). By this criterion, a whole range of human language and experience was thus “eliminated from serious discussion because they were not subject to the verification that science was said to provide” (Barbour 79).

This view of human knowledge has proven itself exceptionally frail, however. The blunt distinction which positivism makes between objective vs. subjective, and the stark either/or which results, is far too simplistic, revealing a naïve confidence in the presuppositions which accompany the observer's sense-experience, while at the same time holding a whole range of legitimate human knowledge to an impossible standard of scientific verification. N. T. Wright puts it well: “If knowing something is like looking through a telescope, a simplistic positivist might imagine that he is simply looking at the object, forgetting for the moment the fact that he is looking through lenses” (35). Granted that the subject matter of natural science allows it the luxury of testing theories against immediate results, not even science is an “objective” enterprise. As Barbour explains, “Sense data do not provide an indubitable starting point in science, for they are already conceptually organized and theory-laden. The interaction of observation and theory is more complex than the positivists had assumed. Moreover, the positivists had dismissed metaphysical questions but had often assumed a materialist metaphysics” (79). In doing this, positivist scientists “have failed to distinguish between scientific and philosophical questions. Scientists in their popular writings tend to invoke the authority of science for ideas that are not part of science itself” (81).

As Abraham Maslow said throughout his works, when all you own is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail. The trouble with metaphysical naturalism is that it makes science the hammer to which every question becomes a nail. “By definition, empirical science is characterized by methodological naturalism, but once it begins propounding metaphysical naturalism, it has overstepped its disciplinary boundaries” (Walton 155). In other words, as a methodology confined to the natural explanations of certain types of data, science is not ultimately equipped to answer the big questions of design and purpose. Metaphysical naturalism is therefore epistemologically reductionist.

In contrast with both positivism and relativism, the most distinctively Christian epistemology could be termed critical realism. As N. T. Wright explains it, critical realism “is a way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence ‘critical’)” (35). To the critical realist, no human being has a God’s-eye view on reality. There is real truth to be had, and it really can be seen for what it is, but we all have particular perspectives, influenced by our own cultures, worldviews, brokenness, etc. This is unavoidable. Therefore we cannot accept an account in which we all assume proudly that we’re just seeing things exactly as they are, without coloring and (yes, at times) skewing them; and yet we do not use this as an excuse to slip lazily into a postmodern relativity where the truth ultimately can’t be seen through the haze and distortion of our own perspectives. The Apostle Paul expresses the balance of this view in the admonition, “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).

A critical realist approach allows us to take a much fuller account of human knowledge than the blunt tools of logical positivism. And once we allow the wide range of data that positivism withholds from court, the case for Christian theism appears remarkably compelling. As Polkinghorne concludes, “Theism presents an adequately rich basis for understanding the world in that it readily accommodates the many-layered character of reality shot through with value. Scientific wonder at the rational order of the universe is indeed a partial reading of ‘the mind of God’… Yet there is much more to the mind of God than science will ever discover. Our moral intuitions are intimations of the perfect divine will, our aesthetic pleasures a sharing in the Creator’s joy, our religious intuitions whispers of God’s presence” (19).

Besides the satisfying account which it gives to the whole range of human experience, Christianity ultimately stands apart in its appeal to history, to the central claim that God became a man, died on a cross, and was resurrected from the dead three days later, being witnessed by hundreds before ascending into heaven. Of course, naturalists would object to this claim on the grounds of their own philosophical presuppositions. But the remarkable thing about Christianity is that it can actually substantiate its central claim with multiple, independent, coherent eyewitness testimonies. “If you don’t short-circuit the process with the philosophical bias against the possibility of miracle,” argues Keller, “the resurrection of Jesus has the most evidence for it” (219). Christianity thus presents a powerful challenge to the presuppositions of naturalism. It takes faith, just like everything else, but it is a reasonably motivated, defensible faith, not a blind faith.

 

Bibliography

Baggini, Julian. Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press Inc., 2003.

Barbour, Ian G. Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.

Carrier, Richard C. Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2005.

Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004.

Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2008.

Lewis, C. S. “Is Theology Poetry?” The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1980.

Palmer, Michael D., ed. Elements of a Christian Worldview. Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1998.

Plantinga, Cornelius Jr. Engaging Gods World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002.

Polkinghorne, John. Belief in God in an Age of Science. Yale University Press, 1998.

Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. New York, NY: Random House Publishers, 1980.

Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door. 4th ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Walton, John H. The Lost World Of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Wilkens, Steve and Mark L. Sanford. Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Wright, N. T. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992.

The Olivet Discourse: The Burden of Matthew's Song

Throughout this series I will be focusing primarily on Matthew’s account, looking to Mark 13 and Luke 21 more as secondary supplements to our main discussion. My reasons for this are, first, because Matthew’s account is slightly longer than Mark’s, while covering most of the same territory, and, second, because Matthew’s account is generally thought to have a much clearer focus on the “end times” than Luke’s, a distinction which I believe strikes at the heart of much misunderstanding, both about the Olivet Discourse specifically and about prophetic and apocalyptic literature in general. But since Matthew’s account has long been viewed as the strong tower in which anyone looking for the “end times” might hide, I think it forms the most appropriate staging ground for my argument.

If we’re going to be sensitive to the way Matthew tells his own story, however, we’ll have to go back a bit and see how he builds up to the passage in question. Part of the reason why the church has had so much difficulty reading Matthew 24 as a prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem is because it has regularly bracketed that chapter out from the context in which Matthew places it, on the heels of Jesus' most dramatic confrontation with the de facto leadership of the day, the hostile faceoff which paves the way to his death. Taken in context, Jesus appears to be speaking of the vindication of his claims over the generation that rejected his offer of peace as a sort of last statement before the crucifixion. Of course, despite the historical and contextual strength of this reading, the fact remains that for the majority of the church the fall of Jerusalem has had no theological significance. This is confirmed by the lack of attention given to those myriad passages throughout the gospels where that theme stares us in the face, not least the passages which we will survey here. But if we understand the Olivet Discourse to be speaking ultimately of Jesus’ vindication after his suffering, then the theological importance of 70AD becomes glaringly obvious: the destruction of Jerusalem is the most undeniably vivid evidence that Jesus was who he said he was and that his prophetic proclamation was true. It thus becomes one of the most powerful apologetics for the veracity of the Christian claim.

But enough with introductions. Let's look at the evidence for ourselves. Two prominent themes of Matthew’s account come to a climax in chapter 24. The first is the story of the coming of the kingdom: the return of YHWH to his temple, the vindication of the elect, the judgment of their oppressors, and the launching of God’s new age. The second is the story of how Israel missed their day of visitation: how they missed the coming of the kingdom right in their midst, how they rejected their Messiah, the one through whom all of their eschatological hopes find fulfillment, and how in consequence their house is being left desolate. We can trace both of these themes all the way back to the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-8, or to the preaching of John the Baptist in chapter 3, but for the scope of this series we’ll start with Jesus’ fateful arrival in Jerusalem in chapter 21.

In Matthew 21:1-17 we see Jesus entering Jerusalem in what we commonly refer to as the “Triumphal Entry”. A more historically relevant term for that event would be parousia, because this is Jesus the King entering his kingdom in exulted procession. Multitudes awaiting the coming of the kingdom follow him into the city, hailing him with choruses from Psalm 118 as the one who would fulfill their hopes of national restoration. Upon entering the city, however, Jesus does exactly the opposite of what the crowds were expecting. According to Ezekiel 43-44, the Davidic Messiah would return to the temple with the glory of God upon Israel’s restoration, but instead of restoring them and destroying the Romans, upon entering the temple Jesus rushes through and in a furious yet strategically symbolic action overturns all of moneychanger’s tables inside. The fact that this episode was intended as a symbolic enactment of coming judgment is confirmed by the mutually interpretive “fig tree” event which occurs next to it in all three Synoptic accounts.

At this point Matthew reports that the chief priests and scribes were indignant. What Jesus did was an insult of blasphemous proportions, and the fact that he went on to demonstrate his authority by healing the sick inside the temple was infuriating. Something had to be done about this revolutionary, because he was profaning the heart and soul of Israel’s national identity, the Temple of God. Needless to say, Matthew’s tense retelling of the leadership of Israel’s blindness and refusal to acknowledge Jesus’ kingdom agenda, which has been a building theme throughout his narrative, reaches a definite climax with the triumphal entry—and so he goes on to report, in a series of thinly veiled parables, what all together comprises Jesus’ last call for repentance. Let’s look at each in turn:

In the parable of the two sons (21:28-32) Jesus is strikingly comparing the leadership of Israel with the pagans outside; he rebukes those leaders for not responding while claiming that the Gentiles, the tax collectors and sinners, are miraculously entering in to the kingdom of God which he is bringing. As offensive as this is, Jesus is redefining what it means to be Israel, the true people of God, and he’s pointedly telling the most observant of Abraham’s posterity that they are not making the cut. As he said earlier in Matthew’s account, there are Gentiles who will sit with Abraham in the kingdom, while many presently within Israel, the sons of the kingdom, will be cast into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (8:11-12).

Next, in the parable of the wicked vinedressers (21:33-46) the vinedressers again clearly represent the self-proclaimed leaders to whom Jesus was speaking (cf. v. 45: “they perceived that he was speaking of them”). In the parable a landowner leased his vineyard to these vinedressers, and at vintage time (and note that “vintage time” here does not refer to the second coming) he sent his servants to receive the fruit of the vineyard. But the vinedressers “beat,” “killed,” and “stoned” the landowners servants. The landowner sent more, but they beat, killed and stoned those servants as well. So, at last, the landowner sent his own son to them; but the vinedressers cast him out of the vineyard and killed him the same as the rest of the servants. At this point Jesus asks the rhetorical question: “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?” The chief priest and elders answer, confessing with their own lips the justice of their fate and the righteousness of God in continuing his purpose with a different people: “He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons.” Jesus then confirms their answer: “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.”

Last and most dramatically before his all-out rebuke in chapter 23, in the parable of the wedding feast (22:1-14) Jesus candidly compares the current leadership of Israel to those who were invited to a wedding and yet refused, making light of it and (just like the wicked vinedressers) killing the servants sent to gather them. As the result of their refusal, the king in the parable is furious, and, as Jesus tells it, he “sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.” The king then proceeds to invite people from all over, any and all who were willing to come, so that “the wedding hall was filled with guests.” These “many” obviously represent the Gentiles, just like the first son did in the parable of the two sons. The mysterious man who tries to attend the feast without the proper attire represents those who expect automatic entrance into the kingdom without meeting the standards of the kingdom. Throughout his gospel Matthew portrays the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees as having exactly this attitude.

In each of these three parables Jesus’ message and its implications for those hearing it was clear. Judgment was coming upon that generation because of their rejection of Jesus, God’s last messenger. The form this judgment would take, it appears, is the desolation of Jerusalem by a foreign army (note, especially, 22:7). Like Jeremiah to whom he was compared (16:14), Jesus is prophesying a great national crisis as the result of Israel’s blindness: the destruction of Jerusalem itself. This is why, after he had finished, the Pharisees “went and plotted how they might entangle him.” They knew exactly what he was saying.

Matthew goes on to tell of three attempts from Jesus’ opponents—one from the Pharisees, one from the Sadducees, and one from the Scribes—to “entangle” Jesus in his words so that they might have an accusation against him in court. This was the last straw. This false teacher simply had to be stopped. Now he has not only blasphemed the Temple of God, but he has also claimed that we, the true people of God, and even Jerusalem itself, would be “destroyed” and “burned up” for not accepting his message. After those three tried-and-failed attempts to catch Jesus in his words (22:15-40), Jesus responds in a clear and open rebuke against those men and their establishment (23:1-39). No more parables. No more riddles. This was unmistakable. Jesus is diametrically opposed to the very leaders of the nation that the Messiah was supposed to lead in triumph over the Romans. The Messiah was supposed to slay that monstrous empire, throw its body in the fire and hand the kingdom over to Israel; but Jesus is talking instead about the destruction of Israel!

We should take special note of the repetition of the word “woe” in chapter 23. Within the scope of Matthew’s gospel, these “woes” at the start of Jesus’ last discourse make for a tragic bookend with the “blessings” at the start of the first discourse (5:3-12). In order to capture the full weight of this portrait, try reading Matthew 5-8 and 23-25 against the covenantal backdrop of Deuteronomy 28. Just as the Sermon on the Mount was an invitation, at the start of Jesus’ career, for Israel to take up their true calling, as the salt of the earth, the city on a hill, and the beatitudes expressed the blessings which would befall God’s people at the dawn of the new age, so the extended discourse of chapters 23-25 is the grievous response, at the end of Jesus’ career, to Israel’s stubborn refusal to accept that invitation. It all comes to climax in 23:34-39:

"Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’"

Much that was implicit in the parables becomes explicit here. Jesus and his followers are the last in a long line of servants sent by YHWH to call Israel to repentance. But as before, so again: Israel scorns the message and kills the messengers. Therefore, upon “this generation” would fall the final and decisive judgment, “the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on the earth”. Jesus longed to shield and protect the nation from the coming trial, like a mother hen shields her chicks from a barnyard fire. But alas, Israel was unwilling. Instead of YHWH coming to dwell within Israel, Israel’s house (a clear allusion to the temple itself) is now left “desolate”—bare, empty, unoccupied and awaiting destruction. When the rain descends and the wind blows, then will that house’s poor foundation be revealed, and great will be its fall.

From the unexpected ruckus in the temple, to the closing remarks of Jesus’ tirade—all of this must have been terribly confusing to the disciples, for they, like everyone else, evidently carried hopes of national restoration that this prophet from Nazareth was dashing to the ground. And for some of them at least those hopes would have centered on the temple, for that building was the heart and soul of the nation—it was the place where God’s glory would return, where the Messiah would reign, and where all the nations would come to hear the law. But according to Jesus, “not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”

In order for us to understand both the disciples’ bewilderment and Jesus’ lengthy response, all of this context must be understood within the framework of the first-century expectations to which the disciples were subject. So then, with all of this in mind, I would understand their questioning like so: “We thought you were returning to Jerusalem just now to begin your messianic reign. We thought you were going to deliver Israel. But now you’re talking about the destruction of Israel!? Tell us, when will this happen? And what about the ‘end of the age’ when you will deliver us from our oppressors?” In other words, the disciples were holding Daniel 7, Ezekiel 43 and other OT prophecies in their heads and trying to fit what Jesus is saying into their naïvely optimistic and nationalistic eschatology.

And so, as he so often does when his followers’ misinformed or misapplied perspectives come to light, Jesus’ response to the disciples in chapters 24-25 effectively takes their question as opportunity for a soapbox presentation of what the “end of the age” means for the rebellious. In much the same way that Amos and Zephaniah reacted to the one-sided eschatology of their day with the heavily ironic pronouncements of judgment on Israel through the surrounding nations, so Jesus is reacting to the same worldview prevalent in his day. What will the Messiah’s “coming” the “end of the age” look like when Israel isn’t in covenant with God? Exactly the same as the “Day of the Lord” looked for Zephaniah: “That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of devastation and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness a day of trumpet and alarm… Because they have sinned against the Lord; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like refuse” (Zeph. 1:15-17).

In this deeply subversive and yet deeply Jewish way, Matthew is thus able to bring the two themes of Israel’s obstinacy and the coming of the kingdom together in a rush at the close of his gospel, reflecting the convergence and climax of those same themes in Jesus’ final discourse before the cross. The elect will indeed be vindicated, their oppressors will be judged, and the kingdom will come, but even as that kingdom breaks in, as the landowner returns and the wedding begins, God’s chosen servants find themselves planted on the wrong side of the story, building their own kingdom with the weapons of the oppressors clenched tightly in their fists. Israel is bent on following a path of destruction--and if they sow destruction while the master is away, what can they possibly expect to reap when he returns? That, I think, is the burden of Matthew’s song in the chapters leading up to Jesus’ last discourse, and it is that same song (and not another) which reaches its sustained climax in the Olivet Discourse itself.

The Olivet Discourse: Introduction

Having established the timing of Jesus’ expectation regarding the “coming of the son of man” in the last post, we are now faced with two starkly different options as to how to interpret its content. This leads us, inevitably, to the Olivet Discourse. If we agree on the authenticity of Mark 13 and its parallels, then we can say either (a) that Jesus expected the actual end of history imminently over the horizon, and that he was embarrassingly wrong in that prediction, or (b) that he was using vivid metaphors as a way of investing thoroughly historical events with their full theological significance, and that this prediction was in fact powerfully vindicated in the events which transpired after his death. According to the first view, the “coming of the son of man” refers literally to the return of Jesus from heaven to earth. According to the second view, the “coming of the son of man” is an apocalyptic symbol which speaks of the exaltation of Jesus and his followers over the present ruling regime in Jerusalem, a prediction which was then fulfilled in the events of 66-70AD.

What we cannot say, however, is that Jesus was speaking over his contemporaries’ heads to something still in our future. Of course, that is the most popular view, and it continues to carry quite an appeal throughout the church. But for all its good intention, the futurist reading crumbles under critical scrutiny. This is why we addressed the question of timing separately in the last post. Because the repeated references to “this generation” in Matthew 23:36 and 24:34 place the timing of Jesus’ expectation squarely within the lifetime of his contemporaries, and so even if we did conclude that the “coming of the son of man” referred to the second coming, or that the language of “stars falling from heaven” referred to a literal cosmic collapse, none of that would justify a reinterpretation of Jesus’ references to “this generation”. There may be a wider eschatological significance to the language which Jesus uses, but such a wider significance should not be confused with Jesus’ own intended referent, which is clearly directed to his contemporary Jewish audience.

So which one is it? Was Jesus speaking of the cataclysmic end of the world, only to be proven wrong when history rumbled on, however tumultuously, past the generation of his predicted apocalypse? Or have we perhaps been guilty of misinterpreting the content of his predictions by seeing literal prose where in fact there is a field of rich metaphors? Over the course of the next few posts I will argue for the latter of these two options. In my estimation, both the popular futurist reading and the liberal scholarly one have the same problem at their root: they both fail to understand Jesus’ language in its own historical context, language which was regularly used to refer to events within continuing history. So over the next several posts we will take an in-depth look at the historical context and Old Testament background of the Olivet Discourse and see what light it sheds on Jesus’ meaning.

But one last comment before we begin. Probably the most common reaction to the reading suggested here is that it makes Jesus' language "merely metaphorical". This reaction assumes two things: first, that literal language is "normal" language, and, second, that taking something non-literally dramatically reduces its real-world truth value. We will challenge both of these assumptions throughout this series, but a brief response on the front end might be helpful.

The main problem with this thoroughly modernist reaction is that it confuses the different ways that words refer to things (literal or non-literal) with the reality of the things themselves (physical or spiritual, concrete or abstract). Of course, if  it were true that metaphors had less truth value than literal prose, then we would have to seriously question the integrity of every person who ever wrote a love song, let alone an apocalyptic prophecy. But since song writers throughout history and across cultural boundaries have always relied heavily on non-literal forms of speech to express the deep truth of their referent, and most especially when the subject is of great weight and import, we are probably right to question both the assumption that literal forms of speech are more normative and that they are more truthful.

What matters here is the genre of speech in question. We don't read a love song or a poem the same way we read a biology textbook or a newspaper. So the central question before us is whether the apocalyptic language of Jesus' day was more like the love song or more like the textbook. There is no better way to answer this question than to simply listen to Jesus' words on their own terms and in their own cultural context; so that is what we will attempt to do here.

The Coming of the Son of Man: When?

As a follow-up to the last post, I’d like to discuss Jesus’ prediction of the “coming of the son of man” in the gospels. My purpose here is not to debate whether the coming of the son of man should be understood literally or metaphorically (on which, see this post) but instead to ask the simple question: Did Jesus believe that this “coming” (whatever that might refer to) would happen within the lifetime of many of those alive during his ministry? There are four texts that are most significant for addressing this question: 1) Matthew 24:34 (cf. Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32)

“Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”

2) Matthew 10:23

“But whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the son of man comes.”

3) Matthew 16:27-28 (cf. Mark 8:38-9:1; Luke 9:26-27)

“For the son of man is going to come in the glory of his father with his angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds. Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the son of man coming in his kingdom.”

4) Matthew 26:63-64 (cf. Luke 22:69) But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, that you tell us whether you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, from now on you will see the son of man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Each of these texts has two things in common: first, they each point back to Daniel 7:13-14, the famous vision in which "one like a son of man" is exalted with the clouds to receive the kingdom from the Ancient of Days; and, second, they each give off the powerful impression that Jesus anticipated the fulfillment of that passage within the expected lifetime of his original audience. In light of this common dependence on Daniel 7, it bears mentioning at the outset that in Daniel the son of man comes up with the clouds of heaven into the presence of the Ancient of Days; he does not come down from heaven to earth. If we keep this in mind while reading through the following passages, we may find that they begin to make more sense.

The first text (Matt 24:34) is without question the one which gets the most press in discussions like these, since it appears towards the end of Jesus’ lengthiest eschatological discourse, and everyone has a special stake in defending their particular view of that passage. When taken at face value, however, Jesus appears to be saying that all of the events forewarned in that discourse (from the beginning of birth pangs to the coming of the son of man) would come to pass within the generation of his audience at that time. Unable to accept this face value reading, futurists have suggested alternative ways of understanding Jesus’ use of the word genea, such as translating it instead as “race” or “nation”. But considering Matthew’s usage of the word throughout his gospel (1:17; 11:16; 12:39, 41-42, 45; 16:4; 17:17; 23:36), and the other texts which we will consider below, such an alternative translation has little to commend it, and appears to be driven more by a particular ideology than any real interest in accurately representing the original meaning of the text.

Another alternative, which has garnered more support than the one above, is to accept that genea does indeed mean “generation,” but that the particular generation in question is not the one to which Jesus was then speaking, but rather the one in which “all these things take place,” i.e. the final generation. This is an ingenious solution to the perceived problem of non-fulfillment, but it only survives as an escape route for those who cannot accept the plain meaning of the text. The problem with this reading is that it makes the entire verse redundant, while Jesus’ emphasis suggests that it is the most important part of the whole chapter. Furthermore, the whole context of the Olivet Discourse concerns the judgment which would befall that perverse generation for not accepting Jesus' offer of peace. Matthew sets the scene for Jesus’ prediction of the nation’s fall and the Temple’s destruction by placing it together with his lengthy rebuke of their hypocritical leadership in chapter 23, and that whole passage concludes with his pronouncement that the recompense for the blood of all the martyrs from Abel to Zechariah would “come upon this generation”.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s say that the coming of the son of man here refers to the second coming, and not to Jesus’ kingly vindication via the destruction of Jerusalem; that doesn’t change the fact that he predicted this “coming” within the expected lifetime of his audience at that time. This is why C.S. Lewis, in a 1960 essay, called Matthew 24:34 “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible”. Of course, I think Lewis was wrong to assume that the phrase in question refers to the second coming, but I still appreciate his honesty in admitting the plain sense meaning of the text regarding “this generation”. Futurism just isn’t an exegetically viable option where this text is concerned.

The second text (Matt 10:23) has received less attention than the first, but it places the timing of Jesus’ expectation in an even clearer light. The disciples will not even finish going through all the towns of Israel “before the son of man comes”. As Albert Schweitzer argued over a century ago, it is sufficiently evident that Jesus’ words here should not be in any way weakened down. But given that the “coming” of Daniel 7:13-14 speaks of the exaltation (and not the “descent” to earth) of the son of man to receive the kingdom, it seems likely that Matthew regarded this saying as having been fulfilled by the time of the Great Commission, when the resurrected Jesus, having received all authority in heaven and on earth, sends the disciples out beyond the boarders of Israel to call the whole world into the kingdom (Matt 28:18-20).

The third text (Matt 16:27-28) only solidifies this impression further. There are some of Jesus’ hearers who will live to see the kingdom of the son of man, when he comes in the glory of his father and rewards everyone for their deeds. This text adds to the two above by explicitly identifying the coming of the son of man with the arrival of the kingdom, just as the son of man receives the kingdom from the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7:13. It also bears mentioning that in all three Synoptic accounts this saying appears just after Peter’s confession and just before the Transfiguration, when Jesus begins to subvert the disciples’ kingdom expectation in light of the cross and resurrection. Jesus elsewhere alludes to the kingdom of Daniel 7 with his coming suffering in mind (e.g. Mark 10:45). Is he perhaps doing that here?

The fourth text (Matt 26:63-64) is much more significant than many English translations imply. The key phrase here is “from now on” or “hereafter,” which literally means “from this time forward”. Here Jesus combines his characteristic allusion to Daniel 7 with an allusion to Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool’. The Lord shall send the rod of your strength out of Zion. Rule in the midst of your enemies!” Is it a coincidence that Jesus quotes from this passage right after being accused of conspiring against the Temple? Is that why Caiaphas, the high priest, was sent into such a rage? Whatever the answer, the central question is this: What did Jesus see happening at that time which could be interpreted as the messianic enthronement of Daniel 7 and Psalm 110?

In summary, each text speaks clearly for itself: (1) “This generation will not pass away”; (2) “before you finish going through all the cities of Israel”; (3) “there are some standing here who will not taste death”; (4) “from now on...” The cumulative effect of all four passages is overwhelming. Whatever we might say about the content of this prediction, it appears glaringly obvious that Jesus anticipated this “coming” very quickly, to the point of being almost present, and that in his mind it was directly connected to what he saw himself doing at that time. This conclusion is so firmly based in the explicit words of Jesus, and in the parallel accounts of all three Synoptic gospels, that it is as close to a “proven fact” as any point of biblical theology can be.