You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. –Deuteronomy 6:5
“Idolatrously we turn our faith and hope toward the immanent powers of technology, medicine, economic security, powerful leaders, military might, and the global rule of our empire to bring about the new world we hope for.” (Douglas Harinck, 1 & 2 Peter, 136.)
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians contains some disheartening passages with respect to women. In particular, 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 1 Cor 14:33b-36 are the ones that have caused the most trouble. These verses are problematic not only because of what they appear to say, but because they seem somewhat incoherent. The former presents three arguments, yet the footnotes in the NRSV make clear that translators have had to torture the middle one to bring it in line with the others. The latter contradicts what Paul has said elsewhere in the same letter, namely it says that women should be silent in church when he’s already said twice that women do not have to be silent in church.
What gives? Paul may be many things, but he’s rarely incoherent or self-contradictory. Thus, as I read these passages again this week, it struck me that something is wrong with the way we interpret them.
Consider two things about Paul’s writing. The first has to do with his style: he often quotes arguments and then rebuts them. This is seen clearly in 1 Cor 6:12-13:
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.
Keep in mind that Koine Greek had no quotation marks. The only way we know that Paul has quoted someone else’s argument, unless he says so explicitly, is by context.
The second is that, apart from his letter to the Romans, Paul always writes to address specific issues in a church. In 1 Corinthians, he says he’s writing “that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you… For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you…” (1 Cor 1:10-11). This is the theme of the entire letter. Yes, he addresses some other issues, including a situation of sexual immorality among the members (1 Cor 5), spiritual gifts and the nature of the church as one body (1 Cor 12), and the nature of Christian love (1 Cor 13). Yet each of these can be seen in the context of the letter as a whole as arguing for unity in the Corinthian church.
It is noteworthy that 1 Cor 11 as a chapter goes on to discuss abuses at the Lord’s Supper, and corrective measures to be taken. Again, this is in the context of division within the church (vv. 18-21).
Some scholars have suggested that the three arguments about women that begin the chapter are in fact quotes of what Paul has heard from members of the church in Corinth. This has been dismissed by other scholars because, aside from a few short instances in 1 Cor 6, Paul has not done so in this letter without specifically identifying such arguments. Similarly, many scholars agree that it seems likely that the opening salvo in 1 Cor 14 is actually a quote he has heard from Corinth, but they dismiss this as improbable because he has not done so elsewhere.
Yet the result is a letter that, on these two issues, makes Paul virtually unintelligible. Particularly in the second, why would he tell women to be silent in church when he’s already discussed and approved of them teaching and prophesying in church? It’s nonsensical. Which begs the question: what if Paul did quote other arguments in both places? Read with that in mind, the issues of logic and style in the two passages quickly resolve themselves. Knowing what I do of Paul, I find it inconceivable that the illogical reading is the correct one.
Here, then, are my renditions of the two passages, which I offer as true to Paul’s style and his well-recognized ability to argue a point effectively. I’m no Greek scholar, but I have taken advantage of the ambiguity of certain conjunctions, and I have used the alternate translation noted in the NRSV.
I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. And I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.
[But some of you say,] “Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.”
[Others say,] “For this reason a woman ought to have freedom of her head, because of the angels. For in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. And just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.”
[Still others say,] “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.”
Now, if you are disposed to be contentious— [Let me be clear:] We have no such custom, nor do the churches of God. (1 Cor 11:2-16)
[Some of you have said,] “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
So, did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached? Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized. (1 Cor 14:33b-38)
In this last paragraph, “did the word of God originate with you?” the Greek uses the masculine version of the pronoun “you.” Clearly this accusation is not addressed to the women of Corinth! It seems far more likely that it addresses those who have voiced such an opinion.
Viewed in this way, the 1 Cor 11 passage seeks not to criticize the church because women have their hair uncovered, but to resolve a dispute about that issue by stating emphatically that there’s no such tradition, so quit arguing about it. Likewise, the 1 Cor 14 passage seeks to silence those stirring up controversy over the obviously-prominent role women had in the Corinthian church.
Both are consistent with what we know of Paul, who partnered with both men and women in spreading the Gospel, and whose friend Priscilla became a church leader first in Corinth and later in Rome.
This is not the place to discuss 1 Timothy, which was written by a different writer, though attributed to Paul. It, too, contains some passages that many women find troubling, but it was written decades after Paul’s death and addresses a different time and context.
Ephesians is another matter entirely, and one which deserves a blog post of its own. Suffice it to say for the moment that the most repeated command in that letter’s passage on marriage is that husbands treat their wives with agape, the love of God, an observation that sheds further light on the opening admonition in 1 Cor 11:3.
The goal of this post is to reconsider these two problematic passages in 1 Corinthians with a rational approach that expects Paul to use the effective rhetoric for which he is so well known, and which our current translations fail to deliver. Admittedly, this leads to the conclusion that Paul is actually arguing the opposite of what many traditionalists think he’s arguing. You’re welcome to disagree with me. But it bothers me to be satisfied that Paul was having an off day when he wrote this one, and thus produced not one but two passages that don’t make much sense, and both on the same general topic.
“In the most radical and existential uniqueness which he is, man has to reckon with the fact that this mystery of evil is not only a possibility in him, but that it also becomes a reality, and indeed not insofar as a mysterious, impersonal power breaks into his life as a destructive fate.” (Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, trans. William V. Dych (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1996, 102-103.)
I encountered the following sentence as an undergraduate. It is a pivotal thought on evil in one of the most important books by Karl Rahner, the most influential Catholic theologian of the 20th century. But what does it mean?
Diagramming the sentence suggests that it is self-contradictory. So what is Rahner trying to say? I’ve puzzled over it for ten years, and I still don’t know. His “pivotal” thought makes no sense. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a translation error, though my understanding is that Rahner was no more intelligible in his native German. His brother, when told that Rahner’s work was posthumously being translated into English, is said to have quipped, “That’s wonderful. I hope someday they translate him into German!”
Obviously precision is important when postulating a systematic statement of the nature of God, his Creation, and our relationship to both. Many theologians, like Rahner, go to great lengths to express complex thoughts in precise terms.
Unfortunately, the result is unreadable for even many university-level readers.
This level of theology creates an ivory tower, a bastion of particular intellect that develops its thought in enforced isolation from the world by virtue of its unintelligible diction. (How’s that for a wordy sentence?)
In other words, Christians and theology live in separate worlds that can never (or at least only rarely) meet.
Can you imagine if Jesus spoke like that? How many followers would he have gained? Instead, he spoke in simple concepts. “The Kingdom has come.” “Feed the poor.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
We take Jesus’ simple concepts and discuss whether they are prophetic or apocalyptic, pre-millennial or post-millennial, and the veracity of dispensationalism.
Perhaps these are valuable intellectual exercises. Surely some people enjoy such parsing. And I have to admit, Rahner challenged my horizons when I studied him as an undergraduate. Yet I can’t help but wonder how much this level of thought contributes to the Kingdom of God.
This semester, we’re reading Charles Scobie. He’s much more readable than Rahner, but just as wordy, dissecting and analyzing (not always effectively) the main points of Christianity. The 1,000+ page book contains five (5!) chapters about Jesus. He’s written more about Jesus than the Gospels themselves!
This reminds me of a quotation attributed to Rabbi Hillel, a pre-Christian Jewish reformer:
“That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow; this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary…”
In my congregation, there is a woman whose brain was damaged in an accident when she was a child. She reads at what I would describe as about a third-grade level. Yet she is one of the most loving, Christ-centered people I have ever met. If you want to know what the Kingdom looks like, meeting her is far more demonstrative than reading Rahner.
The truth is, I don’t really hate theology, but I do fund it tedious and often distracting. Often wonder which is the better use of my time: reading 1,000 pages of systematic theology, or going out and doing what Jesus told us to do.
“Eternity: Smoking or Non-Smoking?”
That’s what this month’s marquis asks at a local church. And while it’s clever, that’s not the most important question for me.
All my life, people have told me, “Be grateful you’re alive.” That never made sense to me. Even in my earliest memories, I wasn’t glad to be here. My undiagnosed autism made my life a challenge, and I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” I was suicidal at age 15. The suggestion that we suffer in this lifetime so we can be in Heaven in the next was, to say the least, unsatisfactory, It spoke of a cruel, even sadistic, God that I could not accept.
I rejected that god and became an atheist at age 13. Later, as I sought help with my addictions at age 25, I graduated to agnostic. That’s a natural state for an autistic person who often needs to see in order to understand.
When I got serious about exploring a spiritual life, I tried several churches. All of them proclaimed a message of future salvation. None of them addressed my primary questions: How do I live in this world? What do we do about suffering? When I accidentally stumbled onto Buddhism, I heard a different message. It wasn’t based in faith in things unseen, but in a practical set of steps to take to address the problem of individual suffering. Summarized, the Buddha’s first sermon, the Four Noble Truths, can be stated this way:
- Life is suffering.
- If there is suffering, then there must be a cause. That cause is attachment.
- If there is a cause, then there must be a means to remove that cause. That is nonattachment.
- The means to nonattachment is the Eight-fold Path.
This made more sense to me than anything else I’d ever been told about life and how to live it. I became a Buddhist for several years.
Then the 1992 riots devastated the city I lived in. It was clear to me that people who could behave that way were in a lot of pain. This brought up a new question I had not considered: what about other people’s suffering? Was it enough to simply relieve my own suffering?
As I pondered this, I became convinced that it was not. My meditation teacher said that compassion meant being aware of the suffering of others while remaining in nonattachment. Hindu teacher Ram Dass said something different: “There is a paradox: everything is the way it is supposed to be, and our job in this life is to work to end suffering.” This sounded better, but still lacked the promise of making things better. Later, I heard Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne say that if you have compassion, you must help those who are suffering. This made more sense. I followed this instruction for about a decade. I helped his organization with planning and strategy, learned a lot about community development, and eventually became a field researcher and strategist for the peace movement in Sri Lanka on a team that helped bring about the 2002 cease fire.
I came away from that experience exhausted, traumatized, and bitter. I vaguely sensed that something was missing. By that time, I had finished my BA in Theology. I’d had a very powerful experience of the presence of God. But it terrified me, and I ran away from God– or tried to.
It took years before I revisited the “God question.” When I did, it was because of suffering. This time, it was not the meaningless of life I struggled with, but grief over the loss of a baby. And this time, I was led inexorably though not unwillingly to Christ.
I have great respect for Buddhism. It does contain truth– though in my opinion based on 50 years of experience, not the whole truth. I still agree that the biggest question in life is not eternity, but suffering.
It is with this lens that I approach the Gospel. And the Gospel meets me there. Jesus’ ministry was not simply about salvation after death. His first proclamation in the oldest of the four Gospels is, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). The King James version said, “the kingdom of God is at hand.” The Aramaic Bible in Plain English reads, “the kingdom of God has arrived.” Darby reads, “has drawn nigh,” while Young reads, “hath come nigh.” Revelation adds, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Messiah… (Rev 11:15).
This Kingdom of God that Jesus announced is not some future event– at least not entirely. It is here, now.
Then there’s the Great Commission. Mark’s version (the earliest) reads,
Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. (Mark 16:14-18)
The other versions omit references to healing, but Jesus says in Matthew for example, “Observe all I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). This would surely include his earlier instructions upon sending them out for the first time:
[P]roclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. (Mt 10:7-9)
Then there’s John’s report:
“Do you love me?… Feed my sheep.” (Jn 21:17)
The Gospel cannot, in my reading, be separated from relief of suffering. Yet it is not our selves that do the work (John 14:10). This is what was missing from my life: I tried to do the work. It was an impossible job for a mortal. But nothing is impossible for God (Mt 19:26). And in John, Jesus tells us:
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. (Jn 14:12)
The Gospel is clear: God’s Spirit works in us and through us, empowering us to change that which mere mortals cannot change. The Kingdom of God is obviously not fully present, and suffering cannot be completely eliminated. But it can be reduced. That goal is what gives my life meaning, purpose, and connection with God, which in turn reduce my own suffering.
The burning question for me is not where I’ll spend eternity, but what to do about suffering, mine and others’. The Gospel answers these questions. In my opinion, any theology that doesn’t come to this conclusion not only misreads the Gospel, but is not very useful.
In Part One, I noted the varying uses of verb tense in Revelation. As I pointed out, verses 20:7-10 contain 12 verbs; 6 are in the past, 2 are present tense, and 4 are future tense. Similarly, the description of the fall of Babylon contains both past and future tenses. This makes it impossible to assign the events in Revelation literally to the past, present or future– at least, not without suggesting that John didn’t say what he meant.
Revelation thus portrays events that occur outside our concept of time. In that sense, they both have happened and will happen. Put another way, they are continually happening. Thus, Revelation is not a prophetic view of the future, distant or otherwise. It is a description of God and Christ working in the world throughout our concept of history.
This puts the events described in a very different context. As I mentioned before, books could be written (and have been written) about the contents of Revelation. This, on the other hand. will be a very short summary.
Let’s take the example of the seven seals. First, I find it striking that, as the Lamb breaks each seal, the four living creatures (the symbols of God’s creation) “call out, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!'” (6:1). I’ve noted the writer’s love of irony. In Genesis 1, God calls Creation into being; here, Creation calls God’s work into being.
As the first four seals are broken, four riders are released. The first is the lover of power, the second is war, the third is famine and poverty, and the fourth is death. How often in history have we seen this cycle? Does it predict the future? Of course it does, for whenever a power-hungry leader arises, war and suffering and death follow.
With the fifth seal, the martyrs call out for justice, and with the sixth the existing structures are thrown into turmoil. Then there’s an interlude in which the 144,000 chosen and the multitude of believers from every nation are identified. This is a choosing up of sides between believers and evil.
With the breaking of the seventh seal, the seven trumpets bring forth plagues and tortures. Yet, as 9:20-21 makes clear, the point of these disasters is to cause people to repent, turn to God, and change their ways. They do not repent, and the story continues.
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord
and of his Messiah,
and he will reign forever and ever.” (11:15)
The Kingdom has been established! But the woes are not over. The dragon and the two beasts emerge. The first beast makes war on the believers, but an angel warns:
Let anyone who has an ear listen:
If you are to be taken captive,
into captivity you go;
if you kill with the sword,
with the sword you must be killed.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (13:9-10)
Clearly, just as Jesus conquers with the Word, the believers are to eschew violence.
Even now, there is an opportunity for those who follow evil to repent (14:6). Yet seven plagues follow, ending with the fall of Babylon. Here, too, there’s a strong sense of irony: Babylon, the Great Whore, is destroyed not by God, but by those who serve her (17:16-18). Similarly, there is an entire chapter (18) dedicated to lamenting the fall of Babylon, the world’s great economic power– and yet the fall itself is never described. An angel declares before the plagues, “Fallen is Babylon the Great!” (14:8), and again after the plagues as the beneficiaries of Babylon lament (18:2), but the fall itself is never recounted.
Then follows the battle at Harmageddon, in which Christ the Warrior defeats the beast and slays the kings of the earth with the sword of his tongue (19:17-21). Satan is thrown down for a thousand years, then rises and is defeated. The dead are judged.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (21:1-2)
Yet here again, though there is a great deal of rejoicing for the wedding and a detailed description of the New Jerusalem, the wedding is never described. It is apparently already accomplished. Through the city runs the river of life, which comes from God and the Lamb. The vision closes with these words:
[H]is servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (22:4-6)
In the epilogue, John relates that the time is “coming soon,” yet “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy” (22:11). His benediction closes:
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (22:17)
Revelation is surely a vision of hope, yet not hope for the distant future. (It has, after all, been almost 2,000 years since it was written to give hope to the churches of Asia.) The gift of the water of life is available now. Babylon is fallen now. Satan is defeated now.
Revelation is a powerful exhortation that evil doesn’t have the last word, Jesus does. Every day.
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. John 14:12
I was sitting in class one day listening to a lecture. Suddenly, I saw a vivid image of Jesus’s side as he hung on the Cross, at the moment before he was pierced by the spear. At the same time, I heard a cacophony of voices chanting, “Where are your works? Where are your works?” It grew louder until I couldn’t hear what my professor was saying. This went on for about five minutes before it began to fade. But the image reappeared to me several times throughout the day.
Modern Christians are skeptical of works, and rightly so. In the 1200 years following Constantine, works were sometimes viewed as the means of salvation. They aren’t. The Bible clearly tells us that we are saved through grace. Surely any evangelical Christian can quote this verse:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Yet for some reason, many tend to ignore the following verse:
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:10)
The presence of grace does not negate works, it makes them inevitable. How do we miss that? In our skepticism of works, we discount the words of James, the brother of the Lord:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith [alone] save you? (James 2:14)
Martin Luther seems to have found a conflict between Paul and James. (He preferred Paul.) I don’t see any conflict at all. If we have received grace, if we have received faith, we will do works–not to become saved, but because we are saved.
What were the works that Jesus did, which he tells us we will do more of? He welcomed sinners and outcasts. He fed the poor, healed the sick, and challenged traditional authority. He prophesied, cast out demons, and performed miracles. He warned the rich about the dangers of wealth. He reminded his listeners that they were sinners, that they (in Paul’s words) fell short of the glory of God.
And he gave his life to save others.
Look around at the Church today. Do you wonder, as the voices caused me to do, “Where are your works?”
I look at my own life, and I wonder, “Where are your works?”
By this, I mean works of the Spirit. I’ve done works. I gave up a lucrative career that was, in my view, unethical. I believe strongly in social justice, and have written, protested, organized, and campaigned. I helped bring about a six-year cease-fire in a faraway, war-torn country. I’ve fed and housed people who needed it. I’ve “loaned” money to people I knew couldn’t pay it back. But I did it to try to get closer to God, not because the Spirit moved through me.
(I do believe that the Spirit moved through me when I was doing peace work. But that wasn’t because I had faith. The results we achieved were clearly the work of God, but at the time I was not a Christian and I came home scarred and exhausted. I was not living in the Spirit. Thankfully, God can use anyone to achieve his intentions.)
Last August, I finally accepted the forgiveness of Jesus Christ for my sins. I’ve shared before about my long and meandering journey. I’d been baptized, but still hadn’t fully accepted Christ. Have I fully accepted him now? I think there’s still another step I need to take. Perhaps more than one.
Following my acceptance, I began to experience gifts of the Spirit. I had already learned that I can (sometimes) see demons. This gift grew stronger. I also began to have visions. I’ve had one experience in which, through me, the Spirit healed someone. This is all to the good.
Yet I’ve read the Gospels and seen what Jesus did. “You will do the works that I do,” he said.
I’m not there yet. But I’m willing.
How about you?
clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force (1:13-16).
This is Jesus the warrior, as we will see in 19:11. Yet Jesus’ weapon is his tongue. We are told,
his name is called The Word of God… From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty (19:13-14).
It’s noteworthy, however, that the word ποιμανεῖ, translated as the verb “to rule,” is more appropriately translated “to shepherd;” the same root appears in Jesus’ command to Peter in John 21:16: “Shepherd (or feed) my sheep.” Despite the warlike images Revelation offers, Jesus’ “war” is conducted with Truth, not steel, and his goal is to care for, not conquer. If this seems ironic, presumably it is meant to be; like the Gospel of John, Revelation contains a great deal of irony.
The Son of Man appears again in Chapter 14:
“Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!” (14:14).
Here, Christ the majestic becomes the reaper of the earth. The text does not say exactly what was reaped. In the following passages, angels reap grapes and make wine (14:17-20).
The second appearance of Jesus is in Chapter 5. Here we find more irony, as the elder tells John that only “the Lion of Judah, the root of Davis” can open the scroll. But what John sees is not a lion, but lamb “standing as if slaughtered” (5:6). It is not Jesus’ power and glory but his sacrificial death on the Cross that makes him worthy to open the scroll.
As the seals are broken and the story unfolds, we are told more about the Lamb. Washing robes in his blood makes them white (7:14), he will shepherd (the same verb ποιμανεῖ is used as in 19:14) to the water of life (7:17, cf John 4:10, 10:11), he keeps the book of life (13:8, 21:27), and he is “Lord of lords and King of kings” (17:14). The “great multitude” (7:9) has been saved, we are told, because “they have washed their robes and made the white in the blood of the lamb” (7:14, cf 1 John 1:7). It is not only belief in the Lamb that saves, but participation in his blood sacrifice. “They will hunger no more and thirst no more” (7:16, cf John 6:35, Isaiah 49:10).
We should note here that despite the plagues being unleashed on the people of earth (which I’ll discuss in another post), what believers are called to do is to remain firm in their faith, even in the face of persecution. There is no allowance here for violence. In no way do the followers of Jesus participate in God’s judgment. They are called instead to a radically nonviolent response in the face of gathering armies and falling empires.
In Chapter 12, we see the third representation of Jesus: the innocent infant. He is described as ““a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne…” (12:5). (Note the use of the word ποιμαίνειν, another form of the verb “to shepherd”.) Here, in the midst of God’s Kingdom being declared, we encounter the birth of Jesus, the hope for the future. In Part 1, I argued that John intends to place these events outside our concept of time, a topic I’ll return to again; this is surely more evidence of that intent.
There is one final appearance of Jesus that stands out. In the closing passage, John writes:
I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (22:8-9).
But a few lines later, this very same speaker tells him,
“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (22:16).
As we read Revelation, we find a great deal of ambiguity between Jesus and God, as we do also in the Gospel of John (e.g. John 14:7, 14:10-11). In this particular verse, we find ambiguity between Jesus and his servants, suggesting that just as there can be oneness between Jesus and God, there can also be oneness between Jesus and those who serve him (note the language in 22:9: “I am a fellow servant”). Again, this echoes the Gospel of John: “Abide in me as I abide in you” (e.g. John 15:4a).
Books could be written about Jesus as he appears in Revelation (and they have been). However, this short summary of the three (or four) representations of Jesus do give us an overall feel for where Revelation is taking us. Jesus is the Savior, and Jesus is the Word. Yet despite the warlike language describing him, Jesus does not fight his battles with military force. Instead Jesus conquers through Truth and through his own sacrifice on the Cross– a ritual execution by a conquering power that, to readers of the 1st century, was conventionally associated with defeat.
The Revelation to John is one of the most difficult books in the Bible. It is gory, frightening, and complex. And it has frequently been abused. I recall over 30 years ago, a Christian man I worked with insisted that Babylon, as portrayed in Revelation, was the Soviet Union. He was convinced that the End Times were at hand, and he laid out who all the players were. Thirty years later, the End Times have not come upon us, and the Soviet Union no longer exists.
(I would add here another caveat: If Revelation is about imminent events, which nation do you really think is “Babylon the great… [of whom] all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury” (Rev 18:2-3)? Does that really sound like the Soviet Union or Russia?)
What are we to do with such a complex and disconcerting work? Only now, after reading it multiple times and reading several commentaries on it, do I feel that I am remotely competent to add anything to this question.
The first thing to consider is this: Who was it written for? That makes a difference. Was it written to Christians in 1985? To Christians today? Clearly it was not. It is addressed to “seven churches that are in Asia,” namely what we refer to as Asia Minor, or Turkey. And it was written during the first century, only a few decades after the death of Jesus. We must assume that it had meaning for them, otherwise they would have discarded it. And we must assume that the symbolism John used had meaning for them. In other words, we cannot assume that the images John describes are of nuclear war, for example, There were no nuclear weapons in the first century.
The second thing to consider is this: The book was chosen (admittedly with some disagreement among the early Church fathers) to be part of Scripture. Thus, we must assume that it expresses some form of eternal truth. What was said to those churches in Asia must have something to say to us. Yet it is also clear that its message cannot be that TEOTWAWKI is imminent. If that were the case, its first readers would have been gravely disappointed. It’s now 2,000 years later, and it hasn’t yet happened. Or, alternatively, the world as its current residents knew it has ended multiple times, from the imperialization of Christianity to the fall of Rome, from the Black Death to World War II, from the discovery of penicillin to the universal presence of computers and the internet, and from the rise to the fall of the Soviet Union and its empire.
The third thing to consider is the timeline John offers for the events he describes. This is more difficult, because John mixes his verb tenses confusingly. Consider the following passage (emphasis added):
When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea. They marched up over the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from heaven and consumed them. And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Rev 20:7-10)
Here is a question especially pertinent for literal readers: Is this going to happen, or has it already happened? (Let’s count the verb tenses: 4 future, 2 present, 6 past.) Clearly this cannot be set literally in the past, present, or future unless we claim that John didn’t say what he meant.
We can see a similar conundrum in the Fall of Babylon cycle. The angel announces that “Babylon the Great is fallen” (it has already happened, 18:2), and “in one hour your judgment has come” (it has already happened, 18:10). But there is yet time for her people to come out of her (18:4). The shipmasters “stood far off, and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning” (already happened, 18:17-18), yet the kings “will weep” for her as they stand far off (not yet happened, 18:9-10).
There are two possible approaches to this problem. The first is the “already-but-not yet” view, which many use to describe the Kingdom itself. In other words, it has already happened in God’s view of time , but we haven’t experienced it yet. This view places the events in the eschatological future, beyond our view of history. I see this as the “distant hope” view: that all things will be made right in this world at some point in the far future that we will never live to see.
The second possible approach is one I find more satisfying: the events described take place outside our concept of time. That is, they are eternal; they are continually happening in a cosmological sense. Put another way, they happen not in chronos time, but in kairos time.
As we consider that, let’s look at another passage:
“The second woe has passed. The third woe is coming very soon. Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” (Rev 11:14-15)
These two verses set a context: God’s Kingdom has been established, even though the woes are not yet over. Does that mean, as in the “already-but-not-yet” view, that the Kingdom is established but we will never see it in our experience of time? Or does it mean that, despite the ongoing woes, God’s Kingdom exists and is perpetually established (and being established)?
As I mentioned above, we must assume that Revelation contains some form of eternal truth, else it would not be part of Scripture. As I read the text, as a writer I am struck by the confusing use of verb tenses, blurring past, present, and future. Respect for the text demands, I believe, that we allow a reason for that blurring. What reason can there be other than that the events John describes are not anchored in time? John is describing not a series of future events, historical or otherwise, but a series of processes that are always in play. The Kingdom has been and is continually being established. Satan has been and is continually being defeated. Judgment has been and is continually being served. Salvation was, is, and will be at hand.
The synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) portray Jesus’ ministry as an inexorable journey of Jesus to Jerusalem where he enters the city in triumph on Palm Sunday. “Hosanna!” the people shout. Their king, the Messiah, has arrived, bringing with him great expectations. Yet, as we know, actual events were not what the people expected. Jesus did not take the throne, nor did he inaugurate a new political structure based in justice and peace. Instead, he was arrested and executed as a common criminal. We can only imagine the disappointment of his followers on Good Friday. Not only were their expectations disappointed, but the man they looked to (yes, they saw him as a human being) died in disgrace. Their hopes for their future and their confidence in this man both lay in tatters before the Cross.
Palm Sunday is thus a day of hope, and yet also a day of impending despair. Through its lens, our hopes for the imminent Kingdom appear to be misplaced.
And yet, to this story of temporal disappointment, John adds an important perspective that offers hope.
The Gospel of John is clearly different from the other three. He focuses not on Jesus’ temporal ministry, but on the spiritual nature of that ministry. Instead of a birth narrative, he tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). He emphasizes the eternal presence of Jesus.
John tells us,
“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:10-11)
In the very next chapter, Chapter 2, John tells us that “Jesus went up to Jerusalem” where he cleansed the temple (John 2:14ff). Yet it is not until Chapter 12 that Jesus enters Jerusalem as King (John 12:12ff). Clearly this diverges from the accounts of the synoptic Gospels. But if we concern ourselves with the historical issue of chronology (Did Jesus go to Jerusalem before Palm Sunday or not?), we miss the point. John is telling us something deeper than names, dates, and historical facts: Though we as humans perceive Jesus’ ministry as linear, though we perceive his entry into Jerusalem as a triumphal and climactic event, he was already there, just as he was already among us before his birth. But we couldn’t recognize him.
Why does this matter? Because it says something important about the Kingdom of God as well. The synoptic Gospels portray Jesus preaching that “the Kingdom of God has come near” (e.g. Mark 1:15). Other translations use the words “at hand” or “nigh.” The implication is that the Kingdom is imminent. We can reach out and touch it. And yet we can’t see it. Clearly the Kingdom is not the driving force in this broken world of ours. Paul expected the Kingdom to be established before his death (e.g. 1 Thess 4:15). And people have been waiting expectantly for it for two millennia.
We’re still waiting.
But John gives us another perspective. He tells Pilate,
“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here… You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.“ (John 18:36-37)
John uses the word “kingdom” very infrequently, choosing instead the language of “abiding” and “being.”
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (John 14:18-21)
“You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:3-5)
And yet John’s vision is not of a group of disciples who sit around, content to abide in Jesus:
“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:11-12)
For John, Jesus is the King, and belief in Jesus brings us into the Kingdom. Yet there is an expectation that being in the Kingdom will motivate and empower us to do the works that Jesus did. He leaves it for the synoptic Gospels to describe those works in detail. The point is, in a very real sense, for John, the Kingdom is now.
We, the readers, are human. We cheer as Jesus enters Jerusalem, waving our palm fronds, anticipating the inauguration of the Kingdom. Our hopes are dashed on Good Friday, and renewed on Easter. We look forward to that day in the future when the Kingdom is fulfilled.
And yet, like Jesus himself, it is already here.