Reaping the Consequences (Revelation 14.14–20)


We sometimes speak of “reaping the consequences” of our decisions, especially of our bad decisions. The phrase itself is an agricultural metaphor, describing the action of a farmer who is harvesting his crops. Unsurprisingly—give that it was written in an agricultural society—the Bible uses the metaphor of reaping to describe God’s judgment of the earth’s inhabitants.
 
Take, for example, Joel 3.12–13, the Old Testament passage that lies in the background of Revelation 14.14–20. God says: “Let the nations stir themselves up and come to the Valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations. Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great.”
 
Jesus employs a similar metaphor in one of his parables (Matt. 13.24–30). Having sown wheat, a farmer notices that weeds have grown up beside the grain. His servants ask whether he would like them to pull up the weeds right away, and he responds: “No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” Jesus later explains that the wheat represents “the children of the kingdom,’ the weeds “the sons of the evil one,” and the harvest the judgment at “the close of the age” (13.38, 39).
 
This biblical metaphor of judgment as harvest explains the meaning of Revelation 14.14–20. Joel spoke of “the valley of decision” (3.14). Jesus intimated that his audience lived in a time where decisions could still be made, either for the Son or against him. But John’s image of divine judgment is final. With the harvest he describes—first of wheat, then of grapes—time has run out to turn from sin and to God, and those who have not turned are stuck with the consequences of their decisions.
 
Is this fair? Is it right? Well, yes. As a Christian, I believe that God offers us numerous opportunities to put our faith in him and so receive the grace he offers us. But I also believe that this is not an eternal offer. Like a field sown with grain, there comes a time when the wheat is ripe and ready for harvest. So also with our lives. We can choose to live God’s way or our own; either way, there are eternal consequences to our choices. As C.S. Lewis somewhere says: “There are only two kinds of people in the world. Those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done.’ And those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’”
 
We have not reached the final harvest John describes. We are still in Joel’s “valley of decision,” in Jesus’ time before “the close of the age.” But the consequences of our decisions loom just around the corner.
 
So I ask again: Today, what do you choose?
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“An Eternal Gospel to Proclaim” (Revelation 14.6–13)


What is the gospel?
 
The Greek word that we translate as gospel is euaggelion. The Old English word from which gospel derives is godspel. Both terms mean the same thing. The gospel is “good news.”
 
In John’s vision (Rev. 14:6-13), an angel flies in midair, loudly proclaiming “an eternal gospel…to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.” Whatever else the gospel is, it is not the exclusive property of a select group of people. It is God’s good news, which he communicates to all people, to the entire human creation he made in his image and loves dearly.
 
Now, the gospel that the angel loudly proclaims does not seem to be good news, at least not at first. It begins with a difficult command: “Fear God.” It then explains why such fear is necessary: “because the hour of his judgment has come.” Oh sure, John appends two more positive commands—“give him glory” and “worship him”—but it is difficult to get past that first verb: fear. How can a commandment to fear God because of impending judgment be good news?
 
Well, it all depends on which side of the judgment you end up, of course! Much of the book of Revelation to this point has narrated the suffering of the saints under a demonically inspired and persecuting government. For such saints on the receiving end of the stick, divine judgment means an end to persecution and an entrance into God’s eternal rest: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on…that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”
 
For those on the giving end of the stick, however, divine judgment means an end to their wicked ways and a punishment thoroughly deserved. That punishment is what two other angels announce in verses 8–11: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great….” And it is horrible: “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest.”
 
In other words, the gospel announces the promise of heaven and the peril of hell and invites all people to make a choice between the two. Although the imperative “fear God” seems fearsome—as if we had to have a phobia of God to enter heaven—in reality, it should not be disconnected from “give him glory” and “worship him.” Fear is simply that deeply felt reverence for God that Proverbs 1.7 says is “the beginning of knowledge.” To fear God is to glorify and worship him in all one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength (Matt. 22.37, cf. Deut. 6.5).
 
So, we face a decision: Heaven or hell? The good news is that God makes it possible for all people to enter heaven, if we but love him with worshipful reverence. He gives us that choice.
 
Today, what do you choose?

They Follow the Lamb Wherever He Goes (Revelation 14.1–5)


Christianity is not a negative religion. Or rather, it is not merely a negative religion. There are, of course, some actions Christians should not perform, some ideas Christians should not believe, some feelings Christians should not experience, and some words Christians should not speak. The Ten Commandments memorably summarize the Christian’s negative duties with regards to actions, ideas, feelings, and words.
 
Revelation 14.1–5 also speak of the Christian’s negative duties. It describes believers has “the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins….and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless.” We must understand that John is speaking in figurative and idealistic language here. The company of believer is not restricted to 144,000 male virgins who have never uttered a lie.
 
Rather, this is a picture of a church at war with the world, shunning its idolatrous religion, and boldly—prophetically—speaking the truth in love. The number and sex of the 144,000 is important. Like the Old Testament censuses, the census of Revelation 11.5–8, which lies in the background of this package, is a roll call for battle. Unlike the Old Testament, however, the battle is spiritual conflict against the antichrist and false prophet. The weapons of warfare, consequently, are not swords and shields, but purity of worship and truthfulness of speech. Throughout the Bible, idolatry is portrayed as a form of spiritual adultery against God. That—and not merely sexual continence—is the point of describing the 144,000 as “virgins,” although Christians should of course be faithful within marriage and chaste without.
 
But John paints a positive portrait of believers too. First, they have Christ’s “name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” They are marked by God’s grace, identified as his own, sealed and protected against the vicissitudes of judgment. Second, they are “singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders.” In fact, their song is so loud that John writes it is like “the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunders.” But it was also beautiful: “like the sound of harpists playing on their harps.” In other words, believers are exuberant, joyful people whose praise of God is both fulsome and lovely.
 
And third—and this is my favorite description of believers—“they “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” The Lamb, of course, is Jesus Christ, and John’s image is paradoxical. Normally, a lamb follows a shepherd, but in the gospel, the Lamb is the Shepherd. The Crucified One is the Risen One, the one who died the very one who gives us life! No wonder, then, that believers follow him. As Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…” (John 6.68).
 
So, truth in advertising: Christianity is a negative religion. There are some things a Christian must not do. But that negativity serves a positive purpose, namely, to help us follow Jesus as he leads us to heaven’s safe pastures where we can exuberantly, joyfully, beautifully proclaim the greatness of the grace of God.

Does Romney’s Mormonism Matter?


On the editorial page of today’s Wall Street Journal, John Fund asks, "Does it matter that Mitt Romney is a Mormon?" and answers, "To some extent–but it shouldn’t." Funny, but I haven’t heard anyone asking the same thing about Harry Reid, who’s also a Mormon. One wonders if faith-questions only matter when the believer in question is Republican or conservative. Indeed, if I remember correctly, Joe Lieberman’s Jewishness was considered an asset during the 2000 Presidential election campaign. Is there a double standard at work here? Could the fact that reporters lean to the left (for an example of which, see here) influence their reportage? As soon as I see stories or editorials worrying about Barack Obama’s membership in the United Church of Christ or Hillary Clinton’s membership in the United Methodist Church, I’ll stop worrying about media bias. Until then…

False Prophet: The Second Beast (Revelation 13.11–18)


Readers of Revelation 13.11–18 feel their attention immediately drawn to the last words of the passage: “let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.” They speculate endlessly on what that number means. And few public figures of any consequence have escaped being identified as the beast, including Nero Caesar in the first century and Ronald Reagan in the last. (The latter’s full name is Ronald Wilson Reagan—a supposedly ominous six letters in each name.)
 
We will, for the moment, resist the attention-drawing power of 666 in order to focus on the main point of Revelation 13.11–18, which is an explicit description of and implicit warning about the second beast, the false prophet.
 
You have no doubt heard of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This second beast is a dragon in lamb’s skin, a devilish imitation of Jesus Christ. “It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon.” Of the twenty-nine times John uses the word lamb (Greek, arnion) in his Revelation, only here does it refer someone other than Christ. His point is inescapable: The devil uses a parody of religion to draw men and women away from real faith. It looks godly, even Christlike, but it is not.
 
The false prophet has amazing power. “It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of all people.” But that power is directed toward an ungodly purpose: to deceive “those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived,” that is, the antichrist. It also has the power of capital punishment, to kill those who refuse to worship the antichrist, and the power of economic incentives, to help or hurt those who are “marked on the right or the forehead” with “the name of the beast or the number of its name.”
 
The power of the false prophet, in other words, is the power of politicized religion in the service of deified government. We Americans are accustomed to a separation of the institutions of religion and government, but this custom is of modern vintage. In the ancient world, especially the Roman one, temple and palace reinforced one another. Indeed, the Romans accused the early Christians of atheism because they refused to offer incense to the genius of Caesar, a religious act fraught with political significance.
 
John envisions something similar here, although we cannot be too sure of the specifics. That is why the interpretation of 666 is so interesting. Likely, it is a numerical symbol of someone’s name, for in Greek, the letters of the alphabet have numerical significance. The number might reveal the identity of a particular government leader. Unfortunately, there never has been widespread agreement on what his name is. It is unlikely that 666 will be tattooed on anyone’s head or hand, however. Like the seal of God on the forehead of believers (7.2–3, 9.4), the mark of the beast is symbolic rather than literal. It signifies whom one worships, and thus to whom one belongs.
 
And that, it seems to me, is the point of application of Revelation 13.11–18: not endless speculation about numbers but the live question of faith and allegiance. Do we acknowledge Jesus as Christ and Teacher, or do we follow an antichrist and false prophet?
 
To answer such a question rightly, we need discernment—the ability to sniff out politicized religion and sacralized politics—and, more importantly, the courage to resist them both.

A Disingenuous and Hypocritical Critique


The Associated Press carries the following story under the headline, "Obama Says Some Have `hijacked’ Faith":

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – Sen. Barack Obama told a church convention Saturday that some right- wing evangelical leaders have exploited and politicized religious beliefs in an effort to sow division.

"Somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and started being used to drive us apart. It got hijacked," the Democratic presidential candidate said in remarks prepared for delivery before the national meeting of the United Church of Christ.

"Part of it’s because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, who’ve been all too eager to exploit what divides us," the Illinois senator said.

"At every opportunity, they’ve told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage, school prayer and intelligent design," according to an advance copy of his speech.

"There was even a time when the Christian Coalition determined that its number one legislative priority was tax cuts for the rich," Obama said. "I don’t know what Bible they’re reading, but it doesn’t jibe with my version."

Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ, a church of about 1.2 million members that is considered one the most liberal of the mainline Protestant groups.

In 1972, the church was the first to ordain an openly gay man. Two years ago, the church endorsed same-sex marriage, the largest Christian denomination to do so. Obama believes that states should decide whether to allow gay marriage, and he opposes a constitutional amendment against it.

Conservative Christian bloggers have linked Obama to what they call the "unbiblical" teachings of his church. Theological conservatives believe gay relationships violate Scripture, while more liberal Christians emphasize the Bible’s social justice teachings.

Obama trails Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York by 33 percent to 21 percent in the most recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll among Democrats and those leaning toward the party.

Sed contra, as Aquinas might say:

  • Who says that faith ought to bring us together? Certainly not Jesus, who famously said, "I did not come to bring peace but a sword" (Matthew 10:34-36). One could make a very reasonable argument that faith should divide truth from error, justice from injustice, good from evil.
  • And, anyway, if faith is supposed to bring "us" together, why does Obama use his faith to divide "us" from the religious right? Isn’t it bald-facedly hypocritical (a religious vice, by the way) to critique the very sin in others you’re committing yourself?
  • Obama critiques the "so-called leaders of the religious right" (why "so-called"?) for being "all too eager to exploit and divide us," as if this was their intent rather than the promotion of what they see as in the national interest. (One wonders if Obama considers lying about other people’s intentions and motivations to be a religious vice.)
  • In point of fact, Democrats do "disrespect" (more softly, "disagree") with the values of the religious right on all the issues Obama lists. Why is it somehow wrong to point that out? And furthermore, most religious Americans care more about the issues promoted by the religious right than those promoted by the religious left, which is why most religious Americans skew center-right rather than center-left.
  • I would like to see where in Obama’s "version" of the Bible the issue of tax cuts, let alone tax cuts for the rich, is addressed at all. Indeed, if memory serves, there’s a passage in 1 Samuel 8 that critiques the growth of government and taxes, at least that’s one way of interpreting it.
  • Finally, isn’t it a bit ironic that Obama is lecturing the religious right about the Bible from the pulpit of a denomination that is openly and brazenly unbiblical in its heterodox and immoral teachings?

I’m all for religious believers such as Obama (not to mention religious conservatives) voting their consciences and promoting political issues based on their faith. And I recognize that for some people, their faith will lean them toward the left, while for others it will lean them to the right. What I’m opposed to is the disingenuous and hypocritical critique of the other side that claims "they" are divisive because they don’t agree with "us."

Antichrist: The First Beast (Revelation 13.1–10)


The defeat of the devil is a future but certain event.
 
In the mean time, John’s Revelation teaches us, we should expect ongoing spiritual conflict. It is important to understand that spiritual conflict is not merely spiritual. It is not just a matter of prayer, meditation, fasting, and other spiritual disciplines. Nor is it just a matter of miracles and exorcism. It is, of course, all these things. But it is also—for lack of a better term—political, i.e., pertaining to everyday life in the city (polis). Spiritual conflict takes place in the routines of life, as we struggle to live as residents of the City of God within the City of Man.
 
The devil does not make such a life easy, for he engages in spiritual conflict via proxies. Revelation 13 describes the devil’s agents as two hideous beasts: one from the sea, the Antichrist (verses 1–10), and one from the land, the False Prophet (verses 11–18). To live Christianly within the City of Man, we must exercise discernment, knowing what evil looks like and how it acts. And so, John describes for us the nature and activity of each beast.
 
John’s language is highly symbolic. The first beast is not literally a grotesque pastiche of leopard, bear, and lion, with seven heads, ten horns, and ten diadems. (A diadem, by the way, is “a jeweled headband used as a crown,” according to the World English Dictionary.) Rather, as Revelation 17.7–18 makes clear, it is a very human king, or perhaps a very human kingdom, that wages war against God’s people. Commentators disagree whether the Antichrist is an individual governor or the institution of government. I am of the opinion that it is a little of both.
 
This very human “beast” imitates the dragon in all its devilishness. That is the point of the seven heads and ten horns (compare 13.1 with 12.3). The beast also derives its authority from the dragon, which gives it “his power and his thrown and great authority.” No wonder, then, that the beast sets out “to make war on the saints and to conquer them.”
 
Spiritual conflict with the devil thus becomes political conflict with a persecuting government. Romans 13 teaches us that government is God’s servant. Revelation 13 reminds us that it also can become the enemy of God’s people.
 
Such enmity can be borne, however, for God limits its duration. John tells us that the beast “was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months,” a long time to be sure, but a limited one nevertheless. God also limits the enmity’s extent. The beast is given authority over “all who dwell on earth,” who will “worship it,” but not over anyone whose name has “been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain.”
 
In the century just past, more Christians were killed for their faith by their governments than in all previous nineteen centuries combined. That is a sobering thought, but not an unexpected reality. Revelation 13 forewarned us of the possibility long ago.
 
“Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” Indeed!

War In Heaven and On Earth (Revelation 12.7–17)


Revelation 12.7–17 narrates a war that begins in heaven and continues on earth.
 
In heaven, the archangel Michael and his heavenly host initiate hostilities against the devil and his minions, who return fire but are nonetheless defeated and “thrown down” to earth. “It is crucial to note,” comments Grant R. Osborne, “that the two adversaries are not the dragon and God but the dragon and Michael. There is no true dualism in the book between Satan and God, for there is no equality. The dragon’s adversary is the archangel Michael, and he is the more powerful.”
 
The devil’s downfall occasions great rejoicing in heaven, for he is the long-time enemy of God’s people. “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.”
 
Not only does Michael defeat the devil, however, but so do we: “And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” This is a marvelous little picture of the power of faith and the necessity of faithfulness. We are saved by faith in the effectiveness of Christ’s death for us, but that faith requires faithfulness, especially when our faith is challenged by the difficulties of the times. It is by such a faithful faith that we conquer the devil.
 
The devil and his minions, thrown to earth, attempt to wreak havoc against God’s people: “he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child.” But God protects his own: “the woman was given two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.” (Notice how similar this is to 12.6. It seems that Revelation 12.1–6 and 12.7–17 narrate the same events, but from different perspectives and, in the case of 12.7–17, with greater detail.) The devil attacks again in the wilderness, this time with a flood, but “the earth came to the help of the woman,” swallowing the swollen floodwaters of the devil.
 
Still, the devil does not give up: “Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” Again we see a picture of faith and works, faithfulness to the “testimony” and obedience to the “commandments.” And again we should assume that such a working faith is more than adequate to defeat the devil.
 
The highly symbolic nature of the language of Revelation 12 can seem confusing, what with its shifting perspective and piling up of detail, but the basic point of the chapter is clear: God protects his people from spiritual harm. In the process, of course, those people may suffer physical harm and even martyrdom, but nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8.39).
 
Especially not the devil. As Martin Luther sang, “The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him— / His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure: / One little word shall fell him.”
 
That little word is “Jesus.”

Michael Novak Rebuts Progressive Religious Critiques of Capitalism


Over the past three weeks, on the First Things website, Michael Novak has posted an impressive series of rebuttals to progressive religious critiques of the American economy.

Each of these rebuttals is well worth reading.

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