A Few Thoughts on the Revelation Letters

For my Revelation class this semester, I’m supposed to journal my way through Revelation, answering four questions for every chapter:

  1. What does the text say?
  2. What did I observe?
  3. How does this chapter fit in the context?
  4. What did I learn?

This is a fun, though not particularly professional, exercise. In any case, by the time I’m done I will have basically assembled an ad-hoc, very informal commentary on the whole book. I will be editing these together into an ebook and uploading it here in case anyone is interested in it.

In the meantime, I thought I’d go ahead and post my journal results from Revelation 2-3, the letters to the seven churches. Enjoy (and feel free to critique):

What does the text say?

At this point Jesus gives John letters to deliver to the seven churches. Each shall be addressed separately.

The Letter to Ephesus

Jesus addresses the angel (lit: messenger) at the church in Ephesus first. He identifies Himself as the holder of the seven stars (angels of the churches) who walks among the lampstands (the churches). He commends them for their works, endurance, and discernment with respect to false teachers. He then mentions one problem: they have abandoned their first love. He commands repentance to their original works, or else He will remove them. He then offers a second commendation specifically about their resistance to the heretical Nicolaitans. He then calls them to hear what the Spirit says to the churches and promises food from the tree of life in paradise to the victor.

The Letter to Smyrna

Jesus then addresses the angel at the church in Smyrna. He identifies Himself as the first and the last who died and rose again. He recognizes their persecution and suffering at the hands of Jews, but calls them rich and encourages them in their coming suffering. He tells them that they will suffer for ten days but to remain faithful even to death in that time. If they do they will receive the crown of life. Again, they are called to hear the Spirit, and the victor is promised protection from the second death.

The Letter to Pergamum

Next Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Pergamum. He identifies Himself as the bearer of a two-edged sword. He recognizes their location as under Satan’s rule, but commends their faithfulness in persecution. He rebukes their toleration of Balaam’s teachings with their idolatry and sexual immorality and the teachings of the Nicolaitans. He commands them to repent at the threat of war with His word. Again, they are called to hear the Spirit, and the victor is promises hidden manna and a white stone with a new, private name.

The Letter to Thyatira

Finally for the chapter, Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Thyatira. He identifies Himself as the Son of God with fiery eyes and brass feet. He commends their works of love and faithfulness, but He rebukes them for tolerating a heretical prophetess Jezebel, who leads people into immorality and idolatry. She was given time to repent, but He declares that the time is up for her judgment. Her and her children will be diseased and repaid. Those who resist her are told to hold on to their faith. The victor is promises authority over the nations with Jesus, and they are called to listen to the Spirit.

The Letter to Sardis

In chapter three, Jesus begins by addressing the angel at the church in Sardis. Jesus identifies Himself again as holding the seven stars but also this time the seven spirits of God. He does not commend anything but moves straight to a criticism of their false vitality. Their deeds are incomplete, and the church will soon die. Jesus commands them to repent and return to the word they have received. If they do not, Jesus will suddenly come and judge them. A few members, however, are noted as still faithful. Victors like them will be clothed in white and kept forever in the Lamb’s book of life. They are then called to hear the Spirit.

The Letter to Philadelphia

Next Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Philadelphia. Jesus identifies Himself as Holy and True with the keys of David. He commends their good deeds and endurance in weakness despite Jewish persecution. He promises that their love by Him will be vindicated, and that they will be protected from the coming trials as reward for their endurance thus far. He encourages them to hold fast, and the victor will be a pillar in God’s house with God’s name. He then calls them to hear the Spirit.

The Letter to Laodicea

Finally, Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Laodicea. He identifies Himself as a faithful witness and beginning of creation. He immediately criticizes their lukewarm deeds and threatens to spit them out in disgust. He mocks their self-sufficiency and encourages them to find their riches, clothing, and health from Him. Yet He affirms that He rebukes them out of love and encourages them to repent. If any repents, He will come in and eat with them. The victor will receive a throne with Christ, and they must listen to the Spirit.

What did I observe?

There is a lot going on here, but some repeated themes are prominent. Jesus stands as the all-seeing Judge, the one who rewards faithfulness and punishes heresy and wickedness. Truly He is seen to exercise the “all authority” He has been given by the Father, and the statement in John that the Father has entrusted all judgment to the Son is at least partially fulfilled. Jesus has taken the place of the name of Yahweh in the Old Testament, proclaiming His judgments on God’s people through a prophet. The Spirit is also important here, for Jesus identifies Him as the one who speaks to the churches rather than John, the appointed congregational reader, or anyone else, though He also identifies Himself as the speaker. The unity between the word of the Spirit and of the Son here indicates both the way that, through Christ’s Incarnation and exaltation, the Spirit of God has become more particularly for us the Spirit of Christ, and of course also the inherently Trinitarian direction of New Testament theology.

As to the particular letters:

The Letter to Ephesus

One interpretative issue here is the meaning of abandoning their first love, along with the corresponding works to which they are called to return. I find plausible the suggestion that the “love” here is primarily horizontal in nature. The Ephesians have forgotten to care for each other and the poor. This use of “love” in the New Testament is not uncommon. Taking their original love this way makes sense of the works they did at first: they were originally charitable and communal, but (perhaps in the face of persecution and in their efforts to combat heresy) they have come to neglect this essential practice.

The Letter to Smyrna

Jesus’ identifying Himself as the first and last, dead and raised, seems relevant to the harsh persecution the Smyrnan church is set to experience. Some of them will die, but they will be raised like and with Christ, and thus they will be spared the second death. This, in fact, seems to sum up the whole content of the letter.

The Letter to Pergamum

Pergamum is the first church mentioned to permit heresies, and they have permitted more than one. This is odd given their harsh persecution, which seems to have had a purifying effect on some of the other churches. In light of this, Jesus essentially upgrades the threat they face by adding His own sword if they do not repent. A church with Christ on its side will stand no matter what assails it, but a church with the world and Christ as enemies will surely die.

The Letter to Thyatira

Jesus intensifies His terrifying image here, apparently because of the seriousness of Jezebel’s heresy. Though the church has kept faith and love, they have (perhaps in the process) permitted a vile movement to go on too long and too far. Jesus will take this movement down, period, and it will not be pretty. Those who remain faithful appear to be promised a part in the same fiery, obliterating power by which Christ will judge the rest of their church.

The Letter to Sardis

What it means that Sardis’ deeds are incomplete seems unclear. Perhaps this simply means they had mostly stopped working, no longer doing the works of love and evangelism which many of the other churches were doing. This could well be because, with the lack of any mention of persecution, they had grown complacent and comfortable with primarily a self-incurved focus. The church looked like it thrived, but they did nothing and were serving themselves rather than God. This trap, of course, is one into which many churches today also fall.

The Letter to Philadelphia

Philadelphia is one of the two churches with no rebuke. Instead, Jesus simply promises their protection and vindication in light of their present endurance under harsh Jewish persecution. It is interesting to note the way that Philadelphia contrasts with the immediately preceding Sardis. No persecution is mentioned for Sardis, and they receive no commendation, whereas much persecution is mentioned for Philadelphia, and they receive no condemnation. This highlights the theme in Revelation of suffering for the Gospel as purifying and glorifying. Indeed, Jesus promises to exalt them above all their enemies when the coming day arrives.

The Letter to Laodicea

Laodicea is the second church to receive no real commendation, but Jesus’ tone seems more compassionate than His tone to Sardis. He specifically points out the loving nature of rebuke and portrays Himself as patiently knocking for entrance into their congregation. Laodicea being the last church, this serves as a compelling reminder of the abundant mercy of Christ even in His judgment. He does not want to punish them but wants to bless them and wants them to come to Him. The question of what exactly they were doing wrong, however, seems much less clear than many of the traditional interpretations of lukewarm-ness would indicate.

How do these chapters fit in context?

As the second and third chapters of Revelation, this passage immediately follows the introductory material and constitutes the bridge which is the collection of letters for the seven churches. The background, then, is the announcement that God is unveiling His plan in Christ to the churches through John. Something divine is afoot, and these letters are meant to give some of the initial warnings and preparations that the churches will need in order to play their part faithfully.

The revelation of Christ is powerful glory in the first chapter is also essential here. This glorified, risen, exalted Christ is the Judge of the churches. Again, this is important because of the way it links Jesus in the New Testament to Yahweh in the Old. Just as Yahweh spoke judgments on His people and their cities through the prophets of old, Jesus speaks judgment on His people in each city through His prophet John.

Finally, these chapters are important in setting the stage for the rest of the book. The eschatological sub-pictures given in Christ’s address to each of the churches will be integrated and transcended through the rest of the book in order to show the whole story. What Christ announces to each of these churches has a role to play in understanding the events coming upon the world. The themes will be extended and expanded, and the wider scope of what Jesus is warning the churches about will be revealed.

What did I learn?

Examining these chapters highlighted a couple of things for me which I had never really noticed. The most impressive to me is the way (as I mentioned twice already) that Jesus takes the place of Yahweh over the people of God. The parallels to Old Testament prophetic texts, especially those announcing judgment on Israel, are pretty strong. Just as God announced to Israel their judgment (and His mercy), often in connection to a coming judgment on the rest of the nations, through His servants the prophets time and again, so Jesus now announces to the churches their judgment (and His mercy) in connection with the rest of the book which addresses a judgment on the rest of the nations through His servant John. The message is clear: the role played by the name of Yahweh in the Old Testament has been given to the name of Jesus in the New. This unique conflation of the roles of Jesus and Yahweh certainly helps to indicate Christ’s deity, even if it is not alone sufficient to prove the matter. The human messianic dimension must also be regarded. Now a man judges the people of God, namely the man Jesus. God has exalted humanity in Christ as His covenant partner.

Going through these two chapters has also helped clarify the relationship between the letters and the rest of Revelation. It seems to me that the letters provide the particulars of God’s coming judgment on the world, which begins with the house of God. The churches will be judged first, all of them represented in these particular seven, and this judgment will then move into the nations. The judgment over the whole world system will carry on the themes found here in the judgment of the churches. Yet it seems that even these specific churches will be present during the coming judgment, and in fact it looms over their immediate future directly following their own judgment. This seems to protest against a primarily futurist reading of the judgment described in the rest of Revelation. On the other hand, that this judgment is moving to the world from the people of God indicates to me that it is not traditional preterism which is being described, for the focus does not seem to be on Israel. This suggests that the eschatological horizon here is a judgment on the pagan world in particular. Nonetheless, I could see support for traditional preterism here in the letter to Philadelphia, which seems to lend support to the idea that the Jews are in fact the subject of the coming judgment. Perhaps we should consider that, if Revelation is in fact post-AD 70, the church had begun to consider the Jews who persecuted them as bound up with the pagan world. This could have been traced back to their cooperation with Rome to execute Jesus.

The Humility of God

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Matthew 11:29

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who,

though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

Philippians 2:3-8

“God is humble.” Have you ever in your life heard or thought of such a thing? Is it even true? Some people might initially balk at the suggestion, instead insisting that God’s final and ultimate purpose is glorifying Himself and that this is entirely opposite of humility. Yet it is not clear that this is Biblically accurate. For if we know anything about God, according to Scripture, we know that He is revealed most fully and perfectly in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And, as I just quoted, Jesus calls Himself “humble.” Paul uses the mind of Jesus as the prime example of humility. So there are only two possibilities: either humility is a trait of Jesus unique to His humanity, or humility is in fact a trait of God.

So was humility only a part of Jesus’ earthly life? Was it only a result of His becoming a human being? This seems questionable on multiple grounds. For one, humility is treated in Scripture as a virtue, an element of good character. Yet Jesus’ character in His earthly life was not something that came purely from His human existence, but corresponded in every way to His goodness as the eternal Son. While we can certainly acknowledge that Jesus did say and do things as a human which do not directly correspond to anything in His divine life (I doubt, for example, that using the restroom expressed His divine character, though maybe that’s a limit of my imagination), it seems difficult to suggest that any of the positive traits He applied to Himself or any of the character He expressed can divorced from who He is as God.

Another reason to be skeptical that Jesus’ humility is restricted to His humanity is that Philippians 2 treats it as underlying the Incarnation. When Paul seek to inspire us to humility here, he does not point first to how humble Jesus was on earth, as if He only became humble because He became human. Rather, he starts by pointing out that Jesus’ act of becoming incarnate, His very choice to become human, was already a humble act. The choice to become human is not itself a choice made by Jesus in His human nature, since He did not have one until He chose to have one! Yet He already expressed humility by choosing to become a human being. Therefore humility characterizes Jesus even in eternity as the pure God, the one is entirely and completely the image of the God the Father Almighty and the exact expression of His nature. Since there is no God behind the back of Jesus, we know that God is humble.

This brings us, then, to a couple of questions. The first is one which may be percolating in some minds right now is simply how it can be that God is humble if He in Scripture often seeks to glorify Himself. Many in fact argue that God’s first and most fundamental purpose in absolutely all things is to glorify Himself. While I tend to think this is a bit reductionistic and goes beyond what Scripture actually teaches, it certainly can’t be denied that God in Scripture often does seem to act for His own glory. So how can God seek His own glory and be humble (or love, for that matter, cf. 1 Cor. 13:4-5)? To understand this, I believe we need to see the Trinitarian shape of God’s glory and love. Love does not seek its own, to be sure, but it does always seek its beloved’s. And no one loves the Son more than the Father, or the Father more than the Son. There is no love greater than the love of God in the Holy Spirit. We understand from Scripture that the Son glorifies the Father, the Father glorifies the Son (John 17:1-5), and the Holy Spirit does not speak of Himself but of the Father through and in the Son (John 15:26).

Even this, though, does not fully seem to account for the self-glorification of God. After all, even though God exists in three persons, there is also a sense in which it is right to treat Him as a single, undivided Subject and Actor. So it may still be worth asking just how a humble God glorifies Himself from the perspective even of His oneness. To this end I might suggest an analogy. Imagine a humble, soft-spoken but absolutely excellent doctor. He feels little impulse to brag about his impressive skill or medical successes, even though he certainly would be speaking pure truth if he did. Yet one day he finds a man in a severe medical emergency on the side of the road. The man is proud, confused, and skeptical of the doctor, willing to simply risk it on his own rather than submit to the instructions the doctor provides. So the doctor begins explaining and demonstrating his medical expertise and skill with a flurry of technical terms, deft use of his resources, and stories of great feats he has accomplished in the operating room. He exalts himself and humbles the man, not for any selfish or egotistical purpose but precisely because he is the man’s only hope for life. Without him the man will die, and he must make the man understand.

While I doubt this is a flawless analogy and assume someone could find a fault or two, I think it has some merit. God doesn’t just glorify Himself because He craves glory from tiny creatures or because He desperately needs the adulation like some kind of megalomaniac, but rather spreads His glory across the world so that all people will see Him and find eternal life in communion with Him. For Psalm 22:26-27 declare, “Those who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him,” and John 17:3 adds, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

With all this in mind we can see no real contradiction between God’s self-glorification and His essential humility. So we can return to the simple words of Christ and accept them as God’s own self-revelation: “I am humble in heart.” God is not an egomaniac. He is not a narcissist. He is not an arrogant tyrant running around to make more of Himself than He needs to. He is glorious, but without pretense or a need to exalt in His glory over us. Just as Karl Barth once said, “God does not need to make any fuss about his glory: God is glorious. He simply needs to show Himself as He is, He simply needs to reveal Himself. That is what He does in man.” Indeed, He expresses His glory by becoming one of us, and ultimately in humbling Himself all the way to the Cross to give us life. God is most glorified on Calvary, precisely where He is most humble, even humiliated. This is our God, whose “I AM WHO I WILL BE” climaxes in His most despised and lowly moment in giving His own self for us. This is the God who is love, the God who is Jesus Christ. And rather than actually give you the takeaways, I think they can speak for themselves. I instead suggest that you simply meditate and pray. The glory of this humble, self-giving God should tell you all you need to know.

What God Has Done, Not What He “Would” Do

“God wouldn’t…” This unfortunate phrase appears fairly often in theological debate. Along with this one come on occasion “God couldn’t” or, more rarely, “God shouldn’t.” Yet to me reasoning which starts in this way seems somewhat misguided at best and dangerous at worst. To explain why, I shall first provide some examples of what I dislike.

  • A theistic evolutionist might say, “God wouldn’t create the natural world in a God-of-the-gaps manner.”
  • A young earth creationist might say, “God wouldn’t create life by such a violent and inefficient process as evolution.”
  • A Calvinist might say, “God wouldn’t waste any of Jesus’ blood dying for those who won’t be saved.”
  • An Arminian might say, “God couldn’t save everyone without violating their free will.”
  • A theological progressive might say, “God wouldn’t oppose people of any sex who love each other getting married.”
  • A theological conservative might say, “God wouldn’t [maybe couldn’t] provide us with a Bible anything less than 100% inerrant.”
  • A universalist might say, “God couldn’t send Jesus to die for everyone but everyone not be saved.”
  • An exclusivist might say, “God wouldn’t save those who reject His Son.”

What do these all have in common? They all seem entitled to be overly presumptuous in discussing God. I take it as an absolute axiom that God is utterly, sovereignly free. God is under no obligations outside of Himself, and is not bound to any structures, logics, or rules beyond those to which He freely chooses to bind Himself. If this is the case to, in my opinion, any meaningful extent at all, then what use is a “wouldn’t” or a “couldn’t?”

The fundamental problem with trying to reason out such controls over God’s activity is that of the infinite qualitative distinction between God and humanity. God is above; we are below. God is infinite; we are finite. God created and transcends the natural order; we were created and are radically contingent within the natural order. All of this adds us to that God’s famous declaration in Isaiah: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.”

Given Jesus’ own life (among other realities), this radical disjunction between human expectations and divine actions should be entirely unsurprising. How hard-pressed would one be to imagine a Jew before Christ saying, “God would never become a man?” Or perhaps one did expect that God would come in a human form or something, but might have thought, “When God comes, He will come in glory and power, certainly not in a lowly manger.” Indeed, when Jerusalem was abuzz with the hope that Jesus would take up the Messianic role and set Himself up as God’s king against Rome, did He not instead take the humble role of the suffering servant? Who before this happened would have said anything but, “God could not die!”

The pattern is clear. God has revealed that His normal practice is overturning human expectations, shattering our ideas of what He could or would do. His ways have appeared startling and paradoxical throughout His whole history of dealings with mankind, Israel, His own Son, and the Church. With such a free, sovereign, and surprising God, how could we ever presume to figure out His truths by way of reasoning what He could or would do? This would be akin to predicting what a cunning, master chess player would do when you yourself barely even know the rules of the game.

Instead, I believe we should restrict ourselves to the question of only what God has done, or promised to do. An examples, what if we reframed the earlier example debates this way exclusively?

  • Did God create life by evolutionary, biological means, or by immediate miracle?
  • Has God provided His Son as atonement for all people, or only some?
  • Has God said that homosexuality is sinful, or has He left this open?
  • Did God inspire Scripture in an inerrant way, or in another way?
  • Has God said He will save all or some, and if some who has God said He will save?

None of the answers to these questions are important to this present post (and I can tell you now that you will not be able to use this list to figure out my stances on anything you do not already know). What matters is cutting away the “would” and “could” to focus on what God has actually done. Trying to work the other way, making the arguments I sampled at the beginning of this post, works as an effective red herring, taking our attention away from reality where God has truly done this or that, and instead pulling us into a vain world of hypotheticals and insolent speculation on the divine purposes. If we are to let God simply be God, and do as He wishes, then we should make a rule to assess His deeds a posteriori, not a priori.

On the other hand, I am not issuing a blanket condemnation on all attempts to reason about less clear areas of God’s activity from more clear ones. Obviously that is necessary in some way and to some degree. For example, if someone was arguing that God lied, we would be perfectly justified in responding “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18). Yet if we are to reason in this way, we must do so only on the foundations of what God has already clearly done and said, not inferences from the abstract, provisional, philosophical, and analogical side in our notions of who/what God is. On this latter ground there is simply far too much wiggle room, too many chances to go down a mental wrong turn without enough light to ever tell. Who is, after all, qualified to understand God’s ways anywhere but within the parameters set by God’s ways?

On this note, I shall end with this simply inexhaustible quote from Paul:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor? Or who has ever first given to Him, and has to be repaid? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

Romans 11:33-36

Two Thoughts from 1 Corinthians

I was reading 1 Corinthians 1-2 this morning and ran across a couple of passages that really stuck out to me. They speak fairly well for themselves (isn’t Scripture good about that?), but I will highlight the basic thoughts in them that I found so compelling.

The first passage is 1 Corinthians 1:17-31. But I won’t quote all of that here, which would be rather long. So I’ll just present the heart of it.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved. For it is written:

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the understanding of the experts.

Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached. For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

From the beginning, the Gospel has appeared foolish or even blasphemous to the rest of the world. The Jews thought it absolutely unacceptable that their Messiah would suffer crucifixion, much more so in the impossible situation of Him being God Incarnate. The Greeks, well, just thought the whole story was kind of dumb. But today it is little different. Christ crucified is a stumbling block to those who are all about success and self-advancement (*cough*Trump*cough*), a group increasingly large in our increasingly corporate world. The idea that a man who lived 2000 years ago spoke truths which carry divine authority even today is ridiculous to self-styled intellectuals. The claim that there is only one name given under heaven by which men may be saved sounds like blasphemy to a culture all about inclusion and multiculturalism. All of the Gospel, if you’re not just too used to it to noticed, sounds completely insane apart from the experience of its power. This is just something I keep noticing all of the time in relation to so many philosophies and politics and worldviews. Democrat or Republican, atheist or theist, rich or poor, Jesus sounds ridiculous and contradictory to all of the cultural defaults.

The other passage I notice is at the end of 1 Corinthians 2. People often get the meaning of verse 9 wrong. What do I mean?

But as it is written:

What eye did not see and ear did not hear, and what never entered the human mind — God prepared this for those who love Him.

Now God has revealed these things to us by the Spirit, for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man that is in him? In the same way, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who comes from God, so that we may understand what has been freely given to us by God. We also speak these things, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. But the unbeliever does not welcome what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually. The spiritual person, however, can evaluate everything, yet he himself cannot be evaluated by anyone. For

who has known the Lord’s mind, that he may instruct Him?

But we have the mind of Christ. 

1 Corinthians 2:9-16

This passage comes right after Paul’s further argument about human vs. divine wisdom, and the power of the Spirit over and against the persuasive power of rhetoric. Verse 9 is often treated as a statement about the unimaginability of heaven. No eye or hear or head has a clue what’s coming! But that’s exactly not the point Paul is making. He’s making a point about the divine wisdom of the Gospel and its foolishness to men. This verse shows that no one was ever expecting what God did in Christ for us. God’s plans for us in the Gospel had never been seen before, heard before, or imagined by a human mind. If they had, as per verse 8, no one would have killed Jesus. But instead, Paul goes on to argue that even though this stuff was hidden before, we now know it. We have the Spirit of God, who is the only one to know the deep secrets of God. Because we have the Spirit, we know the secrets of the Gospel, not because we had seen or heard or known before, but because we have been taught the truths of the Spirit. We now have the mind of Christ through the Holy Spirit, which means that we are those who know the Lord’s mind and understand what God has prepared for us. We know by revelation. There is nothing hidden anymore.

How Jesus the Messiah Conquered Rome

It is no secret that one of the major reasons Jesus got crucified is because He wouldn’t do the #1 thing that the Jews were expecting their Messiah to do: overthrow Israel’s Roman oppressors. Time and again they sought this of Him, but He refused to align Himself with not only any existing revolutionary movements but even any revolutionary sentiments. This certainly would have seemed to some of them as a dead giveaway that He couldn’t be the Messiah, for everyone knew that the Messiah’s most important job would be to topple pagan empire.

Of course, any doubts as to Jesus’ qualifications as Messiah had to be laid to rest when He was raised by God from the dead and therefore publicly vindicated. By no means could this happen if He was not who He claimed to be. So it would seem to be that the requirement to overthrow Israel’s enemies, especially Rome, was not actually necessary for His Messianic role.

Or was it?

The truth is that, although He redefined every element of that story in doing it, Jesus did in fact conquer His people’s pagan oppressors. When all the dust settled, the Lord Jesus stood victorious over Lord Caesar. What precisely do I mean by this?

The Jews expected from their Messiah a quick military conquest rescuing the nation of Israel from Roman rule. Jesus did not fulfill these expectations at all, but He nonetheless won the Messianic victory they were looking for. This victory was prophesied in Revelation, in which the Kingdom of Christ overcomes the kingdom of the beast, which (at least in the original instance) is Rome. This was fulfilled by reorienting each component of the Jewish expectation.

The very first reorientation was the nature of Israel itself. The ethnic Israel alive at that time was not suitable to be Kingdom people, for they were natural and fleshly. They had only a heart of stone, a word written on tablets, and needed a heart of flesh, the Word made flesh. They were bound to their natural lusts and needed the freedom of the Holy Spirit. So Jesus formed Israel anew around Himself. He made a new, reborn Israel beginning with Himself and His resurrection and expanding to the Apostles and their hearers, and He baptized them into the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This people, the Israel of God reborn in Christ, would be the one to stand victorious over Rome, not the original, dying, fleshly Israel cursed by the Law. Jerusalem fell, but so did Rome, and only the Church of these three remained.

Following this change was a change in the means of conquest. The Jews expected the Messiah’s conquest to be a military victory, in which by God’s power He would lead a new Israelite army like those of old to march on Rome with weapons of war. Jesus won, however, in a different way. His army did not win by killing, but by being killed as martyrs. They did not fight with swords of steel, but with the sword of the Spirit, which is the Gospel. By the power of the Spirit this unconventional warfare slowly overturned the forces which sought to crush Christ and His people. Millions of Romans found themselves crucified with Christ and then raised to newness of life through the proclamation of His Word.

Naturally, such a radically different conquest did not take place publicly in the short span of time which the Jews had anticipated, but rather worked slowly and secretly. Like a mustard seed, the Kingdom of Christ grew as person after person was baptized into a new allegiance which trumped their allegiance to Rome. It took hundreds of years, but eventually the rule of the beast fell to ruin while the rule of God continued to advance, and indeed still advances. The empire which crucified Jesus in the first century came to be ruled by His Church (albeit in a very imperfect way) in the fourth and fell to only a memory behind it in the sixth. Today, the Roman Empire is of but historical interest, whereas the Kingdom of God continues to march and claim a massive citizenry.

In the end, then, Christ did conquer Rome. That famous empire eventually submitted itself to His Church, and finally died while the Church lived on. Granted, the Church ran into problems of its own in both of these scenarios, but it lives on, unlike Rome, and the Gospel of Christ continues to be a powerful weapon conquering peoples of every tribe, tongue, and nation.

But what does it matter to notice this? Why should we care that, technically speaking, Jesus did defeat Rome? Two things come to mind. On the one hand, it is a reminder that no world system, political or cultural, will last forever, but God and His Kingdom in Christ will. His reign will never end. No matter what any government, military, or institutions throw at us, God reigns and will not be defeated. Rome proved it. Our currently immoral, broken, and failing American culture, for example, is no worse than Rome’s was, but in the long run its vices will perish while the will of God stands.

As another point, I think this conquest of the Roman Empire by Christ is actually a useful concept in Biblical interpretation, because I believe that it is a major prophetic focus in Revelation, and possibly even in the letters of Paul. If you understand the kingdom of the beast and Babylon the Great Whore as Rome, which is highly supported by both the text itself and the historical/cultural context of Revelation, then seeing this conquest is helpful in following along the point of the book, which to some extent parallels the point made above.

So remember: Jesus is Lord, and He wins every time. He even toppled the Roman Empire.

Streams: Beliefs about the Bible and Tradition

Tradition.

Such an interesting word for Christians. It seems innocent enough, but as it turns out there are very many ways it can be used, few of which are entirely free of controversy. Take, for example, the following statements:

“You’re just follow human tradition instead of the Bible!”

“Tradition tells us that John died on the isle of Patmos under house arrest.”

“Our youth Christmas carolling is an important tradition in our church.”

“The traditional view of marriage is increasingly under fire in the popular media.”

These four statements all use “tradition” very differently, and each of these could be controversial, though not all to the same extent. But this just goes to show how not straightforward understanding the proper role of tradition in the Church can be.

What Do We Mean by “Tradition?”

First off, let’s break down a few basic kinds of tradition. These aren’t technical names, just convenient labels to explain my points. Here are the broad categories:

  • There are local traditions, which are basically unique things that a congregation does and has done for some time. These may or may not come from the Bible in any meaningful sense. But someone started doing it in the past, and now people continue. This kind of tradition can be useful and pleasant, but since it is uniquely local and not tied to fundamental beliefs, they can be removed when necessary or desirable. They should not be debated to the point of remotely serious division.
  • Next are confessional traditions. These are a step above local traditions that come from common denominational ties. They consist of a group of shared beliefs and practices more sharply refined, and are usually outlined in confessional documents (e.g. the Westminster Confession of Faith) or other large written statements (e.g. The Baptist Faith and Message). These traditions determine the differences between denominations, so if you want to change or challenge these traditions, you may find yourself seeking a new church.
  • Historic traditions make up the next group. These are beliefs and practices that have always been common or dominant in the Church, but aren’t spelled out in most creeds or confessions, and were never very controversial in the past. The “traditional view of marriage” falls into this category, as does the belief in the future, physical new earth. When these are challenged, the waters are always a little more murky. Some are more important than others, and it takes serious debate to sort out how to handle what.
  • Finally, there are orthodox traditions or creedal traditions. These are essential beliefs shared by all Christianity, and are mostly written down in some of the early creeds like the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athansian Creed, among some other documents. The Trinity, the relationship between Jesus’ two natures, and similar matters are examples. This kind of a tradition tends to define the boundaries of the Christian faith. Within these boundaries, we assume people to be true followers of Jesus. Outside these boundaries are heresy and false religion.

Now, we as Christians all agree that Scripture is in some way an authority over what we believe. But how does that relate to things in these kinds of traditions, especially the last group? There are three major approaches within Christianity. I want to lay these out simply with the analogy of streams of water.

Sola Scriptura: A Protestant View

One of the most divisive points in the Protestant Reformation, as well as the major wall separating Catholics and Protestants on many issues, is the doctrine of sola Scriptura, or “Scripture alone.” This doctrine states that God speaks His final authoritative word in Scripture and nowhere else. (Technically, this word appears first in God’s words and deeds in history, climaxing in Jesus, and from that point fills Scripture, but I digress.)

This does not mean that it’s impossible to find God’s truth outside of the Bible’s pages. If I read the Bible and then tell you what I read, you would still be getting God’s truth, only through my words. Of course, that’s only the case if I tell you accurately what I read. If I forgot, misinterpreted, or otherwise corrupted something I passed on to you you’d need to go back to Scripture yourself to fix it.

So for my first stream analogy, imagine there is a single stream running down a mountain. This stream is Scripture, and the water source in the mountain is God’s revelation of Himself. The water itself is truth. If you need some water, you can go to the stream and find it.

But suppose that I fill a bucket up with water from this stream and bring it back to my village. Now we all have access to the water from my bucket. This represents the role of tradition. Truth from Scripture is collected into small “buckets” of tradition so that we can get it it more easily.

This bucket, though, has limitations. It’s not at all impossible that it could get polluted or corrupted after some time. We might get some water out of it one day and realize that it’s contaminated. Or after a while it might simply not be as fresh and cool, making it less satisfying for the thirsty man. In either of these cases we’d need to go back to the stream to get fresh, pure water to replace the contaminated water in our bucket. Likewise, sometimes we might find that our traditions of different kinds have gone astray, or at least lost some of their original power due to familiarity and changing cultures or languages. In this case we need to dig back into Scripture to refresh our knowledge of God.

Dei Verbum: A Catholic View

The Catholic view of Scripture and tradition was laid out most clearly in a document entitled Dei Verbum (Latin for “Word of God”) during the Second Vatican Council. While it has existed for much, much longer than that, this is the most up-to-date and definitive explanation. According to Catholic theology, both Scripture and “sacred Tradition” come from God’s same self-revelation to the prophets and apostles. God gave His word to them as a large body of inspired truth, some of which came down to us in the Bible and some of which came down to us by teaching and preaching ministries of the Church.

To adapt the stream analogy for the Catholic view, imagine two streams, for Scripture and sacred Tradition, going down a mountain. Both of them have their head in the same water source, God’s revelation. But the streams take different paths and are different sizes. By the time they reach the bottom of the mountain, they flow into the same lake, the full teaching of the Church.

If anyone wants a drink of water, where should he go? He can go to either of the streams, or the lake they both flow into. Either way he will be getting the same water of God’s truth. But the stream of Tradition is larger, and the combined lake larger still. This is where it is simplest and preferred to get your water.

It’s important to note that in this view, Scripture and sacred Tradition aren’t two totally different things. They both flow from the same word from God and flow into the same body of Church teaching. Therefore to Catholics, if something isn’t in one stream, such as Scripture, but it is in the other, you are still completely justified in believing it and indeed should. This is very much the case with certain doctrines such as the Assumption of Mary (that Mary was taken body and soul to heaven either just before or just after death) or the practice of praying to the saints, both of which come out of the Tradition and not (despite people occasionally saying otherwise) from Scripture itself. 

Regula Fidei: An Orthodox View

Technically, regula fidei, “rule of faith,” is not a phrase unique to the Eastern Orthodox Church. But it seems the easiest way to sum them up. For the Orthodox, Scripture is part of a larger Holy Tradition. This Holy Tradition includes Scripture along with the early creeds and ecumenical councils, the received liturgy, and to some degree the writings of the early church fathers.

In Orthodoxy, this makes Scripture and the other parts of Tradition in an interdependent relationship. They all work together and complement other to make of the whole teaching of the Apostles passed down within the Church. Whereas Protestants put Scripture above tradition, and Catholics tend to put Scripture beneath Tradition, Orthodoxy places Scripture within Tradition. Of course, there is a spectrum like with everything else. Some versions of sola Scriptura, those which are also called prima Scriptura, are basically the same as some looser versions of the Orthodox view.

For the streams analogy, imagine again God’s revelation as the water source on top of the mountain. In this case there is a large stream flowing out from it, which is the Holy Tradition. This stream has many smaller branches coming in and out, including Scripture as a major branch, but also branches for Eucharist liturgies, creeds, etc. Yet these all come together again and again as one stream full of the water of truth.

How To Be a True Biblicist (Or, Unexpected Truth about Taking the Bible Seriously)

“I just believe the Bible.” People say this a lot, and in a previous post of mine I examined why that’s not really true for anyone. That said, there is a worthy ideal behind that statement. Pardon my Protestantism showing, but I believe we are called as Christians to subject all of our thoughts and beliefs to the teachings of the Bible. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the final authority for us. This means we have to accept what the Bible says in faith, at some points even just giving up on the use of our own reason.

This brings me to the term “Biblicist.” This word is usually only used by people who either don’t know, don’t care, or don’t understand major doctrinal systems, and wish to indicate that they simply believe what the Bible teaches. As an example, many people in the debate over Calvinism/Arminianism claim to be neither and call themselves “Biblicists” instead. Regardless of how true that is—most of the people I hear say this just agree with Arminianism without the name—there is an implied concept of what it means to just believe the Bible, and that concept is regarded as a worthy goal.

I, too, believe that we should be content to believe the Bible, and just take it for what it really says. But I do not agree with the popular idea that you can do this just by reading the Bible, thinking about it by yourself, and sticking with your first impressions. While many people do this, and many people would even say this is what you should do, I do not believe this is at all faithful to Scripture. The irony then becomes that in trying to respect the Bible, they end up abusing it.

So what does it really mean to take the Bible seriously? How can we “just believe the Bible” in a way that is neither naïve and ignorant nor critical and arrogant? Here are several points about what I think it means to be a true Biblicist:

  • A true Biblicist reads the Bible. As obvious as it sounds, actually reading the Bible is a must to really treat it faithfully. Brilliant theologians, angry KJV-onlyists, and the everyman believer alike all struggle with this. Reading the Bible is key, but way too often we don’t really do it. That makes a difference in both how we live and what we believe, since the more we read the Bible the more stuff we realize is in there that we didn’t even know about.

  • A true Biblicist reads about the Bible. What many people don’t realize is that you can’t read the Bible for all it is worth without also reading about the Bible. Why is this? See, the Bible was written for us, but not to us. Every book of Scripture was written to people of a totally different culture, in totally different cities, with totally different worldviews. So there are phrases, nuances of words, and even entire lines of thought which would make immediate sense to the original authors and audiences of the books of the Bible, but not to us (or, worse, they could give us a completely different impression than they did the original audience). This is why we have to read about the Bible in order to learn what they knew that we don’t know. Otherwise we’re likely to make the Bible say things it isn’t really saying.

  • A true Biblicist reads the Bible with trust. As opposed to the skeptic who suspects errors, biases, or political agendas behind the text of every page, the true Biblicist assumes the authors to be reliable, straightforward, and honest without good reason to think otherwise. When he runs into something that throws him off, he does research, uses real reading comprehension, and approaches it all with charity before shouting, “Error!” or “Contradiction!”

  • A true Biblicist reads the Bible honestly. As opposed to the fiery young apologist who uses his own creativity or fantasy to figure everything out, and accepts or promotes far-fetched answers to the perplexing problems of the Bible, the true Biblicist is willing to accept when the Bible doesn’t make sense. He won’t deny the difficulties, and he won’t go to absurd lengths to reconcile everything that doesn’t obviously connect (e.g. he won’t propose that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice). He’ll say, “I don’t know,” when he can’t figure out a passage.

  • A true Biblicist reads judges tradition by the Bible. I am fairly squarely within the broader Reformed tradition, theologically speaking. Most of my family and friends are in the Baptist tradition, or a closely related part of the evangelical Protestant tradition like Pentecostalism. All of these traditions must be judged by Scripture. The true Biblicist is willing to move from one tradition to another based on what he finds in the Bible. He will not force fit everything the Bible says into his tradition’s party lines.

  • A true Biblicist reads the Bible within a tradition. Reading the Bible without tradition is a quick way to fall into all kinds of heresy. The broader Christian tradition tells us about the Trinity and Jesus’ dual natures, and without this tradition you’d need to be a genius to sort this all out by yourself in a single lifetime. More specific doctrines like election, end times, baptism, and spiritual gifts are all interpreted differently in different traditions, and the true Biblicist recognizes this. He does not seek to understand the Bible all by himself, but instead joins forces with like-minded believers so that he can share in the wisdom and insight God has given them, both the fellow members of his tradition in the present and the formers of that tradition from the past.

  • A true Biblicist forms his own opinions on what the Bible says. Unlike the “my daddy taught me this” traditionalist, the true Biblicist reads and wrestles with the Bible personally. He doesn’t just inherit his ideas and beliefs from his parents, pastors, and teachers, because they are all fallible, normal /people. Instead, he checks the Bible himself to make sure that what he is hearing is true.

  • A true Biblicist never forms opinions on the Bible all by himself. Even though the Biblicist seeks to understand the Bible for himself and not just take the word of others as Gospel, he also listens closely to the words of others for help. The Holy Spirit works in all believers of all places and times, so the true Biblicist recognizes this valuable resource. He knows that he is not the smartest, most educated, most enlightened, or more spiritual reader of the Bible, so he is ready and willing to seek advice, insight, and answers from other Christians, even those from totally different traditions.

  • A true Biblicist respects the Bible as the word of God. The Bible claims for itself in various ways a special status as God speaking to people through human authors. It is filled with divine authority, and when we read the Bible we (through the power of the Holy Spirit) hear the voice of God. It comes from the Father through the Spirit working in human beings to testify about the Son. Therefore the Biblicist listens to God when He reads the Bible.

  • A true Biblicist recognizes that Jesus is the Word of God. There is a reason that I capitalize Word when referring to Jesus but not the Bible. The Bible does not seek to be the focus of our attention, the utter fulfillment of God’s revelation, but to make us see Jesus Christ—the Word who was in the beginning—in its pages. It is Jesus who is the exact expression of God’s nature and the radiance of His glory, God’s final revelation of Himself in word and deed. The Bible serves not to usurp Jesus’ role as final revelation and make us focus on itself, but to complement His role by unpacking and explaining Him with inspired authority. After all, the Scriptures themselves do not save and sanctify us. They lead us to the Son of God, the eternal Word, who accomplished it all!

And while all of this is necessary to be a true Biblicist (even if some of these points are rather counter-intuitive), there is a final and perhaps most important part of being a true Biblicist. The Bible is meant to be understood with the illuminating work of God’s Holy Spirit, and there is only one way to receive the power of the Spirit. This way is prayer. The true Biblicist prays that God the Father will give Him the help of the Spirit so that He can see the glory of the Son in the Holy Scriptures. Without this, all of the other efforts will fall short. The Bible, after all, is just words without the Spirit of the Living God bringing them to life in our hearts. So let us pray that He will do it! Amen.