30 October 2020

Jesus's Way of Teaching

In the first chapter of Mark, Jesus is teaching, healing, and driving out demons. In verse 21, he drives out a demon and those witnessing the event respond, "What is this? A new teaching—and with authority!" (27). The people witnessing the miracles in this chapter take them as teachings. Jesus is teaching people not only with words, but with his actions, or as they say, "with authority." This method of teaching is echoed in the well-known quote attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, "Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words."

We do not have the words of Jesus's early ministry; we do not know exactly what he was going from town to town telling people. Some are recorded, but most are not. Still, we know the message of Jesus because of his actions. wherever he went he healed people.

Jesus's next healing is in the home of Simon and Andrew (29). Simon's mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. Jesus heals her by helping her up. After sunset he then heals many people with a variety of diseases and some who are demon possessed (32).

Finally, the chapter closes with Jesus healing a man with leprosy (40). The man challenges Jesus, "If you are willing, you can make me clean." Note that this is not a question, it is a challenge. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. He has the calling, the authority, and the willingness to heal the sick. This man is not questioning that, he is saying that Jesus does not care. Mark tells us that Jesus "became angry" (41) and replied "I am willing. Be clean." Jesus then tells the man to tell no one, but "show himself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded... as a testimony" (44). Instead, the man told everyone he met and never did give the sacrifice commanded in Leviticus.

The first miracle we see is the healing of a demon-possessed man. Today, most agree that the symptoms attributed to the "demon-possessed" of scripture mirror certain neurological and psychological disorders today. These conditions can be debilitating, and often cause people to be ostracized from their families, churches, and local communities.

The man in this story shouts an apocalyptic message at Jesus, asking, "have you come to destroy us" (24)? When Jesus yells back, the man appears to go into a seizure, convulsing and shrieking (26). This encounter is certainly dramatic, and would be terrifying for most people. But Jesus does not react with fear. Instead he is "stern" (25). He neither ignores the man nor treats him with contempt. He gives him neither pity nor fear. Instead, he reminds the man to be respectful of those around him and banishes the man's fear that others will destroy him. He does this in full sight of the entire synagogue so as to restore the man to his community.

When Jesus meet's Simon's mother-in-law, she is in bed, sick with a fever (29). Jesus's answer to her inability to get out of bed is to "help her up." Did his help end with helping her up? Was she healed immediately at the touch of the Son of God? I imagine that not only was Jesus's help more substantial than simply helping her up, but that it was not a supernatural miracle that healed her, but the care Jesus showed in helping her.

We know that Jesus's disciples were not all the best people when Jesus called them. He expected them to learn on the job. This healing was not just for Simon's mother-in-law, but was also a teaching for Simon. Perhaps his mother-in-law wasn't so much sick with fever as she was sick of being taken for granted. Jesus did not simply ask her to wait on them, Jesus helped.

Some time later a man comes to Jesus with leprosy (40). The man wants healing from Jesus, but he does not ask nicely. He has not done what is obviously required for his healing, even what is both easy and free. Even after he is healed, he does not change his ways. He is no better a person for having met Jesus.

Jesus healed him anyway.

Jesus did not withhold what he was capable of giving for any reason. He did not ask why they needed help, what they had done, or whether they would change their ways. Jesus helped first and asked questions later. The way of Jesus, the way of Christianity, is to make a different in the lives of others. It matters not if they're poor or rich, healthy or sick. If we as Christians have something we can give, we are called to give it to those in need. It matters not if they'll appreciate it, if they'll thank us, or if they'll be improved in any way. It is our calling to give first and preach second, just as Jesus gave.

Peace be with you.

23 October 2020

Teaching and Healing

Ever since my first reading of the two books, I have struggled to believe that the author of Romans is the same Paul that wrote 1 Corinthians. The two books are different in tone, voice, and theology. Reading Romans, it is full of signs and "mysteries," to the point that it reads almost like a Gnostic text. Then there are portions that read more like 1 Corinthians with its well-reasoned arguments and appeals to the scripture. The books read as if they are written to two different denominations, as if Romans were written to a charismatic (Pentecostal, etc.) church while 1 Corinthians was written to a non-charismatic (Baptist, Church of Christ, Catholic, etc.) church.

Paul himself addresses this in 1 Corinthians 1:21-25. He states that "Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom." This is perhaps the oldest division in the church. Are we prophetic or apostolic? Does God speak through prophets today or only through scripture? Are there other sources through which God speaks? Are there still miracles? How we answer these questions determines a lot about how we approach scripture, as well as how we structure our churches, and what we believe about Jesus, God, and the role of the church in the world.

In one statement, Paul neatly captures the source of the largest division in Christianity, from the First Century to this day. You might not know which side you align with: do you see the world as a wild chaos which is only sometimes tamed by God's miracles, blessings, and curses, or as a naturally ordered creation, full of both reason and wonder?

Some see this dividing line as being between the supernatural and science. One of the greatest joys, and hardships, of being a Christian, is that we can believe in both. Since we can believe in both, lets assume that we do and see how it affects our reading of scripture.

In Mark 1:14, Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming the Gospel, "repent and believe!" He then calls his first disciples and then goes to Capernaum to begin teaching and performing miracles (16-21). His first miracle is to cast out an unclean spirit (22-26). When the spirit leaves the man, the crowd that was gathered to hear Jesus teach says amongst themselves, "What is this? A new teaching? For with authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him!" (27).

Jesus did not perform miracles separate from teaching. His miracles either supported his teaching, or were lessons themselves.

Next week, we'll look at some of these miracles in depth and see what teachings of Jesus we have perhaps neglected in our traditional separation of Jesus' words from his actions.

Until next week,
Peace be with you.

16 October 2020

Revelation 19-22

Revelation 19

All the Church rejoices at the fall of Rome. The great persecuter of the Church, the murderer of Christians has come to nothing. The "great multitude in Heaven" give praise to God for this salvation and proclaim that God's judgement over Rome is "true and just" that the "smoke from her goes up forever and ever" (19:1-3).

This is a strange image, since we know that the city of Rome still stands to this day. However, the Roman Empire, which was the woman who committed adultery with the kings of the earth, has not existed in any form for many centuries. The Caesars of Rome, who were the beast given power by the dragon, have not ruled in many more centuries.

John says that the "smoke from her goes up forever and ever." However, one would not go to Rome today expecting it to be on fire. This same language is used in Isaiah 34 to describe God's judgement of the land of Edom (the land that is Jordan today). Isaiah says that "smoke will rise forever" from Edom (Isaiah 34:9-10). However, one would not travel to Jordan today expecting the place to be on fire. This language refers to God's judgement being permanent. There is no more Edom and there never will be again. There is no more Rome, and there never will be again. God has rendered his judgement against the persecutors of his people, and it will stand for all eternity. One of the assuarances of Revelation is that when God's people are persecuted, God will act swiftly to render his judgement and bring justice to the martyrs.

As God's people gather for the wedding feast of the Lamb, Jesus appears as a rider on a white horse. He is dressed for battle, his robe dipped in blood (his own). All those who follow him are dressed in pure white robes, echoing the imagry throughout the book that God fights for his army, not the other way around. Jesus wears many crowns on his head. Are these crowns representative of Jesus' vicories or are they representative of the rightful authority of the kings of the earth which had been surrendered to the beast? John does not say.

The chapter finishes with the same scene we saw in chapter 16, the armies of the beast and the kings of the earth gather "to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army" (19:19). All who bore the mark of the beast were killed, and the beast and its prophet were thrown into "the fiery lake of burning sulfur."

Revelation 20

At the start of chapter 20, God has established his rule over the earth. The dragon is locked away in the Abyss for a thousand years while God cleans up the mess he made. God resurrects all the martyrs and they reign with Jesus for a thousand years. John tells us that while this is the first resurrection, it is not the final resurrection. It is also not a new earth, but is the world we already inhabit.

This timeline of "a thousand years" corresponds neatly to the medieval period in Europe. The time of the Holy Roman and Byzantine empires could be seen as a "reign of Christ" depending on your perspective. However, it was far from perfect. In fact, it is the example of the most un-Christian time in the history of the church. One could find much better examples of Christianity in the churches of Africa and the Far East, which did exist for roughly a thousand years as well. Regardless, if this period was a "reign of Christ," it was far from perfect, and possibly only served to bring our attention to God rather than the assumed purpose of establishing a perfect kingdom; remember that that is the "final" resurrection, this is only the first.

John references also a "second death" (20:6). The first death is obvious, it is the natural end to all that live, but what is the second death? John does not yet say.

After the millenial reign, Satan is released from his prison in the Abyss. That old dragon gathers an army (further proof that Christ's reign on earth was not meant to be perfect, as perhaps no exercise of authority could be). Satan's army is as numerous as "the sand on the seashore" (20:8). However, they are all destroyed in an instant by fire from heaven and the devil is "thrown into the lake of burning sulfur." John records that "they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever" (20:10). Likewise after giving up the dead, Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire. The dead are then judged and those whose names were not found in the book of life were thrown into the lake of fire (20:15).

John tells us that the lake of fire is the second death (20:14). It is noteworthy that only Satan, the beast, and the false prophet are said to be tortured forever in this lake (20:10). Death and Hades, and all who suffer the "second death" are not tormented, simply destroyed. The second death then is not Hell, nor eternal damnation, simply oblivion.

Revelation 21

Finally, God establishes a new world, a perfect world, for those he has redeemed. This world will not be like the one which came before. John envisions a place of no mourning or pain, no death or parting, where God comforts his people and makes everything new (21:1-5).

In verses 6-8, John gives us a simple message, the redeemed will inherit this perfect new world, those who reject God will not. John lists those whose vices will deny them the final resurrection, "cowards [deilois], unbelievers [apistois], the abominable [ebdelygmenois], murderers [phoneusin], perverts [pornois], sorcerers [pharmakois], idolaters [eidololatrais] and liars [pseudesin]." Out of this list, several entries are vague in meaning, however, we can see throughout Revelation a pattern of God calling people away from false idols and being rejected and that God does not render a permanent judgement until he has been repeatedly rejected.

In other words, this second death is not for those who had no opportunity to know God, nor for those who tried and failed to live virtuous lives, nor for those who "got it wrong" on one level or another. It is only for those whose rejection of God and persecution of God's people was complete, intentional, and unrepentant. You don't have to be perfect to be saved, you just have to be listening for God when he calls, God will take care of the rest.

Revelation 22

Finally we see that in God's perfect world all are led by the light of God's presence. There are no kings or kingdoms, only a city built in a new Eden. God's perfect world is not a kingdom, it is a garden. God's perfect city has no Main Street, but a river of life. There is no "wrong side of the tracks" for there are no tracks and the tree of life grows across the river.

Is your name in that book of life? God is calling, do not hesitate to answer. As John says, the time is short. There are no magic words, no list of requirements, you just have to answer the call. Turn away from evil and live for God, and God will take care of the rest.

Until next week,
Peace be with you.

09 October 2020

Revelation 15-18

Revelation 15

The final outpouring of God's wrath begins in chapter 15. God gathers his people onto a "sea of glass" and they give praise to God. God then sends his angels to deliver his wrath upon those who have rejected God and who continue to curse him.

It is notable that here, as throughout John's revelation, it is not the role of God's people to deliver God's wrath, nor even to preach his word to the nations. Rather, they stand as an example, praising God always, and enduring every suffering not spared them by an act of God. John shows what it is to be a Christian in the tradition of the martyrs, not in correct words or unknowable theology, but in the action of love, community, and patient endurance.

God does not send his people, his "army," to deliver his wrath, but his own messengers, the angels. While God's people sing praise, seven angels are given seven bowls filled with the wrath of God. Everyone on Earth has heard the Gospel: it was preached by an angel in the previous chapter. Following the Gospel was another angel which made God's will known. Before God pours out his judgment, he calls to him as many as will come.

Revelation 16

There are no innocents at the final outpouring of God's wrath. Everyone present has chosen their side, and God's people are gathered, untouched by the outpouring of his wrath. God's wrath is reserved for those "who had the mark of the beast and worshiped its image" (16:2).

The first four bowls of God's wrath are poured out onto the natural world. The land brings plague, the sea, and then the rivers, turn to blood, and in the sky, the sun scorches people with fire. The fifth bowl is poured out on "the beast an its kingdom," which would be Rome itself. In response, people curse God, "but they refused to repent of what they had done" (16:11).

When the sixth bowl is poured out, it dries up the river Euphrates, to allow the kings of the earth to gather. this is perhaps the worst of the bowls, even though it does nothing directly. All it does is pave the way for those who have rejected God and who curse his name to do as they will. In other words, this is the bowl of God giving up on saving people. He has tried words, he has tried self-sacrifice, he has given martyrs, he has given signs, he has loudly and repeatedly proclaimed the Gospel, and all the while he has preserved and protected his Church. After all this, he pours out his wrath as a final reminder that the time for redemption is now. Then the sixth bowl is poured out with an apathetic, do what you will.

The kings of the world are gathered by the false prophets of the beasts at the Valley of Meggido or "Armageddon" to wage war against God. However, there is no war. God's angel pours out the seventh and final bowl of God's wrath. An earthquake shatters the "great city" of Rome and the cities of all nations. The islands and mountains, places of refuge, disappear and all are crushed by hailstones.

Revelation 17

There are five chapters left in Revelation, but you might wonder who is left to read them. God destroyed all those who would make themselves his enemies at the end of chapter 16. Chapter 17 starts with God condemning the very idea of "empire." The Roman Empire is likened to a prostitute, specifically Jezebel of Babylon. Rome, as Jezebel, is called "the great prostitute, who sits by many waters" (17:1). Rome's imperial power was exercised though the local puppet rulers who were either allowed to retain power or replaced with someone who would give their fealty to Rome, which is why John tells us that "with her the kings of the earth committed adultery" (17:2). The kings had an honest duty to their people, which they surrendered to Rome.

While John's language is metaphorical, it is not impossible to understand. In verse 7, an angel offers to explain the vision. In verse 9, John once again appeals to our knowledge of Roman history with the phrase, "this calls for a mind with wisdom." The woman is Rome itself, and the beast upon which she sits are the Roman Emperors. Five are the emperors from Augustus to Nero (whose name is the mark of the beast).

These five are said to be "fallen." At the time of Nero's death, no one knew if there even was a ruler still in Rome. That year, four emperors came and went. When Titus, who had led the siege of Jerusalem arrived in Rome, he was sent back to Jerusalem by Vespasian who was the fourth emperor to hold the title that year. Vespasian (head number 6) ruled for 9 years and when he died, Titus (head number 7) took the throne and ruled for only two years. John then predicts an eighth head, the emperor Domitian, who he says "belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction" (17:11). Finally John predicts that Rome's fall will come from within. In an act of self-cannibalism the "horns" (subservient kings) will tear apart the "prostitute" (Rome).

Revelation 18

After Rome has fallen, and the kingdoms of the earth are free from its domination, John predicts that they still will not turn away from evil. Instead, they mourn over the death of the empire (18:9). Merchants also mourn Rome's death because they can no longer easily buy and sell across borders (18:11) as do sailors that transport their cargo (18:17). An angel then predicts that Rome will never rise again.

In the next chapter, God gives his answer to the problem of authoritarian power. The old is washed away, and God makes something new.

Until next week,
Peace be with you.

01 October 2020

Revelation 12-14

Revelation 12

It can be quite difficult to make sense of the chronology of Revelation. John makes no distinction between events of the past, (his) present, and (his) future. In chapter 12, John speaks of a woman, clearly a symbolic representation of Mary, mother of Jesus, and a dragon, named Satan. This is clearly a past event, as even if John were arguing for a "second coming" of Jesus in the future, he is not arguing for a second coming of Mary. Rather, this is an account of the birth of Jesus and a symbolic representation of his importance in God's plan for the world.

The imagery John uses to describe Mary is similar to how he describes Jesus in chapter 1. She is clothed in sunshine, The moon is under her feet, and twelve stars are upon her head (12:1; 1:16). John tells us in chapter 1 that the seven stars Jesus holds are the seven angels of the seven churches. These twelve stars then might represent the angels of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, to whom Christ had been promised and was sent.

The second sign John sees is that of a red dragon with seven heads and ten horns. The seven heads represent the seven hills of Rome. Given that context, the ten horns may represent Rome's ten senatorial provinces. I tend to favor this interpretation, as John uses clear and frequent imperial symbols in Revelation, keeps his use of symbols internally consistent, and references people, places, and events of his own day. When he refers to ancient places, they are also far from obscure (ie. Babylon).

The dragon waits for Mary to give birth, that he may kill Jesus immediately, this is in reference to King Herod's infanticidal tirade in Matthew 2:13-18. In that gospel, Mary and Joseph escape with Jesus to Egypt and stay there until the death of Herod. The parallel to the story of Moses is quite clear as well (Exodus 2).

However, when Mary gives birth, her son is "snatched up to God and to God's throne" (Revelation 12:5). John then gives us a view of the heavenly powers fighting over the fate of Jesus, an alternative perspective to the earthly perspective of Matthew. Mary flees from the wrath of the dragon "into the wilderness" for 1,260 days, an amount of time equal to the time of the two witnesses in the previous chapter.

The dragon, unable to harm Jesus, pursues Mary, who is protected by the earth itself. Enraged, Satan turns his wrath to God's people and those who follow Jesus.

Revelation 13

The dragon then summoned a beast from the sea. The beast had seven heads with ten horns and ten crowns upon the ten horns. Similar to the stars and lampstands of chapter 1, while the dragon represents the corrupt spiritual power (ie. idolatry) of Rome, the beast represents Rome itself. The beast comes from the sea (Rome is across the Mediterranean from Israel, as well as Patmos). Like the dragon it has seven heads (hills of Rome) and ten horns (senatorial provinces), but it also has ten crowns. These ten crowns are the literal representation of imperial power, power which is granted to it by the dragon (Satan).

Perhaps in mockery of Christ's resurrection, one of the heads of the beast had suffered "a fatal wound" which had healed. Emperor Titus had also been similarly injured in the Siege of Jerusalem. News of Nero's death had also reached Jerusalem during the time of Titus' conquest and that year, four emperors came and went. In Jerusalem, the perception may have been that no one knew if the Emperor was alive or dead. John shows through the world's worship of the beast is based on its power comes from its indomitable ability to win wars. Once again, this is a mockery of Christ who is the "Prince of Peace."

John then begins to rally Christians against the beast, citing that the beast was given power to receive the worship of all the nations... all except those whose names have been written in the Lamb's book of life. John then cites Jeremiah, to hearten Christians for martyrdom, calling for "patient endurance and faithfulness" rather than violent resistance.

John then sees a second beast, with horns like a lamb and a voice like a dragon. It exercises the authority of the first beast and orders people to worship the first beast. The imagery refers to the Roman client king of Syria, which ruled over Israel and enforced Roman law, including the idolatrous worship of the Roman Emperor as a god.

The second beast also marks all people "on their right hands or on their foreheads" sanctioning them to buy and sell, and without which they can do neither. The image of writing on the hands and forehead refers to the Shema, which was (and still is) recited by all Jewish people in the morning and evening. It is from Deuteronomy 6:4, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might." Jesus cites this verse as the greatest commandment. This verse was sometimes written on the forehead or on the right hand.

But what does the Shema have to do with buying and selling? Through idolatry, Rome had turned the requirement of the Shema to itself, had named its emperor a god, and had placed the emperor's face on all its coinage, effectively placing an idol in the pocket of each and every person in the empire. If you wanted to trade, it had to be with Roman coinage. The mark, John states, is "the name of the beast or the number of its name." In verse 18, John breaks with the narrative to tell the reader to calculate the number, which is the number of a man's name. Depending on the source, that number has been recorded as either 666 or 616. This calculates to the name "Caesar Nero" or "Caesar Neron" depending on the alphabet being used.

Revelation 14

Upon Mount Zion, the Lamb now gathers his army. There are 144,000 in the Lamb's army, except that these are not the same 144,000 sealed from the tribes of Israel (see Revelation 7). John gives us different criteria for this assembly. Like the Lamb himself, they are those who are found to be upright, pure, and blameless. They gather on the mountain and give praise to God, and their praise is like the sound of thunder.

In contrast to the beast which usurped the worship of God and turned it to the emperor of Rome, the Lamb now calls the entire earth back to the worship of the one true God. An angel proclaims the Gospel to every nation, to all people, and in every language, saying "Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water" (Revelation 14:7).

Two more angels now warn against following the mandates of Rome (metaphorically called Babylon) and embracing its idolatry, for Rome is falling and those who join it will fall with it. An angel then "harvests" all of those who had sided with Rome and gathered them into "the winepress of God's wrath" which proceeds to overflow with blood. This depiction is graphic in its violence, but it is only foreshadowing the violence of the next two chapters, which see seven plagues and seven bowls of God's wrath poured out upon the world.

The next four chapters are far too gory and far too graphic more me to add to this already lengthy article. Next week, the world ends (no, not literally). God's wrath will be poured out for the final time and Rome will fall. But don't worry, God does not forget his people.

Until next week,
Peace be with you.