Saturday, February 10, 2018

Bible in a Year: Revelation

Richard Danby, "The Opening of the Sixth Seal" (1828)
National Gallery of Ireland
In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

You might not realize it, but Revelation is very rich in connections to the Old Testament. The letter opens with John stating that God gave him this revelation (apokálypsis, which means uncovering or unveiling), and he greets the seven churches that are in Asia (1:1-8). He states that he was on the island of Patmos when the Spirit came to him and ordered him to write down these visions and send them to the churches at Ephesus, Smyma, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Thus Revelation is an epistle, though a unique one in eschatological, apocalyptic visions.

John sees “one like a son of man” among seven golden lamp stands. The vision reminds us of Daniel’s and Ezekiel’s visions of heavenly realities.

The words to each of the seven churches, with different kinds of warnings, praises, and commands, fill chapters 2 and 3. The Old Testament has many depictions of faithlessness on the part of Israel, and the New Testament—though covering  a much shorter time period—does not hold back on criticizing aspects of the early church, as well. We find a notorious bit of anti-Judaism in 2:9, but again, we must remember that John is Jewish and writes in a Jewish milieu; he is not a Gentile who hates Jews. The warning about the lukewarm quality of the Laodicean church is also famous (3:15-16), but so is Christ’s words to that church, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (3:20).

The remainder of the book (4:1-22:5) area various visions and depictions of the future. We have a depiction of the throne of heaven and the living creatures that give God glory (chapter 4). A prelude to the opening of the scrolls describes the slain Lamb of God who is declared worthy to open the scroll’s seals.

Rev. 6:1-8:1 is the Opening of the Seven seals:
First reveals the white horse and its rider (Rev 6:1-2)
Second reveals the red horse and its rider (Rev 6:3-4)
Third reveals the black horse and its rider (Rev 6:5-6)
Fourth reveals the pale horse and its rider Death, with Hades nearby (Rev 6:7-8)
Fifth reveals the martyrs under the altar (Rev 6:9-11)
Sixth reveals earthquakes and cataclysms.(Rev 6:12-17)

Chapter 7 is an interlude, about the sealing of the 144,000 (12,000 from each tribe of Israel), and the heavenly multitude.

The opening of the seventh seal results in a time of silence in heaven (8:1). The the seven angels who had seven trumpets made their sounds:
The first trumpet, a third of the world’s vegetation is destroyed (8:7)
The second trumpet, a third of sea creatures and a third of ships are destroyed as a third of the sea turns to blood.
The third trumpet, a star named Wormwood falls, and a third of rivers and waters turn bitter.
The fourth trumpet, a third of the sun, moon and stars are struck. 
The fifth trumpet, the bottomless pit is opened, with locusts and the angel Abaddon are released (9:1-11).
The sixth trumpet, an four angels kill two hundred million people.

In an interlude, John eats the scroll (certainly a reference to a similar sign in Ezekiel), and two witnesses provide more visions of the end.

The seven trumpet, and Christ’s victory and Kingdom are announced, and the heavenly temple with the ark of the covenant are revealed (chapters 10-11).

Chapters 12-14 tell of seven mystic creatures: the woman with child, the dragon, the male child, the angel Michael, the beast from the sea, the beast from the earth (and the beast’s number is 666), and the Lamb on Mount Zion. Chapter 14 ends with a well-known vision of the winepress of the wrath of God, into which the grapes of the earth are pressed, resulting in deep blood.

Chapters 15-16 tell of the seven bowls of wrath: sores of people, the bloody sea, the bloody rivers and fountains, the sun’s fierce heat, the darkness, the foul spirits that prepare for Armageddon, and the earthquake.

Rev. 17:1-19:10 are visions of the great harlot Babylon, “mother of earth’s abdominations” who is drunk with the blood of saints and martyrs. Though Babylon will fight against the Lamb, Babylon’s soon is sure, though the evil world may mourn the city’s fall. At last, the marriage supper of the Lamb is announced, with great rejoicing in Heaven.

When the beast and false prophet are defeated, they are thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur (19:11-21). Satan and the dragon are bound and sealed in the bottomless pit for a millennium, and Christ will reign in peace with the resurrected faithful (20:1-6). Satan, though, will emerge and gather forces for battle at Gog and Magog (another Ezekiel reference), but Satan will then be thrown into the fiery lake as well.

Finally, the great white throne appears and judge all the death according to the Book of Life (the Book of Life is very much a Jewish image). Death and Hades will be destroyed for good at this point (20:11-15), and a new heaven and new earth will be established; the blessed will be with God, and the rest will be thrown into the fiery lake, which is the second death (21:1-8).

The final vision of Revelation very much harkens back to Ezekiel’s vision of the restored Temple (Ez. 40-48). The new Jerusalem will be a bright, golden and jeweled, beautiful and bright place. As the Bible began with the Tree of Life in Eden, the Bible ends now with the restored Tree of Life as the faithful will be in God’s light forever (21:9-22:5).

Revelation concludes with warnings about the end times—which, the author believes, will occur soon—and while visions should not be added to the book, these words will bring blessing to those who keep them (22:6-21).

Regarding the various millennial interpretations of Revelation, I found this interesting site, http://www.religioustolerance.org/millenni.htm, that discusses these views in helpful detail.

“The Rapture”--when believers in the end times will rise into the air to meet the Lord---is not part of Revelation, but 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18, where Paul is reassuring the congregation about the certainty of Christ's return. For being such a brief passage in the New Testament (discussed nowhere else therein, and never called “the Rapture”), it has certainly captured the imagination of many conservative Protestant Christians, who import it from Paul’s letter into the overall eschatology of Revelation.

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Here is more about Revelation, originally posted here. http://changingbibles.blogspot.com/2012/07/book-of-revelation.html

The Book of Revelation contains more references to the Old Testament than nearly any other New Testament book. I read that there are nearly 200 references, allusions, and images. I’m not keen on interpreting the book's arcane and violent symbolism to gain knowledge of our present times.  But I appreciate the book all the more as the concluding portion of Christian scripture, which ties together many theological strands from the whole of the Bible.

If you really want to dig into Revelation, you might first spend a year or so reading the Old Testament and books about biblical theology. Then, you can appreciate how Revelation reaches deeply into the Old Testament and connects those scriptures (and therefore the whole of God's saving activity since ancient times) to Christ and his final victory.

I found an interesting article, “The Old Testament and the Book of Revelation” at the StudyJesus.com site. I liked the article because it gave straightforward biblical references without the speculations and polemics that one times in some analyses of Revelation.  Perusing that article as well as my notes in my old RSV and the references in my NRSV, I developed a very incomplete list of references to Old Testament passages that one finds in Revelation.  These are just my notes from these sources, to set up ongoing studies. That article gives many more references and other research about John's compelling visions and style of writing.  

The image of “the son of man” in Daniel 7:13-14 connects to Rev. 1:7.

The image of “the kingdom of priests” in Exodus 19:6 an Isaiah 61:6 connects to Rev. 1:6.

Ezekiel’s vision of four living creatures and four wheels in chapter 1, and also Isaiah 6:1-4, connect with Revelation chapter 4, wherein the living creatures give God honor and glory.

The dwelling of God in the new heaven and earth in Isaiah 65:17ff connects to Rev 21:1-2. Also, Michael the archangel (Dan. 12:1) connects to Rev. 12:7-12.

The condemnation of Deuteronomy 29:19-20, with the image of being blotted out of the book of life, connects to Rev. 21:19. In fact, that article indicates: “Revelation 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15, 21:27 are based on Exodus 32:32-33; Psalm 69:28; Daniel 12:1,” and also Ps. 56:8 and Malachi 3:16. All these have to do with the them of God writing a book containing the names of the faithful.

The differently colored horses of Zechariah 1:7-17 and 6:1-8 connect to Revelation 6:1-8.

The eating of the scroll in Ezekiel 2:8-3:33 and Jeremiah 15:16 connect to Rev. 10:8-11.

Much of Joel 1-2, with its descriptions of plagues, droughts, and the coming day of the Lord, connects to the various events in Revelation: e.g., the locusts in Rev. 9.

Some of Ezekiel’s images of the restored temple in chapters 40-48, as well as Zechariah chapter 4, connect to Rev. 11:1-6 et al. Also, the restored Jerusalem in Ezekiel 48:30-35 connect to Rev. 21:12-14.

Genesis 49 lists the twelve tribes of Israel, in the context of Jacob’s death: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Gad, Asher, Dan, Naphtali, Joseph, and Benjamin. Jacob adopted Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and thus they became heads of tribes. Rev. 7:1-8 describes how angels sealed the number of God’s servants out of “every tribe of the people of Israel,” and then lists the twelve tribes.  Instead of the tribe of Dan we have the tribe of Manasseh, and the tribe of Joseph rather than that of Ephraim is mentioned.

The cities of refuge are described in Numbers 35:9-34. They were places where a person who had accidentally killed someone could flee and when the high priest died they could return home without fear of being killed out of revenge.  The cities were Kedesh, Golan, Ramoth Shechem, Bezer, and Hebron.  Although Rev. 12:6 doesn’t mention “cities of refuge” per se, the concept of a safe place prepared by God is there: for instance, the woman with child (representing God’s people) flees to a safe place in the wilderness where she will be nourished for 1260 days.

Daniel has a vision of four beasts in Dan. 7:1-8, which connects to Rev. 13:1-7, where beasts emerge from the sea. As that article indicates, the fourth beast represents Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the terrible Greek ruler of the Maccabean period.

Ezekiel 38-39 describes the prince Gog of the land of Magog. In Rev. 20:7-10, Gog and Magog become nations who are enemies of God’s people.

The famous story of Balaam and his donkey (Balaam's ass, as we Sunday school kids laughed about) is found in Numbers 25:1-9, as well as 31:16.  This story is echoed in Rev. 2: 14 where God scolds the church at Pergamum.

Rev. 14:14-20 tells of the angel reaping a grape harvest with a sickle and putting the harvest into the winepress of God’s wrath, producing copious blood.  Of course, this is the reference for a line in “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as well as the title of the novel, The Grapes of Wrath.  We find the earlier image in Joel 3:13 and Isaiah 63:1-6.

As that article indicates, Isaiah 65:17, 66:22, refer to the blessings of God upon the exiles who return from captivity in Babylon. These promises connect to a passage near the conclusion of Revelations, 21:1.

With that reference, I thought of my earlier post about the biblical theme of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, the Exile, its connection to the land, and the hope of future redemption that the Exile inspires. Although the Bible isn't exactly “about” the Exile, the Bible is about the history of God’s people on the land in the centuries before the Exile, and then their post-exilic hope in God’s redemption. As I explain there in my notes, the exilic experience pervades the Bible in many unappreciated ways. (The psalms, for instance, which so many of us esteem for our daily faith, deeply reflect the post-exilic hope of God's people.) For Christians, the New Testament describes the fulfillment of that post-exilic hope, and the Book of Revelation brings together stands of biblical history and theology to show the final consummation of centuries of divine promises.

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The book of Revelation is an endless source of fascinating questions for many people. I never quite shared an eagerness to decode the book. When I was in high school in the 1970s, barcodes began to appear on grocery products, and I heard someone express concern that barcodes were connected to the Antichrist as predicted in Rev. 13:17. I thought (privately) that was kind of silly.

Then a few years ago, my wife Beth and I led a study on the book of Revelation. We used Bruce Metzger’s Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation, a wonderful book that delves into the Old Testament background and first century roots of the book. The first Sunday, we had a crowd. “I think the Lord has led me to this study,” declared a young woman that first time. During the next few Sundays, our group dwindled down to a faithful core. Where did the others go, including the woman pleased at God’s guidance? Beth and I didn’t attempt to interpret Revelation’s signs and symbols to our contemporary time, and so I’m sure we disappointed folks present at our initial gathering.

The notion that Revelation has a secret meaning about current events, in spite of scriptural caveats about predicting the end (e.g., Matt. 24:36), will always give the book qualities of mystery and urgency. In my experience, though, folks are certain that the book has contemporary meaning, are liable to become frustrated if you imply otherwise, and yet don't necessarily know what that meaning is. It's one of those unexamined opinions people swear to.

Of course, many attempts have been made through history to predict the end times via biblical symbols: George Rapp, leader of the Harmonist sect, William Miller, founder of the Millerites, Charles Taze Russell and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. To me, the numerous failed efforts to connect Revelation to contemporary history advises against the effort---as does Jesus' own caution that only God knows history's final timetable.

Although Revelation is typical of the apocalyptic genre of writing (there are several such Jewish writings not included in the Old Testament, for instance), Jesus’ own end-time teachings aren’t so typical. While concerned about warning people, Jesus isn’t interested in tabulating and predicting the end times in a vengeful way.[1] Jesus’ teachings are not focused on divine retributation against  evildoers and Gentiles, but upon God’s salvation, e.g. Luke 4:16ff. We have to balance the visions of Revelation with the example of Jesus himself.

In portions of his teachings, Jesus warned that people would miss the kingdom of God and would be cast into outer darkness or into the fire (Matt. 24:45-51, Matt. 25:1-13, 30, 46). He warned that people would call him “Lord” who would be excluded from the kingdom if they didn’t do his will (Matt. 7:21-23). The stories of people who followed Jesus, though, are overwhelmingly happy. People who discovered Jesus became filled with joy. Not only had they escaped God’s wrath, but they had abundant, loving power from God in their lives that would carry them all the way through life and death to eternal life. They had escaped Hell because Jesus suffered condemnation in their place. Jesus addressed the seriousness of sin with his love and blood.

Jesus also promised to return. According to Hebrew 9:28, Christ “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” At that time he’ll be king over all earth and heaven (Rev. 11:15), will completely destroy the power of death (1 Cor. 15:25, 26), will bring about the resurrection of the dead (1 Thess. 4:16-17) and the final judgment (Rev. 20:11-13). He will come suddenly (Mark 13:36). Some people expect Jesus to return in our lifetime. Others point to the fact that Jesus discouraged speculation about the timetable of his return (Mark 13:32). Paul told people to stay alert (1 Cor. 16:13, 1 Thess. 5:1-11), but also warned that we shouldn’t become idle and neglect our daily responsibilities (2 Thess. 3:6-13). Whenever Jesus returns, one thing is for sure: we will all die someday. God will reward us for our faith whether we came to Jesus early or late in life (Matt. 20:1-16), but we do need to be ready (Mark 13:33-37)! We need to commit to a relationship with Jesus, however small our faith-steps may be. Readiness means believing in him, following him, trusting his power … and trusting his merciful desire to save us regardless of all our sins and failures!

Here is a very odd pair of books to connect: Deuteronomy and Revelation. Deuteronomy concludes the Torah with a stirring call for Jews to keep faithful to the commandments (reiterated for many chapters) and to remind future generations of God's mighty works of salvation. Meanwhile Revelation concludes the New Testament with arcane and impenetrable symbols that invite all kinds of wheel-spinning speculation about the end times.

And yet Revelation also calls future generations to faithfulness. Revelation proclaims God's mighty work of salvation, too (7:10, 11:15, 19:6), and so, in an analogous way to Deuteronomy, we know that there is no ultimate reason for us to lose heart—or to lose our faithfulness. Although Christ’s final victory lies in the future, he already has defeated Satan. In light of that victory, he calls us to follow him with confidence.

Notes:

1. Points made by Brevard S. Childs in his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), page 68.


Friday, February 9, 2018

Bible in a Year: 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude

Book of Kells representation of John
In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

We come to the three short letters of John and the letter of Jude. 1 John has no introduction or conclusion, and so we don’t know its audience. Tradition has always attributed it to the Apostle John—and it does echo the Gospel, with its light-darkness contrasts, emphasis on love, the eternal nature of Christ, the joy of Christ, the need to abide in Christ, and other aspects.

In the passage 1:5-2:6, which I long ago yellow-highlighted in my old Bible, the author explains righteousness, asserting that we all sin but Christ forgives and cleanses us, and so we can count on Christ and keep his commandments.

In 2:7-17, John reminds his readers that they should not love worldly things, but to focus on Christ and Christ’s love—for a person who hates another person lives in darkness. But to abide in Christ, who run less risk of being deceived—important because this is the last hour,. The end is coming soon (2:18-29).

In a seeming contrast to what he wrote earlier, John says that no one born of God commits sin, for sin is of the devil, and no one who abides in Christ sins (3:1-10). He seems to be contrasting a life of habitual lawlessness with a life in which Christ is continually trusted to remove our sin, to help us and forgive us.

Anyone who loves God must love one another in Christ-like love, for no one who hates a brother or sister can say s/he loves God (3:11-18).

But when we are of the truth, we have assurance if our hearts condemn us, for God is greater than our hearts and gives to us freely. It's another reason to abide in Christ (3:19-24)! John continues to urge readers to love and to have faith: as there is no hatred for others if one loves God (4:19-20), there is no fear, for God helps us with fear and casts it out through the divine love (4:18). Anyone who has faith in God through Christ has overcome the world and has God’s life within (5:1-12).


The letter concludes with similar injunctions (5:13-21). John may be redundant, but they are lovely teachings about which to be redundant.

2 and 3 John and Jude are one-chapter letters. John calls himself not by name but by the title “elder” and writes to “the elect lady and her children.” Is this a particular mother, or a congregation? The author writes about the importance of love, and the importance of right doctrine about Christ and God. One should not even show hospitality to a teacher of wrong doctrine: this is serious!  The author promises to talk in person soon.

3 John is also by the “elder,” written to Gaius. The author courages Gaius in showing service, hospitality, and love, and commends Demetrius. But look out for Diotrephese, who puts himself first and doesn’t acknowledge the elder’s authority. (How many churches have at least one Diotrephes, who insists on his/her own way against the minister!) The author promises to talk in person soon.

Jude identifies himself as a servant of Christ and a brother of James, so he may be a brother of Jesus, too, or another Jude. The audience is very general (verse 1). The letter is harsh toward false teachers, connecting back to Korah’s rebellion against Moses (Numbers 16), and even to Cain himself. False teachers are often depicted as having really bad morals, and such is the case here.

Much of Jude is also found in 2 Peter, which may make it a second-century work.

Interestingly, Jude quotes a noncanonical book, 1 Enoch, in order to condemn these false teachers. 1 Enoch, from about the first century BCE, can be found in collections of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha but is not canonical for Jews and Christians, except for the Ethiopic Orthodox Church. In Jude’s time, its canonical status was still debated.

Like some of the other epistles, Jude warns that the time is short, and one must keep the faith in these end times. More on that in the final New Testament writing!


Sunday, February 4, 2018

Bible in a Year: James, 1 and 2 Peter

In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

Somewhere on my bookshelves is a notebook that has my word-by-word translation of the Epistle of James. This was my project for third-semester-Koine Greek, which was my final college class, spring 1979. There were only two of us and the professor, but it was a fun class!

In the Harper's Bible Commentary, my seminary prof, Luke T. Johnson, discusses traditions about the epistle's authorship. Traditionally, James is identified as the brother of Jesus. The author doesn't identify himself as such. We don't know the letter's time period because it speaks to no obvious historical circumstance.

The author portrays himself as a wise teacher, and his advice has to do with practical religious living. The epistle is very much in the tradition of Old Testament Wisdom Literature, but not only that. Johnson writes: “James is remarkable for its positive appropriation of Torah, whose separate aspects it mediates to the messianic community… The short exhortations concerned with practical behavior resemble and incorporation elements of the wisdom tradition. Since wisdom is by nature cosmopolitan, James shows traces of Hellenistic moral philosophy as well as of the biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclesiasties. James also conemporizes the voice of the prophets. His attack on oppression echoes the accents of Isaiah and Amos (5:1-6). James also affirms the Law, calling it the ‘Law of Liberty’ (2:12). He does not mean ritual observances but the moral teaching of Torah, summarized by the Decalogue and the ‘law of love’ (Lev. 19:18; cf. 2:8-11) (p. 1272). Short as it is, James provides us with rich connections to Old Testament traditions.

The letter also provides an interesting contrast to the very christocentric Hebrews (and to Paul’s letters), because James only mentions Jesus twice (1:1 and 2:1) and contains helpful teaching about religion, faith, and wisdom that could be universally applied. He does reflect some of Jesus’ sayings (1:6, 2:8, 5:12), as Johnson notes.

Here is a brief outline: James teaches that true religion is evidenced by perseverance and patience during temptation and difficult times. But true wisdom and faith are from above, and God will grant our prayers for wisdom (1:2-27).

True and pure religion is evidenced in an ability to keep one’s tongue, to control one’s anger, to visit orphans and widows, to keep oneself “unstained” from the world (1:19-27).

If you truly hear God’s word, you will be a doer and not just a hearer (1:22). Several years ago, my daughter participated in her choir’s performance during the noon Mass at the St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stefansdom) in Vienna. I noticed on the lectern a banner, containing the words: Seid aber Täter des Worts und nicht Hörer allein. My German was rusty so I needed two or three seconds to recognize James 1:22. The combination of several things—the stunning sanctuary, the music of the choir, the wonders of Vienna itself, and the fact that in translating I had to mentally engage the verse—gave me a deep sense of peace and assurance. Having faith in Christ is a very good thing, but faith isn't just intellectual assent or even simply trust in God, it is also an active, loving, service-oriented thing.

True faith is evidenced by impartiality toward persons: don’t defer to and praise the rich person while refusing also to honor the poor person. Those who are merciful and impartial do God’s will (2:1-13).

Famously, James asserts that faith without works is dead faith. Faith cannot save unless expressed in deeds of service to others (2:14-26).

Just as famously, James asserts that we need to control our mouths, because “the tongue is a fire” with great destructive power. He connects this kind of self-control and carefulness not only to being a general believer but also to being a teacher (3:1-12).

True wisdom is peaceful, gentle, merciful, sincere, peace-making, and other positive qualities from and commended by God, while false wisdom is bitter, jealous, and selfish (3:13-4:18). Friendship with the world is expressed in fighting and wars, but that makes one an enemy of God (4:1-10). Similarly slander (4:11-2) and false confidence (4:13-17). I've always loved the perspective on our lives expressed in 4:13-15.

James continues to criticize friendship with the world by despising worldly fortune (5:1-6) and by the careless swearing of oaths (5:12). But those with true faith and wisdom are patient and steadfast; they avoid grumbling; they pray for the sick and confess their sins to one another (5:7-11, 13-18). 5:16 is another favorite verse: “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” or in the old KJV, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous [person] availeth much.”

The final verse, 5:20, is still another favorite: “you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

Although I've not read the Qur'an extensively, James' emphasis on faith and works reminds me of verse 177, sura 2 of the Qur'an, found here in different translations. There, too, God approves of our faith when expressed in kindness, service, patience in times of trouble, and trust.

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According to the Harper Bible Commentary, 1 Peter addresses concerns of Asia Minor Christians during the latter part of the first century. Because of this, and because persons named in the letter like Silvanus and Mark (5:12-14) were more Paul’s friends than Peter’s, the letter is likely pseudonymous (p. 1279). But pseudonymous authorship was common in those days and needn’t detract from the letter.

1:3-9 is a lovely opening blessing, encouraging the audience of the glories of Christ, and though they are being persecuted, their pain is like the refinement of gold. The author continues to encourage them by reminding them that they have experienced Christ’s Spirit, something that the prophets predicted (1:10-12). Thus, they can be focused upon living holy lives (1:13-2:3). Quoting passages from Isaiah, Hosea, and the Psalms, the author praises Christ and reminds the congregation of their own holiness, using images from the Old Testament about God’s people (2:9).

In 2:11-4:11, the author reminds the congregation of various ways to show themselves as faithful: to have good conduct (2:11-12), to be good citizens of the state and honor others (2:13-17), to be respectful to a master if one is a servant (2:18-20), reflecting the example of Christ himself (2:21-25); to have a domestic home life reflecting of the times (3:1-7); to bless those who persecute you and to have a tender heart and humble mind (3:8-12); to endure persecution mindful of Christ’s own sufferings (3:13-22), and to generally do one’s duty, to love one another and practice hospitality, and practice other virtues according to God’s will (4:1-11). The last section, 4:12-5:11, is another exhortation to remain steadfast and faithful.

*****

2 Peter is written in the testament style, that is, the author--"Simeon Peter"---gives instructions in light of his impending death. It is a fictional genre used to convey true teachings but under pseudonymous authorship (HRC, 1286). My seminary notes in my old Bible indicate there are apocryphal writings of the 100s CE that are also under the name of Peter, who was killed in the 60s. My notes also indicate that the letter takes for granted canonical writings like the Synoptic Gospels and Paul’s letters, which were likely gathered long after the historical Peter's death. Many verses in chapter 2 are echoed in the epistle of Jude.

The letter focuses first on true knowledge, which his readers must seek and treasure for they around founded in Jesus Christ himself (1:3-21). There are, after all, many false teachers around, but their fate is scary—God did not spare even the angels who sinned (2:1-10a), and will not spare the deceivers. One can know the false teachers by their bad character, though, and they will come to a bad end (2:10b-22).

In chapter 3, the author assures his people of the comfort of Christ’s coming, which he connects to the Old Testament “Day of the Lord.” But for God a thousand years is as one day (3:8), and God’s seeming slowness is for the sake of people’s repentance.

The letter ends with a recommendation to read Paul’s letters, though they’re not always easy to understand—but the unstable Christians will twist them, and so Peter’s readers should be mindful to stay steady and steadfast, and stay faithful to Christ.

Expectation of the end is a theme among these letters. Until Christ returns, there will always be some folks who expect him to return in their lifetime. Thus, New Testament teachings and warnings about the end times will seem to them contemporary. To me, James 4:13-15 is a reminder that's always applicable: we just don't know what's ahead in life, ever, and so it's better to trust God and acknowledge God in all our life and work.


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Bible in a Year: Hebrews

My favorite Bible, which I've used since
purchasing it new for a Spring 1977 semester college class. 
In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This post is about the Epistle to the Hebrews. I left off with Acts, so what happened to Paul? I’m still reading about the Jewish background of Paul’s letters, so I’m putting Paul on hold at the moment and skipping over to the non-Pauline, final epistles of the New Testament. Paul will make a good project for Lenten devotion, and then I'll have studied the whole Bible in a little over a year.

Parts of this post are based on my lessons “Encouraged to Be Faithful” in the June-July-August 2004 issue of Daily Bible Study. Many thanks to the editor at the time, Eleanor Moore, who retired with that issue after 41 years with the United Methodist Publishing House.

Hebrews is a fascinating book that assumes knowledge of certain Torah traditions like the Temple, priesthood, and sacrificial system. I’m always interested in ways that the New Testament connects to and depends on the Old Testament, and Hebrews has a wealth of connections.

But 
Hebrews is one of the more supersessionist writings of the New Testament: that is, it contends that Christianity has superseded Judaism. We still (and always) must remember that the New Testament authors were not Gentiles who disdain Jews who don't believe in Jesus, but rather they were (except for Luke) Jews writing among other Jews, struggling with Jewish belief and identity, and thinking of Jesus Belief as a new kind of Judaism.

Hebrews was likely written in the 60s, prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 and the end of its priesthood and “cultus.” The author writes about those things as if they still existed, and surely would’ve written differently had they already been destroyed. Thus the author urges his congregation to keep looking to Christ who himself is priesthood and sacrifice.

Early church traditions are not unanimous about the author, perhaps (but likely not) Paul, or Apollos, and another possibility. Nor do we know to whom the letter was written. “Hebrews” is a title added by scribes because of its many Old Testament references. The audience seems to be Jews, living in a now unknown location (perhaps Italy) who have converted to Christianity and are second-generation Christians who are experiencing serious but not yet life-threatening persecution. Thus the author’s alternately encouraging and stern admonitions to stay faithful in their belief in Christ.

Hebrews begins like a sermon but ends like a letter. The opening sentence in the original Greek makes skillful use of alliteration (verse 1, transliterated, is Polymerōs kai polytropōs palai ho Theos lalēsas tois patrasin en tois prophētais), and all the letter is a well-written and rhetorically effective writing. The author affirms that God has spoken through forebears and prophets but now speaks through a Son, who is the “exact imprint of God’s very being.” Throughout the letter, the author uses a midrashic arguments for his point: in this case, setting Psalm 2:7, 2 Samuel 7:14, Deut. 32:43, Ps. 104:4, Ps. 45:6-7, Ps. 102:25-27, and Ps. 110-13 together to prove Christ as king and eternal son.

The letter alternates between deeply Jewish theological reflection and those stern admonitions. An interesting rhetorical device is the announcement of a theme prior to the author’s exposition: e.g., the reference to Melchizedek in 5:6 and 5:10 and then the main connection of Jesus to Melchizedek in chapter 7.

Here is an outline:

Introduction: Christ is God’s final revelation (1:1-3).

Jesus is Son of God and thus better than the angels (1:4-2:18). There must have been some discussion in the congregation about Jesus’ connection to the angels or to the power of angels, but Christ is true man, true sacrifice, and the Davidic King who has power to help us (2:18), none of which are true of angels.

Christ is superior to Moses and Joshua (chapters 3 and 4). This is not to disparage either man, but they were servants while Jesus is a Son. The author makes a sometimes difficult to follow, midrashic connection of Jesus to the Promised Land; while the first generation of the Israelites lost the chance to gain the “rest” of the Land (that is, the peace and prosperity of living there, also connected to the rest and worship of the Sabbath), because of their hard hearts and rebellion, Christ now provides a lasting “rest” for those who believe. The author uses the rebellion and later regret of the Israelites to admonish the congregation to stay faithful (e.g., 3:12, 4:11-13).

Suddenly the author calls Jesus the great high priest (4:14-16), in one of my favorite passages of Scripture:

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Thus changing the subject from Sabbath and land to priesthood, Hebrews 4:14-7:28 concerns the priesthood of Christ. As the Temple priests sacrifice for the people through concern and compassion, so Christ intercedes for people through his divine compassion. A problem with the Aaronic priesthood, though, is that the priests were mortal and must be replaced periodically. The Hebrews author makes a connection to Melchizedek (Genesis 10), who appears in scripture without a genealogy, giving him a symbolic kind of immortality—plus, Melchizedek’s greatness is displayed in the fact that even father Abraham deferred to him and paid him a tithe. For the Hebrews author, Jesus’ priesthood is of the order of the "eternal" Melchizedek rather than of Aaron. (Perhaps someone in the congregation wondered how Jesus could be a priest if he was of the tribe of Judah rather than of Levi.) The author also uses Psalm 110:1-3 to make this connection. Of course, typical of the letter, this section also contains warnings and encouragements to the congregation.

Hebrews 9:1-10:18 concern the old and new covenants, drawing from prophetic promises (Second Isaiah and Jeremiah in particular) for a new covenant for the future. The author also connects Jesus to the sacrifices themselves. The sacrifices had to be done over and over again—because people always sin—as the blood was laid upon the sanctuary altar. But Jesus offered his own blood, and because he is the eternal Son and priest, his blood is an offering that is eternal, once for all.

Hebrews 10:19-12:29 follows on that: the author reminds the congregation that Christ is the foundation of our faith and hope, and they must endure in order to gain Christ’s benefits and blessings. Chapter 11 is a famous reiteration of heroes of faith who did remain faithful to God even in terrible circumstances. With this great “cloud of witnesses” in mind and heart, we must “run with perseverance” and keep our eyes on “Jesus the pioneer and perfecto of our faith” who know sits at God’s right hand (position of power) (12:1-2).

The author reminds the congregation that they have not yet been persecuted in ways that involve bodily harm (12:3) and encourages them about God’s discipline. I don’t believe that one should consider all hardship as correction and discipline sent by God; some hardships are just awful things that God does not want us to suffer. But opportunities for faith and strength can be found in hard circumstances. In 12:18-29, the author makes a penultimate warning against giving up faith, for the benefits of Christ are too wonderful to lose.

13:1-25 is the epistolary conclusion, warning them one more time (12:7-17) but also asking for prayers (13:18-19), asking them to be actively faithful, as well as empathetic and helpful to those who are suffering (13:3). The next to last verse, “Those from Italy send you greetings,” may or may not suggest that the congregation is in Italy and the author, who is elsewhere, knows believers who are also from Italy.

Here is another summary and discussion of the epistle, which has a good concluding reminder: "In a changing world, where the old landmarks disappear and old standards are no longer recognized, the only constant point of reference is the unchanging, onward-moving Christ, 'the same yesterday and today and for ever' (13:8); the path of wisdom is to face the unknown with Him. Our author anticipates Herbert Butterfield in finding here 'a principle which both gives us a firm Rock and leaves us the maximum elasticity for our minds; the principle: Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted' (Christianity and History [1950], 146)."

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Seven Lucky Gods of Japan

For my birthday in January, my daughter (who studied in Japan during most of 2016) bought me a book by Reiko Chiba, The Seven Lucky Gods of Japan (Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1966). What an interesting little book! She had earlier bought me a wall hanging of the seven gods in their treasure ship (see below). My wife Beth and I were first alerted to the gods when we were walking around the Machida area of Tokyo and noticed this statue (to the right) of the large headed god Fukurokuju. We didn't know the statue's significance because we couldn't read the inscription, but Emily filled us in later.

The Seven Lucky Gods are (except for one) based on deities of nearby cultures and have become popular patrons of different professions and virtues. The book gives a long list of professions that each god supports. Here is a brief summary of the seven:

Benten, or Benzaiten, is the goddess of art, knowledge, and beauty. She wears a flowing dress and holds a biwa (Japanese flute). She is similar to the Hindu goddess Sarasvati (who would be my favorite deity if I were Hindu.

Ebisu is the god of wealth, fair trading, and good fortune, and is considered an indigenous Japanese deity. He often holds a fishing rod.

Hotei is the god of good health and guardian of children, and also of magnanimity and good fortune.
When people erroneously think of Buddha (Siddhartha) as a little fat and bald, happy man, they are actually thinking of Hotei, who is based on the 10th century zen priest Kaishi.

Bishamon, or Bishamonten, is the defender against evil and protector of warriors. He is depicted as an armed warrior in armor.

Daikoku, or Daikokuten is the god of commerce, trade, and wealth, commerce and trade. He is depicted as a smiling man, holding a mallet. Interestingly, he may have originally been a deity of death like the Hindu god Mahakala.

Fukurokuju is the god of longevity, wealth, and happiness. He may have originally been a Dao god, or perhaps Confucius' disciple Roshi. Fukurokuju has an elongated forehead and a moustache, and holds a walking stick with a scroll. He is the only god of the seven to have power to revive the dead.

Jurojin is also a deity of longevity, as well as wisdom. He is an old, white-bearded man who wears a hate and carries a walking stick with a scroll.

My book indicates that the gods ride in a magic boat called the Takarabune, and they travel in this treasure ship from heaven to human ports each New Year's Eve. A person might place a picture of the gods under his or her pillow and, if the person dreams about the gods (and does not tell anyone about the dream), he or she will have good fortune for the year. The earliest mention of the Seven Lucky Gods as a group dates to the 15th century, in Fushimi.


Tu B'Shvat

Here's a website explaining the Jewish festival Tu B'shvat, "the birthday of trees." This year, the day begins this evening (January 30th). Lots of great significance in this minor holiday!
https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/tu-bshevat-2018/


Wednesday, January 24, 2018