I confess that I debated with myself, but not for long, whether to use the term extreme/extremism in this post. Looking around on the internet it is clear that there are far more quotations and opinions that speak disparagingly about extremism than speak in favor of it. I even remember (precocious youth that I was) the profound political fallout the use of the term “extremism” caused for Senator Barry Goldwater in his bid for the US Presidency as the Republican candidate in the 1964 election. For any political Padawans, the statement that got Goldwater in trouble with many was, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
Not many months before Senator Barry Goldwater was being marginalized for extremism by the Democratic National Committee in 1964, another herald of extremism was writing a portentous letter in April of 1963, not at the national convention of a major political party, but from a cell in an Alabaman jail. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. cradled a newborn vision of an America that demanded extremism, an extremism which hindsight now regards as the sine qua non for the victories of the Civil Rights Movement. I now quote a brief section from Dr. King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” [due to space I have omitted the statements for which each of these extremists was famous; full text at http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html%5D,
“But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love, . . ? Was not Amos an extremist for justice, . . ? Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel, . . ? Was not Martin Luther an extremist, . . ? And John Bunyan, . . ? And Abraham Lincoln, . . ? And Thomas Jefferson, . . ? So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
My point is that even the American people of the 1960s could see that not all extremism was cut from the same cloth.
We contemporary followers of the Lamb should certainly not be intimidated by the label “extremism” just because some political or religious hate group is labeled that way. We should not be deterred from all forms of extremism just because there are misanthropic extremists in some world religions. Modern followers of the Lamb need to cast a vision for creative extremism, to adapt Dr. King’s idea. Without apology (as though one could apologize for guidance from the Creator of the universe) the hearty fare of every extremist should consist of focused efforts through faith and practice, through prayer, and through word and deed. By virtue of its DNA, Christian extremism cannot help challenging the national status quo, questioning assumptions about wealth, justice, and sanctity of life, and providing articulate critiques of various cultural gods. Extremists will stand in the gap where walls are cracking and falling down in numerous sections of the moral edifice of the country (Ezek. 22). Moreover, this extremism I describe will be impotent if it does not look inwardly to foster personal sanctification of one’s “whole spirit, soul and body” (1 Thess. 5:23). One’s commitment to extremism for “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3) will certainly not be static. Extremism is always dynamic. With some frequency extremists will need to refresh and at times reboot the process. Every day offers opportunity for a new beginning to participate in the unique drama “where the kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev. 11:15).
The 19th century abolitionist Harriet Tubman strikes me as a black heroine from whom modern extremists could learn some lessons. She was an active member of the Underground Railroad. As a spy in the South, she knew she had to work in territory that was occupied and operated by the enemy. Harriet Tubman’s extremism is evident in her continued devotion to freeing slaves. In spite of many dangers and a long list of personal medical issues, she remained devoted to the cause to which she had given herself. Trip after trip, year after year, she struggled and endangered herself in trying to rescue others from the South’s barbaric slavery system.
Harriet’s extremism was based upon a very realistic view of her mission and the absolute necessity of self-discipline by each fellow slave wanting freedom. She carried a pistol and threatened to kill any of the black prisoners she was trying to lead to the North or Canada if they wanted to turn back. Sound too extreme? While Harriet’s threats belonged in the world of commando raids and the like and not in the world of church practices, her vision on this issue is insightful. This policy was not a result of her egotism, but a love for the cause of freeing her fellow slaves. She knew that if any of the escaped slaves traveling with her were to attempt to return to their owners, they could be tortured to reveal the route of the Underground Railroad and the locations of other escaped slaves. Was Tubman too extreme?
Next we look briefly at Jesus, just to see some of his extremism. The foundation of Jesus’ extremism is incontrovertibly his single minded allegiance to the will of God, this Creator of the universe and redeemer of Israel. Jesus’ radical devotion to God is manifested in what he regards as the first and foremost commandment for his followers, love and commitment to the Father [if you have been told the most important thing to Jesus was how you treated others, you have been misinformed; that is number 02, Mk. 12:28-34]. This extremism might lead you to have to abandon loyalties to your family members and society (Lk. 14:26). Some choices for God and his kingdom in the world are so radical that amputation of body parts is preferable to forsaking them (Matt. 5:29); sometimes you might even have to walk away from the funeral of a loved one (Matt. 8:22), or empty your saving account for the kingdom (Mk. 10:21). Those who don’t live as God demands aren’t even fit to be thrown out on a pile of manure (Lk. 14:34-5). Although the church who has been entrusted with the preservation of Scriptures, has gotten between the sheets with numerous paramours, it hasn’t yet been able to sanitize the record of Jesus’ extremism captured in his own words, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! . . . Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Lk. 12:51).
Finally, a look at the extremism of John the prophet. Where to start? Extremism toward his own congregations is evident in twice as many occurrences of the term “repent” used against the people of God as against the people who worshipped the beast. Or the picture of Jesus himself, rough-hewn and illiberal, spine-chilling to view (Rev. 1:12-7), with human carrion left in his wake (Rev. 19:11-21), and at home with every bit as much wrath to administer as God the Almighty (Rev. 6:16). The extremism of John’s Christian faith is also evident in his refusal to show respect for the teachings and actions of false Christians (Rev. 2:6, 24; 3:1b). He was also capable of not only demonstrating disrespect but also demonizing those holding anti-Christian views who engendered harassment against the church (2:10; 9:20; 11:7; 12:9; 17:5; 18:2). I am persuaded at the moment that there is something to be said for the view that some of the greatest criticisms of other world religions preserved in Scripture were not intended for public audiences, at least not most of the time. After all, when the Psalter of Israel was sung by Israelites, competing religions were crassly ridiculed (Ps. 31:6; 96:5; 97:7; 115:4; 135:15; cf. Isa. 44:18-20); there is no escaping this fact. Apparently no outsiders would have heard these disrespectful hymns regularly, except those outsiders with enough dissatisfaction with their own paganism to attend the Jewish temple services anyway. Similarly many of John’s most insensitive and disrespectful statements may never have been designed to be heard by outsiders. Nevertheless, the faith and practice that John inculcates through his prophecies is intended to engender an extremist community, i.e., seven congregations, that do not “respect” the views, politics, and religions of the surrounding population. The writers of the NT show no interest in forcing anyone to become a Christian (unlike in later Christendom), but they are clearly capable of extremism in their disrespectful expressions and descriptions of others.
Finally, John’s creative extremism also bequeathed a prophetic legacy for Christianity itself that not even Hercules could vanquish. With few, but significant, exceptions, John has left a document that is indecipherable to those too lazy or unwilling to read it through the lens of the Hebrew Scriptures. Do not overlook this vital legacy of John’s extremism, for he has left the church a collection of prophecies that have remained opaque to most readers. Even with its prime location and place of honor as the last and pinnacled book of Scripture, much of it remains dark and at times foreboding to many. Unlike many books of the NT, Revelation refuses entrance and denies access to those whose hearts, souls, and minds are not nurtured by the Jewish Scriptures. Fundamentally, this is not a question about the status of the church’s erudition, as though more graduate degrees in Hebrew, Greek, and Bible would automatically provide the solution.
This extreme feature of Revelation, where it shuts, if not slams, its door in the face of ecclesiastical visitors, exists overtly both because of the church’s overall sloth and its promiscuous heart. The former explains its clumsy efforts at penetrating the argot and themes of the book, all the while refusing to stand where Timothy did as Paul commended him with these words, “how from childhood you have known the sacred writings” (2 Tim. 3:15). The modern western church does not know the OT and barely knows the NT. The promiscuity of the church’s heart prefers to enjoy the acceptance and perks of the surrounding cultures. There seems to be a reflexive panic at the possible situation of someone calling the church “narrow minded” or using the epithet “sect.” It could make one wonder if the John’s extremist directive has been forgotten along the way, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins” (Rev. 18:4a).
I don’t imagine that any of us would like to be charged with laziness or spiritual promiscuity. It could even give birth to some awkwardness, embarrassment, or even a combative spirit. If guilty as charged, one can embrace Christian extremism or just stay lazy and apathetic. If you were in this condition, trying to desert the cause, and encountered Harriet Tubman, she would have put a bullet in you; if you were in this condition, betraying the gospel, and encountered the Messiah, well, I think you know . . . .
Without bothering or boring you with too many dry details, the interpretation of Rev. 3:10 is important in the ongoing disagreement between Premillennialists and Preterists regarding the correct paradigm for the interpretation of the entire book of Revelation. It is not my concern here, but this text is also central to the debate between Pretribulation and Posttribulation interpreters. The text reads (Rev. 3:10),
“Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.” (NIV)
Two terms are especially important in this disagreement, the Greek terms translated “world” and “earth.” The term rendered “world” is oikoumenē (Greek, οἰκουμένη), and the term rendered “earth” is gē (Greek, γῆ). Before going farther I need to mention what the “person-in-the-street” in the time of John the prophet believed about the extent and shape of the earth. I posted previously in this blog that as early as Aristotle Greek thinkers were asserting the sphericity of the earth, and, beginning in the 3rd century BC, Hellenistic culture (and later Roman culture) assumed the spherical dimensions of our planet. The image was everywhere in art and literature; it was not imagined to be flat like a plate. Most credit for this development goes to a Hellenistic geographer and mathematician named Eratosthenes (276-195 BC). He invented the idea of the lines of latitude and longitude we use, and is the one credited with determining the circumference of the earth, with fair accuracy (for a presentation, with drawings, of the mathematical and geographical techniques he employed see http://todaslascosasdeanthony.com/2012/07/03/eratosthenes-earth-circumference/); and there is even a lunar crater named after him.
Contrary to popular American culture and education, folks prior to Christopher Columbus already believed that the earth was a sphere. Hollywood also got this so wrong. In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier one of the leading characters challenges Kirk with these words:
Sybok: “What you fear is the unknown. The people of your planet once believed their world to be flat…. But Columbus proved it was round. They said the Sound Barrier couldn’t be broken… But it was broken” (Scene 175; Jr Sheets, former student, helped me locate which movie this scene was from. Kudos for Jr).
Sybok was incorrect, for Columbus already knew it was spherical; Columbus was just wrong, terribly wrong, about distances between locations on the spherical earth.
Back, now, to ancient texts. It has been my experience that many folk have been largely influenced by vague translations of the Bible and by scholars unaware of ancient geographical beliefs and sometimes about Greek hyperbole.
Regarding geographical views, many American Christians believe that John’s audience thought that their “world” basically ended with the limits of the Roman Empire. This is totally inaccurate. Any time silk was used in Rome, people knew that it was not produced originally within the Roman Empire. Silk came from the other end of the Silk Route, from the Far East. Looking into the NT, one just needs to read Acts chapter 2 with its “catalogue of nations,” and it becomes clear that early Christians would not have been scratching their heads in wonderment when Luke mentions “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia” (Acts 2:9), or when Paul mentions “barbarians and Scythians” (Col. 3:11). John’s own audiences certainly understood from John’s prophecies of the 6th trumpet and 6th bowl (Rev. 9:14 and 16:12) that large kingdoms existed east of the Euphrates.
Some misunderstandings also arise because modern readers of Scripture often forget that ancients, like moderns, employed hyperbole, an intentional exaggeration in their descriptions of things, all kinds of things. I am certainly not denying that many times descriptions are literal, but I am just questioning whether they must always be. Does the innocent sounding phrase “upon the whole earth” in Rev. 3:10 really require a literal interpretation? The post-exilic writings of 2 Chron. and Ezra show that literalism is unneeded when looking at some geographical statements in Scripture.
“The LORD stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom and also declared in a written edict: “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah” (2 Chron. 36:22-23= Ezra 1:2, NRSV).
Notwithstanding the enormous extent of the Achaemenid Empire, Cyrus could not have believed his own statement literally. Whatever the final eastward outpost of his kingdom, he knew that other regions, other cultures, and other governments existed still farther eastward.
Also worthy of consideration in this discussion is Isa. 37:11, when the king of Assyria (Sennacherib) sends this message to king Hezekiah to intimidate him into surrender, “See, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, destroying them utterly. Shall you be delivered?” Within the same story, if one consults the Greek translation of the nearby text of Isa. 37:18 (LXX), he sees that the two Greek words used in that verse were the same used by John in his phrase “the whole world” in Rev. 3:10. An English translation of this Greek text of Isa. reads, “For truly the kings of the Assyrians have made desolate the whole world and their country.” (A New English Translation of the Septuagint = NETS)
οἰκουμένης ὅλης (oikoumenēs holes, Rev. 3:10) “the whole world”
οἰκουμένην ὅλην (oikoumenēn holēn, Isa. 37:18) “the whole world”
Certainly the “kings of the Assyrians” had not desolated the entire planet earth.
Turning to the NT, a well known example of this phenomenon of hyperbole is found in Luke 2:1, which the NRSV renders, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world (pasan tēn oikoumenēn, Greek πᾶσαν τὴν οἰκουμένην) should be registered.” Clearly Augustus, as Julius Caesar before him and many Roman emperors after him, knew that much of the world known to him, stretching as far south as Tanzania and as far east as China, was not under his control (cf. Acts 11:28). Keeping in mind that Augustus could only order a census in regions that he controlled, the rendering of the NRSV is very misleading. To state the obvious, Augustus clearly could not have sent a decree to any empire, and there were many, outside the Roman Empire. The NIV is a far better translation of this Greek phrase since it makes it clear that this term “world,” even when it is modified by the adjective “all,” cannot mean the entire planet earth. Accordingly, the NIV correctly renders the phrase “the entire Roman world.” Although the adjective “Roman” is not found in the Greek text, that is clearly what Luke had in mind.
Similarly, the description of the “town” in Mark 1:33 should probably be taken as a hyperbole when Mark writes, “The whole town gathered at the door,” (holē hē polis, Greek, ὅλη ἡ πόλις). It should be historically unimaginable to assume a literal meaning of Rom. 1:8, written in the latter part of the 50s, when Paul wrote, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world” (holō tō kosmō, Greek, ὅλῳ τῷ κόσμῳ). Paul had not yet gone to Spain, and he only wanted to go to Spain so he could plant the gospel where no one else had begun churches (Rom. 15:20-24). Accordingly, there were no Christians in Spain to hear about the faith of the Romans when Paul wrote Rom. 1:8 to them. From a similar perspective, it would be hard to find a scholar of any hermeneutical position that would take literally Paul’s statements to the Colossians, written in the 3rd quarter of the 1st century, that “All over the world (panti tō kosmō, Greek, παντὶ τῷ κόσμῳ) this gospel is bearing fruit and growing” (Col. 1:6) and “This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven” (en pasē ktisei, Greek, ἐν πάσῃ κτίσει, Col. 1:23). No scholarly written history of Christian missions, at least that I know of, demonstrates that the entire planet was evangelized and had effective congregations (bearing fruit and growing) years prior to Paul’s own death.
Turning now to the term rendered “earth” (gē, Greek, γῆ) in Rev. 3:10. The best Greek dictionary for the NT lists several meanings of this term gē. In addition to the frequent gloss “earth,” it also defines it in this way: “portions or regions of the earth” for which it provides the glosses “region, country” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition by Walter Bauer and Frederick William Danker, p. 196). This means, then, that the term gē that translators too frequently and too routinely translate “earth” or “world” can refer to a much, much smaller area or physical region than the entire planet. The following list is selective, but chosen to show a variety of authors. Its purpose is hopefully to demonstrate how impractical it is, although translation committees do it all the time, to translate the following representative occurrences of the term gē with terms such as “world” or “earth.”
2 Chron 9:23 “And all the kings of the earth (gē) would seek out the face of Salomon to hear his wisdom, which God had given in his heart.” (NETS)
Ezek. 6:14 “And I will stretch out my hand against them and make their land (gē) into an annihilation and destruction from the wilderness of Deblatha, out of every habitation, and you shall recognize that I am the Lord.” (NETS).
Ezek. 8:17 “And he said to me. “Have you seen, son of man? Is it only a small thing for the house of Ioudas to commit the lawless acts that they have committed here? For they filled the land (gē) with lawlessness, and behold, they are like ones that turn their nose up.” (NETS).
Josh 9:24 “And they answered Iesous, saying, ‘It was reported to us what the Lord your God instructed his servant Moyses, to give you this land (gē) and to destroy us and all its inhabitants from before you.’” (NETS)
Luke 4:25 “But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land (gē).” (NRSV)
Luke 5:3 “He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore (gē).” (NRSV)
Luke 23:44 “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land (gē) until three in the afternoon.” (NRSV)
Acts 27:43 “But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land (gē).” (NRSV)
Heb. 11:9 “By faith he made his home in the promised land (gē) like a stranger in a foreign country.” (NIV)
It is hoped that this brief and selective exercise enhances the possibility for the idea that the terms “the whole world” and “the earth” in Rev. 3:10 could be better translated by terms such as “the entire region” and “the land,” referring to a region in Asia Minor or even perhaps the entire known Roman world, but not the entire planet earth. This perspective I advocate would be the perspective of the Preterist hermeneutic. Another advantage to this Preterist rather than Premillennial view (both Pre- and Post- tribulation) of Rev. 3:10 is that it does not have part of the promises given to 1st century believers and other parts to 21st century believers. The 2nd person pronoun, “you,” in the promise “I will also keep you,” ought to also be intended for the 1st century. It becomes very precarious exegetically when this “you” has to refer to a time when, the Premillennials insist, the hour of trial will come upon the whole planet earth.
Healthy Christian doctrine has always rightly insisted that God’s work in Christ is all-sufficient. Furthermore, Christianity has additionally been clear that anyone or any group that requires belief in Christ plus other things or other people or other rituals or other revelations is heretical. What has been unclear at times is the awareness that no matter how important and necessary the cross of Christ is, it is clearly not the entirety of the Christian gospel. To put it starkly, Christ is all-sufficient, but his cross is not. The story of God’s work, his essential work, for humanity and his own glory did not end on Friday, with the shedding of, to uses Peter’s words, “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish” (1 Pet. 1:19). Nor did it end on the first day of the week, Sunday, with the resurrection of Christ. Almost by rote many believers think they are summarizing the entire gospel if they say “death, burial, and resurrection.” What about the enthronement of Christ? What are we to make of his enthronement, especially in the book of Revelation?
Significantly for my thoughts here, it is noteworthy that the term cross does not occur a single time in Revelation, while the crucifixion of Christ is explicitly mentioned only once in Rev. 11:8. References to the blood of Christ do occur many times in the book, both because of its obvious role in securing “freedom from our sins by his blood” (Rev. 1:5), but perhaps also because of the very high number of references to the shed blood of the saints (e.g., Rev. 6:9-10; 16:4-6; 17:6; 18:24; 19:2). Just like a connection is made between the martyrdom of Antipas (Rev. 2:13) and the martyrdom of Christ by using the phrase “faithful witness” (ho martus, ho pistos, Greek ὁ μάρτυς, ὁ πιστός, Rev. 1:5; 2:13; 3:14) to describe only these two individuals in all of Revelation, so the references to the Lamb and the martyrs as those “slaughtered” (sphazō, NRSV; 5:6, 9, 12; 6:4, 9; 13:8; 18:24?) points to a solidarity of Christ and the martyrs. As we all know (I think), Christological emphases in the New Testament are crafted, in part, on the basis of the occasion and the contextual circumstances of the document in which they are found. Thus all the references to “blood” and “slaughtered” in Revelation may point to additional themes beyond atonement theology.
Revelation has a robust presentation of the story of God’s gospel is his work through the enthronement of Christ. It strikes me as significant that the first thing affirmed about Christ in the literary setting of the two chapter “throne room” scene in Revelation chapters 4-5 is Christ’s connection with his Davidic heritage, “See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (Rev. 5:5). Once this Davidic heritage is appreciated, then one sees the logical necessity of Jesus, certainly as the slain lamb, enthroned with God. Looking at other contexts in Revelation, it is no accident that the Christmas-Nativity drama of Revelation 12, just like the more “mundane” presentations of the Christmas-Nativity stories in the Gospels of Matthew (1-2) and Luke (1-2), cannot speak of the birth of the Anointed One without an inextricable association of the royal dynasty of David and the divine necessity of the enthronement of his heir. How much clearer could the association of Christmas-Nativity, Davidic theology, and Christ’s enthronement be than in John’s vision in Rev. 12:1-5? There the prophet correlates the reference to the birth of Christ with a Davidic Psalm (2:8-9) with these words, “to give birth . . . to a son, a male child, who ‘will rule all the nations with an iron scepter,’” (Rev. 12:5), and then in the same verse mentions the ascension and enthronement of Christ (“And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne,” Rev. 12:5). I certainly am not an advocate of theology based upon alliteration :-), but the more recent summary of the gospel story as “Cradle, Cross, and Crown” resonates better with the birth narratives of the Gospels and the book of Revelation than the “Cradle to the Cross” summaries I heard years ago during December.
[I have not read The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament, by Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles (2009), but I hope they have not too closely associated the “enthronement-crown” element with a pre-millennial approach to the NT, especially since enthronement Christology is also crucial for the Gospel of Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, Paul et al.].
Even though the robust enthronement perspective of the New Testament receives inadequate emphasis in modern western Christianity (if church architecture/art/sermons are any indication), it was well known in the early church. In Revelation it seems that even a spiritually deadhead, dullard, and deadbeat congregation like the one at Laodicea knows of the possible power of enthronement theology (Rev. 3:21). Generally scholars believe, and rightly so, that the individual promises made in the seven letters to those who overcome consist of terms and ideas well known to the readers and audiences in the time of John the prophet. Thus, when Jesus offered the Laodicean church a reward based upon his own prior enthronement, “just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev. 3:21b), we can assume, I think, that this was not gospel information previously unknown to them. Furthermore, it would need to be a significant element in Christian theology in order to serve as the foundation for the crucial promise “To the one who is victorious” (Rev. 3:21a).
With the 25+ references to the Lamb in the book of Revelation it goes without saying that the Lamb Christology is a dominant one in the book of Revelation. There are notable exceptions to its normal primacy, and these are significant. The leading Christology, to give one example of an exception, is the Christology for the letters to the seven congregations which is not the lamb, but the horrific “Son of Man” revealed in the Christophany of Rev. 1:12-16. In fact, the Lamb terminology does not even appear explicitly in Revelation until chapter 5.
So, as one thinks about the prophetic messages of Revelation and John’s Christological emphases, I have no interest in contributing to the diminution of “atonement through the blood,” but I do want to emphatically claim that Friday is not enough for us believers, and neither is Sunday. According to Luke, “over a period of forty days” (Acts 1:3) Jesus appeared to the apostles following the resurrection and then he ascended and was enthroned. And it is in the position of the enthroned Davidic king, with his feet on the neck of God’s enemies as described in Ps. 110:1 and referred to in Mark 12:36; Acts 2:34; Heb. 1:13; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; and 1 Pet. 3:22, and not in the position of one on a cross, that Christ is given to the church as its head (Eph. 1:20-22; in general see Richard Oster, Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible, pp. 11, 78, and 197!). Maybe, just perhaps, more believers today would be willing “to follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev. 14:4), if they, likewise, embraced the full-bore gospel, including the enthroned Son.
Several recent political victories by the LGBT community and their legal representatives have disturbed various traditional Christian communities. Adding to the understandable angst of these communities and organizations are the defections to the LGBT agenda by venerable quasi-religious organizations such the Boy Scouts of America. The number of Christian denominations reflecting what is called Mainline Protestants [=liberal Protestants] that embrace LGBT paradigms has also increased. For those who know me and/or the seminary for which I teach (Harding School of Theology) it will come as no shock to learn that I side with the traditional interpretation of Scripture that regards gay and lesbian lifestyles as outside God’s will for men and women.
Having granted that there is no new news in that, I do want to share some thoughts about an ancient time when similar upheaval was occurring in Europe, the middle east and north Africa. The time was the 4th century AD, when Classical Civilization, preserved through the Roman Empire, was experiencing an unparalleled metamorphosis. I am not referring to the unparalleled metamorphosis that took place a few centuries earlier with the advent of the good news of God revealed through the message about Jesus Christ, and its rapid movement, like a spreading flame, through that same part of the world. This 4th century AD metamorphosis was the forceful overthrow of religious tradition, beliefs, and institutions that had been cherished by pious believers for millennia, through legal maneuvers and political and ecclesiastical machinations.
The change of the moral and religious landscape in America may seem staggeringly rapid, but it is slow in comparison to the magnitude of the sea change that occurred in the 4th century AD and has been subsequently applauded by many Christians in the ensuing centuries. In the mid-3rd century AD followers of Christ suffered systematic persecution under Trajan Decius and in the first years of the 4th century Christians experienced systematic persecution under the Diocletianic Persecution. Then in the early decades of the 4th century hostilities against Christianity ended under the Roman Emperors Galerius and Constantine the Great. With the passing of the years Christianity rapidly moved from persecuted religion of the Roman Empire, to tolerated religion of the Roman Empire, to the official religion of the Roman Empire, to the “only legal religion” of the Roman Empire. By AD 380 the Emperor Theodosius the Great ordered that all Christians must be “Catholic Christians” who conformed to the Council of Nicea. This particular Edict of Theodosius ends with these words (AD 380),
We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict.
Thus, within approximately 70 years leaders of Christianity had transmuted from persecuted to persecuting, from being persecuted by paganism to persecuting other followers of Christ who would not bow the knee to their interpretation of Christianity, on fear of persecution and possible death.
After shutting down opposing Christian views by force rather than non-violent persuasion Theodosius turned his sanctimonious ire to those who had not yet left paganism and idolatry. Older readers may remember the unconscionable behavior of the Taliban when they controlled Afghanistan in the early 21st century and used dynamite to destroy large Buddhist statues that had been in the Banyam Valley since the 6th century AD. Taliban jihadists used this violence against monuments in the name of religious purity, much like the current Egyptian Taliban jihadists who promise to destroy, if given the opportunity, the pyramids and Sphinx of Egypt. A similar outlook was part of the “jihadist” perspectives of Theodosius. This emperor criminalized all pagan religious practices, both public and domestic, both official and private. Certainly Theodosius was not the first Christian who thought in these terms. Julius Firmicus Maternus, a mid-4th century Christian author of the Senatorial class, penned a hostile essay to the Emperors Constantius II and Constans entitled “Concerning the Errors of Profane Religion.” In addition to berating paganism, the author argues that all pagans should be forcibly converted to Christianity; if they resist, Firmicus Maternus argues from the Bible, they should be killed. Theodosius, unlike Firmicus Maternus, had both a disposition and the means to eradicate paganism. Architecture, activities, temples, and sacred monuments: all removed by force of legal maneuvers and political and ecclesiastical machinations.
Well, enough of the 4th century, especially from someone not trained in Patristics. It seems, however, that it may just be that the legal advantage given to Christendom by Constantine the Great and Theodosius the Great (cf. Mark 9:34-37 on Jesus’ view about who gets to wear the epithet “great”) and perpetuated by most of the European Reformers has past its prime. This longstanding position, engendered by an unsupportable theology and upheld by legal maneuvers, has perhaps run its long course. Its death will probably not be as quick as paganism’s, but it is time for those whose faith and practice rest on Scripture to get on with Kingdom business with or without the help of legal maneuvers and political and ecclesiastical machinations.
No doubt many Christians find this title disturbing, for many reasons. It is a negation of Luke 23:34 which traditionally has been the first of the Seven Last Words from the Cross. Beyond being disturbed by the theology of this negation, many would also consider it disturbing to realize that this whole sentence, recorded only in the Gospel of Luke, is not even found in many of the best Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke. The Net Bible [https://bible.org/netbible/] and the NRSV put it in brackets to indicate this problem, and most other modern translations use a footnote to indicate some early manuscripts omit this sentence, Luke 23:34a. It is doubtful in the judgment of many scholars that this sentence was in the original version of the Gospel of Luke. Besides, who wants a sermon or sermon series on Jesus’ Six Last Words from the Cross J? Since most believers still embrace the piety and theology of this questionable Lukan reading of 23:34a, I want to address this as a segue to an issue and important interpretation in the book of Revelation.
In my limited experience I have met Christians who believe this verse teaches a kind of general divine amnesty, regardless of the situation or sin. This is problematic in itself since it ignores the term “for” (Greek gar, γὰρ) which gives the reason that Jesus intercedes for those killing him. Consequently, it does not require a huge step to draw the implication that if the killers of Jesus did in fact know what they were doing, then the intercession would have been worded very differently, perhaps similar to the title of this post. There certainly is other evidence that God’s forgiveness can be predicated upon the knowledge or ignorance of those who have sinned. Paul’s autobiographical reflections indicate this about his own salvation and God’s forgiveness toward him when he wrote to Timothy, “I was shown mercy because (Greek hoti, ὅτι) I acted in ignorance and unbelief . . . . But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:13b, 16).
The title for this post comes from the Polish artist Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), who fled Poland as a Jew seeking refuge from the growing menace of Hitler and Nazi anti-semitism. He moved to the UK in 1937 and to the USA in 1940, where he remained until his death. Szyk had used this title of a work depicting Hitler’s rape and killing of women and children in Europe. But in 1949 he used the same words as the title of a drawing depicting the mistreatment of an American Black man by the KKK. Besides pointing out some of the similarities between the racism of Nazi ideology and KKK racist ideology, it seems that Szyk’s point was that some crimes against other humans are so intentionally barbaric and egregious that one unwilling to repent goes beyond the limits of God’s general amnesty. Any serious student of Scripture knows that both the OT and NT teach that there are limits to the practice of intercession to God on behalf of others. That is, if their crimes against God and others are so wicked, then repentance and change of behavior are the preconditions for effective intercession (Jer. 15:1-3; 1 John 5:14-17, from the “Apostle of love”). Thus, Szyk is pointing out that the architects of these brutal ideologies, both National Socialism and KKK racism, should not expect forgiveness since their crimes arose from cancerous souls and petrified hearts and not from ignorance of their barbarism.
With these issues and interpretations before us, let’s go now to a scene in the book of Revelation, namely the prophet John’s depiction of the 5th Seal (Rev. 6:9-11). This has become a controversial part of John’s vision, since in the mind of some critics the prophet presented martyred Christians acting in ways that are “sub-Christian.” Although not unique to the 20th century, the very influential 20th century NT scholar Rudolf Bultmann (a German NT scholar whose methods I love to hate) promoted the idea of what has been called Sachkritik [content-criticism]. This approach allows one to criticize the content of portions of Scripture using other portions of Scripture regarded as more central or important than the part being criticized. Sometimes even one part of a NT writer’s content will be criticized on the basis of another part of the same author’s writings. In Revelation some have criticized John’s depiction of martyred saints who “in a loud voice” ask God, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Rev. 6:10). Those who have problems with this scene of the 5th Seal point to the unchristian nature of a follower of Christ asking for revenge.
In an earlier post I attempted to initially address the issue of the importance of justice to God, and how this can be seen in sections of Revelation. I want to look at this again, but this time from the perspective of the heavenly temple furniture in Revelation’s depiction of the opening of the 5th seal. Apparently because of the occurrence of the two terms “slain/slaughtered” and “blood” in Revelation 6:9-10, it has become the default interpretation for many scholars to see this imagery of the altar in terms of the OT sacrificial system. Thus, Reddish (Revelation, p. 130) writes that “This imagery was likely suggested by Leviticus 4:7. Which states that the blood of the sacrificial bull was poured out at the base of the altar,” while Fair (Conquering With Christ, A Commentary on the Book of Revelation, p. 190) notes, “The association of their [the martyrs] death with an altar implies two possibilities, either the altar of sacrifice or the altar of incense and prayer. Both are implied.” Talbert’s commentary says very little on this issue (The Apocalypse. A Reading of the Revelation of John, p. 33) and Aune’s (Revelation 1-5 (Word Biblical Commentary 52a) does not invest much time on the altar, though he does give many references to the idea of God’s retribution to those who shed innocent blood.
What I think has been missing in many commentaries is the recognition of the biblical connection between justice which the martyrs cry for and their location at the altar. Sometimes lost in all the Pentateuchal correlations of the altar and blood sacrifice, there is a neglected text in Exodus 21:14 that reads, “But if anyone schemes and kills someone deliberately, that person is to be taken from my altar and put to death.” First we must remember that the altar was a place of blood and especially the “four horns” of the altar, as seen in Exod. 29:12, “take some of the blood of the bull and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger” (e.g., Lev. 4:7, 18, 25, 32). Most scholars rightly believe that Israel’s altar, like in many other religions of the Ancient Near East and Graeco-Roman world, was considered a place of asylum or temporary sanctuary where accused could flee until a just decision was rendered. Consequently, Exod. 21:14 is indicating that this divine place for true justice cannot serve as a place for criminals to look for amnesty. A premeditated murder, for example, was viewed very differently by God from accidental death (hence, cities of refuge in Numbers 35). Seeing this piece of sanctuary furniture as a location for justice certain resonates with the well known episode of 1 Kings 1:49-53. Refreshing the memory, at the time of King David’s death his elder son, Adonijah, attempted a coup d’é·tat to seize the throne rather than allowing the heir designate, Solomon (son of David and Bathsheba), to become king. When the coup is stopped in its tracks and Adonijah and his supporters realize the doom of their efforts, the author of 1 Kings reports, (1 Kings 1:49-53)
Then all the guests of Adonijah got up trembling and went their own ways. Adonijah, fearing Solomon, got up and went to grasp the horns of the altar. Solomon was informed, “Adonijah is afraid of King Solomon; see, he has laid hold of the horns of the altar, saying, ‘Let King Solomon swear to me first that he will not kill his servant with the sword.’” So Solomon responded, “If he proves to be a worthy man, not one of his hairs shall fall to the ground; but if wickedness is found in him, he shall die.” Then King Solomon sent to have him brought down from the altar. He came to do obeisance to King Solomon; and Solomon said to him, “Go home.”
Shortly thereafter Adonijah and his anarchist coterie make another attempt upon the throne. The worst of them are killed, but not before one of them, Joab, attempts to escape by fleeing to the altar where he “grasped the horns of the altar” (1 Kings 2:28). Since Joab has “schemed” in the sense of Exod. 21:14, Solomon has him removed from the altar and executed.
My point: the altar is associated not only with sacrifices in the OT, but also as a place for those seeking justice, true justice. When one reads the content of the 5th Seal, one needs to associate this theme of justice also with the very words of the slain martyrs. The focus of their prayers is divine justice when they petition for judgment and vengeance (Greek, krinō and ekdikeis, κρίνεις καὶ ἐκδικεῖς). How can God’s justice be evident when this butchery of believers goes unanswered? It is no accident that later in Revelation (Rev. 16:7) John records, “the altar responded, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just!” Even the altar itself could no longer be silent about God’s justice revealed through judgment, since that was an essential, even quintessential, facet of its own identity as an altar.
Those familiar with Roman history, culture, and imperialistic propaganda recognize this iconic tableau. Three simple objects: the Roman she-wolf (Lupa Romana), Romulus, and Remus. This simple scene was part of the founding myth of the city of Rome, purportedly in the 8th century BC, and its ensuing empire that dominated the world in which the prophet John wrote and ministered. Founding myths from antiquity often contained irreconcilable legends and characters, and that is clearly true of the founding myths of Rome. This problem was also recognized by the ancients themselves who then usually combined (unsuccessfully) elements of the various legends into one founding myth.
Our concern is the myth, preserved in a variety of Greek and Latin sources, that identified two suckling babies, Romulus and Remus, as the founders of Rome. Once upon a time there was an internecine struggle within a royal family in Italy. There were infant heirs abandoned at the Tiber River, only to be (miraculously) rescued from sure doom and then they were suckled by a she-wolf. Stated briefly they are reared and develop into adult proto-types of later Roman leaders. There is a sibling quarrel in which Remus is killed by his brother Romulus in conjunction with the founding of a new city. As sole survivor Romulus establishes the new city, names it Rome after himself, and rules the Roman people. Thus, Romulus is considered by everyone to be the Founder of Rome and all that it will ever become.
This iconic picture came to stand for the very heart of Roman history, religion, and culture, especially with the promotion of the divinity of Romulus later in life. Following is a summary of the apotheosis (deification, consecratio) of Romulus given in the works of two Augustan era writers, the historian Livy and the poet Ovid. Based upon Livy, Romulus is taken into heaven during a meeting with Roman Senators, “snatched away to heaven by a whirlwind” and declared by those nearby as “a god, the son of a god, the King and Father of the City of Rome.” Accordingly, Romulus was prayed to and petitioned for grace, favor, protection, and good fortune for the Roman people. Sometime later the god Romulus appeared again on earth to give this divine commission, predicting Rome’s future global domination,
“Go,” said he, “tell the Romans that it is the will of heaven that my Rome should be the head of all the world. Let them henceforth cultivate the arts of war, and let them know assuredly, and hand down the knowledge to posterity, that no human might can withstand the arms of Rome” (Livy, History of Rome, I.16).
In poetic parlance Ovid depicted the god Mars speaking to Jupiter (Zeus) with these words about the ascent of Romulus into the heavens,
Since the Roman state is strong, on firm foundations, and does not depend on a single champion: free his spirit, and raising him from earth set him in the heavens. You [Jupiter] once said to me [Mars], in person, at a council of the gods (since I am mindful of the gracious words I noted in my retentive mind), “There will be one whom you will raise to azure heaven” (Metamorphoses, Book 14.805-828, Translated by A. S. Kline © 2000 All Rights Reserved).
The god Mars then comes to Rome and brings Romulus to heaven to be there with the Olympian deities.
It is not a wild theory to imagine that those early believers living in Roman Asia knew this founding myth and its iconography, since it had been on Roman coins since the time of the Republic and was well known in popular art and literature. Obviously the prophet John did not believe in the divinity of Romulus, nor the Roman propagandistic ideology that “it is the will of heaven that my Rome should be the head of all the world” (Livy, History of Rome, I.16). John knew instead that the future destiny of the world and its inhabitants was not controlled by Roman hegemony, but by “the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” (Rev. 11:15). Indeed, as Revelation chapter 17:5 makes clear, John viewed Rome, with all her wealth and worldly influence, as the mother of all whores, a decadent slut.
Had all the believers in these seven congregations of Roman Asia agreed with John’s penetrating ridicule of Rome, then John would not have written Revelation the same way. But in fact not all believers in churches, both then and now, embrace the Bible’s intolerant outlook toward whoring cultures and civilizations. For some in John’s congregations it was just too easy and comforting to go to the breasts of Rome, to the she-wolf. The milk of conformity, the zeitgeist of John’s culture and ours, seems too sweet and soothing, indeed tranquilizing. Imagine the iconic tableau we began with, but now those two infants are no longer Romulus and Remus, but the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:6) and Balaamites (Rev. 2:14), assimilated first century churchgoers whose works and influence must be hated (Rev. 2:6).
Much like Romulus and Remus there were Christians in the seven congregations who had experienced the she-wolf’s milk as sustaining and fulfilling, indeed as life and sustenance. John’s call to his readers is to walk away from the she-wolf and to refuse being suckled on Rome’s milk of wealth, decadence, abusive power, and idolatry, and rather to walk toward the Lamb and follow the Lamb wherever he leads (Rev. 14:4).
Recently Hollywood billionaire movie director, screenwriter, and producer Steven Spielberg spoke during a panel discussion with his equally credentialed friend George Lucas. This panel discussion took place at the School for Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. Among other things, they spoke about the future direction of the movie industry.
Even though both of these Hollywood magnates share responsibility for letting the “special effects” genie out of the bottle in Hollywood movies, they now share a growing concern that future movies, at least those shown in popular theaters, will be driven by techno-glitz, by cinematic bling, rather than substance. “First, technology should never be in the driver’s seat, because the narrative is always the most important thing, they said,” according to a recent report given at NBR.com (http://nbr.com/2013/06/13/steven-spielberg-film-industry-implosion-lies-ahead/). In the same context Spielberg prophesies,
There is going to be a day when the experience is going to be the price of admission, . . . . What I fear about that day coming is that the experience will trump the story or the ability to compel people through a narrative. And it’s going to be more of a ride, a theme park, than it is going to be a story, and that’s what I hope doesn’t happen.
Although not an avid movie viewer myself, when reading about these concerns I could not help seeing some parallels between Spielberg’s apprehensions about the future of Hollywood and its movies and the tragically flawed history of the interpretation of the book of Revelation. But, after all, has the content of this last book of the Bible been so poorly interpreted? Yes, it has, and not only in my judgment but also in the judgment of those who specialize in surveying the history of the interpretation of Revelation. It seems to me that the most injurious interpretations have come from those who are especially adept at marginalizing the story of Revelation for the sake of what is often regarded as the spectacular in it. There is no question that Revelation contains the spectacular, the sensational, the sensory, and the provocative. Undoubtedly there are many literary “special effects” in Revelation: fantastic symbols, a use of numerology that challenges even the best interpreters, compelling avatars, e.g., sensual prostitute and sadistic beast, based upon OT allusions, and a use of color unparalleled elsewhere in Scripture, to name a few.
Nevertheless, none of these “special effects” is the point of John’s prophecies. For many interpreters, however, these fascinating aspects of Revelation are, to use Spielberg’s language, “the experience[s]” so sought after by humans rather than “the story” of the text. Certainly students of Revelation can better understand John’s prophecies if they immerse themselves in the sights and sounds accompanying John’s prophetic text. But even this immersive experience should primarily be encountered as a means to comprehending the story of Revelation –– a drama culminating in the coming of the new heavens and new earth –– and not as an end in themselves.
Some congregations or individuals seem to merely want to frolic in the iconography or numerology of Revelation or be drawn into the book’s phantasmagory and all the while leaving their hearts and souls untouched by John’s prophetic messages. It is these “special effects” interpreters who want Revelation “to be more of a ride, a theme park” than to be about John’s story, namely the dangers of assimilation (looking inwardly) or God’s condemnation and judgment of nations (looking outwardly) that deviate egregiously from God’s paths of justice. It is these who are most likely doomed to miss what the Spirit says to those who have ears to hear.