The 19th century Danish author Hans Christian Andersen tells a story entitled the Ugly Duckling, where a scruffy, barnyard duckling grows into a beautiful swan. Almost everyone loves the story of a come from behind person, or in this case an animal, who turns into a winner. But those are popular stories of ugly becoming beautiful. It is a totally different issue when someone proclaims that beautiful is really ugly. But this is the very style, the unpopular stance, that biblical prophets often take. They were willing to critique the aesthetic culture of whatever empire they lived in and in which God had called them to minister. Even when the vox populi regarded something as beautiful, pleasing, worthy of adoration, they were bold enough to speak the vox dei and proclaim its ugliness.
|Model of Jerusalem Temple on Temple Mount|
Remember the prophet Jeremiah, who ministered through the reign of more than one Judean king? One king in particular (Jehoiakim) was proud of the beauty of his royal palace, and he is portrayed in the book of Jeremiah as boasting with these words, “‘I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.’ So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red,” (Jer. 22:14) to which Jeremiah responds, “Are you a king because you compete in cedar? . . . .your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion” (Jer. 22:15, 17).
Anyone who has seen a reconstruction of the Herodian Temple Mount and the Jewish Temple can identify with the amazement of one of Jesus’ apostles who was astounded at its beauty and splendor and remarked, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings! (Mark 13:1) Jesus then revealed his rejection of the aesthetic culture of most of his Jewish contemporaries; all Jesus could see was the Temple’s ugliness and declared its imminent destruction, notwithstanding its “beautiful stones and the gifts dedicated to God” (Luke 21:5).
By rejecting the popular aesthetic of his own day and culture, the prophet John places himself on the same trajectory as the prophetic voices mentioned above. Pagan authors of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD are clear in their praise of major cities of Roman Asia, e.g., Ephesus, Pergamum, and Smyrna, and even the fragmentary monuments that the modern tourist encounters support this praise. With clarity John can describe the Roman eye-candy that has mesmerized and seduced most of his contemporaries, but in the same paragraph he still knows the “mother of whores” when he sees her (Rev. 17:3-5).
|Augustean Gem in the Art
History Museum in Vienna, Austria
Roman authors, architects, and artists depict the magnificence of Rome and her influence in expressions of beauty and elegance, while John is committed to his urban ministry of showing that in God’s empire there is a reversal of things; once beautiful is now ugly. In more than one of John’s 7 letters he upbraids believers who still base their aesthetics on the values of the surrounding culture and therefore look for the attractive and the beautiful in Roman institutions and imperial ideology that defame the one, true God and at times unjustly brutalizes fellow believers. It is troubling to imagine that some of these believers in John’s churches were not even aware of the issues, much less that they had spent a large part of their lives regarding truly ugly things as beautiful.
Graeco-RomanAntiquities & the New Testament
There are things you can tell about an entire ocean even if you have only one cup of water from it. Naturally a scientist would like to have as many cups and as broad a sampling as possible, but even a single cup is of some help. The same is true when investigating the world of the New Testament. You can learn something even from one ancient document, though the explorer of the ancient world would like to have as many documents as possible.
I hope once a week to present a small sample of information that mirrors some aspect of the ancient world surrounding nascent Christianity.
Sometimes it is difficult for modern, western believers to appreciate the difficulties involved in the early Christians’ attack upon idolatry. The writings of Paul (1 Cor. 8-10), the book of Acts (Acts 19:18-19), and the Revelation of John highlight the reality that even those who were already believers had to be warned to stay away from idolatry. In the book of Revelation John brings up this issue of idolatry within congregations both in the letters to the 7 churches (Rev. 2:14, 20) and in his description of who will be excluded from heaven (Rev. 21:8, 15).
Of course, the opposition to idols expressed by early Christian writers was built upon longstanding Jewish teachings against idolatry, expressed early on in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5). Even later in Israel’s Scriptures, a strong polemic against idolatry can be seen in the book of Isaiah (chapter 44) and in the Psalter, the song book of Israel (Pss. 115:4-8; 135:15-18).
It is helpful to think about the reasons that so many people, including believers, felt the attraction of idolatry. The evidence from the city of Ephesus can furnish some insight into this issue. The dominant deity in this capital city of Roman Asia was the Ephesian Artemis. This goddess’s influence was, of course, known through the magnificence of her temple. In the first place it was a physically powerful piece of architecture, being much larger than the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis. This temple would not have made it into the prestigious list of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” had it not been a marvel and a source of civic loyalty and pride. It certainly was a building of international renown, since we know of pilgrims who came from all over the Mediterranean to worship the goddess there.
If a person considered pulling away from the worship of the Ephesian Artemis, it would require being willing to “swim against the tide” of religious reputation and prestige on an international scale. The goddess and her religion were also deeply embedded in the economic structures of the Roman provence of Asia. More than one pagan author comments on the wealth of the Temple of Artemis as well as her involvement in the economy of Roman Asia. It was not only the silversmiths mentioned in Acts 19 who were concerned about the economic impact of questioning the reality of the Ephesian goddess. It would require a deep Christian conviction for someone to support anti-idolatry preaching that actually devalued the local economy and possibly threatened the employment of friends and family.
|Cult statue of the Ephesian Artemis, with
the signs of the zodiac arranged as a necklace
above the breast-shaped objects on her statue.
The cult statue of the Ephesian Artemis is well known, and has been studied by many scholars. Rather than talking about the “breast-shaped” objects on the front, top part of the idols of the goddess [which may not have been associated with fertility], I would prefer to point out the zodiacal necklace that adorns many of the cult statues of the goddess. This religious necklace contains the various signs of the zodiac. By having this zodiacal necklace the religion of the Ephesian Artemis was promising her followers and worshippers that she controlled destiny, especially their astrological fate. Astrology in the Roman period was not a marginal religious belief. At that time astrology was widely believed, was supported by many of the popular philosophies, and was interwoven with the science of astronomy. Astrology was often relied upon by both religious and leading political figures.
This means, then, that to abandon the worship of the Ephesian Artemis required the strength of conviction to reject the comfort and consolation that this wealthy, internationally acclaimed goddess offered to her followers. Was one willing to align himself with this peculiar Christian sect at the expense of rejecting the promises of the Ephesian goddess, who promised to guide and guarantee the destiny of her worshippers by means of astrological fate and horoscope?
When John demands that believers reject idolatry, he is requiring a total repudiation of many important cultural and spiritual values of the contemporary culture. Some believers could not/would not hold tight to the Judeo-Christian convictions about the futility of idols and their worship. It is little wonder than in the context of John’s description of the New Heaven and New Earth he writes, “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev. 22:15).
With good reason many culture-watchers have repeatedly pointed out that our civilization is in a downward spiral characterized by decreasing civility. The lack of civility is manifesting itself in the popular media of talk radio and cable TV, in the halls of Academe, in the rhetoric of different political parties and their (un)official PACs, in the pulpits, armchairs, and sofas of religious and para-religious corporations, and in the culture shaping forces of the entertainment industry.
The intensity of his downward spiral has not gone unnoticed in influential circles. Scores upon scores of books have been written in the past decade or two to address this serious problem. University campuses are sponsoring “Choosing Civility” speeches, the city of Los Angeles purportedly held a “Civility Day” on May 13, 2009 [this may be an urban legend], and Christian authors are promoting the importance of civility for followers of Christ.
Well, what kind of score would the prophet John get on his “Civility Report Card”? In the current cultural atmosphere it is certainly not hard to find New Testament scholars who criticize John’s rhetoric of violence and his interpretation of the surrounding Roman culture. Invective statements, violent descriptions, or hostile epithets used by John are labelled as “non-Christian” or “primitive ideas” from Jewish Apocalyptic thought. As one who possesses an acknowledged fondness for John the prophet, it is still hard to shake off the impression that even with John’s best foot forward (or just looking at the red letter verses) some of his ideas and speech just do not project civility.
I am confident that I can not make John’s book match the current cultural standards for civility in the United States (not to mention whether that is even a desirable goal), but I think a case can be made that John’s standards for civility were not beyond the pale of other important biblical authors and personalities. My own study of Scripture has brought me to the conclusion that there is a recurring principle that is reflected throughout Scripture when one looks at the civility issue. The principle is that the rhetoric employed corresponds to the sin or spiritual crime committed. When atrocities are committed against God or others, the volume and vehemence of the rhetoric and threats increase.
It should go without saying (but it can’t) that a believers ethical paradigm is much larger and more complex than merely asking questions (even insightful ones) about WWJD. If it is only about the imitation of Christ, then all we need is a four-Gospels Bible. While it is always necessary to ask the WWJD question, it is not sufficient to stop there with the ethical questions and discussion about civility. When we talk about Jesus Christ himself, he does not necessarily make a perfect score on the “Civility Report Card.” This is in no way intend to detract from his perfect Report Card issued at the Council of Nicea (AD 325), Council of Constantinople (AD 381), Council of Ephesus (AD 431), and Council of Chalcedon (451). But the deportment of Jesus of Nazareth was not always civil.
When Jesus is recorded as saying “woe,” it should not be confused with the English homophone, “whoa.” Serious trouble lies in the future of the person to whom Jesus says “woe.” On one such occasion Jesus invoked an image of punishment and death that depicted a very uncivil punishment from God for causing a “little one to stumble.” In fact, Christ said, God’s punishment would be even worse than the illustration. “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Luke 17:1-2). I imagine this form of execution, by drowning, would easily be regarded as “cruel and unusual punishment” (8th Amendment to the US Constitution; 5th Article of Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by United Nations General Assembly). In another setting, Jesus responded to members of a different Jewish group/sect with these words, “Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds” (Matt. 23:27-28, The Message). In the same literary section Jesus vilifies his religious opponents, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matt. 23:33). Jesus also did not spare members of his own group from harsh and critical words. Jesus’ famous words with Peter, that included rebuke (Mark 8:32) and counter-rebuke (Mark 8:33a), ended with Peter being told by Jesus that he was clearly of the devil and had no idea about the thinking of God (Mark 8:33b). Only centuries of stained glass could remove the harshness and incivility of both Jesus’ mien and words in this story about Peter.
My justification for the absence of civility in these above mentioned episodes arises from the severity of the situation that Jesus was correcting. As stated earlier, “rhetoric employed corresponds to the sin or spiritual crime committed.” In some of these episodes spiritual atrocities occurred, such as causing “one of these little ones who believe to stumble” (Mark 9:42). In the Matthean setting of Matt. 23, Jesus’ opponents are guilty of:
“locking people out of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 23:13)
“making the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15)
“neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt. 23:23)
“killing and crucifying the prophets, sages, and scribes I send you” (Matt. 23:34).
In part 02 this line of discussion will be extended to incivility in the words of John and other biblical prophets, and whether their contexts give support to the invectives they used.
You, like many others, have probably wondered from time to time whether worship in heaven will be traditional or contemporary. Unfortunately, the book of Revelation is not as helpful in this matter as we might expect. Indeed, based upon the earliest recorded signing in heaven in Revelation, it looks like neither side of the worship wars can claim a certain victory. The “traditional worship” faction can claim that the singing of the four living creatures (Rev. 4:8) was certainly based upon using an old-timey song from the days of Isaiah (6:3), while the “contemporary worship” clique could just as adamantly argue that Rev. 4:8 is a praise song and belongs to their style.
While vying for a clear victory in the worship wars, but groups may have just overlooked what was truly thought-provoking about this first hymn, its emphasis upon the holiness of God. John of Revelation shares with Luke, the major author of the New Testament, a marked preference for holiness rather than love. Had it been the choice of the contemporary North American church [rather than God’s choice], we would have chosen to nurture and encourage congregations plagued with persecution and assimilation by eulogizing the love of God.
While the book of Revelation does have the term “agape” and its cognates half-a-dozen times, the term “holy” and its cognates occur over two-dozen times. What might lie behind this contrast. One possible explanation could be the fact that John’s audience needs to hear more about a holy and transcendent God who stands above it all and who is in control of history, rather than a God whose temperament is described in these lyrics, “My God and I go in the field together; We walk and talk as good friends should and do; We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter; My God and I walk through the meadow’s hue. We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter.” The crisis going on in John’s congregations needs a God who can crush “the mother of whores” (Rev. 17:5) and toss the oppressor state and its religious leaders into burning hell forever (Rev. 19:20) rather than a God whose voice rings with laughter and who is “holding hands” with Christians in “the meadow’s hue.”
Given the situation of these 7 congregations, it was also imperative for these Asian believers to be reminded first and foremost that they themselves were saints, set apart as the unique property of God. While it will be almost incomprehensible for some North American believers to grasp this, but being told you are loved by God may not always be the most crucial truth to be told in all circumstances. It seemed far more important to the prophet John (so also to Paul) to tell followers of Christ that they were “set apart,” saints, than that they were “beloved.”
In Revelation Jesus himself is described as “holy” (Rev. 3:7), and God is called holy both by the four living creatures and by the martyrs under the altar (Rev. 6:10). Three times the city of Jerusalem is modified by the term “holy” (Rev. 21:2, 10; 22:19). Significantly the term “saints” occurs more times in Revelation than any other book in the New Testament, and this term seems to be the term of choice for those who are willing to follow the Lamb wherever he leads. Even though the word Christian had been around for two generations, no one in Revelation is called a Christian.
The correct side in the current worship wars probably will not be revealed until heaven. In the meantime, it might just be the case that when God’s people are in a crucible that challenges their faithfulness more than their longevity, that the terms of choice to describe God and his people will resonate more clearly with the concept of holiness rather than love. If John were present today, he just might say, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”