Living on Patmos

January 27th, 2014

John writes the Book of Revelation from the Isle of Patmos. This was a small island about 40-50 miles off the coast in the Aegean Sea. It is now considered to be one of the most charming and idyllic of places to live, but this hasn’t always been the case. In John’s time, Patmos was considered a barren place because of its rocky terrain. The Roman government used it as a place to banish criminals, who were often forced to work the mines there.

John was not there on vacation. This was not his retirement home. He was separated from everyone he loved. He could not participate in the work to which he had given his life.

Think of John. He had devoted his entire life to following Jesus. He had been there when Jesus came walking on the water. He had watched Jesus feed thousands. He saw Jesus cry at the death of his friend Lazarus. He stood stunned as Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb! He had been there at the cross — the only one of Jesus’ friends who was there. It was to John that Jesus said, “Take care of my mother for me.”

John had been there on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon him and his compadres. He saw thousands of people baptized. He took that gospel message to folks near and far. He had done everything he knew to do, and where had it gotten him?

Exiled on a rock in the sea — sentenced to hard labor — cut off from the people and work he loved.

Patmos is the place of despair and disappointment. And every person I know who follows Jesus ends up spending some time on Patmos.

Maybe it will be a divorce. Or your health. Or a strained relationship with your children or your parents. Maybe it will be unemployment. Or depression. Or loneliness. Or anxiety.

There will be something — some way in which you begin to feel desperate and disappointed — cut off from everything you love. If you follow Jesus long enough, you’ll eventually end up in Patmos.

And what is it that you need in those seasons? What do you really need most when you find yourself exiled to a desolate place in the middle of the sea?

You don’t need more information. You don’t need platitudes. You don’t even need answers to the legion of questions swirling around in your brain.

No, you need what John needed — which, thankfully, is precisely what he received. You need a bigger picture of Jesus.

Reading Revelation

January 23rd, 2014

I am convinced that one of the reasons we avoid Revelation is the same reason we are so prone to misinformation regarding it. The plain truth is this: The Book of Revelation is not about us.

Don’t get me wrong; we’re in there. We’re just not front and center like we are with so many of the passages we love to study — the passages that come out of the second half of Paul’s epistles, for example. We like those passages. They’re pretty straightforward. It’s pretty easy to grasp the message of, say, Ephesians 5:15-16 or Philippians 4:6 or Colossians 3:13. Those verses are all about us and how we ought to behave.

The subject of Revelation is not us, and this confuses us. We don’t know how to read things that aren’t about us.

The subject of Revelation is Jesus, and you can look for a very long time in Revelation before you find a command addressed to us.

For that matter, you can read a lot of Jesus’ words and not find a command addressed to us. More often than not, Jesus was content to tell us what God is like, what humans are like, what the world is like, what the kingdom of heaven is like. Then he trusted that, if we trusted his words, we would adjust our lives accordingly.

I’ve talked on this blog before about the danger of anthropocentric hermeneutics — reading the Bible as if we’re the main subject — as opposed to theocentric hermeneutics — reading the Bible with the understanding that God is the main subject. But it bears repeating as it will determine to a large extent how much we get out of our time in Revelation.

Before we get to asking ourselves how to apply specific passages in specific ways, we must go through the exercise I spoke of yesterday. We must dig beneath the obvious to find a principle that can apply universally without being bound by time or language or culture. But before we even do that, it will be helpful for us to ask ourselves the question that all good Bible reading begins with:

What does this passage teach me about the character and nature of God?

After we’ve answered that question, we should probably follow up with this one:

How should I adjust my life to fit with that brand new understanding of reality?

Asking ourselves those two questions before we do anything else will greatly enhance our experience reading any text — especially Revelation.

Crossing the Bridge

January 22nd, 2014

Last week in my class on Revelation, I talked about a simple hermeneutical exercise that I find helpful in interpreting any biblical text. I got this picture from a textbook called Grasping God’s Word by Scott Duvall & Daniel Hayes. And when I say, “I got this picture from” I mean I used my phone to take a picture of the page:

photo-2

I’m pretty sure I just violated some sort of copyright law, but I’ve given credit to the authors and cited the textbook. I’m hopeful my friends in the theological and publishing communities will cut me some slack!

Now, here’s how I used this illustration in my class. You see the little community on the left. It’s ancient. You can tell because there’s a guy wearing a dress. For some reason, that means “ancient”. Imagine that as the original readers of the Bible.

On the right you can see contemporary society. Even within that, there are differences between big cities (top right) and smaller places (center and lower right).

Our task is to take something that made perfect sense to people in the village on the left and figure out how to interpret and apply it to people who live on the right.

We understand that there is a river that separates us. That river includes time and differences in language and cultural mores. The river may be more narrow in some places (where the ancient culture is similar to ours) or wider in other places (where the ancient culture or language or situation or context is vastly different from ours).

The question is: How do we carry the message from one side of the river to the other?

The answer is in what is known as the “principlizing hermeneutic” — in other words, find a timeless and eternal principle, then figure out how to best apply that principle in your current context.

Let’s take an example from the Old Testament. God commanded the people of Israel to be a little sloppy in the way they harvested their crops. He told them to leave the corners of their fields untouched. This was done so that widows and orphans and strangers who had fallen on hard times could have a way of eating while also maintaining their dignity. Let those people “glean” the fields.

If you pretend there’s no difference between their culture and ours, you might find yourself at a loss as to how we should apply such a command. I don’t have any fields. Should I only mow the middle of my front yard and leave the corners alone?

No, there is a principle beneath that command: Be generous and thoughtful towards those who are in need.

Now, armed with that principle, we can cross the bridge between their culture and ours and figure out how that principle may be applied in a big city or a rural community in 2014.

This concept is going to really help us as we move through the Book of Revelation. I’ll refer back to this often.

Revelation: Why Bother?

January 21st, 2014

The Bible is such a big book, and there are so many wonderful sections we could devote ourselves to studying. I’ve spent seasons of my life immersed in studying the four Gospels. I’ve spent other times walking slowly through the Old Testament. There are biographies of great men and women like Joseph or David or Ruth or Esther or Daniel.

Why should we devote the next few months to a study of Revelation?

This is a good question, but I’ll begin by answering with the most obvious reason. It is in the Bible. God has given us the Bible to reveal his character, his nature, and his will for our lives. There are things about each of those that we only learn in Revelation. We’ll miss out on some things if we skip this book.

Plus, you’re going to meet John one day in heaven. He might even ask, “So, what did you think of my book?” How awkward would that be? Reading Revelation may spare you both some embarrassment and prepare you to have an intelligent conversation with the beloved Apostle!

Beyond those two reasons, I’ll give you one more. This one will only be obvious to those who have cracked the book open and at least started reading through it. There’s a blessing for those who read it. John writes,

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. (Revelation 1:3)

This is the only book in the New Testament that carries a promised blessing like that.

Of course, there’s a little more to it than just being blessed with new information. That phrase “take to heart” implies actually doing something with the information you have — responding in obedience — behaving in accordance with what you’ve just learned. That’s where the real blessing is.

Now, don’t think I’m advocating a simple kind of legalism here. God is not just promising to bless obedient boys and girls. I think what he’s getting at is that those who know how to respond to their circumstances well will live truly blessed lives. And that would have been good news to the people who first read these words.

See, they didn’t feel blessed. They were being persecuted. They were being harassed. Some of them were facing terrible hardships because of their faith. John himself was in exile — writing from a prison on an island. When that kind of stuff starts happening, when you find yourself in trouble because of your beliefs, it’s easy to give up. It’s a strong temptation to quit.

But John tells them, “Don’t you stop. If you read this book and work on living in light of its message, you’ll be blessed.”

Maybe your circumstances will change. Maybe they won’t. But you’ll find out what it means to live in the power and presence of Almighty God. You’ll know the joy — when the literal, personal, visible return of the Lord Jesus Christ occurs — of hearing him say, “Well done.”

Obsession or Avoidance

January 20th, 2014

Last week I kicked off a new teaching series at Stonecreek Church. We’re calling it “The End” and we’ll spend the next few months walking our way through the Book of Revelation. If you’d like to listen to the audio files, you can check the website here.

I can’t think of another portion of the Bible that is the subject of as much confusion and curiosity as Revelation. Also, I don’t know of another portion of the Bible that people are so willing to completely ignore. We tend to lean in one of two directions: obsession or avoidance.

And I get it.

Some people really believe that John’s writings there at the end of the Bible contain some kind of secret code — some insider information that can help us solve the jigsaw puzzle and map out an outline of the end times. They create all sorts of charts and graphs and study guides to help people connect the dots between this ancient text and contemporary headlines.

There are people who are convinced that Jesus is going to return in our lifetime. These people often believe that Revelation holds the key to figuring out when and where and how. Take William Miller, for example. He wrote:

Desolating earthquakes, sweeping fires, distressing poverty, political profligacy, private bankruptcy and widespread immorality which abound in these last days, obviously indicate that the Lord is returning immediately.

Of course, he wrote that in 1843.

Jesus said lots of things that are confusing. Up is down. The first will be last. Love your enemies. This bread is my body. Drink my blood. I understand. Those are strange statements, and it takes some discernment to figure out what he meant.

But every once in a while, Jesus said something that was so startlingly clear even a child could understand it. In Mark 13, Jesus makes such a statement, when he says:

But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come (vv. 32-33).

Jesus says even he doesn’t know when he will return. Only the Father knows that. Jesus does not say, “No one knows when the second coming will take place, so I want you to spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure it out.” No, in fact, he says the opposite. It’s not for us to know when. It’s our task to get busy and stay alert.

And that means we have to quit obsessing over the Book of Revelation as if it were a way to crack this code and create a timeline of the endtimes.

On the other hand….

There are some who would rather just avoid the book altogether. And I understand that, too. There are beasts in this book. And blood. And bowls. There are people eating scrolls and bottomless pits and dragons. There’s the great whore of Babylon and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. War. Famine. Death.

Maybe we should just stick with, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

No, the answer is neither obsession nor avoidance. The answer is to take Revelation back from the wackos and the weirdos. The answer is to approach this study with openness and humility remembering that all Scripture is useful for making us into the men and women God wants us to be (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

So, here we begin our journey through The End.

Ontology Matters

October 7th, 2013

Several years ago I was flying home from North Carolina after spending a weekend teaching at a church there. The man sitting next to me pulled out a philosophy test and began filling it out. I asked him if he was a student, and he said that he was actually a first-year professor of philosophy at a state university here in the southeastern portion of the United States. He asked what I do, and the conversation took a strange turn when I said, “I’m a theologian.”

He immediately told me that he had been a graduate assistant for Daniel Dennett, and he wondered if I’d had a chance to read Breaking the Spell (which had just come out not too long prior to this). I had not, so he told me the central theme of the book. I told him that I had read Sam Harris‘ book, The End of Faith. He asked me if I might be afraid to read Dennett’s book. I smiled and said, “Why would I be afraid?” He responded, “Well, it might cause you to question some things.”

I assured him that I questioned things all the time. That’s my job.

He didn’t quite know how to respond to that. “What do you mean?” he asked.

I told him, “I don’t only read ‘Christian’ books. I want to know the other points of view. I couldn’t speak to the issues intelligently otherwise — at least not with any credibility.”

Then I asked him, “Do you think Dr. Dennett read enough to interact responsibly with any Christian scholars? There actually are some, you know.”

I even listed some for him: Ravi Zacharias. Alister McGrath. N.T. Wright. Alvin Plantinga.

He’d never heard of any of them.

We continued our conversation for a while. He asked if I was a dualist. I told him that I was an ontological dualist. He seemed to know what that meant, but he looked a little uncertain so I explained. “I believe there are two categories of things: God and not-God.” Now he understood.

I pushed a little farther on some things that appear in the atheist’s worldview that would require greater faith than most Christians have. I asked him how we got from nothing to something. And how did we get from chaotic something to ordered something when that violates the law of entropy (that things move from order to chaos unless acted upon by an external force). And how do we even know that we know what we know.

He admitted that there were some considerable gaps in his belief system — especially epistemological gaps.

“Perhaps,” I said, “you’ve been prejudiced against the supernatural so much, so indoctrinated by Hume’s closed system that you’ve ruled out the existence of something transcendent. Maybe that transcendent thing is a person, and maybe that person could fill in those gaps if you’d let him.”

“You’re a preacher. How do you know Hume?” he wanted to know.

I went on to say, as gently as I could, that I am not a Christian because I have to be or because I’m afraid to not be. I am a Christian because it makes the most sense to me. If there is another belief system that is as comprehensive, practical and correspondent to the way things actually are in this world, I’d most likely jump ship. But I’ve read every belief system I can find, and, thus far, Christianity beats them all hands down.

He apologized and said he really had to get back to preparing his test. I told him I understood and actually had some work to catch up on myself. We flew the rest of the way home in silence.

When we got off the plane, he caught up to me at baggage claim and said the strangest thing. He said, “I’m embarrassed.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you know more about my field than I know about yours. And I’ve made fun of people like you. I wonder if my friends and colleagues would give your literature as fair a reading as you’ve given ours. And yet we call you the fundamentalist.”

I gave him my card and told him I’d love to meet him for lunch sometime. He never contacted me again.

I tell you that anecdote because I think there are a lot of people like him. He’s educated, but he’s been educated into a worldview — without even realizing what was taking place. He’s prejudiced against Christians, but the Christians he’s prejudiced against are more a figment of his imagination than the real Christians who live and work around him. If Christians can keep from panicking, listen and speak in a winsome manner, we can do more than any protest or saber-rattling ever could. Maybe that’s what Peter had in mind in 1 Peter 3:15-16.

The Questions That Keep Us Awake

October 2nd, 2013

There is no such thing as a life without questions. No. Such. Thing. It begins as a child asking why the sky is blue and why the cat scratched me when I was only trying to pet it. It continues through adolescence asking why this girl doesn’t like me or why I can’t stay out as late as I want.

We sometimes operate with the assumption that the questions stop at a certain age. They do not. If anything, they get more pressing and — sometimes — more depressing.

We all have our tricks to keep the questions at bay, but inevitably they sneak up on you. When you least expect it you find yourself lying awake at night contemplating the mysteries of the universe:

  • Where am I?
  • Who am I?
  • Why am I here?
  • What is wrong with me and this world?
  • What is the solution for this mess?

These are the fundamental, existential questions that beg to be answered by all, but how do we answer them? Where do we even begin looking for answers?

Some say the Bible. I grew up in a faith tradition that maintained we would only speak where the Bible speaks and would remain silent where the Bible is silent. We didn’t actually stick to that principle; you can’t — it’s impossible — but we tried with terribly frustrating results.

The reason this was so frustrating is because the Bible doesn’t plainly answer those questions. The explanations found in the Bible are long and meandering and disjointed and scattered across the pages of a gigantic book with tiny print and onionskin pages. Unless you’ve been to seminary, it can be difficult to know which parts of the Bible address these questions.

I wish we would have been honest and humble enough to add that we would look to the Bible for answers and we would also study church history and tradition to see what wisdom we could glean from the people who came before us. We need not be afraid of philosophers and theologians and psychologists who have lived with these questions and come to some kind of understanding through prayer and study and deep reflection. Rather, we would be wise to learn from them and examine the Scriptures alongside of their conclusions.

My hope is to spend the next few months exploring these big questions. Last night I began a class with a group of college students and young adults where we opened this can of worms. I will endeavor to use this blog to further my exploration. And I’m honored to have you come along with me.

So, let me know if you think I’ve missed any of the big questions that keep you awake. And let me know if you’re interested in taking this journey with me.

Final Thoughts on Their Death and Our Life

August 9th, 2013

Not everyone who was killed for their faith in the early church was a famous Christian. Foxe’s Book of the Martyrs tells us the story of two women named Perpetua and Felicitas. They were killed in March of 205.

Perpetua was married and had a child, an infant. Her father was angry at her new found faith and beat her severely. Still, she would not recant. He had her thrown in prison. Still she would not recant. She was commanded to make a sacrifice to idols. She refused. They took away her newborn baby. Her only response was, “God’s will must be done.”

They led the two women into an arena where a wild animal attacked them. An executioner ended their lives with a sword.

It’s not my intention to simply tell you sad and morbid stories. But if I simply said, “Thousands of Christians were martyred in the earliest days of Christian history,” it would be easy to dismiss them. The death of thousands is a statistic; one person’s death is tragic.

These were not nameless, faceless historical figures. These people had families. They had children. They were people — just like you and me. Their willingness to suffer — and the way in which they suffered — played a part in preserving the faith for us. We have the Christian faith today because there were people willing to endure torture and face death.

Christianity could well have ended before it began, but the fact that believers would not recant kept the fires burning brightly. And gradually people began to think about what they were doing and why. Christians believed that God had validated Jesus’ identity by bringing him back to life. They were convinced that Jesus had defeated death and had promised eternal life to all those who would follow him. There is no other explanation for why so many ordinary men, women and children endured the beatings and the fires and the wild beasts as they did.

So the question I’m left to ponder is this: Do we still believe what they believed about Jesus? Do we really? Are we convinced that death has no sting and that eternal life is truly ours?

If we did I imagine we’d live a little differently than we do.

Their Death and Our Life — Part 2

August 8th, 2013

Yesterday I shared with you the story of Ignatius — one of the earliest Christians to be martyred for his faith. I mentioned that, just before he was killed, Ignatius wrote a letter to his friend Polycarp encouraging Polycarp to remain steadfast regardless of how difficult the persecution may become.

It became difficult indeed.

Polycarp was tortured to death when he was 86 years old. The historian Eusebius wrote a detailed account of how it happened. He was asked repeatedly to deny his faith, but he refused saying, “For eighty-six years…I have been His servant, and He has never done me wrong; how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

He was threatened with wild beasts. He was told that if they didn’t scare him enough to recant, perhaps the threat of fire might. He responded, “The fire you threaten burns for a time and is soon extinguished; there is a fire you know nothing about — the first of the judgment to come has an eternal punishment, the fire reserved for the ungodly….”

He was burned at the stake, and he reportedly died while praying a prayer of thanksgiving to God for being considered worthy of such a death.

People watched things like this happen. Certainly Christians knew about it, but others watched, too. They saw Ignatius and Polycarp face death with a kind of courage that defies understanding. And, as they watched, they must have begun to wonder: What if it’s true? What if they are right about this Jesus and his kingdom?

I am very concerned about our current administration’s failures to preserve what I consider to be some basic civil liberties in regards to freedom of religious expression. But more than I’m concerned about that, I’m concerned about the ability and willingness of Christians to suffer the outrageous insults this world may throw our way.

We are far too easily discouraged and far less likely than our ancestors were to stand up and confess our faith in spite of the consequences.

When people saw the way they suffered, they began to believe.

When people see us complain, well….

Thinking About Their Death and Our Life

August 7th, 2013

Before I took a hiatus on blogging I was talking about the early church and the lessons we can learn from them. I was thinking through how the early church launched and how it survived and concluded that one of the main reasons was its simplicity. But now I’m thinking there’s one more factor we should consider.

Martyrdom.

The earliest martyrs didn’t want to die. They were regular people like us. They didn’t seek out martyrdom, but, when it found them, they didn’t shrink away from it.

One of the first to lose his life for the sake of his faith in Jesus was Ignatius. He was from Antioch (where believers were first called Christians). He had been a close friend of the Apostle John, and he believed in the “Catholic” church. By that he meant that The Church isn’t an umbrella organization consisting of lots of individual churches scattered across the world; rather, The Church is one Church meeting in different places.

He was sentenced to death during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan. Ten soldiers arrested him and escorted him from one city to the next on his way to Rome. During that trip he wrote seven letters. Six of them were written to Christians in various cities (Ephesus, Magnesia, Philadelphia, Rome, Smyrna and Tralles). His final letter was written to his friend Polycarp.

In his letters, he thanked people for being so kind to him, and he encouraged them to remain faithful no matter how bad the persecution may become. He urged Polycarp to “stand firm like an anvil under the hammer.” He wrote:

I would rather die for Christ than rule the whole earth. Leave me to the beasts that I may by them be a partaker of God…welcome nails and cross, welcome broken bones, bruised body, welcome all diabolical torture, if I may but obtain the Lord Jesus Christ.

He knew he would die, and he begged his friends not to do anything to delay it. He endured a torture that is difficult to imagine. He was beaten, and when I say “beaten” I mean in an unimaginably brutal sort of way. Then they poured fiery coals into his hands. Then they took sheets of paper, dipped them in oil, stuck them to his body and lit them on fire. Then they tore the flesh off his body with pliers. And then they allowed wild beasts to kill and eat him. He was 72 years old at the time.

I don’t know that I could endure that — especially if I knew that all I had to do was recant my faith. If I knew there was a way to avoid the horrible torture they put Ignatius through…I am not proud of it…but I’m honest enough to say I don’t really know what I would do. I know what I hope I would do, but I also know that I often disappoint myself.

Ignatius endured, though. And, because he did, his letters to other Christians — especially his letter to Polycarp — had more weight. They read his words, and they saw the way he died. And it meant something to them about how they could live.

I wonder: Does Ignatius still matter? To us? Does his death impact the way we live?