30 December 2007

New Testament Eschatology -- Old Testament Background Continued

Some Prophets
'Prophecy is of the nature of poetry, and depicts events, not in the prosaic style of the historian, but in the glowing imagery of the poet.' -- J. Stuart Russell, The Parousia, pg. 81.

Last time we took a brief look at poetic language and how it's used. We saw how celestial images can be used for terrestrial authorities. With that in mind, we now turn our attention to some prophetic passages.
Isaiah 13.9-13. For see, the day of the Lord is coming—the terrible day of his fury and fierce anger. The land will be made desolate, and all the sinners destroyed with it. The heavens will be black above them; the stars will give no light. The sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will provide no light.

“I, the Lord, will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their sin. I will crush the arrogance of the proud and humble the pride of the mighty. I will make people scarcer than gold—more rare than the fine gold of Ophir. For I will shake the heavens. The earth will move from its place when the Lord of Heaven’s Armies displays his wrath in the day of his fierce anger.”

Some of this language should be familiar to us. It is peppered throughout the New Testament. Specifically, notice that this passage talks about the 'day of the Lord'; the desolation of the land; the heavenly luminaries are darkened; the 'world', 'sinners', and 'wicked' will all be punished for sin; the heavens will be shaken and the earth will be moved from its place. All of this sounds so very much like what we might read about in the book of Revelation. And we do read some of it. However, the first part of this passage might not be as familiar.
Isaiah 13.1-3. Isaiah son of Amoz received this message concerning the destruction of Babylon:

“Raise a signal flag on a bare hilltop. Call up an army against Babylon. Wave your hand to encourage them as they march into the palaces of the high and mighty. I, the Lord, have dedicated these soldiers for this task. Yes, I have called mighty warriors to express my anger, and they will rejoice when I am exalted.”

As we can see, this was a prophecy 'concerning the destruction of Babylon'. Babylon was destroyed in 539 BCE. There is nothing within the history books that even remotely comes close to what was described here. There was no cataclysmic event of the magnitude described in verses 9-13. In other words, the language used here is not about the destruction of this planet and cosmos. It is poetic language depicting the destruction of Babylon in 539 BCE.

Another example:
Micah 1.3-4. Look! The Lord is coming! He leaves his throne in heaven and tramples the heights of the earth. The mountains melt beneath his feet and flow into the valleys like wax in a fire, like water pouring down a hill.

Again we see the Lord coming from heaven and trampling the 'heights of the earth'. It appears that this 'coming' depicts some kind of thermonuclear scenario as the 'mountains melt' and 'flow...like wax in a fire' or 'water pouring down a hill'. The astonishing thing is that this is a prediction of the fall of Samaria and Jerusalem!
Micah 1.1, 5. The Lord gave this message to Micah of Moresheth during the years when Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah were kings of Judah. The visions he saw concerned both Samaria and Jerusalem...And why is this happening? Because of the rebellion of Israel - yes, the sins of the whole nation. Who is to blame for Israel’s rebellion? Samaria, its capital city! Where is the center of idolatry in Judah? In Jerusalem, its capital!

So, once more, we see that while this passage depicts 'global destruction' it is really poetic language telling us about the fall of Jerusalem.

Now, something to remember is that, for the inhabitants of those cities or countries, their destruction would amount to a global crises. In their minds, the universe would seem to be completely destroyed. We say similar language today, 'My world is crashing down around me!' someone might exclaim. She doesn't mean that the very fabric of the cosmos is unraveling but that there are some big problems in her own life, her own 'world'. The same is being said in these prophetic passages. So, while the destruction of those cities/countries may not have 'literally' taken place in the way they have been depicted, nevertheless they were 'literally' destroyed. Their judgment was this worldly and not other worldly. In other words, these poetic images were about things that would take place within history in the 'natural' realm, not at the end of history or in the 'spiritual' realm.

That's it for this time. Until next time...

Peace be with you.

OD

27 December 2007

Q?

For those of us that aren't aware, some scholars believe that Matthew and Luke copied a lot of their material from the gospel of Mark (supposedly the oldest Gospel).  But there is a lot in Matthew and Luke that doesn't appear in Mark.  So, some scholars came up with a hypothetical document titled 'quelle' (a German word meaning 'source').  'Q', for short.  Now, it should be noted that no one has ever seen this document and church history doesn't seem to know about it.  But, most...ahem...'liberal' scholarship holds to it like it is the source document for (at least) the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).

However, my view is more like this (And mind you, this is just my view.  I haven't heard this from anyone else.).  To me, Mark reads more like an underground subversive tract.  Almost like a secret code -- the kind you swallow or burn up after you've read it.  What I see as a more likely possibility is that  Mark copied from Matthew or Luke and, since those accounts were more fleshed out, the author of Mark didn't need to expound on anything.  That, or maybe 'he' didn't have time.  It could be that the writer could have written that account during immense persecution and could possibly be found out at any moment so 'she' didn't have time to do more that hit the highlights.  Now, I may be naive, but to me, this sounds a lot more reasonable than living and dying on a hypothetical document that no one has ever seen and most people doubt ever existed.

Just some food for thought.

Peace be with you.

OD

26 December 2007

New Testament Eschatology -- Old Testament Background

Often times, the reason people insist that the New Testaments writers were wrong about the 'end of the world' -- i.e., the writers believed it was going to take place very soon for them -- is because of an almost 'wooden' literalism that is used when reading those passages. I find this a little amusing because a lot of times, those same people don't hold to a 'literal' interpretation of the Bible. Yet, they either assume that the writers of the New Testament held to a 'literal' interpretation or we should understand those New Testament passages in a literal way. I hope to show a little different path. But to help us in our journey, before we can look at the New Testament passages themselves, we need to look at some Old Testament passages.

Why?

The reason for this is because the New Testament is a continuation of the Old Testament story. In other words, the Old Testament is the foundation or frame-work from which the New Testament writers were working. Through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the first Christians saw themselves living at the beginning of the climax to the Old Testament story. So, to get a better understanding of what they meant, we should have some kind of working knowledge of the guide they were using. Our first passage to consider is found 'way back' in the book of Genesis.
Genesis 37.9-11. Soon Joseph had another dream, and again he told his brothers about it. “Listen, I have had another dream,” he said. “The sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed low before me!”

This time he told the dream to his father as well as to his brothers, but his father scolded him. “What kind of dream is that?” he asked. “Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow to the ground before you?” But while his brothers were jealous of Joseph, his father wondered what the dreams meant.

I'm sure we are all pretty familiar with the story of Joseph and the 'coat of many colors' that his father, Jacob (Israel), gave him. Well, one of the things about Joseph was that he was a 'dreamer' and an interpreter of dreams. In the passage above we have one of the first dreams he had. There are some interesting things in it. Briefly, Joseph dreamed that his elders would bow before him. This included his father, mother, and eleven brothers. For us, the important point is the apocalyptic language or (I prefer) poetic imagery used in the dream. Joseph's mother and father would be the 'sun' and 'moon' while his eleven brothers would be the 'eleven stars'. I submit that this as an example of how apocalyptic language functions. Often times, the use of celestial images corresponds to terrestrial authority. This, like most 'sciences' (and anything with 'ology' at the end of it usually means it's a science), isn't a hard and fast rule. It is more of a guide. Here, our guide is showing us that celestial images are used for those people who have authority over Joseph in the terrestrial realm. (And even here we can see the short comings of the guide. Joseph's younger brother Benjamin was one of the eleven 'stars' and he probably wouldn't have authority over Joseph.)

On another side of this, we wouldn't take a 'literal' approach to understand this dream. There isn't a need. Joseph's father, Jacob, already interpreted the images for us. But, if we used the view of some people, we would say that this never took place because the 'sun, moon, and eleven stars' never actually (literally) bowed down to Joseph. Instantly we can see how silly that interpretation would be. No. We are shown that the proper understanding of the dream is that Joseph's family would bow before him at some point in this life (another important point). And they did just that when they came to Egypt looking for famine relief (Genesis 43ff).

Next time, we will look at a couple of the prophets that use symbolic language.

Peace be with you.

OD

24 December 2007

New Testament Eschatology - Introduction

From time to time, I hear a lot about the early church’s understanding of the ‘end of the world’ or their belief of the ‘Second Coming of Jesus’ as taking place within their generation. And it's usually not in a very good light. ‘They were obviously mistaken’ is often the remark I hear most. But what if it is we who are mistaken? I know, inconceivable, right. I don’t think so. I am hoping to do a series here on the 'end of the world' statements of the New Testament (or at least the major ones) and show that they were not mistaken in their understanding of the ‘signs of the times’.

Before we begin, however, let’s look at some terms that will have to be used. As most of you know, I try to refrain from using big ‘church’ words but from time to time they are necessary. And this is one of those times. (The reason I don’t use big church words is that they are like suitcases where ideas and thoughts and understandings are packed into them. To explain the words would mean a long time spent unpacking the suitcase. While such a pilgrimage would be very rewarding, doing so usually takes one far off course from the original journey.)

The first word is the word ‘eschatology’. It means the study of ‘last things’. Usually these ‘last things’ are the ‘Second Coming’ of Jesus, the Resurrection of the dead, the ‘Judgment’, etc. And, truth be told, even those terms and phrases probably need to be ‘unpacked’ for some of us. While this will be a study of eschatological statements in the New Testament, we will not actually be looking in detail about those things -- we won't be unpacking those terms and phrases. Perhaps in another series of articles.

Another term we will encounter will be ‘apocalyptic’. Apocalyptic is the name of a certain type of literature. It usually has many cataclysmic things in it – like the moon turning to blood, stars falling from heaven, etc. We have seen many a movie about the ‘end of the world’ and this term is usually the catalyst for such movies. But, actually, a better understanding of the word is ‘revelation’ or ‘revealing’. The idea is that of something hidden and then it is ‘discovered’ or ‘uncovered’. The literature that makes use of this type of genre is usually found in prophetic books like Daniel or Isaiah. And since most of us are not very familiar with those types of books in the Old Testament (and the imagery they use), we stumble with what they could possibly mean. But a proper understanding of just this type of literature is crucial to comprehend the New Testaments use of the genre.

So, there is our brief introduction. Next time we will look at some statements in the Old Testament.

Peace be with you.

OD

17 December 2007

A Metaphor of American Culture

During the last few days, Oklahoma has seen a tremendous ice storm (there are plenty of blogs and news articles about it) and while this post won’t primarily focus on that, there was some deep theological reflections I made during the storm. Most notably is that of the Bradford Pear tree.

For those of you not in the know, the Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryiana) is a cultivated variety of the Callery Pear. It is mostly grown for its quick growth cycle and beautiful foliage. In Autumn the leaves turn a bright to deep red. Because of the ornamental beauty and quick growth, the Bradford Pear is a very popular tree especially in suburban areas.

But it has a major flaw. It does not stand up to the harsh weather in Oklahoma. During the spring time, when wind gusts can get up to 60mph (and sometimes much stronger), the tree often just snaps. This ice storm destroyed many a Bradford Pear in my neighborhood. In fact, our neighbor to the West lost the whole tree (and his tenant lost a windshield and driver side window as well as adding some nice big dents to his car). As we drove around town looking for some place warm to thaw out all of the Bradford Pears I saw were down for the count. And I don’t mean just missing a limb hear or there. As can be seen by the picture, most trees looked like they had just exploded. And that’s when it dawned on me. The Bradford Pear is a great metaphor for current American society.

Today, we like things fast. We like things pretty. We like things with as little hassle as possible. We like things now. We don’t want to wait a couple of minutes at a traffic light. We get down-right livid if we have to stand in line at a store (especially during the season of perpetual love and light). We don’t want to wait for the old way of doing things. We shouldn’t have to. We have been told that we ‘deserve’ to have the very best. That it is our right to demand the very best. And to get everything our greedy little minds can think of right this bloody second!

We want to look the very best (especially if it means that someone else is made to look less). We are so concerned with our appearance that we even bleach our teeth and skin. We have ‘cosmetic surgery’ so that we can look like ‘America’s Next Top Model’. We have ‘entertainment’ that is all about the ‘pretty people’ and makes fun of all the ‘Ugly Betty’s’ out there.

This is exemplified in the Bradford Pear. You can almost hear it talking to the other trees. ‘Look at how short you are! Hey ‘shorty’ are you ever going to grow up? I was planted a year after you were and I’m already twice your size. And look at how pretty I am. This Fall I am going to kick your butt in the local Autumn foliage pageant. And they call you the ‘Might Oak’. More like the wimpy croak!’

But, the ‘Mighty Oak’ gets its name because it can stand the test of time. It takes a long, long time for it to grow. And during that growing cycle, it develops the tools it needs to withstand some of the worst that Mother Nature can throw at it. Not so with the Bradford Pear. When things get a little turbulent, it buckles. There is no depth. No substance. Oh, sure, it’s pretty. But that beauty is only on the surface.

As our Mother’s taught us, however, beauty is so much more than just what we see on the outside. True beauty comes from deep within. From the very core of our beings -- when we are tested and go through it with God’s help -- True beauty, the beauty of Christ, comes through. The grace and mercy of God beams through us like a tree ablaze during the Autumn season. And that takes time. Time and patience. And, like it or not, a lot of pain.

When we look into the eyes of an elderly person there is a depth there. There is a wisdom. And, yes, there is a beauty. What makes them beautiful only comes from years of developing the tools needed to stand during the tumultuous times. We call that ‘character’. It is something that the Bradford Pear promises but never delivers. When the winds of struggle comes sweeping down the plains, we need to stand under the strength and security of the Mighty Oak knowing that we will be safe.

What is the outcome of all of the downed trees in my neighborhood? I heard that the city will dig huge pits in the earth, collect all of the debris, fill the pits, and burn it all away. That, too, is another metaphor for our culture. I seem to recall the New Testament making similar claims in a variety of places. If we continue to go the route of the Bradford Pear, let’s not be surprised if we find ourselves in a pit ‘where the fire never goes out.’

We still have time. We can learn from this metaphor that God has graciously placed in our midst. But it is up to us. Are we going to continue to go for the gusto now and not care who is dehumanized in the process or are we going to slow down and build some depth and character, loving our neighbors as ourselves? Are we going to continue to buy into the lies of us ‘deserving’ to have the ‘very best’ when the ‘very best’ leads to our down-fall and the down-fall of all things around us?
There is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death. (Proverbs 14.12)

Peace be with you.

OD