The Work of Theology is Never Done

The work of theology is never done.

The work of theology is never done because we theologise in our own space; unending glimpses of grace from within our own situatedness.

The work of theology is never done because contexts change like sand on the shore, perhaps looking like the day before but never quite the same.

The work of theology is never done because, though God’s faithfulness will never change, we fail to remain the same; similar questions, perhaps, but different faces and names seeking ‘truth’ (though it necessarily be contained so we may embrace it).

The work of theology is never done because, even though the academy (as well as responsibility for publishing choices) is dominated by whiteness and male voices — often silencing that which is ‘different’ through the violence of ignorance — other voices are yet discernible if we just choose to listen.

The work of theology can never be done as long as definitions of ‘central’ and ‘peripheral’ remain indistinguishable from those identified by imperial power.

So we do the best that we can — our traditions on the one side and our situatedness in the other hand —  and we do what we do, working towards the ongoing revelation of God’s plan to make all things new.

We strive on towards the light, not sure if we’ve got it all right but confident that, when we stumble, God might continue to sustain us. We leave dogma far behind, giving up the facade of doctrinal purity and, rather, seek to find that which seems good to the Holy Spirit and to the faithful community.

And though we yet see imperfectly, we must never fail to love. We must love with reckless abandon, for love is the only firm ground that we stand on. We include and we embrace for, when we do, we see the face of God.

And thus will it continue, until God is all and in all.

But, until then, the work of theology is never done.

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ANZAC Day and the Language of Redemptive Sacrifice

In this post, my second concerning ANZAC Day, I want to focus on—and challenge—the way in which the language of redemptive sacrifice has been applied to those who die in battle.

An interesting phenomenon seems to have crept into many churches whereby the language of Jesus’ death on the cross is commonly (mis)applied to the death of soldiers in the ANZAC tradition. You may have seen some of the pictures that float around social media at these times with a picture of a (possibly silhouetted) soldier, perhaps a flag, and a cross, with a bible quote attached to bring the message home. Usually, this bible quote is taken from the gospel of John, chapter 15, verse 13:

Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

Now, on the surface of things, this seems like a perfectly reasonable connection to make. The rhetoric of war has convinced us that the death of our soldiers is for our benefit, our ‘life’, and therefore their sacrifice (‘their life for ours’) must have been worthwhile. Indeed it’s taken to be redemptive: they bought our freedom with their lives. It’s only a small jump, then, to the sorts of words we find written about Jesus.

The problem is, however, that the work (and sacrifice) of soldiers in war and the work (and sacrifice) of Jesus on the cross are antithetical to one another.

I think there are basically two main reasons for this.

1) Firstly, the work of soldiers (acting at the behest of nations) in war pits ‘us’ against ‘them’, while the work of Jesus tears down the ‘dividing walls of hostility’ that have plagued humanity.

There is simply no escaping the fact that war rises out of nationalism and imperialism, and can only function in a situation where division is not only accepted, but enforced. Whoever ‘we’ are fighting against becomes the symbol for evil in the world, and it is only through the complete domination (or annihilation) of ‘them’ that peace can be achieved. The caricatures of ‘the enemy’ may not be so blatant these days as they were in WWI or WWII, however the underlying framework is exactly the same. ‘We’ are not ‘them’, and what’s required is that the threat that ‘they’ represent be ‘neutralised’ (to use a chilling euphemism so often used in war).

But the work of Jesus goes to the heart of tearing down these very divisions. So much of Jesus’ ministry was about drawing in those who had been excluded. The nationalistic ‘identity markers’ that separated those who were included and those who were excluded were discarded and, quite shockingly, the command was to show love to one’s ‘enemy’. The Apostle Paul understood this clearly, and that’s why he spent so much time in his letters showing how the formerly warring parties (‘Jews’ and ‘Gentiles’) were now joined together in one new family. Is this not a profound undermining of the very foundation on which war is built?

2) Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, the actions of soldiers in war perpetuates violence and conflict, while the actions of Jesus in his life, ministry, and death on the cross shows up violence and domination for what it truly is and illustrates an alternate way of understanding (true) victory.

We have been fed the lie that peace can only be achieved through war (or the threat of war). Again, there is a Latin phrase that captures the idea well: Si vis pacem, para bellum (“If you want peace, prepare for war”). The idea, of course, is that there will be no inclination to enter into conflict if there is a party so powerful that battle with them could only bring certain disaster. Now, obviously, ‘we’ don’t want such unbridled power to fall into the ‘wrong’ hands, but ‘we’ are the good guys (right?) and therefore it only makes sense for us to be the ones wielding such might(!).

But this does not bring peace. It brings either reluctant capitulation, or active resistance (which therefore necessitates brutal demonstrations of power in order to restore equilibrium). But this is not peace; it is the tactic of bullies. It is a corrupt form of reasoning that invites further corruption, and it has always been the same.

Furthermore, it doesn’t actually work. The ancient Romans used the tactic to great effect, but the Pax Romana (the ‘Peace of Rome’) was in fact a sham. It was ‘peace’ at the end of a sword. Admittedly, it often brought capitulation, for a time, but it wasn’t lasting. Even in the face of such great power it was not enough to subdue all opposition. The Jews in the first century, as just one example, engaged the Romans in all out war—even in the face of overwhelming odds (and eventual catastrophic consequences). The same happens today. In what we might call the Pax Americana, we have a situation where the incredible might of the U.S. (symbolised horrifically, yet perfectly, in the bombings of Japan in WWII) becomes the de facto ‘sheriff’ in world affairs, but it is not peace. And it will not last. Furthermore, even in the face of such a dominant force, there are some who will still not capitulate. Despite significant, brutal shows of force, there are many who actively oppose even the great might of the U.S.

And the reason is quite simple: military might rests on the threat of death, and those who have no fear of death are not intimidated by it. This was the case for militant Jews rising up against the Romans in the first century, and it is the case for militant Muslims rising up against the U.S. in our own time.

The problem, of course, with these responses, is that they nevertheless perpetuate the cycle of violence. Death begets death, and on and on it goes. But this is where the work of Jesus makes most sense, and where it brings the whole edifice of war crashing to the ground. Through the resurrection, Jesus has gained victory over death—not through opposing war and violence on their own terms, but by undermining their very basis. Jesus didn’t respond to the challenge of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem or the power of the Romans by embracing war (and perpetuating the cycle of violence), but rather he highlighted the shallowness of such bullying tactics and robbed them of their power. In his life, ministry, death and resurrection, Jesus has completely destroyed the very foundation on which war stands.

It is for these reasons, therefore, that I feel the need to call this ‘heresy’ out for what it is. It is imperial ideology masquerading as Christian theology (in the name of ‘respect’), and it’s incredibly dangerous. The actions of soldiers in war and the actions of Jesus on the cross are not the same thing. In fact, they are in direct opposition to one another.

Now, I have no doubt that some will take what I’m saying here as being disrespectful to the memory of our fallen soldiers. To that, I would simply ask if it is not disrespectful to the memory of Jesus of Nazareth to turn his legacy precisely on its head?! Even a cursory glance at the gospels gives one the impression that the ‘Kingdom of God’ operates in exactly the opposite way to the great empires of human history.

The great ‘victory’ of God in Jesus was not in crushing ‘the enemy’ through might and domination; it was in the scandal of love—a love for the whole of humanity so passionate that Jesus laid down his life without the counter-attack (which perpetuates the hostility) in order to overcome hostility at its very core, bringing the possibility of (true) peace to formerly warring parties.

So many of us Australians have relatives who fought, and died, in wars throughout our nation’s short history. I do not mean to be disrespectful to them, or to you who are reading this.

But I can’t stand by and watch this co-opting of the language of redemptive sacrifice being (wrongfully) applied to those who died in war any longer.

The scandal here is not that I’m saying these things. The real scandal is that we’ve allowed history to be rewritten in order to justify war. We’ve allowed the tragic deaths of so many in generations gone by to be used in cynical support of the war machine. We’ve allowed death to be called life.

Soldiers dying in war is not redemptive; it’s a shocking waste of life. The ‘fruit’ of it all is death, not life. It bequeaths only brokenness, division, hate, and hostility.

There is, however, another way.

To confuse the two simply robs the beauty of this alternative of its power, and the cycle of violence continues. It makes sense, then, that this is exactly what is now happening.

Understanding Easter (or “A Short Easter Essay”)

Today is Good Friday.

I want to use this opportunity, if I may, to set out (more or less) clearly some things I’ve been thinking about recently in regards to the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth – things that may seem a little different to what is often called the “traditional” view, but things that I think are helpful in understanding what this event actually means.

By the way, this is going to be quite a long post, so you may want to get comfortable if you’re going to read it all the way through…

Anyway, the so-called “traditional” view, as expounded in many churches of a Reformed heritage, is that Jesus died on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven – the perfect “Lamb of God” standing in the place of the guilty, the righteous in place of the unrighteous, in order that the wrath of God in regards to sin could be fully satisfied. The wages of sin is death, after all, and thus God could not leave sin unpunished (and still be a righteous God). In God’s mercy, however, Jesus was offered in our place, as the perfect “sacrifice of atonement” that allows us, if we are to place our trust in Jesus, to stand before the great Judge and be declared “not guilty!” Jesus’ righteousness has somehow been imputed to us in this great exchange, and we are set free!

Hallelujah!!!

The first thing I’d like to say is that I think there is probably a legitimate basis for this in the Christian Scriptures. I have had debates about this with a number of biblical scholars and theologians, but I think it’s fair to say that the apostle Paul (at least) seems to offer this idea, in part, as one of the many different ways he explains what happened in the event of the cross.

But this is just the point.

This sort of imagery is offered as part of a range of ideas that made sense to the people to whom Paul was writing. The sacrificial imagery was perfectly acceptable to first century Jews and Gentiles alike, and didn’t really present much of a conceptual problem. The idea that God’s wrath must be poured out on sin made a lot of sense in a context where the pagan gods were always angry at something, and needed to be placated. Thus, Paul works within that framework and suggests that, unlike the pagan gods who were capricious and vindictive, the [Judeo-]Christian God was always and only angry at sin. Unlike the pagan gods who forced the worshipper to take the initiative, the Christian God took the initiative in presenting Jesus as the perfect sacrifice of atonement. Unlike the pagan gods who needed to be placated by many and various measures, the Christian God was only satisfied with the sacrifice of Jesus who was, after all, both fully God and fully human. (I’ve basically plagiarised most of this summary from Leon Morris’ The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, and would recommend checking it out if you’re interested in these things.)

So, in summary, Paul presents the idea (among others) that God offers God to God, in a sense, so that God’s righteousness remains intact while at the same time God remains ultimately merciful.

Paul was brilliant! He was an absolute genius! He did theology in his own context, interacting with the ideas that were current and that made sense to the people he was talking to. Three cheers for Paul!

Our task is to do the same.

Our problem, however, is that the whole idea of sacrifice doesn’t really make sense any more, and thus we need to be far more creative in the way we present the meaning of the cross to people today (not to mention the fact that the view described above tends to lead towards a very individualistic understanding of the Gospel as “Jesus dying so my sins could be forgiven”).

Fortunately for us, there are a whole bunch of other ideas in the Scriptures that we can work with. There are a range of ideas that give us a bit of elbow room to move and work out how to best explain the game-changing work of the cross and what it might mean for us today.

I want to start with the Gospel of John, chapter 2, verses 13-20.

Jesus goes up to Jerusalem around Passover time, walks into the Temple courts, and begins to tear.it.up! He drives out the animals, overturns the tables, and basically gets pretty cranky at the whole scene.

Some people have suggested that maybe Jesus was just having a bad day when he did this, or perhaps just couldn’t control his temper as well as one would expect of the Son of God (tsk tsk!).

But there’s more going on here.

It’s interesting to note what the Jewish authorities say to Jesus: “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” This was all about authority. This was all about who was in control, and who could change the system.

The system was corrupt. The office of the High Priest was able to be bought from the Romans (who were in control), and the Temple authorities were becoming quite wealthy due to their decisions to play the Roman game and work within that broader system.

But Jesus steps in and overturns the heart of the system – the profiteering from the sacrificial system that was the means by which covenant relationship was maintained to that point.

It’s even more interesting to note that in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) where this incident occurs, Jesus actually quotes from Isaiah 56:1-8.

This passage from Isaiah is extremely important!

Basically, it suggests that those who had formerly been specifically excluded from taking part in the Temple cultic system in the Law (foreigners and eunuchs) were now being called to fully join the people of God. As long as they “bound themselves to Yahweh” they could no longer be excluded, for “my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7).

The point of it all was that Israel was meant to be the shining light to the nations of the world, drawing them in to come and worship the one, true, Creator God.

But it hadn’t turned out this way.

Israel’s system had become hopelessly exclusive – working on principles of keeping people out rather than drawing them in.

And this is what Jesus overturned.

He overturned the Temple system that set up dividing walls between where Jewish men could go, where Jewish women could go, and where Gentiles could go – each being kept respectively further and further away from the Temple itself (remembering that the Temple was meant to symbolise the very presence of God). It may be useful here to also reflect on where the money-lenders’ tables and the animals for sale were probably located – in the court of the Gentiles, taking up more space and further excluding them from getting near the Temple.

But Jesus couldn’t leave it this way.

So he overturned the tables, symbolically overturning the whole system, demonstrating in the most effective way he could that he was challenging the very authority of the Temple and the whole system set up around it.

And the Jewish authorities asked him: “Show us a sign to prove that you have the authority to do this.”

And Jesus offers them this cryptic response: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19).

At this the Jewish leaders scoff. “It’s taken 46 years to build this thing. What, are you going to have some sort of Amish barn-raising to try to build the thing again or something?”

But the author of the Fourth Gospel adds in a very important note at this point: “But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:21-22).

Jesus was suggesting that he was to become the “new Temple.” The Temple was the centre of the Jewish faith, with its sacrifical system around it, but Jesus was suggesting that he himself was to become to the new centre of Israel’s faith. Israel was now to be organised around Messiah, rather than Temple. A new day had arrived.

Jesus was pretty smart.

He knew that the Temple system was headed for destruction. He knew that the way Israel was organised would only lead to death. This exclusive system had come to be based on nationalistic zeal, and, though the Temple authorities were alright with the fact that they were profiting off their relationship with the Romans, the Jewish people would ultimately come into direct conflict with their Roman overlords in all-out war. The Jewish people, with the stories of Gideon and Judas Maccabeus to guide them, would one day pick up the swords that they kept under their beds in anticipation of the coming of the military Messiah who would lead them to victory, and would run headlong into battle with the mighty Empire.

And this is just what happened in 66-70AD. It didn’t work out very well.

But Jesus knew this. He knew that if nothing changed, death would follow. He knew that the nation of Israel would die the death of Roman criminals if they kept on their course.

And so he offered himself.

He offered himself in their place. He offered himself as the Temple to be destroyed, rather than the physical Temple to be destroyed in 70AD. He suggested that, if Israel would re-organise around him, then they wouldn’t die the death of Roman criminals.

He would instead.

And here’s the beauty of it: If they kept their course and ended up in all-out conflict with the Romans, their system would be thoroughly destroyed. The Temple has still not been rebuilt! But, if they organised around Messiah, then he would take on the destruction to himself. And rather than being destroyed forever, he would rise again three days later. In this, he not only demonstrated that he was truly the Jewish Messiah; he demonstrated that he was truly the Lord of all.

He went up against the most powerful Empire that the world had ever seen – with their god-like Caesar and all – and yet he overcame. Death could not hold him down. He rose again on the third day and demonstrated once and for all that he was truly Lord.

And what this all means is, I think, something very profound.

In re-organising Israel around himself, Jesus did away with the exclusive system that kept people separated from God.

Paul says it like this:

“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands) — remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ephesians 2:11-22).

For Paul, the prophecy of Isaiah 56 has finally been fulfilled in Jesus.

For Paul, Israel is now not the people organised around the physical Temple and its system, but around Messiah. There is now no longer any separation between those who wish to centre their lives on God, because the only badge of membership is faith in the Messiah.

And this is great news!

We, those of us who are not Jewish by birth, are now able, though Jesus, to be part of the true Israel of God – the family of faith organised around Messiah (which includes, by the way, the concept of the forgiveness of sins, albeit within a broader understanding of the gospel).

But Jesus is not simply the Jewish Messiah; through his death and resurrection he has been demonstrated to be Lord of all!

What this means, if we go a little further into Ephesians, is that this family of faith, true Israel or “the Church,” is the demonstration of God’s manifold wisdom. God is holding up the Church as “Exhibit A” declaring that what he has done here – uniting together in family parties that formerly saw each other as arch-enemies – is the foretaste of what he will do with the whole of creation.

The unity of the Church is the very demonstration of God’s wisdom, as we live together in peace and unity as a living demonstration of what will come in full one day.

And therefore, this Easter, as we ponder the work of Jesus on the cross, I want to suggest that we think very carefully about what this means.

The unity of the Church is the demonstrations of God’s manifold wisdom.

We often make God look like a fool.

This Easter, I want to suggest that, for those of us who call ourselves “Christian,” we think about these things deeply.

Let’s pray this Easter that the Spirit of peace would work among us to help us live up to this great task.

Let’s put aside the useless squabbles and remind ourselves once more that we are united in Christ by the Spirit – that we are meant to be the inclusive family of God that lives out true reconciliation and peace.

We are meant to be the demonstration in the now of what will come in full in the not-yet.

Let’s take this responsibility seriously.

A Ministry of Reconciliation

Reconciliation

I am convinced that Christians in Australia—if we are truly to call ourselves Christian—must engage deeply with issues of ‘reconciliation’ between Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Peoples and other Australians. In fact, I have come to the point where I think this needs to be at the very core of the ‘good news’ that Christians in Australia should be embodying.

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I have not always taken this seriously enough, but I’ve (eventually) come to this conclusion for two main reasons. Firstly, I am convinced that the heart of the Christian message is the multi-faceted concept of reconciliation, and that this is about much more than some individualistic notion of personal ‘salvation’. Reconciliation, in a truly Christian sense, entails right relationship with the divine, with one another, and with our environment (and each one of these elements must be present). Secondly, I am convinced that the Christian message must embrace a certain sense of contextuality and adaptability everywhere it finds expression.

In terms of illustrating this point, I would suggest that the 1st century C.E. context of the relationship between ‘Jews and Gentiles’ is a good place to start. Indeed, it is this issue that lies central to so much of the New Testament writing, and is certainly at the very core of the so-called Pauline material. I am hoping to offer a fuller treatment of the ‘Letter to the Ephesians’ at some point in the near future (particularly noting the prominent call to abandon any notion of nationalism in the light of the Jesus story), but I want to highlight just a few points here in a broader sense as (what I consider to be) a poignant illustration.

Though the clearest specific reference to the concept of a ‘ministry of reconciliation’ appears in the apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (5:17-20), I believe it is actually best illustrated in the letter to the Christians in (and most probably around) Ephesus. In this letter, the relationship between ‘Jews’ and ‘Gentiles’ is front and centre, and the author1 spends quite a bit of time and effort outlining the ways in which there is now (through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth) opportunity for peace between the (formerly and constantly) warring parties. Indeed, this peace is not only possible, it is the very demonstration of God’s purposes in the world! A few examples from the text might suffice to make the point.

For [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Ephesians 2:14-18)

In this passage, Paul seems to be suggesting that, due to (his understanding of) the work of God in Jesus, there is a new possibility available for human relationships. This new possibility is not contingent upon one party recognising that the other was ‘in the right’ all along, offering ‘peace’ by essentially denying the identity of one group and allowing it t be subsumed by the dominant party. It is, rather, setting the two parties on a level playing field and offering a whole new framework of understanding. Though it is not immediately evident from this one passage, it also does not mean losing the essential identity markers of either party. The New Testament abounds with examples of ‘Gentiles’ entering into this new possibility for human relationships without losing their essential identity (or, perhaps, taking on the identity of another). Indeed, much of the work of the apostle Paul was convincing those he spoke to that the really innovative work of God was that now Gentiles did not have to become ‘Jews’ first in order to be ‘Christians’! In the same way, there was nothing to stop ‘Jews’ bringing to this new situation an essential ‘Jewish flavour’ (i.e., social and cultural expressions of tradition). The point was, quite simply, that those things were no longer barriers. These ‘identity markers’ no longer distinguished ‘us’ from ‘them’, but were simply a matter of preference.

But Paul takes it a step further.

In addition to indicating that this new possibility was available, Paul seems to indicate that it is actually the prime demonstration of God’s work in the world and the hope for the future:

[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, [his] manifold wisdom should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.

God’s ‘manifold wisdom’, it seems, is (at least meant to be) on display in the Church. That is, the people who form the early Church are those who were formerly enemies but who have now been drawn together in this new possibility for human relationships. This reconciled people, then, is the very demonstration of God’s work in the world. There is no way, Paul seems to suggest, that this could ever have been accomplished by anything other than the work of God, and therefore this group of reconciled people is being held up on display—as ‘Exhibit A’, so to speak—as a small-but-significant demonstration of what God desires to do on a much grander scale in time. God holds up this example to the powers and structures and systems of the world, indicating that a new possibility has appeared that does not buy into the old structures of separation and fear and hate and division. A new day has dawned.

It is no wonder, then, that Paul offers the extraordinary prayer that he does in very close succession to this point.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Amen indeed! Paul acknowledges that this new possibility is only available because of God’s empowering Spirit at work amongst us, and he prays that the people he is writing to would really, really get it.

In the same way, I pray that us Christians in Australia would really, really get a grasp of this idea too.

Now, I’m not saying by any means that the analogy is precise. The relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the first century was complex, and was (in a good many ways) quite different from the (equally complex) relationship between modern-day Indigenous Australians and other Australians. Having said that, the similarity in regards to ‘dividing walls of hostility’ is strikingly apparent, and it is this reality that offers us a connection here.

What I would like to think through, then, (getting back to what I noted at the beginning) are the ways in which this ‘ministry of reconciliation’ might be contextualised in Australia. If this ‘good news’ we preach (and attempt to embody) really is based around the idea of reconciliation, and if this is going to truly make sense in the modern Australian context, what might it look like?

What I think this looks like, as a starting point, is Christians in Australia engaging, firstly, in humble and deep repentance towards our Indigenous brothers and sisters and, secondly, actively embodying the new possibilities for reconciled human relationship in all we do and say.

The first point is, I think, simple. ‘Christianity’ has not necessarily been ‘good news’ for Indigenous Australians. In many ways, it was used as a tool of, and justification for, those who desired to dominate. It has also been responsible for the active destruction of much Indigenous culture, through the pursuit of a form of Christianity which could not separate the ‘good news’ from a certain (white, British) understanding of culture (and ‘civilisation’). I don’t wish to push this too far and to ignore, for example, the many missionaries who sought to actively preserve Indigenous languages and cultural traditions—many of whom dedicated their whole lives to service of Indigenous Australians. I also don’t wish to ignore the Christians who, though now seen as participating in cruel policy, were simply trying to make a terrible situation a little less destructive by implementing Government policy with at least some concern for the wellbeing of those affected. However I think that, overall, it’s pretty safe to say that Christianity has simply not lived up to its name in terms of being ‘good news’ for our Indigenous population.

As such, I think there needs to be genuine, deep repentance on behalf of Christians in Australia to our Indigenous brothers and sisters. I think this needs to be implemented in individual congregations, as well as at the denominational level, and it needs to be done in a ‘no strings attached’ kind of way. Unconditional repentance is the only way for it to be real.

The second point is a little bit tricky, because some could understand what I am saying here to mean that what I am really desiring is for all Indigenous Australians to ‘become Christian’ first, and then there will be ‘reconciliation’. Please let me be completely transparent on this point: I desire for every person in the world to understand and embrace the new way of being human that I think is demonstrated in the life, ministry and death of Jesus of Nazareth. I think that his humble example of selfless love—love demonstrated—is something that our world needs desperately.

But what I am talking about here is not contingent upon people becoming Christians first.

Us Christians are not, and can never be, responsible for decisions that people make, but we are responsible for our own action. We are called to embody the good news, and to operate out of the new framework (even if no one else does). We are called to treat all people with the inherent dignity and respect that they deserve, as people created in the image of God. We need to recognise the systems and structures that have actively denied dignity and have sought to disempower and, in our context, we need to stand in solidarity with those who are seeking to highlight (and restore) the dignity of the oldest continual cultures on earth.

How we actually do this is up for discussion, but I think it’s important to note, once again, that this is something that needs to be embodied, rather than something that is just spoken about.

Perhaps a good place to start is with education and understanding. On this note, the U.N. ‘Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples‘ is, I think, well worth a read. It’s also necessary to meditate deeply upon what is says, rather than just reading it at a surface level. This Declaration offers a decent framework for understanding which also has wide acceptance.

Also, I think churches (and denominations) need to take seriously things like ‘Reconciliation Action Plans’. Though these “RAPs’ are certainly (currently) more targeted to the corporate world, it’s really encouraging to see Reconciliation Australia so willing to work with faith communities to develop ways forward. (Please contact me through this site if you’d like some more information about this.)

I think Christians should also be at the very forefront of efforts to recognise (and remove discrimination for) Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Peoples in the Australian Constitution. Unfortunately, it remains true that many people in our congregations either wouldn’t know about these efforts, or wouldn’t understand why this is so important. It is my belief that our churches should be a wellspring of activity in regards to this issue, and that we should be working actively to make sure that any Referendum on this issue has the support it needs to pass. Check out the ‘Recognise’ website for more information.

Finally, in terms of a good starting point, I think we also need to acknowledge that, in so many cases, we have never sought any kind of permission to operate on the land that we do. I realise that this can be quite a confrontational point for many Christians, but I think it’s a really sad reality that so many of our churches have never even acknowledged, let alone sought permission from, our First Peoples, and thus I think there is a certain sense of illegitimacy for us to continue to operate without rectifying this point. I know that many might see this as either unimportant, or even condescending to a certain point, but I think it’s vital for us to set this straight and (finally) to let light shine on this often unacknowledged sin. At the very least, the process involved here necessarily puts churches in contact with representatives of local Indigenous people groups (which is a great step forward in and of itself), but it might also even lead to the possibility of churches opening their doors for local Indigenous groups to use our church facilities. Small steps, perhaps, but I think they are very important!

In all of this, the aim is quite simply to embody the love in action that is so central to the Christian message. Where we have sinned, we need to repent and seek forgiveness. Where we have been inactive, we need to resolve that we will no longer be complacent. Most importantly, we as the Church need to embody the new possibilities that are on offer in Jesus in all that we do and say. We must always remember that the very heart of the ‘good news’ is reconciliation and, in the Australian context, this has some very specific and important meaning attached to it.

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1) Many people simply assume that the Letter to the Ephesians was written by the apostle Paul. It is not quite so simple to state this with any sense of certainty, however I am convinced that the content of this letter is in many ways very much ‘at home’ with those texts that are almost certainly ‘genuinely Pauline’. As such, I’m perfectly happy to use the name ‘Paul’ for the author of this text, whether or not it was actually penned by the apostle himself (which is pretty much impossible to prove one way or the other).

The Second Amendment and (Biblical) Hermeneutics

The most recent (and I do hate that I have to distinguish between so many) mass shooting in the U.S. has reignited fierce debates over gun control and the place of the Second Amendment.

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At this point in time, those who desire change remain deadlocked in debate with those who oppose any such legislation. The NRA has publicly stated that the best way forward is more guns, and the Second Amendment is being used as the ideological basis of much of the resistance to gun control measures.

I have already posted my thoughts about the need for more gun control in the U.S. (and my disgust at the actions of the NRA), and I don’t wish to revisit that conversation here. I want, rather, to talk briefly here about the very interesting ways in which the Second Amendment is interpreted and applied. I think it is actually quite revealing, and the discussion is of great help in regards to thinking about biblical interpretation and application (something about which I am very interested).

Please let me illustrate the link.

A centuries old text, written in a time and situation far removed from modern life and by authoritative authors who codified the pure testimony of their beliefs, is viewed as ‘sacred’ with direct, one-to-one applicability to contemporary life. The text is ‘exegeted’ very carefully, and serious debates ensue concerning its grammar and syntactical structure. Any suggestion that the message contained within the text is either determined or even limited in any way by its socio-historical situatedness is scoffed at, at least by the true believers, and dogmatic adherence to the text becomes the hallmark of ‘keeping the faith’.

Of course, I am talking here about the Second Amendment, but it should be obvious to see the link I am proposing to the interpretation of the biblical texts.

What I see in these discussions about the Second Amendment is exactly the same type of fundamentalism that I see so often when it comes to biblical interpretation—and, perhaps unsurprisingly, sometimes it is actually the same people who belong to both camps. What I find so disheartening about these discussions, in both cases, is the total denial that the situatedness of the texts has any bearing on their interpretation and application.

But let’s think about it for a moment. The Second Amendment was brought into effect in 1791 (with the rest of the Bill of Rights), as part of the rebuilding phase after the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Of course, it makes quite a bit of sense in that context. There was certainly (at least in the mind of the those who came out the other side of the war) a need for militias to be maintained and armed. These militias had helped secure the victory over the forces of Great Britain, and it could have been reasonably suggested that they needed to keep vigilant against the possibility of a British attack to regain control.

However, as time went on, the gap between the original context and the current applicability of the Second Amendment irreversibly widened.

It is now, therefore, at the point where the Second Amendment simply doesn’t have much at all to say to contemporary life in the U.S.A. I know that might be offensive to some, but let me say it again just to make sure I’m being clear: the Second Amendment is not relevant in any way to modern life in the United States of America.

Now, I’m not saying that the entire U.S. Constitution is irrelevant; I’m just saying that at least this Amendment is no longer of any value. It may have been very necessary at the time it was brought into effect, but things have changed and this part is now of no practical use.

Of course this will be debated. And, of course, this same approach, when brought to bear on the biblical texts, will be vigorously challenged. But I think it’s necessary for contemporary Christians to admit that biblical interpretation must take into consideration the socio-historical situatedness of the texts. The worldviews of those writing the texts has a bearing on what was written, and I don’t think it denies any idea of ‘inspiration’ to say so.

Now, I am certainly not saying that the biblical texts are totally useless for modern life. If you think that’s what I’m saying, you are not paying close enough attention. I think they are quite important indeed, which is why I’ve spent so long studying them(!).

What I am saying, quite simply, is that we Christians cannot pretend that these texts are magical documents that break all the rules regarding contextuality and sit, quite unbelievably, suspended in space and time, free from all the rules of responsible interpretation.

To pretend otherwise is nonsense and, I think, harmful.

And, coming full circle, this applies equally to the Second Amendment as it does the biblical texts.

Reading Revelation (Part V)

So, here we are at the final post in this 5-part series. If you’ve made it this far, then I tip my hat to you : )

In the first post, I suggested that the traditional interpretive frameworks for approaching the book of Revelation are all a bit naff, and that we would be better off approaching the text with a more well-rounded triple-layered approach consisting of a contextual examination, an intertextual  examination, and a literary-rhetorical  examination. In the next three posts, I explained each of these ‘layers’ in order seeking to lay-out a reasonably comprehensive introduction to approaching the text in the space available here (excluding, obviously, detailed exegetical examination).

In this last post, I want to try to bring it all together (…as best I can). In order to do that, I am basically going to be asking the following questions:

1) What did the text mean to the original recipients?
2) What might it mean to us?

We’ll pretty much jump straight into, but I did just want to take the opportunity here to mention something that I think is incredibly important, and I want to say it as clearly as I can.

The book of Revelation was not written to us, but it does, I think, have a powerful message for us.

If one thing should have become clear in these posts by this point, it’s that the book of Revelation made a whole lot of sense to its original recipients. It was written to a bunch of real people in the first century, by a real person living in the first century. The author wrote the text as a prophetic letter, expecting, I think it’s safe to say, that people would take it seriously and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

Revelation was not written to ‘us’, in the 21st century. It just wasn’t. I don’t care what the Left Behind novels say, it’s just not the case.

But don’t be too worried by that.

Romans wasn’t written to us, and neither was the Corinthian correspondence. Galatians, Ephesians, 1 Peter, 1 John and James weren’t written to ‘us’ either. None of the biblical literature was directly written to ‘us’! It was all written in very real socio-historical contexts, and all these texts, I think we can assume, made sense to their original recipients.

But that doesn’t mean there is not a message in it all for us.

Though each of these texts are more-or-less ‘situation specific’ (especially the epistles!), each of them, I think, have important things to say that we might take hold of. Our task is not to try to divorce the meaning of the texts from their original contexts, but rather to embrace a text in all its situatedness and seek to move from that point to some sort of application to our own situation.

This is, basically, what I’m trying to do here with the book of Revelation. Let’s begin, then, with what it might have meant to the original hearers in their context.

What did the Book of Revelation Mean to its First Recipients?

Without the space to go into detailed exegetical analysis, I’m going to suggest here that the message(s) of the book of Revelation to its original recipients can be seen clearly in the ‘messages’ to the churches in chapters 2-3. These messages, then, act as the foundation from which the rest of the text (the unified, extended visionary portion) builds on. It is worth pointing out two important points in this regard. Firstly, the visionary portion of the text is still speaking to the same situations as those outlined in chapters 2-3. The recipients are meant to be taken on a journey in this section of the text where the points the author is making in chapters 2-3 are illustrated in visionary form, and the hearers are meant to understand the points that are being made here and modify their behaviour accordingly. Secondly, the ‘messages’ to each individual church are, in a sense, meant to be heard and understood by all. With the contents of each ‘letter’ (in chapters 2-3) made public to all the congregations, it’s kind of like each group gets to ‘read the mail’ intended for the other congregations too (and vice versa). As such, it is important to note that there are at least a couple of ‘main’ points being made to the churches. These points, I am going to suggest, encapsulate the basic meaning of the book of Revelation as a whole.

So, what are they?

Basically, it seems that, for the author of Revelation, there are two main options for his recipients.

1) They can be faithful, prophetic witnesses to Jesus—even to the point of death (if necessary)—and experience the vindication of God, or
2) They can align themselves with doomed ‘Babylon’, and go down with the sinking ship.

In regards to the first of these, it is important to note that, from beginning to end, Jesus is described as the ‘faithful and true witness’ (1:5; 19:11). In his life, prophetic ministry, death, and resurrection, Jesus has provided the model for all Christians to follow. For John, the followers of the Lamb are meant to look like him, and ‘follow him wherever he goes’ (14:4). As such, the way Christians are meant to interact with the world is to do the very same sorts of things that Jesus did.

Jesus came and faithfully declared prophetic witness to the work of God, and confronted the empires of the world with grace and truth. Just when it looked like the Beast of Empire had chewed him up and spat him out, Jesus was vindicated through his resurrection. Jesus, the slain lamb, has become the vindicated, victorious, glorified Son of Man, and now stands as the essential model to all who would dare suggest that they are his followers. Where Empire responded with power and violence, Jesus responded with prophetic witness and self-sacrifice. And his followers are meant to do the same, even if it means death! (Rev. 2:10). In doing so, they too will be ‘victorious’ over the ‘Powers’ of the world, and will share in Jesus’ vindication (note the imagery of Daniel 7 in Revelation 20).

Now, I indicated in the second post that the usual understanding of empire-wide persecution of Christians was just not happening by this point in time. What I also indicated in that post, though, was that John saw that this sort of tension was unavoidable for all who would follow Jesus. Christians could never be satisfied with the idea that ‘Caesar is Lord’, because only Jesus can be Lord. As such, conflict was inevitable. There seems to have already been some isolated rain as a precursor to the coming storm with the death of Antipas (Rev. 2:13. Note that Antipas is called a ‘faithful witness’), and John seems to have been fairly confident that it would eventually break with all its fury.

He was right.

What he is calling his recipients to here, then, is a radical life of obedience to the example of Jesus, as his faithful prophetic witnesses no matter what the cost. Such a life might not ever be comfortable, but John assures his recipients (through the messages and the vision) that God is still in control and that the structures of empire simply cannot stand against (nor extinguish!) the ‘Kingdom of God’. The point of the book of Revelation is that God’s perspective on the situation is now revealed into a context where things may have looked hopeless; where it may have seemed like nothing could ever stand against this mighty beast of empire. But John assures those he is writing to that God is still in control, and all the bullies of empire would not have the last word. Even if they were to experience the violence of empire for their faithful witness, they could remain confident that they would nevertheless be vindicated in the process. ‘Victory’ was not won through force and violence, but through faithfulness and truth and self-sacrifice. ‘Victory’, it seems, has been completely — radically — redefined. Furthermore (and what really needs to be treated in a post of its own), the essential victory has already been won! Christians do not have to look to the future for when God will finally act; ‘victory’ has already been attained through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection! Wherever Christians live in faithfulness and truth, this victory is already being enacted.

And all of this meant something very important to those who chose to align themselves with Rome.

Rome, for John ‘Babylon 2.0’, was kind of like the Titanic.

Now, the Titanic looked impressive. It felt impressive. It seemed unlike anything else that had come before it. In the words of the smarmy Cal Hockley in the 1997 film adaptation of the Titanic story, “God himself could not sink this ship!”

Of course, what looked so impressive and mighty suffered from the same weaknesses as that which had gone before it.

When confronted with the statement from the outraged (and snooty) Mr Ismay, “But…this ship can’t sink!”, the words of the shipbuilder, Thomas Andrews, become chilling: “She’s made of iron, sir! I assure you she can, and she will. It’s a mathematical certainty.”

These are the same kind of words that John speaks about Rome. It was ‘impressive’, to be sure, but it certainly wasn’t unsinkable.

For John, Rome was the biggest, baddest, proudest, most idolatrous empire the world had ever seen. Rome promised peace, security, and prosperity, but for John it was just seductive propaganda that masked the violent, oppressive and exploitative reality. Rome invited other nations to join her, but if they wouldn’t come willingly to submit themselves to Rome’s ‘care’ then they would face the wrath of the beast.

Rome would always see to it that Rome came out on top.

Now, it must be said that some areas prospered greatly out of their dealings with Rome. The Province of Asia was one of these areas.

Having been ‘bequeathed’ to Rome from the Pergamene king, Attalus III, in 133 BCE (due to his lack of an heir), the Roman province of ‘Asia’ ended up doing quite well for itself. Though the first century BCE saw it face some economic difficulties (primarily due to powerful people in Rome seeking to profit personally from the newly-acquired region), by the mid-late first century CE it was doing quite well for itself indeed. With an abundance of natural resources, and being situated geographically at a strategic point for trade by both land and sea, many of the inhabitants of the region ended up prospering greatly.

For John, this was a dangerous situation.

For those who were able to profit out of the situation, the lure of Rome, as John saw it, was like a sleazy call to sell out. Though it may not have seemed like much to ‘play the game’ of Roman civil and religious life if one was able to make ludicrous profits out of it, John saw this as a critical decision for Christians. For John, this was essentially about where one’s allegiance rested: with the Lamb, or with the Beast. To ignore the call to a life of faithful prophetic witness in order to obtain wealth was, for John, to declare allegiance to the Beast. Though it may have seemed like a good idea (judging by the current situation), John’s message was intended to assure his recipients that this was not actually the case. This extraordinary Empire (indeed, all Empire) was already fatally undermined by the victory of Jesus, even if it did not know it yet. As such, binding oneself to empire was, for John, an utterly hopeless move.

This Empire was also based on oppression and exploitation.

Though it was true that the Province of Asia was ‘rich’ with abundant natural resources, it was also nevertheless true that prosperity for one usually meant oppression or exploitation for another (or, perhaps more accurately, many others). There was great wealth through the region (and the empire as a whole) in this period, but there was also a greater number of people living in poverty, barely surviving from day-to-day. Of course, when something like famine broke out, the food produced in some of these regional areas was shipped first to Rome (to ensure the wellbeing of the inhabitants there), leaving many in the very areas where the crops were produced to starve to death. Precious materials like gold had become ubiquitous in many places for the rich (with some writers despairing about what had once been so rare and privileged becoming available to all and sundry), but many others were left with barely the basics for survival. There are even reports that, in Rome, some of the wealthy residents were  having parties where they dissolved expensive pearls in vinegar in order to consume them and prove just how rich they were (in the tradition of Cleopatra), even while many in the provinces died in their poverty.

And Rome was brutal.

Though the Roman propaganda highlighted ‘peace’, this peace was maintained at the point of a sword. The Roman military was incredibly efficient, and incredibly effective, and dissent was not tolerated. Rome would take what it wanted, whether the local inhabitants wanted what Rome offered or not.

And so John called it for how he saw it.

Aligning oneself with Rome was aligning oneself with the very enemy of God. This proud, arrogant empire had set itself up as saviour to all, but John saw through this facade. Rome was set up to reward the powerful and to crush the rest.

Money could be made, but John asks the critical question concerning what price someone would be willing to pay for buying into this kind of prosperity.

And so John called for a choice to be made. In Revelation 18:4, we here this called summed up in the simple command: “Come out of her my people!”

Remembering that ‘prophecy’ was focused much more on the current situation that predicting the future for its own sake, John prophetically calls those who had become a little bit too comfortable with empire out of their slumber and back to faithfulness to God. He expects a decision to be made, and he expects that this decision would have tangible outcomes on the behaviour of those listening to his message. Perhaps this was the first time that they had heard such a message, and John’s words became like a bucket of cold water in their face as they came to realise that they had been aligning themselves with the already-defeated beast of empire. Perhaps they were starting to buckle under the weight of the pressures they were beginning to face for their faithful witness, and John’s words would have come as a comforting reassurance that they were to continue on in their witness, and that it would not all be for nothing.

Either way, these are the two most prominent messages within the book of Revelation to the original recipients.

But what, if any, relevance do they have for us today?

What Might the Book of Revelation Mean to ‘Us’?

I don’t think it’s stretching things too far to say that these same messages fit pretty well with a modern audience.

Though, in Australia, I don’t face the sort of opposition that John’s hearers may have started to face in the years after Revelation was written (being teased because Christianity might be viewed as being a bit ‘nerdy’ doesn’t count!), there are certainly Christians around the world in situations where the message of Revelation to hold firm to the prophetic witness of Jesus is desperately needed. The situation may sometimes feel overwhelming for these people, and thus the book of Revelation speaks powerful into their context, comforting and assuring them that their work is not in vain. To remain faithful and true means being vindicated and victorious, and this life of self-sacrifice is the only key to real ‘victory’.

But I think, actually, that the second message of Revelation outlined above is more desperately needed in my context, and probably for many Christians in the West.

This might get a little controversial.

Though Christians in the West are often quick to identify the ‘beasts of empire’ with the Communists, or the Nazis, or with ‘Islamo-Fascism’, I think that many might be surprised to find that many Western nations function out of some of the very same principles John identifies in Rome.

Much of the propaganda we hear is about obtaining prosperity and gaining for ourselves the ‘American/Australian/whatever Dream’. If we just dedicate ourselves to this pursuit, then we will obtain it and, in doing so, obtain happiness. We too can gain hold of the ‘special things’, that are out of the reach of ‘ordinary people’.

For John, this is the same sort of idolatry that draws people into the intoxicating embrace of the Great Prostitute.

What we don’t often hear about is how much of our economic systems are based on exploitation and oppression. We don’t often hear that massive profits are sometimes (often!) gained off the back of exploitative practices. We don’t listen carefully enough when we hear that the makers of the trendy ‘must-have’ electronic equipment exploit foreign workers in the pursuit of ridiculous profits. Even if this point is raised, it is usually focused on just one company (take Apple as an example), forgetting the fact that pretty much every electronic device in every house uses components manufactured this way.

We don’t often hear that our clothes are, many times, produced through exploitative practices, or that multi-national corporations manipulate tax data to avoid paying their fair share of tax in economies that need that money desperately. We don’t often hear that a significant proportion of our food and coffee and chocolate is produced through forced or child labour. We don’t often hear about the way in which our relentless pursuit of ‘more’ is destroying our environment, and that it simply can’t continue on this way.

And we don’t often acknowledge that our governments are implicit in all of this, enacting policy that favours the powerful and oppresses the weak, all in the name of short-term political gain.

For me, John’s visionary message to the Christians in the churches around Ephesus at the end of the first century, understood in all its situatedness, helps me see the same sorts of things in my own context. John’s bold message to the Christians in Asia Minor helps me call it for what it is, tearing down the facade and identifying the ‘beast’ of empire in my own situation.

His message is still powerful: “Come out of her my people!”

I don’t often hear churches proclaiming this message. Somehow we seem to think that the Christian message is compatible with the propaganda of empire.

It is not.

As Christians, we are meant to be living in a way that enacts the Kingdom of God in the here and now. This kingdom is based on faithfulness and truth, on self-sacrifice and love, rather than violence and exploitation. When we begin to slip back into the ways of empire, we must once again hear the words of rebuke that John offers even to us here and now. We are called to something more.

And this might get uncomfortable.

Though it may not end up with full-blown persecution, it is guaranteed to encounter opposition. When truth is spoken to power, things always get a little tense. But no matter what opposition comes, we are to hold fast to the example of the Lamb, steadfastly refusing to respond with violence or hate. We must subvert such action with self-sacrifice and grace.

This does not, however, mean passivity.

We are called to an active faith; a faith which boldly challenges oppression and exploitation. This faith will never be satisfied while dehumanising power structures remain, and will actively work at bringing these structures down.

And, if I can take it even one more controversial step forward, we need to apply all of this to the church too.

John reminds us, over and over again, that those with ears should hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. I think that we could do sometimes with hearing what God might have to say about the abuse of power and the use of oppressive or exploitative structures even within the church.

Needless to say, such structures are not birthed in God.

Are we willing, then, to have the sometimes uncomfortable conversations about where such structures might be lurking in our churches and denominations? Are we willing to be so serious about our witness that we will do the hard work of critical self-reflection, guided by the Spirit, to make sure that our churches have not unconsciously (or otherwise) taken on structures that don’t belong?

This is a radical message. It is a difficult one. It is an uncomfortable one.

But it is, I think, I fair understanding of the message of the book of Revelation.

The question is: are we willing to hear it?

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For Further Reading:

Some have asked me what I think are some really useful resources on the book of Revelation. I will indicate here just a couple of resources that I think are excellent:

  1. Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation. This is, quite simply, the best book you will ever read on Revelation. It is short, but it packs an incredible punch.
  2. Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation. This is quite a bit longer than Bauckham’s other book on Revelation, but it does provide a significant amount of exegetical and historical detail in regards to some of the points he makes in Theology.
  3. Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now. This is an absolute must-read. You will quickly figure out that Howard-Brook and Gwyther’s work has been very significant for me!
  4. David deSilva, Seeing Things John’s Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation. This is a bit long (and you probably get the general idea from reading the first 3-4 chapters), but it is excellent.
  5. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World. Schüssler Fiorenza is an outstanding scholar, and has been instrumental in regards to rhetorical examinations of the book of Revelation.
  6. M. Eugene Boring, Revelation (in the Interpretation series). The introduction to this book is exceptional in regards to understanding the imagery in Revelation. The commentary itself is not great.
  7. G.B. Caird, The Revelation of St John the Divine. This is great if you want a nice, simple commentary to preach from.

This is a very basic list, but I think it contains a number of very useful resources.

Reading Revelation (Part IV)

In my first post in this series, I outlined my belief that the traditional interpretive categories used to approach the book of Revelation were less than helpful, and suggested that there was a more excellent way.

In my second post, I started to outline an alternate reading strategy, consisting of three interwoven ‘layers’, and discussed the first of these: the contextual layer.

In my third post, I discussed the second of these interpretive ‘layers’: the intertextual layer.

In this post, then, I wish to discuss the final interpretive ‘layer’: the literary-rhetorical layer. It should be noted, however, that all of these ‘layers’ of interpretation are integrally connected. The ‘intertextual’ layer is, in a sense, the meeting point of the contextual and literary-rhetorical examination, and binds them all together in a way that means that there is a fair amount of overlap between the categories themselves. Although I am treating them separately here, this does not take away from the inherent inter-connectedness of these interpretive elements.

A Literary-Rhetorical Examination

Though some of this has already been discussed in some sense in the ‘intertextual’ discussion, there are a couple of points here that, I think, really need to be highlighted. The first point is in regards to understanding the book of Revelation as a whole, and the second is in regards to understanding the meaning and impact of the vivid imagery on display in the text.

Structure and Flow

I’ve noted already that the author of the book of Revelation presents his work as a prophecy, in apocalyptic style, in the form of a letter. This was a very important step, but I think there is still another step to take here. The author seems to indicate that he is writing a  letter (as opposed to many), which is presented as a prophecy (not multiple prophecies).

Think about that for a moment.

John wrote one prophetic letter to the churches around Ephesus. He may have included individual messages directed to each city within this broader framework (in chapters 2-3), but he is writing the whole thing to the churches as a whole. It is one, long unified work. It is one, long, unified prophetic message. It is one, long, unified visionary experience that, it seems, was meant to take the recipients on a profound journey.

The best way of understanding the transmission of the book of Revelation, I think, is to understand that it was probably read aloud to the congregations, most likely in the context of a worship meeting. Though I have no doubt that Richard Bauckham is correct to suggest that, in addition to this primary form of transmission, the text was probably also studied intensely by those in the scribal-prophetic tradition, I think it is right to suggest that the book of Revelation was read aloud to congregations as a kind of prophetic performance. Quite possibly, the reading of the text would have moved into participation in the Lord’s Supper, which would be quite a natural outcome, I would think, of experiencing a visionary journey bookended by glorious scenes of worship of God for his work in and through the ‘victorious’ Lamb.

This prophetic performance, I would suggest, was intended to take the listeners on a journey that was meant to be experienced in one sitting. This journey, full of vivid, emotive, evocative imagery, would no doubt have had a profound, visceral effect on those who heard its message in one sitting. Contrary to the source critics of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and even into the otherwise outstanding work of D. Aune), the book of Revelation is not some jumbled collection of disparate sources that were thrown together in a horrible mess (which is the impression that R.H. Charles gives, for example). Rather, the book of Revelation is a profoundly unified work that exhibits extraordinary interconnectedness even if it doesn’t fit with our modern ideas of linear progression. Through the relentless forward movement of the text (which is not perfectly linear, but neither is it in any sense simple recapitulation*), interrupted only at key points by rhetorically-strategic delays, the text envelops the listeners in its visionary world for the duration of the performance. We can only imagine the impact it would have had on the first hearers, kind of like people coming out from seeing the latest 3-D blockbuster movie (…though perhaps one which actually had a point that impacted on our lives…).

But the question must be asked here: what effect did the fantastic imagery used in Revelation have on the first hearers? And this brings me to the second point.

Understanding the Imagery

I’ve already mentioned at least a couple of points in regards to this overall topic that might help us as we unpack it a little bit more here. Firstly, I’ve suggested that one of my assumptions is that texts usually make at least some sense to their original audiences. Secondly, I’ve suggested that apocalyptic literature was quite fond of using seemingly bizarre imagery of animals and beasts and the like. And, thirdly, I’ve suggested that Revelation as a whole would have had an emotive effect on its first hearers through the use of such evocative imagery.

Bringing some of this together, it’s worth noting that, contrary to what some people might believe, a fair bit of the imagery on display in the book of Revelation is not actually, dare I say it, original. Had John submitted the text as an essay, he may have failed due to modern notions of plagiarism! Put quite simply, in John’s day there was a significant apocalyptic tradition that numerous authors were drawing on. Each of these authors used parts of the tradition for their own purposes, carefully crafting traditional imagery to suit their own needs, but it was kind of like there was a collection of apocalyptic ‘stock’ imagery that people could draw on. I don’t have space to go into it here, however it is worth noting that imagery such as the (rather gruesome) blood flowing in the streets up to the horses’ bridles (Rev. 14:20), the completion of the number of martyrs (Rev. 6:9-11), the sea and death and hades ‘giving up the dead’ (Rev. 20:13), and the ‘silence in heaven’ (Rev. 8:1) all occur in ‘apocalyptic’ texts both before and contemporaneously with the book of Revelation (and many times in texts later than revelation too).** The point, of course, is that this sort of imagery had currency when John was writing; the people he was writing to, we can assume, had some experience of this sort of imagery, and were used to the ways it was usually used.

Taking this a step further, this imagery that was used in the apocalyptic tradition had meaning to the people who were experiencing these texts beyond just recognition; the imagery, though seemingly bizarre to us, was used in ways to speak into concrete historical situations. For example, the Animal Apocalypse in the Book of Dreams in 1 Enoch (dated to about the Maccabean period) uses imagery of sheep and rams and cows and bears and eagles and dogs to, apparently, speak of individuals and groups and empires. In many ways, it’s kind of like George Orwell’s Animal Farm. To take another example, the vision of four monsters in Daniel 7 is not just an example of ancient authors experimenting with hallucinogens, it’s an evocative way of speaking about four great empires. We know this, because the book of Daniel actually says so(!):

I, Daniel, was troubled in the spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me. I approached one of those standing there and asked him the true meaning of all this. So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things: The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth. (Daniel 7:15-18)

This evocative, emotive imagery has meaning in the apocalyptic tradition, and so we must look to that tradition to help us understand how the imagery might be being used in the book of Revelation. We are not to just speculate about what we think all the imagery could mean; the tradition itself shapes and gives context to the imagery that is used (albeit used in new and creative ways). Though I am sure that commentators like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Eugene Boring are correct to state that this imagery is far more than just simple ‘code’ language that needs to be deciphered (and their discussion of the polyvalent nature of apocalyptic language is certainly vital to read), I do think that there is an integral connection between the imagery that was often used and the concrete socio-political events of the times. The imagery is intended to evoke an emotional response not simply because of the imagery itself, but because it is being used in metaphorical relation to very real socio-political events and figures that meant something to the original hearers.

And this leads to the next point.

Not only did the author of Revelation use the apocalyptic traditions handed down to him, he also seems to have very cleverly used (and, in many cases, subverted) contemporary pagan mythology in his visionary masterpiece. For example, there seems to be little doubt that John is alluding quite clearly to the emperor Nero when he suggests in Revelation 16:12 that the Euphrates river would be dried up to ‘prepare the way for the kings from the East’, and in 17:16 that the (first) beast with the ‘ten horns’  (who, we are told, are ‘ten kings’) will hate and destroy the ‘great city that rules over the kings of the earth’ (who is pictured as the ‘great prostitute’). Though, after Nero’s death, there grew up a myth about his return from the dead (which John also seems to draw on the other places in the book of Revelation), a myth also grew around the idea that Nero did not actually commit suicide but rather escaped to the East (where he enjoyed significant popularity). This myth spoke of the time when the Euphrates would dry up and Nero, with the Eastern kings, would come back to wreak havoc on Rome in vengeance.

To take another example, bouncing out of the last one, it seems that John may have taken some of the imagery surrounding the goddess Roma (who had become an integral part of the earliest Roman-sanctioned provincial imperial cult at Pergamum) for his description of the ‘Great Prostitute’. This extraordinarily richly-adorned woman, who sits atop the ‘seven hills of Rome’ (Rev. 17:9) and who rules over ‘peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages’ (Rev. 17:15), is actually, according to John, nothing more than a high-class hooker who draws the kings of the earth into her wily schemes (‘sexual immorality’, in prophetic literature, is usually speaking of idolatry). Of course, John is not talking about a literal woman here, but rather identifies her as ‘the great city’ (17:18).*** One can only imagine the offence of some who may have recognised in this ‘great whore’ the precious patron goddess of Rome personified! The impact of such imagery would have been quite remarkable.

As a final example, we could note also the vision of the ‘woman clothed with the sun’ being chased by the dragon in Revelation chapter 12. A well-known Greco-Roman myth (which took on many forms) had the goddess Leto giving birth to Apollo and Artemis after seeking safety from the chaos-monster Python on an island, with Apollo going on to eventually slay the great beast. With the knowledge that the Emperor Augustus took on Apollo as his own personal god (to highlight the idea of ‘bringing order out of chaos’, which was sort of Augusts’ motto), it can only be wondered at how this passage of Revelation would have been viewed seeing as it has the dragon-serpent (who is connected with the ‘beasts of empire’ in the very next chapter) chasing the personified messianic community from which the  Messiah springs forth. In effect, John seems to have totally reversed the myth here, pitting Roman power on the very side of chaos and seeing victory over chaos as coming through an imperial rival!

So, to bring all of this together, it should be noted that John used the imagery available to him as part of his rhetorical strategy. As the first recipients entered into this visionary world for the duration of the ‘performance’, they were bombarded with rhetorically-strategic imagery that was metaphorically speaking into the contemporary socio-historical situation. This imagery was powerful, emotive, evocative, subversive. It sought to elicit a response from those who heard it. This was, after all, the purpose of the ‘prophecy’ was it not?

But there is one final piece of the puzzle that we must very briefly mention here (and I’m aware that this is already a rather long post). This point, I think, could in fact be the most important point of all.

Revelation as the ‘Climax’ of the Judeo-Christian Prophetic Tradition

In terms of the rhetoric of Revelation, it is crucially important to note the way in which John situates his work in regards to the prophetic tradition that he is working out of. Though many commentators (usually of the popularist variety) seek to read Revelation alongside the Hebrew prophets, I think this is actually a significant mistake. Building on the work of Richard Bauckham (again), I would suggest that John is not just writing another prophecy, or just a Christian  prophecy, but is writing the prophecy that draws together in itself all the vital elements of the Hebrew prophetic tradition in the light of God’s final revelation in the person and work of Jesus Christ. John is not just writing some sort of companion to Daniel or Ezekiel or Zechariah or Isaiah, he is writing the definitive prophecy that draws the work of all of these former prophets together in Jesus Christ.

John, it seems, despite his (I think) quite obvious Jewish scribal background, has had an experience of Jesus as Jewish Messiah and Lord of all in a way that has transformed his understanding of the entire Jewish tradition (especially the prophets) which find their fulfilment only now that God’s plans have been revealed fully. As such, John seems to be on a mission to show how all these former prophecies find fulfilment in the story of Jesus, and in his own work.

Please let me offer a couple of examples.

Firstly, there is the Lion-Lamb imagery that is so often misunderstood. In Revelation chapter 4, John sees a vision of the throne room of heaven that would be at home in any Jewish prophecy. In chapter 5, however, a dramatic new development takes place. When John is told that there is no-one worthy in heaven or on earth who is worthy to break the seals (to reveal, apparently, God’s previously hidden plans), he hears that the ‘Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David’ has triumphed and is worthy to open it. This, of course, is military messianic language to Jewish ears. God’s messiah would arrive in the tradition of the warrior-king David, overcoming the enemies of God’s people. This ‘Lion of Judah’, then, is said to have conquered and thus now be worthy of opening the scroll of God’s plans.

But when John looks, what he sees is a lamb, ‘looking as if it had been slain’ but nevertheless standing in the middle of the throne of God. The expectation of the military messiah has been completely overturned in the person and work of Jesus. What this is not saying is that Jesus is both the lion and the lamb (as if he was the lamb in his first coming and will return as the mighty warrior lion), rather it is saying that the expected lion came in the form of the lamb. The whole messianic prophetic tradition needs to thus be re-interpreted in light of the fact that God did not act by sending a military messiah to claim military ‘victory’ over the Romans, but rather achieved ‘victory’ through the death and resurrection of the sacrificial lamb. God’s ‘victory’ is something completely different to, and subversive of, Roman understandings of conquest.

But there is more.

The same rhetorical device is used in chapter 7, when the description is given of the followers of the Lamb. In Revelation 7:3, John is told that the number of God’s people must be sealed so as to avoid the destruction of the coming plagues. What he hears is the perfect number of God’s people as 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel (7:4-8). Again, this is military language, with such census’ usually being taken in preparation for war. God’s people, then, are prophetically pictured as the perfect number (144,000) of ethnic Jewish warriors.

Again, though, what John sees is something drastically different. John sees ‘a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the lamb’ (7:9). Instead of wearing military uniforms, they are wearing white robes, and instead of holding swords they are holding palm branches. Just as with the picture of the Lamb, the understanding of the followers of the Lamb is dramatically reconfigured. The Jewish prophetic tradition is powerfully reconfigured through the reality of the person and work of Jesus.

But the final example might be the most useful.

I have already spoken of Daniel chapter 7, but there is more to be said. Below is short video I created that I think is extraordinarily helpful in understanding what is going on in the book of Revelation. It contains the text of Daniel 7:2-7 (describing the four great beasts), moving into the text of Revelation 13:1-2 (which describes the beast from the sea). It is not as important to read all of the text as it is to follow on the words and phrases that become highlighted and isolated as the animation moves from the text of Daniel 7 to the text of Revelation 13:

So, Daniel has four beasts, the last of which has four heads (giving a total of seven heads all up) and ten horns. These beasts are described as variously looking like a lion, a bear, and a leopard (oh my!). John’s one beast, then, has seven heads in total, with ten horns, and has elements like a leopard, a bear, and a lion. Is this just coincidence? Or is it, rather, a very deliberate move by John?

John, it seems to me, is suggesting that the one ‘beast’ in Revelation 13 is kind of like all the other ‘beasts’ of history rolled into one: the biggest, baddest, ugliest of them all. But what are these beasts? Luckily, as we have already seen, Daniel tells us plainly: the ‘beasts’ are kingdoms. As such, I think it’s fairly reasonable to suggest that John, taking his cue from this, is talking about the one great kingdom that he thinks is more oppressive, more exploitative, more idolatrous and proud than all the other bad empires of history: Rome. Rather than do what one of his Jewish contemporaries (the author of 4 Ezra) did, suggesting that Daniel got it a bit muddled and was speaking of Greece when the fourth beast of Daniel 7 was actually signifying Rome, John takes a different approach. John is not seeking to re-apply the prophecies of Daniel, he is seeking rather to bring them to fulfilment in the light of God’s work in Jesus and the situation that God’s people now find themselves in. Daniel’s sealed scroll is now very much open, and everything needs to be reconfigured in the light of Jesus. It seems that John was fairly clearly implying that everything in history was coming to a point, and it’s coming to that point in what he was writing.

This is truly a big deal.

It seems that John is suggesting that his work stands as the climax of all prophecy, drawing everything together in God’s plans now-revealed through the person and work of Jesus. This message was important. The people of God were being faced with an extraordinary situation, and they needed to decide what they were going to do. God was speaking an important prophetic word now through John, drawing together all previous prophetic insight, and those who heard it were meant to be affected by it. They were meant to be changed. They were meant to walk out the other side of the ‘performance’ of Revelation in their congregation with profound new insight into the situation and it was expected that their behaviour would be modified accordingly.

However, the details of what this meant to Revelation’s first hearers, and what it might mean to Christians today, shall have to wait until the next post.

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* I would recommend readings Richard Bauckham’s work on this topic, which cuts through the usual discussions of the structure of the text with extraordinary clarity.

** See Bauckham’s The Climax of Prophecy for more information on this topic (specifically chapter 2: The Use of Apocalyptic Traditions”)

*** Some feminist scholars have (rightly) pointed out that this sort of language is not particularly helpful. Of course, we must remember that, even though the language is certainly not ideal here, John is using a traditional rhetorical device here to talk about a city, rather than an actual woman. While I would certainly not want to use such language in our context today, I think it is important to note that this is not evidence in and of itself that john was some sort of misogynist.