Sunday, October 31, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 11)

Having worked our way through the short letter to the Laodicean church, we now return to the place at which we began, which is the twentieth verse of the third chapter.  Jesus says “Listen!  I am standing at the door and knocking!  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door I will come into his home and share a meal with him, and he with Me” (3:20).  This is the crucial verse.  It is what makes sense of our entire examination up to this point.  In this verse, Jesus communicates what it is that has Him so thoroughly displeased with this church.  It is in this verse that we find what it is that needs to be corrected.  It is here that Jesus lets this church know that their practice has left Him outside their assembly, while also identifying that practice for them.  It is this verse that makes the fifteenth and sixteenth verses of the chapter so telling, when Jesus says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish you were either cold or hot!  So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth!” (3:15-16)  The intervening verses, and especially Jesus’ insistence that those that are carrying out this practice are actually “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17b), are meant to function as a path, using apocalyptic language, to the conclusion that must be reached by the end of the twentieth verse.

The letter to the Laodicean church is the seventh of seven letters to seven churches in Asia Minor.  In each case, Jesus says that He will do something.  He first directs His attention to Ephesus.  There, Jesus instructs them to “do the deeds you did at first” (2:5b).  If they do not, He says “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place…if you do not repent” (2:5c).  The second letter is directed to Smyrna.  Jesus tells them to “Remain faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown that is life itself” (2:10b).  This follows from instruction to “not be afraid of the things you are about to suffer,” because “the devil is about to have some of you thrown into prison so  you may be tested, and you will experience suffering” (2:10a).  Next up is the church at Pergamum.  To them, after making mention of a couple of  irritants and says, “Therefore, repent!  If not, I will come against you quickly and make war against those people with the sword of My mouth” (2:16). 

The communication to Thyatira is a bit more detailed.  Jesus makes reference to a woman that named “Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and by her teaching deceives My servants” (2:20b).  His promised actions toward this church first have to do with her, as He says, “Look!  I am throwing her onto a bed of violent illness… Furthermore, I will strike her followers with a deadly disease” (2:22a,23a).  He then goes on to say, “I will repay each one of you what your deeds deserve” (2:23c).  Fifth on the list is the church of Sardis.  After what seems like a mild rebuke (by comparison to Thyatira) in which Jesus says that they are dead, Jesus says, “If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will never know at what hour I will come against you” (3:3b).  The church at Philadelphia is next on the list.  Here, Jesus speaks of some apparent enemies of this church, saying “I will make them come and bow down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you” (3:9b).  Jesus then makes mention of some type of calamitous time to come, saying “Because you have kept my admonition to endure steadfastly, I will also keep you from the hour of testing that is about to come on the whole world to test those who live on the earth” (3:10).  To this He adds: “I am coming soon” (3:11a).  The letter to the Laodiceans follows.  As we well know, there Jesus says that what He is doing is “standing at the door and knocking,” hoping that someone will hear His voice.  If He is heard, He says “I will come… and share a meal.” 

Not only does Jesus indicate that there is something that He will do, but each church also hears Jesus speak of conquering.  Ephesus is told, “To the one who conquers, I will permit him to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God” (2:7b).  Sardis is told “The one who conquers will in no way be harmed by the second death” (2:11b).  Thyatira hears, “And to the one who conquers and who continues in My deeds until the end, I will give him authority over the nations” (2:26).  To Sardis, Jesus says, “The one who conquers will be dressed…in white clothing, and I will never erase his name from the book of life, but will declare his name before My Father and before His angels” (3:5).  The church at Philadelphia is told, “The one who conquers I will make a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will never depart from it.  I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God (the new Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven from My God), and My new name as well” (3:12).  Laodicea hears: “I will grant the one who conquers permission to sit with Me on My throne, just as I too conquered and sat down with My Father on His throne” (3:21).  All of these “conquering” statements are linked with “The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:7a, 2:11a, 2:17a, 2:29, 3:6, 3:13, 3:22). 

An interesting, but perhaps relatively meaningless observation can be made here in that with Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum, the exhortation to “hear what the Spirit says” comes before any talk of conquering.  For Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, the encouragement to hear follows the conquering and closes out the individual communications.  Of course, we would be remiss if we failed to mention that these veiling words (apocalyptic language) of those with “ears to hear,” are to be found on the lips of Jesus in the record of the Gospels.    

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 10)

Having made reference to Laodicea’s place in the world of finance (buying gold), as well as their position in the fashion world (white clothing in contrast to the black wool), mention is then made of one more source of wealth that has a hand in contributing to that which is happening within this church in Laodicea, and is displeasing to Jesus.  John reports Jesus saying, “buy eye salve to put on your eyes so you can see!” (Revelation 3:18c)  While this could be thought of as an allusion to Jesus’ healing of the blind, and specifically to the instance of record in which Jesus spits on the eyes of the man whose sight is restored (Mark 8:23), or to the time when Jesus spit on the ground to make some mud and smeared the mud into the eyes of a man that had been born blind (John 9:6)---both of which were interesting types of eye salve to be sure, it is far more likely that the reference hits much closer to home for those that made up this particular congregation. 

This reference to eye salve, or to some type of eye medication, is more than likely yet another reflection of the historical situation in Laodicea.  So once again, these words have an important contextual setting that, when recognized, will keep us from running off the tracks into strictly spiritual (and possibly incorrect) interpretations.  At the risk of being overly repetitive (though this is not truly a risk), spiritual applications (for lack of a better term) can best be accomplished and are most effective when steps are taken to hear the words as they would have been heard by the original hearers, to be understood and applied in that context so as to grasp the underlying truths that are being communicated, and then translated through time for personal application. 

That said, the historical situation in regards to the eye salve has to do with the fact that the region in which Laodicea is located is Phrygia.  There is some debate as to whether or not this is actually the case, as Laodicea is sometimes said to have been a part of other regions, such as Caria.  Contributing to the inability to pin down exact locations is the fact that territorial limitations were often very poorly defined and always changing.  The region of Phrygia was famous in the ancient world because of the “Phrygian powder” produced there.  This powder was an ingredient in various eye medications.  To go along with the fact of the Phrygian powder, an ancient historian by the name of Strabo reports that there was a medical school in Laodicea, and that this was the location of the practice of a renowned eye doctor.  When we couple the statement about eye salve in the letter to Laodicea with the fact of the Phrygian powder, it becomes reasonable to presume that Laodicea was located within this territory, at the very least, at the time of the penning of Revelation.  Putting that aside, this is a clear indication that the Laodicean church has become blind to something in particular, that it must be corrected, and that the issue that must be corrected must be identifiable for the church. 

So as not to forget the ground that has already been covered, the Laodicean church can apparently look to Hierapolis and Colossae as examples of proper practice in this particular area to which Jesus is drawing attention; and as we continue to move towards this positive identification, we must keep in mind that the three things that Jesus mentions are three things that were bringing wealth to Laodicea, and presumably, to people within the church.  Therefore, it does indeed seem to be the case that it is the possession of wealth that is causing the problem that is being worked out in their practice as a church.  In introducing these three things, Jesus, through John, has called attention to Laodicea’s rejection of imperial assistance for rebuilding efforts following an earthquake.  They were rich, had acquired great wealth, and were in need of nothing.  This was true of Laodicea as a city, and apparently, had also become true of this church as well.  The celebration of wealth had infected the church in such a way that they were denying the kingdom of God by their practice (much like Laodicea denied Rome’s assistance, which also denies the extension of Roman power), causing Jesus to see them as being wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. 

Having made His point concerning what the wealth had accomplished, always with an eye towards correcting the practice of the church, Jesus takes up a discourse that utilizes the three main wealth generators (financial/gold transactions, textiles, eye salve), relating them to Himself and what is available through Him, so as to make it clear that the blessings that are available to His people as part of His kingdom are far superior to anything that could bring them wealth in the world’s present form, especially if it brought about a denial of Him and His kingdom principles and practices.  This denial of kingdom has placed Jesus, as far as He is concerned, outside the church, where He stands at the door and knocks, speaking to them (as He is doing in this letter), and desiring to re-join them.  Before expressing what it is that He desires to do, Jesus says, “All those I love, I rebuke and discipline.  So be earnest and repent!” (3:19)  With this mention of rebuke, discipline, and repentance, Jesus offers them a path back to where they belong.  As we shall see, Jesus’ words are quite specific and quite telling.  Jesus is being very explicit, and this church will have no problem in identifying what they are getting wrong, and setting it right. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 9)

After commenting on their wealth and need of nothing, Jesus makes an interjection that serves to negate any vaunted ideas of self as citizens of Laodicea that might have arisen from such thoughts, saying that this church did not realize that they were actually “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17b).  Here, metaphorical and analogical application seems to be unavoidable, as Jesus wants them to understand that though they may be wealthy, their nauseating practice that partially stemmed from the fact of their wealth actually showed them to be something far different.  This too is something to which we shall return in due course.

As a result, Jesus implores this church---the very church upon whose door He stands and knocks so that He might come in and share a meal---to “take My advice and buy gold from me refined by fire so you can become rich!” (3:18a).  This is another reference based on historical context.  As we have already seen, Laodicea is a place in which large financial transactions take place, which this making a major contribution to the wealth of the city in general, and more than likely, to some of the individuals within the church.  Understandably, precious metals such as gold would have been standard fare in the financial world of the day, which makes sense of Jesus’ reference to the need to buy gold from Him. 

There is no need here to go to any discourses about the impossibility of buying the things of God, or to ponder what it is that Jesus insists needs to be obtained.  Such would be inappropriate, and need only be ventured if we fail to consider the context of Laodicea’s position, its trade, and its source of wealth.  An abundance of gold will generally cause those that possess such abundance to consider themselves rich.  However, Jesus has already informed this church that their practice, quite to the contrary, has made them truly poor.  If they will but discard the practice and enter into what it is that He desires, as demonstrated by His life and practice, then they will truly be rich.  If the Biblical narrative pattern is followed, these riches (blessings?) that are indissolubly linked to practice will probably have some connection to the Abrahamic covenant.  The true gold that will be purchased from Jesus will be inextricably connected to the kingdom principles that He demonstrated throughout His ministry, and according to the Hebrew prophets, there can be no greater riches than those which are connected to the established kingdom of God.

According to John, Jesus continues on to say, “Buy from me white clothing so you can be clothed and your shameful nakedness will not be exposed” (3:18b).  Here we have yet another contrast.  The issue of putting on clothing appears to be a regular theme in the earliest church.  In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul writes: “For in this earthly house we grown, because we desire to put on our heavenly dwelling, in indeed, after we have put on our heavenly house we will not be found naked.  For we groan while we are in this tent, since we are weighed down, because we do not want to be unclothed, but clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (5:2-4).  Though Paul makes reference to houses, dwellings, tents, and clothes, the subject at hand is the glorified, resurrection body that the believer will have when the kingdom of God comes in its fullness. 

In the letter to Laodicea, the shameful nakedness would seem to have the same point of reference, as there will be no glorified body available, and no place in the kingdom of God made possible for those that operate contrary to the principles of the kingdom in the course of their natural term.  The purchasing of “white clothing” is yet another reference to that which has garnered wealth for Laodicea, which was the previously mentioned textile industry.  Laodicea was a center for the manufacture of clothing, and the sheep that grazed around Laodicea were quite famous for the soft, black wool that they produced, which in turn created a high demand for clothes made from this black wool.  With His words of white clothing, Jesus produces a sharp contrast between His white clothing that is on offer, and the clothing made from black wool that was productive of wealth in this city.  That wealth is creating an insidious problem in the church, and that problem need not exist.  Again, the crux of the issue is not the wealth but rather the response to the wealth by those that are calling Jesus Lord, yet denying Him by their actions.                  

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 8)

After making mention that their practice had Him displeased to the point of using the imagery of vomiting, Jesus goes on to say, “Because you say, ‘I am rich and have acquired great wealth, and need nothing’” (Revelation 3:17a).  Since hot, cold, and lukewarm were being employed for purposes of tangible and easily understandable reference, so too should this statement be comprehended in the same manner.  Accordingly, whatever it is in which the church is engaged is somehow tied to wealth. 

The usual interpretation has the Laodiceans over-confident in regard to spiritual wealth, and unable to recognize their spiritual bankruptcy.  Of course, that usual interpretation follows hard on the treatment of hot, cold, and lukewarm as spiritual epithets rather than the geographical indicators leading to an understanding centered on practice that would have been more readily grasped by those who would be receiving the letter.  There is no initial need to spiritualize here, and we should resist the ingrained desire to do so.  Spiritual analysis and application can and should come later, once Jesus’ words are understood in context. 

With just a little bit of digging, we will find that this is not a subtle reference to a supposed self-righteousness or smug satisfaction with a wealth of spiritual gifts.  Again, the readers of the letter would have to be able to understand what John is writing (and Jesus is saying) within their context in order for it to make sense to them, for it to have meaning, and for it to be productive of Jesus’ desired ends.  Having gone to great lengths to establish our hermeneutic (method of interpretation), we’ll find that we can engage and understand these words from Jesus, as well as the words that lead up to Jesus speaking of standing and knocking, quite easily and altogether profitably. 

Though Laodicea was located on a major road, Laodicea was a place of little importance in its early history.  This changed under the first few Roman emperors.  During this time, Laodicea began to benefit from its location on a major road, and thus a major trade route, in time becoming one of the most important and flourishing cities of Asia Minor.  Among other things, a specialization in large financial transactions sprung up in Laodicea, and it would also become important in the textile industry.  We will return to these things in due course.  The area in which it was located also suffered from earthquakes.  One especially strong earthquake occurred in 60AD, destroying the city completely.  In that time, earthquakes were just as common as they are today, but of course, buildings were not constructed to be earthquake proof, so the general result of significantly powerful earthquakes would be the complete destruction of the cities in the effected regions.  During the time of Roman domination, most cities destroyed by earthquake would quickly appeal to Rome to provide funds and resources to assist in rebuilding as quickly as possible.  This would be especially true for cities on major trade routes, and likely even more true of Laodicea, considering the city’s role in the financial arena.  However, contrary to what we might expect, not only did Laodicea not request assistance from Rome or from the emperor, they actually declined the assistance that was offered, choosing instead to rebuild and restore the city from their own means.  This, of course, would grant Laodicea some measure of independence from Rome; but only a measure, as they still relied on the existence of the empire and the relative security and stability it afforded.  In fact, Laodicea received from Rome the title of “free city,” and was the “conventus” of its territory, meaning that it functioned as the capital city of a division of the Roman province in which it was located.  This meant that it would be the seat of a district court, as well as the headquarters for other governmental functions for the region. 

Taken together, the facts of the great wealth of the city, that the wealth enabled them to decline assistance from Rome after a catastrophe, and that it was a seat of provincial government (though not relying on the largesse or beneficence of Rome or of the emperor, in contrast to so many other cities of the region), Jesus’ chiding of His church for its insistence that they were rich, that they have acquired great wealth, and that they were in need of nothing becomes quite understandable.  Now, this is not meant to be a condemnation of wealth.  Taking a negative view of wealth, whether civic or individual, based on these words, would be unwarranted and out of context.  What we must keep in mind as we continue to make progress, and as we pull back the layers of nearly two thousand years of cultural changes that have served to obfuscate from our view what would have been easily seen and understood by the Laodiceans in their day (they would have known about declining imperial assistance in rebuilding, they would have known why, and as citizens of Laodicea they would have been quite proud of that fact), is that their wealth is what is causing them to engage in practices that have Jesus wanting to vomit them out of His mouth. Therefore, these practices are not in line with what can be observed in His mission, nor are they in accordance with the message of the Gospel.  The practice or practices (as the case may be) of this “lukewarm” city (Laodicea) stands in contrast to what takes place in the “hot” and “cold” cities (Hierapolis and Colossae).  The church in Laodicea, correspondingly, is being asked to observe the difference in practice and to mimic the practice, thereby becoming either hot or cold, either of which was perfectly acceptable to Jesus.      

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 7)

If hot, cold, and lukewarm are de-historicized and un-necessarily overly spiritualized as they are dutifully ripped from their comprehensive contexts by well-meaning commentators and interpreters, what follows from the temperature descriptions and the inclination towards vomiting receive nothing less than the same treatment.  By now of course, we should know that taking steps to travel the path of over-spiritualization will ultimately lead us away from the discovery of what it is that Jesus is attempting to communicate through the Revelator of Patmos.  Ironically, this will serve to retard our spiritual growth, as we move further away from being able to understand the truth of what Jesus is communicating.  

As we continue through this letter in the hopes of deriving solid and useful conclusions that seem to be primarily related to Jesus’ words of standing at the door and knocking, hoping for His voice to be heard so that He might come into the home of the hearer to share a meal (3:20), we must be do so with a careful guard against the immediate and personal application of these words that have us making a spiritual decision to accept Jesus into our hearts.  Though the words of God are to be understood as eminently personal, we fool ourselves if we take them personally before we understand them in context, especially in this book of Revelation, and even more especially these letters to the churches, which are simply not to be understood as some type of chronicle of “church ages” (whatever that means), or a prophetic catalogue of future events which John himself was probably not envisioning.  There is great value to be found in these letters to the churches if we are willing to do the mental work, in full acknowledgment of God’s providential dealings with mankind that are colored by the Resurrection, which will enable us to discern what is being said. 

Why is their great value to be found in that process?  It is because these were real churches.  That is worth repeating.  These were real churches, full of real people, and they were dealing with real, everyday issues.  The issue in this church at Laodicea appears to be a particularly thorny one, and according to the author, it is particularly upsetting to the Lord to which this church presumably claims to look and to serve.  Yes, there is some repetition in our words here, but it is incumbent upon us to do our very best to ascertain the nature of the issue so as to avoid the same expression of disgust, especially if we really do believe that Jesus is the crucified, resurrected, ascended, and presently ruling Lord of all.  Indeed, it is that very belief which should keep us from the error of skipping past a concerted attempt to understand His words within their own rightful context.  It is that belief which should keep us from making abstract application of the words of Jesus, and from there, making the largely (one might say wholly) unjustified leap of seeing Revelation (in conjunction with other Hebrew writings) as some type of perfect outline of the events that detail the course of future.  Indeed, such thinking will get us focused on issues pertaining to a looming, individual anti-christ figure, overly focused on the mark of the beast, the identity of a false prophet, and other related concerns.  Thus, our mind and limited time is absorbed in considerations of what is really nothing more than wild speculation about events with which we may or may not need to concern ourselves, depending on our position on rapture, and whether or not such an event might take place pre-trib, mid-trib, post-trib, or our position in relation to the kingdom of God---pre-millennial, post-millennial, a-millennial. 

When such are the positions taken as we gaze upon the Revelation, concerning ourselves with the equivalent of sooth-saying and fortune-telling in the attempt to gain control over people, it is quite likely that what will be missed is what Jesus is actually communicating to His church.  Let us not forget that Jesus’ communication is provided context by and taking place in connection with what this church would have known about Him based on the teachings about Him that would have been carried on by His apostles and disciples.  Jesus’ words would not be framed by speculation, but by knowledge of Him and His ministry.  We see this teaching embodied in the records of His life and mission that make up the Gospels, along with the writings about the Messiah that are to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. 

The church in this age was not concerned with “end times” in the way we have been trained to think about them, as happening in a distant future.  They believed that the Resurrection had ended the previous age and that a new age, that of the kingdom of God, had been inaugurated.  At the same time, they were not under any delusions that the kingdom of God had come in its completion and its full glory, for they could look around and see that what was spoken of by the prophets in conjunction with the reign of their God through the Messiah had not yet been brought into effect.  Therefore, they knew that there was to be, and they looked forward to a consummation of that kingdom.  Their function then, which we see as a recurring theme throughout the New Testament, was to function as ambassadors for that coming kingdom, in proclamation of the Gospel in both word and deed.  It is in that light that Jesus’ words to these churches demand to be understood---the proclamation of the Gospel in both word and deed, as they went about showing forth Jesus as Lord through both telling and demonstration.  As ambassadors, there were certain protocols that needed to be followed, especially so in representation of their King.  Failure to properly carry out an important protocol in Laodicea, unlike what was happening in Hierapolis and Colossae, has Jesus expressing anger.      

Monday, October 25, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 6)

Is it warranted to think that these highly spiritualized (in our own day and way of thinking) terms are little more than nicknames that are meant to help us in identifying the real problem within the church in Laodicea, rather than an indicator of those problems?  Why not?  Once we get it into our heads that we cannot revert back to thinking that hot, cold, and lukewarm are to be applied in spiritual terms or to spiritual state, then we can move towards a far more proper understanding of what Jesus is attempting to communicate to this, one of His churches. 

Is it warranted to think that these were simply nicknames or shorthand references for those cities?  Again, why not?  This is not without precedence in our own day.  Much like what we saw was true of the utilization of terminology in context and according to then-current understanding in order to rightly understand what is being communicated (as in the case of Nimrod), we make these types of applications such that they become second nature, which should cause us to realize that thinking about the letter to Laodicea in this way is not wholly unique.  We freely and casually operate within our own historical and cultural context, so imagining that men and women of the first century also operated in such ways is not exactly far-fetched. 

In the United States of America, mention can be made of the “city that never sleeps,” or “the windy city.”  Those that are used to operating within the social context of the United States, know that these are references to New York city and Chicago.  This is not limited to the United States, but is a common practice the world over.  One could use phrases such as “city of lights,” or “the eternal city,” in full knowledge that the user is making reference to Paris and Rome.  Singapore, in southeast Asia, is sometimes referred to as “the fine country.”  Upon first glance, this appears to be a positive appellation, expressing a subjective sentiment not unlike the way that we have traditionally thought when confronted with the “lukewarm” of Laodicea.  However, upon further examination, though Singapore is indeed a fine place, we find that this use of “fine” is connected to the fact that the government of Singapore, in its efforts to keep the country clean, civil and highly organized, levies fines for littering, spitting, or chewing gum in public. 

This initially subjective usage that becomes, upon further examination, highly objective, is quite similar to what we have discovered when it comes to the information being conveyed in Revelation’s letter to Laodicea.  Clearly, the terms in use are not meant to convey any sense of morality or spiritual state, but are common identifiers.  On the other hand, there are nicknames that do have negative connotations.  One such nickname would be “sin city.”  A socially and culturally aware reader in our day (like that which we expect in first century Asia Minor) would immediately think “Las Vegas.”  In the time of Jesus and His apostles, “sin city” would have been the nickname of Corinth, in Greece.  These examples (Las Vegas and Corinth) have obvious moral judgments attached to them, but we do not see that with the names associated with New York, Chicago, Paris, or Rome.   

So to put this lack of moral judgment associated with city identifiers into the context of the letter to Laodicea, which now seems to be pointing more logically towards identifiable activities and practices within the churches of the region (Hierapolis, Laodicea, and Colossae) that would have been well known to the other churches (as information seemed to be able to flow freely between and amongst those churches, as indicated by what Paul writes to the Colossians), it would appear that we are no longer looking at a contrast.  Rather, the three temperature-related terms can now be understood as applying in reference to what was taking place in those churches, with a certain activity of Hierapolis and Colossae being approved by God, whereas the related activity in Laodicea has Jesus indicating violent illness.  With this, we now discard any idea that “hot or cold” are in anyway related to “good or bad.”  It seems much more proper to think along the lines of both hot water and cold water as useful (with the practice of the Hierapolis and Colossae churches being useful within Christ’s kingdom and its proclamation), whereas lukewarm water is useless (with the practice of the church at Laodicea failing to serve the purposes of Christ).  Understanding the message in this way will be far more useful to us as well, as we will eventually end up not being left to wonder whether we are hot, cold, or lukewarm based on either a subjective self-examination or the subjective examination of a self-appointed (on both ends of the relationship) spiritual authority that will generally be partially informed and unfortunately biased.     

An analogy here is probably useful.  In the United States, the city of Cleveland is roughly the midway point between Chicago and New York (much like Laodicea is roughly midway between Hierapolis and Colossae).  If somebody wanted to address the city of Cleveland, encouraging the residents to do order their lives or engage in activities more akin to the goings-on in New York or Chicago for which there is a high level of notoriety (let’s say in the area of theatre), one might write something like, “I know your deeds, you are sleeping and lacking wind.  I wish you were either not asleep or windy!  So because you are mistaken, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth!”  (“Mistaken” because one of the not-so-flattering nicknames of Cleveland is “the mistake on the lake”)  Given proper context, the residents of Cleveland would take this as a message that they needed to improve their offerings in the area of theatre, and would most definitely not understand it to be an indication that they needed to sleep less or construct windmills.

Letter To Laodicea (part 5)

With all of that said, having posited that the “temperature” terms were geographical indicators, we now posit that use of “hot” is in all likelihood a reference to the city of Hierapolis.  It should be said that this is not groundbreaking by any means, and the same can be said for the applications that we will make of both cold and lukewarm.  These things have long been understood, but for some reason, completely obscured in modern and popular considerations of Revelation and its letters to the churches.  It might be casually referenced, but not worked out to its logical and contextual conclusion, as commentators want to tread the far more popular path of Revelation as a book that tells the future, rather than a writing that tells us about a faithful God and what He expects from His people as they go about living their lives in this world. 

The city of Laodicea was located five miles north of the city of Hierapolis.  In Hierapolis, there were hot springs.  Owing to this, Hierapolis gained fame as a health resort, as well as being the place for the worship of the god Heracles, who was looked to as the god of health and hot waters.  Archaeology indicates that Laodicea had an aqueduct that probably carried water from the hot mineral springs of Hierapolis.  If this is the case, remembering that we are attempting to determine the impetus of the communication from the context of what could be readily understood by its recipients rather than from the position of attempting to unravel the events of world history using Revelation as a guide in the effort, then not only should we think “Hierapolis” when we read “hot,” but we can easily imagine that the residents of the region would have thought of Hierapolis in connection with hot as well. 

If “hot” is a reference to a city, then it would make sense that “cold” is also a reference to a city.  Furthermore, if the “hot” of the nearby city of Hierapolis is a reference to its famous hot springs, then for rhetorical consistency, “cold” should also be making reference to water as well; and that city should be in the general vicinity of Laodicea.  Is there a city to which we can logically apply this epithet?  It seems that there is, and the candidate is the city of Colossae. 

We know that Colossae and Laodicea are situated in relative proximity, not only because we know that they are approximately eleven miles apart, but also owing to the Apostle Paul’s references to Laodicea in the close of his letter to the Colossians, in which he instructs the church at Colossae to share the letter with the church at Laodicea, while also indicating that they church at Laodicea will share its letter with the church at Colossae.  Paul also makes mention of Laodicea earlier in the letter, when he writes: “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you, and for those in Laodicea” (2:1a).  Clearly, there is something of a close connection between Laodicea and Colossae.  The churches were familiar with each other.  Beyond the multiple mentions (five) of Laodicea, we also happily find a reference to Hierapolis in this letter.  Paul, writing about Ephaphras, says that “he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and Hierapolis” (4:13b).  This implies a relationship between Hierapolis and Laodicea beyond that of an aqueduct.  If the church at Colossae “learned the gospel from Ephaphras” (1:7a), as Paul communicates within his opening statements to the Colossians, and then goes on to mention Epaphras in connection with both Laodicea and Hierapolis, then it is not unreasonable to conclude that Epaphras may well have been responsible for bringing the message to all three cities (though we will certainly refrain from dogmatism on this statement). 

Having established the close connection between Colossae and Laodicea, this does not account for the use of “cold” in conjunction with the city.  It is the presence of Colossae’s cold, fresh water streams that would have supplied this descriptive title to the city.  Laodicea was located to the southeast of Colossae, and to the northeast of Hierapolis, near the Lycus River.  This meant that the waters of Colossae (colder because Colossae was situated at the foothills of a mountain), flowed down towards Laodicea.  The water, quite naturally, would lose some of its coolness as it did, rising a few degrees in temperature by the time it reached Laodicea.  On the other hand, the water from Hierapolis had to be brought uphill, which explains the aqueduct.  That water from the hot springs of Hierapolis would, of course, cool down as it traveled the aqueduct to reach Laodicea, though it would still be prized for its healing qualities even if it had fallen in temperature.  In the case of both the water from Colossae and the water from Hierapolis, by the time it reached Laodicea, the water would be lukewarm.  Thus, the rhetorical effect is preserved, with hot, cold, and lukewarm all making reference to water.  Furthermore, in conceptual terms, the city that would be located roughly halfway between the hot city and the cold city could easily be thought of as the lukewarm city (halfway between hot and cold).  Thus Laodicea would come to be referred to as the lukewarm city, with this being common knowledge for all of the residents of the region, with nary a thought related to the spiritual tenor of the city. 

Because of the interesting geographical positioning, and the unique feature of the water supplies to Laodicea, the cities came to be linked together in common usage as the “triangle cities.”  So if it was common for the cities to be linked and identified together, and if Paul links the cities in his letter, why should we be surprised if Jesus, communicating through the author of Revelation, also links the cities, doing so by taking advantage of common nicknames that were applied to them?        

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 4)

Which now brings us, slowly but surely, to the issue of “hot,” “cold,” and “lukewarm.”  Though this will most likely come as a great shock, these terms are most assuredly not employed as references to spiritual condition or relative spiritual fervor and a related general manner of living.  Rather, they are used as geographical indicators.  Though they are not indicators of spiritual temperatures, it is quite likely that they are being employed as a means of approbation and correction, based on an awareness of certain activities. 

Though we are certainly in a position to tease out spiritual truths from the whole of Revelation and from the letters to the churches in particular, we must have a constant awareness, as we analyze the book and the letters, that they were directed to real churches in real cities at a specific time in history, all of which were facing real situations.  It is in approaching the Scriptures in this way, knowing that the Scriptures are rooted within history as they tell us about our Creator and His purposes, that will then make those Scriptures so much more important and telling for us.  In Revelation, though there is an employment of a significant amount of apocalyptic imagery, much like in the prophetic works of the Hebrew Scriptures, this apocalyptic imagery is primarily designed to reveal the spiritual truths and activities that are at work and at play in relation to material and physical happenings. 

As humans, we are limited in our vision, and as Isaiah says, God’s ways and plans are not our ways and plans, nor are His thoughts and deeds our thoughts and deeds (Isaiah 55:9).  There is something of a veil that limits our vision, keeping us from seeing what God sees.  The purpose of apocalypse (revelation), is to remove that veil, which is the very definition of the word.  For those that were receiving communications from God through the Hebrew prophets in the centuries before Christ, and for those in the first century that were receiving communications directly from Jesus through John the Revelator, this removal of the veil, in a world in which there were no separations between religious activities and so-called “secular” activities---no division between the sacred and the profane, the unveiling would be understood as God condescending to reveal the spiritual goings-on that were related to what was happening in the world around them.  This is dreadfully important for our understanding of Revelation. 

If we fall into the unwarranted trap of looking at Revelation as a guidebook to the events of the end of the world, thinking of “apocalyptic” in specific relation to “end times,” and therefore view Revelation as some type of magic decoder ring for discerning the events of history, then we will find ourselves thinking amiss, and doing so simply because we are not operating with correct definitions.  Fortunately for us, this is easily correctable if we are willing to take the correction.  When we take the correction, and through that correction find our thinking helpfully reshaped so that it comes to function in line with what apocalyptic language is meant to convey, Revelation becomes far more rich, far more understandable, far more instructive, far more useful, and far more awe-inspiring as we consider the patient love and faithfulness of our covenant God, and as we cast off self-centered, self-concerned, and self-absorbed ways of thinking, in submission to the message and rule of our Lord and King. 

Let us remember that Paul and Peter, along with the Hebrews author and the author of the letters of John, all wrote letters to specific churches and individuals.  Though these letters would become useful to the whole of the church, they were first directed to and dealt with places, people, and events.  Knowing this, we should be restrained from treating John’s communications differently.  Just because there is fantastic and difficult-to-understand imagery, that certainly doesn’t mean that we should dismiss John’s insistence that these letters, and this Revelation, are for the “seven churches that are in the province of Asia” (1:4a). 

Returning to the words of temperature (hot, cold, lukewarm), having insisted that they serve as geographic indicators, we realize that they are something of a play on familiar words and of what is well-known about the area in which Laodicea is set.  We should not be surprised to find Jesus, through the author, employing such a strategy.  Even the Apostle Paul’s famous phrase of “from faith to faith,” or “ek pisteos eis pistin” (Romans 1:17), is lifted from what could be termed as the liturgy of the Caesar cult.  In this, Paul takes a familiar term and applies it to what should be truly understood about Jesus, rather than Caesar.  This is even more pronounced with the New Testament’s employment of the very word “gospel,” which was also in heavy and specific use within the Caesar cult, in application to the works of Caesar himself.  So we see plays on words and the usage of familiar terms, re-worked and re-deployed for particular effect on a regular basis.  

Friday, October 22, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 3)

The vast majority of us live in a world that bears very little resemblance to the first century world of the middle east and Asia Minor, and we simply must bear that in mind.  No matter how educated we are in terms of being able to interact in the world on multiple levels and in and with a variety of disparate environments or group, or how Spirit-filled we may consider ourselves to be, and no matter how strongly we declare we reverence the Bible, serious presentations of the all-important message of the Gospel cannot take place without serious study.  In that light, as we look at this message to the church at Laodicea, it must be insisted upon that we cannot casually approach the Scriptural text as if the terms in use carry the precise meaning for us today that they did when first written.  In addition, it would behoove us not to overly rely or place a possibly un-warranted confidence in our knowledge of either Greek or Hebrew.  This knowledge often finds us translating the words from their original language and then interpreting the translation according to a modern understanding within our own subjective pre-determination that has been probably been determined by our un-critical (and even unacknowledged) acceptance of a prevalent theology, philosophy, soteriology, ecclesiology, or eschatology, while simply congratulating ourselves on the use of the ancient languages and acting as if we have grasped truth. 

If and when we take it upon ourselves to translate from the original languages of Scripture, we must be all the more attentive to the historical, cultural, and social context into which the words were uttered, bearing in mind that the words may have carried a meaning in those days that has been lost to modern hearers or readers, but which can be re-discovered upon the application of adequate effort in such a pursuit.  Words are regularly re-defined through usage, and often take upon themselves a variety of meanings and connotations that may very well be entirely foreign to original usage.  To take a non-controversial Biblical example, let us consider the name “Nimrod.”  We come upon this name in the tenth chapter of Genesis, where we read, “Cush was the father of Nimrod; he began to be a valiant warrior on the earth.  He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.  (That is why it is said, ‘Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.’)” (10:8-9)  From there, we can go on to find out that he was a king, and the builder of great cities.  Without going into further detail of the life of Nimrod, it is quite clear that he was a man that demanded great respect.  He is called a valiant warrior and a mighty hunter.  He was the builder of a kingdom, and men flocked to his leadership.  His name, in his day and in the days that followed, was a great name.  Now, however, the situation is dramatically different.  In this day, if we refer to somebody as a “Nimrod,” we are offering the name as an insult.  We are calling that person a fool, with the ensuing implications standing at a great distance from “valiant,” “warrior,”, “mighty,” and the like.  In a bygone era, if somebody was referred to as being a Nimrod, it would have been considered an honor.  Today, this is not the case.  Words change. 

Another example would be the word “gay.”  In the past the word meant one thing, but today it signifies something different.  In the future it may carry an entirely different set of meanings from that which surrounds the use of the word in our day.  The same thing occurs in the use of slang, when pejorative terms are employed in a positive manner, and positive terms are often turned about to perform tasks of negation.  The dynamics of language are such that later generations would be hard-pressed to understand common words that we put into use on a daily basis, knowing full well what they mean because we are ensconced within our own culture and language setting, without delving into our history and the events of our day in order to determine the context of those words.  If later generations were to read the work of a social commentator in the early twenty-first century and find him referring to an individual as a “Nimrod,” it would be completely untrue to the author’s intention if they took it to mean that the author was lauding the individual in question as valiant and mighty.  We understand this implicitly, yet when it comes to the Bible, and to attempts to understand the very Word of God, it seems that we, for the most part, have a blind spot in this area---so much so that we freely cast aside all gifts and skills of reason and critical thinking in the misguided attempts at interpretations and understanding according to a thoroughly anthropocentric spirituality.  In this, it seems that we actually approach the Word of God in a far less serious manner than we offer to other written works, with an apparent unwillingness to give the sacred Scriptures the studied attention that they deserve and demand.     

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 2)

There are several indications that these issues of “hot” or “cold” are not to be understood as spiritual epithets.  These indications are the terms themselves, in the way they are used, as well as what follows, within the text of the letter.  Once we have taken the time to explore these things, then we should be well-positioned to make a guess at what it might be that has Jesus desiring to vomit this church from out of His mouth (3:16b), and why He eventually goes on to speak of standing and knocking and coming in for the purpose of sharing a meal.  Again, it is unlikely that this church is being left on their own to figure out what it is that they are doing that makes them so unfit in the eyes of Jesus.  There must be something definite to which Jesus is pointing, and such would be much more in line with the Jesus that we see in the record of the Gospels. 

Here in Revelation, as in the Gospels, when Jesus indicates that He is taking issue with a certain practice, there must be something specific to which corrective action can be applied, so that they are not arbitrarily flailing about in an effort to improve their spiritual temperature.  Thinking about the issue in this way (solely spiritual) is nothing but looking at the words of the text with our modern spectacles, and attempting to extrapolate nothing but spiritual analogies and application from what we find there.  If we do this, we simply fail to view this letter in the same context in which the rest of the Bible demands to be viewed, which is that of a long-running historical narrative that is highly dependent upon cultural, historical, social, and even geographical underpinnings. 

If we are to believe that the whole of our faith is based on the Resurrection of Jesus from the grave as an actual, physical event that took place within time and history; and if we are to understand Jesus and His message and ministry based upon the narrative of Jewish history as actual, physical events that happened to actual, physical people within time and history; and if we are to believe that the kingdom of God is something that will be established on earth as an actual, physical presence (though we may not understand the exact nature of that physicality) at some point in the future, then why should it be so unbelievable that Jesus is chiding this church for something that they were actually, physically doing, so that they could identify it and make actual, physical corrections so as to reverse the vomit inducing nature of what it was that they were doing?  If that is the case then, and if this church could be expected to know precisely what it is to which Jesus refers, then it stands to reason that we should be able to make a contextual  exploration so as to be able to reach the same conclusion, with a tangible point of reference, that Jesus expected from this church. 

In considering this process, what should be quite telling for us, and what should guide our considerations, is what Jesus says about Himself and what He will do.  It will probably be far more appropriate for this church (and us) to focus on that, and how what He says relates to how they truly (and ultimately we) needed (and need) to see themselves (and ourselves).  This would seem to be the proper way to go about doing things.  Scriptural exegesis should begin with text in context, with efforts made to tease out the truth or truths contained therein, doing the best we can to put aside modern points of view and pre-suppositions that will hold us back from truly and rightly seeing Jesus. 

Acknowledging the difficulty inherent in the act of setting the familiar and the comfortable aside should also cause us to tread lightly when it comes to making doctrinal pronouncements.  That’s not to say that we should not have the courage of our convictions, but rather, it is a humble nod to the limitations with which we are forced to live and with which we come to the text of Scripture.  Yes, the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth, but the Holy Spirit does not re-shape history, nor is it likely that the Holy Spirit rewards willful ignorance of history or the outright refusal to take advantage of resources that can give us a greater depth of knowledge by which we can better understand the world and the time in which our Creator took it upon Himself to become robed with human flesh and walk this earth. 

With that accomplished (exegesis in context to the very best of our ability by making the best possible use of the providentially provided resources that are available to us), we can then move on to applying these truths to ourselves and our situations, always being willing to discard conclusions and positions, no matter how sincerely reached or how long they have been held, that are shown to be in conflict with the message of Scripture, when presented in its narrative context.  We cannot start with our own context and our mindsets that are constructed by the world in which we live, and then apply those things to Scripture for the purpose of finding truth.  This is likely to result in the erection of un-warranted walls and divisions, driving the church into a variety of corners and an endless and ultimately useless, futile, and embarrassing game of “us versus them.”  

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 1)

Listen!  I am standing at the door and knocking!  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door I will come into his home and share a meal with him, and he with Me. – Revelation 3:20  (NET)

This verse, reported by the Apostle John to have been spoken to him by the risen Jesus during the course of a dictation of seven letters to seven churches within Asia Minor, is most certainly an oft-quoted verse.  When we read this or hear this, our first response is that which he have been conditioned to have through the evangelistic preaching of the choice of an eternity in either heaven or hell.  The mental image that is conjured, by the aid of centuries of Christian art, has Jesus standing at the door of our hearts, asking for us to open the door so that He might come in to our hearts, so that we might be “saved.”  In this sense, being “saved,” in popular understanding, means being able to go to heaven when we die rather than going to hell, and it carries with it the connotation that we now must live according to a pattern of moral precepts that will constitute holiness for us. 

Furthermore, the artwork associated with this passage invariably shows a door that lacks any type of door knob or handle on the outside, and this is taken to mean that the door must be opened from the inside, because Jesus will not be forcing open the door of our hearts in order to establish His presence there.  Of course, the mental image becomes quite anachronistic as the words and thoughts that ring in modern ears and minds as we imagine the type of door knobs with which we are familiar, complete with their variety of self-contained locking and security mechanisms, would have been completely unknown to the Apostle or to the church to which these words were directed. 

Is this verse to be understood in the context of salvation?  That is, is it to be understood within the evangelistic sense of saying a “sinner’s prayer” and inviting Jesus to come into one’s heart?  In consideration of the fact that such thinking would be completely foreign to a church that would have no idea what is meant by a sinner’s prayer (apart from the prayers to be found in 1 Kings 8 and 2 Chronicles 7), and the fact that the church in that day did not think in terms of Jesus coming into the heart so as to provide a purely spiritual salvation related to a purely spiritual eternity, the answer would have to be “no.”  Beyond that, we need only look at the context that is provided by the verse.  It is not an isolated statement.  It is found inside a letter to a church.  Jesus has said to John, “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write the following” (3:14a). 

A letter to a church is not a letter to a building, but rather, a letter to a body of believers.  With that, let us emphasize that it is a letter to believers, and those believers comprise the body of a congregation that is a part of the larger body of the church, which is the visible body and representation of Christ in the world.  When that is understood, the idea that these words can be lifted out of their context as some type of offer to somebody that does not know Christ becomes an absurdity.  To use common, religious terminology, these words about standing at the door and knocking are not directed to somebody that is not “saved.”  These words of knocking and the need to open, as pointed out, are to a church.  That means that they are directed to those that have already confessed an allegiance to the Gospel message of Jesus as the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Lord of all. 

Additionally, these words are penned along with other quite searching and impactful words.  Jesus says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish you were either cold or hot!” (3:15)  Naturally, we immediately translate these words into the contemporary context by which we have been programmed.  Therefore, when we hear Jesus say “cold,” we immediately connect that with living a certain way, with that way of living generally associated with somebody that is not going to church, not reading their Bible, not “on fire” for Jesus (whatever that means), not speaking in tongues, not singing as loud as they can in church, not lifting up their hands, not going out and “winning souls,” and for all practical purposes, engaging in activities that we so easily and lazily label as “sin.”  By this, of course, is meant somebody that is participating in worldly pleasures of various sorts, rather than living a life of self-denial and sacrifice in a “crucifixion of their flesh” (with these terms defined as avoiding certain activities, rather than understanding them in their true nature of entering into the suffering of others in a way that disregards self-interest).  Quite naturally then, “hot” is the opposite of cold, and presumably there is somebody in a position of authority that can, somehow and some way, determine one’s spiritual state as being hot or cold, and either condemn, cajole, or congratulate, based on a thoroughly subjective analysis of that which they see.  This analysis then, will be based on their own subjective interpretation of what it means to be either hot or cold, which is a completely and thoroughly untenable position, and cannot possibly be derived from Scripture, nor from what Scripture tells us about God.    

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rescued From Foreign Subjugation (part 100)

All of this movement, from Adam to Jesus, can be thought of as examples of exodus (along with appropriate applications of exile), which is the way that God effects His purposes.  God reveals Himself, through the example of those that He has ordained to represent Him, as a God of “going-out”---as a God of exodus.  This, of course, is why the Scriptures exist---to represent God.  They exist not primarily to serve man and to inform man how to live, but rather, they exist primarily to reveal God, and in that revealing, to bring Him glory.  This revelation for the purpose of knowing God is given so that those who are supposed to bear His image might be able to do so rightly.  This, of course, is why we undertake and so highly value theology, for we cannot serve our Creator God with a knowledge of His purposes for us if we do not know Him. 

We do not approach the Scriptures so as to first learn about ourselves, or to gain encouragement for ourselves, or to find out what God has for us.  All of these things take place as secondary results.  We approach the Scriptures in order to learn about God.  Because we are made in His image, it is in learning about God that we learn about ourselves.  This is encouraging because we learn that God has a purpose for us as His image-bearers, and the Scriptures provide us with a hope that He is at work, quite faithfully, to bring about those purposes in us, for us, and through us.  If we ever take a moment to consider why it is that we gather together as Christians, in church, it is in this that we find the answer.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews is adamant about the regular gathering together of those that call Jesus Lord, as he writes, “And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, not abandoning our own meetings…encouraging each other” (10:24-25a).  When looked at on the surface and from the outside, by those that do not yet call Jesus Lord, we would have to be compelled to admit that our regular (predominantly Sunday) gatherings as individual church bodies is quite the peculiar practice.  Naturally, it is as peculiar as the very message upon which the church is built, which is that of an eminently shameful and ghastly crucifixion, the extraordinarily ridiculous notion of a man’s resurrection from the dead, and the somewhat ludicrous idea that those two things, taken together and then punctuated by an ascension, prove that the crucified man was the very embodiment of God and is the sovereign and ruling Lord of all in a kingdom that has been inaugurated on earth and awaits its final consummation in the coming together of God’s realm of existence (heaven) and man’s realm of existence (earth). 

So why do we do it?  What is the primary function of “going to church”?  Is it for ourselves?  Of course it is.  Why?  We do it to escape the pressures of the world for an hour, as something akin to a temporary rescue from foreign subjugation within our larger rescue from foreign subjugation.  We gather to be encouraged by a message of God’s love in Christ.  We come together to sing songs of praise as a correct response to the grace of God.  We gather to hear the preached Word of God.  First and foremost, we gather to hear the preached Word.  All other reasons take second place, for it is the divine proclamation that is of paramount importance.  We can see the evidence of this throughout Scripture.  God speaks and brings the created order into existence.  God speaks to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and so forth.  The prophets make proclamations.  John the Baptist proclaimed the near advent of the kingdom of God.  Jesus fused His doing with teaching.  Jesus sends His disciples out to tell His message.  The church springs into existence and thousands are ushered into the kingdom when Peter and the disciples begin to preach the message of the Gospel.  Paul points out the crucial elements of hearing and preaching as the way that faith is implanted and the power of the Resurrection takes root within the hearer.  Revelation is a series of pronouncements.  One could go on and on.  It is in the proclamation of the Word of God that God is revealed, and this is the fundamental and primary purpose of the church’s gathering. 

The preacher preaches (the teacher teaches) so that God may be made known.  The preacher preaches so that his hearers can learn about God and know more about God.  Knowledge about God is transmitted so that those that made in the image of God, who are called to be covenant bearers, might be able to correctly and effectively bear that image and covenant, so that they might be a blessing to all peoples, that God may receive the glory that is due to Him for His mighty acts.  While God is acknowledged through our praises, knowledge of Him is conveyed through preaching.  The primary subject of proclamation in the time and places of regular Christian gatherings for worship must be God, and the primary activity must be proclamation.  Yes, the primary activity that must take place at these regular appointments must be preaching and teaching, for it is in this that the power of the Resurrection is sent forth, and it is in this that knowledge is seated. 

This instruction in knowledge, which has and always will require great discipline and diligence, is of paramount importance, and should not only inspire the hearers to a constant desire to learn more about God, but also to live lives of praise to God.  Living this life of praise will not result in a withdrawal from the world around them, into a self-imposed and ungodly exile that has the believer erecting their own temples.  If learning more about God causes the hearer to retreat from the world, in separation, isolation, and condemnation fostered by an “us versus them” mentality, then that preaching has gone woefully astray from that which is modeled by Jesus, and springs not from a diligent study of Scriptures so as to learn more about God, but from a subjective and self-satisfying interpretation of Scripture designed for little more than the gaining of personal control over the lives of the hearers and the all too familiar pursuit of power.  Instead, living a life of praise will result in the erection of tabernacles, as a symbol of constant exodus, in which, like the one claimed as Lord, the believer goes out to show forth the blessings of God’s kingdom to “tax collectors and sinners,” to the sick, to the thirsty, to the hungry, to those lacking clothes, to those in prison, and to the places where pain and evil are corrupting God’s creation and thwarting the advance of His kingdom.    

Rescued From Foreign Subjugation (part 99)

Now, as has been alluded to previously, at this point these are merely the words of Isaac.  However, we do know that the blessing of Isaac will eventually be confirmed and become the blessing of the Lord, as the Lord will take it upon Himself to extend the status of covenant-bearer to Jacob.  It is with this confirmation in mind that we can now make an application to the Temple. 

Jacob’s “living in tents” lets us know that the one who now represents the Lord is to be found in a tent.  This was true of Abraham and Isaac as well.  They had no permanent dwelling.  After the exodus, the covenant people of Israel that were dwelling in tents, built an Ark that represented the presence of their covenant God in their midst.  This Ark was housed in the tabernacle---a tent.  So on a very fundamental level, the impermanent nature of the dwellings of those that bore the covenant, and who were then tasked to be a blessing to all nations as they enjoyed the blessings of God and to do so in a way that would cause people to recognize the majestic and all-encompassing rule and true power of their God, fits quite well with God’s desire that man “Fill the earth and subdue it!” (Genesis 1:28b), and to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (9:1b).  God wants those that are His image-bearers and covenant-bearers (as both Adam and Noah are tasked with certain covenants) to spread throughout the whole of creation, to remind the creation of His glory, and to rightly worship Him (in whatever way that all that God has created can function to worship Him). 

We have seen that this occurs to an extent, but that man then takes it upon himself to discontinue this operation for the purposes of building a tower that will reach to the heavens, and to gather around that tower so that they will not “be scattered across the face of the entire earth” (11:4b).  This stood in direct contrast to that which God had instructed man to do, which is why it provoked such a dramatic response, with that response by God said to have “scattered them from there across the face of the entire earth” (11:8a), which is precisely what God had desired in the first place.  Even this “punishment” was evidence of God’s covenant faithfulness, as He was at work to accomplish His redemptive purposes for a fallen world.  We should then not think it a coincidence that this event is immediately followed by the exodus-ing call of Abraham, and of God’s covenant with him, and through him, for the world. 

When it comes to rightly representing Him, it seems that God desires movement and a constant state of readiness for movement, whereas man seems inclined to want to settle down in one place.  God wants man to represent Him throughout the whole of His creation, indicating to that creation that He is the Lord and ruler of the whole, whereas man wants to gain a piece of territory for himself, establish his own rule there, and then invite God to show forth His power in that place, so as to provide divine sanction for that rule that man has achieved.  That seems to be something of the dichotomy between the tabernacle and the Temple.  The tabernacle served as a mobile and portable reminder of the whole of the story from creation to exodus, was a witness to the covenant call to be  blessing to all nations, and reminded God’s people of the constant movement of their covenant-bearing forefathers.  That story is one of a constant going out.  Though it will be constructed in the mold of the tabernacle, the Temple struggles to convey such things. 

The first command that was given to man, when God said to “fill the earth,” effectively said to “go out.”  After their transgression, God sent Adam and Eve out of the garden.  Though this was an unfortunate result of that transgression, God did not send them out of the world, so we can presume that the requirement to fill the earth and subdue it was unchanged.  Ultimately, God sent Noah and his family out of the ark, with the familiar command to fill the earth.  Abraham was sent out from his family to go and be a blessing.  The many movements and “goings-out” of Abraham and Isaac have been well-chronicled to this point in our study.  In the New Testament, Jesus will command His disciples to go out to take His teaching of the arrival of the kingdom of God to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  After His Resurrection, He would then command that same group of men, to go into all the world with the message of His crucifixion, Resurrection, and Lordship.  When Jesus called His disciples, He circumvented the common practice of the gathering of disciples, which was that men would choose for themselves a rabbi under which they would learn, and then go and sit at his feet.  Instead, He went out and called men to Himself, and He did this even though He had no place to lay His head.  In a sense, it could be said that Jesus, who was most assuredly the bearer of the divine covenant, and who referred to Himself as the very Temple of God (destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up), lived in tents, having no permanent place of dwelling.  

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Rescued From Foreign Subjugation (part 98)

All and that is well and good as it relates to Israel, but of what do tents speak when this message is to communicated to those outside Israel?  The answer is much the same.  As the tents reminded an Israel that regularly found itself in conditions of exile (under foreign subjugation, whether inside or outside of their promised land), and with hopes for exodus (as exodus is an ongoing process, whether in the wilderness, in their land, or in exile), so too does it serve for all of humanity.  These tents, and the impermanent nature of settlement which they imply, remind humanity of its wider exile.  Not in the sense of creating the escapist attitude of “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through,” but that humanity finds itself in exile from its God-given intentions to bear the divine image in this world, and that God is at work through a tent-dwelling people, to re-establish His order in this world. 

Why a tent-dwelling people?  Because a tent-dwelling people is a people that are prepared for exodus.  A tent-dwelling people are a people that are God’s instruments to spread across the earth so as to establish the message of His kingdom, His reign, and the restoration of His creation that demands to be understood if in fact a controlling hermeneutic of Scripture, and of God’s purposes for His creation and for the divine image-bearers specially placed within that creation, is that of exile and exodus.  Those are the people that will go out as witnesses to the glory of God, doing so with an understanding of the blessing of being a part of a chosen people that have been placed upon the trail of restoration to the ideal of humanity that was God’s original creation.   With a knowledge of God’s blessing, and the grace implied thereby, those who bear in mind the tents, and so bear in mind the exile, and exodus by extension, joyfully take up the Abrahamic call and promise to be  a blessing.  This blessing operates through the telling of the promises of the covenant God, and living the blessing invites more to hear the telling.  As Abraham’s descendants, this was Israel’s task.  The Scriptures make it fairly clear that this is the task of all that consider themselves to be Abraham’s descendants. 

Since we actually find ourselves, at this point, considering these stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob within the narrower context of a consideration of Solomon’s building of the Temple, we find ourselves able to make an application in this area as well.  Before making that application there is a step that must be taken.  To take it, we return to Isaac’s blessing of Jacob, which comes about as a result of deception and subterfuge.  Rebekah went to great lengths to be certain that her ruse would be successful, so when Jacob went before his father, pretending to be Esau, Isaac was indeed fooled.  Owing to this, Isaac, in a way that we did not see with Abraham, raises his voice and says, “May God give you the dew of the sky and the richness of the earth, and plenty of grain and new wine.  May peoples serve you and nations bow down to you” (Genesis 27:28-29a).  Connecting these words to Jacob with that which becomes a controlling factor in the consideration of God’s dealings with His people to come, we might note that such things are reflected in the promised blessings of the twenty-eighth chapter of Deuteronomy, whereas the promised curses of the same chapter essentially reflect the opposite. 

With that said, it is incumbent to mention the words of “blessing” that will be delivered by Isaac to Esau, as he says, “your home will be away from the richness of the earth, and away from the dew of the sky above.  You will live by the sword but you will serve your brother” (27:29-40a).  Because they are the mirror of what was said to Jacob, these words also reflect the Deuteronomic curses.  Speaking to Jacob, Isaac continues, saying “You will be lord over your brothers, and the sons of your mother will bow down to you” (28:29b).  With this, Isaac confirms what the Lord had promised to Rebekah concerning her sons before she had given birth.  The blessing is finalized by the delivery of that which was fundamental to the Abrahamic covenant, as Isaac then says, “May those who curse you be cursed, and those who bless you be blessed” (28:29c).  Of course, Isaac is not being selective in his choice of words.  He is not simply passing along only a portion of the Abrahamic covenant.  As the quotation of brief snippets of Scripture by Jesus and by the New Testament authors are meant to call to mind entire stories, the mention of blessing and cursing stands for the whole of the covenant with Abraham.  So as Jacob hears these words, having grown up in the household of both his father and grandfather, and having undoubtedly heard the story of Abraham’s call countless times, he also hears his father communicate the words of God and saying “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing…and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name” (12:2,3b).