April 24, 2008

2 Peter on Atonement and Perseverance

I'm presently reading 2 Peter and have come across a couple of points worth noting regarding the nature of the atonement and the possibility of committing apostasy. Arminians affirm the unlimited scope of Christ's atoning work while Calvinists have traditionally affrimed a limited atonement (some are now moving away from this position). Arminians have been mixed over whether or not a true believer can forever fall from grace while Calvinists have always held that those who truly belong to our Lord will not ultimately fall away.

First, in 2:1 Peter launches into a powerful polemic against false teachers. He says of them that they bring in destructive heresy even "denying the master, the one having bought them." This verse could be taken in one of two ways. It might be taken to mean that these persons have never been followers of Christ and continue presently to deny him. If this is the case, then Peter clearly does not hold to a limited atonement. For he says that Jesus has bought these false teachers. On the other hand, it could be describing people who formerly were followers of Christ but have committed apostasy and now deny him. I prefer this reading because it seems that the affirmation of Christ having bought them points to their having experienced a state of grace and right standing. If this is the case, then Peter seems to be affirming the reality that someone might lose their justified status and undermines the idea that all true believers will finally persevere. This reading also carries the implication of an unlimited atonement in that these who have denied Christ and committed apostasy were not beyond the reach of Christ's atoning work having previously been bought by him.

Second, in 2 Peter 3:17 the author exhorts his hearers to be on guard, "in order that you may not, having been led astray by the error of the lawless, fall from your firm position." The NIV renders it, "fall from your secure position." Peter clearly sees the audience as presently secure in their standing with God. They are stable. However, they are not beyond the danger of falling. Whatever sort of security they have, it is not the sort that cannot be lost. For Peter, this has been clearly demonstrated by the false teachers who deny the master who bought them. To say that Peter really means that those who fall away were never truly secure in the first place is to ignore the plain meaning of this text. It is nonsense to speak of those who are not really Christians as secure. Peter believes that those who truly belong to Lord must be on guard and persevere, lest they ultimately fall away.

April 13, 2008

Jesus and the Sea

My last post demonstrated the importance of understanding the symbolic background of sea imagery for interpreting Revelation. In Jewish literature, the sea was symbolically associated with evil, oppression, and antagonistic forces. This background is helpful in studying some of the events in the gospels as well. Mark 4:35-41 recounts how Jesus and his disciples encountered a great storm while crossing the Sea of Galilee. Sudden and violent storms are not uncommon on this sea, and this particular storm was so powerful that waves quickly began to swamp the boat. Jesus was sleeping in the stern of the boat, but he awoke to the frantic cries of his disciples. Having awakened, he said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" The wind ceased. The sea became calm. The disciples were astounded. Now at this point the modern reader is generally amazed that Jesus is able to do miracles like calming stormy seas. Many preachers have undoubtedly used this to reassure their flocks that Jesus is also able to calm the storms in their lives as well or to point out that Jesus is lord over nature. Those things are nice and true, but they are not the point of this story. Knowing that in the Jewish symbolic world the sea was associated with evil, it is easily realized that the disciples were not merely responding to the miraculous display of power over nature. They were responding to Jesus' display of power over the world of chaotic evil. Mark tells us that the awe filled disciples asked one another, "Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" Their symbolic world indicates that they mean, "Who is this, that even the forces of evil obey him?"

If the audience doesn't understand this first demonstration, Mark makes it all the more explicit when Jesus gets off the boat and encounters a bruised, howling, shackle-breaking demon possessed man (Mark 5:1-13). Jesus commands the spirits to come out of the man and permits their request to enter into a herd of pigs grazing nearby. When the unclean spirits enter the pigs, they run down the embankment and drown in the sea. Various interpretations have been proposed regarding this event; however, if the sea is associated with evil and is the home of evil spirits, then it is easy to see that Mark is portraying the spirits as going home where they belong. The man in whom they had dwelt was set free from their influence. Mark is making the same point as in the story about the storm at sea. Jesus has power to free humanity from the forces of evil which seek to oppress.

This must be a point that Mark wanted drive home because in chapter six Jesus walks on the water to reach the disciples who are struggling at the oars of the boat against an adverse wind (45-52). We should not be surprised that they think he is a ghost. After all, the sea is a place where spirits loom. But Jesus identified himself and got into the boat. When he did, the wind ceased. Once again the disciples were astounded. Not only does Jesus have the power to command the forces of chaotic evil and free human beings from oppressive forces, he is able to trample those forces underfoot as well.

April 9, 2008

And the Sea Will Be No More

The vision of a new heaven and a new earth in Rev. 21:1 is accompanied by the curious statement that, "the sea will be no more." This often overlooked detail invites reflection upon the significance of the sea's elimination. Why was the sea, originally a part of God's good creation, not included in the vision of creation's final renewal?

The answer to this question lies in the symbolic meaning of the sea in the Jewish pool of imagery. In the Old Testament, the sea is often portrayed as hostile to creation and to the people of God. In Psalm 104:5-9, the water is portrayed as fleeing from God at his rebuke. The mighty waters are portrayed as the enemy of God in Psalm 18:15-27. Of great importance for understanding sea imagery is Daniel 7 where the beasts which symbolize the foreign oppression of Israel come up out of the sea. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the image of the sea sometimes recalls God's deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea and indicates the future hope of the people of God for a new exodus event, a future and ultimate rescue from oppression (Isaiah 51:10). In Jewish imagery, then, the sea can symbolize that which is opposed to God and to his people, the source of beastly and oppressive forces over the people of God, and the event of the exodus along with the hope that God will once again deliver his people.

Each of these themes is picked up in the development of sea imagery in Revelation. The sea first appears in Revelation 4 where there is something like a sea of glass before the throne of God (6). This is an image of God's sovereignty over the sea and all that it symbolizes and is consistent with the Old Testament imagery of God rebuking or exercising his sovereignty over the sea. Further, like the beasts in Daniel 7, a beast arises from the sea in Revelation 13. This beast has characteristics from each of the beasts in Daniel 7 and appears to be an amalgamation of them. This confirms that in Revelation, as in Daniel, the sea is seen as the source of beastly oppression of the people of God. The sea of glass appears again in Revelation 15:2. This time, though, those who conquered the beast are standing upon the glassy sea and they are singing the song of Moses and the song of the lamb. Again, the imagery in the vision is similar to the imagery in the Old Testament. The song of Moses recalls the exodus and God's deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea. It is clear that the image of the sea in Revelation corresponds to the standard Jewish symbolism associated with the sea.

We may suppose that the disappearance of the sea in Revelation 21:1 means that, in the new creation, all that which is opposed to God, his people, and his creation will be removed. All powers which oppress the people of God will be done away with. The people of God and creation with them will pass through the sea once again coming to freedom and life. This is confirmed by a few clues in chapter 21 itself. First, 21:1-5 has a chiastic structure which associates, "the sea is no more"(1c), with, "Death, sorrow, and crying are no more" (4a-c). With the disappearance of the sea, that which oppresses the people of God disappears as well. Second, Revelation, 21:4 echoes Isaiah 51:10-11 where the drying of the sea and the anticipation of a new exodus are associated with the doing away of sorrow and sighing.

The Old Testament background and the symbolism of the sea in Revelation both indicate that the disappearance of the sea in Revelation 21:1 means that God's work of ultimate new creation will be a new event of salvation in which the people of God are fully and finally delivered from all forces of harm and oppression. Creation itself will fully and finally experience a new exodus from all opposition. The elimination of the sea symbolizes the final doing away with evil and the full redemption of the people of God.

April 6, 2008

The Lost Letters of Pergamum

Bruce Longenecker's The Lost Letters of Pergamum is a work of historical fiction that recounts the events of the final year of the life of Antipas, a Roman nobleman. While fictional, the story grows out of the tradition attached to the martyrdom of Antipas mentioned in Revelation 2:13. As Senior Lecturer in New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, Longenecker's imagination is fueled by his expertise in the history of Christian origins. This book provides a creative and fascinating story within which is couched an introduction to the historical situation in which the New Testament was composed and early Christianity began to spread. The story is told through the medium of a collection of letters written during in the year 92 AD. The letters were the correspondence of Antipas and Luke, the writer of the third gospel. They recount the thoughts of Antipas as he read through Luke's gospel and discussed its interpretation and implications with its author. These letters include a wealth of introductory information about events and figures of the period such as gladiatorial games, the Pharisees, Josephus, Pilate, and the emperor Domitian. Perhaps one of the book's most important contributions is the picture painted of life in the culture of honor and shame and the practice of benefaction in the Roman world. Unfortunately, this cultural context too often remains little known outside of scholarly study of the Bible. Longenecker provides the average reader with a glimpse of how a Roman nobleman might have understood and received the teachings of Jesus which challenged the systems of civic honor and benefaction. The author also provides vivid descriptions of the characteristics of the earliest life and struggle of the church. All of this historical information is conveyed creatively in the fictional letters such that I was often so caught up in the story that I forgot I was reading first century history. Along the way, the author proposes interpretation of and historical insight into many passages in the gospel of Luke. I highly recommend this book as an introduction to the historical and social context within which Christianity was born and the New Testament written. Enjoy!

April 5, 2008

Who Wears the Crown?

The vision of heavenly worship in Revelation 4 contains a description of twenty-four elders who sit on thrones and then fall before the throne of God and cast their crowns before him (vv. 4, 10). Other than God himself, only the faithful people of God are described as being seated upon thrones (cf. Rev 20:4ff.), and it is likely that the twenty-four elders in chapter 4 are a symbolic representation of the full people of God, twelve representing the tribes of Israel and twelve representing the apostolic foundation of the Christian church. This passage is often interpreted in a woodenly literal way resulting in discussions about the nature of rewards in heaven and whether or not those rewards will be kept or returned to God. Such an interpretation is a distraction from what is really going on here. It is important to remember that Revelation is a vision and that visions generally involve symbolic imagery. So, we must ask, what is the imagery involved in this vision? As already noted, the twenty-four elders represent the full number of the people of God. They are casting their crowns before the throne of God. A crown is a symbol of power and authority. The one who wears a crown is the one who rules. So the image here is one where the people of God are yielding power, authority, and control to God. The image is a powerful one, and it calls upon each of us to examine our lives to see if we have indeed yielded full control to the Triune God. Are we allowing Jesus to truly be Lord in every aspect of our lives? Are we allowing God to be God on his own terms? This is a powerful symbol of what it means to be a Christian, yielded to the Lordship of Christ in every aspect of life with nothing held back.