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Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Revelation Letters to the Seven Churches: Philadelphia

Our little church congregation is embarking on a bible study of that book at the end of the Bible that everyone talks about but no one actually reads - The Revelation.  I'll try to publish here in this blog some of my notes as we go along.

Revelation 3: 7 – 13 Philadelphia

Philadelphia, the city of “brotherly-love” was a frontier city 28 miles south-east of Sardis. The main road from Rome to the farthest eastern parts of the empire passed through Philadelphia as the last “civilized” stop along the way. Unfortunately, it was built on the edge of a great plain called the Katakekaumene , which means the “Burnt Land.” It was the edge of a great volcanic area. The earthquake that leveled Sardis in A.D. 17 also destroyed Philadelphia. The frequent earthquakes and tremors sent the people of Philadelphia running out to the plain to escape the falling masonry and crumbling buildings.

Philadelphia, known as the “little Athens,” was a center of Greek culture and was influential in educating the central regions of Asia Minor in Greek philosophy and thought. The city was founded by King Attalus II who had been given the title “Philadelphus” (Brother-lover) because of his loyalty to his brother (Newport, 156).

The message to the Christians at Philadelphia came from The Holy One the True One.

“Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh Sabaoth.
His glory fills the whole earth.

Isaiah 6:3

Throughout the prophets, and especially in Isaiah, God is described as “the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 1:4; 5:19; 10:17, 20; 40:25; 41:14, 16, 20; 43:3,14, 15; 47:4; 49:7)” This Holiness is a separation from all else, a transcendence of everything. He is also the God of Truth (Isa. 65:16). The Christians in Philadelphia receive no word of condemnation from the Holy One, the True One. Instead they are praised by “the Holy One, the True One who has the key of David, the one who opens and no one shall close and who closes and no one opens.” This description is drawn from Isaiah chapter 22 wherein Isaiah prophesies against Shebna who had attained the highest office, next to the King, the master of King Hezekiah’s palace. He was to be run out of his office and replaced by an honest servant:

I shall dress him in your tunic,
I shall put your sash around his waist,
I shall invest him with your authority;
And he will be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem
And to the House of Judah.
I shall place the Key of David’s palace on his shoulder;
When he opens, no one will close,
When he closes, no one will open.

Isaiah 22: 15 – 25

Handing over the key was not just an appointment as a porter and servant in the palace, but an endowment with full authority and complete power. The false Jews at the Synagogue of Satan were to be replaced by true and honest servants, who would be endowed with the authority of Christ. Though the Christians living in Philadelphia had only “a little power,” they had remained true to Jesus and had not denied his name.

Therefore, the false Jews (those who were Jews on the outside by circumcision but not inwardly by faith – Romans 9:6 – 13) would be made to come before the Christian community to kneel down and to recognize that it was the Christians that Jesus, the Messiah had chosen and loved. “Your oppressors’ children will humbly approach you, at your feet all who despised you will fall addressing you as ‘City of Yahweh’, and ‘Zion of the Holy One of Israel.’ (Isaiah 60:14)”

Because they had been faithful during their times of oppression, Jesus promised that they would be kept “safe in the time of trial which was coming for the whole world, to put the people of the world to the test.” Though some teachers maintain that John is speaking about the rapture here, but this is not a rapture verse. The weak Christians in this city would not be rapture” out of their trial, but would be kept safe through it. They would not be seized away, but bought through.

John was not speaking about a time of trial some 2000 years removed from his first century audience- such a message would have been completely irrelevant to them. What value would a letter saying, “Be of good cheer you patient, suffering, faithful servants of first century Asia Minor, I won’t let Soviet missiles, killer bees, or nuclear explosions (or anything else Tim Lahaye, Hal Lindsey, or Jack Van Impe might dream up) get you.” The hours of testing that John wrote about was in their immediate future, “I am coming soon,” Jesus said – words that would have been of immediate relief to that first century audience.

The time of trial which was coming for the whole world, to put the people of the land to the test was the same time of trial and tribulation that Jesus spoke of in his Olivet discourse (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21:5 – 36). “The people of the land,” is an expression used 12 times by John – once for each tribe of Israel – to refer to the False Jews, Apostate Israel (3:10; 6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 11:10; 13:8, 12, 14:6, 17:2, 8). In addition, it is used in the LXX version of the Old Testament throughout the prophets to describe the rebellious idolatrous Israel about to be destroyed for her sins, and driven from the land. (Jeremiah 1:14; 10:18; Ezekiel 7:7; 36:17; Hosea 4:1, 3; Joel 1:2, 14; Zephaniah 1:8)

The whole world being put through this tumultuous time of trial and tribulation was the oikoumene, the “inhabited world,” or the “Roman world.” This is not the entire globe – and does not point to a “universal period of tribulation, (Lahaye, Revelation, pg. 57)” still in the future, despite the claims of many prophecy experts.

The faithful and victorious followers of Philadelphia are promised that they will be made into pillars within the heavenly Temple of God. John tells us later that he, “could not see any temple in the city since the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb themselves were the temple. (Revelation 21:22)” The temple where God was formerly said to reside was in Jerusalem, but according to the revelation John received that physical temple was about to be removed (Revelation 11: 1-2) and the spiritual sanctuary (which is God and the Lamb themselves) would be opened (Revelation 11: 19). Faithful overcomers would be made into a pillar in this spiritual temple and they would never depart from it, they would be forever in God’s presence.

They would be marked with three names: 1) “the name of my God,” 2) “the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem,” and 3) “my new name. (Revelation 19:12, 16) Much anxious speculation is made about Revelation’s “mark of the beast,” but Revelation’s true emphasis on the mark that God’s people receive, not the mark of the beast. (Ezekiel 9:1 – 7; Revelation 14:1) “The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city; his servants will worship him, they will see him face to face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. (Revelation 22:4).

I shall give them in my house and within my walls
A monument and a name better than sons and daughters;
I shall give them an everlasting name
That will never be effaced

Isaiah 56:5

Not many years after the Revelation, Ignatius also addressed a letter to the church at Philadelphia, warning them against the coming of “judaizers” saying that unless they speak of Jesus Christ they are “monuments and sepulchres of the dead, upon which are written only the names of men. (Ignatius, 6:1)

Newport, John P., The Lion and the Lamb Broadman Press, Nashville TN, 1986.

LaHaye, Tim, Revelation Illustrated and Made Plain, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids MI, 1980.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Friday, August 29, 2014

Biblical Limericks: It’s Not Right

It may be a proverbial rule
that luxury’s not fit for a fool,
but just look all around
and see the well-dressed clowns
who don’t have the brains God gave a mule.

Proverbs 19: 10

Blessed Are the Poor (That’s not You)

This is a sermon I wrote back in 2002.  I’ve dug it up from the basement and dusted it off a little bit…

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now
for you will laugh.

Luke 6: 20 – 21

This section of scripture is not for you.  This scripture passage is not for me.  This scripture is not for us – not directly. 

The beatitudes as recorded by Matthew are better suited to those of us living in America today.  We can claim to be the poor in spirit, the hungry for righteousness, the peacemakers (even if our continually increasing reliance on militarization would seem to belie those claims).  But we cannot claim to be the poor, not as Luke has defined them.

A good question might be – “why is Luke’s version of the beatitudes different than Matthew’s?”  It is very likely that Jesus preached this sermon on several occasions to different groups of people in different locations.  The two authors have combined the various sermons in slightly different ways so as to emphasize different parts of Jesus’ message.  Matthew included more of the blessings.  Luke left off some of the blessings but balanced them with curses.  Matthew focused on spiritual aspects, Luke on physical. If you want warm fuzzies, read Matthew’s version of the beatitudes.  If you want a confrontational challenge, check out Luke’s.  If you want balance, read both.[i]

Preachers, teachers, pastors, and priest have usually preferred to stick to Matthew’s version – choosing to talk about the poor… in spirit and the hungry… for righteousness because, for the most part, the preacher, teachers, pastors and priests are not among the poor, and Luke’s version of this sermon causes us to feel more than just a little uncomfortable.

“Luke’s blunt talk about the ‘poor,’ we are instructed, must be interpreted in light of Matthew’s fuller ‘poor in spirit,’ a classification to which we can all aspire since it has none of the rude realities of ‘material poverty’ (lack of food, clothing, shelter, employment) attached to it.  ‘Spiritual poverty’ in fact becomes a Christian virtue, and we are encouraged to affirm a life-style that puts no premium on goods and possessions but equally does not suggest that we need to get rid of them (Brown, 89).” Reading the beatitudes only from the gospel according to Matthew is a way of letting ourselves off the hook without requiring any sort of compromise to our materialistic lifestyle.

In the New Testament there are two different Greek words used for “the poor.”  The first of which is penes. This simply describes “the man for whom life and living is a struggle, the man who is the reverse of the man who lives in affluence (Barclay, 248).”  That is most of us.  We live from day to day, week to week, paycheck to paycheck.  We sometimes struggle to make ends meet.  We don’t often have the money to afford the “nicer things.”   We don’t drive flashy cars.  We don’t wear designer clothes.  But we do have a home to live in, food to eat, and clothes to wear.  We have hospitals and doctors available to us.  We have clean water to drink.  If we are “poor” we are penes poor.

The word used by Luke in his version of the beatitudes describes those who don’t have any of those things.  The word is ptóchos and it comes from the verb: to cower.  “It describes abject poverty, which has literally nothing, and is in imminent danger of real starvation (Barclay, 248).”  They are the oppressed, the abused.  The poor, according to Luke, are those who have absolutely nothing, and have no help and no hope.

“The poor in the bible are the helpless, the indigent, the hungry, the oppressed, the needy, the humiliated.  And it is not nature that has put them in this situation; they have been unjustly impoverished and despoiled by the powerful (Brown, 89).”

They are the Restavek children in Haiti, orphaned children who are taken in by individual families with detrimental results.  These boys and girls are reduced to lifestyles that are close to slavery.  They spend their days doing chores – toting water and working the fields – without pay. They get leftovers to eat and are regularly abused (Campolo, 12).

They are the poor, the hungry, the weeping.  They have been beaten down, their land has been stolen from them and their children taken.  Their husbands have been killed, their dignity trampled.  And because they have nothing on earth they have come to put their trust – their complete and total trust – in God to provide and protect.  They are blessed, not because they are good, but because God is good. They are God’s people because their faith is in him.

But, an easy life is not promised to us.  Immediate vindication is not promised.   The hungry, who are hungry now, will be filled in the future.  Those who are weeping now are promised that they will laugh later.  If they are hated and abused now, they will have great rewards in heaven.  It’s all in the future.

Except for this one:  the poor who are poor now they have the Kingdom of God now.  The Kingdom of God is with them now.  The Kingdom of God is present in the lives of those who trust him.  The Kingdom is daily being built by those who rely on him and his strength.

The rich seem to be excluded from the Kingdom of God in the here and now, not because they don’t seem to perceive their need for the saving power and healing work of Jesus.  They have what they need, and if they don’t have it they can certainly buy it, or take it from someone who does.  Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.

That’s not to say that being rich is sinful in and of itself.  The bible never condemns the rich for being rich – but rather for being proud of their riches, for greed, for the abuse of others by the rich and powerful.  It just seems more difficult to get around their money. 

Where Matthew’s account has Jesus speaking to the crowds, Luke describes Jesus delivering this message to his disciples directly, “fixing his eyes upon them.”  It was addressed to them to strengthen them, and encourage them in a life of sacrificial giving.  Jesus called them to follow him – but he had no home, and no bed.  He had no job, no money of his own.  He was one of the poor.  He was one of the oppressed – despised by many, abused and murdered by the powerful.

 But blessed are you the poor, you the hungry, you who weep, you who are hated, despised and denounced as criminals.  Rejoice and leap for joy because this is how they treated the prophets.
These blessings upset our expectations.  They’re backwards.  They’re wrong.  The world does not bless the poor, it blesses and esteems the rich. 

Jesus’ message continues by further upsetting his listener’s (and our) expectations by delivering a series of woes and curses.

“It will be hell for you rich people, because you’ve had your fling.  It will be hell for you whose bellies are full now, because you will go hungry.  It will be hell for you who are so gay now, because you will sob and weep.  It will be hell for you when everybody speaks highly of you, for their fathers said the same things about the false prophets (Jordan, 31).”

We are not the poor, not the ptóchos poor, as Luke has described them.  But neither are the rich – not really.  So what do we do with this scripture?  How do we make it ours?  How do we read it?

We need to be willing to be poor – even if we are not – both physically and spiritually, admitting that everything we have (money, food, grace, forgiveness) comes from our good and gratuitous god and not through our own efforts. 

We need to be hungry.  In America we eat – too much, I think.  But we need to be hungry, for food nad for righteousness.  Food tastes better to the hungry.  We appreciate it more.  We need to accept grief and sadness as part of this world here and now.  We are not promised a happy life.  If you came to Jesus to be happy, you’re in the wrong place. In this world we will have trouble – not, as so many televangelists claim, health and wealth, and prosperity.  We need to be ready to be hated, despised, abused. (And by this I do not mean whining about people who say “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas…”) The prophets of God have been cut in two, boiled alive, thrown to the lions, burned at the stake, beheaded…

We also need to remember that we are responsible to the poor, the hungry, the mourning.  We are to help those in desperate need.  We are to relieve their sufferings and end their abuse wherever we can.  We are to bring good news to the afflicted.  We are to soothe the broken hearted and comfort those who mourn.

This text isn’t for us – not directly.  We are not the poor, even if we’re not exactly rich.  But we are followers of Jesus.  We are his disciples.  We are to take his message and let it transform our lives so that the Kingdom of God is made more and more evident in the world today.

Blessed are you who are poor for the Kingdom of God is yours.

Barclay, William, New Testament Words, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, PA 1964.
Brown, Robert McAfee, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible through Third World Eyes, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, PA 1984.
Campolo, Tony, Following Jesus Without Embarrassing God,  Word Publishing, Dallas, TX 1997.
Nickolof, James B, editor, Gustavo Gutiérrez: Essential Writings, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY 1996.
Jordan, Clarence, The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts, New Win Publishing, Inc. Clinton, NJ 1969.

[i] If I were writing this sermon today I’d draw this distinction a little less starkly – it is not as if Matthew’s gospel is focused on spiritual aspects of the faith to the exclusion of physical realities – there is a notable insistence “on the need for concrete and ‘material’ actions toward others and especially toward the poor,” in Matthew.  – Gustavo Gutiérrez (Nickoloff, 162).

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Biblical Limericks: Creation’s Cosmic Battle

In the beginning was a titan
twisting in the sea like a python,
till Elohim did crush,
in that primeval hush,
the many heads of Leviathan.

Psalm 74: 14
See also Anomalies A – Z: Leviathan 

Behold, the Lamb of God – The Death of Emmett Till

Very early on the first day of the week
while it was still as dark and full of secrets
as a bad man’s soul, they came for him,
with a flashlight and a .45 in hand,
they came for Emmett Till.

They said he’d whistled at a white woman;
they said he needed to be taught
that a nigger boy
ain’t got no right to be talkin’ outa’ place.

And in a barn they beat that boy
across his back and hips and face.
Then to a shed they carried him;
they pistol whipped and thrashed
fourteen year old Emmett Till.

They broke his nose like as with a meat chopper.
They gouged his eye out from its orbit.

A bullet through his skull killed the boy at last,
but even more disgrace was done:
they tied a weight around his neck
with loops of sharp barbed-wire
and dumped his body into the water
of the Tallahatchie River.

On the third day he rose again.

His corpse was taken home and put upon display;
laid out in public for all the world to see.
And there were many who were appalled.

His appearance was so disfigured
beyond that of any other man.

Emmett Till was sacrificed
upon a Mississippi courtroom altar,
a boy, a lamb,
that we might break free
from our nation’s original sin.

July 25, 1941 - August 28, 1955

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Biblical Limericks: Murderer

I know to say it may create strife,
but one may not need to use a knife
to harm those who are poor:
You are a murderer
if you steal the bread that is their life.

Ben Sira 34: 25

Biblical Limericks: Ken Ham Doesn't Go Far Enough

The Biblical creation story
must be understood literally:
right at the start Yahweh
did attack and then slay
Rahab, the fell serpent of the sea!

Psalm 89: 9 - 11

See also the Anomalies A - Z: Rahab

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I'll Take - Theological Before and After - for 400, Alex

Who was Marlene Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

Biblical Limericks: Aquinas Confronts Moses at Horeb

God revealed his name, as we’ve been taught,
to Moses on the mount, but we ought
to recall: we can’t know
what God is, even though
he’s I AM, we know naught but what he’s not.

Exodus 3: 14

“…we cannot know what God is, but rather what he is not…” Thomas Aquinas 

How Should the Poor Look?

The Salvation Army, where I work, utilizes a direct mail service for a significant portion of our fundraising. Donations are solicited through the mail in this way to help us meet the needs of many in our county.  I received the following brief note in response to one of our recent mailings:

Dear Jeff,

I am not donating at this time because on Friday morning I saw 10 or 12 people waiting outside your building.  None of them looked like they were going hungry.  I shouldn’t judge people, but I have a hard time donating my hard earned money if the people getting it are “free loaders.” 

This is my response:

August 26, 2014
Dear ________,

I received the note you sent in response to our direct mail request for donations and wanted to take a few moments to address your concerns.

You wrote, “…I saw 10 or 12 people waiting outside your building.  None of them looked like they were going hungry…

Those 10 or 12 people were there for our ‘bread line.’  We receive bread and produce from a couple of area stores and gardeners to be given to our clients.  This is distributed to them without any qualification or restriction.  If they express a need, they may have it.  This ‘bread line’ is offered in addition to our more substantial food pantry – for which there are certain qualifications and restrictions.

I’m not exactly sure how one can tell by visual inspection whether a person is poor enough to be eligible for our assistance.  How should the poor look?  Should they look like bedraggled homeless people, unshaved and unwashed?  While there are some who fit this stereotypical picture of a “poor person,” the majority of our clients are the working poor.

Most of our clients work – some of them two or three jobs.  The sad fact is that minimum wage jobs do not pay enough to support a family. Some of them are unable to work – either because of illness or injury. Some of them are seniors who live on a very modest income, and use the food we provide to stretch their resources. They are not freeloaders. They are struggling every day. I appreciate that you work hard to earn your money - others, however, work hard and are still barely able to make ends meet. 

If you have some time available, I’d like to invite you to visit our building, so that you can see what we are doing here.  I’d like for you to have the opportunity to speak with our caseworker and to see our food pantry.   If you are interested, please give us a call.


Multitudes Upon Multitudes in the Valley of Decision

Monday, August 25, 2014

Powerpoint Slides for Everyone - 2014 - Week 36

Each week I do this. I create a new background image for use in Powerpoint (or another similar presentation program) and I share it here on my blog.  These images are free to you - and you can use them however you wish - at home, work, school, church, wherever.  I only ask that you share them freely and that you tell others that you found them here.

For those who like to know such things: this week's picture is a close up of a couple of baoding balls.

 photo Week36_zps210b0002.jpg

Biblical Limericks: Slow of Speech and Tongue

The flames in the bush were aflutter
when Moses first heard God’s voice utter
the command to go speak,
but Moses said, “I’m weak
and I st- st- st- st- …can’t speak well.”

Exodus 3:2, 4: 10

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Enslaved by Fear - A Sermon on Exodus 1: 8 - 2: 10

It is a truth, though not universally acknowledged (for to acknowledge it would be to allow a measure of doubt to creep into our practiced certainty that everything is just as it should be) that those in possession of power fear the powerless, just as the rich fear the poor and the master fears the slave.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Always. (Shakespeare)

A new king came to power in Egypt land – one that could not (or would not) remember Joseph or all that son of Israel had done for Egypt.  He was a mighty king, a powerful king.  He led the navy to repulse attacks from sea-pirates, he maintained (and expanded) the borders of Egypt.  He built cities, and palaces, and monuments – Lord, how many monuments.  In every city, on every corner, there was a statue or an inscription to mark his presence and to memorialize his achievements.  In the 30th year of his rule, he was transformed into a living god in the Egyptian “Sed Festival” and thereafter, every third year, another Sed Festival was held in his honor.  He had 45 sons and 40 daughters with his many multiplied wives. (Wente, 618 - 620)  He ruled for 67 years, bringing peace, and power, and prosperity to the nation of Egypt. 

And the inscription beneath the colossal statue erected in his honor read:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,
Look on my works, ye mighty and despair.
 (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

Ozymandias, (in Greek) or Ramses II “the Great” was powerful beyond most human imagination. 

But those in power never rest easy.

This new king in Egypt – who could not (or would not) remember what the son of Israel had done for Egypt - looked upon the Israelites with fear.

“Look… the Israelites have become too many and too mighty for us.”

The mighty Pharaoh Ramses II, the great and powerful Ozymandias feared the Hebrew people who, though they had continued to multiply during the years between Joseph and Ramses II, were still a minority people in the land of Egypt.  They held no political power (not since the days of long forgotten Joseph) they held no numerical advantage.  They were a minority in Egypt.

But the minority is always feared by the powerful, just as the rich fear the poor, and the master fears the slave. The oppressor fears those that he/she oppresses.

This is not an ancient pattern, now eliminated in our modern society.  We have not yet outgrown these things.  In our own nation’s history we have seen this fear.

The Native American tribes were regarded by White leaders in the 1860s as savages. They were uncivilized. White leaders said that the Indians prized “theft, arson, rape and murder” and raised their children “to regard killing as the highest virtue.”  Indian men, according to these powerful American leaders, were indolent and lazy, leaving all the hard work for their women.   They were barbarous, and savage, and superstitious heathen.  (Nichols, 175 - 6)

In 1736, Colonel William Byrd – a wealthy Virginian slave owner (considered to be the founder of Richmond, Virginia) wrote, “We have already at least 10,000 men of these descendants of Ham fit to bear arms, and their numbers increase every day as well by birth as importation.  And in case there should arise a man of desperate courage among us, exasperated by a desperate fortune, he might with more advantage than Cataline kindle a servile war.  Such a man might be dreadfully mischievous before any opposition could be formed against him and tinge our rivers, as wide as they are, with blood.” (Zinn, 35) also here
The Africans being brought to this country as slaves were feared by their masters. If they could not be kept under control, they would, as Colonel Byrd feared, rise up in revolt, and kill their masters, rape the white women, burn the plantations, and bring economic ruin upon the white ruling class. 

Even after slavery was abolished on these shores, the “darkies” were feared by those in power.  Blacks were described alternately as "lazy, thriftless, intemperate, insolent, dishonest, and without the most rudimentary elements of morality" or as violent beasts, “a hyena in a cage,” “wild beast” ready to rape and murder.  (Zinn, 208)

They were feared and had to be kept in check.  The Indians were slaughtered, and those that survived were herded onto crowded reservations (and often moved again, further afield, when those lands were coveted by whites.)  Blacks were harassed and lynched. Segregated into separate and entirely unequal stations within society. 

Fear turns the “other” into something other than human.  They become sub-human animals, brutes.  Fear makes them seem inferior, greedy, conniving, ugly, lazy, diseased, filthy…

 Said the new king, “Look… the Israelites have become too many and to mighty for us.  Let us deal shrewdly with them or they will take our jobs and take our women.  They’ll flood our hospitals with their diseases and our schools with their dirty children.  They’re violent.  They’re drug users and they bring illegal drugs across our borders.  They don’t worship the way we do.  They don’t even speak our language properly. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and take over the land.”
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Ramses II, the great and powerful Ozmandias with legions of armed men and servants at his command, with wealth and power incalculable was afraid of the Israelites. He perceived them to be a threat – for those in power always perceive the poor and the oppressed as a threat – and he began a systematic program to reduce the Hebrew danger. 

He put them to work, made their lives bitter with rigor and toil.  He oppressed them with forced labor; he compelled them to build store-cities for him – which further increased his wealth and power, while at the same time reducing the Hebrew strength and power.  The Egyptians used them ruthlessly.  They exploited their labor, and stole the sweat from their brows. But the Pharaoh’s plan was flawed.  The more he oppressed them, the more they multiplied and spread.  The more he tightened his grip, the more they slipped through his fingers. 
So the Egyptians came to fear the Israelites. The Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.

Next Pharaoh ordered that the midwives of Egypt murder the Hebrew boys at birth.  But the midwives feared God and refused to be a part of this vile plan. So Pharaoh expanded the scope of his plan; he ordered all of the people of Egypt to throw Israelite boy children into the Nile.  Not just the midwives. Not just the soldiers. Every good and law abiding citizen of Egypt was instructed to hurl Israelite baby boys into the waters of the Nile.

Because they were afraid. 

The great and the powerful are never so strong that they do not fear those whom they oppress.  The rich and wealthy are never able to purchase an escape from their fear of the poor.  The master can never sleep easily with slaves at hand. 

We tell the story of the Exodus as the escape of the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt.  But we must see that the Egyptians were enslaved too, held in chains of their own forging.  Chains of fear and dread and loathing. The powerful fear the powerless. The rich fear the poor. The oppressor fears the oppressed. The master fears the slave.  Pharaoh feared the Israelites. Herod feared the newborn Jesus.

The Israelites were enslaved to the people of Egypt – a physical slavery of rigorous labor and bitter tears. But the Egyptians were enslaved as well – enslaved to fear and loathing.  And every powerful and prosperous people since has faced the same slavery. 

While we view people as something other – something less than human.  When we see them as thugs and criminals, when we think of them as lazy and freeloaders we are binding our own chains even tighter.  We enact harsher punishments for criminal acts – but we fail to reform the legal system that incarcerates a disproportionate number of minorities.  We equip our police with more powerful weapons and armor – but that only serves to tighten the chains of fear.

Fear can only be undone by love.  Courageous, radical love.

A courageous radical love that says – if you are hungry I will feed you, if you are naked I will clothe you without regard for anything except the fact that you are a child of God, created in his image.  What we need is a courageous radical love that says – if you are low I will lift you up, if you are weak I will support you.

Love does not oppress.
Love does not crush.
Love does no harm
Love does not fear
because perfect love drives out all fear.

(A disclaimer:  there is no universal agreement about which of the Pharaohs was in power during the oppression and during the exodus – if it was an actual historical event…  Ramesses II is the favored choice of many, but not all, historians.)

Nichols, David A. Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics, Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul MN, 2012.
Shakespeare, William, Henry the IV Part II
Shelly, Percy Bysshe Ozymandias
Wente, Edward F. “Ramesses II” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. V, Doubleday, New York, NY, 1992.
Zinn, Howard, A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present, Haper Collins New York, NY, 2003.

The Revelation Letters to the Seven Churches: Thyatira

Our little church congregation is embarking on a bible study of that book at the end of the Bible that everyone talks about but no one actually reads - The Revelation.  I'll try to publish here in this blog some of my notes as we go along.

Revelation 2: 18 – 29 Thyatira

Today it is the city of Akhisar in western Turkey. Originally a military colony established to protect the trade routes between Pergamum and Sardis, the city was a rough and tumble sort of out-post town, always ready for the possibility of warfare. It was often used as a garrison for soldiers. Coins found in Thyatira show a horseman with a battle axe over his shoulder going out to conquer and dash his enemies to pieces (Ford, 405)

Thyatira was located 40 miles south-east of Pergamum. It had shrines to various gods located throughout the city. It was important center of trade and manufacture in various materials, including: weaving, leather, pottery, and bronze. A guild of wool workers is also mentioned in inscriptions found there. It was also known as a center for the trade in luxury purple dye. Lydia, a household owner and was in the purple-dye trade, was one of the first Christians from Thyatira. (Acts 16:11- 15) She was, it seems, part of the Jewish community at Thyatira who came to accept Jesus as the Son of God.

The trade guilds practically controlled the city of Thyatira; every industry was strictly regulated by these guilds. In order to work in a trade; you had to belong to the guild – sort of like a powerful union. But to be a member of a guild also meant worshiping the pagan god connected to the guild. Any Christian involved in any trade was presented with the problem: his or her faithfulness to Christ would affect his livelihood.

“The local god, the guardian of the city was Tyrimnos, the son of Zeus; and Tyrimnos-worship was mixed in Thyatira with the worship of Caesar, who was proclaimed the incarnate Son of God. The conflict of Christianity and paganism in Thyatira was immediate and central – so the first word of Christ to this church is the proclamation that He alone is the Son of God (the only place in Revelation where this specific designation is used) (Chilton, 112).”

The Son of God with eyes like fire and feet like burnished bronze can see and know of their works and love and faith and service and patience and even their improvement. There was much for which to commend the Christians in Thyatira. Their love was an active love and their activity was increasing.

But the Son of God had something against them: they tolerated the woman Jezebel and her idolatrous teachings. This “Jezebel” of Thyatira was a real person, but her name is symbolic; it isn’t that the Jezebel of the 9th century had returned.  Her cult is identified with Queen Jezebel, the wicked wife of King Ahab who reigned in Israel during the 9th century B.C., and led the people into the worship of pagan gods. She aggressively set out to eliminate all worship of Yahweh. Her actions are specifically called “harlotries,” and “sorceries.” (1 Kings 21:25 – 26; 2 Kings 9:22)

It has been suggested that the Christian church in Thyatira tolerated this woman and her teachings as a way to justify their continued membership in the city guilds. “In any small town no citizen is a stranger and the penalties of ostracism can easily be inflicted if one does not fall in with the general trend of ideas. One’s livelihood might be jeopardized if one refrained from joining a trade guild (Ford, 406).”

Some early copies of Revelation read “your woman, Jezebel,” or “your wife, Jezebel,” If these manuscripts are more accurate then the leader of this heresy may have been the leading pastor’s or bishop’s wife. The exact nature of her teachings cannot be determined, but are expressed in terms that are again similar to those of the Nicolaitans and the followers of Balaam from Ephesus and Pergamum. Her teachings are described as “the deep secrets of Satan” but what that means exactly is unclear. 1 Corinthians 2: 10 speaks about the “deep things of God” or the “depths of God,” that are revealed by the Spirit. The opposite is intended here; the deep secrets of Satan are revealed by illicit practices and immorality.

Jesus tells the angel of the church at Thyatira that he has given the woman Jezebel time to repent of her immorality and of her adulterous life. God does not delight in the death of the wicked; he is not anxiously waiting for the opportunity to strike down sinners with his wrath. Rather he is anxiously waiting for them to repent – to turn from their various sins.

“Would I take pleasure in the death of the wicked – declares the Lord Yahweh – and not prefer to see him renounce his wickedness and live? I take no pleasure in the death of anyone – declares the Lord Yahweh – so repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:23, 32)”

But if the woman Jezebel will not repent Jesus will throw her on her sickbed along with those she has taught. Jesus, the Son of God, will see that her children die; he will slay them with disease. “Disease” here is the Greek word thanatos which can mean “disease” or “death” Jesus says, “I will kill them with death,” which sounds like a strange way to speak, but it is a common mode of Hebrew syntax called a pleonasm. It is used here in the same way that God said to Adam and Eve in the garden, “Dying, you will die, (Genesis 2:17)

The punishment of the immoral is intended as discipline, to structure and guide the churches into proper growth in holiness. When they see the punishment that the woman Jezebel and her children have received they will know that the Son of God is the one who sees and searches the hearts and minds of his people.

Yahweh Sabaoth, whose judgment is upright,
is the tester of motives and thoughts

Jeremiah 11:20

Not all the Christians in Thyatira had tolerated the presence of the woman Jezebel and her followers. On these faithful Christians Christ lays no further burden. The faithful are to continue doing the good that they have been doing, and to continue to avoid the evil that they have been avoiding. Those who continued in their faithfulness and proved victorious would be rewarded with Christ’s authority over the nations. They would be given a rod of iron, with which rule over and to smash the nations into tiny shards, like pottery shards. The Greek word “rule” here has two meanings: “to shepherd,” and “to devastate.” This is another reference drawn from the Scriptures of the Old Testament:

Ask of me, and I shall give you the nations as your birthright,
The whole wide world as your possession.
With an iron scepter you will break them,
Shatter them like so many pots.

Psalm 2: 8 – 9

The Messiah has been given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:10). He is the Absolute Ruler of everything. And those who prove to be faithful followers of the Son of God will be rewarded with a share in his authority.

They will also be given the “Morning Star,” This is a continuation of the same thought. One of the prophecies that Balaam made over the Israelites included:

I see him – but not in the present.
I perceive him – but not close at hand:
A star is emerging from Jacob,
A scepter is rising from Israel

Numbers 24:17

This prophecy of a rising star with a scepter to smash the nations was a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. “So we have confirmation of the words of the prophet; and you will be right to pay attention to it as a lamp for lighting your way through the dark, until the dawn comes and the morning star rises in your minds. (2 Peter 1:19)” The Morning Star promised to the faithful is Jesus, the Son of God, himself. “I am the sprig from the root of David and the bright star of the morning.” (Revelation 22:16)

“Stars rise and ‘reign’ in the heavens: kings reign on earth by the influence of their stars. (Farrer, 76) The suffering Christians in Thyatira, weak and afflicted by the powerful forces around them would be rewarded with authority in the Kingdom of Christ. It has always been God’s way to use the weak to upset and overthrow the powerful, the foolish to shame the wise, and the poor to rule the rich.

Chilton, David, The Days of Vengeance: an Exposition of the Book of Revelation Dominion Press, Ft. Worth TX, 1987
Farrar, Austin, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1964.

Ford, J. Massyngberde, Revelation: Anchor Bible Vol. 38, Doubleday, Garden City NY, 1975.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Biblical Limericks: They’ll Take the Credit, but Will they Accept the Blame

The rulers will take credit, no doubt
for good that happens under their clout:
Pharaoh’s daughter sent her
maid into the river
then made the claim, “I  drew Moses out.”

Exodus 2: 5, 10

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Revelation Letters to the Seven Churches: Pergamum

Our little church congregation is embarking on a bible study of that book at the end of the Bible that everyone talks about but no one actually reads - The Revelation.  I'll try to publish here in this blog some of my notes as we go along.

Revelation 2: 12 – 17 Pergamum

Built on a 1,300 foot hill overlooking a deep valley 45 miles north-east of Smyrna, Pergamum was the Roman capital of Asia Minor. It was a sophisticated city of high culture boasting a library of 200,000 books. It was called “the most illustrious city of Asia,” by the historian Pliny. Another historian called it, “the royal city, the city of authority.” The city was filled with temples and shrines to various gods and goddesses, including: Zeus, Athena, Dionysus, and Asclepius, as well as being the center of the Imperial cult of Asia. It had a temple specifically devoted to the worship of Caesar Augustus.

The mountain city of Pergamum, covered with temples and shrines to false gods is described as the “throne of Satan,” and “the place where Satan dwells.” Robert H. Mounce notes several suggestions as to the meaning of this expression (none of which would necessarily exclude the others):

Frequent mention is made of the great throne-like altar to Zeus erected on a huge platform eight hundred feet above the city (Rist, 385) Others take the phrase in reference to the cult of Asclepius, who was designated Savior and whose symbol was a serpent (this would obviously remind Christians of Satan)… As the traveler approached Pergamum by the ancient road from the south, the actual shape of the city-hill would appear as a giant throne towering above the plain. (Mounce, 96)

To this city of Roman authority Christ presented himself as the “one holding the sharp two-edged sword,” the rhomphaia. This is the same kind of sword held by the cherubim in the LXX version of Genesis; the Cherubim stood guard at the entrance to the Garden of Eden with this kind of sword. It is the flaming sword of God. It is used 7 times in the New Testament, 6 of which are in Revelation, the 7th is the sword that Simeon prophesied would pierce Mary’s soul. Christ is the one who holds the sharp sword of authority and government. Though on earth human governments may hold the sword (Romans 13:4) it is ultimately Christ who is in control. All authority in heaven and on earth belongs to him (Matthew 28:18). He is the ruler of the kings of the earth (Revelation 1:5).

The Christians of Pergamum had held faithfully to the name of Jesus in spite of trials and tribulation, and in spite of the fact that they were in the place where Satan, the adversary, made his dwelling. They held firm to the faith even during the most intense period of persecution when the faithful witness, Antipas, was murdered. Antipas is named a “faithful witness” (which is Jesus’ name, Revelation 1:5) for being true to the name of Christ.

Antipas, the word itself, means “against all” Though we don’t know who the historical person Antipas was, he represents the faithful community of Christians in Pergamum who had remained faithful “against all” who came against them.

But here too, there were some who followed, who “clung tenaciously (Massyngberde)” to the teaching of Balaam; who were committing adultery by eating foods offered to idols. These were the very things Gentile converts to the faith were instructed to avoid:

"For it seemed good the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. (Acts 15:28 –9)”

But even further, this sin is described as “adultery” or “fornication” because in the language of the prophets, worship of any god other than the One True God by God’s covenant people was adultery. The people of God were chosen as his “bride”(Jeremiah 2: 2, Ezekiel 16: 8-9) To worship another god was to break the bonds of that covenant marriage (Jeremiah 2: 20, 24; 3:1, 20; Ezekiel 16: 15 – 63; 23: 1 – 49; Hosea 2: 4 – 5).

The rulers of the church are told to repent for allowing this “adultery” to continue within the community. If they would not repent, then Christ warned that he would come quickly against them, to make war against them with the sword of his mouth in the same way that the angel of the Lord came against Balaam with a sword (Numbers 22: 23 – 35).

Those who proved victorious would be given a three-fold reward: a portion of the hidden manna, a white stone, and a new name known only to recipient.

Manna was the daily bread given by God to the Israelites during their 40 years of wilderness wandering. It fell from the sky and was called “manna” because the people asked, “What is it?” or manna. It was described as a fine white flake-like frost which tasted like coriander seed, or like a wafer made with honey. (Exodus 16:14, 31; Numbers 11:8). Moses commanded Aaron, the high priest, to gather up a measure of manna and to place it within the Ark of the Covenant so that future generations could be reminded of God’s goodness and provisions for his people. The Apostle Paul called it “spiritual” food (1 Corinthians 10:3). The Psalms refer to it as “angel’s food” (Psalm 78:24). The supply of manna ceased when the Israelites entered the Promised Land (Joshua 5:12)

According to Jewish legends the “hidden manna” was to be revealed when the Messiah came (Ford, 400). The hidden manna, the spiritual food of the Mighty (Psalm 78:24) is the “bread of life,” Jesus Christ. Those who are faithful will have Christ and the life that he gives as their eternal reward.

In all truth I tell you,
it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven,
it was my Father who give you the bread from heaven,
the true bread;
for the bread of God
is the bread which comes down from heaven
and gives life to the world…
I am the bread of life.
No one who comes to me will ever hunger.
(John 6: 22 – 66)

The white stone was used in the ancient world as a sort of admission ticket to public function or as a voting ballot. White stones were sometimes engraved with the name of victorious gladiators. They were also used in the courts to indicate a “not guilty” verdict, black to indicate “guilty” (Ford 400, Robertson, 307). The faithful follower of Christ will be declared forever NOT GUILTY before God.

On the white stone would be engraved a secret new name. In ancient cultures a name was not just a handle for a person as it is in our culture today. To the ancient world a person’s name was a reflection of his or her character and personality, and as an extension of their authority. A new name was often given after recovery from a serious illness or after a life-changing event (as in the case of Jacob / Israel and Saul / Paul).

The nations will then see your saving justice,
And all kings your glory,
And you will be called a new name
Which Yahweh’s mouth will reveal.
Isaiah 62:2

Ford, J. Massyngberde, Revelation: Anchor Bible Vol. 38, Doubleday,Garden City NY, 1975.

Mounce, Robert H., The Book of Revelation, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids MI, 1977.

Robertson, A. T., Word Pictures in the New Testament vol. 6 Broadman Press,Nashville TN, 1933

Microscope Mechanical Macro

A couple of black and white shots of a small microscope using my home-made DIY macro lens.

Photograph Microscope Mechanical 2 by Jeff Carter on 500px

Photograph Microscope Mechanical by Jeff Carter on 500px

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Israelis in the Living Bible

I have a copy of The Living Bible – the 1971 paraphrase of the bible written by Kenneth Taylor.  I don’t read from it often, but I keep it around – mostly because it was a gift when I was a teenager, and it was the first bible that I read all the way through completely, from cover to cover.  Sentimental or something….

But I was reading through it this morning and I noticed something that I thought was a little odd.

Exodus 1: 9 in the Living Bible (LB) reads: “He told his people, “The Israelis are becoming dangerous to us because there are so many of them…”

Israeli is a modern term used to refer to the people of the modern nation state of Israel.  Israelite is the term used to describe the people of Israel in biblical matters.  The Living Bible used the term Israeli several times – Exodus 1:12, 2:23, 9: 7, 19: 1, Numbers 1: 2 … (I didn’t check any further, I’m sure it’s used more …)

The LB also used other various and roughly synonymous terms like “descendants of Israel,” “people of Israel,” “Hebrews,” “my people,” “them /they,” “Sons of Jacob,” “Tribes of Israel,” and “Israelites”  without any discernible rhyme or reason.  

But “Israeli” in a biblical text is problematic because it continues the misunderstanding that the people of the modern nation state of Israel are equivalent to the Israelites of the Bible.  

The New Living Bible, by the way, (which began as a project to revise and update the Living Bible but became a fully-fledged translation in its own right…) doesn’t use the term “Israeli.” 

Red Zinnias (I Think)

A photograph of a Red Zinnia (I think it's a Zinnia.  I'm not a trained botanist...)

Photograph Red Zinnia by Jeff Carter on 500px

Biblical Limericks: Do Not Have Sexual Relations with your Father’s Sister

Hey, hey wait! There’s something amiss here:
Amram married his father’s sister,
but by Torah you can’t
copulate with your aunt,
even to produce Moses, mister!

Exodus 6: 20, Leviticus 18:12

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

“The Government”- with Scare Quotes

I’m often confused by some of my more politically conservative friends who believe “The Government” isn’t to be trusted with anything. When they speak of “The Government” you can almost hear the scare quotes and capital letters in their voice. They view anything it does with a deep and hostile suspicion. “The Government,” in their view is, if not evil then at the very least, wasteful and dangerous, filled with crooks and liars, and should have as much funding as is possible cut from its budgets…

…That is, until you begin talking about the military and the police (which these days seem all but indistinguishable.)  Then “The Government” should be loyally supported without question and given as much money as it requests.  Nothing “The Government” – the military or police – does should be doubted or examined; they are honorable men and women dutifully serving their country.

And many of my more politically conservative friends seem to be completely unaware of this inconsistency. 

“The Government” does need watched and questioned; fraud and injustice need to be constantly rooted out.  Yes, we should Question Authority. But the military and police cannot be given a free pass. If anything, they should be examined with an even greater scrutiny considering the power and authority they wield and the resources they consume. 

Biblical Limericks: No Excuse for Papyrus

That Jochabed did use papyrus
to make an ark for her son Moses
is not a good excuse
for the continued use
of that foul font by the rest of us.

Exodus 2:3 

Fear of the Minority Never Really Changes

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.  He said to his people, “Look, The Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.  They will take our jobs and take our women.  They’ll flood our hospitals with their diseases and our schools with their dirty children.  They’re violent.  They’re drug users and they bring illegal drugs across our borders.  They don’t worship the way we do.  They don’t even speak our language properly. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and take over the land.”

Exodus 1: 8 – 10 somewhat modified…

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Revelation Letter to the Seven Churches: Smyrna

Our little church congregation is embarking on a bible study of that book at the end of the Bible that everyone talks about but no one actually reads - The Revelation.  I'll try to publish here in this blog some of my notes as we go along.

Revelation 2: 8 – 11 Smyrna

Traveling 40 miles north from Ephesus would bring you to city of Smyrna, which claimed to be the “Glory of Asia.” It was founded before 1200 B.C. and later destroyed. It was rebuilt in 300 B.C. according to plans made by Alexander the Great. It was a rich and beautiful city; the most important seaport of Asia Minor as it was on the direct trade route from India and Persia to Rome. Archaeologists have found a wide variety of coins at the site. Smyrna also claimed to be the birthplace of the poet Homer. Today, it is the modern day city of Izmir.

The city of Smyrna was a center of the Emperor cult with a temple devoted to the worship of Tiberius. In addition to the Emperor’s temple, the city was surrounded by a ring of temples and other buildings, which gave rise to the expression “crown of Smyrna.” Ancient historians compared the city’s crown to the crown of the goddess, Cybele. This may be why the description of Smyrna’s reward is a “crown” of life.

There was a large Jewish population in Smyrna, who were hostile to the Christians. This population increased after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. when Smyrna became a favorite settlement with Jews. The Jews of the city incited the people to kill the Christian Polycarp in 155 A.D.

The name Smyrna seems to be derived from myrrh. Myrrh is an aromatic gum that is produced by a thorny bush in Africa and Arabia. It was used as a painkiller (Mark 15:23; John 19:39) and for embalming a corpse. “It well describes a Church persecuted unto death, and lying embalmed in the precious spices of its sufferings (Seiss, 70).”

The letter to the Church at Smyrna is structured around a series of contrasting opposites:
First - and – Last
Was dead - but - has come to life
Your poverty - though - you are rich
claim to be Jews - but - members of synagogue of Satan
Even if you have to die - and - crown of life

Of all the seven letters, the letter to the Christians at Smyrna is the most complimentary. There is no word of condemnation, only praise and encouragement from the First and Last (Isaiah 44:6; 48:12). The Christians had endured persecution and tribulation from all sides. They refused to acknowledge the Emperor as Lord; refused to participate in the worship of the State. For this they would have been subjected to hostility and confiscation of their property (Hebrews. 10:34).

There was no hope of a “rapture” for these Christians. They had to endure the persecution and tribulation. There was no “prosperity gospel” for them; no “name-it-and-claim-it” theology. They were poor, yet they owned everything (2 Corinthians 6: 10). They were rich in what really mattered.

The One who was dead and had come to life again knew of blasphemous lies and slander they had endured from those who claimed to be Jews but were not (Romans 9: 6). A true Jew, as the Apostle Paul wrote, is not one outwardly with the mark of circumcision, but inwardly with the mark of Jesus Christ on their hearts, with the Spirit (Romans 2: 28 – 29). Being a true Jew according to the New Testament is not a matter of racial heritage but a matter of salvation. The person (regardless of race) who has been clothed in the righteousness of Jesus is inheritor of the promises of Abraham (Romans 11:11 – 24). The Dispensationalist division between Israel (Jews) and the Church (Christians) is an artificial and unbiblical division.

These false Jews, though they claimed to be descendants of Abraham were really children of the devil (John 8:39-44) and members of the synagogue of Satan. The word “Satan” itself means adversary, and the early Christian community often faced slander and lies from the Jews. This point is further illustrated by the fact that the Christians of Smyrna were to face persecution from the devil which means “the Slanderer.” Even a casual reading of the book of Acts will reveal the intensity of the Jewish conflict with the early Christians (Acts. 6: 9 – 15; 13:10; 14:2 – 5; 17: 5 – 8; 18:6, 12 – 13; 19: 9; 21:27 – 36; 24: 1 – 9; 25: 2 – 3, 7)

The Jews of Smyrna had allied themselves with the Roman government in order to harass the Christians of the city. Some of them would be thrown into prison for a time so that they could be tested. In all of this, however, they were sharing in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:12). Jesus assured them that the tribulation would be fierce but short in duration: 10 days. Daniel and his three friends were tested for 10 days but passed the test and were promoted to high position (Daniel 1:11 – 21). This may indicate 10 actual days of testing – but the number 10 is often used to indicate completion or a full measure.

Even so, some of the Christians in Smyrna would be asked to give their lives. The persecution would be fierce and intense and would end in death for some of them. But Jesus promises that if they are faithful and overcome they will receive the crown of life.

“I am the resurrection.
Anyone who believes in me, even though that person dies, will live,
and whoever lives and believes in me
will never die.

John 11:26

Crowns are often listed as a reward to the faithful.  1 Peter (also written in a time of persecution) promises a crown of glory to those who endure suffering (1 Peter 5:4).  The Ascension of Isaiah describes how the faithful will receive thrones and crowns – but only after Jesus descends for the second coming.  (Ascension 9: 10 – 18) In The Martydom of Polycarp, the martyred bishop of Smyrna receives his “crown of immortality” immediately upon his death. (Martyrdom 17:1, 19:2)

“It is possible that this concept of an immortal crown was suggested by depictions of Greek gods with crowns of light or nimbi, such as the halo that later appeared on the heads of saints in Christian art (Rist, 384).”

All Christians everywhere are called to be overcomers, even to the point of death. We have no fear of death because Jesus has won victory over death. “If we have died with him, then we shall live with him. If we persevere, then we shall reign with him. If we disown him, then he will disown us. (2 Timothy 2:12)"

The overcoming Christian is promised that he will not be harmed by the second death. The only other places where the “second death” is mentioned is in Revelation 20:6, 14 and 21:8 which indicate that the second death is in the burning lake of sulfur. In the context of the letter to the Christians at Smyrna, the second death contrasts the physical death that some of them were about to suffer. The Christians have already been made a part of the Resurrection in Christ, “And you were dead…But God being rich in faithful love, through the great love with which he has loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, brought us to life with Christ – it is through grace that you have been saved – and raised us up with him and gave us a place with him in heaven, in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:1, 4 – 6).” Therefore, since they have already been resurrected spiritually with Christ they cannot be harmed by the Second –spiritual – Death; that is, eternal separation from God in the lake of fire.

Seiss, J.A., The Apocalypse Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI

Rist, Martin, “Revelation: Exegesis” in Volume XII of The Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. 1957.

Biblical Limericks: Seriously Understaffed Midwives

It’s no wonder that when the Hebrews
came to the time their babies were due
the midwives weren’t around,
there were few to be found,
in all Egypt there were only two!

Exodus 1: 15, 19 

The Malebranche As Encountered by Doctor Tarrec

The Malebranche (Evil Claws) were first described by that great Master, Durante degli Alighieri.  He wrote of his encounter with these crude and vulgar demons, describing them as a loosely affiliated gang of demons, assigned to guard a lake of burning pitch in hell.  In these modern days a new, greater band of Malebranche has come into existence, and they are no longer restricted to the infernal regions.  The Malebranche are roaming freely about the earth.  They take special pleasure in haunting churches, and afflicting followers of the Christian faith.  They delight in causing as havoc and confusion as they can.

Master Danté said that there were twelve members of the demonic Malebranche clan in his day; today there are many – a great many – more.  What follows is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a complete list of all demonic entities who are part of the current Malebranche. By the Old Ones, no.  There are many hundreds, thousands even that are not named here, and perhaps that many more again whose names are not known, either to me or to any other student of the occult.  It is, however, a list of those entities that I have personally encountered in my studies of the paranormal and chemystical.  I have also included a note or two on each- a physical description, where possible, or an indication of the creatures powers and / or weaknesses. 

Beh’lef Tind – Takes perverse pleasure in frightening people with dystopian visions of the future.  He is a liar and not to be trusted.  However, his visions are very infectious.  It is very difficult to convince those who have seen the visions granted by Beh’lef Tind that they are deceptions.  They even come to crave the fear that he creates in them.

K’hamen – This is a very young devil, and not very potent.  He can become quite mean-spirited when he is dismissed, for he hates to be ignored.

Mardrisc – This is an angry sprit, quick to hurl abusive statements. Very vulgar.  He is also somewhat perverse - a voyeur who enjoys spying into the sexual activities of those he oppresses.  But he is also very vain.  He cannot stand to be mocked. Ultimately he is not a very powerful demon. Make even the smallest resistance to him and he will flee in a flash of sulfur and curses.

Toufik Bennedictus – This unclean spirit will make many declarations of his great power.  He will claim that he has power to perform miracles, but he is a liar.  He also fancies himself to be virtuoso vocalist.  Be warned: his voice has been known to disconcert even the most stalwart opponents.
Ysinde – An exploiter and manipulator of children. Very crass.  This vampiric creature devours the young while they are dreaming.  However, he will not be very interested in pursuing if it appears you have no money. 

Yenech’kid- this cadaverous, vulture faced devil is given to much profanity.  His skin is blotchy and translucent, like badly prepared vellum.  Though he is perpetually cross and quick to violence, he has a weak heart.

I Feel So Helpless - Rejoice

I feel so helpless.  Completely utterly.

Gaza, Iraq, Ferguson.  I can’t go.  I can’t stop missiles. I can’t stop riots. I can’t stop the evil that men do.  The greed, the violence. I can’t fix B.’s deep depression, or his binge drinking.  I can’t sooth J.’s anxiety.  Powerless.  Useless.  I can’t make it better.  I can’t change the world. God damn it, I can’t change the world.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Biblical Limericks: Strike!

What’s the book of Exodus about?
Why, it’s a labor story, no doubt:
Pharaoh cruelly abused
and exploited the Jews
so they all went on strike and walked out.

Exodus 2 - 12

What I’m Reading: Introducing Black Theology

This little book (134 pages including preface, notes, and indexes) by Bruce L. Fields (assistant professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is intended as a primer to the topic of Black Theology.  And, for what it is,Introducing Black Theology: Three Crucial Questions for the Evangelical Church [i] is a fine little book.

Fields addresses three questions: 1) What is Black Theology?  2) What can Black Theology Teach the Evangelical Church? And 3) What Is the Future of Black Theology?

He answers these questions, though not in any great detail.  This is just a primer, not a fully articulated and exhaustive study.  This is my biggest complaint about the book.  It was just too short. Fields often notes that ‘this topic could be elaborated much more, but that would require more space than this book allows.”  Sigh… “Always leave them wanting more,” might have been good advice from P.T. Barnum (that is, if the quote came from him originally) but it’s bothersome in a book I’m studying.  As a primer, however, Fields’ book will serve to expose interested readers to a number of other authors for further and continued study…

…especially James Cone.  Fields quotes so often from the various works of James Cone, that I wondered if I should have just started with his books instead. 

A couple of other smallish complaints:  the book seemed especially focused on Black Theology in an African American – (as in the USA) situation.  This isn’t necessarily a problem, but I wonder (because I have no experience) how Black Theology might be different in Europe, or South America or Africa or Australia…

Also the language was rather dry.  I don’t mind reading academic works, I don’t have a problem with technical language.  But Fields’ prose was somewhat lifeless.  Again... this isn’t a big issue but I could see it inhibiting others from reading. 

[i] Fields, Bruce L. Introducing Black Theology: Three Crucial Questions for the Evangelical Church, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2001.

Weathered Log

I spotted this weathered log along the banks of the Des Moines River the other day during my trip to the Red Rock Dam.

Photograph Weathered Log by Jeff Carter on 500px

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Biblical Limericks: Maybe it Was Sign Language

Even on Patmos, John would rejoice;
on the Lord’s Day he heard a strange noise,
like a trumpet of brass,
but a question I ask:
just how does one turn to see a voice?

Revelation 1: 10 - 12

Powerpoint Slides for Everyone - 2014 -

Here is this week's free background image.  It is yours to do with as you will.  I only ask that you share it freely and that you tell others that you found it here.

The stained glass window in this picture can be found in Grandfather's Barn on the Iowa State Fair fairgrounds. It is included in these free images specifically because my wife likes these kind of little stained glass windows so much.

 photo Week35_zpsb56556c0.jpg

The Revelation Letters to the Seven Churches: Ephesus

Our little church congregation is embarking on a bible study of that book at the end of the Bible that everyone talks about but no one actually reads - The Revelation.  I'll try to publish here in this blog some of my notes as we go along.

Revelation 2: 1 – 7 Ephesus

The letters to the seven churches of Asia all follow the same pattern:
1.            Each is addressed to “the angel of XXX”
2.            From – a graphic description of Jesus drawn from John’s vision of the Son of Man.
3.            I see your… or I know of your… The Greek used here emphases the clarity with which Jesus sees
everything that happens. (Robertson, 297)
4.            but, I have this against you…
5.            A Challenge:
6.            A Threat:
7.            A Reward:

Ephesus, which means “Desired One,” was, in the first century, an important city with a long history. It was located at the mouth of the river Cayster and was the first stop along the trade routes through Asia Minor. Acts chapters 19 – 20 tell us that the city of Ephesus was well known throughout the world as “the Guardian of the Temple of Artemis (or Diana – the goddess of fertility and “nature in the wild”),” and that the residents were heavily involved in magic. In addition to this, Ephesus had a temple devoted specifically to the worship of the Roman Emperors. It was a cultural center boasting such attractions as art, science, and gladiators. The main street, Arcadian Way, ran from the harbor to the theater (which could seat 24,500 people) and on the way one could stop at the gymnasium, the public baths, the public library, and the brothel. It was also the city of John the Baptizers followers (Acts 19: 1 -7) and, according to Irenaeus, the Apostle John’s home. (Irenaeus, 3.3.4)

Ephesus was also a center of Jewish occultism: there the Apostle Paul during his three year stay, met the seven sons of Sceva. They were itinerant Jewish exorcists who used spells and incantations to try to drive out demons. There were many others in Ephesus who also practiced magic and had large collections of occult books.

In this hot-bed of religious quackery the Ephesian church toiled and persevered. In his message to the church of Ephesus, Paul warned them that “fierce wolves” would come into the church to destroy the gospel of truth. But of all of Paul’s epistles, his letter to Ephesus was the only one that contained no word of doctrinal correction. The Ephesian Christians had maintained in the name of Christ, something that must have been difficult to do in the swirling confusion of religious ideas of Ephesus.

The Greek word for “Church” is ekklesia which literally means “those who are called-out.” The Ephesians had been called out of the pagan idolatry and sorcery of their neighbors. They had tried those who claimed to be apostles but were false. A few years later, Ignatius would praise the Christians of Ephesus for stopping their ears to false doctrine (Ignatius, 9.1)

But for all their good work and perseverance in truth, the Ephesians had one complaint against them: they had left their first love. Apparently in their zeal for proper doctrine, they had calloused their hearts against others. They were no longer motivated by love for their fellow man. They had fallen into a sort of spiritual apathy. In their desire to be separate from (“called-out” from) the wickedness of their neighbors, they had forgotten how to love their neighbors. The challenge to the Christians of Ephesus was to remember the heights from which they had fallen, to repent for their lack of love and to do the deeds they had done at first. Love is more than just a sentimental feeling – love is an action. Love demands action.

If they will not repent, Christ warns them, he will come to them in judgment – to remove their lampstand from its place. The church is to be the light of the world, but if the church refuses to shine that light into the darkness of the world, Jesus will come to take it away.

Still, Christ commends them for their steadfastness. “You hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” The second century bishop St. Irenaeus says that the Nicolaitans are “the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the deaconate by the apostles (Acts 6:5). They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence…teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols.” (Irenaeus, 1.26.3)

It’s sometimes questioned whether or not Irenaeus was correct in identifying the cult as followers of Nicolas, but it is evident that the Nicolaitans and the followers of “Baalam” in Pergamum (2:14) are participants in the same group. (2:14 – 15) (but perhaps Balaam doesn't deserve such a bad reputation, after all...

Nicolaitan and Balaam both mean the same thing in Greek and Hebrew respectively: “Overcomer of the people” or “Conqueror of the people” They apparently were overcoming the people with an exceedingly liberal approach to the faith. They flouted the ethical constraints of Christianity, allowing adultery and idolatry as acceptable practices. (Numbers 22 – 24; 31; 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11)

The Ephesians are commended for “hating” the Nicolaitans just as Christ hated them. This seems harsh, and “unchristian,” but the word “hate” doesn’t involve personal animosity. “What is meant here is akin to the wrath of God Who hates sin and sinners insofar as they are attached to sin but does desire their repentance and longs to forgive them. In the same way, people may speak about hating sin but not the sinner." (Ford, 387) Perhaps the Christians in Ephesus had fallen from their first love by moving from hating the sin to hating the sinner as well.

The Christians there are encouraged to Overcome (nikao) those who would overcome them (the Nicolaitans.) “And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith” ‘It’s not a matter of victory or failure – Christ has already won the victory. It’s a matter of victory or treason (Chilton, 99).”

It is curious to note that these words to the church at Ephesus were described as coming from “him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands” – that is Jesus, (2:1). But in verse 7 those who have ears to hear are admonished to hear what “the Spirit” has to say to the churches.  Is this to be understood as a equating of Jesus with the Holy Spirit?  Maybe not.  In the non-canonical apocalyptic work, The Ascension of Isaiah, Isaiah was taken up to the seventh heaven where he saw the glorified Christ and another “Glorious One” who looked very much like Christ.  When Isaiah asked who this second figure was told, "Worship Him, for He is the angel of the Holy Spirit, who speaketh in thee and the rest of the righteous.” (Ascension, 9:36).  “Apparently, as in Revelation, the spirit of inspiration and prophecy is different from but intimately connected with Christ.  By indirection John may be claiming the Spirit as his source of inspiration, since the promises he offers are made in the name of Christ and the Spirit (Rist, 382).”

To the one who overcomes Christ promises the privilege of eating from the Tree of Life in the Paradise of His God. There were two special trees in the Garden of Eden: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. The fruit of the Tree of Life would have given immortality to Adam and Eve had God allowed them to remain in the Garden. (Genesis 2:9) But to those who overcome, the flaming sword of the cherubim would be removed and the saints allowed to enjoy the fruit and its benefits.

In one sense, the cross of Christ is the Tree of life. The Cross has long been used in Christian art as a symbol of Tree of Life, and there is the suggestion that Christ was actually crucified on a living tree (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24). The reward that is promised to the overcomer is the privilege of enjoying the presence of Christ and the eternal life that he gives.

Chilton, David, The Days of Vengeance: an Exposition of the Book of Revelation Dominion Press, Ft. Worth TX, 1987.

Ford, J. Massyngberde, Revelation: Anchor Bible Vol. 38, Doubleday, Garden City NY, 1975.

Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians
Irenaeus Against Heresies
Rist, Martin, “Revelation: Exegesis” in Volume XII of The Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. 1957.

Robertson, A. T., Word Pictures in the New Testament vol. 6 Broadman Press, Nashville TN, 1933.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Hitler, Hillary, Paul, and Spock – The Needs of the Community

I saw this image floating around on the Facebook today and it bothered me – for a couple of reasons:

Firstly – I am increasingly dubious of quotations found on the internets without sources.  And I have not found a source for either of these alleged quotations.  I’ve found them both repeated frequently across the web, but I can’t find any source material.  The closest that I can find for the Hillary Clinton quote is that she said it in 1993, but nothing more specific than that.

Perhaps they did, in fact, say these things.  But so far I haven’t been able to discover where or when.  If you have a citation, please let me know.  I would like to see it.

Secondly – Even if they did, in fact, say these things, I’m not convinced that it’s such a bad idea, even with the inclusion of Hitler in the meme.  I know that Hitler is the Godwin's Law bugaboo of the internets, but he can’t be given so much power.  Hitler loved dogs – does that make all dog lovers suspicious?  Hitler was a vegetarian – does that mean all vegetarians are nefarious?  If Hitler were quoted as saying "I love my mother," would that make anyone who also expressed a love for their mother someone to be distrusted?  (Please do not read this as a defense of Adolf Hitler or the Nazi government.  It is not.)

The idea that individuals must consider the needs of the society is not an evil, anti-Christian idea.  In fact I’ve been hearing it taught since I was singing choruses in Sunday school class.

J-O-Y, J-O-Y,
This must surely mean
Jesus first, yourself last
and others in between
(sung to the tune of Jingle Bells)

I know – I’m often very skeptical and cynical about Sunday school choruses – but I find the same thought in the words of the Apostle Paul:

"If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others." – Philippians 2: 1 – 4 (NRSV)

This does not mean that we are to be passive submissive doormats.  But it is a Christian value to think of others, to work for their good, to live self-sacrificially so that others may live better.  To label this as an evil ideal is to ignore or to disbelieve the words of our scriptures. 

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