Category Archives: Doctrine

Tacos From Heaven

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 2:1-7

Part 2 (1:9-20)  ΑΩ  Part 4 (2:8-11) →

Remember how much anticipation surrounded report card time when you were a kid?

I wasn’t even that concerned about grades, actually, but I knew that the local Taco Bell in Eau Claire, WI, gave out a free taco for every “A” on a report card, and free tacos were something I was very concerned about.

Can you imagine getting a report card on your church from God? Sheesh. Would your church get free tacos for anything? What would it be failing? That’s some scary stuff.

But that’s exactly what happens in Revelation chapters 2-3. Right before things start to get really weird in chapter 4. N.T. Wright helpfully summarizes the contents of these two chapters:

“The seven letters, of which this is the first, are sharp and pointed messages to the churches in question, and, through them, to the many other Christian groups already in the area – and to all others, then and now, who can listen in to what the risen Lord is saying. The letters all follow the same pattern. They begin with a reminder of some aspect of the description of Jesus in chapter 1. They continue by congratulating the church on what has been going well (only in Laodicea is there nothing to praise), and then warning about what has been going badly (only in Smyrna and Philadelphia is there no fault to be found). The letters then end with a solemn warning and promise: the spirit is speaking to the churches, calling Christians to ‘conquer’, and promising them some aspect of the glorious future which God has in store. We should not imagine that Christians in Ephesus are only promised the right to eat of the tree of life, or that those in Smyrna are only promised that they will escape the second death, and so on. All the promises, and all the warnings, are for all the churches” (Revelation for Everyone, 11-12)

So, here’s my question: Why would God give report cards to churches that are already pretty beaten up? They’re doubting. They’re worried. …Is this really going to be helpful? But remember what I said in my first post. Many of these believers, in their fear that they had ben wrong about who Jesus really was, were throwing in the towel on their faith or compromising and mixing their faith with Roman Caesar-worship in order to escape trouble. On the one hand, doubt is understandable. Everyone doubts. Jude reminds us to have mercy on those who doubt (v. 22). On the other hand, unchecked doubt eventually leads to trouble. These believers were allowing their doubts and fears to result in syncretism–the mixing of the worship of God alone with other religions and rituals. If you’re familiar with the Bible at all—particularly the Old Testament—you know that when human beings decide to pick out the bits and pieces of the Bible that they like best and mix them together with their favorite philosophies and popular spirituality, God starts laying mushroom clouds. His words to the churches in Revelation 2-3 are actually incredibly tame and reserved in comparison.

Where the Ephesians are excelling is in doctrine. Free tacos for everyone on doctrine. For anyone who thinks God only cares about love and doesn’t care about doctrine, this is one of the first place I’d go to demonstrate the contrary. He says,

“I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. …[Y]ou have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (vv. 2,6).

The words used here suggest that the main problem with these false apostles and the Nicolaitans is that there doctrine if off. They’ve got the gospel wrong. They’re spreading some sort of false teaching, the Ephesians recognize it, and they won’t tolerate it. Plus 1 for the Ephesians.

The problem is that the Ephesians don’t love well. Again, God says,

“Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.” (vv. 4-5)

Not to resort to the cliche of cliches, but God is making it clear to the Ephesians that love is a verb. They have forsaken (a very strong word) the love that they had at first. What love? Love for God? Well, that could be part of it. But what’s mainly in focus is love for people in the form of good works, charity, encouragement, and service. We know this because the remedy for the problem is to “repent and do the things you did at first.”

I’m reminded of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” Or James, saying, “Faith without deeds is dead.” (2:26) In 1 Timothy 4, Paul urges believers to keep a close watch on their “life and doctrine.”

It seems to me that some believers imagine that because they’re so strong on doctrine, head knowledge, biblical understanding, theology, etc., that all of that will cover for their lack of real, tangible acts of love, kindness, charity and giving. They play lip service to love because it’s not their sweet spot. They’re better with books. People are messier and harder to love than books.

On the other hand some believers imagine that their great love gets them off the hook for knowing what they’re talking about. They figure that paying close attention to what the Bible teaches about God, the human condition, the sacrifice of Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit is strictly optional. It’s all up for debate and you can kind of pick and choose what you like, discard what you don’t like, and as long as you love, God’s not even going to grade you on doctrine.

Wrong. Wrong.

So… Where do you get free tacos? Does doctrine, theology and Bible study come easy to you? Or does love come easy to you? Neither? Both? In my experience, most people have to work especially hard at one or the other.

So, may we aspire to be strong-minded lovers. Big-hearted sages. Great Bible students overflowing with great compassion, and servants with theological steel in our spines.


Revelation: The Opening Credits

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation: Introduction

← Preview  ΑΩ  Part 1 (1:1-8) →

When I said that I was going to be blogging my way through Revelation, a friend of mine said, “…Because nothing brings Christians together in harmony like eschatology.” I got a kick out of that. But you have to know what “eschatology” is and be able to pick up on heavy sarcasm to think it’s funny.

Eschatology is the part of biblical studies that deals with “last things”—often described as “the end of the world,” although I think that’s a really misleading way to think about it since Revelation certainly does not tell the story of the end of the world. Almost exactly the opposite, in fact. It tells the story of how God, often working in concert with the followers of his son, Jesus, will recreate the world. It tells the story of how God will remake this world as a newer and better Eden—an Eden centered on the blazing beauty and glory of Jesus, who fully and finally reigns over his new creation in perfect peace, justice and love, having destroyed all evil and death and crying and brokenness forever.

And somehow, despite all of that, the book of Revelation tends to make Christians go to the mattresses like no other book. Which is amazingly ironic and sad, really, given that the book repeatedly pictures the people of God in perfect unity, standing before their beloved king, singing and worshiping and enjoying him together. There must be a way to study this book and take it seriously without divisiveness and without throwing stones at people who understand it differently. I so enjoyed working through this book together with my Life Group. I don’t think we all unanimously agreed on the meaning of almost anything in Revelation. But we loved and honored each other all the way through it. And if it’s possible on a small scale, it’s possible on a large scale. So, throughout this series, my hope is always to put forward my own understanding of this book in dialogue with those who may disagree—never deriding those who disagree. I’ll expect commenters to do the same.

I mentioned in the “preview” for this series that Revelation is for worshipers. It paints a portrait of a massive and beautiful and majestic God, who deserves all glory and honor. Revelation is for doubters. It lets us know that we are a part of a story that has a certain ending, because it is written by the one true sovereign. Revelation is for the weak but willing. It puts steel in the spine of those who desire courage and boldness. Revelation is for conquerors. It reminds us from whom our greatest strength comes and for whom we’re conqueringRevelation is for the evil. It reminds them that their time is short. And Revelation is for the broken. It reveals for us how all of the shattered pieces will be put back together again.

When a film begins, there’s always some opening credits, and often something along the lines of, “Based on actual events” and then “Little Boston, California. 1902” to set you up for what follows. So, a few opening credits to give credit where credit will be due, and to set you up a bit for what follows:

First, I’ll be leaning heavily on three biblical commentaries by three different scholars who have three different perspectives on the book: Revelation for Everyone, by N.T. Wright; The Book of Revelation, by G.K. Beale; and Revelation, by Grant Osborne (one of the few new testament scholars out there who bucks the “two initial” first name trend). They’re all excellent, and you’ll see along the way who I tend to resonate with the most. I’ll quote them when it’s appropriate and necessary, but know that you’re going to hear them echoing throughout my writing.

Second, I’m going to try to avoid as much as possible academic terms like “preterist,” “futurist,” “idealism,” “premillenial,” “amillenial,” “postmillenial,” “post-trib,” “pre-trib,” “mid-trib,” “a-trib,” “dub-trib,” “fancy-trib” and “extra-crispy-trib.” Because, seriously… Who cares? Maybe we can just talk about Revelation like real people who… you know… have jobs and mow the lawn and eat cereal. If you want to use those words to impress people, that’s cool with me. They don’t impress my wife when I use them, so I’m just gonna skip ’em.

Third, Revelation is “based on actual events.” Except it isn’t. It is and it isn’t. Everyone recognizes that Revelation is full of strange symbols. But all of the biggest disagreements about Revelation are really, at their root, all about how much of it is symbolic and how much of it isn’t. But here’s one word I want to encourage everyone to be very careful with: Literal. It is an extremely misunderstood word and it’s really open to misinterpretation, so I’d love it if we could avoid it entirely.

If you or I do use it, here’s what we should mean by it: “Reading literature according to the kind of literature it is.” Another way to say it is that “literal” means “reading literature according to its genre.” Every piece of literature has a genre—the rules and customs that tell a reader how to read something.

Think of it like the Sunday paper. There are lots of different “genres” in the Sunday paper. And we all know that they’re not all meant to be read the same. We all know that when we read a story on the front page, we’re supposed to be reading mainly for facts and information. The author is claiming some semblance of objectivity and reporting an event as accurately as possible. But we also all know that when we read the editorial page, we’re supposed to reading for biases and opinions. The author is not claiming any sort of objectivity (or, at least, they shouldn’t be). They’re arguing a side. They’re trying to convince you of their viewpoint. And we know that when we read the comics, we’re not supposed to be looking for facts and information at all. Comics are a different genre than an editorial or a front-page story.

So what does it mean to read Garfield literally? It doesn’t mean to read it as though there’s really a fat, orange, condescending cat that loves lasagna and has a love/hate relationship with a hopelessly stupid dog, and the author is trying to document their lives for historical interest. To read Garfield literally means to read it as a comic strip. To read Garfield literally means to understand that the story of the comic strip didn’t really happen, and that if the author is trying to convey a message, he’s conveying it symbolically, or comically. I think that’s where we often go wrong with Revelation, Genesis 1, and many other biblical texts.

To read something literally means to read something according to the kind of literature it is. So, some readers believe that Revelation is a more or less straightforward account of how things are going to unfold in the future, and that it uses very little symbolism whatsoever, and believe that at some point in the future there will be a physically real dragon on earth and locusts that kind of look like horses with women’s hair and lions teeth, etc. These readers claim to be reading Revelation “literally.” But some readers believe that Revelation is a highly symbolic form of literature, conveying its message by powerful and staggering images that represent events or realities in the past, present and/or future. These readers also should claim to be reading Revelation “literally.” Both kinds of readers have made a decision (whether they know it or not) about what kind of literature Revelation is, and how it’s meant to be read.

All of that to say, everyone should be reading Revelation “literally”—wrestling with what kind of literature it is. So let’s try to avoid using the word “literally” as though it’s some sort of biblical moral high ground (i.e. “I take Revelation seriously because I read it literally”). Instead, let’s try to understand why people are inclined to read this book the way they do, try to figure out how God intended for it to be read, and see if we can find a way forward in understanding Revelation with unity even amidst wildly divergent perspectives.

I hope that’s as geeky as I get through this entire series. I’d rather not talk about the book itself and how to understand it. I’d rather read it with you and watch it paint us a portrait of a staggeringly powerful God and King who is more beautiful and just and vengeful and loving than we have ever imagined. So here goes…

The Message of the Resurging Calvinism

calvinism.jpg Jonathan Dodson has an excellent post on “The New Calvinism” over at the Resurgence.  An excerpt:

“The TULIP is flowering more vibrantly than it has for some time in the U.S. The Reformed resurgence has led to a missional resurgence that is set on holding the formerly “liberal” and “conservative” agendas together with the gospel, promoting robust engagement of social, cultural, and spiritual spheres of life. In this regard, the New Calvinism has more in common with the Calvinism of Abraham Kuyper, who argued that Calvinism is not merely a soteriological system, but an entire life- and worldview.”

Read the whole thing.

St. Peter Doesn’t Give a Rip (Part 2)

unpopular.jpgPeter is going to make a lot of people in Dallas upset this morning.

In part 1 of “St. Peter Doesn’t Give a Rip” we saw that in 1 Peter the apostle speaks strongly and clearly on the issue of “double predestination”—an exceedingly unpopular doctrine.  Another quite unpopular doctrine is that of “supercessionism,” though for reasons that will become clear(er) below, I think that’s a misnomer.

There are many different kinds of supercessionism, but in its most extreme forms it is the belief that the (universal) church has “superseded” Israel as the people of God and God therefore no longer has purposes for Israel qua Israel.  What is meant by “Israel” (national, ethnic, “spiritual,” etc.) is a key aspect of the debate.  In its milder forms, supercessionism is often (more accurately, in my opinion) referred to as “completionism,” a term that downplays the idea of “replacement” and emphasizes the church, composed of both Gentile believers and a real ethnic Jewish remnant, as the completion or fulfillment of God’s eschatological people.

The ongoing debate on this issue continues between dispensationalists (who generally reject supercessionism) and covenant theologians (who generally adopt some form of continuationism), and is supercharged by the political and military turmoil in the Holy Land.  For, if you accept some form of supercessionism, while you may very well see the U.S.’s alliance with Israel as a key political and global strategic alliance, it will be unlikely that you’ll see theological or eschatological import in this alliance.  On the other hand, if you reject supercessionism and believe God has a significant place for national/political Israel in his “end-times” plan, you will likely be very pro-Israel and see the U.S.’s alliance with Israel as a very important commitment both strategically and theologically/eschatologically.

So, what does 1 Peter have to say about the issue?  While Peter never addresses this issue directly, I think he speaks even more clearly on it than does, for example, the Letter to the Hebrews in that while Hebrews addresses the obsolescence of Israel and the old covenant directly, Peter assumes it.

And this is key: We assume things we believe to be obvious to our listeners or readers.

In other words, Peter seems so sure of what we would call “completionism” (the title really is irrelevant) that he does not even feel the need to explain it or argue for it with his audience.  He simply assumes that they will agree with him.  The way he does this is by appropriating key terms and titles that were in common usage for the nation of Israel and applying them to the church—which, of course, includes non-Jewish believers.

First, Peter addresses his letter to “Those who are elect exiles of the diaspora (διασπορά) in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, anad Bithynia.”  The term “diaspora” typically referred very specifically to the dispersion of Jewish people outside the Promised Land following any of the several persecutions of Jews in the centuries surrounding the turn of the first millennium. (The term continues to be used today in some circles to refer to Jews residing outside of the state of Israel.)  The scholarly consensus is that 1 Peter is addressed primarily to Gentile (non-Jewish) believers (see 4:2-4), so this use of the term diaspora to refer mainly to Gentiles would have been very suggestive, to say the least, particularly when viewed in light of Peter’s use of “Babylon” in 5:13.

Even more suggestive is the language Peter employs in 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”  The language of “chosen race,” “royal priesthood,” and holy nation” was viewed, in Peter’s context, as the exclusive domain of national Israel, who as the people of God under the old covenant were specifically designated as a chosen holy nation of priests.

But the very next verse (2:10) makes it clear that Peter is using these very strong “Israelite” terms to refer to a group composed predominantly of Gentiles: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”  The implication is that they are now “a people” and “have received mercy” because of what Christ has done for them.  Obviously, this characterization cannot apply to national Israel.

Clearly, then, Peter assumes some form of completionism/supercessionism.  We cannot parse out his view further because, as I said, he does not elaborate.  But the force of Peter’s assumption is telling and cannot easily be squared with classic forms of “Dallas dispensationalism,” or any eschatological scheme that preserves a significant place for national/political Israel in God’s “end-times” plan.  God’s purposes are now centered exclusively on the universal church as the people of God, composed of both Gentiles and a Jewish remnant (a vast number of whom are still to come to Christ [Rom. 11]), who are now together the recipients of all the promises of God to “Israel” under the old covenant.

St. Peter Doesn’t Give a Rip (Part 1)

unpopular.jpgEvidently Peter doesn’t give a rip about being popular.

I’ve been working slowly and deliberately through 1 Peter in the mornings over the past week or two, and have noticed that Peter holds to some pretty unpopular doctrines.

In fact, over the course of 1 Peter alone I’ve seen him provide some of the strongest biblical evidence anywhere for some of the most unpopular doctrines in contemporary Christianity.  It’s worth being reminded, I think, that the popularity of a doctrine has no bearing whatsoever on whether it is true or false.  We could list dozens of specific historical example in which a “popular” (i.e. widely held) doctrine was patently false (e.g. the so-called prosperity gospel in Dallas and elsewhere), as well as those in which a very “unpopular” doctrine was undoubtedly true (e.g. Athanasius’s orthodox understanding of the nature of Christ against the popularly held Arianism).

And that’s exactly my point.  Many times we adopt beliefs because they’re popular or reject them because they’re unpopular.  Let’s be honest.  We all do it.  Even Peter has done it (cf. Gal. 2).  But God is no respecter of popularity.  Every belief must be tested by Scripture.  No one should believe something because it’s popular or not believe it because it’s unpopular.  Moreover, no one should believe something merely because it’s easy to believe it, nor disbelieve it because it’s difficult to believe.

Peter wouldn’t have been a very popular speaker among many Christians (evangelical or otherwise) in the West today.  He would’ve been mocked on the blogosphere and in hot-selling books authored by ultra-trendy pundits.  He would’ve been an easy target.

Let me show you a few of the reasons why.

Unpopular Doctrine #1 from 1 Peter: Double Predestination

In any Top Ten list of unpopular doctrines, double predestination will inevitably find its way into the top 3 (at least).  Double predestination, in brief, is the belief that God not only predetermined who will come to embrace the gospel and be saved (before they’ve done anything good or evil), but that he also predetermined who will reject the gospel and be damned.

I mean, can you imagine something more unpopular and abhorrent in our cultural context, with its massive emphasis on personal choice and self-determinism?  Doesn’t Peter know that this isn’t going to fly?!  Isn’t he aware that no one is going to be attracted to a God that makes choices for people—without their approval?!  Can’t he see that this is going to get him excoriated in the blogosphere?

He writes in 1 Peter 2:6-8: “For it stands in Scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’  So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,’ and ‘A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.’ They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.”

This last phrase is, perhaps, the single strongest pillar supporting the doctrine of double predestination in all of Scripture (though, of course, no doctrine should be built on one text alone).  Verse 8 (οἳ προσκόπτουσιν τῷ λόγῳ ἀπειθοῦντες, εἰς ὃ καὶ ἐτέθησαν) may literally be rendered, “They stumble in that they disobey the word—a state of affairs to which they were appointed.”  In its context, it is without question that “the word” refers to the gospel (cf. v. 25).  The passive verb ἐτέθησαν makes it clear that those who were “appointed” to disbelieve the gospel were …well, passive in the matter.

In other words, it isn’t that God foresaw that they would not believe the gospel and therefore found it agreeable that they should stumble.  That won’t do given the language of verse 8.  On the contrary, it was God’s appointment of them to “stumble” that caused their rejection of the gospel, in contrast to those that he has “chosen” (ἐκλεκτόν, eklekton = “elected”) to believe (cf. v. 9).

Now of course the question, “What sort of God chooses to do it this way?” is a valid one.  It’s a serious question and an emotional one, given the fact that we all have friends and family who do not believe, and Peter is saying this is the case because God appointed them for that—unless (may it be!) they come to Christ!  But it is a separate question.  In other words, you don’t reject a doctrine because you don’t like its implications.  You allow the Scriptures to speak for themselves.  And then you deal with the implications.

God hasn’t apologized for what He’s said.  Neither should we.  There is a reason—a good, acceptable and perfect reason—that God has chosen to rule his world in this way.