Category Archives: N.T. Wright

Wrath Is Way Underrated

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 6:9-17

Part 14 (6:1-8)  ΑΩ  Part 16 (7:1-8) →

I love the board game Risk.

If you’re not familiar with the game, it was created by a Frenchman a little over 50 years ago, originally as a game called La Conquête du Monde (“The Conquest of the World”). No doubt the frenchie was a little nostalgic for the glory days of Napoleon and French world dominance. And, to be sure, La Conquête du Monde is infinitely better than “Risk.” Because, after all, the game is entirely about conquering the world. Sure, “risk” is a big part of the strategy of the game, but calling the game that is a bit like calling the game of basketball “Dribble” instead.

There’s really only two ways the game of Risk can end.

First, one player can eradicate the armies of all his (or her) opponents, thus completing his conquest of the world. That’s the most common way for a game to end. The other way it can end is when a player, irate over the decimation of his armies and disgruntled over a broken alliance on which he relied too heavily, that instead turned on him and hastened his demise, kicks over the board in the ultimate act of Risk jihad: “I’m as good as dead and mad as hell, so I’m taking all you jerks and your armies with me.”

It happens. I’ve seen it. After all, it’s La Conquête du Monde. It’s war, and things get messy in war. Especially when there’s also queso dip on the table.

As Revelation 6 continues, things appear to be growing bleak for God and his people. The four horsemen of verses 2-8 are wreaking havoc all over the globe, bringing conquest and tyranny, war, famine, poverty and death—all of the basic ills that continue to plague humanity to this day. Furthermore, we’re told, that it’s not going to end until a certain number of believers have been killed for their faith.

The faithful cry out to God: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?!” (v. 10). God’s perhaps less-than-fully-comforting response is to tell them to “wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, [are] killed just as they had been” (v. 11).

Tumultuous times and earth-shattering events are witnessed as the sixth seal is opened. John chooses the language of earthquakes and the moon turning blood red, stars falling and heaven and earth being rolled up like a scroll. As always, it’s important to remember that John is employing rich, symbolic imagery. As N.T. Wright observes,

“In the Old Testament, language about the sun turning black and the moon becoming like blood, the stars falling from heaven, and so on, was regularly employed as a way of speaking about what we would call ‘earth-shattering events’—not at all meaning actual earthquakes, but rather tumultuous events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the smashing of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001: events for which it is hard to find appropriate language except through vivid symbol and metaphor” (Revelation for Everyone, 66).

Obviously, the sun isn’t really turning black and the heavens aren’t really being rolled up, or this would be the end of the book. There would be no place for the rest of the story to unfold.

The point is that just when you thought the situation on the world stage couldn’t have gotten any messier or grown any more bleak, it does just that. Persecution, martyrdom, famine, war and death reach epidemic levels.

And the people of God cry out, wondering why God hasn’t just gotten up and kicked the board over.

After all, he did it in the days of Noah, right? Game over? Let’s start a new one? Clearly this one is lost. I mean… Look around.

But God is playing the long game. The enemy has made a mess of the board, strewing armies all over the map. But God has Alaska, Argentina and Greenland locked up (translation for non-Risk players: It doesn’t look like he’s winning, but he’s in a position of power). He is waiting for evil to do its worst, to display to the world fully the ugliness and bankruptcy of its self-centeredness and rebellion against its rightful king. Only then will his armies come flooding into the world, bringing God’s wrath to every corner:

“Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their  wrath has come, and who can withstand it?” (Rev. 6:15-17).

“Wrath?… You mean justice and love and mercy and goodness, right? Wrath is such an ugly word. Would a loving God really be wrathful?”

Wrath is very misunderstood and completely underrated. Wrath is the supreme expression of the love of God in this context. God’s wrath is the eradication of injustice, corruption, of abuse, of poverty, neglect, hate, greed, pride, conquest, war and death. God’s wrath means the end of evil. There couldn’t possibly be a higher expression of God’s love for his people and his creation than wrath in this case.

It isn’t cruel to eradicate cancer cells. It’s loving. It’s good. It’s painful and ugly and never something one would choose—we could wish the body never got cancer to begin with. But it has. And cancer’s eradication is ultimately for the flourishing and renewal and life of the body.

In the same way, God’s coming wrath is not to be feared by his people. It isn’t an occasion in which he sets aside his love for a moment in order to loathingly do what has to be done. God’s wrath is an overwhelmingly benevolenteven violent outpouring of his love. It is to be celebrated and invited as the deeply loving act that will, at last, signal the defeat of evil and the death of death; the dawn of worldwide human flourishing and global joy.

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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…

John Piper vs. N.T. Wright Brouhaha

I just got my letter from ETS about this year’s annual meeting in Atlanta (Nov. 17-19).  And, daaaaaaang.  This will rewl:

“The theme for the annual meeting this year is ‘Justification by Faith.’ The plenary speakers will be Pastor John Piper (Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneappolis), the Rt Revd N. T. Wright (Bishop of Durham), and Dr. Frank Thielman (Presbyterian Professor of Divinity, Beeson Divinity School). In addition to our usual plenary sessions, this year’s meeting features a two-hour panel discussion with the presenters on Friday morning.”

I’d say Pipes and Wright are two of my top five favorite theologians/writers and they clash big time on the issue of justification.  Should be a blast to see them interact face to face—which hasn’t happened yet.  As far as I know they’ve never even met yet.

My Top Ten Books of 2009 (#3)

surprised.jpg #3. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, by N.T. Wright
#4. Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit, by Francis Chan
#5. This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence, by John Piper
#6. The Jesus Storybook Bible, Sally Lloyd-Jones
#7. Words of Life: Scripture As the Living and Active Word of God, by Timothy Ward
#8. Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall
#9. Calvin, by Bruce Gordon
#10. Water of the Word: Intercession for Her, by Andrew Case

You get to be in the Top 3 of 2009 if you made me weep.  That’s the standard.

There were only three books that did it, and Wright’s was the most erudite of the three.  Surprised by Hope is Tom Wright’s attempt to set the record straight on what the Christian hope for the future really is.  Under the influence of a lot of bad evangelical pop-theology from the last several decades (and before), most Christians seem to have a view of what is to come that is at best lacking some important elements of the biblical hope, and at worst badly distorts the Bible’s teaching about the end of the age.

Wright asks, “What are we waiting for?  And what are we going to do about it in the meantime?  Those two questions shape this book” (xi).  He expands: “This book address two questions that have often been dealt with entirely separately but that, I passionately believe, belong tightly together.  First, what is the ultimate Christian hope?  Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, [and] new possibilities within the world in the present?  And the main answer can be put like this.  As long as we see Christian hope in terms of ‘going to heaven,’ of a salvation that is essentially away from this world, the two questions are bound to appear as unrelated.  …But if the Christian hope is for God’s new creation, for ‘new heaven and new earth,’ and if that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there is every reason to join the two questions together” (5).

The opening chapters of the book examine and expound carefully and masterfully the Bible’s teaching on resurrection—thoroughly dispelling the common Christian misconception that our ultimate hope is to be disembodied ‘souls’ floating around in a distant cloud world—and on the nature of the new heavens and new earth.  Benefiting richly from this part of the book entailed a disciplined setting-aside of many of my preconceptions about what is to come for believers and letting my ideas be rebuilt from the ground up as my eyes bounced between Wright’s book and my open Bible.

The result is what brought me to tears.  This correction (or, perhaps, “transformation” is the right word) in my thinking about what is to come both incorporated most of the ‘loose ends’ of biblical teaching that I had ignored in my conception of “where it’s all going,” but also opened up new and unspeakably beautiful vistas for me in terms of how I view the world, how I understand what God is doing, and how I understand my role in it.  The biblical vision for the Church is so much larger and more expansive than merely “let’s get people saved so that they can go to heaven.”  This is part of it.  But there is much more, and our grasp of God’s Plan is small until we see the rest.

Part III of the book, “Hope In Practice: Resurrection and the Mission of the Church” was simultaneously the most wonderful and most questionable part of the book.  Wright attempts to lay out several ways that a more fully biblical understanding of what is to come should shape the way we follow the risen Christ and “do church” now.  Many of them are marvelous (e.g. his thoughts on politics, evangelism, and how Easter should ‘look’ in our churches), but some of them are big stretches (e.g. some of the things he says about beauty: “Beauty matters, dare I say, almost as much as spirituality and justice” [222]). It’s also unfortunate that Wright had to make room here (quite unnecessarily) for his very much disputed and, I would argue, unbiblical understanding of the doctrine of justification (cf. 140).

Those caveats bring this book down from #1 or #2, but do not tarnish it nearly enough to oust it from my top 3.  It is an excellent and desperately needed book.  I’ll close with, perhaps, my favorite quote:

“When we reintegrate what should never have been separated—the kingdom-inaugurating public work of Jesus and his redemptive death and resurrection—we find that the gospels tell a different story.  It isn’t just a story of some splendid and exciting social work with an unhappy conclusion.  Nor is it just a story of an atoning death with an extended introduction.  It is something much bigger than the sum of those two diminished perspectives.  It is the story of God’s kingdom being launched on earth as it is in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched, and Jesus’s followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory and that inaugurated new world into practice.  Atonement, redemption, and salvation are what happen on the way because engaging in this work demands that people themselves be rescued from the powers that enslave the world in order that they can in turn be rescuers.  To put it another way, if you want to help inaugurate God’s kingdom, you must follow in the way of the cross, and if you want to benefit from Jesus’s saving death, you must become part of his kingdom project.  …Heaven’s rule, God’s rule, is thus to be put into practice in the world, resulting in salvation in both the present and the future, a salvation that is both for humans and, through saved humans, for the wider world.  This is the solid basis for the mission of the church” (204-5).

What’s Our Hope?

surprised_by_hope_by_nt_wright.jpgOur senior pastor at New Hope Church, Steve Goold, is beginning a sermon series on Colossians entitled “The Real Jesus” that I’m really excited about.

In preparation for it, I’ve decided to work through the Greek text of Colossians as part of my devotional time so that I’ll be able to engage and dialogue with his sermons as fruitfully as possible.

The first observation I made this morning was shaped by the reading I’ve done thus far in N.T. Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope, which is a really good read (albeit heavier reading than his other popular writing).  Some thoughts from my journal on Colossians 1:1-8 this morning:

“The first interesting thing I note is Paul’s triad of faith, hope and love, which is so common throughout his letters (cf. Rom. 5:1-5; 1 Cor. 13:13; Gal. 6:5-6; Eph. 4:2-5; 1 Thess. 1:3, 5:8).  Here, however, Paul makes hope foundational to the other two.  Elsewhere he says that love is the greatest of these (1 Cor. 13:13), but here hope gives rise to faith and love.

Paul says that the Colossians have ‘faith in Christ Jesus’ and ‘love..for all the saints’ (v. 4) because of ‘the hope laid up for [them] in heaven’ (v. 5).  I’m sure that before I began reading Surprised by Hope I would naturally have assumed that what Paul is saying here is something along the lines of: ‘A key motivation for believers to have faith in Christ and love for fellow believers is remembering the great reward we will have in heaven if we do.’  That is no doubt true and could be exactly what Paul means.  But ‘hope waiting for us in heaven’ is a teaching much more characteristic of Jesus.  If it is what Paul is teaching here, it would be the only place in all his letters where he does so.

It may be more likely that the ‘hope’ that is set aside for us en ouranois (lit: “in the heavens”) is actually Jesus himself, who will come to us.  In this case he means something more along the lines of: ‘A key motivation for believers to have faith in Christ and love for fellow believers is remembering that Jesus is coming with his Kingdom, where faith and love will be perfectly completed and perfectly manifested.  Believers live in faith and love here and now in anticipation of life in the Kingdom of God.’  Something like this idea may be found in Philippians 3:20: “But our citizenship is en ouranois (lit: “in the heavens”), and from it (i.e. the heavens) we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  I’ll need to wait to see if the rest of Colossians sustains this reading and to hear what Wright and Pastor Steve have to say.

Either way, I praise and thank God for the marvelous faith- and love-motivating hope that he has set aside for us ‘in the heavens.’  May it be on display in me today.”