Who Is the Antichrist? Who Is the Beast?

How’s that for a clickbait title?

A good friend of mine is an attorney, and recently he was working with a deposition where someone submitted Exhibit 666, which the deposition jokingly referred to as “the Devil’s exhibit.” He suggested it might be interesting for us to discuss various ideas about things like the antichrist and the beast the next time we got our friends together.

I agree, but do you know how hard it is to get a group of adults together? So I thought I’d put some preliminary thoughts down as a post.

One thing to get out of the way is that there is no biblical text that refers to a single, apocalyptic figure as “the Antichrist.” For those who think of some future figure, that image comes from splicing together some disparate texts.

After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.

Daniel 7:7-8 (NRSV)

Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.

Matthew 24:9-12 (NRSV)

Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.

Mark 13:6 (NRSV)

Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.

2 Thessalonians 2:3-10 (NRSV)

And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. They worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”

The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered.

Revelation 13:1-8 (NRSV)

You will notice that these passages do not call the figure or figures “the Antichrist.” To get that label, we have to go to the only places in the Bible where the term appears, and those are in the first and second epistles of John.

Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and you know that no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.

1 John 2:18-22 (NRSV)

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.

1 John 4:2-3 (NRSV)

Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist!

2 John 7 (NRSV)

Depending on a person’s disposition, they may find in other passages veiled references to the Antichrist.

If we take a look at the passages that specifically call someone or someones antichrist, it’s hard to make the case that they are describing a singular, future, apocalyptic figure. In fact, the 1 John passage indicates that the presence of many antichrists shows them that they are in the “last hour.” Although we don’t know exactly when 1 John was written, this “last hour” would be towards the end of the first century or beginning of the second.

While the author alludes to the fact that the community had heard that this was coming, he also points out that it was happening right at that time, and that’s how they knew the end was near. And it was not a single figure but many. The future expectation of “antichrist” was happening at the time of the writing.

This is something we always need to keep in mind about predictions in the Bible – the “future” means anytime after the book was written. The “future” from a biblical passage’s point of view could easily be in our distant past, but it was still the future at the time of the writing.

That leaves us, then, with a body of texts that seem to describe a future, evil figure who shares common characteristics like arrogantly setting themselves up in the place of God and oppressing believers. Maybe it could be argued that the main thing is that this person exists and calling him “the Antichrist” is just as good a name as any.

And if we look at the passages in isolation from their respective books and the history of their generation and paste them all together like this, it certainly does sound like we’re talking about the same person.

But the problem here is that these writings were written by different people in different genres at vastly different times to address different historical circumstances. It just so happens that people like this rose to power at several different points in the history of God’s people.

For instance, let’s say someone wrote a passage right before the American Revolution about a great military leader who would lead several nations against another to liberate the oppressed and achieve a great victory that would forever change the world. They might be writing about George Washington.

If a very similar passage had been written prior to World War II, they might be writing about Winston Churchill.

We could have had two, similar passages that sounded like they might have been talking about the same person but actually were not. How can this be? Because singular historical figures tend to emerge that share characteristics.

So when we read passages like this in Scripture, we have to ask ourselves what the proximate historical circumstances were that they might be describing.

For instance, the Daniel passage is likely talking about the rise of Antiochus Epiphanes who seized the Selucid throne by outmaneuvering and outright murdering three of the legitimate claimants. Antiochus’ persecution of the Jews was legendary.

In the Matthew and Mark passages, Jesus is predicting the destruction of the Temple, so it is likely he is talking about the increase in rebellious activity sparked by false prophets and messiahs among the people that would eventually bring the retribution of Rome to Jerusalem.

In 2 Thessalonians, it may be talking about Nero, who tradition holds not only targeted Christians for persecution but Paul in specific. Note too the language in the passage that reflects that the readers know that this figure is currently being restrained, which speaks to this figure being alive at that time and just waiting for the opportunity when they could unleash their wrath but were being held in check for the moment.

The Revelation passage is also likely talking about Nero. The idea that Nero was empowered by Satan and would come back to life was very prevalent at the time and shows up in other apocalyptic literature of the time as well.

And after it has been brought to completion, Beliar will descend, the great angel, the king of this world, which he has ruled ever since it existed. He will descend from his firmament in the form of a man, a king of iniquity, a murderer of his mother—this is the king of the world—and will persecute the plant which the twelve apostles of the Beloved will have planted; some of the twelve will be given into his hand. This angel, Beliar, will come in the form of that king, and with him will come all the powers of this world, and they will obey him in every wish…. And he will do everything he wishes in the world; he will act and speak like the Beloved, and will say, ‘I am the Lord, and before me there was no one.’ And all men in the world will believe in him

Testament of Hezekiah, IV.1-8

This belief that Nero who apparently died would come back to life and resume his persecution of the saints continued to be popular not just through the first century but still referred to by commentators such as Augustine in the fourth century as a view that people had, even referring to Nero as “Antichrist.”

Some think that the Apostle Paul referred to the Roman empire, and that he was unwilling to use language more explicit, lest he should incur the calumnious charge of wishing ill to the empire which it was hoped would be eternal; so that in saying, ‘For the mystery of iniquity doth already work,’ he alluded to Nero, whose deeds already seemed to be as the deeds of Antichrist. And hence some suppose that he shall rise again and be Antichrist. Others, again, suppose that he is not even dead, but that he was concealed that he might be supposed to have been killed, and that he now lives in concealment in the vigor of that same age which he had reached when he was believed to have perished, and will live until he is revealed in his own time and restored to his kingdom. But I wonder that men can be so audacious in their conjectures.

Augustine, City of God, XX.19.3

So, Augustine is not a fan of the view that Nero will come back to life (now hundreds of years after Nero’s death) but it shows how pervasive this idea and expectation was that it was still an active view in Augustine’s day.

Nero is also the sixth emperor of Rome starting with Julius Caesar, as did ancient historians. This lines up with the description of the beast given in Revelation 17, where each head is a king. Five have fallen, one now is (this would be Nero) and one is yet to come.

This brings us to the number of the beast, which most manuscripts have as 666 although our earliest manuscript has 616. The diverse manners and languages in which the numerical values of Nero Caesar add up to 666 (and 616 for that matter) takes a while to explain, and I’ll refer you to the paper Nero as the Antichrist if you want to see how it all goes as well as historical takes on it. Interestingly, Nero is the only name that works for both 666 and 616, making it unlikely that some other emperor or leader was intended.

As for the dragon empowering the beast, we have to keep in mind that the worldview of the day was that the mundane events you could see on earth were physical manifestations of what was happening in the spiritual realm – a worldview that Revelation uses narratively. The oppression of the Roman Empire is the physical manifestation of the oppression of Satan.

If the Bible contained more apocalypses, we would see that this genre of “apocalypse” was a reasonably common way of writing about the world powers of the time and their destiny in the near future. Many apocalypses written at the time are much better at explaining themselves. Revelation rarely does this, but many apocalypses at the time will spell out what much of the symbolism means.

But since we only have the one in our Bibles, most people lack a point of reference for how this way of writing worked.

I realize that some might chafe that such dramatic imagery could use used for something as mundane as rulers near to when the biblical writings were created, but consider this: if these images could represent world leaders in our future, why wouldn’t they represent world leaders in the future of the writers? Furthermore, what would be more helpful to the original audience – things to look out for in their immediate future or the characteristics of a world power thousands of years from then?

This is some of the egocentrism that comes from an orientation to the Bible where it is directly about you and your situation. You are the only person the writings need to be good for, and it is about your life, your world, your questions, and your concerns. The immediate audience including the writers themselves are just not relevant.

The irony of this is, if we can accept that these writings were referring to despots of similar characteristics over time, then we have a key into how such things might be valuable to us. We can see these people keep cropping up in the history of the people of God, and while it may not be accurate for us to keep our eyes open for THE Antichrist, perhaps we should be wary of antichrist in our day and age.

Who are our oppressors who deceive the world and set themselves up in the place of God? Who are the ones who speak arrogantly garnering worship for themselves? Who pretends to be a friend to the people of God while secretly blaming us for their troubles? Who are the ones who promise to save us but are bent on leading us to ruin? Who should we take care not to ally with?

These figures keep on coming in our history, and there’s no reason to think that will end anytime soon.

Who Are the Lost Sheep of Israel in Matthew 10

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Matthew 10:5-6 (NRSV)

I’ve written on this passage before, but Google tells me that there are people searching around my site for the answer to this question, so I thought I’d address it a little more directly.

This passage and passages like it where Jesus seems to be excluding Gentiles (and/or Samaritans) can seem jarring to us in the context of our contemporary theology. Jesus’ mission, so the story goes, is to save the souls of humanity from Hell. It is a worldwide mission of cosmic significance, so excluding groups of people seems very un-Jesus-like.

Against such a context, phrases like “lost” connote someone who hasn’t “accepted Christ,” just as the phrase “good news” (or gospel) in verse 7 of Matthew 10 becomes shorthand for the offer to be saved from hell. We read other parables and teachings of Jesus against this backdrop. The shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to find the lost one is an illustration of Jesus’ missional love for the unsaved. The parable of the prodigal son is about the joy of God over sinners who convert.

If this context were accurate, then Jesus’ instructions here are a little difficult to understand. If Jesus’ mission is to reach as many people as possible with the offer to be saved from Hell if they accept him as their savior, and if “the lost” means everyone who hasn’t accepted Jesus as their savior, then what’s this about? Aren’t Samaritans and Gentiles “lost” as well? Why doesn’t Jesus want his disciples bringing the good news to them?

My answer is that the theological context is wrong.

The story of the Old Testament is the story of Israel and her God. Yes, on occasion, another nation may get pulled on stage for this or that reason, but the main storyline is what is happening to the Israelites. There are times of faithfulness, times of immorality, wisdom, foolishness, righteousness, sinfulness, forgiveness, and judgement.

From the Old Testament perspective, this storyline culminates in a world where Israel has been exiled from the land that was promised to them. Under the dominion of pagan empires, some Israelites have somewhat sort of returned to the land, but she is also scattered. While Jerusalem is still the center of her identity, she is all over the place. Israel does not rule the land and in most cases is not in possession of it, either. By the time Jesus comes on the scene, even the High Priest in the Temple was appointed by the Roman government.

Israel has been in this total exile to quasi-exile stage for centuries by the time Jesus is born. During this time, different people have adapted to the situation in different ways.

Some of them remain patiently faithful. This group is not presented as very numerous, but they do show up in the gospels. Even some among those groups who opposed Jesus fall into this category. These are people who continue to hope in the promise of God for the restoration of Israel’s fortunes. They have an eschatological faith despite the circumstances around them that motivates them to continue to worship, keep the Law, and minister. These people are not without their flaws, but they seem to be doing the best they can in hope.

Some of them have decided to make the best of the situation and cozy up to the new power structure. We see this primarily in the power structures of Jesus’ day: the Temple, the High Priest, the Sanhedrin, the Sadducees, the Pharisees and scribes, the tax collectors. These people are continuing the trajectory of Israel’s leaders that got them into trouble in the first place. They make themselves wealthy while their own people suffer. They use their power as a way to secure their estate rather than using their power to sacrificially and faithfully minister to God’s people. In many ways, the things Jesus was doing among the people was what Israel’s leaders should have been doing the entire time.

Most people, however, just seem to have lost hope. God has left them. They live hard lives of toil and poverty on land that has been taken from them and then they die. While potentially a cultural form of their faith might still be practiced, it’s the cares of the world that have their focus as well as what small pleasures they might occupy themselves with.

These people once belonged to God, and He to them. But now the nation that supposed to be a shining beacon to all the others, showing to the nations of the earth what it looks like to be a new creation people serving the God who made the heavens and the earth, had become just like everyone else. God’s treasured possession had been lost.

The image of the common people of Israel as lost sheep is a big part of Old Testament prophetic indictment. The image is especially common in Jeremiah, reaching a fever pitch in Jeremiah 23:

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.

Jeremiah 23:1-4 (NRSV)

The leaders of Israel are shepherds that have led the people straight into dispersion. God Himself will bring his sheep back to Himself and their land.

This is what is meant by the lost sheep of Israel. Jesus is not talking about “saved” versus “unsaved” Israelites; he’s talking about the people of Israel more or less as a whole. Israel as a people have been exiled and dispersed due to the sinfulness of their leaders, but Jesus in the name of God will restore them. This message is not lost on Israel’s leadership at all.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ Israel-restoring mission is what takes the foreground. We could debate about whether or not other Gospels have quite the same emphasis, but Matthew’s Gospel definitely makes Jesus primarily about this task. I would say the other Synoptics do as well, with John somewhat less so.

Against this context, Jesus’ instructions make sense. His intention is to recover Israel first, then the rest of the nations. This episode where Jesus sends his disciples into their own towns stands in a bit of tonal contrast to the Great Commission we see at the end of Matthew, where the disciples are now sent to “the nations,” and this stage of the plan seems to occupy much of apostolic ministry.

This primacy and sequence seem to resonate throughout the New Testament.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

Romans 1:16 (NRSV)

We live long after these events. The news of Jesus has spread throughout the world. Today’s believers in Jesus are predominantly Gentile by an overwhelming amount. It is very easy for us to take our present circumstances and read those back into the Bible.

But neither the story nor history worked out that way. In Jesus’ mind, the people of Israel are lost coins, lost sheep, and prodigal sons sought after by the Father who will rejoice at their return. That is his primary missional focus in the Synoptics, and it is only as news of what Jesus has done spreads that we begin to see the unfolding of the rest of the nations being included in the people of God.

The Hard Sayings of Luke 14:25-33

Our youth ministry is going through a short series on some of the hard sayings of Jesus. I had the choice between Luke 6:37-32 (the “judge not” passage) or Luke 14:25-33:

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Luke 14:25-33 (NRSV)

This is certainly a tricky passage for a few reasons:

  • The demand that disciples hate their own family and even life itself
  • The demand that a disciple must carry their cross
  • The demand to give up all your possessions
  • The overall thrust that Jesus seems to be trying to talk people out of becoming a disciple

Any one of those is worthy of discussion, and it’s going to be hard to deal with it in 30-45 minutes, especially allowing for some interactivity and group work.

I think how I’m going to tackle it is to get across, firstly, the political nature of what it meant to be Jesus’ disciple in the first century. I’ll do this by first focusing on the demand that a disciple must carry their own cross.

After Jesus is crucified and rises from the dead, the cross takes on a complex of symbolic and theological meanings for the early church that have only expanded over time. Consider how many hymns or choruses talk about “the cross” in dramatic and glowing terms.

Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim
till all the world adore his sacred name.

Come, Christians, follow where the Master trod,
our King victorious, Christ the Son of God.

Led on their way by this triumphant sign,
the hosts of God in conquering ranks combine.

Each newborn servant of the Crucified
bears on the brow the seal of him who died.

O Lord, once lifted on the glorious tree,
your death has brought us life eternally.

So shall our song of triumph ever be:
praise to the Crucified for victory!

“Lift High the Cross,” G.W. Kitchin, revised by M.R. Newbolt

Certainly the gospel of Luke was written after these events, so the meaning the cross has after the death and resurrection of Jesus is undoubtably shared by the gospel’s author.

At the same time, Luke portrays this teaching as happening before the Crucifixion. The crowds listening to Jesus do not know he is going to be crucified, do not know he is going to be raised from the dead, and do not have a complex theology of the cross, atonement, reconciliation, substitution, etc.

To them, the cross is how the Roman Empire executes people who threaten the stability of the Empire. The cross is a public, shameful display of the power of the Empire to suppress all revolutionaries, insurgents, and malcontents. We don’t have much of a contemporary analogy for an execution instrument or style designed for such a specific, communicative purpose. In history, we might think about the guillotine or execution by firing squad. Imagine if an evangelist today were to say, “If you’re going to follow Jesus, you might as well start rounding up your own firing squad for your own execution.”

Jesus is telling his potential disciples that becoming his follower means becoming an enemy of the State.

The two, major political forces in the life of your typical Israelite were the Temple (and corresponding religious authorities in Jerusalem) and the Roman Empire.

Jesus was a stability threat to the former by claiming that the Temple power structure had led people astray. They were trying to preserve their positions in society at the expense of the people under their authority. They were useless at best and hypocritical co-oppressors at worst, part of the engine of oppression around them rather than shepherding God’s people through it. Ultimately, these people would end up earning the contempt and eventual retribution of the very people they currently sought to cozy up to, and many Jews would be destroyed in that fallout.

Jesus was a stability threat to the latter because he announced that the arrival of the kingdom of God longed for in Jewish prophecy was immanent and at least implied that he, himself, would be its king. This is a treasonous claim, especially once you start building up a group of followers. In Rome, Caesar is the divine son who saves, rules, and protects the Empire wielding the authority of the Roman gods. Jesus sets himself up to be the counter for this. The path to get there that Jesus recommends is not armed revolution, but rather a patient return to faithfulness to Israel’s God, but such a distinction is likely to be lost on many.

Unlike America where becoming a Christian is primarily an individual, spiritual matter that simply puts you in the country’s majority (professed) religion, following Jesus in the first century was a political statement. You were a seditionist. You were a traitor. You were, more or less, a terrorist – at least in the way you would be perceived by people who found out about your beliefs. You belonged to a slowly growing group of people who taught that the day was near when Jesus would be installed as the true king of Israel and, eventually, the nations.

Once you understand this, the rest of the passage isn’t quite so hard to understand.

If you are a seditionist, your family members may sell you out to the existing power structure. If you are a seditionist, your property may be seized. If you are a seditionist, you may be imprisoned, tortured, or killed.

And perhaps most importantly for the scope of this passage, if you are a seditionist, you’d better be fully committed, because if you aren’t, then you will be a danger to everyone else in the group. You will be threatened with so many things, and if you buckle under that pressure, not only will you have abandoned something you have committed to, but the odds are very good that you will endanger the others.

The particular political dynamics that Jesus is dealing with are long gone, now. The Temple was destroyed, the Roman Empire was taken over by Christians and eventually fell, although the legacy of that version of Christendom had and still has profound effects on the world.

So, is there anything about this teaching that might be useful to us, today?

In some parts of the world, they may still have a rather direct analogy to Jesus’ teaching. Depending on the philosophical or religious orientation of your country’s government and how authoritarian it is, becoming a follower of Jesus may continue to be a deeply subversive act, politically. You may be ratted out by family members. You may have your possessions seized. You may be imprisoned, tortured, or killed. In your case, Jesus’ words may be as if he were directly speaking to you.

For most of the West, and especially in America, this is not at all our situation. Despite how much Christians enjoy thinking of themselves as persecuted in the United States, nothing could be further from reality. Christianity is still the majority religion and a great many of our political leaders profess it. Maybe someone will make fun of you. Maybe someone will tell you your views are not wanted. In the public square, you may have to be relegated to the same rights and privileges as every other religion in America without special rights and privileges for yours. But being a Christian is certainly not viewed as a subversive threat to American power. If anything, Christians in America are often known for their unquestioning support of American power.

In a political situation like this, does Jesus’ teaching have anything to say to us?

Well, obviously we might remember that we have brothers and sisters in the world who are living in a situation very much like what Jesus described. We can give aid to them. We can lobby for greater religious freedoms in countries that do not have it. We can pray for them.

In terms of our own lives, I think one thing we can take away is the reminder that being the people of God in the world means that we run off a different engine than the other powers in the world. We are a new creation inside of an existing creation full of powers that, while they may not be openly hostile or aggressive, are certainly antithetical to what we’re supposed to value and how we’re supposed to operate.

One application of this is to be wary of how fervently and to what extent we support the extant power structures in the world. We all live in nations and we all live under governments. It is appropriate to call those governments to be better and even take our roles in them to live out Jesus’ virtues in them. But they are not us. We should not be swayed by their promises, intoxicated by their power and comforts, infatuated with their leaders, or our identities subsumed by them. We are Americans, yes, and we should be good ones. But there will be a day when there is no more America, and who shall we be then? Where is our true citizenship, and to what country do we truly belong?

But another application, perhaps even more pressing, is to examine ourselves as a community and see if we are anything beyond a group of people who agree on various theological statements. What are our values? What are our virtues? What is our culture? What are our ways? If we are supposed to be a people in the world, that implies there are things that define us uniquely as a people that do not look like everyone else in the world. Can we be so identified? What are we known for? How can observers know that we are Christians? Is it, perhaps, by our love? Or something else?

Even though we may not be calling people into a politically revolutionary movement, we are calling them into something. We are calling people to give up certain attachments to the present system of things to take up a new life with a new people in a new creation. That needs to look like something. If we look just like every other group with our power struggles and misdirected lust for money and seemingly endless desire to get to the top and stay there, why should anyone leave their present way of life to join up with that? That is their present way of life. Who wants to do exactly what they’re doing now except with less sex and drunkenness?

Can we look at ourselves and tell the world, “There is a cost to joining up with us, but it is so worth it?” If not, perhaps we should be diligently working to become that people.

Sunday Meditations: Is There a Place for Prophecy?

Not too long ago, I wrote about how a certain segment of the Church who thinks of themselves as heavily steeped in the prophetic turned out to get it catastrophically wrong.

The place and validity of prophecy as an activity of the contemporary church is a hotly contested area of theology, and I would offer that most of the disagreement comes less from exegesis and more from interpretations of our present experience against the imagined experience of Israel and the early church, and we read that back into the Scriptures. This serves to shape your church’s present experiences, and the cycle continues. Cessationists are likely to continue not to experience prophecy, and this confirms their cessationism; charismatics are likely to experience prophecy, and this confirms their… uh… charisma.

What we think our experiences should be shapes what experiences we have, and vice-versa. And then we interpret that. For example, if Presbyterians don’t speak in tongues, a Charismatic might view that as evidence that Presbyterians don’t have the fulness of the Holy Spirit. A Presbyterian, on the other hand, is likely to view that as evidence that the Charismatic experience is artificial at best and demonic at worst.

The Bible simply does not give us a theology of these things. It rarely gives us a theology of anything, to be honest. The closest we come is Paul’s corrective comments to some excesses at the Corinthian church that were causing them to fall into disrepute in the community. He encourages them to make love a priority over the pursuit of ecstatic experiences, and it is here that he makes an unfortunately ambiguous comment:

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

1 Corinthians 13:8-10 (NRSV)

Paul’s point is that love is something that will always be a central feature of the experience of the people of God, but the charismata are here to cover the eschatological gaps as we wait for a time in which such tools are no longer necessary.

The problem is that he doesn’t come out and define what that time or event is, and Christians can and have plugged all sorts of things in there to make their current experiences comprehensible. Maybe it’s the arrival of Jesus. Maybe it’s the second arrival of Jesus. Maybe it’s the completion of the New Testament (my personal favorite – yes, of course, Paul’s thinking about the closing of the Protestant New Testament canon in the fifth century OBVIOUSLY).

Ironically, instead of this passage driving home the main point, which is the importance and centrality of love as a practice of the Church above all other kinds of religious experiences, we instead try to make it a prognosis about when we should all stop prophesying.

When we look at how prophets functioned in the life of Israel, they were the living voice of God to the people, typically in response to specific circumstances. Moses appears as the prophet par excellence. Other prophets run continuously through Israel’s story. It’s important to note that the Old Testament did not exist in anything like the format we’re accustomed to until we get to the last few centuries BC, although the source material for these books spanned a much broader time frame. For example, “the Law” and the “Book of the Law” feature in several Old Testament passages.

As important as writings were to the Jewish religion over time, there was still the need for that living, in the moment ability to hear from God. This may have partially occurred through divination (such as the High Priest’s urim and thummim stones), but primarily occurred through the voice of the prophet.

Prophets were not widespread, although over time they became more widespread than you might think. They functioned largely as oracles – sometimes sought out, sometimes butting in. A bit of theater was often part of how they delivered their messages, using props or dramatic actions to become the living embodiment of their message.

From a narrative perspective, it’s important to note that prophets weren’t fortune tellers. They did predict the future, but it was to address the situation of the people, often warning them of what would happen if they pursued a given course of action and recommending what ought to be done. Because of this, the role of prophet became folded into a sort of advisor to the king when kings became relevant to Israel’s direction.

Prophetic activity was more organic than we sometimes imagine. It was primarily a role that involved interpretation. That may have been interpretation of visionary experiences, but it was at least as often just the ability to see where things were going – to interpret events, forecast outcomes based on them, and do all of this from a theological perspective. Where is the will of Heaven in all of this?

One incident that James recently wrote about that illustrates the organic nature of prophecy is a story about Elisha:

Elisha went to Damascus while King Ben-hadad of Aram was ill. When it was told him, “The man of God has come here,” the king said to Hazael, “Take a present with you and go to meet the man of God. Inquire of the Lord through him, whether I shall recover from this illness.” So Hazael went to meet him, taking a present with him, all kinds of goods of Damascus, forty camel loads. When he entered and stood before him, he said, “Your son King Ben-hadad of Aram has sent me to you, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this illness?’” Elisha said to him, “Go, say to him, ‘You shall certainly recover’; but the Lord has shown me that he shall certainly die.” He fixed his gaze and stared at him, until he was ashamed. Then the man of God wept. Hazael asked, “Why does my lord weep?” He answered, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel; you will set their fortresses on fire, you will kill their young men with the sword, dash in pieces their little ones, and rip up their pregnant women.” Hazael said, “What is your servant, who is a mere dog, that he should do this great thing?” Elisha answered, “The Lord has shown me that you are to be king over Aram.” Then he left Elisha, and went to his master Ben-hadad, who said to him, “What did Elisha say to you?” And he answered, “He told me that you would certainly recover.” But the next day he took the bed-cover and dipped it in water and spread it over the king’s face, until he died. And Hazael succeeded him.

2 Kings 8:7-15 (NRSV)

One wonders if Hazael would have done such a thing if he hadn’t heard the prophecy. Here, Elisha sees what’s coming, tells the person involved, and then the person goes out and makes the prophecy happen. The activity of prophecy is closely intertwined with the events, not some abstraction like, “God is preparing to release angels of blessing” or whatever.

In the Old Testament writings, prophetic activity is something that seems to be reserved only for certain people, a fact lamented by Moses in Numbers 11:29, when he wishes that the Spirit would fall on all the Lord’s people and they all would be able to prophesy. Such a day is foreseen in Joel 2, and the apostle Peter declares that Pentecost is the fulfillment of that prophecy in Acts 2.

Even before we get to Pentecost, however, we find Jesus. Jesus is consumed by an upcoming war with Rome that he continually warns Israel about, and he is frustrated that other Israelites don’t seem to see it coming, especially since he is announcing it to them:

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

Luke 12:54-56 (NRSV)

After the distribution of the Holy Spirit, the story steers us in the direction that prophecy has become more democratized than it used to be, although we are told very few non-apostolic stories about prophecy. Once we leave Acts, the New Testament gets a lot more doctrinish and a lot less narrativish.

From what we can tell from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, it appears as though prophecy is a gifting and prophets have a role to play in the operation of the Church (1 Cor. 12:27-31 – a listing basically rehashed in Eph. 4). We just don’t have a ton of stories of this happening or what it looks like.

One story concerns Agabus, who predicts an upcoming famine and later predicts Paul’s captivity if he goes to Jerusalem (assuming this is the same Agabus, cf. Acts 11:27-30 and Acts 21:10-11). He is described as part of a group of itinerant prophets mentioned in Acts 11.

We have plenty of New Testament mentions of people who are prophets in general but not a lot of examples of what it looks like. Still, from what narrative we have, it seems like prophecy and prophets continue to work as they have in the past – people supernaturally gifted in being able to discern what is about to happen and can advise the Church, either so the Church can respond to it or simply to give encouragement as they endure it.

That brings us to prophecy as expressed in the Church, today.

There is a lot of what is being called “prophecy” that doesn’t look very much like the way prophecy functions as the biblical stories present it. Prophecies are not always precise, but they are also not vague sentiments that mean virtually nothing. A lot of contemporary prophecy boils down to, “God is preparing to do something you can’t empirically verify.” Often, He is preparing to “release” something or another. This is a safe route to take with prophecy, but it’s also virtually useless. The Church can’t respond to it. It usually only serves to stir up emotions.

Perhaps with some irony, what many prophets were doing when they predicted the re-election of Trump is getting closer to what biblical prophets do. They speak for God into His people’s present circumstances, often with an element of predicting where things are going. It just so happened that none of them were speaking for God but rather according to what they wanted to be true.

One of the many downsides to this sort of thing is that it can discourage people from evaluating their prophetic gifts. Since nobody wants to chance being wrong, prophets pull inward. They make “God is about to release” style of prophecies so that they’ll never be proven wrong. Others, perhaps more tentatively coming to the idea of prophecy, may feel like they have to wait for an unmistakable vision or God downloading words directly into their brain or something.

But here’s the thing: the value of prophecy is not hearing from God. Every believer hears from God in some form or fashion. Every believer has the Spirit. A prophet whose prophecies are simply to establish that they have a “special connection” to God is just ego. It’s just “I hear from God in a way most people can’t” often followed with “so support my ministry or buy my book.” That isn’t the gift of prophecy at all. That serves no one but the alleged prophet.

The value of prophecy is that it informs the people of God in the present about something they’re not seeing so they can act accordingly. Granted, sometimes “acting accordingly” is simply holding on in faith during a discouraging time, but it’s for the audience. There are occasions where the prophecy involves knowledge that could only be supernaturally disclosed, but a lot of prophecy in the Bible is simply the Spirit-gifted acumen to look at present circumstances, interpret them from God’s point of view, and see where they’re going so you can inform the people who need to know.

Take Agabus’ prophecy to Paul. Agabus was from Jerusalem. He knew what the Temple power structure was like. He knew Paul’s message and how it was being received. His prediction didn’t come to him in some unmistakable, supernatural flash of insight. Rather, it came from being able to look at all those circumstances and, with the prompting and assistance of the Spirit, understand that he needed to warn Paul about what would surely come to pass, because obviously Paul et al wasn’t seeing it.

So, if you’re out there wondering if you have prophetic gifts, I’d encourage you not to rely on taking stock of dreams or visions or hearing unmistakable messages from God in your brain. Instead, look at your gifts. Are you regularly able to see outcomes that others can’t see or perhaps even doubt will come to pass? Are you able to perceive a potential spiritual dimension to events? Are you the person in the room who says things like, “Guys, if we keep following this course of action, we’re headed for trouble even though things might look okay right now,” or “Guys, even though it doesn’t seem like this is working out, we need to stay the course because I see a good outcome at the end of this,” and in either case, it turns out that you’re right? Are you able to look at circumstances and put two and two together for people who can’t see what you see, and they benefit from it?

If so, you might have the knack for it. You may have the gifts. And if you do, you should consider how you can use that same gift that has probably helped you and others in business, relationships, etc. and see how you can put it into service for the Church. Maybe if you are a faithful steward of that, visions may not be far behind.

Right now, we have a shortage of real prophets, or at least ones that are self-consciously putting their talents to use and speaking out. There’s no reason that can’t be you.

Sunday Meditations: When Prophecy Fails

Because I have something of a missional interest for the Church in the United States, I try to keep informed on what’s going on with the various forms of Christianity people experience in the United States. I watch for publications, news, what figures are saying what things, what issues are they struggling with, and if I can swing it, I try to worship with different Christian traditions from time to time so I can enter into their best world, even for just a little bit.

Let me tell you: the past few years and especially few months have been a wild ride for our Charismatic brothers and sisters.

According to a study by Todd M. Johnson, nearly a third of Christians in the USA identify with some kind of Charismatic movement. This seems generally corroborated by Pew research. Just like any other overarching movement, there are lots of variations and subcultures when we talk about the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements in the US, ranging from the Benny Hinn experiences to churches that are virtually indistinguishable from a non-Charismatic evangelical church.

One thing that all Charismatics have in common is the belief that all the spiritual gifts described in the New Testament are in operation, today, including miraculous healings, speaking in tongues, and prophecy. The more we get into the not-quite-denominational Charismatic megachurchy part of the subculture, the more likely we are to find people specifically designated as prophets, apostles, and so on.

And these prophets have been overwhelmingly in support of Donald Trump. These prophets haven’t just been dispassionately reporting on where they think things are going, and it’s in a pro-Trump direction; they have put Trump on a white horse and made him the savior of the world. These dominant voices in the movement have painted a picture of an always embattled but always victorious Trump who is God’s chosen warrior against the satanic forces of evil (i.e. Democrats).

As the 2020 election neared, these prophets universally prophesied a Trump victory, with several of them going so far as to call it a landslide. Some (although not all) of these prophets were also QAnon supporters and painted vivid pictures of Trump finally exposing the crimes against humanity committed by the shadowy “global elites” (i.e. Jewish people) and putting them to the sword.

So, you can imagine the personal stakes tied up in the election for these people. Their reputations, and in many cases their paychecks, were somewhat dependent on things working out this way.

But you also have to keep in mind the investment of the people who looked up to these “prophets.” Many of these prophets have built up large ministries full of people who have invested time, money, and faith into the work these prophets are doing. It’s not simply a matter of pride or ego, but of identity and sacrifice.

Things did not work out this way, however. Trump lost the election in both the popular and electoral votes.

I will say to their credit that two or three prophetic voices in the Charismatic community apologized. They said they had wanted a particular outcome, and when it seemed like so many other prophetic voices were “hearing” about a Trump win, they just went along with it moreso than following something they believed they had heard from the Lord.

The vast majority of these prophets, however, insisted that a Trump victory was still the prophesied outcome. Obviously, the election had been stolen, and as those facts came to light, we’d see a reversal of the election results, and Trump would be re-elected.

One of the “win by a landslide” prophets even clarified that the idea of a landslide is that you have these tiny movements of loose ground and rocks that eventually build up into great movement, and that’s what their “landslide” prophecy must have meant. It’s interesting, because that is actually very close to how apocalyptic imagery works in the Scriptures, but it probably would have been more believable if they had led with that interpretation.

But despite the manpower, the money, the recounts, the audits, and the huge amount of legal contestations, nobody was able to produce any credible evidence that this last election had any more variance in it than any other election. Even top Republican leadership tried to get people to come to terms with this, especially as the electoral certification rolled around.

There was no landslide. The election results were not overturned or overruled, despite the intense pleading from many, many Charismatic prophetic leaders. There was simply no way so many prophets could be wrong.

Interestingly, the Bible says they can!

In 1 Kings 22, a story is told of the kings of Judah and Israel contemplating a joint effort against the Aramaeans. They inquire of four hundred prophets who all prophesy a great victory. Only Michaiah does not, and he ends up being correct. Four hundred prophets all got it wrong. 99.75% of prophets got it wrong.

With the failure of anything dramatic happening at the electoral vote certification, hopes began to hinge on the inauguration. Surely, Trump was just letting all of this play out so, at the most dramatic moment in front of the biggest audience, he would take the reins, denounce the traitors and schemers, kill them all, and reign forever from this throne of righteousness. I even recall reading one particularly vibrant prophecy where Trump would use the Space Force to militarily control the inauguration to make his pronouncements.

But the reality was far from this. Trump just sort of fluffed off the world stage and left. He didn’t even attend the inauguration, much less seize it with the Space Force. He shuffled off without even his characteristic fiery rhetoric. Biden and Harris were sworn in without incident and… that was it.

This has left leaders in the Charismatic movement in an interesting place.

Most of them stridently prophesied something that clearly did not happen. In fact, the opposite happened, every single time. What’s more, this wasn’t just your drunk, conservative uncle going on a rant in your living room – these were leaders who had shepherded very large amounts of people into this – people who had invested their hopes, faith, and in many cases money into the vision these prophets were offering.

It seems like there are only two general ways to respond to situations like this: 1) Admit you were wrong, repent, and spend the next few months thinking about how this will never happen again – probably involving you not giving prophecies about America’s future, anymore. 2) Insist that you were actually right, but events are still unfolding. Maybe Trump is still secretly pulling the strings behind the current administration. Maybe Trump will still find a way to overturn the election. Maybe Trump will win in 2024 and -that’s- the date all the prophecies were actually about.

You can probably guess the path that most people are taking.

The history of Christianity has many failures of prophets and their prophecies. Some might even argue (incorrectly, in my view) that Jesus himself fits into this category. In this trajectory are many prophets that predict some suitably apocalyptic outcome, ranging from the political affairs of their day to the end of the world. More recently, we have seen the phenomenon of people predicting the date of the return of Christ, only to miss this date again and again.

You might think that surely people will stop giving credence to such prophets, but interestingly, this rarely happens. Sure, there are some people who pack it up, but often a failed prophecy is no obstacle at all to the failed prophet. They just keep going and people just keep on believing them and giving the money (cf. Jonathan Cahn).

Why is this?

As a side note, if you’re interested in field research into the failure of prophecy and how people deal with it, you might check out the book When Prophecy Fails by Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter. At the time I’m writing this, the Kindle edition is only 99 cents.

I don’t think there’s any one, single reason you can write it up to, and it’s harmful for all kinds of reasons to chalk it all up to people being stupid or gullible, however smart that may make us feel.

One factor is that Christianity has a hard time with accountability and reparations. We believe in extending grace, which is good, but we aren’t so great at coming up with concrete things people need to do to repair the damage they’ve done and hold them to that. Perhaps it’s because we associate such things with retribution. But being accountable to taking concrete steps to repair the damage that you’ve done isn’t retribution; it’s biblical repentance.

If you claim to be a prophet and people are following you, and you maintain a prophecy that turns out to be false, you have done damage. You have damaged the reputation of Christ and his Church. You have led many people astray. You have driven a wedge between your followers and pesky things like “evidence” and “accepting reality.” You have given them false hopes. You have left them in an emotionally damaged state where they have to come to terms with what just happened because you misled them. They have probably also given you money. You may not have intended for these things to happen, but they did. Doing things you might not enjoy in order to try and repair these damages is not retribution; it’s what needs to happen for you to repent and for everyone to heal.

I didn’t always understand that, myself, but I do now, and Christians need to be about it. As much as it may sound like love to let a leader slide in times like this, it isn’t very loving to the people they’ve hurt, even if that hurt was unintentional.

Another factor is that, with evangelical Christianity in America, we’ve created a sort of antagonistic relationship between people and evidence. It’s one thing to maintain that there is truth you cannot empirically verify, and it’s another thing altogether to maintain empirically verifiable falsehoods in the face of evidence. We indoctrinate people to think that, if we can come up with a narrative that explains the world, that narrative must be true. We sow mistrust in things like scientific consensus and sometimes even seminaries as corrupting expressions of satanic power in the world.

We have, more or less, taught people to believe things that shore up the tribe and disbelieve things that put the tribe in a bad light. Truth is about winning, not about understanding reality.

Another factor – and I believe this factor is sharpened to a razor edge by the COVID-19 crisis – is pervasive disenchantment.

When we read the various writings in the Bible, the narrative is presented in a compressed format. In both Old and New Testaments, we see these dramatic episodes strung together of miracles, God speaking, exorcisms, and so on. It can give one the impression that everyday life should be thoroughly supernatural with these sorts of things being regular occurrences.

At the same time, secularism is rapidly deteriorating both Christianity’s influence as well as various understandings of its core narratives that have been key for a long time. A popular counter-narrative is that the scientific method is the only way we have to know if anything is true. As it gets more rigorously applied to more areas of life and more verified claims roll in, we come to realize that the natural world and its natural operations occupy ground that we once thought was the realm of the supernatural. And as our trust in empiricism grows, so does our skepticism in claims that either lay outside the boundaries of empirical verification or seem to run contrary to it.

The truth is that Christianity is actually kind of boring. When you are trying to live out a life on earth reflective of heaven, it in many ways does not look indistinguishable from anyone else trying to be a good, compassionate person. This is one reason why our narratives are so important: why do we do what we do, and what is this God doing right now that we can share with the world?

This can be somewhat unfulfilling. We want dramatic conversions. We want miracles. We want God speaking verbally. We want fire and lights and smoke. We want to battle demons spiritually with our spiritual armor and invocations. We want to feel something – anything besides the uncertainty and ennui that can come from our present circumstances. For all the fundamentalist Charismatic denouncement of Dungeons and Dragons, they often want Christianity to look like it.

These false prophecies and their narratives provide it. They provide an epic struggle of good and evil at a crucial time that you, too, can be a part of – a struggle that is primarily won or lost through the intensity of your spiritual activity. These times are special, you are special, and it’s time to show the world that the mystical power of God is a real thing.

But the stories of the wild and miraculous in the Bible stand out due to their exceptional nature, are often relegated to a single person or small group, and usually long periods of time pass between them. Most of the experiences of the “typical believer” are not specifically portrayed in the Bible. But the accounts show us that most followers of God were born, lived, and died without anything particularly extraordinary happening at all.

The life of the faithful making their way in the world is a life of community, shared values, shared customs and rituals, and a witness to the rest of the world of what humanity can look like when they are called to service of the God who made the heavens and the earth. It is difficult, often tedious, boring, and neither cool nor impressive. It’s just humbly doing good in the world and walking with your God. It’s not very American, but it’s very biblical.

There are more factors, of course. It’s a complex phenomenon that doesn’t reduce to easy explanations or solutions.

But whether we’re talking about a person who calls themselves a prophet making an official prophecy, or whether we’re talking about a pastor confidently trumpeting from the pulpit that the election was stolen, these people have all been claiming false narratives in God’s name, and several still can’t let it go.

If we’re going to have a credible witness in the world, we need to reckon with this. Leaders need to be held accountable to what they’ve said and the damage it has done. We need to protect ourselves from false prophecy, and give our brothers and sisters who may still be in its grips (and are probably in a profound existential crisis right now) the tools they need not to be consumed by it. Critical thought, evidence evaluation, and the discernment of good and poor reasoning need to be part of our spiritual development and holy task of speaking the truth and not things we cast mistrust on out of a spirit of fear.

If Christianity (and I mean the current, not the official form it takes today) is to be survivable into the ages to come, we need to radically come to grips with reality.

Sunday Meditations: Constructing Jesus

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, and in the United States, we have a federal holiday to celebrate this that we’re observing on Monday.

If you’re looking for something to do on that day, one thing you might do is search up a speech by Dr. King that is any other speech than the “I Have a Dream” speech and read/listen to it.

The “I Have a Dream” speech is perhaps the most well known expression of Dr. King’s thought. If people know anything that Dr. King said, it likely comes from that speech. Many people have never even heard the whole thing, but we’ve heard fragments cited. One particular favorite is this fragment:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

“I Have a Dream,” August 28, 1963

This fragment was cited many times during the Black Lives Matter protests all over America in 2020, often in opposition to these protests. According to this take, Dr. King did not want us thinking about race, but rather that we should be colorblind. By making a “big deal” about race, it was said, BLM was actually moving further away from what King wanted.

When property was being destroyed at some of these protests, again, the spirit of Martin Luther King was summoned since he believed in non-violence.

By taking facets like these in the abstract, people were (are) able to construct a Martin Luther King Jr. that fit what they wanted. They wanted a civil rights leader who wanted a society where race didn’t matter and who wasn’t up to making too big of a fuss about it. They wanted a King who would have advised Black Lives Matter to quiet down some and not make everything about race. In other words, from these fragments, they constructed a Martin Luther King who was a projection of what they wanted in society.

But how well does this construction of Martin Luther King actually stack up to the historical one? Was he a man who wanted everyone to decide in their hearts that race didn’t matter? Was he a man who did not see a place for violence in the process of historical change?

As we expand our familiarity with Dr. King to other speeches, his letters, narrative passed on to us from those closest to him, we see a person who saw that part of the reason for the conditions of black people in America were rooted in the economic inequities produced by capitalism and slavery. While it may be a stretch to think he was a Communist, he certainly advocated the redistribution of wealth as a necessary component to eliminating racism.

America freed the slaves in 1863 through the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln, but gave the slaves no land, nothing in reality to get started on. At the same time, America was giving away millions of acres of land in the west and the Midwest, which meant that there was a willingness to give the white peasants from Europe an economic base and yet it refused to give its black peasants from Africa who came here involuntarily, in chains, and had worked for free for 244 years, any kind of economic base. So Emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate and therefore it was freedom and famine at the same time. And when white Americans tell the negro to lift himself by his own bootstraps they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And many negroes by the thousands and millions have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression and as a result of a society that has deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading.

Martin Luther King Jr., Remarks delivered at the National Cathedral, March 31, 1968 (5 days before he was killed)

While Dr. King maintained a position of non-violence, we also have to understand his reasoning for adopting that stance. Certainly, part of it were the noble reasons that perhaps spring to our minds, but the reasoning behind non-violence as a mechanism for social change was that it would attract violence by the oppressor, and when people saw the horror of this violence, they would respond. In other words, when the rest of America and the world saw the violence enacted against Dr. King and his followers, they would be forced to act.

And this is what happened. Most of the civil rights advances we credit to Dr. King happened after his assassination. In the wake of that act, riots sprung up all over America, galvanizing other civil rights leaders and producing a massive influx of donations to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Civil Rights Act was passed in response to this unrest, a mere week after the assassination. Even though Dr. King did not want to be violent, himself, violence had a significant role in how his efforts were to bring about change.

What we discover, then, is the idyllic picture in the “I Have a Dream” speech was a picture of how things could be after the foreseen upheavals, restructuring, and recompense that King wanted, not simply a state of mind his hearers could create simply by changing their views. Far from a man who wanted us to quit talking about race and limiting ourselves to civil discussions, we see a man who wanted a holistic redressing of America’s crimes toward black people, not in the least of which were economic, and the road there would be one sadly littered with violence.

When we situate Dr. King in his concrete place in history, we discover someone very different than the picture we can create with a handful of excerpts abstracted from their historical, and often textual, context.

Incidentally, there are many fine biographies of Martin Luther King. My favorite is I May Not Get There with You by Michael Eric Dyson, as its aim is to present Dr. King as a complex and sometimes flawed man who was, ultimately, still a hero. It will acquaint you with so much source material from Dr. King’s life that paint a much fuller and deeper picture than the same handful of sources we’re familiar with.

It would be interesting to explore the similarities and differences in the stories of MLK and Jesus, but I want to focus on one thing in particular: our tendency to construct a Jesus that we like from useful fragments of source material.

When the gospel of Mark was written, the Jewish people were under the oppression of the Roman Empire assisted by a powerful and corrupt Temple hierarchy. Jesus, the latest in a line of apocalyptic prophets promising an imminent judgement and restoration, had been executed. And yet, there was testimony that he had risen from the dead. His movement was growing, especially with an increasing influx of Gentiles. Miracles were said to happen among these people. Those who persecuted the movement ratcheted up their efforts.

Against this historical backdrop, we have a Jesus who is primarily concerned for what will happen to God’s people at a time when massive upheaval was just around the corner.

Relatively early on in church history, the Gentile composition of Jesus’ followers eclipse the Jewish numbers. Jesus’ story ends up in the hands of people who have very little contact with either the lived out experience of the first century Jewish people or their ways of understanding and using Scripture.

At this point, the trajectory of the story gets diverted into timeless principles and issues that affect all mankind at all times. The struggle of good and evil, the afterlife, moral living, the experience of the Divine – Jesus becomes a man who is primarily concerned about these things.

As time goes on, and we get to the Reformation, this takes a strongly individualistic turn. Taking flight from what eventually comes to be seen as an oppressive Church, this cosmic drama gets placed in the hands of each individual.

Christian Europeans come to North America, many of them to escape religious or political tyranny, and as their colonies become a nation and this nation’s values get hammered out on the frontier, the individualism becomes cultural DNA, and this is characteristic of at least the Protestant religious movements in America. A laser-like focus is developed on the individual accepting Jesus and going to Heaven instead of Hell and living a life of vaguely Puritanical moral reform.

I’m oversimplifying, of course. The story of Jesus doesn’t fit into these nice, neat stages. But what I’m trying to illustrate is that Jesus is different against each of these backdrops. A Jesus who is concerned about the souls of mankind going to Hell is not the same as a Jesus who is concerned about faithful Israel surviving an impending war with Rome, and if that is the same person, then those concerns need to interweave in some way that is perhaps more complex and nuanced that we might construct out of a handful of texts.

Where this gets interesting for me, personally, is with the advent of what is sometimes called “progressive Christianity.”

It’s hard to talk about progressive Christianity as A Thing because it’s more of a scattered grassroots thing than anything else. Christians, especially evangelical Christians, are disappointed with where the commitment to the evangelical version of Jesus has led us, especially in America. The alliance with Donald Trump was probably the last straw for many of these people.

In response to this disappointment, there is an effort to claim a different picture of Jesus and, consequently, the Church and her mission, and this effort can look different depending on who you’re talking to. Progressive Christianity is not a specific organization or theological movement with tenets, so whatever I or anyone else says about it is going to be painting with very large brush strokes.

By the way, although I have thought about this a long time, I should give credit to Andrew Perriman’s recent post on Progressive Christianity and the Narrative-Historical Method, which catalyzed me to write about this, today.

At the outset, I would say the larger “progressive Christianity” label probably fits me more than it doesn’t. I’m sympathetic both to the reason it exists and what it’s attempting to do. Whatever a survivable church and movement will look like in America in future generations, it’ll probably come out of the impetus of this movement and the experiments being tried there.

If we’re to learn lessons from history, however, we have to be aware of the tendency to construct a Jesus that serves the perceived needs of our contemporary situation in accordance with our contemporary values.

Even under the most noble of motives, it is easy to lift Jesus out of his concrete historical context and make him about the things we wish he were about.

For example, we may rightly be appalled at the hatred we see at work in the evangelical church toward this or that group, and in response, we create a Jesus who represents universal love. We may recoil at a church that seems so easily to side with war and violence, and in response we create a Jesus who is wholly nonviolent. We are disappointed at those leaders who say the church should stay out of social justice issues, and in response we create a Jesus consumed by social justice issues.

But Jesus is not an embodiment of universal principles – he is a human being of a particular nationality in a particular region at a particular moment in history. We need to be careful that we do not trade one ahistorical, abstract Jesus for another ahistorical, abstract Jesus who embodies abstractions that are more to our liking.

We do not have a Jesus who is pro-Second Amendment. We also do not have a Jesus is who is for gun control. We have a Jesus who does not know what a gun is and makes no statement directly or indirectly on governmental regulation of weapons.

“Ah,” you say, “but Jesus is against violence.”

Well, sort of. We have Jesus commanding his followers not to resist the Roman Empire in the Sermon on the Mount. We have Jesus reprimanding Peter for trying to cut his way through Jesus’ arrest. Jesus certainly at no point is an advocate for violent solutions.

At the same time, we have Jesus enacting a bit of apocalyptic theater by driving the moneychangers forcibly from the Temple. We have a Jesus who believes that God is about to act violently in Israel’s history to remove the corrupt power structure they labor under. We have a Jesus who tells parables about unfaithful vineyard owners being put to death. We have a Jesus who describes himself as a corner stone that will fall on some and grind them to dust.

Further, when we look at what actually happened in history, violence was a determining factor both in how the Temple structure was removed and in how Christian persecution ended in the Roman Empire.

Back to the other side of this issue, we also see Jesus weeping over a Jerusalem that is about to be destroyed.

So, what emerges is a much more complex Jesus than an embodiment of a principle. We don’t get Violence is Fine Jesus, and we don’t get Violence is Never Acceptable Jesus. We just get Jesus, and Jesus does not intend to teach us a Christian view of violence. Even the Sermon on the Mount is not an exposition of timeless principles that Jesus just felt like throwing out there, any more than the Ten Commandments were an exposition of timeless principles that Moses just felt needed to get in front of people; it’s delivered to his disciples as they begin to spread their work in a world that looks a certain way.

We may decide that these teachings have broader implications than the specific historical situations they address, and I would argue that is a good and wise effort – wrestling with the Scriptures to understand what they meant at the time and what implications that may have for us as we make our way through our own historical situation.

But we don’t get a Jesus who is only ever loving and gentle and peaceful. We don’t get a Jesus whose primary mission is social reform in the name of justice in the abstract. And this is a core issue with abstracting Jesus (or a given Scripture) from its historical context: when you do this, you have the raw materials to construct more or less whatever fits your concerns.

We have long been aware of the pitfalls of making a Jesus who fits our viewpoints, but I don’t know if we’ve really grappled with the problem of making a Jesus who addresses our concerns, whether those concerns are social, psychological, or eschatological.

We want a Jesus who addresses systemic racism. We want a Jesus who addresses our internal states of fear or shame. We want a Jesus who addresses what happens when we die. It’s unpalatable to think that Jesus did not have something to say on questions and issues that are so important to us or, even if he did, he did not make those things much of a priority.

We have to take seriously the idea that we have a multifaceted, complex, human Jesus who was instrumentally responsive to the situation of his place and time. He may not have been concerned with the things we wish he were. He may not have consistently displayed the character traits we wish he would have. If we believe Jesus is anything other than a useful myth, we have to suspend the things we want to see and hear from him and let him act and speak on his own.

Once we have done that, then we are in a position to hear from the Spirit in ourselves, how are we to manifest this in our own time, our own issues, our own region, our own way. How can our road today be informed by Jesus’ life without being the focus of Jesus life? We are not in the position Jesus was. We are in our own position.

If the world is to find a “relevant” Jesus, they need to find it in us, the inheritors of his story and Spirit.

Sunday Meditations: Are We Better Than This?

In a tweet on Jan. 6, Joe Biden wrote: “America is so much better than what we’re seeing today.”

This general sentiment is something you can find in many different contexts. “Our company is too good to have sales this low.” “I’m sorry about the video where I called that man the n-word. That’s not who I am.” “You need to stop losing your temper. You’re better than that.”

These sentiments are comforting and somewhat inspirational and aspirational, which is how they’re intended to be used. When we hear them, we’re motivated to be the better person/organization/business/country they describe. That’s a good thing.

But there’s a very large problem at the core of all these sentiments: the thing that we’re “better than” or “too good for” or “not who we are” is something that actually happened.

You can’t be too good to have low sales if you have low sales. You can’t be better than someone who loses their temper if you lose your temper. If you call someone something racist, you can’t not be a person who calls people racist things.

I don’t really want to talk specifically about what happened at the Capitol last week and how we got there. Others are doing this very capably, and I doubt I’ll have any real insight to offer.

I do want to talk about the question of whether or not we can think ourselves as being better than the things we actually do.

From a Christian perspective, and specifically an American evangelical one, I believe our tendency is to create a fairly sharp division between our internal state and our external behaviors.

The origins of this likely go back to certain ideas about the division of the body and the soul/spirit. I would argue that many of these ideas have more to do with Plato than Scripture, but we tend to have this concept that there is an internal, immortal part of us that is our true self, and this is clothed a temporary suit of skin and organs that is not our true self – it’s a temporary arrangement that will someday be discarded. The external things that one can see and interact with are secondary to an invisible, spiritual core that is primary.

There are some passages that, absent from their Jewish narrative context and placed into a framework of Western thought, sound like this very thing. I would argue that the philosophical framework makes all the difference, however. Plato put forth the idea that real reality existed in a perfect state of ideal forms, and the material world was simply imperfect manifested copies of this reality. This philosophical disjuncture had profound ramifications for Western thought and theology as well as the development of Jewish theology.

This idea that “true reality” exists in the invisible, unchangeable, eternal, perfect, spiritual world versus the visible, mutable, temporal, imperfect physical world has wide-ranging effects on Christian theology even to this very day. It impacts our eschatology, identity, and mission, and we could explore those topics for hours.

I want to focus mostly on the ethical aspects, though. Are we really better than our actions?

I’d contend that one of the issues with the idea that our internal, spiritual core is who we “really” are is that sin, coming to grips with sin, and dealing with sin all become primarily an internal matter.

In this way of thinking, if I sin, the primary problem is that I’m stained internally, and the primary thing I need to do is ask God for forgiveness to restore the purity of my internal state. This is perhaps the core problem with which evangelicalism confronts the world: you are in a bad internal state and you need to ask God to repair your internal state.

In this way, dealing with sin is really more about dealing with your internal experience of sin. It’s more about dealing with guilt and shame, really. You sin, it affects you negatively in a spiritual sense, you pray for forgiveness, and everything is fine. You are absolved of the guilt, the spiritual stains are washed away, and the matter is over.

But is everything fine? Is the matter over?

What about why we did that thing in the first place? What uncomfortable truths or issues does that reveal about us? What about the damage we did to others and ourselves? What did our sin reveal about ourselves, and what are the things we need to do to repair the damage we have done and, ideally, prevent such things from happening and become stronger and healthier from them?

The idea that we have an internal core that is our real self, and this is distinct from the things we do with our brains, mouths, and bodies in general, insulates us from these very uncomfortable questions and answers.

A dichotomy is created where we can imagine ourselves internally as righteous, faithful, compassionate, peaceful, generous, good – you name it – while externally we may act very inconsistently with those characterizations.

Those actions become flukes. They are temporary glitches in the system. They are not “who we are.” When they occur, we ask God to forgive them, He does, and we go on our way continuing to think of our true selves as ultimately virtuous even if we don’t act that way from time to time.

I think this is the true power of this separation. It allows us to manage the apparent difference between what we profess and what we actually do. Rather than deal with the notion that our actions may very well be our true selves and react to that information accordingly, the notion of an internal self that is distinct from those actions allows us the comforting thought that we are actually good people on the inside even if our actions don’t seem to line up with that.

It is also disconcerting when we think about our theology because, again, in a Western philosophico-theological context, there are certain passages that seem to indicate a radical spiritual and ethical revision when a person comes to Christ, but when we look at our actions (or lack thereof), it doesn’t seem like that’s what happened to us. The idea that our real, true self is spiritual and pure allows us to manage this tension. Our radical renewal is a “spiritual reality” even if you can’t see it.

This, I would contend, hurts us a lot more than it helps.

When Joe Biden or anyone says something like, “America is better than this,” it implies that the true condition of America is one in which things like radicalized Trump-supporters storming the Capitol shouldn’t happen. It was a fluke. It was a glitch in the system. We’re actually fine; we just had a hiccup there where something in America happened that was inconsistent with who America really is.

If this is the case, there’s really nothing to fix, is there? There’s nothing to work on. The true state of America is one where everyone is rational and good and peaceful. We’ll deal with the isolated incidents as they come up, but there’s no underlying issues that need fixing.

I hope you can see that such an idea is nuts, and I don’t believe Joe Biden actually thinks that, either. These things happen because of underlying issues. They are not random, chaotic circumstances that sprung up because everyone’s blood sugar was low that day or whatever.

Yet, when we look at our own, individual lives, we are content to think of ourselves this way. We are in our true cores good people, and when we act inconsistently with that, it’s a blip that we can easily deal with and move on.

But our individual choices are no more random products of circumstance than a group of protestors storming the Capitol. True, some circumstances are more extreme than others, and we may act unethically in a high-pressure situation that, under calmer circumstances, we wouldn’t. But that still shows us who we are. In those high-pressure situations, we make these choices and do or say these things.

I believe the best chance you have for ethical development is to have a realistic view of who you are and what you do (or don’t do). When you act in ways that you at some level believe to be wrong, that is your true self. That is who you are. Don’t sweep it under the rug. If you can realistically assess your situation, then you can realistically start to deal with it.

And that’s the other side of this coin. I believe we can be reluctant to associate our actions with our true selves because the emotional weight of this is too much to bear. We want to be good Christians. We have genuinely converted and therefore believe that, ethically, we should look like Jesus. But we don’t.

If we don’t theologize this phenomenon away, the guilt and the doubt can be overwhelming. Are we really Christians at all? Did we really convert? Am I really a very selfish person who cares more about their own comfort than the welfare of others? Am I actually a pervert? Am I actually a racist? These are horrible things to entertain and, if they turned out to be true, would be crushing.

Before I get to the comforting part, I need to pile on just a little more. Sorry about that.

Reality is what it is, and it really doesn’t matter what you think or how you feel about it. Whatever actions you do, you are a person who does things like that. Whatever actions you don’t do, you are not a person who does things like that. It really doesn’t matter what you think you should be doing or not doing. It really doesn’t matter what explanations you concoct for why you aren’t the way you think you should be. It doesn’t matter how we theologically truss it up. Whatever explanations we come up for this disjuncture – Scriptural or otherwise – it exists.

But here’s the thing: when you have a realistic assessment of where you’re at, you can start doing things about it. The idea that “I’m better than this” can be very useful if it inspires me to better actions, but it can be very harmful if I don’t interpret that as, “I want to be better than this, and I’m going to try.”

The very struggle you may be feeling right now was shared by the Israelites who, after having been in exile under Babylon, were sent back to their homeland. In Nehemiah 8, we read an account where Ezra assembles the returnees and reads the Torah to them, educating them anew on what it meant to be an Israelite. Upon getting a realistic picture of who they were supposed to be and comparing that to who they actually were, they reacted pretty much like you and I would: they wept. The realization of the disparity between who they were supposed to be and who they actually were broke them. Keep in mind, these are not new converts. They are Jews and have been Jews for a very long time.

The reaction of Nehemiah and Ezra is a powerful one:

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

Nehemiah 8:9-12 (NRSV)

Well, that was unexpected.

As far as Nehemiah et al were concerned, coming to a true knowledge of the difference between what you ought to be and what you actually are is a cause for celebration. It is a holy thing that is special to the Lord. It is a pious act of faith to say, “God requires me to be this, but I am actually not that.”

And as far as Nehemiah is concerned, that’s an occasion to throw a big party. Coming to an honest realization of this disparity is an occasion to feel joy, and not just any joy, but joy that comes from the Lord.

The assumption here, of course, is that the people can now dedicate their lives to the pursuit of becoming the sort of people the Law requires. This realization of the disparity between who they are and who they are supposed to be is meant to be the basis for change, not a different type of harmful, passive comfort. “We’re all sinners, so I guess we can quit stressing out about that. Anyone got any idols on them?” No.

No, the waking up to the reality of our condition is meant to give us a desire for change and a map for what we need to work on. And if you find that you don’t actually desire to change (this is a VERY important thing to be honest with yourself about), then that should be a focus.

If I want to be a good basketball player, it does me no good to think of myself as a good basketball player in my heart while rarely playing basketball. I need to look at the disparity between what I am doing and what it means to be a good basketball player. I cannot change this situation simply by desiring it or saying a prayer about it (although prayer may be a part of my journey).

I have to start doing the things that will eventually produce a good basketball player. I have to start drilling, playing basketball, getting a coach, etc. I can’t do everything at once like an 80s movie training montage suggests. It’s going to take a great deal of time and incremental progress as a result of focusing on the right things I need to do right then.

It may turn out that I do not actually do those things. Then, again, I have to be honest with myself. I can’t say, “Well, I want to be a good basketball player, but I don’t practice because this that and the other thing.” The actual reality is that I only wish I were a good basketball player, but I don’t want to become one.

This is where I might focus my effort – figuring out why I seem to believe I want to be a good basketball player while not really wanting to do any of the things that would make me a good basketball player. I may need help understanding this. I may need to talk to other players who had this struggle; it’s not going to help me to talk to players who immediately gave their all in their pursuit of basketball, as inspiring as those stories may be to me. That’s not where I am.

Bringing this analogy back around to our morals and ethics. We may have to be honest with ourselves that we really don’t want to give up a behavior or do the work necessary to grow in a virtue. Again, and I can’t emphasize this enough, it does absolutely no good to keep telling yourself you “really” want these things in your heart when your actions are obviously so incommensurate with that. Just own up to it. But don’t despair because of it. It is a -good thing-, a -holy- and -joyous- thing to be completely honest with God, yourself, and ultimately others about where you’re actually at.

And if not wanting those things is unacceptable to you, then that’s where you can begin your work. I promise you that you will need to get someone else involved in that. You will not be able to manufacture those desires under your own power, because if you could, you would.

Your efforts may have to involve conversations with pastors, other believers, and counselors and therapists to really help you discover what is at the bottom of what you want and don’t want, what you do and don’t do, and what you might do about it. Some of these things may be relatively easy to tackle. Some will take decades. A few you might even take to your grave.

These things, however, are accommodated by the compassion of our Lord and our High Priest who sympathizes with us. You are not alone in your pursuit either in Heaven or on the Earth. God is your ally in this process, not a disapproving judge. We have all the best conditions for changing if we are willing to embrace them.

But it all starts with a courageous and radical honesty.

Christmas Is Not a Pagan Holiday

Happy Belated Christmas, everyone!

Around this time of year, the memes and comments start flowing around the Internet about how Christmas is the co-opting of a pagan holiday and various common practices we see at Christmas are vestigial pagan practices or deliberately maintained pagan practices designed to sort of “take over” these ancient practices with a Christian veneer.

I, too, thought this for a long time. In the Church’s historical missionary efforts, syncretism is not uncommon. When it comes to getting some headway into a society that already has an existing folk religion, one of the more effective things you can do is demonstrate how their folk religion is really yours or is at least compatible with yours, and you’re fleshing it out with fuller truth.

One could argue this is what the Apostle Paul does in Athens as told in Acts 17. He notes the religiosity of the people, notes some insights from their poets and playwrights, and explains to them the “unknown god” to whom they have built an altar, which is the God of Israel.

Whether you agree with this tactic or not, it shouldn’t bother anyone today if Christmas were meant to supplant native pagan beliefs and practices over a millennium ago. Nobody having a Christmas service today is thinking, “This’ll really rope in the Mithraic cults.”

For some time, I also thought Christmas was intended to displace pagan beliefs, holidays, and practices, and this didn’t particularly bother me other than noting that this was a pretty jerky thing to do nearly 2000 years ago in ancient Rome.

It turns out, however, that there doesn’t seem to be much historical support for the idea that Christmas is derived from pagan beliefs and practices.

One of the things that seriously challenged this notion I had was from an atheist – Tim O’Neill – who refers to this as one of the Great Myths that gets summoned in atheistic critiques of Christianity. The article deals primarily with the alleged similarities between Christmas and Mithraic beliefs and practices, but it also touches on other popular misconceptions.

This year, Tim revisited the theme, focusing a bit more on specific practices like Christmas trees, mistletoe, etc.

Both the articles are good reads (make sure you have a few minutes to spare) as are the links they contain.

How did this idea of Christmas being pagan get so pervasive? It’s not simply the pet belief of people angry with Christianity who will latch on to anything that makes it look bad. It’s more or less pop history. It’s such a common conception that it’s virtually the default. I even had one person, when I asked them for sources establishing the pagan roots of Christmas practices, say I was positing an “alternate history” and told me I had the burden of proof – even though I had only asked him for sources. The idea is that obviously Christmas is derived from pagan practices, and to even question it is seen as highly eccentric.

Historian Tom Holland suggests that this idea emerged from Christianity itself. Specifically, it was part of the Puritan criticism of holy days inherited from the Roman Catholic church. He does not cite any particular sources for this (this is a common issue with virtually every article going around the Internet discussing Christmas’ origins), but a case for this is made in Bruce Daniels’ Puritans at Play. The revelries around Christmas made them think of ancient pagan celebrations, so they just made the accusation that Christmas was a continuation of those practices.

Outside of the specific issue of Christmas’ pagan origins, what we see here is an important principle that is good to keep in mind, not just with history, but with everything we hear or read: the ability to come up with an explanation does not mean the explanation is true.

Driving out to visit my parents, yesterday, I drove by a homemade sign that read “Trump 2020 – Stolen Election.” Despite the consistent failure to produce any evidence of this by the very people who have a vested interest in Trump’s election, a fairly decent amount of people believe that he lost the election due to widespread fraud and conspiracy.

The story about widespread fraud has explanatory power. If Trump losing simply due to most Americans not wanting to re-elect him doesn’t make sense to you, the fraud story makes sense of it all. This is also behind the popularity of QAnon – there are stories here that “explain the truth” behind current events.

The problem is that almost anyone can come up with a theory or a narrative that, if true, would explain something. But the fact that a narrative explains something does not make it true, and similarities do not automatically imply connections.

For instance, take a list of thunder gods from various cultures and pick two. The similarities are such that you could come up with an explanation how one culture’s thunder god is an appropriation of another culture’s thunder god. But you can see how quickly this can become absurd.

I could argue, for instance, that the Mayan Chaac with his thunder-axe is very similar to Scandinavia’s Thor with his thunder-hammer, so obviously the Norse pantheon was heavily influenced by the Mayans. This has explanatory power and is also highly implausible. The idea that an ancient civilization on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico influenced the religion of a collection of islands half a world away is something that would require further argumentation.

It completely explains where Thor “really” came from, but there is absolutely no evidence for this, and anyone would rightly ask for such evidence in light of such an unlikely contention. It isn’t enough that my explanation explains things. I have to substantiate it.

We need to be very careful that we are not seduced by the power of a clever explanation. We need to be careful not to assume connections where there are similarities. This is true whether we’re looking at memes on the Internet, listening to a news story, talking with our neighbors, or reading a history book.

Sunday Meditations: The Prophetic and the Political

Well, I haven’t been able to get round to doing all the amazing things I wanted to do with the blog this week. A lot has been going on.

I’m not going to talk about the American Presidential election per se, but I do want to look at how modern-day prophecy has interacted with it and use it as a sort of jumping off point for thinking about the role prophecy has in the Bible. I want to get some thoughts out about the role of prophets and prophecy in the contemporary church – if there is such a role – and looking at what people who call themselves prophets have been doing might be illustrative.

If you’ve spent any time over at the Charisma Magazine website the past couple of weeks, you’ve noticed something interesting. A few weeks ago, there were a number of “prophets” stridently predicting the landslide victory of Donald Trump.

As this week has progressed, some of those posts have quietly vanished from the home page while others are picking up the strain that God will still give Donald Trump the election once all the alleged voting corruption has been exposed.

I will say one thing for all the leaders who prophesied a decisive Trump victory – they had the guts to make an actual prediction. They were wrong, but they actually said something empirically verifiable would happen.

This was a nice change from the kind of “prophecy” that is entirely unverifiable. This kind usually involves something happening in the “heavenly realms.” God is releasing angels of such and such to so and so. How could you ever know if that really happened or not? That kind of prophecy is mostly absent from the Scriptures. Where there is prophecy that unveils something happening in the heavenly realms, it is typically directly correlated to a visible outcome on Earth.

This is a common feature of most worldviews in the ancient Near East. Everything that happens in the empirical world has an invisible, spiritual side to it, and vice-versa. The occupation of Judea by the Roman Empire was the physical manifestation of the demonic occupation of Judea in the spiritual realm. Sicknesses, wars, famines, riches, births, deaths – all these realities of life had a spiritual facet to them and vice-versa.

One example of this might be 1 Kings 22, where Michaiah reveals to the king a scene in heaven where God asks for a spirit to volunteer to lie to the king’s prophets in order that he might receive favorable prophecies and be led into destruction. This is what the king’s prophets did, and his defeat is what happened. Although there was an invisible, spiritual component to the prophecy, it was connected with a particular concrete outcome.

As far as I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be any precedent in the Bible for prophecies that are purely “heavenly” in nature, like “God is about to release angels of blessing in 2021” or whatever.

On the other hand, it would be a mistake simply to define prophecy as predicting the future.

Prophets exercising their gifts of prophecy spend quite a bit of time outlining the shortcomings of the people and/or their leaders in light of the covenant they have made with God. If you crack open any of the books in the Old Testament that belong to “the Prophets,” you’ll find a rather large chunk of them dedicated to this. In most cases, the prophet is looking at national faithfulness, but there are times when the focus is specifically on the failures of an individual, such as Nathan’s clever accusations of David in 2 Samuel 12.

But even though this may occupy long stretches of prophecy, they are also tied to concrete outcomes in the future. Typically, the prophet depicts the terrible outcomes that come from unfaithfulness (or the great joys that will follow repentance) to the people using the most dramatic of imagery that the prophetic imagination can find to describe the scope and decisiveness of these outcomes. If you keep going down Path A, God will respond with terrible consequences. But if you turn away from Path A, you will ultimately be restored and rewarded.

It’s worth noting that, even though the imagery may be vibrant, it’s not ambiguous.

I can’t help but think here of Jonathan Cahn’s (what an unfortunate last name for that man) big prophecy that there would be “shakings” in 2020, and now he is gleefully pointing to things like COVID-19, BLM protests, etc. as evidence of his credibility as a prophet.

Wow. Really going out on a limb, there, Jon. Big things will happen in the course of a year. Hey, do you think there will be conflict in the Middle East, too?

This tack is most likely in response to his failed prophecy that “The Shemitah” would occur on September 13, 2015 bringing an end to the world as we know it. This did not happen, of course, so Cahn said the stock market selloff on August 18 of that year was what he must have been predicting.

I don’t want to chase this too far, but let me be clear in case anyone is reading this and vague on the subject: Jonathan Cahn is not a prophet nor a rabbi. He is consistently wrong and consistently fudges and lies and does whatever he needs to do to try to sound kind of right and sell his next book. He does not understand the Old Testament any better than your pastor does, and he has not found a secret code that predicts the future. He is a shyster. Stop buying his books.

So, to circle back around, the prophecy that we find in the Bible is:

  1. Ultimately tied to a concrete outcome for the audience, typically in the future.
  2. May heavily involve a level of exhortation as the audience’s lives and decisions are evaluated and future outcomes from them are projected, sometimes several generations into the future.
  3. Empirically verifiable, although, again, it might take a while.
  4. Often involves very dramatic and vibrant imagery to communicate the scope and decisiveness of future events.
  5. May be about specific individuals, especially as it leads to impacts on the larger audience

Conversely, prophecy is not:

  1. Completely “spiritual” and disconnected from any concrete, empirically verifiable outcome
  2. So ambiguous that you can stick virtually anything in there and make it work
  3. Only the act of exhortation from God’s word
  4. About squid demons

Ok, I threw that last one in there for fun, but seriously – there are not squid demons.

So, interestingly, the prophecies about Trump winning the election and what it might mean for the Church are kind of in line with the sorts of things we might expect from prophecy as it appears in the Bible. They are sort of a Spirit-led ability to look at a people’s present circumstances and project the outcomes.

It just so happens that virtually all those prophets were also wrong.

You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.

– Deuteronomy 18:21-22 (NRSV)

Sunday Meditations: For All the Saints

Today is Allhallowtide.

“For All the Saints” performed by the choir at King’s College

A few different liturgical holidays coalesce around this time, and you can follow the linked article above to learn more about them, but the upshot is that this is the time we reflect on the saints who have gone before us, especially the martyrs.

My family name comes from a saint who found himself on the wrong side of a succession war. He had his eyes removed and tongue cut out and, for this reason, is sometimes considered the patron saint of people with eye troubles, which is something I think about when I wear my reading glasses. Interestingly, another saint with whom my family is associated miraculously cured someone of blindness.

In the past years, learning about my ancestry has become important to me because I have learned just how much the past has shaped who we are. We are very much shaped by our parents, and they were very much shaped by theirs, and so on. Everyone in your ancestral chain has played a key role in shaping who you are, now. In turn, they were also shaped by their cultures and prevailing circumstances.

These things are not necessarily to be venerated, nor do we necessarily need to return to the good ol’ days of hunting wandering herds of reindeer or invading cities to take them away from monophysites, but we can understand ourselves when we see the broken roads our ancestors have walked before us.

I come from a Protestant tradition, so we don’t make too much of the saints and are usually discouraged from doing so.

I think this is unfortunate.

Granted, it is quite possible to make too much of the saints – to make them almost minor divinities. Little gods in a Christianized pantheon.

But for all its good points, the Protestant Reformation was not really characterized by measured and nuanced reflection and evaluation, especially as other leaders began to hop on the Luther Train, and instead of carefully considering what value there may have been in the richness of our Roman Catholic tradition, there was a big effort to simply excise it, especially as time went on. The saints and the feasts associated with them may be one of those things.

Because, you see, there is nothing superhuman about our saints. Quite the opposite, really. They also sinned as we do. They also had their crises of faith and doubt. They were also products of their cultures. They were also afraid.

But they show us what faith makes possible, even in the lives of people like you and me. We discover that great moments in the history of faith are really simply regular people doing the best they can when they find themselves in particular circumstances. I doubt most of the saints had any notion that they might be canonized, someday. They just did what they thought was right.

As it turns out, their ten seconds of courage and faithfulness were enough to direct the stream of history from one direction to another. For every saint we might look up to, there are 999 others who simply made different decisions and changed nothing. But in the course of history, we find these women and men who were brave at just the right moment for just the right amount of time. They made a decision based on faith at a time when it truly cost them something, which is in itself an act of faith, believing that the outcome of their action would mean something greater than the cost because it was done for the sake of Christ.

The emphasis on martyrs reminds us of the special place martyrs are given by the New Testament – so much so that we may be a little quick on the draw to apply passages generically to all Christians that may be a little more focused on dealing with Christians who are at the time being persecuted and martyred. Those who have died in faithful service to God are given a special place in the New Testament writings not shared by others; make of that theologically what you will.

It’s encouraging, you know, because they weren’t any more or less personally equipped to do those things than you are or I am. It’s just a matter of having those ten seconds of courage to say the thing that needs to be said or do the thing that needs to be done, then accept the outcomes in humility.

Also, as we look at those who have gone before us, we see that they and their societies survived worse things than, say, Donald Trump – even a Donald Trump who gets elected for another four years.

This is not to say that the circumstances that face us today are somehow trivial in light of what other societies have faced in history. Rather, it just goes to show that there are always crises. Our ancestors had theirs as well. This time is no more catastrophic or world-ending than other periods in history. I believe it is healthy to recognize on the one hand how important our current issues are and to actively engage them in faith, and on the other hand realize that we are living through nothing that is not common with those who have gone on before us.

It does not take long, for instance, to think of global health crises that put COVID-19 to shame or political leaders to whom, hyperbole and rhetoric aside, we’d prefer Donald Trump. That does not mean COVID-19 isn’t serious or that Donald Trump isn’t terrible. It just means that our ancestors lived through these sorts of things as well. I personally find that comforting, but maybe that’s just more disturbing depending on how you look at it.

So, today, if you are in a tradition that doesn’t particularly do anything about saints, you might explore it a little. Is there a saint in your family tree? Did your parents or grandparents talk about a saint? If you don’t have a particular saint who has meant something to your past that you can tell, find a list of them and choose one that seems interesting.

What do their lives demonstrate to you? What lessons do they teach you? What characteristics do they encourage you to cultivate and demonstrate in your life? What did they do in their circumstances that are analogous to your own? Did they write anything that you could read this afternoon? Do they have a feast day coming up where you might round up your Christian buddies and read a couple of things about them over some beer and bread?

We are definitely shaped by those who have gone before us. They are not always to be emulated, but they always have something to teach us.

By way of announcement, I will be making some changes to this blog in the near future. It might even look different.

When I began the blog, it was mostly so I could write devotionals from a narrative historical perspective, and that was mostly so I could work through some texts. I wrote almost every day and just went systematically through Matthew, getting about a third or so through the book.

Honestly, this became something of a slog, and I went through a pretty dry period where I wrote virtually nothing.

Now, I’m feeling more of a desire to write again, but I don’t want to turn it into a chore, so while the blog will still be focused on a narrative historical perspective, I’m going to open up the content a little. The devotions may or may not have a particular sequence. I may talk about general topics or current events (much like these Sunday Meditations) or review books or put together lists of helpful resources. It’ll be more like a blog with a particular topical focus than a blog with a very specific type of content.

I hope that doesn’t put anyone off, but if you’re reading this, you haven’t been put off so far. I will definitely continue to write devotionals about specific passages and talk about specific things in the Bible, but I just want to be able to be a little freer about content and sequence in the hopes that I will write more often.

To that end, I may move things around, change the look, and recategorize some things. Don’t be alarmed, and please let me know if I change something and you liked the old way better.

On occasion, the old ways are better.