Sunday Meditations: The Antichrist

This past week, I read a rather popular (but two year old) blog post over on Patheos: “7 Important Verses About the Antichrist.”  You’d think a post like that made during the first gearing up of the candidates who would be participating in the primary elections would be making a certain statement, but it was also published by the sort of people who probably voted for the winner, so I’m not sure what to think about all that.  Maybe “The Antichrist” just came up in the topic rotation or whatever.

In any case, they were the usual suspects.  2 Thessalonians 2:3-4.  Daniel 7:25.  Revelation 13.  So on.  All of them were from the point of view that these disparate passages in very different books written at very different times by very different people were all talking about the same person – an apocalyptic figure in the distant future who will catalyze the events that usher in the end of the world.

I even had to chuckle a bit, because 1 John 2:18 was included in the list, and the author reflected how horrifying it was to contemplate that other, lesser antichrists had come into the world, all foreshadowing the Big Bad Future Antichrist.  Talk about bringing your assumptions to a text.  It reminds me of when I heard one of my premillennial brothers talking about the Olivet Discourse, and he looks up and says, “This sounds just like the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  So, we know these future events will be just as bad as that.”

If you are a regular reader of this blog, I probably don’t have to explain to you the inherent weaknesses of taking passages from such very different time periods, authors, and concerns, and assuming they are all talking about the same person.  The same person who will not be around for 2000 years and counting, no less.  Sometimes, I catch a little flak for making a big deal about the dis-unity of the Bible, but I think in conservative circles, we really need the constant reminder that the Bible is a collection of assembled texts.  Whatever your doctrine of inspiration is or isn’t, there is no denying that people wrote these things at different times with different events on their horizons, and it was only much later that these writings were collected into canonical groupings. That’s not to say those collections are wrong; but it’s just – these are the facts of how the Bible came into existence.  The Bible as a book has more of the characteristics of an anthology of writings around common topics and themes than it has as a textbook or novel or something else we think of a single, continuous work.

Likewise, when we have Daniel talking the coming political turmoil for Israel through a succession of four empires, or Paul talking about a “man of sin” whom the Thessalonians “know what is now restraining him” (nobody ever quotes that part of the passage), or the author of 1 John telling his readers that they, specifically, are in the last hour because antichrists have come who “went out from us,” or one of the heads of the Beast who also urges worship of the Beast – it is seriously problematic to assume all of these are talking about the same person.  In fact, there are exactly zero reasons to think these passages are all talking about the same person.  There are less than zero reasons to think these passages are talking about the same person in the far distant future long after all the original readers would be dead.

It goes to show how powerful our stories are in shaping the narrative of Scripture and not the other way around.  The only passages where the word “antichrist” is even used are the five in 1 John and 2 John, and both passages identify the “antichrist” as someone who denies that Jesus is the promised Messiah who has come in the flesh, and that the people who did this were the people the early church was currently experiencing.

That is it.  End of story.  Fin.  There is nowhere else in the entire Bible that an “antichrist” is ever mentioned.  The only way we get an Antichrist with a capital A is by cobbling him together like Frankenstein’s monster from a loose collection of passages that span literally centuries between them.

Our preterist brothers and sisters would probably want to close with that comment.  Anyone portrayed as some prolifically evil, age-ending character in the Bible has come and gone.  For Daniel, it was Antiochus Epiphanes.  For John and Paul, it was probably Nero or Trajan or Domitian or really take your pick depending on when you think those writings were actually written and by whom – most of the Caesars around that time would fit just fine.  The passages about “the antichrist” are very well defined by the message of the persecutors of the early church.  The whole thing is over with, can we please talk about something else?

And I would say that, speaking strictly from the scope of the biblical writings, that is more or less correct.

But as we think about the story of the church in the world, today, we also need to take into account the fact that these socio-political forces at work in post-exilic Israel are still at work in some form or fashion.  There are still empires that still run according to the values that make them run – greed, ruthlessness, the strong crushing the weak, the “haves” getting more and the “have nots” getting less, fame, wealth, prestige, esteem – whatever.  And these empires will have their leaders and their figureheads.  And these people will want your loyalty, all in the name of loyalty to the empire they represent.

And will they spout blasphemies against the Most High?  And will they afflict the saints?  Yes, they will.  Some of them will do it overtly.  Some will do it covertly.  Some will even pretend to be saints themselves so that they can more effectively deceive, if possible, even the elect.  While the characters described by Daniel and Paul may be in the ground, the animus that drove them is not done yet and is alive all over the world in big and small ways.

I would offer that it is part of the prophetic ministry of the church to identify this, call it out for what it is, come out of it, and fight it not with swords, but with the sword of the Spirit – being a new creation community that shows the world that people full of the Spirit can voluntarily live in a system that does not need fear or violence or selfishness or arrogance.

Will everyone want to get on board with a community like that?  No, in fact, its very existence will be an affront to those who love their empires of Nothing and have made themselves powerful in them.  But as the years go by, more and more people see the endless risings and fallings of these empires and the devastation they leave in the world and in the lives of individuals.  They will come if we have built it.  Bit by bit over time, until the mustard seed that became a tree becomes a forest.

But first, we need to be it.  Are we?  That is how we will fight our antichrists.

Before Abraham Was: John 8:48-59

The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”  Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon; but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.  Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and he is the judge. Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.”  The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon.  Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, ‘Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.’  Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died?  The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?”  Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, ‘He is our God,’ though you do not know him. But I know him; if I would say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.”  Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”  Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

John 8:48-59 (NRSV)

Who are the real children of Abraham?

This has been the point of discussion immediately prior to this passage, which is part of a longer discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees in which the Pharisees are trying to discredit Jesus after he creates a schism in the crowds – some of whom are claiming that Jesus is the promised Messiah.  The Pharisees are trying to show that this isn’t the case.

By the time we get down to this passage, the Pharisees have asserted their pedigree and the inapplicability of Jesus’ judgments and warnings because they are descendants of Abraham.

Jesus argues that they are not, because when Abraham heard from God, he believed what God had to say and acted in accordance with that.  Instead, they are more like descendants of the devil because they are lying to the people about Jesus and trying to kill him.

This is important.  The Pharisees who can claim a biological connection to Abraham are portrayed as not true descendants because they do not share Abraham’s faith.  Their physical birth is irrelevant; what matters is whether or not they truly share Abraham’s faith and, therefore, truly inherit the promises made to Abraham.  We see this theme crop up back when Jesus is talking to Nicodemus in John 3 – saying that ethnic Israelites must be “born again” to see the kingdom.  Nicodemus gets confused, stuck on the idea of a literal birth rather than the holistic renewal of the nation.

Then we get to our passage, where Jesus reiterates that God will confirm his message, that God is the judge, and those who believe Jesus as a Word from God will not be destroyed by God’s judgement.

The Pharisees of this chapter, much like Nicodemus five chapters earlier, get really hung up on the literal meaning of “taste death.”  Because Abraham died.  The prophets all died.  Is Jesus saying that he is greater than these patriarchs and prophets who died?

Jesus makes it clear that he is not trying to proclaim his own greatness, but rather that God glorifies Jesus.  The Pharisees claim to follow this God, but by trying to discredit Jesus, they are showing their true allegiances.  Jesus, by contrast, is being faithful to God and “keeps his word.”

In this sense, Abraham rejoiced to see this day.  Abraham received the promise and the covenant, but Abraham did not see these things fulfilled in his day – during his literal existence on the earth.  As the author of Hebrews tells us of the patriarchs: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”

Abraham begins God’s great work of new creation and is the man whose family became a nation who were meant to be all the things God hoped for it.  He did not see this actually happen, however.  He died looking forward to that day.

Jesus has come to make that day happen.  He is the one who will restore the fallen kingdom.  He is the one who will resurrect a nation where YHWH will be their God and they will be His people.  And, strangest of anything, all the old boundaries that defined ethnic Israel as this people will be torn down, so that even Gentiles who share Abraham’s faith will be welcomed into the people of God.

Think about the ramifications of that.  Gentiles who share Abraham’s faith will receive the fulfillment of his promises, but ethnic descendants of Abraham who do not share his faith will not.

Jesus has brought about this great, new day of the kingdom.  He is about this work, and God the judge will vindicate and glorify him.  Abraham longed for this.  And Jesus asserts his superiority in that great statement:

“Before Abraham was, I am.”

Jesus places himself before Abraham.  He is more important, more prominent, because he is bringing about the great day that Abraham longed to see – the fulfillment of the promise.  Abraham died without seeing it, but Jesus will bring it to completion, ushering in a new age of Israel’s survival, growth, and dominion under Jesus as the king.  God the judge will rule in favor of Jesus and faithful Israel and against her oppressors.  God’s faithful will burst all boundaries, rolling out of Judea and throughout the Greco-Roman world, and as we have witnessed, the entire globe.  Jesus is the keystone of this whole, great, apocalyptic rolling forward of God and His people in history.

The Pharisees beg to differ.  You don’t get to say that you’re everything Abraham hoped for, and therefore are greater.  They pick up stones to kill him for blasphemy, and he sneaks out.  These are the charges that will follow Jesus from the religious power structure in Jerusalem.  He speaks against Moses.  He speaks against the Law.  He speaks against the Temple.  He speaks against our traditions.  At every turn is Jesus making the claim that he has brought the fulfillment of these things, and at every turn his opposition wants to cling to them and exalt them.  They have gotten these people to where they are, after all.

But God is behind this movement of history, and He will not be stopped.  Abraham and Moses died (although they will live again).  The Temple will fall.  The Law will pass away.  But what Jesus will accomplish will stand forever.

Consider This

  1. What were the promises made to Abraham?  How did they end up being fulfilled in the actual history of the world?
  2. If, like me, you are a Gentile, consider that Abraham’s story is your story.  Consider that you got here because of Abraham’s faith and the faithfulness of his descendants.  Consider that God did not have to include you in His people, but He chose to out of love for you, humanity, His creation, and being faithful to His promises to a man long ago.  This is something to be thankful for.

Cleansing Us: Matthew 8:1-4

When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

Matthew 8:1-4 (NRSV)

The next thing to follow the Sermon on the Mount is a healing miracle – the purification of a severe disease that manifested itself in the skin.

The backdrop for this story are the laws laid out in Leviticus 13-14.  A leper is declared unclean, must announce to passerby that he is unclean, and is not permitted to live among the rest of Israel.

The leper, then, represents in his own body the very people out of whom Jesus would renew Israel – the poor, the sinners, the outcast – those whom Israel’s leadership would declare outside the covenant community and cursed by God.

But what we find in Matthew is that these are also the very groups of people that have faith in Jesus as opposed to those who are rich, fastidious observers of the Law, and the accepted and well-off.  It is this faith that brings these people into Jesus’ orbit, and when that happens, they are restored.  Sinners are forgiven.  Hungry are fed.  Possessed are liberated.  Even the dead will rise.

And that is what we see here – this man who has been exiled from the community normally defined as “clean” and “faithful” comes to Jesus in faith, and Jesus cleanses him.  He is clean.  He is an Israelite in full communion with God’s people.

Leviticus 14 spells out offerings that are to be made by and to the priests when a leper is healed, and Jesus instructs the man to go to the priest and do these things “as a testimony to them.”  This isn’t just Jesus making sure a legal obligation is fulfilled; he wants this man to show up in front of the priest as a healed leper – which probably did not happen very often – as a testimony to the priest.  The priest would know that Jesus is the catalyst for lepers being healed.

There are certainly passages in the Old Testament that connect the repentance and restoration of Israel with healing.  Perhaps most pertinent is Hosea 6, where the prophet observes that the foreign powers Israel tries to find comfort in will actually tear her apart.  Upon realizing this:

“Come, let us return to the Lord;
for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth.”

Hosea 6:1-3 (NRSV)

This is what Jesus is doing.  He is coming to repentant Israel, hurt and disillusioned by her fate at the hands of Rome, and is raising her up.  The leper is a sign of this.  He is the good news in flesh and bone to the lost of Israel.  The longed for kingdom is at hand, following Jesus around in a slowly expanding sphere, and you find the signs of it everywhere he goes, just as the prophets expected.

And the priest the leper goes to – perhaps he is a faithful priest like Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist) longing for the restoration of Israel.  Perhaps he got his job as an appointment from the Roman Empire or being friends with all the “right” people.  In either case, the healed leper showing up on their doorstep will announce this event loud and clear, and how they respond will depend largely on where they have placed their trust.  Perhaps the priest will rejoice to see this day.  Perhaps the priest will decide Jesus and his movement need to be put down before it gets out of hand.  We certainly see both in the gospels.

What would such healings mean today?  We are on the far side of faithful Israel being restored and being made a new people along with faithful Gentiles.  If God chooses to heal someone in a significant fashion, what might that communicate?

Context is certainly key.  The reason the healed leper would be meaningful to a priest (and Matthew’s readers) is because of the context in which the healing occurs.  There is no published Guide to Signs and Wonders to let everyone know that, when you see a healed leper, it means that the Old Testament hopes for Israel are being realized in Jesus Christ.  That is an interpretation witnesses would make because of both the prior story of the Scriptures as well as the present circumstances that surrounded them.

Perhaps, like our spiritual forefathers in first century Israel, a faith community in another country going through a similar political circumstance of oppression would see miraculous healings as a sign that God was with them and was moving to change their situation in the near future.  Maybe that’s why we tend to hear about such miracles much more commonly in remote mission fields than in the American suburbs.  It is a sign of the coming victory of God and restoration of the faithful in the face of oppression and deprivation.

Perhaps, in another community, a miraculous healing might occur to show that God has not left them – that they are still part of His people and He is present and at work even if He appears to be silent or distant.

But I think a message that is communicated through healing far more commonly occurs in the care, concern, and mission of those who are about the work of comfort and healing against the ravages of disease and injury.  Whether we are talking about the person who encourages a hospice patient in France or a trained physician doing eye exams and surgery in the mountains of Mexico.  This is also a testimony to a watching world: a testimony that there is a world where injury and disease do not plague humanity – a new creation that will be worldwide and now exists as pockets of resistance and renewal.  It is a testimony that we will heal the world because that is the world God wants and will have, and He has brought us into this project through faith in His Son.

Consider This

  1. What are the grounds on which we decide someone is unclean or outside the community of faith, regardless of the condition of their heart.  Are those good grounds?  Why?
  2. Have you witnessed a healing that is difficult to explain through the normal processes of healing that we’re used to?  What did that experience impress upon you?

Sunday Meditations: Jewish Expectations

I’ve been reading through Kingdom Conspiracy by Scot McKnight.  Although I wouldn’t sign off on everything in it, I highly recommend it.  It is a very good popular, easy to read, evangelical introduction into the critical questions that have been posed by scholars like Sanders, Wright, and Dunn in the past several years and the implications for how Jesus would have been heard by first century Jews and what impact that should have on our own formulations about biblical teaching, the Gospel, and so on.

One thing that came up in the book is something that comes up rather a lot in evangelical discussions about the Jews of Jesus’ day, and that is the notion that the Jews of Jesus’ day had inaccurate expectations and/or grossly misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ mission.

The idea behind this is that the Jews of Jesus day were longing for the restoration of Israel and the overthrow of oppression.  Hence, they expected Jesus would raise an army and kick Rome out.  Instead, what happened was that Rome killed Jesus, and even in the wake of the resurrection, Rome’s power was firmly ascendant and the corrupt Temple officials who were complicit in the death of Jesus still had their old jobs.

Faced with this seeming contradiction between expectations and outcomes, the evangelical story tends to respond something like this:

  1. While the Jews of Jesus’ day expected a political liberation, Jesus actually came to secure a spiritual liberation.  Instead of being set free from Rome, believers are set free from sin and death.  The deliverance from judgement Jesus speaks of is not a historical, political outcome of YHWH moving against world powers with other world powers, but rather refers to the final destiny of the soul in Heaven or Hell.
  2. The passages that are clearly “earthly” in nature, such as Matthew 24, do not refer to imminent historical events, but rather the “End Times” preceding a final judgement of the whole world and the end of the space-time continuum as we know it.

And you can understand how this happens.  The Old Testament prophecies and pattern of God’s working in history would lead anyone to believe that the deliverance and judgement Israel hoped for in the first century would be a historical, political event that would take the form it always had – one world power’s army defeating another.

When this clearly doesn’t happen in Jesus’ ministry, and in fact he seems to be against wielding traditional military power against Rome, we have to do something with this lest God be a liar or His purposes be thwarted.  The tendency, then, is to allegorize the whole affair as spiritual and/or push it all to some events in the distant future that have yet to happen.

The side effect of this, then, is that we narrate the Jews as being wholly mistaken in their expectations.  They thought they would be delivered from their political enemies, but really they were being delivered spiritually, and they consistently misunderstood that.

I think this narrative is incorrect, unfair, and probably has a certain amount of its origins in the anti-Semitism of some of the early church fathers.

If we look at the trajectory of Israel’s story from Jesus going forward, we find that, historically, these things did come to pass in a historical, political manner.  Rome shattered the compromised power structure in Jerusalem mere decades after Jesus’ execution.  They did not stay in place forever.  Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet predicted their downfall in a coming judgement, and this is more or less what happened, and it happened in a format that would have been quite familiar to Ezekiel or Isaiah or Jeremiah – God brings a world power to bear to deliver His people from oppression and judge the oppressors.  It just so happens that, in this case, both the oppressed and the oppressors are Israelites.

The situation is analogous to Isaiah 9-10, and both Jesus and his biographers are not shy about using Isaiah’s words to describe his own situation.  In those early chapters of Isaiah, YHWH wishes to free his people from their enemies and restore them as a nation through a period of repentance and renewal.  To accomplish this, YHWH will use Assyria, who will smash the other nations as well as Israel, herself.  But when this is done and YHWH will have established His faithful in this way, He will turn his judgement onto Assyria, because even though Assyria accomplished His purposes, they did so purely out of arrogance, idolatry, spite, and a lust for power and blood.

We see a comparable scenario, at least from the theological perspective of the first century, playing out.  The corrupt power structure that rules Israel from Jerusalem is going to come down so YHWH can deliver and restore Israel through a period of repentance and renewal.  This is part of the theological explanation of the events of 70 A.D.  There are other things that happen to make this possible, such as the continuation of faithful Israel as a people that also includes faithful Gentiles who hear what YHWH is doing, have faith in His Messiah, and come to worship Him.  God resurrects His fallen people, and this is a concrete historical event.  It is not just something that occurs in the human heart, but rather establishes the kingdom of God as a physical, embodied reality throughout the known world.

But what about Rome?  Wasn’t Jesus supposed to conquer Rome?

Well, have you seen Rome for the past 18 centuries or so?  Do you think Jesus made any inroads into Rome or what?

Once again, though the movements of politics and history, the unheard of happens – Caesar professes that Jesus Christ is Lord of the Empire.  Those who persecuted the faithful of YHWH find themselves in prison, in exile, or put to the sword.  This is not to say Christendom was a terrific idea or that everything went well or even that Jesus would have liked it.  It does demonstrate, however, that Jesus’ conquest of Rome was a political and historical reality that radically changed the face of the Roman Empire and the course of world history for centuries to come.

It is true that Jesus did not take up arms against Rome, and he encouraged his followers to do the same.  It is also true that Rome executed him.  In that sense, we might say that Jesus went about the mission of being the Messiah in unexpected ways.

But the outcomes were not outcomes that showed the Jewish hopes to be mistaken.  If anything, they validated those hopes.  Yes, the mechanisms did not fit the expectations of an armed insurrection.  Yes, some of the time frames bled out beyond the production of most if not all of the New Testament.  Yes, the kingdom of God ended up dispersed throughout the world and is no longer defined by a particular nation or form of government.  Yes, the ongoing survival and prosperity of faithful Israel involved becoming a new people that included Gentiles.  In these ways and perhaps others, we could point out that some expected things to be different.

But the hoped-for liberation of God’s people, the judgement against their oppressors, and the resurrection of faithful Israel were not mistakes and were not relegated to “spiritual realities” or some cosmic dissolution at the end of time, but were concrete historical outcomes that may have had their share of novelties, but also stood in strong continuity with Old Testament hopes and patterns.