The Mark of The Beast

Revelation 13:16-17

16 And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:

17 And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

 

 

There are many different kinds of writing in the Bible.

 

There are, for example, poetic works, prophetic works, histories and letters.  If we are to understand a biblical text; if we are to get the most out of it; we must come to it recognizing the kind of writing it is.  Thus, we don’t come to the Psalms expecting a lesson in physics.  The Psalms are songs and thus are often poetic and use metaphor to convey truth.  When we read in the Psalms that God “rides on the wings of the wind” we do not conclude that the wind actually has a set of wings.  Because we know we are reading poetry we recognize that the description is metaphorical and communicates the swiftness and majesty of God at work in the world.

Another type of writing we see in the Bible is so-called “apocalyptic” writing.   When you hear the word “apocalypse” these days, what is the first image that comes to mind?  I’m willing to bet that for most people, that first thought has to do with disaster of unimaginable proportion.   You know, like the ending of the first Ghostbusters movie:

Dr. Peter Venkman: This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.

Mayor: What do you mean, “biblical”?

Dr. Raymond Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.

Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.

Dr. Raymond Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!

Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…

Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!

Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

Mayor: All right, all right! I get the point!

 

 

In fact, even Merriam-Webster defines the word “apocalypse” as “a great disaster: a sudden and very bad event that causes much fear, loss, or destruction.”

But – and you must have known I was going to say this – that is not the original meaning of the word.  The word “apocalypse” is Greek in origin and it literally means “uncovering.”   Thus, an apocalyptic writing, such as the biblical Book of Revelation, is one that aims to draw back the curtain on obvious and superficial appearances and expose the spiritual realities beneath it all.  Thus, the primary focus of such a work is on revealing the true nature of what is present or immediate, with far less emphasis on what may happen in the distant future.

While it cannot be denied that the Book of Revelation does speak of the end of history and the final consummation of God’s perfect kingdom, if we treat that as the sole focus of the book and lose sight of what the book had to say about the immediate circumstances the original audience of the book – the churches to which the book is expressly addressed –faced even as they read the letter, then we are far from doing justice to the work and far from receiving the insight and encouragement it may provide.

We must admit that there are mysteries about the Book of Revelation.  The precise meaning of many of the individual symbols used in the book has been lost over the centuries. But the point is not to speculate about the meaning of this or that detail, but instead to focus on the central and overarching message of the book.

One thing that is not mysterious about the book is the identity of its original audience.  In fact, we may fairly think of this book as a letter that is still in its postmarked, addressed envelope.  We have the advantage of knowing who wrote the letter, who it was written to and the approximate time that the letter was sent.

The book itself identifies the writer as the Apostle John and the intended recipients as the seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).  There can be little doubt that the book was written late in the first century A. D.  It may have been the last of the New Testament books to have been written.

What does that well-established information do for the contemporary reader?  I suggest that it does a lot.  For the first principle in interpreting and understanding the book is the principle of original intelligibility.  That is, we must begin our study of the book with the idea that it would have been intelligible – it would have had obvious meaning – to its first audience.

Many of the contemporary and popular interpretations  point to passages in the book as references to this, that or the other historical event, all of which occurred long after the churches to whom this Book was written were history themselves.    It is almost as if they assume that when the first-century churches received this letter from John that they could not have had any real idea about what the book was talking about.  You can imagine a bunch of first-century Christians in Philadelphia or Laodicea puzzling over the letter, saying to each other “Okay, we understand bits of this, but a great amount of it is totally impenetrable for us.  It must be aimed at generations hundreds of years in the future.”

I hope you see how silly this is.  This Book, by its very terms, is written directly to particular churches and if we are to begin to understand it at all, we must start by thinking about what John intended it to convey to them.

We’ve spent a good deal of time talking about that very thing in this class.  We’ve referred to the works of Eugene Peterson (Reversed Thunder) and Vernon Poythress (The Returning King) that approach the book in this way and offer compelling explanations about what many of the symbols in the book would have been immediately recognized as by those Christians in Asia Minor, to whom the book was addressed.

Two of those symbols – the “Land Beast” and the “Sea Beast” we recognized as – in reverse order – coercive government power and the apologists who supported that power.  In the first century, the coercive government power would have been Caesar, the Roman Emperor, who in that day demanded to be worshipped as a deity.  The Land Beast represented the magicians, false religionists and other sycophants who worked hand in hand with the government to project the image that the Emperor was in fact divine.

If we understand the book in this way, we can apply its meaning to every age, including our own.  For although the names and flags change over the generations, it is the recurrent impulse of leaders and governments to demand more than is legitimately theirs: to demand absolute allegiance from citizens and subjects.

 

 

Such a knuckling under to coercion is symbolized in the book as the taking on of the mark of the beast.

In this week’s passage we read that those who refused to bear the beast’s marking; in other words, those who refused to compromise their faith in God and their loyalty to him were forbidden to “buy or sell.”

If we understand the book in this way, we can see that the spiritual forces John describes play out in every generation.

During the twentieth century the great Sea Beast reared its head in the ideologies of Fascism and Communism.  Both movements demanded total control – the total commitment and subservience of the men and women under their jurisdiction

Whittaker Chambers, an American intellectual, fell under the spell of Communism early in the 20th century.  After more than a decade in active service to the Beast, he realized the error of his ways and his own need for God.  He thus deserted the Communist party and converted to Christianity.  He knew there would be repercussions.  He writes in his autobiographical book, Witness:

One form of attack the Communist Party invariably makes upon all ex-Communists, big or little.  It tries to make it impossible for them to live by preventing them from getting a job.  If they succeed in getting one, the party tries to make it impossible for them to keep it.  This is very easy [for them] to do.

There we have it.  Chambers removes from his forehead the mark of the beast – his membership in the Communist party and his total allegiance to the revolution – and the penalty the Beast tries to impose is to deny him the means of a living – the ability to buy and sell.

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: Witness, by Whittaker Chambers

I am writing while standing on my back deck in the middle of an electrical storm.

 

I’m cozy and dry under this roof and I hear the rain tattering on the slates above and the lawn below.  It’s not a violent storm, at least not right here, right now.  There is an occasional flash of distant lightning and then the accordant, low roll of thunder, coming near and then trailing off to the west.

I absolutely love these warm, summer rains.  This one is gentle enough for me to take in this way, only a few feet away from the rainfall itself, and I feel in the moment like I am somewhere far away in the mists of highland Scotland or on some outpost in the Brazilian rain-forest.  When the storm escalates and I see the leaves nodding and the grass soaking and the dimpling sheets of clear water rinsing street and walk and the stream out back rising in its flow I am reminded again that rain is a sign of God’s blessing.  I guess what most of us remember about rain in the Bible is the Great Flood, brought on, so the scripture tells, by forty days and nights of rain.

But there are other references.  Here is one of God’s promises to Israel, if they will keep His commandments:

[I] will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil . . .

The rain, when it falls in buckets as it is doing now, reminds me of God’s abundance, His power and His ability and desire to bless us, over and above even our own imaginings.    There is one place in scripture where God tells the priests to “bring the tithe into the storehouse” and, in response, He will “open the very sluices of heaven and pour down on us a blessing so great” that (this last bit is from a Scottish paraphrase) “we can scarce receive it.”

It’s a great time to write.

Which, if you are a follower of this blog, you know I have not been doing very faithfully these last few days.  Sorry about that.  I really do appreciate my followers and make it something of a point to try to deliver something pretty regularly to keep up the interest in this blog.  Kind of lax there, lately.  But I do have an excuse:  I’ve been reading.  Filling the mind and soul with the thoughts and emotions of one great man.  Any writer must do this often.

If you’ve kept up here, you know that I’ve been on something of a Bob Dylan kick lately.  I am a lifelong fan of his and very much interested in his spiritual life and in the way he creates.  The two books I have just finished – Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life and Chronicles, Volume I – address both of those subjects in satisfying depth.

I won’t say much else about those two books in this post.  I’ve reviewed them pretty fully in my last few posts here.  I do recommend that you read them – particularly if you have any interest in Dylan’s life or work.

But today I want to talk about another book that is of another order entirely.  I recommend the Dylan books, but I beg you to read this one.  It is by any measure a masterpiece and there is a good argument to be made that it is the seminal book of the American twentieth century.

The book I’m reading is titled Witness, and it is written by a man named Whittaker Chambers.

Product Details

 

I had heard of the book years ago through the writers of some political and social commentators I used to read.  Their praise of the book was effusive.  These men, all of whom had made names for themselves as writers, all pointed to this book as “life changing.”  And now, only about a quarter of the way through the book, I know why this is no exaggeration.

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Whittaker Chambers was, during the 1930s, a Communist.

Image result for whittaker chambers

 

 

He was active for years in an underground operation in Washington, D. C., working with several American citizens who held high positions in the Federal Government to steal and copy official documents and provide them to the Soviet Union in preparation for the war that, so they believed, would inevitably come.

In 1938, in response to what he learned of the so-called “Great Purge,”  Chambers lost faith in Communism and saw it as the great, enslaving, murderous evil that it is.   At that moment he decided to desert the party, even though he knew that such desertions usually ended in the deserter being killed.  He also then believed that the Communists would be successful in undermining the west and achieving world domination.  Upon his decision to desert, he told his wife: “You know, we’re going from the winning to the losing side here.”

His desertion was also a conversion to faith in God.  That is no mere coincidence, as he describes it, for he says that Communism is itself a faith.   It is a faith that says first of all that the world must be changed and, second, that humanity can accomplish that change without the aid of God, without reference to God.  Thus, any sort of tactic can be justified in pursuit of the ultimate goal of perfect justice.  One such tactic was Stalin’s Great Purge that resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Russians and eastern Europeans, many of whom were themselves active Communists but had been determined to not be loyal enough to Comrade Stalin.

One of the many strengths of this book is its description and definition of Communism.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union over twenty-five years ago, the idea of Communism has become kind of a Seinfeld joke.  But it was no joke in the early and mid-20th century.  This book, written by a man who had seen the movement from both the inside and out, explains the phenomenon clearly.  He tells of its psychology and its attraction.

And its attraction, even here in the United States, was much greater and pervasive than I had ever imagined.  I thought of American Communists as a few, crazed radicals who, even taken all together, never posed much of a threat to our freedoms, our constitutional system of government, our individual rights.  I don’t believe that now.

Chambers, as an operative for the Soviet Union, worked hand in hand with Americans from well-to-do families who had been to our best colleges and who held lucrative and powerful positions in government for the express purpose of undermining that government and subordinating our democratic institutions to the control of party bosses.  This was business as usual, for years on end.

It is a scarier story than I knew; a closer call than I ever believed.  It is worthwhile to consider this structure, at one time gigantic, that had for its floor human arrogance and for its ceiling an accordant naivete.

 

I’ll have more to say as I make my way through the book.

What Are We Waiting For?

 

We talked this Sunday about what a big part of life waiting is.

 

We must wait for this and that, it’s inevitable and usually not enjoyable.  We wait, but we wait impatiently.  We also talked a bit about how central the idea of waiting is to our faith – the Christian faith.  We wait for the promised Second Coming, when all will be set to rights:  perfect justice, complete fulfillment, full adoption as sons of God, every tear wiped away.

Yep.  That’s what we are waiting for.  And we – the church – have been waiting for that for around 2000 years now.  But are we waiting for anything else?  Someone in class mentioned the idea that we’re waiting for death, so that we can enter heaven.  Well, yes.  I guess so.  Paul wrote that to him “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  But are we waiting for anything else?

 

Someone in class mentioned having inadvertently listened to a gospel-music radio program the other day and being impressed by how all the songs were about getting away to heaven.  You know, “this world is not my home” and all of that.  Undoubtedly, there is a sense in which that is true, but it seems to me that there is a possibility of an unchristian escapism here.  In many ways, this world is our home.  It’s where our living friends and relatives are and the place where all of those relationships unfold and flourish (or not).

Maybe when we say “the world” in the sense used here we don’t mean “the earth.”  Rather, we mean the mess that Satan and fallen humanity have made out of society and the conditions of the human race.  But the earth – this place where we, ahem, live, is a place of staggering beauty and wonder and we don’t honor God or really know His grace if we don’t appreciate the beauty of His creation.

 

Are those gospel songs the product of an unhealthy escapism?  Are they written maybe not so much by inspired saints as by those who have simply failed at their own duties to love, flourish, prosper, and to appreciate life here and now?  Are they written by those who may be jealous of the success and happiness of others – who may have flourished – and want to sing about the day when they will “get even?”

What are we waiting for?  The Second Coming?  Well, yes.  Heaven?  Well, yes.  But look at these verses from Eugene Peterson’s translation (The Message) of Paul’s letter to the Romans:

This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?”

Romans 8:  15

And:

3-5 There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

Romans 5: 3-5

 

I don’t know about you, but I can’t read these verses – at least this translation of them – without concluding that we are right to wait expectantly not only for the Second Coming and not only for death, but for life, here and now, as God unfolds it before our eyes.  If that is the case, it occurs to me to ask of myself: am I waiting in the right way?  Am I waiting for the right things?  Do I even see God’s grace as it unfolds?  Do I thus frustrate His plans?  And fail to appreciate Him and this life He has given me?

Am I living in black and white when God has offered me life in color?

As Promised

 

In keeping with our study of what worship ought to be, here is the video of the Welsh Church congregation singing “Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Redeemer.”    I thought I could embed it here, but WordPress won’t let me unless I start paying them $14 a month.  That ain’t gonna happen.  You can see this amazing part of worship by clicking here.

And here is an extra.  Same church, singing “What A Friend We Have In Jesus.”  Click here.

If you can watch these without being inspired, you should check for a pulse.

 

PS.  Here’s one more.  Click here.

Why Church Architecture Matters

 

 

Psalm 96

For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
But the Lord made the heavens.
Honor and majesty are before Him;
Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary.

Give to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
Give to the Lord glory and strength.
Give to the Lord the glory due His name;
Bring an offering, and come into His courts.
Oh, worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!
Tremble before Him, all the earth.

Question and Answer

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Here is an exchange between Karen and Don Burford and me about a passage that I quoted in class yesterday.  I encourage this kind of dialogue.

 

 

Good morning, Larry

Don and I spent a little time yesterday afternoon comparing our Sunday school passage in The Message with The NIV version.

I appreciate Peterson’s more colorful way of describing the fruits of the Spirit but
I’m not sure I understand what He’s  is saying in his interpretation of goodness.
He writes “and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people”.

If you’ll be so kind as to tell me what you understand him to say I would appreciate it.

Again I thank you for the time you put into studying and sharing the scriptures with our class.

Karen B

 

Hoo-boy!  What a good question!  That phrase you isolate has given me pause from the start.  I should have mentioned that in class when I read through it.  Every other bit of description in that passage is helpful to me, but this one almost seems out of place and certainly seems inconsistent with the doctrine of the fall and the “total depravity of man.”    In Psalm 16 we read that “as for the saints in the land, they are the noble ones, in whom is all my delight.  Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows.  Their libations of blood I will not pour out, nor take their names upon my lips.”  How do you square that with Peterson’s phrase here? What does he mean by it and should we accept his meaning?

 

The passage is describing the changes that occur in the life of the faithful believer.  The gifts of the spirit.  Here in this phrase I think Peterson is talking about a change in perspective.  I don’t know that he means to say that we’ll start to think that all people are basically good.  But if I think back on my own experience it does seem that walking with the Lord changes one’s perspective on people.  We might be a little less paranoid.  Outside of Christ, our selfish, human tendency might be to – as Peterson puts it earlier in the same chapter – “depersonalize everyone into a rival.”  Thus, although we hold to the notion that humanity is fallen – otherwise why would we even need the kind of conversion that Paul is expounding on here – when we are “new creations” in Christ, and thus aware of our own sin, we might be a little more empathetic; a little less likely to jump to harsh conclusions about people as individuals.  We might see them a little more like we see ourselves.  We have our own sinful tendencies, but we are always ready to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and ready to forgive ourselves and allow ourselves a new start.

 

I still think that Peterson should have come up with something better here.  And  I hope this response is of some help.  If you will give me your permission, I’d like to post your letter to me and this response on the class blog.  This is the very kind of study and dialogue that I’d like to promote.