Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Visions of Christian Victory

Jewish defeat was prophesied in the Book of Daniel, but it was not determined. In the Bible, God's pattern in dealing with people He knows will reject Him is always the same: pursue them wholeheartedly as if the outcome is in doubt because to us it is in doubt. The prophet Jeremiah is a good example. In Jeremiah's case God even told him at the beginning that his message would be rejected, but told him to give it anyway. The theme repeats itself in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, and is one major reason why I am not an open theist, but that's a discussion for another time. Both Jesus Christ and Paul, and presumably all early Christians, cared deeply about the Jewish people, preached Christ to them and hoped they would be saved. Though the Jewish culture at large rejected Jesus, the efforts to evangelize the Jews were not totally in vain and a large number of Jews became Christians. There was a large Christian church in Jerusalem headed by James the brother of Jesus, also known as James the Just. One of the great dramas of the New Testament was the argument over how Christians were to understand Jewish law, and James apparently played the central role for the side advocating adherence to the law. Traditionally it was this James, not either of the apostles named James, who wrote the book of James in the Bible. The early Jewish Christians saw no contradiction between following Jewish law the way they had been taught all their lives and being Christians. Indeed in Acts James uses that tradition as part of his argument. But the ever ambitious Paul wanted to see the entire Jewish culture accept Christ as God's son, and that never happened. Paul despairs of his own people and begins preaching to the Gentiles and sees no use in asking them to adhere to Jewish law and tradition, for it means nothing to them. But in the early church, the church in Jerusalem held great power and influence. In Jewish culture familial ties were greatly important, and this is probably why James the brother of Jesus was the leader of the Jerusalem church instead of one of the twelve apostles appointed by Christ. It is safe to say that the views and status of the Jerusalem church were a hindrance to the spreading of the gospel to other cultures. This conflict within the early church was solved not by arguments, not by anyone changing their mind, but by the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, predicted first by Daniel and then by Jesus Christ.

We moderns like to emphasize reason and argument, and there is no shortage of that in the Bible, but when the rubber meets the road the Bible does not depend on argument but authority. Paul began every letter by claiming his own apostleship. The gospels say that the Jewish people were drawn to Jesus' teaching because he taught as one who had authority and not as their teachers of the law. When arguing with the Pharisees produced no result, Jesus claimed authority and sometimes demonstrated it, as in Matthew 9:2-8. Other times the Pharisees asked him to prove his authority, as if he hadn't already, and he refuses to play their game, giving parables like the one at the end of Luke 16 about how even someone rising from the dead would not be enough to convince those who were not convinced by the Law and the Prophets. Another interesting one is the parable of the tenants, at the end of which Jesus threatens the Pharisees with destruction from God if they do not recognize Him as the Son and heir: "What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the vine-growers, and will give the vineyard to others." In effect, Jesus told them, "My dad can beat up your dad." Paul, significantly, argues that Christians are joint heirs with Christ. The typical evangelical understanding of this passage is touchy-feely: God is our Father and that gives us all such a warm fuzzy! Understood in the larger context of Scripture however, being joint heirs with Christ means anybody who messes with us ends up destroyed by our Father, who art in heaven. Jesus famously predicted the destruction of the Jewish temple, claiming he would raise it again in three days. As was his habit, he uses a play on words to confuse his enemies and reveal the truth of what he is saying only after it actually occurs. The "temple" in the New Testament is not a building, but God's earthly dwelling place. Jesus predicts the old temple will be destroyed and replaced by a new temple, the body of Christ, in which all Christians partake. Paul uses the temple argument often, warning those who destroy Christians, preaching against sin, and exhortations to fellowship and unity. To ensure the victory of God's chosen temple, God destroyed the physical shell of the old one.With that destruction, Christians are now God's earthly dwelling place with all the authority and power that function implies and from which the early Christians did not shrink.

Now I'm sure many are wondering what this has to do with Revelation and Biblical prophecy. Well...perhaps I have rambled a bit, but I want to show the theme of authority and power in Scripture that we as evangelicals, or rather Protestants, have too often minimized. Authority and power are important themes in Daniel and Revelation. The destruction of the temple and the sacking of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 ensured the superiority of the new religion and cut if off from the old before it could be contaminated. It settled the argument between James and Paul, as well as fulfilling the prophecy of destruction against a culture which had been given the temporary status of God's earthly dwelling place and kingdom on earth, a culture which refused to accept God's Son and heir when He came to claim his inheritance. Now the inheritance would be given to others, just as He said. Where reason and argument failed, God utilized His authority and power, as was His right.

I want to begin in Revelation with chapter eleven, though at first glance it appears to have little connection to the first two posts focusing mainly on Daniel. But I was reading this chapter when I realized a possible meaning for the famous "time, times and half a time" language in Daniel, as well as the multiple occurrences of three and a half periods of time, several of which occur in this passage. Recall that the central theme of the book of Daniel is the prophecy about the four kingdoms who will dominate the earth for a time, but during the fourth kingdom God will reestablish his kingdom on earth forever. Well, why couldn't we interpret this period of time as three and a half periods? There was Babylon, which conquered and subjugated Israel and sent the holy people into exile. This is the "time" in which Daniel lived. After Babylon came the Medo-Persian and Greek Empires, the two "times". And then the fourth kingdom, Rome, during which Christ came to earth and reestablished God's kingdom and his temple in the body of Christ. This is the "half a time" because Christ's coming occurred during the Roman Empire and not after it fell. I realized this possibility in Revelations 11 because there are so many occurrences of the "three and a half" theme that it must be symbolically referring to different periods of time when different entities are given authority to do various things. Let's go through Revelations 11 and see how we could apply this interpretation.

At the beginning of the chapter we are given a description of the temple and told that the "nations" will have control over it and the holy city for a period of forty-two months. Let's assume this is the original "time, times and a half a time" from Daniel, the period of the four kingdoms' domination over the holy people, at this time the Jews, and Jerusalem. (For the mathematically challenged, forty-two months is three and a half years.) After this time, so in our timeline this means sometime in the life of Christ, God grants authority to two witnesses. The obvious question arises: Who are they and what are they witness to? I believe the next few verses are John's way of identifying the two mysterious witnesses. I have read this passage many times, and I know the Bible like the back of my hand, but it was only after I began looking at Revelation from a preterist perspective that I saw immediately how John alluded to the identity of the two witnesses in verse six: "These have the power to shut up the sky, so that rain will not fall during the days of their prophesying; and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with every plague, as often as they desire." The two witnesses are Moses and Elijah! Moses, who turned the water of the Nile into blood and brought many other plagues on Egypt, and Elijah, the prophet who kept rain from falling in Israel during the reign of the idol worshipper Ahab. Moses and Elijah were the two most powerful prophets in Jewish history because they challenged earthly authorities and won with clear demonstrations of God's power. They, more than any other figures, signify God's authority over kingdoms. What are they witness to? They are witness to Jesus Christ the Son of God during the Transfiguration. Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus, a symbolic gesture legitimizing Him and transferring their authority to Him. In Revelation 11, they are given a period of time, represented as three and a half years but significantly written as 1,260 days instead of forty-two months to differentiate it from the period of authority for the nations. We can view this period of time as either Jesus' ministry, which was about three years, or his life, which was close to three and a half decades. During this time, Jesus is the representation of God's earthly kingdom and authority, and He could not be defeated during that time, though not for lack of trying. Then these two witnesses are killed, are dead for three and a half days, then raised to life and ascend into heaven, pretty closely mirroring the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. John here uses three and a half days as the time Jesus was dead, instead of the normal three days, to emphasize it as another period during which authority has been transferred to the beast, Rome, for a short time. Then they ascend to heaven, after which John relates the message of the seventh angel (v. 15): "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever." The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord. And so we have a period of three and a half where authority is transferred from the Jews to the statue from Daniel 2 and the four beasts from Daniel 7 beginning with the Babylonian exile and ending with the coming of Christ, then a period of three and a half when authority is transferred to Christ represented by Moses and Elijah, then a period of three and a half when authority is given back to the beast and Christ is killed and lies dead. Finally, authority is once again taken from the beast and given back to Christ forever and he ascends into heaven.

But this is not the end of the narrative. In Revelation 12:3 we see the first description of the beast directly tying it to the fourth beast from Daniel 7: "Then another sign appeared in heaven: and behold, a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven diadems." Chapter 11 ends with the declaration of Christ's reign in power forever, so why does the beast rise again? Well let's look at history and the "time, times and half a time" and compare it to the narrative moving forward in Revelation.The dragon with seven heads and ten horns, which we have already identified as Rome, apparently has something of a disagreement with a woman about to give birth to a male child. In fact, this dragon wants to destroy the child as soon as its born. Recall that King Herod, the Roman appointed king of Judea, wiped out all the newborns in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the newborn king of the Jews that the eastern wise men told him about. King Herod would then be the dragon, and the symbolism of the seven heads with ten horns a way to identify him with Rome. Thus the narrative starts with Christ's birth, but in verse five it says the child was caught up to heaven, and so it quickly moved right to the end, to Christ's ascension. That's because the rest of this chapter is about events shortly after Christ's death. In verse six we see another instance of the "time, times and half a time" when the woman, after her child is caught up to heaven, is protected from the dragon for 1,260 days. Here I believe the woman is a reference to the Jews, and the 1,260 days is the roughly three and a half decades between the ascension of Christ and the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. But the narrative in chapter twelve continues during this period with a great war between God's angels and the devil, with the angels winning and the establishment of the Christian church, Pentecost and the spread of the gospel. Then in verse 13 the dragon tries to persecute the woman, that is the Jews, but fails because the woman is protected for a "time, times and half a time", the same period spoken of in verse 6. The dragon is now enraged and goes off to make war against the woman's children. Chapter 13 begins ominously: "And the dragon stood on the sand of the seashore". Relative to Israel, the Roman armies always came from the Mediterranean Sea. The dragon here is frustrated for three and a half decades, but is always a threat from the sea that cannot be ignored.

Now we have a beast coming up out of the sea to replace the dragon, and this beast also has seven heads and ten horns, and John here makes a point to even more strongly identify this beast with the fourth beast in Daniel 7 by describing it as an amalgamation of the first three. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! This beast is given all the authority of the dragon, has a mortal wound which has healed, and appears unbeatable in battle. After the "time, times and half a time" where the woman was protected from the dragon, the beast is given authority for "forty-two months" the same period of authority given the four kingdoms of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome before Christ. This beast wages war on the holy people and wins.

At this point I want to explain what I think the seven heads and ten horns are referencing and identify this beast. Recall that we are in the time between Christ's ascension and the destruction of the temple in AD 70, but that this new beast has been given authority and will make war on the saints and win. John was writing from Roman prison, and presumably if he had written explicitly about the Roman Empire it would have been censored. I believe this is partly why so much of Revelation is written in code designed to be understood by those familiar with Jewish prophecy and the history of the early church and its struggles with Rome. Let me begin with a difficulty in identifying this beast with the fourth beast in Daniel 7.

In Daniel 7, the important figure seems to be the eleventh horn on the beast, one which rises after the ten and uproots three before it. In Revelation 13, the narrative is primarily about the beast itself having ten horns, although the latter part of the chapter speaks of a second beast with two horns. So which is it that's important, the first ten horns, or the tenth horn itself or the eleventh? Preterism provides a compelling answer. Julius Caesar was the first Roman emperor and all subsequent emperors through Nero, the sixth, were in his family line. Nero died in AD 68 and sparked a succession struggle some call the "Year of the Four Emperors" in AD 69. Three emperors rose and fell in that year within a matter of months, but it was the fourth, Vespasian, who managed to hold power for ten years as Rome's tenth emperor. When I was researching all of this, the significance of the strange beast with seven heads and ten horns immediately struck me. Revelation 17 explains a dual symbolism for the seven heads. In addition to being seven kings, the seven heads are also seven hills. Rome was famously built on seven hills, as was Jerusalem. But shortly after it says the ten horns are ten kings. So which is it? Ten kings or seven kings? The preterist response is both! The seven heads are the first six emperors plus Vespasian, because the three who rose and fell in such a short time are to be viewed as less important and don't count as a head. They also were part of no family dynasty, whereas the first six were all in one family and Vespasian started the Flavian dynasty. But those three ill-fated emperors are important enough to get a horn, and therefore there are ten horns but only seven heads. But that still leaves the question of the tenth versus the eleventh horn.

Vespasian is an interesting historical figure whom I had never heard about until I researched all this, but he was a Roman general who got his start in Britian, where he received a very serious wound in battle but survived. After this he became the Roman governor in Egypt. In AD 66 he was tasked to suppress the Jewish revolt in the Roman province of Judaea. During this military campaign, Nero died and the Year of the Four Emperors commenced. Vespasian obviously saw an opportunity and used his allies in Egypt and Syria to campaign for emperor himself. In fact, Vespasian personally began the siege of Jerusalem but had to leave to pursue the crown. He left his firstborn son, Titus, in charge of the siege. Titus finished the siege in what historians still believe to be the bloodiest single day event in all of history. Sources say over one million Jews were killed. More people were killed in one day in one place than any other time in history. That level of bloodshed was not to be matched until the World War I battle of Verdun where the casualties were spread out over a period of months. Even the fire bombing of Dresden and the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II did not exceed half that number. By any definition, the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 was an apocalypse. The siege began under Vespasian, who became the tenth emperior, and ended under his son Titus, who became the eleventh emperor. We also know that historically Titus was essentially a co-emperor during his father's reign and played a major role in his father's ascension to the crown. This explains the discrepancy between Daniel and Revelation in regards to the eleventh horn and the first beast with only ten. As far as the prophecy is concerned, there really wasn't much of a distinction between Vespasian and Titus, co-emperors who rose to power after three short-lived emperors and who both prosecuted the war of annihilation against the Jews.

There was of course a reason for such unprecedented destruction. Interestingly, Vespasian was the patron of the famous Jewish historian Josephus, and Josephus argued in his writings that Vespasian was the prophesied Jewish messiah. Vespasian apparently took this seriously. Vespasian very well knew about the Christian sect and that there was a serious competitor for the Jewish messiah in Jesus Christ. As a result he not only persecuted Christians but succeeded in virtually destroying the ancient Jewish culture in order to suppress the troublesome Jewish people forever and prevent any future claimants. The destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 began the Diaspora, a migration of Jews away from the promised land to other nations, an event which had a major impact on world history even unto the present day. Vespasian may not be on our radar today, but do you think a man with great earthly power who claimed to be the Jewish messiah and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple was on God's radar, not to mention early Christians? I suspect so, to put it mildly.

Continuing in Revelation 13 there is even more compelling evidence for the preterist interpretation. Starting in verse 11 we see a second beast with two horns who made people worship the first beast. Turns out, Vespasian had two sons who became emperor after him. After Vespasian's death in AD 79, Titus reigned from AD79 to 81, and then his younger brother Domitian reigned from AD 81 to 96. Together these three emperors reigned for about twenty-seven years and are known as the Flavian dynasty. Vespasian is the first Roman emperor to be directly succeeded by his son, and he was succeeded by not one but two sons, the second beast with two horns. Titus only reigned a short time but his reign was eventful. The famous volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius occurred, as well as another great fire in Rome. Titus also oversaw the completion of the most famous Roman architectural landmark, the Colosseum. Domitian was known for micromanaging the Roman economy, primarily by tinkering with the minting of Roman coins. Most Roman coins from this era depict some sort of deity, be it a regular god or deified emperors. Domition also built the Temple of Vespasian and Titus, deifying his father and brother, while requiring others to refer to himself as a god and preventing anyone from writing negative things about him. If Revelation was written around AD 90, then it was written during Domitian's reign, reason enough for John to use allegory and symbolism when referring to him and his dynasty.

There is much more to be said about Revelation, but I'll stop here. I want to talk a bit about how this has changed my view of the Bible and of Christianity after Christ. Growing up, I accepted as I believe most American evangelicals do that all this talk of Christ's victory in the Bible was purely spiritual. Christ is victorious over sin and death and the accuser of the saints has been defeated, but this has little or no implication for questions of authority and power on earth. I believed that basically anything could happen on earth, that God's action in the world was restricted to helping individual Christians in an existential battle with sin and spreading the gospel to unbelievers. Believers could rest secure in life after death, but life before death was a crap shoot. Again like many evangelicals I viewed Daniel, Revelation and other prophecies in this vein as either incomprehensible or referring to the end of the world in the future. I still think the last few chapters of Revelation refer to the final judgment and the end of the world, starting probably with chapter 19 or 20, which makes me a partial preterist, but the most definitive Scriptures about the end of the world are actually elsewhere, such as 2 Peter 3. In the year or two that I have begun viewing Daniel and Revelation through the preterist lens there are some pretty inescapable conclusions about our current role in the world as Christians when put into the wider context of Scripture. If this is in fact the view held by the authors of the New Testament, it explains quite a bit about New Testament teaching that my standard evangelical view does not.

We are living in a time of Christian supremacy in the world. Had I read that statement five years ago, or even three, I probably would have recoiled, but I can no longer get past passages like Daniel 7. For if I still believed this chapter was about the end of the world, I could easily assimilate verse 27:

"Then the sovereignty, the dominion and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One; His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all the dominions will serve and obey Him.’"

I could believe that this verse is talking about heaven, not earth, and there is no particular meaning in it for us today. But how am I to take this verse if it refers not only to the time after Christ, but also to a transfer of power, authority and dominion from a succession of earthly empires to "the people of the saints of the Highest One"? Am I really to understand that this transfer of authority, the end of the time, times and half a time, really refers to two different kinds of authority, one earthly and the other spiritual? That this transfer of authority and power was of one kind before and its transfer changed its nature, leaving the old kind of power in the same hands as before and the new kind of power strangely ineffectual in the very sphere within which it supposedly received authority? There is no sense in a transfer if nothing is being transferred. There is no reason to compare the authority of the four beasts to the authority of Christ and his people if there is no comparison. What am I to make of Revelation 5:9-10:

And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.”

Or Revelation 11:15:

Then the seventh angel sounded; and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.”

Christians, purchased by Christ's blood, will reign upon the earth? The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ? This seems to reinforce the interpretation of Daniel 7 as a clear succession from the four beasts to Christ's earthly kingdom, which will last forever. What to make of all of Paul's talk of Christians as joint heirs with Christ, or that the saints will judge the world? I can no longer sit in church to be patted on the head and told that none of this has much significance outside the walls of the church. I cannot sit behind those walls of our cities of refuge throwing stones over them and sitting in judgment of the world without lifting a finger to help. Christians have been given authority as adopted sons of God. It is part of our birthright as Christians and heirs to the promise not only to Abraham, but God's original intent for mankind as authorities over creation. It is not our prerogative to reject it unless we also reject our birthright, as Esau did. It has been given to us by God, not of our own effort or power, and that is our situation whether we like it or not. I am forced to conclude that Christians have been given authority and power on earth, not just in our future spiritual heaven. To reject it comes dangerously close to rejecting part of the significance of Christ's victory as envisioned by prophets of God both before and after Him, for God has not given us a spirit of timidity but of power.

And it's not as if we don't have two thousand years of history since Christ to test this theory, over a thousand years of which are often ignored by Protestants who would rather blind themselves to the authority and power wielded by the the body of Christ during the time of the Catholic Church, which despite its often exaggerated faults was the institution representative of the body of Christ for over a millenia. I have heard Christians call the victory of the Church over the Roman Empire the worst thing that ever happened to the Church, but under this view it was not only prophesied but encouraged by both Old and New Testament authors. We have seen the transfer of earthly power from old Christendom in Europe to the United States coincide with the rejection of Christianity in Europe, and the erosion of U.S. power coincide with a similar trend within its people. Of course there are other powers in the world, but even the Garden of Eden was not without its serpent, though the serpent has no power unless humanity accepts his lies and deception.

We can even explain some of this. I accept of course the traditional Christian understanding of the constant struggle against sin, but life as a Christian with the Holy Spirit and a genuine connection to the One True God must be a great advantage in the battle. Perhaps so much of an advantage that a people defined by Christianity have a collective advantage in right living over those who do not, producing a stronger society. The freedom that we value here in the United States only comes as a result of our ability to act rightly between only ourselves and God, for if we lose that ability a government is justified in using its God-given authority to punish the wrongdoer. That freedom produced by Godly living coincides with economic freedom, proven to produce wealth and prosperity. Thus a rejection of God leads to a rejection of righteous living, a loss of freedom and a loss of wealth and finally a loss of power. All this could be true without God ever lifting a finger to direct the course of nations, merely granting or withdrawing His holy influence in the lives of saints or former saints, for God works in the world primarily through His Holy Spirit indwelling in the body of Christ, His temple.

In summation I want to emphasize what I am not saying for fear of being misinterpreted. This is not the health and wealth doctrine. I am talking about a large, general effect on whole societies and nations, not a personal and individual guarantee of wealth, either as a reward or as an end. No single individual is guaranteed, either by Scripture or this view, wealth and prosperity in this life through righteous living. It is also not a call for theocracy. There have been many types of governments in the world since Christ, the most effective being a government by the people. It is the people who have been given this authority according to Daniel 7:27 and the rest of it, not a church hierarchy. All Christians have inherited this birthright, and we will lose it if and when we lose our Christianity, not before. It is a consequence of being a Christian society, not something we can achieve or lose through other means. Our style of government cannot affect our birthright, but I believe it is significant that a model based on self-government by the people has been the most successful so far. The model of self-government adheres most closely to the real structure of authority on earth as understood in this view, authority which belongs to "the people of the saints of the Highest One". Other types of governments may have been less effective, but Christian people have always had this power, whether held back by inferior models of government or not. Even God acquiesced to the power of the people when they asked for a king after warning them of the consequences of doing so. We would be wise to heed His warning and model our government in a way that makes sense if all of this is true. In doing so we accept that a government can only be as good or bad as the character of the people. What I see today in this particular state, the United States, is a government which is significantly worse than the character and faith of her people. If I am wrong then nothing I nor anyone can do will change what is to come. Neither myself nor anyone has power against God. But I do not believe that America is a nation defined by its faithless people. We are a country who still reveres and follows God, despite our mistakes, and that gives us power and authority in the world which we must take seriously and wield responsibly with all humility under God.

Now that's whack.