Saturday, September 25, 2010


I shared this with our Life Group leader just recently (hope you don't find this too redundant, Jim). Sticking with the Revelation theme (kind of), I remember sitting in class at Regent back in 2006. I was excited about the subject matter (learning to interpret the Bible using the book of Revelation as our text). I was, however, having difficulty letting go of my preconceived ideas of what the book was saying. This became obvious on this particular day. Our instructor (Dr. Wilson) was explaining how that much of the imagery in the book of Revelation was borrowed from well known (at the time) Hebrew and mythological imagery. I was greatly offended at the implication. I couldn't take it anymore, and I raised my hand to confront this affront to all that is sacred. I asked Dr. Wilson, "Do you mean to tell me that John was using stories from mythology to try to convey a message, and that John didn't actually 'see' all of these images as God was showing him? Why is it so hard to believe that God actually showed John these things and that they are just difficult for us to understand because he was trying to describe future events?" To me the answer was obvious. Dr. Wilson gracefully but unapologetically responded, "Why couldn't God tell John to use stories that the first readers were all familiar with to convey a meaning that they would more easily understand in light of  those stories?" I was at a loss for words. I stood corrected. Perhaps my position was correct, but Dr. Wilson's was equally as plausible--even moreso. History shows that many of these stories and images did exist during and prior to the first century (See David Aune's commentary on Revelation, World Biblical Commentary, volume 52, 1998, Thomas Nelson, Inc.).

So what do we do when the "facts" mess with our frame of reference? If the images in portions of Revelation were indeed "borrowed" from mythology, does that destroy our faith? It doesn't have to. The only thing it should destroy are the sacred cows we've developed and nurtured over the years. Personally, letting go of some of my prejudices (I say "some" becuase I still have many) has allowed me to enjoy the deeper riches to be found in Scripture.

On another note that is somewhat related to the subject of this post, I would encourage you to take a look at an article posted on the Harvard Icthus website. The article, Augustine on Science, Scripture and Not Being Stupid, found at is quite eye opening. Basically, Augustine says that people should not speak with authority on subjects about which they know very little. In the interaction with my professor, my ignorance was exposed. Certainly, I had plenty of faith, but faith grounded in my preconceived ideas about what the Bible is saying rather than the message that is really being communicated is misplaced faith at best. Science, history, anthropology, archaeology, mythology, and yes, even theology (along with other academic disciplines) don't need to derail our faith when what they uncover challenges our paradigms. The Bible and faith go hand in hand with truth--wherever that truth is found. What I am saying is, don't be offended the next time someone shows you some bit of truth that doesn't fit your current religious or philosophical context--even if it is a man working miracles and preaching a different kind of kingdom than what you had imagined. Take it as a challenge to dig deeper and discover what else you may be missing. The rewards are great.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


The Antichrist!...The Beast!...666!...Damien!....(Cue spooky "Halloween" theme music). Ok, sorry for the drama, and for comingling movies (Damien is from "The Omen"), but I couldn't recall the music from The Omen, and I do remember how creepy the music from the original Halloween movie was. The names "Antichrist," and "The Beast," along with the number "666" carry a lot of meaning with them in our Western culture (not least because of Hollywood and the media), as well as in Western churches. There is something about scaring ourselves that we strangely enjoy, and superstitions surrounding these names are great movie fodder. Well, I am probably going to bore you with the following--nothing scary. But hopefully it will cause you to stop and think--and perhaps even encourage you.

As I mentioned in my last post, "fresh eyes," I took an advanced class in biblical interpretation at Regent University (which does NOT qualify me as an expert in biblical interpretation by any means). In that class, we used the book of Revelation as our text to learn how to properly interpret scripture. The purpose of using that book in particular was to get us to learn how to forget what we had learned and heard in the past and approach scripture with fresh eyes. Our instructor for that class was Dr. Mark Wilson. At the time he was considered an expert in interpreting the book of Revelation, and he lived about 6 months of the year in Turkey (the country in which all seven churches in the book of Revelation are located). Dr. Wilson wrote the "Revelation" section of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (2002). One of the issues he addresses in that volume (as well as in our class) is what the number 666 means.

First, when you see the number 666 as it relates to the book of Revelation, it is inappropriate to say or think "six, six, six"--because that is not what the verse says. The verse (13:8) says "six hundred and sixty-six," (NASB), or "six hundred threescore and six," (KJV). The distinction is important because the number is meant to be the quantitative calculation of a man's name--specifically the name of the beast. The first readers would have understood this, and would have been perplexed by 21st (or 20th) century Christians searching headlines and databases for patterns that include the digits "six, six and six." That is not what John intended when he wrote this verse. As a matter of fact, it is clear from the context of the verse that someone in each church--the one "with understanding" or "wisdom" (depending on your version)--would be able to decode the number to reveal the name of "the beast."

The practice is called "gematria." It was known and practiced in the first century. Dr. Wilson notes that graffiti was found from ruins in Pompeii that says "I love her whose number is 545," (Arnold, 2002, p. 330). So, whose number was (or is) 666? Well, again, we must remember that John expected that someone in those churches would be able to figure it out. Of course, there has been some debate over the years about who it refers to, but Dr. Wilson believes the strongest argument is that 666 refers to the emperor Nero. Sorry for bursting your bubble. It is not Osama bin Laden or George Bush, or any other 21st century person. Now Dr. Wilson is not the final authority on the matter. But his conclusion is based on the fact that both ancient Greek and ancient Hebrew letters were assigned number equivalents--just for this purpose. Incidentally, Jesus' number is 888 (I know. It doesn't do anything for me either).

Nero's Greek name was Neron Kaisar. When the Hebrew transliteration of Neron Kaisar is used (NRONKSR), the letters add up to 666. Supporting this theory is the fact that after Nero's death, a myth was circulating that declared that Nero had risen from the dead (Nero Redevivus).  There were even several impostors in the years following who tried to claim that they were Nero risen from the dead. The fact that Nero was such a "beastly" emperor who persecuted the Christians so cruelly also supports this theory (Arnold, 2002).

Ok, so it's only a theory. The point is that the first readers of Revelation were supposed to know who this was. It is possible that this passage has a primary and secondary fulfillment (like some prophecies do), but it is unlikely that another person's name in our day will calculate to equal 666--partly because we don't practice gematria anymore, so it wouldn't be commonly known in our churches (a prerequisite for this passage to be applied in this way); and partly because it is unlikely that another emperor will arise whose name is Neron Kaisar. What I am saying here is "relax" when it comes to the number 666 (six hundred sixty-six). John didn't intend for Christians in successive generations to become creeped out or obssessed with trying to decode what the first readers could do with a little effort--it is more likely that he didn't even imagine multiple generations to follow his.

In the coming weeks, I may post more thoughts on Revelation, but until then, it is important to remember one of the themes of the book (as I learned it at Regent). John wrote to these churches, not just to admonish them (as in chapters 2 and 3), but to encourage them in the face of great persecution. He wanted them to not fear what may happen to them--because they had a glorious future beyond Rome. The proof of this future hope was that Jesus had already died and risen from the dead. This fact was evidence that the hope of resurrection was a real and sure thing. So if in this life they suffered and died at the hands of Nero (or any other despot), they would one day rise again--and in the mean time they would be with Jesus. This was great encouragement, which is what they needed. It's also what persecuted Christians in the world need today--not superstitious searching of databases for numerical patterns. See the Voice of the Martyrs website at for information on how our persecuted brothers and sisters are standing strong in the 21st century. Be encouraged. Your hope is not in vain.

Arnold, C. E. (general editor). 2002. Zondervan illustrated Bible backgrounds commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

fresh eyes

If you went to Bible college or seminary, chances are you have studied eschatology. If you haven't, you may not be familiar with the term. But if you belong to a church that was formed in the last 150 years, you have probably heard a lot of teaching/preaching related to it. Eschatology is the "study of the last things," or as most evangelical/fundamentalist churches phrase it "end-time prophecy."

While attending Regent University, I took an advanced course in biblical interpretation. For this course we used the book of Revelation as our text. The point of the course was not to learn the book of Revelation, but to learn how to study the Bible properly. Most of us approach Scripture with a lot of baggage--a lot of preconceived ideas. Some of those ideas are given to us by teaching we hear in church. Other ideas come from our society/culture (think "Left Behind"). The point is that we read passages and we have already interpreted much of it just because of what we have heard or been taught up to that point. The purpose of the class was to teach us to look at Scripture with fresh eyes--to lay aside the "baggage" as best we could (a tall order for any one of us). The result was multiple "aha" moments as I endeavored to read the book of Revelation as if I had never read it before, and as if I had never heard any teaching on it before.

I discovered that much of the book of Revelation is not about future events, but about past events, or about events that would come to pass in the near future for the first readers. The chapter that I was assigned to study was chapter 12. As I read it, for the first time I realized that the battle in heaven waged by Michael against the dragon was a picture of what was taking place during the crucifixion. It was what was accomplished in Heaven while Jesus was hanging on the cross, "now is come salvation." I know that some of you already knew that. I am just dense when it comes to some things, and this was one of them.

Currently, I am reading a book by N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope. I won't go into detail, but he makes some pretty radical (to me) statements regarding eschatology (last things). Again, I am challenged to re-think my notions about the "last days." However, I am not writing this to challenge your thinking on prophecy or eschatology (although we could talk about that if you want). Instead, I hope to encourage you to consider your approach to reading the Bible.

When was the last time that you approached Scripture with fresh eyes? When was the last time that you made an effort to set aside your preconceived ideas when reading a passage? You may be surprised what you see for the first time. Not long ago, I read a book called Twisted Scriptures. In it the author explains how people who were involved in cults and who have come out, need to take a break from reading the Bible for awhile. And when they start reading again, they need to use a different version because so many of the old phrases and words are still loaded with meaning from what they had been taught. Most people reading this have never been involved in a cult, but the principle is the same--reading the Scripture with fresh eyes. I would challenge anyone reading this to try reading the Bible with fresh eyes. Lay aside what you think you know and ask God to open your eyes to what you may have been missing.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

I know what I don't know

Before I became a minister, I had an incredible thirst for knowledge--for truth. When I encountered Pentecostals, they were willing and eager to share with me all they knew about the Bible. And I was eager to learn. When I found out that they had Bible colleges, I wanted to go. I wanted to learn everything I could. Later, when they were starting a graduate school, I wanted to attend there as well. However, in its fledgling state, and in their effort to become accredited (for which I applaud them), I was not able to be admitted without first obtaining an accredited undergraduate degree. Then I found out about another recognized graduate school for theology that may accept me on a probationary basis. So, I applied and was admitted to the Regent University School of Divinity. I again was eager to devour all that I could in my pursuit of more knowledge, more understanding, more truth. What I learned in my abbreviated tenure at Regent was how much I don't know.

As a minister, I prided myself on knowing the Bible and knowing it well. I loved to study. I loved to prepare for sermons. When I attend graduate school, I was humbled by how much I didn't know. I began to learn ancient Greek. I gained a great deal of respect for Greek scholars. The ancient Greek language is referred to as the language of "never-ending endings." The nuances are many, and the relationships of words within sentences are critical to understand for proper interpretation. I also took a class in Hebrew. Again, I gained great respect for Hebrew scholars.  There are Hebrew poems that don't make a lot of sense in English--especially King James English. There are things that are immediately visible in the Hebrew Bible that disappear in the English translations.

Another thing that I learned is that to truly understand Scripture, one needs to understand history--ancient history. To properly understand and interpret a biblical passage, a knowledge of the cultural, political, economic and religious setting of the day is necessary. It's not enough to understand the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) that existed in Jesus' day and all that entailed, but one must also understand the history that first century people had learned. What did they read? What were they taught in their schools and in their homes? What stories were commonly circulated between families and from generation to generation? Believe me, the book of Revelation is a mystery without understanding what first-century Christians (and Jews) understood about their world, about history, about mythology. Many images portrayed in the book of Revelation were images immediately recognizable to these first-century people. They are foreign to those of us in the 21st century, unless we take the time to study.

For another example of how important it is to understand the mind of the first readers (or hearers) of the biblical texts, consider Genesis 1:1. A gentleman who I consider a good friend, Tim Mackie, Ph.D. in Hebrew and Jewish studies, shared this with our church recently. When you think of the word "Earth," what comes to mind? For most of us a big blue ball floating in space is the image we see. We picture a globe. That is not what the first readers of Genesis pictured. When they read or heard the word "earth," they pictured "land." This little clarification is one of many that helps us better understand the creation narrative. What else did the first readers know and understand as they first read these words penned by Moses? I am not going to go into a long explanation of this passage. I just wanted to give an example of how easy it is to misunderstand or misinterpret what we read in the English Bible. And for that matter, how important it is to respect those who have taken the time to learn in depth the ancient languages and histories.

I am not saying that one cannot understand the Bible without understanding Greek and Hebrew. Obviously, reading the Bible in today's language is very beneficial. It would be impractical and even absurd to think that we need to become scholars of ancient languages and history to begin to enjoy and benefit from reading the Bible. However, I also believe that it is equally absurd for us to think that we can develop major doctrines and teachings without a deep understanding of these things. When we do, we commit a major error in biblical interpretation called "eisegesis," which is reading meaning into the scriptures--or "adding" meaning, if you will. We unwittingly take our own personal ideas (like picturing a globe when we read "earth") and we apply it to what we read. Proper interpretation, on the other hand, invovles "exegesis," which is getting the meaning "out" of the passage. We simply can't begin to properly interpret the Bible--for doctrinal and teaching purposes--without an extensive knowledge of the original languages and the histories of the first readers of the Bible. In saying this, I do not discount the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding our understanding. Quite frankly, it is the Spirit that draws people to study more, to desire to understand more. I believe it is the Spirit that draws people to become biblical scholars. It is what drives them to keep pursuing truth, and to endure while learning the "never-ending endings" of the Greek language.

Some day I will return to Divinity school. I may never become a scholar, but I will never stop hungering for truth and for a deeper understanding of Scripture. I have learned that I don't know nearly as much about the Bible as I used to think I knew. I have learned that there is an ocean of knowledge out there, and I have only been wading in the surf. I don't know much, but at least I know what I don't know.