Thursday, October 28, 2010

rebellion is always justified . . .

Rebellion is always justified in the eyes of the rebel.
I debated whether to make this one or two (or three) posts. Well, here it is in one post. Feel free to break it up into bite size chunks as you see fit.
I need to clarify a few things before we continue this discussion about spiritual authority. I understand that some who read this do not have the same religious background that I have, and so it may be difficult to relate. It can be like coming in half way through a conversation—it’s hard to understand what is being discussed unless you are clued in regarding the first part of the conversation. Well, what I am talking about is the abuse of authority in the church. There are churches in which this is not an issue, but there are many for which it is. In the extreme, think of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple and the tragedy that occurred in Guyana back in the 1970’s. What would cause sane, intelligent people to follow an insane egomaniac to a foreign country and then commit mass suicide? For those following Jim Jones, it was the idea that they had no choice. He was their “spiritual authority,” and he had “the truth.” Where else could they go?
I hear the objections. “You can’t use Jim Jones as an example of the abuse of spiritual authority in churches today because that kind of abuse is too extreme and doesn’t happen anymore.” And so the logic follows then that any abuse short of mass suicide is acceptable? The issue for me is church leaders that abuse their positions and the scriptures in order to control the lives of those they are supposed to be helping. And to those who say Jim Jones is too extreme, I would say that hindsight is 20/20. What advice would proponents of submission to spiritual authority give to those following Jim Jones today—perhaps a couple of years before the tainted Kool-Aid is offered? Their pastor is very controlling, and they are questioning whether they should continue to sit under his leadership. What do you tell the members of his church? Do you tell them that God will honor them for submitting to their spiritual authority, and that God will take care of their leader if he is in the wrong? Remember, in this hypothetical situation, you don’t have the luxury of knowing what is going to happen two years from now. Should the people rebel and leave that church? Or should they stay and submit? In one sense, God did “take care of “Jim Jones. The problem is that Jim Jones “took care of” over 900 of his followers before he was taken care of. When is “disobedience” to spiritual leaders justified? When is it not sin? When has a spiritual leader gone too far? When he tells his followers to drink poisoned Kool-Aid? When he tells them to leave their jobs and families to follow him to a foreign country to start a new community where people can live for God in true holiness and freedom? When he tells them to marry this person and not that person? When he tells them whether they can move to another community or not? When he tells them what they can and cannot wear? When he tells them which movies they can watch? Where do you draw the line? As I said earlier, some of you are asking yourselves, “What kind of church leader would do those things?” You ask this because this is foreign to you. For others reading this, this is life in the church. This brief series of posts is to address the problem of church leaders taking on authority that is not theirs—authority that they erroneously see in the Bible.
Ok. Disclaimer time. I am not saying that church leaders should never exercise any authority in our lives. I am also not trying to disparage any particular leaders or organization, or spiritual leaders in general. God brings pastors into our lives for our benefit. We would do well to heed the instruction of those who correctly and properly expound the Word of God.
When I talk of spiritual authorities who “abuse” their positions, I am talking about Christian leaders who go beyond the authority given them in Scripture. Specifically, I am talking about church leaders who don’t just teach the Scriptures, but tell people specifically how to apply the teaching in every area (or in many areas) of their lives. These leaders end up “controlling” those who follow them—intentionally or not. And they use Scripture to do it. They tell people (in effect), “I am your spiritual leader. You need to listen to what I tell you. If you don’t, you are rebellious, and you are rebelling against God.” In this way, people are controlled and coerced into submission through fear—fear of disobeying God. (In the interest of full disclosure: this is the kind of teaching that I ascribed to at one time—both in my view of my leaders and in my view of those who followed me.) This is not God’s way. As a matter of fact, Jesus even talked about leaders of this world who “lord it over” their subjects. And he told his disciples that it would “not be so with you.” But church leaders were to serve—not control. It is this controlling element—that controls through the fear that not following the leader equates with disobeying God—that is abusive, and it is what I am coming against in these posts. Whether it ends in Guyana or somewhere short of that, it should not be the way our leaders lead.
Now that I have said that, I also want to say that most church leaders that I know (and many who were my leaders and peers for years) are not bad men. They are, in fact, good men—sincere men who love God and the people in their churches very much. These are men (and women) who want nothing but the best for their congregants, and who teach what they do (and the way they do) only because they truly want the followers of God to realize all the blessings that God has for them. They also see an obligation in the Bible to teach people to “live right,” to live lives of “holiness.” So, I do not see malice in the heart of a church leader who says “Don’t watch ‘R’ rated movies.” He believes he would be remiss in his God-given duties if he did not “warn” his people about such things. But this is, in my mind, where he is wrong.
A final disclaimer/reminder. I am not a biblical scholar. These are my opinions, and are based on my own personal study, as well as my experience as a minister for almost 20 years. I could be wrong, but this is what I understand.
There are different kinds of authority. There are governmental authorities: police officers, judges, agencies, etc. There are experts who are “authorities” on various subjects. There are parents and bosses. These people derive their authority from different sources. The parent derives his or her authority from the responsibility to raise the child in a way that protects the child from danger, but also helps the child to grow to be a productive member of society. The police officer derives his authority from the laws of the land. The expert derives her authority from her knowledge drawn from years of study and experience. Our bosses derive their authority from their bosses or from the owners of a company. And church leaders derive their authority to teach and lead the church from the Bible.
Jesus taught with great authority. The people noted that he taught differently than the scribes and Pharisees because of this. Interestingly, it was the scribes and Pharisees who “exercised” authority over people—whereas Jesus “had” authority. Of course, we realize that he derived his authority from the fact that he was God in the flesh. But that is not what the people saw, or sensed. No, they said he taught as one with authority because of his command of and understanding of the scriptures. It wasn’t that he could explain every detail of a particular passage, and all the ways in which that passage could be lived out. He brought something new to the table. He understood the heart and the intent of the scriptures. Rather than complicating it, he simplified it. “Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself, and you shall find eternal life.” In one sentence he explained the message of the whole Bible. No one had done that before.
And yet Jesus was a rebel. He did not “obey” or “submit to” the scribes and Pharisees. As a matter of fact, he rebuked them. And he called them names—a den of vipers, whited sepulchers, etc. He made no bones about publicly pointing out their short comings. Would Jesus get away with that today in our churches? What would Jesus say today to church leaders that tell people in detail how to live their lives? Obviously, it wasn’t that the Pharisees were teaching the wrong things. Jesus even told the people to listen to their teachings. But he told them not to worry about following their example because they were hypocrites. (As an aside: in what way were the Pharisees hypocrites? I say it is because they set a standard that no one could live up to—not even themselves. Sound familiar?) Should we follow Jesus’ example and call our leaders on the carpet when they are being hypocritical? Or should we “submit” and “let God deal with them?” Most of us wouldn’t have the guts to follow Jesus’ example, but we would more closely follow the teachings of Scripture if we did.
Is rebellion justified? Of course it is. We just talked about how Jesus rejected the Pharisees. And what about the early Christians telling magistrates, “we ought to obey God rather than man”? And what about Paul withstanding Peter to his face? What about every Christian who refused to bow his/her knee to Caesar? Or to any other leader who demanded worship, or who demanded that the Christian denounce Christ? Of course, we say these are the justifiable exceptions. Are they? What about Martin Luther? What about Calvin? What about Zwingli? Tyndale? Wycliffe? Hus? Wesley? All of Protestantism? The early Pentecostals? The Oneness Pentecostals who broke away from their Trinitarian brethren? If we are to submit to our spiritual leaders and allow God to “deal” with them if they are wrong, then every religious movement that broke away from another one is illegitimate. When is it okay to rebel? To disobey? Truly, rebellion is always justified in the eyes of the rebel.
I believe that many Christian leaders take authority that isn’t theirs today. They do it because of a misunderstanding of certain passages of Scripture. The main Scripture passage used to justify the way abusive leaders exercise authority is Hebrews 13:17 which says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you,” (NIV). Sounds pretty straight forward, right? But I would say it seems straight forward because of the meaning that has been added to it for us by some well-meaning though mistaken leaders. This verse is not saying “Do what your pastor tells you because if you don’t you are disobeying God.” But this is what we think when we read it. Let’s break it down.
First, the Greek word for “obey” here has a root that means to “persuade or trust.” Not only that, it is used with the “middle” voice—something not found in English grammar. The middle voice in Greek indicates something that is done for one’s self—for the benefit of the one doing the activity. There is no hint of “command” and “obey” here—no coercion or control. The picture is of one listening to teaching by “authorities” and being persuaded to the point of following that teaching—for the benefit of the one listening.
This brings us to the next significant word, “submit.” This word in the Greek has as its root the word that means to “hear.” “Submit to them” essentially means “listen to them.” Contextually, it ties directly to the “teaching” more than it does to the “teacher.” It is assumed that the “teacher” is correctly “teaching” the Word of God. This would fall right in line with the instructions to leaders to “feed my sheep,” and to “rightly divide the Word of God”, and to “teach and exhort.” It would not fit in with telling people who to marry, or when and if to move to a new community. And it would not align with telling people what clothes were “holy” and which were “sinful” to wear. It would also not fit with leaders telling people what career paths to follow. Yet, these applications are common in many churches today. God did not call pastors to “control” or “rule” his people. He called them to serve and feed them.
There is a lot more to be said on this subject, and I may say more later (but this post is already about four times longer than it should be). The truth shall set you free—not make you afraid of disagreeing with your leader. God bless you as you submit to Him. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light. And he calls you to rest.
In the mean time, here are some book titles that some of you may want to check out:
Twisted Scriptures by Mary Chrnalogar
Toxic Faith by Stephen Arterburn
More Jesus, Less Religion by Stephen Arterburn
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by Jeff VanVonderen
Tired of Trying to Measure Up by Jeff VanVonderen

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

spiritual authority and obedience

I have been asked to address several topics in this blog. The topic of spiritual authority and obedience is one of them. Before going into more detail in subsequent posts, I just wanted to give an overview of my thoughts on the subject. And I cannot overemphasize that these are my opinions on the matter. I will do my best to support my assertions and conclusions with properly exegeted (interpreted) scripture, but in the end, these are just the thoughts of another man. As with all my posts, I do hope that you find some benefit in the following.

Sadly, it has been my experience and observation that those teaching on the need for obedience to spiritual authority have done more harm than good to the body of Christ. A popular writer and speaker wrote a book and developed a video series in recent years on the subject of the "covering," or authority structure that God established for his people in the Bible. I have not seen the video series or read the book myself, so I cannot comment with great accuracy about what the author said or intended. However, multiple people have told me things they have learned from the videos, and others encouraged me (several years ago) to use the video series in the church that we had started. I chose not to use the videos. I believed then, and I believe even moreso now that the author's understanding of spiritual authority and obedience missed the mark. The author is very knowledgeable (I have read other books by him) and sincere, but I believe he is a product of his environment, and so propagates what he knows, and has not treated the topic objectively or properly.

The real harm I have seen is that the video series has been used by church leaders to manipulate church members into submission (so my critique may be more because of the use of the material rather than the material itself). Of course, when I say that, I do not believe these leaders have malicious intent. On the contrary, I believe they feel obligated to teach their congregants the importance of obedience to authority, and they saw this as a good tool to that end. The problem is that this use of spiritual authority is unbiblical. Or perhaps I should say, it is "extra-biblical." It goes beyond what scripture teaches.

One thing I saw many years ago was that I put myself in a very dangerous place when I told people that they had to "obey" me because I was their spiritual authority. For one thing, I was an incredibly flawed human being. For another, I wasn't any more spiritual than anyone else. And God had not called me to tell people how to live, or to otherwise control them. What's more, I had seen the abuse of authority by too many leaders over the years. It was amazing to me how many of my ministering peers and leaders spoke of drawing lines for their people because "people need (and want) lines drawn for them." They also spoke of not wanting to lose "control" of their congregations. People needed good strong teaching in order to keep them in line, to motivate them (read "manipulate" them), to get them to submit, was the logic. People in every church I had any association with were constantly demeaned for not "submitting" to leaders--for having "bad" or "rebellious" spirits. Interestingly, these "bad" spirits were indicated by congregants questioning the leaders. I began to see that people in these congregations were in a no-win situation. They didn't have a voice, and too many had lost their identities. People entered our churches with great intelligence, great ideas, great talents and abilities, great energy, and great intentions. But slowly their personalities would change as they learned to submit and not question authority. They learned to keep their opinions to themselves (unless their opinions were othewise valued and welcome), or they were marginalized, or they left. I still grieve when I think of what I was a part of and what I witnessed. And I have since developed a hyper-sensitive radar (good or bad I don't know) for abuses perpetrated by those with spiritual authority.

These are complicated issues, and I have only given a smattering of problems I saw with the topic, and I am sure I have only raised more questions with what I have related so far, rather than answering any.  I will go into more detail in later posts, but I did want to get the ball rolling tonight. Suffice it to say, that I do not believe that disagreeing with or even disobeying a church leader (any church leaders) equates necessarily with disobeying God. Someone might disobey God while disobeying a leader, but the two are separate matters, in my opinion. I also believe that living in the kind of systems that either overtly or covertly teaches this type of spiritual authority ("Obey me because I am God's leader in your life") is detrimental to the individual and to the body of Christ as a whole. It is detrimental to the individual on spiritual, emotional, psychological, and even physical levels. It squelches a person's God-given gifts, talents, and personality. And therefore, the body of Christ does not get the benefit of all of these wonderful diverse characteristics that make each of us unique. It is sad to me, and it doesn't need to be. I hope this and subsequent posts will encourage you to consider your own situation or the situations of those you know, and give you strength to be yourself again. You are greatly loved by the One who made you--by the One who made you YOU. God bless you this week.

wind and spirit, etc.

Continuing in John 3: Jesus tells Nicodemus not to be surprised that he needs to be born from above, and then (in verse 8) he goes into a comparison of the activity of the wind with that of the Spirit. He says the wind blows where it wants and you don't know where it is coming from or where it is going, but you hear the sound of it--and so it is with every one who is birthed by the Spirit. Some have asserted that this means that when you are born of the Spirit that you will "hear" something. But that misses Jesus' point. The point here is that no one controls the wind. It can't be manipulated by man. The same can be said of the Spirit. Man cannot manipulate the Spirit--or cause Him to do something just because one has pressed the right buttons in order to get an expected response.

In essence, this is what the Pharisees (in that day and in ours) were all about. They knew exactly how to act and live right in order to obtain the blessings of God--or so they thought (and taught). And, to be fair, the sincere Pharisees (like Nicodemus) longed to see the kingdom (or reign) of God realized in their lives--and they believed their righteous and pious living could bring this about. But Jesus emphasizes that God is not a false god that can be manipulated. He chooses whom to renew and cleanse, and he draws to himself those whom he chooses. We may be able to "get God's attention" by our cries for deliverance (thus the declarative "whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved") but man's actions do not earn his blessing, nor do they obligate God. This is, in my opinion, what the analogy of wind and Spirit is about.

When God poured out his Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the recipients had no clue what was going to happen. When it did happen, it happpend to one and all instantaneously and simultaneously. Again, in Acts 10, when God poured his Spirit on Cornelius' household, they were not expecting anything to happen (indeed, neither were Peter or those who came with him). It happened suddenly and simultaneously. God chose whom to baptize with his Spirit and when--with no amount of effort on the part of the recipients (quite a contrast from what we see in many churches today). The laborious exercises that many go through today in order to "get" God to "move" or to "fill" people with his Spirit is misguided. These sincere people assume that God is obligated to do his part because they are doing theirs. The point of John 3 (again, I emphasize--in my opinion) is that God can not be manipulated by our paltry efforts at righteousness or by saying or doing the right thing. Birth from above originiates with God alone. It is by his grace that we receive this gift.

It was somewhat of a revelation to me when I realized that John 3:16 was a continuation of the conversation that Jesus was having with Nicodemus. And yet it make so much sense. That well known verse tells the why of this God-originated, God-directed, God-given birth from above--FOR God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son . . . It is his love for us that moves him to cleanse, renew and transform us--to give us new birth.

There is so much more to be said about Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus, but this will have to do for now. I have other topics that I want to touch on in other posts (and I may yet do that tonight). I hope this little introduction to the "birth from above" that Jesus talked about in John 3 has served to give some clarity to a passage familiar to and yet misunderstood and misapplied by many. God bless you as He continues to transform, cleanse and renew you day by day.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

the baptism connection

Last week I began a discussion of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. I want to continue down that road with what I believe is the baptism connection to be found in John 3. Before I begin, I want to reiterate that I am not a scholar. I’m just a wannabe theologian with only a modicum of biblical knowledge and training. What I offer here is my opinion. It is not authoritative. But perhaps it will strike a chord with you and help you in your own studies. Onward…

As mentioned last week, when Jesus tells Nicodemus in verse 5 that he must be “born of water and Spirit” in order to enter the kingdom of God, he was alluding to a passage in Ezekiel 36:25-27 in which God tells Israel that he will cleanse them with water and transform them by his Spirit. My understanding is that these verses are what Jews of the time used as the basis for proselyte baptism (Note: the passage says that God would “sprinkle” them with water—interesting). Proselyte baptism was common in ancient Judaism. The Essenes also practiced multiple baptisms for multiple purposes. When John came baptizing, he was baptizing Jews in the manner of proselyte baptism. That was part of the controversy and “offense” of John’s baptism.

Notice that these baptisms (sprinkling, pouring, or immersing) were all symbolic—pointing toward what God would do one day in reality. Jesus’ reference to Ezekiel was not to imply a requirement for baptism for initiation into the kingdom of God, but to declare that the “birth from above” spoken of in Ezekiel was imminent. Nicodemus certainly would have caught the reference to Ezekiel, and he knew the symbolism of proselyte baptism. The baptism connection then is only found in the symbolic practice of ancient Judaism. The fact that the early Christians practiced baptism (and we still do today) doesn’t mean that baptism was (or is) salvific. Rather, pre-Christian baptisms looked forward to God’s work in renewing his people. Christian baptism now looks backward at what God did in cleansing and renewing his people on Calvary and in the resurrection. It is still a symbolic act declaring God’s activity in our lives. It is an important act, and it declares publicly our faith in what God has done, but it is God that does the cleansing, renewing and saving—not the act of baptism.

My next post will deal with the “wind” and the “Spirit.”

Saturday, October 9, 2010

the new birth: a primer

First, I need to vent. I just spent over an hour at McDonald's writing a post for this blog. When I went to "publish" it, I was no longer connected to the internet. Aaarrrggghhh!!! And that post was so eloquent, witty, deep, profound and relevant. You'll just have to take my word for it. It was probably the single most significant piece of writing you would have ever read in your life. Now you will have to settle for this one instead.

With apologies to former members of New Hope Church of Middleton (you may have heard the opening scenario):

Have you ever taken your children to a family reunion, or to a birthday party, or to some other important family gathering, only to have them behave in ways that make you wish you had never come in the first place? Or make you wish you had left them at home? When you were a child, did you ever behave at one of these gatherings in ways that made your parents pull you aside and warn through grinding teeth, bulbous eyes and popping veins "as soon as I get you home . . ."?  I personally have not been there, but I've heard stories . . . So, why did you take your children home at the end of the event? Why did your parents take you home after you behaved like the child of Beelzebub? These are questions I pondered (and related) as the reality of God's grace was dawning on me. This brings us to John 3 where Jesus is talking with Nicodemus about being "born again," or "being born from above." And the meaning of these verses tells us a lot about God's love for us in spite of our behavior.

I won't go into a lengthy discussion of the background of John 3 (I did that in the lost post--ask questions if you want more background or clarification). But most of John 3 is Jesus' response to a non-question by Nicodemus. Nicodemus greets Jesus and declares that he (and other Pharisees) knew that Jesus had come from God because no one could do what he was doing without God. Jesus stopped him and told him that he needed to be born again to enter the kingdom of God. That phrase "born again" had two possible meanings. Nicodemus responded to Jesus as if he meant "rebirth," and asked "how can a man be born when he is old? . . ." Jesus answered with an allusion to Ezekiel 36:25-27, "unless you are born of water and the Spirit, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God." (In a later post, I will address how baptism fits in here.) There are two things that must be noted here that Nicodemus would have understood--but that we don't immediately understand in 21st century America.

First, the kingdom of God is not referring to "Heaven." Rather it is referring to the "rule" of God. It is the thing that all sincere Jews (especially sincere Pharisees) were longing to see. It was the Day of the Lord proclaimed by the prophets. It was the day when God would come and make things right on earth. He would bring justice and deliver his people, and bring down the evil oppressors. All men would bow to God's rule. That is what Jesus was talking about, and that is what Nicodemus would have understood Jesus to have meant. Jesus was telling Nicodemus unless you are "born again," you are not under God's rule. God is not your king unless he has birthed you.

Second, the phrase that Jesus used was to be understood as "born from above" (or from God), and that is what Jesus was clarifying when he told Nicodemus he needed to be "born of water and the Spirit" in verse 5. The point was that this birth was to originate with God--not with human parents. And this birth was what Ezekiel (and others) had promised. It was the time when God would cleanse his people with water (used metaphorically--as I said, I will address that in another post) and transform them by his Spirit. The key here is that it was all God's doing. The one being born is passive throughout the process. God births us because he wants to--because he loves us. We do nothing to earn it or to cause it to happen.

This brings us back to the scenario we started with--poorly behaving children and why we take them home with us at the end of the day. Our children had no choice in whether to be born or not. They did nothing to make it happen (That is what happens in the new birth--birth from above.). And just as importantly, our children don't remain our children because they behave. They remain our children because they are our children. And we take them home after a long trip, not because they behaved, and not because they sufficiently repented (although we may feel like leaving them behind until they've made things right), but because they are our children. Period. And I trust that at the end of the day, God will take me home because I am his child--not because I am good (I am in big trouble otherwise). John 3 gives us this kind of assurance. The new birth is God's idea, and it is he that performs it. As a result we now are his children. Now is come salvation (Rev. 12:10). There is therefore now no condemnation (Romans 8:1). "Beloved, now are we the sons of God . . ." (1 John 3:2). There is a point in time, a moment, a now, in which we become his children. We are new creations--all things have become new (2 Corinthians 5:17). And it is all God's doing. John 3 declares it.

If you are like me, you know that there are times when you are just awful at this parenting thing. We make big mistakes, and we lose control sometimes. Yet we love our children and care for them anyway. Why do we live our lives as though God's love for us is less than that--as though what he did on Calvary means so little and has such little power in our lives? John 3 declares God's paternity over our lives (no DNA test needed). We can trust him to love us and care for us, and to take us home at the end of the day--because he is our Father, and we are his children. Period.

There is a lot to discuss in John 3, but I hope this has helped you a little to trust in God's love for you. You don't have to be good to remain in his family. For me, that is motivation to strive to please him, to be good--not because I will be disinherited if I'm not good (that is man's way), but because he loves me in spite of my rebellion and misbehaving. That is grace.That is the message of John 3, of the new birth.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

casting crowns, etc.

This post will be kind of a potpourri of thoughts on several subjects found in the book of Revelation. When we think of "casting our crowns" at the feet of Jesus, I would guess that most of us get an image of an event that will happen when we all get to Heaven. It is an act of humility and gratitude expressed by all the saints simultaneously, showing our love and devotion to the One who saved us from our sins. At least that is what most of us believe because that is what most of us have been taught. We see this image in Revelation 4:10. In his book Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright suggests that this is a metaphor for our present reality as Christians, not a literal picture of a Heavenly ceremony. I am not enough of a scholar to say for sure, but it makes sense. When we yield to Christ, and his love and grace, do we not take our crowns off and place them at his feet? What an effective image capturing the moment of conversion.

As an aside, the idea that Scripture contains literary techniques rubs some of us the wrong way--I know it did me for a long time. The idea that Jesus would use hyperbole to make a point is tantamount to blasphemy, but how many of us are blind and handless because we took his admonition in the sermon on the mount literally? This past Sunday, Chris Dolson spoke about Paul's use of sarcasm in his first letter to the Corinthians. Read 1 Corinthians 4:8-13 and see if you detect a note of sarcasm in Paul's words. It is quite obvious. So, Revelation contains much symbolism--read "metaphor."

Continuing on in Revelation . . . Most of us are aware of Revelation's use of numbers. Seven lamps, seven churches, seven angels, seven spirits of God, seven trumpets, seven vials, etc., and 12 tribes, 12 pillars, 24 elders, 4 creatures, and the list goes on. Some have even gone so far as to find a seven year period of tribulation in the pages of Revelation. Of course, it never mentions a seven year tribulation, but if you add up some of the time periods mentioned you can come up with something close to seven years. When I was studying Revelation, I discovered something that to me was significant. If seven is symbolic for perfection or completeness, then what is one to make of the dragon pursuing the woman in chapter 12 for 1,260 days? Well, 1,260 days is approximately 3 1/2 years. If the dragon is Satan, and the woman is the church (as I believe), then we have a picture of futility and frustration. Satan pursues, but he is never able to complete his goal (3 1/2 is half of 7) of capturing and destroying the church. He is frustrated in his efforts. We should be encouraged by this--the first readers would have been.

I hope these last few posts have challenged your paradigms related to Scripture, and specifically to the book of Revelation. I offer these thoughts not to confuse, but to hopefully help us stop and examine how we read and understand Scripture. And perhaps we can find encouragement in the biblical interpretations taught by those not in our particular camp.

One last thought: too often we Westernize or Americanize the Bible. We see everything through the lens of 21st century American evangelical fundamentalism. We don't realize how insulated we are from the rest of the world, and for that reason, how arrogant we become in our views. Dr. Wilson asked us, "How bad does tribulation need to get for it to be 'great' tribulation?" He noted that the last 100 hundred years have seen greater persecution of Christians world wide than any century before. He showed us a video put out by the Voice of the Martyrs. I remember sitting there feeling my self-righteous paradigms of what it meant to be a "true Christian" begin to crumble as a young African boy testified how he had stood strong for the name of Jesus. He was not of my faith camp. Men had come to his village and forced him to build a large bon fire. While the fire was blazing, the men told the boy to renounce his faith in Christ. He refused. They threw him on the fire. In the video, he took off his shirt and showed the scars. I had a lot of thinking to do. Would not Jesus tell this young man "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into my rest"? I think so. Who am I to think I can tell this young man something about what it means to "live for Jesus." I am the one that needs to be taught by him. I have never had to sacrifice like that. Truly, we are sheltered in America. Thank God for the freedom and protection we have. But our little place in the world does not define 21st century Christianity. And it certainly does not set the standard. God bless you as you continue to open your eyes to the treasures to be found in Christ and his Word.