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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

One Thousand Years and Three Days

Entire theological systems have been developed on the basis of 8 verses of scripture, Revelation 20:1-8. And that astounds me.

1Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven,(A) holding in his hand the key to(B) the bottomless pit[a] and a great chain. 2And he seized(C) the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and(D) bound him for a thousand years, 3and threw him into(E) the pit, and shut it and(F) sealed it over him, so that(G) he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.

4Then I saw(H) thrones, and(I) seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw(J) the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those(K) who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands.(L) They came to life and(M) reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6(N) Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such(O) the second death has no power, but they will be(P) priests of God and of Christ, and they(Q) will reign with him for a thousand years.

7And when the thousand years are ended,(R) Satan will be released from his prison 8and will come out(S) to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth,(T) Gog and Magog,(U) to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea.

What makes this passage so pivotal? Why do theologians filter their picture of history from creation to the end through a lens colored by their particular theological reading of this passage? What makes these verses so much more important than the other 396 verses in Revelation? Christians describe themselves as premillennial, postmillennial, or amillennial. Of course a lot Christians don’t have a clue as to what these terms mean. But, these terms really matter to those disciples especially interested in eschatology (study of the end times), and they fall into one of the three camps. They want to know which camp you fall into, so they can nod vigorously in agreement with you, or wag a disapproving finger as they reject your postion.

I find that the most part of Revelation 20 is verses 1-2 and then verse 14. In the beginning of the chapter, Satan is vanquished, but not by God; not by a mighty archangel; and not by an army of angels (or a legion of angels). Satan is chained by one angel. One angel seized and bound the devil. One. And, at the end of the chapter, death is vanquished. Imagine! Death is no more.

I am not dismissing the rest of Revelation 20 as something matters. Of course it is important; it’s Holy Spirit-inspired scripture. I simply don’t think this small passage is the definitive passage in the New Testament or even in Revelation. Paul, accredited with authorship of 13 of the 27 New Testament books, spends far more time discussing the implications of the coming of Jesus, his crucifixion, and his resurrection than he does discussing the end times. The four Gospels give their bulk of their attention to the time Jesus spent moving toward the cross. If there is any one aspect of our faith that outweighs all others it is our understanding of Jesus – his death and resurrection. That’s the interpretive lens through which we read the creation accounts, the law, the prophets, Paul’s letters, and Revelation. Moreover, one’s concept of Jesus is what should determine his reading of scripture (literal or critical or both), his views of the world, and his practice of faith.

If our interpretive determinant is the Good Friday-Easter (cross-resurrection), how does that color our reading of Revelation 20? Jesus reigns (end of Rev. 20:4), those whose faith is in him share in his resurrection and are his priests (Rev. 20:6), and God is sovereign (20:11). Stacks and stacks of books have been written based on interpreting the entirety of scripture and all of human history in light of Revelation 20:1-8, the Millennium. Yet the most important teaching of Revelation 20 is not what we learn about an end-times chronology, but what learn about God. What we learn about God is what has been stated throughout Revelation and throughout the Bible. God possesses absolute power, redeems all who put their faith in His Son Jesus, and defeats evil completely.

You’ll notice, I have not put myself in a ‘camp,’ premillennial, postmillennial, or amillennial. I don’t know what would be gained by doing so. At the end of my own reading of Revelation, I don’t have a great sense of what the end will look like. I simply know that God is in control. I think that’s what John wanted his original readers to understand, and the first readers of this apocalyptic vision were a truly distressed people, persecuted for their faith in Christ. If we gain from Revelation confidence because we know that know matter what happens in life, God loves us and God is in control, we will have the blessing John and the Holy Spirit who inspired him intended.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The White Rider

One of Clint Eastwood’s best roles is as the Pale Rider, a shadowy figure called “the Preacher,” who single handedly fights off a group of toughs that intimidate the prospectors gold rushing in the Old West. The title of the movie is from Revelation 6:8, the Pale horse with the rider named “Death,” one given Heavenly authority to “kill with the sword.” Clint kills with the gun, with dynamite, and with a hickory axe handle. In the movies, nothing is more reliable than the grit, toughness, and destructiveness of Clint Eastwood.

In the battle for the souls of men and women, and in the quest for hope in life and for eternal life, we’d do better to rely on the White Rider than the Pale.

11Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. 13He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. 14And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Revelation 19:11-15).

“Then I saw Heaven opened.” Recall the night of Jesus’ birth. Heaven rejoiced as a multitude of angels appeared to the shepherds to sing praise to God at the birth of Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11). “His eyes are like a flame of fire.” Recall the vision John had at the very beginning of this book. In his description of the resurrected Jesus, he said, “His eyes were like a flame of fire” (Revelation 1:14b).

Continuing in Revelation 21, we read that the White Rider is “clothed in a robe dipped in blood and his name is called The Word of God” (v.13). We recall Revelation 7, where John sees a multitude too great to count from all peoples of the earth. He is told they, dressed in dazzling, spotless white, are those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb” (7:14c). In the Gospel of John, it is Jesus who is called the Lamb of God (John 1:29). Also in John, Jesus is the Word (1:1), who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

In Revelation 19:14, the armies of heaven are following the White Rider. Clearly he is their commander and they give him complete loyalty. And we remember in the Garden of Gethsemane. When the temple police came to arrest Jesus, Peter defended him, cutting off the ear of the high priest’s assistant Malchus (John 18:10). Jesus reprimanded Peter saying, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels” (Matthew 26:53)? Even at that juncture, in the incarnation, before the cross, Jesus had authority in Heaven. Angels, beings far mightier than humans, were at His service.

Finally, Revelation 19:15, “from his mouth … a sharp sword,” recalls chapter one, again the initial description of John’s visit from the resurrected Jesus. “From his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword” (Revelation 1:16b). This Jesus who speaks truth is the one who will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God, and we remember among other references the assurance that there is a “Day of Wrath” (Romans 2:5).

Why take the time to locate all these depictions of the White Rider in Revelation 19 in other places in scriptures? We do this for a couple of reasons. First, as has been stated often in this column, Revelation need not be as confusing as some suggest. At the center, we see Jesus. By cross-referencing the description, we see that Jesus is the subject of the story.

Second, knowing that Jesus is at the center of Revelation, we know we have hope. This is not a story to be feared or avoided. It is to be read and celebrated. The blood Jesus shed, he shed for sinners, for me, and for you. He is fearful and awesome and almighty, and he has come for us, to save us. So, read and reread Revelation 19. As you read, know that you are reading about Jesus, our Savior and Lord. And then have hope in the future and hope for today.