Literal Interpretation and Metaphor

In my last post I tried to argue that the interpreter of Revelation must use the same literal hermeneutic used on Romans.  “Literal interpretation” is often lampooned as “wooden” when employed in studies on Revelation, but it seems to me that Revelation ought to be read as any other book of the New Testament.  If literal interpretation is defined properly (authorial intent) and the interpreter has a sense for the use of metaphors, then Revelation makes much more sense.

The problem in that paragraph is the “sense for the use of metaphor.”  A metaphor is a bit of symbolic language that intends to communicate something.  For example, if one of my students described my views on Revelation as “way out in left field,” he would not literally mean I was standing out in a baseball field lecturing.  That metaphor means that I was off-base (another baseball metaphor!) Perhaps another student would disagree, thinking that I had “hit the ball out of the park.”  Again, the meaning is that I did well and convinced him.  In both cases, I need to know about baseball and how these metaphors function in American culture.  If I were in Africa and someone said I was “out in left field,” perhaps the non-American would misunderstand what the point was and think I was standing over in the corn field.

This is what makes reading Revelation difficult.  We are 2000 years away from the world of the metaphor, not to mention several cultures beyond the Greco-Roman world of the first century.  In order to understand a metaphor, we need to read it as a listener in the last first century might have.  This implies a knowledge of the Greco-Roman world since Revelation was originally written to churches in Asia Minor.  More importantly, the readers were Jewish Christians who had knowledge of the Hebrew Bible.  There are two competing metaphor sets for any given metaphor in the book of Revelation – contemporary culture and the Hebrew Bible.

I’ll try one example here, the first “Horseman of the Apocalypse.”  Revelation 6:1-2 describes a rider on a white horse.  The color white is often associated with victory.  Roman emperors, for example,  rode in white when they celebrated victory.  But the color is often associated with righteousness, especially in the book of Revelation.  For example,  white robes are  promised in the letters to the seven churches and the martyrs in chapter 6, even the martyrs in chapter 5 might be said to be “victorious” because they have overcome.

There are two white horses in Revelation, this one and another 19:10-16.  In chapter 19 the horse and rider is clearly Jesus coming in victory to establish his kingdom.  If a person living in the first century Roman world heard this metaphor in either case they would think of victory and conquest.  Based the fact that this is a white horse, can we say that the white horse and rider is a positive image (Jesus, the gospel going into the world, etc.), or is it negative, the “antichrist” who goes out “bent on destruction”?

In my view, the rider on the white horse is a parody of Christ in 19:10-16, he is a “false messiah,” he is “anti-Christ.”  The rider is the Anti-Christ, going out “bent on conquest” from the beginning of the tribulation.  Several contrasts with the white rider in chapter 19 :  the name of the rider is “Faithful and True,” here the rider is given the power to judge and make war.  The crowns are different, the weapons are different.

N. T. Wright, Paul A Fresh Perspective (3): Messiah and Apocalyptic

Wright suggests in this chapter that we ought to be reading Paul’s use of “Christ” a bit more apocalyptically.  Essentially, when Paul says “Christ,” he means “Messiah.”  That Jesus is the Messiah is not a major issue in the circles I travel in, but in New Testament Scholarship, a return to Jesus as Messiah is something which is in fact controversial.

Wright wants to get away from a false dichotomy that the Messiah was either a political idea or a religious idea (49).  This is excellent, since there is no separate of church and state in the first century or in the Hebrew Bible.  In addition, Wright states that Paul’s used of Messiah was not “religious” over against “political.”

A second idea which Wright argues strenuously against is that apocalyptic in the Second Temple period and in Paul does not mean “end of the space time universe” (50-51).   If one thinks that when Jesus returns is the “end of the world as we know it” they are wrong – that sort of an idea does not exist in the first century, in the Bible or in most Second Temple period apocalypses.  Again, Wright is more or less correct.  In this literature, when Messiah comes he vindicates  Israel and restores them to their inheritance.  Zion becomes the center of the world and all people, whether Jew or Gentile, will worship in Zion.

It is significant to me that Wright talks about the coming of the Messiah as God accomplishing his “many-staged plan of salvation” (53).  Even a text like Eph 3:8-11 is apocalyptic: God has called Paul to make know “the plan that through the church the many-splendoured wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places” (52).   That God has a plan administered in several stages to bring about the redemption of the world is a very familiar idea to me and it warms my dispensational heart.

However, clearly Wright is not a dispensationalist, and many people have noticed that Wright has become increasingly agitated at dispensationalist finding comfort in his books.  There are really two reasons for this, as I see it.  First, Wright sees the American “Left Behind” version of dispensationalism as an aberration.  In The Last Word and Surprised by Hope he seems to go out of his way to distance himself from this sort of thinking.  Secondly, Wright is an Anglican and does not make a distinction between church and Israel the way a dispensational does.  Israel has been replaced by the Church and there is not “future” for Israel separate from the church.

If I have read Wright correctly, two reactions immediately come to mind.  I hope that no one judges dispensational thinking by Left Behind (or Hal Lindsey, etc.)  Those books are not theological mature thinking, nor are they theological in the least.  There are at least a half-dozen well-written and scholarly explanations of dispensational thinking that are better representatives than pop-culture phenomenons.  I am thinking here of Bock, Blaising, Saucy, and of course Dale DeWitt.

Secondly, Wright is incorrect if he thinks that dispensationalism (even in the hokiest forms) believes that the return of Jesus is the “end of the world as we know it.”  In dispensationalism, the present age gives way to the kingdom, which goes on forever.  The re-creation of the heavens and the earth, drawn from texts in the Hebrew Bible and Revelation, is in fact a re-creation of the heavens and the earth.  I suppose this is a radical change, but it is the same “space-time universe.”  Apocalyptic that looks for the complete destruction of the world is wrong-headed (Wright is correct here.  Although it makes a great Bruce Willis movie, “Armageddon” as the end of the world is not good theology!)

I find much in Paul: A Fresh Perspective which is conducive to a contemporary, even progressive dispensationalism even if Wright would protest.  Your mileage may vary.

Acts 5:1-16 – Barnabas and Ananias

OK, I was a sluggard and did not get this post done.  My apologies!  The audio for this week’s evening service will be available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service.  You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer.

Luke gives an ideal example: Joseph the Levite, also known as Barnabas (4:36) Barnabas is a significant figure int eh book of Acts, introduced here as a member of the community at Jerusalem. Joseph is a common name in the first century, so his second name might be a nickname. Luke tells us the name means “son of encouragement.”

Barnabas was from Cyprus. We know a community of Jews was present on Cyprus as early as 330 B.C., but they were expelled in A.D. 117. It is possible that Barnabas was in Jerusalem to serve his time in the Temple, or he may have been living in the city more or less full time. If he was wealthy, then he may have owned property in Jerusalem and Cyprus. When he accompanies Paul on the first missionary journey, the first location they travel to is Cyprus, perhaps to people who knew Barnabas quite well.

Barnabas sells some property and turns the proceeds over to the apostles. This stands in contrast to Ananias in the next paragraph, who claims to do the same thing but is not telling the truth.

Ananias also participated in communal living, but not fully (5:1-2) Taking the end of chapter four together with the beginning of chapter 5, it looks as though Barnabas and Ananias are intentionally place in contrast with each other.

Since the sale of property is voluntary, there is no reason for Ananias to lie about the price of the property – what is his motivation? Possibly he is simply motivated by greed, he did not want to give as much as the price of the property but when others gave the whole amount, he claimed a larger amount that he actually gave. Since Peter describes him as “filled with Satan” many scholars see him as parallel to Judas, another man who was filled with Satan, whose sin also include money (eventually) used to buy some land.

The word used to describe the sin (“kept back” in verse 2-4) includes the idea of financial fraud, such as embezzlement. BDAG describe it as “a type of skimming operation.” The word is used for people who hold back some of their crops which are to be used for the public good (Diodorus Scourus, 5, 34, 3). A more surprising use of this word is in LXX Joshua 7:1, 19-26 to describe the sin of Aachen. In that text, Aachen holds back some property which was supposed to be devoted to the Lord. His theft is therefore described as stealing from the Lord.

Peter confronts Ananias and his judgment is immediate (5:3-6) Peter tells Ananias that Satan has filled his heart. How is this possible, if the Jerusalem community was filled with the Holy Spirit? Was Ananias possessed, or does this language simply describe temptation? This must be parallel to the experience of Judas, who was the only other person in the gospels described as “filled by Satan.” Peter makes it clear that Ananias’ sin is against the Holy Spirit – his lie is not told to the apostles or the apostolic community, but to the Holy Spirit.

His wife Sapphira also lies, and is likewise judged (5:7-11) Luke tells us about three hours have passed since Ananias died before Sapphira came to Peter. We know that Ananias acted with the full support of his wife. Just ast the apostolic community is of “one mind and heart,” so too this couple was of one mind in heart.

Remember that the community in Jerusalem is a new Israel, and like the original founding of Israel, there is no room for the double-minded. Ananias is a negative example of someone not fully committed to the new community. Barnabas is fully committed, and will be a significant player in the missionary efforts of the earliest church.

“All The Prophets Foretold These Days”

There are a number of important points in chapter three, I want to highlight only one of theme here.  In the RCBC Evening Service we saw that Peter used the healing of the lame man to explain to the crowd that Jesus was the Messiah and that they were responsible for killing him.  This is a bold suggestion, but it is more bold yet when Peter claims that the repentance of the nation will lead to the establishment of the kingdom of God.

Even though the people acted in ignorance, the they must still repent (3:19-21).  Why are they to repent? Typically we think of repentance of personal sins, but in this context it appears that Peter has the sin of rejecting Jesus in mind.   This is the sin which appears in the immediate context.  The crowd was responsible for handing Jesus over to Pilate, they were the ones who refused to release him instead of Barabbas.  Certainly personal sin needs to be confessed and repentance ought to occur, but that idea does not come from Acts 3, and perhaps not even in Acts 2.  If these two chapters are parallel, then the “repent and be baptized” of 2:38 may very well refer to the sin of rejecting the Messiah as well.

The first result of this repentance is that their sins may be wiped out. The word here is “to blot out,” as in the wiping of tears in Rev 7:17, 21:4, or the blotting out of names from the book of life in Ps 68:29. The word was used for cleaning ink from a papyri sheet so that it could be used again, which in turn became a metaphor for obliterating something and leaving no trace. There are a number of Second Temple period texts which indicate that when the nation repents, God will forgive them and establish this kingdom.  (T.Dan 6:4, T.Sim 6:2-7, T.Mos 10:1-10, 4 Ezra 4:39).   In addition, there were at least some elements of Judaism in the first century which thought that the nation ought to repent and be baptized in order to see God’s messiah come and re-establish a kingdom for Israel.  The Qumran community sounds many of these same themes.

The second result is that the “Times of Refreshing” will come. The phrase is unusual, only appearing here in the New Testament, and while the words appear elsewhere in the LXX, there is not exact equivalent phrase. The phrase has the idea of “messianic refreshment, the definitive age of salvation.” There are, however, a number of similar phrases in the literature of the Second Temple period which indicate that the language would have been well understood by the biblically minded Jews in Solomon’s Portico that day.  See 4 Ezra 7:75, 91. 95; 11:46, 13:26-29, 2 Baruch 73-74; 1 Enoch 45:5, 51:4, 96:3.  Referring to the coming kingdom as “times and seasons” is also common, especially using the Greek kaivro”.  This word for time has the idea of the right time, the appointed time.  Jesus used it in Acts one, telling the twelve it was not for them to know the “times and the seasons.”

A third result is that God will send the Christ, Jesus who will fulfill the words of the prophets. Peter claims here that if the nation repents, then the messiah will return and establish the kingdom promised in the prophets.  What is more, the ones who repent will participate fully in that kingdom, since a major aspect of the Messiah’s return (in virtually every view of the messiah) was a separation of “real” Israel from “false” Israel.  Just as Jesus described the beginning of his kingdom as a separation (wheat from weeds, clean fish from unclean, even sheep from goats.)  When Christ returns, he will restore all things (verse 21), a term which is also unique in the New Testament, yet a theologically packed term.  The word does not appear in the New Testament or the LXX, but seems to have the sense of restoring creation to its original state.  This too is a major expectation of the Hebrew Bible as well as the Second Temple period, the kingdom would be a restoration of the world to Eden-like conditions.

So, which way will the nation go in the following chapters?  Will they respond to the preaching of Peter and repent of the sin of killing the Messiah, or will they continue in their rejection of him and therefore be “cut off”?

The Ascension and The Kingdom of God

To download the audio of the whole sermon, visit Rush Creek on Sermon.net. A PDF file of the handout for this sermon as well on Sermon.net

There are a number of important things in this chapter, so I will highlight just one of them from our Sunday evening Bible Study.  Towards the end of the session I was asked about the nature of the Kingdom predicted by Jesus in this text, is this a spiritual kingdom (i.e., the Church) or is this a literal kingdom?  I believe that the disciples who asked the question were thinking of a literal kingdom and Jesus’ response does not correct that understanding.  Perhaps that kingdom is not exactly what the disciples expected, but whatever it is, it is the restoration of the kingdom to Israel as predicted in the prophets.

While in Jerusalem, it appears that Jesus and the disciples gathered in their usual location on the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:6-8).  Some disciples asked if Jesus was going to “restore the kingdom to Israel” at this time.  This question is reminiscent of the Olivet Discourse in Luke 21:5-37 (cf., Mt 24-25).

In Luke 21 Jesus has offered a stinging critique of the Temple and its leadership and walked out of the Temple through the east gate to the Mount of Olives.  While walking through the beautiful buildings and gate, Jesus predicts they will be destroyed.  At least some of the disciples ask at that time about the timing of this event – is Jesus about to restore the kingdom, perhaps judge the current corrupt priesthood and replace it with a pure priesthood?  This is the same sort of question someone at Qumran might have asked, since they too thought the priesthood in Jerusalem was corrupt and would be replaced by a more pure priesthood (i.e., their sect!)

After the resurrection, it was only natural to think that Jesus would now enter the Temple in the power and glory of the resurrection and begin to reform the religion of Israel and begin the process of evangelizing the nations.  Again, this was a clear expectation of the Messiah’s activity.  Beginning with the people of God themselves, Messiah would either convert the enemies of Israel or destroy them (depending on their response or the attitude of the writer describing Messiah’s activities!)  Very often these enemies were within the nation itself.  Individual groups identified the primary enemy of a pure Jewish faith as corrupt priests, people who did not fully keep the law, etc.   The hope of Israel was that the kingdom would be restored to them as the prophets had predicted: Jeremiah 16:15, 23:8, 31:27-34, Isaiah 2:2-4, 49:6, Amos 9:11-15, as well as Tobit 13-14, 1 Enoch 24-25, PsSol 17-18, The Eighteen Benedictions 14.   Luke even began his first book with the hope of the coming Messiah in the Song of Zechariah (1:69-74) as well as the words of Simeon in the Temple (2:24-32).

Jesus reminds them it is not for them to known when the kingdom will be restored, but they are to be witnesses to the good news of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all the earth. To some extent, the kingdom is about to begin in the Temple in a manner which is not unlike what many expected.  The Holy Spirit will fall upon people and they will speak the Word of God in power in the Temple itself. On the other hand, that the kingdom would be given to a group of Galileans rather than a faction within Judaism (Pharisees, Essenes, etc.) was not expected at all.  These men are quite literally the most unlikely group of people to be commissioned with the task of announcing the Messiah to Israel and then the rest of the world!

How Are We to Use the Book of Acts?

To download the audio of the whole sermon, visit Rush Creek on Sermon.net. A PDF file of the handout for this sermon as well on Sermon.net

One of the most important issues we need to sort out at the beginning of a series on Acts is how we ought to apply the book to the present church.  Some Christians will argue that the book of Acts ought to be normative for Christian life and practice.  For example, since the early church lived simply and held all things in common, we ought to live simply and care for the needs of others just like they did in Acts 2 and 3.  The recent writer Shane Claiborne has popularized this idea (and he lives it out as well), although the sense that the poverty of Jesus and the earliest forms of Christianity ought to be applied today has been a common thread throughout church history.

Another example is the presence of sign gifts (tongues) and healings as a clear manifestation of the Spirit of God.  If you have been saved, some argue, then you will speak in tongues, since that is what the earliest form of the church did. Denominations which do not practice these gifts must explain why there are sign gifts in Acts but not in our churches today.

Common wisdom often equates the earliest example of something with the most pure form. Things were best in the “good old days” and we need to get back to those good old days in the present church.   This is not always the case, since it is also true that ideas develop over time.  Sometimes the earliest form is the most simple, but that does not mean it is the best.  If we look at inventions such as the car or the computer, few would say that the “best” car was the Model T!  Typically, the argument that Acts ought to be normative only involves the practice of the early Christians, not doctrine.  Obviously doctrine develops later with the Pauline letters and other Christian thinking about who Jesus was and what Jesus did on the cross.

Acts certainly demonstrates development from an entirely Jewish messianic movement to an almost entirely gentile missionary movement later in Acts. There are distinct difference in practice between the Jews in Acts 2-3 and the Gentile churches Paul founds in Corinth or Ephesus.  No where does Paul suggest that people sell possessions and give the money to the common treasury of the church.   Certainly there are few people who consistently apply this sort of thinking to Acts (Ananias and Sapphira, for example!)

In addition, the book of Acts seems to indicate that the earliest form of Christian was far less unified than we sometimes imagine.

  • By Acts 6, there is some division between Hellenistic Jews and the Jews from Judea.
  • There seem to be some Christians who were Pharisees and taught that Gentiles ought to keep the law, so that by Acts 15 a “church council” must be called to deal with this issue.
  • We can talk about Paul, Peter, and James as leaders of the church, but quite different agendas.
  • Acts 18 there are some people who only knew that John the Baptist had come, not Jesus as the messiah, not had they received the Holy Spirit!

Rome appears to have had some form of Christianity before Paul or Peter arrived there, so that Paul is greeted by the brothers when he arrives in Acts 28.

This confusion is perhaps a result of the transitional nature of the book.  Luke-Acts is quite unique in that the story begins in one age (Jews under the Law) and ends in another age (the Body of Christ, Jews and Gentiles saved apart from the Law by the blood of Christ).   We are naturally drawn to the cross as the center of the history – certainly the work of Jesus on the Cross is the single most important event in history!  But it is not necessarily the theological shift from one age to the next because what Jesus did on the cross is the climax of the covenants of Abraham and Moses.

What is significant theologically is the experience of Paul and his reflection on the meaning of the cross for the present age.  Without the Pauline letters we would not have a fully developed view of the atonement, justification, sanctification, etc.   Paul’s calling to be the light to the Gentiles was unanticipated in the Hebrew Bible.  While it was clear that God’s work to redeem man from sin would include Gentiles, how that would happen is not particularly clear.  After Paul’s calling on the road to Damascus, things begin to become more clear.

We can read the rest of the Bible and observe that there are a handful of points in history where God advances his plan to redeem the world (after the Fall, Noah, Abraham, Moses), and in each case there is a significant body of revelation given which in some ways breaks with the previous age, although there is often some continuity as well.  For the present era, it appears that this revelation was given to Paul, as the light to the Gentiles.  Frequently it is observed that the full revelation of what the cross means was not made until Paul, both inside dispensational circles and without – often Jewish commentators say Paul “corrupted” the teaching of Jesus!

My goal in reading Acts, therefore, is to observe very carefully how the church as we know it developed over the thirty years covered by the book.  There is a distinct shift from Jewish messianic ministry to Gentile mission.

Why Acts?

Beginning September 14, 2008, Rush Creek Bible Church begins a Sunday evening Bible study series based on the book of Acts.  In some ways my plan for Acts is ambitious.   My plan is to teach through Acts, finishing in May or June of 2009.  Some people might describe this as a very long series, others  will say I am being extremely brief! That is the way it is with the book of Acts, since there is a great deal of information in the book about how we got from Jesus of Nazareth to Paul in Rome.

My goal for this blog is to post a “teaser” for Sunday night on the Thursday before, and a reflection from Sunday evening on the Monday after.  There is a link to the audio for the series on this page, as well as a link to the notes for the evening a in PDF file.  The comments section is open for your responses, questions, and observations. I look forward to any interaction that comes out of our study together.

The book of Acts is not a sequel.  Rather it is an continuation of the project Luke began in his Gospel.  The “whole story” is Luke-Acts, and if possible, we ought to read Luke-Acts as a single work.  There are themes which run through both books and there are elements in Acts which are anticipated by the gospel of Luke.  Rather than seeing Acts as a second thought (or worse, a sequel), Acts should be read as the second half of Luke’s explanation of how the Gospel went from Galilee, through Jerusalem, and then to the whole world, including Rome.

One example of the relationship between Luke and Acts is the coming of the Holy Spirit.  In Luke 3 John the Baptist says that the one who will come after him will baptize with “fire and the Holy Spirit.” This baptism of the Holy Spirit dos not occur until Acts 2 when the Spirit descends on the Apostles “like tongues of fire.”

So, why the book of Acts?  There are number of reasons, but a major motivation is the frequent mis-application of the book of Acts in the church today.  We really do not know what to make of the book, so we make it into what ever we choose, often running rough-shod over what Luke actually says in the book.  In some ways the book is about the “origin of the church,” but there is more going on in the book than this.  People often have the mistaken idea that the book of Acts portrays the primitive church as an ideal we ought to try to recreate in our congregations today.  In most cases people have a single issue in mind and do not apply Acts to all their practice, resulting in some serious difficulties.

So how are we to use the book of Acts?  We will work on this a bit on Sunday, see you there.