Eyes on the Prize

Because of this we do not faint; but though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, produces for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are bound by time; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

-2 Cor. 4:16-18 KJV, adapted

Some time ago, while writing a series on 2 Thessalonians 2, I said to Theophilus that I would like to write a piece on the value of eschatology for the Christian life. (Have no fear, dear reader, this piece is not about Antichrist or any of that material.) Christ and His Apostles used the doctrines of the Resurrection and Final Judgement as part of extended sermons or letters for the purpose (amongst others) of exhorting believers to live in a godly manner. The passage quoted above is a typical example, making the point that we should scorn sufferings in this life, because they produce a glory that we shall inherit in the age to come (“ha olam haba” in Hebrew; “ho aion ho mellon” in Greek).

God’s Word is not given to us for frivolous reasons. As S. Paul says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is useful for teaching, for rebuking, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). It can be easy, particularly in the West, to focus on what we can gain, produce, and enjoy in this life. Our mind will easily turn to Jesus’ famous words, “I have come that they may have life, and life to the full” (John 10:10). But Jesus also tells us to take up our cross and follow Him. The Book of Revelation praises those who considered their earthly lives nothing in comparison to the life in the age to come, with the result that they submitted to martyrdom rather than receive the “mark of the Beast”.

That temptation to abandon faith in the face of extreme pressure has appeared throughout this present age. The persecutions under the emperors, under the Nazis, and under ISIS readily come to mind as one contemplates the spirit of antichrist that S. John proclaimed is already at work in the world. It is steadfast hope in the resurrection and goodness of Christ that allowed the martyrs to boldly meet their fate in those horrific circumstances. As we contemplate the sufferings of Christians in the Middle East, we should remember that Christ has promised to seat them on glorious thrones, to share in His Kingdom as He rules the nations with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:9; Rev. 2:27, 20:4).

In the West we do not know, and cannot know, to what extent we will be subjected to persecution of that kind. History has a way of surprising people: who could have known that Constantine would become a Christian and end centuries of persecution in the Roman Empire? Our faith should prepare us for whatever eventuality may come. We should also be prepared to reject false teachers and false messiahs, about which both Christ and His Apostles warned the Church. It can be easy to scoff at the idea of being taken in: “Those preachers clearly deny the divinity of Christ, so I won’t listen to them.” But not all false teachers are so easy to spot: in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ warned that they would appear in sheep’s clothing; they would resemble other orthodox believers. In His Olivet Discourse Christ said, “For false messiahs and false prophets will arise, and they will display great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they will deceive even the chosen ones” (Matt. 24:24).

Worse is yet to come. S. Paul warned the Thessalonians that the resurrection of believers and their being gathered to Jesus Christ would not happen until there had been a great falling away, an apostasy. In this he echoes Jesus’ words in the Olivet Discourse: “for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition” (2 Thess. 2:3); “and then many will be caused to stumble, and they will betray one another, and will hate one another. And many false prophets will arise, and will deceive many people. And because iniquity will abound, the love [agape] of many will grow cold.” Pasages such as these demonstrate the necessity of preparing the Church at all times for perilous conditions, and this can be done by pastors without getting into complicated debates about issues such as the Antichrist, etc.

In closing, I would like to suggest that the use of passages connected with the Second Coming can serve a very useful pastoral role without causing the kind of controversy that has been known to divide people (e.g. the timing of the resurrection/rapture in relation to the Second Coming and other events at the end of the age). End times passages should not be considered “optional” in the life of the Church (although they should be handled with care and open-mindedness). It is a credit to the liturgical churches that insist on reading from the whole Bible (say over the course of 3 years) that they do not shy away from some difficult texts. As laypeople, when confronted by some of these challenging parts of Scripture, it behooves us to remember that times will get worse, not better, before the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

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How we read the Bible

Bible Reading

Fear not folks – this isn’t a piece on the Magisterium and Protestant “private readings”.

Recently my Christian reading has been in a decidedly academic vein – which might not be saying much, but anyway…I have been enjoying the fresh perspective that Dr Mike Heiser has given to reading the Bible – and when I say “fresh” I really mean “sort of new to me.” Those of you who will happily sit down with the likes of NT Wright,  Jonathan Klawans, or Michael Coogan will appreciate where I’m coming from.

One of the tasks that a Christian faces in his or her reading of the Bible is the problem of passages that seem “weird.” (Don’t worry folks this isn’t a post on Revelation or anything eschatological.) A variety of options present themselves in this situation:

-Ask your pastor/priest

-Ask a friend or contact a Bible teacher

-Try and research the topic yourself using commentaries, articles, books, etc.

Now I’m not necessarily talking about things that are defined by creeds, councils, etc; there are parts of the faith in pretty much every denomination where Christians have freedom to disagree – provided they treat their opponents with respect and civility. In these areas of freedom our own conscience, inclinations, and abilities will play a large role in trying to make sense of difficult and strange Bible passages. Traditionally Christians in these circumstances have had recourse to consult the Fathers or learned expositors like Matthew Henry or John Calvin. But what does one do when these sources disagree? Much as we would like to affirm complete unity across the great men of the faith, we have to accept that this was not always the case. Try as one might, one cannot reconcile S. Hippolytus and S. Jerome on some issues: either one is right and the other wrong or both are mistaken – they can’t both be right.

This is where modern scholarship can be very handy, provided it is accessible. We need to remember – and this is no criticism of our august forebears – that the doctors of the Church didn’t have access to the archaeological materials and other sources that have more recently been discovered. It is the lot of more recent generations of churchmen to make sense of materials that can challenge and enlighten our understanding of the context in which the books of the Bible were written.

These discoveries have not always been happy, and they have challenged Christians to reconsider some of their “traditions” (by which I don’t mean an attack on Tradition as Catholics and the Orthodox would understand it). But our faith is built on firm foundations, and nothing could ever challenge the true authority and sovereignty of our God.

A case in point is the discovery of tablets in Mesopotamia that recounted the Flood story, but not in the form we know from Genesis. In these accounts the Noah figure is referred to as Uta-napishtim (“I have found life” in Akkadian) or Ziusudra (which has a similar meaning in Sumerian). Uta-napishtim is alerted to the Flood by the god of wisdom, Enki or Ea, and he proceeds to build a “boat” (more like a cube) which he lines with pitch to keep out the water. Like the Biblical Noah, he is accompanied by family and animals, and he sends out birds following the Flood to search for dry land. Upon his exit from the “boat” he offers a sacrifice and Enlil, the god who sent the flood, is appeased.

When these tales were discovered they caused controversy: for some they were an affirmation of the Bible’s Flood narrative, for others the discoveries undermined the Bible – the Hebrews’ account was just a derivative of the Babylonian material. How could one believe any claims about Biblical authenticity?

We have to live with the results of these discoveries; but rather than igonoring them, we should allow them to help us form a better picture of the Ancient Near East (ANE), the context in which the books of the Tanakh were written. But rather than seeing the Biblical account as merely derivative of older traditions, we should understand it as a polemic against the beliefs and practices of the world surrounding the Israelite nation. The Biblical writers were not afraid to use material from their neighbours and their ancestors – but they subverted it to affirm the truth of the revelation given to them as a nation (vide Rom. 3:2 “to them were committed the oracles of God”).

The Bible consistently claims that Yahweh is the creator and that His sovereign purposes stand. There is no god like him in the heavens above or the earth beneath. It was He who saved Noah from the Flood, He who accepted sacrifice and promised never to send a flood again.

So, the next time you come across something strange in the Bible, don’t be afraid to search for a reputable Christian scholar – you may just learn more than you bargained for. They too serve God and His Church: “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.” (Gal. 6:6)