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Conversations About God: Summary of Chapter Six, “Evaluating the Evidence”

We have learned from our study of the Bible that all God asks of us is trust. If we would only trust in Him enough, He could readily heal the damage sin has done. That is all He asked before the war began. That’s all He asks now of those who have been damaged and caught up in this war. All He will ever ask of us in the future is trust. Where there is mutual trust and trustworthiness, no cheating, there is perfect security, perfect freedom, perfect peace. And this is what God desires the most. But is that conclusion based on the right interpretation of the Bible? Have we rightly weighed and understood the biblical evidence?

Others have read the biblical evidence and drawn different conclusions. Many of these are sincere followers of God, yet they perceive Him as arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. Many of them earnestly seek to win others to that kind of God. But if that is the kind of person God is, then He is not worthy of our trust, nor is He safe to trust. Sadly, this picture of God sounds a lot like the accusations Satan has made against God from the beginning of the conflict.

In responding to the accusations against Him, God is not willing to issue mere claims or denials. Anybody could do that. But when a person has been falsely accused of being untrustworthy, it does no good to deny it or to simply claim to be trustworthy. So God has answered the charges against Him with the evidence of demonstration. Only by the demonstration of trustworthiness over a sufficiently long period of time, and under a great variety of circumstances, can trust be re-established and confirmed. The Bible is a record of just such a demonstration.

Why is there so much historical detail in the Bible? So much of it seems of such little importance. But if God’s way of revealing Himself is demonstration, it is involving Himself in human affairs and saying, “Watch the way I handle situations. That’s the way to find out what I’m like.” If we did not have the historical details, we would not be in a position to recreate those original settings and understand why God would thunder one time and speak so softly another time.

The Bible is no mere collection of theological statements. Nor is it a code book of deeds to be done and sins to be shunned. It is rather an inspired record of God’s handling of the crisis of distrust in His universe. The only way to truly understand the Bible and rightly interpret it is to pick up the Bible and read it through as a whole. To be confident that we see the real meaning of the Bible, we must view it as a whole, relating all its parts to the one central theme — the truth about God Himself. Of every story, teaching and event, the same question must be raised: What does this say about God? Another question naturally follows: Can we trust the God that we see? That will be the subject of future chapters.

Conversations About God: Summary of Chapter Five, “The Record of the Evidence”

Without the Bible we would know nothing about this conflict in God’s family. Nor would we have the record of how He has demonstrated His trustworthiness by His infinitely skillful and gracious way of handling the revolt. But can the Bible itself be trusted? Do we have the right collection of sixty-six books? Have the words been accurately preserved? Can we trust the many translations? And, most of all can we have confidence that we understand the meaning?

How should one decide which books of the Bible belong and which books do not? I think it helps a great deal to know the origin of these books. The opinion of centuries of believers, who were much closer to the writing of these books than we are, is of consequence. But nothing compares with reading them all. I have done it several times. It takes a long weekend without any interruption. I read all the way through the Old Testament and then the Old Testament Apocrypha and the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and the New Testament, and the New Testament Apocrypha. And when you arrive at the Revelation of Peter, you haven’t forgotten Maccabees and Enoch and Romans and Genesis. They are still in your mind. Based on that experience, I agree with Catholic Jerome, Protestant Luther and the great Bible Societies, that the sixty-six books of our Protestant Bibles are the only ones that really measure up.

Have the words of the Bible been accurately preserved? All the original copies of the Bible have disappeared. There are thousands of hand-written copies, though, that have come down to us through the years. And no two of them are the same, which could distress a person who doesn’t know better. But there is a bright side to this. When you look at thousands of these manuscripts, and note what the differences are like, you would be moved to say that no other ancient document has been preserved with such care and accuracy as the books of the Bible. Let me quote the one-time curator of the British Museum, who spent a lifetime studying such matters, “You can pick the Bible up with confidence and say, for all practical purposes, we have the word of God.”

“In many and various ways” (Heb 1:1-3) God has spoken to us through the years. And in many and various ways those words have been translated into English and most of the other languages on this earth. How else could the gospel go to all the world? How could people find out about our God? So there is no substitute for taking the Bible (or preferably the versions, plural, of your choice) and sitting down together to read and study. Never has the evidence contained in the Bible been so readily available. And having all this evidence so readily available, let’s read it. Can we confidently come to the conclusion that we understand the meaning? That the evidence is really there? That the Bible can be trusted? And, as some of us who have spent a lot of time reading these versions believe: the Author who is behind the Bible can be trusted because there is trustworthy evidence in the record.

Revelation 13:14-18 and Daniel 3 (Thirteen 7)

This part of Revelation 13 contains one of the clearest allusions to the Old Testament in the entire book of Revelation. There are multiple parallels in the latter part of this chapter to the story of the three Hebrew worthies and Nebuchadnezzar’s worship test on the plain of Dura. First of all, in both Revelation 13 and Daniel 3, people from all over the world are compelled to worship. In Daniel, the worship demonstration is required of representatives from all the provinces. The demonstration in Revelation 13 seems to be truly worldwide. The entire world is required to worship.

Second, in both chapters there is a death decree attached to the command to worship. In Daniel 3, those who refuse to worship the image are cast into a fiery furnace. Revelation 13 simply says that the non-compliant will be killed, there is no mention of the specific method. Third, in both chapters the center of focus for the worship is an image. The image of Daniel 3 is probably modeled on the image of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2. The image of Revelation 13 is modeled on the sea beast that was introduced earlier in the chapter.

Finally, both the worship demand on the plain of Dura and the end-time worship decree are associated with the number six. The number of the beast in Revelation 13:18 is six hundred sixty six. This seems an intentional allusion to the dimensions of the image in Daniel 3. That image is 60 cubits tall and six cubits wide. Since there is no reference to depth, it is possible that the image was a wall relief rather than a free-standing statue. The important element that connects this aspect of each passage is the multiple use of the number six.

The allusion to Daniel 3 in Revelation 13 indicates that, in the final crisis of earth’s history, the scenario of the plain of Dura will be repeated, but in a spiritual and worldwide sense. The literal and local description of a specific event in the history of ancient Babylon becomes the model of a spiritual and worldwide attempt to compel worship at the end of earth’s history. The Babylon of the End is a spiritual, worldwide entity in opposition to the gospel and those who proclaim it. The experience of Daniel 3 will be re-visited upon earth’s final generation, but not in the literal way that it occurred in the original context. There will be a worldwide attempt to compel worship in the final crisis of earth’s history.

How the Cosmic Conflict Changes Everything (Twelve 8)

How should we see the world differently because of the cosmic conflict? What would it be like to live without that knowledge? The cosmic conflict powerfully answers the three great questions of philosophy; 1) where did I come from, 2) where am I going, and 3) why am I here? 1) According to the cosmic conflict, where did I come from? I come, first of all, from the mind of God, who foresaw me back in eternity and shaped me in His image. He has created me free, with the commission to copy His creative work in the formation of little people like myself. My life has meaning and purpose when I live it in relationship with God and in a creative fashion that honors Him.

2) According to the cosmic conflict, where am I going? To join God in resolving the crisis in the universe by non-violent means. God will bring an end to sin and sinners and will restore the universe to a condition of freedom, joy and peace, grounded in love and trust. Along the way it will appear that all is lost, but the lost battles will not undo the final outcome. God and His ways will win in the end and we can know we are on the winner side no matter how bad things may be now. Knowledge of the outcome gives us confidence to keep trying and avoid discouragement.

3) According to the cosmic conflict, why am I here? I am made in the image of God to reflect His character to others. To bear witness to the unique facet of God’s character that He has gifted me with. My purpose each day is to “fight” for the kind of world and universe that God is leading to, to bring a piece of that glorious eternity into everyday experience today. The little battles we fight every day are part of a much larger war. This gives meaning and purpose to all that we do.

Knowledge of the cosmic conflict provides meaning and purpose to all that we do, connects us to a purpose far bigger than ourselves, and enables us to cope with the past, no matter what we have done or what has been done to us, and relaxed about the future, knowing it is safely in God’s hands.

What is the significance of the heavenly “war of words” on our picture of what God is like? God’s side in the cosmic conflict places priority on love and self-sacrifice, respects the freedom of God’s creatures, and does not coerce but rather is patient, seeking to provide persuasive evidence. On the other hand, Satan seeks to win by persecution (force) and deception (telling lies). The casting out of Satan in Rev. 12:9-10 is more intellectual than physical. The hosts of heaven no longer take his lies seriously, his arguments have lost credibility at the cross.

Our picture of God to a large degree determines how we live and behave. If we think of God as severe and judgmental, we become more like that. If we think of God as gracious and self-sacrificing, we become more like that. We become like the God we worship.

A Textual Issue in Revelation 12:17 (Twelve 6)

The King James Version reads that the dragon “went” to make war with the remnant. More recent translations are in agreement that the dragon “went off” (ESV, NASB, NIV, RSV, NRSV) or “went away” (Greek: apelthen) to make war. The KJV reading is based on a relatively rare manuscript option (Greek: elthen) supported by the evidence available at the time when the KJV was produced.

In addition, the manuscript tradition behind the KJV translation has “‘I stood’ upon the sand of the sea” (meaning John: Rev. 13:1, KJV) instead of “‘he stood’ upon the sand of the sea” (Rev 12:18, NRSV; 12:17, ESV, RSV; 13:1), meaning the dragon rather than John. The NIV and NRSV go so far as to translate “dragon” instead of “he” (Rev. 12:18, NRSV; 13:1, NIV). While the manuscript evidence is split fairly evenly on this point, text critics strongly favor “he stood” as the most likely reading in the original.

The readings “went away” and “he stood” fit much better with the story of Revelation 13, where the dragon calls up allies from the sea and the land to assist him in the final conflict. The more modern readings tie chapter 13 with chapter 12 as a continuous narrative. Chapter 13, then, is an explanation of the dragon’s end-time war with the remnant (see present and future tenses in chapter 13). But the dragon’s allies, the beast from the sea and the beast from the earth, both have a history (Rev. 13:1-7, 11) that parallels the middle portion of chapter 12 (Rev. 12:3-6). Thus, chapters 12 and 13 explain each other as part of an ongoing narrative.

The Time When the Trumpets Begin (Trumpets 3)

The throwing down of the censer (or fire) in Rev. 8:5 suggests to some Adventist interpreters that the events that follow (8:6—the blowing of the seven trumpets) are after the close of probation. This would mean that the seven trumpets represent end-time events rather than a forecast of events throughout the course of Christian history. But a number of indications in the text make this very unlikely.

First, the pattern in the first half of the book of Revelation (the churches, the seals and the trumpets) is that the visions begin with the New Testament era and cover events throughout Christian history. Second, whatever the casting down of the censer (fire) in Rev. 8:5 means, probation is clearly not yet closed at the time of the sixth trumpet. The intercession at the altar is still taking place (Rev. 9:13) and the gospel is still going forth (10:11; 11:3-6, 12-13). That the “interlude” of Revelation 10:1 – 11:13 should be included in our understanding of the sixth trumpet is shown in a following blog. Chapter ten and eleven are part of the sixth trumpet, not an independent vision. Finally, the proclamation of the gospel ends and probation fully closes only at the sounding of the seventh trumpet (Rev 10:7). So the seven trumpets of Revelation cover the whole course of history from John’s day to the close of probation and final events.

Major parts of Revelation DO concern end-time events in human history. But when John goes there, he makes it fairly clear that he is doing so. While each of the seven-fold series (churches, seals and trumpets) ends in the final era, the central focus of the second half of the book is almost entirely focused on the last events of earth’s history.

The Meaning of “Trumpets” in the Bible (Trumpets 2)

The seven trumpets section of Revelation (particularly 8:2 – 9:21) is one of the most difficult passages in the Bible to interpret. Faithful Adventist students of the Bible have not come to agreement on its meaning through the years, even though Ellen White makes passing reference to the passage in the book Great Controversy. There are enough biblical and historical issues with Josiah Litch’s explanations (referenced in GC) that consensus on the passage’s meaning has been elusive. But there are aspects of the passage that are reasonably clear and one of these is how it builds on the symbolic meanings that trumpets have exhibited throughout the Bible.

The Greek words for trumpets (nouns) and trumpeting (verbs) occur 144 times in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT. The vast majority of those references (105 out of 144) concern either signaling in warfare, worship and prayer, or a combination of both. The clearest single passage on the meaning of trumpets is Num. 10:8-10. According to this text, in ancient Israel the trumpets were always to be handled by the priests (10:8), even when being used in the context of warfare. So there is a spiritual meaning that Israel was to discern in the blowing of trumpets.

The defense of the nation of Israel was considered a sacred task in the OT. So when Israel went out into battle, the trumpet priests went with them. The sounding of the trumpets not only indicated the moves that the battle line was to make, it represented a prayer for God’s intervention in that battle (10:9). Likewise, in the temple and on the feast days, the blowing of trumpets invited God’s spiritual intervention in the lives of His people (10:10). So the core meaning of trumpets in the OT is covenant prayer, calling on God to remember His people, both individually and collectively.

Most of the occurrences of trumpets and trumpeting in the NT are in Revelation, chapters 8 and 9. At first glance it might seem that signaling in warfare is the primary meaning in the seven trumpets of Revelation. But the connection between the trumpets and the fifth seal (see previous blog) underlines the prayer theme as the primary one here too. The trumpets are a response to the prayers of the suffering saints of God (Rev. 6:9-10; 8:2-6, 13). It assures them that God has noticed their suffering and, even though He may seem silent in their experience, He is already acting in history against those who have persecuted them. So the trumpets are more than just an outline of history, they contain a deep theological message for those who are suffering. God’s silence in the experience of His saints is not the whole picture. He is often responding in ways that we may not detect until later.

The 144,000 and the Great Multitude (Interlude 1)

Back to our series on the theology of Revelation. This blog begins a series on the interlude between the sixth and seventh seals, chapter seven.

Chapter seven functions as an interlude between the sixth and seventh seal. The chapter and verse designations in our English Bibles were not original, but were added many centuries after the Bible was written. So the division between chapters six and seven may mask the fact that chapter seven is part of the sixth seal. In the context of the very final events of earth’s history (Rev. 6:15-17) a crucial question is asked and is left dangling at the “end” of the chapter. The question of Revelation 6:17 is: “Who will be able to stand at the second coming of Jesus?” Chapter seven offers a two-part answer to that question. The ones who will be able to stand when Jesus returns are the 144,000 sealed ones (Rev. 7:1-8) and the Great Multitude in white robes (Rev. 7:9-14). Both groups represent the end-time people of God who will make it through the challenging events of the End-time.

Careful examination of chapter seven will lead us to address a number of themes:

1. The Meaning of Seals and Sealing. Documents are sealed to conceal or validate their contents. People are sealed as a sign of ownership or for protection.
2. Eph. 4:30 and the Cosmic Conflict. In context, the grieving of the Spirit in one’s own life is a localized version of the cosmic conflict.
3. Is the number 144,000 Literal or Symbolic? This is a controverted question, but evidence in the text leads me to believe that the number should be taken symbolically, and this will be detailed in a later blog.
4. Are the 144,000 and Great Multitude Two Different Groups or Two Ways of Describing the Same End-Time People of God? This question is also controverted and will be addressed in a later blog.
5. Rom. 3:19-23 and the Meaning of “Without Fault” (Rev. 14:5). The 144,000 are described in Revelation 14 as “without fault.” What exactly is that supposed to mean? I will make reference to Romans 3 to argue against an absolute perfection interpretation of “without fault.” Stay tune for blogs that follow this one.
6. Other Issues Concerning the 144,000. The picture of the 144,000 raises many practical questions. To what degree is God responsible for the suffering and violence in today’s world? What are we supposed to make of the military imagery in Revelation 7:1-8? What is the new song that only the 144,000 can sing (Rev. 14:3)? Stay tuned.

Waco and My Family

In spite of many differences, Koresh’s free-wheeling use of proof-texts from the Bible, interspersed with quotations from Ellen White, mean he was a bit more Adventist than most Adventists would like. The Branch Davidians kept the Sabbath, were vegetarians, abstained from tobacco, alcohol and most drugs, were constantly talking about Bible prophecy, and believed that the King James Bible was the only true and authoritative version. The Branch Davidians were culturally very similar to the most conservative of Adventists.

This came home powerfully to me when my family and I spent two weeks in New York City in 1999. As a family we stayed in a small apartment behind and above my childhood church, now called Church of the Advent Hope, in Manhattan. One evening the kids (12, 14 and 17 at the time) got a little bored, so I went down the street and rented the documentary “Waco: Rules of Engagement.” I had seen it at a scholarly conference (where I met James Tabor) some time before and thought they would find it interesting. The documentary includes footage of both federal attacks and also video from inside the compound between the two attacks (February 28 and April 19).

My children were not easily frightened by videos, but this documentary completely traumatized them. They couldn’t sleep the whole night afterward. When I questioned them about it later, they emphasized several things. The Davidians inside the compound talked and acted so “Adventist.” As children in Sabbath School they had been taught that the end-time persecution was coming, and it would affect them personally. To them the video was evidence that what they had been taught was beginning to happen. So when my children saw the charred bodies of Davidian children, they identified very strongly with them and feared that the end-time persecution was about to happen. Koresh in many ways deviated strongly from Adventism, but the similarities are troubling. While commitment and faithfulness are important things, in an end-time context they can be carried too far.

25 Years After Waco: My Own Personal “Near-Miss”

About a year ago I got my first chance to actually visit the site of the Waco tragedy that occurred 25 years ago next month. I interrupt a series of blogs on the theology of Revelation to repost and rewrite (as needed) a series of blogs that I did for a different context (the war with ISIS) a few years ago. In this series I share my own recollections and regrets about what might or might not have happened if I had been more involved at the time.

On February 28, 1993, scores of federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms approached the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. Their mission was to serve a search and arrest (to arrest Vernon Howell, aka David Koresh) warrant on weapons charges due to the large amount of weapons the Branch Davidians had accumulated. While the ATF would have preferred to arrest Koresh outside the compound, they were incorrectly told that he rarely left it. Surprise was lost when a mailman tipped off Koresh that the raid was coming. The Branch Davidians were armed and in defensive positions when the federal agents arrived around 9:45 AM. It isn’t clear whether the Branch Davidians or the federal agents fired first, it is likely an accidental discharge on one side or the other triggered the shooting on both sides. A cease-fire was arranged a couple of hours later (in part because the federal agents were running out of ammunition), but by that time five Branch Davidians were dead (another was shot and killed trying to enter the compound that evening) and the ATF had suffered four dead and sixteen wounded.

The incident brought the Branch Davidians and their Seventh-day Adventist “cousins” into the international spotlight. In the course of the siege and after its tragic conclusion on April 19, 1993, I was contacted by the BBC, CNN, ABC and NBC to answer questions about the situation. The roughest question came from a BBC reporter, “What is it about Seventh-day Adventists that breeds these kinds of people?” But the most disturbing phone call of all came in early March from a fellow Adventist, Dan Serns, at the Texas Conference. He told me that the FBI was looking for an Adventist scholar familiar with how Adventists think about the book of Revelation and the End-times to help in the negotiations with Koresh. To be honest, I wanted nothing to do with the situation at the time, yet I felt that it would be wrong for me to ignore the request. I took the FBI number I was given and gave my contact information to Serns for them to call if they wanted to.

I called the FBI number three times but no one picked up. In retrospect I think my lack of enthusiasm for the potential assignment caused me not to try too hard to reach the federal authorities. As far as I know, the FBI never attempted to call. I wonder what would have happened had I tried a little harder. The role that I might have played was offered to James D. Tabor, a religious scholar at the University of North Carolina (Charlotte) and J. Philip Arnold, a religion scholar from Houston, Texas. From what I have seen in the media and my one meeting with Tabor six years later, they seem to have been good choices. They warned the federal officials that the harsh siege tactics they were using would only encourage the Branch Davidians to think this was a truly apocalyptic event with cosmic implications. The Davidians’ beliefs were sincerely held and they were willing to die for them. I understand that these scholars’ interpretations were convincing enough that Koresh was willing to leave the compound. But in the end, the advice to federal officials appears to have been ignored (one possible reason is that no arrest could legally occur until the search verified illegal guns on the premises– so the compound had to be entered and searched first somehow). The final assault began before the date Koresh had agreed to leave. The siege ended tragically on April 19 with the death of some 75 Branch Davidians when a fire broke out during the final assault using Bradley fighting vehicles (essentially tanks). Among the victims were 21 children.

I still wonder if I could have made a difference. Given the fact that Tabor and Arnold gave sound advice which was ignored anyway suggests it wouldn’t have mattered, but. . .