Monthly Archives: May 2020

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (5): Visions Meet People Where They Are

The crucial question for prophetic interpretation is whether the general biblical principle of “God meets people where they are” is applicable to apocalyptic prophecies such as Daniel and Revelation. If so, how does it affect our interpretation of these prophecies? I believe it will be helpful to our purpose to notice that God at times even adjusted the form of apocalyptic visions in order to more effectively communicate to the inspired prophet. The most striking example is in the book of Daniel. There visions of similar content were given to two people from completely different backgrounds.

Many Adventists have tended to distinguish between the visionary experiences of Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel. They say that the pagan king had a dream in Daniel 2 but that Daniel himself had a vision in Daniel 7. This distinction is not, however, warranted by the biblical text. Unusual wording in two passages, Dan 2:28 and 7:1, while often overlooked by commentators as of little interest, reveals that the experience of the two “prophets” was the same. In Dan 2:28 Nebuchadnezzar is told, “Your dream and the visions that passed through your mind as you lay on your bed are these” (NIV). In Dan 7:1 we are told, “Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying on his bed (NIV).” The underlying Aramaic is essentially identical with that of Dan 2:28. In both cases, God chose to reveal Himself in visionary form, He was in full control of the revelation.

Not only is the mode of revelation essentially the same, but the content of the two visions, when interpreted, is essentially the same. In Dan 2 the vision begins with the kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar (Babylon), traces three kingdoms that will follow, and eventuates in the kingdom that the God of heaven will set up and which will never be destroyed (Dan 2:36-45). In Dan 7 we again have a series of four kingdoms, with the first representing Babylon (Dan 7:4,17), and again the interpretation eventuates in the everlasting kingdom of the Most High (Dan 7:26-27). To Nebuchadnezzar, the heathen king, God portrays the future world empires by means of an idol. The term translated “statue” or “image” is frequently used in connection with idolatry in the Old Testament (2 Kings 11:18; 2 Chron 23:17; Amos 5:26, etc.). That this meaning is to be understood here is clear from Daniel 3. There Nebuchadnezzar recognized exactly what to do with such an object! Nebuchadnezzar could appreciate God’s use of this cultural concept, since he saw the nations of the world as bright and shining counterparts of the gods that they worshiped.

God here chooses to use cultural expressions with which Nebuchadnezzar was familiar, and those concepts lent themselves to the point God was trying to make to him. God’s point in the vision was that He was the source of Nebuchadnezzar’s power and position (Dan 2:37-38), that He is in full control of all kingdoms of the earth (and their gods) and places them under the control of whomever He wishes (Dan 4:17). But Nebuchadnezzar was not to understand this point until his second vision (4:5, 34-37). In chapter 2 Nebuchadnezzar accepts that God is a revealer of mysteries (Dan 2:47), but his reworking of the idol into one totally of gold shows his unwillingness to submit to God’s control of history at this point in time.

For Daniel, on the other hand, the nations of the world were like vicious, ravenous beasts who were hurting his people (chapter 7). God again draws on the prophet’s knowledge and setting as He shapes the vision He gives to Daniel. This time, instead of symbolism drawn from the Babylonian world, He shapes the vision as a midrash on the creation story of Genesis chapters 1 and 2. God describes Daniel’s future in terms of a new creation.

“Daniel said, ‘In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea’”(Dan 7:2). The concept of winds stirring up the sea is reminiscent of Gen 1:2, where the wind/spirit moves upon the waters of the great deep. As in the original creation, beasts then appear (Dan 7:3ff., cf. Gen 1:24-25; 2:19). In each story the appearance of the beasts is followed by the appearance of a “son of man,” who is given dominion over the beasts (Gen 1:26-28; 2:19-20, cf. Dan 7:13-14). What we have in this vision is an early example of “second Adam” typology, in which an end-time Adam figure takes possession of God’s kingdom in behalf of His people (Dan 7:13-14, cf. 7:27).

What message was God seeking to communicate to Daniel and his fellow exiles in Babylon? I believe it was the same basic message that God sought to communicate to Nebuchadnezzar. God is the One who is in control of history and of all the affairs of nations. To Daniel and his fellow exiles, things seemed out of control. The Godless nations flaunted their dominion (see Dan 7:6,12, which use the same word for “dominion” as Dan 7:14, 26-27) like carnivorous beasts ravaging a flock. To Daniel in Babylon, the message of Dan 7 was a great comfort: just as Adam had dominion over the beasts in the Garden of Eden, so the Son of Man, when he comes, will have dominion over these nations that are hurting your people. God is in control even when things seem out of control. He is the one who sets up kings and removes them.

An “Adventist Muslim” Response to COVID-19

It has been one of the great privileges of my life to work for 13 years at Loma Linda University, a grand experiment in the possibility that many religions can work together in a common mission to “continue the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus Christ.” I have been often been amazed at the spiritual commitment of the non-Christian faculty and staff at LLU. Among them is Eba Hathout, Professor of Medicine and Medical Director of the Pediatric Diabetes Center at our Children’s Hospital. A self-professed “Adventist Muslim,” she speaks below with prophetic power to our situation. This is a transcript of her Ramadan speech at an interfaith event on May 14, 2020:

“It was a mere two months ago, that we were all wrapped up around ourselves. We as individuals, political parties, different-color races, religions and countries. On the global scene, our world was in a state of toxic inflammation, with fires of anger and hatred and war everywhere. Then in just one moment, on March 11, everything stopped, and the world stood still. I had been busy preparing for the annual Hassan Hathout Legacy interfaith event: For the Love of Tomorrow, which was scheduled to take place at the Huntington Gardens on March 15th. My last meeting at the venue was on March 10th when all details were final. The next morning, news about the virus invading America was starting to erupt, and I made the difficult decision to postpone our event. Later that evening, and with unprecedented speed, the whole of America shut down. My son and his classmates at Harvard Law School were told not come back to campus after Spring Break. Harvard was closing. Other colleges shut down. Schools followed. Our nation, and much of the world, was on lock down.

“As a physician, the priority at our university hospital was how to take care of patients while keeping everyone safe. We had heard the horror stories of Italy, and then of New York. The work environment changed to a war zone, with command center meetings twice a day including weekends, and numerous other virtual meetings throughout the day. At Loma Linda, every meeting starts with a prayer. A two-year transition to Telemedicine had to be done in two weeks. Quick decisions were made about which doctors needed to stay and work from home for their own safety. Visionary leaders planned and were ready for the worst in terms of casualties. However, the worst did not happen in the form of massive numbers of sick and dead people, rather it was in the many co-workers and patients’ families who had to lose income or livelihood. At work and throughout the nation, financial losses were cruel and grave.

“We take comfort in God’s insurmountable power and bountiful grace as we read in the bible: But They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint.
We read echoes in the Quran: It is God who started creation that can start it again. He shall grant you endless bounties from heaven, and from earth.
Today more than ever, we are being tested for our capability to adapt, and our ability to recover. Self-renewal, in all of God’s living creatures, is what favors the survival of one species over another. It is that inner force to bounce back and move on. This too is a skill in which God can provide and guide.

“One month after ‘D-Day’ of the pandemic, I started going out for solitary walks around our Pasadena neighborhood. I couldn’t help but notice that our world had changed again. The sky was bluer, the trees were greener. I could smell more roses as the earth began to breathe. There were far more birds singing and children walking with their parents in the streets. Strangers were smiling to each other in the markets, and the pavements were full of friendly words and gestures. I didn’t know quite how to describe it other than to say that, somehow, despite the threat of a deadly virus in the air, the world felt less toxic, and more human.

“Towards the end of April, the lunar month of Ramadan started, and it was then that I realized what an unprecedented fasting month that would be. This time, it was not just Muslims who were staying home reflecting and reading scripture, Americans of all faiths were doing the same. It was as if all of America was living with us, our first common Ramadan. Our mouths are not just closed but masked with veils of different colors, as we each try to protect our neighbors and our friends. The only time we unveil is when we talk to God in prayer. Our eyes yearn for each other. We got accustomed to smiling with our eyes rather than our lips. This inconvenience is far more tolerable for those who wear the mask, not out of fear, but out of love.

“In the past, when we called for cleaner air, we sometimes forgot that toxicity was also spiritual and emotional and social. It took one tiny virus, killing thousands around the world, for us to wake up to a gentler and kinder America. And it is important as we mask and glove each day to remember why we do this. Personally, it is easier to accept that one will die whenever God destined them to, and just move on. One other factor is added to this equation, it is that negligence can carry harm to someone we love. I know many who have such orientation. Taking precautions is neither forgetful of faith nor of destiny, it is not born out of restlessness, rather it is taking a bold step out of the house of fear, and into the house of love.
In his poem, The Great Realization, Tom Roberts was asked by a little boy: why did it take a virus to bring people back together, he answered: sometimes you got to get sick before you start feeling better. That is why Hindsight is 2020.

“So here we are together, living through and making History as the generation of 2020. Therein lies the perfect milieu for fasting, where the inflammation of hatred is quietened, and many toxins that invade our ears and gut and spirit are put to rest, body and soul align to make happy brains and happy hearts. That is healing at its best. There is a depth and a height which we attain when we fast that is enormously uplifting. Whenever we reach one mountaintop, we begin to climb another. Everything shrinks to its proper dimension, and a magical power prevails. That I would argue, is the power of distilled, detoxified, and purified Love.

“As a child, I remember sitting next to my father watching the first Apollo moon landing, I recall my father’s words which echo in my conscience to this day: Isn’t it a pity, that Man who was able to reach the moon, is still not able to reach the heart of his fellow man. Now that we face this common and largely unpredictable virus threat, perhaps we can start conducting our lives with a more vivid image of an ancient and eternal reality, that of our own impermanence, and our ultimate divine destination.

“While we cannot cure the world, we can certainly do our part, where we are, with what we have..like the old story of the man who walked on the beach rescuing one starfish at a time by tossing it from the sand back to the ocean where it can live..When someone told him: “There are hundreds of beaches and thousands of starfish, you won’t make a difference..” he replied as he tossed another starfish back into the ocean: “I make a difference to this one.”
This pandemic has left us with many to resuscitate, and much to rebuild. So wherever we are, and however we can, let us take a path of love, and rescue whatever starfish come our way, remembering that if we cannot help everyone, sometimes it’s enough to make a difference to one.

“On these special last nights of Ramadan, I hope that our fast will add to the collective prayers of Americans of all faiths, and that divine healing can touch both body and soul of our nation. May God make us instruments of His mercy as we rebuild a common new path, guided by divine wisdom, and shining with God’s light.

“I pray that God will ease our deep longing for each other, and for people and places where we cannot be at present. Today in particular, I remember my own friends and say to them: In love we met, in love we part, and in love, I hope, we meet again.”

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (4): The Exegetical Imperative

The special nature of apocalyptic prophecy raises a separate issue. A generally accepted principle of biblical interpretation is that God meets people where they are. In other words, Scripture was given in the time, place, language, and culture of specific human beings. The knowledge, experience, and background of the Biblical writers was respected. Paul, with his “Ph.D.”, expresses God’s revelation to him in a different way than does Peter, the fisherman. John writes in simple, clear, almost childlike Greek. On the other hand, the author of Hebrews has the most complex and literary Greek in all the New Testament with the exception of the first four verses of Luke. In Matthew, you have someone who understands the Jewish mind. Mark, on the other hand, reaches out to the Gentile mind. So the revelations recorded in the Bible were given in a way comprehensible to each audience.

This point was driven home with great power a few decades ago. In the nineteenth century, New Testament Greek was thought to be unique. It was quite different from both the classical Greek of Plato and Aristotle and the Greek spoken today. Some scholars thought that the New Testament had been given in some special kind of Greek, perhaps a “heavenly language.” Then someone stumbled across an ancient garbage dump in Egypt. It was filled with the remnants of love letters, bills, receipts, and other products of everyday life in the first century. To the shock of many, these papyrus fragments were written in the same language and style as the books of the New Testament! The New Testament was not written in a heavenly language, nor in the cultured language of the traditional elite, but in the everyday language of everyday people. God meets people where they are! The Sacred Word was expressed through the cultural frailty of human beings.

This principle is clearly articulated in Selected Messages, Volume 1, 19-22:
“The writers of the Bible had to express their ideas in human language. It was written by human men. These men were inspired of the Holy Spirit. . . .
“The Scriptures were given to men, not in a continuous chain of unbroken utterances, but piece by piece through successive generations, as God in His providence saw a fitting opportunity to impress man at sundry times and divers places. . . .
“The Bible, perfect as it is in its simplicity, does not answer to the great ideas of God; for infinite ideas cannot be perfectly embodied in finite vehicles of thought.”

In affirming this principle we do not fall into the trap of treating the Bible as if it were merely exalted human conceptions of God. The richness of the human elements in the Bible are not a liability, they are part of God’s intentional design for His Word. God has chosen to reveal Himself in this way for our sakes. At some points in the Bible the human elements of expression reflect the personality and style of the human author, seeking to express God’s revelation in the best possible human language. But at many points in the Scriptural narrative, it is God Himself who bends down and takes onto His own lips the limitations of human language and cultural patterns for our sakes. There is, perhaps, no clearer illustration of this than the Ten Commandments, which come directly from the mouth of God (Exod 20:1-19), yet include significant elements of the cultural milieu within which they were received (including slavery, idolatry, and neighbors who possess oxen and donkeys). Clearly this aspect of the nature of God’s revelation has implications for hermeneutics.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (3): General and Apocalyptic Prophecy

In reaction to the work of Desmond Ford, an earlier generation of Seventh-day Adventist scholars sought to distinguish 1) general prophecy, represented by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and others, and 2) apocalyptic prophecy, represented by Daniel and Revelation. General prophecy, sometimes called “classical prophecy,” was seen to focus primarily on the prophet’s own time and place, but would occasionally offer a glimpse forward to a cosmic “Day of the Lord” leading to a new heaven and a new earth. Apocalyptic prophecy, on the other hand, was seen to focus on history as a divinely-guided continuum leading up to and including the final events of earth’s history. Such prophecies are generally unconditional, being grounded in God’s over-arching purpose for history more than in the human response to that history. General prophecy focuses on the immediate situation of the prophet, while apocalyptic prophecy has more of a long-range view.

Because of its dual dimension, general prophecy may at times be susceptible to dual fulfillment or foci where local and contemporary perspectives may be mixed with a universal, future perspective. Apocalyptic prophecy, on the other hand, does not deal so much with the local, contemporary situation as it does with the whole span of future history, including the major saving acts of God within that history. The greater focus of general prophecy is on contemporary events, the greater focus of apocalyptic prophecy is on end-time events. While general prophecy describes the future in the context of the prophet’s local situation, apocalyptic prophecy portrays a comprehensive historical continuum that is under God’s control and leads from the prophet’s time all the way down to the End.

General prophecies, which are written to affect human response, tend to be conditional upon the reactions of peoples and nations (Jer 18:7-10; Jonah; Deuteronomy 28). On the other hand, apocalyptic prophecies, particularly those of Daniel and Revelation, tend to be unconditional, reflecting God’s foreknowledge of His ultimate victory and the establishment of His eternal kingdom. Apocalyptic prophecy portrays the inevitability of God’s sovereign purpose. No matter what the evil powers do, God will accomplish His purpose in history. A key interpretive principle, then, is to determine which Biblical prophecies are general in nature and which are apocalyptic. When the genre has been determined, the appropriate approach can be taken.

The major hermeneutical implication of this determination has to do with the time and frequency of fulfillment. An apocalyptic time sequence, by its very nature, is limited to a single fulfillment. Daniel 2 for example, whose meaning is fairly clear, covers the entire span from Daniel’s time until the End. It is not, therefore, readily given dual or multiple fulfillments. A classical prophecy such as Joel 2:28-32 (or the Day of the Lord concept in general) may readily be applied to the original situation as well as to similar situations in the future.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (2): Apocalyptic Thinking

Some scholars believe that the historical type of apocalyptic thinking (like Daniel 2 and 7) began with Zoroaster, a pagan priest of Persia, but the relevant Persian documents are quite late and may be dependant on Jewish works rather than the other way around. It is more likely that the “dawn of apocalyptic” can be traced to the prophetic works of the Old Testament, like Isaiah 24-27, 65-66, Daniel, Joel and Zechariah. When the prophetic spirit ceased in the Persian period (5th to 4th century BC), pseudonymity (a later writer adopting the name of an earlier, more famous one) became a way that uninspired writers sought to recapture the spirit of the ancient prophets and write out what those ancient prophets might have written had they been alive to see the apocalyptist’s day.

Apocalyptic writers believed that this world order is evil and oppressive, and under the control of Satan and his human accomplices. It would shortly be destroyed by God and replaced with a new and perfect order corresponding to Eden. The final events of the old order would involve severe conflict between the old order and the people of God, but the final outcome is never in question. Through a mighty act of judgment, God condemns the wicked, rewards the righteous and re-creates the universe.

The apocalyptic world view, therefore, tends to view reality from the perspective of God’s overarching control of history, which is divided into a series of segments or eras. It expresses these beliefs in terms of the themes and images of ancient apocalyptic literature. Although this world view can be expressed through other genres of literature, its fundamental shape is most clearly discerned in apocalypses.

While the same scholars who have created such helpful definitions may think of people who hold such beliefs today to be out of touch with contemporary reality, Seventh-day Adventists will recognize that their fundamental beliefs are decisively grounded in ancient apocalypticism. In other words, for Adventists the books of Daniel and Revelation are not marginal works appropriate to occasional Saturday night entertainment, they are foundational to the Adventist world view and its concept of God. Daniel and Revelation provide the basic hermeneutical grid from which Adventists read the rest of the Bible. For Adventists to reject this world view would be to inaugurate a fundamental shift in Adventist thinking.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic: Defining Terms

As we all struggle with the consequences of COVID-19, many people want to know what the Bible in general, and biblical prophecy in particular, may offer that can guide us in these challenging times. So I decided to offer a series of reflections on the issue of interpreting biblical apocalyptic; the genre of literature to which the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation belong. I have addressed this topic at a scholarly level for nearly forty years now, but my purpose is to keep the blogs readable for the general audience.

John J. Collins of Yale University, whom I count as a friend, has worked with a team of scholars for some fifty years now on how to define “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic.” (Among his many works, I recommend the following as a first read on this topic: The Apocalyptic Imagination, third edition, Eerdmans, 2016.) The term “apocalypse” is drawn from the introductory phrase of the biblical book of Revelation (Rev 1:1) and means “revelation” or “disclosure.” From the second century AD onward, it became increasingly used as a term for extra-biblical works of a character similar to Revelation. So modern scholars are not out of line in applying the label “apocalyptic” to a whole collection of similar works existed in ancient Judaism, such as Daniel, Ethiopic Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch and other works produced before and contemporary with Revelation.

Collins’ team of scholars analyzed all such texts from 250 BC through 250 AD and developed a definition based on their common characteristics. The definition they developed was published in Semeia 14 in 1979 and remains the scholarly consensus to this day: “An apocalypse is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.”

As I understand this definition, an apocalyptic work like Daniel or Revelation is revelatory literature, which means it claims to communicate information from God to humanity. This is accomplished in the form of a story, a “narrative framework.” The revelation is communicated to a human being by “otherworldly beings” such as angels or the 24 elders of Revelation. The revelation discloses “transcendent reality,” that which is beyond the ability of our five sense to apprehend, about the course of history leading up the God’s salvation at the End, and about the heavenly, “supernatural” world.

While not present in the above definition of apocalypse, scholars also distinguish between two types of apocalyptic literature, the historical and the mystical. The historical type, characteristic of Daniel, gives an overview of a large sweep of history, often divided into periods, and climaxing with a prediction about the end of history and the final judgment. The mystical type of apocalypse describes the ascent of the visionary through the heavens, which are often numbered. While one might be tempted to view these two types of apocalypses as distinct genres, several ancient writings, including the book of Revelation, mix elements of both types in one literary work. For Seventh-day Adventists, the historical type has been of primary interest.