Monthly Archives: June 2020

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (15): The Uniqueness of Biblical Apocalyptic

As noted above, critical scholars approach the books of Daniel and Revelation with the assumption that they are similar in character to the non-biblical apocalypses. According to John J. Collins, for example, the burden of proof must fall on those who wish to argue that Daniel is different in character from other examples of the genre. While many critical scholars today argue that Revelation (unlike Daniel in their opinion) is a genuine prophecy, they do not see in Revelation a window into the mind of a God who knows the end from the beginning.

Adventists are in serious disagreement with both a rejection of the special character of biblical apocalyptic and of the predictive nature of some of the utterances found in it. SDAs believe that God “knows the end from the beginning” and is well able to announce ahead of time “what is yet to come” through the Holy Spirit (Isa 46:10; John 16:13). While acknowledging the existence of pseudo-authorship and ex eventu prophecy in non-biblical apocalyptic, Adventists believe that the inspired apocalyptic of the Bible is substantively different.

The narrative setting of the book of Daniel is clearly in the courts of Babylon and Persia in the 6th Century BC. That was a time in history when the gift of prophecy was also exhibited in the work of Jeremiah and Ezekiel among others. Arguments for a sixth-century date of Daniel include: 1) The way Daniel handles months and years almost unknown in the writings of the second century BC, but quite common in the sixth. 2) The Aramaic of Daniel is much more like the Aramaic of the Persian period (Daniel’s time) than that of the Qumran scrolls (shortly after the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, the context of a second century date). 3) A case can be made that some of the Daniel manuscripts at Qumran are older than the time of Antiochus. 4) Daniel’s awareness of Belshazzar’s existence and position, something unknown in the second century. 5) Evidence from the field of archaeology is much more supportive of a sixth-century date than a second-century one (for more on this see the work of Gerhard Hasel in volume 2 of the DARCOM series, pages 38-44 and 98-100). The date when the book was written is, however, the crucial issue regarding the two Adventist assumptions, as few critical scholars question that Dan 11 includes a remarkably accurate portrayal of certain events in the fourth, third and second centuries before Christ.

A side note on the date of Daniel. According to John J. Collins (Daniel with an Introduction to Apocalyptic Literature, 34), any discussion of apocalyptic must distinguish between the ostensible setting which is given in the text and the actual settings in which it was composed and used. The ostensible setting of Daniel is clearly the courts of Babylon and Persia in the sixth century BC. Critical scholars point out that in ancient times already, Porphyry pointed out that the predictions in Daniel 11 are correct down to (but not including) the death of Antiochus Epiphanes (mid-second-century BC), but are thereafter incorrect or unfulfilled (ibid., 36). This phenomenon of partial accuracy is common to all non-biblical apocalyptic. So critical scholars like Collins suggest that the burden of proof must fall on whose who wish to argue that Daniel is different from other examples of the genre (ibid., 34). Collins, for one, is open to the possibility that the court narratives of Dan 1-6 are earlier than the second-century, the crucial issue for him and us, obviously, is the authenticity of the predictions in Dan 7-12.

What critical scholars are not so quick to point out is that Porphyry was a pagan opponent of Christianity who was seeking to demonstrate its inauthenticity. Since predictive prophecy is a powerful evidence for the validity of the Bible, Christianity’s sacred text, Porphyry interpreted Daniel as a hostile witness, seeking to demonstrate that the crucial historical sequences of Daniel were all written after the fact. Christian readers of Daniel in Porphyry’s time and before (Irenaeus, Hippolytus and possibly Barnabas– see Froom, vol. 1, 210, 244-246, 272-273) actually had no difficulty seeing the prophecies of Daniel being accurately fulfilled in Rome, two centuries after the time when Porphyry (and the critical scholars with him) claimed that the book of Daniel was written. Collins’ burden of proof claim has some validity and can be answered (cf. Hasel in previous footnote), but the primary reality driving the late date position for Daniel is disbelief in predictive prophecy. If one doesn’t believe that divine revelations could result in genuine and accurate predictions, one must find some other explanation for the stunning accuracy of the predictions in Dan 11.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (14): Apocalyptic Symbolism II

How does one go about interpreting symbols? The best outline of an answer to this question is found in the introduction to G. K. Beale’s commentary on Revelation. First of all, it is important to recognize the way different types of symbolic expressions function. A metaphor, for example, is “a deliberate transgression of a word’s boundaries of meaning.” If one were to say, as Jesus did, “Peter is a rock,” you are transgressing the boundary between a living thing and an inanimate object. You are applying a characteristic of the object, rock, to the man, Peter. While metaphor transgresses the boundaries of both Peter and rock, one’s description of Peter is enriched by the comparison.

While the metaphor, Peter is a rock, is fairly straightforward, Beale points out that symbols are often multiple in meaning, resisting simplicity of comparison. For example, the phrase, “George is a wolf,” may imply that a certain young man is a potentially dangerous sexual predator. But an author could also use that expression to say that George is a dangerous criminal who hurts people and should be feared. But comparison between a man and a wolf could equally focus on the cunning, quickness, and/or relentlessness of wolves in the wild. Such multiple meanings are very common in Revelation. The concept of water, for example, (implied as well as stated) can be a metaphor for washing (Rev 7:15-17), for nutrition (positive: Rev 22:10; negative: Rev 8:11), for power and destruction (Rev 9:14; 17:15) and for something that forms a barrier (Rev 16:12; perhaps 21:1). In such cases the context in which the symbol comes needs to inform the reader as to which of the many possible meanings is to be understood.

A related principle for interpreting symbols is that once a given meaning for a symbol is established in a given work, that same meaning normally carries on to repeated uses of that same symbol later on in the book, unless the context of a later usage points the way to some different understanding in that setting. Where the meaning of a symbol is not provided in a work, it is important to survey the way that symbol was used elsewhere in the literature of the ancient world up to that time. The symbols of Daniel, for example, should be examined where they appear in earlier and contemporary writings of the Old Testament. Valuable information can also be found in the evidence of extra-biblical literature and archaeological artifacts. For the book of Revelation potential backgrounds for a given symbol include the Old Testament in its entirety and the literature and archaeology of the entire ancient world, including Judaism and the Hellenistic culture of the Greco-Roman world. Lay scholars of Daniel and Revelation can access such information in critical commentaries and such resources as Bible dictionaries, scholarly lexicons, and concordances.

Another way to interpret symbols is examine the degree of correspondence between the picture evoked by the symbol and the literal subject of the symbol. In the comparison “George is a wolf” the humanity of subject of the comparison excludes such wolfly associations as fur, pointed ears, and large teeth. Unless George exhibited such characteristics to a considerably greater degree than most humans, it is likely that comparing him to a wolf is restricted to some aspect of the wolf’s behavior rather than its appearance.

How can one detect the presence of a symbol? Beale notes at least six ways. (1) The formal linking of two words of totally different meaning, “the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” (2) The use of a key descriptive term to alert the reader to the presence of some unusual meaning, “the mystery of the seven stars.” (3) The impossibility of a literal interpretation, “I ate the book.” (4) A statement that would be outrageously false or contradictory is taken literally, “my two witnesses are the two olive trees and the two lampstands.” (5) Context that renders a literal interpretation probably. (6) Clear and repeated figurative use of the same word elsewhere in the book. Beale notes that the last of these is probably the most consistently helpful.

Another aspect of apocalyptic symbolism mentioned by Beale is the use of numbers, which are to be taken as symbols more often than not. Beale notes that seven is the number of completeness, while four represents an extension of that concept to something universal or worldwide in scope. Twelve represents unity in diversity as in the one nation Israel that is composed of twelve tribes. Ten also represents completeness. In addition to obvious uses of numbers, the book of Revelation is often organized in patterns of fours and sevens. So in Revelation the interpreter needs to give attention not only to the numbers in the book, but to also count groupings of symbols, which may have an extended meaning as a result.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (13): Apocalyptic Symbolism

Apocalyptic works in general, and the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation in particular, are characterized by the use of symbols to convey truth. In the books of Daniel and Revelation horns and eagles speak, iron can be mixed with clay, leopards can have four heads, and dragons can chase women through the sky! A symbol is any object or description that represents something other than its common meaning. By their very nature, symbols express a double meaning. There is a literal intention; the primary meaning the term has in everyday life. Then there is a second intention; the literal points beyond itself to a second meaning that is evident only in relation to the first meaning. These two meanings can even be opposite! In the book of Revelation the lion is a lamb, death is a victory, and the victim is the victor!

The very vagueness of symbols opens up the possibility of near infinite depth of expression. This makes apocalyptic books both difficult and rich in meaning at the same time. The same symbol can have different meanings in different contexts. Symbolism is a more flexible tool for the portrayal of reality than is ordinary prose. To interpret a given symbol in its context it is necessary to compare the possible meanings inherent in its double intentionality with the literary context in which it is used.

That symbolism is the main literary form of expression in the visions of Daniel is evident from the very first. In Dan 2:45 the strategy of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream/vision is expressed as follows: “This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands– a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces. The great God has shown (esȇmane) the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and the interpretation is trustworthy.” The vision of Dan 2 is a pictorial representation of events that were to occur in Nebuchadnezzar’s present and future. The Greek translator of Daniel (LXX) uses to word semainô to express that God “had symbolized” to the king what would take place in the future.

The Book of Revelation opens with a clear allusion to Daniel 2. The language of Rev 1:1 picks up not only on Dan 2:45 and its use of semainô but also the language of “revelation. . . God showed. . . what must come to pass” found in Dan 2:28-30. This allusion to Dan 2 makes it clear that the entire book of Revelation is couched in symbolism as a primary method of communication. Whereas in the rest of the New Testament the language is to be taken as literal unless careful investigation indicates that a symbol is intended, in Revelation the opposite is the case. The language of Revelation is to be taken as symbolic or figurative unless careful investigation indicates that the language must be understood in literal terms. Recognizing that the Apocalypse of John uses symbols and their interpretation as the medium of the message is a fundamental aspect of correct interpretation of the book.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (12): From Exegesis to Application—Historicism

The historicist method understands the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation to meet their fulfillments in historical time through a sequence of events running from the prophet’s time down to the establishment of God’s kingdom at the end of the world. This appears to be the way that the ancients interpreted these prophecies. The historicist method was fairly standard throughout the Protestant world from the time of the Reformation through the first half of the 19th Century. This method was taken over by the Adventist pioneers and has continued to be the standard approach ever since, even though it has become increasingly rejected by biblical scholarship outside the denomination.

On the negative side, historicist interpretation has often been plagued by a number of faults. There is a tendency to pay much more attention to history and to the newspapers than to the exegesis of the biblical text. For example, see Uriah Smith on the trumpets (475-517). In the course of 42 pages of interpretation there is but one single exegetical statement. Verses are printed according to the King James Version followed by pages of historical detail without a single reference back to the text or its background in the Old Testament. Sixty-two percent of the text is in quotation marks, being culled from earlier non-Adventist historicist writers. This leads to the suspicion the Brother Smith himself never did any serious work in the text. In addition, the desire to locate just where we are in the course of history has often led historicists to unhealthy attempts at date-setting and manipulation of the text in service of theological agendas. And the use of history, there has been a huge difference of opinion as to just what events in history are a fulfillment of just what symbolism. It is problems such as these, along with critical bias against the concept of predictive prophecy, that caused the general demise of historicism, to the point where in scholarly discussions today, the possibility never even comes up.

Given the difficulties with historicism why bother with it any more? What difference does it make? Why would it be worth the trouble to defend in a world that is mainly concerned with the “now?” Well, for one thing, historicism remains the primary approach that is used in Adventist evangelism. The way our fundamental beliefs are presented to the public is intertwined with a historicist approach to Daniel and Revelation. To abandon the method out of convenience is to call into question the entire basis upon which millions have chosen to align themselves with the Adventist movement. For this reason alone, it would be unwise to relinquish the approach casually. If it must be put to rest, let it only be on the basis of overwhelming and compelling biblical evidence.

A second reason to hang on to historicism, if it is intellectually credible to do so, is that it provides a solid basis for confidence in the future work of God. Just as the historical reality that Jesus was raised from the dead gives us confidence that we too will one day be raised from the dead, so the recognition of prophetic fulfillments in the past offers confidence that the last events of this earth’s history will also occur according to the plan of God. To move to a totally futurist approach in search of greater clarity regarding unfulfilled events is to abandon the basis for confidence that unfulfilled prophecy will in fact occur, as it has in the past.

A third reason to seek support for a continued use of historicist method is that it is also central to the whole concept of Adventist self-understanding and identity. Adventists are not particularly kinder than other Christians, they are not more Christ-centered or gospel-oriented than other Christians, they are not less prone to sexual or physical abuse, nor are they less subject to addictions in the broadest sense of the term. The Adventist claim to a unique, end-time role in God’s plan for the close of earth’s history is grounded in careful attention to the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. To abandon these, and/or to abandon the method that brought us where we are, is, to a large degree, to abandon our self-understanding and identity. Few movements have ever survived the loss of core identity.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (11): From Exegesis to Application—Futurism

The futurist approach to apocalyptic prophecy, particularly to Revelation, sees the fulfillment of most of Revelation being restricted to a short period of time still future to our own day. In its dispensational form, this approach limits most of Revelation to the last seven years of earth’s history, following a secret rapture of Christians. Even within the Adventist context, increasing numbers of Bible students are seeking end-time understandings in every corner of Daniel and Revelation.
On the positive side, there are clearly many aspects of Daniel and Revelation that were intended to portray the far future from the perspective of the prophets’ time and place (Dan 2:44-45; 8:26; 11:40; 12:4,13; Rev 1:19; 6:15-17; 7:15-17; 19:11-21; 21:1-22:5). Most of what these passages portray has not occurred to this day. So an examination of Daniel and Revelation without an openness to understanding of future events would be an inappropriate limitation on the divine supervision of these books.
Approaches to Daniel and Revelation that limit the meaning of most of the text to end-time events, however, have consistently proven to claim more than they can deliver. Dispensationalism trumpets a literal approach to the Bible, yet imposes a system upon biblical interpretation that forces texts into molds which resist sound exegesis of those same texts. Adventist forms of futurism tend toward an allegorism of dual or multiple applications that quickly lose touch with the original setting and context of the prophecies. A futurism that ignores the cues in the text in the name of relevance, ends up abandoning the text for a contemporary system. An appropriate search for unfulfilled prophecy will always ground itself in the original meaning of the prophecy.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (10): From Exegesis to Application—Preterism/Idealism

The above study demonstrates the vital importance of understanding the original context in which apocalyptic visions were given their setting. The divine and human intentions of the text’s language must be respected. Nevertheless, if apocalyptic texts do reflect a predictive element, later readers of those texts are challenged to understand just how those predictions apply to the course of subsequent human history. There are three main approaches to this problem. We will look at each of these briefly.

Preterist scholars tend to limit the value of apocalyptic texts to the original time and place. In their view exegesis of apocalyptic texts helps us gain a better understanding of the world in which the texts came into existence. Books like Daniel and Revelation were written to their time and place and need to be understood within that context. The primary focus is not on prediction of future events, but on analysis of the situation in which and to which the apocalypse was written. Principles drawn from exegesis of the text in its original situation can be applied by believers to later situations (this application of principles in apocalyptic literature is often known as “idealism”).

On the positive side, preterism/idealism is the approach that most believing Christians (including Adventists) take to the bulk of the biblical materials. The letters of Paul, for example, must be understood as the products of a human writer’s intention reflecting a specific purpose and aimed at a particular audience. To read such letters as if they were philosophical treatises with a universal purpose is clearly inappropriate. Nevertheless, in recognizing God’s purpose in including these letters in the Bible, we feel free to draw principles from Paul’s letters and apply them to our own time and place as the Word of God. When done with sensitivity to the original context, this is entirely appropriate for Paul’s letters and also for parts of Daniel and Revelation. Certainly the seven letters of Revelation suggest that they should be addressed from a preterist/idealist perspective (Rev 1:11; 2:1,7,8.11, etc.).

The problem with preterism/idealism comes in when it is imposed on apocalyptic texts that cry out for other approaches. Biblical scholars are human beings. Whether or not the scholar is conscious of the fact, psychological and spiritual motivations may drive a person to reject the plain implications of the biblical text. Some scholars may limit interpretation to preterism because it does not require a belief in inspiration and predictive prophecy. Others may do so because their scientific training inclines them to reject the possibility of the supernatural in any form. Roman Catholic scholars at one point in history turned to radical preterism in order to deflect the pointed historicist interpretations of Dan 7 and Rev 13 made by Luther and other protestants. While preterist interpretation has value in its proper place, Adventists rightly reject placing psychological or scientific limits on how the Word of God should be understood. Preterism/idealism alone is not an adequate approach to apocalyptic prophecy.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (9): Safeguards for Apocalyptic Scholars III

4) Focus on General Reading

A fourth major safeguard to apocalyptic interpretation is to spend the majority of one’s study time reading the Bible rather than searching through a concordance. An obsession with the various details of the Bible can lead one away from its central thrust. Without safeguards the use of a concordance may cause us to focus on texts apart from their contexts.

When you read biblical books from beginning to end the biblical author is in control of the order and flow of the material. The author leads you naturally from one idea to the next, so your exposure to the Bible is not controlled by any need arising from within yourself or from your background. Broad reading of the Bible, therefore, anchors the interpreter in the intentions of the original writers and helps the interpreter to get the “big picture” view that provides the best safeguard against bizarre interpretations of its isolated parts. General reading naturally encourages a teachable spirit and helps you see the text as it was intended to be read. The Bible is not supposed to learn from us; we are supposed to learn from the Bible.

This aspect of a “life hermeneutic” is particularly important in the computer age. Computers have been a great blessing to Bible study. But there is a dark side to their use. Thanks to the computer it is possible to spend hundreds of hours in “Bible study” without ever actually reading the Bible itself. The meanings you can draw from such study may be extremely impressive, yet have nothing to do with the original writer’s intention. It can be like taking a pair of scissors and cutting fifty texts out of your Bible, tossing them like a salad in a bowl, and finally pulling them out one by one and saying, “This sequence is from the Lord.” Whether the concordance is a print version or is computerized, the process puts the interpreter in control of how the Biblical text impacts on his or her understanding of truth.

The use of a concordance is an important piece in an overall hermeneutic for biblical study. But we need to keep in mind that when we use a concordance we are in control of what where we go and what we learn, whereas in broad reading the biblical writers are in control. In concordance study there is the danger of losing the forest in the midst of all the trees. Unless we spend the majority of our time in broad reading of the Bible, we will tend manipulate the text in service of our own agenda, even though we do not intend to do so.

5) The Criticism of Peers

Finally it is vital, in the study of apocalyptic as well as other biblical texts, to give careful attention to the criticism of peers (people who give similar attention to the Bible as you do), especially those who disagree with you or who are competent in the original languages and the tools of exegesis. One of the biggest problems in Biblical understanding is that each of us has a natural bent to self-deception (Jer 17:9). That self-deception runs so deep that sometimes, even if you are using the original text, praying, and doing a lot of general reading in the clear texts of the Bible, it is still possible to end up in a completely bizarre place. The best antidote to self-deception is to constantly subject one’s own understandings to the criticism of others who are making equally rigorous efforts to understand those texts.

It may be painful to listen to that kind of criticism. Nevertheless, such criticisms are particularly valuable when they come from people we naturally disagree with. People who disagree with us see things in the text that we would never see because of our particular blind spots and defense mechanisms. A sister in the church may be just as unteachable as I am, but if she has a different set of blind spots than I do, she will see things in the text that I would miss and I will see things that she would miss.

No one who studies the Bible with earnest prayer and self-distrust will want to ignore the apocalyptic parts of the Bible, just because they are difficult. On the contrary, those who saturate themselves in the big picture of the Bible that comes from broad reading of the clear texts, corrected by vigorous listening to others, will gain two great benefits as a result. They will stay out of the pit of sensationalism and date-setting. And they will enjoy the wonderful sense of assurance and identity that comes when one better understands the steady and reliable workings of God in human history.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (8): Safeguards for Apocalyptic Scholars II

2) Use a Variety of Translations

A second safeguard against the misuse of apocalyptic texts is the use of a variety of translations in the course of our study. While some translations are better than others, it is still safer for those who have no access to the original languages to consult a variety of translations of the Bible when doing serious study. Every translation has its limitations and weaknesses and to some degree reflects the biases of the translator(s). These limitations can be minimized by comparing several translations against each other. Where most translators agree, the meaning of the underlying Greek or Hebrew text is probably fairly clear and the translation can be safely followed. The authority that you as an interpreter give to a particular reading of a text, will depend on how certain it is that the reading is founded on the clear meaning of the original. When most or all translators agree you can be reasonably confident that the meaning of the original is being fairly represented.

But what do you do when the translators disagree, and disagree widely? When there is wide disagreement among most or all of the translations available to you, the original and its meaning is probably difficult or ambiguous. This is not the kind of text that can be safely used as a basis of one’s belief system. Apocalyptic texts often fall in this category. It is as dangerous to base one’s theology on unclear biblical texts as it is to ignore the clear texts of the Bible. The work of David Koresh on the seals is an excellent example of that danger.

How can one become aware of the biases in a translation without a knowledge of the biblical languages? Compare four or give good translations on a particular text. What if three or four of them all agree, but one of them is way off in some other direction? That is usually a reflection of the translator’s bias. When you compare translations long enough by this method, you can gain a sense of each translations biases. This is a very important safeguard against misreading the Bible on the basis of mistranslation or translational bias. Where translation patterns indicate that the original text is clear, on the other hand, we can safely find authoritative meaning in the translated text.

3) Focus on the Clear Texts

A third major safeguard against the misinterpretation of apocalyptic texts is to spend the majority of one’s study time in the clear texts of Scripture. If you want to really let the Scriptures speak for themselves, spend the majority of your time in the sections of Scripture that are reasonably clear. There are many parts of the Bible regarding which there is little disagreement among Christians, while other texts vex even the Greek and Hebrew scholars. So an extremely important safeguard in the study of Scripture is to spend the majority of your time in the sections that are reasonably clear. The clear texts of Scripture ground the reader in the great central themes of the biblical message, safeguarding the interpreter against the misuse of texts that are more ambiguous.

On the other hand, if you spend the majority of your time in texts like the seals and trumpets of Revelation or Daniel 11, you will go crazy. One of the major tactics of people who misuse the Bible is to take ambiguous texts, develop creative solutions to the problems they find there, and then use those solutions as the basis for their theology. Such interpreters often end up having to distort clear texts of Scripture because the message there doesn’t fit the theology that they have developed from the difficult texts.

An important safeguard for the study of books like Daniel and Revelation, then, is not to make them the sole or primary focus of one’s study of the Bible. These books are very important to us as Seventh-day Adventists. They are at the heart of our self-identity, of what we believe about ourselves and about God. But apocalyptic texts can also be the breeding ground of dangerous speculations. They are best understood by interpreters who are thoroughly grounded in the clear, central teachings of the Bible. The clear texts of Scripture ground the reader in the big picture of the Bible and the great verities of its message. Such an interpreter will be much less prone to the speculative excesses that sometimes plague the interpretation of books like Daniel and Revelation.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (7): Safeguards for Apocalyptic Scholars

The interpretation of biblical apocalyptic, however, has proven to be problematic throughout history. The complexities of apocalyptic interpretation have caused apocalyptic to become a “safe-haven” for time-setters and speculators. The goal of any biblical hermeneutic is a whole-hearted openness to the Word of God wherever it may lead. But when it comes to apocalyptic literature, the meaning of the text often seems to resist our openness to it. It becomes very easy for us to read our own ideas, concepts, and needs into the symbolism. The resulting interpretation may look more like us than like God.

How can we safeguard our study of apocalyptic from speculation? The best way, as we have seen above, is careful attention to the original setting in which the passage was given, including the original languages in which the text was written. But most readers of the Bible will never have the opportunity to learn Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, or to become specialists in the ancient time, place, and circumstances. Understanding of the Bible must never be limited to scholars and specialists. But can non-specialists approach the apocalyptic texts of the Bible without succumbing to speculation? I believe so. I’d like to suggest five approaches to Bible study that can keep us in the solid center of the Biblical message. These form what I sometimes call a “life hermeneutic,” a lifelong process of becoming conformed to the message of Scripture, rather than bending it to conform to our own needs and purposes.

1) Prayer and Self-Distrust
As we approach any biblical text, but especially apocalyptic texts, it is important to study them in the in the context of much prayer and an attitude of self-distrust. Our hearts are naturally deceitful (Jer 17:9). By nature we lack a teachable spirit. It doesn’t matter how much Greek you know or how many Ph.D.s you accumulate, if you don’t have a teachable spirit, your learning is worth nothing. True knowledge of God does not come from merely intellectual pursuit or academic study (John 7:17; 1 Cor 2:14; James 1:5). “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” 1 Corinthians 2:14 (NIV).

According to 2 Thess 2:10, the knowledge of God comes from a willingness to receive the truth from God no matter what it costs. The gifts of God are free but they can be costly in their own way. Knowledge of God can cost your life, your family, your friends, and your reputation. But if you are willing to follow the truth no matter what the cost to you, you will receive it.

The study of apocalyptic texts, therefore, needs to begin with authentic prayer. An example of authentic prayer might go something like this: “Lord, I want to know the truth about this text (or topic) no matter what that knowledge costs me.” That’s a hard prayer to pray. But if you pray that prayer, you will receive God’s truth. And you will also pay the price. When we come to God’s Word with this kind of personal dedication, there is reason to hope that the natural self-deception of our hearts can be turned aside by the Spirit of God and the Bible can truly become our teacher rather than our servant.

Reflections on a Knee to the Neck and Burning Streets

This blog is not for everyone. It is about a German-American talking to my brothers and sisters who identify, or are identified, as “white”. If you are a brother or sister who is identified as “non-white” or a “person of color,” I have no expertise to address how you are feeling in light of the senseless death of George Floyd. It was and is a great tragedy. My heartfelt sympathy goes out to his family and all who loved him. But if I can, in a small way, help some who look like me to understand just a bit of what they and you are going through, I am obligated to make the effort.

It happened one day in Orlando, Florida. I was attending a conference in a hotel near downtown. Next to the hotel was a lovely lake with a park-like strip between the lake and the four-lane boulevard that intersects the downtown from north to south. During a break I decided to take a walk along the park-like strip between the lake and the street. The path was separated from the boulevard by a strip of grass and trees about twenty-feet wide, so I was at a small distance from the traffic. I was dressed in my best suit and tie, so I probably looked pretty professional.

Suddenly I heard a voice calling from the street. “Jon Paulien!! I know you from television!!” I looked over at the street and a car had stopped with the window down. A young man I didn’t know was beckoning me from the passenger seat. Not wanting to be rude, I went over reluctantly, realizing his car should not be stopping on a busy street. I acknowledged his greeting and asked how he recognized me. He told me of the TV program and I told him I appreciated his gratitude for the program. Glancing nervously to my left I saw a police car approaching and quickly told him, “You’ve got to go, there’s a police car approaching.” The driver of the car took the hint and drove off immediately.

I was turning away from the street to walk back to the path when the police car came to a screeching halt near me. I turned around and the policemen began yelling at the top of his voice through his open window: “YOU ARE THE MOST SELFISH, INCONSIDERATE, STUPID PERSON I HAVE EVER SEEN!!!!! HOW COULD YOU STOP TRAFFIC JUST TO HAVE A CHAT. . . .” I honestly don’t remember what else he said, I had totally numbed out by this time. When he finally paused for a breath, I broke in and said as calmly as I could muster, “Thank you, sir, I’ll remember that in the future,” then turned around and walked away. But as I walked away I was literally shaking, totally traumatized by the feeling of injustice, and also the combination of loud anger with the emblems of authority (uniform and police car). The thought occurred to me, “If that could happen to me, right here, right now, and wearing my best suit, what would have happened to me just now if I had been black and wearing a hoodie?”

I recalled a minor incident years before in upstate New York. I was driving in a small town with my good friend Al from the City. We were trying to find our way through that unfamiliar rural town when I realized that I had just gone through a stop sign without knowing it. Right in front of me was a police car, but officer didn’t seem to have noticed what I did. I told Al, “It’s a good thing that policeman didn’t see me, I just went through a stop sign.” Al responded, “Yeah, that’s a good thing for both of us. He would have given you a ticket, but he would have given me a beatin’.” Al is African-American. He was joking. Or was he?

Police are human. They have good days and bad days. But nearly every police officer I have ever met would rank among the finest human beings I know. Self-controlled. Professional. Courteous. Nearly all are impressive and honorable human beings. But I know from experience not all are self-controlled, at least not all the time. Not all are professional and unbiased. And it does not take many to taint the whole. The officer in Orlando completely misread what was happening in front of him. He did not know that I was where I was under some duress. I don’t know what he was going through that day, but what he said and did to me was wrong, it was unjust. It was over the top. And I ended up shaking at the abuse and the injustice in a way I have never experienced before or since. And for a moment, I tasted just a bit of what my African-American friend and other people of color go through way more frequently.

In light of the burning streets, it is no doubt tempting for you to believe that an isolated instance of police brutality cannot measure up to the national chaos that has followed. But that is because you and I have never been mistreated because we were driving while black, or jogging while black, or even walking along the street while black. I spoke yesterday with Leslie Pollard, President of Oakwood University, a predominantly black Seventh-day Adventist institution. He told me that the students and faculty were deeply traumatized by what happened to George Floyd. They are wondering if the Adventist Church has anything relevant to say to all this. But frankly, if we are neutral at a time like this, we are irrelevant. The students and faculty at Oakwood are saddened, they are angry, they are frustrated. Some are outraged and tempted to fight. It is not because they have over-active imaginations. It is because most have had multiple encounters with police like the one I did. After an event like this, each wonders, “Could I be next? Could my father be next? My sister, my children?” It is not an illusion. It does not take many incidents like the one I experienced to live in constant fear of those who have been called to serve and protect.

There is such a thing as systemic or institutional racism. These are often not the result of conscious intent, but combined with conscious or unconscious bias, result to the disadvantage of many. When you are at the disadvantaged end of the societal spectrum, it can affect your physical, mental and emotional health. People who are systematically discriminated against because of the color of their skin or the place of their origin, live shorter, less-healthy lives (see the research of David Williams at Harvard). And it is not just people of color. Williams discovered that working-class whites and white evangelical Christians today are experiencing similar marginalization (“trailer trash,” “Bible-thumping bigots”) as their darker-hued family members experience. And with similar health consequences. So ultimately the problem is not a matter of right or left, black or white, we must all examine our hearts regarding how we treat those who are different from us.

I don’t have an answer for unconscious bias or systemic discrimination. I don’t have an answer for how criminal elements so quickly take advantage of righteous indignation. The people who are actually rioting are rarely the same ones who are demonstrating against injustice. You don’t correct an injustice by creating new injustices. Many of the homes and businesses being destroyed are owned by the very people hurting over the loss of George Floyd. The vandalism and destruction must be stopped. But in our outrage over the way law-abiding police are being treated, and over the wanton destruction of property and livelihoods, let us not forget how all this started. Let us consider how these events are impacting our brothers and sisters. And let’s do something about it.

What can you do? First of all, speak up. And not just in mixed audiences. Speak up to your own white brothers and sisters. It is often hard to speak up for yourself. It comes across as self-serving. Our black brothers and sisters need us to speak up for them and with them at this time. I am speaking up here. And I will be looking for other ways to get my voice heard on this issue. Second, pray that God will bring people of color into your life and impress you with how to offer a word of encouragement and support, and also deeds of kindness and love. Third, work to improve the social structures in your community. Many people of color live in food deserts, no easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables. It is no wonder so many are over-weight and diabetic. Band together with others to create opportunities for those less fortunate than yourselves. Lobby, vote, do all in your power to speak up for those less fortunate than you. And finally, pray that the God of justice will move mightily in this situation to show how He feels about the hurting and the oppressed. And pray that He will use you to show his justice and mercy to them. It is time to “do justice and to love mercy” (Micah 6:8).