Apocalyptic

Division

Luke 12:49-56 (NRSV)

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:

father against son
    and son against father,
mother against daughter
   and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
   and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?


After a reading like that, I suppose I should begin with some comforting words.

Yes, God is love. Yes, grace is freely given. Our God is a patient God, doing all he can to draw lost people to him. Forgiveness and the gift of eternal life are being poured out on us in buckets, despite so many people standing under umbrellas of cynicism.

That said, at this point in Luke, Jesus has clearly gone apocalyptic on us. He uses language designed to remind us of the terrible suffering and sacrifice necessary to make all that grace and love possible. And ultimately, we are reminded that we are called to choose sides in a great cosmic battle, with no regard to what our choice may cost us in this life.

Jesus’ apocalyptic language forces Christians to consider our core beliefs. Fire and baptism are purification words. Jesus was saying that despite his lack of sin, he would go through the purifying fire of crucifixion for us, and that ultimately all of creation will be purified through this act. Humans can actually choose where to stand in all of this—with what is pure and what will remain forever, or with the dross to be burned away.

The great gift of the cross is that we now have a choice. Before, we were all just dross, lacking the purity to be in God’s presence.

I think even Christians struggle with some of this tough language because we confuse adherence to the truth with being judgmental. Clearly, it is God’s business to judge, not ours. My own personal approach to this is to be as laissez-faire (libertarian) in my approach to the secular world as possible, while at the same time exercising my right to declare the importance of choosing Christ and living the Christian life.

Don’t ask the state to look like the church, and definitely don’t force the church to mimic the state or society in general. If we’re really convinced the Holy Spirit is at work in this world, we should never doubt his ability to win minds in what is sometimes called the “marketplace of ideas.”

This approach doesn’t satisfy all Christians. If it did, groups like the Moral Majority would have never sprung up. This approach does, however, let us focus on messages that have made Christianity successful for nearly two millennia, rather than getting bogged down in the events of the day. Let’s consider those messages:

Christ is the answer. By that, we mean the answer to all the big questions in life, questions like “Is there meaning to life,” “Why do we suffer,” and “Is there more than just this life?” And yes, Jesus made some exclusive claims to being the answer—he claimed oneness with the Creator, and said the only way to the Father is through him.

C.S. Lewis and other writers and theologians have noted that such a claim creates a “trilemma” for anyone considering following Christ. Taking his claim at face value, Jesus can be just one of three things: divine, insane or evil.

Universalists, people who say there are many paths to God, don’t like exclusivity, but you have to reject significant portions of Scripture to deny Christ’s claim. There may be ways for people to carry in them the light of Christ without having heard Jesus’ name, but once introduced to him, they should recognize him right away.

Being Christian does make you different. Being seen as countercultural seems to be in again. Welcome to the original countercultural movement, the one that challenged the most powerful empire on earth. It is a movement that truly changed the world, declaring early on that people are the same regardless of gender, color or social status. Yes, the body of believers can behave like a cluster of big institutions, and yes, Christians often fail to act like Christ, but this differentiating truth remains.

There is clear guidance from God available to us. People are craving something by which they can steer their lives.  They want something they can trust, something not likely to blow about in the ever-changing social wind. The Bible is God’s long-standing revelation to humanity. Even the newest material in it is nearly 2,000 years old. Its truths about God and how God wants to relate to humanity have served people well in a wide variety of cultures, be they in the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Industrial Age or Space Age. (What are we in now? The Digital Age?)

Yes, not everyone will agree with these basic messages. Some people, maybe people in your own homes, will become angry upon hearing them, turning on you or at least turning their backs on you.

That’s okay. Jesus said it would happen. He also said he would make it all right in the end. Look it up.


The featured image is Joos Van Cleve’s “The Last Judgment,” painted some time in the late 15th or early 16th century.

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Story’s End

Revelation 7:9-17

Every great story has a masterful ending. The magnificent story told in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation has the greatest ending of all.

Our main problem is teasing that ending out of Revelation, the most complicated book of the Bible to read. Before we get to that wonderful conclusion, a primer on how Revelation works is in order.

I should begin with what Revelation is not, as improper readings of this last book of the Bible have led to a lot of bad theology in recent years. It is not a type of literature otherwise familiar to us in Western culture—in fact, this type of literature existed among Jews and early Christians for just four centuries, from about 200 B.C. to about A.D. 200.

We now call this type of literature “apocalyptic,” and we know it does not follow what the Western world considers the normal structure of a story. For example, our stories tend to follow chronological order, with the exception of an occasional flashback to reveal details from the past, or some foreshadowing to hint at what is to come.

Time is not an important feature of apocalyptic literature. An event may be described once and then described from a different perspective later in the text.

Also, apocalyptic literature is highly figurative, where Western literature is by default quite literal, with forays into figurative language usually easy to detect. All of the resulting symbolism in apocalyptic literature functions in part like a code; for example, numbers and creatures usually point to something else, like the concept of completeness or a particular empire.

The people who wrote apocalyptic literature were heavily oppressed, and didn’t want others to understand immediately what they were saying. So, if you try to read Revelation chronologically and literally, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, errant conclusions the letter’s original audience would never have made.

But enough of the primer. With all of that in mind, let’s look at that glorious story’s end.

Scattered through Revelation are images of humanity and God in full reunion, thanks to Christ’s infinitely powerful work on the cross. They are like snapshots of what is to come.

These images resolve the problem that arises early in Genesis. There, we see God’s desire for a relationship with his creation, and we see that relationship broken by willful disobedience, the kind of sin we all have committed at one time or another.

The rest of the Old Testament can be seen broadly as God’s efforts to woo humans back to holiness and a full relationship with their maker. The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) in the New Testament reveal to us how God ultimately succeeded: He took on human form among us as Jesus Christ, becoming a sinless sacrifice to atone for our sins.

Christ’s resurrection is proof the plan worked. All we have to do is believe.

Those reunion images in Revelation are designed to give us great hope, reminding us that what is to come is so much better than what we experience now. One of those snapshots, found in the seventh chapter, beginning at verse 9, gives us a picture of eternal, ongoing worship, a glorious celebration of what has been accomplished by Christ, depicted as the Lamb.

The author of Revelation, known only as John, said that in one of his visions “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” He went on to describe the praise and singing by both the redeemed humans and the creatures of heaven.

He also gave us a hint of what we should be doing now, as we exist in the part of the story where we now live, a time of tribulation and ordeals brought about by evil’s death throes. In a conversation with one of these heavenly beings, John is told that those clothed in white “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

In more literal language, they symbolize the people from around the world who follow Christ as Lord and Savior. Yes, salvation is freely available, but this washing of robes symbolizes our need to pursue this relationship, to grow in our faith and live as people who believe.

As the Apostle Paul writes in the second chapter of Philippians, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Every individual Christian story intersects with God’s great story, leading to the same glorious ending.