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Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Trump Shall Resound, and the Lord Shall Descend - Did Donald Trump Just Usher in the End Times?

(President Trump with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, photo courtesy of the Spokesperson Unit of the President of Israel, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

A few days ago, a fellow pastor made me aware that the prophecy junkies (who make up an influential wing of my evangelical Christian tradition) were getting all excited about President Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This was interesting to me, though not surprising--as all good prophecy junkies know, almost any geopolitical event (especially if it has to do with Israel) has the potential to be an epoch-changing marker of the End Times and the Lord's imminent return. Add to that the fact that it was God's favorite country (the USA, of course) that was the spark plug of this particular event, and you've got the recipe for an apocalyptic bonanza.

As you may know, this move was something of a controversial decision: even though it merely put into practice a prior piece of American legislation and recognized the current political organization of the state of Israel (for whom Jerusalem has served as capital for several decades), many perceive it as giving legitimacy to Israel's aggressive land-grabbing techniques in Palestinian areas and as rebuffing Palestinians' own hopes to have East Jerusalem recognized as their capital. These are issues of significant political importance to the region, and even many Christian groups (including practically all of the major Christian churches actually located in Jerusalem) are resisting it. But to many American evangelicals, those issues come in at a surprising second level of importance compared with the possibility that a random Western-Hemisphere country's public recognition of an already-established political reality might be the secret key to unlock the end of the ages. 

19th-century view of Jerusalem
I poked around a little to find out why, exactly, this was seen as significant to the imaginative exegetes of end-times prophecy. Two reasons were most commonly cited: first, that the resistance of other countries to this move might raise enough animosity against Israel to launch the Battle of Armageddon (one commentator, who was putting on airs of knowing something about evangelicals, went so far as to say that most evangelicals actually want war in the Middle East). And second, this rather dry piece of legislation (which, again, changes almost nothing on the ground in Jerusalem, at least for now) is expected to be a step towards the rebuilding of the Temple in the Holy City. Just as a refresher if you're a little rusty on your biblical hermeneutics, one popular branch of apocalyptic interpretation, called dispensational premillennialism, holds that there must be a Temple in Jerusalem as a precondition for the end times, since it appears to be mentioned in several relevant biblical passages. Now, it's not exactly clear how the US' recognition of Jerusalem as the capital would in any way move us toward the goal of a new Temple, especially since to do so would presumably require the removal of the Islamic shrine of the Dome of the Rock, but the likelihood of probable outcomes are not really that important to prophecy junkies when compared to the all-surpassing certainty of the literal fulfillment of biblical metaphors. (Interestingly, none of the articles I read mentioned the popular belief that the Antichrist will make a treaty with Israel, nor the fact that in some of these interpretations, it is the Antichrist who is a leading figure in the Temple's restoration--which, if true, might suggest that the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital might actually be the first step toward an intriguing prophetic identity for Mr. Trump...)

So, let's take the two main anticipations one at a time. First, will Mr. Trump's decision actually lead to the Battle of Armageddon? This question is probably unanswerable, given the fact that almost any Middle East policy decision has a relatively high likelihood of sparking all-out warfare. This doesn't really have much to do with the nature of Mr. Trump's decision, but rather with the instability of the region as a whole. In general, though, many of the most powerful actors in the region with animosity towards Israel (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Gulf States, Jordan, etc.) also have long-standing ties with the United States, which makes it rather unlikely that the governments of the Middle East will rise up in a military response against this act by the US. More likely, if anything happens at all, would be a limited terrorist response from non-state Palestinian actors, which would be quashed fairly quickly by Israel's alarmingly efficient security forces.

Now, for the Temple: is this decision likely to lead to the reconstruction of the Temple? I would say again, probably not. The necessary location for it appears to be the Temple Mount, which the Israeli government will definitely not be touching anytime soon. The top of the Temple Mount, in its entirety, is a Muslim holy site featuring one of the oldest and most beautiful mosques in the world, and even the very simple act of trying to install metal detectors on its entrances plunged the Israeli government into a world of trouble earlier this year. They would not set out to assault the Muslim holy places by trying to build a Jewish Temple up there. The reason for this is that Israel (for some unknown reason) does not actually want the nations of the world to rise up against them in a catastrophic Battle of Armageddon. Go figure. Further, while there are a few wings of the diverse Jewish community that would like to have a Temple again, there are other powerful Jewish voices speaking out against such a move. Many Jews in Israel are secular, and, not being religious at all, see the possibility of a new Temple there as simply throwing gasoline onto the coals of regional conflict. Others, constituting the majority traditions of rabbinic Judaism, actually do not support a renewed Temple, because their religion has grown and developed for nearly two millennia without it; and in most Jewish thought, their current form of worship, centered around the Torah itself, does not require an actual, physical Temple. 

I would push this point even farther, and say that not even evangelical Christians should be pushing for a new Temple in Jerusalem. The reason is twofold. First, the branch of interpretation that I mentioned before, the one that tries to interpret all biblical metaphors as literally as possible (dispensational premillennialism) is actually the new kid on the block as far as traditions of interpretation go. There are three accepted alternative traditions of end-times thinking in Christianity, and most of them have a stronger historic and theological pedigree (and, in my opinion, a biblical pedigree too) than does dispensational premillennialism. I've written about these subjects elsewhere, and I'll let you follow these links to read up about it a bit more if you like: Why You Should Be Excited You're Living in the End Times / What Should We Do With Revelation? / My Theological Statement: Eschatology. But, to put it bluntly, I think that prophecy junkies are seriously misreading Scripture when they insist that a physical Temple is a requirement for end-times prophecy to come true. They are taking literally passages that were meant to be read figuratively, and in so doing, they are actually abusing the intended meaning of Holy Scripture. Just because certain passages might refer to the metaphor of the Temple, this does not necessarily mean that a physical Temple will have to be standing in Jerusalem for Jesus to come back.

Second, the New Testament is very clear that, theologically speaking, a physical Temple would have no relevance whatsoever to us as Christians. Rather, Jesus tells us that true worship will go on not at the Temple, but wherever God's worshipers are (John 4:19-24). In the book of Acts, while the disciples will still frequent the Temple for prayer  (2:46; 3:1; 22:17), as well as using it as an evangelistic setting, it's clear that the main meetings of the Christian church occur elsewhere (1:12-14; 4:23-31 12:12). In the letters of Paul, the argument is consistently made that we are now the Temple (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:19-22). And if that's true, then there really is no need for a new Temple in Jerusalem. Further, the letter to the Hebrews says in no uncertain terms that a return to the sacrificial worship of the Jewish Temple would actually be an anti-Christian move, because Jesus Christ was the once-for-all sacrifice for sins and the final great High Priest, thus rendering all further priestly sacrifices pointless, if not an intentional offense against the great redemptive work of Christ (Hebrews 9-10). Throughout its long centuries of tradition, the Christian church has always held that the worldwide church of Jesus Christ is the real Temple--the reality toward which the historical building pointed. It was the foreshadowing; we are the reality. This tradition has only recently been forgotten; it was just with the rise of dispensational premillennialism in the past two centuries that serious anticipations of a new Temple in Jerusalem became prominent. 

All that to say, Mr. Trump's move isn't likely to lead directly to the end of the age, nor should we necessarily want it to. The consistent message of the New Testament is to use the hope of Christ's return as a motivation for our continued lives of holy love here and now, not as a codebook for lauding questionable foreign policy decisions. Let's get back to the real message of the end times, please, as Paul showed us in his end-times discussion in 1 Thess. 4-5: "Let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet... Encourage one another and build each other up." (1 Th. 5:8, 11)

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Evangeliad (3:19-24)





Section 3:19-24 (corresponding to Matthew 2:19-23; Luke 2:40)

But Herod’s time passed, and then he was gone;
And in Egypt an angel urged Joseph on,
Appearing by dream and telling him, “Rise!
Herod the king is no longer alive.

Take Jesus and Mary and go back home,
And no more by Egypt’s river make roam.”
Joseph obeyed, and they retraced the way
Of the exodus made in ancient days.

But now Herod’s son had taken the crown,
Making hard a return to Bethlehem-town;
Instead of Judea, they now set their sights
On their old abode in Galilee’s heights.

And there in Nazareth the boy would dwell,
In strength, grace, and wisdom, growing well,
And thus was done what the sage had foreseen:
That God’s holy one was a Nazarene.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Photo of the Week

Soar we now where Christ hath led, Alleluia!
Foll’wing our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

- from Charles Wesley's hymn "Christ the Lord is Risen Today"

Monday, December 11, 2017

Quote of the Week


"When you deal with spiritual mysteries, remember not to flatter yourself by thinking you have sufficient knowledge and ability to understand a matter so vast. Learn to climb up beyond yourself. Revere that majesty that passes our understanding."

- John Calvin, 16th-century Protestant Reformer, from his book The Mystery of Godliness

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

A prayer found beside a dead child in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in 1945, apparently written by a victim of the Holocaust:

O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted; remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering--our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgment, let all the fruits which we have born be their forgiveness. Amen.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Glimpses of Grace: Cain, Abel, and Seth


In Genesis 4, we have the story of the first family: Adam and Eve, their sons Cain and Abel, and then, after Cain murders Abel and is driven away, the third son, Seth. In the early church, pastors and writers found allegorical connections in this story with (1) the fallen nature of humanity, (2) the relation of Christ to Adam, and (3) the dynamic interweaving of persons within the Trinity.

The first connection is the simplest to see, largely because it's right there in the open. The story of Cain and Abel follows directly after the story of the Fall and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, so it makes sense that we would then get a story about the effects of the Fall. Taken as a historical account, the murder of Abel is clearly illustrative of that very point. But the early church fathers also liked to look for allegorical dimensions, and they found a possible one in this story. If Cain represents human nature's sin and Abel represents our original good destiny, then the story of Cain and Abel can be taken as an allegory of what happened to us, to our deepest inner nature, in the Fall: our choice to sin destroyed our original good destiny. It did not, however, destroy our whole selves completely; and thus the exile of Cain represents our new destiny, now tied to our sinfulness: as wanderers and strangers in a broken world, a world that we should have ruled in goodness and godliness as the king-priests of the Creator.

The second connection is perhaps a bit more of a stretch. It has to do with the loss of Abel (the original good son) and then the birth of Seth. Early church writers saw in this a faint foreshadowing of the role of Christ himself. Adam was created "very good," but then fell into sin, and Christ was sent as "the new Adam" (to borrow a point from Paul's thought in the New Testament). The birth of Seth after Abel's demise (which is described in Gen. 4:25 as a replacement of Abel) was taken as a prefiguration of the birth of Christ after Adam's sin. It was also sometimes connected to the resurrection of Christ, simply because this story--the first story in which a "son" of any kind appears--shows the loss of a son, immediately followed by gaining a son back again. 

The third connection (also a bit of a stretch) focuses on the biblical language having to do with the creation of Adam, Eve, and Seth. After the story of Cain and Abel, with its allegory of human fallenness, we get the actual "first family," the one that will go on to represent the covenant-community of God: Adam, Eve, and Seth. (Interestingly, Seth got picked up by many extrabiblical accounts in the ancient world as a prominent character representing mystical knowledge of God.) We begin with Adam as the source of humanity, since he was created specially by God. Next came Eve, who was created from one of Adam's ribs. And then there was Seth, who in Gen. 5:3 is described as having been "begotten." The early church fathers noted that the unusual pattern of creation in this first family matched what Christian theology had come to understand about the interwoven relationships within the Trinitarian Godhead: God the Father was seen as the uncreated source (as Adam was the source of humanity); God the Son/Jesus was understood to be "eternally begotten of the Father" (just as Seth was begotten); and the Holy Spirit was said to "proceed" from the Father (just as Eve, in a sense, "proceeded" from Adam by means of his rib). It's an imperfect analogy, of course (as all analogies of the Trinity are), since the traditional descriptions of the Trinitarian relationships are not meant to imply that the Son and the Holy Spirit were brought into existence from nonexistence, whereas this is definitely what happens with Eve and Seth in the biblical account. But with that aside, it's an interesting parallel nonetheless. Again, this may simply be a case of the early church fathers just finding what they wanted to find, but if nothing else, it certainly represents an interesting exploration of the early Genesis accounts.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Lift Up Your Hearts: Experiencing Communal Worship as Prayer


Prayer is the absolute core of Christian worship. When we gather together in the name of Christ, we ought to be using each element of the service to direct the gaze of our hearts toward God. As the old liturgy commands: “Lift up your hearts!” And the response is: “We lift them up to the Lord!”

I often advise the parishioners in my church to imagine that our worship service is taking place before the throne of God in heaven and that we are participating in the ongoing, eternal service of worship that is perpetually poured out in the heavenly courts (because, in a very real sense, we are): to imagine ourselves, each Sunday morning, as part of that great throng of worshipers described in the visions of Revelation.

This Godward focus of the worship service is not an escapist fantasy or a merely individualized experience that pulls our attention away from our neighbors in the next pew: on the contrary, this is an immersion into reality as it truly is, and into the fully communal nature of the people of God. Rather than ignoring my neighbor in the next pew, a Godward focus in worship binds me to that neighbor more closely than ever, through the unity of our shared devotion and the realization of our oneness in Christ Jesus, revealed nowhere more powerfully than in the spirit of worship. Like metal particles all drawn together toward a single magnetic pole, we truly become one when we are pointed in the same direction, toward a single object of mutual adoration.

It is this directional spirit of focusing on God, this attentiveness to his presence, that makes prayer the binding core of all Christian worship. Whatever we do, whether singing songs, giving offerings, joining in a liturgy, attending to a sermon, or celebrating Holy Communion, we are doing those things unto God.

In point of fact, this sensibility about worship is really the most important thing there is to say about the practice of worship. Leave behind all your quibbles about personal preferences regarding styles of music, formal and informal liturgies, dress codes, and all the rest. None of it matters next to worshiping “in spirit and in truth,” no more than whether you’re worshiping in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim (John 4).

Now, I’m not saying that our preferences are unimportant in worship. We all have styles of music that we like and varieties of the Christian worship service that we feel more comfortable in. And that’s fine—it’s wonderful to be able to have forms of worship that speak so easily and so well to our hearts. One of the marvelous things about the sheer vastness of Christian diversity is that our many beautiful traditions have created hundreds of different forms of worship: from ancient, chanted liturgies that haven’t changed in fifteen hundred years, to fresh new worship choruses being pounded out by the drums and electric guitars of modern praise bands. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the style of worship that you enjoy.

There is something wrong, though, with letting your preferences disrupt the unity of the Body of Christ. In many cases, the church in which you are a member will not gear itself entirely to your own personal preferences. You’ll find that you share your church with large numbers of people from other generations, other cultures, and with other personalities, many of whom will not like the music that you like and who will prefer an entirely different form of service than the one you prefer. In far too many cases, this has been the spark for petty squabbles that mount into full-on church conflicts. Sometimes, the unity of the Body of Christ is torn because people decide that they simply can’t abide with a minor change in the form of their church’s worship.

Not only is that circumstance a tragedy, it is entirely avoidable. Mature, godly Christians—those who have learned how to worship God “in spirit and in truth”—know that it’s not really about me and my preferences anyway, as nice as it might be when a church service aligns with those things: no, it’s really about God. And we can turn our focus to God in almost any form or style of worship service we find ourselves in. One of the healthiest spiritual disciplines for a Christian is, every now and then, to go on a “field trip” to a worship tradition that is very unlike your normal one, and intentionally try to connect with God through the form of worship that they use. The forms we Christians use are many, but there is only one God, and he is everywhere present, especially when two or more are gathered in his name.

I’ve been in worship services that consist entirely of a liturgy chanted in ancient Greek (and in which you’re almost never allowed to sit down), and I’ve been in services that share more with rock concerts than they do with other forms of Christian worship. Neither form is my absolute favorite, but I enjoyed both, and I was able to turn my heart toward God in both, and to glorify him as part of the joint worship of his people. Anyone can do it, in almost any situation. There are, of course, exceptions—incidental circumstances, such as music being so loud as to cause physical discomfort, or services that are so poorly led that they tend to distract one’s attention from God rather than direct it towards him—but those are the exceptions, not the rule. The worship of God’s people, whatever the outward form, is still worship, and any Christian who shares the same Holy Spirit with the other believers engaged in that worship can, with a little prayerful intentionality, find ways to worshipfully connect with God.

This is an advisable practice not only when visiting other churches, but even in your own. Keep a mindfulness about you at all times. Remember what you’re doing there, and remember for whom you’re doing it.

When you’re singing hymns or worship songs, sing them with the intent directionality of prayer: don’t just read blindly over the words on the page or on the screen; speak them with your spirit, and let your heart rise through those words to contemplate and praise the eternal Godhead.

When you’re repeating well-known lines of liturgy, keep an awareness of what you’re saying, and mean every word of it. Say those lines to God, and not just because those are the lines you’re supposed to say.

When you’re giving your offering, be conscious that you’re doing it as an act of worship, as unto God. You can imagine that you’re a God-follower in Old Testament times, leading your animal up to the Temple to be sacrificed before the Lord. Too often, we let familiarity suck the intentionality out of our worship: use your imagination, your joy, your musical or artistic sensibilities to bring back that intentional focus on God in every act of the worship service.

When you’re listening to a pastor or other leader speaking out in public prayer, let your spirit follow along with the words they are saying. Don’t just keep your “Amen” till the very end; let your spirit breathe an “Amen” after every line, to join your prayer with theirs. If you have trouble with this kind of mental focus while being silent and trying to listen, you might try something I’ve begun to do when praying silently along with a spoken public prayer: use a simple chant of the “Amen,” and sing it along in your mind while the pastor prays. In the back of many hymnals, there are tunes for learning various “Amen” chants, sometimes up to a seven-fold Amen. And if you’re the sort whose mind likes to wander off during public prayers, letting yourself sing through an Amen-chant during those minutes is a good and practical way to join in the spirit of prayer and keep your heart directed Godward.

The bottom line is this: when we worship God, we ought to be actually worshiping God: not just singing songs or mumbling lines or sitting on a church pew fantasizing about lunch. That kind of focus is not always easy to attain: our minds naturally tend to wander. But learning to make your worship an exercise in prayer—in simply talking to God—can go a long ways toward teaching you how to become the kind of worshiper the Father seeks, those who can lay aside the incidental circumstances of form and structure, and simply worship in spirit and in truth.