Welcome to Babylon! Here’s Your Mark!

[Update: Rod Dreher has another article worth reading (in addition to the one linked at the bottom). In this one he speaks to a political strategist on the reality that some religious liberty is going to be lost in the near future. Consider. Note too his suggestion that the only solution is another Great Awakening. Oh, that the Church would prioritize being the Church. -RDP]

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In July of 2013 I posted on the topic of persecution of Christians in America. At the time the Supreme Court had recently made some decisions allowing same sex marriage. I opined on how I saw this as a key marker that the future would see social persecution of Christians in America because of their opposition to homosexuality. Also at the time (and since) I received a bit of friendly criticism, admonishing me for being an alarmist.

Well, here we go again.

When I first took up this topic I expected that society-wide overt social persecution of Christians would not be wide-spread for at least a few decades. Not being a prophet or a prognosticator, I was engaging in the time honored tradition of looking at history for lessons to apply to today’s circumstances. Admittedly an inexact “science”, I thought I was in the ball park to propose that my children and grandchildren would face at least social persecution for maintaining belief in the Bible’s sexual morality teachings. E.g., I thought my grandchildren might suffer the loss of education opportunities while their parents, my children, suffered the loss of jobs, homes, etc., for simply declining when demanded by the World, “Say same-sex marriage is holy, right, and true!!”

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Given the widespread response to recent events, I’m now expecting such social persecution within the next decade.

Consider Indiana’s passage of its Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It is being characterized as a form of a Jim Crow law (Google it: “Indiana RFRA Jim Crow”). Yeah, I know, those are just crazy comments from folks no one listens to anyway. Except for one little problem, what sounds crazy today increasingly becomes “gospel” tomorrow.

Consider the Indiana Pizzeria owners who got tricked into saying they wouldn’t cater a same sex wedding celebration (again, Google it: “Indiana Pizzeria same sex”). The family for whom this is their livelihood has shuttered the business and is thinking of leaving the state due to the amount of death threats they’ve received from those who think any vocalized opinion against homosexuality is tantamount to saying one thinks lynching is an acceptable way of carrying on race relations.

We won’t even talk about the poor grandmother florist in Washington where the power of the state is being used to force her to comply with the new (im)morality or lose her economic livelihood. (Google it: “Barronelle Stutzman”)

After my last post on this topic in which I listed eleven examples of Christians whose economic freedom and well-being was harmed because of their declining to participate in a same sex wedding, I thought I might keep a running list of such examples for the naysayers. But it got too burdensome. There is almost a new example of this every month!

For you who insist on not seeing this as a form of persecution, I’d ask you to read the book of Revelation a bit closer. [Full disclosure: I consider myself a pan-millenniliast: at the core an amillennialist, with a willingness to affirm and adapt insights from the other positions.]

In the Bible Babylon is presented as that world system, that empire of Man, which is fully invested in opposing the Kingdom of God. Life is quite simple in that empire. Publicly affirm your allegiance to the ruling belief system (the anti-Trinity) and your economic well-being is secured. Fail to do so, and punishing you economically is just the start.

(Rev 13:16-17 ESV) 16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.

So what’s my point? No, I am not predicting the date of the 2nd Coming. I’m not even interested in debating whether or not we’re in the end times of the Last Day.

Instead I’m pointing to a principle. In Scripture the first empire to set itself up against God was Babylon, at the Tower of Babel (Gn 11). Babylon then becomes paradigmatic: it becomes the picture that represents man in his best efforts to prove the lie of Satan, to become like God through his own efforts. In Revelation Babylon is clearly presented as this Kingdom-of-God-opposing empire (cf., Rev 14:8; 16:19; 18:2, 10, 21, and everything in between). It is Babylon, the world in opposition to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who is the primary source of persecution for the people who follow King Jesus:

(Rev 17:1-5) 1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters, 2 with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.”

3 And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. 4 The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. 5 And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.”

Notice that among the chief characteristics of this Empire that economically persecutes the children of God is leading the rich and powerful to engage in sexual immorality. We don’t have to ponder much to see this wedding of possessions-position-power with sexual immorality in the push for moralizing same-sex marriage … and soon to come, its in-bred cousins. (E.g., be prepared for transgenderism to become the latest “gospel” from Babylon. April 24 should prove to be another pivotal point, when Bruce Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer is broadcast.)

The upshot? Whether we’re in the end of the Last Days or not is not material. What is material is that in this country, in this generation, or if I am not Chicken Little, within this decade, we should expect to see the overt adoption of laws that persecute Christians for simply declining to affirm same-sex marriage as morally good. Following this we should expect the passing of similar laws forcing Christians to affirm the holiness of other sexual perversions.

Already it is socially unacceptable to speak against these things (e.g., homosexuality, etc.). To do so is to invite the label bigot. Yet, in light of the response of a number of companies to Indiana’s passing of their RFRA, just around the corner is this: not only will you be labeled a bigot, you will also lose your job!

Don’t think so?

Don’t think this is not the new norm? Businesses are moving from being supportive of same-sex employees to demanding that all employees vocally support the gay rights agenda, or risk losing their jobs. Don’t think that they aren’t rationalizing this as just a necessity of doing business. Their profit margin is their holy of holies.

And as businesses threaten the economic well-being of those who disagree with the gay rights agenda, don’t think you’ll find support from your local state representative. Politicians will cave if they think their own future is jeopardized. They will pass laws protecting homosexuality via persecuting Christians in less time than it takes them to flip flop on where their favorite pizza joint is located!

So what does the future hold? Well, if the new norm is to deny the Christian his First Amendment freedom of speech rights (at least with regard to his views on sexual morality), is there anything stopping Babylon from removing Christians’ First Amendment freedom of religion rights? I think not. Indeed, I foresee the not too distant day in this country when even churches are not only not allowed to speak against homosexuality, they will also be forced to openly support this sexual immorality, and all its in-bred cousins.

This is just the way life in Babylon operates. We may not lose our heads, but we will lose our wallets and pocket books. Will we find the strength of faith to remain faithful then? Be prepared for a pruning of the Church:

(Jh 15:2, 6) 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. … 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

Maybe we can find hope and power in these promises of our King:

(Rev 2:10) Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.

(Rev 2:25-27) 25 Only hold fast what you have until I come. 26 The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 27 and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father.

Reed DePace

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[Postscript. Yeah, I know, I’m not painting a Kinkade picture here. But I don’t think I’m fear-mongering. You can tell the tenor of the mood of America by looking at the response to those who are paid big bucks to write a weekly opinion column. When they say something that most Americans don’t agree with, that weekly column becomes major news. When they say something that most Americans don’t find controversial, that weekly column is quickly forgotten. It is just economics; the media reports what people are interested in.

Here are three such recent opinion columns related to the Indiana RFRA topic. What concerns me is that these opinions should cause quite a bit of consternation, at least among Christians. Yet I fear these columns are being quickly forgotten – because they just aren’t that controversial at this point!

If so, my cautions are well founded. Prepare brothers and sisters. Worship Him more!

The 144,000 and the Great Multitude

I would like, in this post, to look at Revelation 7, particularly at the two groups mentioned: the 144,000 and the great multitude. Many, if not most, Reformed commentators (see Beale especially) have argued that these are the same groups of people. It must be admitted from the start that this is a very respectable position with a long pedigree. Nor can the difference between a numbered group and an innumerable group be attested in support of the position that there are two different groups.

The number 144,000 is a symbolic number. This is obvious from several facts. That God would only seal some and not others implies two distinct classes of Christians, something which the rest of the New Testament takes quite some pains to deny. Whatever group the 144,000 represents, it cannot be only part of a group of Christians.

Incidentally, as the commentator Wilmshurst (in the Welwyn series) points out, the Jehovah’s Witnesses interpretation makes this mistake and several others. The JW interpretation states that the 144,000 is a literal group of people that are to be in heaven around the throne room of God, and that the rest of the “good” people will have a decent life here on earth. Both groups are interpreted eschatologically in JW theology. However, the text makes it quite explicit that it is the great multitude who are around the throne of God in heaven, whereas the 144,000 are sealed here on earth to prevent them from receiving ultimate harm from the seals (see the flow of context from chapter 6). So the JW’s get the location of each group wrong. They also interpret the number literally, when it should be interpreted symbolically as 12 X 12 X 1000 (possibly the OT saints plus the NT saints times the number of perfection, implying the entirety).

We are more on the right track when we remember that census numbers were usually taken for military purposes. The 144,000 is a fighting group of people. This is confirmed when we look at chapter 14, the other time the 144,000 make their appearance. They were those who had not defiled themselves with women. Again, this is usually interpreted differently to point to their spiritual purity (and, no doubt, that is included). However, while fighting, Israelite men were to keep themselves from women. The indications are that the 144,000 is a fighting group.

However, they are not Israelites, contrary to the appearances of verses 5-8. For one thing, there wasn’t a Northern kingdom at the time John was writing. Secondly, the order of names is very curious (including Joseph and Manassah, but not Ephraim, and completely excluding Dan; as well as putting Judah first, and the sons of the concubines are fronted over some of the other sons of Leah, which would seem to indicate Gentile inclusion, as several commentators note). The only other group they could be is the church.

The innumerable multitude are standing around the throne room (and hence do not need the seal, since they are already safe). They hold palm fronds (v. 9), which is a symbol of military victory. They have their white robes that have been washed in the blood of the Lamb (v. 13). They are out of the tribulation (v. 14).

The upshot of the whole here is to point to the logical conclusion: the 144,000 symbolizes the church militant; and the innumerable multitude symbolizes the church triumphant. This avoids the problem of seeing the 144,000 as part of a group (in the sense that the entire church militant is sealed, not part of it: I am not advocating a denial of the distinction between the church militant and the church triumphant). The indications of the military nature of the 144,000 are given full scope, as well as the triumphant nature of the innumerable multitude. This is roughly the same conclusion to which Dennis Johnson arrives, although I have fleshed out the arguments a bit more than he did.

Literal Interpretation of Revelation?

I am currently preparing sermons on the book of Revelation. In reading through the commentaries, one finds much that is helpful, and much that is useless. An example of the latter category comes in Robert L. Thomas’s premillenial commentary. He says on p. 32:

The futurist approach to the book is the only one that grants sufficient recognition to the prophetic style of the book and a normal hermeneutical pattern of interpretation based on that style. It views the book as focusing on the last period(s) of world history and outlining the various events and their relationships to one another. This is the view that best accords with the principle of literal interpretation. The literal interpretation of Revelation is the one generally associated with the premillenial return of Christ and a view of inspiration that understands God to be the real author of every book of the Bible.

There are so many problems with this analysis that it is difficult to know where to start. First of all, he assumes that which must be proved in the first sentence. “Prophetic” must equal “future,” and therefore the futurist approach is the only possible approach that would sufficiently acknowledge the prophetic character of Revelation. He downplays apocalyptic features of the book elsewhere (the reason why is somewhat mystifying in its absence).

Secondly, his bifurcation of world history is extremely unhelpful. How could the book have been written to first-century Christians if the things described in Revelation have no relevance to the first century? Yes, Revelation is written to the entire church. That is why the events of Revelation happen all throughout history, having relevance to the entire church age between the first and second coming of Christ.

Thirdly, his view that only the literal interpretation of Revelation is consistent with a high view of inspiration is quite frankly ludicrous and offensive. According to Thomas’s view, God could not possibly reveal anything to us in a symbolic way without compromising inspiration. I might remind Thomas at this point of John 11, where the disciples take Jesus literally when He says that Lazarus has fallen asleep, and thereby misinterpret Jesus. Thomas might object at this point and say, “Ah, but John tells us that Jesus was speaking metaphorically.” To which I would reply that John does so again in Revelation 1:1, where the word “semaino” means to reveal by means of signs and symbols (see Beale’s commentary). Given that such a description is meant to describe Revelation as a whole, the default in interpreting Revelation must be symbolic, not literal.

To put this in a less abstract way, if I want to say that my wife is the most beautiful woman in the world, I could say it just like that. Such a statement would be objective, scientifically verifiable fact stated by a completely unbiased person. Well, maybe not, but it would be a very literal way of getting the point across. But I could say it another way, by quoting George Gordon, Lord Byron: “She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies, and all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes.” Now, Robert Thomas, which of these statements is more true than the other? Having trouble with that? Well, of course you are! That something is true is a distinct question from how that truth is stated. Thomas does not understand this, and therefore equates literal interpretation with a high view of inspiration. One can have a very high view of inspiration (I believe, for instance, that every single word of Revelation is inspired by God and is utterly infallible) and yet interpret Revelation symbolically because it is a symbolic book.

The real fear, of course, is that a symbolic interpretation would give license to the interpreter to say whatever he wants to about the text. This is a genuine problem with those who have over-reacted to the literal folks. The solution is to recognize that there are brakes on symbolic interpretation. Those brakes are called “the rest of Scripture.” For Revelation in particular, the Old Testament functions as the source of almost all of the imagery. John is either explicitly alluding to the Old Testament or (maybe even unconsciously!) simply lives in the aura of the Old Testament. John is saturated with the Old Testament. It comes out his pores. This is not surprising, given that Revelation pulls all the threads of the Bible together and wraps everything up.

Deaths and Resurrections

This post will be a sort of work in progress for me as I think through my position on Revelation 20 in relation to the two deaths and the two resurrections. My position might easily change, but this is what I currently think. I have found, through emailing Dr. Fowler White, that this is the Augustinian position. My understanding of it has definitely been shaped by Dr. White’s own work.

There are two deaths. The first death is the death of the body, and the second death is the death of the soul while both body and soul are in agony in Hell (this needs to be qualified by the fact that the unbeliever’s soul is always dead throughout life, death, and the resurrection of the body). There are two resurrections. The first resurrection is of the soul (this is identical to regeneration, which Paul describes in Ephesians 2 with resurrection language), the second resurrection is of the body, reuniting the body with the soul (though not automatically specifying which eternal destiny results).

The first death (of the body) that Adam and Eve brought upon themselves in the Garden of Eden established a link to the second death, in addition to securing the perpetual death of the unbelievers’ souls. For natural unsaved humanity, the first death leads to the second death. That link is what Christ came to break. Jesus simultaneously established a link between the first and second resurrection while breaking the link between the first and the second death. This new link is a guaranteed link, and it guarantees two things: it guarantees the second resurrection and, even more importantly, freedom from the second death (this is what Revelation 20:6 is talking about, according to Augustine). At the second resurrection, of course, believers are freed from the first death as well. So the first resurrection frees us directly from the second death and, through its guarantee of the second resurrection, frees us indirectly from the first death.

Lastly (and this is most directly influenced by Dr. White’s work), both resurrections have a certain irony to them. The first resurrection has this irony for the believer: it does not free him from experiencing the first death. It promises eventual emancipation, but not immediate freedom. The second resurrection has a mirror image irony: it does not free the unbeliever from the second death.

A Problem With Premillenialism

I have been reading Sam Storms’s outstanding book on Amillenialism. He poses a number of questions which I believe are insuperable problems to the premillenial view. The most significant has to do with death in the millenial age. The premillenial position requires that there be death during the millenial kingdom, since there will be great battles towards the end of it. The premil position also holds that the second coming of Christ comes at the beginning of that millenial reign. The problem is that the annihilation of death is not tied to the end of the millenial period in biblical revelation, but rather to the second coming of Christ. In Revelation 19, the wedding supper of the Lamb is followed by a description of the second coming of Christ, in which the beast and his followers are all cast into the lake of fire. The destruction is total and complete (see in particular verses 19-21). This makes chapter 20 a recapitulation of chapter 19, not a temporally subsequent chapter. The rest of the New Testament bears out this simple fact: it is when Christ comes back that the judgment happens, the annihilation of all the enemies, and the double resurrection (not first one group and then the next) occurs (see Storms’s book for an outstanding treatment not only of the passages involved, but also of the hermeneutical issues). This means that the millenial reign happens before Christ’s second coming, not after. Amillenialism and Post-Millenialism are the only viewpoints on the millenial kingdom that can account for these particular data.

Revelation 1:1 and the Interpretation of Revelation

G.K. Beale’s commentary on Revelation, which is probably the best commentary on Revelation ever written in the entire history of the church, has a very interesting (and convincing) take on Revelation 1:1, and the use of the Greek word “semaino.” Beale notices that in BAGD (Beale’s commentary came out before the third edition of BDAG), the definition is more generally “make known, report, communicate” without specifying the precise nature of that communication (Beale, 50). This is a caution on what follows. Beale’s argument for “semaino” depends on the LXX translation of Daniel 2 as being in the background to Revelation 1:1.

In Daniel 2, “semaino” refers to something more specific: revelation by means of signs and symbols, or pictorial revelation. It is symbolic communication. Daniel 2:45 LXX demonstrates this by connecting “semaino” to the signs seen by the prophet. Beale argues that, although the more general term “make known” is certainly part of the semantic range of the word, “its more concrete and at least equally common sense is ‘show by a sign'” (p. 51). It is very important at this point to note that all three uses of the verb in John’s Gospel have to do with pictorial representation of Jesus’ death and resurrection (12:33, 18:32, 21:19). The cognate noun “semeion” refers to signs and symbols. John picked “semaino” in Revelation 1:1 over the common and more general term “gnorizo” on purpose, according to Beale. He argues that “the allusion to Dan. 2:28-30, 45 indicates that a symbolic vision and its interpretation is going to be part of the warp and woof of the means of communication throughout Revelation” (p. 51).

The implications of this for the interpretation of Revelation are fairly immense: “[A] number of authors of both popular and scholarly commentaries contend that one should interpret literally except where one is forced to interpret symbolically by clear indications of context. But the results of the analysis above of 1:1 indicate that this rule should be turned on its head” (p. 52). He acknowledges that not all parts of Revelation are going to be symbolic or metaphorical. However, “Where there is lack of clarity about whether something is symbolic, the scales of judgment should be tilted in the direction of a nonliteral analysis” (p. 52).

At this point, a lot of people might get really, really nervous. Does this approach mean that I can make the symbols mean anything I want? Absolutely not. Symbols do not communicate anything if they communicate everything. Even words themselves can have a symbolic meaning. If I start off a sentence by saying, “Four score and seven years ago,” a literate person will know exactly what I am referring to. They will not be expecting me to go off on a history lecture about World War II. The fact is that the symbolic imagery of Revelation has its roots in the Old Testament. So, although we should be interpreting Revelation in a way that recognizes its inherent symbolism, we should also recognize that such symbolism has a built-in control called “the rest of the Bible.” John always operates in the symbolic world of the Bible. Furthermore, Revelation ties all the threads of the Bible together, and so we should expect the rest of the Bible to be pointing the way forward to Revelation.

Revelation 20 and Amillennialism

This is not going to be an exhaustive post on Revelation 20, about which several forests have been demolished in trying to explain. I am merely going to argue for the amil position in Revelation 20. The key issue turns on whether Revelation 20:1-10 follows chronologically after 19:11-2, or whether it follows non-chronologically (following a sequence of visions). Here are the two best arguments that 20:1-10 follows a visionary sequence, and not a chronological sequence: 1. The battle in 19:11-21 destroys all the enemies of God. The beast (vs 20), the false prophet (vs 20), and all the rest (vv. 18 and 21) are thrown into the lake of fire. This battle is certainly the final climactic battle, the result of which is that all the enemies of God are destroyed. Well, if they are all destroyed, then who is left for Satan to deceive in 20:3? The terms of 19:11-21 are so final (especially the lake of fire imagery) that nothing is really left after that. Poythress explains how it is that anything follows literarily in the book: 

“In view of the structure of the whole book, it makes more sense to see 20:1-15 as the seventh and last cycle of judgments, each of which leads up to the Second Coming…Thus, 20:1-15 is to be seen as the seventh cycle leading to the Second Coming. It parallels all the other cycles, rather than representing a unique period chronologically later than any of the others” (The Returning King, pg. 179). 

In short, the premil position needs to explain why there are any people left for Satan to deceive in Revelation 20, if that chapter follows chronologically from chapter 19.

Secondly, 20:7-10 is clearly describing the same battle as 19:11-21. The quotations from Ezekiel 38-39 point clearly in the direction of Armaggedon in 20:7-10. But most commentators refer 19:11-21 also to Armageddon, in which case we have recapitulation (for a more extended defense of this position, see Beale’s excellent excursus on the relationship of 20:1-10 with 19:11-21, found on pp. 972-983 of his commentary). For an excellent article exhaustively dealing with the evidence for recapitulation in Revelation 20:1-15, see Fowler White in the Westminster Theological Journal 51.2 (1989), pp. 319-344.

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