Parousia, Coming of Jesus, Day of the Lord, the Book of Revelation . . . etc., etc.

The CWP Inner Circle is a very exciting group of Bible students from around the US and Canada, as well as the rest of the world, that loves serious Bible study. It is an “open” group, meaning that it is possible in this group to have open conversation about a broad range of ideas without fear of getting ostracized for floating the idea.  However, rather than being an “anything goes” group, it is given to the up-close evaluation of ideas against the context of a serious study of the scriptures.

I taught biblical languages and literature in University and Seminary settings for years (from Fuller Seminary in California, to the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, and to Martin University in Indianapolis), and to be quite honest, this online group (The Inner Circle) of housewives, factory workers, professionals, retired people, lawyers, doctors, and preachers is as capable and engaging as any seminary class I’ve ever had, and at least as energetic, if not more.  It is a marvelous experience, surpassing any Bible class experience I’ve ever found in any church, since most people in a church don’t care about the Bible much anyway. 

For the past several months we have been looking at 1Thessalonians in detail:  English text and Greek text (for those who want that).  And during the last couple of weeks we have been talking about the different ways that many people understand the topics of the Parousia, Coming of Jesus, Day of the Lord, the Book of Revelation . . . etc., etc.

Now, if you’ve been around any time at all, you know that Christians are all over the map on these topics.  Not only do they vary widely, they come across as hating each other over these topics.  It is shameful, really how much bickering and controversy exists over such things.  Our group–made up of people from a variety of backgrounds and “persuasions” have taken a very different tack.  We decided to see if we could actually be Christians in the process of the pursuit of such ideas.

The diversity of thought of this group has been superseded only by the the charity of mind. And what I share now in the rest of this article is not only my opinion, it is my evangelistic urging on this topic. 

A Blur of “Right Ways”

There are some things we learn from our ancient and precious scriptures (which have been handed down to us) that are fairly straightforward.  E.g., God is love.  We exist in, with, and by love.  We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, to treat others as we want to be treated.  And more.

There are other things not quite so straightforward.  Historically, many Christians of many backgrounds want to find all the right answers.  Once found, since they are “right”, we then want to insist on them for all. 

On the study of “The Apocalypse of John” (the book of Revelation), 2000 years of Christian history has given us 4 or 5 major competing ways of approaching the book which end in vastly different results.  Such as . . .

  1. Literal
  2. Spiritual
  3. Past
  4. Futuristic
  5. Bla bla bla

And each of these has been split into multiple and competing groups (and they all argue with each other interminably).

Christians then see this and feel like they need to figure out “which one is right?”  As you know, I’m all for deep and detailed study.  The reason is, you get blessed along the way with many things you did not otherwise expect.  Growth is a marvelous thing!  I urge detailed study!

But on this topic, you don’t have to study this for years to figure out that just maybe there is no “one right” solution to “what exactly did/does/will Revelation mean.”   Once you see that all of these very bright people who love the Lord cannot even agree whether the stuff has already happened or not, or when, or how  . . . I just start laughing about it.  I think we’ve had enough history, now, to show us that we are not going to figure all of this out.  What makes us think that we are going to come up with the “one right answer” when nobody has been able to do that for thousands of years (or, more accurately, when so many competing and contradictory groups already have the one right answer, and they all so markedly disagree with each other)?

A Sharper Focus

I think all of the debate is useful and interesting and worth our time.   I also think that, kept in perspective, it can be useful to us.  But in the end, on the topic of the coming of Jesus, the Day of the Lord, the “end of time”, the real meaning of Revelation, and other such things, we should be asking an additional question that we sometimes just entirely overlook. 

  1. We are trained to ask:  “What is the correct answer here?  What did it really mean? Am I believing correctly?”  That can be Ok.  Absolutely, let’s ask these questions.
  2. But maybe we should ask these more often:  “How did this teaching function in the life of early Christians and churches?  Why was it taught, and what outcome was wanted?” 

I think this is especially helpful on the topic we are talking about for this reason:  Consider any approach to Revelation (etc) above—–Past, Present, Future:  all of them!—–and here is the end result: 

We win! So, live up to it!    

In every case in our ancient scriptures, when these things are discussed, they are always discussed as related to the context needed—to help people live and grow.  They are never discussed as individual pieces of a big puzzle, nor are they intended to be “partial revelations” of a larger whole.  They are discussions of the topic within contexts to encourage people to live lives for God.  And when you strip away the context and cram the various naked things into a single puzzle, they don’t exactly fit and they look a lot different.  Why can’t we be satisfied with leaving them where we found them:  in context!  Why do we need a so-called “big picture”? 

A Christmas tree might look beautiful in my home, but it looks a whole lot different (and much more inviting) on the mountainside next to the blue lake from which I cut it down.

I urge all to adopt an attitude of openness and diligence to the ideas of others–especially on this extremely broad-ranged topic.  But we do not need to get tripped up into thinking that these ideas, in the end, are the point of the texts we have.  Let me state it this way:  if you have believed all your life that the “end of time” means the stars literally must fall from the sky, and you die before that happens, what difference will it make?  And if you believe that the Parousia already happened in 70 AD, and he ends up coming tomorrow—are you going to argue about it?  The main question for every position that anyone is taking should be “what difference is this making for how I live now?” 

These are exciting topics—(I sincerely mean that).  I have my opinions about how to best approach all of the texts on this topic.  But the really exciting part is that we win.  And question I have to answer next is:  Since that is true, how do I live now?

Gary D. Collier
Coffee with Paul Classroom
http://www.coffeewithpaul.com

 

“What Do You Mean By Mission?”

I love it when somebody “calls me” on something I said.  It gives me a chance to say more about it. 

And I was.  Called on my usage of the word “mission.”   I used it in that little video I sent you to describe what we are hoping in and by the power of the Lord at CWP.  That video said something like “Bible study as a mission.”

Now, Tresa was not confrontational at all, but eager in wanting to know:  She wrote simply, responding to the 1 minute video:

Wow! I can’t wait — I do have a question — define ‘mission’.  We at [name of college] Athletics are starting (restarting/improving) on our spiritual emphasis in athletics and our student-athletes – the background for my question — your definition could help me help the student-athlete. Missions is an area we are improving/introducing to the student-athlete – local and abroad.  Sounds like exciting times to come– I look forward to finishing the 40 Things and other plans you are working on.

I gave our friend Tresa (whom I don’t know except through this online Bible study) a short reply, but here is a more thorough one in the form of a focused Bible study. I thought that you might appreciate this as well.

Defined

Missions can be defined in a variety of ways, but for our purposes at CWP, we are focusing on the classical meaning of the Greek word apostolos—-and this will serve many audiences and situations.  Many Christians only see in this term the transliteration “apostle,” and they immediately go to the 12 apostles, or even to some modern day uses among some Christian groups of the word “apostle” as a kind of office or position of respect and rank.

But in ancient classical Greek, OT Greek, and at least Paul, the word “apostle” meant an envoy, an emissary, something or someone sent on behalf of another. 

This is especially seen by Paul in 1 Thessalonians (where the CWP Inner Circle will be focusing for about 30 weeks).  In 2:7, he refers to himself and his party as “chosen envoys, sent out by Christ himself” – or more literally as, Christou apostoloi “apostles of Christ.”  The word “Christ” is placed in emphatic position. 

Sailing ships . . . and Kings!

The word apostolos has been the subject of detailed discussion, both for its origins and usage within and outside the NT (see detailed list in BDAG 122; TDNT I:398-447).  I do not translate merely, “apostles of Christ,” because the word “apostle” is so well-known in English (through the NT), that it carries its own special baggage which may hinder readers from seeing the deeper significance of the word as used by Paul in reference to himself.  At issue, here, is how Paul views himself.  Keeping in mind that 1 Thessalonians is likely the first of all documents written that we now have in the NT, we are better to understand that the word apostolos (“one who has been sent on a mission”) would have been understood on the Gentile frontier, not merely through the oral teaching handed down by and about Jesus’ closest followers, but also (1)  in terms of the common usages of the noun-verb word-group, and (2) also in terms of those usages in reference to prophets in the (OT) Scriptures. 

As to the common usage of the word:  The noun apostolos in early Greek (pre- NT) had reference to a naval expedition, ship, or commission, including a letter of authorization for the purpose of sailing ships.  It was only occasionally used of people dispatched for specific purposes such as an ambassador, messenger, or delegate of the King.  Even so, the verb apostello (“to send”) was widely used in Greek documents related to persons of importance in administration and service.  This verb is also used extensively in the Greek OT (LXX) specifically for prophets, and this was certainly one influence of early Christian usage. 

For example, various forms of the verb apostello were key terms describing the call and work of OT prophets, as the following quotes show:

Of the Prophet Moses:

  • “And now, come, I will send (aposteilo) you to Pharaoh” (Ex 3:10)
  • “And here is the sign that I am sending you out (exapostello) (Ex 3:12) (see also for Moses Ex 3:13, 14, 15; 4:28; 7:16; Deut 34:11)

Of Other Prophets:

  • “Whom shall I send? (aposteilo);  “Send me!” (aposteilon me) (Isa 6:8)
  • “I am sending you out (exapostello) to the house of Israel” (Ezek 2:3)
  • “Behold, I am sending out (exapostello) my messenger” (Mal 3:1)
  • “Behold, I am sending out (exapostello) to you Elijah the Tishbite before the great and glorious day of KURIOS comes.” (Mal 4:5 [3:22 LXX])
  • Moses and other prophets are actually called apostles in later writings (see DPL 763a for discussion and references). 
  • The prophet Jeremiah is particularly significant in this respect.  His call by God (Jer 1:4-12) is very significant for understanding Paul in 1 Thessalonians: 

And the Word of the Lord (logos kuriou) came to me saying
Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.
And before you were born, I set you apart (hagiaka – from hagiazo).I destined you as a prophet to the Gentiles (nations)
(propheten eis ethne tetheika se)
And I said, “Oh lord KURIOS (ho despota kurie).  I don’t know how to speak (lalein), I am just a young man.  And KURIOS said to me, “Don’t be saying, ‘I’m just a young man, because to every place that I send you out (exaposteilo), you shall go;  and whatever I command you, you will speak it (laleseis). Do not be afraid to face them because I am with you to rescue you, says KURIOS.

Of Paul as a Prophet:

This call is, of course, reminiscent in several respects of Moses’ call in Exodus (see references above), but also of Paul’s description of his own ministry among the Thessalonians (this will especially be important in Gal 1:15-17).  Whatever the explanation for the adoption of the noun-form, apostolos, Paul now uses this term for his own mandate and mission by God.  He identifies himself as a special envoy of God sent out for a particular purpose of proclaiming the Saving Message of God.  (Now how many applications can you think of for this!) In this respect, he sees himself as no different from the prophets of Scripture who were described using the same terms, having essentially the same kind of call and mission, and facing the same kinds of opponents and struggles.  He will also claim to have the same kinds of abilities and responsibilities in receiving and delivering the Word of the Lord.  (See 1:6-7; 3:3b-4; 4:15-17; 5:19-22)

Of Us:

So, when I speak of “Bible study as mission” I consider us a ship on an expedition, like people with the charge of speaking on behalf of God and helping others do the same.  I realize that “mission” is often used to refer merely to the establishment of churches and the like.  But that is a too narrow usage of the concept.  Helping people to read the Bible responsibly, contextually, and conversationally is a mission worth exuberant embrace in the larger mission of the proclamation of the Gospel. 

So now I ask you . . . what is your mission?

“I Seem to Be Struggling with Bible Study”

Just today I received a public comment about the Scripture, Canon, & Inspiration book that deserves more than a “comment” status.  It is from Lynette—someone I’ve never met.  I have come to know her, though, through this Bible study program.  She has an eagerness that is contagious, and an openness and transparency that is commendable. I’m sharing this because I think some others might identify with her.

Here’s what she wrote (the bold sections were made bold by me):

Let me just say for someone that was raised in the church, I still feel very “new” to all of this. I love the church that I’ve found, my children love it and the pastor and his family are amazing! I however still seem to be struggling with bible study and I have absolutely no idea why. I did read the book, and I got really confused, and scared-no idea why. I gave it to my pastor, he is almost done with it and we will be getting together to discuss and I’m very much looking forward to it. I honestly wouldn’t even stress about those that are being so negative, they are that way only because they don’t know and they are lacking in faith, I don’t know, I don’t understand; however, I have faith and something tells me that what you are saying makes sense! So keep going! I will figure it out I promise, some days I’m just slow out of the gates! As I read the book, at times I did seem to feel like I was understanding, and then the next day I was lost (could be the fibro fog thing honestly) I enjoyed every minute of it, the amount of passion you put into your work does not go unnoticed! I look forward to learning more! I know that I don’t know that Bible as well as I would like, and I crave the knowledge it has to offer and look forward to learning and sharing everything that I can.

I want to thank L. for being so up-front and honest!  Struggling is not a sin;   it is rather a sign of a spirit that wants to know and grow.  It does not mean she will end up agreeing with me.  It means she is thinking.  

L’s admission of being confused and scared will be enough for some to say,”See, look what you are doing to people of faith!”  (I’ve already heard it.)  My reply is simple: Educating people of faith is not something I’m ashamed of.  I would think that being people of faith means that we are also people concerned about truth. And being concerned about truth, we are not afraid to be challenged, or to think seriously about the book we call the most important book in the history of the world.

I am right now having another conversation with a friend about this book:  he is attempting to help me see weaknesses in my argument.   I am grateful for his energy.  I will not quote him directly, but he says (in effect) that the inerrancy of the original autographs is obviously a construct that we have come up with, not specifically stated in the Bible;  but that it is a reasonable construct (he affirms).

When I heard this, I was genuinely nonplussed.  I said in response:

This is almost funny.  Here I am trying to say, ‘Let’s be biblical in our views of the Bible,’  and you are saying that the Bible is not sufficient for that!  Who has the higher view of the Bible?

We are not content with what the Bible does and does not specifically claim.  It is not enough for us.  We have to “fill in the blanks.” We have to sugar-coat it and theologize about it and make up things about it that it does not claim for itself.  Then we teach it to all of our people.  We even require it!  And then we get mad when somebody blows the whistle on us for doing it.

Let us put it this way:  If faith is based on fantasy, or has to be propped up by it, then how is this not another Santa Claus story?

Challenging current theories about the Bible is not the same as attacking the Bible.  Asking people to think about what they believe is not an act of faithlessness.  It is rather not only an act of faith, but an obligation of faith.

I want to thank Lynette for being brave enough to state the truth.  And it is to her, and and any who may feel like her, that I close this piece with what I consider to be a statement of resounding faith and love for the ancient scriptures.  It actually is found in the CWP statement of faith:  it was written before the book was written, and it remains unchanged to this day.  Here is but a piece of it:

This is a faith-based academic effort asserting that the canon of the ancient scriptures is an act of faith in search of a conversation with God. As such, it deserves our very best efforts as we engage both heart (the discipline of faith) and mind (the discipline of academic rigor) in pursuit of a conversation with God.  Not only should the canon be offered words of great respect (as it often is), but it should be pursued with responsibility and integrity (which it often is not). It is not enough that Christians claim a “high view of the scriptures” or “academic excellence,” they must act upon such things or the claims mean nothing. We approach the ancient scriptures energetically.  They are not, however, the object of our worship, but witnesses to the Lord who is. 

Gary D. Collier

 

 

 

Reading Responsibly

Since I talk a lot about being “responsible readers” of the scriptures, someone recently asked this:

What is it to be a responsible reader of anything? And why is that so important when reading the Bible?

Here is my reply: To be a responsible reader of anything is to read “with respect” (i.e., giving respect to) what I’m reading and not to abuse it. It is possible to abuse anything we read. For example:

  1. When I read my mother’s letters, I don’t read them as I would a newspaper article or a debt collector, even if she is reporting to me about the death of a neighbor or asking me to pay her back the money I borrowed from her. She is my mother, and that weighs heavily on me as I read. But I don’t use her 2 paragraphs of concern for my sister to drive a wedge between my mother and my sister. That would be to use the letter for a purpose it was not intended. That would be irresponsible.
  2. If I am reading poetry, I read it in light of the conventions of poetry, depending on what kind of poetry: English literature? Hebrew Wisdom? But I don’t read poetry as if it were law or history, even if knowing the historical context of the poem or the poet might give me insight.
  3. A Gospel is not the same as a letter; apocalyptic literature (as in parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation) is not the same as legal literature, nor allegory, etc. Reading these forms of literature without even noticing the difference often leads to some form of abuse.
  4. Talking about “the Bible” as though it is a single book with a single message often leads to abuse. The Bible is actually made up of collections of material gathered from over a thousand years or so. Also, there are many overlapping messages with many, and sometimes varied, specific nuances.

Does this mean that you have to be a scholar to read the Bible? Heaven forbid!

My mother was not a scholar: but she was a hungry student of the Bible and a searcher. Did all of this searching make a difference in her life: how she acted, what she believed, how she treated people? Uh . . . yes. Was she an arrogant, abusive Bible thumper? Hardly! Did she have any of those people as her teachers? You bet she did, but she knew the difference between what they were and what the texts she was reading were calling for. Can a person without “formal training” in the Bible gain value from reading the Bible not knowing any technicalities? Of course, just like an untrained person — with effort and patience — can replace a bathroom floor, plumbing and all (that would be me!). However, we should not be satisfied to live in ignorance. The more we learn about what it is we’re trying to do, the more it can help. To be unwilling to learn and to be insistent upon reading only through our own unevaluated context is to be irresponsible.

Giving respect to Paul as an ancient author, for example 1 Corinthians, means we will at least try to read by sitting in his chair before we’re willing to jump to our own conclusions. For example, we will read what he says about homosexuality or marriage or spiritual gifts or women against the backdrop of his own times and contexts without frothing at the mouth because we may disagree (from our own perspective). Was Paul a bigot or sexist? By 21st century American standards, yes. But then by his standards, most current-day American Christians are ignorant heathens. And when compared to the ancient Jewish philosopher, Philo (who died about the time Paul started writing), and many other ancient writers on women, Paul can be seen as both moderate and as sowing the seeds for liberation of women.

Now here’s the point: As people, we are not naturally responsible readers. We have to be taught. No matter what the subject. The reason is that reading is a very complicated subject. And whether people like to hear this or not, there’s more to reading the Bible than simply “doing what it says.”

The trouble is, when readers don’t care about any of this — and that is precisely what predominates in churches across the country (even though there are exceptions) — this is irresponsible. It undermines the pursuit and existence of genuine Christianity.

Let’s put it this way: countless biblical texts themselves urge, over and over again, familiarity with the scriptures:

    1. “On God’s law he meditates day and night;”
    2. “Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things out of your law;”
    3. “Attach them as frontlets for your eyes, put them on door posts, teach them to your children;”
    4. “Go on to maturity, get past the basics;” and
    5. “Jesus opened their minds to the law, the prophets, and the psalms.”

And on it goes.

I don’t mention these things to point out some kind of “command,” as though we have to read scripture because scripture says so. Instead, the point is that from the beginnings, Christianity was very much rooted in written text. So, in Christian terms, the written texts that form the basis of faith are replete with urging to know scripture.

For Christians to tout the Bible as the most important book in the world and then to be aware of it only in vague, generalized, mushy evangelical terms, or not even to care, is irresponsible! Some one can certainly come to faith in Christ having never read a single word. Certainly there are many experiences outside of the written word that can be had that are both valuable and necessary for a person of faith. However, in ancient Christian terms, followers of Christ will not be satisfied living a life apart from scripture. They’ll naturally seek to become “scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven.” Scribes. Readers of written texts. A genuine life of faith and a life in the Holy Spirit will always lead into a life in scripture. Stated another way, the Holy Spirit of God will never lead one away from the Word of God.