Christianity 201

June 30, 2014

Assigned Texts: When You’re Given a Tough One

In preparation for today’s study, read Revelation 8 and chapter 9.

Sometimes the circumstances of preparing a series necessitates navigating through some tough texts. Ian Paul is a writer from the UK who recently discussed the challenges he was facing in some tough chapters of Revelation. You can read more at the blog Psephizo.

I’ve just been writing some Bible-reading notes for Scripture Union (due out next year) on the first half of Revelation. It has been quite a challenge to writing something accessible and devotional on this complex text!

In fact, the first few chapters were not too bad. There is much to say about the opening section, and the vision of Jesus it presents. The messages (not ‘letters’!) to the seven congregations (not ‘churches’!) also have plenty of scope for devotional reflection—perhaps more easily than any other part of the book as a whole (excepting ch 21), which is why I guess there is so much written on them. The visions of worship in chapters 4 and 5 are also relatively easy to engage with, though perhaps not in the way many people think—the blending of imagery from the OT with contemporary images from Emperor ‘worship’ offer a specific challenge to us. The saints under the altar in chapter 6 offer a way into this section, and chapter 7 gives an extended reflection on what it means to be the people of God—disciplined as an army, suffering in combat, but praising God not so much for what God has done or is doing but for what God will do. (Warning: book coming on this one day!).

And then we reach chapters 8 and 9. What do you do, devotionally, with hideous, war-mongering locusts with women’s hair and human teeth, clanking and rattling their iron breastplates? How will these help you to live for Jesus today? (A clue: this is not a futuristic vision of attack helicopters, as some would have you believe.)

I have been helped by going back to a number of commentaries—Caird, Boxall, Beale, Mounce—and I have previously spent quite some time dwelling in some of these passages. But I was particularly helped by what I would call the critically-informed theological reading in Craig Koester’s Revelation and the End of All Things. What is interesting about this book is that it includes some introductory comments, but then goes on to offer a reading of each section of the text—not in a verse-by-verse format you would find in a commentary, but looking at the issues, the flow of the text, and how we might make some sense of it. Koester also has a great style of writing.

The opening observations about the structure of these two chapters caught my eye:

With each successive scene, disaster strikes earth, sea, and sky, until the demonic hordes of locusts and cavalry torment humanity amid clouds of fire, smoke, and sulfur (8.7–9.21). The cycle is all the more ominous because the destruction unfolds in a relentlessly measured way. the effect is something like an orchestral performance in which the strings scrape dissonant chords while woodwinds shriek, trumpets blair, and cymbols crash in what seems to be wild discord—except that all the players move to a steady beat that is set by the conductor’s hand: one, two, three, four… (p 93)

I love this metaphor, and it captures well the theological tension in the text reflection by the juxtaposition of literary structure and symbolic chaos. God is in control—and yet, within this, the chaotic forces of evil appear to be shaping the world.

In relation to chapter 9, Koester highlights really well the feature of the ‘macro-structure’ of Revelation: the alternation between the heavenly scenes of peace and order, and the earthly scenes of chaos and destruction. (This is the main reason why the lectionary selection of passages does not work; it picks out mostly one kind of scene, the heavenly, and the significance of this is lost when such scenes are no longer contrasted with their earthly counterpoints.)

Revelation depicts life under two forms of rule. The vision of the heavenly throne room in Revelation 4–5 showed a rightly ordered universe, in which creatures offered praise to their Creator and to the Lamb, who are worthy of power. But in Revelation 9, grotesque figures create a demonic parody of the created order, showing what conditions are like under the lordship of the king of the underworld, whose names Abaddon and Apollyon mean Destruction and Destroyer (9:11). Each of the winged creatures that attended the Creator had its own distinct face, one with a human face and another with the face ofa lion, etc.; but the winged beings that accompany the Destroyer have a hideous collage of traits: lions’ teeth protrude from human faces, while in front their chests are plated with iron and in back they have tails like scorpions. Where the elders in the heavenly throne room cast their crowns before God as they raised a harmonious song of praise (4:10-1 1), the demonic locusts continue to wear crowns on their heads as they raise a pounding and clanking roar, like chariots going into battle.

The judgment depicted here is not direct divine punishment, but a revelation of what it would mean for God to hand over the world to other powers…(p 100)

Koester here nicely draws out the way that, in Revelation, literary structure is a key bearer of meaning. And his reading is theological, in the sense that this last phrase helped me make connections with Paul’s language of ‘handing over’ in Romans 1.24 and elsewhere. He also highlights the allusion to OT images (of locusts, plagues and the like), and would want to add in echoes of things in the first-century world, such as the ‘blazing mountain’ reminding readers of the eruption of Vesuvius.

This does not solve all the problems and challenges of Revelation, especially with the violence of its imagery. But it reminded me of the depiction of evil in Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkein. Interestingly, Tolkein’s vision was less an indulgence in fantasy as an expression of the reality of evil that he had encountered in the death and destruction of the Western Front in the First World War.

November 28, 2013

The Jesus Blueprint for Prayer

Today, we’re going to once again invite some of you to be contributors to C201, but first, today’s thoughts are from the blog Digging The Word where they appeared a few days ago under the title, Learning to Pray (click to read)

Luke 11:1Once Jesus was in a certain place praying. As He finished, one of His disciples came to Him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

Hebrews 5:7While Jesus was here on earth, He offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the One who could rescue Him from death. And God heard His prayers because of His deep reverence for God.

Describe your prayer life using one word. You may think of words like exciting, strenuous, frustrating, boring, confusing, intermittent, difficult, struggle. Do you think it was easy for Jesus to have a prayer time?

Jesus’ last prayer time was in the garden just before he was arrested. He knew that his time had come and that he would be tortured and crucified very soon. Of course he had a stressful agonizing time in prayer but I wonder how his other prayer times were. I looked at that verse in Hebrews that said that Jesus “offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears” and I wondered if that prayer in the garden was the only time that he cried out with such intensity in his prayer time.

Jesus agonized in prayer while his disciples calmly fell asleep. But when the test came, Jesus walked through the trials and went all the way to the cross with courage, he never showed any signs of stress but where were his friends that had skipped their prayer time? They proved that they didn’t have the same courage that Jesus had. We often see prayer time as preparation for the battle but for Jesus prayer was the battle ground.

In Luke 11, after Jesus had spent time praying, one of His disciples asked Him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.”

Some things are worth noting from this verse. John the Baptist’s taught his followers to pray and we need to be taught how to pray. Nobody expects us to know how to pray without any instructions on how to do it. The disciples had been with Jesus for over 2 years. They had total access when He taught and preached. They witnessed His miracles. Yet, as far as we know, they never took Him aside and asked, “Lord, teach us to preach,” or “Lord, show us how to minister.” They did come and request, “Teach us to pray.”

Prayer 101

✔ Jesus prayed for others. Matthew 19:13-14, John 17:9
✔ Jesus prayed with others. Luke 9:28,
✔ Jesus prayed alone. Luke 5:16
✔ Jesus prayed regularly. Luke 5:16
✔ Jesus prayed in nature. Luke 6:12
✔ Jesus prayed all night. Luke 6:12
✔ Jesus prayed with passion. Luke 22:39-44
✔ Jesus taught persistence in prayer. Luke 18:1

These basic guidelines show us how, when and where to pray by following Jesus example.

Christianity 201 is part of a blog aggregator called Faithful Bloggers. (Click the icon in the right margin or below to link.) Recently Courtney, the moderator of Faithful Bloggers, wrote a piece guiding writers how to carefully craft a devotional piece. Is it a coincidence that I was holding this article for several days and today’s topic was prayer?

I’m reproducing it here to encourage some of you to consider taking a verse of scripture which is percolating in your hearts, and writing thoughts the rest of us might appreciate. Send it to the address on the submissions page.  To read Courtney’s article at source, click How To Write a Devotional Piece: Be Prayerful.

Writing on a regular basis isn’t always easy.  Coming up with the words you want to use to convey your message isn’t always easy.  Sharing God’s Word and His message of salvation and love isn’t always easy.  When you put writing and sharing God’s message together through devotions, it isn’t always easy.Writing devotions is a very precious and important task.  Anyone who reads your devotional should be able to find the love of Christ of in it and reading your devotional might be the only time they see an example of that kind of love.  That is why we must be prayerful when writing devotions!

Before you put pen to paper, or rather, start typing, pray. Ask God to tell you what He would have you to write about. What message does He want you to impart? Be mindful of what comes to mind as you are praying. Does a particular person come to mind with a specific issue? Does a specific verse pop into your head?

Listen. He will tell you what to write.

Praying before you start writing a devotion will make it so much easier to actual write the devotion.  But that is not where you stop praying.

You need to be prayerful throughout the entire process – before you write, while your write, during the editing and proofreading stage, throughout marketing, etc…

Remember that once you publish your devotion, whether it is on your blog, as an ebook on Kindle or in PDF format, or as a physical book, your job isn’t done.

Be prayerful for your readers.  Pray that your readers will receive the comfort, love, and encourage that you intended when you wrote the devotion.  Be prayerful that your devotion will touch at least one life for the glory of God.

Being prayerful is something so simple that is it often the one step that is forgotten.  Next time you decide write a devotion, don’t forget!