As I write this, Jerusalem—the city that many Jews, Christians and even some Muslims consider the navel of this world—quietly slips into the early hours of September 23. While most of its citizens sleep and dream, thousands of Christians around the world hold their breath in anticipation, hope and, for some, even fear. A little more than a month after a rare solar eclipse traversed America, an even greater sign has now appeared in the heavens: the constellation Virgo (the virgin) finds herself situated with the sun and moon near her feet; Jupiter (the king of the gods; representing for Christians the true God revealed in Jesus the Messiah) shining in her midsection (womb); while nine stars and three naked-eye planets (Mercury, Venus and Mars) crown her head. And so, we are told, for the first time since well before the Apostle John penned the words of Revelation, the heavens align in perfect fulfillment of a key aspect in his divinely inspired vision of the Apocalypse:
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. Revelation 12: 1-2
And if that weren’t enough, other supposed prophetic teachers and seers have noted the wars raging around the Middle East as well as in other parts of the world; the severe earthquake that struck Mexico three says ago; the unprecedented fires burning across America; the incredible devastation hurricanes Harvey and Irma brought to the Caribbean and the United States; and the current nuclear smack-down between Trump and Kim Jong-un and have interpreted them all as fulfilling—or at least pointing to—the dire warnings Christ gave about what many interpret to be the end of the world:
“There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences… And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21: 11, 25-28
But wait, that isn’t all. For even as the great alignment in the heavens takes shape, two more hurricanes dance their way across the Atlantic: Jose and Maria, Spanish permutations of the name Mary, the virgin mother of God, and her human husband, Joseph. (Note that the storms never touch one another, echoing the great truth that Joseph played no part in Jesus’ conception.)
Add it all up and it’s little wonder so many believers who hold to a particular brand of eschatology (the study of last things) are thinking something momentous is about to unfold.
The return of Christ, the rapture and the beginning of the end it all triggers, perhaps? More than a few think so and are shouting it from the proverbial housetops of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The final countdown to Jacob’s Trouble and the Great Tribulation? “Amen!” say others. Some more cautiously speculate that the signs are to be understood as but a major birth pang in redemptive history (Roman 8:22); perhaps a trumpet blast calling the recently eclipsed America to repent: that her lampstand is about to be removed—something, by the way, Kim Jong-un would only be too happy to help with. Others are more focused on the canary in the coal mine of nations, Israel. After all, some say this great heavenly sign will be most prominently manifest in the sky above the “Holy Land.” And not only that, Rosh Hashannah will have begun, leading up to the highest of the High Holidays in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).
Are you ready for Armageddon?
More than a few people, impressed by the data points noted above, have asked me what I think about all of this. All of them are friends and solid Christians, people not known for chasing myths and endless genealogies (1 Tim. 1:4), much less believing in a domed flat earth or the planet Nibiru. (Did I mention that a number of apocalypticists read Planet X—Nibiru for those in the know—into Revelation 12 and September 23rd as well? After being a no-show on several previously predicted, world-ending collisions, this ghost planet has been guaranteed by some to finally get the job done tomorrow.)
And so, for what it’s worth…
I think all of this is precisely what Paul warned Timothy about in the verse (1 Tim. 1:4) just mentioned: a myth. Worse, it’s just another of the seemingly endless speculations/genealogies that pattern-seeking humans of the Christian variety—many of them sincere and well-meaning—have gotten wrong as they have offered them up to a watching world for nearly two millennia.
And sadly, tragically, the end result has been in the end to bring ridicule on both the Name of Christ, His Bride and His Kingdom message. After all, if we can’t get the end part of redemptive history right, who’s to say we don’t have the beginning and the middle all muddled up as well?
I’ve been working for some time on a series of responses to the New Atheists, a movement—make no mistake—that is having a profound impact on the Western world. Having read a number of their books and listened to dozens of lectures, I can tell you that one of the top five sticking points with Hitchens, Dennett, Dawkins and particularly Harris, is that Christianity appears to be a clown car of apocalypse-chasers who are constantly getting their predictions wrong. Worse, it seems to them that we could care less about making the world a sustainably better place.
But there is a sense in which I truly do hope, yearn and pray that September 23rd and the days that immediately follow do spell the “end of the world as we know it.”
1. First, that it signals the end of professing Christians making like holy scripture-breathing prophets and taking it on themselves to use whatever pulpit they can find to share their personal interpretation of scripture and the signs they see in the times to say anything about the specifics of God’s prophetic timetable.
I mean, how many times do the great commissioned have to get the terminus of their commission wrong before we finally shut up?
Five? Ten? Fifty?
The fact is, the true number swells into the hundreds.
A generation from the first one AD has not gone by without some useful idiot (I say that as someone who struggles—as all of us do—with bouts of idiocy) declaring “The end is near!” Shoot, in just the short, vaporous passing of my 63 years—punctuated by the admittedly interesting and likely significant recreation of the land of Israel after almost 2,000 years—I’ve seen millions of Christians chasing the apocalypse. And I’ve lost count of how many drop-dead dates have been set…and then passed by without so much as a howdy-do.
As I write this I’ve been listening to 1000—A Mass for the End of Time for inspiration. The album is a collection of songs taken from the Ascension mass and apocalyptic texts that were everywhere as great swaths of Christians anticipated the end of the world as the first millennium AD wound down…only to then give birth to the second.
And now were into the third.
Ezekiel’s fourth (Eze.47:3-6) anybody?
I hope, I pray, our descendants are up for it.
2. Second, that we finally see the end of professing Christians tolerating even a whiff of Gnosticism: the satanic, Hellenistic-based idea the early church faced off against on the left even as they had to contend with the Judaizers on the right. Boiling it all down, Gnosticism is salvation/transcendence through knowledge; glomming onto the hidden keys of truth that have been lost or obscured from the common man. Discover this hidden knowledge—and, just by the way, whozzit can help you along if you will just buy his or her book or DVD—and you will become one of the chosen, the truly enlightened.
Now hold on there, you may say. What prophecy experts are making such claims? With some fringe exceptions, these are all good Christian leaders who believe in salvation by grace through faith and not through some hidden, obscured knowledge.
Well, I have no doubt that this is their heart and intention. And I’m also not in any way questioning their inclusion in the elect of God.
But you know what they say about good intentions.
The fact is I have not found a single end-time prophet, teacher or fiction writer who has not declared, or at least implied, that unless a person gets it right as to the specifics of their particular take on eschatological matters, it will not go well with them.
Some will say it straight up. In researching this, I’ve processed numerous articles and YouTube videos where the authors declare that the skepticism about their position I voice in this article means I am yet in darkness; that I’m bound by carnal thinking rather than embracing the enlightened insights they have received and are now sharing with the world.
The worst? Despite my sincere belief and embrace of the Gospel of the Kingdom, my bedrock confidence that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead and is now the LORD of heaven and earth, I remain a deceived, unregenerate spawn of Satan and on my way to hell.
And all because I haven’t grasped the hidden wisdom they’ve received concerning the trajectory of redemptive history and the last days.
Don’t believe me? Think I’m being harsh and unfair?
I’ve visited with Tim LaHaye on one occasion I remember. More his wife, Beverly, and the wonderful organization she and Tim helped found, Concerned Women for America, where I have spoken at two national conventions as well as being interviewed on their national radio program. I consider them both to be wonderful, anointed Christians who very likely will have a place of honor on the New Earth that eclipses mine.
With that said, however, when you boil down the theology of Dr. LaHaye’s incredibly popular (65 million sold) Left Behind series—a fictional representation of the dispensational eschatology that informs so much of the September 23rd speculation—one is left with a number of a proverbial flies in the ointment.
For example, Revelation 14:9-11 straightforwardly declares that anyone who receives the “mark of the beast” will face an eternity of hell, where “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.”
But what does it mean to take this 666 mark on the hand and/or head? Well, perhaps most broadly: to be a mere man (6 in Biblical numerology) who strives to supplant the Triune God (3); to be self-rather than God-referential in what we ultimately trust and believe (the head) and what we do (the hand).
This is what many Christians, myself among them, have believed for over two millennia.
Or what of the Roman emperor cult the early Christians had to face off against? After all, it was to them John was writing about things which will soon take place (Rev. 1:1).
The Romans had no problem with their subject nations maintaining their distinctive cultures and paying homage to their traditional deities. The rub came when they were required to honor the Caesar as kurios, the Lord, the King of all Kings.
No problem for the majority polytheistic cultures. They and their gods, after all, had been conquered by Rome. Might, in the end, is right.
But for Christians, it was another matter all together. Jesus had been executed via Roman crucifixion, vindicated by the Holy Spirit through a bodily resurrection from the dead, had ascended into heaven where He was enthroned and made LORD (kurios) over everything in heaven and on earth.
This was the bedrock of the Christian faith, the truth that stood above every other pretender to truth and homage. To confess instead that Caesar was LORD was unthinkable. It was to deny both Christ and the very foundation of the Gospel.
But to not honor Caesar as LORD could mean—and at various times over two-and-a-half centuries did mean—that Christians were severely marginalized (for example, their ability to engage in commerce—to buy and sell—was restricted) and even jailed, tortured and executed.
And to make matters worse, there is the curious fact that the emperor who kicked off the first serious persecution of Christians—a man who eventually degenerated into the most beastly state of mind and behavior—had a title whose letters added up to the very number John used to represent the beast. (Greek, like Hebrew and later Latin, did not have a separate number system but instead pressed their letters into doing double duty. And it was very common for people to add up the number values of the letters in a name or phrase, a practice the Jews called gematriya (gematria).)
After killing himself to avoid assassination, both the empire and emperor cult fell into confusion and looked to be “dead”, on its way to oblivion. But thirteen years after Nero’s passing, Domitian, a man who some Romans believed to be the second coming of Nero, came on the scene and righted the floundering ship of the Roman state. A gifted statesman and strategist, he was also a remarkably cruel and vainglorious man, one the historian Pliny described as a beast from hell who sat in its den, licking blood. Beginning in 89 AD, for seven years the self-titled “God the Lord” unleashed a torrent of persecution against what was commonly seen as a sect of Judaism: the Christians.
The 666 death cult was reborn.
Could what is now past be what John the revelator was primarily pointing to, encouraging his fellow believers to endure with hope in the eventual victory of Christ over the emperor cult? Could we be barking up the wrong tree as we speculate about future fulfillments: for example people being eternally doomed or at least having to go through the Great Tribulation because they’ve accepted a particular credit card, smart card, biochip, vaccine or whatever else becomes the mark de jour?
I’m not saying definitively that we are, though I personally believe it to be the case. God-fearing and learned folks look through the Bible’s admittedly difficult and at times mysterious eschatological lens from different angles and, of course, reach different conclusions about these matters.
But shouldn’t the ancient paths carved out by the many that have gone before us be taken seriously rather than simply ignored? Shouldn’t the indisputable fact that Christians have gotten it so often and so spectacularly wrong before—with no little damage being done to our testimony before men as a result—give us profound pause before chasing after the newest sign in the heavens or earth?
In much the same way, what of the passage in Revelation 12 that has become the focus of this new wave of end-time speculation: the great sign of the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars?
Many, perhaps even a majority of theologians over the intervening years, have viewed this passage as being fulfilled nearly two millennia ago: imaged first by Mary, the infant Jesus and Herod standing in for the dragon and then more completely as the young church had to endure the persecutions of imperial Rome.
But you would never know about this common interpretation listening to all the fevered speculation concerning September 23rd.
And this brings me to my third and last “please let tomorrow and the days that follow be the end” hope and prayer.
3. That we will finally see the end of the anti-historical, new (or recovered) revelation perspective that has tainted so much of modern, and particularly American, evangelicalism. Millions have been infected with a “vain imagining” that has either taken over their minds and hearts or—and I would take this to be by far the majority report—bubbles quietly beneath the surface of their consciousness, creating confusion where there should be clarity as to the task that is before them. This thought-virus takes many forms but is perhaps best expressed in the idea that the Church has to varying degrees floundered since Constantine; that true New Testament, Spirit-filled Christianity has only recently been recovered (many would date it to the Azusa Street revival); that only now, in our generation’s time has the latter rain truly fallen and a nascent Daniel generation come on the scene that will ultimately usher in the return of the LORD.
In opposition to the Prime Directive given to us by our LORD (Matthew 28:18-20), millions now limp about, tethered to the subtle belief that Satan and his seed are the ones really alive and well right now on planet earth. Ignoring or watering down Jesus’ clear admonition that no one knows the day or hour of the Son of Man’s return (Matt. 24:36)—as well as the two angel’s gentle and rather humorous rebuke of the disciples’ “standing around and looking into the sky” rather than hoofing it back to Jerusalem and engaging with the new commission they had been given (Acts 1:11)—a majority of U.S. Christians believe that Jesus will either “definitely” or “probably” return to earth on or before 2050. (2010 Pew Research Study). Abandoning the long-term strategy and commitment to occupy or do God’s business until He returns (Luke 19:13), millions of Christians’ fascination with supposed end-time’s doom and gloom is becoming—even has become as regards the West—a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Father, forgive us.
May all of this nonsense finally come to an end as we see 2017 come and go without the occurrence of any great apocalyptic event.
I’m going to informally “predict”—more offer a hunch—that God could very well frustrate the sign-chasers and predictors by making the September 23 and the rest of 2017 an ocean of relative calm. (Note the qualifier “relative.” Crazy and tragic stuff will continue to occur with some frequency as it necessarily must in a fallen, yet-to-be-fully-redeemed world.) The One who holds together the cosmos by the word of His power (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3) might very well grant our planet an extra measure of grace so that the trend we already see emerging in 2017 relative to earthquakes—we’ve actually seen the least in relation to the past decade—will manifest in other areas watched by apocalypticists as well.
Trump and Jong-un will continue to bark at one another, but a nuclear holocaust will be averted. Islamists will carry on with their war against the West and Israel, but nothing unusually horrible will come of it.
And maybe, just maybe, the Church can put away her fascination with myths and endless genealogies and give renewed energy and attention to the Gospel of the Kingdom as December 25th and January 1 roll around.
And that, by the way, includes calling America to repent. We didn’t need our own special eclipse to let us know that America is under the judgment of God. It has been for years, with 1973 (Roe v. Wade) and 2015 (Obergefell v. Hodges) serving as true signs of the tragic process of being given over to believe the lie. (2 Thess. 2:11)
Lastly, as long as this article has turned out to be, there’s much I have had to leave out. And that includes an idea—an eschatological riff on Pascal’s famous wager—that may somewhat smooth the ruffled feathers of those I’ve put-off by the perspectives I’ve shared here.
More importantly, it just may show us a better way forward.
I hope to have it out within a few days.
On Monday, Aug. 21, 2017 a total eclipse of the sun will make its way across America. The last time the contiguous United States experienced one was in 1979. But it will be the first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in 99 years and the first to be visible only in this country since before it even was a country.
The track of the Moon’s shadow will cut diagonally across America from Oregon to South Carolina, traveling at speeds ranging from almost 3,000 miles an hour when it appears off the coast of Oregon, to about 1,500 miles an hour where it says goodbye to Charleston, North Carolina and then trails off the edge of the earth.
Its cross country trip will take 93 minutes.
All of the continental United States will see at least a partial eclipse. But only those in the 68-mile-wide path of totality will see the disc of the sun completely blocked out by the moon.
How big a difference is it to see a partial versus a total eclipse? Its been compared to watching a sparkler versus an aerial shell exploding across the 4th of July night sky; or enjoying a beautiful local waterfall over trying to get one’s mind around the majesty of Victoria Falls.
For most locations along the 68-mile-wide path of totality, the beginning of the eclipse to full totality will take about 90 minutes.
Inside this path, the Moon will completely cover the Sun. The earth’s landscape will be plunged into an eerie twilight, similar to the amount of darkness that occurs about 20 minutes after sunset. Temperatures can drop by 20 degrees or more. Birds will go to roost, dairy cows will return to their barns, and frogs and crickets will begin their evening choruses.
The corona is an aura of plasma that surrounds the photosphere, the visible surface of the sun. From the sun’s surface, it extends about five millions miles out into space. For reasons scientists don’t yet fully understand, the corona is much hotter than the sun itself, up to 450 times hotter. But it’s also a million times less bright than the sun.
And this why the corona it is not visible to us except during an eclipse or by the use of a coronagraph, a telescope that employs a disc to block the sun’s bright surface. But even the best coronagraph can’t provide as clear a view of the corona as what the moon drops into our lap during a total solar eclipse. And this is why astronomers go crazy over them and why so many will be eagerly coming from all over the world to photograph, film, map, measure, study and explore every facet of this awesome astronomical phenomenon.
For there in the corona, and particularly its inner ring, lie the keys to understanding many other things about the universe, the sun and even our own planet.
In that sense, the corona is the Rosetta Stone of astrophysics. For once fully deciphered, scientists can then turn and unlock many of the other mysteries of a universe the Psalmist declares
“….pours out speech and…reveals knowledge.”
But here we come to a very interesting and even peculiar aspect of a solar eclipse, one that makes an extraordinary event even all the more extraordinary: Why should the moon so perfectly block the disc of the sun and make the corona to visible?
For if the moon was a bit larger in size or was closer to the earth, its shadow would block out both the sun and the corona.
Or, if it was smaller or further away, the much brighter disc of the sun would drown out the corona’s radiance.
And again, its mysteries would be locked away.
Why should the moon, which is 400 times smaller than the sun, when in the right place in its elliptical orbit around our planet, be 400 times closer to us than the sun, thus making a near perfect total solar eclipse with a visible corona possible?
To scientists under the spell of a purely naturalistic view of creation—meaning there is no Creator, that the universe just happened and just happens to be the way it is—it’s all just a coincidence, a happy—for us—accident.
But mere happenstance transforms into glorious design for those who believe that,
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their speech goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
The Hebrew word here translated “speech” means literally a “measuring line” or a ruler, echoing a theme that is stated in several other places in the Bible: that the cosmos was designed and constructed by and through a singular Wisdom of infinite precision and complexity. From a purely rational human perspective, this cosmic blueprint yields the laws of science and the beautiful symmetry and surprising effectiveness of mathematics, and further explains why modern science, as historian Edward Grant observed,
But along with this rational, scientific dimension, there’s a prophetic or symbolic—one could even call it artistic—aspect to all of this as well. For the Bible declares in the Book of Genesis that the Creator set the sun and the moon in the sky not just to illuminate our world, to regulate seasons and mark the flow of time—for astrophysical purposes in other words. They are also for signs; to point to key truths regarding God’s eternal plan.[ii]
Like any great playwright or theatrical producer, God designed our world and its surrounding heavens to not only serve as a physical stage upon which the drama of redemptive history would unfold, but to also reflect: to provide shading, greater meaning and nuance to this drama.
And there are no more important stage props in this regard than the greater light that rules the day and the lesser light that rules the night.[iii]
There isn’t the time and this is not the place to explore all the wonder to which these two great lights point. Stay tuned for the documentary, “All the World’s a Stage” where we will examine the redemptive/historical aspects of each of the six stages of creation.
For now, we’ll close with two last thoughts.
First, a tangential one that may or may not mean anything. As we’ve seen, the number 400 looms large over a solar eclipse. Totality happens because the moon is roughly 400 times smaller than the sun but is 400 times closer to the earth.
Well, it also so happens that the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, from which the sign of the Christian cross is in part derived, has both a meaning and a number associated with it. Its meaning is “sign” or “signature.” And its number value is precisely 400.
In addition, as we saw in Genesis 1:14, functioning as signs was part of the Creator’s design for the sun and the moon. The Hebrew word for “sign” here is made up of three letters. Each has a numerical value, as the ancient Hebrews used their letters to represent numbers as well. When you total the value of the three numbers you get…well, we’re over 98% of the way there: 407.
But finally, there should be no dispute from a Christian perspective as to one key aspect of a solar eclipse. In revealing the corona and the astrophysical Rosetta Stone it represents, can there be any question that the Creator God intended men to be scientists and understand the universe; to, in the words of the Johannes Kepler, the devout Christian who is often called the Father of Modern Astronomy, “think God’s thoughts after him?”
This is something wonderful to chew on, particularly as we watch the moon slip across the disc of the sun and throw our world into a temporary darkness but for the mysterious, hot light bleeding around its edges.
In what is very likely a line from an early hymn of the Church, we are told that Jesus, the second Person of the Trinity who stands outside of time and space, created both time and space.
“He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…”
And now time, space and, yes, eclipses show forth His handiwork.
On August 21, remember that He choreographed this cosmic dance. That He did it to show forth His glory as well as to teach and awe His earthly audience.
For it all points to the Omega Point, the Singularity to which all of creation groans and moves.
And this day will be yet another total eclipse for the Son.
[ii] Genesis 1:14
So too with the greatest story ever told.
A little less than 2,000 years ago, Jesus was wrapping up his three-year ministry intensive with his small band of eleven disciples. Forty days before, He had graduated from death to life, becoming the first fruit of the New Creation, the model Man who then breathed on his astonished followers and transformed them into chips off this new Cornerstone. Now He was about to step back into His Father’s dimension and sit down on the throne as the dread Sovereign over heaven and earth.
He leaned into His eleven disciples and a great hush fell.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” He said. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20
And so He summed up the raison d’être of His life…and ours.
Now depending on one’s eschatological view—whether a-, post- or historical pre-millennial— we can disagree as to the extent we will be successful in this grand enterprise of discipling nations before the Lord returns. We can even disagree as to how true success is defined.
But there should be absolutely no question as to what that commission is and means: to love others as He has loved us; to strive to bring every thought in obedience to Christ; to seek first the Kingdom and His righteousness; to pray and then work for that Kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
And die trying (in more ways than one).
Anything less is to cease being a disciple; to quit the game, leave the field and shuffle off into the inglorious stands.
If you think the year is 2015, you’re only partially correct. For the citizens of North Korea it’s presently 104. That’s because the government retooled the calendar so that the modern era began on the day their tin-pot messiah, Kim II-sung, was born. (April 15, 1912—the “Day of the Sun”—is a national holiday, appropriately coinciding with America’s tax filing day, though it would have been even more fitting had he been born two weeks before.)
His son and successor, Kim Jong-il, took a break from “changing the times”— settling on changing his score card in golf. According to official North Korean state media reports, this unsurpassed leader and athlete routinely shot three or four holes-in-one per round of golf.
But now Jong-il’s son and successor, Jong Un (you’ve got to appreciate the delightful onomatopoeia in all of this), is back on the time thing. On August 15 the government officially put the nation’s clocks on Pyongyang Time, setting them back from the rest of the world by one-half hour.
And there you have it folks: truth unfolding on the world stage. And courtesy of the Playwright who directs the rising and fall of nations and individuals; all in an effort to get through our thick heads that the more we lean to our own understanding, the stupider and more destructive we become.
North Korea: there’s probably no nation on earth more committed to rejecting God; more beguiled by the notion that “man is the measure of all things” and that a great one can arise from the masses and lead the people into a humanistic promise-land. And what has it gotten them? Knocked two thousand years back into the past. (Looking at the living conditions in North Korea, that’s actually an insult to citizens of the iron age.) Jerked a half-step out-of-sync with reality. And cursed with a succession of toad-like fools for leaders who if placed anywhere else in the world couldn’t get elected class clown.
(But before we get too smug: how far behind this tragicomic fiasco are we? I mean, really? Particularly when set against the New Jerusalem God has in mind for this planet.)
And so the “four winds of heaven” sovereignly blow across the roiling, chaotic seas of fallen humanity. Beast systems are cast upon the shore and do their dance until ebbing tides sweep them back into the abyss. Flecks of foamy shame manifest as men: pathetic antichrists granted a brief opportunity to sit on their Creator’s lap and try and slap at His face. Change the times! Rail against the Ancient of Days! Strain against His cords and commandments! Oppress the poor and the people of God!
The Creator chuckles. The Playwright, seated on His blood-bought throne, determines the scene is over; that the plot point is complete. The wind blows and the tides ebb. And Nero, Diocletian, Attila, Vlad, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi, Saddam and the Kims—among other beasts—shuffle off, stage left, into a burning Sheol; waiting on the terrors of the Great Day when the curtain sets on Act One.
Then Act Two begins.
Have you every noticed how the Book of Acts just kind of….ends? It’s almost as if Dr. Luke got an emergency call while working on chapter twenty-eight and had to quickly bring it to a close. I mean we find Paul in Rome, teaching and preaching, handing out but another rebuke to some unbelieving Jews and then:
He lived there two whole years at his own expense, welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (28:30) The end.
Talk about leaving the reader hanging!
But then again, maybe not.
One commonly accepted explanation is that Luke’s last sentence is really more of an ellipsis than a conclusion, suggesting that more can and will be said about the advance of the kingdom of God. The baton is being passed from the apostles to the Church that has been birthed by the Holy Spirit through their faithful efforts. In other words, it’s a big to be continued…
To which every Christian should say a loud “Amen!”
But there may be another reason Luke ended his account to Theophilus (can it be a mere coincidence that his name means “Love of God” or “Friend of God”?) on this note. He very likely was employing a common literary device—particularly for his time*—in order to sound a loud symbol as he ended his two-part (Luke and Acts) symphony. The purpose of the symbol crash? To put a strong emphasis on the inexorable advance of Christ’s Kingdom reign.
The device is called a chiasm or chiastic structure. The term derives from the 17th century term chiasmus, which refers to a crosswise arrangement of concepts or words that are repeated in reverse order. In essence, a chiasm is a repetition of similar words or ideas in a backward sequence. A simple example would be ABBA, where the second word or idea (B) becomes the first word or idea in the following clause or sentence. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27) and “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” (Hesitations 3:33) follow this pattern. But chiasms can be more complex (Joel 3:17–21 would be diagrammed as ABCXCBA) and sometimes encompass broader themes that can span an entire book or body of work.
Such is the case with Luke’s two books; his Gospel and The Acts of the Apostles. All manner of chiastic structures are found therein. But the one I want to emphasize here is how the beginning relates to the end of the overarching narrative.
Luke’s Gospel opens with an overture. The advent of Messiah is described and celebrated amid a chorus of prophecy and worship – with chiasms everywhere. Of particular note—because with chiasms the center letter (word, phrase or idea) is often the emphasis of the passage—are the following:
1. Gabriel: the Lord is with you (vs. 28); the Lord God will give Him the throne (vs. 32); son of God (vs. 35)
2. Elizabeth: mother of my Lord (vs. 43)
3. Mary: He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones. (vs. 51,52)
4. Zacharias: The center point is the covenant (vs. 72) and the oath (vs. 73) but is surrounded on both sides with promises of Messianic dominion; of God’s people being delivered from their enemies: that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us (vs. 71); that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies (vs. 74).
Then, with all these promises of Messiah and His godly reign sounding throughout Luke’s overture, it ends with this most pregnant of sentences:
And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance (anadeixis: showing, exhibition, revealing) to Israel. (vs. 80)
Let the show begin!
Act 1, verse 1: In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. (Luke 2:1)
We open then with a snapshot of the fallen world as it was at the time: under the dominion of a pagan emperor cult, one that John would later identify as the beast.** So the first line sets the stage. Babel appears to have won. Man, not God, seems to be ruling over the earth.
Fast forward. How does it all end? With the son of man taking on the full wrath of the Roman imperial system and defeating it through His resurrection from the dead. With Jesus ascending and sitting down at the right hand of God, enthroned as the true Lord of heaven and earth. As the book of Acts winds to a close, with Paul freely preaching Christ as Lord on Malta, an island off the coast of Italy that served a major naval base for the Roman Empire. The leading citizen of the island (Publius, a very common name that essentially means “public,” an everyman in other words) hosts God’s apostle for three days and a healing revival breaks out, no doubt leading to any number of Roman citizens being converted and acknowledging Jesus, not the emperor, as the true kurios (Lord). And finally with Paul receiving something of a celebrity’s welcome as he arrives in the capital of the world, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance”…under the very nose of Caesar himself.
There is evidence to suggest that Luke finished the second half of his two-book narrative after Paul arrived in Rome but before A.D. 64, when a great fire burned down much of the city and Nero used it as a pretext to begin his persecution of Christians. Similarly, it’s likely that Paul’s epistle to the Philippians was written during this same period of imprisonment. If this is true—and it almost certainly is and further that Luke would have been aware of the events described therein—we’re granted in Paul’s letter even more evidence of the prevailing power of the Gospel and the grand reversal that at that point was well underway. The world was slowly being turned right-side up again!
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. (Phil. 1:12-14)
Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. (4:21-22; emphases mine)
And so Luke’s saga opens with the City of Man and its fascist leader “large and in charge.” But it ends with the City of God being built and the emperor’s power being incrementally conquered by the Gospel, a counterinsurgency of love and faith. In this chiasm, the essential message of the entire Bible is writ large. Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot contain or comprehend it.
*Oral literature—which ruled the roost until the invention of the printing press—particularly relied on chiasms, both as art but also as a mnemonic device (aid for memorization). For example, two of the most memorized and performed works of ancient literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey, have a chiastic structure “of the most amazing virtuosity” that permitted the oral poet to better recall the basic formula of the composition during performances. (Cedric M. Whitman. Homer and the Heroic Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958) Much of the Bible is like this.
** This is according to the many scholars who see John’s last book as describing what Jesus promised the generation then living would see: a great tribulation that ended with the destruction of the temple and the Old Testament world. (For the reader who may consider this approach absurd (likely because they have never heard it before and have further been marinated in the “Left Behind” worldview), consider that twice in the first three verses John notes the imminence of the events he is about to describe (1:1, the things that must soon take place; vs. 3, for the time is near). And there are number of other places (21:12; 22:6; 22:10) in Revelation where there are strong suggestions its prophecies were going to unfold near the time of their composition.)
Worshipping the one true God is man’s first, last and eternal order of business, his very source of life and joy. Through worship we honor and enjoy intimacy with the Source of all that is transcendentally true, good and beautiful. It is, as William Temple observed, “the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His Beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to His purpose – and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.” (William Temple, Readings in St. John’s Gospel, p. 68)
In Temple’s poignant observation there is a truth that is not understood by many Christians – and completely lost on the skeptic who dares to mock God as insecure (Why does he need people standing around adoring him?) or describe heaven as a big yawn (Who wants to sit around saying “Holy, Holy, Holy” over and over again forever?): that is that as we worship we are transformed. The eyes of our understanding are cleansed. We begin to see Him as He is and are progressively drawn into His glory and are transfigured by it. (1 John 3: 2)
And while there will no doubt be countless other delights we will enjoy in the New Creation (1 Cor. 2:9), this intimacy with the Presence and experiencing its energizing and transformative power will be the greatest and most sublime of all eternity’s joys.
Understanding this, it’s evident that worship on this side of the veil is vital for us individually and corporately as the Church. And so how we do it (engaging heart, mind, soul and strength versus hands in pockets with attention drifting) is crucial. And what we say and sing – as well as how we present and perform our worship – are critically important as well.
Now a sea of ink – and tragically even some blood – has been spent thinking and working through these matters by people far more qualified than me (by corey at testsforge). My little contribution has to do with just one aspect of this issue about which I have heard little – at least in these days where the vast majority of western Christians have been influenced by a baptized form of dualism and a “this is not my home, I just a-passing through” type of Christianity. (For more on this please see my essay, Heaven is Important…But It’s Not the End of the World.) That is the relationship between the lyrics we sing and the Kingdom of God, by which I mean the present reign of Christ in the earth.
In Part 2 I will explore this in more detail.
As Christians we know that the best things often come in threes, including the very best thing of all: the Persons of the Godhead. And the entire creation springing forth from that Triunity very often breaks down fractally into threes: length, width and height; past, present and future; solid, liquid and vapor; body, soul and spirit. Similarly, in examining the life and calling of the eternal Son of God as manifest in His incarnation, its trajectory breaks down into three distinct and very key stages: creche, cross and crown.
Ah, the creche! So great the mystery therein that the angels of God came to behold; longing (in the Greek “hungering with an intensity bordering on lust” (1 Peter 1:12b) is more accurate) to look into the mystery of the Gospel. And what a soothing thought it is for many. What’s more adorable or less intimidating than a baby? And so the manger, as important as it truly is, becomes the virtual box that many people, including more than a few ministers, like to try and keep Jesus in. Meek and mild, loving everybody; a Messiah who’s no more capable of “sheep and goats” judgments and expressing wrath than a nursing infant.
But why the creche in the first place? It was stage one of a three-stage rocket – a sling that inexorably shot the smooth stone of Jesus’ incarnated life into the forehead of the great serpent-beast. The manger promised Him, betrothed Him to the cross. “Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour.” (John 12:27) “…the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:28) “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8) Without the cross, the creche is drained of both meaning and significance. And our redemption, regardless of whatever warm fuzzies we may experience singing “Away in a manger,” is but vapor. Furthermore, without a desire to pick up our own cross, to die to ourselves and follow Christ, that vapor may be condensed into something watery through the machinations of formal religion. But it will never produce the solid ground on which we will need to stand on that Great Day.
But true Christianity doesn’t stop at the cross, or even the empty tomb. (Sadly, many if not most true Christians in the West today have been blinded to this third stage.) Perhaps the greatest mystery of all is how the first fruits of the New Creation, the glorified, transfigured second Adam – the Son of Man – crossed the membrane of this world and stepped into the one to come. He marched through ancient gates and sat down – as a Man – on the throne of both heaven and earth. (Emphasis mine) He received back the glory He had set aside (Phil. 2:7) – and more besides. He was crowned and given a scepter (we should ever remember that a king’s scepter is just an ornate war club), which He in turn extends over His bride the Church with the command to rule over His enemies. (Psalm 110:2). And so by faith we are more than conquerors. (Rom 8:37) And as conquerors it is inevitable that we shall one day join our Beloved, the prince of Peace, in crushing Satan under our feet. (Rom. 16:20)
In this present age, by the way, and not just in the one to come. (Eph. 1:19-22; 2 Thess. 2: 8)
A recent Huffington Post article on trends in snake-handling among some pentecostals got me in a reflective mood. So I have a confession to make that will likely surprise some of my friends and the fans of The Apologetics Group and Real to Real Ministries.
I’m a long-time, habitual snake handler. And not in the herpetologist or “having a pet snake” sense of the term. I’m talking about a real, old-fashioned, Biblical — as in Mark 16:18a — type of snake handler. And since 9/11/2001 (a memorable move-in day), I’m also a resident of Middle Tennessee.
Can I get a witness?
Furthermore, it’s my sincere hope that every Christian who reads these words will join me in this blessed calling.
You see, I really believe that Jesus, God the Son, was the promised seed of Eve, the Messiah who crushed the serpent’s head at Calvary. (Gen. 3:15) I truly believe that He bound the “strong man” Satan (Mark 3:25-27) and divided his house by the power of His death, resurrection, ascension and enthronement; that all authority in both heaven AND THE EARTH has been granted to Him by the Father. (Matt. 28:18) As a result, even the least of these (that would be me, and perhaps even you) — by and through the Gospel of the Kingdom and the power of the Holy Spirit — has been made a vessel of heaven’s treasures and an ambassador of that Kingdom, vested with more spiritual authority than even the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. (Matt. 11:11; 2 Cor. 4:7; 2 Cor. 5:20; Rom. 8:11…etc.)
And to what end? So that we can sit on the sidelines, waiting to get yanked out of the arena while we look in wonder as the great dragon serpent deceives the world? May it never be! Rather so that we can go into all the world and disciple nations (Matt. 28:19,20), plundering the very house that once belonged to the now-bound serpent. (The only limited dominion Satan has now is in the spiritual atmosphere and over the hearts of the “children of disobedience.” (Eph. 2:1-2))
And how, in the memorable words of C.S. Lewis, are we to follow the “rightful king” and engage in His “great campaign of sabotage”? By, among other things, handling serpents. Even as Jesus came for the specific purpose of destroying the works of the great serpent (1 John 3: 8), finally crushing its head through the cross, so we are called to wage spiritual war against the lesser powers and principalities that are its offspring. (Eph. 6:12; 2 Cor. 10:4) Wherever these “snakes” manifest, its our job to wrestle them to defeat, secure in the knowledge that their doom is sure:
The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (Romans 16:20)
For a good portion of the past three years, for example, I have been studying and wrestling with — through prayer and truth-telling — the serpents of chaos, confusion, lust, brokenness and narcissism (among others). These are the spiritual powers and principles operating in the shadows, driving the third and final stage of the sexual revolution that, I believe, could ultimately — albeit temporarily — bring our civilization to its knees. (Our prayer should be that once we’re on our knees we will repent and come back to God.)
But if it does, it will not be because the serpent and its offspring are so strong. Rather, it will be due to the church’s compromise and disengagement with our prime directive, the Great Commission (discipling nations, teaching them to obey Christ and the Word of God). It will be because we have refused the call to wrestle with the serpents of spiritual wickedness. And it will be because we have lost the faith to believe that the “greater One lives in us” (1 John 4:4) so that when we pick these snakes up with our hands or are exposed to their poison they will be no means hurt us. (Mark 16:18b)
Once again: Can I get a witness?!
PS: As I posted this I began to wonder: could our adversaries in the culture wars end up hijacking this article and trying to marginalize me by suggesting I’m a literal snake handler? We’ll see…