• Service times

    Services times are:

    Saturday night 7:30 pm for our Chinese/English service [except for the second Saturday of every month when the service starts at 6:30 pm and is followed by a shared meal]. (Pastor Daniel Choi.)

    Sunday 10 am for our English language service (Pastor Jeff Whittaker).

    Sunday 11:30 am for our Chinese (Mandarin) language service. (Pastor Daniel Choi.)

  • Contact details…

    Physical and postal address:
    4 Inverary Avenue,
    Epsom,
    Auckland 1023,
    NEW ZEALAND.

    Email:
    epsombaptist@clear.net.nz

    Telephone:
    (0064 9) 6306010

    Contacts:
    Rev. Jeff Whittaker
    Pastor Daniel Choi

  • Church Officers…

    Church Treasurer: Ann Guan

    Church Secretary: Margaret Whittaker

    Church Deacons: Ian de Stigter, Helen Evans, Willa Hui, and Alfred Zhou.

Discerning a timeline in the book of Revelation

In my previous blog on the book of Revelation, I spoke about the way my friends and I used to try and fit contemporary events into what we discerned to be the timeline implicit in the book of Revelation. We were convinced that prognosticators like Hal Lindsey or Barry Smith (a New Zealand speaker) had pierced the mysteries and that we were truly living in the last days as they described. The problem has been, of course, that the predicted associations have been superseded. This shouldn’t have surprised us, because behind us lay centuries of superseded prophetic associations with the book of Revelation.

Again referring to my last blog; there I made the case that the events associated with the seals of Revelation chapters 5 through to 8: 5 relate to circumstances contemporaneous with John the Revelator, in particular to living under the aegis of a foreign power. Revelation chapter 8 then moves immediately on to look at a series of disasters associated with seven angels blowing seven trumpets. Talking with my friend and Revelation scholar Graeme Carley some time ago, he stated that we should view the trumpets as associated with the entry into the Promised Land by God’s People at the end of the Exodus. I agree with him. But I want to take this train of thought further. I reckon that the disasters associated with the seven bowls of God’s wrath (Revelation 16) resonate strongly with the plagues of Egypt.

revelation_1

Taking all this into consideration, then, I think that the timeline running through the book of Revelation is a journey back through Jewish history from the time of John the Revelator. At the end of this journey, what do we find but a reversal of the eviction from Eden now seen as permission to enter the new Jerusalem. (Incidentally, in a previous blog I shared that I believe Paul has used Jewish history as a template for the book of Romans, but starting with Genesis and ending with life under Roman occupation.)

Viewed in this way, Revelation ceases to be a blueprint for the future of humanity. Instead, and in fitting with the apocalyptic genre, the prophetic aspect of the book is more as defined by Walter Brueggemann as being a fleshing out for humanity of the consequences of failing to live out God’s covenant stipulations.

The seven seals of Revelation chapter 6

When I was a new believer in the mid-1970s, Hal Lindsey’s book ‘The Late, Great, Planet Earth’ made a huge impact on my friends and me. Many were the discussions, debates and arguments about unfolding world events and how they fitted in with prophetic fulfilment schemas. Forty years on, and supposedly rock-solid fulfilments have fallen by the wayside, to be replaced by others. Over this time, many have been the predictions of the end of things. And so, when some of the good folk at my church asked me about Harold Camping’s prediction some time before the actual date, I answered that we would be gathering for worship as usual the day after Camping’s supposed end of the world. But I was annoyed by the ridicule that Camping’s false prediction attracted. I decided to investigate the ‘predictions’ of Revelation in particular. I had a specific question in mind: Are the various disaster scenarios sketched out in the book of Revelation one-off events that find just one fulfilment in history? Another way of asking this is: Is the book of Revelation describing a linear progress from the writer John’s time through to the end of the world?

Even a cursory reading of the book of Revelation reveals that it is a carefully crafted example of the apocalyptic genre. Like many others, I have been intrigued by the chapters dealing with the seals, the trumpets, and the bowls. These chapters are like a skeleton supporting the surrounding material. Here, though, I want to concentrate on the seals which are introduced in chapter 6.

albrecht-durer-woodcut-the-four-horsemen-of-the-apocalypse-the-sroha7hg6rxblujq.jpg

Preceding the introduction of the scroll with its seven seals, are two chapters with messages to churches located in first-century Western Turkey (chapters 2 and 3), and two chapters describing heavenly worship and introducing Jesus as the Lamb that was slain (chapters 4 and 5). These four chapters would seem to be contemporaneous with John the Revelator. Are the disasters associated with the seals to be taken, then, as predictions of future events? Exploring the imagery used suggests an answer.

First, seals are mentioned in the Bible over a time period from the kings of Israel through to the Exile and the exilic prophets. This is probably too diffuse a period to be helpful. However, looking at the four horsemen is another matter. Many commentators note that the four horses resonate with those described by Zechariah. Prophesying early in the post-exilic period, Zechariah’s vision (Zechariah chapter 1) is suggestive of the mounted patrols which ‘policed’ the Persian Empire (from ‘The Lion Handbook of the Bible). Laurie Guy – I strongly recommend Guy’s ‘Making Sense of the Book of Revelation’ (Regent’s Study Guides 15) – notes that the mounted archer of Rev 6:2 is probably an allusion to the much-feared Parthian cavalry who defeated the Romans in 53BC, 35BC, and 62AD. (And so, this horseman is not an image of Christ.) Guy also suggests that Rev 6: 3, 4 describe a civil war scenario. Generally, Rev 6: 8 echoes Ezekiel 14: 21, recorded from Exile in Babylon shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem in 587BC.

All of this says to me that the disasters associated with the four horsemen released by opening the seals describe the experience of people living in the Middle East around the time the book of Revelation was written. Are the events described then predictive of some future (to John the Revelator) catastrophe? I would say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ I believe that for John these disasters associated with the seals are not future events awaiting a some-time one-off fulfilment. Rather, when people – especially the people of God – find themselves at any time in history subjugated under the boot of foreign Empire, then they will know these conditions only too well.

What, then, is the future of God’s people? The answer comes from the scenes of the heavenly throne room, with its powerful depictions of those who have gained the crown of life despite suffering and persecution. If you, dear reader, are suffering under the draconian boot of Empire, may you know the strength of the Lamb as you persevere in righteousness unto victory.

Noah, the flood, and violence…

The more prominence a topic is given in Scripture, then the implication is that the more important it is. On this basis, the Noahic flood and other material associated with Noah dominate the opening part of Genesis. From Genesis 5: 28 (where Noah is introduced), through Genesis chapter 10 (which lists Noah’s descendants), the emphasis yet is on the catastrophic flood out of which Noah, his family, and a sample of all flesh are saved.

Genesis chapter 6 is headed up The Wickedness of Humankind in my Bible (NRSV). And certainly humanity is condemned in verses 5 and 6 for possessing evil hearts. But, in verse 7, God admits to regret at creating not just humankind, but also animals, creeping things, and birds. From verses 11, it is clear that all flesh – that is human beings, birds, animals wild and domestic, and all creeping things – that draws breath is implicated in God’s critique of violence. Verse 12 and 13 describe all flesh as being corrupted, with the corruption being evidenced by violence. And so God decrees that all flesh must perish, with the flood being the chosen instrument of eradication. However, as Genesis 8: 21 acknowledges, the solution didn’t work.

This lumping together of all flesh as corrupt raises some fascinating questions, first about human culpability, but then about animal culpability. The recently reported anthropological finding of a pre-historic mass grave in which the bones show clear signs of human inflicted violence raises the question: Has humanity ever been anything other than violent, the Garden of Eden story notwithstanding? (I believe this finding contradicts the assertion of people like Karen Armstrong in ‘Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence’ who contend that human violence did not begin until the advent of settled agriculture.) Have carnivorous or omnivorous animals ever been anything other than predatory? Palaeontology doesn’t indicate that these animals have been anything other than predatory. As Science discovers that animals also exhibit sentient awareness of things traditionally only attributed to human beings, albeit in more rudimentary form, are animals then to be held to human ethical standards? Can animal life be different if humanity changes for the better as hinted at in Romans 8? Has Isaiah picked up on the implications of this in his vision of the peaceable kingdom (Isaiah chapter 11), imagining a human and an animal world without predation? Can a lion truly be leonine while vegetarian?

John August Swanson's rendering of Isaiah's vision of the peaceable kingdom.

John August Swanson’s rendering of Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom.

As various utopian visions in the Bible make clear, humanity is certainly aware that it could live differently, co-operating peaceably not just with other human beings but also with the rest of the created world. We describe this as the kingdom of God coming in its fullness. Advances in many fields – we owe a huge debt to science – means that we should be optimistic. But all of the foregoing discussion means that the peaceable kingdom, the utopian vision of Isaiah, cannot be brought about by attempting to eradicate violence with an imposed death sentence. In fact, maybe we are being shown that the peaceable kingdom can only be brought into being by sacrifice that puts human violence into the spotlight. That, of course, brings us to the cross of Christ…

Thirty pieces of silver…

The image of ‘thirty pieces of silver’ has established itself in Christian, and indeed in Western, lore as a byword for betrayal, for selling out. Coming from the Easter story of Judas offering to betray Jesus, it’s interesting to find that the image was not new at that point. A little research on the internet throws up numerous discussions about the thirty pieces of silver, and what they signified already in the time of the New Testament writers.

judas-brought-again-the-thirty-pieces-of-silver-to-the-chief-priests-and-elders

And so, one finds discussion on the thirty pieces of silver that Zechariah – in a difficult piece of prophetic writing (Zechariah chapter 11) – suggests is the dismissive value that the leaders of Judah put on God’s shepherding care. There is the reference in Matthew 27 to Jeremiah’s purchase of a field for this amount (although the Old Testament precedent cannot be found), the price being linked to that required to redeem someone (presumably from slavery). And then there is the statement in Exodus 21: 32 of 30 shekels as being the value of a slave. [Of course, it is not certain that ‘pieces’ are ‘shekels.’ Nevertheless, there does seem to be a significant usage of thirty units of money.]

Now, this is probably familiar material to many of you. But I want to push things a little further. The original events of Easter were set around the annual Passover festival, when Israel gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate God’s rescuing them from slavery in Egypt. So, what are Israel’s leaders doing paying a slave price – whoever may be considered to have been bought – in the midst of a celebration of rescue from slavery? Does not this expose them to self-condemnation?

In fact, I think this points out that judgment does not fall on any of us because we fall short of standards we know nothing about. I think that we all stand with Israel’s leaders, and are found to be sinners because self-interest over-rules a commitment to higher principles that we openly espouse.

Thank God that all this sin, for all of us sinners, was taken to the cross by Jesus Christ and its condemnatory power destroyed there.

Structure in the book of Romans…

Romans is a fascinating book, and rightly regarded as hugely important for its presentation of Paul’s theology. Arguments about meaning, themes and structure abound. And so Bishop Tom Wright states (in his commentary in The New Interpreter’s Bible series) …it remains the case that anyone who claims to understand Romans fully is, almost by definition, mistaken. That be-as-it-may, reading Wright’s commentary, particularly his analysis of Romans chapter 6, sparked for me an investigation into a possible structure underlying the book.

book-bible-romans

My thesis is this: I believe that Paul has presented theological arguments based on ideas corresponding to events from Israel’s history. Further, at each point, Paul shows God’s impartiality with regards to Jew and Gentile. And faith remains the major key to unlocking Paul’s ideas. Let me illustrate my thesis as follows.

Text                                       Theme (from NRSV)                  Comments on the relation to Israel’s history

Romans 1: 1 – 7                    Introduction.                              Importance of faith introduced.

Romans 1: 18 – 32                The guilt of humankind.             Refers to CREATION & HUMAN BEHAVIOUR BEFORE THE FLOOD.

Romans 2: 1 – 16                  The righteous judgment of God.   Refers to God’s universal judgment through the FLOOD.

Romans 2: 17 – 3:20           The Jews and the Law. None is righteous.  Challenging a sense of privilege that might come from NOAH’S exemption from the Flood and its consequences.

Romans 3: 21 – 31              Righteousness through faith.        JESUS IS THE NEW ARK.

Romans 4: 1 – 25                The example of Abraham. God’s promises realised through faith. ABRAHAM AND GOD’S PROMISES. (Abraham as the universal example of how to approach God.)

Romans 5: 1 – 21                Results of justification. Adam and Christ.  Refers to God’s rescue of his people from slavery in Egypt through MOSES.

Romans 6: 1 – 23               Dying and rising with Christ. Slaves of righteousness.  Escape through the RED SEA. Becoming the PEOPLE OF GOD through redemption.

Romans 7: 1 – 25               An analogy from marriage. The Law and sin. The inner conflict.  THE GIVING OF THE LAW AT SINAI.

Romans 8: 1 – 38              Life in the Spirit. Future glory. God’s love in Jesus Christ.  Alludes to what God intended for his people as they occupied the PROMISED LAND.

Romans 9: 1 – 29              God’s election of Israel. God’s wrath and mercy.  God’s JUDGMENT of his people while living in the PROMISED LAND.

Romans 9: 30 – 10: 21     Israel’s unbelief. Salvation is for all.  EXILE, and crying out for SALVATION.

Romans 11: 1 – 21           Israel’s rejection not final. The salvation of the Gentiles. All Israel will be saved. RETURN FROM EXILE IN BABYLON.

Romans 12: 1 – 12          New life in Christ. Marks of the true believer.  Living as the newly redeemed people of God BACK IN THE LAND.

Romans 13: 1 – 14          Being subject to the authorities. Love for one another. An urgent appeal.   Living under INTERNAL EXILE (with an external focus to state and neighbour).

Romans 14: 1 – 15: 13   Do not judge another. Do not make another stumble. Please others, not your selves. The gospel for Jews and Gentiles alike. Living under INTERNAL EXILE (with an internal focus on the people of God).

Romans 15: 14 – 33      Paul’s reason for writing so boldly. Paul’s plan to visit Rome. PAUL: An outward focus of concern for the church (including the role of Paul’s famous collection).

Romans 16: 1 – 27      Personal greetings. Final instructions. Final doxology.  PAUL: An inward focus of concern for the church in ROME.

(Apologies for the ‘table.’ I could not get the table I had prepared to copy into WordPress!)

Now, I may be exercising my faith in seeing this structure in the book of Romans. It does have an advantage in that chapters 9 to 11, so often considered a large gloss by another author, fits right into the pattern.

Anyway, may you be blessed as you wrestle with the book of Romans, and the ideas and truths that are so important to our Christian faith.

Looking at prophets (again)…

My blog from a couple of day’s ago – ‘The calling to be a prophet’ – prompted a response in the form of a couple of questions and a comment, viz: First, were the prophets confined to a certain period of Israel’s history? Second (and this is related to the first), what do you think a prophet (satisfying your description) would look like today? [Since most nations weren’t necessarily founded on a covenant with God, I would assume that the message would be for the church rather than for the nation the prophet lived in (otherwise the ‘diagnosis’ stage wouldn’t seem very valid).]

First, Israel’s prophetic ministry runs from Moses through to Jesus and John the Baptist, and beyond. That said, prophetic activity in Israel was concentrated from the time of Amos (around 750BCE) through to the post-exilic period. Interestingly, this corresponds to the so-called axial age, the period in which the universal religions arose independently around the world, and the stress in religion seemed to move from collective ritual to individual responsibility and participation.

To the implied question as to whether there were – are – prophets in the New Testament era, the answer is affirmative. The apostle Paul mentions prophecy in some of his letters. In 1 Thessalonians 5: 20, he instructs that the words of prophets are not to be despised, but instead tested. (It seems New Testament prophets were as unwelcome as Old Testament ones.) The covenant against which the New Testament prophet conducts his/her diagnosis is of course the new covenant enacted in Christ and sealed with his blood at the cross. Here, though, a difference arises. The Old Testament covenants contained curse clauses for disobedience to the agreed conduct expected in the covenant. The New Testament teaches that Christ took upon himself the curse of disobedience, destroyed its power through dying on the cross, and now offers forgiveness through his resurrected life.

I wonder, then, if the role of the New Testament prophets was to remind the churches to which they belonged what living ‘in Christ’ really entailed. This is a far cry from attempts to predict the future that are sometimes presented as prophetic activity, and a far cry from many of the so-called ‘words of knowledge’ that accompany some of today’s prophets. (I do know a man who, when converted to Christ, became aware that the internationally known pastor through whose ministry he had come to faith was interfering with boys. He shared his concerns with another pastor, but was ignored. Decades later, he was vindicated.)

As to the idea of the universality of covenant, the death of Christ at the cross and his subsequent resurrection is considered to usher in a covenant with the nations. We read hints of this sort of universality in the book of Isaiah, where First Isaiah’s prophecies seem to cycle through addressing the people of Judah and Israel, then extend out to the surrounding nations, before encompassing the whole of the created order.

1-19-Martin-Luther-King-ftr
Anyway, after that detour, we arrive at the second question: What would a prophet look like today? In answer, I’ll give two examples. First, Martin Luther King Jnr was a prophet. Interestingly, in his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ King mentioned his reluctance to take up the role he had advocating for civil rights in the US, and then listed four steps required by any non-violent campaign. These were: Collection of the facts to determine whether injustice exists; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. I think that these four, together with his acknowledged reluctance to be so involved, correspond pretty well to the five marks of a prophet I wrote about a couple of days ago. King was assassinated. My second example is Bishop Oscar Romero from El Salvador. Romero was apparently chosen to be Arch-bishop of El Salvador because he was considered ‘safe.’ Certainly, his initial ministry emphasis was on piety and moral issues. But all that changed when a close friend was killed by gunmen acting for the rich elite of the country. Romero became a fiery prophetic voice in that land, fearlessly advocating for the poor. He also invited the oppressors to join the poor in the kingdom of God, to find their true place amongst believers. He became a martyr when shot celebrating the mass.

Romero headshot

So, dear correspondent, I trust that answers your questions. I think it poses a challenge to all who take upon themselves the name of ‘Christian.’

The calling to be a prophet…

I am partway through a sermon series on the book of Amos. It’s not an easy book to preach on. I was interested to find in my background reading that the book of Amos was neglected for centuries because of the absence of positive material. It seems that only a growing interest in social justice issues over the last couple of centuries has resulted in a re-discovery of Amos’ challenging words.

 Prophet Amos

My intention here, however, is not to examine the contents of the book of Amos. Rather, I want to reflect on the role of the prophet as we see it lived out in Amos and other biblical prophets. Now, there is little biographical information about Amos the person in the book. But that’s OK. We don’t need to know about the person of the prophet to be able to look at what the prophet does. From looking at Amos (the book), and other biblical prophets, I believe that there are five key components in the role of prophet, viz:

  • Reluctance: Most of the prophets are described as having been highly ambivalent about the call placed on their lives by God to act as a prophet. (This seems to be in marked contrast to today, when people seem to expect honour upon labelling themselves a prophet, rather than the opprobrium that was the biblical prophet’s typical lot.)
  • Diagnosis: Walter Brueggemann’s writings on the prophets make it clear that they were not people plucking ideas out of the spiritual ether. Rather, the prophets were people immersed in the details of the covenants enacted between God and God’s elected people. The condemnations announced by the prophets are thus found in general form in the covenants, particularly in the so-called curses that became active in event of failure by the elected people to uphold their side of the covenant agreement. The prophet’s unique calling was to see how these curses would work out in the milieu of the day.
  • Proclamation of God’s judgment: This, of course, proceeded from the diagnosis described above. The proclamation was made in words, yes, but often acted out in some symbolic way as well. (Many today seem to aspire to this aspect of prophetic ministry. Somehow they miss the fact that God often warned his prophets that they would be ignored – at best – or killed if things went badly.) The proclamations were often ambiguous, meaning that the prophet’s were able to ‘see’ in a general sense but not in detail. For example, Amos predicts that the king of Israel would fall by the sword. He didn’t. But his end did come.
  • Intercessor: Next, Shalom M Paul in his commentary on Amos from the Hermenaia series points out that many of the prophets were called to intercede for the very people to whom they were sent. That is, the prophet was not given the luxury of remote and uninvolved condemnation. They had to enter into the agony of wrestling in prayer on behalf of those who more often than not hated them violently.
  • Living sacrifice: Lastly, I believe that the prophets had to see themselves as living sacrifices, if they were lucky. We can see this in the book of Jonah, where Jonah tells the sailors to cast him into the sea so that they will be safe. If unlucky, the prophet became of real sacrifice as they were killed by those enraged by their message of condemnation. But whose sacrifice were they? I believe that they are God’s sacrifice of Godself (in the person of the called prophet), showing the lengths to which God goes to keep the covenant relationship alive.

Realistically, who would want to be a prophet without a calling from God? And yet many declare themselves so appointed. Let’s not take such people at their word. Let’s discern according to the criteria listed above whether or not God really has called them, or whether some other more base motive is involved.