Saturday, January 14, 2012

Homily Magnus: On the High Calling (as proclaimed by an orthodox rebel)

"This is the law of the house: Upon the top of the mountain, the whole limit thereof round about shall be most holy. Behold, this is the law of the house." Eze. 43:12

Ezekiel is met by an angel who's holding a very large ruler (Eze. 40:1-3). This angel takes Ezekiel through a vision of the temple and spends three whole chapters measuring it down to the last detail (Eze. 40-42). Then God's presence appears in the temple, promising to return in like manner to His people if they will turn from their sinful ways (Eze. 43:5-9). He then lays down this one law of the temple: since it is the abode of God, every single inch of it is "most holy," a holiness beyond holy, for God is most holy, being the Most High God.

Now, holiness does not merely mean that someone or something is "nice" or even moral. The word itself, of course, means "sanctified" or "separated," but what that means is lost on us today. To understand it better, a modern equivalent for "holy" would be "different" or "other". When someone or thing is "holy," it is other than you. Its "niceness" is not your niceness. Its morality is not your morality. It is beyond you, completely and absolutely other. Thus, when we say that God is holy, we are actually saying that simple yet profound truth that God is not like us. His "niceness" is not how we view niceness (Is. 55:8-9), and His idea of what is moral is worlds beyond ours (Is. 64:6), because God is worlds beyond us. He is farther than we can imagine, for He is not just holy: He is "holy, holy, holy".

The truly startling thing, however, is this: the God who is absolutely beyond us has come and dwelt with us. "I will dwell in the midst of them forever" (Eze. 43:9b), says the Most High God. The Most High has brought Himself low, and the place wherein He dwells is "most holy". That is no small thing, and yet we treat it like a small thing. For all the gushing sentimentalism that people laud upon God these days, He is still a small God. He is not the God who is "holy, holy, holy," whose presence instantaneously makes the surrounding area "holy ground" (Ex. 3:4-5). Our church houses are too stuffed full of our own flippancy to make room for such a God.

But that is not even the half of it; for you see, God does not dwell in temples made with men's hands. At least not anymore. He has found a new dwelling place, and that is within each of us (I Cor. 6:19). We have been made the house of God, and the law of that house is one: every square inch of it, body and mind and soul, shall be "most holy". This is the goal which we press towards (Phil. 3:14): not lavish and successful ministries, and not even saved souls. Our goal, our mark, our high calling is the otherness, the holiness of God Himself. This is the truth of the Old Testament (Lev. 19:2, 20:7) and the New (I Peter 1:15-16). Even Jesus set the same standard (Matt. 5:48). God has not saved us to be "good' people by some convenient standard of our own. He has saved us to sanctify a people unto Himself, to make us holy, to make us other, to make us like Him. God is the goal and nothing less.

This is no cause for pride. God does not say that we are holy. Rather, He calls us to be holy. It is a process, a "working out," and ultimately an act of God (Phil. 2:12-13), the God who is intimately with us. The point here is that our focus is entirely skewed. We obsess over irrelevancies or secondary issues: with social agendas and Bible translations and worship styles, with ministry stats and conferences and even evangelism. We do not realize that unless God and His holiness are our goal, all of our agendas and argument, our conferences and creeds and converts, all of our herculean activity is in vain, just as an arch with no keystone is in vain. Until God is the center, all is wood and hay and stubble, fit for the fire. We must set our affections aright, acknowledging with awe and humility the great weight of glory to which we have been called. That glory is not in amiability or moralism or political activism, but in becoming as holy, as different, as other, and yes, even as scorned as Christ was. For we are not of this world, but of God. Amen.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2012

Friday, January 13, 2012

My Own Fault (a book review by an orthodox rebel)

Book: Reading Revelation: A Comparison of Four Interpretive Translations of the Apocalypse, by C. Marvin Pate. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2009. 208 pgs. (including introduction and list of additional resources)

Introduction: Perhaps it is not unfair to say that of all the books of the Bible, Revelation is the most famous both inside and outside the church. Its fame bounces between intrigue and obsession: many people are just curious about its contents while others have staked entire theological frameworks upon it. In truth, however, an unbiased (and uncritical) reading of Revelation can only "reveal" the book to be an oddity. Its symbols and metaphors are lavish and obscure, breathtaking and mysterious. Its details travel from the sublime to the bizarre to the monstrous, and its ordering of events make any stable chronological connotation impossible. No historical application neatly fits it. No single hermeneutic covers all the facts. No one interpretation satisfies all questions and curiosities.

For those who have not settled down on any one particular view of Revelation but would like to have a way to tangle with it from all sides, C. Marvin Pate offers a solution: a single, easy-to-read reference work that charts out the four main interpretive schools of the book side-by-side along with a translation of the book straight from the Greek text. That is what Reading Revelation is meant to be, "a work that converts the four major interpretations of [Revelation] into four parallel translations, thereby highlighting both the similarities and the differences characterizing those respect viewpoints" (7). Mr. Pate hopes that Reading Revelation will give fair treatment and representation of the four major interpretive schools while providing the reader with adequate information in regard to how they view Revelation verse-by-verse. That is what he offers; whether he succeeds is another matter.

Summary: The book is basically divided into two parts: an introduction and then the parallel readings of Revelation. The introduction gives a brief overview of the four major schools of interpretation for Revelation, which are as follows:

(1) The preterist school: this school sees Revelation only through the lens of its historical context "by relating it to its original author and audience" (7). It sees the events of Revelation as already having been fulfilled in the first century A.D. For them, John wrote Revelation as a means of encouragement to Christians suffering under persecution by painting that persecution in spiritual terms and then showing how Christ has triumphed and will triumph over all. For us today, Revelation is not about the apocalyptic future but rather about specific past events. Its only "use" for us is as a tool of encouragement: as God was with them, so He is with us.

(2) The historicist school: this school sees Revelation as a prophetic gloss of the whole of church history "from the first century until the return of Christ" (9). It is a cataloging of what the church has gone, is going, and will go through. Unique to this school of interpretation is its ardent Protestantism vs. Roman Catholicism bent. It views church history (and consequently Revelation) as a battle between the "true" Church (i.e., Protestantism) and the "false" church (i.e., Catholicism). Its primary "use" for us today is to encourage us with God's specifically Protestant victory over the Catholic Church. (Note: This view is not as in vogue today as it once was, and "very few" actually hold to it; 9).

(3) The futurist school: this school sees Revelation as a prophetic account of the coming apocalypse. Popular amongst the masses, this is the admittedly "pessimistic" school (10-11), holding that things will get worse and worse until Christ comes again. The only variance within this school is in regard to the Church's relationship to "things getting worse". One side (i.e., dispensationalism) holds that the Church will avoid the greatest part of the earth's troubles in a "pretribulation rapture" (10). The other side (i.e., historic premillennialism) holds that the Church "will undergo the messianic woes" within the tribulation, right up to when Christ returns. Other than this in-house squabble, the futurist message is roughly in sync, seeing Revelation's "use" as a warning to believers and unbelievers alike about what awaits us all in the end.

(4) The idealist school: this school sees Revelation in its most general and abstract sense, in that it "interprets the book spiritually, or symbolically" (11). In short, Revelation is not about any particular event(s), but rather is an imaginative retelling of "the ongoing conflict of good and evil" (11). It loathes giving to Revelation "historical connection to any social or political events" (11), choosing instead to let it be a wild and wondrous accounting of timeless truths about God, the Devil, and the spiritual war between them. Thus, Revelation's "use" for us is as a reminder of the spiritual realities that we are currently living in but are apt to forget.

So much for the introduction. The second part of the book is the parallel readings of Revelation, taking the book verse-by-verse in five columns, the first giving a wooden, straight from the Greek translation of Revelation, and the other four giving translations of Revelation from each of the four schools.

Review: I must admit: this book disappointed me, and it was probably my own fault. I was expecting a much different book: a parallel commentary of Revelation that showcased the different interpretive schools' eschatology. What I got was a parallel Bible (or one book from the Bible) where each translation was done in the light of the different schools' eschatology. In short, what I was expecting were the causes; what I got was the results. And the reason this disappointed me was that I wanted the causes. I wanted to see the schools' speak for themselves about their own ideas and thoughts about Revelation, not their unique (and occasionally strange) versions of Revelation. Again, this disappointment of expectation was my own fault, but I cannot help but think that the book I was expecting would have been a much better book than what I got.

Reading Revelation feels too thin for its own good, which is the whole "causes" vs. "results" thing rearing its ugly head. By far, the introduction is the most valuable part of the book, but even it is not enough. It only touches the surface and whets the appetite, but no more, and it is the "more" that is needed. It does give you a taste of the interpretive stances of the four schools; but without a deeper wading into those waters, the subsequent parallel versions of Revelation come off merely as quaint rather than informative or engrossing. As such, it wasn't long before I found myself bored with the whole thing. This is unfortunate, as I am sure Mr. Pate put hard work into this; but in the end, what I hoped would have challenged and inspired me did neither.

Recommendation: Reading Revelation is not a bad book; there are just much better books out there. I can even think of two: Four Views on the Book of Revelation, which is also by Mr. Pate and is much more in depth in regard to the interpretive schools; and Revelation: Four Views, by Steve Gregg, which appears to be exactly the parallel commentary that I was looking for (and which Mr. Pate points to in Reading Revelation). Both of those are far better books for anyone looking to increase their understanding and appreciation of the Bible's most mysterious book.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2012