The Bible in a Year – 31 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

The last four sections of the Bible in a Year blog, covering the whole of the Book of Revelation, are being uploaded together (just because I was without Internet access this week).

31 December. Revelation chapters 19-22

According to chapter 20, after all forms of evil are finally defeated, Christ returns to reign with his martyrs (but not the rest of humanity) for a symbolic period of a thousand years, after which all the dead are resurrected to be judged, and either live in paradise (described as the new Jerusalem – a magnificent and vast jewelled city with eternal light) or be thrown into the lake of fire (from which the popular idea of Hell arises).

But on what basis is this ultimate judgement made?  Jesus says here: “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death” (21:6-8).   The contrast is between, on the one hand,  those who are “thirsty” (that is, longing for God’s presence and help) and those who “conquer” (that is, overcome temptation, and persist in faith during trials and persecutions); and on the other hand those who continue to live in ignorance or defiance of God’s directions for life – as I noted on 29 December, the list of sins here is very similar to the prohibited acts in the Ten Commandments.

The danger in interpreting John’s visions is twofold – trying to apply them directly to today’s world when the vision was initially given to 1st or 2nd century Christians; and reading them in isolation from the rest of the New Testament.    Here Jesus was specifically encouraging persecuted Christians to stand firm in their faith, by means of these visions, whereas in his direct teaching his emphasis was on showing love for God and neighbour in practical ways.

So at the end of the year we reach the end of the Bible, and the end of earthly time, in the way that John describes his vision.  To consider together the whole of Christian scripture – all 66 books of it written down over a period of over 1000 years, the last of it nearly 2000 years ago, and covering a longer period of time than that – is the work of a lifetime.  No-one can claim to fully understand either the original meaning or most appropriate interpretation of every part of it. Bible study is both essential and fascinating, with a good guide.

More importantly, it has always been regarded by Christians as a “living book” – when we speak of the “Word of God” we mean not just the written words of the Bible but Jesus himself.  As John understood it, “His name is called The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure (the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints) were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” (19:8, 13-15).  That “sword” is usually understood as the combination of written scripture and the continual witness of the Holy Spirit through the gift of prophecy in all ages.  It is that combination – received teaching and the ongoing inspiration of Jesus and the Holy Spirit  – which will keep Christians faithful until Jesus returns in person, and eventually overcomes evil.  With the saints throughout the ages we can echo the last verses of the Bible – “Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.” (22:20-21).

The Bible in a Year – 29 August

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

29 August. Daniel chapters 3-4

In chapter 3, three of the four Jewish exiles – but not Daniel himself – are thrown into the furnace for having refused to worship the golden statue that the king set up, and also refused the opportunity to recant.  They are saved by an angel (or maybe the incarnation of God himself, for the one “like a son of man” is a title Jesus took for himself). Nebuchadnezzar, in a fashion typical of this style of writing, immediately changes from persecuting the Jews to proclaiming theirs the official religion of his empire (as we saw in Esther).

 

Miracles aside, this is a story of true witness. We are not told whether the golden statue is of Nebuchadnezzar himself – though it might have been, since dictators are prone to having statues of themselves erected in their lifetimes – but whether it was that, or the image of a Babylonian god, to worship it (or the king himself) would for the Jews have been to break the greatest commandments.  These men passed the ultimate test of faith, which led to what should have been their martyrdom.  In every age there have been people of any religion whose faith has been strong enough to lead them down this path, and they are rightly honoured. But true martyrdom is always about suffering for peacefully holding to one’s principles in the face of violence and intolerance; those who claim as martyrs people who have killed others “in the name of God” fail to understand what a martyr really is – a peaceful witness to truth.

 

In our liberal society, we agonise over whether followers of one religion should be allowed to display symbols of their religion (be it crosses, turbans, painted faces or veils) or to be ‘witnesses’ in the sense of proselytising (explaining their faith to others with a view to conversion).  Sometimes the decision is reached that such symbols or witnessing should not be allowed in public places in order not to offend others.  This is regrettable, but it is a long way from state-sponsored torture.

 

In chapter 4, which is probably not to be seen as chronologically following the earlier one, Nebuchadnezzar sends another edict around his empire telling how he had another apocalyptic dream, that Daniel interpreted as predicting his downfall and madness (eating grass like oxen) until he should honour God’s authority. Again, this comes to pass (not immediately, but a year later) until after seven years of such exile and madness the king repents and ends up worshipping God.

 

This is harder to understand. Perhaps the lesson is that megalomania such as that displayed by Nebuchadnezzar and many other dictators and emperors over the centuries is itself a form of madness, and needs to be treated by an opposite extreme – an addiction to excessive power being removed only by the “withdrawal symptoms” of excessive humility. From a theological perspective, any action or attitude that causes us to rebel against God’s will might be seen as a form of insanity, and an appropriate form of penitence is the antidote to it.

 

These two chapters together – telling of martyrdom and witness, of rebellion against God and humble penitence – point us to spiritual principles that apply to every believer, to some degree. The challenge facing you if you are a person of faith is hopefully less life-threatening than that facing the three young men, but you may still find there are times when you are put on the spot to justify your faith-inspired actions (or refusal to act as instructed). Your ‘insanity’ or mine is hopefully much milder than that of Nebuchadnezzar or other despots, but nevertheless we need to be willing to confront it, and accept whatever form of penitence God considers necessary to bring us back to our senses.

The Bible in a Year – 17 March

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

17 March. Joshua chapters 22-24

Chapter 24 completes the allocation of land to the tribes, the distinction being that this is the “two and a half” tribes east of the Jordan, who because they were not actually in the Promised Land seem to have been regarded as not quite part of the family.  Their action in setting up an altar by way of marking their common heritage with the other tribes was quickly misinterpreted by the others as idolatry, and they immediately wanted to go to war against them.  Fortunately, Phineas (a priest rather than a tribal leader, since the offence was a religious one) who was sent to lead a delegation intended to issue an ultimatum, listened to and believed their account of the matter, and war was averted.  Too often in human history such brinkmanship goes the wrong way and disaster follows.  Whether within the family or in international relations, Churchill’s wise words deserve repeating: “it is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war”.

 

The last two chapters of the book are Joshua’s exhortations to the people before his death, similar to (but much shorter than) the record of Moses’ final speeches to his people in Deuteronomy. He speaks twice: first to the leaders, with an emphasis on passing on the Mosaic teachings and avoiding diluting the faith by intermarriage; and then to the rest of the people with an emphasis on not worshipping or even owning any idols.  As elsewhere in the Bible, a stone was erected as a witness to their act of re-commitment.