Friday, August 31, 2012

The Synagogue of Satan

The word "synagogue" had developed a specific meaning among Jews by the time of the writing of the Apocalypse. It is actually borrowed from Greek and originally meant little more than a gathering of people, or an assembly. Among the Jews of the Hellenistic period, it had come to refer to a meeting place of Jews away from Jerusalem where they gathered to read from the Scriptures, pray, worship, and to be taught the Law. This approach, really, was the foundation of NT church life, although Christians used the similar Greek word "ecclesia" for their approach instead.

The phrase "of Satan" does not mean that the assembly was called for the overt purpose of worshipping Satan, but that despite it being Jewish in name, its people were actually serving Satan. This is readily evident from both the use of the term itself and the reference to Jews who were not truly Jews associated with it. This usage is neither cryptic nor arcane. Jesus accused Jews who were seeking to harm him of being the children of Satan, so the connection between opposition to Christ and the Devil was not new.

As I understand it, these were Jews who were not willing to seriously vet his claims of Messiahship--claims that were primarily substantiated by incredible, miraculous feats, and ultimately, rising from the dead. They could not get past his illegitimacy (his earthly father was not his actual father), nor their place of assumed privilege with God that came by virtue of being born Jewish (Abraham's descendants). They had so invested themselves in an approach to Judaism that they were not willing to acknowledge the Jewish Messiah because of that investment. Their minds were made up to reject and resist him (even to kill him) before his case could even be argued.

Callous unbelief would be a fitting description of their attitude toward Jesus. From that position, and with whatever influence they had with those who had political power, they relentlessly pursued a course of rejection, obfuscation, and calumny against Christ (and later, against his followers). This sort had, at the time of the writing of the Apocalypse, famously done so in Jerusalem and in Rome (Suetonius 25.4), as well as in PisidiaLycaonia and Thessalonica. This is the sort that Christ was referring to by the moniker, "Synagogue of Satan," when he warned the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia through the Apocalyptic letters.

Now, the Westminster Confession (25:5) attributes to that moniker the condition of lacking proper discipline in a Christian congregation which allows heresies to spread unchecked. Such a church, in effect, becomes a "synagogue of Satan", but that is not even close contextually to how the term was used scripturally. Unfortunately, that is not the worst hatchet job on the phrase out there--there is a lunatic fringe which attaches a labyrinthine conspiracy to attain world domination on the part of some very selective, secretive, and fabulously wealthy Jews to the term. Nuts, truly, are not just a garnish for salads!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Covenantal Safety Net

Safety nets are psychologically comforting, but they are useless for some.

If one is shot out of a cannon, they are of utmost importance. If one is flying through the air with the greatest of ease, they are extremely helpful, especially in getting the practice needed. If one is gingerly walking the tight rope, high above the din down on earth, they are super comforting. Just about anything that combines altitude and precariousness makes safety nets advantageous.

For those attempting to make a big bang for God, or hoping to catch a tumbling, falling brother or sister, or for those just trying to get from here to there balancing on the so very little (at least in terms of life lived in this flesh), the covenantal safety net is, oh, so helpful. That web is weaved with the cords of grace and the knots of promise. Even with God's timely interjections in the daring-do of life in the Spirit, it's not one's skills that keeps the darers of godly deeds from making a big splat before God. It is the arms of grace.

Humans stray: good ones, godly ones, ones daring the grand sacrificial life that puts God first. Faith means keeping one's eyes fixed on Jesus: being human means being momentarily distracted, struck by curiosity and fascinated by interest, frightened by thunder, wind, and waves. Humans are interruptible, we get fatigued, and even find ourselves bored by what was thrilling such a short time ago. Humans on the high road, straight and narrow, balancing precariously against human instinct need safety nets.

Our safety net as a Christian is that God's love and forgiveness for us is not ours because we perform perfectly. We are not his because of our powers of concentration or our ability to get in the zone for a lifetime. Oh, we're dedicated to the high flying calling of God, but it's not our abilities that ensure that we can keep at that for a lifetime, rather than making one fantastic leap followed by a thud and the end of our efforts. We make it because of God's consistent and unfailing mercy and grace gets us to the end through repeated efforts.

Who doesn't need safety nets? Those who never leave the ground.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Letter to the Struggling Church, Part I

We live in an age where success in the church is expected and applauded and flocked to in just about the same way it is in any endeavor attempted by man. It is less an American phenomenon than it is a global one, as large, successful churches dominate the scenery in places like Seoul, Singapore, Hong Kong, Accra, Lagos, Buenos Aires, Guatemala City, and Rio de Janeiro (not that there are not other places which could be listed).

Often the thought is that those churches which reach this lofty status must be doing things right, whereas less successful churches, even struggling churches cannot be. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with church success, great growth or megachurch status--the very first church in Jerusalem had all those characteristics, but there is also nothing inherently wrong about being a struggling church. At least that would seem to be true from Christ's perspective, at least as far as we can tell from his letters to the churches in the Apocalypse.

A church could be doing exactly what Christ would have them do and still not appear to be successful. Truth be told, there are not necessarily great harvests in every place the gospel is preached. All any believer and any group of believers can do is what they are bidden to do by God--the results are really up to him. Persecution is not in itself a hindrance to church growth, nor is entrenched false religion, for even the Devil can't keep folk blinded forever, but in some places, there is an abundance of good soil; and in some places, not so much.

A church could be doing exactly what Christ would have them do and still not appear "blessed". Financial straits, community disapproval (even animosity), a lack of maneuvering room or perplexity about what to do, and even a lack of ability (power) are not necessarily signs that a church lacks anything that God intended for it. A church could be experiencing all this, in the absolute awareness of Christ, and neither be reprimanded for it nor promised a better day without it. Apparently, in some churches God intends things to go swimmingly, and in some others, not so much.

Christ may not expect the struggling church to stop struggling, but the one thing he does command of it is that, regardless, it remain faithful to the end.

Part II

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Faith vs. Works

Even "good" works can be differentiated by quality. Some works are self-referent and so are never meritorious. They are initiated by self for the benefit of self and so are merely a selfish pursuit, even if they seem altruistic. They are only impressive among those who cannot see them for what they are, or those who do the same kind of works. They gain no favor with God.

Then there are works which are not self-referent. Those are inspired by God, bidden by God, and carried forward at his instigation, impetus and encouragement. Even though such works are not truly capable of being credited to the ones doing them, God rewards them as if they are. If God rewards them for being done they must be considered meritorious, despite the fact that in themselves they could not force his hand.

No work is meritorious of salvation, regardless of whether or not it is rewardable by God. No work has the power to erase the record of works which are not meritorious (i.e. sin). So at best, God-instigated works can be rewardable with benefits (even eternally), but never with forgiveness and righteousness. That should not be unexpected because forgiveness is an act of mercy or grace which can never be earned, or it would cease to be mercy or grace.

Faith is always referent to its object. It can be misplaced, as it would be if directed at self or at false gods, and be without any value whatsoever to God. However, if its ultimate object is God, particularly his character and power, God does reward it. There is nothing about faith in and of itself which would deserve such reward, the impetus for such lies totally in God's grace. Yet, because God responds rewardingly toward faith in him, such God-referent faith would have to be considered meritorious.

However, even saving faith is not meritorious of salvation. There is nothing in such faith which has the power to wash away sin and restore righteous fellowship with God, even though it is essential to salvation. It is merely the reaction (trust) a believer has toward God's words and deeds, and even then not unaided. God's word (of promise) is what invokes faith, while God's presence (or Spirit) is what aids it.

The Apostle Paul made it clear that works and faith are not the same sort of thing. He treated them as diametrically opposed concepts. While it is true that both faith and works can be rewardable, it is also true that neither is meritorious of salvation. So even though God promises salvation to those who put their trust in Christ, it is the blood of Christ which does the heavy lifting.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Sword of His Mouth

Believe it or not, the image of a sword coming from the mouth is well used in the Bible. It is used in the Apocalypse itself four times (our subject here), but is also used in Isaiah, as well as in Job. Generally, it refers to the power of words, namely to damage, although in Isaiah the image is used in reference to a benefit produced. A similar image in Hebrews (which doesn't involve the mouth) seems to point to the destructiveness (judgment) rather than the constructiveness (salvation) of the Word.

As for the specific use of the figure in the Revelation, there can be no doubt that there is nothing constructive about it. It comes out of Jesus' mouth, is sharp and double-edged (although only in the first occurrence are edges mentioned) and wipes out enemies. The obvious intention in that identification is to highlight the power of Christ's word to destroy: as that sword slashes, it cuts both ways, deeply, and mortally. The word Christ speaks is a force capable of completely obliterating his enemies--can you say Muad'Dib!

When Isaiah uses the image, the double-edged aspect is not specified and the effect highlighted is constructive rather than destructive. The image is wrapped in a prophecy meant to convey something positive. As far as the Jews are concerned (that is the focus of the Isaian usage), the penetrating conviction of God's word, particularly in the mouth of Messiah, is a means of drawing the Jews back to God. If you think about it, that makes sense given that during those last seven years of history (i.e. the Tribulation) God's agenda for the Jews is not judgment, but redemption.

When we use an expression like "it cuts both ways," we are actually calling upon the imagery of the double-edged blade. We mean by it that some stratagem or argument has a reciprocating effect. We may cut by using it but will also be cut in doing so. Our argument makes a point, but subjects us to the same charge we were making against our opponent. Nothing this correlated can be associated with the image of the double-edged sword in Revelation. The sword in Jesus mouth one-sidedly blasts away all his enemies, and there is no blowback!

The pointiness of that sword is not the issue either. Other weapons could have been used more fittingly as a metaphor if penetration would have been what was being gotten at. The forte of the double-edged sword is maximal lethality for every movement of the arm. The use of this image in Revelation is not trying to say that Jesus' word can penetrate to the heart, but that his word of judgment is unrebuffable and fatal. This is not about conviction, it is about wrath, and the image is used consistently to convey such throughout the Apocalypse.