Does the sign in Revelation 12 forecast doom on September 23, 2017?

A 12th-Century illustration of the vivid imagery in Revelation of the woman, child, and dragon.

Q. What is your take on Revelation 12:1-7? With all the speculation surrounding September 23, the question has become a timely one. To my mind, it was was fulfilled 2,000 years ago: imaged first by Mary, the infant Jesus and Herod standing in for the dragon and then more completely as the nascent church had to endure the persecutions of imperial Rome.

I agree with your interpretation of this passage. As I say in my study guide to Revelation:

John first describes how Jesus came from the nation of Israel as the Messiah, the ruler and deliverer sent by God. The imagery of the sun, moon and twelve stars identifies the woman in this vision as a symbol of Israel. This imagery is drawn from a dream that Joseph, one of the ancestors of the Israelite tribes, had. (It’s recorded in the book of Genesis.)

The woman’s son is identified as the Messiah by the quotation from Psalm 2 that says he will “rule the nations with an iron scepter.”

We’re told within the vision itself that the dragon represents the devil. The seven crowned heads (a number of completeness) symbolize the devil’s authority over every part of the world that’s in resistance to God. The ten horns (another number of completeness), an image drawn from Daniel’s first vision, depict the dragon’s great power.

The dragon attempts to devour the woman’s son: The gospels record how Jesus’ life was in danger from the moment he was born, and how his enemies ultimately killed him. But God raised him from the dead and he ascended to heaven (he was “snatched up to God and to his throne”). From there, ever since, he’s been leading a growing insurgency against the world’s entrenched forces of injustice and oppression.

So all of the sensationalism and publicity surrounding an end-of-the-world (or “end of life as we’ve known it”) date of Sept. 23 is really a very unfortunate misappropriation of biblical teaching. It seems to be a real discredit to our faith that unfortunately will make it harder for people to understand and consider the genuine teachings of Christ and his followers.

Review: Joshua in the Word-for-Word Bible Comic

Joshua, the latest biblical book in the Word-for-Word Bible Comic series by Simon Amadeus Pillario, has been released today. You can order a copy here. I’m excited to offer this review. (Full disclosure: I serve as an unpaid biblical consultant to the project. Images in this post are reproduced with permission.)

First, I’m very pleased by the historical and cultural accuracy of the presentation found once again in Joshua. This is a hallmark of the series. As I said three years ago in my very first post about this project, “Bare printed texts . . . invite us to fill a visual vacuum by supplying pictures in our own imagination of people and events. We tend to do this as if they happened in our own time and place, or else in a generic ‘Bible world’ where nothing really changes culturally from Abraham to Paul.” The Word-for-Word series corrects this by presenting visual images based on painstakingly careful research into the findings of biblical archaeology.

For example, when Joshua commands the Israelites to carry large stones out of the Jordan and set them up at Gilgal, the comic depicts these stones being arranged in a circle. While the biblical text doesn’t say explicitly that this was how they were placed, that’s suggested by the name Gilgal, and we know that people did make “stone circles” at this point in history.

The comic also corrects a wrong visual impression we may have about what happened when the walls of Jericho “fell flat.” It shows them collapsing straight down into rubble, instead of falling forward intact like dominoes.

Along the same lines, in the episode where the casting of lots reveals Achan as the party responsible for stealing from the spoils from Jericho, the biblical text says that Joshua “brought Israel near by their tribes.” The comic shows shows only the tribal leaders coming forward at that point. And only the clan leaders assemble when Joshua next “brings near the families” of Judah. Readers of the text (myself included) may have thought that Joshua brought forward many thousands of people at a time in this episode, but this depiction makes much better sense and suits the practices of the culture.

I’m also impressed by the way this next volume once again uses a very creative presentation to pull off a transformation in genre. It draws on all of the conventions available within a graphic novel to bring a literary text to life visually.

This is particularly effective in places where the narrator speaks at length and there is little dialogue between the characters. In one such place, the comic portrays Jabin of Hazor thinking of and listing off the kings he wants in his coalition, keeping track on his fingers and pausing to think of more names, instead of just putting the list of kings in a long sidebar of written text. Similarly, the narration flows directly into Adoni-Zedek’s thoughts as he considers whether to oppose Joshua: “Gibeon was a great city . . .” And when the narrative quotes from the Book of Jashar, that book appears in the panel as a scroll, bearing the text quoted.

The comic even transcends its own genre in some places where the panels themselves seem to join in the action. In the battle against the enemy coalition led by Adoni-Zedek, when Yahweh “confuses” their forces, the panels are placed in every direction on the page, even upside down. With similar creativity, only a single image of the Israelites marching is needed to depict them circling Jericho seven times, because the image is sliced into seven frames. This is one comic that isn’t just a succession of rectangular boxes.

One of the things I find most powerful is the way that the comic uses its visual powers to show that later parts of the biblical story are always lived in light of the earlier parts of the story. As Caleb tells Joshua that he’s just as fit for battle at 85 as he was when he was 40, an image is shown in the background of Caleb as a young warrior leaping into a fight. He’s recognizably the same person, but his beard and hair are black, instead of white as in the foreground. This is how Caleb is seeing himself as he speaks. Similarly, as Joshua recounts Israel’s earlier story to encourage the people to renew their covenant with Yahweh, that story is illustrated in luminous background images.

Beyond this, I find the imaginative viewpoints from which the artist chooses to depict the action simply delightful. The dawn scene at start of the second attack on Ai is viewed from the angle of a bird in a tree. As the Gibeonites are producing faked evidence that they’ve traveled a long way, Joshua’s skeptical face is seen through a hole in the bottom of one of their worn-out shoes!

These imaginative viewpoints can also bring out powerful truths from the text. When the Israelites remove the stones from the mouth of the cave in which they’ve trapped five enemy kings, the artist portrays this action from inside the cave. There’s an amazing scene of the five kings hiding their eyes from the bright, unaccustomed light that is breaking in on them. Of course this happened literally, but it’s also eloquently symbolic.

The Joshua volume includes various kinds of maps that are all used for good effect. There are small inset maps that show where the Israelites are going as they move from place to place, or that trace the action in battles. I’ve often thought that the middle part of the book, in which the land is divided among the tribes, would be best presented through maps, and that’s what’s done here. When the narrative lists all the cities the Israelites conquered, a helpful map of those is offered as well.

Joshua is admittedly a difficult book in many places because of the slaughters it reports. The comic presents this violence unflinchingly but not gratuitously. It discreetly lets the narrative carry the story in places where a full depiction would be very disturbing visually. (Like other volumes in the series, this one carries a 15+ warning, i.e. it’s designed for readers who are at least 15 years old.)

Let me conclude by quoting the overall reaction I shared with the artist after reviewing the volume as his biblical consultant: “The artwork and fidelity to historical detail are simply amazing. I feel as if I’m right in the middle of the action. Every panel has interesting things to see and learn from. I’d love to teach a study on Joshua sometime using this as the text!” I heartily recommend Joshua in the Word-for-Word Bible Comic series.

Am I still considered a Christian if I haven’t been baptized?

Q. I grew up in a country that is not predominantly Christian, but I decided as a young adult that I wanted to be a Christian and I prayed a “salvation prayer.” I feel blessed that many fellow Christians came into my life to offer support and spiritual guidance after that. I identify my religion as Christianity. But I do not go to church regularly, because for many reasons I haven’t found the right church yet, and I have not been baptized. Most churches require you to be member before you can be baptized. Some allow baptism if you pay a fee and take a course for a month, but that doesn’t feel right to me. I would love to study the Bible and know more in depth about it, and I would like to find a church and attend services regularly. Most of all, I would like to be baptized. But what if I never find the right church where that can happen? Am I still considered a Christian if I haven’t been baptized? This issue concerns me quite a bit and I would like to hear your advice. Thank you!

A stained glass window in St. John the Evangelist Church of Carmichael, California depicting Jesus being baptized.

A person becomes a Christian by choosing to follow Jesus as their Lord and Savior, trusting in His death on the cross as completely sufficient for their forgiveness and reconciliation to God. Nothing needs to be added to the “finished work of Christ” (as it’s called) for a person’s salvation, and indeed nothing can be added to it. So the simple answer to your question is that a person does not need to be baptized, in addition to trusting in Christ, in order to be a genuine Christian.

Why, then, did Peter tell the crowds who gathered to hear the gospel on the day of Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins”? Doesn’t this suggest that repentance (confessing wrong and asking forgiveness) isn’t enough, and that a person really does need to be baptized in order to become a Christian? No, such an interpretation is not consistent with the New Testament teaching that salvation is by God’s grace alone, received through faith, and not dependent on anything we might do in addition. So I think we should understand instead that while baptism is not necessary for salvation, it is necessary for repentance. That’s what “repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins” actually signifies.

Specifically, when we are baptized, we are demonstrating our repentance (our sorrow over the things we have done that have separated us from God) in the way that Jesus has asked us to do this. Put another way, we are coming to God on His terms, not on our own. This is consistent with the idea that our salvation is completely the work of God, not our own work.

(I think that the similar statement in the Gospel of Mark, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” should be understood in this same way. “Believing” in this context means having saving faith and demonstrating that faith in the way that Jesus has specified. This shows that we are truly trusting Him and depending on him.)

So I think that if you want to honor and obey Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you should be baptized as He has asked, as a sign to Him, to yourself, and to others that, as you say, you identify yourself as a Christian. But this means that you will need to find a church community that can baptize you. Believers can’t baptize themselves; rather, churches are given the solemn responsibility before God of ensuring that, at least so far as they can determine, the people they baptize have genuinely trusted in Jesus and understand the meaning and significance of baptism. That’s why churches generally want you to be a “member” (that is, a regular attendee whom they’ve gotten to know) or at least take a course about baptism before they will baptize you.

(However, I’ve never before heard of a church charging non-members a fee to participate in a baptism course. Perhaps they consider this a way of recovering course costs that non-members are not paying for through regular contributions. But like you, I’m uncomfortable with this approach and I understand why you wouldn’t want to follow it. As a pastor, I always felt that the sacraments of the church, which include baptism, should be made available free of cost to anyone who wanted to receive them.)

I would encourage you to believe that precisely because God has asked you to express your identification as a Christian through baptism, God will help you obey His command by enabling you to find a church where you can be baptized. The process may actually begin with you meeting a pastor who will recognize your faith and agree to baptize you on the basis of that faith, with the understanding that you want to grow as a follower of Jesus and become a regular part of a community of His other followers. I believe you can pray confidently and boldly for God to lead you to such a church and to such a pastor. God will help you do what He has asked you to do! This is one more way in which our salvation is entirely the work of God on our behalf.

Best wishes and God’s blessings to you.

Why did God give David all of Saul’s wives?

Q. Why did God give David all of Saul’s wives and break his own law that said Israel’s king “must not take many wives“?

I think this should be of concern to us, although not primarily for the reason that you give.

While the law you cite does appear, on the face of it, to prohibit Israel’s kings from marrying multiple wives, the intention of that law is to forbid marriage alliances with the surrounding pagan countries, as the justification for the law makes clear: “or his heart will be led astray.” It was understood that a women who went to a foreign country for a marriage alliance would still be allowed to worship her own gods, and if her husband really wanted to please his father-in-law (who might be a more powerful king), he might join in this worship.

This is precisely what happened to Solomon: “He had seven hundred wives of royal birth [i.e. through marriage alliances] and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites.”

I think we can safely assume that if an Israelite king had married multiple wives who had all been faithful followers of the God of Israel, his heart would not have been “led astray,” and so the spirit, at least, of the commandment in Deuteronomy would not have been broken.

However, as I said, God giving Saul’s wives to David raises other concerns. It would appear that Saul had something of a royal harem (though certainly nowhere near as large as Solomon’s), and that David was allowed to make this harem his own when he became king. (This is the only place in the story of David where this is mentioned, so we have to infer the details.) Ordinarily the harem would never come to belong to the next king because sons succeeded their fathers on the throne and there was a prohibition in the law of Moses against a father and son marrying the same woman. But since David was starting a new dynasty, i.e. he was not the son of Saul, it was legal for him to make these women, who had become widows upon Saul’s death, his wives.

We may nevertheless still be concerned that David may have done this primarily to consolidate his hold on the kingship, rather than because he wanted to love and care for these women as his wives. We see this  illustrated later in the biblical story, when there’s a rivalry between David’s own sons Solomon and Adonijah to succeed him on the throne. Adonijah wants to marry Abishag the Shunamite, a woman who had kept David warm in bed when he was old but who had not had sexual relations with him (so it was legal for Adonijah to marry her). But Solomon recognizes that Adonijah is trying to displace him, even though he’s David’s own choice for his successor, and consolidate a rival claim to the throne by doing the closest thing he can to taking over the royal harem. So Solomon replies to his messenger, “Why do you request Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? You might as well request the kingdom for him.”

However, we might observe that even if David’s primary motive was not to love and care for Saul’s widows, because he married them, they were cared for in a way that they probably would not have been otherwise. One of the realities of the story of redemption in the Old Testament is that it unfolds within a cultural context in which women are dependent on men for support, and many arrangements have to be understood in that light. We also see in the biblical story that well after David came to the throne, there was still sentiment in various parts of Israel to restore the house of Saul, and these women might actually have been in danger from partisans of David who wanted to quell that sentiment. Much of this is speculative, but I believe it helps explain why God might have allowed David to take over Saul’s harem.

There’s still one more important concern, though. It’s actually while the prophet Nathan is in the course of rebuking David for his sin against Bathsheba that he reminds David that God let him do this. Nathan’s message is that David had no grounds to want another man’s wife because he already had so many wives of his own: “I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own.”

As a consequence, Nathan says, David will suffer retributive justice: What he did to someone else will be done to him. However, it doesn’t seem that it’s really going to be done to David himself; instead, someone else will suffer for his wrongdoing: “Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.

In other words, because David tried to get away secretly with sleeping with another man’s wife, someone else will sleep with his wives openly. It seems that it’s actually David’s wives who suffer this punishment, not David himself. The women ultimately affected were ten concubines whom David left behind to “take care of the palace” when he fled for his life from a rebellion launched by his son Absalom. Upon being advised that this would consolidate his claim on the throne, Absalom slept with these women; once he was defeated and killed and David returned, David put them in seclusion. They were provided for and protected, but “they lived as if they were widows,” no longer his wives.

The reader of the Bible is distressed to think that these innocent women suffered such a fate as some kind of divine judgment against somebody else. It is true that as the story of redemption continues to unfold over the course of the Bible, and particularly as the coming new covenant is announced by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, there’s a move away from judgments like these that affect an offender’s family towards individual punishments that target the individual responsibe. Jeremiah, for example, in his new covenant oracle, says that this proverb will no longer be quoted, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

Speaking through Ezekiel, God similarly objects to the people of Israel quoting this same proverb: “You ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’ Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.”

So we may at least say that there is a development within redemptive history away from corporate or family punishments toward individual punishments, which seem to us to be much more in keeping with the just character of God. Nevertheless we still feel very badly for, and have continuing concerns about, those who lived in the time before this development, such as David’s ten concubines.

Perhaps the most we can say about their situations is to realize that our sins inevitably do affect those around us, and they affect most the people who are closest to us. Whether this is the result of direct divine judgment, or the result of the way God set up the moral universe, the harm we will do to those we love the most if we choose to sin is one more reason for us to turn away from that wrong choice and instead follow a course of action that will bring help and blessing to all those around us.

Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer justified in joining the plot to kill Hitler?

Q. I just finished reading Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. It is an outstanding book about an inspiring Christian (with fascinating history to boot). The author describes—often in Bonhoeffer’s own words—how he came to believe that, as a Christian, it was his duty to do anything possible to stop Hitler, including killing him. It seems to me that this is a very slippery slope. Bonhoeffer, for instance, also thought that abortion was murder. I wonder, therefore, if he would have approved of killing abortion providers. What biblical basis is there for humans intentionally taking the life of another human (even capital punishment)?

I, too, have read this book by Metaxas, and like you I found it fascinating, informative, and challenging. I had my own questions and concerns about Bonhoeffer’s decision to join the plot to kill Hitler, even after listening to him make the case in his own words.

My first concern was just like yours—this is a very slippery slope. Even if we decide that somehow, under extreme and very extraordinary circumstances, Bonhoeffer was justified, this could open the door for others to conclude that they, too, might be justified in killing someone, in circumstances that are actually nowhere near to being as extraordinary as Bonhoeffer’s.

So it’s very important that we appreciate the context of his decision. The book does a superb job situating it in its historical context; let me try briefly here to review the biblical-theological context, as I understand it (not that this is absent from the book, either).

We need to recognize that Bonhoeffer’s deliberations came within the centuries-old tradition of reflection within Christianity about whether there can be such a thing as a “just war.” (The other longstanding and respected tradition in Christian theology is pacifism.) Among those who believe that there could be a just war, almost all agree that the war to defeat Hitler was one. It was a defensive war of self-protection against an unprovoked aggressor who had attacked peaceful countries and was oppressing their conquered populations, including systematically committing genocide against millions. So Bonhoeffer and his fellow plotters, many of whom were senior German military officers, saw themselves as joining the justified side in a just war.

Given this, the question then arose as to whether assassination was ever an appropriate tactic within a just war. It could be that in most cases of a just war (assuming there is such a thing), assassination would still not be valid. But in this case, Bonhoeffer concluded, it was a means proportionate to the desired end that would not have wider unacceptable consequences. (These are some of the tests that are applied to means within just war theory.) This was true even though the plotters recognized that some of Hitler’s senior staff might be killed along with him; the person who delivered the bomb in a briefcase was prepared to die himself in the process if necessary.

And this leads us into the second part of the biblical-theological context for the decision: Bonhoeffer’s own theory of ethics. Part of this theory held that if you could recognize, “Somebody ought to do such-and-such,” then you ought to do such-and-such, because we are answerable to God not just for our actions, but also for our inaction. This was because God, in Bonhoeffer’s understanding, accomplishes his purposes through the free acts of human moral agents.

He therefore took seriously what the book of James says: “Anyone who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.” He saw too many German Christians effectively giving Hitler a free hand by appeal to “obeying the law” or “submitting to authorities,” when they ought to have been resisting oppression and protecting the weak. According to Bonhoeffer’s ethics, it was better to act on your beliefs and convictions and be prepared to answer to God for your actions than it was not to act out of fear of doing something wrong. I believe this is one reason why he’s such a fascinating and inspiring character.

I think our takeaway needs to be, however, that anyone who’s prepared to act as boldly as he did should also be prepared to reflect as carefully as he did, in community, about ethical actions, both generally and specifically. This was not a simple matter of “I think God is telling me to kill Hitler.” It was a meticulously deliberated decision, made in the context of a close community of committed believers in his own day, in the larger context of Christian moral and ethical reflection over the centuries. The fact that the jury is still out on this decision shows how difficult and complicated it was, and therefore what moral courage it took for him to act upon it and be prepared to answer to God for his actions (not to mention answering to the verdict of history, which I guess we’re working on here).

Your ultimate question is too large for me to address in a single blog post: “What biblical basis is there for one human intentionally taking the life of another?” But I hope I’ve sketched out the beginnings of an approach to that question, at least.

Do the Scriptures teach that sin is innate to us?

Q. Do you understand the Scriptures to teach that sin is innate to us? Is sin or the sinful nature more than an old “pattern” that we slip back into under the influence of spiritual forces external to us? Thank you.

I think that according to Scriptural teaching, the concept of sin needs to be understood in two senses. We might refer to “sin” and to “sins.” Sins are specific actions that are contrary to what we know to be God’s wishes and intentions for our lives. In that sense they incur guilt and we need to forsake them (stop doing them) and ask and receive God’s forgiveness for them.

“Sin,” on the other hand, is a power that influences us to commit “sins.” Much of its hold over us comes from the fact that it works to blind us, i.e. we aren’t aware of its presence because it leads us to rationalize wrong actions, telling ourselves we’re doing them for some good reason that justifies them.

A person who has not yet been made a new creation through saving faith in Jesus is under the power of sin in this sense. But I would not say strictly that sin is a power within them. It’s something that they’ve admitted into their life and allowed to operate from the inside. It’s “innate” in the sense that they are born under the power of sin (and so they likely begin to allow it to operate from within before they’re even aware of doing this). But it’s not innate in the sense that it doesn’t reflect the image of God in them, which they still bear because they’ve been created in God’s image.

A person who has been made a new creation, on the other hand, is no longer under the power of sin. This is the triumphant proclamation that Paul works his way forward to in the first part of Romans: After declaring that “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin,” he ultimately explains that “sin will not have dominion over” those who have become “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

So I would say that for followers of Jesus, sin is an external force, working in connection with the patterning of this present age, to try to make us continue conforming to its ways. This is the sense in which I understand the “sinful nature”; for more on that, please see this post. From the discussion there, you’ll see that I don’t believe sin remains an innate force in the believer.