Does Jesus have a tattoo on his thigh?

Q. In the book of Revelation, when Jesus appears a rider on a white horse, it says, “On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.'” Does this mean that Jesus has a tattoo on his thigh?

The book of Revelation is so highly symbolic that I doubt we are meant to take this literally.  The name that’s “written . . . on his thigh” is a symbol of Jesus’ supreme authority.  At the time when the book of Revelation was written, in the AD 80s or 90s, the Roman emperor Domitian was being called “Lord and God,” so the book is disallowing his claim and asserting that Jesus is “Lord of lords” instead.

I talk about Domitian and the book of Revelation in this post.

I discuss tattoos in this post.

And there’s an excellent further discussion of tattoos and Jesus as the rider on the white horse in this post by Jannette Hicks, which is where I also got the image below.

When will the rapture take place, before or after the great tribulation?

Q. When will the rapture take place, before or after the great tribulation?

Probably the best way for me to begin answering your question is to explain that the doctrine of the rapture is a relatively recent innovation in Christian teaching.  It dates back only to about 1830 and the work of John Nelson Darby.

Darby’s starting point was the doctrine of the “ruin of the church.”  He felt that the church, the body of Christ on earth, had become hopelessly corrupt and compromised.  It could no longer fulfill its purpose in God’s plan.  However, as Darby considered the Scriptures, he came to feel that maybe this had been inevitable.  He decided that all of the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament had to be fulfilled literally, and for that to happen, Israel would have to become the “people of God” on earth once again.  Darby concluded that the church had only been a “parenthesis,” an interval between the times in the Old Testament and in the future when Israel played this role.  It therefore made sense to him that God would remove the church from the earth at some future point.

Darby himself specified that the “ruin of the church” was an insight he had received from God by direct revelation, and that without it, a person would not derive his system from the Bible.  I personally find that the Bible teaches something very different.  I believe that Israel is actually the parenthesis.

The Bible begins with a universal scope, with God dealing with all of humanity at once, up to the story of the Tower of Babel, when humanity is divided up into languages and nations.  At that point, the Bible narrows to a particular scope, as God deals with Abraham and his descendants, who eventually become the nation of ancient Israel.  But the aim all along is to reach all of humanity through them.  God promises Abraham that through his descendants, all peoples on earth will be blessed.  On the day of Pentecost, the scope of the Bible becomes universal again, as the community of God’s people becomes multinational and speaks all languages.  Creating such a multinational community was God’s aim all along.  We see this purpose realized in the vision in Revelation of the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

So it’s difficult for me to comment either way about the timing of the “rapture,” the presumed removal of the church from the earth, relative to the “tribulation,” another innovation of Darby’s system, because I don’t believe God will ever take the multinational community of Jesus’ followers off the earth until it is combined at the end of time with the multinational community of Jesus’ followers in heaven.  In its final scenes, the Bible depicts the creation of “a new heaven and a new earth.” It shows the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, so that heaven and earth are joined together and “God’s dwelling is with humanity.”  So the whole idea of God’s faithful people, as an entire community, somehow being taken “away” from earth “to” heaven doesn’t seem to me to fit the Bible’s vision of the culmination of God’s purposes.

Nevertheless, it is true that the Bible promises Jesus will come back and gather his people.  In the gospel of John, in the Upper Room Discourse, Jesus tells his disciples, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”  Paul writes in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

I’m personally looking forward to this wonderful event very much, though I don’t believe I can fit it into a particular sequence of predictable events that will herald the return of Christ.  Rather, I try to live out what the Bible says are the practical implications of this hope.  The Bible says we should “say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

In other words, rather than feeling I can draw any definite conclusions about the timing of “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him” (as Paul describes the event in his second letter to the Thessalonians), I ask myself, “Is there anything that will make Him ashamed of me, or make me ashamed of myself, when He comes for me?”  In my view, that’s the most important question we can ask about this event, and the one that most affects us right now.  May we all examine ourselves and, by God’s grace, live in a way that will make us glad to meet Jesus when He comes.

“The Second Coming of Jesus,” unidentifed stained glass window, photograph by “Waiting for the Word” via Flickr.


What is the doctrine of Balaam (and of the Nicolaitans) in Revelation?

Q. What is the doctrine of Balaam (and also of the Nicolaitans) in the book of Revelation?  Jesus says in his letter to Pergamum, “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality.” The New Testament tells us that all food is good, for example, in Romans and in 1 Corinthians. So why is this mentioned here as problematic?

Basically, the situation in western Asia Minor in the AD 80s, which the book of Revelation addresses, was different from the situation there in the AD 50s, which Paul addresses in Romans and 1 Corinthians.  Paul was speaking to social situations—a friend invites you to dinner in his home or even at the temple; you buy meat in the marketplace.  Revelation is speaking to a different situation, in which the Roman emperor is insisting on being worshiped as God.

The cities of western Asia Minor were competing with each other in the AD 80s for the emperor’s favor by building or improving temples to the various Roman gods, and holding feasts in their honor.  For Christians, it was a “choose up sides” moment.  You either had to say “I’m in” to the Roman emperor-as-god, and join these temple feasts, or say “I’m in” to Jesus and refuse to honor anyone or anything else as God.

The book of Revelation was originally written to warn believers that they must now face this choice.  The “Nicolaitans” and “Balaam” (probably symbolic names for a group and a leader) said instead—and this was their “doctrine”—“You have to go along to get along.  No big deal, just eat the food in honor of the Roman god and nobody will bother you.  You can then get on with your ‘witness for Jesus.’” The book of Revelation says in no uncertain terms that they are wrong about this.

To put this more generally, there are some situations where something that’s otherwise neutral becomes wrong for a Christian to do.  For example, when I was in college, I had no religious objection to drinking in moderation.  But when I went to parties, I never drank at them, because the whole idea was that people there were drinking to get drunk, and I didn’t want to be part of drinking that had that purpose, even if I wasn’t going to get drunk myself.  In the same way, if eating food offered to idols was a declaration of allegiance to the emperor as God, then a person who otherwise had no issue with eating that food in an ordinary social situation shouldn’t and couldn’t do it, if they wanted to remain faithful to Jesus.

(Apparently the “Nicolaitans” also saw no problem with patronizing temple prostitutes, either—hence the reference to “sexual immorality.”  This was a different case.  Visiting prostitutes is not morally neutral so long as it is not done in honor of false gods!  There are strong moral and social-justice imperatives not only to refrain from participating in prostitution, but also to work actively to end the sexual exploitation it represents.)

Hope this is helpful.  We should all be very discerning about the situations we find ourselves in today, and make sure, when it comes to things that are morally neutral generally, that we are “free to do and free not to do,” depending on what the situation calls for.

Ruins of the temple at Pergamum. Photo by Carlos Delgado, CC-BY-SA.

Why hasn’t Jesus returned yet?

Q.  I’m wondering why Jesus hasn’t returned yet. I realize it’s not our lot in life to know the exact time, but it sure seems like this would be a good time.  Throughout the ages folks have made predictions but of course we are still here.  I don’t want to second-guess God, but I gotta say in my opinion I would love to see Jesus return tomorrow.

The question of why Jesus hasn’t returned yet was being asked even in New Testament times, just one generation after Jesus lived on earth.  In his second letter, Peter speaks of “scoffers” who were asking, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?”  These were people who were arguing that if Jesus hadn’t come back yet, he wasn’t coming at all, and they were using as an excuse to “follow their own evil desires.”

But Peter also speaks to those who, like you, are genuinely longing for Jesus’ return, in distress over the condition of the world, explaining, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  For me, that’s the essential reason why Jesus hasn’t returned yet: God wants as many people as possible to have the opportunity to hear the good news and respond.  When we consider that, because of the exponential growth of the human population, half of the people who’ve ever lived on earth are alive today, we realize that if Christ had returned a generation ago, only half as many people would have had the chance of knowing him as the Lord and Savior.  So this is reason both to wait patiently and to give a good testimony for Christ in the way we live, how we treat others, and what we say.

It’s also a mandate to live charitably and constructively as we await his return, doing all we can about the conditions around us as a way of expressing our faith in the kind of world Jesus will bring about when he does return.  He himself cautioned his followers that he might not return as soon as they expected, but that they were entrusted with a positive duty in the meantime.  He told this parable: “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.”  (Ouch!)

So we should “make the most of every opportunity in these evil days,” as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, even as what we see around us makes us long and pray for Jesus to return.  And all the while we can remember, in the words of the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation”:

Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song!

A depiction of Christ as triumphal conqueror by Gustave Dore, c. 1868

How were Scriptures fulfilled in the case of Judas? (Part 4)

Despite everything I’ve said so far in this series of posts to suggest that Judas may have sincerely repented and been saved after betraying Jesus, there’s one more place where the New Testament says that Scripture was fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus, and it seems to state unequivocally that he was lost, and that God in fact intended him to be.

In the gospel of John, during his prayer after the Last Supper, Jesus says about his disciples, “While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

This would, on the surface, appear to settle the issue.  However, when we dig a little deeper, we find that things are not quite so unequivocal.  The phrase that’s translated “the one doomed to destruction” in the NIV (compare NRSV “destined to be lost,” CEV “the one who had to be lost,” etc.) is literally “the son of perdition” in Greek (as in the KJV, RSV; ESV “son of destruction”). There’s actually a play on words in the original: “none of them was lost [apōleto] except the son of lost-ness [apōleia].”

Raymond Brown observes in his commentary on the gospel of John that “we are almost certainly dealing with a Semitism” here, that is, with a characteristic Hebrew way of speaking that has been reproduced in the Greek.  This idiom, “the son of,” appears in other places in the New Testament, for example, when Jesus nicknames James and John the “sons of thunder” because of their tempestuous personalities, or when the apostles nickname Joseph the Levite “Barnabas,” or “son of encouragement,” because of his generosity and help. In other words, in Hebrew, to be the “son of” something means to be characterized by that thing.

“Son of perdition” is such a distinctive phrase that it shouldn’t be hard to find the Scripture that Jesus says is being fulfilled here. The problem is, the phrase “son of perdition” (presumably ben shachat in Hebrew) appears nowhere in the Old Testament. And so no biblical scholar has, to my knowledge, pointed to any specific passage that Jesus purportedly had in mind when he spoke of Scripture regarding the “son of perdition” being fulfilled.

Rather, at least some scholars argue that Jesus is referring back to the Scripture he quoted earlier at the Last Supper, “He who shared my bread has turned against me,” as the one that is being fulfilled in this “son of perdition.”  (I discuss this other case of “fulfillment” in this post.)

But let me offer another alternative. The phrase “except the son of perdition” may actually be an aside or qualifier, and that the Scripture that is really being fulfilled is one about none of the other disciples being lost.  In other words, I think the passage should read something like this: “None has been lost (except the one who was lost of his own inclination), so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

The idea that no one and nothing can cause someone to be lost whom Jesus has saved is a theme that runs throughout the gospel of John, as Brown also documents in his commentary at this point.  Early on, in his interview with Nicodemus, Jesus says that “God . . . gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish [i.e. be lost, apōlētai].”  After feeding the five thousand and revealing himself as the “bread of life,” Jesus declares, “This is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose [apolesō] none of all those he has given me.”  Later on, at the Festival of Dedication, after Jesus has identified himself as the “good shepherd,” he says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish [apolōntai]; no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

There’s a strong suggestion later in the gospel of John that the “fulfillment” in view in Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper indeed has to do with his power to preserve and protect all who trust in him. When the soldiers, led by Judas, come to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemane, Jesus tells them, “If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” John then notes, “This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: I have not lost one of those you gave me.'”

There is certainly a broad Old Testament background to the idea that like a good shepherd, the Lord will protect and preserve His whole flock. The background is so broad that no one passage needs to be singled out, but statements like the following are likely among those in mind as “fulfilled” by Jesus in his protection of his own. In Jeremiah, the Lord says, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture.” In Micah, the Lord says similarly, “I will surely bring together the remnant of Israel. I will bring them together . . . like a flock in its pasture.”

So we may conclude once again that Judas, as a specific individual, betraying Jesus was not an integral part of the unfolding of God’s plan, as understood through the fulfillment of Scripture.  Nevertheless, we must find it significant that Jesus refers to Judas as a “son of perdition,” when “perishing” (the same root in Greek) is contrasted so directly in John’s gospel with having “eternal life.”  Even if Judas being a “son of perdition” isn’t a fulfillment of Scripture, isn’t it evidence that Judas was indeed lost?

I hope to explore that question further in a future post. However, for the time being, because of personal responsibilities I will not be able to add any new posts to this blog for a while.  But stay tuned, as I hope to resume writing at some point in the future.

How were Scriptures fulfilled in the case of Judas? (Part 3)

Another place where the New Testament says that Scripture was fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus is found near the end of the gospel of Matthew. As I noted in my first post in this series, Judas had apparently intended to deliver Jesus only to arrest and imprisonment. But when he saw that Jesus had been condemned to death instead, he “repented” (or was “filled with remorse”) and returned the thirty pieces of silver he’d been paid to betray Jesus. He threw this money down on the temple floor at the feet of the chief priests and elders who had employed him. Matthew then notes that:

The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

Biblical scholars puzzle about much of what Matthew says here. The quotation is actually from Zechariah, not from Jeremiah, and the Old Testament passage is not reproduced very exactly. The people have been unwilling to follow Zechariah as their “shepherd” or spiritual leader, so he asks them to give him his pay and dismiss him. They give him thirty pieces of silver, which may have been an intentionally insulting amount, since it was the compensation specified in the law for accidentally causing the death of a slave. The prophet seems to have taken it as an insult, since the account in Zechariah then says:

And the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the Lord.

Why Matthew quotes this passage so differently from the original, and why he attributes it to Jeremiah rather than to Zechariah, are matters that biblical scholars will continue to debate. (There are some general reminiscences of Jeremiah in Matthew’s quotation, as some scholars have noted: that prophet did buy a field, although he paid seventeen silver shekels for it, not thirty, and he did visit a potter, although this was to illustrate a parable about divine judgment.) But we do not need to resolve these matters for our present purposes. We can simply note the two significant parallels between the life of the earlier prophet and the experience of Jesus at the hands of Judas, which constitute the “fulfillment” in this case.

(1) A spiritual leader of Israel was undervalued at the price of a slave. And in the case of Jesus, this insult is “escalated” in that he was not just one of the prophets, he was the promised and long-expected Messiah. So for Judas and the high priests to bargain over him (according to Matthew, Judas asks them, What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?”) and settle on thirty pieces of silver is a far more egregious rejection of Jesus’ identity and mission than it was even in the case of Zechariah, a prophet whom God had sent to the people.

(2) The money used to set a value on the leader is not retained. In Zechariah’s case, the leader himself is paid the money and he “throws it to the potter at the house of the Lord.” Biblical scholars are not sure exactly what this phrase means; it may indicate that the money was used to pay for earthenware utensils for use in the temple, and not even put directly into the temple treasury. In Jesus’ case, the one who was paid the money to betray the leader similarly throws it down in the temple, at the feet of his fellow conspirators, who buy a “potter’s field” (i.e. a plot that had been a source of clay for potters, and so could no longer be used for agriculture) to use as a burial place for non-Jews.

This is, for our purposes, the really significant part of the fulfillment.  While, as I’ve argued, these fulfillments are not so much predictions come true as statements that take on a fuller meaning in light of later developments, the fact remains that Judas fulfilled Scripture by returning the money he got from betraying Jesus.  And if his ultimate motivation for the betrayal was greed (as I’ll discuss in a future post), then this is the surest evidence that he repented sincerely.

So it is not the case that Judas must be seen, in light of earlier Scriptures, as someone who was destined to betray Jesus and be lost. The fulfillment of this Scripture, at least, suggests just the opposite.

How were Scriptures fulfilled in the case of Judas? (Part 2)

I now return to the series of posts in which I’ve been exploring the possibility that after betraying Jesus, Judas Iscariot may have sincerely repented and been saved.  I considered the gospel narratives in my first post, and then turned to look at all the places where Jesus and the apostles say Scripture was fulfilled in the case of Judas, to see whether this means he was destined to play the role of betrayer and be lost.  In my second post I argued that Scripture being “fulfilled” actually means not that a foreseen future event has come to pass, but that an earlier statement has taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later redemptive-historical developments. And so in the following post, I explained that the phrase in Psalm 41, “He who shared my bread has turned against me,” cited as an example of fulfillment in all four gospels, illuminates the identity and experience of Jesus as the “greater David,” but it does not specifically identify Judas as his betrayer in advance.

In this post I’d now like to look at another place where the New Testament says Scriptures were fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus. I’ve already mentioned it in my second post: It’s the place in the book of Acts where Peter says, “The Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”  Peter then quotes two Scriptures that he sees being fulfilled, citing “the Book of Psalms” as his source: “May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it” and “May another take his place of leadership.

As I explained in that earlier post, these two Scripture citations, which come from what we now know as Psalm 69 and Psalm 109, respectively, are not predictions about the future Messiah, but rather “imprecations,” or calls for judgment on present-day enemies, in two of David’s “psalms of supplication.” Nevertheless, they provide an inspired precedent that help the fledgling community of Jesus’ followers solve what would otherwise be a vexing problem.

They want to honor Jesus’ intention to have twelve apostles, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel, who can serve as witnesses of his life and especially his resurrection.  But Judas is now gone. Still, Jesus chose him as an apostle; on what authority can the community choose someone else to replace him?  Peter recognizes that if they do, they will be fulfilling Scripture, and this provides the divine imprimatur they need to bring the number of apostles back up to twelve. In other words, the specific fulfillment here is not that Judas betrayed Jesus and was lost, but that he was replaced.

Once again a parallel is being recognized between the experience of David and that of Jesus, his “greater Son.”  We don’t know what former friend David had in mind in Psalm 109, but he seems to have held some position of trust, because David says, “May another take his place of leadership.”  Judas also held a position of leadership and trust–“he was numbered among us” as an apostle, Peter observes–and in his case, as happens in these fulfillments, this role was escalated from the situation in David’s time.  It was not merely a civic office in the ancient Israelite kingdom, but a foundational office of the kingdom of God breaking into this world. (The book of Revelation envisions the names of the apostles written on the foundations of the New Jerusalem!)

For Judas to lose such a vital place (for it to become “deserted,” as Psalm 69 puts it) was a momentous occurrence in the life of the covenant community, one that Peter sees foreshadowed in an earlier experience of David. Still, this all has to do with Judas’s office–not with his eternal disposition.

Indeed, Peter pointedly does not quote another part of the imprecation in Psalm 69, where David says of his enemies, “Do not let them share in your salvation. May they be blotted out of the book of life!” He apparently does not have this in view as something that applies to Judas, any more than some other phrases in these psalms, such as “when he is tried, let him be found guilty” (Judas was never put on trial for what he did) or “may a creditor seize all he has” (this never happened to Judas, either).  As we saw earlier in the case of Psalm 41, where David was sick because he had sinned, not every detail from these psalms carries over from David’s life into Jesus’ experience.

So we should conclude that the “fulfillment” of Scripture cited by Peter at the beginning of Acts is that Judas forfeited his apostolic office when he betrayed Jesus, and we can consider this a definitive judgment–even if Judas had lived and repented sincerely, he would not have been restored as an apostle.  But we do not have here a prediction in earlier Scripture that Judas also definitively forfeited his soul when he betrayed Jesus, as if there were some sins that were beyond the power or willingness of God to forgive.

This series continues in the following post.

The Twelve Apostles, from an Ethiopian Bible manuscript. It was important to have twelve to echo the number of the tribes of Israel. Jesus chose all of the apostles to begin with. When one of them, Judas, forfeited his position, on what authority could the church choose a replacement?