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.

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.


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 these are likely among those in mind as “fulfilled” by Jesus in his protection of his own: in Jeremiah, “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, “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 1)

In this series of posts I’ve been exploring the possibility that Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus, may have sincerely repented afterwards and been saved.  In my first post, I argued that there is enough evidence in the gospel narratives, particularly in Matthew, to conclude that this is a possibility.

But I also noted that some might object that Jesus and the apostles said Scripture was fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus, and that presumably this means he was destined to play the role of betrayer and be lost.  To address that concern, in my last post I discussed what it means for Scripture to be “fulfilled.”  I showed that it actually means not that a foreseen future event has taken place, but that an earlier statement has been recognized to have a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later redemptive-historical developments.

In this post I’d like to begin applying that understanding to the places where the New Testament says that Scriptures were fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus, to see whether the implications are that Judas may not necessarily have been lost.

I’d like to begin with an instance that’s found in all four gospels.  According to John, during the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples, “One of you is going to betray me,” and he specified that “this is to fulfill this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’”  Matthew records similarly that Jesus told his disciples, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him.”  Mark reports almost the same thing: Jesus told his disciples, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me . . . one who dips bread into the bowl with me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him.”  Luke does not use the specific language of Scripture and fulfillment, but in his gospel, Jesus says effectively the same thing: “The hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed.”

So John quotes the exact Scripture that is being fulfilled in this case, while the other gospel writers offer a paraphrase of it.  The quotation is from Psalm 41, “a psalm of David” according to its inscription, which is a prayer for healing from illness. “Have mercy on me, Lord,” David prays, heal me, for I have sinned against you.” He then notes that his enemies are seeing his illness as a chance to be rid of him (even if they haven’t been able to kill him, this sickness might, they hope), and he adds with particular anguish that one of his friends has turned against him as well: “Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me.”

So how was this statement “fulfilled” in the case of Judas?  The New Testament writers see Jesus as the “greater David,” the promised Messiah who would sit on David’s throne and judge the world in righteousness, and accordingly they often see parallels between David’s life and Jesus’ life. In this case, the parallel is not exact in every detail: Jesus did not have a deadly illness, and he certainly had not sinned.  But the broad lines of similarity are that Jesus’ life, like David’s, was endangered, and some of the danger came painfully from a former friend who had been so close as to share table fellowship with him.

But it’s important to realize–and this is another key characteristic of “fulfillments” in the New Testament–that the details in Jesus’ life are “escalated” from those in David’s.  Fulfillments are not simply parallels between two ordinary things, but between something ordinary and something later that is extraordinary because it has heightened redemptive-historical significance. For example, David’s enemies (along with his former friend) were not active, but passive–they were simply waiting for him to die and hoping he would.  But Jesus’ enemies were actively conspiring against him, and so for his former friend to join them in deadly actions is an escalation, taking things to the next level. For that matter, while the death of David would have had significant implications for the covenant community (the ancient kingdom of Israel, at that point), the death of Jesus was the culminating event of redemptive history.

However, the escalation most in view here has to do precisely with the phrase that is “fulfilled”: “one who shared my bread.” Judas Iscariot wasn’t just someone who had a meal with Jesus, like Zacchaeus or Simon the Pharisee. Judas was one of the privileged few who was invited to share in the inauguration of the meal that would become a sacrament for all followers of Jesus, a commemoration of his saving, sacrificial death.  To share in that, and then immediately go out and betray Jesus, was a tremendous escalation of what David’s former friend and table companion did to him.

Still, we should observe that this Scripture itself is not sufficient to identify Judas as Jesus’ betrayer.  It does not, for example, identify the “close friend” as coming from Kerioth (many interpreters believe that Iscariot is derived from the Hebrew îsh-Qerîyôth, or “man of Kerioth”), the way Micah’s prophecy about a ruler coming from Bethlehem is understood to identify Jesus as the Messiah by reference to his birthplace. Instead, according to John’s gospel, when Jesus said that this Scripture would be fulfilled, his disciples were “at a loss to know which of them he meant.”  According to Luke, “They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.” And according to Mark and Matthew, they each asked Jesus, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?”

So the most we can say is that this Scripture, when understood as having a fuller and deeper meaning in the escalated events of Jesus’ life, points to “one of the Twelve,” as Mark’s gospel puts it. Sharing the bread only becomes a sign pointing specifically to Judas when Jesus turns it into that in real time, by answering John’s question “Lord, who is it?” by saying, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish”–and then passing the bread to Judas.  So it appears that it was settled that Judas would be the “one of the Twelve” who would betray Jesus only when Judas made that choice shortly before this.  His identity as the betrayer, in other words, was not specifically foreordained and predicted in Scripture.

Finally, we should address Jesus’ statement, recorded in various forms in Mark, Matthew, and Luke’s accounts of the Last Supper, “Woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”  Since this follows directly after Jesus’ statement that the Son of Man would go just as it had been “written” or “decreed” about him, and it announces a drastic judgment against his betrayer, should we understand the eternal damnation of the betrayer as part of what was “written” or “decreed”?  In light of everything I have observed to this point, I would argue that we should not.  We should rather see this as the kind of warning of future consequences that God gives throughout the Scriptures, in order to turn people away, if possible, from their intended evil and destructive courses. In other words, I believe that even at this late hour–literally the last minute–Jesus was still seeking in love to save Judas from a tragic course of action.

In my next post in this series, once I’ve answered a couple of other questions that have come in to this blog, I’ll look at a couple more instances where the gospel writers say that Scripture was fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus.

A portrayal of Judas at the Last Supper. In this case he very much looks the part of the betrayer. But in reality the disciples were “at a loss to know which of them he meant” when Jesus said one of them would betray him.

What does it mean for a Scripture to be “fulfilled”?

In my last post I explained why I believe there is enough evidence in the gospel narratives about Judas to conclude that he may have repented sincerely for betraying Jesus and been saved. But I also noted that many readers might wonder, “Didn’t Jesus and the apostles say it was predicted in Scripture that Judas would betray Jesus and be lost? Doesn’t that settle the question?”  I’d like to begin addressing that concern in this post.

When we look carefully at the New Testament passages that say certain Scriptures were fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus, it doesn’t take long to uncover a curious problem about them:  Those Scriptures are not actually predictions.  That is, they are not looking forward to the future, envisioning the career of the Messiah, and foretelling specific things about someone who would betray him. Instead, they are envisioning the Old Testament author’s own time and place, and talking about his contemporaries.

For example, the book of Acts tells us how Peter, citing the fulfillment of Scripture, led the fledgling community of Jesus’ followers to choose a replacement for Judas:

In those days Peter stood up among the believers . . . and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. . . . “For,” said Peter, “it is written in the Book of Psalms: ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and, ‘May another take his place of leadership.’

The problem is, when we investigate these two Scripture citations, which are from Psalm 69 and Psalm 109, respectively, we find that they occur not in Messianic predictions, but in “psalms of supplication” in which the psalmist (David, according to the inscriptions, though he does not identify himself within the psalms) prays for deliverance from his own personal enemies.  Both statements come in what are called “imprecations,” passages in which a psalmist calls for God’s judgment on enemies who are persecuting without just cause.

Now the imprecations in the psalms are a difficult problem in their own right.  (I discuss their character and purpose briefly in this post.)  But the problem they pose for us in light of our immediate concern is this: How can Peter say these two imprecations are to be “fulfilled” in the case of Judas when they were not envisioning the future at all?

To state the answer simply, “fulfillment” in the New Testament sense of the word does not mean that a future foreseen and predicted has come to pass.  Rather, it means that words spoken at an earlier time in redemptive history have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later, more developed redemptive-historical circumstances.  To explain this in more detail, let me quote at some length from Paradigms on Pilgrimage, the book I wrote with Stephen J. Godfrey, in which there is a general discussion of this issue.

* * * * *

The very first book of the New Testament, in its very first claim that a prophecy was fulfilled, rules out the understanding of “fulfillment” as a foreseen future coming to pass.  Matthew writes that when Mary had borne a son, and Joseph had called his name “Jesus,” the prophetic word was fulfilled that said, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” We would expect that if the passage quoted from Isaiah here really were a future foreseen and described, Mary would have actually named her son “Emmanuel,” not “Jesus.”  So something different is going on.

The early chapters of Matthew present several other problems along these lines.  This gospel also says that Jesus dwelt in Nazareth “to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.”  Yet nowhere in the prophetic corpus, nor indeed anywhere in all of the Hebrew scriptures, is such a prediction recorded.  And when, after Jesus’ flight into Egypt and return to Israel after Herod’s death, Matthew concludes, “So was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son,’” the reader is puzzled indeed.  The prophet in this case is Hosea, and he was writing history, not predicting the future, when he made this statement.  Specifically, he was describing the Exodus.

The necessary conclusion is that when Matthew speaks of “fulfillment,” he does not mean that a foreseen future has come to pass.  Instead, he means that words spoken at an earlier time in redemptive history have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later, more developed redemptive-historical circumstances. This, to me, is actually a much more powerful concept:  not that humans were given an advance glimpse of what was going to happen in the future, but that the God who superintends and overrules human affairs has demonstrated His unchanging character consistently through time and has revealed more and more of his purposes while reaffirming the earlier-revealed ones.

We may appeal to American history for an illustration of this sense of “fulfillment.”  When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he said this to dispute the premise that kings ruled by divine right and that their subjects therefore owed them the kind of unquestioning loyalty they would offer to God.  (That is, he said this to justify a revolutionary independence movement.) 

But when Abraham Lincoln observed in his Gettysburg Address of 1863 that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” he meant instead that slavery was incompatible with the fundamental premises of American society. 

And when Martin Luther King said, in his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963 (appropriately delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial), that he longed for the day when our nation would “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed:  ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal,’” he explained that in such a nation, people would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  This is how the “true” or “fulfilled” (fullest and deepest) meaning of Jefferson’s words would be realized, according to King.

By this same analogy, when Matthew says that Isaiah’s words were “fulfilled” when Mary bore her son and named him Jesus, he means that those words have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning.  The Greek translation that Matthew quotes has helped this happen:  Isaiah uses a Hebrew term that arguably can best be translated “maiden,” while the Greek reads, more intensively, “virgin.”  Moreover, “Emmanuel” is no longer the boy’s name, but rather an explanation of his identity—“God with us.” These two intensified aspects of meaning are brought out when the original statement is heard in the light of later developments as the plan of God unfolds.

The case is similar with “out of Egypt have I called my son.”  “Son” is no longer a metaphorical description of the nation of Israel, but another accurate disclosure of Jesus’ identity. 

As for “he shall be called a Nazarene,” the best explanation seems to be that this was a geographic term of derision (as Nathanael suggests in the gospel of John when he asks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”). This would be much like the way the term “Okie” was used during the Dust Bowl years. It was applied to people from Oklahoma and nearby areas that were affected by prolonged drought, who migrated West in search of work and food.  The term ceased to mean “someone from Oklahoma” and came to mean something closer to “gypsy.”  Matthew, in his appeal to the prophets, is summarizing their many statements that the servant of God would be “despised and rejected.”  (The quotation here is indirect, not direct like the preceding ones, and thus does not belong within quotation marks, although modern Bibles sometimes present it that way).

Other announcements of prophetic “fulfillment” may be understood similarly.

* * * * *

Indeed, this is how we should understand the statements in the New Testament that earlier Scriptures were “fulfilled” in various ways when Judas betrayed Jesus.  I’ll look specifically at each of these statements starting in my next post, explaining in what way they represent earlier sayings that have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later redemptive-historical circumstances.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the “true meaning” of the principle that “all men are created equal” would be lived out in a nation in which people were judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Is the United States talked about in the book of Revelation (or Daniel)?

Q. Is there any proof that Revelation talks about the United States (or that the book of Daniel does)?

Whether we see the United States (or any modern-day individuals, nations, or institutions) in the biblical apocalyptic books of Revelation and Daniel depends on the interpretive presuppositions we adopt as we approach these books.  As I explain in my Daniel-Revelation study guide in the case of Revelation (similar things might be said about Daniel):

The book of Revelation is interpreted in four major ways.  The futurist approach understands it to be a description of the events of the “end times,” at the end of human history.  (Works like the novels and movies in the Left Behind series follow this approach.)  The historicist view sees the book as a prediction of the whole course of history, from Jesus and the apostles down through the present to the end of the world.  The idealist interpretation is that Revelation depicts the struggles and triumphs that followers of Jesus will experience everywhere, but it doesn’t have any particular place or time in view.  The preterist approach is to try to understand the book by reference to the time and place it was written in–western Asia Minor towards the close of the first century.

I personally believe that a preterist approach is the most responsible one to take, as it is consistent with the way we approach every other book of the Bible, trying to understand it in light of its original historical and literary context.  From that perspective, the characters and symbols in Revelation have directly in view the resumption of imperial persecution of Christians under Domitian in the late 80s or early 90s A.D.  The visions in the book of Daniel, for their part, are initially envisioning the suffering of the Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who ruled from 175-164 B.C.

Applications to any other historical periods are secondary and need to be made by inference and analogy, although these biblical books can certainly inform us very effectively about what conditions are like, and what a faithful response should be, in comparable situations.  Certainly those who are suffering for their testimony to Christ in our world today can and should find encouragement and challenge in many of the admonitions in the books of Daniel and Revelation, for example, “This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.”

I think we are better advised, in fact, to understand Daniel and Revelation as speaking to us today out of situations of persecution in the past, and so calling us to sympathy and solidarity with those who are suffering now, than we are to try to synchronize their characters and symbols with modern-day actors. That is a necessarily speculative exercise that may not lead to any response or action on our part.

A depiction of America as the “whore of Babylon” in the book of Revelation, from a recent blog post that follows a “futurist” interpretation. I would argue that a “preterist” approach is more constructive.