Did ancient cultures worship the true God under a different name?

Q. I’m homeschooling my daughters and we’ve been learning about ancient Greek civilization.  When they heard about its highly developed religion, my daughters asked me whether the Greeks were worshipping the true God under a different name.  What do you think I should tell them?

The Bible says that something about the true God can be known through creation and conscience.  Paul wrote to the Romans, for example, that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” (See the Paul’s Journey Letters study guide, Session 24.)  And Luke records in Acts that Paul explained to the people of Lystra, “God has not left himself without testimony:  he has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons.”  Paul also told the Athenians that God created the nations and made them finite in duration and territory so that “they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.”  (Luke-Acts study guide, Sessions 21 and 22.)  So there is a natural seeking after God, and people are able to find out some things about Him that way.

I would not conclude from this, however, that ancient cultures were actually worshiping the true God under a different name.  In addition to the testimony to God in creation, there is the witness of the covenant community through time about its encounter with the God who has entered human history to redeem people and restore them to relationship with himself.  I believe that people need to connect with that work by hearing and believing this witness.  Thus the witness needs to be offered all over the world.

So I would encourage your daughters to understand that these ancient cultures were in a position to learn something about God, and that some of what they believed about God was therefore true and correct, but that we need God’s self-revelation in order to know Him in the way that we should.  In other words, I don’t believe that the Greeks who worshiped Zeus were actually worshiping the covenant God of redemptive history without knowing it.  But they may have taken some steps toward this that enabled many of them to understand and believe the good news about Jesus when they heard it.

Are the numbers 3, 4, 7, 10, etc. intentionally symbolic in the book of Revelation?

Q. In your Revelation study guide you say that there’s a symbolic meaning for the numbers in the book.  3 means God, 4 means creation, 7 means perfection, 10 means completeness, and so forth.  Did John really write with all of this in mind?

I believe he definitely did. Throughout the book of Revelation, John is drawing on a stock of recognizable symbols from the First Testament.  This stock includes some commonly-used numerical symbols that would have been meaningful to John’s readers.

For example, in the First Testament, 10 represents completeness in the human dimension, since people usually have ten figures and ten toes.  That’s why God gave an epitome of the law in the Ten Commandments.  The number is also used in this sense when Job says to his friends, “Ten times now you have reproached me.”  This is not a literal count, because the friends have only spoken five times to that point in the book.  But the number means “You’ve reproached me as many times as a human can bear.”   Ten meaning what is complete or ultimate in human experience is also seen in Daniel’s vision of the four beasts.  The last one, representing a supreme empire, has ten horns.  The image and the number with its significance are echoed in John’s description of the dragon in Revelation.

To give another example, since there were twelve tribes of Israel, the number 12 represents the covenant community in the First Testament.  In the New Testament, Jesus himself appealed to this symbol when he chose 12 apostles.  Through this number he was declaring that a new kind of covenant community was coming into existence through his life and ministry.  In Revelation the number 12 is used throughout the book to represent the community.  See how many times it’s used in the depiction of the New Jerusalem, for example. (See the Daniel-Revelation study guide, p. 131.)

Twelve can also be used in multiples and in combination with other numbers. There are 24 elders in the heavenly throne vision to depict the continuity of the first and new covenant communities.  The number 144,000, for its part, comes from 12 x 12 x 10 x 10 x 10, representing the fullness of the community of believers throughout time and space from the first and new covenants.

Examples like these show us what an intentional part numbers play in the book of Revelation’s symbolism, echoing the First Testament background.  As for some of the other numbers in the book, as I write in my Daniel-Revelation study guide:

•  3 represents God, who’s often described in three-part phrases (“who was, and is, and is to come”) and ascribed triple attributes (“holy, holy, holy”; “glory and honor and power.”)

•  4 is the number of creation.  It’s represented in the heavenly throne vision by four living creatures, and it’s also described as having four parts: heaven, earth, under-earth, and sea.  The song of every creature ascribes four attributes to the Lamb: praise, honor, glory and power.  There are other uses of the number 4 to symbolize creation later in the book, for example, in the following vision, “four angels standing at the four corners of the earth holding back the four winds”.

•  The number 7 (4+3) represents perfection and completeness.  The Lamb has seven horns and seven eyes; these symbolize his absolute power and knowledge.  The scroll has seven seals because it contains the definitive judgments of God.  The seven churches at the beginning of the book are symbolized by seven lamp stands and seven stars.  While these are actual churches, they’re also representative of the church as a whole; what’s written to them is also addressed to the wider community of Jesus’ followers.  The throne vision depicts the “seven spirits of God.” As a translation note in the NIV explains, this is the “seven-fold” Spirit of God–the perfect (divine) Holy Spirit.  The angels, in their song, ascribe seven attributes to the Lamb, acknowledging his divine perfections.

We see in all of these ways, as I write in my study guide, that “in addition to visual symbols drawn from earlier Scriptures, the book of Revelation also uses numerical symbols.  Certain numbers in the book are like ‘logos’ that point to key characters and themes.”

For the symbolic meaning of the number 666, see this post.

Is the lake of fire described in Revelation a real place?

In your study guide to Revelation, are you saying that the lake of fire isn’t a real place?

D. Howard Hitchcock, “Halemaumau, Lake of Fire”

In session 23 of the Daniel/Revelation study guide I observe that “it’s impossible for a literal fire to burn a finite amount of fuel forever,” so that the image of the lake of fire near the end of Revelation shouldn’t be taken to mean that those who definitively reject a relationship with God will “burn up forever.” Rather, this image represents the way that people who reject God “will be separated permanently from him, they will always be objects of his displeasure, and they will never receive the comfort and satisfaction that God gives those who do live in his presence.”

In session 24 I observe that shortly after Revelation depicts all those whose names are not written in the book of life being thrown in the lake of fire, it says that only those whose names are written in the book of life may enter the New Jerusalem; all others will be kept outside its gates.  I then ask, “If these same people have already been thrown into the lake of fire, why do they need to be denied entrance to this city?” I conclude that “the details of these two visions can’t be reconciled by a literal reading, but this only shows that both are meant to be understood symbolically. . . . Two different figures are used, but their message is the same: those who definitively reject God will be kept out of his presence, while those who remain loyal and faithful, even through sacrifice and suffering, will live forever with God in a place of splendor and glory.”

More generally, it’s impossible to read the visions throughout Revelation both literally and sequentially. For example, the sun is destroyed when the sixth seal is opened, but shortly afterwards, when the fourth trumpet sounds, the sun is shining in full strength, because one third of its light is then dimmed. Examples like this show us that we need to interpret Revelation symbolically.

That’s why, throughout this guide, I seek to explain the meaning of the symbols in Revelation as allusions to other images in the Scriptures, particularly Daniel and the prophetic books, or else as echoes of images that would have been recognizable from the surrounding culture. The great prostitute who sits on seven hills, for example, evokes the popular idea of Rome as the “city of seven hills.” For its part, the lake of fire may echo the Greek idea of the underworld containing a river of fire. But more important than the source of these images is the use John makes of them to communicate God’s purposes for the culmination of history.

And whatever we believe about the actual ultimate circumstances of those who reject God’s gracious offer of forgiveness and a restored relationship, we should make every effort, by our words, personal example, and loving service, to urge and encourage everyone we know to accept this offer.

How do people who don’t consider themselves Christians respond to these guides?

Have you used any of these study guides with people who did not consider themselves Christians? What reaction did they have to the material?

I’ve personally used the guides in several groups that included people who didn’t consider themselves Christians.  They appeared to feel very much at home and they participated freely.  In these groups we took turns reading the various discussion points and asking the questions related to them, and even though I said that anyone who didn’t want to do this could “pass,” our not-yet-Christian friends were always happy to take their turns.

I think they were so comfortable because the study guides are intentionally written in such a way that people who aren’t yet followers of Jesus feel welcome and included.  Because the guides invite people to engage the Bible through the lens of their own experience, everyone has something to share in response to the discussion questions, even if they don’t have a lot of biblical background or doctrinal knowledge.

The questions themselves often begin with qualifiers such as “If you are a follower of Jesus” or “If you’re part of a community of Jesus’ followers,” and they provide other options for people who don’t fit these descriptions.  (For example, “If you’re not part of a community of Jesus’ followers, talk about one you’ve visited or heard about.”)

Guides often invite people to share where they are along their spiritual journeys.  For example, the guide to Paul’s Journey Letters asks (in Session 24), “Before you began this study of Paul’s letters, where would you have put yourself on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is not believing in Jesus, 5 is the threshold of believing, and 10 is a settled, unreserved faith and trust in Jesus for life?  Where would you put yourself now?  If you’ve ‘stepped across the threshold,” or if you want to know more about how you can do that, share this with the group and ask them to talk and pray with you about it.”

This question is typical of the ones, found in other guides as well, in which people are asked how they’ve moved along in their spiritual journeys in the course of the study.  There’s typically an opportunity in one or more sessions in each guide for people who are ready to become followers of Jesus to make that commitment with the group’s help.

So I think your friends who aren’t yet followers of Jesus would feel welcome, encouraged, and also graciously invited towards faith in a group that was using one of these guides.  (What I’d love to see some day is a group made up predominantly of not-yet-Christians using the guides, as I think the discussions in such a group would be unpredictable and dynamic.  If you put a group like that together, please invite me to visit!)

Where can I get more information on the Bible’s historical and cultural background?

~  I love the concise explanations and the historical information you include in the study guides. Now I want to learn more! Are there particular materials you’d recommend to delve a bit deeper into understanding the texts?

~  My group has been going through the Genesis study.  One woman who grew up in the Middle East has commented in a couple of places on how the stories reflect that culture, especially in regard to bartering and protecting one’s sense of honor.  A good example is when Abraham buys the cave as a burial plot for Sarah.  Our group was reflecting on this “bartering” tradition when we read through the story of Abraham bargaining with God for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.  I think we would be really interested in learning more about the cultural aspects of these stories.  Where might we go to learn more?

~ Where can I find reference materials on the background information given in these books? Is there a reference list online, or reliable sources that we can use as supplemental readings?

Let me say to all three of you that I’m really glad to hear your experience with the study guides has made you want to dig deeper into the Bible and its background.

The place to go next is a biblical commentary. Commentaries give you extensive information about the historical and literary context of particular books of the Bible.  They allow you to listen in on the scholarly conversation about passages that are difficult to interpret.  And they provide details about the various ways that Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words and phrases can be translated.

The study guides in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series do as many of these things as possible, but they’re limited in length and they also need to save room for reading suggestions and discussion questions.  So you’ll want to find a good full-length commentary (or two, or three) on the biblical book you’re interested in.

There are lots of really great commentaries out there these days.  Some series I like in particular are The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, and the Word Biblical Commentary.  All of volumes in these series show respect for the Bible as the inspired and authoritative word of God and at the same time make full use of the findings of biblical scholarship.

I hope you enjoy your further explorations!

Was Jesus really forsaken on the cross?

Q. I often hear people say that when Jesus cried out on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” this was a poignant expression of his suffering and abandonment. But given how well Jesus knew the Scriptures, and how strongly the whole of Psalm 22 describes him and his situation, didn’t he likely have the whole psalm in mind? If so, you could equally see his cry as conveying triumph through suffering. When I thought of this it changed my whole view of the crucifixion.

Guido Reni, Christ Crowned With Thorns

There’s an extensive discussion in Session 8 of the Psalms study guide (pages 52-53) of how Jesus appealed on the cross to Psalm 22.

In my view, the best understanding of what was happening when Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” recognizes both the sense of abandonment he was expressing immediately through these words and the sense of faith and trust that’s articulated over the course of Psalm 22, to which he was indeed alluding in its entirety.

In other words, in our interpretations we need to honor what Jesus was experiencing in the moment, but we also need to recognize that he was giving voice to that experience through the words of an ancient inspired song of faith. Jesus was taking his place in the long line of Israelites who used the psalms, written centuries earlier for other occasions, to express what was happening in his own relationship with God.  The Psalms were gathered into a collection and made part of the Bible precisely because people had been using them in this way for so long.

Psalm 22 was probably originally written by someone who had a deadly illness.  However, the uncanny resemblance between what the psalmist describes and the experience of crucifixion, unknown at the time the psalm was written, has convinced many that the inspired writer was given an advance glimpse of Jesus’ sufferings on the cross. In that case this would be a Messianic psalm that speaks as much about the coming Messiah as about the original circumstances of the author.

What we can say for certain is that just as the people of Israel looked back to earlier songs (the psalms) to express their own spiritual experiences, the psalmists themselves also looked forward, as authors like this one express the hope that their words will be used by later generations.  Psalm 22 is a classic psalm of supplication that moves from a cry for help to a statement of trust, and after a description of troubles and petition makes a vow of praise that envisions people in the future all over the world hearing about God and worshiping him.  Jesus fulfilled this vision by creating a worldwide community of followers through his life and ministry, his death on the cross, and his resurrection and ascension.  So the psalmist gave Jesus some words through which to express his most vital spiritual experience, and Jesus in turn gave those words the most marvelous fulfillment that could be imagined.

Does the Bible say we shouldn’t pay or charge interest? (Part 2)

In yesterday’s post we began to explore the question of whether the Bible says we shouldn’t pay or charge interest. We saw that the term nešek is sometimes translated “usury” or “excessive interest,” especially when paired with the term tarbit. But other times nešek is translated simply as “interest.” The difference is important for those who want to live by the Bible’s teaching.

A likely solution to this problem has come from recent advances in biblical scholarship, which have suggested a subtle distinction between nešek and tarbitNešek seems to mean charging a certain percentage of a loan for each given period that it remains outstanding (for example, 5% per year), while tarbit seems to describe requiring a debtor to pay back a fixed amount more than was borrowed.  These were, apparently, two different practices of moneylenders in biblical times.

The latest update to the NIV (2011), which incorporates many such advances in scholarship, reflects this new understanding by saying in Ezekiel that the righteous person does not lend to the needy “at interest” (no longer “excessive interest”) or “take a profit from them.”  In this version Proverbs now speaks similarly not of “exorbitant interest” but of “interest or profit.” Nešek is now translated as “interest” rather than “usury” in Psalm 15, and the translation remains “interest” in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.

The answer to the question, then, is that in Ezekiel and in other books, the Old Testament opposes interest of any kind, not just excessive interest.  (Nehemiah, for example, demanded that his fellow returned exiles refund the 1% interest they were charging their fellow Israelites.)

So is this a principle we should follow in our own day?  Should we not deposit our money in banks that will lend it out at interest, and should we not use credit cards so that we won’t be complicit in others charging (us) interest?

In deciding such matters, we need to appreciate the difference between the biblical context and our own.  In the basically cashless ancient economy, those who were very poor often had to borrow the food, seed, and clothing that they needed. But they had nothing to guarantee these loans except their land or persons.  And so adding even a small amount of interest or profit would likely make it impossible for the poor person to repay the loan. This would lead to land forfeiture or slavery. In other words, the real objection is to predatory lending that exploits and victimizes the poor.  The Israelites were to fear God and help the poor freely instead.

We do have at least one hint in the Bible that in other, more commercialized contexts a reasonable amount of interest that allows lenders to offer a needed service and make the profit necessary to stay in business is permissible.  In Jesus’ parable about the three servants who were entrusted with money during their master’s absence, the master–who represents God–says to the last servant, “You should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest” (Matthew 25:27).

However, as a matter of stewardship and godliness, we certainly shouldn’t use credit cards to buy a lot of things on impulse and be saddled with debt that keeps us from effectively participating in God’s work around us through our gifts and investment.  Self-control, savings, and discerning stewardship are important things we can build into our lives by asking carefully about paying interest.

Whatever convictions we reach in the end about charging or paying interest, we are clearly called to help the poor generously and freely, and actively oppose any practices that exploit them.