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Thursday, August 6, 2020

Hard things in the Bible, part 4: Revelation's Number Symbolism


As we mentioned in the last part of this series the book of Revelation, being full of symbols, is one of the hard parts of the Bible. No one should claim to be able to explain those symbols without referring to other parts of the Bible.

Before we get to all the beasts and plagues, let’s start with something more basic: the various symbolic numbers mentioned. We’re not talking numerology here; neither are we talking about the kind of demented math used in the Jewish Kabala. There is simply no proof that any of that has anything to do with the Bible.

Here are some of the numbers that seem to crop up with some regularity in the Bible:

ONE: Revelation refers to events that happen in “One day”, and others in “One hour”. Comparing these phrases to other parts of the Bible, we find Isaiah 10:17-20, which describes Israel’s destruction as happening in “one day.” It actually took several years. But relative to the centuries that the nation had lived, its destruction was sudden. “One hour” would be an even more startlingly short time period: “Too bad, too bad, you great city, Babylon you strong city, because in one hour your judgment has arrived!” (Revelation 18:10)

 TWO: In some cases the “2” is clearly meant to be literal; “2 wings of an eagle” or “2-edged sword.” And in others, it seems to refer to a small amount but more than one. For example, when the heavenly armies of angels are described as two myriads of myriads”, (Revelation 9:16) we shouldn’t assume it means literally 200,000,000 angels. A ‘myriad of myriads’ might be taken literally as 100,000,000; ‘two myriads’ simply makes it clear that we’re talking about an unspecified number of myriads of angels.

“2 witnesses” are mentioned at Revelation 11:3. The rest of the passage refers to an olive tree and a lampstand. That should remind us of the book of Zechariah. In that book, the olive tree feeding olive oil to a lampstand is explained as referring to the high priest of the time, Joshua, assisting the governor of the time, Zerubbabel. Both of them were faithful men who were taking the lead in providing ‘light’ to Jehovah’s people the Israelites who had just returned from Babylon. While they had begun well in their assigned task of rebuilding the temple, when persecution hit they drifted away from it. After Zechariah and other prophets stirred them up, they got busy again.

With that background it becomes fairly easy to make the connection to the picture John painted, of 2 witnesses taking the lead at an assigned task during “the Lord’s Day” (if this term is unfamiliar go back to Part 3 of this series), being persecuted for doing that work and becoming less active – to the point that their work looked “dead” – then their work being resurrected again. The work Jesus has assigned his disciples for “the Lord’s Day” is to preach the good news of the kingdom earthwide. I’ll leave the reader to decide which religion fulfills the picture, but here’s a hint: You will struggle to find an application of this prophecy to most of the denominations active during these last days.

THREE: The number 3 comes up a lot in Revelation: 3 angels, 3 trumpets, 3 woes, 3 unclean expressions... While there are hundreds of uses of the number 3 in the Bible, the ones that seem to have a symbolic usage are those that are a triple repetition, the idea of ‘3 times for emphasis’.

For example, “A ruin, a ruin, a ruin I will make it,” speaking of Israel’s kingship. (Ezekiel 21:27) If that were the only example you would be right to be skeptical. But check out these others:

Elihu, counseling Job about Jehovah’s forgiveness: “‘. He has redeemed my soul from going into the pit, And my life will see the light.’ Indeed, God does all these things Twice, three times, for a man,” (Job 33:27-29)

Jehovah’s instructions to Ezekiel: “Clap your hands and repeat ‘A sword!’ three times. It is the sword of the slain victims, the sword of great slaughter, that surrounds them.” (Ezekiel 21:14)

Now, compare the passages in Revelation where a thought is repeated 3 times:

  • Revelation 4:8 (TCNT) “These four Creatures... never cease to say-- 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, our God, the Almighty, who was, and who is, and who shall be.'”
  • Revelation 8:13 (TCNT) “I heard an eagle flying in mid-heaven and crying in a loud voice--'Woe, woe, woe for all who live on the earth.”
  • Re 16:13 (BBE) “And I saw coming out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits, like frogs.”

The threefold repetition of “Holy” in reference to Jehovah is fairly obvious; the threefold “woe” for all who live on the earth shouldn’t be taken as 3 specific ‘woes’, but as an extremely woeful state.

The 3 unclean spirits like frogs seem to be exactly 3 to correspond to the 3 mouths from which they come: the dragon, the beast and the false prophet. More on those guys in a later column.

FOUR: Likely the first thing that comes to your mind with the number 4 is direction: north, south, east, west – the ‘4 corners of the earth.’ The Ark of the Covenant was rectangular with 4 feet under it. It resided in the center of the tabernacle built by the Jews in the wilderness, also rectangular, with sides facing north, south, east and west. The Israelite camp was laid out by divine command in a square, with 3 tribes on each side of the tabernacle. The temple Solomon built was also a rectangle aligned with the compass. Many of its furnishings were square. There seems to be a link between the number 4 and something being organized for worship of God.

Now what about ‘4’ in the book of Revelation? “Around the throne were 4 living creatures.” (Revelation 4:6) It’s probably safe to assume these 4 represent the complete organizational structure of heavenly creatures supporting God’s worship.

“After this I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding tight the four winds of the earth, so that no wind could blow on the earth.” (Revelation 7:1) The 4 winds clearly mean the whole earth, north south east and west. These 4 angels could easily represent the organized angelic army waiting to bring Armageddon to the whole earth.

Re 9:14 (YLT) “`Loose the four messengers who are bound at the great river Euphrates.'” Again, “four” indicates something organized; Euphrates is the major river of Babylon which, in Revelation, is false religion (more on that later). So these angels or messengers have an organized work spreading a message with global effect (verse 15). It had been chained up by Babylon but was to be released during the Lord ’s Day.

TWELVE: The first thing that pops into mind may well be the 12 tribes of Israel, or the 12 apostles. But that example breaks down. The Christian congregation today isn't divided into 12 'tribes', some following Peter, others John, etc. In fact, the apostle Paul strongly counseled Christians not to be partisan. (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)

However, we do find a commonality if 12 refers to the leadership of two respective organizations - In its beginning, Israel referred to the 12 sons of Jacob, (each of whose qualities were prophetically described by their father in Genesis) just as the initial leaders of the Christian congregation were the 12 apostles, each having various gifts and qualities.

Why did Jacob have 12 sons? Why did Jesus name 12 apostles? Possibly, in part, because of the symbolism, that 12 is a multiple of 3 and 4: 4 for organized, 3 for emphasis of that idea. Similarly, 144,000 pops up in Revelation 7, and the number is there explained as '12,000 from each' of Jacob's sons. (I know the passages says '12 tribes of Israel,' but read the names closely, and remember that Revelation is symbolic.) 

TWENTY-FOUR - another multiple of 12 - also makes an appearance in Revelation. If our understanding of 12 as the organization of Israel's leadership or the Christian apostles is correct; and our understanding of 2 (2 X 12) as leadership of a god-assigned work is correct, then the '24 elders' mentioned first in Revelation 4:4 pretty much explains itself.

The numbers 5, 8 and 9 don’t get a lot of play in the Bible. So let’s move on.

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SEVEN, TEN and SIX:  7 is one of the earliest numbers in the Bible. The week of 7 days was initiated by Jehovah himself. “God went on to bless the seventh day and to declare it sacred, for on it God has been resting from all the work that he has created.” (Genesis 2:3) God viewed 7 as the completion of the task.

As humans we tend to think in 10s: we have 10 fingers and 10 toes. And throughout the Bible, 10 is often used as a number that means “all” from a human perspective: When Hannah was upset about being barren her husband said, “Why are you so sad? Am I not better to you than 10 sons?” (1 Samuel 1:8) When Jehovah wanted to reassure Hezekiah that He would keep him alive He offered him a miracle: “Do you want the shadow on the stairway to move forward ten steps or back ten steps?” (2 Kings 20:9) The steps were arranged like a sundial. Jehovah could have offered to move the shadow 7 or 8 steps, or 12 steps, but He didn’t. He offered 10.

That leaves 6: If 7 is a number that is complete or perfect from God’s viewpoint, His use of 6 might well represent something that falls short of that ideal – something imperfect, sinister, perhaps even destructive.

It’s true that both Isaiah and Revelation refer to certain angels as having 6 wings, but in each case it is emphasized that they actually have 3 pairs of wings, triple-emphasizing of their flying ability.

Other references to 6 are kind of obscure: Goliath was 6 cubits tall; other monstrous men from his tribe had 6 fingers on each hand; Solomon’s yearly income was 666 talents of gold; the image Nebuchadnezzar set up which Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to worship was 6 cubits wide by 60 cubits tall; You could perhaps make the case that 6 represents things that are monstrous, idolatrous, or materialistic, but I think that would be a stretch: none of those number were used symbolically.

So: With few other biblical sources to lean on, what can we conclude about the mysterious passage: “Let the one who has insight calculate the number of the wild beast, for it is a man’s number, and its number is 666.” (Revelation 13:18)

Other factors in the book of Revelation make it clear that this wild beast is a bad guy. The fact that the number is specifically called ‘a man’s number’ makes it clear this isn’t a heavenly picture; the fact that the number 6 repeats 3 times should make it clear that the ‘3 times for emphasis’ rule applies here; and the qualities of the beast being emphasized seems to be that it is grossly imperfect, falls short of or even rebels against heavenly perfection.

Next time, we’ll talk about the beasts.

Feel free to share this with all your friends.

 

Bill Underwood is the author of 3 clean fiction novels: The Minotaur Medallion, Resurrection Day, and the best-seller Unbroken, as well as the non-fiction self-help book “99 Ways to Fire Your Boss.” All are available in either ebook or paper at Amazon.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Hard Things in the Bible, part 3: Revelation




The book of Revelation or Apocalypse certainly qualifies as ‘hard things’ of the Bible. But don't leave! I promise, we can make some sense of it.
Revelation is full of prophecies and symbolism. That shouldn’t surprise anyone: Revelation tells you, right at the beginning, that it was written in symbolism:
Rev. 1:1 “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants the things which must shortly take place. And He sent it and signified it by His angel to His servant John.”
Sometimes we signify something by raising our hand or nodding our head. But the Greek word can also be translated “in signs or symbols.” And given that what follows includes some amazing word pictures, it seems likely that John was using the word in that way. Does anyone think that John was warning us to be on the lookout for literal dragons and 7-headed beasts?
  • As we pointed out in part 1 of this series, opinions are a dime a dozen... everybody has them, and they all have the same value: zero. The only way to know for sure that your understanding of a hard Bible passage is on the mark is to compare it to other parts of the Bible.  So that’s how we’re going to go about this.
Before we get to the individual symbols, we need to understand when to look for these signs or symbols. Does Revelation answer that?
Rev. 1:10 “In the Spirit I found myself present on the day of the Lord.”
John’s use of the term “Day of the Lord” didn’t mean Sunday. Sunday didn’t have any special significance until hundreds of years after John died and even then, it was part of Catholicism’s attempt to overwrite pagan ideas. But there are other biblical references to a special future “day”. 

The Bible frequently refers to ‘Judgment Day’, what some call Armageddon. One of the earliest of these references is when Jehovah speaks to Job about “the day of battle and war. . .” (Job 38:23) I don’t imagine anyone thinks that “day” refers to a literal single day. Wars take time. They usually happen after some period of warning, after some time was spent on peace negotiations that have finally broken down.

The translation “ON the Lord’s day” is misleading. The first definition of the Greek en is ‘in’, not ‘on’. No doubt most of the translators rendered it ‘on’ instead of ‘in’ because it’s a phrase pointing to a day. When we are being specific we say ‘on such and such a day’, but when we are referring to a time period, we say “in”: ‘In my grandfather’s day.’ If the translators had recognized that John was speaking about a time period rather than a single day they wouldn’t have had to try to bend Greek grammar.
So: Jehovah’s ‘Day of war’ means more than a single day. Did John mean the war of Armageddon when he spoke about the Lord’s Day? Not exactly. In several places in Revelation, such as at chapter 16, verses 14-16, John talks about events, in some cases events that would require years to happen, leading up to “the war of the great day of God the Almighty” (Armageddon). But John includes all these preliminary events leading up to Armageddon in his expression ‘the Lord’s Day’ – a time period other Bible writers refer to as “the last days.”  1 Timothy 3:1 is an example.
Can we corroborate this understanding from another place in the Bible, to prove that John was speaking about a time period building to Armageddon?
Well, how about this:
“Just as the days of Noah were, so the presence of the Son of man will be. For as they were in those days before the Flood, eating and drinking, men marrying and women being given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and they took no note until the Flood came and swept them all away, so the presence of the Son of man will be.” (Matthew 24:37-39)

Jesus refers to the period preceding the Flood as a parallel to his future presence. (By the way, if your Bible says “coming” instead of “presence” in these passages, you need to get a better Bible. The Greek word in all these places is parousia, from which we get our English word “presence”... It even has a P, an R, and an S, just like “presence.” The Greek word for “coming” is erkhomenon; and the fact that the root part of that word ‘kom’ sounds a lot like the English word “coming” is not an accident, either.)
 At the start of that chapter, some of his apostles had asked Jesus for a sign of his presence. And this passage about the pre-flood world was part of his answer. His answer also included wars on a massive scale, food shortage, pestilences and earthquakes in one place after another – clearly signifying a period of time, not one day.
So when John says that in some spirit-assisted way he found himself ‘in the Lord’s Day’, it is reasonable that he was speaking about seeing visions of that same future, pre-Armageddon period of time.
If further proof is needed, John’s description of the ‘horsemen of the apocalypse’ in Revelation chapter 6 includes war, famine and pestilence – the same signs Jesus told his apostles,in Matthew 24, would mark 'the last days'.
What has confused some readers of the Revelation account is that the first horse out of the gate is the white horse, and his rider is armed with a bow, given a crown, and described as heading toward a conquest. People want to equate that picture with Armageddon, but it almost seems backwards: if the white horse and the crowned rider refer to the establishment of Jesus’ kingdom, why is it immediately followed by war, famine and pestilence? Billy Graham even went so far as to claim that the rider on the white horse couldn’t possibly mean the establishment of Jesus’ kingdom; It had to represent some false kingdom.
He and several other Bible commentators, however, are failing to connect the dots. You have to use the Bible, not your own intuition, to understand the Bible.  
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When Jesus apostles asked about his (future) presence Jesus answered that it would be characterized by many bad things that would begin happening on Earth.  So yes, Billy, the establishment of Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t happen at Armageddon. It happens earlier, and then is immediately followed by bad things, rising to the crescendo of Armageddon.
Another vision within Revelation makes exactly the same point:
“War broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels battled with the dragon, and the dragon and its angels battled but they did not prevail, nor was a place found for them any longer in heaven. So down the great dragon was hurled... On this account be glad, you heavens and you who reside in them! Woe for the earth and for the sea, because the Devil has come down to you, having great anger, knowing that he has a short period of time.” (Revelation 12:7-12)

Again, we see a reference to a period of time, marked by ‘woe for the earth’, that precedes the climax that will spell the end for Satan.
Of course, there’s way too much to the book of Revelation to discuss in a short article like this one. In coming discussions we’ll deal with some of the individual symbols, characters, beasts, and numbers.
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Bill K. Underwood is a columnist, consultant, photographer and author of three bible-friendly novels available in either ebook or paper at Amazon.com.



Friday, June 12, 2020

Hard Things in the Bible, Part 2: The Antichrist




The word “antichrist” has become a punchline. People have, with absolutely straight faces, claimed that the Antichrist is:
  • Donald Trump
  • Barack Obama
  • Hilary Clinton
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Mark Zuckerberg
  • Bill Gates
  • Oprah Winfrey
  • The current pope
  • Most of the previous popes
... and many, many more.

“Antichrist” clearly makes a handy insult to slap on whoever your current enemy is. But should we be looking for an individual to turn out to be ‘the Antichrist’? Who or what, really, is the antichrist? Since it is a term found in the Bible, it makes sense that we should turn to the Bible to find the explanation. And it really isn’t all that mysterious.

The term is found 4 times in the Bible, all in the letters of the apostle John. Perhaps he coined the word (which is easy to do in Greek) or perhaps it was already in common use in his day. ‘His day’ is something we need to talk about.

John wrote these letters in the year 98 on our calendar. He would have been pretty old by then; perhaps even 100 or more. He addresses those in the congregations to which he wrote as “young children”, which you’re allowed to do at that age. He'd spent nearly 70 years watching the growth of Christianity. He'd also begun seeing a disturbing trend away from the teachings he'd heard personally during three and a half years he'd spent with Jesus, listening to his teachings.

One of those teachings, one of the things Jesus foretold very clearly, was that true Christianity was going to be polluted and watered down almost immediately after his death. Jesus gave a famous illustration about two roads, two gates:  "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad the road which leads to ruin, and many there are who enter by it; But the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:14, 15)

He was not here describing the difference between say, Christians and Jews, or Christians and Pagans, or even, as the world is currently divided, Christians and Muslims; no. How do we know? Just a few verses later he said: “On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.'” (Matthew 7:22, 23) Jews, pagans and Muslims don't call Jesus ‘Lord’; They do not do 'mighty works in his name'. Jesus was talking about Christians, people calling him “Lord”, who would turn out to be the opposite of Christians – anti-Christians, if you will. And, he said the fake Christians would actually outnumber the real Christians.

He made the same point in his parable of the wheat and the weeds.  “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also...” Jesus knew that after he fell asleep in death Satan would begin diluting Christianity with weed-like, fake Christians, anti-Christians. Furthermore, he warned that this would be the case throughout the history of Christianity. “Let both grow together until the harvest,” he said.  (Matthew 13:24-30)

Though they may not have quickly coined the phrase “antichrist”, his apostles clearly understood the warning. Paul showed he understood it: “That day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition.” (2 Thessalonians 2:3) His words harmonize with Jesus’ own, about fake Christians, anti-Christians, being visible, notable on ‘the day’ of judgment.

A person unfamiliar with biblical wording could take Paul’s expression to suggest a single individual, but John makes it clear that “antichrist” is not singular: “. . .Young children, it is the last hour, and just as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared, from which fact we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us...” (1 John 2:18, 19)

Notice that John repeats the point Jesus made: the antichrists ‘went out from’ Christians. Do you think they called themselves something other than Christians at that point? Of course not! No doubt they contended that they were the real Christians, and John and his friends were the anti-Christians. Jesus’ warning about Christians being misled didn’t say they would start following Buddha or Mohammed; he said, “. . .false Christs and false prophets will arise and will perform great signs . . .” (Matthew 24:24)

So, if you're looking for the antichrist, you need to look at people calling themselves Christians.

Think about the fake ‘Christian’ leaders flying around in their private jets, wearing their royal robes, boasting sacred-sounding titles, claiming that Jesus wants them to have their huge paychecks, pretending to be holy while covering up their decidedly non-Christian behavior and completely undermining Christ’s teachings... those people, individually and collectively, they are the real antichrists.

If you follow one of them because 'She's a powerful speaker,' or because 'His sermons make me feel good,' or 'He heals people', or whatever your reason is, just focus on this: Jesus promised there would be both Christians and false Christians, anti-Christians, from his death until the end. The Christian groups you see around you now all fall into either one class or the other.

If the person you're following teaches anything different from what Christ taught, which side do you think he's on?

Bill K. Underwood is the author of 3 novels: The Minotaur Medallion, Resurrection Day, and Unbroken, and the non-fiction self-help book 99 Ways to Fire Your Boss, all available on Amazon.com.



Tuesday, June 9, 2020

How to understand the hard things in the Bible




If you are a Bible believer, like me, you no doubt have found many comforting passages, and many easy-to-understand life principles. But the bible also contains some things that, as Peter admitted, are “hard to understand.” (2 Peter 3:16) And Peter warned that these things would get twisted.

Over the years, I’ve heard some whoppers:
  • The pope is the antichrist
  • Martin Luther was the antichrist
  • Trump is the antichrist
  • The whore of Babylon in Revelation means New York City
  • The whore of Babylon is Las Vegas
  • The whore of Babylon is the Vatican
  • The ‘Mark of the Beast’ will be getting a chip implanted in your hand
  • The ‘Mark of the Beast’ will be getting a Covid-19 vaccine
Clearly these can’t all be right. Perhaps none of them are. But if there isn’t a sure way to know, then what use is the Bible? The Bible becomes a joke. 

There is a way to tell. 

Not surprisingly, Jesus own words provide a formula: In his prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem, he warned his Jewish followers: "When you have seen (to use the language of the Prophet Daniel) the `Abomination of Desolation', standing in the Holy Place --let the reader observe those words—then let those in Judea flee to the mountains.” (Mt 24:15)

His apostles had no idea what he meant by “the abomination of Desolation”. But they were familiar with the prophecy of Daniel; and Jesus’ counsel was for them to carefully observe Daniel’s words. What words? 

Daniel had indeed used similar words. Daniel 9:26 prophesied that “Messiah will be cut off.” Although the apostles hadn’t gotten their head around that idea when Jesus was alive, a few days later, he was “cut off.” No doubt his apostles re-read Daniel 9 very closely after that. Just a couple sentences after describing the cutting off of the Messiah, Daniel said that “on the wing of disgusting things there will be the one causing desolation; until an extermination...” (Daniel 9:27)

By itself, that sentence didn’t enlighten those new Christians very much. But Jesus told them to study Daniel. He didn’t specify which part. Another prophecy in Daniel gave them another clue: “How long will the vision of the constant feature and of the transgression causing desolation continue, to make both the holy place and the army things to trample on?” (Daniel 8:13)

Those Jewish Christians would have easily figured out that the ‘constant feature’ referred to daily sacrifices on the altar in the temple in Jerusalem. “This is what you will offer on the altar: two one-year-old rams each day, continually. Offer the one young ram in the morning and the other ram at twilight... It is to be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations.” (Exodus 29:38-42) And the “holy place” had to refer to the temple itself, real estate that was then and still is considered by the Jews to be ‘sacred ground’. 

So Jesus prophecy told them to watch for something that the Jews considered “disgusting” to ‘trample on’ the temple and put an end to the daily, constant sacrifices there.

Thirty-three years went by. The Jews got more rebellious against Rome until, finally, Rome sent an army, complete with portable “idols” in the form of the Legionnaires’ standards – basically, a flagpole topped with a pennant and a gold-plated symbol (such as a lion, wolf, sun, snake, medusa, etc.) that represented each legion. Each soldier literally worshiped his legion's standard, and pledged to give his life for it. They brought these idols right up to the gates of the temple, and they even began tunneling under the wall so that their idols, disgusting things to Jews, were literally standing on holy ground.

That was the sign Jesus had given his followers. It was unclear before it happened. But once it happened it was obvious.

From this example, we learn two vital tools to determining what some of the “hard to understand” things in the Bible mean:

  1. Use the Bible to explain the Bible.
  2. Prophetic passages may not make sense until the events prophesied are happening.

With this foundation, then, let’s take a look at some of the things we mentioned at the outset: The antichrist; Babylon the Great (also called ‘the whore of Babylon’); the Mark of the Beast, and other hard-to-understand things. We’ll go there in the rest of this series.

Bill K. Underwood is the author of the novels The Minotaur Medallion, Resurrection Day, and Unbroken, and the non-fiction book 99 Ways to Fire Your Boss, available on Amazon.com