Living Menora

Revelation’s letters to the pastors of the seven churches in Asia are a prophecy of the history of the Church, according to dispensationalist Bible teachers. For these interpreters who are committed to a “literal” hermeneutic, this is bending the rules in the direction of a “literary” hermeneutic, which is excellent. However, they apply the letters to the wrong future, and overlook the obvious allusions to Israel’s past.

According to James Jordan, the seven churches are presented as a sort of “decentralized” menora, that is, seven lamps instead of a single seven-branched lampstand. Once this way of thinking is pointed out, it amazes me how much of what is obvious in the text we miss entirely.

This image suggests that we are supposed to take the Church as a new Israel, a conclusion which would not be so popular with dispensationalists, but one that seems unavoidable. The Bible teaches “replacement theory,” or at least, “transformation theory.” Like Jesus, Israel was about to pass through death and resurrection and come out of the grave renewed and as different from old Israel as a butterfly is from a caterpillar.

The Romans would remove the Lampstand from Herod’s Temple, as is predicted later in the Revelation (18:23). The new “decentralized” worship would not be centered on earth but in heaven, in the true Zion which Paul describes in Galatians 4.

Further support is found in the fact that the seven letters are a brief retelling of Old Israel’s history (following Israel’s festal calendar). Once this is observed, the use of the names of Old Testament characters suddenly makes perfect sense.

Ephesus (the fall) – The Garden of Eden (Sabbath/Day 1)
Smyrna (prison/door) – Joseph and Israel in Egypt (Passover/Day 2)
Pergamum (priests) – Balak, Balaam and the serpent (Firstfruits/Day 3)
Thyatira (kings) – Ahab and Jezebel (Pentecost/Day 4)
Sardis (prophets) – Repent and wake up or be invaded (Trumpets/Day 5)
Philadelphia (restoration) – An open door (Atonement/Day 6)
Laodicea (first century Judaism) – False food and riches (Booths/Day 7)

Following the seven letters, John’s “little book” containing the last warnings to Jerusalem is like an eighth letter. The budding sins which Jesus critiques in the fledgling church are shown to be full grown in the worship in Jerusalem (the harlot and false prophet are a Jewish Jezebel and Jewish Balaam, ruling and cursing Jerusalem). The Lampstand was made to look like an almond tree, literally a “watcher tree.”

The word of the LORD came to me saying, “What do you see, Jeremiah?” And I said, “I see a rod of an almond tree.”(Jeremiah 1:11)

These New Covenant “watchmen” watch on as she is destroyed. So, the letters are a prophecy of future Church history, but the imminent future of the “Firstfruits” Church, leading up to AD70, with only a brief glimpse of “the age to come” in chapter 20.

The meanings of the names of the cities also seem significant in identifying the “dominion” pattern:

Ephesus (Creation) – “First, Desirable” (Genesis – Sabbath)
Smyrna (Division) – “Bitter Affliction” (Exodus – Passover)
Pergamum (Ascension) – “Earthly Heighth” (Leviticus – Firstfruits)
Thyatira (Testing) – “Sacrifice of Labor” (Numbers – Pentecost)
Sardis (Maturity) – “Prince of Joy” (Deuteronomy – Trumpets)
Philadelphia (Conquest) – “Love of a Brother” (Joshua – Atonement)
Laodicea (Glorification) – “Just People” (Judges – Booths)
 

As Jordan observes, the Church pastors are the seven stars in Jesus’ right hand. Jesus is the new Tabernacle, and His right hand is the new Lampstand, one whose light multiplies and reaches every corner of the earth.

For more on the Book of Revelation, I recommend James Jordan’s summary The Vindication of Jesus Christ, and then his lecture series available from www.wordmp3.com.

Fortune Cookie Christianity

“The Bible was written for us,
but it was not written to us.”

Western culture is not only becoming illiterate, but also Bible illiterate. Rejecting the Word confounds our words. Language is the gift of the Spirit.

Sadly, this Bible illiteracy includes Christians, who can rarely muster an understanding of the text beyond isolated verses. The problem with this particular way of reading the Bible is that God’s Word is not a collection of magic mantras or fortune cookie messages.

The Bible was written for us, but it was not written to us. We are reading somebody else’s mail, so we must interpret it in context before we can accurately apply it to ourselves. First interpretation, then application.

Doug Haley shares an experience of this kind of reading which not only reveals it to be a false comfort, but also reveals the only source of true comfort for the Christian. He writes:

Some years ago, I was undergoing a particular trial related to having been appointed to a parish where the minister was in significant conflict with the elders of the church. Through no fault of my own I was made for a twelve month period the meat in the sandwich so to speak. Late in that difficult year I visited a Christian friend who with well meaning zeal quoted Jeremiah 29:11 to me and told me not to worry, because God knew the plans he had for me. It was well meant and I took it as such, but as a biblical exegete [interpreter] it really rubbed me the wrong way.

Jeremiah 29:11 is a single line from a prophecy given to Israel while they are in the midst of their exile to Babylon. The immediate context of the passage also talks about a time when the 70 years of exile will have been completed, and when God will gather them from the nations to which He has driven them.

Did my friend intend to apply the rest of the passage to me as well by implication? Was he then implying that my time in this conflicted parish was God’s punishment upon me for some disobedience? Or was the point that I still had a period of punishment to run before God would once again restore me?

Elements of the story
cannot be taken from the story
without affecting their meaning.

The prophecy was given to a people in the midst of punishment for their disobedience. It cannot be lifted from its context as if it is some magical spell, where the form of words contains the power to deliver. Rather it is an expression of God’s intention towards a particular people at a particular time. Even if it can be generalised into a principle regarding the way God treats his people, it cannot be picked apart so that the nasty bones of prophecy are gone, leaving only the nice soft juicy bits.

Prior to this experience, I had academically understood the importance of context to meaning, but it is this event which has stuck in my mind ever since as a reminder that all texts, and Scripture perhaps more than any other, are integral texts. The meaning of any given portion of a text is effected by its relationship to its surrounding texts and the particular cultural and historical milieu into which the prophecy was given.

In the case of the Bible this understanding is even more important because of the single unifying purpose that overarches both the Scriptural record and the History it recounts. Because God orders all events, all the events are part of a huge pattern of God’s sovereign working in time. Because of that ordering they all effect each other. Elements of the story cannot be taken from the story without affecting their meaning. That being the case, to remove a text from its context without understanding its relationship to that context is actually to distort the passage, to misunderstand it, and in the case of my well meaning friend, to misapply it.

God knew the plans he had for Israel beyond their punishment for disobedience, He knew the plans He had for Jesus beyond the cross, and He knows his plans for me, but those plans are wrapped up in Jesus, who has born my punishment in my place. Because Jesus stood in the place of God’s wrath for me, my future can never be separate to His, and God’s plans for me will always be a reflection of His plans for Him. Without the context I might think that prophecy was all about my getting rich, or well, or happy. It’s not. It’s about me passing through the purifying fire to be reborn to new life for the sake of the world. God’s plans are good, and He knows them alright, but woe to the man who tries to rewrite them after his own likeness.

May God bless you today with a vision of His better purposes for you.

Hidden In Plain Sight

by Albert Garlando

Having read the Bible through many times over many years in many different ways I’ve always been trying to improve my comprehension of how, if at all, the whole story fits together. And not just in a systematic or logical way, but in the sense of how it teaches me about who God is, why he acts the way he does and what, if anything, I’m meant to do in response.

One can dismiss it as a haphazard sedimentation of religious manipulation collected to control the masses or pacify the minorities, but that doesn’t explain the impact it has had across diverse (and often opposed) cultures and social groups throughout history.

So, if the Bible is one big book with an editor-in-chief overseeing its entire construction, then what is that structure? Is it visible only to select initiates, requiring the identification of secret codes? Different groups have made this claim to establish themselves as a source of authority.

But the nature of the book and the author it represents is one of openness and perspicuity. God is the revealer of secrets, his spokespeople are the ones who communicate for the purpose of making things clearer, not more obscure. The book that more people avoid reading because of its purported difficulty is the one book that offers to uncover and reveal what is really going on behind the scenes. Why is it so hard?

Maybe because we are looking for something more complicated than what we’ve received. Maybe the hidden message is actually hidden in plain sight. You can call the “Bible matrix” a pattern, a plan, a habit, an architectural design — the name is irrelevant. The point is that right from the start of the Bible, there’s a recurring formula inherent in the way God shows and tells who he is, how he works and what he wants from his creation.

Indeed, it is a pattern that pervades all of creation: from the way you go about your day-to-day life; how you set the table and serve guests a meal; how a romantic relationship develops and is consummated; the plot of your favourite movie or novel — all hidden, but hidden in plain sight. And once you’ve seen the matrix, you can’t un-see it. The obscure and apparently random things that didn’t make sense in Bible narratives suddenly make perfect sense because God is doing the same thing, in the same way, just with different people in a different place and time.

God hasn’t changed and because we need to be told the same thing a dozen or so times before it really sinks in, thankfully, he hasn’t changed the way he acts nor what he wants us to do in response. God creates and reveals himself so that we might know him, approach him, receive from him and take what he has given and use it to magnify him. When you see that this is essentially what is happening in Genesis 1 and realize that this formula repeats itself throughout the entire Bible, the key is in your hand, all the doors are open, and you don’t need to have it all explained. Your eyes are opened and you respond with delight and praise, art and music, and a new joy in the fact that this exact shape is built into every facet of an obedient human life.

(Look at the 3D image above. Can you see the dolphins hidden in plain sight? It might take a minute for your eyes to focus.)

X Marks the Spot

The Bible has a shape.

In this age of science, we have been trained to read literature as a “stream of information,” that is, as disconnected facts in a flat, shapeless “feed.” But the Bible isn’t written that way.

For ancient people, and good modern storytellers, literature is like architecture, or like weaving. So the Bible has a very definite shape, just as a building has a shape, and just as clothing has a shape.

The shape of the text is one of the author’s means of getting his point across. Since modern readers see texts as flat transmissions of data, they miss a whole channel of communication. It’s like watching a 3D movie with one eye closed.

Ancient writers added depth using clever tools like symbols, symmetry, repetition and fractals. Many Bible teachers are not aware of these “shapes,” and they try to deal with the strange artifacts remaining in the “flattened landscape” using other means.

One attempt at compensating for this lack of awareness is the list of rules which Bible scholars have given us for reading the Bible. The list is about as long as the Bible itself and many of the rules contradict each other. But the Bible is just like any other well-crafted book. It doesn’t need a list of rules because you are expected to dive right in and let the author fill you in as you go along. In the case of the Bible, part of that “filling in” is the repetition of symbols, key words and literary structures.

The good thing is that the best TV shows and movies are using these sorts of things more and more in their stories. The Bible is a very visual, artistic and musical book, so the fact that young people are now raised on visual media means they already have all the skills they need to understand and enjoy it. They just need to learn to apply these existing skills in a new way.

The skeleton key

In his commentary on the Psalms, the Bible scholar Origen (185AD – 254AD) shared a comparison that he heard from his Hebrew teacher: The Bible is like one big house with many rooms. All the rooms are locked, and at each door there is a key. But the key at each door is not the key to that particular door.

The job of the Bible scholar, and indeed any reader of the Bible, is to match the keys to their doors. In many cases, the meaning of a Bible story or passage can only be “unlocked” by comparison with an earlier text, or through an explanation in a later text. This means that we must not treat the Bible as separate writings motivated by the human needs of the day, but read it as one book which is a progressive revelation of the plan of God.

This still sounds like a lot of work, but it turns out there is also a kind of “skeleton key” built into the Bible, one which opens every door. It is a key which has been hidden in plain sight, and it has to do with the shape of the text.

You might remember the scene in the movie Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, where the main characters were in a library looking for a secret entrance to a crypt. It turned out that there was a giant X in the marble floor, but nobody noticed it until they looked down on the room from above. In the Bible, as we shall see, X most definitely marks the spot.

How does this key work? Every part of the Bible has the same shape as the whole thing, which means that each instance of this shape, in its own way, is telling the same story. Every Bible story has the same “deep structure,” which means that when you compare and contrast these common shapes, there are some very profound observations you can make about the purpose of the text.

Here is the image we will be using to describe the “shape” which underlies every part of the Bible, and indeed the entire book.

Print

Yes, it looks weird. But just wait until you see what it means.

Once you know the basic shape and understand how it works, you can see it everywhere. What seemed flat now has an extra dimension, like a “pop-up” book, and many strange features that made no sense when the book was flat now suddenly make perfect sense.

The text is a tool

Why does the Bible have a shape? Because it was designed to shape us. It doesn’t just give us a list of abstract truths, like many Bible teachers do. It also demonstrates how truth itself is a process of building something in history according to the spoken pattern. The symbolic shape works like a stamp, a brand, or a mold.

Bible teachers refer to symbols as “types.” This is because the Greek word for a stamp or pattern is typos, which is where we get typeface and typewriter from. A type stamps, carves or impresses its character into something else, and that is what the shape of the stories in the Bible is designed to do. For those who wrote it, and for those who teach it, the shape of the text is a tool in the hand of a craftsman. As we read the Bible, its pattern recasts the shape of the way we think in order to forge the shape of the way we live.

Flying information

Now we’re ready to decode that mysterious symbol above.

The structures in the Bible replicate many patterns found in nature, and the image of geese flying in formation is a great illustration of where we are heading.

As we’ve discussed, popular culture communicates in the same way the Bible does: with images, sound and repetition. Part of the reason we are no longer aware of this is the fact that we rarely hear the Bible read aloud any more. Before modern times, reading and writing was a career, and although history was recorded carefully (not passed down orally to the degree that some people believe), it was not read by most people but heard. Consequently, it was written in ways that impacted people and etched itself onto their memories and into their hearts.

There and back again

Western culture owes far more to the Bible than most people realize, which is possibly why the book written by Bilbo Baggins in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was entitled “There And Back Again.” This is the fundamental shape of every story in the Bible.

One tool the ancients loved to use in their literature was symmetry, and we find this everywhere in the Bible. Its basic shape is like a “>” symbol but it is symmetrical in the way that a flock of geese is symmetrical. Very often, the “goose” at the center was the main point of the story, a factor which our modern minds are likely to miss.

So, the journey “there and back again,” whether it was Abraham’s servant heading out to find a bride for Isaac, or the Lost Son squandering his money and heading home, would look like this:

A
B
C
D
C1
B1
A1

 

The points in the second half expand upon their counterparts in the first half. The central point is known as the thesis, which means it was often the main point or argument of the text. Identifying the structure would enable the reader to identify the main or most important idea the author was communicating through his careful arrangement of the text. So if you ever wondered why some Bible books seems to be a bit of jumble, here is the answer. They are not a jumble at all — they have an internal logic of which we are not always aware.

If this sounds tiresome, it’s not. It’s actually a lot of fun reading the Bible to find symmetrical patterns, whether it be in the Law, the Prophets or the Gospels. Some of them are small. Some of them are large. Some of the large ones contain smaller ones.

This method is called “chiasm” because of the Greek letter X (pronounced “ky”). Simple chiasms can be presented as an X shape, such as Matthew 23:12:

Print

We won’t be using the full X shape (which looks a little like a chromosome) because the Bible’s basic pattern has a center that is actually part of the text. So from here on, all chiasms look like the geese in formation.

Chiasms are clues

The chiasms in the Bible are practical. They help us identify the author’s main point. They are also beautiful. Once identified they let you in on the amazing literary artistry in the biblical texts. And they are everywhere, which means if we don’t become conscious of them to some degree as we read, we are not reading the texts as they were meant to be read.

Here is a simple example from 2 Samuel 11-12:

A  David doesn’t go out to fight Ammon
B  Bathsheba is pregnant
C  Bathsheba mourns Uriah
D  Nathan confronts David
C1  Bathsheba mourns her son
B1  Bathsheba is pregnant
A1  David conquers Ammon

 

We can see that the symmetry highlights both the similarities between certain events and the differences. A and A1 contrast David’s disobedience and his victorious obedience. C and C1 both concern the mourning of the bride, firstly for the father and then for the son.

You might notice that this is not simply a literary structure, but also an historical structure. The author of the text is also the author of the history.

Here’s another simple example found in 1 John 3:9, and this time there is a bit of a twist:

No one who is born of God
commits sin,
for His [God’s] seed
abides in him
and he is not able
to commit sin
because he is born of God.

 

The first thing you will notice is the beautiful symmetry. But the symmetry reveals something… Something is wrong! Unlike all the other points, C and C1 do not match. This is deliberate, and it shows us that the reason the one who is “born of God” is not able to sin is the work of God’s “seed” living in him.

But there is more to this chiasm than meets the eye, even when we notice this deliberate discrepancy. This verse follows a pattern laid down in Genesis 1 and repeated throughout the Bible, and if we are aware of this, the reason for John’s strange use of the word “seed” here becomes apparent to us.

I hope you are beginning to see not only the beauty of the Bible, but the potential such analysis has for really opening the text for us. And we have only just begun.

Read the entire book for free.

The Genetics of Scripture

This foreword was kindly written by Dr Peter Leithart for Bible Matrix: An Introduction to the DNA of the Scriptures.

Beginnings are seeds. Plants grow up from seeds. So do animals, and humans too. Seeds are beginnings, but seeds also initiate a process of growth that will be fulfilled in the middle and end. So beginnings contain endings. Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow, but mighty hippos do not. For that, you need some hippo seed and preferably a female incubator to nourish it along. It is certainly one-sided, but T. S. Eliot had something right when he said, in East Coker, “In my beginning is my end.” As seed, we already are from the beginning what we will become.

Texts are not organisms, but for writers who are in control of their tools and materials, textual beginnings are also seeds that determine what sort of text will spring up. No book illustrates this more clearly than the Bible, which begins in a well-watered garden full of fruit trees and peaceable animals and ends with a vision of a garden restored, complete with crystalline river and prolific trees.

For Christians, the inner link of protology and eschatology, the organic movement from beginnings to ends, is rooted in the fundamentals of our faith. Christians confess that God is Triune, which is as much as to say that in God there is not only a “beginning,” the Father, but also an “ending,” a product, the Son, begotten by the Spirit. The Son is irreducibly different from the Father, as different from the Father as ends are from beginnings. Yet the Son is also the exact image of the Father, so that in seeing the Son one can see the Father. Between this Beginning and the End, nothing leaks out or is wasted. All that the Father is, the Son is, except that the Father is Beginning and the Son End.

At a different register, Christians confess that the Son is Himself Beginning and End. He is the “firstborn” of the Father, the Father’s first and unique Word, who was with the Father from the beginning. Yet He is also the final Word, the Judge appointed by the Father who will, at the very last, tell us what it was all about and reveal once and for all who wore the white hats, and who the black hats, and who the black hats painted white. Christ is the first letter and the last, the Alpha and the Omega, in the alphabet that is human history.

That is not quite right. Creation does not circle back to square one. The story of the Bible is not a circle, but a history of creation in development, creation becoming. It is the history of a garden growing up to be a garden city that is also a bride. Along with the trees and river of Revelation 21-22, there are walls and streets and nations hauling in their treasures. The biblical story is not merely creation and return, not merely beginning, loss, and recovery of beginning. Scripture tells a story of creation’s glorification.

And that too, unthinkably, is rooted in Triune life. The Father is wholly God, but He is also, mysteriously, “more” by begetting a Son than He would be otherwise. He has, of course, always had that Son; the Son is, as Athanasius says, “proper” to the Father’s essence, and the begetting of the Son is an eternal begetting. The Father has eternally been “more.” We might put it this way: The Triune God is not so much a timeless God as a God who has always already realized His future. He is the Alpha that has always already been, equally and simultaneously, Omega. He is the infinitely productive seed that is always already eternally tree and fruit.

Press our two main observations together, and we get to the premise of Mike Bull’s remarkable Bible Matrix. On the one hand, the Bible’s beginnings are the seeds from which the rest of the Bible grows; on the other hand, the Bible’s story is one of glorification. If both are true, then we should expect to find, within the Bible’s beginnings, hints of the story of glorification that reaches its end in the New Jerusalem. In the Alpha words of Genesis 1, we should be able to discern some clues to the Omega words of the Apocalypse.

And so we do. Each day of creation week is an advance over the last. That there is anything—even a dark, formless emptiness, or empty formlessness—that is other than God is a remarkable enough fact by itself (Genesis 1:2). But on Day 1, Yahweh determines that the world needs light, and over the subsequent days, He speaks the world into shape and fills it with all manner of delightful clutter. Yahweh will move the world along and make it better along the way. We know that because that is how the story starts. From the seed of the beginning, we form a nascent sense of what the full plant will look like.

This insight is the heart of Bible Matrix. Mike Bull does more than show us the big story of the Bible, the movement from glorious beginning to the greater glory of the end. That is a story so obvious that even academic Bible scholars can see it. But Bull sees what few have seen, namely, that this big story is present seminally in the opening chapter of the Bible, and more than that, that the glorification of the world is not only the big story of Scripture but also the shape of nearly every little story of the Bible as well. Seed, tree, and every leaf and branch of the tree, is imprinted with the same Triune pattern.

Bible Matrix connects pieces of the Bible that might have looked like scattered fragments. It shows coherence and recurring sequences where you might have seen only randomness and confusion. It gives the world in a grain of sand, as Bull explains how each passage and portion of the Bible is a lens through which the whole is uniquely refracted. Bull roots around in the genetics of Scripture and everywhere discovers not a circle of identical return but the chiastically coiled DNA that moves creation from glory to glory.

My hope is that Bible Matrix will itself be a seed, and that its creative and arresting insights will burrow down into the souls of readers until they germinate and begin, by the power of the Spirit, to produce the fruit of a transformed, biblical imagination.

Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute and an adjunct Senior Fellow of Theology at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho. He is ordained in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC). He is the author of many books, most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Baylor, 2014) and Traces of the Trinity (Baker, forthcoming). He writes a blog at firstthings.com, where he also writes a regular bi-weekly column. He has published articles in many periodicals, both popular and academic.
Leithart has served in two pastorates: He was pastor of Reformed Heritage Presbyterian Church (now Trinity Presbyterian Church), Birmingham, Alabama from 1989 to 1995, and was pastor of Trinity Reformed Church, Moscow, Idaho, from 2003-2013. From 1998 and 2013 he taught theology and literature fulltime at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho.
He received an A.B. in English and History from Hillsdale College in 1981, and a Master of Arts in Religion and a Master of Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 1986 and 1987. In 1998 he received his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in England.
He and his wife, Noel, have ten children and seven grandchildren.


If you are new to this method of interpretation, please visit the Welcome page for some help to get you up to speed.

Downsampling the Word

In Steven Spielberg’s 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) cannot get the image of the Devil’s Tower out of his mind. At the dinner table, maddened by this new obsession, he recreates the mountain in mashed potato. Finally, he notices the distress of his family, but he comments, through some tears, “Well I guess you’ve noticed something’s a little strange with Dad. It’s OK. I’m still Dad. I can’t describe it, what I’m feeling, what I’m thinking. This means something. This is important.”