Reflections on Leviticus 3

Over the next few months, I plan to share some brief reflections on the book of Leviticus. I’m not sure how far through the book I intend to get, but it should be a good exercise regardless. This is a reflection on the third chapter (second chapter yet to come).

“Then from the sacrifice of the peace offering he shall offer as a food offering to the Lord its fat.”

Leviticus 3:9a

When the world became filled with violence, God declared that He would send a flood to destroy all living things on the earth. He called Noah, the only righteous man left, to build an ark for himself, his family and many living creatures, that they might be preserved through the flood. On the ark, he was to bring seven of each type of clean animal, seven of each type of bird and a male and female of each type of unclean animal. Once the flood came upon the earth, they waited in the ark for a year until it subsided. Once the flood had subsided, the first thing that Noah did was to offer up some of the clean animals and birds as burnt offerings. This might seem like a strange thing to do in a world in which there are few animals left. But Noah knew that the first portion belongs to God.

And this principle also applied to the fat of the peace offering. Unlike with a burnt offering, portions of a peace offering could be eaten by the priest and the worshipper. However, the fat portion was always set apart and presented to God on the altar.

This principle of the first portion being given to God should shape our lives as well. No matter how our life is going, thanksgiving to God should always take pride of place within it. As the Apostle Paul taught us, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). In doing this, our devotion to God will shape every area of our lives.

Reflections on Leviticus: 1

Over the next few months, I plan to share some brief reflections on the book of Leviticus. I’m not sure how far through the book I intend to get, but it should be a good exercise regardless. This is a reflection on the first chapter.

“He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.”

Leviticus 1:4

When God created the world, he formed Adam and Eve and placed them in a garden where they could come and meet with Him. At the centre of the garden there were two trees. The first tree was the tree of life, which represented the perfect fellowship they had with their Creator. The second tree was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God forbade them from eating, saying “in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die”. Tempted by the serpent, they ate the forbidden fruit and plunged the world into darkness. As a ransom for their lives, God took a pair of animals and slaughtered them, covering Adam and Eve in their skins. He also drove them out of the garden, which He guarded with a pair of angels and a flaming sword. 

This is why the Israelites brought burnt offerings to God. They would first lay their hand on the head of the animal, commissioning the animal as their representative before God. They would then slaughter the animal, just as God had killed animals to ransom Adam and Eve. By the hand of the priest, the animal would ‘pass through’ sword and fire on the altar, which reminds us of the flaming sword which God had placed outside the garden of Eden. It was almost as if the people of God were coming back into the garden, entering God’s presence once again. 

Just as the animal was offered on behalf of the Israelites, so too was Jesus offered on our behalf. He has passed through judgement for us, ascending into the presence of God the Father to intercede for us. Yet in a burnt offering, the head is always offered first, then the body. Just as Jesus (the head) has ascended, so too shall we (the body) one day ascend to meet him in the clouds, to be with him forever, in the presence of the Father. 

On the “Functional view” of Genesis 1

In John Walton’s “The Lost World of Genesis 1”, he makes the case that the creation account is not a description of material creation, but of assigning “functions” or purposes to things which already existed. At the centre of this stands a vision of the world as a cosmic temple, with the chapter depicting a temple inauguration ceremony. I will be reviewing Walton’s approach and weighing up his central argument.

Functional, Material and Formative

What does Walton mean by a “functional” creation account? What he means by this is that in Genesis 1, God is not creating “birds” (for instance), but assigning a new purpose or function to birds which already existed in a material sense. This purpose is tied up with the notion of the world being designed for humanity and being set apart as a cosmic temple for God to dwell in. He uses the example of a play: everything that happens in the dress rehearsal might look the same as the play itself, but until the announcement happens its just a dress rehearsal.

Straight from the get-go though, we run into a problem. The book never defines exactly what is meant by “functional” or “material” creation. In some places, “material” creation is taken to refer to the creation of material out of nothing (ex nihilo). However, at other times, the usage is looser and also includes things like transforming material from one form into another.

To clarify this distinction, I would instead propose three categories:

Material: Creating something out of nothing
Formative: Transforming something from one material form into another
Functional: Assigning a function or purpose to something

I would argue that Genesis 1 actually fits best within the second category. In the beginning, there are the dark, chaotic waters common to many ancient near eastern creation accounts (Gen 1:2). God first shines light onto these waters, transforming them from complete darkness to a cycle of light and darkness (day 1). Then you have the erecting of an expanse to separate the waters into two sections (day 2). Then land rises up out of the lower waters and produces plants (day 3). And so on. None of these changes are “material” in the strict sense of creating something out of nothing, but “functional” doesn’t really work either. There are real, formative changes to the material objects under consideration.

The Ancient Near East

How about the ancient near eastern sources which Walton cites? Do they lead us to expect a purely functional creation account, devoid of any material change?

Once again, the answer is a resounding no. Let’s examine two prominent examples to demonstrate this.

First of all, we have Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation account. In this account, a war breaks out amongst the gods. The god Marduk kills the goddess Tia-mat and splits her in half, stretching each part of her out to form the heavens and then the earth. He fills both parts with temples and various of his divine children, in addition to establishing seasons and festivals. Another god, Qingu, is killed and humanity is formed from his blood.

Secondly, we have the Egyptian creation account. This begins with Atum, an entity who represents the dark, watery abyss before creation. Then a divine breath gives birth to Ra, the first god. Ra then produces other gods out of himself who will go on to form the parts of the creation (air, humidity, earth and heaven). Later on, human beings are formed from his tears.

Does any of this language look merely functional? Not at all. It’s the re-forming of existing matter (often whatever the gods are made from) into the various parts of the created world. So not even the ancient near eastern language gets us in the direction of a purely functional creation account. On the contrary, everything described fits quite comfortably into the second category I outlined above, namely “formative” creation.

Temple Inauguration was Formative

A final argument that could be considered is the temple inauguration aspect. Walton argues that Genesis 1 is a temple inauguration ceremony culminating in the presence of God entering into the temple and resting (on the seventh day). He distinguishes sharply between the building of the temple, a material activity, and the inauguration of the temple, a purely functional one. In drawing this distinction, he appeals to distinction between the building of the tabernacle in Exodus 25-30 and the inauguration ceremony for the tabernacle in Exodus 40.

But even this doesn’t work. Both the building and the inauguration ceremony involve re-arranging matter, or “formative” creation. The building of the temple involved taking various materials (primarily plundered from Egypt) and transforming them into the various components of the tabernacle. The inauguration ceremony then involved taking these various components and re-arranging them into a working tabernacle. Both of these involved formative changes, not merely functional ones.

Modern Culture and Functional Identity

A supporting argument that Walton makes in favour of the functional view of creation is that the culture we live in today is biased towards material categories and is therefore less inclined towards the kinds of functional categories which were more familiar to ancient cultures.

This, I would argue, couldn’t be further from the truth. Actually, people today are probably more comfortable than ever with purely functional categories of identity which aren’t rooted in material reality. Walton himself uses the analogy of an office worker taking on a new role to describe functional identity. This is exactly the kind of thing which would have been foreign to ancient thinkers, for whom work was less of a fluid individual choice or role that one might take on in a capitalist economy and more of a social reality, with sons following in the trade of their fathers.

One can consider other social issues in a similar light. Think of gender, and how comfortable people are today with defining it in purely functional terms, with no reference to the material body of the person under consideration. Think of marriage, which has become under the law a purely functional union of two persons, with no specified material aspects to it. Far from being uncomfortable with functional categories, modern people are probably more in tune with functional categories than ever.

Conclusion

Given everything we’ve observed then, it seems that a purely functional view of creation fails to get off the ground, so to speak. Far from being a straightforward reading of Genesis 1, it involves an oversimplification of categories and fails to do justice to the language of the text in its ancient context. The “cosmic temple inauguration” aspect itself is worthy of consideration (and I would tend to agree with it), but this doesn’t in itself imply a purely functional creation account.

Book Review: The Lost Supper

A couple of years ago, I wrote a review of a book called “The Lost Supper”, by Matthew Colvin, which I’ll share below. Alternatively, you can read it here.

Essentially, it’s a book about the Lord’s Supper which begins, not with metaphysical speculation, but with a thorough exploration of the very Jewish historical background to the meal. Matt is a Classics scholar by training, and his expertise certainly shows in the book.

About a year ago, he was interviewed by Alastair Roberts on the book, which you can access here.

More recently, he has shared effectively a four thousand word summary of the book as part of a Theopolis conversation, which can be found here. If you don’t want to pay the full price for the book, the article over at the Theopolis Institute website is well worth a read.

Here is the review I wrote on the book:

In “The Lost Supper”, Matthew Colvin explores the meaning of the last supper between Jesus and his disciples. Unlike many other treatments of the supper, which begin with the question of “real presence”, Colvin begins with a different premise altogether, namely that of trying to situate the supper in its original Jewish context. Drawing on the approach of scholars like NT Wright and David Daube, Colvin argues that the supper should be understood through the lens of later Passover traditions, insofar as those traditions resemble the first century context. Colvin is cautious in his approach though, never simply reading the later Seder traditions back into the gospel accounts, but instead carefully examining the evidence and weighing the arguments and counter-arguments before reaching his conclusions.

Colvin identifies a number of connections between the Seder and the gospel accounts. Based on several lines of evidence, he identifies the bread with which Jesus identifies himself as having existing Messianic significance in the earlier traditions. Likewise, he identifies the reference to the cups in the meal as being associated with a tradition of four cups reflected in the later Seder. Many of the arguments that he makes are based on a careful linguistic analysis, sometimes involving a reconstruction of the spoken Aramaic which stands behind the Greek texts. He also utilises a text called the “Peri Pascha”, a Passover liturgy used by early Quartodeciman Christians, which gives us a powerful window into early Passover traditions.

This isn’t just an exercise in historical reconstruction though. Colvin applies his analysis in a number of ways throughout the book, showing how an overemphasis on “real presence” in the supper is based on a misreading of the key passages and leads us to miss the point of the Lord’s supper as celebrated by Christians. Instead, he argues that the supper is best understood as a ritual meal in which participants are renewed through identification with the Messiah in his death and resurrection. He draws a number of other applications from this in the final chapter of the book.

All in all, this is a valuable work which sheds a great deal of light on the original meaning of the supper. It deals with all of the key passages, even including a section addressing the reference to “bread” in the Lord’s prayer. Packed full with powerful insights, I commend this work to anyone wishing to learn more about the meaning of the last supper.

Is Secularism Inevitable?

In my previous discussion of liberal modernity, I considered the origins of ‘liberal values’ in terms of wider technological changes and their ramifications. In this piece, I will be considering the implications that this might have for the future of secularism in the 21st century. For this, I will be drawing heavily on the work of Eric Kaufmann, a political scientist, particularly his 2010 book ”Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?” The big question I’ll be grappling with is whether modern shifts will lead to a more secular or more religious society.

A Fragmented World

As I argued in my previous article, two major technological changes have pushed western society in a more individualistic and self-expressive direction. Namely, modern transport and screens. Modern transport, particularly the car, has led to urban sprawl and facilitated sharper distinctions between a person’s work life, home life and various social engagements, disrupting the formation of a more local sense of identity rooted in place. Screens have sapped time away from people’s lives which might have previously been invested in their local communities.

This has fragmented people’s sense of identity, giving modern secular piety a much more individualistic flair. It’s also had a noticeable effect on religious communities. More liberal or ‘moderate’ religious communities have absorbed much of the socially liberal, individualistic piety of the secular world. Conservative religious communities have also been affected, albeit in a different way.

Prior to the 1960s, conservative religious expressions tended to be bound up with all sorts of other allegiances, especially national and local interests. However, the fragmenting effect of modern society has caused a redefining of norms within conservative religious communities away from more local concerns and towards a faith which can transcend national boundaries and appeal directly to the individual. Usually this involves a much stricter adherence to the central religious texts as a universal standard. We see this in religious movements such as Evangelical Christianity, Salafi Islam and Haredi Judaism.

Another aspect of this ‘return to the text’ has to do with a reaction against encroaching liberal norms. Sensing that society is no longer friendly towards a traditional way of life, religious conservatives are returning to their roots as a way of safeguarding their identity in a fragmented world.

A Demographic Revolution

Given all this, one might expect that conservative religious communities would be experiencing numerical decline and liberal religious and non-religious communities would be growing in the western world. In actual fact though, the opposite is much closer to the truth. Although non-religiosity appears to be growing across the west, it’s mostly drawing new converts from the liberal religious crowd, with conservative religious communities seeing numerical growth and the liberal religious rapidly declining in number.

Why might this be? Eric Kaufmann argues that it has mainly to do with the question of who has more children. He divides society into three groups similar to the ones I’ve outlined above, the secularists, the religious moderates and the fundamentalists. He demonstrates quite conclusively from the data that since the 1960s, the average birth rate of the fundamentalists tends to outstrip that of both the religious moderates and the secularists across the western world, with both of the latter experiencing a negative birth rate.[1]

Prior to the 1960s, all three groupings would have had children at broadly similar rates. However, after the liberalisation of sexual norms and the wide adoption of contraception following the sexual revolution, the number of children per family has become largely a personal choice. Since that time, religiosity has arisen as one of the most significant predictive factors determining fertility rates, even when accounting for several other possible factors such as wealth.

Ramifications

The implications of this are quite significant. If trends continue as they have for the last 40 years or so, conservative religious groups will become a much more significant force in many western nations than they are today. Once the liberal religious decline past a certain point, the non-religious will start to see decline as well. Far from being inevitable, the demographic changes brought about by the sexual revolution may well imply the beginning of the end for secularism.

What does this mean for Christians living in the west today? It means several things. Firstly, we need to continue to faithfully disciple our children in the faith (Ephesians 6:4), not taking for granted the faith of the next generation but instructing them in the ways of Christ. Secondly, we must be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). As conservative religiosity grows, the risk of tension between different religious groupings is heightened. We need to show how the Gospel of Christ, far from leading to anger and strife, can bring peace to a divided world.


[1] This growth of religious conservatism in the west is compounded further by immigration from the (significantly more religious) developing world.

God’s Covenant with Noah

God’s covenant with Noah is a subject which is not often discussed in Christian circles. We occasionally reflect on the flood story, or the events leading up to it, but we rarely give much consideration to the covenant made afterwards. This is perhaps due to a tendency to avoid passages concerned with law and sacrifice. Still, it’s an important passage which sets forth moral norms which still apply today.

Sacrifice and Death

The Noahic covenant is outlined in Genesis 8:20 – 9:17. It begins with Noah’s offering of a sacrifice to God, of every clean animal and bird which he had brought upon the ark (8:20). This is precisely why God had instructed him to bring seven of every clean animal and bird, rather than simply a pair, as was the rule with the other living creatures (7:2-3, cf. 6:19-20)[1]. God had always intended to establish his covenant with Noah after the flood, and biblical covenants are established through sacrifice.

The theme of death pervades the entire covenant-making ceremony. First there are the animals killed and offered up as burnt offerings on the alter in 8:20-22. Then there are various laws concerning death in 9:1-7. Finally there is a re-iteration of the divine promise to never again wipe out all creatures in 9:8-17, represented by the sign of the rainbow.

Meat as Covenant Food

Consider the laws depicted in 9:1-7. First of all, there is the instruction to “be fruitful and multiply” (v1), a direct re-iteration of the original creation mandate given in 1:28. Next, however, there is a contrast with the original creation account. God tells Noah that the fear and dread of humanity will be upon the animals, and they will be food for Noah and his descendants.

Now, human beings had already been eating meat, at least since the time of Abel, who was a sheep farmer, as we can see in Genesis 4:1-5. So why is this commandment portrayed as a contrast with before? It has to do with which food served as the covenant sign. Under Adam, plants are highlighted as the main food source for both humans and animals because the nature of the covenant was centred around plants, and in particular around two trees at the centre of creation (2:9). Plants also happen to sit at the bottom of the food chain, as the source of life on earth.

However, following the disobedience of Adam and Eve, covenants had to be administered through animal sacrifice. So it makes sense that meat would be highlighted as the central food in this covenant ceremony (it’s also consistent with the dominion mandate in 1:26-28). Just as God gave the green plants as a special covenant food marking out the original creation covenant, so too has God now given meat as the sign of this new covenant with Noah.

Life and Death

However, there is to be an exception to the eating of meat. Animals which still have “life” or “blood” flowing in them may not be eaten. There are several possible interpretations of what this means, but the most straightforward sense is to take it as a prohibition on the consumption of living animals. This is consistent with the theme of life and death as emphasised throughout the passage.

The prohibition on consuming the meat of living creatures is expanded under the Law to also include eating blood and eating animals which are not killed by a human (Leviticus 17:10-16). This is a standard feature of the Mosaic legislation, which often takes existing norms or principles and extends them further.[2]

Following this there is the institution of capital punishment for murder in 9:5-6. This applies to both humans and animals who kill humans. The great violence which filled the earth prior to the flood (6:11-12) was a key reason why the flood happened. The intention of the death penalty is to limit further violence, to end the cycle of violence.

Now, some would argue that it can’t work like this – the death penalty is just more violence, so how can it end violence? The answer lies in the fact that human beings are made in the image of God as his divine representatives (9:6). When a human being is unjustly killed, it’s like a direct assault on God himself. The death penalty does not represent a cavalier attitude towards human life then, but rather one which upholds human life as a reflection of the very life of God.

Bow in the Cloud

The re-iteration of the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” in 9:7 forms an inclusio with 9:1 and marks out that section of the passage as distinct. Following this, we have the final section of the covenant passage (9:8-17), which ties everything together.

A special sign of the covenant is the rainbow, as shown in 9:13-15. Rainbows already existed, of course, but here they are highlighted as serving a special purpose. Just as after a battle the warrior hangs up his bow and refrains from violence, so too has God now hung up his war bow, no longer sending the arrows of judgement upon the earth. And just like smelling the sweet aroma of the burnt offerings (8:20-22), whenever God sees his bow in the cloud it will serve as a reminder to God of the everlasting covenant that was made with Noah, and with all creation.


[1] We don’t know what exactly is meant by “clean” and “unclean” animals here, since those distinctions are not established until the Mosaic covenant several thousand years later (described in Leviticus 11). The same terms are probably used in order to draw an analogy with the later Israelite experience.

[2] A couple of examples should suffice:
(1) The original prohibition on parent-child incest in Genesis 2:24 is extended to include secondary relationships such as that of siblings in Leviticus 18:6-18
(2) The use of the death penalty against murder in Genesis 9:5-6 is extended to include a range of other offences in Leviticus 20

Justified by Works

James 2:14-26 is a controversial passage within evangelical circles. In it, James teaches that believers are “justified by works and not by faith alone” (v24). This seems to go directly against the evangelical conviction that justification (being declared righteous by God) is on the basis of faith alone and not because of a person’s good works.

Fidelity to God

The first question we need to ask in relation to this passage is: what does James mean by “works”? His introductory statement in verses 14-16 speaks of giving food and clothing to the poor. However, this is not intended as a description of “works” but rather serves to draw an analogy which introduces his main point, namely, that just as kind words not backed up by action are no good for the person in need, so too is faith without works of no use (v17).

There are two examples of “works” which James gives us in verses 21-25. The first is that of Abraham, in being willing to offer up his son Isaac on the altar. The second is that of Rahab, in receiving the Israelite spies into her house. What’s intriguing about these two examples given to us by James is that on the face of it, they don’t look very virtuous. Abraham appears to be engaging in child sacrifice, a practice condemned in the Law. Rahab is committing treason against her own people by hiding foreign spies from an invading army.

And this is precisely the point. James is not interested in “works” in the outward sense of appearing virtuous. James is interested in works which demonstrate our fidelity to God and his kingdom above all things. Despite appearances, Abraham’s action in being willing to sacrifice Isaac was a sign that he trusted God more than he loved his only son. Rahab’s action in protecting the spies was a sign that she trusted in the God of Israel over and above the gods of her own people. Both examples of “works” were deeply subversive and counter-cultural.

For James, then, “works” aren’t supposed to be a badge of merit by which we show how virtuous we are before the world. They’re a demonstration of true faith, that we are willing to put God and his kingdom priorities above all else, even before our reputation in the world.

Vindicated under Trial

The next question which we need to ask is this: what does James mean by “justified”? In verse 23 we are reminded of an incident in Genesis 15 – Abraham believes God’s promise and his faith is regarded as the sign that he is righteous – a faithful covenant member. James argues that this declaration of Abraham’s righteousness is “fulfilled” in Genesis 22, when Abraham offers Isaac on the altar.

The initial declaration that Abraham is righteous is given solely on the basis of his faith. However, this declaration points forward to the incident later on in Genesis when Abraham offers up Isaac. In other words, God’s declaration of Abraham’s righteousness is not merely an empty, ‘legal’ statement. It’s a promissory statement; with God working in Abraham’s life in such a way that his faith proves to be authentic under testing.

This, incidentally, is what James means by “justified”. He means “vindicated under trial”. Like Abraham forced to choose between keeping his son or honouring his God; like Rahab forced to choose between her people and the God of Israel, there are times in a believer’s life when their faith is placed on trial. True faith, when subjected to such testing, always perseveres.

And this isn’t the first time in James’s letter that he raises the theme of faithfulness under trial. He teaches on it extensively in 1:2-12. And yet it resurfaces here in response to the objection that a mere confession of faith is sufficient to save a person. For James, such a confession is worthless precisely because it cannot stand up to testing; such a confession is as good as dead (v26).

Justification as Promise

Of course, none of this goes against the evangelical view that a person is initially declared right with God by faith alone. But it does force us to re-evaluate how this declaration works. All too often, God’s declaration of righteousness is viewed as a kind of legal fiction in which a person is righteous ‘in theory’ even if they never are ‘in practice’. And yet the way that James reads Genesis 15, God’s declaration of Abraham’s righteousness is not a bare legal fiction, but a promise of something which will actually come to pass in the future.

That doesn’t mean that a person has to be righteous in order to be saved. But it does mean that salvation has implications for a believer’s future life. God doesn’t just declare a person to be righteous and then move on. Rather, God continues to work in the believer’s life, transforming them into the likeness of Christ, until the day that they will be raised free from the corruption of sin’s grasp forever.

“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
(Ephesians 2:10)

Jonah and the People of God

The book of Jonah is not about a racist prophet. It’s not about a prophet who just hated Gentiles and wanted to see them perish at any cost. On the contrary, it’s a book about a prophet who knew the Law of God and had insight into the things that were to come. His actions may have lacked faith in the character of God, but they were not driven by irrational hatred.

The Assyrian Empire

What was Jonah’s motivation in failing to heed God’s word to go to Nineveh and preach to them (Jonah 1:2-3)? The final chapter makes it clear that Jonah ran away from Nineveh because “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (4:2). In other words, Jonah was upset because he knew that God would forgive the Ninevites and he (presumably) didn’t want God to do that. But why wouldn’t he have wanted that?

To understand this, we need to bear in mind two things: firstly; the state that the people of Israel had gotten into and secondly; the blessings and curses set out in the Law of Israel. With regard to the first point, assuming that Jonah is the same figure referred to in 2 Kings 14:25, we can safely conclude that the northern kingdom of Israel and its kings had become thoroughly wicked by that point in time. They had rejected God and worshipped idols in his place, provoking God to anger time and again (eg. 2 Kings 13). And one of the major consequences of this, as outlined in the Law, was that Israel would face judgement from a foreign nation:

“The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, a hard-faced nation who shall not respect the old or show mercy to the young.”
(Deuteronomy 28:49-50)

At this particular time in history, Assyria was a powerful force on the world stage. Hear the bold claims of the commander of the Assyrian army in 2 Kings 18:35: “Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?”

How is any of this relevant to our present study? Well, Nineveh wasn’t just any old Gentile city. It was the capital city of the Assyrian empire, the most powerful empire in the world. From Jonah’s perspective, if God was sending him to warn them of disaster, that meant only one thing: God wanted to raise them up as his vessel of judgement against the northern kingdom of Israel. And that’s exactly what happened (2 Kings 17).

So Jonah had every reason to be fearful. He didn’t want to see the people of God come under judgement. And yet, by failing to obey God, Jonah failed to heed the other half of the Law’s teaching, namely that after punishing Israel God would restore and bless them (Deuteronomy 30:1-10). Jonah should have been willing to let Israel come under judgement with the certain knowledge that it wouldn’t be the end. But Jonah failed – he didn’t trust the good character of God and instead of going to Nineveh, fled in the opposite direction (Jonah 1:3).

Jonah as Israel

Jonah’s waywardness in trying to flee from God stands in parallel to Israel’s waywardness as a people. Throughout the book, Jonah stands in for the people of Israel coming under God’s judgement. We see this depicted in two ways.

Firstly, there is the great fish which swallows Jonah (1:17). This fish represents the Assyrian empire which would consume Israel and take them into exile. The exile represented the curse of God upon Israel, a kind of spiritual death. Jonah’s language in chapter 2 is full of references to death and burial, with him referring to himself as as being in “the belly of Sheol [the grave]” (2:2) and in “the pit” (2:6). Jonah sinking into the depths represents the fate that would come upon Israel.

Secondly, there is the plant in chapter 4, which provides shade to Jonah until God takes the plant away and scorches Jonah (4:6-8). In the immediate context, the plant represents Nineveh, which Jonah should have pitied just as God did (4:9-11). But in a wider biblical context, the plant represents God’s blessing upon Israel, which is taken away when Israel comes under judgement. Just like the produce of the land which blessed Israel and then was eaten by the worm in judgement (Deuteronomy 28:39), so too was this plant which blessed Jonah eaten by a worm, so that the scorching sun of God’s judgement came upon his head (Jonah 4:7-8).

Hope and Redemption

But in the example of the great fish, we also see foreshadowed the promise of God to redeem Israel. Several times in chapter 2, Jonah speaks of returning again to the temple of God to offer sacrifice (2:4, 7, 9). So there is yet hope for the people of Israel under judgement. God is not finished with them forever.

And what’s more, God has great plans for his people during their time of exile. Despite Jonah’s waywardness, God still uses him to convert the sailors on a great ship (1:11) and the inhabitants of one of the most wicked Gentile cities in the ancient world (Jonah 3:10)! Instead of doubting God, Jonah should trust that the Lord has a good purpose for him, and for Israel.

The Millennial Reign of Christ

The millennial reign of Christ depicted in Revelation 20:1-6 is one of the most contested passages in the Bible. Is it describing a future event, or one which has already begun? Is it describing an event which happens on earth, or one which takes place in heaven? In this piece, I will make the case that we can situate the millennium in history by paying attention to the various themes in the passage and how they are used throughout the book. 

Echoes from Earlier 

Many of the key themes mentioned in 20:1-6 are brought up earlier in the book. The fourfold title given to Satan (“the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan”) is first used in 12:9. This relates the binding and imprisonment of Satan in this chapter to his overthrow in chapter 12. The language is symbolic in both cases and represents the loss of power and authority that Satan experiences through the resurrection of Christ and the testimony of the righteous (12:10-11). 

The “thrones” in 20:4 are the same thrones from chapter 4, which depicts a heavenly courtroom scene. The martyrs who “come to life” are first mentioned in 6:9-11 situated underneath the heavenly altar. Both the thrones and the martyrs are situated in heaven rather than on earth, which suggests that the millennial reign depicted in 20:4-6 also takes place in heaven, although it symbolises realities on earth. 

The various blessings promised to the martyrs in 20:6 are first mentioned earlier in the book. Freedom from the “second death” is first mentioned in 2:11 as a blessing promised to the church in Smyrna. The language of becoming “priests of God” who “reign” over the earth with him is first raised in 5:10 as a blessing of the righteous. The language of reigning “over the earth” suggests that although the scene in 20:4-6 is a heavenly one, it has implications for what happens on earth. 

Armies of Heaven 

If we are to situate this vision correctly in history, we need to understand how it relates to the vision which comes immediately before, in 19:11-21. This vision at the end of chapter 19 is often taken to represent the second coming of Christ and the final victory over evil. However, the vision makes better sense as a symbolic depiction of the reign of Christ and the saints in history. 

First of all, there is the reference to Jesus “striking down the nations” and ruling over them “with a rod of iron” (19:15). The language is taken directly from Psalm 2:8-9, which is describing the present reign of Christ at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 5:5). This mitigates against understanding the passage in an exclusively future sense. 

Second, there is the final defeat of the beast and the false prophet at the end of the chapter (19:20). The beast, first depicted in 13:1-10, is a combination of the four beasts of Daniel 7:1-8, representing Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. At the time when Revelation was written, Rome was the only one of these empires which was still around. The false prophet introduced in 13:11-18 represents the emperor cult, since the emperor personified the might of Rome. 

When was Rome and its emperor cult defeated? The best fit for this historically is the conversion of Constantine in 312 AD. From this point onwards, worship of the emperor was disbanded and Rome’s status as an oppressive and persecuting regime towards Christians came to an end. It was then only a matter of time until Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire under Theodosius I in 380 AD. 

Vindication of the Martyrs 

All of this served as a vindication of those who had been persecuted and killed by Rome for several hundred years whilst Christianity was outlawed. Those who refused to worship the emperor were vindicated in the conversion of Constantine and the defeat of paganism within the Roman empire. This same reality is represented by the visions in 19:11-21 and 20:1-6, from two different angles. Both concern a victory of Christ and the saints over historical forces of evil. 

But of course, this isn’t the end of the story. Just as the martyrs symbolically “came to life” through being vindicated in the victory of Christianity over the empire, so too will the “rest of the dead” (the wicked) one day be vindicated over the righteous in a final rebellion of sorts. But this uprising will be temporary and be swiftly overthrown by the final judgement and return of Christ (20:7-10). On that day, death and evil will be overcome forever (20:14) and there will be no more sadness or suffering for those who know the Lord. 

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” 
(Revelation 21:4) 

The Baptism of the Spirit

What is “the Baptism of the Holy Spirit”? Is it an experience which happens at conversion or sometime afterwards? Within this article, I hope to make the case that although the term itself refers to a specific event, the individual believer’s reception of the Holy Spirit today is associated with water baptism.

The Day of Pentecost

In the Gospels, John the Baptist speaks of one who would come after himself and baptize the people of Israel with the Holy Spirit:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
(Matthew 3:11)

The use of the word “fire” is connected with the “tongues of fire” which descended upon the apostles (Acts 2:3-4). This suggests that John’s description is fulfilled in the day of Pentecost itself (Acts 1:4-5) and not throughout church history. The apostle Peter ties the outpouring of the Spirit to a prophetic passage in the book of Joel which likewise appears to have a specific event in view (Acts 2:17-21; Joel 2:28-32), albeit one which is paradigmatic for the entire “latter days”.

From this point onwards, the book of Acts never again refers to a baptism of the Spirit. It does use the language of the Spirit being “poured out” or “received”, but the metaphor of being baptized with the Spirit is never used again. All of which suggests that the term has in view the specific outpouring which happened on the day of Pentecost, and not future times of revival or divine blessing.

Water Baptism

But of course, when people use this expression today, they’re normally just using it to refer to the Spirit being “received” or “poured out” upon someone, both of which are expressions used throughout the book of Acts. This is often tied up with the notion of a “second blessing” – that after someone has become a Christian there’s something more that they need to do in order to receive the fullness of God’s blessing.

The book of Acts, however, suggests that water baptism is the moment when the Spirit is ordinarily received (Acts 2:38, Acts 19:5-7). The few exceptions to this general rule within Acts are both highlighted as historical anomalies within the narrative (Acts 8:14-17, 10:44-48).[1] The idea of someone needing to continue to wait today for a kind of second blessing experience does not receive support in the pages of scripture.

An alternative view is that baptism is not necessary for the reception of the Spirit, which happens at conversion. It has been argued that to link the Spirit with baptism in this way undercuts the significance of faith as the means of forgiveness and salvation. Those advocating this view have appealed to Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

“Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?”
(Galatians 2:2)

The problem with this argument is that it takes baptism as though it were a “work of the law”, rather than as a means of grace, the benefits of which are received by faith. Later in the chapter, Paul quite directly associates faith and baptism (v26-37). So baptism can be assumed under the category of “hearing with faith”.

Conclusion

In summary then, the baptism of the Spirit refers in scripture to the initial outpouring which happened on the day of Pentecost. In order to experience the presence of the Spirit today, a person needs only to believe and be baptized.

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
(Acts 2:38)


[1] The first passage involves a group of believers who had been baptized but hadn’t received the Spirit, which served the authenticate the ministry of the apostles as representatives of Christ. The second passage is a unique event in which the Spirit is poured out upon unbaptized Gentiles, serving as a sign of their inclusion in the kingdom of God.