Brief Book Review: The Transformative Church

thetransformativechurchTitle: The Transformative Church: New Ecclesial Models and the Theology of Jurgen Moltmann

Author: Patrick Oden

Series: Emerging Scholars

Bibliographic info: 352 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2015.

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Patrick Oden’s The Transformative Church is a revised version of his doctoral dissertation completed at Fuller Theological Seminary.

You might be wondering what the author means by the “transformative church.” This term refers to the type of church that participates in the surrounding context, bringing life in the process. This is opposed to both the conventional type of church that looks more or less identical to its surrounding context, and the disconnected church that desires to completely separate itself from its surrounding context. The transformative church takes a third way, a way which involves itself in the surrounding context, yet does so without simply becoming a part of the system. The transformative type of church is seen in various ecclesial models, such as missional, emerging, or neo-monastic.

What the author does in this work is to put such transformative churches in dialogue with the theology of Jürgen Moltmann. Three chapters discusses eight points that Moltmann outlines in his Experiences in Theology that offer up a life-affirming hermeneutical approach to the Bible. Oden takes these eight points and discusses them by drawing upon other key works in Moltmann’s large corpus of writings: Theology of Hope, The Crucified God, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, The Coming of God, God in Creation, The Trinity and the Kingdom, The Way of Jesus Christ, and The Spirit of Life.

There are three more chapters in which Oden discusses various practices in relation to transformative churches. The practices are:

  • identifying with the life of Jesus
  • transforming the secular realm
  • living highly communal lives
  • welcoming the stranger
  • serving with generosity
  • participating as producers
  • creating as created beings
  • leading as a body
  • taking part in spiritual activities.

I’m quite familiar with Moltmann’s theology and I think Oden has provided a well-informed and constructive examination of Moltmann’s ecclesiological thinking that is seen throughout his works over the decades. Oden provides a useful and knowledgeable understanding of Moltmann’s theology. He provides a compelling study that can inform churches and lead to a transformative messianic life taking shape in the community. If you’re interested in Moltmann or in ecclesiology, I would recommend this work without reserve.

More Thoughts on Religion and Violence

Sacred Scripture and Violence

A potent source of power to be found within religion is its ability to excite the imagination, whether it be through liturgy, preaching, or the reading of sacred texts. The sacred scriptures of the major world religions contain violence in a variety of manners, inviting a confounding array of interconnected theological, moral, and hermeneutical questions. Some of the more voracious critics of religion are seemingly unable to appreciate religion outside of an absolutist understanding, opting to search a sacred text or religious history for any piece of barbarous activity that can be found and then using that to generalize about the ultimate cause of suffering in the world.

Yet despite the fact that sacred texts have been interpreted by many groups and individuals to sanction violence (of whatever form), it is foolhardy to use isolated texts and historical events in order to categorically label a religion as being violent or more prone to violence. All religions are vulnerable of being (mis)interpreted in a malicious manner so as to lead to violence, but in the end it is the interpretive apparatus employed by the reader that makes the difference. Not everyone, of course, agrees with this assessment, including Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer who says, “religiously justified violence is first and foremost a problem of ‘sacred’ texts and not a problem of misinterpretations of the texts” (emphasis in original; Is Religion Killing Us? Violence in the Bible and Quran [New York: Continuum, 2003], p. xiv).

Some Christian denominations, such as the Quakers, Mennonites, and much of the entire Anabaptist tradition, interpret various teachings of Jesus, such as “But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer” (Matt. 5:39), as prohibiting violence and employ such verses as a guiding principle for their social lives, including the impossibility of killing in war. Nevertheless, another powerful stream of thought in Christianity is that of the Just War theory which, by drawing upon the depictions of God as Divine Warrior and Israel as a warring nation in the Hebrew Bible, postulates the validity of war under certain strict conditions (though Just War theory seems to be utilized to give a blessing to any military conflict).

Similar differences can be seen in other religious traditions. For instance, while the Qur’an issues the command to “slay the idolaters wherever you find them” (Qur’an 9:5), it also states that “whoever slays a soul … it is as though he slew all men” (Qur’an 5:32). The interpretation of the Qur’an that leads to acts such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks is certainly different from the conventional interpretation of the Qur’an by those not taken to violent extremism. The diversity of interpretation that exists within each religious tradition must be taken into consideration in the discussion of the relationship between religion and violence.

There are things in the Bible (and other religious texts) that are not worthy of imitation. Even in reading the more peaceful New Testament, one runs into the problem of the eschatological violence found in some parables of Jesus (Mt. 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:41) that might even be construed by some to legitimate violence in the here and now. [For an in-depth response to the violent eschatological passages in the New Testament, see David J. Neville. A Peaceable Hope: Contesting Violent Eschatology in New Testament Narratives (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013)].

I do not think, however, that such disconcerting material should be simply excised or ignored. The question remains as to whether religious texts themselves can provide a way to overcome this. I think that sacred texts certainly hold this power and that it in order for it to be unleashed, it is imperative for non-violent perspectives to be emphasized by religious leaders and teachers, thus challenging and countering readers who could potentially read the text as legitimizing violent actions and behavior. In reading the Bible, I think it is vital to realize that it presents a frank depiction of human nature, with all of our quirks and iniquities. John J. Collins says that the Bible provides us with “an unvarnished picture of human nature … [and] of religion and the things people do in its name” (“The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence”, Journal of Biblical Literature 122 [2003], pp. 3-21 [20]). While the Bible does not demythologize itself, neither does it assert that all its tales provide the standards and exemplars for human action across all eras. The violent verses of the Bible become destructive when they are invested with authority and imagined to uncritically reflect the will of God for our lives today. Religion and theology must up for interpretation and reinterpretation. If they are not, then they can all too easily become dangerous totalizing ideologies leading to violence. Collins rightly notes that “the Bible has contributed to violence in the world precisely because it has been taken to confer a degree of certitude that transcends human discussion and argumentation” (ibid, p. 20).

While religions all tend to have a center that at least somewhat revolves around love and other life-affirming notions, this isn’t a guarantee that religion will always act as a force of peace within society, for religion can exacerbate conflicts and be used to justify violence. The interpretative apparatus one employs, which is itself impacted by one’s socio-political context, will dictate the influence that certain concepts from the Bible (or any sacred text) will have on one’s own beliefs and behaviors. My readings in the literature on religion and violence have shown me that while a case can be made that religion legitimates violence (to whatever degree) or that it is even a main source of inspiration for violent acts, it is crucial to keep in mind that religion and religious texts also operate as a transformative power that are capable of inducing tranquility, peaceful relations, and social harmony, and that they can be an overall potent life-giving source rather than just a death-dealing one.

Thoughts on Religion and Violence

Religion can be a dangerous affair. Not only has it inspired great deeds of compassion but also atrocious acts of violence. Practically all religions contain acts and words of a bellicose nature scattered throughout their history and sacred texts, whether it be the Canaanite genocides of the Hebrew Bible, the crusades and inquisitions of Christianity, the violent jihad of Islam, or the ancient tales of battles in the Buddhist Pali Chronicles and the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. More recently, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the London bombings of July 7, 2005, placed a spotlight on the connection between religion and violence in the Western world.

The tragic events of 9/11 also caused a proliferation in the literature available on religion and violence. A couple of recent examples are Andrew R. Murphy (ed), The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), and the Journal of Religion and Violence which had its inaugural issue published in 2013. For a bibliography of literature on religion and violence in the immediate years after the 9/11 attacks, see Charles K. Bellinger, “Religion and Violence: A Bibliography”, The Hedgehog Review 6.1 (2004): pp. 111-19. For a more recent survey, see the bibliography in Jeffrey Ian Ross, Religion and Violence: An Encyclopedia of Faith and Conflict from Antiquity to the Present (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2010).

The “Arab Spring” that began in 2011 inspired a time of optimism about the future of that region of the world , yet that optimism has given way over the past year to the reality of the violent movement known as the Islamic State, or ISIS/ISIL, which has expanded its territory to include large swathes of Iraq and Syria, capturing not only military bases, but entire cities.  The Islamic State arose from the ashes of the Syrian civil war and a series of predominantly Sunni jihadist insurgent groups that operated in Iraq between 2003 and 2013. It has demonstrated an increasingly sophisticated social media communication and recruitment strategy, which has lead to a number of primarily young people in the USA, UK, and Europe, joining it or being caught attempting to do so. Some of the atrocities perpetrated by members of ISIS include the abduction, rape, slavery, and trafficking of women and children, the religious targeting and mass killings of Yazidis, Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, and captured Iraqi and Syrian soldiers.

It needs to be kept in mind, however, that violence should be identified not solely as inflicted physical harm, for there are also other forms of violence, such as structural and social violence (e.g. patriarchy, racism, and sexism), which may also be buttressed by religious texts (including the New Testament). Some authors on the topic of religion and violence note that due to the conventional understanding of violence as being physical in nature, the promotion of peace in New Testament studies has led to the neglect of the parts which promote a social type of violence, e.g., dehumanization produced by the insider-outsider mentality and the construction of identities that justifies the oppression of outsiders. For example, see Michel Desjardins, Peace, Violence and the New Testament (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997).

Implicating Religion

There are many writers out there who see a very strong link between religious belief and violence, not in a direct causal connection but in the sense that religion is especially inclined to produce violence or is a crucial factor in the exacerbation of violence. Some of these works—such as the works of Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007), and Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004)—are primarily polemical diatribes that demonize religious belief as a whole and do not add much to the conversation. Others, however, offer up more learned discussions. For example, there is the sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer, who argues that “[r]eligion seems to be connected with violence virtually everywhere” (Terror in the Mind of God: The Rise of Religious Violence [Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2000], p. xi). He considers religious violence to be increasing due to the threats of modernity and globalism, and that this clash of cultures and identities can be viewed as a cosmic war with religious faith providing an ideal means of stoking this conflict.

Other useful authors on the topic of religion and violence, though at the other end of the spectrum as Juergensmeyer, are William Cavanaugh and Oliver McTernan, neither of whom are convinced that religion plays the decisive role in violent acts. McTernan sees religion as having some responsibility for religious violence but that its cooperation is forced, while Cavanaugh goes so far as to contend that there really is no significant difference between religious violence and secular violence. See Oliver J. McTernan, Violence in God’s Name: Religion in an Age of Conflict (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003), esp. pp. 20-43; William T. Cavanaugh, “Killing in the Name of God,” in Carl E. Braaten and Christopher R. Seitz (eds), I Am the Lord Your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 127–47; idem, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); idem, “The Myth of Religious Violence”, in Andrew R. Murphy (ed), The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 23-33.

Out of the authors I have read on the issue of religion and violence, Cavanaugh makes the most salient point, which is that the discussion of only religious violence is an attempt to focus attention on only this type of violence, neglecting secular or non-religious violence in the process. An example of secular violence is the willingness to kill for concepts such as freedom, democracy, patriotism, capitalism, Marxism, and so forth. These non-religious ideologies are no less prone to generating absolutist and divisive mindsets than religion.

The works mentioned above—and many others could be discussed—contain plenty of data on various religious ideologies and the manufacturing of violence. Yet despite there being ample empirical research to show that groups and individuals of various religious faiths produce violence, and that there is no good reason to automatically exempt religious faith from being an important factor in this violence, it is nonetheless erroneous to jump to the conclusion that religion is the primary factor that instigates violence to the exclusion of other factors. I think that much of the violence that occurs in the name of religion has more to do with demographic, political, economic, cultural, and social factors. Even in cases where religion does play a role in the production of violence, those carrying out the violence may have little actual knowledge of the religion in which they enter the conflict. In such cases, it is the religious identity that plays a role in the violence, which itself is borne more out of one’s socio-political context than something inherent to religion itself.

Book Review: Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine

jesuspoliticspalestineTitle: Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine

Author: Richard Horsley

Bibliographic info: 212 pp.

Publisher: University of South Carolina Press, 2013.

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I enjoy reading books by Richard Horsley because his work is always provocative, stimulating, and iconoclastic towards traditional historical Jesus research. A key feature in Horsley’s rendition of the historical Jesus is that he was not apolitical. It is not uncommon for Jesus to be understood as a religious figure, with the political ramifications of this being underplayed. Yet this picture is due to our modern partition of religion and politics into two different spheres, while Horsley sees the socio-political world as inseparable from the religious world in Jesus’ day. This, in a nutshell, is what Horsley discusses in Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine.

This book is comprised of seven chapters: Chapter One discusses how the field of historical Jesus studies tends to lack a focus on the politics of Jesus and the emphasis on an individualistic paradigm for viewing Jesus and the Gospels. Chapter Two then examines the political-economic-religious life in Palestine in the first century. Chapter Three provides a look at other messianic/prophetic movements that occurred in the first century. Chapter Four discusses demonic possessions and the link between demons and illnesses. Chapter Five contains Horsley’s understanding of Jesus’ mission for a renewed covenant community. Chapter Six then discusses the relationship between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees in the Gospels. Chapter Seven contains Horsley’s understanding of how Jesus’ crucifixion empowered the fledgling Jesus movement.

Horsley sees historical Jesus research as being misdirected by a form of social individualism, seen in how historical Jesus scholars attempt to find individual sayings of Jesus that can be authenticated by various criteria, in the process divorcing the sayings of Jesus from the narrative of the Gospel account. Horsley says:

Individual sayings of Jesus may be precious artifacts to the scholars who sort them out and categorize them. As isolated artifacts, however, they do not have or convey meaning, and they beg the question of context. The result is Jesus as a dehistoricized “talking head”, devoid of life circumstances.

Instead, Horsley sees the Gospels as “represent[ing] Jesus not primarily as a teacher and healer of individuals but rather as a teacher and healer in the context of village communities”, and he offers up an alternative which is to see the sayings of Jesus in light of the entirety of each Gospel in which they are found. When this is done, Horsley finds (among other things) that Jesus vilified the Scribes and Pharisees due to their serving the temple-state whilst mistreating villagers. This criticism that Jesus directed against the Scribes and Pharisees is based on a message of “Mosaic covenantal commandments” that Jesus preached, which was a “discourse of justice rooted in the Mosaic covenant into a program of renewal of local village communities.”

Parts of this book I particularly enjoyed were the author’s discussion on the socio-cultural pressures that Judeans faced in light of the Roman occupation, Jesus’ miracles and exorcisms, and his mission of covenant renewal. For instance, in regards to Jesus’ miracles, Horsley examines them in light of anthropological studies. An intriguing point he makes is that demon possession was a means for villagers to protect themselves to imperialism (seen in the rise of demon possession in Africa during its colonization by Western powers). One aspect of this study that I found particularly problematic is the final chapter on crucifixion. Here he attempts to argue that it was the crucifixion of Jesus which really set in motion the early Christian movement, which seems to make the belief in Christ’s resurrection of no importance for the vigorous rise of the early Christian movement. Even though the death of a notable figure by an oppressive power could spark a movement, is it really appropriate to point to the ignominious death of Jesus being crucified as the impetus for the early Christian movement over the belief that God resurrected him from the dead? Horsley’s position seems counter-intuitive and didn’t convince me.

Overall I quite enjoyed this latest offering from Richard Horsley, though I wish he had of spent more time explaining how he arrives at his position regarding the authenticity of Jesus traditions to be found in the Gospels. I would recommend this book for anyone interested in historical Jesus studies. Horsley is one of the more interesting authors in New Testament and historical Jesus studies and he delivers a thoughtful and provoking study in Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine.

Quick Book Review: Understanding Early Christian Art

earlychristianartTitle: Understanding Early Christian Art

Author: Robin Margaret Jensen

Bibliographic info: xii + 234 pp.

Publisher: Routledge, 2000.

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The author, Robin Margaret Jensen, is Associate Professor of the History of Christianity at Andover Newton Theological School.

It wasn’t until early last year that I came to appreciate art. I was one of those people who never really got art. However, I did a bit of study in the history of biblical interpretation through art and was instantly hooked. One aspect of this field I came to appreciate was how art served many purposes in churches: decorative, liturgical, didactic, iconic, symbolic, and so forth.

This small volume aims to further our understanding of the art of the early Christian era. There are sixty-six black and white images in the book, with most coming from sarcophagi and catacombs. The author provides a valuable analysis of the images that helps in comprehending the context and theology of early Christian art, for as Jensen says, early Christian art was “a highly sophisticated, literate, and even eloquent mode of theological expression.”

The first chapter is the standard introductory chapter. In the second chapter, Jensen discusses early non-narrative Christian art, such as in how Christ was depicted in the guise of pagan deities (e.g. the lamb-bearer, Orpheus, Helios) or other forms (the fish, which is either a reference to the “living waters” that Christ provides or to the IXTHYS acrostic – “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”). In the third chapter, Jensen turns to art that depicts biblical narratives (predominantly scenes from the Old Testament). The fourth chapter discusses portraits of Christ as the incarnate God. The fifth chapter discusses the depictions of Christ crucified, which, strangely enough, came onto the scene later in Christian art. The sixth and final chapter discusses art that depicts resurrection typologies (e.g. Ezekiel’s dry bones).

Overall, I would say that Jensen’s viewpoint on the art she discusses is more theological than historical-contextual or stylistic. An aspect I would have liked to see in her analysis is the putting together of a whole piece of art, rather than just discussing each element on its own. For example, Jensen discusses the depictions of Christ as Orpheus and the image of Lazarus that occur in the same catacomb room, yet they were not discussed in terms of how they occur together and what this could signify.

All in all, this book will be a helpful read for anyone interested in early Christianity or art history. Jensen has made this an accessible study, so it doesn’t matter even if you have no background in art.

Rev. 19:11-21 and Christ as the Eschatological Divine Warrior (Part VII)

Part II: The Divine Warrior in Revelation 19:11-21 (continued)

The Great Supper of God

Another image used to elucidate the significance of the warring Christ is the scene of “the great supper of God” (Rev. 19:17-18), which is contrasted to “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:6-9). The scene of birds eating the flesh of the wicked stems from Ezek. 39:17-20, although Ezekiel describes birds and wild animals eating the flesh and drinking the blood, with the judgment limited to those of the higher socio-economic order, whereas in Revelation it is just birds, they only eat the flesh, and the judgment encompasses all people, the “flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great” (Rev. 19:18).[1]

Although such an image is quite offensive to modern sensibilities, it would possibly have been less bizarre in the first century considering the sight of carrion birds would have been a familiar sight over the battlefield. Aune astutely notes that dead combatants who are consumed by birds means they have been deprived of burial, “an ancient means for hurting and humiliating an enemy even after death, sometimes accompanied by the mutilation of the corpse.”[2] The significance of this is that this scene is not so much about promoting violence and gore, but is rather using such an ignominious fate to convey the ultimate disgrace the wicked undergo.[3]

The Lake of Fire

One final disturbing image in this pericope is that of the beast and the false prophet being “thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur” (Rev. 19:20). The infamous lake of fire is obliquely mentioned earlier in Rev. 2:11 where it is referenced as the “second death”, which John later equates with “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur” (Rev. 21:8), the sulfur no doubt being a reference to the fact that it is found in its natural state in areas such as the valley of the Dead Sea. The lake of fire is described elsewhere by John as a place where its occupants are “tormented with fire and sulfur … and the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (Rev. 14:10-11; cf. 20:10). The probably source for this fiery lake is the tradition of Gehenna, a valley known in the Hebrew Bible as the “valley of the Ben-hinnom” and as a place of human sacrifice (2 Kgs 23:10; Jer. 7:31-33; cf. Isa. 66:24; 1 En. 54:1), and which was later used in the New Testament to denote an outcome opposite to that of the kingdom of God (e.g. Mk 9:43-48).

The idea of eternal punishment can be found in the Hebrew Bible. A good example of this is seen in Isa. 34:9-10 where we are told that the land of Edom “shall become burning pitch” and that “night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever … no one shall pass through it forever and ever.” Naturally, this language is symbolic, for the smoke of Edom isn’t rising today, demonstrating that same notion in Revelation isn’t referring to an eternal duration of punishment, but to its finality.[4] This concept is also found in the New Testament where Sodom and Gomorrah are said to “serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7). Thus, the lake of fire in Revelation can thus be understood not as describing an actual place of everlasting conscious punishment in actual flames, but as signifying that its purpose of destroying evil cannot be prevented.[5]

Conclusion

The imagery in Rev. 19:11-21—the sword, the bloodied robe, the wine press, the feast of the birds, and the lake of fire—seemingly depicts a dreadful scene bereft of any consideration for mercy. Yet this study has attempted to show that the violent eschatological scene of the Divine Warrior has been subtly transformed by John in a nonviolent way. While he does utilize this motif of the Divine Warrior being victorious in battle, he uses it in an innovative manner by filling it with new content. When Christ fights against the enemies of God, his sword is the word of God proceeding from his mouth. The blood on his robe is his own (and possibly that of the martyrs), signifying the ultimate expression of Christ’s victory over evil is his self-sacrificial death on the cross. Thus, one can conclude that Revelation portrays Christ in the Divine Warrior role and substitutes militaristic violence as being the path to victory for faithful witness to the point of death, epitomized in the shedding of Christ’s own blood. Faithful witness unto death is the powerful weapon that the Lamb wields in Revelation and it is the weapon that his followers possess as well.

Such an interpretation of Revelation may superficially seem absurd, yet it is not strange for someone who mentions robes being washed and made white in blood, who describes a Lion as a Lamb, and who identifies victory as being slain. John did not discard the Hebrew Scriptures, but he does read them deliberately, with his own distinctive hermeneutic and therein lies a risk that one must be careful of. John’s method of juxtaposing paradoxical images is not a panacea for any and all troubling texts in the Hebrew Bible or New Testament, but it does help show that the depiction of Christ in Revelation is, ultimately, much more coherent with the portrayal of Christ in the canonical Gospels than is often thought.

Footnotes

[1] Boring, Revelation, p. 199; Sweet. Revelation, p. 285.

[2] Aune, Revelation, p. 1068; cf. Mounce, Revelation, p. 358.

[3] McDonald, “Lion as Slain Lamb”, p. 43 warns that “the vividness of John’s language may seduce the reader into taking the images more literally than John intends.”

[4] Boring, Revelation, pp. 118, 213.

Rev. 19:11-21 and Christ as the Eschatological Divine Warrior (Part VI)

Part II: The Divine Warrior in Revelation 19:11-21 (continued)

The Wine Press

Connected to the image of the bloodstained robe is that of Christ “tread[ing] the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev. 19:15; cf. 14:14-20). This imagery can be found in Isa. 63:1-3, Lam. 1:15, and Joel 3:13, all of which clearly have the scene functioning as metaphors for divine judgment, depicting the Divine Warrior as one who trounces upon the wicked as grapes are crushed to produce wine. But like the sword and bloodied robe, this image is likewise transformed by John, for while Trito-Isaiah portrays the grapes in the wine press as the wicked and as the object of God’s wrath, this is not who the grapes are in John’s appropriation of the image. For John, the focus shifts from the grapes themselves to the wine they produce, for now God’s fury is poured out when the wicked are forced to drink the wine that is produced by the crushed grapes (Rev. 14:10; 16:6; 17:6). So who then is symbolized by the grapes?

In Revelation 14 there are two parallel sections, each beginning with the disjunctive marker, “Then I looked” (Rev. 14:1, 14). Each time this phrase is used to present a scene with Jesus at the center, first as “the Lamb” and then as “one like the Son of Man.” The Lamb is shown surrounded with the 144,000 “first fruits” (Rev. 14:4), while the “one like the Son of Man” carries a sickle to harvest the earth (Rev. 14:14-16). This parallel points to the harvest in Rev. 14:14-20 is the same thing as the first fruits harvest of the 144,000 in Rev. 14:1-5. Note also that John says “the wine press was trodden outside the city” (Rev. 14:20), suggesting not only the location of Jesus’ crucifixion and the shedding of his blood, but also the suffering of Christians with Christ (cf. Heb. 13:11-13).

The grapes are the martyrs, those who maintain their faithful witness to Christ even when it leads to their death death.[1] So when John says that the vine is harvested “for its grapes are ripe” (Rev. 14:18), this ripening should likely be connected back to Rev. 6:9-11 where “those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given” cried out to God asking, “how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth”, to which they are told “to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete … [of those] who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.” This is to say: once the number of faithful witnesses is complete, then the grapes are fully ripe and ready for harvest.

So once again, John has reversed traditional violent imagery, this time from the blood of the wine press being that of God’s enemies to being from those who are faithful witnesses to the Lamb.

The Battle that Christ Wages

Lacking a description of any actual battle, Christ captures the beast and false prophet and throws them into the fiery lake, and kills the rest with the sword (Rev. 10:20-21). This scene of the defeat of evil forces is a defeat that contains no description of an actual battle. This should not be surprising in light of John’s theology, for the key battle has already been won in the death and resurrection of Christ (such as is portrayed in Revelation 12 where the evil powers are said to be defeated not through the force of greater power and violence, but through the blood of the Lamb). Loren Johns notes: “The reason the author nowhere narrates an extended conflict or battle between the lamb and the dragon or beasts is because the only real conflicts envisioned in the Apocalypse are first, the one that has already occurred in the death and resurrection of Christ; and second, the ones in which the saints are already engaged through consistent nonviolent resistance.”[2]

After Jesus strikes down his enemies, it is stated he will “rule them with a rod of iron” (Rev. 19:15; cf. Ps. 2:9; Isa. 11:4). The hina clause in v. 15a (“… a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations”) is paralleled by the future tense of poimanei in v. 15b (“he will rule them with a rod of iron”), with the parallelism showing that the “sharp sword” is equivalent with the “rod of iron.”[3] Thus, the means by which Christ rules the nations is not through the violent brandishing of an iron rod (as one might expect), but through his powerful word.

 

Footnotes

[1] Bredin, Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace, pp. 213–16; Caird, Revelation, pp. 188–95.

[2] Johns, Lamb Christology, p. 185.

[3] Bredin, Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace, p. 208.

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