Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Infant Baptism

In the old covenant, circumcision was the seal of the righteousness that is received by faith, as well as a symbol of regeneration and repentance (Rom. 4:11, Deut. 30:6, Jer. 4:4). This sign was received by professing believers and by their infant offspring as heirs of the covenant (Gen. 17:7, Ex. 12:48). The sign was given only to male believers and male children, due to the nature of the sign, although both male and female believers and their children were members of the covenant (Deut. 29:10-13).

The new covenant is a new administration of the same promises with greater clarity and power to all peoples in light of the coming of Christ. In the new covenant, baptism fulfills the role that circumcision fulfilled in the old covenant. They are different signs that symbolize the same thing (Col. 2:11-12, Gal. 3:27-29). Baptism is a sign and seal of the forgiveness of sins and regeneration and it is to be given to those who profess their faith in Christ and to their children. 

The infant children of believers today are baptized as heirs of God's covenant of grace, members of the church of Christ, to be raised in the training and admonition of the Lord Jesus. They receive baptism as infants so that from their earliest years they might learn to rely on Christ for their spiritual washing and to live accordingly as saints. 

Baptism has the same significance for children as it does for adults, and its use endures throughout our lives. Both for the infant and for the adult, baptism is intended to represent justification and regeneration in Christ, to exercise and strengthen their faith, and to confirm their interest in Christ and his benefits.

Not everyone who is baptized is undoubtably justified and regenerated, just as not everyone circumcised in the old covenant was spiritually circumcised (Acts 8:13, 23, 1 Cor. 10:1-13, Jer. 4:4). The sign is beneficial to those who use it rightly, embracing the grace symbolized by faith. But in the case of children, this faith need not be professed by them at the time of administration. As the inability to profess their faith did not bar the children of believers from receiving circumcision in the days before Christ, so it does not bar the children of believers from receiving baptism today.

The sign is still valid whether or not the children are regenerate at the time of administration. They may be regenerate already - in fact, as members of the visible church, they should be thought of as regenerate by the judgment of charity unless and until they manifest the contrary by their life. But as children grow, they should be taught the right use of this sacrament, that it might be a means of grace to them. 

Friday, August 18, 2023

Daily Bible Reading

I have seen it argued that the Bible does not command people to read the Bible daily because not everyone would have had their own copy until modern times. It is true that the public reading of Scripture in the congregation was (and still is) important (Deut. 31:11-13, Neh. 8:2-3, 9:3-5, 1 Tim. 4:13). But while reading it cover to cover on your own would have been difficult without a personal copy, you could still recall memorized portions daily - “mentally reading” it you might say. You could recite it to yourself, meditate upon it, sing it, etc.

The Bible teaches that we should remember, meditate, and talk about Scripture every day (Deut. 6:6-9, Ps. 1:2, 119:11, 16, 97). This was done before the days of printing and widespread literacy.

That said, widespread Bible distribution and literacy is a great help to fulfilling this command and should be promoted and pursued. Let us not grow slothful in these days of prosperity, but diligently study Scripture from day to day and keep its teachings on our hearts, for it is the word of God.
"And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." 
(Deuteronomy 6:6–9)

Monday, August 7, 2023

The Lamb, the Dragon, the Prostitute, the Beast, and the Bride

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12) 
The book of Revelation is a prophetic vision, and as such uses biblical imagery and symbols to present the history it describes and foretells. In the book, we meet “the Lamb,” Jesus Christ, who has ascended into heaven and is administering his reign over all. He judges “the great prostitute,” representing apostate Israel, and he vindicates “the bride” of Christ, his church composed of Jew and Gentile. The “beast” is Rome, both a blasphemous persecutor of the saints which is overcome by Christ and an instrument of his judgment on Jerusalem. The “great dragon” is the devil (12:9) who makes war on the church but has been cast down and bound and will be judged by Christ (12, 20).

The Lamb

Jesus is the Lamb that was slain, who ransomed people for God from every nation by his blood, who now reigns in heavenly glory (Rev. 5). Having conquered, he ascended into heaven to his Father and received the scroll. His death and resurrection enables him now to administer the kingdom and pour out covenantal blessings and curses. The whole book reveals and extolls the risen and ascended Christ, his care for his church, and his rule over all. He is "the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth" and "him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood" (1:5).

The Dragon 

The “great dragon” is “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9). He sought to devour the promised Christ, but failed to do so (12:4). Following Christ's ascension, the devil was cast down with his angels by Michael and his angels (12:9). Satan is defeated, although not inactive. As much as he can, he wages war on the saints (2:10, 12:17). He worked through the beast (13:2, 4). But the dragon was bound in such a way as to not deceive the nations anymore (20:2-3). He is unable to prevent the spread of the gospel. At the end of the millennium, he will be let loose for a time, but only to be overcome by Christ at his second coming and cast into the lake of fire (20:9-10). 

The Prostitute 

Otherwise likeminded commentators debate whether the great city is Rome or Jerusalem, but I believe Jerusalem is the city in question. “The great city” is the city where our Lord was crucified (11:8), i.e. Jerusalem. It is the same as the “holy city” where the temple is (11:2). “The great city” is also described as “Sodom and Egypt” (11:8) and as “Babylon the great” and “the great prostitute” (16:19, 17:18). The prostitute is seated on a beast that symbolizes Rome (17:9-11), but she is distinct from Rome because the beast eventually rises up and destroys the prostitute (17:16-17). This “great city” is guilty of killing the apostles and prophets and saints (17:6, 18:20, 24), a description that fits Jerusalem especially well (see Matt. 23-24). The immoral prostitute is contrasted with the bride, as apostate covenant-breakers who rejected Christ are contrasted with the true church of Christ. Revelation prophesies the Jewish War (AD 66-70) and the fall of Jerusalem (AD 70).

The Beast

By the 60s, Rome had also begun to persecute Christians. Revelation portrays Rome and its emperors as the beast from the sea with seven heads and ten horns (13:1-10, 18:7-17). The seven heads are interpreted to be seven mountains and seven kings (17:9-11). Rome was well known for being built on seven mountains. Chapter 13 not only describes this beast, but also a second beast, rising out of the earth, described in 19:10 as “the false prophet,” symbolizing either the emperor cult or false religion generally (think of the false teachers in 2-3).

The number of the beast is 666 and it is the number of a man. In languages where letters are used as numbers, as is the case in Greek and Hebrew, you can calculate the numerical value of a person’s name. This practice is called gematria and was used in the ancient world. When Nero Caesar’s name is written in Hebrew, its numerical value is 666. This is not surprising since Revelation 13 echos Daniel 7 where beasts refer to kings/kingdoms (the fourth being Rome) and since Revelation 17:9-11 makes note of the sixth ruler of the city with seven mountains as it describes the beast (Nero was the sixth emperor of Rome; see previous post).

The danger was that people were encouraged to worship the beast and its image (13:12-15). The mark/name of the beast indicated those who worshipped the emperor (14:9, 16:2), just as the mark/name of God indicated those who worshipped God (7:3, 14:1). Compare this to Ezekiel 9:4 and Deuteronomy 6:4-9. To receive the mark was to receive the name, similar to how we are baptized into the Triune name (Matt. 28:18-20). Those who participated in Roman society were expected to worship Rome and the emperor, and to refuse to do so risked exclusion from society and death. Emperor worship was particularly strong in the province of Asia, the home of the seven churches to which John wrote. The mark itself was inherently sinful, a symbol of idolatry, loyalty to a false god. The need to have the mark to buy and sell is not what defined the mark or what made the mark bad - it was pressure to receive the mark. Just because something is required to buy or sell does not mean it is like the mark of the beast.

Even though the beast would blaspheme God and make war on the saints (13:6-7), the beast would be used by God to destroy the prostitute (17:16-17) and overcome by the victorious Christ (17:14, 19:17-21, 20:10).

The Bride, the wife of the Lamb

After the initial vision regarding the seven churches in 1-3, we find a vision of the church in chapter 7 that portrays it as the “144,000” and the “great multitude from every nation.” John heard their number and then saw the multitude. The church is described as the woman and “the rest of her offspring” in chapter 12, those who “keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (see also 14:12). The church moved to center stage in chapters 19-22, especially as “the Bride.” To understand “the marriage supper of the Lamb,” it is helpful to remember the parable in Matthew 22:1-14. It is a present and future reality. Revelation 21:1-4 describes the church in glory after the final judgment. Revelation 21:9-22:5 is a vision describing the Bride, the church - not heaven, nor the eternal state in particular, although the church is perfected in eternity, and is currently a work in progress. The invitation is presently open to come to wedding feast, to enter the city, to drink the living waters. 
"The Spirit and the Bride say, 'Come.' And let the one who hears say, 'Come.' And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price." (Revelation 22:17) 

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

The Book of Revelation: Date and Context

Last year, I finished teaching a Bible survey course, in which I gave a lesson on each book of the Bible. One exception to this pattern was that I spent two lessons on the book of Revelation. This post is adapted from my first lesson on the book from that series. I plan to add the second part next week [it is now available here]. You can also listen to the recordings of the lessons here


The book makes it plain that it came from Jesus Christ to his servant John, who wrote it down and sent it to the seven churches that are in Asia (1:1-4, 22:8). John was at this time banished to the island of Patmos on account of the testimony of Jesus (1:9).

This John was the apostle John, who also wrote the Gospel of John and three epistles (1-3 John). The author’s reference to himself simply as “John” implies that he is the well-known apostle John. This is also the testimony of the church fathers in the second century, including two writers from the very churches addressed in Revelation. While some have proposed the idea that this could be a different John, this mostly stems from a dubious reading of a statement by Papias and the different style used in Revelation. 

While the style is a bit different than the apostle’s gospel and other epistles, this is because it is a different kind of writing, a book of apocalyptic prophecy similar to Daniel and Ezekiel (Rev. 1:1, 3, 22:7, 10). Despite the different genre, many of John’s typical themes appear, such as “living water” (John 4:7-15, 7:37-38, 19:34, Rev. 7:17, 21:6, 22:1, 17), Jesus as “the Word” (John 1:1, Rev. 19:13), Jesus as “the Lamb” (John 1:36, Rev. 5:6, 12-13, 7:14, etc.), Jesus as “the Truth/the True one” (John 14:6, Rev. 3:7, 19:11), and Jesus as our “shepherd” (John 10:11-16, Rev. 7:17).

Historical Context

While there is a debate on the dating of this book, I believe John wrote this book in the 60s (c. AD 64), during the reign and persecution of Nero, in light of events that “must soon take place” (1:1, 22:6), including the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. The alternative understanding, which I believe to be incorrect, is that it was written in the 90s in the reign of Domitian.

Arguments for a date in the 60s:
  1. The book mentions seven rulers of Rome in Revelation 17:9-10 (Rome is identified by its well-known seven mountains). This passage mentions “five who have fallen,” and these would be Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. It then mentions that “one is,” and this would be Nero (reigned AD 54-68). Then it says “the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while.” After Nero came Galba, who reigned for 7 months. 
  2. Revelation 11:1 describes the temple in Jerusalem like it was still standing and in use. “Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there…” Revelation 11:2 also describes Jerusalem like it had not yet been trampled by the nations.
  3. In the reign of Nero, there was both pressure to worship of the emperor (especially in Asia Minor) and persecution of Christians by Jews and Romans. 
Addressing arguments for a date in the 90s:
  1. Irenaeus knew Polycarp, who in turn was discipled by John. Around AD 180-190 Irenaeus wrote concerning the interpretation of 666 that, “if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.” While at first it may seem that Irenaeus is saying that the apocalyptic vision was seen near the end of Domitian’s reign (81-96), his statement is better understood to say that John was seen then. 
  2. Even though there was pressure to worship the emperor and probably persecution of Christians under Domitian, there was also in the reign of Nero both pressure to worship the emperor (especially in Asia Minor) and well-attested persecution of Christians by Jews and Romans. Under both emperors, their persecution of Christians would have directly impacted Rome itself, but would have influenced policy around the empire (and hostile Jews had been trying to get the Romans to persecute Christians for years). 
  3. It is claimed that the church of Smyrna did not yet exist when Paul wrote Philippians (AD 61-62) due to comments that Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, made in a letter to the Philippians. But Polycarp does not actually refer to the time of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, but simply notes that the Philippians knew God at a time when those in Smyrna did not (Paul arrived in Philippi in AD 51). 

Revelation’s prophesied events: primarily about the end times or the 1st century?

While some people approach Revelation as if it said, “this is a book about events that will take place in the final years of the age, in the distant future,” Revelation actually is mostly about events that were going to take place soon after it was written. This is said repeatedly and in different ways.

“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.” (Revelation 1:1)

“Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” (Revelation 1:3)

“Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.” (Revelation 2:16, see also 2:5)

“And he said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.’” (Revelation 22:6)

“And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” (Revelation 22:7, see also 22:12, 20.)

“And he said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.’” (Revelation 22:10, compare this with Daniel 8:26, 12:4, 9)

In the concluding chapters, the book does describe events that follow from the events of the 1st century. It speaks of the millennium (20:1-6), which began in the 1st century but extends far beyond it and culminates with the final judgment and the new heaven and new earth (20:7-21:8). But the book is not primarily about the end times. It is primarily about events that took place soon after it was written.

This does not mean the book is not relevant to us. The prophecies of Jeremiah are still relevant for us, even though they were mostly fulfilled in events that took place in the 6th century BC. The book of Revelation continues to instruct the church about its Lord and Savior and about how to live and trust God amid the challenges of the present day. Additionally, the events of the 1st century are foundational for understanding the present new covenant era.

Original Recipients 

This book was originally written to churches in seven cities (1:4), each of which is given a particular message in chapters 2-3: Ephesus (2:1-7), Smyrna (2:8-11), Pergamum (2:12-17), Thyatira (2:18-28), Sardis (3:1-6), Philadelphia (3:7-13), Laodicea (3:14-22). 

These seven churches were all located in the Roman province of Asia, the western part of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). They are listed in chapters 2-3 in the order one would come to them on a journey beginning on Patmos, which is an island off the coast near Ephesus. These particular letters introduce the terms, images, and concepts of the book and apply them to the 1st century experience of these churches (for example, see Jesus’ coming in judgment in 2:5, 14-16, 22-23, 3:3). These churches faced problems like persecution from its enemies, slander from the synagogues, and false teachers within who promoted idolatry and sexual immorality.

The “angel” of each church, to which these messages are addressed, does not seem to refer to a spiritual being. How would John send a letter to an angel? And what would be the purpose? “Angel” is used here according to its meaning of “messenger” and refers to the preacher, who would read this book to the church. As John writes in 1:3, "Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near."