Understanding the Mark of the Beast

Where is there to go once triumph has occurred? Themistocles was an ancient Greek general and statesman who advocated for a strong navy because of the first Persian invasion in the fifth century BCE. During that war, he fought at the battle of Marathon, and in the second invasion, he commanded the Greek navy and defeated the Persians at sea. Themistocles was such a gifted soldier that he was considered Greece’s most revered general. Still, when peacetime came, the soldier wasn’t as appreciated because he was made for war and conflict. Living in peacetime as a statesman proved so tricky that it eventually led to his exile after he angered the Spartans and Athenians. Some people are meant for battle, while others exist to thrive during peace. The revelation and consolation John gave to the Asian churches was that God triumphs, so he digresses from the announcement at hand and reminds them of what God has already accomplished through the blood of Christ.

Christians today seem poised more for conflict than peace. This is no better demonstrated than by general observation of Christians and churchgoers on social media. Easily triggered and constantly outraged, one might wonder if they believe in the triumph of God or not. This isn’t to say that there aren’t occasions of injustice that should be lamented, but some of the most ardent proponents of conspiracies and dramas are those who claim to trust in the Lord. A funeral director recently told me that a gentleman said to him that the masks worn during COVID19 are the mark of the beast. How convenient that the very week I prepared this sermon, I’m told a tale such as this, so let’s look earnestly at this passage and determine whether it’s true or not—spoiler, it’s not.

The Defeat of Satan

Revelation 12:1–6 speaks about the birth of Christ (see especially v. 5).[1] John was apparently looking back and detailing previous victories to encourage the suffering Christians. This passage has been interpreted as the primeval fall of Satan—which is partly likely—but it really represents Satan’s defeat by Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. When war broke out in heaven (Rev. 12:7; cf. Luke 19:38; Col. 1:20), this may be a primeval war. However, verse ten represents the beginning of the age of the church, and before this dispensation, Satan accused people day and night before God. That he went before God is attested to in Job 1:6–11; 2:1–6, and that he accused people before God is evidenced in Zechariah 3:1–5. Accompanying Jesus, however, was salvation (cf. Luke 3:6; Heb. 9:28).

Satan was created as an angel (cf. Ps. 148:5), and such were present at creation (Job 28:1–7). Before or during creation (1 John 3:8), evil already existed hence the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:9). There were two passages often thought to speak about Satan’s being cast from heaven before creation—Isaiah 14:12–19 and Ezekiel 28:11–19. This rebellion was led by Satan, who has his own angels (Matt. 25:41), and the results were what was recorded in 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6. Revelation 12:7–9 may speak about Satan’s being cast from heaven. Other passages to consider would be Luke 10:18 in comparison to Revelation 9:1, and John 12:31. Jesus’ statement in Luke’s gospel came after the limited commission of the seventy-two. While the seventy-two seemed surprised and overjoyed at this success (Luke 10:17), Jesus’ reply may have been a way of communicating His lack of surprise over their works because He had already seen Satan cast from heaven. He already knew that Satan was defeated.

The passage from Ezekiel depicts Satan as present in the Garden of Eden and full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. Snakes were often associated with knowledge, hence the Mosaic reference to Satan as a serpent. Specifically, Satan was a cherub as opposed to a seraph. Cherubim were placed in the garden to keep fallen man out. They were guardians of paradise, but they were also depicted as attendants to God. The throne upon which God resides rests upon cherubim (Ps. 80:1; 99:1; 1 Sam. 4:4; cf. Ps. 18:10). For Satan to have been a cherub implies that he served as a protector of God’s presence and holiness. Ezekiel’s passage, therefore, describes Satan’s pre-fallen state. As a matter of interest, Cyril of Jerusalem, Jerome, Tertullian, Ambrose, and Augustine interpreted this narrative as descriptive of Satan.

From the time Satan was cast from heaven, he has pursued the destruction of God’s people (Rev. 12:12–17), and he is only able to do this under the restrictions of God’s will (cf. Job 1:12; 2:6; Luke 22:31). He accused the people of God (Zech. 3:1–5) and destroys (Rev. 9:11) whatever he can because he has control over the world (Luke 4:6; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2). Yet, his end is already determined by God (Matt. 25:41; Rev. 20:1–3, 10). God created hell for Satan and his angels, but not for us.

The Number—666 

When we turn to Revelation 13:1–10, one beast is represented while another arises from the earth at 13:11. These two beasts are allies of Satan in his work (12:9). When we left off from chapter 12, the point was made that the dragon made war with the woman’s offspring, and chapter 13 shows how he planned to do just that. However, God gave His people particular insights to help them stay the course (13:9–10, 18). The first beast mentioned in 13:1 is also in 11:7 and is later pictured as coming from the abyss (17:3, 7–8). This beast is often referred to as “the beast,” while the second beast is later referred to as “the prophet” (16:13; 19:20; 20:10). The first beast received a mortal wound (13:3, 12, 14–15). Many have used this to argue that Nero was actually alive since he was the first to persecute the Christians. Dio Chrysostom, at the end of the first century, wrote, “Even now everyone wishes he [Nero] were alive, and most believe that he is” (Or. 21.10). Others had believed that Nero was alive in 69, 80, and 88–89 CE. It may be that this refers more to Nero’s work of persecuting Christians, or the spirit thereof, rather than the man himself. This first beast has thought to have been the Roman Empire. The second beast’s primary function was to persuade men to worship the first beast—which may allude to Roman emperor worship. This beast is called “the prophet,” or “false prophet,” and appears as a Lamb, but speaks like a dragon. The imagery of the Lamb reminds us of Jesus, but this beast is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15). This beast may have been the organization responsible for enforcing emperor worship—the Concilia (13:15).

Roman slaves and disobedient soldiers received marks on their hands or foreheads. These denoted that they were devoted to a certain master or god. Paul used similar language when he referred to bearing the marks of Jesus on his body (Gal. 6:17). This mark is a counterpart of the seal of God that we studied in chapter 7. God sealed the 144,000 (Rev. 7:3), but this mark designated who belonged to the beast. Whoever had the beasts mark was allowed to transact business. Archaeologists have uncovered documents given to “image worshipers” as proof of having offered emperor worship, and beginning in the reign of Tiberius, all business documents had to be sealed by the government stamp, and it was often the priesthoods of the cities (Concilia) who applied these stamps. Trade guilds also ruled many cities (e.g., Thyatira), and if one didn’t belong to a guild—which was closely aligned with gods—they couldn’t transact business. The Greek in verse 18 is anthropos and not aner. The former designates humanity while the latter designates a man, so John was saying that this number represents humanity, and humanity cannot overcome God Almighty (2 Chron. 20:6).

Humanity feels strongly about transacting business, commerce, and economy. One of the chief concerns for us all is whether or not we’ll be able to feed our families by putting food on the table. What if the very manner in which you provide for your family becomes embroiled in immorality and even idolatry? Would you forsake the commerce for the sake of your Lord? It may have been that some Christians were. We either bear the seal of the Lord or the mark of the beast. It can’t be both.

[1] In the NKJV of this account, verse six begins with “then,” but would be better translated as “and” (kai).

The Seven Trumpets of Revelation

As of the writing of this sermon, doctors and pharmaceutical companies are working tirelessly to create a vaccination for COVID-19. The belief is that such a vaccine will better enable society to function without the horrific fallout of deaths and overwhelming of hospital facilities. I wonder how folks felt in the days of polio, the Spanish Flu, and various other pandemics. Some birthed advances in medicine and sanitation, but one thing that hasn’t yet been cured is death. No matter what advances are made, people continue to die. This is why we Christians place our hope in what Jesus has done to defeat death.

Similar to how God protected Israel when the angel of death passed through Egypt, so He has taken provisions to preserve the elect in Asia against the breaking of seals and sounding of trumpets. Jokingly I often employ Revelation 8:1 to argue that there will be no women in heaven, given the thirty-minute silence. However, this may have been the amount of time it took the priest to incense the temple. What occurs in heaven would have been understood by what happened on earth. Instead, in this instance, the angel makes the offering and does the incensing, then throwing some incense to the earth, God’s answer to the saints for vengeance is heard (cf. Rev. 6:9–11). Stylistically, one may note that the first four of the seals and trumpets form a unified whole. The fifth and sixth seals and trumpets express a more extended narrative preceded by the final one being loosened and blown.

When we view the seven trumpets as a unified whole, we’ll note a similarity between the occurrences in Revelation to that in Joshua. In the procession around Jericho in Joshua 6:3–6, seven trumpets led with the Ark of the Covenant in tow. At the end of the seven trumpets in Revelation, the Ark of the Covenant appears (11:15–19). After the purposes of the trumpets, the Ark of the Covenant is seen to be a prevailing relic that represents God’s presence and triumph in both cases.[1] 

The Meaning of the Trumpets 

The first trumpet demonstrates how vegetation is effected (8:7), the second regards the sea (8:8), the third regards freshwaters (8:10–11), and the fourth regards the sky, or heavens (8:12). Each of these corresponds to plagues that God visited upon Egypt: the seventh (Exod. 9:22–26), first (Exod. 7:14–25), and ninth plagues (Exod. 10:21–29) correlate to the first four trumpets that sound. When one considers the vegetation and waters, we think of forms of commerce that were prevalent in the ancient world. If such were affected, then the food supply and economy of many folks would have been affected. God’s children have already been sealed and would be protected from the harm that befell such. A warning is given that the next three trumpets will be woes (Rev. 8:13). Not like Bill and Ted, but in the ancient sense. A woe was often a gruesome outcome or horrific occurrence.

What likely makes the next trumpets so harsh is that they afflict humanity directly rather than just the earth. The fifth trumpet entails a star that has fallen (Rev. 9:1), which may be one of several interpretations: an angel (cf. Rev. 20:1), fallen world powers, fallen angel, or Satan (cf. Is. 14:12–20). Whichever it is, He who has the keys of death and Hades permits this angel to open the abyss (cf. Rev. 8:10–11). A hellish smoke now contrasts with the incense of prayer.[2] Swarms of locusts arise, akin to the eighth plague of Egypt (Exod. 10:12–15) but more like the judgment of Israel in Joel’s time via an army (Joel 1:2–4; 2:11). Their king is the angel of the abyss, whose name is equivalent in both Hebrew and Greek (Rev. 9:11). The root of the name reminds us of the god, Apollo, who was an archer god, one of whose emblems was the locust. Caesar Domitian himself was sometimes portrayed as Apollo, so the link may be rather apparent to the Asian Christians.[3]

The sixth trumpet again draws our memories back to the prayers of the saints by the incense altar (Rev. 9:13). This is how God will avenge them—the Parthians. Similar to the President of the United States wants to build a wall along the Mexican border, so the Euphrates was the line of demarcation between East and West (Rev. 9:14–15). To the East of the Euphrates was the Parthian Empire (Iran) that had frequent skirmishes with the Roman Empire. In the late 50s and 60s CE, the Romans and Parthians fought until peace was reestablished in 66 CE. This peace lasted until the Caesar Trajan campaigned against them between 114–17 CE, so it may be that this conflict John sees depending on when one dates the Revelation. The depiction of the battle is seen here from a heavenly perspective, though, so the fanciful imagery of angelic beings moving the nations to war is what often boggles the mind of the reader. One image given historical explanation is what appears in Rev. 9:19: the Parthians were gifted horsemen who once lured the Romans after them by riding uphill. As they retreated upward, the Romans pursued only to suffer from a volley of arrows that cost the Roman army two legions, and Rome never forgot to avoid pursuing the Parthians uphill.[4] Closing these two trumpets are the fact that their chastisement was meant to invoke repentance, but the hearts of many, like Pharaoh, were hardened.

The Little Book and Witnesses 

Before the seventh seal, a pair of visions were given that concerned the people of God. Thus, before the seventh trumpet, a couple of images pertinent to the church are provided too. An angel appears from heaven, clothed with a cloud, and a rainbow above his head (Rev. 10:1). He has a book in his hand, smaller we presume in comparison to the scroll in the palm of God from whence Christ broke the seals. He stands on the earth, sea, and raises his hand into heaven, thus touching all of God’s creation (Rev. 10:2–7; cf. Exod. 20:4, 11). John is to eat the book, which is sweet to the taste but bitter on the stomach—as the Word of God can be at times (Rev. 10:8–10). This is the same thing Ezekiel did (Ezek. 2:9–3:4). The book John swallowed would enable him to speak the Lord’s words (Rev. 10:11).

The next chapter, and the measuring of the temple, might lead everyone to believe it refers to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. That’s how one might conclude if read literally, and the Roman siege of Jerusalem lasted three and a half years, which would allow the time listed here to make sense (Rev. 11:1–2). If this passage is read symbolically, the church is the temple that fills the whole earth and not just Jerusalem. If we consider how the temple is mentioned elsewhere in Revelation, it’s depicted symbolically and not literally (see. Rev. 3:12; 13:6). Elsewhere, the temple as invoked symbolically refers to the church, which is composed of both Jewish and Gentile believers (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:18–22; 1 Peter 2:5). It isn’t the temple herself that will be trampled, but the outer court.

The two witnesses remind us of Elijah and Moses, who called forth fire from heaven to devour heathens and, respectively, shut up the sky and turned water into blood (Rev. 11:3–6). They’ll be killed in Jerusalem, it would appear, who has at this point become like Sodom and Egypt. The people will rejoice at their deaths (Rev. 11:7–10), but they won’t remain dead (Rev. 11:11–12). Since this is a message for the church, how are we to understand it? You’ll likely find any number of interpretations depending on what sources you consult. However, stopping to try to make something out of every vision can be stifling, so look at what comes next: with the blast of the seventh trumpet, we read about the triumph of Jesus Christ and His kingdom (Rev. 11:15–19). How does the kingdom of God triumph? As a result of divine wrath. For the Christian whose hope is in Jesus, wrath isn’t something to be feared “because it is the victory of freedom over slavery, justice over injustice, and Moses over Pharaoh. The wrath of God is the last thing in the world that Christians should be afraid of, for the wrath of God is on their side (Mt. 23:35–36).”[5]

[1] Reardon, Revelation, 64.

[2] Ibid., 67.

[3] Keener, Revelation, 269.

[4] Ibid., 271.

[5] Reardon, Revelation, 75.

The Seven Seals

I grew up a fan of wrestling, or “wraslin” as it’s pronounced in the South. When I think about the Four Horsemen, I envision Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Ole Anderson, and Tully Blanchard. However, as popular as the image is of Four Horsemen, it has nothing to do with wrestling, but with the Apocalypse of John. Remember that in the hand of God was a scroll sealed with seven seals (Rev. 5:1). This scroll would have somewhat been reminiscent of the Torah scroll unraveled in the synagogue service, from which the Word of God was read and an explanation given. In heaven, this scroll contains the message of the future relevant to the Christians in Asia. In the ancient world, a scroll that was sealed often held the impression of the one who wrote the message. Depending on who that was determined who was capable of opening the document. Here, only one person is found worthy to open the scroll and loose its seals—the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, our Savior (Rev. 5:2–5). Only He could approach the God of heaven, take the scroll from His hand, and loose the seals.

The Messages of the Seals 

The vision of the four horsemen derives from Zechariah 1:8–11 and 6:1–8. In Zechariah, the horsemen are angelic creatures who report to the Lord regarding the state of affairs among the nations. Their coloring indicated the different countries to whom they were sent. In the Revelation, they are images of judgment posted throughout all the earth.[1] The first horseman represents warfare, and this as a judgment of God, we must remember (Rev. 6:2). The second, bloodshed since that’s what results from war (Rev. 6:4). The third horseman represents the economic fallout as a result of war and bloodshed—rationing due to famine (Rev. 6:5–6). The fourth horseman is pale or ashen. The Greek term here is chloros from which we get “chlorine.” This is a rather grim image because this is the color a person appears to be shortly after death. If you’ve ever been with someone who’s just passed away, their eyes turn this ashen, green sort of color. Because war, bloodshed, and famine are kissing cousins, and because those who are slain or die due to war and bloodshed may be left exposed, disease and plague may follow (Rev. 6:7–8). This black horseman has given us the common expression, “Black Death” to mean the bubonic plague.[2]

Next, sadly, we see that even some saints were not immune. The altar of heaven has beneath it the souls of the martyrs (cf. Lev. 17:11). They are at this place because they sacrificed themselves for the sake of the confession of faith in Jesus as Lord, and this is also where priests poured the blood of sacrifices (Lev. 4:7, 18, 25, 34). This would have entailed those who died for the faith up until this point in time—Stephen (Acts 7:57–60), those who died at the hands of Paul before he was a Christian, James the brother of Christ (Acts 12:2), and Antipas (Rev. 2:13) among others. Their cry to God wasn’t new, but a lamentation from the psalms where the psalmist pleads with God as to how long they must endure (Ps. 13:1; 79:5). The martyrs wanted the vengeance of God on those who’d put them to death. This isn’t an unholy request. We Christians sometimes cry so much for forgiveness, which is right to do, that we forget that justice has its place too. There’s nothing at all wrong for invoking the Lord’s vengeance upon those who’ve done such horrible acts. In the absence of immediate retribution, the martyrs are given a white robe to rest, because more would, sadly, join them. The white robes given to them are garments of having overcome (Rev. 3:5), and they’re the same garments in which the twenty-four elders are clothed (Rev. 4:4).

The fifth seal’s anticipatory measure, as well as the sixth seal, may entail eschatological material. There seems to be a decreation before the great day of the wrath of the Lamb. However, is it for the vindication of what they then faced, or what all Christians would share in until the end? I confess to not knowing the answer because the Bible often uses such language to denote the punishment of God at the end of an era. However, I tend to view this more as an end-times language than I don’t, but history records several such issues even in the first century:

These afflictions were visited on the world that John knew. In AD 62 the Roman legions were defeated by the Parthians to the east, and there were shortages of food, such as those recorded in Acts … and Seutonius. In addition, there were earthquakes, such as those in Asia Minor itself in AD 60, volcanic eruptions, such as Vesuvius, civil war in Rome following the suicide of Nero in 68, and the war in Judea that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.[3]

Early commentators were evenly divided on the interpretation of parts of the book. For we who are so many centuries removed from then, in comparison to early church leaders, can’t expect to grasp what even they struggled with understanding.

The 144,000 

According to Jewish thought, four winds stood at each corner of the compass. These winds could destroy a nation (Jer. 49:36) or bring new life (Ezek. 37:9). Zechariah portrays these winds as chariots pulled by different teams of horses, which leave the Lord’s presence and go out into all the earth (Zech. 6:5–7). Jesus taught that at His coming during the destruction of Jerusalem that the angels would gather the elect from the four winds (Matt. 24:31).

Ezekiel 9 sets the backdrop for the sealing of God’s faithful. This imagery of seven executioners is present in Babylonian literature as well. There they punish those having committed religious offenses as is the case here (Ezek. 9:4). The imagery of Ezekiel’s seven would have reminded the audience steeped in idolatry about impending punishment that comes from Yahweh. The mark of their forehead in Hebrew was the taw. This was the last character of the paleo-Hebrew alphabet, and it looked like a modern “X” or cross.

Moreover, the Greek letter “chi” was equivalent to taw and was the first letter in Christ’s name in Greek. The church father Origen (185–254 CE) wrote, “A third [person] one of those who believe in Christ, said the form of the Taw in the old [Hebrew] script resembles the cross, and it predicts the mark which is to be placed on the foreheads of Christians.” In Revelation, the seal separates God’s faithful from the faithless.

Pseudepigraphical writing called the Psalms of Solomon was composed in the first century BCE (it details Pompey’s capture of Jerusalem in 63 BCE), and it gives a little insight as well on the marking of God’s people: “For the mark of God is upon the righteous for salvation. Famine and sword and death shall be far from the righteous, for they shall pursue sinners and overtake them, and those who do lawlessness shall not escape the judgment of the Lord” (15:6–8). Sometimes branding in antiquity was also a sign of a slave (3 Macc. 2:29). In Christianity, sealing became symbolic. The Holy Spirit sealed the Asian churches (Eph. 1:13; 4:30). This wasn’t a physical mark, as some might think. It was a mark distinguishable only by God and His agents of wrath (cf. 2 Cor. 1:22), and it distinguished the faithful from the wicked (cf. 2 Tim. 2:19). This seal in Revelation is to protect God’s faithful, as in Ezekiel (Rev. 7:3).

This list in Revelation of the 12 tribes differs from other records (see Gen. 35:23–26; 49:3–27; Deut. 33:6–25): Reuben usually heads the list, but Judah does here likely because this is the tribe from whence Jesus, the lion of the tribe of Judah, came (Rev. 1:5; 5:5). John included Manasseh while omitting Ephraim and Dan (see 1 Kings 12:29–30). Since this group is spared divine wrath, but not human persecution, it may be that they are among those who complete the number of the slain souls under the altar (Rev. 6:9–11). These twelve tribes are used figuratively of Jewish Christians (James 1:1). Jewish Christians were predominant over the first decade of the early church. Staying with the Jewish identity, their being “firstfruits” (Rev. 14:4) was also well-founded as spoken of by the Jews (Jer. 2:3; Rom. 11:16; James 1:18). If this is talking about Jewish believers, the great multitude in Revelation 7:9ff were Gentile believers. This could also be a reference to the church—God’s new Israel (Gal. 6:16; cf. Gal. 3:7–9, 29). Whomever they were, they sang a new song described as the roar of rushing waters, a loud peal of thunder, and harpists playing their harp. No heavenly creature could learn this song because participation is limited to those redeemed from the earth (cf. 1 Peter 1:12; Eph. 3:10), which centered on redemption by the Lamb from the beast. They were “virgins” (cf. 2 Cor. 11:2) who were blameless (Rev. 14:4). This may mean that they maintained ritual purity before battle (Deut. 23:9–10; 1 Sam. 21:5; 2 Sam. 11:11). Later on, Babylon (Rome) is referred to as the mother of harlots (Rev. 17:3–5), and those who consort with her would have defiled themselves (cf. Rev. 2:22).

The final seal serves as a prelude to the seven trumpets which are to follow. One round of judgment has been explained, and those in first-century Asia would have understood these matters far better than we could have. Here, however, is the comfort for those Christians: God judges those who do evil. In a court of law here on earth, humans attempt to execute justice as best as fallible beings can. Lawyers build cases, and it is prosecuted and defended before a group of peers who determine what the best evidence is. They hand in their verdict based on the available information, and a judge passes sentencing if guilty, or releases the accused if innocent. In the courtroom of heaven, no case has to be made, and the only defense anyone can ever have is the blood of the Lamb. Jesus Christ defends those bought with His blood, but those who are not faithful to Christ will be prosecuted according to divine law for their deeds. There is no escaping. There is no putting off what will pass.

[1] Farley, Apocalypse, 82.

[2] Reardon, Revelation, 55.

[3] Ibid., 55–56.

On Earth as in Heaven

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” so said the mighty Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and her companions stood before the scary scene of peels of thunder, lightning, and an impressive visage when they believed that they were before the Wizard of Oz. Once Toto pulled the curtain back, they saw the reality for what it was. The Christians suffering and about to suffer in Asia saw the spectacle of terror before their eyes, but John the Divine was given a chance to see reality for what it was by peering into heaven. He did so by going through the open door into heaven (Rev. 4:1). Earthly events have their origin in heaven, so if we’re to understand real insight into the history, we have to see the matter from a heavenly vantage point. Scripture is replete with examples of this. Jacob’s impending reunion with his brother was something not untouched by heaven (Gen. 28:17). When Ezekiel sat in exile among an encampment of his fellow Israelites, the vision he saw lent itself to the reality he experienced (Ezek. 1:1). The baptism of our Lord was overseen by heaven (Mark 1:10), and upon his martyrdom, Stephen revealed to the crowd that would put him to death what was occurring in heaven at that very moment (Acts 7:56). Understanding the demands of our current situation entails understanding it from a heavenly perspective, and this was what John would see and inform those in Asia regarding.

What we’re going to notice from Revelation 4–5 only makes sense if we’re acquainted with Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1, 10. Isaiah saw the God of Israel in his magnificent glory, as well as the angels that attended Him. The seraphim were either fiery or serpent-like creatures. The term seraph is indicative of burning and serpents (Num. 21:6–9), respectively. They are depicted as above the throne of God, while in Ezekiel, cherubim have a single pair of wings and are associated with the throne of God (Ezek. 1). A thorough reading of these two prophets and all that they saw in heaven helps make better sense of what one will read in Revelation 4–5. John participates in the prophetic history of seeing the throne-room of God, just like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and others before his time. What takes place in heaven directly affects the events on earth, but, also, what occurs in heaven is the model for what should happen on earth in some part.

Derivative Worship 

Not but a couple of decades earlier, a Jewish Christian wrote a letter to the Hebrew believers wherein he noted the superiority of Jesus above all that the Jews held dear—angels, Moses, the law, etc. Among the many considerations of the letter to the Hebrews is what appears when the author informed his audience that Christ was High Priest of God’s people, taking His own blood to offer for the sins of the world (Heb. 9:11–15). He goes, not into the copy and shadow of what is to come, but into heaven itself—the true tabernacle, after which the one on earth and temple were patterned (Heb. 8:1–2; 9:24). Consider this: from Hebrews 8–10, the author compares what Christ does with what the priests did at the temple. Christ was in the heavens, and the temple and tabernacle were patterned after what occurs in heaven. Therefore, earthly worship is a heavenly activity. If we are to truly worship in a manner pleasing to God, our worship must be patterned after what occurs in heaven. In Revelation 4–5, we see just what takes place.

What’s most important to note, from the start, is that these things happen before the presence of God. John, first, sees a throne and the one who sat upon it (Rev. 4:2–3). He’s surrounded by a rainbow—the sign of God’s covenant with humanity to never flood the earth again (Gen. 9:12–17). Next, there are twenty-four thrones which are believed to represent the twelve tribes of Israel and twelve apostles of the New Testament, or both covenants. Seated and crowned upon them are twenty-four elders who fall before God in worship (Rev. 5:14; 11:16; 19:4). Not only do they fall before God, but they do so while simultaneously praising Him (Rev. 4:11; 5:9–10; 11:17–18; 19:4).

Next, we have the angels who unceasingly praise and pray to God (Rev. 4:6–8). They would appear to be a hybrid of cherubim and seraphim from the description and what we know from Isaiah and Ezekiel. Nevertheless, their hymn is tightly worded to what we see the seraphim sang in Isaiah 6:3. This particular doxology was a staple in synagogue praise in the first century,[1] and it even became a part of early Christian worship, as seen here and in 1 Clement 34.6. It has been a part of hymnody since Isaiah’s time, in the eighth century BCE all the way through today, making it the most ancient of hymns. The elders, in turn, prostrate themselves before the Lord, casting their crowns before Him in recognition of their honor and glory deriving from Him alone.

When looking at this scene, we note a few truths about Christian worship. It is before God and according to the covenant under which we willingly entered. When we worship the Lord, we join the procession of divine worship already ongoing, something that occurs night and day and is unceasing. It’s our opportunity to return to God and attribute to Him whatever we may think are worth is and blessings are, because what we all are we have because of who He is and how richly He’s bestowed it on us. Thus far, worship has been binary, including the Father and Spirit, respectively (Rev. 4:2–5).

Next, however, we see the Son, the Lamb slain for the sins of the world. He’s standing because that’s what priests did when they ministered to the Lord (cf. Acts 7:55–56; Heb. 10:11). The scroll in the hand of the Father has to do with events happening on earth, and the Lamb of God will be the only one worthy to break the seals, which will be discussed in the next lesson. Nevertheless, His appearance is as a slain lamb, but the elders told John that He’d prevailed (enikesen). The taking of the scroll to Jewish Christians was reminiscent of the manuscript of God’s word being taken, opened, read, and then explained as in the synagogue services. Because He who sits on the throne has a scroll to be opened and read, we have to understand that early Christians believed, as we should today, that the Word of God is a symbol of what Christ has accomplished.[2] Upon taking the scroll, the angels and elders do to Him what they had done to He who sits on the throne. He, too, receives praise and prayer (Rev. 5:8–10).[3] Next, we see heaven and earth united in the worship of God and the Lamb (Rev. 5:13). When we worship in song and prayer, we join with heaven in worship. What we sing here, they sing there.

As we progress, it will be incumbent upon the reader to note that as the drama unfolds, this occurs in heaven, on the Lord’s Day, in the worship of God and the Lamb. The stage has thus far been set, but one may ask how this might have brought any comfort to the suffering Christians in Asia. First, their God and His kingdom haven’t been thwarted. Because it isn’t of this world doesn’t mean that it has nothing to do with this world. God reigns upon His throne in majesty, and the Lamb who died holds history in His hands, even as it unfolds. Second, the most comfort that can be found will be in worship. When we correctly understand worship, we’ll come to find that in worship, we are with God the Father, Son, and Spirit. The angels are singing and rejoicing. In a tumultuous world with its troubles, we can find consistency and solace in the worship of our Lord and Savior. When correctly done, our focus can turn to God on the throne, and the Lamb who’s prevailed. He reigns, and as He has overcome, we can fix our hope on Him in the darkest of times, because He isn’t surprised by what surprises us. He isn’t overwhelmed by what causes us anxiety. He has a plan that’s working to the good of us who love Him and are called by His name.

[1] Craig S. Keener. Revelation: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 175.

[2] Patrick Henry Reardon, Revelation: A Liturgical Prophecy (Yonkers: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2018), 51.

[3] In churches of Christ, who are known for acapella praise, a matter of the mention of harps here often arises as contention for including instruments in earthly worship. The reason we refrain from using instruments is simply that the early church didn’t use them. This isn’t to negate harps in heaven, but to acknowledge what occurred on earth in the first century. Harps are mentioned here in Rev 5:8 as well as 14:2 and 15:2, but as much as the golden bowls of incense are explained as the prayers of the saints in Rev 5:8 (cf. 8:3–5), so we may assume that the harps represent the praise of the saints as well (Farley, Apocalypse, 76).

Is Revelation About the End-Times As Much As We Think It Is?

In addition to being a minister, I’m also a Sheriff’s Deputy, albeit reserve. I receive no remuneration, and I haven’t gone through the academy. I qualify annually with my firearm to carry it on duty. I have a badge, and for all intents and purposes, I have the same powers as full-time deputies with a few exceptions: those being warrantless arrests in domestic violence scenarios and DUI’s, since the latter requires specialized training. Nevertheless, our Sheriff is cautious that we Reserve Deputies are always with a road unit, and in special details, we often are in the background as secondary support. I’ve worked at the judicial building for security, schools as a resource officer, and have ridden along with road units. When I’ve ridden along, there have been a few times that I’ve been with a deputy, and we’ve been in what’s to me a sticky situation. In one particular detail, we were working an area where a party was ongoing. As the party dispersed into the wee hours of the morning, gunshots rang out. I’ve heard gunfire many times, but this time was different. We were facing a possible stand-off. My adrenaline rushed, and honestly, I became a little anxious because I’d never been in that situation before. I won’t lie, I was worried. What gave me comfort, however, was that I was with an experienced deputy who’s also a man of faith and what we might call a hard-charger. He’s a good man dedicated to justice and peace, and if I was ever in a dangerous situation, he’s the guy I’d want nearby. That was comforting.  

Anytime we as Christians enter uncharted, disastrous waters, we can rest assured that we’ve not been abandoned by the Lord. We can face hardship, and sometimes our difficulties may lead us to feel this way. The Christians in Asia undoubtedly must have felt this way. Some were in prison (Rev. 2:10), and one particular saint, Antipas, had already been put to death (Rev. 2:13). History has it that Antipas was a bishop in Pergamum. Remember when I said that the persecution usually began with the leaders of Christianity? This is one such case in point. The sad tradition of his death is that he was roasted to death inside a brazen bull in 92 CE, during Domitian’s reign. This traumatic event would have led many of the Christians to believe they were next since one of their leaders had been put to death for the faith. Jesus told the Philadelphians that they were going to be kept from the trial that was coming upon the world (Rev. 3:10), the beheaded souls cried for vengeance (Rev. 6:9–10), and the harlot was drunk with the blood of the saints and martyrs (Rev. 18:24; 19:2). Things were terrible indeed. Comfort was needed, and John would see what the saints needed most to hear.   

A Heavenly Perspective  

Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). However, it’s hard to keep this in mind when the battles we seem to face are waged in the flesh. If we as Christians turn our thoughts heavenward, as we should, we will be less fearful and more faithful. First, we note that God is sovereign over time and history. Therefore, anything that occurs on earth at any time does so under the enthroned Lord whose rule supersedes even the kings of the earth, the very officials who afflict you. We reign with Him in His kingdom, and we minister to Him in His kingdom (Rev. 1:4–6). Now, as we cull through Revelation, this won’t be a verse-by-verse, exposition, so while some of the symbols can be explained, my goal isn’t to explain each and every symbol, but to capture the overall message which is one of comfort and hope amid trial.  

Second, what John sees after being instructed to write the book is genuinely marvelous. Jesus is standing, dressed as high priest, alongside a menorah (Rev. 1:12–13). He’s with and among His people in their suffering, and He’s both powerful enough to hold the constellation in the same hand that is gentle enough to comfort a frightened John (Rev. 1:16–17). This Lord lived, died, and is alive to never die again. His resurrection was death’s deathblow, and His ascension and enthronement give Him power over even Hades and Death itself (Rev. 1:18). The horrific things happening right now that are to happen are not so great that Christ the King is defeated. He has already won the victory, and He’s with and among not only His bride but the messengers of each of them (Rev. 1:20).   

It Won’t Be Long 

One thing we all wonder is how long the horror will last. There are always so many questions that arise during struggles and hard times. No one but God Himself knows the answer. All we can do is look at what God told the Christians in Asia. He said to them that “the time is near” (Rev. 1:3; 22:10), these things “must shortly take place” (Rev. 1:1; 22:6), and that He was “coming quickly” (Rev. 22:7, 12, 20). This doesn’t sound like something that’s to occur over two-thousand years beyond the time John gave this Revelation. Daniel was told to seal up his vision because it referred to many days from his time (Dan. 8:26): “Therefore seal up the vision, for it refers to many days in the future.” He was also told that the book was to remain sealed “until the time of the end” (Dan. 12:4). As time went on, knowledge would increase as to the culmination of these prophecies. He was urged to go his way because the words of his prophecy were “sealed till the time of the end” (Dan. 12:9). Studying history, along with Daniel’s prophecy, reveals that it was not for another four hundred years that those kingdoms came, which he had been told of (cf. Dan. 2). Therefore, Daniel would not live to see the fulfillment of the prophecies, hence his being instructed to seal the book. So the sealing of a book of prophecy looked ahead to a distant period. When John wrote Revelation, the angel told him to not seal the words of his book (Rev. 22:10). Why? Because “the time [was] at hand.” If Daniel’s prophecy saw fulfillment some four hundred years later, and he was told to seal the book, would not John’s prophecy have been fulfilled long before the same period since he was told to not seal his book? 

A concern arises: “But Christ said He was coming quickly.” Does this mean that Jesus lied? No, because God cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). What it means is that we’ve misunderstood what Jesus was saying. We’ve always taken this phrase and applied it to His second coming, but Christ didn’t always use it this way. He used it concerning the destruction of the Temple, which occurred in 70 CE (Mark 13:26; Matt. 24:30; Luke 21:27). This particular phrase was borrowed from Daniel 7:13–14, and it didn’t envision the Son of Man coming to the earth, but ascending to the Ancient of Days, God Himself. Throughout the gospels, Jesus is poised against the Temple establishment of the time and often contends with the Temple priests and ways. His foretelling of the destruction of the Temple would be His vindication, proof that He was Lord and Christ and seated at the right hand of Majesty. It wouldn’t be that one would peer out their window and see the Lord descending, but that the destruction of the Temple would be proof of His kingship. Similarly, the soon coming of Christ in Revelation would be His vindication and that of His kingdom, the church.  

Put it this way, just a chapter earlier in Daniel, the prophet was in the lion’s den. He was clearly among beasts for devouring. The next morning when the king came to see if he’d survived, he noted that the lions had not harmed him at all. The king ordered Daniel to be lifted from the lion pit, and once he ascended from the lion’s pit, he was given the status of ruler of the kingdom. Similarly, Christ would ascend to heaven at the right hand of Majesty, and those who doubted who He was would find out that He had in truth been exalted once the Temple was destroyed. That was His vindication. In Revelation, He uses this same turn of phrase from the gospels which derived from Daniel, and it isn’t speaking about His literal second coming, but His vindication among those who persecute His church. This is the language that especially Jewish Christians would understand, and they would know that it derived from Daniel and pointed to an exaltation, not the actual second coming.  To answer the question: Revelation is somewhat about the end times, but not as much as it’s often made out to be. 

How Sophocles Can Help Us In the Age of BLM

One thing the humanities instilled in me was the ability to listen. I’m invited into a conversation, even if I happen to disagree with what’s written. The earliest engagement came from my first semester in my doctoral studies when I read Sophocles’ Theban Cycle, specifically, Antigone. What does a fifth century BCE Greek playwright have to say that could help me be a better listener? That’s a great question.   

The crux of the issue in Antigone revolves around the treatment of the corpse of Polyneices, Antigone’s brother. Contrasted with Polyneices was his brother Eteocles, who fought for the city of Thebes while the former fought against the city, thus garnering a traitor’s status by King Creon. According to law, the burial custom gave honor to the dead and rest for their ghost. What the context of this tragedy reveals is the equal respect for a Grecian citizen regardless of fidelity to the state.

The rebellion of Polyneices against the city of Thebes was undoubtedly a treacherous act. During the rule of Creon, Thebes was defending itself, and during this defense, Polyneices perished. Although, Creon thought Polyneices’ status as a traitor removed from him the honor of a proper burial. Tiresias was careful to point out to Creon that “a dead man’s body left unburied [and] defiled” was a dishonor regardless of the status of patriot or traitor.

The reader can readily sympathize with Creon’s feelings of not wanting to treat a traitor with the same respect as they would a patriot. Creon stated, “Those who are loyal to the city deserve respect when they are alive and every honor when they die.” Regarding Polyneices, Creon pronounced, “His corpse shall be left for carrion birds and dogs to foul and feed on.” His sentiment sounds reasonable. Creon had the authority to “make the laws that apply to both the living and the dead,” a higher law abounded, that of the gods.

Creon reasoned according to what he thought the gods would approve. He said the burial of a traitor was “offensive to heaven” while Antigone maintained that she would suffer “for having shown the laws of heaven reverence.” Creon observed that if the traitor prevailed, he would have likely burned the temples of the gods and their sacred altars. Creon went as far as to swear by Zeus to put to death the one who buried the traitor’s corpse. Therefore, Creon believed he was doing the will of the gods by exposing the traitor’s body.

In religion, the will of the gods always reigns supreme to that of human intellect (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9). Moreover, at times human intuition based upon a perceived grasp of their god’s holiness and will fails because what they understood to be the will of their god was the complete opposite (cf. Lev. 10:1-3; 1 Chron. 13:9-10; et. al.). Had Creon indeed sought to please the gods, should he not have inquired about the disposal of Polyneices’ body? What is strikingly apparent is that Creon acted based on emotion in declaring his judgment while Antigone acted within the will of the gods. What further vindicated Antigone’s actions were those corroborating interpretations of the gods’ will.

Haemon described Antigone’s deed as a “pious action” thus indicating her adherence to the god, Hades. Even Creon acknowledged her reverence for Hades and his laws in his anger. Creon said she should place her trust in Hades or else learn “that all her piety is useless.” What solidified Antigone’s actions was Tiresias’s words to Creon: “You do not rule over life and death. You cannot keep here what belongs to the gods below, a corpse, unburied, obscene … Therefore, will Furies attend you, relentless avengers dispatched from Hades.”

Perhaps the overarching principle that eluded Creon was that once dead, a person belonged to Hades. To reject Hades’ will by refusing to bury the dead was to reject the collective will of the gods in respect to their realms of dominion. Tiresias seemed to accost Creon’s actions in refusing the gods of the dead by leaving Polyneices’ body open to scavengers. While a man is mighty and influential on earth, he does not rule “Hades’ relentlessness,” but “when he honors the gods’ laws, his city stands proud, but when he ignores them, what of his city?”

In summation, the body of the dead traitor still deserved its due honor to please the gods, specifically Hades, since this was his realm. No clear stipulations appear to justify Creon’s actions and prohibit Antigone’s other than Creon’s mandate, which did not supersede the gods’ laws. Therefore, the dead, patriot or traitor, was to receive equal honor in burial rites.

This tragedy allows the reader to be the proverbial fly on the wall. We hear Creon’s frustration and plan for a traitor, which most of us might agree with, and Antigone’s reverence for the will of the gods. We’re privy to a back-and-forth over the merits of each position only to wonder who is right. Is there an absolute truth? Yes, but it depended on the zeitgeist of ancient Greece. Chief above all to the ancient Greeks was the intertwining of the state and its religion. Unlike our modern separation of church and state, ancient city-states in Greece would have thought such peculiar. The gods were responsible for the city-state’s success, and everyone, even the king, was indebted to them. In their time, the will of the gods reigned supreme. 

For us in the era of Black Lives Matter, we’d do well to listen. As for myself, the will of God, the Father of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, His will is chief among all. Sadly, not everyone agrees on the validity of the complaints from the black community. It’s because they’re either fueled by bigotry, a political party, or a separate ideology that permits dismissing those griefs. Nevertheless, we can all listen, and we should. 

When John Received the Revelation

Years ago, in my first ministry, I was mid-stride of my sermon on a Sunday evening when I noticed that one of my elders, an elderly man, was head-back, mouth-opened, and, to me, looked dead. “What do I do? What if he’s dead? What if he isn’t dead? All these questions ran through my mind as my cadence slowed. What made matters worse, he couldn’t hear thunderclap if it were right on top of him. What was I to do? As I continued preaching, I happened upon a point in my sermon that I could build. Nay, I could crescendo! For those unaware, a crescendo is when in music, the score may start soft, or piano, and build and build. My voice built and built as with passion, I preached the Word! Nothing. “Oh no, he’s died in worship!” I thought. What could be worse? Do I stop preaching and point this out? His wife was right beside him but so fixed on what I was saying she didn’t even notice. “I know: I’ll pound on the pulpit!” As I’d reached the heights of my vocal projection, I worked in a timely “pound!” on the pulpit like a gospel preacher of old. Slowly, he revived. “He’s not dead! Thank you, God!!!”  

You could ask any preacher about the things they’ve seen from the pulpit, and you’ll hear some exciting stories. Some would be funny, others just sad. Imagine, however, you’re on an island in worship one Sunday, and God gives you a revelation. This is what happened to John the Divine, as he’s later called in church history. Tradition has it that John worshipped in a cave which is today referred to as The Cave of the Apocalypse, a popular pilgrimage site for those who would visit Greece. When he received his vision, John is reported to have dictated it to Prochorus, his disciple, and one of the first seven deacons from Acts 6:5What was John doing when he received this Revelation? Was he alone or with other Christians? These are all questions that interest us, and some to which we have nothing but to speculate, so we’ll stick with what we know.    

Setting the Scene  

We know that John was on the island of Patmos when he received the Revelation (1:9). How he came to be there isn’t altogether clear, but the most plausible explanation has been that he was sent to the island due to his evangelistic endeavors, which were perceived as a threat to the Roman Empire. One might wonder how the good news of Jesus might appear to threaten the mighty Roman Empire, but such a query is quickly answered by the fact that preaching Christ as Lord as much pitted Him against Caesar (Acts 17:7). The conversion of citizens amounted to an uprising, so the leaders of Christians, among whom was John, were targeted with the hopes that the movement would be quelled.  

We know that political opponents, or those out of favor with Caesar, were often exiled (Tacitus, Ann. 14.50; 15.71), and many have offered that Patmos was one such island to which they were sent, the Apostle John himself being one.1 That it was the apostle and not some other John that wrote the work is attested to as early as 166 CE by Justin Martyr (Trypho 81.15).2 Irenaeus, in 202 CE, offered that John received his revelation “towards the end of Domitian’s reign”3which was from 81–96 CE. If this is, in fact, accurate as many scholars suggest it is, we have a general time frame in which to set the writing, which may explain much of the material contained therein.4 Domitian was hostile to not only Christians, history records, but to even several senatorial families—murdering and exiling a number of them. This eventually led to his assassination and a formal condemnation from the senate, but, first, let’s back up a little farther 

The first formal Emperor of Rome, Augustus, undertook many religious reforms that resulted in an exaltation of the emperor cult. All first-century emperors favored it too, and Caligula, Nero, and Domitian provoked marks of adoration. Domitian insisted on having the title Dominus et Deus (“Lord and God”). Such worship proved one’s loyalty to the emperor as well as the wellbeing of Rome herself, and where of all places was the most robust center of the imperial cult but in Asia—the very place where John addressed the Revelation. In the ancient world, Asia had been the epicenter of emperor worship since Augustus, and these issues are likely what prompted the persecution and Revelation of John to surface.5  

We know where John was—in exile on Patmos—and we now turn to what he was doing when the Revelation came: he was ministering to the Lord, likely through prayer (Rev. 1:10; cf. Acts 13:1–3). Why do we surmise that he was ministering to the Lord? Because he notes that it occurred on the Lord’s Day or Sunday as we’d call it.6 On any given Sunday, Christians assembled to worship God. Since John was in exile, he might have only been with a small group, so the formal assembly, as we regard it, was somewhat absent. John, nevertheless, was still capable of worshiping God and while exiled and in worship, he likely was facing East as was the custom of the Jews and early Christians, and he “came to be in the Spirit” (cf. Acts 10:10; 22:17). John uses this phrase four times altogether in the Revelation: here in 1:10, when he’s taken to see the heavenly throne in 4:2, the prostitute Babylon in 17:3, and the New Jerusalem in 21:10. These visions follow the motif of Ezekiel, who also in exile received visions (Ezek. 11:24; 37:1).  

 What John Gave Us  

The next question is what John gave us: a blueprint of the end times as some believed? Or a message to those in the first century that they clearly would have understood? I certainly favor the latter. John told us at the very beginning what he was giving us: a book of prophecy (Rev. 1:3; cf. 22:7, 10, 18–19). In the first century, we know that prophets were in the church because they are listed second behind only the apostles who were heads of the church on earth in the Lord’s place (cf. 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11). John makes reference to the prophets several times in this letter (Rev. 10:7; 16:6; 18:20, 24; 22:6, 9). Since John gave a book of prophecy, though confusing it may be at times, we must treat it as we would any other book of prophecy: historically and literarily.  

On the Western Front during the Great War, the allies were struggling against the Germans. Germany had tapped the allies’ phone lines and was able to break their codes. As American forces are working on a solution, a captain heard two of his soldiers speaking in a strange language. These two soldiers were Choctaw, and they were speaking their mother language. When the captain confronted them, they probably thought they were in trouble because, at the time, such was actually forbidden. They could have been sent to a reeducation program to rid them of using that mother language, but the captain figured that if he couldn’t understand them, then the Germans wouldn’t be able to either. As it turned out, the Germans couldn’t break the code. The war ended not too long after using the Choctaw Code Talkers, and in WWII, the Navajo Code Talkers would take center stage.  

Similar to how the Germans couldn’t break the Choctaw code, understanding Revelation is somewhat of a mystery. Because the visions are so mesmerizing and overwhelming shouldn’t mean that we should make the book say something it doesn’t. John inasmuch told us that these things were “signified” (Rev. 1:1). I know folks hold sincerely held beliefs about this speaking about the end times and the signs of the times, but here’s a reality we must face: we cannot use this book to determine when Jesus will come, because no one knows (Acts 1:7; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Peter 3:10). What we know with certainty is that Jesus will come, and when He does, we best be ready.  

Asserting Rights in the Age of COVID-19

If there’s one discussion that I’m proud to see happening in our country right now, it’s of different people and entities asserting their rights. When President Trump all but claimed that the office of the presidency had absolute power over the country, my mind quickly flickered to the tenth amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Eventually, Trump conceded that the states would determine their opening timelines and processes after giving guidelines.

Yesterday, Kentucky Attorney General, Daniel Cameron, held a press conference reaffirming the first amendment rights of Kentuckians against Governor Andy Beshear’s restrictive policies, specifically against church assemblies and protests. People have lauded Beshear’s handling of the crisis for the state but have conveniently forgotten how as Attorney General himself, he would have sued the Bevin administration before lunch. While he’s mostly avoided making the issue political, he has walked the fine line of violating the rights of Kentuckians.

Then you have the Facebookers who vehemently claim, “Your rights end where my life begins,” anytime someone asserts their rights. While in theory, this is true, they misapply it to democratize the orthodox cult of “we’re all in this togetherness.” A person does have natural and inherent rights, but when those rights infringe upon another’s, they cease to be a right. However, for people to want to assemble in a church or to protest, they must be willing to assume that risk. Liberty comes with risks. For those who don’t want to gather, stay home. No one is forcing anyone to go to church or assemble peaceably in any other regard. Because people assert their first amendment rights does not automatically put others at risk, but those who want to stifle such privileges use poor logic in saying that it puts their life at risk. If those who are so concerned about their lives stayed home while the rest of us go about living our lives, they would have nothing to worry about.

When our country was established and the yoke of the British crown shattered, the defining ideal was liberty. Liberty from tyranny, freedom from excessive taxation without representation, right to worship God how we so choose, and on and on. People today exchange liberty for the illusion of safety, and by so doing, give the government leave to infringe upon the rights of her citizens. At the same time, those who want security are willing to make the deal. How did the Founders envision our liberties? Where did they come from? This is an answer Thomas Paine addressed, and had he not, the efforts of the Revolution might have been for naught.

Alongside Locke and Jefferson stood Thomas Paine for the advocacy of the natural rights of humanity in political and religious liberty. Robert Ingersoll wrote that Paine’s The Rights of Man “was the greatest contribution that literature had given to liberty.” [1] The sole thesis of Paine’s argument for humanity’s rights was an argument from nature—his natural philosophy having been influenced by Isaac Newton. Epistemologically, Paine believed that “He who takes nature for his guide is not easily beaten out of his argument.” [2] Therefore, the greater breadth of his writings utilized the argument from nature to support his conclusions.

Paine wrote that he had obtained a general knowledge of natural philosophy as a child, at which time he began to “confront” the evidence of Christianity.[3] He defined his natural philosophy as “the study of the works of God, and of the power and wisdom of God in his works.” [4] Therefore, Paine would retort, “Why then not trace the rights of man to the creation of man?” [5] Though he would later deconstruct the Bible as a whole, he borrowed from the Mosaic creation account for its “historical authority.” [6] Ingersoll wrote that despite Paine thinking that the Bible was “absurd and cruel,” he found that there were some excellent and useful things therein.[7] The particular passages that he found suited to his views were those of a natural philosophic “nature” (i.e., Psalm 19).

Paine pointed to the distinction of sexes as the only recorded distinction, and the Mosaic creation account of “the equality of man” was, to Paine, “the oldest upon record.” [8] Man’s natural rights were the foundation for his civil rights. The two were distinguished as thus:

Natural rights are those which appertain to man in right of his existence. Of this kind are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind, and also all those rights of acting as an individual for his own comfort and happiness, which are not injurious to the natural rights of others. Civil rights are those which appertain to man in right of his being a member of society.[9]

What must be understood of Paine is that when he refers to man’s natural rights, he refers to “the natural dignity of man.” This dignity is “the honour and happiness of its character.” [10]

How these views, and the doctrine of natural rights, shaped the views of Paine is evident throughout his pamphlets. Governments “un-made” men by their activities, which denied the natural rights of man. Hereditary succession was one of the most disputed notions in his writings because the hereditary succession was unnatural. While the monarchs claimed that their authority came from God, the truth was that kings and kingdoms were actually not God’s will according to the biblical account that Paine referenced in Common Sense. Therein he argued that God reluctantly granted Israel a king. Before their history as a monarchical state, Israel was governed by judges and the elders of the tribes—a form of government that Paine identified as a “kind of republic.” Ergo, since the monarchs of Paine’s time argued for heavenly sanction, Paine went further into Heaven’s decrees to refute hereditary succession. He would also state that virtue is not genetic, so to claim that one man’s rule would be in tandem with another’s who was virtuous was to ignore the “natural” truth about human nature.

One of the strongest NATURAL proofs of the folly of hereditary rights in kings, is, that nature disproves it, otherwise, she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ASS FOR A LION.[11]

Another view for which Paine argued on nature’s basis was the freedom of a person’s mind. This argument was especially useful in dissolving the notion of an established church because one should practice their religion “according to the dictates of conscience.” [12] The natural rights of man’s intellect belonged to one’s religious choice as long as it did not impede the natural rights of another.[13]

With respect to what are called denominations of religion, if every one is left to judge of its own religion, there is no such thing as a religion that is wrong; but if they are to judge of each other’s religion, there is no such thing as a religion that is right; and therefore all the world is right, or all the world is wrong. But with respect to religion itself, without regard to names, and as directing itself from the universal family of mankind to the Divine object of all adoration, it is man bringing to his Maker the fruits of his heart; and though those fruits may differ from each other like the fruits of the earth, the grateful tribute of every one is accepted.[14]

At the time that Paine argued for religious liberty, the country supported a state church. The result of dissenting groups such as Puritans, and from them Quakers, and later Baptists, was persecution. Paine believed that in man’s natural state to make up his own mind, he should choose that sort of devotion that he thought was his “conscientious” devotion to the Almighty as long as it did not obstruct or violate another’s choice.

Paine would argue that persecution was not an original feature of religion, but that it was always the feature of all law-religions, or beliefs established by law. If the lawfulness of faith was taken away, then every religion would assume its own “benignity.” As a testimony to the detriments of the union of the state and religion, Paine cited the effects that such association had on Spain.[15]

Eventually, as history records, liberty would be won both politically and religiously. The poet Joel Barlow reflected on Paine’s contribution to the Revolution. He wrote that “without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.” [16] While the actual fight took place on the battlefield with Washington, Paine’s battlefield was in mind. Barlow aptly noted this sentiment by realizing that thoughts had to change more than battles could win.

[1] Robert G. Ingersoll, “Thomas Paine,” The North American Review 155, no. 429 (Aug. 1892): 181–95.

[2] Common Sense  (Appendix).

[3] The Age of Reason 1.11.

[4] Ibid., 1.8. Cf. Thomas Paine, “A Discourse Delivered to the Society of Theophilanthropists, at Paris,”; and “The Existence of God: A Discourse at the Society of Theophilanthropists, Paris.”

[5]Thomas Paine,  The Rights of Man, in Thomas Paine Collection (Forgotten Books, 2007), 88.

[6] Ibid., 89.

[7] Ingersoll, “Thomas Paine,” 189–90.

[8] Paine, The Rights of Man, 89.

[9] Ibid., 90.

[10] Ibid., 92. Paine’s theories on happiness and being a member of society are reminiscent of Aristotle (cf. Ethics 1.13).

[11] Common Sense (Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession).

[12] Ibid. (Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs).

[13] Paine, The Rights of Man, 90.

[14] Ibid., 107.

[15] Ibid., 108.

[16] Harvey J. Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005), 5.

Antebellum Kentucky was the Frontier for Liberty

Having only recently completed F. H. Buckley’s latest work, American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup, my mind reverted to some work I’d done several years ago. In a history tutorial I took on Early American Intellect, I’d read several sources about Kentucky herself during the post-Revolutionary period. I was intrigued to discover that the state, then, was considered a frontier for liberty and that those who disdained the newly formed federal government of the United States traveled to the Commonwealth to escape the hustle of what they disliked about the newly formed republic. One might find it amazing to envision that the country in her infancy would still find citizens unhappy after defeating the British, but this is indeed what many felt.

Republicanism became a reality when America liberated itself from England. The English crown could no longer claim rights to the prosperity of the new world, and a turning point in history was reached when colonists fought for the chief prerogative of man—liberty. However, in the new republic, factions threatened to unseat any stability that resulted from freedom. The Federalists sympathized with English practices and ways while Republicans—not the political party, but those who favored a republican form of government—disdained the traditions of the former motherland. Those sympathies towards certain customs from the homeland (e.g., aristocracy, monarchical titles, and pomp) were readily associated with a return to the Old World in the New World.

The aftermath of the Revolutionary War did not result in a utopia, and the early republic was not ideal for those who occupied the territory of Kentucky. Several founding fathers were fearful that Kentucky would deal with any government that best suited it regardless of its country of sovereignty; however, Kentucky was not formally a state until 1792. Thomas Jefferson, from Paris in 1786, wrote to Archibald Stuart,

I fear from an expression in your letter that the people of Kentucké think of separating not only from Virginia (in which they are right) but also from the confederacy. I own I should think this a most calamitous event, and such as one every good citizen on both sides should set himself against.[1]

While conceding to their right to separate from Virginia, Jefferson did not desire the territory departing from the confederacy, and with good reason. Jefferson wrote on to Stuart that America should be cautious about how this dilemma played out because America’s response might press Spain, which he did not think was wise at the time.

Since Spain controlled most of what is currently Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, Spain controlled the Mississippi River. The river was vital to transporting goods, so Spain closed the Mississippi River to American trade to detract the westward move. However, once Spain realized that settlers in the Kentucky territory belonged to them, they changed their approach towards the settlers. The Spanish conspiracy, wherein Spain offered trading licenses to settlers in Kentucky, threatened the allegiance, albeit dwindling, of the state to the new republic.

Many Americans were moving to Kentucky in search of greater freedom, and the land was promised as payment to soldiers who fought in the Revolution. The Continental Congress was so poor that it could scarcely afford to live up to its promises to those who fought for liberty—a detail that almost resulted in a Revolution against the Continental Congress—so land in the West seemed to be sufficient.  Kentucky was a sought-after territory because it was believed to have been “a mine of vast wealth.” [2] Many left the East coast for the open land and smaller-to-no government in Kentucky, and the central government was too weak to deal with the exodus: “The Western settlers were as defiant of the new American authorities in the East as they had been of the British crown.” [3] This disdain for the British may be one explanation as to why Western politicians voted for the War of 1812 as a matter of honor.[4]

John Jay and the federal government worried about the West’s propensity to cause trouble in the union. Kentucky would not accept the position of United States attorney, and they disdained the federal government’s excise tax, which nearly led to a show of force from the federal government. One historian described the frontier mind as:

Reckless, exuberant, lawless, violent, brave, the frontiersman of Kentucky acted the part of the utterly free agent and by word or gesture expressed a lively contempt for artificial ethical prescriptions.[5]

Another wrote,

The Kentuckians who opened that part of the Old Northwest on the Ohio River were distinguished by a restless energy, freedom of thought, and a sense of destiny, all attributable to their military heritage.[6]

This freedom of thought welcomed the ideas of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson: “Thomas Paine had been the most widely read author in early Kentucky. His Age of Reason was viral, and answers to it were widely circulated.” [7] While Thomas Paine was very popular with Kentuckians, Thomas Jefferson won their hearts. One 1795 Kentucky toast was stated this way, “May the patriots of ’76 step forward with Jefferson at their head and cleanse the country of degeneracy and corruption.” [8]

Kentucky was in a phase of expansion, and goods from the east were continually being traded with the state. From the previous decade’s treaty enacted by John Jay that favored the British, the Treaty of San Lorenzo was welcomed by Kentuckians for its negotiated open-navigation of the Mississippi. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Federalists had passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Kentucky—along with Virginia—called upon the other states to declare this act unconstitutional. Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison that Kentucky should, “Sever [themselves] from that union [they] so much value, rather than give up the rights of self government which [they] have reserved, and in which [they] alone see liberty.” [9] What is interesting to note from Jefferson’s letter to Madison was that he used personal pronouns when describing Kentucky as if he was a Kentuckian himself. Nevertheless, the Kentucky legislature repeated its opposition and declared a “nullification” of those acts.[10]

By what right did authority claim obedience? This was the question now being asked of every institution, every organization, every individual. It was as if the Revolution had set in motion a disintegrative force that could not be stopped.[11] Perhaps no one understood this sentiment better than Thomas Jefferson, and no people practiced it more than the Westerners. As volatile and vital as the West was in the early republic, Kentucky was at the forefront of liberty. Coupled with Jeffersonian policies, Kentucky became a magnet for the purest lovers of freedom. The stability of Kentucky concerning the union can be said to have been a catalyst for a westward expansion of the United States.

[1] Thomas Jefferson, Letters, in Thomas Jefferson Writings, Merrill D. Peterson, comp., (New York: The Library of America, 2011), 844.

[2] James Madison, Federalist 38.

[3] Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 115.

[4] Ibid., 661.

[5] Arthur K. Moore, The Frontier Mind (Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 1957), 48, 67. Cf. Wood, Empire of Liberty, 319.

[6] R. C. Buley, The Old Northwest (University of Indiana Press, 1951), 1:139.

[7] Kent Ellett, “Jeffersonian Evangelical: Christian Liberty in the Life and Letters of Barton W. Stone,” Discipliana 64, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 79–93.

[8] Wood, Empire of Liberty, 164.

[9] Ibid., 270.

[10] Ibid., 271.

[11] Ibid., 321.

[12] Ibid., 594.

A COVID-19 Leadership Lesson from an Ancient Roman

The year is 19 BCE, and the poet, Virgil is traveling with the Emperor Augustus. For the last ten years, Virgil has been working on an epic poem akin to Homer’s two infamous works, Iliad and Odyssey. The only difference being that Virgil is writing one not for Greece, but for the Roman Empire and its current leader, Augustus. While on this trip to Greece with the Emperor, Virgil has a heat stroke and is unwell. Not seeming to recover, he tells his companions to destroy his manuscript because he isn’t pleased with it in the least. Do they heed his words? No. After the statesman passes away, they present the unfinished work to the Emperor, who then orders it to be published throughout the Empire. Such is done, and even to this day, Virgil’s work remains with us. It is studied in the humanities by those in various disciplines. Luckily for us, they didn’t destroy it as the poet wanted, because we’d be bereft of a marvelous tome that gives us tremendous insight into the first centuries BCE and CE.

It hadn’t been much longer before Virgil began working on his poem that Augustus ended the civil war that ravaged the Empire. Augustus’ great-uncle, Julius Caesar, had crossed the Rubicon—an illegal act to bring an army beyond that point into the holy city—and consolidated power. Rome ceased to be a Republic and became an Empire. Caesar would eventually be assassinated in the Senate by many of his peers. This was only a continuation of the civil war that he’d began with Pompey. Now, various factions were vying for control of Rome. Caesar, himself having fathered no sons, had only his great-nephew, Augustus, to name as his heir, which he had done in his will. Augustus rode the popularity of his uncle and eventually quelled the rivals and, in a triumph, marched their corpses through the streets of Rome and was universally recognized as Emperor. Virgil’s work was to honor not only Augustus but the history of the Roman people.

Virgil picked up where Homer left off, but he picked up with the losers of the Trojan War, the Trojans themselves. He chose Aeneas, a high-ranking soldier, to be his hero and that of Rome. Aeneas and those with him who fled Troy did so in the shadow of a once-thought impregnable city burning in ashes. Flames and smoke filled the sky. Cries could be heard. Aeneas was the surviving officer to lead what Trojans he could to safety, and ultimately to fulfill the gods’ will of sailing to Latium (Italy) where they would establish themselves. Aeneas would be the father of the Roman people. Thrust into this position of sole leadership of the Trojans, Aeneas is portrayed as very much human, but a stalwart chap.

Virgil’s very much concerned with portraying him as human but as dutiful to the will of the gods. The word used in the text of him and his mission is pietas. This is a term we would translate as “duty.” If you’ve ever watched Downton Abbey and The Crown, you will understand a bit about duty. Particularly the latter, Queen Elizabeth is both a person and a monarch, and the crown must always win, as her grandmother tells her in the show. What does this entail? It entails subjugating one’s personal feelings, ties, and desires for the sake of their duty. Aeneas does this, and he is particularly shown to do so when he forsakes the Carthaginian Queen, Dido, to fulfill his mission.

So, you might now be asking, what has all this to do with COVID-19 and leadership? Now I will begin to answer this question, but only after you have an understanding of the context in which this occurred. In the first lines of this epic, Aeneid, the hero, is nearly shipwrecked as he and his compatriots flee the burning city of Troy. In that instance, Aeneas cries aloud to the heavens and gods about his miseries. However, not too much later in the first book of this work, Aeneas addresses those with him thus:

Companions mine, we have not failed to feel
calamity till now. O, ye have borne
far heavier sorrow: Jove will make an end
also of this. Ye sailed a course hard by
infuriate Scylla’s howling cliffs and caves.
Ye knew the Cyclops’ crags. Lift up your hearts!
No more complaint and fear! It well may be
some happier hour will find this memory fair.
Through chance and change and hazard without end,
our goal is Latium; where our destinies
beckon to blest abodes, and have ordained
that Troy shall rise new-born! Have patience all!
And bide expectantly that golden day. (Aeneid, 1.198–207)

He begins by acknowledging not only their loss in battle but the tumultuous journey in fleeing Troy and all the travails that have befallen them since. He, then, instructs them to no longer be afraid and, thus, complain. He points to the future and how they may even look back on this occasion with somewhat of a fondness. That sounds improbable, but he’s leading terrified, demoralized people. He invokes the gods’ will of them reaching Latium (Italy) and rising again. In the meantime, he urges them to be patient and to look forward to their bright future, for it is the will of the gods. After this, we read the following.

Such was his word, but vexed with grief and care,
feigned hopes upon his forehead firm he wore,
and locked within his heart a hero’s pain. (Aeneid, 1.208–210)

Virgil, next, informs us that while saying what he had said, the hero himself was terrified.

Leaders often must portray confidence even in the face of fear and uncertainty. No matter where we find ourselves, we’re all leaders in one way or another. As entrepreneurs, we’ve made tough decisions over the past month. People have had to be furloughed or laid off. Maybe even our inventory has had to be discarded or drastically reduced in price to keep afloat. As elected officials, we want to consider so many points that making the right decision seems like a no-win scenario. No matter what we decided, it won’t be popular with everyone, but we will make the decision based on the best available data. As parents, we want our children to be healthy and well, and we don’t want them to fear. We may grapple with our own fears, but we know if we let them know that we’re afraid, it could bring about the anxiety we aren’t equipped to manage. 

In my own position as a minister, I have found that the balancing act of doing what’s in the best interest of the congregation I serve and love as well as expressing my personal views is a tough road to travel. I’ve found it necessary to halt voicing my own opinions only because it garners more animosity than it’s worth. Though I’m no economist or epidemiologist, as a man of letters, I can read, research, decipher, and form what I believe to be an intelligent opinion. However, when people are afraid, no amount of reason is well-received and often subject to misinterpretation. I care for people: their health, their economy, and their rights. I’ve subjected my personal feelings to the backburner on all that is taking place for the sake of a greater good—bringing peace and calm in an unprecedented time. Virgil has been my instructor in this venture as of late. If I had it to do over again, I would have withheld my own views for fear that it may alienate someone from Christ by my role as a minister. The Gospel is exceedingly more important than being right. My opinion isn’t that important if it would create a chasm between myself and a potential convert to Jesus. Virgil taught me this through his own leadership of people, and he can show us all how to best lead during this period.

Vergil. Aeneid. Theodore C. Williams. trans. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Co. 1910.

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