Book Write-Up: Revelation, by Charles C. Ryrie

Charles C. Ryrie. Revelation. Moody, 1996, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

Charles Ryrie was a renowned conservative Christian scholar, theologian, and author. This book is a commentary on the Book of Revelation, written on a popular level yet influenced by scholarship.

Ryrie’s perspective is pre-tribulational and pre-millennial. “Pre-tribulational” means that he believes that the church (both living and dead saints) will be raptured to heaven before the seven year Great Tribulation. “Pre-millennial” means that he believes that Christ will return at the end of the Great Tribulation and establish a thousand year reign on earth. Ryrie defends these views occasionally, while describing other views, using helpful visual aids.

Ryrie is also dispensational, but he overlaps with and differs from other dispensationalists whom I have read, such as E.W. Bullinger, who is often called a “hyper-dispensationalist.” At its basic level, dispensationalism distinguishes between the church and Israel, rather than treating the church as the new Israel. Ryrie adheres to dispensationalism in this sense. Unlike Bullinger, however, he does not treat the church as spectators of the Lamb’s marriage with Israel but rather holds that the Lamb is marrying those redeemed from among the Jews and the Gentiles. Yet, like Bullinger, Ryrie does make distinctions when it comes to the Lamb’s marriage. On pages 152-153, he states regarding the friends of the Bridegroom in Revelation 17:9: “These guests are not the bride, and they are not unsaved people, so they must be redeemed people who are not members of the church, the body of Christ.”

Like many dispensationalists, Ryrie also believes that the church operates under salvation by free grace and once-saved-always-saved. This perspective influences his approach to certain passages. Revelation 19:8 states that the bride is arrayed in fine linen, which is the righteous deeds of the saints. Ryrie states: “The bride is the bride because of the righteousness of Christ; the bride is clothed for the wedding because of her acts” (page 152). In Revelation 3:5, Christ promises the church at Sardis that the overcomer will not be blotted out of the Book of Life. Ryrie interprets overcoming as believing in Christ, in light of I John 5:4-5, and he states: “This statement does not threaten the possible loss of one’s salvation but rather promises assurance that no believer will ever lose it” (pages 35, 41). That is Ryrie’s approach to the promises to the churches in Revelation 2-3: they are not rewards for doing good, but rather they represent Christ trying to reassure the churches about the blessings that they already have, as that can strengthen them amidst temptation and persecution. Unfortunately, Ryrie does not really address Christ’s threats to the churches. What did Christ mean in Revelation 2:5 when he threatened to remove the Ephesian church’s candlestick, unless she repented? Is that a loss of salvation?

Ryrie is not exactly an antinomian. Regarding those who are cast into the Lake of Fire for certain sins in Revelation 21:8, Ryrie states: “Notice that the text does not say that anyone who has ever committed any of these sins will be excluded, but people whose lives are characterized in these ways” (page 167). He later calls them “unsaved people.” This is both helpful and unhelpful. Why are the “fearful” included in that list of unsaved people? Ryrie does not say. My guess is that, in the Book of Revelation, those who fear the world and the Beast will give in to them, and that brings condemnation. My problem with the verse is that I have long struggled with fear, and not just occasional fear.

As a conservative Christian, Ryrie tries to address the passages in Revelation that seem to suggest that the end is near, as in, expected to occur in John’s day. There were not many surprises there. Like a lot of dispensationalists, he interprets “things which must shortly come to pass” in Revelation 1:1 to mean that, when Christ does finally come, it will be quickly. But he realizes that Revelation 22:10 states that “the time is near,” so he says, “these events are near because a thousand years are as a day with the Lord (2 Peter 3:8)” (page 18). To his credit, Ryrie does cite passages in favor of his interpretation of “shortly.” He is not very convincing, though, for Revelation often conveys a tone of urgency.

In terms of strengths, the book is informative. For example, in discussing the Lord’s day in Revelation 1:10, Ryrie notes that kyriakos outside of the New Testament means “imperial,” so the Lord’s day could be when Christ “takes the reins of earthly government” (page 23) rather than Sunday. Ryrie sometimes ignores details, but at other times he tries to explain details, and he sifts through different perspectives in so doing. He refers to translational issues: the angel of Revelation 8:13 is actually an eagle; Ryrie does not explain the significance of that, however. Occasionally, Ryrie is rather elliptical. On page 146, he interprets Revelation 18:2’s statement about fallen Babylon being the cage of unclean and hateful birds by saying: “The latter phrase possibly alludes to the birds in the parable of the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31-32), indicating the demonic forces at work in the apostate system.” What? The birds who rest in the branches of the tree in Matthew 13:32 are demonic? The book has a cozy tone, and yet one has to pay close attention lest one miss an intriguing insight.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

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Church Write-Up: Spiritual Gifts, Idolatry, Cross Plus

I went to the weekly adult Bible study at the LCMS. It resumed meeting, after a hiatus.

The pastor started a series on I Corinthians.

Here are some items:

A. A key topic in I Corinthians is spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are acts of God’s grace. They are given to believers, not because they are deserving or conjured them up themselves, but because of God’s free gift. They exist to glorify God and to build up the church. Unfortunately, Christians in Corinth, on the basis of these gifts, acted as if they were superior. Those with flashier gifts, like tongues, thought that God liked them more than those who had less flashy gifts, like hospitality.

B. In Corinth was a temple to Apollo. It had Corinthian columns, which bulge in the center for support and for an optical illusion: so that the columns from a distance will look straight. If the column were straight, it would look caved in from a distance. Wherever people in Corinth would go, the temple of Apollo would look over them. Corinth had a lot of idolatry. As a cosmopolitan city and a trading hub connecting the east and the west of the Roman empire, it attracted different ideas, not just goods. Paul believed that the idols were nothing, yet he also thought that idolatry was an entry-point for demons, who use it to promote orgies and prostitution.

C. Some Christians in Corinth thought that the cross was good as a beginning, but that something needed to be added to the cross in order for one to become intimate with God. They claimed to have special wisdom and knowledge, so Paul opens I Corinthians by saying that God’s wisdom is in the cross, which is above human wisdom. Paul in I Corinthians 12:3 says that no one speaking by the Spirit of God can say Jesus is cursed. The pastor said that this does not refer to Christians cursing Jesus under threat of persecution, for that was the time before the Roman persecution of Christianity. The pastor suspects that Paul is criticizing adding Christianity to other things. When Christianity is mixed with other belief systems, Christianity is what gets compromised. Some examples that he cited were Christian socialism and Thomas Merton incorporating Buddhist meditation into Christian monasticism. But he referred to other controversial issues: organs were played in the Roman collosseum, while Christians were being killed by lions. Consequently, some Christians recoiled at using organs in worship, but they were eventually accepted because they could be heard in large cathedrals.

Here, questions enter my mind.

Is the cross (and I include Jesus’s resurrection in this) the only thing that Christians need to know? Is Paul’s problem that the Corinthian Christians were saying that one needs to know something in addition to the cross? Or is his problem more that they were marginalizing the cross of Christ—which is of paramount importance in terms of how God is and how Christians should live—in favor of human-made ideas?

Does not the New Testament, at times, treat the cross as the beginning, or as one of the basics, while thinking Christians should move on to other material? Paul says he needed to feed the Corinthians with milk because they were not ready for meat. (And, by the way, I remember reading E.W. Bullinger speculate that this was why Paul came to them knowing nothing but Christ and him crucified, according to I Corinthians 2:2.) Hebrews 6:1-3 talks about not laying again the foundation, which includes repentance, baptism, the resurrection, and judgment; those are basics, and Christians are to move on to perfection. I asked the pastor about this, and he replied that, in Hebrews, the author is exhorting his audience not merely to trust their outward confession of their faith, with their lips, but rather to internalize their confession in faith. Back to my original question in this paragraph: I do not think that the New Testament treats the cross as something from which believers graduate. It is part of the advanced material, as well.

Is it wrong for Christians to practice Buddhist meditation, or to be socialists because they believe that coincides with the principles of their Christian faith? There are Christians who are Republicans because they believe that the Republican Party reflects their Christian values. Obviously, one can look at the German Christian movement of the 1930’s and see an example of where mixing Christianity with something else can go bad. Christianity plus racialism, or Christianity plus devotion to the Fuhrer. The result, of course, was that Christianity got marginalized. And this could occur with other mixtures: is Buddhist meditation taking one’s focus off of Christ? Does Christian commitment to a particular political creed lead one to hate and demonize those with a different political persuasion? I think a key question is: What sets the agenda? Is it the Christianity, or the something else?

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Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective An Evangelical Review

Malcolm Nicholson

Thomas E. Levy, Thomas Schneider, William H.C. Propp (editors), Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective, Text, Archaeology, Culture and Geoscience, Springer International Publishing, Switzerland, 2015, 584 pages

Between May 31 and June 3, 2013, a conference “Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text, Memory and Imagination” was held at the University of California, San Diego. 44 papers were presented by contributors from the United States, Canada, Israel and Europe. They were published in 2015 as Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective: Text, Archaeology, Culture and Geoscience, edited by Thomas Levy, Thomas Schneider and William Propp.

I approached this collection of papers wanting to see what mainstream scholarship believed about the historicity of the Exodus and the subsequent Conquest of Canaan.

I was disappointed there was no contribution by Kenneth Kitchen, Professor Emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool, an expert Egyptologist and an evangelical Christian. The only evangelical contributor…

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Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, book review — Enough Light

Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity by Stanley Stowers, Westminster Press, 1986. This book caught my eye in the Christian non-fiction section of my local used book store, for a couple reasons. As a student of the Bible, many of our New Testament books are letters. And my life long, beloved hobby is postal letter writing. […]

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Book Write-Up: Jerusalem’s Queen, by Angela Hunt

Angela Hunt. Jerusalem’s Queen: A Novel of Salome Alexandra. Bethany House, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

Jerusalem’s Queen is the third book of Angela Hunt’s “Silent Years” series, which is about the period between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The first book is about Cleopatra VII, and the second book concerns Judah the Maccabee. This third book is about Salome Alexandra. Salome Alexandra was the queen of Judea in the early first century BCE. She empowered the Pharisees.

Jerusalem’s Queen alternates between the perspective of Salome Alexandra, originally called “Shelamzion,” and Kissa, her servant from Egypt. The book goes from the reign of John Hyrcanus I, through the oppressive reign of Alexander Jannaeus, to the death of Salome and the rivalry between her sons, which led to the Roman takeover of Judea and the end of Jewish political independence. In the book’s moving ending, one of the characters encounters Simeon, the man in Luke 2 who saw Jesus Christ before his death.

Overall, the book effectively explores theological issues, as Sadducees dialogue with Pharisees, and Essenes get into the discussion. Honi the circle-drawer has a cameo. Shelamzion questions her uncle John Hyrcanus’s Hellenism and the royal airs he puts on as high priest. Political tensions recur in the book, and powerful personalities encounter powerful personalities. Hunt makes use of ancient sources, such as Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and rabbinic literature, and she presents her critical assessment of the sources in an appendix.

Reading about Salome, there are additional stories that Hunt could have included, which may have rounded out the book a little more, but Hunt chose as she did. I disagree somewhat with something she says in the appendix. She presents Shelamzion and Kissa together in the Jerusalem temple, and she says that this is plausible because, prior to Herod’s temple, there were only two courts: one for the people, and one for the priests. There was not yet a “Court of the Women” or “Court of the Gentiles.” Yet, Antiochus III’s decree in 200 BCE (Josephus, Ant. 12.145–46) presumes that Jewish law forbids Gentiles to enter the temple enclosure. That should factor into the discussion somewhere. Incidentally, I do not remember the scene in which Shelamzion and Kissa are together at the Jerusalem temple—only the scene in which they are at the Heliopolis temple. If Kissa was a slave when she was at the Jerusalem temple, perhaps she would have been allowed at its enclosure, since slaves were considered part of Israelite households (Genesis 17:12; Exodus 12:44).

The book has an evangelical perspective, which influences the issues that are placed on the table. In one part of the book, a Pharisee was saying that the Messiah would be a king and a priest, like a Christian would. (Elsewhere in the book, an Essene says that there would be two Messiahs, one priestly Messiah and one royal, and that is what is in the Dead Sea Scrolls.)  I wondered how plausible the Pharisee’s speech was, or if Hunt was placing evangelical beliefs into the mouth of the Pharisee. I suppose it is not impossible that a Pharisee would say that, since the Hebrew Bible does sometimes depict David as a priest-king (II Samuel 8:18; Psalm 110:4), and perhaps a Pharisee could pick up on that. On whether such a sentiment occurs in rabbinic literature, that is a question that deserves further research.

The book’s evangelical perspective does lead to an interesting discussion: is obeying the rites of the law sufficient to be righteous, or is something further than that necessary? In a poignant scene, Kissa acknowledges that she obeys the law as part of Shelamzion’s household, yet she does not feel a connection with God.

There is an intriguing statement on page 305. An Essene Torah teacher is responding to Shelamzion’s question of whether the Messiah will overthrow her husband Alexander Jannaeus. The Torah teacher replies: “The Teacher of Righteousness has called your husband ‘the wicked priest,’ but I do not believe he considers Alexander Jannaeus the wicked priest described in the text. Your husband does not rule Egypt and Syria.” Shelamzion then sighs and says, “So we should not expect the Messiah until later?” At the moment, I do not know where the Dead Sea Scrolls say that the Wicked Priest rules Egypt and Syria. But there have been different ideas about the identity of the Wicked Priest, and whether there was only one.

This is my favorite book in the series thus far.

I checked this book out from the library. My review is honest.

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Book Write-Up: Rewire Your Heart, by David Bowden

David Bowden. Rewire Your Heart: Replace Your Desire for Sin with Desire for God. Nelson Books, 2018. See here to buy the book.

How can Christians overcome sin in their lives? One suggestion, of course, is “Just say no.” But I have heard alternative advice from Christians over the years. “Don’t focus on not lusting, but draw closer to God, and then you will not lust.” I heard a pastor offer similar advice about smoking.

David Bowden leans more towards the latter advice. For Bowden, sin is the result of misplaced affections. We seek fulfillment from sin when only God can satisfy those needs. I remember Tim Keller making a similar point: maybe, contrary to Freud, religion is not the result of unsatisfied sexual desire, but rather our search for sexual fulfillment is really an aim to satisfy a religious need.

In my opinion, and other readers may differ, the book is a little thin on how Christians can replace their desire for sin with a desire for God. The book talks about focusing on God’s free grace in Christ. Bowden draws a lot from Reformed thought, but, unlike some prominent Reformed thinkers, he leans heavily towards the grace side of the grace-law/works/fruit continuum.

Such an approach leaves questions unanswered. How can a Christian rest in God’s grace, when there is so much in the Bible about divine wrath, the need for good works, and the contingency of forgiveness, or even God’s acceptance? If simply trusting in God’s free grace decreases a desire for sin, why do so many believers in God’s free grace still struggle with sin, and in some cases simply give in to it?

And can devotional religious activity or thinking the right religious thoughts decrease sexual desire or addictions? I do not hastily answer “no” to this question, for people do look to sex or addictions for a sense of peace or fulfillment, often in unhealthy ways. But some desires are due to human biology.

The book has its assets, though. Bowden offered effective illustrations. His interpretations of Genesis 3 and Romans 7 were intriguing. He does well to attempt to offer something positive, rather than merely saying “Just say no” to the negative.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through BookLook Bloggers. My review is honest.

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Church Write-Up: Parental Equation, Bruised Reed and Smoldering Wick, Costly Parchment

Here are three items about Sunday morning’s LCMS service.

A. The youth pastor was saying that children should honor their parents. Our parents are not perfect, he said, but they have done for us more than we have done for them. That may not be true for everyone, but it has been true for me.

B. The pastor talked about how we do not like to fail. Some of us quit projects midway because we are frustrated and we would rather quit than fail. Or we paint a bulls-eye around our arrow, rationalizing to ourselves that we hit the target. When it comes to God’s commands about how we should live, we find ourselves in many cases missing the target altogether. God did not give us the law just so we can fail, however, for the law instructs us as to how to live God’s way of life, different from what the world lives.

Jesus is God’s ultimate servant who acted in a manner that glorifies God. Isaiah 42:3 affirms that the servant shall not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick. A bruised reed was a reed that was bent over by the winds and unable to become straight. We may find ourselves broken by life and by our sins, unable in our own strength to get back up. Like a smoldering wick, our sin and selfishness have snuffed out our relationships with God and others.

C. The Sunday school class was the series about the production of books in antiquity. Papyri were good for books because they were from plants, whereas animals (for leather and parchment) were costly to raise. But papyri mainly grew in Egypt and, as plants, dried out and became brittle. Leather and parchment were more durable but were from animals, and it was costly to raise animals for writing material, to devote time and resources to feeding and watering them when most people went to bed hungry. The teacher was illustrating and reinforcing a point that he made last week: that it was costly to produce books. Consequently, even scribes with adequate materials abbreviated some words to spread out the supply of their materials.

Suppose, the teacher said, you have Ron in one city and Jay in the other. Both are Christians. They ask each other what books each other’s church has. Ron’s church has the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of the Ebionites. Jay’s church has the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Mary. They then ask each other what they use in church services, and Ron’s church uses the Gospel of Matthew, and Jay’s church uses the Gospel of Mark. Each wants a copy of the other’s Gospel, but it would take a while for them to get that. They have to get the materials and find a scribe, then transporting the material will be time-consuming. The teacher was saying that one reason for canonization—deciding which books to copy and circulate for usage—was economic: they had to pick which books they deemed important, since books were costly to make.

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