Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Sneaky Idolatry


(An excerpt from my work on John's Spirituality)

That’s one of the major claims of the Revelation of John:  we can only see the world for what it truly is when we are gathered to worship the Creator and the Lamb.  Since the Apocalypse was supposed to be read and heard when Christians gathered for worship on the Lord’s day, it is telling that this vision, filled with idol imagery and false worship, was part of their worship experience.  You would think a description of such blasphemous things would be banned from their meetings, that getting Christians to envision idols and false worship would be counter-productive.  It is a bit odd, isn’t it?  Gathered for worship to focus your attention on the one true God, all of the sudden—as a part of your worship experience—you’re picturing your neighbors worshipping the wrong god.  It’s one thing to see with your mind’s eye Michael kick the dragon out of heaven, no longer able to accuse us because of the “blood of the Lamb.”  (Imagine the cheers coming from the crowd.)  But encouraging these Christians to imagine idolatrous worship, perhaps even stirring up memories of their religious past as idol worshippers, seems out of place to us.  Idolatry should be the last thing on your mind when you’re worshipping God.  But, first-century worshippers couldn’t afford to ignore the obvious.  They lived in a world filled with idols.  In their day, you couldn’t open your eyes without seeing one—not to mention the fact that idolatry was embedded in every facet of life:  politics, economics, and religion.  Shutting your eyes and refusing to think about idolatry wasn’t an option.  Instead, according to John’s vision, what Christians needed to do was open their eyes to the lies, the deceit, the pretense of false worship—especially the worship of Caesar.[1]  And, the only way they could see the truth was when they worshipped God.[2]  The Revelation of John was a call to “first-commandment faithfulness.”[3]  Therefore, “those who bear witness to the one true God, the only true absolute, to whom all political power is subject, expose Rome’s idolatrous self-deification for what it is.”[4]

That’s what happens when we worship God:  we not only see the truth about God but also recognize the pretense of self-deification—those competing for the honor due exclusively to God.  During worship services, we often say our God is “worthy of worship,” which makes me think about who or what is not worthy of worship.  Government is not worthy of worship.  Wall Street is not worthy of worship.  The military is not worthy of worship.  Nature is not worthy of worship.  Education is not worthy of worship.  Lawyers are not worthy.  Preachers are not worthy.  Physicians are not worthy.  Politicians are not worthy.  Entrepreneurs are not worthy.  Entertainers are not worthy.  No one or no thing is worthy of worship but God.  You would think, therefore, that we would be especially vigilant to protect God’s honor, refusing to allow idolatry to creep into our worship services.  Since God doesn’t share his glory with anyone, we would be reticent to give glory to any person as part of our worship to God.  And yet, it happens all the time.  We applaud musical performances.  We create church celebrities through video.  We pledge allegiance to governments.  We sing songs about our native land.  We exalt politicians when they visit our worship services.  We praise soldiers for their military service.  No one questions the legitimacy of these practices.  It all happens automatically, as if it were a natural part of our worshipping God.  Our adoration is impulsive, worshipping God one minute while venerating our heroes the next.  Indeed, it’s not much of a stretch to praise those we idolize even while we’re praising God.  And we thought idolatry was only a first-century problem.

This particular year, the Fourth of July fell on a Sunday.  The auditorium was decked out in stars and stripes.  An American flag was draped over the cross.  The choir called us to worship with a hearty rendition of “God Bless America.”   Then we sang several patriotic songs, “O beautiful for spacious skies,” and “You’re a grand old flag, you’re a high-flying flag” and “My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  The pastor stepped forward to lead us in the pledge of allegiance and offered a prayer for the leaders of our nation.  Next, the music director invited the congregation to join in a medley of service anthems, asking members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines to stand while we all sang their fight songs:  “First to fight for the right and to build the Nation’s might . . .  Roll out the TNT, anchors aweigh.  Sail on to victory and sink their bones to Davy Jones, hooray . . . Off we go into the wild blue yonder, climbing high into the sun; here they come zooming to meet our thunder, at ‘em boys, give ‘er the gun . . . From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we fight our country’s battles, in the air, on land and sea . . . .”  With the words “roll out the TNT” and “give ‘er the gun” still ringing in my ears, the choir sang “Statue of Liberty” while patriotic and religious images were projected on screens behind the choir.  At one point, a picture of an American soldier appeared on the left screen while an image of the crucified Christ was projected on the right as the choir sang, “as the statue liberates the citizen, so the cross liberates the soul.”  Troubled by the vision and audition, I looked around to see if anyone else was offended.  The congregation was glowing with adoration, taking in the spectacle with pride and wonder.  I kept thinking about the mixed message, unable to get out of my mind the images of a man who kills his enemies juxtaposed next to the man who died for his enemies.  Throughout the sermon, while the preacher effortlessly blended freedom in Christ with the religious liberty protected by our nation, I imagined what a “God-and-Country” worship service would look like in the first-century world.

That particular year, the autumnal equinox fell on a Sunday.  Christians in Ephesus are gathered in the hall of Tyrannus for their special worship service.[5]  The walls of the lecture hall are covered with murals depicting momentous events in the life of the Ephesians:  citizens welcoming the victorious Mark Antony, the erection of the temple to Augustus, the birth of Artemis, scenes from the games held in Domitian’s honor.  In the corners, Roman standards decorate the hall—a Roman eagle perched on top of the flag at the front.  A bust of Caesar stands in the pediment over the entrance, welcoming congregants as they gather for worship.  As the service begins, a dignitary recites the inscription etched on the temple to Augustus, extolling his generous benefaction of the city.  A chorus leads the congregants in singing selections from the Psalter, mixing in well-known anthems sung during the festival of Artemis—hymns of gratitude for the fertility of the land, the protection of their city, and the prosperity of their harbor.  After a few ex-soldiers are encouraged to stand and recite the sacramentum, the preacher offers a midrash on Isaiah 45:1, comparing Caesar to Cyrus, quoting lines from Paul’s letter to the Romans:  “Let every person submit to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority unless it is given by God” (13:1).  As he points to the bust of Caesar and the Roman standards, blending the pax Romana and the pax Christi, the staccato rhythm of his cadence accentuates Paul’s words:  “he who resists authority opposes the decrees of God . . . It is a minister of God . . . It does not bear the sword for nothing . . . This is why you pay taxes, for the rulers are ministers of God . . .  So render to them what is due to them:  taxes, customs, fear, honor” (vv. 2-7).  After the homily, a patron invites everyone to his villa to celebrate the love feast as members embrace one another, passing the peace of Christ.

This is how easily idolatry sneaks into our worship of God.


[1]“The local manifestations of the imperial cult seek to foster ongoing awe and gratitude toward the emperor and Rome.  John replaces these feelings with indignation, enmity, and anger in order to support his agenda for Christian presence in Roman Asia:  fostering critical witness, with no room for idols, no room for assimilation to, and support of, the mechanisms of imperial legitimation,” deSilva, Seeing Things, p. 203.
[2]“These elemental forms of perception of God not only require expression in worship:  they cannot be truly experienced except as worship,” Bauckham, Theology, p. 33.
[3]Talbert, Revelation, p. 11.
[4]Bauckham, Theology, p. 39.
[5]For an excellent description of life in Ephesus, see Paul Trebilco, The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), pp. 11-52.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Worship as warfare


(An excerpt from my work on John's Spirituality [IVP Academic])

After Christ revealed the truth about the seven churches (1:9-3:22)—strengths and weaknesses, threats and opportunities—the seer’s first glimpse of what’s really going on in the world comes from a heavenly perspective.  Having been called up to witness the worship of God and His Lamb (4:1-5:14), John looks down upon the world as the sealed scroll is opened, bringing about the judgment of God on earth (6:1-8:1).  It’s significant that John’s vision of “things to come” happens during heavenly scenes of worship.  Even though John is called up to heaven, passing through the heavenly portal that brings him into the throne room of God, even though he sees and hears different kinds of heavenly creatures offer unceasing praise and adoration, the worship of God is not shut up within the heavenlies.  Indeed, devoted worship of the Pantocrator and the Lamb extends to the earth, with “every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea” joining in festal praise (Rev. 5:13).  The interplay between scenes of heavenly worship and the things “that must take place” reveal the eschatological purpose of worshipping God.  According to John’s vision, when we worship God we are able to see the end of the world.  Not only that, those who have ears to hear the reading of John’s Revelation and join in heavenly worship end up participating in the unfolding drama of this eschatological narrative—the story of heaven invading earth.2  In this way, then, “the kingdom of God and the rule of the Messiah—future, eschatological claims—are acclaimed in heavenly liturgies as present, ‘eternal’ realities.”3  Indeed, every time we gather to worship God, we’re declaring war on the world—like street-prophets holding up signs that say, “The End is Near.”

That’s why worship is an act of war in the Revelation of John.4  Notice how all seven visions of the end of the world begin with a heavenly scene.5  Sometimes John saw the heavenly temple of God (Rev. 8:3-5; 11:19; 15:5-8).  Other times he saw the throne of God and His heavenly council (Rev. 4:1-5:14; 14:1-5; 15:1-4; 19:1-10).  Whether in the temple or around the throne, each vision begins with a festal gathering of worshippers.  Then, God executes judgment on the earth, launching His invasion with armies of heavenly beings—from horsemen to angels—so that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ” (Rev. 11:15).  In the unfolding eschatological drama, two overlapping worlds (spatial and temporal) blend into one:  heaven crashes into earth; the future is precipitated by the present.  The dystopian scene is replicated over and over again.  After the saints worship God and the Lamb, all hell breaks loose on earth.  And so, the way John sees it, the Apocalypse is an unveiling of—a behind-the-scenes look at—what happens when we worship God.  The seer is pulling back the veil, helping us see the invisible war occurring in the visible world as the reign of God is established on earth as it is in heaven.  More than that, the seer’s vision is a call to participate:  when we worship God we wage war against the powers that oppose him and us.  Worship, therefore, becomes a subversive act whereby we overcome the idolatrous powers and their pretentious rule.  Despite the ruinous effects of evil powers trying to destroy God’s creation, we are declaring in worship, “Our God reigns!”  Indeed, the apocalyptic vision of a dystopian world is a Christian hope of God turning the world right side up, when earth is elevated to heaven’s purpose through divine purification.  Furthermore, the promise (perhaps even evidence) of a dystopian world is, therefore, the apocalyptic sign of God’s reclamation of all creation.  That evil is putting up a fight by trying to muck up the place is proof that God, the Lamb, and his slaves are winning the war.  It’s just a matter of time until every one sees it on the last day, when heaven and earth become one.  In the meantime, one must have ears to hear the audition in order to envision the end—now and then.


1 Contra Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation:  Justice and Judgment, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1998), 122, who argues that John’s auditors do not take part in the heavenly worship until the end, i.e., in the new heaven and earth.  Yet, there is no service of worship in the visions of the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1-22:5).
2 Leonard L. Thompson, The Book of Revelation:  Apocalypse and Empire (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1990), 66.
3 Ibid., 65.
4 Bauckham, Theology, pp. 67-70.
5 I follow Talbert’s schema, “Seven visions of the end times,” Apocalypse, p. 26.