Monday, June 28, 2010

Where Exactly is "Babylon the Great?"

In recent years, prophecy writers often comment on how the rebuilding of the ancient city of Babylon is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy and a sign of the end times in part because of the prophecies concerning the fall of Babylon the Great in Revelation 17-18 ( ). However, the contrasts developed between Babylon and the New Jerusalem in Revelation 17-22 suggest that Babylon is more a theological symbol than a specific geographical location. In his book From Eden to the New Jerusalem, T. Desmond Alexander (p. 176) has noted several specific contrasts between the New Jerusalem vs. Babylon in the closing chapters of Revelation:

1. The chaste bride and wife of the Lord (Rev 21:2, 9) vs. the great harlot (Rev 17:2)
2. Nations walking by her light (Rev 21:24) vs. the corruption and deception of the nations (Rev 17:2; 18:3, 23; 19:2)
3. Glory of nations brought to her (Rev 21:26) vs. luxurious wealth extorted from the nations (Rev 18:12-17)
4. Uncleanness, abomination, and falsehood excluded (Rev 21:27) vs. impurities, abominations, and deception as prominent features (Rev 17:4-5; 18:23).
5. The association with life and healing (Rev 22:1-2) vs. the association with the blood of slaughter (Rev 17:6; 18:24)
6. The water of life and tree of life for the healing of the nations (Rev 21:6; 22:1-2) vs. the wine which makes the nations drunk (Rev 14:8; 17;2; 18:3)
7. The call to enter (Rev 22:14) vs. the call to leave and come out (Rev 18:4)
As Alexander explains, Babylon represents the world in rebellion against God. In the Old Testament, Babylon is the locale where humans unite in their defiance against God by building a city and tower (Gen 11:1-9).

Babylon is the prime example of a tyrannical empire that opposes God and oppresses the people of God (Ps 137; Isa 13-14; Jer 50-51):

“Whereas the New Jerusalem lies in the future and will be a city built by God, Babylon already exists. It is here and now, for it is the great human city built by people who live in defiance of God. As we shall see, the book of Revlation presents us with an important choice. We have to choose between being a citizen of this world’s godless Babylon or a citizen of God’s future New Jerusalem.”

“The Babylon of Revelation is often taken to be a cipher for Rome, the greatest ‘city’ in the first century AD. There is no doubt that Rome is included within the image of Babylon. However, Babylon as a symbol should not be restricted to the capital of the Roman Empire, because it represents and embodies what human beings strive after when separated from God, Babylon is the antithesis of the city that God himself desires to construct upon the earth.” (p. 181)

“In Revelation, the city of Babylon symbolizes humanity’s obsession with wealth and power, which become a substitute for knowing God. History witnesses to the ongoing existence of Babylon, as one nation after another has used its power to grow rich at the expense of others. We live in a world where economic power dominates national and international politics.” (pp. 182-83)

James L . Resseguie, in his recent The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary, also recognizes the contrast between Babylon and the new Jerusalem and provides a similar understanding of what Babylon symbolizes and represents in Revelation (p. 35):

"Two cities . . . are symbolic: Babylon and the new Jerusalem. The new Jerusalem is the ideal city, the city of God, the new promised land (21:1-22:5). The other symbolic city, Babylon, is the satanic parody of Jerusalem. Babylon looks like Rome with its seven mountains (17:9); claims to divinity (‘blasphemous names,” 17:3) are plastered over its throne, the scarlet beast. Yet Babylon is more than the imperial city. It is ‘Babylon,’ the ancient city of Israel’s exile and alienation (see Ps 137). It is ‘Sodom,” a symbol of wickedness (Rev 11:8; cf. Gen 19:1-25; Deut 29:22-23; Isaiah 1:9-15; 3:9; Jer 23:14-15), and ‘Egypt’,’ the place of slavery and alienation (Rev 11:8; cf. Exod 5:1-21; Joel 3:19). It is the tower of Babel rising to the heavens staking a claim to be God. Babylon is the archetypal city of this world that seeks to deify itself and to rule supreme. Rome fits the bill--and so does any and every place that makes claims that belong to God alone."

"Babylon and Jerusalem represent the two choices of the Apocalypse. Babylon, the city of this world, the place of exile and alienation for Christians, is the spiritual capital for those who are earthbound, whose point of view is from below (that is, from this world). The earthbound includes not only those outside the church but also those within. Babylon is where the 'inhabitants of the world' dwell and the followers of the beast make their home. Yet Babylon is not only the home of the earth's inhabitants; it is also where Christians live, although it cannot be called their home. In John's world, Christians are exiled to Babylon. Thus, John calls Christians to come out of Babylon in 18:4 and not take part in her sins. Although it is impossible to leave Babylon physically, Christians can leave Babylon figuratively by resisting its norms, values, and believes and by following the Lamb to the new promised land, the new Jersualem.”

We also see a contrast between two cities in Isaiah’s Little Apocalypse (Isa 24-27), a section portraying God’s eschatological judgment of the nations and salvation of his people. The inhabitants of Jerusalem will rejoice in God’s deliverance (Isa 26:1-3; 27:13), and peoples from all nations will gather for a banquet in celebration of the removal of death itself (Isa 25:6-10). In contrast to Jerusalem is the desolate city of the proud that has become a heap and a ruin because of God’s devastating judgment (Isa 24:10-12; 25:1-2, 12; 27:10). Rather than indicating a specific place here, the city stands for the whole world and represents all of the cities of the earth that stand in opposition to God and his rule over them. John Oswalt explains the significance of the city imagery: “The city offers wealth, glamour, excitement, pleasure, intrigue, and power—all the things that humans are prone to sell their souls for. But as mighty and alluring as the city of earth is, a day of harvest is coming when all the fruit will be stripped off and nothing will be left of all the riches that earthlings thought were their own.”

Similarly, the end-time empire in Revelation 17-18 encompasses something much larger than a geographical location and reminds us that the nations of the world are in rebellion against God. Like Rome in the first-century, nations today embody the spirit of Babylon. The danger of restricting “Babylon the Great” to a particular geographical location is that it leads us to ignore the ways in which our nation and culture reflect Babylonian beliefs and values that are contrary to God’s kingdom agenda. One of the prominent features of Babylon the Great is its great wealth (Rev 17:4; 18:11-13), and so the American dream of prosperity and success is the modern reflection of an ancient idolatry. Rather than satisfying our curiosity about end-times events, biblical prophecy is designed to change the way we believe and behave. Rather than giving us a geography lesson, the end-time scenario of the book of Revelation is another reminder to “seek first the kingdom of God” and to “flee Babylon” by refusing to buy into the lies of the prevailing culture around us.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Some Thoughts on Preaching Christ from the Old Testament

When teaching or preaching the Old Testament as Christians, we have a responsibility to bring Christ into every sermon. Spurgeon explained his preaching method by saying, “I take my text and make a beeline to the cross.” Christian pastors or teachers often bring Christ into the OT in some rather strange ways (allegory, excessive typology, etc.) and not every OT passage is about Christ. Our job is not to make Christ magically appear in every OT text, but we also have not really done our job as preachers unless we explain how Christ relates to every message we preach from the OT. Bringing Christ into the passage is especially a challenge when we preach the OT prophets. It’s easy to see Christ in the “messianic prophecies” like Isaiah 9, 11, 53, 61, etc., but what about Isaiah’s judgment speeches, his calls for justice, or his oracles against the nations?

In exploring how we preach Christ-centered sermons from the OT, Bryan Chappell has explained that the OT points to Christ in four specific ways. First, the OT predicts about Christ (we could look at OT messianic prophecies, messianic psalms, etc). Second, the OT prepares for Christ. OT persons, events, and individuals provide a bridge to Christ (the sacrifices pointing to the need for an ultimate payment for sin and the temple system pointing to God’s ultimate presence with his people in the person of Jesus). The OT also points to dead-ends where Christ becomes the solution and ultimate answer (the failed leadership of Israel; Israel’s inability to keep the law and its other covenantal failures). Third, the OT is a reflection of Christ—God’s calls for love, justice, and his holiness find their perfect reflection in Christ. God’s redemption of Israel from bondage in Egypt or the deliverance of Israel form the Babylonian exile reflect God’s deliverance of his people from sin in Christ. Fourth, the OT points to the results of Christ’s coming and work (the salvation portrayals and announcements of the OT in passages like Isaiah 2:2-4 and 4:2-5 would fit into this category—and thus are not just things that will be true in the future kingdom but are also things that have at least become partial realities in the present in light of the first coming of Christ).

Preaching and teaching Christ from the prophets is more than just throwing in a correlating NT passage as a footnote to your lesson. Many times in the prophets, the text will present a problem; our job is not just to diagnose how that problem infects our lives, churches, or culture but also to show how Christ is the answer to that problem. For example, Isaiah 5:8-30 documents the problems of Judah’s oppression, selfishness, pursuit of pleasure—teaching this passage requires more than just showing how we struggle with these same sins in the present; Christian preaching and teaching must also show how the cross and knowing Christ provide the antidote to this type of living. If we fail to do this, we really are doing nothing more than moralizing about the text. We’re like a doctor who diagnoses a disease but then offers to healing prescription for the malady. We are preaching the law but offering no grace.

Chappell made the point in his message that the only reason sin has any power in our lives is that we love it. Our job as Christian teachers and preachers then is to help people love Christ more than they love sin and to point to the grace of Christ that helps them to break sinful patterns in our lives. The people of the OT followed idols and so do we because we love those things more than we love the Lord. It’s easy to simply use the prophets to catalog and condemn the idols in our lives; the real task is to show people how much Christ has loved them and to produce love for Christ that will ultimately transform the human heart.