The biblical world is not our world. The biblical text was written to communicate to original recipients (Israelites in the wilderness, Christians at Rome, etc.) using the language, thoughts, and images of their time. This means that we must do some work to understand what the text meant to the original readers. The fancy and intimidating name for this is historical, grammatical exegesis. Do not let that scare you. This refers to “unpacking” the text by understanding the word meanings, syntax and grammatical context of the verse or paragraph that one is studying. The historical (cultural) setting also sheds light on the meaning of the words, phrases, and concepts.
One example of this is what does it mean that “God rested” in Genesis 2:1-3? Rest in our time and place communicates taking a nap, leisure time, maybe a vacation. That is not what the Ancient Near East thought of when people of that time read about divine rest. The following is an excerpt from one of John Walton’s publications that helps the contemporary reader understand what “divine rest” communicated to the original readers.
THEOLOGY OF REST IN THE BIBLE in John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2015), 47–52.
When God tells the Israelites that he is going to give them rest (nwḥ) from their enemies (Deut 12:10; Josh 1:13; 21:44; 2 Sam 7:1; 1 Kings 5:4), he is not talking about sleep, relaxation or leisure time. The rest that he offers his people refers to freedom from invasion and conflict so that they can live at peace and conduct their daily lives without interruption. It refers to achieving a state of order in society. Such rest is the goal of all the ordering activities that the Israelites are undertaking to secure their place in the land.
When Jesus invites people to “come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28), he is not offering a nap or leisure time. He is inviting people to participate in the ordered kingdom of God, where, even though they have a yoke, they will find rest. Furthermore, when the author of Hebrews refers to the rest that remains for the people of God (Heb 4:10–11), he is not referring to relaxation but to security and order in the kingdom of God.
In light of this usage, we can discern that resting pertains to the security and stability found in the equilibrium of an ordered system. When God rests on the seventh day, he is taking up his residence in the ordered system that he has brought about in the previous six days. It is not something that he does only on the seventh day; it is what he does every day thereafter. Furthermore, his rest is not just a matter of having a place of residence—he is exercising his control over this ordered system where he intends to relate to people whom he has placed there and for whom he has made the system function. It is his place of residence, it is a place for relationship, but, beyond those, it is also a place of his rule. Note Psalm 132:7–8, where the temple is identified both as God’s dwelling place and as his resting place. Psalm 132:14 goes on to identify this resting place as the place where he sits “enthroned.” The temple account in Ezekiel 40–48 also identifies this element clearly: “Son of man, this is the place of my throne and the place for the soles of my feet. This is where I will live among the Israelites forever” (Ezek 43:7).
When Jesus talks about the Sabbath, he makes statements that seem unrelated to rest if we think of it in terms of relaxation. In Matthew 12:8, he is the Lord of the Sabbath. When we realize that the Sabbath has to do with participating in God’s ordered system (rather than promoting our own activities as those that bring us order), we can understand how Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. Throughout his controversies with the Pharisees, Jesus insisted that it was never a violation of the Sabbath to do the work of God on that day. Indeed, he noted that God is continually working (Jn 5:17). The Sabbath is most truly honored when we participate in the work of God (see Is 58:13–14). The work we desist from is that which represents our own attempts to bring our own order to our lives. It is to resist our self-interest, our self-sufficiency and our sense of self-reliance.
ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN CONCEPT OF DIVINE REST
It would not have been difficult for a reader from anywhere in the ancient Near East to take one quick look at the seven-day account and draw the conclusion that it was a temple story. That is because they knew something about the temples in the ancient world that is foreign to us. Divine rest in ancient temples was not a matter of simply residence. As we noted in Psalm 132, the temple was the center of God’s rule. In the ancient world, the temple was the command center of the cosmos—it was the control room from where the god maintained order, made decrees and exercised sovereignty. Temple-building accounts often accompanied cosmologies because after the god had established order (the focus of cosmologies in the ancient world), he took control of that ordered system. This is the element that we are sadly missing when we read the Genesis account. God has ordered the cosmos with the purpose of taking up his residence in it and ruling over it. Day seven is the reason for days one through six. It is the fulfillment of God’s purpose.
In the ancient world, a god’s place in his temple is established so that people can relate to him by meeting his needs (ritually). That is not the case in Israel, where God has no needs. He wants to relate to his people in an entirely different way. Despite this difference, it is the temple that remains the focus of this relationship as elsewhere in the ancient world. When God entered the temple, he established sacred space. Sacred space is the result of divine presence and serves as the center and source of order in the cosmos. In this “home story,” God is not only making a home for people; he is making a home for himself, though he has no need of a home for himself. If God does not rest in this ordered space, the six days are without their guiding purpose. The cosmos is not just a house; it is a home.
These ideas are supported not only by biblical theology, by lexical semantics and by comparative study with the ancient Near East; they are supported by the connection to a seven-day period. If this cosmic origins story has to do with the initiation of the cosmos as sacred space, then we should inquire as to how sacred space is typically initiated in the Bible and the ancient world when a temple is involved.
Solomon spent seven years building the house to be used as the temple of God in Jerusalem. When the house was complete, however, all that existed was a structure, not a temple. It was ready to be a temple, but it was not yet functioning like a temple, and God was not dwelling in it. Consequently the temple did not exist even though the structure did. What constituted the transition from a structure that was ready to be a temple to an actual functioning temple? How did the house become a home? This is an important question because there is a comparison to be drawn if Genesis 1 is indeed a temple text.
We find that in both the Bible and the ancient Near East there is an inauguration ceremony that formally and ceremonially marks the transition from physical structure to functioning temple, from house to home. In that inauguration ceremony, the functions of the temple are proclaimed, the functionaries are installed and rituals are begun as God comes down to inhabit the place that has been prepared by his instruction. It is thus no surprise that in Genesis 1 we find the proclamation of functions and the installation of functionaries. More importantly, we should note that in the Bible and the ancient world, the number seven figures prominently in the inauguration of sacred space.
If we therefore ask about the significance of seven days in the account, the biblical and ancient Near Eastern background provides the key. It is not that God decided to build the house in six days and added a Sabbath to make a theological point. We must remember that the audience of this account is Israel, not Adam and Eve. We might imagine a scenario in which Moses communicates to the Israelites in the wilderness (hypothetically, realizing that the book makes no such claims). This shift in our perspective is extremely important. Expanding on that idea, we can imagine not only a setting (Moses communicating to Israelites); we can imagine an event. As a thought experiment, let’s consider the scenario of Moses sitting down with the elders of the people on the eve of the tabernacle dedication at the foot of Sinai.
He is trying to help the Israelites understand the gravity of what is about to happen. They are ready to establish sacred space defined by the indwelling presence of God for the first time since Eden. So he explains to them that God had planned for the space.
Reading the chapters as a home story allows the emergence of rich theology that is obscured by reading the text as a house story. We learn that, even though God has provided for us, it is not about us. The cosmos is not ours to do with as we please but God’s place in which we serve as his co-regents. Our subduing and ruling are carried out in full recognition that we are caretakers. Whatever humanity does, it should be directed toward bringing order out of non-order. Our use of the environment should not impose disorder. This is not just a house that we inhabit; it is our divinely gifted home, and we are accountable for our use of it and work in it.
If you desire more information about this, you can also consult:
Divine Rest and Temples in Cosmogonies from John H. Walton, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 110–119.
Hurowitz, V. A. I Have Built You an Exalted House. JSOTSup 115; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992.
John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 196–199.
John H. Walton, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 178–184.
Andreasen, N.-E. The Old Testament Sabbath: A Tradition-Historical Investigation. SBL Dissertation Series. Missoula, Mont.: Society of Biblical Literature, 1972.
Laansma, J. I Will Give You Rest. Tübingen: Mohr, 1997.
John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 71–91.
Genesis 1:14 Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons (מוֹעֵד) and for days and years
It is most probable that in Gn 1:14 (P), where מ׳ || אֹתֹת, the reference is to the sacred seasons as fixed by the moon’s appearance; and so also עשׂה ירח למ׳ he made the moon for sacred seasons ψ 104:19 (Brown, Driver, Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977, 417).
מוֹעֵד (ca. 200 times), מוֹעֲדוֹ/דֶֽךָ, מוֹעֲדֵי, מוֹעֲדָי/דֶֽיכֶם: —1 place for meeting, assembly point; 2. meeting, assembly; 3. agreed time, appointed time; 4. festival, time of festivity (Koehler, Baumgartner, Richardson, et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000, 557–558).
מוֹעֵד (môʿēd), nom. appointed time, (time of) feast, (#4595a); meeting place, assembly, tent of meeting (#4595b); < יָעַד (yāʿad), appoint, designate (#3585).
OT 1. Usage. The nom. מוֹעֵד occurs 223× in the OT, most frequently in Num (65×); Lev (49×); Exod (38×); and 2 Chron (4×). The nom. is used 149× in Exod 25–Num 31, where a pronounced priestly influence can be detected (TWAT 4:744).
Noncultic use of מוֹעֵד. The nom. מוֹעֵד in the OT refers to a determined place or time and can vary from the birth of a child (Gen 17:21) to the migration of a bird (Jer 8:7). A meeting between Jonathan and David can, for example, be referred to in this way (1 Sam 20:35). Koch is of the opinion that the nonreligious use of this term is concentrated in preexilic times (TWAT 4:746).
Cultic use of מוֹעֵד. A religious festival can also be called a מוֹעֵד (Lev 23:2, 4, 44; Isa 1:14; Ezek 36:38; 44:24; 45:17; Hos 2:9 ), but מוֹעֵד refers to more than only the pilgrimage festivals. In the OT a “feast” in the general sense of the word referred to “all set times of communal observance” (IDB 2:260). Some of the more important religious feasts in the OT are: the Festival of the New Moon (Num 28:11), the Sabbath (Exod 20:8–11; 31:12–17), the New Year (Feast of Trumpets, Lev 23:23–25; Num 29:7–11), the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:23–26, 32), and the Year of Jubilee (25:8–55; 27:17–24). For the use of מוֹעֵד as Tent of Meeting (#4595b).
Theological considerations on festivals. The biblical accounts of the feasts of Israel are recorded in different festive calendars (חַג [#2504]); much more research will have to be done on how different festival traditions (from the northern kingdom and Judah) were combined in the final text of the OT (Goldstein & Cooper, 19–31).
(a) Two theological elements can be traced in all of them: the grateful and joyous commemoration of the redemptive acts of God, and care for the poor and the needy (ISBE 2:295; Wilms, 42–45). According to Cox (21), “The festival breaks through the routine and opens man to the past, it widens his experience and reduces his provincialism.” Religious feasts were the reenactment of God’s salvific events in the past (esp. the Exodus). They had a distinct educational value in nurturing succeeding generations in the faith. The feast became the recurring reminder that God can also determine the present circumstances of everyday reality (Otto, 44).
(b) The feasts were instituted not only to maintain community between God and Israel, but also to reestablish community among Israelites themselves by taking care of the widows and orphans (Vriezen, 284, 320). Deuteronomy in particular is concerned with the needs of the poor, which were to be addressed in the creation of solidarity among all Israel during the commemoration of a feast (Deut 16:11, 14; cf. Albertz, 91).
(c) The increase in the importance of the temple and priesthood in Jerusalem (esp. with the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah) led to a concentration on the outward performance of festivals, sacrifices, and fasting (Isa 1:14–15; 58:3–5; Amos 5:21; Eichrodt, 1:47). Modern theological interpretation of the OT festivals should be aware of the ongoing danger of degrading religious feasts to a level of superficial adherence.
(VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997, 871–872).
Occurrences of מוֹעֵד (môʿēd) in the Hebrew Bible: Gen. 1:14; 17:21; 18:14; 21:2; Exod. 9:5; 13:10; 23:15; 27:21; 28:43; 29:4, 10f, 30, 32, 42, 44; 30:16, 18, 20, 26, 36; 31:7; 33:7; 34:18; 35:21; 38:8, 30; 39:32, 40; 40:2, 6f, 12, 22, 24, 26, 29f, 32, 34f; Lev. 1:1, 3, 5; 3:2, 8, 13; 4:4f, 7, 14, 16, 18; 6:9, 19, 23; 8:3f, 31, 33, 35; 9:5, 23; 10:7, 9; 12:6; 14:11, 23; 15:14, 29; 16:7, 16f, 20, 23, 33; 17:4ff, 9; 19:21; 23:2, 4, 37, 44; 24:3; Num. 1:1; 2:2, 17; 3:7f, 25, 38; 4:3f, 15, 23, 25, 28, 30f, 33, 35, 37, 39, 41, 43, 47; 6:10, 13, 18; 7:5, 89; 8:9, 15, 19, 22, 24, 26; 9:2f, 7, 13; 10:3, 10; 11:16; 12:4; 14:10; 15:3; 16:2, 18f; 17:7f, 15, 19; 18:4, 6, 21ff, 31; 19:4; 20:6; 25:6; 27:2; 28:2; 29:39; 31:54; Deut. 16:6; 31:10, 14; Josh. 8:14; 18:1; 19:51; Judg. 20:38; 1 Sam. 2:22; 9:24; 13:8, 11; 20:35; 2 Sam. 20:5; 24:15; 1 Kgs. 8:4; 2 Kgs. 4:16f; 1 Chr. 6:17; 9:21; 23:31f; 2 Chr .1:3, 6, 13; 2:3; 5:5; 8:13; 30:22; 31:3; Ezra 3:5; Neh. 10:34; Job 30:23; Pss. 74:4, 8; 75:3; 102:14; 104:19; Isa. 1:14; 14:13, 31; 33:20; Jer. 8:7; 46:17; Lam. 1:4, 15; 2:6f, 22; Ezek. 36:38; 44:24; 45:17; 46:9, 11; Dan. 8:19; 11:27, 29, 35; 12:7; Hos. 2:11, 13; 9:5; 12:10; Hab. 2:3; Zeph. 3:18; Zech. 8:19
Last week I asked the question, “what is Christ looking for in His church?” The answers to that question came from the items (attitudes and actions) that Jesus commends or calls for in the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 2-3). This article is asking the opposite question, about what Christ is not looking for in His church (what does Jesus not want among His people). The answers will be primarily based on Revelation 2-3.
Notice that Jesus does not praise them for things like fundraising skills; the size of the congregation; organizational skills; building and property holdings; having great social events; specialized ministries for all age groups; being “involved” in their communities; etc. Some or all of these things can be appropriate (even necessary), but these are not the things that Jesus is looking for in His church. These types of things are not mentioned in Revelation 2-3 and they are not mentioned in any of the New Testament documents sent to congregations of God ‘s people.
As we read the letters to the seven churches of Asia, we also find several things that Jesus does not want in His church. What causes Jesus to rebuke and threaten to judge or remove His presence from among His people?
The church at Ephesus: leaving their first love (Rev. 2:4).
The church at Pergamum: tolerating false teaching, idolatry, unlawful silence, and immorality (Rev. 2:14-15).
The church at Thyatira: tolerating false teaching, idolatry, immorality, and lack of church discipline (Rev. 2:20-23).
The church at Sardis: reputation without reality and incomplete works (Rev. 3:1-2).
The church at Laodicea: spiritually lukewarm and lost spiritual values (Rev. 3:16-17).
These letters call for the people of God to see ourselves based on the things that are important to Jesus and not be deceived into evaluating ourselves based on cultural criteria. These letters also call for the saints to resist the constant pull to accommodate to or assimilate into the culture. We are recreated in Christ to be the counter-cultural people of God.
(a special thank you goes to Dr. Rick Oster for teaching me to ask these kinds of questions of the biblical text)
At the end of each of the prophetic oracles to the seven churches of Asia has the call to be “overcomers” (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). The people of God are called to be overcomers, conquerors, or victors (“nike,” νικάω). “This military metaphor assumes that the faithful in each congregation are engaged in a struggle to remain faithful” (Koester, Revelation and the End of All Things, 57).
The saints win the victory by faithful endurance in following the Lamb wherever He goes (Rev. 14:4). But what does “faithful endurance” look like? What is involved in persevering in faithfulness to God? To answer these questions in the context of Revelation, one can look for what Jesus is pleased with and exhorts His people to do as He walks among His people?
The church at Ephesus: deeds (works, toil), endurance, intolerance of false teaching and evil (Rev. 2:2-3).
The church at Smyrna: suffering, being slandering on account of Christ, faithfulness until death (Rev. 2:9, 10).
The church at Pergamum: holding fast Christ’s name, not denying the faith and faithful witness, and repentance (Rev. 2:13, 16).
The church at Thyatira: deeds, love, faith, service, perseverance, and not holding to Satanic teaching (Rev. 2:19, 24-25).
The church at Sardis: purity (Rev. 3:4).
The church at Philadelphia: deeds, obedience, not denying Christ’s name, and perseverance (Rev. 3:8, 10, 11).
What is Jesus looking for in His church? People who say “no” to evil. People who say “yes” to the God and His ways. People who are doing kingdom deeds. People who “conquer” their opponents by remaining faithful to the point of death. People who change their ways when they go wrong. People who wake up to the way in which their levels of commitment have been eroded by comfort, compromise or accommodation. People who endure. Jesus is looking for people with godly spiritual character.
We seem to be living in a time and place where people seem to be mesmerized by numbers. The bigger the better, the more the merrier. If the numbers are not large, then it is not valuable. This seems to be how many think about many things, including religion.
A striking feature of most of the documents written to churches in the New Testament is the lack of reference to “numbers” (the size of congregations). I realize that the Gospel accounts will note the number of followers of Christ at different times during His ministry and that Luke tracks the numerical growth of the first few years of Christianity (especially in Jerusalem and Judea). However, when one moves to the rest of the NT, the information concerning the size of congregations becomes virtually non-existent.
While having big numbers is great, it seems that Jesus is looking for something more important than the size of a congregation. Michael Gorman writes, “Christ desires a church characterized by the fullness of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, faithfulness and fearlessness, devotion to Jesus but not to the state, and a preference for the poor rather than the rich” (Reading Revelation Responsibly, 100).
The “letters to the seven churches of Asia” (Revelation 2 and 3) press the reader (hearers) to consider one’s situation in relationship to Jesus. This is about “perspective.” The oracles to the seven churches encourage the congregations to see themselves as God sees them. This is especially clear when Jesus tells the church at Sardis, “I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (Rev. 3:1).
Jesus fires off five imperatives (“commands”) to the church at Sardis in Revelation 3:2–3. The imperatives are: wake up, strengthen, remember, obey, and repent. These five imperatives exhort the church to activate spiritual vigilance. Even though this church is in trouble there is still hope.
These imperatives provide a framework for a congregational restart. It involves (1) remembrance, (2) repentance, and (3) renewal through appropriating past values and strengthening present life. Failure to either be resolute or repent will result in spiritual death.
Slightly edited from Michael Gorman’s excellent book, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation, 75-76.
The Throne: The Reign of God and the Lamb. God the creator reigns! Jesus the Redeemer, the slaughtered Lamb, is Lord! The reign of the eternal God, the beginning, and the end is not merely future or past but present, and it is manifested in—of all things—the slaughtered Lamb.
The Reality of Evil and of Empire. Evil is real. Empire is now—not merely future or past but present. Empire, by nature, makes seductive blasphemous and immoral claims and engages in corollary practices that bring disorder to both vertical (people-God) and horizontal (people-people) human relations, promising life but delivering death—both physical and spiritual.
The Temptation to Idolatry and Immorality. The Christian church is easily seduced by empire’s idolatry and immorality because these claims and practices are often invested with religious meaning and authority; they become a civil religion. For that reason, immorality is ultimately idolatry: the idolatry of violence, oppression, greed, lust, and the like.
The Call to Covenant Faithfulness and Resistance. In the midst of empire and civil religion, whatever its forms, the church is called to resistance as the inevitable corollary of covenant faithfulness to God, a call that requires prophetic spiritual discernment and may result in various kinds of suffering.
Worship and an Alternative Vision. The spiritual discernment required of the church requires an alternative vision of God and of reality. Revelation provides this vision of “uncivil” worship and vision, centered on the throne of the eternal holy God and the faithful slaughtered Lamb, and on the coming new creation.
Faithful Witness: The Pattern of Christ. Christian resistance to empire and idolatry conforms to the pattern of Jesus Christ and of his apostles, saints, prophets (like John), and martyrs: faithful, true, courageous, just, and nonviolent. It is not passive but active, consisting of the formation of communities and individuals who pledge allegiance to God alone, who live in nonviolent love toward friends and enemies alike, who leave vengeance to God, and who, by God’s Spirit, create mini-cultures of life as alternatives to empire’s culture of death. The will of God is for all to follow the Lamb and participate in the saving life of God-with-us forever.
All seven of the churches of Christ that are addressed in the second and third chapters of the book of Revelation were subject to currents that threatened to undermine their commitments to Christ. The most prominent threat came in the form of accommodation to culture. The cultural norm and expectation were to do things like eating food sacrificed to the gods and demonstrating support of the political and social status quo. These activities were being advocated and practiced by some within these congregations by various individuals and groups.
The advocates of accommodative practices are given symbolic names by the glorified Christ as He addressed the churches: the Nicolaitans at Ephesus (2:6), the followers of Balaam and the Nicolaitans at Pergamum (2:14–15), and Jezebel and her followers at Thyatira (2:20–25). Hicks notes that “Balaam is a well-known symbol of syncretism, assimilation, and compromise as he attempted to subvert the faith of Israel (Numbers 22-24).” The leaders in these movements are referred to as pseudo-apostles and pseudo-prophets (2:2, 20).
The consistent message to these congregations by Christ is “do not compromise with secular and false religious forces.” The church is called on to be counter-cultural, yet there is a strong tendency for congregations tend to take on the character of their community to fit in. Faith communities have often compromised their faith by making concessions to culture, often embracing materialism and tolerating sexual and moral perversion. This raises several questions. To what extent can Christians conform to society? What cultural customs can Christians adopt for the sake of economic survival, commercial gain, or sociability? How can we be counter-cultural and still be relevant? How do God’s people live in the world and yet remain distinct from the world?
The seven churches of Asia demonstrate the struggle the saints have in determining “where the lines between culture and Christianity” are. This continues to be a struggle for the saints today. However, it seems that the question has moved from “where are the lines” to “are there lines”?
Jesus’ divine message at the end of the first and century and His message today is for the people of God to refocus our faith and resist worldly compromise.