Monthly Archives: September 2015

Week 39 of 50 in the Institutes: The Mark of the Beast

Since last week’s assignment obliged us to consider Calvin’s view of the Antichrist, and since this blog is about my reflections on the weekly assignments, I thought I might as well deal with the subject of the mark of the beast this week.  And lest anyone accuse me of getting on a soapbox, let me quickly cite the section in the Institutes that inspired this reflection: 4.9.9.

Calvin noted therein how various church councils have contradicted each other.  The Council of Constantinople (553), for instance, decided that images in churches should be prohibited and destroyed, but that decree was subsequently reversed by the Council of Nicea (787) two hundred years later.  Calvin concluded that the decree from this latter council “emanated from Satan” (Beveridge translation).  This brings me to my legitimate reflection with respect to the mark of the beast, so here we go.

NEWSFLASH:  Billions already have the mark of the beast, and don’t know it.

How can I say this?  Let’s briefly consider the passage which deals with the matter, Revelation 13:11–14:1-5.  Right off the bat we need to note the contrast that is being made at the end of chapter 13 and the beginning of chapter 14.  The chapter division here isn’t helpful in this regard, because the text is contrasting two kinds of marks: the mark of the beast (13:16) and the mark of God (14:1).  The followers of God number 144,000, which signifies completeness (12 x 12 x 10 x 10 x 10) and the number of the beast is a derisive moniker indicating complete (triple) failure: 666.

I don’t think for a moment that either mark is literal.  Yes, I take the Bible literally, and yes, I believe every jot and tittle of it.  But the Revelation of John is in large part apocalyptic, and the perspective has shifted.  Instead of looking up from earth to make sense of things in heaven above, John writes as one who is looking from heaven to the things happening on earth below, and those events are shrouded in symbols.  Understanding the symbols John employed requires great familiarity with his numerous Old Testament allusions and reference points.

So to keep this as brief as possible, let’s consider the number 666.  Rev. 13:18 reads:  “This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.”  (ESV)

I don’t buy the various attempts to identify a particular individual as the beast using various means of gematria.  Many have identified the number with Nero, since the Greek form of Nero’s name transliterated into Hebrew is purportedly 666 (but in a specious way since it requires a defective Hebrew spelling to do so).  In addition to that questionable derivation, the text doesn’t suggest that gematria is appropriate, because if John expected the writer to utilize Hebrew to understand the number, he could have made mention of it as he did in 9:11 and 16:16.  Besides all that, there is no definite article, hence the translation “it is the number of a man”.  The Greek could be understand just as well as “it is the number of man”.  In other words, the issue here is moral discernment, not the solution of complex math problems.

What is the point then?  The number six in Scripture represents incompleteness.  The triple repetition of the number six signifies utter incompleteness, or failure.  As G. K. Beale put it in his commentary on Revelation, “six repeated three times indicates the completeness of sinful incompleteness found in the beast.”  In all his efforts to mimic God, Christ, and the prophetic Spirit of truth (19:10), the beast comes up woefully short.  To have the mark of the beast, then, is to be aligned and in allegiance with him in his futile opposition to God: an utterly hopeless proposition.

By way of contrast, the followers of God have a different mark on their foreheads: their Father’s name (14:1).  For my part, I think the 144,000 in Rev. 14 represent all the people of God throughout all the ages (a great multitude which no man can number, in keeping with Rev. 7:9), and not a literal number.  Some think the significance of the number is seen in the fact that it is 12 (the number of perfection) squared times 10 (the number of completion) cubed.  Believers have their Father’s name on their forehead as a symbol of their allegiance to Him, and of having the seal of his protection (Rev. 7:1-8)

In the final analysis, then, everyone bears a mark: either that of the Father or of the beast.  The mark one bears becomes manifest by what a person thinks (head) and what a person does (hand). And this brings me to my parting thought.

Any individual, organization, or government that opposes the gospel of Jesus Christ is, by definition, anti-Christ, and manifests the spirit of the Antichrist.  There have been various manifestations of this spirit throughout history, going all the way back to the first century and even back to the time of Moses’ encounters with Pharaoh.  Paul characterized those who opposed the gospel in his day as being those who oppose all mankind, and in so doing may say they commit crimes against humanity:

“For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea.  For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus Christ and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind  by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved – so as always to fill up the measure of their sins.  But God’s wrath has come upon them at last!” (1 Th. 2:14-16, ESV)

Any form of “political correctness” which opposes Jesus Christ and his gospel is, to borrow Calvin’s phrase, a decree from Satan, and beastly in its very nature.  So the key question for everyone to consider carefully is not, “What’s in your wallet?”, but rather, “What’s on your forehead?”

For further study, I recommend, for starters:

G. K. Beale’s Revelation Commentary (long version)

G. K. Beale’s Revelation: A Shorter Commentary

A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times

Article: A Defense of Reformed Amillennialism

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Sep. 28: 4.8.1 – 4.8.7

Sep. 29: 4.8.8 – 4.8.12

Sep. 30: 4.8.13 – 4.9.3

Oct. 1: 4.9.4 – 4.9.11

Oct. 2: 4.9.12 – 4.10.2


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Week 38 of 50 in the Institutes: Holiness to the Lord

Why can’t we all just get along?  That phrase commonly surfaces whenever moral and doctrinal matters begin to be considered with any depth.  The issues Calvin raised more than four centuries ago in regard to papal supremacy still remain as sticking points to this day between Protestants and Catholics.  And as Rick Phillips pointed out in the September 25 blog (see link below), Calvin was “far from the politically correct emphasis on ‘charity above all’ in today’s doctrinal disputes!”

We will do well here to pause and ask ourselves why it was that Calvin was so worked up about papal supremacy that he devoted so much space to it in the Institutes.  Phillips credited this zeal on Calvin’s part to a belief that life and death issues were at stake, and so they were.  But I think another reason can be posited as well, namely, Calvin’s view of God and zeal for his glory.  I assert this because when he goes for the “jugular” in these sections (as Phillips puts it)  in 4.7.24 when identifying the Roman pontiff as the Antichrist, Calvin has the honor and glory of God foremost in view:

To some we seem slanderous and petulant, when we call the Roman Pontiff Antichrist. But those who think so perceive not that they are bringing a charge of intemperance against Paul, after whom we speak, nay, in whose very words we speak. But lest any one object that Paul’s words have a different meaning, and are wrested by us against the Roman Pontiff, I will briefly show that they can only be understood of the Papacy. Paul says that Antichrist would sit in the temple of God (2 Thess. 2:4). In another passage, the Spirit, portraying him in the person of Antiochus, says that his reign would be with great swelling words of vanity (Dan. 7:25). Hence we infer that his tyranny is more over souls than bodies, a tyranny set up in opposition to the spiritual kingdom of Christ. Then his nature is such, that he abolishes not the name either of Christ or the Church, but rather uses the name of Christ as a pretext, and lurks under the name of Church as under a mask. But though all the heresies and schisms which have existed from the beginning belong to the kingdom of Antichrist, yet when Paul foretells that defection will come, he by the description intimates that that seat of abomination will be erected, when a kind of universal defection comes upon the Church, though many members of the Church scattered up and down should continue in the true unity of the faith. But when he adds, that in his own time, the mystery of iniquity, which was afterwards to be openly manifested, had begun to work in secret, we thereby understand that this calamity was neither to be introduced by one man, nor to terminate in one man. Moreover, when the mark by which he distinguishes Antichrist is, that he would rob God of his honour and take it to himself, he gives the leading feature which we ought to follow in searching out Antichrist; especially when pride of this description proceeds to the open devastation of the Church. Seeing then it is certain that the Roman Pontiff has impudently transferred to himself the most peculiar properties of God and Christ, there cannot be a doubt that he is the leader and standard-bearer of an impious and abominable kingdom.

I think I’m safe in saying that few Reformed Protestants today will identify the Pope as the Antichrist.  The Reformers and Puritans are not renown for their exegetical insights in this regard.  But the spirit of Antichrist exists wherever Christ is opposed, and Calvin and the Reformers astutely discerned acute opposition to the gospel and Christ firmly ensconced in the institutional church of their day.  So out of zeal for the Lord and his truth they railed against the corruption they encountered, perhaps sometimes with less charity than required (Eph. 4:15, “speaking the truth in love”).  But at the end of the day they never forgot the holiness of the Lord, and that is the malady of our modern age.

This past week when gay marriage was in the headlines, one bystander was featured with a sign that said, “God loves. . . period!”  Well, that isn’t the whole truth.  Nowhere in the Scriptures do we read: “Love, love, love is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his love.”  What we do find, instead, is: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”  (Isa. 6:3)  God, we see, is characterized as the thrice holy God.

Yes, the Lord is gracious, and he accepts penitent sinners just as they are.  But his grace doesn’t leave them as they are.  In redeeming Adam’s sinful, fallen race, he conforms his people to the image of his Son in holiness.  The idea that “God loves. . . period”  has it the other way around.  But rather than conforming the Creator to the image of the corrupt creature (abandoning His holiness and becoming corrupt Himself), God instead maintains his own holiness and in salvation transforms the fallen creature into a new self, created after God in knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).  Anything else makes a mockery of the inscription on the High Priest’s brow, “Holiness to the Lord” (Ex. 28:36), in that every believer in Christ now comprises a royal priesthood (1 Pe. 2:9).  It was this affront to the Lord’s holiness that so incensed Calvin.  May we be faithful to the Lord in our generation as well, always speaking the truth in love, and never abandoning either.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Sep. 21: 4.6.17 – 4.7.4

Sep. 22: 4.7.5 – 4.7.10

Sep. 23: 4.7.11 – 4.7.17

Sep. 24: 4.7.18 – 4.7.22

Sep. 25: 4.7.23 – 4.7.30

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Week 37 of 50 in the Institutes: Thanks to Phil Ryken

After taking issue with the blogs by Paul Helms last week, I will just tip my hat to the Reformation 21 blogger, Phil Ryken, for this week’s assignments.  Ryken did a nice job summarizing these sections in the Institutes, and I have nothing to add, for a change.  Labor Day wore me out, I suppose!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Sep. 14: 4.5.2 – 4.5.7

Sep. 15: 4.5.8 – 4.5.15

Sep. 16: 4.5.16 – 4.6.3

Sep. 17: 4.6.4 – 4.6.9

Sep. 17: 4.6.10 – 4.6.16

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Week 36 of 50 in the Institutes: Helm’s Leap

I find myself conflicted with regard to which direction to take for this week’s blog entry.  Since it is Labor Day weekend, I’m going to throw caution to the wind and go in both directions (one serious and one not so serious), so hold on, and keep your hands inside the carriage until the ride comes to a complete stop.

First, I found myself wondering what was going on in Paul Helm’s life when he wrote blogs 174-177 back in 2009 (links at bottom from Reformation 21 Blogs Through the Insitutes)!  He seems to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed four days in a row, at least where Calvin is concerned.  For instance, in blog 174 (Sept. 8), he observed:  “A read through these sections makes it clear that the establishing and preservation of order is a main Calvinian criterion for the various ecclesiastical rules he proposes at this point.”

I hardly think Calvin deserves such censure, because at the beginning of chapter 3 of book 4, Calvin declared:  “We are now to speak of the order in which the Lord has been pleased that his Church should be governed.”  Then true to form, Calvin proceeded to cite Scripture as he made his case for the form of church polity he advocated.  So while it may be true that Calvin liked order, the order he sought to maintain was the order he understood to be ordained by God in his Word.  Paul Helm leapt over this ongoing commitment to sola scriptura on Calvin’s part, and hence the title for today’s entry.

But Helm wasn’t through leaping.  His final comment in blog 174 was a leap off the page via an undeveloped topic sentence:  “But although church order is necessary, it is not sufficient, of course: a cemetery is the very model of orderliness.”  To end abruptly with such a statement abandons the reader only to guess what conclusions about Calvin or Calvinism Helm was implying, none of which are favorable as far as I can tell.  And it isn’t like 4.3.8 – 4.3.15 comprise all of the Institutes!  So Helm’s parting comment seems like a cheap shot, unbecoming a man of his position.  His other three entries for this week’s assignment had less egregious jabs at Calvin which nevertheless left me wanting more substantive interaction with the text (less leaping and more depth).

Second, reading these sections of the Institutes made me thankful for Presbyterian church polity.  Having come from settings where there was wide latitude given both to pastors and congregations with independent, congregational forms of church government, I can appreciate the checks and balances which a Presbyterian form of government affords.  Calvin’s citation of Cyprian seems like an astute observation of God’s providence with regard to the selection of officers when this model of church government is employed (4.3.15, emphasis added):

Rightly, therefore, does Cyprian contend for it as of divine authority, that the priest be chosen in presence of the people, before the eyes of all, and be approved as worthy and fit by public judgment and testimony, (Cyprian, Lib. 1 Ep. 3). Indeed, we see that by the command of the Lord, the practice in electing the Levitical priests was to bring them forward in view of the people before consecration. Nor is Matthias enrolled among the number of the apostles, nor are the seven deacons elected in any other way, than at the sight and approval of the people (Acts 6:2). “Those examples,” says Cyprian, “show that the ordination of a priest behoved not to take place, unless under the consciousness of the people assisting, so that ordination was just and legitimate which was vouched by the testimony of all.” We see, then, that ministers are legitimately called according to the word of God, when those who may have seemed fit are elected on the consent and approbation of the people. Other pastors, however, ought to preside over the election, lest any error should be committed by the general body either through levity, or bad passion, or tumult.

Finally, on a much less serious note, the above method of recognizing and installing ministers stands head and shoulders above the account I heard Dennis Swanberg give years ago, back when cassette tapes were still predominant (and YouTube didn’t exist).  Swanberg, now a Christian comedian/pastor (don’t ask me to explain, and mention here is by no means an endorsement), shared how he knew he was called to the ministry.  When he was a child, one day his parents left him at home while they ran an errand.  Before they left, they told him he couldn’t watch television while they were gone.  So, of course, as soon as they left Dennis turned on the TV.  They had a gravel driveway, so the instant he heard his parents turn into the driveway, he turned off the television.  But in those days, televisions weren’t instant off and on.  When you turned off the set, the picture would go off but a dot would remain in the center of the screen for a few moments before finally disappearing (remember that?).  Well, Dennis forgot about the dot, so while he was anxiously waiting for it to disappear before his parents came into the house he prayed, “Oh, God, get rid of that dot!  If you get rid of that dot, God, I’ll become a preacher!”  Dennis said the dot went away that day, and he’s been called ever since!

You may safely exit the vehicle now!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

No assignment for Sept. 7th – Labor Day!

Sep. 8: 4.3.8 – 4.3.15

Sep. 9: 4.3.16 – 4.4.4

Sep. 10: 4.4.5 – 4.4.10

Sep. 11: 4.4.11 – 4.5

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