The Meaning of 666: The Mark of the Beast

Perhaps no part of the book of Revelation is as well-known as the allusion to the mark of the beast, identified with the number 666. In fact, some people who do not even know this is a biblical allusion have some vague idea that 666 is evil, ominous, or of the devil. But what exactly does it mean?

Lets start with the text. The end of Revelation chapter 13 describes an unholy trinity of evil (dragon, first beast, second beast, or, as it is sometimes called, Satan, the Anti-Christ and the False Prophet). We are told that the second beast (the false prophet) causes the majority of humanity to be marked with some sort of sign denoting allegiance to the first beast (the anti-christ). Here is the passage in the ESV:

16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 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.

Here is the same passage in the NIV

16 It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, 17 so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man.[e] That number is 666.

Let us first make a couple notes about the verses, then lay out some options, and then, finally, offer some conclusions.

Notes:

The English versions reflect the ambiguity of the Greek on whether the “mark” is the name of the beast or the number of his name.
We are told that we can “calculate” the number of the beast, but warned it will take wisdom and insight. That is, it will require spiritual perception.
The early church did not have a standard interpretation of what the number of the beast represented.
The footnote [e] in verse 18 of the NIV denotes a note in the newer editions of the NIV which states, “Or is humanity’s number”.

Options:


A. Numeric understandings of 666 (Gematria)

Gematria is the practice of biblical numerology, based on the fact that the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew assign numeric value to letters. That is, the ancient languages did not have dedicated number symbols (such as 1, 2, etc…). Think Roman numerals here.

In regards to this passage, then, gematria means finding a name whose numeric value equals 666.

The most common ancient name produced by this method is that of the emperor Nero. If you take the name, “Nero Caesar”, put it into Hebrew letters, you can come up with 666. Since Nero was a great persecutor of the Christians, had the power of an empire, and fits some other characteristics of the first beast, this is a common interpretation.

Nonetheless, there are a few problems with this interpretation. In the first place, to get 666 from Nero Caesar you have to use, not Greek letters or Latin letters, but Hebrew letters. This is possible (especially if John wanted to really hide the meaning from the persecuting Roman authorities) but may have been too obscure for his mostly gentile audience in Asia Minor. Second, the name Nero Caesar written in Hebrew in the usual way does not add up to 666. You can only arrive at that number by using a variant way of spelling that name (dropping the yod). While we do have evidence that his name was written that way in at least one document, it is definitely not the norm. Further, most scholars feel Revelation was written around 95 AD, while Nero committed suicide in 68 AD. There were rumors that his death was faked and he would return, but these rumors were certainly waning almost 30 years later. Also, the early church did not seem to make this identification of Nero as the beast. Finally, while Nero has some likeness to the beast of Revelation 13, one must strain the interpretation of that passage to make it fit him.

Other examples of Gematria are a little more subtle. One scholar (Giet) finds that the initials of Roman Emperors from Julius Caesar to Vespasian add up to 666 (but he has to omit Otho and Vitellius to make it work). Another scholar (Stauffer) suggests John was counting up an abbreviated form in Greek of the full Latin title of the emperor Domitian.

Others have tried to get the names of modern people (Hitler, Kissinger, etc…) to add up to 666. History obviously has not proved kind to these interpretations.

Another interpretation begins by noting that the beast is described as the 8th king in Revelation 17:11. It then notes that 666 is the triangular number of 36 (1 plus 2 plus 3 etc. up to 360) and 36 is the triangular number of 8.

B. Theological understandings of 666

These views do not try to add up anyone’s name, but seek to understand what 666 could mean theologically.

Many have noted that 7 is often used as the number of perfection or completeness in apocalyptic writings like Revelation. Also, while this is less obvious, 3 seems to be a number of intensification. For instance, the majestic beings of Revelation 4:8 worship God with the repeated phrase, “Holy, Holy, Holy”. Thus, it could be argued that the “number of perfection” is 777. In a similar way, if 7 is the number of perfection or fullness, 777 could be “the number” of the trinity. Thus 666 would be Satan’s attempt to ape the trinity, but also describe his utter failure to do so.

Related to the above, some have noted the possible way of translating “It is the number of a man” to mean something like, “It is the number of man” or “it is mankind’s number” (see NIV text note above). Thus, 666 would be a way of describing mankind as always trying to elevate itself to God (in rebellion) , while consistently failing to do so. (Some see here an allusion to Genesis 1, where the realm of man or creation is described in six days, while God’s days are seven).

Finally, one other item is worth noting here. It is the numerology of Jesus’ name. The name Jesus in Greek is Ἰησοῦς (English transliteration: iesous, with the “I” making the “y” sound as in “year”). For those interested in how this became “Jesus” in English, please see this chart:

Anyway, the numeric value of the name Jesus in Greek is this:

iesous = I (10) + e (8) + s (200) + o (70) + u (400) + s (200) = 888.

Thus, one way to interpret the numerology is to view 777 as the number of complete perfection, with 666 falling tragically (and sinfully) short of this, while 888 would speak hyperbolically of something like the exceeding fullness of Jesus’ perfection.

Conclusion:


You may have noted that not all of these options are mutually exclusive. Careful readers of Biblical prophecy know that many, if not most, Bible prophecies are fulfilled on more than one level. For example, Psalm 16 is considered a Messianic Psalm (a psalm pointing to the Messiah in the future) because Peter could apply the words to Jesus (see Acts 2:25-28). In other words, the words applied on one level to David, even as a fuller and deeper meaning of the words would only be fulfilled a thousand years later in the resurrection of Jesus. In a similar way, Psalm 8 applies first to David, then to Jesus in his perfect humanity during the incarnation, and most fully to Jesus in His future role as visible head over all creation (see this three-fold fulfillment in Hebrews 2:5-9). And in a further sense, Psalm 8 is fulfilled in the lives of mankind most fully because they apply to Jesus, the one who not only fulfills mankind’s role but shares it with those who have place their faith in Him. In other words, many prophecies work on more than one level, and we should not quickly assume that the prophecy about the mark of the beast has only one way of being fulfilled.

My own understanding, then, is this. First, I believe John used the figure of Nero as a way to give shape to the idea of the future anti-christ, and point out some features of his reign. Nero, then, was a template, or a foreshadowing, of one who will come. John did not expect Nero to come back, but used the popular motif of a Nero returning from death as a symbol of the false resurrection of the anti-christ (see Revelation 13: 3, 12). Part of the reason Nero is appropriate is because of his persecution of God’s people, his desire to be worshipped as a god, and his violent end. Furthermore, as emperor he also symbolized something likely to be true of the anti-christ: He embodies a world-wide and very powerful kingdom.

I think it likely that some sort of theological interpretation of the symbolism is also likely in play. That is, I think it likely that 666 not only looked back to Nero as a symbol, but looks theologically to the meaning and nature of the anti-christ and his kingdom. In particular, the last paragraph of the theological discussion (before the conclusion) seems especially intriguing and helpful to me. I don’t think one can be too dogmatic about this, however.

Does the meaning of 666 look not only backwards (to Nero), but does it also look forward to the anti-christ? That is, will the anti-christ have a name whose numerical value is 666? I would say this is possible, but by no means necessary. It is just as likely we are to understand 666 as giving us the symbol and meaning of the anti-christ, rather than a numeric clue to his identity.

The Agape Fallacy

 Well, I heard it again this last weekend.  The speaker brought out his PowerPoint slides to explain that Greek language had four different words that we translate as “love”, and that one of these is the love God has for us and that we should have for each other.  Hogwash.

 If you are not familiar with “the four loves”, here is a quick summary of what you will often hear: 

Storge is familial love 

Eros is sexual or romantic love

Phileo is friendship love

Agape is godly love (usually defined as unconditional, giving, and volitional as opposed to emotive).   

The point of most of these talks is to convince us to love God and others with agape love, not the other kinds (it is usually contrasted most with phileo).

Again, hogwash.  It is all a fallacy. 

Agape and phileo have overlapping meanings, and the exact shade of meaning for “love” in any New Testament passage depends on the context of that passage, not which Greek word is behind the translation.

 If you believe that phileo is an inferior type of love, you will have a little trouble with the following verses:

  • John 5:20, For the Father loves (phileo) the Son…
  • John 16:27, For the Father himself loves (phileo) you, because ye have loved (phileo) me
  • Titus 2:24, wives are…to love (phileo) their husbands…
  • Titus 3:4, the kindness and love (phileo) of God our Saviour
  • II. Tim. 4:10, For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved (agape) this present world
  • II Samuel 13 describes Amnon’s lust for his half-sister, which led him to rape.  Verse 15 says afterwards, “he hated her more than he had loved her”, and the Greek translation of the Old Testament used agape to describe that “love”. 

More importantly the two Greek words seemed to be used interchangeably:

  • Rev. 3:9, and to know that I have loved (agape) thee.
  • Rev. 3:19, As many as I love (phileo), I rebuke and chasten…

 

  • John 11:5, Now Jesus loved (agape) Martha
  • John 20:2, the other disciple, whom Jesus loved (phileo)

 

  • John 3:35, The Father loves (agape) the Son
  • John 5:20, For the Father loves (phileo) the Son

 

Note, I am not arguing that phileo and agape are complete synonyms, that is, that they have the exact same meaning and nuance.  Rather, like the English words “soil” and “dirt”, their meanings overlap greatly, and can often be used synonymously.  The main point I am making is that it is illegitimate to base the meaning of “love” in a passage on the basis of which Greek word underlies the English word.  Their certainly are different kinds and types of love, but the context itself is the only key to meaning in this case.

What is Heaven?

Few words carry such meaning and confusion as “Heaven”.  Little children address assign both their prayers and hopes to heaven, while the word’s sheer breadth of meaning confuse elderly academics. 

Part of the confusion stems from what C. S. Lewis called transposition.  That word derives from the activity of re-composing a piece written for one musical instrument, say, the piano, for another instrument, say, a guitar.  The piano, of course, can play many more notes than the guitar, so often several notes or chords written for the piano piece will be represented by only one note or chord on the guitar. 

In the same way, the word “heaven” is used to describe more than one thing.  In fact, it designates several related but separate ideas, and only by pulling the strands of the knot apart can we gain access to the meaning.

First, heaven can mean the air or the atmosphere.  Birds and clouds fill this heaven, and it is from this heaven that the rain quenches the thirst of the earth.

Second, heaven can mean what we refer to as space, or what is beyond our atmosphere. This heaven is populated not with birds, but stars and planets. 

Now, both these two senses sometimes blend together to refer to all things that are above the earth.  In this sense, sometimes all physical creation is designated by the terms, “the heavens and the earth”, as in Genesis 1:1.  But they can also be distinguished.  For example, Psalm 8 refers to the heavens in verse 3 as being filled with the “moon and stars, which you have set in place”.  That same Psalm could later speak of man’s role of dominion over the things of this planet, which include the beasts of the field, the fish of the sea, and the birds of the heavens (verses 6-8). 

Another sense of the word heaven is also used in that same psalm.  Verse five says that mankind has been made, “a little lower than the heavenly beings”.  Both the context and the New Testament usage (Hebrews 2:5-8) tell us that this means that mankind is made a little lower than angelic beings, that is, inhabitants of the spirit world.

The third sense heaven, then is as a spiritual realm, not a place in the universe.  Heaven in this sense is not somewhere one could travel physically; it is nowhere on the map on the universe, nor does it exist physically “outside” the universe.  This is apparently what Paul meant when he said he was given a vision of “the third heaven” ( II Corinthians 12:2). I will be speaking of this heaven the rest of the way.

This meaning of heaven is inherently difficult for those not in heaven to understand, just as a three-dimensional universe would be inherently obscure to a person who lived in only two dimensions (as Edwin Abbot illustrated in his wonderful classic novel, Flatland).  It speaks of what is both beyond this world, and what is not like this world.  Yet, as Ecclesiastes seems to hint in that enigmatic phrase, “you have set eternity in our hearts”, humans have been reluctant to give up the idea that something is “beyond”, even if it proves difficult to comprehend.

It may be helpful to distinguish four aspects of this third sense of heaven.  These distinctions are conceptual, not actual (or noetic, not ontological, if you like being technical).  That is, they distinguish between four different aspects of the third meaning of heaven, not four different additional heavens.

The first aspect of this heaven (that would be 3a for you obsessive types), is that of the spirit world.  Psalm Eight calls angels heavenly beings because heaven is their abode, as it were (though again, not physical abode).  It is their sphere of existence and activity.  Of course, angels also interact with humanity, for humans are spiritual beings as well as physical beings, and humans alone are, by nature, both physical and spiritual.  Angels are not.  They have, by nature, no physical body, though they can adopt at least the appearance of one in order to communicate with mankind. 

By the way, in this sense, even demons (fallen angels) are said to exist in heaven.  Paul reminds us that our struggle is not against physical foes, but spiritual ones, who exist “in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). 

In this sense, then, the main emphasis is on what heaven is not: a physical place in the universe.  It exists in a totally different (and more fundamental way) than the universe.  Think of an aquarium constructed at the factory, then filled with water, plants and fish by the hobbyist.  What exists outside the aquarium is both prior to and more fundamental than what exists inside it (since forces and wills outside the aquarium affect what is inside it).

The second aspect of heaven (3b) is as the place where God “dwells”.  Now, of course, both the scriptures and all orthodox Christian theology insist that God does not have a body of any kind.  He is a spiritual being (John 4:24) and thus does not occupy space.  Space and time are features of this universe, and the concepts of time and space simply do not apply to the one who created this universe with its space and time.  We use phrases like that God existed before the universe or exists outside the universe, but these expressions are concessions to the poverty of our words to express what we have no experience of; they are not technically accurate.

What can it mean, then, when scripture pictures God as dwelling in heaven?  Why would Jesus teach us to pray, for example, “our father, which art in Heaven?” God is emphasizing, through metaphor, His transcendence over our existence, and his control over all that happens in this universe.  Transcendence means that He is not contained in this universe, nor limited by anything in this universe (neither the laws and forces of nature or the schemes and power of man).  To say that God is “in heaven” is to affirm not that he exists physically in a place one could point to on a map, but that this world can neither contain Him nor limit Him. 

For the believer, one other thing about heaven as God’s existence is also dear. That is the idea that we will in some way share that dwelling with Him.  This is the idea behind the promise of Jesus that “in my father’s house are many rooms…I am going to prepare a place for you….on that day you will realize that I am in my father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14).  The mystery and ambiguity of what this actually looks like spring from the incredible, category-breaking nature of the promise: that somehow, physical and once-fallen beings like ourselves will dwell with the Spirit who is beyond all. 

The third aspect of heaven (3c) is the place of perfection and power which somehow exists “alongside” this world we experience.  Though heaven in this aspect is often seen as being “above” our world, this is metaphorical, not literal.  It is good to raise our eyes or voice to heaven, as long as we understand the reality beyond the symbol. 

In this sense, help comes from heaven to the supplicant believer.  Isaiah 57:15 says,

 For this is what the high and exalted One says—
   he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
“I live in a high and holy place,
   but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
   and to revive the heart of the contrite.

James 3:15-17 speaks of wisdom that comes “from heaven”, Psalm 14:2 says the Lord examines men by looking down from heaven, while psalm 105:40 testifies that he satisfied his people by sending the “bread of heaven” (manna).   All these verses, and dozens more, speak of heaven as not only the place God dwells, but the place from which he interacts with this world.

Finally, the fourth aspect of heaven(3d) describes the coming, perfect kingdom: the perfect order and beauty of the eternal state, the place where true believers will, in a resurrected body, commune with God, worship God, and rule with God over a perfected physical creation.  Interestingly, this is not usually called “heaven” in the scriptures, but in many ways this is the goal and fulfillment of the first three aspects of heaven. The eternal dwelling of God in the spirit realm, with all its beauty, holiness, power, and perfection, is now open to a new humanity.  As the oak replaces the acorn, the new heaven and new earth (that is, the entirety of the physical creation) replace the old heaven and old earth.   This New Jerusalem both comes down from heaven (Rev. 21:2) and becomes heaven, the place where God and His people now dwell together.  The shout raised at the event will celebrate the marriage of heaven and earth, of God and His people: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them, and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Rev. 21:3-4). 

One final question needs to be addressed: Is it correct to say that when a believer dies, they “go to heaven”? 

I think the answer to this is yes, but we should understand that in a full way, not a simplistic, childish way.  God is not dwelling on a cloud somewhere beyond the planets, waiting for us to come and pick up our harps and join him. And certainly the fullest and final expression of heaven (3d) awaits the judgment and resurrection, events that are still in the future from our perspective.  Yet, Paul could also speak of his impending death with the comforting thought that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (Phil. 1:19-26), and Jesus could promise the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise”. 

The paradox between these two themes (immediate communion with Christ after death versus the wait for the judgment, resurrection, marriage feast and New Jerusalem) has led many biblical scholars to posit something of an intermediate state between our present death and our future resurrection.  That is, when we die we exist in some state in communion with Christ, but are not resurrected bodily till the general resurrection in the last days.  Others have suggested that the intermediary state should be called soul-sleep, that is, that our body seems to be asleep while our soul is with Christ.  My own problem with this is understanding how we could exist in a disembodied state.  The idea goes beyond our human experience, and thus, our human reason.  This does not mean it should be rejected, but it does suggest we leave the description of the intermediate state open. 

But perhaps the tension between our immediate communion with Christ (at death) and our delayed resurrection should not bother us too much if we remember that time is a category of this world only, and that what we may experience immediately (while not in this world) may, from the perspective of this world, be far in the future. 

So, in this sense, I think it is permissible to speak of believers going to heaven when they die, as long as we understand that the emphasis of the scripture is not on our individual entrance to the pearly gates, but God’s plan to redeem and perfect creation (of which we, amazingly, can be a part). It is when we fully understand that the overwhelming purpose of God is to create a new resurrected humanity capable of dwelling with Him as rulers over a perfected new creation, so that He can expand the circle of Trinitarian love to (for He is love), that we truly long with creation itself (Romans 8: 18-25) for the day when the voice cries out: “Now [at last!] the dwelling of God is with men!”. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

Five Views of the Book of Revelation

One of the reasons Revelation is (I think) the most difficult book of the Bible is that not only are there disputes about particular verses, but the purpose and the interpretation of the book as a whole are also disputed.  No other book has had such a wide diversity about its basic meaning and interpretation.  Here is a brief chart listing the five main ways Revelation has been understood through the centuries. (click on the chart for a better resolution)

What is Leviathan and Why should I Care?

At the end of God’s speech to Job, He speaks for an entire chapter about a creature called Leviathan.  There is much confusion about the identification of this creature (in spite of its lengthy description) for the following reasons:

  • The word itself is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew (not a translation).  It seems to derive from a root meaning, “coiling, gliding”.
  • It’s description does not match exactly any one creature.
  • The context would seem to be a real (not mythological) animal known by Job, but the description seems to be mythical or hyperbolic.
  • The word is used only five times in the bible, and seems to have a different meaning in some of them.
  • It’s closest parallel seems to be to another being mentioned in the Bible, Rahab; This creature is equally mysterious and not mentioned by name outside of scripture.

Options, please:

A. Leviathan is a crocodile. This is supported by the following facts:

  1. It is described as being covered with something like scales or a skin impervious to puncture.
  2. It is described as having fearsome teeth.
  3. It is a marine animal, yet also can leave a trail in the mud

The weaknesses of this view are the following:

  1. Leviathan is described as a beast that none can capture, but crocodiles have always been able to be captured by skilled hunters.
  2. Related to the above, Leviathan seems to be pictured as the most fearsome beast, but few would give that description to the crocodile.
  3. Leviathan is said to breathe fire
  4. “The deep” usually refers to the sea, not swampland or rivers
  5. The parallel passages which refer to Leviathan do not fit with the description of the crocodile.

B. Leviathan is an extinct dinosaur:

  1. A number of ancient fossils describe a beast like this
  2. While these creatures would not be known to Job, God could still be describing them (and perhaps fossils of dinosaurs were known)

The weaknesses of this view:

  1. It would fit the context better if it were a being that Job had actual knowledge of.
  2. No dinosaur could breathe fire.

C. Leviathan is a crocodile (or some other animal) that is given a hyperbolic, not literal, description.

  1. This would make sense of the crocodile like features, as well as the breathing fire.
  2. This would fit the style of the book of Job (this is poetry, after all, not a zoology textbook).

However:

  1. If the point of the chapter is to show God’s greatness in what He created, it perhaps seems pointless to have an exaggerated description.
  2. The problem with the parallel passages remains.

D. Leviathan is an unknown (probably extinct) sea monster of some kind.

  1. The depths of the oceans still holds many mysteries to us

However:

  1. It stretches credulity to think of a sea monster who was able to breath fire.
  2. The context seems to demand a creature who can also appear on land, or at least the shallows.

E. Leviathan is a purely mythological being.

  1. Since no animal actually matches the description, it must be a mythical or symbolic being.

However:

  1. The context almost demands an actual created being.

F. Leviathan is a unique and somewhat supernatural being, associated in some way with Satan’s primeval opposition to God.

G. Leviathan is a real creature (like a crocodile or dinosaur), but also serves as a symbol for the evil forces opposing God’s good rule over creation.

Let’s look at these last two ideas more closely:

In addition to the description in chapter 41, the book of Job also mentions Leviathan once more:

First, in Job chapter 3, where Job is cursing the day of his birth.  He says in verse 8.

May those who curse days curse that day,

those who are ready to rouse Leviathan.

Let the stars of its dawn be dark.

 

Here we see the first thing Leviathan was associated with in the ancient mind: darkness.  Those ready to rouse Leviathan are looking to blot out the dawn or the day.  Leviathan seems to be a creature at war with the coming of light or day.

The book of Psalms mentions Leviathan twice, in very different contexts.

The first is in Psalm 79:

12 But you, O God, are my king from of old;

you bring salvation upon the earth.

13 It was you who split open the sea by your power;

you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.

14 It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan

and gave him as food to the creatures of the desert.

15 It was you who opened up springs and streams;

you dried up the ever flowing rivers.

16 The day is yours, and yours also the night;

you established the sun and moon.

17 It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth;

you made both summer and winter

This psalm is a cry for God to save His people from their adversaries.  The section here hearkens back to God’s power in His victory over his enemies at the dawn of creation.  Leviathan is described as a sea monster with several heads.  At some time associated with creation, God crushed Leviathan and gave him as food for the creatures of the desert.

Before we look at a parallel text to this, we should also look at Psalm 104:

 

24 How many are your works, O Lord!

In wisdom you made them all;

the earth is full of your creatures.

25 There is the sea, vast and spacious,

teeming with creatures beyond number—

living things both large and small.

26 There the ships go to and fro,

and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

Here Leviathan is again associated with the sea, but is seen, not as a fearsome foe of God, but one of the animals that frolic in the sea.

The Last mention of Leviathan is somewhat surprising to us in light of what we already have read.  It is Isaiah 27:1:

In that day,

the Lord will punish with his sword,

his fierce, great and powerful sword,

Leviathan the gliding serpent,

Leviathan the coiling serpent;

he will slay the monster of the sea

Again, Leviathan is seen as some sort of sea monster, and an enemy of God.  But God’s victory over Leviathan is seen in the future, not the past.  Indeed, most Bible scholars view this whole section of Isaiah as eschatological, that is, looking forward to the final victory of God over his enemies and the establishment of His eternal kingdom.

Now, before we begin to interpret these verses, we should also point out verses that deal with a being that seemingly is associated with Leviathan: Rahab.  This being is not mentioned outside the Old Testament, but many of the ancient myths refer to a creature or force like Rahab.  The first reference is again in the book of Job (26):

10 He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters

for a boundary between light and darkness.

11 The pillars of the heavens quake,

aghast at his rebuke.

12 By his power he churned up the sea;

by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces.

13 By his breath the skies became fair;

his hand pierced the gliding serpent.

Here we see many of the same themes associated with Leviathan: a gliding serpent in the sea that God cuts to pieces as part of the creation process.

Psalm 89 also describes God’s power over creation and Rahab:

9 You rule over the surging sea;

when its waves mount up, you still them.

10 You crushed Rahab like one of the slain;

with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.

11 The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth;

you founded the world and all that is in it.

12 You created the north and the south;

Isaiah 51 hits the same notes:

9 Awake, awake! Clothe yourself with strength,

O arm of the Lord;

awake, as in days gone by,

as in generations of old.

Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces,

who pierced that monster through?

10 Was it not you who dried up the sea,

the waters of the great deep,

who made a road in the depths of the sea

so that the redeemed might cross over?

This last verse also brings in another meaning of Rahab.  Rahab also symbolizes Egypt, as the enemy of God’s people (and therefore of God himself). This symbolism is brought out plainly in Isaiah 31:

6 An oracle concerning the animals of the Negev:

Through a land of hardship and distress,

of lions and lionesses,

of adders and darting snakes,

the envoys carry their riches on donkeys’ backs,

their treasures on the humps of camels,

to that unprofitable nation,

7 to Egypt, whose help is utterly useless.

Therefore I call her

Rahab the Do-Nothing.

This same identification of Egypt with Rahab is seen in Psalm 86: 4

Finally, in Ezekiel 29, the king of Egypt is described as a monster not unlike Leviathan or Rahab:

Son of man, set your face against Pharaoh king of Egypt and prophesy against him and against all Egypt. 3 Speak to him and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“ ‘I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt,

you great monster lying among your streams.

You say, “The Nile is mine;

I made it for myself.”

4 But I will put hooks in your jaws

and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales.

I will pull you out from among your streams,

with all the fish sticking to your scales.

5 I will leave you in the desert,

you and all the fish of your streams.

You will fall on the open field

and not be gathered or picked up.

I will give you as food

to the beasts of the earth and the birds of the air.

See also the almost identical scene in Ezekiel 32:1-4.

Analysis:

  • It appears obvious from the above that a simple identification of Leviathan with some animal is inadequate.
  • Leviathan is equated or at least associated with another sea creature, Rahab.
  • Rahab is both already conquered by God, and yet to be conquered by God in the last days.
  • Rahab has a strong association with the sea, and sometimes seems to personify the sea in its resistance to land and human civilization
  • Both Leviathan and Rahab are also associated with darkness.
  • Rahab serves as a symbol of Egypt and Egypt’s king, enemies of God’s plan.
  • It is worth noting that Satan is described in Revelation as both a serpent and a dragon (chapters 12 and 20), and in Genesis 3 as a serpent.
  • In Revelation 13:1 the first beast is described as “coming out of the sea”. See also how the four beasts of Daniel 7 also arise out of the sea).
  • Perhaps we see two hints of all this in the first and penultimate chapters of the Bible.  Cryptically, the only day of creation which God did not pronounce his blessing on (“It was good”) was the second day, when the seas were formed. Just as cryptically, we find that Revelation 21:1 says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no more sea”.

Conclusions:

  • Leviathan is not a mythical being (totally made up), but rather a symbolic being.  God uses earthly creatures to point to spiritual (invisible) forces.
  • In the fullest sense, Leviathan stands for violent opposition to God.  This is pictured in the raging sea threatening life on land (or ships) with its stormy darkness.  Repeatedly, God’s forming of the world is described as a victory over the waters (see also Job 38:8-11).   But this is not simply inanimate resistance, but associated with the active resistance of intelligent and willful opponents of God. This is why God is described as triumphing not only over the sea (an inanimate force) but over the great monster of the sea (an animate and willful force).
  • It is this last sense that Egypt and Pharoah become apt symbols of Leviathan and Rahab.
  • It is also in this sense that the victory over Rahab is not yet complete.  Yes, Rahab as opposition to creation was defeated, but Rahab as opposition to God’s new creation (centered on a redeemed humanity) continues until it’s final defeat in the last days.
  • Option F (above) is possible. In this view a supernatural yet physical being still exists, probably in the deepest ocean lair.  This being was subdued and imprisoned there until the end of days when God will allow it to again wage war against God and will be completely defeated.  Note Job 7:12 —    “Am I the sea, or the monster of the deep, that you put me under guard?”
  • Option G is preferred. Job 41 is more than a description of God’s power in creating the crocodile or some other great being.  It is an affirmation that Satan and all the forces opposing God are totally under his control.  Job can place his trust in God because, even though his ways are mysterious to man, they are not random but part of his active plan to defeat the forces of evil.

The Sin of the Orthodox

[note: by “Orthodox” I am referring to those who are biblical and traditional in their theology; I am not referring to the Orthodox church]

 

Each time I read the book of Job I find deeper meanings.  As I read it this week, one idea that kept coming to my mind was the sin of those who thought they had God all figured out.

At the conclusion of the book, God responds to Job, and then responds to Eliphaz and his friends.  The friends were, you will recall, the “miserable comforters” who debated with Job about the justice of God. The substance of their great debate could be summarized this way: The friends argue that since God is just, Job’s afflictions must be the punishment for some hidden sin.  Job argues in response (repeatedly): Look, I don’t have any “secret sin” that deserves this kind of punishment, so God is not being just to me.  The friends then accuse him of undermining the notion of God’s justice.  Job responds by repeating what he knows: I am innocent, yet enduring incredible suffering, and this suffering seems to come from God himself.  Again, Job implies, “God is not being just with me”.

Now, of course, we readers are let into a secret.  Chapters one and two describe the scene in heaven where God twice describes Job, “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil”.  In fact, God says, “there is none like him on earth”.  So we know before the dialogue begins that the three friends are in the wrong.  Job’s afflictions are not punishments.  Job is blameless before God.

But imagine if we did not have this information.  Imagine we walked in to the story right where the dialogue starts.  On the one hand, we have three wise, older men who have an exalted view of God and are eager to defend his ways.  They are completely orthodox in their understanding, and their first priority is to protect God’s reputation.  On the other hand, you have Job, who seems to be not only suffering, but positively afflicted by God (the suddenness and completeness of his losses cannot be mere coincidence).  Job argues that he is blameless, therefore God is not being just, while the orthodox friends argue that God is just, therefore Job is not blameless.  Who is right?

Wait: before you answer, again try to strip your mind of what you know from chapters one and two.  And you may find yourself in the position of Elihu.  Elihu is a rather mysterious figure.  He shows up without introduction and his name is not mentioned again after his long speech (chapters 32-37).  His speech does not serve to advance the dialogue at all, and neither God nor Job nor the friends respond to it.  Here is what I think: Elihu is intended to function as a warning to the reader.  His viewpoint and speech (“Job, you are wrong; I know wisdom, and you are speaking folly”) are the natural conclusion we are tempted to draw simply by listening to the speeches (without the prologue).  In his speeches, he not only agrees with the orthodox friends, but is angry at them for not being able to withstand Job’s arguments. 

It is right after his speech that God Himself arrives on the scene and, incredibly, joins in the argument.  God does two things.  First, he reproves Job (chapters 38-41) for failing to understand what Kierkegaard would later call “the infinite qualitative distinction” between God and man.  Job is wrong because He simply is not in a place to understand God’s ways, and therefore is recklessly hasty in saying that God is unjust to him.  The second thing God does, then, is surprising.  He approves Job, especially in contrast to his orthodox friends.  Twice he tells the orthodox, “you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has”.  In fact, God regards this not only as a mistake, but a sin, for which they need to offer a sacrifice and ask Job(!) to pray for them.  God seems less upset by Job yelling at Him than the friends yelling at Job on God’s behalf.

This, then, is the surprising conclusion to the dialogue: Elihu listens and takes the side of the orthodox friends and rebukes Job, while God listens and ultimately takes the side of Job and rebukes the orthodox.  And this is the heart of the book of Job: God’s ways are, in the final analysis, not able to be fully understood by man, simply because we are never in the position that He is in.  Even the most godly (like Job) and the most orthodox and cerebral (like Job’s friends) can never understand God in the same way they understand the things of this world.  In fact, God describes the words of the orthodox friends, who felt they were speaking godly wisdom, as “folly”. 

Now, here is where the rubber hits the road.  I have always taken pride in holding correct, orthodox views of God and theology.  And I still feel that the traditional, conservative, biblical viewpoint is the best way to understand the world in which we find ourselves in.  Yet, books like Job warn me to be very humble about this.  In the end, I have little doubt that my orthodox, evangelical theology will be like the fig leafs the first couple used to clothe themselves: wholly inadequate, and replaced by something else by God’s grace. 

What does this mean practically?  It means that we should be careful that our study of theology should never outstrip our understanding of “the infinite qualitative distinction”.  It means our eagerness to defend God should never come at the expense of loving people.  It means we must learn to live out our worldview fully, all the while realizing that when we see Him all of our previous “knowledge” will be fig leaves of foolishness.

Visual Outline of the Book of Job

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, they say.  With that in mind, here is a visual outline of the Book of Job. Click for larger image.

outline of the book of Job

Outline of the book of Job

Holiness in the Old Testament, part 1

As we saw last time, the concept of holiness is quite different than is normally thought of.  Moral righteousness or purity is one aspect of holiness, not its definition.  It is the surface of the ocean, the part that “touches” us, but not the essence of its depth.

 Holiness, we said, is at it essence the idea of being separate, or cut off, from something, and that something is the universe itself, physical creation as a whole.  To say that God is “holy” is to say that He transcends, stands over and apart from, the physical universe.  He is not an object in it, but He, and He alone, has a quite different relationship to the universe than we do.  The universe can be said to exist to us as cause to effect, or as the arena where we live and move.  But the universe exists before God as effect to cause; he is not in the arena, but stands over it and outside of it. 

Holiness, then, is primarily a relationship word.  God is holy in relation to the universe.  This is not to say it is not fundamental.  In many ways it is the most fundamental thing we can say about God.  But it is not His essence (see the chapter on holiness and love).  We call a geographic point in the artic the North Pole because it exists as unique place in relation to all other places on the globe.  In the same way, holiness expresses the state of relationship primarily, and describes a state of being only in light of that relationship. 

The first two occurrences of the word holy in the Old Testament establish are quite interesting in this regard.  The first refers to a holy time, the second to a holy place.  How can these things be holy?

Let’s look first at the holy time.  We are told in Genesis 2:3 that God, “blessed the seventh day and made it holy”.  The next phrase, “because he rested (or ceased) from all his work that he had done in creation”, could modify either the fact that God blessed the seventh day, or that he called it holy, or, most likely, both.  So if we began reading our Bible in Genesis, and had no pre-conceived ideas of what is meant by holiness, we would understand it as some sort of “special quality” which attached to certain times. 

How is this related to the idea of Holiness as separateness?  In this way: all other days were “ordinary” days, but the seventh day was a day “set apart” from those other days.  In this day, activities would change.  Things done on the other days would not be done on this day, and things done on this day would not be done on the “ordinary” days.  We will look later at what this means for modern day Christians, but for now it is enough to understand that at holy day meant a day set apart from the rest, which is so marked by a change in human activities. (By the way, this idea of the specialness of a day being marked by special activities is carried over in our culture in the notion of holidays, that is, “holy days”).

The next time we see the word holiness in the Scriptures is in Exodus 3, in the encounter between Moses and God at the burning bush.  As Moses approaches the bush, he is warned to do two things: first “do not come near”.  Second, to “take off your sandals”.  Why? “For the place you are standing is holy ground”.  

How can a spot of dirt and stone be holy?  It is clear from the context and the rest of the Pentateuch: A place is holy ground, not because of any intrinsic qualities it has, but because God’s presence and activity is there in a special way.  It is no longer ordinary ground; it is used redemptively by the Holy One, and so becomes holy, even as it remains physically unchanged. 

In both passages, holiness here is understood as a quality that God gives, or declares, about something in the physical universe because the one who stands outside that universe is using it.  It is this instrumental sense of holiness that tends to dominate the meaning of holiness in the Pentateuch, especially in Leviticus.  Not only the Sabbath but special feasts times before God are declared to be holy days.  Not only does the ground become holy, but the whole mountain, and then, the “Holy Land”.  Inanimate objects used for God’s purposes, especially in relation to the redemptive plan of God, are called holy.  This includes such things as the vestments worn by the priests, the various parts of the tabernacle, and the sacrifices brought to God.

Two key passages in Leviticus illumine what God is trying to teach regarding holiness.  The first of these is in chapter 10, which begins with the death of two of Aaron’s sons for bringing “unauthorized fire” (literally, “strange fire”) mixed with incense before the Lord.  God’s words after this in verse 8 (“Drink no wine or strong drink…when you go into the tent of meeting”), indicate that the sin of Nabad and Abihu was two-fold: they came into God’s presence drunk, and with incense offering God had not authorized.  In other words they approached God in moral laxity and in worship of their own making. 

Fire came out “from the Lord” (from the Ark of the Covenant?), and destroyed both men.  After the corpses were removed from the camp, God gives this instruction to Aaron (and through him, to the whole priesthood): “You are to distinguish between the holy and the unholy, between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people or Israel all the statues that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses”. 

So one of the purposes of the priesthood, and the Mosaic law, was to make distinctions between what is holy and what is unholy.  This phrase is qualified by the next, “between the unclean and the clean”.  The concept of clean and unclean occurs in Leviticus nearly as often as the word holiness, and often the meanings overlap.  For an offering to be clean meant it was acceptable to God for an offering.  It that sense it was eligible to be a holy offering.  For an animal to be clean meant that Israel, as God’s holy people, could use that animal for food.  For a person to be clean meant they were not defiled by certain things (leprosy, menstrual blood, touching a dead body) and were therefore acceptable to come before God in the assembly before the Tabernacle. 

Notice that in all these things the idea of moral purity is simply not in play.  These were all physical characteristics, not moral.  A heifer is not more righteous than a lobster, but it, unlike the lobster, is clean, and can therefore be used as food by a holy people or offered as a sacrifice to a holy God.  A woman is not less righteous when she is menstruating than a week later when she is not. 

“Cleanness” then, in the Pentateuch, exists as a physical expression of the root idea of holiness: separating.  Some animals and conditions are simply set apart for God’s purposes, and some are not.

The other key passage in Leviticus is in chapter 11, verses 44: “For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves, and be holy, for I am holy.” This verse is repeated (in Greek) in I Peter 1:16, and seems to be behind the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:48 (“Therefore you must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect”).

The idea that we should imitate God’s holiness is a sobering, but understandable thought.  What is surprising, then, is the way this is conveyed in Leviticus 11.  It is defined in terms of clean and unclean animals and insects, that is, which the Israelites could eat and which they were forbidden to eat.  The entire chapter is devoted to making dietary distinctions.  What is fascinating is that there appears to be no system or criteria for why some foods are allowed and others forbidden.  Even the distinctions between animals that chew the cud and those that do not, and those which have cloven hoof and those that do not seem rather arbitrary to us.  Why these distinctions?  Why are beef and bass okay, but not pork and shrimp?  We are given no reason.  Presumably it is not important for us to know.

The point I am trying to get across is that God defines holiness for his people in verse 44 in two senses.  First, the motive for holiness is because He is holy.  But the practice of holiness involves obeying his dietary commands about clean and unclean animals.  These two don’t seem to go together.  God has no body, thus no diet.  How then does making dietary distinctions somehow imitate His holiness?

In this way: by making continual distinctions in something as everyday and pervasive as food, Israel was practicing and learning that God’s holiness was about separation.  Their greatest need spiritually was always to remember the kind of God they served.  He was separate, different, of another realm.  This is partly why making an image of God was so offensive: it reduced Yahweh to an item in the universe.  It erased the most fundamental thing about God: his absolute separateness from, and transcendence of, this universe.

Eymology of the Word, “Holy”

Hebrew:  qodesh קֹדֶש 

 Most scholars view the etymology of qodesh to be based on either the idea of separateness or the related idea of cutting.

Greek: hagios  (ἅγιος)    hier     (hagiazo: to make holy, or to set apart as holy)

 The  word has the idea of being set apart for God’s use; secondarily, it also implies moral goodness. Examples of English based on the Greek:

Hagiography: Writings about the lives of saints.

Hagiolatry: The worship of saints

Hierarch: One who has rule or authority in holy things

Hierarchy 1. Rule or dominion in holy things; 2. A body of persons or things ranked in grades, orders, or classes, one above another.

Latin:  sanctus, sacr, sacer

The latin usage reflected the biblical usage, with the idea of someone or something being set apart for God’s use dominating. Examples of English words based on the Latin:

Sacred

Sanctuary

Sanctify

Consecrate

Desecrate

Sanction

Sanctimonious

Sanctity

Sacerdotal

Sacrament

Sacrifice

Sacrilege

 

English:

The English word holy dates back to at least the 11th Century with the Old English word hālig, an adjective derived from hāl meaning whole and used to mean ‘uninjured, sound, healthy, entire, complete’. The Scottish ‘hale’ (health, happiness and wholeness.) is the most complete modern form of this Old English root. The modern word ‘health’ is also derived from the Old English hal. As “wholeness”, holiness may be taken to indicate a state of religious completeness or perfection.

In English, then, the word “holiness” is used to primarily describe a moral quality (sinless, pure, whole).  This is the secondary, not primary, use of the concept of holiness in the Bible.

The Purpose of the Church

In one sense, determining the purpose of the local church is not easy.  This is because the Church exists on several different levels, and quoting a passage alone without discussion of what level of the church the passage refers to is an exercise in confusion. 

 First or all, the Church exists as the future cosmic co-heirs with Christ over all creation.  The last part of Ephesians chapter one has this future-cosmic viewpoint (see the end of verse 21).  Verses 22-23 then conclude, “And God placed all things under his feet, and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is His body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way”.   This is indeed one of the key concepts in Ephesians, that God’s plan is, in the fullness of time, to bring all creation under the headship of Jesus Christ (1:10), or to put it another way, to “fill” creation with Jesus (“fill” is one of the key words in Ephesians and Colossians).  The passage quoted here shows that the way He fills creation with Jesus is to create the church, which, because it is like Jesus and reflects Jesus, is able to manifest Jesus throughout all the realms of creation.  This, it seems to me, is also the context which best makes sense of the beautiful words in Ephesians 5, that Christ “loved the Church, and gave Himself up for her, to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to Himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”  See also the wonderful passage of I Peter 2:4-10 in this regard.

Secondly, the church also exists right now in its corporate state.  In this state, the church exists not as the bride, but the espoused one.  At this level, it also makes sense to speak of the church not just as a local congregation, but also the collection of such bodies in a particular country, society, or even globally.  But our main concern (since normally it is all we can influence) is for the individual congregation.  The local church can only find its goals and marching orders in light of the larger purpose (as stated above), and as spelled out in scriptures that address the local congregation (mainly in the teaching of the Epistles and the examples of Acts, with the latter being interpreted by the former).  Paul is given the gift of most fully explaining the role and purpose of the local church, and his most extended discussions are in I Corinthians and Ephesians (especially I Corinthians 11-14, and Ephesians 4:1-16).  Of the two passages, the one in Ephesians is more helpful in understanding the purpose of the local body, since it deals with the issue directly (whereas most of the passage in I Corinthians is more oblique, as it addresses problems of the local church in Corinth).  This much-discussed passage tells us that God gives to the present Church different foundational gifts (apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers) for the purpose, “to prepare God’s people for works of service”.  And why are God’s people to do works of service? “So that the body of Christ may be built up”.

 Since verses 11-17 are one sentence in Greek, and critical to the purpose of the local church, we should see how the four best English translations render this whole passage.

The New International Version New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update English Standard Version The New Revised Standard Version
11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,
12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,
13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.
15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

 

 I would suggest the following thought diagram (based on the ESV):

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 

     to equip the saints for the work of ministry,

          for building up the body of Christ,

               until we all attain

                         to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God,

                         to mature manhood,

                         to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,

        so that we may no longer be children, 

              tossed to and fro by the waves

              and carried about

                        by every wind of doctrine,

                        by human cunning,

                         by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

          Rather, speaking the truth in love,

                        we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,

                        from whom the whole body,

                                          joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped,

                                          when each part is working properly,

                                    makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Let me summarize this passage by saying that Paul says here that God gives gifted individuals to equip the members to do service work, with the goal being to build each other up into Christlike maturity, resulting in unity, knowledge of God, biblical discernment, and love.

 Now here it would be tempting to limit the purpose of the local church to that of edification, that is, building the members of the church into Christlikeness.  I would suggest that while this is central to the local church’s mission, and certainly fits in well with the future/cosmic purpose of the church related above, that the New Testament as a whole expands upon this purpose in two ways.

 First, the New Testament repeatedly uses priestly imagery to talk about the Church.  This imagery, of course, is based primarily on the Old Testament (disabuse your mind of the priest at your local mainline church). We see hints of that in the passage we just looked at (“ministry” translating the word which the Greek translation of the Old Testament used primarily of the temple ministry of the priests).  But, of course, we are given more explicit links between the church and the priesthood I such passages as I Peter 1:9, Romans 12:1-2, and Hebrews 10:20-22.  The priests were closely associated with the temple of course, which is why Paul, in the last part of Ephesians 4:16 (see above) switches from a body metaphor to an architecture metaphor (“builds itself up”).  This is based upon his earlier use of the temple to describe the church (Ephesians 2:19-22):

 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit

So the imagery of the priesthood and temple remind us that the local church also has some responsibility to minister to God, not just each other. In the Old Testament, this was done primarily by offering prayer and sacrifice.  In the New Testament, this will also be true, though the form of the sacrifice will be different.

 The second reason the purpose of the local church should not be limited to edification (central as that purpose is) is that edification itself will necessarily mean that the church will help its members fulfill their individual purpose as individual members of the Church of God, and this will mean it will involve itself in providing corporate worship/prayer, as well as facilitating evangelism and mercy to those outside the church.

 This, of course, brings us to the third level of the church, that of individual members of the body of Christ, who have a calling which will interact with the local assembly, but is sometimes distinct from it.   The overlap between the corporate and individual levels is real and profound (see, for example, how Paul calls the corporate body the temple of God in I Corinthians 3:16, while a few chapters in 6:19  later he calls individual believers by the same term). Yet a failure to distinguish the calling and present purpose of the individual believer from the calling and present purpose of the local assembly will only result in confusion or distortion. 

 For example, some churches have sought to base a purpose statement around the Great Commission in Matthew 28: 16-20:

 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, All authority iin heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

 I hope none will be so obtuse as to think I am minimizing this command by pointing out the following:

  • This statement was given to the eleven disciples, and seems to be the heart of Jesus for His kingdom.
  • It is thus the responsibility of anyone who follows Jesus to take this command seriously.
  • The church as a local body should seek to help its members obey this, both locally and internationally.
  • Nevertheless, the New Testament never uses this statement to formulate the purpose of the corporate church in its worship or services.

 Another passage which is sometimes used to describe the purpose of the church is the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40):

 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:  “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

  Again, this command is given to an individual in response to a question.  It is entirely illegitimate to take this verse out of its context and apply it to the corporate purpose of the church. 

 The problem with this approach, obviously, is that it allows anyone to take any statement directed to the disciples, or to believers in the church, and absolutize it into the purpose of the corporate church.  Thus, some will say that the purpose of the church is primarily worship, or upholding right doctrine, or evangelism, or social justice, or (you fill in the blank). 

The challenge, then, is to understand how to maintain the distinct purpose of the corporate body, while formulating that purpose to help the individual believer fulfill his purpose as an individual part of the body of Christ. This is especially important in the area of evangelism and witness for the following two reasons.

 First, because part of what is implied in the temple imagery mentioned above is that the beauty of the temple shows the beauty and glory of God.  Since this imagery is applied at both a personal and corporate level, the corporate church has a calling to show God’s beauty and glory as its members work together and display the brotherly love which is the ultimate sign of the gospel to unbelievers (see John 13:35).  In other words, our acts of service show the beauty and love of God, but our fraternal love shows the reality of God within us, and this only occurs when the world sees us work and serve and interact together.

 Secondly, evangelism needs a corporate dimension because it is simply more effective that way.  As the different members, with different gifts, use their gifts and skills together, their work is multiplied. 

So the corporate church has a unique responsibility to facilitate group outreach and service (whether at the congregational level or the small group level).

To sum up, the Church seems to have callings in three different spheres.  First of all, it has a calling to God.  This calling is to honor Him who bought us, by becoming like Christ, and by serving as priests, as part of His temple.  Secondly, the church has a calling to itself, that is, to the individuals within the church.  That calling is to sacrificially help each other, both with our spiritual gifts as well as our common service, to become like Jesus Christ.  Related to that, we have a calling to simply love each other and uphold the unity of the body.  Thirdly, we have a calling to the world. I see nowhere in scripture that speaks of us designing the worship and ministry of the corporate church to appeal to and attract non-believers (though I Corinthians 14:23-25 remind us to be aware that some non-believer might be in our services, and we should avoid confusing them). I do see, however, Christians working together to effectively model and witness to God’s love. 

To this end, I identify our purpose or mission in its most simple form as this: We exist to please God.  He, not each other and not the world,  is our audience.  The ultimate criteria for everything we do is this: Based on what God has revealed about Himself and His desire for the church, would this be pleasing to Him?

 Based on the verses above, it seems to me that we can flesh out this statement by saying that God is pleased when we honor Him as God, when we help each other become like Him, and when we share His love to the world. 

How do we honor God as God, our Father and Redeemer? 

  • By becoming like Christ (moral obedience)
  • By prayer
  • By worship

How do we help each other become like Him?

  • By teaching His Word and helping each other apply it
  • By serving each other in areas of need
  • By praying for each other 

How do we share His love to the world?

  • By modeling his compassion to the needy
  • By proclaiming His love to the lost