Tuesday, July 10, 2007

D. A. Carson at the final plenary session of the Jonathan Edwards Institute Summer Conference

This was my favorite session of the entire conference for two reasons: 1) Dr. Carson's explanation of a possible reason for God communicating to us by means of the genre we call apocalyptic was as helpful as anything I've heard on the subject and 2) his portrayal of God's majesty and the corresponding excellency of Christ was both instructive and moving. My notes don't do it justice.

The Lamb from the Throne
Dr. Carson began by asking why the Bible features apocalyptic literature, and answered with an illustration: imagine, he said, a modern person going to a remote tribe with a pre-iron age culture and trying to explain electricity. Since they have no concept of the physical objects used to either produce or utilize electricity, it would be advantageous to describe it by means of comparison with everyday objects and concepts with which they are familiar. For example, one might compare our power lines to their jungle vines, or our light bulbs to the sun. In other words, due to their lack of physical reference points, it would be necessary to use analogical, symbolic description. In a similar fashion, God may have thought it best to describe heavenly realities (for which no one has concrete reference points) by means of representations and comparison to objects which the recipients of the apocalyptic texts were familiar.

For the text, he read all of Chapters 4 and 5 of the Revelation.

John writes after his inaugural vision of Chapter 1, that a voice of the exalted Christ speaks to him and is shown what must take place. He is given an experience of the centrality and indescribable majesty of the Almighty. This demonstrates to the persecuted and oppressed, that God is above all and in control. But how do you describe a God purer than driven snow, more beautiful than any gem, more powerful than any storm?

John sees the divine throne enhanced by divine beings, elders. Two views on the elders: 1) rulers in an exalted state; 2) angelic beings. (Carson holds the latter.) In any case, the point is their function is to praise God and enhance the throne. In an earthly example, were we somehow able to visit the president we would be met by intermediaries. In the case of the 24 elders, these transcendent heavenly attendants point to God's position and authority.

Four quick takes on the holy separateness of God’s throne:
• Jewels, with their splendor and sparkle representing royalty.

• Lightning and thunder—Carson illustrates with a poetic description of an approaching thunderstorm from his time as youth growing up in the plains of Canada. The power and magnitude of a storm depicts an aspect of God’s rule.

• Seven spirits—a perfection of power and ability to observe.

• Sea of glass—glass from their time period not clear like ours, but rather colored and sparkling; also, for the Israelite, the sea is not a peaceful place but chaotic, even dangerous. So the sea of glass for them would be heaving, colored, awe inspiring.

The holiness of the place is represented by four living creatures, the highest order of beings, reminiscent of the beings in Ezekiel's vision. They are described using mixed metaphors that don’t make sense if you were to try to draw them. The lion, royal; the bullock, strength; the human, intelligence; the eagle, speed or compassion. These never stop praising. They quote Isaiah 6:3, Holy, holy, holy, said to be worthy because of creation.

In Chapter 5, we have a scene of a scroll with writing on two sides. Two reasons for doing so 1) if you’re cheap or 2)to maintain unity and demonstrate fullness. The first obviously does not apply to the God previously described, so the second must be the explanation. The number of seals an indication of importance of the author and purpose. In the symbolism of the day, the slitting of the seals represented the initiating of the action contained in the scroll.

Who then has the attributes to approach this exalted throne and perform this task?

In 5:4 John weeps for no one can be found to open the scroll, because the judgments and purposes contained will not be enacted. Justice not granted, hope not realized, sins not forgiven.

Then in v. 5, one of the divine beings reminds him of the promise of Isaiah 11, there is one who is able. Another mixed metaphor, lion and lamb together, not to be seen apart. Sevens mean perfections (horns, of kingdom authority).

The worthy one comes from the midst of the throne. The harp is not like ours, rather an instrument of joy. New song because of the uniqueness of the occasion.

Someone has said the best commentary on this passage is the hymn, Crown Him With Many Crowns, which he quotes at length.

This is an astonishingly broad atonement—every people nation tribe and tongue. Thousands upon ten thousands give a perfection of praise.

Unthinkable: if Christ had not died, we wouldn’t be here. All of God’s purposes would fall to the ground. When we speak of the sufficiency of Christ, we are saying that he and he only is able to open the scrolls because of his sacrifice and resurrection, and the whole universe rises in praise.

In our modern world, our deities must be tame. But not so this Christ. From the throne the lion roars.

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