Jesus was probably Born in a Cave

The Christmas associations of an inn and an innkeeper, however, do not reflect the language of Luke’s text in 2:7. Rather, the word usually translated as “inn,” seems to refer to either some type of reception room in a private home or some type of public shelter. Since this place was full, refuge was sought elsewhere. The animal room that Joseph and Mary found may have been either a stable next to the place of lodging or a cave, since use of caves for stables was common. Ancient tradition associates Jesus’ birth with a cave.

–Paraphrased from Darrell Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50, BECNT pg. 208.

Daniel’s 70 Weeks: Interacting with Jim Hamilton’s book, With the Clouds of Heaven

With fear and trembling, I am interacting with Jim Hamilton’s interpretation of Daniel’s 70 weeks found in his new book on Daniel, With the Clouds of Heaven. Fear and trembling, because Dr. Hamilton is just that—a doctor in biblical studies. And having gone to Southern, I know his grasp of the biblical languages!

Now as a pastor, I try to mix up my reading: some “heavy” stuff, some easier reads, some on the practical aspects of ministry, some deeper theology and biblical studies. So I wanted to interact with his work to stay sharp in my thinking about biblical theology. So here goes, and hopefully I accurately represented his views!

Summary

Hamilton argues that the 70 weeks in Daniel 9:25-27 are symbolic. His argument unfolds like this:

First, numbers can often be used symbolically in prophesy. For example, in Ezekiel 4, the 430 days that Ezekiel is told to lie on his side does not refer to a literal 430 days or even 430 literal years, but reflects the time period that Israel spent in slavery to Egypt. Thus, the point of the 430 days is this: just as Israel spent a certain amount of time slavery to Egypt so also they will spend a certain amount of time in exile in Babylon. In Ezekiel 4, the time period is definitely not literal, because Israel spent more than 430 days in exile!

Second, the 490 “years” of the 70 weeks probably refers to an ultimate Jubilee. The jubilee seems to have typological characteristics. In other words, Israel’s jubilee years seem to look forward to an ultimate Jubilee. Hamilton sees the 490 “years” as this ultimate jubilee which also coincides with the consummation of all things. Therefore, the ultimate Jubilee (the consummation) does not refer to a literal time period, but a symbolic one.

One implication of his argument is that it is futile to “date hunt” for a starting point of the 70 weeks. Another implication is that its best to see the breakdown of the 70 weeks as a schema of “time periods” (see page 131). He breaks down the prophecy into four major periods.

  1. “Seven weeks”—The time from Daniel 9 to Malachi (9:25a)
  2. “62 weeks”—The 400 “silent years” (9:25b)
  3. The cross and destruction of the temple in 70AD (9:26)
  4. “70th week”
    1. First half—”The church age”—the church is protected and spreads the gospel
    2. Second half—The beast persecutes the church and overcomes it.

Although I couldn’t find a place where Hamilton explicitly stated it, he seems to believe the 70th week begins at some point after Jesus’ resurrection. He seems to locate the beginning of the 70th week at Jesus’ ascension: “The first half [i.e. the beginning] of Daniel’s seventieth week comprises most of church history between the ascension and return of Christ” (216).  He also seems to believe that the 70th week begins when “the nations join together against the Lord and his Messiah after the cutting off the Messiah” (132). Either way, he sees the 70th comprising church history, culminating in a terrible persecution by the beast (i.e. Antichrist) in the second half of the 70th week (215).

Critique

I am sympathetic with the symbolic view of the 70 weeks. Having gone to Liberty University, which is a traditional/revised dispensational school, I know the dispensational system well and also its weaknesses. I usually don’t hold dispensational readings of certain biblical texts, but in the case of the 70 weeks, I must reluctantly concede that a modified dispensational reading makes slightly better sense than Hamilton’s. Here’s why.

According to Daniel 9:27, the 70th week has a definite starting point when “he [i.e. “the prince who is to come” i.e. the Antichrist] will make a firm covenant with the many for one week.” Unless I misread Hamilton, he seems to think that the 70th week begins right after the cross and the destruction of the temple in 70AD by the “nations” (see the above quote from page 132).

But it is not the nations who make a covenant for one week, but an individual—“he.” The text says that the “prince who is to come” (the Antichrist according to many interpreters) will both inaugurate the 70th week and attempt to stamp out worship in the middle of it. Therefore, it is hard for me to see how the first half of Daniel 70th week comprises most of church history. It seems that the beginning of 70th week occurs when the final, personal Antichrist is on the scene.

Now, it’s still possible to salvage a completely symbolic understanding of each “week.” For example, the “70th week” still need not be a literal 7 years. The 70th week could be symbolic and yet still pushed off into the future. Yet, a “gap” must still be inserted between the 69th and the 70th week, because the personal Antichrist inaugurates the 70th week. So the 70th week—even though its symbolic—must still be pushed off into the future.

Although Hamilton criticizes the need for a gap between the 69th and the 70th (126, n. 13), he himself must still insert a gap in his “chronology.” In his reckoning, Hamilton sees two time periods—the “seven weeks” and the “62 weeks”—happening, and then the cutting off of the Messiah and the destruction of the temple. Essentially, what Hamilton advocates for is that the “clock” of the 70 weeks is paused during the period of the cutting off of the Messiah and the destruction of the temple. Then the “countdown” resumes with the 70th week. In other words, Hamilton puts a gap between the 69th and the 70th week! He just locates it differently than most dispensational interpreters.

Modifying His Proposal

It does seem that each of these “time periods” is symbolic. Hamilton’s evidence for the symbolic use of numbers in prophesy as well as the thorny problem of needing to pick a “start date” if a literal view is taken seem to suggest that the weeks are symbolic. Furthermore, if God intended the 70 weeks to be a literal timeline, then why not say it plainly: 490 years? Giving the “timeline” in such a round about way might suggest its to be read symbolically, not literally.

It seems better, however, to have the 70th beginning when the final Antichrist comes and makes a strong covenant with many for one week (9:27). During the first half of this symbolic week, there may be an extraordinary empowerment of God’s people and the gospel goes forth in an unusually strong way. A few texts may suggest this idea. First, all the references to the 3.5 years in Daniel refer to times of intense persecution. This matches the only 3.5-year period spoken of in Daniel 9, the last half of the 70th week, which is also a time of intense persecution. Second, the church is protected in Revelation 12 for 3.5 years (the first half of the 70th week), possibly signifying a time of evangelistic success, even though the Antichrist has made a covenant with the many.

But then the church will be given into the hands of the Antichrist for the last half of the 70th week. Thankfully, however, that last half of the week will be shortened. Hamilton suggests such a reading based upon the beast of Revelation having authority for a “little while” or “one hour” and the witnesses of Revelation 11 (which symbolize the church) lay dead for “three and a half days” (216). Thus, the apostle John prophetically “foreshortens” the time of the beast’s conquest. The “success” of the church under the beast’s reigns will be 3.5 years, while the persecution under the beast will only be “one hour,” i.e. a much shorter time.

Conclusion

Daniel’s prophecy of “70 weeks” is majorly disputed text for Christian pastors and theologians alike. Just peruse the various interviews on Daniel 9 over at the blog My Digital Seminary, and you’ll see quite a diversity of opinion on the meaning of the 70 weeks. So my intent here is not to provide the final word on the subject. No blog post (or even scholarly article) could ever do that! Really, this is my attempt to join the discussion and to “dialogue” with a fellow-brother in Christ (Dr. Hamilton) who upholds God’s inerrant word as normative for faith and practice. May scholars like him keep producing God-honoring works which benefit the church!

Also, if you’ve made it this far, jump over to Dr. Hamilton’s blog, For His Renown, and you will find many different posts, articles, and book reviews which can help your understanding of the Bible.

Radical by David Platt: An Interaction and Review

We love one-sided coins. What I mean by that is that we love to take one “side” of a Biblical teaching and amplify it to the exclusion of a coordinating truth. For example, faith and works. In recent history, “grace alone” preachers have come along and emphasized the undeserved kindness of God toward us in Christ (such as Tullian Tchividjian). Nothing we can do can ever put God in our debt or make us righteous before Him. Amen and amen. But often in such preaching the moral imperatives of the New Testament are excluded, or at least, seen only as things which we fail at and then they drive us back to Jesus.

A question arises, “Is there a place for effort or ‘work’ in sanctification?”  In reaction to “grace alone” preachers, others have taken to the coordinating truth—that we must obey Christ—and have emphasized it so much that, in my opinion, they see sanctification as consisting largely of our own efforts. And back and forth we go.

The same dynamic is now at play, I think, between the “radical” Christians and the “ordinary” Christians. Certain guys have come along, such as David Platt, Kyle Idleman, and Francis Chan, and emphasized the need to make a “radical” commitment to Christ. To take risks for Christ. To not be lulled in suburban, middle-class, comfortable Christianity. Don’t live for the American Dream; live for Christ!

And, quite expectantly, there has been a response to the “radical” Christians by those who emphasis “ordinary” Christianity: living out the Christian life amidst ordinary life and the ordinary rhythms of local church participation. Seminary professor and theologian, Michael Horton has recently written a book called, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World. In 2013, Matthew Lee Anderson (of MereOrthodoxy blog) wrote an article called, “Here Come the Radicals” in Christianity Today, critiquing the “radical Christianity” movement.

So who is right? The “radicals” or the “ordinaries”?

I am actually not going to do the whole “well, they’re both right!” thing. I will say that I definitely side more on the “ordinaries” view of the Christian life. So I do think that the “radical Christianity” movement has oversold or overemphasized one strand of biblical teaching to the expense of others. But also, the “radical” preachers have also brought out some important themes to grapple with. So let me point out what I appreciate about David Platt’s book, Radical. Then, I want to expose some deficiences in his approach. Finally, I want to try to propose a way forward for thinking through these issues, especially since I am a local church pastor and have to shepherd people through these things.

The crux issue, I think, is this: how are disciples best formed?

Are they formed by being challenged to take risks for God? Are they formed best by being exhorted not be comfortable in their Christianity. Or, are they best formed through the “ordinary” functions of a local church? Through worship forms and practices (baptism, the Lord’s supper, etc.)? Through the “means of grace”?

Points of Appreciation

  1. Platt’s emphasis on wholehearted love for Jesus

No pastor wants his people “going through the motions” on a Sunday morning. Especially since God despises outward (hypocritical) obedience without the inner heart love (Isaiah 1:10-15). So too, Jesus regularly lambasted the religious leaders of his day as being outwardly “righteous” but not inwardly pure (Matthew 23:27-28). They claimed to love God, but actually, they loved their traditions more and thus blunted God’s Word (Mark 7:1-13). Radical is Platt’s attempt to shake people out of outward, “going through the motions” Christianity. Platt’s point is this, “IF you really love Jesus, then your life will look markedly different than the surrounding culture.”

  1. Platt’s emphasis on discipleship

The book is really like a “I’ve just become a Christian, what do I do now?” type of book. He’s seeking to instruct believers in living an genuinely Christian life. And he understands the stakes: eternity. He writes, “The cost of non discipleship is profoundly greater for us than the cost of discipleship” (18). He constantly sets forth the eternal perspective that the Bible shares, see especially the eighth chapter, “Living When Dying is Gain.” Again, all pastors want disciples. So encouraging Christians to really think about the cost and nature of discipleship is a good thing.

  1. Platt’s emphasis on generosity

Is materialism (in the popular sense of “wanting a lot of stuff,” i.e. greed) a blind spot in American Christianity? Platt certainly seems to think so (111). Living with a “wartime mentality” (to use John Piper’s phrase) is a major theme of Platt’s. And rightly so, materialism is an major idol in our American culture, especially in the Northeast where I minister. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements about satisfying our desires—and according to these companies, many of the desires we don’t know we had yet! Christians have been given their wealth for a purpose: to be generous and to advance God’s kingdom. May we all heed the call to generosity.

Points of Critique

  1. You can’t escape the ordinary

It’s a little funny to me that Platt begins his “Radical Experiment” with Bible reading and prayer. You cannot escape the ordinary means of grace! Disciples are formed through God’s means, which He has clearly laid forth in the Scriptures. No matter how hard you want to be “radical” in your discipleship, if you miss out on the means of grace, then you’ll never be radical! And this, I think, is a big concern for me, because very few people who hear the call to be radical actually take the time to do what God clearly commands us to do: spend time in the Word and prayer. See, I think the formation of a disciple goes a little big differently than Platt seems to lay forth. Platt seems to think that what Christians need to hear is an exhortation to the radical life and then have it filled out with the Word and prayer. I think that’s backwards. I think people need to be committed to the Word and prayer first, and then, by being consistent in those things, Christians will begin to change and may even take a “radical” step. If you start with the “radical call,” however, I fear that you may leave people burnt-out and disillusioned and anxious. What if I’m a stay-at-home mom? What if I never go serve overseas? Am I still even a Christian? People actually think like that; I know, because I interact with them in my local church.

  1. Weak on the church

I don’t think Platt gives enough attention to the full scope of what the church is. Yes, I know that Platt spends a whole chapter on the church, “The Multiply Community” (chapter 5). And yes, I know that the church definitely has a mission. I am uneasy, however, with making the church almost solely about the mission. I think it’s Ed Stetzer who has said that God doesn’t have a church with a mission, He first had the mission and then the church. That’s true to an extent. But Peter Leithart also makes the point that this effectively pragmatizes the church. Yes, the church is on God’s mission. But the church is also the body of Christ. The church is also a refuge for weary saints to be refreshed by the gospel. I think that Platt may not realize just how beat up and beat down Christians can be, especially if they have sojourned in their Christian life for a long time.

  1. No doctrine of vocation

Anthony Bradley makes some good points that such an emphasis on the Great Commission is a recent phenomenon (in terms of church history). In addition, Platt does not really give any attention to people in various life-stages or how we all play our unique part in God’s mission. As Matthew Lee Anderson points out, the great stories featured in these “radical” books are of missionaries and martyrs. But even for missionaries, life is about 90% mundane. Even missionaries need to cook food, clean up dishes, change diapers, wash clothes, sweep the house, and go to sleep. I feel like the book could lead to a spiritual letdown. Let’s say that you want to heed Platt’s call and you want to be a missionary. You find an agency, but alas, you have to pay off all your college debt first before they’ll let you on the field. So that takes 5 years working at Best Buy while also being in seminary. Ok, so now you’re approved. But then you have to go to language school for another good while. Because it’s really hard to preach the gospel to people without speaking the same language. Now unless the Lord drops another Pentecost on you, that’s probably not going to happen without years of hard work.

So we need a doctrine of vocation. A doctrine of how to honor God wherever we are at, doing whatever He has put on our plate. It’s amazing to see the apostle Paul speak to various groups of people in 1 Corinthians 7. And the essence of what Paul says is this: “God has put you where you are for a reason.” Paul tells slaves that if they can, they could try to become free. But if they can’t, don’t worry about it (7:21)! But what if that slave wants to be “radical”? Yea, he’s probably not going to do anything “great” for God unless greatness is defined as living for God’s glory wherever he is.

  1. A flat view of money

Yes, people need to be generous. But I think that God has given each of us our resources to invest in His kingdom. I am thankful for rich Christians in our congregations. I am thankful for them because they have invested in me and given me opportunities I probably would not have been able to have without their help. The call to generosity is good. So is the call to use one’s wealth for good. Andy Crouch has pointed out that Christians often speak against power. But as Crouch points out in his book Playing God, God also has given His people power to use it for good. Think about Joseph and Daniel and Esther. All three had tremendous power (and wealth), but also, all three used it for God’s purpose. So yes, let’s call people to give generously. But let’s also present a vision for people to use their wealth for good. Maybe some people in the church need to make as much money as possible so that they can even use more of it for good.

A Way Forward?

I don’t think that the discussion between radicals and the ordinaries needs to go “round and round.” Hopefully, as preachers, teachers, and book writers, and bloggers reflect on Scripture deeply, we can move past these debates (and probably onto another debate!). Here’s my proposal to move forward.

  1. Teach and preach the gospel

First, we must faithfully teach and preach the gospel. Unremarkable, I know. But what I’ve noticed in doing college ministry for 5 years and now pastoral ministry for over a year now, is that those who do “big things” for God need to be tethered to the local church. The church is foundational for anything people do with their lives, whether it’s big and “radical” or faithful and small. People need the gospel regularly, otherwise they burn out and lose heart—whether the aspiring missionary or the stay-at-home mom.

  1. Teach a doctrine of vocation

Discipleship is not a “one-size” fits all package. It looks different for each person. Of course, there are a few non-negotiables, black and white, but after that, it’s a lot of gray. Even Paul recognized that there are “disputable” matters (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8-11). We must not be quick to set up a certain criteria that this is an authentic disciple (someone who goes overseas, sells all they have, etc.) and everyone else is just “going through the motions” and greedy. We must not be quick to judge others as not authentic disciples. Because then we fall into the very same self-righteousness that the Pharisees had!

  1. Read the Bible a lot

Only copious amounts of Bible reading helps us have a “two-sided” view of things. Faith and works. Word and deed. Not just reading a “verse of the day” but reading God’s great story as a story and seeing the overall scope of the story. Regular reading of the Bible solves many theological problems!

  1. Have the local church present a multitude of opportunities for mission

A practical way for the church to explore the multi-viewed way of discipleship is to present a multitude of opportunities for mission. Maybe some people will get energized by short-term missions. Maybe some people will get excited about helping out at the local pregnancy center. Either way, I think it’s helpful for churches to present many ways to be engaged in mission.

  1. We do not battle flash with flash

Finally, being “radical” is a hot, new thing. In many ways it’s a reaction to the megachurch movement. But we shouldn’t get swept up into the latest craze. Stay the course. Love Jesus. Preach the Gospel. And the rest usually has a way of falling into place.