Sunday School Notes: Revelation 2:12-17

12 And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘Thus saith the one who has the sharp, double-edged broadsword. 13 I know where you dwell, where the throne of Satan [is], but you hold to my name and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your presence, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: that you have there those who hold to the teaching of Balaam who taught Balak to throw a stumbling stone before the sons of Israel, to eat meat offered to idols and to practice sexual immorality. 15 In this way you yourselves also have those who similarly hold to the teaching of the Nikolaitans. 16 Repent, therefore, and if not, I am coming to you quickly and I shall do battle with them with the broadsword of my mouth. 17 The one who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who overcomes I will give to him of the hidden manna, and I shall give to him a white stone, and written upon the stone a new name which no-one knows except the one who receives [it].

Pergamum, 68 miles north of Smyrna, was the home of one of the great libraries of the world–a rival to the renown library at Alexandria. Its surrounding hilly landscape was also favorable for the construction of pagan altars, making it a center of worship, particularly for the Imperial cult. Indeed, the first temple to the emperor Augustus was built at Pergamum. It was also an important seat of government since there was a bêma, or judgment seat there. This was where magistrates would pass judgment on cases brought to them. So this was a city steeped in local and Imperial religion, that would have taken great offense at Christian non-participation in the city cults, and Christian attempts to evangelize. Indeed, the judgment seat in Pergamum may well have condemned many Christians there to a martyr’s death. The struggle between church and state over Christian faith and practice seems to be common, with some variation in manifestation. We have already seen the different responses elicited by such a situation, usually somewhere between steadfast loyalty to the gospel at the risk of one’s livelihood and/or life, and complete compromise and capitulation to the state in an attempt to preserve one’s life and livelihood, perhaps for what appear to be the best of reasons. It seems, as with the Ephesian church, the church at Pergamum has factions in its midst that want to compromise while the rest of the church stand strong. So the church’s failing is not in its stand for Christ, but in its unwillingness to deal with the compromisers.

For the church at Pergamum, Christ is the one “who has the sharp, double-edged broadsword”–a description we saw back in 1:16, where John described the sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth. When we studied this passage, we noted that this sword was a battle sword, so Christ presented himself as the defender of the church, and also the judge of both those inside and outside the church. The fact the sword came from his mouth indicates that his primary means of defense and judgment is verbal. Hebrews 4:12 reminds us that the Word of the Lord is sharper than any two-edged sword. For an oppressed church, the picture of Christ as their champion is intended to bring comfort. For the compromisers within the church, the picture of Christ as judge should evoke fear and, hopefully, repentance.

This time, it’s not their works or their tribulation that Christ says he knows, but their location: “I know where you dwell.” Pergamum was clearly a very difficult place for Christians to live and work. Perhaps the fact that there was a judgment seat in the city added to the pressure to conform. Jesus mentions one notable person, Antipas, who clearly suffered a public martyr’s death, possibly after facing the magistrates. This judgment seat might be what the Lord refers to as “Satan’s throne”–bearing in mind the dual meaning of “Satan”: the spiritual entity who is the enemy of our souls, and the “accuser.” It is at this judgment seat that God’s people are judged by the world and found guilty. A theme of these letters, and indeed of Revelation, is the fact that on the last day the tables will be turned. The faith that the world condemns is the faith that will save God’s people; and those that accuse the saints will, on that day, be accused and found guilty.

[An interesting thought brought up by one of the group: how much do you suppose you can tell the priorities of a culture by it's judicial rulings? If you compare the punishments meted out for certain offenses over others, does this give an indication of what that culture considers important versus what it deems inconsequential?]

Despite the social and legal pressure to conform, the Christians in Pergamum are holding on to Christ–at least for the most part. The reference to “my name” suggest more than simply calling themselves Christian. It also implies that they are maintaining a Christian witness. They aren’t cowering away in a corner, but standing firm, willing to be known as Christians, and sharing their faith as they have the opportunity, both in word and in life. We have already seen in previous letters how important this is to Christ, even above doctrinal purity. Not that we shouldn’t have solid doctrine; indeed, it’s incumbent upon every Christian to avail him or herself of whatever means God provides to learn more about Scripture, theology, and correct doctrine. But being a faithful witness is far more important than having all your doctrinal ducks in a line. You must have some doctrinal ducks to be a Christian (what is Christianity without the central doctrines that make it distinctively Christian, e.g., the Trinity, justification by grace through faith alone, the resurrection, etc.?) The message we’re seeing in this letter, though, is that if you have the right doctrine, but you aren’t prepared to stand up and be counted as one of Christ’s, then you have missed the point. Indeed, as Jesus says in Matthew 10:33, “Whoever denies me before men, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.” Even if they know their theology.

This should give us pause as we consider Christians suffering persecution in various parts of the world today (at the moment, particularly Iraq, Syria, and China). These Christians may not have access to good literature, or good teachers, and may be getting by with whatever they can find in terms of theological resources. They may know enough doctrine to identify as Christian, but little else. And yet they are prepared to sacrifice all that they have to be known as Christians and testify of the grace of God. Before we judge them over their lack of knowledge, we need to be humbled, and even shamed, by the boldness of their faith.

The Pergamum church may be a faithful church, but all is not entirely well. Jesus takes issue with “small things”–important, though relatively minor problems with the church. I would understand “minor” in the sense that on the whole the church is on the right track, and it’s really only these groups within the church that are causing problems. Indeed, if we were to list the “minor issues,” I think they would be: the Balaam-ists, the Nicolaitans, and the Pergamum church’s unwillingness to deal with them.

The first group Jesus mentions are those holding to “the teaching of Balaam.” I don’t think there was actually someone called Balaam in the church, but this is a codename for someone that the Pergamum church would all know. We see names used like this throughout Revelation, and its likely John (and here Jesus) does this to protect the identities of the real people should the letter fall into the hands of the authorities. The story of Balaam is told in Numbers 22:5-25:3, and 31:8, 16. While the story is interesting for background (Balaam, a pagan prophet sent to curse Israel is prevented from doing so by God, and eventually goes and proclaims a blessing instead), Jesus is referring more to the comment in Numbers 31. At some point after the story of Balaam, Israel became “yolked” with Baal, wandering off into idolatry and adultery with the Moabites, and Balaam is named as the instigator of this. The teaching of “Balaam,” therefore, is the teaching that it’s okay to go along with pagan practices and at least appear to endorse the pagan lifestyle for the sake of protecting one’s own life, liberty, and income. The Nicolaitans are identified with similar teaching, so I think it’s fair to say that the Balaam-ites and the Nicolaitans were separate but related groups in that their teaching led to the same result: cultural compromise.

It’s interesting to note that Numbers 22:7 and Deuteronomy 23:4 suggest Balaam acted from the desire for monetary gain. The concern for one’s financial welfare would certainly be a motivation to capitulate to the authorities, and this may be one of the reasons given by the Balaam-ites for their attitude and teaching.

The eating of “food sacrificed to idols” was something Paul seemed to be okay with if you didn’t know that’s where the meat in the marketplace came from, and if it didn’t burden your conscience or the conscience of your weaker brother (see 1 Corinthians 10-11). But “eating food sacrificed to idols” may also imply eating the food at the pagan feast, not just eating food you bought at a stall. Paul would certainly not have approved of that, and from the context I think that’s how we should understand the term here in Revelation.

Unlike the Ephesian church, the Pergamum church is putting up with these false teachers, and need to repent of this. If they don’t the Lord says that he will come and deal with them himself. Note that Jesus doesn’t say he will deal with the church; rather, he will come and deal with the false teachers–literally, he’ll “wage war” on them. This sounds like a good solution to the problem, but it’s not. If Jesus has to deal with the Balaam-ites and Nicolaitans, then the church has failed to exercise discipline within the church. They have not lived up to the mandate Christ gave to church leadership to shepherd the flock and protect them from the wolves. And though Christ’s disciplining sword will be effective against the false teachers, it’s not as if the whole church won’t be affected by it.

Why the reluctance to deal with false teachers? I think one strong motivation would be a misguided sense of church unity. The last thing a church wants when it faces persecution and pressure from the outside is in-fighting. A divided church is weak, and will struggle to maintain its integrity when hard times come. I can imagine the church leaders thinking that if they at least don’t stir up trouble within the ranks, the church will hold together and stay strong against the forces fighting against them. What they fail to see is that the Balaam-ites and the Nicolaitans were already weakening the church both physically (by their dissenting doctrine) and spiritually. The best thing for the church leaders to do would be to identify the false teachers and call on them to repent or leave. This might reduce the size of the church, but the church that remains would be stronger for it.

The promise to the overcomers here is to partake of the “hidden manna” and to receive a white stone with a new name on it that no-one knows except the recipient. Manna was the food given by God to Israel in the wilderness (see Exodus 16) when they complained about the food. Through this the Lord taught His people that He is their sustenance and they need to rely on Him to provide for their needs. Perhaps Jesus is giving a similar message to the church at Pergamum: don’t feel you need to go to pagan feasts to supply your need for food. In Jewish thought, the eating of manna was associated with the end times–this is what we’ll eat in heaven. I think this is the bigger message behind the promise: those who overcome will partake of food in heaven–in other words, this is another promise of eternal life.

The “white stone” with a “new name” written on it looks ahead to Revelation 19, speaking about the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. This is the banquet to which only the faithful are invited. Jesus is pictured riding on a white horse with the sword in his mouth and bearing a name that no-one knows. In ancient times, a white stone could be used for admission to a special event. It could also be used in a judicial setting to indicate an acquittal vote. Of course, the color white has an association with purity, as seen with the white robes of the righteous. If we pull together these strands–the manna, the white stone, and the wedding feast–we get a picture of God’s people, the victors, clothed in white and attending the Lamb’s supper in eternity. This is not a meal centered around idolatry, but a meal celebrating the Lamb and his redeeming work. And only those who have his name, those who are truly Christ’s, can enter the feast. Some other references to look up that may shed light on the meaning of this verse: Isaiah 62:1-5, and also Exodus 28:9-12.

Next time: The church at Thyatira…

Sunday Devotional: 1 Corinthians 9:27

But I keep my body under control and bring it into subjection, lest somehow having preached to others I myself may be disqualified.

In this section of his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is talking about his ministry and defending his apostleship. He points out that he would rather set aside whatever rights and privileges he has as an apostle if it would bring about the salvation of even a few. Indeed, he is willing to be “all things to all people” that he might be used to bring some into the Kingdom. He then draws an analogy with the athlete who trains and disciplines his body, exercising self-control (and self-denial) in order to win a victor’s wreath. That wreath will one day perish. Paul, on the other hand, exercises discipline (and denial) upon his body so that, having been a preacher of the gospel, he won’t find himself disqualified of the ultimate, imperishable “victor’s crown”: eternal life.

In his analogy, Paul points to the athlete whose eye is on the goal of winning a crown. In order to reach that goal, he must train hard, resist the urge to slack off, and maintain rigorous discipline so that his body is fit to compete and, indeed, win the prize. In a similar way, the Christian, with eternity in sight, must also discipline his body, and exercise self-control to resist temptation and live a life that adorns the gospel message he proclaims. However, notice Paul doesn’t say that the Christian does this to win the wreath, but rather so he may not “be disqualified.” In the ancient games, the sign of disqualification was removal of the victor’s wreath. The implication of Paul’s words is that the Christian has already won the wreath. In Christ, the prize is already ours. We don’t have to work, train, or discipline ourselves to earn it. We haven’t the time or the ability to do all we would need to do to be worthy of the victory crown. That’s why we need Christ: he has won the victory on our behalf. The wreath we wear is his wreath, gained for us at Calvary when he died and claimed victory over sin and death for his people.

Once we are saved, the Christian life is not a life of trying to earn what we don’t yet have. Rather, it’s living a life worthy of the prize we’ve won in Christ. We will falter and fall along the way, but we should never feel as if we’ve failed. With Christ as our champion, we’ve already won.

Who Review: Listen

Alone in the TARDIS, the Doctor muses on the possibility that we are never alone. Even when we think we’re the only one in the room, there is an unseen presence that we can sometimes detect if we listen. From his research of recorded dreams he thinks he has identified one dream that everyone has: there’s someone under the bed, and when they put their feet to the floor, they feel someone grab their ankle. Even the Doctor has had that dream. His curiosity gets the better of him and he sets out to discover whether there really is something hiding in the shadows. Meanwhile, Clara is trying to have a date with Danny Pink, but an already disastrous evening gets even worse when the Doctor ropes her into his experiment…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

This was an unusual story in that the Doctor’s adversary was unseen, and perhaps even non-existent. Indeed, this was not a danger the Doctor walked into, but one the Doctor sought. The only tangible appearance of the “monster in the shadows” was the figure on Rupert Pink’s bed covered in his blanket. Whether or not the figure was a child playing a prank, or something more sinister, is never answered. And as for the Doctor’s own experience of the entity under the bed, it turns out that was actually Clara! So in terms of traditional Doctor Who “good versus evil” stories, this was an oddity, and I think that explains why the audience appreciation index for the episode was lower than usual. Most people like definable threats and definite victories; here the threat was questionable, and there was no victory as such. Many of the questions asked at the beginning remained unanswered. This episode seemed to leave a lot of people feeling wrong-footed, and I completely understand that.

Yet, on the other hand, I also completely understand the almost unanimous praise the episode scored with the critics. Some even went so far as to call it the best episode of Doctor Who ever, though most were a little more reserved (“best since ‘The Eleventh Hour'” or “best Steven Moffat story”). It was a clever script, full of thought-provoking ideas and imaginative concepts. There was also some good character development for both Clara and Danny, moving their story arc along in a way that was both entertaining and surprising. And Capaldi’s Doctor continues to draw from the darker aspects of the Time Lord’s psyche. His fascination with fear and the way he uses Clara to further his study shows his disconnect with humanity, though the way he talks to young Rupert reminds us that the gentler aspects are still there.

Of course, the unanswered questions about monsters under the bed are nothing compared to the unanswered questions about the Doctor and Danny Pink! One of this episode’s objectives was to shed a bit more light onto Danny. I believe he is scheduled to join the TARDIS crew in a few episodes, so it’s as well we get to know him. When Clara discovers the toy soldier among Orson Pink’s possessions, we think we understand how Danny and Orson fit into Clara’s story: Orson’s a descendent of Danny and Clara. But then Clara gives the soldier to the child Doctor hiding under his bedcovers in the barn on Gallifrey. How does that work? How did the soldier get from the Doctor to the children’s home? If it weren’t for that toy soldier, the Danny/Orson Pink story would be simple: Danny and Clara get together, Danny becomes a TARDIS companion, and that legacy of time travel continues down to his future offspring. But that toy soldier forges a link between the Doctor and Danny. It could be as straight-forward as the Doctor visiting the home sometime in the past and leaving the soldier in the box for Danny to find. But if it has any significance at all, you know it won’t be that simple. Some are suggesting Danny is the Master, and given that the Doctor and the Master were childhood friends, there’s a link that could explain how the soldier got from the Doctor to Danny–though I’m not 100% convinced of it yet.

To sum up, this was an excellent story, though very non-traditional which perhaps leaves the Whovian viewer feeling a little disconcerted. I don’t consider it to be Moffat’s best ever, but it’s certainly the first since he took over from RTD to achieve anywhere near the genius of his earlier episodes.

What did you think of the episode? How do you think the toy soldier got from the Doctor to Danny? And what about the story’s ambiguous resolution? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 2:8-11

8 And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘Thus saith the First and the Last, he who was dead and came alive: 9 I know your tribulation and poverty, but you are rich, and the slander from those claiming to be themselves Jews and they are not, but [are] a synagogue of Satan. 10 Fear nothing [of] the things you are about to suffer. Behold the devil is about to throw [some] of you into prison so that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful as far as death, and I will give to you the crown of life. 11 The one who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be harmed by the Second Death.”

Smyrna was a prosperous city about 40 miles north of Ephesus. It was famous for its fine wine and beautiful buildings, and it had an active emperor cult. Some second century inscriptions indicate there was a Jewish community there during the latter part of the first century. The church in Smyrna later became an important Christian congregation, though it only received two mentions in the New Testament–both of them in Revelation. One of its most notable leaders was Polycarp, a second century bishop who was martyred. Such was his renown that an account of his martyrdom has survived to this day. But to understand the situation of the Smyrnan church in Revelation, we need to see it as a church in a rich pagan city, persecuted for the faith by the local authorities, and possibly even by the synagogue. We’ll get to that in a moment.

Jesus presents himself to the church as “the First and the Last” and “he who was dead and came alive.” These are phrases from 1:17, used to indicate Jesus’ eternal nature, and his victory over death. It is a timely reminder to the persecuted church that they are suffering for one who also suffered, but ultimately rose again. Likewise, his people will overcome even death itself, and enjoy eternal life with him.

We note that unlike most of the other letters, Jesus doesn’t have anything against the church in Smyrna. They appear to be doing all the right things in the eyes of the Lord. Yet despite this, they are suffering in various ways. The Lord says that they are experiencing poverty and tribulation, and he is fully aware of it. It was expected that all citizens of rich pagan cities like Smyrna would participate in the city cult–especially the Imperial cult. Non-participants were liable to special taxation (like the tax levied against non-Muslims in Muslim countries), among other censures. In other words, you could expect to be poor if you weren’t prepared to worship the emperor and participate in the cult, since the avenues of commerce and trade that would be available to others would not necessarily be available to you. I think we’ll see this elaborated on in Revelation 13, where the sign of “the beast” is required to buy and sell. Interestingly, the Jews had a special exemption from cultic worship, a privilege Christians may have shared in the early days when they were still considered a Jewish cult. But as time went on (especially after Nero blamed the Great Fire of Rome on the Christians), Christians were increasingly differentiated from Jews and set apart for special treatment. An easy escape option for Christians would be to compromise with the culture, even to the point of denying their faith before the city leaders, in order to prosper. We saw an example of this with the Nicolaitans in Ephesus, and it’s a problem that plagued the early church, and continues to plague the church today.

The Lord recognizes that the Smyrnan church has not compromised, and as a result, though they are physically poor, they have amassed great spiritual wealth. In God’s eyes, they abound in riches out of their steadfast obedience and fidelity to the Christ and the gospel. They have even put up with “slander”–the Greek word is the same word for “blasphemy,” which indicates the strength of the slander leveled against the church by the “so-called” Jews. At his trial, Jesus was slandered by several “witnesses” who claimed he said or did things for which they had no supporting evidence. It’s possible that the slander these Christians endure is of a similar nature: unfounded accusations made by these people to the authorities with the sole purpose of getting them in trouble. Jesus describes these Jews as “a synagogue of Satan.” The name “Satan” comes from the Hebrew word that means “accuser,” which is also the meaning behind the Greek word diabolos, which we translate “devil.” We don’t deny the existence of Satan and devils as real spiritual beings, however, we shouldn’t also overlook the word-play here. These Jews are slandering the church, and as the accusers of God’s people they are rightfully called “a synagogue of The Accuser.”

The potentially anti-Semitic overtones of this passage might make people uncomfortable, and it’s true that verses like this have been used over the years as an excuse for some Christians to act very unkindly (to say the least) toward the Jewish people. On the one hand, we need to recognize the New Testament teaching (especially in Romans and Hebrews) with regard to the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham in Christ and in the church. Judaism wasn’t God’s entire plan of salvation for His people–it was just the start. The completion of the plan came through the sending of Jesus as the Messiah, and the establishment of the church. From this perspective, it’s true to say that a true Jew is one who recognizes Jesus as Messiah, and puts their faith in him as the redeemer of their soul. Anyone claiming to be a Jew and yet persecuting the church can be said, therefore, to be a “so-called” Jew. On the other hand, Paul indicates quite explicitly in Romans 11 that God has not given up on the nation of Israel. Even though there are many Jews who deny Jesus, and even though it looks as if the church is largely Gentile, the Lord still wants his people to reach out to Jews. We are to love them as people who bear the image of God, and we need to respect them as those through whom God sent the Law, the prophets, and the Messiah. And we need to love them enough to reach out to them with the gospel.

Christ tells the Smyrnan church that they are about to suffer things, but not to be afraid. We might expect he’s about to tell the church of his rescue plan–that he’s going to send an angel to break them out of prison, or strike down “the devil” (i.e., the ruling authorities acting under Satanic influence) who is coming to imprison some of them. But instead, he encourages them to stay strong and be faithful even as far as death. In the ancient world, prison was usually for one of three things: to hold someone until they submit to the magistrate, to hold someone while they await sentencing, or to hold someone while they await execution. Clearly, Jesus anticipates the last option for the imprisoned Smyrnan Christians.

The reference to “ten days” of tribulation seems a little odd. We’ve already seen how much the book of Daniel underlies the language and imagery of Revelation, and even here, the Lord uses Daniel to encourage the believers. In Daniel 1:8-16, we read how Daniel and his friends abstained from eating food from the king’s table for fear of defiling themselves. Not only was this food that had probably been sacrificed to an idol, but eating at the king’s table would be seen as submission to the king. The chief steward is afraid that their hungry appearance would reflect badly on him, so Daniel proposes a test. For ten days, he and his friends will consume only vegetables and water, and after this time the steward can judge their appearance and act accordingly. After the ten days, the text says that Daniel and his friends looked healthier than all the youths who ate from the king’s table, so they were allowed to continue their abstinence. I think the message to the Smyrnans is that some of them are about to undergo a brief test, and they need to endure that test even though it will result in death. However, just as Daniel and his friends came out from the test victorious, so will the imprisoned Smyrnans. Indeed, they will receive “the crown of life”–the victory wreath that demonstrates their faithfulness which enabled them to resist the temptation to compromise and gain the ultimate reward: eternal life and the fulness of their redemption in Christ. In light of this, I wouldn’t insist on taking the “ten days” as a literal period of time, but as a flag to indicate the Daniel 1 reference.

Indeed, the Spirit promises the churches that the one who overcomes will not be harmed by “the Second Death.” This is a reference to the final judgment, as we will see in Revelation 20:4-6. It follows that those who don’t overcome, who fall to the temptation to deny Christ and compromise, will suffer at “the Second Death.” The Greek verb translated “to harm” is usually translated “to treat unjustly,” so the sense we have here is that everyone will get what they deserve. The victors will find themselves vindicated at the final judgment, but those who denied the Lord will find the Lord denying them.

Next time: The church at Pergamum…

Who Review: Robot of Sherwood

The Doctor invites Clara to pick a time and place to visit. To his surprise, she wants to meet Robin Hood. The Doctor laughs off her suggestion saying that Robin Hood is just a legend; he doesn’t exist. Nevertheless, Clara insists and the Doctor relents. Arriving in Sherwood Forest c. 1190 AD, the Doctor is greeted by an arrow shot by a man in green claiming to be Robin Hood. This Robin then introduces the Doctor and Clara to his band of outlaws: Friar Tuck, Little John, and so on. The Doctor is determined to demonstrate they can’t actually be Robin and his Merry Men, but the strange machinations of the Sheriff of Nottingham take priority. It seems he has an army of robots, and his designs stretch a little beyond controlling this little patch of medieval England…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

Mark Gatiss, veteran New Series writer and Steven Moffat’s “Sherlock” partner-in-crime, wrote this fun romp that is, he admits, a bit of an homage to the Mel Brooks movie “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.” So, yes, there’s a healthy dose of humor, but the story isn’t without its darker side. The Sheriff is ruthless and merciless, as is evident from the way he treats the villagers. There are some good fight sequences, starting with Robin and the Doctor (armed only with a spoon), but progressing on to the battles with the robots, and finally Robin’s high-wire encounter with the Sheriff. These were well directed and in the vain of classic sword fights where the opponents heckle each other in the midst of combat. The Doctor’s snarky skepticism is, I think, a change from 10 and 11, and harkens back a little more to the First Doctor. We’ve come to know a Doctor who is open-minded and willing to stand corrected if things aren’t quite what he thought them to be at first. Twelve remains a Hood-denier almost until the end of the episode, when he leaves Robin a gift that appears to show a concession. However, I must admit to feeling some of the Doctor’s reluctance to believe this is really Robin Hood–but more on that in a moment.

I thought it interesting Gatiss and Moffat would take on a Who-meets-Hood story. Usually, the Doctor’s encounters with historical figures have been rooted in solid fact. There really was a Marco Polo, a Richard I, an H. G. Wells, a Queen Victoria, a Winston Churchill, and so on. I can only think of two other occasions where a Who story has involved the legendary, or near-mythical. The first was a First Doctor story called “The Myth Makers” where the Doctor, Stephen, and Vicki land in Ancient Greece and get embroiled in the Trojan War, helping the Greeks to construct the infamous Trojan Horse. The second was the Seventh Doctor story “Battlefield,” where Morgaine comes to visit, and the Doctor and Ace encounter Excalibur, and find Arthur’s body. I must say, though, I came away from this Robin Hood story still uncertain of how much of the Hood legend was introduced by the Doctor and Clara… or, indeed, if the Doctor may have been right to be skeptical all along…

Which brings me to curious plot points. There’s something about this story that felt to me like it was setting us up for something later. The fact that all the Robin Hood story elements just happened to be there as expected, including the traditional attire, and even Robin pining for his Maid Marian–it just all seemed too on-point, like it was a set-up. Maybe Clara’s memories of the Robin Hood legend were being used by someone to draw them into a bigger plan. Then there’s the ship fueled by gold. Whenever gold is a plot point in Doctor Who, I think Cybermen. In the classic series, Cybermen had a strong aversion to gold. The Cybermen in “Nightmare in Silver” received an upgrade patch to overcome this, but maybe we’re dealing with Cybermen who don’t have that patch? This wouldn’t be the first time the Cybermen have used humans to handle gold for them (see “Revenge of the Cybermen”). And the fact of the Sheriff being a cyborg…? The last curious and subtle point is the Doctor’s doodlings on the blackboard during the pre-title sequence. I have no idea what that’s about, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s significant. Maybe the Doctor knows something’s afoot and he’s playing along…?

Shortly before the episode was broadcast, the BBC announced that a portion of the episode involving the beheading of “a character” had been cut in light of the recent terrorist executions of American journalists. Subsequent to the episode airing, a couple of websites published the missing portion as it was in the script, and others summarized what happened. In short, during Robin and the Sheriff’s climactic fight, the Sheriff knocks Robin to the ground and puts his sword to Robin’s neck. The Doctor throws a tapestry over the Sheriff and Robin decapitates him. Just as they begin to celebrate, the Sheriff’s head rolls out from the tapestry and begins to talk, explaining that the robots’ spaceship had landed on him, and they saved his life by making him into a cyborg. The Sheriff’s body grabs Clara, Robin throws the Sheriff’s head back to his body, they reunite, and the fight continues as broadcast. I can understand the reasoning behind the cut, but, as others have pointed out, this scene helps makes sense of the rest of the story: the Sheriff’s reference to being the first of a new “half-man half-machine” race, the fact his hand could grab the edge of the vat of molten gold despite his body being dead, and, of course, the title of the story–“Robot of Sherwood,” not “Robots of Sherwood.” As you might expect, Whovians are split as to whether the cut really mattered, and some even feel the story was better without this scene. As yet, no-one has said which version will make it to DVD/Blu-Ray.

What did you think? Do you agree with my plot-point theories? Do you have any to add? Did you notice the edit? Are you glad, indifferent, or annoyed that the BBC cut that sequence? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 2:1-7

1To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: “Thus saith the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand, the one who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: 2‘I know your works and the labors and your steadfastness, and that you are not able to tolerate wickedness, and you have tested those who call themselves apostles, but they are not, and you found them [to be] false, 3and you have steadfastness and endured on account of my name, and you have not grown weary. 4But I have against you that you have forsaken your first love. 5Therefore, remember from where you have fallen and repent, and do the first works. But if [you do] not, I will come for you and I will remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6But you have this, that you hate the works of the Nicolaitans which I also hate.’ 7The one who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches: ‘To the one who conquers I shall give to him to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.'”

This week we covered the first of the seven letters to the churches, addressed to the church in Ephesus. The city of Ephesus was possibly the most important city in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). It was a seaport, so it would have been a hub of commerce with many travelers and tradesmen passing through. It was also politically and religiously significant. The Roman provincial governor’s seat was in Ephesus, and there were a number of temples dedicated to the Imperial cult there. As Paul found out when he encountered Demetrius the Silversmith in Acts 19, the non-Christians in Ephesus took their religion very seriously, and this no doubt affected the way the church interacted with the culture, as we’ll see. From Acts and Paul’s letter we know the church in Ephesus was well-established, and had been nurtured by Paul. The fact he preached in the synagogue there indicates Ephesus had a Jewish community (Acts 18:26; 19:8), though the sparse archeological evidence of Judaism in the area suggests it wasn’t a large community (though, according to Jewish historian Josephus, a few hundred years previously it had been much bigger).

We have already discussed the significance of the angel in verse one. Christ presents himself as the one holding the seven stars and walking among the seven golden lampstands, pulling images from the end of chapter one. There Christ told us that the stars represent the angels of the churches, and the lampstands represent the churches. I think the picture we see is that of Christ as Lord of the church. He holds the church representatives in his hand, so the churches are all under his sovereign control. But Christ isn’t some aloof overlord looking down on the activities of his people. Rather, he walks in the midst of the churches, and hence knows them intimately and personally. This picture of Christ’s relationship with his church will become significant later in the letter.

Christ tells the church that he knows their works. What works? I think the following list tells us: their labors, steadfastness, their intolerance of wickedness, their rejection of false apostles, their endurance, and their tireless dedication to Christ. A central theme of these “works” appears to be doctrinal purity, and holding onto that purity in the midst of difficult circumstances. They have remained firm in their allegiance to Christ, though others have drifted away into error, or succumbed to persecution. Even when people have come into their midst claiming to be apostles (probably not one of the Twelve, but others who are literally “sent out” for missionary or ministry work, and would be accorded respect and privilege as a result), they tested them and demonstrated they were not true apostles. Clearly this is a church that gives high regard to good theology–and that’s not a bad thing. Jesus’ commendation of them on this point is not a patronizing pat on the head. It’s sincere. False teachers have been the bane of the church since the beginning. Even in our day, there are those who peddle a false gospel either out of self-deception (i.e., they really think what they preach is true, even though it wouldn’t stand up to Scriptural scrutiny), or out of a desire to scam God’s people. It’s vitally important, for the sake of the integrity of the gospel, that the church be unflagging in its defense of Biblical truth, and be steadfast in the battle against false teachers and bad theology.

However, for all their solid doctrine, Christ has something extremely important against the church: they have lost, or forsaken, their first love. What is this first love? The immediate answer would appear to be their love for the Lord. I think this is broadly true, but I don’t think it would be fair to say the Ephesian church had completely lost its love for the Lord. After all, to be so well-meaning in their zealous defense of Christ’s name, they would have to have a love for him. But perhaps that love has been diminished by their theological earnestness. Like the Pharisees, they have been so concerned with theological correctness, they have lost sight of the broader mission of the church. The two greatest commandments are to love the Lord, and to love our neighbor. I think the Ephesian church had the first part down, at least in their fight against false teaching. But from what Christ tells them, I think we see a lack in the second part: love for neighbor. The antidote to their loss of love is to remember from where they have fallen, repent, and return to their first works.

Many of us remember how “on fire” we were when we first came to know the Lord. We may not have known Scripture as well as we do now, and we may not have always been as discerning and mature in our speech as we are now, but we wanted to share with others the Good News that had changed our lives. Recognizing how we had been rescued from sin and its curse, we saw our friends and loved ones in the same predicament and wanted to reach out to them with the gospel–their only hope. Over the years, however, that zeal waned. Even worse, the ache in our souls over the lost began to dull. Like the Ephesian church, we became more concerned with flushing out the heretics than reaching out to the heretics and winning them over to the truth. In the early centuries of the church, amidst persecution and rampant paganism, one of the ways the church responded was to cut itself off from the world and set up a community in the desert where Christians could live out their lives in peace. This was how monasticism started, and it was based on a false premise: that if it wasn’t for the pagans, we’d all live in sinless peace. The fact is, as long as there are people involved, the tendency to sin will be there. But the other major mistake of monasticism was the failure to recognize that Christ commissioned the church to go out into the world and be salt and light. Our love for Christ should give us a love for the lost that compels us to reach out to them.

So, we all need to remember “from where we have fallen”–remember that love for the Lord we first had that not only drove us into the Scriptures, but drove us to pray for and reach out to the lost. How important is this? Perhaps more important than we would think. Christ tells the Ephesian church if they don’t repent, he will come [the Greek is actually a present tense,
"I am coming," but in the context it should be translated as a "futuristic present"--a present tense form with future intent] to them and remove their lampstand from its place. We noted earlier that the lampstand represents the church. What would it mean to have that lampstand removed? It seems to me he’s saying they will no longer be a church. If Christ moves among the lampstands, and that church no longer has a lampstand, then Christ is no longer moving in their midst. They are no longer one of his churches. The light has been taken away from them (to use another analogy drawn from Isaiah 49:6). In Matthew 5:13, Jesus tells his followers they are “the salt of the earth,” but if the salt loses its saltiness, it loses its purpose and is good only to be trampled underfoot. If our love for Christ doesn’t express itself in a love for the lost, or if our concern for doctrine doesn’t lead to a concern for souls, then we are in danger of becoming salt-less. And Christ has no use for unsalty churches.

The Lord doesn’t leave the Ephesians with this ominous message. By way of encouragement, he commends the fact that they hate “the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” We don’t really know for certain who these Nicolaitans were. Most of what we know comes from Revelation 2:14-15, where Christ addresses the church in Pergamum. Since we’ll talk more about them in a few weeks, it will suffice for now to say that they were probably a group within the church that advocated external compromise with the culture in order to “live at peace” and avoid persecution. They would have held to the idea that it doesn’t matter if you appear to participate in pagan worship, or act like the pagans, as long as you are a Christian in your heart. In essence, this attitude is as bad as the monastic idea: you’re not really reaching out to the world, but appeasing the world so you and the world can get on with your lives and leave each other alone.

The letter concludes with a wonderful promise: to the one who overcomes, or is victorious [the Greek verb is nikô, which may or may not be a play on "Nicolaitans"--we'll discuss in a few weeks], Christ will give that person the ability to eat of the Tree of Life in God’s Paradise. This is clearly a reference to Genesis 2:9 and the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. Prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve were able to eat of the Tree of Life and live forever. After the Fall, God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden, and cut off access to the Tree of Life. This is because He did not want sinful men to live forever on earth. However, the one who, through Christ, is victorious will stand before the Lord in a sinless state purchased for him by Christ, and he will be allowed to partake of the Tree of Life. This is the Christian’s sure hope: no matter what happens here, those who remain faithful and endure to the end will live forever with the Lord.

Next time, The Letter to Smyrna…

Who Review: Into the Dalek

As IntoTheDalekI said last week, it’s not fair to judge a new Doctor by his first story. “Deep Breath” gave us a good introduction to Number Twelve, but this past Saturday’s adventure was the one to watch. And what better test of a new regeneration than to pit the Time Lord against his oldest foe: The Daleks? Journey Blue’s space shuttle is under attack by Daleks, but the Doctor’s intervention saves her. The Doctor returns her to the command ship Aristotle where he is called upon to help with their latest patient: a battle-scarred Dalek that seems to have turned good. Meanwhile, at Coal Hill School, Clara meets a new colleague, Maths teacher Danny Pink, an ex-soldier who fought in Afghanistan. Not long after inviting him for a drink, Clara runs into the Doctor who asks for her help. He takes her back to the Aristotle with him where they are recruited for a dangerous mission: to go inside the Dalek and find out why it’s being so well-behaved. The Doctor, Clara, and a some of the Aristotle crew are miniaturized and sent down the Dalek eyepiece to figure out what’s going on…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

As the first “real” story for the Twelfth Doctor, this hit all the right notes. This is a Doctor who is confident in his abilities, even if he’s not so confident about his motives (“Am I a good man?”). There are elements of the story that rehash old Who ideas, the big one being the “Dalek-turned-good,” though in the past this has been due to some form of Dalek-human cross-contamination (see “Evil of the Daleks,” and “Dalek”). There were also elements of the story reminiscent of 1977’s “The Invisible Enemy,” where the Doctor and Leela are duplicated and miniaturized to go inside the Doctor and hunt out an evil infection. But there were also some good original elements, not least of which was the whole idea of traveling inside a Dalek.

This Doctor is certainly not the sympathetic Time Lord of last year. When Clara refers to herself as his “caretaker,” he interprets that to mean “she cares so I don’t have to.” On the lips of Doctor #10, that would have been delivered with a smile. With Doctor #12, you believe it. And then he sacrifices one of the crew, who was admittedly as good as dead, so they could track the Dalek’s antibodies that were attacking them. Again, not something that Doctors 10 and 11 would have done without much moral anguish. Indeed, there’s a lot of the 9th Doctor about Capaldi’s incarnation. Echoes of the way he played judge and jury with Cassandra (“The End of the World”), and is ready to destroy the last Dalek (“Dalek”). But the Ninth Doctor had just come from the Time War, and over the course of the season developed compassion (thanks largely to Rose Tyler). The Twelfth has lost a lot of those soft edges, and I don’t know we’ve been told why. I’m not complaining; I think it’s a good direction for the character and the show. But in terms of the Doctor’s story, other than unpredictable DNA, what’s driving this harder character? Maybe we’ll find out… unless we’re supposed to know, in which case if you have any hints for me…!

Also new to the show (at least from Season 7), is the fact that the companion is no longer a resident of the TARDIS. Clara has a life outside the big blue box, and the Doctor drops in on her from time to time to take her on adventures. I get that this is a fresh take on the Doctor-companion relationship… but I don’t like it. It makes no sense. Traveling companion means traveling companion. The companion has a room in the TARDIS. Occasionally they check in with the companion’s home, but never to stay long. With all of time and space at his disposal, under the current arrangement, the Doctor could dump Clara, pick up Jamie McCrimmon again, have a couple of seasons’ worth of adventures, and then drop back in on Clara, or Amy, or Adric, or anyone else. At least when the companions lived in the TARDIS, you knew why the Doctor kept traveling with them. Especially with this Doctor, if Clara annoyed him, he could take off and she’d never see him again.

I understand we’re going to see a lot more of Danny Pink in the future. Given his back story (ex-soldier with confidence issues), I’m sure we’re in for some juicy confrontations with the Doctor.

I enjoyed this episode. It was a good story (I believe the first co-writer credit of the New Series: Phil Ford (“The Waters of Mars”) and Steven Moffat*), without much to fault in terms of acting, effects, etc. This is shaping up to be a good season! Let’s hope the next episode, “Robot of Sherwood,” continues the trend.

What did you think? I’m sure there are tons of things about the episode I didn’t mention that deserve mentioning. Please add your voice to the comments!

* Though, as Russell T. Davies has admitted in his book THE WRITER’S TALE, many of the episodes written under his watch were at least polished, if not re-written by Davies. The only exception to this was Steven Moffat’s scripts which he thought were perfect as they were.

Blog Housekeeping Note

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If you’re a somewhat-frequent visitor to the blog, you may recall that I sometimes post Bible devotionals. At one point I was posting one every Sunday, though I’ve taken a break from that for a season. Over time it seems I’ve accumulated quite a few of these short studies–109 at last count. To make it easier for those of you who might like to read these devotionals, I’ve gathered links to them all onto one page. You’ll find them under the “Theology” tab in a link called “Devotionals.”

Also up there in the tabs you’ll find all my Doctor Who Reviews gathered into one place, as well as all my Book Reviews.

That’s it for the housekeeping. Now, if only I could get that pesky wine stain out of the rug…

Who Review: Deep Breath

The Doctor and Clara land in Victorian London, bringing a dinosaur with them. Still suffering the after-effects of his recent regeneration, the Doctor seems harsher, more severe, and… Scottish. Clara is bewildered and wary of the Doctor’s new persona. Then the dinosaur spontaneously explodes, and it seems this is only the latest in a series of spontaneous combustions. People have been mysteriously exploding for a while, and an explanation eludes the local law enforcement. The Doctor and Clara, along with the Paternoster Gang (Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax) take the case, but with an erratic and curmudgeonly Doctor on their hands, things are not going to go smoothly for his friends.

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

Show-runner Steven Moffat promised us an explosive start to the Twelfth Doctor’s era, and he certainly delivered on that. By Mr. Moffat’s standards the story was a bit light-weight, and he even re-used monsters from one of his previous stories (see “The Girl in the Fireplace” from Season 2). But the main purpose of this episode was to introduce the new Doctor, so I think we can overlook shortcomings in the plot. Capaldi was magnificent and totally owned the role from the first moment he stuck his head out of the TARDIS and told Strax to “Shush!” And I like the direction we’re going with him. He is not Clara’s boyfriend, and, indeed, seemed to have difficulty distinguishing her from a Sontaran. They are about the same height, after all! This new Doctor walks with confidence and treats the “pudding brained” inhabitants of Earth with a bit of aloofness. It’s as if he suddenly remembered he’s from Gallifrey, and while he walks among us, he’s not one of us. Some fans might be a little uncomfortable with that, but I think it’s about time the Doctor operated on his own agenda instead of being manipulated by his companions.

The only down-side to the story (IMO) was that it overplayed the “he may look old on the outside but he’s still the same inside” line. The scene with Vastra and Clara that ends with Clara asking when Vastra removed the veil was probably the best encapsulation of the idea. And that’s where they should have left it. But no. We have to have a call from the Eleventh Doctor to reassure Clara everything’s okay and he’s still the same person. Please! If the reaction from the recent World Tour is anything to go by, Whovians the world over have accepted Capaldi as the new Doctor despite his grey hair. Yes, this was a major shock for Clara, but fandom moved on from Matt Smith six months ago. Half an hour into the story, Clara should have moved on too.

To sum up, a good episode and a promising start to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. The first episode post-regeneration is not always the best to gauge what a Doctor’s going to be like (e.g., “Castrovalva,” “The Twin Dilemma,” “Time and the Rani”…). This coming Saturday we’ll see Twelve face his arch-enemies the Daleks for the first time. That’ll be worth watching for sure!

What did you think of the episode? The new Doctor? Do you agree they over-did it with the whole “he’s still the same inside even if he’s wrinkly on the outside” bit? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Sunday School Notes: Introduction to Revelation 2-3

This week we started a new Sunday School year, with a lot of new faces in the class. Both for the benefit of the newcomers, and as a refresher for those who were with us for chapter 1, I decided to spend most of our time this week re-acquainting us with the themes of the book, and preparing the ground for our study of the next couple of chapters.

Most of what we discussed in terms of review can be found in the notes to chapter 1 elsewhere on the blog (see under “Sunday School Notes-Revelation” in the “Theology” tab above). We talked about the setting of the letter, when it might have been written, the type of literature it is (letter, prophetic, apocalyptic, all of the above…?), and the major themes that run throughout.

Chapters 2 and 3 present to us seven letters to the seven churches addressed at the beginning of the book. We recalled the significance of the number 7 in Scripture (fullness, completion–rooted in the seven days of creation in Genesis 1-2), and noted that while John (and Jesus) specifically targeted seven churches in Asia Minor, the intent of the letters is for all the churches. The refrain found at the end of each letter, “Let him who has ears hear what the Spirit says to the churches” supports the idea that they were not meant solely for the named recipient. But why these churches, especially since significant churches such as Colossae, Hierapolis, and Troas are not mentioned? On a practical level, it could be that these churches were all within 100 miles of Ephesus and on a circular route ideal for missionaries or preachers. John may well have operated out of Ephesus as his “base church,” and traveled around to each of these in the course of his ministry. But as we look at the issues facing these churches, and the varying degrees of success they’re having dealing with them, we can easily find our own situation somewhere along that spectrum. In other words, within these seven churches every church at every time should be able to see herself, and draw hope, encouragement, and perhaps even chastisement from that identification.

Each of the seven letters follows a similar kind of pattern:

  • Jesus addresses a particular church via the angel that represents that church (see 1:20).
  • A description of Jesus drawn from the vision in 1:12-20. Each letter uses different imagery pertinent to the message for that church.
  • A statement regarding some aspect of the church Jesus sees or knows about. This could relate to an area of strength, or a problem with the church.
  • Based on that statement, Jesus encourages faithfulness or exhorts to repentance lest judgment should fall.
  • “Let the one having ears hear…”–emphasizing the general application of Jesus’ message.
  • Finally, a promise of eternal life in return for faithfulness and perseverance. Sometimes these last couple are reversed.

As we consider patterns, it’s also interesting to note the way the letters are arranged. It seems the churches most in danger of losing their Christian identity are addressed first and last, then the churches in the best shape, with those generally okay but with internal issues in the middle:

  1. Ephesus: A church in bad shape, and in danger of having her lampstand removed (if the lampstand represents the church (1:20), then the removal of the lampstand implies the loss of that status).
  2. Smyrna: A faithful church facing persecution, in need of encouragement.
  3. Pergamum: A church doing okay on the whole, but having a difficult time with a faction stirring trouble within the body.
  4. Thyatira: Another church doing okay but with a disruptive faction that needs to be dealt with.
  5. Sardis: A church in need of revival, though there are still faithful members so there’s hope.
  6. Philadelphia: A faithful church battling the “synagogue of Satan” and in need of encouragement.
  7. Laodicea: A church in bad shape, in danger of being “spit out” by the Lord.

As we noted before, within the range of issues the churches face, we can find our own church situation. This leads to the question: was there really ever a “golden age” of the church? We sometimes like to think that the first hundred years of the church was a time of faithful endurance under persecution, full of “on fire” believers willing to give all for the faith. What we see in Revelation, however, are good, strong churches and weak churches falling into compromise with the world, and other churches somewhere along the spectrum in between. The fact is, there has never been a time when the church hasn’t been plagued with issues of some kind. This is only to be expected since the church consists of people, and even at our best, we are still hampered by the enticement of sin and the trappings of the world.

This is what makes Revelation a timeless book. It wasn’t written for some future age of the church, nor was it just meant for John and these seven churches in the latter part of the first century. In Revelation, the Lord of the church addresses his bride, to encourage her in times of stress, to chasten her waywardness, and to shepherd her toward the hope promised to her, and bought for her at Calvary. It’s as much for us as for any other church in any other time.

We won’t be meeting next week, so we’ll dive into the letter to the Ephesian church (2:1-7) the following week.

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