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 take 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

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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Doctor Who Returns…

Less than a week to go until Season 8 of Doctor Who (that’s Season 34 if you count from the very beginning)! This coming Saturday we’ll see Peter Capaldi make his debut as the Twelfth Doctor. Of course, those who have attended World Premier events have already seen the episode. My brother, for example, was at the premier in Cardiff a few weeks ago, and he assures me the story is awesome and Capaldi is even awesomer. It seems the TARDIS is in safe hands. Should my brother be reading, feel free to elaborate on this assessment in the comments!

Rumors are circulating that this will be Jenna Coleman’s last season (she plays Clara, the Doctor’s companion). Tabloid stories suggest she will be bowing out at Christmas. Naturally, we take such rumors with a pinch of salt until confirmed, but to be honest, a lot of these kinds of stories tend to lean toward truth. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jenna wants to move on to other things. Doctor Who is such an international phenomenon, it can only promote the careers of its leading actors. Part of Matt Smith’s reasons for moving on was the huge attention he was getting as a result of Who. And I’m sure we’ll soon see current show-runner Steven Moffat step down as bigger opportunities tempt him away. We’ll see about that.

Here’s the list of episode titles for this season, as reported in Doctor Who Magazine:

  • Deep Breath by Steven Moffat
  • Into the Dalek by Phil Ford and Steven Moffat
  • Robot of Sherwood by Mark Gatiss
  • Listen by Steven Moffat
  • Time Heist by Stephen Thompson and Steven Moffat
  • The Caretaker by Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat
  • Kill the Moon by Peter Harness
  • Mummy on the Orient Express by Jamie Mathieson
  • Flatline by Jaime Mathieson
  • The Forest of the Night by Frank Cottrell Boyce
  • Dark Water  by Steven Moffat
  • Death in Heaven by Steven Moffat

This will be a full 13-episode season, so it’s possible one of these is the title to a two-parter. We know the finale is a two-parter, so maybe it’ll be “Death in Heaven Part 1″ and “Death in Heaven Part 2,” or perhaps the title for episode 13 has yet to be revealed…?

UPDATE: The BBC Blog released the above list, and they indicate that “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven” are episodes 11 and 12, the two-part finale. This means there are only 12 episodes this season, one shorter than usual. What’s up with that? I don’t know. Perhaps things will become clearer as the year progresses…

“Deep Breath” will be broadcast on Saturday, August 23rd at 7:50 pm on BBC1 (simulcast in Australia on ABC1 on Sunday, August 24th), and at 8:15 pm (ET) on BBC America.

Finally, there will be a new title sequence for the new Doctor. It seems Steven Moffat came across a fan-made sequence on YouTube and liked it so much, he contacted the creator and asked him to collaborate with BBC Wales on the official sequence. Here’s Billy Hanshaw’s original version:

We’ll see the final official version on Saturday.

Are you looking forward to the new season of Doctor Who?

What’s Up Wednesday

I’ve not been around the blogs as much over the past few weeks, so I thought I’d join the WUW meme this week so those who are curious can find out what I’ve been up to. Not that there’s a whole lot to tell, but just so you know… If you want to join in too, go visit the hosts, Jaime Morrow and Erin Funk. Not only will they tell you how to participate, but they have the linky widget you can use to visit other WUW-ers.

What I’ve Been Reading

I completed Volume Two of my three-volume edition of WAR AND PEACE, so I’m taking a little bit of a W&P break before I jump into the final part. I also finished DISSONANCE by Erica O’Rourke which was excellent. I reviewed it on the blog yesterday so you can find my thoughts about it there. This novel is the first in a new series by Erica, and it’s about parallel worlds, and a girl who can walk between them, and what happens when she falls for a guy in an alternative universe. Sound cool? It is, trust me! I’m currently reading some short stories, because…

What I’ve Been Writing

… I finished the first draft of a short story, and I need to orient my mind toward the right kind of feel and voice for the story as I revise. This first draft has all the essential elements of the story–the characters, the structure, the plot, and so on. What’s missing is craft: tuning the voice, shaping the words and phrases, adding flesh and color to the bones. Reading published short stories–especially in the same genre–helps a great deal with this. My plan is to submit this for publication when finished, so I want it to be as polished as possible. I might even throw it in front of some Beta Readers, if anyone’s interested.

What Inspires Me Right Now

The fact that I’ve actually managed to write a short story after saying for so long I’m going to write one! And this one came rather quickly. I sketched out a basic plot with paper and pen, then wrote it up. Of course, it’s only the first draft so there’s still a lot of work to do. But at least I have something to work with.

What Else I’ve Been Up To

Nothing particularly strange or startling. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve not been as active on the blogs or Twitter recently. That’s partly because I’ve been investing more time reading and doing other things that don’t necessarily require an Internet connection. Also, the new Sunday School year is fast approaching, so I’ve started studying for that. We’ll be picking up with the Revelation study in a little over two weeks, and I’ve got a lot of preparation to do. It’s work, but it’s fun work, which is always the best kind.

So, how have you been?

Book Review: DISSONANCE by Erica O’Rourke

Delancey Sullivan is a Walker. She has the ability to Walk through pivots in this world to other worlds–worlds created by decisions. What if I hadn’t gone to the mall, but visited grandpa? What if we had turned left instead of right? Each decision makes a branch, each with its own sound that only Walkers can hear. Sometimes these other worlds go out of harmony, and left too long they can cause a chain reaction of corruption that could affect the Original world–the Key World. The only world that really matters. It’s the responsibility of Walkers to keep these other worlds in harmony, even cutting off branches that are too far gone.

Delancey’s parents work for the Consortium, the ruling body of Walkers, who oversee training and maintaining order in the multiverse. A major disturbance has them working all hours, trying to trace the problem and put it right. In the meantime, Delancey’s problems center around Simon, a non-Walker jock at school who is only interested in cheerleaders and fawners. This same Simon keeps turning up in the Echo worlds she visits, but the Echo Simons seem much deeper, and much more interested in Del. How can Del possibly get involved with an Echo–someone who isn’t real? And what damage would she do if she did…?

I enjoyed Erica’s previous trilogy (TORN, TANGLED, and BOUND), but I have to say, this first in a new series is her best yet. The whole concept of alternative universes based on what-ifs is fascinating, and makes for fun stories when handled well. Erica has really thought through the implications of the world she has created for her Walkers. Each Walker is very musically inclined, a side effect from their ability to hear the sounds of the alternative worlds. Their abilities are genetic, so relationships with non-Walkers are discouraged to make sure there are always genetically pure Walkers around to keep the multiverse in order. Different Walkers play different roles. Some are particularly gifted at mapping out the alternative universes, some are good at fixing inversions, and detangling threads in the fabric of the Echo worlds. It’s this kind of depth and thoroughness that sets the stage for an immersive reading experience.

But a great concept and a well-developed world don’t guarantee an excellent novel. It also has to be well-written, and this is where I commend Erica the most. Her first-person prose is flawless. Del’s voice is true, and she manages to explain the world through the characters without a lot of awkward exposition. It all flows naturally and effortlessly through the story. This is very hard to do, which is why I was so impressed at this.

The biggest flaw in Erica’s world I found was in the fact that the pivots are solely based around people’s decisions. There are so many other factors that play into why events occur. Our lives are not simply a series of random decisions. Other things affect the decisions we make–sometimes it’s other people’s actions, and sometimes it’s the weather, or some other natural occurrence (what if it the wind had blown this way instead of that, or the rain had fallen here not there, or that rock slide had shifted a few inches west…?). I understand, however, that for the sake of the story, and not getting too bogged down in the complexities of decision-making, it was necessary to simplify, so I’m not too bothered by this.

I rate DISSONANCE a PG-15 for light profanity (a few s-words and f-words, and some Third Commandment violations). I highly recommend this book, especially if you enjoy a good sci-fi/contemporary blend. Definitely a Goodreads 5-star book.

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