June 26, 2008

A friend here at GS told me about this book so I picked it up last week and have been reading it the past few days.

I don't normally read Christian fiction--at least, not by anyone who's still alive. But this story is basically Theodicy set in narrative context. The main character, Mack, is a husband and father who experiences the horror of having his youngest daughter abducted and killed by a serial killer while they are on a camping trip. They find the remains of her dress in an old abandoned cabin. Sometime later, Mack receives a note in his mailbox that turns out to be an invitation back to that cabin for a conversation. The one who sent the note turns out to be God. Mack goes back to the cabin and encounters the Triune God in quite unexpected ways.

The conversations center around suffering, the nature of God, the trinity and the judgment/love paradox...at least thus far. I haven't finished the book yet. But it's very much reminiscent of the conversations between Ransom and the Un-man in C.S. Lewis' "Perelandra" in that it is deep theology disguised as dialogue between two fictional characters. A similar approach is found in many of Peter Kreeft's books, particularly "Socrates Meets Jesus", which I highly recommend.

Given the current flood of Christian fiction that is theologically famished, I think "The Shack" is a diamond in the rough. At times the dialogue may be a bit artificial. But overall I'm enjoying it. It would be a good book to give to those outside the Christian faith as well because it presents things from such a different angle than normal, and therefore offers an effective apologetic to a cynical post-christian culture.


I would love to hear feedback or reviews from others who've read it as well--positive or negative.

June 17, 2008

Being a pastor and a single at the same time...

Here's an article that the Charlotte Observer ran Saturday on Single Pastors...which I just happen to be! :)
Pastors without partners
Unmarried ministers face the same struggles as other singles – but theirs are more public
By Katharine Dale

Pastor Brad Saab enjoys rock climbing as a way to unwind from his job as student ministry pastor at Charlotte South Fellowship.

GARY O'BRIEN/Observer staff photo
They're young, they're single, they're pastors - and their lives might surprise you.

While they might not be found throwing back shots at the bar or canoodling uptown until 2 a.m., don't assume they're just sitting at home reading the Bible.

They go rock climbing and cycling. They're artists. They're musicians. They date. And their title doesn't exempt them from issues everyone else faces, including temptation, sex, loneliness - and losing a loved one.

We talked to five single ministry leaders in Charlotte, and here are their stories.

Tamara Park

A seminary professor once told Tamara Park she'd enjoy studying Hebrew. So she moved to Jerusalem for a year.

“The reality is that my time does look differently, not having a husband or children,” she said. “I think ‘How do I steward that, and take risks and move into opportunities that I couldn't do if I were married?'”

While backpacking through the Middle East a few years ago, she interviewed Muslims, Catholics and people of other faiths, asking their perceptions of God. Now she's writing a book.

“I don't know how I could have written that book if I were married with children,” she said. “Sacred Encounters from Rome to Jerusalem" will be released in November.”

Whether writing, combating injustice, running or salsa dancing, Park, 37, longs to minister out of her complete life experiences. That means not, she said, as a “perfect” person, just an unmarried clergy member or just a woman. The south Charlotte resident is pastor of community at Warehouse 242 near uptown Charlotte, part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

“We often have unconscious perceptions of what a leader, especially a church leader, should look like - which oftentimes is a married man,” said Park.

“I grew up in a church where a woman couldn't be pastor…I know people have unspoken assumptions, (but) I've really studied the scriptures and realized women do have a role. There's a mutual respect, and a real appreciation and value, of having men and women's voices together.”

Alan Porter

It's not every day a man of God says his favorite movie is a chick flick about a prostitute who falls in love with Richard Gere. But if you ask Alan Porter, “Pretty Woman” is his answer.

“It really speaks to me a strong message of how difficult it can be to find people who are interested in you, who appreciate you beyond what you can give them,” he said. “It demonstrates to me how there are people out there like that, but it shows the walls that people of notoriety put up, and have to put up.”

Porter, executive pastor at Greater Salem Church in northwest Charlotte, said one of the most difficult aspects of his job - and his life - has been developing relationships.

In some cases, he said, women he might be interested in dating see him only as a pastor. “They relate very clearly to the role, but not always to a person,” he said.

Porter, 45, recently moved to Huntersville from Maryland. To escape the daily grind, he jogs and goes to the movies – where he sits up in a corner, alone, with nachos and a Coke.

“I like the solitude, just being able to go and get lost in there,” he said. “I'm around people, but I feel like I'm by myself.”

At the end of the day, Porter said his “keeper” is not his secular relationships, vocation or “Pretty Woman,” but his commitment to God. “That's what's made me successful,” he said.

His advice to others: “What I encourage single pastors to do is to live,” he said. “Find out what your dreams are, where your passion is, and pursue that...Don't make pursuing a partner your whole life passion. Spend your time pursing the person you long to become.”

Brad Saab

Brad Saab endures loss like everyone else – except it's his job to bear his pain in public.

After his girlfriend of six months, Janet Devaty, was struck and killed by a truck's trailer last October while she jogged in Myers Park, all eyes were on him.

Would he fall apart? Would he curse God? Does he genuinely embrace his faith in all circumstances, as he teaches?

“I mean, I was destroyed at that point,” he said. “I loved her. But I trusted God and wanted to use my life to encourage people. I talked with my students about it, and the church – trying to use it for other people's benefit.”

Saab, 27, embraces being a student ministry pastor at Charlotte South Fellowship, saying it encourages him to set a Christ-like example. “People look to me to either find encouragement to do the right thing, or an excuse to do the wrong thing.”

The University of Florida graduate, who lives in Union County, wants to marry someday. He looks forward to romance – dancing in the kitchen while cooking dinner.

Until he finds “the one,” Saab feels at peace with single life and spends his free time rock climbing and hiking.

“A lot of people spend their single years in a state of desperation,” he said. “It's got its disadvantages, but it has a bright side. I'm using this time and these resources to help people and to love God, so it's a cool thing.”

James-Michael Smith

Being single didn't stop James-Michael Smith, pastor of discipleship at Good Shepherd United Methodist in Steele Creek, from giving a sermon entitled “Let's Talk about Sex.”

When there's a sermon on why singles should practice abstinence, he said, “it's always by someone who gets to go home and have (sex), because they're married,” he said. “The single people who typically dismiss it go home and think, ‘Oh, that's easy for you to say.' But I can say, ‘It's not easy.'”

Added Smith, 29: “My title doesn't make me inhuman. I'm still a guy who has needs and desires.”

When it comes to dating, the Savannah native disagrees with one evangelical subculture that sometimes looks down on dating as inappropriate or unbiblical. “It's a way to get to know someone with clear intentions, to know someone better in order to find out if they could possibly be who you end up with.”

Smith, of the Steele Creek area, is passionate about his convictions, but he's accepting of different views. Much of his time is spent reading, leading Bible study, drawing (he has a bachelor of fine arts) and doing martial arts.

“Most people are kind of surprised that a pastor can be passionate about martial arts, which is fun 'cause I get to break that stereotype,” he said.

Rob Kelly

Rob Kelly is known as the perpetual kid - the “famous” single guy on staff at Carmel Baptist Church in Matthews.

There seems to be an unwritten rule, he said: Pastors should have a family, or at least be married, before they're seen as “grown up.”

Kelly, 30, a college and young adult pastor, feels that having a wife would alter the dynamics of his job in a positive way.

“It's...the way I interact and minister to girls,” said the Seattle native. “I have a lot more freedom to interact with guys. With women, I have to really watch my interaction and guard myself....

“Pastors have to be cognizant of every thing they do and every word they speak.”

Still, people both inside and outside the church are sometimes surprised what they find when they get to know him.

“I am very much just a regular guy who likes hanging out with his friends, traveling, playing guitar and watching ‘Lost,'” he said.

“I've heard on a number of occasions, ‘For a pastor, you're pretty regular.' I think it even goes that way for Christians: people saying, ‘Wow, you're a Christian, but you're normal.'”

One perspective

Alan Porter of Greater Salem Church summed up the reasons navigating his ministry as a single pastor can be tricky:

Politics. “I was 23 when I started,” he said. “I was the youngest pastor in the church, and everyone was always telling me if I was gonna be successful I had to be married. So I found myself almost giving into that. I thought, if I wanted to stay on the right path I had to be married.”

Pressure. Women sometimes assume that if he enjoys their company, the altar is next, he said.

Perception. “When people meet you and discover you're single, the next words out of their mouth are, “We've got to find you a wife!' What is it on my face that says I'm suffering because I'm single? That bothers me, because it implies I'm not a whole person because I'm not married, like my clothes are wrinkled. There's more to me than my singleness.”

Interviews with some of the faith leaders generated common themes about the challenges they face when they're unmarried.

Emotional support. “You don't have that support, that anchor, that a good spouse provides,” said James-Michael Smith of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church. “It's kind of hard when you're getting fired at and spiritually drained to not have that person who ‘takes away the day.'”

The microscope factor. Every move they make feels scrutinized, which can make doing “normal” things, such as dating, difficult. “If you don't pay attention or talk to girls, then you're standoffish,” said Smith. “Then if you do, you get labeled as going after someone. People are ambivalent in ministry; they want you to be married but they don't want you to date.” Added Rob Kelly of Carmel Baptist: “I can say with confidence that it was much easier to date before I was a pastor.”

Credibility. Said Smith: “People look at you like, ‘You don't have the experience. You don't have children so you don't understand.' It's not conscious, it's a perception thing. Someone my exact age who's married doesn't have to earn that credibility.”

Insight. Single faith leaders sometimes lack perspective on the opposite gender. “One of the great mysteries to me is that every teenage girl seems predisposed to drama,” said Brad Saab, of Charlotte South Fellowship. If he were married, Saab said, a wife could help him understand the world from a female perspective.

But the unmarried leaders cite advantages, too. “There's a growing older singles population,” said Tamara Park of Warehouse 242. “I have the gift of understanding those who are single, and especially those who are single longer than they thought they'd be.”

June 13, 2008

A Bad Girl of the Bible question

My friend Dani sent me the following question via Facebook. I told her it would make a great blog post entry and that I would answer it in the Dojo!

Hey how are you? I figured I would try and give you something to blog about if you ever have a block.

Actually, if you don't mind; I need someone smarter then me to answer a question about Potiphar's Wife. My small group is studying "Bad Girls of the Bible" by Liz Higgs... Anyway, this week we are reading about Potiphar's wife. In the lesson part Higgs makes the comment about how she must have been so desperate to break her marriage vows and talks about how adultry was a sin of death for God.

My question is if the Egyptian's didn't worship or know God's law how then can they be held accountable for breaking them? If Joseph had slept with her, then I can see holding him accountable -- because he knew better.

Also weren't the Egyptian's very much like the Greeks and Romans, in that they were "swingers", meaning they slept around? And weren't women at that time disposable? If Potiphar didn't want her, he could get rid of her?

Lastly, I understand the lesson that we are to get out of this story, but she brings up again that this women doesn't do what is right in the eyes of the Lord. Well, if you don't know Him -- how are you supposed to. Higgs points out that all she had to do was admit her sin before God and then all would be good. So I'm I off base, in thinking that though there are lessons we can learn, Higgs is off base in theology?


Dani, this is a great question. I think there are some assumptions which must be addressed in order to help answer your questions. The main issues are:
1) the role of women in Egyptian culture, including the dynamics of marriage, particularly in the highest strata of Egyptian society,
and 2) culpability before God apart from the Torah law.
You ask if the Egyptians were "swingers", like the Greeks and Romans. Well, one thing to remember is that the Egyptians of Potiphar's day are separated by the Greeks and Romans of Jesus day by over 1,000 years. That's a long time! So any comparison of the Egyptians of Genesis to the later Greeks and Romans is kinda like comparing Americans today with Germanic peoples in medieval times.
So we have to look at the Egyptians on their own terms when it comes to the issue of marriage and adultery. And in fact, there is an absolutely fascinating parallel to the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife found in an ancient Egyptian text called "The Story of Two Brothers." Here's the reader's digest version:
There were two brothers (Anubis (older) and Bata (younger). Anubis was married and had a home. Bata lived with Anubis and his wife, helping tend the cattle and harvest the fields. Bata lived in the stable with his cattle (Interestingly, the text says about Bata that "There was no on elike him in the entire land. Why, the strength of a god was in him.")
At the prompting of his cattle (yes, in the story the cows can talk and tell Anubis where to lead them to good grass that they like!), Anubis and Bata lead them out into the fields for many days in order to plow and harvest. They run low on seed, so Anubis sends Bata home to get some more supplies from the house.
When Bata arrives at the house, Anubis' wife is sitting there doing her hair. He asks her to help him get supplies loaded to take back. She tells him to get it himself because she doesn't want to interrupt combing her hair (yes, the text literally says that!). So Bata gets the supplies and brings them out to load up. She asks how much he's taking and he tells her. Here's what the text says happens next:

Then she [talked with] him, saying "There is [great] strength in you! Now I see your energies every day!" And she wanted to know him as one knows a man.
Then she stood up and took hold of him and said to him: "Come, let's spend an [hour] sleeping (together)! This will do you good, because I shall make fine clothes for you!"
Then the lad [became] like a leopard with [great] rage at the wicked suggestion which she had made to him, and she was very, very much frightened. Then he argued with her, saying: "See here--you are like a mother to me, and your husband is like a father to me! Because--being older than I--he was the one who brought me up. What is this great crime which you have said to me? Dont' say it to me again! And I won't tell a single person, nor will I let it out of my mouth to any man!" And he lifted up his load , and he went to the fields."

(From Pritchard, "Ancient Near East Texts...", Princeton, pp.23-24)

The parallels with Potiphar's wife and this story are so strong that many critics have simply dismissed both accounts as Egyptian fables, one of which got incorporated into the book of Genesis. However, there's no reason to assume this. One could just as easily argue that the actual story of Joseph got transformed into the fable of Bata (the time period allows for this).
Regardless, what's important for our discussion is that in this non-Biblical Egyptian fable, adultery is seen as a horrible crime by the Egyptians themselves. This also fits with the Biblical account in Genesis 12 where Abram tells that Pharaoh that Sarai is his sister and Pharaoh takes her as a wife. When Pharaoh finds out via a dream that the Sarai is already married, his response to Abram is "What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me she was yoru wife? Why did you say, 'She is my sister,' so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her and be gone!" (Gen.12:18-19).
So from these two texts, one Biblical and one extrabiblical, we see that the Egyptians were definitely not "swingers" and that sleeping with someone else's spouse was a very, very serious wrong. I think this is a perfect example of the Biblical doctrine of Common Grace, whereby God has not left people completely without any moral compass. Rather, God's foundational moral nature is implanted within all humanity and even despite the fall, vestiges of it remain--some of which are preserved in law codes in various societies apart from the Biblical tradition. This is why in Romans 1, Paul can appeal to this natural revelation by God to gentiles in order to show their guilt in going against it, even though they did not have the written law of Moses which contained the Ten Commandments.

So Potiphar's wife was morally guilty by the universal moral revelation by God against adultery as well as by her own culture's recognition of it as wrong--not to mention her lying and bearing false witness against Joseph which could have potentially led to his execution. Yes, she was indeed a "Bad Girl of the Bible"! However, as for her being "desperate to break her marriage vows", well, that's not really found in the text. In fact, she propositions him when no one else is around intentionally, so that it will remain a secret and her marriage would remain intact. I think this is where many popular authors of Christian books begin to take liberties with the text in order to fit their preconceived ideas for their books. It's very hard to psychoanalyze the emotional state of a Biblical character--particularly one who is never even mentioned by name! We simply don't have that level of detail in the text. This leaves room for all kinds of reading into the text our own ideas or opinions. I haven't read Higgs' book, but it would not suprise me if it was a bit guilty of this, as almost every biographical account of Biblical characters, even by the best authors, usually is.

So what happened to Bata, you may wonder? Well, this is where the parallels with Joseph start to diminish. Anubis comes home and his wife makes herself look as if she'd been victimized. She says that Bata came and tried to seduce her, but she refused so he beat her. Anubis is enraged and hides in the stable to kill Bata with a spear. But as the first of the cows arrive back in the stable, one of them sees Anubis and shouts for Bata to run away! Anubis chases Bata, but Bata prays to Re, the Sun God, and Re creates a river between them full of crocodiles so that Anubis can't cross it. Bata says to wait until the morning and Re will judge between them. When the sun rises, Bata chastizes Anubis for believing his wife rather than him and as proof of his lack of desire for Anubis' wife, he "took a reed-knife, and he cut off his phallus, and he threw it into the water"! Bata goes off into exile in the Valley of Cedar and Anubis is so upset that he goes home and kills his wife, throws her body to the dogs, and sits in mourning for his younger brother.

Talk about a happy ending! Yikes!

Thanks for the question, Dani. And keep up the jiujitsu training!


June 11, 2008

Ministry lessons from a movie masterpiece

Some of you may have been wondering what the image at the top of my blog depicts. Others of you may have recognized it immediately. Either way, I thought I'd take a minute to explain it a little more.

In 1954 the late Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa made a film that would go on to become the most critically-acclaimed film in all of Japanese cinema history--and one of the most acclaimed worldwide as well. That movie was called "Shichinin no Samurai" ("The Seven Samurai").


It was the story of a group of 7 masterless samurai who agreed to help defend a farming village from bandits for nothing more than food and lodging in return. The film would go one to influence western movies and even generate remakes of it, such as "The Magnificent Seven" starring Steve McQueen and Yul Brennar.


In the film the 7 samurai all have differing personalities, strengths and mannerisms and the movie follows their develpment from 7 lone warriors into solidified team who are willing to give their lives to protect the often ungrateful villagers. This theme stuck out in my mind because I've always been fascinated with the parallels between the samurai and the Christian Disciple (which you can read more about here). In this case, the parallel is to that of ministry in general.

Like the 7 samurai in the film, people in ministry often find themselves committing to seemingly hopeless situations ("Make disciples of ALL nations??"), working side by side with others they barely know (think how Jesus' first followers must have felt--a tax collector and a zealot in the same small group?!?), and often serving some who share the villagers sense of ingratitude or even hostility ("This is MY church, so you're gonna need MY support if you want anything to get done here."). Of course, this is not always the case and the rewards often far outweigh the difficulties. But as I watch the 7 in their pledge to protect the village and train up the villagers to protect themselves alongside them, I can't help but see 7 ministers pledging to serve and equip the Body of Christ to fight the powers of darkness and expand God's kingdom. Looking at it this way helps to keep me focused on the overall big picture when I'm tempted to get bogged down or discouraged by the details or the mundane aspects of ministry.

But there is another theme in Kurosawa's movie which I resonated with immediately and have ever since; one that is more personal. The 7 are led by a samurai named Kambei and his second-in-command, Gorobei. The others all have their roles and differing skill sets which all work toward the common goal. Even the seemingly-useless or crazy among them, Katsushiro and Kikuchiyo, play vital roles on the team. However, there is one among them who I always related to more than the others--Kyuzo (the one on the right in the picture up top).


Kyuzo initially refused to join the group's cause. He was only concerned with bettering himself as a swordsman and testing his skill against the best in the land. Anyone who knew me in college before I decided to go into ministry can see this parallel! I never wanted to committ to a church or ministry. Rather, I wanted to study and sharpen my theological/apologetic skill by engaging the best thinkers and influencers who challenged the Christian faith. However, Kyuzo eventually accepts the mission and joins the team. Sometime during the year between college and Seminary, I finally decided to commit myself to the ministry. It wasn't a precise moment I can look back on; rather, it was a gradual desire that arose from somewhere within me and which I knew was God's leading.
Kyuzo has two other characteristics that I identify with--one negative and one positive. On the negative end, he is often stoic and withdrawn from the others, choosing to observe rather than initiate. This is a personality trait that is shared by the men in my family. Often, both my Dad and I have been told we come across as too serious or disengaged at times, often withdrawing into our heads. Fortunately, we've had my Mom to help snap us out when needed (anyone who's met her knows this!). I've done much better at this over the past few years, but my first few years in ministry (beginning right after college) were often quite Kyuzo-esque, at times. neglecting the personal or emotional aspects of ministry in favor of sharpening my skills through books, debates, seminars, open-air preaching, etc.
On the positive end, though, Kyuzo's greatest contribution to the team is the fact that he HAS trained so hard and IS a skilled swordsman. He is not the leader of the team (and he prefers it this way!). However, when it comes time to train the villagers to handle the sword, Kyuzo is the one to whom they look. I feel this way, at least in my current role as Pastor of Discipleship. God has placed me at GS in a position of leadership, but beneath other leaders to whom I am accountable and whom I am to obey when it comes to ministry-related decisions. And like Kyuzo, I wouldn't have it any other way! I know that I am no Kambei or Gorobei. My place is with the villagers, teaching them to wield the sword, battle the enemy, and defend and eventually train those less equipped. I am called to help make those beside whom I serve, my fellow ministers, better each day as well by sharing what I have learned from the Kyuzos in my life.
In the end, Kyuzo is not among the surviving samurai. He dies defending the village. In fact, the very last scene of the movie shows him and the others who have fallen with him buried with their swords standing over their graves.
I don't know when my time will come, but I can't think of a better depiction of the legacy I hope to leave behind for the next generation of Disciples.
"Well done, good and faithful servant."
(interestingly enough, the word "samurai" literally means "one who serves.")

June 1, 2008

NUMB3RS - The 144,000

I've held off posting the next week in the Revelation series blog entries partially out of busyness and partially because I was scheduled to preach on the section that we've now come to (ch.7) as the final message in our series "NUMB3RS - Messages from the book of Revelation". I'm not going to comment much on ch.7. Rather, I direct the reader to my message which should be posted shortly on GSUMC's home page.

However, I would like to offer the following remarks on the 144K of Revelation that I found to be quite a good summary of the concept. It's from the extremely helpful (even when I find myself in disagreement with its conclusions at times!) "Hard Sayings of the Bible" edited by, among others, one of my former OT professors Walt Kaiser. While this article unfortunately (and surprisingly) does not address the clear parallels to the Hebrew military census nature of the 144,000 list, it does a good job in bringing out many of the other theologically significant ideas contained within this number and the passages in which we find it.

"7:4 Who Are the 144,000?"
The doorbell rings on a Saturday morning and two people stand on the porch offering literature about the return of Christ. If questioned, they might reveal that they are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their motives for their door-to-door activity are not simply to gain converts for the movement, but rather to gain merit for themselves through their exemplary zeal. Their hope (faint though it may be, given the number of Witnesses worldwide) might be to become one of the 144,000 who will reign with Christ. While there are certainly a number of more important places at which orthodox Christians would take issue with these Witnesses in terms of doctrine, what they say about the 144,000 remains troubling, not because it is believed, but because we ourselves do not know what this number means.
The problem with the number is that it is clearly symbolic, but the question is, Symbolic of what? Three major scholarly options have been given. The first is that this figure is symbolic of a group of Jews whom God will redeem at the end of the age. The second is that this is symbolic of a group of martyrs whom God preserves for martyrdom. The third is that this number is symbolic of the whole of the church, which God will protect through the tribulation at the end of the age. Only an examination of the data will show which of these is most likely to be correct.
John’s picture draws on two Old Testament images. The first is that of Passover (Ex 12:12–13), during which the blood on the doorposts of the Hebrews’ homes was a sign protecting them from the judgment that the Egyptians were receiving. The significant elements in Exodus are that the world around the Hebrews was experiencing judgment and a God-given sign protected the people of God from this judgment. The second Old Testament image is that of Ezekiel’s man with an ink horn (Ezek 9). Again, the context is one of judgment. Again the people true to God are marked to be spared. In this case “a man clothed with linen who had a writing kit at his side” goes through the city and marks a Hebrew tāw, which in those days was an × or a +, on the forehead of each person faithful to God.
There may also be a New Testament background for John’s picture. In 2 Corinthians 1:22, Ephesians 1:13 and Ephesians 4:30, Paul writes that Christians are sealed with the Holy Spirit. While the Spirit is not said to protect believers from anything, the image is one of security. Likewise, “the Lord knows those who are his” stands as a seal in 2 Timothy 2:19. While there is no evidence that John had read any of these books, the fact that Paul used sealing language implies that it was used around the church before John wrote.
In the picture in Revelation 7 the judgment of God announced in Revelation 6 is held back until the sealing is complete. The sealed are identified as “the servants of our God.” The image is that of Ezekiel, both in the placement of the seal on the forehead and in the idea of only a remnant (in Ezekiel a remnant of Israel) being sealed from the judgment. This theme is picked up again in Revelation 9:4 in the fifth of the trumpet judgments, in which the “locusts” are to hurt only those “who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” The sealed are protected in the midst of judgment all around them.
In Revelation 14 the 144,000 are “the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.” They are described as celibate virgins, which in Revelation means that they have not been seduced by the forces of evil nor made a compromise with idolatry. They are also totally truthful. “They were purchased from among men and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb” (Rev 14:4). The firstfuit picture appears in James 1:18 for all Christians in relation to the world and in Romans 11:16 for Gentile believers in relation to the full repentance of Israel.
Who are these 144,000, then? The theory that they are the martyrs of the last days is attractive, but in the end unconvincing because nothing is said in these passages of their being martyrs. Instead it appears that all of the “servants of God” are sealed. These “servants” are part of a larger group that is not serving God. That many of these folk might become martyrs is reasonable, given the persecution described in Revelation 13, but John says nothing to make us think that they are exclusively martyrs.
The theory that they are the Jewish believers of the end time is also attractive since the tribes of Israel are named. However, there are also problems here. Both the order of the tribal list and the names included are unusual. For example, both Manasseh and his father, Joseph, are included (Joseph apparently standing for Ephraim). Dan is missing, although he is present in Ezekiel’s end-time list (Ezek 48). Thus John appears to indicate that the list stands for something other than any known form of Israel. Yet another problem is that most of “Israel” is not saved (that is, is not in the 144,000), while Paul’s expectation (Rom 11:26) is that “all Israel will be saved.” If both John and Paul have versions of Christian expectation about the Jews, there must have been two competing expectations in the early church. Finally, in Revelation 7 these folk are called simply the “servants of God,” which is not a term unique to Jewish believers. Likewise the description of them in Revelation 14 could fit any believer who is faithful to God and does not compromise with the “beast” and the “false prophet.” In Revelation 9 all who are not sealed are tormented. Does this mean that Gentile believers are tormented while Jewish ones are not? And doesn’t a Jew-Gentile distinction within the church run counter to all of Paul’s arguments about God’s breaking down the walls between the races? These reasons persuade me that this cannot be the correct explanation.
The 144,000, then, stand for God’s faithful people, Jew or Gentile. They are, just as the text says, “the servants of our God.” The image of Israel is probably drawn from the picture in Ezekiel 9. Just as all of the tribes of Israel present in Jerusalem (the last stand of Judaism before the exile) were included then, so all of the tribes of humanity will be included in the end. The 12 X 12 X 1000 stresses the completeness of this number; all of God’s servants from all of humanity are sealed. The purpose of their sealing is to protect them not from temptation or martyrdom, but from the judgment of God. This is God’s church of the end times, when God’s judgment is coming to a peak. Since they are faithful, there is no reason for judgment to fall upon them. In Revelation 7 the image of the 144,000 protected on earth is coupled with a parallel image of the church in heaven, an encouragement to persevere. In Revelation 14 the 144,000 are in heaven, for in the same chapter is the harvest of the earth. The final judgments, which will destroy everything and everyone in their path, are about to begin. No wonder that the church is withdrawn before that final curtain comes down.
What does this image say to the church today? On the assumption that we live in the last days (which in New Testament thought runs from the time of Christ to the end), our Jehovah’s Witness friends are right to wish to be numbered in the 144,000. The sad thing is that they are going about it the wrong way. It is not a limited number to which one gains entrance by merit, but the complete number of God’s faithful servants. One is counted in that number if he or she does not compromise the faith by going after the idols of the world and does not live in falsehood, but speaks and lives in truth. Another way of putting it is that “they follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev 14:4). In the context of Revelation this means that they follow him in heaven (and perhaps in his conquest of earth in Rev 19), but they do so in heaven because they have already been his followers on earth, whatever the cost.

[Walter C. Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity, 1997, c1996), 761.]

The bottom line - The 144k of Revelation are the symbolic apocalyptic depiction of God's faithful followers who reject compromise, idolatry, and giving their allegiance to anyone but their One True King, the Lamb. Throughout history the true Church of Jesus (the "Righteous Remnant, to borrow OT imagery) may look from all outward appearances like a defeated minority paling in significance to the overwhelming majority who are living in rebellion or hypocrisy against God--and winning! But through the lens of the apocalyptic, from Heaven's point of view, these faithful followers are the true conquering army of the Israel of God! What could be more comforting and encouraging to the believer as he or she attempts to live faithfully in a fallen world?!

May we all walk together in the ranks of the Army of the Lamb!


Edit: In a discussion with my friend Savina, who is a Jehovah's Witness, she informed me that not all JW's seek to be one of the 144k. She said that she looks forward to living on the renewed earth, not in heaven with the 144k. Thanks for letting me know this Savina. I thoroughly enjoy our discussions.

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