Seeing the Heavens in Matthew’s Story

my sermon on Sunday 12th Feb, 2017, on the lectionary reading, Matt 5:21-36

When I was almost 12 years old I discovered a big thick novel called Magician, and from the moment I picked it up I couldn’t put it down. For 800 pages I was engrossed in a different world, a world of dragons and magic, fear and bravery, love and loss, and an epic adventure through a world very different to our own…And finally the threads of the story were tied together in a grand conclusion.

From that time I was hooked. I read book after book, each opening up a different world. Each was similar to the last in many respects, and yet at the same time radically new. After Magician I was lost in The Wheel of Time, and Game of Thrones, the Shannara Chronicles and Lord of the Rings. Many of those books have now been made into movies or high-budget TV series, and you can see it on the screen. But back then I saw it all in my head.

More recently I’ve been exploring the idea of reading scripture the way I read these novels. What if we read scripture as a story? Can we see how this passage follows from the one before? Can we see how the narrative threads lead into the next? And the dialogues too. What if they aren’t just independent, philosophical dissertations – what if we read them as part of the story? Part of the dialogue between the characters in the story?

And more than that, what if we allow ourselves to be drawn into the world of the text? Can we be drawn into a world that is very different to our own? What if we feel and see what is happening? Like images on a screen, or rather, like the way that we are drawn into a novel and feel like we can actually see this world and it’s creatures. So I want to try something a little different today. Indulge me, and let’s see where this takes us.

This year in the Christian liturgical cycle, most of our gospel readings are from the Gospel As Told By Matthew. Next year, most of our readings will be from the Gospel As Told By Mark. And the year after that, most of our readings will be from the Gospel As Told By Luke. So Mark and Luke can be kept aside for another day, because now we are entering into the story as told by Matthew.

As we enter world of Matthew we enter a world very different to our own. In Matthew’s world the earth is not a giant sphere hurtling through space, in a galaxy of stars thousands of light-years away.

In the pre-scientific world, Matthew knew that his readers saw the cosmos very differently.

In Matthew’s world the earth is vaste and broad, but if you keep walking in the same direction for long enough you will come to the edge of the world – to the place where the dome of heaven rests on the ends of the earth. In Matthew’s world the earth is largely flat, and yet huge mountains reach up into heaven. And as the people stand on the earth they look up into heaven. Heaven is the sky and the sky is heaven, and it is only just out of reach of human hands. Can you feel the earth under your feet? Can see you the mountains around you? Can you see the sky-heaven, just up there? It is full of clouds and winds and stars and angels and demons and gods and the sun and the moon and planets and the constellations and the invisible powers of the air. The stars are just up there, and they are powerful beings that control the fates of mortals on earth.

In a way, the sky is like a mirror image of the earth. Anything that exists on earth, anything that really matters, also exists in the sky-heaven. A king on earth has a star in the sky-heaven. Perhaps Herod has a star? The Roman emperor certainly does. Rome itself would be more than a mere star. Perhaps it would be a mighty constellation, dominating the powers of the sky, and dominating our lives from the sky, just as it dominates life on earth through the mundane realities of soldiers and governors and taxes.

On earth we see conflict between nations and empires, and Rome ever victorious. And in the sky we see conflict between stars and planets and angels, the same conflict as the conflict on earth, but enacted also in the sky.

This is the world we are entering into, where the sky reflects the earth, and earth reflects the sky. In both there is conflict, but in both Rome is ever victorious, and dominates life and presses people in.

So where does hope come from? From earth, or from the sky-heaven?
Is hope even possible in this cosmos?

But Matthew tells a story. Matthew tells the story of a man in one small region of the empire who calls people to hear something new. He announces that the Kingdom of the Heavens is becoming a reality in this world.

Now, when Mark and Luke tell the story, they call it the Kingdom of God. But we are engaging with the story as told by Matthew. And in this story we hear the proclamation of the Kingdom of the Heavens. Not the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of the Heavens. And in Matthew’s world, that makes a difference.

As we stand on the earth and see the sky-heaven above us, filled with conflict between stars and angels and planets, with the stars of Rome dominating and constricting our lives, let us look higher still. We cannot see it ourselves, but the wise ones and the prophets tell us that there is more beyond the sky-heaven. That the earth and the sky-heaven are held within another place, a  place called the heavens. Not a place of conflict.  Not a place where powerful beings battle it out in the sky as a reflection of the battles of soldiers and armies on earth. Not a place where the stars and constellations of Rome emerge dominant over the stars and constellations and planets and gods of all other peoples.

No, this is different. This is something we cannot see. Not heaven, but the heavens.

In Matthew’s world, the heavens are the place where God is truly king. Where all creatures reflect the perfect love of the creator, and join in shouts of joy for the life-giver. From this place of dynamic harmony and transformative possibilities comes hope for the earth and sky. From this place comes hope, springing up in the earth. It is the Kingdom of the Heavens, becoming a reality also here among us.

And people are entering into it, becoming part of it. The Kingdom of Heaven is spreading, in pockets here and there it is becoming a reality and spreading. And sometimes Jesus says it’s  like mould, like fungi, popping up and spreading…even amid the Kingdom of Herod and the Empire of Rome the Kingdom of the Heavens is becoming a reality. And people are becoming a part of that reality.

So we listen to Jesus, and everything he has to say. And now we’re walking with Jesus, and we follow him up a mountain. And he sits in the position of a teacher, and we listen. And he begins to tell us what it means to live the Kingdom of the Heavens. If the Kingdom of the Heavens is the dynamic hope for earth and sky, what does it mean to live it?

So we listen. And it’s not easy stuff. It’s difficult. Jesus is asking us to look at ourselves. At our anger, our lust, our untruthfulness. But this is the way we can participate now in the Kingdom of the Heavens, to begin to see it embodied in us.

And Jesus speaks for a long time, and asks us to consider many things.
And he asks us to consider the laws we live by, and how we can go beyond them.
He says this:

We all know it is wrong to lie under oath. We know that already, Jesus says.
But what about that part of us that seeks to deceive whenever we can get away with it? Perhaps we deceive ourselves into thinking it’s not really lying, or justify ourselves when we don’t actually lie, but we give a false impression.
So Jesus asks us to always seek truth. To live the Kingdom of the Heavens is to seek truth.

We all know that murder is wrong. We know that already, Jesus says.
But what about when we express our differences through conflict and fighting? When we follow an angry desire to win by beating the other down?
So Jesus asks us to seek reconciliation.

We all agree that adultery is wrong. We know that already, Jesus says.
But what about that part of us that looks at people in the wrong way. That part of us that looks at people as desirable objects to be used, or, on the other hand, as undesirable objects to be cast aside.
So Jesus asks to deal with that part of ourselves that makes us do these things, so we can learn to see rightly, to see people as God sees people.

And as Israelite people who follow the laws of Moses we know that when a man disposes of his wife he should follow the proper procedures, and give her a certificate of divorce.
But what about the inherent wrongness in this whole way of thinking, that sees people as disposable? What about the immense distress caused when the person with the power casts the other out of home and out of community? There are times when it is right for a marriage to come to an end. We know that.
But if we view people as disposable, there is something wrong with that.

What Jesus says to us is challenging and uncomfortable. But if we can accept it, then we can find a way to be a different people. We find the hope, freedom and joy of living the Kingdom of the Heavens. We live the Kingdom of the Heavens by how we love each other.

But Jesus says more. He says we also live the Kingdom of the Heavens by how we engage the kingdoms of the earth and sky. The kingdoms of Herod and Caesar. For those who hate, and have the power to enact their hate, we pray for them. We pray for their hearts to be changed. To those who have power over us and abuse us, we stand our ground. We refuse to do them harm, but we also refuse to be treated as less than human. We honour the humanity in ourselves and in others. We seek the wellbeing of anyone in need, and we practice radical trust in the goodness of God. And Jesus tells us that one day the Kingdom of the Heavens will fill the earth and the sky.

And Jesus says many things, and when he has finished we follow him to see what he will do next.

But now we move out of the world of Matthew. Out of the world of swords and arrows and kings and the angels and demons and stars and planets who battle in the sky. We came back to our world, and our world looks quite different. We see our cosmos very differently. And yet, in some ways, perhaps our world is not so different.

When I read those novels and became absorbed in them, and finally emerged back into the world of my daily life, I felt like something came with me. That in some way the story came with me. But how much more this story, the story that created us as a people and makes us who were are. So as we come back into our world, we bring something with us. The story does not remain in the text, it does not stay locked in pages, but it comes with us and lives with us. The story is alive in our world. It is the story that makes us who we are. And it is here, in our world, that we will find out what happens next in the story.


A Storm and a Cosmic Re-imagining

I am reading the Book of Revelation – the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ to John – on a small mountain, under a shelter with no walls, surrounded by trees and looking down on the landscape – houses, farms, lakes, and in the distance more mountains. This is the same place where a week before I viewed the super-moon. I have just now experienced a sudden storm of wind, lightning, thunder, rain and hailstones the size of marbles. Half my seat is now covered in water, I saw large hailstones striking the ground, the thunder was so loud and close I imagined I could feel it through the ground. I was in awe, and some fear that I was exposed to the lightning. Now, sitting in this place with the storm calmer but still rumbling, I read “and I saw the sky-heaven opened,” and I sense that the implied hearer of these words is not comfortable like a scholar in a comfortable office or a Bible study group on comfortable couches. Instead I sense that the implied hearers of these words are uncomfortable – they are awed, afraid, vulnerable and exposed when the sky-heaven is opened above them.

They are standing on earth with John, looking up and seeing something fearful emerge from the sky. This is a “vicarious revelatory experience.” It is perception-changing. It assumes a shared picture of earth and sky, but it opens this up and changes it into something new. Behind the sky-heaven they see the hyper-heaven, where there is the Throne and the One seated on it and the Lamb, and the 4 cosmic animals and the 24 elders and the myriads of angels. And the hyper-heaven effects great happenings in the sky-heaven, and these in turn upturn all settled realities of life on earth. And should the sky-heaven be ripped apart then all those who dwell on the earth would be exposed to the hyper-heaven which lies beyond, and exposed to the face of the One who sits on the Throne.

Those who follow the Lamb experience awe and fear and vulnerability, but they are reassured that they have been affirmed and vindicated in the Highest Court, which is in the hyper-heaven. This is reassurance also in the face of the accusations and threats they face from others who dwell on the earth and have power over them. But standing with John and experiencing this cosmic revelation, they are ripped from their constraining but comfortable cosmic-picture in which Rome is the centre of the earth and eternally established also in the heavens. Now the end of the Empire is no longer impossible, but actually a certainty.

The worship and testimony of those on earth who follow the Lamb is incorporated into the cosmic worship in the hyper-heaven. The followers of the Lamb participate in this great unseen reality now revealed, in the unending praise in the hyper-heaven, in the cosmic place which is the centre and source of life and hope and the inevitable potential for a totally transformed cosmos.

Speechless…but Speaking Truth

I am just one of many people shaken by recent world events, and left seeking words to describe what we are seeing. I am also a student of biblical cosmology and apocalyptic, and here I want to examine the way that evil is depicted in cosmic and earthly terms in the Book of Revelation. And while it is Revelation’s compelling images and narratives that have been the inspiration of artists, activists and evangelists, it is the deliberate and powerful act of naming evil that I explore here. Particularly, I want to explore the ways in which the prophet John reshapes the language of his traditions to name the evil he saw in his world.

Australian sociologist Ani Wierenga described the role of the “prophet” in a contemporary social setting:

…the ‘prophet’ [is] a trusted other who both points to new directions and re-interprets the path (for example a religious or political leader, teacher, artist). The dynamic here is not just about the availability of new symbols, but about the radical re-arrangement of symbols already familiar and in-use, and the dramatic transformations of understandings and stories than can follow this move.[1]

In a similar way Elizabeth Shüssler Fiorenza describes John’s use of symbols, images and language from Jewish and Greco-Roman literature noting, “Readers can trace how the author composes his language and imagery by comparing his text with that of the Hebrew Bible, which he has utilized as his language reservoir.”[2]  He also uses language and images derived from Babylonian, Zoroastrian, Greco-Roman and Asian mythological traditions that were “readily available and unconsciously present to the original recipients of the book”.  Revelation’s originality lies not in the elements used but in the “radical re-arrangement” of them, leading to “dramatic transformations of understandings.”

Let us begin with one verse rich in language for evil:

And the Great Dragon was thrown down, that Ancient Serpent, who is called the Devil and the Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. [Rev 12:9]

Like all the language, images and narrative themes in Revelation, the terms Dragon, Serpent, Satan and Devil all have a particular history in John’s traditions.


The element of dragon language, whose corresponding imagery dominates chapter 12, is already familiar and well established in biblical and apocalyptic traditions in the “saga of cosmic rebellion” in which a powerful being, such as a sea dragon, challenges God in combat. It may be seen, for example, in Psalm 74, Job 41, 1 Enoch 89 and Sirach 16.[3] In the echoes of the “saga of cosmic rebellion” in the Hebrew Bible the powerful challenger is named Leviathan, Rahab or dragon. The imagery of the divine conflict with the dragon and the sea echoes stories in Babylonian, Persian, Canaanite, Egyptian and Greek sources.[4] Thus, the basic imagery and storyline is known to everyone in the multicultural region to which John writes, suggesting combat and chaos, and evoking the fear of those powerful forces far beyond human control and the fear that the created world might be vulnerable to them. Dragon language is ready for John to re-shape it.


The second element that John uses in his re-arranging of symbols in 12:9 is the language of “serpent.” This may be understood in connection with “Leviathan the twisting serpent, Leviathan the fleeing serpent” of Isaiah 27:1, which would make Serpent largely synonymous with the serpentine Dragon (“the dragon that is in the sea” Isaiah 27:1. See also Job 26:13). However, the connotations are wider than that, connecting especially with the deceiving serpent of Gen 3.

Satan and Devil

The third element used by John is satan language, which ultimately derives from the Hebrew common noun sa·tan. This noun appears in five contexts in the Hebrew Bible with human referents, two of which are clearly military contexts, indicating an opponent in battle (1 Sam 29, 1 Kings 5), and two are clearly legal contexts, indicating a legal accuser (2 Sam 19, Psalm 109). One is unclear.

The term ‘satan’ is also used in relation to sky beings in Num 22, Job 2, Zech 3 and 1 Chron 21 which all give ‘satan’ the specific connotation of “legal opponent/accuser.” In English “Satan” usually connotes a powerful being who rebels against God and entices humans to join him in his rebellion, but in the Hebrew Bible ‘satan’ never has this connotation.

The setting of the action in Job 2 is the gathering of the divine council, a Near Eastern concept illuminated by the finds at Ugarit.[5] Not only the council but “the function of that council as a judiciary body, is very much alive in the biblical texts” writes Day, explaining,

It has become increasingly clear that Yahweh…was envisaged as presiding over a council of heavenly beings. Among the primary functions of this divine assembly was the dispensation of justice, both within the celestial realm itself (Ps 82) and in relation to the terrestrial sphere (1 Kgs 22:19-22).[6]

Within this context, “the designation ‘the Satan’ (haśśāṭān) is not the personal name Satan but a role specification meaning “the accuser/adversary/doubter.”[7] The satan is fulfilling the duties of an accuser, the implication being that God has assigned this task.

The Greek New Testament term satanas is not actually a Greek word, but just a transliteration of the Hebrew word sa·tan, but diabolos is a Greek word meaning ‘accuser’ or ‘slanderer’.[8] It is the same Greek word that was used to translate ‘satan’ in Job 2, Zech 3 and 1 Chron 21 in an early translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek (LXX). So devil language is essentially the same as satan language, suggesting legal opposition and accusation.

Manifestation in John’s world

As John re-shapes these themes, he reveals a new way of looking at the world. In chapter 12 John uses the names Dragon, Serpent, Satan and Devil for the “evil in the sky,” but in chapter 13 John shows how this has become manifest in a particular earthly situation. The particular manifestations are called Beasts. The first Beast of chapter 13 is described to appear very similar to the Dragon of chapter 12, connoting the them of combat, and leading us to expect that the function of the first Beast will be making war. This expectation is not disappointed, for the narrative soon describes the warring function of the Beast, and the exclamation of the people on earth, “Who is like the Beast and who can fight against it?”

While the first Beast arises from the sea, and resembles a dragon and wild animals, the second Beast arises from the land and resembles a domestic animal. Thus just as the Dragon of chapter 12 connoted Leviathan, the two Beasts of chapter 13 connote the pairing of Leviathan (dragon) and Behemoth (great ox), seen in Job 40-41 and even more clearly in 1 Enoch 58 as the twin monsters of sea and land (see also 4 Ezra 6). However, in Revelation this monster does not resemble an ox but a lamb (or the Lamb), and its primary function is to “speak like a dragon” and to “deceive the inhabitants of the earth.” The vision of the second Beast reveals the earthly manifestation of deceit, as expressed in the name Serpent.

Several lines of argument all point towards the Roman Empire being in one way or another the earthly manifestation of these twin Beasts of combat and deceit, as I explain here. But while John is concerned to identify the Beasts with Roman power, his purpose in writing this open letter to the churches is not merely to refer to the historical situation, but to interpret the situation in which they are living. Christian views of Roman power varied. Many Christians apparently viewed Roman power as a legitimate and beneficent authority, and sought fruitful participation in Roman society.[9] By naming it, through the twin Beasts, as a manifestation of the Dragon, the Serpent, the Devil and the Satan, John exposes Roman power as draconian, serpentine and satanic.

In naming Roman power draconian Revelation gives the name Dragon to all organised violence on earth. Nowhere in Revelation is human violence endorsed, not even in some imagined future reversal where the weak gain power over the strong. Certain future reversals are imagined in Revelation,[10] but not this. For human beings on earth there are only two choices: worship the military Beast, or follow the Lamb that was slaughtered (13:8. See also 5:6; 6:9; 14:4).

Whatever the specific references behind the ten horns of the Beast, the identification of its heads or the number six hundred and sixty six, under the name Dragon first century Rome is condemned because it is military power. John reaches back into his tradition, takes hold of its dragon language, and in a radical re-arrangement of language already familiar and in-use, effects a dramatic transformation of understandings.[11] The Roman Empire is not a benevolent reign of peace, but a manifestation of the Dragon.

Just as Rome is condemned for being a military power, so it is condemned for being an ideological power. In using the theme of deceit, Revelation exposes Roman myth-making as serpentine. The Roman imperial myths drew people into awe, acceptance and cooperation with empire,[12] but Revelation exposes and condemns the Roman ideology-machine with familiar language, used in new ways. For John, there is an ongoing war of truth versus lies, and just as he describes the “trinity” of God, the Lamb and the elusive spirit of prophecy, so too he describes the “evil trinity” of Dragon, Beast and the elusive False Prophet (16:13).[13]

In image of the Prostitute (Rev 17) the deceit theme becomes also the idea of enticement to sin. As in the vision of the twin Beasts, deceit is again paired with combat in that the Prostitute is drunk with the blood of the saints and seated on the combative Beast. It is also the Prostitute vision that most clearly speaks of commerce, revealing the economic dimension of enticement to sin, first hinted at in relation to the second Beast (13:17), and explored in great length in chapter 18. Thus in Revelation the earthly reality of the economic power of Rome, the power to entice or to sanction in support of military power and the ideology that sustains it, is named Prostitute, False Prophet and Serpent.

In naming Roman power also as satanic, John also condemns the accusing function of Roman power. For John the names Satan and Devil are not merely general designations of “the evil one,” the main opponent of God and humanity. Instead these names carry with them the connotations that come from their origin. In using this language John allows his hearers to recognise and name another dimension of evil and its earthly manifestations. This dimension is accusation: law, legal processes, royal decrees and perhaps also the paralegal actions of a concerned populace taken against those who do not support the system.[14]

These accusations are targeted against those who do not cooperate (“fornicate,” Rev 2:14,20) with the manifestations of the Dragon-Serpent on earth: military power, the ideology that sustains it, and the economic system with which it is inseparably bound. As in heaven (Rev 12), so on earth, the accusation is that in this refusal to cooperate with the Dragon-Serpent the Christians have acted wrongly.  In the first century the earthly manifestation of the “sky evil” is centred in Rome and its empire, and imperial law is the centre of Evil’s satanic (accusatory) dimension.

Thus John allows his readers to recognise and name the dimensions of evil and their particular manifestations. “Dragon” names the power of combat: violence, brute force, military power – the ability the make war. “Serpent” names the power of deceit: propaganda, ideology and the state cult. “Satan” and “Devil” name the power of law: systemic injustice built into the law, the power to accuse and attack individuals who question this, and the legal justification for these attacks. In its earthly manifestation satanic law has two functions: to enforce consent and to apply judgment.[15] But those who follow the Lamb testify against the Dragon, the Serpent and even the Satan, and in the High Court in the High Heaven a different judgment has been reached, and from this perspective the satanic judgments on earth are invalid.

Dragon, Serpent, Satan and Devil are manifested again in our world

Dragon, Serpent, Satan and Devil name a “sky evil” in opposition to God, but in accordance with the ancient cosmology of earth and sky existing as mirror images of each other, the four terms are also intended to expose and name the earthly reality of power in the world around us. This especially applies to military power, ideological power, economic power and legal power.

Those of us who “hunger and thirst for justice” will experience these realities in different ways. We cannot fight military power, but we can withdraw particpation from it, and speak the truth about it. Ideological power is all around us, always ready to draw us back into participation with draconian power. It is sometimes blatant and sometimes subtle, and always insidious. The promise of Revelation is that we can resist, if we are prepared to open our eyes and see as John saw. We are embedded in the economic realities of our times, but in certain instances economic power crosses a line and in those instances Revelation calls us to withdraw our participation. Finally, as we speak truth and withdraw from draconian, serpentine and satanic power, we will face accusation and even legal assault. Know that in the High Court in the High Heaven our case has already been heard, and we have been vindicated.

Continue to live the gospel and find fresh revelation in our apocalyptic traditions. Revelation enables its ancient hearers and its modern readers to acquire the language and conceptual resources with which to name evil. If as artists, activists and evangelists we faithfully use the language of evil with the insight of Revelation, then our deliberate and powerful act of naming evil will lead us into a creative and sometimes disturbing engagement with the reality of power – and the divine potential for a different world.



[1] Ani Wierenga, Young People Making a Life, (Hampshire: MacMillan, 2009), 146

[2] Elizabeth Shüssler Fiorenza Revelation: Vision of a Just World, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 29

[3] See Hugh Rowland Page Jr, The Myth of Cosmic Rebellion: A Study of its Reflexes in Ugaritic & Biblical Literature, (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996), 13

[4] Laurie Guy, Making Sense of the Book of Revelation, (Oxford: Regents Park College, 2009), 113. See also Adela Yarbro-Collins, The Combat Myth in the Book of Revelation, (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976), 57-8

[5] Peggy L. Day, An Adversary In Heaven: satan in the Hebrew Bible, (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1988), 10

[6] Day, An Adversary, 1-2

[7] Norman Habel, The Book of Job, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), 89

[8] William F. Arnt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Second Edition, (Chicago: University Press, 1979)

[9] As indicated in Revelation itself by its acknowledgment that ‘Jezebel’ is recognised in Thyatira as a prophet.

[10] “Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie – behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you.” Rev 3:9

[11] My own use of language here is drawn from Wierenga, Young People, 146

How tragic that so many modern Bible Prophecy experts, in a nationalistic fervour, identify the number of horns and heads with some aspect of the current national enemy  in a bid to fortify support for even greater reliance on military power.

[12] Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999), 223
Myth here does not mean “things that ancient people believed that we know aren’t true.” I use “myth” in a sense similar to Rowland’s use of  “ideology” when he writes, “We should not underestimate the impact of a prevailing set of ideas on us. When something different and challenging comes along, we consider it wrongheaded or misguided. That is exactly the effect of what is called ideology. It makes you think that widely held ideas are “obvious,” “commonsense,” and “normal,” when in fact they often cover up the powerful vested interests of a small group that has power and wants to retain it.”
Christopher C. Rowland, “The Book of Revelation”, in The New Interpreter’s Bible XII, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 660

[13] The counterposing of good and evil ‘trinities’ has been noted by several commentators, including M. Eugene Boring, Revelation (Interpretation), (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989), 154

[14] Law, government policies and social customs are not as distinct in ancient societies as they are in modern societies. Aune writes, “The primary role of the Roman emperor, from the time of Julius Caesar on, was that of rendering justice; this corresponds to the ancient conception that Zeus and Jupiter were guarantors of justice and that they provided sanctions supporting the maintenance of the laws and customs of men. The judicial task of the Roman emperor, as of provincial governors, involved responding to a constant flow of letters and petitions from everywhere in the empire to the emperor, wherever he happened to be. The emperors’ responses came to be regarded as legal precedent; the publication of the extensive correspondence between Pliny and Trajan is a case at point.” David E. Aune, “The Influence of Roman Imperial Court Ceremonial on the Apocalypse of John” , Biblical Research, 28 (1983), 8

[15] F. Gerald Downing, “Pliny’s Prosecutions of Christians: Revelation and 1 Peter”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 34 (1988) 105-23. 109

The Beasts are Rome

Modern scholarship has reached the conclusion that the Beasts of Revelation 13 represent the first century Roman Empire, and with good reason. Several lines of argument all point towards the Roman Empire being in one way or another the earthly manifestation of these twin Beasts of combat and deceit. Whether John perceived the Beasts as manifest in the empire of Rome, the city of Rome, the emperors, a particular emperor, Roman imperial cult, or local supporters of the Roman empire is more difficult to determine, but a reference to Rome is suggested by:

  1. The description of the first Beast in Danielic terms.

Daniel’s first three beasts that rise from the sea are described respectively as a lion, a bear and a leopard, while the fourth beast is not described (Daniel 7). John’s first (of two) Beasts, which rises from the sea, is described as having features of a leopard, a bear and a lion (13:2). This obvious allusion suggests that just as Daniel’s four beasts represented four different historical empires that ruled over God’s people, John’s first Beast represents a historical empire. The current one at the time of writing (Roman), is clearly the most obvious reference. This parallels the vision of 4 Ezra 11:1-12:39 of the fourth beast, an eagle, rising from the sea. Aune writes, “Though nothing in the description of the fourth beast of Dan 7:7-8, 19-27 suggests identifying it with an eagle, the eagle was probably chosen  because it clearly represents Rome.”[1]

  1. The use of Nero redux and/or Nero redivivus

The day after the Roman senate deposed Nero he committed suicide by plunging a sword into his throat, but in the years and decades that followed various legends circulated claiming that we would come back. Either that he had not died and had perhaps fled to Persia, soon to return with the Persian army to reclaim his throne, or that he had died by would soon revive.[2] The legend finds clear expression in book five of the Sibylline Oracles, which were written within a few decades of Revelation,[3] showing the currency of the legend in Jewish oracular/prophetic/apocalyptic thought. The ‘head’ that ‘received a mortal wound with a sword and yet lived’ (Rev 13:3,14) appears as an evil parody of the slaughtered Lamb but at the same time clearly connotes this legend, thus connecting the first Beast with Rome and its emperors.

  1. The description of the second Beast in terms suggestive of Roman imperial cult.

The “ability to ‘perform great signs’ in v 14 and now its ability to give ‘breath’ to and power to the first beast’s image recall various pseudo-magical tricks, including ventriloquism, false lightening, and other such phenomena, that were effectively used in temples of John’s time and even at the courts of Roman emperors and governors.”[4]

And in the related vision in chapter 17 of a Prostitute riding a seven headed Beast that is probably to be identified with the first Beast of chapter 13[5]  (as indicated by the almost identical imagery, function and pairing with an entity of deceit/enticement):

  1. The angelic interpretation of the seven heads as seven hills on which the City-Woman sits.

The phrase “seven hills” was a well-known designation for Rome. Aune lists its appearance in several written works: Juvenal Satires 9.130; Propertius 3.11.57; Horace Carmen saeculare 5; Ovid Tristia 1.5.69; Pliny Hist. Nat. 3.66-67; Claudian Bell. Gild 104; VI cons. Hon. 617.[6] The first hearers of Revelation would have heard a reference to Rome.

  1. The angelic interpretation of the Babylon-Prostitute as “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.”

It is very hard to imagine that a first century hearer of Revelation would have heard this as anything other than a reference to Rome. The identification of Babylon-Prostitute as Rome is denied by Ford, but her silence on the “dominion” is noteworthy.[7] Like Ford, Malina and Pilch identify the Babylon-Prostitute with Jerusalem, and like Ford they do not comment directly on the “dominion”. Their suggestion elsewhere[8] that ‘earth’ refers to the land of Israel might be supplied as their answer, but John would require an extremely narrow Israelite nationalist mindset to imagine that the hearers of his message in Asia Minor would take “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth” as a reference to Jerusalem.

Apply to Revelation the same principle we apply to every single book of the Bible: the recognition that the first readers lived in a particular time and place, different to our own. If we want to make sense of it, we must consider how the first readers would have made sense of it. Do this, and we inevitably recognise that the Beasts of Rev 13 primarily represent the Roman Empire.


[1] D. Aune, Revelation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 734

[2] Aune, Revelation, 738-40

[3] “After the destruction of the temple but probably before the Bar Kochba revolt.” John J Collins, The Sibylline Oracles of Egyptian Judaism, (SBL Dissertation Series 13) (Montana: Scholars Press, 1974), 94

[4] Beale, Revelation, 711

[5] So G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999),  853
Josephine Massyngberde Ford, Revelation, (Garden City: Doubleday, 1975),  278

[6] Aune, Revelation, 944

[7] Ford, Revelation, 292

[8] Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch, Social Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 102

On Trump, Fear and Grief… and the Apocalyptic Imagination

The people of the United States of America have chosen the man who will be the next leader of the world super-power.

They chose a man who has committed sexual crimes against dozens of women and boasted about it. A man who instills fear in the children of immigrants. A man who mocked the disabled. A man who blatantly lies and lies. A man who boasted of being able to fix the economy after himself declaring bankruptcy multiple times. Who used donations to his charitable foundation to help himself. A man who emboldens racists. A man who will help inflict severe climate disruptions on the earth, and every person and creature on it. A man who has shown a desire to use nuclear weapons. Who has promised to keep weapons of death in the hands of all who want them. A man who has promised to re-introduce torture. Who has promised to murder the wives and children of terrorists. A man who said that he has never had to ask God for forgiveness.

This has been an extraordinary shock to those of us who work to make the world a better place, and hoped and believed that we were making progress.

Perhaps the most difficult part for me personally was seeing prominent evangelical leaders come out in support of Trump. And then learning that evangelicals gave him the election, with 81% of evangelical voters voting for Trump. And these are not just rusted-on Republican voters – evangelical voters supported Trump in higher percentages than any previous Republican candidate.

Honestly, the grief and betrayal have been difficult to process. But I am not only a Christian in a Baptist congregation, I am also a perennial student of biblical cosmology and the apocalyptic imagination. And in my grief I have taken myself into the wilderness to reflect.

There is a scene in 4th Ezra in which the prophet tells a grieving woman to stop grieving. But then his ignorance is revealed, as she is shown to be Jerusalem herself. And in the angelic dialogues that follow the Jewish reader is enabled to gain a perspective on the recent destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire by reflecting on the centuries earlier destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire. I too want to gain a perspective on our current grief by reflecting on time past, in conversation with prophets and angels. As I sit in the rain in the wilderness I want to re-engage with another revelation – the Revelation of Jesus the Christ to John, as he lived in exile on the island of Patmos. Like prophets on the mountains, like prophets in the wilderness, John sat in the political wilderness in his position of exile on the island of Patmos, and he saw things differently from those caught up in the system of empire.

In the Roman Empire, most people were rural, but the process of urbanisation had begun. Large cities and small cities dominated social, economic and religious life. And built into the cities, both socially and physically, was the imperial religion. The calendar that determined how social life was to be lived was itself built around the birth or military victory of Roman emperors. The markets and temples that were at the centre of social and economic life were physically structured to impose a picture of space and time, a cosmology, in which Rome is undeniably powerful, undeniably central, undeniably good, and undeniably eternal.

People on the margins suffered immensely. They suffered physically, socially, economically and religiously. But the reality of their experience was excluded by the physical, social, economic and religious organisation of the city and empire.

But in the wilderness John saw another reality. John saw the sky above and the earth below. He saw the land and the sea, and all the creatures in them. And in spirit he was taken even beyond this, beyond the-cosmos-as-ordinarily-experienced, to see it all from another position. From this perspective, reality looked very different.

In the Hebrew tradition, the sea can be a symbol of chaos, destruction, military threat, and the potential for unmaking all creation – unmaking all that is good. And John saw Rome not as the centre of the earth, and established also in the heavens in divinised form with the gods of Olympus, as the eternal goddess Roma. Instead he saw Rome as a great, huge, powerful, amazing, awe-inspiring, deceitful, destructive, oppressive force rising form the sea – from the symbol of military destruction and the unmaking of all that is good.

Apocalyptic scholar Adela Yarbro Collins has given this concept the term “beast of resurgent chaos.” The Hebrew apocalyptic tradition saw it rising, and falling, and rising anew in new forms. The prophet Daniel saw it rising in the form of a lion, and then a bear, and then a leopard. John saw it emerge from the sea again in the form of a mixed beast to be the Roman Empire, in all its aspects – military, social, economic and ideological. Despite the Roman Imperial religion which made it impossible to imagine the world any other way, to imagine the end of the Roman Empire, John does just that. He sees the Beast cast down.

But that is not the end of evil, for the Sea-Beast is only the latest representation of a more fundamental reality: the Sea-Dragon, a.k.a. Serpent, Satan and Devil. The threat of the “sea,”  the underlying possibility of military destruction and cosmic unmaking, continues in the personified form of the Sea-Dragon. John does see a future in which things are different. But here we come to the vision of Revelation that has perhaps caused the most confusion and division – the Thousand Years.

It is a strange wrinkle in Revelation’s otherwise grand vision of a better future unfolding. In the Thousand Years the Beast has been destroyed, and the Dragon/Serpent/Satan/Devil is restrained, and the earth knows truth and peace. But then the Dragon/Serpent/Satan/Devil is released, to again deceive nations into war.

It is odd. It has always bothered me. It has always seemed a weird, annoying complication in Revelation’s otherwise grand drama of the perfect new world unfolding. But perhaps that is one of the most important things that John insists we understand. The defeat of an evil is not the defeat of evil. The mythic sea-monster, the beat of resurgent chaos, is always waiting beneath the surface to rise again. It is ready to rise again to deceive us into war.

And we have seen evils cast down. We have seen the end of the British Empire. The end of apartheid in South Africa. The end of the pervasive, dehumanising system of legally sanctioned racial discrimination in the United States. The end of pervasive, dehumanising systems of legally sanctioned sexual discrimination. And we have seen signs of hope. The institutional systems that enable the sexual abuse of children finally beginning to crack, the truth brought to light, and beginning of small steps toward justice. Movements to address the injustice of some nations endangering the climate of all nations on earth. Movements to address the injustice of police shooting black men with virtual impunity.

Then up came Trumpism.

We should not be surprised. The emergence of Trump reveals the reality that the United States has taken on the character of the Beast, rising from the sea. In the language of our apocalyptic traditions, perhaps we could say that Trump is one horn on one of the heads of the Beast. Perhaps a “little horn,” as in Daniel 7.

I do not suggest that Revelation is some kind of “Nostradamus prophecy,” predicting specific future events with obscure language. I do suggest that John had great insight. He saw his own historical, social, economic, political, military and religious reality so well that he saw through it to the deeper reality that lies beneath. The reality that resurfaces time and again throughout human history. And we can learn to recognise it as John did, and name it as John did. It is for us to recognise when these realities are manifest in our times and remove ourselves from cooperation with them. To take off the emerald glasses, so we are not amazed by the latest emergence of the Beast. So we do not say “who can fight against it?”(Rev 13)

In Revelation, the call is to recognise reality, and put ourselves on the correct side. Not to participate in the economy of the Beast, nor live according to his calendar, nor participate in his religion. To be willing to be cast into the wilderness, be exiled socially, economically, legally, politically, religiously and physically. To refuse to fight with the Beast’s own weapons. As the prophet says, “If you are to be killed with the sword, then you are killed with the sword. If you are to go to prison, then you go to prison.” (Rev 13)

Compromising the gospel, the evangel, as so many “evangelicals” have done, is not an option. The only option is testifying to the reality we have seen and being the people of another way. In the great, mystic cosmology of Revelation, witness that appears useless on earth joins with all the witness of all those who have ever witnessed, until the scales of the universe are tipped and the Beast is defeated through the speaking of truth. (Rev 6, 8)

We do not get there by compromising the gospel. We do not get there by fucking with power to gain a share of that power. By validating slander against an ethnicity. By validating sexual assault against a gender. By validating the call to inflict pain and death on the children of our enemies. By validating the pursuit of the power to kill. By validating the practice of gaining power through lies.

We get there by…Well, no, we don’t get there. In the cosmology of Revelation, change comes from from the hyper-heaven, where the Lamb is on the Throne of God. It comes from the place of hope and possibility that is beyond the-world-as-ordinarily-experienced, that John saw in his extra-ordinary experience. Our part is to witness to the truth. The truth that God is found especially in a man who devoted his life to freeing the prisoner, healing the sick, welcoming the outcast, and defeating violence with compassion. The truth that the history of the cosmos hinges on the moment he gave his life for others. The truth that this person has been seated on the Throne of God, and all the huge claims of the men who wield power on earth are false – just grotesque parodies of the Word of God.

In some ways the Book of Revelation is meant to operate a bit like the Apostles Creed – not completely independently, but as a frame for the full story of Jesus. It is not enough to know, as the creed says, that “he was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, descended to the dead and on the third day rose from the dead.” When we say these words we are meant to understand that within this frame we see the stories of Jesus – that he healed the sick, welcomed the outcast and defeated violence with compassion.  This is the person who rose from death and is on the Throne of God.

To this gospel we witness, with our words and our lives, and in our worship together. And our worshipping community forms part of the testimony, as all people are welcomed into full participation in all aspects of community life, with no regard for the old divisions of race, class and sex. And one day our weak, useless testimony, joined with the testimony of all those who have ever testified, will tip the scales of the universe, and the Beast will fall.

We cannot know when that will be. We cannot know when the scales will finally tip. We may see no connection between our witness and any tangible good. Until we do. And then we will.  And in the present we participate in this future by participating in the worshipping community that testifies to the gospel and follows the Lamb wherever he goes.

Seeing Beyond the Crowd

In light of recent political developments in our world, I thought I’d share a sermon I preached two Sundays ago at Sanctuary Baptist in Warrnambool, Australia. It is a reflection on the story of Zaccheus in Luke 19. 

This is a very well-known story isn’t it? It only occurs in the Gospel of Luke, but it’s in all the children’s Bibles. Me and my kids were reading it in the children’s Bible recently. We talked about taxes and kings and tax collectors. We talked about why the people hated the tax collector. Was it fair that they hated him? Was it his fault that that was his job? We talked about how in those days the king was just whoever had the most soldiers. He would say, “I’ve got the soldiers, so you have to do what I say”. And they didn’t use tax money to help people. The kings just took money off people so they could have bigger palaces and more soldiers so they could fight more wars. And sometimes the people didn’t have enough money left to buy food. So me and my kids thought it was pretty bad that Zaccheus was helping the bad government take people’s money away.

But Jesus cared about him anyway. Jesus knew that he needed a friend. So Jesus decided to be his friend. And Zaccheus was so happy about having friends and being part of the community that he decided to help people and not help the bad government anymore.

But the people gathered at the tree of Zaccheus didn’t understand what was going on. So Jesus told a story to help them understand. And Luke recorded the story for us in the Gospel, to help us understand. So I want to come at the story of Zaccheus from another angle – from the parable Jesus tells at the tree of Zaccheus. So here is where we come to the story within the story. Like a painting set in a well-chosen frame, the next story that Jesus tells is set within the story of Zaccheus.

Here is the parable that Jesus tells at the tree of Zaccheus:

A certain man was from a rich family, and we went to another country far away to be appointed king, so he could come back again and be king in his own country. He called together ten servants, and gave each of them a big pile of money. He said, ‘Do business with this money until I get back.’
But the people in his country hated him, so when he went away to be made king, they sent people after him to say, ‘We don’t want his man to be our king. Please don’t make him the king.’
But he was made king anyway. And then he came back to be king in his own country. And he called the servants that he gave some of his money to, to find out how much money they had earned.
The first servant came and said, ‘Your money has made ten times as much money!’ The kind replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good servant. Because you have been faithful with my money, you can be the boss of ten cities.’
The second servant came and said, ‘Master, you money has made five times as much money!’ To this one the king said, ‘You can be the boss of five cities.’
Then another servant came and said, ‘Master, here is your money. I wrapped it up in a cloth to keep it safe. I was afraid of you, because you are an unfair man. You go to the bank and get out other people’s money, and you go to the farm and harvest other people’s crops.’
The king replied, ‘So you know that I am a unfair man, taking out money from the bank that I didn’t put in, and harvesting crops that I didn’t plant? Well then, why didn’t you put my money in the bank so that when I got back I could collect the interest?’
Then the king said to his other servants, ‘Take his money away and give it to the man who has ten times as much. And as for my enemies, those people who didn’t want me to be their king, bring them all in here and kill them.’

This is the story that Jesus tells at the tree of Zaccheus. It is a troubling story. But a simple story. It is simple in the sense that everyone who heard it would have recognised the story. There is a man. He is rich. He is a prince. He also wants to be king. So he goes away to another country to be made king of his own country.

But wait a minute. Does that part make sense? He goes away to another country to be made king of his own country? Is that how it works? Do you have to go to another country to be made king of your own country?

Well, yes, you do…if your country has been taken over by a huge empire that chooses its own puppet kings…Maybe a rich man born into a notable family would travel to Rome and put in an application for the job. He might say, “Yeah, yeah, I’m loyal to Rome. I love you guys! I’ll keep this Jewish rabble under control. I’ll make sure they pay their taxes. I’ll collect lots of taxes from them. I’ll give it all to you, and keep a share of it for myself of course. I’ll get so much taxes off them like you wouldn’t believe. Business will boom. There will be gold flowing in the streets of Rome. I’ll build a huge wall to keep out the Parthians. There will be law and order. The most ever. I’ll come down on those Jews like you wouldn’t believe. Don’t listen to these other people. They’re just biased against me. And don’t give the job to this other guy. He does’t have clue how to be king. And anyway, when I’m king I’ll put him jail. Come on, make me the king.”

There was a Jewish historian called Josephus who wrote some interesting history books not long after the time of Jesus. Josephus tells the story of Herod, who was king when Jesus was born. How did Herod become king? He was appointed by the Roman emperor. And as soon as he had gained his kingdom, he greatly rewarded those who had supported him. He also organised for his political opponents to be killed. And that sounds kinda familiar doesn’t it? In the story Jesus tells at the tree of Zaccheus, when the prince receives his kingdom, he appoints his faithful servant as mayor, and has his opponents killed. Certainly when Jesus told the story, the listeners would have thought, “Yep, that’d be right”.

But Josephus the historian doesn’t stop there. He goes on to tell the story of Herod’s two sons, Archelaus and Antipas. When Herod the Great died, they both travelled to Rome to ask to be made king. So we have two applicants for the job here. Who will be made king? Well, the people of Judea knew who they wanted to be king, and it wasn’t Archelaus. They hated him and sent a delegation after him saying, “He is a poor economic manager, and we really don’t like his zero tolerance approach to political disagreements.” According to Josephus, their accusation was correct. But the delegation failed. Archelaus got the job anyway. And that sounds kinda familiar too, doesn’t it? In the story Jesus tells, the citizens hated the man, and sent a delegation after him saying, “We do not want this man to be king”. But he got the job anyway.

The people gathered at the tree of Zaccheus understand this story. They know this story. And they know that this rich prince is a bad dude.

Wait a minute. The rich prince is a bay guy? But isn’t the rich prince meant to be God?

No. I don’t think so. And the people gathered at the tree of Zaccheus would not have thought so. If we are to understand this story, we must put aside the simple stories that we have been told up to this point. It is easy to associate God with money and power. But maybe God is not found especially among the rich and powerful. Maybe we find God among the poor and the powerless.

The story that Jesus tells at the tree of Zaccheus represents reality.
The rich prince in the story represents…a rich prince.
The money that is given to the servants represents…money.
The political power (given as a reward to the faithful servants) represents…political power.
And the third servant, who does not do what the prince demands, is the truth-teller.

When he is called before the prince to explain his actions, this is what he says:
“Sir, here is your money. I kept it hidden away. I did not do as you asked me, because I know that you are a harsh man. You go to the bank to take out money that other people earned. You go to the farm to take crops that other people planted. Here, take your money back”

We need to take the words of this truth-teller seriously. What he says to this king is, “The way you make your money, and the way you live your life, hurts other people…And I can see that all these others are willing to be part of that system if it rewards them – but I will not be part of it.”

And here we see the story within the story, each giving meaning to the other, because the story of the third servant resonates deeply with the story of Zaccheus the tax collector. For years he played his part in exploiting others, but in the end he said “I’m not going to be part of that anymore”.

What is interesting about this parable, the story within the story, is that the new king does not deny the accusations. He accepts that it is true – he just doesn’t see a problem with it. What is wrong with taking other people’s money? What is wrong with taking other people’s crops? If I can take it then it’s mine. That is just how the world works.

The new king responds predictably. He rewards his faithful servants with power and status, but the truth-teller is cast aside. He is denied power and status. He is not given a role in society. He becomes a nobody. The little bit of money that he has is taken from him, and given to the one who had the most. This is a society where the rich become richer – at the expense of the poor. The powerful become even more powerful – at the expense of the powerless.

And the man who said he was afraid, but was the only one brave enough to tell the truth – he is cast aside.

There is a sense in which this story is simple, and a sense in which this story is not so simple. Where is the Hollywood ending? Where is the investigation into the corrupt prince? Where is the “we the jury find this man…guilty”? But no. This is not a Hollywood story. This is not a fairytale. This is a parable. A peak behind the curtains. A story about reality.

Once reality has been recognised we are left with a choice:
Do I choose to be part of this reality, or do I reject this reality?
Will I accept that this is how the world works, and seek a portion of the power and money for myself? Or will I refuse to participate? Will I speak the truth?

But in the story Jesus tells there is no reason to speak the truth, and no reward for those who refuse to participate.

But in spite of everything, when Jesus comes into your home and sits with you and acknowledges your humanity, perhaps you begin to realise that you can be human again. Because Jesus also spoke about an alternative reality. Unlike the system of the world, in this reality the powerful do not lord it over the weak. They do not gain honour by putting others down, but by building them up. Does this other reality actually exist? I don’t know. Maybe the story about the corrupt prince is more realistic. It’s just that there is something about Jesus…and even if we have to climb a tree to catch a glimpse…perhaps we’ll see beyond the crowd. Because there is something about Jesus and the story he tells, this parable that doesn’t have a simple meaning or a proper ending, that always leaves me wondering.

Bedtime Bible Stories

I take my four young children to bed each night and read a story that reminds us of who we are and how we are part of our world. The Apple-Pip Princess and Grug And The Green Paint are two favourites. But we’ve now begun reading through The Beginner’s Bible – beginning in the beginning. Adam and Eve…

“But how can they get married and have families?” my young son asks. Good question. So we talk about stories. Some stories didn’t really happen, I say, but they are true stories because they have a true meaning. Some stories really happened, but they we don’t get a meaning from them. And some stories are both: they really happened, and they have a true meaning. “Did Mary and Joseph really have baby Jesus?” my daughter asks. Yes, I say. Most of the stories about Jesus really happened AND they have a true meaning. But these stories about Adam and Eve didn’t really happen, but they are true stories because they have a true meaning.

“Yes, because really animals turned into people”, my daughter adds. Yes, really animals turned into people. And maybe God helped. And really it wasn’t just two people; just one man and one woman. Really it would have been hundreds of people, but not as many people as there are in the world today.

“And snakes can’t really talk.” No, snakes can’t really talk. But in the story the snake can talk.

“But why couldn’t they eat the fruit from that tree?” Hmm. Good question. I talk about how when we are born, we don’t know much about the world yet, and we need to learn. “Oh yes. Adam and Eve were adults, but they didn’t know anything yet because they were just made.” Yes. And people help us learn the things we need to know first, and when we are ready we learn things that are a bit harder. Like in school; the teachers teach you the letters first, and then help you read easy books, and then hard books. The teacher doesn’t just give you a hard book straight away. And at home when we are teaching you to help cook dinner, first we let you do the easy things like mixing, and later when you are ready we help you learn how to take hot things out of the oven. We don’t just teach you to take hot things out of the oven first, because you might not be ready and you might get burnt. And we don’t want you to take hot things out of the oven without asking.

Well, in the story, the tree in the Garden was called the Tree of Knowledge. Adam and Eve thought that if they ate the fruit from that tree they could straight-away know everything, and they could be like God, knowing everying. And they wouldn’t have to learn. And they wouldn’t need God anymore and wouldn’t need God to be their teacher. So they ate that fruit, and that’s why they couldn’t stay in the Garden anymore.

We always need to keep learning. But we need to learn properly and grow closer to God.

And maybe really there were hundreds of people, and they didn’t listen to God, so they couldn’t be close to God anymore. But in this story there’s just one man and one woman. It wasn’t really just one man and one woman, but it’s a true story because it’s got a true meaning.

And now it’s time to go to sleep.

“Can we read TWO chapters tomorrow night?”