I have always preferred math over most other academic subjects. I guess I like the certainty that numbers represent. Short of differential equations, mathematics feels clean and objective. 1+1=2, always. Numeric simplicity is beautiful. In fact, with mathematics we can even stop to smell the roses, literally. With apologies to Shakespeare, for me, a rose by another name is “Fibonacci.”
If you have never heard of the Fibonacci sequence, it is quite likely that you have seen it. The Fibonacci sequence is an additive series in which each number in the sequence is equal to the sum of the preceding two numbers. The numerical sequence looks like this:
1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144….
Here is where it finds its beauty…
If you create a graphic representation of this sequence, you would create an expanding spiral. The Fibonacci Spiral occurs as a familiar pattern in nature, including cactus, seashells and flowers.
Therefore, perhaps math is the very element which make us believe flowers are beautiful. And, if mathematics can create such beauty, maybe I could have saved the $50 I recently spent on a bouquet of roses for our anniversary. Could I have just given Stacy a complex mathematical problem?
Before you jump to the obvious conclusion that I am cheap, did you know that the ratio of the Fibonacci logarithmic spiral, as it extends toward infinity, approaches the Golden Ratio? Yep, it's true.
The Golden Ratio = 1.6180339887498948482…
This also means that I already have my 50th and Golden Anniversary gift picked out! And, you thought you would never use eighth grade math…
So how does math fit into our exploration of apocalyptic literature and the “End of Days?” Over the years, many doomsday prognosticators have tried to use a variety of numbers recorded in the Bible to develop mathematical predictions for the day when the earth will stop spinning. They have tried to convince their audience that they were able to break the secret code or unlock the hidden combination that ancient writers left buried in obscurity for future generations to uncover. However, this type of speculation breaks the third rule for reading apocalyptic literature that we discussed last week. That is, the apocalyptic writings in the Bible were meaningful to the people who first wrote them and read them. Their words spoke to their lives and the hardships they were enduring. And since we will face similar struggles and moments of doubt in our lives, their words speak to us as well. They witnessed God’s faithfulness in the midst of their storms, and they shared them with us so we could find hope when storm clouds gather on our horizon.
So, if numbers were used for more than counting sheep and shekels, the question that we have to ask is, “What did the numbers mean to the people who first used them?” We know that they were used symbolically, but in what way? Let’s take a look at a couple of more common examples.
First, we have the Twelve Days of Christmas. Not really. But we do have twelve disciples who followed Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, which pairs with the twelve tribes of Israel. Sometimes the names of the tribes changed, but the number remains the same.
There are several significant instances of the number forty. Here are a few of the more familiar highlights:
After the rain started to fall on Noah’s ark, it did not stop for 40 days. (Genesis 7:17)
Moses spent 40 days and nights on Mt. Sinai fasting and waiting for the Law. (Exodus 24:18, 28)
The new nation of Israel spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. (Exodus 16:35)
Upon first reaching the promised land, spies were sent on a 40-day reconnaissance mission to observe their new homeland. (Numbers 13:25)
Jonah warned Nineveh that they would be overthrown after 40 days. (Jonah 3:4)
Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting before being tempted. The Gospels connect this event with the 40 days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai and the 40 years of wandering in the desert. (Matthew 4:1-11)
After His Resurrection, Jesus remained with his disciples for 40 days. (Acts 1:3)
Each of these were a significant period of time that God spent with his people. Whether days or years, the length is not the main point. The relationship that developed during that time is.
The most obvious use of the number three is the number of days that Jesus borrowed Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. But there are hundreds of other occurrences of the number three in the Bible. For example, Jonah spent three days on the wrong side of a fish dinner. Sometimes the occurrences of the number three are not very obvious, but they are still incredibly meaningful. For example, if you recall our exploration of the story of creation in Genesis 1, God had two specific agendas when designing the universe. During the first three days, God limited chaos and set boundaries. Then, over the second set of three days, He gave the elements of creation productive work. What did God do on the seventh day? He rested. So, if we do the math, 3+3+1=7. This brings us to the number seven, and probably one of the most important numbers in the Bible.
Creation was finished, complete and whole on the seventh day. This is a truth we remember each week. Our seven-day week is a statement of the completeness of God’s creation, and not just a way to mark time. In fact, the seven-day week is not very efficient as it does not fit into any solar or lunar calendar. This is why our annual calendars are always a bit off. The math just doesn’t work for a seven-day week. If your birthday falls on February 29th and you get birthday presents once every four years, this fact is all too real for you.
Then why use seven days to define a week? Seven is the number which represents wholeness or completeness. For example, Jesus told Peter that he was to forgive someone not just once or twice, but seventy times seven. Jesus was not saying that when your friend uses his finger to poke the bottom of the office donuts to see which are filled with custard for the 491st time that you can stop speaking to him. (In my opinion, putting custard in a donut in the first place is the real sin.) Instead, seventy times seven was a statement of completeness, or in this case, infinity. In essence, forgiveness does not have a numerical limit.
The bottom line is that numbers in the Bible carry a deeper meaning that the earliest readers readily recognized. They didn’t see numbers as hidden codes or secret messages because they already knew what they were symbolizing. The numbers in the Bible were meaningful precisely because people knew what they represented.
So how is this information practical in your life today? Let me share my favorite example of the use of numbers in the Bible, which really came in handy when my first child was born.
The apocalyptic books of Revelation and Daniel add an interesting layer to the use of the number seven. From our discussion above, we know that the number seven represents completeness. But, when talking about times of great suffering, persecution or tragedy, they also use the numbers 3.5, 42 and 1260. Here are few examples:
…and they shall be given into his power for a time, two times, and half a time. (Daniel 7:25)
3.5 = 1 + 2 + 0.5
and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. (Revelation 13:5)
And I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days, wearing sackcloth. (Revelation 11:3)
Beside their connection to periods of time, what do these strangely specific numbers all have in common? We can assume they are using a lunar calendar, so each month is 30 days. Therefore, 1260 days is exactly 42 months and 42 months is exactly, you guessed it, 3.5 years. Each of these three numbers represent the same amount of time. That leaves us with one more simple calculation. 3.5 is exactly half of 7.
All three of these numbers, 3.5, 42 and 1260, represent a moment which is halfway toward being complete. Getting to the halfway point, especially when in the midst of an extremely difficult situation, is crucial. When we are suffering or facing a situation that is intensely grueling, knowing that we have reached the halfway mark reminds us that the end is coming, the light at the end of the tunnel is in sight. The halfway point is a signpost of hope along the long road of endurance bearing the message:
“The end is in sight!”
“Don’t give up now! You’re almost there!”
When we arrived at the Northside Hospital in Atlanta for the birth of our first child, Abigail, I have to confess that I was pretty intrigued by the technology. (Engineer, remember…) For an event that humanity has been experiencing since its inception, we have really made childbirth into a science. Of particular interest to me was the monitor that measured the intensity of my lovely wife’s contractions. And, being a “helper,” I thought I would use the information that I was able to read from the strip chart to tell Stacy that she was having a contraction. But first, I had to verify the data. So, when the little curve started to go up on the chart, I simply asked, “Is it hurting yet? How badly? Because this thing is shooting straight up!” (I never said I was a smart engineer…)
I was abruptly informed that the chart was indeed accurate and my commentary was not necessary or welcome. (Well, that was the gist of what she said… only using her eyes.) So, I learned two lessons. First, that machine was pretty accurate. Second, I also realized when you have that kind of information, how you use it is incredibly important. Fearing that I was dangerously close to facing my end in that moment, I took the advice of our apocalyptic ancestors. As the line on the chart rose higher and higher during a contraction, I didn’t say a word. I just held the ice chips and watched the blood drain from my fingertips as she squeezed my hand. But, when the curve on the strip chart passed the halfway point and began to trail downhill, I said things like, “It is almost over. The worst is over. Hang in there. You’re doing great! More ice chips?”
Sometimes, I think we miss this crucial message when we are faced with prolonged suffering or distress. We tend to be more interested in repeatedly asking “how long,” instead encouraging each other to “hang on.” We want to skip 3.5, 42 and 1260 mileposts to get right to 7. But in doing so, we run the risk of stopping at 3.4, 41 and 1259.
The trials faced by our ancestors were just as real to them as the challenges which confront us today. Like them, we are not just hoping for God to make Himself present in the future, we are hoping for God to be present in our world today. Here, at the 3.5 marker, we look toward the End with hope, not fear. And together, past and present, we get stronger with each step toward the Finish Line.
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P.S. Speaking of numbers, have you ever wondered about the identity of 666? Click here….