October 1: Revelation 8:1-5

Revelation 8:1-5

These five verses describe the opening of the seventh, and final, seal upon the scroll. As such, it mark the final portion of the eschatology represented by the seven seals. Though somewhat obscured by the amount of material remaining in the book, we must keep this idea of finality and completion in mind. It may be said that the seventh seal provides the context and setting for all that follows, from 8:6 to the end of chapter 20, including two more seven-part vision-cycles. This naturally means that the opening of the seventh seal is a matter of great importance, requiring a solemn and ceremonial treatment. There are three elements of the section which need to be studied:

    1. The silence in heaven when the seal is opened
    2. The introduction of the seven trumpets, and
    3. The motif of the golden censer and smoking incense

Each of these will be examined in turn.

Rev 8:1—Silence in Heaven

“And when he opened up the seventh seal, there came to be silence [sigh/] in heaven as (of) [i.e. for] a half-hour.”

The silence accompanying the opening of the final seal marks the awesomeness of the moment. The word sigh/ (“silence”) is rare in the New Testament (elsewhere only in Acts 21:4), though the related verb siga/w is a bit more frequent. Silence is an appropriate response for created beings in the presence of God (Deut 27:9; Job 4:16; Hab 2:20; Zech 2:13), or in expectation of His manifestation (Psalm 62:1; Isa 41:1). The eschatological context of Zeph 1:7 is perhaps close to the idea here in v. 1:

“Be silent from the face of [i.e. before] the Lord YHWH, for the day of YHWH is near…”

There may also be an allusion to the motif of silence at the beginning of creation (i.e. before God speaks), which can also be applied in terms of a new creation which follows the end of the current Age (cf. 2 Baruch 3:7; 2/4 Esdras 6:39; 7:30). A “half hour” here indicates a very short period of time.

Rev 8:2—Introduction of the Seven Trumpets

“And I saw the seven Messengers th(at) have stood in the sight of God, and seven trumpets were given to them.”

Previously in the book, these seven beings were called “Spirits” (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6), but it was clear that they were to be understood as heavenly beings or Angels (rather that God’s Spirit as such), and this is made explicit here. The seven trumpets given to these Messengers serve as the framework for the next vision-cycle, unfolding out of the first. The trumpet was used for ceremonial and military occasions, and both of these aspects are relevant here: (1) announcing the appearance of God, and (2) the Judgment expressed in traditional military terms. There is a long tradition related to the trumpet-image in the Old Testament (Exod 19:13-19; 20:18; Lev 23:24; Num 10:8-10; Josh 6:4ff; Psalm 47:5, etc); but it is in the Prophets where it begins to take on an (eschatological) association with the day of Judgment—cf. Isa 18:3; 27:13; Jer 4:5ff; 6:1ff; 51:27; Hos 8:1; Joel 2:1ff; Zech 9:14. Again, it is Zephaniah (1:14-18) which perhaps provides the closest parallel to the context of Rev 8-11 (cf. above on v. 1 and Zeph 1:7). The eschatological significance of the trumpet-sounding is clear from other passages in the New Testament (Matt 24:31; 1 Cor 15:52; 1 Thess 4:16).

Rev 8:3-5—The Golden Censer and Smoking Incense

“And another Messenger came and stood upon the place of slaughter [i.e. altar] holding a golden vessel for (burning) incense, and much fragrant powder was given to him (so) that he will give it, (along) with all the holy ones’ speaking out toward (God) [i.e. prayers], upon the golden place of slaughter [i.e. altar] in the sight of the ruling-seat.” (v. 3)

I have translated the noun qusiasth/rion literally as “place of (ritual) slaughter”, though it can be used in the more general sense of an “altar” even when no animal sacrifice takes place (such as the altar for burning incense). Clearly, in this heavenly vision, the altar does not involve animal sacrifice, but is limited to the burning of incense which symbolizes prayer (also in 5:8). Only in the reference to the blood of the Lamb, and the blood of the believers put to death for their faith (6:9-11), is there an allusion to animal sacrifice. However, retaining the fundamental meaning of the word (qusiasth/rion) here is, I think, important, as it may allude to the ‘slaughter’ which accompanies the Judgment (cf. Isa 30:25; Jer 7:32; Joel 3:1-2ff, etc). The association of prayer with incense is traditional (Psalm 141:1-2; cf. Luke 1:9-11), and reflects the idea of a purified form of religion (Isa 1:13; Mal 1:11). In the Temple-action by Jesus, as recorded in the Synoptic tradition, the citation of Isa 56:7 (Mark 11:17 par) would seem to give priority to prayer over and against animal sacrifice, suggesting a new role and purpose for the Temple (in this regard, cf. Luke 18:10; 24:53; Acts 3:1; 22:17).

It is interesting to see how the imagery progresses. First we have the incense itself, which is burned upon the altar. Then is emphasized the smoke from the offering:

“And the smoke [kapno/$] of the fragrant powder stepped [i.e. went] up, (along) with the holy ones’ speaking out toward (God) [i.e. prayers], out of the hand of the Messenger in the sight of God.” (v. 4)

Smoke is an ambivalent image—it can indicate the warmth and protection of fire (here also the soothing fragrance of the burning incense), but also the destructive effects of fire (war, natural disaster, etc). Thus the rising of the smoke serves as an effective transition to the motif of the fire of Judgment, which is the third step in the progression:

“And the Messenger took the vessel for (burning) incense and filled it out of the fire of the place of slaughter [i.e. altar], and (then) threw it into/unto the earth—and there came to be thunderings and voices and flashings and shaking.” (v. 5)

In this regard, just as the seven trumpets serve as the basis for the second vision-cycle (chaps. 8-11), the golden censer filled with fire prefigures the third vision-cycle (in chapter 16). It is useful here to keep in mind the structure of the seven seal vision-cycle. The visions from the first six seals involve: (a) warfare among the nations, (b) persecution/death of believers, and (c) disruption of the cosmic/natural order—all of which is preliminary to the day of Judgment itself. With the terrifying natural phenomena which strike when the sixth seal is opened, humankind is aware that God is present and about to bring Judgment. Now, with the opening of the seventh, final seal, the Judgment begins. This, I think, helps us to understand the framework of chapters 8-20—various ways of describing the nature and character of the coming Judgment. We will begin exploring this as we proceed through the remainder of the book, starting with the trumpet vision-cycle; the first four visions (8:6-13) will be examined in the next daily note.

September 30: Revelation 7:9-17

Revelation 7:9-17

Rev 7:9-10

Verse 9 begins with words similar to the opening of verse 1, indicating that these are two halves of a single visionary scene:

With [i.e. after] these (thing)s, I saw, and see! a throng (of) many (people), which no one is able to number, out of every nation—and (all) offshoots [i.e. tribes] and peoples and tongues—having taken (their) stand in the sight of the ruling-seat and in the sight of the Lamb, having been cast about [i.e. clothed] in white dress and (with) palm branches in their hands, and they cried (out) with a great voice, saying: ‘The salvation (is) to our God, the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat, and to the Lamb!'” (vv. 9-10)

The image of believers—those who are “able to stand” in the great Judgment (6:17)—begins with those sealed out of the twelve tribes of Israel (vv. 4-8, cf. the previous note), and concludes with a throng of people out of every nation, language, and ethnic group, etc. The relationship between these two will be discussed further below. First it is necessary to examine how this second “group” of believers is described here in vv. 9ff.

    • “cast about [i.e. clothed] in white dress”—this corresponds with the traditional description of heavenly/angelic beings (4:4; 19:14), as well as the heavenly reward/status promised to believers in 3:4-5, 18.
    • “(with) palm-branches in their hands”—the palm branch symbolized victory in Greco-Roman tradition (Virgil Aeneid 5:112; Livy Roman History 10.47.3; Plutarch Moralia 723-4; Pliny Natural History 17.244; Caesar Civil War 3.105, etc; cf. Koester, p. 420), and was recognized by Jews as well (1 Macc 13:37, 51; 2 Macc 10:7; 14:4; Philo On the Unchangableness of God §137). In John’s version of the Triumphal Entry scene, palm branches are used (Jn 12:13), presumably to greet Jesus as the (conquering) Messiah.
    • The song they sing is similar to that of the heavenly beings in chaps. 4-5, and reflects the same dual emphasis of the Lamb (the exalted Jesus) standing alongside God on His throne. It also indicates the same position of homage and adoration, in which the salvation believers have experienced is “given back” to God (and Christ), recognizing Him as its source. Ascribing salvation to God (that is, as coming from Him, or belonging to Him) is part of the Old Testament tradition (cf. Gen 49:18; 1 Sam 2:1; Psalm 3:8; 27:1; 38:22, etc).
Rev 7:11-12

The song by the believers effectively joins that of the heavenly throng (chaps. 4-5), and the heavenly beings around the throne of God answer in return, with a new refrain. On the language used here, cf. 4:9-10f; 5:9-14; in particular, the wording of the song in v. 12 echoes 4:11 and 5:12-13. Significantly, seven words are strung together, symbolizing the praise that is worthy of Deity.

Rev 7:13-14

The identity of the great throng clothed in white (vv. 9-10) is addressed here, by way of a leading question from one of the heavenly “Elders”. Such an exchange reflects similar episodes in Old Testament and Apocalyptic tradition—cf. Ezek 37:3; 40:3-4; Zech 1:8; Dan 7:16; 8:15; 1 Enoch 21:5; 22:3; 2 Baruch 55:3-4ff, etc; Koester, p. 420.

Elder: “These the (one)s cast about [i.e. clothed] with white dress—who are they and (from) where did they come?”
John: “My lord, you have seen [i.e. you know].” (cf. Ezek 37:3)
Elder: “These are the (one)s coming out of the great distress/oppression [qli/yi$], and they washed their dress and made the (garment)s white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Here the emphasis is on their white garments. The word stolh/ is often translated “robe”, but fundamentally it refers to any sort of (special) clothing or dress, used to indicate position, honor, etc. The white garments reflect the dress of heavenly/divine beings (cf. above), which believers receive as a sign of honor and victory (i.e. heavenly reward). Now, however, the color is given a particular significance, which is two-fold:

    • they have come out of “the great distress/oppression”
    • they have washed (i.e. rinsed under flowing water) their garments “in the blood of the Lamb”

Previously, the blood of the Lamb was tied to sacrifice—i.e. Jesus’ death in terms of (a) Passover, (b) the offering at the establishment of the covenant, and (c) a sin/guilt offering. Only the last of these is really in view here, with the distinctive idea of cleansing (i.e. from sin). Obviously, blood is antithetical or paradoxical as a symbol for cleansing, but it may relate to concepts of atonement (wiping out/off) through blood in ancient religious traditions—cf. Gen 9:6, etc. There was a sacred quality associated with blood, it could be used in religious ritual to consecrate people or objects (Exod 24:6, 8; 29:12ff; Levit 8, etc). The connection with washing is perhaps drawn more directly from Gen 49:11, as a Messianic prophecy (cf. Rev 5:5). Since these believers have come out of the time of great distress, which includes persecution and killing of believers (6:9-11), it is possible that here blood specifically refers to believers who are put to death for their faith. While this allusion is likely, the reference here should not be limited to that interpretation. According to basic early Christian teaching, all believers are cleansed through Jesus’ blood (Rom 3:25; 5:9; 10:16; Col 1:20; Eph 1:7; Heb 9:13-14ff; 10:4; 1 Pet 1:2; 1 John 1:7; Rev 1:5, etc). Moreover, the obvious parallel with baptism likewise would apply to believers generally.

Some comment is required regarding the expression “the great distress/oppression” (h( qli/yi$ h( mega/lh). Under the now-traditional designation “Great Tribulation”, this expression has very much taken on a life of its own, especially among Dispensationalist commentators. We must, however, be careful not to wrench it too quickly out of its context here, within the vision-cycle of the seven seals. Limiting it this way, at least for the moment, it must refer generally to the visions described for the first six seals, which we may summarize (again) as:

    • Seals 1-4, the four horses and riders—a period of intense warfare among the nations, resulting in disruption of the social order, culminating in hunger, disease and death.
    • Seal 5—persecution of believers, resulting in many being put to death
    • Seal 6—cosmic disruption of the natural order, marking the appearance of God to bring Judgment

As I noted previously, this sequence generally parallels that of Jesus’ sayings in the “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13:7-8, 9-13, 24-25 par). There, too, it is described in terms of great distress and suffering (the word qli/yi$ being used in vv. 19, 24). Jesus also ties this period to the choosing/election of believers (vv. 19-20, 27), as here in Rev 7:4-9ff, though without the specific image of sealing. It is customary for many Christians today to view this period (the “Great Tribulation”) as a time which has not yet come—i.e. many centuries after the author’s time. While this is understandable, it is hard to find support for such an interpretation, and certainly not based on what we have seen thus far through the first six chapters of the book, where the language of imminence is used throughout (Rev 1:1, 3, 7, 19; 2:5, 16; 3:3, 10-11, 20). Indeed, 3:10 refers to “the hour of testing that is about to come upon the whole inhabited (world)”. There is little, if any, indication that this “hour of testing” is anything other that the time of “great distress” mentioned in 7:14. The entire issue of imminent eschatology in the New Testament will be addressed in a special article, as part of the current series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”

Rev 7:15-17

This answer by the Elder suddenly turns into a kind of poem, or hymn, which echoes that of v. 12 (also in chaps. 4-5), and serves as a fitting conclusion to the vision:

“Through this they are in the sight of the ruling-seat of God and do service for Him day and night in His shrine, and the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat will stretch (out His) tent upon them. They will not yet hunger (any more), and will not yet thirst (any more), and (certainly) the sun shall not fall upon them, and not (either) any burning (heat), (in) that [i.e. because] the Lamb (standing) up in the middle of the ruling-seat will herd them and will lead the way for them upon fountains of waters of life, and God will wipe out every tear out of their eyes.”

The language of verse 15 brings out two motifs drawn from Israelite religious tradition:

    • Believers serving as priests (cf. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6), day and night, in the sanctuary—both of the Temple, and, more particularly, of the older Tent-shrine (Tabernacle)
    • The Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) indicating God’s presence, and the protection which that brings

Verses 16-17 also allude to a number of key passages in the Old Testament, such as Isaiah 49:10 and 25:8. The motif of the Lamb serving as a shepherd for the people, is primarily Messianic, by way of Ezek 34:23-24, etc. Both the shepherd-image and the idea of God’s sanctuary/dwelling among his people, are combined in Ezek 37:24-28. The exalted Jesus (the Lamb) is recognized as the Messiah, but also, through his divine status/position at the right hand of God, he fulfills the same life-giving and protecting role as God Himself. Jesus identifies himself similarly as a shepherd at various points in the Gospel tradition (Mark 14:27 par; John 10:1-18; cf. also Matt 2:6; 10:6; 15:24; Mark 6:34 par; Luke 15:3ff; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4; Heb 13:20).

Concluding note on the two “groups” in vv. 4-17

The distinction in this passage—believers from the people of Israel and those from all the nations—would seem to reflect two themes in early Christian eschatology taken over from Jewish tradition, and which ultimately stem from the Old Testament Prophets (esp. the book of Isaiah):

    1. The Restoration of Israel. At the end time, the twelve tribes will be regathered from their dispersal among the nations, forming a new Israel, centered back at Judah/Jerusalem. Among the many passages note: Isa 11:12; 43:5-6; 49:5-6; Jer 29:14; 31:8-10; Ezek 11:17; 34:13; 36:24; 47-48; Zech 10:8-10; Sirach 36:11; 48:10; Tobit 13:5; 2 Macc 2:18; Jubilees 1:15-17; Psalms of Solomon 11; 17:28-31. Related to this theme is the idea that the restoration will involve a faithful remnant, or portion of the people—Amos 3:12; Zeph 3:11-13; Mic 2:12; Isa 10:19-22; 11:11ff; Jer 23:3, etc. Early Christians seem to have shared this latter idea with the Qumran Community—i.e., they represented the faithful remnant of Israel (Rom 9:27-29; 11:5ff).
    2. The Inclusion of the Gentiles. Along with the restoration of Israel, at the end time the nations (i.e. Gentiles) also would come to Jerusalem and be included among the people of God. This belief was fundamental to the early Christian mission to the Gentiles, but was reflected already in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition—e.g., Mic 4:1-5 (par Isa 2:2-4); Isa 49:5-6; 56:3-8; 60:3-7ff; 66:18-24; Zech 2:11; 8:20-23; Tobit 13:11; 14:6f.

As I noted above, it is possible that here the book of Revelation expresses and eschatological view similar to that of Paul in Rom 9-11, and that the portion sealed from the tribes of Israel, with its symbolic number of completeness (12 x 1000), is more or less equivalent to Paul’s statement regarding “all Israel” (Rom 11:26). As Paul describes this end-time conversion of Israelites (vv. 25-27), it suggests a sudden and miraculous event, which could be comparably expressed through God’s sealing of the 144,000 in Rev 7:4-8. Along with this large number of Jewish believers, there is an even larger number of believers from among the nations; Paul doubtless envisioned this as well (10:18; 11:11ff, 25). Both “groups” together—Jews and Gentiles as believers in Christ—make up the true, complete people of God.

September 29: Revelation 7:1-8

Revelation 7:1-8

The relationship of chapter 7 to the seal-visions in chapter 6 is problematic for readers who might be inclined to view these chapters as representing a strict chronological sequence of events. There is, however, a definite kind of (visionary) logic at work, as we shall see. More significant as a connecting point between the two chapters is the closing question in 6:17: “who is able to stand” in the face of God’s approaching Judgment? Chapter 7 gives the answer to this.

First, it is important to keep in mind the structure of the vision-cycle:

    • Group of 4 visions (seals 1-4)—horses and horsemen
    • Group of 2 visions (seals 5-6)
    • The concluding vision (seal 7), which opens up into the next vision-cycle

The fifth and sixth visions involved, respectively: (i) the persecution of believers, and (ii) disruption of the natural order marking the beginning of the great Judgment by God. Chapter 7 combines both of these themes.

Rev 7:1-3

The theme and setting of the sixth seal-vision continues in verse 1:

“With [i.e. after] this, I saw four Messengers having taken (their) stand upon the four corners of the earth, holding firm(ly to) the four winds of the earth, (so) that the wind should not blow upon the earth, nor upon the sea, nor upon all tree(s).”

The sixth seal had a cosmic orientation, involving the universe (heaven and earth) as understood by ancient cosmology. Now the visionary setting has shifted to the surface of the earth. In ancient (Near Eastern) cosmology, while the universe was more or less spherical (or a hemisphere), the earth itself was essentially flat, typically envisioned as a disc or cylinder. There is no reason to think that this traditional image is not being followed here (the picture used at the top of the header above is quite inaccurate in this regard). The idea of four “corners” does not require a square shape; the number four is again traditional. Winds could be seen as coming from the ends of the earth, also identified as four (Mark 13:27; cf. Psalm 135:7; Jer 10:13; 25:32, etc). God’s power and control extends to the “ends of the earth” (Job 28:24; Psalm 46:9; 59:13; 72:8; Prov 30:4; Isa 40:28, etc), and His destructive Judgment both comes from the ends of the earth and goes out to them as well (Deut 28:49; 1 Sam 2:10; Isa 5:26; 13:5; 41:5; Jer 25:31f; 50:41). Similarly, God’s salvation extends to the ends of the earth, a motif found often in the book of Isaiah, which came to be part of the Messianic imagery (Psalm 2:8; 46:9; 65:5; 98:3; Isa 41:9; 43:6; 45:22; 48:20; 49:6; 52:10; 62:11; Jer 31:8; Mic 5:4; Zech 9:10; and cf. Acts 1:8; 13:47; Rom 10:18).

“And I saw another Messenger stepping up from the rising up of the sun [i.e. the east], holding (the) seal of the living God, and he cried (out) with a great voice to the four Messengers to whom (it) was given to them to take away the right (order) of the earth and the sea, saying: ‘Do not take away the right (order) of the earth, nor of the sea, nor of the trees, until we would seal the slaves of our God upon the (space) between their eyes [i.e. their forehead]!'” (vv. 2-3)

This makes clear that the (four) winds coming from the ends of the earth have a destructive power, and their unleashing by the Messengers (natural celestial forces were typically seen as being controlled by heavenly beings or Angels) is to be part of, and/or symbolic of, the great end-time Judgment upon the world. The adjective a&diko$ fundamentally means “without (a)) justice (di/kh)”, and the verb a)dike/w “be/act without justice”, sometimes in the sense of “take away [i.e. remove] justice”. However, here such a translation would be quite misleading; di/kh must be understood in the broader sense of “right (order)”. Thus the verb a)dike/w would be rendered “take away the right (order of things)”. In English, this is often translated more simply as “injure, harm”, but, in light of the theme of the disruption of the natural order in 6:12-17, it is perhaps best to retain this wider aspect.

The verb sfragi/zw is related to the seven-fold seal (sfragi/$) upon the scroll in chapters 4-6. As previously noted, it refers to the act of stamping an engraved image (from a signet ring, etc) upon a seal of clay or wax (or lead). This stamp marks the ownership (of the document, etc) by the one who has the signet (ring). Here it is stated that the winds will not be released (to disrupt/destroy the surface of the earth) until the “slaves of God” are stamped with the “stamp/seal of the living God” (v. 2). It is possible that this alludes to the marking/branding of slaves, such as occurred in Roman society (and many other cultures); if so, then it is a mixing of images with the sealing (through wax/clay/lead) of a document or object. The primary motif is doubtless the same, however—that the “slaves”, like the scroll, belong to God, who is their owner/master. In Romans 4:11, Paul refers to circumcision—the essential sign (shmei=on) of God’s binding agreement (covenant) with Israel—as a seal (sfragi/$) of God’s righteousness. As applied in an early Christian context, this seal marks believers as the people of God. Much the same is stated in 2 Tim 2:19:

“Yet (truly), the firm (foundat)ion set down by God has stood, holding this seal [sfragi/$]: ‘The Lord knew the (one)s being [i.e. who are] His (own)’…”

The theme of sealing will be used further in the book of Revelation, including a contrast between those sealed by God (true believers) and those stamped by the mark of the “Beast”. In this regard, it is quite likely that the stamp/seal here also is meant to indicate God’s protection. This seems to be the point for the way this detail is included in verses 1-3—the seal gives God’s “slaves” protection from the natural disasters (and other suffering) to come in the time of Judgment. The precise significance of this will be discussed and clarified in the upcoming notes.

Who are these “slaves”? The word dou=lo$ means “slave” or “(bond)servant”, but, to avoid confusion with certain historical occurrences and modern conceptions of slavery, it is often translated as “servant”. The word was regularly used, by early Christians, as a self-designation for believers—i.e. those belonging to God (and Christ), and bound to serve him (Acts 4:29, etc, and see earlier in Rev 1:1; 2:20). It could also refer specifically to one chosen by God for special service (as apostle, minister, etc). Paul uses it frequently to refer to himself (and his fellow ministers)—Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1; Col 4:12; cf. also James 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1, etc. Here in the book of Revelation, the point of reference is expounded in the verses which follow.

Rev 7:4-8

“And I heard the number of the (one)s having been sealed: one hundred and forty-four thousand, (one)s having been sealed out of all the offshoots of the sons of Yisrael—…” (v. 4)

A more precise syntax would have been “…out of the all the offshoots of Yisrael”, i.e. the tribes of Israel; we might paraphrase the actual wording here as “…out of all the tribes which make up the sons of Israel”. This brings up a somewhat difficult question of interpretation—do the ‘tribes of Israel’ here refer (1) to ethnically Israelite believers, or (2) to believers in Christ generally? The question is complicated by the relationship between vv. 4-8 and the description which follows in vv. 9-17. The answer may also depend, to some extent at least, on the orientation of the author and his audience. Was he writing (primarily) to Gentile believers, Jewish believers, or a mixed audience? On one level, it would seem that vv. 4-8 definitely refer to Israelite believers, in an ethnic sense. This would be confirmed by: (a) the combined use of “tribes (of Israel)” and “sons of Israel”, and (b) the ‘census’ in vv. 5-8, listing out the specific tribes. At the same time, the relationship between believers (Jews and Gentiles both) and the ethno-religious identity of Israel as the people of God, was extremely complex in early Christianity, and could be expressed in a number of ways. Even limiting ourselves to Paul’s letters—the most complete evidence we have from the first century—there is a wide range of images and concepts. We must be cautious in how we approach this religious dynamic in the New Testament. I would suggest three avenues for interpretation which, I believe, are supported by the 1st-century evidence:

    • Historical—Nearly all of the earliest believers were Jewish (and, presumably, Israelites); from this standpoint, Christianity was seen as a natural extension (and fulfillment) of God’s covenant with Israel—i.e. Israelites who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. Only after the Gospel began to be proclaimed farther afield, in the Greco-Roman world, did this understanding change (and not without some difficulty) through the inclusion of significant numbers of non-Jewish believers.
    • Pauline—Paul’s letters give us a vivid picture of the formation of a new, and distinctly Christian, religious identity, in the years 50-60 A.D. Especially in Galatians and Romans, Paul forges this through a rich and complex series of arguments and illustrations. Even when writing primarily to Gentiles, he draws upon the Old Testament and the covenant traditions related to Israel as the people of God. All of this is redefined, as the “new covenant”, strictly in terms of faith in Jesus Christ, accompanied by the presence/work of the Spirit (of God and Christ). It is, however, also the fulfillment of the original covenant (with Abraham, etc), one which many Israelites and Jews have rejected. According to Romans 9-11, Paul views this as temporary—a brief period during which Gentiles are included (with Jewish believers) as the people of God; ultimately, at the end of this period, the Israelite/Jewish people will come to accept Christ in larger numbers. It is possible that Rev 7:4-8 reflects a similar eschatological idea.
    • Restoration Imagery—According to at least one line of tradition (and interpretation), believers represent the “restoration of Israel” at the end-time. This is symbolized through the tradition, fundamental to much eschatological and Messianic thought, that Israel—the twelve tribes—will be restored, coming back to the land (and to Jerusalem) from the surrounding nations. As I have argued elsewhere, Jesus’ selection of twelve apostles likely has this idea in mind. Certainly, it features in the eschatological awareness of the book of Acts (cf. the upcoming article on this subject). Only, instead of the emphasis being on the twelve tribes (and, eventually, the nations) coming to Jerusalem, here the twelve apostles (representing the tribes), along with others, go out from Jerusalem to proclaim the Gospel into all the nations.

All three of these approaches have merit and value in understanding the symbolism of Rev 7:4-8. And, it should be stated in passing, that there can be little doubt as to the symbolic character of the numbering (a)riqmo/n) here—144,000 = 12 x 12 x 1000. We will look again at the interpretative possibilities when we turn to vv. 9ff (in the next daily note).

Finally, it is worth considering two peculiarities in the list of tribes here in vv. 5-8:

    1. The order does not match that of the traditional lists elsewhere in the Old Testament (Gen 35:16-26; 46:8-27; 49; Deut 33; Num 1:5-15; Ezek 48, etc). Placing Judah first has obvious Messianic significance (Rev 5:5, etc); but otherwise, there does not appear to be any clear meaning to the ordering of the rest of the names.
    2. The tribes of Levi and Joseph are not included in the tribal allotments of land, etc, but would be included in any proper genealogical list of the tribes which make up the “sons of Israel”. However, the list here in Revelation, curiously, includes Joseph’s son Manasseh (half-tribe for Joseph), but leaves out Dan. While there are negative traditions associated with Dan in the Old Testament (Gen 49:17; Judg 18:30, etc), it is by no means certain that this is the reason for the exclusion here. Some early Christian commentators came to adopt the explanation that the ‘Antichrist’ would come from the tribe of Dan (Irenaeus Against Heresies 5.30.2; Hippolytus On Christ and Antichrist 14:5ff; Koester, p. 418); but there is nothing in the book of Revelation itself to confirm this.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 4)

The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 4)

Having studied each Gospel’s version of the “Eschatological Discourse” (Parts 1, 2, 3), it now remains to summarize the results and consider how best to approach the Discourse in light of the Synoptic Tradition as a whole. Many critical scholars would hold that the Discourse itself—the structure and arrangement of it—is original to the Gospel of Mark. I tend to think, however, that the basic outline of it pre-dates Mark, even if one accepts the premise that it represents a traditional (and literary) arrangement of Jesus’ teaching, rather than a self-contained sermon spoken by Jesus on a single occasion. The critical premise would seem to be confirmed by the way that Matthew’s version includes sayings found in an entirely different location in Luke, as well as certain internal evidence (of catch-word bonding, etc) which we examined. The very fact of such editing and arrangement of material, however, strongly indicates to me that the Discourse, at its core, represents a collection of eschatological teaching by Jesus that was assembled together at an early point. The basic similarity in outline with portions of the book of Revelation (such as the first six seal-visions) also argues for an early and authoritative arrangement.

Let us now consider each of the fundamental components of the Discourse, in turn, much as we did in the first three studies.

1. The Destruction of the Temple

The starting point of the Synoptic Discourse is Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction (Mk 13:1-2 par). The shadow of the Temple hangs over the entire discourse (v. 3 par), and Luke’s version, in particular, makes the destruction of the Temple the central event announced by Jesus in the discourse. This is an authentic prophecy, which was fulfilled in the great war of 66-70 A.D.; as such, it establishes the only certain chronological marker for the eschatological narrative Jesus presents. As an historical setting, it admirably fits much of what is predicted—war and uprising, false Messiahs, a time of great distress for Judea, the desecration of the Temple and a horrible siege of Jerusalem by a foreign (pagan) power. Moreover, it took place within the lifetime of at least some of Jesus’ first disciples (v. 30 par; cf. also Mk 9:1 par; Matt 10:23).

2. Signs preceding the coming destruction

If we accept the context of vv. 3-4 at face value, then verses 5-8 represent the signs asked for by the disciples. Recall that their question was two-fold:

    • “When will these things be?”
    • “What is the sign when all these things are about to be completed together?”

“These things” (tau=ta) must include, first, the destruction of the Temple, and, second, the other things mentioned by Jesus in his eschatological teaching (such as that which follows in the discourse). Again, if we take the narrative context seriously, the things mentioned by Jesus in vv. 5-8 will take place before the destruction of the Temple. Admittedly, there is some confusion in the Gospel tradition at this point, as we saw when examining the form of the disciples’ question in the different versions. Luke and Mark are very close, differing only slighting in the wording; however, the use of gi/nomai (“come to be”) by Luke instead of suntele/w (“complete [all]together”) softens the eschatological impact, and may serve to separate the destruction of the Temple from other end-time events preceding the coming of the Son of Man. The (second) question in Matthew’s version is quite different, and moves in the opposite direction—giving greater emphasis to the eschatological context:

“what is the sign of your coming alongside [parousi/a] and the completion together of th(is) Age?” (24:3)

The question more bluntly refers to the return of Jesus and the end of the Age; indeed, only Matthew uses the noun parousi/a (also in vv. 27, 37, 39) which came to be a technical term among early Christians for the return of Jesus. Phrased this way, it reflects the early Christian viewpoint, rather than the understanding of the disciples themselves at the point in time indicated by the narrative. The framework in Mark/Luke is unquestionably more original, with the Matthean version likely representing an early Christian gloss.

Let us consider briefly, again, each of the “signs” mentioned by Jesus here:

    • The appearance of false prophets and false Messiahs (and/or persons claiming to be Jesus), who will lead many people astray
    • Wars/battles and various reports/rumors; these include specifically uprisings, one nation or people against another (superior/ruling power)
    • Natural disasters—earthquakes (lit. shakings) and times of hunger (famine); Luke’s version also mentions plague/pestilence and “great & fearful signs from heaven”

Two important statements position these “signs” within a general chronological framework:

    • “the completion [te/lo$] is not yet (here)” (Mk 13:7b par)—i.e. the end of the Age will not come immediately with these signs; a period of some length(?) is still to follow.
    • “these (thing)s (are) the beginning of (birth) pains” (v. 8b par; Luke does not have this)—these signs mark the beginning (or first part) of a period of intense suffering.

Both statements make clear that, while such signs mark the end-time, the end itself will only come after a period of suffering/distress. The length of this period is indicated at the end of the discourse (vv. 28-30 par), but only with some ambiguity, leading to questions of interpretation which remain under debate by commentators today (cf. below).

Central to the “signs” mentioned by Jesus is a period of war and uprising; it is possible that one may view the occurrences of hunger and pestilence as a natural result of this warfare, as seems to be the case in the third and fourth seal-visions in Revelation (6:5-8). Certainly, war, hunger, and plague/disease are found in all times and places, and really cannot be used to determine a specific location or period of history. However, if we keep in mind the context of the destruction of the Temple, it is reasonable to refer this to warfare and uprising within the Roman Empire (in the 1st century A.D.). For people in Judea and Jerusalem (Jesus’ audience), the uprising and war of 66-70 would be most terrible, and a natural extension of Rome’s brutal wars with dozens of nations and races. The Judean context is emphasized in vv. 14-22; here, it is the world and humankind more generally that is in view.

If we seek to relate these signs more precisely to the destruction of the Temple (i.e. the coming war of 66-70), the following details, as reported/recorded by Josephus, are worth noting:

    • Reference to a number of would-be prophets and quasi-Messianic figures in the 1st century, most notably Theudas (c. 45 A.D., Antiquities 20.97-8; Acts 5:36) and the person known as “the Egyptian” (50s A.D., Antiquities 20.169-71; War 2.261-2). Messianic beliefs and expectations appear to have played a significant role in the war of 66-70 (War 2.433-44; 4.503ff; 6.285, 312-3; 7.29, etc), as it did in the later Jewish revolts of 115-117 and 132-135 A.D. Matthew’s version of the Discourse (24:23-28) indicates that these “false prophets” take advantage of the time of war and distress to mislead and influence the populace, much as Josephus describes.
    • Descriptions of miraculous signs and omens indicating the coming destruction of Jerusalem (see esp. War 6.285-9ff). Even if one does not accept the factuality of these reports, they certainly fit the characterization in Lk 21:11 of “fearful things and great signs from heaven”.

There is a particular difficulty in verse 6 which needs to be considered again. Jesus refers to certain deceivers: “Many will come upon my name, saying that ‘I am (he)'”. This can be taken several ways:

    • False Christians who prophesy/speak falsely in Jesus’ name
    • People claiming to be Jesus himself (having returned?)
    • People claiming to be the Messiah

The first two are difficult to maintain, at the historical level, though they would make sense for early Christians. The last option is much more likely, given the similar references to false Messiahs later on in vv. 21-22 par. For early Christians, of course, a claim to be the Messiah was effectively the same as claiming to stand in place of Jesus himself. Matthew here (24:5) clarifies what was almost certainly the original meaning—that there would be false Messiahs who would lead people astray, as in the examples reported by Josephus.

3. A period of persecution and mission work for the disciples

The next section of the discourse (Mk 13:9-13 par) relates more directly to Jesus’ disciples (and the earliest Christians). It describes a time of persecution and suffering for them which is parallel to the distress coming upon Judea and the nations. It implies a period of mission work, in which the disciples continue Jesus’ ministry, proclaiming the Gospel (the “good message” of the Kingdom) throughout Judea and even into the surrounding nations. What Jesus describes here was fulfilled (in virtually every detail) in the period prior to the war of 66-70, as narrated throughout the book of Acts, the same being recorded (less reliably) in other sources of Apostolic tradition (such as the various deutero-canonical “Acts”). Only in regard to the extent of the mission is there any room for question. The general statement in Mk 13:10 is given a rather wider scope in Matthew 24:14, possibly indicating a period extending beyond the lifetime of the first disciples.

4. The period of “great distress” for Judea and Jerusalem

The expression “great distress” (more commonly rendered “great tribulation”) is best known from Rev 7:14, where we have the broader scope of a world-wide period of distress. Ultimately, this terminology is derived from Daniel 12:1, and, while the reference in Mk 13:19 par clearly reflects the same tradition, the “distress” (qli/yi$) mentioned in the Discourse is localized specifically in Judea and Jerusalem (v. 14). It relates primarily, if not entirely, to the people of Jerusalem (and Judea) whom Jesus is addressing (including his disciples). In the Markan version, generally followed by Matthew, the time of distress for Judea/Jerusalem is marked by four signs or details:

    • An event/episode, viewed as a fulfillment of Dan 9:27, which marks the onset of the distress (v. 14)
    • The suffering will be intense and will affect virtually the entire population, resulting in many deaths (vv. 14b-20; cf. also Matt 24:28)
    • Claims that the Messiah has come or is present (v. 21)
    • The appearance of miracle-working false prophets and false Messiahs (v. 22, cf. above)

The difficulty of interpretation involves the allusion to Dan 9:27 (also 11:31; 12:11), with the editorial aside (“the one reading must have it in mind”), suggesting an application to the present/current situation of the Gospel readers (c. 60 A.D.). Matthew’s version (24:15) makes this more clear—i.e. that the “stinking thing of desolation” (to\ bde/lugma th=$ e)rhmw/sew$) will be standing in the Temple sanctuary (“holy place”). The parallel with the action of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in c. 167 B.C. (the immediate point of reference in Daniel, as presumed by most commentators), could indicate a pagan altar or image that has been set up in the sanctuary (1 Macc 1:54; 2 Macc 6:2). Just as likely is a more general reference to a pagan presence and desecration of the Temple, which could include Roman standards and the like. Paul almost certainly draws on this same basic tradition in 2 Thess 2:4-5 (to be discussed later in this series).

If the allusion to Dan 9:27 (in Mark/Matthew) remains somewhat obscure to us today, the Lukan version is unmistakably clear—it refers to the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by a foreign army. If we accept the authenticity and accuracy of this, it means that the “stinking thing of desolation” is fulfilled by the presence of the (pagan) Romans who overrun the city (and the Temple), destroying it. There is no need to look beyond the obvious context of the war in 66-70 for fulfillment. Josephus gives a vivid account of the siege (and subsequent destruction) with the resultant horrors and suffering experienced by the people (War 5.47-97; 6.93, 149-56, 201-11, etc). To anyone caught in the middle of that terror, it would have seemed like the end of the world, and very much a fulfillment of what Jesus describes in Mk 13:14b-20 par. The final “desolation” of the city—its ruins and the captivity of its people/leaders—is also portrayed by Josephus (War 6.271-3, 420; 7.112-5, 118, 138, etc; cf. also Tacitus Histories 5.8-13).

Thus, if we use the Lukan version of this section as our guide, we can state that what Jesus predicted was fulfilled (more or less accurately) in the war of 66-70. Some commentators would also interpret the exhortation to flee the city (Lk 21:21 par) in light of the tradition regarding the flight of the Jerusalem Christians to Pella in Perea (Eusebius Church History 3.5.3), but this is questionable at best.

(For more on the background and interpretation of Daniel 9:24-27, see the earlier study on that passage [part of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”]).

5. The coming of the Son of Man

The final section of prophecy in the Discourse involves the conclusion of the period of distress—the appearance of the Son of Man, marking the end of the current Age and the final Judgment. This is one of the core “Son of Man” sayings by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. Like that which is set during his interrogation before the Council (Mk 14:62 par), the declaration here in the Discourse (13:26f par) is derived from Daniel 7:13-14. For other Son of Man sayings with a similar eschatological context, cf. Mk 8:38 par; Matt 10:23; 13:37ff; 16:28; 25:31ff; Lk 9:26; 12:8; 17:22ff par; 18:8; 21:36. These were discussed in the prior studies in this series on the eschatological sayings of Jesus.

Three distinct strands make up this section (Mk 13:24-27 par):

    • Vv. 24-25: Old Testament allusions (Isa 13:10; 24:23; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Ezek 32:7, etc) using the language of theophany, referring to the “day of YHWH” and the (end-time) Judgment upon humankind
    • V. 26: The image of the Son of Man coming on/with the clouds (Dan 7:13-14)
    • V. 27: The heavenly/angelic deliverance of God’s people (the elect) at the end-time (cf. Dan 12:1ff, etc)

Luke’s version brings out the Judgment context more clearly (21:25-26), including different Scriptural allusions (Ps 65:7; Isa 34:4). The time of distress for Judea/Jerusalem is paralleled here with a time of stress (suno/xh) for all the nations (on this point, cf. below). Moreover, at the end of the Lukan discourse there is a definite reference to humankind standing before the Son of Man (i.e. in the heavenly court) at the final Judgment (21:36, cp. Matt 25:31-46).

For believers today, this section represents the interpretive crux of the Discourse. While all (or nearly all) of the previous statements by Jesus (Mk 13:5-23 par) can be seen as having been fulfilled in the 1st century A.D., the references to the coming of the Son of Man (vv. 24-27) cannot. This is a major discrepancy which requires some sort of explanation. I outline here three different solutions, or approaches, to the problem:

1. The section dealing with the Son of Man is secondary, or intrusive, to the Discourse in its original/earliest form. This would be by far the simplest solution; indeed, without vv. 24-27 par, virtually the entire Discourse could be understood as having a first century fulfillment, even within the lifetime of the disciples, and the otherwise problematic saying in v. 30 par could be taken in its obvious sense (i.e. “this generation” = those alive when Jesus spoke), with no need for special or forced interpretations. Unfortunately, there is little, if any, sound basis for excising vv. 24-27 from the Discourse. More importantly, even if those sayings by Jesus were originally uttered in a different context, there are plenty of other “Son of Man” sayings which evince an imminent eschatology, and would naturally apply here in the Discourse (as a collection of Jesus’ eschatological teaching) as well.

2. The image of the Son of Man “coming on the clouds” properly refers to his coming toward the Father (in Heaven), not an appearance on earth. In other words, from an early Christian standpoint, it refers to Jesus’ exaltation and enthronement at God’s right hand, not to his (future) return to earth. This interpretation of the original meaning of Mk 13:26 par is advocated strongly by W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann in their commentary on Matthew (Anchor Bible Vol. ), but it must be regarded as untenable. While faithful to the original context of Daniel 7:13-14, it ignores the wider scope of the book, especially that of chapter 12, which was of enormous influence for the thought and language of the Discourse. A combination of Dan 7:13-14 and 12:1ff yields the precise matrix we find here in the Discourse—the Son of Man, given divine authority to rule and judge, appears to deliver the people of God at the end-time. The very idea of Jesus’ future return makes little sense without the tradition from Dan 12:1ff etc. Jesus would not be able to fulfill this heavenly/Messianic role, until his (future) return in glory, and that is what is essentially being described in Mk 13:26-27 par.

3. A division of two periods (or gap in time) between Mk 13:5-23 and vv. 24-27. In favor of this approach is the arrangement of the Lukan version, which does seem to indicate, however slightly, two distinct (parallel) periods of distress and judgment:

    • The Distress (qli/yi$) coming upon Judea and its people (21:20-24)
    • The Distress (suno/xh) coming upon all the Nations (21:25-26)

If the first period was fulfilled in the first century A.D. (and perhaps some years thereafter, v. 24), the second period likely is understood as occurring after the first (the “time of the nations”) has been completed. The Judgment upon the Nations cannot take place until the time of their dominance/control over Jerusalem comes to an end. On the (reasonable) assumption that the Gospel of Luke was written shortly after 70 A.D., it would seem that the author understands that there is at least a short period after the destruction of the Temple, during which Christians continue their mission work, before the final Judgment (and end of the Age) occurs. Extending such a period to cover more than 1,900 years remains highly problematic—a problem for which there is no easy solution.

Many readers and commentators today would, I think, tend to prefer a different solution, one which might be labeled the “dual-fulfillment” approach. This line of interpretation would be summarized as follows:

    • The primary fulfillment of Mk 13:5-23 par occurred in the 1st century A.D., with the destruction of the Temple, etc.
    • However, this was only a partial fulfillment, which awaits completion at a future time—when many of the events and phenomena predicted by Jesus will, in a sense, be repeated.

In support of such an approach is the way the New Testament handles the very traditions from Daniel 9:24-27 and 12:1ff—i.e., they had an original fulfillment in the time of Antiochus IV (2nd century B.C.), but receive their completion in the time of the Romans (1st century A.D.). Jesus’ own predictions in the Discourse could be treated in a similar way. This still does not explain or account for a gap of 1,900+ years, but it does at least allow for a working interpretive model within which one might grapple with the difficulties.

6. The Time of the End

The popular modern interpretations, attempting to account for a ‘gap’ of 1,900+ years, are complicated considerably by the sayings of Jesus in Mk 13:28-31 par, especially the famous saying in v. 30 (cf. the study on “imminent eschatology” in the Gospels). The obvious and ordinary sense of the expression “this generation”, based on the evidence in the Gospels (and elsewhere in the New Testament), is that Jesus is referring to his audience—i.e. the people alive at the time he is speaking. Any other interpretation seems quite forced, out of the (admittedly real) need to avoid the implication that Jesus (and/or the Gospel writer) was in error about the time of the end. As noted above, except for the coming of the Son of Man (and the actual end of the current Age), nearly everything in the Discourse could be understood as having been fulfilled in the 1st century A.D., and within the lifetime of Jesus’ disciples. Thus, the responsible commentator today must deal with two basic, and seemingly irreconcilable, facts:

    • Jesus is speaking to his disciples (and Jewish contemporaries) in the 1st century, referring to things that they will see and experience (i.e. in their lifetimes)
    • The end did not come in the 1st century, and we today continue to await the coming of the Son of Man, much as did Jesus’ first disciples

There is no easy answer as to how the faithful student of Scripture may reconcile these points. I offer an initial approach in the article on “imminent eschatology”, and will address the subject again in more detail at the conclusion of this series.

7. The exhortation(s) to remain vigilant

Theological concerns have exaggerated the importance of the saying in Mk 13:32 par; its main purpose is to emphasize that no person can know precisely when the end-time Judgment will occur (or begin). It will come upon people suddenly and unexpectedly, overwhelming them, as in the Old Testament illustrations of Noah and Lot—i.e., the Flood and the fiery judgment on Sodom & Gomorrah (Matt 24:37-39ff; par Lk 17:26-35). Only the faithful and obedient (i.e. sober and vigilant) disciple will survive the coming Judgment. This is framed through the parable format, used frequently by Jesus, of servants who work while their Master is away—those who act irresponsibly or wickedly will be punished when the Master returns (unexpectedly!). This sort of illustration naturally led to an early Christian interpretation in terms of Jesus’ end-time return (already beginning here in Matthew’s version, vv. 37, 39, 42, 44); however, this may not have been the original meaning by Jesus—the Lord/Master (Mk 13:35) who comes is God appearing to bring Judgment (i.e. the “day of YHWH” tradition). We can, I think, trace this development of thought in the Gospel tradition:

    • The coming of God to bring Judgment
    • The coming of God’s appointed representative—the divine/heavenly being who possesses His authority (i.e. the Danielic “Son of Man”)
    • Jesus is identified with this “Son of Man” figure—i.e., it is the exalted Jesus who comes (or returns) at the time of Judgment

The Chronology of the Discourse

Finally, a word must be said about the chronology of the Eschatological Discourse. Chronological systems of eschatology have been (and continue to be) extremely popular among Christians, though most of them are questionable at best in terms of their assumptions and basic approach. It must be admitted, however, that one finds a certain amount of systematization within the Synoptic tradition itself, as it developed. This began, we may assume, with the initial formation of the Discourse, especially if it represents a traditional (literary) arrangement of eschatological sayings and teachings of Jesus. Beyond this, it is possible to discern chronological aspects to the uniquely Matthean and Lukan developments of the Discourse material. Luke, in particular, provides a more systematic arrangement of this material. On the basis of the principle of “progressive revelation”, one might choose to use Luke’s version as a guide for interpretation in this respect. Let us begin first, however, with the Markan version, which I would outline (chronologically) as follows:

    • A single period of “distress” which precedes the coming of the end, presented from three different points of view:
      (1) The world and humankind generally (vv. 5-8)
      (2) The disciples of Jesus (vv. 9-13)
      (3) The people of Judea specifically (vv. 14-22)
      [Probably the destruction of the Temple signifies the end/climax of this period]
    • The end of the current Age, marked by the appearance of the Son of Man and the gathering/deliverance of the Elect [i.e. the final Judgment] (vv. 24-27)

The Lukan version demonstrates a more precise sequence:

    • A period of mission work (and persecution) for Jesus’ disciples prior to the destruction of the Temple [c. 35-65? A.D.] (vv. 12-19)
    • A period of distress for Judea and Jerusalem, characterized by warfare/uprising (i.e. in the Roman Empire), the appearance of false prophets and false Messiahs, as well as signs in heaven indicating the coming suffering. The central event of this period (c. 66-70) is the (Roman) siege of Jerusalem, culminating in the destruction of the city and the Temple [70 A.D.] (vv. 8-11, 20-24)
    • (An intervening period during which Jerusalem is “trampled” by the Gentiles [Romans], i.e. the “times of the nations”, of unspecified length, v. 24)
    • A time of distress for all the Nations, again marked by signs in heaven, etc (vv. 25-26)
    • The coming of the Son of Man—the end of the current Age and the manifestation/realization of the Kingdom of God (vv. 27-28, 31)

Everything up to verse 24 was fulfilled by 70 A.D.; the remainder (vv. 24b-28), from the standpoint of the Gospel writer, probably was expected to occur within a relatively short time (a few years or decades?) after c. 70 A.D.

Special Note on Imminent Eschatology in the Gospels

As part of the recent article on “imminent eschatology” in the New Testament, I pointed out four key passages in the Gospels—four distinct Gospel traditions—which are particularly notable in this regard:

The first three are sayings of Jesus, while the fourth is an historical tradition (containing a saying of Jesus) specific to the Gospel of John. All four are distinctive in that they go beyond the general idea that the end of the current Age (and with it the coming Judgment and coming of the Kingdom) would soon occur. Each of these traditions may be taken to indicate that the coming of the Son of Man (the return of Jesus) would take place within the lifetime of the first disciples. For many commentators, and Christians in general, this proves highly problematic, as it might suggest, at the very least, that the Gospel writers (and Jesus himself!) were mistaken about the time of the end. Due to the controversial nature of these passages, it is necessary to examine each of them closely, looking at them from several aspects: (1) if they all truly mean what they appear to mean, (2) how early Christian may have understood or adapted them in context, and (3) attempts by commentators to explain and/or harmonize them with other New Testament references and theological/christological concerns.

1. Mark 9:1 (par Matt 16:28; Luke 9:27)

This saying of Jesus is part of the Synoptic (triple) Tradition, occurring in all three Gospels, though with significant variation. In this regard, it is highly instructive as a case study on the development of the Gospel Tradition. It occurs at the same point in all three Gospels—part of a block of sayings/teaching (Mk 8:34-9:1) set between Peter’s confession (8:27-30ff) and the Transfiguration scene (9:2-8). The sayings deal with faithfulness in following Jesus (i.e. discipleship) and may be separate traditions which were joined together (at a very early point) based on that theme. The last two sayings are eschatological in orientation:

    • The motif of judgment at the (end-time) coming of the Son of Man (8:38)
    • The saying in 9:1 on the coming of the Kingdom of God

Here is Mark’s version of the latter saying:

“Amen, I say/relate to you that there will be some of the (one)s having stood here who shall not (at all) taste death until they should see the kingdom of God having come in power!”

Luke’s version (9:27) is quite close to the Markan:

“But I say/relate (this) to you truly: there will be some of the (one)s having stood (in) this (place) who shall not (at all) taste death until they should see the kingdom of God.”

The main difference is the absence of the qualifying phrase “in power”. Matthew’s version (16:28) is actually identical with the Markan, except for the closing words (in italics):

(Matt) “…until they should see the Son of Man having come in his kingdom”
(Mark) “…until they should see the kingdom of God having come in power

How should this saying be interpreted? Clearly Jesus, speaking to his (close) disciples, is declaring that at least some of them will not die (“taste death”) until they see the Kingdom. This would seem to imply something which will take place during their lifetime. There are three primary ways to interpret this:

    • It refers to the Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-8 par), witnessed by three disciples, in which Jesus appears in glorified manner
    • It refers to Jesus’ exaltation (resurrection, ascension, heavenly appearance [at God’s right hand]), witnessed variously by the disciples
    • It is a reference to the end-time coming of the Kingdom of God and/or appearance of the Son of Man (i.e., Jesus’ future return, in early Christian terms)

The literary context of the Gospel narrative makes the first option attractive—i.e., the saying is meant as a foreshadowing of the Transfiguration experience. However, it must be said that this is really only plausible in Luke’s version (with its simple reference to “the kingdom of God”); the Markan and Matthean versions do not allow for this. It is conceivable that the Lukan omission of “in power” was meant to soften the eschatological implications of the saying, making it a better fit to the disciples’ experience during Jesus’ ministry, and in their subsequent experience after his resurrection.

This leaves the second option as the best choice if we wish to isolate something which definitely took place during the disciples’ lifetime. Certainly, there are other sayings in the Gospels where Jesus appears to identify the Kingdom of God with his own person and activity. There also can be no doubt that, in early Christian belief, Jesus’ identity as Anointed One (Messianic ruler, etc) and Son of God, was associated primarily with his resurrection and ascension (cf. the early preaching in Acts, Rom 1:4, Phil 2:9-11, etc). At least one early believer/disciple (Stephen, Acts 7:55-56) had a vision of Jesus (identified as the Son of Man) standing at God’s right hand in heaven; and, of course, a number of disciples witnessed Jesus after his resurrection (1 Cor 15:5-7, etc), along with his ascension (Acts 1:9-11), which may be said to involve Jesus’ coming in(to) his Kingdom. There is an interesting variant in the words of the “good thief” on the cross in Luke 23:42. The reading of some of the oldest/best manuscripts is “…when you come into [ei)$] your kingdom”, whereas the majority text reads “…when you come in [e)n] your kingdom”, which could be taken to mean his future coming in glory, something made specific in the reading of Codex Bezae [D] (“…in the day of your coming”).

In spite of this ambivalence of interpretation, an original reference by Jesus to his resurrection/exaltation seems unlikely here. If we take the Markan and Matthean versions together, it comes very close to the eschatological saying in Mk 13:26 par:

    • “some of the ones standing here…should see
      • the Kingdom of God coming in power” (Mk)
      • the Son Man coming in his Kingdom” (Matt)
    • “they will see the Son of Man coming…with great power” (Mk 13:26)

This eschatological interpretation would seem to be confirmed by the prior reference to the Judgment and the coming of the Son of Man with the Angels in Mk 8:38 par. It is hard to avoid the implication that Jesus is referring to the end-time coming of the Son of Man, and that this, apparently, is to take place within the lifetime of his disciples.

[For the interesting parallel of the saying in John 1:51, which also involves the promise of seeing the Son of Man appear in glory, along with the presence of Angels, cf. my earlier study on that verse.]

2. Mark 13:30 (par Matt 24:34; Luke 21:32)

Another saying from the Synoptic (triple) Tradition, this declaration by Jesus is part of the “Eschatological Discourse” (for a survey and outline, cf. the recent study). Here there can be no doubt whatsoever about the eschatological context of the saying, at least as it has been preserved in the Gospel Tradition. Also, by comparison with the variation we saw for Mk 9:1 par (cf. above), this saying is essentially fixed in the tradition. Here is Mark’s version (13:30):

“Amen, I say/relate to you that this genea/ shall (surely) not pass along until the (time at) which all these (thing)s should come to be.”

Matthew’s version (24:34) is a bit simpler in its syntax (“…until all these [thing]s…”), but otherwise identical. Luke here (21:32) is identical to Matthew, except for reading “all (thing)s” instead of “all these (thing)s”.

It is interesting to consider the syntactical similarity with Mark 9:1 par (above):

    • Both sayings begin a)mh\n le/gw u(mi=n (“Amen, I say/relate to you…”)
    • Both sayings have the same structure utilizing a double negative particle (ou) mh\) for emphasis (i.e. “not at all, surely/certainly not”), along with aorist subjunctive verb forms
    • This structure sets a clear conditional statement or assertion, framed the same way by the two subjunctive verb forms—i.e., “…{it/this} shall surely not happen…until {this} should occur”
    • The condition is temporal, or time-factored, governed by the particle e%w$ (“until”)—except for Mk 13:30 which expresses this a bit differently (me/xri$ ou!, “until the [time at] which”)
    • In both sayings, the time-condition seems to relate to the death of people who are currently alive

Let us now consider the saying in Mark 13:30 par in context. It comes after (1) the discussion of the signs/events which are to occur before the end (vv. 5-23), and (2) the description of the end itself, i.e. the coming of the Son of Man (vv. 24-27). This provides the contextual reference for “[all] these (thing)s” (tau=ta pa/nta) in v. 30—all of the things Jesus has been describing in vv. 5-27, including the appearance of the Son of Man. It is stated that “this genea/” will not pass away (i.e. disappear, die off) until all of this takes place. The interpretive crux involve the much-disputed meaning of “this genea/“.

The noun genea/ is related to the verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), and fundamentally refers to someone/something which comes to be (born). Often it signifies a group of people who share the same line of birth (i.e. family, tribe, race), or a particular time/period when people are born and live. It is usually translated in English as “generation”, a word actually related to the Greek. As with genea/ itself, the English word “generation” has a similarly elastic meaning. In conventional idiom, when referring to a distinct period of time, a “generation” typically refers to a period of about 30-40 years, reflecting the principal lifetime of a parent in relation to their child—for example, a family with children, parents, and grandparents would be said to involve three different generations. Sometimes, however, it can denote a more extensive period of time.

If we examine the 40+ occurrences of genea/ in the New Testament, we note that all but 10 are found in the Gospels, and there primarily in sayings by Jesus. The Gospel evidence can be rather easily summarized:

    • In the Matthean genealogy (4 times in 1:17), genea/ appears to be used in the conventional sense outlined above, indicating a person’s lifetime up to the point when his/her child comes of age—i.e. a period of ~30-40 years. The same basic usage is found, more generally, in Luke 1:48, 50, as also in Acts 13:36
    • The majority of the occurrences in the sayings involve the expression “this genea/“, “this generation, as here in Mk 13:30 par—cf. Mk 8:12, 38; Matt 11:16; 12:41ff; Lk 11:29-32, 50-51, etc. In all these instances, Jesus would seem to be referring to the people whom he is addressing, i.e. the people alive currently, at the time of his ministry. Cf. also the similar usage in Mk 9:19 par; Matt 12:39; 16:4; Lk 16:8, as well as in Acts 2:40. It is worth noting the negative sense of the expression “this generation”; on this, cf. below.

Paul seems to have used the word in reference to the people of the past, taken as a whole, or speaking generally (cf. Col 1:26; Eph 3:5; Acts 14:16, as also [by James] in Acts 15:21). On one occasion (Phil 2:15) he refers to the current generation (i.e. people currently alive) in a manner similar to Jesus. Three other New Testament occurrences are worthy of note. In Acts 8:33 (citing Isa 53:8), the word is used in a more general sense of a person’s life (coming to be born and lifetime); in Heb 3:10 it is used in reference to a specific past generation (“that generation”); in Eph 3:21 it refers to periods of time (i.e. past Ages).

There would seem to be little reason to understand the usage in Mk 13:30 par any other way than as a reference to the current generation to whom Jesus was speaking—i.e. the people currently alive at that time. All other occurrences of the expression “this generation” in Jesus’ sayings have this meaning, as do the similar instances in Acts 2:40; Phil 2:15. This renders highly problematic other attempts to work around the historical problem, such as that it refers to:

    • The Age (or dispensation) lasting from Jesus’ time, i.e. to the present
    • Humankind or the Israelite/Jewish people in general
    • A specific generation living at some time in the (distant) future

Though the first two of these allow for relatively smooth harmonizing of the historical difficulties, it introduces meaning and distinctions which are foreign to Jesus’ use of the word genea/ and the expression “this generation”. A number of Christians today prefer the last of these options; in its favor is the fact that it preserves the concrete sense of future events that will be fulfilled in a specific (and relatively brief) period of time, as well as retaining the typical meaning of the word genea/. However, it labors under two serious problems:

    • It requires a significant gap in time (as much as 2,000+ years) between Jesus’ original audience and the fulfillment of the predicted events, something for which there is little or no evidence in the text itself; this point will be discussed in Part 4 of the study on the Eschatological Discourse, and when we come to the eschatology in the book of Acts.
    • It is contrary to Jesus’ use of the expression “this generation”, which otherwise always refers to the people whom he is currently addressing (this present generation, i.e. those alive at the time). I find no immediate examples where the expression “this generation” (genea/ au%th) refers to a specific future generation.

One must also keep in mind the fact that Jesus tends to use the expression “this generation” in the context of the Judgment which is about to come upon the people living at the time. The expression is almost always used in this negative sense. Especially noteworthy is Matthew 23:36, where Jesus speaks of the judgment which the (Israelite/Jewish) people, especially those in Judea/Jerusalem and the religious leaders centered there, will face for the death and persecution of the Prophets throughout the years (vv. 29-35), and states bluntly in verse 36 that “…all these (thing)s will come upon this (present) generation”. The language is virtually identical with that of Mk 13:30 par. Central to the Eschatological Discourse is the framework of Jesus’ prediction of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction (vv. 1-2) and his description of the great distress which will come upon Judea (vv. 14ff). The Lukan version (21:20-24, cf. also 19:43-44) presents this in terms of a military siege of Jerusalem, such as came to pass in 70 A.D. Viewed in these terms, Jesus’ eschatological prophecies were largely fulfilled (fairly accurately) in the 1st century A.D., other than the fact that the final Judgment (with the coming of the Son of Man) did not take place. For more on this important topic, cf. the concluding part (upcoming) of the study on the Eschatological Discourse.

3. Matthew 10:22-23

Our focus here will be on the saying in verse 23 (found only in Matthew); however, in order to set in its proper context, it needs to be examined in connection with verse 22:

“And you will be (one)s being [i.e. who are] hated under [i.e. by] all (people) through [i.e. because of] my name—but the (one) remaining under unto (the) completion [te/lo$], this (one) will be saved. (v. 22)
But when they pursue you in this city, flee into the other (one); for, amen, I say/relate to you (that) you shall (certainly) not complete the cities of Yisrael until the Son of Man should come!” (v. 23)

You will note immediately, the similar syntax of the saying in verse 23, comparing it with those in Mk 9:1 and 13:30 par (cf. above). All three sayings share a common structure, tone and meaning. If the first two are eschatological, it is extremely likely that this one (in its original context) is as well. As I discussed above, this is problematic for traditional-conservative commentators, and other devout readers, since it implies, again, that the (end-time) coming of the Son of Man will take place in the lifetime of the disciples. It is important to consider just what is expected to take place prior to the Son of Man’s appearance; two aspects are indicated: (1) a preaching ministry of the disciples (such as the immediate context of chap. 10), which takes them throughout Israelite territory; and (2) the persecution they will experience, forcing them to flee from one city to the next (cf. the mission narratives in Acts). The eschatological orientation here (cp. in the Eschatological Discourse, Matt 24:9-14 par) seems out of place in the context of chapter 10. Most likely verses 17-23 originated in a separate context and where joined with vv. 1-15f based on a common theme. As the verses stand now, they would imply that the disciples would not complete their mission in vv. 5ff before the coming of the Son of Man—an anachronism and historical implausibity!

Indeed, the persecution described here must be taken as a prophecy of future events which will occur after the resurrection—a period of mission work which will take place prior to the end-time appearance of the Son of Man. In this regard, the instruction here is similar in tone and setting to that in the Eschatological discourse (24:9-13 par), only that, in the latter passage, a more extensive mission is described, one which reaches out in the Gentile world (i.e. of the Roman Empire). Mark’s account makes relatively little of this, but it is emphasized more prominently in Luke, as well as in Matthew’s version of the Discourse. The statement in Matt 24:14 goes beyond that in Mk 13:10, apparently referring to this mission work on a much grander scale:

“And this good message of the Kingdom will be proclaimed in the whole inhabited (world), unto a witness for all the nations, and then the completion [te/lo$] will come/arrive.”

Many commentators feel that there is incompatibility between 10:16-23 and 24:9-14, and, at the very least, there does appear to be some tension, especially if we accept the historicity of the Gospel narrative and assume that Jesus is addressing essentially the same group of disciples. One passage assumes a mission field limited to the land of Israel/Palestine, the other a worldwide mission (within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, at the very least). However, as I will be discussing in the final portion (Part 4) of the study on the Eschatological Discourse, this does not necessarily require a radically different understanding of the period of time involved before the coming of the end.

4. John 21:22-23

Our final passage comes from that last chapter (the so-called appendix) of the Gospel of John, and derives from an entirely different (Johannine) line of tradition than the Synoptic material. It relates to the person in the Gospel known as “the disciple whom (Jesus) loved” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20ff). The disciple is unnamed (though almost certainly known to the original audience), and identified, according to Christian tradition, as John the apostle, son of Zebedee. Chapter 21, which most critical commentators consider to be a secondary addition to the Gospel, to judge by the narrative context, may effectively be narrowing the identification to the disciples mentioned in verse 2. Be that as it may, the “Beloved Disciple” was clearly a prominent figure in the congregations which first read/produced/transmitted the Fourth Gospel. According to 19:35 and 21:24, he is recognized as a principal source for the information and traditions recorded in the Gospel; it is less likely that he is the actual author, in spite of the apparent wording in 21:24.

Verses 20-23 record an important historical tradition, set in the period after the resurrection (vv. 1, 14), while Jesus was still present with his disciples. Actually, there would seem to be two distinct lines of tradition in vv. 15-23—one involving Peter and the death he would face (vv. 15-19), and the other involving the Beloved Disciple and the idea that he would (or might) not die before Jesus’ return. Critical commentators view these as separate traditions, joined by verse 20[f] in the narrative. At any rate, it is Peter’s question (“And what of this [one], Lord?”) which brings forth the statement by Jesus:

“If I wish him to remain until I come, what (is that) to you? You must follow me.” (v. 22)

The implication of this saying, that the Beloved Disciple would remain alive until Jesus’ future return, is certain, at least from the standpoint of the Gospel writer who makes this clear in v. 23:

“(So) then this account [i.e. word/saying] went out into the brothers, that that learner [i.e. disciple] is not (going to) die away; but Yeshua did not say of him that he is not (going to) die away, but ‘If I wish him to remain until I come…'”

According to tradition, John the Apostle was among the very last of the original disciples to die, effectively living to the end of the 1st century. A number of commentators feel that the Beloved Disciple had recently died, or was approaching death, at the time that chap. 21 was written; this would explain why it was important to include this detail, since his death might have been seen as contradicting the words of Jesus. If the Beloved Disciple was, indeed, one of the last of the initial disciples to die off, his death would have marked a significant turning point in early Christian eschatology. Verse 23 offers objective confirmation of the belief, expressed or implied elsewhere in the Gospel (cf. above), that the end-time return of Jesus would take place in the lifetime of the first disciples. Once the first generation of believers had “passed away”, this belief would have to be re-examined, and Jesus’ sayings reconsidered. It is possible that we see signs of this already in the Synoptic Tradition, especially in the more developed form represented in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (often thought to date from c. 70-80 A.D.). Luke, in particular, was aware of an extended period of missionary work in the Gentile world (the Roman Empire), spanning at least until the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Of all the Gospels, his version of the Eschatological Discourse gives the most precise presentation of this particular historical framework.

Special Study: Imminent Eschatology in the New Testament (Pt 1)

As I have mentioned a number of times in this series, the imminent eschatology of early Christians, as reflected in the New Testament, is one of the most difficult problems of New Testament interpretation today, especially for believers who hold a strong belief in the divinely-inspired character of the Scriptures. The problem may be summarized as follows:

Many, if not most, of the earliest Christians appear to have believed and expected the end of the current Age to come very soon, presumably within their own lifetimes. In this, the 1st-century Christians were hardly unique. Many Jews at the time held a similar expectation (on this, cf. further below); in particular, the Community of the Qumran texts—a sectarian fellowship which had many characteristics in common with the early Christian Community—believed that the end-time Judgment and Messianic period was at hand, and that they represented the faithful people of God who would be delivered in the Judgment. The Christian outlook differed primarily in the unique position of Jesus: the end-time Judgment and deliverance of God’s people (believers) would be ushered in with his return to earth. To the extent that the authors and speakers in the New Testament affirm this imminent expectation of Jesus’ return—that it was about to occur very soon (in the 1st century A.D.)—does this not mean that they were, in a real sense, mistaken?

For many devout believers the implications are, or would be, troubling. Some traditional-conservative commentators seek to avoid the problem, for the most part, by downplaying (or even denying) that the inspired authors and speakers proclaimed an imminent return of Jesus and end of the current Age. Due to the sensitivity of this issue, I felt it was worth devoting a special article to the imminent eschatology in the New Testament. I divide the article into two parts:

    1. Evidence that the New Testament authors/speakers believed that Jesus would return and the end would come very soon—i.e. during their own time, in the 1st century A.D., roughly speaking. In so doing, it is important to determine whether this was the dominant view—that is, what, if any evidence is there to the contrary?
    2. An attempt to explain this eschatological expectation, from several aspects:
      1. The phenomenology of religion
      2. Eschatological and apocalyptic views common at the time, and
      3. New Testament theology and the doctrine of inspiration (of the New Testament writings)

Finally, the article will close with some comments regarding interpretive approaches to the question.

1. The New Testament evidence

If one reads the New Testament writings carefully, it is not hard to find many verses and statements, etc, which evince an imminent eschatology. To avoid any preconceptions, it will be useful to examine the specific language—that is, certain key Greek terms—which will give, I think, a clear and objective demonstration. I have isolated four words (or word groups) which are used to express the idea that the end is imminent.

a. e)ggu/$ and the verb e)ggi/zw

The adverb e)ggu/$ means “close, near”, with the relative verb e)ggi/zw meaning either “bring near” (transitive) or “come near” (intransitive). In a temporal sense, this would indicate that an event would soon take place (i.e. it was near/close to happening). The verb was used by Jesus in the proclamation which begins his public ministry in the Synoptic tradition (Mk 1:15 par):

“The time [kairo/$] has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near [h&ggiken]! Change your mind(set) [i.e. repent] and trust in the good message.”

This same declaration is repeated, or alluded to, a number of times in the (Synoptic) Gospel record of Jesus’ ministry. That it fundamentally has an eschatological significance has been discussed and demonstrated in the recent article (part 1) on the Sayings of Jesus. However, Jesus’ use of the expression “kingdom of God”, and the Kingdom-concept, is complex, and, as we have seen, cannot be reduced to a simplistic eschatological formula.

In James 5:8, Jesus’ declaration is re-stated, in a more distinctly Christian form:

“…make firm your hearts, (in) that [i.e. because] the Lord’s being alongside [parousi/a] has come near [h&ggiken]”

Already among early believers (in the New Testament), the word parousi/a (lit. being [present] alongside) had developed into a technical term (parousia) for the end-time return of Jesus, though the underlying eschatological idea had to do with the appearance/manifestation of God (the Lord) at the end time, to deliver His people and bring the Judgment. In early Christian thought, Jesus (as the Anointed One and Son of God) would serve as God’s representative in the time of the Judgment. This eschatological aspect, unquestionably imminent, is clear here from verse 9; the author (“Jacob/James”) tells his readers that “See! The Judge (now) stands before the door!” Like the call to faith and repentance in Mk 1:15 par, the thrust of James 5:8-9 is an exhortation (for believers) to live and act with greater faithfulness and devotion.

A similar exhortation is found in Hebrews 10:25, which serves as a climax to the call to devotion and perseverance in the faith in vv. 19-25; the second half of the verse gives emphasis to this call:

“…and this (much) more as you see the day coming near [e)ggi/zousan]”

The “day” must be understood as the end-time day of Judgment, as the following vv. 26-31 make abundantly clear. The author is telling believers, sometime in the second half of the 1st century A.D., that they should expect to see the Day of Judgment coming near.

The declaration in 1 Peter 4:7 is even more blunt and absolute: “The completion [te/lo$] of all (thing)s has come near [h&ggiken]”. It is again given in the context of an exhortation to greater love and devotion, since the end of the current Age would soon be taking place. For more on the eschatological use of the world te/lo$, see below.

Romans 13:11-12 is not as explicit, but the eschatological significance of the verb (along with the adverb e)ggu/$) in context does seem clear enough:

“And this, seeing the time [kairo/$], that (it is) now the hour for you to be raised out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer [e)ggu/teron] than when we trusted [i.e. came to faith]. The night (has) cut (its way) forward [i.e. advanced], and the day has come near [h&ggiken].”

The same verb occurs three times (Lk 21:8, 20, 28) in the Lukan version of the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus. In v. 28, Jesus tells his disciples (in the mid-1st century) that they would see the events of the coming end, culminating with the appearance of the Son of Man and the realization that “your loosing from (bondage) [i.e. redemption] comes near [e)ggi/zei]”. These references are discussed in more detail in the article(s) on the Eschatological Discourse. On the implications of verse 8, cf. also below. In the Markan (and Matthean) version of the Discourse, it is the adverb e)ggu/$ which is used, in the context of the fig-tree illustration (Mk 13:28-29 par). The statement which follows in v. 30 would seem to indicate that the end would occur during the lifetime of Jesus’ disciples; for more on this problematic aspect of Jesus’ eschatology, cf. below and the separate note on imminent eschatology in Jesus’ teaching.

There are several other important occurrences of the adverb e)ggu/$ which must be noted, especially those in the book of Revelation, where there can no doubt regarding the eschatological meaning:

    • Rev 1:3—”Happy the one (mak)ing (this) known again (through the reading of it), and (also) the ones hearing the words of the foretellings [i.e. prophecies], and keeping watch over the (thing)s written in it [i.e. the book]—for the time (is) near [o( ga\r kairo\$ e)ggu/$]”
    • Rev 22:10—”…do not seal the words of the foretellings [i.e. prophecies] of this paper-roll [i.e. scroll/book]—for the time (is) near [o( ga\r kairo\$ e)ggu/$]”

Both of these revelatory statements, at the beginning and end of the book, respectively, clearly indicate that the end-time events described in the visions and prophecies will soon take place. Another example is Philippians 4:5, where the reference would seem to be to the end-time return of Jesus; its brevity is almost exactly parallel to the declarations in Revelation above: “The Lord (is) near [o( ku/rio$ e)ggu/$]” (cf. also on James 5:8, above). Hebrews 8:13 should also be mentioned, though a precise eschatological reference is not entirely certain: “…and the (thing) worn and growing old (is) near [e)ggu/$] (to being) without shining [i.e. without visible appearance, vanishing]”. On the adverb in Luke 19:11, see further below.

b. taxu/($), esp. the prepositional e)n ta/xei

The adjective/adverb taxu/($), which means “quick(ly), speedily, with speed” expresses imminence in a slightly different way, emphasizing that something will occur quickly—i.e. “soon”, though sometimes it is the idea of suddenness which is in view. There are six occurrences in the book of Revelation, along with two where the prepositional phrase “in/with speed” (e)n ta/xei) is used.

    • Rev 1:1—”An uncovering [i.e. revelation] of Yeshua (the) Anointed, which God gave to him, to show to his slaves [i.e. servants] the (thing)s which are necessary to come to be [i.e. must come to pass] in (all) speed [e)n ta/xei]…”
      Rev 22:6 essentially repeats this statement, the last words are verbatim
    • Rev 2:16—”Then change your mind(set) [i.e. repent]; but if not, I come to you quickly [taxu/] and will make war with them in [i.e. with] the sword of my mouth!” On the background of this eschatological (and Messianic) motif, cf. Isa 11:1-4, and note its use in 2 Thess 2:8.
    • Rev 3:11—”I come quickly [taxu/]! Grab firm(ly) to what you hold, (so) that no one may take your crown.”
    • Rev 11:14—”The second woe (has) gone away; see, the third woe comes quickly [taxu/]”
    • Rev 22:7—”And see! I come quickly [taxu/]! Happy the one keeping watch over the words of the foretellings [i.e. prophecies] of this paper-roll [i.e. scroll/book]” (cf. 1:3; 22:10, above)
    • Rev 22:12—”See, I come quickly [taxu/], and my wage [i.e. reward] is with me, to give from (it) to each (person) as his work is (deserving).”
    • Rev 22:20—”The one witnessing these (thing)s says, ‘Yes, I come quickly [taxu/]!'”

There are two other noteworthy occurrences of the expression e)n ta/xei in the New Testament:

    • Luke 18:8—”…he [i.e. God] will work out justice for them in (all) speed [e)n ta/xei]!” The point of the parable is to exhort the disciples to persevere and continue in prayer. Note the allusion to the Judgment, and the reference to the (end-time) coming of the Son of Man in v. 8b.
    • Romans 16:20—”And the God of peace will crush together the Satan under your feet in (all) speed [e)n ta/xei]!”
c. The verb me/llw

This verb tends to be used in an auxiliary or modal sense, indicating that something is about to occur. It also may connote the certainty that something will occur, and also one’s perception of it (i.e. thinking or realizing that something will [soon] take place). While this does not always denote imminence, it is often the natural way that the context, where the verb is used, should be understood. This can be easily obscured, especially in the use of the participle, which is often translated blandly as “coming”, rather than more precisely as “(be)ing about (to come)” (i.e. “which is about to come”). The imminent eschatology in the New Testament is perhaps most commonly expressed through this verb. I cite here the most relevant passages:

    • Matt 3:7 par—(John the Baptist speaking) “…who showed you under (a sign warning you) to flee the anger (of God) (be)ing about (to come)?”
    • Matt 11:14—”And, if you are willing to receive (it), he [i.e. John the Baptist] is Eliyyah, the (one who is) about to come.”
    • Mark 13:4—(The disciples to Jesus) “…when will these (thing)s be, and what is the sign when all these (thing)s are about to be completed together?” This important question is discussed in more detail in the study on the Eschatological discourse.
    • Luke 21:36—”Be without sleep [i.e. watchful] in every time [i.e. moment], requesting [i.e. praying] that you may bring down strength (enough) to flee out of [i.e. escape] all these (thing)s th(at are) about to come to be…”. The suffering and travail described in the Eschatological Discourse is characterized as something which is “about to come to pass”. Note the obvious connection to God’s end-time Judgment in Matt 3:7 above.
    • Acts 17:31—(Paul in his Athens speech) “…he [i.e. God] set a day in which he is about to judge the inhabited (earth) in justice, in [i.e. through] a man whom he marked out [i.e. Jesus]…”. For a similar declaration, see 2 Timothy 4:1.
    • Romans 8:18—”For I count that the sufferings of th(is) time [kairo/$] now are not brought (in balance) toward [i.e. are not equal to] the honor/splendor (be)ing about (to come) (which is) to be uncovered unto us.” Note the clear contrast between the present Age and the coming Age (cf. below), as well as the sufferings associated with (the end of) the present Age, which Paul and his fellow believers at the time are understood to be experiencing.
    • 1 Peter 5:1—”I call alongside the elders among you, (I) the elder together with (you) and a witness of the sufferings of the Anointed (One), and (also) one having a common (share with you) of the honor/splendor (be)ing about (to come) (which is) to be uncovered…”. Note the similar wording to Paul’s usage in Rom 8:18.
    • 2 Peter 2:6—Sodom and Gomorrah, etc, are cited as an example God has set to show “(the thing)s being about (to come) to the (one)s without reverence (toward God) [i.e. the impious/ungodly]”. The Flood and destruction of Sodom prefigure the end-time Judgment by God; this is a common motif in early Christian eschatology, discussed in the study on Jesus’ Eschatological Discourse.
    • Hebrews 10:27—”…but a fearful expectation of judgment and a fire of (burn)ing heat being about to consume (the one)s (who are) over and against [i.e. opponents of] (God)”. Cf. on verse 25 above.
    • Hebrews 13:14—”for we do not hold [i.e. have] here an abiding city, but we seek upon [i.e. seek after] the (one) being about (to come)“. The author of Hebrews seems to draw upon a tradition similar to the eschatological “New Jerusalem” motif famous from Revelation 21-22, etc.
    • Revelation 1:19—”Therefore you must write the (thing)s which you saw, and the (thing)s which are, and the (thing)s which are about to come to be after these (thing)s.”
    • Revelation 3:10—”…I will keep you out of the hour of testing th(at is) being about to come upon the whole inhabited (earth).” An absolutely clear declaration of the imminence of the end-time Judgment, as well as the intense suffering/travail which will accompany (and precede) it.
    • Revelation 12:5—”and she produced a son, a male (child), who is about to shepherd the nations with an iron staff…”

Other verses worth noting are: Matt 16:27; 24:6 par; Luke 19:11; Acts 24:15; Rom 4:24; James 2:12; Rev 2:10; 3:16; 6:11; 8:13; 10:7; 17:8. If there were any doubt remaining as to the eschatological significance of the verb me/llw, one only needs to recognize its use in the expression “the coming Age”, i.e. the Age which is about to come. The eschatological imminence implied by this idiom, in most instances, is unmistakable. For example, see Matt 12:32; Eph 1:21; Heb 2:5; 6:5, and note also Rom 8:38; 1 Cor 3:22; 1 Tim 4:8; 6:19.

d. Use of the word te/lo$

This word fundamentally means “completion”, and, used in a temporal sense, can indicate the end of a particular period of time. From the standpoint of imminent eschatology in the New Testament, the most important references are:

    • 1 Corinthians 10:11—”But these (thing)s…were written toward our setting (them) in mind, unto (us) whom the completions [pl. te/lh] of the Ages have come down against [i.e. reached].” The end of the current Age (and with it all previous Ages) is understood as occurring in the time of Paul and the early Christian community.
    • 1 Peter 4:7—”The completion [te/lo$] of all (thing)s has come near.” Cited above; cf. also verse 17.

Other passages to note: Mark 13:7, 13 par; 1 Cor 1:8; 15:24; 1 Thess 2:16(?); Rev 2:26.

Other evidence for an imminent eschatology in the New Testament

(1) Jesus and the Gospels

A number of sayings need to be considered, some of which have been discussed in the recent articles. However, there are several particularly problematic sayings, where Jesus seems to indicate that the end will occur very soon, even within the lifetime of his disciples. These can be listed out here as:

Other verses could be added to supplement the idea of an imminent eschatological expectation, but these are the most specific and controversial. Due to the special sensitivity of these references, as sayings/traditions coming from Jesus himself, they will be examined in a separate study.

(2) The Preaching in the Book of Acts and the Letters of Paul

For the book of Acts, I have already mentioned the statement (by Paul) in 17:31, above. Two other references are worth pointing out:

    • Acts 2:16-17ff—The prophecy from Joel 2:28-32, understood as referring to the “last days”—i.e. “in the last days [e)n tai=$ e)sxa/tai$ h(me/rai$]”—is applied by Peter to his own time, to the coming of the Spirit upon the first believers in Jerusalem. This clearly evinces the belief of the earliest Christians that they were living in the “last days”, at the end of the current Age.
    • Acts 3:20-21—In this sermon-speech, Peter is even more explicit, communicating the need for repentance and conversion in light of the impending “new Age” and the return of Jesus:
      “…so that the times of cooling again [i.e. refreshing/renewal] might come from the face of the Lord, and he might send forth the (one) appointed beforehand to you, the Anointed (One) Yeshua, whom it is necessary for heaven to receive until the times of setting (back) down all (thing)s from (where they were before)…”
      Here the eschatological expectation is very much expressed in traditional Messianic terms, as would be typical of the earliest (Jewish) believers in Jerusalem.

The Pauline evidence will be examined in the articles on Paul’s eschatology as a whole. One may, however, point to a couple of passages from the earlier letters (1 & 2 Thessalonians):

    • 1 Thess 4:15ff—”For we relate this to you in [i.e. through] a word/account of the Lord, that we the (one)s living, the (one)s left about unto [i.e. until] the Lord’s being (present) alongside [parousi/a] (us), we should (certainly) not precede the (one)s sleeping…”
      While it is possible to generalize Paul’s statement, the wording indicates an expectation that the return of Jesus would take place during the lifetime of at least some of the believers still alive at the time of writing.
    • 2 Thess 1:7-10—”…and to you the (one)s (hard-)pressed, a letting up [i.e. relief], (along) with us, in the uncovering of the Lord Yeshua from heaven with his powerful Messengers…”
      Again, this expresses an immediate expectation for the return of Jesus in his heavenly glory.

One might also mention 2 Timothy 3:1ff, which effectively identifies the time frame of the letter’s writing (mid-late 1st century A.D.) as “the last days” (cf. on Acts 2:16-17ff above).

(3) The remainder of the New Testament

In addition to the references already cited (above), I would point out the following:

    • 1 Peter 1:4-5ff—”…unto a lot portioned (out) [i.e. inheritance], without decay and without stain and without fading, having been watched (over) in heaven (to be given) unto you, the (one)s being guarded in the power of God, through trust, unto the salvation ready to be uncovered in the last time…”
    • 1 Peter 2:12—”…they might give honor to God in the day of (His) (com)ing to look upon [e)piskoph/] (us)”
      The word e)piskoph/ came to be a technical term for the end-time appearance (‘visitation’) of God (or his representative), sometimes emphasizing his care and deliverance of his people at the time of Judgment.
    • 1 Peter 4:5—”…who will give from (themselves) an account to the (One) holding readiness [i.e. who is ready] to judge the living and the dead” (on v. 7 cf. above)
    • 1 Peter 4:17—”(It is) that the time (is now) for the beginning of the judgment, from the house of God…”
    • Hebrews 9:26ff—”…but now he [i.e. Jesus] has been made to shine forth [i.e. appear] once (for all) upon the completion together of the Ages, unto a setting aside of sin through his (own ritual) slaughtering [i.e. sacrifice].”
      Jesus’ sacrificial death is set at the completion (te/lo$, cf. above) of the current Age (and all the previous Ages together).
    • 1 John 2:18—”(My) little children, it is the last hour…”
      cp. 1 Cor 7:29 (to be discussed)—”…the time is drawn/pressed together [i.e. compressed/shortened]”
Contrary Evidence

What evidence is there that the New Testament authors/speakers did not expect an imminent return of Jesus and end to the current Age? We begin with the Gospel tradition and sayings of Jesus. In this regard, the most significant evidence comes from the Eschatological Discourse, including the following verses: Mark 13:7-8 par; Matt 24:14, 48ff; Luke 21:8ff, 24(?). The illustration and saying of Jesus in Mark 13:28-29 par, depending on how one interprets it, could also be read in support of a (significant?) gap in time. All of these verses are dealt with in the article(s) on the Eschatological Discourse (Parts 1, 2, 3), and are touched on again in the supplemental study on imminent eschatology in Jesus’ sayings.

A noteworthy point related to these references (and others mentioned below), is the idea that any delay, or extension of time before the end, involves the (early Christian) mission into the surrounding (Gentile) nations. This is perhaps most clearly expressed in Acts 1:6-8, where the disciples ask Jesus if, after his resurrection, he is now going to fulfill his Messianic role and restore the kingdom to Israel:

“In this time are you set(ting) down the kingdom to Yisrael from (where it was before)?”

This reflects a traditional eschatological (and Messianic) understanding, which Jesus, while not rejecting or denying outright, certainly redirects or reinterprets for them in a most significant way:

“It is not for you to know the (period)s of time or (point)s of time which the Father (has) set in his own authority, but (rather) you will receive (the) power of the holy Spirit coming upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Yerushlaim {Jerusalem} and [in] all Yehudah {Judea} and Shimron {Samaria}, and (even) unto the last (part)s of the earth.”

Clearly the emphasis is on the mission to the nations—beginning with Jews and Samaritans, and extending out to the other (Gentile) nations, even to the furthest points of the Greco-Roman world (i.e. the inhabited earth as known at the time). The “Great Commission” of Jesus at the conclusion of the Gospel of Matthew makes much the same point:

“Therefore, traveling (forth) you must make learners [i.e. disciples] of all the nations… and, see, I am with you all the days until the completion together of the Age(s).” (28:19-20)

The parallel of “all the nations” with “all the days” certainly implies a distinct, significant period of time during which the mission to the Gentiles would take place (though how long a period is by no means clear).

This raises the interesting (critical) question as to the relationship between the teaching of the historical Jesus and the understanding of the Gospel writers, especially in the case of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which are typically seen has having been composed, in their present form, in the period c. 70-80 A.D. At this point, the first generation of believers would have begun to die off, and thoughtful Christians at the time would have been increasingly aware of a “delay of the Parousia”—i.e., a ‘delay’ in the return of Jesus and, with it, the end of the current Age. According to many critical commentators, the Gospel writers (and/or the traditions they inherited) tried to account for this by adapting or (re)interpreting Jesus’ own sayings/teachings which otherwise may have indicated an imminent eschatology. Such a view is a bit hard to maintain, especially when one considers the many sayings, reflecting imminent eschatology, which are preserved in the Gospel tradition, with little or no apparent modification (e.g., the references noted above and in the supplemental study). Perhaps the clearest such evidence comes from the Gospel of Luke, which would not be entirely surprising, in light of Acts 1:6-8, etc (cf. above). The author’s hand would seem to be present in the shaping of 19:11ff (discussed in the recent article on the Parables); others indications the author was aware of a ‘delay’ in Jesus’ return might be seen in 12:35-46; 17:20-22ff; 18:1-8, and some of the uniquely Lukan details in the Eschatological Discourse (21:7-8ff, 12, 20-24, etc).

On the whole, however, it would seem that early Christians were perfectly capable of envisioning a period of time for preaching the Gospel to the surrounding peoples/nations, while still maintaining the idea that the end-time return of Jesus, etc, would take place quite soon. This would allow, at the very least, for a relatively short period (a generation or two?) of world evangelization, if perhaps not the 2,000+ years which we must grapple with today. Indeed, this aspect (i.e. a period of time for the Gentile mission), while rare in Paul’s letters, is expressed unmistakably in the letter to the Romans (see esp. 11:25ff), which I will be discussing in an upcoming article.

Christians today, eager to fit a period of 2,000+ years into the eschatological outlook of the New Testament, must be careful not to exaggerate or misread certain passages which suggest a ‘delay’. For example, the main point of Luke 19:11ff is that the end-time Kingdom would not be ushered in immediately at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but must wait until a future appearance (following his death, resurrection and exaltation to heaven); it says nothing about how far into the future this might occur, and likely still would agree with the imminent eschatology of early Christians (i.e. Jesus’ return would occur very soon). Similarly, Paul’s instruction in 2 Thess 2 is meant to indicate that certain events must take place before the Day of the Lord (the return of Jesus and the end-time Judgment) is realized; yet, there is no indication that the author (Paul) does not think that this will (or may) happen very soon.

A delay is also suggested in Hebrews 10:13, but considering the clear imminent expectation in vv. 25ff, this must be read in context. Somewhat more certain as a sign that the author expects a significant period of time before the end is 1 Timothy 6:14-15. The passage which expresses such a view most directly, even allowing for a lengthy period of time (1,000+), is 2 Peter 3:3-10ff (also v. 15), including the famous principle (which should not be pressed too far) that

“a single day alongside the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a single day”

Having examined the extensive evidence in the New Testament for an imminent eschatology among early Christians, it remains (in the second part of this study) to consider possible explanations for such a view, as well has how it might be interpreted by believers today.

Notes on Prayer: Luke 11:1-13

As we continue this survey of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, having already explored the core Synoptic traditions, as well as the passages and references unique to the Gospel of Matthew, we now turn to the Gospel of Luke. In considering the Lukan evidence, one is first struck by the emphasis given to prayer as a detail in the narrative, where it is mentioned, by the author (trad. Luke), quite apart from any specific traditions he has inherited. This will be touched on further in a future study on prayer in the book of Acts, but here it suffices to point out how this emphasis on prayer is expressed in the Gospel narrative.

First, prayer is associated with the Temple at several key points in the Infancy narrative (chaps. 1-2). The angelic appearance to Zechariah in the opening episode takes place, in the Temple sanctuary, at a time when people are praying in the precincts, coinciding with the evening (afternoon) sacrifice and the offering of incense (1:10). This is the same public “hour of prayer” which serves as the narrative setting in Acts 3:1ff. Moreover, the angel’s visitation is said to be in response to Zechariah’s own prayer to God (1:13). In a later episode, we read of the aged prophetess Anna, that she was regularly in the Temple precincts (2:37), doing service to God with fasting and prayer (de/hsi$, request, petition, supplication). These details are important in establishing the idea of the Temple as a place for worship, prayer, and teaching—rather than for cultic ritual and sacrificial offerings (see also 18:10ff). While this is part of the wider Synoptic tradition (cf. the discussion in Parts 6 and 7 of “Jesus and the Law”), it is given special emphasis in Luke-Acts, where the early believers in Jerusalem are portrayed as continuing to frequent the Temple (24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1ff; 5:20ff, 42; cf. also the article on “The Law in Luke-Acts”). This new, purified role and purpose for the Temple (in the New Covenant) provides a point of contact between early Christianity and the finest elements of Israelite/Jewish religion in the Old Covenant (as represented by the figures of Zechariah/Elizabeth, Joseph/Mary, and Simeon/Anna in the Infancy narratives).

Second, the Lukan Gospel provides a number of introductory/summary narrative statements which include the detail that Jesus was engaged in prayer, indicating that it was typical of his practice during the period of his ministry. The pattern of these notices, while again related to the wider Gospel tradition, is distinctively Lukan:

    • Lk 3:21—Of all the Gospel descriptions of the Baptism of Jesus (Mk 1:9-11 par), only Luke includes the detail that Jesus was praying when the Spirit descends, etc:
      “And it came to be, in the dunking of all the people, and Yeshua also being dunked and speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying], and (at) the opening up of the heaven…”
    • Lk 5:16—Curiously, in 4:42f which is parallel to the Synoptic Mk 1:35ff there is no mention of Jesus praying; this detail is given separately, at 5:16, following the call of the disciples and cleansing of the Leper (par Mk 1:16-20, 40-45):
      “and he was making space (for himself) down under in the desolate places, and (was) speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying]”
    • Lk 6:12—Only Luke mentions Jesus praying on the mountain at the time of his selecting the Twelve disciples/apostles (Mk 3:13ff par):
      “And it came to be in those days, with his going out onto the mountain to speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray], he was spending (time all) through the night in th(is) speaking out toward God.”
    • Lk 9:18—Again it is only Luke who mentions Jesus in prayer prior to his question to the disciples regarding his identity (Mk 9:27ff par):
      “And it came to be, in his being down alone speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying], his learners [i.e. disciples] were (there) with him and…”
    • Lk 9:28-29—Similarly, in the Transfiguration episode (Mk 9:2-8 par), Luke is alone in stating that the purpose in going up on the mountain was to pray:
      “And it came to be, as if [i.e. about] eight days after these sayings, [and] (with) his taking along (the) Rock {Peter} and Yohanan and Ya’aqob, he stepped up onto the mountain to speak out toward God [i.e. pray]. And it came to be, in his speaking out toward (God)…”
      As in the Baptism narrative, the divine manifestation (and voice) comes after Jesus has been praying.
    • Lk 11:1—The narrative introduction prior to Jesus’ teaching on prayer (cf. below).

Luke 11:1-13

The major section in the Lukan Gospel dealing with Jesus’ teaching on prayer is 11:1-13. It includes the famous Lord’s Prayer, which I discussed in detail in earlier notes in this series. I will not repeat that study here, but will make mention of place of the Lord’s Prayer in the section of the Gospel as we have it. This may be outlined as follows:

    • Narrative Introduction, with a request by the disciples (v. 1)
    • The Lord’s Prayer (vv. 2-4)
    • A Parable illustrating the need for boldness in prayer (vv. 5-8)
    • Additional sayings on prayer [Q material] (vv. 9-13)

The narrative introduction is entirely Lukan in style and vocabulary; moreover, it evinces an interest in prayer (and the background detail of Jesus engaged in prayer) that is distinct to Luke among the Synoptics (cp. the passages noted above).

Verse 1

“And it came to be, in his being in a certain place (and) speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying], as he ceased [i.e. finished], one of his learners [i.e. disciples] said to him, ‘Lord, teach us (how) to speak out toward (God), even as Yohanan also taught his learners’.”

In spite of the Lukan syntax and specific prayer-emphasis, there is an important matrix of traditional Gospel elements here in this narrative summary:

    • Jesus in the (regular) act of prayer (see above)
    • His disciples observing him, wishing to follow his example (i.e. to pray like he does)
    • The significance of disciples following the pattern of religious behavior established by their master is emphasized by mention of John the Baptist
    • The reference to John the Baptist teaching his disciples how to pray (cf. 5:33 par) indicates the importance of (a certain manner of) prayer within Jewish tradition

This positioning of prayer within the wider Jewish (religious) tradition, is comparable to the teaching on prayer in Matthew 6:5-15 (cf. the previous study), which also contains a version of the Lord’s Prayer. While Jesus’ instruction on prayer generally continues the Jewish tradition—indeed, there is very little that is distinctively ‘Christian’ in the Lord’s Prayer, etc—he gives to it a number of different points of emphasis and interpretation. This was perhaps more clearly evident in the Matthean teachings (in the Sermon on the Mount), but it is very much at work in this Lukan passage as well.

Verses 2-4

(On the Lord’s Prayer, consult the notes, for both the Matthean and Lukan versions, previously posted as part of this Notes on Prayer series.)

Verses 5-8

This parable is unique to Luke’s Gospel (so-called “L” material). It may well have been told on a separate occasion originally, and included here by way of the thematic association (prayer); either way, in its Lukan context, it serves to illustrate further the disciples’ request on how they should pray. If the Lord’s Prayer presented the proper form and content of prayer, this parable in vv. 5-8 stresses the need for boldness in prayer, regardless of the circumstances. Several points or details in this parable are worth noting:

    • The characters involved are not strangers, but friends—people dear (fi/lo$) to each other, at least to some extent (v. 5, 8)
    • The person making the request does not do so for himself (cp. the petition of the Lord’s Prayer, v. 3), but on behalf of another friend (v. 6)
    • The request is made at an inopportune time (“the middle of the night”), otherwise there would be no problem in meeting the request; moreover, the house is locked up and everyone is in bed (v. 7)
    • Commentators question the significance of the scenario depicted in verse 7, especially the householder’s statement to his friend that “I am not able, standing up (out of bed), to give (anything) to you”; how would this relate to God the Father? The details of the parable should not be pressed so far; it functions as a qal wahomer illustration—if a human being will respond this way, how much more so will God do so for his friends!

In verse 8, Jesus brings out the point of his illustration:

“I relate to you, if he will not even give to him, standing up (to do so), through being [i.e. because he is] his dear (friend), yet through his lack of respect [a)nai/deia], rising he will give to him as (many thing)s as he needs.”

The key word is a)nai/deia, which I translated as “lack of respect”, but it could be rendered even more forcefully as “(being) without shame, shameless(ness)”. Respect for the time and situation ought to have prompted the person making the request to wait until a more appropriate time (i.e. in the morning), yet he went ahead, regardless of the situation, and woke up is friend in the middle of the night to make his request—which, one might add, was not particularly urgent. Thus, contrary to the way this parable is portrayed by many commentators, the stress is not on persistence in prayer (cp. with 18:1-8), but, rather on boldness—or, perhaps, better, that we should be willing to make our request to God without concern for the situation or what people would consider proper. This is surely to be regarded as an aspect of faith in prayer. We ought never to imagine that God is too ‘busy’ or that it might be better to wait until a more opportune moment; rather, when there is a need at hand, we should make our request boldly, at that very moment.

Verses 9-13

The sayings on prayer in these verses have their parallel in Matthew (Sermon on the Mount, 7:7-11), and thus are part of the so-called “Q” material common to both Gospels. Despite the difference in location, these sayings almost certainly stem from a single historical tradition, though, possibly, they may represent separate sayings combined (by theme) at a very early point in the collection of Gospel traditions. I tend to think that, in this particular instance, they were probably spoken together by Jesus.

The saying in vv. 9-10 corresponds with Matt 7:7-8:

“(You must) ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened up for you; for everyone asking receives, and the one seeking finds, and for the one knocking it [will be] opened up.”

The two versions are identical; the only difference being whether the final verb in Luke’s version is present (“it is opened up”) or future (“it will be opened up”, as in Matthew). The message is clear enough: God will answer those who pray to him. The three-fold idiom only emphasizing this point. God’s faithfulness in responding to prayer is further indicated through the illustration in vv. 11-12 (= Matt 7:9-10):

“And for what (one) out of you will the son ask the father (for) a fish and, in exchange for a fish, will give over a snake? or also—will he ask (for) an egg, and (the father) will give over a stinging (creature) [i.e. scorpion] (instead)?”

Here the emphasis is on a father giving a son what he needs (and would naturally ask for), i.e. food and sustenance (cp. the petition of the Lord’s Prayer, v. 3). The point is driven home through exaggeration—the father not only not giving the son what he needs, but giving what is actually harmful (and deadly) for him! Clearly, no human father would behave this way; most would genuinely wish to give their children what they need and request (much like the friend in the previous parable). In Matthew’s version the illustration is a bit different, though the basic point is certainly the same; the first comparison is a rock instead of bread, while the second is the same as the first Lukan comparison (a snake instead of a fish).

In verse 13 (Matt 7:11), Jesus explains the illustration in vv. 11-12 (as if the explanation and application were not obvious enough). It is here that the Lukan version differs most significantly from the Matthean; I give Matthew’s version first:

“So if you, being evil, have seen [i.e. known] (enough) to give good gifts to your offspring, how much more will your Father in the heavens give good (thing)s to the (one)s asking Him!”

Here the emphasis is on God giving “good (thing)s” (a)gaqa/), or “good gifts” (do/mata a)gaqa/), in a general sense. God will answer requests in prayer, by giving people what they need and which is truly beneficial for them. The Lukan version follows the Matthean rather closely, but there are a couple of key differences (points of difference indicated by italics):

“So if you, beginning under (as) evil, have seen [i.e. known] (enough) to give good gifts to your offspring, how much more will your Father out of heaven give the holy Spirit to the (one)s asking Him!”

It is worth considering each of these points of difference:

1. For the descriptive participle, Luke uses the verb u(pa/rxw (u(pa/rxonte$) instead of the verb of being ei)mi (o&nte$). It is possible that u(pa/rxw was used to soften the implication that the disciples of Jesus were called “evil” (ponhro/$). Literally, the verb means “begin under”, i.e. begin under a particular situation or condition, etc. Frequently it was used in an existential sense, of a person (or thing) coming into being, or for an existing condition, etc. As such, the verb could also be used, loosely, as an equivalent for the ordinary verb of being. Luke appears to have been particularly fond it, as more than half of the New Testament occurrences (31 out of 46) are in Luke-Acts (7 in the Gospel, 24 in Acts). Possibly the use here may relate to the idea of the disciples as human beings (who, generally speaking, are “evil”), without implying that they, specifically, are evil in character.

2. The description of God the Father in Luke’s version is “out of heaven” (e)c ou)ranou=), while in Matthew it the more proper title “the (One) in the heavens” (o( e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$). This latter title is virtually unique to Matthew’s Gospel (5:16, 45; 6:1, 9; 7:21, etc), and, as such, likely reflects the distinctive Matthean vocabulary and style (nearly half of all NT occurrences of the expression “in the heavens [pl.]” are in Matthew). If the wording were characteristic of the wider Gospel tradition (in Greek) of Jesus’ sayings, we would expect to see more evidence of it in the other Gospels (it is found elsewhere only at Mk 11:25).

While it is possible that the expression in the Lukan version (“out of heaven”, e)c ou)ranou=) reflects a stylistic difference (in Greek), it seems much more likely that it is meant to stress that the “good gifts” God the Father gives to Jesus’ disciples (believers) come from out of heaven. The manuscript tradition shows some uncertainty in this regard, with some key witnesses including a definite article (Ë75 a L 33), and others not. The presence of a definite article would indicate that the expression should be understood as a title (as in Matthew), i.e. “the Father the (One giving) out of Heaven”, or, perhaps even o( path\r o( as an abbreviation for “the Father the (One in Heaven)”. The lack of a definite article would best be understood as the source/origin for the Holy Spirit—the Father gives the Spirit from out of Heaven.

3. Most notably, Luke’s version makes specific (“[the] holy Spirit”) what is general in Matthew’s version (“good [thing]s”). If both sayings stem from a single historical tradition, as seems likely, it is hard to see how they both could accurately reflect what Jesus said (at the same time). Most critical commentators would regard the Lukan version as an interpretive or explanatory gloss (by the author), reflecting the idea of the Holy Spirit as the “gift” (do/ma) sent by the Father (Acts 2:38; 8:20; 10:45; 11:17; Lk 24:49; cf. also John 4:10), and which, in turn, is the source of all (spiritual) “gifts” for believers (1 Cor 12; 14:1ff, etc). The Lukan evidence (from Acts), in particular, is strong confirmation for the critical view. This does not necessarily contradict a sound view of the Gospel’s inspiration, since it is simple enough to consider the Lukan version here as preserving an inspired interpretation of Jesus’ original words. Many similar such examples could be cited, both in Luke and elsewhere.

This emphasis on the Holy Spirit is significant for Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, in a number of ways:

    • It signifies the climax of this teaching—i.e., for the disciples of Jesus who remain faithful, and continue in prayer, following Jesus’ example and instruction, the end result will be the gift of the Spirit.
    • Ultimately, it is the Spirit (of God and Christ) that should be the focus of our prayer, i.e. it is the Spirit (its power, manifestation, etc) that we should be requesting from God the Father (cf. John 15:16, 26, etc); this is a key lesson, one which here is presented in terms of the initial sending of the Spirit (to the first believers).
    • The statement in verse 13, in its literary context, connects back to the Lord’s Prayer, and the request for the coming of God’s Kingdom. As I have noted previously, on several occasions, the framework of Luke-Acts associates the Kingdom with the coming of the Spirit and the proclamation of the Gospel (cf. especially Acts 1:6-8). There is also the interesting variant reading of Lk 11:2 which reads (or glosses) the coming of the Kingdom as the coming of the Spirit.

September 28: Revelation 6:12-17

Revelation 6:9-17 (continued)

Rev 6:12-17

The vision coming from the sixth seal moves us closer to the actual appearance of God’s end-time Judgment. As I noted previously, there is a similar sequence in the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus, which continues here:

On the last item, the parallel can be extended to include:

    • Similar allusions to the Old Testament Prophets (cf. below)
    • An illustration involving the fig-tree (v. 13, cp. Mark 13:28f)

The signs of severe disruption in nature, here in the vision, begin:

“…and there came to be a great shaking [i.e. earthquake], and the sun came to be black as a cloth of hair (for mourning), and the whole moon came to be as blood, and the stars of the heaven fell unto the earth, (even) as the fig-tree casts (down) her unripe (fig)s (when) being shaken under a great wind…” (vv. 12-13)

The language and imagery is similar to certain passages from the Prophets—cf. Joel 2:10, 31; Isa 13:10; 24:18b ff; 34:4; 50:3. It has ancient roots in the language used to express the idea of nature being affected by the appearance / manifestation of the Deity (theophany, esp. the storm-theophany motif). The earth is said to shake and tremble at God’s approach, affecting all areas of nature (Judg 5:4-5; Nah 1:5-6; Hab 3:5-6ff, etc); this became part of the imagery associated with the “day of YHWH”, a time of Judgment to come against the wicked nations, etc (Isa 13:13; Jer 51:29; Ezek 38:19-23). The darkening of sun and moon was a common motif in this regard (Joel 2:31; 3:15; Amos 5:20; 8:9; Zeph 1:15; Isa 13:10; 24:13; Ezek 32:7-8). This came to be traditional eschatological language, referring to the end-time Judgment, in Jewish apocalyptic literature (Testament of Moses 10:4-6; Sibylline Oracles 5:512ff, etc), and Jesus utilizes it in the Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:24-25 par). Such natural phenomena were, of course, depicted and interpreted as signs of divine wrath, etc, in many cultures (see, e.g., Ovid Metamorphoses 15.785; Lucan Pharsalia 1.536ff; Koester, p. 402).

The destructive signs in nature continue:

“…and the heaven made space away [i.e. separated] as a paper-roll [i.e. scroll] being coiled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of their places.” (v. 14)

The motif of the heaven/sky “rolling up” like a scroll is found in Isa 34:4, being repeated a number of times in apocalyptic writings (Sibylline Oracles 3:83; 8:233, etc). This could mean that the sky is no longer visible, though the verb a)poxwri/zw literally indicates a separation—i.e. the sky/heaven becoming detached out of its place—which is in keeping with the idea that the mountains and islands are “moved out of their places”. Clearly, this reflects an extraordinary disruption of the natural order. The point of it all is as a sign that the end-time Judgment by God is beginning:

“And the kings of the earth and the greatest (one)s and the (leader)s of a thousand [i.e. military commanders], and the rich (one)s and the strong (one)s, and every slave and free (person alike), hid themselves into the caves and into the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and the rocks: ‘Fall upon us, and hide us from the face of the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat, and from the anger of the Lamb!…'” (vv. 15-16)

The call of frightened humanity for the hills and rocks to bury them is an echo of Hos 10:8, and is also used by Jesus (in an eschatological context) in Luke 23:30. Death within the very rocks were they are hiding would be preferable to facing God Himself. That this involves the manifestation and appearance of God is clear from the phrase “hide us from the face [pro/swpon] of the One sitting upon the throne”. At once the people on earth recognize the presence of God, and that he is the true Ruler of all. This, of course, relates most definitely to the vision of chapters 4-5, and demonstrates an example of how this central theme is developed and applied in the remainder of the book. While all of humanity is affected (“slave and free”), it is the rich and powerful who face the brunt of the Judgment—their positions of earthly/worldly power are reduced to nothing. This is all the more appropriate, since it is the powerful ones who played leading roles in both the destructive period of warfare (vv. 1-8) and the persecution of believers (vv. 9-11). Readers of the book would immediately have recognized that the Roman imperial government, and the rich and influential in society who chiefly benefited from it, were primarily in view.

Verse 17, in the context of the vision, continues the declaration of humankind, yet it actually functions as an objective statement (by the author/seer), announcing

“that the great day of His anger came [i.e. has come], and who is able to stand?”

A fundamental tenet of early Christian belief was that trust in Jesus, following him faithfully, would enable believers to “stand” in the Judgment. Paul alludes to this a number of times—cf. Rom 5:2; 14:4, 10; 1 Cor 10:12; 15:1, etc. Ephesians 6:11-14 seems to extend this idea, naturally enough, to the faithful endurance of believers, during the time(s) of testing as the end approaches (cf. Mark 13:13 par, etc). Only through faith in Christ can human beings be saved from the coming Judgment; otherwise, as the Scriptures indicate in many places, it is impossible to stand before the presence of God (1 Sam 6:20; Psalm 76:7; Job 41:10; Nah 1:6; Jer 49:19; 1 Chron 5:14; Ezra 9:15); the declaration here in v. 17 is perhaps closest in tone to Malachi 3:2.

It is also interesting to note that, here again, Jesus Christ (the Lamb) has been included alongside of God (cf. the discussion on chapters 4-5), being embedded within the declaration:

    • “the face of the One sitting upon the throne”
      —”the anger of the Lamb”
    • “the great day of His anger”

Early Christian tradition held firmly to the idea that Jesus, as God’s representative (His Anointed One), would judge the earth, when he appeared/returned at the end-time. This is indicated by Jesus himself through the identification with the heavenly/divine Son of Man figure (Dan 7:13-14, cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”) in Mark 13:26; 14:62 pars. At best, this is only alluded to here in Rev 6:17; it will be expressed more directly later on in the book.

This brings up the observation that, based on a comparison with the sequence of events in Jesus’ “Eschatological Discourse” (cf. above), we would expect, at this point in the book of Revelation, a description of Jesus’ return (Mk 13:26-27 par). After all, when nature itself is falling apart, and humankind realizes that God’s Judgment has come, what is left to narrate? Indeed, the first readers/hearers of the book would doubtless have been expecting this as well; and yet much more is recorded before that moment is reached, building considerable suspense. This is a powerful dramatic (and literary) device, but it also reflects the inspired artistry of the visions of the book. The three great vision-cycles do not simply narrate a straightforward linear sequence of events, but function in parallel, with overlapping elements and details. This will be discussed as we proceed through the remaining chapters.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 9-10 (continued)

Psalm 9-10, continued

Last week’s study examined the first part (9:2-17 [1-16]) of the acrostic Psalm 9-10; today we will explore the ‘interlude’ (9:18-21 [17-20]) and second part (Ps 10). In terms of the structure of the composition, it is noteworthy that the musical direction hl*s# (selâ, “Selah”) occurs at the end of verse 17 [16], and again after v. 21 [20]. The precise meaning of this term remains unknown, but it would seem to indicate a pause and/or (musical) transition of some sort. Furthermore, at the end of v. 17, hl*s# is preceded by the word /oyG`h! (higg¹yôn), apparently another musical direction, but only used (as such) here in the Psalms. Elsewhere the word occurs in Ps 19:15 and 92:4 [3] (and also Lam 3:62); it presumably derives from the root hg*h*, which fundamentally signifies a low moaning, growling, etc, sound such as an animal makes, but for humans also a kind of muttering, murmuring, etc, sometimes in the deeper sense of the intention or motivation from inside a person (i.e. utterance from the heart). In Psalm 19:15 the word is used in this latter sense, while in Ps 92:4 it refers specifically to a sound made on a harp (roNK!). This would seem to justify the idea that the word here marks a kind of musical pause (‘meditation’) and interlude in the composition. Along these lines, it is also likely that the second “Selah” marks the end of the interlude, and a transition to the next part of the composition (Psalm 10) with a different tone/style/tempo[?], etc.

The ‘Interlude’: Psalm 9:18-21 [17-20]

I divide these four bicola (8 lines) as follows: (1) two bicola (vv. 18-19 [17-18]) which continue the acrostic pattern (letters y and k), and a second (separate) pair of bicola (vv. 20-21 [19-20]) which specifically call on YHWH to act.

y They shall turn [WbWvy`], (shall the) wicked (one)s, (back) to Sheôl,
the nations (hav)ing forgotten the Mightiest (shall) come to an end.
k For [yK!] (it is) not to (be) lasting (that the) needy are forgotten,
(and) what (the one)s beaten down wait (for) does not perish for (all time) passing.

These two couplets admirably encompass and restate much of what was expressed in the first part (cf. the previous study), here presented as a precise contrast between the fate of the wicked and the hope of the righteous (i.e. those suffering in the present). This will also be the juxtaposition that dominates the thought of the second part (cf. below). Once again, the “wicked” (adj. uv*r*) are identified with the “nations” (<y]oG), and here defined more clearly as those who have “forgotten” (root jkv) God (“the Mightiest”, <yh!ýa$ Elohim), probably in the sense that they are unaware of Him. On the term loav= (Sheol), in the context that it is used here, cf. my earlier article. The verb bWv here echoes its use back in verse 4 [3], with the Psalmist’s expectation that YHWH’s act of judgment would “turn (back)” his enemies; now the idea is expressed more generally, that the wicked would “turn (back), return” to Sheol (the realm of death and the grave). I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 58) in emending Masoretic ÁlK* (i.e. “all the nations”) to read the related verb form WLK* (i.e. “the nations [shall] come to an end“), as this perhaps better fits the parallelism of the line. In the second couplet there is some parallel wordplay with the root jkv (“forget”)—while the wicked may have “forgotten” God, He will not “forget” (i.e. abandon) His people. The temporal expressions indicating future permanencejx^n#l* (“for[ever] lasting”) and du^ (“[all time] passing”)—where also used earlier in the first part, but of the fate of the wicked rather than the suffering righteous.

Stand up, YHWH, man(kind) shall not (remain) strong—
(the) nations shall be judged upon [i.e. before] your face;
set, O YHWH, (that) fearfulness on them—
(the) nations shall know (that) they (are only) (hu)man!

This is a powerful theological (and anthropological) declaration, given in parallel couplets. The first line of each mentions the divine name YHWH, calling upon God to demonstrate his authority over humankind, using the collective noun vona$ (“[hu]man[kind]”, also in the closing line). YHWH in his “standing up” (vb. <Wq), i.e. for judgment, has two related effects on human beings: (1) they shall not “be strong” (vb zz~u*) anymore, i.e. they will lose their strength, and (2) fear (reading MT hr*om as ar*om) is placed on them; another possibility for the third line is to read hr*om from the root hr*y` in the sense of something by which people will be directed or controlled (i.e. under the power of YHWH). By contrast, the second line of each couplet mentions the nations (<y]og), specifically who will face judgment in God’s presence (lit. “upon [i.e. before]” God’s face). The wicked, in their brazen and oppressive actions, imagine that they, in their own way, are God-like, possessing great power; however, in the face of YHWH’s terrifying judgment, they will come to realize that they are “only human (vona$)”.

Second Part: Psalm 10

The second part of the acrostic composition (Ps 10), as noted above, takes on more the character of a lament—the Psalmist cries out to YHWH on behalf of the poor and oppressed in society. The structure of this half is relatively straightforward:

    • An initial plea to YHWH, in the form of a question (v. 1)
    • A description of the Wicked, their actions and attitudes, esp. in relation to those they oppress (vv. 2-11)
    • A call for YHWH to act against the Wicked, demonstrating His power and authority (vv. 12-16)
    • A final plea for YHWH to act on behalf of the poor/oppressed (vv. 17-18)

In the context of the Psalm, the initial question raised by the Psalmist gives to the composition the character of theodicy—the longstanding philosophical and theological issue of why God allows evil and suffering in the world, why the wicked apparently flourish without being punished (by God) in the present.

Verse 1

l For what [hm*l*, i.e why], YHWH, should you stand in a far(-off place)
(and) conceal (yourself) from (our) times of (being) in distress?

The final construct phrase is difficult to render in English, with the prefixed preposition B= on the articular noun hr*X*h^ (“the distress”); despite the awkwardness of syntax in translation, I have rendered it quite literally. As it happens, there is a parallelism in the way each line closes, as each word represents a spatial/temporal prepositional phrase with B=, a preposition with an extremely wide range of meaning:

    • qojr*B=, “in a far (off place), at a distance”
    • hr*X*B^, “in the distress”

The parallel is contrastive—when we are in times of distress, how can our God (YHWH) be standing far off, at a distance from our suffering? This certainly is how things seem, at times, for God’s people, who are oppressed and suffer at the hands of the wicked. This striking question, phrased almost as a challenge to YHWH, frames the entire section, and is essentially repeated at the end.

Verses 2-11

The lengthy description of the wicked in vv. 2-11 is a dramatic tour de force, at once vivid and colorful, capturing their attitude and mindset, both in terms of their callous disregard of YHWH and their hostile (and even violent) actions against the innocent. The acrostic pattern is almost entirely lost (to be picked up again at verse 12), likely indicating corruption in the text, which would seem to be confirmed by apparent confusion at several points (cf. below). Unfortunately, neither the Septuagint nor the Dead Sea Scrolls offer any real help in clarifying the situation; the only Dead Sea MS containing Psalm 10 (5/6„evPs) is fragmentary, with nothing preserved prior to verse 6.

Verses 2-3:

In the rising of the wicked affliction burns,
they take hold on this purpose they devise;
for the wicked makes a shout upon the desire of his soul,
and cutting off <?> he bends the knee to <…>.

The LXX does not offer much beyond a generalized rendering of what we have in the MT:

“(in) that [i.e. because] the sinner gives praise upon (himself) in the impulses of his soul,
and the unjust (one) gives a good (word) on (his own) account [i.e. blesses himself]”

In Hebrew, the idiom “bend the knee” (vb Er^B*) means to give homage, worship, bless, etc, and is presumably intended to be taken parallel with ll^h*, “shout, praise, boast”. Similarly the participle u^x@b), “cutting off”, is meant to describe the character of the wicked—i.e. one who gains for himself through violence (cutting/breaking [off]).

Verse 4-5a:

n He spurns [Ja@n]] YHWH, (does) the wicked (saying)
‘As (for) the Exalted (One), his (burning) nostril(s) he hardly seeks (to satisfy)!’
(It seems) there is no Mighty (One) (to hinder) all his (evil) purposes—
his paths (of wickedness) remain firm in all time(s).

Again, it is likely that something has dropped out; the text is barely intelligible as it stands, and commentators divide and interpret it in a variety of ways. There would seem to be present an expression of the wicked’s thoughts, but it is by no means certain where the ‘quotation’ begins or how far it extends. I follow Dahood (p. 62) in reading hbg as H^b)G` as a divine title “High/Exalted (One)”, though I am less confident about emending the prefixed preposition K= to the particle yK!. If the Masoretic text and pointing is retained, then it is likely that oPa^ Hb^g)K= refers to the wicked, rather than YHWH:

“The wicked spurns YHWH by the lifting high of his nose (i.e. face)”

The Hebrew/Semitic word [a^, “nose, nostril, face”, is frequently used as an idiom for anger, especially the anger of God (YHWH)—i.e. the burning/flaring of His nostrils, presumably drawing upon animal imagery (of the snorting bull, etc). In this regard, it seems likely that the phrase vr)d=y]-lB^ (“he does not search/seek [out]”) relates back to the anger of God; in other words, the wicked, by their actions and attitudes, have no fear that YHWH will seek to satisfy His anger by punishing them for their wickedness. Above, I treat the end of verse 4 as a summary comment by the Psalmist, further emphasizing the apparent way the wicked person is able to act and behave with impunity. The position of the first line of verse 5 is unclear, but it would seem to belong as part of this description of the apparent success of the wicked in this present life.

Verses 5b-7:

From high (up) your judgments (are far) from in front of him,
(out of) all his inner (recess)es he puffs at them.
He says in his heart, ‘I (can) hardly be moved—
for cycle a(fter) cycle, happiness with no(thing) bad (for me)!’
(With) cursing his mouth is filled, a(lso) deceit and oppression,
(from) under his tongue (comes) trouble and weariness.

This ‘strophe’ expands on the prior (vv. 4-5a), giving a fuller picture of how the wicked “spurns” YHWH; it may be divided into three distinct components, one for each couplet:

    • 5b: The wicked is far removed from the judgments of God which are “from high (up) [<orm*]”; this must be understood at two levels:
      (a) apparent distance from the standpoint of his own attitudes and character, and
      (b) real distance, the lowness of his wicked nature compared to the exalted holiness, righteousness, etc, of God
    • 6: In his own heart, the wicked imagines that he will continue to prosper in his wicked ways
    • 7: As he speaks, expressing his wicked character, thoughts, and intention, all sorts of harmful things come out

In the last line of the first couplet (v. 5b), the word wyr*r=ox is typically translated as “his adversaries, (one)s hostile to him”. However, this does not fit the context or parallelism of the lines, in which the wicked is responding to the judgments of God; therefore, I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 63) in deriving it from a separate root rrx, referring to the (narrow) inner organs or spaces within a person. This makes a fitting contrast between the high/wide space of heaven (where God dwells), and the narrow confines inside the wicked. If the description in vv. 5b-7 relates to the thoughts and word of the wicked, that in vv. 8-10 relates to his evil actions.

Verses 8-10:

He sits, lying in wait (among the) settlements,
in the hidden places he slays (those) free (of guilt)—
his eyes conceal (what he intends) for the unfortunate.
He lies waiting in the hidden place, like a lion in (the) thicket,
he lies waiting to catch (one to be) beaten down—
catches (the one) beaten down, by dragging him (off),
(caught) in his possession, and broken, bowed (over),
the unfortunate (one)s fall in(to) his <power>.

The actions of the wicked are represented by a single basic scenario, described using repetitive language, and building by way of an overlapping step-parallel approach. The wicked lies in wait, like a vicious hunter, looking to capture one whom he will “beat down”, the basic meaning of the term yn]u*. This word is often translated “poor”, “oppressed”, but here it does not necessarily mean that he is preying on the poor or weak (though that may be true enough); rather, the emphasis is on the role of the wicked in oppressing and ‘beating down’ his victims. What we do know about these victims is that they are innocent, in the sense of being free of any guilt that would justify a violent attack (for revenge, etc). In a general sense they are righteous—and thus make a precise contrast with the wicked themselves—and all those who are righteous and loyal (to YHWH) will identify with these victims of oppression, as the Psalmist does. The final line is especially difficult, due to the word wym*Wxu&B^, the meaning of which in context is unclear. Literally, the MT as we have it would be “his mighty (one)s”, but this does not fit very well with the image of a wicked predator, unless, collectively, a gang of the wicked is now to be envisioned. Possibly the reference is to the strength of the trap or prison which now holds the oppressed person(s) in the possession (tv#r#, often understood as a hunter’s net, etc) of the wicked. Dahood (p. 63) suggests that it derives from a separate (and rare) root meaning to “dig”, as in a pit, which would generally fit the context, but otherwise rests on extremely slim evidence. I have translated very loosely above as “power”, recognizing the possibility the MT may be corrupt, or that something has dropped out of the text at this point.

Verse 11:

He says in his heart, ‘(The) Mighty (One) forgets,
he hides his face (and) scarcely sees for (the) duration!’

This closing couplet repeats the basic idea expressed in verse 4 (cf. above)—that the wicked acts as though YHWH will not respond to punish his evil and harmful behavior. This underlying attitude would seem to be confirmed by the fact that, in the present, the wicked seem to prosper, often facing no justice or proper punishment for their actions. This, indeed, is at the heart of the Psalmist’s lament, and it leads into the call for YHWH to act, in vv. 12-16.

Verses 12-16

With this section, the acrostic pattern comes back in full, for the remainder of the Psalm—letters q, r, ?, t, each for a clear pair of couplets (bicola).

Verse 12-13 q:

q Stand (up) [hm*Wq], YHWH, Mighty (One), lift your hand,
you must not forget the (one)s (who are) beaten down—
upon what [i.e. why] (should) the wicked spurn the Mightiest,
(and) say in his heart ‘You will not seek (to punish)’?

Some commentators would eliminate la@ (“Mighty [One]”, i.e. God) from the first line, but it may well be a relic of Israelite religious expression that is preserved, specifying something long understood—that YHWH is to be identified with the high Deity and Creator °E~l (la@). A summary of vv. 2-11 is provided in verse 13, establishing the attitude and behavior (of the wicked) that the Psalmist wishes YHWH to address and punish. I have translated yn]a* throughout as “(one who is) beaten down”, to capture the concrete idea of what the wicked is doing to their victims. Other common renderings, such as “oppressed”, “afflicted”, etc., are fine and generally capture the idea as well.

Verse 14 r:

r For you (must surely) see [ht*a!r*] (all) the trouble and (what this) provokes,
you will (certainly) look to give (justice) with your hand!
Upon you the unfortunate (one) places (his trust),
(and) the fatherless—you are (his) helper.

The noun su^K^, parallel with lz`u* (“trouble”), is difficult to translate accurately here; it has the basic meaning of provoking to anger, and it may be a subtle way for the Psalmist to stimulate God’s own anger, provoking him to act. The perfect tense in the first line is perhaps to be understood as a precative perfect, with the Hiphil imperfect in line 2 following, to express the wish (and hope/expectation) of the Psalmist. In the second couplet, YHWH is reminded that He is the only one whom the weak and unfortunate in society can go to for help; again the purpose is to sway God to take action by this appeal. There is a bit of alliterative word play between the verbal root bz~u* (II, “place, put, set”) and rz`u* (“help”).

Verses 15-16 ?:

? Shatter [rb)v=] the arm of the wicked and evil (one),
seek (out) his wickedness—you can scarcely (fail to) find (it)!
YHWH (is) King (for) the distant (future) and (all time) passing–
(and so) may the nations perish from the earth!

Here the section concludes with a fierce and lively imprecation, using the familiar ancient Near Eastern (and Old Testament) idiom of breaking/shattering the bodily limbs of the wicked. In particular, the arm (u^orz+) symbolizes the wicked person’s strength and ability to act—he stretches out his arm to do violence and injustice to others. The second line of this strophe is the most difficult, due to its peculiar syntax and metrical tension; it is made up of two construct phrases:

    • ouv=r!-vorD=T!—”you shall seek his wickedness”
    • ax*m=T!-lb^— “you will scarcely find (it)”

The verb vr^D* (“seek, search”) has a two-fold meaning: (a) the basic sense of seeking to find something, but also (b) the more specific sense of seeking something out so as to address it or deal with it. This latter meaning has been used more than once in the Psalm already, including earlier in v. 13, where the wicked expresses the thought the God will not “seek (out)” his wicked behavior, i.e. to avenge or punish it. The particle lb^ usually indicates negation, but often in the sense of failure, i.e. being unable to do something. Here the nuance of the expression perhaps is “you will scarcely (fail to) find it”, that is to say, there is so much wickedness around, and the wicked person acts so brazenly and repeatedly, that YHWH will have no trouble finding evidence of it.

The final line (v. 16b) again makes the standard identification of the wicked with the nations—i.e. all the surrounding (non-Israelite) nations. For generations, this would be a common way for Israelites and Jews to reference wickedness—immorality, and false/improper religious behavior, etc. Of course, it is predicated on the fundamental idea of the unique covenant bond between YHWH and Israel; any Israelites who violate the covenant and act wickedly, are behaving, not as God’s people, but in the manner of the surrounding nations who are not His people.

Verses 17-18 t

t The wish [tw~a&T^] of the (one)s beaten down, YHWH, you shall hear,
you make firm their heart, you incline your ear,
to judge (for) the fatherless and broken (ones)—
(then the wicked) will no longer continue
to make man(kind) tremble from the earth.

It is possible to read the < of <B*l! as an enclitic (cf. Dahood, pp. 66-7), in which case it refers to YHWH’s heart (“you make firm [your] heart”); however, the parallelism of the couplet suggests rather that it relates to the “wish/desire of the afflicted ones”, representing YHWH’s answer to their plea. The awkward syntax and metrical tension of the final verse opens the possibility that it should be read/divided as a tricolon (3 lines), as I gave generally done above. The referents of this last declaration are not entirely clear, but the basic point is, I believe, that the wicked will scarcely be able to act as they have been doing, once YHWH chooses to act and judge/punish their behavior. The actions of the wicked are described by the verb Jr^u* (“[make] tremble”), which sounds similar to the word Jr#a# (“earth, land”), creating a bit of wordplay in the final line.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965).

September 27: Revelation 6:9-11

Revelation 6:9-17

The visions from the first four seals (cf. the previous note)—the horses and their riders—deal with the theme of warfare among the peoples on earth, along with the suffering and death that results from it. The fourth rider was actually identified as “Death”, bringing people down to the grave (the “unseen realm” [a%|dh$] of the dead). Death from the sword (i.e. war) was widened to include death from hunger, disease, and attacks by wild animals (verse 8). Now in the vision from the fifth seal, the death-motif is extended to include believers in Christ who are put to death for their faith.

Rev 6:9-11

“And when he opened up the fifth seal, I saw down below the place of slaughter [i.e. altar] the souls having been [i.e. that had been] slaughtered through [i.e. because of] the account of God and the witness which they held.” (v. 9)

Here the slaughter from the nations at war is replaced by the slaughter of believers in Christ—specifically, those put to death as a result of proclaiming the Gospel (“the account/word [lo/go$] of God”), and acting as witnesses of Christ. This represents one of the earliest instances of the word martu/$ (“witness”, here the related noun marturi/a) in the technical Christian sense of one who is put to death for his/her faith in Jesus (the word[s] being transliterated in English as “martyr”, “martyrdom”, etc). It is described in terms of ritual slaughter—i.e., a sacrificial offering, just as Jesus’ own death was understood as a sacrifice (Passover, sin/guilt offering, or the sacrifice establishing the [new] Covenant). The altar-image seems to draw upon aspects of both altars in the Tabernacle/Temple design—(a) the altar of burnt offering in the sanctuary courtyard, and (b) the altar of incense in the shrine. The allusions for these two aspects are:

    • The position of the souls down at the bottom of the altar (v. 9)—In the ancient sacrificial ritual, blood from the slaughtered animal was poured/thrown down at the base of the altar (Lev 4:7, etc). The souls of the believers put to death are closely connected to this image of blood—since blood was typically understood as representing the life-essence of the person (much like the soul). Moreover “blood” can be synonymous with “death”, regardless of the extent to which a person’s death involved actual bloodshed; violent and/or wicked action leading to death of the innocent could be described simply as “bloodshed”.
    • The cry (i.e. prayer) of these souls (v. 10)—The connection between prayer and incense was traditional, and was established earlier here in 5:8.

The position of the souls (“down below the altar”) may also express the idea of taking refuge (with God) in the holy place. A temple sanctuary often served as a place of refuge or asylum—near the altar, in particular (1 Kings 1:50). For a similar image of souls (of the righteous) waiting in the heavenly sanctuary, cf. 2 Baruch 30:1-2; 2/4 Esdras 4:35; 7:32 (Koester, p. 399).

The cry of “how long…?” (Grk e%w$ po/te, “until when…?”) in verse 10 reflects passages in the Old Testament such as the Psalmist’s lament in Ps 6:3; 13:1; 35:17; 74:10; 79:5ff (cf. also Zech 1:12, etc). It expresses two underlying thoughts: (1) the idea that justice has been denied or was not established during one’s life on earth, and (2) a desire to experience God’s deliverance in time of trouble. Here the emphasis is decidedly eschatological—i.e., waiting for justice to be done (by God) at the end-time Judgment:

“And they cried (out) with a loud voice, saying: ‘Until when, O master, the (One) holy and true, do you not judge and work out justice (for) our blood out of [i.e. from] the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth?'” (v. 10)

The verb e)kdike/w is sometimes translated “avenge”, but it is better here to maintain its fundamental meaning “work out justice” (i.e. on behalf of someone). Justice was not “worked out” for these believers during their time on earth, when they were put to death unjustly; it waits to be established at the end-time Judgment. A basic premise of justice in such instances (murder, bloodshed, etc) is a requital for the death (“blood”) of the innocent. This idea is most ancient, expressed famously in Gen 9:5-6, but was given a new formulation by Jesus in the Gospel tradition (Matt 23:29-35 / Lk 11:47-51)—the blood of the prophets put to death (by Israel) serves as a pattern for the execution of Jesus and his followers (cf. Matt 5:12; 11:12-14 par; Mark 9:12-13 par), and will bring judgment upon the people and the city of Jerusalem (Matt 23:36-39; Lk 13:33-35).

This introduces another interesting parallel between Revelation 6 and the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus. In both passages, a period of war among the nations/peoples (Rev 6:1-8; Mk 13:7-8 par) is followed by a reference to the persecution (and death) of believers (Rev 6:9ff; Mk 13:9-13 par). Also in both instances, the reference ends with a call for patient endurance (Rev 6:11; Mk 13:13 par). Here in verse 11, it is a response to the heartfelt cry of believers, longing to see justice done by God:

“And white dress was given to each of them, and it was uttered to them that they will rest up (for) a little time yet, until their (fellow) slaves with (them) and their brothers should also be fulfilled—the (one)s about to be killed off, even as they (were).”

On the significance of white garments, cf. the notes on 3:4-5, 18; 4:4, and further in 7:13-14. It is declared that justice will not be done—that is, the end-time Judgment will not come—until a “little time” (xro/no$ mikro/$) has passed. Based on 11:2-3; 12:6ff; 13:5, it is possible that this is equivalent to the (symbolic) period of 3½ years. In any case, based on the imminent eschatology clearly expressed in the book up to this point (cf. 1:1, 3, 8, 19; 2:16; 3:3, 10-11, 20), this declaration indicates that the end-time Judgment will take place very soon (though not immediately). This is confirmed by the announcement that the other believers, who will join them as martyrs for Christ, are “about [me/llonte$] to be killed”. This time, however short, or whatever the precise length, will be fulfilled when these other believers are put to death, completing their life-mission. On similar (and roughly contemporary) language, see, e.g., 1 Enoch 47:4; 2 Baruch 23:5; 2/4 Esdras 2:41; 4:35-37 (Koester, p. 400).

Clearly, the book of Revelation expresses the idea that the persecution (and execution) of believers is about to intensify and increase. While individual instances are mentioned, or alluded to, elsewhere in the New Testament, there is no real indication in the first century A.D. of widespread persecution. The opposition and attacks of early believers by Jews was most intense in the earliest years, but it was still experienced by Christians in Asia Minor toward the end of the century (as attested in 2:9-10 and 3:9). In terms of action against believers by Roman imperial authorities, this appears to have been sporadic and relatively infrequent. There were, of course, the famous (though very brief) state-sponsored executions under Nero’s reign (c. 64), which almost certainly influenced the imagery in the book of Revelation. However, the extent of persecution in the reign of Domitian (81-96), the period often thought to provide the setting of the book, does not appear to have been nearly so widespread as was often thought. Indeed, the evidence from the letters to the churches here in chaps. 2-3, suggests that executions were relatively infrequent in Asia Minor at the time of writing; imprisonment during interrogation would have been much more common. In the subsequent centuries (mid-2nd through the early 4th) there would be more intense periods of state-sponsored persecution, conducted on a wider scale.