Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: 1 and 2 Corinthians (Part 3)

Survey of Passages in 2 Corinthians

Most of the eschatological references in 2 Corinthians generally follow those of 1 Corinthians (Part 1), including at least one section dealing with the promise of the end-time resurrection for believers (cf. Part 2 on 1 Corinthians 15).

2 Cor 1:13-14

“For we write to you no other (thing)s but th(ose) which you (can) know again (through reading them) and (so) know about (them), and I hope that you will know about (them) until (the) completion, even as you knew about us from a part [i.e. partially], that we are your boast, even as you (are) ours, in the day of [our] Lord Yeshua.”

The opening address in Paul’s letters frequently contain eschatological references or allusions, as we see here, in a climactic position, where they serve to exhort his readers to remain faithful until the end-time coming of Jesus, which he believed would take place quite soon. The expression “until the completion” (e%w$ te/lou$) is certainly eschatological, with the “completion” (te/lo$) referring primarily, if not exclusively, to the completion (or end) of the current Age (cf. 1 Cor 1:8). For other occurrences of the expression “day of (our) Lord (Jesus)”, and similar abbreviated versions, cf. the references in Part 1 (1 Cor 1:8; 5:5, etc). Believers who remain faithful are able to stand before God (and Christ) in the Day of Judgment, their/our faith being demonstrated by the works done on behalf of Christ. For Paul and his fellow ministers, this involves specifically the apostolic mission-work of proclaiming the Gospel and establishing congregations (such as those in Corinth). Much of 2 Corinthians is devoted to a defense by Paul of his role as an apostle, in relation to the Corinthians, urging them to recognize and affirm the relationship; this is well summarized here in the introduction.

2 Cor 1:22

“And the (One) making us stand firm with you in the Anointed (One), (hav)ing anointed us, (is) God, the (One) also (hav)ing sealed us and (hav)ing given the pledge of the Spirit in our hearts.” (vv. 21-22)

As part of his lengthy narration (narratio), Paul makes this reference, in passing, to the Spirit. The sealing (vb sfragi/zw) of believers, related to the idea of anointing (xri/w), very much has an eschatological significance. The seal is what marks the believer as belonging to God, and is based on our anointing (i.e. our union with the Anointed One), which is manifest through the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God and Christ. In the end-time Judgment, those marked as belonging to God (i.e. to Christ) will be saved. This eschatological emphasis is vividly depicted in the book of Revelation (7:3-4ff; 9:4; 14:1-5 [cp. 13:16-18]; 15:2; 17:8; 20:4). The Greek word a)rrabw/n is a Semitic loanword (Heb /obr*u@) used as a technical commercial term—something paid or given beforehand to confirm that a transaction will be fulfilled.

2 Cor 4:14

“And, holding th(is) the (same) Spirit of trust, according to the (thing) having been written, ‘I trusted, therefore I spoke’ [Ps 115:1a], even as we trusted, therefore also we spoke, seeing that the (One) (hav)ing raised the Lord Yeshua will also raise us (together) with Yeshua, and will make us stand alongside (him together) with you.” (vv. 13-14)

The passage in 4:7-15 builds upon the earlier discussion in 3:1-4:6 (see below), emphasizing the presence and work of the Spirit as an indication of the New Age being realized for believers already in the present, prior to the actual end of the current Age. Here this eschatological dimension to Paul’s argument is made clear with this reference to the future resurrection of believers (for more, cf. Part 2 on 1 Cor 15). We already share this power of the resurrection, being united with Jesus and participating (both symbolically and spiritually) in his own death and resurrection. Here the motif of the end-time resurrection includes the idea of believers being gathered together with Jesus at his return, and standing before him in the time of Judgment.

2 Cor 4:17-5:5

Here the same theme of resurrection and future life is developed further, using the natural image of the physical body as a tent. Of all the New Testament authors, Paul makes most use of the imagery of believers—individually and collectively—serving as the dwelling-place (tent/house/shrine) of God (1 Cor 3:16-17; 2 Cor 6:16; Rom 8:9-11; also Eph 2:21-22). Here the emphasis is more on the transitory nature of the tent as a dwelling place. Paul refers to this in the context of current/present suffering and hardship among believers:

“For the light(ness) of our distress th(at is) along at this (time) is work(ing) according to a throwing over (and) over (into) the weight of honor of the Ages for us.” (v. 17)

The Greek syntax here is almost impossible to translate literally. The main point is that the current “distress” (qli/yi$) believers face is slight compared to the eternal honor that awaits them at the end; indeed, the present suffering (on earth) leads to that heavenly honor and splendor. The honor that will come, especially, to those persecuted during the end-time period of distress is a common theme in the New Testament. The noun qli/yi$ served as an eschatological technical term for early Christians (Mark 13:19, 24; 1 Thess 1:6; 2 Thess 2:4, 6; Rev 7:14, etc), and it is unlikely that Paul would use it here without this connotation in mind (other occurrences of the word in 2 Corinthians are at 1:4, 8; 2:4; 6:4; 7:4; 8:2,13). It was believed that he and his readers were living in the end times, and the suffering experienced by believers (that for the sake of their Christian faith and identity, especially) was very much part of this end-time period of distress (Mk 13:9-13 par, etc).

References to believers as a house or shrine for the Spirit tend to have a strong ethical (and exhortational) context, drawing upon the idea that the dwelling place of God must be kept pure and holy (1 Cor 3:16-17; 2 Cor 6:16). The same is true here. That Paul has the sanctuary of the Tent-shrine (and Temple) primarily in mind is confirmed by the previous references to the Moses-traditions in 3:7-18 (cf. below). Moreover, the use of the adjective a)xeiropoi/hto$ (“made without hands”) almost certainly relates to the contrast between the earthly Temple and a “new” Temple as the true/spiritual dwelling of God, found at several key points in early Christian tradition—Mark 14:58; Acts 7:41, 48; cf. Col 2:11. Here, however, the “new” shrine is expressed in terms of the resurrection, a heavenly/spiritual ‘building’ which will be inherited by believers:

“For we have seen that, if our tent-house upon earth should be loosed down [i.e. dissolved], we hold a house-structure out of God, a house of the Ages [i.e. eternal] made without hands, in the heavens.” (v. 1)

The same verb katalu/w (“loose down”, i.e. dissolve, destroy) was used in the Temple-saying traditions of Jesus (Mark 13:2 par; 14:58 par; simple lu/w in John 2:19). In verse 2, the imagery shifts from a building structure to that of clothing—new clothing instead of a new house:

“Indeed, for in this we groan, longing for our house (we) keep (on earth) to be sunk in [i.e. clothed] (with) the (house) out of heaven upon (it).”

The middle verb en)du/omai literally mean “sink oneself in(to)”, usually in reference to a garment. In English idiom we might say “get into (some) clothes”. The verb e)kdu/omai means the opposite, i.e. get out of clothes. This leads to the motif of a person being naked (gumno/$, i.e. unclothed) with its strong ethical implications (v 3). Paul’s words in verse 4 emphasize the importance of the body in the Christian worldview. Contrary to the more extreme instances of metaphysical and ethical dualism, the goal is not to abandon the physical body, but to see it transformed. This takes place at the resurrection, and is accomplished through the Spirit of Christ; thus the passage concludes with the same statement as in 1:22 (cf. above)—the Spirit as a promise (a)rrabw/n), in the present, of what is to be fulfilled at the end.

2 Cor 5:10

The section 4:7-5:10 concludes with a traditional reference to human beings standing before the tribunal of God to face the Judgment. According to the Messianic and eschatological belief of early Christians, it is Jesus, as the Anointed and heavenly representative of God, who oversees the Judgment. Thus it is referred to as the “bh=ma of the Anointed One”, the word bh=ma meaning a raised location one reaches by ascending steps. For other references in 1 Corinthians, with a similar ethical purpose, cf. Part 1.

2 Cor 5:17

“So then, if any (one) (is) in (the) Anointed, (that is) a new formation [kti/si$]—the old (thing)s came [i.e. passed] along, (and) see! they have come to be new”

We are so accustomed of thinking of such statements by Paul (Gal 6:15, cf. also Eph 2:15; 4:24) in terms of the present aspect of our Christian identity, that it is easy to ignore the strong eschatological aspect that is primary to early Christian thought. Indeed, as previously noted, the presence and work of the Spirit among believers is a manifestation of the New Age having come, even before the current Age has actually ended (Acts 2:16-17ff, etc). The end of the Age was still thought to be imminent, coming soon, but there would be a period, however brief (or long), during which the New Age would experienced, but only by believers, in the Spirit.

2 Cor 6:2

“For he says: ‘In a (well-)received moment I heard to you(r request), and in a day of salvation I gave help to you.’ See, now (is) the well-received moment for (this); see, now (is) the day of salvation!”

Paul cites Isaiah 49:8, applying it to his own time and the situation of his readers. It is part of his entreaty in verse 1, “…we call you alongside, not to receive the favor of God into emptiness [i.e. in vain]”. This relates to the overall message of the letter, as he urges the Corinthians to acknowledge his apostolic role and position in relation to them. The citation from Isaiah functions as a reminder (and warning) to them that the end-time “Day of the Lord” is very near, and could occur at any moment. For non-believers this day or moment (kairo/$) is one of judgment and punishment, but for believers, it is a moment of salvation and deliverance. Many Christians have doubtless taken this out of context as a kind of evangelistic message, urging people to come to faith in Jesus. While Paul certainly affirms such a message, it is not at all what he means here. It is specifically an eschatological reference, though the actual expression “day of salvation” is rather rare, occurring only here.

2 Corinthians 3:7-18

One of the most striking (and beautiful) passages in the letter is Paul’s illustration making use of the Moses/Exodus traditions (of Exod 34) in 3:7-18. It is part of his series of arguments, built into the narration (narratio) section of the letter (1:12-2:17; 7:5-16), dealing with his own role and position of apostle, in relation to the congregations at Corinth. Chapter 3 specifically introduces the idea of Christian ministers, from outside, who become established (and accepted) in a new location through letters of recommendation introducing them to the congregations. Because of Paul’s missionary (apostolic) role in founding the Corinthian churches, he argues that it is hardly necessary for him to rely on such letters of recommendation (3:1ff). More than this, the deep bond of relation, between he and the Corinthians, is spiritual, as indeed it is for all believers in Christ. This leads to a discussion of the Christian ministry as part of the new covenant between God and His people (believers), a covenant based no longer based on the Old Testament Law (of Moses), but on the Spirit (v. 3). I have discussed this passage as part of a set of notes in the series on Paul’s View of the Law; here I wish to focus on the eschatological aspect of this “new covenant” teaching.

An important, and often overlooked, dimension of Paul’s view of the Law is that, as the central component of the old covenant, is fundamentally part of the older dispensation that governs the current Age. The work of Jesus, and, with it, the presence of the Spirit in and among believers, marks the onset of the new Age, even before the current Age actually comes to an end. For believers, the old has already come to an end, including the binding force of the old covenant and its Law (Torah). Many Christians today, eager to see Paul as a Jewish Christian who continued to recognize the binding force of the Torah, are reluctant (and/or unwilling) to admit the implications of his arguments—in Galatians, Romans, and here in 2 Corinthians. In referring to Jesus as “the completion of the Law”, he uses a word (te/lo$, “completion, end”) which also has strong eschatological significance, i.e. for the completion (end) of the current Age. This same idea is expressed rather differently in our passage; note how he frames the illustration in vv. 7-18, in two interlocking parallel parts (vv. 7-11, 12-18):

    • The glory of Moses’ face: Parameters of the Old Covenant—God’s People (Israel) could only see the glory of God through the intermediary of Moses (v. 7, 13)
      • This reflected glory has been fading, and now comes to an end—use of the verb katarge/w (a Pauline favorite), signifying that something is made to stop working (vv. 7b, 14b)
        • Christ is the end of the Old Covenant and beginning of the New—the Spirit
        • Image of the removal of the veil (vv. 8ff, 14-16)
      • This establishes a permanent glory, that never ends (vv. 10-11, 18a)
    • The glory of Believers’ faces: Parameters of the New Covenant—God’s People (Believers), united with Christ, through the Spirit, are now able to see the Glory of God directly (v. 18)

It is in the climactic verse 18, among the most beautiful statements Paul ever wrote, that the eschatological dimension of the illustration come most clearly into view:

“And we all, the cover having been lifted up (from our) face, (and) ourselves looking at the splendor of God (as) against (a glass), are being transformed into th(is same) image, from splendor into splendor, just as (it is) from the Spirit of the Lord.”

Here Paul simultaneously expresses both aspects of early Christian eschatology: (1) the future being already realized for believers in the present, and (2) the promise of it being fulfilled completely at the end. This two-fold aspect is indicated by the parallel prepositional phrase: “from [a)po/] splendor into [ei)$] splendor”. The first phrase represents the current situation, the splendor (do/ca) believers experience in the present; it is from this point that we move ahead. The second phrase indicates what awaits believers in the future, at the end—the future splendor (do/ca) into which we are moving. Central to the statement is the noun do/ca, primarily meaning something like “esteem, honor”, but, when used of God, often refers to His manifestation in splendor. After his encounter with YHWH, Moses reflected this divine splendor on his face, but the people were unable themselves to look on the same splendor. For believers, the situation is different—we are able to look upon the Divine splendor, as reflected in the pristine clarity of the Spirit (“the Spirit of the Lord”). However, and this is a key point—it can only be seen through the Spirit, at least in the present. In the future, at the end time, it will be seen by believers in a different way, no longer relying upon the inner sight given to us by the Spirit; instead, our transformed bodies (cf. 1 Cor 15, discussed in Part 2), given new form by the Spirit of the Lord, will be able to see all things openly.

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