Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 2)

The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this study, I surveyed the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse as represented by Mark 13. According to the common hypothesis, held by many critical scholars, the Gospel of Mark was used as a source by both Matthew and Luke. Whatever the precise relationship between the Synoptic Gospels, it is clear that they draw upon a common line of tradition, in which the same material occurs in the same sequence and setting. This is certainly true of the Eschatological Discourse. It is part of the common Synoptic narrative, derived either from Mark, or from a Gospel framework with a similar outline and set of contents. In discussing the Matthean version of the Discourse, I will be focusing almost entirely on the elements or features which are distinct or different from the Markan version. These may be viewed either as Matthean additions and modifications, or in terms of a particular (literary) arrangement and emphasis which the writer has given to the material.

Matthew 24

Matt 24:1-3—Introduction

Matthew’s version follows Mark quite closely, as can be seen already in the introduction (vv. 1-3; comp. Mk 13:1-4). Matthew’s account differs here in two respects: (1) it has a simpler narrative, with less local color/detail, and (2) it evinces a more distinctly Christian perspective. On the first point, one simply notes the omission of the disciples’ words in Mk 13:1 commenting on the great stones and buildings of the Temple complex, as also the fact that the disciples who subsequently approach Jesus (v. 3) are left unnamed (in Mk 13:3 they are identified as Peter, James, John, and Andrew). The second point touches upon the most significant difference in these verses—the form of the question posed by the disciples to Jesus. Compare the question in Mark and Matthew, respectively:

    • “Say to us [i.e. tell us], when will these (thing)s be, and what (is) the sign when all these (thing)s are about to be completed (all) together [suntelei=sqai]?” (Mk 13:4)
    • “Say to us [i.e. tell us], when will these (thing)s be, and what (is) the sign of your (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a] and (of) the completion together [sunte/leia] of th(is) Age?” (Matt 24:3b)

The first part is virtually identical, but the second portion differs considerably. In Mark the question refers, somewhat ambiguously, to “all these things”—in the present literary context, this must refer primarily to the time-frame of the Temple’s impending destruction; however, we may infer that other teaching regarding the end-time, especially the coming Judgment, may also be involved. The disciples ask for a sign (shmei=on) so they may known when these things will occur. The verb suntele/w, literally refers to “all these things” being completed together; an eschatological context is implied (i.e. the end of the current Age). Matthew’s version makes this context much more specific: “…the completion (all) together of th(is) Age“. The noun sunte/leia is related to the verb suntele/w, but functions as a distinct technical term (Dan [LXX] 8:17, 19; 11:27, 35, 40; 12:4, 6-7, 9; Matt 28:20; Heb 9:26; cf. also Testament of Zebulun 9:9; Benjamin 10:3, etc). More problematic is the way that this eschatological context is tied to the (early Christian) idea of Jesus’ future return, using the technical term parousi/a (parousia, “[com]ing to be alongside”). The actual disciples of Jesus, at this point, prior to his death and resurrection, would have had little or no sense of his future return. At best, they may have begun to connect his statements regarding the end-time appearance of the “Son of Man” with Jesus’ use of that expression as a self-designation. From the standpoint of historical accuracy, it is hard to see the disciples formulating the question this way. The Markan version is more realistic; Matthew here likely reflects a Christian gloss, or explanation, of the disciples’ words.

Matt 24:4-8—The sign(s) of what is to come

In Mark 13:5-8, Jesus gives an answer to the second question by the disciples (“what is the sign…?”), outlining several things which will occur before the coming of the end: (a) people coming falsely in Jesus’ name, (b) a period of warfare among the nations, and (c) shakings/earthquakes in various places. Matthew’s version is nearly identical in this description, with a number of small, but significant differences. Two may be noted:

i. In Mark 13:6 Jesus warns his disciples: “Many (people) will come upon my name, saying that ‘I am (he)’…”. This indicates that there will be persons who claim to speak for Jesus (prophetically), or, perhaps, claim to be Jesus himself. At the same time, later in the Discourse (vv. 21-22), Jesus warns of the coming of false Messiahs—lit. “false Anointed (One)s”, in Greek yeudo/xristoi (i.e. false Christs). Matthew’s version brings this association into the earlier saying as well:

“For many (people) will come upon my name, saying ‘I am the Anointed (One)'” (v. 5)

This appears to reflect a degree of confusion in the Gospel Tradition—a confusion which clears itself up instantly when we realize that, for early Christians, claiming to be the Messiah and claiming to be Jesus were effectively the same thing. From the standpoint of the historical Jesus’ teaching to his disciples, however, this simple identification is problematic. A warning against people claiming to be the Messiah is more realistic in a first-century eschatological setting; in this regard, Matthew’s version is perhaps closer to Jesus’ original intent.

ii. In Mark 13:7, Jesus says: “But when you hear of wars…”; Matthew (v. 6) phrases this a bit differently:

“And you are about to hear of wars…”

This has two subtle effects: (a) it enhances the passage as a prophetic declaration by Jesus, and (b) it distances the coming period of warfare from the present moment. This is perhaps significant in relation to Jesus’ statement in v. 6b (= Mk 13:7b) that “…the completion [te/lo$] is not yet (here)”.

Matt 24:9-14—The persecution (of the disciples) which is to come

Here Matthew’s version, while following the same outline as Mark, differs more substantially in the way the material is presented, as well as in the points of emphasis reflected in Jesus’ words. To begin with, the prediction in Mk 13:9 refers to the disciples being brought before the Jewish council(s), as well as the courts/tribunals of rulers (in the wider Greco-Roman world), enduring beatings and mistreatment during the process of interrogation. In Matthew, by contrast, the prediction is more general and harsher in nature:

“Then they will give you along into distress and will kill you off, 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.” (v. 9)

Another difference is that the statement in Mk 13:10 occurs in Matthew at the end of the section (v. 14, cf. below). It may be helpful to compare the Markan and Matthean versions, in outline (marked by letters to aid in comparison):

    • Mark 13:9-13:
      • [A] Interrogation and mistreatment of the disciples before ruling authorities (v. 9)
      • [B] Statement on the proclamation of the good message into all the nations (v. 10)
      • [C] Promise that the Holy Spirit will inspire the disciples when they speak (v. 11)
      • [D] Hostility and division within families (over the Gospel), leading to persecution and death (v. 12)
      • [E] Promise that the one who endures to the end will be saved (v. 13)
    • Matt 24:9-14:
      • [A*] Mistreatment of the disciples[, including being put to death; hatred by all people] (v. 9)
      • [**] Lack of faith and betrayal (i.e. abandoning the true/Christian faith) by many (v. 10)
      • [**] Rise of false prophets (v. 11, cf. v. 24)
      • [**] Increase in lawlessness and lack of love (v. 12)
      • [E] Promise that the one who endures to the end will be saved (v. 13)
      • [B*] Statement on the proclamation of the good message to all the nations (v. 14)
        Note: asterisks indicate sayings or details in Matthew not found in Mark

Matthew’s version thus differs from the Markan in three respects:

    • The suffering/persecution faced by the disciples (or believers) is made more general
    • The statements regarding the work of the Spirit and division within families (Mk 13:11-12) are replaced by a trio of statements describing the overall decline of both the (early Christian) Community and society in general; however, note the similar promise regarding the role of the Spirit in 10:9-10 (par Lk 12:11-12).
    • The statement on the proclamation of the Gospel to the nations occurs at the end of the section

Overall, in Matthew’s version, this section paints a more negative portrait of both the condition of the world (i.e. human society) and the difficulties faced by the disciples (believers) in this environment. On the one hand, the emphasis on a period of missionary work by the disciples, central to the Markan version of this section, is not present in Matthew’s version. At the same time, what remains of this mission (proclamation of the good message) is given a more robust formulation in the saying corresponding to Mk 13:10:

    • “And it is necessary first to proclaim the good message into all the nations.”
    • Matt 24:14:
      “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!”

The context and significance of these two statements are dramatically different. In Mark, the Jesus’ words simply indicate that the disciples will not face the persecution mentioned in 13:9 until they first begin to proclaim the good message. In Matthew, it becomes a sign of what must first happen before the end comes! This Matthean formulation, while authentic enough in comparison with, e.g., Lk 24:47-49; Acts 1:8; Matt 28:19-20, appears out of place at this point in the Eschatological Discourse, when judged from an historical-critical standpoint. The Markan version is much more realistic within the overall context of this material. Again, Matt 24:14 may well be an early Christian gloss, reflecting (accurately) the belief that a period of extensive missionary work would have to occur before the end comes. This will be discussed further in Parts 3 and 4, as well as in the study on the eschatology in the book of Acts.

Matt 24:15-28—The period of great distress before the end

This section corresponds to Mark 13:14-23, and follows it relatively closely in outline and in much of the wording. However, Matthew has an expanded, developed form of this material, primarily in verses 26-28 which appear to have been added/appended to the Synoptic section (represented by Mark); their secondary character is confirmed by the fact that Luke has the same sayings as vv. 27-28, but in an entirely different location (17:24, 37). This does not mean that the sayings are inauthentic; on the contrary, it confirms that the Discourse itself is most likely a traditional/literary arrangement of (authentic) material on eschatological themes. Matthew simply has a more extensive arrangement at this point.

This first significant point of difference is in the allusion to Dan 9:27 in Mark 13:14, which Matthew (v. 15) makes specific and turns into a direct citation; compare (differences in italics):

    • But when you should see the stinking thing [bde/lugma] of desolation having stood where it is necessary (that it should) not—the one knowing this again (through reading) must put his mind (to it)—then the (one)s in Yehudah must flee into the mountains…” (Mk 13:14)
    • Therefore when you should see ‘the stinking thing of desolation’ that was uttered through Danîyel the Foreteller (now) having stood in the holy place—the one knowing this again (through reading) must put his mind (to it)—then the (one)s in Yehudah must flee into the mountains…” (Matt 24:15-16)

If the saying of Jesus in Mark is authentic (in that precise wording), then most likely Matthew has modified it to give clarity for his readers, making clear that: (a) the expression “the stinking thing of desolation” comes from Daniel (9:27), and (b) that the phrase “having stood where it is necessary (that it should) not” refers to a location in the Temple (“holy place”), that is, in the sanctuary, as indicated in Daniel. I have discussed Dan 9:24-27 in its original context in an earlier detailed study. Most commentators accept that v. 27 refers primarily to the desecration of the Temple by the Syrian/Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes, with a corresponding disruption of the Temple ritual, 167-164 B.C. According to 1 Maccabees 1:54, this involved a pagan altar that Antiochus IV had set upon the altar in the Temple (v. 59, also 4:43), and upon which, it would seem, unlawful/unclean pagan sacrifices were offered (cf. 2 Macc 6:5). In his Commentary on Daniel (11:31), Jerome states that Antiochus IV had set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Jerusalem Temple, a pattern which was to be repeated by the emperor Gaius (Caligula). Jesus’ use of Dan 9:27 indicates that he is predicting something similar to happen at the end-time, and it could conceivably relate to the historical actions/intentions of the emperor (c. 40 A.D.).

It is not clear what the editorial aside (in English idiom, something like “let the reader understand”) means specifically. The author who inserted it (whether the [Markan] Gospel writer or an earlier source) must have assumed his audience would have understood the context and significance of Jesus’ saying, and is thus referring to an early interpretation, perhaps tying it to the present circumstances related to Roman rule over Jerusalem. That is certainly how it is interpreted in the Lukan version (to be discussed in Part 3), where it is connected with the (Roman) siege of Jerusalem, fulfilled in 70 A.D. Matthew’s version, however, does not take that step, but follows the Synoptic/Markan form of the section closely. Whatever is to take place in the Temple, it marks the beginning of the brief but intense period of “great distress” for Judea described in vv. 17ff (par Mk 13:15-22). The summary statement utilizing the expression (“great distress”) is a citation/allusion from Dan 12:1; in Mark (13:19) it reads:

“For (in) those days there will be distress [qli/yi$], (and) of such (kind) as this (there) has not come to be, from the beginning of (the world’s) formation which God formed, until now, and (surely) will not (ever) come to be (again)!”

Matthew has a slightly different formulation, simpler and more pointed:

“For then there will be great distress, such as has not come to be, from the beginning of the world-order [ko/smo$] until now, and (so) will not (ever) come to be (again)!” (Matt 24:21)

The expression “great distress” suggests a development in the tradition (cf. Rev 7:14), echoed by the expanded version of the remainder of the section in Matthew, with the addition of the sayings in vv. 26-28. The effect of this expansion to enhance the role of believers (the elect) during this period. In Mark, the structure of the section may be outlined:

    • Allusion to Dan 9:27, marking the time of distress (13:14a)
    • Warnings and instruction regarding the severity of the coming distress, in traditional language and imagery (vv. 14b-18)
    • Statement on the time of distress (v. 19)
    • The Elect in the time of distress (vv. 20-22)
      —It will be cut short through the (presence/activity of the) Elect (v. 20)
      —False claims that the Messiah has appeared or is in a particular location (v. 21)
      —The appearance of miracle-working false Messiahs/prophets who might deceive the Elect (v. 22)
    • Final exhortation (v. 23)

Here is the portion corresponding to vv. 20-23 in Matthew:

    • The Elect in the time of distress (24:22-28)
      • Duration: It will be cut short through the (presence/activity of the) Elect (v. 22)
      • Character of it: A time of testing for the Elect—False signs and testimony:
        —Claims that the Messiah has appeared (v. 23)
        —Appearance of miracle-working false Messiahs/prophets (v. 24)
        —Importance of this: Jesus is warning them ahead of time (v. 25)
        —Claims that the Messiah has appeared in various locations, outdoor and inside (v. 26)
        —The true Messiah (Son of Man) will appear suddenly, in a manner visible and unmistakable to everyone (v. 27)
        —Proverb: The false prophets are like vultures circling around, taking advantage of the time of distress (v. 28)

The closing exhortation in Mark 13:23 thus serves a different purpose in Matthew: instead of being an assurance by Jesus to his disciples that they will be able to recognize the signs and events of the end-time when they come, it specifically relates to the appearance of false Messiahs and false prophets. This takes on much greater importance in Matthew’s version, and the three added sayings enhance and reinforce the message:

    • 26—Repeated warning regarding claims that the Messiah has appeared
    • 27—Contrast with the actual appearance of the true Messiah (Son of Man), that it will be clear and unmistakable to everyone
    • 28—Closing illustration: The false Messiahs/prophets are like vultures circling around a dead body, taking advantage of people in the time of distress

This is an altogether different sort of eschatological setting for the material than in the Gospel of Luke (17:23-24, 37); the way these sayings were adapted and included by each Gospel writer will be discussed in Part 3 on the Lukan version of the Discourse.

Matt 24:29-31—The appearance of the Son of Man at the end-time

In the outline of the Discourse, the section describing the time of distress is followed by a description of the Son of Man’s appearance, which contains three pieces:

    • Supernatural celestial phenomena—combination of Scripture allusions, drawing upon the language/imagery of theophany (manifestation of God) [Mk 13:24-25]
    • The appearance of the Son of Man (allusion to Dan 7:13) [Mk 13:26]
    • The gathering of the Elect by the Angels [Mk 13:27]

Matthew follows Mark closely here; the only real difference is in the actual description of the Son of Man’s appearance (Matt 24:30 / Mk 13:26), where the Markan saying is preceded by two additional statements (in italics), each beginning “and then…” (kai\ to/te):

And then the sign of the Son of Man will shine forth in heaven, and then all the offshoots [i.e. tribes/races] of the earth will beat (themselves), and they will look with (open) eyes at the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with much power and splendor.”

Let us consider each of these additions:

    • “the sign of the Son of Man will shine forth in (the) heaven”—On the one hand, this serves to distinguish the Son of Man’s actual appearance from the celestial phenomena which preceded it. These were signs that he (a divine/heavenly being who represents God himself) was about to appear, but now his presence, as he comes down from heaven, is marked by a special sign in the sky. At the same time, the context here suggests that the sign (shmei=on) is to be understood as the cross—symbol of the Son of Man’s (Jesus’) suffering and death.
    • “all the offshoots of the earth will beat (themselves)”—If there is a sign in the heaven of Jesus’ suffering and death, so there is also a corresponding sign on earth, which follows in response. The earth’s “offshoots” (i.e. the tribes and races of people) beat themselves in an act of collective mourning. This is an allusion to Zech 12:10, interpreted in light of Jesus’ death (cf. John 19:37). Revelation 1:7 also combines Dan 7:13 with Zech 12:10 in a similar eschatological context, referring to the exalted Jesus’ visible return to earth at the end time.

Both of these additions make more specific what would otherwise have to be inferred by early Christians in this, as in all the other, eschatological Son of Man sayings (cf. the earlier study)—that the Son of Man’s appearance is to be equated with Jesus’ future return. This is confirmed by the way that the Son of Man is specifically identified here with Jesus in his exalted state (in Heaven), following his death and resurrection. Again, it is easier to view these statements as explanatory additions by the Gospel writer, and that Mark (13:26) more closely approximates the original saying of Jesus.

Matt 24:32-25—Sayings and illustrations on when the end will occur

Matthew follows Mark in this section very closely, almost verbatim. One small, but possibly significant difference is in the application of the fig-tree parable. Mark (13:29) reads: “So also you, when you see these (thing)s coming to be [gino/mena]…” Matthew (24:33) does not include the participle “coming to be”, stating more flatly, “…when you see these (thing)s”. It is possible that this is intended to avoid the implication that all these things will, indeed, come to pass for the disciples, i.e. in their own lifetime. If so, then it might give a slightly different sense to the famous statement that follows in verse 34 (par Mk 13:30), distancing “this generation” from the current generation whom Jesus is addressing. This is possible, though rather unlikely, and is, in any case, untenable as the original meaning intended by Jesus. I discuss this difficult saying in a separate study (upcoming) on “Imminent Eschatology” in the Gospels.

Matt 24:36-44—Concluding exhortation and illustration(s)

This corresponding section in Mark (13:32-37) brings the Discourse to a conclusion; it has a relatively simple structure:

    • Declaration that no one knows the exact time (day and hour) of the end, though it is coming soon (v. 32)
    • Exhortation to stay awake/alert (vv. 33-37)
      • Initial warning/exhortation (v. 33)
      • Illustration of the Master who goes away (v. 34)
      • Application for disciples/believers (vv. 35-36)
      • Final exhortation (v. 37)

This has been modified/expanded significantly in Matthew’s version (24:36-44ff):

    • Declaration on knowing the day and hour (v. 36, nearly identical to Mark)
    • Illustrations on the sudden/unexpected coming of the Judgment (vv. 37-41)
    • Illustration on the coming of the Lord / Son of Man (vv. 42-44)
    • Illustration of the Faithful Servant (vv. 45-51)

Verses 42-44 generally correspond to Mk 13:33-37, but in simpler form and with a distinctive emphasis, which specifically interprets the core illustration in terms of the end-time coming of the Son of Man and the return of Jesus. The bracketing exhortations in vv. 42 and 44 make this abundantly clear (note the italicized words):

    • “(So) then, you must keep awake/alert, (in) that you do have not seen on what day your Lord comes!” (v. 42)
    • “Through this you must come to be (made) ready, (in) that (it is) in an hour which you do not consider (that) the Son of Man comes.” (v. 44)

The first statement could be understood in the traditional sense of the coming of God (YHWH, the Lord) at the end time (i.e. the day of YHWH); but, when paired with the similar saying involving the “Son of Man” (i.e. Jesus) in an early Christian context, it can only refer to the end-time return of Jesus. Again, Matthew makes specific what would otherwise have to be inferred in Mark’s version.

Matthew also includes significant additional material, in verses 37-41 and 45-51. The sayings in vv. 37-41 are part of the so-called “Q” material, common to Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark. Luke has these sayings in a different location (Lk 17:26-27, 34-35), in a separate section of eschatological instruction (17:20-37). They will be discussed in more detail in Part 3 on the Lukan version of the Discourse. In the Matthean context, the sayings build upon the statement in verse 36 about knowing the day and hour; they are traditional (and proverbial) illustrations to the point that the end-time Judgment will come upon people unexpectedly—most of the population will be overcome and destroyed, while only the faithful ones will be saved. The detail of the illustration in vv. 40-41 is not entirely certain; there are two figure-types—one who is “taken along” and the other who is “released” or “left”. It clearly is meant to distinguish between those saved from the Judgment and those destroyed by it, but uncertainty remains among commentators as to which figure-type represents which category; there are two possibilities (I tend to prefer the latter):

    • “taken along”, i.e. into the ark (salvation); “left” (behind) to face the Judgment
    • “taken along”, i.e. by the flood (destruction); “left” (behind) to survive the Judgment
Matt 24:45-51—An additional (transitional) parable

The parable in vv. 45-51 is unique to Matthew here, and is not part of the Markan/Synoptic Discourse, though it corresponds to the pattern of a number of Jesus’ parables. It features the familiar idea of a Master who goes away, leaving his land/estate in the care of servants. The primary purpose of this parable type is as a vehicle for ethical instruction—i.e., whether the servant will be faithful diligent while the Master is away. The juxtaposition of the two servant types—one faithful, the other lazy/wicked—was a natural fit for the eschatological aspect of such parables. The end-time Judgment would separate the righteous from the wicked, a motif present in most of the eschatological parables, especially the Matthean parables of the Weeds (13:24-30, 36-43) and the Fish-net (13:47-50), as well as those which follow here in chapter 25 (cf. below). If the illustrations in vv. 37-41 build upon the saying in v. 36, the parable in vv. 45-51 builds upon the sayings/illustration of vv. 42-44, demonstrating the importance (and ultimate consequence) of believers acting and behaving faithfully which the Master (Jesus) is away.

Nearly all of the distinctive elements and characteristics of Matthew’s version of the Discourse seem to point in the direction of an early Christian interpretation of Jesus’ (original) sayings, as, for example, in identifying the “Son of Man” more precisely with Jesus himself (and his end-time/future return). At every point, Mark appears to have the more ‘primitive’ version of the material, closer to the context and setting of the authentic sayings. The inclusion of sayings, which Luke preserves in an entirely different location, as part of the Discourse, confirms a level of (secondary) development in Matthew’s version. This must not be misunderstood—it reflects an interpretive layer in addition to the Synoptic material which otherwise more closely reflects the authentic historical tradition. It does not, by any reasonable standard, contradict or invalidate the historicity of the tradition.

On Chapter 25

The expanded nature of Matthew’s version of the Discourse is made even more clear when one considers the place of the three parables in chapter 25. These were discussed already in the earlier study on the eschatological Parables. As I did in that study, those three parables are often treated separately from the Eschatological Discourse; however, the Gospel writer, by all accounts, regards them (and presents them) as part of the Discourse. There is no indication of any break in the narrative between chapters 24 and 25, indicating that, on the narrative and literary level, they represent a single Sermon-Discourse, much as chapters 5-7 are presented as a single “Sermon”. The parable in 24:45-51 is transitional to the three great parables in chapter 25. They all deal with the contrast between faithful and negligent servants, true and false disciples, in the (eschatological) framework of the coming end-time Judgment. The first two parables follow the pattern of the Master who has gone away and is about to return, just as in the illustrations which close the Discourse proper in chap. 24 (cf. above). When viewed in this light, taking chapters 24 and 25 together, it shows just how far, and to what extent, the Synoptic Discourse was adapted in the Gospel of Matthew. Only in Matthew’s version is the end-time Judgment and appearance of the Son of Man completed with a vision of the final Judgment taking place in the heavenly court (25:31-46), ending with the clearest possible description of the fate of the righteous and wicked respectively. In this regard, Matthew’s version of the Discourse is closer to the scope and vision of the book of Revelation, which moves between predictions (visions) of the end-time Judgment, and scenes set in Heaven before the throne of God (cf. the current series of daily notes on Revelation). Moreover, it is in Matthew’s version that the exalted position of Jesus (as Son of Man) is given greatest emphasis.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 1)

The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 1)

The most extensive eschatological teaching by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels is found in the so-called “Eschatological Discourse” in Mark 13 (par Matthew 24 & Luke 21:5-36). Within the Synoptic framework, it is presented as a sermon or discourse by Jesus; however, many scholars feel that this arrangement is literary (and traditional) rather than historical. That is to say, it represents a collection of eschatological teaching by Jesus which may have originally been uttered on separate occasions. This view would seem to be confirmed by the evidence from Matthew and Luke, where eschatological sayings recorded in other locations (in Luke) are incorporated as part of the “discourse” (in Matthew). It is useful, however, to begin with the Gospel of Mark, as representing the core Synoptic Tradition. The distinctive features and elements of the Matthean and Lukan versions will be examined in Parts 2 and 3 of this study, respectively.

Mark 13

An outline of the Markan version of the Eschatological Discourse gives some indication, I think, of how different sayings or traditions might have been combined. This is not to say that Jesus might not have given a longer discourse, dealing with eschatological matters, which resembles the Synoptic Discourse; but the thematic arrangement of the sayings and parables of Jesus is, on the whole, better viewed as a result of the early collection and transmission of the material. On this basis alone, however, there is no (objective) reason to doubt the authenticity of any of the sayings. Here is an outline of the Markan Discourse:

    • Vv. 1-2—Narrative introduction, including:
      • Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple (v. 2)
    • Vv. 3-4—Introduction to the Discourse: Question by the disciples
    • Vv. 5-8—”Birth Pains”: Things which will occur before the end
      —Appearance of false Messiahs/Christs (v. 6)
      —Wars among the nations (vv. 7-8a)
      —Natural disasters and famine (v. 8b)
    • Vv. 9-13—Persecution of the Disciples which will occur before the end, reflecting missionary work among both Jews and Gentiles
    • Vv. 14-23—Sayings regarding the affliction which will come upon Judea
      —Saying concerning the “abomination of desolation” (v. 14)
      —Warning of the coming suffering (vv. 15-20)
      —Repeated reference to the appearance of false Messiahs/Christs (vv. 21-22)
      —Concluding exhortation (v. 23)
    • Vv. 24-27—The appearance of the Son of Man
    • Vv. 28-31—Sayings on the time when the end will come
      —Illustration of the fig-tree (vv. 28-29)
      —Two sayings with the verb pare/rxomai (vv. 30-31)
    • Vv. 32-37—Concluding Parable (and Sayings)
Mark 13:1-2

The narrative introduction provides the general setting for the discourse, in the vicinity of the Jerusalem Temple:

“And (at) his traveling out of the Sacred Place, one of his learners [i.e. disciples] says to him, ‘Teacher, (do you) see what sort of stones and what sort of buildings (these are)?'”

This expression of amazement reflects the grandeur of the Herodian Temple in Jesus’ day, which is described extensively by Josephus (Antiquities 15.380-425; Wars 5.184-227). The size and beauty of the building, and its great stones, would have been impressive indeed; Jesus, however, declares:

“(Are) you look(ing) at these great buildings? (Yet) there shall not be here (even one) stone left upon (another) stone which shall not be loosed down!” (v. 2)

This must be regarded as a prediction of the Temple’s destruction, which, of course, came to pass in 70 A.D. as a result of the Jewish revolt and Roman siege of Jerusalem. It is important as a general time-frame for the Eschatological Discourse. The Lukan version gives much greater emphasis to the Roman attack on the city.

For more on the eschatological aspects of the Temple—especially the Temple action and saying(s) by Jesus—cf. the supplemental article on this subject.

Mark 13:3-4

With these verses, the Discourse begins, though the introduction clearly continues from where the narrative introduction in vv. 1-2 leaves off—with its connection to the Temple (note the similar structure):

“And (at) his sitting (down near) unto the Mount of the Olive-trees, down opposite to the Sacred Place [i.e. Temple], on their own [i.e. privately]…they asked him…” (v. 3)

The introductory statement, as in verse 1, culminates with a question by the disciples—here the ones who ask are identified as Peter, James, John and Andrew. Their question must be understood, in context, in relation to Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction. It is actually a two-fold question which serves the (literary) purpose of joining Jesus’ Temple saying with the eschatological instruction which follows:

    • “when will these (thing)s be?”
    • “what (shall be) the sign when all these (thing)s are about to be completed together?”

In Matthew’s version, the disciples’ second question is more precisely eschatological, framed in more obvious Christian terms: “what is the sign of your (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a] and (of) the completion (all) together of th(is) Age?”. In Mark, however, the question is more general and ambiguous—to what “things” exactly are the disciples referring? Is it simply to the destruction of the Temple, or does it imply other eschatological teaching by Jesus? The literary context of the Discourse requires the latter, and points to the very teaching which follows in vv. 5ff.

Mark 13:5-8

Jesus’ initial response deals more with the disciples’ second question (“what shall be the sign…?”) rather than the first (“when…?”). He offers three such “signs”, which are summarily described as “the beginning of the (birth) pains” (v. 8); these are:

1. Persons claiming to be Jesus and/or speak in his name, causing many to go astray (vv. 5-6). Here is how this is stated in Mark’s version:

And Yeshua began to say to them, “You must look (carefully so that) someone should not lead you astray—(for) many will come upon my name saying that ‘I am (he)’, and will lead many astray.”

There is some confusion in the Gospel tradition here as to whether Jesus is speaking of people claiming to be him (i.e. Jesus) and speak for him, or whether they are claiming to be the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ). Early Christians would have treated these essentially as identical situations, but it is not so clear how this might have been framed by (the historical) Jesus to his followers. This will be discussed further when we examine the Matthean and Lukan versions, and when we come to verses 21-22 below.

2. A period of warfare among the nations (vv. 7-8a). Syntactically, the second and third signs should be discussed together; however, thematically, it is useful to keep them distinct:

“And when you should hear of wars and the hearings [i.e. rumors] of wars, you must not be frightened (by these things)—they need to come to be, but the completion (of them) is not yet (here). For nation will rise upon nation and kingdom upon kingdom…”

This would seem to refer to a period of relatively widespread warfare, involving a number of different nations and kingdoms. The book of Revelation describes something similar in the visions of the first four seals (i.e. the four horses and riders) in 6:2-8—they represent an intense period of war which has a devastating effect upon society. For those eager to place these verses in a more precise time-frame, it is virtually impossible to do so, as there have been many periods of widespread warfare from the first century A.D. down to the present time in the 21st century. Also, it may be claimed that Jesus is here referring to a mindset and outlook, reflecting human wickedness and violence, and its effects, as much as to any specific events.

3. Natural disaster and famine (v. 8b). This continues from the description of the period of warfare:

“…(and) there will be shakings [i.e. earthquakes] down in (many) places, (and) there will (also) be (time)s of hunger [i.e. famine]…

In the seal visions of Revelation, famine and food-shortage also follows the period of warfare among the nations (6:5-6, 8b), as well as “shakings” of the earth (vv. 12-13ff). Interestingly, there is no real indication that the book of Revelation is consciously following the Eschatological Discourse, even though both passages express the same basic message and traditional sequence. Jesus describes all of these signs in vv. 5-8 with the declaration that “these (are the) beginning of (the birth) pains” (a)rxh\ w)di/nwn tau=ta). Childbirth was frequently used as a metaphor for human suffering, either in the negative sense of pain (and possible death) or the positive sense of the joy which replaces the pain when the child is delivered. Of the many relevant passages in Scripture, cf. Gen 3:16-17; Psalm 48:6; Mic 4:9-10; Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17-19; 42:14; 66:7-8; Jer 4:31; 22:23; 48:41; 49:22ff; John 16:21; Gal 4:19. Several other passages in the New Testament use the motif of childbirth, and the pains associated with it, in an eschatological sense or context:

    • The suffering of Judea/Jerusalem predicted by Jesus in Luke 23:28-31, which will be touched on briefly in the study on the Lukan version of the Eschatological discourse.
    • Paul’s statement in Romans 8:22: “we see that all creation groans together and is in pain together until now”.
    • The vision of the Woman and the Dragon in Revelation 12.

In fact, the eschatological motif is traditional; the time of suffering, marking the end of the current Age, came to be referred to as “the birth pains of the Messiah”.

Mark 13:9-13

Surely to be included among the “signs” of things which must occur before the end is the prediction of persecution and suffering of Jesus’ disciples, implying a period of missionary work which would extend outside the confines of Judea into the Gentile world. This idea was fundamental to New Testament eschatology at the time the Gospels were written (c. 60-80 A.D.), and especially so in the Gospel of Luke. It is less pronounced and developed in Mark, but it is still present (v. 10), as part of the Synoptic tradition. Verses 9-10 outline the missionary work and reflects the experience (narrated in the book of Acts) of a number of the disciples who were arrested and interrogated by government officials:

    • 9a: Among Jews (in Judea and beyond)—given over to the ruling bodies (“sitting together”, sune/drion, i.e. sanhedrin) & beaten in the places of gathering (“being brought together”, sunagwgh/, i.e. synagogue)
    • 9b: Into the wider world, which presumably include the Gentile kingdoms—made to stand before governors and kings, as a witness to them on behalf of Jesus

The period of early Christian mission is stated succinctly in verse 10:

“And first it is necessary to proclaim the good message into all the nations.”

It is easy to misunderstand the significance of this, as though it required an extensive worldwide mission (in the modern sense) before the end would come. Matthew’s version (24:14) does suggest something of the kind, but we must be cautious about reading that wording into Mark’s account. The use of the adverb prw=ton (“first”) here in Mark, I believe, is intended primarily to make clear what might seem obvious—before the disciples will experience these things, they must first begin to proclaim the Gospel (“good message”). It establishes the need for the early Christian mission, without any real indication of the time-period involved.

The persecution which Jesus’ disciples will experience is further summarized in three distinct sayings:

    • A promise that the Holy Spirit will inspire the disciples, giving them the ability to speak and offer a defense (v. 11)
    • Following Jesus will lead to violent splits within families (v. 12)
    • A declaration of the hatred believers will face from people, along with an exhortation to endure and remain faithful (v. 13)

This last saying involves an eschatological promise of salvation—i.e. the heavenly reward of (eternal) Life:

“But the one remaining under unto the completion, this (one) will be saved.”

We are accustomed to viewing this as a promise to all believers, and, indeed this is appropriate; however, if we consider it strictly in terms of the historical situation (i.e. the disciples whom Jesus was actually addressing at the time), it would tend to support the expectation that the end was to come within the lifetime of the first disciples.

It is interesting to note that the seal-visions in Revelation also include a reference to the persecution of believers (cf. the fifth seal, 6:9-11) in a roughly similar sequence.

Mark 13:14-23

Another intense period of suffering and distress is described in vv. 14-23, with certain similarities to what has gone before in the Discourse. This raises the question as to whether the three sections—vv. 5-8, 9-13, and 14-23—are meant to describe sequential events or are different ways of describing the same general period (i.e. of events to occur before the end). Verses 9-13, referring to the persecution of believers, presumably is not meant to be taken as a period of time separate from the suffering in vv. 5-8 and 14-23. If these various sayings were originally uttered in different settings, this can no longer be reconstructed; we must work from the arrangement in the Discourse as it has come down to us. I suspect that vv. 5-13 are meant to be taken together as referring to the same ‘stage’, if you will; the exact relationship to vv. 14-23 is less certain. From a literary standpoint, the wording in verse 14 is transitional, creating a point of contrast with the promise of salvation in v. 13 (“But when you see…”). The exact setting or scenario described in this section is rather vague and allusive, at least in the Markan version of the Discourse. Several points can be determined with certainty:

    • It involves an allusion to Daniel 9:27 (v. 14)
    • It refers to something which will be localized in Judea
    • It involves suffering and trauma which will upset much, or all, of society (vv. 14b-19)
    • It will be an especially intense, though brief, period of suffering (v. 20)
    • In the midst of it, there will be false Messiahs and false prophets (vv. 21-22)

In Luke’s version (to be discussed), this is all presented in terms of a military invasion of Jerusalem. However, it is poor method simply to read this into Mark’s version, which otherwise makes no clear reference to such an invasion (apart, possibly, from the allusion to Dan 9:27). Even so, it must be said that nearly all of vv. 14-22 could well fit the setting of the war of 66-70 A.D. and the ultimate siege and destruction of Jerusalem, according to the historical accounts narrated by Josephus. This will be discussed in the concluding part of our study.

In my view, all of verses 5-22 describe a single, intense (and relatively brief?) period of suffering and distress which precedes the coming of the end. It is the same period, with three different points of focus:

    • The effect on the world (nations) and people in general (vv. 5-8)
    • The effect on the disciples (believers) (vv. 9-13)
    • The effect on Judea (and Jerusalem) (vv. 14-22)

Jesus’ concluding words in verse 23 are often overlooked, but they are important in the way that they clearly summarize and mark off the events preceding the end from the end itself: “And (now) you must look (closely): (for) I have spoke all (thing)s to you before(hand)”. The disciples now have all they need to recognize the signs that the end is about to come.

Mark 13:24-27

The description of the end itself begins in verse 24, as indicated clearly by the opening words:

“But in those days after that (time of) distress [qli=yi$]…”

The period covered by vv. 5-22 is called qli=yi$ (“crushing [force], pressure, [dis]tress”), the same word used, in a very similar sense, in Revelation 1:9 and 7:14. In translation, the word has taken on a life of its own in modern eschatology as “the Great Tribulation” (from the phrase in Rev 7:14). It is important, however, to stay rooted to the Greek text, and remain focused, for the moment, on the Eschatological Discourse here in Mark. Nothing more is said about this “distress”, only what comes after it—namely, the appearance of the Son of Man. This appearance is accompanied by an upheaval of the natural order of things in the universe, drawing upon the ancient/traditional language of theophany—i.e. the manifestation of God within creation. Nature itself can not withstand the appearance of God, falling and submitting before him; moreover, the forces of nature and the heavens are obedient to God and work as servants on His behalf. This sort of imagery is expressed numerous times in the Old Testament, especially in Prophets, where it begins to take on an eschatological coloring. The description in vv. 24-26 by Jesus is taken from passages such as Isaiah 13:10; 14:12; 34:4; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; and Ezek 32:7. The sixth seal-vision in Revelation 6:12-14ff describes similar cosmic phenomena, but without culminating in the appearance of the Son of Man. That moment is described here as follows:

“Then they will look with (open) eyes at the Son of Man coming in/on (the) clouds with much power and splendor.” (v. 27)

This is largely drawn from Daniel 7:13-14, but apparently with a difference in orientation—instead of the Son of Man coming toward God (v. 13), he comes to earth as God’s representative to judge humankind and deliver the faithful ones among God’s people (more closely related to v. 14). It is the latter aspect of deliverance which is emphasized by Jesus in verse 28:

“And then he will send forth the Messengers and they will bring together upon (one place) [his] (chosen one)s gathered out, (from) out of the four winds, from the (farthest) point of earth unto the (farthest) point of heaven.”

This is salvation in the proper New Testament sense—deliverance from sin and wickedness at the end-time and being saved from the final Judgment. Only in the later strands of the New Testament do we see a definite shift from final (eschatological) salvation to the experience of believers in the present (i.e. ‘realized’ eschatology).

For more on the influence of Daniel in the Eschatological Discourse, cf. the supplemental study on 7:13-14 and 9:27.

Mark 13:28-31

Here we encounter two of the more controversial pieces in the Eschatological Discourse: (a) the illustration of the fig tree (vv. 28-29) and (b) the saying on “this generation” in v. 30.

On the surface the parable/illustration of the fig tree is simple and straightforward, being similar in style to the mustard seed/tree parable (Mk 4:30-32 par). It also resembles the illustration on interpreting the ‘signs of the time’ in Luke 12:54-56 / Matt 16:1-3. As in a number of Jesus’ parables, it uses an easily understandable observation from farming and the natural world to describe some aspect of the Kingdom. Though not specifically indicated here as a Kingdom-parable, it may fairly be characterized as relating to the end-time appearance of the Kingdom of God. The comparison is clear enough:

    • When the branch is soft and puts out leaves, you can tell that summer is near (v. 28)
    • When the disciples see “these things [tau=ta]” coming to pass, they will know that “it is near” (v. 29)

In context, “these (thing)s” can only refer to the signs Jesus has spoken of in vv. 5-22—the things which are to take place before the end comes. Similarly, the generic statement “it is near…”, refers to the coming of the end—specifically, the coming of the Son of Man which ushers in the final Judgment. The exact phrase used is “it is near upon the gates”, which could be an allusion to the gates of the city (Jerusalem), though it need not be taken that concretely.

It has become popular in some circles to identify the fig tree as a particular symbol of Israel (the people or nation/state). This, however, is misplaced. The fig tree and vine together serve as symbols of blessing and fruitfulness, but in a general, proverbial sense; it can, of course, be applied to Israel as God’s people, but only in Hosea 9:10 is there anything like a direct connection (fig tree = Israel). The blossoming fig branch here refers not to Israel, but to the coming of the end and the appearance of the Son of Man.

In verses 30-31 we have two seemingly unrelated sayings; they are connected by common use of the verb pare/rxomai (“come/go along[side]”). This is an example of what commentators call “catchword-bonding”, and serves as evidence in support of the view that the Discourse is a collection of sayings, etc, which may originally have been uttered by Jesus on different occasions. Early Christians brought this material together, arranging it by theme (eschatology) or on the basis of common words and phrases. This would have begun to occur at the level of oral tradition, helping the earliest believers to remember and transmit the teachings of Jesus, and continued as the first collections were written down. It is possible that Jesus did utter both sayings together, and that the wordplay is his own, but given the many examples of “catchword-bonding” in the Gospel tradition, the critical view seems more likely. Here are the two sayings taken together:

    • “Amen, I relate to you that this (period of) coming to be [genea/] shall (certainly) not go along [pare/lqh|] until the (time at) which all these (thing)s shall come to be.” (v. 30)
    • “The heaven and the earth will go along [pareleu/sontai], but my words [lo/goi] will not (ever) go along [pareleu/sontai].” (v. 31)

The first saying uses the verb in connection with the noun genea/, which fundamentally refers to something coming to be (born) [vb. gi/nomai], often in the sense of (1) a group of people from a common line of birth, or (2) an age or period when people were born (and lived). In both cases, the English word “generation” (itself related to the Greek) is typically used to translate. Here, for the first time in the Discourse, Jesus addresses the initial question posed by the disciples in verse 4: “When will these (thing)s be?” As the saying in verse 30 makes clear, “these things” will take place before “this generation” goes away. A more precise interpretation of the time indicated here is difficult and has proven controversial, for a variety of reasons (and cf. verse 32 as a word of caution). It will be discussed in more detail in the article on “imminent eschatology” in the sayings of Jesus.

The second saying (v. 31), in context, serves to reinforce the reliability of Jesus’ teaching regarding the coming of the end. His words will last longer than heaven and earth themselves (i.e. the created order), remaining after the physical universe has disappeared. There may be an allusion to Scriptures such as Isa 40:8; 51:6; Psalm 119:89; cf. also Jesus’ statement in Matt 5:18.

Mark 13:32-37

The Discourse concludes with a short block of material that centers around a parable by Jesus, utilizing the familiar setting of the master who goes away and the servants who work in his absence. Jesus used this story framework repeatedly, including a number of other parables (discussed earlier in Parts 2 and 3 of the study on the Parables) which have an eschatological orientation. The parable itself occurs in verses 34-36; we may outline this section as follows:

    • Saying on the day and hour when the end will come (v. 32)
    • Exhortation for the disciples to watch and stay alert (v. 33)
    • Parable of the Returning Master (vv. 34-36)
    • Second Exhortation to stay alert (v. 37)

On the whole, the section continues Jesus’ answer of the disciples’ question “When will these things be?” Beyond the basic declaration that they will occur before “this generation” goes away, Jesus makes clear in verse 32 that the disciples cannot know the time with any more precision: “About that day or th(at) hour, no one has seen [i.e. no one knows]”. Commentators and students can be tripped up by reading too much theological (and Christological) significance in the the second half of the saying, which states that neither the (heavenly) Messengers nor the Son (of Man) know the time, but only God the Father. It makes for interesting speculation, but all Jesus is really saying is that the disciples cannot know the exact time—it is one of the “secrets of the Kingdom” (4:11) which has not been revealed to them. Indeed, the overriding message of this section, driven home by the parable and the double-exhortation to stay awake, is that “these things” could occur at any time:

“(So) then you must keep awake—for you have not seen [i.e. do not know] when the lord of the house comes…” (v. 35a)

The figure of the returning master, can be interpreted at several levels, based on one’s view of the development of the Gospel tradition:

    • A general reference to God’s appearance to bring the end-time Judgment
    • This divine visitation as taking place through the Son of Man as God’s appointed/anointed representative
    • The return of Jesus, who is identified as the Son of Man

By the time the Gospels were written, among early Christians the latter would certainly have been in view. For more on the background of the expression and title “Son of Man”, and the identification of Jesus with this heavenly/Messianic figure, cf. Part 10 of the earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Supplemental Study: Eschatology and the Temple

Supplemental Study:
Eschatology and the Temple

This article is meant as a supplement to the current series Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament. In our study of the “Eschatological Discourse” in the Synoptic Gospels, we saw how it begins with Jesus’ prediction of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction (Mk 13:1-2 par). The Discourse itself proceeds literally in view of the Temple (v. 3), which continues to play a role in Jesus’ instruction, especially as presented in the Lukan version of the Discourse. Thus it is worth considering the place of the Temple in the eschatology of the time, and how such existing traditions and belief might be reflected in the New Testament. There will be three parts to this study:

    1. The Temple in Jewish Eschatological and Messianic Thought—focusing on evidence prior to, or contemporary with, the Gospels
    2. The Temple-Action & Temple-Saying(s) of Jesus in the Gospel Tradition
    3. Early Christian Views of the Temple with a possible Eschatological aspect

1. The Temple in Jewish Eschatological and Messianic Thought

In the surviving texts from the first centuries B.C./A.D. (i.e. 250 B.C.-100 A.D.), there are a number of passages which indicate the role the Jerusalem Temple was thought to play in Jewish eschatology, which, for the most part, is closely connected with Messianic expectations of the time. Generally speaking, the end time, marked by the appearance of specific Anointed (Messiah) figures, was characterized by two expectations: (1) the deliverance/restoration of Israel (or the faithful remnant), and (2) the judgment of the wicked/nations. Central to both of these components, or aspects, was the location of Jerusalem, which had the Temple at its religious/spiritual heart. Already in the Old Testament Prophets—especially the second half of Isaiah (Deutero-Isaiah, chaps. 40-66)—the promise of return from exile had begun to be expressed in eschatological language, envisioning an ideal time of peace and prosperity, etc, for the faithful ones among the people of Israel, a New Age for the people of God.

Much of this eschatological expectation was current at the time of Jesus, and it informs the worldview of the New Testament. Perhaps the best evidence for it is found in the narrative of Luke-Acts, where the devout in Israel are described as awaiting the coming of this New Age, and, with it, the deliverance of the faithful—cf. Lk 1:32-33, 54-55, 68-75; 2:25-26ff, 38, etc. In Acts 1:6ff, the disciples ask Jesus specifically about the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel, indicating an expectation of the sort outlined above. It is significant that, of all the Gospels, the Temple has the most prominent role in Luke (or Luke-Acts, cf. below).

Especially important for the New Testament view of the Temple is the idea that the restoration of Israel would entail a rebuilding of Jerusalem, and, in particular, a rebuilding/restoration of the Temple. This is suggested already in several passages in the Prophets, esp. (Deutero-)Isaiah—cf. Isa 44:28; 56:5ff; 60:7, 13; 66:20). The Exile, following the destruction of the first (Solomonic) Temple, provides the background for this restoration imagery. The establishment of Israel in the land would require a rebuilding of Jerusalem and a newly-rebuilt Temple. This is presented, in idealized form, in the final chapters of Ezekiel. The new Temple itself is described, in considerable detail, in chapters 40-43. Even after the Temple was rebuilt—even the second (Herodian) Temple in all its splendor (Mark 13:1-2 par; cf. Josephus Antiquities 15.380-425; Wars 5.184-227)—this idea of a New Temple persisted, being cast in an eschatological form. Many Jews in the first centuries B.C./A.D. recognized that the Herodian Temple, in reality, was far from the idealized portrait of the restored Temple found in the Prophetic writings. This is reflected in a number of Jewish texts from this period, where it is expressed, in different ways, that the true Temple will yet be built (by God) at the end-time. We see this, for example, in Tobit 14:15 and 2 Macc 2:7; it is formulated in more figurative language in 1 Enoch 90:28ff. Other passages to note in writings from the 1st centuries B.C./A.C., where this is stated or implied, are Jubilees 1:15-17ff; Psalms of Solomon 17:32; and Testament of Benjamin 9:2. For a good survey and discussion, cf. E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Fortress Press: 1985), pp. 77-85.

The leadership of the Community of the Qumran texts was represented by a group of priests who had separated from the religious establishment of Jerusalem. In their view, the current (Herodian) Temple was corrupt, due to the improper conduct of the priesthood officiating and managing the cultic apparatus of the Temple. They envisioned a new Temple, in the manner described in Ezek 40-43, which would soon be built at the end-time. This is best expressed in the Temple Scroll (11QTemple), where the building, and its priestly operation, are depicted in considerable detail. It is an idealized Temple, viewed, it would seem, in terms of a sanctification of the current Temple. At the same time, it is only a temporary earthly sanctuary, to last (presumably a Messianic age/period) until the final creation by God—i.e. a Temple made by God himself (11QTemple 29:8-10).

Thus, at the time of Jesus, the Temple would have played a prominent role in eschatological and Messianic thought. This helps us to understand the place of the Temple in a number of key points in the Gospel Tradition, and elsewhere in the New Testament as well. The eschatological implications of these passages, based on what we have discussed above, must be examined. We will begin with the Temple action and sayings of Jesus in the Gospels.

2. The Temple Action and Saying(s) of Jesus

a. The Temple Action

The Temple Action, otherwise known as the “Cleansing of the Temple” by Jesus, is recorded in all four Gospels—both in the Synoptics (Mk 11:15-19; Matt 21:12-17; Luke 19:45-48) and the Gospel of John (2:13-22). In spite of the difference in location within the Gospel narrative, it is all but certain that the Synoptic and Johannine accounts go back to a single historical episode and tradition. I have discussed the meaning and significance of the episode in considerable detail as part of the series “Jesus and the Law”, and in a series of earlier notes, and will not repeat all of that here. Rather, I will focus on the possible eschatological implications of the action, in light of the role of the Temple discussed in section 1 above. The following points should be considered:

    • (i) Whether the action symbolizes the destruction of the Temple
    • (ii) A new/restored purpose for the Temple—whether, or to what extent, this reflects the eschatological idea of the coming New Age
    • (iii) The Scriptures cited or alluded to in the episode
    • (iv) The connection with Jesus’ “triumphal entry” and death

i. It has been thought that the act of upturning the tables more properly signifies destruction rather than “cleansing”. While the eschatological idea of a new Temple does not necessarily require destruction of the old, it is perhaps the most natural way to think of the process. In favor of this interpretation of Jesus’ act, at the historical level, we may note:

    • The Prophetic tradition of using symbolic acts to indicate the coming Judgment by God—cf. .
    • The citation of Jer 7:11 (cf. below) implies the destruction of Jerusalem
    • The generally close connection, in the Synoptic narrative at least, with the Temple saying reported during the interrogation of Jesus before the Sanhedrin (in Mark/Matt), as well as the prediction of the Temple’s destruction—on both of these, cf. below.
    • In John’s version, the action is connected with the idea of the Temple’s destruction, through the saying in 2:19ff.

At the same time, a number of key details in the narrative point in a different direction.

ii. Certain elements of the Temple action, as narrated in the Gospels, suggest that the symbolism involves a renewal of the existing Temple, giving to it a new purpose. The overturning of the tables, etc, is just one aspect of Jesus’ action; he also is said to have driven out the people doing business (buying and selling) in the Temple precincts. Many readers and commentators assume that this relates to corruption and dishonesty among the traders and money-changers, etc; however, apart from the citation from Jer 7:11, there is little evidence of this. Rather, Jesus seems to be striking a (symbolic) blow at the very commercial apparatus necessary to maintain the functioning of the Temple as a place for sacrificial offerings. In Mark’s account, Jesus goes so far as to forbid persons carrying anything (i.e. performing any sort of ordinary business) as they went through the Temple (on this detail, cf. below). All of this suggests that Jesus has in mind a different role and purpose for the Temple, and this would seem to be confirmed by the citation from Isa 56:7 (discussed below)—it is to be a place devoted to prayer.

iii. There are four Scriptures associated with the Temple action by Jesus: (1) Isa 56:7 and (2) Jer 7:11, both cited by Jesus in the Synoptic versions; (3) Psalm 69:9, in John’s version; and (4) Zech 14:21b in relation to the main historical tradition.

Isaiah 56:7—The verse reads, “…My House will be called a house of petition/prayer [hL*p!T=] for all the peoples”. The message of Isa 56:1-8 is that all people who adhere to the Law of God (including Gentiles and foreigners) will become part of God’s people gathered in from exile. This is one of several Prophetic passages which refer to the nations (Gentiles, non-Israelites) coming to Jerusalem to worship the true God (cf. above; Isa 2:2-4 / Mic 4:1-4 provides a classic formulation of this idea). Subsequently in Jewish tradition, such passages came to be understood in an eschatological sense. Moreover, this is a key text underlying a new/restored purpose for the Temple—i.e., as a place of prayer rather than sacrifice. Certain Gospel traditions and sayings of Jesus already point in this direction, away from the sacrificial/cultic machinery of the Temple (see esp. Matt 12:5-7). It is important to note that even in Luke-Acts, which presents the most extensive (and positive) portrait of the historical Temple, believers are virtually never depicted as participating in the sacrificial ritual (Acts 21:26-27ff is an exception); it is the aspect of prayer, teaching and worship which is emphasized—cf. Luke 1:10; 2:37, 46; 18:10; 19:47 (note the close proximity to v. 45); 20:1; 21:37; 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1ff; 5:20ff; 22:17. Cf. also further below on Rev 8:3 and 11:1.

Jeremiah 7:11—Jesus contrasts “house of prayer” in Isa 56:7 with “cavern of thieves/plunderers” in Jer 7:11. This portion from Jeremiah has something of a different meaning in its original context. Jer 7:1-29 is a lengthy oracle condemning the evils committed throughout Judah (delivered by the prophet while standing in the gate of the Temple, v. 2); this includes a familiar prophetic denunciation of those who commit evil and yet come to the Temple to participate in the sacred ritual (vv. 8ff). The bitter question is asked in verse 11:

“Has it become a cave of violent (men) in your eyes, this house of which My Name is called upon it?”

The Septuagint (LXX) renders the Hebrew literally, using the approximate phrase “cavern of plunderers” (sph/laion lh|stw=n); Jesus’ quotation follows the LXX phrase. It is an oracle of judgment against Judah and Jerusalem (see section i. above). Verse 13ff warns that, because the people (including the priests and religious leaders) have done the things described in the oracle, Judah will face the same judgment (invasion/destruction/exile) experienced by the northern kingdom of Israel/Samaria; this judgment will include the destruction of the Temple (v. 14).

The combination of Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11 results in the following logic: the Temple is intended as place of prayer and worship, but has been corrupted and so will be destroyed. This corruption extends to the administration of the Temple, and the business needed to maintain the sacrificial ritual (money-changers, sellers of animals, etc).

Psalm 69:9—If the quotation of Isa 56:7/Jer 7:11 was part of the common tradition, the Gospel of John has omitted it—replacing it with different/historical words of Jesus, or, perhaps, ‘explaining’ the quotation. Another Scripture appears in the parenthesis, from Psalm 69:9: “The ‘zeal’ of [i.e. for] your house has eaten me (up)”. The word usually translated “zeal/jealousy” (ha*n+q!) has the basic sense of “(burning) red”, the Greek word zh=lo$ properly “heat/fervor”. The Septuagint (LXX) renders the Hebrew quite literally, and the quotation in John follows the LXX (B), reading the future tense (katefa/getai “will eat me down [i.e. devour me]”). The future form, of course, betters suited the verse as a prophecy related to Jesus; indeed, reflection on Psalm 69 helped shape the Gospel tradition of his Passion (as indicated in v. 17a), and is doubtless one of the key texts used to show that the Messiah must suffer and die (see especially Luke 24:25-27, 44-46). There is a slight ambiguity here in the Psalm: while the ‘zeal’ is generally understood of the protagonist (or Psalmist)—that he is consumed with (righteous) fervor—it could also be taken to mean, in the overall context of suffering, that his righteous zeal has caused him to be “eaten up” by his enemies. The citation in the Gospel could be interpreted, or made to apply, either way. Since it is associated with Jesus’ “cleansing” action, the image primarily would be the intense nature (all-consuming fire) of his ‘zeal’ for God’s house; but it is also possible that a bit of wordplay is involved—a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death that connects with the Temple saying in vv. 19-22. On this particular association, cf. section iv. below.

Zechariah 14:21—Many commentators feel that the historical tradition of the Temple action, as a whole, has been shaped by the closing words of Zechariah (14:21): “…and in that day there will not be merchants/traders [yn]u&n~K=] any more in the house of YHWH…”. The oracle in Zech 14 draws upon the Prophetic tradition of the nations coming to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship God there (along with Israel), but casts it in a more definite eschatological setting, taking place after the great Judgment against the nations (vv. 1-15). Those who survive will turn to worship the true God (vv. 16ff), coming to worship YHWH in the Temple at the appropriate times (the festival of Sukkoth/Booths is particularly mentioned). Verses 20-21 indicate that in this (end) time, the Temple be given a new or special consecration, extending to every utensil involved in the ritual. There is a bit of wordplay involved with the noun /u^n~K=, which could be read either as “Canaanite” (i.e. a pagan foreigner) or as a technical term for a merchant/trader (a traditional occupation for ‘Canaanites’ [Phoenicians, Syrians, etc]). The LXX understands the former, but most commentators today opt for the latter meaning, which may also have been in mind in the Gospel tradition here.

iv. The Temple action, in the Synoptic narrative at least, follows closely after Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem (Mk 11:1-11 par), beginning the final period in Jerusalem prior to his death. These two associations—the triumphal entry and death of Jesus—in context, must be examined. All four Gospels narrate the triumphal entry with Messianic details and allusions, drawing attention to Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One (Messiah) of the Davidic-ruler type. The reaction of the crowd (vv. 8-10 par) makes it clear that many people regarded Jesus as this figure, and that his entry into Jerusalem marked the arrival of the Davidic Messiah into the holy city. Moreover, the narrative details echo Zech 9:9, an association made explicit by the Gospel writer in Matt 21:4-5 and John 12:14-15. There are obvious Messianic connotations in Zech 9, as through much of chaps. 9-14, which helped shape the Gospel (Passion) Narrative and early Christian understanding of Jesus as the Messiah. The appearance of Jesus as the Messiah, for early believers and many Jews of the time, would have meant that the end of the current Age was at hand, and that the new time of the Kingdom of God (i.e. the Messianic Age) would be established by Jesus in Jerusalem. The subsequent Temple-action by Jesus must be understood with this context in mind.

Ultimately, however, the early Christian recognition of Jesus as the Anointed One, departed from the traditional conceptions, and was made unique through the historical reality of his death and resurrection—aspects foreign to most Messianic thought. The structure of the Synoptic Passion narrative sets the Temple action in the general context of Jesus’ death; at the historical level, such an action would have increased the opposition to him from the religious establishment, and, presumably, helped to spur his arrest. Certainly, Jesus’ view of the Temple played a role in his interrogation before the Council, at least according to the Synoptic (Mark/Matt) version. Despite the Johannine location of the Temple action at a much earlier point in the Gospel narrative, there is still a clear connection with Jesus’ death—the Temple saying (cf. below) occurs in this context, and is interpreted (by the Gospel writer) explicitly as a prediction of Jesus’ death and resurrection (2:19-22). There are definite eschatological implications to the Temple saying(s), as we will discuss.

b. The Temple Saying(s)

The Temple features in a number of sayings and parables of Jesus, but there are several which are especially relevant and, indeed, would seem to relate to the significance of the Temple-action (cf. above). These may be reduced to a pair of historical traditions:

    1. A saying about destroying and rebuilding the Temple (in three days)
    2. A prediction of the Temple’s destruction

Saying 1: Destroying and rebuilding the Temple. There are several sources indicating that Jesus made a statement to the effect that the Temple would be destroyed and (miraculously) rebuilt. These will be examined briefly (for a more detailed analysis, cf. the earlier studies on the subject [links at the beginning of Section 2 above]).

i. Jesus before the Sanhendrin. In the Synoptic account (in Mark/Matthew) of Jesus’ interrogation before the Council (Sanhedrin), it is recorded that witnesses came forward reporting that Jesus claimed he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. The Gospels differ in the exact formulation given:

    • Mark: “I will loose down [i.e. destroy] this shrine made with hands, and through [i.e. after] three days I will build another house made without hands.” (14:58)
    • Matt: “I am able to loose down [i.e. destroy] this shrine, and, through [i.e. after] three days, to build the house (again).” (26:60)

These witnesses are referred to as false witnesses, implying that Jesus never claimed such a thing, or that they are misrepresenting what he said. Most critical commentators assume that the historical Jesus did, in fact, make a statement along these lines; and this would seem to be confirmed by the other sources. It is certainly possible, however, that these witnesses, at the historical level, were distorting a genuine saying of Jesus. The context of the Synoptic narrative presents two traditions which may relate to this report during Jesus’ interrogation: (a) the Temple action (cf. above), and (b) the prediction of the Temple’s destruction in Mark 13:1-2 par. If the idea of the destruction of the (current) Temple, and the building of a new Temple, had eschatological significance—i.e., marking the end of the current Age and beginning of the new (cf. Section 1 above)—then such a statement by Jesus could be taken to imply that he was claiming to be a Messiah figure who would usher in the end-time. This certainly appears to have been central to the interrogation, according to Mk 14:61-62 par.

ii. The Lukan evidence in Acts 6:13-14. Interestingly, Luke’s version of the interrogation scene does not include the detail of the false witnesses and the saying they report. If this is a deliberate omission, there may be several reasons for it:

    • The author wished to narrow the focus of the scene to the primary exchange between the Council and Jesus (Lk 22:67-70)
    • It reflects the more positive portrait of the Temple in Luke-Acts, including references to early believers continuing to frequent it
    • Luke was aware that Jesus did make a statement of the kind, as reflected in Stephen’s preaching
    • The detail was reserved for the interrogation of Stephen, which follows the general pattern of Jesus’ interrogation (Acts 6:12-7:1ff)

All three explanations are potentially valid, on literary and thematic grounds. The claims made in Acts 6:13-14 certainly are similar to the reports by the ‘false witnesses’:

“This man does not cease speaking words against [this] Holy Place and the Law—for we heard him saying that this (man) Yeshua the Nazarean will loose down [i.e. destroy] this Place…”

The same verb (katalu/w, “loose down”, i.e. dissolve/destroy) occurs here as in Mk 14:58 par. Given the points made in the sermon-speech which follows (chap. 7), it seems probable that Stephen did report an authentic Temple-saying by Jesus, and followed it in his own preaching.

iii. The Johannine Temple scene. John’s version of the Temple action (2:13-17) is followed by a Temple saying by Jesus, similar to that reported by the ‘false witnesses’ (cf. above):

“Loose [i.e. destroy] this shrine, and in three days I will raise it (again)” (v. 19)

Instead of katalu/w, the simple lu/w (“loose[n]”) is used here, but with essentially the same meaning. The Gospel writer explains that this statement by Jesus is a symbolic reference to his eventual death and resurrection (vv. 21-22). Thus, in the Johannine version, for both the Temple action and saying, the original eschatological and Messianic connotations (such as there were) have been replaced almost entirely by a typological application to the person of Jesus—spec. his death and resurrection—fully in keeping with the approach taken by the Gospel of John.

Saying 2: Destruction of the Temple. The Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” begins with a prediction by Jesus of the Temple’s destruction:

“Are you look(ing) at these great buildings? There shall not be left (at all) here stone upon stone which shall not be loosed down!” (Mk 13:2)

This prediction was fulfilled in 70 A.D. when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Its position in the Discourse gives it an unquestionable eschatological significance. The implication is that the Temple’s destruction occurs as the climax of a great period of distress which will come upon Judea (and Jerusalem) prior to the end-time Judgment and appearance of the Son of Man (vv. 14-23ff). The Lukan version describes the time of distress more precisely in military terms as the siege and destruction of Jerusalem (21:20-24; cf. also 19:41-44). The coming of the Son of Man (vv. 25-28) follows this terrible event. For more on the Eschatological Discourse, cf. the current 4-part study in this series.

Thus we see that the Temple-action and Temple-saying(s) by Jesus have eschatological (and Messianic) significance, both at the level of the original historical event/tradition, and they way they these been narrated and presented in the Gospels. Was Jesus consciously responding to the traditional line of eschatological thought, expressed in Section 1 above, that the “restoration of Israel” at the end-time would involve a new/restored Temple? I believe that the answer must be regarded as affirmative, though with some qualification. From the earlier studies on the eschatology in the Sayings and Parables of Jesus, we have seen how Jesus repeatedly began from the point of the traditional expectation, but then proceeded to re-interpret it, giving it a deeper meaning in relation to his own person and identity (as Messiah and Son of Man). The same appears to be true with regard to the Temple action, and also the Temple saying (in John they are combined together). Three distinct strands can be found in the Gospel tradition:

    • The destruction of the Temple in terms of the end-time Judgment
    • A new/restored role and purpose for the Temple—as a place of prayer and teaching
    • The identification of Jesus himself as the new/true Temple, which also marks the end of the old Covenant and the beginning of the new (in Christ)

Early Christians developed all three strands, though it is the last of these which came to dominate by the end of the New Testament period.

3. Early Christian Views of the Temple

The last two themes mentioned above were applied and developed by early Christians almost immediately, indicating that they followed naturally from Jesus’ own teaching; this pair of themes may be summarized:

    • The Temple as a place of prayer and teaching
    • The Temple fulfilled in the person of Jesus

Both aspects involve the elimination of the sacrificial ritual, allowing for the Temple idea to continue among believers long after the historical Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Already in the Gospel tradition, several statements by Jesus identify the Temple with his own person, and, by implication, that following him effectively takes the place of fulfilling the Temple ritual (Matt 12:5-8; John 2:19ff, etc). This came to be made more explicit by early Christians, and two areas of the New Testament may be highlighted:

    1. The sacrificial ritual is fulfilled and completed (i.e. put to an end) by Jesus’ own (sacrificial) death. This is expressed all throughout the body of Hebrews (4:14-10:18), as well as in passages such as Rom 3:25; Eph 5:2; 1 John 2:2; 4:10.
    2. Believers in Jesus are priests, able to touch the holy things and to enter, in a spiritual manner, the sacred shrine through our union with Christ. Cf. 1 Pet 2:5ff; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6; also Rom 15:16.

Combining both ideas leads to the core image of believers, collectively and in community, as the body of Christ—i.e., the (true) Temple and House of God. This is found numerous times in the Pauline letters—1 Cor 3:9ff, 16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; and especially Eph 2:19-22. In 2 Cor 5:1, it refers to the eternal life awaiting believers following death and resurrection; in this regard, there is a clear echo of the Temple-saying of Jesus (in Mk 14:58), with its use of the adjective a)xeiropoi/hto$ (“made without hands”; cf. also Col 2:11 and the wording in Acts 7:41, 48, 50 [referring to Temples]). In John 2:19ff, the Temple-saying of Jesus was interpreted precisely in terms of his death and resurrection, in which believers now have a share. The idea of believers as the (spiritual) house of God is also found in 1 Pet 2:5; cf. also Rev 3:12.

While these references are all eschatological, in the qualified sense that they relate to the New Age that is realized for believers in Christ, there are several passages which specifically mention the Temple in the more traditional (futurist) sense of eschatology—i.e., referring to events to come in/at the end-time.

a. 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4ff—This will be discussed in detail in the study on eschatology in the letters of Paul, but it is worth pointing out here the connection with the Dan 9:27 tradition alluded to by Jesus in the Eschatological Discourse (Mk 13:14 par). The reference would seem to be clearly to the historical Jerusalem Temple, indicating a time-frame within the first century A.D., in spite of the historical/chronological difficulties this poses for us today. As in the Eschatological Discourse, this desecration of the Temple is part of coming time of great distress which precedes the end-time appearance/return of Jesus (vv. 7-8).

b. The visions of Revelation (esp. 11:1-2)—The Temple features as a setting/locale for several of the visions in the book of Revelation (cf. the current series of daily notes, where they are being discussed, at the appropriate place). Since these are symbolic visions, while they draw upon the historical image (and idea) of the Temple, they should not be taken as referring to the physical Jerusalem Temple itself. Indeed, most of the references refer to a temple/shrine in Heaven (7:15; 11:19; 14:15ff; 16:1, 17). Thus, while they occur in the context of the the eschatological visions, they do not describe the role of the Temple in the end-time per se.

The situation is a bit different, however, with the scene in 11:1-2, where the visionary prophet (John) is commanded to measure the Temple of God in the “holy city”. As this passage is to be discussed in the current daily notes on Revelation, I will not go into it here, except to say that, in my view, it primarily refers to Christians collectively, in the sense outlined above. The true and faithful believers are those worshiping at the altar (symbolizing prayer and devotion), and they are protected from the Judgment, while those in the outer court (presumably to be understood as false believers) will suffer when it is trampled/destroyed by the “nations”.

c. The final vision of Rev 21:9ff (v. 22)—The key eschatological reference to the Temple in the book of Revelation is found in the vision of the “holy city”, the heavenly Jerusalem, in 21:9-27. There it is stated clearly in verse 22:

“And I saw no shrine [i.e. Temple] in it; for the Lord God the All-mighty (One) is its shrine, and (so also is) the Lamb.”

This provides an eschatological setting for the early Christian idea discussed above—that the true/real Temple is to be identified with the person of Jesus (the Lamb). According to the fundamental theology in the book, developed from a long line of Christian tradition, the exalted Jesus stands and rules side-by-side with God the Father (YHWH) in Heaven, sharing the same divine authority. Thus here in the vision, God and Jesus (the Lamb) together represent the true Temple.

Appendix: A Rebuilt Temple at the End-Time?

In Section 1 above I discussed the idea of a new and/or restored Temple as part of Jewish eschatological and Messianic expectation—part of the overall belief in the restoration of Israel at the end-time. There are, in fact, only two Scripture passages which specifically indicate that the Temple (originally destroyed in 587 B.C.) would be rebuilt: (1) Isa 44:28, and (2) the vision of the new Temple in Ezek 40-48. The former can be taken simply as a reference to the initial rebuilding under Zerubbabel (c. 516), which really leaves only Ezek 40-43ff to support the idea of a future Temple built at the end-time. The Herodian Temple of the 1st-century B.C./A.D., for all its grandeur, clearly did not fulfill the vision of Ezekiel in many important respects. The Qumran Community continued to emphasize the idea of a new/rebuilt Temple yet to come, along the lines of the idealized portrait in Ezekiel (the Temple Scroll [11QTemple], cf. above). Surprisingly, however, there is little or no evidence for this in the New Testament, apart from the Temple-saying by Jesus, and the Gospel treatment of that tradition is notoriously ambiguous (as discussed in Section 2 above). The lack of early Christian interest in a new/rebuilt Temple would seem to be due primarily to three factors, already discussed and outlined above:

    • Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction in connection with the coming/end-time Judgment—given that finality, how/when/why would it ever be rebuilt?
    • The sayings and teachings of Jesus eliminating or downplaying the importance of the sacrificial ritual, i.e. the principal purpose for a physical Temple-complex; this includes the identification/substitution of Jesus’ own person and ministry as the true Temple.
    • The corresponding tendency to spiritualize the Temple, as an image symbolizing believers in Christ as a community (body of Christ)—an idea which was already well established before the historical Temple was destroyed.

Even so, some commentators today believe strongly that there will be a Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem at some future point, despite the fact that this contrasts (and conflicts), in many important ways, with the three ideas (and early Christian principles) highlighted above (cf. Section 3 for more detail). The reasons for this belief essentially relate to (a) the need to preserve the accuracy of Biblical prophecy, and (b) the belief that these prophecies are to be fulfilled, in detail, in a concrete and literal way. This involves three areas of Scripture:

The New Testament passages involve the tradition in Dan 9:27, and so, in a sense, must be taken together. In the Eschatological Discourse (on which, see the current study), the allusion to Dan 9:27 is clearly set within the context of events which will occur before the coming of the Son of Man (and the end-time Judgment). Since all of this did not take place prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., historical accuracy would seem to dictate that some or all of the events will have to occur at a future time. If they require the presence of the Jerusalem Temple, as Dan 9:27 and 2 Thess 2:3ff would seem to, then a natural conclusion might be that the Temple will be rebuilt and serve as the setting for these events. There are, however, serious problems with such an interpretive approach; I have already touched on some of these, and will be addressing them in more detail in Part 4 of the study on the Eschatological Discourse, as well as in the study on Paul’s eschatology (in 1-2 Thessalonians). The significance of the Temple in Rev 11:1-2 is discussed at the proper point in the current series of daily notes.

September 21: Revelation 4:1-7

Revelation 4:1-11

With chapter 4, a new division of the book—the beginning of the main body—is introduced. The vision of chapter 4-5 leads into the great vision cycles that make up the bulk of chapters 6-18. As has been previous noted, the book of Revelation is also structured as a letter, and, from the standpoint of epistolary (and rhetorical) form, the throne-vision in chaps. 4-5 functions something like the propositio, or main statement (proposition) of the case to argued or expounded in the main body of the letter, the probatio. The visions (and vision cycles) which follow serve as the probatio, demonstrating (or “proving”) what is represented in the vision of chaps. 4-5.

Rev 4:1

The structural shift is clear from verse 1, with its chiastic shape, marking a separation from the previous vision in 1:9-3:22:

“These things” refer specifically to what John heard and experienced in the previous visions, including the messages to the seven churches. The expression meta\ tau=ta (“after these [thing]s”) must be understood in this sense. Central to the verse is the description of the voice, which is again that of the risen Jesus, as in the earlier vision of 1:9ff:

“and the first voice which I heard as a trumpet speaking with me…”

It is Jesus who calls John to “step up” into heaven. The visionary motif of doors or gates opening into heaven is relatively common (cf. Gen 28:10ff; 1 Enoch 14:15ff; Testament of Levi 5:1, etc). An invitation to enter and experience the realm of the heavenlies is essentially a commonplace in apocalyptic literature (e.g., 1 Enoch 14:8ff; Testament of Levi 2:6ff; Martyrdom of Isaiah 7; cf. Koester, p. 359).

Rev 4:2-3

The parallel with the first vision is seen also in the language used in verse 2:

“(And) straightaway I came to be in the Spirit, and see!…”

With the shift to a new visionary location, the author mentions again being “in the Spirit” (e)n pneu/mati, 1:10). This consistent reference to the Spirit is important in terms of understanding the source and (revelatory) nature of the visions as described by the seer. The central point of the vision is that of God’s ruling-seat or “throne” (qro/no$) in Heaven. It is here that the rhetorical (and polemical) thrust of the book of Revelation begins to come clearly into focus: the rule of God (and Christ) in Heaven contrasted with the false/wicked rule of earthly (spec. Roman imperial) government. Of course, the idea and image of God’s throne goes back to most ancient times, with the royal iconography (and ideology) of the ancient Near East, and continuing on to the time of the Roman empire. There are numerous references in the Old Testament (Psalm 9:7; 11:4; 103:19, etc), but the most prominent passages include visionary scenes of the heavenly court, such as 1 Kings 22:19ff (par 2 Chron 18:18ff); Isa 6:1-3; Ezek 1:4ff (v. 26); Dan 7:9-10. The “throne” represented the ruling power of God, and served as a graphical way of depicting or referring to God, and could almost be seen as a living/divine entity in itself. Note here in vv. 2-3, how closely connected God and the throne are:

“See! a seat of rule [i.e. throne] was set in the heaven, and upon the ruling seat [i.e. throne] (One was) sitting, and the (One) sitting (was) in vision [i.e. appearance] like a stone (of) iaspis and sardios, and a (rain)bow [i@ri$] circling round the ruling seat in vision [i.e. appearance] like a smaragdos (stone)”
[The words in italics indicate colored stones or gems—purplish(?), red {carnelian}, and green {emerald}]

In many ways, the throne (and its surroundings) simply reflects the manifest and glorious appearance of God—the divine/heavenly character reflected by the description, which resembles that of other theophanies in the Old Testament and later Jewish tradition (Exod 24:10; Ezek 1:26-28; 10:1, etc). In the developed Jewish mystical/visionary tradition of the Rabbinic and early medieval periods, the “throne-chariot” (merkabah, inspired largely from Ezek 1) was a fundamental symbol.

Rev 4:4

As the description of the throne vision continues, we move outward from the center of the throne itself, and a somewhat surprising detail emerges:

“And circling round the ruling seat [qro/no$] (were) twenty-four (other) ruling seats [qro/noi], and upon the ruling seats (were) sitting twenty-four Elder (One)s cast about [i.e. clothed] in white garments, and upon their heads (were) gold crowns.”

The description of these twenty-four seats as “seats of rule” (qro/noi), which circle around God’s throne (qro/no$), rather clearly indicates that the persons/beings on these seats share in God’s rule in some way. They are called by the common term presbu/tero$, referring to an old/elder person. It is not entirely clear whether these should be regarded as: (a) heavenly beings, or (b) glorified human beings. They do seem to be distinct from the heavenly Messengers (i.e. Angels) in that the Messengers are sent by God out into the world (as his “eyes” or to convey his word), while these “Elders” appear to have fixed places (of rule) around His throne. The use of the term presbu/tero$, along with the number twenty-four (12 x 2), suggests that they represent the people of God—perhaps as a heavenly counterpart, or corollary, to God’s people on earth. The specific number 24 suggests a combination of (a) the twelve tribes of Israel, and (b) the twelve apostles (i.e. the Church). Recall that Elders, representing Israel, were present at the covenant Theophany in Exod 24; similarly, Elders, representing believers in Christ, were appointed by the Twelve (apostles) who were present at the establishment of the “new covenant” (Mark 14:22-25 par), and who represent the new constitution of the people of God (cf. the symbolism in Acts 1:6ff, 15ff; chap. 2). The twelve apostles and the twelve tribes are closely connected in an (eschatological) saying of Jesus (Matt 19:28; par Lk 22:28-30), and also in the vision of the “new Jerusalem” at the end of the book of Revelation (21:12-14ff, to be discussed). The crowns on the heads of the elders similarly suggest a connection with believers, who will inherit the crown/wreath (ste/fano$) as a heavenly honor (and sign of eternal life), as well a sign that they have a share in the kingdom/rule of Christ (2:10; 3:11).

Rev 4:5-7

After the description of the Elders, the vision returns to more traditional theophanous imagery:

    • “(lightning) flashes and voices and thunderings”—this draws upon ancient Near Eastern storm theophany, most commonly applied to the ‘Lord’ (Baal) Haddu (the Storm [deity]) in Canaanite religion, but was found just as prominently in Israelite descriptions of El-Yahweh. In the Semitic/Hebrew idiom, the word for thunder is literally “voice” (loq), based on the idea of thunder as the “voice” of God.
    • “seven lamps of fire burning in the sight of the ruling-seat”—this repeats the description from 1:4, and again refers to these heavenly beings as “the seven Spirits of God”. That these “Spirits” should be understood as heavenly beings (Messengers/Angels) is clear from the explanation in 1:20 and 3:1, as well as various references in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition (Psalm 104:4; Ezek 1:12-13; Zech 4:2, 10; Tobit 12:15; 1 Enoch 20:1-7; 90:21, etc).
    • “a glassy sea like ice-crystal”—this is said to be “in the sight of [i.e. in front of] the throne”, and also is a traditional image (cf. Exod 24:10; Ezek 1:22, 26), which likely is related to ancient Near Eastern cosmology, i.e. the firmament and God’s throne above the waters (Gen 1:6-7; cf. Psalm 29:3; 93:4; 104:3; 148:4).
    • “four living (being)s (appear)ing full of eyes in front and in back”—these living [zw=|a] beings are similar in description to those in Ezek 1:4-10 (cf. also Isa 6:2-3). Here they are said to be “in the middle” of the throne, perhaps meaning “in the middle, where the throne is”, and also “in a circle” around the throne. They feature prominently in the remainder of the vision.

The appearance of each of the four “living beings” combines various human, animal, and hybrid/heavenly characteristics. This is common, from the standpoint of ancient or traditional religious iconography, when attempting to describe the Divine. The ancient Near East, in particular, made use of many images of winged animals or beings with human and/or animal faces. It is almost as though it was necessary to make use of all the characteristics of living creatures, and the attributes these characteristics represent (strength, power, beauty, wisdom, etc), in order provide even a remotely adequate description of God. These living beings, indeed, have as their main task the praise and worship of God (v. 8). This aspect of the vision will be discussed in the next note.

Much has been made of the specific appearance of each being, resembling, in turn: (a) “a lion”, (b) “a bull/calf”, (c) human (“face/appearance as a man”), and (d) “an air(borne eagl)e flying”. These have been interpreted numerous ways, including the famous (traditional) association with the four Gospels (Evangelists). However, it is probably best to interpret them (if one must) as representing all of creation—specifically, living creatures (animal and human). It is, in particular, the noblest and most regal (lion, bull, human, eagle) portions of the animal world (according to the traditional reckoning) which are represented. Special emphasis is given on the wings of these living beings (v. 8), and this will be addressed in the next daily note (on vv. 8-11).

September 20: Revelation 3:14-22

Revelation 3:14-22

This is the last of the seven letters in chapters 2-3, addressed to the “(city of the one giving) justice (dikh/) for the people (lao/$)”, i.e. Laodikea, named after the wife of the Seleucid king (Antiochus II) who founded the city (on an older site) in the mid-3rd century B.C. Laodikea was a prosperous commercial and administrative center in Asia, much like Ephesus and Pergamum.

Rev 3:14

As in the case of the previous letter, the introduction to the risen Jesus no longer draws upon the vision in 1:11-16ff, though it does refer back to the description of Jesus in 1:5. There are three titles or descriptive phrases that are used:

    • “the Amen” (o( a)mh/n)—The word a)mh/n in Greek is a transliteration of the Hebrew /m@a* (°¹m¢n), an adverb meaning “firm(ly), secure(ly)”, often used more generally in the sense of “true, certain”, or in the specific (religious) sense of “faithful”. Already in the Old Testament, it was used as an exclamation meant to confirm a particular statement (Num 5:22 etc), and this usage is preserved throughout the New Testament. However, in Isa 65:16, we have the interesting expression /m@a* yh@ýa$ (°§lœhê °¹m¢n), which means something like “(the) God of confirmation”, in the context of swearing oaths, a formula which emphasizes God’s truthfulness and faithfulness (as the one who will confirm the blessings, etc, declared in the oath). Something of this expression may be glimpsed by Paul’s language in 2 Cor 1:17-20.
    • “the trust(worthy) and true witness” (o( ma/rtu$ o( pisto\$ kai\ a)lhqino/$)—For this phrase, and the idea of Jesus as a witness, see the earlier note covering 1:5.
    • “the beginning of God’s (work of) formation” (h( a)rxh\ th=$ kti/sew$ tou= qeou=)—The word kti/si$ literally means something formed or produced, often in the sense of the world/universe as created by God. It occurs 19 times in the New Testament, mainly in Paul’s letters (7 times in Romans). The expression a)rxh\ kti/sew$ (“beginning of [the] formation [by God]”) is found in Mark 13:19 and 2 Pet 3:4. The identification of Jesus with this a)rxh/ could indicate his role in creation, as we see in John 1:1-2. Perhaps more likely is the connection with 1:5 (cf. above), whereby a)rxh/ here would be parallel to the use of the related noun a&rxwn in that verse—i.e. Jesus is the head of all creation, just as he is the chief of all the rulers on the earth. A different idea could be suggested by Col 1:15, with the expression “first-produced [prwto/toko$, i.e. firstborn] of all creation [kti/sew$]”.
Rev 3:15-18

The body of each letter typically contains a “mixed” message, involving both positive (praise) and negative (blame/rebuke) aspects. Here in addressing the congregations in Laodikea, it is primarily negative. This is summarized by a colorful metaphor in the opening statement:

“I have seen your works—that you are not cooled [yuxro/$] and you (are) not boiling (hot) [zesto/$]; I ought (to see that) you are either cooled or boiling!” (v. 15)

These two adjectives—yuxro/$ [“cooled, cold”] and zesto/$ [“boiling (hot)”]—here refer specifically to water, and, in particular, how water (and/or wine) is treated in the setting of the meals and banquets of well-to-do citizens. A drink may be heated or chilled, for the comfort and pleasure of those dining. Jesus is declaring that the believers in Laodikea (and their “works”) have neither of these positive characteristics:

“So, (in) that [i.e. because] you are (luke)warm [xliaro/$], and not cooled and not boiling, I am about to vomit you out of my mouth!” (v. 16)

This reflects a reversal of the Laodikean believers’ self-estimate, and their apparent situation according to human standards:

“(Yes, it is in) that [i.e. because] you say that ‘I am rich and have become rich, and I have no business (asking for any)thing’—and (yet) you have not seen that you are the (one) bearing misery and (deserv)ing of pity, and (indeed) you are poor and blind and naked…” (v. 17)

It would seem that the Laodikean congregations were reasonably well-off and comfortable within the society at large—a situation differing considerably from that of Smyrna, Pergamum or Philadelphia (cf. those letters). This level of comfort for believers often indicates a measure of accommodation to the surrounding culture, though the letter gives no details of anything along these lines. There is no indication, for example, of willing consumption of food sacrificed to the pagan deities, despite the meal/banquet setting of the imagery being used. It would seem that the Laodikean Christians were lacking the kind of humility, etc, indicated by Jesus’ expression “poor in spirit” in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3). Being perhaps a bit too enamored with worldly comfort (and status), Jesus urges them to seek instead the wealth/honor that comes from God (v. 18):

“…(so) I take counsel with you to purchase (from) alongside me gold having been fired (and glowing) out of fire, (so) that you might (indeed) be rich…”

This is a different sort of “gold”, referring to “heavenly treasure” (Matt 6:21; Lk 12:33f; 18:22), coming from God (and Christ) himself. The verb puro/w, especially in the use of the perfect participle, probably connotes two distinct ideas—(1) the fire of testing, including endurance of suffering (Eph 6:16), and (2) the purity and holiness of God (Rev 1:15). By way of reversal, this true wealth will address the poverty and misery of their current condition (of which they have been unaware):

“…and white garments (so) that you might be cast about (with clothing), and the shame of your nakedness would not shine forth, and kollourion to smear on [i.e. anoint] your eyes (so) that you might see.”

Access to white garments, and to specialized medical treatments such as kollourion (an almost untranslatable term, referring here to a kind of eye-salve), would have been privileges of the wealthier citizens in places like Laodikea. Both, however, have a special religious connotation for believers. The motif of white garments has already appeared in the letters (vv. 4-5, cf. the earlier note), and will occur several more times in the book. The significance of seeing (and its opposite, blindness) as a spiritual metaphor hardly requires comment; it is especially prominent in the Johannine writings.

Rev 3:19

The message shifts more decidedly in the positive direction, with the exhortation in verse 19:

“I rebuke and train as (my) child as (many) as I hold dear; therefore you must be(come) hot and change (your) mind [i.e. repent].”

The verb zhlo/w (“be[come] hot”) relates back to the adjective zesto/$ in vv. 15-16. There, Jesus stated that he wished the Laodikean believers would have either characteristic (cold or hot); here, in light of the idea of gold burning out of fire, he specifically refers to their being hot, in the sense of burning with faith and love.

Rev 3:20

The famous declaration by Jesus in verse 20 encapsulates the dining/banquet imagery of the message (cf. above). Instead of the setting of a Greco-Roman banquet (such as might be attended among the well-to-do in Laodikea), we have the idea of Jesus coming to dine with the believer:

“See, I have taken (my) stand upon the door and I knock—if any (one) should hear my voice and open up the door, I will come into (the house) toward him, and I will have dinner with him, and he with me.”

This emphasizes the motif of hospitality, of taking in the guest or visitor who knocks at the door. It is possible that there may be a specific eschatological allusion here, to the heavenly/Messianic banquet at the end time (Rev 19:9; cf. Isa 25:6; 1 Enoch 62:14; 2 Baruch 29:8, etc; Koester, p. 340). More properly, it refers to the intimacy and fellowship which the faithful believer has with Jesus. On similar door-imagery related to Jesus, cf. Luke 12:36; 13:24-25; Matt 25:10; John 10:1-2, 7-9; 2 Cor 2:12; Rev 3:8. The image of the open door will be used again, in a different context, in 4:1.

Note how the body of the letter may be outlined:

    • Dining: Greco-Roman banquet imagery, with chilled and heated water/wine
      • Rejection by Jesus—he spits out (throws up) the lukewarm drink
        • The apparent wealth, but real poverty, of the believers
        • Exhortation to obtain true wealth from God/Christ
      • Acceptance by Jesus—he comes to dine with them
    • Dining: Fellowship with Jesus in the believers’ own house
Rev 3:21

The concluding promise (v. 21) continues this motif of fellowship with Jesus:

“(For) the (one) being [i.e. who is] victorious, I will give to him to sit with me on my ruling-seat [qro/no$], even as I was victorious and sat with my Father on His ruling-seat.”

There are several interesting examples in the Gospel tradition, where we find the idea of disciples sitting alongside of Jesus on his throne, when he exercises rule over the kingdom of God/Christ. The most prominent tradition is that in Mark 10:35-45 par. Another is found in Matt 19:28, where Jesus speaks of the twelve (apostles), sitting on thrones similar to his own, and judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Luke apparently has a separate version of this tradition, but has it set during the Last Supper; this raises an interesting parallel with the situation here in Rev 3:20-21:

    • Jesus dining with his faithful followers (v. 20; Lk 22:14-20)
      • The promise of his followers ruling with him, on thrones (v. 21; Lk 22:28-30)

The idea of believers ruling (in heaven)—that is, sharing in Jesus’ own rule—is found at several points in the book of Revelation (2:26-28; 21:7). The throne of God (and Christ) is especially prominent in the book; the reference here certainly is meant to foreshadow the vision in 4:1-11 (to be discussed in the next note).

Here again, we also find the important association of Jesus’ ruling authority with his death and resurrection (rather than with any sense of his pre-existent, eternal deity). This is the fundamental meaning of the verb nika/w here. Of the 28 occurrences of this verb in the New Testament, 17 are in the book of Revelation. It is used at the start of each concluding promise in the letters (“[to] the [one] being victorious…”). The believer who is faithful and endures (i.e. suffers) essentially will share in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This sharing in Jesus’ victory (over the world, sin, evil, etc) is also a key motif in the Gospel and Letters of John (Jn 16:33; 1 Jn 2:13-14; 4:4; 5:4-5). As I have mentioned on a number of occasions, in the earliest Christian preaching and Gospel-proclamation, Jesus status and position at God’s right hand (i.e. sharing rule on His throne), was seen a direct result of his resurrection/exaltation (Acts 2:25, 33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; Heb 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 1 Pet 3:22). Psalm 110:1 was certainly influential in shaping the early Christian understanding of this aspect of Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God.

September 19: Revelation 3:7-13

Revelation 3:7-13

The sixth letter in chaps. 2-3 is addressed to the city of “the one dear to (his) brother” (Greek fila/delfo$, philádelphos), surname of the Pergamene king (Attalos II) who founded the city in the mid-second century B.C. Today it is known by the name Alashehir. The brotherly affection (or loyalty) indicated by the name filade/lfeia (philadélpheia) takes on a new significance for early Christians, based on their use of the words fila/delfo$ and filade/lfeia, where the fondness/affection (fi/lo$) is understood in terms of the love (a)ga/ph) believers share with one another in Christ (cf. Rom 12:10; 1 Thess 4:9; Heb 13:1; 1 Pet 1:22; 3:8; 2 Pet 1:7, and note the interchange of file/w and a)gapa/w in Jn 21:15-17).

Rev 3:7

In this letter, for the first time, the introduction to the risen Jesus does not draw upon the vision in 1:11-16ff; however, it continues the blending of Messianic and Divine attributes which especially characterizes the portrait of Jesus in the book of Revelation. It begins with titles properly applied to God the Father (YHWH):

“the Holy (One), the True (One)…”
o( a%gio$ o( a)lh/qino$

The first title, “Holy One”, occurs in Isa 40:25; Hab 3:3 (cf. also Job 6:10; Psalm 71:22; 78:41; 89:18; Prov 9:10; Isa 5:19ff, etc), and relates to the idea of God’s holiness, expressed many times in the Scriptures (e.g., Exod 3:5; 15:13; Lev 19:2; Deut 26:15ff; Josh 24:19; Psalm 99:3ff; Isa 6:3; Luke 1:49, etc). It is applied to Jesus in the New Testament, usually in the form “the Holy One of God” (o( a%gio$ tou= qeou=)—Mark 1:24 par; John 6:69; also Acts 3:14 (“Holy and Just [One]”); and Acts 2:27; 4:27, 30; 13:35 (“your Holy [One]”). In these passages the sense is primarily Messianic, influenced, in part, by the wording in Psalm 16:10 (Acts 2:27; 13:35). However, there can be no doubt that the title “Holy (One)”, would have been associated in the minds of early (Jewish) Christians, with God Himself (cf. Rev 16:5, to be discussed). The association of the adjective a%gio$ (“holy”) with the title “Son of God”, in Luke 1:35, may point in this direction. There would also have been an obvious association with the Holy Spirit for early Christians as well (cf. 1 John 2:20; Luke 1:35).

The second title “True One”, “the One (who is) True”, using the adjective a)lhqino/$ (“true”, par a)lhqh/$), is less common, but draws upon truth (a)lh/qeia) as an attribute of God—cf. 2 Sam 7:28; 22:31 (Ps 18:30); 2 Chron 15:3; Psalm 25:5; 43:3; Prov 30:5; Isa 10:20; 45:19; 65:16; Jer 10:10; Rom 3:4ff; 1 Thess 1:9, etc. Both noun and adjective are especially prominent in the Johannine writings (both the Gospel and Letters), where the terms are variously applied to God (the Father), Jesus (the Son), and/or the Spirit. Of the many occurrences, note especially: Jn 1:9; 3:33; 4:23-24; 5:32; 6:32 (and v. 55; 15:1); 7:18, 28; 8:14ff, 26, 32; 14:6; 17:17; 18:37f; 1 Jn 2:8, 27; 5:20. The Spirit is specifically connected with the Truth of God (and Christ)—Jn 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 Jn 4:6; 5:6. The declarations in Jn 17:3 and 1 Jn 5:20 are central to Johannine theology, and must be studied closely. In the book of Revelation, “true” as a divine title, is applied to God the Father (i.e. YHWH) and Jesus interchangably, as can be seen in 6:10; 15:3; 16:7; 19:11, etc. The twin attributes “holy” and “true” are used together again in 6:10 (to be discussed).

Following these (divine) titles, we find the descriptive phrase:

“The (one) holding the key of Dawid, the (one) opening up and no one closes, and (the one) closing and no one opens up”

This is essentially a quotation of Isa 22:22, which came to interpreted in a Messianic sense, due to the expression “key of David” (klei/$ Daui/d). The key symbolizes both authority and rule (i.e. within the house or kingdom). The one holding the key typically would be a trusted servant acting with the ruler’s authority, giving/granting access and administering the household (or kingdom), etc. It is especially appropriate as an image for the risen Jesus, who was exalted to the right hand of God in heaven, and was given authority (as judge, etc) over the world. His actions/judgments cannot be reversed—what he opens cannot be closed, and what he closed cannot be opened. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ words to Peter and the disciples in Matt 16:19 (cf. also Jn 20:23). In Rev 1:18, the risen Jesus declared “I hold the keys of Death and (the) Unseen realm (of the Dead) [i.e. ‘Hades’]”. There the keys are unquestionably connected to Jesus’ resurrection; the significance of the image is also eschatological—as are the keys held by the heavenly Messengers in 9:1; 20:1.

Rev 3:8

The message to the believers in Philadelphia is entirely one of praise and encouragement (there is no blame/rebuke section beginning “but I hold [this] against you…”). The praise is emphasized at the start in verse 8:

“I have seen your works—see! I have given (you) a door having been opened up in your sight, (of) which no one can close it—(in) that you hold little power, and (yet) you (have) kept watch (over) my word [lo/go$], and you did not deny my name.”

The praiseworthy “works” are clearly summarized: the believers in Philadelphia have little power (i.e. in a socio-political or religious-cultural sense), and yet they have been faithful, in the face of the pressures (and persecution?) surrounding them in the city. Here the “word [lo/go$]” is best understood in terms of the Gospel message (which includes the teachings of Jesus), often referred to in the New Testament as the “account/word [lo/go$] of God”. They have been faithful in a two-fold sense: (a) keeping watch over the Gospel, and (b) not denying the “name” of Jesus (i.e. their faith in him and religious identity as believers). The latter implies some measure of persecution, or at least pressure (from the surrounding culture) to abandon one’s Christian identity. The idea of “keeping watch” (vb. thre/w) over the word/account (i.e. Gospel) may indicate the danger of false teachings, but could just as easily refer to influence from Greco-Roman (pagan) religion and culture—cf. the use of the verb in 1 Thess 5:23 (note the eschatological context); 1 Tim 5:22; 6:14; 2 Tim 4:7; James 1:27. The specific idea of keeping watch over the word (or ‘command’) of Jesus is especially prominent in the Johannine writings—Jn 8:51-52; 12:47; 14:15, 21, 23-24; 15:10, 20; 1 Jn 2:3-5; 3:22ff; 5:3. In the Johannine tradition, this ‘command’—better understood as the charge/duty laid upon believers—is two-fold [1 Jn 3:23-24]: (1) trust in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, and (2) love for one another, following the example of Jesus.

On the suffering and persecution of believers being tied specifically to the name of Jesus, cf. Mark 13:13 par; Matt 10:22; Luke 21:12; John 15:21; Acts 5:41; 9:16; 15:26; 26:9, etc. The similarity of language between Rev 3:8 and the earlier wording used in 2:13 (letter to Pergamum) strongly indicates that the believers in Philadelphia were facing danger (and/or active oppression) from the provincial government (Roman magistrate, etc) due to their Christian identity.

The “door” that is opened up, relates back to verse 7, and the key held by Jesus; this door should be understood symbolically in terms of the believer’s entry into Eternal Life. On this basic motif in Jesus’ teaching, cf. Matt 7:13-14; Luke 13:24-25; John 10:1-2, 7ff. For the idea that Jesus provides access to God the Father, cf. the famous saying in John 14:6. The image of the “open door” will appear again in Rev 3:20 and 4:1.

Rev 3:9

As with the situation in Smyrna (2:8-11, cf. the earlier note), the believers in Philadelphia were dealing with opposition from the Jewish community. The same harsh language and terminology from 2:9 is used here. The nature of this conflict is not entirely clear; at Smyrna, it may have involved the denunciation of Christians to the authorities. Certainly, it had to be serious enough to bring about the condemnation (and punishment) described here:

“See, I will make them (so) that they will come and will kiss toward (you) in the sight of your feet, even (so that) they should know that I (have) loved you.”

This is a stark reversal of the traditional (eschatological) image of the Gentiles coming to Judea/Jerusalem to worship the one true God, and submitting or giving homage to God’s people Israel (cf. Isa 60:14, etc). It entails the love God has for his chosen ones (Exod 15:13; Deut 7:7; 33:3; Hos 3:1; 11:1; Isa 63:7; Psalm 98:3; Ezra 3:11, etc; and note especially the wording in Isa 43:4), which here is expressed in terms of Jesus’ love for his faithful followers—the people of God in the New Covenant. The idea of Jews bowing down (in submission), giving homage to Christians, will doubtless make many believers today a bit uncomfortable, in light of the sad legacy of centuries of anti-Jewish persecution. It is important to remember, however, the emphasis here in the book of Revelation, and elsewhere in the New Testament, which is fundamentally Messianic (and Christological)—true Israelites and Jews (i.e. those who are truly God’s people) would recognize and accept Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. Their opposition to believers, however this was manifest, shows that they do not accept Jesus, and, indeed, are opposed to him.

Rev 3:10-11

Here, Jesus expounds upon the idea of keeping watch over his word (lo/go$), using a bit of wordplay (with the verb thre/w):

“(In) that [i.e. because] you kept [e)th/rhsa$] my account [lo/go$] of remaining under, I also will keep [thrh/sw] you out of the hour of the test(ing) th(at) is about to come the whole inhabited (worl)d to test the (one)s putting down house upon [i.e. inhabiting] the earth.”

The expression o( lo/go$ th=$ u(pomonh=$ mou is somewhat ambiguous, and can be read one of two ways:

    • “the account of my remaining under”—that is, of Jesus’ willingness to endure suffering and death, as expressed in the Gospels; it would mean specifically following his own example
    • “my word (to you) of [i.e. about] remaining under”—this would refer to Jesus’ instruction to his followers, regarding how they should conduct themselves in the face of persecution and suffering

The motif of “remaining under”, rendering the noun u(pomonh/ literally, entails both patience and commitment, continuing to follow Jesus and remaining faithful to him. It is used frequently in the New Testament (more than 30 times, including 7 in the book of Revelation), and is often translated as “patience” or “endurance”. The reward, or result, of this faithfulness, is presented here as being reciprocal: just as believers kept Jesus’ word, so he will keep them out of the time of testing which is about to come upon the world. According to the eschatological view of many Christians (today), this refers to the so-called “Rapture” of believers which is to occur before the “Great Tribulation”. However, this certainly reads far too much into the text, and, even in its general premise, does not appear to reflect accurately what the text actually describes. Note that Jesus does not say that he will remove the believers of Philadelphia from the world, but only that they will be kept out of the time of testing, implying that they will still be in the world, but will be protected from the suffering and evil (temptation, etc) that is to come. This is very much akin to Jesus’ words in John 17:15 (and almost certainly expresses the same idea), as well as the famous petition of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:13 par).

It also seems clear that Jesus is not speaking here of something that will take place in the distant future (i.e. our time today, or thereafter); rather, in addressing believers at the end of the 1st century A.D., he speaks of “the hour…that is about to come”. This is one of several definite indications of an imminent eschatology, which we have already seen in the first chapters of the book. The doctrinal difficulties involved in this, for us today, will be addressed in a special upcoming study. The same sense of imminence is found in the following declaration of verse 11:

“I come quickly [taxu/]—grab firmly (to that) which you hold, (so) that no one should take your crown.”

Here the nuance of the Greek is often lost in translation—believers already hold (vb. e&xw) faith, life, etc, in Jesus; they are exhorted to grab hold firmly (vb. krate/w) to these things. The adverb taxu/ (“quickly, [with] speed”) was used previously in 2:16, and will occur 4 more times in the book, always in reference to the end-time coming (vb. e&rxomai) of Jesus. The wreath, or “crown” (ste/fano$) was mentioned as a symbol of heavenly honor/reward in 2:10.

Rev 3:12

The final promise (and exhortation) in the letter-format always involves the eternal/heavenly reward which the faithful believer will receive. Here it is expressed with two statements:

    • “I will make him (to be) a standing post [i.e. pillar] in the shrine of my God, even (so) he should not (ever) go out(side of it) any more”
    • “I will write upon him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God…and my new name”

The first image draws upon the ancient Temple design (1 Kings 7:15ff; Ezek 40:49; 11QTemple 10:4ff; 35:10; Josephus Jewish War 5.190ff), which involved supporting columns or pillars (Grk. stu/lo$)—in other words, the individual believer has a fundamental place and position in the overall design (and structure) of the Temple. The word nao/$ properly refers to the inner shrine, or sanctuary, but can also be used for the entire Temple building-complex. The Temple in Jerusalem, of course, was central to ancient Israelite religion, and early Christians made use of it, in a figurative (and spiritual) sense, referring to individual believers, and to believers collectively, as the Temple (or “house”) of God—cf. 1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21; Heb 10:21; 1 Pet 2:5; 2 Clement 9:3; Ignatius, Philadelphians 7:2; Barnabas 4:11; 6:15. In the vision of the “New Jerusalem” (chaps. 21-22), there is no longer any Temple building, being replaced by the personal presence of God and Christ (v. 22). The idea of Jesus as the real/true Temple is likewise expressed, or suggested, at various points in the New Testament and early Christian tradition (John 2:19-21; Matt 12:6; cf. also Mk 15:38 par; Acts 17:24; Ignatius, Magnesians 7:2; Barnabas 16. Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians (9:1) refers to believers as the stones of the Temple, an idea not so different from that in the book of Revelation here.

The second reward involves three “names” which will be written on the believer: (1) the name of God, (2) the name of God’s city, the “new Jerusalem”, and (3) the “new name” of the risen Jesus. All of these should be understood similarly to the “new name” which the believer will receive (2:17). The image presumably is that of God’s name being written on the forehead of the believer (14:1; 22:4). The symbolism indicates that the believer belongs to God (and Christ). In light of the pillar/temple imagery in the first half of the verse, there may be an allusion here to the inscription/dedication of pillars, etc, in temples and other public buildings, known from the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world (cf. Koester, p. 327).

The city of God (i.e. Jerusalem) is specifically identified as “the new Yerushalaim th(at is) stepping [i.e. coming] down out of heaven from my God”. This makes clear that it is not the current, earthly Jerusalem, but a heavenly/eternal “city”. The meaning of this image will be discussed later on when addressing the final vision(s) of the book in chapters 21-22. There are precedents for it elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. 2 Cor 5:1; Gal 4:25-26; Heb 12:22).

With regard to the “new name” of Jesus, the most reliable line of interpretation is to be found further on in the book, at conclusion of 19:11-16 (to be discussed in turn). However, there are a few other passages in the New Testament which may be relevant, such as the great prayer-discourse in the Gospel of John (chap. 17), which is vital to an understanding of Johannine theology (and Christology). God gives his own name to Jesus, who, in turn, makes it known to his followers (vv. 6, 11-12, 26). An interesting parallel is also to be found in Phil 2:9-10 (cf. also Heb 1:4; Eph 1:21). It is important to realize that the “name that is over every name”, like the “new name” in Rev 3:12, contrary to popular belief, is not simply “Jesus/Yeshua”, but that which reflects the essential identity and (divine) nature/status which Jesus (the Son) shares with God (the Father). In the earliest preaching, this was understood almost entirely in terms of the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God. Eventually, it came to encompass the idea of divine pre-existence and eternal Sonship (to be glimpsed already in Phil 2:6-11).

September 18: Revelation 3:1-6

Revelation 3:1-6

This fifth letter, to the believers in Sardis, follows the format used in all seven letters (as discussed in the earlier note). Here we will examine the features and details which are unique to this particular letter.

Rev 3:1a

Each introduction to the risen Jesus draws upon the wording and imagery in the vision of 1:11-16ff. Here the reference is to the image in v. 16a, i.e. holding the seven stars in his right hand. They are connected closely with “the seven Spirits of God” (from 1:4), which merely confirms that these “Spirits” are to be understood as heavenly beings (i.e., Angels, cf. 1:20).

Rev 3:1b

The main message, or body of the letter, differs from the others in the way that it blends together the two aspects of praise and blame/rebuke. This is clear from the way that the opening formula has been adapted:

“I have seen your works—that you hold a name (indicating) that you live, and (yet) you are dead.”

This is doubtless meant, in part, as an ironic echo of Jesus words in 1:18:

“I am the living (one)—I came to be dead, and see! I am living into the Ages of Ages…”

The expression “holding a name that you live” presumably means that the Christians in Sardis identify themselves (by name and confession) as believers in Christ (“the living one”). It is hard to know just what is meant by the statement “and (yet) you are dead“. It is probably best here simply to understand the adjective “dead” as the opposite of “alive”—the absence of life, in the sense of a lack of true faith and/or love, as manifest in the words and actions (“works”) of the congregations. Specific or blatant sin does not seem to have been the issue; the situation is perhaps similar to that stated in the letter to the Christians of Ephesus (2:4f).

Rev 3:2-3

The rebuke of verse 1 turns into an exhortation, whereby the believers in Sardis are urged to remain awake (i.e. watchful, vb. grhgoreu/w) and to strengthen (lit. fasten, firm [up], sthri/zw) “the (thing)s remaining which are about to die off”. The neuter plural ta\ loipa/ makes it clear that this refers to their “works” (ta\ e&rga), i.e. to their words and acts of love, faith, etc, which are still manifest in the congregations, but are in danger of dying out. Again, we must be cautious about reading into this the idea that the Christians of Sardis were particularly “worldly” or immoral. The book of Revelation tends to express an extremely rigorous view of Christian faithfulness and devotion, in relation to the negative influence of Greco-Roman (pagan) culture and false religious practice. The standard, or ideal, is stated clearly here in verse 2:

“For I have not found your works (as) having been made full [i.e. complete] in the sight of my God.”

The exhortation shifts again back to a warning:

“Remember, then, how you have received and heard (before), and (so) you must keep watch and change your mind(set) [i.e. repent]. (But) if, then, you would not remain awake [i.e. watchful, alert], (know that) I will come as a thief, (so that) you should not even know what hour I will come upon you!”

Here, Jesus’ coming (“I will come”) is unquestionably eschatological, referring to his end-time return (whereas in 2:16 this was not so clear). The suddenness and unexpectedness of his appearance is characterized as that of a thief who breaks into a house, an image used in an eschatological context for the coming of the end (and the return of Jesus) several times in the New Testament, including by Jesus himself in the Gospels (Matt 24:43 / Lk 12:39; cf. also 1 Thess 5:2, 4; 2 Pet 3:10). Similarly, the verb grhgore/w (“be/remain awake”, i.e. be watchful, alert) is often used in relation to eschatological expectation in the New Testament (Mark 13:34-37 par; Matt 25:13; 1 Thess 5:6; Rev 16:15; cf. also Mark 14:34ff par; 1 Cor 16:13). In such instances, there is a strong emphasis on ethical behavior, with the idea of the approaching time of Judgment serving as a warning and exhortation to repentance, etc.

Rev 3:4-5

As indicated above, the sections on praise and blame/rebuke in this letter have been reversed, beginning with blame and concluding with praise. The second section typically begins, “But I hold (this) against you…”; but here it has been modified:

“But you hold [i.e. have] a few names in Sardis which did not dirty their garments, and they will walk about with me in white (garment)s, (in) that [i.e. because] they are brought [i.e. weighed] (in the) balance.”

There is a bit of wordplay here with o&noma (“name”). In verse 1a (cf. above) it referred to the reputation and character of the congregation(s) in Sardis (i.e. Christians as a whole); here, it refers to individual believers (and their names). While the congregations are characterized generally as “dead”, there are still present a small percentage of (“a few”, o)li/go$) true and faithful believers. They are described as those who “did not dirty [e)mo/lunan] their garments”. The verb molu/nw (“darken, dirty, soil, stain”) is rare in the New Testament (elsewhere only in 1 Cor 8:7; Rev 14:4). However, the motif of dirtying/washing one’s clothing is a relatively common religious motif, and can be used in the context of both ritual and moral purity (cf. Exod 19:10-14; Lev 11:25ff; Num 8:7; 19:7ff; Lam 4:14; Zech 3:3-5, etc). The image of a garment might suggest the physical body (as opposed to the soul/spirit), leading to the idea that sensual/carnal sin is involved. More likely, however, is the association with the believer’s baptism—where the ritual symbolism entails the removal of one’s old nature (taking off the garment) and putting on the new. Presumably from very early times the baptism rite included use of a clean white robe. Paul’s language in Gal 3:27 (cf. also Rom 13:12-14; Col 3:9-10 [Eph 4:22-24]) draws upon well-established baptism imagery. The idea of putting on (new/glorious) clothing can also be used in the context of eschatological expectation (of the resurrection, etc), cf. 1 Cor 15:53-54; 2 Cor 5:2-3; 1 Thess 5:8 [cp. Eph 6:11ff].

White clothing brings together the twin attributes of brightness and purity. Heavenly beings are typically described wearing a white (linen) garment or robe—Ezek 9:2ff; 10:2ff; Dan 10:5; 12:6-7; Mark 9:3 par; 16:5; Matt 28:3; John 20:12; Acts 1:10; 10:30, and frequently in the book of Revelation. The promise here in verses 4-5 relates to heavenly reward and honor. This is expressed by the promise-formula in verse 5:

“The (one) being [i.e. who is] victorious, this (one) will be cast about [i.e. clothed] in white garments…”

The white garments (of heavenly purity/holiness) allow the believer to “walk about” with Jesus (i.e. in Heaven). This is the first of three rewards given in v. 5, all of which refer primarily to the Eternal Life the believer will receive, having passed through the Judgment. The context of the end-time/heavenly Judgment is clear enough, but there is an important allusion to it in the earlier use of the adjective a&cio$ (end of v. 4). Often translated “worthy”, it fundamentally refers to being “brought (down)”, i.e. weighed, in the balances. These are the scales of justice/judgment; the person who is weighed in the proper balance is deemed worthy of entering into Life. The second reward in verse 5 is:

“…and I will not rub his name out of the paper-roll [i.e. scroll] of Life…”

The word bi/blo$ is usually translated “book”, but literally refers to a paper (papyrus) roll, or scroll. The specific image is that of a roll on which the names of citizens are recorded—in this instance, those who are (to be) citizens of heaven, who belong to the Kingdom of God and the realm of Eternal Life. The expression “scroll/book of Life” (o( bi/blo$ th=$ zwh=$) goes back to Old Testament tradition and ancient Near Eastern concepts of the divine Judgment (cf. Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:28; Isa 4:3; Dan 12:1; also 4Q381; 4Q504; Jubilees 30:22; 36:10; 1 Enoch 108:3; Koester, p. 315). The specific expression is used by Paul in Phil 4:3, and repeatedly again in the book of Revelation; Jesus refers to the basic idea in Luke 10:20.

The third, and final, reward is:

“…and I will give account as one of [i.e. confess/acknowledge] his name in the sight of my Father and in the sight of His Messengers.”

This statement gives a snapshot of the scene of Judgment in which Jesus testifies on behalf of believers. It is better viewed in terms of Jesus as one who is overseeing the court of Judgment and authorizes the believers to pass through into Life. There is a precise parallel in the Gospel tradition (the so-called “Q” material); the saying by Jesus in Matt 10:32b and Luke 12:8b is very close in wording—combining the two versions gives a saying not too far removed from that here in Rev 3:5c:

“Every one who gives account as one in (regard to) me in front of men, I will give account as one in (regard to) him in front of my Father in the heavens.” (Matt 10:32)
“Every one who would give account as one in (regard to) me in front of men, the Son of Man also will give account as one in (regard to) him in front of the Messengers of God” (Luke 12:8); [v. 9] “…in the sight of the Messengers of God”

The verb o(mologe/w literally means “give account as one”, i.e. “give common account”, “say the same thing”, often rendered as consent, acknowledge, confess. It implies agreement regarding a statement or principle, etc. In other words, the believer agrees to the Gospel message regarding Jesus (his teaching, example, etc), and Jesus, in turn, confirms the believer’s trust/faith and (religious) identity—an identity which is also confirmed by what the believer has said and done during his/her lifetime.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Parables of Jesus (Part 3)

The Parables of Jesus (Part 3)

The eschatological and “Kingdom” parables in Matthew and Luke are being examined according to five themes:

    1. The Matthean ‘additions’ to the Synoptic tradition in Mark 4
    2. Vineyard Parables
    3. Banquet/Feast Parables
    4. The Eschatological Parables in Matthew 25
    5. The “Delay of the Parousia” in Luke

The first three of these were treated in Part 2; here we will study the remaining two.

4. The Eschatological Parables in Matthew 25

Following the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (chap. 24), Matthew records three additional eschatological parables:

Matthew 25:1-13: Parable of the Bridesmaids

Both of the parables in Matt 25:1-30 are Kingdom parables, as is specified in verse 1: “the kingdom of the heavens will be considered (to be) like…”. As in several of the parables we have already examined (Parts 1 and 2 of this study), the setting involves a man who has gone away and is expected to come (back). In the Bridesmaids-parable, this motif has been simplified to that of the bridegroom in a marriage/wedding-ceremony who is coming to fetch the bride and take her to his house. A rather different wedding scenario appears in Luke 12:35-38 (cf. below). There is some question whether, in the original context of the parable(s), the man/bridegroom represented Jesus or God the Father (YHWH). The setting here in Matt 25, following the Eschatological Discourse in chap. 24, naturally would have led early Christians to associate it with Jesus’ return. However, more properly the image refers to God’s end-time appearance for Judgment, and to deliver the faithful ones among his people; this appearance was understood in terms of his heavenly/divine representative—Messenger of the Lord and/or Son of Man—identified with Jesus in the Gospel Tradition.

There is again a distinction between two groups, juxtaposed against one another, as in the parable of the Weeds and the Net (cf. the discussion in Part 2). The two groups are together in one body (community or collection of people), but reflect very different characteristics. In the Bridesmaids-parable, there are ten virgins (maidens)—five of whom are described as mindful/thoughtful (fro/nimo$), while the other five are “dull” (mwro/$). They are together in one place, attending the bride, a detail which has to be inferred from the context (the variant reading in v. 1 indicates that copyists may have misunderstood the setting of the parable). The bride, who belongs to the bridegroom (having been betrothed to him, by a binding agreement [covenant]), is similar in many respects to the field in the Weeds-parable which belongs to the Sower (the Son of Man). The bride/bridegroom imagery, based on ancient Near Eastern (and Old Testament) tradition, more specifically suggests the religious relationship between God and his people Israel. In addition to the general milieu of ancient love poetry and marital imagery, which may be interpreted in this light (cf. Song of Songs 4:8-5:1), it is found, e.g., in Isaiah 49:18; 61:10; 62:5. The theme of love between husband and wife, in terms of marital faithfulness and loyalty, was used in the Prophets as a way of expressing Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, violating the binding (marriage) agreement, or covenant. We see this most famously in Hosea 1-3, but also in a number of other places, such as Joel 1:8 and Jer 2:2. On the wedding feast (verse 10), cf. Rev 19:7-9 and the discussion on the Feast/Banquet parables in Part 2.

Typically the servants/workers as characters in Jesus’ parables are meant as instructive examples for his disciples—the disciple of Jesus will see himself (or herself) in the position of the faithful servant. The parable functions as an exhortation (and a warning) for the disciple to behave in the manner of the positive character, rather than the negative. The “lamps” carried by the maidens is a figurative expression of the disciple’s behavior and faithful devotion, as stated more generally in Matt 5:14-16, etc. The brief Lamp-parable in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 4:21-22) has an eschatological orientation, which is echoed here as well. There is a sense in which the light from the lamps is defined as the message of the Kingdom which has been given to the disciples.

Apart from the fundamental setting of the coming/return of the man (bridegroom), the eschatological aspect is emphasized by other details in the parable, such as the use of the noun u(pa/nthsi$ / a)pa/nthsi$ (vv. 1, 6). The related verbs u(panta/w and a)panta/w are virtually synonymous—both have the basic meaning of going away to come opposite (i.e. to meet, come face-to-face) with another person. Paul uses a)pa/nthsi$ specifically to refer to believers meeting Jesus in the air at his return (1 Thess 4:17). However, in Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the primary idea was that the people must be prepared to meet their God—i.e. the end-time Judgment. This eschatological judgment motif—involving the separation of the righteous and wicked, as of the true and false disciple (cf. the chap. 13 parables)—is vividly expressed by the climactic scene of the parable (vv. 11-12), which has similarities to the sayings/parables of Jesus in 7:21-23 and Luke 13:25-27.

The suddenness of the bridegroom’s appearance is emphasized in vv. 6, 10, in which he comes “in the middle of the night” when many, like the dull/foolish bridesmaids, might naturally be asleep. This reflects the imminent expectation of the end-time Judgment, held by early Christians (and other Jews of the time), though tempered, perhaps, by the motif of a ‘delay’ in v. 5: “But (while) the bridegroom (was) taking (his) time…”. This could provide support for the idea of a significant period of time (some years, at least) which could pass before the end-time Judgment (and return of Jesus). For more on the “delay of the Parousia”, see section 5 below.

There are certain parallels between the Bridesmaids-parable and the brief parable in Luke 12:35-38; despite differences in detail, the general outline and message are much the same: the servants (disciples) are to keep their lamps lit and remain watchful for their master’s return.

Matthew 25:14-30: Parable of the Talents (par Lk 19:11-27)

The Matthean Parable of the Talents is quite similar to the Lukan Parable of the Minas (19:11-27); many scholars consider them to be part of a shared tradition (“Q” material), though the significant differences make this less than certain. There are several ways of understanding the relationship between the two:

    • They reflect two different, but similar, parables of Jesus
    • It is the same parable, preserved in two different lines of tradition
    • It is the same parable (“Q”), modified by one or both of the Gospel writers

In favor of the latter is the fact a common core parable can be obtained by a simple removal or modification of several elements unique to each version:

    • Matthew:
      • Addition of the concluding line (v. 30), which is especially common as a refrain in the Matthean sayings/parables
    • Luke:
      • The narrative introduction in v. 11
      • The reference to the man as of noble origins, and the reason for his departure (“to receive a kingdom of himself”), v. 12
      • The verses/details related to this Lukan kingship motif—vv. 14-15a, 25, 27

Apart from these separable components, the differences between the two versions of the parable are minor—most notably, the difference in the amount of money involved (talents vs. minas). Curiously, Luke’s version specifies ten servants, though the parable itself, like Matthew’s version, only deals with three. Perhaps the reference to ten servants is meant to give the impression that the faithless servant (1 of 10), like Judas Iscariot (1 of 12), is relatively rare among the disciples of Jesus.

If we examine the parable in Matthew, we see that it is included together with the previous Bridesmaids-parable as another parable of the Kingdom (vv. 1, 14); Luke’s version makes this explicit (cf. below). We have the familiar motif of servants/workers and the landowner or household master who goes away. The money entrusted to the three servants resembles the lamps held by the bridesmaids—both symbolize the disciple’s faithful service to God and Jesus. Instead of two groups, there are three distinct characters, yet still reflecting two kinds of characteristics—those who deal faithfully with the money for their master, and those who do not (through fear and inaction). The end-time Judgment is expressed through several details in the parable:

    • The return of the master who settles the accounts (v. 19)
    • The reward given to the two faithful servants (vv. 20-23)—note the traditional reference to “entering” the divine/heavenly life (i.e. entering the Kingdom)
    • The judgment against the wicked/unfaithful servant (vv. 26ff)
    • The separation of the wicked—thrown into the “outer darkness” (v. 30)

As noted above, the Lukan version contains a kingship narrative line running through the parable:

    • The narrative introduction (v. 11), establishing the reason for Jesus’ uttering the parable (cf. Section 5 below)
    • The man is described as “well-born”—he goes away specifically “to receive a kingdom for himself” (v. 12)
    • The parable is interrupted, it would seem, by the notice in v. 14, introducing the theme of the rebellious citizens who do not want the man to rule over them as king
    • When the man returns, he is said to have “received the kingdom”, i.e. authority to rule (v. 15a)
    • Again, at the end of the parable, we find another reference to the people who did not wish the man to rule—now they are characterized as “enemies” (v. 27).

It must be admitted that verses 14 and 27 seem out of place in the parable, which otherwise generally matches the version in Matthew. It has been suggested that two separate parables are blended together in Luke’s version: (1) a parable similar to Matt 25:14-30, and (2) a parable involving a king and his subjects. The two strands fit uneasily, making two very different statements: (1) exhortation to faithful discipleship, and (2) Jesus’ role/position as Messiah. Interestingly, the Lukan version, like Matthew’s, ends with a harsh declaration of Judgment (v. 27), though the two differ considerably in form and emphasis.

Both versions also include a motif suggesting a ‘delay’ in the coming of the end-time Judgment (and return of Jesus). Luke expresses this by way of the introduction in v. 11, and also with the detail that the man travels into a “far-off place” (v. 12). For Matthew, a similar idea is indicated in the parable when it is stated that master returns “after much time” (25:19). This will be discussed in Section 5 below.

Matthew 25:31-46: Parable of the Sheep and Goats

The last of the three parables in Matthew 25 has much the character of a vision-scene with symbolic/figurative elements, rather than a parable properly speaking. Indeed, it is not a Kingdom-parable, but a description of the Kingdom of God in heaven. It is, in fact, a scene of the great Judgment, set in the heavenly court. The eschatological key phrase is found in the opening words:

“And when the Son of Man should come in his splendor, and all the Messengers with him…” (v. 31a)

This virtually restates the Synoptic saying in Mark 8:38 par, referring to the appearance of the Son of Man at the end-time Judgment, viewed as imminent. The corresponding saying in Matthew at this point highlights the theme of the Judgment:

“For the Son of Man is about to come in the splendor of his Father, with his Messengers, and then he will give forth to each (person) according to his deed(s)” (16:27)

For more on this end-time appearance of the Son of Man—a tradition deriving primarily from Daniel 7:13-14ff—cf. Mark 13:26-27; 14:62 pars, and the recent study on the eschatological Sayings of Jesus. The opening verse of the parable emphasizes the exalted status and position of Jesus (at God’s right hand), as the divine/heavenly Son of Man. The depiction of the Judgment scene is altogether traditional, at least in its basic framework:

    • The judgment of the Nations (v. 32)—traditionally, the Messiah would play a prominent role in this process; in 1 Enoch, as in the Gospels and early Christian tradition, the Danielic Son of Man figure was identified as God’s Anointed One (Messiah), the two figure-types being blended together.
    • The separation of the righteous from the wicked (vv. 32ff)—this is stated generally (“he will mark them off from [each] other”), which could give the misleading impression that nations are being separated from another. Rather, it is the people (humankind) generally who are being separated.
    • The separation is expressed through the symbolic designation of “sheep” and “goats”; this simply reflects shepherding imagery, like the fishing imagery in the Net-parable (13:47-49), and one should not read too much into the sheep and goat as distinctive symbols.
    • The basis for the separation (righteous vs. wicked) is ethical (rather than theological), though with a uniquely Christian emphasis (cf. below).
    • The final Judgment (reward/punishment) likewise is stated in traditional language:
      “and these [i.e. the wicked] will go away into punishment of the Ages [i.e. eternal punishment], but the just/righteous (one)s into (the) Life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life]” (v. 46)

What is especially distinctive, and most memorable, about the parable is the basis for the judgment/separation, which is set forth in considerable detail (unlike the parables of the Weeds and Net, where is left unstated). It is described entirely in terms of how one has responded to people who are in need (of food, clothing, comfort, care/treatment of sickness, etc)—i.e. to the poor and unfortunate in society. This has caused some consternation for Christians accustomed to viewing salvation strictly, or primarily, in terms of faith in Jesus, i.e. acceptance of him as Messiah and Son of God. However, the emphasis in the parable here is not much different from that in the Sermon on the Mount (see esp. the Beatitudes [5:3-12] and the Antitheses [5:21-47]), where traditional religious and ethical standards have been given a new, deeper interpretation. The true and faithful disciple of Jesus will follow this new ethic, and the declaration by Jesus in 5:20 is very much of a kind with the parable of the Sheep and Goats:

“For I relate to you that if your justice/righteousness does not go over (and above, even) more than (that) of the Writers [i.e. Scribes] and Pharisees, you (certainly) will not go into the kingdom of the heavens!”

5. The “Delay of the Parousia” in Luke

A final topic which must be addressed, related to the parables in Matthew and Luke, involves several key references which suggest a period of time which is to pass before the coming of final Judgment and the return of Jesus. This would seem to contrast with the language of imminence which otherwise is found in most/many of Jesus’ sayings (cf. the earlier study of the Sayings). The specific (and difficult, from our viewpoint) aspect of imminent eschatology in Jesus’ sayings/teaching will be discussed in more detail in the next study (on the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse”), as well as a separate study devoted to the topic. However, it is worth mentioning here these important references in the parables to what is typically called “the delay of the Parousia”—i.e. a recognition among early Christians, after several decades, that the coming of the end (and the return of Jesus) might not occur for some time. In this regard, the relative dating of the Gospels could be significant. Mark is usually recognized as the earliest of the four canonical Gospels, dated perhaps c. 60 A.D., with Luke somewhat later (after 70 A.D.), and Matthew, perhaps, later still (c. 80 A.D.). Apart from the statement in 13:7b (to be discussed), there is little in Mark to suggest anything other than an imminent expectation of the end—i.e. within the lifetime of the disciples. If the conventional dating of Luke and Matthew is correct, they would have been written at a time when a number of the disciples—i.e. the first generation of believers—were beginning to die off. It must be admitted that this issue is not specifically addressed in any of the Synoptic Gospels, but only in the Gospel of John, usually thought to be the latest of the four (c. 90-95 A.D.?)—cf. the tradition (and the way it is presented) in Jn 21:20-23. It is natural that the later, more developed Gospel tradition would reflect the concern of this “delay”, and seek to explain it, at least in a rudimentary way.

Even so, it must be stated that evidence of this sort is rather slight in Matthew and Luke. Neither Gospel writer felt it necessary to alter, to any real extent, the various Synoptic sayings and traditions which indicate an imminent expectation of the end-time Judgment. For example, they all leave the statement by Jesus in Mark 13:30 par in place without any real modification or explanation. Similarly, references indicating a significant ‘delay’ are relatively rare, and should not be overstated. We saw above, details in two of the parables which are worthy of note:

    • It is said of the Bridegroom that he was “taking (his) time” (xroni/zonto$), which led some of the maidens carelessly to fall asleep (25:5)
    • In the Parable of the Talents, it is only “after much time” (meta\ polu\n xro/non) that the master returns (25:19)

Both details, it would seem, reflect the same basic idea, though the latter more clearly indicates a significant period of time. If these parables properly refer to the return of Jesus, then it could, perhaps, express the idea (or at least allow for the possibility) that Jesus might not return within the lifetime of the first disciples.

The Gospel of Luke contains more details of this sort, which, indeed, is more fitting for the context of the combined work of Luke-Acts, with its emphasis on a period of mission work among the Gentiles that must take place before the end comes (Acts 1:6-8, etc). The parables also express this in various ways; there are two which need to be examined here: (a) the Parable of the Judge and the Widow, and (b) the Parable of the Minas.

Luke 18:1-8: The Parable of the Judge and the Widow

The purpose of this parable is expressed by the Gospel writer in the opening words (narrative introduction, v. 1): the necessity of the disciples “always to speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] and not to act out of a bad (heart) [i.e. be weak, cowardly]”. In other words, Jesus exhorts his followers to be persistent in prayer, even in the face of difficult and trying circumstances, where it may seem as though God does not hear them. This is certainly the primary message of the parable (vv. 2-6); however, if we read between the lines, the chronological dimension of the parable could be taken to suggest a delay in the end-time deliverance of God’s people (i.e. the Judgment), which early believers (along with many devout Jews) were fervently expecting. The woman in the parable “would come toward him [i.e. the judge]” (v. 3), i.e. would come repeatedly; and the judge was apparently not willing to hear her complaint “upon [i.e. for] (some) time” (v. 4). The explanation of the parable by Jesus in verse 7, and its application to the disciples (believers), suggests more is involved here than simply the question of unanswered prayer:

“And would God (then) not (all the more) make out justice for his (chosen one)s (which he) gathered out, the (one)s crying to him day and night, and is his impulse (to answer) long upon them [i.e. is he long in answering them]?”

There seems to be an echo here of the eschatological (and Messianic) hope expressed, for example, in 2:25, 38. Moreover the persecution which Jesus’ disciples will face, also implied here in the parable, is often presented in an eschatological context (21:12-19 par, etc). Luke is fully aware that at least thirty years would pass, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, without the end coming, and that, during this time, the early Christians (especially missionaries such as Paul and Barnabas) would face persecution. This parable may have been included by the Gospel writer, in part, with just this context in mind. The eschatological orientation of the parable would seem to be confirmed by the concluding declaration by Jesus in verse 8b, which may have circulated originally as a separate saying: “All the more, the Son of Man (at) his coming, will he find trust upon the earth?”. Disciples are to continue following Jesus faithfully, trusting in God, for the period (however brief or long) that lasts until the Son of Man comes. Verse 8a suggests that this period of time will not be all that long, preserving the basic sense of imminence—”I relate to you that he [i.e. God] will make out justice for them in (all) speed!”. On the language of imminence here—i.e. the expression e)n ta/xei, “in [i.e. with] (all) speed”—cf. the separate study in this series on imminent eschatology in the New Testament.

Luke 19:11-27: The Parable of the Minas

The parable itself was discussed above, in connection with the Matthean Parable of the Talents. Here, it is necessary to focus on two elements of the Lukan version: (a) the narrative introduction in verse 11, and (b) the description of the man who goes away in verse 12. First consider the setting indicated in the narrative introduction, which also serves as a transition from the Zaccheus narrative in vv. 1-10:

“And (at) their hearing these (thing)s, (Yeshua,) putting (this also) toward (them), said (it as) an (illustration) cast alongside [i.e. parable], through [i.e. because of] his being near to Yerushalaim, and their considering that the kingdom of God was about to shine forth [i.e. appear] paraxrh=ma.”

The syntax is somewhat complex, but what the author is describing is clear enough. Jesus was aware that many people (among his disciples and other followers) were thinking/expecting that the Kingdom of God would suddenly appear and be realized (on earth) once they arrived in Jerusalem. The adverb paraxrh=ma is difficult to translate literally; fundamentally, it refers to something which comes along (para/) just as it is needed (xrh=ma)—i.e. just at the right time. Sometimes it carries the sense of “at that very moment”, “immediately”. The “triumphal entry” narrative in the Gospel tradition (Mark 11:1-10 par) indicates that many people envisioned Jesus as the Messiah (Davidic-ruler type) who would establish the Kingdom in Jerusalem—presumably an earthly (Messianic) Kingdom, according to popular tradition. The questions posed to him in Lk 17:20 and Acts 1:6 reflect a similar eschatological expectation. In response to those questions, Jesus redirects his audience, pointing them toward a different (and deeper) understanding. Much the same is done here, through the parable which follows in vv. 12ff. The Kingdom of God will not be established immediately at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

This brings us to the beginning of the parable, which differs from the Matthean version in the description of the man who goes away. Here is how it is stated in the Parable of the Talents:

“…a man going away from his own people…” (25:14)

This simple phrase likely reflects the core parable (cf. above); however, in the Lukan Parable of the Minas, it is expanded considerably:

“A certain well-born man traveled into a far(-off) area to receive a kingdom for himself and (then) turn back [i.e. return].” (19:12)

I noted above that there is some ambiguity in these parables whether the figure of the master/landowner who goes away properly refers to Jesus or God the Father (YHWH). Probably in their original context it is God who is in view, though early Christians certainly would have come to interpret such eschatological parables in terms of Jesus’ return at the end-time. The Matthean Parable of the Talents could be understood either way; however, in the Lukan Parable of the Minas there is no question at all—the man who goes away has to be identified with Jesus. This is abundantly clear from the details in verse 12:

    • a well-born man (but not yet a King)
    • travels into a far-away land
    • to receive a kingdom for himself
    • and then returns back to his own land

This action in the story refers to a local ruler (prince, etc) who travels to the land/court of a powerful sovereign (king) to be granted the title and status of king (i.e., vassal of the greater sovereign). When he returns to his own land he now rules as king under the authority of the sovereign who granted him that title. From the standpoint of the Gospel narrative, this process described in verse 12 can only refer to the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. Having being raised to the right hand of God the Father, when Jesus returns, it will be as a divine King ruling with God’s own authority.

There is nothing in the parable which indicates exactly the time that the man (Jesus) is away; the designation of “far-off land” is best understood in terms of location (i.e. with God in Heaven). The Matthean parable does state that it is only “after much time” that the man returns. If we are faithful to the Lukan parable itself, all that we can say is that the Kingdom of God will not be established until some time after Jesus’ death, resurrection and departure to the Father. In the context of the wider narrative of Luke-Acts, this allows at least for a period of missionary work among the nations (Gentiles), as indicated in Acts 1:6-8ff; however, beyond this, there is no indication of the amount of time that is involved. This will be discussed further when we study the eschatology in the book of Acts.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Parables of Jesus (Part 2)

The Parables of Jesus (Part 2)

Part 1 of this study examined the parables in the core Synoptic (triple) tradition, as represented by the Gospel of Mark. We looked primarily at the Kingdom-parables in chapter 4, along with the parable of the Wicked Tenants in 12:1-12. Now we turn to the parables found in Matthew and Luke (but not Mark); some of these parables are unique to each Gospel, while others occur in both (i.e. material commonly designated “Q”). These eschatological and “Kingdom” parables will be examined according to five themes:

    1. The Matthean ‘additions’ to the Synoptic tradition in Mark 4
    2. Vineyard Parables
    3. Banquet/Feast Parables
    4. The Eschatological Parables in Matthew 25
    5. The “Delay of the Parousia” in Luke

1. The Matthean ‘additions’ to the Synoptic Tradition in Mark 4

Matthew 13 clearly draws upon the same tradition as Mark 4—a sequence of Kingdom-parables, according to an established (thematic) arrangement. However, Matthew includes several parables and sayings not found in Mark (nor the corresponding version in Luke [8:4-18])—these are:

    • The dual-saying in vv. 16-17 (“Q”, cf. Luke 10:23-24)
    • The Parable of the Weeds (vv. 24-30, 36-43)
    • The Parable of the Leaven (v. 33)
    • The Parables of the Treasure and Pearl (vv. 44-46)
    • The Parable of the Net (vv. 47-50)
    • The concluding saying in vv. 51-52

The additional parables all illustrate the Kingdom of God (“Kingdom of Heaven“, in Matthew)—vv. 24, 33, 44, 45, 47, and also v. 52. They also serve to enhance the eschatological orientation of the sequence of Kingdom-parables; in particular, the Parables of the Weeds and Net have a clear reference to the end-time Judgment.

The Parable of the Weeds (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43)

The “Parable of the Weeds” is similar in theme and scope to the Synoptic Parable of the Sower (13:3-9 par); both parables include an explanation of the parable by Jesus given to his close disciples (vv. 18-23 par, 36-43; cf. verse 11ff). Many critical commentators express doubt that the explanations come from Jesus himself, but rather reflect early Christian interpretation. It is hard to find clear objective evidence for such a distinction, and the explanations are generally consistent with the language and style of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic tradition. The question, for our study, is especially significant in the case of the Parable of the Weeds, since the explanation of that parable, if coming from Jesus, would reflect his own eschatological understanding.

Unlike the parable of the Sower, the Weeds-parable is marked specifically as a Kingdom parable: “The kingdom of the heavens is (consider)ed to be like a man scattering fine seed in his field” (v. 24). However, in the explanation to the parable of the Sower, Jesus does indicate that it, too, relates to the Kingdom, identifying the seed as “the word/account [lo/go$] of the kingdom”. The context of that parable suggests that the sower is Jesus (proclaiming the message of the Kingdom); while the explanation of the Weeds-parable identifies him as “the Son of Man” (v. 37). This expression, or title, is used frequently by Jesus, often as a self-designation. The eschatological usage, drawn primarily from Daniel 7:13-14, features prominently in the Weeds-parable, and will be discussed in more detail in the study on the “Eschatological Discourse”.

Interestingly, while the seed in the Sower-parable is identified as the message or “word” of the Kingdom, in the Weeds-parable it is the “sons” (ui(oi/, i.e. children) of the Kingdom (v. 38). The reference to “sons”, in terms of the Semitic idiom which Jesus would have understood, has two principal aspects:

    • In the literal sense of (royal/aristocratic) sons who will inherit their father’s estate, and
    • Indicating those (as a group) who belong to the Kingdom—i.e. members of the Kingdom. The Hebrew /B@ (“son”) is often used in the sense of someone who belongs to a particular group or category, possessing certain attributes or characteristics, etc.

By contrast, the “weeds” (ziza/nia) are identified as “the sons of the evil (one)”. It is possible to translate this expression as “the sons of evil”, but the context suggests a person (or personification)—”the evil one” (i.e. the Satan or ‘Devil’); Jesus’ usage elsewhere would seem to confirm this (cp. in the Lord’s Prayer, 6:13). This sort of stark dualism is less common in the Synoptic sayings of Jesus than in the Johannine discourses, where it features prominently (Jn 3:19-20; 5:29; 8:39-47). First John presents a contrast very close to that of the parable here (3:8-10, “the children of God and the children of the devil”, v. 10). A similar dualistic contrast (“sons of light” and “sons of darkness”) is found in the Qumran texts. The ziza/nion, a Greek word of uncertain derivation, would typically be translated as “weed”, but seems to refer primarily to a type of grass or stalk which resembles the grain itself, but yields no produce.

The “field” (a)gro/$) in the parable is said to be the sower’s own field (“his field”, v. 24), while in the explanation it is identified as o( ko/smo$ (“the world-order”, v. 38a), i.e. creation, the created order. This emphasizes the cosmic aspect of the parable, and also indicates that the Son of Man, as God’s heavenly/divine representative, has authority and control over the world. Here ko/smo$ is used in a neutral sense—i.e. the world and all the people in it—much as in the parable of the Sower, where there are different types of soil, representing different responses of people to the message of the Kingdom. A different sort of illustration, but along similar lines, is presented in this parable: the Son of Man sows the good seed, while the enemy (e)xqro/$, the ‘devil’, dia/bolo$) sowed in the weeds (the false seed) secretly, at night. The explanation suggests two levels at which this may be interpreted:

    • True and false disciples of Jesus, both part of the same group of people identifying themselves as his followers. This certainly would have been the immediate understanding of the parable by early Christians.
    • The “weeds” as intrusive attempts to stifle the spread and growth of the Kingdom—this would include both people (false believers, persecutors), and other sorts of obstacles, temptations to sin, etc (v. 41)

The crux of the parable is its eschatological orientation—the harvest motif (vv. 28-30) used in parable, with the explanation in verses 39ff. The climactic statement of the parable would have immediately evoked the idea of the end-time judgment, as seen from the words of the Baptist in 3:12 par, echoed here:

“Release [i.e. allow] both to grow together until the reaping [o( qerismo/$], and in the time of the reaping I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather together the weeds and bind them into bundles toward the burning down (of) them, but bring together the grain into my building where (the grain is) put away!'” (v. 30)

In the explanation, there is no doubt left as to what Jesus means:

“The reaping [i.e. harvest] is the completion (all)together of th(is) Age, and the reapers are the (heavenly) Messengers” (v. 39b)

He is referring to the end of the current Age, and the idea, expressed elsewhere in the Gospel tradition, of the role of the Angels (assisting the Son of Man) in the end-time Judgment (Mk 8:38; 13:27 par; Matt 16:27; 25:31, etc). Verses 40-41f drive this home emphatically:

“…so it will be in the completion (all)together of th(is) Age—the Son of Man will set forth his Messengers, and they will gather together out of his kingdom all the (thing)s tripping (people) up, and the (one)s doing (things) without law, and he will cast them into the burning chamber [i.e. furnace] of fire…”

The kingdom of the Son of Man (“his kingdom”, par “his field”) involves: (a) the proclamation of the message of the Kingdom in the world, and (b) those who belong to the Kingdom and respond to this message (i.e. the true disciples of Jesus). All that does not belong to the Kingdom, or which hinders its proclamation and establishment on earth, will be burned up at the end-time Judgment. The divine/heavenly dimension of the end-time Kingdom is made clear in the concluding words of the parable (v. 43, cf. Daniel 12:3):

“Then the just/righteous (one)s will give out (rays of) light as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

The Parable of the Net (Matt 13:47-50)

The parable of the Fish-Net is much shorter and simpler, but has essentially the same theme as the parable of the Weeds. Instead of seed cast into a field, it uses the image of a fishing-net cast into the sea (v. 47). Fundamentally, it is the end-time Judgment which is in view here; first in the parable—

“…and when it was filled, they stepped it up upon the shore, and, sitting (down), they gathered together the fine (fish) into containers, but the rotten (one)s they threw away” (v. 48)

and then in the explanation (v. 49):

“So it will in the completion (all)together of th(is) Age—the Messengers will come out and will mark off the evil (one)s out of the midst of the just/righteous (one)s.”

The dualistic contrast here is simpler, drawing upon the traditional religious-ethical distinction of good/bad, righteous/wicked. Jesus’ statement in John 5:29 reflects the same traditional language:

“…and they will (all) travel out [i.e. from the dead]—the (ones hav)ing done good into a standing-up [i.e. resurrection] of life, but the (ones hav)ing acted foul(ly) into a standing-up of judgment.”

2. Vineyard Parables

Jesus appears to have regularly used the image of workers in a vineyard in his teaching. Many in his audience likely would have identified themselves with the servants, laborers, and tenants of these parables. The illustrations seem to play especially upon the idea of the absentee landowner—a man who travels away or lives elsewhere while the land itself is worked by hired laborers and tenant farmers. This proved useful for instruction on the theme of responsible discipleship—working faithfully while God is ‘away’ (in Heaven). The same storyline and setting could easily be applied—both in the authentic tradition, and in early Christian interpretation—to the idea of Jesus as the master who goes away (i.e., his death, resurrection, and departure to the Father). In several of the parables with an eschatological emphasis, this latter setting seems to be in view.

We have already looked at the (Synoptic) parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mark 12:1-12; par Matt 21:33-46; Luke 20:9-19). It remains to examine two other parables found in the Gospel of Matthew, both of which occur in the general context of (end-time) reward and judgment—cf. 19:13-30; 20:20-28; 21:33ff.

Matthew 20:1-16: Payment of Laborers in the Vineyard

This is marked specifically as another Kingdom-parable:

“For the kingdom of the heavens is like a man (who is) master of a house(hold), who went out before (daytime) [i.e. in the early morning] to arrange (for) workers in his vineyard (to work) for wages…” (v. 1)

The eschatological aspect of this parable has to be inferred from the fundamental idea of the work in the vineyard being done over the course of an entire day (these being day-laborers, with a harvesting context implied). At the end of the day (v. 8), i.e. at the end-time (end of the current Age), the agreed-upon wage (misqo/$) for each worker is paid. There is an obvious parallel here to the idea of heavenly reward for the faithful/righteous ones at the end-time Judgment, being implicit in the parable (vv. 9ff). Early Christians certainly would have understood the workers in the vineyard as faithful disciples of Jesus, who came to be disciples at different points in time. For all such disciples the payment/reward is the same, which is the primary theme of the parable—believers do their work in common, as disciples of Jesus, without expecting any special priority or status based on when or how long one has been a disciple. This is emphasized by the concluding, paradoxical words in verse 16, which may have originated as a separate saying: “So will the first be last, and the last first”. The saying could easily be interpreted a different way, according the reversal-of-fortune motif found in a number of Jesus’ sayings. Here, by contrast, an egalitarian principle is established, one which softens or re-works the traditional eschatological language of the Judgment (cf. above). However, since it is disciples of Jesus (i.e. believers) who are the subject of the parable (not the wicked), this emphasis is more appropriate.

Matthew 21:28-32: The Two Sons

The contrast between righteous and wicked—true and false disciple—is expressed more clearly in the “Two Sons” parable. Here it is a Father (i.e. God) who asks each of his two sons to work in the vineyard (v. 28). As in the parable of the Sower, there are different responses to this word from the Master (vv. 29-30, note the interesting textual variants of wording and order found in the manuscripts). While not designated specifically as a Kingdom-parable, the Kingdom (of God) is clearly in view, when Jesus essentially gives an explanation of the parable to the religious leaders who were questioning his authority (vv. 23-27):

“…Amen, I relate to you that the toll-collectors and the prostitutes lead (the way) before you into the kingdom of God!” (v. 31b)

This is effectively an application of the statement in 20:16 (above), according to the reversal-of-fortune motif: sinners in the present age will enter the Kingdom, while the ‘righteous’ (according to traditional religious and morality) may not. A more precise application would follow the Vineyard-laborer parable—the religious leaders may still enter the Kingdom, but only after the lowly/wretched sinners have done so!

There is not an obvious eschatological aspect to this parable, other than what can be inferred from its basic setting, along with the narrative context—much of Jesus’ teaching in Jerusalem (chapters 21-25) is eschatological in orientation.

3. Banquet/Feast Parables

There are three such parables to consider, the first two of which may derive from the same line of tradition (the so-called “Q” material). They draw upon the older traditional motif of the heavenly/eschatological banquet, inspired by passages such as Isa 25:6-8; 55:1-2; 65:13-14; cf. 1 Enoch 62:14; 2 Baruch 29:4, etc (Fitzmyer, p. 1026). It is alluded to at several points in the book of Revelation (3:20; 19:9). At times this banquet/feast is specifically associated with the Messiah (and/or a “Messianic Age”). Jesus applies the idea to himself, and his closest disciples, in Luke 22:16ff, 29-30 par.

a. Matthew 22:1-14 / Luke 14:15-24

Matthew and Luke appear to be dealing with a common parable by Jesus (“Q” material), though the differences are significant enough that one must allow for the possibility of ‘separate’ parables coming from two distinct lines of tradition. However, the basic outline is the same—that of a (wealthy/prominent) man who invites people to a great feast. As in the parable of the Sower, there are different responses to this message, but initially they are all negative—everyone invited declines to attend, offering various reasons to be excused. These reasons all relate to the business of daily life, and would seem to parallel the the third soil-type in the parable of the sower and “the concerns/distractions of the world” (Mark 4:19, Jesus’ explanation). As a result, the man extends his invitation further afield, reaching to the poorer segments of society. This aspect echoes the parable of the Two Sons (cf. above), and the contrast between the repentant sinners/outcasts and the ‘righteous’ who fail to respond to Jesus’ message. In what appears to be the core parable, the invitation goes out to the streets of the city (Matt 22:8 / Lk 14:22); however, in Luke’s version, this is further extended to the crowded narrow lanes (where the poor and disabled are commonly found), and even further out into the roadways and fenced-off lands. This latter detail allows for (Lukan) application in terms of the early Christian mission to the Gentiles.

Both versions treat this as a Kingdom-parable, though in different ways:

    • In Matthew, it is so designated by Jesus (“the kingdom of the heavens is [to be] considered like a man…”, 22:2). Moreover, the man is specifically referred to as a king, and the feast identified as a wedding banquet for his son (further giving the parable a Messianic dimension). The people being invited are thus members of his kingdom.
    • Luke introduces the parable in the narrative context of a feast Jesus is attending (14:15), at which a man declares to him: “Happy the (one) who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” This is similar to Jesus’ own words to his disciples at the Last Supper, where he speaks of drinking from “the produce of the vine” (i.e. wine) in the Kingdom of God (Mark 14:25 par). These motifs of eating/drinking should not taken too concretely; they are simply idioms referring to partaking in a meal. However, these references are eschatological, and relate to the feast/banquet motif mentioned above. As we see often in the Gospels, Jesus redirects his audience away from a simple traditional understanding (without entirely rejecting it), and points them toward a deeper meaning.

In Luke’s version, the poor and outcast take the place of the ‘righteous’ who refuse to attend, just as Jesus states in the Two Sons parable. Matthew’s version presents this quite differently, according to more traditional imagery associated with the end-time Judgment (cf. the chap. 13 parables above). Instead of the poor and afflicted, the call goes out to all people in the city, and a crowd comes to the feast—good and evil alike (22:10). This is very much akin to the parable of the Net, where good and bad fish are gathered up together in the net, to be separated out at the end-time Judgment. That is very much what the parable describes here in vv. 11-12, though in a most distinctive and memorable way, isolating on a single individual.

The Matthean version is thus more complex than the Lukan, and seems to be describing more distinct stages:

    • The well-to-do members of the kingdom (i.e. religious Israelites/Jews) who do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and/or fail to respond to his message
    • The disciples of Jesus who respond to his message, coming from all segments of the city—though not all are true, faithful disciples
    • At the end of the Age, at the time of the great feast, it is then that the true and false disciples will be separated

Finally, it is also worth mentioning a third version of this parable, in the Gospel of Thomas (saying/section 64); some critical commentators consider the Thomas version to be the more primitive, original form of the parable (Fitzmyer, pp. 1050-2).

Luke 13:23-30 (esp. verses 28-30)

There is a brief parable or illustration in the Gospel of Luke which is part of a block of teaching with an eschatological orientation. The section may be outlined as follows:

    • Narrative introduction (v. 22)
    • Question by someone (disciple?) in the crowd (v. 23):
      “(is it that) the (one)s being saved (are only) a few?”
    • Illustration of the Narrow Door (v. 24)
    • Illustration of the Master of House standing at the Door (vv. 25-27)
    • Illustration of the Kingdom Feast (vv. 28-29)
    • Concluding saying (v. 30):
      “see, there are the last who will be first, and the first who will be last” (cp. Matt 20:16, above)

The setting in vv. 22-23 introduces the eschatological context of these illustrations. For the association with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, cf. on Luke 19:11 below (Part 3); the context of question in verse 23 relates salvation to entering/inheriting the Kingdom at the end-time. In contrast to the belief expressed in Jewish tradition, that “all Israelites have a share in the world to come” (m. Sanhedrin 10:1; Fitzmyer, p. 1022), a number of Jesus’ sayings seem to suggest that only a small percentage of the people (i.e. those accepting and following him) will be saved. The two Door parables (compare with Matt 7:13-14, 21-23) seem to emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ (eschatological) message:

    • Entering the kingdom requires struggle (a)gw/n), due to the narrowness (ste/no$) of the door or gate, the result of the many obstacles which surround it (cf. the Parable of the Weeds above). Jesus declared and emphasized on numerous occasions to his disciples (and would-be disciples) that considerable hardship was involved in following him—a lifestyle which demanded an ethic even more stringent than that of the Pharisees (cf. the Sermon on the Mount, etc); and also a faith/trust in God which is rare indeed among people (cf. on Luke 18:8 below [Part 3]).
    • Moreover, the door is open only for a (short) period; at some point (the end-time) the Master of the house/kingdom, will decide to close the door. It will be impossible for anyone to enter at that point, regardless of the claims or petitions they may make (i.e. that they were followers of Jesus, etc).

This leads into the Feast parable of vv. 28-29—entering the Kingdom at the end-time means joining in this great feast, at which all the righteous attend (the Patriarchs and Prophets of Israel, etc). There are two components to this illustration:

    1. Many Israelites will not join Abraham and Isaac, etc, in the Kingdom, but will be “thrown outside” (v. 28)
    2. Others will come from all the surrounding nations, from all directions (east, west, north, south) and will “lean back (to dine)” in the Kingdom (v. 29)

Given the overall narrative of Luke-Acts, it is not surprising that the Lukan parables and teachings of Jesus emphasis this more inclusive aspect—allowing even for the inclusion of Gentiles (through the early Christian mission) into the Kingdom.

(to be continued in Part 3)

References marked “Fitzmyer” above are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Anchor Bible [AB] 28A (1985)

September 17: Revelation 2:18-29

Revelation 2:18-29

This is the fourth of the seven letters in chapters 2-3, addressed to Thyatira, an important commercial and manufacturing city southeast of Pergamum. The common format and outline of these letters was discussed in an earlier note; here, I will be addressing only those details which are distinctive of the fourth letter.

Rev 2:18

The introduction to the risen Jesus draws upon images and phrases in the vision of 1:11-16ff—here it is the imagery in vv. 14b-15a. Somewhat unique is the inclusion of the title “Son of God” (o( ui(o\$ tou= qeou=), which otherwise does not occur in the book of Revelation, though, of course, it is frequent elsewhere in the New Testament. On the Messianic background of this title, as applied to Jesus, cf. Part 12 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. In the earliest Christian preaching, Jesus’ Sonship was tied specifically to his resurrection and exaltation (to the right hand of God). The idea of his divine pre-existence, as the eternal Son of God, was not recognized by believers, it seems, until a somewhat later point (c. 60 A.D. and thereafter). Here, it is still the resurrected/exalted Jesus which is primarily in view.

Rev 2:19

The praise accorded to the believers in Thyatira, as expressed in the formula at the start of the main message in each letter, is especially fulsome:

“I have seen your works, even your love and trust and service and remaining under [i.e. endurance], and (how) your your last works are more (numerous/excellent) than the (one)s (you did) at first.”

This draws upon the language used in the letter to Ephesus (vv. 2, 5). It is perhaps meant to contrast the Thyatiran believers’ improvement (in acts of love, etc), with the Ephesian Christians who “left” the love they had (and showed) at first.

Rev 20:20-21

The blame/rebuke portion of the message, while of limited scope (dealing with one flaw or issue), is presented in considerable detail. It is introduced with the typical formula:

But I hold (this) against you: that you (have) allowed [i.e. tolerated] the woman ‘Îzebel, the (one) counting herself (as) a foreteller [i.e. prophet], and (yet) she teaches and makes my servants [lit. slaves] go astray to engage in ‘prostitution’ and to eat (offering)s slaughtered to images.” (v. 20)

This is the same issue addressed in the previous letter to the believers in Pergamum (verse 14, cf. the earlier discussion)—that some were eating food (meat) which had been sacrificed to the Greco-Roman (pagan) deities, and even teaching that this was acceptable and encouraging believers in this regard. There the teaching and practice was symbolized by the character of Bil’am (Balaam); here it is ‘Îzebel (Jezebel), one of the most infamous figures in Israelite history and Old Testament tradition, the archetypal “wicked queen” (cf. 1 Kings 16:31; 18; 19:1-2; 21; 2 Kings 9). The figures of Balaam and Jezebel are clearly parallel, symbolizing the wickedness being addressed in two respects:

    1. Both figures played significant roles in encouraging the people of Israel to adopt, and participate in, Canaanite religious practices—specifically involving the worship/veneration of the deity (or deities) designed as Ba’al. This word is actually a title (“Lord, Master”, cf. my earlier article) which was applied primarily to the Canaanite sky/storm deity Haddu (or Hadad). In the late 2nd millennium and early 1st millennium, worship of Baal Haddu was at its peak in Syria and Palestine, and was the most prominent pagan religious ideology (and ritual) which could serve as an alternative to the worship of the Creator God El-Yahweh. Balaam’s role in the Baal-Peor episode (Numbers 25) is mentioned in Num 31:16 (cf. also Josh 13:22), and reflects the decidedly negative associations with his name in Jewish tradition (cf. 2 Pet 2:15; Jude 11). The spread of Baal-religion in Israel at the time of Jezebel (and her role in it) is described in 1 Kings 16:31b-32ff and 18:17-19ff. According to 16:31a, Jezebel was a Syrian (Sidonian) princess, daughter of Ethbaal (“Ba’al is with him[?]”).
    2. Both were closely connected with wicked kings—Balak and the Israelite king Ahab, respectively. This emphasizes not only the idolatrous character of the pagan sacrificial offerings, but the wicked influence of Greco-Roman culture in general. The royal aspect of Balaam and Jezebel points to the Roman imperial government, especially in the province of Asia.

The space devoted in the letter to the issue of food sacrificed to idols indicates that the problem was especially acute in Thyatira, and that it reflects a longstanding situation:

“And I gave her time (so) that she might change (her) mind [i.e. repent], and (yet) she is not willing to change (her) mind (and come) out of her ‘prostitution’.” (v. 21)

As discussed in the previous note, pornei/a (lit. prostitution, sex for hire) most likely is being used in a figurative sense, referring to religious unfaithfulness (i.e. the eating of food sacrificed to idols). It does not necessarily mean that the Thyatiran Christians were involved in any blatant sexual immorality; indeed, the overall context argues strongly against this.

Mention should be made of “Jezebel” as “one counting herself (as) a prophet” (v. 20). Whereas, in the letter to Pergamum, “Balaam” signified issue generally, here a specific individual is singled out—a female prophet of some influence in the churches of Thyatira. According to the ideal expressed in Acts 2:17-18 [Joel 2:28-29], female prophets were known (and accepted) among early Christians, though, admittedly they appear to have been somewhat rare (Acts 21:9; 1 Cor 11:5ff; cf. also Luke 2:36, and earlier in Old Testament tradition, Exod 15:20; Judg 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14, etc). Paul seems to have accepted the role and position of women as prophets in the congregation, as long as the followed certain (social) customs and maintained proper order (1 Cor 11:2-16). Gradually, however, women were barred from any such ministerial position within most churches, and the exercise of the prophetic gift by women was reduced to heterodox circles (such as Montanism in the mid/late 2nd century, which was centered in Asia Minor). As I have discussed repeatedly, early Christian prophecy was not limited to predicting the future; rather, the prophet was a spokesperson for God, a gifted individual who communicated the word and will of God to other believers. Despite the singling-out of this “Jezebel” at Thyatira, it is by no means clear that the book of Revelation opposes the idea of female prophets as such; it is the content of her teaching that is at issue, not her gender (cf. Koester, p. 299).

Rev 2:22-23

The seriousness of this situation is expressed by the solemn announcement of punishment in vv. 22-23; it is much more specific and graphic than that earlier in v. 16, though both passages doubtless convey the same idea:

“See, I will throw her into the (place) where (she) lays down [i.e. bed], and the ones engaging in adultery with her, into great di(stress), if they should not change (their) mind [i.e. repent] (and come) out of their works, and her offspring I will kill off in death.”

There is play on the word kli/nh here—the place where one “lays down”, i.e. one’s bed. It refers both to the bed as the place where the prostitute engages in sexual intercourse with her client, and to the place where the sick/ill person lays down (in hopes of recovery). It is a colorful and roundabout way of declaring that “Jezebel” (and all who follow her teaching/example) will be struck with serious illness, which may result even in death. The idea that this punishment would extend to the children of these sinning Christians should probably be taken literally. The earlier reference to Jesus coming to “make war” on the unrepentant believers in Pergamum may also denote the coming of plague or illness. The concluding statement in this announcement is a worthy echo of the prophetic word in Old Testament tradition (especially Jer 17:10); it is aimed at warning to all the congregations in Asia Minor:

“And all the (believer)s called out (to assemble) [i.e. congregations] will know that I am [e)gw/ ei)mi] the (One) searching kidneys and hearts, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”

Rev 2:24-25

This warning continues into verses 24-25, reassuring the faithful believers in Thytira (i.e. those who have not accepted eating food sacrificed to idols), in light of the ominous warning of the previous verses:

“But I relate to the rest of you in Thyatira, as (many) as do not hold that teaching, who have not known the ‘deep (thing)s’ of the Satan, as they are counted [i.e. reckoned], I will not throw upon you (any) other weight—(no) all the more, you must grab firm(ly) to that which you hold until the (time at) which I should come.”

Special notice should be taken of the expression “the deep [baqu/$] (thing)s of Satan”. It may well be a parody of “the deep (thing)s [ba/qh] of God”, which Paul uses in 1 Cor 2:10 (cf. also Rom 11:33). Through the presence and work of the Spirit, believers have access to the “deep things” of God. It is perhaps significant that Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor 8-10 is specifically in response to certain believers at Corinth, who as a result of their (spiritual) knowledge (i.e. that idols and pagan deities have no real existence), felt that it was acceptable to partake in food which may have been sacrificed to “images”. By contrast with Paul’s careful and sensitive argument, the book of Revelation makes a blunt condemnation of the practice outright. However, we do not have enough information about the situation in the churches of Asia Minor, at the time the book of Revelation was composed, to make a definite comparison. In any event, it is certainly possible that “Jezebel”, in her function as a (would-be) prophet, may have determined and declared (by the Spirit/word of God) that there was no harm in eating food sacrificed to idols.

The eschatological context of these letters is confirmed by the closing words of verse 25. It indicates again, from the standpoint of the book, that Jesus’ coming (i.e. his return) would take place very soon.

Rev 2:26-28

The promise of heavenly reward here is expressed two ways:

    • The faithful believers will be given “authority [e)cousi/a] over the nations” (v. 26-27), described in terms of Psalm 2:8-9.
    • Jesus will also give to them “the early [i.e. dawn/morning] star” which he himself received from the Father (“even as I have been given [it from] alongside my Father”), v. 28.

Some question has been raised by commentators as to just what is involved, or is signified, by this “authority over the nations”. It probably is related in some way to similar ideas expressed by Jesus in Matt 19:28 (par Luke 22:28-30), and Paul in 1 Cor 6:2-3. There are several possibilities for how this should be understood here in the book of Revelation:

    • It is meant as a symbol of heavenly honor for believers in Christ
    • It refers to the participation of believers, with Christ, in the end-time Judgment
    • It specifically refers to believers ruling with Jesus in a Messianic kingdom on earth
    • It relates somehow to positions of honor and authority in heaven (over other believers)

While the book of Revelation draws upon the tradition of an earthly (Messianic) kingdom at several points (most notably in 20:1-6, which will be discussed), it is unlikely that this is intended here. All of the promise formulas in the seven letters refer either to eternal life or heavenly reward/honor for believers, and so it should be understood here in vv. 26-27. Some combination of the first two options above is to be preferred. The tradition itself, based on the scant New Testament evidence, refers to the second option; however, how the tradition is applied in the letter supports the first—i.e., it is an honorific description of believers’ participation in the ruling power and presence (of God) we share in Christ (cp. the promise in 3:21).

This ruling power itself is properly represented by the star in verse 28. Here it is said to be the “early (morning) star”—i.e. the star which appears at the dawning of a new day (or Age). The star itself is symbolic of rule, as in 1:16ff. Notice, of course, should also be taken of the Messianic interpretation of the star in Balaam’s third oracle (Num 24:17), and the star in the Matthean Infancy narrative (2:1-10). The specific image of the morning star is also found in 2 Peter 1:19, where it refers to the indwelling word of God. While the star is said to be given by the Father to Jesus here in v. 28, at the end of the book (22:16), Jesus himself is described as the morning star, in language that draws strongly upon Messianic tradition.