Special Study: Imminent Eschatology in the New Testament (Pt 2)

A reminder of the outline for this study:

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

The New Testament evidence was examined in Part 1; here, in the second Part, we will explore interpretive approaches to the question.

2. Explanations for the imminent eschatology in the New Testament

a. Phenomenology of Religion. It would seem to be a generally observable phenomenon that, where there is a strong eschatological component to the religious thought and belief of particular individuals or groups, this eschatology is almost always imminent. That is to say, there is present the belief that the current time is the “end time” and that people at the moment are living in the “last days”, the period just before the end. This is quite understandable from the standpoint of religious psychology—what is the urgency of a message about the end, if it does not relate directly to the life situation of those being addressed? Even adherents of religious traditions which have a broader conception of cyclical time—cycles of Ages—tend to envision that they are living at the end of a cycle, and/or at the end of the current Age. It would be difficult to find many examples where this is not the case.

Built into this idea is also the tendency to conceive of the current Age—and, in particular, the moment in which people are living—as especially corrupt, in comparison to prior periods, and becoming increasingly so. Eschatological thought serves, in part, to offer hope for a better future, an ideal time—of peace, prosperity, justice and righteousness, etc—that is a stark contrast with the present. From the theological standpoint, the expectation is strong that God will eventually correct the apparent evils in the current order of things, punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous, removing the causes of suffering in the world, and so forth. The natural hope, of course, is that this might happen soon, in the very lifetimes of those living at present, that they might live to see a new and transformed world, with the power and justice of God more clearly manifest in the created order.

b. Eschatology and Apocalyptic in the first centuries B.C./A.D. Of the many eschatological and apocalyptic traditions and movements roughly contemporary with the New Testament, i.e. in the first centuries B.C./A.D., those most relevant to early Christianity, and about which we are best informed, are associated with the Community of the Qumran texts (the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran). Like the early Christians, the Qumran Community believed they were living in the “last days”, and that God was about to act to bring Judgment upon the wicked/nations and to deliver the faithful ones among His people (i.e. the Community).

One way we see this expressed is in the use of the idiom <ym!Y`h^ tyr!j&a^ (°aµ¦rî¾ hayy¹mîm), “(the time) after the days”. Originally, this expression simply meant “in the time to come, in the future”, but its use in the later Prophets (Jer 23:20; 30:24; 31:33; 48:47; 49:39; Ezek 38:16; Daniel 10:14; cf. also Hos 3:5; Mic 4:1), as well as in two key passages which came to be understood as Messianic (Gen 49:1; Num 24:14), gave it a definite eschatological significance (often translated “end of [the] days”) by the 2nd-1st century B.C. It occurs some 30 times in the Qumran texts, and in at least two places there is the clear indication that the author/audience believed that this “end-time” was their own time:

    • In the so-called “Halakhic Letter” (4QMMT [4Q394-399]) section C 13-15ff, Deuteronomy 30:1ff is cited (“and it will be when all these things come upon you…”), framing the coming Judgment in terms of the covenant blessings and curses, and declaring that these have been (and are being fulfilled) in the present: “and this is the (time) after the days, when they will return in Israel to the Law…” (C 21). The members of the Community are those who faithfully observe the Law, and, as the end comes nearer, it is expected that more in Israel will turn and join them.
    • In the document 1QSa, a kind of supplement to the Community Rule text (1QS), it is declared in the opening words, “And this is the rule of all the congregation of Israel in the (time) after the days…”.

The expression also occurs a number of times in the interpretive (midrashic) works, such as the 4QFlorilegium [4Q174] and 4QCatena [4Q177], in which different Scripture passages are brought together, being interpreted in a Messianic (and eschatological) sense and applied to the time and life-setting of the Community (cf. also 1QpHab 2:5-6; 4QpNah 3-4 ii. 2; Collins, p. 79). There is also the similar expression /wrjah Jq, “the end (coming) after”, i.e. the final age, etc, which occurs, for example, in the commentary [pesher] on Habakkuk (7:5-6, on Hab 2:3); cf. also in the Damascus Document (CD 1:12). In the commentary on Hab 2:3, we can detect an awareness of a ‘delay’ in the coming of the expected end. According to the Damascus Document (CD/QD), the Community made use of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks prophecy (Dan 9:24-27, cf. the earlier article on this passage)—70 weeks of years, i.e. 490 years—which coincides with the Jubilee period framework (i.e. 10 x 49 years), to determine a general time for the coming of the end, one which coordinated with a period of 40 years after the death of the “unique Teacher” (CD 20:14). This leading figure is probably to be identified with the “Teacher of Righteousness” (or “Righteous Teacher”, cf. Part 4 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). The end-time of God’s Judgment will begin around 40 years after this person’s death. Quite possibly, 1QpHab 7:5-6 indicates that this benchmark date has come and gone, and that some explanation for the delay is required. This sort of thing occurs quite frequently in eschatological belief. As time passes, imminent expectation of the end must be re-interpreted and explained; and yet, there is no evidence for any ‘trauma’ within the Qumran Community due to this apparent delay. Eschatological thought tends to be rather flexible in this regard.

c. New Testament Theology. There a number of important areas of early Christian thought, as expressed in the New Testament, that are directly related to an imminent eschatology, and which help to explain the importance of this eschatological aspect. In no small measure, early Christian theology is based on an imminent expectation of the end. All of these areas for consideration have been, and will be, discussed in the various notes and articles of this series. Here I wish to delineate the most relevant strands of thought, touching upon each of the following:

    1. Belief in Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah)
    2. The early Christian understanding of salvation
    3. The Christian religious worldview as ‘dispensational’
    4. Christian identity and the early mission-work
    5. The early Christian movement as the fulfillment of Prophecy
    6. Theodicy and the future hope

(1) Belief in Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah)

As I have discussed in considerable detail throughout the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, Jesus was identified with all of the Messianic figure-types present in Jewish thought during the first centuries B.C./A.D. Messianic belief and expectation was fundamentally eschatological—the appearance of these Anointed figures corresponded with the end of the current Age, and, with it, God’s end-time Judgment on the wicked/nations and the deliverance of God’s people (the faithful ones). Thus, to say that a person (such as Jesus) was, in fact, the Messiah—whether of the Davidic Ruler tradition or another figure-type—meant that the current moment, in which that person was alive and present on earth, was the “end time”, the “last days”, etc. In other words, the very belief in Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) necessitated a belief among the first Christians that the end was near. In all likelihood, such an eschatological view preceded their belief in Jesus, being part of the wider Jewish eschatology (and Messianism) of the time (cf. on the Qumran Community, above). I have discussed this in more detail in an earlier article of this series.

What is unique with regard to the Christian view of the Messiah, in relation to the end-time, is that Jesus departed earth, being exalted and ascending to Heaven, before fulfilling entirely the Messianic role expected of him. This entails a period of some length before his return to earth, at which point the Messianic eschatological expectation will be realized. However, as we have seen—in Part 1 of this article and throughout this series—this is quite compatible with an imminent eschatology, with the general understanding that this intervening period was to be relatively brief, i.e. with the lifetime of most believers.

(2) The early Christian understanding of salvation

It is possible to isolate two main ways salvation is expressed—typically using the verbs sw|/zw (with the noun swthri/a) and r(u/omai—from a religious/metaphysical standpoint, in the New Testament and early Christian tradition:

    • Salvation from sin—either: (a) from the effect of personal sins, or (b) from the power and control of sin
    • Salvation from the end-time Judgment by God, often described in terms of being saved from the anger/wrath of God which is about to come upon humankind

Interestingly, the aspect of salvation which is probably most commonly in mind with people today—that of the individual’s personal salvation following death (i.e. from the punishment [of Hell])—is not emphasized particularly in the New Testament. This, of course, was a popular way of thinking even in ancient times, usually depicted in some manner as the person standing before a divine/heavenly tribunal after death to be judged according to his/her deeds and actions while alive. The background of this idea is retained in early Christian thought, as for example, in the Beatitude form (Matt 5:3-12 / Lk 6:20-26) and the image of entering/inheriting the Kingdom (i.e. of the heavenly/eternal life), cf. Mk 9:47; 10:23ff; Matt 5:20; 7:21; 25:34; Jn 3:5; Acts 14:22; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:21, etc. However, specific references to the traditional (afterlife) scene of Judgment are somewhat rare in the New Testament (cf. 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 2:6ff; 14:10-12; also Matt 10:32-33; 12:41-42 par; 25:31-46). This is largely due to the fact that the eschatological emphasis has shifted to the (imminent) coming of the end—that is, the coming of God’s Judgment upon the earth, expected to occur soon, within the lifetime of most people. Early Christians widely shared this expectation, along with many Jews of the period; the distinctly Christian component was the role of Jesus as the Anointed One (Christ) of God and heavenly “Son of Man” whose coming (back) to earth from Heaven would usher in the Judgment. Thus the idea of salvation meant being saved from the Judgment (the anger/wrath of God) about to be visited upon sinful, wicked humanity (cf. the “day of YHWH” motif in the Old Testament Prophets). Christ, as the divine representative of YHWH, oversees the Judgment, but also acts as savior and deliverer of the Elect—that is, of God’s faithful people, the believers. This eschatological context for salvation is found all throughout the New Testament; of the many passages, I would note the following:

A similar (generalized) sense of eschatological salvation is found widely in early Christian thought—e.g., Luke 3:6 [Isa 40:5]; John 3:17; 5:34; 10:9; 12:47; Romans 10:9; 11:14, 26; 1 Cor 1:8; 3:15; 9:22; 10:33; 15:2; Phil 1:6, 9-10; 2:16; 1 Thess 5:23-24; 2 Thess 2:10; 2 Tim 2:4, 10, (15); 4:16; James 1:21; 2:14; 4:12; 5:20; 1 Pet 1:5, 9-10; 4:18? [Prov 11:31]; (2 Pet 2:9); (Jude 23); Heb 1:14; (7:25); 9:28. Virtually the entire book of Revelation deals with this theme.

What is the significance of this? It means that the whole of the early Gospel message tends to be eschatological in character, even apart from its central aspect identifying Jesus as the (end-time) Messiah (cf. above). For more on this, see the discussion in the two-part article on Eschatology in the book of Acts, as well as the upcoming articles on Paul’s eschatology.

(3) The Christian religious worldview as ‘dispensational’

By “dispensational” I simply mean the recognition of a clear demarcation between two different Ages—this Age, and “the Age to Come”. The earliest Christian communities were marked by certain religious phenomena which indicated that a “New Age” was being ushered in. This is expressed most clearly in the book of Acts, with the descriptions of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon believers in Christ, with accompanying phenomena—miraculous speaking in foreign languages (“tongues”), the ability to prophesy, the working of healing miracles, etc. Peter, in his great Pentecost speech, citing Joel 2:28-32, declares that this manifestation of the Spirit is a fulfillment of prophecy and shows that the early believers are living in the “last days” (vv. 16ff); for more on this, cf. Part 1 of “Eschatology in the book of Acts” and Parts 23 of the series “The Speeches of Acts”.

Much the same may be said of the other episodes in the book of Acts, involving the manifestation of the Spirit in the mission work of Paul and the other Apostles. The early Christian communities continued this “charismatic” tradition, experiencing similar spiritual phenomena and “gifts”, to judge from the New Testament evidence (esp. in 1 Corinthians). There is every reason to think that this was understood as a foretaste, an initial ushering in, of the Age to Come, during the (brief) period before the return of Jesus. Paul, it would seem, expresses this rather clearly in 1 Cor 13:8-12 (cf. my earlier note on this passage). Thus, even if early believers were to doubt that they were living in the “last days”, and even if a belief in Jesus as the Messiah did not necessitate it, the spiritual phenomena they experienced provided proof that the end was near and a New Age was about to begin.

(4) Christian identity and the early mission-work

If we accept the authenticity of the tradition in Acts 1:6-8, Jesus, in instructing and commissioning his disciples prior to his departure from earth (vv. 9-11), declared that their missionary work, proclaiming the Gospel to the surrounding peoples, was eschatological in nature (cf. Part 1 of the “Eschatology in the book of Acts”). This same point was made in the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus, fitting the early apostolic mission into a framework for the coming of the end (Mark 13:9-13 par). Moreover, this, along with the other aspects of early Christian thinking mentioned above, helped to inform the self-identity of believers in Christ as the end-time people of God—those faithful ones, living in the “last days”, who will be rescued from the coming Judgment. In this regard, the early Christian communities had much in common with the Qumran Community (cf. above).

The reality of their (daily) life and existence shaped the way this eschatological expectation was expressed, and vice versa. This took place in all kinds of small ways—see, for example, the eschatological dimension of Paul’s instruction on marriage in 1 Cor 7:25-31 (to be discussed). Or, consider how the imminent expectation of the end caused concern for the Thessalonian believers with regard to relatives and other believers who had already died (1 Thess 4:13-18, study upcoming), and how Paul addresses this. At other times, it might involved more complex and detailed patterns of thought, such as in Paul’s famous discussion in Romans 9-11 (also to be studied in this series).

What is most important to keep in mind is that the religious identity of early Christians was, in a very real sense, fundamentally eschatological. Perhaps nowhere is this seen so clearly and vividly than in Romans 8, especially the line of argument in vv. 18-25. The author of 1 John expresses something similar in 2:28-3:3 (esp. vv. 1-2), stating that our identity as God’s offspring now is only a reflection of what is about to be fulfilled for us at the appearance of God (in the person of Jesus Christ) at the end. The two aspects of the identity of believers—present and future—are closely connected, and, for early believers, close in time as well, expected to be realized within their lifetime.

(5) The early Christian movement as the fulfillment of Prophecy

Early Christians, like the Qumran Community, viewed themselves at the center of the fulfillment of Scriptural Prophecy. This began with their belief in Jesus as the Messiah (cf. above), and the various passages which were understood in a Messianic (and eschatological) sense and applied to Jesus. It was only natural that, by extension, other Messianic/eschatological prophecies would be interpreted in relation to Jesus’ followers, the first believers. This was especially necessary in light of the uniquely Christian aspect of this eschatology—of an intervening period, before Jesus’ return to earth, when his disciples (believers) would continue his end-time work (on this, cf. above). Numerous Scripture passages could be—and, indeed, were—interpreted on this basis. The two most notable are Joel 2:28-32 (in Peter’s Pentecost speech [Acts 2:16ff], already mentioned) and Amos 9:11-12 (in James’ speech at the Jerusalem Council [Acts 15:15-17]); also worthy of mention in the book of Acts is Paul’s use of Isaiah 49:6 (his speech at Antioch [13:47ff]; cf. also Lk 2:29-32). These passages are all discussed in the article on the Eschatology in the book of Acts, as well as in the series “The Speeches of Acts”. The force of this prophetic self-understanding, in connection with other aspects of early Christian thought (cf. above), always served to keep an imminent eschatological awareness in full view.

(6) Theodicy and future hope

One final area worth noting falls under the heading of theodicy—that is, an attempt to explain how a just God could allow so much injustice in the world, allowing wickedness and evil to go unpunished (in the present). Central to Jewish and Christian eschatology at the time was the belief that God would soon act to judge the world, bringing a decisive Judgment upon humankind, punishing the wicked and rescuing/rewarding the righteous. For early Christians, in terms of religious psychology, affirmation of this coming Judgment was all the more urgent since, during his time on earth, Jesus did not fulfill the traditional Messianic role of ushering in the end-time Judgment. Surely this had to occur soon, and so we see this expectation expressed all throughout the early Christian preaching in the book of Acts, in Paul’s letters, and in the remainder of the New Testament. Paul’s warning, in his famous Athens speech, captures this expectation most precisely (17:30-31).

The future hope for believers in Christ is tied to this idea of the coming Judgment, at which time the people of God (believers) will be rescued from the wickedness of the current Age, and will join with Jesus in the blessed heavenly/eternal life, in God’s own presence.

Paths of Interpretation for Believers today

It goes without saying that the imminent eschatology expressed in the New Testament poses significant problems for Christians today. How are we to reconcile the clear belief that the end was imminent with the reality, so it would seem, of more than 1,900 years (and counting) before the great Judgment and the return of Jesus comes? In the Introduction to this series, I outlined four possible approaches or ways of handling this question, which, for convenience (and not necessarily indicating any preference), I number #1-4:

    • The New Testament authors, like many today, truly believed that the end of the Age was close at hand, presumably to occur during their lifetime. God made use of that belief (common among many Jews and others at the time) for a greater purpose. While the inspired authors could, technically, be seen as having been mistaken on this point, it does not affect the truth of the message which they are communicating to us. [Approach #1]
    • In interpreting these passages, our emphasis should not be on individual statements (regarding the end being near, etc), but, rather, upon the overall worldview of which they are a part. This relates, in particular, to the unique way in which early Christians adapted traditional eschatological language. Conceivably, early Christians could also speak of the end being “near”, even though they realized it might not become manifest on earth in the way that traditional eschatology imagined. [Approach #2]
    • In speaking of the end as being “near”, this language is really expressing the idea that it could take place at any moment, since no one (not even Jesus [the Son], cf. Mark 13:32 par) knows exactly when the end will occur. [Approach #3]
    • The use of this language of imminence is primary rhetorical, rather than literal. It is meant to exhort believers to live and act a certain way, as well as offering hope in difficult times. This view, in part, draws upon a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive language—i.e., how things are (or will be) vs. how things ought to be. [Approach #4]

I will here make a number of brief comments regarding each of these, leaving a more definitive solution, on my part, to wait until the conclusion of this series.

Approach #1. This approach essentially involves the principle of accommodation. In terms of the doctrine of inspiration (of Scripture), accommodation theory posits that the inspired authors/speakers may have accepted or adopted views commonly held by people of the time, but which, technically speaking, from our vantage point today, could be deemed erroneous, inaccurate, or incomplete. This frequently relates to various kinds of scientific information—ancient cosmology, history, anthropology, biology, metaphysics, view of the afterlife, etc. As a simple example, in the parable of Lk 16:19-31, Jesus might be seen as simply drawing upon traditional imagery (for the purposes of the illustration), without intending to give a scientifically accurate portrait of the afterlife. Other examples could be much more controversial. Some traditional-conservative commentators and theologians are reluctant to admit any such occurrences of accommodation in Scripture, while others are willing to accept it in varying degrees. Much depends on the particular passage, and circumstances, involved.

The question of possible limitations (of knowledge) on the part of Jesus, as a human being on earth, is especially controversial and much debated. However, as it happens, there is at least one passage in the Gospel tradition where Jesus appears to admit such a limitation for himself—the saying in Mark 13:32 par, which is part of the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse”, and happens to involve the matter of precisely when the end will occur. Due to the sensitive nature of this passage, I will be discussing it in more detail as we approach the conclusion of this series. It would, however, naturally follow that, if Jesus himself did not know exactly when the end would come, the New Testament authors would not have known either. Accommodation theory would allow that the writers simply were expressing a general belief (regarding the end being imminent), common to Jews and Christians of the time, without necessarily stating it as an absolute fact.

Certainly, a number of the eschatological references (cf. Part 1 of this article, and throughout this series), could be viewed in this way and, as such, be incorporated within a sound doctrine of inspiration. Yet there are other passages where this approach becomes much more difficult to maintain. For example, in 1 Peter 4:7, it is declared bluntly to readers (living in the 1st century A.D.) that “the end of all (thing)s has come near”. This seems to go beyond a general belief, to the point of a positive (and absolute) declaration. Another example is in the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13 par). In spite of the qualifying statement in 13:32 par, the entire chronological framework of the Discourse is centered on the key event of the destruction of the Temple, with the accompanying end-time events, apparently, set within the general bounds of the lifetime of the first disciples (13:28-30 par). For more on this, cf. Part 4 of the Eschatological Discourse study and the separate note to this article.

Approach #2. This view is similar in certain respects to approach #1 (above), but formulates more precisely the idea that New Testament authors (and speakers) are regularly making use of traditional eschatological language and imagery, without necessarily affirming concrete eschatological beliefs. For example, various apocalyptic images from the Old Testament Prophets, related to the “Day of YHWH” theme, might be used to express the idea of God’s coming Judgment, without literally meaning that the moon will turn to blood or that the stars will actually “fall out of heaven” (Mk 13:24-25 par; Acts 2:19-20, etc). That is to say, much eschatological language is figurative, as evidenced, in a highly developed way, by the symbolism in the book of Revelation (discussed in the current series of daily notes). How might this relate to the expressions of imminent eschatology in the New Testament? It could be viewed as part of the traditional idiom—i.e., the end is always understood as coming soon, being near; this is simply part of any eschatological mode of expression (cf. the first section of this article, above).

The problem with this approach is that it tends to ignore the fundamental way the aspect of imminence is fundamentally tied to the early Christian worldview and religious identity (discussed above). Far from being a colorful detail on the eschatological/apocalyptic dramatic stage, the message that the Judgment and return of Jesus will soon take place is essential to the early proclamation of the Gospel (cf. the articles on the Eschatological sayings of Jesus and on the Eschatology in the book of Acts). Early Christian belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and of salvation in terms of rescue from the coming Judgment (on both points, cf. above), are shorn of their true significance without a concrete belief that the end was imminent.

Approach #3. The is by far the most popular approach to the problem adopted by Christians today. It basically holds that the language of imminence means, not that the end will come soon, but that it may come soon. It is certainly a convenient solution, in that it very handily allows for an intervening 1,900+ years of history. Indeed, some commentators and theologians simply define imminence (in eschatology) this way, thereby effectively circumventing the entire chronological problem. However, I consider this approach to be fatally flawed in the way that it seemingly ignores the straightforward language used by the New Testament authors. A careful study of the evidence in Part 1 of this article, as well as in the other articles of this series (and the daily notes on the book of Revelation), demonstrates, I think rather decisively, that early Christians in the 1st century (including the New Testament authors), believed that the end would come soon, probably within their own lifetime.

A variation of approach #1 (principle of accommodation) would handle this a slightly different way. While the New Testament authors believed, and declared, that the end would come soon, this expression of imminence was used, by God, for the greater purpose of conveying to all believers, in all times, that the end may come soon. As a result, every generation of believers, in responding to the message in the Scriptures, effectively responds just as the first generation did—believing that the end might well come in their lifetime. I find this version of approach #3 to be much more acceptable (and plausible) in relation to the tenets of orthodox Christian doctrine.

Approach #4. This approach looks more to the practical effects of the rhetoric and literary style used by the New Testament authors. In other words, what is the context of these eschatological references? What does the author intend to accomplish by introducing them where and when he does? For example, the eschatological references by Paul in 1 Cor 7:25-31 are part of his wider instruction on marriage (and marital relations) in chapter 7, and really ought not to be examined outside of this context (i.e. as independent eschatological pronouncements). More to the point, references to imminent eschatology could be meant primarily to exhort and comfort believers in various ways, rather than being intended to establish a chronological framework.

Some commentators would extend this approach to include a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive language—i.e., how things are (or will be) vs. how things ought to be. As applied to eschatology, the very notion of the coming Judgment and a New Age, generally reflects, in part at least, an idealized vision of how things should be, how many people wish they soon would be. Eschatological language and imagery naturally fits the mode of exhortation, and, in the New Testament, is frequently found in such a setting. In light of the coming Judgment, etc, we ought to live and act a certain way, not simply for fear of what is to come, but with the idea of God coming near to us, visiting humankind—the promise of His Presence, in both terrifying and comforting aspects, Judgment and Salvation.

There is something to be said for each of these approaches, in their various forms, while admitting, at the same time, that none of them offers a truly satisfactory solution to the problem. However, as possible paths of interpretation, we should keep them in mind, as we continue through the remaining articles of this series. I hope to bring together the strands at the conclusion, at which point I will attempt to offer my own humble solution.

“…Spirit and Life”: 1 John 4:13

1 John 4:13

As I discussed in the previous notes, in chapters 4-5 of 1 John, the theme of trust/faith in Jesus takes on greater prominence, though still interconnected with the theme of love among believers which was emphasized in chapters 2-3. These represent the two aspects of the two-fold command defined and presented by the author in 3:23-24. According to the author, only those who confess the proper belief in Jesus, and who demonstrate proper love, can be considered true believers. The act/behavior indicates the underlying reality (cf. 3:10). Consider how this is expressed here in chapter 4:

    • 4:1-6: Trust in Jesus—confession of proper belief in his identity, indicating that we are of/from God
    • 4:7-12: Love for one another—demonstration that we follow his (and God the Father’s) example
    • 4:13-21: Trust and Love together—we abide in God and God abides in us

The two themes are unified in vv. 13-21, as indicated by the opening words:

“In this we know that we remain in Him and He in us, (in) that He has given us His Spirit.” (v. 13)

Properly speaking, here God (the Father) is the one who gives us the Spirit (“his Spirit”), and yet elsewhere in the Johannine writings it is stated that Jesus (the Son) is the one who gives the Spirit (Jn 3:34; 7:37-39; 15:26; 16:7; 20:22). This is part of the essential theological viewpoint in these writings: the Father gives to the Son (Jesus), and the Son, in turn, gives to believers. Here it is said that the Spirit allows us to know—that is, to recognize and be aware—of God’s abiding presence in us. In this sense, the Spirit both testifies and teaches, according to Jesus’ words in 14:26; 15:26; 16:8-15. The knowledge believers receive is an intimate awareness and understanding of both God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ (Jn 17:3). The author essentially repeats here what he stated previously in 3:24 (cf. the earlier note on this verse).

The verb me/nw (“remain, abide”) is an important Johannine keyword, occurring 40 times in the Gospel and 27 in the Letters—more than half of all the occurrences (118) in the New Testament. It has tremendous theological significance (and symbolism), even when apparently being used in an ‘ordinary’ sense in the Gospel narrative (e.g., 1:38-39). It is perhaps the single most important word which summarizes the believer’s identity in Christ; it is both (a) reciprocal, and (b) establishes us in the chain of relationship Father–Son–Believers:

    • Jesus (the Son) abides in us, and we in him, and as a result:
    • We abide in the Father and, and the Father in us
    • Father and Son both abide (together) in us through the presence of the Spirit
      This unifying presence (of the Spirit) may be illustrated by the simple diagram:

An important aspect of the verb me/nw is idea of remaining—this relationship between Father, Son and Believer, through the Spirit, remains and continues “into the Age”. The traditional eschatological image of divine/eternal Life, which the righteous are though to receive following the Judgment, is “realized” and experienced by believers now, in the present, and will continue on into eternity. This is a fundamental aspect of Johannine thought, expressed many times by Jesus in the Gospel Discourses.

It is interesting to consider how this Christian identity, marked by the twin themes of trust/faith and love, is presented throughout this section. I offer the following (chiastic) outline:

    • Trust: Confession of Jesus’ identity—the Son of God, sent by the Father (vv. 14-15
      —God’s love for us—sending his Son to us (v. 16a, also v. 14)
      ——His love abides/remains in us, completing/perfecting us (vv. 16b-18)
      —God’s love for us—we follow his (and the Son’s) example (v. 19)
    • Love: Demonstration of love for one another [among believers] (vv. 20-21)

The “command” (e)ntolh/) given to us by God is here defined primarily by the second aspect, love—both God’s love for us and our love for one another. This is a uniquely Johannine expression of the great “Love command” in early Christian and Gospel tradition. In this regard, it is worth emphasizing again the distinctive use (and meaning) of the word e)ntolh/ in the Gospel and Letters of John, which is best understood by the literal (fundamental) meaning as something given to us (i.e. laid on us) to complete. Here this “completion” has a dual meaning—not only our completion of the duty/mission to love one another, but of God’s love being completed in us. This is at the heart of the passage, in vv. 16b-18 (cf. above):

    • “In this our love has been made complete [tetelei/wtai]…” (v. 17)
    • “…complete [telei/a] love casts out fear…the (one) fearing has not been made complete [tetelei/wtai] in love.” (v. 18)

Note the precise parallelism:

    • our love has been made complete
    • we have been made complete in love

This is the truest and deepest sense of the word e)ntolh/.

Gnosis and the New Testament, Part 5: Election/Predestination

An important aspect of gnostic (and Gnostic) thought is the idea that believers come to know their true identity—that is, what they already are in truth, but of which they have lost awareness through ignorance in the world of sin and darkness. In many Gnostic texts, this (the believer’s identity, or “soul”) is expressed as a divine spark (of light) or seed that has become trapped in the (fallen) material world. The saving knowledge Christ brings is of the believer’s true nature and identity (the light), which leads to the way out of darkness. The New Testament writings share certain soteriological elements in common with the Gnostic viewpoint, though, in many ways, the fundamental differences of outlook (and expression) are even greater. One common element is a belief in what we would call Election—that believers (i.e. the ones who will come to believe and know the truth) belong to God even before they actually come to faith and awareness in their lifetime. However, on the whole, early Christian belief is more closely rooted to the traditional religious understanding of election, as found in the Old Testament Scriptures.

Election—The Terminology (“choose, call,” etc)

The two main aspects of this view may be summed up by the verbs choose (Hebr. rjb) and call (arq, etc). In the New Testament, the first aspect is expressed through several different verbs:

    • e)kle/gw (eklégœ, “gather out”), along with the derived adjective e)klekto/$ (eklektós) and noun e)klogh/ (eklog¢¡)
    • ai(re/w (hairéœ, “take [up]”) and the related ai(reti/zw (hairetízœ), which relates more properly to the decision to take or choose, along with the reasons involved. This latter verb occurs only in Matt 12:18.

The second aspect is represented almost entirely by the verb kale/w (“call [out/aloud]”), and its compound forms—e)kkale/w (“call out [of]”), proskale/w (“call toward”), and e)pikale/w (“call on”). The verb e)kkale/w is represented in the New Testament only through the related noun e)kklhsi/a (ekkl¢sía), which early on came to be used in the technical sense of a congregation or assembly of believers, i.e. those called out (of their homes, etc) to assemble together. It often carried a (theological) connotation similar to e)klekto/$—believers as the ones “called/gathered out” from the rest of humankind. The noun klh=si$ (“call[ing]”) and adjective klh=to$ (“called”), were both applied to believers as important religious terms, derived from the verb kale/w. Several other verbs and related terms are worth noting:

    • ti/qhmi (“set, place, put”) and i(sth/mi (“make stand”), both of which can be used in the sense of “appoint”.
    • ta/ssw (“arrange, put in order”), sometimes meaning “appoint”, i.e., put things (or a person) in a certain arrangement.
    • o(ri/zw (“mark [out]”), in the sense of appointing or determining something; cf. below on Predestination
    • xeirotone/w, which refers to making a choice, etc (i.e. voting), by stretching/raising the hand; cf. also on Predestination below.

The Scriptural Concept of Election

In the Old Testament, the primary idea was God’s call/selection of Israel as his chosen people. This is found frequently in the Scriptures, especially as a Deuteronomic theme (Deut 4:19-24; 7:6-11; 10:14-22; 14:2; 26:18-19) and a key motif in the Prophets (Isa 41:8-9; 44:1-2; 45:5, etc). Israel would remain God’s chosen people as long as they were faithful in observing the covenant agreement God established with them (reflected in the Torah). The tragedy of the conquest and exile meant that this idea of election had to be given a new and distinctive interpretation; and, in the Prophets, we regularly find the motif of the remnant—i.e. the chosen ones were those who remained faithful and obedient to God (cf. Isa 4:2-4; 6:13; 10:20-23; 65:9ff; Mic 2:12; Amos 9:11-15; Zeph 3:12-13; Ezek 11:16-21; Zech 13:9, etc.). The Community of the Qumran texts and the early Christian Community both drew upon this remnant-motif to express their own religious identity as the elect/chosen people of God.

Occasionally, the Scriptures refer to Israel as the “son” of God, in a symbolic or religious/spiritual sense (e.g., Exod 4:22-23; Hos 11:1; Jer 31:9), and the faithful Israelites as “sons” (cf. especially in Wisdom tradition, Wis 2:16-18; Sir 4:10, etc). It is appropriate to refer to this as a kind of “adoption”, that is, God chose Israel to be his son. The same relationship is found in Israelite royal theology, which draws upon Ancient Near Eastern tradition; the king is God’s “Son”, the one chosen to represent God for the people (cf. Psalm 2:7; 89:27-29; 2 Sam 7:14; Isa 9:6). Both of these concepts—the people Israel and the king as God’s chosen “son”—were fundamental to the Messianic thought and expression which developed in Judaism, as seen both in early Christianity (applied to Jesus) and in the Qumran texts. For more on this, cf. the articles in my series “Yeshua the Anointed”. The idea of one chosen and anointed by God could be understood of king, priest, and prophet alike—three Messianic roles and “offices” ascribed to Jesus. In addition, we find the tradition of the “Son of Man” (cf. Daniel 7:13-14), a heavenly/divine being (identified with Jesus) who is appointed by God to oversee the end-time Judgment and the deliverance of his people.

When we consider the various verbs and terms related to the idea of election in the New Testament (cf. above), these can be divided between: (a) Jesus as the Elect One, and (b) Believers as the Elect Ones.

Jesus as the Elect One

The verb e)kle/gw (e)kle/gomai), and the derived noun e)klekto/$, are applied to Jesus in a number of passages, marking him as one who is specially “gathered out” (i.e. chosen) by God—Luke 9:35 v.l.; 23:35; 1 Pet 2:4, 6 (citing Isa 28:16); cf. also Matt 12:18 (Isa 42:1ff), where a different verb (ai(teri/zw) is used. These verses certainly are dependent upon Messianic tradition and imagery which have been applied to Jesus. In the Gospels and early Christian thought, they cannot be separated from the idea of Jesus as God’s Son, which likewise has a strong Messianic context—especially Ps 2:7, suggested by the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism/transfiguration (esp. Lk 3:22 v.l.), and cf. Acts 4:25-26; 13:33; Heb 2:5; 5:5. The Lukan version of the Transfiguration scene is particularly significant, since here (in the more probable original reading) the divine/heavenly voice refers to Jesus as “the one gathered out [e)klelgme/no$]”, i.e. “Elect/Chosen one”, parallel to “my Son”. Elsewhere in the New Testament, we find the idea of Jesus being set/appointed/marked beforehand as God’s Chosen One; these references apply different verbs (cf. above) to Jesus:

Occasionally, the specific idea of foreknowledge—that is, God knowing/appointing Jesus beforehand, before his appearance on earth (indeed, even before creation)—is emphasized, as in 1 Peter 1:20, using the verb proginw/skw (“know before[hand]”). Cf. below on Predestination.

Believers as the Elect

More commonly in the New Testament, it is believers (Christians) who are said to be chosen or called by God. Quite often, this implies foreknowledge and/or predestination (cf. below), but more significant is the emphasis on the choice being made by God. I divide the most relevant passages according to the two aspects—called/chosen; for an interesting combination of both aspects, cf. Matt 22:1-14 (v. 14).

CalledActs 2:39; 15:17 (Amos 9:12); Rom 1:6-7; 8:28-30; 9:11, 24ff; 11:29; 1 Cor 1:2, 9, 24, 26; 7:15-24; Gal 1:6, 15; 5:8, 13; 1 Thess 2:12; 4:7; 5:24; 2 Thess 1:11; 2:14; Phil 3:14; Col 3:15; Eph 1:18; 4:1, 4; 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 1:9; Heb 3:1; 9:15; James 2:7; 1 Pet 1:15; 2:9, 21; 3:9; 5:10; 2 Pet 1:3, 10; Jude 1; Rev 17:14. To these may be added instances of God calling believers to specific ministry, to preach the Gospel, and so forth (Acts 13:2; 16:10; Rom 1:1, etc).

In the Gospel of John, we find the distinct motif of Jesus calling believers. This, of course, reflects the historical facts and setting of the Gospel narrative (Mark 1:20; 3:13 par, et al), but it takes on special significance in John. Note, in particular, Jn 10:3—this is connected with the related motif of hearing the voice of Jesus (3:29; 4:42; 5:25ff, 37; 11:43ff; 12:29f; 18:37; 20:16). Important also is the close association of calling with the name—for the intimate personal knowledge and relationship which is implicit in knowing and calling/hearing the name, cf. the recent note on this motif in John. In 1 Jn 3:1, calling is also related to believers’ identity as “children of God” (on this, cf. the recent daily note on Jn 1:12-13).

Chosen—Here we should consider first the references using the verb e)kle/gw (“gather out [of]”) and related words:

This choice of persons by God is depicted dramatically in the Gospel narrative through Jesus’ choosing of the disciples to follow him (Luke 6:13, and pars; Acts 1:2). He also ‘appointed’ them to be his special representatives (apostles)—this designation (Mark 3:14ff; Lk 10:1, etc) becomes the pattern and paradigm for Christians being appointed to positions of ministry, using the verbs ti/qhmi (“set, place, put”) and i%sthmi (“[make] stand”), etc (Acts 6:3; 1 Cor 12:28, etc). Jesus’ choosing of his disciples is given special theological significance in the Gospel of John (cf. below). For the use of the compound verb kaqi/sthmi (cf. above) in a soteriological context, see Rom 5:19, and note also Matt 25:21ff; Lk 12:42ff.

Predestination

I will not deal here with the complex and longstanding theological and philosophical issues which have surrounded this topic for centuries, except to point out that the main problem for (modern) Western Christians—how the Divine determination and control of events and human decisions conflicts with the ideal of individual freedom—does not seem to have been a significant issue for ancient Christians (nor, indeed, for devout Jews and Greco-Roman pagans of the period). The New Testament authors, and other early believers, like the Jews in the Community of the Qumran texts, were perfectly able to hold up the principles of Divine control and human responsibility side-by-side; and, much to the surprise of many modern scholars, they scarcely felt the need even to note a possible contradiction (Rom 9:19ff is one of the few exceptions, but even here Paul does not devote much attention to it). That God (or the Gods, in a polytheistic context) exercised sovereign control over the world and human affairs, determining their course and destinies, was a basic and well-established religious belief in the ancient world, and required no real explanation or proof. The specific aspect of predestination—of God determining things beforehand—is expressed at numerous points throughout the New Testament writings, usually through verbs which contain the prepositional element pro/ (“before[hand]”). Romans 8:28-30 uses several of these in a sequential chain, with a definite soteriological context:

    • proti/qhmi (“set before[hand]”)—this verb does not always indicate action beforehand, since the preposition pro/ can simply imply something “before” (i.e. in front of) a person, etc. The derived noun pro/qesi$ (used here in Rom 8:28) can refer to a person’s plan or purpose (to do something), and is used, in a theological sense, for the plan of God. Here, believers are referred to as “the (one)s called according to His purpose [lit. the thing set before{hand}]”. We see the same context in Rom 9:11; Eph 1:9-11; 3:11; 2 Tim 1:9. Cf. also the adjective proqe/smio$ in Gal 4:2.
    • proginw/skw (“know beforehand”)—that is, foreknowledge, properly speaking; it also occurs in Rom 11:2 and in 1 Pet 1:20 (applied to God’s foreknowledge of Jesus).
    • proori/zw (“mark [out] beforehand”)—on the use of the simple o(ri/zw to indicate God appointing, designating, etc., Jesus as the Anointed One, cf. above; the compound form also occurs in Acts 4:28; 1 Cor 2:7, and Eph 1:5, 11. These two pro- verbs are followed in v. 30 by:
      • kale/w (“call”)—for the calling of persons to be (and become) believers, cf. above
      • dikaio/w (“make right/just”)—this verb has special meaning in Paul’s letters, referring to salvation in terms of being “made right” with God; it carries a strong legal sense in his thought
      • doca/zw (“give honor/esteem”)—that is, believers are glorified, made to share in the honor and splendor (do/ca) of the Father and Christ the Son; primarily, Paul has the end-time resurrection in mind (vv. 18-23)

Several other pro- verbs are used to express the idea of foreknowledge and predestination—proetoima/zw (“make ready beforehand”, Rom 9:23; Eph 2:10), proxeiri/zw (“take in hand before, hand forth”, Acts 22:14), proei/dw (“see before, foresee”, Acts 2:31; Gal 3:8, of the inspired Prophets [in Scripture]); proble/pw (“look/see before”, i.e. look ahead, Heb 11:40).

The main Predestination passages in the New Testament (the Pauline letters) are Romans 9-11 (along with 8:28-30, cf. above); Gal 1:15; Eph 1:3-14; 2 Thess 2:13, though certainly many of the other verses cited above should be consulted as well. Of special significance is the way the idea is expressed—theologically, and in Christological terms—in the Gospel of John.

The Johannine Discourses

In the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John, we find a sense of election and predestination, which, in certain respects, comes close to the gnostic understanding. A number of the key passages have already been discussed in the notes and articles of this series (cf. the note on Jn 1:12-13, etc), but it will be helpful to summarize and outline them here.

In three passages, Jesus refers to his choosing the disciples (using the verb e)kle/gomai, “gather out”, cf. above)—Jn 6:70; 13:18, and 15:16, 19. In 13:18, the choosing is related to his knowing them (“I have seen/known [oi@da] any [i.e. all] of [the ones] I gathered out”); moreover, the selection comes from Jesus’ initiative—it is not the disciples’ decision (15:16, cf. also 5:21). The aspect of foreknowledge and predestination in this choice is demonstrated and prefigured in the narrative, cf. 1:48—”I saw you…before his calling you”. Throughout the discourses, this sense of the believers’ identity (in Christ) is expressed in two primary ways:

1. God the Father has given believers to the Son (Jesus), who, in turn, keeps them safe and guarded (from evil) during his time on earth. We find this idea in 6:39ff and, more prominently, in the great prayer-discourse of chapter 17 (vv. 6-8, 11ff, 24). It is connected with the motif of the believer remaining/abiding (the verb me/nw) in Christ, and Christ in the believer. From a temporal standpoint, in the context of the Gospel narrative, believers first come to Jesus (and he comes to them), and, receiving him, they remain with him (and he with them). However, from the eternal standpoint, this aspect of remaining takes on a slightly different sense—believers are already in Christ, since they have been given to him by the Father, but must continue to remain in him (cf. 8:31-32; 15:1-11, etc). After Jesus’ departure (back to the Father), this situation will continue through the presence of the Spirit (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26; 16:7ff); indeed, 14:17 suggests that the Spirit is already with the disciples, but will come to be in them after Jesus’ departure. That all of this takes place under the Father’s full control and direction is clear from the statement by Jesus in 6:44: “No one is able to come toward me, if the Father…does not draw [lit. drag] him”.

2. Believers belong to God, come from Him, are born out of Him, etc, even before they actually come to faith in Christ. In fact, in a number of places, Jesus makes it clear that the reason people are able to come to him is that they (first) come from God. I summarize here the most relevant passages:

    • 3:3-8—one cannot see or enter the Kingdom of God, unless first having been born “from above [a&nwqen]” and “out of [e)k] the Spirit”. Traditionally, this birth is thought to take place following one’s acceptance of Jesus (and baptism, etc); however, in the Johannine idiom, to see almost always means seeing Jesus (the Son), that is, coming to know him, to have faith in him. It is thus possible to understand this saying in the sense of spiritual birth preceding the believer’s recognition of Christ.
    • 3:19-21—In verse 21, Jesus states that “the (person) doing the truth comes toward the light”. On the surface, this suggests that a person who is living a good, righteous life will recognize Jesus and come to trust in him; indeed, this would be the conventional religious understanding. However, in the Gospel of John, “doing the truth” essentially means trusting and believing in Christ (who is the truth), as stated clearly in 6:29. In other words, a person is, in a sense, a believer even before actually coming to faith in Christ. Much the same is indicated in 7:17; for a more precise formulation, cf. 18:37 (below).
    • 8:47—”the one being [i.e. who is] out of [e)k] God hears the words of God; through this [i.e. for this reason] you do not hear, in that [i.e. because] you are not out of God”. Along with 18:37, this is the clearest theological statement to the effect that only those who are from [e)k, “out of”] God can hear/recognize the word of God, and thus come to Jesus.
    • 10:3-5ff—The idea of believers hearing the voice of the Son (Jesus) who speaks with the words and voice of his Father is an important theme in the Gospel of John. In the parable of chapter 10, the sheep hear (i.e., know, recognize) the voice of the shepherd because they (already) belong to him (he knows them), vv. 14, 26-29.
    • 15:19—Here Jesus tells his disciples “you are not out of the world, but I gathered you out of the world”, playing on the double meaning of the idiom “out of [e)k] the world”. On the one hand, Jesus chose them “out of the world” (that is, from the rest of the people); on the other hand, the disciples are “not of the world” since they come from God and do not belong to it. The statement in 17:16 is even more striking: “they [i.e. the believers] are not out of [e)k] the world, even as I am not out of the world”.
    • 18:37—”…I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth; every one being [i.e. who is] out of [e)k] the truth hears my voice”. Only the person (already) belonging to the truth, that is, to God, is able to hear the voice of Jesus and come to faith in him.

On the textual variant in 20:31, the closing words of the Gospel proper, and a possible way to interpret it, cf. the separate note.

Gnosis and the New Testament, Part 4: Religious Identity and Tradition

Closely tied to a gnostic understanding of salvation (cf. Part 2) is the sense of religious identity being defined in terms of knowledge. This was discussed to some extent in Part 3, but it requires further elaboration and examination of some of the key New Testament passages. According to the gnostic (and Gnostic) viewpoint, the (elect) believer comes to know, that is, to become aware, of his/her true identity in relation to God (or the Divine). Among certain Gnostic groups we find the idea that a spark or seed of the Divine has been ‘trapped’ within the fallen material world or sin and darkness. Knowledge of salvation comes—proclaimed and revealed by the Savior (and/or his messengers)—to believers trapped so as to have been ignorant of their true identity as offspring (sons/children) of God. There is, indeed, something of this religious worldview reflected in the New Testament Scriptures, but not quite in the manner expressed by many Gnostics. It is in the Pauline and Johannine writings that we find the closest parallels. A number of the most relevant passages are summarized here:

The Pauline letters

1 Cor 2:6-16—I have discussed the entire section 1:18-2:16 in an earlier series of notes. The logic of Paul’s theology can be described this way:

    • The Gospel contains the secret, hidden wisdom of God
    • This is conveyed to the apostles and preachers of the Gospel through the Spirit
    • Those who receive/accept the Gospel receive the Spirit which is at work in them, allowing them to understand
    • The Spirit instructs and guides believers so they can discern the wisdom of God—we thus have “the mind of Christ”

From a theological standpoint, there is some question as to what extent God—specifically the Spirit—is present and at work in believers prior to hearing the Gospel and coming to faith. Given Paul’s statement in verse 11, how do people respond in faith the Gospel without the work of the Spirit? Paul typically employs the language and image of a favor (xa/ri$) or gift—i.e., the Spirit as a gift given, presumably at the time one receives the Gospel, though it may also be connected with the moment of baptism. However, the quotation in verse 9, apparently citing loosely and adapting Isa 64:4, adds an interesting dimension to this; consider the last portion of the quotation:

“…the (thing)s God prepared for the (one)s loving him”

In the context of 1 Cor 1:18-2:16, these “things” are the hidden things of God, the wisdom of God, which, according to Paul’s way of understanding it is: (1) manifest in the person of Christ, (2) revealed in the Gospel, and (3) made available to believers through the Spirit. Yet these things were prepared or made ready by God ahead of time (in the past), for those in the present who are already loving Him. This same idea is suggested in 1 Cor 8:3—”if any (one) loves God, this (person) has been known under [i.e. by] Him”. Here the sense of predestination is stronger: God has known the believer ahead of time, the perfect tense indicating past action which continues into the present. Cf. also 1 Cor 13:12.

Rom 7:7-25—Paul frequently uses language and imagery expressing the idea that God, through Christ, has delivered humankind from bondage to the power of sin (cf. above for this same idea from a Gnostic standpoint). It is described in almost cosmic terms in Rom 5:12-21, while here in 7:7-25, we see it presented from the vantage-point of the individual believer. Paul sets himself, rhetorically, in place of this representative human being, using the first person (“I”). This person could be identified with those who are “loving God” (prior to receiving the Gospel), desiring (in his spirit) to fulfill the Law of God, but unable to do so because of the power of sin residing in the “flesh” and controlling it. Uniquely Pauline is the idea that revelation—in the Law (Torah), prior to encountering the Gospel—brings a kind of preliminary saving knowledge, in that it brings knowledge (i.e. recognition, awareness) of sin. But Paul’s understanding in this regard is two-fold: (1) the Law brings (saving) knowledge, but at the same time (2) through the Law God has imprisoned all human beings (including believers) under sin (Gal 3:22-24; Rom 11:32). For more on Paul’s teaching on the Law, cf. the articles in the series “The Law and the New Testament”.

Rom 8:19-25—Here we find the cosmic image of creation groaning and suffering in bondage. Again, we have the idea that God is the one who has set it under bondage (to sin and death). Admittedly, the reference in verse 20 is somewhat ambiguous, where it states that the thing formed (creation, collectively) was set under the order of (i.e. subjected to) sin and death “not willingly, but through the (one) putting it under (this) order”. Commentators debate just who “the (one)” is, but, in my view, based on the context in Romans, and other passages in Paul’s letters, it should be understood as referring to God the Father (the Creator). In certain Gnostic systems, the Creator—that is, the one who fashioned the fallen and sinful material condition—was a kind of inferior divine Being (a Demiurge). This is foreign to Paul’s thought, but the idea of God setting Creation (and humankind) under bondage to the power of sin has certain points in common with Gnostic theology. The eschatological theme in Rom 8:19-25 involves the eventual deliverance of creation from this condition of bondage, and is tied directly to the presence (and identity) of the elect believers (the “sons/offspring of God”). Indeed, this is specifically described in terms of revelation—the earnest expectation and hope of creation is to receive (from God, or from heaven) “the uncovering (a)poka/luyi$) [i.e. revelation] of the sons of God”. This could be understood in the sense that the sons of God (believers) are already present in creation, but that creation is unaware of their true identity. In verse 21, the future hope for creation is defined as being “set free from the slavery of decay, into the freedom of the honor/splendor of the offspring of God”. The implication is that all of creation will be renewed in the same way that believers in Christ are renewed—in particular, Paul has the end-time resurrection in mind (v. 23).

Col 1:12-13—As part of the great declaration in vv. 9-20, describing the person and work of Christ, the author (Paul) states that God the Father is the one

“who (has) made us able (to come) into the portion of the lot [i.e. the inheritance] of the holy ones in the light, (and) who rescued us out of the authority of darkness and made us stand together (away from there) into the kingdom of the Son of his love”

There is, in this description, language and imagery that is similar to gnostic modes of expression—the dualism of light and darkness, the idea of being rescued out of a realm of darkness, believers as “sons of light”, believers as heirs of God, the kingdom of the Son, etc. Of course, these can be found at various points throughout the New Testament, but their combination here, within two short verses, is what gives the passage a “gnostic” ring. The deliverance out of darkness is tied directly to the work of God through the person of Christ; elsewhere in Paul’s writings, it is connected more properly with the proclamation of the Gospel (2 Cor 4:4-6). The idea of believers being called out of darkness is found in 1 Pet 2:9, and goes back to Old Testament imagery, preserved within the early Gospel tradition—Matt 4:16; Lk 1:78-79, etc, and cf. 2 Pet 1:19.

Eph 5:13-14—Here, in connection with the same light/darkness dualism we find the additional idea of the soul “awaking” to its true nature. This is expressed in the quotation (possibly from an early hymn) in verse 14:

“Rise, (you) the (one) going down to sleep, and stand up out of the dead, and the Anointed (One) will shine (light) upon you!”

This line itself suggests the initial conversion of a believer—i.e., of responding to the Gospel and coming to faith. It may originally have been associated with the ritual of Baptism. However, here Paul (or the author) cites it as part of ethical instruction (exhortation) directed to believers. The context clearly has to do with abandoning sinful behavior and associations, and walking according our true nature, that is, as “offspring (i.e. children) of light”. The image of the soul waking to its true nature and identity is a common gnostic motif, though here the orientation is ethical rather than soteriological. The exhortation “walk according to the light, as you are in the light” is stated in a similar context in Galatians 5:16-25, but in terms of the Spirit: “If we live in/by the Spirit, we should also step in line (i.e. walk) in/by the Spirit”.

Other passages could be added to these mentioned here, but those above give a suitable number of representative examples from the Pauline writings.

Johannine writings

These will be discussed further in the supplemental article on knowledge and revelation in the Gospel and letters of John. Here I will simply list some of the more notable references:

In the Gospel1:9-13; 3:5-8, 18-21; 5:37-43; 6:44-47; 7:17, 28-29; 8:12, 31-38ff; 10:3-9, 14-16, 27ff; 11:25-26; 12:35-36; 14:21-24; 15:3ff, 15-16, 19; 17:6-26; 18:37

In the Letters1 John 1:5-7; 2:5-6, 19-20ff; 2:29-3:2; 3:10, 19; 4:2-6, 9-10; 5:1ff, 10-12, 18-19; 3 John 11

The strong dualism running through the Gospel and letters of John will be discussed in the last part (Part 6) of this series.

Other aspects of Christian Identity

There are other important aspects of Christian identity—that is, of the believer’s religious identity in Christ—which serve to counteract or counterbalance any gnostic tendencies, such as could be drawn from the language used in the passages cited above. Again, we are best informed about early Christian tradition and instruction in this regard from the Pauline letters. Here are some of the more notable aspects:

    • Paul’s use of the expression “in Christ” (e)n xristw=|), and the related idea of belonging to Christ, which can be called mystical and spiritual(istic), rather than gnostic. That is to say, we are united with Christ, both symbolically, and through the presence of the Spirit, and participate in the power of his death and resurrection. The expression is so common in Paul’s writings that it functions virtually as a title for believers, a religious identification. Of the many references, cf. 1 Cor 1:30; 15:18-23; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 2:4; 3:26-28; Rom 3:24; 6:11; 8:1f; 12:5; Phil 2:5; 3:8-12; Col 1:28; 3:1-4; Eph 2:6ff. It is rare in the New Testament outside of Paul (1 Pet 3:16; 5:10, 14, and note Heb 3:14).
    • The idea of believers as a “new creation”, may seem, on the surface, to have a gnostic tinge to it, but it can just as easily be understood in the opposite sense—believers in Christ come to be completely different than they were before. The main passages utilizing this expression, or varying forms of it, are: 2 Cor 5:16-21; Gal 6:15; Col 3:9-11ff; and Eph 2:14-18. The Johannine idea of the “new birth”, of believers born out of God, is perhaps closer to gnostic patterns of thought.
    • The symbolism of the rite of Baptism was important for Paul, in that it symbolized the believer’s identification and union with Christ, specifically in the sense of participating in his death and resurrection—cf. 1 Cor 6:11; 12:13; Gal 3:27-28; Rom 6:3-4ff; Col 2:11-12; 3:9-11. Paul inherited the ritual motif of “putting off” the old, sinful way of life, and “putting on” the new life in Christ. The various Gnostic Christian groups seem to have retained Baptism, along with other rituals, though certainly giving to it a somewhat different meaning and significance, even as Paul may have done. He perhaps was the first to connect baptism specifically to the idea of believers sharing in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
    • The emphasis on the real, physical death (the crucifixion) of Jesus as central to the Gospel message, would separate Paul from many of the Gnostic groups known in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Gnostics, with their strong (metaphysical) dualism, especially when assuming the evil of the material condition, appear to have struggled greatly with the fact of Jesus’ death on the cross, and attempted to explain or interpret it in various ways (some less plausible than others). In 1 and 2 Corinthians, where he may be combating certain gnostic tendencies, Paul sets the message of the cross in direct contrast to the (supposed) wisdom and knowledge of the world. Cf. especially 1 Cor 1:18-2:16 and my earlier notes on this passage.
    • Likewise Paul’s teaching on the presence and role of the Spirit in (and among) believers also distinguishes his understanding of Christian identity from that of the later Gnostics. While most Gnostics emphasized the invisible and eternal world of the Divine (against the evil physical/material world), they, for the most part, do not seem to have been Spiritualists—that is, they do not define and understand their religious identity and experience predominantly in terms of the (Holy) Spirit. For Paul, on the other hand, the Spirit was fundamental to his thinking and teaching; even when referring to knowledge and revelation, he almost always qualifies and connects it in relation to the Spirit. Of the many relevant passages, cf. 1 Cor 6:19-20; 12:13ff; 2 Cor 1:21-22; 3:17-18; 5:5; 11:4; Gal 3:2-3; 5:16-26; Rom 5:5; 8:9-12; Eph 4:30.
    • In his emphasis on Christian love, Paul draws on early Gospel tradition going back to Jesus’ own words. The so-called “love command (or principle)” was fundamental to Paul, especially in his ethical teaching—cf. Rom 12:9-10; 13:8-10; 14:15; 1 Cor 8:1ff; 12:31-14:1; 16:14; Gal 5:6, 13-14; 1 Thess 4:9; Col 3:14. In 1 Corinthians, Paul sets love against (spiritual) knowledge, arguing that love is far superior and necessary for governing all aspects of Christian behavior, especially for our relationships to others in the Community of believers.
    • Paul repeatedly mentions the suffering of believers—their endurance of hardship and persecution, etc—as an important mark of Christian identity. For Paul, it was closely tied to the idea of our participation in the death of Jesus (cf. above). The experience and endurance of suffering also served as a example to other believers, and as a witness to the Gospel. Cf. 1 Thess 2:14ff; 2 Cor 1:6f; 2:14-17; 4:7-12; 6:3-10; Gal 4:19; Phil 1:12-14ff; Col 1:24, etc. Gnostic groups also experienced persecution—including, sadly, at the hands of other “orthodox” Christians—but they would not have ascribed much importance to (physical) suffering in this life.

Some of these points can be found elsewhere in the New Testament, including the Johannine writings. However, there are several other aspects of Christian identity expressed in the Gospel, and especially, the letters of John, which are worth noting briefly:

    • The overwhelming primacy of the person of Christ. In Paul’s writings, the Christological emphasis is usually put forward in connection with: (a) the message of the Gospel, (b) the believer’s union with Christ, and/or (c) the ecclesiastical aspect of the Community of believers as the “body of Christ”, etc. In the First letter of John, on the other hand, following along the lines of the great discourses of Jesus in the Gospel, Christian identity tends to be aligned more directly with the person of the Son (Christ) himself. Ultimately, this extends to what may be properly called orthodoxy—i.e. correct belief about Christ; on this, cf. below.
    • Love in the Gospel and letters of John takes on a somewhat different sense; while continuing the tradition of the “love command/principle”, it is given a centrality to the identity of believers that is really not found anywhere else in the New Testament (Paul’s great chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians being the closest). In 1 John, the presence of love in the believer is virtually synonymous with the presence of Christ, and indicates that the believer is “out of (i.e. from) God” and has been born from Him. Cf. 1 Jn 2:5, 10, 15; 3:1, 10-18, 23; 4:7-12, 16-21; 5:1-3; 2 Jn 5-6.
    • Compared with Paul’s use of baptism symbolism, in the Gospel of John there is a different kind of imagery used to described the believers union with Christ and participation in his death, etc. It is found in the drinking/eating and water/bread symbolism in the great discourses of Jesus—Jn 4:7-24, 34; 6:22-59; 7:37-38f. If baptism is implied in the water imagery of 3:5ff, it has a different sense than in Paul. Jn 19:23 and 1 Jn 5:6-8 have water (and blood) connected more closely with the death of Christ.

One unique feature of the Gospel and letters of John is the way it establishes a correct belief about Jesus—who he is, where he came from, etc—as essential to the Christian identity. This is indicated in the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel (3:18; 8:23-24; 14:10-11; 17:3, 20-21; cf. also 20:28, 31), and takes on greater significance in the letters, where incorrect belief regarding Christ marks those who have separated from the Community and also the “spirit of antichrist”—cf. 1 Jn 2:18-25; 4:1-6; 5:1-5, 6-12ff; 2 Jn 7ff. For more on the Johannine writings, cf. the supplemental article in this series.

Revelation and Christian Tradition

One other topic which needs to be addressed here is the early Christian understanding of revelation in terms of tradition—that is, of (apostolic) teaching and instruction, going back to the words of Jesus, which has been preserved and transmitted to believers. Paul frequently refers to his own apostolic authority as a minister who proclaims the Gospel (as revelation) and gives instruction for the congregations under his charge. At several points, he ties his own commission and ministry to specific revelations he received from Jesus (Gal 1:12, 16; 2:2, etc; cf. also Eph 3:1-6ff). By the time of the Pastoral letters (whether or not one regards these as authentically Pauline), as also in the letters of Jude and 2 Peter, in particular, there had developed a strong sense of a collected body of Gospel witness and (apostolic) teaching which was being threatening by false and aberrant Christian ‘leaders’, and which had to be safeguarded by the faithful minister. Jude summarizes this as “the trust [i.e. faith] given along at one (time) [i.e. once] to the holy ones” (v. 3); it was to be “fought/struggled over”, i.e. the minister should contend and fight to preserve it. The clear context of 2 Pet 1:16-21 is that this tradition (lit. that which is given along, passed down) goes back to the apostles, the eye-witnesses of Jesus, including Peter himself. It is no coincidence that the Transfiguration scene is mentioned, as it is a powerful example of divine revelation—God manifesting his presence and glory in the person of Jesus.

Interestingly, this same aspect of revelation—the words of Jesus and the Divine Truth manifest therein—passed on to the apostles, etc., was an important element of Gnosticism in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Many of the (apparently) Gnostic writings, such as those preserved in the texts from Nag Hammadi, are couched as pseudepigraphic “Gospels”—that is, as teaching by Jesus, usually set after the resurrection, given to select disciples. The Gnostic texts frequently suggest that this teaching reflects special revelation to which other Christians are not privy. Clearly, it was a way to ensure that the distinctively Gnostic approach to the Gospel and interpretation of the Christian message, had apostolic authority, being connected to the eye-witnesses of Jesus, just as we see in Lk 1:2; 2 Pet 1:16ff. Other (proto-)orthodox Gospels and writings use the same (literary) method of pseudepigraphy and pseudonymity. Many critical scholars would claim that at least several of the New Testament writings (e.g., the Pastoral letters, Ephesians, 2 Peter) are also pseudonymous; the weight and quality of the evidence for these claims varies, and, in any event, remain controversial in more traditional-conservative circles. Admittedly, the emphasis on tradition is strongest in the later writings (those likely written after 60 A.D.)—the Pastorals, 2 Peter, Jude, the Lukan prologue, etc. Two verbs tend to be used to express the idea of revelation passed down from the apostles, from the first generation(s) of believers down to the next:

    • paradi/dwmi (paradídœmi, “give along”), with the derived noun para/dosi$ (parádosis). More commonly used in reference to the betrayal of Jesus (in the sense “give/hand over”), it also carries the figurative meaning of passing along teaching, instruction, etc. from parents to children, and from one generation to the next, including within a religious setting (cf. Mk 7:13; Acts 6:14). A specialized sense of this latter meaning was used in early Christianity—for use of the verb, cf. Luke 1:2; Acts 16:4; 1 Cor 11:2, 23; 15:3; Rom 6:17; 2 Pet 2:21; Jude 3; for the noun, 2 Thess 2:15; 3:6, and note the negative sense in Col 2:8. It continues to be used in early Christian writings (cf. 1 Clement 7:2; Diognetus 11:6; Irenaeus 3.3.3).
    • parati/qhmi (paratíth¢mi, “set/put along[side]”), with the derived noun paraqh/kh (parath¢¡k¢), used in the concrete sense of placing an object (food, etc) before someone, often in the sense of providing help or assistance; figuratively, it can used with the meaning of entrusting something (or someone) into the care of another. A specialized sense of this latter meaning developed in early Christianity. These are the words used in the Pastoral letters—1 Tim 1:18; 6:20; 2 Tim 1:12, 14; 2:2; they do not occur in the undisputed letters of Paul, certainly not in this sense (cf. 1 Cor 10:27). Cf. the separate note on 1 Tim 6:20-21.

By the later part of the 2nd century, Gnostic groups and teachings had become widespread and influential enough that Irenaeus felt the need to write his five-volume work Against Heresies, to defend his (proto-Orthodox) position as representing the true Apostolic Tradition. The interpretation and application of Scripture was employed more regularly to demonstrate this, since both “sides” could lay claim to the Apostolic heritage. However, many Gnostics proved to be quite adept and incisive as commentators of Scripture (cf. Ptolemy’s letter to Flora, preserved by Epiphanius). Since various passages in the New Testament could, conceivably, be interpreted various ways, and plausibly so, depending upon one’s expectations and presuppositions, it was difficult, at times, to rely on the Scripture itself to provide decisive proof. Origin’s massive (and unfinished) commentary on the Gospel of John was begun, in large part, as a response to the Gnostic Heracleon’s own commentary (the earliest such NT commentary known to us). The main problem, of course, was that Gnostics worked from a religious/theological worldview which was markedly different, in certain respects, from that of the proto-Orthodox; as a result, they were bound to see the same passage of Scripture in a somewhat different light.

July 25 (2): Galatians 6:16

This note is supplemental to the concluding article on “Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians”; it deals with Gal 6:16, and, in particular, with the unusual expression “the Israel of God”.

Galatians 6:16

“And, as (many) as walk in line by this (measuring) rod, peace upon them, and also mercy upon the Yisrael of God”

I discussed the first clause in the aforementioned article (above); the “(measuring) rod [i.e. rule]” (kanw/n) being the statement in verse 15 (on this, see the previous note), though Paul doubtless would have applied it as well to the teaching and line of argument in the letter as a whole. The second half of the verse is a benediction offered by Paul, one which is similar to the “blessing of peace” (Birkat ha-Shalom) of the Shemoneh Esreh (“Eighteen Benedictions”) in Jewish tradition: “…and mercy upon us and upon all Israel, your people” (cf.  Betz, Galatians, p. 321-22)—the two-fold reference “us… and Israel” indicates an extension from the local congregation to all Israelites and Jews. Paul’s juxtaposition is similar, though slightly different:

“upon them (i.e. those who walk by this rule)…and upon the Israel of God

The main difficulty interpreting Paul’s statement is to identify just what he means by the unusual expression “the Israel of God” (o(  )Israh\l tou= qeou=). There are three possibilities, that it refers to: (a) Israel (Jews/Judaism) in the normal ethnic-religious sense, (b) Jewish believers, or (c) believers in general. The first of these is to be excluded for two reasons: (1) it would seem to contradict the entire thrust and message of the letter, and (2) the qualifying term “of God” strongly suggests that believers specifically are intended (cf. below). This leaves the last two possibilities, either: (i) Jewish believers in particular, or (ii) all believers (Jew and Gentile alike). Many commentators today, influenced by a scholarly (and modern pluralistic) emphasis on the Judaism of Paul, assume that he means the former (i); on the other hand, the overall context of Galatians, strongly suggests the latter (ii). However, it may be possible to combine aspects of both interpretations and thereby achieve a more accurate sense of Paul’s thought. A comparative analysis of similar phrases and expressions, in Galatians as well as other of Paul’s letters, I believe, points in this direction. There are two points of comparison:

    1. Expressions involving “Israel”
    2. Expressions involving “of God”

1. “Israel” ( )Israh/l). In several instances, Paul refers to “Israel” in the traditional ethnic-religious sense to refer to himself (or others) as an Israelite (2 Cor 11:22; Phil 3:5). Otherwise, there are several significant passages (apart from Gal 6:16):

    • Romans 9-11—Paul refers to Israel 14 times in these chapters, which provide perhaps his most detailed and extensive discussion of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles (from an eschatological viewpoint); these chapters will be examined in more detail during the study of Paul’s View of the Law in Romans. As I will be discussing there, the key verse to an understanding of Paul’s thought is Rom 9:6: “for the ones out of Israel [e)c  )Israh/l], these are not all Israel”—in other words, not all of those belonging to Israel (in the normal ethnic-religious sense) are the true Israel. According to Paul’s teaching in Romans (and elsewhere), some Israelites fell away and have not believed (i.e. have not trusted in Christ), while Gentiles who believed in Christ have become part of (the true) Israel. Paul’s difficult, challenging eschatological statement “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26) will be discussed (along with the modern “Two Covenants” approach to Rom 9-11) in a later note.
    • 1 Corinthians 10:18—Here Paul uses the expression “Israel according to the flesh” (o(  )Israh\l kata\ sa/rka), which can be understood two ways: (a) in an ordinary ethnic-religious sense, (b) or “according to the flesh” (kata\ sa/rka) in contrast with “according to the Spirit” (kata\ pneu=ma). His frequent use of kata\ sa/rka in this specialized, latter sense, indicates that he may intend this here as well. The overall thrust of his illustration in 1 Cor 10:1-18ff matches the message of Rom 9:6: that many Israelites have fallen away, in spite of being born into the covenant and participating the religious and spiritual blessings provided them by God—i.e. they are not part of the ‘true Israel’.
    • 2 Corinthians 3:7ff—Paul uses a similar manner of illustration in 2 Cor 3:7-18, but applied directly to the (written) Law of Moses. Israelites (Jews) possess the Torah, being taught/instructed by it and hearing it proclaimed constantly, and yet many of them are veiled from the truth of it (in Christ).
    • Romans 2:28-29—Paul distinguishes between one who is a Jew (i.e. Israelite) outwardly (from birth, circumcision and observing the Torah), with one who is a Jew inwardly (by the Spirit), i.e. believers in Christ. This would clearly indicate that there is a true Israel “according to the Spirit” as compared with Israel “according to the flesh”—cf. Galatians 4:21-31 (esp. v. 29).

2. “of God” (tou= qeou=). Paul’s use of this qualifying term indicates a very definite connotation, one associated specifically with believers (in Christ). To begin with, he is certainly drawing upon traditional Old Testament and Jewish language, with phrases such as “fear of God”, “glory of God”, “judgment/wrath of God”, “kingdom of God”, et al, in a manner shared by Judaism and early Christianity. But at times, certain idioms seem to be applied within a specific Christian (Gospel) context, to indicate that which is true, or truly comes from God. A few important examples may be noted:

    • “the justice/righteousness of God” (dikaiosu/nh tou= qeou=), especially as contrasted with the justice/righteousness that come through observing the Law (i.e. “works of the Law”)—Romans 3:5, 21-22; 2 Cor 5:21
    • “promise(s) of God” (e)paggeli/a tou= qeou=), esp. as fulfilled truly in Christ (and in the Holy Spirit) unto believers—Rom 4:20; 2 Cor 1:20; Gal 3:16-22ff;
    • “knowledge of God” (gnw=si$ qeou=) and “wisdom of God” (sofi/a tou= qeou=), esp. contrasted with false/human knowledge and wisdom—Rom 11:33; 1 Cor 1:17-24, 30; 2:6ff; 15:34; 2 Cor 10:5; Col 1:10; Eph 3:10.
    • “assembly [i.e. the people called out] of God” (h( e)kklhsi/a tou= qeou=), which likely has the specific nuance of the “true congregation”, i.e. of believers in Christ—cf. especially Gal 1:13; 1 Cor 10:32; 11:22; 15:9 (note the references to Paul’s persecution of believers).
    • “temple/shrine of God” (o( nao/$ [tou=] qeou=)—Paul uses this expression in 1 Cor 3:16-17; 2 Cor 6:16 (cf. also 1 Cor 6:19 and Eph 2:21), referring to believers themselves as the (true) temple (properly, shrine/sanctuary) of God, as opposed to the earthly Temple (which Paul otherwise rarely mentions, 1 Cor 9:13; 2 Thess 2:4).
    • “the Law of God” (o( no/mo$ tou= qeou=)—this expression occurs in Romans 7:22, 25 and 1 Cor 9:21; in Romans, Paul seems to use it broadly in the sense of the “will of God”, and as contrasted both with the Law of Moses, and, more particularly, to the “Law of sin”. In 1 Cor 9:21, Paul defines it specifically as being “in the Law of Christ” (e&nnomo$ Xristrou=).
    • “the commands of God” (e)ntolw=n qeou=)—I discussed this expression (1 Cor 7:19) in the previous note; the examples above, and the comparative context in Paul’s letters, suggest that he means this in the sense of the true commands (reflecting the Law or will “of God”), more or less synonymous with the Law/command of Christ (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21).

All of this strongly indicates that “the Israel of God” refers to the true Israel, and thus to (all) true believers in Christ. However, it is possible that the apparent distinction between them (those following the ‘rule’ of Gal 6:15) and the Israel of God, may be Paul’s way of moving from the Gentile (Galatian) believers to include the Jewish believers as well. If so, then this could represent a simpler, summary statement of what he expounds in far greater detail in Romans 9-11.