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

Survey of Passages in 2 Corinthians

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

2 Cor 1:13-14

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

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

2 Cor 1:22

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

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

2 Cor 4:14

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

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

2 Cor 4:17-5:5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Cor 5:10

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

2 Cor 5:17

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

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

2 Cor 6:2

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

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

2 Corinthians 3:7-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 and 2 Corinthians

Having examined the eschatology in 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Part 1, 2, 3), we now turn to the next portion of Paul’s letters—1 and 2 Corinthians. In these two letters we do not find as many clear or explicit eschatological references, but throughout there is evidence of this aspect of early Christian belief, which needs to be studied, along with several significant passages. Let us first survey the most relevant references in 1 Corinthians.

Survey of Passages in 1 Corinthians

In the Thessalonian letters, we noted several key references to the “day of the Lord” (or simply, “the day”), and expression which preserves the meaning of the “day of YHWH” in the Old Testament Prophets, but given a distinctly Christian interpretation with the exalted Jesus (instead of YHWH) as “Lord” (1 Thess 5:2, 4ff; 2 Thess 1:10; 2:2-3). Instead of a time when God (YHWH) will appear to bring Judgment upon the wicked (nations) and deliver His people, it now refers to the coming of Jesus—as God’s Anointed representative—that is, to the return of the exalted Jesus back to earth at the end-time. His return will usher in the great Judgment. There are a number of such references to “the day (of the Lord)” in 1 Corinthians:

1 Cor 1:7-8—Paul concludes his opening thanksgiving with a prayer (and exhortation) that ends:

“…(look)ing to receive from out of (heaven) the uncovering of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, who also will make you (stand) firm until (the) completion, without (anything) calling (you into account) in the day of our Lord Yeshua [the Anointed].”

Paul frequently uses this sort of language, encouraging believers that they are able to remain faithful until the moment of Jesus’ coming. This, of course, indicates the imminent eschatology shared by most, if not all, believers in the New Testament period. Paul fully expected that he and his readers would soon experience the return of Jesus in their lifetime. The “completion” (te/lo$) refers primarily to the completion of the current Age, believed to be imminent.

1 Cor 3:13-15—This “day” is not only one of hope and salvation for believers, but marks the moment of condemnation and punishment for the wicked. Paul draws upon the double-aspect of the end-time Judgment at the close of his discussion in 3:5-15. As a way of combating the partisan divisions in the Corinthian congregations (1:10ff), he argues strongly that the individual leader or minister is not as important as the work that is done for God, in which all believers share. If one is not careful to build upon the foundation of Christ and the Gospel, instead relying upon one’s own abilities, etc, even a Christian minister may come to suffer loss and face a measure of punishment in the time of Judgment:

“…for the work of each will come to be shining forth, for the day will make it clear (in) that [i.e. because] it will be uncovered in (the) fire, and the fire [itself] will consider each (person)’s work, of what sort it is. If one’s work remains, which he built upon (the foundation), he will receive a (proper) wage [i.e. reward]; (but) if one’s work is burned down, he will be at a disadvantage—he (himself) will be saved, but so (saved) through (the) fire.”

For believers, the fire of Judgment is a purifying process, burning away the dross and rubbish, until only the pure metal, etc, remains. This is the significance of a person being saved “through (the) fire”.

1 Cor 4:5—A similar reference to “the day” as a time of testing that reveals a person’s true nature and that of his/her conduct and actions (“works”). Here it is identified specifically with the end-time coming/return of Jesus:

“So then, you must not judge anything before (the proper) moment, until the Lord should come, who indeed will bring to light the hidden (thing)s of darkness and will make to shine forth the purpose [i.e. will/intention] of the(ir) hearts—and then the praise upon (them) will come to be from God, for each (person).”

1 Cor 5:5—Chapter 5, as part of Paul’s instruction for how to deal with a person known to be engaged in improper sexual activity—indeed, as part of the judgment from the congregation for this person—they are told to “give along this (sort of person) to the Satan, unto the ruin of his flesh, so that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord”. The exact meaning of giving someone along to Satan remains uncertain (and disputed). However, the eschatological reference is clear enough, with the idea that the believer, once purified, will ultimately be saved at the time of Judgment.

In 1 Cor 2:6f and 10:11 we have statements indicating rather clearly the early Christian belief (shared by Paul) that the end of the current Age was about to occur. This is most explicit in 10:11:

“and these (thing)s [i.e. recorded in the Scriptures]…were written toward [i.e. for the purpose of] setting (them) in our mind, unto whom the completion of the Ages has come down to meet (us).”

It would be hard to find a better example of the the imminent eschatology of early Christians. While less obvious in 2:6-7, there is still implicit the idea of the end of the current Age, marked by the (end-time) revelation of Jesus to humankind:

“But we do speak wisdom among the (one)s (who are) complete, but wisdom not of this Age, and not of the chief (ruler)s of this Age th(at are) being made to cease working; but (rather) we speak the wisdom of God, in a secret, having been hidden away, which God marked out beforehand, before the Ages, unto our honor…”

The implication is that in this current Age, the wisdom of God can only be made known (among believers) in a hidden way; however, it is about to be manifest clearly to all at the end of this Age. A similar sort of eschatological expectation seems to be evident in Paul’s famous exposition of love in chapter 13 (13:8-12). He expresses a belief that the current manifestation of the Spirit among believers is only temporary, a way for Christians to experience the end-time blessing and presence of God (and Christ), prior to Jesus’ actual return. I discuss this passage in detail in an earlier series. That believers at the time fully expected to be alive at the return of Jesus seems self-evident, confirmed by many of the passages we have studied (and will study) in this series. The same would seem to be true of the language Paul uses in his traditional formula for the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper, which includes the additional phrase: “For as much as you would eat this bread and drink (of) this drinking-cup, you bring down [i.e. announce] a message of the death of the Lord until th(e moment at) which he should come” (11:26).

We may also note the language Paul uses in his closing exhortation (16:13), especially the verb grhgoreu/w (“keep awake, keep watch”) as an imperative (grhgorei=te), which has traditional eschatological significance, going back to the sayings and parables of Jesus—Mark 13:34-37 par (cf. also 14:34-38 par); Matt 25:13; Luke 12:37; 1 Thess 5:6, 10; 1 Pet 5:8; Rev 3:2-3.

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

As part of Paul’s instruction on marriage among believers in chapter 7, in verses 25-31, he argues strongly in favor of the view that Christians, if they are not already married (or engaged), ought to remain unmarried. This is a clear emphasis in his instruction, but one which runs contrary to the general view of Christians in subsequent generations (including today), so much so that many commentators will ignore or gloss it over, assuming that Paul’s emphasis is actually the opposite—that, all other considerations being equal, Christians should get married. There are two aspects, or reasons, for Paul’s preference that unmarried believers stay unmarried. The first is general: the unmarried believer is able to devote more time and attention to serving God. The second is referenced in verse 26, and then expounded in more detail in vv. 29-31. The statement in v. 26 is as follows:

“I consider this well, then, to begin under (this way): through the (thing) pressing up (on us now) having stood among (us), that it is well (for) a man to be this (way) [i.e. as he currently is].”
In more conventional English this might be:
“I consider it good to begin with this: because of the thing pressing (on us) now standing (so close), it is good [i.e. better] for a man to (remain) the (way he is).”

The wording is difficult to render into English, and commentators debate its precise meaning. Most problematic is the phrase e)nestw=san a)na/gkhn. I render a)na/gkh literally as “(something) pressing up”, but the word is often used in a more general or figurative sense as “compelling (reason), compulsion, (what is) necessary, necessity,” etc. The participle e)nestw=san modifies the noun, meaning that the “thing pressing up” is now “standing among” them (perfect “having stood among”). Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to be certain of the point of reference. That it carries an eschatological connotation here seems likely, given such use of the noun a)na/gkh in Luke 21:23 and 1 Thess 3:7, where it is more or less synonymous with the eschatological term qli/yi$ (“distress”, Mk 13:19, 24 par; 2 Thess 1:4, 6; Rev 7:14, etc). However, later on in verse 37, it is used in the more general sense of something compelling a person to act.

The Corinthian congregations are apparently facing some sort of pressure, which, presumably, would result in significant suffering or hardship. This is what makes it advisable for believers not to marry. I think it unlikely that he is referring here to persecution, in which case he probably would have used different wording, perhaps even the specific term qli/yi$. A time of severe need (such as famine, etc) has been suggested. In any case, the context of Paul’s instruction leads to the following line of interpretation: the end-time period, during which they are living, will be marked by suffering and hardship for believers, increasingly so as the end draws nearer; something of this more intense “pressure” is already coming upon them, and there will doubtless be many more such moments in the near future. Thus, Paul teaches that it is best to begin with (vb u(pa/rxw, “begin under”) the sound principle that it is good for a person to stay as he/she currently is (“to be this way”, i.e. married or unmarried). This is the point made in verse 24, and he expounds it further in vv. 25-39, focusing especially on the unmarried (“virgins”), teaching that it is better for them not to marry. This is not so much a doctrinal point as a pastoral concern:

“And (yet) if you were to marry you did not sin, and if the virgin should marry she did not sin (either), but such (person)s will hold [i.e. have/experience] distress [qli/yi$] in the flesh, and I am (try)ing to spare you (from that).” (v. 28)

Paul clarifies this even further in vv. 29-31, where the eschatological context is abundantly clear:

“And this I (would) tell you, brothers: the moment is (now be)ing put together, (and for) the (time) remaining, (it is) that the (one)s holding wives should be as (ones) not holding (them), and the (one)s weeping as not weeping, and the (one)s (feel)ing delight as not (feel)ing delight, and the (one)s (purchas)ing at market as not holding down (what they purchase), and the (one)s making use of the world as not (do)ing (so) against the (accepted) use (of it), for the shape of this world is leading (itself) along [i.e. passing away].”

Two distinctly eschatological phrases enclose this instruction:

    • “the moment is (now be)ing put together…” (o( kairo\$ sunestalme/no$ e)stin)
    • “…the shape of this world is passing along” (para/gei to\ sxh=ma tou= ko/smou tou/tou)

The first phrase is rather difficult to render into English, with the tricky syntax of the verb of being + perfect participle (lit. “is having been…”). The verb suste/llw literally means “put together”, i.e. “bring together, pull together”, sometimes in the specific sense of shortening a distance, etc. In that light, the phrase is often translated in terms of a period of time being shortened or reduced (compare Mark 13:20 par). However, kairo/$ more properly refers to a moment, rather than a period, of time; the emphasis is not on duration, but on a specific event or moment coming closer. In English idiom, we might say “things are coming together”, to indicate that something is about to happen.

The perfect tense or aspect in Greek typically refers to a past action or condition which continues into the present. Believers in Christ are uniquely aware that it is the end-time, and that a New Age is at hand. For this reason, one should not become overly attached to things and the way of life in the current Age, becoming wrapped up in family matters, daily interactions and experiences, with their joys and sorrows, etc. Not only are these about to come to an end, but believers are already experiencing a new way of life in the present—indeed, the Christian life, marked by the presence and work of the Spirit, is a sign of the New Age, even prior to the actual end of the current Age (“this world”). This reflects the blending of “realized” and future eschatology, common to most Christian thought in the New Testament period. It is thus a serious misreading of Paul to suggest that he is referring only, or even primarily, to the idea of new life in Christ in the present; both present and future aspects are part of the imminence of early Christian eschatology.

The Resurrection in 1 Corinthians

The most extensive eschatological passage in 1 and 2 Corinthians is the discussion on the resurrection in chapter 15. This will be discussed in Part 2 of this article, but it is worth noting Paul’s earlier reference to the resurrection at 6:14. This is part of his instruction on the importance of believers avoiding any kind of improper sexual intercourse or activity. This emphasis is on the idea of believers—including their bodies—as members, in a symbolic and spiritual sense, of the body of Christ. In verse 13, Paul negates the importance of the physical activity of the body, by pointing out that God will make it “cease working” (vb katarge/w), referring to the natural process of death and decay. The focus for believers should not be the ordinary activity of the physical body, but the future/eternal life that soon awaits us; and we can be certain that, as we belong to Jesus (as his body), God will raise our dead bodies to life even as He did for Jesus:

“and even (as) God raised the Lord, He also will raise us out of (the dead) through His power.”

The pronoun “his” (au)tou=) is somewhat ambiguous. It more naturally refers to God‘s power (which raised Jesus); however, in chapter 15, Paul develops the idea of the life-giving power that Jesus possesses, as a result of his resurrection. Thus, it is possible to see the pronoun here as also referring to Jesus— “his power”. This will be considered further in the discussion on chapter 15.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Pt 3)

Part 3: “Day of the Lord”: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12

This discussion is on the second of two eschatological sections in 1 and 2 Thessalonians dealing specifically with “the day of the Lord” (h(me/ra kuri/ou). The first, 1 Thess 4:13-5:11, was discussed in Part 2; for a study of the other eschatological passages in the Thessalonian letters, cf. Part 1 and the special note on 1 Thess 2:14-16. It is worth surveying, however briefly, the background of this expression “day of the Lord”.

The Day of the Lord—the “Day of YHWH”

The expression “day of the Lord” (h(me/ra kuri/ou) in the New Testament was inherited by early Christians from the Old Testament and Jewish tradition. The original expression in Hebrew is hw`hy+ <oy, “day of YHWH”. It developed among the Israelite Prophets of the 8th-5th centuries B.C., especially in the context of the various nation-oracles preserved in the Prophetic books. The expression referred to a time of judgment (i.e. punishment) which YHWH would bring upon the various peoples—including his own people Israel. Originally, the usage was not eschatological, though it did indicate an imminent judgment that would come in the (near) future. Gradually, the expression took on more eschatological significance, something we begin to see already in the (later) Prophets. The “Day of YHWH” would be framed as a judgment on the surrounding nations, collectively, coinciding with the deliverance/rescue of God’s people—the faithful ones, at least—at some future time. The key occurrences of the expression in the Prophets are: Isaiah 13:6; Amos 5:18-20; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Obadiah 15; Zephaniah 1:7-8, 14; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezek 13:5; 30:3; and Malachi 4:5.

The corresponding expression in the New Testament is actually relatively rare, occurring just 5 times—Acts 2:20 (citing Joel); 1 Cor 5:5; 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Thess 2:2; 2 Pet 3:10. However, it is implied in many other passages, often using the shorthand “the day”, or the Christian formulation “the day of Christ”, etc. As such, Paul references it frequently; the various occurrences will be discussed throughout these articles on the Eschatology of Paul. We have already examined its use in 1 Thess 5:2 (Part 2 of this article), where it provides clear evidence for the uniquely Christian dimension given to the expression—namely, the end-time coming (parousia) of Jesus back to earth. Three components, or lines of tradition, helped to create this distinct interpretation of the “day of the Lord” among early Christians:

    • The Messianic traditions derived from Malachi 3:1ff; Daniel 7:13-14; 12:1ff, etc, which variously express the idea of a divine/heavenly representative of YHWH appearing to rescue His people and usher in the Judgment.
    • The firm belief in Jesus as the Messiah (“Anointed One”), especially his identification with the Davidic ruler and heavenly deliverer figure-types. Since Jesus did not fulfill all that was expected/prophesied of these Messianic figures during his time on earth, he would have to return at some future time to do so. This naturally coincided with the divine-representative motif above.
    • The eschatological “Son of Man” sayings of Jesus, in which he identifies himself with this heavenly figure who will appear at the end time.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-12

So it is that we turn to 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, one of the most famous (and difficult) eschatological passages in the New Testament. Outside of the Eschatological Discourse, and the various visions in the book of Revelation, it is perhaps the only passage which offers any detailed information about end-time events that were expected to occur prior to the coming of Jesus. On the one hand, the basic scenario described is clear enough; at the same time, however, for Christians and other readers today, it is highly problematic (and controversial), for two main reasons:

    • Much of the wording and syntax used by the author (Paul) is difficult to intepret; at several points, the basic meaning and translation continue to be hotly disputed.
    • As with other examples of the imminent eschatology of early Christians, it is hard to square with our vantage point today, from which we must take into account the passing of 1,900+ years. However, this aspect of the modern interpretive problem is even more acute in 2 Thess 2:1-2, since it, like the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, involves the Jerusalem Temple, a building which was destroyed in 70 A.D.
Verses 1-2

“I would ask of you, brothers, over the (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a] (us) of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, and our gathering together at (that time) about him, unto your not being shaken [i.e. for you not to be shaken] from (the) thought—not through a spirit (speaking), and not through a (normal) account, and not through a (message) sent upon (you) as (though it were) through us—as (if it were) that the Day of the Lord has (now) stood in (on you).”

Paul makes use here of fairly complex syntax, which can perhaps be a bit misleading or confusing when rendered literally (as I have attempted to do here). To bring out the basic line of the statement, the intervening modifying clause has been highlighted above. We might restate the principal statement, in more conventional English, as follows:

“I would ask of you, brothers, regarding the coming of our Lord Yeshua (to us) and our gathering together around him, that you would not be shaken by thinking…that the Day of the Lord is now present.”

The verb in the last clause of verse 2 is e)ni/sthmi (“stand in”), perfect e)ne/sthken (“has stood in”, i.e. entered), similar in meaning to h&ggiken (“has come near”). In other words, the idea is that the “Day of the Lord” has now come, and the Thessalonians are experiencing it. Paul rather forcefully urges them that they should not be shaken by this thought, since it is not correct. Much has been made of the supposed eschatological issue being addressed here, with considerable speculation by commentators. For my part, the matter seems clear and simple enough, in light of the previous message in 1:6-10 (discussed in Part 1). The suffering and persecution experienced by the Thessalonians is considered to be part of the end-time distress facing believers (according to the imminent eschatology held by Paul, along with most Christians at the time). Apparently, some were referring to this as the “Day of the Lord” (cf. above), indicating, it would seem, a lack of understanding of the precise meaning of the expression. The “Day of the Lord” refers ostensibly to the end-time Judgment on the wicked, not believers. While Christians will experience suffering during the end-time period of distress, the “Day of the Lord”, as such, represents the moment of deliverance for them, even as it is the moment of judgment/punishment for the wicked (non-believers). It also coincides with the appearance of Jesus, who, as God’s Anointed, will usher in the great Judgment.

All of this was generally explained by Paul in 1:6-10, but now he gives a more precise formulation, to the effect that the “Day of the Lord” will not occur until the return of Jesus. He also goes on (in 2:3ff) to explain something of the specific events expected to take place during the period of distress. While he and his audience are thought to be living in this period, it is not yet over; certain things are yet to happen, though they could occur suddenly, at any time.

(On the highlighted clause above, see the concluding note at the end of this article.)

Verses 3-4

“No one should deceive you (then), not by any turn! (For it is) that, if there should not first come the standing away from (the truth) [a)postasi/a]—(by this I mean that) the man of lawlessness [a)nomi/a] should be uncovered, the son of ruin [a)pw/leia], the (one) stretching out against and lifting (himself) over all (thing)s counted as God or (worthy of) reverence, (even) as to his sitting in the shrine of God, showing (of) himself from (this) that he is God.”

As noted above, it would seem that some among the Thessalonians were saying that the experience of suffering and persecution meant that the “Day of the Lord” had come. Paul warns forcefully that they should not be deceived (vb e)capata/w) into thinking this. In my view, the importance of this point for Paul is that the “Day of the Lord” signifies the end-time Judgment that awaits the wicked, and the precise moment for that has not yet come. Paul begins to explain this with a conditional sentence that he never finishes: “(For it is) that if there should not first come a standing away from (the truth)…”. If we were to complete the thought, it would presumably be something like “…then the Day of the Lord cannot come“. Instead of finishing the sentence, he expounds the significance of this “standing away” (a)postasi/a, often transliterated in English as “apostasy”).

This noun is extremely rare in the New Testament, occurring just twice, the only other instance is found in Acts 21:21 where it is used in the religious sense of departing from the truth (and from God); this also characterizes the rare usage in the LXX as well. However, a)postasi/a can also be used in the political sense of standing away from an agreement, with the more forceful and violent connotation of “rebellion”, etc. Here the reference is to a widespread departure from God—not only from the true Christian (and Jewish) belief, but even in the more general sense of reverence or recognition of anything divine at all. As bad as things might be in society at the time of writing, it was soon expected to become much worse.

This dramatic “standing away” is associated with the coming of a particular (ruling) figure, referred to by a pair of titles:

    • “the man of lawlessness” (o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$)
      [Some manuscripts instead read “man of sin” …th=$ a(marti/a$.]
    • “the son of ruin/destruction” (o( ui(o\$ th=$ a)pwlei/a$)

The noun a)nomi/a (literally something, or the condition of, being “without law” [a&nomo$]) is relatively common in both the LXX and the New Testament, though appearing in the latter only 15 times. It is used by Jesus in the Matthean version of the Eschatological Discourse (24:12), and several other instances where there is a definite eschatological context (Matt 13:41; 1 John 3:4). It tends to be used in the general sense of wickedness and violation of the proper order of things established by God (and society).

Here the expressions “man of lawlessness” and “son of ruin/destruction” likely reflect the Old Testament “son[s] of Beliyya’al” (and “man/men of Beliyya’al”). The derivation of the Hebrew lu^Y~l!B= (b®liyya±al) remains uncertain, but it generally signifies an association with death, chaos, disorder, and may also reflect a mythological personification of Death/Chaos itself. A “son of Beliyya’al” refers to someone who acts in a manner characteristic of Beliyya’al, violating the social and religious order of things, tending toward wickedness and violence (and destined to meet a bad or violent end). On several occasions, Hebrew lu^Y~l!B= is translated in the LXX by a)nomi/a (or the related a)no/mhma), “without law, lawlessness”. In 2 Cor 6:14f, a)nomi/a is parallel with Beli/ar, a variant transliteration in Greek (i.e. Beli/al, Belial) of Hebrew lu^Y~l!B=. In the Qumran texts and other Jewish writings of the period, Belial/Beliar is a title for the Evil One (i.e. the Devil/Satan), but is also used in the eschatological context of an evil/Satanic figure or ruler who will appear at the end-time. As such, it fed into the early Christian “Antichrist” tradition, and is almost certainly in view here as well.

This person is also characterized by the participial phrase:

    • “the one (who is)…upon every thing counted as God or revered”; two verbal participles fill the ellipsis:
      — “laying/stretching out against” [a)ntikei/meno$]
      — “raising/lifting (himself) over” [u(perairo/meno$]

Thus, in two different directions, he challenges the Divine. This is dramatically depicting by the image of this “man of lawlessness” sitting in the Temple:

“…(even) as to his sitting in the shrine of God, showing (of) himself [i.e. demonstrating] from (this) that he is God.”

In many later manuscripts, this pretension to deity is made even more clear with the addition of w($ qeo/n (“as God”): “…sitting as God in the shrine of God”. According to the ancient religious worldview, temples were the dwelling places of God, especially the sanctuary or inner shrine, where the specific image/manifestation of the deity was located. For the Jerusalem Temple, the inner shrine housed the golden box (“ark”) which represented the seat or throne of YHWH. Thus, by sitting in the shrine, the “man of lawlessness” puts himself in the place of God. The significance of this image from the standpoint of New Testament eschatology will be discussed in a separate note.

Verses 5-7

“Do you not remember that, (in) my being yet (facing) toward [i.e. when I was still with] you, I related these (thing)s to you? And now you have seen the (thing) holding down (power) unto [i.e. leading toward] the uncovering of him in his (own) time. For the secret of lawlessness already works in (the world), only until the (one) holding down (power) now comes to be out of the middle.”

Apparently Paul had previously discussed these things with the Thessalonian congregations, but they may not have entirely understood his teaching. In my view, Paul likely held to a traditional eschatological framework similar to that of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse. I will be discussing this in the aforementioned supplemental note; on the Eschatological Discourse, cf. my earlier 4-part article in this series. Verses 6-7 are notorious and represent for commentators one of the most difficult and debated passages in the New Testament. I have discussed the verses in some detail in an earlier article, and here will summarize the results of that study.

    • The verb kate/xw literally means “hold down”. It can be used either in the transitive sense of holding someone down (i.e. restraining them), or the intransitive sense of holding down a position or control. In my view, the latter best fits the context of the passage.
    • This verb is used here twice, as two articular participles—one neuter (to\ kate/xon, “the [thing] holding down”) and one masculine (o( kate/xwn, “the [one] holding down”). The latter is correctly understood as a person. The neuter expression refers to the “secret [musth/rion] of lawlessness”, characterizing the current time prior to the rise of the Man of Lawlessness, while the masculine refers to a person “holding down power” during this same time.
    • Lawlessness already prevails in this current time (i.e. the end-time), but in a secret way, so that many people (i.e. believers) are not always immediately aware of its power and influence—i.e. it does not operate in the open. With the appearance of the “Lawless One” (= Man of Lawlessness) the cover will be removed, and lawlessness will no longer work in a hidden manner.
    • The phrase “come to be out of the middle [e)k me/sou]” could mean either that: (a) someone will appear from the middle, or (b) someone will be taken out of (i.e. removed) from the middle. The latter is to be preferred, and understood of the one “holding down power” prior to the appearance of the Lawless One.
    • Probably the reference here is to the current Roman emperor and his imperial administration. If Paul is indeed the author (writing c. 50 A.D.), then the current emperor would be Claudius, but the same basic idea would apply even if the letter were pseudonymous (as some critics think) and/or written at a later time. He may be anticipating the sudden rise of an emperor far more wicked, along the lines of Gaius (Caligula) who embodied and prefigured some of the same characteristics. This wicked ruler would either follow the current emperor or appear sometime soon thereafter. However, it should be made clear that he will be no ordinary emperor or ruler.
Verses 8-10

“And then the lawless (one) will be uncovered, whom the Lord [Yeshua] will take up/away [i.e. destroy] with the spirit/breath of His mouth and will make inactive in the shining of his coming along [parousi/a] upon (the earth), (and) whose coming along is according to the working of (the) Satan in him in all lying power and signs and marvels, and in all (the) deceit of injustice for the (one)s going to ruin, against whom (it is that) they did not receive the love of the truth unto their being [i.e. so that they might be] saved.”

This is another long and complex sentence, with a modifying intermediate statement, which can cause considerable confusion when not read carefully. Again I have highlighted the intermediate portion so as to make clear the primary line of the sentence. The point of confusion is in the sequence of the Lord’s coming (parousia) followed immediately by the coming (parousia) of the Lawless One. In Greek, this portion reads:

th=$ parousi/a$ au)tou= ou! e)stin h( parousi/a
“…of his coming to be alongside, of whom the coming to be alongside is…”

One might easily misread the relative pronoun ou! (“of whom, whose”) as referring to the Lord (Jesus), when in fact it refers back to the Lawless One. If we were to translate the primary line of the sentence, in more conventional English, it might be:

“And then the Lawless One will be uncovered… and (his) coming is according to the working of Satan, in all power and false signs and wonders, and in all the deceit of injustice for the ones perishing, (those) who did not receive the love of the truth so that they would be saved.”

The nouns e)pifanei/a (“shining forth upon”) and parousi/a (“[com]ing to be alongside”) both were common early Christian terms for the end-time appearance of Jesus on earth. The same noun parousi/a (parousia) is here also applied to the Lawless One, clearly indicating that his “coming” is an evil parody of Jesus’ return. And, just as the exalted Jesus will come with power and glory, so this Lawless One comes with great power, given to him by the working of Satan. There will be supernatural events and miracles associated with the Lawless One; they are called “false” (yeu=do$) not because they are illusory, but because they deceive people into thinking that they come from a Divine source. Paul, like most Christians of the time, would have admitted the reality of Satanic-inspired miracles.

The use of the verb de/xomai (“receive”) in verse 10 can also be misleading, as though implying that, for those deceived by the Lawless One, it was from God that they did not receive the “love of the truth”. Rather, the middle voice here indicates that it was they themselves who were unwilling to accept (i.e. love) the truth. God’s action in this regard is described in the verses that follow.

Verses 11-12

“And, through this, God will send to them (something) working wandering in (them), unto their trusting th(at which is) false, (so) that they might be judged, all the (one)s not trusting in the truth but thinking good of injustice (instead).”

Here, in verses 11-12, we finally have described the coming of the “Day of the Lord”, i.e. when God acts to judge/punish the wicked. The beginning of this Judgment is that the wicked—all who did not trust in the truth of the Gospel—will be made (by God) to trust in something false instead. The implication is that they will trust in the Lawless One. There is here no mention of persecution of believers by the Lawless One, but this is likely to be inferred, based on parallels in the Eschatological Discourse and Revelation 13, etc. The period of the Lawless One’s rule presumably will be short, but characterized by intense and widespread wickedness and injustice, though, in all likelihood, those deceived by him would not be aware of this negative aspect. The period is brought to an end with the coming of Jesus (“the Lord”), who will destroy the Lawless One (v. 8, described in Messianic language from Isa 11:4b, etc).

There can be no doubt that the description of the Lawless One / Man of Lawlessness relates in some way to the “Antichrist” tradition, even more so than the vision of the creature from the Sea in Revelation 13 (cf. the recent note on this passage). In point of fact, the actual term a)nti/xristo$ (antichristos, “against the Anointed”) is used neither in 2 Thess 2:1-12 nor Revelation 13, but occurs only in the Johannine letters (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7) where it has a rather different meaning or application. One should therefore be extremely cautious about referring to the Lawless One here simply as “the Antichrist”. However, in terms of the fundamental meaning of the word (“against the Anointed”, “in place of the Anointed”), the term a)nti/xristo$ is entirely appropriate to the description of the Lawless One, since he clearly is described in a way that imitates Jesus Christ. In his sitting in the shrine of God, the Man of Lawlessness symbolically takes the place of God and His Anointed. I will be discussing the Antichrist tradition in more detail in a special upcoming article.

Appendix: On Verse 2 and the Composition/Date of 2 Thessalonians

In verse 2 (cf. above), as part of Paul’s attempt to convince the Thessalonians that their experience of suffering/persecution did not mean that the “Day of the Lord” had come, he mentions, in summary form, three different ways they might mistakenly come to think this:

    • dia\ pneu/mato$, “through a spirit (speaking)”
    • dia\ lo/gou, “through a (normal) account”
    • di’ e)pistolh=$, “through a (message) sent upon (you)” [i.e. a message sent in writing = letter, epistle]

The first means a spirit speaking through a human oracle or prophet; since the information is basically incorrect, it could not be the Holy Spirit, but some other kind of “spirit”. The second just means ordinary human speech. The third specifically means a message sent in writing (e)pistolh/, transliterated in English as epistle). It is qualified here to include any letter claiming to be from Paul and his associates (“…as [if] through us”). Some commentators take this to mean that Paul (or the author) is referring to a letter previously sent to the Thessalonians, usually identified with 1 Thessalonians, on the assumption that it was the earlier letter. This has an important bearing both on the date of 2 Thessalonians and the precise point being made in 2 Thess 2:1-12. Both questions depend on whether one regards 2 Thessalonians as a genuine Pauline letter or as pseudonymous.

1. For commentators who accept Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians, if the e)pistolh/ in verse 2 refers to 1 Thessalonians, then it is possible that the discussion in 2:1ff relates to the eschatology of the earlier letter (esp. 4:13-5:11, cf. Part 2). It is often thought that, based on the imminent eschatology in 1 Thessalonians, the Thessalonian believers—some of them, at any rate—mistakenly believed that Day of the Lord had come, or was about to come. Paul corrects their misunderstanding, pointing out that certain events still need to take place before Jesus returns.

2. Many who view 2 Thessalonians as pseudonymous believe that the author is here intentionally contradicting or ‘correcting’ the imminent eschatology of Paul in 1 Thessalonians, and that 2 Thessalonians was written, in imitation of the first letter, primarily for that purpose. It is assumed that 1 Thessalonians is being discredited (as a true account of Paul’s teaching) by the use of the phrase w($ di’ h(mw=n (“as [though it were] through us”). The author would have held an eschatological chronology comparable perhaps to the developed form of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (i.e. in Matthew and/or Luke), and likely dating from a similar period (c. 80 A.D.?). For more on the relationship between 2 Thess 2:1-12 and the framework of the Eschatological Discourse, cf. the upcoming supplemental note.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Pt 2)

Part 2: “Day of the Lord”: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11

Having discussed five key eschatological references in 1 and 2 Thessalonians—1 Thess 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 5:23; 2 Thess 1:6-10—in Part 1, along with 1 Thess 2:14-16 (in a special note), we must now examine the main eschatological portion of 1 Thessalonians: the two related sections, 4:13-18 and 5:1-11. These are central to the primary instruction given in the letter—the probatio, using the terminology of rhetorical analysis—in which a main proposition (propositio) is stated, and then expounded through various arguments and illustrations meant to convince (or exhort) the audience. The propositio occurs in 4:1-2, in which Paul urges the Thessalonians to continue in the tradition and instruction given to them, living in a manner worthy of their identity as believers in Christ. The probatio (proving) follows in 4:3-22, and may be divided into six sections:

    • 4:3-8—Ethical instruction: the need to live in a manner befitting believers
    • 4:9-12—Instruction on filadelfi/a: on expressing one’s care for brothers (and sisters) in Christ in daily life
    • 4:13-18—Eschatological instruction: exhortation for believers in light of the end-time
    • 5:1-11—Eschatological instruction: on how believers should conduct themselves in the end-time
    • 5:12-14—Practical instruction: on the need for believers to be engaged in honest work
    • 5:15-22—Miscellaneous instruction, ethical and practical

The two eschatological sections are closely connected, and are at the heart of Paul’s teaching.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

In this first eschatological section, Paul appears to be addressing a specific question or concern, introduced in verse 13:

“But we do not wish you to be without knowledge, brothers, about the (one)s lying down (to sleep), (and) that you should not be in sorrow, even as the (one)s remaining (are), the (one)s not holding hope.”

The verb koima/w (“lie down [to sleep]”) often serves as an idiom for a person dying (i.e. death as “sleep”), and so is used here. The exact issue Paul is addressing has been variously understood. I believe that a proper understanding is based on identifying the two things he wishes would not be so for the Thessalonian believers: (1) to be without knowledge (vb a)gnoe/w), and (2) to be in sorrow (vb lupe/w) over those who have died. In other words, their sorrowing reflects a lack of knowledge. Sadness about those who have died is characteristic of the “remainder” (loipoi/) of humankind—that is, those who are not believers. Such non-believers are said to be “not holding hope”. The word hope (e)lpi/$) occurs frequently in Paul’s letters (36 in the corpus, out of 53 in the NT), and may be understood in a three-fold sense which is fundamentally eschatological:

    • our union with Christ gives us hope for salvation and (eternal) life at the end-time
    • this hope is specifically defined in terms of resurrection from the dead
    • it will soon be realized at the (end-time) appearance of Jesus

All three aspects are involved in establishing the reason why the Thessalonians should not be in sorrow regarding others (i.e. other believers) who have died: (a) they have the promise of salvation and life, (b) they will be raised from the dead, and (c) this will soon occur when Jesus appears. In my view, it is not simply a question of a belief in the resurrection, but that this all will take place very soon. What point is there of being sad over those who have died when their resurrection will soon occur? The three aspects noted above are joined together in Paul’s statement in verse 14:

“For if we trust that Yeshua died away and stood up (again), so also will God bring the (one)s (hav)ing lain down (to sleep), through Yeshua, (together) with him.”

The place of expression “through Yeshua” (dia\  )Ihsou=) is a bit unclear—whether it belongs with “the ones (hav)ing lain down (to sleep)” or “will bring…with him”, or both. I prefer to view it as a semi-independent phrase, expressing the idea of believers’ union with Jesus—in particular, their/our dying and rising with him (cf. Romans 6:3-4, etc). Both our death and resurrection takes place “through Jesus”. Also somewhat ambiguous is the central clause “God will bring…with him”. While this may relate to the idea, further on in vv. 16-17 (cf. below), of believers meeting Jesus in the air, I believe it is better understood in the more fundamental sense of participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. God himself brings/leads (vb a&gw) believers through death and into new life, even as he did for Jesus.

The eschatological setting of the resurrection, which Paul connects with the end-time appearance (parousia) of Jesus, is established in verses 15-16 by what Paul says is “a word/account of the Lord” (lo/go$ kuri/ou). We cannot be certain precisely what that means, other than it seems to refer to a tradition that goes back to the words of Jesus himself. There are a number of eschatological sayings and teachings of Jesus preserved in the Gospels, but the most prominent collection is found in the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13 par), which I have discussed at length earlier in this series. There is some evidence, seen especially in 1 and 2 Thessalonians, that Paul—probably in common with many early believers—accepted an eschatological framework that is at least roughly similar to that of the Discourse. If so, then the notice here in verse 15 may be an indication that he inherited this from the early Gospel Tradition, identifying it with preserved sayings/teachings by Jesus. In vv. 15-17, Paul is likely paraphrasing or summarizing this traditional teaching for the Thessalonians:

“For this we relate to you, in a word/account of the Lord, that we—the (one)s living (and) remaining about unto [i.e. until] the Lord’s (com)ing to be alongside (us) [parousi/a]—we shall (certainly) not go first (ahead) of the (one)s (hav)ing lain down (to sleep); (for it is) that the Lord (him)self, in (the) shout (to begin), in (the) voice of (the) chief Messenger and in (the sounding of the) trumpet of God, he will step down from heaven, and the dead in (the) Anointed will stand up first, and then at (this) we, the (one)s living (and) remaining about, together (at the same time) with them, we will be seized up in (the) clouds, into a (go)ing away to meet the Lord, into (the) air…”

Some commentators would claim that the issue for the Thessalonians had to do with a concern that believers who died would not meet the returning Jesus at the same time as those who are living. This reads too much into the wording, and, in my view, is not correct. I tend to think that Paul, here, is giving a more detailed explanation of what he may have previously conveyed to the Thessalonians only through more general eschatological statements (cf. the examples from 1-2 Thessalonians in Part 1). Now, in vv. 15-17, he offers a fuller presentation of the tradition, one which reads almost like an exposition of the words of Jesus in the Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:26-27 par). In this ‘exposition’, I believe Paul is emphasizing several points:

    • That all believers—both living and dead—will be gathered together at the coming of Jesus.
    • That this will essentially happen at the same time, priority being given to the dead only in that they are not alive, and need to be raised before they can join the living believers.
    • For Paul, this is fundamental symbol of our unity—both with Christ and with each other—to be realized fully at the moment of Jesus’ appearance.
    • And, finally, the dramatic narration of this tradition, in the context of 1 Thessalonians, emphasizes again that the coming of Jesus (and, with it, the resurrection) is imminent.

Verse 17 closes with the following declaration: “…and so we will be with the Lord always [pa/ntote]”. Paul gives no indication of anything that is to take place following the meeting of believers with Jesus in the clouds, but the wording generally suggests that they will be taken with him into heaven—the statement concludes with the words “into the air”, without any indication at all of a return back to earth.

This “taking up” of believers into the sky is commonly referred to as “the rapture, from the Latin raptio and the Latin (Vulgate) translation of 1 Thess 4:17. It has come to be a regular part of modern eschatological parlance, often to the point where the original background (and Scriptural basis) for the idea is often ignored, the term having by now taken on a life of its own (“the Rapture”). Modern eschatological discussion is frequently dominated by speculation as to just when this event will occur within various (and often elaborate) end-time schema. Much of this is far removed from the thought world of the New Testament, and early Christian eschatology in general; however, due to its prominence in modern-day eschatology, I have decided to devote a special note to the subject as part of this series.

Paul certainly understood that the coming of Jesus would bring about the great (final) Judgment on humankind, but that aspect of his eschatology is not described here, rather it is the gathering together of believers that is emphasized, as in Mark 13:27 par. The section ends with a final word of exhortation: “As (this is so), you must (also) call one another alongside in [i.e. by/with] these words”.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

If the eschatological instruction in 4:13-18 was meant to encourage believers, that in 5:1-11 has the purpose of exhorting them regarding how they should conduct themselves in this end-time. The imminence of the end, seen throughout the letter (cf. discussion in Part 1), and emphasized again in the previous section, now takes on greater urgency and importance. Paul begins with a question of chronology—an aspect of eschatology that seems to be of perennial concern for Christians. On this point, the relationship between 1 and 2 Thessalonians is of some significance, as to whether: (a) 2 Thessalonians was indeed written by Paul, and (b) if was written prior to 1 Thessalonians or after. This will be discussed in more detail in Part 3 (on 2 Thess 2:1-12), but it must be noted here that, according to 2 Thess 2:1-2, there would seem to have been some confusion, on the part of the Thessalonians, on the relationship between the end-time generally and the specific event/moment known by the expression “the day of the Lord”. Here, in 1 Thess 5:1, Paul refers generally to the chronological dimension of the end-time events:

“But about the periods and moments (of time), brothers, you hold no occasion [i.e. there is no need] (for me) to write to you…”

He pairs together the plural nouns xro/noi and kairoi/; both xro/no$ and kairo/$ essentially refer to “time”, but with a slight difference—xro/no$ tends to indicate a period of time, and kairo/$ a point in time. Probably the words used in tandem here represent a hendiadys (i.e. two terms for one thing), and refer generally to any chronological questions about exactly when the end will come. This “end” more or less corresponds to the “day of the Lord” in 2 Thess 2:1ff—that is, the moment when Jesus appears and the final Judgment comes upon humankind. Paul uses the same expression (“day of the Lord”, h(me/ra kuri/ou) here in verse 2:

“…for you (your)selves have seen [i.e. known] precisely that ‘the day of the Lord so comes as a stealer in (the) night’.”

I think it quite possible that Paul is quoting a proverbial saying (perhaps coming from Jesus, cf. Matt 24:43; Lk 12:39). Clearly the thrust of the saying is that the “day of the Lord” will come at a time when people are, or may be, caught unaware. The middle of the night is a time when people are asleep, but it also reflects a period of darkness. Paul plays on both of these aspects in the exhortation that follows; as such, he cleverly shifts the discussion from interest over when the end will occur, to how the Thessalonian believers ought to think and act while living in the end-time. However, the traditional imagery of the unexpectedness of the end continues to be brought out in verse 3:

“(And) when they should say, ‘peace and security’, then (it is that), without (any) shining forth [a)fni/dio$], destruction [o&leqro$] will stand upon them, just as the pain (that comes) for the (woman) holding (a child) in the womb, and they shall not flee out (of it).”

The comparison with the pains of a woman in giving birth is traditional, symbolic of the suffering of the human condition—especially in association with the coming Judgment at the end-time (Mark 13:8, 17 par), which, in the Gospel narrative is set generally in the context of Jesus’ own suffering and death (cf. Luke 23:28-29; John 16:21). The characteristic of the destruction (esp. of the wicked) at the time of the Judgment, using the adjective a)fni/dio$, is difficult to translate properly in English syntax. Literally, a)fni/dio$ means “without (any) shining forth”, i.e. without anything appearing to indicate that it is about to happen, etc. It is often rendered by the adjective “sudden” or “unexpected”. A more literal translation here brings out the motif of the fire of Judgment, corresponding to the glorious and fiery appearance of Jesus when he comes to earth accompanied by heavenly Messengers (Angels)—cf. 2 Thess 1:7-8 (discussed in Part 1). This fire of destruction will hit suddenly, without any glow or light to warn of its coming. The noun o&leqro$ (“destruction, ruin”) also reflects traditional Judgment-language, and is used, in a similar (but more graphic) context, in 2 Thess 1:9.

It is in verse 4, that Paul shifts the focus to the situation of believers, who, as believers, will be saved from the destructive anger of God in the great Judgment. Here, however, the emphasis is on the identity of believers in Christ, who are not to be characterized by the slumber and darkness (cf. above) of the end time:

“But you, brothers, are not in darkness, (so) that the day should take you down as a stealer (does); for you are sons of light and sons of (the) day, and we are not of (the) night and not of darkness—so then, we should not go down to sleep, as the (one)s remaining (do), but we should keep awake and should stay sober.” (vv. 4-6)

Paul’s shift in mid-sentence from 2nd person to 1st person is most effective, including himself (and all other ministers) with the Thessalonians to whom he is writing. This expresses the theme of unity for believers in Christ in a different manner than he does in the previous section (cf. above). The motif of wakefulness, while natural enough as an extension of the “thief coming at night” illustration, is also traditional, and can be seen in several eschatological parables of Jesus. Indeed, Paul’s entire discussion in 5:1-11 could be seen as an exposition of Mark 13:32-37 par, just as that in 4:13-18 expounds Mk 13:26-27. The thrust of the warning here is, not that believers might end up falling away and face the Judgment, but, rather, that they ought to live according to their identity—as those who belong to the light and who will not be “taken down” (vb katalamba/nw) in the time of darkness. Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Gethsemane scene of the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mk 14:38 par) make much the same point, but with a greater sense of the danger that the disciples could fall away during the time of “testing” (peirasmo/$); on this, compare Mk 13:13b par.

In verses 7-8, Paul applies this traditional language of watchfulness/sobriety more directly to the religious identity of believers:

“For the (one)s going down to sleep go down to sleep at night, and the (one)s getting drunk get drunk at night; but we, being of the day, should stay sober, sinking ourselves in(to) (the) chest-armor of trust and love and (the) (protection) about the head (that is the) hope of salvation.”

This “hope of salvation” is the same “hope” (e)lpi/$) mentioned in 4:13 (cf. above). For the believer in Christ, trust, love, and hope—the same triad emphasized by Paul in 1 Cor 13:13—serve as the protective armor we wear. This armor-imagery is developed more extensively in Ephesians 6:11-17; here there are only two protective pieces mentioned:

    • the qw/rac, “chest-guard”, primarily protecting the heart, from which stem our trust (pi/sti$) in Jesus and love (a)ga/ph) for our fellow believers
    • the perikefalai/a, protection “around the head”, representing the uppermost part of our person, and that which point upward, the direction from which our salvation comes, at the end-time

This “salvation” (swthri/a) is given more precise definition in vv. 9-10, emphasizing again the eschatological aspect:

“(for it is) that God did not set us into (His) anger, but (rather) into the making of salvation around (us) through our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, the (one hav)ing died away over us, (so) that, if we should be awake (or) if we should go down to sleep, we would live together with him.”

This statement repeats much of the same language from earlier in 4:14-17 (cf. above); in particular, we may note:

    • the salvation of believers comes “through [dia/] Jesus”
    • the idea of believers going down to sleep (using different verbs), and still living
    • that believers will come to be “together with him” (su\n au)tw=|)
    • and that this unity, with Jesus and with (all) other believers, is understood as being complete and simultaneous (“at once”), expressed by the particle a%ma.

Since the verb kaqeu/dw (“go down to sleep”), earlier in vv. 6-7, was used to characterize unbelievers in the time of darkness, its application to believers here needs to be explained. There are two possibilities:

    • Paul is shifting the meaning of both grhgoreu/w and kaqeu/dw to the ordinary human experience of being awake and sleeping
    • He is telling believers that, even if they should lapse into moments of “sleep”, during this time of darkness, they still live (and have life/salvation) in Christ

Probably Paul intends the former, though the latter idea could be justified, for example, by the situation of the disciples in the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mark 14:37-41 par). I would say, however, that Paul is here retaining the eschatological nuance of believers living (i.e. their daily Christian lives) during the end-time of darkness.

The section concludes (in verse 11) much as the prior section did (4:18), following a basic formula, with a message for believers to exhort one another (using the verb parakale/w, “call alongside” [i.e. for help, comfort, etc]):

“Therefore, you must call one another alongside and build (each other up) one by one, even as you also do (now).”

The closing phrase, with the conjunction kai/ (“and”), serves as an important part of the exhortation—and the rhetoric Paul is using—framing it in terms of what the Thessalonians are already doing. From the standpoint of rhetorical analysis, 1 Thessalonians can be characterized as paraenetic rather than deliberative rhetoric—that is to say, its chief purpose is to instruct and exhort, rather than to persuade the audience of the correctness of a particular position. Unlike in Galatians or the Corinthian letters, Paul is not addressing any particular conflict or problem facing the congregations; instead, he is simply encouraging the Thessalonians to continue in the faith.

Taken together, the two sections 1 Thess 4:13-5:11, represent the clearest and most specific summary of Paul’s eschatology that has come down to us in any of his letters. There is virtually nothing in it which goes beyond the traditional belief (and mode of expression) common to Christians at the time (c. 50 A.D.). It is actually highly instructive in providing us a snapshot of the early Christian eschatology in its relation to the Gospel Tradition and the (historical) sayings of Jesus. As noted above, Paul appears to have held an eschatological framework that generally corresponds with that of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse. This will be seen in greater detail, as we examine 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 in the next part of this study.