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 2)

In Part 1, all of the relevant passages in 1 Corinthians were discussed, except for the section on the resurrection in chapter 15 (the subject here in Part 2); the references in 2 Corinthians well be addressed in Part 3.

The Resurrection: 1 Corinthians 15

Paul’s lengthy chapter on the resurrection is one of the most famous passages in the New Testament, largely due to several key verses that have been enshrined in their King James Version translation. When viewed as a whole, the discussion is considerably more complex, and demonstrates Paul’s inspired gift for giving theological weight and spiritual depth to traditional early Christian material. It will not be possible to treat the entire chapter in detail; here I will survey each section briefly, bringing out some of the more relevant points and features as they relate to Paul’s eschatological understanding.

1 Cor 15:1-2

“And I make known to you, brothers, the good message which I gave as a good message to you, and which you took alongside and in which you have stood, and through which you are saved—what account I gave as a good message to you, if you hold (it) down (in your mind), if you did not trust without (any) purpose.”

This statement serves to introduce the historical tradition of Jesus’ resurrection, which is central (and foundational) to the earliest Gospel preaching (the “good message”, eu)agge/lion, vb eu)aggeli/zw). Paul frames this fact in terms of the Corinthian believers’ own experience of coming to faith, as a way of urging them to accept his instruction. Four verbs in sequence serve as a rudimentary “order of salvation”:

    • “I gave the good message” (eu)hggelisa/men)
    • “you took (it) alongside” (parela/bete)
    • “you have stood (in/on it)” (e(sth/kate)
    • “you are saved (through it)” (sw|/zesqe)

The first two verbs are aorists, indicating past action; the third is a perfect form, referring to a past action or condition that continues into the present; the fourth verb is a present form. The perfect form e(sth/kate (“you have stood”) connotes the continued faithfulness of the Corinthians; from a rhetorical standpoint, this both praises their past faithfulness and encourages it to continue. The present sw|/zesqe (“you are saved”), according to Pauline theology, and reflecting early Christian thought in general, has a two-fold significance: (1) believers are now saved from the power of sin (cf. below on vv. 50-57), and (2) are about to be saved in the coming end-time Judgment. For early Christians, salvation is fundamentally eschatological. The main rhetorical point of emphasis comes at the close of verse 2, where Paul effectively presents his readers with two options: (a) that they “hold down” (i.e. preserve and keep firmly in mind) the Gospel message passed along to them, or (b) that they ignore it (and its implications), meaning that they will end up trusting “without (any) purpose”, the adverb ei)kh=| signifying someone going about randomly or idly.

1 Cor 15:3-8

“For I gave along to you, among the first (thing)s, th(at) which you also took alongside: that (the) Anointed (One) died away over our sins, according to the Writings, and that he was buried, and that he has been raised on the third day according to the Writings, and that he was seen by Kefa, then by the Twelve, then upon [i.e. after] (that) he was seen by over five hundred brothers all at (once)—out of whom the most (still) remain until now, but some (have) lain down (to sleep)—then upon [i.e. after] (that) he was seen by Ya’aqob, then by all the (one)s sent forth [i.e. apostles], and (then), last of all, he was also seen by me, as if (appearing) to (one who had been) cut out (of the womb).”

Paul’s opening words in verse 3 again emphasize how central the resurrection of Jesus is to the Gospel message. This would seem obvious, and is confirmed by a survey of the content of the earliest Christian preaching as recorded in the book of Acts (cf. the series “The Speeches of Acts”), and elsewhere in the New Testament. Here we have a similar kerygma (proclamation), expanded by a listing of post-resurrection appearances by Jesus. In large part these appearances correspond with the Gospel tradition (as presented in the canonical Gospels), and there is little reason to doubt the authenticity of the traditional information Paul records here. The idea of a reliable chain of tradition was fundamental for early Christians, with the apostles and other first-generation believers—who either saw/heard things firsthand or knew those who did—being the transmitters of tradition. Already at this relatively early point (mid/late-50s A.D.), ministers such as Paul were stressing the importance of preserving and guarding this tradition.

1 Cor 15:8-11

“For I am the least of the (one)s sent forth, which (means) that I (should) not (even be) able to be called (one) sent forth [i.e. an apostle], for (it is) that I pursued [i.e. persecuted] the called out (people) of God; but by the favor of God I am what I am, and His favor th(at was shown) unto me did not come to be empty, but even above all of them I beat [i.e. worked] (hard)—not I but, rather, the favor of God [that] (is) with me. (So) then, if (it is) I or if (it is) those (others), so we proclaimed (the message) and so you trusted.”

Paul’s self-effacing description of his apostleship, while doubtless reflecting his genuine attitude, also serves the rhetorical purpose of gaining the sympathy of his readers, so that they are more likely to hear his instruction. It also reaffirms his own position as a reliable transmitter of Gospel tradition; for another example of this, in an eschatological context, cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (and the previous article on that passage).

1 Cor 15:12-19

“But if it is proclaimed (of the) Anointed (One) that he has been raised out of the dead, how is it counted [i.e. thought/said] among some of you that ‘there is not (any) standing up out of the dead’? And if there is no standing up out of the dead, (then the) Anointed (One) also has not been raised; and if (the) Anointed (One) has not been raised, then [even] our proclamation is empty, and your trust also empty, and we are found even (to be) false witnesses of God, (in) that we witnessed according to God that He raised the Anointed (One), whom He did not (in fact) raise, if (it is) then (that) dead (person)s are not raised.

For, if dead (person)s are not raised, (then the) Anointed (One) also has not been raised; and if (the) Anointed (One) has not been raised, (then) your trust (is) futile, (and) you are yet in your sins, and then (also) the (one)s (hav)ing lain down (to sleep) in (the) Anointed (One) (have) gone away to ruin. If we are (one)s having hoped in (the) Anointed (One) only in this life, (then) we are the most pitiable of all men!”

The main point of the passage is now introduced. There were, apparently, some Christians in Corinth who expressed the belief (or at least the possibility) that the bodies of human beings could, or would, not be raised from the dead. They presumably accepted the resurrection of Jesus, as a special and unique event, but not that the bodies of other believers would be raised in a similar way. There would still be a blessed afterlife, but not one involving a raised physical body (on similar doubts and skepticism, cf. Acts 17:32, and views of the Sadducees in Mark 12:18 par; Acts 23:6-8). While such an outlook might be understandable, especially for Greek believers, it runs contrary to a central tenet of Paul’s theology (and Christology)—that the fundamental identity of believers involves our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. So important is this idea for Paul, that he states the relationship here, twice, using forceful language and a clear chain of logic. Taken by itself, and viewed objectively, the actual logic is not all that convincing: why exactly is it that “if there is no resurrection out of the dead, (then) Christ also has not been raised”? Could not Jesus’ resurrection be an example of a special miracle? Similarly, if trust in Jesus leads to a blessed afterlife for the soul (but not the physical body), how would this make Christians “the most pitiable of all men”? Such questions, however, miss the point of the unity believers share with Christ, so that the two cannot be separated—what happens to Jesus must also happen to those united with him. Indeed, Paul goes so far as to say that any such separation effectively nullifies the entire Gospel message! It may not be immediately apparent just why this is, but Paul expounds the matter in some detail in the verses that follow. Here his forceful rhetoric, if nothing else, would likely get the attention of his readers.

1 Cor 15:20-24

“But now (the) Anointed (One) has been raised out of the dead, (the) beginning (fruit) from (the harvest) of the (one)s having lain down (to sleep). For seeing that death (came) through (a) man, standing up (out of the) dead also (came) through a man. Just as in the Man [lit. ‘Adam] all died away, so also in the Anointed (One) all will be made alive. But each (will be) in his own arranged place: (the) Anointed (One as the) beginning (fruit) from (the harvest), then upon [i.e. after] (that), the (one)s of [ i.e. belonging to] the Anointed in his (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a], (and) then the completion [te/lo$], when he shall give along the kingdom to God the Father, when he shall make every a)rxh/ and every e)cousi/a and power to cease working.”

There are three key strands to this powerful statement, each with a strong eschatological emphasis:

    • Harvest imagery, expressed by the word a)parxh/ (“[the] beginning from”, i.e. from the harvest); according to Old Testament religious tradition, and, especially, the agricultural regulations in the Law of Moses [Torah], the first part of the harvest was marked as belonging to God. Just as the harvest marked the end of the growing season, so it served as a fitting symbol for the end of the current Age. The threshing process, the separation of grain from chaff, represented the time of Judgment—i.e., separating the righteous from the wicked. The eschatological use of harvest imagery is seen, for example, in the preaching of John the Baptist (Matt 3:12 par), the sayings and parables of Jesus (Mark 4:29; Matt 9:37-38 par; 13:30, 39; John 4:35), and the visions of the book of Revelation (14:14-20, cf. Joel 3:13ff).
    • The Adam/Christ parallel, best known from Romans 5:12-21 (cf. my earlier discussion on this passage). The eschatological aspect of this may not be immediately obvious to modern readers. However, Adam represents the beginning of the current Age and Jesus Christ its end; the old order of things was introduced with Adam, and the new order (the New Age) with Jesus. Paul will develop this parallel further in the passage (cf. below).
    • The end-time coming (parousi/a, parousia) of the exalted Jesus. Paul refers to this more clearly in 1 Thess 4:13-18, specifically including a reference to the resurrection—i.e. the raising of believers who have died to join those still alive at the moment of Jesus’ return. His coming marks the completion (te/lo$) of the current Age, accompanied by the final Judgment.

This three-fold description is brought to a climax in verse 24, with a uniquely Pauline presentation of traditional Messianic imagery—i.e. involving Jesus’ role as the Anointed One, drawing especially on two strands of tradition: (1) the Davidic Ruler figure type, that is, of the king serving as God’s representative on earth, and (2) the Heavenly Redeemer (“Son of Man”) figure-type (from Daniel 7:13-14ff, etc); for more on these, cf. Parts 68 and 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. Here the language reflects the completion of the Judgment, the defeat/subjugation of enemies and opponents of God, carried out by the Anointed One. In so doing, God’s Kingdom is finally realized, with His Rule established over all of Creation. This is depicted in a heavenly ceremonial scene, similar in many respects to the more developed scenes in the visions of Revelation (chaps. 4-5; 7:9-12; 11:15-18; 12:10ff; 19:1-5, 11ff, etc).

1 Cor 15:25-28

“For it is necessary (for) him to rule as king until he should set all the hostile (one)s under his feet—(and the) last hostile (one) made to cease working is Death—for (indeed) he (has) put in order all (thing)s under his feet. But when (one) would say, ‘all (thing)s have been put in order under (his feet)’, (it is) clear that (this is) without [i.e. does not include] the (One) putting all (thing)s in order under him. But when all (thing)s should be put in order under him, then [even] he, the Son, will be put in order under the (One) putting all (thing)s in order under him, (so) that God should be all (thing)s in all.”

Here the Messianic subduing of enemies (v. 24) is cast within a precise theological hierarchy. Paul is apparently sensitive to the exalted status accorded to Jesus, by way of the traditional Messianic imagery of Psalm 110:1 applied to Jesus (Acts 2:34-35; Heb 1:13; 10:13). He takes great care to emphasize that, though Jesus is the Anointed One and Son of God, he is still subordinate to God the Father. Theologians have found great difficulty with this, but the later Christological controversies regarding ‘subordinationism’ are quite foreign to Paul. What Jesus the Anointed One subdues and “puts in order” underneath him (i.e. under his authority) is referred to comprehensively in verse 24 as “every a)rxh/” (that is, every chief ruling power), “every e)cousi/a” (i.e. every one who exercises authority, including the basis by which they act), and “every power” (i.e. the strength and ability by which a person acts). The “last” such ruling power is Death personified. Paul occasionally refers to Sin and Death as personified figures, as rulers who hold humankind in bondage under their power. Christ’s redeeming work freed believers from the power of Sin, but, as human beings, we are still under the power of death (that is, we all die). The resurrection represents the exalted Jesus’ power over death.

1 Cor 15:29-34

“Upon what (then) will they do, the (one)s being dunked [i.e. baptized] over the dead? If the dead are not raised whole, (for) what [i.e. why] even be dunked over the dead? And (for) what [i.e. why] are we in danger every hour? And I die away according to (each) day—(so I swear) by your boast, [brothers,] which I hold in (the) Anointed Yeshua our Lord! If, according to men, I fought wild animals in Efesos, what (is) the gain for me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die off! You must not be led astray: ‘Bad conversations [or, companions] corrupt useful habits’. You must wake out of (this intoxication), as is right, and must not sin; for some hold a lack of knowledge of God—I speak to you toward turning (you) in [i.e. back] (away from this).”

This rather uneven digression includes a number of references that have tripped up commentators, which is unfortunate, since they tend to obscure the primary point being made in the passage. For example, Paul’s mention of the apparent practice of being baptized “over the dead” (v. 29) has proven notoriously difficult to interpret. The preposition u(pe/r (“over”) often has the figurative meaning “for the sake of, on behalf of”; even so, the precise situation referenced by Paul remains elusive. Were baptisms performed on behalf of persons who had died prior to having heard the Gospel proclaimed, so as to bestow salvation or blessing vicariously on them? Or, perhaps, baptisms were being dedicated to believing friends and relatives who had passed away. We cannot be certain. Paul expresses neither approval or disapproval of the practice, and there is no other mention of anything of the sort, either in the New Testament, or other Christian Writings of the first/second century. It is possible that the situation reflects a general concern, regarding the relationship between living and dead believers, such as we find in 1 Thess 4:13-18. There the context is certainly eschatological, and relates also to the resurrection. If dead believers will rise (in their bodies) along with those living, to meet Jesus at his coming, then a denial of the resurrection means that the entire scenario—and the Christian unity it represents—would be negated.

Overall, however, Paul’s point is not so grand here in vv. 29ff. He uses several examples to illustrate the practical implications for human beings if there is no resurrection. The first two relate to believers:

    • Baptisms performed “for the sake of” the dead, whatever this entails precisely; it certainly reflects a care and concern for those who have died (v. 29)
    • The hardship and danger faced by Christians (vv. 30ff)—Paul uses his own example of “fighting wild animals” (in a figurative sense) at Ephesus

In Paul’s view, all such efforts (in the face of death) are rendered meaningless if there is no resurrection for the dead. The last illustration is proverbial (v. 32b), and represents the implication for non-believers: there need not be any concern for the future (“let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die off”), which can lead to self-centered amoral (and immoral) behavior. Paul strongly urges his readers not to be led astray to follow such an example as a result of their disbelief or doubts regarding the resurrection (vv. 33-34).

1 Cor 15:35-41

“But some(one) will say, ‘How are the dead raised? and with what body do they come?’ Senseless (one)! that which you scatter (as seed) is not made alive if it should not (first) die off; and that which you scatter (as seed), (it) is not the body th(at) is coming to be (that) you scatter, but a naked kernel, if it happens (to be) of wheat or of some of the remaining (kind)s, and God gives to it a body even as He wishes, and to each of the scattered (seed)s its own body. Not all flesh is the same flesh, but (rather) a different (one) for men, and a different flesh for creatures (of the field), and a different flesh for winged (creature)s, and a different (one) for fishes. Indeed (there are) bodies upon the heavens and bodies upon the earth, but (also) a distinct honor for th(ose) upon the heavens and (one) distinct for th(ose) upon the earth; (and) a different honor for the sun, and a different honor for the moon, and a different honor for the stars—for star (after) star bears through in (its distinct) honor.”

The agricultural/harvest imagery continues in this section, with the concrete motif of the seed that ‘dies’ only to be made alive as it grows, taking on a distinctive “body”. Jesus was fond of the seed motif in his parables and illustrations (e.g., Mark 4:3-8ff, 26-32 par), using it specifically in reference to his own death and resurrection in John 12:24. Everything in creation has its own “body” (sw=ma), and also its own kind of honor or splendor (do/ca). The distinction of heavenly (i.e. celestial) bodies prepares the way for Paul’s distinction between the physical (earthly) bodies of human beings and the spiritual (heavenly) bodies of believers in the resurrection.

1 Cor 15:42-49

“So also is the standing up [i.e. resurrection] of the dead: it is scattered (as seed) in decay, it is raised (in a form) without decay; it is scattered in (a form) without value, it is raised in (a form with) honor—scattered in a lack of strength, raised in power, scattered (as) a body with a soul, raised as a body with the Spirit. If there is a body with (only) a soul, there is also (a body) with the Spirit. Even so it has been written, ‘The first man Adam into a living soul’, (and) the last ‘Adam’ into a Spirit making alive. But the (body) with the Spirit (is) not first, but the (one) with the soul (is first), (and) then upon [i.e. after] this the (one) with the Spirit. The first man (is) out of the dust (of the earth), the second man (is) out of heaven. Such as the dust (of the earth is), so also (are) those of the (earth-)dust; and such as the (place) upon [i.e. above] the heavens (is), so also (are) those (who are) upon [i.e. above] the heavens. And even as we bore the image of the dust (of the earth), (so) also we will bear the image of th(at which is) upon [i.e. above] the heavens.”

Paul again blends harvest imagery with the Adam/Christ parallel, as in vv. 20-24 (cf. above). The latter motif is expanded into a full-fledged dualism, contrasting the ordinary human being with the believer in Christ. Two main pairs are used for this contrast:

    • Earth vs. Heaven—In verse 40 the word-pair was e)pi/geio$ (“upon the earth”) and e)poura/nio$ (“upon [i.e. above] the heavens”). Here in vv. 47-49, e)pi/geio$ is replaced by xoi+ko/$, which refers more properly to the “dust” (or “dirt, soil”) of the earth’s surface (and beneath it). This establishes a more extreme contrast: the crude dirt beneath the earth’s surface and the pure place above the skies.
    • Soul (yuxh/) vs. Spirit (pneu=ma)—Here the contrast is primarily between the adjective yuxiko/$ and pneuma/tiko$, both of which are Pauline terms. The latter is usually rendered “spiritual”, while the former proves almost impossible to render accurately into English— “soulish” would be comparable, but that scarcely exists as a legitimate word. Most translations opt for “natural”, which is rather inaccurate and misleading, though it can get across the basic idea. Paul’s only other use of yuxiko/$ is in 1 Cor 2:14; it is also used in the letter of James (3:15), as generally synonymous with e)pi/geio$. Jude 19 captures the correct meaning, glossing it as referring to persons “not holding the Spirit”, i.e. ordinary human beings without the Spirit. That is very much what Paul has in mind in 1 Cor 2:14, and also here. A yuxiko/$ person has a soul (yuxh/), but not the Spirit, and thus applies to every non-believer.

Perhaps the most striking point of contrast is in verse 45, where Paul, developing the Adam/Christ parallel, states that “the first man Adam (was turned) into a living soul, the second Adam into a Spirit making alive”. The first phrase, of course, comes from the Genesis narrative, but how are we to understand the second phrase? There would seem to be two aspects to Paul’s thought: (1) it refers to the exalted Jesus after the resurrection, and (2) it reflects an understanding of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ, i.e. the living and abiding presence of Jesus in and among believers. In my view, it is the latter, the Holy Spirit, that is primarily in view. To say that Jesus was changed/turned into the Spirit may seem odd, but it captures the dynamic character of the resurrection and the ascension/exaltation of Jesus into heaven. In both the Luke-Acts narrative, and in the Johannine tradition, the coming of the Spirit is closely connected with Jesus’ resurrection and ascent to the Father (Lk 24:49-51; Acts 1:8-11; 2:1-4ff; John 14:1-4, 15-18ff, 25-26; 15:26; 16:12-13ff; 20:17, 22). There are two related aspects to the resurrection in this regard: (a) believers’ participation in Jesus’ dying and rising, including the power that raised him, and (b) the presence and power of the Spirit in believers, which enables one to be raised from the dead.

1 Cor 15:50-57

“This I tell (you), brothers, that flesh and blood is not able to receive the kingdom of God as (its) lot, and decay is not able to receive (a form) without decay as (its) lot. See, I relate to you a secret! We shall not all lie down (to sleep), but we shall all be made different, in an uncut (particle) [i.e. moment], in a flicker of (the) eye, in the last trumpet (sound)—for it will trumpet and the dead will be raised without decay, and we will be made different. For, it is necessary (for) this decay(ing body) to sink in(to) [i.e. put on] (a form) without decay, and (for) the dying (body) to sink in(to) [i.e. put on] (a form) without death. And when this decay should sink in(to a form) without decay, and this dying should sink in(to a form) without death, then will come to be the account having been written: ‘Death was drunk down into victory. Where, Death, (is) your victory? Where, Death, (is) your (sharp) point?’ And the (sharp) point of the Death (is) Sin, and the power of Sin (is) the Law; but thanks to God (for His) favor, the (One) giving us the victory through our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed!”

These climactic verses represent one of the most famous and oft-cited passages in the entire New Testament. As English poetry, the King James Version remains unsurpassed; still, it is even better (and, in its own way, more powerful) when read in the original Greek, the sense of which I attempt to convey in the literal rendering above. The passage here is filled with eschatological motifs and images, which may be listed out as follows:

    • The idea of inheriting the Kingdom of God, drawn from traditional language related to the afterlife/end-time Judgment scene
    • The specific use of the word “secret” (musth/rion), with its strong eschatological implications—cf. Rom 16:25; 1 Cor 2:1; Col 1:26-27; 2 Thess 2:7; Rev 1:20; 10:7; 17:5ff
    • The sounding of a trumpet to announce the end of the current Age and the end-time Judgment (Matt 24:31; 1 Thess 4:16; Rev 1:10; 4:1; 8:6-13ff; 11:15)
    • The trumpet-blast representing the suddenness with which believers are gathered together at the return of Jesus (1 Thess 4:16; Matt 24:31)
    • The idea of being clothed in new garments, i.e. eschatological use of wedding/festal motifs (Rev 19:7-9; Matt 22:11ff; 25:1ff, etc)
    • The Messianic imagery of being victorious over the enemies of God (and His people); here, the great enemy is Death itself (see vv. 24-26, above)

Throughout, these motifs are expressed in distinctive Pauline theological terms, including his unique view of the relationship between sin and the Law (v. 56). We can see how important that belief is for him by the way that he introduces it here, as an interpretation/application of the Scriptures quoted (Isa 25:8; Hos 13:14), even though it has little immediate relevance to the subject of the resurrection. It also demonstrates that Pauline soteriology focused as least as much on salvation from the power of sin as on the more traditional idea of being saved from the coming Judgment. Deliverance from bondage to the ruling power of sin was the more immediate experience for believers in the present.

It is in verses 50-57 that Paul is closest to the eschatological passage of 1 Thess 4:13-18, in which the resurrection also plays a prominent role. Paul is the only New Testament author who specifically includes those who have died among the believers who are gathered together to meet Jesus at his coming. He likely is simply making explicit what other Christians would have taken for granted. However, in the early years, at least, in view of the strong belief in the imminence of Jesus’ return, the general expectation doubtless was for the vast majority of believers to still be alive when this occurred. By the time Paul wrote (50s A.D.), there would have been a number of Christians who already died before the expected end, so it would have been increasingly necessary to mention the resurrection in the context of Jesus’ return.

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.

2 Thess 2:3-4 and Early Christian Eschatology

As previously noted in the studies on the eschatology of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Paul appears to have shared, with other first-century believers, a traditional outlook on the end times. In his letters he does not go much beyond this, and only offers a presentation of this eschatology in any real detail in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. In my view, Paul held to an eschatological framework similar to that of the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (cf. my earlier 4-part study on the Discourse). Even though the Eschatological Discourse likely represents an early Christian (traditional-literary) arrangement of Jesus’ teaching, this does not mean that the basic framework was not shared by Jesus himself. In fact, there is every reason to think that it was, in general, shared by many Jews and Christians of the time.

The simplest form of the Synoptic Discourse is the Markan version (chap. 13), which has the following framework:

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

The Matthean and Lukan versions develop and expand this somewhat. It is worth noting that Paul, in 1 and 2 Thessalonians (assuming the latter is genuinely Pauline), was writing c. 50 A.D., only 20 or so years after Jesus’ own teaching, and well before any of the Synoptic Gospels were written. The points of correspondence between the eschatology of 1-2 Thessalonians and the underlying traditions of the Discourse are:

    • He seems to believe (and affirm) that the suffering and persecution believers are experiencing at the time is part of the end-time period of distress (1 Thess 1:6ff; 2:14ff; 2 Thess 1:4-12). This corresponds with Jesus’ teaching in Mk 13:9-13 par. Paul uses the key term qli/yi$ (“distress”) in 2 Thess 1:4, 6 (also 1 Thess 1:6; cf. Mk 13:19, 24 par; Rev 7:14 etc.
    • Paul’s controversial words in 1 Thess 2:14-16, regarding the judgment facing Jewish opponents of the Gospel, likely reflects the idea of specific suffering that is to come upon the people of Judea (and Jerusalem) as part of the end-time period of distress (Mk 13:14-22 par). I discussed this in an earlier note.
    • The teaching in 1 Thess 4:13-17 (cf. the discussion in Part 2) is said to derive from Jesus’ own words (“word/account of the Lord”, v. 15), that is, transmitted through early Gospel tradition. It is essentially an expanded form of Mk 13:26-27 par, naturally identifying the coming of the “Son of Man” with the return of Jesus (cf. also 1 Thess 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 2 Thess 1:7; 2:1).
    • The instruction in 1 Thess 5:1-3ff also echoes Jesus’ proverbial teaching in Mk 13:32-37 par, esp. Matt 24:42-44).
    • 2 Thess 2:1-12 contains much detail in common with Jesus’ description of the end-time period of distress (Mk 13:5ff, 14, 19-22 par).

It is the last point, in particular, that I wish to discuss here. Having already examined 2 Thess 2:1-12 in Part 3 of the article on 1-2 Thessalonians, it is necessary to look at verses 3-4 in a bit more detail, and in light of the framework of the Eschatological Discourse.

2 Thessalonians 2:3-4

One of the events which, according to Paul, must occur before the final Judgment of God (against the wicked) arrives, is the appearance of a person called “the man of lawlessness” (o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$, v. 3) or “the lawless (one)” (o( a&nomo$, v. 8). While this descriptive title could be understood in a general sense, Paul’s exposition in vv. 3-10 strongly suggests that it refers to a political leader of some sort. At the time of writing (c. 50 A.D., assuming Pauline authorship), this likely would have meant a Roman emperor. We would have a clearer sense of what Paul had in mind, and the passage would be easier to interpret, were it not for two factors: (1) the difficult language/syntax in vv. 6-7, and (2) the role of the Temple in verse 4. I discuss the meaning of the Greek of vv. 6-7 in Part 3 and earlier notes (cf. also below). Here it is necessary to look specifically at the role of the Temple, since it marks a defining act by the “man of lawlessness”. Verse 4:

“…the (one) stretching himself out against, and lifting himself over, all (thing)s being counted as God or reverenced, even as to his sitting in the shrine [nao/$] of God, showing himself from (this) that he is God.”

Most commentators are in agreement that Paul here is drawing upon an early Christian use of the prophecies in the book of Daniel, of a wicked foreign ruler who would come and desecrate the Temple (9:26-27; 11:31-39; 12:11). The original context of these prophecies is as a reference to the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the events of 167-164 B.C., in which the sacrificial ritual in the Jerusalem Temple was halted/abolished, being replaced by a form of pagan worship. This act of desecration was specifically identified with the difficult Hebrew wording of 9:27 — “and upon the wing [[nk] of despicable (thing)s he lays waste”, or, perhaps: “and upon the wing of despicable (thing)s (the one) laying waste (comes)”. In Greek, this phrase was translated as “and upon the Temple there will be a stinking (thing) of desolations [bde/lugma tw=n e)rhmw/sewn]”. The earliest interpretation is found in 1 Maccabees 1:54, following the Greek rendering—the “stinking thing of desolations” [bde/lugma tw=n e)rhmw/sewn] is identified with a pagan altar that Antiochus IV had set upon the altar in the Temple (v. 59, also 4:43), and upon which, it would seem, unlawful/unclean pagan sacrifices were offered (cf. 2 Macc 6:5). In his Commentary on Daniel (11:31), Jerome states that Antiochus IV had set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Jerusalem Temple; however, the source and basis for this tradition is unclear.

Both Jews and Christians in the 1st century B.C./A.D. had cause to re-interpret the Daniel prophecy, applying it to their own time (a century or two later). Since no definitive judgment/defeat of the wicked occurred in the years immediately following 164 B.C., his meant that the prophecy still had to be fulfilled in some manner. The Dan 9:27 tradition, with a variation of the same Greek expression “stinking thing of desolation” (bde/lugma th=$ e)rhmw/sew$), is used in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:14):

“But when you should see the stinking thing of desolation having stood where it is necessary (that it should) not [i.e. where it ought not to be]…”

The aside which follows, coming either from the Gospel writer or an earlier traditional notice, suggests an interpretation, unstated in the text, that is presumed to be understood by Christians of the time (c. 60 A.D.?). Matthew’s version preserves the same cryptic notice but otherwise makes the Daniel reference (24:15) more clear (differences/additions in italics):

Therefore when you should see ‘the stinking thing of desolation’ that was uttered through Danîyel the Foreteller (now) having stood in the holy place…”

Jesus’ disciples, along with other Christians of the time, c. 35-60 A.D., are warned that the appearance of “the stinking thing of desolation” standing in the Temple sanctuary marks the beginning of a time of terrible distress for the people of Judea. While the original reference in the Synoptic Discourse (Mark/Matthew) may have been well-understood by the first readers, its precise interpretation is unclear for us today. However, the idea of something standing in the Temple suggests perhaps a statue or similar (pagan) construction. The tradition preserved in Jerome’s commentary on Daniel (cf. above) indicated that Antiochus IV had set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Temple. This was echoed c. 40 A.D. by the emperor Gaius’ (Caligula), as part of his establishment of the imperial cult, intending that his statue was to be placed in the Jerusalem Temple, transforming it into an imperial shrine (Josephus, Antiquities 18.256-307). Jesus’ use of Dan 9:27 indicates that he is predicting something similar to happen at the end-time, and it could conceivably relate to the historical actions/intentions of the emperor (c. 40 A.D.).

However, in Luke’s version of the Discourse, the Dan 9:27 reference has been completely recast as a reference to the (Roman) invasion of Jerusalem, in which the presence of a pagan army would both desecrate and destroy the Temple:

“And when you shall see Jerusalem encircled by foot-soldiers, then you should know that her desolation [e)rh/mwsi$] has come near.” (Lk 21:20; cf. also 19:41-44)

This of course was accurately fulfilled in 70 A.D. The Lukan version of the Discourse expands the chronological scope somewhat, allowing for a period during which Jerusalem (and the Temple) would be “trampled under (the feet of) the nations”. The length of time involved is not clear, though from the author’s standpoint (probably writing c. 70-80) it would have to be at least a number of years (though scarcely the 1,900+ years looked at from our vantage point today).

Returning to 2 Thessalonians 2:4, Paul seems to accept a rather different interpretation of the Dan 9:27 / Mk 13:14 tradition—what stands in the Temple sanctuary is not a statue, but a person; it is not a pagan army, rather, it is a wicked pagan ruler. Almost certainly, Paul would have understood this as Roman emperor, perhaps one fulfilling the pattern of the wicked Gaius (Caligula) who had intended his own image to be set up in the Temple (cf. above). This would have occurred just ten years or so (c. 40 A.D.) before 2 Thessalonians was written. It would not have been difficult to see it as a foreshadowing of something that would be done by an even more wicked ruler.

There are actually a number of foreign (Greco-Roman) figures whose lives and actions fed into the idea of a wicked end-time ruler along the lines of this “man of lawlessness”. In addition to Antiochus IV and Gaius (Caligula), we may note the Roman general Pompey (106-48 B.C.). It was he who first subjugated Judea to Roman rule (64/63 B.C.), placing it as a tributary under the governorship of Syria. According to many scholars, the so-called “Psalms of Solomon” were written not long after Pompey’s conquest, and that he is the pattern for the wicked/foreign ruler of the end-time envisioned in several of the Psalms. There are some interesting parallels between 17:11-22 and 2 Thess 2:3-4, both conceptually and in the Greek wording used. The Pompey figure is also called “the lawless one” (o( a&nomo$) and his rule is characterized as an especially wicked time of sin and turning of the people away from God. The book of Revelation, written some time after 2 Thessalonians, appears to contain similar allusions to Nero, and, perhaps, other emperors as well (Vespasian?, Domitian?).

In summary, we may note the following points:

    • Paul predicts the rise of a wicked ruler who would stand/sit in the Temple sanctuary, as a fulfillment of the Dan 9:26-27 prophecy (as understood through the Eschatological Discourse [Mk 13:14 par], etc).
    • This wicked ruler would appear toward the end of the period of distress (qli/yi$) in which Paul and his readers were already living (c. 50 A.D.). This may correspond with the conjunction of the time of persecution of believers (13:9-13) and suffering in Judea (13:14-22) outlined in the framework of the Discourse.
    • The reign of this wicked ruler, though relatively brief, would be one of intense wickedness and evil, with supernatural signs and miracles that would deceive people and lead them astray. This also echoes the description of the end-time distress for Judea in Mk 13:14-22, though Paul does not seem to limit the geographic extent so narrowly (in spite of the Temple reference).
    • The destruction of this wicked ruler is described in traditional Messianic language (allusion to Isa 11:4, etc), transferred to the Christian idea of Jesus’ return.
    • From a chronological standpoint, Paul is speaking of something he expects to happen soon, i.e. not long after 50 A.D., when the letter was written. This would generally fit the time frame (of approx. 20 years) before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. In this regard, Paul is fully in accord with the earliest Christian eschatology as expressed in the New Testament—i.e. of the “last days” as a period more or less corresponding to the first generation of believers (30-40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection).

The fundamental problem with this Pauline chronology is the same as that which we have seen already with the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse and the eschatology of the New Testament as a whole. While many of the expected/predicted events and details were accurately fulfilled in the 1st century A.D., the end—i.e. the return of Jesus and final Judgment—did not occur at that time. Paul’s apparent predictions in 2 Thess 2:3ff involve the Jerusalem Temple, as do those of Jesus in the Eschatological Discourse. The Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. which makes it impossible for the event described in 2:4 to be fulfilled—at least not in a concrete historical sense. This has led many traditional-conservative (and Evangelical) commentators to interpret and apply the passage in a more figurative or symbolic sense; this may be done several different ways:

    • as a conflict with the “antichristian” forces of evil, etc, without any specific eschatological significance for the believer today; while this may be a valid application, it effectively negates the clear eschatological context of the passage.
    • as a similar conflict, but an eschatological setting (of sorts) is preserved by viewing the “last days” broadly as the entire period (of nearly 2,000 years) from the time of the apostles to the present day.
    • the specific Temple setting, etc, is figurative but the passage does refer to an actual person who will appear at some point yet in the future (i.e. after 2020 A.D.); as predicted, this ruler will stand in direct opposition to God and Christ and will deceive the world (part of the wider Antichrist tradition).
    • [Some Christians would preserve a literal fulfillment by relying upon the idea that the actual Jerusalem Temple will be rebuilt in the future. While a rebuilding of the Temple does feature in Jewish eschatology to some extent, the idea is almost entirely absent from the New Testament; there is no suggestion, either in 2 Thess 2:3ff or in the Eschatological Discourse, that a rebuilt Temple is in view.]

Only the third approach does justice to the eschatology of the passage, but it founders in the general disregard (admittedly out of practical necessity) for the imminence of Paul’s eschatology clearly expressed throughout 1-2 Thessalonians. As discussed at many points in this series, the basic conflict between the imminent eschatology of the New Testament and the 1,900+ years (and counting) that have since passed, is a problem for which there is no easy solution. It will be addressed more extensively as the series draws to a close.

For more on the Temple in Jewish and early Christian eschatology, see my earlier article on the subject. On the prophecy of Daniel 9:25-27, in particular, consult my note in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, as well as the article here on the Eschatological Discourse.

The “man of lawlessness” of 2 Thess 2:3-11 will be discussed further in an upcoming special article in this series on the “Antichrist” tradition.

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.

Special Note on 1 Thess 4:17: the “Rapture”

This note is supplemental to the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, and, in particular, to Part 2 of the article on Paul’s eschatology in 1-2 Thessalonians (1 Thess 4:13-5:11). In 4:16-17, Paul vividly describes the coming of Jesus down to earth at the end-time Judgment, almost certainly drawing upon the same tradition of Jesus’ teaching found in Mark 13:26-27 par. It is, however, the specific image in 4:17, of believers being caught up (“seized”, vb a(rpa/zw) into clouds to meet Jesus in the air, that has especially captured the imagination of Christians, being referred to as “the rapture“, from Latin rapio—the Latin Vulgate translates the Greek a(rpaghso/meqa (“we will be seized”) with rapiemur. This idea of “the rapture” is so commonplace and well-established in modern eschatological discussion that many Christians today might be surprised to realize that it is scarcely to be found anywhere else in the New Testament. It does, of course, involve three distinct eschatological components, associated with the tradition of Jesus’ end-time return:

    • The gathering together of (all) believers—already featured as part of several key eschatological “Son of Man” sayings by Jesus (Mark 13:27 par; Matt 13:41-43, 49; 25:32-34ff, etc). Paul refers to this basic idea, generally, in a number of places (see esp. 2 Thess 2:1-2), but it is only described in any detail here in 1 Thess 4:16-17. He includes the idea of believers who have died being raised to join those living, but this likely only makes explicit what would have been assumed in the common tradition.
    • The motif of Jesus appearing in the clouds—this would seem to derive from the key Gospel traditions of Jesus’ Son of Man sayings in Mark 13:26 par and 14:62 par, and which are ultimately based on the language and imagery in Daniel 7:13-14. This same traditional imagery is utilized in the book of Revelation (esp. 1:7), and is implied in the narration of Jesus’ ascension in the book of Acts (1:9-11). Paul is drawing upon the same basic tradition.
    • The image of Jesus’ ascension—while this is described visually only in Acts 1:9ff, it would have been understood, as a common point of reference, by virtually all believers in the 1st century. Only in more recent times have Christians found difficulty in the concrete localization of heaven spatially as up in the sky. Moreover, there is an ideal of ascension for the righteous (while still alive) which is part of an important line of Israelite and Jewish tradition. The notice of Enoch in Gen 5:24, however brief and enigmatic, is usually understood as a living ascension to heaven, part of a more expansive Enoch tradition. Elijah’s is the most famous such ascension, described vividly in 2 Kings 2:11-12. Jesus’ own ascension would have served as a kind of pattern for believers—just as Jesus ascended alive to heaven, it was only natural for believers to see themselves, at the time his return, ascending in a similar manner.

However, if the specific detail of believers rising up in to the sky to meet Jesus was widespread as part of the early Christian expectation, it is surprising that there is no other clear evidence for it in the New Testament. In particular, in the book of Revelation, that treasury of eschatological tradition and imagery, we would well expect to find it. Yet there can be no doubt of the wide acceptance of the basic underlying idea—that believers will be gathered together to face/meet Jesus when he appears.

Unfortunately, the relatively simple notion of Christians meeting Jesus and being taken with him to heaven has been obscured by the use of the expression “the Rapture” as a kind of shorthand point of reference relating to a whole range of eschatological issues and speculation among Christians today. Some of this valuable and important, some idle and unhelpful, but nearly all of it, I should say, is rather far removed from the thought-world of the New Testament and 1st century Christian eschatology. In this series, I have tried to focus exclusively on the original context and background of the relevant New Testament passages—that is to say, on the eschatological expectation of the author and his audience in the 1st century A.D., as expressed in the text. It has been necessary, at times, to mention various modern-day theories and eschatological schema, but I have sought to keep this to a minimum. Here, however, it is worth pointing out several key aspects of much modern eschatological thought, relating to “the Rapture”, since they are so widely referenced, often without much regard to the soundness of their basis in Scripture. Three aspects, in particular, should be mentioned:

    • The question of when the “Rapture” will occur, in relation to other end-time events.
    • Whether it means that believers will be kept from the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$) that is to come upon humankind, or will have to endure it, either in whole or in part.
    • According to some lines of interpretation, this “Rapture” will be secret—that is to say, it will not correspond with the general idea of Jesus coming to earth (visibly) to bring the Judgment. Rather, the visible return of Jesus will occur at a later time, following the period of distress on earth. Those who hold this view believe the “Rapture” will take place prior to the completion of the period of distress (i.e. pre- or mid-Tribulation Rapture view).

It must be pointed out that all three aspects are specifically a product of modern eschatology. I find little or no evidence to indicate that any of them were of real concern to believers in the 1st century. To begin with the third item above, the idea of a “secret” appearance by Jesus, for the purpose of gathering the Elect, which is separate from his coming to usher in the Judgment, runs contrary to all such references to Jesus’ return in the New Testament (cf. the various passages cited above). There is only one coming of Jesus, and it occurs at the moment of the end when the Judgment is realized. Believers are saved/rescued from this Judgment. The two-appearance scheme (and “secret” rapture) came to be introduced into modern eschatology, it would seem, out of the need to support the particular belief that believers would be rescued from the period of distress that precedes the Judgment.

However, early Christians appear to have taken for granted that they would have to endure the period of distress, which brings us to the second aspect mentioned above. We may note, in particular, the numerous passages expressing the view of believers in the first century, that they were already living in the “last days”, and that, as such, the suffering they were experiencing was part of this end-time period of distress. For example, in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, the persecution of Jesus’ disciples (believers) is set clearly within the period of distress that precedes the coming of the “Son of Man” (Mark 13:5-23 par, vv. 9-13). For other clear instances of this view, cf. Parts 1 and 2 of the article on 1-2 Thessalonians, the article on “Imminent Eschatology in the New Testament”, as well as in my current series of daily notes on the Book of Revelation.

Finally, with regard to modern views concerning the return of Jesus and coming of the Judgment, they are complicated by the (modern) tendency of attempting to assemble the various eschatological passages in the New Testament into a coherent and systematic framework. The book of Revelation is especially problematic, even though, on the surface at least, it may seem to provide the very framework needed to assemble the pieces. The sequence of visions, and vision-cycles, appear to describe a chronological order of events; however, as a careful reading and study of the book (being undertaken in the current series of daily notes) will show, the symbolism of the visions defies such systematization. Many, if not most, of the symbols are multivalent, with various possible associations and levels of meaning.

As it happens, there is one relatively clear and consistent eschatological framework in the New Testament—the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse. For first-century Christians, this represented the closest thing to a systematic presentation of eschatology that we will find. The teaching goes back to the words of Jesus himself, but, in all likelihood, the “Discourse” as we have it reflects a traditional and literary arrangement of material. I have given a relatively simple outline of the chronology of the Discourse (in Part 4 of the prior article); here it may be worth presenting it again:

The Markan version is the shortest and simplest and may safely be considered as closer to the core Synoptic tradition and arrangement (generally followed by Matthew, though with development and inclusion of additional material):

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

The Lukan version demonstrates a more precise sequence:

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

The “Rapture” of 1 Thess 4:17 corresponds with the coming of the Son of Man (understood as the return of Jesus), and the gathering of the Elect (believers), at the conclusion of this chronology (Mk 13:27 par). The coming of the Son of Man (Jesus) also ushers in the final Judgment, though this is only implied in the Discourse (Mk 13:24-25, 32ff par); Matthew’s version expounds it more clearly (the parables in chap. 25, esp. verses 31-46), as does Paul in 2 Thess 1:6-10 (cf. Part 1).

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.

Note on 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16

This note is supplemental to the current article on the eschatology of 1 and 2 Thessalonians. I surveyed four eschatological references in 1 Thessalonians—1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 5:23—in addition to the major sections of 4:13-18 and 5:1-11, where Paul addresses matters of eschatology. There is an additional reference in 2:16, but, due to the sensitive nature of its context (vv. 13-16), I felt it better to discuss this passage separately.

1 Thessalonians 2:13-16

This brief passage is central to the narration (narratio) portion of 1 Thessalonians (2:1-3:10), and may be described as a digression (digressio). The lack of an obvious connection with what precedes (2:1-12), along with the apparent anti-Jewish character of the passage, has led some commentators to regard it as a (non-Pauline) interpolation. Could the Jewish Christian Paul really have made such statements? Would the man who wrote Romans 9-11 truly have spoken of his fellow Jews this way? Christians today are apt to find the language and polemic troubling, sensitized by the centuries of anti-Jewish (and anti-Semitic) behavior and attitudes from a ‘Christian’ world. The desire to have 1 Thess 2:14-16 excised from the New Testament is understandable. But it rather ignores the historical circumstances in which Paul is writing, as well as the harsh polemic he uses against other Jewish Christians, for example, in Galatians and 2 Corinthians 10-13. More relevant, and closer in time to the writing of 1 Thessalonians (c. 50 A.D.), are the historical traditions recorded in the book of Acts—of Jewish opposition and hostility to Paul’s mission work, along with his rather harsh response to it (13:46; 18:6; also 28:25-28).

Within the context of 1 Thessalonians, the passage is part of Paul’s expression of thanksgiving for the faithfulness of the Thessalonian believers (v. 13), which he relates back to his own recent mission work among them (vv. 9-12). They remained faithful to their new-found trust in Jesus, in spite of a certain measure of opposition and suffering they faced (1:6ff). This suffering, apparently to be understood in terms of hostility/persecution from the surrounding population, is emphasized more strongly in 2 Thessalonians (1:4-5ff, which may have been written prior to 1 Thessalonians). In verses 14-16, Paul compares their experience of persecution to that endured by believers in Judea (probably including Syria and Palestine as a whole). Paul was all too familiar with this, at least in its early stages, since he himself oppressed believers in Syria (Galatians 1:13ff, 23; Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-2ff par; cf. also 22:19-20) prior to his coming to faith. It would seem that the opposition and negative (from his standpoint) Jewish Christian influence among the Galatians came from Judea as well.

Here is how he makes the comparison in verse 14:

“For you came to be imitators, brothers, of the (one)s of God called out (to assemble) [i.e. congregations of God], the (one)s being in Yehudah, in the Anointed Yeshua, (in) that you also suffered the same (thing)s under (those) growing together (from your) own (race), even as they also (did) under the Yehudeans…”

The literal and glossed translation here may be summarized simply: the Thessalonian Christians suffered under their fellow Macedonians (from the same ethnic birth/generation [genea/] as they), even as (Jewish) believers in Judea did under their fellow Jews. This is a basic enough statement of fact, but it takes a sharper turn as Paul continues in verse 15, describing those (hostile) Jews as:

“…the (one)s also killing off the Lord Yeshua and the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets], and (who were) pursuing us (all) out, and (so are) not being pleasant to God, and (are) set in front (opposite) to all men…”

As noted above, this description is likely to make Christians today most uncomfortable. The idea of the Jewish people (as a whole) being responsible for killing Jesus has played a role in much of the virulent anti-Jewish (and anti-Semitic) hatred and persecution in the West over the centuries. However, it cannot be denied that the basic association with killing Jesus is very much part of the early Christian (and Gospel) tradition. It features both in the Passion narratives (see esp. Matt 27:24-25) and the early Christian preaching in Acts (2:23; 3:14-15, 17; 5:30; 10:39; 13:28f, etc), though in the latter the role of the leaders/rulers (rather than the populace) tends to be emphasized (e.g. 3:17; 4:25-28). The persecution/killing of Jesus and his disciples is also connected clearly with that done to the Prophets of prior generations, at a number of points in early Christian tradition—Matt 23:29-37; Luke 11:47-51; 13:34; Acts 7:52).

To be sure, Paul is referring specifically to those Jews who are, and have been, actively hostile to Jesus and the Gospel. However, he paints with a rather broad brush here in verse 15, creating a most thorough (and intensely negative) portrait:

    • they persecute us (i.e. Paul and other Jewish Christians), even as they did Jesus and the Prophets
    • they are not pleasing to God—that is, presumably in their persecution of believers, but it comes across like a more general characteristic
    • they are conspicuous and stand contrary to “all men” —a careless reading could interpret this as a description of the people as a whole, comparing Jews with the other nations, and reflecting the current anti-Judaism of the Greco-Roman world (e.g., Josephus Against Apion 2.121; cf. Tacitus’ Annals 5.5.2, etc).

It would seem that the latter statement, in particular, i.e. of Jews being opposed to “all men”, should be understood in terms of opposition to the mission of Paul (and other Jewish Christians) among Gentiles in the Greco-Roman world. Since this mission is aimed at proclaiming the Gospel to all peoples and nations (in the Roman Empire), by opposing it Jews could, in a way, be said to stand opposing “all men”. This is made clear with the conclusion of the lengthy statement of vv. 14-16a:

“…cutting us off (from) speaking to the nations so that they [i.e. the nations] might be saved, unto the filling up of their sins (at) all times [pa/ntote].”

Only the force of adverb pa/ntote is uncertain. Basically it means “all the time, everytime, always”, and, it would seem, the meaning here is that, every time Jews oppose the Christian mission, they add to their sins, filling up the number. It is in the final closing statement (v. 16b) that the eschatological dimension of Paul’s discussion comes into view:

“And (so) the anger (of God) came first upon them, unto (the) completion [ei)$ te/lo$].”

The word o)rgh/ (“anger”) is commonly used as a shorthand term for the coming (end-time) Judgment by God upon the wicked, and so by Paul here (as in 1:10; 5:9). The fundamental meaning of the verb fqa/nw is “come first, do first”, but it can also be used in the specific sense coming ahead of a person, i.e. “reach, overtake”. Paul seems to be saying that the end-time Judgment is reaching these Jews first, ahead of what will face the rest of humankind. What exactly is meant by this? In the earlier studies on the Eschatological Discourse, we saw how the beginning of the end-time pains, according to the framework of the Discourse, is manifest in suffering and distress for the people in Judea (Mk 13:8, 14-23 par), culminating in the desecration and destruction of the Temple (13:2, 14ff par). The Lukan version describes this more precisely in terms of a military siege of Jerusalem, led by a pagan (i.e. Roman) army (21:20-24; cf. also 19:41-44). While the prophesied time was not fulfilled until the war of 66-70 A.D., long (it would seem) before the writing of 1 Thessalonians, there is some evidence that Paul was aware of the basic eschatological scenario of the Synoptic Discourse. Two points, in particular, in the Thessalonian letters should be noted:

    • In 1 Thess 4:15, Paul refers to his eschatological instruction as “a word of the Lord”, by which he likely means a tradition coming from Jesus’ own teaching (to his disciples). In vv. 15-17, Paul describes something similar to the coming of the “Son of Man” in Mk 13:26-27 par.
    • The famous description of the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2:4ff almost certainly draws upon the same Daniel 9:26-27 tradition alluded to in Mark 13:14 par, and may, indeed, reflect an interpretation/exposition of the traditional saying by Jesus (cp. the Lukan ‘interpretation’ in Lk 21:20ff).

So it seems likely that in 1 Thess 2:14-16 a similar eschatological framework is in view, with a specific period of distress for those in Judea as part of the “beginning pains” of the end-time Judgment. Moreover, Paul’s strong reaction to the Jewish opposition to the Gentile mission could also be related to an eschatological world view that goes back to the words of Jesus (in the Synoptic Discourse). There, an apostolic mission to the nations, however brief (or long), is set firmly within the framework of events, prophesied to occur in the decades prior to the destruction of the Temple (Mk 13:9-13 par; cf. also Acts 1:6-8, etc). In opposing this mission, Jews were hindering vital work that had to be done in the period before the coming of the end.

The final phrase of verse 16 remains ambiguous and much debated. The expression is ei)$ te/lo$, “unto (the) completion”, but how it relates to the rest of the sentence is not immediately clear. There are several possibilities:

    • The anger of God comes completely upon them, or lasts until its completion (when it is spent)
    • The anger of God come for the purpose of finishing them, bringing them to an end.
    • God’s anger finally comes upon them, as the result/punishment of their sins.
    • Similarly, it refers back to the idea of the “filling up” of their sins, to the completion of them.
    • It is a temporal indicator—i.e. the completion of the current Age.

In my view, the last option is definitely to be preferred, especially in light of the strong eschatological emphasis throughout 1 Thessalonians. Even so, how does this fit the statement in v. 16b? I would interpret as follows: God’s Judgment comes first upon the wicked/unbelieving Jews (i.e. those opposing the Gospel), and this Judgment, which will extend to all humankind, marks the completion of the current Age.

Concluding observation:

I believe that much of the difficulty with this passage for modern Christians is removed when it is set (and maintained) in its early Christian, first-century context, especially in regard to the eschatological outlook of believers in the period Paul’s letters were written. An important (and often overlooked) aspect of the imminent eschatology of early Christians is the expectation that many, if not most, of all people living at the time would still be alive when the end comes. This is also true for Jews at the time who were hostile to the Gospel or actively opposed the mission work of Paul (and others). Moreover, if 1 Thessalonians was written around 50 A.D., that is probably less that 20 years after the death of Jesus, meaning many of the people in Judea who were hostile to him (and the first believers) would still be alive at the time of Paul’s writing. Similarly, a significance percentage of these Jewish opponents, both in Judea and throughout the Greco-Roman world, would be expected to live until the coming of the Judgment. To the extent that this was prophesied by Jesus in the Eschatological Discourse, it did, in fact, come to pass with the war of 66-70 A.D. and the destruction of the Temple, etc. The basic problem of how this 1st-century manifestation of Judgment relates, from our vantage point today (with an intervening 1,900+ years), to the actual end of the Age (and the return of Jesus), is an entirely separate interpretative question—one touched on many times in this series.

In any event, to ignore the (imminent) eschatological context of 1 Thess 2:14-16, applying Paul’s polemic to the many generations of Jews during the past 1,900+ years, results in a gross distortion of the apostle’s original message. Certainly, we may still say today that all those who actively oppose the Gospel and oppress believers—whether such opponents are Jewish or not—face God’s Judgment even as Paul declared for persecutors in the first century. The scope of our eschatology and historical outlook may be somewhat different today, but the basic thrust of Paul’s message—both in terms of the exhortation for believers, and warning to non-believers—remains as valid now as it was back in the middle of the first century. Fortunately, we have a more positive view of the place of Israelites and Jews within Paul’s eschatology—in Romans 9-11, which will be discussed at the appropriate point in this series.

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

1 and 2 Thessalonians

Most New Testament scholars are in general agreement that the two letters to the Thessalonians are the earliest of the surviving letters of Paul, written c. 49-51 A.D. As such, they would date from perhaps 5-10 years before the great letters of Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans. The Thessalonian correspondence is certainly much simpler in form and style, and likely represents the kind of letter Paul typically would have sent to the various communities of believers. It is for just this reason, however, that 1 and 2 Thessalonians are less well-known, lacking the polemic and extensive ethical and doctrinal discussions found in the other letters. Yet, as it happens, the two Thessalonian letters contain the strongest eschatological emphasis throughout, and provide the clearest statements of Paul’s eschatological views.

It should be mentioned that a fair number of critical commentators have doubts regarding Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians, and believe it to be pseudonymous. For my part, in the case of 2 Thessalonians, I do not find such arguments especially convincing. In these studies, I treat 2 Thessalonians as genuinely Pauline, without any real reservation. At several points, however, mention will be made of the critical view. There is also the question of the sequence in which the two letters were written. Commentators have tended to follow the canonical order; however, the canonical order of the letters is based primarily on length, and has no real bearing on when they were written. Strong arguments can be made for 2 Thessalonians being written before 1 Thessalonians. I will touch upon these briefly on a couple of occasions in these notes.

Due to the length of this article, it will be divided into three parts:

    1. A survey of key references in 1 & 2 Thessalonians
    2. The eschatological section in 1 Thess 4:13-5:11
    3. The eschatological section in 2 Thess 2:1-12

I save discussion of 2 Thess 2:1-12 for last, due to the fact that it is the most complex (and controversial) passage for readers today.

Eschatological References in 1 & 2 Thessalonians

Apart from the two main sections mentioned above (to be studied in Parts 2 & 3), there are five relevant passages which are eschatological in orientation or emphasis—1 Thess 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 5:23; 2 Thess 1:6-10. The eschatological context of 1 Thess 2:14-16 will be treated in a separate note.

1 Thessalonians 1:10

The statement in 1:10 represents the conclusion of the introductory section (exordium) of the letter (1:2-10). In it, Paul gives thanks to God and praises the Thessalonians for their willingness to accept the Gospel and their continued faithfulness. The climax comes in vv. 9-10:

“For they (them)selves [i.e. believers in the surrounding regions] give up a message [i.e. report] about us, what kind of way in we held toward you, and how you turned around toward God, away from the images, to be slave (instead) to (the) living and true God, and to remain (waiting) up (for) His Son out of the heavens, whom He raised out of the dead, Yeshua, the (one) rescuing us out of the coming anger.”

Verse 9 is a roundabout way of describing the mission work (i.e., preaching of the Gospel) of Paul, etc, among the Thessalonians, and their subsequent conversion, coming to faith in Jesus. This leads into a kind of early credal statement in vv. 9b-10, the eschatological orientation of which is central to its formulation. Like all believers, these Thessalonians are exhorted to remain faithful, and to wait for the (end-time) return of Jesus. Note the way this is formulated:

  • “His Son
    • whom He raised out of the dead
  • Yeshua
    • the one rescuing us from the coming anger”

The parallelism is clear enough: (1) Jesus is identified as God’s Son, and (2) the resurrection of Jesus (by God) from death is parallel to the rescue of believers (by Jesus) from Judgment. For early Christians, the end-time Judgment was frequently referred to as the “anger” (o)rgh/) of God, that is, an expression and manifestation of His anger against the wickedness and evil in the world. This goes back to Old Testament and Jewish tradition, especially the “Day of YHWH” theme in the Prophets, and was inherited as a mode of (eschatological) expression by the first believers, being attested in early Gospel tradition through the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus (cf. Matt 3:7 par; Lk 21:23; Jn 3:36, etc). It is used frequently by Paul in this eschatological sense, as we shall see. On the emphasis of the coming end-time Judgment in early Christian preaching, cf. the two-part article on the Eschatology in the book of Acts (Pts 1 & 2).

All of the basic elements of early Christian eschatology are present here:

    • The return to earth of the exalted (resurrected) Jesus (“from out of the heavens”)
    • That this coming will coincide with the end-time Judgment by God (i.e. His “anger”)
    • That Jesus will function as the heavenly deliverer who will rescue the faithful ones (i.e. believers) at the end-time
    • That this coming, together with the Judgment, is imminent.

The sense of imminence is implicit, both in the overall phrasing, but also, in particular, with the participle “coming” (e)rxome/nh$); elsewhere, this is expressed more precisely as the Wrath/Judgment that is about (vb. me/llw) to come (Matt 3:7 par; Acts 17:31, etc).

1 Thessalonians 2:19

Within the narration (narratio) section of the letter, as part of Paul’s expression of his wish to see the Thessalonians again, he makes mention of the (heavenly) reward that awaits believers when Jesus appears (from heaven):

“For what is our hope or delight or crown of boasting—or, not (to say) even you (yourselves)—in front of our Lord Yeshua in his (com)ing to be alongside (us)? For (indeed) you are our honor and delight!” (vv. 19-20)

Proper English syntax would require a rearrangement of the clauses in v. 19, but the idea is clear enough. Paul, along with other faithful missionaries, will be able to stand before Jesus in the time of Judgment, with hope and expectation of heavenly reward (“crown [ste/fano$]”, “esteem/honor [do/ca]”). Again, an imminent eschatology is implied—Paul expects to be alive at the coming of Jesus and the time of Judgment (for more on this, see the discussion on 4:13-18 in Part 2).

1 Thessalonians 3:13

1 Thess 3:11-13 represents the transition (transitus) between the narration (2:1-3:10) and main section (probatio, 4:1-5:22) of the letter. It takes the form of an exhortation and wish-prayer for the Thessalonians which effectively summarizes the themes introduced in the letter thus far. The prayer element is two-fold, addressing both God the Father and Jesus (the Lord):

“(That) He (Him)self—our God and Father, and our Lord Yeshua—would put down our way straight toward you…” (v. 11)

It is perhaps best to understand both God and Jesus being referenced together by the title “Lord” (ku/rio$) in verse 12:

“…(and that for) you, the Lord would make (your) love unto one another (grow all the) more and go over (and above), and unto all (people), even as we also (experience this) unto you…”

The first part of the prayer-wish focused on what God and Jesus together will do, the second part on what they will do for the Thessalonians (emphatic “you”). The exhortation aspect comes into view in the closing verse 13, framed in terms of the result/effect of the prayer (emphatic preposition “unto” [ei)$]), and what Paul hopes/expects will take place among the Thessalonian believers:

“…unto the setting firm of your hearts, without blame, in holiness in front of our God and Father, in the (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a] (us) of our Lord Yeshua (along) with all his holy (one)s.”

This hope is quite clear: that the Thessalonians will remain strong in faith, living exemplary (holy) lives, until the moment when Jesus appears on earth. The ethical dimension—indicated by blame, holiness, etc—is related to the correspondence of the Jesus’ return with the end-time Judgment. As in 1:10, the noun parousi/a (parousia, lit. “being alongside”) is used, already (as of 50 A.D.) a technical term among early Christians for the end-time return of Jesus, requiring no further explanation. The “holy ones” are best understood here as heavenly beings (“angels”), rather than human believers; this reflects apocalyptic and eschatological tradition of the time (Mk 8:38 par; 13:27 par; Matt 13:39, 41, 49; 25:31; Dan 4:34; 7:18; 8:13; Zech 14:5; 1 Enoch 1:9, etc).

1 Thessalonians 5:23

At the close (peroratio) of the letter, we find a similar exhortational wish-prayer by Paul. It more or less restates the aim and purpose in 3:13, casting it in a comparable eschatological context:

“And (that) He (Him)self, the God of peace, would keep you complete(ly) holy and whole in (every) part—spirit and soul and body—without blame in the (com)ing to be alongside (us) of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, (and so) watch over (you).”

Here the active role and work of God in keeping the Thessalonians “without blame” (a)me/mptw$) is emphasized, presumably achieved through the Holy Spirit, though this not specified. The verb a(gia/zw is probably better understood as “keep holy” rather than “make holy”, parallel with the emphatic use of the verb thre/w (“[keep] watch [over]”). Again the noun parousi/a is used for the end-time return of Jesus, assumed to be imminent—i.e. the Thessalonians to whom he is writing are expected to experience it.

Thus we have four distinct eschatological statements by Paul in 1 Thessalonians, all formulated in a similar way, and included as a natural component of everything he is discussing in the letter. In no other surviving letter by Paul are so many eschatological references made, in such a commonplace way. When combined with the major discussion in 4:13-5:11, as well as his statements in 2:14-16 (cf. the separate note), the eschatological emphasis in the letter is unmistakable.

2 Thessalonians 1:5-10

There is a parallel in 2 Thessalonians to the wish-prayers of 1 Thess 3:11-13 and 5:23. It is part of the introductory section (exordium, cf. on 1 Thess 1:10 above), and precedes the more famous eschatological discussion in 2:1-12 (to be studied in Part 3 of this article). As it happens, 1:3-10 comprises one long complex sentence, which, for practical reasons, it is necessary to break up for our study.

In 1:4, as part of his opening thanksgiving, Paul mentions the Thessalonians’ experience of being pursued (diwgmo/$ [pl.]) by adversaries and feeling pressure or “distress” (qli/yi$ [pl.]). The latter noun came to be a kind of technical term in early Christian eschatology, largely by way of Daniel 12:1 (LXX), with qli/yi$ rendering Hebrew hr*x*, a word with a comparable range of meaning (i.e. “pressure, stress, distress”). It is used by Jesus in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:19, 24 par), and again, even more famously, in the book of Revelation (Rev 1:9; 2:9-10, 22; 7:14). Thus, there is every reason to assume that Paul understands the suffering of the Thessalonian believers as having eschatological significance—a sign of the “last days”, and that the end was fast approaching.

This would seem to be confirmed by the way Paul connects this suffering with God’s judgment (kri/si$) in vv. 5ff:

“in (this is) a showing of the just Judgment of God, unto your being brought into value of (belonging to) the Kingdom of God, under which also you suffer…”

The verse begins with the compound noun (e&ndeigma) that is difficult to translate; literally it means “(something) in (which) it is shown (that…)”. Elsewhere in his letters, Paul uses the related noun e&ndeici$ (Rom 3:25-26; 2 Cor 8:24; Phil 1:28). Referring back to verse 4, it means that the persecution and “distress” experienced by the Thessalonian believers is an indication, or demonstration, that the (end-time) Judgment of God is taking place. Indeed, the believers are said to be suffering under this very Judgment—the feminine relative pronoun (h!$) relates to the feminine noun kri/si$ (“judgment”). However, this experience of the Judgment is not the same as it will be for the wicked; rather, for believers, it makes them worthy of belonging to (or entering/inheriting) the Kingdom of God. The rare verb katacio/w, an intensive compound of a)cio/w, is based upon the image of bring the scales into balance—i.e., as in weighing out the value of something (cf. on the adjective a&cio$). Elsewhere in Old Testament tradition, this dual aspect of God’s Judgment is expressed by the image of fire (cf. below), in which the metal of value is purified, while the dross is burned away.

Paul’s declaration continues in verse 6:

“… (so) if (then it is) just alongside God (as indeed it is) to give forth distress in exchange to the (one)s bringing distress for you…”

Here God’s Judgment is defined in terms of retributive justice—giving out punishment that matches the crime (the so-called lex talionis principle). The people oppressing the Thessalonian believers will soon be oppressed (by God) in return; actually, it is their own wickedness that brings about their suffering. The conditional particle (ei&per) assumes that the condition described is true—this retribution is indeed just (di/kaio$), and reflects the justice of God. The statement in verse 7 continues the main clause of v. 6, referring to what God gives out in exchange (vb a)ntapodi/dwmi):

“…and to you, the (one)s being distressed (along) with us, a letting up (of that distress), in the uncovering of the Lord Yeshua from heaven with (the) Messengers of his power…”

In other words, God will effect a transfer of the distress, removing it from the believers and onto the persecutors instead. This is expressed here as a “letting up” (a&nesi$) of the distress for believers; however, also implicit is the idea that believers will not experience any of the remainder of the Judgment, which will be focused entirely on the wicked. The image of Jesus coming to earth from heaven, in power, accompanying by heavenly Messengers (“Angels”), is derived from traditional apocalyptic motifs, and, in particular, the eschatological “Son of Man” sayings by Jesus recorded in the Gospel tradition (e.g., Mk 8:38 par; 13:27 par; Matt 13:39, 41, 49; 25:31). This appearance of Jesus is specifically referred to as an “uncovering” (a)poka/luyi$), a word frequently used in the Pauline letters (Rom 2:5; 8:19; 1 Cor 1:7; etc), though not always in an eschatological sense. Currently, Jesus resides with God the Father in heaven, and thus is “hidden”; at his end-time appearance, he will suddenly become visible, manifest to all humankind—i.e. the cover is taken away. His appearance also marks the onset of the Judgment proper, utilizing the common judgment-motif of fire:

“…in flaming fire, giving a working out of justice to the (one)s not having seen [i.e. known] God and to the (one)s not hearing under [i.e. being obedient to] the good message of our Lord Yeshua…”

It has been suggested that the first part of this verse alludes to Isaiah 66:15-16, and, indeed, the wording of Isa 66:15b [LXX] is very close: “…to give forth [a)podou=nai]…a working out of justice [e)kdi/khsi$]…in flaming fire [e)n flogi\ puro/$]”. The focus of this Judgment moves from the ones oppressing believers to unbelievers in general, expressed by two participles:

    • Perfect participle of ei&dw (“see”, often = “know”), “having seen/known”, here with the negative particle (mh/): “the ones having not seen/known God”. The implication of the perfect tense is that, even before the proclamation of the Gospel, they have had no knowledge of God, thinking and behaving in a wicked manner.
    • Present participle of u(pakou/w (“hear under”), i.e. listen obediently under someone with authority. This too is expressed with a negative particle, and with the Gospel as the object: “the ones not hearing under the good message”. In other words, not only did they have no knowledge of God before, but they also refused (or were unable) to accept the Gospel message of Jesus, such as was proclaimed (to the Thessalonians) by Paul.

The description of the fiery punishment on the wicked/unbelievers continues in verse 9:

“…who will pay (the) just (penalty), destruction of the Age, from the face of the Lord and from the splendor [do/ca] of his strength…”

The noun di/kh, often translated “justice”, more properly means the “just/right thing”, and here with the verb ti/nw (signifying the paying of a price) must be understood as the “just/right penalty“. The expression o&leqro$ ai)w/nio$ is typically translated “eternal destruction”, but this loses the important eschatological idea of the destruction of the current Age; thus I render the adjective ai)w/nio$, as I do consistently, rather more literally as “of the Age(s)”. The wicked will perish, being caught up in the destruction at the end of the current Age. The expression “face of the Lord” is an Old Testament idiom (referring to YHWH); here, in its early Christian context, it refers to the exalted/risen Jesus as Lord (ku/rio$). As the heavenly (and Anointed) representative of God, Jesus will oversee the great end-time Judgment. This idea of Jesus as Judge is a key component of early Christian eschatology (Acts 17:31; 2 Tim 4:1, 8; 1 Pet 4:5f, etc; along with the eschatological “Son of Man” sayings in the Gospel, cf. above).

It is a concise statement of Jesus’ appearance that concludes the passage (v. 10):

“…when he shall come, to be treated in [i.e. with] honor among his holy (one)s, and to be regarded with wonder among all the (one)s trusting—(in) that our message upon [i.e. to] you was trusted—in that day.”

The subjunctive e&lqh| (“he should come”, “he would come”) is governed by the temporal particle o%tan (“when”); since the coming of Jesus is certain, in the mind of Paul and the other believers, I render the phrase here as “when he shall come…”. The only question is exactly when he will come. The result (and purpose) of his coming is expressed with a pair of articular infinitives:

    • e)ndocasqh=nai, from the compound verb e)ndoca/zw, meaning “be [regarded] in honor”, the passive here indicating that a person is to be treated/regarded with honor.
    • qaumasqh=nai, also a passive infinitive, of the verb qauma/zw (“wonder [at]”), here meaning that a person will be treated with wonder (i.e. amazement, admiration, etc).

Two groups correspond to these two verbs:

    • Jesus will be treated with honor “among his holy ones” (e)n toi=$ a(gi/oi$ au)tou=); as in 1 Thess 3:13 (cf. above), the “holy ones” are the heavenly beings (Messengers/Angels) who accompany him.
    • He will be regarded with wonder “among all the ones trusting” (e)n pa=sin toi=$ pisteu/sasin); this, of course, refers to earthly beings, believers in Christ. This may also reflect the same idea as in 1 Thess 4:15ff (cf. also Mk 13:27 par, etc), that Jesus, at his coming, will gather together all believers everywhere.

The long, complex sentence, concludes with the emphatic summary phrase “in that day”. This relates to the important discussion to follow in 2:1ff, regarding the meaning of the expression “the day of the Lord”. Here, Paul identifies the coming of Jesus, and the ushering in of the Judgment on the wicked, as “that day” (i.e. the day of the Lord). This will be considered further in the study on 2:1-12 (in Part 3).

As noted above, 1:3-10 represent a single long sentence in Greek, a fact which is totally obscured in nearly every English translation. Readable English requires that such long sentences be broken up into shorter units, much as I have done above; however, it is important to remember that, in actuality, a single continuous statement is being made. With that in mind, and in conclusion to this portion (Part 1) of the article on 1-2 Thessalonians, I wish to give here a continuous translation of the entire passage:

“We ought to give thanks to God always (for His) favor, about you, brothers, even as it is brought in balance [i.e. is proper], (in) that your trust grows over and the love of each one of all of you toward the other (grow)s more (and more), and how we (our)selves even (are able) to boast in you among the congregations of God, over your remaining under, and (your) trust, in all the (time)s of your being pursued, and the (moment)s of distress in which you (are) hold(ing) up, (that) in (this is) a showing of the just Judgment of God, unto your being brought to (the) value of (belonging to) the Kingdom of God, under which also you suffer; if (then it is) just alongside God (as indeed it is) to give forth distress in exchange to the (one)s bringing distress for you, and to you, the (one)s being distressed (along) with us, a letting up (of that distress), (so it will be) in the uncovering of the Lord Yeshua from heaven with (the) Messengers of his power, in flaming fire, giving a working out of justice to the (one)s not having seen [i.e. known] God and to the (one)s not hearing under [i.e. accepting] the good message of our Lord Yeshua, (these people) who will pay (the) just (penalty), destruction of the Age, from the face of the Lord and from the splendor of his strength, when he shall come, to be treated in [i.e. with] honor among his holy (one)s, and to be regarded with wonder among all the (one)s trusting—(in) that our message upon [i.e. to] you was trusted—in that day.”

A detailed syntactical breakdown and diagram of this passage is certainly warranted, and worth doing, but it rather goes beyond the scope this article. I would encourage readers and students to pursue such an analysis on their own.

In the next part of this article, we will examine 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 5:1-11; for a study on 1 Thess 2:14-16, cf. the special supplemental note.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The Letters of Paul (Introduction)

Having examined the eschatology of Jesus as recorded in the (Synoptic) Gospels, as well as that expressed by the early Christian preaching in the book of Acts, it is now time to turn our attention to the Pauline Letters, and to give consideration to the eschatology of Paul, as studied through his letters.

One fact we may note before proceeding, is that, with regard to the eschatology found in the letters, there is surprisingly little that is unique to Paul’s thought and manner of expression (the discussion in Romans 9-11 being a notable exception). On the whole, he follows the traditional eschatology of early Christians, very much in accord with what we find in the preaching recorded in the book of Acts (cf. the previous two articles). What is distinctive is the way that Paul develops the tradition, giving added theological (and Christological) weight to the basic contours of the eschatological expectation of 1st century Christians. The main eschatological components handled and addressed by Paul in his letters are:

    • The return of Jesus to earth (i.e. the Parousia)
    • The great Judgment by God on humankind, and
    • The Resurrection (spec. of believers)

It is the last of these which is given most attention by Paul, since it relates to a fundamental (theological) aspect of his understanding of the religious identity of believers in Christ—namely, our identification (and union) with Jesus in both his death and resurrection (see especially Romans 6:3-4). This will be discussed in more detail as we encounter the various passages.

Any comprehensive treatment of Paul’s letters must always take into account certain critical questions of authorship. In particular, many (if not most) critical commentators regard a number of the canonical letters as pseudonymous. Among such scholars, there is general agreement that the Pastoral Letters (1-2 Timothy, Titus) and Ephesians are pseudonymous; others believe that Colossians and/or 2 Thessalonians are as well. For my part, entirely on objective grounds, I consider 2 Thessalonians and Colossians as genuinely Pauline, and will treat them as such in these articles (while occasionally mentioning certain critical objections). More substantial questions surround the Pastorals (esp. 1 Timothy) and Ephesians, in terms of vocabulary, style, and points of emphasis. I do not intend to address any of these, except in passing; however, as a point of procedure, in deference to the (critical) questions, I will treat the eschatology in Ephesians and the Pastorals last among the letters of Paul.

Here is an outline of the articles:

  • 1 & 2 Thessalonians:
  • 1 & 2 Corinthians:
    • Part 1: Survey of the Corinthian correspondence
    • Part 2: Key passages examined in detail
    • Part 3: The Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15
  • Romans:
    • Part 1: Survey of passages
    • Part 2: Development of the Resurrection theme
    • Part 3: Romans 9-11 (esp. chap. 11)
  • Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, and Colossians
  • Ephesians and the Pastoral Letters