Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Parables of Jesus (Part 1)

The Parables of Jesus (Part 1)

Having studied the sayings of Jesus, it is now time to turn our attention toward the longer illustrations and parables. There are two areas which need to be examined: (1) parables related to the Kingdom of God, and (2) parables with an eschatological aspect or dimension. There is a good deal of overlap, but it is important to keep these two areas distinct. Just because Jesus may refer to the Kingdom in a parable, does not mean the thrust of the parable is eschatological per se. As we have seen, his use of the “Kingdom” expression and image is more complex than that.

According to the basic meaning of the Greek word, a parabolh/ is something “cast/thrown alongside”, i.e. placed alongside—an illustrative story or comparison, used as an aid in teaching. Jesus’ parables, as recorded in the (Synoptic) Gospels, tend to be relatively short stories, sometimes taking the form of example covering just a sentence or two. Again, I will begin with the Synoptic parables, represented by the Gospel of Mark, before turning to those in Matthew and Luke. There are relatively few Markan/Synoptic parables; most notable are those which occur in Mark 4 par.

1. The Kingdom of God (Mark 4:1-34 par)

If we begin with the core Synoptic tradition, as represented by the Gospel of Mark, there is only one section (chap. 4) which brings together a sequence of parables by Jesus, and these have the Kingdom of God as their primary theme. This is clearly expressed by the formula in verse 30:

“How may we say (what) the kingdom if God is like, or in what (illustration) cast alongside [i.e. parable] should we set it?”

The sequence of parables covers 4:1-34, which may be outlined as follows:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 1-2)
    • The Sower (vv. 3-20):
      —The parable (vv. 3-9)
      —Jesus and the disciples (vv. 10-13)
      —Explanation of the parable (vv. 14-20)
    • The Lamp (vv. 21-25)
      —which includes an exhortation and reward-saying (vv. 23-25)
    • The Growing Seed (vv. 26-29)
    • The Mustard Seed (vv. 30-32)
    • Narrative conclusion (vv. 33-34)

Matthew and Luke have modified or developed this tradition in different ways. In Matthew (chap. 13), the Markan setting is maintained, but the author has included other parables and sayings which enhance the eschatological thrust of the section (cf. below). By contrast, Luke (8:4-18) has a simpler/shorter version of the Synoptic material, and sets it in a different context (cf. 8:1-3, 19-21). The essential theme, in both the Markan and Lukan versions, relates to the success of Jesus’ ministry—i.e. his proclamation of the good news (of the Kingdom) and the response (of his disciples) to this message. Many commentators feel that in the original context of the parable of the Sower—the parable itself, more than the explanation—had an eschatological emphasis. In spite of the initial obstacles, and lack of response, Jesus’ mission would take root, and from the first disciples, the message would quickly spread to a much wider audience, before the end comes. This is certainly suggested by the language in verses 8, 20 (cf. the parallel in v. 32), though it must be admitted that the emphasis in the explanation (vv. 13-20) is rather on the character of the different kinds of soil as representing different responses to the Gospel. The context of Luke’s version brings out the focus on discipleship even more clearly. Even so, an eschatological thrust by Jesus is likely, given the Kingdom-parables which follow in Mk 4:21ff par. We may consider the brief parable of the Lamp in vv. 21-25, which appears to be made up of several sayings which may originally have circulated separately, but certainly fit together here as a unit:

    • Illustration of the Lamp (v. 21)
    • Explanation/application for his disciples (v. 22)
    • Exhortation (v. 23)
    • Paradoxical dual-saying regarding (heavenly) reward (vv. 24-25)

Beyond the obvious reference to heavenly reward, implying an end-time Judgment setting, the eschatological emphasis may also be seen by the ‘explanation’ of the illustration in verse 22:

“For there is not any(thing) hidden, if not (so) that it may be made to shine forth; and (has) not come to be uncovered, so that it may (now) come into (the) shining (light)?”

This idea of the uncovering of secrets implies the end-time Judgment by God (indicated by the divine passive here), when all things will come to light—on similar passages in the New Testament, cf. John 3:19-21; 1 Cor 4:5; Eph 5:11-14. In this context, however, the saying must refer back to verse 11 and the “secret of the Kingdom” (cf. the next section below). It is the secret(s) of the Kingdom of God which are to be revealed at the end-time. They had been kept hidden (by God) previously, so they would not be uncovered until the present time—i.e. the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. Luke has another form of this (or a similar) saying in Lk 12:2-3, where the emphasis shifts from an eschatological warning (v. 2) to a directive to the disciples to proclaim the secret, i.e. of the Kingdom (v. 3). In Paul’s writings, and elsewhere in the New Testament, this revealing light is identified precisely as the Gospel message of what God has done in the person of Jesus (Lk 1:79; 2:32; Acts 13:47; 26:18ff; 2 Cor 4:4-6; Eph 3:9; 2 Tim 1:10, etc).

2. The “Secret of the Kingdom” (Mark 4:11 par)

Central to the sequence of parables in Mark 4 is the exchange between Jesus and disciples in vv. 10-13, preceding the explanation of the Sower parable (vv. 14ff). I give these verses in a chiastic or bracketed outline form:

    • Question of the disciples to Jesus, i.e. asking him about the parables (v. 10)
      —Declaration: The disciples are given the secret of the Kingdom (v. 11)
      —Scripture citation: The secret of the Kingdom is (and has been) kept hidden from others (v. 12)
    • Question of Jesus to the disciples about their understanding the parables (v. 13)

The apparent difficulty of Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah 6:9-10 has been overplayed in the past, tripping up commentators. Luke (8:10) has effectively removed the main problem by eliminating the second portion of the citation (v. 10). The thrust of the citation is that God has intentionally kept the “secret of the Kingdom” hidden from people until the moment it is to be revealed by Jesus and his followers—and only by them. As indicated by the outline above, this establishes the contrast in Mk 4:11-12, between Jesus’ close followers (who are given the secret), and all other people (from whom it remains hidden). I have discussed this passage in a detailed study on the use of the word musth/rion (“secret”). There are contemporary parallels to this expression (“secrets of God”) in the Qumran texts—1QM 3:9; 16:11; 1QS 3:23; 1QpHab 7:8, etc. The Qumran Community believed that they (alone) represented the faithful ones of Israel, who would play a central role in the end-time appearance of God (His Kingdom and Judgment), thought to be imminent. In this, they shared much in common with the earliest Christians, who inherited a significant portion of their eschatology from Jesus himself; on this, cf. the recent articles on the eschatological sayings of Jesus, and also the upcoming study on imminent eschatology in the New Testament.

3. Seed/Harvest Imagery in the Parables (esp. Mark 4:26-33 par)

A third aspect of the sequence of parables in Mark 4 to note is the repeated use of seed and harvest motifs, brought out even more vividly in Matthew’s version (cf. below). In addition to the parable of the Sower, we have the two Seed-parables in 4:26-33. Of these we notice especially:

    • Both are identified specifically as illustrations of the Kingdom of God (vv. 26, 30)
    • The first (parable of the Growing Seed) has an unquestionable eschatological emphasis (v. 29)

It is this last point which needs to be expounded further, as verse 29 serves as the climax to the parable of the Growing Seed (vv. 26-29). It also continues the image of the Kingdom of God as something hidden—adding this aspect (cf. vv. 11ff, 22, and the discussion above) to the earlier Sower paradigm:

    • “…as a man might cast (down) scattered (seed) upon the earth” (v. 26)
    • “and might sleep and rise, night and day, and the scattered (seed) might sprout and lengthens (even) as he has not seen (it)…” (v. 27)

The seed, earlier identified as the “word of God” and the proclamation of the Kingdom, works in a hidden manner, unseen and unknown to the man sowing who otherwise goes about his daily business. Yet the seed has a special power all its own, intrinsic to its very nature:

“Moving (it)self, the earth bears fruit—first (the) green (sprout), then a standing head (of grain), (and) then full grain in the standing head.” (v. 28)

Though hidden, this growth is both natural and expected; and, at the end of its period of growth, the time for harvest comes:

“But when the fruit gives along (its sign), straightaway (the man) sets forth the (tool for) plucking, (in) that [i.e. because] the (time for) reaping [qerismo/$] has come to stand alongside [pare/sthken].”

Many translations simply read “…the harvest has come”; however, I have translated the verb pari/sthmi according to its fundamental, literal meaning (“stand alongside”), to bring out more clearly the eschatological connotation, an emphasis which is inherent in the very harvest motif being employed. For the traditional use of harvest imagery to convey the idea of the end-time Judgment, in particular, cf. Joel 3:1-13; Isa 27:11-12; Matt 3:12 par; Rev 14:15ff; and also Matt 13:30, 39 (below). It was a natural image, as it clearly expresses the end of a distinct period of time—i.e. the agricultural season. The verb pari/sthmi connotes two eschatological concepts:

    • The sense that something is close by, or near to taking place—i.e. the imminence of the end-time Judgment
    • A usage similar to that of pa/reimi (“be [present] alongside”), which is the basis for the noun parousi/a (parousía), a technical term for the end-time appearance of God and/or His chosen representative (i.e. the return of Jesus, in early Christian usage).

4. The Parable of the Tenants (Mark 12:1-2 par)

This is the other parable in the core Synoptic tradition which has a distinct eschatological emphasis. Its location in the Gospel reflects two themes implicit in the parable: (1) the impending death of Jesus, and (2) the coming destruction of Judea/Jerusalem. The second of these features prominently in the “Eschatological Discourse” of chapter 13 par, while the first is the subject of the Passion account which follows. However, unlike the similar parable in 13:32-37 (cf. below), only the climax of the “Wicked Tenant” parable here refers to the end-time. In this regard, the image of the landowner who “went away from his people” (v. 1) can be somewhat misleading, when compared, for example, with Luke 19:12ff par. Here the man who ‘goes away’ is not Jesus, but represents God the Father, who gives over control of his land to ‘tenant farmers’. These people mistreat the landowner’s messengers (i.e. the Prophets), and, eventually, decide to kill the man’s son (Jesus) when he comes as a representative. The judgment/punishment for this deed will take place as soon as the landowner (God) returns/appears; the implication is that it will occur very soon after Jesus’ death:

“What then will the lord of the vineyard do? He will come and make the(se) workers of the land suffer (great) loss [i.e. destroy them], and he will give the vineyard to other (worker)s.” (v. 9)

If the landowner initially went “away from his people” (vb. a)podhme/w), when he comes back to his people it will be to punish the wicked ones. The end-time Judgment is clearly in view, but also the more specific idea of judgment on Israel (esp. Judea and Jerusalem) for their treatment of the Prophets, including John the Baptist and Jesus (who is also the landowner [God]’s son). As harsh as this sounds, and as uncomfortable as it might make Christians today, it is clearly part of Jesus’ teaching, being found several other places in the Gospel tradition—Matt 23:29-39; Luke 11:47-52; 13:33-35; 19:41-44; cf. also Paul’s words in 1 Thess 2:14-16.

The parable of the Pounds/Talents (Matt 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27) has a similar framework, but appears to deal more directly with the idea of Jesus‘ departure and return. It will be discussed in the next part of this study. Another parable similar in tone and emphasis is found at the conclusion of the “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13:32-37 par), and will be discussed in the study on the Discourse itself. It is worth mentioning here the same issue as in the Wicked Tenant parable, only modified and addressed specifically to Jesus’ disciples, who function as the servants left in charge of the owner’s estate. They are urged to act responsibly, in a righteous and faithful manner, realizing that the owner might return at any time.

Part 2 of this study will examine the specific parables in Matthew and Luke (but not Mark) which have an eschatological aspect or emphasis.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Sayings of Jesus (Pt 4)

The Sayings and Teachings of Jesus (Part 4)

    1. Eschatological Expectation related to John the Baptist
    2. References to the coming of the Kingdom, with a clear eschatological emphasis
    3. References to the coming Day of Judgment
    4. Specific references to the coming of the “Son of Man” (Judgment context)
    5. References indicating a(n earthly?) Kingdom ruled by Jesus and his followers
    6. Other sayings with an eschatological context

The first four areas of study were addressed in the previous articles (Parts 2, 3); here we will be examining the final two areas (#5-6, in italics above).

5. A(n earthly?) Kingdom ruled by Jesus and his followers

One of the most controversial aspects of Jesus’ eschatology is whether, or to what extent, he affirms the traditional idea of the restored Israelite kingdom, which is central to much Jewish eschatological thought, from the (later) Prophets, down to Jesus’ own time. Not surprisingly, this idea gradually disappeared from early Christian writings, as the Church took on a more universal, non-Jewish (Gentile) coloring. Even where the idea of a concrete “Millennial Kingdom” was preserved, it typically was detached from its nationalistic roots. Only relatively recently has the distinctly Israelite/Jewish background of early Christian eschatology been re-affirmed, largely through two quite different avenues: (1) Dispensationalist interpretation of Bible prophecy, and (2) Critical scholarship which, in the past 50+ years especially, has emphasized both the Jewish background of the New Testament and the Jewishness of the historical Jesus. Greater awareness in Western society of Jewish customs and traditions in general, including from the time of Jesus (through the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc) has also contributed in this regard.

There can be little doubt of the nationalistic, ethno-religious dimension to Jewish eschatology and Messianic thought. According to at least one major line of tradition (centered primarily on the Messianic figure-type of the Davidic Ruler), the end-time deliverance of God’s people, connected with the great Judgment, will involve (and/or be preceded by) the defeat of the nations and the re-establishment of the Israelite Kingdom. This eschatological scenario brings together a number of separate, but related traditions:

    • The return of Israelites from being dispersed among the nations
    • The re-establishment of Jerusalem as the religious center, with a renewed (and/or new) Temple
    • The inclusion of Gentiles, who will come to Jerusalem (and the Temple) to worship the one true God and pay homage to Israel
    • In more elaborate, developed versions, a period of this Kingdom rule (on earth) precedes the final Resurrection and Judgment in Heaven. At any rate, these represent two distinct eschatological ideals (restored Kingdom on earth, rule in Heaven) which were combined various ways by both Jews and Christians in the first centuries B.C./A.D.

It is not necessary to document here all of the relevant passages which reflect this basic expectation (of a restored Kingdom). An essential formulation is found in Micah 4:1-4 (note the overall context of chaps. 4-5), par. Isa 2:2-4; it was an important theme in (Deutero-)Isaiah, including key passages such as 49:5-6ff; 56:1-8; 60:1-16ff; and 66:18-24. Among the many passages in the later Jewish writings from the first centuries B.C./A.D., I might point out Tobit 13:11-17; 14:4-7; 2 Macc 1:27ff; Jubilees 1:15-18; Testament of Benjamin 9:2ff. Especially noteworthy is the 17th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon (mid-1st century B.C.), which provides the classic portrait of the militant Davidic Ruler who will subdue the nations, deliver God’s people, and rule over the kingdom (of God) on earth. The Messianic expectation of many Jews at the time of Jesus would certainly have included the basic idea that the kingdom of Israel would be restored and God’s people delivered from the wicked (nations), and should be recognized in such statements as Mark 15:43 par; Luke 1:32-33; 2:25b, 38. Indeed, it is stated precisely in Acts 1:6, indicating that Jesus’ disciples expected that he would fulfill this traditional role as the Anointed One (Davidic Ruler). A number of other references in the Gospel Tradition suggest a similar expectation—Mark 11:9-10 par; Luke 19:11; John 6:15. The circumstances of Jesus’ death, as recorded in the Gospels, make no sense unless the Roman authorities were concerned about the possibility that he might be identified as a Messianic figure (“King of the Jews”) who would attempt to liberate Judea from Roman rule.

The question remains: to what extent did Jesus confirm this particular view of the Kingdom as a restoration of the Israelite kingdom, or as a concrete kingdom/government established on earth? Many who heard the proclamation that “the Kingdom of God has come near” (Mk 1:15 par), echoed variously throughout Jesus’ ministry (cf. Part 1), doubtless would have understood it in such a light. Even Jesus’ disciples appear to have had it in mind (Acts 1:6, to be discussed). A number of critical scholars accept the proposition that Jesus expected to inaugurate a Messianic kingdom on earth. For traditional-conservative readers and commentators, especially those who follow a Dispensationalist mode of interpretation, such a kingdom, it is believed, will still be established at some point in the future. It must be said, however, that there is little clear evidence in the sayings of Jesus which supports the idea of a Kingdom to be established on earth. Most of the Kingdom-sayings and teachings are ambiguous in this regard. As far as I am able to determine, the emphasis appears to be twofold: (1) the coming Judgment, and (2) heavenly/eternal reward for the righteous (believers/followers of Jesus). The scene of this Judgment, which, in its most ancient context, would have referred simply to the afterlife, appears to be in the Heavenly court (cf. the sayings surveyed in Parts 2 and 3).

There are several sayings which do allow for the possibility of an earthly, Messianic kingdom, ruled by Jesus and his disciples, but even these are not entirely clear.

Mark 10:35-40ff par.

In this tradition, two of Jesus’ disciples (the brothers Jacob [James] and John) make the following request:

“Give to us that, one out of your giving [i.e. right] (hand), and one out of (your) left (hand), we might sit (with you) in your splendor” (v. 37)

At the historical level, it is most unlikely that Jesus’ disciples would have had any real understanding of his impending resurrection and exaltation to heaven; rather, they were presumably referring to the idea of a kingdom on earth which would be ruled by Jesus (as Messiah). This is perhaps confirmed by the Matthean parallel (20:21), which reads “in your kingdom” instead of “in your splendor”. His response is significant in the way that he directs them away from the motif of Messianic splendor, and toward the idea of his suffering and death—something which would not have been expected in regard to the Messiah at his coming (vv. 38-39). It is clearly expressed that the disciples, like Peter in the Transfiguration scene (9:6 par, cf. also 8:32-33), did not understand the implications of what they were saying. The following section (vv. 41-45) draws out this contrast even further—one should not be seeking for honor and rule, but to give sacrificial service to others, following Jesus’ own example. At the same time, Jesus does not deny the essential thought underlying their request—to sit alongside of him in the glory of his rule—but he has redefined it in terms of reward for faithful discipleship. It is interesting to compare the similar way Jesus responds to the disciples in Acts 1:6ff.

Matthew 19:28 / Luke 22:28-30

In close proximity to Matthew’s version of the above traditions (20:20-28), is another saying related to the ruling position of Jesus and his disciples. It is possible, in the Matthean narrative at least, that the request in v. 21 is in response to the earlier declaration by Jesus in 19:28:

“Amen, I relate to you, that you, the (one)s following me, in the (time of) coming to be again [i.e. rebirth/resurrection], when the Son of Man sits upon the ruling-seat of his splendor, you also will sit (as one)s upon twelve ruling-seats, judging the twelve offshoots [i.e. tribes] of Yisrael.”

The basic idea suggests a concrete kingdom, such as the traditional restored/Messianic kingdom on earth. However, the context of the saying clearly sets it in the time of paliggenesi/a (“coming to be again”). This word came to be used as a technical term (in Greek philosophy, etc) for the rebirth of the world at the end of the current Age, or, in particular, the rebirth of souls in the future Age. The latter would have been understood in terms of resurrection for Jews and Christians in the first centuries B.C./A.D., with the end of the current Age being associated specifically with God’s coming Judgment. The word paliggenesi/a thus is eschatological, related to the end-time Judgment and the resurrection. Interestingly, Josephus does use the word in a figurative sense to convey the idea of the restoration (from exile) of Israel as a people (Antiquities 11.66). The only other occurrence in the New Testament (Titus 3:5) is also figurative, symbolic of the believer’s spiritual “rebirth” in Christ, where the setting is the Baptism ritual. It is, however, likely that the Baptismal use of the term draws upon the earlier cosmic sense of the world’s rebirth, such as took place after the great Flood (which prefigures the end-time Judgment)—cf. Philo Life of Moses II.65; 1 Clement 9:4; and note the association between baptism and the flood in 1 Pet 3:20-21.

The context of the Synoptic saying in vv. 29-30, as formulated in Matthew’s version, emphasizes heavenly/divine (eternal) Life in the Age to Come (cp. Mk 10:30; Lk 18:30). If the request in 20:21 is in response to this statement, then the disciples (or their mother, in Matthew’s version) may well have misunderstood the thrust of the saying. Certainly the focus, as in 20:22ff, is on true discipleship—following Jesus to the end, regardless of the cost.

Luke records a similar saying, though in a very different context, as part of the Last Supper scene (Lk 22:28-30). The overall narrative in 22:24-30 seems to draw upon both traditions cited above (Matt 19:28 [Q?] and the Synoptic Mk 10:35-45 par). Whatever the original historical setting, the inclusion of these sayings by Jesus in the context of the Last Supper—his impending death and the betrayal by Judas—results in a most powerful association, contrasting false discipleship (Judas and the dispute in v. 24) with the true. The disciples who remain (after Judas’ departure, cp. John 13:27-31a) are regarded as Jesus’ true followers; the words which follow in vv. 28-30 must be understood in this light (the italicized portions parallel Matt 19:28, above):

“But you are the (one)s having remained through(out) with me in my testing; and I will set through for you, even as my Father set through for me, a kingdom, (so) that you may eat and drink upon my table in my kingdom, and you will sit upon ruling-seats judging the twelve offshoots [i.e. tribes] of Yisrael.”

This indicates a promise of fellowship (eating and drinking), similar to that of the Passover meal of the Last Supper, but also reflects the formal relation of vassalage—the faithful vassal is allowed to eat at the suzerain’s own table, and is given a subordinate kingdom, ruling under the authority of the suzerain. The disciples receive this ruling authority from Jesus, just as Jesus received it from God the Father. The image of eating and drinking in the Kingdom draws upon the tradition of the Eschatological/Messianic meal or banquet, indicated already in Old Testament passages such as Isa 25:6-8; 55:1-2; 65:13-14 (cf. also 1 Enoch 62:14; 2 Baruch 29:4; 3 Enoch 48:10; Sayings of the Fathers [Pirqe ‘Abot] 3:20, etc; Fitzmyer, p. 1026). Jesus uses this tradition a number of times in his parables (to be discussed in the next study).

How should we understand this declaration that Jesus’ faithful disciples will judge the twelve tribes of Israel? We must consider both the scenario which is being depicted, as well as the relationship between the disciples and the (twelve) tribes of Israel. There are several possibilities:

    • It is the scene of the Judgment (of all nations/peoples), and the disciples have the privilege of sitting as judges over the people of Israel. We find the idea of believers participating in the Judgment several times in the New Testament (1 Cor 6:2-3; Rev 2:26-27; 20:4), but nowhere else in the Gospel does Jesus mention his disciples serving in this role.
    • The (twelve) disciples have a special place of honor and rule in heaven. Here the meaning of kri/nw is broader than a judicial role, extending to other aspects of ruling power and authority. In the book of Revelation it is extended still further, being granted not only to the apostles, but to other/all faithful believers (2:26-27; 3:21; 20:4 [?]). The limitation to the “tribes of Israel” may simply reflect the scope of Jesus’ own ministry; eventually, the image would become universal, with believers coming from all the nations.
    • The reference is to a Messianic kingdom on earth. The nations will have been defeated and made to submit to the authority of God’s Anointed One, but will still exist on earth similar to the way they do now (or in Jesus’ time). As such, an earthly kingdom over many different groups of people would require a governing structure. The (twelve) disciples govern (kri/nw again meaning “rule” as much as “judge”) Israel. Many commentators feel that this indeed is what (the historical) Jesus had in mind. The problem is, it is extremely difficult to find any other clear examples which refer to an earthly (Messianic) kingdom governed by disciples/believers, either in the Gospels or in the remainder of the New Testament (Rev 20:4-6 being a possible exception, cf. also 5:10).
    • It is largely symbolic, with the twelve disciples representing the twelve tribes, particularly in the sense of a restored/reconstituted Israel—the people of God who accept Jesus as God’s Anointed One. In my view this is perhaps the best explanation, as it would seem to confirm the obvious association between the Twelve and Israel (almost certainly intended by Jesus in the selection of the Twelve). The symbolism is unmistakable in the book of Acts (1:6 through chapter 2, and further), though it must be admitted that the theme of the “restoration of Israel” is not as explicit in Jesus’ sayings and parables.
    • It is symbolic of eternal/heavenly reward, the emphasis being not so much on the function of judging/ruling the twelve tribes, but on their sharing the honor and power which belongs to the exalted Jesus. This would seem to be the main point in several of the parallel references in the book of Revelation (esp. 2:26-28; 3:21).

With regard to the last interpretation, a special point of interest—occurring in both the Lukan version of the saying (22:28-30) and the verses in the book of Revelation cited above—is the chain of relation, which is both hierarchical and reciprocal:

God the Father
|
Jesus (the Son)
|
Disciples/Believers

Jesus receives a kingdom from the Father, and, in turn, gives a kingdom to his faithful followers. As noted above, this reflects the ancient and traditional concept of vassalage, whereby there is a distinctive socio-relational component (dynamics of friendship and loyalty) to governmental structures. The same structure occurs frequently throughout the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John, where the reciprocal aspect comes more clearly into view: (1) the Disciples give honor and power back to Jesus, i.e. recognizing his kingly rule, and (2) Jesus gives the kingdom/kingship back to the Father (on this point, see esp. 1 Cor 15:24). From the standpoint of early Christology, it is after his death and resurrection that Jesus receives his Kingdom from the Father, expressed especially through the idea of Jesus being at the “right hand” of the Father in heaven (but cf. also the beginning of the parable in Lk 19:12, to be discussed).

If the image of eating and drinking in the Kingdom were to be taken literally, in a concrete sense (i.e. ordinary physical food and drink), then it would confirm the idea of an earthly kingdom. While this generally conforms to certain strands of Old Testament tradition (i.e. the coming Age as a time of peace/prosperity on earth), and may well reflect popular expectation (Lk 14:15), it is rather difficult to sustain when one considers the sayings and parables of Jesus carefully. The illustration in Matt 8:11-12 appears to be proverbial, but otherwise reflects the setting of the Judgment (brought out more clearly in the Lukan parallel, 13:28-29); cf. also Matt 22:2ff. Jesus’ statement at the Last Supper (Mk 14:25 par) is somewhat ambiguous, though the narrative context assumes his impending death and resurrection. The Matthean version emphasizes a meal that is to be shared with his disciples, indicating a heavenly setting (“…when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom”). Luke records two such parallel statements, in addition to the reference in v. 30:

“I should (certainly) not eat it [i.e. the Passover meal] (again) until (the time in) which it should be fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (v. 16)
“I should (certainly) not drink from the produce of the vine from now on, until (the time at) which the kingdom of God should come” (v. 18)

I take the first reference to mean that the Passover meal will be fulfilled in the Kingdom—almost certainly in the sense of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but with a possible allusion to the idea of the eschatological/Messianic banquet (cf. above). The expression “…when the kingdom of God should come” is best understood in relation to the coming Judgment, and the heavenly/eternal reward which follows; however, the wording does at least leave open the possibility of referring to a Messianic kingdom on earth.

6. Other sayings with an eschatological context

There are relatively few other sayings which reflect an eschatological meaning or understanding. The parables will be examined in the next study.

Mark 10:29-30 par.

There are several interesting variations in this Synoptic tradition, located at the conclusion of the episode with the “Rich Young Ruler” (10:17-22ff par). The saying clearly refers to reward for those who have followed Jesus faithfully, in an eschatological context (“the coming Age”); but there is some confusion as to the exact nature of the reward, and the extent to which it is earthly, heavenly or ‘spiritual’:

“…there is no one wh(o has) left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or offspring or fields for my sake, and for the sake of the good message, (that,) if (so,) he should not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and offspring and land—with pers(ecution)s, and in the coming Age, (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”

Mark’s version emphasizes the suffering of the disciple in the present age (“…with persecutions”). Luke’s version (18:29-30), on the other hand, seems to give a more positive balance of heavenly/eternal and earthly reward:

“…there is no one wh(o has) left house {etc….} for the sake of the kingdom of God, who should not (indeed) receive many (more) in this time, and, in the coming Age, (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”

It is by no means clear what disciples will receive (from God, some MSS use the verb a)polamba/nw, “receive from“) in the present time. Perhaps it refers to special blessing which attends their fellowship with Jesus, along the lines of Lk 10:23-24 par; Mk 4:11 par, etc. In either case, the reward in “this time” (the present) is clearly distinguished from the eternal reward in “the coming Age”.

Matthew’s version (19:29) removes the specific mention of reward in the present time:

“And every one wh(o has) left houses {etc….} for the sake of my name, will receive a hundredfold and will receive the lot of [i.e. inherit] (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”

However, this has been prefaced by the saying indicating a specific reward for the twelve disciples/apostles (v. 28, discussed above). The emphasis on “eternal life” in v. 29 increases the likelihood that the reward in v. 28 is also heavenly/eternal (and not related to a Messianic kingdom on earth).

Mark 12:18-27 par

This Synoptic tradition records a discussion between Jesus and certain Sadducees on a point related to the resurrection, meant to test him (v. 18). Jesus dismisses the elaborate scenario they set forth (vv. 19-23), making the important point (v. 25) that, upon the resurrection, the righteous will live/exist like the heavenly beings (Messengers/’Angels’). They will not marry, nor, one may assume, be engaged in other sorts of physical pursuits as would take place during their life on earth. According to traditional (Jewish) eschatology, the resurrection would occur at the end-time, prior to (or after) the Judgment. Originally, resurrection was thought to be limited to the righteous, but, eventually, the idea developed that all human beings—righteous and wicked both—would be raised and enter into the Judgment. This idea is expressed by Jesus elsewhere, in John 5:21-29.

Matthew 9:37-38 / Luke 10:2

Here the saying more properly relates to the actual ministry of Jesus and his disciples—preaching the good news, etc. However, the thrust of this preaching had to do with the coming of the Kingdom, and there is almost certainly an eschatological allusion implicit in the harvest imagery used here. This is traditional, going back to the Old Testament Prophets (e.g. Joel 3:1-13; Isa 27:11-12). It was used as a clear eschatological image by John the Baptist (Matt 3:12 par), and also by Jesus in his parables (Mk 4:29; Matt 13:30, 39).

Matthew 11:12 / Luke 16:16

In this saying, which is formulated quite differently in Matthew and Luke, one detects something of a distinctive eschatological orientation. Luke has it in a detached context; it reads:

“The Law and the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets] (were) until Yohanan; from then (on) the kingdom of God is (announc)ed as good news, and every (one) forces (his way) into it.” (16:16)

In Matthew, the sense is quite different, the eschatological context—the proclamation of the impending coming of the kingdom of God, following John the Baptist’s ministry—is coupled with the motif of suffering and persecution, as in the Synoptic Mk 9:11-13 par. Note the Matthean formulation:

“And from the days of Yohanan the Dunker until now, the kingdom of the Heavens is treated with force, and forceful [i.e. violent] (person)s grab (hold of) it.” (11:12)

Luke 12:49-51ff par

These sayings on discipleship (cp. Matt 10:34-37) also have an eschatological tone. This can be seen by the parallels with John the Baptist’s declaration (Luke 3:16-17 par), as well as the themes of persecution and social division in other teaching by Jesus in an eschatological context (Mk 13:9-13 par; Matt 10:16-23; Lk 12:4-12). The verses which follow (vv. 54-56 par) also serve as a kind of eschatological warning.

Matthew 23:37-39 / Luke 13:34-35

Matthew’s version of this foreboding declaration comes at the climax of the great Woes-section in chap. 23, especially vv. 29-36 which prophesy the coming judgment upon Jerusalem. In the Eschatological Discourse (to be discussed), the fate of Jerusalem is tied closely to the coming Judgment and end of the current Age.

Luke 19:41-44; 23:28-31

These sayings follow the same theme as 13:34-35; they will be discussed in more detail in the study of Luke’s version of the “Eschatological Discourse”.

Several other sayings should be mentioned:

    • Luke 10:18—The declaration “I observed the Satan falling as a (lighting) flash out of heaven” remains somewhat mysterious. It may well have eschatological significance—i.e., Satan’s control over the earth in the current Age has come to an end.
    • Luke 12:2-3—There would seem to be an eschatological aspect to the warning in this saying; compare the different emphasis (and wording) in the Matthean parallel, 10:26-27.
    • Matthew 28:20—In the closing words of the Gospel, Jesus promises his disciples “I am with you all the days, until the completion (all) together of the Age”, i.e. the end of the current Age. The reference to the disciples’ mission into “all the nations” (v. 19), along with the expression “all the days”, seems to modify the sense of imminence which pervades much of the eschatology in the Gospels. This will be discussed in a separate article.

Finally, though it does not actually count as a saying of Jesus, we should note the request by the “good thief” on the cross in Luke’s version of the Passion narrative (Luke 23:42). It involves a significant textual variant:

“Remember me, when you should come into [ei)$] your kingdom.”
This is the reading of Ë75 B L al
“Remember me, when you should come in [e)n] your kingdom.”
The reading of a A C2 R W Y 0124 0135 f1,13, etc

The first follows the basic early Christian proclamation that Jesus received his kingdom/kingship from God after his death and resurrection (exaltation to the “right hand” of the Father). The second reading could be understood in the sense of Jesus’ return at the end-time Judgment—coming in/with the Kingdom. The reading of Codex Bezae (D) would seem to confirm this meaning: “…in the day of your coming”. The first reading (of Ë75, B, etc) better reflects Jesus’ response, promising that the “good thief” will be with him in heaven (Paradise, i.e. the ‘garden of God’).

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Sayings of Jesus (Pt 3)

The Sayings and Teachings of Jesus (Part 3)

    1. Eschatological Expectation related to John the Baptist
    2. References to the coming of the Kingdom, with a clear eschatological emphasis
    3. References to the coming Day of Judgment
    4. Specific references to the coming of the “Son of Man” (Judgment context)
    5. References indicating a(n earthly?) Kingdom ruled by Jesus and his followers
    6. Other sayings with an eschatological context

The first two areas of study were addressed in the previous article (Part 2); here we will be examining the next two areas (#3-4, in italics above).

3. The Coming Day of Judgment

The idea of a final Judgment by God upon the world is probably the most common eschatological motif in early Christian thought, and it informs nearly every aspect of the eschatology of the New Testament. While the basic idea is common to many cultures, the early Christian understanding derives from Old Testament and Jewish tradition—especially as related to the expression “Day of YHWH” in the Prophetic nation-oracles, etc. The main passages using this expression are: Isa 13:6ff; Jer 46:10; Ezek 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1ff; 3:14; Amos 5:18ff; Obad 15; Zeph 1:7-8ff; 2:2-3; Zech 14:1-3ff; Mal 4:5; many others allude to it. The original background presumably stems from ancient “holy war” tradition, in which God does battle for his people against their enemies. Gradually, especially in the context of the Exile and post-Exilic period, the idea came to reflect the eschatological (and Messianic) expectation of Israel. Support for this certainly could be found in the Prophets—the “Day of YHWH” was a time when God would appear to judge (and punish) the wicked, and to deliver the faithful among his people.

When the similar expression “Day of the Lord” comes to be used in the New Testament, it still refers to the end-time Judgment of God upon humankind, but it is now thoroughly connected with a belief in the return of Jesus, who will appear as God’s chosen representative to judge the earth (cf. 1 Cor 1:8; 5:5; 2 Cor 1:14; 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Thess 2:2; 2 Pet 3:10, etc). This role of Jesus, as one who brings about (and oversees) the final Judgment, is central to early Christian preaching, as we shall see when we examine the eschatology in the book of Acts. However, the idea also goes back to the sayings of Jesus himself, especially those which refer to the end-time appearance of the “Son of Man”. These references will be examined in the next area of study (section #4) below. Here, I wish to survey the sayings which refer more generally to the coming Judgment. I divide these as follows:

    • Sayings which specifically mention the (day of) Judgment
    • Those which deal with reward/punishment, in the context of an end-time Judgment
    • Specific sayings which mention entering/inheriting/receiving the Kingdom
a. Sayings which mention the (day of) Judgment

Somewhat surprisingly, there are almost no sayings in the core Synoptic tradition (as represented by the Gospel of Mark) which use either the verb kri/nw (“judge”) or the related nouns kri/si$, kri/ma (“judgment”); indeed, there is only one—Mark 12:40 par. It is much more common in Matthew and Luke, both the material they share in common (“Q”), and other sayings unique to each Gospel. These are:

All of these sayings draw upon traditional religious and ethical language (and instruction), warning people that ultimately they will face judgment by God for the things they have said and done. In Jesus’ sayings, this viewpoint has been adapted slightly, so that it now also refers to people being judged for the way in which they responded to Jesus in their lifetime (cf. below on the Son of Man sayings).

b. Sayings dealing with reward and punishment

There are a number of such sayings by Jesus, and all (or nearly all) of them have a strong eschatological orientation—i.e., they refer to the (heavenly) reward or punishment which a person receives following the Judgment.

The idea of the reward which one will receive from God, for faithfulness in following Jesus (his teachings and example, etc), is especially prominent in the Sermon on the Mount (and the parallel Lukan “Sermon on the Plain”), beginning with the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12 par, esp. verse 12); on the eschatological background of the beatitude form, cf. my earlier series on the Beatitudes. The contrast between the present (earthly) situation and the ultimate heavenly situation is most striking in the Lukan version (6:20-23), with its woes (vv. 24-26), reflecting a reversal-of-fortune theme common in Jesus’ teaching. Other references dealing with reward and punishment are:

Especially noteworthy is the prophetic illustration in Matt 7:21-23 (par Lk 6:46; 13:25-27), in which Jesus apparently casts himself in the role of judge, distinguishing his true followers (those who do “the will of my Father in heaven”), from those who only claim to be so.

When we examine the wider Synoptic tradition, several passages stand out:

    • Mark 10:29-31 par—those who have sacrificed everything to follow Jesus, enduring deprivation and hardship in this life, will receive heavenly reward (eternal life) in the “Age to Come”. Note the variations between the Gospels (Matt 19:28-30; Lk 18:29-30) on the precise nature of the reward, with apparent fluctuation between heavenly and earthly(?) emphasis.
    • Mark 9:41 (par Matt 10:41-42)
    • Luke 10:20, with a possible eschatological nuance to vv 18f
c. Entering/inheriting/receiving the Kingdom

A number of the sayings express the idea of heavenly reward in terms of “entering” (or inheriting, receiving) the Kingdom, and, conversely, of punishment as failing to do so.

4. The Son of Man Sayings

These are the sayings of Jesus which refer to the “Son of Man” figure in a clear eschatological context. Jesus’ use of the expression “the Son of Man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) is distinctive, and, it would seem, unique to his discourse. That it reflects an authentic characteristic of the historical Jesus, his mode of expression, is confirmed by the fact that hardly occurs at all elsewhere in the New Testament or in other early Christian writings. It is not a title regularly used of Jesus by early believers; the occurrences in Heb 2:6 and Rev 1:13; 14:14 are quotations from the Old Testament. It is virtually limited to the Gospels, and, even there, is essentially never found except in the words of Jesus. Originally, as I have discussed elsewhere on a number of occasions, the expression “son of man” (Heb <d*a* /B#, Aram. vn`a$ rB^) was simply a (poetic) parallel for “man”—that is, a human being or member of the human race. It came to be used as a personal reference, a circumlocution for the pronoun “I” (i.e., this particular human being), though it is hard to find clear examples of this usage prior to Jesus. There can be no question, however, that Jesus did use the expression in just this way—as a self-designation or reference to himself. We may isolate three specific contexts for the expression “son of man” in Jesus’ sayings and teachings, as recorded in the Gospels:

    1. Where he identifies himself with the human condition—especially in terms of human suffering and mortality (death)
    2. Specific references to his impending death (and resurrection)
    3. Eschatological references to “the Son of Man”

The last category is the subject of this study. A critical analysis of these eschatological references is complicated by several factors, most notably the historical context. If Jesus is referring to his own future coming (i.e., after his death and resurrection), this would have been largely unintelligible to people at the time. Even his own closest disciples would have had little or no awareness of this sequence of events (death, resurrection, ascension, future return). This has led critical commentators to give serious consideration to two different possibilities:

    • The sayings, insofar as they identify the coming of the Son of Man with Jesus’ return, are largely the product of the early Church
    • In these sayings, Jesus is not referring to himself, but to a separate/distinct figure indicated by the title “Son of Man”

As I have discussed in an earlier study, there would seem to be very little evidence in the Gospels themselves for the first possibility. The second is much more plausible, but, in my view, cannot be embraced without serious qualification. I would offer the following explanation:

Jesus was drawing upon a tradition, derived primarily (if not exclusively) from Daniel 7:13-14, which envisioned a divine/heavenly being who would appear at the end-time to deliver God’s people and usher in the Judgment. For the background of this eschatological (and Messianic) figure, which would have been understood by at least some Israelites and Jews in Jesus’ time, cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed” (also the separate note on Dan 7:13f). Jesus identifies himself with this figure, but not in a way which would have been readily understood by people at the time (note the confusion indicated in John 12:34). The identification would have been implicit, based on his distinctive use of the expression “son of man”, and not made absolutely clear until the scene before the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:61-62ff par, cp. Acts 7:55-56). This view, I think, allows for a proper interpretation of the eschatological Son of Man sayings in the Gospel Tradition. Jesus could have made these references, without his disciples (at the time) necessarily connecting them with his own post-resurrection return.

In the core Synoptic tradition, as represented by the Gospel of Mark, there are three such Son of Man sayings:

    • Mark 8:38: “For whoever would feel shame over me and my words in this adulterous and sinful (time of) coming to be [i.e. age/generation], (so) also the Son of Man will shame over him, when He should come in the splendor of His Father with the holy Messengers.”
      The Lukan parallel in 9:26 is largely identical, the main difference being the reading “in His splendor and the (splendor) of His Father…”. Matthew’s version (16:27, cf. below) is quite different.
    • Mark 13:26: “…and then they will look with (their) eyes at [i.e. see] the Son of Man coming on/in (the) clouds with much power and splendor”
      Again, Luke (21:27) is nearly identical, while Matthew differs considerably (note the additional words in italics):
      Matt 24:30: “and then the sign of the Son of Man will be made to shine forth in heaven; and then all the offshoots [i.e. peoples/races] of the earth will beat (themselves) and they will look with (their) eyes at [i.e. see] the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with much power and splendor”
    • Mark 14:62: “…and you will look with (your) eyes at [i.e. see] the Son of Man, sitting out of the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven!”
      Matthew (26:64) and Luke (22:69) both record the saying prefaced with a temporal indicator (“from now [on]…”); otherwise, Matthew is identical to Mark, while Luke’s version is in a simpler form which also removes the visual/visionary aspect:
      “…the Son of Man will be sitting out of the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the Power of God!”

The first saying (Mk 8:38 par) follows the traditional end-time Judgment scene indicated in the sayings noted above (section #3). The Son of Man plays a leading role in overseeing (or otherwise participating in) the heavenly Judgment; the ethical dimension has been reinterpreted to cover the disciple’s faithfulness in accepting and following Jesus (cf. below). The sayings in Mk 13:26 and 14:62 pars more properly refer to the end-time appearance, or coming, of the Son of Man, and both draw clearly upon Daniel 7:13. The emphasis in Daniel is somewhat different, in that the heavenly figure (“one like a son of man”, i.e. resembling a human being) comes on the clouds toward God, i.e. approaching Him, rather than becoming visible to people on earth. However, the motif of the end-time Judgment (and deliverance of God’s people) was already present in the original vision (v. 14ff). The saying before the Sanhedrin is distinctive for several reasons:

    • Here Jesus makes a much more explicit identification of himself with the Son of Man figure
    • In the context, it is related to the death and eventual resurrection of Jesus
    • Dan 7:13f is blended together with the idea of Jesus being present at the “right hand” of God. This motif comes primarily from Psalm 110:1, and was central to the earliest Christian understanding of Jesus—his resurrection resulted in his exaltation to heaven and a position at God’s right hand.
    • All of this is further connected with Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One (Messiah) and “Son of God”, cf. the question in Mk 14:61 par.

Luke’s version of the saying in Mk 14:62 (22:69) eliminates the eschatological aspect, possibly with the tradition in Acts 7:55-56 in mind. However, in 21:27 the eschatological dimension is retained. This saying (Mk 13:26 par) will be discussed as part of the upcoming study on the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus. The connection in Matt 24:30 between Dan 7:13-14 and Zech 12:10 is also attested in the book of Revelation (1:7).

There are additional Son of Man sayings in the so-called “Q” material—i.e., the traditions shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark. In theme and concept these follow the Synoptic sayings in Mk 8:38 and 13:26 par, relating to: (a) the Judgment to be ushered in (and overseen) by the Son of Man, and (b) the coming/appearance of the Son of Man at the end-time. Several other sayings, unique to Matthew and/or Luke, will also be included under these headings.

(a) The Judgment Scene.

    • Matthew 10:32-33 / Luke 12:8-9. This double-saying is generally parallel to that of Mark 8:38 (cf. above). Note that only in Luke’s version is the expression/title “Son of Man” used; in Matthew’s version, Jesus uses the pronoun “I”, indicating that it is self-designation (on this, cf. above).
    • Matthew 13:41 (cf. also verse 37)—this reference will be discussed as part of the study of the eschatological elements in Jesus’ parables.
    • Matthew 16:27—in place of Mk 8:38 par, Matthew includes a similar saying where the Judgment scene is connected more clearly with the coming/appearance of the Son of Man:
      “For the Son of Man is about to come in the splendor of his Father, with his Messengers, and then he will give from (himself) [i.e. reward/repay] to each (person) according to his deeds”
      This saying (along with that of v. 28) will be discussed further in an upcoming note on the eschatological imminence indicated in certain of Jesus’ sayings.
    • Matthew 25:31—the Judgment scene is vividly depicted in this parable, which will be discussed further at the proper point in this series.
    • Luke 21:36—part of the Lukan “Eschatological Discourse”, to be discussed.

(b) The Coming/Appearance of the Son of Man. These references largely preserve the Judgment context; however, it is the sudden/impending appearance of the Son of Man which is particularly emphasized.

    • Matthew 24:27 / Luke 17:24
    • Matthew 24:37, 39 / Luke 17:26, 30
    • Matthew 24:44 / Luke 12:40
      All these sayings are included in Matthew’s version of the “Eschatological Discourse” (Luke has them in different locations), and will be discussed further as part of our study on the Discourse.
    • Matthew 16:28—Matthew’s version of the Synoptic saying in Mk 9:1 par will be discussed in the upcoming note on “imminent eschatology” in Jesus’ sayings.
    • Luke 17:22—This saying, along with the peculiar phrase “one of the days of the Son of Man”, will be discussed in the study on the Eschatological Discourse.
    • Luke 18:8—A rather famous saying, often cited entirely out of context:
      “…the Son of Man, (at his) coming, will he find trust upon the earth?”
      It, too, will be touched on briefly in discussing imminent eschatology in Jesus’ sayings.

Finally, notice should be given to the statement by Jesus in Matthew 19:28:

“Amen, I relate to you, that you, the (one)s following (the path with) me, in the (time of) coming to be (alive) again [i.e. resurrection], when the Son of Man should sit upon his ruling-seat of splendor, you also will sit upon twelve ruling-seats judging the twelve offshoots [i.e. tribes] of Yisrael.”

The idea of judgment is certainly present, but the emphasis is on the heavenly throne/court setting, rather than on the Judgment scene itself. It is roughly parallel to the opening of the parable in 25:31. Luke records a saying very similar to Matt 19:28 (22:28-30), which is often regarded as coming from the “Q” line of tradition (despite the different settings). Luke’s version does not use the title “Son of Man”. The saying in Matt 19:28 will be discussed further in the next part of this study (section #5).

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Sayings of Jesus (Pt 2)

The Sayings and Teachings of Jesus (Part 2)

In the previous article, I examined in detail the declaration by Jesus (Mark 1:15; par Matt 4:17; cf. also 3:2; 10:7; Luke 10:9ff) which introduces his public ministry in the core Synoptic Tradition. The eschatological background and connotation of the language was discussed. Indeed, the eschatology of Jesus cannot be separated from his teaching regarding the Kingdom of God. This will be mentioned at several points during our survey of the remaining sayings of Jesus; for more detail on the expression/concept “Kingdom of God” in the New Testament, cf. my earlier article, and Part 5 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

I have decided to group together the sayings of Jesus, which have an eschatological aspect, or emphasis, under several themes. At the same time, I find it useful to continue the method applied in the earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”, distinguishing between: (a) the core Synoptic tradition, representing primarily by the Gospel of Mark, (b) the [“Q”] material shared by Matthew and Luke, and (c) sayings or details which are unique to Matthew and Luke.

As we shall see, most of Jesus’ eschatological teaching in the Synoptic Tradition is grouped together, or otherwise contained, in the great “discourse” set in Jerusalem shortly before his death (Mark 13 par). This portion of the study will be limited to those sayings and statements which appear elsewhere in the narratives. The sayings cover the following areas:

    1. Eschatological Expectation related to John the Baptist
    2. References to the coming of the Kingdom, with a clear eschatological emphasis
    3. References to the coming Day of Judgment
    4. Specific references to the coming of the “Son of Man” (Judgment context)
    5. References indicating a(n earthly?) Kingdom ruled by Jesus and his followers
    6. Other sayings with an eschatological context

1. Eschatological Expectation related to John the Baptist

As the Synoptic Gospels essentially begin with the baptism of Jesus and the ministry of John the Baptist, it is useful here to look again at several important traditions related to the Baptist. In the previous article, we examined briefly the eschatological background and context of John’s preaching, which, according to Mark 1:15 par, was generally shared by Jesus at the start of his ministry. More significant for the Gospel tradition are the two Scripture passages associated with John and his ministry—Isa 40:3 and Malachi 3:1ff. The age and authenticity of the association with these passages is confirmed by several factors:

    • Multiple attestation in several lines of tradition (Mark 1:2-3 par; Matt 11:10 par; Luke 1:16-17, 76; John 1:23)
    • The similar use of Isa 40:3 by the Qumran Community (1st century B.C.)
    • The (Messianic) language/terminology influenced by Mal 3:1ff (cf. below), which largely disappeared from subsequent Christian usage
    • The inconsistencies of application to both John and Jesus, only partly harmonized in the Gospels as we have them
    • The lack of reference/interest in John, and the related Messianic associations, in early Christianity by the time most of the New Testament books were written (c. 50-90 A.D.).

The prophecy in Malachi 3:1ff had an eschatological emphasis essentially from the beginning. As I have discussed elsewhere, in its original context, the “Messenger” almost certainly referred to a heavenly/divine Messenger (i.e. an Angel), who represented YHWH himself when he comes to judge his people. At some point in the composition of the book, this was given a specific interpretation, or application (4:5-6): the prophet Elijah would be the one preceding the Lord’s appearance on the great day of Judgment. He would bring about the repentance of the people, restoring the faith and religion of Israel. This belief and (eschatological) expectation came to be established in Jewish tradition (cf. Sirach 48:10, and Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”) and certainly informs the Baptist traditions in the Gospels. Even though John specifically denies being Elijah in Jn 1:21, 25, early Christians came to view him in this light. Jesus himself makes this association in the Gospel tradition, in Mark 9:11-13 par, which is worth examining briefly.

Mark 9:11-13 par

This exchange between Jesus and his disciples follows the Transfiguration scene (Mk 9:1-10 par), though it may reflect a separate tradition which has been joined to that scene, through thematic “catchword-bonding”—i.e. the common motifs of Elijah and the prediction of Jesus’ suffering/death. There does seem to be an abrupt shift in the discussion toward eschatology, as the disciples ask Jesus:

“(Why is it) that the writers [i.e. scribes, experts on the Writings] relate that it is necessary (for) Eliyyah to come first?” (v. 11)

This certainly reflects the tradition from Mal 4:5-6 (cf. above), that Elijah would appear shortly before the great day of Judgment. The use of the verb dei= (“be necessary” [lit. binding], i.e. required) emphasizes a very specific detail of the eschatological expectation—before the day of Judgment comes, Elijah must first appear, preparing God’s people for that moment, in fulfillment of Mal 4:5-6. Jesus would seem to confirm this belief:

“(Yes) Elijah, coming first, (does) set all things down from (what they were before)…” (v. 12a)

I have given an excessively literal translation of the verb a)pokaqi/sthmi, but the basic idea is that of restoring a previous condition—i.e. the kingdom of Israel, the religious devotion of the people, etc. The verb has eschatological significance, as is clear from its use in Acts 1:6 (to be discussed). What is interesting here (as in Acts 1:6ff) is how Jesus suddenly shifts the focus from this eschatological expectation to the situation in the present moment, namely his upcoming suffering and death:

“…and (yet) how (then) has it been written about the Son of Man, that he would suffer many (thing)s and (be) made out as nothing?” (v. 12b)

Jesus is using the equivalent of a me/nde/ construction, establishing a contrast—i.e. “[me/n] (on the one hand)…”, “but [de/, here kai/] (on the other hand)…” To paraphrase, he is telling his disciples:

“Yes, it is true that Elijah comes first and restores all things, but then how is it that the Son of Man will suffer many things and be reduced to nothing?”

Jesus’ explanation is actually a shattering of traditional eschatological (and Messianic) expectation, presented as something of a conundrum. The significance of this has specifically to do with the identification of John the Baptist as “Elijah”. The traditional understanding of Mal 4:5-6 involved Elijah (as the Messenger) bringing the people to repentance and restoring Israel to faithfulness and true religion (Mal 3:2-4). If this is so, and if John is Elijah, then how could Jesus, God’s Son and Anointed (cf. the Transfiguration scene, esp. Mk 9:7 par) have to endure suffering and death at this time? Clearly, Israel as a whole has not yet been restored in the manner prophesied by Mal 3:2-4. Jesus’ concluding words turn the tables even more strikingly on the identification of John as Elijah:

“But I relate to you that, indeed, Eliyyah has come, and they did to him as (many thing)s as they wished, even as it has been written about him!” (v. 13)

This must be understood as a radical re-interpretation of the traditional expectation. Yes, John is “Elijah”—in fact, he suffered abuse from the political and religious rulers, much as Elijah himself did! It is a uniquely Christian reworking of Messianic thought which emphasizes the suffering and death of God’s Anointed (Jesus). That this understanding goes back to the words and teachings of Jesus himself cannot be doubted (on objective grounds). His suffering and death are injected right into the middle of the traditional Messianic/eschatological beliefs of the time. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scenes surrounding Jesus’ “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem in the Gospel Tradition, as will be discussed.

Matthew 11:14 (and 17:11-12)

Jesus also identifies John as “Elijah” in Matthew 11:14, but in a very different context, and without the unique interpretation in Mark 9:11-13 par. It is a Matthean detail, incorporated within material otherwise shared by Luke (i.e. “Q”, Matt 11:1-19 / Lk 7:18-35):

“…and, if you are willing to receive (it), this [i.e. John] is Eliyyah, the (one) about to come.”

In contrast with Mark 9:11-13, here Jesus makes an unqualified identification of John with the eschatological figure of Elijah, called “the one (who is) about to come” (cf. my discussion on the background this phrase). This also affirms an imminent expectation of the end (“about to come”), in line with the thinking of many Jews (and nearly all early Christians) of the period. Matthew’s version of the Mark 9:11ff tradition also seems to tone down the radical interpretation given by Jesus, presenting it in more conventional terms (note the words in italics):

“Eliyyah (indeed) comes, and will restore [a)pokatasth/sei] all (thing)s; but I relate to you that Eliyyah already came, and they did not know (this) about him, but did with him as (many thing)s as they wished. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer under them.” (Matt 17:11-12)

Interestingly, Luke has omitted, or does not include, the Mark 9:11-13 tradition, and has nothing corresponding to Matt 11:14. However, the author of the Gospel clearly knew (and, we may assume, accepted) the tradition identifying John as “Elijah”, in light of Mal 4:5-6 (cf. Luke 1:16-17, 76).

2. The coming of the Kingdom

Jesus’ eschatological understanding of the coming of the Kingdom is clear enough from the declaration in Mark 1:15 par, occurring at the beginning of his public ministry in the core Synoptic tradition (but not in Luke). There are a number of other sayings which emphasize this aspect as well. I note here the more significant of these.

Mark 9:1 par

In between the confession by Peter (Mk 8:27-30ff) and the Transfiguration scene (9:1-10), there is a short block of sayings by Jesus, which may be outlined as follows:

    • The need for the disciples to “take up his cross” (8:34)
    • Saving/Losing one’s life, i.e. for the sake of Jesus (8:35-37)
    • The Son of Man saying, rel. to the Judgment and faithfulness in following Jesus (8:38)
    • The saying about the coming of the Kingdom of God (9:1)

There is a clear thematic progression, moving from the motif of faithfulness in following Jesus to the eschatological theme of the Judgment and the coming of the Kingdom. The eschatological context of 9:1, which some commentators may be reluctant to admit, seems to be unmistakable in light the Son of Man saying in 8:38 (to be discussed in the next part of this study). Note the parallel:

“…when he [i.e. the Son Man] should come in the splendor of his Father with the holy Messengers” (8:38)
“…the kingdom of God having come in power” (9:1)

Here is the saying in 9:1 (with the Synoptic parallels):

“Amen, I relate to you that there will be some of the (one)s having stood here who should not (at all) taste death until they should see the kingdom of God having come in power.”
Matthew’s version (16:28) is identical except for the closing words:
“…until they should see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Luke’s wording (9:27) differs slightly, but is otherwise identical to Mark, except for the omission of the final words “in power”.

While it is possible that Luke’s version downplays the eschatological context, Matthew’s version unquestionably enhances it, relating it to the Son of Man sayings in Mk 13:26f and 14:62 par (to be discussed). It is understandable why many commentators, especially those with a strong traditional-conservative leaning, would be uncomfortable with the eschatology expressed in Mk 9:1 par, since Jesus appears to say that some of his disciples would still be alive when the Kingdom of God comes (at the end-time). This has led to interpretations which view the saying in a somewhat different context than that indicated by both the wording and the association with the Son of Man saying in 8:38. These alternate interpretations include:

    • Witnessing the resurrection and/or ascension
    • A vision of Jesus’ in glory (such as the Transfiguration) which presages his subsequent (end-time) appearance in glory
    • The manifestation (“coming”) of the Kingdom through the early Christian (apostolic) mission, accompanied by miracles and the work of the Spirit

The narrative context suggests at least a thematic connection between the saying in 9:1 and the Transfiguration scene which follows, but this association is highly questionable in terms of Jesus’ intended meaning. The last option is probable, at least in terms of the understanding of the writer and overall presentation of Luke-Acts. However, the problem with all of these interpretations is they really do not square with Jesus’ own emphasis that some of the disciples standing with him would not die (“would certainly not taste death”) until they saw the Kingdom come in power/glory. For the events mentioned above as possible solutions, nearly all of the disciples would still be alive, and provide nothing remarkable in confirmation of Jesus’ prediction. On the other hand, the idea that some of the disciples would still be alive at the (end-time) coming of the Kingdom would certainly be worthy of note, establishing a general time-frame for the realization of this event (i.e. by the end of the 1st century A.D.). This is important, since in coincides with the general belief, held, it would seem, by nearly all of the earliest Christians, that end of the current Age (marked by the return of Jesus and the Judgment) would occur very soon. Only after the first generation of believers had begun to die off in significant numbers, did this eschatological expectation start to alter. This can be seen at several points in the later strands of the New Testament, most notably with the tradition involving the “Beloved Disciple” in John 21:20-23.

The obvious doctrinal difficulties related to an imminent eschatology in the sayings of Jesus will be discussed in a separate, supplemental article.

Matthew 12:28 / Luke 11:20

An interesting (and much-discussed) saying of Jesus comes from the so-called “Q” material (i.e. traditions found in Matthew and Luke, but not Mark). It raises questions as to Jesus’ understanding of just how (and when) the Kingdom of God will come. The saying is incorporated within the Synoptic “Jesus and Beelzebul” episode (Mark 3:22-27 par). In response to accusations that he expels unclean spirits “in (the power) of Beelzebul”, Jesus makes the following statement:

“But if (it is) in the Spirit of God (that) I cast out the daimons, then (truly) the kingdom of God (has already) arrived [e&fqasen] upon you.” (Matt 12:28)

Luke’s version (11:20, probably reflecting the original form of the saying) really only differs in the use of the expression “finger [da/ktulo$] of God” instead of “Spirit of God”. The verb fqa/nw has the fundamental meaning of arriving at a particular point or location, especially in the sense of reaching it first, or ahead of someone else. It is rare in the New Testament, occurring elsewhere only in Paul’s letters (Rom 9:31; 2 Cor 10:14; Phil 3:16; and 1 Thess 2:16; 4:15). The latter references in 1 Thessalonians are especially significant due to their eschatological emphasis. But how is Jesus’ statement here to be understood? Is the reference to the coming of the Kingdom eschatological? If so, then it would signify that the end-time is being inaugurated in the person and work of Jesus (i.e. his miracles). The use of fqa/nw could be taken to mean that the Kingdom is coming upon people, through the work of Jesus, before they realize it, and, perhaps, in a way that they would not have expected (cf. below on Luke 17:20-21). What is especially important is Jesus’ emphasis that his working of miracles is done directly through the presence and power of God (His “Spirit” or “finger”). This certainly would reflect God’s ruling power and authority (over both human beings and evil spirits). In Jesus’ ministry, the proclamation of the Kingdom is closely connected with his power to work healing miracles (Mk 1:15, 21ff, 32; 3:15-16 par; Matt 4:23ff; Luke 4:40-41, 43; 8:1-2; 9:1-2; 10:17-18, etc).

Luke 17:20-21
[cf. also the extra-canonical Gospel of Thomas sayings 3, 113]

Another famous (and difficult) saying regarding the coming of the Kingdom is recorded in Luke 17:20-21. It is part of a block of eschatological teaching (17:22-37), largely identified as so-called “Q” material, but which Matthew incorporates at a different location, in the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (Matt 24). It begins with a question by certain Pharisees: “When (will) the kingdom of God come(?)”. As is often the case in the Gospel tradition, Jesus gives an ambiguous or unconventional answer to such eschatological questions (cf. on Mk 9:11-13 above). His answer is composed of three statements, two negative and one positive:

    • “the kingdom of God does not come with (a person) keeping (close) watch alongside”
    • “they will not (be able to) say ‘See! here (it is)!’ or ‘There (it is)!'”
    • “see—the kingdom of God is within [e)nto/$] you [pl.]”

The two negative statements seem to express the same basic idea, that the coming/presence of the Kingdom will not be readily visible through observation and sense-perception—at least not by the people at large. In some respects these statements are at odds with others which emphasize the visible signs of the Kingdom (cf. Matt 12:28 par, above). There seem to be two ‘groups’ of people referenced in the first two (negative) statements:

    • Persons giving careful study and consideration to the matter—examining the ‘signs of the times’, the Scriptural prophecies, engaging in learned speculation, etc (i.e. persons perhaps like the very Pharisees inquiring of Jesus)
    • A popular response to apparent signs or claims that the Kingdom is coming, or has come (cf. Luke 21:8 par)

The implication of these statements is that the Kingdom of God comes in a way and manner that the people at large—the learned and unlearned alike—do not (and cannot) realize. This informs the positive statement in verse 21b: “For, see!—the kingdom of God is within you”. The precise meaning of this saying has been much debated and remains controversial, the difficulty centering primarily on the rare preposition (or adverb) e)nto/$ (“within, inside”). The translation “within” or “inside” can be rather misleading, as it suggests an identification of the Kingdom with the Spirit dwelling in and among believers (cf. Rom 14:17; Luke 11:2 v.l.; John 3:5). However, here in vv. 20-21 Jesus is addressing certain inquisitive Pharisees (often his opponents in debate/dispute), rather than his disciples. Also, the use of e)nto/$ with the plural pronoun u(mw=n (“you [pl.]”) suggests something a bit different.

Unfortunately, e)nto/$ is quite rare, occurring in the New Testament only at Matt 23:26; however, the basic denotation is locative (and usually spatial)—something which is located, or takes place, within/inside certain limits or boundaries. To use it in the context of a group of people suggests a meaning akin to “in the midst of” (usually expressed as e)n me/sw|), but with a slightly different emphasis. The idea seems to that the Kingdom of God exists (or is/will be established) in the very midst of the people (esp. the learned Pharisees), without their being aware of it. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Jesus, in the saying as we have it, is referring primarily to himself—i.e., many people, including these Pharisees, do not recognize that the Kingdom is present (has “come near”, Mk 1:15 par, etc) in the person and work of Jesus. It is also possible to understand the saying, and the use of e)nto/$, in a more figurative sense—e.g., that the Kingdom comes, or is present, within the limits of their own expectation (and/or their religious understanding), without their realizing it. This may seem overly subtle, but keep in mind that Jesus’ ministry began with a declaration (Mk 1:15 par) that draws upon traditional Jewish eschatological expectation (regarding the Kingdom), and he continued to make use of similar language and imagery throughout his ministry, often giving it an entirely new meaning. This will be discussed further as we continue in our study on Jesus’ sayings and parables.

One additional difficulty involves the force of the present verb of being (e)stin, “is”) which closes verse 21. There are two ways to understand this:

    • Taken literally, in a temporal sense (i.e. referring to the present), it would mean that the Kingdom has already come, and is present. This would agree with sayings such as Mk 1:15; Matt 12:28 pars. It also would provide confirmation for the idea that the Kingdom is present primarily in the person of Jesus.
    • It may simply reflect an indicative statement describing the nature and character of the Kingdom—i.e. this is what the Kingdom is like, etc—without necessarily referring to time (past-present-future). In other words, he may be saying that, when the Kingdom comes, it will be present in their very midst (without their recognizing it).
Matt 6:9-13 / Luke 11:2-4

Finally, mention should be made of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13; Lk 11:2-4). It is not customary for Christians to think of this famous prayer by Jesus from an eschatological viewpoint, but it is likely that this aspect was present in its original form as uttered by Jesus. We have already seen how the idea of the coming of the Kingdom (the wish and petition expressed in the first lines of the prayer) is fundamentally eschatological, both in its background, and as used by Jesus. Similarly, the requests that one not be led “into testing” (Matt 6:13a; Lk 11:4b), and for “rescue” from evil [or from the Evil One] (Matt 6:13b), probably carry an eschatological nuance. A prayer to God for the coming of the Kingdom and deliverance from evil would have been a fundamental component of Jewish eschatological (and Messianic) expectation at the time of Jesus. I discuss the Prayer in detail in a prior series.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Sayings of Jesus (Pt 1)

The Synoptic Gospels

The Sayings and Teachings of Jesus

We begin our study of the eschatology of the New Testament with the Synoptic Gospels—in particular, the sayings and teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Synoptic Tradition. On the basic approach adopted here, see the introduction to my earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”. The shorter sayings and teachings of Jesus will be examined first, followed by the parables, and concluding with a study of the great “Eschatological Discourse”.

When dealing with the Sayings of Jesus, the situation is complicated considerably for many critical scholars, who, as a matter of principle (and method), seek to distinguish between sayings which are authentic (going back to the words of Jesus) and those which are thought to be largely the product of early Christians in light of their beliefs regarding Jesus, etc. Various “criteria of authenticity” have been developed which help scholars to determine, on objective grounds, the sayings which are more likely to be authentic. Traditional-conservative commentators, on the other hand, tend to accept the Gospel accounts at face value, viewing all (or nearly all) of the recorded sayings as reflecting the actual words of the historical Jesus, allowing for a modest amount of editing and translation (from Aramaic, etc). While I do not reject out of hand nor disregard the critical analyses and theories regarding authenticity—indeed, I often find them to be most helpful and insightful—however, for the purposes of this study, I work from the assumption that the Gospel Tradition preserves the genuine words of Jesus in substance. Only in special cases will I be discussing matters related to the question of authenticity.

Any discussion of the sayings of Jesus, relating to his (and early Christian) eschatology, must start with the declaration that begins his public ministry in the core Synoptic tradition.

Mark 1:15 par

Following his baptism by John (Mk 1:9-11), and his time of testing in the desert (1:12-13), we read of Jesus that he

“came into the Galîl proclaiming the good message of God [and saying] that ‘The time has been (ful)filled and the kingdom of God has come near! Change your mind(set) [i.e. repent] and trust in the good message!'” (1:14-15)

This theme which introduces Jesus’ public ministry generally follows the preaching of John the Baptist, as it is recorded in the Gospels (cf. also Josephus, Antiquities 18.116-119). Indeed, in Matthew’s version, John makes the very same declaration: “Change your mind(set) [i.e. repent]—for the kingdom of the Heavens has come near!” (3:2, using “kingdom of Heaven” instead of “…of God”, cp. 4:17). Even though this is not found precisely in the wider Synoptic tradition, it very much fits the tenor of his preaching—on the need for repentance in light of the coming Judgment of God upon humankind. The Synoptic summary of John’s ministry makes this clear:

“…Yohanan, the (one) dunking (people), came to be in the desolate (land) proclaiming a dunking of a change-of-mind(set) [meta/noia, i.e. repentance] unto the release of (one’s) sins. And all (the people in) the area (of) Yehudah and all the Yerushalaim (peop)le traveled out toward him, and were dunked under him in the Yarden river, giving out as one an account of [i.e. confessing/acknowledging] their sins.” (Mk 1:4-5 par)

The eschatological orientation of John’s ministry of baptism, and his preaching, is readily apparent from:

    • The citation of Isa 40:3 in Mk 1:2-3. This passage is one of a number in Isa 40-66 (Deutero-Isaiah) which had been given a Messianic interpretation by Jews in the 1st centuries B.C./A.D. (cf. the recent survey of Messianic passages). There is every reason to believe that John, much like the Community of the Qumran texts (1QS 8:14-16), identified himself with the herald “crying in the desert”, preparing the way for the coming of the Lord (at the end-time). This is made explicit in Jn 1:19-23. According to certain strands of traditional Jewish eschatology, this coming of the Lord (YHWH) for Judgment was realized through, or along with, the end-time appearance of YHWH’s chosen representative (Anointed One, “Messiah”).
    • Details from the traditions in Matthew and Luke (the so-called “Q” material):
      (a) John’s preaching of the need for repentance is specifically connected with “the anger (of God) (be)ing [i.e. that is] about (to come)” (Matt 3:7-9 / Lk 3:7-8), i.e. the coming Judgment
      (b) the images of the axe (cutting down the tree) and of the harvest (separating grain from chaff) also refer to this idea of God’s impending Judgment (Matt 3:10, 12 / Lk 3:9, 17)

Given these facts, there is little reason to think that Jesus’ declaration in Mark 1:15 par is meant in a fundamentally different sense than that of Matt 3:2 (as a summary of John’s preaching). Thus we can isolate three main elements, or aspects, of Jesus’ statement:

    1. The coming of God—his kingdom, i.e. God as king/ruler over the world
    2. The nearness of His Coming—that it is about to take place, and
    3. The need for repentance—in light of God’s coming rule (incl. Judgment on the wicked)

There can be little doubt that this reflected John’s proclamation to the people of Judea, and Jesus, it would seem, began his ministry with essentially the same message. However, in the case of Jesus, the situation is complicated greatly by the many and varied references to “the kingdom (of God)” in his sayings and parables, as recorded in the Gospels. He spoke quite often about this Kingdom, much of which has been preserved in the Gospel Tradition, bringing out a number of distinct points of emphasis; for Jesus, the Kingdom (basilei/a) was a multi-faceted concept and symbol. I have discussed this extensively in an earlier two-part article, as well as in the series “Yeshua the Anointed” (Part 5). It will be worth summarizing that analysis briefly here.

These are the primary aspects most commonly found in the sayings and parables. As part of my earlier study, based on the entirety of the evidence, I isolated four basic senses of the term “Kingdom (of God)” in the New Testament:

    1. The eternal rule of God (in Heaven)
    2. An eschatological Kingdom (on earth), which can be understood in two different aspects:
      a. An absolute sense: New heavens and new earth (preceded by judgment on the World)
      b. A contingent sense: Messianic kingdom (preceded by judgment of the Nations)
    3. The presence of Christ—His life, work and teaching, death and resurrection
    4. The presence of God/Christ (through the Spirit) in the hearts, minds, and lives of believers

The fundamental idea informing the phrase “Kingdom of God” is that of the rule of God—that is, His governing power and authority—coming to be present, or made manifest, on earth, in a manner beyond what one sees in the natural order of things. In this regard, and in light of the range of meaning outlined above, it is possible to narrow the focus in Jesus’ usage to three primary aspects:

    • The coming Judgment of God upon the world, after which the righteous (believers) will enter the Divine/Eternal Life and receive heavenly reward [sense #2a above]
    • The establishment of an end-time Kingdom (rule of God) upon earth, however this is understood precisely, with judgment (of the wicked) and transformation of the social/religious order of things [sense #2b above]
    • The Kingdom of God is manifest and realized in the person and presence of Jesus [sense #3 above]

We must ask, which of these three aspects is being emphasized in the declaration of Mark 1:15 par? The first two aspects reflect different sides of traditional Jewish eschatological (and Messianic) expectation—that is, of an (imminent) future eschatology. The third aspect represents what we may call “realized” eschatology—i.e., events and attributes understood as related to the future are realized (for believers) in the present. As discussed above, the parallel with John’s preaching strongly indicates that Jesus is drawing upon the common eschatological expectation—that the end-time appearance of God, coming to bring Judgment, was soon to take place.

This is the interpretation accepted by many, if not most, critical commentators today, and it serves to epitomize the fundamental difficulty in dealing with early Christian eschatology. For traditional-conservative scholars and readers of Scripture, the problem is particularly acute, and may be summarized this way:

    • If Jesus proclaimed that the coming of the Kingdom—and, with it, the end of the current Age—was close at hand, then it opens up the possibility of his being in error on that point.
    • Yet, at the same time, to understand his view differently (and to avoid the doctrinal problem), risks distorting or neglecting the straightforward sense of his words, and how they would have been understood by people at the time.

Before proceeding any further on this thorny interpretative question (one of the most difficult in modern New Testament studies), let us examine the actual words used by Jesus in Mark 1:15; there are three phrases, or components to his declaration:

1. peplh/rwtai o( kairo/$ (“the time has been [ful]filled”). The verb plhro/w has the basic meaning “fill (up)”, sometimes in the more general sense of “complete, bring to completion, fulfill,” etc. Here the expression means that the period of time (and all that it entails), leading up to the point (kairo/$) when a particular event will take place, has been filled (i.e. completed). For a similar example, using the related verb plh/qw, see Luke 2:21-22. It precludes the idea that Jesus is announcing something which is still to come in the (distant) future; the time is now, at his very speaking. There is doubtless also an allusion to the fulfillment of prophecy, where the verb plhro/w is frequently used (cf. Luke 4:21, etc).

2. kai\ h&ggiken h( basilei/a tou= qeou= (“and the kingdom of God has come near”). However one understands the expression “kingdom of God”, it is quite clear what Jesus says about it: “it has come near” (h&ggiken). The verb e)ggi/zw is related to the adverb e)ggu/$ (“close”), and means “come (or bring) close”; the intransitive usage is more common (“come close/near”). It can be understood either in a spatial or temporal sense. In a religious (and theological) context, it can refer to persons (i.e. priests, the righteous) approaching God, as well as the reverse—of God coming near to his people. For example, cf. Exod 3:5; Lev 21:21; Ezek 40:46 (all LXX); James 4:8; Heb 7:19; Eph 2:13, 17. One may also come near to God in a figurative sense (implying a religious attitude), as in Isa 29:13, etc. For the temporal usage, the time when something will occur (i.e. is about to take place), cf. LXX Num 24:17; Isa 26:17; Hab 3:2, etc.

The background to the eschatological use of e)ggi/zw is found in the (later) Prophets ([Deutero-]Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc LXX). It is used in reference to the coming of the “Day of YHWH”, which is the time of salvation and/or Judgment—Isa 13:6; 50:8; 51:5; 56:6; Ezek 7:4; 22:4; 30:3; cf. also Joel 1:5; 2:1; 3:14; Obad 15; Zeph 1:7, 14. The New Testament usage is primarily based on (Deutero-)Isaiah. There are 42 occurrences of the verb. Besides the ordinary sense of coming near (to a place, etc), it is used in three ways:

    • The eschatological sense—that the time of God’s appearance (the day [h(me/ra] of Judgment, salvation, etc) has come, or is coming, near. The third person perfect form h&ggiken is almost always used. Rom 13:12; Heb 10:25; James 5:8; 1 Pet 4:7; cf. also Acts 7:17 for the similar idea of a promised time coming to pass.
    • The sense of believers coming near and encountering God (cf. above)—James 4:8; Eph 2:13, 17. Note Philo’s use of the verb in On the Unchangableness of God §161; On the Special Laws II.57; cf. also Psalm 33:18; 119:151; 145:18 LXX.
    • The special sense of Jesus’ time (or “hour”), i.e. the time of his Passion, coming near—Matt 26:45-46 par; cf. also Lk 4:13.

Jesus’ use of the verb is unquestionably eschatological, along the lines indicated above. This is clear when one compares the declaration in Mark 1:15 (par Matt 4:17; cf. also 3:2; 10:7) with the statements in Luke 21:8, 20, 28. One should also note the distinctive (eschatological) use of the related adverb e)ggu/$ (“close/near”) in Mark 13:28-29 par; Luke 19:11; Rev 1:3; 22:10; cf. also Rom 13:11; Phil 4:5.

[For more on the verb e)ggi/zw, etc, see the article by H. Preisker in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [TDNT], Vol 2, pp. 330-2.]

3. metanoei=te kai\ pisteu/ete e)n tw=| eu)aggeli/w| (“change your mind and trust in the good message”). There are two aspects to this statement: (a) people are to change their way of thinking (and acting), i.e. “repent”, and (b) they are to trust in the “good message” (eu)agge/lion) of salvation. The verb metaneu/w (lit. change [one’s] mind) and the idea of repentance featured prominently in the preaching of John the Baptist (cf. the discussion above). It is not especially common in Jesus’ own preaching, as recorded in the Gospels, but it is certainly present (cf. below). The word eu)agge/lion (“good message”, i.e. ‘gospel’) is also surprisingly rare, especially in the traditional Christian sense of the “good news” about Jesus (cf. Mark 8:35; 10:29; 14:9). For the righteous (and sinners who repent), the coming of the kingdom of God is good news, for several reasons:

    • It represents the coming of God and the establishment of his rule on earth—entailing the elimination of evil and wickedness.
    • The righteous will be delivered from the power and influence of the wicked (and of sin, etc).
    • The righteous will be saved/rescued from the coming Judgment, passing through it into eternal life.

This eschatological context of the “good message” is confirmed by the use of the term in Mark 13:10 par; the implications of this particular verse will be discussed in the upcoming article on the “Eschatological Discourse”.

Matthew’s version (4:17) of the declaration in Mark 1:15 is briefer and uses the expression “kingdom of the Heavens” rather than “kingdom of God”:

“Change your mind(set)—for the kingdom of the Heavens has come near!”

This matches the declaration by the Baptist (3:2), and is essentially repeated in 10:7. These words of Jesus are not present at a corresponding point in the Gospel of Luke, where the public ministry of Jesus is introduced from a different standpoint—the citation of Isa 61:1 and the episode at Nazareth (Lk 4:16-30). However, Luke does still depict Jesus as proclaiming the Kingdom during the Galilean ministry (4:43; 8:1, etc). In particular, the central declaration (of Mk 1:15 par) is preserved in Luke 10:9, 11: “The kingdom of God has come close [h&ggiken] upon you!” This reflects the Synoptic tradition of Jesus’ sending out his disciples to follow his example, as his representatives, doing the same work (healing miracles, etc) and proclaiming the same message—the coming of the Kingdom and the need for repentance (Mark 3:14f; 6:7-13 par; cf. Matt 10:7; Lk 9:2). Thus this message was not limited to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but continued on through much of the Galilean period (as recorded in the Synoptic Tradition).

The eschatological emphasis in Jesus teaching, as epitomized by the declaration in Mark 1:15 par, may not have defined entirely his teaching and understanding of the Kingdom of God (and its coming), but it was certainly the central starting point in his public ministry. It is important to keep this in mind as we proceed to examine the other sayings and parables found in the Synoptic Gospels.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Messianic Expectation

Messianic Interpretation and Expectation in the New Testament

The very name and title Christ (Xristo/$), “Anointed”, signifies the fundamental Christian belief that Jesus is the “Anointed One”, the Messiah (Heb. j^yv!m*). Early Christians generally followed Jewish tradition in their expectation of Messianic figures (Prophet, Davidic Ruler, Heavenly Deliverer), adopting many Scripture passages, which had been interpreted in a Messianic sense, and applying them to Jesus. We see this throughout the New Testament, and I have discussed the subject in considerable detail in my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”. The process, in fact, goes back to the earliest layers of Gospel Tradition and the words of Jesus himself.

However, Christians today, in considering the “Messianic” passages and prophecies in the Old Testament, tend not to view them as eschatological. This is due to the time (nearly 2,000 years, and counting) which has passed since Jesus’ death and resurrection. The various Scripture passages may be seen as prophecies of Jesus (his birth, death, resurrection, etc), but it is difficult to regard them as referring to the End Time per se. The situation was quite different for the earliest believers, for whom Messianic and Eschatological expectation were closely connected. According to the Jewish belief and tradition at the time, the coming of the Anointed One—any/all of the Messianic figure-types—was linked to the end of the current Age. Early Christians generally retained this outlook, though adapting it in several key ways due to the unique circumstances of Jesus’ life, and, especially, his death, resurrection, and departure to God the Father in heaven. As he did not fulfill many of the traditional Messianic roles during his lifetime, these would have to wait until his subsequent return, which was felt would take place very soon, and could occur at any time.

In order, then, to understand the eschatology of the New Testament, it is important to include, and emphasize, the Messianic expectation of early Christians. This will be discussed at various points in this series, but it will be helpful to begin with a survey of the Scripture passages which had been interpreted in a Messianic sense during the first centuries B.C./A.D., and which were applied to Jesus by early believers. As most of these have been examined in some detail in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, I will address them only briefly here. There are, of course, many other passages which were understood as prophecies concerning Jesus, but I include here only those which clearly were regarded as Messianic by at least some Israelites and Jews of the time.

The Key Passages

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

In the Old Testament, especially in Deuteronomic tradition, Moses is viewed as a Prophet—indeed as the ideal and greatest Prophet (Deut 34:10-12). In Deuteronomy 18:15ff we find the famous prediction that another Prophet will (eventually) arise who is like Moses and who will take his place. In the same manner, Elisha took the place of Elijah, being anointed by his predecessor (1 Kings 19:16) and possessing his spirit and character (2 Kings 2:9, 15). Eventually, this prediction was given a future, eschatological interpretation—at the end-time, a Prophet-like-Moses would arise to instruct the faithful of Israel.

This expectation probably underlies the notice in 1 Maccabees 14:41 (“…until a trustworthy Prophet should arise”), as well as the reference to “the unique Prophet” in Testament of Benjamin 9:2. In the Qumran texts, Moses was clearly regarded as a Prophet, as in the “Apocryphon of Moses/Pentateuch” writings—cf. especially 4Q375 column 1 (in line 7 the phrase “trustworthy prophet” appears); in 4Q377 column 2, line 5, Moses is referred to as God’s “Anointed (One)” [jyvm]. Deut 18:18-19 is cited in 4QTestimonia [4Q175] lines 5-8, in what is likely an eschatological/Messianic context. The expected Prophet of 1QS 9:11 (“…until the coming of the Prophet and the Anointed [Ones] of Aaron and Israel”) presumably draws upon this Moses tradition as well.

The same may be said of passages in the New Testament which contain a reference to “the Prophet” (Jn 1:21, 25; 6:14; 7:40; Luke 7:16, 36 v.l. etc); in Jn 1:21-25, “the Prophet” seems to be understood as a separate figure from “Elijah”, possibly an indication that the Moses-tradition is involved. John the Baptist explicitly denies being “the Prophet” (Jn 1:21), but that Jesus was thought to be so by people on numerous occasions is indicated by several of the references above. In Acts 3:18-24 (sermon-speech of Peter), Jesus is identified specifically with the coming “Prophet like Moses” of Deut 18:15ff (cf. also Acts 7:37). Within early Christian tradition, Jesus is identified or associated with Moses in a number of ways. For more on this, cf. Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Malachi 3:1ff; 4:5-6

The Messianic “Elijah tradition” derives from Malachi 3:1, combined with the explanatory interpretation of Mal 4:5-6 [Hebrew 3:23-24] which many scholars consider to be a (later) editorial gloss (see my supplementary note on the original context of Mal 3:1). In any case, already by the time of the completion of Malachi (and, presumably, the collection of the Twelve Prophets [Hosea–Malachi] as a whole), the “Messenger” [Ea*l=m^] of Mal 3:1 was identified as Elijah, who will (re)appear just prior to the “Day of YHWH” to bring repentance to people before the Judgment. Over time, this belief was given greater eschatological emphasis—”Elijah” would appear at the end-time, prior to the last Judgment—expressed already in Sirach 48:10 (early-mid 2nd century B.C.). Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, evidence for this belief at Qumran is rather slight, though it is attested in the fragmentary 4Q558 (fragment 1), but is perhaps reflected more prominently in a text such as 4Q521 (cf. below). Evidence for this tradition is found specifically in Mark 9:11-13 (Matt 17:10-12), the citations and allusions to Mal 3:1; 4:5-6 in Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27; Matt 11:10-14, and may be inferred from other references listed below. Also worth noting is Sibylline Oracles 2:187ff (Christian expansion/adaptation of earlier Jewish material).

While Christians came to apply this Messianic figure to John the Baptist, there is some evidence in the earlier strands of Gospel Tradition that people also identified Jesus with the Prophetic figure-type. Indeed, Jesus is connected with Elijah in various ways in the Gospels. For a discussion of this subject, again cf. “Yeshua the Anointed” (Parts 2 and 3).

Psalm 2 (esp. verse 7-9)

This Psalm, drawing upon the ancient religious symbolism of the king as God’s “son” (vv. 7ff), was applied to Jesus at a very early stage of Christian belief. There are allusions to it in the account of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11 par), and the voice from heaven actually quotes it in some manuscripts of Luke 3:22. More commonly, it was associated with Jesus’ resurrection (and exaltation) in early Christian preaching (Acts 13:33, cf. Rom 1:4 etc); the author of Hebrews continues to use it this way (1:5; 5:5), though, by this point, the idea of Jesus’ pre-existence and eternal Sonship was also in view. The overall context of the Psalm (vv. 1-2ff) fit the Messianic portrait, and was applied to Jesus as well (Acts 4:25-28, cf. also Luke 22:66-23:25).

2 Samuel 7:8-16 (cf. also 2 Sam 22:44-51 / Ps 18:44-51, and Psalm 89:3-4, 9-37ff)

The narrative in 2 Samuel 7, with the oracle by the prophet Nathan, is the primary Scripture passage which established the Messianic association with David—i.e., a ruler from the line of David who would appear at the end-time. Together with Psalm 2 (cf. above), it allowed the idea of the Messianic ruler-figure to be identified as “Son of God”. In Jewish tradition, this is best exhibited in the so-called Florilegium (4Q174) from Qumran, which blends together Psalm 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14 (along with other passages) in what is clearly both a Messianic and eschatological context. Another key Qumran text is the Aramaic 4Q246 (i. 9, ii. 1) with its striking parallels to Luke 1:32-35. There would seem to be references to Psalm 89 in 4Q252, and also (possibly) the fragmentary 4Q458. Important allusions are also to be found in the 17th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon (mid-1st century B.C.). For more on the Davidic ruler figure-type, and the title “Son of God”, cf. Parts 68 and 12 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Psalm 110:1-4

The opening verse(s) of this Psalm were central to early Christian understanding of Jesus as both the Messianic (Davidic) ruler and “Son of God”. It also was enormously influential in establishing the title “Lord” (ku/rio$), in a divine sense, for Jesus. As in the case of the title “Son of God” in Psalm 2:7, verse 1 of Psalm 110 was associated primarily with the resurrection of Jesus, following which he was exalted to the right hand of God the Father in heaven. The verse is quoted specifically in this context in Acts 2:34-35, but there are certainly allusions to it throughout the New Testament (Mark 14:62 par; [16:19]; Acts 2:25; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; 1 Pet 3:22, etc). The author of Hebrews quotes it, along with Psalm 2:7 (vv. 5ff), in 1:13, where the idea of divine pre-existence is also present (cf. also 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2).

Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1 in a definite Messianic context (Mark 12:36ff par), making it all but certain that Jews at the time were interpreting it this way. However, contemporary evidence for this is slight indeed. The Qumran text 11QMelchizedek [11Q13], drawing upon traditions regarding Melchizedek (in a Messianic context), would suggest some dependence on Psalm 110, but there are no specific quotations or allusions in the surviving fragments. The interpretation of the figure Melchizedek in Hebrews 7, relying heavily upon Psalm 110, also suggests that there were significant interpretative traditions, perhaps Messianic in nature, which might have been familiar to Jews and Christians of the time. It is also possible that Psalm 110 was influential in shaping the distinctive Messianic tradition, best seen in certain of the Qumran texts, of an Anointed Priestly figure, with a blending of royal and priestly characteristics.

Psalm 118:26

The fact that this verse is quoted both by Jesus (Matt 23:39; Luke 13:35), and by the crowds at his “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem (Mark 11:9 par), suggests that it was understood in a Messianic sense by Jews at the time. However, corresponding contemporary evidence outside of the New Testament is extremely slight. It would have related to the same (Davidic) royal figure-type discussed above.

Isaiah 9:1-6

This passage, along with 7:10-14ff (cf. Matt 1:22-23), came to be interpreted as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth (cf. Luke 2:11). Matthew specifically quotes Isa 9:1-2 as a way of introducing the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (4:14-16). The characteristics of a special royal birth, as well as the message of (future) promise, made Isa 9:1-6 a natural candidate for Messianic interpretation; however, there is little evidence for this in contemporary Jewish writings. Perhaps the closest example is the allusion to verse 6 in the Qumran Hymn 1QH 3. Cf. my earlier Advent/Christmas season study on 9:5-6.

Micah 5:2-4

Likewise, there is little contemporary evidence for a Messianic interpretation of Micah 5:2-4, though it is an obvious candidate. The context of Matthew 2:1-6ff makes no real sense if a Messianic understanding of this passage were not in existence among Jews in the 1st century B.C./A.D.

Amos 9:11

This verse is given a Messianic interpretation in both the Damascus Document (CD 7:14-21) and the Qumran Florilegium (4Q174 3-4). This helps to establish the background of its use in the speech of James (Acts 15:15-18), where it is quoted in very different sense, though still retaining something of a traditional Messianic (and eschatological) context.

Zechariah 9:9-10

The use of this passage, with its royal symbolism and eschatological orientation, in the Gospels, at the “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus (Mark 11:2-10 par, with a specific citation in Matt 21:4-5 and John 12:14-15), would indicate that it may have been understood as a traditional Messianic passage. However, there is little or no contemporary Jewish evidence to support this. Moreover, the singular importance which Zech 9-14 holds in the Gospel Tradition, and the influence it had on shaping the (Passion) narrative, increases the likelihood that this is a uniquely Christian interpretation. This will be addressed a bit further in the upcoming articles.

Daniel 7:13-14; 9:24-27

These important eschatological (and Messianic) passages, so influential for Jews and early Christians both, will be discussed in detail in the upcoming articles.

The Servant Songs of Isaiah

Special attention must be given to the “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah (so-called “Deutero-Isaiah”), usually delineated by four passages: Isa 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12. Only the first and last of these played a central role in early Christian belief. However, it is worth noting that the Isaian “Servant” figure came to be understood and interpreted in a Messianic (or quasi-Messianic) sense by Jews in the first centuries B.C./A.D. The extent of this is indicated, not only by the many (and various) allusions (in the Dead Sea texts, etc), but by the way in which the thought and language of these passages has shaped and colored the texts themselves.

A good example of this may be found in the Qumran Hymns (1QH), especially those which are often attributed to the “Teacher of Righteousness”, an historical (but at least partly Messianic) figure with certain parallels to Jesus (cf. Part 4 of “Yeshua the Anointed”). In these hymns, the speaker repeatedly refers to himself as God’s servant (db#u#)—cf. Hymns IV. 11, 23ff; V. 24; VI. 8, 11, 25; VIII. 19, 21, 23ff; XIII. 15, 28; XV. 16; XVII. 11; XVIII. 29; XIX. 27, 30, 33; XXII. 16; XXIII. 6, 10 (Blenkinsopp, pp. 270-2). There are numerous allusions to the Servant songs, and related Isaian passages, throughout (cf. below).

Isaiah 42:1-9

It is verse 1 which has been most influential for Messianic thought:

“See, my servant—I hold on(to) him, my chosen (one whom) my soul favors; I have given my Spirit upon him, (and) he shall cause justice/judgment to come forth for the nations.”

The words in italics are particularly noteworthy. First, the substantive adjective yr!yj!B= (“my chosen [one]”), rendered in Greek as o( e)klekto/$ mou. This title is parallel, in many ways, with “my anointed [j^yv!m*] (one)”, and can serve as similar Messianic title, as is clear from texts such as the (fragmentary) Qumran 4Q534. There is unquestionably an allusion to Isa 42:1 in the words spoken by the voice from heaven in the Baptism and Transfiguration scenes (Mark 1:11 par; Matt 17:5 par). In the Lukan version of the latter (according to the best manuscript evidence) we read:

“This is my Son, the (one) gathered out [e)klelegme/no$, i.e. chosen]…” (9:35)

Similarly, in the Johannine description of the Baptism, we have the Baptist’s declaration (corresponding to the heavenly voice in the Synoptics):

“…this is the Son of God” (1:34)
though in some MSS the reading is:
“…this is the (one) gathered out [e)klekto/$, i.e. chosen one] of God”

In the New Testament, both the verb e)kle/gw (“gather out”) and the related noun e)klekto/$ are typically used in reference to believers, not Jesus. This suggests that the Gospel usage in such passages where it is applied to Jesus (cf. Luke 23:35) reflects early (Messianic) tradition.

On the second italicized portion above, cf. the discussion on Isa 61:1ff further below.

Isaiah 49:1-6

This Servant Song appears to have influenced Messianic thought and expression at two points: (1) the idea of a sword coming out of the Servant’s mouth (v. 2), and (2) the twin themes of restoration and salvation in v. 6. On the first point, the idea of the sword from the mouth overlaps with the (Messianic) portrait in Isa 11:4 (cf. below); there is an apparent allusion to this in Revelation 1:16 (cf. also Heb 4:12). It is possible that there is a general (Messianic) reference to verse 2 in the Qumran text 1QSb (5:23f).

The theme of the restoration of Israel in verse 6 certainly fits the main contours of traditional Jewish eschatological (and Messianic) thought, even though it is difficult to find contemporary use of the verse to support this. Early Christians, however, understood it in this light, including the second half of the verse, indicating that the Servant will be made “a light to the nations” (cf. Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47).

Isaiah 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12

These two songs introduce the theme of the Servant’s suffering, which early on was interpreted by believers as referring to the suffering and death of Jesus. The famous “Suffering Servant” passage in 52:13-53:12 is central to episode recorded in Acts 8:32-35 (and note the interesting critical question by the Ethiopian official in v. 34). In the Gospels, it is cited directly only at Matt 8:17, in the context of Jesus’ healing miracles, not his death. However, the passage likely influenced the way that the Passion narrative was told and understood, corresponding (rather clearly) in certain details to Isa 53:3-9. The identity of this Servant figure in Isaiah, in terms of its original context, continues to be debated by scholars and commentators.

There is relatively little evidence for the use of Isa 52:13-53:12 at Qumran; unfortunately, the surviving portions of the Commentary (pesher) on Isaiah do not cover 52:13-53:12. Nor would there seem to be any evidence for these Scriptures being interpreted in a Messianic sense prior to their use in the New Testament. The closest we find to a Messianic interpretation would appear be an allusion to Isa 53:3-5, 11-12 in the Qumran text 4Q491c (line 9), which is thought to be related to the Hodayot hymns (1QH) in some way (cf. 1QH 7:10; 8:26-27, 35-36; 9; Blenkinsopp, pp. 278-9ff). There is also an allusion to Isa 52:7 in 11QMelchizedek [11Q13] 2.16, where there is a connection with a Messianic interpretation of Isa 61:1ff, etc (cf. below).

In many ways, the emphasis on the suffering of the Messiah is uniquely applicable to Jesus. Early Christians had to explain how, and why, the Messiah would endure such suffering and the shameful death of crucifixion. This came to be an important point of emphasis in the Gospel Tradition (Mark 14:21, 49 par; Luke 18:31; 22:37; 24:25-26, 44-46), and the earliest (Jewish) Christian missionaries (such as Paul) would have to work hard to establish a sound Scriptural basis for such an idea (cf. Acts 5:42; 9:22; 13:26ff; 17:3; 18:5, 28, etc). Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is one of the only passages in the Old Testament which could be cited in this regard. For more on the idea of the suffering and death of Jesus, in a Messianic context, cf. Part 11 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, as well as a supplementary article on the subject.

Other Passages

There are several key Messianic passages which are surprisingly absent from the New Testament; two of these are—Genesis 49:10, part of the blessing of Jacob over his sons (Judah, vv. 8-12), and Numbers 24:17-19, in Balaam’s fourth oracle (vv. 15-24). Both of these passages use the word tb#v@ (“stick, staff”), as a symbol of rule (i.e. “scepter”), and this came to be an important Messianic motif, in texts such as the Damascus Document (CD) 7:19-20 (= 4Q266 3 iv.9), and 1QSb 5:27-28; 1QM 11:6-7; 4Q161 ii 19; 4Q521 2 iii. 6, etc, at Qumran. Numbers 24:17 was especially prominent as a Messianic prophecy in the Qumran texts, with both “star” and “staff” serving as key symbols (CD 7:19-20; 4Q175 12, etc). Yet, this Scripture is not cited in the New Testament, though it may, possibly, form part of the background of the Star/Magi episode in Matthew 2. Somewhat later in time, but presumably reflecting older traditions, Num 24:17ff does appear as a Messianic prophecy in the Targums (Onkelos, Jonathan), and was famously applied to the quasi-Messianic revolutionary leader Ben-Kosiba (“Bar-Kokhba” = “Son of the Star”), cf. j. Ta’anit 68d.

The relative absence of Isaiah 11:1-9 in the New Testament is also a bit surprising, since this passage, along with Psalm 2, would be extremely influential in the development of the Davidic Ruler figure-type. The prophecy begins with the declaration “A branch [rf#j)] will go out from the stem of Jesse, a fresh/green (sprout) [rx#n@] will grow (out) from his roots”. These words and phrases became foundational motifs for beliefs regarding the coming Davidic ruler in Messianic thought. In particular, this passage associated the Davidic ruler with the defeat/subjugation of the nations and the end-time Judgment. Here also we find the idea of Judgment (vv. 3-4) followed by a new Age of peace (vv. 6-9), common to much Messianic thought.

Among the many texts in the 1st centuries B.C./A.D. which draw upon Isa 11:1ff, we may note the Qumran (pesher) commentary on Isaiah (4QpIsaa [4Q161] 11-12), as well as 1QSb 5:23ff, and important allusions in 4Q285 and 4Q534. The classic portrait of the militant Davidic ruler is found in the 17th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon (mid-1st cent. B.C.), and also features prominently in the 13th chapter of 2/4 Esdras (mid-late 1st cent. A.D.). It is perhaps this militant character of the Messiah which kept it from being applied to Jesus by early Christians; Paul does allude to verse 4b in 2 Thess 2:8, in a clear eschatological context. In relation to Jesus, more appropriate to the Gospel portrait, we may note the reference to the Spirit of YHWH resting upon him (v. 2a, cf. Isa 61:1, below).

The Davidic promise is given new form in the oracles of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, in the historical context of the fall of Judah and the Babylonian exile. Jer 23:5ff declares that God will raise for David “a righteous sprout [qyD!x* jm^x#]” who will rule as king. The same expression and message is found in Jer 33:14-16ff. That these prophecies point to the future, in contrast to the historical circumstances in the prophet’s own time, is indicated by the surrounding context (cf. Jer 22:30; 33:19-26). In Ezekiel 34:23-24, there is a similar promise that God raise up for Israel “one shepherd, my servant David”; cf. also Ezek 37:24-25. In the early post-Exilic period, Zerubbabel appears to have been seen as a fulfillment of the restoration of Davidic rule (Haggai 2:21-24; Zechariah 4:6-14, cf. also 3:8; 6:11-14). Ultimately, of course, the true fulfillment had to wait for a future coming King, as indicated in the (later) oracle Zech 9:9-10ff. All of these passages formed part of the fabric of Messianic thought in the first centuries B.C./A.D.

Isaiah 61:1ff

Of all the Messianic passages, regarded as such at the time, it is perhaps that of Isaiah 61:1ff which best fits the Gospel portrait of Jesus, especially during the time of his earthly ministry. In Luke 4:17-21, Jesus quotes vv. 1-2, and alludes to them again in 7:22 (“Q” par Matt 11:5). Thus, during his ministry (in Galilee), the Messianic figure with whom Jesus specifically identifies himself is the anointed Prophet/Herald of Isa 61. Luke’s positioning of the episode at Nazareth, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, almost certainly is meant to draw a connection between the Spirit-anointing of Isa 61:1 and the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism (3:22 par). Following the baptism, Jesus moves about in the guidance and power of the Spirit (4:1, 14).

The phrase “in the power of the Spirit” is probably meant to indicate Jesus’ own Prophetic status (cf. Lk 1:17; Acts 10:38)—specifically as an Anointed Prophet. Even though the noun jyv!m* [m¹šîaµ] / xristo/$ [christós], is not used in Isa 61:1 (rather it is the verb jv^m* / e&xrisen), this verse does seem to have been extremely influential toward the idea of a Messianic Prophet. The figure in Isa 61:1ff certainly does not appear to be a king or ruler of the Davidic mold, nor a priest, but rather a prophet like Isaiah himself. It describes a herald who announces a message of good tidings (in Hebrew, literally “fresh” tidings) to the poor and oppressed.

By the time of Jesus’ ministry, there is evidence that Isa 61:1ff was already being understood in an eschatological sense, with the anointed figure of verse 1 identified as a Prophet-Messiah. This is seen most clearly in the Qumran text 4Q521, where in fragment 2 (column ii, line 1) we read: “…[the heav]ens and the earth will listen to [i.e. obey] his Anointed (One)”. What follows in lines 2-14 etc is a blending of Isa 61:1ff and Psalm 146; but the idea of heaven and earth obeying God’s Anointed is suggestive of a Prophet in the manner of Elijah who “shut up the heavens” so that it would not rain and brought down fire from heaven (1 Kings 17:1ff; Sirach 48:2-3; James 5:17); Jesus of course exhibited a similar authority over the elements (Mark 5:35-41; 8:45-52 pars). Moreover, in column iii of fragment there is an allusion to Mal 4:5-6 and the (end-time) role of Elijah in bringing people to repentance.

Isaiah 40:1-5

Finally, we should note the famous prophecy in Isa 40:1-5 (esp. verses 3ff), which was foundational for the religious self-identity of both the Qumran Community and the earliest Christians. For the Community of the Qumran texts, the key passage is in the Community Rule (1QS) 8:14-15f, where Isa 40:3 is cited and applied to the Community. The association of the same verse with John the Baptist and his ministry (Mark 1:2-3 par; Matt 11:10 par; John 1:23; cf. also Luke 1:17, 76 and the connection with Mal 3:1ff) has, among other factors, led a number of scholars to posit some sort of relationship between John and the Qumran Community. For early Christians, it is likely that Isa 40:3 influenced the use of “(followers of) the Way” as a self-designation (cf. Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22).

It should be noted that the use of Isa 40:3-5 in the Gospel Tradition, and among early Christians, is Messianic only in a special, qualified sense. For the most part, early believers identified the herald (“one crying out [in the desert]”), like the Messenger of Mal 3:1ff, with John the Baptist, rather than Jesus. And, while it is likely that some Jews at the time regarded John as a Messianic figure (Jn 1:19-27; 3:26-30, etc), the issue quickly disappeared from Christian thought. The twin passages of Isa 40:3-5 and Mal 3:1ff were interpreted, not in the original context of a chosen (Messianic) Prophet/Herald appearing before the coming of the Lord (YHWH), but in terms of John the Baptist preparing the way before the coming of the Lord (Jesus).

References above marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Opening the Sealed Book: Interpretations of the Book of Isaiah in Late Antiquity (Eerdmans: 2006).

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Introduction

This begins a new Study Series which will run throughout the Fall season. It deals with the subject of “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”. This area of study is a rather precarious one for commentators, and I approach it with some reluctance. Not only is the eschatological interpretation of “Bible Prophecy” quite problematic and controversial, with many Christians holding sharp and distinctive views, but it also represents one of the more lurid and speculative areas of Scriptural study. There have been an extremely wide range of opinions and interpretations of certain passages—some more or less plausible, and others quite preposterous—throughout the centuries. Often the interest and emphasis on Eschatology, to the neglect of more essential aspects of Christian faith and life, has proven to be altogether unhealthy, resulting in any number of travesties (and tragedies) among Christians all the way down to the present day.

Even more serious is the fundamental question of how to deal with the eschatological worldview we find among the earliest believers (in the 1st century A.D.), in the period of the New Testament, since it differs so markedly, in many respects, from our frame of reference today. Both the chronological and cultural divide creates enormous challenges for us in understanding and interpreting the New Testament writings, and nowhere more so than in the area of eschatology. This will be discussed in detail throughout the series, beginning in this introduction (cf. further below).

The words “Prophecy” and “Eschatology”

Let us start with a definition of the terms:

Prophecy

The English terms “prophecy” and “prophet” derive from the Greek profhteu/w (proph¢teúœ), and the related nouns profhtei/a (proph¢teía) and profh/th$ (proph¢¡t¢s). The Greek has the fundamental meaning of bringing something to light (i.e. saying, telling, revealing it) before (pro/) others. Prophecy is typically understood in terms of telling the future; however, this is only one aspect of prophecy, and not even the most important one at that. There are two ways that the preposition pro/ (“before, fore[ward]”) here may be understood: (1) spatial or relational, i.e. “in front of”; and (2) chronological, i.e. “beforehand”. The latter sense relates to the foretelling of future events (i.e., declaring things before they happen); yet, the former sense better fits the basic meaning of the corresponding Hebrew ayb!n` (n¹»î°) and ab*n` (n¹»â°) in the Old Testament. In the ancient Near Eastern religious and cultural context, shared by Israelite religion, the aybn is a spokesperson (for God), a chosen representative who receives a message, and communicates this “word” (and will) of God to the people at large. This is also the role of “prophets” in early Christianity, individuals gifted by the Spirit (or, at least, receptive to it), who then speak this message to the congregation(s) with whom they are associated.

Eschatology

This word, as derived from the Greek, literally means “an account of the last [e&sxato$, éschatos] (things)”, i.e. as a subject or area of study. From the standpoint of Biblical theology, it refers to passages in the Scriptures which are thought to discuss or to reveal the end of the current Age, usually connected with the idea of the final Judgment to be brought by God upon the world, and the eternal Life which follows for believers.

Apocalypse/Apocalyptic

Both the verb a)pokalu/ptw (apokaly¡ptœ) and the related noun a)poka/luyi$ (apokálypsis) occur relatively frequently in the New Testament (26/18 times). The fundamental meaning is “take the cover away from”, i.e. “uncover”; it refers to the idea of revelation, more than to specific revelation about the future. The tendency to associate it with prophecy about the future is largely due to the influence of the Book of Revelation, which is called an a)poka/luyi$ (‘Apocalypse’, 1:1). There were a number of Jewish (and Christian) writings in the first centuries B.C./A.D. which have many characteristics in common, enough to warrant categorization as a genre of “Apocalyptic” literature. In these texts, a prophetic figure (usually a famous personage from the past) is given information, and/or allowed to see visions, which are purported to describe future events. The tendency among critical scholars is to regard all (or nearly all) of such works as ex eventu revelations—i.e., descriptions of things which, for the most part, have already occurred. Often the “future” events described would seem to refer to the author’s own life-setting and concerns.

Particular Difficulties Related to Early Christian (New Testament) Eschatology

There are a number of fundamental difficulties which face us today when studying the eschatological worldview and beliefs of the earliest Christians in the New Testament. I outline four here, which I will discuss briefly:

    1. The symbolic (multivalent) character of eschatological language and images.
    2. The unique way in which early Christians adapted traditional eschatological (and Messianic) elements, applying them to Jesus.
    3. The nature and extent of “dispensational” language and concepts.
    4. The expectation of an sudden/immanent end to this Age among early Christians.

1. Eschatological expression tends to be apocalyptic in nature (cf. above). This means that the mode of expression, within the framework of “uncovering” hidden/secret things, is often intentionally obscure, utilizing a symbolic language. Such symbolism is the result of two dynamics at work: (1) the idea that the heavenly/divine message, especially regarding future events, is difficult to express, requiring the use of symbols and figurative language; and (2) that this language is meant to protect the message, keeping it hidden and obscure for outsiders. This last point relates especially to eschatological and apocalyptic tendencies in the New Testament, going back to the teachings (esp. the parables) of Jesus himself (cf. Mark 4:11-12 par, etc).

Moreover, the very nature of symbolic language systems is multivalent—that is, individual symbols (and networks of symbols) can often have more than one underlying value or meaning. This requires most careful study and analysis when looking, for example, at the many symbols and figures used in the Book of Revelation. The multivalent character of the apocalyptic mode of expression is mirrored precisely in the vast number of ways that such language has been interpreted by Christians over the centuries.

2. Early Christians, for the most part, inherited their eschatological thought and apocalyptic mode of expression from Israelite/Jewish tradition, beginning with the Old Testament Prophets (especially the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah). This can be seen by the many similarities between the New Testament and certain Jewish writings c. 250 B.C. to the end of the 1st century A.D. (including the Qumran [Dead Sea] texts). Most of these writings reflect Messianic thought, in various ways. All of the primary Messianic figure-types which developed (Prophet, Davidic Ruler, Heavenly Judge/Deliverer) had a strong eschatological context, being closely associated with the end of the current Age (and the beginning of the Age to Come). Their appearance was generally thought to coincide with God’s (final) Judgment upon humankind, in which God would judge the wicked/nations and rescue His faithful ones. For more on this topic, cf. the earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

The early Christian application of Messianic thought (and interpretation of Scripture) to the person of Jesus created a uniquely Christian mode of eschatological/apocalyptic expression. A central difficulty was the fact that Jesus had been put to death, raised, and then departed back to God the Father (in heaven), apparently without fulfilling the traditional eschatological role of the Messiah. The final Judgment, defeat of the wicked/nations, and deliverance of God’s people, etc, all had to wait until Jesus’ return to earth (i.e. “second coming”) sometime in the (near) future. This becomes the fundamental point of early Christian eschatology, but the tension it creates with the traditional manner of eschatological expression, which continued to be used, is manifest all throughout the New Testament, and causes many challenges for interpretation.

3. One specific area where this is manifested is in what I would call the “dispensational” mode of early Christian thought. I am by no means referring to the Dispensationalist systems, and manner of interpretation, popular among many Christians in recent centuries, but, rather, to the basic understanding early Christians had regarding the (eschatological) distinction between “the current Age” and “the Age to Come”. Unique (and essential) to the Christian worldview was the dual character of this “Age to Come”:

    • Aspect 1: The New Age was introduced and inaugurated by Jesus, through his sacrificial death and resurrection, and, especially, by the coming of the Spirit upon believers.
    • Aspect 2: At the same time, this “New Age” is experienced only by believers (i.e. at the spiritual level); the rest of the world remains dominated by sin and darkness. The true end of this current Age will only occur at Jesus’ return, with the final Judgment by God, and the Resurrection of the dead.

The first aspect is sometimes referred to as “realized eschatology”, as opposed to the traditional (future) eschatology of aspect #2. Christians can use eschatological modes of expression to speak of either (or both) of these aspects, which can make study of early Christian eschatology quite difficult at times. “Realized” eschatology is particularly prominent in the Gospel and Letters of John, but it can also be found clearly (and repeatedly) in Paul’s letters, and elsewhere in the New Testament as well.

4. Perhaps the single most difficult area of early Christian eschatology, for believers today, is the expectation of a sudden (imminent) occurrence of the end of the current Age, marked by the return of Jesus and God’s final Judgment. This view that the end is near is to be found in dozens of places, in most of the New Testament writings. I will be discussing these references during this series. For traditional-conservative readers and commentators, in particular, this aspect of early Christian eschatological can be highly problematic, and, indeed, many would deny (or at least mitigate) its implications. After all, by any normal standard of divine inspiration, how could the New Testament authors have been so mistaken as to believe the end was near, when at least 2,000 years would come and go before this occurs? There are no quick or easy solutions to this problem, which requires much careful study, done honestly and openly, without the burden of dogmatic presuppositions. Here I would only summarize several possible views, each of which will be discussed during the course of the articles and notes in this series:

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

The Format of this Series

The articles in this series will cover two aspects of New Testament Eschatology:

    1. Scripture (Old Testament) passages which were understood, by the New Testament authors and/or their readers, to be prophecies or descriptions of the end-time and the Age to Come. I will be limiting this discussion to only those Scriptures which are quoted, or for which there clear allusions, in the New Testament writings. Even though many other passages (in the Prophets, etc) have been given an eschatological interpretation by subsequent Christians, and may have been viewed that way already by believers in the 1st century, these will not be addressed, except in passing.
    2. Statements and prophecies by the New Testament authors, or otherwise contained in the writings themselves, which are not necessarily tied to Old Testament passages.

Here is an initial outline which will be followed:

    • Part 1: Eschatology of Jesus (in the Synoptic Gospels)
    • Part 2: The Early Christian Preaching (in the Book of Acts)
    • Part 3: Eschatology in the Pauline Letters
      • Overview of the Evidence
      • 1 and 2 Thessalonians (with a special study on 2 Thess chap. 2)
      • Eschatological aspects of Romans
    • Part 4: The Gospel and Letters of John
    • Part 5: The remainder of the New Testament (Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, Jude)
    • Part 6: Christology and the Development of Eschatology
      Appendix on the Early Christian Writings c. 90-150 A.D.

This is preceded by a general survey of the Scriptures which were interpreted in a Messianic sense (and applied to Jesus).

Because of the special place held by the Book of Revelation for New Testament eschatology, I am devoting a separate series of daily notes, commenting on the book, which will run concurrent with the articles in the main series.

“Gnosis” in the NT: 1 Corinthians 13:12

1 Corinthians 13:12

Chapter 13 (12:31b-14:1a) in 1 Corinthians contains several occurrences of the verb ginw/skw (“know”) and the related noun gnw=si$ (“knowledge”), and is instructive for demonstrating a distinctly Christian orientation regarding knowledge which, especially as found in Paul’s letters to believers, serves to counteract certain gnostic (or Gnostic) tendencies. It follows upon the discussion in chapters 8-12, and serves as a fitting climax, with poetic and hymnic qualities, beauty and power, which have made it justly famous. Indeed, it is a veritable hymn to Love—that is, love according to the Christian ideal and teaching—which has as its basic theme the superiority of love over all spiritual gifts (including knowledge) and other Christian actions or virtues. Spiritual gifts are dealt with comprehensively in chapter 12, while knowledge is addressed in the discussion of chaps. 8-10 (on the question of food that had been consecrated in a pagan religious setting). Verses 1-3 of chapter 8 formulate the basic instruction which Paul restates in chapter 13:

“And about the (food)s slaughtered (as offering)s to images, we have seen [i.e. known] that ‘we all hold knowledge’. Knowledge blows up [i.e. inflates], but love builds up—if any(one) considers (himself) to have known any(thing), he does not (yet) know as it is necessary (for him) to know; but if any(one) loves God, this (person) is known under [i.e. by] Him.”

The priority (and superiority) of love is clearly stated, and is expressed, in practical terms, through the remainder of chaps. 8-10 and on into 11-12. The importance of love as a guiding principle for Christian thought and behavior takes on special significance in Paul’s letters in light of his teaching regarding the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah). For believers in Christ, the Law no longer has the same binding authority it previously had for Israelites and Jews; in its place, Christians are now to be guided primarily by two different sources: (1) the presence of the Holy Spirit, and (2) the example (and teaching) of Jesus. It was Jesus himself who first formulated the so-called “love command” or love-principle (Mark 12:28-34 par; John 13:34-35, etc) and gave it prominence for the Christian community. Paul builds upon this in his letters—Rom 12:9-10; 13:8-10; 14:15; 1 Cor 16:14; 2 Cor 5:14; Gal 5:6, 13-14; Phil 1:9; Col 2:2; 3:14; 1 Thess 3:12; 4:9; cf. also Eph 4:15-16; 5:2; 1 Tim 1:5; and is likewise found elsewhere throughout the New Testament and early Christian writings (e.g., James 2:8; 1 Pet 1:22; 4:8; 1 John 2:7-11, etc).

Before preceding to an examination of 1 Cor 13:12 itself, it will be helpful to view it within in the structure of 12:31b-14:1a:

    • 12:31b: Introduction to the way of love
      • 13:1-3: The superiority of love—contrast with other spiritual gifts (Current time)
        —Such gifts without (being guided by) love are of little value
        • 13:4-7: The characteristics of Love
      • 13:8-13: The superiority of love—contrast with other gifts (Eschatological/teleological–in the End)
        —All such gifts will pass away, love is one of the only things which remain
    • 14:1a: Exhortation to the way of love

The references to knowledge are found in the two sections (13:1-3, 8-13) which describe the contrast between love and the other gifts. Indeed, there are two parallel points of contrast between love and knowledge (cf. 8:1-3):

    • 13:2—”if…I (can) see [i.e. know] all the secrets and (hold) all knowledge…but I do not hold love, (then) I am nothing”
    • 13:8b-9ff: “…and if (there is) knowledge, it will cease working. For we know (only) out of a part…but when th(at which is) complete [te/leio$] comes, th(at which is only) out of a part will cease working…”

It is important to note that Paul does not refer here to profane or ‘ordinary’ human knowledge, nor to some kind of false or ‘pseudo’ knowledge. The context clearly indicates that he is referring to special knowledge granted to believers through the presence and work of the Spirit (i.e. as a spiritual gift). In both references knowledge (gw=nsi$) is connected closely with prophecy—that is, a message communicated to believers by God through the Spirit. Even this sort of special (prophetic) knowledge must be guided by love, and, eventually, will cease working. There is considerable interpretive debate as to just when, or in what circumstances, Paul envisions such knowledge to cease. Those who believe that the spiritual gifts experienced by the Pauline churches, along with the miracles performed by the apostles, etc., were a temporary phenomenon limited to the early Church, might claim that they have already ceased. However, this is not what Paul has in mind; almost certainly his thinking is eschatological—prophetic knowledge and revelation will cease with the end of the present Age. From the early Christian standpoint, the end of this Age is marked by the sudden return of Christ to earth and the final Judgment by God, along with the resurrection/transformation of believers (ch. 15) and their entry into eternal life. Along with this, however, Christians also held a “realized” eschatology—believers in the present, through the Spirit, experience something of the reality of what waits for us in the end. This mode of belief informs Christian (ethical) instruction—we are to live and act according to the ideals which will be realized fully in the Age to Come.

This brings us to verse 12, and the reference to knowledge in 12b, which follows two brief illustrations given by Paul that expound upon his declaration in vv. 8-10:

    • The growth and development of a human being (v. 11)—the adult ceases to think and act the way he/she did as a child; partly this takes place by conscious choice (“I ceased working [i.e. doing] the infant[ile] things”), which serves as a implicit exhortation to believers.
    • The mirror (v. 12a)—ancient mirrors were normally made of metal, tending to be not nearly so clear as modern day glass-mirrors; moreover, they required polishing, which again suggests the ethical/spiritual intent and ‘work’ required by believers.

The first illustration emphasizes the temporary nature of knowledge, that it passes away; the second emphasizes it limitation, i.e. it is only partial and incomplete. The limitation is intrinsic to the created, material human nature. Even the believer who possesses the Spirit cannot always see clearly, all the more when one is still under the influence of sin and the flesh. Only at the end, the completion (te/lo$) of things, will we be able to see things clearly. Here sight and knowledge are joined as metaphors, as they often are in the Greek of the New Testament; this is expressed neatly in verse 12:

“For now we look through a (glass one) gazes into [i.e. a mirror], in(to) (an) obscure (image), but then (clearly,) face toward face; now I know (only) out of a part, but then I will know (completely), even as I was known (completely).”

There is here a dual contrast between now (a&rti) and then (to/te):

    • Now
      —We look into an obscure (i.e. cloudy, unclear) mirror
      —I know only incompletely, in part
    • Then
      —We see clearly, as if seeing another person face-to-face
      —I know completely

The same expression e)k me/rou$ (“out of a part”, i.e. partly, in part) to indicate the (human, natural) limitations for believers in the present Age, was used previously in vv. 9-10. The main difference in verse 12, in my view, is that Paul has moved from the work of the Spirit (the spiritual ‘gifts’), to the presence of the Spirit. It is through the Spirit that one is able to see and know God, but in the present time our experience of the Spirit, is, due to our very nature, necessarily imperfectly realized and often mysterious. Note how, in the language Paul uses, the verse itself seems to gain greater clarity: “we look…I know”. Even more striking is the symmetry of what is to come (note the alliteration):

pro/swpon pro\$ pro/swpon
prosœpon pros prosœpon
“face toward face”
lit. “toward-the-eye toward toward-the-eye”
i.e., “eye to eye”

In terms of the mirror illustration, we would be seeing our own face clearly; but Paul’s application assumes something deeper—it is God’s face we see, our own ‘face’ being transformed into His likeness (that of Christ), as he expresses memorably in 2 Cor 3:18. And so we come to the beautiful and simple symmetry of language that closes the verse:

e)pignw/somai kaqw\$ kai/ e)pegnw/sqhn
epignœsomai kathœs kai epegnœsth¢n
“I will know even as I was (also) known”

Again the phrase is highly alliterative, with symmetry marked at two levels:

    • I will know (e)pignw/somai)
      —even as (kaqw$)
      —also/indeed (kai)
    • I was known (e)pegnw/sqhn)

Two forms of the same verb separated by two particles in tandem, create a comparative join. The sense of “knowledge” here has changed slightly—instead of knowledge as a prophetic/revelatory gift from God (through the Spirit), it now refers more directly to knowledge of God Himself. It is a different verb as well; instead of ginw/skw (“know”) it is the compound verb e)piginw/skw (with the prefixed preposition/particle e)pi). This verb generally refers to gaining knowledge about something (or someone), but often carries the nuance of recognition, acknowledgement, understanding. It can also have an intensive meaning, i.e. to know something (or someone) thoroughly, completely, intimately, etc.; and this latter sense is in view here—”I will know (completely)”. The passive form (“I was [completely] known”) should be read as a so-called “divine passive” (passivum divinum), where God is the implied subject. Believers as “known” by God assumes the basic idea of election—of our being chosen beforehand, according to the will and consideration of God. This will be discussed in more detail in an upcoming article. It is possible, though not certain (or even necessary), that the aorist form of the verb used here specifically indicates election or predestination—i.e., as action which took place at a specific time in the past (before our coming to faith). At any rate, we have here in 13:12b, two fundamental aspects of knowledge in the New Testament—believers’ knowledge of God and His knowledge of us. This dual aspect will be explored further in the remaining articles of the series “Gnosis and the New Testament”.

August 23: 1 Corinthians 2:6

[This series of notes is on 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16; the previous day’s note dealt with 2:1-5]

1 Corinthians 2:6

“And (yet) we (do) speak wisdom among the (one)s (who are) complete, and (it is) wisdom not of this Age, and not of the chief (ruler)s of this Age th(at are) being made inactive…”

This statement introduces a new section, building upon vv. 1-5 (cf. the prior note). In verse 5, Paul contrasts human/worldly wisdom (“the wisdom of men”) with the power of God; now, here in verse 6, he returns to the earlier contrast between two different kinds of wisdom. The conjunction de/, translated “and” above (first two instances), has adversative force, and could just as well be rendered “but”. In contrast with worldly wisdom:

    • Believers (and esp. Christian ministers) do speak/use wisdom, but
      • It is altogether different from the wisdom of the world and its rulers

The use of the term ai)w/n (“age”)—properly “life(time)”, but typically used in reference to a long period or span of time—reflects the eschatological emphasis and background of much Jewish (and early Christian) thought. Practically speaking, time was fundamentally divided between This Age (the present time) and the Age to Come; and, according to the widespread manner of eschatological (and apocalyptic) thinking, the current Age was seen as coming to a close, with the inauguration of the future Age being imminent, about to take place at any time. Moreover, the current Age has been steadily growing worse and more corrupt, marked by evil (and the evil powers). Paul expresses this general belief at various points in his letters (cf. Rom 8:18ff; 1 Cor 7:26, 31; Gal 1:4; and also Eph 6:12), but he adds to it a distinctive view of the current Age (that is, up to the coming of Jesus) as being in bondage under the power of sin (Rom 5:12-6:14ff; 7:7-25; 8:20-21ff; Gal 3:22ff, etc). Thus, it is not just a question of the natural limitations of human/worldly wisdom, but also (and more significantly) that this wisdom is the product of a corrupt and sinful Age (cf. Rom 1:18-32 and the brief statement in 1 Cor 1:21 [discussed in a prior note]).

It is sometimes thought that the “chief (ruler)s” (a&rxonte$) here refer to the divine/angelic powers governing the created world, largely on the basis of Eph 2:2. According to the worldview expressed by Paul (and other Jews and Christians of the time), in light of the fallen/sinful state of creation, these would be understood as demonic powers or evil spirits. However, the context of 1 Cor 2:6 makes it all but certain that Paul is referring here to human rulers and persons of prominence. The entire theme of the passage is the contrast between human and divine wisdom, and the use of the noun again in verse 8 definitely refers to human rulers—i.e. the Jewish and Roman authorities who put Jesus to death (cf. also Acts 3:13, 17; 4:26-27 [citing Ps 2:1-2], etc). The context of Romans 13:3, the only other use of a&rxwn in the (undisputed) Pauline letters, only confirms this meaning. However, in Paul’s mind, there would have been a close connection between the (human) rulers or ‘powers’ in the world and the evil (demonic) powers—they all are part of the current order of things that is bound under sin and is “passing away” (1 Cor 7:31), especially insofar as they are ignorant of the truth and opposed to the will and work of God (in Christ). This helps to explain the use of the verb katarge/w, which occurs frequently in Paul’s letters (23 of the 27 NT occurrences are in the undisputed letters)—on this verb, see my earlier note on 1:28. With the coming of Christ—his death, resurrection, and exaltation (to God’s right hand)—the current Age, the old order of things, is now coming to a close, and the “new Age” is already being realized for believers in Christ. The present participle form (katargoume/nwn) suggests that this is an ongoing process—that the rulers and prominent persons of this Age are being made inactive, of no effect (lit. made to cease working).

There is a special interpretive difficulty for the first half of this verse, involving the precise identification of the “wisdom [sofi/a]” mentioned, and, more importantly, “the ones (who are) complete [oi( telei/oi]”. Earlier, throughout 1:18-31, Paul has identified the “wisdom”—i.e. of God, in contrast to human/worldly wisdom—with the essential proclamation of the Gospel message, of the death (and resurrection) of Jesus. Here, however, the wording he uses, as well as the specific contrast with vv. 1-5, suggests that he may have something slightly different in mind. It is not possible to offer a definitive solution to the question in this note; however, I offer below a number of interpretations which have been suggested by commentators over the years.

First, it is important to note the use of the adjective te/leio$, which fundamentally means “complete, finished”. Typically, translators have alternated between two renderings: (a) “perfect”, (b) “mature”—usually reserving the first for references to God, and the second for references to human beings (believers). Neither of these is satisfactory—the first being rather too abstract and (potentially) misleading, the second altogether too soft. I prefer the more fundamental translation “complete”, recognizing that the English “mature” may be the best (conventional) approximation in our idiom. For Paul’s use of the adjective in relation to believers, cf. Rom 12:2 (also applied to God); 1 Cor 14:20; Phil 3:15; Col 1:28; 4:12. The references in Colossians are somewhat close in meaning, since they deal with the idea of believers coming to be made “complete” in Christ; also of note is 1 Cor 13:10, where the “complete” comes, it would seem, along with the coming of the new Age. In conclusion, here are some of the suggested interpretations; I number them for convenience, without indicating any preference:

  1. The basic Gospel message (wisdom) is given to all believers, but a more advanced (esoteric?) Christian wisdom (teaching, etc) is offered for those who are “complete”—mature and committed in the faith sufficiently to receive it.
    —This view is suggested by a straightforward reading of the passage, as well as by the language Paul uses in 3:1-3; but it is difficult to square with his thought and teaching as a whole.
  2. Paul is simply making a rhetorical contrast. There is only one wisdom—that of the person of Christ and his death/resurrection. The “complete” believers are able to recognize this and do not need to seek after any other “wisdom”.
    —The entire thrust of Paul’s argument here, as well as his teaching elsewhere in his letters, makes it hard to think that he imagines some other kind of “wisdom” separate from (or beyond) the basic Gospel message. However, if this wisdom is accessible to all believers, as certainly would be true of the basic Gospel, then why does he make the distinction of “the ones (who are) complete” here?
  3. He is distinguishing between the Gospel proclamation and the teaching/instruction, etc., which builds upon the basic message, interpreting and applying it for believers as they grow in faith. For the “complete” this includes a wide range of “wisdom”—ways of thinking/reasoning, use of argument, illustration, allegory/parable, (creative) interpretations of Scripture, etc.
    —Perhaps the best evidence for this view is Paul’s letters themselves, which clearly include much which goes well beyond a simple statement or proclamation of the Gospel message. However, an examination of 3:1-3 would suggest that there is yet something more kept in reserve, not yet expressed in the letters, at least not entirely.
  4. Paul himself evinces certain gnostic/mystic tendencies whereby there are envisioned levels or layers in the Gospel—i.e. the basic proclamation and belief regarding the person and work of Christ—as in the Scriptures, the deepest of which involve the most profound expressions of God’s wisdom. Only the “complete” are able to realize this, and to be able to communicate something of it to the wider community.
    —It is possible that this view is suggested by what follows in verses 9-16; but see #5 below.
  5. Paul is responding to gnostic/mystic tendencies among believers in Corinth. Here, as a kind of rhetorical approach, he is drawing upon their own thinking and sensibilities, trying to bring their focus back to the centrality of the Gospel and a proper understanding of the work of the Spirit. As such, the apparent distinctions he makes are somewhat artificial, perhaps running parallel to the (actual) divisions among the Corinthians themselves.
    —Such a view is intriguing, if tenuous; much depends on whether the formulae of vv. 9-16 stem from Corinthian “gnostics” or Paul himself.
  6. The wisdom for the “complete” reflects a deep understanding of, and participation in, the work of the Spirit. Believers who are completely guided by the Spirit need no other instruction. Paul is essentially expounding this thought in vv. 9-16, only to make (painfully) clear to the Corinthians how far they still are from the ideal.
    —The context of chapter 2 strongly favors this view (or something like it); however, it would essentially require that the “complete” in v. 6 represents a paradoxical formulation: who are the “complete” believers? are there any?

I leave my own interpretation of verse 6a until the remainder of vv. 7-16 have been discussed (over the next few daily notes). By that point, a careful study of the passage as whole should give greater clarity to which view, or views, are more likely.

“Secret of Lawlessness”: 2 Thess 2:6-8; Rev 17:5, 7

Having discussed the context of the expression “secret of lawlessness” (to\ musth/rion th=$ a)nomi/a$) in 2 Thess 2:7 in the previous study, here I will examine a bit further the interpretation of 2 Thess 2:6-8, as well as a similar use of the term musth/rion in Revelation 17:5, 7.

2 Thessalonians 2:6-8

Assuming that my analysis of vv. 6-8, and, in particular, the use of the verb kate/xw, is on the right track (cf. the previous study), it may be possible to discern something of what Paul has in mind, specifically, in this passage. Let us briefly examine each portion:

Verse 6

“Now you have seen/known the (thing) holding down (power)”—This indicates that Paul’s readers should be able to recognize what this is that currently “holds down (power)” [to\ kate/xon]. The neuter suggests that the reference is to a particular condition, situation, or tendency currently at work and in a position of power in the world.

“unto his being uncovered”—The preposition ei)$ indicates the purpose or direction (“so that”, “toward”) of the thing holding down power. It is possible that a temporal sense is also implied (“until”). The verb here is a passive infinitive of a)pokalu/ptw (“remove the cover from, uncover”). In Greek the syntax of an infinitive + accusative can be very difficult to translate; often it is necessary to render it as a possessive + participle (or gerund) construction—as in this instance: “his being uncovered”. Perhaps a more literal translation is to be preferred: “the removing of the cover (from) him”. Clearly the “he/him” (au)to/n) is different from the thing (currently) holding down power (to\ kate/xon is neuter). The nearest reference point is the “man of lawlessness” (some MSS “man of sin”) in vv. 3-4.

“in his (own) time”—That is, when the time is right for the “man of lawlessness” to be revealed. The expression may also connote the idea that, in a sense, this time belongs to him, i.e. a ‘time of lawlessness’. For the use of kairo/$ (“time, season”) in a definite eschatological context, or suggesting a time of evil and testing, cf. Mark 1:15; 13:33 par; Matt 16:3; 26:18; Luke 4:13; 8:13; 19:44; 21:8, 24, etc; and for a similar use of “hour” (w%ra), cf. Mark 13:11, 32; 14:35, 41; Luke 12:40, 46; 22:53, etc.

Verse 7

“For the secret of lawlessness is already working in (the world)”—The adverb h&dh (“already”) indicates “even now”, currently (in Paul’s own time). On the expression “the secret of lawlessness” (to\ musth/rion th=$ a)nomi/a$), cf. the prior study. The present verb e)nerge/w means that the secret is (currently) active, i.e. at work (e&rgon), in (e)n) the world (and the present Age).

“only until the (one) holding down (power) now”—In my view, this is the best way to read this portion of the difficult clause in v. 7. The temporal aspect is indicated by the formula “only…now until” (mo/nona&rti e%w$). This means that there is someone holding down power now (currently, that is, in Paul’s time), but will only continue to do so for a (short) period of time. On a similar Pauline use of clauses with e%w$ (or w($) in the postpositive position, cf. Rom 12:3; 1 Cor 3:5; 6:4; 7:17; 2 Cor 2:4; Gal 2:10, etc (Wanamaker, p. 255).

“should come to be out of the middle”—The use of gi/nomai (“come to be”) with the preposition e)k (“out of, from”) could be taken to mean that either the “one holding down (power)” or the “lawless one” will appear in/from the midst/middle (of things?); however, the expression e)k me/sou (“out of the middle”) rather suggests someone or something being removed. When the one (currently) holding down power is ‘removed’, then the way will be clear for the lawless one to appear.

Verse 8

“and then the cover will be (removed) from the lawless (one)”—This renders quite literally the verb a)pokalu/ptw (“remove the cover from”, “uncover”, i.e. disclose, reveal, etc); the passive form probably should be understood as a “divine passive” (with God effectively as the one who acts). The adverbial particle to/te (“then”) fills out the temporal sequence from verse 7h&dh (“already”), a&rti (“now”), to/te (“then”). The substantive adjective “the lawless (one)” (o( a&nomo$) gives personal expression to the impersonal “lawlessness” (a)nomi/a) in v. 7, and is certainly synonymous with the “man of lawlessness” in vv. 3-4. In 1 Cor 9:21 Paul uses the adjective a&nomo$ in the specific (literal) sense of those “without the Law”—that is, without the Torah, i.e. Gentiles (cf. also Acts 2:23). Normally, however, it is used in the more general sense of persons who do not adhere to established law and custom—in society at large this means crime and rebellion (Luke 22:37), while, from a religious standpoint, typically immorality is indicated (2 Peter 2:8); in 1 Tim 1:9 both aspects are combined. The character and action of this person is described in vv. 3-4.

“whom the Lord [Yeshua] will take up…in the shining (forth) of his (com)ing to be alongside upon (the earth)”—The terms e)pifa/neia (“shining upon”, i.e. appearance, manifestation) and parousi/a (“[com]ing to be along[side]”) both had a history of eschatological and apocalyptic usage by the time Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians, and they are combined here, in especially exalted language for dramatic effect. The word parousi/a (parousía) in particular quickly turned into a technical term for the end-time appearance (return) of Christ. In the previous study, I commented on the intentional parallel (and contrast) drawn between the coming (parousia) of Christ and the coming (parousia) of the “lawless one”. The rest of verse 8, describing the punishment and fate of the lawless one, is drawn from the traditional language and (Messianic) imagery of Isaiah 11:4.

Summary

Here I would suggest the following thumbnail interpretation of what Paul is describing, and perhaps envisions, in vv. 6-8:

  • The secret of lawlessness—This is the power of sin, evil and opposition to God, which has been, and is currently (h&dh, “already”) at work in the world. It is a “secret” (musth/rion) in the sense that its presence and activity is largely hidden to people at large—they are unaware of it and how it functions. Also, its true nature, and full manifestation, are kept away from people—this will only be revealed at the end time. It is generally to be equated with the working of “the Evil (One)”, i.e. Satan, and the various (invisible) evil powers that control and influence the fallen world. It is also possible to view the “secret” in terms of the timing and duration of this lawless/evil period within the hidden plan/will of God (see esp. the Qumran text 1QS 4:18-19).
  • The (thing) holding down power—This is best understood as worldly power, taken as a whole, specifically the ruling power in Paul’s time: the Roman imperial government and authority (i.e., the Roman Empire). While often viewed in a negative light by early Christians (as in the book of Revelation, cf. below), the Roman Empire was not evil per se. However, the exercise of worldly power was generally seen as being opposed to the way of God and Christ. Though it is related to the “secret of lawlessness”, the thing “holding down power” (to\ kate/xon) is not identical with it.
  • The (one) holding down power—If the general identification with the Roman Empire as “the (thing) holding down (power)” is correct, then “the (one) holding down power” (o( kate/xwn) probably should be taken as a reference to the current Roman Emperor. When Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians (late 40s/early 50s, c. 50 A.D.?), the ruling Emperor would have been Claudius. The Emperor would rule until such time has he “came to be (removed) from the midst”. Perhaps an imperial coup or assassination was imagined, for which there certainly had been precedents, and would hardly be surprising; however, ultimately such historical processes were controlled by God himself.
  • The lawless (one)—The removal (?) of the current ruler would allow for the “cover to be removed” (by God), thus revealing “the lawless one” (o( a&nomo$). This figure would fulfill more completely the prophecies by Daniel (in 9:20-27; 11:31; 12:11, etc), of the coming wicked ruler which had already been embodied by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the mid-2nd century B.C. Jesus’ own eschatological teaching in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 13 par) seems to follow the same basic line of interpretation (note the allusion to Dan 9:27 in v. 14). Prior to the reign of Claudius, Gaius (Caligula) had come close to living and acting out many of these expectations; so, it was not at all unreasonable to expect that the next ruler (or one soon coming) would be even more wicked and godless. Almost certainly, from the early Christian standpoint, the idea of an Antichrist-ruler of the end-time was largely modeled after the pattern of Roman rulers such as Pompey, Gaius, Nero, and (possibly) Domitian. For more on this, cf. the discussion on Revelation 17:5, 7 below. However, Paul makes clear that this is no ordinary political ruler, but a truly evil figure, empowered and inspired by Satan.

Revelation 17:5, 7

These two references have a contextual setting that is similar, in many ways, to that of 2 Thess 2:1-11. Chapters 17-19 of Revelation serve as the climax to the division of the book which spans chapters 12-19. I outline this division as follows:

    • Chs. 12:1-14:5—The faithful (people of God), symbolized as a woman who is attacked by the dragon (and its beasts)
      • 12:1-17—Vision of the Woman giving birth; the labor pains, etc, relate to the war made on her children (believers, people of God) by the dragon (the Devil and his Messengers)
      • 12:18-13:18—Vision of the two beasts, which are ‘offspring’ of the dragon
      • 14:1-5—Vision of the 144,000, the faithful ones who have endured the dragon’s attacks (implied)
    • Chs. 14:6-16:21—Judgment of God upon the world (Babylon) and the wicked
      • 14:6-13—Vision of the (Angelic) announcement of Judgment
      • 14:14-20—Vision of the Man with the sickle, about to reap the harvest (of the Judgment)
      • 15:1-8—Heavenly vision that introduces the pouring out of God’s wrath
      • 16:1-21—Vision of the Seven Bowls of God’s wrath poured out on the world
    • Chs. 17-19—Wicked/worldly power, symbolized as a woman seated upon the beast
      • 17—Vision of the Woman (prostitute) identified as “Babylon”, with an interpretation
      • 18—Oracle (Hymn) on the fall of Babylon
      • 19:1-10—Heavenly vision and hymn (on the fall of Babylon)
      • 19:11-21—Vision of the Rider on the White Horse and the defeat of the Beast

Two women are set in (contrasting) parallel with each other—one representing the faithful people of God, the other symbolizing the wicked of the world—each flanking a great cluster of visions describing the end-time Judgment. This second woman is depicted in chapter 17 under the figure of a prostitute (pornh/). All the rulers and inhabitants of the earth are said to have had intercourse (euphemistically, “soaked from her wine”) with this prostitute (v. 2). As part of the actual vision (vv. 3-6a), we find this detail:

“…and upon the (space) between her eye(s) [i.e. her forehead] a name has been written (which is) a secret [musth/rion]: ‘Babylon the Great, the mother of prostitutes and stinking (thing)s of the earth'”

In Greco-Roman literature of the period we read of prostitutes adopting the names of colorful characters (e.g. Demonsthenes, Oration 59.19; Juvenal, Satires 6.123), as well as wearing bands around their foreheads (Herodotus, Histories I.199.2). In Jeremiah 3:3, the expression “forehead of a prostitute” (hn`oz hV*a! j^x^m@) to indicate blatant immorality is likely proverbial. While it is possible that a prostitute might write a name upon her forehead band, here in Rev 17:5 the name should be understood as one applied (by God) to her in the vision. The main aspect of the “secret” has to do with the identification of the prostitute as Babylon. In verse 7, the secret involves the woman herself (the Angel speaking):

“And I will utter to you the secret [musth/rion] of th(is) woman and of the beast th(at is) bearing [i.e. lifting/carrying] her, the (one) holding seven heads and ten horns.”

Here the “secret” involves the explanation or interpretation of the vision, much as the “secret of the Kingdom of God” in Mark 4:11 par involved the explanation of Jesus’ parables to his circle of followers. Of greater influence for the book of Revelation is the use of the Aramaic zr` (“secret”) in reference to the vision-interpretations given to Daniel (Dan 2:18-19, 27-30, 47; 4:9); in these passages God is said to reveal to Daniel the secrets hidden in the visions.

By combining the name of prostitute (“Babylon”) with the explanation of the visionary details provided in 17:7ff, it seems fairly clear that this woman is meant to symbolize the wicked/worldly power associated with Rome (i.e. the Roman Empire). An association between Rome and Babylon was already traditional by the end of the New Testament period, as indicated by the setting in other Apocalyptic writings (2/4 Esdras 3:1-2, 29-31; 16:1; 2 Baruch 10:2; 11:1; 67:7; Sibylline Oracles 5:143, 159); “Babylon” in 1 Peter 5:13 is probably also a cipher for Rome. The association was natural, since both Rome and Babylon were the center of great empires (i.e. the Babylonian empire of the 7th/6th century B.C.), and both invaded/conquered Judea and Jerusalem, destroying the Temple in the process. The identification with Rome would seem to be confirmed by the interpretation of the beast in vv. 7ff and the imagery of the hymn in chapter 18. The explanation of the “seven horns” as “seven mountains” (v. 9) certainly suggests the seven hills traditionally connected with the city of Rome. Moreover, chapter 18 describes a great commercial empire with control of the seas. With such an identification, the “seven kings” (another interpretation of the horns) would presumably represent rulers of the Empire, five of whom have died and a sixth who is currently living (ruling?). The author and/or audience of the book may have known just who these six rulers (Emperors?) were, but today we can only guess; various proposals have been made, none of which are entirely convincing.

It is important to point out that, even if the primary association of the woman (and the beast) is with the Roman Empire, that is simply because it was the clearest and strongest manifestation of wicked/worldly power at the time that the book of Revelation was written (as in the case of 2 Thessalonians, cf. above). Clearly, the evil power and influence of the beast(s)—and, in turn, the dragon (identified with the Devil/Satan)—transcends the specific connection with Rome. The heads/horns of the beast represent power and authority which rightly belongs to God, but which the beast and the worldly rulers he controls have appropriated for themselves. Similarly, God is typically seen as residing upon a mountain in ancient (Near Eastern) religious and mythological imagery; the association with the symbolic (sacred/divine) number seven only strengthens this idea. There are two interesting (contemporary) examples in this regard:

    • In 1 Enoch 18:6-8 the heavenly vision includes seven great mountains, the central of which stretches “to heaven like the throne of God”. These seven mountains are connected more closely with God’s throne in chapters 24-25. First Enoch was probably composed variously over a considerable span of time, from the 3rd century B.C. to the 1st cent. A.D.; it was popular and influential on Jewish thought (and apocalyptic/messianic thought, in particular) at the time of the New Testament. Chapters 37-71 may date from the early 1st century A.D., being contemporary with the earliest layers of Christian tradition. An important theme of the book (especially in chaps. 37-71) is how the kings of the earth will face God’s Judgment for their (arrogant) refusal to submit themselves to His authority, and for their mistreatment/persecution of God’s people.
    • In the 1st Oration, or Discourse, of Dio Chrysostom (on Kingship), we find a vision of two great mountain peaks (66-84)—one is the Royal peak, associated with Zeus, upon which is a beautiful and dignified woman, representing true and proper kingship; the second is the peak of Tyranny, upon which is seated another woman (representing Tyranny) and described in a manner reminiscent of Revelation 17-18. Dio would have been in his prime c. 90 A.D., about the time often assumed for the composition of the book of Revelation.

The prostitute is carried, born aloft, by the beast, meaning that she is supported by him. His horns and heads are a natural, if grotesque, outgrowth of the beast’s evil life and power.

For some of the references cited above (and others), cf. Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014), pp. 674-8.
References marked “Wanamaker” above are to Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC] (Eerdmans/Paternoster Press: 1990).