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

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

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

The Day of the Lord—the “Day of YHWH”

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

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

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

2 Thessalonians 2:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 3-4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This person is also characterized by the participial phrase:

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

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

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

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

Verses 5-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 11-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note on 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16

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

1 Thessalonians 2:13-16

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

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

Here is how he makes the comparison in verse 14:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding observation:

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

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

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

1 and 2 Thessalonians

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

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

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

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

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

Eschatological References in 1 & 2 Thessalonians

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

1 Thessalonians 1:10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Thessalonians 2:19

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

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

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

1 Thessalonians 3:13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Thessalonians 5:23

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

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

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

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

2 Thessalonians 1:5-10

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

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

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

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

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

Paul’s declaration continues in verse 6:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two groups correspond to these two verbs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A reminder of the outline for this study:

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

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

2. Explanations for the imminent eschatology in the New Testament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(2) The early Christian understanding of salvation

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

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

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

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

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

(3) The Christian religious worldview as ‘dispensational’

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

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

(4) Christian identity and the early mission-work

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

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

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

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

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

(6) Theodicy and future hope

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

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

Paths of Interpretation for Believers today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 4)

The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 4)

Having studied each Gospel’s version of the “Eschatological Discourse” (Parts 1, 2, 3), it now remains to summarize the results and consider how best to approach the Discourse in light of the Synoptic Tradition as a whole. Many critical scholars would hold that the Discourse itself—the structure and arrangement of it—is original to the Gospel of Mark. I tend to think, however, that the basic outline of it pre-dates Mark, even if one accepts the premise that it represents a traditional (and literary) arrangement of Jesus’ teaching, rather than a self-contained sermon spoken by Jesus on a single occasion. The critical premise would seem to be confirmed by the way that Matthew’s version includes sayings found in an entirely different location in Luke, as well as certain internal evidence (of catch-word bonding, etc) which we examined. The very fact of such editing and arrangement of material, however, strongly indicates to me that the Discourse, at its core, represents a collection of eschatological teaching by Jesus that was assembled together at an early point. The basic similarity in outline with portions of the book of Revelation (such as the first six seal-visions) also argues for an early and authoritative arrangement.

Let us now consider each of the fundamental components of the Discourse, in turn, much as we did in the first three studies.

1. The Destruction of the Temple

The starting point of the Synoptic Discourse is Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction (Mk 13:1-2 par). The shadow of the Temple hangs over the entire discourse (v. 3 par), and Luke’s version, in particular, makes the destruction of the Temple the central event announced by Jesus in the discourse. This is an authentic prophecy, which was fulfilled in the great war of 66-70 A.D.; as such, it establishes the only certain chronological marker for the eschatological narrative Jesus presents. As an historical setting, it admirably fits much of what is predicted—war and uprising, false Messiahs, a time of great distress for Judea, the desecration of the Temple and a horrible siege of Jerusalem by a foreign (pagan) power. Moreover, it took place within the lifetime of at least some of Jesus’ first disciples (v. 30 par; cf. also Mk 9:1 par; Matt 10:23).

2. Signs preceding the coming destruction

If we accept the context of vv. 3-4 at face value, then verses 5-8 represent the signs asked for by the disciples. Recall that their question was two-fold:

    • “When will these things be?”
    • “What is the sign when all these things are about to be completed together?”

“These things” (tau=ta) must include, first, the destruction of the Temple, and, second, the other things mentioned by Jesus in his eschatological teaching (such as that which follows in the discourse). Again, if we take the narrative context seriously, the things mentioned by Jesus in vv. 5-8 will take place before the destruction of the Temple. Admittedly, there is some confusion in the Gospel tradition at this point, as we saw when examining the form of the disciples’ question in the different versions. Luke and Mark are very close, differing only slighting in the wording; however, the use of gi/nomai (“come to be”) by Luke instead of suntele/w (“complete [all]together”) softens the eschatological impact, and may serve to separate the destruction of the Temple from other end-time events preceding the coming of the Son of Man. The (second) question in Matthew’s version is quite different, and moves in the opposite direction—giving greater emphasis to the eschatological context:

“what is the sign of your coming alongside [parousi/a] and the completion together of th(is) Age?” (24:3)

The question more bluntly refers to the return of Jesus and the end of the Age; indeed, only Matthew uses the noun parousi/a (also in vv. 27, 37, 39) which came to be a technical term among early Christians for the return of Jesus. Phrased this way, it reflects the early Christian viewpoint, rather than the understanding of the disciples themselves at the point in time indicated by the narrative. The framework in Mark/Luke is unquestionably more original, with the Matthean version likely representing an early Christian gloss.

Let us consider briefly, again, each of the “signs” mentioned by Jesus here:

    • The appearance of false prophets and false Messiahs (and/or persons claiming to be Jesus), who will lead many people astray
    • Wars/battles and various reports/rumors; these include specifically uprisings, one nation or people against another (superior/ruling power)
    • Natural disasters—earthquakes (lit. shakings) and times of hunger (famine); Luke’s version also mentions plague/pestilence and “great & fearful signs from heaven”

Two important statements position these “signs” within a general chronological framework:

    • “the completion [te/lo$] is not yet (here)” (Mk 13:7b par)—i.e. the end of the Age will not come immediately with these signs; a period of some length(?) is still to follow.
    • “these (thing)s (are) the beginning of (birth) pains” (v. 8b par; Luke does not have this)—these signs mark the beginning (or first part) of a period of intense suffering.

Both statements make clear that, while such signs mark the end-time, the end itself will only come after a period of suffering/distress. The length of this period is indicated at the end of the discourse (vv. 28-30 par), but only with some ambiguity, leading to questions of interpretation which remain under debate by commentators today (cf. below).

Central to the “signs” mentioned by Jesus is a period of war and uprising; it is possible that one may view the occurrences of hunger and pestilence as a natural result of this warfare, as seems to be the case in the third and fourth seal-visions in Revelation (6:5-8). Certainly, war, hunger, and plague/disease are found in all times and places, and really cannot be used to determine a specific location or period of history. However, if we keep in mind the context of the destruction of the Temple, it is reasonable to refer this to warfare and uprising within the Roman Empire (in the 1st century A.D.). For people in Judea and Jerusalem (Jesus’ audience), the uprising and war of 66-70 would be most terrible, and a natural extension of Rome’s brutal wars with dozens of nations and races. The Judean context is emphasized in vv. 14-22; here, it is the world and humankind more generally that is in view.

If we seek to relate these signs more precisely to the destruction of the Temple (i.e. the coming war of 66-70), the following details, as reported/recorded by Josephus, are worth noting:

    • Reference to a number of would-be prophets and quasi-Messianic figures in the 1st century, most notably Theudas (c. 45 A.D., Antiquities 20.97-8; Acts 5:36) and the person known as “the Egyptian” (50s A.D., Antiquities 20.169-71; War 2.261-2). Messianic beliefs and expectations appear to have played a significant role in the war of 66-70 (War 2.433-44; 4.503ff; 6.285, 312-3; 7.29, etc), as it did in the later Jewish revolts of 115-117 and 132-135 A.D. Matthew’s version of the Discourse (24:23-28) indicates that these “false prophets” take advantage of the time of war and distress to mislead and influence the populace, much as Josephus describes.
    • Descriptions of miraculous signs and omens indicating the coming destruction of Jerusalem (see esp. War 6.285-9ff). Even if one does not accept the factuality of these reports, they certainly fit the characterization in Lk 21:11 of “fearful things and great signs from heaven”.

There is a particular difficulty in verse 6 which needs to be considered again. Jesus refers to certain deceivers: “Many will come upon my name, saying that ‘I am (he)'”. This can be taken several ways:

    • False Christians who prophesy/speak falsely in Jesus’ name
    • People claiming to be Jesus himself (having returned?)
    • People claiming to be the Messiah

The first two are difficult to maintain, at the historical level, though they would make sense for early Christians. The last option is much more likely, given the similar references to false Messiahs later on in vv. 21-22 par. For early Christians, of course, a claim to be the Messiah was effectively the same as claiming to stand in place of Jesus himself. Matthew here (24:5) clarifies what was almost certainly the original meaning—that there would be false Messiahs who would lead people astray, as in the examples reported by Josephus.

3. A period of persecution and mission work for the disciples

The next section of the discourse (Mk 13:9-13 par) relates more directly to Jesus’ disciples (and the earliest Christians). It describes a time of persecution and suffering for them which is parallel to the distress coming upon Judea and the nations. It implies a period of mission work, in which the disciples continue Jesus’ ministry, proclaiming the Gospel (the “good message” of the Kingdom) throughout Judea and even into the surrounding nations. What Jesus describes here was fulfilled (in virtually every detail) in the period prior to the war of 66-70, as narrated throughout the book of Acts, the same being recorded (less reliably) in other sources of Apostolic tradition (such as the various deutero-canonical “Acts”). Only in regard to the extent of the mission is there any room for question. The general statement in Mk 13:10 is given a rather wider scope in Matthew 24:14, possibly indicating a period extending beyond the lifetime of the first disciples.

4. The period of “great distress” for Judea and Jerusalem

The expression “great distress” (more commonly rendered “great tribulation”) is best known from Rev 7:14, where we have the broader scope of a world-wide period of distress. Ultimately, this terminology is derived from Daniel 12:1, and, while the reference in Mk 13:19 par clearly reflects the same tradition, the “distress” (qli/yi$) mentioned in the Discourse is localized specifically in Judea and Jerusalem (v. 14). It relates primarily, if not entirely, to the people of Jerusalem (and Judea) whom Jesus is addressing (including his disciples). In the Markan version, generally followed by Matthew, the time of distress for Judea/Jerusalem is marked by four signs or details:

    • An event/episode, viewed as a fulfillment of Dan 9:27, which marks the onset of the distress (v. 14)
    • The suffering will be intense and will affect virtually the entire population, resulting in many deaths (vv. 14b-20; cf. also Matt 24:28)
    • Claims that the Messiah has come or is present (v. 21)
    • The appearance of miracle-working false prophets and false Messiahs (v. 22, cf. above)

The difficulty of interpretation involves the allusion to Dan 9:27 (also 11:31; 12:11), with the editorial aside (“the one reading must have it in mind”), suggesting an application to the present/current situation of the Gospel readers (c. 60 A.D.). Matthew’s version (24:15) makes this more clear—i.e. that the “stinking thing of desolation” (to\ bde/lugma th=$ e)rhmw/sew$) will be standing in the Temple sanctuary (“holy place”). The parallel with the action of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in c. 167 B.C. (the immediate point of reference in Daniel, as presumed by most commentators), could indicate a pagan altar or image that has been set up in the sanctuary (1 Macc 1:54; 2 Macc 6:2). Just as likely is a more general reference to a pagan presence and desecration of the Temple, which could include Roman standards and the like. Paul almost certainly draws on this same basic tradition in 2 Thess 2:4-5 (to be discussed later in this series).

If the allusion to Dan 9:27 (in Mark/Matthew) remains somewhat obscure to us today, the Lukan version is unmistakably clear—it refers to the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by a foreign army. If we accept the authenticity and accuracy of this, it means that the “stinking thing of desolation” is fulfilled by the presence of the (pagan) Romans who overrun the city (and the Temple), destroying it. There is no need to look beyond the obvious context of the war in 66-70 for fulfillment. Josephus gives a vivid account of the siege (and subsequent destruction) with the resultant horrors and suffering experienced by the people (War 5.47-97; 6.93, 149-56, 201-11, etc). To anyone caught in the middle of that terror, it would have seemed like the end of the world, and very much a fulfillment of what Jesus describes in Mk 13:14b-20 par. The final “desolation” of the city—its ruins and the captivity of its people/leaders—is also portrayed by Josephus (War 6.271-3, 420; 7.112-5, 118, 138, etc; cf. also Tacitus Histories 5.8-13).

Thus, if we use the Lukan version of this section as our guide, we can state that what Jesus predicted was fulfilled (more or less accurately) in the war of 66-70. Some commentators would also interpret the exhortation to flee the city (Lk 21:21 par) in light of the tradition regarding the flight of the Jerusalem Christians to Pella in Perea (Eusebius Church History 3.5.3), but this is questionable at best.

(For more on the background and interpretation of Daniel 9:24-27, see the earlier study on that passage [part of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”]).

5. The coming of the Son of Man

The final section of prophecy in the Discourse involves the conclusion of the period of distress—the appearance of the Son of Man, marking the end of the current Age and the final Judgment. This is one of the core “Son of Man” sayings by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. Like that which is set during his interrogation before the Council (Mk 14:62 par), the declaration here in the Discourse (13:26f par) is derived from Daniel 7:13-14. For other Son of Man sayings with a similar eschatological context, cf. Mk 8:38 par; Matt 10:23; 13:37ff; 16:28; 25:31ff; Lk 9:26; 12:8; 17:22ff par; 18:8; 21:36. These were discussed in the prior studies in this series on the eschatological sayings of Jesus.

Three distinct strands make up this section (Mk 13:24-27 par):

    • Vv. 24-25: Old Testament allusions (Isa 13:10; 24:23; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Ezek 32:7, etc) using the language of theophany, referring to the “day of YHWH” and the (end-time) Judgment upon humankind
    • V. 26: The image of the Son of Man coming on/with the clouds (Dan 7:13-14)
    • V. 27: The heavenly/angelic deliverance of God’s people (the elect) at the end-time (cf. Dan 12:1ff, etc)

Luke’s version brings out the Judgment context more clearly (21:25-26), including different Scriptural allusions (Ps 65:7; Isa 34:4). The time of distress for Judea/Jerusalem is paralleled here with a time of stress (suno/xh) for all the nations (on this point, cf. below). Moreover, at the end of the Lukan discourse there is a definite reference to humankind standing before the Son of Man (i.e. in the heavenly court) at the final Judgment (21:36, cp. Matt 25:31-46).

For believers today, this section represents the interpretive crux of the Discourse. While all (or nearly all) of the previous statements by Jesus (Mk 13:5-23 par) can be seen as having been fulfilled in the 1st century A.D., the references to the coming of the Son of Man (vv. 24-27) cannot. This is a major discrepancy which requires some sort of explanation. I outline here three different solutions, or approaches, to the problem:

1. The section dealing with the Son of Man is secondary, or intrusive, to the Discourse in its original/earliest form. This would be by far the simplest solution; indeed, without vv. 24-27 par, virtually the entire Discourse could be understood as having a first century fulfillment, even within the lifetime of the disciples, and the otherwise problematic saying in v. 30 par could be taken in its obvious sense (i.e. “this generation” = those alive when Jesus spoke), with no need for special or forced interpretations. Unfortunately, there is little, if any, sound basis for excising vv. 24-27 from the Discourse. More importantly, even if those sayings by Jesus were originally uttered in a different context, there are plenty of other “Son of Man” sayings which evince an imminent eschatology, and would naturally apply here in the Discourse (as a collection of Jesus’ eschatological teaching) as well.

2. The image of the Son of Man “coming on the clouds” properly refers to his coming toward the Father (in Heaven), not an appearance on earth. In other words, from an early Christian standpoint, it refers to Jesus’ exaltation and enthronement at God’s right hand, not to his (future) return to earth. This interpretation of the original meaning of Mk 13:26 par is advocated strongly by W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann in their commentary on Matthew (Anchor Bible Vol. ), but it must be regarded as untenable. While faithful to the original context of Daniel 7:13-14, it ignores the wider scope of the book, especially that of chapter 12, which was of enormous influence for the thought and language of the Discourse. A combination of Dan 7:13-14 and 12:1ff yields the precise matrix we find here in the Discourse—the Son of Man, given divine authority to rule and judge, appears to deliver the people of God at the end-time. The very idea of Jesus’ future return makes little sense without the tradition from Dan 12:1ff etc. Jesus would not be able to fulfill this heavenly/Messianic role, until his (future) return in glory, and that is what is essentially being described in Mk 13:26-27 par.

3. A division of two periods (or gap in time) between Mk 13:5-23 and vv. 24-27. In favor of this approach is the arrangement of the Lukan version, which does seem to indicate, however slightly, two distinct (parallel) periods of distress and judgment:

    • The Distress (qli/yi$) coming upon Judea and its people (21:20-24)
    • The Distress (suno/xh) coming upon all the Nations (21:25-26)

If the first period was fulfilled in the first century A.D. (and perhaps some years thereafter, v. 24), the second period likely is understood as occurring after the first (the “time of the nations”) has been completed. The Judgment upon the Nations cannot take place until the time of their dominance/control over Jerusalem comes to an end. On the (reasonable) assumption that the Gospel of Luke was written shortly after 70 A.D., it would seem that the author understands that there is at least a short period after the destruction of the Temple, during which Christians continue their mission work, before the final Judgment (and end of the Age) occurs. Extending such a period to cover more than 1,900 years remains highly problematic—a problem for which there is no easy solution.

Many readers and commentators today would, I think, tend to prefer a different solution, one which might be labeled the “dual-fulfillment” approach. This line of interpretation would be summarized as follows:

    • The primary fulfillment of Mk 13:5-23 par occurred in the 1st century A.D., with the destruction of the Temple, etc.
    • However, this was only a partial fulfillment, which awaits completion at a future time—when many of the events and phenomena predicted by Jesus will, in a sense, be repeated.

In support of such an approach is the way the New Testament handles the very traditions from Daniel 9:24-27 and 12:1ff—i.e., they had an original fulfillment in the time of Antiochus IV (2nd century B.C.), but receive their completion in the time of the Romans (1st century A.D.). Jesus’ own predictions in the Discourse could be treated in a similar way. This still does not explain or account for a gap of 1,900+ years, but it does at least allow for a working interpretive model within which one might grapple with the difficulties.

6. The Time of the End

The popular modern interpretations, attempting to account for a ‘gap’ of 1,900+ years, are complicated considerably by the sayings of Jesus in Mk 13:28-31 par, especially the famous saying in v. 30 (cf. the study on “imminent eschatology” in the Gospels). The obvious and ordinary sense of the expression “this generation”, based on the evidence in the Gospels (and elsewhere in the New Testament), is that Jesus is referring to his audience—i.e. the people alive at the time he is speaking. Any other interpretation seems quite forced, out of the (admittedly real) need to avoid the implication that Jesus (and/or the Gospel writer) was in error about the time of the end. As noted above, except for the coming of the Son of Man (and the actual end of the current Age), nearly everything in the Discourse could be understood as having been fulfilled in the 1st century A.D., and within the lifetime of Jesus’ disciples. Thus, the responsible commentator today must deal with two basic, and seemingly irreconcilable, facts:

    • Jesus is speaking to his disciples (and Jewish contemporaries) in the 1st century, referring to things that they will see and experience (i.e. in their lifetimes)
    • The end did not come in the 1st century, and we today continue to await the coming of the Son of Man, much as did Jesus’ first disciples

There is no easy answer as to how the faithful student of Scripture may reconcile these points. I offer an initial approach in the article on “imminent eschatology”, and will address the subject again in more detail at the conclusion of this series.

7. The exhortation(s) to remain vigilant

Theological concerns have exaggerated the importance of the saying in Mk 13:32 par; its main purpose is to emphasize that no person can know precisely when the end-time Judgment will occur (or begin). It will come upon people suddenly and unexpectedly, overwhelming them, as in the Old Testament illustrations of Noah and Lot—i.e., the Flood and the fiery judgment on Sodom & Gomorrah (Matt 24:37-39ff; par Lk 17:26-35). Only the faithful and obedient (i.e. sober and vigilant) disciple will survive the coming Judgment. This is framed through the parable format, used frequently by Jesus, of servants who work while their Master is away—those who act irresponsibly or wickedly will be punished when the Master returns (unexpectedly!). This sort of illustration naturally led to an early Christian interpretation in terms of Jesus’ end-time return (already beginning here in Matthew’s version, vv. 37, 39, 42, 44); however, this may not have been the original meaning by Jesus—the Lord/Master (Mk 13:35) who comes is God appearing to bring Judgment (i.e. the “day of YHWH” tradition). We can, I think, trace this development of thought in the Gospel tradition:

    • The coming of God to bring Judgment
    • The coming of God’s appointed representative—the divine/heavenly being who possesses His authority (i.e. the Danielic “Son of Man”)
    • Jesus is identified with this “Son of Man” figure—i.e., it is the exalted Jesus who comes (or returns) at the time of Judgment

The Chronology of the Discourse

Finally, a word must be said about the chronology of the Eschatological Discourse. Chronological systems of eschatology have been (and continue to be) extremely popular among Christians, though most of them are questionable at best in terms of their assumptions and basic approach. It must be admitted, however, that one finds a certain amount of systematization within the Synoptic tradition itself, as it developed. This began, we may assume, with the initial formation of the Discourse, especially if it represents a traditional (literary) arrangement of eschatological sayings and teachings of Jesus. Beyond this, it is possible to discern chronological aspects to the uniquely Matthean and Lukan developments of the Discourse material. Luke, in particular, provides a more systematic arrangement of this material. On the basis of the principle of “progressive revelation”, one might choose to use Luke’s version as a guide for interpretation in this respect. Let us begin first, however, with the Markan version, which I would outline (chronologically) as follows:

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

The Lukan version demonstrates a more precise sequence:

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

Everything up to verse 24 was fulfilled by 70 A.D.; the remainder (vv. 24b-28), from the standpoint of the Gospel writer, probably was expected to occur within a relatively short time (a few years or decades?) after c. 70 A.D.

Special Note on Imminent Eschatology in the Gospels

As part of the recent article on “imminent eschatology” in the New Testament, I pointed out four key passages in the Gospels—four distinct Gospel traditions—which are particularly notable in this regard:

The first three are sayings of Jesus, while the fourth is an historical tradition (containing a saying of Jesus) specific to the Gospel of John. All four are distinctive in that they go beyond the general idea that the end of the current Age (and with it the coming Judgment and coming of the Kingdom) would soon occur. Each of these traditions may be taken to indicate that the coming of the Son of Man (the return of Jesus) would take place within the lifetime of the first disciples. For many commentators, and Christians in general, this proves highly problematic, as it might suggest, at the very least, that the Gospel writers (and Jesus himself!) were mistaken about the time of the end. Due to the controversial nature of these passages, it is necessary to examine each of them closely, looking at them from several aspects: (1) if they all truly mean what they appear to mean, (2) how early Christian may have understood or adapted them in context, and (3) attempts by commentators to explain and/or harmonize them with other New Testament references and theological/christological concerns.

1. Mark 9:1 (par Matt 16:28; Luke 9:27)

This saying of Jesus is part of the Synoptic (triple) Tradition, occurring in all three Gospels, though with significant variation. In this regard, it is highly instructive as a case study on the development of the Gospel Tradition. It occurs at the same point in all three Gospels—part of a block of sayings/teaching (Mk 8:34-9:1) set between Peter’s confession (8:27-30ff) and the Transfiguration scene (9:2-8). The sayings deal with faithfulness in following Jesus (i.e. discipleship) and may be separate traditions which were joined together (at a very early point) based on that theme. The last two sayings are eschatological in orientation:

    • The motif of judgment at the (end-time) coming of the Son of Man (8:38)
    • The saying in 9:1 on the coming of the Kingdom of God

Here is Mark’s version of the latter saying:

“Amen, I say/relate to you that there will be some of the (one)s having stood here who shall not (at all) taste death until they should see the kingdom of God having come in power!”

Luke’s version (9:27) is quite close to the Markan:

“But I say/relate (this) to you truly: there will be some of the (one)s having stood (in) this (place) who shall not (at all) taste death until they should see the kingdom of God.”

The main difference is the absence of the qualifying phrase “in power”. Matthew’s version (16:28) is actually identical with the Markan, except for the closing words (in italics):

(Matt) “…until they should see the Son of Man having come in his kingdom”
(Mark) “…until they should see the kingdom of God having come in power

How should this saying be interpreted? Clearly Jesus, speaking to his (close) disciples, is declaring that at least some of them will not die (“taste death”) until they see the Kingdom. This would seem to imply something which will take place during their lifetime. There are three primary ways to interpret this:

    • It refers to the Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-8 par), witnessed by three disciples, in which Jesus appears in glorified manner
    • It refers to Jesus’ exaltation (resurrection, ascension, heavenly appearance [at God’s right hand]), witnessed variously by the disciples
    • It is a reference to the end-time coming of the Kingdom of God and/or appearance of the Son of Man (i.e., Jesus’ future return, in early Christian terms)

The literary context of the Gospel narrative makes the first option attractive—i.e., the saying is meant as a foreshadowing of the Transfiguration experience. However, it must be said that this is really only plausible in Luke’s version (with its simple reference to “the kingdom of God”); the Markan and Matthean versions do not allow for this. It is conceivable that the Lukan omission of “in power” was meant to soften the eschatological implications of the saying, making it a better fit to the disciples’ experience during Jesus’ ministry, and in their subsequent experience after his resurrection.

This leaves the second option as the best choice if we wish to isolate something which definitely took place during the disciples’ lifetime. Certainly, there are other sayings in the Gospels where Jesus appears to identify the Kingdom of God with his own person and activity. There also can be no doubt that, in early Christian belief, Jesus’ identity as Anointed One (Messianic ruler, etc) and Son of God, was associated primarily with his resurrection and ascension (cf. the early preaching in Acts, Rom 1:4, Phil 2:9-11, etc). At least one early believer/disciple (Stephen, Acts 7:55-56) had a vision of Jesus (identified as the Son of Man) standing at God’s right hand in heaven; and, of course, a number of disciples witnessed Jesus after his resurrection (1 Cor 15:5-7, etc), along with his ascension (Acts 1:9-11), which may be said to involve Jesus’ coming in(to) his Kingdom. There is an interesting variant in the words of the “good thief” on the cross in Luke 23:42. The reading of some of the oldest/best manuscripts is “…when you come into [ei)$] your kingdom”, whereas the majority text reads “…when you come in [e)n] your kingdom”, which could be taken to mean his future coming in glory, something made specific in the reading of Codex Bezae [D] (“…in the day of your coming”).

In spite of this ambivalence of interpretation, an original reference by Jesus to his resurrection/exaltation seems unlikely here. If we take the Markan and Matthean versions together, it comes very close to the eschatological saying in Mk 13:26 par:

    • “some of the ones standing here…should see
      • the Kingdom of God coming in power” (Mk)
      • the Son Man coming in his Kingdom” (Matt)
    • “they will see the Son of Man coming…with great power” (Mk 13:26)

This eschatological interpretation would seem to be confirmed by the prior reference to the Judgment and the coming of the Son of Man with the Angels in Mk 8:38 par. It is hard to avoid the implication that Jesus is referring to the end-time coming of the Son of Man, and that this, apparently, is to take place within the lifetime of his disciples.

[For the interesting parallel of the saying in John 1:51, which also involves the promise of seeing the Son of Man appear in glory, along with the presence of Angels, cf. my earlier study on that verse.]

2. Mark 13:30 (par Matt 24:34; Luke 21:32)

Another saying from the Synoptic (triple) Tradition, this declaration by Jesus is part of the “Eschatological Discourse” (for a survey and outline, cf. the recent study). Here there can be no doubt whatsoever about the eschatological context of the saying, at least as it has been preserved in the Gospel Tradition. Also, by comparison with the variation we saw for Mk 9:1 par (cf. above), this saying is essentially fixed in the tradition. Here is Mark’s version (13:30):

“Amen, I say/relate to you that this genea/ shall (surely) not pass along until the (time at) which all these (thing)s should come to be.”

Matthew’s version (24:34) is a bit simpler in its syntax (“…until all these [thing]s…”), but otherwise identical. Luke here (21:32) is identical to Matthew, except for reading “all (thing)s” instead of “all these (thing)s”.

It is interesting to consider the syntactical similarity with Mark 9:1 par (above):

    • Both sayings begin a)mh\n le/gw u(mi=n (“Amen, I say/relate to you…”)
    • Both sayings have the same structure utilizing a double negative particle (ou) mh\) for emphasis (i.e. “not at all, surely/certainly not”), along with aorist subjunctive verb forms
    • This structure sets a clear conditional statement or assertion, framed the same way by the two subjunctive verb forms—i.e., “…{it/this} shall surely not happen…until {this} should occur”
    • The condition is temporal, or time-factored, governed by the particle e%w$ (“until”)—except for Mk 13:30 which expresses this a bit differently (me/xri$ ou!, “until the [time at] which”)
    • In both sayings, the time-condition seems to relate to the death of people who are currently alive

Let us now consider the saying in Mark 13:30 par in context. It comes after (1) the discussion of the signs/events which are to occur before the end (vv. 5-23), and (2) the description of the end itself, i.e. the coming of the Son of Man (vv. 24-27). This provides the contextual reference for “[all] these (thing)s” (tau=ta pa/nta) in v. 30—all of the things Jesus has been describing in vv. 5-27, including the appearance of the Son of Man. It is stated that “this genea/” will not pass away (i.e. disappear, die off) until all of this takes place. The interpretive crux involve the much-disputed meaning of “this genea/“.

The noun genea/ is related to the verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), and fundamentally refers to someone/something which comes to be (born). Often it signifies a group of people who share the same line of birth (i.e. family, tribe, race), or a particular time/period when people are born and live. It is usually translated in English as “generation”, a word actually related to the Greek. As with genea/ itself, the English word “generation” has a similarly elastic meaning. In conventional idiom, when referring to a distinct period of time, a “generation” typically refers to a period of about 30-40 years, reflecting the principal lifetime of a parent in relation to their child—for example, a family with children, parents, and grandparents would be said to involve three different generations. Sometimes, however, it can denote a more extensive period of time.

If we examine the 40+ occurrences of genea/ in the New Testament, we note that all but 10 are found in the Gospels, and there primarily in sayings by Jesus. The Gospel evidence can be rather easily summarized:

    • In the Matthean genealogy (4 times in 1:17), genea/ appears to be used in the conventional sense outlined above, indicating a person’s lifetime up to the point when his/her child comes of age—i.e. a period of ~30-40 years. The same basic usage is found, more generally, in Luke 1:48, 50, as also in Acts 13:36
    • The majority of the occurrences in the sayings involve the expression “this genea/“, “this generation, as here in Mk 13:30 par—cf. Mk 8:12, 38; Matt 11:16; 12:41ff; Lk 11:29-32, 50-51, etc. In all these instances, Jesus would seem to be referring to the people whom he is addressing, i.e. the people alive currently, at the time of his ministry. Cf. also the similar usage in Mk 9:19 par; Matt 12:39; 16:4; Lk 16:8, as well as in Acts 2:40. It is worth noting the negative sense of the expression “this generation”; on this, cf. below.

Paul seems to have used the word in reference to the people of the past, taken as a whole, or speaking generally (cf. Col 1:26; Eph 3:5; Acts 14:16, as also [by James] in Acts 15:21). On one occasion (Phil 2:15) he refers to the current generation (i.e. people currently alive) in a manner similar to Jesus. Three other New Testament occurrences are worthy of note. In Acts 8:33 (citing Isa 53:8), the word is used in a more general sense of a person’s life (coming to be born and lifetime); in Heb 3:10 it is used in reference to a specific past generation (“that generation”); in Eph 3:21 it refers to periods of time (i.e. past Ages).

There would seem to be little reason to understand the usage in Mk 13:30 par any other way than as a reference to the current generation to whom Jesus was speaking—i.e. the people currently alive at that time. All other occurrences of the expression “this generation” in Jesus’ sayings have this meaning, as do the similar instances in Acts 2:40; Phil 2:15. This renders highly problematic other attempts to work around the historical problem, such as that it refers to:

    • The Age (or dispensation) lasting from Jesus’ time, i.e. to the present
    • Humankind or the Israelite/Jewish people in general
    • A specific generation living at some time in the (distant) future

Though the first two of these allow for relatively smooth harmonizing of the historical difficulties, it introduces meaning and distinctions which are foreign to Jesus’ use of the word genea/ and the expression “this generation”. A number of Christians today prefer the last of these options; in its favor is the fact that it preserves the concrete sense of future events that will be fulfilled in a specific (and relatively brief) period of time, as well as retaining the typical meaning of the word genea/. However, it labors under two serious problems:

    • It requires a significant gap in time (as much as 2,000+ years) between Jesus’ original audience and the fulfillment of the predicted events, something for which there is little or no evidence in the text itself; this point will be discussed in Part 4 of the study on the Eschatological Discourse, and when we come to the eschatology in the book of Acts.
    • It is contrary to Jesus’ use of the expression “this generation”, which otherwise always refers to the people whom he is currently addressing (this present generation, i.e. those alive at the time). I find no immediate examples where the expression “this generation” (genea/ au%th) refers to a specific future generation.

One must also keep in mind the fact that Jesus tends to use the expression “this generation” in the context of the Judgment which is about to come upon the people living at the time. The expression is almost always used in this negative sense. Especially noteworthy is Matthew 23:36, where Jesus speaks of the judgment which the (Israelite/Jewish) people, especially those in Judea/Jerusalem and the religious leaders centered there, will face for the death and persecution of the Prophets throughout the years (vv. 29-35), and states bluntly in verse 36 that “…all these (thing)s will come upon this (present) generation”. The language is virtually identical with that of Mk 13:30 par. Central to the Eschatological Discourse is the framework of Jesus’ prediction of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction (vv. 1-2) and his description of the great distress which will come upon Judea (vv. 14ff). The Lukan version (21:20-24, cf. also 19:43-44) presents this in terms of a military siege of Jerusalem, such as came to pass in 70 A.D. Viewed in these terms, Jesus’ eschatological prophecies were largely fulfilled (fairly accurately) in the 1st century A.D., other than the fact that the final Judgment (with the coming of the Son of Man) did not take place. For more on this important topic, cf. the concluding part (upcoming) of the study on the Eschatological Discourse.

3. Matthew 10:22-23

Our focus here will be on the saying in verse 23 (found only in Matthew); however, in order to set in its proper context, it needs to be examined in connection with verse 22:

“And you will be (one)s being [i.e. who are] hated under [i.e. by] all (people) through [i.e. because of] my name—but the (one) remaining under unto (the) completion [te/lo$], this (one) will be saved. (v. 22)
But when they pursue you in this city, flee into the other (one); for, amen, I say/relate to you (that) you shall (certainly) not complete the cities of Yisrael until the Son of Man should come!” (v. 23)

You will note immediately, the similar syntax of the saying in verse 23, comparing it with those in Mk 9:1 and 13:30 par (cf. above). All three sayings share a common structure, tone and meaning. If the first two are eschatological, it is extremely likely that this one (in its original context) is as well. As I discussed above, this is problematic for traditional-conservative commentators, and other devout readers, since it implies, again, that the (end-time) coming of the Son of Man will take place in the lifetime of the disciples. It is important to consider just what is expected to take place prior to the Son of Man’s appearance; two aspects are indicated: (1) a preaching ministry of the disciples (such as the immediate context of chap. 10), which takes them throughout Israelite territory; and (2) the persecution they will experience, forcing them to flee from one city to the next (cf. the mission narratives in Acts). The eschatological orientation here (cp. in the Eschatological Discourse, Matt 24:9-14 par) seems out of place in the context of chapter 10. Most likely verses 17-23 originated in a separate context and where joined with vv. 1-15f based on a common theme. As the verses stand now, they would imply that the disciples would not complete their mission in vv. 5ff before the coming of the Son of Man—an anachronism and historical implausibity!

Indeed, the persecution described here must be taken as a prophecy of future events which will occur after the resurrection—a period of mission work which will take place prior to the end-time appearance of the Son of Man. In this regard, the instruction here is similar in tone and setting to that in the Eschatological discourse (24:9-13 par), only that, in the latter passage, a more extensive mission is described, one which reaches out in the Gentile world (i.e. of the Roman Empire). Mark’s account makes relatively little of this, but it is emphasized more prominently in Luke, as well as in Matthew’s version of the Discourse. The statement in Matt 24:14 goes beyond that in Mk 13:10, apparently referring to this mission work on a much grander scale:

“And this good message of the Kingdom will be proclaimed in the whole inhabited (world), unto a witness for all the nations, and then the completion [te/lo$] will come/arrive.”

Many commentators feel that there is incompatibility between 10:16-23 and 24:9-14, and, at the very least, there does appear to be some tension, especially if we accept the historicity of the Gospel narrative and assume that Jesus is addressing essentially the same group of disciples. One passage assumes a mission field limited to the land of Israel/Palestine, the other a worldwide mission (within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, at the very least). However, as I will be discussing in the final portion (Part 4) of the study on the Eschatological Discourse, this does not necessarily require a radically different understanding of the period of time involved before the coming of the end.

4. John 21:22-23

Our final passage comes from that last chapter (the so-called appendix) of the Gospel of John, and derives from an entirely different (Johannine) line of tradition than the Synoptic material. It relates to the person in the Gospel known as “the disciple whom (Jesus) loved” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20ff). The disciple is unnamed (though almost certainly known to the original audience), and identified, according to Christian tradition, as John the apostle, son of Zebedee. Chapter 21, which most critical commentators consider to be a secondary addition to the Gospel, to judge by the narrative context, may effectively be narrowing the identification to the disciples mentioned in verse 2. Be that as it may, the “Beloved Disciple” was clearly a prominent figure in the congregations which first read/produced/transmitted the Fourth Gospel. According to 19:35 and 21:24, he is recognized as a principal source for the information and traditions recorded in the Gospel; it is less likely that he is the actual author, in spite of the apparent wording in 21:24.

Verses 20-23 record an important historical tradition, set in the period after the resurrection (vv. 1, 14), while Jesus was still present with his disciples. Actually, there would seem to be two distinct lines of tradition in vv. 15-23—one involving Peter and the death he would face (vv. 15-19), and the other involving the Beloved Disciple and the idea that he would (or might) not die before Jesus’ return. Critical commentators view these as separate traditions, joined by verse 20[f] in the narrative. At any rate, it is Peter’s question (“And what of this [one], Lord?”) which brings forth the statement by Jesus:

“If I wish him to remain until I come, what (is that) to you? You must follow me.” (v. 22)

The implication of this saying, that the Beloved Disciple would remain alive until Jesus’ future return, is certain, at least from the standpoint of the Gospel writer who makes this clear in v. 23:

“(So) then this account [i.e. word/saying] went out into the brothers, that that learner [i.e. disciple] is not (going to) die away; but Yeshua did not say of him that he is not (going to) die away, but ‘If I wish him to remain until I come…'”

According to tradition, John the Apostle was among the very last of the original disciples to die, effectively living to the end of the 1st century. A number of commentators feel that the Beloved Disciple had recently died, or was approaching death, at the time that chap. 21 was written; this would explain why it was important to include this detail, since his death might have been seen as contradicting the words of Jesus. If the Beloved Disciple was, indeed, one of the last of the initial disciples to die off, his death would have marked a significant turning point in early Christian eschatology. Verse 23 offers objective confirmation of the belief, expressed or implied elsewhere in the Gospel (cf. above), that the end-time return of Jesus would take place in the lifetime of the first disciples. Once the first generation of believers had “passed away”, this belief would have to be re-examined, and Jesus’ sayings reconsidered. It is possible that we see signs of this already in the Synoptic Tradition, especially in the more developed form represented in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (often thought to date from c. 70-80 A.D.). Luke, in particular, was aware of an extended period of missionary work in the Gentile world (the Roman Empire), spanning at least until the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Of all the Gospels, his version of the Eschatological Discourse gives the most precise presentation of this particular historical framework.

Special Study: Imminent Eschatology in the New Testament (Pt 1)

As I have mentioned a number of times in this series, the imminent eschatology of early Christians, as reflected in the New Testament, is one of the most difficult problems of New Testament interpretation today, especially for believers who hold a strong belief in the divinely-inspired character of the Scriptures. The problem may be summarized as follows:

Many, if not most, of the earliest Christians appear to have believed and expected the end of the current Age to come very soon, presumably within their own lifetimes. In this, the 1st-century Christians were hardly unique. Many Jews at the time held a similar expectation (on this, cf. further below); in particular, the Community of the Qumran texts—a sectarian fellowship which had many characteristics in common with the early Christian Community—believed that the end-time Judgment and Messianic period was at hand, and that they represented the faithful people of God who would be delivered in the Judgment. The Christian outlook differed primarily in the unique position of Jesus: the end-time Judgment and deliverance of God’s people (believers) would be ushered in with his return to earth. To the extent that the authors and speakers in the New Testament affirm this imminent expectation of Jesus’ return—that it was about to occur very soon (in the 1st century A.D.)—does this not mean that they were, in a real sense, mistaken?

For many devout believers the implications are, or would be, troubling. Some traditional-conservative commentators seek to avoid the problem, for the most part, by downplaying (or even denying) that the inspired authors and speakers proclaimed an imminent return of Jesus and end of the current Age. Due to the sensitivity of this issue, I felt it was worth devoting a special article to the imminent eschatology in the New Testament. I divide the article into two parts:

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

Finally, the article will close with some comments regarding interpretive approaches to the question.

1. The New Testament evidence

If one reads the New Testament writings carefully, it is not hard to find many verses and statements, etc, which evince an imminent eschatology. To avoid any preconceptions, it will be useful to examine the specific language—that is, certain key Greek terms—which will give, I think, a clear and objective demonstration. I have isolated four words (or word groups) which are used to express the idea that the end is imminent.

a. e)ggu/$ and the verb e)ggi/zw

The adverb e)ggu/$ means “close, near”, with the relative verb e)ggi/zw meaning either “bring near” (transitive) or “come near” (intransitive). In a temporal sense, this would indicate that an event would soon take place (i.e. it was near/close to happening). The verb was used by Jesus in the proclamation which begins his public ministry in the Synoptic tradition (Mk 1:15 par):

“The time [kairo/$] has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near [h&ggiken]! Change your mind(set) [i.e. repent] and trust in the good message.”

This same declaration is repeated, or alluded to, a number of times in the (Synoptic) Gospel record of Jesus’ ministry. That it fundamentally has an eschatological significance has been discussed and demonstrated in the recent article (part 1) on the Sayings of Jesus. However, Jesus’ use of the expression “kingdom of God”, and the Kingdom-concept, is complex, and, as we have seen, cannot be reduced to a simplistic eschatological formula.

In James 5:8, Jesus’ declaration is re-stated, in a more distinctly Christian form:

“…make firm your hearts, (in) that [i.e. because] the Lord’s being alongside [parousi/a] has come near [h&ggiken]”

Already among early believers (in the New Testament), the word parousi/a (lit. being [present] alongside) had developed into a technical term (parousia) for the end-time return of Jesus, though the underlying eschatological idea had to do with the appearance/manifestation of God (the Lord) at the end time, to deliver His people and bring the Judgment. In early Christian thought, Jesus (as the Anointed One and Son of God) would serve as God’s representative in the time of the Judgment. This eschatological aspect, unquestionably imminent, is clear here from verse 9; the author (“Jacob/James”) tells his readers that “See! The Judge (now) stands before the door!” Like the call to faith and repentance in Mk 1:15 par, the thrust of James 5:8-9 is an exhortation (for believers) to live and act with greater faithfulness and devotion.

A similar exhortation is found in Hebrews 10:25, which serves as a climax to the call to devotion and perseverance in the faith in vv. 19-25; the second half of the verse gives emphasis to this call:

“…and this (much) more as you see the day coming near [e)ggi/zousan]”

The “day” must be understood as the end-time day of Judgment, as the following vv. 26-31 make abundantly clear. The author is telling believers, sometime in the second half of the 1st century A.D., that they should expect to see the Day of Judgment coming near.

The declaration in 1 Peter 4:7 is even more blunt and absolute: “The completion [te/lo$] of all (thing)s has come near [h&ggiken]”. It is again given in the context of an exhortation to greater love and devotion, since the end of the current Age would soon be taking place. For more on the eschatological use of the world te/lo$, see below.

Romans 13:11-12 is not as explicit, but the eschatological significance of the verb (along with the adverb e)ggu/$) in context does seem clear enough:

“And this, seeing the time [kairo/$], that (it is) now the hour for you to be raised out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer [e)ggu/teron] than when we trusted [i.e. came to faith]. The night (has) cut (its way) forward [i.e. advanced], and the day has come near [h&ggiken].”

The same verb occurs three times (Lk 21:8, 20, 28) in the Lukan version of the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus. In v. 28, Jesus tells his disciples (in the mid-1st century) that they would see the events of the coming end, culminating with the appearance of the Son of Man and the realization that “your loosing from (bondage) [i.e. redemption] comes near [e)ggi/zei]”. These references are discussed in more detail in the article(s) on the Eschatological Discourse. On the implications of verse 8, cf. also below. In the Markan (and Matthean) version of the Discourse, it is the adverb e)ggu/$ which is used, in the context of the fig-tree illustration (Mk 13:28-29 par). The statement which follows in v. 30 would seem to indicate that the end would occur during the lifetime of Jesus’ disciples; for more on this problematic aspect of Jesus’ eschatology, cf. below and the separate note on imminent eschatology in Jesus’ teaching.

There are several other important occurrences of the adverb e)ggu/$ which must be noted, especially those in the book of Revelation, where there can no doubt regarding the eschatological meaning:

    • Rev 1:3—”Happy the one (mak)ing (this) known again (through the reading of it), and (also) the ones hearing the words of the foretellings [i.e. prophecies], and keeping watch over the (thing)s written in it [i.e. the book]—for the time (is) near [o( ga\r kairo\$ e)ggu/$]”
    • Rev 22:10—”…do not seal the words of the foretellings [i.e. prophecies] of this paper-roll [i.e. scroll/book]—for the time (is) near [o( ga\r kairo\$ e)ggu/$]”

Both of these revelatory statements, at the beginning and end of the book, respectively, clearly indicate that the end-time events described in the visions and prophecies will soon take place. Another example is Philippians 4:5, where the reference would seem to be to the end-time return of Jesus; its brevity is almost exactly parallel to the declarations in Revelation above: “The Lord (is) near [o( ku/rio$ e)ggu/$]” (cf. also on James 5:8, above). Hebrews 8:13 should also be mentioned, though a precise eschatological reference is not entirely certain: “…and the (thing) worn and growing old (is) near [e)ggu/$] (to being) without shining [i.e. without visible appearance, vanishing]”. On the adverb in Luke 19:11, see further below.

b. taxu/($), esp. the prepositional e)n ta/xei

The adjective/adverb taxu/($), which means “quick(ly), speedily, with speed” expresses imminence in a slightly different way, emphasizing that something will occur quickly—i.e. “soon”, though sometimes it is the idea of suddenness which is in view. There are six occurrences in the book of Revelation, along with two where the prepositional phrase “in/with speed” (e)n ta/xei) is used.

    • Rev 1:1—”An uncovering [i.e. revelation] of Yeshua (the) Anointed, which God gave to him, to show to his slaves [i.e. servants] the (thing)s which are necessary to come to be [i.e. must come to pass] in (all) speed [e)n ta/xei]…”
      Rev 22:6 essentially repeats this statement, the last words are verbatim
    • Rev 2:16—”Then change your mind(set) [i.e. repent]; but if not, I come to you quickly [taxu/] and will make war with them in [i.e. with] the sword of my mouth!” On the background of this eschatological (and Messianic) motif, cf. Isa 11:1-4, and note its use in 2 Thess 2:8.
    • Rev 3:11—”I come quickly [taxu/]! Grab firm(ly) to what you hold, (so) that no one may take your crown.”
    • Rev 11:14—”The second woe (has) gone away; see, the third woe comes quickly [taxu/]”
    • Rev 22:7—”And see! I come quickly [taxu/]! Happy the one keeping watch over the words of the foretellings [i.e. prophecies] of this paper-roll [i.e. scroll/book]” (cf. 1:3; 22:10, above)
    • Rev 22:12—”See, I come quickly [taxu/], and my wage [i.e. reward] is with me, to give from (it) to each (person) as his work is (deserving).”
    • Rev 22:20—”The one witnessing these (thing)s says, ‘Yes, I come quickly [taxu/]!'”

There are two other noteworthy occurrences of the expression e)n ta/xei in the New Testament:

    • Luke 18:8—”…he [i.e. God] will work out justice for them in (all) speed [e)n ta/xei]!” The point of the parable is to exhort the disciples to persevere and continue in prayer. Note the allusion to the Judgment, and the reference to the (end-time) coming of the Son of Man in v. 8b.
    • Romans 16:20—”And the God of peace will crush together the Satan under your feet in (all) speed [e)n ta/xei]!”
c. The verb me/llw

This verb tends to be used in an auxiliary or modal sense, indicating that something is about to occur. It also may connote the certainty that something will occur, and also one’s perception of it (i.e. thinking or realizing that something will [soon] take place). While this does not always denote imminence, it is often the natural way that the context, where the verb is used, should be understood. This can be easily obscured, especially in the use of the participle, which is often translated blandly as “coming”, rather than more precisely as “(be)ing about (to come)” (i.e. “which is about to come”). The imminent eschatology in the New Testament is perhaps most commonly expressed through this verb. I cite here the most relevant passages:

    • Matt 3:7 par—(John the Baptist speaking) “…who showed you under (a sign warning you) to flee the anger (of God) (be)ing about (to come)?”
    • Matt 11:14—”And, if you are willing to receive (it), he [i.e. John the Baptist] is Eliyyah, the (one who is) about to come.”
    • Mark 13:4—(The disciples to Jesus) “…when will these (thing)s be, and what is the sign when all these (thing)s are about to be completed together?” This important question is discussed in more detail in the study on the Eschatological discourse.
    • Luke 21:36—”Be without sleep [i.e. watchful] in every time [i.e. moment], requesting [i.e. praying] that you may bring down strength (enough) to flee out of [i.e. escape] all these (thing)s th(at are) about to come to be…”. The suffering and travail described in the Eschatological Discourse is characterized as something which is “about to come to pass”. Note the obvious connection to God’s end-time Judgment in Matt 3:7 above.
    • Acts 17:31—(Paul in his Athens speech) “…he [i.e. God] set a day in which he is about to judge the inhabited (earth) in justice, in [i.e. through] a man whom he marked out [i.e. Jesus]…”. For a similar declaration, see 2 Timothy 4:1.
    • Romans 8:18—”For I count that the sufferings of th(is) time [kairo/$] now are not brought (in balance) toward [i.e. are not equal to] the honor/splendor (be)ing about (to come) (which is) to be uncovered unto us.” Note the clear contrast between the present Age and the coming Age (cf. below), as well as the sufferings associated with (the end of) the present Age, which Paul and his fellow believers at the time are understood to be experiencing.
    • 1 Peter 5:1—”I call alongside the elders among you, (I) the elder together with (you) and a witness of the sufferings of the Anointed (One), and (also) one having a common (share with you) of the honor/splendor (be)ing about (to come) (which is) to be uncovered…”. Note the similar wording to Paul’s usage in Rom 8:18.
    • 2 Peter 2:6—Sodom and Gomorrah, etc, are cited as an example God has set to show “(the thing)s being about (to come) to the (one)s without reverence (toward God) [i.e. the impious/ungodly]”. The Flood and destruction of Sodom prefigure the end-time Judgment by God; this is a common motif in early Christian eschatology, discussed in the study on Jesus’ Eschatological Discourse.
    • Hebrews 10:27—”…but a fearful expectation of judgment and a fire of (burn)ing heat being about to consume (the one)s (who are) over and against [i.e. opponents of] (God)”. Cf. on verse 25 above.
    • Hebrews 13:14—”for we do not hold [i.e. have] here an abiding city, but we seek upon [i.e. seek after] the (one) being about (to come)“. The author of Hebrews seems to draw upon a tradition similar to the eschatological “New Jerusalem” motif famous from Revelation 21-22, etc.
    • Revelation 1:19—”Therefore you must write the (thing)s which you saw, and the (thing)s which are, and the (thing)s which are about to come to be after these (thing)s.”
    • Revelation 3:10—”…I will keep you out of the hour of testing th(at is) being about to come upon the whole inhabited (earth).” An absolutely clear declaration of the imminence of the end-time Judgment, as well as the intense suffering/travail which will accompany (and precede) it.
    • Revelation 12:5—”and she produced a son, a male (child), who is about to shepherd the nations with an iron staff…”

Other verses worth noting are: Matt 16:27; 24:6 par; Luke 19:11; Acts 24:15; Rom 4:24; James 2:12; Rev 2:10; 3:16; 6:11; 8:13; 10:7; 17:8. If there were any doubt remaining as to the eschatological significance of the verb me/llw, one only needs to recognize its use in the expression “the coming Age”, i.e. the Age which is about to come. The eschatological imminence implied by this idiom, in most instances, is unmistakable. For example, see Matt 12:32; Eph 1:21; Heb 2:5; 6:5, and note also Rom 8:38; 1 Cor 3:22; 1 Tim 4:8; 6:19.

d. Use of the word te/lo$

This word fundamentally means “completion”, and, used in a temporal sense, can indicate the end of a particular period of time. From the standpoint of imminent eschatology in the New Testament, the most important references are:

    • 1 Corinthians 10:11—”But these (thing)s…were written toward our setting (them) in mind, unto (us) whom the completions [pl. te/lh] of the Ages have come down against [i.e. reached].” The end of the current Age (and with it all previous Ages) is understood as occurring in the time of Paul and the early Christian community.
    • 1 Peter 4:7—”The completion [te/lo$] of all (thing)s has come near.” Cited above; cf. also verse 17.

Other passages to note: Mark 13:7, 13 par; 1 Cor 1:8; 15:24; 1 Thess 2:16(?); Rev 2:26.

Other evidence for an imminent eschatology in the New Testament

(1) Jesus and the Gospels

A number of sayings need to be considered, some of which have been discussed in the recent articles. However, there are several particularly problematic sayings, where Jesus seems to indicate that the end will occur very soon, even within the lifetime of his disciples. These can be listed out here as:

Other verses could be added to supplement the idea of an imminent eschatological expectation, but these are the most specific and controversial. Due to the special sensitivity of these references, as sayings/traditions coming from Jesus himself, they will be examined in a separate study.

(2) The Preaching in the Book of Acts and the Letters of Paul

For the book of Acts, I have already mentioned the statement (by Paul) in 17:31, above. Two other references are worth pointing out:

    • Acts 2:16-17ff—The prophecy from Joel 2:28-32, understood as referring to the “last days”—i.e. “in the last days [e)n tai=$ e)sxa/tai$ h(me/rai$]”—is applied by Peter to his own time, to the coming of the Spirit upon the first believers in Jerusalem. This clearly evinces the belief of the earliest Christians that they were living in the “last days”, at the end of the current Age.
    • Acts 3:20-21—In this sermon-speech, Peter is even more explicit, communicating the need for repentance and conversion in light of the impending “new Age” and the return of Jesus:
      “…so that the times of cooling again [i.e. refreshing/renewal] might come from the face of the Lord, and he might send forth the (one) appointed beforehand to you, the Anointed (One) Yeshua, whom it is necessary for heaven to receive until the times of setting (back) down all (thing)s from (where they were before)…”
      Here the eschatological expectation is very much expressed in traditional Messianic terms, as would be typical of the earliest (Jewish) believers in Jerusalem.

The Pauline evidence will be examined in the articles on Paul’s eschatology as a whole. One may, however, point to a couple of passages from the earlier letters (1 & 2 Thessalonians):

    • 1 Thess 4:15ff—”For we relate this to you in [i.e. through] a word/account of the Lord, that we the (one)s living, the (one)s left about unto [i.e. until] the Lord’s being (present) alongside [parousi/a] (us), we should (certainly) not precede the (one)s sleeping…”
      While it is possible to generalize Paul’s statement, the wording indicates an expectation that the return of Jesus would take place during the lifetime of at least some of the believers still alive at the time of writing.
    • 2 Thess 1:7-10—”…and to you the (one)s (hard-)pressed, a letting up [i.e. relief], (along) with us, in the uncovering of the Lord Yeshua from heaven with his powerful Messengers…”
      Again, this expresses an immediate expectation for the return of Jesus in his heavenly glory.

One might also mention 2 Timothy 3:1ff, which effectively identifies the time frame of the letter’s writing (mid-late 1st century A.D.) as “the last days” (cf. on Acts 2:16-17ff above).

(3) The remainder of the New Testament

In addition to the references already cited (above), I would point out the following:

    • 1 Peter 1:4-5ff—”…unto a lot portioned (out) [i.e. inheritance], without decay and without stain and without fading, having been watched (over) in heaven (to be given) unto you, the (one)s being guarded in the power of God, through trust, unto the salvation ready to be uncovered in the last time…”
    • 1 Peter 2:12—”…they might give honor to God in the day of (His) (com)ing to look upon [e)piskoph/] (us)”
      The word e)piskoph/ came to be a technical term for the end-time appearance (‘visitation’) of God (or his representative), sometimes emphasizing his care and deliverance of his people at the time of Judgment.
    • 1 Peter 4:5—”…who will give from (themselves) an account to the (One) holding readiness [i.e. who is ready] to judge the living and the dead” (on v. 7 cf. above)
    • 1 Peter 4:17—”(It is) that the time (is now) for the beginning of the judgment, from the house of God…”
    • Hebrews 9:26ff—”…but now he [i.e. Jesus] has been made to shine forth [i.e. appear] once (for all) upon the completion together of the Ages, unto a setting aside of sin through his (own ritual) slaughtering [i.e. sacrifice].”
      Jesus’ sacrificial death is set at the completion (te/lo$, cf. above) of the current Age (and all the previous Ages together).
    • 1 John 2:18—”(My) little children, it is the last hour…”
      cp. 1 Cor 7:29 (to be discussed)—”…the time is drawn/pressed together [i.e. compressed/shortened]”
Contrary Evidence

What evidence is there that the New Testament authors/speakers did not expect an imminent return of Jesus and end to the current Age? We begin with the Gospel tradition and sayings of Jesus. In this regard, the most significant evidence comes from the Eschatological Discourse, including the following verses: Mark 13:7-8 par; Matt 24:14, 48ff; Luke 21:8ff, 24(?). The illustration and saying of Jesus in Mark 13:28-29 par, depending on how one interprets it, could also be read in support of a (significant?) gap in time. All of these verses are dealt with in the article(s) on the Eschatological Discourse (Parts 1, 2, 3), and are touched on again in the supplemental study on imminent eschatology in Jesus’ sayings.

A noteworthy point related to these references (and others mentioned below), is the idea that any delay, or extension of time before the end, involves the (early Christian) mission into the surrounding (Gentile) nations. This is perhaps most clearly expressed in Acts 1:6-8, where the disciples ask Jesus if, after his resurrection, he is now going to fulfill his Messianic role and restore the kingdom to Israel:

“In this time are you set(ting) down the kingdom to Yisrael from (where it was before)?”

This reflects a traditional eschatological (and Messianic) understanding, which Jesus, while not rejecting or denying outright, certainly redirects or reinterprets for them in a most significant way:

“It is not for you to know the (period)s of time or (point)s of time which the Father (has) set in his own authority, but (rather) you will receive (the) power of the holy Spirit coming upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Yerushlaim {Jerusalem} and [in] all Yehudah {Judea} and Shimron {Samaria}, and (even) unto the last (part)s of the earth.”

Clearly the emphasis is on the mission to the nations—beginning with Jews and Samaritans, and extending out to the other (Gentile) nations, even to the furthest points of the Greco-Roman world (i.e. the inhabited earth as known at the time). The “Great Commission” of Jesus at the conclusion of the Gospel of Matthew makes much the same point:

“Therefore, traveling (forth) you must make learners [i.e. disciples] of all the nations… and, see, I am with you all the days until the completion together of the Age(s).” (28:19-20)

The parallel of “all the nations” with “all the days” certainly implies a distinct, significant period of time during which the mission to the Gentiles would take place (though how long a period is by no means clear).

This raises the interesting (critical) question as to the relationship between the teaching of the historical Jesus and the understanding of the Gospel writers, especially in the case of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which are typically seen has having been composed, in their present form, in the period c. 70-80 A.D. At this point, the first generation of believers would have begun to die off, and thoughtful Christians at the time would have been increasingly aware of a “delay of the Parousia”—i.e., a ‘delay’ in the return of Jesus and, with it, the end of the current Age. According to many critical commentators, the Gospel writers (and/or the traditions they inherited) tried to account for this by adapting or (re)interpreting Jesus’ own sayings/teachings which otherwise may have indicated an imminent eschatology. Such a view is a bit hard to maintain, especially when one considers the many sayings, reflecting imminent eschatology, which are preserved in the Gospel tradition, with little or no apparent modification (e.g., the references noted above and in the supplemental study). Perhaps the clearest such evidence comes from the Gospel of Luke, which would not be entirely surprising, in light of Acts 1:6-8, etc (cf. above). The author’s hand would seem to be present in the shaping of 19:11ff (discussed in the recent article on the Parables); others indications the author was aware of a ‘delay’ in Jesus’ return might be seen in 12:35-46; 17:20-22ff; 18:1-8, and some of the uniquely Lukan details in the Eschatological Discourse (21:7-8ff, 12, 20-24, etc).

On the whole, however, it would seem that early Christians were perfectly capable of envisioning a period of time for preaching the Gospel to the surrounding peoples/nations, while still maintaining the idea that the end-time return of Jesus, etc, would take place quite soon. This would allow, at the very least, for a relatively short period (a generation or two?) of world evangelization, if perhaps not the 2,000+ years which we must grapple with today. Indeed, this aspect (i.e. a period of time for the Gentile mission), while rare in Paul’s letters, is expressed unmistakably in the letter to the Romans (see esp. 11:25ff), which I will be discussing in an upcoming article.

Christians today, eager to fit a period of 2,000+ years into the eschatological outlook of the New Testament, must be careful not to exaggerate or misread certain passages which suggest a ‘delay’. For example, the main point of Luke 19:11ff is that the end-time Kingdom would not be ushered in immediately at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but must wait until a future appearance (following his death, resurrection and exaltation to heaven); it says nothing about how far into the future this might occur, and likely still would agree with the imminent eschatology of early Christians (i.e. Jesus’ return would occur very soon). Similarly, Paul’s instruction in 2 Thess 2 is meant to indicate that certain events must take place before the Day of the Lord (the return of Jesus and the end-time Judgment) is realized; yet, there is no indication that the author (Paul) does not think that this will (or may) happen very soon.

A delay is also suggested in Hebrews 10:13, but considering the clear imminent expectation in vv. 25ff, this must be read in context. Somewhat more certain as a sign that the author expects a significant period of time before the end is 1 Timothy 6:14-15. The passage which expresses such a view most directly, even allowing for a lengthy period of time (1,000+), is 2 Peter 3:3-10ff (also v. 15), including the famous principle (which should not be pressed too far) that

“a single day alongside the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a single day”

Having examined the extensive evidence in the New Testament for an imminent eschatology among early Christians, it remains (in the second part of this study) to consider possible explanations for such a view, as well has how it might be interpreted by believers today.