Saturday Series: 1 John 2:28-3:10

This week, in our studies on the Johannine Letters, we turn to a theological problem in 1 John which has challenged commentators for centuries—the apparent contradictory statements indicating that a Christian does and does not sin, or, indeed, can and cannot sin. The difficulty is obviously more pointed in the latter instance, which may be illustrated by comparing the following two statements:

“If we say we have not sinned, we make him [i.e. God] (to be) false…” (1:10)
“Everyone coming to be (born) out of God…is not able to sin.” (3:9)

The main passage making it clear that Christians do (and can) sin is 1:7-10; the statements that they do not (and cannot) are primarily found in the current passage under discussion. There are two (or three) such statements in our passage (vv. 6, 9), with another in 5:18:

    • “Every (one) remaining in him does not sin [ouch hamartánei]…” (3:6)
    • “Every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not do sin [hamartían ou poieí]…” (3:9a)
      “…and is not able to sin [ou dýnatai hamartánein], (in) that he has come to be (born) out of God” (3:9b)
    • “…every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin [ouch hamartánei]…” (5:18)

The statement in 5:18 is actually a conflation of those in 3:6 and 3:9a. One popular way of explaining the apparent contradiction is the idea that the use of the present tense in these four statements refers to habitual sin, or a lifestyle characterized by sinful behavior, rather than occasional sins. Some English versions circumvent the problem for the average reader by building this interpretation into the translation. However, far too much is made of this supposed grammatical difference. For example, in 1:8 the present tense is used when it is essentially stated that believers do sin: “if we say that we do not hold/have sin, we lead ourselves astray”. Also the perfect tense, used in 1:10, would generally indicate a past action or condition that continues into the present: “if we say that we have not sinned [i.e., = do not sin], we make Him (to be) false”.

Beyond this, the author’s statements, especially in 3:6ff, are fundamental to his overall theology, and should not be made to hinge on a subtle grammatical distinction. There have, indeed, been many other attempts at explanation. A proper solution is to be derived from careful study of the Johannine thought-world, beginning with 1 John, then widening to consider the Gospel along with the other two letters. One should avoid importing solutions or doctrinal issues that are foreign to these writings. I offer here three possibilities for consideration:

    • The statements in 3:6 etc. represent the ideal, while those in 1:7-10 etc. reflect the practical reality for believers. To frame this more in accordance with Johannine thought, we might say that the fundamental identity of believers is sinless, based on our union with the sinless Christ. However, this sinlessness is maintained for believers through confession (of sin) and forgiveness (through the intercession of Jesus). According to Luther’s famous expression, the nature of believers is two-fold: simul iustus et peccator (“at once righteous and sinner”).
    • Christians are sinless only so far as we remain in Christ. This idea of “remaining”, using the verb ménœ, is central to Johannine theology, in both the Gospel and letters (the verb occurs 40 times in the Gospel and 27 in the letters—more than half of all NT occurrences [118]). This is expressed most famously by the Vine illustration in Jesus’ Last Discourse (15:1-11). To use this illustration, if one remains in the Vine, the believer is unable to sin; only when one fails to remain in, through neglect, etc, does the believer sin. Through confession/forgiveness, the believer is ‘grafted’ back into the Vine and once again remains/abides.
    • In 3:6, etc, the author is not referring to sin (hamartía, vb hamartánœ) in the general ethical-religious sense; rather, here it specifically means violation of the two-fold command (3:23f), which no true believer can violate. In this regard, sin is identified as “lawlessness” (anomía) in a very specific sense.

Before any determination can be made on the viability of these (or any other) solution, it is necessary to examine the context and setting of the statements in 3:6 and 9. New Testament theology, which ultimately serves as the basis for Christian theology, must be derived from careful exegesis and critical analysis of the key passages in question. From the standpoint of Biblical Criticism, this falls generally under the heading of literary criticism—the vocabulary, style, structure, literary/rhetorical devices, etc, used by the author.

In last week’s study (on 2:18-27), we saw how the thrust of the letter, up to that point, related to a conflict and division within the Johannine congregations. Certain members, characterized as false believers, who, according to the author, held a view of Jesus considered to be contrary to the Johannine Gospel (and called antichrist, “against the Anointed”), had apparently separated from the Community. The author clearly felt a real danger that these “separatists” could lead astray others in the congregations, and so is writing to warn and persuade his readers against the views (and actions) of these ‘false’ believers. We must keep this in mind as we study the portion that follows (2:28-3:10).

In terms of its structure, our passage follows the basic pattern of 2:18ff, begun earlier in vv. 12ff, of paraenesis (i.e. instruction, exhortation), whereby the author addresses his fellow believers as “(my) children”, using either the diminutive teknía or paidía. The latter term (used at 2:18) literally means “little children”, while the former (teknía, here and in v. 12) is harder to translate, something like “(my dear) offspring“. 2:28-3:10 is comprised of two parallel instructions, each beginning with teknía. The parallelism is precise, a fact which may be obscured by the digression in 3:1-3; if we temporarily omit those verses, then there are six components, or statements, in each section:

    • Initial exhortation, with the opening address “(my dear) offspring” (2:28; 3:7a)
    • Statement characterizing (true) believers as those who are just, and act justly (2:29; 3:7bc)
    • Statement regarding the opposite—i.e. those who sin (3:4, 8a)
    • Statement regarding the purpose for Jesus coming to earth (as a human being) (3:5, 8b)
    • Statement to the effect that the (true) believer does/can not sin, and why (3:6a, 9)
    • Statement of the opposite—that the one sinning cannot be a true believer (3:6b, 10)

The core of this teaching is actually made up of a pair of dual-statements, with a Christological declaration in between:

    • Statement 1: True believers act justly, while those who sin do not (and are thus not true believers) [2:27-3:4 / 3:7-8a]
    • Christological declaration regarding Jesus’ appearance on earth [3:5 / 3:8b]
    • Statement 2: The true believer cannot sin and the one who sins cannot be a true believer [3:6 / 3:9-10]

Christology is thus at the heart of the instruction, and the parallel declarations in 3:5, 8b must kept clearly in mind as we study the statements in 2:27-3:4, 6, 7-8a, 9-10. Let us now examine carefully each of the six parallel components.

1 John 2:28 / 3:7a

    • “And now, (my dear) offspring, you must remain in him…” (2:28)
    • “(My dear) offspring, no one must lead you astray” (3:7a)

The idea of remaining (vb ménœ) in Christ (“in him” en autœ¡) is parallel to not being “led astray” (vb planáœ), the implication being that the one who is led astray no longer remains in Christ. In light of Jesus’ words of warning in John 15:4-7, this must be taken most seriously. The influence and views of those who have separated from the Community is certainly in mind here as that which could lead believers astray (see the discussion on 2:18-27). The exhortation in 2:28 is set within an eschatological context (as is that in 2:18ff): “…you must remain in him, (so) that, if [i.e. when] he should be made to shine forth (to us), you would hold an outspoken (confidence) and not feel shame from him in his coming to be alongside (us) [parousía]”. The return of Jesus to earth, believed by the author to be imminent (2:18), and marking the moment of the final Judgment, is a key part of the urgency of this exhortation. We must keep this eschatological dimension in mind throughout our study as well.

1 John 2:29 / 3:7bc

    • “If you have seen [i.e. known] that he is just, (then) you know that also every (one) doing justice has come to be (born) [gegénn¢tai] out of him.” (2:29)
    • “every (one) doing justice is just, even as that (one) [i.e. Jesus] is just” (3:7bc)

This statement expresses a fundamental (two-fold) principle of Johannine theology: (1) as Jesus is just/righteous [díkaios], so his true followers (believers) will be as well; and (2) the just-ness [dikaiosýn¢] of believers comes from that of Jesus himself, through our union with him. Here we also have the basic problem of how to translate the dikaio- word group, whether by “just/justice” or “right[eous]/righteousness”. Either way, we must, I think, here avoid the tendency of understanding dikaios[yn¢] in terms of conventional ethical-religious behavior. The author certainly would have taken for granted that true believers would think and act in a moral and upright manner; I doubt that is really at issue here, since, presumably, those who separated from the Community were quite moral (in the conventional sense) as well. Many commentators assume that they were licentious, but I find not the slightest hint of that in the letters. Moreover, it is worth noting that, throughout Church history, separatist groups and supposed ‘heretics’ have tended toward an ideal of ascetic purity much more so than toward flagrant immorality.

How, then, should we understand díkaios and dikaoisýn¢ here? We must look to the evidence of how these words are used elsewhere in the Johannine writings. They occur infrequently in the Gospel, but there is one key passage, 16:8-11, in the great Last Discourse, where Jesus is speaking of the work that the Spirit/Paraclete will do after his departure back to the Father. As it happens, sin (hamartía) and justice/righteousness are juxtaposed in that passage, much as they are in 1 John 2:28-3:10:

“and, (at his) coming, that one [i.e. the Spirit/Paraclete] will expose (to) the world (the truth) about sin and about justice and about judgment:
(on the one hand) about sin, (in) that they do not trust in me;
(on the other) about justice, (in) that I go back to the Father and you (can) look at me no longer…”

Here sin is defined as failing (or refusing) to believe in Jesus; and, I would say, that justice is similarly to be understood as the truth of who Jesus is. The work of the Spirit is described with the verb eléngchœ, which has the basic judicial meaning of exposing the guilt, etc, of someone—more precisely here, that of exposing the truth of the matter. Indeed, the Spirit is closely identified with Truth in the Johannine writings, being called “the Spirit of truth” in verse 13 (also 14:17; 15:26; and see 1 John 4:6; 5:6). The truth of Jesus’ identity is defined here by two phrases:

    • “I go back to the Father” — i.e., the raised/exalted Jesus’ return to the Father, confirming his identity as the Son.
    • “you see me no longer” — this is a shorthand way of referring to the time after his departure, in which the disciples will “see” Jesus only through the (invisible) presence of the Spirit. The abiding presence of the Spirit confirms the reality of who Jesus is, and marks the true believer.

Thus “sin” and “justice” (dikaiosýn¢) here have a very specific and distinct meaning. The terms are not being used in the ordinary ethical-religious sense, but in a decidedly theological and Christological sense. What of the dikaio- word group elsewhere in the Johannine letters? The noun occurs only in our passage (2:29; 3:7, 10), but the adjective (díkaios) three other times in 1 John:

    • In 1:9 and 2:1, it is used as a title/attribute of Jesus, specifically in the context of his relation to the Father (as Son), with the power to cleanse/forgive sin. This is an importance point of emphasis which we will be exploring further.
    • In 3:12, immediately following our passage, it characterizes Abel in contrast to the evil of Cain. The two are brothers, and, as such, the illustration represents the contrast between true and false believers—another important point for our passage.

As in the earlier statement in 2:28, that in v. 29 is followed by an exposition with an eschatological emphasis, only much more extensive (3:1-3). It is beyond the scope of our study to examine these verses in detail, but the following brief points should be noted:

    • Believers are identified as “the offspring (i.e. children) of God”, using the same noun (teknía) as in the opening exhortations (2:28a; 3:7a). This expounds the important Johannine verb gennᜠ(“come to be [born]”), used repeatedly as a way of identifying (true) believers as those who are born from God. This essential identity is in complete contrast to that of “the world [kósmos]”.
    • The identity of believers will not be realized fully until the end-time appearance of Jesus; currently, they/we experience him through the Spirit, but ultimately the union will be even more complete.

1 John 3:4 / 3:8a

    • “Every (one) doing the sin also does the lawless (thing), and (indeed) the sin is the lawless (thing).” (3:4)
    • “Every (one) doing the sin is out of the Diábolos, (in) that from the beginning the Diábolos sins.” (3:8a)

Here, being “out of [ek] the Diábolos” is a precise contrast to coming to be born “out of [ek] God” (or “out of Christ”). The word diábolos literally signifies one who “throws over” accusations, insults, etc, but it came to be used in a technical sense for the Evil One opposed to God (= “the Satan” of Old Testament tradition). We might, perhaps, translate the term literally as “the one casting (evil) throughout”. In any case, here the Diábolos (“Devil”) is part of a dualistic contrast with God and Christ, in much the same way the term kósmos (“world-order, world”) is used in the Johannine writings. In John 16:11 (see above), we find the title “the chief of this world” (ho árchœn tou kósmou toútou, also in 14:30), a title more or less synonymous with diábolos.

In the first statement (3:4), sin (hamartía) is identified with anomía, a term literally meaning something “without law” (ánomos), i.e. “lawless (thing)”, “lawlessness”. This noun does not occur elsewhere in the Johannine writings, and, indeed, is relatively rare in the New Testament (13 other occurrences). How are we to understand its use here, which would seem to be quite important for a correct understanding of “sin” in our passage? In a Jewish (or Jewish Christian) context, anomía and ánomos could refer to the Old Testament Law (Torah), and to non-Jews (Gentiles) and non-observant Jews as being “without the Law”. Paul occasionally uses the term this way, but more frequently it signifies “lawlessness” in the general sense of wickedness and opposition to God. However, there are two distinct connotations for anomía among Christians in the first century, either (or both) of which are likely significant in regard to its use here:

    • The term came to be used in an eschatological context, as a way to describe the wickedness and social/moral upheaval of the current Age, especially as it comes to a close at the end-time. It occurs in the Matthean version of the Eschatological Discourse (Matt 24:12; cf. also 13:41), and again, more prominently, in 2 Thess 2:3, 7 (see the upcoming article on 2 Thess 2:1-12 in the series “Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament”). The author of 1 John clearly believed he and his readers were living in the “last hour” right before the end (2:18), so his use of anomía here likely has an eschatological emphasis.
    • The word anomía (also anóm¢ma) was occasionally used to translate the Hebrew b®liyya±al, a term of uncertain derivation but tending to be associated with death, or more generally to the idea of hostility, chaos, and confusion (i.e. disorder). The frequent expression “son/man of Beliyya’al” essentially refers to a person who violates and disrupts the order of things—either in a specific social or religious setting, or within society at large. This may well serve as the basis for Paul’s expression “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2:3. In 2 Cor 6:14, anomía is parallel to Belíar, a transliteration in Greek (with variant spelling) of b®liyya±al. Belial/Beliar came to be used as a title of the Evil One (equivalent to “the Satan”, “Devil”) in Jewish writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D., and frequently occurs in an apocalyptic/eschatological context. For more on 2 Cor 6:14ff, see the recent Saturday series studies on that passage.

We should consider here also the specific wording in these statements, especially the phrase ho poiœ¡n t¢n hamartían. The verb poiéœ (“do, make”) occurs 13 times in 1 John, always in the present tense—either an indicative or an articular participle. In both instances, the verb serves to summarize the fundamental character and identity of a person, but particularly so with the participle (“the [one] doing”); the active behavior of a person indicates his/her identity. But what does it mean to “do sin”? Is this simply a matter of committing sins, i.e. moral/religious failings or transgressions, or is something more involved? Much depends on whether or not there is specific force intended in the definite article preceding hamartían: is it “the one doing sin” or “the one doing the sin”? In all other instances with the definite article (1:9; 2:2, 12; 3:5; 4:10); the noun is plural, indicating the sins a person commits—i.e., committing sin in the conventional sense. In my view, the articular use of the singular here means something different and quite specific: the sin. And what is the sin? I would maintain that is best understood in light of John 16:8ff (see above), where sin—ultimately, the sin that is judged—is failing/refusing to trust in Jesus, i.e. to accept the truth of who he is. This sin is a fundamental transgression of the two-fold command (3:23), the only “law” which is binding for believers. As such, this sin of unbelief is “lawlessness” (anomía), quite apart from the general wickedness that may be associated with unbelief.

For those accustomed to reading 2:28-3:10 with the assumption that religious-ethical behavior is in view, the line of interpretation developed thus far in our study may seem somewhat surprising, even disconcerting. However, that it is generally on the right track, can, I believe, be shown by a careful examination of the rhetorical thrust of 1:1-2:27 (see the prior two studies). Throughout the letter, the emphasis has been on need for Christians to preserve the message about Jesus—the truth of who he is and what he has done—that is contained, specifically, in the Johannine Gospel. Certain people, whom the author characterizes as false believers, have left the Community, and hold/express a view of Jesus that is considered to be contrary to this Gospel (antichrist, “against the Anointed”). We will see this emphasis come more clearly into view in our passage as we proceed, beginning with the Christological declarations in 3:5 and 8b. I hope you will join me next Saturday for the continuation of this important study.

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

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

2 Thessalonians 2:6-8

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

Verse 6

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

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

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

Verse 7

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

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

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

Verse 8

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

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

Summary

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

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

Revelation 17:5, 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Secret” in Paul’s Letters: 2 Thess 2:7

This study, dealing with the occurrences of the word musth/rion (“secret”) in the New Testament, examines 2 Thessalonians 2:7 and a very distinctive use of the term.

2 Thessalonians 2:7

In 2 Thess 2:1-12, Paul addresses an eschatological issue: regarding whether the “day of the Lord” might have already come. The expression “day of the Lord” was inherited from Old Testament and Jewish tradition—a reference to the time, at the end of this current Age, when the Lord (YHWH) would appear to bring judgment upon the world and deliver the faithful among his people. By the time of the New Testament, the concept was closely tied to Messianic expectation—the end-time appearance of an “anointed” ruler and/or representative of God, whose appearance will precede or usher-in the Judgment. Jesus was universally accepted by early Christians as the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ)—for the associations between Jesus and the main Messianic figure-types, cf. the notes and articles in my series “Yeshua the Anointed”—and the uniquely Christian contribution to the traditional eschatological picture was that Jesus would return (as God’s representative) to deliver his people (believers) and oversee the administration of the final Judgment. Paul, like virtually all believers of the time, expected that the end-time Judgment and return of Jesus were imminent, to occur very soon, and so it was understandable that the experience of intense suffering and persecution (the “birth pains”) might lead Christians to think that the Judgment was in the process of taking place. Paul wishes to make clear, in vv. 3ff, that certain events must still occur before the final Judgment comes. He is drawing upon a traditional eschatological framework—taken primarily from Daniel 7-12, especially 9:20-27, and the various apocalyptic works inspired by it (cf. my article on this passage). Jesus’ own eschatological teaching, as recorded in Synoptic tradition (Mark 13 par), draws from this line of tradition as well.

Before discussing 2 Thess 2:7 in context, it is worth pointing out the considerable difficulties for modern-day Christians in studying and evaluating these eschatological passages in the New Testament (which I address in the upcoming series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”). A wide range of interpretations (and systems of interpretation) have developed over the years—some more plausible than others—in order to make sense of the relevant passages. There is special difficulty associated with 2 Thess 2:3ff, since it, perhaps more than any other in the New Testament, appears to be a prophecy regarding specific historical events, set (so it would seem) in Paul’s own time, and involving the presence of the Jerusalem Temple (v. 4)—in other words, prior to 70 A.D. There are three main interpretative approaches, as with most of the eschatological passages:

    • Imminent-Historical—The events should be taken at face value, as a prophecy of things which would soon happen (perhaps within a few years), assuming the existence of the Jerusalem Temple (i.e. prior to its destruction)
    • Futurist—Again the prophesied events are taken more or less at face value, but in a future time (where, apparently, a functioning Temple in Jerusalem has been rebuilt).
    • Symbolic—According to this view, Paul uses specific traditional-historical eschatological imagery (“man of lawlessness”, “the Temple”, etc) to refer to more general spiritual/religious tendencies (apostasy, rebellion against God), which have been occurring, and which will occur with greater intensity (today/in the future), as the end approaches.

There are strengths and weaknesses to each approach, some more serious than others. In my view, only the first deals honestly with the text (and the historical context) of the passage as we have it, though, admittedly, it raises important questions regarding 2 Thess 2:3ff as a genuine (historical) prophecy. For the purposes of this study, I assume that Paul basically has his own time in mind (including the pre-70 Temple), without making any judgment on the wider theological/doctrinal issues. The key portion is vv. 6-8. Paul has already made reference to a “standing away (from God) [a)postasi/a, apostasía, i.e. ‘apostasy’]” which immediately precedes the end, as well as the appearance of the “man of lawlessness [o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$]” (some MSS read “man of sin” […th=$ a(marti/a$]). There is a tendency by many Christians to identify this figure automatically with the “Antichrist” of subsequent tradition, blending 2 Thess 2 together with the epistles of John and the book of Revelation; however, while the underlying concept of antichrist is appropriate to the context here, it is important to limit our examination to what Paul himself says. This “man of lawlessness” is expounded by two phrases in vv. 3-4:

    • “the son of ruin/destruction” (o( ui(o\$ th=$ a)pwlei/a$)
    • “the one (who is)…upon every thing counted as God or revered”; two verbal participles fill the ellipsis:
      —”laying/crouching down against” [a)ntikei/meno$]
      —”raising/lifting (himself) over” [u(perairo/meno$]

In other words, this person looks to attack, and to raise himself over, every proper religious idea people may have. This tendency culminates in the dramatic action of seating himself in the Temple sanctuary (nao/$) to demonstrate his own deity (v. 5). Verses 6-8 set the historical/chronological context for these events. Especially important (and difficult) is the use of the verb kate/xw (lit. “hold down”); there are two ways this can be understood—(1) holding someone down, in the sense of restraining or impeding him, or (2) holding down (i.e. having control of) power or a position. These two options lead to three basic ways of interpreting vv. 6-8 (for a good survey, cf. Wanamaker, pp. 249-58):

    • The lawless one and/or “secret of lawlessness” holds back (delays) the coming of Christ and the end judgment—i.e. it will not happen until the lawless one first appears
    • Someone/something holds back (restrains) the coming of the lawless one
    • The “secret of lawlessness”, including someone in particular, holds down (possesses) power until the time when the “lawless one” appears

In my view, the last of these approaches best fits the context and grammar of the passage. Here is a literal rendering of vv. 6-9 with this in mind:

“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—and then the lawless (one) will be uncovered, whom the Lord [Yeshua] will take up/away [i.e. destroy] with the Spirit 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.”

There is some confusion in the syntax due the reference of two different “comings” (lit. “coming to be along[side]”, parousi/a parousía)—that of the Lord (v. 8), and that of the “lawless one” (v. 9). This is rather easier to recognize in the original Greek, since the two relative pronouns (indicated by italics above) relate, by way of modifying clauses, to “the lawless one” at the beginning of v. 8:

    • “Then will be uncovered the lawless one [o( a&nomo$]
      • whom [o^n] the Lord will take up/away…and
      • whose [ou!] coming to be along [parousi/a] is…”

There can be little doubt that the juxtaposition of the coming of the Lord and the Lawless One is intentional, meant as a definite contrast—the coming of the Lawless One, who will show/proclaim himself as God, is an evil parody of the true coming of the Lord. Some manuscripts read “the Lord Yeshua” (o( ku/rio$ )Ihsou=$) , while others simply “the Lord” (o( ku/rio$). In the original Scriptural (Old Testament) tradition, it was God (YHWH) himself who would appear in Judgment at the end-time, though this was often understood as occurring through a heavenly/angelic representative—the “Messenger (Angel) of the Lord”, as (it would seem) in the original setting of Malachi 3:1ff. In subsequent Jewish thought, much of this role was taken by the Messiah, especially the figure-types of the Davidic Ruler and (heavenly) “Son of Man”. The imagery in verse 8b is drawn primarily from Isaiah 11:4, a popular ‘Messianic’ passage of the time.

Another important aspect of vv. 6-8 involves the expression “the secret of lawlessness” (to\ musth/rion th=$ a)nomi/a$) in verse 7. A similar expression (“secret[s] of sin”) is known from the Qumran texts (1QM 14:9; 1QH 5:36; 1Q27 1.2,7); and note also “secret of evil/wickedness” (musth/rion kaki/a$) in Josephus War 1.470 (cf. Wanamaker, p. 255). The word a)nomi/a (along with the adjective a&nomo$) essentially means “without law”, that is, without possessing or adhering to proper law and custom. From the societal standpoint, this results in “lawlessness” and is tantamount to anarchy and rebellion. In a religious sense, being “without law” generally refers to immorality; however, from a Jewish (and Christian) perspective, since the Law (Torah) is tied to the idea of the agreement established between God and his people, “lawlessness” is effectively the same as rebellion against God. Note the way that this dynamic is expressed in the eschatological context of vv. 6-8:

    • The (thing) holding down (power) [to\ kate/xon, neuter participle] (v. 6)
      • The secret of lawlessness [to\ musth/rion {neuter} th=$ a)nomi/a$] (v. 7a)
    • The (one) holding down (power) [o( kate/xwn, masculine participle] (v. 7b)
      • The lawless one [o( a&nomo$, masculine] (v. 8)

The parallel is clear and obvious, shifting from the neuter (a condition or tendency) to the masculine (a person or [personal] figure). The relationship can also be expressed as a chiasm, as follows:

    • The secret of lawlessness—i.e. of sin, evil and opposition to God
      —The (thing) holding down power
      —The (one) holding down power
    • The lawless one—directly empowered/inspired by Satan, opposed to God

The use of the verb kate/xw suggests a temporary situation—the holding down of power until [e%w$] the (final) manifestation of lawlessness in the “lawless one”. More to the point, the use of the term “secret” (musth/rion) indicates that this lawlessness is, to some extent, hidden during the current state of things (in Paul’s time). At the very least, we can infer that the true nature, and full extent, of this lawlessness is hidden from the awareness of ordinary people, though Paul definitely states that it is “at work in” (e)nergei=tai) the world (v. 7a). Again, there is a strong sense here of an evil parallel (and parody) with the Gospel:

    • The secret of God, which has been hidden away from the world
      —only now made known through the appearance and work of Christ
    • The secret of lawlessness, likewise hidden (at least in its full extent)
      —only to be made known through the appearance and (Satanic) work of the lawless one

A bit more must be said of this “lawless one” in the context of vv. 6-8; this will be done in the process of addressing the use of musth/rion in Revelation 17:5, 7, in the next study.

References marked “Wanamaker” above are to Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians in The New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC] series (Eerdmans/Paternoster Press: 1990).

Antinomianism

The term antinomian is derived from the Greek a)ntinomi/a (antinomía), literally “against the law”, though the Greek word itself can actually have the technical sense of facing a difficulty or ambiguity in the law. While rarely, if ever, used in ordinary English today, “antinomianism” continues to serve as a technical (and polemic) term in religious and ethical studies. Christians have been especially sensitive to the term in relation to Paul’s teaching regarding the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah) in Galatians and Romans. Many simply take for granted that Paul’s teaching is not, and could not be, “antinomian”. However, this attitude, I believe, very much reflects a confusion of terminology and definition. It is helpful to distinguish the primary ways the term may be understood, in relation to the Old Testament Law (Torah)—i.e., “against the Law”, in the sense of:

    1. Teaching that Christians are no longer obligated or required to observe the commands and regulations of the Torah
    2. Attitude and/or behavior which is hostile and/or opposed to the precepts of the Law (Torah)
    3. Immorality and licentiousness, i.e. behavior which contradicts the ethical demands and precepts of the Torah, esp. as represented in the second table of the Ten Commandments—i.e. the “moral law”
    4. A partisan term (“Antinomians”) for historical persons or groups who espoused or exemplified views similar to any or all of the previous three, whether “Gnostics” from the early centuries or related to the so-called “Antinomian Controversies” among Protestants (Lutherans) in the mid-late 16th century

The last of these is especially unhelpful; it would be better if “Antinomian(s)” were eliminated as a historical label. Most Christians today probably would understand the term in sense #3 above, as more or less synonymous with licentiousness and immorality. This often is related to the general belief (or assumption) that, while the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Torah (sacrifical ritual, the holy/feast days, dietary regulations, et al) no longer apply to believers, most of the ethical-moral precepts and injunctions remain in force (on this, see below). Sense #2 generally corresponds with the term a)nomi/a (“lawlessness”) in the New Testament, and is largely synonymous with the concepts of sin, wickedness and rebellion against the will of God. Sense #1 is a rather blunt way of characterizing Paul’s teaching regarding the Law in Galatians and Romans; some scholars and commentators are indeed willing to describe it as “antinomian”, though many others are unwilling or reluctant to do so. Some would dispute that #1 accurately characterizes Paul’s teaching, but it would be difficult to read his arguments in Galatians and Romans fairly and come up with a different conclusion. I am in the process of discussing Paul’s View of the Law (in Galatians, Romans, etc) as part of a series on “The Law and the New Testament”.

The problem with understanding “antinomianism” in senses #2 and 3 above is that it confuses religious and ethical attitudes and behavior with the specific commands of the Torah. While it is true that the second (ethical) side of the Decalogue continues to be emphasized by Jesus (Mark 10:18-29 par) and in early Christian instruction (James 2:11; Rom 13:9; Didache 2:1-3, etc), it was very quickly disassociated from the Torah by early Christians, and connected almost entirely with the teaching of Jesus (e.g. in the Sermon on the Mount). In the New Testament itself, this can be divided into two stages of tradition:

As a practical result, virtually all of the specific Torah commands are effectively eliminated. Indeed, apart from the two-fold “Great commandment” (Deut 6:4-5 / Lev 19:18) and the five (ethical) commands of the Decalogue, it is difficult to find much, if any, evidence that any other Torah command or regulation was considered still to be in force in the early Church. There were, of course, Jewish Christians who advocated (and/or demanded) observance of circumcision, the dietary laws, et al, even for Gentile believers, as indicated in Acts 15 and throughout Galatians; however, by the end of the New Testament period (c. 90-100 A.D.) this was an extreme minority view overall. Cf. my article on the “Jerusalem Council” and notes on the requirements (for Gentile believers) in the associated Decree.

Clearly, Paul and all other (legitimate) early Christian teachers argued strenuously against immorality and wickedness (sense #2 and 3), but was the basis for this the continued need for believers (whether Jew or Gentile) to follow the Torah? In Galatians, Paul says exactly the opposite of this, arguing that believers are free from the Law and are no longer under obligation to observe it (i.e. no longer “under Law”). The only Law which continues to remain in force, as is clear from Gal 5:14 and 6:2, is the so-called “love-command (or principle)”. What then, is the basis of morality and proper religious behavior?—clearly, it is the work, guidance, and fruit of the Spirit (Gal 4:6; 5:5-6, 16-18, 22-23, 25). This, however, does require a willingness of the believer to be so guided by the Spirit, i.e. to “walk” according to the Spirit (5:16, 25; cf. also 6:8). This is the reason for Paul’s forceful exhortation (and warning) in 5:16-25 (also 6:7-9)—freedom in Christ certainly does not mean freedom to act wickedly, but Christian behavior is regulated by the Spirit, and not by the Law of the Old Testament. Paul’s line of argument in Romans is a bit more complex and nuanced than that in Galatians, but, I would not hesitate to say that his view of the Law in both letters can be fully described as “antinomian” in the best sense of definition #1 above.