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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lukan version demonstrates a more precise sequence:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Parables of Jesus (Part 3)

The Parables of Jesus (Part 3)

The eschatological and “Kingdom” parables in Matthew and Luke are being examined according to five themes:

    1. The Matthean ‘additions’ to the Synoptic tradition in Mark 4
    2. Vineyard Parables
    3. Banquet/Feast Parables
    4. The Eschatological Parables in Matthew 25
    5. The “Delay of the Parousia” in Luke

The first three of these were treated in Part 2; here we will study the remaining two.

4. The Eschatological Parables in Matthew 25

Following the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (chap. 24), Matthew records three additional eschatological parables:

Matthew 25:1-13: Parable of the Bridesmaids

Both of the parables in Matt 25:1-30 are Kingdom parables, as is specified in verse 1: “the kingdom of the heavens will be considered (to be) like…”. As in several of the parables we have already examined (Parts 1 and 2 of this study), the setting involves a man who has gone away and is expected to come (back). In the Bridesmaids-parable, this motif has been simplified to that of the bridegroom in a marriage/wedding-ceremony who is coming to fetch the bride and take her to his house. A rather different wedding scenario appears in Luke 12:35-38 (cf. below). There is some question whether, in the original context of the parable(s), the man/bridegroom represented Jesus or God the Father (YHWH). The setting here in Matt 25, following the Eschatological Discourse in chap. 24, naturally would have led early Christians to associate it with Jesus’ return. However, more properly the image refers to God’s end-time appearance for Judgment, and to deliver the faithful ones among his people; this appearance was understood in terms of his heavenly/divine representative—Messenger of the Lord and/or Son of Man—identified with Jesus in the Gospel Tradition.

There is again a distinction between two groups, juxtaposed against one another, as in the parable of the Weeds and the Net (cf. the discussion in Part 2). The two groups are together in one body (community or collection of people), but reflect very different characteristics. In the Bridesmaids-parable, there are ten virgins (maidens)—five of whom are described as mindful/thoughtful (fro/nimo$), while the other five are “dull” (mwro/$). They are together in one place, attending the bride, a detail which has to be inferred from the context (the variant reading in v. 1 indicates that copyists may have misunderstood the setting of the parable). The bride, who belongs to the bridegroom (having been betrothed to him, by a binding agreement [covenant]), is similar in many respects to the field in the Weeds-parable which belongs to the Sower (the Son of Man). The bride/bridegroom imagery, based on ancient Near Eastern (and Old Testament) tradition, more specifically suggests the religious relationship between God and his people Israel. In addition to the general milieu of ancient love poetry and marital imagery, which may be interpreted in this light (cf. Song of Songs 4:8-5:1), it is found, e.g., in Isaiah 49:18; 61:10; 62:5. The theme of love between husband and wife, in terms of marital faithfulness and loyalty, was used in the Prophets as a way of expressing Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, violating the binding (marriage) agreement, or covenant. We see this most famously in Hosea 1-3, but also in a number of other places, such as Joel 1:8 and Jer 2:2. On the wedding feast (verse 10), cf. Rev 19:7-9 and the discussion on the Feast/Banquet parables in Part 2.

Typically the servants/workers as characters in Jesus’ parables are meant as instructive examples for his disciples—the disciple of Jesus will see himself (or herself) in the position of the faithful servant. The parable functions as an exhortation (and a warning) for the disciple to behave in the manner of the positive character, rather than the negative. The “lamps” carried by the maidens is a figurative expression of the disciple’s behavior and faithful devotion, as stated more generally in Matt 5:14-16, etc. The brief Lamp-parable in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 4:21-22) has an eschatological orientation, which is echoed here as well. There is a sense in which the light from the lamps is defined as the message of the Kingdom which has been given to the disciples.

Apart from the fundamental setting of the coming/return of the man (bridegroom), the eschatological aspect is emphasized by other details in the parable, such as the use of the noun u(pa/nthsi$ / a)pa/nthsi$ (vv. 1, 6). The related verbs u(panta/w and a)panta/w are virtually synonymous—both have the basic meaning of going away to come opposite (i.e. to meet, come face-to-face) with another person. Paul uses a)pa/nthsi$ specifically to refer to believers meeting Jesus in the air at his return (1 Thess 4:17). However, in Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the primary idea was that the people must be prepared to meet their God—i.e. the end-time Judgment. This eschatological judgment motif—involving the separation of the righteous and wicked, as of the true and false disciple (cf. the chap. 13 parables)—is vividly expressed by the climactic scene of the parable (vv. 11-12), which has similarities to the sayings/parables of Jesus in 7:21-23 and Luke 13:25-27.

The suddenness of the bridegroom’s appearance is emphasized in vv. 6, 10, in which he comes “in the middle of the night” when many, like the dull/foolish bridesmaids, might naturally be asleep. This reflects the imminent expectation of the end-time Judgment, held by early Christians (and other Jews of the time), though tempered, perhaps, by the motif of a ‘delay’ in v. 5: “But (while) the bridegroom (was) taking (his) time…”. This could provide support for the idea of a significant period of time (some years, at least) which could pass before the end-time Judgment (and return of Jesus). For more on the “delay of the Parousia”, see section 5 below.

There are certain parallels between the Bridesmaids-parable and the brief parable in Luke 12:35-38; despite differences in detail, the general outline and message are much the same: the servants (disciples) are to keep their lamps lit and remain watchful for their master’s return.

Matthew 25:14-30: Parable of the Talents (par Lk 19:11-27)

The Matthean Parable of the Talents is quite similar to the Lukan Parable of the Minas (19:11-27); many scholars consider them to be part of a shared tradition (“Q” material), though the significant differences make this less than certain. There are several ways of understanding the relationship between the two:

    • They reflect two different, but similar, parables of Jesus
    • It is the same parable, preserved in two different lines of tradition
    • It is the same parable (“Q”), modified by one or both of the Gospel writers

In favor of the latter is the fact a common core parable can be obtained by a simple removal or modification of several elements unique to each version:

    • Matthew:
      • Addition of the concluding line (v. 30), which is especially common as a refrain in the Matthean sayings/parables
    • Luke:
      • The narrative introduction in v. 11
      • The reference to the man as of noble origins, and the reason for his departure (“to receive a kingdom of himself”), v. 12
      • The verses/details related to this Lukan kingship motif—vv. 14-15a, 25, 27

Apart from these separable components, the differences between the two versions of the parable are minor—most notably, the difference in the amount of money involved (talents vs. minas). Curiously, Luke’s version specifies ten servants, though the parable itself, like Matthew’s version, only deals with three. Perhaps the reference to ten servants is meant to give the impression that the faithless servant (1 of 10), like Judas Iscariot (1 of 12), is relatively rare among the disciples of Jesus.

If we examine the parable in Matthew, we see that it is included together with the previous Bridesmaids-parable as another parable of the Kingdom (vv. 1, 14); Luke’s version makes this explicit (cf. below). We have the familiar motif of servants/workers and the landowner or household master who goes away. The money entrusted to the three servants resembles the lamps held by the bridesmaids—both symbolize the disciple’s faithful service to God and Jesus. Instead of two groups, there are three distinct characters, yet still reflecting two kinds of characteristics—those who deal faithfully with the money for their master, and those who do not (through fear and inaction). The end-time Judgment is expressed through several details in the parable:

    • The return of the master who settles the accounts (v. 19)
    • The reward given to the two faithful servants (vv. 20-23)—note the traditional reference to “entering” the divine/heavenly life (i.e. entering the Kingdom)
    • The judgment against the wicked/unfaithful servant (vv. 26ff)
    • The separation of the wicked—thrown into the “outer darkness” (v. 30)

As noted above, the Lukan version contains a kingship narrative line running through the parable:

    • The narrative introduction (v. 11), establishing the reason for Jesus’ uttering the parable (cf. Section 5 below)
    • The man is described as “well-born”—he goes away specifically “to receive a kingdom for himself” (v. 12)
    • The parable is interrupted, it would seem, by the notice in v. 14, introducing the theme of the rebellious citizens who do not want the man to rule over them as king
    • When the man returns, he is said to have “received the kingdom”, i.e. authority to rule (v. 15a)
    • Again, at the end of the parable, we find another reference to the people who did not wish the man to rule—now they are characterized as “enemies” (v. 27).

It must be admitted that verses 14 and 27 seem out of place in the parable, which otherwise generally matches the version in Matthew. It has been suggested that two separate parables are blended together in Luke’s version: (1) a parable similar to Matt 25:14-30, and (2) a parable involving a king and his subjects. The two strands fit uneasily, making two very different statements: (1) exhortation to faithful discipleship, and (2) Jesus’ role/position as Messiah. Interestingly, the Lukan version, like Matthew’s, ends with a harsh declaration of Judgment (v. 27), though the two differ considerably in form and emphasis.

Both versions also include a motif suggesting a ‘delay’ in the coming of the end-time Judgment (and return of Jesus). Luke expresses this by way of the introduction in v. 11, and also with the detail that the man travels into a “far-off place” (v. 12). For Matthew, a similar idea is indicated in the parable when it is stated that master returns “after much time” (25:19). This will be discussed in Section 5 below.

Matthew 25:31-46: Parable of the Sheep and Goats

The last of the three parables in Matthew 25 has much the character of a vision-scene with symbolic/figurative elements, rather than a parable properly speaking. Indeed, it is not a Kingdom-parable, but a description of the Kingdom of God in heaven. It is, in fact, a scene of the great Judgment, set in the heavenly court. The eschatological key phrase is found in the opening words:

“And when the Son of Man should come in his splendor, and all the Messengers with him…” (v. 31a)

This virtually restates the Synoptic saying in Mark 8:38 par, referring to the appearance of the Son of Man at the end-time Judgment, viewed as imminent. The corresponding saying in Matthew at this point highlights the theme of the Judgment:

“For the Son of Man is about to come in the splendor of his Father, with his Messengers, and then he will give forth to each (person) according to his deed(s)” (16:27)

For more on this end-time appearance of the Son of Man—a tradition deriving primarily from Daniel 7:13-14ff—cf. Mark 13:26-27; 14:62 pars, and the recent study on the eschatological Sayings of Jesus. The opening verse of the parable emphasizes the exalted status and position of Jesus (at God’s right hand), as the divine/heavenly Son of Man. The depiction of the Judgment scene is altogether traditional, at least in its basic framework:

    • The judgment of the Nations (v. 32)—traditionally, the Messiah would play a prominent role in this process; in 1 Enoch, as in the Gospels and early Christian tradition, the Danielic Son of Man figure was identified as God’s Anointed One (Messiah), the two figure-types being blended together.
    • The separation of the righteous from the wicked (vv. 32ff)—this is stated generally (“he will mark them off from [each] other”), which could give the misleading impression that nations are being separated from another. Rather, it is the people (humankind) generally who are being separated.
    • The separation is expressed through the symbolic designation of “sheep” and “goats”; this simply reflects shepherding imagery, like the fishing imagery in the Net-parable (13:47-49), and one should not read too much into the sheep and goat as distinctive symbols.
    • The basis for the separation (righteous vs. wicked) is ethical (rather than theological), though with a uniquely Christian emphasis (cf. below).
    • The final Judgment (reward/punishment) likewise is stated in traditional language:
      “and these [i.e. the wicked] will go away into punishment of the Ages [i.e. eternal punishment], but the just/righteous (one)s into (the) Life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life]” (v. 46)

What is especially distinctive, and most memorable, about the parable is the basis for the judgment/separation, which is set forth in considerable detail (unlike the parables of the Weeds and Net, where is left unstated). It is described entirely in terms of how one has responded to people who are in need (of food, clothing, comfort, care/treatment of sickness, etc)—i.e. to the poor and unfortunate in society. This has caused some consternation for Christians accustomed to viewing salvation strictly, or primarily, in terms of faith in Jesus, i.e. acceptance of him as Messiah and Son of God. However, the emphasis in the parable here is not much different from that in the Sermon on the Mount (see esp. the Beatitudes [5:3-12] and the Antitheses [5:21-47]), where traditional religious and ethical standards have been given a new, deeper interpretation. The true and faithful disciple of Jesus will follow this new ethic, and the declaration by Jesus in 5:20 is very much of a kind with the parable of the Sheep and Goats:

“For I relate to you that if your justice/righteousness does not go over (and above, even) more than (that) of the Writers [i.e. Scribes] and Pharisees, you (certainly) will not go into the kingdom of the heavens!”

5. The “Delay of the Parousia” in Luke

A final topic which must be addressed, related to the parables in Matthew and Luke, involves several key references which suggest a period of time which is to pass before the coming of final Judgment and the return of Jesus. This would seem to contrast with the language of imminence which otherwise is found in most/many of Jesus’ sayings (cf. the earlier study of the Sayings). The specific (and difficult, from our viewpoint) aspect of imminent eschatology in Jesus’ sayings/teaching will be discussed in more detail in the next study (on the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse”), as well as a separate study devoted to the topic. However, it is worth mentioning here these important references in the parables to what is typically called “the delay of the Parousia”—i.e. a recognition among early Christians, after several decades, that the coming of the end (and the return of Jesus) might not occur for some time. In this regard, the relative dating of the Gospels could be significant. Mark is usually recognized as the earliest of the four canonical Gospels, dated perhaps c. 60 A.D., with Luke somewhat later (after 70 A.D.), and Matthew, perhaps, later still (c. 80 A.D.). Apart from the statement in 13:7b (to be discussed), there is little in Mark to suggest anything other than an imminent expectation of the end—i.e. within the lifetime of the disciples. If the conventional dating of Luke and Matthew is correct, they would have been written at a time when a number of the disciples—i.e. the first generation of believers—were beginning to die off. It must be admitted that this issue is not specifically addressed in any of the Synoptic Gospels, but only in the Gospel of John, usually thought to be the latest of the four (c. 90-95 A.D.?)—cf. the tradition (and the way it is presented) in Jn 21:20-23. It is natural that the later, more developed Gospel tradition would reflect the concern of this “delay”, and seek to explain it, at least in a rudimentary way.

Even so, it must be stated that evidence of this sort is rather slight in Matthew and Luke. Neither Gospel writer felt it necessary to alter, to any real extent, the various Synoptic sayings and traditions which indicate an imminent expectation of the end-time Judgment. For example, they all leave the statement by Jesus in Mark 13:30 par in place without any real modification or explanation. Similarly, references indicating a significant ‘delay’ are relatively rare, and should not be overstated. We saw above, details in two of the parables which are worthy of note:

    • It is said of the Bridegroom that he was “taking (his) time” (xroni/zonto$), which led some of the maidens carelessly to fall asleep (25:5)
    • In the Parable of the Talents, it is only “after much time” (meta\ polu\n xro/non) that the master returns (25:19)

Both details, it would seem, reflect the same basic idea, though the latter more clearly indicates a significant period of time. If these parables properly refer to the return of Jesus, then it could, perhaps, express the idea (or at least allow for the possibility) that Jesus might not return within the lifetime of the first disciples.

The Gospel of Luke contains more details of this sort, which, indeed, is more fitting for the context of the combined work of Luke-Acts, with its emphasis on a period of mission work among the Gentiles that must take place before the end comes (Acts 1:6-8, etc). The parables also express this in various ways; there are two which need to be examined here: (a) the Parable of the Judge and the Widow, and (b) the Parable of the Minas.

Luke 18:1-8: The Parable of the Judge and the Widow

The purpose of this parable is expressed by the Gospel writer in the opening words (narrative introduction, v. 1): the necessity of the disciples “always to speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] and not to act out of a bad (heart) [i.e. be weak, cowardly]”. In other words, Jesus exhorts his followers to be persistent in prayer, even in the face of difficult and trying circumstances, where it may seem as though God does not hear them. This is certainly the primary message of the parable (vv. 2-6); however, if we read between the lines, the chronological dimension of the parable could be taken to suggest a delay in the end-time deliverance of God’s people (i.e. the Judgment), which early believers (along with many devout Jews) were fervently expecting. The woman in the parable “would come toward him [i.e. the judge]” (v. 3), i.e. would come repeatedly; and the judge was apparently not willing to hear her complaint “upon [i.e. for] (some) time” (v. 4). The explanation of the parable by Jesus in verse 7, and its application to the disciples (believers), suggests more is involved here than simply the question of unanswered prayer:

“And would God (then) not (all the more) make out justice for his (chosen one)s (which he) gathered out, the (one)s crying to him day and night, and is his impulse (to answer) long upon them [i.e. is he long in answering them]?”

There seems to be an echo here of the eschatological (and Messianic) hope expressed, for example, in 2:25, 38. Moreover the persecution which Jesus’ disciples will face, also implied here in the parable, is often presented in an eschatological context (21:12-19 par, etc). Luke is fully aware that at least thirty years would pass, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, without the end coming, and that, during this time, the early Christians (especially missionaries such as Paul and Barnabas) would face persecution. This parable may have been included by the Gospel writer, in part, with just this context in mind. The eschatological orientation of the parable would seem to be confirmed by the concluding declaration by Jesus in verse 8b, which may have circulated originally as a separate saying: “All the more, the Son of Man (at) his coming, will he find trust upon the earth?”. Disciples are to continue following Jesus faithfully, trusting in God, for the period (however brief or long) that lasts until the Son of Man comes. Verse 8a suggests that this period of time will not be all that long, preserving the basic sense of imminence—”I relate to you that he [i.e. God] will make out justice for them in (all) speed!”. On the language of imminence here—i.e. the expression e)n ta/xei, “in [i.e. with] (all) speed”—cf. the separate study in this series on imminent eschatology in the New Testament.

Luke 19:11-27: The Parable of the Minas

The parable itself was discussed above, in connection with the Matthean Parable of the Talents. Here, it is necessary to focus on two elements of the Lukan version: (a) the narrative introduction in verse 11, and (b) the description of the man who goes away in verse 12. First consider the setting indicated in the narrative introduction, which also serves as a transition from the Zaccheus narrative in vv. 1-10:

“And (at) their hearing these (thing)s, (Yeshua,) putting (this also) toward (them), said (it as) an (illustration) cast alongside [i.e. parable], through [i.e. because of] his being near to Yerushalaim, and their considering that the kingdom of God was about to shine forth [i.e. appear] paraxrh=ma.”

The syntax is somewhat complex, but what the author is describing is clear enough. Jesus was aware that many people (among his disciples and other followers) were thinking/expecting that the Kingdom of God would suddenly appear and be realized (on earth) once they arrived in Jerusalem. The adverb paraxrh=ma is difficult to translate literally; fundamentally, it refers to something which comes along (para/) just as it is needed (xrh=ma)—i.e. just at the right time. Sometimes it carries the sense of “at that very moment”, “immediately”. The “triumphal entry” narrative in the Gospel tradition (Mark 11:1-10 par) indicates that many people envisioned Jesus as the Messiah (Davidic-ruler type) who would establish the Kingdom in Jerusalem—presumably an earthly (Messianic) Kingdom, according to popular tradition. The questions posed to him in Lk 17:20 and Acts 1:6 reflect a similar eschatological expectation. In response to those questions, Jesus redirects his audience, pointing them toward a different (and deeper) understanding. Much the same is done here, through the parable which follows in vv. 12ff. The Kingdom of God will not be established immediately at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

This brings us to the beginning of the parable, which differs from the Matthean version in the description of the man who goes away. Here is how it is stated in the Parable of the Talents:

“…a man going away from his own people…” (25:14)

This simple phrase likely reflects the core parable (cf. above); however, in the Lukan Parable of the Minas, it is expanded considerably:

“A certain well-born man traveled into a far(-off) area to receive a kingdom for himself and (then) turn back [i.e. return].” (19:12)

I noted above that there is some ambiguity in these parables whether the figure of the master/landowner who goes away properly refers to Jesus or God the Father (YHWH). Probably in their original context it is God who is in view, though early Christians certainly would have come to interpret such eschatological parables in terms of Jesus’ return at the end-time. The Matthean Parable of the Talents could be understood either way; however, in the Lukan Parable of the Minas there is no question at all—the man who goes away has to be identified with Jesus. This is abundantly clear from the details in verse 12:

    • a well-born man (but not yet a King)
    • travels into a far-away land
    • to receive a kingdom for himself
    • and then returns back to his own land

This action in the story refers to a local ruler (prince, etc) who travels to the land/court of a powerful sovereign (king) to be granted the title and status of king (i.e., vassal of the greater sovereign). When he returns to his own land he now rules as king under the authority of the sovereign who granted him that title. From the standpoint of the Gospel narrative, this process described in verse 12 can only refer to the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. Having being raised to the right hand of God the Father, when Jesus returns, it will be as a divine King ruling with God’s own authority.

There is nothing in the parable which indicates exactly the time that the man (Jesus) is away; the designation of “far-off land” is best understood in terms of location (i.e. with God in Heaven). The Matthean parable does state that it is only “after much time” that the man returns. If we are faithful to the Lukan parable itself, all that we can say is that the Kingdom of God will not be established until some time after Jesus’ death, resurrection and departure to the Father. In the context of the wider narrative of Luke-Acts, this allows at least for a period of missionary work among the nations (Gentiles), as indicated in Acts 1:6-8ff; however, beyond this, there is no indication of the amount of time that is involved. This will be discussed further when we study the eschatology in the book of Acts.