Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Pt 1)

In this next portion of the series Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament I will be exploring the early Christian preaching as recorded in the book of Acts. Upon a casual reading, it would appear that eschatology is not very important in the book, since the author himself does not emphasize it explicitly in the narratives, and, even in the various sermon-speeches, statements regarding the ‘end times’ are relatively slight. However, when one considers the two-volume work of the Gospel and Acts together, it is abundantly clear that the context of the entire volume of the ‘Acts’ of the Apostles is, in fact, eschatological. Before proceeding to examine individual passages, it will be important to isolate several of the principal themes of Luke-Acts, and how they relate to the eschatological worldview of early Christians. There are three themes, in particular:

    1. A period of missionary activity by the followers of Jesus, and the persecution they will endure; the eschatological basis for this is established in the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus (21:5-36 in Luke)
    2. The mission to the Gentiles—a Messianic/eschatological context by way of a number of key passages in the Prophets, as interpreted by early Christians
    3. The coming and work of the Holy Spirit—a sign that the early Christians were living in the “last days”

Beyond this, we must deal with the central fact that the very belief that Jesus is the Anointed One (‘Messiah’), according to whichever Messianic figure-types are in view, is fundamentally eschatological. This is discussed in an earlier article of this series, as well as all throughout the earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”. The uniquely Christian adaptation of Messianic thought also affects the eschatological outlook of early believers, and may be summarized as follows, under two points:

    • Jesus is identified with all of the main Messianic figure-types attested at the time; the appearance of these figures was generally understood to coincide with end of the current Age and the beginning of the Age-to-Come. Thus, it meant that believers in Christ were living in the “last days”—the time just prior to the divine Judgment that marks the end of the (current) Age.
    • At the same time, Jesus, in his lifetime, did not fulfill all of the end-time actions expected of these Messianic figures—esp. the Davidic ruler figure-type, but also the “Son of Man” heavenly-deliverer type. The complete fulfillment of these Messianic roles would not—indeed, could not—take place until the return of Jesus, at an indeterminate time in the (near) future.

We will see both of these points clearly enough as we proceed through all the remaining eschatological/prophetic passages in the New Testament, but they could already be glimpsed in the way that the traditional material—sayings and parables of Jesus, along with the “Eschatological Discourse”—was handled by the three Synoptic Gospel writers, which we studied in detail in the prior articles. It is important to keep them in mind in this study of the early Christian eschatology in the book of Acts. As it happens, the three eschatological themes outlined above, are all present, combined, in the keystone passage at the beginning of the Acts—the transitional episode (1:6-11) between the introduction and the Pentecost narrative(s).

Acts 1:6-11

I have already examined this passage in some detail in earlier notes (cf. the 4-part series “The Sending of the Spirit”). It may be summarized as Jesus’ farewell to his disciples, and outlined as follows:

    • Question by the disciples (v. 6)
    • Jesus’ answer—commission to the disciples (vv. 7-8)
    • Jesus’ departure from earth (v. 9)
    • Angelic announcement to the disciples (vv. 10-11)

There is eschatological significance to each of these elements, which must be briefly considered.

Verse 6

ku/rie, ei) e)n tw=| xronw=| tou/tw| a)pokaqista/nei$ th\n basilei/an tw=|  )Israh/l;
“Lord, (if) in this time will you set down again the kingdom to Israel?”

A more literal rendering of a)pokaqisth/nai would indicate setting the Kingdom down from (a)po/) where it is currently, back to its former condition; conventionally, we could translate “reconstitute” or “restore”. The eschatological significance of this verb likely stems from its use in Malachi 3:23 LXX.

This question by the disciples reflects aspects of Messianic (and eschatological) thought shared by many Jews of the first centuries B.C./A.D.—of the restoration of Israel which would occur at the end of the current Age. This was associated, in particular, with the Davidic ruler figure-type—an anointed Ruler from the line of David who, it was believed, will subdue the wicked nations and deliver the people of Israel, establishing a Kingdom even greater than that ruled by David and Solomon centuries before. Whether this Messianic Age (and Kingdom) coincides with the Age to Come, or represents a period preceding it, there can be no doubt that the idea and expectation is fundamentally eschatological. On this Messianic figure-type, cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, along with the separate article (Part 5) on the “Kingdom of God”; for more on the Kingdom concept, see also the 2-part article “…the things about the Kingdom of God”. Given the importance of the Kingdom concept in Jesus’ preaching from the very beginning (cf. the earlier article on Mark 1:15 par), and its definite eschatological aspects, it was reasonable that his followers, still operating under the traditional Jewish understanding of the time, would expect that the Messiah (Jesus) would fulfill his role as Davidic Ruler and establish the end-time Kingdom of God on earth. This idea runs through the Gospels and is evident in various ways, especially within the Gospel of Luke; on this traditional Messianic expectation, see, for example, Lk 1:67-75; 2:1-14, 25-26, 38; 17:20; 19:11, 38; 23:51. Such a Kingdom was not established by Jesus prior to his death, even when it might have been expected (19:11, 38); now, surely, after his resurrection from the dead, this would occur.

Verses 7-8

Jesus’ reply comes in two parts: first—

“It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has set in (his) own e)cousi/a

e)cousi/a (from e&cestin), almost impossible to translate literally, has the sense of “ability” or “authority” to do something. Jesus effectively dispenses with their question, without necessarily denying its validity—however, the brusque response may suggest a misunderstanding on their part. Earlier it is stated that Jesus, during the days following his resurrection, related to his disciples “the things concerning the Kingdom of God” (v. 3). Almost certainly this involved more than the sort of eschatological Messianic kingdom common in popular religious thought. Yet this is what they ask about here. If the first part of Jesus’ reply does away with their question, the second part, in some sense re-establishes it:

“But you shall receive (the) power of the holy Spirit (which is) coming upon you, and you shall be my witnesses (both) in Jerusalem, and [in] all Judea and Samaria, and unto the end of the earth.”

The focus is not on the traditional Messianic expectation, but on the unique mission, which they—his followers—were to carry out in his name. It is fair to understand this mission as the way the (Messianic) Kingdom would be realized on earth—through the proclamation of the Gospel and the work of the Spirit. In this regard, it is important to note the interesting variant in the Lukan version of the Lord’s Prayer (11:2)—instead of the majority reading “may your Kingdom come” (e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou), two minuscule manuscripts (162, 700) have “may your holy Spirit come [upon us] and cleanse us” (e)lqe/tw to\ pneu=ma sou to\ a%gion [e)f’ h(ma=$] kai\ kaqarisa/tw h(ma=$). Such a reading was also known by Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th century (followed by Maximus Confessor), and traces of it are found earlier in Tertullian’s work Against Marcion (4:26). The context of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke specifically relates prayer to a request by believers for the Holy Spirit (11:13), and helps to establish the basic connection of the Kingdom of God with the coming of the Spirit, as we see here in Acts 1:7-8ff. Moreover, the early Christian mission itself, summarized here by Jesus’ words, “and you shall be my witnesses (both) in Yerushalaim {Jerusalem}, and [in] all of Yehudah {Judea} and Shimron {Samaria}, and unto the end of the earth”, within the Acts narrative structure, is closely connected to the idea of the restoration of Israel, as I have discussed previously. This may be summarized as follows:

    • The disciples have returned (turned back) to Jerusalem
      • The Twelve have been reconstituted and are gathered together (in Jerusalem) in one place
        • Jews from all nations (the Dispersion) also are gathered together in Jerusalem
      • They again hear the voice (word of God) in the languages of the nations, spoken by the Twelve and other disciples (echo of the Sinai theophany)
    • The disciples go out from Jerusalem into the nations (even to the Gentiles)

Verse 9

“And having said these (thing)s, (with) their looking at (him), he was lifted upon (the air) and a cloud took him under, (away) from their eyes.”

This verse narrates Jesus’ departure from earth, i.e. his ascension into the heavens. In the Gospel of John, this is described theologically, in terms of his return back to the Father; here, we have the traditional visual idea of being raised up to Heaven (where God the Father dwells). Two specific details are mentioned in relation to this “ascension”: (a) being taken into a cloud, and (b) that he was no longer seen by them (lit. “[taken] away from their eyes”). This first is important quite apart from the obvious association of the cloud with divine manifestation (theophany, Lk 3:21-22; 9:34-35 par), due to the eschatological-Messianic image (from Daniel 7:13-14) of the Son of Man “coming in/on (the) clouds”. This represents the final, climactic moment of the “Eschatological Discourse” (Lk 21:27-28 par), marking the end of the current Age, and is also mentioned as the climactic point in the Synoptic scene of Jesus before the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:62; par Lk 22:69). The second detail relates to the uniquely Christian understanding of Jesus as the Messiah, as noted above. The fact that he is no longer to be seen on earth by his disciples, means that he is now in heaven, having been exalted to the right hand of God the Father—a central element of the earliest Gospel proclamation and understanding of Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God. There are two key aspects of his presence in heaven (and not on earth) which are essential to the early Christian preaching, and its eschatology, as recorded in the book of Acts:

    • It is this exaltation to God’s right hand which makes Jesus fundamentally different from the traditional idea of the Messiah (as David Ruler, etc)—he has a divine/heavenly status which informs his (Messianic) identity as “Son of God”, but also identifies him with the Danielic (7:13-14, etc) deliverer figure known by the title “Son of Man”
    • It is from this exalted position in Heaven that Jesus will come (back) down to earth to usher in the Last Judgment, and to deliver the faithful ones of God’s people (i.e. believers) at the end-time. While the idea that a Messianic figure would appear from heaven is not unknown in Jewish tradition of the time, rarely (if ever) is it so clear and specific as the early Christian view was.

Verses 10-11

This brings us to the final element of the passage, the announcement of the two heavenly/angelic men in white to the disciples. Their message, echoing the scene of the ascension itself, emphasizes three important details:

    • The focus on the heavenly location from which Jesus will appear—i.e. Jesus as the heavenly deliverer (“Son of Man”) at the end-time
    • That he will come again in the same manner he departed implies an appearance “coming in the clouds” which also identifies him as the “Son of Man” figure (of Dan 7:13-14 etc)
    • It is effectively a promise that Jesus (the Anointed One) will soon return, completing his Messianic role on earth—i.e. realizing the Kingdom of God, delivering the faithful, and ushering in God’s Judgment

Having examined this first passage, it is now necessary to consider the eschatological elements and details in the various sermon-speeches of Acts. It continues to be a point of debate among New Testament scholars and commentators as to whether, or to what extent, these sermon-speeches reflect authentic preaching by the earliest believers, or are the (literary) product of the author. I discuss this question in some detail in my series on the Speeches of Acts, and will not go into it further here, except to point out that, in my view, it is possible to discern enough peculiar features, atypical of Lukan vocabulary and style, which suggest that, in fact, portions of genuine early Gospel proclamation (kerygma) are recorded and preserved in the speeches. This also implies that elements of the earliest Christian eschatology, insofar as they are present in the kerygma, are also preserved for us in the speeches. As I will demonstrate, the language and wording in which these elements are expressed is distinct enough to indicate that they are authentically part of the early preaching.

Generally, the eschatological details are included in the closing exhortation portion, except when there is a key Scripture citation earlier in the speech which, as interpreted by early Christians, has definite eschatological significance. This is certainly the case in the great Pentecost Speech by Peter, part of the Pentecost narrative of chapters 1-2, where the prophecy from Joel 2:28-32 is cited.

Acts 2:16-21

Peter’s Pentecost speech (2:14-36ff), opening as it does with the famous quotation from Joel 2:28-32 (in vv. 16-21), must be understood in the context of the narrative of Acts, with its eschatological implications:

    • The final words of Jesus and his departure to heaven (on the eschatological aspects, cf. above)—1:6-11
    • The reconstitution of the Twelve Apostles, symbolic of the (end-time) restoration of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, all gathered together (as one) in Jerusalem—1:12-26
    • The coming of the Spirit upon the believers, symbolizing the coming/establishment of the Kingdom (cf. above)—2:1-4
    • Jews from all the surrounding nations present in Jerusalem to hear the word of God (the Gospel first proclaimed), symbolic of both: (a) the gathering of Jews from the nations, and (b) the nations coming to Jerusalem to worship God, both end-time motifs—2:5-13

Thus, it can as no surprise that Peter’s great speech opens with a profound eschatological message: what the prophet (Joel) said would happen “in the last days” is happening now, at this very moment, among the first believers in Jerusalem (“this is the [thing] spoken through the Foreteller…”)! I have discussed this previously in the article on Peter’s speech (Part 2 in the series “The Speeches of Acts”); here I will repeat parts of that discussion, emphasizing, in particular, the details and features as they relate to early Christian eschatology.

Verse 16

“But this is the (thing) spoken through the Foreteller Yo’el”

The demonstrative pronoun tou=to (“this”) refers back to the manifestations of the Spirit in verses 4ff, specifically the miraculous speaking in other languages (“tongues”) so that the first proclamation of the Gospel could be instantly understood by people (Jews) from the surrounding nations (vv. 5-13). How this relates to the original oracle of Joel is interesting, especially when considered within the context of the Acts narrative (cf. above).

Consider the place of this prophecy in the book of Joel:

    • Joel 1:2-20: A lamentation for the land which has been desolated by a locust invasion (probably symbolic of a enemy military invasion)
    • Joel 2:1-11: Announcement to Judah/Jerusalem of an impending enemy invasion, with eschatological characteristics—it is God’s own judgment on the land, signifying the “day of YHWH” (verse 11)
      • Joel 2:12-17: A call to repentance for all the people in the land
    • Joel 2:18-27: A declaration that God will restore the fertility and bounty of the land, bringing blessing back to the people (described in material terms, as recovery from the locust attack)
    • Joel 2:28-32 [3:1-5 Heb]: A promise of spiritual blessing (i.e. the pouring out of God’s own Spirit) upon the all the people in the land—this will follow after the material blessing and restoration mentioned previously, and relates specifically to the survivors (i.e. the remnant) of the judgment (v. 32 [3:5]).
    • Joel 3:1-16 [4:1-16 Heb]: Announcement of God’s judgment on the Nations (following the restoration of Judah/Jerusalem, v. 1)—again this signifies the eschatological “day of YHWH” (v. 14, cf. 2:11).
      • Joel 3:17-21 [4:17-21 Heb]: The future fates of Judah/Jerusalem and the Nations are contrasted.

It could also be outlined more simply as:

    • 1:20-2:11—Judgment on Judah/Jerusalem (“day of YHWH”)
    • 2:18-32—Restoration and blessing (material and spiritual) for the survivors in Judah/Jerusalem
    • 3:1-16—Judgment on the Nations (“day of YHWH”), contrasted with the fate of (the restored) Judah/Jerusalem

Even though the context implies that the restoration indicated in 2:18-32 will be reasonably soon (not left for the indefinite future), it is not specified precisely when it will occur. Even today, there is a considerable divergence of views among commentators as to how such passages should be interpreted. Regardless, in Acts, it is clearly the spiritual side of Israel’s future restoration that is emphasized, being applied to believers in Christ—a theme which is found throughout the early chapters of the book.

Verses 17-18

“And it will be, in the last days, God declares, ‘I will pour out from my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters will foretell [i.e. prophesy], and your young (one)s will look gazing (at visio)ns, and your old (one)s will see (vision)s in (their) sleep; and even upon my (male) slaves and upon my (female) slaves in those days will I pour out from my Spirit, and they will foretell.”

This is the first portion of the actual citation (Joel 2:28-29). There are several differences from the Hebrew; most notably, the generic expression /k@-yr@j&a^, i.e. “after this, following these (things)”, Grk. meta\ tau=ta (LXX), has been changed to “in the last days” (e)n tai=$ e)sxa/tai$ h(me/rai$). This clearly makes it an eschatological interpretation, referring to future events of the end time. Such an interpretation of the passage may be original to the early Christians, but there is also the possibility that it was understood as such by Jews at that time. In particular, the expression /k@-yr@j&a^ (“after this”) could easily have blended with the similar expression <ym!Y`h^ tyr!j&a^, “(the time) after the days”, which occurs at Gen 49:1 and Num 24:14—two passages influential on Messianic/eschatological thought in the first centuries B.C./A.D. That same expression is also found in Deut 4:30; 31:29, and originally meant simply “in days/time to come, in the future”, but came to take on eschatological significance through its use by the later Prophets (e.g., Jer 23:20; 30:24; 31:33; 48:47; 49:39; Ezek 38:16; cf. also Hos 3:5; Mic 4:1); in Daniel 10:14, an eschatological framework is clearly in view, as also with its occurrences (around 30) in the Qumran texts.

Interestingly, even though the phenomenon of miraculous speaking in other languages (“tongues”) is at play in the Pentecost episode of Acts 2, the oracle cited by Peter specifically mentions prophecy—indeed, it is especially emphasized by the repetition of “and they will foretell/prophesy” at the end of Joel 2:29, a detail that is not part of the Hebrew text, but which accords well with early Christian priorities. It would seem that prophecy serves here to represent the presence and work of the Spirit among believers, epitomizing all such phenomena. Early Christians regarded prophecy—not simply foretelling the future, but an inspired speaking of the word and will of God before others—as the central and most important such manifestation (or “gift”) of the Spirit, as Paul makes clear at several points in his letters (1 Cor 12:31; 14:1-25ff). This work of the Spirit in and among believers was seen as something new, marking the coming of a New Age, and thus carried eschatological significance even apart from the specific declaration in 2:17a. The fact that the Spirit was manifesting itself in all believers—men and women, young and old, regardless of social and economic circumstances (“even…slaves”)—was a sign that the phenomenon was truly new and momentous. The early Christian acceptance of inspired female prophets, however slight the surviving evidence for it in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 21:9; 1 Cor 11:2-16), finds support in the citation of Joel 2:28-29.

Verses 19-20

“‘And I will give (out) wonders in the heaven above and signs upon the earth below—blood and fire and blowing of smoke—the sun will be turned over into darkness and the moon into blood, before (the) coming of the day of the Lord th(at is) great and shining (forth) upon (all)!'”

It is still YHWH speaking through the Prophet (Joel 2:30-31), announcing what is to come in the future—the “Day of YHWH” (hw`hy+ <oy). Originally this expression referred to the time when YHWH acts to bring (destructive) judgment on the wicked, whether for the surrounding nations or His own people Israel. As such, it was oriented more or less to the immediate future—i.e., God was about to act in Judgment—but without any eschatological significance per se. However, eventually, through the influence of the oracles of the Prophets as a whole, it came to be understood and used in an eschatological sense, and that is certainly the case in Peter’s Pentecost speech. The “Day of the Lord” (h(me/ran kuri/ou) means the end-time Judgment God was to bring upon the earth and all humankind. Early Christians believed that Jesus, as God’s Anointed (Messiah), on his return to earth, would usher in and oversee the Judgment. This reflects the specific Messianic figure-type indicated by Jesus’ use of the expression “Son of Man” (inspired by Dan 7:13-14); for the eschatological Son of Man sayings of Jesus, see the earlier article in this series.

In Jewish and early Christian eschatology, as well as in much eschatological thought worldwide, the end of the current Age would be marked by terrible upheavals in the natural order, resulting in both destructive natural disasters and supernatural phenomena. This is abundantly clear from the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus, especially in the climactic section of Mark 13:24-27 par. Just prior to the appearance of the “Son of Man”, there will be extraordinary and destructive cosmic phenomena, signifying God’s Judgment and the dissolution of the current order of things, the present Age. This summary description in Mk 13:24-25 par echoes Joel 2:30-31, as well as other passages from the Prophets (Isa 13:10; 14:12; 34:4; Joel 2:10; 3:15; Ezek 32:7). The sixth seal-vision in Revelation 6:12-14ff describes similar cosmic phenomena, but without culminating in the appearance of the Son of Man.

A superficial reading of Acts 2:16-20 would suggest that Peter is claiming that such cosmic phenomena are occurring at the present moment, with the coming of the Spirit. What is more important to realize is that, even though the natural wonders of Joel 2:30-31 are not technically being fulfilled at the time of Peter’s speech, they clearly signify that, in the mind of Peter (and, to some extent, the author of Acts), the end-times are definitely at hand. The reference to these upheavals in the natural order simply reflects the essential belief that early believers were living in the “last days”, and that God’s end-time Judgment was soon to come upon the world. We may set this in context by comparing the citation of Joel 2:28-32 with a (partial) outline of the Eschatological Discourse:

    • A period of missionary work by Jesus’ disciples (Mk 13:9-13 par) =
      The Spirit-inspired preaching, etc, of the first believers (Acts 2:17-18)
    • The cosmic phenomena marking the end-time Judgment (Mk 13:24-25) =
      The same sorts of phenomena, identifying this Judgment with the “Day of the Lord” (Acts 2:19-20)
    • The deliverance of the Elect (believers) at the appearance of the Son of Man (Mk 13:26-27) =
      The salvation of all who trust in Jesus prior to the End (Acts 2:21)

Verse 21

“And it shall be (that) all who would call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”

This citation includes only the first portion of Joel 2:32, omitting the remainder:

“…so that in mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be the (one) being saved, according to that (which) the Lord said, and they are (ones) being given the good message [eu)aggelizo/menoi], (those) whom the Lord has called toward (Himself)”
(translating from the LXX; eu)aggelizo/menoi is a misreading of the Hebrew <yd!yr!c=b^ [“among the survivors”])

In its original context, of course, it refers to calling upon the name of God (YHWH) for salvation, etc; however, in an early Christian context, it takes on a new meaning in reference to the risen/exalted Jesus as Lord [ku/rio$, cf. Acts 2:36, etc]. In this regard, note the key kerygmatic statement in Acts 4:12. Early Christian eschatology is not as immediately evident in this declaration, so basic to the thought and life of believers in all times and places. However, it is important to realize that, for the earliest Christians, the principal context of salvation was not being saved from the effects of sin, nor saved from ‘hell’ after death, but rather of being saved from the end-time Judgment (“anger/wrath”) of God that was about to come upon humankind. This is clear enough from the earliest Gospel tradition (Mk 1:4f, 15 par; Luke 3:7ff par, etc), and runs through to the latest portions of the New Testament (cf. the detailed exposition in the book of Revelation). Thus declarations such as Acts 2:21 in the early Christian preaching refer, not to a generic salvation from sin, but to the more concrete salvation/rescue from the coming Judgment.

This last point must be kept in mind, since it relates to the eschatological elements in the other sermon-speeches of Acts, occurring as they do, for the most part, in the closing exhortation/warning sections of the speech. In the second part of this article, we will examine briefly these passages, as well as several other references in the remainder of the book which may be considered to have eschatological significance.

August 26: 1 Corinthians 2:13

[This series of notes is on 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16; the previous day’s note dealt with 2:12]

1 Corinthians 2:13

“…which we also speak not in words taught of [i.e. by] (hu)man wisdom, but in (words) taught of [i.e. by] (the) Spirit, judging spiritual (thing)s together with/by spiritual (word)s.”

It must be emphasized that this verse, along with much that follows in vv. 14-15, is difficult to translate accurately into English, for a variety of reasons. Here, especially, translation and interpretation go hand-in-hand. To begin with, verse 13 builds upon (and concludes) the declaration in v. 12 (cf. the prior note). The relative pronoun form a% (“which”) refers back to the concluding expression of v. 12: “the (thing)s under God given as a favor to us”. In the note on v. 12, I pointed out the parallel between this expression and “the deep (thing)s of God”, and connected both to the “wisdom of God” mentioned previously—and especially at the beginning of verse 6. This is confirmed by Paul’s language here at the start of v. 13:

    • “we speak (the) wisdom [of God]” (vv. 6-7)
    • “which (thing)s we also [kai/] speak” (v. 13)

The particle kai/ should be regarded as significant here, since it may be intended to draw a distinction between what it is that “we” speak in vv. 6-7 and 13, respectively. There are two ways to place the emphasis:

    • “these things also we speak“—as it is have been given to us to know them, so also we speak/declare them
    • “these things also we speak”—not only the Gospel do we proclaim, but all the deep things of God given to us by the Spirit

Most commentators opt for the first reading, according to the immediate context of vv. 12-13; however, the overall flow and structure of Paul’s argument in vv. 6-16 perhaps favors the second. More important to the meaning of the verse is the continuation of the comparison/contrast between worldly/human wisdom and the wisdom of God. Here Paul formulates this with a specific expression: “in words of… [e)nlo/goi$]”. I have regularly been translating lo/go$ as “account” (i.e. oral, in speech); but here it is perhaps better to revert to a more conventional translation which emphasizes the elements or components of the account (i.e. the words). Earlier, in 1:17 and 2:1ff, Paul uses lo/go$ in the sense of the manner or style of speech used (in proclaiming the Gospel); here he seems to be referring to the actual content (the words) that a person speaks. The contrast he establishes is as follows:

    • “in words taught of [i.e. by] (hu)man wisdom” (e)n didaktoi=$ a)nqrwpi/nh$ sofi/a$ lo/goi$)
    • “in (word)s taught of [i.e. by] (the) Spirit” (e)n didaktoi=$ pneu/mato$ [lo/goi$])
      Note: I include lo/goi$ in square brackets as implied, to fill out the comparison, though it is not in the text

The contrast is explicit—”not [ou)k] in… but (rather) [a)ll’] in…” Especially significant too is the use of the adjective didakto/$ (“[being] taught”, sometimes in the sense “able to be taught”, “teachable”), rare in both the New Testament and the LXX. The only other NT occurrence is in the discourse of Jesus in John 6:45, citing Isa 54:13, part of an eschatological prophecy where it is stated that the descendants of God’s people (“your sons/children”) “…will all (be) taught [didaktou\$] by God”. This same reference is certainly in the background in 1 Thess 4:9, where Paul uses the unique compound form qeodi/dakto$ (“taught by God”). This passage is helpful for an understanding of Paul’s thought here:

“And about the fondness for (the) brother(s) [i.e. fellow believers] you hold no occasion [i.e. there is no need] (for me) to write to you, for you (your)selves are taught by God [qeodi/daktoi] unto the loving of (each) other [i.e. to love one another].”

If we ask how believers are “taught by God”, apart from Paul’s written instruction, there are several possibilities:

    • The common preaching and tradition(s) which have been received (including the sayings/teachings of Jesus, etc)
    • The common witness and teaching of the believers together, in community
    • The (internal) testimony and guidance of the Spirit

Probably it is the last of these that Paul has primarily in mind, though not necessarily to the exclusion of the others. For a similar mode of thinking expressed in Johannine tradition, cf. 1 John 2:7-8, 21, 24; 3:10ff; 4:7-8ff, and the important passages in the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel. Here, in 1 Cor 2:13, it is clear that Paul is referring to the work of the Spirit. That the Spirit would give (“teach”) believers (and, especially, Christian ministers/missionaries) the words to say was already a prominent feature of the sayings of Jesus in Gospel tradition (Mark 13:11 par, etc), depicted as being fulfilled with the first preachers of the Gospel in the book of Acts (2:4ff; 4:8, 29ff; 6:10, etc). However, the underlying thought should not be limited to the (uniquely) inspired preaching of the apostles, but to all believers. Paul’s use of “we” in this regard will be discussed in more detail in an upcoming note (on 1 Cor 2:16).

Particularly difficult to translate is the verb sugkri/nw in the last phrase of verse 13. A standard literal rendering would be “judge together” or “judge [i.e. compare] (one thing) with (another)”. However, in the case of this verb, it is sometimes better to retain the more primitive meaning of selecting and bringing/joining (things) together. Paul’s phrase here is richly compact—pneumatikoi=$ pneumatika\ sugkri/nonte$. He (literally) joins together two plural forms of the adjective pneumatiko/$ (“spiritual”), one masculine, the other neuter. The first is in the dative case, but without any preposition specified, indicating a rendering something like “spiritual (thing)s with/by spiritual (one)s”. However, given the expression e)nlo/goi$ (“in words of…”) earlier in the verse, it is probably best to read this into the context here as well. I would thus suggest the following basic translation:

“bringing together spiritual (thing)s in spiritual (word)s”

I take this to mean that the “spiritual things” are given expression—and communicated to other believers—through “spiritual words”, i.e. words given/taught to a person by the Spirit. The “spiritual (thing)s [pneumatika]” almost certainly refer to “the deep (thing)s of God” and “the (thing)s under God” in vv. 10 and 12, respectively. The Spirit “searches out” these things and reveals or imparts them to believers. This is especially so in the case of ministers—those gifted to prophesy and teach, etc—but, according to the view expressed throughout chapters 12-14, in particular, all believers have (or should have) gifts provided by the Spirit which they can (and ought to) impart to others. This allows us to draw yet another conclusion regarding the “wisdom” mentioned in verse 6a: it is “taught” by the Spirit to believers, and is to be communicated (“spoken”) to others in turn. It is also worth noting that all throughout the discussion in verses 9-13, there is no real indication that this “wisdom” is limited to the proclamation of the death/resurrection of Jesus. We should perhaps keep an eye ahead to Paul’s discussion of the “spiritual (thing)s” in chapters 12-14.

Tomorrow’s note will examine verses 14-15.

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

1 Corinthians 13:12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Note on 1 Corinthians 13:8

(A concluding note for the series Women in the Church)

In discussing the role of Prophets in the early Church, I have mentioned the difficulty in relating it to the modern Age, and thus in applying passages such as 1 Cor 11:2-16 to the Church today. If Paul accepts the idea of women functioning as prophets, delivering messages in the congregational meeting, then this would certainly seem to support the idea that women may also do so (i.e. preach) today. However, according to one line of interpretation, the spiritual gifts (xarisma/ta, charismata) documented and described in 1 Corinthians (and elsewhere in the New Testament) are part of a unique set of phenomena, limited in time (more or less) to the age of the Apostles and the initial spread of Christianity. According to this view, Paul is essentially describing a situation which no longer applies today, contrary, of course, to the core belief of Pentecostal, Charismatic and Spiritualist traditions. But if, for example, 1 Cor 11:2-16 is taken as referring specifically to women exercising a (prophetic) gift which is no longer in effect, then it would not necessarily support the general idea of women preaching or delivering messages in the church meeting today. It is thus worth examining the main verse (also in 1 Corinthians) which refers to the gift of prophecy coming to an end.

1 Corinthians 13:8

This is part of the famous Love-chapter in 1 Corinthians, 12:31b-14:1a, which may be outlined as follows:

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

Love is contrasted with the spiritual “gifts”, in the parallel statements of vv. 1-3 and 8-13—the first referring to the current time (for believers in the Church), while the second refers to the end time. Verse 8 introduced this second section:

“Love does not ever fall; but if (there are thing)s foretold [i.e. prophecies], they will cease working; if (thing)s (spoken in other) tongues, they will stop; and if (there is) knowledge, it will cease working”

Paul does not refer here to knowledge generally, but to a special kind of spiritual knowledge or revelation, granted to believers by the Spirit. This idea of knowledge (gnw=si$) is given considerable emphasis in 1 Corinthians (cf. 1:5, 21ff; 8:1-3ff; 12:8; 14:6, etc), and especially here in chapter 13. The close connection between knowledge and prophecy is important (cf. 14:6), and is indicated by the parallel structure of the verse:

    • Prophecies will cease working [katarghqh/sontai]
      —Speaking with (other) tongues will stop
    • Knowledge will cease working [katarghqh/setai]

It is interesting that the phenomenon of speaking in other tongues occurs in between the references to prophecy and knowledge, since ‘speaking in tongues’ (glossolalia) was the central phenomenon marking the coming of the Spirit upon believers (in Acts 2). At the same time, prophecy and knowledge reflect two (higher) aspects of the Spirit’s work among believers as they participate in the Community. Though they can be separated as distinct “gifts”, they are really two sides of the same coin. In chapter 14, prophecy and messages in tongues are mentioned as specific ways that believers (men and women) may speak and minister within the meeting; Paul clearly gives priority to prophecy—delivering a message expressing the word and will of God in the ordinary language of the people—rather than similar messages in unknown languages (tongues) which require special interpretation. The close connection between prophecy and knowledge is reiterated in verse 9:

“For we know (only) out of a part [i.e. in part], and we foretell [i.e. prophesy] out of a part…”

The phrase e)k me/rou$ (“out of a part”) means that, even through the presence and work of the Spirit, believers only have a portion—that is, the knowledge and revelation we have of God, and from Him, is partial and limited. And it is this partial understanding, made available through the gifts of the Spirit, which will “cease working”:

“…but when the (thing which is) complete should come, (then) the (thing which is only) out of a part will cease working.” (verse 10)

It is the same verb (katarge/w), used twice in v. 8, and frequently elsewhere by Paul—of the 27 occurrences in the NT, all but two are found in the Pauline letters, including 9 times in 1 Corinthians. The basic meaning of the verb is to make something stop working, have no effect, etc. Paul uses it in a variety of contexts, but the essential idea is related to something new (e.g., the new covenant in Christ) replacing that which was in effect before (the old covenant). With the presence of the new, the old “ceases working”—i.e. is no longer valid or has no effect. In the current context of 1 Cor 13, the idea is that the old way (the spiritual gifts) is no longer needed or of any use. What is it that makes the prior working of the Spirit in believers obsolete? This is stated in v. 10a, and is the interpretive crux of the passage:

“when the (thing which is) complete should come”

Because of the importance of this clause, it will be helpful to look at each word in detail.

o%tan (“when[ever]”)—this is a combination of the temporal particle o%te (“when”) and the conditional a&n, indicating possibility or uncertainty, etc (“if, perhaps”). The simple o%te is used twice in verse 11 as part of the illustration of human development, marking two points in time—”when I was an infant” and “when I became a man”. This should be understood parallel to the use of the related to/te (“then”, i.e. at that time) in verse 12. The conditional o%tan here in verse 10 indicates some degree of uncertainty—i.e. whenever this should take place.

de/ (“but”)—a simple joining particle (conjunction), “and”, but which sometimes is used in a contrastive or adversative sense (“but”). Here Paul uses it to contrast v. 10a with the earlier statement in v. 9, as well as what follows in 10b. The point of contrast is between e)k me/rou$ (“[out] of a part”) and te/leio$ (“complete”).

e&lqh| (“[it] should come”)—this is an aorist subjunctive form of the verb e&rxomai (“come, go”), and is used here to indicate a specific point (in time) when something should take place, that is, when it will come. The subjunctive is related to the particle a&n embedded in the temporal o%tan (“when[ever]”, cf. above). Paul has no doubt this will occur, there is only some uncertainty just when it will take place.

to\ te/leion (“the [thing which is] complete”)—this adjective (te/leio$) is related to the noun te/lo$ and refers fundamentally to something being (or becoming) complete. It can be used in three different basic senses: (a) for the end of something, (b) for something which is full, perfect, whole, etc, and (c) for coming to fullness, maturity, etc. Paul uses the term in all three senses at various points in his letters. When applied to human beings (believers) it is often the third aspect (c) which is meant, as in 1 Cor 2:6 and 14:20 (the only other occurrences of the adjective in 1 Corinthians). The illustration of human growth and development in 13:11 might suggest that this is also the meaning of te/leio$ here—i.e. as believers come to greater maturity and understanding, there will increasingly be less need to rely upon the various spiritual gifts. There is no doubt that a number of the Corinthian believers were unduly enamored by the gifts of (spiritual) knowledge, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and so forth, which is the very reason why Paul was inspired to pen 12:31b-14:1a, to emphasize the priority (and superiority) of Christian love over all other manifestations (gifts) of the Spirit.

However, I do not believe that the adjective te/leio$ can be limited to only this sense. While it may relate to the idea of believers coming to completeness in Christ, it is primarily used in the more general (temporal) sense of something which is to come (in the future). This is the only occurrence in the New Testament of the neuter form te/leion, used as a substantive with the definite article—to\ te/leion, “the (thing which is) complete”. This should be compared with the plural substantive in 1 Cor 2:16: toi=$ telei/oi$, “[in] the (one)s (who are) complete”. In 13:11, Paul does not refer to “the (one)” [i.e. the believer], but to “the (thing)”—something which is going to happen or will appear. What is this “thing” which will come at some point in the future? The only answer Paul gives in the immediate context is found in verse 12, as he describes the transforming moment when we (believers) “will see face to(ward) face”. There can be little doubt that Paul’s orientation here is eschatological—that he has the end time (te/lo$) in mind, the completion of all things, which will follow upon the return of Christ, the resurrection, and the final Judgment. It is God himself we will see, face to face, far more perfectly than Moses did, through our union with Christ (2 Cor 3:7-18). We will know Him fully and intimately, even as we are known by Him. This is already experienced by believers through the course of our lives (2 Cor 3:18), as we grow in faith, wisdom and knowledge, but will only be realized completely at the end.

Given this basic outlook by Paul, it is unlikely that he envisioned a time, prior to the end, when the spiritual gifts would cease—least of all prophecy, which he regarded as one of the highest gifts. The situation is complicated by the fact that Paul, like most (if not all) believers of the time, more or less had an imminent expectation of the end-time—that the return of Christ and the final Judgement would soon take place, presumably in his/their own lifetime. In approaching Paul’s letters from our standpoint today, we are forced to factor in an intervening 2,000 or more years between his teaching and the end (which is yet to come). Still, if we are to give an accurate portrayal of what Paul said and wrote, we must recognize what his perspective was on the matter. It seems reasonably clear that he felt that the current working of the Spirit (the charismata, etc), and his instruction to believers regarding its manifestation, would be valid until the coming of the end, when we would experience and know God (and Christ), as well as each other, in new and perfect way.