Saturday Series: 1 John 4:1-6 (continued)

1 John 4:1-6, continued

Last week, we examined 1 John 4:1-6 in the context of the thematic and rhetorical structure of the letter, and also looked at the first three verses in detail. This section deals with the theme of trust in Jesus, just as the prior section (3:12-24) dealt with the theme of love. These two—love and trust in Jesus—are the two components of the great “commandment of God” (v. 23) which all true believers will uphold (and can never violate). Verses 1-3 of chapter 4 presents the author’s key teaching in the letter on trust in Jesus as the mark of the true believer. It builds upon the earlier instruction of 2:18-27 (discussed in a previous study). We have noted how 1 John is aimed at warning readers against certain people who have separated from the Community, and thus demonstrated themselves to be false believers (described as antíchristos, “against the Anointed”, 2:18, 22, and again here in 4:3). The author distinguishes them as ones who violate the first component of the great command—which is to say, they do not trust that Jesus is the Anointed One and Son of God (2:22-23). However, as Christians who previously had belonged to the Community, presumably they did, in fact, accept Jesus as both the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God, confessing and affirming both points of doctrine. Thus, it would seem that the author has something very specific in mind, a way of understanding just what an identification of Jesus by these titles means. We get a glimpse of what this is by the defining statement (of true belief) in verse 2 of our passage:

“every spirit which gives account as one (with us) of Yeshua (the) Anointed having come in the flesh is out of [i.e. from] God”

On the surface this would imply that the ‘false’ believers did not accept the incarnation of Jesus (as a human being); this would be the obvious sense of the phrase “having come in the flesh” (en sarkí el¢lythóta). Unfortunately, the situation is complicated by the fact that there are two important variant forms of the text in verse 3, where the opposing view of the ‘false’ believers (“false prophets”, v. 1) is stated. It is necessary first to discuss this.

The Text-critical question in 1 John 4:3

As I noted in the previous study, there are two forms of the text of v. 3a—one which uses the verb homologéœ (as in v. 2), and one which instead has the verb lýœ (“loose[n]”). Here are the two forms:

    • “every spirit that does not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó m¢ homologeí ton I¢soún)
    • “every spirit that looses Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó lýei ton I¢soún)

The first reading (with the verb homologéœ), which rather blandly contradicts the true statement in v. 2 with a simple negative particle (), is by far the majority reading, attested in every Greek manuscript and nearly all the ancient versions as well. The second reading (with lýœ) is known from only a small number of witnesses, and almost all by way of Latin translation (lýei ton I¢soún [“looses Yeshua”] typically rendered in Latin as solvit Iesum). In spite of this, many commentators would accept this minority reading as original. Let us consider the evidence and reasons for this.

External Evidence

The only Greek manuscript which contains the reading with lýœ is the 10th century uncial MS 1739, and there only as a marginal note explaining that the reading was found in writings of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen—all Church Fathers who lived and wrote in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries A.D. It is to be found in Irenaeus’ book Against Heresies (III.16.8), a portion surviving only in Latin (with the verb form solvit, “dissolves”); it is also cited in Origen’s Commentary on Matthew, in a portion surviving in Latin (65), though there may be an allusion to it in Greek as well (16.8). In fact, Origin knew both readings, as did the Latin author Tertullian (Against Marcion 5.16.4; Prescription Against Heretics 23) writing at roughly the same time. The minority text (with solvit [in Latin]) is known by several other writers of the 4th and 5th century (e.g., Priscillian Tractate 1.31.3), and is the reading in a number of Old Latin manuscripts (ar c dem div p) in addition to the Latin Vulgate. The only other Greek evidence for the reading (with lýœ) comes from the 5th century historian Socrates (Church History 7.32), who cites it as an “ancient reading” (meaning it was not the one commonly known at the time), using it against the Christological views of the Nestorians (as those who “separated” the two natures of Jesus).

Internal Evidence and Transcriptional Probability

“Internal evidence” in textual criticism refers to things like the style and vocabulary of the New Testament author, which reading is more likely to be original on this basis, and which is more likely to have been changed or entered into the text through the copying by scribes. This latter aspect is often referred to as “transcriptional probability”. An important principle of textual criticism is difficilior lectio potior (“the more difficult reading is to be preferred), meaning that copyists are more likely to alter the text from a word or phrase that is more unusual or difficult to understand to one that is more common or easier to understand. And a good number of commentators consider the reading pán pneúma hó lýei ton I¢soún (“every spirit that looses Jesus“) to be the more difficult. What exactly does this mean—to “loose” Jesus? According to this view, at some point one or more scribes (probably in the early 2nd century) changed the text from “looses” to the blander “does not give account as one [i.e. acknowledge/confess/agree]”, using the same verb as in verse 2. But is this feasible?

For one thing, as many commentators have noted, the use of the negative particle   with an indicative verb form is unusual, and is itself hard to explain as a scribal change. It is more appropriate before a participle, as in the parallel statement in 2 John 7 (see also John 3:18). In fact, the evidence from 2 John 7 cuts both ways: it can be taken as a sign that the reading with homologéœ is original, or that scribes harmonized the reading with lýœ, ‘correcting’ it in light of 2 Jn 7.

What about the use of the verb lýœ—does it fit with the author’s style and would he use it here in such a context? The verb occurs only once elsewhere in the Johannine letters, at 1 Jn 3:8, where it is stated that Jesus appeared on earth so that he might “loose” (lýs¢, i.e. “dissolve”) the works of the Devil. The verb lýœ literally means “loose[n]”, sometimes in the sense of dissolving or destroying, but also in the sense of releasing someone (or something) from bondage, etc. In the book of Revelation (often considered a Johannine writing), it is always used (6 times) in the sense of releasing a person; whereas, in the Gospel of John, it can be used either in the general sense of loosening straps, bonds, etc (1:27; 11:44), or in the negative sense (above) of dissolving something (2:19; 5:18; 7:23; 10:35), as in 1 Jn 3:8. The most relevant occurrence in the Gospel is at 2:19, where it is part of the Temple-saying of Jesus:

“Loose [lýsate] this shrine and in three days I will raise it (again).”

In the Synoptic version (in the Sanhedrin ‘trial’ scene), the reported saying (Mk 14:58 par) uses the compound verb katalýœ (“loose[n] down”), but the meaning is essentially the same—the Temple being dissolved, i.e. its stones broken down and destroyed (cf. Mark 13:1 par where the same verb is used). The verb lýœ typically is not used in the sense of “dissolve/destroy” when a person is the object; however, in Jn 2:19 the object of the Temple (a building) is applied to the person of Jesus by the Gospel writer (vv. 21-22), so it is conceivable that the author of 1 John could be doing something similar here.


I would say that, while an argument can be made for the originality of the reading with lýœ, and that its use in 4:3 would be, to some extent, compatible with Johannine style and theology, it is hard to ignore the absolutely overwhelming textual evidence of the manuscripts and versions. I find it difficult to explain how a scribal change could so effect every single known Greek manuscript, and, at the same time, all of the ancient versions (except for the Latin). It seems much more likely that the reading with the verb lýœ was introduced as a gloss or explanation of the majority reading, perhaps as a marginal note (such as in MS 1739) that made its way into the text. Indeed, if the majority reading (with m¢ homologeí) is original, it is not immediately clear just what contrast the author is making. In what way do the “false prophets” not confess/acknowledge Jesus Christ having “come in the flesh”? Is it a simple denial of the reality of the incarnation, or something else? For the writers of the 2nd-5th centuries, mentioned above, who attest the reading with lýœ, they seem to understand it in the sense of ‘heretics’ who separate the person of Jesus—i.e., dissolving the bond between the divine Christ (Son of God) and the human Jesus. This, however, would likely not have been the false Christology attacked by the author of 1 John (see below).

1 John 4:4-5

You are out of [ek] God, (my dear) offspring, and you have been victorious over them, (in) that the (one) in you is greater that the (one) in the world. They are out of [ek] the world—through this they speak out of [ek] the world, and the world hears them.”

At this point, in his exhortation to his readers, the author draws a sharp contrast with the “false prophets”, emphatically using the pronouns “you” (hymeís) and “they” (autoí). The rhetorical thrust of this is clear. He addresses his audience as true believers, contrasting them with the false believers who have separated from the Community and hold the erroneous view of Jesus. This aspect of religious identity is established by the familiar Johannine use of the prepositions ek (“out of”) and en (“in”). We have seen how the Johannine writings (both the Gospel and First Letter) play on the different uses of the preposition ek. Here it connotes coming from someone (or something), in the sense of being born out of them, as well as the idea of belonging to someone. True believers belong to God, being born of Him, while false believers belong to the World (the evil World-order, kósmos).

The use of the perfect tense (nenik¢¡kate, “you have been victorious [over]”) here is significant. I see two aspects of meaning at work. First, is the rhetorical purpose. The author wishes to persuade his readers not to be influenced or misled by the views of the “false prophets”; he does this by indicating to them that this has already happened—they have already been victorious over the false believers. It is a clever way of urging them to act and respond in a certain way. At the same time, the verb indicates the real situation for true believers—they have already been victorious over the world because Jesus was victorious through his life and work on earth, and believers now share in this power (through the presence of the Spirit in them, v. 4b). The verb nikᜠis a distinctly Johannine term. Of the 28 occurrences in the New Testament, 24 are in the Gospel of John (1), the First Letter (6), and the Book of Revelation (17). In the Gospel and Letter, it is always used in relation to “the world” (ho kósmos)” or “the evil (one)” (ho pon¢rós). In Jn 16:33 Jesus declares that “I have been victorious over the world”, that is, over the evil and darkness that governs the current world-order. It also means that he has been victorious over the Ruler of the world—the Evil Spirit of the world, the “Evil One” (i.e. the Satan/Devil), 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 1 Jn 3:8. The language here in vv. 4-6 very much echoes that of the Gospel Discourses of Jesus, especially in the Last Discourse (14:17; 15:19; 17:6-25).

1 John 4:6

“We are out of [ek] God, (and) the (one) knowing God hears us, (but) the (one) who is not out [ek] God does not hear us. Out of [ek] this we know the Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of straying [plán¢].”

The statement “we are out of God” parallels the “you are out of God” in v. 4. This might indicate that it is the authorial “we”, referring to the author himself, perhaps along with other leading ministers. Paul makes frequent use of the authorial “we” in his letters. According to this view, the statement here in v. 6a is meant to persuade readers to listen to what he (the author) is saying. However, I do not believe this is the force of the statement here; rather, “we/us” is being used to identify the Community of true believers, in contrast to the ‘false’ believers who have separated. Since it is the Community of true believers, all genuine believers will hear what is said, since the message is spoken and taught under the guidance of the Spirit. By contrast, those who belong to the world, speak under the influence of the evil Spirit of the world.

This is a clear and marked example of Johannine dualism, with its stark contrast between the domain of God/Christ/Believers and the Devil/World/Non-believers. The closing words bear this out. The “Spirit of Truth” is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God (and Christ) who dwells in and among believers (Jn 4:23-24; 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 Jn 5:6). This is what the author refers to with the phrase “the (one) in you” (v. 4b). The corresponding expression to pneúma t¢s plán¢s is a bit harder to translate. The noun plán¢ essentially refers to wandering or going astray; it is an abstract noun used here in opposition to al¢¡theia (“truth”). It characterizes the Evil Spirit (of the world) as one who leads people astray, i.e. misleading or deceiving them; a natural translation of the noun in English would be “deception” (Spirit of Deception). As it happens, this sort of language is known from other Jewish writings of the period, especially in the Community Rule (1QS) of the Qumran texts, in the so-called “Treatise of the Two Spirits”, where two similarly opposing Spirits (of truth and deceit) are described (1QS 3:17-25). This Evil Spirit is what the author is referring to by the phrase “the (one) in the world” (v. 4b); it also the spirit of antíchristos (“against the Anointed”, v. 3).


If we are to attempt a historical reconstruction of the views of the false believers (“false prophets”, antichrists) who separated from the Community, it is necessary to bring together, as we have done, the two sections dealing with the theme of trust in Jesus2:18-27 and 4:1-6. In the first passage we learn that the author defines these people as those who do not trust in Jesus—that is, they fail/refuse to acknowledge Jesus as the Anointed and Son of God (2:22-23), and thus violate the great command (3:23). In the second passage, we gain a clearer sense of what is involved: these false believers do not acknowledge (with the rest of the Community) Jesus the Anointed as having coming in flesh. This would seem to indicate a denial of the incarnation, a refusal to accept that Jesus appeared on earth as a real flesh-and-blood human being. In classic theological language, this Christological view is referred to as docetism, from the Greek (dokéœ), meaning that Jesus only seemed to be a real human being. It is associated with a number of so-called Gnostic groups and systems of thought in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the early 2nd century, not long after the time when the Johannine letters are often thought to have been composed, attacks an early form of docetic Christology (Smyrn. 1:1-2; 3:1-2; 4:1-2; Trall. 9:1-2; 10:1, etc), and appears to cite 1 John 4:2 for this purpose (in Smyrn. 5:2). Ignatius writes to believers in Asia Minor (Ephesus, Smyrna, Tralles), which is usually considered to be (the most likely) provenance of the Johannine Writings as well.

However, I do not think that the view of the false believers in 1 John is docetic per se. The situation is a bit more complex than that. The answer, I feel, lies in the final section of the letter dealing with the theme of trust in Jesus (5:5-12), which we will soon examine in an upcoming study. But first we must turn to the next section of the letter, on the theme of love, beginning with 4:7. It is a rich and powerful exposition, perhaps the single most extensive treatment on Christian love in the entire New Testament. We will only be able to consider certain aspects of it in the space and time available to us, but it is a subject that will be well worth the study.

Justification by Faith: Romans 1:17

This Saturday (October 31) is the date commemorating the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, marking Luther’s posting of the so-called “Ninety-five Theses” on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. Intended for an academic debate, these propositions, many of a highly technical nature, had an influence which went far beyond their original purpose, and Martin Luther himself came to be the leading figure of the early years of the Reformation. In celebration of this time, I am launching a series of brief studies, posted periodically on Fridays (“Reformation Fridays”) over the coming months, dealing with some of the key tenets of Protestantism.

These Reformation-themed studies will each focus on a particular principle or belief central to the Reformation and the Protestant Tradition, examining the Scriptural basis for it. One or two key, representative Scripture passages or verses will be chosen, and given a critical treatment. This will demonstrate how Biblical criticism applies to theology and doctrine. On the one hand, we can see the way that established doctrines developed from particular interpretations of Scripture. At the same time, it is important always to take a fresh look as such beliefs, examining them anew in the light of Scripture.

Justification by Faith

The first Reformation tenet we will explore is justification by faith, as summarized in the famous slogan sola fide (“faith alone”)—that is, salvation comes only through faith in Christ, and not as a result of human work and effort. The fourth article of the Augsburg Confession gives the following statement (brackets represent explanatory text in German):

“…men can not be justified [obtain forgiveness of sins and righteousness] before God by their own powers, merits, or works; but are justified freely [of grace] for Christ’s sake through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and their sin’s forgiven for Christ’s sake, who by his death hath satisfied our sins.” (translation from P. Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3)

There is a long history behind this theological formulation, but, to a large extent, the primary idea comes from the New Testament, perhaps best seen by the declaration in Ephesians 2:8-9:

“For by (the) favor (of God) you are (one)s having been [i.e. who have been] saved, through trust—(and) this (does) not (come) out of you, (but is) the gift of God, (so) that no one should boast (of it).”

The word translated “favor” above is xa/ri$ (cháris), usually rendered “grace”; that translated “trust” (pi/sti$, pístis) is more commonly rendered “faith”. We are saved through trust in Christ, but this does not come from our own ability or effort; rather, it is a result of the gift and favor shown to us by God.

The very expression “justification by faith” clearly shows the dependence on Paul’s letters (especially Galatians and Romans), with his repeated (and distinctive) use of the verb dikaio/w (dikaióœ) and the related noun dikaiosu/nh (dikaiosýn¢) and adjective di/kaio$ (díkaios). As a transitive verb, dikaio/w fundamentally means “make (things) right”, or “make (something) just”, sometimes in the formal (legal) sense of “declare (something to be) just”, “provide justice”, etc. Paul draws heavily upon this legal usage, applying it in a religious sense. We will be looking at two key examples which are essential to the doctrine of “justification by faith”. The first comes from the opening section of Romans, the concluding declaration in Rom 1:17. A seminal moment for the Reformation occurred during Luther’s study of Romans in his years spent as an Augustinian monk; he began to meditate more deeply on this verse, leading to a kind of revelatory moment (and conversion experience) for him, as he describes in the 1545 Preface to his writings in Latin. He expounded this verse, and the theological and religious principle drawn from it, a number of times in his published works; and other Reformers also inspired by it, followed him as well. Thus, Romans 1:17 may serve as a kind of keystone verse for the Protestant Reformation, and is deserving of careful study. In fact, Paul’s statement is considerably more complex than it seems at first glance, especially when reading it in translation, and through the lens of Protestant theology.

Romans 1:17

The particular words in Rom 1:17 which so struck Luther, are actually a quotation from the Old Testament (Habakkuk 2:4). This is just one of several elements in the verse which need to be examined; let us consider them in order. To begin with, verse 17 marks the conclusion of the opening section (introduction) of the letter, and further explains the statement by Paul in v. 16 that the “good message” (Gospel) is “the power of God unto salvation for every(one) trusting (in Jesus)”. There are three parts to this explanation in v. 17:

    • “For the justice of God is uncovered in it”
    • “out of trust (and) into trust”
    • “even as it has been written…”—the citation from Hab 2:4

1. “For the justice of God is uncovered in it”—The word translated “justice” is dikaiosu/nh, part of the dikai- word-group mentioned above, and related to the verb dikaio/w. It is notoriously tricky to translate in English. Perhaps the best rendering would be something like “right-ness” or “just-ness”, but, as there is nothing truly equivalent in English, most translators opt for “justice” or “righteousness”. However, both of these can be misleading in modern English—”justice” has a predominantly socio-legal meaning, while “righteousness” a religious meaning, and one that is seldom used in English today, also having the negative connotation of self-righteousness.

Another difficulty involves the genitive construction (“…of God”): is it a subjective or objective genitive? That is to say, does it represent an attribute of God (i.e. something he possesses) or something which comes from him (i.e. as an object to us)? In Phil 3:9, Paul refers to the justice/righteousness that comes “from God” (e)k qeou=, ek theou), and given to believers; while in 2 Cor 5:21, believers become the “justice/righteousness of God” in Christ. There the expression may be taken as an objective genitive, and so many commentators understand it in Rom 1:17 as well—the Gospel communicates justice/righteousness to us. Certainly, that is how Luther and the Reformers came to understand it—righteousness as a gift from God, especially in the legal/declarative sense implied by Paul in much of his writing. Luther translates the expression in Rom 1:17 as “die gerechtigkeit die vor Gott gilt” (the justice/righteousness that counts before God). However, the overall context of Romans here strongly suggests that Paul is primarily using a subjective genitive—i.e. justice/just-ness as a divine characteristic. It is parallel to the “anger of God” (org¢ theou) in v. 18, which is also said to be “uncovered” and specifically directed against injustice (a)diki/a, adikía). Similarly, we may note the expressions “the trust(worthiness) of God” (h¢ pistis tou theou) and “the truth(fulness) of God” (h¢ al¢theia tou theou) in 3:3, 7. It is an attribute expressing the character of God, but especially in terms of his action toward humankind.

What does it mean to say that the justice of God is “uncovered” in the Gospel? The verb a)pokalu/ptw (apokalýptœ) literally means “take the cover (away) from”, indicating something previously hidden or unknown. It relates to the character of God as one who makes things right, and specifically involves the salvation brought about through the person and work of Jesus. In v. 16, the Gospel—the message/announcement of this saving work—is called “the power of God”, an expression parallel to “the justice of God”. The Gospel reveals the plan of salvation for humankind, and, in so doing, makes known the very nature and character of God himself.

2. “out of trust (and) into trust”—This phrase can also be somewhat difficult to interpret. It is meant to qualify and explain the earlier phrase. The justice of God is revealed in the Gospel. How, or in what manner does this occur?—”out of [e)k] trust and into [ei)$] trust”. Trust is both the source (“out of”) and goal (“into”). Of course, when Paul uses the word pi/sti$ (“trust”), he is referring to trust, or faith, in Jesus. Trust leads to the communication of God’s justice/righteousness to us, in the person of Christ, which, in turn, also leads to (greater) trust as we are united and grow in him. Paul uses similar syntax in 2 Cor 3:18: “from glory into/unto glory”. Likewise in the Greek of Psalm 84:8, the prepositions ek and eis in sequence would seem to indicate the passage from one point, or degree, to another.

3. The citation of Hab 2:4—Paul quotes this as follows:

“But the just (one) will live out of trust”
o( de\ di/kaio$ e)k pi/stew$ zh/setai
ho dé díkaios ek písteœs z¢¡setai

Part of New Testament (textual) criticism involves a careful study and comparison of the text of the Old Testament as it is quoted/cited by the author (or speaker). There are three forms of this verse in the Greek version (Septuagint/LXX) of the Old Testament, two of which differ from Paul’s quotation in the use of the 1st person possessive pronoun (occurring at different points):

“But the just (one) will live out of my trust”
“But my just (one) will live out of trust”

The Hebrew of Hab 2:4, by contrast, reads:

“but the righteous (one) will live by his firm (loyal)ty”
hy#j=y] otn`Wma$B# qyD!x^w+
w®ƒaddîq be°§mûn¹¾ô yihyeh

The LXX is a reasonably accurate translation of the Hebrew, except for the use of the 1st person pronoun, which could indicate a slightly different reading of the underlying Hebrew (1st person suffix instead of 3rd person). The 1st person pronoun means that the righteous person lives as a result of God’s faithfulness. The Hebrew, by contrast, means that the person lives because of his/her own loyalty to God. The original context of the prophetic oracle clarifies this meaning. Judgment is coming upon Judah by means of foreign military invasion (by the Babylonians or “Chaldeans”, 1:6ff); only those who are faithful to YHWH will survive the attack (“will live”). Here, faithfulness refers to the binding agreement (covenant) established between God and the people Israel, with the Torah representing the terms of the agreement. The righteous/loyal Israelite remains firmly committed to the covenant, and obedient to the Torah, even as the rest of the society has fallen into disobedience and sin. This is similar to the faithful remnant motif found in many of the prophetic oracles—only the faithful ones will be saved from the coming judgment.

Considered in this light, it is interesting to see how Paul interprets the verse here in Romans. First, he preserves the original formulation from the Hebrew, i.e. that the trust/loyalty is that of the righteous person, and not God. Even though his Greek has no personal pronoun (“his”), that basic meaning is still implied, as in the reading of LXX manuscript 763* which matches Paul’s version. Second, Paul also retains something of the judgment-setting from Habakkuk, not in verse 17 itself, but in vv. 18ff which follow, referring to “the anger of God” (parallel to “the justice of God”) which is being uncovered. Only believers in Christ will escape the coming Judgment. However, it must be admitted that Paul has a deeper sense of the verb “will live” in mind; in addition to the negative context of the Judgment, there is the positive sense of what it means for the believer, even now in the present, to live in Christ. As expressed in 6:4ff, and other passages, the believer experiences new life in Christ, quite apart from the eternal life which one inherits after death and the Judgment. Though he does not state it here at this point in Romans, this sense of life in Christ is understood primarily through the presence of the Spirit.

More significantly, what Paul does not explain immediately in verse 17 is how the just/right (díkaios) character of the believer relates to the justice/righteousness (dikaiosýn¢) of God. In quoting Hab 2:4, the adjective díkaios is used without indicating exactly what makes the person “just”. In the Old Testament religious context of the oracle, a person’s just/righteous character is demonstrated by loyalty to the covenant and faithful obedience to the Torah. Paul, of course, turns this completely around, through a complex logic and series of arguments, expressed primarily in Galatians, and here in Romans. A person’s righteousness is the result of trust in Christ, rather than faithfulness to the Torah. Paul’s teaching in this regard is extremely complicated, and must be studied with considerable care, to avoid misunderstanding or over-simplification. For a detailed examination and discussion, I recommend you explore the articles on Paul’s view of the Law in my earlier series “The Law and the New Testament”.

There is an interesting comparison to be made between Paul’s interpretation of Hab 2:4 and that found in the Community of the Qumran text (Dead Sea Scrolls). In the surviving commentary (pesher) on Habakkuk (1QpHab), 2:4 is interpreted as follows:

“…(it) concerns all observing the Law in the House of Judah, whom God will free from the house of judgment on account of their toil and of their loyalty to the Teacher of Righteousness”

Two criteria are combined: (1) proper observance of the Law, etc (“their toil”), and (2) loyalty to the person called “Teacher of Righteousness”, the leading/founding figure of the Community, viewed as an inspired prophet and teacher. Paul would reject the first criterion, but the second is a bit closer to his own approach. Both the Qumran Community and early Christians defined salvation in terms of faith in a person.

One final point of interpretation involves the syntactical position of the expression ek písteœs (“out of trust”)—from Paul’s standpoint, does it modify the subject (ho díkaios, “the just [one]”) or the verb (z¢¡setai, “will live”)? In other words, is the emphasis on the person being considered just because of his/her trust, or does the person live as a result of that trust? Compare: (1) “the (person who is) just out of (his/her) trust will live”, or (2) “the just (person) will live out of trust”. The latter is to be preferred, especially if Paul understood the original meaning of the Hebrew text. If so, then Rom 1:17 is not so much as statement of “Justification by Faith” as it is of “New Life by Faith”. Paul, however, would certainly affirm both sides of the equation, as, indeed, he does through the central phrase “out of trust (and) into trust”, indicating both source (“from the just-ness of God”) and goal (“eternal life in Christ”).

As you meditate and study this verse, begin looking ahead through Paul’s letter to the Romans, reading from 1:18 on into the beginning of chapter 4. In the next study, we will explore a second key verse related to the doctrine of “Justification by Faith”—the quotation of Genesis 15:6 in Rom 4:3 (also Gal 3:6).

2 Thess 2:3-4 and Early Christian Eschatology

As previously noted in the studies on the eschatology of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Paul appears to have shared, with other first-century believers, a traditional outlook on the end times. In his letters he does not go much beyond this, and only offers a presentation of this eschatology in any real detail in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. In my view, Paul held to an eschatological framework similar to that of the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (cf. my earlier 4-part study on the Discourse). Even though the Eschatological Discourse likely represents an early Christian (traditional-literary) arrangement of Jesus’ teaching, this does not mean that the basic framework was not shared by Jesus himself. In fact, there is every reason to think that it was, in general, shared by many Jews and Christians of the time.

The simplest form of the Synoptic Discourse is the Markan version (chap. 13), which has the following framework:

    • 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 Matthean and Lukan versions develop and expand this somewhat. It is worth noting that Paul, in 1 and 2 Thessalonians (assuming the latter is genuinely Pauline), was writing c. 50 A.D., only 20 or so years after Jesus’ own teaching, and well before any of the Synoptic Gospels were written. The points of correspondence between the eschatology of 1-2 Thessalonians and the underlying traditions of the Discourse are:

    • He seems to believe (and affirm) that the suffering and persecution believers are experiencing at the time is part of the end-time period of distress (1 Thess 1:6ff; 2:14ff; 2 Thess 1:4-12). This corresponds with Jesus’ teaching in Mk 13:9-13 par. Paul uses the key term qli/yi$ (“distress”) in 2 Thess 1:4, 6 (also 1 Thess 1:6; cf. Mk 13:19, 24 par; Rev 7:14 etc.
    • Paul’s controversial words in 1 Thess 2:14-16, regarding the judgment facing Jewish opponents of the Gospel, likely reflects the idea of specific suffering that is to come upon the people of Judea (and Jerusalem) as part of the end-time period of distress (Mk 13:14-22 par). I discussed this in an earlier note.
    • The teaching in 1 Thess 4:13-17 (cf. the discussion in Part 2) is said to derive from Jesus’ own words (“word/account of the Lord”, v. 15), that is, transmitted through early Gospel tradition. It is essentially an expanded form of Mk 13:26-27 par, naturally identifying the coming of the “Son of Man” with the return of Jesus (cf. also 1 Thess 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 2 Thess 1:7; 2:1).
    • The instruction in 1 Thess 5:1-3ff also echoes Jesus’ proverbial teaching in Mk 13:32-37 par, esp. Matt 24:42-44).
    • 2 Thess 2:1-12 contains much detail in common with Jesus’ description of the end-time period of distress (Mk 13:5ff, 14, 19-22 par).

It is the last point, in particular, that I wish to discuss here. Having already examined 2 Thess 2:1-12 in Part 3 of the article on 1-2 Thessalonians, it is necessary to look at verses 3-4 in a bit more detail, and in light of the framework of the Eschatological Discourse.

2 Thessalonians 2:3-4

One of the events which, according to Paul, must occur before the final Judgment of God (against the wicked) arrives, is the appearance of a person called “the man of lawlessness” (o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$, v. 3) or “the lawless (one)” (o( a&nomo$, v. 8). While this descriptive title could be understood in a general sense, Paul’s exposition in vv. 3-10 strongly suggests that it refers to a political leader of some sort. At the time of writing (c. 50 A.D., assuming Pauline authorship), this likely would have meant a Roman emperor. We would have a clearer sense of what Paul had in mind, and the passage would be easier to interpret, were it not for two factors: (1) the difficult language/syntax in vv. 6-7, and (2) the role of the Temple in verse 4. I discuss the meaning of the Greek of vv. 6-7 in Part 3 and earlier notes (cf. also below). Here it is necessary to look specifically at the role of the Temple, since it marks a defining act by the “man of lawlessness”. Verse 4:

“…the (one) stretching himself out against, and lifting himself over, all (thing)s being counted as God or reverenced, even as to his sitting in the shrine [nao/$] of God, showing himself from (this) that he is God.”

Most commentators are in agreement that Paul here is drawing upon an early Christian use of the prophecies in the book of Daniel, of a wicked foreign ruler who would come and desecrate the Temple (9:26-27; 11:31-39; 12:11). The original context of these prophecies is as a reference to the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the events of 167-164 B.C., in which the sacrificial ritual in the Jerusalem Temple was halted/abolished, being replaced by a form of pagan worship. This act of desecration was specifically identified with the difficult Hebrew wording of 9:27 — “and upon the wing [[nk] of despicable (thing)s he lays waste”, or, perhaps: “and upon the wing of despicable (thing)s (the one) laying waste (comes)”. In Greek, this phrase was translated as “and upon the Temple there will be a stinking (thing) of desolations [bde/lugma tw=n e)rhmw/sewn]”. The earliest interpretation is found in 1 Maccabees 1:54, following the Greek rendering—the “stinking thing of desolations” [bde/lugma tw=n e)rhmw/sewn] is identified with a pagan altar that Antiochus IV had set upon the altar in the Temple (v. 59, also 4:43), and upon which, it would seem, unlawful/unclean pagan sacrifices were offered (cf. 2 Macc 6:5). In his Commentary on Daniel (11:31), Jerome states that Antiochus IV had set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Jerusalem Temple; however, the source and basis for this tradition is unclear.

Both Jews and Christians in the 1st century B.C./A.D. had cause to re-interpret the Daniel prophecy, applying it to their own time (a century or two later). Since no definitive judgment/defeat of the wicked occurred in the years immediately following 164 B.C., his meant that the prophecy still had to be fulfilled in some manner. The Dan 9:27 tradition, with a variation of the same Greek expression “stinking thing of desolation” (bde/lugma th=$ e)rhmw/sew$), is used in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:14):

“But when you should see the stinking thing of desolation having stood where it is necessary (that it should) not [i.e. where it ought not to be]…”

The aside which follows, coming either from the Gospel writer or an earlier traditional notice, suggests an interpretation, unstated in the text, that is presumed to be understood by Christians of the time (c. 60 A.D.?). Matthew’s version preserves the same cryptic notice but otherwise makes the Daniel reference (24:15) more clear (differences/additions in italics):

Therefore when you should see ‘the stinking thing of desolation’ that was uttered through Danîyel the Foreteller (now) having stood in the holy place…”

Jesus’ disciples, along with other Christians of the time, c. 35-60 A.D., are warned that the appearance of “the stinking thing of desolation” standing in the Temple sanctuary marks the beginning of a time of terrible distress for the people of Judea. While the original reference in the Synoptic Discourse (Mark/Matthew) may have been well-understood by the first readers, its precise interpretation is unclear for us today. However, the idea of something standing in the Temple suggests perhaps a statue or similar (pagan) construction. The tradition preserved in Jerome’s commentary on Daniel (cf. above) indicated that Antiochus IV had set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Temple. This was echoed c. 40 A.D. by the emperor Gaius’ (Caligula), as part of his establishment of the imperial cult, intending that his statue was to be placed in the Jerusalem Temple, transforming it into an imperial shrine (Josephus, Antiquities 18.256-307). Jesus’ use of Dan 9:27 indicates that he is predicting something similar to happen at the end-time, and it could conceivably relate to the historical actions/intentions of the emperor (c. 40 A.D.).

However, in Luke’s version of the Discourse, the Dan 9:27 reference has been completely recast as a reference to the (Roman) invasion of Jerusalem, in which the presence of a pagan army would both desecrate and destroy the Temple:

“And when you shall see Jerusalem encircled by foot-soldiers, then you should know that her desolation [e)rh/mwsi$] has come near.” (Lk 21:20; cf. also 19:41-44)

This of course was accurately fulfilled in 70 A.D. The Lukan version of the Discourse expands the chronological scope somewhat, allowing for a period during which Jerusalem (and the Temple) would be “trampled under (the feet of) the nations”. The length of time involved is not clear, though from the author’s standpoint (probably writing c. 70-80) it would have to be at least a number of years (though scarcely the 1,900+ years looked at from our vantage point today).

Returning to 2 Thessalonians 2:4, Paul seems to accept a rather different interpretation of the Dan 9:27 / Mk 13:14 tradition—what stands in the Temple sanctuary is not a statue, but a person; it is not a pagan army, rather, it is a wicked pagan ruler. Almost certainly, Paul would have understood this as Roman emperor, perhaps one fulfilling the pattern of the wicked Gaius (Caligula) who had intended his own image to be set up in the Temple (cf. above). This would have occurred just ten years or so (c. 40 A.D.) before 2 Thessalonians was written. It would not have been difficult to see it as a foreshadowing of something that would be done by an even more wicked ruler.

There are actually a number of foreign (Greco-Roman) figures whose lives and actions fed into the idea of a wicked end-time ruler along the lines of this “man of lawlessness”. In addition to Antiochus IV and Gaius (Caligula), we may note the Roman general Pompey (106-48 B.C.). It was he who first subjugated Judea to Roman rule (64/63 B.C.), placing it as a tributary under the governorship of Syria. According to many scholars, the so-called “Psalms of Solomon” were written not long after Pompey’s conquest, and that he is the pattern for the wicked/foreign ruler of the end-time envisioned in several of the Psalms. There are some interesting parallels between 17:11-22 and 2 Thess 2:3-4, both conceptually and in the Greek wording used. The Pompey figure is also called “the lawless one” (o( a&nomo$) and his rule is characterized as an especially wicked time of sin and turning of the people away from God. The book of Revelation, written some time after 2 Thessalonians, appears to contain similar allusions to Nero, and, perhaps, other emperors as well (Vespasian?, Domitian?).

In summary, we may note the following points:

    • Paul predicts the rise of a wicked ruler who would stand/sit in the Temple sanctuary, as a fulfillment of the Dan 9:26-27 prophecy (as understood through the Eschatological Discourse [Mk 13:14 par], etc).
    • This wicked ruler would appear toward the end of the period of distress (qli/yi$) in which Paul and his readers were already living (c. 50 A.D.). This may correspond with the conjunction of the time of persecution of believers (13:9-13) and suffering in Judea (13:14-22) outlined in the framework of the Discourse.
    • The reign of this wicked ruler, though relatively brief, would be one of intense wickedness and evil, with supernatural signs and miracles that would deceive people and lead them astray. This also echoes the description of the end-time distress for Judea in Mk 13:14-22, though Paul does not seem to limit the geographic extent so narrowly (in spite of the Temple reference).
    • The destruction of this wicked ruler is described in traditional Messianic language (allusion to Isa 11:4, etc), transferred to the Christian idea of Jesus’ return.
    • From a chronological standpoint, Paul is speaking of something he expects to happen soon, i.e. not long after 50 A.D., when the letter was written. This would generally fit the time frame (of approx. 20 years) before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. In this regard, Paul is fully in accord with the earliest Christian eschatology as expressed in the New Testament—i.e. of the “last days” as a period more or less corresponding to the first generation of believers (30-40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection).

The fundamental problem with this Pauline chronology is the same as that which we have seen already with the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse and the eschatology of the New Testament as a whole. While many of the expected/predicted events and details were accurately fulfilled in the 1st century A.D., the end—i.e. the return of Jesus and final Judgment—did not occur at that time. Paul’s apparent predictions in 2 Thess 2:3ff involve the Jerusalem Temple, as do those of Jesus in the Eschatological Discourse. The Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. which makes it impossible for the event described in 2:4 to be fulfilled—at least not in a concrete historical sense. This has led many traditional-conservative (and Evangelical) commentators to interpret and apply the passage in a more figurative or symbolic sense; this may be done several different ways:

    • as a conflict with the “antichristian” forces of evil, etc, without any specific eschatological significance for the believer today; while this may be a valid application, it effectively negates the clear eschatological context of the passage.
    • as a similar conflict, but an eschatological setting (of sorts) is preserved by viewing the “last days” broadly as the entire period (of nearly 2,000 years) from the time of the apostles to the present day.
    • the specific Temple setting, etc, is figurative but the passage does refer to an actual person who will appear at some point yet in the future (i.e. after 2020 A.D.); as predicted, this ruler will stand in direct opposition to God and Christ and will deceive the world (part of the wider Antichrist tradition).
    • [Some Christians would preserve a literal fulfillment by relying upon the idea that the actual Jerusalem Temple will be rebuilt in the future. While a rebuilding of the Temple does feature in Jewish eschatology to some extent, the idea is almost entirely absent from the New Testament; there is no suggestion, either in 2 Thess 2:3ff or in the Eschatological Discourse, that a rebuilt Temple is in view.]

Only the third approach does justice to the eschatology of the passage, but it founders in the general disregard (admittedly out of practical necessity) for the imminence of Paul’s eschatology clearly expressed throughout 1-2 Thessalonians. As discussed at many points in this series, the basic conflict between the imminent eschatology of the New Testament and the 1,900+ years (and counting) that have since passed, is a problem for which there is no easy solution. It will be addressed more extensively as the series draws to a close.

For more on the Temple in Jewish and early Christian eschatology, see my earlier article on the subject. On the prophecy of Daniel 9:25-27, in particular, consult my note in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, as well as the article here on the Eschatological Discourse.

The “man of lawlessness” of 2 Thess 2:3-11 will be discussed further in an upcoming special article in this series on the “Antichrist” tradition.

October 26: Revelation 13 (summary)

Summary of the Two Visions in Rev 13:1-18

As a way of summarizing the results of the study (in these notes) on the visions of Revelation 13, we will attempt to give greater clarity to the symbolic figures of the Dragon, Sea-creature, and Earth-creature, and the relationship between the three—how the author/visionary likely understood them and what they would have meant to the first readers of the book.

Like nearly all of the symbols in the book of Revelation, these are complex and function at different levels of meaning, being drawn from multiple strands of tradition. I would isolate four aspects, or sources, in particular.

Mythological. There can be no real doubt that the figures of the Dragon and the creature from the Sea are drawn from ancient Near Eastern myth—specifically, tales of a great conflict between God and the Sea. This is a cosmological myth, meaning that it relates to the creation of the universe and the establishment of the current created order. The personified Sea represents the primordial waters, a dark and chaotic mass, which, according to the basic ancient Near Eastern cosmology, was the original state of the universe prior to the establishment of the created order by the Deity (cp. Genesis 1:2, etc). The subduing and defeat of the Sea was, in many ways, the central event of establishing order, and, with it, the Deity’s control over the life-giving waters. There are vestiges of this common cosmological myth throughout the Old Testament, but only two more or less direct allusions, in Psalm 74:13-14 and Isa 27:1 (cf. also Job 26:13) The form-pattern of the Dragon and Sea-creature in Revelation 12-13, the Serpent-figure with seven heads, is similarly found in a variety of ancient myths, most notably in the Canaanite Baal Epic—the Sea’s ally L£t¹n¥ (OT /t*y`w=l!, Leviathan). I discuss this myth-type in a separate article (in the “Ancient Parallels” series).

Typological. The Earth-Sea image paradigm in Revelation 12-13 is envisioned as two distinct realms, located side by side with a boundary in between. The Dragon is situated on a strip of territory on the boundary between the two (12:18). This dual-construct is both spatial/visual and conceptual. And, it would seem that, conceptually, the “Earth” represents the realm populated by human beings, i.e. the inhabited world as we know it. On the other hand, the “Sea” in this regard is a more complex symbol, one which relates to the mythological aspect discussed above. As a type, the “Sea” represents the realm of chaos, danger, disorder, and violence at the border of the known world. As such it has a typological connection with the forces of evil and death. In Old Testament tradition, this is expressed by the tumult of raging, destructive waters which threaten people living nearby. This violent tumult served as a fitting symbol for the military attack of enemy nations, along with the chaos/disorder that ensues from it. Thus the Sea (and its waters) was frequently used in the Prophets as an image of the danger posed to Israel, etc, from the surrounding nations (and their rulers)—cf. Isa 8:7; 17:12-13; Jer 46:7-8; 51:55). Ultimately, however, it is YHWH with his control over the waters who has control over these “raging waters” of the nations (Isa 28:2; Jer 10:13; 51:16; Ezek 26:19).

Scriptural Tradition. The visions in chapter 13 also draw on specific Scripture passages, contributing both to the essential shape of the visions, as well to a number of particular details. These have already been discussed, but we may summarize here again the most noteworthy examples:

    • The framework of the visions themselves comes from the Daniel 7 vision (vv. 2-8, 15-25)
    • The blasphemous speaking and arrogance of the Sea-creature (13:5-6ff), with its persecution of the righteous/believers, is a reflection of the specific ruler-figure prophesied in Daniel 7:25; 9:26-27; 11:36ff—generally regarded as referring to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, it was interpreted by early Christians as a future/eschatological reference to their own time (Mark 13:14; 2 Thess 2:3-12)
      • This figure is part of a wider Old Testament tradition of the boastful/arrogant foreign ruler who would put himself in the position of God (cf. the various nation-oracles in the Prophets, esp. Isa 14:13ff and Ezek 28:2ff)
    • The image of the Sea-creature (13:13-15) reflects Nebuchadnezzar’s statue in the Daniel 3 episode
    • The mark of the Sea-creature (vv. 16-18), as a contrast to the mark on the faithful believers (7:3; 14:1), likely alludes to Ezekiel 9:4ff
    • The Earth-creature functions as a miracle-working false prophet (v. 13), an antitype of the prophet Elijah (allusions to the Elijah traditions, 1 Kings 18:24, 37-38; 2 Kings 1:10-12)

Historical Context. The author and his readers lived in Asia Minor, in a province of the Roman Empire. As such, the historical context of Roman imperial rule certainly influenced the symbolism of the visions. This is true of many details in the vision; but let us consider more broadly the figures of the two creatures coming from the Sea and Earth, respectively. With an understanding of the Earth as the realm of the inhabited world (cf. above), Roman rule at the end of the first century A.D. practically extended to the furthest reaches of the earth, as known by people at the time. However, the association of Rome with the sea is more significant for an understanding of the vision. The Roman empire’s power was largely the result of its control of the sea, both militarily and commercially. So complete was their dominion over the Mediterranean, in particular, that the Romans called it “our sea” (mare nostrum). In territories such as Asia Minor (especially in cities and regions nearer the coast), people would certainly have associated the establishment of Roman control as coming by way of the adjoining Sea (as in the visions of Rev 13). In Jewish tradition, Rome was identified with the ancient maritime power of the Kittim (originally referring to Phoenician influence in the Mediterranean, including the island of Cyprus); similarly, in 2/4 Esdras, generally contemporary with the book of Revelation, Rome is depicted symbolically as a great creature (an eagle) from the Sea (11:1). Cf. Koester, pp. 569, 580.


Let us now bring these different strands together and see how these symbolic figures relate in the setting of the visions.

The Dragon. The “Fabulous Creature” (dra/kwn), a snake-like hybrid creature with seven heads, represents the forces of evil, and is explicitly identified with the Evil One (Devil/Satan) in the text (12:9), so there is little question about its meaning.

The Sea-Creature. The creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) that comes up from the Sea clearly resembles the Dragon, having a similar appearance. Moreover, the Dragon’s presence at the edge of the Sea, along with the Sea-creature following the Dragon in its “making war” against believers, shows that it acts under the influence of the Dragon—that is, under the control of Satan and the forces of evil. The mythological, typological, and Scriptural aspects of the symbolism (cf. above) would have identified this creature from the Sea as an opponent/adversary of God, and the details of the visions bear this out, especially in the creature’s persecution of the people of God (believers). However, the realm of this creature is the Sea, not the Earth—that is to say, its normal realm is not that of the inhabited world (of human beings). In terms of the historical context, this aspect is realized in the sense that this creature represents a foreign power (i.e. the Roman empire) coming to the land (i.e. Asia Minor) from the sea. In the Daniel 7 vision, the beasts coming up out of the sea are specifically interpreted as kingdoms, and this may be inferred here as well, though not made explicit as such until later in the book. Many commentators believe that the detail of the head which was healed/restored from an apparent fatal blow is an allusion to the legend of Nero’s return.

The Earth-Creature. The creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) that comes up from the Earth has a different appearance, more closely resembling a normal earthly creature (a lamb). Only the detail of its two horns, and the way that it speaks (like the Dragon) indicate its evil character. If the Daniel 8 vision is in view, then the Earth-creature also represents an earthly king/kingdom, but one more precisely localized regionally and in historical terms. Based on the symbolism of the Earth here as the inhabited world of human beings, we must envision an actual earthy kingdom or government. In the historical context of the book (and the Roman empire), the creature would represent the functioning local governments of Asia Minor. However, since the Earth-creature acts to establish the rule of the Sea-creature (on earth), this would mean the local administration insofar as it acts under the authority of the Roman government, to establish the imperial rule in the provinces. On a broader level of symbolism, the Earth-creature represents the earthly manifestation of mythic-evil power. The Earth-creature is a miracle-working false prophet who deceives people with supernatural power.

The Image of the Sea-Creature. Ultimately it is through the presence of the living image of the Sea-creature that the rule of the Sea-creature is established on earth. The people inhabiting the earth construct the image, and it is then empowered by the evil ‘magic’ of the Earth-creature. It is the image of the Sea-creature, and not the Earth-creature, that commands the people on earth. This is an important aspect of the dynamic which is not always understood by readers (and is obscured in many translations). The allusion to idolatry is clear enough—i.e. an earthly image of mythic-evil power—but it is the Scriptural and historical aspects which are more prominent, especially (1) the Nebuchadnezzar statue (and other Danielic traditions), and (2) as a representation of Roman imperial administration. Both lines of tradition essentially relate to earthly ruling powers which seek to establish obedience and veneration from the populace as a means of rule. Most commentators correctly identify a strong allusion to the contemporary Imperial cult, well-established and widespread in the provinces by the end of the first century A.D. That, indeed, should be seen as the primary reference. The cult was manifest both in the civic/political realm (images, temples, public celebrations) and the commercial (the mark/stamp on coinage, etc). Believers would be confronted with these cultic symbols and associations on a regular basis, part of a recognized atmosphere of pervasive evil and conflict (i.e. opposition to God and Christ), even if it did not necessarily result in believers being arrested or put to death. The connection of the Sea-creature (and its image) with Rome and the Imperial cult is made more precise in subsequent visions, which will be examined in due course.

An interpretation of these symbols with the contemporary situation of Roman Imperial rule in Asia Minor seems clear enough. This is surely not the full extent of the symbolism; however, even commentators who adopt a modern-futurist approach to the visions (and those in Daniel), recognize the allusions to the Roman Empire (thus the various theories regarding a new or “revived” Roman Empire in modern times). An examination of these various interpretative approaches and systems must wait until the conclusion of this series of notes, but it is well to begin widening the scope of our study, especially as we will face increasingly complex and difficult issues involving the remaining visions of the book. This I hope to do, starting with the upcoming notes on chapter 14.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 14

Psalm 14

This is another short Psalm focusing on the theme of YHWH acting to bring justice against the wicked (and on behalf of the righteous). Here, however, it consists almost entirely of a description of the wicked; there is an implicit contrast with the righteous (vv. 5ff, cf. also the next study on Psalm 15) at work which is generally characteristic of Wisdom traditions.

The superscription identifies it as another Davidic composition, with no other musical direction. Psalm 14 is very close to Psalm 53, suggesting that both stem from a single original composition; the relationship between the two, and the textual differences, will be addressed in the future study on Ps 53.

The meter of Psalm 14 is mixed, though it tends to follow a 3+2 bicolon format, especially in the first section. Structurally and thematically, the Psalm may be divided into three sections:

    • Verses 1-3: A description of the wicked as those who disregard God
    • Verses 4-6: The actions of the wicked against God’s people (i.e. the righteous/faithful ones)
    • Verse 7: A call for YHWH to act, bringing justice/deliverance for His people

Verses 1-3

“A foolish person says in his heart (that)
‘There is no Mightiest (One)!’
They are decayed (and) show detestable behavior—
there is no (one) doing good!”

Verse 1 consists of a pair of 3+2 couplets, with an interesting sort of parallelism. The first (3-beat) line of each bicolon gives a dramatic and harsh description, both of the inner thoughts (line 1) and outward actions (line 3) of the wicked. The characterization of the wicked as “foolish, senseless” (lb*n`) places this Psalm fully in the ancient Near Eastern (and Israelite) Wisdom tradition. While the inner thoughts (“in his heart”) may be foolish, they result in corruption (vb tj^v*) and detestable acts (vb bu^T*). The noun hl*yl!a& is an abstract (and comprehensive) term referring to a person’s behavior—in particular, how one deals with others—almost always in a profoundly negative sense. Often it connotes mistreatment or exploitation of others. The wicked are referred to here both with the singular and plural, a feature typical of the Psalms.

The second (2-beat) line of each couplet (lines 2, 4) exhibits a formal parallelism, using the negative/privative particle /ya@ (“there is no”). This sharply characterizes the wicked, similarly shifting from the inner thoughts (“there is no Mightiest One [i.e. God]”) to a summary description of behavior (“there is no one doing good”). The statement reflecting the wicked person’s thought does not necessarily mean that the person is an atheist, as modern-day readers might assume. Rather, it indicates that such people behave as if there were no God (<yh!ýa$, “Mightiest One”) to judge or punish their actions.

“YHWH looks out from (the) heavens
(down) upon the sons of man,
to see—Is there any (one who is) discerning,
(any one) seeking the Mightiest?”

Verse 2 has another pair of 3+2 couplets, but exhibiting a more traditional kind of parallelism. The first bicolon presents the picturesque image of YHWH looking out from the window of his heavenly palace down onto the earth below. However, this colorful detail expresses two more serious points: the all-seeing character of YHWH, and the apparent separation between God and humankind. The second couplet, which represents the purpose of YHWH’s looking out from heaven, also answers the 2-beat statements from verse 1 (in the form of a question):

    • “there is no one doing good” (v. 1d)
      • “is there any one who is discerning?” (v. 2c)
      • “(is there any) one seeking the Mightiest?” (v. 2d)
    • “(the fool says…) “there is no Mightiest (One)” (v. 1b)

Verse 3 concludes this section:

“They all have turned aside, corrupted as one—
there is no (one) doing good, there is not even one!”

This verse can either be read as four 2-beat lines (2+2+2+2) or two 4-beat lines (4+4); it is easier to present it visually as the latter. This is a dramatic restatement of the second couplet of verse 1 (lines 3-4, above). Here, in verse 3, each line (or couplet) involves parallel use of dja / djy to make its climactic point. dj*a# literally means “one”, and the related verb dj^y`, to “be one”, or “become one/united”. The first statement (v. 3a) indicates the solidarity and united character of humankind (in its wickedness), “one” meant in a collective sense. The second statement (v. 3b) makes the same point, but focusing on each individual person (“there is no one…not even one”). The apparent absoluteness of this dual-declaration should not be misunderstood. Certainly there are those (i.e. the righteous/faithful ones) who are doing good and seeking God—the Psalms regularly indicate this—however, viewed from a distance, it certainly seems as though all of the population is corrupt. It is something of a rhetorical exaggeration, used to make a point; however, Paul famously takes the idea more literally when he cites verses 1 and 3 together in Romans 3:10-12. His point is that all of humankind has been in bondage under the power of sin. We must be cautious about reading Paul’s use of Psalm 14 back into the original meaning/context of the Hebrew composition.

Verses 4-6

The text of verses 4-6 is a bit more difficult, both in terms of structure and its wording/phrasing. Verse 4 is the most problematic in terms of meter. I am inclined to view it fundamentally as another 3+2 bicolon that has been expanded, with a parenthetical statement, into a tricolon:

“Do they not know, all (those) making trouble—
(the one)s eating up His people (as) they eat bread—
(is it) not YHWH they confront?”

The intermediate line creates tension within the couplet that is artistically meaningful, a discordant note which reveals the nature of the wicked person’s action—that is, it is aimed against the people of God (i.e. the righteous, faithful ones). The image is one of harsh and violent action, “eating” or consuming the righteous, as one devours bread (<j#l#). I think it likely here that yM!u^ preserves an older 3rd-person singular suffix y– (i.e. “his people”), which otherwise coincides with the regular 1st person suffix (“my people”). In NW Semitic, the y– 3rd-person singular suffix is best known from the Phoenician evidence; cf. Dahood (pp. 10-11) for other possible examples of its preservation in Hebrew.

I read the closing verb form War*q* as deriving from the root ar*q* II (“meet, encounter”), rather than ar*q* I (“call”). This root ar*q* II can be used of meeting someone in a hostile sense (or with hostile intent), i.e. as confronting an enemy in battle, etc. This seems to fit better the overall context here. The typical reading of the line (assuming ar*q* I) would be “they (who) do not call on YHWH”. While this perhaps better matches the use/position of the negative particle (), it is hard to square with the rhetorical question raised in line 1. Admitting certain syntactical difficulties, I would understand the sense of the verse to be: Do they not know that in attacking His people they are actually confronting YHWH Himself?

“There—(see now) the fear (that) they should fear ,
for the Mightiest (is) in the circle of the just;
(and so) the council of the oppressed will bring him [i.e. the wicked] to shame,
for YHWH (is) his [i.e. the righteous’] place of shelter.

Verses 5-6 actually represent a relatively straightforward bicolon pair (again following the 3+2 pattern). However, the wording/phrasing used makes a precise interpretation difficult. There is ambiguity or confusion in the person/number agreement; however, this is not all that uncommon in Hebrew poetry. In particular, when dealing with the wicked (and also the righteous), one can alternate between referring to them in the singular and plural (cf. on verse 1 above). Conceptually, the thought expressed in these lines is also complicated by the interlocking parallelism, which overlaps between the cola (i.e. across the poetic rhythm of the lines).

To begin with, the first line of each couplet (lines 1 and 3) expresses the fate of the wicked, which, for them, will be rather unexpected. Line 1 introduces this abruptly with the particle <v* (“there”), followed by a cognate verb + noun coupling which functions as an intensive (“they feared a fear”, “the fear the feared”, i.e. how greatly they [should] fear!). That is to say, the wicked are quite unaware of just how much they should fear the judgment of YHWH. In line 3, the idea is that the wicked will be unexpectedly humiliated by the very people whom they have been oppressing. I am inclined to point wvybt as a form with the 3rd person suffix, since the 2nd person form of the MT (Wvyb!t*) is rather out of place here (cf. Dahood, p. 82).

There is also an inner parallel between lines 2 and 3, with the expressions “circle of the just” and “council of the oppressed”. The noun roD is often translated “generation”, but more properly refers to a “circle” or “cycle”; I here render it in this more literal sense of a collection of people, i.e. gathered in a circle. This forms a clear parallel with hx*u@ (here “council”), that is, a group of people gathered together for a specific purpose (cp. its use in Psalm 1:1). The substantive adjectives qyD!x* (“just, right[eous]”) and yn]u* (“beaten/pressed down, oppressed, afflicted”) also form a precise parallel.

Finally, we have the parallelism of the second lines in each couplet (lines 2 and 4), which emphasize YHWH’s protective presence with the righteous:

    • “the Mightiest [i.e. God, <yh!ýa$] is in the circle of the just”
    • “YHWH is his [i.e. the oppressed person’s] place of shelter [hs#j=m^]”

Verse 7

“Who will give salvation (to) Yisra’el from (out of) ‚iyyôn?
(It is) in YHWH’s turning back the turning back of His people
(that) Ya’aqob will (dance) around (and) Yisra’el will find joy.”

The final verse is best read as a 4-beat tricolon, which stands as a final declaration of hope and promise for God’s people. It is expressed in specific religious-cultural language that contrasts with the more general Wisdom language in the rest of the Psalm. The idea of God’s people (the righteous) is now localized in terms of Israel and Zion (i.e. Jerusalem). It is is the central line that explains the verse, with its description of YHWH’s action in answer to the question “who will give salvation to Israel…?” (line 1). We have an intensive cognate verb + noun coupling, as in verse 5 (cf. above). The particular verb here is bWv, with the basic meaning “turn (back), return”. Often this is used in the sense of people repenting and “turning back” to God; here, however, it is better understood in terms of YHWH restoring the fortunes of His people; the intensive construction would mean something like “YHWH turning back (things for) his people completely“. The faithful ones who have been oppressed by the wicked, will now be given justice by God, and will no longer be mistreated. In this sense “salvation” means deliverance from the hands of the wicked. Originally, this language would have derived from within a royal/national context—i.e. the covenant between YHWH and His people (and their king), which includes promises of protection from enemies, etc. However, in the Psalm as we have it, the scope has widened to embrace a more universal aspect (the righteous vs. the wicked) typical of Wisdom literature and the religious-ethical messages of the Prophets. This blending of royal/national and Wisdom elements is actually a common feature of the Psalms.

Saturday Series: 1 John 4:1-6

This week, in our series of studies on the Johannine Letters, we will be examining 1 John 4:1-6. The stated purpose of these Saturday Studies is to introduce readers to the principles and methods of a critical study of the Scriptures (i.e. Biblical Criticism), and how these may apply in practice. In looking at 1 John 4:1-6, we will be focusing primarily on historical criticism—that is, on establishing the historical background and context of the passage. However, on at least one point of interpretation, a major text-critical issue will have to be addressed. Also, in considering the place of 4:1-6 in the structure of the work, we will be touching on aspects of literary criticism as well.

1 John 4:1-6

When considering the structure of First John, from a conceptual standpoint, we may note the way that certain themes alternate throughout as a point of emphasis. The main thrust of the letter involves sin (hamartía) and the “commands” (entolaí) of God. This was the focus of 2:28-3:10, which we examined closely in the previous two studies (last week and the week prior). The entolaí of God are actually reduceable to a single two-fold command, defined in 3:23-24: (1) trust in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, and (2) love for fellow believers according to Jesus’ own teaching and example. Each of these two components of the command for believers is given particular emphasis in different parts of the letter.

As far as the letter itself is concerned, we may fairly divide the body of it into two main divisions, each of which begins with the declaration “this is the message which (we heard)…” (haút¢ estin h¢ angelía h¢n…):

    • Part 1: “this is the message which have heard from (the beginning)” (1:5-3:10) – Main theme: Light vs. Darkness
    • Part 2: “this is the message which we heard from the beginning” (3:11-5:12) – Main theme: Love as the great Command

Part 1 is framed by a discussion of sin and the believer, sin in relation to the “commands” of God:

    • 1:6-2:2: Sin and the identity of the Believer: Jesus’ work cleanses us from sin
    • 2:3-11: The Believer’s identity in terms of the “commands” of God, with special emphasis on love
    • 2:12-17: “Children [teknía]…”: Exhortation for Believers to live/act according to their identity, and not like the world (which is in darkness)
    • 2:18-27: “Children [paidía]…”: Warning of “antichrist”- Identity of Believers is marked by true belief/trust in Jesus
    • 2:28-3:10: “Children [teknía]…”: Sin and the identity of the Believer – restated in a dual instruction.

Part 2 essentially functions as an exposition of the “commands”, i.e. the two-fold command:

    • 3:12-24: Love characterizes the believer (vs. those who “hate”)
      • Exhortation (“Children [teknía]…”), vv. 18-22
      • Declaration on the “commands”, vv. 23-24
    • 4:1-6: Trust in Jesus characterizes the believer (vs. those who have false trust/belief)
      • Exhortation (“Children [teknía]…”), vv. 4-6
    • 4:7-5:4: Love characterizes the believer – restatement in a dual instruction
      • Exhortation & Declaration on the “commands”, 5:1-4
    • 5:5-12: Trust in Jesus characterizes the believer – restatement in a two-part instruction

Thus the teaching in 4:1-6 ( on trust/belief in Jesus) runs parallel to that on love in 3:12-24, with a doctrinal/theological statement or argument (vv. 1-3) followed by an exhortation (vv. 4-6). We will examine the doctrinal argument first.

1 John 4:1

“Loved (one)s, you must not trust every spirit, but you must (instead) consider the spirits (closely)—if (one) is out of [i.e. from] God (or not)—(in) that [i.e. because] many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

The first occurrence of the noun pneúma (“spirit”) was at the conclusion of the previous verse (3:24), making explicit what had otherwise been implied in the letter: that the abiding presence of Jesus (and God the Father) in and among believers is through the Spirit. Now the author contrasts the Spirit of God (and Christ) with other “spirits” (pl. pneúmata). This underscores an aspect of early Christian thought that is rather foreign to us today. It was believed that people (especially gifted persons and leaders, etc) spoke and acted more or less under the guidance and influence of a “spirit”. For Christian ministers, and believers in general, they were guided by the Holy Spirit; and, by the same token, if it was not the Holy Spirit at work, then it must be another (that is, an evil, false or deceiving) spirit. In this regard, the first-century Christian congregations were largely charismatic in orientation, with ministers, leaders, speakers operating under the direct inspiration of the Spirit. Paul’s letters (especially 1 Corinthians) offer a fairly detailed portrait of how such early congregations would have functioned.

An obvious question is exactly how one could determine and be sure that a minister or speaker was genuinely operating under the guidance of the Spirit. How was this to be tested? Here the author of 1 John provides instruction similar in some ways to that offered by Paul in 1 Cor 12:3. It has to do with a true confession of faith in Jesus Christ.

You may recall in an earlier study (on 2:18-27), we established that, in large part, the letter appears to have been written to warn the congregations against certain persons who had separated from the wider Community (“they went out of us”, v. 19a). These same persons are surely in view here as well, characterized as “false prophets” (pseudoproph¢¡tai). I normally translate the noun proph¢¡t¢s as “foreteller”, rather than using the English transliteration “prophet”. However, it is important to understand the term in its early Christian context, based on its fundamental meaning, as someone who “says/shows (something) before [pró]”, either in the sense of saying something beforehand (i.e. before it happens), or in front of (i.e. in the presence of) others. The latter meaning more properly corresponds to both the Hebrew word n¹»î°, and to the general Christian usage. The proph¢¡t¢s serves as God’s spokesperson, declaring and making known the word and will of God to others. As such it was one of the highest gifts that could be given (by the Spirit), available to all believers, but especially to chosen ministers (Acts 2:16-18; 1 Cor 12:28; 14:1ff; Rom 12:6; Eph 2:20). This may indicate that those who separated from the Community (some of them, at any rate) were ministers or other prominent figures who functioned as “prophets”. That they are “false” means that, according to the author, they do not speak under the guidance of the Spirit, but of another “spirit” —i.e., an evil spirit.

There are likely two levels of meaning to the statement that these “false prophets” have gone “out into the world”. First, “into the world” is essentially the same as “out of us” in 2:19, since the “world” (kósmos) in Johannine usage tends to signify the realm of evil and darkness that is opposed to the realm of light (God, Christ, and true believers). These persons have departed from the Community of true believers, showing themselves to be false and not genuine believers at all. Secondly, going out “into the world” could suggest that they are functioning as itinerant, traveling ministers. It is hard for readers today to appreciate how prevalent, and potentially problematic, this dynamic was for Christians in the first two centuries. In an age of slow communication, and without an established collection of authoritative Christian writings, authority in the 1st-century Church largely depended on two factors: (1) the personal pedigree of ministers, and (2) manifestation of Spirit-inspired gifts and abilities. Determining the reliability of traveling ministers could be difficult on both counts. We will discuss this point further when we come to the study of 2 and 3 John.

1 John 4:2

“In this you (can) know the Spirit of God: every spirit that gives account as one (with us) of Yeshua (the) Anointed having come in flesh is out of [i.e. from] God;”

Here the word “spirit” (pneúma) is used two different, but interconnected, ways: the spirit of the person speaking, and the Spirit which guides/inspires the speech. To say that there are many different “spirits” means that there are many distinct people who may speak and act. However, for the author, it is probably better to think of just two Spirits—the Spirit of Truth (which is the Holy Spirit of God) and the Spirit of Falsehood/Deceit. This is fully in accord with the dualism of the Johannine Writings (both Gospel and Letters), and the same sort of dualism is also found in other Jewish writings of the period (such as the Qumran texts, see especially the Community Rule [1QS 3:17-21, etc]). The Spirit of Falsehood is also that of the Evil One (or Satan) who is the effective Ruler of the dark realm of the “world”. What distinguishes the True from the False is ultimately centered on the truth of Jesus—who he is and what he has done. This Christological framework of of truth vs. falsehood, is, from the standpoint of the Johannine writings, also the same as the fundamental definition of sin (on this point, see the previous studies on 2:28-3:10).

In 2:18ff, the false view of Jesus was simply described as failing/refusing to affirm (vb arnéomai) that Jesus is the Anointed One (Christós), characterizing it fundamentally as antíchristos (“against the Anointed”), vv. 22-23. In the context of the Johannine congregations, this wording seems peculiar, since, presumably, all believers (and supposed believers) would have affirmed that Jesus was both the Anointed One and the Son of God. But what is precisely meant by such an affirmation? Here, in 4:2-3, we have clearer sense of what the issue was for the author of 1 John. It involves giving a “common account” (vb. homologéœ) of, i.e. acknowledging together with all other true believers, Jesus Christ having coming in the flesh (en sarkí el¢lýthota). Some commentators would identify this ‘false’ view of Jesus as docetic. Docetism (from Greek dokéœ) is a rather obscure term that refers to the idea that Jesus as the Son of God only appeared or seemed to be a flesh-and-blood human being. It is usually associated with certain so-called “Gnostic” groups and writings of the second and third centuries. Unfortunately, based on this statement alone, it is impossible to determine the exact nature of the Christology that is opposed by the author of 1 John. It requires a careful study of the remainder of the letter, which we are doing here inductively, assembling the available information piece by piece.

1 John 4:3

“and every spirit that does not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua is not out of [i.e. from] God—and this is the (spirit) th(at is) against the Anointed [antíchristos], of which you have heard that it comes, and is now already in the world.”

The declaration in v. 3b confirms that we are dealing with the same situation as earlier in 2:18-27. The false view of Jesus, held and proclaimed (apparently) by those who separated from the Community, is called antíchristos (“against the Anointed”). Both here and in 2:18, the author appears to be drawing upon an early version of the Antichrist tradition, derived from earlier Jewish sources (the book of Daniel, and other writings), but given a special significance within Christian eschatology. Even so, we do not know precisely what is in mind, other than that “antichrist” is something (or someone) who will appear in the last days prior to the end. Clearly the author believes he and his readers are living in the last days (“last hour”, 2:18). This eschatological tradition is being re-interpreted and applied by the author to the specific situation facing the Johannine congregations at the time of his writing. These “false prophets” who separated from the Community are inspired by the Spirit of “Antichrist”, and are a functioning embodiment of that evil power. The presence of false prophets and false/deceiving spirits were thought to be a distinctive marker of the last days (1 Tim 4:1; Mark 13:5ff, 21-22 par; 2 Thess 2:9-11; Revelation 2:20; 13:11ff; 16:13-14; 19:20).

And what is it about their view of Jesus that marks these people as “antichrist”? Unfortunately, the matter is not so clear at this point, since there are two forms of the text of v. 3a—one which uses the verb homologéœ (as in v. 2), and one which instead has the verb lýœ (“loose[n]”, i.e. “dissolve”). Here are the two forms:

    • “every spirit that does not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó m¢ homologeí ton I¢soún)
    • “every spirit that looses [i.e. dissolves] Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó lýei ton I¢soún)

I would ask you to give consideration as to what the second version (with the verb lýœ) might mean here in the context of 1 John. In our next study, we will continue the discussion of this passage, looking at the text-critical question in v. 3 in more detail, as well as examining the remaining verses (vv. 4-6). In addition, we will explore briefly how the instruction in both 3:11-24 and 4:1-6 is expounded in the following sections of the letter (4:7-5:12).

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

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

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

The Day of the Lord—the “Day of YHWH”

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

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

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

2 Thessalonians 2:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 3-4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This person is also characterized by the participial phrase:

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

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

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

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

Verses 5-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 11-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

October 21: Revelation 13:16-18

Revelation 13:11-18, continued

In verses 13-15 (discussed in the previous note), the creature from the Earth establishes control over the people on earth, on behalf of the creature from the Sea, by effectively forcing them to worship an image (ei)kw/n) of the Sea-creature. This living image, animating by the magical-prophetic power of the Earth-creature, functions as the Sea-creature’s living and ruling representative on the earth. This refers to the civic/political realm of government. Now, in verses 16-18, the Sea-creature’s control is established in the commercial/economic sphere as well. The economic control comes by way of a “mark” (xa/ragma), the so-called “mark of the Beast”. Perhaps no detail in the entire book has been subject to so much unbridled speculation throughout the centuries. To some extent the book itself is to blame for this, in the cryptic and provocative way the matter is presented in verse 18 (cf. below), seeming to invite all manner of speculation (much of which has been dubious and ill-founded, to say the least). For this reason, it is especially important to begin with a careful reading of the text and how it likely would have been understood by Christians in the late-1st century.

Revelation 3:16

“And he makes all (people)—the small and the great, the rich and the poor, the free and the slave—(so) that they should receive an engraved (mark) [xa/ragma] upon their receiving [i.e. right] hand or upon the (space) between their eyes…”

This description is clear enough. The only real question is whether the subject of poiei= (“he makes”) is the Earth-creature or the living image of the Sea-creature; the latter is to be preferred on the basis of the overall scenario, whereby it is the image that rules on earth as the Sea-creature’s representative (cf. the discussion in the previous note). In any case, every person on earth is given a xa/ragma, either on their right hand or on the middle of their forehead (“between the eyes”). The noun xa/ragma properly refers to something that is engraved into a surface, but can include the result of branding or stamping as well, along with more generalized use to indicate a “mark” or “sign”. Probably the more immediate reference here is to branding, as might occur for slaves or captured/defeated enemies, etc. There are examples of branding in a religious setting as well (cf. below). Some have thought that the specific reference to the hand and forehead could be an allusion to the Jewish phylacteries, in which the text of God’s command was ‘bound’ to a person, marking their religious identity and devotion.

Revelation 13:17

“…even (so) that no one would be able to go to the market-place (to purchase) or to sell (anything), if th(is person) was not holding the engraved (mark with) the name of the wild animal or the number of his name.”

The practical effect of this order is expressed by a pair of infinitives governed by the negative expression mh/ ti$ du/natai (“no one would be able [to]…”):

    • a)gora/sai, literally “go to the market-place”, the a)gora/ being the public square where commercial business (buying/selling) was being done. Here the verb also has the specific denotation of purchasing something (at the market-palce).
    • pwlh=sai, to deal in goods, to exchange, trade, sell, etc—that is, from the standpoint of the dealer or merchant (i.e. seller).

The principal statement thus is a comprehensive reference covering all kinds of commercial business (buying/selling/trading). No one would be able to engage in any such business if that person was not holding on their body the previously mentioned engraved mark (xa/ragma). An articular participle is used to express this (o( e&xw/n, “the [one] holding”), signifying the basic character and identity of the person. Implied here is that receiving the mark indicates the person’s identity as one who belongs to the Sea-creature and accepts his rule. There would seem to be three primary strands to the background of this imagery:

    • As a direct parallel to the seal given to believers, on the forehead, which marks them as belonging to God (lit. “slaves of God”) in the vision of chapter 7 (vv. 3ff). The seal refers to an engraved image stamped into a soft surface (of clay, wax, lead, etc), especially used to indicate that a particular document, etc, belongs to an individual. In 14:1, this seal is defined in terms of the name of the Lamb (and of God the Father) written on the believer’s forehead. Thus the basic imagery is identical—only here in chapter 13 it conveys just the opposite: that non-believers belong to the Sea-creature (and the Dragon). Ultimately, this idea likely derives from Ezekiel 9:4, or from a corresponding underlying tradition.
    • Roman imperial coinage was stamped with the image of the emperor, along with honorific/divine names and titles, and other symbols representing imperial power and/or associated with the imperial cult. Such a coin-stamp into metal could be called a xa/ragma. The obvious connection of coins with commercial activity throughout the empire makes this a key aspect of the symbolism. The very handling of such coins venerating the emperor forced Christians into the sort of ethical quandary that Jews in the Greco-Roman world had been facing for several centuries.
    • The specific act of branding of persons in a pagan religious setting. There is an example cited in 3 Maccabees 2:28-29 that is close in meaning to the scenario in Rev 13:13-18. Jews in Alexandria (3rd century B.C.) were required to have the image of an ivy-leaf, sign of the god Dionysus, branded on their bodies, and those who refused this were put to death (cf. Koester, p. 595).

Neither at the time the book of Revelation was written, nor in the following two centuries, were Christians intentionally barred from commercial activity along the lines described here in the vision. So, then, how should this be understood? Given the pervasiveness of the imperial cult throughout society, including within the economic sphere, believers in the provinces (of Asia Minor, etc) were already being forced to recognize, and in some sense accept, the symbols of the cult as an established and ordinary part of daily life. It was a simple enough matter to envision a more coercive application of this established order, especially in the setting of the period of intense persecution anticipated in these visions. The viewpoint of the book of Revelation was that the entire Roman imperial establishment, as an embodiment of worldly and Satanic rule, was fundamentally wicked. It was already corrupting and controlling people even without the universal coercive measures described in the chap. 13 visions.

Revelation 13:18

“Here is wisdom: the (one) holding a mind (to reason) must work (out) with pebbles [i.e. compute] th(is) number of the wild animal—for it is (the) number of a man, and his number (is) six-hundred sixty six.”

How much simpler would a study of this vision (and the book of Revelation as a whole) be without this verse! It has resulted in all manner of speculation, much of it quite unhealthy. And, in spite what the author/visionary says at the start of the verse, it has proven virtually impossible for Christians to solve this numeric riddle in any meaningful or convincing way. At least this is so for Christians living after the first century, since already by the mid/late-second century a knowledgeable author such as Irenaeus, so well-informed regarding early tradition, can only make vague guesses as to its meaning (Against Heresies V.30). We might assume that believers living around the time of the book’s writing (late-1st century), and members of the circle of congregations (in Asia Minor) to whom it was addressed, may have had a clearer sense of what was intended; but, if so, that is now lost to us today.

All that we can be sure of is that the numerical cypher involved a process referred to as gematria, best known from its application by Jewish writers and commentators as a mode of interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures. In both Hebrew and Greek, letters of the alphabet were used to represent numbers, meaning that individual words and phrases carried a certain numeric value, obtained by adding up the letters. This is why the author/seer instructs his audience to compute (lit. adding by “using pebbles”) the number of the engraved name. Even though the various figures and images used throughout the book of Revelation are symbolic, and, for the most part, do not necessarily refer to a specific person or thing, here it would seem that the author does have in mind a specific name. The directive to compute the name would result in a specious bit of symbolism if a definite name were not involved. However, there are still a number of ways one might interpret the idea of specific name here; these can be reduced to two primary approaches:

    • The name is still symbolic, i.e. it does not necessarily refer to a specific historical person. Admittedly, the author does say that “it is the number of a man”, but this could simply mean that it is a human name serving as the symbol, just as the territorial name of “Babylon” is used in subsequent visions.
    • The name is meant refer to a concrete individual, presumably a particular ruler, perhaps a specific Roman emperor.

The direction given by the author to his audience—i.e. those living in Asia Minor at the time—would be virtually meaningless if it did not refer to a name/person that could be identified. This fact generally invalidates any interpretive approach that requires discovery of the name by Christians living hundreds (or thousands) of years later. Perhaps the most common solution to the numeric riddle, accepted by many commentators as being at least the most plausible to date, is that it represents a transliteration in Hebrew of “Nero Caesar” (rsq /wrn), a form attested in several documents from the first and early-second centuries A.D. This would fit the basic setting and background of the book, including imagery that likely draws (in part) on legends surrounding Nero (as will be discussed further in subsequent notes). However, the main problem is that this theory assumes that the Greek-speaking audience of the book would be familiar enough with Hebrew to make such a calculation, and this is far from certain (cf. the explanation of Hebrew words in 9:11; 16:16). A computation involving a particular Greek name would be more likely.

In several manuscripts (Ë115 C) and other ancient witnesses, the number cited in verse 18 is 616 rather than 666. This has given rise to the possibility that the intended name is the Greek form of “Gaius Caesar” (Gaio$ Kaisar), which adds up to 616. Gaius (Caligula) was the most notorious emperor of the first century, after Nero. According to Josephus (Antiquities 18.261), Gaius had ordered his statue to be set up in the Jerusalem Temple, making him a kind of 1st-century fulfillment of Antiochus Epiphanes (Dan 9:27; 11:31ff), and a suitable point of reference for the eschatological predictions in Mark 13:14 par; 2 Thess 2:4ff.

For other examples of gematria applied to the specific names of rulers and other leading figures, and as a way to identify them, note e.g., Lucian Alexander 11; Sibylline Oracles 1.137-46, 324-9; 5.1-51; cf. Koester, p. 606.

Given the fact that so much of the imagery in the book of Revelation, especially here in chapter 13 and the visions which follow, is related, at a basic level, to the contemporary reality of the Roman Empire and the Imperial cult, it seems quite plausible that the name/number of the Sea-creature’s mark is that of a Roman emperor (such as Nero or Gaius). If the book of Revelation were written during Nero’s reign, then a veiled reference to him would be quite likely. More probable, however, is that the author intends to compare the Sea-creature’s rule in terms of the wicked emperors Gaius and/or Nero, but cannot mention their names except by hidden code. To name them outright would be both impious and contrary to the symbolic style and artistry of the book. Even Rome itself cannot be mentioned explicitly, but only referred to through certain symbolic details or other names such as “Babylon”.

Admittedly, this is far from a satisfactory solution; however, a more definitive interpretation, such as this is even possible, will have to wait until we have studied the remaining visions in the book which make reference to the Sea-creature and his “mark”. Before proceeding to an examination of the chapter 14 visions, it may be worth summarizing those in chapter 13, especially in terms of the relationship between the two creatures (of Sea and Earth)—this I will do in the next daily note.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2019EschatologyNT_header1a.png

October 19: Revelation 13:13-15

Revelation 13:11-18, continued

The appearance and character of the creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) coming up out of the Earth was described in vv. 11-12 (cf. the previous note); now in vv. 13-18 the creature’s actions are described. These actions are intended to ensure that all people on the earth worship the Sea-creature, and are centered on both an image (ei)kw/n) and ‘mark’ (xa/ragma) of the creature. The image (vv. 13-15) reflects civic pressure to conform, while the ‘mark’ (vv. 16-18) involves commercial pressure. Christians in all times and places have faced pressure (and persecution) on both of these fronts, to varying degrees. And, correspondingly, the symbolism here can have a universal application to believers everywhere. However, we must begin with, and focus primarily on, an examination of this vision from the standpoint of how it would have been understood by the author and Christians (living in Asia Minor) at the time. This is all the more important here, since the details of vv. 13-18 have been subject to all kinds of speculation, much of it quite implausible (even preposterous), and nearly all of it far removed from the original setting of the book.

Revelation 13:13

“And he makes great signs (happen), (so) that he should even make fire step [i.e. come] down out of the heaven (and) onto the earth, in the sight of all men…”

This first statement draws upon the notice in verse 12 that the Earth-creature acts with the authority/ability (e)cousi/a) of the Sea-creature. Literally it was said that the Earth-creature “makes” (poiei=) things happen with that authority, and also makes that authority function on the earth, which is his domain. The same basic verb (poie/w, “do, make”) is used here to clarify something of how this authority and power is made manifest: “he makes [poiei=] great signs [shmei=a mega/la] (happen)”. The noun shmei=on can indeed be used to refer to miracles a person performs, but only so far as they are an indication (and demonstration) of divine/supernatural power. Elsewhere in the book of Revelation shmei=on is used for momentous images seen by the visionary, which are clearly recognized to be of great significance and meaning (12:1, 3; 15:1). However, in 16:14 and 19:20, the plural again occurs in precisely the same context as it does here—for the supernatural power and miracles demonstrated by the creature.

These miracles are understood to be real (i.e. not illusory), performed through the evil (demonic/Satanic) power of the Dragon. This is made clear enough in 16:14, as it is also of the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2:1-12 (see v. 9), an eschatological passage which has much in common with the visions of Rev 13. In 2 Thess 2:9, the “signs” are said to be false (yeu=do$), in the sense that they deceive people and lead them astray. Here, too, the Earth-creature has the nature of a “false prophet”, an association made explicit in the subsequent visions (16:13; 19:20). In particular, the image of bringing down fire from heaven draws upon the famous traditions in the Elijah narratives (1 Kings 18:24, 37-38; 2 Kings 1:10-12). The motif came to be a traditional allusion to prophetic ability and power (Luke 9:54, etc). The idea of fire from heaven also relates to the essential imagery of storm and sky deities (including Zeus in the Greco-Roman world), manifest in, but not limited to, the natural phenomenon of fires being started on earth from bolts of lightning.

In passing, it is worth noting here that miracles and supernatural events often surrounded prominent leaders, as part of the general superstition and religious understanding of the ancient world. In particular, supposed miraculous events involving the Roman emperors were part of the fabric of the Imperial cult. We might mention certain legendary details associated with the emperor Vespasian (Tacitus Histories 1.86; 4.81.1-3; Suetonius Vespasian 5.7; 7.2; cf. Koester, p. 592), whose reign (69-79 A.D.) likely occurred not long before the writing of the book of Revelation.

Revelation 13:14

“…and he makes all the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth go astray through the signs, th(ose) for which power was given to him to make (happen), in the sight of the wild animal, saying to the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth (that they are) to make an image [ei)kw/n] for the wild animal, th(e one) which held a strike of the sword and (yet) lived.”

Here we see the effect of the supernatural “signs” performed by the Earth-creature. It is said that he tells the people of earth to make an image of the Sea-creature, but, in a real sense, this is the result of the signs he performs—that is, the miracles themselves “tell” the people how to act. However, we also have the idea here of people on the earth—some of them, at least—beginning to act in the service of the Earth-creature, which likely implies some level of political or governmental cooperation. The effect of the signs is also describing primarily in the traditional (religious) language of people going astray (“wandering”, vb. plana/w); the same idea is present in 2 Thess 2:10-11, and also characterizes the end-time period of distress in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Mark 13:5-6 par; Matt 24:24), where it is part of a specific warning to believers. The Dragon (i.e. Satan) is characterized (and personified) as one who leads people astray (12:9), that is, promoting falsehood and also inciting people to evil. In 2:20 the verb is used of false teaching by supposed believers (cp. the discussion in 1 John). The verb takes on greater prominence as the eschatological conflict reaches its climax in the later visions of the book (18:23; 19:20; 20:3, 8, 10).

The image (ei)kw/n) that is created depicts the seven-headed Sea-creature (apparently the likeness extends to include the detail of his fatal and miraculously healed wound). The specific wording here can easily be lost in translation; but there is a clear parallel:

    • the Earth-creature is able to make (poih=sai) these great signs happen in the sight of the Sea-creature
    • the people on earth are led to make (poih=sai) an image that visually resembles the Sea-creature

The word ei)kw/n, referring to a copy or that which resembles something (or someone) else, is relatively rare in the New Testament (used 23 times). In all 10 occurrences in Revelation, it refers to this image of the evil Sea-creature (who also resembles the Dragon). The majority of other occurrences are found in the Pauline letters, where it tends to have Christological meaning (see esp. 2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15). Just as Christ is the image of God, so also believers in Christ take on his image. Something of this connotation may be intended here in the Rev 13 visions as well, part of the evil parody of Jesus represented by the two creatures—i.e. non-believers on earth follow after the image of the wicked creature, even as believers conform to the image of Jesus.

Revelation 13:15

“And it was given him to give spirit/breath [pneu=ma] to the image of the wild animal, (so) that the image of the wild animal would even talk and would make (it so) [that], if any would not kiss toward [i.e. worship] the image of the wild animal, they should be killed off.”

The narration here is powerful and evocative; and, in order to avoid misunderstanding, it is necessary to examine each component and detail carefully. First, we should note the three-fold reference to the image (ei)kw/n)—in each occurrence the full expression “the image of the wild animal” is used, repeatedly emphasizing that it is specifically an image of the evil Sea-creature.

“it was given him to give pneu=ma to the image…” The dual use of the same verb (di/dwmi, “give”) is often avoided in translation, but it is important to preserve it here, as a way of reinforcing the idea of the Dragon, Sea-creature, and Earth-creature working in tandem. Power is given by the Dragon to the Sea-creature, who then gives it to the Earth-creature, who, in turn, gives it to the image of the Sea-creature on earth. This reflects a key aspect of the vision which is often overlooked. The domain of the Sea-creature is the Sea, and, in order to exercise his authority fully on the Earth, he needs the cooperation of the Earth-creature. The Earth-creature effectively facilitates the Sea-creature’s control on earth through this image of the Sea-creature.

Here the noun pneu=ma is used in its ordinary sense of “spirit” —i.e. the animating spirit or “breath” that gives life and movement to a living being. An allusion to the Spirit of God may also be intended, as part of the evil parody of the two creatures with Jesus. Believers are moved and given life by the Spirit, while non-believers are controlled by the evil/demonic “spirit” that animates the image of the Creature. Admittedly, references to the Spirit (Pneu=ma) are relatively rare in the book of Revelation, but it would be easy enough for Christian readers here to draw the parallel.

“(so) that the image of the wild animal would even talk” This animating “spirit” makes the image of the Sea-creature come to life (or at least seem to), to the point that it could even talk. This is presumably meant to depict a genuine miracle or supernatural event, rather than a trick, though there are ancient examples of attempts to create the illusion that statues, etc, were moving and talking (e.g., Bel and the Dragon 1-26; Lucian Alexander 26; Koester, p. 593). The idea that magicians and wonder-workers might bring statues and figurines to life was a relatively common feature in ancient tales. In the vision here, however, this takes on a special significance, since it is this living/speaking/acting image that allows the Sea-creature to exercise his rule on the earth.

“and would make (it so) [that]…” The Greek syntax is unclear, but it would seem that the subjunctive “would make” (poih/sh|) is parallel to the earlier “would speak” (lalh/sh|), and thus refers to the action of the image rather than the Earth-creature himself. This creates an interesting scenario—i.e., the image orders people worship to the image. However, this, I believe, is precisely what the visions intend to represent. Note the way the forces of evil function according to the overall imagery of the vision:

    • The Dragon works through =>
      • the Sea-creature, who works through =>
        • the Earth-creature, who works through =>
          • the living image of the Sea-creature; and, through
        • this comprehensive power present in the image =>
      • people come to worship the image of the Sea-creature, and in turn =>
    • they worship the Dragon

This gives to this scene a subtle difference from the most obvious parallel—namely, the statue of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3.

“if any would not kiss toward [i.e. worship] the image of the wild animal, they should be killed off” This wording generally corresponds to the command given by Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 3:4-6), and certainly the vision here alludes to that famous Scriptural episode. The righteous ones (Daniel and his companions) were faced with the choice of complying with the command to show obedience to the royal power by venerating its image (i.e. the great statue), or to face the punishment of death. Believers in the Roman Empire faced a similar choice with the regard to the pervasive presence of the Imperial cult. Statues of the emperor, etc, could be seen, not only in the temples, but in many other public places, having been erected and dedicated by influential citizens and civic groups. As such, they were a clear and prominent representation of the Imperial cult—i.e. the public worship of the Empire and its rule.

Admittedly, there is little evidence, even in the book of Revelation itself, of any widespread persecution by the authorities at the time the book was written. The notice given to the example of Antipas in 2:13 suggests that executions of believers were a relatively rare occurrence. Much more common would have been the imprisonment for the purposes of interrogation. However, the author/visionary clearly expects that this persecution would intensify considerably, with imprisonment and execution referenced specifically in 13:10, as a manifestation of how the Sea-creature (and the Dragon) “makes war” on believers. There would, in fact, be periods of more widespread, state-sponsored persecution of Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, especially during the reigns of Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Decius (249-251), Valerian (253-26o), and Diocletian (284-305). The extent of imperial persecution in the late 1st and early 2nd century remains uncertain and debated. The period of arrests and public executions under Nero (64 A.D.) was brief and limited to the city of Rome. A more widespread persecution was thought to have occurred during Domitian’s reign (81-96)—often considered to be contemporaneous with the writing of Revelation—but this has since been re-evaluated by historians.

As it happens, we do have an example, from the reign of Trajan (98-117), which is actually quite close to what is described in Revelation 13:15. Pliny the Younger served as governor of Bithynia and Pontus (in Asia Minor), c. 110-113 A.D. He had occasion to write to the emperor regarding the investigation and punishment of Christians, seeking guidance and instruction on the matter (Epistle 10.96). As part of his attempt to identify those who were actual Christians, Pliny describes his use of a statue of the emperor as a means of testing:

“I considered that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians when they repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your [the emperor’s] statue (which I had ordered to be brought into court for this purpose along with the images of the gods), and furthermore had reviled the name of Christ: none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do. Others … did reverence to your statue and the images of the gods in the same way as the others, and reviled the name of Christ.” (10.96.5-6, translation Koester, p. 594)

Interestingly, the emperor wrote back (Ep. 10.97) to Pliny saying that he approved of the method of testing, but insisted that Christians were not to be hunted down. This, along with the fact that a governor had to ask for guidance about how to deal with Christians in the first place, indicates that persecution of believers in the provinces was by no means widespread or common at the time. We do not have clear documentation for a similar use of statues of the emperor in subsequent periods of imperial persecution, but the detail is mentioned in a number of the martyrdom narratives (set during the 2nd-3rd century persecutions).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2019EschatologyNT_header1a.png