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

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

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

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

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

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

Acts 1:6-11

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

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

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

Verse 6

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

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

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

Verses 7-8

Jesus’ reply comes in two parts: first—

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 9

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

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

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

Verses 10-11

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

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

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

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

Acts 2:16-21

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

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

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

Verse 16

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

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

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

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

It could also be outlined more simply as:

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

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

Verses 17-18

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

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

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

Verses 19-20

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 21

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

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

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

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

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

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