Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: 1 and 2 Corinthians (Part 1)

1 and 2 Corinthians

Having examined the eschatology in 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Part 1, 2, 3), we now turn to the next portion of Paul’s letters—1 and 2 Corinthians. In these two letters we do not find as many clear or explicit eschatological references, but throughout there is evidence of this aspect of early Christian belief, which needs to be studied, along with several significant passages. Let us first survey the most relevant references in 1 Corinthians.

Survey of Passages in 1 Corinthians

In the Thessalonian letters, we noted several key references to the “day of the Lord” (or simply, “the day”), and expression which preserves the meaning of the “day of YHWH” in the Old Testament Prophets, but given a distinctly Christian interpretation with the exalted Jesus (instead of YHWH) as “Lord” (1 Thess 5:2, 4ff; 2 Thess 1:10; 2:2-3). Instead of a time when God (YHWH) will appear to bring Judgment upon the wicked (nations) and deliver His people, it now refers to the coming of Jesus—as God’s Anointed representative—that is, to the return of the exalted Jesus back to earth at the end-time. His return will usher in the great Judgment. There are a number of such references to “the day (of the Lord)” in 1 Corinthians:

1 Cor 1:7-8—Paul concludes his opening thanksgiving with a prayer (and exhortation) that ends:

“…(look)ing to receive from out of (heaven) the uncovering of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, who also will make you (stand) firm until (the) completion, without (anything) calling (you into account) in the day of our Lord Yeshua [the Anointed].”

Paul frequently uses this sort of language, encouraging believers that they are able to remain faithful until the moment of Jesus’ coming. This, of course, indicates the imminent eschatology shared by most, if not all, believers in the New Testament period. Paul fully expected that he and his readers would soon experience the return of Jesus in their lifetime. The “completion” (te/lo$) refers primarily to the completion of the current Age, believed to be imminent.

1 Cor 3:13-15—This “day” is not only one of hope and salvation for believers, but marks the moment of condemnation and punishment for the wicked. Paul draws upon the double-aspect of the end-time Judgment at the close of his discussion in 3:5-15. As a way of combating the partisan divisions in the Corinthian congregations (1:10ff), he argues strongly that the individual leader or minister is not as important as the work that is done for God, in which all believers share. If one is not careful to build upon the foundation of Christ and the Gospel, instead relying upon one’s own abilities, etc, even a Christian minister may come to suffer loss and face a measure of punishment in the time of Judgment:

“…for the work of each will come to be shining forth, for the day will make it clear (in) that [i.e. because] it will be uncovered in (the) fire, and the fire [itself] will consider each (person)’s work, of what sort it is. If one’s work remains, which he built upon (the foundation), he will receive a (proper) wage [i.e. reward]; (but) if one’s work is burned down, he will be at a disadvantage—he (himself) will be saved, but so (saved) through (the) fire.”

For believers, the fire of Judgment is a purifying process, burning away the dross and rubbish, until only the pure metal, etc, remains. This is the significance of a person being saved “through (the) fire”.

1 Cor 4:5—A similar reference to “the day” as a time of testing that reveals a person’s true nature and that of his/her conduct and actions (“works”). Here it is identified specifically with the end-time coming/return of Jesus:

“So then, you must not judge anything before (the proper) moment, until the Lord should come, who indeed will bring to light the hidden (thing)s of darkness and will make to shine forth the purpose [i.e. will/intention] of the(ir) hearts—and then the praise upon (them) will come to be from God, for each (person).”

1 Cor 5:5—Chapter 5, as part of Paul’s instruction for how to deal with a person known to be engaged in improper sexual activity—indeed, as part of the judgment from the congregation for this person—they are told to “give along this (sort of person) to the Satan, unto the ruin of his flesh, so that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord”. The exact meaning of giving someone along to Satan remains uncertain (and disputed). However, the eschatological reference is clear enough, with the idea that the believer, once purified, will ultimately be saved at the time of Judgment.

In 1 Cor 2:6f and 10:11 we have statements indicating rather clearly the early Christian belief (shared by Paul) that the end of the current Age was about to occur. This is most explicit in 10:11:

“and these (thing)s [i.e. recorded in the Scriptures]…were written toward [i.e. for the purpose of] setting (them) in our mind, unto whom the completion of the Ages has come down to meet (us).”

It would be hard to find a better example of the the imminent eschatology of early Christians. While less obvious in 2:6-7, there is still implicit the idea of the end of the current Age, marked by the (end-time) revelation of Jesus to humankind:

“But we do speak wisdom among the (one)s (who are) complete, but wisdom not of this Age, and not of the chief (ruler)s of this Age th(at are) being made to cease working; but (rather) we speak the wisdom of God, in a secret, having been hidden away, which God marked out beforehand, before the Ages, unto our honor…”

The implication is that in this current Age, the wisdom of God can only be made known (among believers) in a hidden way; however, it is about to be manifest clearly to all at the end of this Age. A similar sort of eschatological expectation seems to be evident in Paul’s famous exposition of love in chapter 13 (13:8-12). He expresses a belief that the current manifestation of the Spirit among believers is only temporary, a way for Christians to experience the end-time blessing and presence of God (and Christ), prior to Jesus’ actual return. I discuss this passage in detail in an earlier series. That believers at the time fully expected to be alive at the return of Jesus seems self-evident, confirmed by many of the passages we have studied (and will study) in this series. The same would seem to be true of the language Paul uses in his traditional formula for the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper, which includes the additional phrase: “For as much as you would eat this bread and drink (of) this drinking-cup, you bring down [i.e. announce] a message of the death of the Lord until th(e moment at) which he should come” (11:26).

We may also note the language Paul uses in his closing exhortation (16:13), especially the verb grhgoreu/w (“keep awake, keep watch”) as an imperative (grhgorei=te), which has traditional eschatological significance, going back to the sayings and parables of Jesus—Mark 13:34-37 par (cf. also 14:34-38 par); Matt 25:13; Luke 12:37; 1 Thess 5:6, 10; 1 Pet 5:8; Rev 3:2-3.

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

As part of Paul’s instruction on marriage among believers in chapter 7, in verses 25-31, he argues strongly in favor of the view that Christians, if they are not already married (or engaged), ought to remain unmarried. This is a clear emphasis in his instruction, but one which runs contrary to the general view of Christians in subsequent generations (including today), so much so that many commentators will ignore or gloss it over, assuming that Paul’s emphasis is actually the opposite—that, all other considerations being equal, Christians should get married. There are two aspects, or reasons, for Paul’s preference that unmarried believers stay unmarried. The first is general: the unmarried believer is able to devote more time and attention to serving God. The second is referenced in verse 26, and then expounded in more detail in vv. 29-31. The statement in v. 26 is as follows:

“I consider this well, then, to begin under (this way): through the (thing) pressing up (on us now) having stood among (us), that it is well (for) a man to be this (way) [i.e. as he currently is].”
In more conventional English this might be:
“I consider it good to begin with this: because of the thing pressing (on us) now standing (so close), it is good [i.e. better] for a man to (remain) the (way he is).”

The wording is difficult to render into English, and commentators debate its precise meaning. Most problematic is the phrase e)nestw=san a)na/gkhn. I render a)na/gkh literally as “(something) pressing up”, but the word is often used in a more general or figurative sense as “compelling (reason), compulsion, (what is) necessary, necessity,” etc. The participle e)nestw=san modifies the noun, meaning that the “thing pressing up” is now “standing among” them (perfect “having stood among”). Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to be certain of the point of reference. That it carries an eschatological connotation here seems likely, given such use of the noun a)na/gkh in Luke 21:23 and 1 Thess 3:7, where it is more or less synonymous with the eschatological term qli/yi$ (“distress”, Mk 13:19, 24 par; 2 Thess 1:4, 6; Rev 7:14, etc). However, later on in verse 37, it is used in the more general sense of something compelling a person to act.

The Corinthian congregations are apparently facing some sort of pressure, which, presumably, would result in significant suffering or hardship. This is what makes it advisable for believers not to marry. I think it unlikely that he is referring here to persecution, in which case he probably would have used different wording, perhaps even the specific term qli/yi$. A time of severe need (such as famine, etc) has been suggested. In any case, the context of Paul’s instruction leads to the following line of interpretation: the end-time period, during which they are living, will be marked by suffering and hardship for believers, increasingly so as the end draws nearer; something of this more intense “pressure” is already coming upon them, and there will doubtless be many more such moments in the near future. Thus, Paul teaches that it is best to begin with (vb u(pa/rxw, “begin under”) the sound principle that it is good for a person to stay as he/she currently is (“to be this way”, i.e. married or unmarried). This is the point made in verse 24, and he expounds it further in vv. 25-39, focusing especially on the unmarried (“virgins”), teaching that it is better for them not to marry. This is not so much a doctrinal point as a pastoral concern:

“And (yet) if you were to marry you did not sin, and if the virgin should marry she did not sin (either), but such (person)s will hold [i.e. have/experience] distress [qli/yi$] in the flesh, and I am (try)ing to spare you (from that).” (v. 28)

Paul clarifies this even further in vv. 29-31, where the eschatological context is abundantly clear:

“And this I (would) tell you, brothers: the moment is (now be)ing put together, (and for) the (time) remaining, (it is) that the (one)s holding wives should be as (ones) not holding (them), and the (one)s weeping as not weeping, and the (one)s (feel)ing delight as not (feel)ing delight, and the (one)s (purchas)ing at market as not holding down (what they purchase), and the (one)s making use of the world as not (do)ing (so) against the (accepted) use (of it), for the shape of this world is leading (itself) along [i.e. passing away].”

Two distinctly eschatological phrases enclose this instruction:

    • “the moment is (now be)ing put together…” (o( kairo\$ sunestalme/no$ e)stin)
    • “…the shape of this world is passing along” (para/gei to\ sxh=ma tou= ko/smou tou/tou)

The first phrase is rather difficult to render into English, with the tricky syntax of the verb of being + perfect participle (lit. “is having been…”). The verb suste/llw literally means “put together”, i.e. “bring together, pull together”, sometimes in the specific sense of shortening a distance, etc. In that light, the phrase is often translated in terms of a period of time being shortened or reduced (compare Mark 13:20 par). However, kairo/$ more properly refers to a moment, rather than a period, of time; the emphasis is not on duration, but on a specific event or moment coming closer. In English idiom, we might say “things are coming together”, to indicate that something is about to happen.

The perfect tense or aspect in Greek typically refers to a past action or condition which continues into the present. Believers in Christ are uniquely aware that it is the end-time, and that a New Age is at hand. For this reason, one should not become overly attached to things and the way of life in the current Age, becoming wrapped up in family matters, daily interactions and experiences, with their joys and sorrows, etc. Not only are these about to come to an end, but believers are already experiencing a new way of life in the present—indeed, the Christian life, marked by the presence and work of the Spirit, is a sign of the New Age, even prior to the actual end of the current Age (“this world”). This reflects the blending of “realized” and future eschatology, common to most Christian thought in the New Testament period. It is thus a serious misreading of Paul to suggest that he is referring only, or even primarily, to the idea of new life in Christ in the present; both present and future aspects are part of the imminence of early Christian eschatology.

The Resurrection in 1 Corinthians

The most extensive eschatological passage in 1 and 2 Corinthians is the discussion on the resurrection in chapter 15. This will be discussed in Part 2 of this article, but it is worth noting Paul’s earlier reference to the resurrection at 6:14. This is part of his instruction on the importance of believers avoiding any kind of improper sexual intercourse or activity. This emphasis is on the idea of believers—including their bodies—as members, in a symbolic and spiritual sense, of the body of Christ. In verse 13, Paul negates the importance of the physical activity of the body, by pointing out that God will make it “cease working” (vb katarge/w), referring to the natural process of death and decay. The focus for believers should not be the ordinary activity of the physical body, but the future/eternal life that soon awaits us; and we can be certain that, as we belong to Jesus (as his body), God will raise our dead bodies to life even as He did for Jesus:

“and even (as) God raised the Lord, He also will raise us out of (the dead) through His power.”

The pronoun “his” (au)tou=) is somewhat ambiguous. It more naturally refers to God‘s power (which raised Jesus); however, in chapter 15, Paul develops the idea of the life-giving power that Jesus possesses, as a result of his resurrection. Thus, it is possible to see the pronoun here as also referring to Jesus— “his power”. This will be considered further in the discussion on chapter 15.

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