The Thousand Years in Revelation 20

One of the most peculiar (and controversial) elements of the visions in the book of Revelation is the period of a “thousand years” (xi/lia e&th) in chapter 20, and how it functions within the eschatological framework of the book’s visionary narrative. Unfortunately, this single visionary detail has taken on a life of its own in Christian thought as “the Millennium”, serving as a magnet for all kinds of eschatological ideas and theories, most of which are far-removed from the specific references in Revelation 20. Actually, the visions in chapter 20 really do not describe what is supposed to take place during these “thousand years”; rather, the numerical time-period functions primarily as a chronological delineating point, marking two important events or developments within the narrative:

    1. The time during which the Satan is bound and held in prison-guard beneath the earth (vv. 2-3, 7)
    2. The time during which believers—especially those who were put to death during the period of distress—will reign (as king) with the exalted Christ (vv. 4-6)

What is most curious is the release of the Satan that is to occur at the end of the thousand years (vv. 7ff). Following the defeat of the nations and the forces of evil in the great Judgment, and the establishment of the kingdom of Christ over all the earth, this second defeat/judgment of the nations, etc, is altogether unexpected and difficult to explain. Cf. the recent notes on vv. 7-10ff for further discussion.

Part of the explanation surely has to do with the complex network of images, symbols, and traditions that the visions employ, whereby the same basic event or time-period—such as the end-time period of distress or the Judgment of the nations—is described and depicted multiple times, often with overlapping sets of symbols. In some instances, the nature of the eschatological traditions themselves, and how they are used in the book, results in apparent inconsistencies and tensions within the narrative.

Background of the Motif: Two Lines of Tradition

What of this idea of the “thousand years”? The two specific details associated with it—the binding of the Satan and the reign of believers with Christ—suggest that two lines of tradition inform its meaning and purpose:

    1. The idea of a future ‘Golden Age’ on earth, free from suffering and hardship, etc, and
    2. The restoration of the Israelite kingdom under the Davidic Messiah

Let us consider each of these, in turn.

1. A Future Golden Age

The idea of a “Golden Age” past, and to which humankind might return in the future, is found in many cultures worldwide. It generally reflects the people’s hopes and aspirations for a better future, to see a realization of their finest ideals, throughout society and the world at large. Most systems of eschatology draw upon this religious-cultural tendency, based upon two fundamental premises: (1) the current Age is particularly corrupt and decadent, and (2) the new/coming Age will right these wrongs and bring about (or restore) a time of peace and happiness, etc. This distinction between the current Age and the coming Age may be understood in either a linear or cyclical sense (cf. further below).

In the Old Testament Prophets, and elsewhere in the Scriptures, there is evidence of this “Golden Age” idea—the hope and promise of an idealized time on earth, a period of peace and prosperity, health and long-life, and so forth. Of the many passages and references, we may note the following: Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:6-9; 32:15-20; chap. 35; 65:20-25; 66:12; Hosea 2:18; Amos 9:13-15; Joel 2:22-23ff; 3:18; Jer 31:12ff; Ezek 28:26; 34:25-29. Interestingly, this “Golden Age” imagery is not mentioned in Revelation 20, but is reserved for the depiction of the “New Jerusalem” in chaps. 21-22; however, the fact that the Satan is bound and imprisoned during the “thousand years” suggests, at least, an absence of evil and wickedness.

2. The Restored Israelite Kingdom under the Messiah

Most of the “Golden Age” references in the Prophets (cf. above) relate specifically to the idea of the return of Israel to her land, following the Exile. In their original context, these passages are not eschatological per se, but anticipate a restoration that will take place in the near future. However, as the glories of this return were only partially realized at the time, the prophecies came to be applied to things which were yet to occur, sometime in the more distant future. In turn, this fed into the Jewish eschatology and Messianic expectations of the first centuries B.C./A.D.; particularly important were those ‘restoration’ prophecies that were tied to the idea of a future ruler from the line of David—i.e. the Messianic figure-type of the Davidic ruler (for an extensive discussion on this type, cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). The most significant such prophecies would be: Isaiah 11:1-9; 32:1ff; Amos 9:11-15; Jer 33:15-16; Ezek 34:23-29; Zech 9:9-10—all passages which blend “Golden Age” images with the idea of an Israelite restoration under a (Davidic) king. On the eschatological dimension to the Kingdom-concept, see esp. Part 5 of “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Developments in Jewish Eschatology and Apocalyptic

If the book of Revelation drew upon the two lines of tradition highlighted above, it is not surprising that other Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic writings of the period (i.e. the first centuries B.C./A.D.) did much the same. That the rule established by the Davidic Messiah was to be a “Golden Age” of peace and prosperity (for Israel), following the prophetic traditions of Isa 11:1-9 and Psalm 2, etc, is clear from the famous passage in the Psalms of Solomon 17:21-32 (written in the mid-1st century B.C.).

Probably the earliest systematic treatment of the Golden Age and Messianic Kingdom themes is the so-called “Apocalypse of Weeks” portion of the book of Enoch (1 Enoch 93:3-10; 91:12-17). It presents human and Israelite history as a series of seven “weeks”; beginning with the time of justice and righteousness, each week that follows becomes increasingly corrupt and wicked, until the completely evil and faithless generation of the seventh week (93:9). The eighth week (91:12ff) then will see a restoration of righteousness, with Judgment executed against the wicked, and a time of rule for the righteous/Elect, along with a period of peace and prosperity for humankind (vv. 13-14). Then, in vv. 16-17 there is reference to the creation of a “new heaven and new earth”, just as in Rev 21:1 after the “thousand years”.

In the Enochic work known as 2 Enoch (or “Slavonic Enoch”), perhaps written in the late-first century A.D., human history is divided into a similar “eight-day” sequence, each of which is said to last for a thousand years. The eighth, or last, of these broadens out to become an eternal period of endless/numberless years (32:2-33:1). From roughly same time (and contemporary with the book of Revelation) is the Apocalypse of Baruch (2 Baruch), which has a much more complex and multifaceted eschatology. Like the book of Revelation, 2 Baruch expounds a basic eschatological framework, repeating it, with variations, throughout multiple visions. It is a standard three-part framework: (1) a period of increasing wickedness and distress, culminating in the rise of an evil/demonic tyrant, (2) God’s Judgment on the wicked/nations, and (3) a New Age of peace and prosperity (for the righteous), associated with the reign of the Messiah. Just as in the book of Revelation, the first two parts are presented more frequently, though 2 Baruch describes the future Golden Age in a way that Revelation does not. The main passages are:

    • 29:3-30:1—The time of prosperity is represented by the extraordinary fruitfulness of the earth, with thousand-fold increases on the vine, etc (vv. 5-6). The resurrection of the righteous follows this age of plenty (30:2ff); in the book of Revelation, this precedes the thousand years, though the general resurrection (i.e. of the wicked) follows it (20:11ff).
    • 40:1-4—The reign of the Messiah is described, briefly, in more traditional terms—i.e., the protection and preservation of his people (the righteous of Israel).
    • 72:2-74:3—This is the most extensive description of the Messianic Kingdom, set in the context of the Judgment of the nations (chap. 72). Following this, in chaps. 73-74, an idyllic world of peace and prosperity is described, alluding to a number of the Old Testament traditions and passages cited above.

In the work known as 2 (or 4) Esdras (also referred to as 4 Ezra), the core of which is Jewish and written in the late-1st century A.D., a ‘Messianic Age’ is referenced in a more precise eschatological (and chronological) context. The key passage is 7:26-30, where the Messiah (also called God’s “son”) appears, ushering in a period of joy for the faithful ones of Israel that will last four hundred years (v. 28). As in the “thousand years” of Rev 20, nothing much is said of what occurs during this period; however, what follows it is most striking, as 2/4 Esdras blends together two distinct eschatological events, or themes—(a) the dissolution of the world at the end of the Age (v. 30), and (b) the resurrection of the dead (v. 31). It is a resurrection of righteous and wicked both, followed by the final Judgment (vv. 32-35ff), described in terms similar to Rev 20:11-15. Curiously, after the 400-year Messianic Age, the Messiah himself dies, along with all of humankind (v. 29), part of the complete dissolution of world at the end of the Age (cf. further below).

The Symbolism of a Thousand

The eschatological significance of a thousand, as a symbolic number, was also well-established in Judaism by the time the book of Revelation was composed. As was noted in 2 Enoch 32:2-33:1 above, a thousand years could serve as a way of dividing human history, into periods (“weeks” or “days”), paralleling the seven days of creation. Early Christians came to do much the same thing, utilizing a synchronic principle similar to that expressed in 2 Peter 3:8 (cf. Psalm 90:4), though it is not specifically attested until the second century A.D. (Epistle of Barnabas 15; Irenaeus Against Heresies 5.28.3).

However, more generally in Israelite and Old Testament tradition, a thousand simply represents a large number, as well as symbolizing fullness and completeness—cf. Deut 1:11; 7:9; Psalm 84:10; 105:8; Isa 7:23, etc. Rarely, if ever, in such instances is a “thousand” meant to be taken as an exact number, and, in the book of Revelation, it is unquestionably symbolic, wherever a thousand (or multiples of a thousand) are used (7:3-8; 14:1, 3; 21:16). The use a thousand to represent a long period of time is not at all common in the Old Testament, but is a natural application of the general symbolism, as in Jubilees 23:27 where a thousand years represents the ideal life span (cp. the life-spans approaching 1,000 in Genesis 5; 9:29).

Application in the Book of Revelation

It is clear that the book of Revelation shares many features and traditions in common with other eschatological and apocalyptic works of the period, such as 1 Enoch, 2 Baruch, and 2/4 Esdras (cf. above). The following parallels are especially worth noting:

    • In 1 Enoch 91:12-17, the “eighth week”, a period of peace and rule by the righteous/Elect, is followed by the creation of a “new heaven and new earth” —compare with Rev 20:4-6; 21:1
    • In 2 Baruch 72-74, a Messianic Kingdom follows the Judgment of the nations; while in chap. 30, the resurrection follows this Golden Age—this is generally the same eschatological narrative pattern in Revelation 20.
    • In 2/4 Esdras 7:26-30ff, the appearance of the Messiah ushers in a period of 400 years of joy for the righteous, followed by the resurrection and the final Judgment—compare with Rev 20:4-6, 11-15.

Part of what complicates these eschatological scenarios is that they involve three different (and distinct) conceptions of the future Age to Come:

    • An idealized continuation of the current life on earth (i.e. the Golden Age, cf. above)
    • The blessed/heavenly afterlife for the righteous, having passed through the Judgment, and
    • The dissolution of the world, followed by a new creation.

All of these are attested in Jewish eschatology, as well as in other ancient systems of eschatology. While not necessarily incompatible, they are different enough that, if treated with excessive literalism, they can be almost impossible to harmonize. This is part of the difficulty with interpreting the final chapters of the book of Revelation, as the visions in chaps. 19-22 combine and blend together all three ways of understanding the Age to Come. Even in chapter 20 there is some ambiguity—do the resurrected believers rule on earth, or in heaven? The immediate context of the narrative indicates a location on earth, and yet the parallels with chapter 19 rather suggests they are with the exalted Jesus in heaven. Probably, in terms of the overall visionary symbolism of book, both aspects—earthly and heavenly—are intended.

Consider, for example, the previous scenes where the righteous (believers) gather together with the exalted Jesus, and his kingship/rule is emphasized:

    • In 7:9-17 the multitude of believers (the people of God) stands before the Lamb—this clearly takes place in heaven, before the throne of God, and yet in the earlier vv. 1-8, the emphasis is on believers (the 144,000) on earth during the period of distress.
    • In the vision of 14:1-5, the 144,000 gather with the Lamb on Mount Zion—taken literally, this refers to a location on earth (the ancient Temple site of Jerusalem); however, as a symbol, it more properly represents a heavenly reality (i.e. the ‘Temple’ or dwelling of God in heaven).
    • Again, the vision in 15:2-4 is of the people of God (believers) in heaven, emphasizing that the true location of the Tent/Temple of God (and of Jerusalem/Zion) is heavenly.

In a sense, these two aspects of the people of God, and their place alongside the exalted Jesus, are kept separate (though connected) throughout the visions. However, in chapters 21-22 (to be discussed in detail in the continuing daily notes on Revelation), the heavenly and earthly aspects finally merge together, and are united, beginning with the opening words of 21:1: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth…”. Especially powerful is the unforgettable image of the heavenly city of Jerusalem coming down to earth to become the new Jerusalem (vv. 2ff). The merging/uniting of heavenly and earthly is described in detail, and beautifully, in chapters 21-22, drawing upon a rich array of Old Testament and Jewish traditions.

An Earthly Kingdom?

Many commentators take for granted that the thousand-year period in Revelation 20 refers to an earthly kingdom—that is, to a concrete Messianic kingdom established on earth, in which Christ and the saints govern the nations (20:4-6). As I noted above, the immediate narrative context of the chapter would tend to support this, as do the Jewish traditions regarding the Messianic Kingdom referenced above. However, the precise situation of the visionary narrative in chap. 20 is by no means as clear as many commentators assume.

When we turn to the New Testament as a whole (and its eschatology), there is actually very little evidence supporting the idea of a Messianic kingdom on earth. The question posed by Jesus’ disciples in Acts 1:6 certainly evinces this traditional expectation, as, we may assume, does the response by the crowds in the scene of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem (Mark 11:7-10 par, cp. John 6:15). Moreover, by all accounts, Jesus’ death was based on the charge that he had claimed (and/or was considered by some to be) the “king of the Jews” (Mark 15:2ff, 26 par). However, in Jesus’ response to the aforementioned question by the disciples (Acts 1:7-8), while he does not reject the traditional concept of the Messianic kingdom outright, he clearly points his disciples (and all future believers) in a different direction, a very different way of understanding the Kingdom—one based on the proclamation of the Gospel and the presence and work of the Spirit.

In point of fact, the idea of a Messianic kingdom on earth would seem to be almost entirely absent from the earliest Christian eschatology. I find little or no trace of it in Paul’s letters. In 1 Thess 4:13-18, the scenario he describes is of believers (both those currently alive and those who have died) being gathered to Jesus at his end-time return and taken up with him into heaven. In this regard, he is almost certainly following early Christian (and Gospel) tradition (Mark 13:26-27 par, etc; compare John 14:1-4, and other passages). Within his discussion at 1 Cor 6:1-7ff, Paul does make reference to believers in ruling positions as judges (vv. 2-3), however this seems to be part of the heavenly Judgment scene, and not of a kingdom set up on earth. Some have suggested that 1 Cor 15:24-28 refers to something like Rev 20:4-6, but, apart from the general idea of the supreme rule/authority of the exalted Christ (over all things), I see no real indication that Paul has in mind a specific period of rule on earth.

Outside of Rev 20:4-6 itself, the only other passage, in my view, which could conceivably refer to the traditional idea of a Messianic kingdom on earth, is the saying (or sayings) of Jesus in Matthew 19:28 / Luke 22:28-30, in which he promises his faithful disciples (the Twelve?) that they will sit on thrones judging the tribes of Israel. It is not clear whether these two passages represent separate traditions or variations on the same (historical) tradition, set in different narrative locations. Most critical commentators would opt for the latter view, but the matter is far from certain. The Lukan context of the Last Supper, with its connection to Jesus’ statement in 22:18 par, suggests that the place of Judgment is to be understood as in heaven, not on earth. The context of Matt 19:28, involving the promise of reward in compensation for what the disciples have given up on earth, could more plausibly seen as referring to an earthly kingdom. However, the primary contrast in the passage overall is between earthly things and eternal life (i.e. with God in heaven); moreover, the setting of the saying in v. 28 is clearly that of the resurrection, which, according to most lines of tradition (and certainly in early Christian tradition), involves a transport/translation to heaven. Some commentators, accepting this fact, would claim that, after having been taken up to heaven with Jesus, believers will return with him to earth, where the earthly Messianic Kingdom will be established. Apart from the possible allusion to this in Rev 17:14 (cf. also 19:14), the idea is scarcely to be found in the New Testament, and is more reflective of our desire to harmonize the various eschatological passages.

The book of Revelation does draw upon this same idea of believers acting in positions of rule and judgment; indeed, the statement in 2:26-28 is quite similar in tone and substance to Jesus’ saying in Luke 22:28-30 par (cf. also 3:21). However, in these references, the implication is of a heavenly/eternal (not earthly) reward for believers’ faithfulness. There is similar imagery attached to the “Elders” in 4:4, 10; 11:16; the precise interpretation of this symbolism remains debated, but I understand these “Elders” to represent the People of God in their heavenly aspect, the number 24 perhaps meant to allude to the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles (12 x 12, cp. 21:12-14). In any case, the setting of those visions is in heaven, not on earth. Only in 20:4-6 is there any indication that an earthly kingdom is in view, and that believers will have positions of rule there along with Jesus.

Chiliasm

The term “Chiliasm” derives from the Greek xi/lioi (chílioi, “thousand[s]”), referring specifically to the “thousand years” (xi/lia e&th) in Revelation 20. It has come to be a technical term for those who interpret these “thousand years” in a concrete, literal sense—if not a period of exactly 1,000 years, at least a real (and lengthy) period of time during which the Messianic Kingdom will be established on earth. That Rev 20:4-6 refers to an earthly kingdom would be a basic tenet of Chiliasm.

Throughout history, Christian commentators have been rather evenly divided on whether to understand the “thousand years” (and the Messianic reign) in a literal (i.e. Chiliastic) or figurative sense. That is to say, whether it represents a concrete period of rule on earth, or should be understood in a spiritual sense. The earliest evidence from the second century, what little we have, tends toward Chiliasm. According to Eusebius, in his Church History (3.39.1, 12), Papias (who died c. 130) believed that, after the resurrection, Christ would establish a kingdom that would be characterized by attributes of the “Golden Age” (cf. above), i.e. a time of lavish fruitfulness and prosperity (cp. 2 Baruch 29:5-7). Justin Martyr (writing c. 150-160) appears to have taken the “thousand years” more or less literally, anticipating the ‘Dispensationalist’ line of interpretation by setting the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies (such as Ezek 40-48; Isa 54:11-12; 60:1-3ff; and Zech 14:7-8) in the Millennium (Dialogue with Trypho 80-81). Later in the century, Irenaeus, in his Against Heresies, shows a similar (Chiliastic) view of the thousand years, similarly anticipating Dispensationalist thought in the way he divides history into distinct thousand-year periods (4.20.11; 5.28.3, 30.4; cp. Epistle of Barnabas 15, and the Jewish passages cited above). For a good, convenient survey of the history of interpretation, see Koester, Revelation (Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A), pp. 741-50.

Conclusion

Given the nature of the symbolism in the book of Revelation, the “thousand years” cannot be taken literally as referring to a period of exactly 1,000 years; that is out of the question. However, in the normal and traditional sense of the symbolism, referring simply to a long period of time—and one that is full and complete—it certainly can be understood as a period of rule on earth. The earthly location of 20:4-6 would have to be inferred from the immediate context of chap. 20, and, perhaps, the parallels with similar passages in Jewish writings of the period (cf. above). The main point, however, is not the location of the scene, but the significance of it—the establishment of Christ’s kingdom (and rule) over the world and all of humankind. That believers are to rule with him simply reflects our/their union with him; through our faithfulness, even during the most intense times of suffering and persecution, we will be exalted, even as he was exalted, to a position with him alongside God the Father in heaven. This also means that believers will take part (with Christ) in the Judgment.

Even so, the position of the “thousand year” period in Rev 20 remains somewhat perplexing. Since much, or most, of the imagery associated with the Messianic Kingdom and “Golden Age” of eschatological tradition is found in chapters 21-22, what, precisely, is the point of the separate note in 20:4-6, flanked as it is between the two parallel Judgment scenes (defeat of Satan and the Nations) in vv. 1-3, 7-10? Perhaps the best explanation is, that it was deemed necessary to have a separate scene, however brief, that illustrated Jesus fulfilling the traditional role of the Davidic Messiah. This traditional role involved both the defeat of the nations, and the establishment (or restoration) of a kingdom to rule over them. The early Christian belief in Jesus as the Davidic Messiah was universal, and yet in his lifetime he never fulfilled these traditional expectations. This fulfillment would have to wait until his end-time return.

The two-fold role outlined above appears to be described specifically in chapters 19-20, and enhances the clear parallelism between the two sets of visions (cf. my earlier notes on 20:1-3ff). In 19:11-16ff, we have narrated the defeat of the nations, with the exalted Jesus appearing as a conquering warrior leading the armies of heaven (the holy ones, cf. 17:14). Correspondingly, in 20:4-6, there is a brief description of the establishment of his rule over them; again, the holy ones (the people of God, believers) are alongside of him. Both are key aspects of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, and needed to be included. Indeed, these are essentially the only passages in the New Testament where it is shown that Jesus will finally fulfill these traditional Messianic roles.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The Pauline Letters (Conclusion)

The Remaining Pauline Letters

Having examined the key passages in the five Pauline letters where eschatology features most prominently—1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans—it now remains to survey the eschatological references in the remaining letters. I begin with the two letters where Paul’s authorship is undisputed—Galatians and Philippians (Philemon contains no relevant references).

Galatians

Galatians is not so replete with eschatological passages as are the other major Pauline letters. The primary reason for this surely is the single-minded attention Paul gives to the theological and religious-cultural questions surrounding the relationship of believers to the Torah and the Old Covenant. Even so, there is certainly an eschatological aspect to this area of Paul’s thought, as can be glimpsed by a brief survey of the most relevant passages.

Galatians 1:4

The central tenet of Paul’s soteriology was that the sacrificial death of Jesus freed humankind from bondage under the enslaving power of sin. According to this basic view, the world, in the present Age, is under the control of sin and evil. Paul expresses this clearly here when he states that Jesus gave himself “over our sins, so that he might take us out of th(is) evil Age”. Traditional Jewish eschatology drew a dividing line (conceptually) between “this Age” (o( ai)w\n ou!to$) and “the Age (that is) coming” (o( ai)w\n me/llwn). Paul frequently uses the expression “this Age” (Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 1:20; 2:6, 8; 3:18-19; 2 Cor 4:4; also Eph 2:1-2), with the implication that this current Age is especially corrupt and dominated by evil. The Johannine writings express much the same idea, though with different terminology (1 John 5:19, etc). It is a fundamental tenet in eschatological thought that the time in which people are living, being close to the end of the Age (or cycle of Ages), is more widely corrupt and wicked than the times past—indeed, such wickedness is a sign that the end is near.

Galatians 3:22ff; 4:5ff

In parallel with the idea that humankind, in the present Age, is in bondage to sin, Paul also teaches that people are also in bondage under the Law. This juxtaposition of the Law and sin is one of the most controversial aspects of Paul’s thought (discussed at length in the articles on “Paul’s View of the Law”); and yet he expresses the association clearly enough both in Romans and here throughout Galatians. It is stated most precisely as part of the line of argument in chapter 3 (vv. 22ff). The binding power of the Torah is part of the Old Covenant, which is rooted in the present Age, dominated as it is by sin and evil. The coming of Jesus, with his sacrificial, atoning work, ushers in a New Covenant and the beginning of a New Age (i.e. the “Age to come”). But this is a “realized” eschatology—the New Age is experienced now, in the present, only by believers in Christ, and only through the presence of the Spirit, as Paul describes, especially, in 4:5-6ff. The bondage under the “Law” is not limited to Israelites and Jews, but applies universally to all humankind (cf. how Paul presents this in 4:8-11).

Other References

Several other references with eschatological significance may be noted:

Philippians

We may note first the references to the “day of (Jesus) Christ” in Phil 1:6, 10, and 2:16; this is a Christian development of the Old Testament motif of the “day of YHWH”, when He will appear to bring Judgment on a particular nation or people. By the first-century A.D., the idea was thoroughly and profoundly eschatological—i.e. the end-time Judgment on the nations—with God’s presence in the Judgment filled by his Anointed (Messianic) representative. Thus, for early Christians, it was Jesus Christ who will act as Judge, overseeing the Judgment (Acts 17:31, etc); this will take place upon his return to earth at the end-time. For Paul’s use of this idiom (“the day [of Christ]”) elsewhere, cf. 1 Thess 5:2-5; 2 Thess 1:10; 2:2-3; 1 Cor 1:8; 3:13; 5:5; 2 Cor 1:14; Rom 2:16, etc. It is typically coupled with the idea of believers being able to present themselves with confidence before Christ at his coming, and so here in the three references in Philippians. The climactic lines of the “Christ-hymn” (2:10-11) similarly allude to the role of the exalted Christ as ruler and judge over all.

The Judgment itself (i.e. the judgment on the wicked) is alluded to in 1:28 and 3:19, emphasizing again how the idea of salvation, for early Christians, was primarily eschatological—that is, we are saved from the coming Judgment. Moreover, for believers, salvation also involves entering (and inheriting) the Kingdom of God (cf. above), which entails the idea of receiving a heavenly reward. Paul’s repeated references to this reward that awaits the faithful believer, is very much reflective of the early Christian eschatology—cf. 3:8ff, 14. A more direct promise and eschatological declaration is found in 2:15 (with echoes of Dan 12:3):

“…that you should come to be without fault and without ‘horns’, offspring [i.e. children] of God without (any) flaw, in the middle of a twisted (Age) of coming-to-be and (those) having been turned throughout, among whom you will shine forth as lights in the world!”

The future resurrection of believers is specifically emphasized in 3:10-11, drawing upon the familiar Pauline motif of believers’ participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus (‘dying and rising with Christ’). The eschatological orientation continues in verses 17-21, warning again of the impending Judgment (v. 19) and the heavenly reward that awaits for those believers who remain faithful (vv. 20-21). This promise of final/future reward is expressed primarily in terms of the resurrection, along with the motif of the ‘heavenly city’ (cf. on Gal 4:26, above):

“For our citizenship [poli/teuma] begins under [i.e. has its existence] in the heavenly (place)s, out of which also we look to receive from (God) a savior—(our) Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed—who will change the shape of the body of our lowliness, (to be) formed together in the body of his honor/splendor [do/ca], according to the (power) working in (him) th(at makes) him to be able even to set all (thing)s in order under him.” (vv. 20-21)

The end-time appearance, or return, of Jesus is clearly indicated here, which will coincide with the resurrection/transformation of our bodies (1 Thess 4:4-17; 1 Cor 15:23ff); it is also alluded to in the short declaration in 4:5b: “The Lord is near [e)ggu/$]”. To be sure, this is another reference to the imminent eschatology of Paul, which he shared with most believers of the time, as I have noted repeatedly; on the use of adverb e)ggu/$ (“near”) to signify this, cf. the earlier article in this series on the imminent eschatology of early Christians.

Colossians and Ephesians

Many critical commentators view both Colossians and Ephesians as pseudonymous. For my part, I accept Colossians as authentically Pauline (on objective grounds), with no real reservations. However, the situation with Ephesians is a bit more complicated, with more questions that could legitimately be raised in terms of the vocabulary, style, etc, of the letter. Even so, the eschatology of Ephesians does not appear to differ markedly from either Colossians or the other undisputed letters. Therefore, all other critical questions (regarding authorship) aside, it is proper to examine the eschatological passages of Ephesians here together with those of Colossians.

The exordium and opening section(s) of Colossians (1:3-29) are full of eschatological references and allusions which reflect other key passages (already discussed) elsewhere in Paul’s letters. As we have seen, the thanksgiving aspect of the exordium allows Paul the opportunity to encourage believers to remain faithful, in light of the promise of the heavenly reward that awaits them. This is emphasized here in 1:5, 12:

“…through the hope th(at is) being stretched out (waiting) for you in the heavenly (place)s” (v. 5)
“…giving (thanks) to the Father for (His) good favor, to the (One) (hav)ing made us fit unto the portion of the lot [klh=ro$, i.e. inheritance] of the holy (one)s in the light” (v. 12)

The end-time (and afterlife) Judgment scene, along with the role of the Anointed Jesus as Judge (cf. above), is likewise alluded to in 1:18, 22:

“…and he [i.e. Jesus] is the head of the body of the (ones) called out [e)kklhsi/a], the (one) who is (himself the) beginning, (the one) produced first [prwto/toko$] out of the dead, (so) that he should come to be (the one) being [i.e. who is] first in all (things).” (v. 18)
“…and now he (has) made (things) different (for you) from (what they were before) [vb a)pokatalla/ssw], in the body of his flesh, through (his) death, to make you (to) stand alongside (him) in his sight, holy and without fault and without (any reason) to call (you) in (to judgment) [a)ne/gklhto$].” (v. 22)

Even though Colossians 1-2 indicates a belief in the pre-existent deity of Jesus, here his position as (heavenly) ruler and judge is expressed more traditionally, in terms of his resurrection and exaltation. Moreover, it is his sacrificial death which enables believers to stand before him in holiness (at the Judgment). These are familiar Pauline themes, as is the idea in 1:26f, of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a secret (musth/rion) that has been kept hidden throughout the Ages, until the present time—cf. Rom 16:25; 1 Cor 2:1, 7; and, similarly, with special emphasis, in Eph 3:3-6, 9. This idea is strongly eschatological, i.e. that believers are living at the onset of a New Age, with the implication that the current Age, with all that has gone before, is coming to an end.

Colossians 3:1-4

The most prominent eschatological passage in Colossians is 3:1-4. As in the exordium, Paul ties his exhortation for believers—that they should live in holiness and faithful devotion—to the promise of Jesus’ end-time return. He makes use of the traditional concept of believers being gathered to Jesus, at his return (1 Thess 4:14-18; cp. Mark 13:26-27 par, etc), but deepens the imagery through the theological (and Christological) motif of beliefs being united with Jesus (“in Christ”). Note how this added dimension gives to the traditional eschatology a profound new meaning:

“So, if you were raised together with Yeshua, you must seek the (thing)s above, the (place at) which the Anointed (One) is sitting on (the) giving [i.e. right] (hand) of God—you must set (your) mind (on) the (thing)s above, not (on) the (thing)s upon the earth. For you died away, and your life has been hidden with the Anointed, in God; (and) when the Anointed should shine forth, (he who is) our life, then you also will shine forth with him in honor/splendor.”

It is beautiful indeed how Paul weaves into the idea of Jesus’ return the (baptismal) imagery of believers participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 6:3-4 etc, and earlier here in Col 2:11-13, 20). To use the familiar Pauline language, believers are “in Christ”, which means that, in a real sense, we are with him where he is now—at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. So, too, we will be with him when he appears on earth at the end-time. We might even say that we will be meeting ourselves, not in a concrete metaphysical sense, but in terms of a full realization, and fulfillment, of what we are in Christ (for a similar idea, expressed rather differently, cf. 1 John 2:28-3:3).

Additional References in Ephesians

As noted above, Ephesians restates many of the same ideas and points of emphasis in Colossians, and this is also true in terms of the eschatology of the letters. For example, Eph 1:8 more or less says the same as Col 1:5, 12 (cf. above), bringing together the idea of the “hope” (e)lpi/$) that waits for believers in heaven, along with the heavenly reward that we will inherit (as our “lot”, klh=ro$, klhronomi/a). This also is part of the exordium (and thanksgiving) in Ephesians, which resembles that of Colossians in some of its wording and theological expression, such as the emphasis on Christ’s position as ruler and head over all things (1:20-23), including his role in the Judgment at the end of this Age (v. 21, cp. Col 1:18, 22, above). A different sort of emphasis is found in 1:10-12ff, which blends together “realized” and future eschatology, drawing upon the (baptismal) imagery of being “sealed” with the Spirit; this is expressed in unquestionably Pauline terms:

    • In Christ (“in him”) we have already (i.e. now, in the present) obtained our inheritance (vb klhro/w)—v. 11, “realized” eschatology
    • Yet in Christ (“in him”) we still hope for what is to come (v. 12), our “seal” of the Spirit being a promise (and guarantee) of our full inheritance (klhronomi/a)—v. 14, future eschatology
      (cf. also 4:30 where the Spirit-seal is said to be specifically for “the day of loosing from [bondage]”, i.e. the day of Christ and his return)

We may also see an echo of Col 3:1-4 (cf. above) in Eph 2:6-7, where we find the same basic idea of believers being present (now) with Jesus in the heavenly places, with the promise that we will experience this more fully “in the coming Ages”. Admittedly, the eschatological sense of this is not as strong in Ephesians as in Colossians, but it is still clearly discernable. A different way of expressing the (future) realization of our identity in Christ is found in Eph 4:13, with wording that is more distinctive of Ephesians:

“…until we all should meet down (together) into the unity of the trust and the knowledge (we have) about the Son of God, (and so) into (being) a complete man—into the measure of (the) stature of the fullness of the Anointed”

Another image of this completeness of believers in Christ, only to be realized at the end-time, and in the Ages to come, is that of the bride presented to her husband in perfect holiness and purity (5:27, cf. 2 Cor 11:2, and compare Rev 19:7ff).

Two other passages in Ephesians have an eschatological emphasis; both are part of a traditional mode of ethical instruction and exhortation, urging believers to continued faithfulness:

    • 5:5, 8-14—The use of light vs. darkness imagery, along with much of the wording, is quite similar to Paul’s instruction in 1 Thess 5:1-11 (cf. the earlier article on this passage), though perhaps with somewhat less eschatological urgency
    • 6:12-13ff—The characterization of the present Age as evil and wicked, and that it is all the more so as the end draws closer, is common theme in Jewish and Christian eschatology of the period; the urgency of the instruction here implies that believers are about to enter into an especially intense period of distress and persecution (cf. Mark 13:5-13ff par, and throughout the book of Revelation, etc)

2 Timothy (and the Pastoral Letters)

As with Colossians and Ephesians, there are many questions (and doubts) among scholars regarding the authorship of the Pastoral Letters; many critical commentators consider all three letters to be pseudonymous. I am inclined (on entirely objective grounds) to accept 2 Timothy as authentically Pauline; in my view, the style, wording, points of emphasis, not to mention the personal details, all seem to conform fairly closely with what we find in the other (undisputed) letters. By contrast, 1 Timothy contains many words and phrases, etc, which are atypical of Paul, and so the questions regarding authorship are considerably more significant; the situation with the letter to Titus is harder to judge, due to its relative brevity. As it happens, there are many more eschatological references and allusions in 2 Timothy than there are in 1 Timothy or Titus—a fact which would tend to confirm the authenticity of 2 Timothy, and, perhaps, support the idea that 1 Timothy (and Titus) were written later, and/or by someone other than Paul.

Indeed, as I read 2 Timothy closely, I can find little (if anything) to distinguish the eschatology of the letter as being in any way different from that of Paul’s other letters. The language is generally similar, including the expression “that day”, referring to “the day of Christ”, when the exalted Jesus will appear and God will judge the world through him (cf. above). The specific expression “that day”, also found in 2 Thess 1:10 (cp. “the day” in 1 Thess 5:4; Rom 2:16), occurs here in 2 Tim 1:12, 18 and 4:8.

Also thoroughly Pauline is the idea of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a secret hidden away throughout the Ages, but only revealed (to believers) in the present time—2 Tim 1:9-10, and cf. on Col 1:26f above. The language and wording is quite consistent with Paul’s usage elsewhere, as are the references to the future resurrection and the heavenly reward that awaits believers (2 Tim 2:10, 18). The eschatological dimension to the idea of salvation (2:10) is typical of the earliest Christian period, and tends not to be as prominent in later writings. As for the reference to the resurrection in 2:18, the fact that some might say that it “had already come to be” —that is, it had, somehow, already taken place—demonstrates the prevalence of the same imminent eschatology we see elsewhere in Paul’s letters (and throughout most the New Testament); by contrast, toward the end of the first century A.D. (and thereafter), this sort of imminent expectation begins to disappear from early Christianity (cf. below).

The most extensive eschatological passages in 2 Timothy are the sections of (ethical) instruction in 3:1-9ff and 4:1-5. This parallels similar paraenetic passages in the other letters of Paul, only here the instruction is aimed at the minister (Timothy, in the letter), warning him that, as bad as things might be (in the world) at the moment, they will become even worse as the end draws closer (cf. above on Eph 6:12-13ff). Here is how the instruction begins in 3:1:

“And you must know this: that in (the) last days, moments (when things sink) lower will (soon) stand in (on us)…”

The increasing wickedness and lack of faith in the population at large—including among those claiming to be believers—serves as a clear sign that these are the “last days” and that the end-time is near. The description in vv. 2-5 echoes traditional Jewish and early Christian eschatological narratives (cf. Mark 13:5-13 par), which include the presence of divisions and incursions of false teaching among believers. As an instruction for ministers, this warning against false prophets and teachers is especially appropriate (vv. 6-9). So intense will this be, in the time that is soon coming (4:3f), that many in the congregations may no longer wish to listen to sound and reliable teaching, instead turning away to more superficially attractive or exciting words. In these sorts of warnings, with their eschatological context, the idea of the coming Judgment is never far away (4:1).

By comparison with 2 Timothy, there are few eschatological references in 1 Timothy and Titus, and, in those which do occur, there does not seem to be the same sense of urgency or imminence surrounding them. Compare, for example, 1 Timothy 4:1ff, which, on the surface, resembles 2 Tim 3:1ff—describing a time of increasing corruption and wickedness in the world. 2 Tim 3:1 begins “in the last days…”, implying that believers currently are living in the “last days”; in 1 Tim 4:1 the wording is different, referring to things that will happen “in (the) following moments”, i.e. later, sometime after the present moment. This gives to the instruction a somewhat different context; it is more generalized, relating to things the minister must deal with (false/deceptive teaching, etc), but without a specific eschatological context.

There are references to the end-time return of Jesus, in 1 Tim 6:14-15 and Titus 2:13; however, one may detect in both these passages a greater emphasis on believers living in the present Age, with a corresponding lack of emphasis on an imminent expectation of the end. Consider the way this is phrased in Tit 2:12-13:

“…(how) we should live in th(is) Age now, (while) (look)ing toward receiving the happy hope and the shining forth upon (earth) of the splendor of our great God and Savior Yeshua (the) Anointed”

Even more pronounced is the apparent lack of imminence in 1 Tim 6:14-15ff, especially in verses 17-19, which could be taken as implying that our life in the current Age will likely continue for some time. Even the specific reference to Jesus’ return seems to be located more generally at some unspecified future time:

“…you are to keep watch (over) th(is) duty placed on (you) to complete…until the shining forth upon (earth) of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, which (God) will show in (his) own moments/times (to come)…”

As in Titus 2:12-13, verse 17 has the same emphasis on “th(is) Age now”, i.e. present Age (and how we live in it), rather than on the Age to come. The promise of future reward (in heaven) is preserved (v. 19), but without the eschatological immediacy and urgency we find in similar passages elsewhere in the Pauline letters.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Romans (Part 3)

Romans 11

The main body of Romans—the probatio—in which Paul develops and expounds his arguments, concludes (in chaps. 9-11) with an extended discussion on the relationship between Israel and believers in Christ (Jews and Gentiles together) as the people of God (cf. the earlier articles on “Paul’s View of the Law [in Romans]”). This has been central to the letter throughout, but in chapters 9-11 he further expounds one portion specifically: “unto salvation to every one that trusts—to the Jew first and (also) to the Greek“. This section has been referred to as a refutatio—a refutation by Paul of (possible) arguments made especially by Gentiles in Rome with regard to the role and position of Jewish believers (cf. B. Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Romans Eerdmans [2004], pp. 237-9). However, I do not see Paul’s approach here as being appreciably different from the one he takes in earlier in chapters 2-4; there is an interesting symmetry and balance of presentation:

    • Rom 2-4—addressed primarily to Jews, emphasizing that Gentiles are on an equal footing before God with regard to both judgment and salvation
    • Rom 9-11—addressed primarily to Gentiles, emphasizing the (future) salvation of Israelites/Jews and their inclusion into the body of Christ

In between (Rom 5-8) Paul presents a kind of “salvation history”, an exposition of the Gospel message for all human beings—Jews and Gentiles alike. Chapters 9-11 actually have the character of a personal appeal or confession—indeed, this characterizes each of the sections (matching the numbered chapters):

The opening verses of each section, with their personal and moving tone, lead into a presentation of arguments. The main issue at hand is how the Israelite/Jewish people relate to the new Christian identity. As a missionary and representative (apostle) of Christ, Paul saw how many of his fellow Israelites and Jews had been unwilling to accept the Gospel, some even being openly hostile to his missionary work (as narrated repeatedly in the book of Acts, cf. also 1 Thess 2:14-16, etc). Even Jewish believers could be opposed to his presentation of the Gospel, especially his unique view of the Law and his missionary approach to the Gentiles, as seen in Acts 15:1ff and throughout Galatians. At some level, this must have been traumatic for Paul, and difficult to understand—how could so many of God’s elect people, Israel, fail to trust in Christ? While he never really addresses this directly in his other surviving letters, it is clear that he had thought about it a good deal. The result is the wonderful, if somewhat enigmatic, exposition here in Romans 9-11.

Here is an outline of chapters 9 and 10:

    • Romans 9
      • Rom 9:1-5—Paul’s personal address: Israel (“they are Israelites…”, vv. 4-5)
      • Rom 9:6-13—Argument: Not all Israel is the true Israel.
      • Rom 9:14-33—Exposition: Three arguments, each beginning with a rhetorical question.
    • Romans 10
      • Rom 10:1-4—Paul’s personal address: The Law and justice/righteousness (vv. 3-4)
      • Rom 10:5-13—Argument: Justice/righteousness is realized in Christ.
      • Rom 10:14-21—Exposition: The Proclamation of the Gospel, and Israel’s response to it, in three parts:
        • The proclamation of the Gospel (vv. 14-15)
        • Israel’s response to the Gospel—not all have faith (vv. 16-17)
        • Evidence of this in the Scriptures (vv. 18-21, citing Psalm 19:4; Deut 32:21; Isa 65:1-2)

As we consider chapter 11, specifically, in this context, the following observations are especially significant:

    • The first argument (in Rom 9:6-13) of the section as whole, begins with the statement: “for all the (one)s out of Israel—these are not Israel” (v. 6b), i.e. not all Israelites are (the true) Israel.
    • Paul expounds this with the examples of Abraham and Isaac, to emphasize that true sonship and inheritance (of the blessing, etc) comes not from natural birth and ethnicity, but from the promise and favor of God (and God chooses and calls out whomsoever he wishes).
    • This is further applied in relation to the proclamation of the Gospel (the main theme of chapter 10)—Gentiles have responded to the Gospel, trusting in Christ, while many Israelites, God’s elect people, have failed (or refused) to accept Christ.

There is thus a fundamental connection between 9:6b and 10:15a:

“for all the (one)s out of Israel—these are not Israel”
or, “for not all the (one)s out of Israel are Israel” (9:6b)
“but not all (of them) listened under [i.e. obeyed] the good message” (10:15a)

Both use the expression “not all” (ou) pa/nte$), though the syntax of 9:6b makes this more difficult to see in translation. In any case, the implication is clear—only those (Israelites) who accept the Gospel are the true Israel. Now, to continue on with an analysis of chapter 11:

Romans 11:1-12

Paul’s initial address in Rom 11:1-12 contains a central argument (from Scripture), bracketed by two rhetorical questions (introduced with the formula le/gw ou@n, “I relate therefore…”). The central argument (in verses 3-10) draws upon the narrative in 1 Kings 19:9-18, of God’s revelation to Elijah as he sought refuge in a cave on Mount Horeb. Paul refers specifically to verses 10, 14, where Elijah laments to YHWH that he is the only prophet (of YHWH) left who has not been killed, and that the rest of Israel has forsaken the covenant (Rom 11:2b-3); God responds in verse 18 to the effect that there are still seven thousand in Israel who have not “bowed the knee to Baal”. Note how Paul phrases this in Rom 11:4: “I have left down [i.e. left behind] for myself seven thousand…”—the addition of e)mautw=| (“for/to myself”), shifts the meaning slightly from the original context of being spared from death (by the sword) to being chosen by God. We should observe carefully the points that Paul expounds from this passage:

    • Verse 5—he applies the situation in 1 Kings 19:9-18 to his own (current) time: “so then, even now in (this) time, there has come to be a (remainder) left behind [lei=mma] according to (the) gathering out of [i.e. by] (the) favor (of God)”. In verse 4, the verb used is kataleip/w (“leave down, leave behind”); the noun lei=mma is related to lei/pw, indicating something which is left (behind), either in a positive or negative sense. The word lei=mma is typically translated as “remainder” or “remnant”; but here, as indicated above, this remnant is understood as a people gathered out (the noun e)klogh/, from e)kle/gomai, “gather out”), i.e. elected by God, just as Israel herself was chosen as his people.
    • Verse 6—this gathering out is the result of the favor (xa/ri$) of God, and not because of anything the people have done. Here Paul moves away from the Old Testament passage again, which seems to tie the people’s being spared with their particular religious behavior; instead, he emphasizes that the gathering out is no longer (ou)ke/ti, “not yet, not any more”) based on works (“out of works”, e)c e&rgwn). He has already applied this very idea to the example of Abraham in Galatians 3 and Romans 4.
    • Verse 7—only the remnant obtains what Israel seeks after (cf. Rom 9:30-33), the rest were hardened (lit. turned to stone). The metaphor of “hardening the heart” is common in the Old Testament, most famously in the example of Pharaoh in the Exodus narrative, which Paul references in Rom 9:14-18.
    • Verse 12—this verse is transitional, following Paul’s answer to the (second) rhetorical question (in verse 11), and leading into the address of vv. 13-24. He introduces the first of several qal wahomer exclamations, arguing from the lesser to the greater—i.e., if in this lesser/inferior case it is so, then how much more so when…! The contrast is between Israel’s h%tthma (“loss, defeat”), parallel with para/ptwma (“falling alongside [i.e. over the line]”), and their plh/rwma (“filling [up], fullness”). The exact meaning of plh/rwma here is important for the overall flow and force of Paul’s argument; I think it is best to understand it in the sense of a restoration (filling up) of what was lost.

Romans 11:13-24

Romans 11:13-24 is the first of two addresses Paul makes to Gentile believers specifically, with regard to Israel and its salvation (vv. 13-14).

    • Verse 14—”if… I will [i.e. that I might] save some of them”—note Paul’s use of ti/$ (“some of them”)
    • Verses 15-16—Paul applies three more qal wahomer-style arguments, similar to the one in verse 12:
      • Israel’s a)pobolh/ (“casting away from”) and their pro/slhmyi$ (“taking/receiving toward”); it is not entirely clearly whether these should be understood as subjective genitives (their rejection/acceptance of the Gospel) or objective genitives (their rejection/acceptance by God), since either is possible, and they actually represent two aspects of the same situation.
      • The (currently) small number of Israelite believers as the a)pa/rxh (“beginning of [lit. from]”, i.e. the first grain of the harvest) and the (future) full number as the fu/rama (“[mass of] mixed/kneaded [dough]”).
      • This may also refer to the current “remnant” of Israel as the r(i/za (“root”), and those who will follow as the kla/doi (“branches”); though the “root” perhaps should be understood more generally as the true people of God (faithful Israel) extending back to Abraham. The context of vv. 17-24 strongly suggests this latter, wider interpretation.
    • Verses 17ff—in the illustration of the olive tree and its branches, some branches are “broken out” (e)cekla/sqhsan) and others are (currently) being “poked in” (e)nekentri/sqh$); the sense generally is that the new branches from the “wild olive” tree (i.e. Gentiles) take the place of those that were broken off.
    • Verse 20—the branches were broken off specifically for “lack of trust” (a)pisti/a), i.e. a failure (or unwillingness) to trust in Christ. This has to be understood in terms of Rom 9:6; 10:15 (cf. above).
    • Verse 23—similarly the grafting back in of branches broken off depends entirely on “not remaining in [i.e. upon] a lack of trust”—that is, they must come to trust in Christ.

Romans 11:25-32

Romans 11:25-32, the second of the two addresses directed at Gentile believers deals more directly with the question of Israel’s ultimate salvation. Paul now adopts a more decidedly eschatological focus.

    • Verse 25—Israel’s hardness (i.e. their inability/unwillingness to accept the Gospel) lasts until “the fulness of the nations should come in”. The use here of plh/rwma (“filling [up], fullness”) for the nations (Gentiles) is parallel to that in verse 12 for Israel; Paul probably understands it in the sense of the full (or complete) number, measure, etc. It is only then, once the Gentiles have fully come to Christ, that “all Israel will be saved” (v. 26a).
    • Verse 26-27—the Scriptures Paul cites here are important for an understanding of v. 26a; the primary citation is from Isaiah 59:20-21a, along with Isa 27:9—the combination of elements is significant:
      • “the one rescuing” (o( r(uo/meno$)—Christ himself (1 Thess 1:10, etc), or God working through Christ.
      • “he will turn away from Jacob [i.e. Israel] a lack of (proper) fear [a)sebei/a] (of God)”—cf. Rom 1:18; here a)sebei/a (lack of fear/reverence) is synonymous with sin and wickedness in general, but also, specifically, with a lack of trust (a)pisti/a) in Christ. On the idea of Christ turning people from evil (using the verb a)postre/fw), see Acts 3:26.
      • “and this is the (agreement) set through [diaqh/kh] to them alongside [i.e. with] me”—diaqh/kh here in the sense of an agreement (covenant) between two parties (according to the Hebrew tyr!B=), referring to the “new covenant” in Christ and not the old covenant of Sinai and the Torah (cf. 2 Cor 3:7-18). For the principal Old Testament passage relating to the “new covenant”, see Jer 31:31-34.
      • “when I should take away from (them) their sins”—probably an allusion to Isa 27:9, here set in parallel with the citation from Isa 59:21a, i.e. “turning them away from” and “taking away from them”. For the specific association between removal of sin (and its power), through the death of Christ, and the “new covenant”, see Jesus’ words in Mark 14:24 (par Matt 26:28; Luke 22:20).
    • Verses 28-29—the juxtaposition (me\nde/ “on the one hand… on the other hand…”) Paul establishes in verse 28 must be analyzed and treated with great care:
      • me/n (on the one hand)—
        • kata\ to\ eu)agge/lion (“according to the good message”)
          • e)xqroi/ (“[they are] enemies“)
            • di’ u(ma=$ (“through you”, i.e. for your sake)
      • de/ (on the other hand)—
        • kata\ th\n e)klogh/n (“according to the gathering out”)
          • a)gaphtoi/ (“[they are] loved“)
            • dia\ tou\$ pate/ra$ (“through [i.e. because of ] the fathers”)
      • Paul uses this construction to highlight the sense in which they are (currently) hostile to the Gospel—it is for the sake of Gentiles, that they should come to Christ, as Paul describes earlier in vv. 11-24, 25 (cf. also 10:19-21). For more on this difficult teaching, see below.
    • Verse 31—the mercy which will be shown to Israel is the same that has been shown to Gentiles—that is, the sacrificial work of God in Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel, which has the power to make human beings right before God and to free them from the enslaving power of sin.

Romans 11:26 and Pauline Eschatology

Finally, it is left to address specifically the statement in v. 26a: “and thus all Israel will be saved”. There are a number of ways this has been interpreted, which I represent by the following five options:

    1. All Israelites, past and present, will be saved by the mercy and favor of God, but apart from their coming to faith in Christ.
    2. All Israelites, past and present, will be saved collectively through the work of Christ, but in a mysterious way understood only by God, and not necessarily in the sense of “becoming Christians”.
    3. All Israelites alive at the return of Christ will come to faith in him, and will thus be saved.
    4. All of the true Israel will be saved, understood as all Israelites (and Jews) who trust in Christ.
    5. All of the true Israel will be saved, understood as all believers in Christ, Jews and Gentiles alike.

Based on the statement in Rom 9:6 and the olive tree illustration in 11:17-24, Paul certainly would have affirmed the fourth and fifth views above, in the sense that the true Israel is to be identified with believers in Christ (cf. also Rom 2:28-29). However, in Romans 11, and especially in verses 25-32, it would seem that he actually has something like view #3 in mind—namely that, at the end of the age, upon the return of Christ (or shortly before), there would be a widespread conversion of all Israelites and Jews currently living, that together (and/or all at once) they would come to faith in Christ. It is important to remember that, when Paul penned Romans, many, if not most, of the Israelites and Jews of his own generation, who had failed or refused to accept the Gospel, were still living, and he could envision the possibility that they could all still come to faith. As is abundantly clear from his letters (and as pointed out all through this series), Paul, like most early Christians, expected Christ’s return and the end of the current age to occur very soon, presumably within the lifetime of most believers. In this context, Paul’s eschatological hope for Israel here makes good sense. Admittedly, it is rather more difficult to apply to the situation today, where nearly two thousand years have gone by, and many generations of Israelites and Jews have passed away—a situation, I am quite certain, that never would have occurred to Paul. Even so, it is still possible to affirm the belief (or at least the hope) that there will be a widespread conversion of Israel before the return of Christ; and, indeed, may Christians today hold just such a view.

In the previous articles in this series, we saw how the mission to the Gentiles was a fundamental part of the early Christian eschatology, going back to the Gospel tradition (the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, Mark 13:9-11 par, etc). This is not at all incompatible with the imminent eschatology of early Christians, as we have seen, since it was quite possible to envision a (relatively short) period of missionary work in the surrounding nations (i.e. the Roman Empire, or the geographical extent, more or less, of the world as then known) here at the close of the present Age. Paul was well aware of his role in this, and of its eschatological implications. At the time he wrote his letter to the Romans, he may have sensed that this mission work (to the Gentile world) was reaching its climax, nearing its end (15:23-24, 29ff; 16:20, [25-26]), and that a widespread conversion of Israelites and Jews would soon follow. Some of the visions in the book of Revelation may evince a similar idea, of a conversion of Jews to faith in Christ at the end-time (see especially Rev 7:1-8ff, my notes on that passage).

Interestingly, in recent decades, there have been an increasing number of commentators and theologians who would adopt an interpretation along the lines of #1 and 2 above, at least in the sense that Israelites and Jews will be saved by God without having to “convert” or “become Christian”. This may be related to what is called the “Two Covenants” or “Dual Covenant” theory, which I will discuss as part of an upcoming series on the Covenant and People of God concepts.

Most distinctive is Paul’s teaching that Israel’s ‘hardening’ against the Gospel is directly related to the missionary outreach to Gentiles. This reflects historical reality, in that there were Jews who fiercely opposed the early Christian mission, according to Paul’s own testimony and the narrative in the book of Acts. Persecution often fuels the success of a religious movement, galvanizing support and helping to forge a strong and distinctive identity. This may also reflect, at some level, a degree of “cognitive dissonance”—Paul and other Christians were forced to explain the success of the mission among Gentiles throughout Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece and Italy (Rome), while many Jews, who (as the elect people of God) should have been more receptive, did not accept the Gospel. This leads Paul to two different explanations which he brings together in these chapters:

    • Not all Israelites are the true Israel (9:6), and
    • They fell away (i.e. refused to believe) in order to make room for the Gentiles to come to faith
      —this last proposition is most vividly illustrated by the image of the olive tree and the branches (11:17-24)
      • Paul viewed Christianity as the outgrowth of (faithful) Israel stretching back to Abraham (i.e., the “remnant” is the root of the tree)
      • The branches which are faithful and remain in the tree (cf. John 15:1-11) are the early Jewish believers
      • The branches of the wild olive tree are the Gentiles—believers are grafted into the tree of ‘true Israel’
      • The branches which were broken off (i.e., unbelieving Israelites and Jews) may yet come to faith and be grafted back in

Once the full number (or measure) of Gentiles have come to faith, then the unbelieving Israelites and Jews will have the covering removed from their mind (2 Cor 3:14-15) and will come to trust in Christ as well. This, at least, is how Paul appears to have viewed the matter. Fitting it into a particular eschatological framework today is, of course, especially difficult, as indicated by the wide range of interpretive approaches that have been adopted over the years.

December 23: Revelation 20:11-15

Revelation 20:11-15

This is the last of the four scenes in chapter 20; like the second scene (vv. 4-6, cf. the prior note), it is centered on the throne of God in heaven, and refers to the heavenly aspect of the great Judgment.

Revelation 20:11

“And I saw a great white ruling-seat [qro/no$], and the (one) sitting upon it, from whose face the earth and the heaven(s) fled (away), and a place was not found for them (any longer).”

The color white, as a divine symbol, indicating both purity/holiness and victory, has been used repeatedly in the book of Revelation (4:4; 6:11; 7:9ff; 19:11, 14, etc). Here it specifically characterizes the qro/no$, or ruling-seat of God in heaven, which features prominently in the visions of chapters 4 and 5, as elsewhere in the book (1:4; 6:16; 7:9-17; 8:3; 12:5, etc). Since the exalted Jesus (the Lamb) rules alongside God the Father (at His right hand), he shares this same throne, and the People of God in heaven—i.e. the raised/exalted believers, and symbolized by the 24 Elders—also sit upon heavenly thrones (4:4; 11:16; 20:4), in the presence of God and Christ.

The reference to the earth and sky (“heaven[s]”) fleeing from God’s face is a traditional apocalyptic motif, indicating that creation itself cannot stand before the manifest presence and power of God. Moreover, here it alludes to the dissolution of the ko/smo$ and the end of the Age. Various upheavals in the natural order would already have taken place during the end-time period of distress, and more so with the return of Jesus and beginning of the Judgment, as depicted vividly in the sixth seal-vision (6:12-17) and all throughout the trumpet- and bowl-vision cycles (chaps. 8-9, 15-16). This corresponds to the more concise reference to the events surrounding the coming of the Son of Man in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus—Mark 13:24-25ff par, drawing upon Old Testament passages such as Isa 13:10; 24:23; 34:4; Ezek 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15. This “Day of YHWH” imagery (cf. Amos 5:20; 8:9; Zeph 1:15, etc) has ancient roots in Near Eastern and Israelite tradition. The difference is that here, as in other apocalyptic Jewish writings of the period, the imagery is unquestionably eschatological—it refers to the end of the current Age (and to the end of the world/universe as we know it).

Revelation 20:12

“And I saw the dead—the great (one)s and small (one)s (alike)—having stood in the sight of the ruling-seat. And the paper-rolls were opened (up), and another paper-roll was (also) opened, which is the (roll) of life, and the dead (one)s were judged out of the (thing)s having been written in the paper-rolls, according to their works.”

This is the heavenly Judgment—that is, the end-time Judgment in its heavenly aspect—which is itself a reflection of the more ancient afterlife Judgment scene, widespread in religious thought throughout the ancient Near East (and in other cultures). Here the afterlife setting is preserved, since it clearly refers to the dead. Presumably it involves all human beings, though believers have already been set aside, having passed through the Judgment, as is indicated by the passing reference to the “roll of life” (3:5; 13:8; 17:8). The idea of election/predestination is strong in the book of Revelation, though this does not preclude the need for believers to remain faithful, nor negate the real danger of being led astray by the evil/wickedness in the world. These bi/blia, or scrolls (lit. paper-rolls), draw upon two lines of tradition: (1) a record of a person’s deeds which will be used in the (afterlife) Judgment, and (2) rolls of citizenship, in which the names of those belonging to a particular city or locale are recorded. The visions in Revelation make use of both images, which are also attested elsewhere in Scripture (Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:28; Isa 4:3; Dan 7:10; 12:1; Mal 3:16; Luke 10:20; Phil 3:20-4:3). Here the former tradition—the record of a persons deeds (e&rga, “works”)—is emphasized.

Revelation 20:13

“And the Sea gave (up) the dead th(at are) in it, and Death and the Unseen realm gave (up) the dead th(at are) in them, and they were judged, each (person), according to their works.”

In the book of Revelation “the sea” (h( qa/lassa) is primarily a symbol, signifying the dark and chaotic domain of evil, especially as it exerts influence over the peoples of the earth (the nations). For more on the ancient roots of this symbolism, cf. my recent article in the “Ancient Parallels” series. Here the “Sea” is fittingly paired with Death and the realm of the dead (the “unseen” realm, a%|dh$, hades). This generally indicates that we are dealing with the Judgment of the wicked, the heavenly Judgment against the nations. While elsewhere in Scripture, believers are also said to have their works judged (Rom 2:15-16; 1 Cor 3:13-15; 4:5; 2 Cor 5:10, etc), here it is primarily, if not exclusively, the wicked (unbelievers) who are being judged by their works.

Revelation 20:14

“And Death and the Unseen realm (of the dead) were thrown into the lake of fire—this is the second death, the lake of fire.”

The fact that Death and Hades (= Hebrew Sheol) are thrown into the lake of fire, just as the Satan was (v. 10), suggests a mythic personification of Death—i.e. Death as a person, ruler over the realm of the dead. This is well-established in Biblical tradition, even if the authors of Scripture did not necessarily take the personification in a literal, concrete sense (cf. Rom 5:14ff; 6:9; 1 Cor 15:26, 54-56; Rev 1:18; 6:8). The idea of a second death reflects the distinction between earthly and heavenly Judgment, especially as it pertains to the wicked—the earthly Judgment results in physical death (19:21, etc), while the heavenly Judgment ends in a final death of the soul. All human beings (including believers) must endure the physical death of the body, but believers are saved from the second death (2:11). Fire is a primary motif of judgment, and especially of the heavenly Judgment (cf. the previous note). While the specific image of a lake (or river) of fire is traditional, stemming from ancient conceptions of death and the underworld, it is possible that, in the book of Revelation, it alludes to the visionary symbolism associated with the Sea.

Revelation 20:15

“And if any (one) was not found (with his name) having been written in the paper-roll of life, he (also) was thrown into the lake of fire.”

This statement is a simple and traditional description of the fate of the wicked in the heavenly (afterlife) Judgment. It serves as a fitting conclusion to the entire complex of visions that depict the end-time Judgment, particularly those spanning chapters 15-20 (cf. also 6:12-17; chaps. 8-9; 11:13ff; 14:6-20).

The final two chapters of the book of Revelation deal specifically with the New Age, the blessed and eternal life of believers, the People of God, in heaven. Before proceeding with a study of chaps. 21-22, it is necessary to attempt a summary of the book’s eschatology, as it pertains to the Last Judgment, and to give further consideration to the traditional background (and meaning) of the “thousand years” in chap. 20, the so-called Millennium. This will be done via a pair of supplemental articles.

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December 22: Revelation 20:7-10

Revelation 20:7-10

This the third of the four visionary scenes in chapter 20; it is parallel to the first scene (vv. 1-3, cf. the earlier note), with its emphasis on Satan and the “thousand years”, as representing the period during which he is bound in prison. Within the structure of the vision-sequence, the heavenly throne scene occurs between these two episodes (vv. 4-6, cf. the previous note).

Revelation 20:7-8

“And when the thousand years are completed, the Satan will be loosed out of his (prison) guard, and he will go out to lead astray the nations th(at) are in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—to bring them together into the war, of whom their number (is) as the sand of the sea.”

This is perhaps the most unusual and difficult portion of the chapter to explain. If we are to view chap. 20 as a continuation of the Judgment visions in chap. 19, then this episode is totally unexpected. After all, the nations have been defeated and judged, Satan bound, and the People of God (believers) ruling alongside the exalted Jesus (in heaven). This would seem to have settled the matter; yet now, apparently, there is another rebellion by the nations and a second Judgment? Here is where viewing chapter 20 as a separate vision sequence, parallel to that of chap. 19, may make better sense of the eschatological framework. With this approach, the assembling of the nations to battle in 20:7-8ff would be seen as a separate depiction of the same event—the Judgment of the Nations—in 19:17-21.

Let us briefly consider each detail in vv. 7-8, depending on whether chap. 20 is viewed as continuous or parallel with chap. 19 (and the earlier visions):

“when the thousand years were completed” —While the actual number of a thousand is certainly symbolic (indicating completeness, etc, 10 x 100), the idea of a period of time that it represents can be understood several ways; limiting this to the immediate interpretive approach (cf. above), there are two possibilities:

    • (Parallel): The “thousand years”, encompassing the defeat/binding of Satan and the rule of believers alongside Christ, reflects the current Age, specifically the time between the exaltation of Jesus and the end-time Judgment.
    • (Continuous): The thousand years, taken in a more literal sense (as a lengthy period of time), represents the Age to Come on earth; that is to say, the current Age has come to an end, and the “thousand years” marks the New Age.

“the Satan will be loosed out of his (prison) guard” —This of course refers to the binding and imprisonment of Satan in vv. 1-3. Ideally, the release of a prisoner should lead to gratitude and obedience in response (cf. Tacitus Annals 12.37; Josephus Antiquities 10.40; Koester, p. 776), but here the Satan continues to rebel against God instead. Keeping with the same dual line of interpretation, there are again two possibilities:

    • (Parallel): The defeat and binding of Satan (vv. 1-3) corresponds with the scene in 12:7-12, and is related to the work of Jesus that culminates in his death and resurrection (vv. 5, 10-11; cf. also Lk 11:17; 1 Jn 3:8, etc). The “loosing” of Satan then would refer to the end-time period of distress, otherwise referenced in the book of Revelation by the symbolic designation of 3½ years; cp. 12:12 with 20:3.
    • (Continuous): Just as there is a brief but intense period of activity by Satan at the end of the current Age, so there will also be at the end of the Age to Come (the “thousand years”). Satan is bound following the Judgment at the end of the current Age, and will be punished again at the end of the Age to Come.

“and he will go out to lead astray the nations th(at are) in the four corners of the earth” —This draws upon the eschatological tradition of the Judgment of the Nations (collectively), which requires that they assemble together so they can all be judged in one place (Joel 3). A development of this motif has the nations gathering together to make war against God and His People (Israel)—cf. especially Zechariah 12:1-9 and Ezekiel 38-39 (discussed below). The nations were similarly gathered together for battle, by Satan (or his representatives), in 16:12-14; 19:17-21 (cf. also 14:17-20). Interpreting this in v. 7 as parallel with 19:19 is obvious; while a continuous interpretation would mean that the same sort of gathering of the nations (along with their subsequent judgment/defeat) is going to take place at the end of the Age to Come (the “thousand years”).

“Gog and Magog” —These two names, presumably derived from the eschatological oracle in Ezekiel 38-39, here represent “the nations in the four corners of the earth”. In the original oracle “Magog” (gogm*) is a territory north of Israel, possibly to be identified with parts of Anatolia (Cappadocia, Scythia) or Armenia and beyond the Caucasus mountains. The name likewise appears as the name of the eponymous ancestor of this (same?) region in Gen 10:2, but its derivation is otherwise quite unknown. “Gog” (goG) is the ruler or commander of the land of Magog, and could conceivably correspond to the Akkadian gûgu (there was an Anatolian [Lydian] ruler with this name in the 7th century B.C.). Probably “Gog” is simply taken from “Magog”, by assonance/wordplay, etc, to create a specially colorful and ominous combination.

“to bring them together into the war” —Here in the book of Revelation, “Gog and Magog” serve as a kind of shorthand for the entire scenario in Ezek 38-39—i.e., of the collection of distant nations who assemble together to attack Israel (cf. also Zech 12:1-9). The same oracle was in view in 19:17-21 (cf. Ezek 39:17-20), which tends to confirm the interpretive view (cf. above) that chaps. 19 and 20 are parallel accounts of the same basic Judgment scene. The Qumran War Scroll also associates Gog and Magog with the wicked nations who are to be defeated in the great end-time battle (1QM 11:6, 16-18; cf. also 4Q161 fr. 8-10 col. iii. 10-21). Now, “the war” takes on more cosmic significance, being waged against God and the People of God (exalted in heaven); it is quite literally the climax of the conflict between God and the forces of evil (cf. below).

“of whom their number (is) as the sand of the sea” —On the one hand, this is simply a picturesque idiom to describe a great multitude, especially when used of an army assembled for battle (Josh 11:4; Judg 7:12; 1 Sam 13:5). However, the association with the sea in the book of Revelation suggests perhaps a deeper allusion—recall that in 12:18, just prior to the rise of the evil Sea-creature, the Dragon (Satan) was standing there “upon the sand of the sea”.

Revelation 20:9

“And they stepped up upon the wide space of the earth and encircled the (gathering) of the holy (one)s (that had) thrown (down) alongside (each other), and (also) the city having been loved, and fire stepped down out of heaven and ate them down.”

The noun parembolh/, difficult to translate literally in English, refers to the idea of military troops thrown together alongside each other, i.e. as in rows or arranged in a camp. It is very much a military battle that is envisioned, with the forces of “Gog and Magog” encircling the group of “holy ones”, as well as the city designated by the perfect participle “having been loved” (vb a)gapa/w). Here “the city” is Jerusalem, or, more properly, the portion of the city where the Temple was located—the old Canaanite fortified hill-site known in tradition as the “City of David” or “Zion” (cf. Psalm 78:68; 87:1-2, etc). This is scarcely the earthly Jerusalem, in its ordinary sense, in spite of the traditions drawn on from Zech 12:1-9, etc. In the book of Revelation, the earthly Jerusalem is not depicted in a positive light, having been overrun by the wicked nations (11:2, 7-10). Only the Temple sanctuary, figuratively speaking, where the faithful ones (believers) gather, truly represents the holy city. Similarly, believers gather around the Lamb on “Zion” in the vision of 14:1-5. The realization of Jerusalem as the true holy city (“the new Jerusalem”) must wait until the visions of chaps. 21-22 (to be discussed).

The punishment and defeat of “Gog and Magog” is accomplished via supernatural means, much as the nations are defeated by the “sword” that comes out of the exalted Jesus’ mouth in the earlier Judgment vision (19:15ff). The image of “fire coming down out of heaven” is a traditional motif of Divine Judgment, on cities and peoples, cf. Gen 19:24; 1 Kings 18:39; 2 Kings 1:10-12; Luke 9:54), which here is used in the eschatological context of the Last Judgment (cp. Luke 10:12 par; 17:29; 2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7; Rev 11:9). Elsewhere in the book of Revelation fire comes down on the nations as a sign of the great Judgment—8:5, 7-11; 11:5; 15:8; 16:8; 17:16; 18:9; cp. 14:10-11; 19:3. The same imagery was used in the oracle of Ezek 38-39 which inspired this scene (38:22; 39:6).

The imagery of Gog and Magog “stepping up” onto the broad surface of the earth, presumably from somewhere ‘below’, suggests that these are not normal human armies—on this, cf. the notice below.

Revelation 20:10

“And the (One) casting (evil) throughout [dia/bolo$], the (one) leading them (all) astray, he was cast into the lake of fire and sulphur, where also the wild animal and the false foreteller [i.e. False Prophet] (were cast), and they shall be tested (painfully with fire) day and night, into the Ages of Ages.”

This represents the final defeat of the forces of evil, parallel with what was described in 19:20. The idea of the Devil (o( dia/bolo$), or Belial, being punished and devoured by fire is found elsewhere in Jewish tradition (e.g., 1Q13 iii. 7; Testament of Judah 25:3). As for the expression “lake of fire”, it draws upon the more general imagery of fire as a sign (and form) of Divine punishment (cf. above, and note in Isa 30:33; 66:24). The fiery end of the Sea- and Earth-creatures (“wild animal” and “false prophet”) resembles that of the fourth ‘beast’ in Daniel 7:11. The wicked/rebellious Angels could likewise be depicted as being thrown into a fiery abyss (1 Enoch 10:6ff; 21:7-10). The specific combination of fire and a lake probably is derived from common underworld imagery; on such rivers, etc, of fire, see, for example, Plato Phaedo 113ab; Virgil Aeneid 6.550-51). For these and other references, cf. Koester, pp. 761, 779.

The difficulties in explaining the scenario of vv. 7-10 have been noted above, including the wider interpretative question of whether the visions of chap. 20 are best understood as a continuation of chap. 19, or as a separate sequence parallel to it. Complicating the situation is the use of “Gog and Magog” as a symbol. There is some indication that it does not refer simply to the ordinary nations known to readers (such as those of the Roman Empire, etc), but should be regarded as a mythic figure-type for peoples from beyond the recognized boundaries of the earth (“the four corners”). This would make “Gog and Magog” akin to the Sea- and Earth-creatures of chaps. 13ff, who serve as figures of the forces of evil at work in the world. In support of this, I would note:

    • The location of “Gog and Magog” as “in the four corners of the earth”. In the original oracle of Ezekiel 38-39, Gog and Magog are said to come from the remotest parts of the north (38:6, 15); now this conceptual delimitation is given wider cosmic significance. It is a basic point of human religious and cultural psychology, that the boundaries of the known world tend to be regarded as the domain of frightening alien beings.
    • Here Gog and Magog “step up” onto the broad space of the earth’s surface, suggesting that they come up from a location below the earth, much like the hybrid-demon beings in the fifth and sixth trumpet-visions of chapter 9.
    • These strange ‘nations’ are described as a vast multitude, numbering “as the sand of the sea”; the demonic ‘armies’ in 9:16-19 are similarly vast. Moreover, the descriptive expression here likely alludes to the earlier scene of the Dragon standing “upon the sand of the sea” (12:18).
    • The fate of theses ‘nations’ is to be consumed by heavenly fire, just like the Sea- and Earth-creatures, and Satan himself.

Even so, there is clearly an intentional parallel between the Judgment scenes in 19:17-21 and 20:7-10, reflecting, if you will, two stages in the end-time Judgment and final defeat of evil:

    • The immediate nations, influenced by the Sea-creature are defeated and slain in battle
      • The Sea-creature (and his ally) are thrown into the lake of fire
    • The distant nations, influenced by the Satan/Devil himself, are defeated and slain in battle
      • The Satan/Devil is thrown into the lake of fire

These two episodes bracket the scene of the “thousand years”, signifying the resurrection/exaltation of believers, who now rule alongside Jesus—parallel to his own resurrection/exaltation. This may be outlined as:

    • The Judgment in its earthly aspect—the human nations on earth (16:12-16ff; 19:17-21)
    • The Thousand Years—the resurrection/exaltation of believers (20:1-6)
    • The Judgment in its heavenly aspect—the distant nations of the earth, signifying more clearly the forces of evil (20:7-10ff)
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December 21: Revelation 20:4-6

Revelation 20:4-6

This is the second of the four visionary episodes in chapter 20 (on the first episode, vv. 1-3, cf. the previous note). As I indicated, these visions alternate between two distinct, but related, themes: (1) a thousand-year period during which Satan is imprisoned (vv. 1-3, 7-10), and (2) the heavenly judgment before the throne of God (vv. 4-6, 11-15). Moreover, the visionary scenes of chap. 20 can be understood in two different ways: (a) as the continuation/climax of chap. 19 (and the earlier Judgment-visions), or (b) as a separate/parallel cycle of visions depicting the eschatological scenario from the exaltation of Jesus to the final Judgment.

Revelation 20:4

“And I saw seats of rule [qro/noi], and they sat down upon them and judgment was given to them, and the souls of the (ones) having been struck with an axe [i.e. beheaded] through [i.e. because of] the witness of Yeshua and through the word/account of God, the (one)s who did not kiss toward [i.e. worship] the wild animal and did not (worship) its image, and (also) did not receive the engraved (mark) upon the (space) between (their) eyes and upon their hands—and they (all) lived and ruled as king with the Anointed (One for) a thousand years.”

The ambiguity of the syntax in this description at several points creates some difficulty for interpretation. The first is that the referent for the initial pronoun “they/them” is unclear. There are several possibilities:

    • It refers to the twenty-four Elders (4:4, 10; 11:6, etc), representing the People of God in their heavenly aspect, who pronounce judgment on behalf of the faithful ones (believers) who have come through the period of distress.
    • It anticipates the slain believers (martyrs) mentioned in the next phrases—i.e., the ruling-seats are reserved for them and they sit down on them.
    • It is a general and comprehensive reference to believers as a whole, of whom those slain during the period of distress are especially deserving of mention.

Secondly the precise meaning of the phrase kri/ma e)do/qh au)toi=$ (“judgment was given to them”) is disputed; it could mean either (a) that judgment was given for them (i.e. on their behalf), or (b) that they were given the power to render judgment. The idea of believers serving as judges in heaven (and/or in the Age to Come) is expressed at several points in early Christian tradition (Matt 19:28; par Luke 22:30; 1 Cor 6:1-2); however, in the book of Revelation, judgment is consistently reserved for God and the exalted Jesus (14:7; 16:5, 7; 19:11; 20:12-13). Yet here, if those on the thrones rule together with Jesus, then it is reasonable to assume that they have the power to render judgment along with him as well. I find it difficult to decide which aspect of the phrase is being emphasized, yet I would probably interpret the setting of verse 4 as follows:

The ruling-seats, or thrones, are reserved for all true believers, who, in their exalted status, become part of the People of God in its heavenly aspect. Those who remained faithful during the period of distress are true believers, though they are not the only such ones; the reason why they are mentioned here is two-fold:

(1) they are the focus of the visions of Revelation (esp. chapters 13ff), and
(2) they relate most immediately to the original audience of the book, since, based on the imminent eschatology of early Christians, it was expected that the majority of those first readers would go through the period of distress described in the visions, with many of them suffering and being put to death.

If believers occupy a place of rule along with Jesus, then they also have the power to judge, the phrase kri/ma e)do/qh au)toi=$ probably meaning that this authority for judgment was given to them. Believers are said to rule with Jesus for a “thousand years” (a symbolic number), but it is by no means clear that this is a kingdom on earth (cf. below).

Revelation 20:5

“And the (one)s remaining of the dead did not live (again) until the thousand years were completed, (since) this is the first standing up [i.e. resurrection] (out of the dead).”

Again, there is some uncertainty regarding this scenario: does the “remainder of the dead” refer to (1) all other believers, or (2) all non-believers, or a combination of the two? Most likely this is a roundabout way of making a distinction between the resurrection of dead believers, and all other human beings (non-believers). References to the end-time resurrection are surprisingly rare in the book of Revelation, as are descriptions of the return of Jesus. However, almost certainly, there is an allusion to both in 14:14-16, where the harvest imagery refers to the gathering of believers to Jesus at his end-time return, which would include the resurrection of those who have died (cf. 1 Thess 4:14-17 and the harvest imagery in 1 Cor 15:20-23, 36ff). Thus the “first” resurrection is that of believers, at Jesus’ return, while the rest of humankind is raised at a ‘later’ point (or stage) to face the Judgment in heaven. Here the visionary scene depicts the two events occurring at the beginning and end of a symbolic “thousand year” period. The use of the verb za/w (“live”) in vv. 4-5 has the special connotation of living or coming to life again.

Revelation 20:6

“Happy and holy is the (one) holding a part in the first standing up [i.e. resurrection]—upon these the second death does not hold (any) e)cousi/a [i.e. authority/power], but they will be sacred (servant)s of God and of the Anointed (One), and they will rule as kings with him (for) [the] thousand years.”

The opening adjective maka/rio$ (“happy”) marks this as another beatitude (or macarism) in the book of Revelation (1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; also 22:7, 14). The background of the beatitude form is fundamentally eschatological, originally relating to the idea of the judgment-scene in the afterlife. Those who pass through the judgment (after death) will be worthy of entering into the blessed and divine life (in heaven). Eschatological tradition shifts the focus of the Judgment from the afterlife to the end-time, but the basic concepts and imagery are the same. Here the afterlife setting is retained, since the visionary portrait relates to the resurrection of believers who have died.

There are two aspects for the second adjective, a%gio$ (“holy”)—(1) it indicates the purity of the believers who have remained faithful, especially during the end-time period of distress (cf. 13:7, 10; 14:12), and (2) it signifies their exalted status, sharing in the holiness of God and Christ (3:7; 4:8; 6:10). The designation of believers as priests (i(erei=$, “sacred officials”) and kings, echoes ancient Old Testament tradition regarding Israel as the People of God (Exod 19:6; Isa 61:6, etc). This same language was applied to believers generally in the New Testament (1 Pet 2:5, 9), but its takes on special significance in the book of Revelation, which ultimately depicts the very exaltation of believers, realizing their status as the People of God in heaven, that is anticipated elsewhere in early Christian tradition (cf. 1:6; 5:10).

The expression “the second death” will be discussed in the note on vv. 11-15. Just as there are two resurrections, so there are also two deaths—one related primarily to believers, the other reserved for non-believers. This distinction also runs parallel to the two aspects of the Judgment-setting—earthly and heavenly. The earthly Judgment leads to physical death for the wicked (19:21), while the heavenly Judgment ends in the final death of the soul (20:14).

Does the scene in vv. 4-6 take place on earth or in heaven? Is the thousand year period, etc, symbolic of the blessed life in heaven, or is it meant to depict a span of actual time on earth? The answer to this question depends on how the book of Revelation envisions the Age to Come. It is not a simple answer, since the imagery and symbolism in visions of chapters 20-22, like that elsewhere in the book, is complex and multi-faceted. Moreover, within Jewish tradition there were several different ways of understanding the Age to Come; these generally can be distilled into two main constructs: (1) an idealized form of the current life on earth, emphasizing health and prosperity, long life and security, etc, and (2) the blessed life in heaven with God. These are not incompatible, but it can be difficult to harmonize them. As we proceed through the remaining visions of chaps. 20-22, we should be able to gain a clearer sense of how this is to be understood in the book of Revelation.

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Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Romans (Part 2)

Romans 8:18-25

Verses 18-25 are part of the wider section spanning chapter 8, the fourth, and final, major section of the probatio of Romans (Rom 1:18-8:39). The first three sections were:

    • Rom 1:18-3:20: Announcement of God’s (impending) judgment, according to the Law (of God)
    • Rom 3:21-5:21: Announcement of God’s justice/righteousness (in Christ), apart from the Law (Torah)
    • Rom 6:1-7:25: Announcement of Freedom from the Law and Sin

This last section (chapter 8) I would divide as follows (for more on this outline, cf. the article in the series “Paul’s View of the Law”):

    • Rom 8:1-30: Announcement of Life in the Spirit (Exhortation)
      8:1-11: The conflict (for believers) between the Spirit and the Flesh
      8:12-17: Believers are sons (of God) and heirs (with Christ) through the Spirit
      8:18-25: Believers have the hope of future glory (new creation) through the Spirit
      8:26-30: Believers experience the work of salvation through the Spirit
    • Rom 8:31-39: Doxology: The Love of God (in Christ)

As indicated above, the primary theme of chapter 8 is the new life in the Spirit that believers experience, representing the culmination of the “salvation history” or “order of salvation” that Paul lays out in the probatio of Romans.

In verses 12-17, believers are identified as the children (“sons”) of God, an identity that is realized through the Spirit (cp. Gal 4:6). In verse 18, this discussion shifts to the future aspect of our Christian identity, comparing the situation for believers currently (whether understood as Paul’s time or our own) in the world, with what awaits the faithful in the Age to Come. Thus, Rom 8:18-25 is fundamentally eschatological, marking the climax of this last division of the salvation history, at the point in time where believers are positioned—i.e., living at the end of the current Age.

Verse 18

“For I count [i.e. consider] that the sufferings of th(is) moment now (are) not brought up (as equal) toward the honor [do/ca] (be)ing about to be uncovered unto us.”

The noun pa/qhma has the basic meaning “suffering, misfortune”, something negative which happens to a person. Paul uses it (always in the plural, 9 times) in two primary contexts: (1) the sufferings in the flesh, i.e. the impulse toward sin which resides in the flesh (even for believers), along with the suffering this causes (Rom 7:25; Gal 5:24), and (2) the sufferings which believers endure (from non-believers, especially) for the sake of Christ and the Gospel (2 Cor 1:5-7, etc). Both aspects are rightly considered as part of the suffering faced by believers in the present Age, which Paul (and his readers) saw as swiftly coming to a close. Here, the contrast is between the present suffering of believers, and the future honor/glory that waits for them. The present suffering, no matter how severe, does not measure up to the greatness of this future glory. The adjective a&cio$ draws upon the idiom of weighing—i.e. the weight of something which brings up the beam of the scales into balance. The implication is that the future glory far outweighs the present suffering (cp. 2 Cor 4:17).

The use of the auxiliary verb me/llw, indicating that something is about to occur, is another sign that for Paul this eschatological expectation was imminent. He fully expected that those believers to whom he was writing would soon be experiencing this do/ca— “about to be uncovered unto us”.

Verse 19

“For the (stretch)ing of the head of the (thing) formed (by God) looks out to receive th(is) uncovering of the sons of God.”

The statement is almost impossible to translate literally in English, with its wordplay involving the compound noun a)pokaradoki/a and verb a)pekde/xomai. Both compounds are based on the verbal root de/xomai, which denotes a person receiving something. The noun connotes an eager expectation, literally signifying the stretching of the head out (or up), i.e. in anticipation of something coming. The word kti/si$ means something (or someone) that has been formed, i.e. by God; it is used by Paul 5 times in chapter 8, emphasizing the nature of human beings as part of the current order of creation. In other words, believers are living in this (current) created order—that is, in the present Age—all the while waiting for, and expecting, the uncovering of the future glory. Note again the identification of believers as “sons (i.e. children) of God”. Moreover, Paul speaks as though creation itself, taken as a whole, shares in this expectation (cf. below on vv. 20ff); thus there is an inherent ambiguity in the word kti/si$—does it refer comprehensively to all that God has created, or simply to the created nature of human beings?

Verses 20-21

“For the (thing) formed was set under an (arranged) order, in futility, (and) not willingly (so), but through the (one) setting (it) under the (arranged) order—upon hope—(in) that even the (thing) formed it(self) will be set free from the slavery of th(is) decay into the freedom of the honor of the offspring of God.”

Paul’s syntax here is notoriously difficult to interpret with precision, though the basic idea is clear enough. Several strands of theological language and religious tradition are brought together:

    • A continuation of the slavery/freedom motif that has been developed throughout Romans. Human beings have been enslaved under the power of sin since the time of the first human (Adam), when sin (and the idea of sin) was introduced into the world (see chapters 5 and 7). Through trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ, believers are freed from this bondage.
    • Metaphysical dualism—Related to the slavery/bondage theme is the idea that the current created order has ‘fallen’ into a condition dominated by death and decay (fqora/); as a result, human beings are trapped within this fallen order, needing rescue/deliverance by God (through Christ). In this regard, Paul shares much in common with many “Gnostics”, but differs from them fundamentally by his emphasis that the goal is not simply escape from the material condition, but that the material world itself would be transformed.
    • The Adam/Christ parallel—This was the main organizing principle for Paul’s line of argument in chapter 5, and it is likely that he is alluding to it again here. It is the mythic-narrative corollary to the slavery vs. bondage contrast, defining it according to the narratives surrounding two contrasting persons—one introducing sin into the world, the other delivering the world from sin.

The difficult syntax of vv. 20-21, can, I think, be clarified by considering the thematic structure of the phrases as a chiasm:

    • Creation set under an arranged order of things—in futility
      • It is set under this arranged order through Adam’s sin (implied)
        • Yet this arrangement is based upon an underlying hope
      • It will be set free from this order, through Christ’s saving work (implied)
    • Creation will be freed into a new order of things—out of slavery/decay

According to this line of interpretation, the subject of the participle u(pota/canta is Adam (representing all of humankind). By refusing to put himself under God’s order (cp. use of the vb u(pota/ssw in 8:7; 10:3), he effectively placed the world under a ‘fallen’ order (with the introduction of the enslaving power of sin). Many commentators would see God as the implied subject of u(pota/canta, influenced perhaps by the language in 1 Cor 15:27-28 and the tradition of God (YHWH) cursing the ground, etc, in Genesis 3. While theologically correct, this is unlikely in the rhetorical context here, given the emphasis on the nature of the bondage that Paul describes throughout Romans, and the specific Adam/Christ parallel in chapter 5. Closer to the thought in Romans (and Galatians) would be the idea that the Law subjected creation to the bondage under sin (Rom 7:7-13; Gal 3:22ff). Chapters 5 and 7 present two ways of viewing and explaining the same dynamic—of how humankind came to be enslaved to the power of sin.

The honor (do/ca) that awaits for believers is to be understood primarily in terms of the coming resurrection, as Paul makes clear in the following verses. It is established here by the formal parallel between do/ca and fqora/ (“decay”), the latter indicating the mortality of the created order, in bondage under the power of death.

Verses 22-23

“For we have seen that all th(at has been) formed groans together and is in pain together, until th(is moment) now; and not only (this), but also (our)selves, holding the beginning (fruit) from (the harvest) of the Spirit, even we (our)selves groan in ourselves, looking out to receive (our) [placement as sons], (and) the loosing of our body from (bondage).”

Two different images are employed here, both of which were traditionally used in an eschatological context: (1) the pain of giving birth, and (2) harvest imagery. Both images refer to the climax of a period (of growth and labor, etc), thus serving as suitable figure-types for the end of the current Age. The birth-pain imagery was used especially in reference to the end-time period of distress (cf. Mark 13:9, 17 par; Luke 23:28-29ff, etc), while the harvest tended to prefigure the end-time Judgment (Matt 3:12 par; 13:39-43; Mark 4:29; Rev 14:15ff; cf. also Luke 10:2; Jn 4:35). This judgment-motif involved the separation of the righteous from the wicked (i.e. the grain from the chaff), which was understood in terms of the gathering of believers to Jesus at the moment of his end-time return (Mk 13:26-27 par; Rev 14:15-16). Paul, at least, specifically included the resurrection of dead believers in this gathering (1 Thess 4:14-17), and clearly made use of harvest-imagery in his discussion on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 (vv. 20-23, 36ff). Jesus himself was the “beginning (fruit) from (the harvest)” (a)parxh/), and believers share this same status, through the Spirit, possessing the same life-giving power that raised Jesus from the dead. This is what Paul means when he says that as believers we hold “the beginning (fruit) from (the harvest) of the Spirit“; elsewhere the Spirit is described as a kind of deposit (2 Cor 1:22; 5:5), guaranteeing for us the promise of resurrection.

Because believers continue to live in the world, in the current created order, as human beings, we groan suffering along with all of creation, since our bodies (our “flesh”) remain under the old bondage to sin and death. We must still confront the impulse to sin in our flesh, and we all face the reality of physical death. Our deliverance from this bondage will not be complete until the transformation of our bodies, as stated here by Paul— “the loosing of our body from (bondage)”, using the noun a)polu/trwsi$. His temporal expression a&xri tou= nu=n is a shorthand for the tou= nu=n kairou= (“of the moment now”) in verse 18, another indication of the imminence of Paul’s eschatology—that is, it was about to happen now.

There is some textual uncertainty regarding the noun ui(oqesi/a (“placement as son[s]”) in verse 23, as it is omitted in a number of key manuscripts (Ë46 D F G 614). If secondary, then the text originally would have read: “…looking out to receive the loosing of our body from (bondage)” —i.e., the reference would be entirely to the resurrection, without any mention of the ‘adoption’ motif. However, as the sonship-theme was central to vv. 12-17, as also the expression “sons of God” in v. 19, the use of ui(oqesi/a would be entirely fitting here in v. 23. The resurrection serves to complete the realization of believers as the sons (children) of God.

Verses 24-25

“For in hope we are saved; but hope being looked at is not hope, for who hopes (after) that which he (can) look at? But if we hope (for) that which we do not look at, (then) we look to receive (it) through (our) remaining under.”

This “hope” (e)lpi/$, and related verb e)lpi/zw) is the same as that mentioned by Paul at the center of vv. 20-21, where the fallen created order, currently in bondage to sin and death, is said to be based upon an underlying hope (“upon hope”, e)f’ e)lpi/di). Now this hope is defined as the salvation of humankind—believers—with their/our identity as sons/children of God. This ultimate deliverance is not something that can be looked at or seen clearly in the material world, for two reasons: (1) salvation is primarily eschatological, realized only at the end of the current Age, and (2) it is currently experienced only through the presence of the Spirit, which is not objectively visible to people at large. With trust and patience, believers endure suffering in the present Age—the temptation of the flesh and persecution by the world—captured by the word u(pomonh/, which literally means “remaining under”, i.e. under obedience to God and Christ. This is the attitude we are to have while waiting for the final salvation—the resurrection and transformation of our bodies.

December 17: Revelation 20:1-3

Revelation 20

The four-part vision in chapter 20 may be read two ways: (1) as a continuation of the visions in chap. 19, and (2) as a parallel depiction of the end-time Judgment, emphasizing its heavenly aspect rather than its earthly aspect. In terms of the structure of chapter 20, it contains two alternating visionary themes, each with a pair of related visions:

    1. The period of a thousand years (Millennium)—vv. 1-3, 7-10
    2. The heavenly Judgment before the throne of God—vv. 4-6, 11-15

Each of these four visions will be discussed in a note, along with a short supplemental study on the concept among early Christians of a Messianic Kingdom on earth (and its relation to the “Millennium” in chap. 20).

Revelation 20:1-3

“And I saw a Messenger stepping down out of heaven, holding the (key) closing the (pit) without depth [i.e. bottomless] and a great chain upon his hand. And he took strong hold of the Fabulous Creature [dra/kwn], the Snake of the beginning, which is the (One) casting (evil) throughout [dia/bolo$] and the Satan, and bound him (for) a thousand years, and (then) cast him into the (pit) without depth and closed (it) and sealed (it) up above him, (so) that he should not lead astray the nations any longer, until the thousand years should be completed—with [i.e. after] these (thing)s it is necessary for him to be loosed (for) a little time.”

This vision alludes to the fifth trumpet-vision in 9:1-11, with its reference to the a&busso$ (ábyssos), with literally means “without depth”, i.e., a place without any end to its depth (bottomless, limitless). In the ancient cosmology, this generally refers to the vast space underneath the earth (parallel to the space above). It is largely synonymous with the unseen realm of Death and the dead ( %A[i]dh$,  )Ai+/dh$), though stretching even far below that. Also, in at least one strand of Greek cosmological tradition, this deep abyss (called ta/rtaro$, tártaros, of uncertain derivation) was the location where an earlier generation of divine beings/powers (“Titans”) was imprisoned following the rise of the current generation (led by Zeus)—cf. Hesiod’s Theogony lines 841, 851, note also 119). A similar idea was preserved in Jewish tradition (e.g. 1 Enoch 10:4-6ff; 88:1-3; cf. also 20:2; 53:3-5; 54:1-6; 2 Baruch 56:13), whereby the Angels who rebelled during the early period of Creation were thrown down beneath the earth, into the abyss. In the New Testament, 2 Peter 2:4 expresses this rather clearly, using the denominative verb tartaro/w, essentially meaning “place/consign (someone) into the ta/rtaro$“. According to Theogony 821ff, the multi-headed serpent creature Typhoeus (Tufweu/$) was born from the union of Earth and Tartarus; this mythic being is quite similar in many respects to the Dragon (Dra/kwn) of the book of Revelation (cf. the recent article in the “Ancient Parallels” series).

In the book of Revelation this abyss (a&busso$) under the earth is the place from which evil and demonic beings emerge. The Jewish tradition cited above, of the heavenly beings who rebelled and were thrown down to earth, is referenced in 12:8-13, as also in the context of the fifth trumpet-vision (9:1). The fantastic demon-beings in 9:1-11 emerge from the a&busso$ (v. 2), and are ruled by a “Messenger (Angel) of the a&busso$” (v. 11), presumably to be identified with the Satan. The identity of the Messenger who hold the “key” to the abyss (v. 1) is not as clear; overall the imagery may suggest a demonic figure (cp. 12:4), but the parallel here in 20:1 indicates the control over the abyss by a true Messenger of God. It is also out of the a&busso$ that the “wild animal” (qh/rion), i.e. the Sea-creature of chapters 13ff, emerges (11:7), a point further made in 17:8, where the reference apparently is to a demonic future ruler who will be virtually an incarnation of the evil Sea-creature. According to the Lukan version of the Gerasene exorcism miracle, the demons recognize that their place is in the a&busso$ and hey plead with Jesus not to be sent back there (Lk 8:31). The word a&busso$ occurs in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) some 50 times, usually in a general (cosmological) sense—in Gen 1:2 it is used to translate Hebrew <ohT=, a reference to the dark and chaotic mass of primeval waters (“Sea”) that was thought to precede the Creation proper (according to the ancient Near Eastern cosmology). God establishes the ordered universe in the midst of this a&busso$.

Returning to the vision of Rev 20:1-3, clearly the idea is of the evil Dragon being sent back to the a&busso$ from which it came, and to which it ultimately belongs—i.e., the dark and chaotic realm of evil, symbolized (concretely) in the terms of the ancient cosmology as a space underneath the earth. A Messenger descends from heaven holding a key (klei/$) for this abyss; on the relationship of this Messenger to the figure with the key in 9:1, cf. my earlier note. The noun klei/$ properly refers to something which closes shut (vb klei/w); of course, a key also opens, but here the emphasis is on closing. The Messenger holds both a key and a great chain, indicating two distinct actions to be taken: (a) binding the Dragon (vb de/w), and (b) closing him up within the abyss. The intermediate action of casting/throwing him down into the abyss reflects a subtle wordplay with the title Diabo/lo$ (Diábolos, English “Devil”), which literally means something like “one throwing over, one casting through(out)”—i.e. casting/throwing accusation, slander, and all sorts of evil—based on the verb ba/llw (“throw, cast”). The Fabulous Creature (dra/kwn, English “Dragon”) of chaps. 12-13 is here identified with the ancient cosmological Serpent (and the Serpent of Gen 3), as well as the Satan and the “Devil”—in other words, the primary figure of evil, the Evil One, who is opposed to God (cf. also 12:9).

In the context of the visionary narrative (continuing from chap. 19), following the great battle that symbolized the end-time Judgment on earth (i.e. its earthly aspect), the Sea-creature, together with his ally the Earth-creature (False Prophet), was captured, so as to face the great Judgment in its heavenly aspect—i.e. being thrown into the “lake of fire” (19:20). The Sea-creature ultimately serves the Dragon, whom he so resembles (12:3; 13:1); and now the Dragon also is captured and thrown into place where the heavenly Judgment likewise awaits (20:10, already alluded to in 12:12). This Dragon is the supreme manifestation of the forces of evil, and his punishment will be given a climactic position, centered between the two heavenly Judgment visions in chapter 20. The chain the Messenger holds for binding him is called “great” (mega/lh); according to the law Digest of Justinian, the larger the chain used for binding a prisoner indicated a more severe punishment (48.19.8.6; Koester, p. 769).

The most difficult and problematic detail in this vision, and for chapter 20 as a whole, is the time-span of a thousand (xi/lioi) years. As with all such details in the book of Revelation the number itself is symbolic; however, the idea that an actual period of time is here envisioned, between the earthly and heavenly Judgments, must be taken seriously. This has led many commentators to assume that there will, in fact, be an extensive period of time, after the initial Judgment, during which a Messianic Kingdom (ruled by Jesus) will be established and in force on earth. Certainly, such a Millennial/Messianic Kingdom is indicated by verses 5-6, the language and imagery of which will be discussed in the next daily note. In terms of the vision of vv. 1-3, it must be pointed out that the focus is on the imprisonment of the Dragon (Satan), the “thousand years” being the time of his imprisonment. The purpose of imprisonment is so that the Dragon will “no longer lead the nations astray”, which does suggest a time in which people will be able to follow/worship God without being influenced by the forces of evil. It is unquestionably an ideal for humankind, one which is to be realized in the Age to Come, but we must consider carefully just how the visionary narrative of Revelation understands the place of this ideal within the early Christian eschatology.

The above comments are based on reading 20:1-3ff more or less as a continuation of the visions in chap. 19. However, given the way that the visions (and vision-cycles) in the book of Revelation are interlocking, with a tendency to repeat certain themes and to present the same eschatological event using different imagery, it is worth considering chap. 20 as a separate vision-sequence, depicting the same Judgment scenario in different terms. This will be discussed further in the upcoming notes, but here I will suggest at least one way to interpret chap. 20 as a self-contained set of visions that summarize the early Christian eschatology:

    • Vision 1 (vv. 1-3)—The heavenly defeat of the Dragon (Satan), similar to that described in 12:7-12. There his defeat and downfall corresponded to the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus, and so it perhaps should be understood here as well. According to this line of interpretation, vv. 1-3 are not necessarily connected with the Judgment scene and battle of chap. 19.
    • Vision 2 (vv. 4-6)—The resurrection of believers, which elsewhere in early Christian tradition is tied to the end-time return of Jesus (1 Thess 4:14-17, cp. Mark 13:26-27 par). Though Jesus’ return is not specified here, it is depicted at similar points in the earlier vision-sequences (14:14-16; 19:11-16); the gathering of believers (including the resurrection of the dead?) is certainly described in 14:15-16.
    • Vision 3 (vv. 7-10)—Another vision of the great end-time Judgment on earth, parallel to that in 14:17-20; 19:17-21, involving the judgment/punishment of the nations and the final defeat of Satan.
    • Vision 4 (vv. 11-15)—The final Judgment in its heavenly aspect, taking place before the throne of God.
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December 15: Revelation 19:17-21

Revelation 19:17-21

This is the third of the three visions of chapter 19. It follows upon the vision of the exalted Jesus’ return to earth as a conquering warrior (vv. 11-16), an Anointed (Messianic) ruler leading the heavenly army into battle. Here the end-time Judgment is cast in terms of the defeat of the nations, with the destruction of their kings and armies. It picks up on the unresolved sixth bowl-vision (16:12-16), where the kings of the earth gather for battle on the plain of “Megiddo” (the Har-Megiddo[n], Grk  (Armagedw/n, cf. Zech 12:11). This is the ancient “Day of YHWH” motif from Old Testament Prophetic tradition, as best epitomized by the Judgment-scene in Joel 3. In the sixth bowl-vision, the defeat of the nations is implied but never realized; this occurs here in verses 17-21, an echo of the earlier grape-harvest vision of 14:17-20.

Revelation 19:17-18

“And I saw one Messenger having stood in the sun, and he cried out [in] a great voice, saying to all (the) birds taking wing [i.e. flying] in the middle of (the) heaven(s): ‘Come here! you must be brought together unto the great dinner of God, so that you might eat (the) flesh of kings and (the) flesh of chiefs of a thousand, and (the) flesh of strong (one)s and (the) flesh of horses and the (one)s sitting upon them, and (the) flesh of all free (person)s and also slaves, and of little (one)s and great (one)s (alike)!'”

According to the ancient religious worldview, divine beings were closely associated with the natural phenomena of the universe, and so it is with the heavenly Messengers (Angels) in Old Testament and Jewish tradition. Throughout the book of Revelation, Angels are depicted as controlling the forces of nature, including the elements (fire and water, etc) as well as the specific parts of the cosmos (seas and rivers, the dry land, the sun, etc). At various points, these Messengers are seen standing in connection or contact with the natural features or cosmic regions (7:1; 10:5); here, one particular Messenger is standing “in/on the sun” (e)n tw=| h(li/w|). This makes for a most dramatic and brilliant appearance, as is fitting for such a climactic moment, similar to the Messenger who announces the fall of the Great City in 18:1-2.

The heavenly Messengers are often seen standing or flying in the heavens, giving them much in common with the birds of the sky; indeed, the two ‘heavenly’ motifs were joined together previously in 8:13 (cp. 14:6). Now the Messenger speaks directly to all the birds flying in the heavens, inviting them to come to feast on the flesh of the great multitudes who will be slain in battle. This image echoes 18:2, where it is announced that the Great City (“Babylon”) will become the haunting place for scavenging birds and wild animals—the implication being, in part, that they will be able to feed off of the dead bodies in the desolate and destroyed City. The actual language here in vv. 17-18 alludes to Ezekiel 39:17-18, part of what is surely the most elaborate “Day of YHWH” oracle in the Old Testament Prophets, depicting the Judgment against the Nations (and their defeat in battle) on the grandest scale. This is the so-called “Gog and Magog” prophecy in Ezek 38-39, and reflects an extensive development of the Judgment scene in Joel 3, where a vast confederation of nations comes together for battle against God and His People. Imagery and symbolism from this same oracle will continue into the visions of chapter 20.

Here, a multitude even more vast is indicated—the nation’s armies being made up from every part of society: free and slave, small and great, alike. Thus, the scene truly represents God’s Judgment against the nations as a whole, not just their leaders.

Revelation 19:19

“And I saw the wild animal, and the kings of the earth and their (group)s (of) armed soldiers, having been brought together to make war with the (one) sitting upon the (white) horse and with his (own group of) armed soldiers.”

This “wild animal” (qh/rion) is the same Sea-creature of chapter 13, whose presence has remained all through the visions of chap. 14, the bowl-visions of chaps. 15-16, and on into the climactic visions of chaps. 19-20. In the sixth-bowl vision (16:12-16), the Sea-creature (along with his evil ally, the Earth-creature or ‘False Prophet’) drew all the kings of the earth to this location, in order to do battle. What was implied there is now made explicit: their purpose is to make war with God’s Anointed (Jesus) and the People of God (Believers). This was already stated clearly enough in the visions of chapters 12 and 13 (see esp. 13:7), but now it is expressed in terms of the Last Judgment itself, through the image of a great battle.

It was a basic principle of Apocalyptic tradition that the nations, in their wickedness, were influenced and guided, in a very real sense, by the forces of evil. In many Jewish writings of the time, these evil forces were personified in the figure of Belial—a figure largely synonymous (but not necessarily identical) with the Satan/Devil. The demonic powers, led by Belial, join with the wicked human forces of the nations, much as the holy Angels join together with the People of God (the righteous/Elect). This is perhaps best expressed in the famous Qumran War Scroll (1QM, and related texts), anticipating a great end-time war between “the sons of light” and “the sons of darkness” (cf. 1QM 1:1-7; 11:6-7; 13:10; 15:2; 17:6-7, etc). The idea of an end-time attack by the nations and their armies, with their subsequent defeat by the Messiah, was a staple of Jewish eschatology (e.g. 2 Baruch 70:2-10; 72:1-6; 2/4 Esdras 13:5-11; Sibylline Oracles 3:657-68; for an earlier manifestation, cf. Psalms of Solomon 17-18). It was, of course preceded by Ezekiel 38-39 and other nation-oracle passages in the Prophets. For these and other references, cf. Koester, p. 760.

Revelation 19:20

“And the wild animal was seized, and with him the ‘False Foreteller’, the (one) (hav)ing done the signs in his sight, (and) in which he led astray the (one)s (hav)ing received the engraved (mark) of the wild animal and the (one)s kissing toward [i.e. worshiping] his image—the(se) two were thrown, (still) living, into the lake of fire, the (place of) burning in sulphur.”

While all of the human beings are slain (v. 21), the two figures representing or embodying the forces of evil—the Sea-creature and Earth-creature (called False Prophet)—are captured alive. Since these two are symbolic of evil demonic powers, their fate belongs to the Judgment in its heavenly, not earthly, aspect. The heavenly aspect of the Judgment was alluded to, though only briefly, in 14:9-11; it will come into focus only in the visions of chapter 20. There, too, mention was made specifically of the heavenly punishment that awaits those who worshiped the Sea-creature and received its engraved mark (xa/ragma), indicating that such persons belong to the creature. The motif of the “lake of fire” as a punishment will be discussed in the upcoming notes on 20:7-14. There I will also summarize again the symbolism of the Sea-creature within the overall context of the book of Revelation.

Revelation 19:21

“And the (one)s remaining were killed off in [i.e. by] the sword of the (one) sitting upon the (white) horse, the (sword hav)ing come out of his mouth, and the birds fed (as they would on green grass) out of their flesh.”

In verses 20-21, the figure of the conquering warrior (Jesus) is referenced simply as “the (one) sitting upon the (white) horse”, the emphasis thus being on the victorious power he possesses (the white horse signifying victory). It is by the sword (r(omfai/a) coming out of the exalted Jesus’ mouth that the people are slain. As discussed in the previous note, this “sword” is best understood as the Word of God, which is also to be identified with the Spirit of God (cf. the LXX of Isa 11:4). The exalted Jesus, as God’s representative (Anointed One and Son of God), himself possesses this Word, so that he even may be called “the Word of God” (v. 13).

As in the oracle of Ezek 38-39, the result of the great battle is a scene of total destruction and carnage. Ordinarily birds would come down onto the green grass to feed; now, these scavenging birds of prey come down onto the battlefield to feed on the flesh of the dead bodies. The verb xorta/zw alludes, literally, to animals grazing on lush green grass (xo/rto$); this came to be a common idiom for eating (or enjoying oneself) so as to be fully satisfied. Here the idiom (taken rather more literally), creates a grimly ironic scene—birds flocking to enjoy themselves on the flesh of slain human beings. There is irony in another sense as well: in verse 17, the Messenger called the birds to gather to a great dinner (dei=pnon) of God. This same word was used earlier in verse 9 for the dinner celebrating the marriage of believers (the bride) with the Lamb (the groom, Jesus). There, heavenly beings (human and angelic) were invited to a great feast signifying salvation; here, the birds are invited to a similar feast signifying judgment.

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December 14: Revelation 19:14-16

Revelation 19:11-16, continued

In the previous note, we examined the first portion of this vision of the exalted Jesus’ end-time appearance, in the form of a conquering warrior, a ruler on horseback, corresponding to the traditional Messianic figure of the Davidic Ruler type, who will defeat and subdue the nations. Verses 14-16 bring out this military aspect more clearly, in preparation for the battle imagery in the vision of vv. 17-21.

Revelation 19:14

“And the armed soldiers in the heaven(s) followed him upon white horses, having been sunk in(to) [i.e. clothed in] clean white (fine) linen (garments).”

Here both aspects of the white color-symbolism are combined: (1) victory, and (2) purity/holiness. It also draws clearly upon the first vision in vv. 1-10, of the pure and exalted believers who join the heavenly multitude to form the People of God in their fullness. The fine white linen garments, while generally representing heavenly garb, were specifically applied to believers (as the “bride” of the Lamb) in verse 8. Thus, however incongruous it may seem, here believers are part of the heavenly army (“armed soldiers in the heaven”) that the exalted Jesus leads. That they also ride white horses indicates that they are part of the same victorious power that the exalted Jesus possesses. The motif of “following” Jesus (the Lamb) may be a specific allusion to the beautiful image in 14:4.

While not emphasized in the New Testament, the idea that Angels and the Elect of Israel might join forces together in the end-time judgment (and battle) against the wicked was part of Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic tradition (e.g., Ascension of Isaiah 4:14-17, and see esp. the Qumran War Scroll [1QM, and related documents]). Military imagery is applied to believers in the New Testament, but in a different (ethical and spiritual) sense, though still not without eschatological implications (1 Thess 5:8; Eph 6:10-17, etc).

Revelation 19:15

“And out of his mouth travels out a sharp sword, (so) that in [i.e. with] it he should hit the nations (hard), and he shall herd them (together) in [i.e. with] an iron staff, and (it is) he (that) treads the trough of the wine of the impulse of the anger of God the All-mighty…”

Three different strands of eschatological and Messianic tradition are combined here, drawing upon three principal Scripture passages:

    • Isaiah 11:1-4 (v. 4)—As indicated in the previous note (on verse 11), this is one of the key passages viewed as a prophecy of the (Davidic) Messiah’s defeat of the nations. Naturally, such military imagery was ill-suited to Jesus’ earthly career, but it was an established part of Jewish Messianic tradition (Psalms of Solomon 17:24, 35; 4Q161 8-10 iii, 15-19ff; 1 Enoch 62:2; 2/4 Esdras 13:9-11, 37-38). The “rod” or “sword” that comes out of the Messiah’s mouth was reinterpreted as his “word” (parallel to his “breath”) that slays the wicked (on the LXX reading, cf. below); this may relate to the identification of the returning Jesus as the word of God. A similar eschatological use of Isa 11:4 can be found in 2 Thess 2:8.
    • Psalm 2 (v. 9)—The “iron staff” is derived from Psalm 2:9, an even more famous Messianic passage, and one used more frequently by early Christians. This rod/staff blends together with the “rod” of Isa 11:4, creating a second motif of a tool or weapon by which the Messiah subdues the nations. Kings in the ancient Near East were often referred to with Shepherd symbolism, and no more so than a ruler from the line of David (the shepherd). The 17th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon is probably the best-known Jewish text that combines Psalm 2 and Isa 11:1-4 within a Messianic interpretation (cf. 17:21-35ff, note also 18:6-8). The rod or staff indicates the authority of the ruler, both in the sense of (a) guiding the herd or flock, and (b) protecting it from predators (i.e. enemies).
    • Isaiah 63:1-3 (v. 3, cf. also Joel 3:13)—This is a classic description of the “day of YHWH” (the “day of vengeance” <q*n` <oy, v. 4), presented in terms similar to that in Joel 3:11-13—the judgment of the nations depicted by the imagery of the grape harvest (v. 13). Here it is God’s Anointed representative (Messiah) who comes in His place, as a Messenger of the Judgment. The enemies of God are “trampled” underfoot, just as the grapes are trodden down after the harvest to produce the wine (cf. Isa 25:10; Zech 10:5; Lam 1:15). The flowing red juice was a natural symbol for blood, as in Rev 14:17-20. It is only in Isa 63:1-3 that this imagery is tied to God (or His representative) in the figure of a conquering warrior; the description in our passage generally follows that of Isaiah—(1) his splendid apparel (v. 1), its red color, stained with blood (vv. 2-3), and (3) the act of defeating/punishing the wicked by “trampling the (grapes in the) wine-trough” (v. 3). The extended expression “the wine of the impulse [qu/mo$] of the anger of God” builds on earlier usage in chaps. 14-18.
Revelation 19:16

“And he holds upon his garment and upon his thigh a name having been written: King of kings and Lord of lords.”

The final detail of the visionary description is another name—the third in the passage and the second name that is written. The significance of the thigh (mhro/$) is that is the area of the clothing where the sword would be located. However, since the conquering figure’s sword comes out of his mouth, it is not located in the normal position on the thigh; instead, a name is written in that place. It is unquestionably a divine title, since God (YHWH) was called both “King of kings” (2 Macc 13:4; 3 Macc 5:35) and “Lord of lords” (Deut 10:17; Ps 136:3), and these could also be combined (Dan 4:37 LXX; 11:36; 1 Enoch 9:4; 63:2ff). These titles were previously used of the exalted Jesus (the Lamb) in 17:14 (cf. also 1:5). Rulers in both the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world could be called “King of kings”, as the Scriptures themselves attest (Ezra 7:12; Ezek 26:7; Dan 2:37); like YHWH, Zeus also could be called by this title (Dio Chrysostom Oration 2.75). With regard to the motif of a name written on the thigh, it is worth nothing that there were statues in the Greek world that could be inscribed on the thigh with the dedication “To Zeus, king of the gods”, or something similar (Pausanias Description of Greece 5.27.12). For references, see Koester, p. 759.

The significance of these titles, as applied to the exalted Jesus, is well expressed by the notice in 1:5, which contains imagery foreshadowing that of 19:11-16:

    • “the trust(worthy) witness” —in 19:11 he is also called “trust(worthy)” (pisto/$), and the designation “word/account (lo/go$) of God” very much suggests his role as God’s witness (ma/rtu$), one who speaks on God’s behalf, communicating His word and will.
    • “the first-produced of the dead” —this emphasizes that Jesus’ exalted (and divine) status is understood primarily through his resurrection, by which God raised him to the exalted position at His right hand; there is likewise an allusion to harvest imagery (i.e. Jesus as the ‘first fruits’).
    • “the chief (ruler) [a&rxwn] of the kings of the earth” —here the exalted Jesus is accorded a position above all earthly rulers and kings, because he is God’s Anointed, ruling in heaven at His right hand. At the end-time Judgment, this authority he possesses will be realized and demonstrated, in concrete terms, over all the kingdoms on earth.
    • “the (one) washing us…in his blood” —this is one aspect of the motif in v. 13 of Jesus’ garment “dipped in blood”; similarly, believers who remain faithful are said to have washed their own garments in his blood (7:14).

Given the bloody carnage that will come upon the nations in battle (vv. 17-21, to be discussed in the next note), we might well envision a traditional military conflict, especially with the heavenly army that accompanies the exalted Jesus. However, there can be no doubt that the defeat of the nations is accomplished, not with physical force of arms, but by the sword that comes out of the Messiah’s mouth. As noted above, this image comes primarily from Isaiah 11:4:

“And he will judge the low(ly one)s with justice,
and will make (the) decision in a straight way for the oppressed of the earth;
and he will strike the earth with the staff [fb#v#] of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he will put the wicked to death.”

Here is the same combination of trustworthy judgment and punishment/defeat of the wicked. In the original Hebrew, it is a staff (fb#v#) that comes out of the ruler’s mouth; however, in the Greek version (LXX) it is a word (lo/go$): “…and he will strike the earth with the word of his mouth”. In the fragmentary Qumran commentary (pesher) on Isaiah, discussing 11:1-3, it is stated that the Messiah (“Branch of David”) would judge all the peoples with his sword (4Q161 fr. 8-10, col iii. line 22). Thus there is some precedent for interpreting the “rod” out of the Messiah’s mouth as a sword, which is the more natural weapon for slaying an enemy. For Christians, a more spiritual interpretation was readily at hand, which would depict the Word of God or the Spirit of God as a sword. Note, for example, the statement in Hebrews 4:12:

“For the Word [lo/go$] of God (is) living, and (has power) at work in (it) and (is) able to cut over [i.e. more than] every two-mouthed [i.e. two-edged] sword, reaching through even to (the) parting of soul and spirit…”

In Rev 1:16 (and 2:12, 16) it is similarly a “two-edged” sword that comes out of the exalted Jesus’ mouth, indicating that this “sword” is the Word of God. Note also the famous reference in Ephesians 6:17: “…and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God”. This statement is misread and misunderstood by many Christians, reversing the word order to make the equation that the Word of God (identified as the Bible) is the sword. A careful reading of the actual Greek shows something quite different. The relative pronoun is neuter, which matches pneu=ma (“Spirit”), not ma/xaira (“sword”)—which is to say that the Spirit is identified as the Word of God. Moreover the Spirit (not Scripture) is the sword, just as salvation is the helmet, etc. In any case, all of this gives added meaning to the identification of the conquering figure in Rev 19 (the exalted Jesus) as the Word of God. He himself possesses that Word, which comes as a sword out of his own mouth, according to the imagery of Isa 11:4 LXX. Similarly, in 2 Thess 2:8, Jesus at his return will slay (lit. “take up”, “take away”) the wicked “Lawless One” with the Spirit (pneu=ma) coming out of his mouth (another allusion to Isa 11:4, “the breath of his lips”). Thus the conquering power is spiritual, and the sword that slays the wicked is the Word/Spirit of God.

In conclusion, I would suggest that the expression “Word of God” in verse 13 has three basic levels or aspects of meaning:

    • The exalted Jesus functions as God’s witness, speaking on God the Father’s behalf, communicating His word and will to believers.
    • The idea that believers in Christ are victorious over the forces of evil through their own witness (following that of Jesus himself). This is expressed precisely in 12:11 (“and they were victorious over him [i.e. the Dragon/Satan] through the blood of the Lamb and through the word [lo/go$] of their witness”), but is implicit throughout the entire book as well.
    • It is also through the Word of God that Jesus achieves the final victory over the wicked and the forces of evil; the exalted Jesus himself functions as that Word, wielding it (as a sword) out of his own mouth.

References marked “Koester” in these notes are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

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