2 Thess 2:3-4 and Early Christian Eschatology

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

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

    • A single period of “distress” which precedes the coming of the end, presented from three different points of view:
      (1) The world and humankind generally (vv. 5-8)
      (2) The disciples of Jesus (vv. 9-13)
      (3) The people of Judea specifically (vv. 14-22)
      [Probably the destruction of the Temple signifies the end/climax of this period]
    • The end of the current Age, marked by the appearance of the Son of Man and the gathering/deliverance of the Elect [i.e. the final Judgment] (vv. 24-27)

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

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

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

2 Thessalonians 2:3-4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In summary, we may note the following points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Day of the Lord—the “Day of YHWH”

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

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

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

2 Thessalonians 2:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 3-4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This person is also characterized by the participial phrase:

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

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

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

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

Verses 5-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verses 11-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Note on 1 Thess 4:17: the “Rapture”

This note is supplemental to the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, and, in particular, to Part 2 of the article on Paul’s eschatology in 1-2 Thessalonians (1 Thess 4:13-5:11). In 4:16-17, Paul vividly describes the coming of Jesus down to earth at the end-time Judgment, almost certainly drawing upon the same tradition of Jesus’ teaching found in Mark 13:26-27 par. It is, however, the specific image in 4:17, of believers being caught up (“seized”, vb a(rpa/zw) into clouds to meet Jesus in the air, that has especially captured the imagination of Christians, being referred to as “the rapture“, from Latin rapio—the Latin Vulgate translates the Greek a(rpaghso/meqa (“we will be seized”) with rapiemur. This idea of “the rapture” is so commonplace and well-established in modern eschatological discussion that many Christians today might be surprised to realize that it is scarcely to be found anywhere else in the New Testament. It does, of course, involve three distinct eschatological components, associated with the tradition of Jesus’ end-time return:

    • The gathering together of (all) believers—already featured as part of several key eschatological “Son of Man” sayings by Jesus (Mark 13:27 par; Matt 13:41-43, 49; 25:32-34ff, etc). Paul refers to this basic idea, generally, in a number of places (see esp. 2 Thess 2:1-2), but it is only described in any detail here in 1 Thess 4:16-17. He includes the idea of believers who have died being raised to join those living, but this likely only makes explicit what would have been assumed in the common tradition.
    • The motif of Jesus appearing in the clouds—this would seem to derive from the key Gospel traditions of Jesus’ Son of Man sayings in Mark 13:26 par and 14:62 par, and which are ultimately based on the language and imagery in Daniel 7:13-14. This same traditional imagery is utilized in the book of Revelation (esp. 1:7), and is implied in the narration of Jesus’ ascension in the book of Acts (1:9-11). Paul is drawing upon the same basic tradition.
    • The image of Jesus’ ascension—while this is described visually only in Acts 1:9ff, it would have been understood, as a common point of reference, by virtually all believers in the 1st century. Only in more recent times have Christians found difficulty in the concrete localization of heaven spatially as up in the sky. Moreover, there is an ideal of ascension for the righteous (while still alive) which is part of an important line of Israelite and Jewish tradition. The notice of Enoch in Gen 5:24, however brief and enigmatic, is usually understood as a living ascension to heaven, part of a more expansive Enoch tradition. Elijah’s is the most famous such ascension, described vividly in 2 Kings 2:11-12. Jesus’ own ascension would have served as a kind of pattern for believers—just as Jesus ascended alive to heaven, it was only natural for believers to see themselves, at the time his return, ascending in a similar manner.

However, if the specific detail of believers rising up in to the sky to meet Jesus was widespread as part of the early Christian expectation, it is surprising that there is no other clear evidence for it in the New Testament. In particular, in the book of Revelation, that treasury of eschatological tradition and imagery, we would well expect to find it. Yet there can be no doubt of the wide acceptance of the basic underlying idea—that believers will be gathered together to face/meet Jesus when he appears.

Unfortunately, the relatively simple notion of Christians meeting Jesus and being taken with him to heaven has been obscured by the use of the expression “the Rapture” as a kind of shorthand point of reference relating to a whole range of eschatological issues and speculation among Christians today. Some of this valuable and important, some idle and unhelpful, but nearly all of it, I should say, is rather far removed from the thought-world of the New Testament and 1st century Christian eschatology. In this series, I have tried to focus exclusively on the original context and background of the relevant New Testament passages—that is to say, on the eschatological expectation of the author and his audience in the 1st century A.D., as expressed in the text. It has been necessary, at times, to mention various modern-day theories and eschatological schema, but I have sought to keep this to a minimum. Here, however, it is worth pointing out several key aspects of much modern eschatological thought, relating to “the Rapture”, since they are so widely referenced, often without much regard to the soundness of their basis in Scripture. Three aspects, in particular, should be mentioned:

    • The question of when the “Rapture” will occur, in relation to other end-time events.
    • Whether it means that believers will be kept from the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$) that is to come upon humankind, or will have to endure it, either in whole or in part.
    • According to some lines of interpretation, this “Rapture” will be secret—that is to say, it will not correspond with the general idea of Jesus coming to earth (visibly) to bring the Judgment. Rather, the visible return of Jesus will occur at a later time, following the period of distress on earth. Those who hold this view believe the “Rapture” will take place prior to the completion of the period of distress (i.e. pre- or mid-Tribulation Rapture view).

It must be pointed out that all three aspects are specifically a product of modern eschatology. I find little or no evidence to indicate that any of them were of real concern to believers in the 1st century. To begin with the third item above, the idea of a “secret” appearance by Jesus, for the purpose of gathering the Elect, which is separate from his coming to usher in the Judgment, runs contrary to all such references to Jesus’ return in the New Testament (cf. the various passages cited above). There is only one coming of Jesus, and it occurs at the moment of the end when the Judgment is realized. Believers are saved/rescued from this Judgment. The two-appearance scheme (and “secret” rapture) came to be introduced into modern eschatology, it would seem, out of the need to support the particular belief that believers would be rescued from the period of distress that precedes the Judgment.

However, early Christians appear to have taken for granted that they would have to endure the period of distress, which brings us to the second aspect mentioned above. We may note, in particular, the numerous passages expressing the view of believers in the first century, that they were already living in the “last days”, and that, as such, the suffering they were experiencing was part of this end-time period of distress. For example, in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, the persecution of Jesus’ disciples (believers) is set clearly within the period of distress that precedes the coming of the “Son of Man” (Mark 13:5-23 par, vv. 9-13). For other clear instances of this view, cf. Parts 1 and 2 of the article on 1-2 Thessalonians, the article on “Imminent Eschatology in the New Testament”, as well as in my current series of daily notes on the Book of Revelation.

Finally, with regard to modern views concerning the return of Jesus and coming of the Judgment, they are complicated by the (modern) tendency of attempting to assemble the various eschatological passages in the New Testament into a coherent and systematic framework. The book of Revelation is especially problematic, even though, on the surface at least, it may seem to provide the very framework needed to assemble the pieces. The sequence of visions, and vision-cycles, appear to describe a chronological order of events; however, as a careful reading and study of the book (being undertaken in the current series of daily notes) will show, the symbolism of the visions defies such systematization. Many, if not most, of the symbols are multivalent, with various possible associations and levels of meaning.

As it happens, there is one relatively clear and consistent eschatological framework in the New Testament—the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse. For first-century Christians, this represented the closest thing to a systematic presentation of eschatology that we will find. The teaching goes back to the words of Jesus himself, but, in all likelihood, the “Discourse” as we have it reflects a traditional and literary arrangement of material. I have given a relatively simple outline of the chronology of the Discourse (in Part 4 of the prior article); here it may be worth presenting it again:

The Markan version is the shortest and simplest and may safely be considered as closer to the core Synoptic tradition and arrangement (generally followed by Matthew, though with development and inclusion of additional material):

    • A single period of “distress” which precedes the coming of the end, presented from three different points of view:
      (1) The world and humankind generally (vv. 5-8)
      (2) The disciples of Jesus (vv. 9-13)
      (3) The people of Judea specifically (vv. 14-22)
      [Probably the destruction of the Temple signifies the end/climax of this period]
    • The end of the current Age, marked by the appearance of the Son of Man and the gathering/deliverance of the Elect [i.e. the final Judgment] (vv. 24-27)

The Lukan version demonstrates a more precise sequence:

    • A period of mission work (and persecution) for Jesus’ disciples prior to the destruction of the Temple [c. 35-65? A.D.] (vv. 12-19)
    • A period of distress for Judea and Jerusalem, characterized by warfare/uprising (i.e. in the Roman Empire), the appearance of false prophets and false Messiahs, as well as signs in heaven indicating the coming suffering. The central event of this period (c. 66-70) is the (Roman) siege of Jerusalem, culminating in the destruction of the city and the Temple [70 A.D.] (vv. 8-11, 20-24)
    • (An intervening period during which Jerusalem is “trampled” by the Gentiles [Romans], i.e. the “times of the nations”, of unspecified length, v. 24)
    • A time of distress for all the Nations, again marked by signs in heaven, etc (vv. 25-26)
    • The coming of the Son of Man—the end of the current Age and the manifestation/realization of the Kingdom of God (vv. 27-28, 31)

The “Rapture” of 1 Thess 4:17 corresponds with the coming of the Son of Man (understood as the return of Jesus), and the gathering of the Elect (believers), at the conclusion of this chronology (Mk 13:27 par). The coming of the Son of Man (Jesus) also ushers in the final Judgment, though this is only implied in the Discourse (Mk 13:24-25, 32ff par); Matthew’s version expounds it more clearly (the parables in chap. 25, esp. verses 31-46), as does Paul in 2 Thess 1:6-10 (cf. Part 1).

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

Part 2: “Day of the Lord”: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11

Having discussed five key eschatological references in 1 and 2 Thessalonians—1 Thess 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 5:23; 2 Thess 1:6-10—in Part 1, along with 1 Thess 2:14-16 (in a special note), we must now examine the main eschatological portion of 1 Thessalonians: the two related sections, 4:13-18 and 5:1-11. These are central to the primary instruction given in the letter—the probatio, using the terminology of rhetorical analysis—in which a main proposition (propositio) is stated, and then expounded through various arguments and illustrations meant to convince (or exhort) the audience. The propositio occurs in 4:1-2, in which Paul urges the Thessalonians to continue in the tradition and instruction given to them, living in a manner worthy of their identity as believers in Christ. The probatio (proving) follows in 4:3-22, and may be divided into six sections:

    • 4:3-8—Ethical instruction: the need to live in a manner befitting believers
    • 4:9-12—Instruction on filadelfi/a: on expressing one’s care for brothers (and sisters) in Christ in daily life
    • 4:13-18—Eschatological instruction: exhortation for believers in light of the end-time
    • 5:1-11—Eschatological instruction: on how believers should conduct themselves in the end-time
    • 5:12-14—Practical instruction: on the need for believers to be engaged in honest work
    • 5:15-22—Miscellaneous instruction, ethical and practical

The two eschatological sections are closely connected, and are at the heart of Paul’s teaching.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

In this first eschatological section, Paul appears to be addressing a specific question or concern, introduced in verse 13:

“But we do not wish you to be without knowledge, brothers, about the (one)s lying down (to sleep), (and) that you should not be in sorrow, even as the (one)s remaining (are), the (one)s not holding hope.”

The verb koima/w (“lie down [to sleep]”) often serves as an idiom for a person dying (i.e. death as “sleep”), and so is used here. The exact issue Paul is addressing has been variously understood. I believe that a proper understanding is based on identifying the two things he wishes would not be so for the Thessalonian believers: (1) to be without knowledge (vb a)gnoe/w), and (2) to be in sorrow (vb lupe/w) over those who have died. In other words, their sorrowing reflects a lack of knowledge. Sadness about those who have died is characteristic of the “remainder” (loipoi/) of humankind—that is, those who are not believers. Such non-believers are said to be “not holding hope”. The word hope (e)lpi/$) occurs frequently in Paul’s letters (36 in the corpus, out of 53 in the NT), and may be understood in a three-fold sense which is fundamentally eschatological:

    • our union with Christ gives us hope for salvation and (eternal) life at the end-time
    • this hope is specifically defined in terms of resurrection from the dead
    • it will soon be realized at the (end-time) appearance of Jesus

All three aspects are involved in establishing the reason why the Thessalonians should not be in sorrow regarding others (i.e. other believers) who have died: (a) they have the promise of salvation and life, (b) they will be raised from the dead, and (c) this will soon occur when Jesus appears. In my view, it is not simply a question of a belief in the resurrection, but that this all will take place very soon. What point is there of being sad over those who have died when their resurrection will soon occur? The three aspects noted above are joined together in Paul’s statement in verse 14:

“For if we trust that Yeshua died away and stood up (again), so also will God bring the (one)s (hav)ing lain down (to sleep), through Yeshua, (together) with him.”

The place of expression “through Yeshua” (dia\  )Ihsou=) is a bit unclear—whether it belongs with “the ones (hav)ing lain down (to sleep)” or “will bring…with him”, or both. I prefer to view it as a semi-independent phrase, expressing the idea of believers’ union with Jesus—in particular, their/our dying and rising with him (cf. Romans 6:3-4, etc). Both our death and resurrection takes place “through Jesus”. Also somewhat ambiguous is the central clause “God will bring…with him”. While this may relate to the idea, further on in vv. 16-17 (cf. below), of believers meeting Jesus in the air, I believe it is better understood in the more fundamental sense of participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. God himself brings/leads (vb a&gw) believers through death and into new life, even as he did for Jesus.

The eschatological setting of the resurrection, which Paul connects with the end-time appearance (parousia) of Jesus, is established in verses 15-16 by what Paul says is “a word/account of the Lord” (lo/go$ kuri/ou). We cannot be certain precisely what that means, other than it seems to refer to a tradition that goes back to the words of Jesus himself. There are a number of eschatological sayings and teachings of Jesus preserved in the Gospels, but the most prominent collection is found in the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13 par), which I have discussed at length earlier in this series. There is some evidence, seen especially in 1 and 2 Thessalonians, that Paul—probably in common with many early believers—accepted an eschatological framework that is at least roughly similar to that of the Discourse. If so, then the notice here in verse 15 may be an indication that he inherited this from the early Gospel Tradition, identifying it with preserved sayings/teachings by Jesus. In vv. 15-17, Paul is likely paraphrasing or summarizing this traditional teaching for the Thessalonians:

“For this we relate to you, in a word/account of the Lord, that we—the (one)s living (and) remaining about unto [i.e. until] the Lord’s (com)ing to be alongside (us) [parousi/a]—we shall (certainly) not go first (ahead) of the (one)s (hav)ing lain down (to sleep); (for it is) that the Lord (him)self, in (the) shout (to begin), in (the) voice of (the) chief Messenger and in (the sounding of the) trumpet of God, he will step down from heaven, and the dead in (the) Anointed will stand up first, and then at (this) we, the (one)s living (and) remaining about, together (at the same time) with them, we will be seized up in (the) clouds, into a (go)ing away to meet the Lord, into (the) air…”

Some commentators would claim that the issue for the Thessalonians had to do with a concern that believers who died would not meet the returning Jesus at the same time as those who are living. This reads too much into the wording, and, in my view, is not correct. I tend to think that Paul, here, is giving a more detailed explanation of what he may have previously conveyed to the Thessalonians only through more general eschatological statements (cf. the examples from 1-2 Thessalonians in Part 1). Now, in vv. 15-17, he offers a fuller presentation of the tradition, one which reads almost like an exposition of the words of Jesus in the Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:26-27 par). In this ‘exposition’, I believe Paul is emphasizing several points:

    • That all believers—both living and dead—will be gathered together at the coming of Jesus.
    • That this will essentially happen at the same time, priority being given to the dead only in that they are not alive, and need to be raised before they can join the living believers.
    • For Paul, this is fundamental symbol of our unity—both with Christ and with each other—to be realized fully at the moment of Jesus’ appearance.
    • And, finally, the dramatic narration of this tradition, in the context of 1 Thessalonians, emphasizes again that the coming of Jesus (and, with it, the resurrection) is imminent.

Verse 17 closes with the following declaration: “…and so we will be with the Lord always [pa/ntote]”. Paul gives no indication of anything that is to take place following the meeting of believers with Jesus in the clouds, but the wording generally suggests that they will be taken with him into heaven—the statement concludes with the words “into the air”, without any indication at all of a return back to earth.

This “taking up” of believers into the sky is commonly referred to as “the rapture, from the Latin raptio and the Latin (Vulgate) translation of 1 Thess 4:17. It has come to be a regular part of modern eschatological parlance, often to the point where the original background (and Scriptural basis) for the idea is often ignored, the term having by now taken on a life of its own (“the Rapture”). Modern eschatological discussion is frequently dominated by speculation as to just when this event will occur within various (and often elaborate) end-time schema. Much of this is far removed from the thought world of the New Testament, and early Christian eschatology in general; however, due to its prominence in modern-day eschatology, I have decided to devote a special note to the subject as part of this series.

Paul certainly understood that the coming of Jesus would bring about the great (final) Judgment on humankind, but that aspect of his eschatology is not described here, rather it is the gathering together of believers that is emphasized, as in Mark 13:27 par. The section ends with a final word of exhortation: “As (this is so), you must (also) call one another alongside in [i.e. by/with] these words”.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

If the eschatological instruction in 4:13-18 was meant to encourage believers, that in 5:1-11 has the purpose of exhorting them regarding how they should conduct themselves in this end-time. The imminence of the end, seen throughout the letter (cf. discussion in Part 1), and emphasized again in the previous section, now takes on greater urgency and importance. Paul begins with a question of chronology—an aspect of eschatology that seems to be of perennial concern for Christians. On this point, the relationship between 1 and 2 Thessalonians is of some significance, as to whether: (a) 2 Thessalonians was indeed written by Paul, and (b) if was written prior to 1 Thessalonians or after. This will be discussed in more detail in Part 3 (on 2 Thess 2:1-12), but it must be noted here that, according to 2 Thess 2:1-2, there would seem to have been some confusion, on the part of the Thessalonians, on the relationship between the end-time generally and the specific event/moment known by the expression “the day of the Lord”. Here, in 1 Thess 5:1, Paul refers generally to the chronological dimension of the end-time events:

“But about the periods and moments (of time), brothers, you hold no occasion [i.e. there is no need] (for me) to write to you…”

He pairs together the plural nouns xro/noi and kairoi/; both xro/no$ and kairo/$ essentially refer to “time”, but with a slight difference—xro/no$ tends to indicate a period of time, and kairo/$ a point in time. Probably the words used in tandem here represent a hendiadys (i.e. two terms for one thing), and refer generally to any chronological questions about exactly when the end will come. This “end” more or less corresponds to the “day of the Lord” in 2 Thess 2:1ff—that is, the moment when Jesus appears and the final Judgment comes upon humankind. Paul uses the same expression (“day of the Lord”, h(me/ra kuri/ou) here in verse 2:

“…for you (your)selves have seen [i.e. known] precisely that ‘the day of the Lord so comes as a stealer in (the) night’.”

I think it quite possible that Paul is quoting a proverbial saying (perhaps coming from Jesus, cf. Matt 24:43; Lk 12:39). Clearly the thrust of the saying is that the “day of the Lord” will come at a time when people are, or may be, caught unaware. The middle of the night is a time when people are asleep, but it also reflects a period of darkness. Paul plays on both of these aspects in the exhortation that follows; as such, he cleverly shifts the discussion from interest over when the end will occur, to how the Thessalonian believers ought to think and act while living in the end-time. However, the traditional imagery of the unexpectedness of the end continues to be brought out in verse 3:

“(And) when they should say, ‘peace and security’, then (it is that), without (any) shining forth [a)fni/dio$], destruction [o&leqro$] will stand upon them, just as the pain (that comes) for the (woman) holding (a child) in the womb, and they shall not flee out (of it).”

The comparison with the pains of a woman in giving birth is traditional, symbolic of the suffering of the human condition—especially in association with the coming Judgment at the end-time (Mark 13:8, 17 par), which, in the Gospel narrative is set generally in the context of Jesus’ own suffering and death (cf. Luke 23:28-29; John 16:21). The characteristic of the destruction (esp. of the wicked) at the time of the Judgment, using the adjective a)fni/dio$, is difficult to translate properly in English syntax. Literally, a)fni/dio$ means “without (any) shining forth”, i.e. without anything appearing to indicate that it is about to happen, etc. It is often rendered by the adjective “sudden” or “unexpected”. A more literal translation here brings out the motif of the fire of Judgment, corresponding to the glorious and fiery appearance of Jesus when he comes to earth accompanied by heavenly Messengers (Angels)—cf. 2 Thess 1:7-8 (discussed in Part 1). This fire of destruction will hit suddenly, without any glow or light to warn of its coming. The noun o&leqro$ (“destruction, ruin”) also reflects traditional Judgment-language, and is used, in a similar (but more graphic) context, in 2 Thess 1:9.

It is in verse 4, that Paul shifts the focus to the situation of believers, who, as believers, will be saved from the destructive anger of God in the great Judgment. Here, however, the emphasis is on the identity of believers in Christ, who are not to be characterized by the slumber and darkness (cf. above) of the end time:

“But you, brothers, are not in darkness, (so) that the day should take you down as a stealer (does); for you are sons of light and sons of (the) day, and we are not of (the) night and not of darkness—so then, we should not go down to sleep, as the (one)s remaining (do), but we should keep awake and should stay sober.” (vv. 4-6)

Paul’s shift in mid-sentence from 2nd person to 1st person is most effective, including himself (and all other ministers) with the Thessalonians to whom he is writing. This expresses the theme of unity for believers in Christ in a different manner than he does in the previous section (cf. above). The motif of wakefulness, while natural enough as an extension of the “thief coming at night” illustration, is also traditional, and can be seen in several eschatological parables of Jesus. Indeed, Paul’s entire discussion in 5:1-11 could be seen as an exposition of Mark 13:32-37 par, just as that in 4:13-18 expounds Mk 13:26-27. The thrust of the warning here is, not that believers might end up falling away and face the Judgment, but, rather, that they ought to live according to their identity—as those who belong to the light and who will not be “taken down” (vb katalamba/nw) in the time of darkness. Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Gethsemane scene of the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mk 14:38 par) make much the same point, but with a greater sense of the danger that the disciples could fall away during the time of “testing” (peirasmo/$); on this, compare Mk 13:13b par.

In verses 7-8, Paul applies this traditional language of watchfulness/sobriety more directly to the religious identity of believers:

“For the (one)s going down to sleep go down to sleep at night, and the (one)s getting drunk get drunk at night; but we, being of the day, should stay sober, sinking ourselves in(to) (the) chest-armor of trust and love and (the) (protection) about the head (that is the) hope of salvation.”

This “hope of salvation” is the same “hope” (e)lpi/$) mentioned in 4:13 (cf. above). For the believer in Christ, trust, love, and hope—the same triad emphasized by Paul in 1 Cor 13:13—serve as the protective armor we wear. This armor-imagery is developed more extensively in Ephesians 6:11-17; here there are only two protective pieces mentioned:

    • the qw/rac, “chest-guard”, primarily protecting the heart, from which stem our trust (pi/sti$) in Jesus and love (a)ga/ph) for our fellow believers
    • the perikefalai/a, protection “around the head”, representing the uppermost part of our person, and that which point upward, the direction from which our salvation comes, at the end-time

This “salvation” (swthri/a) is given more precise definition in vv. 9-10, emphasizing again the eschatological aspect:

“(for it is) that God did not set us into (His) anger, but (rather) into the making of salvation around (us) through our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, the (one hav)ing died away over us, (so) that, if we should be awake (or) if we should go down to sleep, we would live together with him.”

This statement repeats much of the same language from earlier in 4:14-17 (cf. above); in particular, we may note:

    • the salvation of believers comes “through [dia/] Jesus”
    • the idea of believers going down to sleep (using different verbs), and still living
    • that believers will come to be “together with him” (su\n au)tw=|)
    • and that this unity, with Jesus and with (all) other believers, is understood as being complete and simultaneous (“at once”), expressed by the particle a%ma.

Since the verb kaqeu/dw (“go down to sleep”), earlier in vv. 6-7, was used to characterize unbelievers in the time of darkness, its application to believers here needs to be explained. There are two possibilities:

    • Paul is shifting the meaning of both grhgoreu/w and kaqeu/dw to the ordinary human experience of being awake and sleeping
    • He is telling believers that, even if they should lapse into moments of “sleep”, during this time of darkness, they still live (and have life/salvation) in Christ

Probably Paul intends the former, though the latter idea could be justified, for example, by the situation of the disciples in the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mark 14:37-41 par). I would say, however, that Paul is here retaining the eschatological nuance of believers living (i.e. their daily Christian lives) during the end-time of darkness.

The section concludes (in verse 11) much as the prior section did (4:18), following a basic formula, with a message for believers to exhort one another (using the verb parakale/w, “call alongside” [i.e. for help, comfort, etc]):

“Therefore, you must call one another alongside and build (each other up) one by one, even as you also do (now).”

The closing phrase, with the conjunction kai/ (“and”), serves as an important part of the exhortation—and the rhetoric Paul is using—framing it in terms of what the Thessalonians are already doing. From the standpoint of rhetorical analysis, 1 Thessalonians can be characterized as paraenetic rather than deliberative rhetoric—that is to say, its chief purpose is to instruct and exhort, rather than to persuade the audience of the correctness of a particular position. Unlike in Galatians or the Corinthian letters, Paul is not addressing any particular conflict or problem facing the congregations; instead, he is simply encouraging the Thessalonians to continue in the faith.

Taken together, the two sections 1 Thess 4:13-5:11, represent the clearest and most specific summary of Paul’s eschatology that has come down to us in any of his letters. There is virtually nothing in it which goes beyond the traditional belief (and mode of expression) common to Christians at the time (c. 50 A.D.). It is actually highly instructive in providing us a snapshot of the early Christian eschatology in its relation to the Gospel Tradition and the (historical) sayings of Jesus. As noted above, Paul appears to have held an eschatological framework that generally corresponds with that of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse. This will be seen in greater detail, as we examine 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 in the next part of this study.

Note on 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16

This note is supplemental to the current article on the eschatology of 1 and 2 Thessalonians. I surveyed four eschatological references in 1 Thessalonians—1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 5:23—in addition to the major sections of 4:13-18 and 5:1-11, where Paul addresses matters of eschatology. There is an additional reference in 2:16, but, due to the sensitive nature of its context (vv. 13-16), I felt it better to discuss this passage separately.

1 Thessalonians 2:13-16

This brief passage is central to the narration (narratio) portion of 1 Thessalonians (2:1-3:10), and may be described as a digression (digressio). The lack of an obvious connection with what precedes (2:1-12), along with the apparent anti-Jewish character of the passage, has led some commentators to regard it as a (non-Pauline) interpolation. Could the Jewish Christian Paul really have made such statements? Would the man who wrote Romans 9-11 truly have spoken of his fellow Jews this way? Christians today are apt to find the language and polemic troubling, sensitized by the centuries of anti-Jewish (and anti-Semitic) behavior and attitudes from a ‘Christian’ world. The desire to have 1 Thess 2:14-16 excised from the New Testament is understandable. But it rather ignores the historical circumstances in which Paul is writing, as well as the harsh polemic he uses against other Jewish Christians, for example, in Galatians and 2 Corinthians 10-13. More relevant, and closer in time to the writing of 1 Thessalonians (c. 50 A.D.), are the historical traditions recorded in the book of Acts—of Jewish opposition and hostility to Paul’s mission work, along with his rather harsh response to it (13:46; 18:6; also 28:25-28).

Within the context of 1 Thessalonians, the passage is part of Paul’s expression of thanksgiving for the faithfulness of the Thessalonian believers (v. 13), which he relates back to his own recent mission work among them (vv. 9-12). They remained faithful to their new-found trust in Jesus, in spite of a certain measure of opposition and suffering they faced (1:6ff). This suffering, apparently to be understood in terms of hostility/persecution from the surrounding population, is emphasized more strongly in 2 Thessalonians (1:4-5ff, which may have been written prior to 1 Thessalonians). In verses 14-16, Paul compares their experience of persecution to that endured by believers in Judea (probably including Syria and Palestine as a whole). Paul was all too familiar with this, at least in its early stages, since he himself oppressed believers in Syria (Galatians 1:13ff, 23; Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-2ff par; cf. also 22:19-20) prior to his coming to faith. It would seem that the opposition and negative (from his standpoint) Jewish Christian influence among the Galatians came from Judea as well.

Here is how he makes the comparison in verse 14:

“For you came to be imitators, brothers, of the (one)s of God called out (to assemble) [i.e. congregations of God], the (one)s being in Yehudah, in the Anointed Yeshua, (in) that you also suffered the same (thing)s under (those) growing together (from your) own (race), even as they also (did) under the Yehudeans…”

The literal and glossed translation here may be summarized simply: the Thessalonian Christians suffered under their fellow Macedonians (from the same ethnic birth/generation [genea/] as they), even as (Jewish) believers in Judea did under their fellow Jews. This is a basic enough statement of fact, but it takes a sharper turn as Paul continues in verse 15, describing those (hostile) Jews as:

“…the (one)s also killing off the Lord Yeshua and the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets], and (who were) pursuing us (all) out, and (so are) not being pleasant to God, and (are) set in front (opposite) to all men…”

As noted above, this description is likely to make Christians today most uncomfortable. The idea of the Jewish people (as a whole) being responsible for killing Jesus has played a role in much of the virulent anti-Jewish (and anti-Semitic) hatred and persecution in the West over the centuries. However, it cannot be denied that the basic association with killing Jesus is very much part of the early Christian (and Gospel) tradition. It features both in the Passion narratives (see esp. Matt 27:24-25) and the early Christian preaching in Acts (2:23; 3:14-15, 17; 5:30; 10:39; 13:28f, etc), though in the latter the role of the leaders/rulers (rather than the populace) tends to be emphasized (e.g. 3:17; 4:25-28). The persecution/killing of Jesus and his disciples is also connected clearly with that done to the Prophets of prior generations, at a number of points in early Christian tradition—Matt 23:29-37; Luke 11:47-51; 13:34; Acts 7:52).

To be sure, Paul is referring specifically to those Jews who are, and have been, actively hostile to Jesus and the Gospel. However, he paints with a rather broad brush here in verse 15, creating a most thorough (and intensely negative) portrait:

    • they persecute us (i.e. Paul and other Jewish Christians), even as they did Jesus and the Prophets
    • they are not pleasing to God—that is, presumably in their persecution of believers, but it comes across like a more general characteristic
    • they are conspicuous and stand contrary to “all men” —a careless reading could interpret this as a description of the people as a whole, comparing Jews with the other nations, and reflecting the current anti-Judaism of the Greco-Roman world (e.g., Josephus Against Apion 2.121; cf. Tacitus’ Annals 5.5.2, etc).

It would seem that the latter statement, in particular, i.e. of Jews being opposed to “all men”, should be understood in terms of opposition to the mission of Paul (and other Jewish Christians) among Gentiles in the Greco-Roman world. Since this mission is aimed at proclaiming the Gospel to all peoples and nations (in the Roman Empire), by opposing it Jews could, in a way, be said to stand opposing “all men”. This is made clear with the conclusion of the lengthy statement of vv. 14-16a:

“…cutting us off (from) speaking to the nations so that they [i.e. the nations] might be saved, unto the filling up of their sins (at) all times [pa/ntote].”

Only the force of adverb pa/ntote is uncertain. Basically it means “all the time, everytime, always”, and, it would seem, the meaning here is that, every time Jews oppose the Christian mission, they add to their sins, filling up the number. It is in the final closing statement (v. 16b) that the eschatological dimension of Paul’s discussion comes into view:

“And (so) the anger (of God) came first upon them, unto (the) completion [ei)$ te/lo$].”

The word o)rgh/ (“anger”) is commonly used as a shorthand term for the coming (end-time) Judgment by God upon the wicked, and so by Paul here (as in 1:10; 5:9). The fundamental meaning of the verb fqa/nw is “come first, do first”, but it can also be used in the specific sense coming ahead of a person, i.e. “reach, overtake”. Paul seems to be saying that the end-time Judgment is reaching these Jews first, ahead of what will face the rest of humankind. What exactly is meant by this? In the earlier studies on the Eschatological Discourse, we saw how the beginning of the end-time pains, according to the framework of the Discourse, is manifest in suffering and distress for the people in Judea (Mk 13:8, 14-23 par), culminating in the desecration and destruction of the Temple (13:2, 14ff par). The Lukan version describes this more precisely in terms of a military siege of Jerusalem, led by a pagan (i.e. Roman) army (21:20-24; cf. also 19:41-44). While the prophesied time was not fulfilled until the war of 66-70 A.D., long (it would seem) before the writing of 1 Thessalonians, there is some evidence that Paul was aware of the basic eschatological scenario of the Synoptic Discourse. Two points, in particular, in the Thessalonian letters should be noted:

    • In 1 Thess 4:15, Paul refers to his eschatological instruction as “a word of the Lord”, by which he likely means a tradition coming from Jesus’ own teaching (to his disciples). In vv. 15-17, Paul describes something similar to the coming of the “Son of Man” in Mk 13:26-27 par.
    • The famous description of the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2:4ff almost certainly draws upon the same Daniel 9:26-27 tradition alluded to in Mark 13:14 par, and may, indeed, reflect an interpretation/exposition of the traditional saying by Jesus (cp. the Lukan ‘interpretation’ in Lk 21:20ff).

So it seems likely that in 1 Thess 2:14-16 a similar eschatological framework is in view, with a specific period of distress for those in Judea as part of the “beginning pains” of the end-time Judgment. Moreover, Paul’s strong reaction to the Jewish opposition to the Gentile mission could also be related to an eschatological world view that goes back to the words of Jesus (in the Synoptic Discourse). There, an apostolic mission to the nations, however brief (or long), is set firmly within the framework of events, prophesied to occur in the decades prior to the destruction of the Temple (Mk 13:9-13 par; cf. also Acts 1:6-8, etc). In opposing this mission, Jews were hindering vital work that had to be done in the period before the coming of the end.

The final phrase of verse 16 remains ambiguous and much debated. The expression is ei)$ te/lo$, “unto (the) completion”, but how it relates to the rest of the sentence is not immediately clear. There are several possibilities:

    • The anger of God comes completely upon them, or lasts until its completion (when it is spent)
    • The anger of God come for the purpose of finishing them, bringing them to an end.
    • God’s anger finally comes upon them, as the result/punishment of their sins.
    • Similarly, it refers back to the idea of the “filling up” of their sins, to the completion of them.
    • It is a temporal indicator—i.e. the completion of the current Age.

In my view, the last option is definitely to be preferred, especially in light of the strong eschatological emphasis throughout 1 Thessalonians. Even so, how does this fit the statement in v. 16b? I would interpret as follows: God’s Judgment comes first upon the wicked/unbelieving Jews (i.e. those opposing the Gospel), and this Judgment, which will extend to all humankind, marks the completion of the current Age.

Concluding observation:

I believe that much of the difficulty with this passage for modern Christians is removed when it is set (and maintained) in its early Christian, first-century context, especially in regard to the eschatological outlook of believers in the period Paul’s letters were written. An important (and often overlooked) aspect of the imminent eschatology of early Christians is the expectation that many, if not most, of all people living at the time would still be alive when the end comes. This is also true for Jews at the time who were hostile to the Gospel or actively opposed the mission work of Paul (and others). Moreover, if 1 Thessalonians was written around 50 A.D., that is probably less that 20 years after the death of Jesus, meaning many of the people in Judea who were hostile to him (and the first believers) would still be alive at the time of Paul’s writing. Similarly, a significance percentage of these Jewish opponents, both in Judea and throughout the Greco-Roman world, would be expected to live until the coming of the Judgment. To the extent that this was prophesied by Jesus in the Eschatological Discourse, it did, in fact, come to pass with the war of 66-70 A.D. and the destruction of the Temple, etc. The basic problem of how this 1st-century manifestation of Judgment relates, from our vantage point today (with an intervening 1,900+ years), to the actual end of the Age (and the return of Jesus), is an entirely separate interpretative question—one touched on many times in this series.

In any event, to ignore the (imminent) eschatological context of 1 Thess 2:14-16, applying Paul’s polemic to the many generations of Jews during the past 1,900+ years, results in a gross distortion of the apostle’s original message. Certainly, we may still say today that all those who actively oppose the Gospel and oppress believers—whether such opponents are Jewish or not—face God’s Judgment even as Paul declared for persecutors in the first century. The scope of our eschatology and historical outlook may be somewhat different today, but the basic thrust of Paul’s message—both in terms of the exhortation for believers, and warning to non-believers—remains as valid now as it was back in the middle of the first century. Fortunately, we have a more positive view of the place of Israelites and Jews within Paul’s eschatology—in Romans 9-11, which will be discussed at the appropriate point in this series.

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

1 and 2 Thessalonians

Most New Testament scholars are in general agreement that the two letters to the Thessalonians are the earliest of the surviving letters of Paul, written c. 49-51 A.D. As such, they would date from perhaps 5-10 years before the great letters of Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans. The Thessalonian correspondence is certainly much simpler in form and style, and likely represents the kind of letter Paul typically would have sent to the various communities of believers. It is for just this reason, however, that 1 and 2 Thessalonians are less well-known, lacking the polemic and extensive ethical and doctrinal discussions found in the other letters. Yet, as it happens, the two Thessalonian letters contain the strongest eschatological emphasis throughout, and provide the clearest statements of Paul’s eschatological views.

It should be mentioned that a fair number of critical commentators have doubts regarding Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians, and believe it to be pseudonymous. For my part, in the case of 2 Thessalonians, I do not find such arguments especially convincing. In these studies, I treat 2 Thessalonians as genuinely Pauline, without any real reservation. At several points, however, mention will be made of the critical view. There is also the question of the sequence in which the two letters were written. Commentators have tended to follow the canonical order; however, the canonical order of the letters is based primarily on length, and has no real bearing on when they were written. Strong arguments can be made for 2 Thessalonians being written before 1 Thessalonians. I will touch upon these briefly on a couple of occasions in these notes.

Due to the length of this article, it will be divided into three parts:

    1. A survey of key references in 1 & 2 Thessalonians
    2. The eschatological section in 1 Thess 4:13-5:11
    3. The eschatological section in 2 Thess 2:1-12

I save discussion of 2 Thess 2:1-12 for last, due to the fact that it is the most complex (and controversial) passage for readers today.

Eschatological References in 1 & 2 Thessalonians

Apart from the two main sections mentioned above (to be studied in Parts 2 & 3), there are five relevant passages which are eschatological in orientation or emphasis—1 Thess 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 5:23; 2 Thess 1:6-10. The eschatological context of 1 Thess 2:14-16 will be treated in a separate note.

1 Thessalonians 1:10

The statement in 1:10 represents the conclusion of the introductory section (exordium) of the letter (1:2-10). In it, Paul gives thanks to God and praises the Thessalonians for their willingness to accept the Gospel and their continued faithfulness. The climax comes in vv. 9-10:

“For they (them)selves [i.e. believers in the surrounding regions] give up a message [i.e. report] about us, what kind of way in we held toward you, and how you turned around toward God, away from the images, to be slave (instead) to (the) living and true God, and to remain (waiting) up (for) His Son out of the heavens, whom He raised out of the dead, Yeshua, the (one) rescuing us out of the coming anger.”

Verse 9 is a roundabout way of describing the mission work (i.e., preaching of the Gospel) of Paul, etc, among the Thessalonians, and their subsequent conversion, coming to faith in Jesus. This leads into a kind of early credal statement in vv. 9b-10, the eschatological orientation of which is central to its formulation. Like all believers, these Thessalonians are exhorted to remain faithful, and to wait for the (end-time) return of Jesus. Note the way this is formulated:

  • “His Son
    • whom He raised out of the dead
  • Yeshua
    • the one rescuing us from the coming anger”

The parallelism is clear enough: (1) Jesus is identified as God’s Son, and (2) the resurrection of Jesus (by God) from death is parallel to the rescue of believers (by Jesus) from Judgment. For early Christians, the end-time Judgment was frequently referred to as the “anger” (o)rgh/) of God, that is, an expression and manifestation of His anger against the wickedness and evil in the world. This goes back to Old Testament and Jewish tradition, especially the “Day of YHWH” theme in the Prophets, and was inherited as a mode of (eschatological) expression by the first believers, being attested in early Gospel tradition through the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus (cf. Matt 3:7 par; Lk 21:23; Jn 3:36, etc). It is used frequently by Paul in this eschatological sense, as we shall see. On the emphasis of the coming end-time Judgment in early Christian preaching, cf. the two-part article on the Eschatology in the book of Acts (Pts 1 & 2).

All of the basic elements of early Christian eschatology are present here:

    • The return to earth of the exalted (resurrected) Jesus (“from out of the heavens”)
    • That this coming will coincide with the end-time Judgment by God (i.e. His “anger”)
    • That Jesus will function as the heavenly deliverer who will rescue the faithful ones (i.e. believers) at the end-time
    • That this coming, together with the Judgment, is imminent.

The sense of imminence is implicit, both in the overall phrasing, but also, in particular, with the participle “coming” (e)rxome/nh$); elsewhere, this is expressed more precisely as the Wrath/Judgment that is about (vb. me/llw) to come (Matt 3:7 par; Acts 17:31, etc).

1 Thessalonians 2:19

Within the narration (narratio) section of the letter, as part of Paul’s expression of his wish to see the Thessalonians again, he makes mention of the (heavenly) reward that awaits believers when Jesus appears (from heaven):

“For what is our hope or delight or crown of boasting—or, not (to say) even you (yourselves)—in front of our Lord Yeshua in his (com)ing to be alongside (us)? For (indeed) you are our honor and delight!” (vv. 19-20)

Proper English syntax would require a rearrangement of the clauses in v. 19, but the idea is clear enough. Paul, along with other faithful missionaries, will be able to stand before Jesus in the time of Judgment, with hope and expectation of heavenly reward (“crown [ste/fano$]”, “esteem/honor [do/ca]”). Again, an imminent eschatology is implied—Paul expects to be alive at the coming of Jesus and the time of Judgment (for more on this, see the discussion on 4:13-18 in Part 2).

1 Thessalonians 3:13

1 Thess 3:11-13 represents the transition (transitus) between the narration (2:1-3:10) and main section (probatio, 4:1-5:22) of the letter. It takes the form of an exhortation and wish-prayer for the Thessalonians which effectively summarizes the themes introduced in the letter thus far. The prayer element is two-fold, addressing both God the Father and Jesus (the Lord):

“(That) He (Him)self—our God and Father, and our Lord Yeshua—would put down our way straight toward you…” (v. 11)

It is perhaps best to understand both God and Jesus being referenced together by the title “Lord” (ku/rio$) in verse 12:

“…(and that for) you, the Lord would make (your) love unto one another (grow all the) more and go over (and above), and unto all (people), even as we also (experience this) unto you…”

The first part of the prayer-wish focused on what God and Jesus together will do, the second part on what they will do for the Thessalonians (emphatic “you”). The exhortation aspect comes into view in the closing verse 13, framed in terms of the result/effect of the prayer (emphatic preposition “unto” [ei)$]), and what Paul hopes/expects will take place among the Thessalonian believers:

“…unto the setting firm of your hearts, without blame, in holiness in front of our God and Father, in the (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a] (us) of our Lord Yeshua (along) with all his holy (one)s.”

This hope is quite clear: that the Thessalonians will remain strong in faith, living exemplary (holy) lives, until the moment when Jesus appears on earth. The ethical dimension—indicated by blame, holiness, etc—is related to the correspondence of the Jesus’ return with the end-time Judgment. As in 1:10, the noun parousi/a (parousia, lit. “being alongside”) is used, already (as of 50 A.D.) a technical term among early Christians for the end-time return of Jesus, requiring no further explanation. The “holy ones” are best understood here as heavenly beings (“angels”), rather than human believers; this reflects apocalyptic and eschatological tradition of the time (Mk 8:38 par; 13:27 par; Matt 13:39, 41, 49; 25:31; Dan 4:34; 7:18; 8:13; Zech 14:5; 1 Enoch 1:9, etc).

1 Thessalonians 5:23

At the close (peroratio) of the letter, we find a similar exhortational wish-prayer by Paul. It more or less restates the aim and purpose in 3:13, casting it in a comparable eschatological context:

“And (that) He (Him)self, the God of peace, would keep you complete(ly) holy and whole in (every) part—spirit and soul and body—without blame in the (com)ing to be alongside (us) of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, (and so) watch over (you).”

Here the active role and work of God in keeping the Thessalonians “without blame” (a)me/mptw$) is emphasized, presumably achieved through the Holy Spirit, though this not specified. The verb a(gia/zw is probably better understood as “keep holy” rather than “make holy”, parallel with the emphatic use of the verb thre/w (“[keep] watch [over]”). Again the noun parousi/a is used for the end-time return of Jesus, assumed to be imminent—i.e. the Thessalonians to whom he is writing are expected to experience it.

Thus we have four distinct eschatological statements by Paul in 1 Thessalonians, all formulated in a similar way, and included as a natural component of everything he is discussing in the letter. In no other surviving letter by Paul are so many eschatological references made, in such a commonplace way. When combined with the major discussion in 4:13-5:11, as well as his statements in 2:14-16 (cf. the separate note), the eschatological emphasis in the letter is unmistakable.

2 Thessalonians 1:5-10

There is a parallel in 2 Thessalonians to the wish-prayers of 1 Thess 3:11-13 and 5:23. It is part of the introductory section (exordium, cf. on 1 Thess 1:10 above), and precedes the more famous eschatological discussion in 2:1-12 (to be studied in Part 3 of this article). As it happens, 1:3-10 comprises one long complex sentence, which, for practical reasons, it is necessary to break up for our study.

In 1:4, as part of his opening thanksgiving, Paul mentions the Thessalonians’ experience of being pursued (diwgmo/$ [pl.]) by adversaries and feeling pressure or “distress” (qli/yi$ [pl.]). The latter noun came to be a kind of technical term in early Christian eschatology, largely by way of Daniel 12:1 (LXX), with qli/yi$ rendering Hebrew hr*x*, a word with a comparable range of meaning (i.e. “pressure, stress, distress”). It is used by Jesus in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:19, 24 par), and again, even more famously, in the book of Revelation (Rev 1:9; 2:9-10, 22; 7:14). Thus, there is every reason to assume that Paul understands the suffering of the Thessalonian believers as having eschatological significance—a sign of the “last days”, and that the end was fast approaching.

This would seem to be confirmed by the way Paul connects this suffering with God’s judgment (kri/si$) in vv. 5ff:

“in (this is) a showing of the just Judgment of God, unto your being brought into value of (belonging to) the Kingdom of God, under which also you suffer…”

The verse begins with the compound noun (e&ndeigma) that is difficult to translate; literally it means “(something) in (which) it is shown (that…)”. Elsewhere in his letters, Paul uses the related noun e&ndeici$ (Rom 3:25-26; 2 Cor 8:24; Phil 1:28). Referring back to verse 4, it means that the persecution and “distress” experienced by the Thessalonian believers is an indication, or demonstration, that the (end-time) Judgment of God is taking place. Indeed, the believers are said to be suffering under this very Judgment—the feminine relative pronoun (h!$) relates to the feminine noun kri/si$ (“judgment”). However, this experience of the Judgment is not the same as it will be for the wicked; rather, for believers, it makes them worthy of belonging to (or entering/inheriting) the Kingdom of God. The rare verb katacio/w, an intensive compound of a)cio/w, is based upon the image of bring the scales into balance—i.e., as in weighing out the value of something (cf. on the adjective a&cio$). Elsewhere in Old Testament tradition, this dual aspect of God’s Judgment is expressed by the image of fire (cf. below), in which the metal of value is purified, while the dross is burned away.

Paul’s declaration continues in verse 6:

“… (so) if (then it is) just alongside God (as indeed it is) to give forth distress in exchange to the (one)s bringing distress for you…”

Here God’s Judgment is defined in terms of retributive justice—giving out punishment that matches the crime (the so-called lex talionis principle). The people oppressing the Thessalonian believers will soon be oppressed (by God) in return; actually, it is their own wickedness that brings about their suffering. The conditional particle (ei&per) assumes that the condition described is true—this retribution is indeed just (di/kaio$), and reflects the justice of God. The statement in verse 7 continues the main clause of v. 6, referring to what God gives out in exchange (vb a)ntapodi/dwmi):

“…and to you, the (one)s being distressed (along) with us, a letting up (of that distress), in the uncovering of the Lord Yeshua from heaven with (the) Messengers of his power…”

In other words, God will effect a transfer of the distress, removing it from the believers and onto the persecutors instead. This is expressed here as a “letting up” (a&nesi$) of the distress for believers; however, also implicit is the idea that believers will not experience any of the remainder of the Judgment, which will be focused entirely on the wicked. The image of Jesus coming to earth from heaven, in power, accompanying by heavenly Messengers (“Angels”), is derived from traditional apocalyptic motifs, and, in particular, the eschatological “Son of Man” sayings by Jesus recorded in the Gospel tradition (e.g., Mk 8:38 par; 13:27 par; Matt 13:39, 41, 49; 25:31). This appearance of Jesus is specifically referred to as an “uncovering” (a)poka/luyi$), a word frequently used in the Pauline letters (Rom 2:5; 8:19; 1 Cor 1:7; etc), though not always in an eschatological sense. Currently, Jesus resides with God the Father in heaven, and thus is “hidden”; at his end-time appearance, he will suddenly become visible, manifest to all humankind—i.e. the cover is taken away. His appearance also marks the onset of the Judgment proper, utilizing the common judgment-motif of fire:

“…in flaming fire, giving a working out of justice to the (one)s not having seen [i.e. known] God and to the (one)s not hearing under [i.e. being obedient to] the good message of our Lord Yeshua…”

It has been suggested that the first part of this verse alludes to Isaiah 66:15-16, and, indeed, the wording of Isa 66:15b [LXX] is very close: “…to give forth [a)podou=nai]…a working out of justice [e)kdi/khsi$]…in flaming fire [e)n flogi\ puro/$]”. The focus of this Judgment moves from the ones oppressing believers to unbelievers in general, expressed by two participles:

    • Perfect participle of ei&dw (“see”, often = “know”), “having seen/known”, here with the negative particle (mh/): “the ones having not seen/known God”. The implication of the perfect tense is that, even before the proclamation of the Gospel, they have had no knowledge of God, thinking and behaving in a wicked manner.
    • Present participle of u(pakou/w (“hear under”), i.e. listen obediently under someone with authority. This too is expressed with a negative particle, and with the Gospel as the object: “the ones not hearing under the good message”. In other words, not only did they have no knowledge of God before, but they also refused (or were unable) to accept the Gospel message of Jesus, such as was proclaimed (to the Thessalonians) by Paul.

The description of the fiery punishment on the wicked/unbelievers continues in verse 9:

“…who will pay (the) just (penalty), destruction of the Age, from the face of the Lord and from the splendor [do/ca] of his strength…”

The noun di/kh, often translated “justice”, more properly means the “just/right thing”, and here with the verb ti/nw (signifying the paying of a price) must be understood as the “just/right penalty“. The expression o&leqro$ ai)w/nio$ is typically translated “eternal destruction”, but this loses the important eschatological idea of the destruction of the current Age; thus I render the adjective ai)w/nio$, as I do consistently, rather more literally as “of the Age(s)”. The wicked will perish, being caught up in the destruction at the end of the current Age. The expression “face of the Lord” is an Old Testament idiom (referring to YHWH); here, in its early Christian context, it refers to the exalted/risen Jesus as Lord (ku/rio$). As the heavenly (and Anointed) representative of God, Jesus will oversee the great end-time Judgment. This idea of Jesus as Judge is a key component of early Christian eschatology (Acts 17:31; 2 Tim 4:1, 8; 1 Pet 4:5f, etc; along with the eschatological “Son of Man” sayings in the Gospel, cf. above).

It is a concise statement of Jesus’ appearance that concludes the passage (v. 10):

“…when he shall come, to be treated in [i.e. with] honor among his holy (one)s, and to be regarded with wonder among all the (one)s trusting—(in) that our message upon [i.e. to] you was trusted—in that day.”

The subjunctive e&lqh| (“he should come”, “he would come”) is governed by the temporal particle o%tan (“when”); since the coming of Jesus is certain, in the mind of Paul and the other believers, I render the phrase here as “when he shall come…”. The only question is exactly when he will come. The result (and purpose) of his coming is expressed with a pair of articular infinitives:

    • e)ndocasqh=nai, from the compound verb e)ndoca/zw, meaning “be [regarded] in honor”, the passive here indicating that a person is to be treated/regarded with honor.
    • qaumasqh=nai, also a passive infinitive, of the verb qauma/zw (“wonder [at]”), here meaning that a person will be treated with wonder (i.e. amazement, admiration, etc).

Two groups correspond to these two verbs:

    • Jesus will be treated with honor “among his holy ones” (e)n toi=$ a(gi/oi$ au)tou=); as in 1 Thess 3:13 (cf. above), the “holy ones” are the heavenly beings (Messengers/Angels) who accompany him.
    • He will be regarded with wonder “among all the ones trusting” (e)n pa=sin toi=$ pisteu/sasin); this, of course, refers to earthly beings, believers in Christ. This may also reflect the same idea as in 1 Thess 4:15ff (cf. also Mk 13:27 par, etc), that Jesus, at his coming, will gather together all believers everywhere.

The long, complex sentence, concludes with the emphatic summary phrase “in that day”. This relates to the important discussion to follow in 2:1ff, regarding the meaning of the expression “the day of the Lord”. Here, Paul identifies the coming of Jesus, and the ushering in of the Judgment on the wicked, as “that day” (i.e. the day of the Lord). This will be considered further in the study on 2:1-12 (in Part 3).

As noted above, 1:3-10 represent a single long sentence in Greek, a fact which is totally obscured in nearly every English translation. Readable English requires that such long sentences be broken up into shorter units, much as I have done above; however, it is important to remember that, in actuality, a single continuous statement is being made. With that in mind, and in conclusion to this portion (Part 1) of the article on 1-2 Thessalonians, I wish to give here a continuous translation of the entire passage:

“We ought to give thanks to God always (for His) favor, about you, brothers, even as it is brought in balance [i.e. is proper], (in) that your trust grows over and the love of each one of all of you toward the other (grow)s more (and more), and how we (our)selves even (are able) to boast in you among the congregations of God, over your remaining under, and (your) trust, in all the (time)s of your being pursued, and the (moment)s of distress in which you (are) hold(ing) up, (that) in (this is) a showing of the just Judgment of God, unto your being brought to (the) value of (belonging to) the Kingdom of God, under which also you suffer; if (then it is) just alongside God (as indeed it is) to give forth distress in exchange to the (one)s bringing distress for you, and to you, the (one)s being distressed (along) with us, a letting up (of that distress), (so it will be) in the uncovering of the Lord Yeshua from heaven with (the) Messengers of his power, in flaming fire, giving a working out of justice to the (one)s not having seen [i.e. known] God and to the (one)s not hearing under [i.e. accepting] the good message of our Lord Yeshua, (these people) who will pay (the) just (penalty), destruction of the Age, from the face of the Lord and from the splendor of his strength, when he shall come, to be treated in [i.e. with] honor among his holy (one)s, and to be regarded with wonder among all the (one)s trusting—(in) that our message upon [i.e. to] you was trusted—in that day.”

A detailed syntactical breakdown and diagram of this passage is certainly warranted, and worth doing, but it rather goes beyond the scope this article. I would encourage readers and students to pursue such an analysis on their own.

In the next part of this article, we will examine 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 5:1-11; for a study on 1 Thess 2:14-16, cf. the special supplemental note.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The Letters of Paul (Introduction)

Having examined the eschatology of Jesus as recorded in the (Synoptic) Gospels, as well as that expressed by the early Christian preaching in the book of Acts, it is now time to turn our attention to the Pauline Letters, and to give consideration to the eschatology of Paul, as studied through his letters.

One fact we may note before proceeding, is that, with regard to the eschatology found in the letters, there is surprisingly little that is unique to Paul’s thought and manner of expression (the discussion in Romans 9-11 being a notable exception). On the whole, he follows the traditional eschatology of early Christians, very much in accord with what we find in the preaching recorded in the book of Acts (cf. the previous two articles). What is distinctive is the way that Paul develops the tradition, giving added theological (and Christological) weight to the basic contours of the eschatological expectation of 1st century Christians. The main eschatological components handled and addressed by Paul in his letters are:

    • The return of Jesus to earth (i.e. the Parousia)
    • The great Judgment by God on humankind, and
    • The Resurrection (spec. of believers)

It is the last of these which is given most attention by Paul, since it relates to a fundamental (theological) aspect of his understanding of the religious identity of believers in Christ—namely, our identification (and union) with Jesus in both his death and resurrection (see especially Romans 6:3-4). This will be discussed in more detail as we encounter the various passages.

Any comprehensive treatment of Paul’s letters must always take into account certain critical questions of authorship. In particular, many (if not most) critical commentators regard a number of the canonical letters as pseudonymous. Among such scholars, there is general agreement that the Pastoral Letters (1-2 Timothy, Titus) and Ephesians are pseudonymous; others believe that Colossians and/or 2 Thessalonians are as well. For my part, entirely on objective grounds, I consider 2 Thessalonians and Colossians as genuinely Pauline, and will treat them as such in these articles (while occasionally mentioning certain critical objections). More substantial questions surround the Pastorals (esp. 1 Timothy) and Ephesians, in terms of vocabulary, style, and points of emphasis. I do not intend to address any of these, except in passing; however, as a point of procedure, in deference to the (critical) questions, I will treat the eschatology in Ephesians and the Pastorals last among the letters of Paul.

Here is an outline of the articles:

  • 1 & 2 Thessalonians:
  • 1 & 2 Corinthians:
    • Part 1: Survey of the Corinthian correspondence
    • Part 2: Key passages examined in detail
    • Part 3: The Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15
  • Romans:
    • Part 1: Survey of passages
    • Part 2: Development of the Resurrection theme
    • Part 3: Romans 9-11 (esp. chap. 11)
  • Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, and Colossians
  • Ephesians and the Pastoral Letters

Notes on Prayer: Luke 18:1-8

In addition to the main section on prayer in the Gospel of Luke (11:1-13, discussed last week), there are two parables which deal with the subject. These appear in sequence at 18:1-8 and 18:9-14, likely joined together due to the common theme of prayer. Both of these parables occur toward the end of the Journey portion of the narrative—i.e. the extensive collection of teaching set during the journey to Jerusalem (9:51-18:34; cp. Mark 10:1-34). This framing of Jesus’ teaching is as much a literary device as historical; it is likely that many of the sayings, parables, etc, were originally uttered by Jesus on different occasions. Here, in particular, the two parables may have been spoken by Jesus at different times, and not necessarily right after each other.

Luke 18:1-8

In the Lukan narrative, this parable follows a block of eschatological teaching (17:20-37), some of which is found in a different location (the Eschatological Discourse) in the Gospel of Matthew. This narrative context is important for a proper understanding of what follows in 18:1-8. Even if the parable (as spoken by Jesus) originally did not have eschatological significance, it clearly does in its current Lukan setting. The eschatological context, however, is not immediately obvious in the introduction to the parable (v. 1):

“And he related to them an (illustration) cast alongside [parabolh/, i.e. parable], toward [i.e. regarding] it being necessary (for) them to speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray] (at) all times, and not to be in weariness [i.e. grow tired] (about it)…”

Contrary to the parable in 11:5-8 (discussed last week), here the point (according to the notice in v. 1) is to be persistent in prayer, described two ways:

    • to pray to God “at all times” (pa/ntote)
    • not to become tired of it (vb. e)gkake/w), lit. be ill/weary/tired in the effort (of praying), and thus stop

The illustration or parable itself is in vv. 2-5. The first character is a judge (krith/$), described as “not fearing God and not turning in (to consider) man” (v. 2). The second verb (e)ntre/pw) is a bit difficult to translate; I have rendered it quite literally as “turn in”, that is turn in toward something (or someone). The middle/passive use (as here) indicates a person turning in to give consideration to something, occasionally in the sense of paying attention or giving respect. In other words, this judge neither fears God nor gives any consideration for other people; the description is similar to that of king Jehoiakim by Josephus (Antiquities 10.283, Fitzmyer, p. 1178). In verse 6, this man is further characterized as being “without justice” (a)diki/a), i.e. unjust, certainly the worst sort of quality for a judge to have.

The second character in the parable is a widow (xh/ra), who is involved in certain legal difficulties (v. 3), presumably as a plaintiff in a court case. This may have entailed action against property inherited from her husband, the sort of thing alluded to by Jesus in 20:47 par. It is this situation which prompts her to approach the judge, her specific request being: “(Please) you must work out justice [e)kdi/khson] for me from my (opponent the one) seeking justice [i.e. a decision] against [a)nti/diko$] (me)”. English translations tend to obscure the relation between the verb e)kdike/w and the noun a)nti/diko$—at their heart, and etymologically, both relate to dikh/ (“justice”, “what is just/right”). At first the judge refuses to consider the widow’s request, but then thinks to himself that, even though he does not fear God or give regard to people’s needs (v. 4, repeating the description in v. 2), yet

“…through [i.e. because of] this widow holding along a beating [ko/po$] for me, I will work out justice for her, (so) that she should not strike me under the eye unto [i.e. at] the completion (of her) coming (to me).”

I have rendered the idiomatic language quite literally, though this can easily mislead the average reader. First, “holding along a beating”, refers to troubling a person with repeated “blows” (noun ko/po$, an act of cutting, striking), here in the figurative sense of continually bothering someone to the point of wearing them down. Second, the verb u(popia/zw literally means “(hit) under the eye”, either in the sense of irritation or an act of violent striking (as in a fistfight). Here the sense is one of annoyance and irritation—with her constant coming to him, in the end, this widow will be so annoying as to ‘batter him under the eye’.

Jesus’ exposition of this parable comes in verse 6: “And the Lord [i.e. Jesus] said, ‘You must hear what this judge without justice relates (to you)'”. The point is made in verse 7, relating the judge’s decision with that of God:

“And shall God (then) not make the working out of justice for his gathered out [i.e. chosen] (one)s, the (one)s crying (out) to him day and night, and (so) bring (his) impulse long upon them?”

This argument is of the qal wahomer (“light and heavy”) type—i.e. from the lighter example to the heavier, a Hebrew expression similar to the Latin a minori ad maius. If a corrupt human being will respond this way to a poor person’s need, how much more will God the Father answer the prayer of his chosen ones (oi( e)klektoi/, “the ones gathered out”). The use of the substantive adjective e)klekto/$ gives this teaching, in its Lukan context at least, a distinctly Christian orientation, referring to believers in Christ as the “ones gathered out” (Romans 8:33; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:9, etc). Interestingly, while the adjective is otherwise rare in the Gospels, it is used prominently in the Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:20, 22, 27 par), and, as such, could imply an eschatological significance here as well (cf. below). The term makro/qumo$ (here in the verb makroqume/w) literally means having a long(-lasting) impulse; in English we might paraphrase by saying that the movement of a person’s heart and mind is turned long and hard toward something (or someone). The word-group is often translated in terms of “patience” or “longsuffering”, but that applies better to human beings than it does to God; rather, the idea here is that His attention is intently fixed on the plight of the Elect (believers). Their severe suffering and distress is indicated by the phrase “crying (out) day and night”; this likely refers to the (end-time) persecution of believers (Mk 13:9-13 par; cf. Rev 6:10), which, according to the early Christian eschatological worldview, begins with the suffering of the first disciples.

The eschatological orientation of the parable comes more clearly into view in the concluding verse 8, which contains two sayings, the first of which properly concludes the parable:

“I relate to you that He will make the working out of justice for them in (all) speed [e)n ta/xei].”

The precise meaning and force of this declaration is uncertain; there are two possibilities:

    • God may seem to delay in acting to bring justice to his people, but, when he (finally) does, he will act quickly.
    • God will act on behalf of his people very soon.

The first option better fits the historical setting of Jesus’ actual teaching; the second is more appropriate to the outlook of the Gospel writer, who is writing after the on-set of suffering/persecution of believers (i.e. in the period c. 35-70 A.D.). However, it is worth noting that, frequently in the New Testament, the expression e)n ta/xei has clear eschatological significance (for examples, cf. Part 1 of the article on “Imminent Eschatology in the New Testament”). The second saying in verse 8 relates to the (end-time) appearance of the “Son of Man”:

“(But) more (than this)—the Son of Man, (at his) coming, shall he find trust upon the earth?”

This is one of the eschatological Son of Man sayings of Jesus in the Gospel tradition, which early Christians certainly understood in terms of the return of Jesus to earth, the so-called parousi/a (parousia)—his coming to be alongside us. Critical commentators debate the extent to which Jesus intended such a self-identification in the original sayings; I discuss the subject extensively in several different series (cf. articles in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, the current “Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament”, and an earlier set of notes specifically on the Son of Man Sayings).

Two questions must be asked: first, what is the exact meaning of this saying? Jesus seems to raise the question of whether there will be any real trust (or “faith”, pi/sti$) among people when the Son of Man comes. This is certainly being addressed to Jesus’ followers (i.e. believers), and not to humankind at large. The end-time will be one of great testing, involving suffering and persecution of believers; within the context of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, this is part of a period of distress (qli/yi$) that will come upon humankind prior to the end (Mk 13:5-23 par, vv. 9-13). Under such circumstances, it is possible even for believers (the Elect) to be deceived and to fall away (Mk 13:13, 23 par), and so requires that Jesus’ followers remain vigilant in prayer (cf. Mk 13:33-37 par; Lk 22:40-46 par). Whether his followers—all of them—will remain faithful, trusting in God, is an open question.

Second, we must ask: what is the relation of the saying in v. 8b with what came before in vv. 1-8a. At first glance, the saying seems unrelated, and, indeed, may originally have been uttered by Jesus on a separate occasion. In the Lukan context, it is joined to v. 8a by the coordinating particle plh/n, a specific indication, it would seem, of Lukan style and authorship—it occurs 15 times in Luke, and another 4 in Acts (more than half of all NT occurrences [31]), compared with just 6 in the other Gospels (and only once in Mark). Literally this conjunction means something like “more (than this)”, but the exact force of it can vary considerably. Quite often the meaning is adversative, drawing a contrast with a prior statement; here, this could mean that, yes (on the one hand) God will provide justice for the Elect, but (on the other) will there actually be any real faith present among the Elect by the time the Son of Man comes (i.e. after the period of suffering)? On the other hand, the force of the conjunction could be seen as cumulative, reaching a conclusion, i.e., yes it is true that God will bring justice, but beyond all this is the question of whether the followers of Jesus will remain faithful in the time of distress. I tend to lean toward the latter nuance. In this regard, the saying in v. 8b provides the perfect complement to the stated purpose of the parable—that disciples of Jesus (believers) must remain constantly in prayer through all things, and so demonstrate their/our trust in God (and in Christ), even in the period of great distress and persecution that marks the end-time. This will be considered further when we examine the theme of prayer in the Gethsemane scene of the Lukan Passion narrative (22:40-46).

The parable which follows, in verses 9-14, though also dealing with the subject of prayer, has a very different message and point of emphasis; this will be discussed in the Notes on Prayer next Monday.

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 28A (1983).

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Pt 2)

In the first portion of this 2-part article, I examined two key passages which are foundational for an understanding of early Christian eschatology as preserved in the book of Acts—(1) Jesus’ final commission and departure (1:6-11), and (2) the citation of Joel 2:28-32 in the Pentecost Speech of Peter (2:16-21). Now, it remains to consider the other eschatological passages and references in the book. This study will be divided again into two parts:

    • References in the closing exhortations of the sermon-speeches, and
    • Scripture citations and other references relating to the Mission to the Gentiles

1. Eschatology of the Sermon-Speeches: Exhortation

According to the discernible pattern for the speeches of Acts, the closing section involves an exhortation to the audience, prompting them to repent and accept the Gospel message (representing by the kerygmatic elements earlier in the speech). Since this exhortation typically involved the idea of salvation (cf. on Acts 2:21 [Joel 2:32a] in Part 1), and early Christian soteriology was centered on the theme of deliverance from the coming end-time Judgment, it was natural that this portion of the preaching would often have an eschatological emphasis. Let us consider the more notable instances in the Sermon-Speeches of Acts.

Acts 2:38-40

Foreshadowed by the citation of Joel 2:32a in verse 21, the exhortation section of Peter’s Pentecost speech occurs at vv. 38-40, and is preceded by a question from the crowd (v. 37):

“And hearing (this), their heart was pierced (through), and they said to the Rock {Peter} and to the rest (of) the (one)s sent forth [i.e. apostles], ‘What should we do [ti/ poih/swmen], men, brothers?'”

Peter’s initial response comes in vv. 38-39, with the actual direction given in verse 38, in a formula so familiar to us now that we may no longer appreciate its importance, in context, as the first such exhortation in the early Christian preaching. The individual components are worth highlighting:

    • Direction: “You must change your mind(set) [i.e. repent] and be dunked [i.e. baptized], each (one) of you…”
    • Focus: “…upon the name of Yeshua (the) Anointed…”
    • Purpose: “…unto (the) release [i.e. forgiveness] of your sins…”
    • Result: “…and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit.”

This aspect (and formula) of the Christian preaching goes back to the very beginning, to the proclamations by John the Baptist (Mark 1:4 par) and Jesus (Mark 1:15 par) in the earliest Gospel tradition. What is unique is the detail that change-of-mind (repentance) and baptism (symbolic cleansing) is to take place “upon the name of Yeshua (the) Anointed”, that is, in the context of trust in Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) of God. In verse 39, Peter expands on the result/effect of this new faith in Jesus:

“For th(is) message about (what God will do) is for you and your offspring, and (also) for the (one)s unto a (great) distance (away), as (many) as should call upon our Lord God.”

This statement sets the Christian exhortation in the context of the prophetic declaration (by God) in Joel 2:32a (2:21), demonstrating again that Joel’s oracle is being fulfilled in the present (v. 16), at the very time of Peter’s speaking. Now the idea of calling “upon the name of the Lord (YHWH)” is interpreted as faith in Christ—”upon the name of the Lord (Jesus)”. In the immediate context, the e)paggeli/a, which I translate above (with a gloss) as “the message about (what God will do)”, relates primarily to the initial citation of Joel 2:28-32 (especially the pouring out of the Spirit), but also embraces everything written in the Scriptures that God has declared, or promised, for His people. It is a comprehensive term, here connoting the salvation, blessing, life, etc, promised to the faithful ones (i.e. believers). More to the point, it is identified with the Spirit itself (as God’s manifest presence in/among His people), as the fulfillment of the promise—this use of e)paggeli/a is confirmed not only in verse 33, but earlier in Lk 24:49 and Acts 1:4 (cf. also 13:23, 32). Paul develops the theological aspects of the word in Romans 4:13-20; 9:4ff; Galatians 3:14-29, etc. Here it carries a two-fold eschatological significance: (a) the manifestation of the Spirit in the “last days” (vv. 16ff), and (b) salvation in terms of deliverance from the coming end-time Judgment. This last point is emphasized in Peter’s closing words of exhortation (v. 40):

“Save (yourselves) from this crooked (period of) coming to be [genea/]!”

The demonstrative tau/th$ (“this”) refers to the current Age, using the word genea/, meaning (literally) a period when people are coming to be (born), i.e., “Age, generation”. Clearly implied is the idea of God’s (impending) Judgment that will come upon humankind (this very generation), marking the end of the current Age. The notion that the current/present Age is especially corrupt, and becoming increasingly bad, is common to most eschatological thought, and is scarcely unique to Jewish and Christian belief.

Acts 3:20-21

The next major speech in Acts—by Peter in 3:11-26 (cf. Part 4 of the series on the Speeches)—follows the basic pattern of the Pentecost speech. The closing exhortation, with embedded Scripture citations, is in verses 19-26. The call to repentance in verse 19 is similar to that in 2:38 (cf. above); but the eschatological elements occur in vv. 20-21:

“So (then) you must change your mind(set) [i.e. repent] and turn (back) upon (God), unto [i.e. for] the rubbing out of your sins, so that there should come (on you) moments of breathing again from the face of the Lord, and (that) he would send forth to you the (one) set before (His) hand, (the) Anointed Yeshua, whom it was necessary (for) heaven to receive until the times of restoration, of which God spoke through the mouth of His holy Foretellers from (the beginning of) the Age.”

In many ways the declaration in these verses (especially the closing words of v. 21b) expound the idea of the “promise” (e)paggeli/a) mentioned in 2:39; and the exposition is two-fold, based on a pair of conceptually related expressions:

kairoi\ a)nayu/cew$ (kairoi anapsy¡xeœs). The first word is the plural of kairo/$, which seems to relate fundamentally to the idea of measure—i.e. of a particular or definite point, either in a spatial or temporal sense. Temporally, it came to have the meaning of “the proper time”, “the right/decisive moment”, “an opportune time”, and so forth. A general match in English is the word “season”, and so it is often translated. However, it is partially synonymous with xro/no$ as well (see below). The noun a)na/yuci$ is derived from a)nayu/xw (“make cool again” or “breathe again”), often with the sense of “recover, refresh (oneself), find relief”, etc. The noun usually translated “soul” (yuxh/) is related to yu/xw (“cool, blow, breathe”). The noun a)na/yuci$ only occurs here in the New Testament (also in the LXX Exod 8:11), with the verb used in 2 Tim 1:16; a similar noun a)na/pausi$ (“rest [again]”) appears in Matt 11:28-29, etc. The expression kairoi\ a)nayu/cew$ could be rendered attractively (and fairly literally) in English as “time to breathe again”.

xronoi\ a)pokatasta/sew$ (chronoi apokatastáseœs). Xro/no$ is a common word for time, often, as here, a fixed measure or point in time (similar to kairo/$, “[opportune] time, occasion, season”); the plural xro/noi can also refer to a long period of time. The noun a)pokata/stasi$ is derived from a)pokaqi/sthmi, “to set (something) down [or make it stand] from (where it was [before])”, i.e. “restore, re-establish”; hence the noun is typically rendered “restoration, restitution”. Occurring only here in the New Testament, a)pokata/stasi$ (along with the related verb) became a technical eschatological term in early Christianity, at least partly due to the use of the verb in the LXX of Malachi 4:6 [3:24] (cf. Mark 9:12; Matt 17:11). The verb also is used in reference to the restoration of Israel/Judah (from exile) in the Prophets (Jer 16:15; 24:6; Ezek 16:55; and cf. Acts 1:6).

It is also possible to view vv. 20-21a as a chiasm:

    • Moments of refreshing
      • from the face/presence of the Lord
        • Jesus to be sent forth
      • present in heaven (at the right hand of God)
    • Times of restoration

At the center is the idea of the imminent but clearly future sending of Jesus as the Messiah (“Anointed”). This may help explain the use of xristo$ earlier in Acts 2:36—there it is stated that God made Jesus to be “Anointed” (Xristo$), following the resurrection. We are accustomed to think of Jesus as the Messiah/Christ in a more general sense, related to his divine nature (as Son of God) and role as savior (through his atoning death); here, however, almost certainly there is preserved an earlier (Jewish Christian) emphasis—of Jesus as the Anointed One who will (soon) come at the end time to restore “all things” and usher in the Kingdom and Judgment of God. The concept of the restoration of “of all things” (pantw=n) is probably derived from eschatological passages such as Isa 65:17; 66:22; cf. also 1 Enoch 45:4b-5; 4 Ezra [2/4 Esdras] 7:75, etc; and New Testament passages such as Rom 8:19-22; Rev 21-22.

From an eschatological standpoint, it is also worth noting the citation of Deuteronomy 18:15, 19 (+ Lev 23:29?) that follows in vv. 22ff, since this was a key Messianic passage prophesying the future coming of Anointed Prophet; by the time of the New Testament, it was certainly understood in a Messianic (and eschatological) sense. For more on the Messianic Prophet figure-type(s), cf. Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Acts 10:42

Peter’s speech to the household of Cornelius (10:34-48, discussed in Parts 13 & 14 of the series on the Speeches), is the first in Acts addressed to non-Jews (Gentiles), and is of the utmost significance for the theme of the mission the Gentiles (cf. below). The closing exhortation is at verse 43, preceded in vv. 36-42 by a central kerygma (Gospel proclamation), the most complete and developed to this point in the book of Acts. At the conclusion of this kerygma, there is mention of the coming end-time Judgment:

“and He [i.e. God] gave along a message to us to proclaim to the people, and to bear witness throughout, that this one [i.e. Jesus] is the (one) marked out under [i.e. by] God (to be) judge of (the) living and dead.” (v. 42)

The use of the verb o(ri/zw here has Messianic significance (Acts 2:23; 17:31; Rom 1:4), though this specific meaning, in relation to the person of Jesus, soon disappeared from use by early Christians. In particular, it relates to the identification of Jesus as one who will represent God at the end-time, overseeing and ushering in the great Judgment. In Gospel tradition, this Messianic role is associated with the title “Son of Man” (Acts 7:55-56, etc) and generally refers to the heavenly-deliverer figure-type (cf. Daniel 7:13-14; 12:1ff); for more on this Messianic type, cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Acts 13:40-41

In Paul’s speech at Antioch (13:13-52, cf. Parts 1516 on the Speeches), which is parallel in many way’s to Peter’s Pentecost speech, there is less of an obvious eschatological dimension to the concluding exhortation (vv. 38-41); however, through the citation from Habakkuk 1:5 (vv. 40-41), the end-time Judgment is clearly referenced. This use of Habakkuk 1:5 is actually one of the most extreme examples in the New Testament of an Old Testament passage taken out of its original context. Originally, verses 5-11 were an announcement of judgment (to Judah and the surrounding nations), that of the impending invasion by the Babylonians (Chaldeans). The important point carried over by Paul is that the (historical) Babylonian conquest was the work of God (Hab 1:5-6)—”I (am about to) work a work in your days…”—and foreshadows the coming eschatological Judgment. The context of the original prophecy (and impending invasion) also confirms the idea that the end-time Judgment is imminent: “I (am about to) work…in your days”, i.e. in the days of Paul’s audience, which also happens to be the “last days” (Acts 2:16).

Acts 14:16 & 17:30-31

Paul’s speeches in Lystra (14:8-18 [see Part 17]) and Athens (17:16-34 [Parts 2021]) are the first addressed to a Greco-Roman (pagan) audience, and the principal such speeches in the book of Acts. Naturally, they have many features in common, despite the brevity of the Lystra speech; from the standpoint of the narrative of Acts, the Paul’s address in Lystra foreshadows the great Athens speech. The central proclamation in 14:16-17 includes a component of exhortation, with an implicit reference to the coming Judgment. The true God, as Creator (v. 15)

“…in the (time)s of coming to be [geneai] th(at have) passed along (has) let all the nations (alone) to travel in their (own) ways”

The judgment context is much clearer in the Athens speech, the idea in 14:16 being developed in 17:30-31:

“So (then), (on the one hand) God has overlooked the times of (being) without knowledge, (but) now th(ing)s (are this way): He give along the message to all men everywhere to change (their) mind [i.e. repent], in that [i.e. because] He (has) set a day in which he is about [me/llei] to judge the inhabited (world), in justice, in [i.e. through] a man whom He marked out [w%risen], holding along a trust for all (people) (by) standing him up out of the dead.”

As with most of the prior speeches in Acts, this is an exhortation to repent (metanoei=n, “have a change of mind”), emphasized with a pair of contrasting clauses:

    • V. 30a—me\n (‘on the one hand…’): “God has overlooked the times of unknowing [a&gnoia, without knowledge, i.e. ignorance]”
    • V. 30b—nu\n now (‘on the other hand’), things (are thus): “he brings along a message to all men (in) all places to repent”

For a detailed exposition of the eschatological components of verse 31, cf. the discussion in Part 21 of the “Speeches of Acts” series. The language reflects that of the prior speeches, emphasizing the (Messianic) role of the exalted Jesus as Judge. That this reflects an imminent eschatology is also clear by the use of the verb me/llw (“[be] about to [happen]”); for other such uses of this verb, cf. the first part of the separate article on Imminent Eschatology in the New Testament.

Other References

Other eschatological references or allusions (to the end-time Judgment, etc) may be summarized here:

    • Acts 7:55-56 (narrative conclusion of the speech)—Stephen’s vision of the exalted Jesus as the heavenly “Son of Man” standing at the right hand of God; the eschatological inferences are based on the Synoptic Son of Man sayings in Mark 13:26-27; 14:62, as well as Daniel 7:13-14, from which such imagery ultimately derives.
    • Acts 20:29ff—Paul’s warning, in his (farewell) address to the elders of the Ephesian churches, may have eschatological significance, as part of the idea that there will be opposition and persecution of believers, and increasingly so, during the period of mission work prior to the end (Mk 13:9-13 par).
    • Acts 24:15, 21; 26:6-8—These references to the (end-time) resurrection are fundamentally eschatological, and likely relate to the belief in the impending Judgment expressed at a similar point in the prior speeches (cf. above).

2. Eschatology of the Sermon-Speeches: Mission to the Gentiles

The eschatological significance of the early Christian mission to the Gentiles was discussed in Part 1 of this article. It is based on the fundamental idea, expressed clearly in the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus, that there would be a period of preaching and missionary work among the (surrounding) nations, prior to the Judgment and return of Jesus. The extent of this mission-work, in the minds of early Christians, is a matter of some debate today. The original context of the Eschatological Discourse (cf. the discussion in Part 1 of that article) itself suggests a period of around 30 years (a generation), prior to the destruction of the Temple (70 A.D.). However, in the Matthean and Lukan versions, probably dating from sometime after the Temple’s destruction (c. 70-80), seem to have modified this chronological framework and expectation somewhat (cf. Parts 2 & 3). In particular, the statement in Matt 24:14 could allow for a more extensive and longer period of mission work (in spite of vv. 32-34 par). The author of Luke-Acts almost certainly recognized that the early Christian mission (to the Gentiles) would extend past the time of the Temple’s destruction (cf. the wording in Lk 21:24-25), yet there is little in either the Gospel or Acts to indicate the the end was not still imminent at the time the author wrote. At any rate, the early Christian preaching recorded in Acts certainly evinces an imminent eschatology, as we have seen.

All of this means that the proclamation of the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire—which, for the author of Acts, is represented by Paul’s missionary work—is, in many ways, the central event which must be fulfilled prior to the coming of the end. Paul’s presence in the imperial capital at the end of the book (28:11-31) is an important sign that, to a great extent, the period of mission work, prophesied and commanded by Jesus (cf. on 1:6-11 in Part 1 of this article), has been completed. If the approach of the end was close for the apostles who preached decades before, it is that much closer for believers living in the author’s own time (c. 80?).

Let us now briefly survey the key passages, referring to the mission to the Gentiles, which may be seen as having an eschatological emphasis or aspect:

Acts 13:47

At the close of his speech at Antioch (13:47), Paul defines his own role, as missionary to the Gentiles, in terms of the prophecy in Isa 49:6:

“For so the Lord has given us (this) duty to complete:
‘I have set you unto a light of the nations [i.e. as a light for the nations],
(for) you to be unto salvation [i.e. to bring salvation] until the end(s) of the earth.'”

The author alludes to this same prophecy in the Infancy narrative of the Gospel, through the famous oracle of Simeon (Lk 2:29-32). The expression “until the end(s) of the earth” clearly echoes to commission by Jesus in 1:7-8, referring to the missionary outreach that will occur prior to the end (v. 6). There is a similar allusion, by Paul, to Isa 49:6 at the close of his speech before Agrippa (26:23).

Acts 15:15-18

In the speech by James, set during the “Jerusalem Council” (Acts 15), cites Amos 9:11-12 (vv. 15-18), applying it to the early Christian mission and the inclusion of Gentiles as believers in Christ. The Messianic (and eschatological) interpretation of this passage is clear enough from how Amos 9:11 (v. 16) is cited in context. It is clear from the Qumran texts that Amos 9:11 was understood in an eschatological/Messianic sense by other Jews at the time. The Florilegium (4Q174), which strings together related Scripture passages (with a brief interpretation), associates Amos 9:11 with the promise of the Davidic dynasty in 2 Sam 7:

This (refers to the) “Branch of David”, who will arise with the Interpreter of the Law who [will rise up] in Zi[on in] the [l]ast days, as it is written: “I will raise up the hut of David which has fallen”, This (refers to) “the hut of David which has fall[en”, which he will raise up to save Israel. (translation from García Martínez & Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition Vol. 1 [Leiden/Brill, 1998/2000], p. 353)

Here the “booth/hut of David” is identified with the Messianic designation “Branch of David”, that is to say with a specific Anointed (Messianic) figure. A similar use of Amos 9:11 is found in the Cairo version of the Damascus Document (CD 7:15-16 [MS A]); this passage mentions in sequence: (a) coming days of judgment and tribulation [citing Isa 7:17], (b) exile of the ‘booth of the king’ [Amos 5:26-27], (c) raising up the ‘booth of David’ [Amos 9:11], (d) the coming of the ‘star’ [Interpreter of the Law] and ‘sceptre’ [Messiah/Prince] who will smite the nations [Num 24:17]. For more on Amos 9:11-12 and its use in James’ speech, cf. the discussion in Part 19 of “The Speeches of Acts”.

Acts 28:28

The final reference in Acts to the mission to the Gentiles comes at the very end of the book, in the concluding words of Paul’s address to Jews in Rome (28:28). It very much echoes his message to the Jews in Pisidian Antioch earlier in 13:46-47 (cf. above). Here, the declaration is even more decisive, emphasizing the Gentile mission. In vv. 26-27, Paul makes use of Isa 6:9-10, in a manner similar to Jesus’ use in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 4:12 par). In the Gospel tradition, Jesus’ citation is made in connection with the idea that the “secret” (musth/rion) of the Kingdom of God is being given to his disciples, while being keep hidden from the people at large. Within the wider context of early Christian thought, it is fair to identify this “secret” with the Gospel message proclaimed by believers (and missionaries) throughout the book of Acts. As in Jesus’ own time, many people (spec. Israelites/Jews) would be unable (or unwilling) to accept this message. There is perhaps a hint here of the idea, which Paul would expound in detail in Romans 9-11, that rejection by other Jews was necessary to allow and provide for the (end-time) mission to the Gentiles. In his Romans exposition, Paul expresses his belief that, once the Gentile mission is completed, there would yet be a great conversion of his fellow Israelites and Jews before the end. Of this there is not the slightest hint in the book of Acts, but it is clearly important for Paul’s own eschatological views, and it will be discussed at the appropriate point in an upcoming article in this series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acts 1:6-11

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

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

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

Verse 6

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

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

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

Verses 7-8

Jesus’ reply comes in two parts: first—

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 9

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

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

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

Verses 10-11

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

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

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

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

Acts 2:16-21

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

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

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

Verse 16

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

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

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

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

It could also be outlined more simply as:

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

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

Verses 17-18

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

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

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

Verses 19-20

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 21

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

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

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

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

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